This column has been absent for two weeks. I’d been on a longish trip to a slice of heaven on earth, Ubud, Bali. The six-day Writers and Readers Festival, to which I’d been invited, stretched to 11 days as I travelled from one end of the Silk Road to the other, some 20 hours going in and a harrowing 30-hour journey back, added to which, a nerve racking, if ultimately pleasant 24 hour delay due to a ticketing mishap. (The festival’s organizer, the wonderful Janet, kindly put me up in a charming, if wholly incongruous in my case, Honeymoon Guesthouse.)
The paradox of the great technological revolutions in the means transport since our forefathers’ heavy caravan traffic depended on horses, camels, dhows and basic feet is that now we have to spend more time getting to, queuing up, being searched, unbelted and unshod, passport controlled and otherwise harassed and abused and laid over (actually had to spend 11 hours in Abu Dhabi) and made to walk enormous distances, all within airports, than we do flying in giant, if suffocating jet airplanes.
“You look Indonesian,” Janet told me upon our first meeting. And why not? With the Silk Road having been around for some two millennia, it’s actually a safe bet that a bit of Indonesian DNA had found its way into my genetic pool.
Camels had been the foremost mode of transport along the Silk Road, and it was perhaps written in the stars that I would return to the Mother of the World to find that most bizarre event of our revolution and, indeed, political history, the Battle of the Camel, once again featuring large in our post-revolutionary political life. Last Friday's reenactment of that battle, during the early days of the revolution, was dubbed by the revolutionaries The Battle of the Sheep.
In fact, I had intended this article to be about the American elections. My last article had been about the Brotherhood, and I felt I should let off a bit on the much maligned new rulers of the nation. But more significantly, I am deeply convinced that we, as Egyptians, Arabs and Muslim-majority nations have a decided, even fateful stake in the forthcoming American presidential elections; namely in Barak Obama winning a second term.
In shorthand, Obama, for all his lousy realpolitik, acted from his very first day in office to douse the fires of the turn of the century’s most insidious and destructive doctrine, the Clash of Civilizations; Mitt Romney, along with his band of neo-con crazies, extreme right-wing Zionists, Bush cronies and rendition torturers, would reignite it.
The Brotherhood’s fascistic convulsion in downtown Cairo on Friday forced a change of tack. Not that I subscribe to the notion that the Brotherhood is intrinsically a fascist movement. This, I would argue, is gross oversimplification of a profoundly complex phenomenon, which almost invariably has pushed those who uphold it into the arms of the Mubarak dictatorship before the revolution and the military after it.
This is not to say that there isn’t a fascistic kernel lying at the heart of the Brotherhood’s doctrine and practice. The scenes of violent attacks, horrifying in their viciousness and sheer cruelty against initially peaceful demonstrators on Friday morning were easily evocative of Hitler Youth beating up communists and democrats, and of Mussolini’s thugs doing the same.
Something of a virus, this kernel could thrive or be inhibited subject to outside influences. On Friday morning, we came very close to a full flourish; the bungled retreat by that day’s early evening, barefaced lies and all, saw the inhibitors working fairly effectively.
Still, real experience has shown us that a cure is possible. We need only take note of the phenomenon that is presidential candidate Abdel-Monem Abul-Fotouh; or for that matter, and to a lesser degree, that of once deputy Supreme Guide, Mohamed Habib. There are many other examples.
In my latest article some three weeks ago now, I predicted that Muslim Brotherhood rule in Egypt will not outlast President Morsi’s four-year term. Friday and its aftermath seemed to vindicate me. Yet, like it or not, the Brotherhood itself is here to stay, and all of Egypt has a stake in finding that cure.
Which at long last brings me to the title of this piece. “The Brotherhood and I” makes for a relationship, long on history but very short on intimacy. Let’s begin from the end, as some story tellers are apt to do.
On Accountability Friday I was not being beaten up, chased and otherwise threatened with “liquidation” like so many of my friends and compatriots, but safely ensconced before my laptop, following the dispatches of our reporters on the (battle) ground, and occasionally expressing my personal impressions via social media – never, I hope, confusing the two.
At one point later in the day, FJP leader Essam El-Erian tweeted from his account, angrily slamming the torching of two Muslim Brotherhood-hired busses parked at the edge of the square, a peculiar tweet if only for the fact that throughout the day the Brotherhood leaders were swearing themselves blue in the face that they had no members on the square, let alone members actually bussed into the city centre from the provinces. What drew my attention was not this, however; it had been the biggest joke on the social media for hours.
What I did find remarkable was that El-Erian, describing the torching as a heinous crime, said that he had directed the “Legal Committee” (presumably of the FJP) to investigate the incident and take appropriate measures.
Now, since their accession to power, the Brothers have been showing a decided confusion about where the group/party ends and the state begins. I replied, very politely in fact, asking the FJP leader what he meant by “the legal committee”, adding that I thought it was the state security bodies that were charged with investigating crimes of any sort.
I had, it seems, entered into grounds where angels fear to tread. I had actually dared to address the leader in person. Hell’s Gates, thankfully virtual, had opened. An outpouring of attacks, insults and threats ensued. My regular policy on abusive and personally insulting replies on my twitter account is never to reply but block. On this occasion, however, I was so amused by the jittery, indeed hysterical reaction of our ruling party members that I replied to several of them.
I told them that while they saw El-Erian as their leader, and may even kiss his hands, for me El-Erian is simply an old colleague. Brotherhood members are known to kiss the hands of the Supreme Guide, though I am not aware whether they do the same to the FJP head, but admittedly, I was goading them. As for El-Erian, we’d both been involved in the student movement of the seventies, if on different sides, and knew of each other, even if we didn’t actually associate.
The replies I got for that were even more hilarious. One proudly told me, “yes, he is our leader and not only do we kiss his hands but we put on his shoes as well.” (I assume, or at least hope, that last bit was in the order of rhetorical flourish). Another told me “yes he is our leader and we don’t permit anyone to speak of him.” A third, a sister, taunted me by saying “did you dare open your mouth under Mubarak,” but her Arabic spelling of the slang word for “mouth” was so uniquely atrocious I was dumbfounded. (For readers who know Arabic it was spelled “بؤك”).
Yet, I have known a different type of Brotherhood member. During the 18-day revolution I had occasion to meet with representatives of the Revolutionary Youth Coalition, which provided the field leadership of the revolution across the country. You couldn’t distinguish the Brotherhood’s youthful representatives from their leftist and democratic comrades: eloquent, politically savvy and, like the rest of their coalition allies, spectacularly brave.
Then there is Menem. The first Muslim Brotherhood blogger, Menem defiantly named his blog: “I am Ikhwan”, which – since the group was banned and hounded – was sufficient cause for arrest and imprisonment. This duly came.
I had known of Menem’s blog, but coincidence brought us together in a more direct fashion.
I’d been running a training workshop for young journalists, which included the young trainees' pitching stories, going out and doing them, upon which they’d be critiqued by the trainers – a normal practice in such events. A remarkably eager veiled young woman asked, shyly and hesitantly, if she could do a story about Menem. She had access to his family, and could visit him in prison, posing as a relation.
Naturally I encouraged her to do it, discussed it thoroughly with her, and was keen to follow the story's progress. I could sense though that the young journalist’s passionate involvement in the story was motivated by a bit more than journalistic, or even political interest. My hunch proved correct, and they are now husband and wife.
Menem is no longer with the Brotherhood, yet he remains an Islamist activist, whose critiques of the group’s leadership are as scathing, and often considerably more informed than most critiques coming from the non-Islamist camp.
He was injured by a stone thrown from the pro-democracy side of the battle ground, and tweeted somewhat bitterly about this. I commiserated with him, wished him a quick recovery, and teasingly asked him to consider the stone as something in the nature of “friendly fire”.
Take as well, our own, dare I say it, brilliant contributor, Ibrahim El-Houdaiby, the grandson of a Supreme Guide, a former member of the Brotherhood, Ibrahim remains an Islamist activist and writer. I need say no more about him; merely urge you to read him.
There is a moral to the story: Yes, we should staunchly resist the authoritarian mind set and practice of the Muslim Brotherhood’s leadership, and yes we should relentlessly fight, and act to inhibit, their fascistic bent. Yes, we should continue to resolutely battle in defence of each and every one of our civil liberties, and yes we should carry on the struggle for realizing the aims of the revolution: Bread, Freedom and Social Justice.
And yet, we should take great care not to fall into the trap of looking at the whole Brotherhood or Islamist trend in Egypt as the enemy, merely a new NDP. The Egyptian revolution has shown glaringly that the Egyptian people have not the slightest interest in the secularist-Islamist divide, which – in an age of the eradication of politics – was the concern of a tiny political and ideological elite embroilled in an ultimately futile ideological contest. For in the absence of the testing ground of politics, ideology becomes religion.
The revolution has brought back politics to our nation – with a vengeance. And as a great old man quoted a long time ago: “Here is the rose; here we dance.”