Reflections on the revolution in Egypt
by Abdallah Schleifer
Edmund Burke wrote that great classic of conservative political thought, Reflections on the Revolution in France in 1790. The French Revolution was but a year old and Jacobin power not yet consolidated. We may think of the Jacobins as the predecessors of all modern authoritarian revolutionary movements- be they of the Left or the Right - derived from a European, militantly secularist understanding or derived, as in the case of the Muslim Brotherhood, from the transformation of religion into ideology.
But it was clear to Burke (who was opposed to the Revolution) who were the revolutionaries and who were either its victims or potentially the forces of Counter Revolution. To someone without sharp pre-conceptions, none of that is clear in Egypt. Everyone – the deposed former President Mursi or more significantly, the Muslim Brotherhood and allied Salafis to the Tamarod (Rebel) youth - whose petition calling on Mursi to step down galvanized the forces that overthrew Mursi - and the older ineffectual liberal and left wing Opposition to the leaders of the armed forces and even to articulate Mubarakists – all claim to hold high the banner of the January 25 Revolution.
Revolution from the top
Perhaps that is possible, as I have suggested in a previous column, because there was no Revolution, although Mursi was hopelessly attempting to gradually carry out an Islamist Revolution from the top; hopeless because a revolution from the top must have a significant armed force of its own to successfully impose itself.
Things are so muddled that global media can only make sense out of what is happening in Egypt by defining the struggle (weeks after Mursi was deposed and thus eclipsed as the never-really-accurately-described presiding figure of Islamist power) as a struggle between “pro-Mursi” and “anti-Mursi” forces.
Things are so muddled that global media can only make sense out of what is happening in Egypt by defining the struggle as a struggle between “pro-Mursi” and “anti-Mursi” forces.
But there is one other conviction, besides the coveted status of the revolution, and that is the insistence that America supports the other side. (The fifth point of the Tamarod declaration condemned the Muslim Brotherhood as the tool of the United States (and Israel, too!)
MB supporters have laid an outline – attractive to a global media looking for fresh and comprehensive copy – of an American conspiracy to bring Mursi and his MB dominated government down. In a curious way both sides of this contention are right and wrong. What has been fairly clear is that since “9/11” an increasingly popular current of thought (among policy makers) - first publically articulated by Graham Fuller, then a major figure and Middle East expert in the CIA – concluded that only a movement like the MB had the willingness and more importantly the potential capacity to combat al-Qaeda and its affiliates in terror. Why? Because the MB is Islamist but not extremist and thus able to express the concerns of the Muslim majority in the region, yet also prepared to enter into normal relations with America rather than seek America’s destruction
This approach assumed too much of an ideological common ground between the MB and “the silent majority” of modestly pious Muslims practicing what we would describe as traditional rather than politicalized Islam (Al Azhar, the awqaf functionaries and the millions of Egyptians participating or favourably touched by popular Sufism) and aware of an undercurrent of Muslim Brotherhood hostility.
But it was certainly more perceptive than any previous understanding within the American establishment. At the same time the failure of the MB leadership to seriously and not just nominally work towards national reconciliation after narrowly winning a series of elections and referendums, would increasingly disturb American diplomatic, military and intelligence circles concerned about the region and, in particular, Egypt.
Egypt in dire straits
The MB says they stand for democracy and are against the very idea of a coup, or if that word gives offense, military intervention on the side of the people. Yet history records show (if only discreetly in the most honest memoirs of the leading figures back in the mid-fifties) that the MB was in alliance with Nasser and his Free Officers in the final preparations for the Free Officer coup that overthrew Egypt’s constitutional monarchy. And despite the title of Supreme Guide, derived from Sufi tariqa usage, the relationship of the MB leader and the rest of the movement has far more to do with the Leninist concept of “democratic centralism,” inherited via the model of Italian Fascism (right-wing Leninism) in the late 1920s and 30s than with the Sufi sheikh and his disciples.
Meanwhile, Egypt’s economy is in dire straits. The MB’s program that favors continued privatization and more foreign as well as private Egyptian investments offers an immediate response to the increasing unemployment and impoverishment within Egyptian society which cannot wait for the pay-off down the road of increased private investments. Nor do the MB’s impressive charitable activities resolve these problems. The political and social instability which has characterized Egyptian society since the 25th of January uprising – for which the much of the anti-Mursi Opposition was at least as much responsible for, as was the intransigent Muslim Brotherhood, scared off both tourism and investment.
What is desperately needed is a decisive Public Works policy, using relatively inexpensive labor- intensive technology to build roads or tarmac existing streets, and extend water and sewage systems – facilities lacking in an incredibly high proportion of Greater Cairo not to mention the countryside. The country needs an Egyptian New Deal, not the contemporary MB program of Neo-Liberalism preceded by a Bism’Allah. The armed forces, if not the liberal politicians should understand this for, crudely put, any standing Army based on conscription is a very successful example of an institution basically devoted to public works rather than to facilitating private profit, and close, by virtue of its numbers and tradition, to the people.
Abdallah Schleifer is Professor Emeritus of Journalism at the American University in Cairo, where he founded and served as first director of the Kamal Adham Center for Television Journalism. He also founded and served as Senior Editor of the journal Transnational Broadcasting Studies, now known as Arab Media & Society. Before joining the AUC faculty Schleifer served for nine years as NBC News Cairo bureau chief and Middle East producer- reporter; as Middle East corrrespondent for Jeune Afrique based in Beirut and as a special correspndent for the New York Times based in Amman. After retiring from teaching at AUC Schleifer served for little more than a year as Al Arabiya’s Washington D.C. bureau chief.
Originally published on Al Arabiya and reprinted on TAM with permission of the author. Prof. Schleifer’s Alarabiya column will now be posted regularly on The American Muslim (TAM), and on Arab Media and Society, an electronic journal as well as the links twitted on a weekly basis to Arab Media and Society subscribers. Abdallah Schleifer is Cairo correspondent for The American Muslim(TAM).