Egypt, the ‘war on terrorism’ and Islamophobia

In an interview with Der Speigel , Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy offered his German audience a history “lesson” reminding them of “their experiences with a democratically elected politician who then behaved in an undemocratic manner”, thus asserting that the removal of Morsi is in reality a preemptive action undertaken to protect democracy itself.

Fahmy comparing Morsi to Hitler followed a strategy centred at the demonisation of the ousted president and his many followers across Egypt since their protests began on July 3. The interview came after General el-Sisi’s call for Egyptians to grant him authority to fight terrorism in the country, a very subtle reference to a changing strategy in confronting a persistent opposition to the military coup and the suspension of the constitution.

At the beginning, the military and its supporters were confident that the opposition would only last a few days, considering the cast of characters assembled to support the removal of Morsi, but the response and the continued mobilisation created a counter balance and disrupted their “well-developed” and laid-out plans.

Seeking legitimacy through Islamophobia

Three weeks into the military coup that ousted the first democratically elected president in Egypt, the planners made a deliberate shift and methodically constructed a “war on terror” campgain directed at those standing in opposition to the removal and suspension of the constitution. The “war on terror” public “debate” was stage-managed and crafted in a way to redefine opposition to the coup and in particular the Brotherhood in terms of a national security threat if left unattended will undermine Egypt, as a state.

Not wanting to debate its illegal actions against the only elected president in the history of the country, disbanding the Assembly and the suspension of the constitution, the military and the old hands at the Interior Ministry moved swiftly to redefine the opposition and in the process establish legitimacy by means of brute force and power utilised in “defending” the nation. To accomplish this task, the military unleashed a deliberate “Othering” campaign against the Brotherhood and its supporters that was highly Islamophobic, deploying a barrage of anti-Muslim tropes to achieve the desired outcome. The state and the privately-owned press worked to magnify and project this otherisation message, and in a short period the protesters in the encampments were no longer Egyptians protesting the military’s undemocratic actions but “a terrorist breeding ground” threatening Egyptian national security.

The MB encampments, according to the military and the Interior Ministry, were “sufficiently” documented sites witnessing torture, violence, and hostage-taking, and if left unaddressed would further disrupt national harmony and prevent the return to democracy. Furthermore, the argument or the charge levelled against the Brotherhood that they are the real force behind all the “terrorist” attacks in the Sinai made it possible to provide images and evidence for the daily news cycle.

Speaking from an American political lens, the Brotherhood and its supporters experienced a “Swift Boating” moment, and in a short period were redefined in the consciousness of many Egyptians. Indeed, time will tell whether they will recover from it, considering the level of state violence unleashed in the past few days and the existing societal split being cemented with a river of blood.

More importantly, the military, official state religious leadership and the “liberal secular” forces used Islamophobia to defend their collective actions against those elected while casting themselves as the defenders of “liberal” values or true religious tolerance that was undermined by the president and his supporters. In essence, those constituting the political elite believe that the Egyptians can’t be trusted to make their own decisions through the ballot box, but are in constant need of a paternalistic custodial power to correct their clear error or ignorance, for they are unable to think for themselves.

Islamophobia and Egyptians’ political agency

Those participating in the encampment were denied agency, and it was asserted that either they were forced by the cunning Brotherhood leadership or paid to participate, thus demonstrating a lack of real political consciousness to take action on their own. It was reported that the leaders of the encampment tortured those refusing to stay and participate in the sit-ins while a more outlandish charge of killing followers and keeping their corpuses in a garage under the plaza made the rounds in press coverage, including in Al-Ahram . Also, in order to legitimise the use of violence against protesters, it was claimed that weapons were being stacked in various places around the encampment to be used against security forces. The intended public campaign was to demonise on the one hand the leaders of the encampment, and on the other remove political purpose or agency for the followers. Taken together, this would legitimise the military and security intervention to remove the evil Muslim Brothers and rescue the infant Egyptian “ignorant” subjects ill-equipped to make the right decisions on their own.

The campaign created a demonised outlier and at the same time threatened its existence. Essentially, the Muslim Brotherhood and those supporting their call became outsiders and irrational sub-humans for refusing to accept the higher “liberal” and “civilisational” purpose behind the removal of President Morsi and suspension of the constitution. The utilisation of Islamophobic and “war on terror” tropes in Egypt are reflective of the global post-colonial epistemological trend that problematise Islam, as a religion, and Muslims, when seeking political agency grounded in a living tradition in the “modern” nation-state. What started as a coup against an elected president was successfully trans-configured by the military and the elite into a “war on terror” against a sub-human group that no longer belongs to the Egyptian body politic. Added to this is the charge of external support or militant conspiracy from Hamas in Gaza and, by extension, Iran as well.

Adding more fuel to the fire is the systematic stoking of religious tensions between Muslims and Coptic Christians with emphasis on assigning responsibility to the Brotherhood for fomenting attacks on some 30 churches across Egypt. The attacks on Coptic churches are an old Interior Ministry strategy intended to divide the communities, develop mistrust on the ground level and increase the feeling of insecurity that then can be harnessed to consolidate power by means of extracting cooperation through intimidation. Furthermore, the attacks on churches serve a more strategic purpose of magnifying the threat of the Muslim Brotherhood and through it prevent any real criticism from the international community since the European and American public will not be moved to action considering attacks on a Christian religious minority.

The same strategy was used by Mubarak on more than one occasion, and it does produce results stoking religious tensions and preventing national unity from developing among the majority Muslim population and the Christian minority. More critically, the campaign results in fragmenting the national identity resulting in a more conservative and reactionary mode of engagement which becomes the norm. The divisions between the Muslim and Christian communities will further erode the real possibilities of building a nation-state on the basis of equality, justice and fairness, since each group will seek to consolidate its position in the state by using only a fragmented and threatened religious identity as a basis of constituting political power.The military and the elite who stoked these sentiments in the first place appear and act as the protectors of civil society, but doing so on the basis of all parties recognising their undisputed power and surrendering any agency directed at an alternative. Fear and state privilege will be the basis of the re-constituted authoritarian military state with a civilian veneer.

This essay is not a defence of the Brotherhood or their political programme, but an analysis on how a removal of an elected president has been transformed into a “war on terror” with an effective Islamophobic campaign deployed to bring it about. I do maintain that the Brotherhood-led government failed in developing the needed governing coalition in this critical transitory period. I do fault the deposed President Morsi for his reactionary decision-making style, moving to the political right and away from the centre to respond or placate more conservative Islamic forces, promising more than what can be delivered.

In addition, opting to strike an accommodationist alliance with the military while distancing himself from revolutionary partners and taking a slow gradual approach to change rather than a bold and aggressive political programme and in particular on the economy. One can add more but all were made worst by the “Deep Mubarak State” and the rich elite that wanted to frustrate the upstart political force that in their view should be either in prison or their servants at country clubs but for sure not residents in the presidential palace or the seats of the assembly.

Islamophobia discredited Bush’s global “war on terror” with the simplistic line “you are either with us, or with the terrorist“, and has been barrowed and deployed into the Egyptian landscape, the consequences of which will be far reaching. Needless to say, it will give a great ideological boost for the Islamophobes in many parts of the world and will immediately negate any efforts at remedying Muslim standing and image across the globe. Egypt and the Arab world in general are in the middle of a transformational period, and at the heart of it is the role of Islam in shaping the emerging region and the political order.

By declaring a “war on terror” and stereotyping Muslim political parties in negative ways, this will only complicate and prevent a normative political maturation and resolution of historical and contemporary existing religious contradictions. In resorting to a structured and forceful exclusion of Muslim religious parties, the outcome would be the development of a siege mentality, the setting-in of protectionist and attitude, and in due time the emergence of violent trends since the door to orderly participatory politics has been shuttered. Thus, I say the deployment of Islamophobia and excluding Muslim parties from the process is intended to push them toward violence that then can justify the use of unrestrained violence and force against them, which would go a long way in rationalising the maintaining of the status quo in power distribution. The Egyptian military and the elite have hitched its horse onto the Islamophobic wagon and will ride it into power, wealth and destruction.