The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts tagged fascism
Egypt and the f-word
Photo of graffiti in Tahrir Square by Bilal Ahmed

Photo of graffiti in Tahrir Square by Bilal Ahmed

This guest post is written by Bilal Ahmed, a writer and activists who is preparing for graduate research that compares the tribal laws and central governance of the tribal areas of Pakistan, and Yemen.

During their brief tenure in power, the Muslim Brotherhood and Mohammad Morsi were increasingly accused of fascism. Now, as Egypt’s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood continues, the accusations of fascism have begun again. Much of this is because popular discourse has a knee-jerk tendency to link any form of authoritarianism with Nazi Germany. It becomes easier to do that in a national context in which we see fierce nationalism, growing xenophobia, assault against domestic minorities, and the gleeful celebration of state violence.

Let us be clear: Egypt hasn’t gone fascist. And saying that constrains how we should think about its politics in the coming years.

When we compare trends in Egyptian politics to something as complicated as the rise of Continental European fascism, we are as much probing the idea of Egypt going fascist as we are the nature of fascism itself. The rise of fascism in Europe was the result of specific political factors that, although currently present in Egypt, have not been rallied in the service of mass politics in a way that invites the word.

It is far more accurate to compare events in Egypt with the aftermath of the French Revolution of 1848 that established the Second Republic. That revolution came as the result of a wave of spontaneous revolts in 1848 that were very similar to the Arab spring. Similar to Egypt now, the initial overthrow of Louis-Philippe led to the decline of the parliamentary experiment that succeeded him, which was co-opted by a series of increasingly conservative leaders in favour of the status-quo. Eventually, the struggle ended with the rise of Napoleon III, who became both France’s first president and its last monarch (he styled himself as a Prince-President.)

Napoleon III had won the presidency in December 1848 and was hailed even initially as a candidate who, although not desirable, would be sufficient to end a variety of domestic issues. These included national unrest, economic instability, and prevent a revolutionary push by other forces, then mainly proto-communist factions. Sound familiar? He eventually came to be France’s absolute ruler as the result of a political stalemate over restrictions on universal suffrage which gave him the opportunity to present himself as the answer to an exhausted desire for national order. The National Assembly of the Second Republic had stagnated so greatly that it was reviled by the populace that established it only a few years earlier. Napoleon III then seized the opportunity to launch a coup d’état on 2 December 1851 that was approved in a later referendum, and which heralded a new era of strongman rule with democratic pretenses.

Of course, we should be wary about comparisons between Napoleon III and Egypt’s commander of the armed forces, Abdel–Fattah El-Sisi. Sisi’s rule has just begun, for one, and the complexities of both situations could have led to any number of leaders breaking through. (Including the unlikely possibility of Morsi himself). The point to focus on here is that of short-lived democratic experiments, which begin with popular dissent, and are then curtailed with widespread approval of a paradoxically equal scale (or greater as was the case with the tens of millions of Egyptians who marched against Morsi.) Their quick collapses are usually due to some political maneuvering, whether through Napoleon III’s well-timed defense of universal suffrage, or Sisi’s equally well-timed coup after mass demonstrations, followed by an insistence that a war on terrorism is taking place. It is not fascism. It is smart counterrevolution.

Once we accept that what we are seeing isn’t so much fascism as it is a pushback against democracy-minded upheaval, then we can begin to have honest discussions about fascism in an Egyptian context. Fascism hasn’t taken hold of Egypt’s state institutions, which are instead being held by cynical elites who are circulating whatever mythology will direct the public away from demanding structural change. Still, the seeds of fascism are everywhere.

Much of this is less “Egyptian” than it is a direct consequence of market-driven societies. There is a great deal of scholarship on how numerous features of consumerism, such as advertising, popular entertainment, and market surveillance, inadvertently helps foster conditions where the public more easily acquiesces to fascist authoritarianism. These phenomena have Egyptian manifestations in the same way as do the effects of economic scarcity in making politics more provincial. This is mainly because intense conditions of austerity tend to force a reliance on more ancestral ties of religion and ethnicity, especially when violence occurs.

The conditions of the Treaty of Versailles, and a general sense of powerlessness that followed World War I, drove the classical fascist movements. We mostly remember the racial aspects of these mobilizations, but fascists were diverse in the mythologies they used to create a cult of power, from homophobia to labor politics. They key is that the cult of power opposed itself on those designated as nationally “weak” and in need of being violent expunged. These drives allowed fascists to flee their own mortal vulnerabilities in a period of prolonged crisis and to embrace totalitarianism.

But elites didn’t so much subscribe to these philosophies as they did circulate them as an unwieldy attempt to preserve their own power. This was particularly true with anti-Semitism. Fascism happened in part because this circulation blew up in everyone’s face. The myths took on a life of their own and eventually drove a nihilistic revolutionary push. This crucial step isn’t observable in modern Egypt.

And yet, I think it is actually not unwarranted to see an intimation of fascism in people cheering for the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. The current worship of SCAF is directly related to a feeling of national weakness. The Egyptian military becomes poetically seen as everything that Egypt should be: strong, prosperous, and willing to defend national values (never mind its actual capabilities, and the fact that it has essentially degraded into an economic empire for its senior leaders.) We are certainly seeing the possible future of something terrifying.

But it remains that: a possibility. The main problem I have with calling Egypt fascist is its tinge of historically-blind pessimism. After all, revolutionaries quickly re-grouped in France, and seized an opportunity provided to them by the Franco-Prussian War to establish a number of communes, most notably in Paris itself. And there was another wave of revolutions that began in 1917 with the Russian Revolutions. The eventual, temporary victory of fascism in much of the continent took place after fierce combat with anti-fascists who had a very different idea of the world that would succeed the decaying European political order.

It is too soon to say how these possibilities, whether of a future revolution against the Egyptian military, or the eventual emergence of fascist authoritarianism by a nihilistic revolutionary faction, will play out. However, one thing seems clear: the coming months, and years, will be crucial in determining whether or not fascism is really coming to Egypt. For now, let’s all use caution in dropping the analytical f-bomb.


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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.