Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The Rhetoric of Egyptian Reaction

June 16, 2015. AP Photo

This upsetting photo of Ikhwan members sentenced to death by hanging dredged up a memory of another courtroom cage many years ago. In December 1999, on the Haikstep military base, 20 Ikhwan professionals were being tried in a military tribunal on charges of “infiltrating professional associations.” It was the first courtroom I’d ever been in, and what a strange one it was. A cage took up the entire left length of the room; all 20 men in it were dressed in spotless white gallabiyas. I remember Khaled Badawi, a loquacious lawyer and bar association activist, now a member of Dr. Mohamed Morsi’s legal team. Next to him was Mokhtar Nouh, a big personality who loved the limelight, now a rabid anti-Ikhwan propagandist. Mohamed Ali Bishr was there, the engineer who later became a governor then a minister during Morsi’s presidency and is now in prison. And usually sitting quietly deep inside the cage was Mohamed Badie, the veterinarian who became the Brothers’ General Guide in 2010 and who is now among those sentenced to death.

Family members and lawyers packed into uncomfortable wooden pews, made even more punishing by the December chill, and military policemen in red berets stood languidly in the aisles. On a dais sat the three military officers-cum-judges, headed by Gen. Ahmad al-Anwar, a ruddy-faced man who used to close his eyes in listening rapture when Khaled Badawi chanted a heartrending adhan from inside the cage. Once the proceedings were over for the day we would spill outdoors into the fading daylight, waiting for the military buses to transport us back to the base entrance. Standing somewhat apart from the crowd in his lawyerly black robes was the great Wafdist and true liberal Atef al-Banna, who was there to defend the 20 professionals on principle. On the bus we shared a seat and a somber silence, as everyone else jabbered on as if we were heading back from a day trip.

That military trial was my first up-close encounter with the Egyptian state’s rhetoric. Up to that point I’d only read official speeches and pronouncements, but never seen what those ideas looked like in action. The entire set-up of a military tribunal to try civilian activists was simply political repression by legal means. The Mubarak regime started sending Muslim Brothers to military tribunals in 1995, to prevent them from making the gains in national polls that they had achieved in professional association elections. That was what the 1999 trial was about; the 20 defendants were sentenced to 3-5 years in prison, to cripple the Ikhwan from planning an effective election strategy in the 2000 general elections. In the event, 17 second-tier, mostly unknown Ikhwan members secured seats. The leader of this tiny parliamentary bloc was an obscure engineering professor from Sharqiyya named Mohamed Morsi.

Judging from Judge Shaaban al-Shamy’s statement yesterday before delivering his death sentences, the Egyptian state’s rhetoric doesn’t seem to have changed all that much from 1999, or 1954 for that matter. Shamy mouthed the tropes in use for decades by the police state to criminalize citizen political engagement. Since their founding in 1928, Shamy declaimed, the Ikhwan organization “had in its veins a mixture of religion and politics, outwardly professing religion but inwardly seeking politics.”

As usual, he cast the Muslim Brothers as a feral, conspiratorial force, forever seeking to “pounce on power even at the expense of the nation and people, encouraging bloodletting and conspiring with foreign organizations to realize its diabolic goals under the cloak of religion.”

What is new in Shamy’s little speech is accounting for the post-2011 novelty of mass mobilization. Here the commanders of the Egyptian state have simply appropriated the popular risings, passing over January 25th as if it didn’t happen and casting June 30th as a patriotic pro-state insurrection against the evil dividers of the organically unified nation. “On that day droves of this proud people poured forth all over the country to demand a strong, coherent society that does not exclude any of its sons, and ends the state of conflict and division.”

Egyptian reactionary thought has always been around, of course, but it took the 2011 revolution to gather it up into a semi-coherent doctrine. Egyptian reactionaries within the state, the crony business class, and segments of the middle and even working classes are constructing a worldview that equates political pluralism with chaos, defines power rotation as “bringing down the state,” and is offended, no, terrified by the political agency of the lower orders, especially when they dare to vote for parliamentary Islamists.

To historians, it’s old news that revolutions often end up crystallizing and formalizing reactionary orders. But for the rest of us who so hoped never again to see political activists in a courtroom, it’s an enduring source of grief.

*The title of this post is inspired by Albert Hirschman’s luminous book dissecting centuries of conservative thought.