It’s over. The illusions of the previous year – the romance of a briefly bloody but relatively easy going Arab Spring, as revolutions go, and the romance of a broad democratic Consensus Triumphant led by liberal secular forces. A good deal of the credit for those illusions must be shared by liberal secular students and intellectuals as well as by much of global media with its incredible over-simplifications and never ending need for dramatic narrative – the vice of competitive journalism.
Tahrir Square, which filled with many hundreds of thousands of protestors in the dramatic days of late January and early February 2011 has dissipated over this past year not only in the numbers responding to organized demonstrations and the ultimate irrelevance of camping out at night even when tolerated by security forces. But Tahrir also degenerated as a romantic revolutionary scene. Instead, in its decline it became a setting for periodic fist fights and stone-throwing clashes between rival factions – revolutionary socialists, liberals, Muslim Brothers and Salafis; a scandalous hub for the sexual harassment of women demonstrators and women journalists; a launching pad for the Ultras, fanatic football fans for Cairo’s two rival teams, Ahly and Zamalik, who welcomed opportunities to battle with the police. The Ultras finally had a good reason beyond mutual contempt to fight the police after a massacre of Ultras attending a match in Port Said, but in trying to stop the football clubs from continuing to hold matches until justice was done on behalf of the Port Said dead, the Ultras went on to storm and trash football club facilities, behaving more and more like the Fascist street fighters in 1920s Italy and 1930s Germany.
The irony is that at least one articulate left-wing Egyptian intellectual has rebranded the Ultras as a Left Revolutionary fighting force. There is reason to such fantasies: Egyptian left-wing forces, unlike the European Left during the tumultuous nineteen thirties, lack their own resilient cadre capable of battling in the streets, but the irony in such rebranding is that on at least two occasions, Ultras entered into confrontations (at approaches to the Ministry of Interior near Tahrir early in 2012 and later in the year at the US Embassy demonstration to protest the scandalous YouTube video defaming the Prophet) organized by different Salafi factions who in any conventional Marxist political lexicon would be considered “extreme right-wing” as well as more accurately an alliance of religiously puritanical Muslims alienated from the broad wisdom of Traditional Sunni Islam.
But it is also hard for the global media to let go. When the Revolutionary Socialists called a demonstration in the early Fall against Egypt’s new President Muhammed Morsi, who had led the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) to electoral victory, headlines proclaimed that “thousands” had again flocked to Tahrir. In fact barely five thousand had turned out – not the tens of thousands of workers who went out on strike in the textile industry town of Mehalla al Qubra and were fired upon by police, thereby making April 6, 2008 a hallmark in the history of unrest in Egypt and providing a name for a protest group that would play a critical role in the organization of the original Tahrir demonstrations.
The Syrian Uprising
But residuals of the Arab Spring are also to be found in many forms and many places. Most tragically in Syria, where the death toll now far exceeds the total of all of the original dead, designated as martyrs, throughout the entire region in the 2011 Arab Spring. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have fled the fighting; most to take shelter as refugees in the neighbouring states of Jordan and Turkey, but also to Lebanon, where many Syrians have relatives and even in Egypt where those Syrian refugees with money can settle in a new suburb outside of Cairo favoured several years ago by Sunni refugees fleeing the fighting in Iraq.
During the first months of the year much of global media was warning that Syria could turn into a sectarian civil war, when it already had, effectively, even before the beginning of 2012. But this is a very complex as well as increasingly ferocious civil war, complex almost to the point of despair.
On one hand a small and once socially outcast community, the Alawites, provides Syria’s Alawite President Bashar al-Assad with the core cadre for his air force, and for the elite army and security ground forces hard pressed in numbers for when confronting the Sunni insurgents; that is because the larger but predominantly Sunni Syrian conscript army is considered, with good reason to be unreliable. This is why the Syrian government has increasingly relied upon artillery strikes and air raids against Sunni villages and even Damascus suburbs held and/or sympathizing with the insurgents. Some of the isolated villages have been levelled by bombing runs and artillery as examples to the civilian population of the price to be paid for supporting the insurgency, and indeed some Sunni villagers are now wary, for that reason about both sides.
The Alawites were considered so heretical in past centuries as to be beyond even the broad embrace of Traditional Islam in its Sunni or Shi’a forms (see The Muslim 500’s “Major Doctrinal Divisions in Islam, pp. 26, and note the absence of any reference to Alawites) until Bashar’s father, the late Hafez al-Assad, an air force general and shrewd Baathist Minister of Defence ousted his non-Alawite rivals within the ruling Baath party in 1970 to become the first Alawite Prime Minister and then President. As President, Hafez al-Assad secured a fatwa that the Alawites were a branch of Shi’a Islam; at the same time he conspicuously prayed at Sunni mosques and at times employed a Sunni-colored political rhetoric when the regime was in serious danger, as in the last days of the 1973 War. He also moved Syria away from the more radical tenets of Baathist militant secularism and socialism, thus encouraging members of the dominant Sunni business community.
Although his regime was ruthless when dealing with opposition, particularly a violent Muslim Brotherhood opposition, Hafez al-Assad’s legacy, continued by his son, included protection and public positions for Syria’s various minorities: not only Christian and traditional Shi’a, but also Sufis within the Sunni community who were fearful of the anti-Sufi perspective of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood which had assumed the leadership of a Sunni movement against the regime in the 1970s.
That is why the Syrian minorities as well as many Sufis have kept their distance from the armed uprising. Nor is it clear who leads the insurgents. There are defecting Sunni career officers who with defecting Sunni enlisted men from the conscript army, set themselves up as the Free Syrian Army, but which as it turns out makes more sense if understood as a banner than a structured fighting force – a banner for local brigades some of whom lacking military discipline have been caught on video executing Syrian Army prisoners; some brigades are led by commanders from the Muslim Brotherhood, which again appears to be asserting its leadership of Sunni opposition forces within the country and as well as abroad in exile and reportably the beneficiary of funding and the provision of small arms from Saudi Arabia and Qatar; and small but militarily effective non-Syrian jihadi fighters who are connected emotionally if not always directly to Al-Qaeda or to Salafi movements. Given this confusion within the insurgent ranks it is significant that no one rebel leader has emerged, to be recognized as such after more than a year of fighting by that significant portion of the Sunni community that supports the uprising, by Arab and global media or by the Muslim 500.
These complications also have resulted in the ambiguous American and British take on the Syrian insurgency. Over time both governments have called for Bashar al-Assad to step down and reportedly encouraged Saudi and Qatari shipment of arms to the insurgents, only to then reportedly request the Saudis and Qataris not to provide advanced weaponry (presumably sophisticated anti-aircraft missiles and field artillery) since they might fall into the hands of jihadis.
But that is the Catch 22. Without such arms, the inability to repel Syrian air force and artillery attacks will prolong the struggle; and the longer the civil war continues, not only will civilian casualties continue to climb but the greater the influence and numerical presence of foreign jihadis within the Insurgency.
Differences with the Intervention in Libya
Many Arab and Muslim supporters of intervention by Nato or at least American, British and French forces have asked quite emphatically over the past year why the West intervened so effectively in Libya, and has dallied in the case of Syria even while condemning the Assad regime for its brutalities. Some have answered themselves suggesting the difference is that Ghadafi’s Libya was a major oil producer, Syria is not. But from the beginning there have been any number of other geopolitical considerations, not to mention that the Western powers and Ghadafi had already come to a viable and profitable understanding about the marketing of his oil and his curtailing a number of his more adventurous policies so Libya would no longer be subject to political isolation in the West as a terrorist state.
Libya was in both geographical and political terms isolated from the Middle Eastern cauldron so intervention would not run the obvious de-stabilizing risk of intervening in a country sharing borders with Israel, Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq (which now emerges with its pro-Iranian government as a discreet ally of the Assad regime, beneficiary of Iranian largesse and an increasingly significant piece in what is perceived in some Sunni circles as a “Sh’ia Crescent”)
Ghadafi had few if any allies in the Arab world, and sworn enemies throughout the region given his reputation for eccentricity bordering on madness, and his fondness for calling for the overthrow of any number of other Arab states. This was not the case with Syria; some states now bitterly opposed to the al-Assad regime, in particular Qatar, tried to use what it considered its good offices (born of large investments) in Syria to negotiate a compromise but al-Assad refused or as in other subsequent mediating missions that have multiplied over the past year, al-Assad appeared to agree and then ignored whatever understanding had been reached.
Two other critical differences: French (followed by Nato) intervention in Libya with serious support from Qatar, only took place after Arab League and more importantly, UN Security Council approval of a No-Fly Zone that effectively meant at least knocking out Ghadaffi’s air force and anti-aircraft capabilities. In practice it was interpreted to mean much more. The Russian and Chinese representatives at the Security Council say that they did not veto Non-Fly because it did not justify the subsequent intervention against Libyan ground forces and therefore they will not abstain this time around. But Russia also has greater stakes in Syria than it ever had in Libya. Syria is Russia’s last client state in the Arab world and China with its own long term problem with peoples along its periphery seeking at least autonomy if not independence is wary of anything resembling Western military intervention.
And secondly there was significant insurgent-held territory to defend. Benghazi, Libya’s second largest city, is where government troops did not merely defect but constituted the base of a Free Libyan Army, and supported insurgent civilian efforts to administer Benghazi and adjacent towns and villages. It was Benghazi which was the target of a ground and air attack that was launched with Ghadafi’s promise of a massacre and had already reached the Benghazi suburbs when the French dramatically intervened.
There is no self-liberated Benghazi to defend in Syria. And Bashar al-Assad, whatever else he may be and has actually done, is not a mad man telling the world he intends to massacre his own people.
An Arab/Islamic Cold War
The clouds of war over Syria are further darkened by the complications of an Arab/Islamic Cold War raging for the past year and a half. Iran and its client the Lebanese Hizbollah actively support the Syrian government. This has been far more politically costly for Hizbollah, than for Iran because part of Hizbollah’s extraordinary success in Lebanese politics and even its significant popularity, prior to the Uprising in Syria, among many Sunnis throughout the Arab world, had to do with Hizbollah’s origin as an armed resistance movement that successfully withstood Israeli occupation and post-occupation onslaughts.
Hizbollah’s leader Seyyed Hasan Nasrallah’s sophisticated way of downplaying his movement’s exclusively sectarian Sh’ia nature, forming a successful alliance with a political faction of the divided Lebanese Maronite Christian community and the occasional Sunni politician enhanced this image that seemed to transcend a Shi’a sectarian identity.
But with its open political support of the Syrian regime; its defence of Iran’s role as an ally of the regime and the reported engagement of its fighters alongside Syrian security forces against the insurgents, Hizbollah’s prestige in the Sunni Arab world as well as within Lebanon has declined, and this is reflected in the decline of Sheikh Nasrallah’s standing in the Muslim 500 list.
The leadership of the Sunni side in the cold war with Iran and the Syrian regime (and by implication with his perception of an Iranian supported Shi’a threat to stability in the Gulf), is Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah. The Saudi monarch simultaneously remains active beyond the Arab world in Inter-Faith activities (in late November 2012 the King Abdullah Bin Abdel Aziz International Center for Interreligious Intercultural Dialog will be inaugurated in Vienna) and retains his position as the most influential of the Muslim 500. Equally active in support of the Syrian insurgents is Qatar’s Emir, H.H. Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Aal Thani – who continues to move consistently upwards, to 5th position among the Muslim 500.
In the Fall of 2012 Sheikh Hamid engaged in a stunning political initiative as the first Arab head of state to visit Gaza, effectively recognizing Hamas’ political authority establishing a formal diplomatic presence there as well as providing financial aid and investments. This intervention has now obviously offset Iranian aid, and boosted the Gaza authorities bid for overall leadership within Hamas in the course of the power struggle with the formerly all-powerful external leader Khaled Mashal, who ironically had been the first to break with the Iranian-Syrian-Hezbollah camp because of the sectarian nature of the conflict and the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood’s role in the insurgency, and to transfer Hamas External headquarters to Doha, the capital of Qatar.
Turkey as a Model
But the lines of an Arab/Islamic Cold War cannot be drawn too tightly. In recent years Turkey, under the leadership of Prime Minister Recep Erdogan has emerged as a major and inevitably controversial player in the region. On one hand he continued this past year to loosen Turkey’s once tight relationship with Israel which deteriorated dramatically after Israel’s “Cast-Lead” incursion into Gaza, followed more recently by Israeli Special Forces killing Turkish activists on board a flotilla defying the Israeli siege of Gaza. In previous years and acting in concert with Brazil, Prime Minister Erdogan had come up with a reasonable sounding solution for the impasse over Iran’s nuclear energy problem that appeared to be acceptable to Iran but was ignored by the American government. But as early as 2011 Turkey has been increasingly drawn into the conflict in Syria, as refugees and defectors began to flee across the border with Syria. Turkey has given refuge to both, which led to the Syrian Free Army establishing headquarters and reportedly training camps in Turkey and infiltrating back into Syria. As fighting between Syrian security forces and SFA for control of Syrian villages and checkpoints along the border intensified, Syrian artillery rounds have fallen on Turkish villages. The Turkish army has responded with artillery barrages and at a recent meeting with Iranian representatives Prime Minister Erdogan made it clear that Turkey would not be intimidated by Iranian threats on behalf of its ally, the al-Assad regime.
But Turkey has also made it clear that it is in no position to directly intervene unless it is part of a Nato operation and talk has spread in both Ankara and Nato capitals of a way to end the dilemmas involved in resolving the Syrian conflict – the placement by Nato of Patriot anti-aircraft missiles which would effect a No-Fly Zone nominally to protect Syrian civilians from government aircraft while also enabling the FSA to quickly establish itself by holding Syrian territory along the Turkish border without fear that its forces and the civilian population would be blown away by Syrian air power. More energetic interventions might then quickly follow as in the case of Libya including new developments in Damascus where insurgent forces have become increasingly active in the latter half of 2012.
Prime Minister Erdogan’s influence has also been indirectly boosted throughout the Muslim world by the activities of the charitable foundation of Hodjaefendi Fethullah Gülen, whose large religious movement within Turkey is Sufi-inspired, and whose charitable foundation has opened primary and secondary schools across the Muslim world which transcend the differences between Muslims by focusing on science and other “secular” subjects. All of these developments have led to Prime Minister Erdogan’s latest position as the second most influential Muslim in the world.
One of the on-going effects of Turkey’s influence in the region has been the idea of Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party, the AKP as a model Post-Islamist political movement, whose members derive their ethical and social ideals from Islam without seeking to impose an Islamic state. Erdogan and other party leaders have denied that the AKP is an Islamist party and they compare it to the Christian Democrats of Germany and equivalent post World War Two movements in France and Italy. When Erdogan visited Tunisia and Egypt in 2012 he endorsed the secular state, obviously alluding to the American model whose Founding Fathers all invoked in one manner or another the Name of God unlike the French understanding of secularism which in its origin was openly anti-religious.
The Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis
It is significant that Prime Minister Erdogan’s advice was welcomed by the ruling Muslim Brotherhood party in Tunisia known as Ennahada which shares power in coalition with two secular parties – one leftist and one liberal and not at all welcomed, at least initially, by members of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. Perhaps one of the reasons for this difference is that when Ennahada emerged as the leading party in Tunisia’s parliament following free elections it had competed with a group of left and liberal secularist parties but not with a serious Salafi party claiming to be more Islamic than the Ennahada. Since those elections, a very militant and violent Salafi movement has emerged which accuses Ennahada of not being sufficiently Islamic and with Salafi factions first attacking movie theaters and bars and then attacking security forces in the latter half of 2012.
In contrast, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood has to contend with a Salafi political party in parliament, el-Nour Party, that emerged in the final rounds of the first, fairly contested post-Uprising parliamentary elections, as the country’s second most powerful party (24 percent of the seats and the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party with 48 percent). So even before the Presidential elections held this past June the MB/FJP was looking over its right shoulder at organized Salafi political competition and an even broader Salafi movement that has emerged in which the el-Nour party by Salafi standards (which are extreme) is relatively cautious. Indeed, but for a fascinating political manoeuvre that enabled an electoral commission staffed by Mubarak-appointed judges to disqualify three candidates for President, one of whom, Hazim Abu Ismael, was an incredibly popular, charismatic Salafi preacher, Egypt might have ended up this year with a Salafi instead of a MB/FJP leader as President.
The many Egyptian left-wing and liberal secularist parties (most of them newly formed) did poorly in the parliamentary elections. If one adds up all of their successful candidates into a “non-Islamist” total they took about 23 per cent of the seats. This shocked global media particularly since it was precisely nearly all of these parties whose leaders claimed credit for the Tahrir Uprising. The claim is an exaggeration, based in large part on the widely reported accusation that the MB did not rally to Tahrir until the last days. But that is only partially true, for while the movement did display its customary caution, the MB youth movement participated in the Tahrir Uprising from the first days and was soon organizing the Uprising’s own “security” to screen out state security infiltrators who were turned over to the Army units protecting the nearby Museum. And even Ahmed Maher, whose group the April 6th Youth Movement organized the first Tahrir demonstration (and who personally remained politically relevant as a participant in the assembly drafting Egypt’s new constitution) acknowledges that the Tahrir street fighters resisting first state security forces, then thugs and the famous camel riders attacking the square, were the MB Youth as well as the Ultras who had flocked to Tahrir.
As for the Salafis (even though only a handful participated in the Tahrir Uprising) they are, however relatively small in number, the wave that has been sweeping across Egypt (and to various degrees across much of the Muslim world) which must be understood if we are to grasp the complexities of the Egyptian scene in 2012 and the uncertainties that lie ahead.
One of the main differences between the Salafis and the MB is structural. The Muslim Brotherhood, acting since Tahrir in political affairs through the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) is a disciplined ideologically-defined political movement with a time-tested cadre throughout the country and with a structure reminiscent of an effective Leninist party but using Islamic formulas to describe that structure. The equivalent of the Secretary General is the Murshid (a title derived from Sufi structure); the equivalent of the central committee is the Guidance Council and so on down the ranks. It practices an Islamicized form of what Leninists call democratic centralism. But simply as a disciplined ideological movement with cadre not only in all of Egypt, but with links within the professional syndicates (self-governing associations) and trade unions, it is as such the only serious and disciplined party now operating in Egypt.
The Muslim Brothers’ ideological perspective has shifted from one that balanced the sentimental attachment of its founder, Hassan al-Banna to the Sufism of his youth, with a Salafi-influenced indifference (if not hostility) to the enduring juridical, ethical and spiritual literature of Traditional Islam that has developed over a thousand years, and well before the period of Western imperial domination of Egypt. It was during the last phase of that domination that the Muslim Brotherhood came into existence to confront it. Yet at various levels of consciousness the MB was influenced by modern Western, even revolutionary concepts as to the nature of the state as well as party structure, but its confrontational nature is often muted by an enduring political pragmatism that includes a long term perspective described by observers as “patience.”
The Salafis, on the contrary are a loose movement that is more of a spontaneous association of various factions, coalitions and sheikhs with their own personal following, than a “movement” with a clearly defined program and generally a leader or leaders working in consensus. It is not bound together by an ideology but by a general understanding that can be described as “puritanical” and “fundamentalist” for it rejects the binding nature of the traditional four schools of Islamic juridical thought in a theology most comprehensively expounded by the 18th century Arabian sheikh Muhammed ibn Abd al Wahhab. It remained a minority current within the Sunni Muslim world but it is a growing current, and it is no longer deemed as heretical as it was during the Ottoman Caliphate which is particularly ironic since a mutation of the Salafi movement mourns the end of precisely that caliphate.
So while Salafism shares the category of “Islamic Fundamentalist” with the Muslim Brotherhood and Revolutionary Shi’ism (see “Ideological Divisions, page 31) it differs from the latter two, which are both post-colonial developments clearly disciplined by modern Western revolutionary models. Salafi origins are pre-colonial, and their fundamentalism is far more theological than ideological.
Precisely in its opposition to the traditional Sunni idea that there are four different Sunni schools of juridical thought, all of whom are valid though they differ from each other in relatively minor interpretative details governing shar’ia in both ritual practice and manners, family law (“personal status”) and to a lesser extent commercial and criminal law, the result is that each Salafi Sheikh (and his followers ) are a Salafi movement unto themselves, sharing as a defining sense and in contrast to the broad or cautious juridical interpretations of the Four Schools a stress on a literal interpretation of the Quran and frequently exaggerated interpretations of Hadith which are helpful in differentiating themselves, often in appearance from traditional Muslims.
El-Nour Party, was established by a particular faction of Salafis despite the previously prevailing perspective (and in a sense, one of the Salafis most traditional aspects) that opposed challenging the Muslim political authority as long as it did not prohibit Muslims from prayer. That is the theological reason why the movement as a whole did not participate in the Tahrir Uprising in Cairo or the other major cities. But presumably political action became justifiable in the existential absence of a ruling authority, which could be the case, but not once President Morsi had consolidated his power. But that was the prevailing reality, after President Mubarak resigned and his last appointed cabinet was replaced by a powerless “transitional” cabinet named by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). Until the summer of 2012 it was SCAF which continued to hold all power but it did not rule (aside from stemming public protests.)
The Salafi perspective has spread in large part in Egypt because of the reach of dozens of Salafi television channels, mostly funded by Saudi and other Gulf private interests, but also by Egyptian Salafis. Because they never challenged the Mubarak regime and were seen by the regime as apolitical theological rivals to the politically engaged Muslim Brotherhood opposition, the satellite television channels were not shut down if on Egyptian territory, or jammed if originating elsewhere. In its nature, puritanical religion tends to be very intolerant of other religious forms and the virulent anti-Christian and even anti-Sufi rhetoric of some of these channels became so outrageous that the Mubarak regime in its last year, denied several Salafi channels access to the main Arab satellite platform – Nilesat.
In Search of an Ideology
Much of the Arab world but particularly Egypt (which in population constitutes at least half of the Arab world) was ideologically saturated during the nearly two decade long span of the Nasserist rule through state media, and school textbooks with Arab Nationalist-Socialist ideology. That ideology was profoundly discredited in the wake of the disastrous Arab defeat in the 1967 War. Syria and Jordan also lost territory in that war but the leadership of neither of those countries either harvested the glory in the days leading up to the war or the burden of blame as the Nasserist personification of Arab Nationalist Socialism. So Egyptians and particularly the youth in the subsequent generations have been in search of an equivalent but alternative ideology.
Given the upsurge in general religious feeling after the 1967 defeat it was first the Muslim Brotherhood and the extremist Jihadi groups that broke off from the MB which were initially the major beneficiaries. But in the past decade or so, Salafism reinforced by the satellite television channels as well as funding from abroad for the printing of inexpensive or free Salafi literature has become more dynamic, particularly because of its black-or-white theological perspectives, and the rise of self-appointed Salafi Sheikhs who by virtue of doctrine had no need for a demanding Azhari education. So both intolerance and theological ignorance are factors in its growing appeal, along with its attractive call for a visibly dramatic pious life, that provided an opportunity to be a pious cultural rebel without having to challenge political authority as was the case with the Muslim Brotherhood.
The growing number of popular Salafi sheikhs throughout the country and their followers provided an alternative to the disciplined party ranks of the Muslim Brotherhood and thus El-Nour party was able to do so well in the parliamentary elections to nearly everyone’s surprise.
The numerous newly formed secular liberal or socialist parties most insistently described themselves as the standard bearers of Tahrir; running separately they received a combined total of only 23 percent of the seats.
The most dangerous aspects of the growth of Salafism has been a mutation that breaks off, perhaps out of impatience, and merges with the revolutionary perspective that had broken off from the Muslim Brotherhood and was inspired by the most radical doctrine of Sayyid Qutb, takfir, turning one’s Muslim opponents and particularly rulers or even entire societies into apostates who can then be killed with religious impunity, and for that reason the justification of violence against “apostate regimes” for the sake of their overthrow. This extreme mutation within the camp of Islamists or Islamist Fundamentalism has been going on for some years, producing the self-described Salafi-Jihadis of which Al-Qaeda is the standard-bearer or model. And this dangerous morphing of some Salafis into Salafi-Jihadis has become manifest elsewhere in the Muslim world over this past year. In Libya there have been a series of attacks upon Sufi shrines – the tombs of awliya (the Sufi “Friends of God” or Saints) where armed Salafi-Jihadis bulldozed Sufi shrines in Benghazi, Tripoli, Zitan in broad daylight while Libyan militias incorporated into the weak security apparatus stood by. In the countryside however, local people have taken up arms to defend the Sufi shrines. So too this year in northern Mali where Salafi and Salafi-Jihadi militias have seized control of Timbuktu and other cities and destroyed dozens of Sufi shrines that are centuries old, and constitute a major part of the Mali’s once great traditional civilization. The Pakistani Taliban Salafi-Jihadis have bombed or burnt down Sufi shrines, and killed dozens of Pakistanis at prayer when a Taliban suicide bomber blew himself up in the mosque that incorporates the tomb of Al-Hujwiri, author of the Kashf al-Mahjub, one of the oldest published works in the corpus of Sufi literature. Salafi-jihadis have also struck in the Russian Federation’s Republic of Dagestan. In late August a woman suicide bomber killed Sheikh Afand Afindi, a leader of the Dagestani Sufis and five of his followers. Only a month earlier, in another autonomous and predominantly Muslim republic, a senior traditional Muslim leader of Tartarstan was assassinated and the republic’s Grand Mufti was wounded in a bomb attack.
The Election of An Egyptian President
The second shock for the numerous (and many newly formed) secular liberal or socialist parties that did so poorly in the parliamentary elections was the outcome of the Presidential elections. The highest votes in the first round, which included a large field of candidates were the MB/FJP’s Muhammed Morsi and the last Mubarak appointed Prime Minster, Ahmed Shafik.
Again there was a very divided political field consisting of a Nasserist, other leftists, a moderate Islamist expelled by the MB who drew some significant support from those left-wing and liberal intellectuals who had suddenly become aware, after the parliamentary results, how politically unavoidable it was for a candidate to have some sort of prominent Islamic identity, and a very well known former foreign minister under Mubarak whose independent streak, which included showing up at Tahrir during the Uprising, gave him credibility. These last two candidates were considered by pollsters as the leading candidates.
But however relatively unknown Morsi was, as a last minute substitute candidate (he had ranked poorly in the polls that involved individual candidate name recognition not party affiliation), he was the candidate of the sole significant organized political party that took him to the top of the first round and this time around running without Salafi competition.
As for Shafik he was the beneficiary of two underestimated (by nearly everyone) currents. Prior to Mubarak’s fall from power, there were two organized and disciplined parties, not only one, in Egypt. The other was the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) which was bound together not by ideology but by patronage.
It was President Mubarak who headed the party, and its top leadership consisted of his son, and those closest to him in governing the country and in the last decade or more, starring in its crony version of Neo-Liberal capitalism. Anyone in the cabinet, with rare exceptions, was a member of the NDP and certainly the appointed governors were all in the party or responsive to it. And it had a cadre throughout the country – major sectors of government employees (and in Egypt, despite extensive privatization, the largest single employer remains the government with its absurdly swollen bureaucracy.)
When Mubarak and his family were ushered off the political stage by the armed forces the party as a structure collapsed, so the NDP could not be mobilized as a party to run in the parliamentary elections. But the cadre and all the vast number of dependent relatives of the cadre remained and deeply concerned about their future. They all went for Shafik.
Equally as significant they were joined by a surprising number of the urban working class who were not members or under the influence of the MB. This large number were exhausted by the prevailing instability, the listless commercial climate, especially tourist-related and thus the growing unemployment (already bad under Mubarak) and relative lawlessness that was particularly virulent in vulnerable neighbourhoods – working class and thus least likely to be patrolled by police in ordinary times and totally abandoned during the year and half when Egypt had no government, and which has only begun to function in the administrative sense, (however sluggishly), since the election of President Morsi.
From the point of view of many working class people the struggle to put food on the table for their families took priority over liberal democracy or the claims of Islamism.
In the second round of the Presidential elections the liberal democratic camp split, students, intellectuals, the upper class and much of the upper middle class, depending on which they feared more, the MB or the “the old regime.” Even Ahmed Shafik declared that “the clock could not be turned back;” he too supported “the Revolution.” One more indication, if everybody supports the revolution, that there was no revolution.
But some of the more militant left and liberal opposition opted out – they would not vote for either candidate.
Morsi benefited in the second round of voting, from endorsements by many of the leaders of Tahrir, but nevertheless Shafik carried Cairo, despite losing to Morsi nationwide, according to the official results which were delayed by a week for investigations, since both sides accused each other of ballot box fraud; which was not the case in the parliamentary elections or even the presidential first round.
Most people, including Al Ahram online and the reputable privately owned newspaper Masri al Youm believed that Morsi had won on the basis of combined unofficially announced results from the thousands of polling stations available within 24 hours, and neither publication could be considered part of the Morsi camp. But to this day Shafik and his camp contest the results, and they argue with a degree of plausibility that the U.S. government with its extraordinary influence upon the armed forces (which at that moment remained the only power in Egypt) prevailed upon the Army to prevail upon the Electoral Commission to find for Morsi. And not just to avoid the bloodshed which could be expected since on the basis of the early unofficial results the MB cadre and many other anti-old regime elements would take to the streets. But the Shafik camp would argue it was more than fear. Official American strategy has been shifting slowly over the past decade, accelerating since Obama’s victory in 2008, to an assumption that only moderate Islamists have a popular following and thus the capacity to decisively crush jihadi currents.
But what was perceptible from the time of the parliamentary elections spanning 2011 and the beginning to 2012 until the Presidential elections nearly six months later, was the apparent decline of Muslim Brotherhood/FJP support. This was reflected in the number of votes it had taken in the parliamentary elections even though it was competing with a Salafi party, compared to the lesser numbers it took in the first round of the Presidential elections more than five months later, when all of the other candidates besides Morsi and Shafik (and without a Salafi candidate running for president, had a combined total in the first round of 40 per cent of the vote. In part this was because much was expected by the public of a parliament unable at that time to legislate and whose daily televised debates seemed trivial to the public with its high expectations.
So the assumption was that President Morsi and by association, the MB/FJP would continue to lose popularity. But the opposite appears to be true, and in large part that is because many of the most immediate fears among many of Shafik’s constituencies have not come to pass.
The Salafist El Nour Party was offered only one ministry out of 36 – that of environment, which they refused as insufficient and have not entered the government. The Prime Minster, although widely believed to be sympathetic to the Brotherhood, is a technocrat who served as minister of irrigation in the SCAF-approved transitional cabinet. MB members took only five posts – three of which are politically sensitive – the ministries of information, higher education, and manpower but most of the cabinet is made up of technocrats, who are long term state employees, and at least six are former ministers.
The new Minister of the Interior is a senior police officer, and the Minister of Defence was initially the more-or-less self-appointed head of SCAF. There have been no purges of the bureaucracy, nor of the universities. The editors and directors of state-owned media have been changed by the MB-dominated Shura Council (or upper house) which is constitutionally responsible for this oversight, but it is in the nature of state media, which has lost much of its viewer and readership base over the past few years to liberal or Salafi private sector competition, to follow power in any case. That meant throughout the transitional power state media promoted the SCAF rather than the parliament and continued to do even after Morsi was confirmed as President until a series of dramatic events altered the balance.
There are no representatives of the secular parties in the cabinet but Morsi did consult with them upon taking office and it is the secularist leaders who by and large claim it was they who chose not to serve under Morsi so the burden for the failure to form a broad coalition appears to fall on them.
Morsi’s left and liberal secular opponents also severely underestimated President Morsi’s political skills and failed by and large to acknowledge his accomplishments.
For many months after the fall of Mubarak and prior to taking office Morsi and the MB were constantly accused of appeasing SCAF, of not participating in most of the continuing (if slowly diminishing in numbers) Tahrir demonstrations against SCAF; although it was obvious that the MB was focusing the energies of its cadre on mobilizing the public for parliamentary and later presidential elections. Between the first and second round of the presidential vote when SCAF issued decrees granting itself broad legislative and executive powers including the right to veto any article in the new constitution being prepared by a constituent assembly appointed by the MB dominated parliament to draft a new constitution, Morsi still avoided confrontation.
Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court had already disbanded the freely-elected parliament on technical grounds and demanded that it was they who would swear-in Morsi, who yielded on the point but convened the disbanded parliament for only one day for a symbolic swearing in, and then proceeded to the Court for the swearing-in ceremony.
Morsi was aware from the time of Tahrir that factions existed within SCAF – most significant for him, that faction of younger generals in their fifties concerned both by a sense of professionalism as well as ambition about the quality of leadership provided by the significantly older generals running SCAF and in the highest echelon of rank for the duration of Mubarak’s three decades of rule. Morsi’s time came on August 5th when a band of Jihadis operating in the Sinai attacked an Egyptian military post on the border with Israel surprising 16 Egyptian soldiers and killing them in what appears to have been cold blood, and then with captured Army vehicles crashing across the border where they were wiped out by the Israelis.
For SCAF this was a great humiliation; for Morsi it was time to make his move. Defense Minister and head of SCAF Field Marshal Tantawi and Army Chief of Staff Gen. Anan were summoned to the Presidential palace on August 12th, at the very moment the Official Gazette published a Presidential decree annulling SCAF’s own decree back in June awarding itself extra-constitutional powers and greatly reducing Morsi’s. While the generals waited in one room, Morsi was in another, swearing in a new Defense Mnister General Al-Sisi from the Army command’s younger generation; then Morsi informed Tantawi and Anan that they were dismissed. But in a politically astute gesture, no doubt not appreciated by Tahrir purists who had been fruitlessly demonstrating for Tantawi’s dismissal for months, Morsi appointed them as military advisers to the Presidency and awarded them the Nile Medal of Honor, Egypt’s highest service award.
Barely two months later Morsi would again award two Nile Medals of Honor , this time, as posthumous awards to the late President Anwar Sadat and his brilliant Chief of Staff Saad El-Shazli (who had planned and directed Egyptian armed forces as they smashed across the Suez Canal and overran the Bar Lev Line in the first hours of the October 1973 War, and successfully resisted Israeli counter-attacks for more than a week.) It was still another public signal that this time righted the balance: a rebuke to both Mubarak and his former top ranking officers in SCAF during Mubarak’s rule, for while Sadat and El-Shazli had quarrelled over Sadat’s disastrous intervention in the conduct of the October War, it was Mubarak who sent El-Shazli to prison and eradicated from Egyptian military history and all state media accounts, General El-Shazli’s role in the October War. Morsi also ordered, not long after the high-command shake-up, that all civilians held in military prisons for political reasons be released.
Officially the armed forces have returned to the barracks but political realism also prevails – senior officers still have a share determining the issues that most directly effects them as members of a body approximating (but going beyond the authority) of the American National Security Council. Headed by Morsi and including key cabinet members, nevertheless the military services predominate, and it is the council which has the power to declare war and review the military budget.
At the same time Morsi scored a series of diplomatic victories.
Saudi Arabia had provided financial and moral support to both President Mubarak and the Egyptian Salafis. Saudi rulers have been uneasy for some time about the Muslim Brotherhood and in particular the political activism of MB branches in Arabia and some of the other Gulf countries, so Saudi support for the Salafis continued after the fall of Mubarak. But in a gesture for reconciliation Morsi’s first trip abroad as President was to visit King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.
However his most dramatic voyage was one in which he first defied America and Israel by travelling to Teheran for the Non-Aligned Conference, only to stay long enough to confront his host Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, by declaring Egypt’s support for the Syrian Uprising. In one bold stroke he had re-established a leading position for Egypt in regional affairs and demonstrated independence from both the pro-Assad Iranian camp and the Israeli-American camp.
Of course Morsi and the Brotherhood have been criticized for accommodating large administrative segments of the old regime, but the trade off has been a significant return of the police to the streets and a reduction in criminal activity – not just street crime, but also the smuggling of subsidized diesel fuel and petrol to Libya and a crack down on officials implicated in the smuggling, which had led to disruptive supplies of fuel and periodic electricity blackout – these major problems were starting to subside towards the end of 2012.
And in part because of the improved security environment, significant Qatari direct funding to offset the deficit, as well as Qatari and Saudi investments and the new government’s negotiations for a very low-interest carry over loan and willingness to maintain the pro-privatization policies of the previous regime (but promising that this time around there will be transparency) Egypt’s wealthy are beginning to bring their capital back and the purchase of Egyptian government bonds by Egyptian investors had resumed since the Fall of 2012.
But even a transparent Neo-Liberalism instead of the crony capitalism of the Mubarak era, and the Prime Minister’s announcement that a modest progressive income tax system will soon come into effect, as well as a very modest limited capital gains tax, does not deal with the immediate crisis of scandalous low public sector pay scales (young doctors who have neither the money to open private clinics or the wasta (influence) to secure jobs in private hospitals at decent pay, are working in a broken public health program for just under $100 a month. It is unimaginable what nurses and orderlies are receiving and its incites a literally deadly cynicism and corruption within public health facilities. So in the closing months of 2012 there has been a wide-scale wave of strikes and highway blockades, nor is there any sign as yet of serious labour-intensive public works projects that would immediately generate employment and reduce the social discontent that was already expressing itself in the first round of the presidential elections. That is why a relatively obscure Nasserist, but on record for human rights and who combined his criticism of Islamism with public appearances at prayer in mosques, came in a close third drawing strong working class support and ahead of far better known candidates.
President Morsi has additional problems to confront. Salafi extremism which led to destructive attacks against churches and Sufi shrines in 2011 has morphed this past year into more personal vigilante attacks on members of the general Egyptian population. Most notoriously a young man walking with his fiancé in Suez City, was stabbed to death when he challenged two Salafis who had surrounded the couple and demanded proof that they were married. The government has denounced this attack and the killers in this particular incident were arrested and brought to trial but the sentence of 15 years imprisonment seems light for an act of murder. Mundane quarrels between a Christian and a Muslim are transformed into acts of collective punishment by Salafi activists who intervene and destroy Christian-owned shops and homes in villages. A Salafi sheikh who burned a copy of the Bible during the demonstrations against the U.S. Embassy in Cairo was arrested and charged with blasphemy. There has been on-going Salafi denunciations of Egypt’s Grand Mufti, His Eminence Dr. Ali Goma’a as well as the Sheikh Al-Azhar University His Eminence Dr. Ahmed Al-Tayeb – both of whom are known to be Sufis. Sheikh Al-Azhar is more vulnerable since there has been on-going agitation against him among both Azhari students and young Azhari graduate Imams who are reportedly associated with the Muslim Brotherhood and are calling for “reform.” This has deepened fears that the MB is seeking to take over the Sunni theological center and citadel of Traditional Islam.
Atheism, Tahrir and the Facebook Generation
Less visible but a growing problem for the middle-aged and educated classes is the spread of an open, articulated atheism among their children – be they teenage or young adult – members of what one might certainly call the Facebook Generation. Within the Arab world this is not exclusively an Egyptian problem, but it is particularly problematic in Egypt. It is in part the other side of the Islamist and Salafi coin, for without the spiritual resources that traditional Islamic culture provided, many of the educated young who find political Islam spiritually shallow and the increasing vigilante violence of Salafi currents in Libya, Mali, and Pakistan as well as in Egypt deeply disturbing, are choosing atheism as the other side of the coin.
Moez Masoud is one of the generation of contemporary-sounding and contemporary-looking young television preachers who have emerged as public figures in the region over the past decade, and whose message has been categorised in some insightful journalism, as “sweet orthodoxy”. An Honourable Mention in the Muslim 500, he has intellectually engaged more than any of the other “new preachers” with his young audience about highly personal issues that would be understandably appalling to traditional ulema, but are being voiced by young Egyptians who have been shaped by a strong secular global youth culture yet remain believers and have called out for help. He believes that there is more to this emerging new phenomenon than just a reaction to puritanical and/or political Islam. He alludes to the implicit atheist content of much of the popular culture that is part of globalization (satellite TV and the Internet) and in the sudden flurry of explicitly atheist writing by Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens, whose books were best sellers in the West. Their work has reached the educated English-speaking Egyptian youth and feeds into the romance of rebellion, where according to Moez (who kept a cautious but supportive presence in Tahrir during all of the critical 18 days in 2011) “ there is an impulse to do away with all that is perceived to be outdated and useless.” This past year Moez reached out to the large audience he has for his nightly Ramadan program “A Journey to Certitude” which appeared on the influential post-Tahrir Egyptian satellite channel CBC and is posted on YouTube.
The problem transcends the immediate ones facing President Morsi, but it is bound to increasingly resonate in Egypt.
In Palestine the situation continues to deteriorate. Settlements continue to expand in the West Bank be it on Palestinian land which is privately owned, or on so-called “state land” as if a military occupation’s seizure of land previously held by the Jordanian governing authority, could ever be legal. And research undertaken by the Israel newspaper Haaretz this year establishes that as many as a quarter of a million Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza who have studied abroad for more than seven years have been deprived by the Israeli Occupation military authorities of their residency rights in Palestine.
But it is in Arab Jerusalem where conditions have been particularly difficult and 78 percent of the Palestinians in Arab Jerusalem now live below the poverty line. Of course this is in large part the direct result of Israeli occupation policies implemented since the 1967 War including most recently the extension of the Wall and security check points reducing commercial traffic between Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank. Of course the pressure upon the Palestinians in Arab Jerusalem to give up, abandon the city and seek refuge elsewhere are tremendous, and this temptation is further heightened by the significant amounts of money being offered to Palestinians by Israeli settler groups, to abandon their homes, particularly in what is known as “the Muslim Quarter” in the Old City, so that Israeli settlers, generally militant religious-Zionists, can move into these properties.
But part of the problem is the Arab boycott of pilgrimage to the Noble Sanctuary (Al Haram Al Sharif) which contains within its walls both Al Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock and other sites as well, all perfumed by the baraka – the spiritual grace – that traces back to the presence of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and many of the other Prophets cited in the Qur’an. Arab Jerusalem has been a pilgrimage city for centuries and like any pilgrimage city, the living economy is sustained by the pilgrims who stay in Palestinian hotels and hostels, eat in Palestinian restaurants and buy souvenirs from the Holy City from Palestinian shopkeepers to take home for friends and family. To boycott the pilgrimage is to be an accomplice to the slow but on-going Israeli economic strangulation and ethnic cleansing of Arab Jerusalem and to abandon the Haram Al-Sharif.
That is why the one hopeful event this past year in Palestine was the pilgrimage undertaken by the Grand Mufti of Egypt, Sheikh Ali Goma’a and H.R.H. Prince Ghazi bin Muhammed, Chief Religious Advisor to Jordan’s King Abdullah II in response to the call by Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas at a meeting of the Arab League for Muslims to make pilgrimage to Al-Aqsa Mosque; a call echoed by the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem and Palestine, His Eminence Sheikh Muhammed Ahmad Husein, who issued a fatwa approving the pilgrimage.
Along with the pilgrimage, Egypt’s Mufti and H.R.H. Prince Ghazi inaugurated the King Abdullah II Awqaf in Jerusalem which will not only fund a university chair for Al-Ghazali studies in association with Al-Aqsa Mosque and Al-Quds University but will also provide scholarships for Palestinians to study at Al-Quds University. This is not the useless words of a useless boycott; this is real support for the Palestinian people trying to hold on in the Holy City.
Finally we would note that there has been some criticism of the over-representation of Muslims from the West or living in the West in The Muslim 500, specifically from the point of view that they are not that influential in the Muslim world. We would note that the full title of this annual edition is The World’s 500 Most Influential Muslims, and also note that it is not defined as influential “solely in the Muslim World” but as now implied and originally stated (2009 first edition) “in the world.”
We all increasingly inhabit, breathe the very air, of an increasingly globalized society and a reflection of this is the sad fact that the lingua franca or second language by which the educated Muslims from one end of the Islamic world to the other, as well as the educated Muslims living in the West increasingly communicate with each other is English and not classical Arabic. The impact of Muslim scholars and intellectuals living in the West, many of them converts, and writing in English (or in many cases, as scholars lecturing live or talking via television in fluent Arabic), has been, and increasingly will be, of great significance among the educated elite in the Muslim world: that impact in its own way is as important as the impact of traditional religious scholars in the Muslim world (in some cases increasingly besieged) or political and cultural leaders.
We should also note that 2012 was the 5th Anniversary of the launching of the “A Common Word” interfaith initiative (see pages 115, 175 and www.ACommonWord.com), which affirms is the love of God and love of the neighbour.) One of the most powerful highlights of that on-going initiative took place in December 2009 when 24 Muslim scholars and intellectuals drawn from and representing the original 128 signers of “A Common World” met in the Vatican at the First Catholic-Muslim Forum” with 24 outstanding Catholic prelates, theologians and academics. Eight papers were read during two and a half days of closed sessions, and became the basis of the dialogue. Summaries were then passed on to His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI, who received and addressed all of the delegates on the third day.
The papers delivered by the Muslim delegation were outstanding and deeply impressed the Catholic delegation. One was presented by an Iranian scholar who has lived in America for nearly 35 years and as a young man studied at MIT and Harvard (Dr Seyyed Hossein Nasr); the other three by a British scholar and convert (Sheikh Abdul Hakim Murad aka T.J. Winter) and two American converts Sheikh Hamza Yusuf and Dr Ingrid Mattson). The majority of the Muslim delegation resided in the East but interestingly the head of the delegation was His Eminence Sheikh Mustafa Ceric, the Grand Mufti of Bosnia and Herzegovina, a European Muslim. On the third day the combined delegations were received by H.H. Pope Benedict who embraced the concept of “A Common Word” ( initially the Vatican was cool to the very concept and in his remarks to the Forum he invoked the name of “God, the Most Merciful, the Most Compassionate” the English version of the Quran’s Arabic invocation. On other occasions including a subsequent and important visit to Jordan, Pope Benedict reaffirmed his support.
This ability of Western Muslims to communicate most effectively with Christians and Jews in the West is of critical importance at a time when extremists, be they Muslim, Christian or Jewish, continue their efforts to provoke the now proverbial “Clash of Civilizations.” The role of Muslim scholars, intellectuals, and cultural figures residing in the West and influencing both the West and the Muslims of the world to overcome these provocations and to seek to live in peace based on a mutual respect that is anchored in “A Common World”, is, we suggest, of critical importance.
—S. Abdallah Schleifer
Professor Emeritus & Senior Fellow
Kamal Adham Center for Television & Digital Journalism
The American University in Cairo