24 August 2013

A Revolution in Jeopardy (3)

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A pro-Morsi demo two days after the coup; the poster of Morsi reads, “Yes to legitimacy” A pro-Morsi demo two days after the coup; the poster of Morsi reads, “Yes to legitimacy” http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-23214054

Robert Fisk, veteran correspondent and skilled raconteur of the region’s ongoing sagas, said it best on the day when the Egyptian army mowed down over 600 mostly peaceful pro-Morsi demonstrators:


“The Egyptian crucible has broken. The 'unity' of Egypt – that all-embracing, patriotic, essential glue that has bound the nation together since the overthrow of the monarchy in 1952 and the rule of Nasser – has melted amid the massacres, gun battles and fury of yesterday’s suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood.”


Egypt will no doubt descend into a more violent phase, but it isn’t likely to do so with the brutality and savagery of today’s Syria, or of yesterday’s Algeria or Lebanon. Still, think about it: Egypt was always the symbol of Arab pride, especially under Nasser. Sadly, Fisk concludes, “something died in Egypt today”:


“Not the revolution, for across the Arab world the integrity of ownership – of people demanding that they, not their leaders, own their own country – remains, however bloodstained. Innocence died, of course, as it does after every revolution. No, what expired today was the idea that Egypt was the everlasting mother of the Arab nation, the nationalist ideal, the purity of history in which Egypt regarded all her people as her children. For the Brotherhood victims today – along with the police and pro-government supporters – were also children of Egypt. And no one said so. They had become the 'terrorists', the enemy of the people. That is Egypt’s new heritage.”


In this last blog on the Egyptian crisis I am focusing on the religious dimension. But religion is never a “cause” in itself. It is always tied up with specific, historically determined, sociopolitical conditions. Political Islam (“islamism”) suffered a great setback, certainly; but it won’t go away. And the revolution too, despite the iron clad military regime of General Sisi (and perhaps because of it!), will continue to simmer and hopefully bring about justice for all.


About Muslim Brotherhood violence

What we know with certainty is that Egyptian society has become more violent across the board since the 2011 revolution. If you add to the scaling back of security forces the reality of weapons smuggled in from Lybia, Syria and Sudan, you have a volatile situation. On both sides there is evidence of vigilantes at work, some even with automatic weapons. On the fateful day when the army razed the two pro-Morsi sit-ins (Aug. 14, 2013), there were also reports of killings perpetrated by anti-Morsi citizens groups. In the current climate those are unlikely to be investigated or prosecuted. After all, the police was going after the “terrorists” – the official Egyptian press’s label for the Muslim Brotherhood (MB)!

For a balanced and well-researched report on the state-perpetrated violence that day, I recommend the one published by Human Rights Watch, “Egypt: Security Forces Uses Excessive Lethal Force.” Here’s a summary:


“Egyptian security forces’ rapid and massive use of lethal force to disperse sit-ins on August 14, 2013 led to the most serious incident of mass unlawful killings in modern Egyptian history.

“The ongoing Human Rights Watch investigation indicates that the decision to use live ammunition on a large scale from the outset reflected a failure to observe basic international policing standards on use of lethal force and was not justified by the disruptions caused by the demonstrations or the limited possession of arms by some protesters. The failure of the authorities to provide safe exit from the sit-in, including for people wounded by live fire and needing urgent medical attention, was a serious violation of international standards.”


And then to add insult to grievous loss, Cairo journalist Sherief Graber spills out in heart-wrenching terms the unspeakable indignities of the morgue where all the bodies of the past few massacres have ended up. Bodies are piled up like so much rotting flesh, relatives are discouraged in every possible way in their quest to retrieve corpses, and the deaths are officially labeled "suicide":


“Now that the police feel free to admit that they are using live fire and automatic weapons against civilians in the streets, deaths are not accidents but suicides; the hundreds killed in Rabea, we are told, not only took their lives into their own hands standing up to the police raid but were intending to die, surely hoping the bullet would hit them. The morgue gives 'scientific' justification to the official state narrative that the Brotherhood is a cult of death, that killing them is not a crime but is actually what they wanted, strengthening them, and if it was suicide as the medical examiner tells us, who can blame the police for merely facilitating?”


Then when 25 off-duty policemen were shot execution-style four days later in the Sinai peninsula, Cairo papers all said it was the work of the MBs. UK scholar Shashank Joshi called these cycle of events “a dark omen” of things to come in Egypt. Morsi himself as president was unflinching in his fight against these al-Qaeda-allied fighters in Sinai. He had to be, as they killed 16 Egyptian soldiers there on his watch. This is an old problem that only got worse after the 2011 January revolution. That particular attack was claimed by one of the militant groups operating in that region, Ansar al-Jihad. Morsi responded by destroying the tunnels between Gaza and Egypt, in coordination with his Israeli counterparts.

With time, however, Morsi did start flinching, likely due to his close relations with Hamas. He later vetoed further operations in Sinai and named a governor who had been a member of the Gamaa Islamiya in his youth (the militants who were responsible for many terrorist attacks in the 1980s and especially in the 1990s; amazingly, their leaders in prison renounced violence in the late 1990s and up to now have kept their word).

Perhaps this more than anything else turned the military brass against Morsi. But again, what about General Sisi’s claim (and that of the puppet government he put into place) that the MBs are terrorists and a national threat to be eliminated at all costs?

As mentioned in the HRW’s report, there clearly were some weapons in the two pro-Morsi camps the army cleared on August 14th and some definite signs over the weeks of the sit-ins of beatings and torture. But as two respected scholars after several visits to these camps on my “Sociology of Islam” listserv testified (and I cannot quote them for copyright reasons), they found no evidence of weapons. They also discovered that most of the people there were not directly affiliated with the MBs, but were angry about the army’s coup. Also, as you might know from your own reading, many families had settled in those camps and these festive communities coming out of Ramadan were beginning to project an aura of permanence – no doubt one of the reasons for the army’s determination to remove them.

Speaking of the climate of violence, I have to mention the horrible backlash against the Christians of Egypt (over 8 million, or about 10% of the total population). Attacks had markedly accelerated after the revolution, but they exploded in the wake of the coup. These were presumably MB members or sympathizers who resented seeing the Coptic Pope Tawadros II standing with the head of the al-Azhar University alongside General Sisi while he told the nation he had just removed president Morsi from power.

Just two days before the August 14 massacre, the BBC ran an article on the Christians, “Egypt’s Coptic Christians Dread Further Backlash.” Then a longer article from the Associated Press on the 17th described some of the over fifty attacks on churches and monasteries in the wake of the Cairo massacre. Both the Gamaa Islamiya and the MB denied any link to the violence – another indication that deep-seated prejudices combined with rage over government cruelty are a poisonous mix. What is most troubling perhaps is that the traditional pattern of police non-intervention in sectarian violence has continued. Christians are an easy target for islamist scapegoating and it’s getting worse.

Still, that may not be the whole story. A Washington Post article reports that after a week not one investigation into these attacks has been launched. Their own investigation at the sites of the attacks casts some doubts on the state’s claim that these were carried out by MBs:


“‘We have seen zero indication that the Muslim Brotherhood as an organization is organizing these attacks,’ said a high-ranking Western official who was not authorized to speak on the record. The official said the blame more likely rested with Islamist vigilantes rather than Brotherhood members acting on orders.”


There are even indications that in some cases in Upper Egypt the police may have been directly implicated in the attacks:


“Egypt’s security forces have rarely stood in the way of the country’s explosive sectarian violence, and the senior Western official said it was not out of the question that the security forces — who typically do not wear uniforms and sometimes carry weapons concealed in their long, flowing galabiyas — had played a role in stirring last week’s violence.”


In spite of these longstanding sectarian tensions, Christian-Muslim solidarity in Egypt, and especially coming out of the January revolution, is not dead. Perhaps some of you have seen this picture by a Muslim girl posted on Facebook. She imagined a mosque consoling a dejected and weeping church. Those feelings too are present in the mix, as seen in the AP article which informs us of “a rare solidarity”:


“Hundreds from both communities thronged two monasteries in the province of Bani Suef south of Cairo to thwart what they had expected to be imminent attacks on Saturday, local activist Girgis Waheeb said. Activists reported similar examples elsewhere in regions south of Cairo, but not enough to provide effective protection of churches and monasteries.”


The longstanding enmity between the MBs and the army

After the July 3 2013 coup, the MBs found themselves isolated, as even the Salafis (ultraconservative islamists) openly supported the army’s intervention. But the government’s increasingly violent and heavy-handed repression of the MBs is now helping to recruit more volunteers for the militants’ cause. While the MB leadership condemned the killing of the two dozen policemen, they are less likely able to hold back some of their followers from turning to a violent jihad mode.

That said, Shashank Joshi notes that their rhetoric is often inflammatory:


“But their public narrative - that ‘the struggle to overthrow this illegitimate regime is an obligation’ - chimes with the jihadists' historic opposition to a military that they have fought for decades and whose return to power they fear.”


This is because even though the MBs had conspired with the “Free Officers” to bring about the October Revolution of 1952, they were brutally repressed by the junta two years later – the date for the “great persecution” (mihna). They officially renounced violence at the time and managed to flourish mostly underground in the decades that followed. Though officially banned, they maintained wide public appeal through their social services in poor neighborhoods and gradually dominated most of the professional unions – even winning about a fifth of the seats in Parliament by running as independents. At the same time, as a movement they have also been regularly rounded up, imprisoned and tortured.

Remember too that Nasser, Sadate and Mubarak were all top military officers. These were all authoritarian regimes propped up by a liberal elite that was in fact quite illiberal (read Coptic scholar Samuel Tadros’ short but brilliant historical argument, “Pity Egypt, It Has No Liberals”)

Not surprisingly, therefore, on the heels of the 2011 revolution the MBs were the best organized mass movement poised to reap the benefits of the new order. But their forte was also their greatest weakness – years of persecution had turned them into a secretive and authoritarian movement that thrived under duress but was not prepared for governing.


Morsi’s mistakes

I don’t have the space to take up this discussion, though I was surprised that the Cordoba Foundation, founded by the articulate interfaith-activist and scholar Feisal Abdul Rauf (see his book, What’s Right with Islam Is What’s Right with America: A New Vision for Muslims and the West), published a paper defending Morsi’s policies written by his senior adviser, Dr. Wael Haddara, entitled “Egypt Narratives: A Brief Critique of the Reasons to Justify the Egyptian Military Coup of July 2013.” Read this and you will see that Morsi did actually try to reach out to other parties and constituencies a lot more than he is usually given credit for.

On the other hand, the Tamarod group, as I explained in my last blog, had no trouble collecting over 20 million signatures from all over Egypt to call for Morsi’s resignation one year into his term as president. He obviously managed to alienate many, many Egyptians.

The best analysis I’ve found is by senior scholar Nathan J. Brown in a short piece published in the New Republic, “Where Does the Muslim Brotherhood Go from Here? Reckoning with Morsi’s Failure.” And if you want a more detailed analysis, see Duke professor Mbaye Lo’s piece in Mondoweis, “Morsi, the Last Caliph-President of Egypt.” Lo, who was in Cairo interviewing various parties after the coup, clearly sides with the Egyptians who did not consider this a “coup,” but rather the army applying the will of the people. For Lo Morsi’s failure was to see that he operated on a concept of legitimacy different from the Egyptian people. The solution will have to come through a political process that spells out what political legitimacy is:


“Morsi’s problem is a clash of legitimacy – his own, which was reduced to procedural democracy, supported by a tacit religious contract, and that of the majority of the Egyptian people, whose revolution had brought him to power. Morsi longed to be the great Islamist leader, while most Egyptians wanted a President for the impaired Arab Republic of Egypt. As the battle continues for a more sustainable democracy in Egypt, crafting a well-defined political contract on the decrees of democracy and the mandates of legitimacy has become indispensable.”


The future of political Islam

I have already gone longer than I wanted . . . Like many others, I’ve all been captivated by the events unfolding over the past couple of months. I just have two quick remarks before I close this series of blogs. One has to do with “political Islam.” The other one I offer as a person of faith.

I said earlier that political Islam as a project will always be present in some form or another. One of the stunning findings by the 7-year in-depth Gallup Poll in over 35 Muslim countries (see Who Speaks for Islam?) was that just about the same percentage (44%) of Iranians and Americans want to see either Qur’an or Bible applied in the political sphere. Majorities in Muslim states are not very different from many Christians who long to see more religious values evidenced in the way laws are debated, enacted and enforced in political life. This is what “Shari’a” stands for in the minds of most Muslims: a corruption-free government, justice meted out in the courts, and human dignity respected for all strata of society.

Note too that Nour, the Salafi party that received the second highest number of votes in Egypt’s first free parliamentary elections and that early on backed the army’s removal of Morsi from office, has been changing its tune as well. Turns out, they’ve been feeling the heat from the crackdown on the MBs … just about any bearded man gets harassed, arrested and beaten up these days. But that’s not likely to persuade (at least) a third of the Egyptian population that they are wrong about wanting God to have a say in the way their country is run.

“But islamism is much more than just that,” you might be objecting. You’re right, and I’ve gone into much more detail on this subject elsewhere on this site. To what extent Muslims feel traditional Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh, or the general rules agreed upon by the major schools of law since the 10th or 11th century) should be followed today is a matter of interpretation – do you follow the Qur’an and Sunna to the letter (see "Severe Penalties and Human Rights"), or should one allow that many of the past rules only applied to the sociopolitical conditions of the past and therefore should be revised in order to take into account the 21st-century context?

Naturally, there’s a spectrum between the two extremes. See, for instance, “Shari’a: Can It Be Outlawed?” and “Emerging Voices in Islamic Jurisprudence” for an overview of some of these issues.

But it’s not all about theology and hermeneutics (interpretation of texts) either. Those are very much tied up with the push and pull of social movements in real-time local politics – which in turn are affected by shifts in the cultural realm (like the impact of western-dominated globalization). These are the dynamics that social scientists study, as I tried to show in a blog about “post-islamism” and another on fundamentalism.

Political scientists studying the role of religion are especially relevant here. See what Harvard’s Jocelyne Césari has to say about the return of the military dictatorship and the longevity of political Islam, as well as U.C. Berkeley’s Cihan Tugal’s about “The End of the ‘Leaderless’ Revolution.” Mohamed Fahmy Menza, a political economist who published a book on the Muslim Brotherhood in 2012, offers a great insight into their network of patronage in Egyptian society. His use of “post-islamism” is something he owes to Iranian sociologist Asef Bayat who spent at least a decade in Cairo and now teaches at the University of Illinois (he’s more supportive of the “coup” but still worries about the military’s will to hold on to power). By far the most eloquent testimony to Bayat’s theory of post-islamism is the short interview with the phenomenally smart and articulate 12-year-old Cairene boy Ali Mohamed.


Pray for Egypt!

If you believe that God answers prayer and especially that he hears the cry of the poor and oppressed, then pray for peace in Egypt. Pray for national reconciliation and especially that General Sisi will experience the fear of God – and then stop killing his own citizens and promptly fulfill his promise to set up a civilian government.

Pray for the economy that was tottering before the revolution and is now completely in shambles – an absolute catastrophe for a third of the Egyptian population living on less than $2 a day.

Pray that Muslim-Christian solidarity would spread dramatically as well and that justice will be done for the Christians robbed and killed, and for their houses of worship to be rebuilt.

Now on a more personal note, my wife and I were so grateful that God protected our son and his teammates at a Coptic Orthodox home for the disabled in Cairo last month. Back in the early 1990s we were teaching school in Ismailiyya when he was born (and where Hasan al-Banna founded the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928!). Hence, we named him “Marc” – after St. Mark, the evangelist, who founded the church in Alexandria around 50 CE. So this was a chance for him to visit the country of his birth.

Marc and his friends came away very humbled by the generosity of their Egyptian hosts. They were especially touched and definitely awed by their determination to protect them with their own lives. Several times, the ruckus and chaos swirling around came ominously close and they truly believed they would die. There had been many taunts and threats in the streets. So they flew out of Cairo relieved, but also with a heavy heart, fearing for their newfound friends. One had been to a demonstration three days before and had not been heard of yet. And they worried about the vigilantes circling the area, most likely bent on making Christians pay for the removal of their president and the subsequent massacres of their own.

I leave you with a 3-minute video of Egyptian evangelicals (called “Coptic Evangelicals” there) interceding for their country right before June 30th, 2013. May their example inspire our own prayers!