Egypt’s Brotherhood, Sisi both put out feelers for reconciliation

Abdelrahman Youssef writes: The word “reconciliation” has been dominating the Egyptian political scene for almost two weeks. Talk has revolved around the future of the relationship between the regime and the Muslim Brotherhood, which is facing the worst crackdown since its establishment.

Political discussions in Egypt are not what brought about this prevalent idea; rather, it emerged due to a number of coalesced factors, notably the statement of Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Minister Magdy al-Agaty, who said in an interview, “We can reconcile with a member of the Brotherhood as long as his hands are not stained with blood. [Brotherhood members] are Egyptians in the first place. Why don’t we make peace with them and integrate them into the fabric of the Egyptian people if they did not commit any crime?”

However, it was not long before this controversial issue came to the surface again when Mohamed Fayek, head of the National Council for Human Rights, said July 3, “There will be a presidential pardon soon for all the detained young people who were not involved in armed activities.” [Continue reading…]

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Is Egypt becoming a republic of fear?

 

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Three years after the coup, lessons still unlearned from Egypt’s tragedy

Abdullah Al-Arian writes: Had it been allowed to continue, last Thursday would have seen Mohamed Morsi’s four-year term as president of a post-authoritarian Egypt draw to a close. Instead, last week marked the third anniversary of Morsi’s forced removal by a military coup that has reimposed a perpetual dictatorship upon 90 million citizens.

The calamity of Egypt continues to unfold daily, with mounting human rights abuses, stifling of dissent, widespread corruption, economic crisis, and the consolidation of power in the hands of a new authoritarian ruler, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

All of Egypt’s independent political forces acknowledge that the country’s dismal state represents a betrayal of the revolutionary movement launched in 2011. But for all of the talk that the embers of Egypt’s revolution continue to burn, however dimly, there can be no revival of that moment without a genuine appraisal of the events of 30 June, 2013 and their consequences. [Continue reading…]

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Egyptian court sentences two Al Jazeera employees to death

The Associated Press reports: An Egyptian court on Saturday sentenced six people, including two Al-Jazeera employees, to death for allegedly passing documents related to national security to Qatar and the Doha-based TV network during the rule of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi.

Morsi, the top defendant, and two of his aides were sentenced to 25 years in prison for membership in the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood group but were acquitted of espionage, a capital offense. Morsi and his secretary, Amin el-Sirafy, each received an additional 15-year sentence for leaking official documents. El-Sirafy’s daughter, Karima, was also sentenced to 15 years on the same charge.

Morsi, Egypt’s first freely elected leader, was ousted by the military in July 2013 and has already been sentenced to death in another case. That death sentence and another two – life and 20 years in prison – are under appeal. The Brotherhood was banned and declared a terrorist organization after his ouster. Khalid Radwan, a producer at a Brotherhood-linked TV channel, received a 15-year prison sentence. [Continue reading…]

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The meaningless politics of liberal democracies

Emma Green writes: Ben Affleck has become an unlikely spokesman for a view on Islam held by many on the American left. In 2014, the actor made a now-famous stand against Bill Maher and Sam Harris in defense of Muslims, arguing that it’s wrong to make generalizations about the religion based on ideological extremists and terrorists. “How about the more than 1 billion people who aren’t fanatical, who don’t punch women, who just want to go to school, have some sandwiches, and pray five times a day?” he said.

In his new book Islamic Exceptionalism, Shadi Hamid — an Atlantic contributor, a scholar at Brookings, and a self-identified liberal — calls Affleck’s declaration a “well-intentioned … red herring.” Islam really is different from other religions, he says, and many Muslims view politics, theocracy, and violence differently than do Christians, Jews, or non-religious people in Europe and the United States.

Perhaps his most provocative claim is this: History will not necessarily favor the secular, liberal democracies of the West. Hamid does not believe all countries will inevitably follow a path from revolution to rational Enlightenment and non-theocratic government, nor should they. There are some basic arguments for this: Islam is growing, and in some majority-Muslim nations, huge numbers of citizens believe Islamic law should be upheld by the state. But Hamid also thinks there’s something lacking in Western democracies, that there’s a sense of overarching meaninglessness in political and cultural life in these countries that can help explain why a young Muslim who grew up in the U.K. might feel drawn to martyrdom, for example. This is not a dismissal of democracy, nor does it comprehensively explain the phenomenon of jihadism. Rather, it’s a note of skepticism about the promise of secular democracy — and the wisdom of pushing that model on other cultures and regions.

Most Islamists — people who, in his words, “believe Islam or Islamic law should play a central role in political life” — are not terrorists. But the meaning they find in religion, Hamid said, helps explain their vision of governance, and it’s one that can seem incomprehensible to people who live in liberal democracies.

I spoke with Hamid recently about Islamism, ISIS, and the “patronizing” assumptions Americans sometimes make about Islam. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity. [Continue reading…]

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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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