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The alliance with the Brotherhood is over

After reading through the debate between Tad Tietze and Michael Brull about whether leftists should ­ever join with Islamist forces, it’s clear that Brull is indulging in the worst kind of ivory tower abstractionism.

How, for example, would he advise secular leftist forces in Egypt to react if, faced by a takeover of the state by the Salafi parties (far more conservative and intolerant than the Muslim Brotherhood), the latter reached out to the seculars to form a united bloc against the Salafis?

This is not an out-of-the-question scenario. Nor is an attempt to reassert control by the military and intelligence agencies, along with their long time colleagues still legion among the business elite and in the ranks of the deep state. What then?

Should the secular Left in Sydney try and ban the participation of the cle­­­arly conservative Muslims who often show up at protests about Palestine and Iraq, using chants that evoke verses of the Koran? Or should the Left eschew the protests because such forces are in attendance? If Brull would take the deal with the Brotherhood against the Salafis, or walk in the same march as a group from a Lakemba mosque who might very well hold views that he, Tad and I all find objectionable, what does his ‘firmly’ secular stand mean?

Surely he can’t mean that the Left should be seeking to align with the nominally secular army and internal security forces against the elected president? Or has he gone that far down the bomb-them-coz-they’re-backwards road paved by the late Christopher Hitchens?

It certainly seems he has adopted some of the same lazy but seductive habits of thinking.

He rightly points out that Michel Foucault – who assuming journalism would be a piece of cake compared to the difficult, high-level thinking he excelled at – made very foolish comments about the Iranian revolution. It’s true that Foucault was wrong but his thinking was not entirely without grounding. There is nothing like the papal theocracy of Europe in Islamic history. Under the Caliphate political power was generally centralised in a monarchy. It dominated over religious power, which was usually indirect and diffuse.

What Foucault underestimated was the hunger for power and charismatic demagoguery of Khomeini, who had been a clear figurehead of the revolution for a long period before the collapse of the Shah’s regime – and who created his own new theory, compatible only with Shia Islam, to justify the clerical takeover.

Morsi – a relative unknown before the presidential race – is not a comparable figure, nor is Mohammed Badie, the Brotherhood’s ‘Supreme Guide. For the situation to become seriously comparable to the Iranian revolution, Badie (or some other prominent cleric) would at some stage have to be elevated to a position of final executive power above the president. Is Brull willing to go on record predicting such a move? Even rumblings of it?

More likely, the Brotherhood will stick with elections, following in the model of the AK Party in Turkey, who do abuse press freedom and minorities, but cannot be said to be establishing a theocracy or anything resembling it.

Brull, rather than Tietze, is making Foucault’s mistake, letting historical example obscure the details of the current conflict.

The Brotherhood do not control the interior ministry. They can’t rely on the loyalty or even obedience of the army over the medium term. They have no militia equivalent to the Basij in Iran, no moral police like those of Saudi Arabia.

Some groups of Salafi men have tried to appoint themselves to similar tasks, but seem to have had, at best, very limited success at best. The most famous story about them relates to an incident when, in the town of Benha, the female customers and staff of a beauty salon fought back against a surprise ‘raid’, beating the men with their own canes and forcing them onto the street and into retreat.

We should not, of course, underestimate the extent to which the population – as in all societies – does most of the moral policing work on a volunteer basis. A gay Iranian journalist told me once, ‘I’m not afraid of Ahmedinejad. I’m afraid of my family.’ That should remind us that, in the end, these are cultural battles, fought over generations rather than election cycles.

We can reject and condemn intolerant views inspired or condoned by religion. Indeed, we must. But we – the Arab Left and its supporters – cannot throw our hands up in disgust and walk away, not if we want to be of any use.

What’s more, while the above-mentioned volunteer ‘morality police’ (and millions of others), may express sympathy with some of the extreme views and figures such as the Mujahedeen of Afghanistan who Brull somehow brings into his piece (as though anyone were advocating cooperation with such people, which we couldn’t do now anyhow without worrying about getting on a very dangerous list), there is – and I can’t believe I still have to say this to people who claim an interest in the topic – a big difference between these groups and the Muslim Brotherhood.

This, however, is something Brull seems to be going to great efforts to avoid. He writes:

When the MB were able to run a free paper in the 1970s, they railed against four archenemies: ‘Jewry’, the ‘Crusade’, ‘communism’ and ‘secularism’.57 Does this sound like a friend of the Left?

The Muslim Brotherhood have free papers, TV stations and the like operating right now. Why is he going back more than thirty years? Would he do that to prove the true intentions of a Western political party?

The Brotherhood also have an English language webpage and twitter account, which follows such profoundly conservative figures as No To Military Trials, Occupy Wall Street and even yours truly. As far as official twitter accounts go, they are pretty good at answering questions. Has Brull engaged with them in the spirit of robust debate he so avidly defends? Has he even bothered to read through Morsi’s victory speech in Tahrir Square?

Of course, each of these examples represents just one point of contact with a huge organisation. English language sources are no doubt tailored to a Western, and westernised audience. Equally, though, much of the more conservative rhetoric coming out of the Brotherhood can be seen to be tailored to a specific domestic constituency.

In the lead up to the first round of voting, with the centre crowded out by Sabahi and Aboul Fotouh, Morsi went after the conservative end of the spectrum, probably hoping to pick up the supporters of disqualified Salafi candidate, Abu Ismail. Once the contest became between him and Shafiq, he steered back towards the centre. He is a politician – an effective one.

The ‘Koran is our Constitution’ rhetoric, for example, can be taken as equally artificial but tailored for a different, domestic audience, as the fact that they are in the process of writing a constitution to be put to referendum would indicate.

On the actual issue of the constitution’s contents and its drafting, of course, we must support secular voices – and their work to defeat the constitution at the polls if it is Islamised. We should support them, that is up and till the point they start calling for a military coup against the elected government, which would likely issue in an era of conflict and repression on a much greater scale than we have seen over the last year-and-three-quarters.

Secular Egyptians, smart people who understand enlightenment values, have often told me they would prefer an Islamic democracy to a secular dictatorship. The ‘politics is usually a choice between the lesser of two evils’ cliché seems unavoidable. I wish normally intelligent writers wouldn’t make it necessary to repeat such bland truisms. This is not Singapore. We can chew gum and walk at the same time.

I think Brull would be wise to heed the words of George Monbiot’s public mission statement ‘On trying to be less wrong’:

A complex system cannot produce simple or consistent answers. A system created by human beings – or by any conceivable entity – cannot produce perfect answers. Every choice we make involves pay-offs and compromises. This is a lesson I have learnt slowly and reluctantly.

In a practical sense, in the context of Egypt, the revolutionary forces are being forced to continue to stress and highlight the specific abuses and broader failures of both the former regime and the Brotherhood, while at the same time building a strong, broad, economically populist party of the Left – something that is far more plausible than the history of simplified and stereotyped reporting on the Middle East has lead most of us to believe.

One way positive way to interpret the position Brull takes in the debate would be to assert that the Left should not hold back from criticising the current of bigoted thought that runs through contemporary Middle Eastern and Islamic society – just as we should criticise such bigotry in other cultures, especially our own. The hard line position on this, which is the one I have come to take, is that we should not withhold such critiques even when we know they may be used as further ammunition by warmongers and hatemongers. In such cases we cannot and must not ignore crimes and failures of our enemy’s enemies, not even when we have strategically aligned with them.

It is not my impression that Brull takes this stance.

Some of you will remember a great disturbance in the force that occurred when Mona Eltahawy published an article in Foreign Policy Magazine. It was called ‘Why Do They Hate Us?

Mona was asking about Arab men, and why they hated Arab women. She described the hatred in brutal detail. She gave no answers as to why.

And that was the point. Do I need to spell it out? Apparently I do.

She wanted to raise the issues profile and start a conversation. She never claimed to have all the answers.

I’m sure she has extensive thoughts on the subject. But she wanted other people to think. From the most prominent platform available to her (one, which judging by the storm here in Cairo, reaches a very large readership amongst Arab intellectuals and activists), she threw a big fat rock into the pool, making a big noisy splash and stirring up the muck settled at the bottom, preventing it from lying undisturbed and hardening into yet another layer of sedimentary bedrock.

Yes, I know, in the context she is doing it – one where Muslims are constantly portrayed as genetically backwards and brutal – such an article will serve as ammunition for some of the enemies of Arabs, and of Egypt’s revolution.

But Mona doesn’t get to choose another context. She speaks in this world or stays silent in it.

Did it work?

Well kind of. A discussion occurred, which is normally a good thing. Unfortunately the very people I expected to provide the best answers (those who could have seized the moment to explain how, battered by waves of military, economic and social defeat, unrelenting for decades, Arab manhood has retreated into a submissive but vicious kiss-up, kick-down posture), those who could have shown how Arab men and women like Eltahawy are starting the fight to change that, fell through.

Instead of making these cases, they mostly just attacked the article as Orientalist, essentialist, etc. At one stage I heard the anthropological term ‘native informant’ used with a sinister tint, as if to equate Mona with a Mohican girl who had sold the locations of her peoples’ villages to the white man for some shiny beads.

It was, of course, typical of the Left: calling for an absentee ref when we should be kicking goals. It’s become a habit we indulge in sometimes even when no foul had occurred. Often, as in the case of the controversy over Mona Eltahawy’s article, such arguments are bound up in post-structuralist, anti-universalist nonsense.

Tad Tietze (who, like Brull, attacked Eltahawy’s piece) falls back on this same thinking – completely unnecessarily – during his debate with Brull. He writes:

Refusing to [ally with Islamists], out of principled objection to the sometimes reactionary, religious-based policies of such organisations, cuts the Left off from serious participation in the struggle against local regimes and imperialism. Not working alongside Islamists represents a lack of understanding of their contradictory nature, and a naïve adherence to secularism as a progressive force in the modern world.

Here Tietze goes well beyond simply negating Brull’s never-ever stance on cooperation with Islamists. Indeed, like so many thinkers, he seems ready to throw the whole enlightenment project out the window in a funk of cultural relativism.

My approach is much less sophisticated: We should cooperate with Islamists, if and when they are the Lesser of Two Evils.

From the time the Brotherhood’s youth came into the square, before Mubarak’s ouster, until the incomplete but surprisingly firm assertion of civilian authority over the military by the civilian, elected, president Mohammad Morsi, (who symbolically quit the Brotherhood and its political wing, the FJP, before assuming the office and promising to govern ‘for all Egyptians’) – an argument could be made for leftist forces to cooperate, at least tacitly with the Brotherhood. In reality their efforts certainly helped the Brotherhood by discrediting the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, who were the main obstacle to the assumption of power by a civilian of any ideological stripe. This is no longer the case.

Mubarak is in prison. Elections have been held. These were, if not in the same league as those in the west, at least recognisably the same sport. The army’s stranglehold on power has been broken.

The time to pivot has come.

For one thing, you can’t be in an alliance with someone who doesn’t want to be in an alliance with you, and the Brotherhood are doing just fine, thanks so much for asking. The contingencies of the electoral process and backroom deals have handed them, and Morsi as an individual, a strong position. To the extent it makes sense to quantify these things, they are quickly becoming the bigger threat.

Times may change, however, and it may become time to think of ourselves primarily as friends of Egypt. In those circumstances, standing with the Brotherhood, as the country’s democratically elected government, may be the prime moral and strategic necessity.

Working backward from either future scenario, however, to ‘what should be done?’ right now, the obvious conclusion is that the creation of strong and broad progressive grouping is the priority – one that can both stand beside the Brotherhood, should efforts to assert civilian rule and sovereignty be reversed, and stand against them should they become the new oppressors, something which we must assume they have the capacity to do.

It is clear that electoral victory for Muslim but secular leaders, rather than avowed Islamists, is possible in the Middle East. The recent election results in Libya – where conservative Islamic norms are also widespread, demonstrate this.

The difference there was that, having been all but effectively eradicated by Gadaffi’s oppression, Islamist movements didn’t have the organisational head-start they have enjoyed in Egypt.

But even in Egypt the Islamists don’t have a monopoly on mass appeal, as a look at the results of the first round of voting in the presidential race reveals.

In the second round, however, the contest came down to a choice between Morsi and Ahmad Shafiq, the candidate of the old regime.

Members of the April 6th Movement (a youth group inspired by striking workers in Mahalla that helped agitate ahead of the Jan 25 uprising) were arrested for standing outside polling booths wearing t-shirts bearing the faces of the revolution’s martyrs. This was taken as implicit support of the Brotherhood by the authorities, and therefore in contravention of a rule against campaigning during the last days before the election (this was designed to stop last minute lies and slander being the deciding factor but enforced very selectively).

At the same time as supporting the Brotherhood, however, April 6th were busy working on their long-term goal: building a secular left alternative, not just to the Brotherhood’s political party Freedom and Justice, but to their broader social and charitable movement as a whole. Clearly they are serious about affecting change. As a result, they engaged in exactly the kind of strategic alliance with really unpalatable partners that Tietze rightly advocates.

April 6th are not the only glimmer of hope on the horizon. Parties representing Egypt’s Sufi community have recently announced their intention to join a broad coalition of secular and liberal forces. If a large chunk of the estimated fifteen million Sufis in Egypt come with them, another important piece of the post Mubarak political infrastructure will fall into place. The Brotherhood’s claim on those Egyptian hearts and minds it does posses is far from total.

Sufi and secular politicians could, for example, exploit the issue of Moulids. These popular Sufi festivals are considered haram by some of the thinkers inside the Brotherhood. This may offer an opportunity to wedge the Brotherhood quite effectively, though of course doing so may strengthen the Salafi position within the Islamist spectrum. These are the kinds of calculations the Egyptian Left must start making – and making well. Blanket declarations are of little use.

If outsiders can do anything, apart from shining as much of a light on Egypt’s struggle as we can, perhaps we can remind Egyptians (and the world) of the capacity that third world democracy has to throw the global system curveballs like Lamumba, Allende and Aristide. The democratic left-wing movements that have taken power in Latin America can offer much by the way of example to Egypt (and in the longer term to other leftists worldwide).

What point exactly on the revolutionary spectrum the Egyptian revolution occupies is not yet determined. Somewhere between Indonesia and Venezuela perhaps – but the struggle continues. Contingency and agency are at play in ways that resist easy predictions.

In terms of indicators however, the ongoing IMF negotiations, postponed repeatedly since April of last year, should be telling.

It is my prediction that the deal, if and when it will be signed, will be among the softest the IMF has ever put its name to – if not the softest. In particular, the food subsidies that the establishment press were marking for demolition earlier in the year, will remain untouched. Beyond this the basic principle that Egypt is going to be, at least to some extent, running its own economy seems to have been tacitly accepted by those at the centre of global power.

If this is the case, it will be a strong validation of what I have been writing since the revolution began about the significance of Egypt’s revolution as a world historical event, marking a profound opening for progressive politics.

This shock to the international system is just one of many readjustments of truly global scale which are currently unfolding. These moments of crisis represent not simply opportunities for the Left to reach out to those newly disaffected with the system, but an urgent obligation to do so, lest they drift into the influence of those offering easy reactionary answers. That means putting down the intellectual and moral purity of the seminar room and making calls about what to do in the real world.

While the answers aren’t as easy as Brull would like them, there is no reason to do as Tietze has done, making a position more difficult and controversial than it needs to be.

The really hard question facing Egypt’s leftists is not what they think of the Muslim Brotherhood’s vision for Egypt, but what their own vision is and how they intend to make it happen.

Austin is a freelance journalist who began reporting professionally during the 2006 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, where he was studying on exchange. Since then he's reported from all around the Middle East and Australia including during the turbulent 2009 presidential elections in Iran, the remote Northern Territory, and for two turbulent years from Egypt following the 2011 uprising, during which time his close attention to the labour movement, the abuses of the army and police forces and dissenters from within their ranks earned him the ire of Egypt's traditional authorities, who brought bogus charges against him and his colleagues, which were only dropped after pressure from friends, family, the MEAA and the Wikileaks community forced the foreign minister to take action. He now lives in Quito Ecuador with his wife Aliya and their cat, Assad (which means lion in Arabic).

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  1. I think I’d make a few comments. Firstly, Austin has misunderstood the debate (as indeed, I thought Tad did). The topic was whether Political Islam is a Friend of the Left. Not how the Left should relate to political Islam. I do not live in the Muslim world, I was not offering tactical advice. I was speaking to Australian leftists on what they should understand about political Islam. Obviously, that’s a very broad category, so I took a few case studies. Saudi Arabia, the Afghan mujahideen, the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamists in Iraq. Most of it would be familiar to anyone who read any study of political Islam, because they typically feature.

    Given that, what I said seems to me truistic. Secularism is good, anti-secularism is bad. Then one can look case by case, and find that Islamists have lousy records on just about everything, including their largely mythical anti-imperialism.

    As for Austin’s position… well, where I can find it, it includes things like:

    “standing with the Brotherhood, as the country’s democratically elected government, may be the prime moral and strategic necessity.” I cannot agree with this. I’ve written, I think, as much as anyone in Australia on the blockade on Gaza. This did not and does not require standing with Hamas. I don’t really have the time to take this up at length, but I think it’s worth comparing Austin’s position with Arab leftists, Samir Amin and Joseph Massad. http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2012/07/201271511521721772.html http://monthlyreview.org/commentary/2011-an-arab-springtime

    Finally, I won’t take up all of the strangely belligerent, personal and routinely inaccurate references Austin makes to me and what I wrote (around February 2011). One example, his first reference to what I wrote, is characteristic of his style.

    I wrote:

    During the Iranian revolution, French philosopher Michel Foucault solemnly explained:

    one thing must be clear. By ‘Islamic government’, nobody in Iran means a political regime in which the clerics would have a role of supervision or control.

    Middle East expert Maxime Rodinson sought to correct this misimpression. Similarly, I write this piece in the spirit of a warning to the Left.

    My footnote to this reads:
    Rodinson responded (p. 270): ‘Apparently, Foucault had never heard of the theory already put forward by Khomeini at least thirty-four years ago, the Velayat-i Faqih (in Arabic, Wilayat al-Faqih) which is the theory that the clerics are capable of governing.’

    It’s a simple point: leftists have been naive before about political Islamists, and I would like to warn leftists this time in a similar manner.

    Austin replied

    It’s true that Foucault was wrong but his thinking was not entirely without grounding. There is nothing like the papal theocracy of Europe in Islamic history. Under the Caliphate political power was generally centralised in a monarchy. It dominated over religious power, which was usually indirect and diffuse.

    What Foucault underestimated was the hunger for power and charismatic demagoguery of Khomeini, who had been a clear figurehead of the revolution for a long period before the collapse of the Shah’s regime – and who created his own new theory, compatible only with Shia Islam, to justify the clerical takeover.

    Morsi – a relative unknown before the presidential race – is not a comparable figure, nor is Mohammed Badie, the Brotherhood’s ‘Supreme Guide. For the situation to become seriously comparable to the Iranian revolution, Badie (or some other prominent cleric) would at some stage have to be elevated to a position of final executive power above the president. Is Brull willing to go on record predicting such a move? Even rumblings of it?

    So here we have Austin saying Foucault was not so foolish, because there wasn’t a precedent, and that he didn’t know Khomeini had created “his own new theory”, etc. I think spelling out the point here would be depressing. So take Austin’s other point: that Morsi is not going to become the new Supreme Leader, assuming that is what I was getting at. An astonishing misreading, putting aside that what I wrote was in *February 2011*.

  2. Dear Mike,

    “Austin has misunderstood the debate (as indeed, I thought Tad did).” – funny how nobody knows what the point of the discussion is except you, not even the editors who seemed to think we were on topic. Next time you can give a lecture in advance defining key terms.

    In any case, making the question “political islam is a friend of the left” isn’t that big of a difference. In the end the answer would be thee same, not really but the lesser of two evils and necessary to work with when confronting the massive oppressive forces at the heart of the world order. Let’s see how the IMF loans come out, for example.

    “I’ve written, I think, as much as anyone in Australia on the blockade on Gaza. This did not and does not require standing with Hamas.” – actually Mike that does in a Meaningful sense put you on the same side as Hamas. You are calling for the same thing as them. Me and a lot of people are too, obviously.

    You are pushing in the same direction, whilst insisting your not on the same side.

    What does this actually mean?

    “here we have Austin saying Foucault was not so foolish, ” – I used the word foolish and meant it. I was explaining the difference between the Iranian situation and the Egyptian one. Differences you don’t seem to think matter but I do.

    And now that quote as part of a larger section:

    “here we have Austin saying Foucault was not so foolish, because there wasn’t a precedent, and that he didn’t know Khomeini had created “his own new theory”, etc. I think spelling out the point here would be depressing.”

    - i can only imagine here that Michael is implying that the Iranian revolutions example would make such a takeover easier in Egypt -where the threat of Egypt turning into Iran was the number one stick the brotherhood were it with during the campaign- or that the Islamic Juris prudence theories put forward by Khomenei could be used by the Sunni brotherhood. But he can’t mean that since he’s not an idiot…

    You may have been writing in 2011… I am writing now… and yes I have the advantage of more time having passed… giving u more evidence of what the situation on the ground really is… have your views changed? would you adjust your original position?

    Please elaborate.

    Will you now please show that you are engaging in the spirit of good will and the pursuit of truth, rather than cheap point scoring and posturing, by answering the several questions that I have posed to you directly in this essay?

  3. This is clearly a complicated debate, but I just want to focus on one small part of Austin’s article.

    Some of you will remember a great disturbance in the force that occurred when Mona Eltahawy published an article in Foreign Policy Magazine. It was called ‘Why Do They Hate Us?’

    Mona was asking about Arab men, and why they hated Arab women. She described the hatred in brutal detail. She gave no answers as to why.

    And that was the point. Do I need to spell it out? Apparently I do.

    She wanted to raise the issues profile and start a conversation. She never claimed to have all the answers.

    Is this the same Eltahawy who was a vocal supporter of the war in Afghanistan – the war to liberate women?

    IMO, thinking activists should always question political motives and agendas. Why, when the rest of the world is suffering a bad case of Islamophobia, is it the right time for a Why do Arab men hate us? article?

      • I’m not convinced that the two motives – pro Afghanistan War and Why do they hate us? – aren’t connected. Has she ever come out and said she was wrong on Afghanistan? And relying on the LBJism (chewing gum while walking/farting), doesn’t address the state of Islamophobia, or how her article helped fuel it by feeding into all those suspicions (thereby justifying the logic for the Afghanistan War in the first place).

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