Rethinking language: ‘Islamism’ as a dirty word

Jonathan Brown writes: Much depends on whether one thinks “Islamism” is a dirty word. This is true for policymakers in the West and leaders in the Muslim world alike. As with the moniker “The Muslim Brotherhood,” the word “Islamism” is thrown about loosely and clumsily because it is an amorphous and contested term that reflects the worldview (perhaps deepest fears?) of whoever is using it more than any fixed reality. Those who are suspicious of “Islamism” almost always imagine it, along with “The Muslim Brotherhood,” to be some durable transnational network, uniform in its most threatening characteristics wherever it appears.

Yet what was true before the Arab Spring, and what has emerged as even truer since its dismal failure, is that “Islamism” is local in both its shape and appeal. Analysis of Islamist movements continues, very sensibly, to be carried out on a country-by-country basis. This is because it is the ecosystem of the nation-state that continues to play the dominant role in shaping events. Elements of that system include the particular response of a government to Islamist opposition (Morocco’s accommodation of Islamist parties early on in the Arab Spring vs. Egypt’s return to Nasserist liquidation); the particular historical space for political involvement in a country (Kuwait’s relatively open political discourse versus Saudi Arabia’s closed discussions); the particular history of Islamist movements in that country (the Jordanian Brotherhood’s decades of subdued democratic activity versus Yemen’s Islah and its involvement in Yemen’s civil wars); or the impact of foreign policy considerations (for example, how the nationalist-cum-sectarian threat of Iran can trump Saudi Islamists’ objections).

Since the Arab Spring, Islamists, already nationally bound, have remained so. As Steven Brooke notes in his contribution to Brookings’s Rethinking Political Islam initiative: “A defining characteristic of Islamist groups has been their fundamental accommodation to the existence of current states.” He goes on to describe how “Islamist groups participated in political systems, adopted national discourses, and largely subjugated their activism to regime laws.” It is worth noting that this is essentially what distinguishes Jihadists from Islamists. Jihadists are those Muslim actors whose acts of violence proceed from their no longer considering themselves subject either to the regimes controlling the land in which they live or to the monopoly (and hence, accountability) of states on the use of violence.

A great irony since the Arab Spring has been that the truly transnational factors have not been “Islamism” but rather the clumsy and horribly damaging responses by numerous Arab regimes to its perceived threat. [Continue reading…]

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Sisi’s stature melting away

David Hearst writes: President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has been burning the candle at both ends. Having burned his way through Egypt’s largest political party, the Muslim Brotherhood, Sisi went on to give secular liberals who supported his coup against Mohamed Morsi the same treatment: imprisonment, torture or banishment. A significant part of Egypt’s political and intellectual elite is now in exile. He has one source of legitimacy left – the international community. This week, he’s been burning his way through that.

Sisi’s week should have started on a high – the visit of the Saudi King Salman. After all the tension between the two countries (at the time of Salman’s succession, the pro-Sisi media declared the then crown prince not fit for office) and after all the reports of money from Saudi drying up, this should have been an occasion to silence all doubters: Salman was investing $22bn in Egypt. The Egyptian presidency described Salman’s visit as “crowning the close brotherly ties between the two countries.”

Salman’s visit had been much hyped, as indeed Sisi’s visit to Britain was in November last year. Sisi expected each to be a breakthrough of its kind. And yet during his visit to London, Cameron cancelled all British flights to Egypt as a result of the downing of a Russian airliner over Sinai, sounding the death knell of the Egyptian tourist industry. A similar disaster awaited Sisi in Salman’s visit. [Continue reading…]

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Leahy asked State Dept. to investigate Israel and Egypt’s human rights ‘violations’

Politico reports: Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and 10 House members have asked the Obama administration to investigate claims that the Israeli and Egyptian security forces have committed “gross violations of human rights” — allegations that if proven truei could affect U.S. military aid to the countries.

In a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry dated Feb. 17, the lawmakers list several examples of suspected human rights abuses, including reports of extrajudicial killings by Israeli and Egyptian military forces, as well as forced disappearances in Egypt. The letter also points to the 2013 massacre in Egypt’s Rab’aa Square, which left nearly 1,000 people dead as the military cracked down on protesters, as worthy of examination.

Leahy’s signature is particularly noteworthy because his name is on a law that conditions U.S. military aid to countries on whether their security forces are committing abuses. [Continue reading…]

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The failure of Egypt’s democratic transition was not inevitable

Tahrir_Square

Michael Wahid Hanna writes: The fifth anniversary of the 2011 Egyptian uprising has produced an oddly structuralist set of reflections in which the failure of its democratic transition has taken on an almost foreordained quality. Influential political science interpretations of the Egyptian uprising’s failure have focused analytical attention on structural factors, such as the role of a politicized and overreaching military, the uneven balance of power between the Muslim Brotherhood and its non-Islamist competitors, the former regime’s political structure and the weakness of transitional institutions.

Structure matters, of course. But so does agency. Overly structural interpretations miss the decisive impact of highly contingent events, deflects responsibility from the political actors whose choices drove the transition off course and can lead to unwarranted skepticism about the possibility of meaningful political change.

Egypt’s transition to a legitimate, civilian-led political order after the popular mobilization of January 2011 always faced long odds, but the failure of the transition was never inevitable. Structural explanations of the July 2013 military coup gloss over the fear and uncertainty that shaped political decision-making over the previous two years. The political openings of 2011 were real and potentially transformative and could have provided a platform for slow but sustainable change. Structural analysis should not become an excuse for political malpractice or an analytical surrender to the necessity of autocracy. Different decisions by key political actors such as the military, the Muslim Brotherhood and the National Salvation Front could have shaped a very different political environment. [Continue reading…]

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Egypt’s president turns to religion to bolster his authority

The New York Times reports: When President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi opened a much-heralded extension to the Suez Canal in August, the official Friday Prayer sermon that week hailed it as a “gift from God.”

When Egyptian voters elected a new Parliament in December, a preacher on state TV urged its members to “obey those in authority, specifically the highest authority,” and referred indirectly to Mr. Sisi as “God’s shadow on earth.”

And when a Russian airplane leaving the Sharm el Sheik resort crashed in the Sinai Desert in October, killing 224 people and crippling Egyptian tourism, the Ministry of Religious Endowments encouraged clerics to vacation at the deserted resort — notable because many observant Muslims here view it as a sinful fleshpot.

Fears of Islamist rule helped propel Mr. Sisi, then a military general, to power in 2013 following giant protests that led to the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood government. But as Mr. Sisi wrestles with militant attacks and a struggling economy, he has increasingly turned to religion to bolster his authority and justify a crackdown on his rivals. [Continue reading…]

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Where is the outrage on David Cameron’s scandal in the Gulf?

Nicholas McGeehan writes: Whether it’s ‘cash for questions’ or ‘homes for votes’, there is often a tawdry quid pro quo at the heart of a good British political scandal. So it’s worth asking why there has not been more public outrage about explosive revelations that David Cameron was offered lucrative arms and oil deals for British businesses if he helped reign in the Muslim Brotherhood’s activities in the UK.

Leaked emails obtained by The Guardian revealed that in June 2012 the United Arab Emirates tried to influence the UK to take steps against the Muslim Brotherhood in return for keeping or getting lucrative contracts. The emails suggest that the UAE government is supremely confident of its ability to influence British policy, which in turn begs the wider question as to what the UK’s priorities are in the UAE, and the rest of the Gulf.

In 2013, during a Foreign Affairs Committee inquiry into the UK’s relationship with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, MP Rory Stewart quite reasonably asked whether there is any proof that the UK can exert a positive influence over its foreign allies, where governance and the rule of law are concerned. Increasingly, the behaviour of the UK suggests that a more pertinent question is whether the UK’s Gulf policy is actually strengthening repression and emboldening authoritarian rulers in the region. [Continue reading…]

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ISIS recruitment thrives in Egypt’s brutal prisons

Murtaza Hussain reports: While in jail [in Cairo], [Mohamed] Soltan [a 26-year-old citizen of both Egypt and America] says he witnessed the recruitment efforts of Islamic State members. “There were people from across the spectrum of Egyptian society in jail: liberals, Muslim Brotherhood members, leftists, Salafis, and some people who had pledged allegiance to ISIS,” Soltan says. “Everyone felt depressed and betrayed, except for the ISIS guys. They walked around with this victorious air and had this patronizing and condescending attitude towards everyone else.”

Among the facilities in which Soltan was incarcerated was the notorious Tora Prison, where he was kept in an underground dungeon with dozens of other prisoners. Between regular beatings, humiliation, and torture by guards, the prisoners would talk to one another. In this grim environment, ISIS members would attempt to convince others of the justice of their cause. “The ISIS guys would come and tell everyone these nonviolent means don’t work, that Western countries only care about power and the Egyptian regime only understands force,” Soltan says. “They would say that the world didn’t respect you enough to think you deserve democracy, and now the man who killed your friends is shaking hands with international leaders who are all arming and funding his regime.”

While the other political factions represented in Egypt’s jails grappled with a seemingly hopeless situation, Islamic State members were consistently filled with hope and optimism, citing a steady stream of “good news” about their state-building project in Iraq, Syria and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, Soltan says.

When the prisoners would discuss their circumstances, even avowed leftists found themselves unable to rebut Islamic State members’ arguments. “They would make very simple arguments telling us that the world doesn’t care about values and only understands violence,” says Soltan. “Because of the gravity of the situation they were all in, by the time the ISIS guys were finished speaking, everyone, the liberals, the Brotherhood people, would be left completely speechless. When you’re in that type of situation and don’t have many options left, for some people these kinds of ideas start to make sense.” [Continue reading…]

The headline for this article in The Intercept reads: “ISIS RECRUITMENT THRIVES IN BRUTAL PRISONS RUN BY U.S.-BACKED EGYPT” — as though the phrase “U.S.-backed” is the only reliable hook for the publication’s readers.

Yes, the fact that the Obama administration continues to provide military aid to the Sisi regime in spite of its appalling human rights record is inexcusable. What this otherwise excellent report neglects to mention, however, is that Sisi’s most generous supporters been Gulf states — driven by their fear of the Muslim Brotherhood.

And while the U.S. has a terrible track record in supporting authoritarian rule across the Middle East, blame for the stifling of representative government needs to be apportioned more widely, including the roles played by Russia, Iran, the UK, and other European powers.

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Egypt ‘growing more unstable by the day’

Middle East Eye reports: After a series of crises over the past few weeks, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi’s government has come under deep domestic and international criticism for repression and inadequacy.

As widespread flooding in Alexandria has brought pressure upon Sisi domestically, his government has drawn global condemnation for its repression of journalists, so soon after his visit to the UK.

At the same time, and only a few weeks after a group of eight Mexican tourists were killed in the Egyptian desert, a Russian plane crashed in Sharm el-Sheikh killing all 224 passengers on board. The incident, suspected to be the result of a terrorist act, has raised questions about Egypt’s ability to maintain domestic security and provide the West a dependable regional partner.

This series of calamities has led to speculation among observers about whether President Sisi’s time in power may be slowly coming to an end.

Political analysts and observers have commented on the increasing instability in the country, saying that the crises highlight the government’s inability to deal with a wave of issues.

“Egypt, which was already unstable, is growing more unstable by the day,” said Shadi Hamid, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “This isn’t surprising.”

“It’s one crisis after another and the Sisi regime has only one response: maximise state power, deny responsibility, and force the media to stay quiet.” [Continue reading…]

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State repression and the U.S. role in Sissi’s Egypt

Shadi Hamid writes: I was in Egypt for two of the most important political moments of the Arab Spring: the day President Hosni Mubarak fell on February 11, 2011 and then the lead-up to the Rabaa massacre of August 14, 2013, which Human Rights Watch has called “the worst mass killing in modern Egyptian history.” These two moments serve as appropriate bookends for understanding the recent trajectory of Egyptian politics.

February 11, 2011 was one of those once-in-a-lifetime moments. That night, I overheard an Egyptian woman telling her friend: “I’ve never seen Egyptians so happy in my life.” Neither had I. During those eighteen whirlwind days of protest in Tahrir Square, Islamists, liberals, and leftists fought and died together. They saved each other’s lives. This remarkably diverse movement of secularists, socialists, Muslim Brothers, Salafis, and hardcore soccer fans were drawn together by what they opposed. But if this was the opposition’s most impressive moment of unity, it would also prove to be one of the last. This wasn’t the end of ideology, as some had hoped, but the beginning of a long-running cold – and sometimes hot – war, with questions of religion and identity at its center.

President Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood’s one year in power further polarized an already polarized country, pitting Islamists against non-Islamists in what was increasingly perceived, at least by liberal and secular elites, as an existential battle over the meaning, purpose, and nature of the Egyptian state. This was the context in which the military moved to oust Morsi on July 3, 2013. In the days leading up to the Rabaa massacre, a significant segment of the population cheered on the repression, encouraged by the nearly nonstop demonization of the Brotherhood in the state and private media.

I should say from the outset that the question here is not whether the Brotherhood was any good at governing. It wasn’t. President Morsi and Brotherhood officials failed to govern inclusively, managing to alienate old and new allies alike. They showed favoritism toward Islamist-aligned groups, harassed or threatened prominent opposition voices, and detained secular activists such as April 6th Movement co-founder Ahmed Maher. Reasonable people can disagree on what exactly happened and didn’t happen during Morsi’s short tenure in power. But the very real sins of the Morsi government – and the general illiberalism of the Brotherhood – have nothing to do with whether we, as Americans, should turn a blind eye to the unprecedented levels of violence and repression that have followed Morsi’s removal from power. Importantly, this campaign of repression has targeted not just Muslim Brotherhood members but also liberal, socialist, secular revolutionary activists as well as respected civil society organizations which have dared to speak out against the regime’s policies. [Continue reading…]

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UAE threatened UK: Crack down on Muslim Brotherhood or lose arms deals

The Guardian reports: The United Arab Emirates threatened to block billion-pound arms deals with the UK, stop inward investment and cut intelligence cooperation if David Cameron did not act against the Muslim Brotherhood, the Guardian has learned.

Internal UAE government documents seen by the Guardian show that the crown prince of Abu Dhabi was briefed to complain to the prime minister about the Muslim Brotherhood in June 2012, when one of its leading members, Mohamed Morsi, became Egyptian president.

In the briefing notes it was suggested that the crown prince demand Cameron rein in BBC coverage.

In return, Cameron was to be offered lucrative arms and oil deals for British business which would have generated billions of pounds for the jet divisions of BAE Systems and allowed BP to bid to drill for hydrocarbons in the Gulf.

A second set of papers from 2014 reveal that the UK’s ambassador to the UAE was warned by Khaldoon al-Mubarak – best known in Britain as chairman of Manchester City football club but also the right-hand man of the crown prince – that the UAE was still unhappy and that a “red flag” had been raised about the British government’s indifference to the Brotherhood’s operation.

The warning delivered to Dominic Jermey said the trust between the two nations “has been challenged due to the UK position towards the Muslim Brotherhood” because “our ally is not seeing it as we do: an existential threat not just to the UAE but to the region”. [Continue reading…]

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Islamism, the Arab Spring, and the failure of America’s do-nothing policy in the Middle East

Shadi Hamid writes: In the years leading up to the Arab Spring, Islamist parties developed something of an obsession with the role of Western powers in supporting democracy in the Arab world — or, more likely, not supporting it. Islamists were fighting on two fronts: not just repressive regimes, but their international backers as well. The ghosts of Algeria lingered. In January 1992, Algeria’s largest Islamist party, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), found itself on the brink of an historic election victory — prompting fears that the military was preparing to move against the Islamists. In the tense days that followed, FIS leader Abdelkader Hachani addressed a crowd of supporters. “Victory is more dangerous than defeat,” he warned, urging them to exercise restraint to avoid giving the army a pretext for intervention. But it was too late. The staunchly secular military aborted the elections, launching a massive crackdown and plunging Algeria into a civil war that would claim more than 100,000 lives.

That authoritarian regimes and activist militaries could count on American and European acquiescence (or even support) — as they did in 1992 — made Arab regimes seem more durable than they actually were, and the task of unseating them more daunting. During the first and forgotten Arab Spring of 2004-5, Algeria repeatedly came up in my interviews with Muslim Brotherhood leaders in Egypt and Jordan. Perhaps over-learning the lessons of the past, Islamist parties across the region, despite their growing popularity, were careful and cautious. They made a habit of losing elections. In fact, they lost them on purpose. This ambivalence and even aversion to power prevented Islamists from playing the role that opposition parties are generally expected to play. It was better to wait, and so they did.

It’s been almost five years since the start of the Arab Spring, but one conversation still stands out to me, despite (or perhaps because of) everything that’s happened since. Just two months before the uprisings began, Egypt was experiencing what, at the time, seemed like an especially hopeless period. I was in the country for November elections that proved to be the most fraudulent in Egyptian history. After winning an unprecedented 88 seats in parliament in 2005, the Muslim Brotherhood wasn’t permitted by Hosni Mubarak’s regime to claim even one seat. But this movement, the mother of all Islamist movements, accepted its fate in stride. “The regimes won’t let us take power,” Hamdi Hassan, the head of the Brotherhood’s parliamentary bloc, told me during that doomed election campaign. What was the solution, then? I asked him. “The solution is in the ‘Brotherhood approach.’ We focus on the individual, then the family, then society.”

“In the lifespan of mankind, 80 years isn’t long,” he reasoned, referring to the time that had passed since the Brotherhood’s founding. “It’s like eight seconds.” [Continue reading…]

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What most people get wrong about political Islam

Shadi Hamid writes: Political scientists, myself included, have tended to see religion, ideology, and identity as “epiphenomenal” — products of a given set of material factors. These factors are the things we can touch, grasp, and measure. For example, when explaining why suicide bombers do what they do, we assume that these young men are depressed about their own accumulated failures, frustrated with a dire economic situation, or humiliated by political repression and foreign occupation. While these are all undoubtedly factors, they are not — and cannot be — the whole story.

But the role, and power, of religion in the modern Middle East is more mundane than that (after all, the overwhelming majority of Muslims do not think about becoming suicide bombers). “Islamism” has become a bad word, because the Islamists we hear about most often are those of ISIS and al-Qaeda. Most Islamists, however, are not jihadists or extremists; they are members of mainstream Islamist movements like the Muslim Brotherhood whose distinguishing feature is their gradualism (historically eschewing revolution), acceptance of parliamentary politics, and willingness to work within existing state structures, even secular ones. Contrary to popular imagination, Islamists do not necessarily harken back to seventh century Arabia.

Why do Islamists become Islamists? There are any number of reasons, and each Brotherhood member has his or her own conversion story or “born-again” moment. As one Brotherhood member would often remind me, many join the movement so that they can “get into heaven.” To dismiss such pronouncements as irrational bouts of fancy is tempting. But, if you look at it another way, what could be more rational than wanting eternal salvation?

Islamists aren’t just acting for this world, but also for the next. Muslim Brotherhood and Brotherhood-inspired organizations aim to strengthen the religious character of individuals through a multi-tiered membership system and an educational process with a structured curriculum. Each brother is part of a “family,” usually consisting of 5 to 10 members, which meets on a weekly basis to read and discuss religious texts. For many members, it is quite simple and straightforward. Being a part of the Brotherhood helps them to obey God and become better Muslims, which, in turn, increases the likelihood of entry into paradise. This belief doesn’t mean that these more spiritually-focused members don’t care about politics; but they may see political action — whether running for a municipal council seat or joining a mass protest — as just another way of serving God. [Continue reading…]

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Cairo bomb: Sisi’s Egypt is less secure than ever

By Lucia Ardovini, Lancaster University and Simon Mabon, Lancaster University

When a car bomb detonated outside a security building in Cairo on August 20 it marked a new turn in the long-running series of violent attacks on the Egyptian capital. The explosion wounded approximately 27 people, six of whom are policemen, but there appear to have been no deaths.

The attack has been claimed by a group calling itself the Sinai Province (SP) which is affiliated to Islamic State (IS). SP has stated that the bomb was in response to the execution of six of its members accused of a similar attack in Cairo last year. Though there were no deaths this time, the quickening rate of such attacks shows that al-Sisi’s measures against terrorism have been grossly ineffective.

This bomb is in fact the latest of a long series of violent attacks that focus particularly on Egyptian police and security forces, which since 2013 have gradually moved from the Sinai province to the country’s capital.

Most of these recent blasts have been claimed by the Islamist militant group Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis based in the Sinai desert, which also identifies itself as a branch of IS under the name Sinai Peninsula (SP).

This unprecedented attack speaks to the explosive growth of Egypt’s array of insurgent forces and their violent opposition to al-Sisi, which the state’s authoritarian security measures have failed to curb.

[Read more…]

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Egypt’s Rabaa massacre: The political impact

Omar Ashour writes: “His leg is broken. I cannot leave him here,” said a doctor in makeshift hospital in Rabaa al-Adawiya square to a special forces officer.

“Don’t worry. I will break his heart,” replied the officer before putting a bullet in the injured protester’s chest.

The surreal brutally was just a tiny part of what happened in what Human Rights Watch called the ” worst mass unlawful killings in Egypt’s modern history” and “a likely crime against humanity.”

After several national security meetings in July and August of 2013, a group of military, intelligence, police generals and civilian politicians appointed by the military, decided to storm massive sit-ins in Cairo’s Rabaa and Giza’s Nahda squares protesting against the removal of Egypt’s first-ever freely elected president on July 3, 2013.

The exact death toll of the crackdown is still unknown.

This is partly due to the nature of the current political climate and the hurdles imposed by the ruling regime on collecting data about the massacres.

But this is also due to other factors, such as burned dead bodies and fears of victims’ families of going to the morgues or hospitals.

Following the massacre, the health ministry claimed that over 600 people were killed.

The Muslim Brotherhood maintained the death toll was over 2,500.

Human Rights Watch estimated the death toll to be over 1,000.

And everything happened in less than 10 hours. [Continue reading…]

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Younger Muslim Brotherhood members in Egypt bridle at nonviolent stance

The New York Times reports: A veteran leader of the Muslim Brotherhood was so alarmed by the rising calls for violence from the group’s youth that he risked arrest to urge the movement to stay peaceful.

Already hunted by the police for his role in a banned organization when he released his online manifesto in May, the leader, Mahmoud Ghuzlan, conceded that shunning violence in the face of the government crackdown on the Brotherhood was “like grasping a burning coal.” But, he said, history taught that “peacefulness is stronger than weapons, and violence is the reason for defeat and demise.”

It was a losing argument, or so it now appears. The police in Cairo soon found and arrested him. A chorus of Islamists mocked him on social media as naïve, unrealistic and hypocritical.

And his manifesto for “peacefulness” was quickly drowned out by official statements that have come closer to endorsing violence than anything the organization has said or done in more than four decades — an ominous turn for both Egypt and the West. Not only is the Brotherhood Egypt’s largest political organization, its long history gives it unique influence among Islamists beyond the Middle East to Europe, North America and elsewhere. [Continue reading…]

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