How do we explain the escalation of violence in Egypt? Mariz Tadros argues that the government in place is displaying particular characteristics of totalitarianism specific to fascist regimes.
In the follow up to President Morsi’s announcement of a number of constitutional edicts and a referendum on the highly controversial constitution, the level of political dissidence has risen considerably. It reached one of its highest moments yesterday when Muslim Brotherhood militia groups attacked peaceful protestors demonstrating in front of the Presidential palace, and which so far has caused five deaths and several hundred injuries.
All totalitarian regimes use similar tactics of oppression: brutal use of force by the security apparatus, encroachment on civil freedoms, clampdown on the press and media, use of propaganda and lies to influence public opinion etc.. However, what we are witnessing in Egypt today is a particular kind of totalitarian rule far worse than military authoritarianism or dictatorship. It is in essence a kind of Islamist fascism. It is Islamist in its ideological and political commitment to the instatement of an Islamist state irrespective of the scope of opposition. It is fascist in three respects, first the use of the mobilization of the masses in favour of the ruler, second the strong ideological underpinnings of the political project, and third, the language of “cleansing” the undesirables.
The distinctive character of fascist regimes is that the power configurations are such that it is a case of the ruler and the people against the others, not the authorities vs the people dichotomy characteristic of other authoritarian regimes. In fascist regimes, people are mobilized to go out to demonstrate in favour of the ruler, and against those who protest against him. We are witnessing the same kind of absolutist power manifesting itself in Egypt, through the same use of state and non-state actors to annihilate the opposition, exalt the leader. In Egypt, we have President Morsi and his Freedom and Justice party exercising control through the formal organs of the state, and the Muslim Brotherhood movement and their militia groups claiming the streets as theirs, and in the name of the people. The attack on peaceful protestors gathered in front of the presidential palace in El Etahadiyya square on the 5th of December is the most recent of a long stream of Muslim Brotherhood assaults on citizens protesting against Morsi’s government. Men and women (in some cases accompanied by children) had gathered in El Ettahadiya palace on Tuesday 4th, to protest the President’s latest constitutional edict and his decision to press ahead with a constitutional referendum despite the opposition’s insistence that the process of drawing the constitution was exclusionary and a constitution should be drawn through consensual politics not the will of the majority. Standing in front of the palace in their hundreds of thousands, anti-Morsi protestors expressed their voice in a peaceful and non-violent way – until they were attacked. Members of the Muslim Brotherhood went down to the palace to “defend” their president from attack. This time there was no talk of a hidden actor, they bluntly admitted that they sent the “people” down (Mohamed Saeed media person speaking to Annahar television channel at 00:53 am 6th December). In view of the fact that the President has the entire security apparatus and the military to protect him and that the civilians were protesting peacefully, the only motivation behind the physical assault on the protestors was to intimidate, annihilate and basically cleanse the scene of any opposition. The intensity and scope of violence used can only be partially captured by watching the media coverage. These are instances caught on camera where security forces and Muslim Brotherhood members are actively attacking the protestors, the former through tear gas and the latter through beatings and other forms of physical violence.
Second, in fascist regimes, ideology plays a particular strong role, especially that associated with defending a sacred belief system that is beyond reproach and must prevail above all else. As they attacked the protestors, many shouted out loud “allahu Akbar” “God is great” as if they were out to make a conquest. In the excerpt here, those pushing a man who had been protesting and whom they stripped they were shouting religious slogans and holding the Koran.
In the most recent protests launched by the Muslim Brotherhood on Saturday 2nd December 2012, the rhetoric used was largely ideological. “the People want the application of the Shariah”. Slogans of the revolution such as “Bread, freedom and social justice” were changed to “bread, freedom and the Islamic Shariah”. The opposition was referred to as “the infidels”, the “unbelievers”. Just as in fascist regimes, ideology plays an important role in distinguishing between the authentic and the deviants and traitors, so here too ideology was instrumentalized to distinguish between those on God’s side and those conveyed to be his enemies. What is important here is that the followers are not simply there because of economic or political benefits to be made, but because of a commitment to a particular ideology (or at least the Muslim brotherhood’s take on it).
The third element of the fascist form of governance that we witness today is the role of “cleansing” and the use of the language of purity. In Hitler’s Germany, it was not only the racially different populations that were the subject of cleansing: the disabled, gays and gypsies were also subjects of cleansing policies. In Egypt, we say the beginnings of a process of religious cleansing through the expulsion of Coptic Christians from their homes in villages and towns.
As protestors were being attacked on the 5th December and the early mornings of the 6th, the President was silent. He announced on the 5th December that he was going to give a speech the next day. In view of the fact that the clashes grew in intensity through the early hours of the morning, you would think he would intervene immediately to put an end to an escalation that looked like the beginning of a civil war (once protestors started fighting back). However, he chose to wait until the morning- by then, the brute force of security and Brotherhood militia combined had completed their mission of clearing the area of protestors. His silence can only be interpreted as complicity in a pre-meditated plan to thwart the opposition.
The West’s response to the increasing violations of human rights is akin to their earlier responses to Mubarak’s authoritarian regime: issuance of mild statements expressing “concern over the situation”. William Hague, the British foreign secretary, called for restraint on all sides- thus equalizing blame between those who instigated violence through the state and militia apparatuses and protestors who were there exercising their right to express their voice. He added that "We call on the Egyptian authorities to make progress on transition in an inclusive manner, which allows for a constructive exchange of views.” It is in effect a call for empty participatory spaces where people are “consulted” but those in power have the political will to do whatsoever they wish. The same tone of equalizing responsibility- and by default blame characterized the Obama administration’s response to the crisis. On Wednesday, 5th December 2012, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton commented “We call on all stakeholders in Egypt to settle their differences through democratic dialogue, and we call on Egypt’s leaders to ensure that the outcome protects the democratic promise of the revolution for all of Egypt’s citizens.”