On Egypt, Islam and Liberalism

August 24, 2013

In Blog

El-Sisi’s reign of terror and the propaganda of ‘Fascism’

Discourses about the legitimacy of the interim government continue to obscure the reality on the ground, writes scholar.

Last Modified: 23 Aug 2013 15:19


Irfan Ahmad is a political anthropologist and a lecturer at Monash University, Australia.

“Does not history tell us that it is a totalitarian military regime such as El-Sisi’s which fuses the state and society so solidly that nothing substantially political remains in between?” Asks Ahmad [Al Jazeera]

How many monsoons will it take to wash the stains of macabre bloodbath engineered against the resolute pro-democracy protesters by General Abdel Fattah El-Sisi-led military regime? 

The bloodbath began publicly on July 8 when the army cold-bloodedly killed over 50 pro-democracy demonstrators staging a sit-in in front of the Republican Guard headquarters. On 27 July, at least 80 more were killed at Cairo’s Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque. On August 14 several hundreds of them were killed as the state’s brutal crackdown on peaceful anti-coup protesters began. On Friday, when they took to streets, several hundreds more were killed. 

Men in uniforms killed civilians resisting the coup everywhere –in streets, in makeshift camps, in mosques, in government vans, in police custody. Killings are shockingly becoming mere statistics –robbed off the very touch of life: bare deaths.

The wishy-washy condemnation of the bloodbath by the US, UK, France, Germany –the so-called international community –was at best futile because by not calling the usurpation of power by El-Sisi a coup d’état they had already bestowed a modicum of legitimacy on the military regime which enacted the bloodbath. It is plausible to say that in the absence of such legitimacy from the West the military junta would have acted differently vis-à-vis the pro-democracy demonstrators.  

Much of politics, especially in Western plutocracies, is arithmetic: politicians’ ratings by ‘independent’ media and candidates’ claims to increase or decrease certain percentages in budget allocations. In Egypt, people themselves were turned into arithmetic. On July 26, El-Sisi ordered Egyptians to give him an arithmetic mandate to stem ‘potential terrorism’. Those opposing El-Sisi resisted military’s arithmetic with a basic ethic: is a coup d’état legitimate and shouldn’t an elected President be ousted democratically? 

Manufacturing Terrorism and Fascism

On August 17, the military regime’s mention of ‘potential terrorism’ as the enemy became amply official with the press conference of Mustafa Hegazy, advisor to the ‘President’ Adly Mansour. As he began to speak in English, itself quite a statement about who his principal audience was, on the top left of the TV screen appeared a crisp phrase in English: ‘Egypt Fights Terrorism’. Obediently rehearsing Islamophobia, Hegazi mentioned ‘religious fascism’ and ‘theological fascism’ more than once to justify the brutality of the regime and hundreds of deaths it orchestrated. His attack on foreign media to suppress truth was indeed to hide the falsehood of the military regime he was paid to speak for. Hegazi’s press conference will go down in history as shameless propaganda, in some respects outsmarting even Goebbels’, in instituting lies and vilifying the Egyptians fighting for civil rights, freedom and democracy.  

Importantly, the pro-coup Egyptian media as well as the mainstream Western media like CNN continued to call the anti-coup demonstrators either pro-Morsi or Brotherhood supporters. The designation ‘Pro-Morsi’ personalised the issue without ever telling people the just cause they stood for. It also downplayed the fact that those participating in sit-ins were not just pro-Morsi supporters; they also included people unaffiliated with the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) but supporting democracy. The day the military launched its heinous crackdown, Cairo’s Ayesha Jadhav wrote an email: ‘I’m tired of hearing that only people in Rabaa al-Adawiya are either Pro-Morsi or MB. They are not. I have close friends and family who support democracy.’ 

Messages such as Jadhav’s never became the headlines of BBC which continued to depict pro-democracy protesters as MB men, not as supporters of Freedom and Justice Party (FJP). The continuous use of Brotherhood rather than FJP ensured that freedom and justice were the monopoly of liberal secularists like El-Baradie and Mohammed Aboul-Ghar.

Despite the repeated assertions by Waleed Haddad, MB spokesman, who the BBC interviewed after the crackdown, that FJP was fighting for ‘democracy’ and ‘democratic values’, the BBC never made democracy central to any of its reporting. Instead, it fashioned a narrative of terrorism. The BBC interviewed a Cairo woman who said that she felt ‘complete terror’ as a result of pro-democracy protests. The BBC anchor concurred with her as he repeated ‘complete terror’. 

Already on July 9, several weeks before the bloodbath, Frank GardnerBBC’s security correspondent, had published a piece ‘Is Egypt Heading for Holy War’? Devoid of evidence, it was less a description of events and more a prescription for future. Gardner never mentioned that anti-coup protesters fought for democracy. Splashed throughout his report instead were words like ‘jihadist’, ‘holy war’, ‘religiously-inspired violence’. Gardner also linked his report on Egypt’s ‘holy war’ with Libya, Yemen, and Iraq. 

Media’s attempts such as these aim at including Egypt in the ambit of global terrorism. That this terrorism is ‘Islamic’ need no mention because media and security industries have already rendered them as substitutes. This terrorism narrative, however, is similar to colonial narratives, both French and British, which in 19th century crafted a narrative of pan-Islamic ‘Wahhabism’ wherever they faced resistance to their brute rule even as those engaged in resistance in India, West Africa or North Africa did not necessarily call themselves Wahhabi. It was a colonial term to produce a seamless narrative to first create and define and subsequently vanquish the enemy. Domination works not simply through the policy of divide and rule; it equally works, as Mahmood Mamdani notes, through ‘define and rule’. 

Terror of the Military Regime

While media, both Egyptian and Western, and officials of military junta frantically circulate the fictitious stories of FJP’s so-called terrorism they are criminally silent about the terrorism of the military regime led by El-Sisi. Let’s not forget that various states and regimes throughout the world have practiced terror–for instance,Pinochet’s in Chile, Suharto’s in Indonesia and the regime of Pol Pot in Cambodia, not to speak of earlier colonial regimes. 

By regime terror I don’t simply mean the hundreds of people killed by Egypt’s security forces but the very suspension, in fact abolition, of politics –the ultimate terror. In the Press Conference Hegazy denied that the crisis in Egypt was ‘political’. He said: ‘We are facing …a terrorist war’ and we are united ‘against forces of terrorism and darkness’. Replying to a question about the ban on political parties, he came close to suggest that to fight terrorism Egyptian people themselves should be banned. Without mincing words, a spokesman of the ministry of defence proclaimed: ‘When dealing with terrorism, the consideration of civil and human rights are not applicable’. This state terror is already in full swing with the ongoing arrests of top leaders of FJP and Muslim Brotherhood with no effective voice raised against them, in Egypt as well as outside. 

While the dictator Hosni Mubarak who for decades throttled Egypt’s democracy stands released, the elected President Morsi remains in military custody with no one loudly saying that his illegal imprisonment is a disgrace to anyone with even a minimum respect for democracy. Shockingly, the illegal arrests of political activists such as Mohamed Badie are being paraded by the pro-coup media as achievements. Is it not the triumph of the state terror by virtue of its almost total control over most segments of society and media that a robust opposition voice gradually seems to be fading? Does not history tell us that it is a totalitarian military regime such as El-Sisi’s which fuses the state and society so solidly that nothing substantially political remains in between? 

The military regime’s terror is equally symbolic. Justifying the killings of Egyptians on  August 14, Hegazy yoked terrorism to fascism and both to protesters fighting for democracy. In the context of Egypt’s history, there was something a little odd about his use of the term fascism. In 1956, as President Gamal Abdul Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal the French press screamed that Nasser was a new Hitler. In British opinion too he was ‘another Mussolini’, ‘a mad dog’. Earlier, in 1939, Karl Barth had observed: ‘It is impossible to understand National Socialism unless we see it in fact as a new Islam, its myth as a new Allah, and Hitler as this new Allah’s prophet.’ The lack of historical depth in Hegazy’s understanding of fascism was compensated by the abundance of its Islamophobia which Hegazy photocopied from the West and which Egypt’s ‘liberal-secular’ elites also share.

Burning the Churches and Mosques of Democracy

An important weapon the El-Sisi’s regime used to demonstrate ‘fascism’ and justify its usurpation of power was the growing insecurity among the Coptic minority and burning of Churches. Undoubtedly those responsible for burning churches must be punished. However, a vital question remains unanswered: what did the army and police do when not one or two but dozens of churches were set on fire? Would not have even half of the surgical efficiency with which El-Sisi’s men killed the pro-democracy demonstrators saved many churches from vandalism and arson? Why were the military and police unwilling to respond to the callMichael Kastour, a Church member, and his father made to the security agencies while churches were being looted? Is not Kastour right in saying that the military allowed such ravaging so as to create evidence for terrorism? Hegazy’s press conference proved Kastour’s point as the former, rather than issuing any statement of action against the burning of churches, hurriedly referred to them as mere evidence to legitimise the coup. 

In the current climate, the relevant issue, therefore, is not just the burning of churches but the deployment of that vandalism by the military to terrorise the Coptic minority into supporting the military coup. If in Poland and many countries of Latin America Churches have historically served as motors of democratisation, centres of political dissent, and advocates of liberation theology, we ought to ask, what was the manufactured condition which compelled Pope Tawadros II, leader of the Coptic Church, to lend support to the coup? It would be sheer prejudice to say that since his followers are not like Western Protestants they don’t favour democracy. If Christianity inspired Martin Luther King to fight for civil rights and confront the racist power hierarchy, we should likewise ponder why a similar mobilisation by church in Egypt is currently less than evident. 

Allegedly, according to some reports, members of the El-Sisi’s regime also set mosques on fire. In mosques, so goes the military logic, were not partisans of democracy, but ‘terrorists’ and ‘fascists’.  Such logic is plainly pernicious. For millions, Islam is the motor and inspiration for democracy, freedom, civil rights and justice which liberal secularists either deliberately ignore or don’t sufficiently know about. Rather than forge a creative alliance with the democratic voices like Freedom and Justice Party, FJP, liberal secularists demonise them. Parties such as FJP don’t represent theocracy as liberal secularists allege. To begin with in Islam there is no overarching centralising authority often associated with medieval church. Yet soon after the military coup against President Mursi, Alon Ben-Meir of New York University resurrected the long, though boring, orientalist cliché  –Is Islam compatible with democracy? –popularised by Samuel Huntington in his clash of civilization thesis. Ben-Meir wrote: ‘Islam is inherently and by definition inconsistent with the separation of Church and state’. Is it not illogical, if not ridiculous, to lecture Muslims to separate religion from Church which, even an elementary student of religion knows, does not exist in Islam?

It is clear what purpose Ben-Meir’s question sought to serve: legitimise the rule of the military which indeed is the primary reason for the absence of democracy not just in Egypt but elsewhere too, including in non-Muslim polities. Thirteen years ago, in 2000, Alfred Stepan of Columbia University who has studied democratisation across continents made a stark observation which rings so true as we make sense of Egypt today: ‘…the greatest obstacle to democracy is posed not by Islam but by military and intelligence organisations unaccountable to democratic authority’. If they are serious about creating a healthy and democratic world, liberal secularists should soberly practice Stepan’s thoughtful observation.

The Egyptian liberals, uncritically beholden to the incorrect narrative of a ‘secular West’, should recall that during the long Cold War, the West, certainly the USA, rarely defined itself as ‘secular’. The non-religious Communist bloc was not just a threat to  capitalist ‘free world’ but ‘equally to Christian society as expressed in western bloc democratic nations’. In fact, free world and Christian civilisation were nearly the same. No less significantly, as Jose Casanova notes: ‘the initial project of a European Union was fundamentally a Christian?Democratic project, sanctioned by the Vatican’. My point is that the assumption of a ‘secular West’ is as much naïve and erroneous as the notion of a ‘theocratic’ Muslim Brotherhood.    

In distant past, for many liberals liberalism stood for checking the arbitrary power of the state in order to protect and enhance citizens’ political rights; in contrast, most contemporary liberal secularists –in West and Egypt alike –scream to increase and sanctify the arbitrary power of the state and curtail citizens’ liberties, even democratic politics. By not endorsing the forces and voices of democratisation such as those of Freedom and Justice Party liberal secularists display, if unwittingly, their deep complicity with authoritarianism, uncivil rule and neo-imperial hegemony. How else can one understand the unstinted support to Egypt’s military regime instituted in the name of liberalism and secularism by such anti-democratic, royalist and monarchist regimes as Saudi Arabia and UAE which use Islam to serve their patriarchal families’ rule?


Irfan Ahmad is a political anthropologist and a senior lecturer at Monash University, Australia and author of Islamism and Democracy in India: The Transformation of Jamaat-e-Islami (Princeton University Press, 2009) which was short-listed for the 2011 International Convention of Asian Scholars Book Prize for the best study in the field of Social Sciences. Currently, he is finishing a book manuscript on theory and practice of critique in modernity and Islamic tradition.


y political remains in between?” Asks Ahmad

Irfan Ahmad, Ph.D.
Senior Lecturer
School of Political and Social Inquiry
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