Jadaliyya co-editor Bassam Haddad reflects on various points surrounding the discourses that have shaped how Egypt is covered and discussed:
“Good Morning, I’m Late, But an Egypt Expert Now!”
Many commentators, on all sides of the political spectrum, come to the Egyptian scene as spectators who did not closely follow the events between 11 February 2011 and 30 June 2013. And they know much, much less about the Egyptian polity prior to 2011. Thus, judgments often proceed from a priori positions regarding false binaries such as “Islamism” vs. “secularism,” as though there is no history prior to 2011, or as though there was no record of policies to judge during Morsi’s presidency. More often than not, analyses embrace all-encompassing narratives that present Egypt as a battlefield featuring only a few actors (“Islamists vs. liberals”; “Army vs. Muslim Brotherhood”; “Revolutionaries vs. Counter-Revolutionaries”). Such accounts effectively erase the many processes and actors that do not fit into these binary categories. As with Syria, we end up witnessing entrenched ideational/impression-based camps rather than dynamic analysis that is amenable to revision. The discourse on Egypt becomes more important than what is actually happening in Egypt. The same applies to local Egyptian media if observers are glued to one venue.
“The Brotherhood is Only a Party that Opposed Dictatorship”
Many commentators know about the Egyptian state or dictatorship under Mubarak, including its economic exploits and the marriage of money and power; concessions to, and collaboration with, Israel; and the repression of political alternatives. However, most know little about the history of the Muslim Brotherhood nor for that matter the organization’s preferences, behavior, and policies after Morsi’s election. The most egregious common mis-analysis is the jettisoning of the Muslim Brotherhood’s role in cajoling the army and re-entrenching the security state and some of its social and political corollaries under Morsi’s leadership, and before. The idea that the Brotherhood was also being used by the army (as Tamarod was) is noted. More important, however, is that there were explicit decisions by the Brotherhood/Morsi to strengthen the hand of the ancient regime and a near absence of an institutional curtailing of the security state’s power or the probability of its abuse of power. The Brotherhood, for those who only see a past of an underdog opposing authoritarian rule, is much more than and much less than that. Their social and economic record prior to 2011, notwithstanding the services they provided, is very much of a black box, or irrelevant, to many commentators and instant “experts.”
The Media’s Binary
The media have played an exceptionally delusional role inside and outside Egypt, supporting partisan narrative in their maximalist version. Unending and thorough demonization of the Muslim Brotherhood was countered by most Brotherhood supporters/defenders with utter neglect of their excesses, complicity with the army/fuloul, and transgressions, especially after 2011. Watching one or the other type of television stations (or reading one or the other publication) exclusively prejudices outcomes beyond reason. Most dangerous has been the vitriol in most liberal Egyptian media against the Muslim Brotherhood and pretty much everything they stand for today or stood for in the past. This discourse mobilized not just bodies, but minds, preparing them to anticipate, accept, and perhaps justify violent and brutal action against them. The reactionary Muslim Brotherhood equivalent about the “other” is and was at play, in media and action. Perhaps we are accustomed to it and were unmoved. Yet this reactionary equivalent of the Brotherhood pales in comparison with the institutional and coercive action-backed discourse against them.
“Bahrain’s rulers treat the country they took over approximately 230 years ago as a typical business model. To protect their investments from the people of Bahrain, they have brought in tens of thousands of Sunni mercenaries from countries such as Pakistan, Jordan, Syria, and Yemen to maintain their authoritarian hold on power. This also serves a purpose of changing the demographics of Bahrain from a Shia majority into a Sunni majority, as the regime only allows for the political naturalization of Sunnis. Through their membership in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Bahrain’s rulers have forged alliances with other Gulf monarchies, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Such alliances have shielded Bahrain from international scrutiny and accountability. Bahrainis often complain that Bahrain is not Al Khalifa’s country and Bahrainis are not their people. They accuse the rulers of treating the country they conquered by force as a privately owned money hub and do not care about the consequences of their irreversible and damaging actions.”—
The poor coverage of Bahrain in Western media is nothing surprising. It would do you good if you read this heartrending account by Maryam Al-Khawaja, the acting President of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, whose father (Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja) and sister (Zainab Al-Khawaja) are currently imprisoned for their peaceful activism. Maryam was also recently banned from entering Bahrain.
Last September, sixteen-year-old Eman Mustafa was walking with a friend in the village of Arab Al Kablatin Assiut, when a man groped her breasts. She turned to face him and spat in his face. He shot her dead with an automatic rifle as a price for her bravery. Mustafa’s death was an eye-opener call to those who claim that sexual violence is an urban issue. Thanks to human rights organizations and activist groups, Eman’s killer was sentenced to life imprisonment in June 2013.
Violence against women across historical, cultural, and national divides continues to be a socially accepted practice, if not a norm. In the realms of both policy and social awareness, we have collectively failed to tackle this issue with serious rigor. As a result, we seem to be witnessing an increase in sexual violence and brutality.
In Egypt, sexual harassment is widespread and touches the lives of the majority of women whether on the streets, in public transportation, or at the work place, the super market, or political protests. It is true that sexual harassment still lacks a unified definition, but it is not difficult to identify unwelcome verbal or physical sexual violation. Many Egyptians, women included, are unclear as to what constitutes sexual harassment. Others sadly, do not think it is a problem. One thing is clear though, and that is the actions of the various governments of the last thirty years have been limited to statements of regret and unmet promises.
“Anti-Imperialist Transnational Feminist Studies theorizes the US war on terror as a racialized, gendered, and sexualized imperialist war that operates through military and economic policy in order to advance and consolidate the system of capitalism. AITFS contextualizes the US war on terror within the restructuring of US domestic and foreign policy, which entailed an expansion of the conjoined heteropatriarchal, racist, and classist structures of the prison industrial complex (PIC) and the military industrial complex (MIC), both driven by the economic neo-liberalism of the late twentieth and beginning of the twenty-first centuries. Historically, the Reagan era’s neo-liberal economic policies and the war on drugs during the decades leading up to the war on terror set this process into motion. Notably, throughout this period, the MIC has worked through a neo-liberal system in which functions of the military were increasingly transferred to bodies outside of the state, including private corporations, subcontractors, and universities. Paralleling this process, the US prison industrial complex has also undergone privatization so that nearly all prison-related service providers are for-profit companies and are sustained by a racist, classist, and heteropatriarchal criminal justice system.”—Nadine Naber writes on Transnational Anti-Imperialism and Middle East Women’s Studies
“The state seeks order; it can control only those whom it orders. It cannot cope with the demand of “freedom”; it has to ask questions such as “freedom for whom,” “freedom for what,” or “freedom under what circumstances” in order to tuck freedom into neat boxes. Order draws borders, fixes identities, and defines. It attempts to establish a hierarchy. By telling parents to take their daughters and sons home from the park, it both brands the resisting bodies as “children” and tries to trigger into action the nucleus of society: family. Through its rhetoric of security, it attributes the risks of its own making to the resisting bodies. It hangs its own flag or banner on the bodies that it prefers knocking down rather than protecting. It punishes those who do not obey; it uses punishment as retaliation. It operates through censorship, threats, and propaganda.”—Excerpt from Occupy Gezi as Politics of the Body
“The MB’s sectarian language, the increase in sectarian incidents, the attack on the St. Mark’s Cathedral in April, Morsi’s failure to react to a sheikh who called Shi‘a “filth,” and the entirely useless response to the Sh‘ia lynchings in June were all important indications of an unwillingness to rein in fringe extremist elements on the Islamist scene. Most significantly they showed that Morsi was never interested in representing all Egyptians. But again, Morsi inherited a tradition of state discrimination and sectarianism from his predecessor, he just cranked it up several thousand notches.”—Excerpt from On Sheep and Infidels by Sarah Carr
Some may argue that free and fair elections, if properly conducted, are fully capable of producing a government that reflects the promise of the January 25 Revolution and its partisans. Yet this line of reasoning conveniently overlooks the distortive role that electoral politics play in pushing out of the national political arena issues and agendas that concern socially marginalized classes.
The experience of the 2011/12 elections is a case in point. The failure of partisans of distributive justice, such as the Revolution Continues Alliance, to secure meaningful representation in Parliament speaks to a reality in which big money and parties of privilege — whether Islamist or secular — dominate the electoral arena, making it extremely difficult for political allies of the marginalized to really succeed in national politics.
In such a context, the liberal prescription of free and fair elections confronts an insurmountable paradox: How can elections create a national political arena capable of resolving pressing conflicts over economic and social rights if those who lack and demand these rights are constantly crowded out of this same arena by default? In this respect, the power that liberals attribute to free and fair elections to resolve the social conflicts that are tearing Egypt apart today is little more than an illusion.
“For those who have just tuned into the news this week, the warnings of a military return may be a jolt. But, for those who have been watching Egypt for the past two years, these concerns are far from the realities on the ground. For one, the military never left the political realm, even after President Morsi’s inauguration on 30 June 2012. In fact, the political basis for Morsi’s rule today is a pact between the Muslim Brotherhood and the military. The former controls the presidency and the sectors of the bureaucracy that do not pose a direct challenge to its interests. The military retains its abnormal political and economic privileges, including its vast economic empire, far from any meaningful civilian oversight.”—Jadaliyya co-editor Hesham Sallam writes on Down with Military Rule…Again?
“I started my shift with Opantish at around 7:30 last night. We did not wrap up until after 3:00 in the morning. We received forty-six reports of cases of mob sexual assault in and around Tahrir. We were able to intervene in around half, in coordination with other groups such as Tahrir Bodyguard. Some attacks involved the use of blades, sticks, and other weapons. One case had to go to the hospital and underwent surgery and several others needed medical attention. Some volunteers were also wounded in the process. The square became undeniably unsafe for women.”—
“If reasonable people can rightly assert that the Syrian regime is something of the past because of its domestic horrors, why are we not rejecting wholesale the repetition of such patterns today—ultimately of exclusionary/reactionary groups—in the name of liberation? Even if some of the answers are understandable from an analytical/explanatory point of view, they are increasingly unconvincing politically. Time is of the essence. Unless a more “revolutionary” attitude takes hold in Syria—one that is focused on liberation and not confined revenge—what has been happening in Egypt during the past year in this regard, will prove to be a blissful picnic compared to Syria’s future, with or without this regime.”—
Maybe we should, if only because many others are incessantly repeating problematic narratives that require reminders and debunking at the expense of repetition. Romanticizing the uprising despite the ugliness of significant parts of the “revolution” or denying its original legitimacy in favor solely of pointing to external conspiracies do not serve Syria, the Syrian people, or the peoples of the region. But these poles continue to dominate the discursive sphere. Both tendencies continue to reveal the increasing distance between current writing and the relatively purer early period, as well as the increasing distance between nearly all writers and the multitude of developments on the ground because of knowledge limitations.
At the risk of sounding like a broken and dull record … one may, I assume, write something, though none of this will reduce or even limit the pain of Syrians and a Syria that is being gradually eroded, with its good and bad.
It is the retreat to the margins, which have always been home to the unorthodox, unconventional, and to the “revolutionary.” I trace the inevitability of this position of retreating to the margins to the day Morsi won the elections a year ago. I was thrilled that his adversary, the old regime stalwart Ahmad Shafiq, did not win and wanted to take to the streets to celebrate. But Tahrir Square was occupied, this time by Islamists, and we did not share the same aspirations or joy. They cheered for sharia and I cheered for my revolution. One year later, the masses take to the streets once more with a shared demand to topple the Muslim Brotherhood regime, and the scene is equally estranging.
In this context, we come to terms with the suspension of our momentary presence at the epicenters of the squares of revolt. We remain who we are, we continue to do what we do, but operate from our predetermined and archetypal marginality. But we still hold on to the thought that a revolution was born from this marginality.
“Many thinkers became increasingly mired in a calcified liberalism. The marginalized, the disenfranchised, and the impoverished, most often embodied in the figure of the Arab woman—with her body and its adornments as the site of contest and definition—became the object of choice for study and sympathy. Liberals eulogized the collective body of the people and along with it, the possibilities of politics and popular sovereignty. Radicals who pushed us to challenge central liberal tenets also seemed to foreclose the possibility of politics. An epistemology of despair took root alongside the authoritarianism that knowledge producers (activists, journalists, and academics) failed to explain.”—Read more on Gender and the People in Revolutionary Times by Jadaliyya co-editor Sherene Seikaly
“In the United States, an Orientalist mind-set, coupled with a Judeo-Christian normative outlook, intersects with xenophobia and an imperialist foreign policy. These imperatives constitute the positioning of an imagined Arab or Muslim enemy as inherently foreign and outside the boundaries of US nationness. This dominant US discourse conflates the categories “Arab” and “Muslim” and assumes that all Arabs are Muslim, all Muslims are Arab, and all Muslim Arabs are the same. It obscures the existence of Arabs who are not Muslim (including, but not limited to, Christians and Jews), and Muslims who are not Arab (including Indonesians, Malaysians, Chinese, South Asians, Africans, African Americans, and Latinos/as). It also erases the historic and vast ethnic communities who are neither Arab nor Muslim but who live amid and interact with a majority of Arabs or Muslims (such as Greeks in Egypt; Armenians in Palestine; Roma in Jordan; Kurds in Iraq, Turkey, and Iran; and Imazhigen in North Africa, to name a few).”—
“Iranians seeking democratic change effectively moved their leaders this time. They combined their electoral participation with extra-institutional methods of oppositional protest, and saw no contradiction in it. They recognized that existing politicians in the political game designed by the regime fell short of people’s democratic aspirations, but decided to play with the available pieces and disrupt the supposedly pre-determined outcome. This all suggests the strengthening of a pragmatist and activist model of oppositional politics in Iran, a model that promises a new encounter with rather old challenges of the democratic movement in Iran.”—Read more on A New Oppositional Politics: The Campaign Participants in Iran’s 2013 Presidential Election
“Israeli war planes illegally fly over the country daily, low enough to taunt people with their own helplessness. The sonic booms, a staple of Lebanon’s soundscape, are a clear message that the country is at the mercy of Israel’s brutal war machine. This message vibrates in the bones of those that have lived and died under countless Israeli raids over civilian villages, towns, and cities. It is a strange thing being bombed from the sky while knowing that there is no air force or anti-aircraft to protect you, and that you have only the concrete of your building to shield you from one of the strongest air forces in the world. To be teased with your own death and the deaths of those that you love. How does one ever feel safe again?”—Maya Mikdashi, War’s Yawning Mouth
Jadaliyya is proud to announce the launch of its new Turkey Page. Similarly structured to our Egypt, Syria, Arabian Peninsula, and Maghreb Pages, the page will feature articles written by those on the ground in Turkey as well as outside observers, from a wide range of perspectives.
We are launching the page in the midst of ongoing violence unleashed by municipal and state authorities in Turkey against protesters in Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir, and throughout the country. As of 17 June, the Turkish Medical Association reported that 7,822 protesters throughout the country had been injured, and four people have been killed. At the same time, in the past two days, new forms of resistance have begun to emerge after the bitter moment of “defeat” by the police, after protesters were removed from Gezi Park last Saturday and barred from returning. The slogan “everywhere is Taksim, resistance everywhere” has been taken up, as people’s forums have begun to be held in parks and neighborhoods throughout the country, continuing the experiments with direct participatory democracy begun in Gezi Park and other public spaces. On the other hand, Taksim Square itself was declared a no entry zone, so the performance artist Erdem Gündüz stood motionless and silent in the square on Monday evening, spontaneously attracting thousands who have started standing with him all over the country. The “standing people” have demonstrated that even if the state leaves you with no room to move or chokes your slogans with tear gas, you can still stand. And as the resistance has spread throughout Turkey, actions there have inspired protests in other parts of the world against police violence and in defense of public spaces.
“This is the backdrop, against which we need to read the current developments. There is a government that has only recently been re-elected with fifty percent of the popular vote. There is a prime minister, who was once the flag bearer of democratic reform and humane government, yet who has lost touch with developments on the grounds, and who is about to suffocate in his own delusions of grandeur. He is talking disjointedly about women who should have at least three children, about abortion as murder, about people who drink beer as alcoholics, and about the protestors as an immoral bunch of looters. He disregards anyone, who disagrees with his views and tries to brand mark them as enemies of the state. And he is not able to understand that the young activists, who began the occupation of the Gezi Park on Taksim Square, were not part of a deep state conspiracy in the fashion of the Republican Marches of 2007. These were environmentalists and students trying to prevent the destruction of one of the few inner-city parks so that yet another Shopping Centre could be built, and Taksim Square be recast as a space of consumption rather than as a meeting place for a democratic public.”——“Contours of a New Republic and SIgnals from the Past”, Kerem Öktem, in-depth and historically sweeping article at Jadaliyya, an independent ezine produced by ASI (Arab Studies Institute). (via humanrightsupdates)
In the past few decades, both media and academic scholarship have marginalized the Western Saharan conflict, rendering it largely insignificant within regional and global political imaginations. Beginning as a post-colonial dispute between regional powers in the 1970s, the conflict developed and was exacerbated as North Africa became an entangled site of Cold War rivalries. Following the 1975 Madrid Accords, in which Spain conceded on its promises to the Sahrawi people on honoring their right to self-determination through a referendum, Spain instead split the territory between Mauritania and Morocco. By then, the Polisario Front had grown as an armed struggle group, fighting for an independent Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, first against Spanish colonization, then against Mauritanian and Moroccan military forces. By 1979, Mauritanian forces withdrew from the territory, leaving the conflict between the Polisario Front and the Moroccan military, which lasts up until today. After decades of violence, tens of thousands of deaths and even more refugees, the territorial dispute over the Western Sahara remains unresolved. It also remains underreported, despite the serious escalation in violence since 2010, with the Polisario Front more intent than ever to establish an independent state. Given political developments both in the Maghreb and the Sahel, the conflict’s implications for the entire region are significant.
Despite the scant attention that the Western Sahara has received, several authors have recently argued that the Sahrawi’s struggle for self-determination is part and parcel of the ongoing uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa. Noam Chomsky went as far as to argue that the “Arab Spring” actually began in the Western Sahara, pointing to the Moroccan army’s violent repression of the October 2010 protests in Gdeim Izik, which lasted until November 2010, a month before Mohammed Bouazizi’s self-immolation in Tunisia. While the Western Sahara protests may have influenced the Tunisian uprisings in some way, as many authors and thinkers have shown, the exact causes of the uprising remain elusive. Chomsky’s argument draws much-needed attention to the conflict; however, situating the Gdeim Izik protests as the beginning of the “Arab Spring” disrupts a historical narrative that is centered on a decades-long struggle for self-determination in the Western Sahara.
Click here to continue reading the introduction to the roundtable. The list of roundtable contributions is below:
Most international news successfully reported on the documented police violence, and excessive use of tear gas and water cannons against citizens for a number of days. While outrageous, none of this is particularly surprising anymore to the citizens of Turkey, the much celebrated would-be model of “Islamic democracy” for the “Arab Spring.” The AKP government has made both its autocratic conservative preferences and its penchant for a security state clear since its sweeping reelection victory in 2011. Their record thus far has included the jailing of journalists, academics, and students without such niceties as due process, evidence, the right to a decent defense, and the rule of law. Turkey in fact ranked first in the world in the number of journalists jailed according to an OCSE report in March 2011. In addition to journalist and academics, Kurdish citizens, many of whom falsely accused of being involved in terrorist activities, have also been the victims of such mass incarceration. Held in jails without a proper trial for months, the Kurds went on a sixty-six-day hunger strike in protest, which only ceased with the intervention of Abdullah Öcalan, the jailed leader of the outlaw Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). It was partially in response to this hunger strike that the AKP is now negotiating with the Kurds to bring an end to Turkey’s twenty-nine year old counterinsurgency against Kurdish separatists.
Important as this attempt to end the war with the PKK is for the resolution of the Kurdish problem and for the further democratization of the country, other governmental policies point to a severe regression in Turkey’s democratic standards. Examples abound. Academic faculty have lost their jobs because they mention the oppression of Armenians, Kurds or Alawis in their classes. The Prime Minister has ordered the destruction of public artwork that offends his sensibility. His government has also banned a book that documents the relationship between the Turkish police force and an opaque Islamist group strongly entrenched in state security forces before its publication. Finally, last summer, in an attempt to derail public protests in response to the Turkish Air Force’s mass slaughter of thirty-four village smugglers in the Uludere/Roboski region of Turkey in December 2010, Erdogan made a public statement equating this massacre with women getting abortions, saying “every abortion is an Uludere”. He then pushed for legislation that would severely limit women’s access to abortion, as well as caesarian sections.
[حجبت إدارة موقع الجزيرة بالانجليزية مقالة جوزيف مسعد “آخر الساميين” بعد أن كانت قد نشرتها في الذكرى الخامسة والستين للنكبة، وذلك إثر ضغوطات سياسية من جهات صهيونية. إلا أن الجزيرة عاودت نشر المقالة عقّب النقد الشديد الذي لاقته واتهامها …
“A report covering the state of Syrian youth, released by UNICEF in March 2013, notes that due to the effects of the conflict on Syrian youth and education, there will be a ‘lost generation.’ The report states that ‘many schools have been damaged, destroyed or taken over by displaced people seeking shelter. Countless children suffer from the psychological trauma of seeing family members killed, of being separated from their parents and being terrified by the constant thunder of shelling.’”—Amidst a Violent Conflict, Syria’s Students Struggle for an Education (via arabious)
Those living in Syria look at things differently. When they are exposed to the terms of debate outside Syria, they smile helplessly, disappointingly, and critically all at once, as though those on both sides of the debate that is happening outside Syria are talking about an imaginary thing, not about realities on the ground. People outside Syria are literally at each other’s throats discursively and physically, arguing over the prioritization of resistance to imperialism or resistance to dictatorship while most local Syrians are wondering about personal security, food, electricity, the safety of their family, and the possibility of dying altogether during the next round of clashes in their neighborhood. Most importantly from an analytical point of view, we erroneously assume that their preferences are stable, but they are not. They too change with circumstances, a perfectly rational behavior.
Thanks to the armed groups who have now perfected—and sometimes surpassed on individual counts—the perennial brutality of the regime, one is hard-pressed in Syria to find a cause or a foreseeable scenario to cling to. Under such conditions, daily matters reign supreme over meta-narratives that are not necessarily unimportant, but have become thoroughly irrelevant for most Syrians. Hence, that smile that many local Syrians draw on their face in the face of meta-narratives spewed by all of us on the other side—to which people click “like,” or not.
This physical detachment, however, does not automatically privilege the analysis of all insiders equitably. Some of the cruder analysis has come from inside Syria. And though such analysis can be discarded as such, it cannot be dismissed as a real expression of real matters, however flawed.
Those of us who have family, friends, and colleagues in Syria with whom we are in touch on a daily basis, and those of us who read Syria news coming out of everywhere and nowhere, know that the discussions inside Syria are far more visceral and real, where positions often reflect immediately consequential action, and where political trade-offs are not academic or theoretical: people die as a result of certain positions. Political trade-offs can mean the difference between being able to provide for one’s family and not being able to put food on the table every night, or not being able to stay in one’s home that same night.