from From the Potomac to the Euphrates and Middle East Program

Egypt: Reductio Ad Absurdum

October 16, 2013

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Outsiders tend to underestimate the deep psychological impact that the last almost three years have had on Egyptians.  Not long after the exhilaration of Mubarak’s exit, Egyptians confronted the complexities of their reality.  What followed is now a well-worn story of disappointment, tragedy, more disappointment, some more exhilaration, and despair.  There are, of course, Egyptians who are looking forward to better days now that the Muslim Brotherhood experiment has been short-circuited.  Still, the uncertainty and violence have taken a toll.  For good reason, Egypt is a country collectively on-edge. Although it has avoided the general depravity that characterizes Syria—with perhaps the exception of the Sinai—the delegitimizing and dehumanizing discourse that is now common in Egyptian debates about the future makes the search, conducted mostly by outsiders, for negotiation and consensus fanciful.  Egypt has reached the stage where, despite a roadmap for reconstituting an electoral political order, the goal remains for one group or another to impose its political will on the others, just as it has been since February 2011.

It is pretty clear that whichever group has the support of the military is more than likely to win this battle.  Guns matter, but so do ideas, which is why Egypt is so profoundly depressing these days.  Instead of creative solutions for a country whose problems are piling up, people seem to want to pound each other into the ground.  The rejoinder to this observation among a seemingly large number of Egyptians is, “Well, we need to pound people into the ground before we can get on with fixing the country.” This can’t end well.

This all comes to mind because of an article I read a week ago and an encounter I had with some Egyptian friends in DC last week. The Muslim Brotherhood, through its official Twitter handle, @Ikhwanweb, was peddling a piece that appeared in Middle East Monitor by Badr Mohammed Badr. MEMO, as the publication calls itself, seems to be an outlet for the Muslim Brotherhood, and Badr—who formerly worked for Brotherhood tribunes al Da’wa (The Call) and al Sha’ab (The People) and a few other Brotherhood-affiliated publications offers up some standard MB fare in “Why is Israel Supporting the Egyptian Coup?” He conjures the Mossad planning the July 3 coup with the help of the Emiratis; invokes visits to Israel right after the military intervention by Brotherhood bogeymen Mohamed ElBaradei and Hamdeen Sabahi (I laughed out loud); claims the delivery of Israeli weapons to the Egyptian armed forces prior to the crackdown on Raba’a al Adawiya (thanks to Turkey’s official Anadolu Agency); quotes Noam Chomsky; and offers a series of statements by Israeli commentators and long-retired ambassadors  that are taken wildly out of context, are just plain stupid, or are simply made up.

Never mind the fact that given the Muslim Brotherhood’s hostility toward Zionism, Israel, and Jews more generally, Israelis had reason to be relieved when the military dumped Mohammed Morsi last July, but that is beside the point.  Badr’s article is particularly egregious at this moment in Egypt’s struggle.  Cairo’s difficulties with Hamas aside, there has long been a deep connection between Egyptian nationalism and Palestine.  Zionism—which is to many Egyptians an expression of European colonialism—and the Palestine question crystallized at roughly the same time as Egypt’s own nationalist awakening.  As a result, resisting the British and Zionists was perceived as the same battle.  In The Philosophy of the Revolution, which was written after the July 1952 coup in order to give an intellectual patina to the Free Officers’ motives, Gamal Abdel Nasser (or his widely believed ghostwriter, Mohammed Hassenein Heikal) specifically linked Palestinian and Egyptian resistance to foreign penetration.  Opponents across the political spectrum excoriated Anwar Sadat for his abdication of Egyptian nationalist principles when he came to terms with Israel.  Hosni Mubarak’s critics cited relations with Washington, which they believed were a function of Egypt-Israel ties, as the reason for Cairo’s diminished status in the region and the world.

I could go on and on with examples, but what’s important is that Badr knows his history too and he is using it in an effort to frame the terms of the debate in a dangerous way.  By tying al Sisi, the military, and their supporters to Israel, Badr is raising the question of what it means to be a good Egyptian nationalist.  If the July 3 military intervention was not the result of an eruption of popular anger at Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, but was rather a plot hatched at the Institute for Intelligence and Special Operations (known globally by its Hebrew acronym, Mossad) in cahoots with Abu Dhabi and treasonous Egyptians, resistance is the only adequate response for a good nationalist.  Badr’s account of the coup fits neatly into the Brotherhood’s overall narrative of victimhood shot through with the language of martyrdom and violence.  As noted above, this can’t end well.

Lest anyone believe that the Brothers are the only ones guilty of peddling dangerous nonsense, just take a gander at Egyptian media, which regularly incited Egyptians against other Egyptians, notably those who support or are suspected of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood.  It is bad, but an incident a few days ago drove home for me just how bad.  I had the opportunity to meet with a group of Egyptians, all of whom are significantly accomplished and educated.  They are all people whom I have known for some time and for whom I have genuine affection.

My interlocutors’ anger over the state of Egypt was on one level understandable, but one another was startling and overwhelming.  It was as if the Brotherhood was not an organization with deep historical roots in Egypt and whose success in 2011 and 2012 was solely the work of a foreign hand—the United States.  What about the last three decades? Did they not exist?  Successive American administrations going back to Ronald Reagan did rely on Hosni Mubarak on to keep the canal open, maintain the peace with Israel, and keep the Islamists down.  I was told that over the course of time, something changed. That American support for Egypt wavered and then ended.  The United States, it seems, sought a Muslim Brotherhood-led Egypt because the Brothers had increasingly infiltrated the United States.  The proof?  I was told to watch noted Islamophobe Steven Emerson’s documentary, The Grand Deception.  So this is what it has come to. I never actually thought that any of my Egyptian friends or acquaintances would cite Emerson as an authority on anything, but there you have it. The United States supports the Muslim Brotherhood because Emerson says the Brothers are engaged in a plot from within to undermine the United States.  This can’t end well…

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