The Un-united Arab Republic of Egypt
By Amr Khalifa
“United we stand, divided we fall,” a wise man once said. Apparently, Egyptians have not heard of the man – Aesop, an ancient Greek storyteller. The tumult Egypt has experienced for the past 3.5 years has been marked by blood and, most damagingly to national psyche and long term prospects for the rise of the nation, hatred and division. For you see, blood-letting eventually ends. Seemingly indefatigable thirst for violence finds its way to finite resolution.
Division and hatred are another matter. Those twin cancers etch indelible scars in national psyches akin to ready-made rivers for instability, regression, implosion to flow. This is where Egypt stands today, just over a year removed from the 3 July 2013 coup by Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi: a nation divided. The divisions and gaps created within the socio-political discourse that is Egypt are, in fact, of such combustibility that those expecting stability at the hands of the newly elected saviour are in for quite a surprise. So sit back, grab your favourite beverage, and let me take you on a guided tour of the Un-united Arab Republic of Egypt.
Certain wars are fought with heavy weaponry, others are fought guerrilla style, yet other more dangerous ones use the dehumanisation of the “other” as a weapon of choice. Those grappling for the reins of power in Egypt understand the power of language as a surgeon understands the power of his scalpel. For purposes of linguistic efficiency we shall call the three main mountain tops of Egyptian society: the military, the Islamists, and the revolutionaries. There are, of course, subtleties and subdivisions within the socio-political dynamics of each group. Naturally, this makes for a darker, more complex dynamic than one can tackle in a single article. In international law parlance, Egypt has been effectively turned into a de jure tri-state political reality.
“It’s not possible for Egypt the state nor Egypt the people to submit to the Muslim Brotherhood terrorism,” said former deputy minister Hossam Eissa on Christmas Day 2013.Eissa was certainly not the first Egyptian official to unequivocally state such a “fact”, nor was he the last. The effect, however, is as simple as this – say, wash, and rinse and repeat and presto: “reality” is born. Suddenly, vast swaths of the Egyptian population not only believe as an unimpeachable fact that the MB are “terrorists” but it also paves the way for monstrous violations of human rights. As Amnesty International stated last week, “rampant torture, arbitrary arrests and detentions signal a catastrophic decline in human rights one year after [the] ousting of Morsi”. Egypt is far from 1930s Germany. But look closely at aspects of targeted vitriol reserved for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, in public and private circles: you see a systematic degradation of the very human worth of an MB member or sympathiser.
This dynamic is accomplished in both implicit and explicit ways. Even Egyptians who have lived 50 years have never witnessed a bloodier period than the past year. Yet with every passing wave of violence, the label “terrorist” was applied to every single Muslim Brotherhood rally, demonstration and sit-in. There was a consistent underplaying of each massacre by the regime. Take, for example, the 27 July 2013 massacre, aka the Unknown Soldier’s Tomb massacre. Casualty figures released by the government to outlets such as the venerable New York Times quoted 72 killed. But, more consistently accurate numbers by the independent watchdog WikiThawara reflected 108 killed (AR). Time and again, in various massacres in the past year, this has been a feature of the Sisi regime: the use and manipulation of numbers to turn Islamists into Egyptians whose blood was disposable because they are “terrorists”.
Did the Islamist camp use violence? Yes, without question, some did. Did many of the Muslim Brotherhood leadership eschew logic and put their membership, in moments of hyper cynicism, intentionally in harm’s way? Astoundingly, yes. Was the rhetoric of the Muslim Brotherhood one that threatened severe sectarian division? Analysts and layman alike believe so. But is every Muslim Brotherhood member a terrorist? Clarity on this point is crucial: you would have to be deaf, dumb and mute to believe so.
Using the power of deductive deconstruction let’s look at the following: on 24 June 2012, Mohamed Morsi won the presidential race with slightly over 13m votes. Naturally, his voting bloc wasn’t singularly MB or even Islamist but included millions who voted for him in a strong refusal of the ancien regime. Egyptians comically called that voting bloc “lemon squeezers”, indicating a willingness, in Egyptian slang, a willingness to accept the normally unpalatable. Most analysts and observers agreed that the hardcore Islamist block came in the first round and was closer to 5m votes. Bearing those numbers in mind, subtracting 50-60% due to economic, social and political failures of the Morsi regime, the hardcore membership of the Muslim brotherhood is still well over 2 million Egyptians. If Sisi is correct and the MB are indeed terrorists, then Egypt has the most serious terrorism problem the modern world has known: 2 million terrorists, largely free to roam Egypt’s streets. The persistent demonisation of the MB by radio, government TV and satellite TV— in fact, by all Egyptian media with minor exceptions, has resulted in virtual silence as the biggest massacre in modern Egyptian history took place. Bear in mind, as well, that one of the frequently used terms in Egyptian media refers to the Muslim Brotherhood as the ‘banned group’. The word banned has a psychological significance that cannot be understated. ‘Banned’, in the mind of the Egyptian audience, further instils imagery of the Muslim Brotherhood as ‘the other’ and accomplishes, in the subtlest of ways, the dehumanisation of the group.
As if the legacy of blood dividing the nation were not enough, the fact remains that Sisi is definitive in his intent to persist with a security solution while ignoring a political alternative. “I want to tell you that it is not me that finished [the Brotherhood]. You, the Egyptians, are the ones who finished it”. In fact he, without qualification, says that “during his presidency” the Muslim Brotherhood would cease to exist. Whether that is political bravado or reality, time will tell. What is certain is what with such rhetoric the Sisi camp stands existentially opposed, on one mountain top, to two significantly smaller groups occupying opposite hill tops.
But is the mainstream of the Muslim Brotherhood camp any less guilty than its hyper-nationalist counterpart? On a typical day, if you follow the right accounts on social media, it will take you less than five minutes before you find gems such as “the slaves were raped” because they support “the coup junta”. You may ask yourself who the slaves in question are and the answer is the vast of majority of Egyptians who currently support the coup and Sisi. In case you were wondering, naturally, the Islamist camps are consistently referred to as the “free”. So the picture emerges and it is a mortifying one: both sides are actively dehumanising and demonising the other. No less crucially, the process facilitates the emotional detachment necessary to commit acts of violence that are brutal in nature. Once you devalue one party’s right to exist you are halfway to murder. Speak to otherwise intelligent Islamists and their sympathisers and attempt mentioning the notion that some in the camp are violent and you receive nothing but accusatory glances whether online or off.
Once the destructive dichotomy of the “slaves” and the free is established, the question rearing its ugly head is: how can there be dialogue and respect? Inescapably, the answer, at the very least, is that there can only be deep resentment on one end of the scale, escalating, in many cases, to outright hatred. When you add to the incendiary mix a suspicion of the state, you have incessant instability. From the perspective of a young MB supporter, whether male or female, the mainstream avenue of political channels has proven to be a mirage by virtue of the July 2013 coup. So they stand on the sidelines with very limited and ever darkening options: protests that are, by most accounts, dwindling in size or the prospects of various levels of radicalisation. In a very real sense, when the government sets up a construct where the Muslim Brotherhood are painted as terrorists and as prospects of political expression slowly decrease for an increasing number of MB youth, this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Lest we mistakenly think that the avenue of protest is a safe alternative for those wishing to bring about change or draw light to perceived injustice, there is the now infamous Protest Law, which has ensnared thousands in a draconian web. Any young Islamist daring to think of the Ghandi path of civil disobedience would be insane to do so under current circumstances of a police state that progressively bears its sharp teeth with each passing day. The resultant paradigm is one that keeps the MB camp on the jagged edge of a hilltop far removed from mainstream Egyptian society.
Our final stop on our tour of the Un-united Arab Republic of Egypt, naturally, takes us to the liberal/progressive camp. The term itself is used for the sake of linguistic economy and includes in its folds the ever shrinking 25 January “revolutionaries”. For better or worse, the governing discourse here is one that refuses what it perceives as the fascist dualities of the military and Islamist camps. With that as the starting point the notion of discourse is limited—at best. With rising prices of fuel, electricity, basic goods, topped by radical rises in price of cigarettes and alcohol, there is plenty to complain about. The very notion of protest itself along with self-expression, whether through TV, journalism or mere opposition in any form puts liberals on a crash course with the regime and its attendant, the deep state. Coupled with the fundamental unwillingness to forgive a largely unapologetic Islamist camp and the progressives find themselves between a military rock and an Islamist hard place.
It does not help matters that many revolutionary leading voices such as Alaa Abdel Fatah, Ahmed Maher, Mahienour El-Massry, Yara Sallam and Ahmed Adel are behind bars in a systematic attack by the state on opposition voices. Serving to further annihilate this minority are rampant sexual attacks on women, government attempts to control a growing segments of society labelled as atheists and recent attempts to silence activist Copt voices for any critiques levelled at the state and society at large. But progressives shoulder the blame as well. Since 25 January, historic opportunity has not been seized upon by, a largely, politically inexperienced and dishevelled revolutionary minority. And so it goes, with this third camp removed from its two counterparts the devolution into Egypt into the Un-united republic continues unabated.
In a world of few truths you can always count on conspiracy theories of external enemies seeking to destabilise Middle Eastern societies—but reality begs to differ. In Egypt’s case, the only conspiracy in play comes from within: “divided we fall” and divided we are. Until that modus operandi of the river of hate ceases to be a reality, Egypt will not cease its descent.
The writer is a freelance journalist recently published in Ahram Online , Mada Masr and Muftah