Lifting the mist on the Egyptian crisis

Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood

By Nureddin Sabir
Editor, Redress Information & Analysis

There is mass confusion across the political spectrum in the West, from the left, through the bleeding-heart liberals to dyed-in-the-wool conservatives and other right wingers, regarding where to stand on the crisis in Egypt.

Some leftists have fallen back onto their Washington safety blanket. They figure out that because the US has failed to cut military aid to Egypt following the mass movement that ousted Islamist President Muhammad Morsi and the clamp down on Morsi’s organization, the far-right Muslim Brotherhood, which has been holding Cairo hostage with a paralysing sit-in, then the US must be in favour of Egypt’s interim, army-backed government that replaced Morsi. Therefore, so their logic goes, leftists must do the opposite and back the far-right Islamist group. These supposed left wingers are generally represented in various online outlets as well as in the liberal media, including Britain’s Guardian newspaper, Channel 4 News, the BBC and the pro-Muslim Brotherhood Qatari TV channel, Al-Jazeera.

The right, on the other hand, would like to see concerted action, including sanctions, against Egypt to force the interim government to give in to the far-right Muslim Brotherhood’s blackmail. Among the exponents of this argument is Britain’s Conservative prisons minister, Crispin Blunt, and US Senator John McCain.

Between the two camps is a coterie of Islamists of various degrees of extremism, Islamophiles, including a worryingly large group of online activists who have little idea about Islam, Islamism, the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt or anything else but nonetheless think that because there are bad people called Islamophobes, then Islamism must be cool. It also includes lots of bleeding-heart liberals who think all sides should just sit down and sort things out – forgetting that that is precisely what Egypt’s interim government has been trying to do since Morsi’s removal from power on 3 July. Examples of the various shades of this group can be found among the interviewees of Al-Jazeera’s English-language TV channel.

Most of the arguments put forward by left wingers, right wingers, bleeding-heart liberals and those in-between have already been debunked in various articles published on this website. Generally, the arguments fall into three clusters: democracy, human rights and the “the US conspiracy”.


This is the argument that the far-right Muslim Brotherhood’s Morsi was popularly elected and therefore should have been allowed to serve his term in office. It is a flawed argument. As Egyptian freelance writer and broadcaster Magdi Abdelhadi says,

It has become pretty obvious to everyone that democracy for the MB [Muslim Brotherhood] means nothing more than the ballot box and winner-takes-all. That is primarily why they have failed to build bridges with the opposition and create consensus – the only way to run a divided society like Egypt…

No less important for the MB is the need to revise its founding myth (its core ideas have remained untouched since its founder Hassan al-Banna more than 80 years ago) that Shari’ah [Islamic law] is the panacea to the ills of society. This fallacy has been exposed and is why people quickly became disillusioned with Morsi. The poor and hungry cannot eat Shari’ah, neither can holy books or piety alone create jobs or grow the economy. Egyptians revolted against Mubarak in January 2011 not because of a supposedly lost Muslim identity, but to demand freedom, dignity and social justice…

The “democracy” argument also ignores the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood’s core beliefs are inherently and irrevocably opposed to democracy.

In the group’s belief, the Koran and Sunnah [the teachings and practices of the Prophet Muhammad] constitute a perfect way of life and social and political organization that God has set out for man. Islamic governments must be based on this system and eventually unified in a caliphate. The Muslim Brotherhood’s goal, as stated by Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna, was to reclaim Islam’s manifest destiny, an empire, stretching from Spain to Indonesia. It preaches that Islam enjoins man to strive for social justice, the eradication of poverty and corruption, and political freedom to the extent allowed by the laws of Islam…

On the issue of women and gender the Muslim Brotherhood interprets Islam conservatively. Its founder called for “a campaign against ostentation in dress and loose behaviour”, “segregation of male and female students”, a separate curriculum for girls, and “the prohibition of dancing and other such pastimes…

For the Muslim Brotherhood, sovereignty lies not in the people, but in God and only those able to interpret God’s will as laid out in the Koran and within the framework of the Brotherhood’s ideology – i.e. the Muslim Brotherhood’s religious scholars – can mould politics and determine public policy.

Human rights

The “human rights” argument deployed by Westerners opposed to the interim Egyptian government’s handling of the Morsi supporters’ mass sit-in, which for six weeks paralysed large sections of Cairo, cutting major arterial roads and holding entire residential districts hostage, centres on the terrible civilian casualties resulting from the security forces’ forceful ending of the sit-in. Wittingly or otherwise, this argument ignores the fact that this was no ordinary sit-in, and it is hard to imagine any government, whether in London, Washington or Berlin, tolerating a similar situation in its own capital for even one day, let alone six weeks. As Egyptian writer and activist Wael Nawara put it,

For six weeks, yard by yard, the Rabia al-Adawiya encampment expanded its borders, creeping to claim kilometre after kilometre of neighbouring streets, including the Autostrade road, which connects Nasr City and the rest of Cairo to the city’s airport. Until one day, Rabia al-Adawiya was no longer a sit-in, but a sprawling town, even a city-state, with fortifications, internal police force, complete with torture camps and border control officials. Rabia al-Adawiya came to manifest the Muslim Brotherhood’s “Parallel State”

To be sure, the human cost of ending the Muslim Brotherhood’s mass paralysis action has been truly appalling, but blame for this lies squarely with the Brotherhood’s leaders, who have turned down every attempt by the army-backed interim government to resolve the crisis peacefully and begin instituting real democratic civilian rule.

Instead of acknowledging the fact that most Egyptians wanted an inclusive and tolerant civil state where all citizens – Muslims, Christians and non-believers – are equal, not an Islamic state with a constitution guided by seventh-century values, the Muslim Brotherhood chose the path of violence and, along the way, fooled many Westerners. As Abdelhadi says, the Brotherhood “has perfected the art of double-speak: the language of democracy and human rights to its Western interlocutors, but that of jihad and xenophobia to fire up its poor masses”. And fire up the masses – their own masses – they did, with the horrific results we see hourly on our television screens.

Given the Muslim Brotherhood’s intransigence and determination to impose its brand of Islam on all Egyptians, could the Cairo standoff have ended differently? We do not think so. To quote Nawara,

Many people see this confrontation as imminent and unavoidable – and that if it was allowed to take place two or three years from now, the Muslim Brotherhood would have been able to infiltrate and split the army, and hopes for restoring order without dividing the country would have been slimmer. While we’re now horrified by the death of hundreds, if the country were in a state of a civil war in which two armies fight, the death toll could climb from hundreds to hundreds of thousands…

The conflict in Egypt is not a dispute over percentages of election gains. It’s not about who rules. It’s rather about “what to rule”: the state of Egypt — or the Brotherhood’s state.

The “US conspiracy”

This is the favourite argument of the lazy, the ignorant and the fake, one that is invoked to explain all problems, from the Arab Spring generally, to the Syrian civil war, to the crisis in Egypt.

Proponents of this argument often hold contradictory positions but, having little understanding of anything, they do not even recognize the contradictoriness of their stances. For example, more than a few online left-leaning Western apologists for the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and its Palestinian wing, Hamas, simultaneously oppose the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. They claim that the Syrian Brotherhood is a US-Zionist client while at the same time arguing that the move against the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is a US-Mossad-inspired operation aimed at satisfying “Zionist plans for Eretz Israel from the Nile to the Euphrates”, as one Alex James put it in an email to us.

The “US conspiracy” argument hinges on the fact that the Egyptian armed forces receive something in the order of 1.3 billion dollars in US aid annually and the fact that the Barak Obama administration has so far held back from cutting this aid in response to the clampdown on the Muslim Brotherhood’s Cairo sit-in.

This is also a flawed argument because it ignores that, in the balance of bargaining chips between the United States and Egypt, it is Cairo, not Washington, that holds the upper hand. The US aid to the Egyptian military is given as an inducement for the Egyptians to continue observing the humiliating Camp David agreement of 1979. It is, if you will, a bribe. Given that Israel is more or less all that the US cares about in the Middle East, upholding the Camp David agreement is paramount as far as Washington is concerned. Consequently, whatever the Obama administration might think about the ouster of Morsi, it cannot cut off aid to the Egyptian armed forces without risking the Camp David agreement, and risking Camp David is something the Israelis would not want – or allow – Washington to do.

In any case, the “US-aid-to-the-Egyptian military” argument may soon be resolved. According to a report by Daily New Egypt, the Tamarrud (also spelled “Tamarod”) movement, which played a major role in ousting Morsi by mobilizing millions of Egyptians against the far-right Islamist president, has joined a campaign aimed at ending US aid. In a statement, it demanded that the Egyptian government hold a referendum banning US aid, cancelling the 1979 Camp David peace treaty with Israel and rewording security-related treaties to allow Egypt to secure its borders. This, it said, is in response to the US interference in Egyptian political affairs, specifically, Washington’s tacit support of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The “US conspiracy” argument also ignores the fact that, historically, the West – especially the US and Britain – have preferred Islamists to Arab nationalists. There are many reasons for this, but the main one is that the Islamists are content to let Western powers have their way on Israel, oil and trade in return for the West turning a blind eye to Islamist repression and suppression of civil and human rights. As Hussein Agha and Robert Malley say in “This is not a revolution”,

In exchange for economic aid and political support, they [the Muslim Brotherhood] will not threaten what they believe are core Western interests: regional stability, Israel, the fight against terror, energy flow. No danger to Western security. No commercial war. The showdown with the Jewish state can wait. The focus will be on the slow, steady shaping of Islamic societies. The US and Europe may voice concern, even indignation at such a domestic makeover. But they’ll get over it. Just as they got over the austere fundamentalism of Saudi Arabia. Bartering – as in, we’ll take care of your needs, let us take care of ours – Islamists feel, will do the trick.

All in all, the arguments that have been deployed by the Western media and many of the commentators chosen by Qatari Al-Jazeera TV to appear on its news programmes, as well as by a various self-styled leftists, bleeding-heart liberals and right wingers, do not stand up to scrutiny. However, if it were a matter of factual scrutiny, these arguments would not be deployed for long. The problem is, we suspect, those who articulate these argument do so not just out of ignorance, but a combination of ignorance, ideology and political ulterior motives.

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