Brothers in the hood: Egypt’s soft powers and the Arab world

The question riding on the chaos being played out – from the burning offices of the Freedom and Justice Party to the squares of Egyptian cities to the palace gates of power – is how will all this shape future trends throughout the Arab world?

Amro Ali
10 December 2012

A Jordanian Islamist recently expressed his disappointment: “Egyptians are not giving President Mohammed Morsi a chance!” I responded, “Would you be this forgiving had Hamdeen Sabahi, a secular Nasserist, issued a decree that gave himself exceptional powers?” Silence. Irrespective of Morsi “rescinding” those powers, the continuing theatrics matters to a larger, if at times, unacknowledged, constituency.

Across the Middle East, Islamist offshoots are carefully watching the political manoeuvering of Morsi and their spiritual progenitor, the Muslim Brotherhood. In fact, so are a great proportion of Arab governments, elites and societies. The question riding on the chaos being played out – from the burning offices of the Freedom and Justice Party to the squares of Egyptian cities to the palace gates of power – is how will all this shape future trends throughout the Arab world?

As the centre of gravity of the Arab world, Egypt, due to its complex social structure, dynamic agencies, popular arts and the intellectual seat of Sunni Islam, pushes ideas and principles into the international system that shape the preferences of Arab populations, and to a lesser degree, Muslim ones. The success or failure of Egypt’s political actors, narratives, and the popular mobilisation behind them, has a spill-over effect that can move their equivalents in the region.

Protesters in Tahrir Square on election day

Protesters in Tahrir Square bearing Arab country flags / European Pressphoto Agency

Key groups, among them the Brotherhood, Salafis, and the recently stitched together National Salvation Front that has brought into its fold a large swathe of society including Muslims, Copts, secularists, liberals, revolutionaries, even Hosni Mubarak’s regime remnants, are battling it out with each other, with a military repositioning itself again, in a sacred drama in which the outcome could very well determine the regional terrain for the next 50 years.

For almost two years, the stage has seen the clash of various strands of infectious nationalism, authoritarian-leaning Islamism and a somewhat liberal pan-Arabism. Despite the differences across the political spectrum, and regardless of a weak economy, a common denominator binds them all on the vaguest of foreign policy fronts: to eventually reassert effective Egyptian hegemony (be it political, cultural, and/or religious) through the Arab world.

At the engagement level in the public space, this is evident. When Egyptian liberals complain of Islamist protesters waving Saudi flags in Tahrir Square, it needs to be pointed out that this is not so different from when liberals wave Tunisian and revolutionary Syrian flags. One has a conservative pan-Islamist agenda, the other a revolutionary pan-Arab one – both with an Egypt at the head.

Even Islamists can espouse thinly veiled (at times blatant) nationalist/pan-Arabist sentiment at the expense of “the Caliphate.” When translating earlier this year for an Australian journalist at the Alexandrian home of a senior policy-maker from the Salafist Al Nour Party, she asked him “Many observers say you are influenced by Saudi Wahhabism.” He understood the question well enough to break out of the Arabic (thus bypassing me) and flatly told her in English: “Egypt teaches, it is never taught!” At a debate I attended last year between liberal Amr Hamzawy and Brotherhood Sobhi Saleh, the latter who started off on a Quranic platform could not resist by ending his speech by invoking Egypt’s ancient Pharaonic glory and its central role in world history and trade – to the frenzy of the audience.

Inherent in the popular Egyptian ‘worldview’ is that Egypt has been robbed of its prestige and leadership role of the Arab world, due to its defeat in the 1967 war, but more so due to Anwar Sadat shifting course onto a state-first policy, and the unimaginative Mubarak bludgeoning the country’s aspirations for 30 years.

In the 2000s, the term soft power (coined by Joseph Nye) – meaning the power of attraction, as opposed to the power of coercion (hard power) – entered Egyptian public discourse. The expression “loss of Egypt’s soft power” was invoked by intellectuals and commentators following every crisis when Egypt was at a disadvantage, in negotiations and peacemaking, such as the Iraq War, Nile Basin talks, and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Originally, soft power accompanied the rise of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt. Nasser acquisitioned pan-Arabism (as conceived in 1930s Syria) and propagated it throughout the Arab world. Michael Barnett states, “Nasser helped define what counted as an Arab state in good standing, the types of norms to which it should adhere, and how those norms might relate to the desired regional order.” In fact, the dangerous precedent Nasser set (and encouraged) were military coups in Arab states, and worse, the authoritarianism, centralisation of government and undermining of institutions which Syria inherited from its botched brief union with Egypt (1958-1961). The end-result of this is the heavy price we are seeing Syrians paying today.

There was another dark element to Egypt’s social soft power when it laid out the ideological foundations of radical Islamism, no thanks to the country’s oppressive prison system and torture chambers. Like the abused who grow up to be abusers, the Brotherhood exhibits such strains; while not the worst of Islamist organisations, recent events have indicated that they are disturbing enough.

The argument for Egypt’s soft power often committed the vehicle fallacy, that soft power was something that can be possessed by an agent, inferring that it was a resource rather than a feature of a relationship. Therefore soft power was translated as a tangible that can be created, curtailed, or squandered. All power is relational. Egypt’s future relationship with the Arab world will depend on how it is accepted by the recipient of that influence. To give a close example, there has been talk of Qatari soft power, but this confuses resources such as Al-Jazeera for power. Qatar’s ability to influence was due, in part, to the Gulf peninsula’s positive or neutral relationship with other Arab societies, the satellite station being a feature in that relationship. Once Qatari foreign policy started to influence Al-Jazeera (Arabic) towards a pro-Muslim Brotherhood slant it angered many Egyptians in the process. The result? the recent burning down of the channel’s office in Cairo by the revolutionary camp and viewers shunning the station in droves – a sight unimaginable two years ago.

The stakes involved in Egypt’s outcome are high enough to ensure that each group has their external elite and social backers and cheerleaders: Saudi Arabia backs the Salafis, Qatar backs the Muslim Brotherhood, not to mention the Muslim Brotherhood franchise throughout the Arab and Islamic world that looks up to Cairo’s Brotherhood ‘mothership’. Egypt’s liberals/non-Islamists/Christians are applauded, ideationally at least, by their very (the largest) counterparts in the Arab world. Finally, the wildcard, the Egyptian military, and their US/Israel/Gulf backers (See my last month’s piece The President and the fatal trilateral logic of US, Egyptian and Israeli relations).

While none of the Arab uprisings were calling for the demolition of borders (the demands were mostly domestic). The overthrow of Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and the subsequent cascading effects illustrated that Arab populations operate on a transnational identity-based and media-fuelled shared narrative of fate and destiny. Egypt amplifies a certain narrative and eventually makes it the norm.

Arabs are watching and taking notes. It is pertinent that Egypt sends the appropriate cues by getting the democratic experiment right and puts in check the authoritarian encroachment of the Brotherhood and ensures the ink on the draft constitution does not dry. While Egypt’s democratic transition can have the opposite effect of increasing regime repression like what has been witnessed in the Gulf States. An Egypt transformed into an Arab democratic model will enable other Arab countries to move in a progressive direction, otherwise they would be reluctant to take the risks of reform and further dispirit key democratic actors. Egypt’s current opposition, and the democratic camp in general, will need to augment their appeal in inter-Arab relations by articulating and framing their argument as anti-authoritarian and avoid the identity politics that is the lynchpin of Islamist groups.

In 1932, the then infant Brotherhood knew that to alter the trajectory of Egyptian society, they had to move out of the rural areas and bring their message to Cairo. This was not only because the city was Egypt’s political, economic, and cultural capital, but as Steven A. Cook noted that, “Movements, ideologies, knowledge, and culture tended to reverberate from Cairo in concentric circles to the rest of Egypt then to the Levant and to the Persian Gulf beyond.”

Despite over 80 years of experience, the legitimacy of the Brotherhood is rapidly being undermined day by day. A once-fragmented opposition is gradually gaining ground. A military is redefining its relationship with Egypt’s new political actors. After the dust settles and the tear gas clears, only time will tell which Egypt is to be groomed for the Arab world of the twenty-first century.

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