- Middle East/North Africa
The Roots of the Islamist Fear
In the first part of this article, I have argued that Islamists, especially the Brotherhood, have recently demonstrated an immense fear from the so called "civil" camp. This is evident in their attacks on the "civil" groups in prayer sermons and various other media outlets. The pressing question is why would mighty Islamists be so frightened from their supposedly “insignificant” competitor? Surely it can’t be because of the size or strength of the latter — or is it? I for one believe that what is now known as the “civil” camp is larger than Islamists want to believe, but is nevertheless smaller than to properly account for the Islamist anxiety above. The roots of the Brotherhood’s panic must lie elsewhere. So let me propose instead that the Brotherhood and its allies are actually afraid of “the people,” even if they formulate their fears as hostility towards the “civil” camp.
Our panic story betrays a Brotherhood-led regime that has no intention of “representing the people” that it supposedly “represents” forever by identity. In fact, this regime doesn’t seem able even to honor its very Islamic claims — for since they assumed office their rule proceeded without involving anything remotely Islamic.
For four long months now the Brotherhood has not once proposed a policy or undertaken action that derived from anything that could broadly be classified as “Islamic.” They have been basically implementing “secular” policies in the morning while bashing the secularists in the evening. Often their policies went against clear Islamic rulings too. During the past four months, for example, the government has been issuing T-bills at 12 and 13 percent interest and borrowing from banks at a 16 percent interest — and that if anything is “usury” from an Islamic point of view. In other words, since its ascendance the Islamic regime has been only soaking itself in usury, and by extension sin.
The point to take from this is that their very position against the “civil” camp is false. A ruling regime doesn’t need to trash the opposition to defend Islamic rule; it only needs to implement it. Trashing secularists for not upholding what the Islamist regime doesn’t uphold only hides the fact that the current Islamic regime doesn’t really uphold anything Islamic, that it doesn’t seem to know how to apply their long cherished Islamic ideals and that their intellectual space remains inept to the extent that they need to copy others after promising “the people” to be creative. So the more they fail in this regard, the more they need to trash the “civil” camp, as if this camp is stopping them from keeping their Islamic promise. Had they not had the “civil” to trash they would have had to acknowledge this failure, opening the gate either to the demise of political Islam, or the replacement of the Brotherhood by the next Islamic group in line: the Salafis. The ascendance of the latter to power would surely lead to a revolution or a military coup in matter of weeks. Better blame it on the “civil” camp, then!
Religion aside, no movement in Egypt showed greater ability to ally with the US and the feloul than the Islamist camp. The Salafis were keen on appeasing Shafiq when they had thought that he had won the elections, and according to Nader Bakkar, the Nour Party coordinated its anti-US demonstrations with the US Embassy. The Brotherhood’s relations with the US are even warmer and include many strategic and tactical agreements that span issues as a far apart as siding against Iran, tearing down the Gaza tunnels under US supervision, and cooperating with Israel and the US to counter “terrorism” in Sinai. Not to mention that the Brotherhood regime didn’t even bother change the warm formulation of the ambassador appointment letter to Israel that it inherited from the Mubarak regime. Likewise, Morsy appointed prominent feloul as his advisers, including Kamal EL Ganzouri, the ex-prime minister, and forced other feloul on many state functions (governors, chief editors of state newspapers, etc). Moreover, the Brotherhood government was keen on developing excellent relations with feloul businessmen, who commonly accompany Morsy on his trips abroad.
I can cite numerous examples on the warm relations between the Brotherhood and the US, and their relations with the feloul too, but I will leave it at stating that upon ascending to power, the Brotherhood was very keen on cultivating excellent relations with these two players. In contrast, large portions of the so-called “civil” camp led the fight against the military’s attempt to reproduce the feloul in new formations.
Setting the Islamist-civil dichotomy aside clarifies our story even more. On doing so, we discover, for example, that the ruling Brotherhood regime attacked practically every social segment of Egyptian society that tried to struggle for its economic rights and protect its interests. Let me point out some of them: almost all types of industrial workers, bus drivers, microbus drivers, railway employees, port workers — and middle class too: teachers, doctors, etc.
In contrast, the Brotherhood regime was careful not to disturb the economic elite, always assuring them that their interests will not be harmed, in rhetoric and actions. And it is quite keen on pleasing international financial institutions too, at the expense of the interests of average Egyptians — as it is overtly negotiating IMF loans that require removing energy subsidies, floating the pound, and is promoting the idea of reducing government employment, and more of what Gamal Mubarak had previously upheld as remedies for the Egyptian economy.
The Brotherhood regime has actually been very antagonistic to interests of “the people,” following the footsteps of the Mubarak regime; and like its predecessor, this is forcing it slowly but surely to rely on the state’s ability to mobilize brute force. A recent report by Al-Nadeem Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence depicts an extremely bleak picture in this regard. During the first 100 days of Morsy’s rule, the police killed 37 people, tortured 87 in detention and sexually assaulted seven. Such crimes are usually underreported; it’s therefore proper to assume that these numbers represent but a fraction of what’s really happening on the ground. Not to mention the dozens of labor strikes that the police ended by force.
The “civil” that the Brotherhood fears
In the final part, a group that “represents the people” and delivers what the majority of “the people” wants has nothing to be afraid of. The Islamists are nowhere near so, however. The Brotherhood has already established a Mubarak-like regime that is ruling the country against the interests of the great majority of its people in order to preserve US interests and those of the country’s economic elite. More importantly, the Brotherhood knows the repercussions of its biases quite well, as it used to be in the opposition. The panic attacks that I detailed above suggest that it is becoming weary of the limitations of its bet on identity politics and populist rhetoric, and is starting to doubt its ability to garner “the people’s” support as usual. After all, successful populist strategies never depend on rhetoric alone. They actually require delivering some real goodies in exchange for loyalties; populist rhetoric alone doesn’t work well in poverty situations that involve severe reductions in welfare.
The Brotherhood seems to be realizing also that it overused its ability to mask its policies with Islamic packaging — as there is nothing Islamic in continuing Mubarak’s policies, while their overused Islamic claims are starting to appear empty. Their Islamic competitors, the Salafis, are even worse in this regard, for their political vision doesn’t tackle any issues outside limiting personal freedoms. It is therefore normal that any form of resistance to the Brotherhood’s Mubarak-like project would scare them.
If I were in their shoes I’d be frightened too, for I would know that betting my neck on an American gamble in the region and siding with the same interests and policies that led “the people” to revolt before cannot be stabilized by Islamic chants alone. If I were in their shoes I would also be afraid of my “civil” enemy, for not only does it represent my biggest enemy, even if it is small, it also represents my opposite, and my failure could lead to their success, regardless of their size. The Brotherhood’s identity politics that led to the creation of the “civil” camp now seems to be their biggest nightmare.
Mohamed Waked is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Anthropology at University of Amsterdam.