Geopolitics

In Egypt, Violence Exposes Longtime Double Game Of Islamists And State

Essay: The election of the Islamist President Mohamed Morsi has prompted a round of stories about harassment and even murder at the hands of Islamists. Copts and women are particularly worried. But the history is neither new nor as simple as it might see

A perpetual face-off (oxfamnovib)
A perpetual face-off (oxfamnovib)
Akram Ismail

AL MASRY AL YOUM/Worldcrunch

CAIRO - Various news outlets circulated a story on July 2 about the killing of a young man from Suez, allegedly at the hands of bearded men who stabbed him "for walking with his fiancee." This story comes after a series of similar news stories about bearded men attacking hairdressers and harassing unveiled women in the streets, as well as other reports about the prevention of some Copts from praying.

Such stories have proliferated on the Internet in concomitance with the election of Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi to the presidency. These stories reflect justifiable fears that Salafi-oriented Islamists might be exploiting the arrival of the first Islamist president to spread their influence on society and exercise different forms of assault and intimidation.

It might be impossible to tell which of these stories are true and which are rumors fueled by mounting fears of Islamic extremism among middle-class urban dwellers and lower classes. It may be said, though, that Morsi's victory in the election has emboldened some Islamists, who now believe that "the country is theirs," to harass people.

Addressing these incidents or rumors as if they are entirely disconnected from what has been happening in several parts of the country for years — when Islamists were not in power — is misleading, to say the least. Egyptians were exposed to all sorts of harassment and violations of their freedoms during former President Hosni Mubarak's reign.

Sectarian harassment is a daily concern that millions of Copts across Egypt have long had to cope with, as Egypt's police state sponsored diverse types of harassment and sectarian violence in several popular neighborhoods and in rural areas. State security was quite aware of the sectarian sermons propagated by some Salafi sheikhs and perhaps even supported them. After all, despotic regimes feed on the abuse and intimidation of weaker social groups, and thrive on people's fears.

Outright defiance

In fact, the state did not spring to the defense of women and Copts throughout Egypt, nor did security bodies take a firm stance against Islamists' harassment of students at Egyptian universities. Confrontations with Islamist groups only began after those groups went beyond their unthreatening practices of social regulation to outright defiance of the ruling power.

My purpose here is not to defend Islamists or to absolve them of responsibility, for they are responsible for practices of sectarian incitement and for feeding the conservative, fascist mood of the public. Equally important, though, is the understanding that Islamists are a social and political product that express reactionary and conservative inclinations within Egyptian society.

The problem is that Islamists embrace conservative values and despotic cultural and social structures; hence, they play a crucial role in besieging society and aborting any possibility for its liberation. That is why Islamists have never contested the nature of the prevailing socio-political authoritarianism, but have sought compromise with the police state, which might explain their ability to survive and grow over the many years of despotism. In fact, the years of stagnation and the state's obstruction of social mobility have created a fertile environment conducive to the Islamization of society, and perhaps also the state, and paved the way for a strong rise for Islamists.

But the question remains: Will the Islamists' rise to power cause that fascist mood in society to grow? The answer lies in the extent to which they are ready to make concessions on ideological and political levels. The pressure heaped on them by opposing political and social powers forces them to make ideological sacrifices, and the Brotherhood in particular is ready to make substantial concessions to gain more power.

Photo - Oxfamnovib

Read the full article, which was originally published in Egypt Independent's weekly print edition.

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Geopolitics

Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3

-Analysis-

LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.


Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

commons.wikimedia.org

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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