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]


2 thoughts on “A View of Egypt from Morocco: Islamism and Geopolitics

  • August 6, 2013 at 12:02 am

    Thanks, Sarah for your thoughtful and perceptive comments. I can see that I need to learn more about Morocco. I very much like your phrase “comprehension and deconstruction” as a description of what our task is.
    Bill Shepard

  • October 18, 2013 at 4:39 pm

    “A View of Egypt from Morocco: Islamism and
    Geopolitics | The Contemplative Yurt” was indeed
    a superb blog. If perhaps it had alot more pix this would be possibly even more effective.
    All the best -Robt


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