Near the end of 2013, the Arab Spring has become the “Arab Turmoil”. Even by the end of 2012, the “Spring” had already evolved into the “Summer” since the region was certainly not moving smoothly into the peaceful, consensual and constitutional mode as expected in the conventional understanding, much of which was based on a global media romance with revolution.
Indeed the only countries where such a process was underway were those monarchies — Morocco, Jordan and Oman — which were relatively untouched by the Arab Spring.
By the beginning of 2013, Syria was in a state of an increasingly sectarian and destructive war. In Yemen, the movement for greater democracy overlapped and would become increasingly overshadowed by dominant tribal rivalries and profound regional discontents. Even Egypt, demographically more or less half of the Arab world’s population, which had experienced free and fair elections, would in the final months of 2012 be moving towards that turmoil that would increasingly characterize Egypt in 2013.
For those elections, first for parliament and then the presidency, were held at a moment in which the only disciplined, grassroots political movement left in Egypt after the collapse of Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party, was the 85 year old Muslim Brotherhood.
The MB, weathered by long years of repression (relatively light during Mubarak’s 30 years in power), quickly rebranded itself in the political field as the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) and came in first in the parliamentary election taking more seats than any other party and transformed this into a working majority in a de-facto Islamist alliance with a Salafi party which had come in second; this was a seemingly surprisingly strong showing for a Salafi party, surprising only for those circles ranging from Egypt’s secular liberal intellectuals to much of the foreign press corps, who had no sense of the growing support for Salafi fundamentalism, particularly in a countryside that had been overwhelmingly Sufi only a few decades ago.
The MB owed its victory in the parliamentary election to the utter disorder among the many barely organized, competing and generally secular parties, and owed its victory again in the second election, when the multitude of liberal secular (and one post-Islamist) candidates divided their votes. Muhammed Morsi and a candidate identified with the Mubarak regime (to nearly everyone’s surprise) made it into the second round, which Morsi narrowly won, if not by suspected fraud then certainly with the support of those Egyptians who voted for Morsi, not because they liked him and the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), but because at that moment in time they disliked the idea of a Mubarakist President far more.
This is old history but important because what lit the match so to speak for the political conflagration that has characterized so much of Egyptian life in 2013 were two events in 2012. The first occurred between the first and second round of that Presidential election when Morsi promised the leaders of several liberal secular political parties that he would form a broad coalition government if elected (with their support) as President.
Morsi, by and large got that support, which provided his slight winning margin. However, once in office he immediately went back on his word. Betrayal of campaign promises is of course no stranger in competitive democratic elections, but this was not a betrayal of some portion of a party’s program — this was a serious pledge to what are described in a rather curious style of Egyptian politics as “the political forces.” They did not take it well, but given their own internal divisions that had as much to do with jealousies among the leaders of newly created parties — parties largely based on a following for the leader founding the party rather than loyalty to party — and with little in the way of grass roots organization, they were unable to turn that collective sense of betrayal into any sort of serious united opposition during Morsi’s first few months in office, when he looked his best in a series of foreign policy initiatives and domestic manoeuvres (see Introduction, Muslim 500 – 2012 edition).
In late November 2012, Morsi was worried that a hostile judiciary, which had already nullified the MB-dominated parliament, would soon rule that the Islamist-dominated constitutional assembly appointed by the remaining upper house of parliament would also be declared unconstitutional by Egypt’s Supreme Court. Morsi therefore declared that he had assumed extra-constitutional powers and would not defer to the Court until there was a new constitution. The constitutional assembly proceeded to ram the new constitution through and it was approved by a dramatically dwindling portion of the electorate, which by now had been exhausted by nearly two years of instability and voting ‘yes’, largely in the belief that any constitution would provide stability. But constitutions only acquire that characteristic if they are consensual, which this Islamist constitution was not. By the time it had been approved by the constitutional assembly, nearly the entire minority of non-Islamist representatives, including most significantly the representative of Al-Azhar, had resigned in protest.
Still another sign of the authoritarian ambitions of the Muslim Brotherhood was the manner in which Morsi treated the vast state-owned media which included four daily newspapers and a number of television channels. The very idea of a state media is incompatible with democratic governance, yet ironically it is the monarchies in the Muslim world where the state does not own and operate the media. But instead of privatizing the media either by selling it off to diverse business interests, or better to turn ownership in the form of shares to all the employees — the system known as Employee Stock Ownership —Morsi replaced the most senior managers with journalists who were either members of the Muslim Brotherhood or sympathizers.
So even before the beginning of 2013, the once divided leadership of Egypt’s major opposition parties had entered into an alliance — the National Salvation Front (NSF) — and demonstrations had begun at Tahrir Square against Morsi and the MB-dominated government.
The NSF discourse stressed what it described as the ongoing “Brotherhoodising” of Egypt’s government, which in a way missed the point. When Morsi appointed 17 new governors in 2013, seven of whom were members of the MB/FJP, this became a major issue for the NSF at rallies and press conferences, which seemed to be the extent of what the NSF understood as political work. But this is but one illustration of how very few of Morsi’s critics seem to understand the workings of democratic Presidential regimes. In America, for reasons that go back to the United States existing as 13 quite independent states before they became united in a federal form of government, all governors are elected, and many, if not the majority of American governors are Republican. But if they were appointed, as in the case of Egypt, one can be sure President Obama would have selected all of his governors from the ranks of his own Democratic party.
Much more significant and disturbing than the “Brotherhoodising” of the governorates (which in America and Europe would simply be described as the SOP of party patronage) was that the governor Morsi appointed for Luxor came not from the MB but from the leadership of the allied Islamist party established by the formerly jihadi and now self-described Salafi movement — Al-Gama’a Al-Islamiyya — which had massacred back in the 1990s dozens of European tourists visiting one of the many spectacular Pharaonic sites in Luxor.
The Gama’a leadership which eventually (from prison) renounced armed struggle, had also killed hundreds of Egyptian security forces during an insurrection they had launched in Upper Egypt in the late 1980s and early 1990s, an insurrection which was ultimately crushed with massive detentions.
In Morsi’s mind, or the minds of the MB leadership, whom Morsi as an MB member had to “listen and obey,” the appointment made sense. The Al-Gama’a Al-Isalamiyya’s party was the MB’s most constant ally, and the Gama’a’s stronghold was in Upper Egypt, where Luxor is located. So, in an utterly abstracted way, it made sense to the MB to give the Gama’a the top position in one of the Upper Egyptian governorates. What this reflected was that Morsi and the MB leadership inhabited a bubble that mentally disengaged them from the way most Egyptians think or intuitively feel (even many of those who voted for the MB), which in this case would either be horror or dismay at the inappropriateness and stupidity of this particular appointment, particularly since Egypt has been and is still suffering from a collapse of the critically important tourism industry, and in Luxor nearly everyone makes their living directly or indirectly from tourism.
Nor did it help Morsi’s standing with a security establishment that had been in a running conflict with the MB in one form or another, on and off, for nearly 60 years. And since the “spiritual” leader of the Gama’a had provided the fatwa that provided Islamist justification for the assassination of Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat, who was a member of Nasser’s Free Officers movement within the Egyptian Army, this appointment was not appreciated. What rankled the armed forces even more was yet another example of what could be called The MB’s Bubble Problem.
When several soldiers were kidnapped by jihadi terrorists operating in the Sinai in order to negotiate an exchange for jihadi prisoners held by the army, the army prepared to launch a major operation to free the kidnapped soldiers. Morsi, however, cautioned the Army to “spare the souls of both the kidnapped and the kidnappers”. This was a stunning remark that reeked of moral equivalence by failing to differentiate between Islamist kidnappers — in effect criminals — and their victims, kidnapped soldiers.
The subsequent uproar forced Morsi to back down. Both of the above examples reflect what many observers of the Egyptian MB have always assumed: that while the MB favours working within an electoral system as the route to power — and thus has been opposed to the more militant Islamists who believe armed struggle is the only route to power; nevertheless, in a psychological rather than ideological sense, MBers tended to indulge these violent militants as basically “good boys” who have gone astray, or gone too far in their understanding of the ‘Cause.’
In June 2013 at a mass rally of pro-Morsi supporters — which included both the MB and Salafis — in support of the Syrian Rebels, a Salafi Sheikh took his turn at the microphone and denounced Egyptian Shia, a small community which is at the most in the hundreds of thousands, as enemies of Islam. This sort of rhetoric was common among many Salafi sheikhs and had intensified over the past couple years and had been echoed in public remarks made by members of the Muslim Brotherhood, no doubt stimulated by the sectarian nature of the Syrian civil war.
The common conception of the Syrian Alawites as Shia was based upon a formal recognition of this sect (which for centuries had been considered to be beyond the broadest boundaries of Islam) which was secured by intense intimidation of the Syrian Shia leadership by Hafez Al-Assad many years ago. But this time it was being said in the presence of the President of Egypt. Morsi said nothing and his silence was like a green light to Salafi sheikhs throughout the country, who were already upset by the renewal of contracts between Egypt and Iran, and the talk of Iranian tourists again coming to Egypt.
Only a few days later, a mob led by two Salafi sheikhs in the village of Abu Musallim in the governorate of Giza, close to Cairo, attacked a house where 21 Shia villagers had gathered to celebrate a religious feast celebrating the birth of the 12th and last Imam of the predominant school of Shia Islam. Among them, and presumably leading any prayers, was the most prominent Shia religious leader, Sheikh Hassan Shehata, from Cairo.
The mob hurled stones and Molotov cocktails at the house and called for Sheikh Hassan to come out. To spare the lives of the others, he and three others who had accompanied him left the barricaded house, stepped out onto the street where they were beaten and stabbed to death. Video, presumably from someone’s mobile smart phone, showed the bloodied lifeless bodies being kicked on the ground and then dragged through the streets. The attack had gone on for some three hours before the killings, and during that time three vans of riot police had been sent to the village and were stationed nearby but did not intervene.
President Morsi said nothing, but a strong statement condemning the attack was issued by his now imprisoned foreign policy and national security adviser Essam Al-Haddad, who was probably the most sensitive and sophisticated figure in Morsi’s entourage. Morsi did not attend the funeral nor did he send an official representative which might have been a gesture to redeem the MB for its own contribution to the hate speech that inspired the killings. Because of the village’s proximity to Cairo and the existence of video to corroborate the testimony of eyewitnesses, both Sunni and Shia, there is extensive documentation.
In Upper (southern) Egypt, where support for the MB and the former jihadis of the Al-Gama’a Al-Islamiyya was strong and remains relatively so, churches were attacked, many of them burnt to the ground on the same day (July 3rd) that Minister of Defense and Commander of the Armed Forces General Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi announced in a public ceremony carried by Egyptian and Pan Arab TV, that Morsi had been deposed. Sitting close to him were both the Sheikh of Al-Azhar Dr. Ahmed El-Tayyeb and the Patriarch of the Coptic Church, Pope Tawadros. Also present was the leader of Al-Nour party — the one Salafi group which had supported the army intervention — as well as the leader of Tamarod — the extraordinary youth group that in contrast to the NSF with its frequent press conferences and occasional rallies, had managed in but a few months to mobilize tens of thousands of anti-Morsi volunteers, across much of Egypt. They downloaded and printed out endless copies of the Tamarod (“Rebel!”) Declaration, calling for Morsi to step down with space for signatures, i.d. card numbers and neighbourhood references. The thousands of volunteers would then turn the forms, once filled, to a local representative of Tamarod who would then take them to Tamarod HQs. Thus it was not only possible for Tamarod to gather millions of signatures in the few months, but also in turn to mobilize many of those millions to demonstrate across much of the country against Morsi on June 30th.
But neither the headquarters of Tamarod, nor the many educational centres operated by Al-Azhar, nor the HQs of the Nour Party were attacked by pro-Morsi forces on July 3rd, although all three of these institutions had their leaders sitting alongside General Al-Sisi, as did the Coptic Church.
So again there is a sense of an undercurrent among the MB cadres of a longer, more deep-rooted contempt for the Copts of Egypt. Almost immediately after Morsi was deposed and detained by the armed forces, the MB organized two massive sit-ins, the largest at the intersection next to the Rabi’ah Al-Adawiyah Mosque, the other near Cairo University. Over the next few weeks these sit-ins took on the characteristic of an Occupied Territory, particularly at Rabi’ah Al-Adawiyah where a communal kitchen, showers, latrines, a powerful PA system and a media centre were all installed and powered by electricity taken from the main connections to an apartment building overlooking the intersection. Walled-off barricades were made from broken paving stones and sandbags. The barricades were manned by MB security guards; the less obvious the weapon the more lethal the guards. The sit-ins began to resemble fortified settlements with swings for the children (demonstrators were encouraged to bring their families) as well as a pharmacy and a field hospital. Neither of the sit-ins was besieged by the security forces, so supplies could be brought in for the communal kitchens and many of the demonstrators would leave at night and return in the morning.
There was an exuberance at the sit-ins that impressed the foreign press, but it had nothing in common with the Occupy Wall Street phenomenon in New York which exulted in its lack of a disciplined leadership and the inspiration of Gandhi’s non-violent methodology in India more than 70 years prior. At Rabi’ah Al-Adawiyah the exuberance was stirred by exultations from MB speakers extolling their readiness for martyrdom, a prevailing but usually downplayed belief within the cadres of the Muslim Brotherhood. On one occasion the children at Rabi’ah Al-Adawiyah were paraded around in white shrouds, carrying their own symbolic coffins; no doubt they thought this was all a game, oblivious to the significance of their dress.
Although both the army and the security forces issued many appeals to the sit-ins to disperse and enter into negotiations, the MB leadership always responded that there was nothing to negotiate and no intention to end the sit-ins unless Morsi was restored as president. Their ongoing operation for some six weeks was only possible due to the restraint of the armed forces and state security.
That restraint had tragic implications; for with each passing day the MB leadership became more confident and defiant. If the Army and security forces had acted against the MB with the speed with which Gamal Abdul Nasser had rounded up thousands of MBers (who were far more numerous in 1954 than in 2013) and put them in detainment camps, there would have been no cadres to organize the sit-in demonstrations, as was the case in 1954. Indeed the ultimate death of many hundreds of demonstrators and more than 40 police officers, shot down by “non-violent” and “unarmed” MB gunmen within the vast crowds and on the upper floors of the mosque may have been averted.
On August 14th, when the Egyptian security forces finally moved with considerable brutality on the two large pro-Morsi sit-ins some six weeks after Morsi’s overthrow and arrest, no doubt settling old scores with the Muslim Brotherhood, attacks against churches, clergy and nuns again escalated — some 45 churches were attacked, looted and many burnt out.
There has been a double narrative at work here. In public statements and in interviews with the foreign press, MB spokesmen have insisted that the Brotherhood is committed to non-violence and democracy, and opposed to all of the attacks against churches and businesses owned by Christians. But there is another narrative, one spoken within the ranks of the MB, opposed to the Coptic Church as an anti-Muslim body, and convinced that Egyptian Christians had brought the violence down upon themselves by their large participation in the June 30th demonstrations against Morsi and then with Pope Tawadros’s presence alongside General Al-Sisi when he announced that the armed forces had deposed Morsi. The foreign press never hear this second narrative. It was only heard beyond the ranks when Muslim Brothers engaged in street brawling with anti-Morsi youth in the weeks leading up to the coup. They would, instead of the customary curses when men fight, curse their opponents — almost all Muslims — as Kafir, literally a denier of Truth, figuratively, an unbeliever. Now if a Muslim becomes an unbeliever then he is effectively an apostate and according to the more strenuous interpretation of shari’a, can be killed; as indeed, and again largely unreported abroad, was the fate of a number of young Egyptians opposed to Morsi, who were caught up in the street fighting.
Nor was the presence of armed elements within the pro-Morsi sit-ins acknowledged by much of the foreign press. Aside from the Security forces’ claims that they were fired upon, and the testimony of Egyptians living in apartment houses overlooking the largest sit-in at the intersection next to Rabi’ah Al-Adawiyah Mosque, one must go with the testimony of the BBC TV correspondent. The correspondent was filming the sit-in from the roof of the mosque when the security forces moved in and was pinned down by incoming gunfire. But he could also hear and see returning gunfire from the mosque.
Despite all of this, and marches launched from the sit-ins which attacked public buildings, attempting to take them over only to be repelled by security forces, or in the case of the Awqaf ministry, by local residents, it was still the first narrative: that of a non-violent Muslim Brotherhood, that tended to prevail in much of the foreign press.
In part this is because journalists required a narrative of their own to make sense of all that was going on in the turmoil that was Cairo in June, July and August. In part it was the drama of rival demonstrations — the two large pro-Morsi sit-ins and the large anti-Morsi demonstrations at Tahrir. This drama overshadowed the pro-Morsi violence that was increasing its toll on churches in Upper Egypt.
Here is but one example: Dalga is a town of 120,000 in the southern province of Minya, which along with the province of Assiut, are simultaneously home to the two largest Christian communities in Egypt and are Islamist strongholds. There are 20,000 Christians living in Dalga and in Minya, as a whole they make up a third of the population in these two areas.
On July 3rd, the same day Morsi was ousted as President, Islamist gunmen drove the police out of Dalga and took over the station, looted and then set fire to the 1,650 year old Coptic monastery of the Virgin Mary and St. Abraam. A Catholic church and an Anglican church were also destroyed. Some 40 Christian homes and businesses were set on fire, including the home of an 80 year old Orthodox priest who lived near the monastery. Another priest’s home was spared because it was defended by his Muslim neighbors — a pattern which to the credit of many Muslims was repeated at a number of churches throughout that might otherwise have been stormed.
But the Associated Press did not manage to get to Dalga until September 8th and the New York Times correspondent got there in mid-September when he apparently accompanied Egyptian security forces as well as army armoured vehicles that briefly occupied the town in pursuit of a Gama’a leader who had taken refuge in Dalga.
In Dalga the local Muslim Brotherhood leaders are all in hiding and the leadership of the pro-Morsi forces who easily make up more than half the population, has now been assumed by Al-Gama’a Al-Islamiyya. Pro-Morsi demonstrations and marches in Cairo have all but ended in the Fall of 2013 in part because of arrests, but largely because of the obvious open hostility of most Cairenes to the MB. By late October and early November last-stands were being staged by pro-Morsi youth, on university campuses in Cairo, and even here they have been contested by large numbers of anti-Morsi students.
At the Nasr City campus of the various secular faculties of Al-Azhar University, the Student Union leadership is Muslim Brotherhood, and in November they had begun to trash the administrative offices until finally security forces were called in.
There are other reasons why so much of the foreign press, particularly American, bought into the MB’s non-violent, democratic narrative.
The skewed media coverage of Egypt is partly due to something intrinsic in journalism which makes so many of its practitioners uncomfortable or hostile to a professional army. Some Western journalists, Americans in particular, make barely conscious associations between military forces and the U.S Army’s role in Vietnam (if they are old enough), Afghanistan and Iraq.
Many aspects of the media and the military are polar opposites. Scepticism is a necessary journalistic virtue versus honour and respect for one’s superior officers in the military. “Nothing is sacred” is a plausible if unfortunate perspective for journalists, and there is a remarkable informality in the impromptu atmosphere of the newsroom. Compare this with the sacred duty or ritual-like ceremonies of the military: the raising and lowering of the flag and the solemn honour guards escorting the flag-bearer at the head of army parades.
Journalists react with great speed to an event: the need to scoop the competition is a journalistic necessity and its achievement a virtue. But armies need cautious deliberation in actions that can mean death and destruction. Military principles seem distant to the media in America and Europe, where conscription ended years ago and nearly all journalists are too young to identify with the critical role played by American armed forces in defeating the Nazis during World War II. So in coverage of Egypt, particularly since July, the journalists face something that appears unknowable and incongruous to them — the military.
Muslim Brotherhood spokesmen were articulate and informal, the best one (until he was arrested) was educated in England in comparison to the inescapable formality of Egyptian Army spokesmen. And what the MB spokesmen said fit into one of the journalists own narratives; that whoever is elected in a free and fair democratic election is a democrat — as if a free and fair election could turn the member of a religious authoritarian movement into a democrat — and whoever staged a coup d’etat against the winner of a democratic election was by definition an enemy of democracy. Of course, if anyone could have persuaded the armed forces in Germany to stage a coup d’etat after Hitler and his National Socialist Party (Nazi) won the 1933 free and democratic elections, the world would have been spared many million dead. As was the case, it took Hitler less than six months in power to destroy democracy.
Which suggests one of two reasons why the Muslim Brotherhood for all of its discipline and significant formal membership — 750,000 as of a year ago and still greater numbers sympathetic to the movement — failed.
In Cairo it seems everybody lays claim to “the Revolution.” The Pro-Morsi forces say they are defending the January 25, 2011 Revolution, the anti-Morsi say the MB hijacked that Revolution.
But there was no revolution in January-February 2011 — there was a brave uprising for the sake of social justice and democracy. Until now there have been no advances in social justice, but with free and fair elections it appeared Egypt was on its way to a democratic revolution but that particular moment expired as Muslim Brotherhood rule from the moment of Morsi’s victory became increasingly arbitrary and authoritarian.
Instead there was a prospect of an Islamist Revolution, but that prospect was doomed from the beginning. One can only make a revolution from the top if the revolutionary party has its own significant armed force available to impose it. In Germany when Hitler won the 1933 election, the Nazi party already had a paramilitary force — the SA or Stormtroopers — of at least one hundred thousand men with access to small arms and led by veterans of World War I. And the commanders of the regular German Army passively supported Hitler, whose program called for strengthening and significantly increasing the size of the Army.
In Russia, the communists who were to overthrow the provisional democratic government formed by a variety of social democrats and liberals who had overthrown the Tsar, had gained control of the armed working class militia who were deployed to seize the centre of power, while the regular army was disintegrating at the Eastern Front (World War I); in Sudan it was the Muslim Brotherhood cell of officers in the Sudanese Army who overthrew the brief democratic interval which allowed competing political parties free elections and a free press.
In Nasser’s Egyptian Revolution, which started as a coup, it was the Free Officers who were able to seize control of Army HQs, detain or send home senior officers loyal to the King and take command of the entire army. Sixteen years later it was Colonel Gadaffi who took a nearly identical route to power in Libya.
But in Egypt the Brotherhood had no equivalent to the German SA. Its armed elements were scattered and its street fighting cadres were just that, skilled in brawling, capable of using knives and even occasional small arms as the level of street brawls escalated. But these street fighters were not a seriously armed and trained paramilitary force. And Morsi and the MB faced security forces under the Interior Ministry whose officers were almost openly hostile and an army that would not be a party to a revolution establishing Islamist rule.
Critics allege that the MB leadership did maintain discreet links with some of the active jihadis in the Sinai. This might be so, but the jihadis were certainly not under Morsi’s control. But what points in the direction of discreet links is that as soon as the army deposed Morsi, the jihadi operations in the Sinai against security forces, Army checkpoints and government centres radically escalated — just as attacks against both police stations and churches by known armed pro-Morsi groups, be they MB or their Salafi allies, escalated throughout the rest of Egypt but particularly in Upper Egypt.
In the summer of 2012 Morsi appointed General Al-Sisi as his new Defense Minister and head of the Armed Forces High Command (SCAF). Al-Sisi had been the youngest member of SCAF and at the time was serving as head of military intelligence. Morsi was no doubt aware of Al-Sisi’s reputation for personal piety, and it is conceivable that Morsi confused personal piety with Islamist sympathies. If so, it was perhaps Morsi’s greatest error, but one that some Middle East experts at universities or think tanks also made. They could not tell the difference between Islam and Islamism and they worried about the General.
Al-Sisi did offer to mediate between the NSF and Morsi in the Spring of 2013 as domestic tensions escalated, and he was turned down just as Morsi would turn down other offers of mediation or even of last minute face-saving formulas in the very last days whereby Morsi could have saved his post if he had agreed to a new broad coalition cabinet that would rule which he still nominally reigned.
Al-Sisi is a nationalist as well as a pious Muslim, and one of Morsi’s remarks on his hope for a Caliphate headquartered in Jerusalem offended the General. Al-Sisi has said in an interview that by January 2013 he had told Morsi his governance was a failure. But certainly the last straw, so-to-speak, was when at the same rally in June where Morsi was silent while a Salafi Sheikh denounced Egypt’s Shia, Morsi called for jihad against Syria, an intervention the Armed Forces had not and would not entertain.
These seem like tell-tale signs, but they were under the radar of foreign media and the American administration.
The coming to power of the Muslim Brotherhood was not the first rule of an Islamist regime in the Muslim world — both Iran and the Sudan are ruled by Islamist movements. But although Egypt’s regional influence declined sharply at the time of Sadat, and in time declined still further during Mubarak by virtue of what appeared as indifference to the region (Sadat was politically isolated in the region in his last years but never indifferent), Egypt nevertheless remains central in both the Arab region and the broader Muslim world given its demographics (approximately one-fourth the population of the Arab world), the paramount importance of Al-Azhar for Sunni Islam, and Egypt’s vigorous intellectual, literary, artistic and academic life.
So the beginning of 2013 represented the high tide of Islamist movements — be they non-violent or violent. A Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt, an increasing number of Rebel battalions in Syria ranging from Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi forces to particularly tough Al-Qaeda affiliated battalions; Boku Haram jihadis continue to terrorize much of northern Nigeria; Al-Shabab fighters in Somalia still strong, even after being forced out of the major cities into the countryside by the military intervention of Somalia’s African neighbours; Mali almost overrun by two Salafi-jihadi armed movements but for French intervention; increasing radical Salafi violence in Tunisia in 2013 that has undermined the coalition government led by the most moderate Islamist party in the Arab world, except possibly in Morocco, where free elections for parliament had brought to power a coalition cabinet led by what is described at times as a post-Islamist party; the Pakistani Taliban and the Afghani Taliban are both more active than ever; and Al-Qaeda is significantly reviving in Iraq. In many of these countries’ militant Islamists have not restricted their violence to attacks on officials and government forces. In Pakistan and Afghanistan the Taliban have attacked churches and Sufi shrines, in Iraq a revived Al-Qaeda has sent suicide bombers into Shia mosques.
In Syria this is not yet a common practice, but in February of 2013 a Rebel suicide bomber blew himself up inside a Damascus mosque killing Sheikh Ramadan Al-Buti (one of the most distinguished scholars in the Muslim world) and a number of his students. This was a turning point for some supporters of the Rebels. Sheikh Al-Buti was targeted because he refused from the beginning to support the Rebel movement, saying that it contained within it enemies of Traditional Islam (see: House of Islam on page 20) His murder seemed to confirm that judgement.
There have also been an increasing number of reports in global media (which in 2012 appeared quite sympathetic to the Rebel cause in Syria) of atrocities committed by the Rebels against Alawite civilians or Syrian soldiers who had been taken prisoner, that have begun to approach those committed by the Syrian army and pro-regime militias. By the Fall of 2013 even Turkey, which has been quite open in its support for the Rebel forces, was now beginning to talk about the need for a negotiated peace settlement and to improve relations with Iran. The tide of battle, which at the beginning of 2013 appeared to be running in the favour of the Rebels, began by the summer of 2013 to shift in favour of Al-Assad’s forces thanks in part to the intervention of thousands of fighters from the Lebanese Hizbullah, substantial military supplies from Iran and Russia, and front line military “advisers” from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. No one is now predicting either the imminent fall of Al-Assad or any inevitable victory for the Rebels.
Instead the war has continued to grind away, with continuing great loss of civilian life. From the beginning, the war had a sectarian quality — the Syrian Sunni majority against the Alawite community, which the ruling Al-Assad family is part of and other minorities which have largely rallied to the side of the Alawite-dominated officer corps of the elite army units.
But by 2013 it is more and more a war in which the dynamic role is being taken by outside forces — Salafi-jihadi foreign fighters from the Sunni world flooding into Syria in increasing numbers and drawn to the toughest Al-Qaeda affiliated units within the Rebel cause, up against various militant Shia foreign forces — thousands of Lebanese Hizbullah fighters, Iraqi Shia militia and a contingent of hardened Iranian Revolutionary Guards serving as trainers and advisers for front line Syrian Army units. Instead of Syrian Sunni against Syrian Alawite/Shia it is increasingly Sunni Islamists vs Shia Islamists. That is why there is an increasing interest, and in some cases, conviction on the necessity for a political settlement to end the conflict, a position that even governments committed to one side or the other are adopting. The Syrian conflict has spilled across the border affecting both Lebanon and Jordan. In Lebanon that takes two forms — the first is the problem of Syrian refugees but by far more dangerous is a military spillover as militias of the pro-Al-Assad Alawites and the majority Sunnis periodically clash in the northern city of Tripoli and the intense involvement of Hizbullah fighters in Syria on the side of Al-Assad’s forces has led to bombs being set off in the southern district of Beirut–a Shia area and stronghold for Hizbullah by either Syrian Rebels moving across the border in Lebanon or by Lebanese sympathizers.
In Jordan it is the staggering problem of over half a million Syrian refugees living in refugee camps in the north of the Kingdom, and perhaps an equal number living in Jordanian cities running small businesses and competing with Jordanians in the local labour market. (Syrian refugees are always ready to take a job at a lower wage than would Jordanians). There is also pressure from the West, as Israeli religious nationalist settlers, enjoying police protection continue to attempt to establish worship on the Haram Al-Sharif despite the 1994 Jordanian-Israeli peace treaty which acknowledges the Hashemite Kingdom as the official Custodian of the Holy Sites in occupied Jerusalem. This status was reaffirmed this past April with the Palestinian Authority in which the PA acknowledged that Jordan’s King Abdallah II is the Custodian of the Holy Sites in Jerusalem.
Jordan was also the setting in 2013 of a significant gathering of Muslim scholars and intellectuals from all parts of the Muslim world who are Fellows of the Royal Aal al-Bayt Academy for Islamic Thought and who meet every third year in Amman, Jordan to present papers and discuss pressing issues in the Muslim world. The theme for the gathering this past Fall at the 2013 conference was “The Project of a Modern, Sustainable and Viable Islamic State”. Given the frequent use of the phrase “Islamic state” by Islamists this would at first appear odd since the Academy and its scholars (a number of whom are Azharis) are committed to Traditional Islam, which never used such phraseology in the past.
But in fact the overwhelming consensus of the scholars was that the most feasible form of a viable and sustainable modern Islamic state would be a “civic state” based on equality of all citizens regardless of ethnicity or religion, based upon respect of law in a manner that does not contradict the general principles of Islam as such, and can benefit from modern experiments in governance. The Islamic state was being defined by the scholars as a viable alternative to an Islamist state, in what might be described as the stirring of an intellectual counter-offensive by the Muslim scholarly establishment against Islamist rhetoric.
So if a Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt stood in the beginning of 2013 as the highest expression of the high tide of Islamism, it is also possible that the overthrow of that government spurred by massive popular demonstrations against Morsi on June 30th, which mandated in effect the intervention by the armed forces on July 3rd, may be a sign that this Islamist tidal wave is beginning to recede.
This year’s Introduction has focused almost entirely upon the Arab world, and the two non-Arab countries that we touched upon in this broadly written survey — Iran and Turkey — are here to a great degree because they both border upon the Arab world and have engaged in many of its critical issues such as the Syrian civil war, as well as developments both internal and international in their own right. In a sense that is an injustice for the non-Arabic-speaking portion of the Muslim world, including those Muslim communities originally of immigrant stock to be found in the West which, with the exception of France and Italy, are predominantly, in origin from non-Arab Muslim countries.
The Arab world is neither geographically nor demographically the centre of the Muslim world, in the way that Egypt could be described as the centre of the Arab world. Islam’s three most holy sites are in the Arab world, Makkah, Medina and occupied Jerusalem. That is just the point; in religious/cultural terms most holy sites, the language of Revelation, and the oldest, most canonic explication of that Revelation in sacred commentary (hadith), sacred history (sira) and application at the juridical (mathab) as well as spiritual level were, for all its dispersion and flowering across the Muslim world and for all of its great literature in Persian and other languages, nevertheless the earliest literary manifestations of tasawwuf (Sufism) in prose and poetry are in Arabic — as in the case of the canonic collections of Hadith, and the writings of the founders of schools of fiqh. Not all the authors were Arab in origin, but writers and speakers of Arabic as a native tongue, whatever their original or ancestral origin, are in contemporary usage, Arabs.
But the problems besetting the Arab world, which include the spread of extreme Islamist terrorism has, as we have already noted, become epidemic beyond the Arab world and the dramas that are still being played out in Egypt, Syria, and Lebanon cannot but have ramifications throughout the entire Muslim world.
–S. Abdallah Schleifer
Professor Emeritus & Senior Fellow
Kamal Adham Centre for Television & Digital Journalism
The American University in Cairo