North Africa, West Asia

This week's window on the Middle East - November 29, 2013

Arab Awakening's columnists offer their weekly perspective on what is happening on the ground in the Middle East. Leading the week, the Egyptian constitution: the militarized state.

Arab Awakening
29 November 2013
  • The Egyptian constitution: the militarized state
  • The city of soap: Nabulsi identity beyond the communal experience of occupation
  • Propagan-duh!
  • A regional affair
  • Religion and politics in post-coup Egypt
  • Egypt: the police state
  • The Egyptian constitution: the militarized state

    By Maged Mandour

    As I am writing these lines, Egyptian security forces are actively repressing a protest that was organized by the “No to military trials” opposition movement; a group of young activists calling for an end to military tribunals for civilians. It seemed to be an appropriate moment to comment on Egypt’s modified constitution. A committee of fifty unelected members were handpicked by the military to redraft the Muslim Brotherhood’s 2012 constitution, and not surprisingly, this amended constitution gives greater power to the military than the previous version.

    My focus is going to be on the articles related to the military, and rather than follow a liberal interpretation of law, where law is seen as apolitical, this analysis will be based on a realist interpretation of law, where law is seen as the codification of a political relationship backed by force. Although still subject to change, the draft constitution can tell us volumes on the current power relations within the Egyptian polity.

    The first article that merits attention is article (171), which states that the minister of defense should be selected from the officers’ corps of the armed forces. This might seem harmless on the surface; however, it effectively means that the military has shielded itself from any possible civilian oversight by having “one of their own” at the helm. Effectively, allowing the military to remain an independent power centre that heavily penetrates the state and whose activity remains an enigma to the public. When this is read in conjunction with article (121), which states that the parliamentary majority can form the government, however, the president has the right to pick the ministers of defense, interior and justice, one can see that this is an attempt to limit any possible civilian oversight over the security apparatus in general and the military in particular. The parliament has no power over the ministry of defense.

    The most visible article that has provoked substantial controversy is article (174), which allows military tribunals for civilians. The proponents of this article have argued that it has been severely restricted, compared to earlier versions, and that it will only apply to cases of "terrorism". This argument, however, does not stand the test of scrutiny. The danger of this article is that it allows military tribunals to be held for “transgression against the public property of the military”. Considering that the military has an extensive economic empire that some experts estimate reaches up to 40% of the economy, this places the Egyptian working class in severe peril. In other words, if workers in those military establishments go on strike, perform acts of civil disobedience or occupy the factories, they can easily be deemed to be “transgressing” the property of the military, and sent to military tribunals, where the presiding judge is also an officer. This effectively means that the largest “capitalist” in the country has the power to send his workers to jail without the right to appeal. Needless to mention, the military's vast economic empire is not mentioned in the draft constitution, nor does it require civilian oversight and it is not subject to taxation. The military economic empire remains intact and protected. 

    Finally article (195), which states that the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF), has to approve the appointment of the minister of defense for the next two presidential periods. In other words, the military will select its own head for the next eight years until the social and political unrest has subsided. The military wants to maintain the status quo, and protect its vast economic and political empire in case of any unforeseen events.

    The above clearly shows that the military aims to maintain the status quo, and the current draft of the constitution shows the primacy and popularity of the military. However, in order to gain a deeper understanding one needs to look at those clauses in conjunction with other clauses, that will shed light on what amounts to the revival of a full-scale military dictatorship.

    Areas related to national security and foreign policies are deemed to be within the president’s domain with little or no parliamentary oversight. The military seems to be keenly aware that with the collapse of popularity and power of its old allies, namely the Muslim Brotherhood and the crony capitalist class represented by the National Democratic Party (NDP), it will be more difficult to populate the people’s assembly. Thus, some power has been delegated to parliament, while control is maintained over key areas it considers vital to its interests. It is further assumed that the president will either be from the ranks of the military or sanctioned by the military. Most importantly, foreign policy has been traditionally dominated by the general intelligence agency; this is critical for continued American support to Egypt, seeing that it plays a pivotal role in securing American policy goals in the region. This also remains off limits.

    Chapter six in the constitution deals with the creation of a high council to regulate the media. The council’s aim is to develop the media according to standards of “professionalism”, “ethics” and following the prerogatives of “national security”. This, combined with the leaked video of El Sisi planning a media clampdown and the shutting down of Bassem Youssef’s popular satirical show, do not bode well for freedom of media in Egypt. It is already extremely difficult to come across any media outlet that’s willing to take a critical stance towards the military. This control is now being codified into law.        

    All of the above supports the conclusion that the Egyptian constitution, in its current form, is a blueprint for legalizing the supremacy of the military and its continuation as an independent power centre heavily penetrating the state. The military is also trying, if possible, to ensure the president comes from within its own ranks, and in any case, necessary precautions are in place in case it fails to do so.

    Tahrir Banner - Yes to constitution

    Billboard in Tahrir Square encouraging people to vote 'yes' in the upcoming constitutional referendum

    The situation seems bleak: with an increasingly securitized rhetoric and the surge of nationalist and anti-Muslim Brotherhood sentiment, it is very likely that this constitution will pass. A ‘yes’ vote on the amended constitution is being portrayed as not only a vote for stability, but also as a vote against the Muslim Brotherhood. It's important to note that billboards are erupting around Cairo encouraging people to vote 'yes' if they are "in support of the January 2011 and June 2013 uprisings". Moreover, it is argued that the failure to pass this constitution will cast Egypt into the abyss. The increased levels of violence, particularly in the Sinai Peninsula, is playing into the hands of the military as it continues to successfully polarize the Egyptian political system.

    As dire as the situation may appear, there are glimmers of hope appearing on the horizon. As the military starts to embark on its campaign of repression, which has now extended beyond the Muslim Brotherhood, most recently in the protest law, the initial euphoria is starting to fade away. As I have argued elsewhere, the ability of the military to maintain “false consciousness” is limited by the inevitable clash of interests between the military and the urban middle classes. Some might argue that signs have started to appear showing the disintegration of this “false consciousness”. The spontaneous protest that emerged in support of “No to military trials” is a sign of this. In the end, one needs to remember the 1850s quote from de Tocqueville about the continuation of upheavals in France after 1789 “I do not know when this journey will end, I am tired of thinking time and again, that we have reached the coast and finding it was a misleading bank of fog. I often wonder whether that solid ground we have long sought really exists, or whether our destiny is not rather to sail a storm tossed sea forever”.

    The Egyptian Revolution is only beginning! 

    The city of soap: Nabulsi identity beyond the communal experience of occupation

    By Jonathan Brown

    In October, the Washington Post described Nablus as a former "crucible of terror and resistance," producing, "more suicide bombers than any other city in the devastating Second Intifada...". The city's international reputation is much improved since the end of the uprising, but for Palestinians, Nablus has always been celebrated as the city of soap. 

    In its turbulent history, Nabulsi soap has faced extinction. Now entering a period of relative economic stability, the recovering industry reflects the city's aspirations for a life beyond the frustrations and antagonizing realities of conflict and occupation.

    Nablus Soap

    Wikimedia/G. Eric and Edith Matson Photograph Collection at the Library of Congress. Public Domain.

    A symbol of resistance 

    In the absence of a tourist information centre, the internationally funded NGO, Project Hope, acts as a hub for visitors to Nablus. Among the trinkets on sale at its reception - as a momento of Nablus - is locally produced soap. Purveyors of the industry suggest it is a millennium old, dating from the tenth century. Soap is one of the few distinctive features of the city's economic and cultural history, distinguishing Nablus in industry and heritage. 

    Nablus' old city, though irrevocably damaged in both Intifadas, is a shrine to soap production. The walls of former soap factories are plastered with posters depicting mytars wielding automatic weapons. But it was within the old city that the Nablusi soap industry was inaugurated. 

    In the nineteenth century, the old city housed more than thirty soap factories, while over forty operated beyond the old walls. Only one remains: Al Badir Soap Manufacturing Company. Its cold, stone interior bears little evidence of modernization or technological advancement. Barely a ten minute walk away, the Tuquan family soap factory stands yards outside the old city. It was built in 1872, during the Ottoman Empire. It stands today, 141 years later, in its original stone building. Nablusi soap, though much diminished in its floor-space, is carved into the architectural and historical heart of Nablus.

    Soap has close and lasting family ties with Nablus. The Tuquan, Shakaa, and Masri families all feature prominently in the industry's biography - and their factories continue production to this day. The Tuquan family have been prominent in the political and cultural vitality of Palestine and Jordan since the Ottoman Empire. Members include: a former Prime Minster of Jordan, a Jordanian Queen, two renowned poets and writers, an award winning architect, and Jordanian Ambassadors to the United Kingdom, Italy, Turkey and Egypt. Their reign over the political and cultural life of Jordan and Palestine is as formidable as the soap industry they garnered in Nablus. The continued success of the industry still relies on these family connections.  

    The essential connection between product and place often features on the product's packaging; usually the city's name features prominently. Nablusi soap's crystalised place, both within the architecture of the old city, and within the industrial and historical identity of the town, renders it a potent symbol of Nablusi identity.  

    Soap politicized 

    In August 2010, Rawan Shakaa, whose family factory still produces soap today, emphasized the role of the Israeli military intervention in the industry's recent history: 

    " ...  Most soap factories are located in the old city of Nablus. Unfortunately, not many of these factories are working today due to the Israeli occupation and incursions into the old city, where Israel’s main goal is to destroy and erase any heritage related to Palestine. In the case of Nablus, destruction of the old city, soap factories included, is particularly devastating since soap factories are considered symbols of industrial and social enterprise as well as wealth and influence." 

    While Shakaa's remarks reveal the significance of Nablusi soap economically and culturally; more importantly they affirm the importance of soap for Nablus' heritage and identity. 

    In Véronique Bontemps' 2012, Soap Factories in Nablus: Palestinian Heritige at the local level, she noted of the Second Intifada,

    "Articles in the local newpapers and on the internet started to refer to Nabulsi soap as a vestige of a glorious past, an icon of Palestinian culture and national heritage, as well as the symbol of Palestinian resistance to occupation." 

    Having solidified a central place within Nabulsi history and heritage - even becoming a symbol of resistance, the industry has been endowed a political voice. The General Managers of both Al Badir Soap Manufacturing Company, and the Toukan family factory recognize this. Both were reluctant to comment on the industry at all, while one noted he required the approval of the Board of Directors to make public statements. The longevity of their industry and respective companies renders them political spokesmen - not only of their companies - but of Nablus' culture and heritage too.  

    Circulation and economics

    At the height of its distribution, Nabulsi soap's reach was not limited to the Middle East and western Europe. Purportedly, it was Queen Elizabeth of England's soap of choice. Although Nabulsi soap continues to be exported to Jordan, Kuwait, and areas of Israel populated largely by Palestinians, its international distribution is much diminished in recent years.

    Before the first and second Intifada, the Tukan family factory produced upwards of 600 tonnes of soap per year. Na'el Qubbaj cited, "obstacles imposed by Israeli Authority," in describing why soap production decreased by 50%. Since, production has been increasing. Overall production was hampered greatly during the second Intifada. Two thriving soap factories inside the old city were destroyed. Now approximately only 400 tonnes are produced per year - a mere 63% of pre-Intifada yield. 

    Approximately 270 of these 400 tons, are exported to Jordan, where it is again distributed throughout the Gulf, and to European countries including Switzerland, Italy, Germany. The remaining 130 tons of the Tuquan yield is reserved for the local market.

    The World Bank's October 2, report, West Bank and Gaza: Area C and the Future of the Palestinian Economy, affirms: "the complex system of restrictions on movement and access imposed by Israel is the most significant impediment to Palestinian private sector growth." The Nabulsi soap industry is implicated in these complications of movement, as is any other private sector industry; and these restrictions have negatively contributed to the industry's volatility in the last three decades. 

    With the expansion to the online market, the distribution of soap made in Nablus has stretched beyond Palestine's constricted borders - but not without further complications. Soap retailers' access to tools necessary to operate successfully in the online marketplace is limited. Considerable frustration is evident on PayPal's Palestinian Community Forum over the financial service's absense from the West Bank and Gaza. This frustration is only amplified as PayPal operates extensively throughout the Middle East and even in Israel. 

    Ingredients and production

    The recipe of Nabulsi soap has remained largely unchanged since production began approximately 1000 years ago. The ingredients, unique to the region, are another important tie between the product and the region. The primary ingredients are entirely natural, botanically based, and biodegradable. Virgin olive oil and a salt solution form the basis.

    According to Na'el Qubbaj, his factory's soap is produced according to standards prescribed by the Jordanian Royal Scientific Society and the International Organization for Standardization. Recent variations on the traditional recipe include: essential oils, honey, milk, mud from the Dead Sea and dried herbs. 

    Muath Majed, of Al Badir Soap Manufacturing Company, has put on display the handheld tools of wood and metal still used today to stamp and cut the soap. Despite the industry's longevity, it has voluntarily persisted within a technological vacuum, opting for traditional modes of production. Drying is an essential and well-documented stage in production, lasting between three to twelve months. The blocks of soap are stacked, floor to ceiling, in hollow conical towers. 

    Despite the difficulties inherent in life in Palestine, even unrestricted access to competitive markets would be seen as a defining victory for Nablusis, and their soap manufacturers.

    Propagan-duh!

    By Ahmed Kellal

    \ˌprō-pə-ˈgan-də, ˌpr-\: ideas or statements that are often false or exaggerated […] spread in order to help a cause, a political leader, a government, etc. [Merriam-Webster].

    Regardless of the nobility of its aim, propaganda is pernicious since, by its very nature, it attempts to suppress all viewpoints other than the one advanced, reducing the matter of contention to a uni-dimensional falsehood.

    Flashback. As soon as the National Socialist German Workers Party rose to power, Joseph Goebbels was appointed Minister of Public Enlightenment & Propaganda. He started to roll out a simple two-fold plan. On the one hand, the Führerprinzip, - Leadership Principle – aimed to picture Hitler as the face, voice, pride and conscience of the nation. He was pictured in posters as a bearer of peace, a messiah. The Party’s artists went so far as to coin Christian symbolism in their drawings, everything was fair game. A 1936 poster held the following quote from the Führer: “I ask the German People to […] lend me its strength so that I will always and everywhere have the strength to fight for its honour and freedom”.

    Present. In his address to the nation, on July 24, El Sisi declared: “I ask all honourable and faithful Egyptians to take to the streets […] to mandate me to confront terrorism and violence.” Campaigns, in support of Egypt’s military and the man at its helm, haven’t stopped sprouting since Morsi’s ouster: “Strike, El Sisi, with an iron fist”, “Hit the bull’s eye!” are the phase’s taglines. A nationwide movement is calling for the Commander-in-Chief to “make whole the favour he has done us” and run for president. Just last week, another group went so far as to call for El Sisi’s induction into office for 5 years, without elections. The novelty lies in the fact propaganda is – or, at least, appears to be – instigated by the People, not the State. Yes, it seems Egypt’s future and fate has but one name: El Sisi.

    Not only does the “cult of the leader” create a serious imbalance in power between the executive, on the one hand, and legislative and judicial on the other; but it also does so between the military and the civil. It also paves the way towards re-establishing the toxic patriarchal dynamic between president and nation.  

    Flashback. It is easier for people to come together against a person or idea than to do so in support of it. The second campaign consisted of creating a common enemy, both within and beyond Germany’s borders. The enemy was a race: the Jews; an ideology: Bolshevism; and states: signatories of the WWI Versailles Treaty.  The German People rallied behind the Nazi Party’s leaders. The hate movement began on 1 April 1933, with a boycott of Jewish businesses within the country, and escalated into an all-out war against the allies, which has forever changed the face of the world.

    Present. The publicized witch hunt of Muslim Brotherhood senior members began as soon as Morsi was forcefully relieved of his presidential duties. Egyptian media have not stopped treating their audiences to a series of scoops and photos highlighting the capture of another MB leading figure; or documents implicating the “International” MB, pointing to the organization’s efforts to execute a regional plan where Egypt’s national security and sovereignty mattered little. The Brotherhood has been rendered illegal by court order, arms stashes are being seized on a regular basis, assets frozen and terrorist activities – esp. in the Sinai Peninsula – are being linked back to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, its supposed Palestinian counterpart. We are at diplomatic war with Turkey, a showdown that has seen the dismissal of the Turkish ambassador and recall of Egypt’s envoy to Turkey. The Cairo-Doha relations are probably at an all-time low and the Cairo-Washington hotline, is not so hot. In fact, Hamas has probably taken Al Qaeda’s place, and the US Israel’s, in Egyptians’ hearts.

    Creating a common enemy of nebulous scale and viciousness pushes the People to de-prioritize other issues affecting their livelihood. After all, their very lives seem to be at stake. And when the enemy is from within, when a faction of the population is deemed "terrorist" because it adheres to an organization whose leaders preach violence at times, what that does is to tear at the fabric of society, just like post-1956 with Egypt’s Jews. Both sad and ironic that the same Brotherhood that had taken an active part in Jews’ persecution in support of the military regime, back then, is the one being tyrannized today. But the victimization goes beyond MB affiliates. All proponents of “political Islam” feel personally targeted. Almost overnight, Egypt’s red, white and black flag seems to have shrunk and does not cloak them, any more. And whenever feelings of oppression and injustice mount, the menace of civil unrest looms.            

    In drawing the comparison above, my purpose is not to associate – or to not associate – today’s self-anointed rulers to the likes of Goebbels and Hitler. I only aim to highlight the similarities in the workings of the propaganda machine between the WWII Reich and twenty-first century Egypt. The similarities are striking. Let me also add that propaganda has gone rampant not only at the hands of those in power. Pictures of Morsi in shining armour astride a white horse, Saladdin-style, have made the rounds of online social networks. If it weren’t for the fact it is haram, Islamists would have probably photo shopped themselves onto crosses, too.

    Egyptians are not an uneducated and gullible herd. Neither were Germans in the 1930s-40s. But the masses can be short-sighted. They see what is going on as a war for their own survival. But all it is, in reality, is a war waged by the leadership, on both sides, for their own benefit. Either side is very aware that the existence and continued strength of its own group hinges on the continued existence, yet relative subservience, of the other party. Both sides shout and gesticulate. The sad fact is that when one and the other’s howls grow loud, little space is left for those voices favouring neither, for the people trying to pull us out of the binary political model the country has been stuck in for decades.        

    A regional affair

    By Domhnall O'Sullivan

    Earlier this week an Al Qaeda-linked Sunni militant group, named after a Palestinian Jihadist from Jordan, claimed responsibility for a devastating suicide bombing targeting the Iranian embassy in Lebanon. The Abdullah Azzam Brigade said that further attacks will follow unless rival Shi’i paramilitary Hezbollah withdraws its forces from the ongoing conflict in Syria, where it is fighting alongside the regime of Bashar Al-Assad.

    For the citizens of Lebanon and Beirut, the human cost of the attacks - 23 fatalities at last count - is tragic. Yet the complex web of trans-regional motivations and alliances which provides the backdrop to this latest attack also reveals a number of disturbing truths about the current regional condition.

    From spillover threat to spilled-over reality 

    Firstly, that the Syrian conflict has engulfed the entire region is now beyond question. Politicians and analysts have warned about spillover into surrounding states since fighting began in Aleppo over two years ago, but this attack is the clearest signal yet that the Syrian war is not only killing people within Syria.

    Previously, threats to the stability of neighbouring states such as Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey were centred on the massive refugee situation. Lebanon in particular, a country with the same population as Ireland, has received a staggering one million refugees. But this attack, in the wake of August bombings in Beirut and Tripoli, has brought direct violence into the equation and can only exacerbate the fragile security situation in the country and further polarise pro- and anti-Assad factions. Indeed, this is precisely what the perpetrators want.

    Secondly, the nature of the attacks - terrorist suicide bombings - is a particular concern in a city as famous for liberal partying as fundamentalist parties. Fears of a degeneration of the security situation in the country, raised in the wake of the summer car-bombings, are compounded. Suicide attacks are rife in both Syria and Iraq, but the spread to the previously somewhat stable Lebanon is a sign of a worsening situation. Such a modus operandi is also the hallmark of Al-Qaeda, which is seeing its fortunes rise as it recuperates elsewhere in North Africa, Yemen and Iraq.

    Thirdly, the sectarian overtones of the bombing encapsulate the growing rift between Sunni and Shi’i elements which has been a feature of post-Arab spring instability. Iran and its ally (some would say minion) Hezbollah, the bastions of Shi’i Islam in the region, were targeted in this case for more political than sectarian reasons. Yet their support for each other and for Assad stems from factors which include religious ties, while the motivations of the Abdullah Azzam Brigade and similar rebel factions in Syria are fundamentally intertwined with Sunni Islam.

    Sunni-Shi’i conflict is also increasingly dividing a struggling Iraq. Although it is necessary not to overstate this element of Middle East politics and society - talk of a religious civil war which will divide the Middle East is an exaggerated simplification of a complex and nuanced reality - sectarian cleavages are worrying.  

    Going forward

    Responses at the national, regional and international level to the development need to be measured. In Lebanon, national solidarity must be prioritised. The country, polarised after years of devastating civil war and divisive Syrian occupation (which only came to an end in 2005), should resist the temptation to see red and allow terrorist attacks to sway its delicate sectarian balance. For the largely Sunni March 14 alliance, blaming the attack on Hezbollah’s presence in Syria would be a convenient but counterproductive response to score cheap political points and ignore the threat to national security. For Hezbollah, who could use the attack to portray itself as a victimised target, retaliation must take a back seat to preserving the relatively moderate reputation it has fashioned within Lebanon in recent years.

    Regionally, efforts to promote such solidarity in Beirut are more important than seeking to play a winning move on the Lebanese chessboard. The recent overtures of Iran under the presidency of Hassan Rouhani seem to demonstrate a tentative willingness to move towards dialogue rather than diatribe on regional and international issues. Along with Saudi Arabia, Tehran holds the key to defusing the political and sectarian divides cleaving the Middle East; rather than double-down on Hezbollah and Syria and entrench itself in the face of the perceived Sunni threat, continued cooperation and coordination with other regional actors in tackling terrorism is paramount.

    Finally, at the international level, engagement and encouragement remains the key. Initial responses from the west have been promising. David Cameron’s much publicised phone call to President Rouhani, after years of diplomatic cold-shouldering, bodes well for future dialogue with Tehran. For Lebanon, the tap of international aid to help it cope with humanitarian - and now security - threats must be kept firmly turned on. It is through such a concerted effort that the “regional war” presaged - and perhaps desired - by Bashar Al-Assad can be avoided.

    Religion and politics in post-coup Egypt

    By Amr Osman

    “Shoot them in the heart . . . Blessed are those who kill them, and those who are killed by them . . . We must cleanse our Egypt from these riffraff . . . They shame us . . . They stink. This is how God has created them. They are hypocrites and seceders . . . Stand your ground. God is with you, and the Prophet Muhammad is with you, and the believers are with you . . . Numerous visions have attested that the Prophet is with you. May God destroy them, may God destroy them, may God destroy them. Amen!”    

    These are the words of Egypt’s former Mufti, Sheikh Ali Gomaa, speaking to an audience of the Egyptian military and police leadership (according to the person introducing him in that event, Gomaa was going to talk about Islam’s “clemency”). This audience included General Sisi, Egypt’s Defense Minister and its current de facto leader, as well as senior armed forces commanders and the Minister of Interior and his senior aides. It is not known how the video clip (broadcast by Al Jazeera) that shows Gomaa’s speech was released and by whom. In all probability, it took place in the headquarters of the Egyptian Defense Ministry in Cairo before the carnage on August 14 by the Egyptian military against pro-Morsi “defenders of legitimacy” sit-ins in Cairo – which left thousands dead, maimed and injured. After the massacre, there is no obvious context for Gomaa’s speech.   

    Ali Gomaa was appointed as Mufti (a religious scholar invested with state authority to issue official fatwas) by deposed president Mubarak in 2003, a position that he maintained until 2013. Alongside the Grand Mufti, the Grand Imam or Sheikh of Al-Azhar is the other prominent official in Egypt, responsible for religious matters. Al Azhar is considered by many Muslims worldwide to be the highest authority in Sunni Islamic thought and Islamic jurisprudence. During the January 2011 revolution, Gomaa condemned the protests, but did not openly call for violence to suppress them. Immediately after the July 2013 coup, Gomaa jumped into the picture again, eclipsing the current Mufti of Egypt (rumours had it that he opposed the coup) and even the Grand Sheikh of Al Azhar, Ahmad al-Tayyib, who was present at and blessed General Sisi’s announcement of his roadmap, including the immediate suspension of the constitution and the appointment of an interim president. Gomaa had established a reputation as an important scholar of “moderate” Islam, calling for dialogue with other religions, and issuing fatwas that supported the rights of women and minorities. Understandably, he enjoys much popularity among the more “liberal” segments of the Egyptian society and the rest of the Arab and Muslim worlds.  

    The collaboration of Muslim scholars with tyrants is well known in Egypt and everywhere in the Muslim world; indeed, political conservatism (in the sense of supporting powerful leadership irrespective of its religious and moral commitments and forbidding any challenge to it) has been a hallmark of mainstream Sunni Islam since early Islamic history. However, Gomaa’s speech is still remarkably striking, not only in its explicitness in encouraging and legitimating mass murder by the state (and not just justifying these ex post facto), but also because of its uncompromisingly aggressive tone and, one could say, remarkably over-the-top language.

    Obviously, Gomaa was bestowing religious legitimacy on plans for violent crackdown on protesters to “clear the conscience” of the security troops before they embarked on their assault. And to do that, Gomaa used several strategies. He began with history, likening the protesters to the “hypocrites” who lived in Medina at the time of the Prophet Muhammad and sought to undermine Islam. Furthermore, he correlated them to a group of fanatic Muslims, called the Khawarij (meaning “seceders”), who, only a few decades after the Prophet’s death, were among the earliest Muslim groups to use violence against fellow Muslims who disagreed with their understanding of Islam. He then described the security troops, who would supposedly die while killing the protesters, as martyrs whom God would bless in the heavens. Additionally, he asserted that God, the Prophet Muhammad, and the “believers” supported the cause of the security forces. Known for his association with one version or another of Sufism (Islamic mysticism), Gomaa went so far as to say that visions (dreams that holy persons purportedly experience, and that are taken as a source of guidance to the right path, often featuring either the Prophet Muhammad or dead saints), confirmed that the security forces were on the right side. Last but apparently not least, the protesters are filthy and unclean, and their odour is offensive. God had chosen to create them that way, Gomaa remarked.

    Only a few days later, the Egyptian security forces embarked on their Gomaa’-authorized jihad, not only for the cause of Egypt, and not only for the cause of Islam, but even for the benefit of the environment. Live ammunition was used against the protesters, their tents were set ablaze, and the streets were cleansed of their bodies by bulldozers. In one incident, a tear gas canister was thrown into a fully packed, unventilated police truck where detainees were left tied to each other for seven hours despite their cries. Predictably, most of them were killed. Without the context described above, it may be truly difficult to comprehend the cruelty of this scene or to attribute it to regular police brutality.

    Apparently appalled by the unexpected release of the video clip, Gomaa was quick in denying that he was talking about the MB or the protesters and asserted that he meant the “terrorists in Sinai and elsewhere”. Hardly anybody took these claims seriously given Gomaa’s frequent references in his speech to President Morsi’s (lack of) legitimacy. In fact, Gomaa has kept a low profile since that incident a few weeks ago, and it is likely that he would not be playing a significant role in Egypt’s future even if the current regime succeeds in holding onto power. For Egypt’s current leadership, it wouldn’t be wise to solicit the support of a religious scholar who probably “took it too far” when there are plenty of other scholars who still maintain a degree of credibility and are willing to play the traditional role of most Sunni scholars.

    But the significance of this episode goes deeper than Gomaa’s status and future role, for it could indicate that the alliance between the Egyptian political/military leadership and the religious establishment may be taking a serious turn, not just on a religious level (not just Islam, but also Christianity, given that Pope Tawadros II was also present and blessed General Sisi’s coup) and politics, but also on the level of the religious/political discourse of Al Azhar, namely, what can be said about the use of religious language in the process of justifying the state’s dealings with oppositional forces.

    The new Egyptian Constitution (now under preparation by an appointed committee made up of almost exclusively “liberal” figures) will determine the new relationship between the ruling military elite and “official Islam.” In all likelihood, the old arrangement of giving a few concessions to the ‘ulama of Al Azhar in return either for their silence or occasional support when it is absolutely necessary on political issues, will have to give way to a new relationship where both sides become increasingly dependent on each other. The religious establishment will have to be unrelenting and explicit in its support for the regime and endorsement of its policies, whereas the military leadership will have to solicit the active partnership (and not what we might call the old “positive marginalization”) of the religious establishment and its services in justifying its policies prior to, rather than after, putting them into effect.

    This is not to belittle the role Al Azhar has traditionally played. However, the new position of Al Azhar will be significantly more crucial as a partner of the new coalition of interests that will rule Egypt. In other words, Azhari scholars may now be willing tofight to maintain the present military regime (even if a civilian authority is put at the forefront) because the failure to do so could have grave consequences for their own very existence. At the same time, the military must be aware that its need for overt religious justification on political issues comes at a price; General Sisi ordered that both Sheikh Al Azhar and the Pope of Alexandria should be given armored vehicles, a step that is more than just symbolic.    

    On the level of discourse, it is remarkable that Al Azhar’s Committee of Distinguished Scholars, of which Gomaa is a member, kept silent on this issue. Given Gomaa’s own attempt to alter the interpretation of what he said, it might have been expected that Al Azhar would quickly distance itself from that interpretation by issuing a statement condemning any view that encouraged the use of violence against protesters or describing fellow Muslims as “seceders” who “stink.” But this was not the case. The mere silence of Al Azhar indicates that the use of such language in describing political opponents is a valid option, and can be used to justify state violence and take precedence over other discourse of Al Azhar, where modern values of human rights and political and religious freedoms are presented as genuinely Islamic. This was the discourse that was emphasized when the “Islamists” were in office in Egypt. Now, this discourse has to remain on the margin to be recalled again when need be. What is now needed is another discourse, the true, genuine discourse of traditional Sunnism which Al Azhar represents. 

    Azhari scholars will now engage in a number of self-fulfillment prophecies, including traditional dicta of the sort of “better the devil we know” and “better a year under a tyrant than sixty years of strife”. These views currently have a much more favorable milieu to gain wide currency and further popularity. This was not inevitable, however. The way Azhari scholars seem to have conceptualized the changes that were going on in Egypt when President Morsi was in office must have confirmed to them, not only that the alliance with the state was the safer bid had they wanted to maintain their privileges and consolidate their interests, but also that the traditional Sunni approach to politics is sound.

    Al-Azhar (as well as both the Salafis and the Sufis despite their many contradictions) has failed to break out of the vicious circle of the traditional conception of the relationship of religion and politics. Their own decision to take sides in the conflict between the Egyptian military and the Muslim Brotherhood was both dictated by their traditional understanding and has at the same time confirmed this understanding. By siding with the state, al-Azhar has adhered to its traditional views, failing to realize that their position contradicted the discourse they propagated for political reasons in the last few months prior to the coup.  

    In other words, the fight against “politicizing religion” in Egypt (the main perpetrators of which were taken to be the Muslim Brotherhood) may prove even more detrimental to both politics and religion in Egypt and beyond. It is hardly conceivable that any genuine reforms could be initiated by the traditional Azhari scholars. Ironically, this Azhari/Sunni traditionalism had contributed in providing a raison d’être for the emergence of “political Islam” in the 20th century; today, it will continue to do so, although the direction of the new trajectory of political Islam is not yet clear.     

    Egypt: the police state

    By Rana Nessim

    Some people ask me why demonstrations are still taking place and why the “revolutionary youth” are not giving the interim government a chance to implement “the roadmap” to democracy. This assumption fails to recognize that the only people who agreed to this roadmap are those in power; there was no general consensus.

    With the Egyptian military’s removal of the Muslim Brotherhood from power, local media immediately changed its narrative, de-humanizing in the process the pro-Morsi camp and praising the military that would save Egypt from “terrorism.” Since then they have been downplaying clear attempts by the authorities to stifle the ongoing revolution and to provide further protection for the police force whose brutal tactics provoked the uprising in the first place.

    It was only two years ago that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) was leading Egypt through its first “transitional period.” During that time thousands of protestors and activists were detained and tried in military courts, young women were subjected to virginity tests – which Sisi, Egypt’s de facto ruler, condoned as a necessary step in protecting the army from accusations of rape – peaceful protesters were brutally murdered - the Maspero massacre, the Mohamed Mahmoud clashes, and many more. All of these events took place under military rule - the very same military that now supposedly has Egypt’s best interests at heart.

    The events of this year have confirmed that nothing has changed since then and that dissent will be crushed. The first clear sign of this was the dispersal of the pro-Morsi sit-ins at Nahda and Rab’aa in mid-August, the latter of which has been called the worst massacre in modern Egyptian history. On a basic human rights level, there should have been uproar at the atrocities that took place. Ironically, the Minister of Interior Morsi had appointed is the same minister, Mohamed Ibrahim, in power now.

    On November 24, interim President Adly Mansour officially approved a new protest law granting the Ministry of Interior vast powers. This law requires ‘notification’ (subject to refusal) of the MoI a few days prior to planned demonstrations – defined as any public gathering of more than 10 people.

    Violations of this law can result in large fines as well as jail sentences. On the other hand, security forces have the right to gradually increase their use of force on demonstrators, as long as they give prior warning, and to use water cannons, tear gas and clubs.

    On November 26 a small number of peaceful protesters convened in front of Egypt’s Upper House (Shura Council) to object to the constitutional committee’s November 20 vote in favour of military trials for civilians. The ‘No to Military Trials’ group have been fighting to ban these trials since 2011; between February and September 2011 alone a supposed 12,000 civilians were on military trial.  In this video it is very clear that the ‘No to Military Trials’ demonstration was peaceful. The protesters were not in any way provoking the authorities, even though the Ministry of Interior was quick to accuse them of hurling stones at the police.

    26 Nov 2013 Egypt

    Mariam Kirollos. All rights reserved.

    The way security officials handled the situation couldn’t have been more indicative of how the police state is alive and well. No safe exit from the demonstration was provided for the protestors, nor were they asked to leave prior to the police dispersal, as stipulated in the protest law. Instead, protesters were water cannoned and seconds later, a number of policemen, some with batons, and some of whom were masked or in plainclothes – in violation of the new law – charged at the protesters and forcefully detained those they could get their hands on. Not only were the #NoMilTrials protesters arrested, but both women and men were sexually assaulted, beaten, stripped and dragged along the ground during these arrests. For pictures, click here.

    They were then hurled into a police truck, which apparently drove around central Cairo, and eventually arrived at New Cairo First Police Station. People were able to keep track of them as some had managed to keep their mobile phones and tweeted their whereabouts. Lawyers were not permitted to enter the police station. People had to bring clothes for the detainees, as many of them had had their clothes ripped off.

    A number of those arrested are activists who have been at the heart of the uprising since 2011, some of whom won international awards for their work in human rights. According to the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression a total of 79 people were detained.

    While this was taking place, the Minister of Interior notified the 50-member constitutional committee that the detainees would be released straight away. They also claimed that no women had been detained - but later released a statement saying they had detained female activists, but had returned them to their homes. In fact, a number of the arrested women were later dumped on the Cairo-Upper Egypt desert road, after being assaulted again.

    As of today, 24 protesters remain in detention. On November 27 a prosecutor ordered the arrest of two leading activists, Alaa Abdel Fattah and Ahmed Maher. Alaa has announced that he will hand himself over to the authorities on November 30 and released this statement. Ahmed tweeted “The human rights situation in Egypt has become worse than in the Mubarak era, now they arrest anyone trying to think about criticizing the government.”

    However, six of the female activists released (dumped in the desert) went on November 27 to the district attorney’s office to turn themselves in, claiming responsibility for calling the protests. They also filed an official complaint against the Ministry of Interior for kidnapping, assaulting them and leaving them in the desert, and demanded the release of those still in detention. “Investigations” are under way.

    Many justify the protest law by arguing that authorities in other countries have to be notified prior to demonstrations. But an important point of distinction is that authorities do not then sexually assault or murder detainees, or prevent their access to legal aid, let alone dump them in the desert. The Maspero massacre, for example, had started as an “authorized” peaceful protest, which rather undermines the argument that the use of force on November 26 was justified because it was not an “authorized” protest.

    Instead of focusing on the actual crimes being committed across the country – the church drive-by shootings, for example – those in power have decided to focus on suffocating any sign of revolutionary forces. The only problem is that this battle will never end until justice is served. Peaceful protesters holding up signs and chanting are not a threat to national security. The authorities and security officials are a threat to people’s security.

    Update

    Latest on Alaa Abdel Fattah: 

    Gigi IbrahimDespite the fact that Alaa Abd El Fattah announced that he will turn himself in on Sat as the one responsible for planning the #nomiltrials on 26 Nov, the police just broke into his home, beat his wife, stole their laptops and mobile phones, and arrested him.. we don't know where they will take him...fuck this police!!! 

    This is a tweet from his wife, Manal, at 10:06 PM - 28 Nov 13

    @manal: If police already beaten me in our house, what are they going to do to @alaa . I fear for his safety.

    Omar Robert Hamilton @ORHamilton
    We don't know where @Alaa has been taken. Lawyers & activists going round the police stations. But suspect he may be kept hidden until Sat.
    10:31 PM - 28 Nov 13 

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