Since the resignation of former president Hosni Mubarak in 2011, Egypt has experienced significant turmoil, from temporary rule by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to the military coup that led to the election of current president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
Posts Tagged ‘Egypt’
A few weeks after the ouster of Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi in 2013, the New York Times ran this headline: “Egyptian Liberals Embrace the Military, Brooking No Dissent.” The accompanying photograph showed a man with a full beard and shaved moustache in the Salafi style, a prominent prayer mark (a “raisin” in the Egyptian vernacular) on his forehead. Behind the man is a wallpaper of Muslim pilgrims circumambulating the Kaaba in Mecca. A framed portrait of then-general and coup master Abdel Fattah el-Sisi leans against beige tiles stickered with several Qur’anic verses. The headline limits the military’s support base to (secular) liberals, while the image shows us it actually extends beyond this narrow stratum.
Perhaps the most pertinent question to be asked of Egypt’s revolutionary/counter-revolutionary process in the past three years is this: how can we properly diagnose the persistent incongruity between the slogan of the 2011 revolution—“bread, freedom, and social justice”—and the failures of all political entities in Egypt to achieve them? These entities include the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), a transitional military regime that assumed power directly after the revolution (February 2011–June 2012); the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (June 2012–July 2013); and now, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s new presidency and the immediately preceding civilian regime installed under his military command (July 2013–May 2014). In other words, how and why has every organized entity in Egypt since January 2011 failed to meet the basic demands of the revolution?
Carl Becker was right in his assessment of great events: they have an ability to create a new normal language of profound significance. Each era has few words that epitomize its worldview. The Arab Spring has been a momentous event of profound significance, but the systematic hampering of ideas into pre-packaged catalogs of binary grouping, as reflected in Mohamad Elmasry’s comment on my reflection on Egypt, has been a major obstacle in revealing the creative ideas of this unique event. This response is to transcend the binary framework in both Dr. Elmasry’s readings of Egypt and the wider discourse regarding the Arab Spring.
My reflection concerns ideas, not groups. Elmasry’s version of the story is the opposite. This is the dividing line between our two viewpoints. Both could be right in their incommensurable paths. As such, there is a conceptual trap in responding to his binary framing of the story. Since his version is a litany of claims for and against the Muslim Brotherhood, a response to them will by default put me in the opposite camp, which I abstain to join.
What role do divine interventions play in Egypt’s current political climate? Is Abdel Fattah el-Sisi a Sufi? Is the Muslim Brotherhood anti-Sufi? To understand the interplay of religion and politics in Egypt today, it is not enough to pay attention to political parties, constitutions, and political slogans. We need to also look at how the invisible and the divine are invoked in the public sphere. The belief in divine interventions, divinely inspired dreams and visions, and direct contact with the prophet Muhammad and his saintly descendants is often associated with Sufism. In recent months, however, dreams and visions have also figured in the supposedly moderate, liberal, secular Sisi camp and in the supposedly Islamist Muslim Brotherhood camp.
The ouster of Mohamed Morsi involved a dispute over legitimacy—what gave the Egyptian president the right to remain in power? Despite the arguments of some commentators to the contrary, Morsi’s claim to legitimacy was based in democratic norms, not religious ones.
An earlier article, “Egypt and the elusiveness of shar’iyyah,” published at The Immanent Frame, contains several problematic assumptions, which lead the author, Mbaye Lo, to a series of equally problematic conclusions. Lo suggests that former Egyptian president Morsi claimed legitimacy on religious grounds rather than democratic grounds and that Islamists could not be trusted to respect Egypt’s democratic process. Lo also seems to uncritically accept claims made about the Muslim Brotherhood by some of Egypt’s political liberals.
Political legitimacy in the Arab world has often been derived from Islam. Both sharia (Islamic law) and shar’iyyah (legal, legality and legitimacy) derive from the same root word, prompting traditional Muslim scholars to argue that political legitimacy is only valid when legitimized by sharia. This explains why Mohamed Morsi’s supporters during the June 2013 conflict were identifying themselves as the camps of shar’iyyah and sharia.
The word shar’iyyah has a remarkable presence in Morsi’s public speeches. He was dedicated to its retention and faithful to its application through his last stand against the Tamarod movement that led the campaign to topple him on July 3, 2013. Shar’iyyah appears more than 70 times in Morsi’s final address to the Egyptian people, which has become known as khitabu al shar’iyyah, “the legitimacy speech.” The pro-Morsi movement opposing the current regime is known as the National Alliance for shar’iyyah. Morsi’s online legacy—whether defending him or mocking his deposed government—has also been constructed around shar’iyyah. Morsi’s critics have accused him of reducing democracy to a notion of legitimacy that relies on electoral procedures but does not necessarily guarantee a process of political pluralism.
In the following essay I would like to offer three observations about the use of religion in politics in Egypt in the aftermath of the ousting of president Mohamed Morsi, and about the Muslim Brotherhood (MB)—the oldest and most important Islamic organization in Egypt—particularly on how the group became targeted by the current military government in Egypt.
Field Marshal Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is the new Nasser, according to many Egyptians. The image of the military strong man currently leading Egypt is frequently put beside the picture of Gamal Abdel Nasser, who led a group of younger military officers in taking control of Egypt in 1952. The new government presents itself as saving Egypt from the religious fanaticism of the Muslim Brotherhood, just as Nasser liberated Egypt from imperialists and conservative forces. Since many secularists and self-identified liberals supported Sisi’s takeover of the government in July 2013, the subsequent political conflicts can appear to be a continuation of the battles between advocates of a secular modern polity and religious fundamentalists. However, viewing the current turmoil as being basically a conflict between religious and secular forces in the public arena can lead to conclusions that make real conflict resolutions more difficult. “Secular” versus “religious” is not the major battle. The goals of the protesters have been more basic: to gain control over their lives through improved economic opportunity and freedom from the surveillance and control of a dominating police state, whether that state is secular or religious.
Shortly after the late Omar Suleiman, the Hosni Mubarak era head of Egypt’s military intelligence, had been appointed vice president in a belated attempt to appease Egyptian protesters, he gave an infamous interview to Christiane Amanpour, in which he declared that the Egyptian people were not ready for democracy. While his remarks were rightly dismissed at the time as a self-serving declaration intended to justify why the regime was not moving faster to respond to the demands of the protesters, it certainly invites one to ask why Egyptians have had such a difficult time building a viable democracy. A popular theory, invoked by many Egyptian liberal democrats and supported by the military’s ouster of Egypt’s first democratically elected President, Mohamed Morsi, is that there exists a fundamental incompatibility between Islamist politics and democracy, or at least between the Islamist politics of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and democratic politics. (Ironically, that was precisely one of Suleiman’s claims in that interview—that elections would only empower what he derisively called the “Islamic current.”)
For the past few years, much of the scholarly literature on Islamist movements has danced around the “participation/ moderation” idea: that participation in democratic politics tends to moderate the ideology and positions of Islamists. I choose my term deliberately. When I say “danced around” I do not mean that scholars have endorsed its automatic applicability; far from it. Most have eschewed the vague term “moderation,” but even those who have used it have tried to give it specificity. And they have noted that the “participation” in question has generally been in non-democratic systems, so that a generalization culled from scholarship on political party behavior in democratic electoral systems (one that has plenty of qualifications and exceptions attached) is unlikely to be transferable to elections in which the existing regime will not allow itself to lose.
On July 3, 2013, after four days of intense public protests, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi was removed, by force, from elected office.
The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and the wider Islamist movement of which it is an instance, are in many ways a secular phenomenon. If we define “secularity” not only as the weakening of religious belief, but also as the idea that faith becomes one option among others; and “secularization” as the process of institutional and functional differentiation of modern state structures and the resultant marginalization of religious authority, then the Brotherhood, similarly to other Islamist entities, can be seen as a product of modernity and the “secular age.” This transpires in two ways. First, for the Brotherhood, “Islam” is an identifiable set of beliefs that can be actively implemented and used as guidelines to reform society. Second, the parameters of the political order it proposes are defined by the context of the secular, modern nation-state.
The public protests and ouster of elected Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi by the Egyptian military followed by the appointment of interim President Adli Monsour left Egypt with continued protests, violence, and an uncertain future for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Islamist politics across the Middle East. The following roundup culls the various religious and political motivations and interests of multiple parties, both within and surrounding Egypt.
On November 21st, a Egyptian-sponsored ceasefire between Israel and Hamas took effect, bringing an end to eight days of particularly fierce fighting between the two.
On the 11th anniversary of the September 11, the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, Egypt and U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya were attacked amidst protests over a trailer for a purported film entitled Innocence of Muslims.
I would like to begin with a famous case in Egypt that, though over a decade and a half old, remains salient for thinking about religious freedom. This is the apostasy case of Nasr Abu Zayd, the professor of Arabic and Islamic studies who was declared an apostate by the Egyptian courts, and whose marriage was forcibly annulled as a result. The case was raised using a highly controversial principle within Egyptian law, and much of the debate was about whether its use was acceptable within this case. This principle was called hisba, and it technically means, “the commanding of the good when its practice is manifestly neglected, and the forbidding of the detestable when its practice becomes manifest.”
Mohamed Morsi was declared President of Egypt little more than two weeks ago. Challenger and former President Hosni Mubarak’s last prime minister, Ahmed Shafik, sent President Morsi a telegram congratulating him on his victory: “I am pleased to present to you my sincere congratulations for your victory in the presidential election, wishing you success in the difficult task that has been trusted to you by the great people of Egypt.”
As thousands celebrated the victory of the Freedom and Justice Party—part of the 84-year-old Muslim Brotherhood organization—in Tahrir Square, just a few blocks away a much more somber mood prevailed.
“Let me enjoy another bottle of beer,” said an old man as he plunked some coins on the counter at a local grocery store. “Soon the Jama’a (Muslim Brotherhood) will ban it.” The store owner, Mr. Ahmad, nodded. “Allah yastur al balad, [May god protect the country]—it will be like Sudan or Pakistan.” Clearly, anxiety and divisions still persist in Egypt. The pharmacists at the nearby El-Ezaby Pharmacy also looked disillusioned. This profession in Egypt is overwhelmingly dominated by the Coptic Christian community, who represent about 10 percent of Egypt’s 85 million people, but 90 percent of whom voted for Shafik according to exit polls.
The protests in the Middle East and North Africa, and the ensuing political changes, were intended to transcend the old military-Islamist dichotomy, which in Egypt was a legacy of the army-led Egyptian Revolution almost exactly 60 years ago. Yet following a long and contentious electoral season, Egyptians were again left with a choice between Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, and Ahmed Shafik, a military man and the last Prime Minister under Hosni Mubarak. Nevertheless, despite the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces’ heavy-handed actions and subsequent protests by Brotherhood supporters and other advocates for a civil and democratic state, Egypt has, for the first time, a democratically elected president.
To what extent do current depictions of the Egyptian situation reproduce the simplistic narrative of the “Brotherhood” versus the “Army” as the only options worth discussing? How does this binary either illuminate Egypt’s cultural, political, and religious dynamics or obscure its more complex realities?
The New York Times reports on the atmosphere in Cairo today, after news came in that Mohamed Morsi is the winner of the presidential race in Egypt.
This Friday, June 15, The Duke Islamic Studies Center’s Transcultural Islam Project is co-hosting a panel discussion on the upcoming Egyptian run-off elections.
The place of religion in the political order is arguably the most contentious issue in post-Mubarak Egypt. With Islamist-oriented parties controlling over 70 percent of seats in the new People’s Assembly and the constitution-writing process about to begin, liberals and leftists are apprehensive about the implications for Egyptian law and society, including the rights of Egypt’s millions of Coptic Christians.
David Rohde, in Reuters’ Analysis and Opinion blog, designates 2012 as the year of the Islamist and discusses the likelihood that Islamists will remain in power in Tunisia and Egypt.
The award-winning documentary radio program, America Abroad, has recently released a new documentary entitled, “The Rise of the Islamists.”
Conventional wisdom has it that religious liberty is a universally valid principle, enshrined in national constitutions and international charters and treaties, whose proper implementation continues to be thwarted by intransigent forces in society such as illiberal governments, religious fundamentalists, and traditional norms. Insomuch as the Middle East, and the Muslim world in general, are supposed to be afflicted with the ills of fundamentalism and illiberal governments, then the salvific promise of religious liberty looms large. In this brief post I would like to question this way of thinking through a consideration of the career of religious liberty in the modern Middle East.
America Abroad, the award-winning documentary radio program, has released a new documentary, “The Politics of Faith—The Role of Religion in Divided Societies.” Drawing from interviews with locals and experts, the documentary examines the religious undercurrents that are sharpening societal divides, from Egypt to China, from Russia to Malaysia.
The 9/11 debate was centered on a single issue: Islam. Osama Bin Laden was taken at his own words by the West: Al-Qaeda, even if its methods were supposedly not approved by most Muslims, was seen as the vanguard or at least a symptom of “Muslim wrath” against the West… Then came, just ten years after 9/11, the Arab Spring, in which Islam did not play a role, and the killing of Osama Bin Laden, whose death went almost unnoticed among Muslim public opinion. What about the “Muslim wrath”? Suddenly, the issue of Islam and jihad being at the core of the political mobilization in Muslim societies seemed to become, at least for a time, irrelevant. So what went wrong with the perception of the Western media, leaders, and public opinion? Was the West wrong about the role of Islam in shaping political mobilization in Muslim societies? Yes. The essentialist and culturalist approach, common to both the clash of and dialogue of civilizations theories, missed three elements: society, politics, and more astonishingly . . . religion.
The Rimini Meeting is run almost entirely by unpaid volunteers. Everything from the physical construction and take-down of the arena, to its cleaning staff, to the various literary, scientific and artistic exhibits, to food services, is the prerogative of around 4,000 unpaid volunteers who give up their vacation time and pay money (covering their own travel and lodging costs) to work at this event. […] I interviewed nearly 100 of these volunteers, including university students, factory workers, entrepreneurs, lawyers, doctors, housewives, and retirees. Among the questions I asked them was whether they would consider the Meeting a “religious” event. Nearly half of them immediately replied “no.” A handful replied “yes” right away, and the rest couched with “it depends.” But regardless of the initial answer, they all offered very much the same explanation.
Saba Mahmood is an anthropologist who teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, and whose work raises challenging questions about the relationship between religion and secularism, ethics and politics, agency and freedom. Her book Politics of Piety, a study of a grassroots women’s piety movement in Cairo, questions the analytical and political claims of feminism as well as the secular liberal assumptions on the basis of which such movements are often judged. In the volume Is Critique Secular? she joins Talal Asad, Judith Butler, and Wendy Brown in rethinking the Danish cartoon controversy as a conflict between blasphemy and free speech, between secular and religious world views. Now, Mahmood is working on a comparative project about the right to religious liberty and minority-majority relations in the Middle East. We spoke over breakfast in New York City.
Dominant accounts of the religion-modernity relationship, at least among sociologists of religion in the US, have tended to focus mainly on what falls into these categories of decline, capitulation, withdrawal, or confrontation. But the Rimini Meeting and its offshoots are among a host of new phenomena that really don’t fit into the above, and seem to warrant a different category.
Not long after his return from Cairo, where he was doing fieldwork, I spoke with Talal Asad at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center, where he is Distinguished Professor of Anthropology. Distinguished indeed: with books like Genealogies of Religion and Formations of the Secular, as well as numerous articles, Asad’s work has been formative for current scholarly conversation about religion and secularity, stressing both global context and the ways in which their interaction has been shaped by local histories, in the West and the Middle East. Most recently, he co-authored (along with Wendy Brown, Saba Mahmood, and Judith Butler) Is Critique Secular? (University of California Press, 2009) and contributed a chapter to the just published SSRC volume Rethinking Secularism (Oxford University Press, 2011).
At Jadaliyya, Anthony Shenoda reflects on the simultaneous visibility and invisibility of the Coptic Christian community in Egypt.
Azza Karam is the Senior Culture Advisor at the United Nations Population Fund, where she has pioneered efforts to make human development work more attentive to religion. Karam was born in Egypt and grew up, as the daughter of an Egyptian diplomat, in countries around the world, eventually earning a doctorate in international relations from the University of Amsterdam. Her several books include Transnational Political Islam (2004) and Islamisms, Women and the State (1998). Prior to joining UNFPA, she worked for the World Conference of Religions for Peace, the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, and the United Nations Development Program, among other organizations.
Mahmood Mamdami places the Egyptian revolution and other protest movements in the historical context of popular struggle in Africa.
What are the chances of successful democratic transitions in Tunisia and Egypt? I have just returned from both countries where many democratic activists shared notes with me about their situation, comparing it with the more than twenty successful and failed democratic transition attempts that I have observed throughout the world and written about.
I have been in Egypt since February 6, 2011, where I have been witnessing events, talking to friends, activists and non-activists, and to the public in Cairo’s streets—and it is not an exaggeration to say that every corner in Egypt talks politics today. . . . From my observations of events and numerous discussions with others, Egypt’s relationship with the U.S appears, in some ways, to be absent from most of the heated discussions going on today. But upon closer examination, this relationship has been present in the revolution, not only during and after the peak of events—from January 25 to February 11—but also, I would suggest, in the very anti-imperialist underpinnings of the revolution, a revolution that the mainstream American media has miscast as one generated purely internally.
A few days ago, the Al-Jazeera program Empire assembled a high-profile panel to discuss the future prospects of the Muslim Brotherhood movement. The 25-minute program is available online and worth watching for some background and a diverse array of views on this influential movement in Egypt and throughout the Middle East.
Michael Slackman has a fairly extensive article in The New York Times on the Muslim Brotherhood’s apparent consolidation of power in post-revolutionary Egypt, where, he writes, “religion has emerged as a powerful political force, following an uprising that was based on secular ideals. The Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group once banned by the state, is at the forefront, transformed into a tacit partner with the military government that many fear will thwart fundamental changes.”
The youth-driven Revolution of 2011, with its call for freedom and justice, is inscribing a new feminism, with a fresh lexicon and syntax. The new feminism—which does not go by the name “feminism,” but by its spirit—redefines the words freedom, liberation, justice, dignity, democracy, equality, and rights. It creates its own syntax, which, the dictionary reminds us, is the “arrangement of words to show their connection and relation.” It announces itself from deep within the Revolution, which aims to resurrect the fundamental principles and rights of citizens and human beings that were wantonly trampled down by the Mubarak government. The new feminism might be called, simply, “freedom, equality and justice for all.” It asserts itself in actions, straight-forwardness, and courage.
In the SSRC’s Transformations of the Public Sphere essay forum, Seyla Benhabib considers the recent and ongoing uprisings in the Arab world as a novel hybridization of Muslim and modern politics, suggesting that it “is altogether possible that these young revolutionaries who stunned the world with their ingenuity, discipline, tenaciousness and courage will also teach us some new lessons about religion and the public square, democracy and faith . . . .”
Tuesday marked the first day of the 55th session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women meeting. In addition to conversation about the annual and review themes, the question of women’s right and roles following revolutions in the Middle East has been a key topic of conversation. UN Women hosts a panel today (February 25th) titled, “Breaking New Ground: Arab Women and the Path to Democracy.” Find out how to attend or watch the webcast online here.
News organizations reporting on Egypt in the last two and half weeks have repeatedly raised the specter of the Muslim Brotherhood taking over the government in the absence of an organized secular opposition. At the same time, most have been at pains to point out that the protests for reform represent a granular, grassroots movement, largely “secular” in its orientation. The narrative hook of the story is therefore the danger of a secular movement being taken over by more fundamentalist Muslims if the transition is not orderly, or if it is managed incorrectly. The problem with this story, of course, is that the vast majority of Egyptians, those in Tahrir Square and elsewhere, would not describe themselves as secular in any meaningful sense.