Monthly Archives: July 2013

The inquisition WILL be televised

Gil Scott Heron was wrong. As the Arab uprisings have shown, the revolution most certainly will be televised. It has to be. Because if something isn’t televised, live streamed, and tweeted, it simply hasn’t happened, at least in the public consciousness.

Fox News has just widened the aperture: the Inquisition will also be televised. And we have a foretaste of how idiotic and ugly a Torquemada of the tube actually looks.

Host Lauren Green had no rack or bastinado when “interviewing” author Reza Aslan about his new book “Zealot.” In a fit of inexplicable stupidity, mendacity, prejudice, and paranoia, she spent ten minutes bizarrely harassing him about why, as a Muslim, he chose to write a book about Jesus.

Aslan is an exceptionally savvy writer and marketer. He went on the show to sell his book, an honorable and universal motive for any author. He probably knew he was entering hostile territory, but it’s extremely unlikely he anticipated how vicious Green would be. She gave him a glorious opportunity to be gracious in the face of a deranged harangue.

The most inquisitorial moment comes when Green bizarrely implies that Aslan, who comes very close to being something along the lines of a professional Muslim, somehow “hides his faith.” Inquisition is always about uncovering the “crypto.” But in addition to his whole career, “Zealot” begins with an account of Aslan’s conversion to Islam as an adult. He hasn’t hidden, but marketed, this. It’s essentially a calumnious lie in the form of a purported question.

Between Green’s borderline insanity and Aslan’s composed responses, the video went viral and his primary aim of increasing sales will have been met beyond any possible expectations. Aslan’s publicists couldn’t have scripted it any better if given a totally free hand.

And, of course, it’s all the more intriguing to the viral video viewers because he is given no chance to really explain what his book actually is or isn’t. “Zealot” is a quick and easy read, and essentially an extended essay that popularizes decades of scholarship that attempts to identify “the historical Jesus.”

But, as Aslan notes, “The problem with pinning down the historical Jesus is that, outside of the New Testament, there is almost no trace of the man…” So, as “Zealot” goes on to demonstrate, this “historical Jesus” quest can only really boil down to learning as much as possible about Roman occupied Palestine at the time he supposedly existed, and then applying the myths and legends about this alleged figure to that generalized context.

In other words, when it comes to “Jesus” there is nothing outside the whale of the New Testament. All we know about this purported individual is contained in the works of people openly engaged in religious propaganda. This is the case with most truly revered religious and “holy” figures: they are conveniently shrouded in the mists of impenetrable time, in the smoke and mirrors of myth and legend.

Aslan – who is a good researcher (perhaps the best part of the book is the 53 pages of detailed notes, very useful for any interested generalist) and essayist – repeats the gesture of numerous “historical Jesus” scholars. First they sketch out the historical context. Then they separate the Jesuses of the Gospels (even though these very different figures don’t in any literary or biographical sense comprise a recognizably coherent character) from the Jesus as depicted in the later writings of Paul.

Far from being anything new, this conundrum is one of the oldest in Western civilization. Rather than, as some of his critics, claim, presenting an “Islamic” version of Jesus, Aslan basically sticks to some amalgam of the Jesus of the Gospels and assumes some level of truth to those accounts. He therefore ends up presenting a very familiar figure to anyone who has paid attention: Jesus the Jewish political and religious insurrectionary and revolutionist.

There will be many who haven’t heard this before, and be fascinated with “Zealot.” That’s exactly what a book that popularizes decades of scholarship should do. The problem isn’t new, it’s ancient. One set of well-established answers are concisely summarized and simply presented in this very accessible book.

What the insufferable and bigoted fool Green didn’t realize is that Aslan is buying into a concept that has no real basis in fact: the existence of Jesus. He might have really lived. But just as easily not. Believing Jesus ever really existed at all is, therefore, itself, an act of faith.

Green and her ignorant friends might find Aslan’s rehashed “revolutionary Jesus” disturbing. But imagine their interaction with someone who dismisses the whole thing as a ludicrous fairy tale. Her new televised Inquisition might be suddenly turned on its head, and defined by a completely different set of pointed questions, this time aimed at them.

Hamas in the Crosshairs

Today’s BBC headline says it all: “Egypt crisis: Morsi accused of plotting with Hamas.” In other words, just when you thought things couldn’t get any worse for Hamas, they suddenly did.

Former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi has been arrested on a variety of charges, mainly to do with alleged crimes in collusion with Hamas. The accusations include several attacks on various prisons, including a 2011 jailbreak in which Morsi escaped. Morsi isspecifically charged with collaborating with Hamas “to carry out anti-state acts, attacking police stations and army officers and storming prisons, setting fire to one prison and enabling inmates to flee, including himself, as well as premeditated killing of officers, soldiers and prisoners.” Heady stuff to say the least.

Palestinian girls walk in front of a photograph of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi shaking hands with the Palestinian Hamas leader Ismail Haniya, in Gaza City on August 29, 2012. (Mohammed Abed / AFP / GettyImages)
Palestinian girls walk in front of a photograph of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi shaking hands with the Palestinian Hamas leader Ismail Haniya, in Gaza City on August 29, 2012. (Mohammed Abed / AFP / GettyImages)

Yesterday in Open Zion, I explained how the Egyptian military, government and a significant percent of the population see Hamas as an integral part of a wide-ranging security crisis. This includes the ongoing and intensifying insurgency by “Jihadist” militants in Sinai, which continues to deteriorate. Hamas is widely believed to have an ongoing cooperative relationship with these extremists, to the detriment of Egyptian national security, and some 35 of its fighters are said to have been killed when the Egyptian counteroffensive began two weeks ago.

That the Sinai insurgency exploded with unparalleled fury immediately after the ouster of Morsi fueled heavy suspicions on the part of many in Egypt that the former president was giving the extremists “a free hand” in Sinai and that Hamas was deeply involved in fueling this crisis. The Egyptian authorities are facing a two-front battle involving Muslim Brotherhood supporters and opponents in competing protests and street clashes, as well as the Sinai insurgency.

Alarm has intensified given a bomb attack on Wednesday against the police headquarters in the city of Mansoura, which killed one soldier and injured 28 others. The bottom line concern is that coordinated, armed anti-government violence seems to be spreading from the Sinai periphery into more central parts of Egypt, and that such violence is at least parallel to, or at worst dovetailing with, unrest stoked by angry Muslim Brotherhood supporters.

Reports that Brotherhood officials have assured local elders that attacks in Sinai would stop if Morsi were reinstated as president reinforce the idea that there is an ideological and, indeed, operational connection between the Brotherhood and the Sinai extremists. Army Chief of Staff General Abdel Fattah Sisi has declared a “war on terrorism,” which seems to be something of a catchall, including Brotherhood violent protests or rioting, attacks such as the bombing of the police station in Mansoura and violent actions by radicals in Sinai. At least from the point of view of the Egyptian state, and much of it society, these are not merely parallel crises, but interconnected ones.

It is into this maelstrom that Hamas has allowed itself—and consequently the long-suffering Palestinian residents of Gaza—to be drawn as a key element. They are at least a crucial secondary target of all of the Egyptian authorities’ security and counterterrorism measures. Most Gaza smuggling tunnels have been destroyed. The border crossing with Egypt is essentially closed. Fuel, food, construction materials, medical and other supplies, and all necessary goods are reaching a crisis level of shortage in Gaza. And in the latest punitive measure from Egyptian authorities, Gaza fishermen are now banned for the first time from Egyptian territorial waters, a move clearly linked to the intensifying tensions with Hamas and framed, naturally, in terms of “national security.”

‘But, rather than reassessing their policies, or repositioning themselves given the dire crisis they, and the Palestinians living under their rule, now face, Hamas seems to have inexplicably decided to double-down on their relationship with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood in general, and Morsi in particular.

Hamas understands full well that the charges brought against Morsi center almost entirely around their relationship with him. Of course they vociferously deny any involvement in the 2011 jailbreak or any other form of “interference” in internal Egyptian affairs, including in Sinai. The problem is that there is an enormous amount of both direct and circumstantial evidence to the contrary.

But, astonishingly, rather than distancing themselves from the crisis, Hamas leaders have intensified their engagement in it. A Hamas spokesman actually said, in response to the charges against Morsi, “Hamas condemns this move since it is based on the premise that the Hamas movement is hostile” to Egypt. As if that were not provocative enough, he continued, “This is a dangerous development, which confirms that the current powers in Egypt are giving up on national causes and even using these issues to deal with other parties—first among them the Palestinian cause.”

So rather than trying to adjust to the new situation, ways of easing tensions with the Egyptian government and military, and ease the political crisis facing Hamas is a movement, not to mention the humanitarian and economic crisis people of Gaza as a population, Hamas’ leaders have decided the best move at the current stage is to reinforce their association with Morsi and take a hostile and belligerent attitude towards the new Egyptian government.

It may be ideologically consistent, but this approach is strategically incomprehensible. It can only further deepen the crisis that has been intensifying without respite for Hamas since Morsi’s downfall.

The new Egyptian authorities are playing a game of chicken with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood has been hoping to mobilize popular outrage against the military and has been pushing a narrative of unlawful “usurpation of legitimacy” based on democratic elections, backed up by “massacres” against peaceful Islamist protesters. So far, there is every indication that the overwhelming bulk of the Egyptian public isn’t buying it at all.

It’s possible that with the intensifying crackdown on the Brotherhood leadership, the government may be going too far. But so far, that doesn’t seem to have happened. In so far as they are associated in the public mind, fairly or unfairly, with the Mansoura police station bombing, and with riots and unrest, the Brotherhood’s popular credibility appears to be tanking even further than ever. Heated rhetoric about “martyrdom” and “civil war” from Brotherhood firebrands may be tasty raw meat for their enraged rank-and-file, but they alienate and, indeed terrify, the vast majority of Egyptians.

But even if the military and the government and up overplaying their hand in a crackdown against the Brotherhood and others, it’s still almost inconceivable to construct a scenario in which the Muslim Brotherhood returns to a position of government power in Egypt anytime in the foreseeable future. The Army’s loss is not necessarily the Brotherhood’s gain. Those could end up badly discredited in public opinion, but the military and the government are in a much stronger position at least over the medium run, and, indeed, into the foreseeable future.

It would be fascinating to learn what is going on in the heads of Hamas leaders who appear to be bending over backwards to insure that they are high on the list of targets of Egypt’s new “war on terrorism.” That they are at the center of the charges the authorities decided to file against Morsi today, especially considering that there were many other potential accusations that could have been lodged against him instead, puts them on clear notice that they are very much in the line of fire. Yet they don’t seem to be interested in finding a way to get themselves, or the people of Gaza, out of the crosshairs. On the contrary, their current attitude seems to be “bring it on.”

It’s unfathomable, and because they are directly responsible for the well-being of the people of Gaza, unforgivably irresponsible.

Hamas-Egypt Tensions Take Toll On Gaza

Except when they have come under direct Israeli bombardment or attack, the Palestinian residents of Gaza have rarely suffered more from Hamas’ mistakes and misrule than they do now. A low-level insurgency by extremists in the Sinai Peninsula, which has been going on for at least two years, erupted with much greater intensity following the ouster of former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi.

The Egyptian military claims that Morsi was essentially giving “a free hand” to the Sinai extremists and that this may have contributed to his ouster. The army has now launched amassive counteroffensive, without Israeli opposition, in the restive areas of Sinai, including much of its northern section and the border region with Gaza.

A picture taken from Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on the border with Egypt, on July 5, 2013 shows an Egyptian soldier standing on top of a watch tower in the Egyptian side of the border. (Said Khatib / AFP / Getty Images)
A picture taken from Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on the border with Egypt, on July 5, 2013 shows an Egyptian soldier standing on top of a watch tower in the Egyptian side of the border. (Said Khatib / AFP / Getty Images)

The Egyptian military, government and much of its public strongly suspects Hamas has been involved with the Sinai extremists in one capacity or another and regards any porous qualities to the border area as a key strategic asset of the insurgents. This is based on a great deal of highly suggestive evidence of collusion and collaboration, including Egyptian military claims that 34 Hamas members were killed in the initial fighting when they began their new campaign.

Therefore, Hamas is a crucial secondary target of the Egyptian military counteroffensive against the extremists. And it is the economy and people of Gaza that are paying the price. This has meant the shutting down of an estimated 80 percent of all Gaza smuggling tunnels, at least 850 of them in the past two weeks. It’s estimated that these closures cost the Gaza economy at least $230 million in June alone, and that number is quickly rising.

Additionally, Egyptian restrictions on the movement of people and goods through the Rafah crossing have never been tighter. The border is now generally closed, and occasionally and temporarily opened to allow stranded Palestinians to return to their homes in Gaza—or for a much smaller group, to leave them and enter Egypt, generally for certified medical or other exceptional reasons.

Reconstruction and new construction in Gaza is at a standstill. Few Gaza businesses remain unaffected by the economic crisis, and Gaza’s dependency on Palestinian public sector employee salaries, which are not paid by Hamas but by the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, has become even greater than ever.

And while the people of Gaza suffer because of its policies, Hamas has entered the greatest political crisis since its founding in 1987. The overthrow of Morsi has created a generalized crisis of credibility, authority and confidence for Sunni Arab Islamists generally, and Muslim Brotherhood parties in particular. Hamas is the hardest hit of them all.

The organization’s strategic posture is now totally untenable. In the context of the Syrian conflict it was forced to choose between its alliance with Tehran and Damascus and its affiliation with the regional Muslim Brotherhood movement. Since the Syrian Brotherhood was one of the key groups in the anti-regime uprising in Syria, Hamas could not stay neutral. Under the direction of its political leaders, especially Khaled Mishaal and his deputy Mousa Abu Marzouk, Hamas chose to essentially abandon its relationship with Damascus and flee Syria, and greatly reduce its political ties to Tehran.

Instead, it sought funding from Qatar and Turkey, and political and logistical support from the now-overthrown Muslim Brotherhood government in Cairo. They never got much support from the Morsi government except kind words, tea and sympathy. During his rule, the Egyptian military clamped down on the border area and the smuggling tunnels moreharshly than they had during the former dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak.

Nonetheless, Hamas hoped and expected that eventually the Islamist regime in Egypt would create more amenable policies, and that this would be linked to the emergence of Muslim Brotherhood governments in many other Arab states.

Those hopes are now dashed. On the contrary, the new Egyptian government is, if anything, openly hostile to Hamas. They are being investigated not only for colluding and collaborating with Sinai extremists, but for various forms of “interference in internal Egyptian affairs.” One example of this is the investigation that has been launched into their alleged participation in a 2011 jailbreak that freed Morsi and a number of other key Islamist prisoners. Hamas angrily denies any “interference” in Egyptian affairs, understanding that this perception is not only exceptionally dangerous in Egypt, but also in the broader Arab world.

Several authorities in the United Arab Emirates, for example, have accused the Muslim Brotherhood movement in general, of plotting to overthrow the governments there and take control of that confederation and its vast oil wealth. The sense that most of the Arab regimes and much of the Arab public that the Muslim Brotherhood as a movement is essentially a predatory and subversive one greatly undermines the prospects for greater regional support for Hamas.

There are elements in Hamas that were never happy with the break with Iran and have tried to keep ties open in spite of the decisions of the Political Bureau leadership. Gaza firebrand Mahmoud Zahar—who was openly critical of the Politburo on multiple issues—was removed from the leadership group, partly because of his opposition to the decision to radically distance the group from Iran. And behind the scenes Marwan Issa, leader of the paramilitary Qassam Brigades, worked to keep ties open and weapons coming from Iran despite the political differences.

These leaders, and others who questioned the Politburo’s massive gamble are now in a position to gloat over being right. But the essential conditions that led Hamas to realign itself with the Sunni Muslim states remain in place. Reviving the alliance with Iran would be not only slow and difficult, it would also alienate the few patrons and options, still has left. Doha is rumored to have significantly reduced aid, but continues to fund Hamas. And now, the beleaguered Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is in such grave political difficulty at home that he might find positioning himself as the champion of Hamas and Palestinian resistance an attractive prospect.

But these are fairly small comforts and slim hopes. The soft power of Qatari cash and Turkish diplomatic and financial support means little compared to the hard power of the Egyptian army, which controls the only border Hamas can access other than those dominated by Israel. Indeed, in recent months, Egyptian lack of cooperation, even under Morsi, was so great that Hamas had to rely on expanded exports to Europe and other markets through crossings controlled by Israel; essentially asking and receiving Israeli permission for their economy to function. Given Hamas’ stated positions regarding Israel, this was embarrassing and humiliating, but necessary.

Now the situation is totally out of control. Hamas is completely at odds with the new Egyptian government, increasingly unpopular with the Egyptian public, and has very few options left. For now its control of Gaza remains unchallenged. But if the situation continues to deteriorate, that could start to change quickly. Hamas has accused Egypt of wanting to resume the direct control of Gaza it had from 1948-1967.

No Egyptian government would possibly want or allow that. But even such a silly accusation reflects the growing sense among Hamas leaders that, like their erstwhile friend Mr. Morsi, their days in power may also be numbered.

What a Hamas!

Hamas is a total mess.

With the overthrow of former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, and the accompanying crisis for Islamists across the region, the organization’s regional strategy lies in tatters. A year ago they were convinced they were on the cusp of a “green wave” of Islamist victories.

The Muslim Brotherhood victory in Egypt, they reasoned, was a harbinger of the Arab political future. Hamas expected the new Egyptian government to end its isolation, help it dominate Palestinian national movement, and transform its strategic relationship with Israel.

But none of that happened. Egypt continued to put its own national interests first. It maintained and even enhanced security cooperation with Israel, kept tight control over border crossings, and launched a campaign against smuggling tunnels, flooding them with raw sewage.

Yet the hope remained that all this was temporary. Eventually the Brotherhood would assert control and deliver a foreign and security policy favorable to Hamas. Even at its high point, that was exceptionally wishful thinking.

Now, however, with Morsi gone and the whole Islamist movement regionally in varying stages of shock and disarray, Hamas finds itself suddenly more isolated, divided, and hapless that it may have ever been since its founding in the late 1980s.

The new Egyptian government, and much of the public, take a decidedly dim view of Hamas. They see it as conniving in the low-level, but extremely dangerous, insurgency in Sinai that greatly intensified after Morsi’s overthrow. Hamas, and the Palestinians living under its misrule, have paid a heavy price for the Egyptian military counteroffensive against Sinai extremists. Egyptian forces reportedly killed 35 Hamas fighters and destroyed 850 smuggling tunnels. Fuel and other shortages, and a financial crisis, have consequently intensified in Gaza.

Egyptian anger is also stoked by a sense that Hamas may have been interfering even more deeply in internal Egyptian affairs, beyond Sinai and the border region. For example, Hamas is being investigated for its alleged participation in a 2011 jailbreak that freed Morsi and several other key Islamist prisoners.

Hamas knows how dangerous these Egyptian, and broader regional, perceptions about its connections to other extremist movements are. They reacted furiously to Fatah’s reference to this interference, calling it nothing short of “incitement.”

Along with the post-euphoric crash following Morsi’s downfall, and the death of the dream of an “Islamic Awakening,” Hamas must also cope with nostalgia about the “good old days” of the now long-lost “axis of resistance.” For most of the last decade, Hamas pulled off the unique and highly implausible balancing act of being both a Sunni Muslim Brotherhood party and a member of the pro-Iranian alliance simultaneously.

The civil war in Syria closed down any room for such a split identity, especially since the Brotherhood in Syria is a key component of the Syrian uprising. Hamas had to essentially choose between abandoning its longstanding headquarters in Damascus and patrons in Tehran, and gamble on the rising tide of Sunni Islamism in post-dictatorship Arab societies.

After much dispute, Hamas’ Political Bureau decided to basically turn its back on Damascus and Tehran, and seek other patrons. Khaled Mishaal was dispatched to Doha and Ankara in search of funding, and his deputy Mousa Abu Marzouk to Cairo for political and logistical support. Against strong opposition from some members, Hamas’ political leadership effectively put all their chips on 32 red in the great Middle East strategic roulette wheel. But the ball just landed on 23 white.

With a predictable degree of schadenfreude, political leaders like Mahmoud Zahar – who lost his seat on the Politburo for his opposition to this gamble – and Hamas’ paramilitary leader Marwan Issa – who never fully broke with the Iranian Republican Guard, as the rocket exchange with Israel last year demonstrated – can now turn to their colleagues and smugly crow: “I told you so.”

Now Hamas cannot really now turn back towards Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah and remain a viable part of the Sunni Muslim Arab world. But they may have one or two more chips yet to play.

Qatar has reportedly scaled back, but not cut off, funding for the group. And the embattled and increasingly desperate Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan may now need them as much as they need him. There is always the possibility regional Islamists might make a comeback, including in Egypt. And their rivals in Fatah are facing significant difficulties of their own, although their options seem broader and more viable.

Lacking any obvious, immediate strategic alternatives, Hamas’ most likely response to this series of calamities is to once again hunker down and hold on to their dominance in Gaza purely on the basis of brute force and repression. And, once again, it will be the people of Gaza, and the Palestinian cause in general, that pay the price for their unending folly.

Brotherhood’s fiasco in Egypt will change future of Islamism

With the removal of the Egyptian president, Mohammed Morsi, the future of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Islamism in general, is undoubtedly at a turning point. The question is typically being cast as a binary: is this “the beginning of the end” or “the end of the beginning” for the Islamist movement? Even if, in the final analysis, this proves a misleading question, it nonetheless articulates a precise and instructive framework for what is at stake.

Many observers have no doubt that this is the beginning of the end of the Islamist movement, at least as it has been traditionally structured and as a dominant ideology in the Arab states. According to these observers, if the oldest Muslim Brotherhood party cannot maintain popular legitimacy in Egypt after only one year in office, then the ideology itself simply isn’t a practicable model for governance anywhere.

Sunni Islamists will invariably fail in power because Islam is a religion and not an actual political ideology. Islamism doesn’t have the intellectual heft, breadth or depth to suggest any answers to most policy questions. It essentially boils down to a set of religiously conservative social attitudes. It only takes a short while in office to reveal that.

Moreover, the very qualities that made the Brotherhood so effective as an opposition group – secrecy, discipline, streamlined hierarchy and a paranoid suspicion of all outsiders – proved crippling in office. They never made and, this argument holds, can never make the transition from an oppositional party and secret society to an open, effective and governing movement capable of consultation, conciliation and compromise. Mr Morsi’s downfall therefore marks the beginning of the end of a project that was never actually realisable.

Others retort that this perspective ignores the undeniable depth, strength and resilience of the Brotherhood. This is a heavy blow and setback but, they suggest, it represents the end of the beginning for the region’s Islamists. Islamists have learnt from the previous mistakes and will again following Mr Morsi’s downfall. The group remains well positioned for any future elections, because of both their strong constituency and the continuing fragmentation of their electoral opposition.

It’s not surprising that the Brotherhood would experience hiccups during their first time in office but they are not going to go away. Instead, they will regroup and return strongly to the fray, possibly more powerful and effective. And, the argument continues, both Egyptian and regional Islamists have already proven capable of learning lessons and adapting.

There’s an element of truth to both positions. Political Islam is never going to go away in Muslim-majority societies. The only questions are: what will it look like, and how effective and popular will it be? But the failure of Egypt’s Brotherhood to maintain popular legitimacy and power bodes ill for the future of traditional Sunni Arab Islamism and the prospects of producing effective, legitimate governance.

The most likely long-term effect of this Islamist crisis is a gradually, perhaps rapidly, developing split within the movement between those who stick to traditional approaches and a latent – or, as sociologist Asef Bayat would argue, already emerging – post-Islamist trend. There is significant evidence that such an ideological split is already underway, mere days after Mr Morsi’s downfall, given open disputes among Islamists throughout the region about the extent to which the Brotherhood, at least partly, brought this upon itself.

An emergent post-Islamist orientation would retain the essential Islamist trait of reclaiming the centrality of Muslim identity. But it would no longer misread Islam as a political ideology. It would not look for policy prescriptions in faith and apply “Islam has the answers” to the detailed, technical problems of governance. Instead, this emerging or potential post-Islamist trend returns Islam to the realm of identity and values, rather than law and policy.

Mahmoud Jibril, the leader of the Libyan National Forces Alliance, which thrashed Islamists in the party section of the Libyan legislative election, might be seen as an exemplar of where a post-Islamist political stance might situate itself vis-à-vis religion and society. Mr Jibril never allowed Islamists to outbid him on Muslim piety, insisting he was as devout and observant as anyone else. But he argued he was more patriotic than the Islamists, who were aligned with both a regional movement that does not put Libya first, and foreign powers, specifically Qatar. And he strongly made the case that Islam was too holy to be sullied with the profane world of politics. If the Libyan election was any indication, this hybrid, experimental and perhaps prototypically post-Islamist stance resonated strongly with the public.

However, such new trends might – at least initially and especially if they primarily emerge out of the existing Islamist movements – retain a greater emphasis on social conservatism than Mr Jibril’s non-Islamist or post-Islamist rhetoric.

It remains to be seen how viable a hybrid of Islamic identity with nationalist sentiments and social justice concerns, and a due regard for the rights of individuals, women and minorities can be in the present Arab political environment. And it’s not clear how unified or coherent such a movement would prove. But the potential appeal of a post-Islamist brand of politics in the Arab world seems clear.

If Mr Morsi’s downfall marks the beginning of the end for traditional Islamism as a failed experiment, even by forcing its own adherents to learn and adapt, then much of the Arab political space it has occupied may give way to precisely such a post-Islamist movement.

This Could Actually Work: Why John Kerry’s Middle East peace push isn’t a fool’s errand

It was a tall order, but Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts seem to be paying off: We now appear to be on the cusp of renewed Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. The formula for achieving this is still largely shrouded in secrecy, but whatever emerges is likely to be, at least at first, essentially “negotiations about having negotiations.” The prospects for a major breakthrough in the immediate term seem remote. Yet this achievement, in and of itself, should not be underestimated.

Kerry has been commendably energetic in his efforts to restart talks. And it’s clearly paying off: The secretary of state seems to have received pledges from both sides not to take steps that could sabotage a revived peace process. He secured a commitment from the Palestinians not to pursue any further initiatives to join additional multilateral institutions, particularly the International Criminal Court, while Israel also appears to have given some private assurances that it will postpone scheduled settlement construction in highly strategic areas of the West Bank. Finally, the Arab League committee dealing with the issue clarified that the Arab Peace Initiative doesn’t rule out land swaps, and therefore is not the set-in-stone dictate many Israelis perceived it to be.

Kerry has been playing his cards very close to his chest — few in the administration or elsewhere in Washington are privy to the exact details of what he has put on the table. The Arab League delegation that met with him on Wednesday for a briefing on his proposals, though, may be better informed than most. And so far, the diplomats sound optimistic: They emerged from the talks declaring that Kerry’s suggestions “lay the proper foundation to start the negotiations.” The Arab League imprimatur is crucial for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, as it provides him political cover in domestic politics. But it is certain that the Arab League would not have declared its enthusiasm if Abbas had not strongly signaled he wanted them to do so.

Significantly, the Arab League statement specified “new and important political, economic and security elements” to Kerry’s proposals. Since March, Kerry has been discussing a possible $4 billion investment package to enhance the Palestinian economy. There are clearly additional elements of the proposal hinted at in the Arab League statement that have not yet been made public.

Particularly when there is little optimism about immediate breakthroughs, the name of the game for both Israel and the Palestinians — especially regarding relations with the United States — is not to be seen as “the guys saying ‘no.'” The last time the Obama administration made a major push for Israeli-Palestinian talks, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu managed to use both American and Palestinian miscalculations about the settlement issue to ensure that the Palestinians would be seen as the primary uncooperative party. That doesn’t mean Israel didn’t receive its share of the blame as well: It was seen as playing a cynical game with settlements. But neither Obama nor Abbas will be eager to see a repeat of that previous round of diplomacy.

There are still political obstacles in the way of revived peace talks. Some Fatah leaders are resisting the prospect of new talks, apparently insisting Israel agree that they be based on the 1967 borders with land swaps, and accept a settlement freeze. Netanyahu’s office, meanwhile, is denying press reports that the prime minister has agreed to the 1967 borders as a baseline for negotiations.

But in spite of these domestic political hurdles, each side’s desire not to be seen as the obstructionist party will likely mean that both will soon enough agree to begin talking again. Both Abbas and Netanyahu have faced domestic opposition to resuming talks in the past and overcame it. These relatively uncontested leaders will almost certainly find a way to do so again, despite the grumbling among their colleagues.

Along with the carrots that Israel will certainly receive from the United States for entering negotiations, it must also deal with European sticks if it is unwilling to seriously discuss ending the occupation. The European Union just unexpectedly issued new guidelines that will prohibit the organization from funding or cooperating with Israeli institutions operating in the occupied territories, including East Jerusalem, with a few exceptions. The United States declined to criticize the EU measure.

Israel is therefore on notice that much of its traditional Western support base is simply losing patience with the ongoing occupation. The EU measure would not have been taken if there were not clearly a growing sense that Israel is growing ever less willing to fully end the occupation. And it strongly suggests Israel can look forward to even further isolation if it persists with its current obstructionist policies.

For the Palestinians, increased American investment is welcome — but getting their own political house in order is urgently required. Continuing to build on the momentum of former Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s groundbreaking institution building, governance reform, and anti-corruption policies is essential. Such efforts will guarantee that a Palestinian state will be viable and a deal will be durable, particularly in the context of the aspirations expressed in the “Arab Spring” uprisings across the Middle East. They would also provide a vital additional source of momentum, or at least stability, should talks stall or fail. And such policies are, in and of themselves, essential for Palestinians to continue to develop their own society.

The United States must take this Palestinian domestic reform project seriously. It’s essential that any major investment package in Palestine be conducted with appropriate levels of transparency and accountability. If not, it could feed into the old narrative of Palestinian corruption. Major investment projects from the 1990s, which did not have sufficient transparency and accountability, provide an instructive example of what should be avoided.

Moreover, as the United States strives to bring Israeli and Palestinian leaders together at the negotiating table, it should engage Palestinian civil society. Popular buy-in is necessary for any major initiative, and it is essential that a diverse, dynamic, and vibrant group of Palestinian actors have a stake in the process. It’s not enough to simply talk with the established elites: Palestinians have lost faith in most of their existing political institutions, so engaging a diverse set of voices is necessary to build popular support for the new peace initiative.

There is every reason to be pleased that talks are likely to resume, but also to be cautious about the likelihood for any immediate progress on final status issues. It is therefore essential that a set of parallel, bottom-up tracks be developed that support diplomatic efforts and can help mitigate any potential frustrations.

Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy is a high-wire act of the first order. It is wise, and indeed essential, to undertake it with the appropriate safety net in place below.

The Muslim Brotherhood does not exist

The Muslim Brotherhood does not exist.

That sounds absurd. But in Egypt, legally speaking, it is essentially correct.

Of course it depends on whom you ask. According to the Brotherhood, it’s always been a lawful entity and all attempts to either illegalize it or force it to conform to normative Egyptian laws have been invalid. But, the organization’s own actions tell a very different story.

Since its founding in the late 1920s, the group has operated as some kind of strange hybrid of Leninist-style political party, secret society, and cult. Its precise legal status was somewhat nebulous until in 1945 it registered itself as a “political, social, and religious institution.” In 1954, following an attempted assassination against Gamal Abdul Nasser, the organization was declared illegal and ordered disbanded.

The campaign of suppression, arrest, executions, and torture that followed played a significant role in radicalizing the Brotherhood and setting the stage for the emergence of even more extreme Islamist groups. But during that phase there was no question: the Brotherhood was straightforwardly an illegal and persecuted organization.

Anwar al-Sadat took a different approach to the Brotherhood. After gradually releasing its members, he issued a general amnesty freeing remaining prisoners in 1975. Between the late 1970s and the downfall of Hosni Mubarak, the Brotherhood operated in a twilight zone, neither clearly legal nor illegal. It had no clear official status, except as an officially-designated “prohibited group,” but it also operated openly and under its own name.

This reality was a double-edged sword for the Brothers.

On the one hand, it allowed them to conduct their business without any transparency whatsoever. Everything could be, and was, done in secret. There was no state oversight of their budget, membership, hierarchy, decision-making, foreign backing or other activities, as there would be with any lawful, registered organization.

On the other hand, it created the constant threat that, because they were, in fact, operating outside of any recognizable legal framework, they could be at any time disbanded, dissolved, or repressed – simply by applying the law.

In 1977, then-Supreme Guide Omar El-Telmesani filed a lawsuit challenging the 1954 declaration. That suit ultimately failed in 1992, but continues to be effectively contested to this day.

The Brotherhood seemed to have the best of both worlds after the fall of Mubarak. On the one hand, its newly created and properly registered Freedom and Justice Party allowed it to operate in, and win, open elections. On the other, the “mother organization” remained shrouded in secrecy.

This prompted numerous political and legal figures to file suit seeking the dissolution of the Brotherhood on the grounds that it had no actual existence under the law. One such lawsuit is still pending before the Supreme Administrative Court, which, before the ouster of former President Mohammed Morsi, postponed its decision until September.

However, in March a judicial review panel working for the Court issued a nonbinding but damning report finding that the Brotherhood indeed has no legal status in Egypt and therefore ought to be disbanded. The Brotherhood reacted by seeking to register itself as an NGO (“number 644,” it claims) under the law, which was facilitated in unheard-of and extremely suspicious speed by Morsi’s Insurance and Social Affairs Minister, Nagwa Khalil.

But almost all observers understand this was a stalling tactic. The present law prevents NGOs from operating as political movements and subjects their budgets and other operations to state scrutiny. The Brotherhood was clearly counting on Parliamentary majority to pass a new NGO law that would have legalized its secretive practices while simultaneously cracking down on human rights groups.

With the ouster of Morsi and the implementation of an interim transitional phase, the Brotherhood is right back where it has typically been throughout its history: in a kind of legal limbo. The group insists it is determined to legalize its status, but seems equally committed to maintaining its secret-society and cult-like practices and avoiding scrutiny, transparency, accountability, and oversight.

Everyone sensible agrees that one of the most important elements of any transition is normalizing the role of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egyptian political life. One of the most important means of achieving this is to clarify what, precisely, it is and give it a clear legal status.

The Brotherhood is not going to get what it wants: the ability to operate legally and secretly at the same time. To be incorporated into the system, it needs to abide by the law. But the transitional system needs to clarify what laws do and don’t apply to it, so that we will know exactly what we are talking about, other than a nebulous secret society, when we refer to the Muslim Brotherhood.

Egyptian society can’t make much headway to political normalcy if one of its largest and most powerful groupings, legally speaking, simply doesn’t exist.

How NOT to Write about Egypt

The upheaval in Egypt inevitably produced a torrent of American commentary, a great deal of which was clichéd, glib, or simply banal. But four articles stand out as particularly instructive examples of how not to write or think about change in Egypt and the broader Arab world.

The most insidious was a commentary in the New York Times by Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Doha Center. Behind a veneer of reasonably arguing (as all sane commentators do) that a crucial challenge is how to reincorporate the Brotherhood into the emerging new Egyptian political order, the article essentially reads like a Brotherhood press release.

Hamid studiously avoids any mention of the context in which the entirety of organized social and Egyptian political life came together to reject the continued legitimacy of Brotherhood governance, or any mention of its misrule whatsoever. Instead, he sets up a false binary. Either the government of President Mohamed Morsi had to be allowed to continue in a manner unacceptable to an extraordinary unanimity of other Egyptian actors, or actions taken to end his misrule invite, and almost demand, a violent reaction.

Hamid writes Islamists will have “good reason” to question “whether democracy still has anything to offer them,” as if the Brotherhood ever had any real commitment to democracy other than as a tool for gaining power. Hamid lards his apologia with repeated grim references to al-Qaeda, and two of the most extreme Egyptian Islamists of all time: Sayyid Qutb and Ayman al-Zawahiri.

The logic is clear: Egyptians must either tolerate arbitrary rule and bullying by the Brotherhood or they are inviting, provoking, and even justifying al-Qaeda-style responses. It’s no surprise that Brotherhood spokespersons in Egypt have been increasingly saying exactly the same thing, often in the same language.

Mercifully, New York Times readers were provided in the same edition with excellent reportage by David Kirkpatrick and Ben Hubbard that illustrated the wide range of reactions among regional Islamists, including many who noted the grave failings of the Brotherhood and the need to learn lessons about governance from their errors, not reflexively retreat into a violent response. It’s a crucial corrective.

The New York Times‘ all-purpose pundit, David Brooks, also most unwisely dipped his toe into the Egyptian maelstrom, only to demonstrate he knows nothing about the subject. He claims that “incompetence is built into the intellectual DNA of radical Islam,” very dubiously citing Iran as an example. These are deep waters that Brooks does not have the apparatus to navigate.

After a series of clichés and howlers, Brooks concludes Egypt “seems to lack even the basic mental ingredients” for democracy. Yet he clearly doesn’t know much, if anything, about the country and ignores the extraordinary risks millions of Egyptians have been willing to take time-and-again in pursuit of exactly that ideal. It’s a ridiculous and overtly insulting conclusion, but one that mainly makes Brooks, not Egyptians, actually look inferior.

Noah Feldman misreads the situation at least as badly. He has convinced himself that the Tunisian Ennahda party and the Brotherhood “accept a political role for women and equal citizenship for non-Muslims,” and “seek the gradual, voluntary Islamization of society.” He not only downplays, he clearly  doesn’t understand the actual mentality of the Islamist religious right in the Arab world.

Feldman has chugged the Kool-Aid of Ennahda’s Rachid Ghannouchi for some time, and even ludicrously declares him “the closest thing to an Islamic Nelson Mandela.” This is simply delusional.

No serious observer can doubt Ennahda and Ghannouchi’s fundamental radicalism. Last year, he showed his true colors when he pleaded with Tunisian Salafists to give Ennahda time to consolidate control of the army and police to prevent any “return of the secularists.” His track record of ideological and political extremism is far too extensive to catalog here, but is beyond any real, honest, and informed doubt.

Against this, Feldman cites Ennahda’s supposed “willingness to share power” and compromise. What he doesn’t tell his readers is that this is enforced by the fact that Ennahda does not have a parliamentary majority and perforce must govern by coalition. It had no option to behave like the Egyptian Brotherhood. This was less political maturity than an enforced reality.

“Tunisia’s constitutional process is working,” Feldman observes, as if this were attributable to Ennahda’s reasonableness. It might just as easily be in spite, rather than because of the group’s obvious continued deep ideological adherence to religious radicalism.

Feldman’s commitment to the Ennahda line is so thorough that he even bemoans the biggest concession it made to its governing partners: the need for a powerful president. Instead, he writes, “a purely parliamentary system would be better,” which is exactly what Ennahda wants. This is because they know they can be the largest party, but not a majority, in Parliament. But they rightly doubt they could win a presidential election based on a single Islamist versus a non-Islamist in Tunisia.

But the Wall Street Journal managed to outdo everyone by concluding an otherwise reasonable unsigned editorial urging the U.S. not to cut off aid to Egypt (good advice), with this jaw-dropping assertion: “Egyptians would be lucky if their new ruling generals turned out to be in the mold of Chile’s Augusto Pinochet…”

The Journal probably has in mind Pinochet’s enforcement of its beloved economic neoliberalism. But it is either suffering from selective amnesia or just doesn’t care about his hideous legacy.

Pinochet’s rule in Chile was marked by the rounding up of dissidents in stadiums, the torture, murder, and disappearance of untold thousands, a reign of terror against all political opponents, and the complete elimination of political life in the country for decades. He was also responsible for a brutal act of terrorism in the United States; the car bomb assassination of a political opponent in Washington, D.C.’s Sheridan Circle. What a perfect model!

Were Egypt’s “ruling generals” to accept this advice and mimic Pinochet, this would undoubtedly ensure the worst-case scenario in Egypt: a replay of the dreadful civil war in Algeria of the 1990s. While everyone else is desperately trying to find a way of avoiding such an outcome, the Journal managed to identify a surefire means of guaranteeing it.

Events in Egypt are dangerous and frightening. But even more disturbing is the looking-glass world of Washington punditry in which Egyptians are simply incapable of democracy or must choose between Morsi and al-Qaeda; a gruesome fantasyland in which Ghannouchi psychedelically morphs into Mandela, and the blood-soaked mass murderer Pinochet is celebrated as a model of governance.

المتطرفون الإسلاميون هم الأعداء الحقيقيون للإسلام

المعنى الحقيقي للإسلاموفوبيا ليس الهجوم على تعاليم وطقوس الدين الإسلامي. إنه الهجوم على المسلمين، بشراً ومجتمعات، خصوصاً منها تلك الجديدة، ولكن النامية، الموجودة في الغرب. وتهدف هذه الهجمات إلى تحديد قابلية هذه المجتمعات على لعب دور فعال في المجتمعات ذات التعددية، والمشاركة بشكل كامل في الثقافة والاقتصاد العالميين. اذا كان هذا هو تعريف الإسلاموفوبيا، إذن بالتأكيد نحن نحتاج إلى إجراء مراجعة لتعيين من هم أكثر المعادين للإسلام وأشدهم خطراً وتدميراً له.

لأول وهلة قد تعتقد أن الجواب عن هذا السؤال بديهي وبسيط. ولكنني أقول إنهم ليسوا من امتهنوا تشويه الإسلام والمسلمين مثل روبرت سبنسر الذي سخّر نفسه لهذا الهدف وكأنه أحد جنود الحروب الصليبية. وليسوا هم من اتخذوا هذا المجال هواية غبية مثل اليهودية الأميركية المتطرفة باميلا غيلار. وليسوا حتى أولئك العنصريين، ولو بصورة مخففة، من امثال الكوميدي الأميركي الليبرالي غير المتدين بل ماهر الذي يكره كل الأديان ولكنه يخصص نقده اللاذع للإسلام من دون الأديان الأخرى. وليس حتى السياسيين في الولايات المتحدة والدول الغربية الأخرى مثل بيتر كنغ او ميشيل باكمان الذين حاولوا أن يفوزوا بأصوات الناخبين من خلال طرح انفسهم الحماة ضد «الطابور الخامس المسلم.»

على الرغم من كل الأذى الذي يتسبب به المعادون التقليديون للإسلام فإن اكثرهم سوءاً – أو بالأحرى المعادين الحقيقيين للإسلام – لا بد أن يكونوا المتشددين الإسلاميين الدمويين الذين يغذّون مادة المعاداة للإسلام ويوفرون لها ذخيرتها الموضوعية في بعض الأحيان. مع ذلك فإنه من السخف أن يُساوى الإسلام مع الإرهاب وكأن الاثنين مترادفان، فهناك عدد لا يُحصى من الإرهابيين غير المسلمين ممن يمارسون العنف السياسي. ولا يجب أن ننسى أن المتشددين الإسلاميين الدمويين هم ليسوا فقط أقلية، بل أقلية داخل أقلية. إلا أن أفعالهم المدمرة تتسم بخصوصية لافتة في كونها تهدد، وأحياناً تنجح، في مفاقمة الخوف من المسلمين وزيادة الكراهية ضدهم في الغرب وحول العالم.

يبدو أن المفارقات ليس لها حدود في هذه النقطة، فمثلاً نقلت صحيفة «نيويورك تايمز» عن تامرلان تزارنييف، منفذ هجمات ماراثون بوسطن الإرهابية «إنه غاضب من تصوير العالم للإسلام بأنه دين عنف». لذلك قرر أن يثبت للعالم صحة رؤيته للإسلام بقتل ما يستطيع من المدنيين المنهمكين بممارسة الرياضة في ذلك اليوم.

وهنا تفوق تامرلان بضرره على الإسلام والمسلمين حتى على أولئك العنصريين الذين يصرخون بالويل والثبور ضد المسلمين وتجاوزت اساءته دعاية دعاة الكراهية ضد المسلمين أيضاً، فضرر هؤلاء يصغر أمام حجم الضرر الذي تسبب به تامرلان على القضية التي يدّعي الدفاع عنها، وهي سمعة الدين.

منذ ظهورهم في العصر الحديث، صنّف أصحاب العنف السياسي من السنّة والشيعة أنفسهم على أنهم حماة المستضعفين. وكان من بين أهم القضايا التي طرحوها هي غضبهم من الطريقة التي يصور بها الغرب والمجتمعات غير المسلمة الأخرى الدين الإسلامي والمسلمين.

بإعطائه مثالاً جديداً داعماً لأسوأ ما يوصف به المسلمون من أوصاف بذيئة ومبتذلة (على أنهم متطرفون دمويون)، قام تزارنييف باتباع تقليد يعود إلى السبعينات من القرن الماضي عندما سعى سلفيون جهاديون و»خمينيون» وبطريقة مستغربة إلى ما قالوا انه حماية لشرف الإسلام وسمعته من خلال اقتراف جرائم قتل جماعي بحق المدنيين الأبرياء.

عندما تُصور الرسوم الكاريكاتورية الدنماركية على أنها إهانة للنبي محمد (صلى الله عليه وسلم)، وتغتنم منظماتٌ متطرفة الفرصة لتنظيم احتجاجات دموية تؤدي إلى سقوط قتلى، فمن هي الجهة التي تسيء لسمعة الدين؟ بعض من هذه الرسوم كان عنصرياً، وبعضها الآخر سخيفاً. كان يمكن لهذه الرسوم أن تمر من دون أي أذى يذكر لو لم تُثر كل تلك الضجة والصخب حولها. إذا كانت نية أصحاب الرسوم إثارة الخوف والكراهية ضد المسلمين والإسلام فإن من قام بعملهم بدلاً منهم هي الجماعات المتطرفة واحتجاجاتها الشريرة والتهكمية. هذه هي الإسلاموفوبيا، وأكثر إساءة يمكن أن توجه للإسلام والمسلمين.

ربما أول سابقة لهذا النوع من الإسلاموفوبيا الغريبة والذاتية كانت فتوى الموت الإيرانية التي اصدرها آية الله الخميني ضد سلمان رشدي عام 1989. لم تكن روايته، «آيات شيطانية»، لها أية صلة بالإسلاموفوبيا أو كونها معادية للمسلمين، على الرغم من أنها احتوت ايحاءات كاريكاتورية للخميني نفسه والتي كانت ربما السبب الحقيقي وراء اصدار الفتوى، فضلاً عن اسباب اخرى سياسية انتهازية. ولكن الفهم الخاطئ للكتاب وما رافقه من ادانة وحرق في المجتمعات الإسلامية، خصوصاً في بريطانيا والهند، صدرت من ناس لم يكونوا قد قرأوا حرفاً واحداً من الكتاب، الا إنهم لهثوا وراء عصبية جاهلة وغير موضوعية قبلت طرحاً سياسياً يصنف الكتاب على انه «مسيء للإسلام» على الرغم من أنه لم يكن كذلك. مرة اخرى، الأذى الحقيقي الذي تلقاه الدين والمسلمون جاء بسبب رد الفعل المتعطش للدماء والهستيريا المتمثلة بتهديدات القتل والاحتجاجات وتظاهرات حرق الكتاب وكل اشكال الغضب المصطنع والمفبرك.

ربما احدث ما وقع من أفعال «اسلاموفوبية» كان جريمة قتل الجندي البريطاني البشعة على يد رجلين نيجيريين في ضاحية «وولويتش» في لندن. وفي خضم فعلتهما المستنكرة كانا يجتران مقولات وسواسية ومتخيلة تصور العالم الإسلامي رازحاً تحت حصار غربي مفترض. ولم يفتهما بالطبع أن يعلنا رفضهما لصفة «التطرف» والتي قررا ان ينفياها عن طريق تقطيع جسد الجندي في وسط الطريق وفي وضح النهار.

وهكذا فإن مجموعات ضئيلة غارقة في ذهنية جنونية وشوفينية قررت أن افضل طريقة لمجابهة العرض السلبي للإسلام هو باتباع نفس السلوك الذي يتخذه «الاسلاموفوبيون الغربيون» كأدلة على صحة الصورة التي يطرحونها ضد الإسلام والمسلمين بصورة عامة. وهم بذلك يثبتون وبإخلاص تام نبوءة «الإسلاموفوبيين الغربيين» من خلال تقمصهم لنفس الصورة التي يدعون كراهيتها. ومن دون هذا العون الذي يقدمونه، فإن «الاسلاموفوبيين الغربيين» وببساطة سيظهرون على حقيقتهم التي تتسم بالسخافة. ولكن المتطرفين الدمويين الإسلاميين يوفرون لهؤلاء تبريراً غير مستحق وغير واقعي لتسويق الخوف والكراهية ضد مجتمعات المسلمين التي يدعي هؤلاء المتطرفون الدفاع عنها. لا أحد يغذي الاسلاموفوبيا بهذا القدر من التدمير والشدة مثلما يفعل هؤلاء المتطرفون الإسلاميون. انهم بحق «الإسلاموفوبيون الحقيقيون.»


Coup by Acclamation?

Call it people power. Call it a coup. Call it a coup by acclamation.

But what has just taken place in Egypt doesn’t really fit any existing language or political template. The array of forces that stood around Army Chief and Defense Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi at the podium when he announced the ouster of the government of Muslim Brotherhood President Mohammad Morsi was extraordinary. Al-Sisi personally represented not only the military, but, implicitly, the police, the Interior Ministry, the security forces, and much of the government apparatus. Around him were gathered, in agreement, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Ahmed El-Tayyeb, Coptic Orthodox Patriarch Tawadros II, and former International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei, the spokesman for the main opposition National Salvation Front (NSF) coalition, among many others.

Between the unparalleled demonstrations that began on Sunday, and the breadth and depth of Egyptian consensus on that stage on Wednesday evening, there could be no question. The entirety of organized, politically and socially active Egyptian society—of course excluding the Muslim Brotherhood and its immediate allies—have united in supporting the Army removing the government. If this goes badly, the blame cannot fall on the Armed Forces alone, for they have not acted alone. They have responded to an extraordinary outpouring of mass and popular anti-Brotherhood sentiment, and marshaled a huge coalition in support of their decision to end the current presidency and impose a new transitional order.

By agreeing to the military’s “framework” for transition, most of the other major national forces, particularly the non-Islamist ones, have been essentially made parties to the “implementation of the will of the people,” or the “coup,” or whatever one might care to call it. For it is both of those things, and neither.

In some ways it resembles the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak. But Morsi was elected under the law. On the other hand, the essence of the failure of the Morsi government—an utter unwillingness or inability to compromise, conciliate, cooperate or come to terms—was actually exemplified in the extraordinary national unity that surrounded the rejection of his continuation in office.

First we saw a petition that drew over 25 million signatures calling for new elections. The former president dismissed this out of hand. Then the untold millions (the real number will never be known), from all walks of life and all Egyptian descriptions, poured out onto the street since Sunday calling for his resignation.

Even then, Morsi might have saved the day for himself. The turning point was probably his angry, belligerent, aggressive and paranoid rant to the nation on June 26. For more than 2 and a half hours, he bellowed and cooed, barked and berated, scolded and cajoled. His message was simple: “We are the revolutionaries. I am their leader. No one dare challenge me. Obey my authority.”

Inevitably, it alienated the entire country. And it reminded them that he had no policy answers to the problems that plague daily life for most Egyptians. And yet even when al-Sisi issued his 48 hour ultimatum, Morsi still had a chance. True enough, the whole point of the 48 hours was to tell the demonstrators all they had to do was hang in there for two days. But had the President called in the opposition, created a national unity government, announced new elections, or offered anything really  substantive that smacked of change, he might
well have survived.

Instead, he reacted furiously. His speech on Tuesday was a veritable tirade against everyone who is not an immediate supporter. He blamed the demonstrations on counterrevolutionaries, traitors, agents of foreign powers, scofflaws and hooligans. It was an expression of the most profound contempt for the ordinary people of the country and showed how out of touch he was, and the extent to which his loss of legitimacy was irrevocable.

Meanwhile, al-Sisi did exactly what Morsi should have done, but either could or would not. If there was ever any question about who was the better politician as an individual, or a more savvy institution, it’s been completely resolved now. He and his military colleagues held a set of intensive and serious consultations with representatives of the mainstream opposition coalition, the NSF, representatives of religious and other important social forces, Islamist groups outside the Muslim Brotherhood, and, indeed, almost the whole spectrum of organized Egyptian social and political life.

The consequence was, ultimately, the development of a consensus regarding the basic elements of what al-Sisi announced, and what was endorsed by the other key figures at the podium, Wednesday night. The Constitution is suspended temporarily, and a committee will be formed to amend key provisions in the new Constitution that are generally regarded as unacceptable. The Constitution was rammed through by Morsi and his Islamist allies after a red herring “constitutional declaration,” in which he assigned himself virtually monarchical powers. He rescinded the declaration only to mollify public anger about the terrible new Constitution that was immediately rammed through an Islamist-stacked committee. That mockery reiterates almost everything that was objectionable about the old constitutions, and adds a layer of potentially very oppressive “Islamic” legislation.

The issue of the Constitution is the most important one by far. Without serious revision, the Constitution that was forced through by the Muslim Brotherhood and their Salafist allies is a death sentence to any hope for a tolerant, pluralistic, democratic and open-minded Egyptian political system. On the contrary, it opens the door to an endless stream of abusive, pandering majoritarian oppression of unpopular individuals, disfavored or despised minorities, and subjugated women.

The functions of the presidency will now be assumed by the Chief Justice of the High Constitutional Court, Adly Mansour. He will be sworn in to this function on Thursday. New presidential elections will be held “at the earliest possible date,” followed by parliamentary elections. In the meantime, a government of “technocrats” will be formed, very possibly headed by ElBaradei. One of the less encouraging announcements was that of a “media code of ethics” to guarantee “professionalism,” which can hardly result in anything other than censorship. Hopefully the kind of suppression of free speech through quasi-legal means that was employed in such a reckless way under Morsi whose government brought more prosecutions for insulting the presidency in his one year in office than Mubarak’s did in his more than 30—will be prevented by the military’s coalition partners.

There will also be a commission for national reconciliation, whatever that means. But Egyptian society, political forces and leading personalities are going to have to try to learn the principle of national unity from their own public. The Egyptian people came together across many different lines of division to reject an arbitrary   government that had gone too far and was abusing its authority and dragging the nation into the abyss. But it is crucial to understand that the Muslim Brotherhood is not going away. It is not a spent force. It is not an irrelevancy. It is a major national institution with a huge constituency. Indeed, after the army, it is probably the single largest and most effective national organization in all of Egypt.

Therefore, any impulse to institutionalize the exclusion of the Muslim Brotherhood will be a catastrophe. The lessons from the Algerian experience must hang heavy in the air. The Brotherhood left no choice for the whole rest of society, united, to reject their governance. But, if they stay within the law and eschew major outpourings of violence, they should not be persecuted or prosecuted. If they turn to violence, as some of their rhetoric suggests they might, this will be a calamity. It will lead to civil war, at least of a kind. They will lose, but it will be a generalized catastrophe.

If, on the other hand, non-Islamist forces who have now seized power by popular acclimation seek to systematically exclude the Brothers even if they continue to try to play by the new rules, they will be courting disaster. They must allow the Brotherhood to run in upcoming elections, and hope that they will learn their lesson and behave in a more reasonable, normative and inclusive manner if elected. If not, they will be rejected again. Democracies, from the outset, have always had to incorporate and accommodate non-democratic and authoritarian-minded forces (which the Brotherhood most certainly is) in spite of their hostility to the pluralistic order in which they participate. It is one of the great hazards of a free, open and democratic system: to be true to itself, it must generously afford oppressive groups more liberty than such groups would allow anyone else.

Yet there is a serious danger that the Egyptian Islamists may turn to violence. They may kid themselves, as other Arab Islamists have in the past, that “we’ve tried democracy, and it doesn’t work.” Since we want power, we have to try the more direct route again: violence. Morsi himself has articulated precisely this kind of mentality in his recent speeches, particularly on the evening before he was overthrown. All of his repeated pledges to sacrifice his own blood and body in the cause of “legitimacy” were just so much red meat for anyone in the Brotherhood who wants to instigate violence. But many of the Brotherhood leaders have been placed on an indefinite travel ban. The point is not to stop them from enjoying the fine weather in Fiji at this time of year. The message is simple: if you or any of your supporters, or anyone linked to you, starts blowing things up or shooting people on the streets, you can and will be arrested and held responsible.

A degree of violence now is virtually inevitable. Indeed, it’s been going on for quite some time. And it may intensify. But as long as it is contained, then the prospects for a productive, constructive transition remain viable. The danger is that some Brothers or others might feel that such a huge injustice has been done to “legitimacy,” and their simple majoritarianist misunderstanding of “democracy,” that only an armed response is sufficient. Some of Morsi’s supporters are openly speaking in terms of “civil war” and pledging to “sacrifice their lives in this situation.”

The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood has done enormous damage to itself already through its mismanagement of government and politics. If it wants to make matters worse, it can exploit these young people and destroy its reputation, at least in Egypt, forever. And the fate of the Brotherhood in Egypt will have tremendous implications for the fortunes of similar Islamists throughout the Arab world.

Whether in the United States or the rest of the West, or in the Arab or Islamic worlds, the idea that the Arabs and the Muslims are basically Islamists, or easily won over by anyone who grabs the Quran and clutches it to their chest while screaming “follow me to salvation,” must surely now be finally debunked. Most Arabs are faithful Muslims, but they are not Islamists. They do not welcome the Muslim Brothers’ authoritarianism, oppression and heavy handedness, and they will not put up with it. That’s a lesson not only for Islamists throughout the Middle East. It’s a lesson for policymakers in Washington, and around the world as well.