Day Seven in Cairo: Politics and Culture

By Sarah Eltantawi

Politics and Culture

“Fascism,” “totalitarianism,” Germans saluting Hitler, and sudden, mass collective brainwashing have been some of the more colorful ways “anti-coup” analysts have attempted to come to grips with Egyptians’ support for Sisi.

Another favored term to describe the millions who took to the streets to oust Morsi — “pro-coup Egyptians” — signals a partisan rather than analytic grasp on what has occurred.  I am not partial to grand, sweeping slurs to describe millions of people — isn’t that a bit Nazi Germany for comfort? — however, if you insist, “anti-Muslim Brotherhood” is probably more accurate.  After all, this same population rose against the military regime a mere two years ago.

But today, some of the most hated arms of Egypt’s security apparatus have now been re-empowered, including several special police units that were notorious in the Mubarak-era for committing some of the worst human rights violations.  However, civil society groups in Egypt that monitor state security brutality claim that these units were never shut down — despite claims to the contrary by SCAF leadership in March 2011.  They also assert that these hated units of state security continued their brutality virtually untouched under  Morsi.

Heba Morayef, who directs the Egypt office of Human Rights Watch, told the Guardian regarding the reinstatement of special police units:  “Basically, nothing changed at state security [in 2011] except for the name…So what is significant is that [Ibrahim] could announce this publicly. That would have been unthinkable in 2011.”

If the January 25 revolution was largely about dismantling this security state (in addition to bread), then how do we explain today’s rehabilitation?

The re-embrace of this order can be understood along one of two lines.


  1. The Egyptian population was caught in a wave of euphoria and supported Sisi to oust the Muslim Brotherhood because they were brainwashed and did not understand the full implications of what they were doing in “bringing back the old order.”  In essence, the Muslim Brotherhood was bad– but these people were duped and will be sorry.


2.  The Egyptian population understands what it means to empower Sisi and thus the security state, are upset that the “deep state/old order” will take advantage (and will get more and more upset as time goes on and the euphoria wears off), but since Morsi did nothing to reform state security services anyway and rather embraced them, the price of re-empowering the military (symbolically — it was never disempowered) is worth it if it means getting rid of Morsi.

I am more convinced by option two.  The millions on the street were a genuine slice of Egypt, which means that the majority are some form of Muslim, most some form of practicing Muslim, and most some form of traditional and conservative in outlook.

It is important that it is *those* people who have a cultural and religious objection to the Muslim Brothehood’s use of Islam in politics.  It is an absurdity to describe those millions as “liberals.”  Frankly, Egypt doesn’t even have that many “liberals,” whatever is meant mean by the term.  I suspect it connotes speaking French while replacing the poodle’s pink bow with a blue one and being an atheist, in which case a good sized phone booth rather than Tahrir would be a more comfortable place to gather.

In other words, if meeting the goals of the revolution, including reforming the security state, remains elusive, then people are objecting not only because no reforms are happening, but for cultural reasons.

When analysts fail to ask regular Egyptian people what prompted them to support Sisi, they miss this very important factor.  I have repeatedly heard, “al-Ikhwaan b’taagiru f’il diin” (the Muslim Brotherhood traffics in religion) repeated with disgust and the utmost disapproval.  Many told me that the Muslim Brotherhood are good at charitable activities and should continue them, but that religion belongs in the mosque and should be kept out of politics.  It is not (just) liberals who make this claim — it is conservative, practicing Muslims in the millions.

There is no question about it — Islamism — by which I mean grounding political legitimacy in some form of (usually highly reductionist) conception of Islamic law and theology has been dealt a severe blow in Egypt.  And what happens in Egypt reverberates in the Arab world.

And while some claim that Al-Azhar has been “co-opted” by the military in support of “the coup,” the fact is that Al-Azhar has been hostile to the Muslim Brotherhood for generations.  This is in part because the Brotherhood’s populism has included, over their decades of preaching, a rejection of traditionalism — for example sidelining the different and often subtle and complex legal differences of the four sunni schools in favor of “one Islam.”  It is the Salafis that insist on the authoritative posture of the ahl al sunna w’al jama’aa — not the Muslim Brotherhood, who I suspect find that traditionalist anchoring stifling for their political ambitions. It is easy to see how in the eyes of Azhar traditionalists, the Brotherhood are nothing but a renegade political movement that abuse the Islamic tradition to fulfill their personal aims.  It is no wonder, then, that the Brotherhood were aching to install Yusef al-Qaradaawi as the Grand Shaykh.

There is also a rejection of what we might call “Islamist culture,” including a genuine suspicion of the Muslim Brotherhood’s hierarchical structure, which can create a sense of “being separate.”  From filling the Cairo stadium with only their supporters and addressing them as “my family and my tribe” to smaller scale instances of group snobbery — one man described to me going to a wedding of mostly Muslim Brotherhood supporters and being left by himself at a table with no one to talk to — a rather unusual state of affairs in Egypt — the Egyptians who protested the Brotherhood to a significant degree did not feel culturally comfortable with the group.

Though some might be tempted to dismiss these cultural fault-lines as frivolous, I side with Aristotle — pathos is at least as important as ethos and logos in the polis; and in a revolutionary context that calls for, at bottom, a change in culture — this is perhaps the most important factor to get right.

[If you’d like updates on these, follow me on Twitter at @SEltantawi]



doftande lukt som jasmin, liksom, så unik brudklänning, är det inte också gör du älskar och fascineras av det brudklänning ?




One thought on “Day Seven in Cairo: Politics and Culture

  • December 10, 2013 at 11:41 am

    Heh, from the “Progressive Muslim” racket to out and out military coup apologia. In retrospect, not a big leap

    Option 1 is looking more and more true as time goes on. Also I love this framing how it’s all Morsi’s fault for not creating miracles in a year and reforming the entire military/security establishment. As if the “secularists” and the “liberals” didn’t spend their time decrying any of Morsi’s moves against the deep state as “creeping Islamization” and cheering on the obstructionist Mubarakist Judiciary.

    “Morsi didn’t take on the military establishment, so we”l loudly cheer on a coup against him by the same aforementioned establishment. That’ll show him!” Sound logic. Of course after the Economy crashes despite the massive Saudi/Emirati subsidies and American support, everybody will be back to square one.


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