‘Neither Heroes, Nor Villains’

Of everything I’ve read or heard about Egypt lately, nothing has felt quite as useful in lifting my (no doubt continuing) veil of ignorance as a recent lengthy interview with Talal Asad.

He views things with a dry clarity.

But I am much more concerned here about the fact that a particular kind of alliance has been constructed in which some people (that is, the beneficiaries of the Mubarak regime, including the army) are much clearer about what they want, and others (the pro-democracy movement) who are not so clear. At any rate, to the extent that they are clear about what they want, they are certainly not very clear about how to achieve it. They remain largely at the level of slogans because their efforts are invested largely in the media. The trouble, as I see it, is that the pro-democracy movement has not thought critically enough about how the grand alliance against Morsi has come about and how the aims of that alliance conflict with their own aims. They seem to take it for granted that, having been on the winning side in the conflict with the Morsi government, they can now successfully confront the army and its civilian allies (i.e., big business, the media, the judiciary, etc.).

The Muslim Brotherhood (and Morsi) seem to him as much sinned against as sinning.

Their incompetence has often been cited in relation to their inability to restore law and order, to run a modern economy, to prosecute the military for its crimes (i.e., the murder of protesters, their arrest, and torture) during the transitional period after Mubarak’s fall.

But I would argue that many of these criticisms are ill-conceived: there are so many forces already arrayed against them that there was not much scope for the Morsi government for independent action. Morsi could have tried military officers for crimes? You must be joking. He could have restored a bankrupt economy in a world where powerful institutions and governments, who have their own political agendas, control the flow of capital? He should have reduced poverty in a country dominated by a powerful neoliberal elite? This is not where the real evidence of their incompetence lies – especially considering the short period of one year in which he was president. In my view, their total incompetence, their total stupidity, lies in not anticipating, to begin with, that they would be demonized if they acquired governmental authority. And demonized they were, with a vengeance.

Their long and difficult history ill equipped them to deal with Egypt’s cacophonous mix of tradition and modernity.

I think that the Muslim Brothers have no sense of what kind of politics a crisis demands in a diverse society, in a complex, interdependent world. They have acquired a very rigid mentality as a result of the political repression they endured over sixty years. They do not seem to be able to think about the new circumstances in which they have to take a different view of politics—its potentialities and dangers—to develop new political skills, both parliamentary and extra-parliamentary.

Most interesting, to me at least, was his contention that the true structure of power in Egypt bears little resemblance to the pictures we in the West have mostly had painted for us in recent years.

And, despite their electoral win, the Muslim Brotherhood and its Freedom and Justice Party are and were always weak. One of the things of which they were often accused was that they wanted totalitarian control of society, that they were on the verge of getting what they wanted, which is absolute nonsense, of course. They did not have such control, they could not acquire such control, and there is no real evidence that they wanted such control. This is one part of their stupidity: To be seen to behave as though they had real control of the state.

Instead, in Asad’s view, the deeper state never meaningfully lost control. By that he means the army, of course (as the sole possessor of hard power), businessmen who were beneficiaries of Mubarak’s regime, “high court judges that maintain close links with the army; ambitious politicians and ex-politicians; television directors and show hosts; famous newspaper journalists; the Coptic Pope and the Shaykh of al-Azhar; and so forth.” He’s not the only one to point out the almost indecent haste with which most of the Morsi regime’s apparently intractable problems (petrol shortages, electricity outages and lack of police protection in many areas) were resolved after they were toppled.

By allying themselves with these powers to topple Morsi, Asad fears the pro-democracy movement may have made a Faustian bargain. The opportunity for a conventional, legitimate rejection of the Muslim Brotherhood in the coming parliamentary elections is now gone, probably irrevocably so. Some of course argue the Brotherhood would never have accepted the “people’s verdict”, that Islamists work on the principle of “one vote, one time”. Perhaps so. In any case, we’ll now never know.

Update: (04.03.14)

Fascinating article in the Boston Review, “What Killed Egyptian Democracy?”. In it, Mohammad Fadel argues that the primary responsibility for the failure of Egypt’s democratic experiment lies with the Liberals and radical secularists.

“The promise of democracy lies in its potential to cultivate political virtue over time. But Egypt’s liberals, unnerved by the policies of the legitimate Muslim Brotherhood government, refused to wait.”

Their desires for a far more open and secular society with legally enshrined protections for far-reaching individual freedoms, however abstractly desirable, was unrealistic. Egyptian society wasn’t ready. Rather than choosing to work and compromise and struggle within the imperfect framework of Egypt’s nascent democracy, they allied themselves with the military in throwing out the Brotherhood.

One can only hope it’s not a decision they live to bitterly regret.

In addition, six other contributors comment on Fadel’s article and he responds.

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