Sunday, 18 August 2013

Egypt: What It Isn't

It isn’t Tiananmen Square.  
It isn’t Syria.
It isn’t Muslim against Christian.
It isn’t secular against religious.
It isn’t a question of a coup or not a coup.
It isn’t a question of democracy against authoritarianism.
The situation in Egypt is so desperate, so complicated, that an attempt to grapple with it might well start with setting out what it isn’t. Some observers might see shades of Tiananmen Square; for twenty million plus Egyptians who marched on June 30th to oust the Brotherhood administration, it was the shades of the Ayatollah takeover in Iran that mobilized them. The bloodshed over the past six weeks has been sickening and horrific, but Egypt is not Syria with its regional, armed factions; a civil war isn't imminent.
It isn’t Muslim against Christian; one can safely assume that the Coptic minority is unanimously against the Muslim Brotherhood, but so is more than half of Egypt’s ninety-percent Muslim population.  It isn’t secular versus religious. Most Egyptians, Muslim or Copt, would claim to be personally religious; where they clash is over the role of religion in politics.
Whether or not to call the deposing of President Morsi on July 3rd a coup is a question of semantics which concerns U.S. law and foreign policy alone.
It isn’t a question of championing democracy against military authoritarianism. The Morsi administration was as authoritarian as the interim Supreme Council of the Armed Forces that preceded it, or any that is likely to follow it. It is a question of what kind of authoritarianism, and to whose benefit.
And therein lies the violent clash of currents that brought out millions to the streets over the past months, to demonstrate against the Morsi regime and for it. By the unprecedented millions who marched against Morsi, his administration was seen as governing narrowly for the Brotherhood; it was also of the Brotherhood, in every appointment from cabinet ministers to nine governors; and by the Brotherhood, through the influence of his party’s bosses and their spiritual 'Supreme Guide.’ Morsi himself often referred to “my people and my community” when speaking of the Brotherhood. When his supporters marched in the streets, they waved the green Brotherhood flags rather than the red, black and white Egyptian flag, until the negative reaction prompted them to switch. But the discourse of the pro-Morsi demonstrators, and the signs they brandished, remained the same: ‘Islam,’ ‘Shari’a’ and ‘Legitimacy.’ To many Egyptians, the question became: “Where is Egypt in all this?” Are these people Egyptians first or Brethren first?
The Islamists counter: But where is democracy in all of this? A vote is a vote. But is a vote a vote in a country with a high proportion of illiteracy in the electorate, thrust into the polling booth after sixty years of autocratic one-party rule? And does a democratically-elected president continue to be legitimate if his regime is not only autocratic but also disastrously incompetent? By most accounts Egypt under Morsi was spiraling into economic free fall and insecurity, and that its very territorial integrity was threatened in the Sinai. The rights of women and minorities were also being menaced alarmingly. Indeed, in the aftermath of Morsi’s ouster, the attacks on Christian churches by his rampaging supporters is an indictment of Brotherhood ideology, whether or not the leaders were responsible for inciting the sectarian violence.

The violence, on both sides, on every side, whether Morsi supporter or opponent or security forces, is horrific. But it comes down, finally, to a split vision of Egypt: secular versus Islamist in political life, liberal versus fundamentalist in private values, national versus Islamic in world view. In Egypt today, these visions have proved to be irreconcilable.Conversation I participated in today on State of Things

Monday, 5 August 2013

Morsi's Martyr Children

Anyone watching the world media’s coverage of the Morsi-supporters camped out for the past month in two major squares in Cairo will have noticed the numbers of women and children among them, and the prominence with which they are brought before the cameras. The women, in headscarves or even full niqab, are vociferously vocal and many speak passable English. One teenage girl I saw on the news insisted that she, and the other protesters, would refuse to leave the camps unless Morsi were re-instated or they were killed, adding: “the greatest dream of any of us is to die a martyr.”
Who put these ideas into the girl’s head? What are the Muslim Brotherhood leaders inculcating in impressionable young minds? And even if this particular girl were of an age to make up her own mind about what her life is worth, what about the hundreds of children, babies, toddlers, crawling all over the camps and trotted out before the media as potential victims: what kind of parent or guardian makes the decision for their child that any cause is worth ‘martyrdom’?
On Sunday the Brotherhood marshaled a group of youngsters, dressed them in white shrouds, gave them signs proclaiming 'Martyrs', and paraded them for the benefit of the media. Even more disturbing and reprehensible, the MB are accused of rounding up many of these children from the streets of the slums of Cairo, and busing them to the site of the sit-in at the Rabaa Mosque. The United Nations Children’s Fund has expressed dismay at children being deliberately put at risk as victims or witnesses to violence, and at least one man has been arrested when he was caught transporting forty children to the site.  
There are also no doubt penniless, homeless people, adults and children, who are drawn to the tent city for the free food and shelter as an alternative to starving on the streets. There is no doubt, also, that the MB leaders are exploiting the situation for propaganda: they may or may not be fanatics, but they have proven their dexterity in manipulating both traditional and social media.
It is an effective strategy: nothing stays the hand of the police or military from evacuating the camps by force as much as the presence of women and children and the potential for disastrous images of innocent ‘martyrs.’ The strategy of hiding behind women’s skirts and children’s ‘shrouds’ is all the more shameful and hypocritical on the part of the MB leaders precisely because they themselves used to denounce their opponents in Tahrir for the participation of women, claiming that parents and guardians should keep their women home and accusing the girls who spent the night at the sit-ins of loose morals. 
A video clip taped by members of the Tamarrod group who organized the revolt against Morsi makes just that point: “When our women and girls participate in protests, you call them immoral; when yours do, you say it is normal. When our children are killed, you hold their lives cheap; but here’s the difference between us: when your children are killed- we don’t hold their lives cheap.”
The so-called Morsi supporters in the tent sit-ins seem to be unaware, or not to care, that they are being used as a pawn in a negotiation that has nothing to do with reinstating Morsi, which is impossible given that he cannot govern with the military, the judiciary, the bureaucracy, the police, and every institution of government against him. The real negotiation is to save from arrest and prosecution the real leaders of the Brotherhood, the ‘Supreme Guide’ Badie, the party boss Khairat El-Shatter, and his deputy Bayoumi. Morsi himself was nothing but a figurehead who was brought in as a pinch-hitter presidential candidate at the last minute when El-Shatter was disqualified. Morsi’s resignation and the peaceful disbanding of the protests are the price being negotiated for the freedom of the real party bosses.   
But what happens after the Morsi-supporter camps are disbanded, as they will be, one way or another; what happens when these vocal women go home? Will they be allowed a voice in Islamist political affairs commensurate with the role they played in the protests? Or will they be relegated to the hearth and nursery? And what will the ‘martyr’ children have learned?