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By Maurice Chammah


The Montréal Review, April 2011




In the early days of the Egyptian protests, countless articles in U.S. newspapers, magazines, and blogs commented on the surprising, even mysterious absence of the Muslim Brotherhood from Tahrir Square. We heard, instead, about the youth. Unemployed young professionals, college-educated and frustrated, made up the bulk of the protest movement to oust President Mubarak. It didn't take long, however, for the Brotherhood's presence in the post-revolution Egyptian public square to start turning heads in those same sources. The narrative of New York Times coverage provides a telling example. On January 22nd, an article titled "In Mideast Activism, New Tilt Away From Ideology," explained the Brotherhood's absence in the uprising in terms of their interest in political unity. On January 27th, we found, ominously, that "With Muslim Brotherhood Set to Join Egypt Protests, Religions Role May Grow." 

By the early days of February, the Brotherhood had a coming out party largely defined by eminent, non-Brotherhood commentators in the form of op-eds. "Get Ready for the Muslim Brotherhood," warned critic Ayaan Hirsi Ali. "Whither the Muslim Brotherhood," pondered public intellectual Tariq Ramadan. Anthropologist Scott Atran tossed in the laced adjective "bumbling" to the pool of speculation, implying that because we didn't know what the Brotherhood would do, neither did they. And then, there were the journalists. "As Islamist Group Rises," chimed in Scott Shane suggestively, "Its Intentions Are Unclear." Eyebrows raised, the tension ballooned, and other newspapers followed the trail of ambivalent spectatorship.

Finally, on February 9th, Essam El-Erian, a member of the Brotherhood's guidance counsel, published a piece and called it "What the Muslim Brothers Want." Seeming determined to get the secular cynic to breathe a sigh of relief, El-Erian announced that "the Muslim Brotherhood is committed to joining the national effort toward reform and progress," filling out his declaration with encouraging references to a "peaceful transition," "substantive, guaranteed change," and "a new beginning rooted in justice and progress."

An outsider with no knowledge of the history of the Brotherhood might think this all sounded pretty good. After all, El-Erian dropped all the right Obamian buzzwords save for "hope." The problem was that Islamic political parties never get the benefit of being taken at their word. El-Erian also said, in a move that would sound challenging if times were different, that "secular liberal democracy of the American and European variety, with its firm rejection of religion in public life, is not the exclusive model for a legitimate democracy."

Of course, comments like these got interpreted depending on the predisposition of the interpreter. What surprised me as I watched public discourse unfold was how the distrust was registered in a cards-to-the-chest passive aggression. Although evident in writing about the Brotherhood, such aggression was particularly stinging on the television screen. In early February, former Brotherhood spokesperson Kamal El Helbawy went on the BBC to, in the words of moderator Andrew Neil, "give an indication of what the Muslim Brotherhood really stands for," and immediately one could see a disconnect between medium and message. El Helbawy was surrounded by British commentators in an arrangement that suggested a discussion, while the caption indicated it was a "debate." Indeed the reality proceeded just that way. El Helbawy, sporting a sober blazer, his beard trimmed, his English good but faltering in the high pressure context, was endlessly asked to answer for the Brotherhood in a scene that quickly devolved from friendly query to interrogatory pummeling.

"Do you believe in free elections and that everybody should have the vote?" "Yes. 100 times, not 99." "Should all women have the vote?" "All women!" Neil then accused the Brotherhood of declaring that no woman should be head of state, to which El Helbawy responded coolly that Neil was referring to an earlier draft of the document.

Toby Young, head shaved and smartly dressed in thick framed black glasses then bitingly referenced the Brotherhood's past links to the Nazi party. Douglas Alexander, Member of Parliament and a shadow foreign secretary followed suit, scolding El Helbawy on the Brotherhood's stance towards peace with Israel. Watching the replays is a sad exercise. El Helbawy trips and stutters, certainly unprepared for such a rhetorical onslaught, and he comes off as, if not a radical, militant Islamist, certainly nothing short of "bumbling."

I couldn't help but feeling that what the Brotherhood said in any given released document or in drafts of that same document is not really the issue. No matter how El Helbawy responds, he is written off before he begins. The scene, in many ways a symbol of the larger American and British mainstream press, creates an atmosphere of hostility from which he, and hence the Brotherhood, cannot escape, especially without pristine English. Additionally, the issue of the draft vs. the final publication highlights well enough how the Brotherhood is not allowed to have internal dilemmas, not allowed to have differing opinions, and by implication not fit for democratic political participation.

This passive aggressive tone was coupled with a more insidious form of censorship. The developments in Egypt, and to a smaller extent in the other Arab countries that have recently experienced uprisings, seem to be judged based mostly on how much they look like Western developments. Writers with no particular political program, like the New Yorker's Malcolm Gladwell, jumped on the celebratory bandwagon of social media, claiming, sometimes implicitly and sometimes explicitly, that Egyptians and Tunisians had only been able to foment their revolutions with the help of our social media inventions. The role of the Friday Islamic prayers in creating a mass mobilization in the streets was downplayed, while kitschy cardboard signs that resonated with America's nostalgia for the 1960's became a big, inescapably potent symbol. It was never suggested that perhaps those Friday prayers, a moment when thousands of Egyptians fill the streets anyway, had been just as important as social media. 

The Google Executive Wael Ghonim became a symbol of the young, educated middle classes that, truly, played the largest role in the revolts, while weeks later, the secular minority in Egypt were saying things like, and here I quote television producer Amr Khoura, "the young people have no control of the revolution anymore. It was evident in the last few weeks when you saw a lot of bearded people taking charge. The youth are gone." Conflating beards with age turned out to be a powerful symbol, because in Egypt beards have little to do with age and much to do with religious observance. The Western press, looking for a narrative of young, secular protestors losing out to the old guard of Islamic radicals, amplified their frustration before meaningful discussion between  various perspectives could earnestly begin, thereby serving to undermine the possibility of that very discussion.

The immediate changes that will take place in Egypt in the coming months, if they are to take the form of democratic innovation, will necessarily be a swirling mixture of perspectives secular and Islamic, young and old, Western-friendly and anti-Western. This is widely accepted, and the usually implicit suggestion is that the result will look democratic based on a model taken from, most obviously, the United States of America. 

We tend to forget, however, that just as often as commentators on American politics celebrate our democratic development, so too do they express anxiety over how our democratic system has largely fallen into a two-sided culture war, in which secular, liberal democrats and Christian, heartland republicans and Tea Party activists aren't even talking in the same language much of the time. Election analysts look for a swing-vote that is increasingly fictional.

Attacking Islamic perspectives in the passive aggressive way that has become fashionable as of late calls to mind the way secular, liberal Americans lambast the Tea Party without paying heed to their concerns, thereby forcing them to pump up their rhetoric, turning up the volume of their megaphones and opinions. My hope is that we don't make Egypt out to be a similar kind of culture war before we've seen how different groups can coexist there, that we don't, by framing it as a culture war, fuel the fire and encourage the same kind of entrenched us vs. them dynamic that is so destructive for our own democracy. The effects of press coverage anywhere, but especially in some of the most free presses in the world, resonate everywhere.

Perhaps, if we take a step back, we might get a tip or two from Egyptians on how to break down the dichotomies that define our current political condition. If we can stop pushing them towards the same kind of internal battles we have in the United States, we might find they have some lessons for us on how to move away from such unproductive and worrisome dichotomies.  Maybe then we'll be the ones who are "bumbling." 


Maurice Chammah graduated from Cornell University in Near Eastern Studies and the College Scholar Program. He has studied and done research in Cairo, Egypt and volunteer work with Rabbis for Human Rights in Jerusalem and the West Bank. He also plays with a handful of bands in Austin, including Oikos and Mother Falcon.


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