A View of Egypt from Morocco: Islamism and Geopolitics

By Sarah Eltantawi


A view of the beautiful city of Rabat from the shores of the Atlantic Ocean

I am in Morocco for a few days, and, having steeled my resolve to understand the dialect as much as possible, I’ve begun engaging people on their impressions of the events in Egypt.  I am finding Moroccans very empathetic and willing participants in this discussion.

I am moved by the fact that almost everyone I’ve spoken to so far says, “First, may God protect Egypt.  Insha’llah it gets better and better.”  This prayer is made before launching into more detailed expressions of their opposition to the “coup”: so far — in a parallel universe to Egypt — a unanimous understanding of recent events.  I admit, this gentle preface makes subsequent conversation much more smooth.  A lovely whiff of the spirit of Ramadan, among other things.

What I have heard so far is a version of this:  “America and Israel will not let an Islamic government work.”

This sentiment, like all others in this complex scenario, deserves comprehension and deconstruction. The fact that America is universally blamed for what has occurred in Egypt — i.e., both pro-Morsi and anti-Morsi people feel America has sided with “the enemy” — reveals at least two things.  The first is that there is deep bitterness across the entire Muslim world about various U.S. policies in the region, especially unconditional support for Israel and the war in Iraq.  However the reasons for Anti-Americanism are in fact much more varied than this and have slight regional variations; but the above two issues have been cited everywhere I have gone in the Muslim-majority world.  Sometimes these issues are cited as a shorthand for more localized complaints about America’s role in regional politics.

The second theme is that, as a consequence of this history, many Arabs have internalized a posture of powerlessness and humiliation in the face of events they read as orchestrated by world powers who they feel defenseless against.  I believe it is this sentiment that fuels an infamous and unfortunate penchant for relying on conspiracy theories to explain world events.

Anyone who follows attitudes in the Muslim-majority world will find this old news.  Thus, I think the second broad suggestion that follows from this response in Morocco — that Islamic government is a threat to world powers — meaning, it will be effective and good for our societies — is a more contemporary and comparatively understudied one.

Despite having a majority Islamist party in Morocco’s parliament, it is a nation that has not lived under a contemporary Islamist government.  Therefore, Islamic morality and piety as a relatively untainted site of moral redemption, and a venue to pursue a sense of unrealized justice remains in tact (for those who are convinced of it.) My taxi driver from the airport stopped on the way to pray  and get dates and water from a mosque along our route during iftaar time.  When he returned (after offering me dates and inviting me to iftar at his family’s house), he told me how much better and at peace he felt after praying.  He then remarked how world powers would not let Muslims have this peace.

I could not say whether attitudes would change in Morocco were they to undergo an Islamist experiment.  But we can take a brief look at what happened in Egypt and Nigeria,   These are contemporary examples, unlike the more variegated and longer Iranian history of Islamism – about which there is a very rich literature. Analysis of the cultural effects of Islamism in societies like Pakistan, Turkey, and Tunisia are also currently gaining momentum.

I was in Northern Nigeria in 2010 to try to understand why that society went to the streets in a grassroots uprising to demand the re-implimentation of full Islamic Sharia law in twelve northern states.  I came away with two broad themes: to combat poverty and to punish (political) corruption.  Nigerians read the answers to these problems into “Islam” writ-large and into their local Islamic history and traditions.

By the time I spoke to Nigerians about eleven years after the first states changed their penal codes and established sharia courts, even the most hardline Islamist supporters of the project — the die hards — had to admit there had been significant failures were they to maintain their credibility.

The reasons for this failure are many – and to a large extent, they include the Nigerian equivalent of the “deep state.”  But there are other themes that are similar to the Egyptian example, including the Islamists’ lack of technocratic competency, which fuels a hollow application of vague Islamic morality to structural, material problems.  Empowering a new, corrupt religious class was another similar complaint.  All of this lead to a broad sense that Islam had been exploited for political ends.

Like in Egypt, regular Northern Nigerians, a remarkably religious society — especially in embodied forms of Islam like regular prayer — found this exploitation unacceptable and deeply distasteful.  “All you need is a beard and to speak a few words of Arabic and call yourself a shaikh,” said one of my informants on the Islamists, “they do not respect deeper scholarship.”  It was my sense that this person and many others believed that deeper Islamic learning would have lead to a gentler and more just political outcome.

It is clear to me that this same sentiment broadly exists in Egypt, and it is one that causes major offense in a society with rich religious traditions, both in the broader culture and familially. To see Islam used in the name of violence adds insult to injury.

Much analysis of the events in Egypt concentrates on the larger structural questions of governance, which is of course extremely important.  But it is a mistake to ignore the question of negative cultural reactions to politicized Islam.  It was a major — and until now, not adequately appreciated — fuel for the revolt against the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

[If you would like updates on these, follow me on Twitter @SEltantawi]


Day Eight in Cairo: On the Ethics of Waiting for a Massacre

By Sarah Eltantawi

rabaa praying

It is starting to feel that each new day in Egypt brings a more horrendous hypothetical to ponder than the day before.  Since I have no definitive answer to the question of the ethics of waiting for a massacre, this post lays out the problem and ask questions of it.

Today we are in a sickening purgatory between life and death.  I’ve spend most of the day walking through Cairo’s impossibly hot downtown, dodging terrible traffic, watching the typical lessening in patience and energy as the day’s fast unfolds into the late afternoon.  I’ve noted throughout the sad fact that the city is proceeding as usual, even as we wait for the security services to break up the protests at Rabaa’ and Nahda by “any means necessary” — a process that will certainly become violent — perhaps very violent.

What is the correct moral stance for those of us observing this slow-motion massacre to take?    This is a genuine question for which I do not have a confident answer.

Some pieces of the problem:

1.  Some have compared this to stand-off to Tahrir in 2011.  It is not a good comparison.  In Tahrir, the numbers were so overwhelming and so many different factions of society were represented there (including members of the security services such as regular police men who defected) that protesters had reason to feel confident that they would not face massive violence (though of course there was violence, including the infamous “battle of the camel.”)  Furthermore, the cameras of the world’s media were poised squarely on Tahrir square, and international sentiment — popular and official — were squarely on their side, particularly toward the end of January and beginning of February.

In this case, the protests are made up of a small percentage of the Egyptian population in real numbers and as a percentage.  A (much) larger number of Egyptians in real numbers and as a percentage do not support the protester’s aims, and many are caught in the mindset that they must be dispersed.  These Egyptians have become fed up, and they have been subject to weeks of propaganda against the protesters.  Reactions to the overall situation itself are much more polarized, and basic questions — like, what actually happened in Egypt, anyway? — are not answered with any certainty or consensus.  This state of affairs affects the international response, which anyway is not nearly as focused on Egypt as in early 2011, and which is as confused as everyone else is.

2.  Many Egyptians are convinced that the Muslim Brotherhood leadership are manipulating these protesters, and that the former have a weapons cache stashed somewhere that they can and will use.  There isn’t conclusive evidence as to how big this cache is, but few doubt it exists to some degree.  But these details do not in fact seem to matter to many people; they are convinced that the Muslim Brotherhood are “violent” if not “terrorists”  (a very nasty piece of military propaganda that we should never tolerate or forgive) — and thus they conceive of this as a battle rather than as an attack on innocents.  [Please note that this is not my personal position — I think the protesters are overwhelmingly unarmed, and that if any are, those arms are negligible.  I think the first massacre — in which all of the deaths were on the pro-Morsi side — is ample proof of this.]

3.  Justness of the cause:  here the pro-Morsi supporters are also at a deficit with respect to public opinion, which is now overwhelmingly with Sisi, to the point of disturbing hero worship.  He has been crowned the “new Nasser,” and his pictures are everywhere.  During the pro-Sisi protests last Friday, my sense was that the support for him among those in Tahrir was sincere, fueled by a sense of relief that they had been relieved of Morsi’s misrule.  A few days later, I sense that an authoritarian consensus has taken hold, and I question the degree to which those who actually have doubts about the party line would feel comfortable saying so.  But I do not want to overstate this — I do not think at all we are back to the apolitical Mubarak days — far from it — but the point is that a rather stultifying consensus seems to have taken shape in public discourse, to say nothing of  the appallingly unprofessional local media (print and television.)

Given this consensus, the pro-Morsi supporters are seen by many as obstinate and disruptive of daily life, which most people are desperate to see go back to normal and improved as soon as possible, especially economically.

4.  Militarization of Cairo:  this fact is undeniable, and one I find extremely depressing.  The area around Rabaa’ looks exactly like a war zone, complete with trenches and tanks.  I was in the area the other evening and it took us almost two hours to get somewhere due to detours when it should have taken twenty minutes, even with traffic.  Qasr al-‘Ayni street, which feeds into Tahrir – -traditionally one of the most lively and central in Cairo — is dead because the military has built a huge concrete wall separating it from the square.  This has killed the business along those streets, many of which I used to frequent for all of my food and sundry needs when I lived in Mounira a few years ago.  I went there for the first time the other night during this trip, and I was genuinely depressed by what I saw.  I wonder what has happened to those people who sold nuts and fruit, had family groceries.

Tahrir is also somewhat unrecognizable to me.  I find it very difficult to drive in now because so many streets are closed.  There are tanks everywhere with snipers on top, walls have been torn down in some places and erected in others.  All of this is negatively affecting the local economy, from taxi drivers to small businesses.

I am not blaming pro-Morsi supporters for this (especially the transformation of Tahrir), but I am illustrating what has happened and why people want all of this political turmoil over with and a return to normalcy as soon as possible.

5.  The trickier question with respect to urban transformation and disruption is protests that choke major bridges and roads.  When stacked atop the structural changes in the city, these disruptions can be quite serious, sometimes backing up already terrible traffic for hours.  Moreover local residents around Rabaa’ and Nahda have been complaining bitterly for weeks about the disruption of their neighborhoods, to the point that civilians participated in last Saturday morning’s massacre of protesters at 6 October bridge.  The question here is: to what degree are these kinds of disruptions justifiable, how much should local residents and authorities put up with, and what are the proper responses to genuine complaints?

6.  The “warnings.” What is the proper ethical response to the fact that the protesters have been warned to leave, particularly in a context in which a) they do not have (determinative) public support, and b) there was just a massacre a few days ago, which strongly suggests there will be another?  Is the morally correct position to urge them to leave?  To send women and children home?  Given all of the above, is this “blaming the victim?”  Or should we advocate that they stay on principle, even if we are sure many will be brutally murdered?

Keep in mind that I do not know anyone that has any kind of idea of how to temper the unprofessional and brutal security services, particularly in the next hours or days.

When you are sure a lot of people are about to die, it seems to me that the correct position is to urge them to avoid that fate.  Let me be clear about my biases:  I think the ambiguity of this overall situation, and the fact that in my assessment these protesters will not have their demands met using their current means, means that the cause does not seem to me to be one to die for.  But my opinion does not matter, because they disagree, at least so far as we can tell by their leader’s rhetoric that they are ready to “die for legitimacy.”

Given all of these factors, what will it mean ethically — for them and for those of us observing — when and if they do?

There is a principled position that rises to the top of the stack that several friends have publicly urged: no matter what we think of the sit ins, the protesters have the right to be there and voice their discontent.  Therefore, Egyptian leaders of conscious (and all of us regular people) should go to the squares in huge numbers and prevent any violent dispersals.  The protesters should go home only after a political solution is found and agreed upon.  I agree with this position on principle and think it is correct.

The problem though — and it was reinforced for me today as I walked around the city — is that Egyptians are no where near in the mood or mindset to do this.  I am afraid that a very large number do not support the sit ins, a large number are ambivalent (and thus a small number of this category will put their bodies on the line for this principle), and the numbers in support who are not already at the sit ins are too small to make a difference.

I know there are ethicists out there of all persuasions that probably have more trenchant thoughts on this terrible problem.  I would love to hear from them.

[If you would like updates on these, follow me on Twitter @SEltantawi]