An Anatomy of Sisi’s Liberals

Sisi's liberals

( Photo via AFP)

Initially published in Fikra Forum

Many self-proclaimed liberals in Egypt supported the military’s intervention in July 2013 that led to President Muhammad Morsi’s ouster. Their stance has baffled many Western observers, who wonder how anyone with liberal values can support an oppressive coup that removed a democratically elected president. There is no easy answer to this question, but an examination of Egypt’s contemporary evolution may explain the state of mind and perplexing behavior of the liberals who have coalesced around Egypt’s new president, Abdul Fattah al-Sisi.

The concept of the Egyptian military as a “liberal force” originated during the rule of Muhammad Ali Pasha, the founder of contemporary Egypt. Historically, themilitary was always run by foreign warriors, known as the Mamluks. They continued to exist under the Ottoman Empire. However, they posed a threat to Muhammad Ali, the ambitious ruler of Egypt. Ali declared independence from the Ottomans, got rid of the Mamluks, and strategically decided to incorporate native Egyptian peasants into the ranks of his modern and professional military force. For Egyptians, the idea that our loyal men are fighting for our country prompted a deep trust in the military as the savior of Egypt that remains to this day.

On the civilian side, although Egypt experienced an enlightenment movement in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it was not entirely successful. Not only did it face strong opposition from conservatives, but it was also marred by cowardice and ideological incoherence. For example, prominent nationalists and strong advocates for a modern, independent country opposed feminism. For them, the views of Egyptian feminists such as Qassim Amin regarding women’s rights were unsuitable for Egypt. In other words, they wanted an Egypt free of colonialism, but tolerant of oppressive attitudes toward women. This cherry-picking of modernity was the first step in creating a deformed liberal movement in Egypt.

Furthermore, these liberals failed to support one another in times of crisis. Very few stood by iconic Egyptian writer Taha Hussein after he wrote On Pre-Islamic Poetry, in which he challenged the authenticity of some of the stories in the Quran. Hussein was virtually left alone to defend himself against a barrage of criticism. Although no legal action was taken against him, he lost his position at Cairo University; other liberal intellectuals faced similar experiences later on.

Hussein’s experience taught liberals to embrace a softer approach to publicize their ideas, favoring mediums such as fiction, cinema, and the arts. The aim was to change society’s subconscious rather than conscious behavior, while avoiding confrontation with traditionalists and religious scholars. It worked, but only just. While Egyptians enjoyed their liberal movies, they were not necessarily happy to reciprocate them in real life. The gap between the cinema and ordinary Egyptian life in the 1930s and 1940s, therefore, was very wide.

While liberals focused on forging a progressive Egyptian identity as a pillar of the state, the Muslim Brotherhood aimed to undermine their mission. By claiming to defend Islam from a “liberal assault,” the Muslim Brotherhood succeeded in gaining empathy and sympathy from certain sections of Egyptian society. Although some analysts argue that the Muslim Brotherhood did contribute significantly to Egypt’s overall identity, I believe that Egyptians share only some of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Islamist values. The volatile dynamics of Egypt’s political and social arenas have prevented many Egyptians from reflecting deeply on this unharmonious, perhaps even contradictory, mix of conservatism and liberalism.

The 1952 revolution was a crucial milestone in the liberal-conservative standoff. On the one hand, President Gamal Abdul Nasser needed the liberals to help forge his political ideology that blended elements of classic liberalism with basic Islamic ones. On the other hand, the liberals needed Nasser’s authoritarianism in their battle against the Muslim Brotherhood, as they lacked the intellectual prowess to confront the ills of political Islam. Nasser therefore served as a patron who could help them evade an intellectual confrontation with the Islamists, while subtly fighting the Islamists at the same time.

Nasser’s reign was crucial in marginalizing the Muslim Brotherhood, while allowing a newly engineered identity to dominate Egyptian politics and society. Many Egyptians welcomed this new identity; the liberals embraced the concept of the “liberal military” and it seeped into the nation’s collective psyche. The cinematic productions of the 1950s and 1960s are glaring examples of this glorification of the military and its soldiers.

Unlike Nasser, President Hosni Mubarak drew scant affection from Egyptian liberals. Mubarak had abandoned Nasser’s contract with the liberals as part of his survival strategy. He uprooted many of them from various positions, particularly in the Ministry of Culture, a move that greatly minimized their influence on the younger generations. Moreover, Mubarak reduced the military into a shadowy, albeit rich, institution that was remembered in the context of the 1973 Arab-Israeli War.

Mubarak also allowed the Muslim Brotherhood to empty the liberal core of Egypt’s identity and expand their shadowy, conservative one instead. They were allowed to import the social mores and customs from other Islamic countries into the fabric of Egyptian society. Mubarak nonetheless set a clear directive to the Brothers: they were not to pierce the liberal veneer of the state. But it was finally penetrated after the 2011 uprising and Morsi’s subsequent election, a move that rattled both the liberals and the generals alike.

It is hard to identify Egyptian liberals’ true feelings about the military. They probably feel an eclectic mix of genuine respect and trust tied to dystopian thoughts. The marriage between the liberals and the generals grew weak under Mubarak, but was rekindled by Morsi’s overt Islamism. Inadvertently, Morsi made both understand the need to join together to survive. After the 2013 coup, the military succeeded in restoring its image as the patron of Egypt’s classical liberal values, allowing the liberals to defeat the Islamists without exposing the discrepancies in their beliefs.

Sisi’s liberals are the inevitable product of Egypt’s incomplete, contemporary evolution. Their manners, behaviors, and beliefs are stark examples of what has gone wrong in Egypt over the past 150 years. It is true that the military establishment is less conservative and more authentically Egyptian than the Muslim Brotherhood. But to define the military as a liberal force is wrong. There are plenty of ways to explain Sisi’s popularity among the public, but liberalism is certainly not one of them.

Posted in Diary of Aak, Egypt, Middle East, Politics | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Egyptian Aak 2014 – Week 43 ( Oct 20- 26)

Funeral 2

(Funeral of Egyptian soldiers killed in Sinai on Friday, via Ahram online)

Main Headlines

 Monday

Tuesday

 Wednesday

Thursday

 Friday

Saturday

Sunday

 Good report

Good read

Photo gallery

 Plus:

  • 51 Reasons to fall in love with Egypt. Hannah Jewell

Finally here are Jayson Casper’s prayers for Egypt.

Posted in Diary of Aak, Egypt | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Egyptian Aak 2014 – Week 42 (Oct 13- 19)

Kerry with Egypt special forces

(John Kerry with Egyptian special forces  via Egypt” Youm 7 newspaper) 

Main Headlines

 Monday

Tuesday

Wednesday

Thursday 

 Friday

 Saturday

Sunday

 Good Reports

Good Read

Plus:

Finally, here are Jayson Casper’s prayers for Egypt.

Posted in Diary of Aak, Egypt | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Kobani: A Victim Of Our Sins

Kobane1_2

(Photo via Mother Jones)

The city of Kobani is falling in front of our eyes. The black flags of the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have been slowly spreading above the buildings of this unfortunate Kurdish town in northern Syria. Sooner or later the resistance of the Kurdish fighters that are currently heroically trying to defend Kobani will crumble against an avalanche of medieval barbarism from ISIS, which is doubly fortified with modern weaponry. The tragedy of Kobani may seem irrelevant in the wider context of the turbulent Middle East, however, it highlights clearly the flawed thinking process of many in the Arab world, and alarmingly also in Turkey.

 Selective outrage

 Compare the muted response to the beheading of female Kurdish fighters, or the rape and forced marriages of Yazidi women by ISIS fighters to the loud, angry responses that have ___ rightly___ erupted following the recent Israeli aggression in Gaza. The baffling silence is even more problematic when both Muslim regimes and the public, unanimously agree that ISIS does not represent Islam and that its sick actions are non-Islamic. Imagine if Israel beheaded three female Palestinian suicide bombers? The reactions would probably exceed any expectations, from flooding the streets of Western cities with thousands of protestors to even violent attacks against Israeli targets around the globe. Understandable? Yes the innocent loss of lives and siege of Gaza are despicable, but why not the same depth of anger for Kurds? The answers lies within our selfish duplicity, we care only about fellow Arabs, but we rail against others when they do not care about us.

 Lack of empathy to minorities

 The reasons behind our selectivity and bias lies deep in the post-colonial nationalism and Islamism that has spread throughout the Middle East since the mid part of the twentieth century. Arabism advocated a one united Arab world, a melting pot that ethnic minorities must embrace. Islamists, on the other hand, advocated the “Ummah,” a utopian Muslim union that other religious groups must submit to it. In the search for these elusive collective identities, minorities (whether ethnic or religious) were often viewed with suspicion. Any desire for separatism or federalism was considered as an assault against the common vision.

 When Saddam Hussein shelled Kurds with chemical weapons in Halabja, there were Arab apologists who portrayed Kurds as agents of foreign powers that partly contributed to their own misery. It was the same with the Syrian Kurds, who are portrayed, particularly in Turkish pro-government media, as terrorists, or supporters of the Assad regime. This continues despite the Kurds having a long record of rebelling against Assad since 2004. This dehumanization of minorities, like the Kurds, is an attempt to temper responsibilities toward any atrocities conducted under the names of our religion or our States.

 Narrow self-interests

 Flirting with Islamist groups has a long history in the Middle East. Time and time again, regimes and leaders have wrongly assumed that it is easy and cost-free to use Islamists as a cheap tool to fulfill their goals and ambitions. Time and time again, this assumption has proven to be very costly and bloody. Sadat in Egypt released many Islamists from prison in a tactical move in his fight against Nasserism. Then they later turned against him and assassinated him in 1981. Recently, Arab Gulf States like Qatar and Saudi Arabia saw the Arab Spring as an opportunity to remove hostile regimes like Assad in Syria. They naively assumed that funding radical Jihadists would finish Assad. It did not work, because the Gulf Sheiks underestimated the depth of support that Iran and Hezbollah were willing to give to the Assad regime. Instead of defeating Assad, Qatar and others helped creating radical monsters such as ISIS. Kobani is just one of many tragic repercussions of the endemic political myopia that deluded autocrats into playing with the fire of radicalism. The role of Qatar is now exposed, but the young Emir of Qatar is fortunate, he is still enjoying his luxurious palace in Doha, unlike poor Syrians (Kurds and Arabs) sleeping in rough tents as refugees in Turkey, which is a result of his reckless decisions.

 Wishful thinking

 Erdogan’s Turkey is as guilty as many in the Arab world of all the above hypocrisies. His overt anger about Gaza and the coup in Egypt contradicts his dismissive attitude to the plight of Kurds in Kobani. Until recently, Turkey ___ despite formal denial ___ has given tacit support to anti-Assad groups including the ISIS. The Turkish leadership also does not see the fight in Kobani as a tragedy, but as a political opportunity to settle old scores with Kurdish guerrillas like the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK),or at least the group Syrian branch, which Turkey considers a terrorist group.

Nonetheless, Ankara’s biggest mistake is its assumption that toppling the Assad regime will end radicalism and solve the tragedy of Syria. That was probably a valid argument in early 2012, before the radicalization and fragmentation of the Syrian revolution, but it is not valid now. The collapse of the Syrian regime now will only trigger more infighting between anti-Assad militias and groups. The post-Assad bloodbath can easily make all the previous atrocities seem mild. Even if this scenario does not happen, a debilitated, drained Syria will be a new, ugly version of Libya without oil, with unimaginable implications on Turkey‘s national security. Such a version of Syria will not just inherit the necessary responsibilities for its allies, nor handle Assad’s remnants, or even address Hezbollah’s revenge. Has Erdogan even given any thought about the day after Assad? Probably not. He is so fixated about defeating the Syrian president that he cannot see beyond it.

 The key success of ISIS does not lie in its brutality or barbarism, but in its deep understanding of the above ills found in both Arabs and Turks. They fully understand that selective anger will shelter them from massive outrage, and how the indifference to minorities will allow them to exploits Kurds with impunity. ISIS is the parasite that thrives on the ills, selfishness and political myopia of the Middle East. Make no mistake: ISIS understands both Arabs and Turks better than they understand themselves.

 

Post Script:

My interview with BBC World Service about the above piece.

Posted in Middle East, Syria, Turkey | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Egyptian Aak 2014 – Week 41 (Oct 6 – 12)

Hanging church Cairo

Egypt’s hanging church was officially inaugurated after 16 years of renovations

Main Headlines

 Monday

Tuesday

Wednesday

Thursday

Friday

Saturday

 Sunday

 Good Reports

Good Read

Plus:

Finally, here are Jayson Casper’s prayers for Egypt

Posted in Diary of Aak, Egypt | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

An Open Letter to Moderate Muslims

Pakistani-Canadian writer Ali A. Rizvi has written this interesting piece, which I think it is worth sharing.  Enjoy…..

My favourite paragraph is:

“The word “moderate” has lost its credibility. Fareed Zakaria has referred to Middle Eastern moderates as a “fantasy.” Even apologists like Nathan Lean are pointing out that the use of this word isn’t helping anyone. Islam needs reformers, not moderates. And words like “reform” just don’t go very well with words like “infallibility.”

Read the article here

Posted in Islam, Middle East | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

Egyptian Aak 2014 – Week 40 ( Sept 29 – Oct 5)

 

Eid in prison

( Images of detained activists spread in Cairo during Eid, via twitter)

Main Headlines

Monday

Tuesday

Wednesday

Thursday

Friday

Saturday

Sunday

 Good Reports 

Video Report

Good Read

Plus: A debate

Poll

  • Egyptians see economy improving and have more confidence in current government, according to Gallup Poll

Photo Gallery:

Finally, here are Jayson Casper’s prayers for Egypt

Posted in Diary of Aak, Egypt | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Turkey versus Egypt: A boxing rivalry

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses the 69th United Nations General Assembly at the UN headquarters in New York

(President Erdogan addressing the U.N. General assembly.  Photo via Reuters)

This year, the UN General Assembly became the new boxing arena for two Middle-Eastern rivals, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi. Both threw punches. The UN encounter highlighted the still acrimonious relationship between Turkey and Egypt. Despite Sisi’s oppressive policies toward opponents, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, the Egyptian President emerged after his trip to New York less damaged and less isolated than his Turkish nemesis Erdogan.

In his UN General Assembly address, Turkish President Erdogan spoke of the ‘murder of democracy” in Egypt. He added, “The United Nations as well as the democratic countries have done nothing but watch events, such as the overthrow of an elected president in Egypt, and the killings of thousands of innocent people who want to defend their choice. And the person who carried out this coup is being legitimized.” Later, the Turkish President refused to attend a luncheon hosted by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon during the General Assembly in New York when he learned he would be seated at the same table as the Egyptian leader. Erdogan continued with harsh remarks in his keynote address to the World Economic Forum in Istanbul on Sunday, and questioned the legitimacy of the Egyptian government.

Although it is understandable that the Turkish President’s default position is primarily anti-coup, his approach is problematic to say the least. His criticism was not directed only toward Egyptian leadership, but also toward the rest of the world that has not joined in his hostile policy toward Egypt. This moralistic, rigid approach is counter-productive and unlikely to win Erdogan empathy or sympathy from other world leaders. Turkish leadership has consistently ignored the fact that other countries may judge its foreign policies based on their own strategic interests, and they do not need a Turkish parent to teach them what they should or should not do. Furthermore, world leaders are expected to have a minimum level of maturity when handling trivial issues such as lunch seating in a public gathering as with the luncheon at the UN.

Unlike Erdogan, other world leaders have opted for a less confrontational policy with Egyptian President Sisi. They met with him, but equally raised concerns about freedom and human rights in Egypt ___ a balanced approach between interests and principles that the Turkish leader has, unfortunately, failed to mimic.

In contrast, Egypt has played its cards well. Before the UN meeting, it invited Turkey to the Gaza reconstruction conference due to be held in October. This move positioned Egypt as pragmatic and willing to put aside its differences with Turkey for a greater cause. It then leaked news that Turkey requested a meeting between its FM and the Egyptian FM, which created the perception that Turkey was the one reaching out to Egypt and not the other way round. Later, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry responded harshly to Erdogan’s speech: “There is no doubt that the fabrication of such lies and fabrications is not something strange that comes from the Turkish president, who is keen to provoke chaos to sow divisions in the Middle East region through support for groups and terrorist organizations.” It responded on Monday to Erdogan’s Istanbul comments, saying that the Turkish president is “not in a position to give lessons to others about democracy and respect for human rights and appoint himself the guardian of them.”

Egyptian FM Sameh Shoukry cancelled a bilateral meeting requested by Turkey in response to Erdogan’s speech. Again, that gave the impression that Egypt was the one calling the shots; not Turkey.

The smartest move, however, came from Egyptian President Sisi who declined to snap back at Turkey. Instead, he opted for a more subtle counterpunch: “When I was young and was hit by those older than me, I used to say “I’ll grow bigger and hit you[back]’.” Sisi’s remarks did not just appeal to his Egyptian domestic audience; it gave the outside world the impression of a calm, composed leader, not willing to dignify angry emotions with a heated response.

Although Erdogan is proud of his Ottoman heritage, he forgets how the Ottoman Sultan AbdulMecid I in 1854 put aside his differences with Egypt’s Mohamed Ali family when he faced Russia in in the Crimean war. Egyptian leadership at the time responded positively and sent 40,000 soldiers to fight beside the Ottoman army. Those soldiers were neither loyal servants to the Ottoman Sultan, nor believers of the Ottoman Caliphate; however, they fought as a professional disciplined army that served the interests of both Egypt and Turkey.

Currently, both countries, Egypt and Turkey, face a common threat of extremism from radical groups such as the Islamic State (ISIL), and others. This is a good reason to put ideologies and differences aside and focus a common enemy. Erdogan, however, is still ambiguous about handling the radicals and is unwilling to put aside his patronage of political Islam. He is grudgingly holding onto his differences with other Arab states such as Egypt. These actions make it difficult to develop a coherent policy to fight radicalism in the Middle East.

Semih Idiz is right to predict that it is unlikely in the coming period that Erdogan will change tactics on Egypt, and Turkish-Egyptian ties will remain in the doldrums for the foreseeable future. It is unlikely that the Lebanese Prime Minister’s offer to mediate between the two leaders will yield positive results. Nonetheless, the big loser will not be Egypt, but Turkey. The difference between Erdogan and Sisi is more than just how they came to power, but how each conducts himself after gaining power. While Erdogan allows his ideological dogma to dominate his actions, Sisi is willing to paint a pragmatic image, at least on foreign policy, to conceal his own dogmatic zeal.

Every day, the Egyptian President seems to solidify his grip on power. His opponent, the Muslim Brotherhood, does not seem to gain much from Erdogan’s moralistic stance. Istanbul host its cadres after their dismissal from Qatar, nonetheless, they need more than a new base and moral support to regain their popularity inside Egypt. Sadly, part of the Brotherhood tragedy is the inability of their patron, Turkish President Erdogan, to understand that his preaching style will lead to his isolation, which will do them more harm than good.

Posted in Egypt, Turkey | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Egyptian Aak 2014 – Week 39 ( Sept 22- 28)

Sisi in UN

(Egypt’s El-Sisi speaks at the United Nation General Assembly, photo via AP)

Main Headline

 Monday

Tuesday

Wednesday

Thursday

 Friday

 Saturday

 Sunday

 Good Reports

Good Read

Video

Plus:

 Poll

  • Baseera: 82% of Egyptians approve of Sisi’s performance in first 100 days

 Photo Gallery

Finally, Jayson Casper is back with his prayers for Egypt

Posted in Diary of Aak, Egypt | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Turkey and the US led anti-IS coalition: Ankara is doing more than People Think

nervana111:

Few interesting thoughts from Aaron Stein. I find this side note very important:
“Davutoglu thinks the term “radical Islam” is an orientalist construction used to justify US/Western intervention in the region to advance their interests. These interests, he argues, are incongruent with Turkey’s”

Originally posted on Turkey Wonk: Nuclear and Political Musings in Turkey and Beyond:

My apologies. I am traveling this week and don’t have time to write a proper post. However, I wanted to get a few thoughts on paper about Turkey’s role in the US led anti-IS air campaign in Syria and Iraq.

Turkey’s policy vis-à-vis ISIS has always been relatively clear. Ankara has not supported the group and has thought of it as a terror organization for 1.5 years. Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, for example, has criticized Sayyid Qutb’s ideology and believes that his understanding of Islam is incorrect. Davutoglu, who is the architect of Turkish foreign policy, argues that Qutb’s understanding of Islam is too heavily influenced by Western political theories. These theories, he argues, are incongruent with the concept of Dar al Islam, which is a  better source of political legitimacy in the Arab/Muslim world. Thus, any suggestions that the AKP supports IS because of an overlap in religious points…

View original 1,535 more words

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