The scared Islamists and their frightened majority (Part 1)

The predicament of the mighty, scared Islamists

To those unfamiliar with the “civil”/religious debate in Egypt, the term “civil” was recently dubbed to mark an assembly of disparate, sometimes conflicting, ideologies and positions that stand for the creation of what has come to be known as a “civil state.” This “civil state” is in turn commonly imagined as something that stands against a theocratic (Islamic) state, but not necessarily against political Islam per se — for there are several Islamic versions of the “civil.” The term “civil” forced itself on public debate for the first time perhaps during the 2005 parliamentary elections, when the Muslim Brotherhood emerged as the only serious contender to the old ruling party. Since then, its evolution led it to acquire multiple meanings, like all other political signifiers. One can even make the ready argument that it is currently but an empty signifier, but such is true of all political signifiers (for example, the much cherished linguistic mess that we call “democracy”).

More recently, however, our young term started taking up either of two broad meanings: a secular position that accepts, be it unwillingly, the second article of Sadat’s/Mubarak’s constitution (the principles of Islamic Sharia are the origin of all laws), or certain Islamist positions that accept, albeit more unwillingly, some liberal and secular freedoms (e.g. the Wasat or Strong Egypt parties). It goes without saying that both “civil” and religious camps are composed of different, and sometimes opposing, political currents and entities.

During the past year or so, the term “civil” narrowed its focus further, as it began to refer only to the quasi-secular camp above. People now treat it as something that generally opposes the establishment of a theocratic Islamic state (but not “secular” in the technical sense). Currently this broad signification unites many different, ideologically antagonistic, secular political ideologies who pose as “civil” in an environment that doesn’t allow them to pose as “secular.” Islamists are therefore generally antagonistic to this camp, often conflating it with its largest constituency: the “liberals” (in the strict sense of the word), who do comprise the largest constituency of the “civil” camp, but are nevertheless not an overwhelming majority of it.

Since the revolution, the competition between the “civil” and Islamist camps has only been intensifying over time; eventually reaching the level of a cold civil war. And it makes sense that such a feud would escalate so much, for the stakes in it are extremely high. They revolve around not only who gets to rule, but also who gets to set the rules of the political game in the country, define the authorities of the ruler and the rights of the opposition, determine what will become of freedoms, rights, and obligations, set collective rights and wrongs, and the like. The development of the new constitution therefore naturally provides the main arena for this intense “cold war”. Recently the term “civil state” has spared outside Egypt; one can see it starting to organize politics in post-revolution Libya, for example.

The confident Islamist and the insignificant “civil”

Within this framework, the story goes, the various Islamist organizations are the only political players with real organic presence: they are close to the people, speak their language, know how to convince them, and thus best represent the interests of the great majority of Egyptians.  The “civil” camp, on the other hand, is generally represented as a tiny “Westernized” block that is furthest away from the people, and is often reduced to its largest constituency: the “liberals.” It is therefore common to bring this camp up as something that is generally elitist and always scared from a mighty Islamist block. Islamists commonly describe it pejoratively too: as an “insignificant” group with a big mouth and no influence whatsoever on the ground. They also commonly depict whatever strategies this supposedly “elitist” and “insignificant” block adopts as a form of “cheating” that is meant to deny the Islamists their “legitimate” right to represent “the people.” The malevolence of the “civil” camp, the Islamist argue, has no limits — for they can go as low as ally with the US, the military establishment, and the remnants of the old regime (known as “feloul”) to get their ways.

It goes without saying that the “civil” camp adopts negative views of the Islamists too. Space limitations aside, two main reasons drive me not to tackle them here. First, the shortcomings of the Islamist representations brilliantly expose the nature of the political impasse in Egypt. Secondly, the ruling regime is Islamist; Islamist representations are therefore “ruling” representations, at least in the technical sense. Not to mention that white postmodern scholars enjoy debunking the “civil” in Egypt and have as a result provided us with more than enough deconstructions of it.

Islamist panic attacks

Granting, recent developments have come to cast immense doubt over the “ruling” representation detailed above. For one, rallies and public demonstrations of the so-called “civil” camp have generally been staged by lower-middle class youth and not at all the elite. In fact, the “elite” was always reluctant to join them for reasons that are too long to bring up here. There is nothing exceptionally “Westernized” in these youth, either. That is to say, the Islamists’ generalizations about the social makeup of the “civil” camp are very visibly false—it’s more like they wish the “civil” camp to be so.

Nevertheless, the problem with our ruling representation goes well beyond one camp’s attempt to falsify the social makeup of its competitors. Our “ruling” representations fail miserably on another much more important account: they don’t account for the extreme sense of insecurity and panic that have come to color Islamists’ reactions since their ascendance to power. One would have expected that a mighty group that quite “naturally” represents “the people,” adopts the only “true” identity, is challenged only by an insignificant, elitist group — and the like of what Islamists in Egypt believe about themselves — would be much more confident than its “tiny,” supposedly insignificant enemy. But the developments of the past two weeks have shown that our mighty majority is extremely insecure and even frightened.

The Brotherhood’s decision to join the first anti-Morsy protest on 12 February is a case in point here. Several political groups had decided to stage an anti-Morsy rally to protest the failures of his first 100 days in office. The Brotherhood decided in turn to join this rally in order to acquire the right to change its goals—that is, to shift its goal away from opposing the MB president. Or so they had thought. They justified their participation in it by saying that the court’s acquittal of the accused in the Battle of the Camel case begs of all of us to forget our difference and ally together to depose of the Prosecutor General, who according to them conspired to assure the acquittal of the enemies of the revolution. Ironically, however, this was by far not the first case in which the courts acquitted “enemies of the revolution”; and the previous acquittals could not have passed as easily as they did without the Brotherhood’s political collusion. So people quite logically rejected the Brotherhood’s claim, and the “civil” protestors were determined to change neither the slogans nor the objectives of their rally. The Brotherhood insisted on participating in the rally to change its goals, nonetheless.

Naturally, both sides fought and the day ended in Brotherhood cadres beating up the “civil” protestors. During the clashes, MB cadres argued that they were only defending the choice of the majority— i.e. the elected Brotherhood president — against the plot of a mischievous minority that doesn’t “respect” democracy (i.e. the “civil” camp). Minding the fact that respecting democracy goes against beating up rallies on the grounds that they oppose an elected president, most people condemned the Brotherhood’s belligerence as something that stemmed from arrogance that they developed because of their power and relative strength. Others remarked that the MB’s arrogance is driving it to believe that it had the right to “protect” the “people” against anyone that disagrees with the MB — which spelled much danger in the future.

For some reason no one read what happened as a manifestation of the Brotherhood’s fears, if not panic. Ultimately the Brotherhood was too scared to let a small, supposedly insignificant and elitist anti-Morsy protest go as is. They felt compelled to co-opt it at any cost (and it was a big cost), although their plans went sour.

In response, the “civil” camp responded with a bigger protest against the MB itself, the first of its kind since the MB’s formation in 1929. The regional resonance of the protest quickly boosted anti-Ennahda protests in Tunisia, pushing the Brotherhood’s insecurities further. Eventually the Brotherhood started to fall back onto the SCAF’s old rhetoric, insecure as it was: according to Morsy, 600 paid thugs infiltrated the rally to trigger the fight between both camps, each being paid LE1000 by some unnamed agent provocateur to do so — the “third party” story, again! The SCAF was the first to circulate stories about an unknown “third party,” and its rule was: the more it felt insecure, the more “third party” stories it circulated.

Eid prayers followed a week later only to underline how insecure and scared the Islamists actually were, specially the Brotherhood. According to the press, including newspapers that are generally neutral towards the group, Brotherhood and Salafi preachers used the prayer sermon to “slaughter” the “civil camp,” attack the secularists, trash the labor movement, and more of the like. It seems that whichever Eid prayers the reporters went to cover, they all witnessed Brotherhood and Salafi preachers pouring venom on the “civil” camp and the labor movement. Given the spread of the attacks, one is left with either of two conclusions: preachers from all over Egypt were organized to do so, or they panicked for some reason at the same time and rose to defend the Islamist camp on their own. Either case betrays an immense sense of Islamist fear from the “civil” enemy. 

The second part of this article will be published on Sunday.

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