Thursday, April 2, 2009

About Matters Fundamental

Why waste time on gargara (blather)? A couple of perfect Kodak moments, and that should wrap it up for this post.

We will get rid of the disruptions
and implement development schemes
…to forge a great nation.”

President Omar Bashir of Sudan,
During a rally in March after being
indicted by the ICC for War Crimes
in Darfur.

Britain created you and America protects you.
But out of respect for the nation, I consider

the personal spat between us over…I am a
leader, a nationalist, the dean of Arab rulers,
king of African kings and the Imam of Muslims.
My international standing does not allow me to stoop lower.

President Mu’amar Qadafi of Libya during last week’s Arab League meeting in Qatar, addressing King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.


First, the grizzly exit line: “Economic volatility, plus ethnic disintegration, plus empire in decline: That combination is about the most lethal in geopolitics. We now have all three. The age of upheavals starts now.” This is the apocalyptic point finale with which Niall Ferguson sealed a recent lead article in Foreign Policy Magazine.

Happily, of the 14 offenders cited by the historian, eight are in the greater Middle East and eight are card-carrying members of the Muslim club. The beldams competing to turn our dreams—at least those of us who dare indulge in happy ones--to dust are Gaza, Israel, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan, Turkey and Indonesia. The others? Russia, Mexico, the Congo, Zimbabwe and Thailand.

So, it would appear, something wicked this way comes.

Since seven of the cited Middle Eastern countries are either grappling with fundamentalisms eager to rule or with fundamentalisms working hard to stay in power (I am exempting Turkey, not Israel, by the way); and since most analysts keep repeating, mantra-like, that Islamic fundamentalism is the one inspiration that is growing stronger in the midst of turmoil and in the shadow of political stagnation; and since there is a raging debate about the need to establish (at least) eye contact with Islamism, it is only reasonable that I stick to the subject that seems to be on everybody’s mind, and head straight for Egypt.

But before I plunge into umm al dunya (the mother of the world) and its Brotherhood, the mother of all brotherhoods, let me offer this by way of a preface and a conclusion: the short end of this tale is that you’re standing right on the tail end of it. As powerful a presence as Islamic fundamentalism is in the Middle East, it is not new, its ways are no longer mysterious, its message is neither fresh nor untried and those voices that spoke to us as one for many decades have split into so many vernaculars. Islamism might be the rave now in the West-- everyone from goonish Pat Robertson to the infinitely more elevated Martin Amis have been delighting in it (in a manner of speaking, of course), feeling its fangs and horrorizing on its pull over here and its push over there—but, truthfully, enigma left this fellow and its compadres a long time ago. Whatever its home base, Islamic fundamentalism has had a full life and has all the scars to show for it.

Above all, Islamism, contrary to the herd think that still dominates the discussion on it, is not the status quo anti, but actually can claim just as large a slice of the status quo as the so-called Arab order itself. For many years, in countries like Egypt and Jordan, the Muslim Brotherhood has been as much a fixture of the political scene as the regimes themselves, while elsewhere—from Wahhabi Saudi Arabia to clerical Iran to Talibanic Afghanistan to Turabian Sudan to Hamassian Gaza--an assortment of Islamisms have been calling the shots for quite sometime. It is therefore not only glaringly ignorant but patently silly for presumably seasoned observers to keep wondering about how Islamism will behave once it is in power. We know. And the picture is as colorful as they come.

Hence if the future, as Ferguson predicts, will soon tire of the old game and start a new one whose name is havoc, we will not see a discredited, bankrupt authoritarianism fighting it out with a lithe, sharp, towering, blunder-free, on-message fundamentalism. True, wherever the old boys remain, and wherever Islamists have replaced them, there is still a firm grip on power: the power to bully, to mobilize the die-hards and the courtiers, to use bread and butter to fill hungry stomachs and lull rebellious thoughts. But for all the bluster of these two camps, one is a cruel, ranting, imbecile of an uncle, and the other may have been a dashing promise 20 years ago, but today is a disheveled, browbeaten if not beaten record. Much like the competition, fundamentalist dominions are wrestling with the dissonance between their lofty rhetoric and their people’s lowly realities, repenting Al Qaeda mentors such as Sayyed Imam al Sharif of Egypt and Abu Mohammad al Maqdissi of Jordan are taking the wind out of a fuming, cave-bound Ayman Zawahiri and temperate fundamentalists are blowing all shades of gray into the more mainstream currents within Islamism.

There is flux, to be sure, but a close look at the tensions inside both the more extreme and milder expressions of fundamentalism will tell you that tumult is very likely to be as sorely felt inside its sea as out.


On to Egypt!

In 2006, specifically on April 9, a crack in the hard-edged, chiseled image of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood (MB) appeared. It came in the shape of a smirk. In an apparently feisty interview with the pro-government Rose el Youssef, Mohammad Mahdi Akef, the Supreme Guide of the MB loutishly declared to the reporter, Tuz fi Misr.” The shy translation is “to hell with Egypt.” The more accurate and, it just so happens, hilariously revealing one is “my fart on Egypt.” During the interview, Akef had indicated that, if it came down to it, he would prefer to see a Malaysian Muslim rather than a Christian Egyptian as president of the country. Intrigued by the implications of Akef’s preference, the reporter pressed him about the Society’s commitment to the national integrity of Egypt, to which Akef replied, “Tuz fi Misr.” That was his way, I suppose, of insisting that for the Brothers the Muslim umma (community) takes precedence over a bunch of borders.

Two years later, specifically on May 11, 2008, a long conversation took place between two intrepid al Hayat Newspaper reporters and Akef (the translation and underlined parts in bold are mine).

Question: Since you are unable at present to hold elections for Maktab al Tarshid (The Office of Guidance), will you resort to appointments to fill some of the positions?

Akef: This is not your concern, this is our concern, the Muslim Brotherhood. In the shadow of this assault on us, we will fill any vacuum by our own special method.

Question: But the masses want to know more about the Brotherhood?

Akef: They (the masses) have the right to support us in our battle against this oppression, but it is not anybody’s right to talk to me about my modus operandi unless he is from the Brotherhood.

Question: According to this logic, then, no one has the right to question the ruling National Democratic Party?

Akef: I am not an owner of projects (sahib mashari’) and I am not in the business of issuing corrupt laws. The NDP has to be accountable. I am not the ruler here, I am the oppressed one.

A few lines down the page…

Question: The price rise in Egypt has a global dimension. The Brotherhood criticizes but has yet to offer any solutions?

Akef: I am not the government for me to be specific. I caution only. Offering solutions is not part of my responsibilities. The institutions are not in my hands. I say--my point of view is-- that what is happening is symptomatic of a sickness. The people have no freedom, and I can only say: Leave the people alone.

Two questions ensued on sources of funding, and then…

Question: The people need some issues clarified?

Akef: The street has no right to question me. Let it question the government first.

Question: But you are betting on the street?

Akef: When it [the street] comes to me and becomes part of the Brotherhood, then it can question me, and I will answer. I am responsible for the Brothers who have accepted our program and have been living with us. I am not responsible for the secularists and mercenaries.

Now if your thoughts happen to be of the swashbuckling variety, they might just get away with persuading you that of the four qualifiers—serious, credible, alternative and opposition—which accompany the Egyptian Brothers everywhere they go like advance bodyguards, these interviews laugh out of the room the first three and leave the fourth to loiter around like an out-of-work pencil pusher. In which case, you can, and with much ease of conscience, stop here and wait for the next post.

But if you need to linger on backdrops and spend some time with contexts, then, by all means, read on.
Peculiar tenor from the leader of an 80-year old movement which was celebrating as recently as 2005 a stupendous victory in the first parliamentary elections it decided to seriously contest—88 candidates out of 165 fielded as independents won in spite of brazen state fraud, harassment and intimidation—giving it 20 percent of the seats. And that triumph was only the last in a series of feats achieved over the course of three decades, all of which were more than enough to persuade even the worst of skeptics that the MB, as both a social and political force, is a formidable influence on Egyptian life.

At first glance, the Society’s rush through Egypt looked like bear-hug encirclement: dominance in Egypt’s major professional and student associations from the right, a countrywide, dollar-rich network of social and charitable services from the left, dawa (proselytization or outreach) up and down and more conservative, sharia-based state laws all around. By the early 1990s, among an estimated 85 percent of women the veil became a daily habit, among a good majority of men the mosque became a daily destination and among a good majority of Egyptians Islam became a daily ritual. To the MB—by turns oppressed and massaged by the state--went the credit for Egypt’s increasingly conservative bend. Come 2005, the organization was boasting one million members (independent sources estimate registered membership at 50,000 to 60,000 and supporters at 400,000 to 500,000) and the people’s sympathies.

And yet, if Akef’s clownishness, barely months after his party’s parliamentary win, was reminiscent of anything, it was of Mubarak’s own gaffes in many an instance. Fatigue, it had become inescapably clear, was showing on the two faces of Egypt’s politics, that of the regime from being in power for too long, and that of the MB from being in opposition for even longer. But more than fatigue itself, “tuz fi Misr,” “offering solutions is not part of my responsibilities,” “the street has no right to question me,” showed the extent to which the Brotherhood and the regime were cut from the same cloth. It is no small irony that at a time when Egypt is reeling from having to work so bloody hard for a living, neither the state nor its main opposition are able to inspire anything other than fear and derision.

Call it extreme exposure. Truthfully, for those who cared enough to watch and listen and question, the cracks had been creasing the polished surface of Egyptian Islamism for a while, and all that Akef’s faux pas did was deepen the lines. Over the past decade, everywhere you turned there were signs of trouble. Unease began to deepen when inquisition-style legal suits by conservative Islamists against “heretic” professors, against “blasphemous” books, “degenerate” poets, “depraved” women-- against life itself if it dared swim in a bit of color—found receptive judgments within the state’s own judiciary system. Soon enough, the front pages of newspapers and the Internet were relaying the latest pornographic fatwa, some by the state-sponsored Azhar, many not. It did not help that such fatwas and other lascivious statements by this sheikh and that prayer leader were taking place at a time when sexual harassment was reaching epidemic levels in a country that had grown visibly more pious, and that among the countless Egyptian women habitually suffering from such harassment, the veiled ones would turn out to be the most inviting target.

But perhaps it was the 2007 draft political platform of the MB that finally betrayed its inability to reconcile the demands of citizenship and pluralistic democracy with its specific interpretations of sharia-based governance. The manifesto, which soon after its release was shelved under a storm of protests from civil organizations, human rights groups and even the party’s own liberal wing, declared that women and non-Muslims are not eligible for the office of president. It also called for the establishment of a council of ulama (religious scholars), whose main purpose would be to make sure that all legislation conforms with sharia. No less intriguing was the clause which stipulated that tourists should abide by the Islamic dress code and use Islamic banking. Significantly, telling criticism came from leading MB bloggers (there are 150 Brotherly blogs out of an estimated 34,000 Egypt-wide), who counseled their leadership to abandon, once and for all, their party’s outmoded and exclusionary tenets.

Flummoxed by the intensity of the wall-to-wall criticism—which, I suppose, should tell us plenty about the MB’s feel for Egypt’s pulse—the movement has yet to issue the new and improved platform. A public relations blunder, many called this last episode. The program, claimed detractors, revealed the wolf in sheep clothing; the joke was that it actually exposed the sheep in wolf clothing.

Seriously, though, what does Akef’s “offering solutions is not part of my responsibility,” say to an Egypt riven with problems in desperate need of solutions? More specifically, what does it say about the MB that they can be so easily roused for Palestine and so conspicuously absent from the workers’ strikes and riots that have recently struck several of the country’s industries—no less than 400 actions between mid-2005 and the end of 2007 alone. More poignantly, what does it say for the prospects of a heaving country that it is about to limp into even sorrier times with neither parent really caring for or about it.

Don’t think that the Egyptians, for all their world weariness, are indifferent to any of this. The voter turn out in the 2005 parliamentary elections was a mere 27 percent; for the presidential ones 24 percent. The silence of the majority sometimes can be quite deafening.

There has been interesting chatter about the struggle inside the MB along generational, urban-rural, liberal-conservative, religious-political lines that apparently intermingle intimately rather than politely keeping to themselves. “A plurality of trends,” MERIP, Middle East Report, called the give and take in a recent exposé on the party. Should coexistence become untenable between the more pragmatic, politically oriented, moderate bloc and the more reticent, religiously conservative, dawa-driven, and currently stronger faction—whatever their ages or geographic location—it would not be the first time the Society undergoes this kind of divorce. In the mid-1990s, a group of Brothers, under the leadership of Abu al-Ila Madi, split with the MB and established the Wasat (Centrist) Party, which, of course, has yet to receive government approval. Healthy or not, the increasingly heated internal debate as well as mounting external repression have left the movement wobbly, reactive and more often than not behind the curve of opposition in Egypt rather than at the forefront of it.

Commenting to International Crisis Group on the fiasco surrounding the draft political program, a high ranking member of the MB, obviously a liberal voice himself, quipped: “The ideological stagnation of the Muslim Brotherhood is part of Egypt’s political crisis.”

Ballah ? No, really?

The question is: Does anyone sniff the opportunity in this upheaval?

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