The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

In Translation: The road to fascism

This is the final catchup in our In Translation series, in collaboration with Industry Arabic.

In the last few months as the rhetoric has heated up in Egypt’s political landscape, there’s been much talk of fascism. Mostly, the word has been bandied against the Muslim Brotherhood, and sometimes the reverse to accuse secularists of favoring the return of the military to power. As is almost always the case, it is used rather carelessly.

In the article below, Mohammed Aboul-Ghar, a respected physician and the head of the Social Democratic Party, gives his take on the Brotherhood’s mode of operation, which he labels as “fascist”. It was part of wider discussion of the “fascism” of the group early last month, in the context of attacks on freedom of expression.

There is continued debate as to whether the Brotherhood was a fascist movement — strictly speaking, the fascist movement in Egypt in the 1930s was represented by Misr al-Fattah and its blackshirts greenshirts. But other political movements, included the Brotherhood and the Wafd Party, had their own colored shirt movements and some ideological overlap with what was after all, at the time, a relatively mainstream political ideology and a method of operation also shared with the pro-Soviet left. I don’t think, however, Hassan al-Banna can be described as a fascist thinker or that the Brotherhood or other nationalist movements that sympathized with European fascists against the British (or Jews) are simply run-of-the-mill fascists. These movements have their own, illiberal to be sure, origins in nationalist and religious ideals. (I once had a big argument with Bernard-Henri Levy on the subject, but he tends to see a lot of things as fascist simply because they are anti-Semitic.)

My own take on fascism is somewhat controversial the few times I have raised the issue. Most people like to avoid the word, perhaps rightly, as empty of meaning because in everyday parlance it is used as an insult or a way to tar an opponent (George W. Bush is fascist, Margaret Thatcher is fascist, etc.) But when it comes to Egypt, I have long felt that the 1952 regime was in many respects fascist in that it was militaristic and corporatist, with grand ideas about the mass mobilization of society and its division into sectors of production (that’s why Cairo has a neighborhood called “engineers” and another called “journalists”, etc.) The Mubarak regime, in my eyes, was what I like to call “late fascist” — in the same vein as 1970s Spain or Portugal under Franco and Salazar. It’s not comparable at all to Hitler, and you can’t even call it totalitarian. But it is a flavor of fascism, and bears many of its hallmarks, notably in the omnipresence of the national security state and its routine subordination of individual freedom in the name of a collective supposed higher good. Until there is a wider acknowledgement of that, I don’t think Egypt will change that much.

The Road to Fascism

Mohamed Aboul-Ghar, al-Masri al-Youm, 8 April 2013

Egypt has gone through long periods of dictatorship. If you operated as part of an opposition party like the Muslim Brotherhood, you would face outright repression and restrictions, while opponents of Mubarak like us were simply not allowed to form parties, though the restrictions were less severe. It was the same case with courageous journalists. The bold journalist Ibrahim Eissa was sentenced to prison for exposing the Mubarak regime. This dictatorial regime was draining Egypt of its skill base, and most posts were held by pet favorites, relatives and sycophants, although the regime also made use of some talented individuals that maintained its performance at a reasonable level in a few critical posts.

When the revolution first broke out, the Muslim Brotherhood announced that it would not participate in an official capacity, and they did not participate on 25 January. However, they did support the revolution in force on 28 January and then stole it for themselves thereafter. They acted as if they were the entirety of the Egyptian people and that the rest of the Egyptians were on the margins and had no value.

All those who study the history of the Muslim Brotherhood are aware that with the exception of a few individuals in the higher leadership who can be counted on one hand, their members are closed in on themselves. Their information from outside the organization is limited, they are not allowed to mix with society, they speak only with one other, eat only with one another, and marry only one another. This has limited the thinking of the vast majority of them and left them without any culture except for a religious culture limited to studying a single, certain type of jurisprudence. Even Islamic history is not allowed to them in its widest sense, lest they reflect on certain terrible events that took place within the heart of Islam. Naturally, they do not watch movies or plays, they do not listen to music or read literature, and their knowledge of history is limited to what is dictated to them. The product of this is someone who is very obedient and self-controlled, who believes what he hears and reads from childhood on and who is unable to think outside the box.

I can cite the example of my nephew, who was a recently graduated doctor and who belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood. I made many attempts to invite him to a very serious and important play at the National Theater, but these attempts failed because of orders from the Brotherhood “do not go to the theater.” Thank God my nephew was successfully cured of his Brotherhood disease and became a distinguished doctor of medicine in the US and opened up on the world. He became a normal person with the right to think and agree or disagree according to his own conscience and not the conscience of the Brotherhood’s leader.

It is wrong to make an absolute generalization, since every rule has its exception. There are a few individuals in the Muslim Brotherhood whom you sense are different and feel that they have humanity and taste, such as Drs. Essam Hashish and Amr Darrag of the Faculty of Engineering in Cairo University. Although many of them are professors of medicine, engineering and science, it is difficult for any of them to be a pioneering or innovative researcher.

It is impossible for an actor, director, novelist or real intellectual to emerge from the Muslim Brotherhood, and when the Brotherhood now undertakes in all seriousness the “Brotherhoodization” of key positions in the state, this means that they are placing a committed Muslim Brother in every sensitive post, one who listens to what he is told and upholds order forcefully. But the Egyptian administration will collapse under Brotherhood rule and lower-level functionaries will rise up violently against the Brotherhood figure who is in control. I will not go into details, but take the example of the Education Minister, who has been handed a disastrous legacy and needs innovation, reflection, activity and funding to raise the level of education. What has he done so far? His first decision was to make philosophy an optional subject starting next year in order to pave the way to abolish it altogether – for one simple reason: because philosophy makes you think and thinking in the Brotherhood’s view is a catastrophe. The Minister is not able and not allowed to do it, so how can he allow students to do it?

What the Brotherhood is doing in the media realm is a scandal by every measure. I wished the person who summoned Bassem Youssef for questioning and released him on bail would have consulted Dr. Essam al-Haddad, since it is clear that he at least has a “brain.” He would have prevented this scandal that threw the Brotherhood into confusion and made the President Morsi a laughingstock before the whole world. If the opposition spent a billion dollars to insult the Brotherhood, it would not have been able to achieve a scandal one-tenth of the size of this one. Do you know that 20 million Americans watch Jon Stewart and that what he said about the Brotherhood, the President and the old videos was a riot? Strangely enough, when I was in Sweden at the beginning of this week I imagined that Egypt will call for the arrest of Jon Stewart and notify Interpol! I hope that al-Haddad will get ahold of them and there will be no more such scandals. Hunting down opposition journalists is nothing but fascism and will lead to continuing disasters. Post-revolution Egypt will remain free and will keep on criticizing the Brotherhood and non-Brotherhood forces as well, as long as we believe that they are in the wrong. Be reasonable, Muslim Brotherhood…Egypt doesn’t need any more disasters.

Rise, Egyptian, Egypt always calls on you.