The Muslim Brotherhood’s Samson Option

Hani Shukrallah , Tuesday 19 Mar 2013

In their feverish attempt to grab Egypt now, the Muslim Brotherhood are pushing the millennia old nation to the brink

Though President Morsi’s fondest Western cultural creations are apparently “Good Morning America” and the original (1968) version of Planet of the Apes, to observe Muslim Brotherhood practice since the revolution one cannot help but be reminded of the Bard himself: “We at the height are ready to decline. There is a tide in the affairs of men, which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune; omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries.”

This was Brutus talking to Cassius, but one could imagine it easily, if considerably less eloquently, being whispered by Mohamed Badei or Khayrat El-Shater in Morsi’s ear – “honourable men” all.

Lacking in vision, remarkably incompetent and afflicted by a severe dearth of intelligent cadre (they managed to drive out their best and most politically sophisticated members), the Muslim Brotherhood leadership is driven, frenziedly and feverishly, to “seize the moment”, to capture Egypt’s state and society now, in the full knowledge that by tomorrow it will be never – their decades-old yearning lost forever, their future “bound in shallows and in miseries”.

More than anything else, it is this feverish zeal that best explains the attacks and the bungled retreats, the innumerable barefaced lies, the killings, the torture, the ravenous power grabbing, the always failed attempts at intimidation and terror and the almost indifferent squandering in mere months of a popular goodwill the group had built over a great many decades.

Nothing else, not incompetence, nor lack of vision, nor yet dearth of cadre, but a frenzied, irrational compulsion, bordering on psychosis, can explain political behaviour that – Samson like – is driving both the 84-year old group and the nation to ruin.

From a broad historical perspective, the Arab Spring has heralded the autumn of so-called “Islamic revival” as we’ve known it since the 70s of the last century, (see: The Decline and Fall of the Muslim Brotherhood).

For symbolic representation one need only refer to the recent student union elections in Egyptian universities across the country. The takeover of university student unions by the Muslim Brotherhood and the Gamaa Islamiya in the last years of the 1970s had heralded the rise of fundamentalist Islamism in the country. And for over three decades, their overwhelming control of these unions was contested only occasionally, and only through flagrant police intervention. This year, under Brotherhood rule, they lost – massively, winning a mere 5% of student council seats. On their own, these results may not say a whole lot, but in symbolic terms, they could prove as portentous as those of the late 70s – the closing of a circle.

The seismic shift created by the Egyptian and Arab revolutions has put the region on a new historical trajectory, no less decisive in its break with the past and no less crucial in its delineation of the future than the two previous defining junctures of our modern history: the post-Napoleonic, typified by the advent of Mohammed Ali and the post-independence, typified by Gamal Abdel-Nasser.

For all the hubbub that has accompanied it, “Islamic revival” proved to have been a symptom of the historic decline of the post-independence stage in Egyptian/Arab history, rather than the harbinger of a new one.

Yet history – somewhat like God is said to do – moves in mysterious ways. In their resolve to seize the country before it’s too late, the Muslim Brotherhood are bringing it to ruin.  

Police terror and the institutionalisation of lawlessness

A picture is worth a thousand words, goes the well known journalistic adage. Not always, I might add, but often enough. On my desktop I have saved such a picture. It shows one of the many anti-Muslim Brotherhood demonstrations held to commemorate the second anniversary of the Egyptian revolution; in its forefront is a young woman, in a white veil, hoisting a personally designed sign saying: “By the holy Quran, we have stopped being afraid.”

 The Brotherhood president and his cronies have restored Mubarak-age police terror in full, including: the regular use of live ammunition against peaceful protesters, leading to dozens of dead and hundreds of injured and maimed, militia attacks, illegal detentions, routine and vicious torture (including the torture of children) – often leading to death, unlawful detention centres (including the camps of the Central Security Forces), trumped up, ludicrously and scandalously fabricated conspiracy charges, a complicit and lying, illegally appointed prosecutor general, complicit and mendacious forensic medical examiners – the list rivals anything deployed by the Mubarak regime during the first days of the revolution, and the vicious attempts at repression pursued by SCAF during its year-and-a-half-long attempt to bring that revolution to heel.

And just as it had been since the dam of fear and submission burst on 25 Jan. 2011, police terror – deployed by Mubarak, SCAF or Mohamed Morsi – does not work. Whether they swear by the Quran, the Bible or Das Kapital, too many Egyptians are simply no longer afraid; police terror doesn’t send them back home, it makes them angrier, more resolved to fight back. Certainly the price is high, paid for in precious blood and tears, but it is a cost hundreds of thousands of the nation’s citizens have proven willing to pay – over and over again.

There is more to it, however. If it is at all possible to isolate the topmost motivation behind the Egyptian revolution – a revolution, we might recall that chose Police Day to erupt, that would be police terror. In an article I wrote in the daily Al-Shorouk in 2009 I suggested that, under the (then) current regime, the Egyptian people could be stratified into three categories: the Pashas and Beys, who were by and large above the law, the Effendis, who lay whimsically within the boundaries of a highly restrictive and repressive law, and the “rabble”, the great majority of the people, who were wholly outside the law, a subject population ruled over by a lawless and savage militia that calls itself a police force.

But the dam did burst, the police state shattered, and a massive police apparatus that had exercised supreme and brutal mastery over state and society lay bloodied and humiliated.

And there would be no reforming the police, and no transitional justice. Not under SCAF and not under the Brotherhood, providing the foremost confirmation that Egypt’s revolution had been stalled and hijacked.  Overhauling the police apparatus of a police state and instituting a real process of transitional justice was never a matter of mere retribution, but rather the key element in the dismantling of the police state against which the revolution erupted.

For SCAF, bent on maintaining as much of the Mubarak state structure as possible, dismantling the police state was tantamount to dismantling the state itself. They simply could not imagine another kind of state. For the Brotherhood, it was inconceivable to pursue the construction of a new authoritarian regime in the absence of a repressive police apparatus, especially under the wholly novel conditions of a rebellious people bent on freedom and dignity – all of which is anathema to the new would-be rulers of the nation whose supreme value is obedience.

 There was a great deal of bitter irony, in fact, in the Brotherhood’s attempt to lay the blame for the outrageous lack of transitional justice on the judiciary, even as they persistently desisted from even touching the real culprits, the police. After all, the big joke in what was being passed as retribution and transitional justice in post-revolution Egypt was charging the criminal with investigating his crimes.

This could not pass without dire consequences, however. The first and foremost among these we’ve touched upon already, summed up in the sign held aloft by that veiled young woman: “By the holy Qur’an, we have stopped being afraid.” Continuing police terror did not send people home; it sent them on the streets.

But not just. For a great many young people who, for over two years, had seen their friends and comrades being killed, maimed, their eyes shot out, amid repeated bogus promises of investigation and retribution, it was increasingly “Goodbye aunt selmiya”. The predominant chant was no longer “selmiya” (peaceful protest), but “blood for blood.” As we’ve seen in Port Said and elsewhere, shooting could go both ways.

It was not just the revolutionary youth who would respond to the persistent failure to reform the police apparatus of a shattered and bloodied police state. The whole population got in on it. A lawless police force that had lost its power to frighten and intimidate was like a red cape being waved before a raging bull. The torching of police stations and vehicles would become a national pastime, not just for revolutionaries, but for nearly everybody. And so would the cutting of road and railway lines, the eruptions of violence at the least provocation, and this not just in the major “revolutionary” cities, but in the very heartlands of conservatism and reaction, the provinces, in Upper Egypt and elsewhere, which had stayed largely out of the revolutionary upsurge and which both the SCAF and the Muslim Brotherhood had counted on as ready reservoirs for counter-revolution.

Last but not least, the unreformed police apparatus itself. Bloodied, humiliated, uncertain of their future and under constant attack, the erstwhile masters of the nation seek retribution of their own – on the whole people. Incapable of investigating even the most minor of crimes without benefit of torture, their self-image, their very perception of their status and role in the society is one of mastery and terror. Simply, they cannot conceive of doing their job without teaching the people who bloodied and humiliated them – to the extent of physically trouncing their massive, armed-to-the-teeth apparatus in a mere three days – a lesson in who’s boss. They know of only one way to do this: more killings, more torture, more fabricated and trumped up charges, more arbitrary violence, in a word, more lawlessness.

Failing that, they go on strike. The open police strikes in many parts of the country during the past few weeks are in fact not that novel. The Egyptian police have been half-rogue and on partial, undeclared strike since 28 January 2011. The message behind it is easy to fathom: uncontested mastery or bust.

During the 18-day revolution, the withholding of security was clearly part of a scorched earth strategy adopted by the Mubarak regime, the aim of which was to force the people to choose between police state and chaos. It has continued in different shapes and forms since then. It didn’t work then, and it hasn’t worked since. Egyptians are not about to choose a return of the police state.

The outcome, if not total chaos, which is difficult to conceive in a country such as Egypt, is growing lawlessness, with more violence, and with increasingly greater sections of the population opting to take the law into their own hands, as vendettas, individual and mob violence and lynching become common place.

The latest wave of open police strikes brought in a new element to the equation, however. Police officers and men have been declaring their refusal to pay the price of the Muslim Brotherhood’s power grab and demanding the sacking of the Muslim Brotherhood appointed interior minister. How far such declarations reveal a genuine sentiment within police ranks, one that may indicate a willingness to re-image the force, and hence, openness to reforms is not clear. The thrust of the police protests, however, continues to be the demand for even greater leeway in the use of lethal force. Their actions on the ground, before the strike wave and since, continue to reveal a sadistic delight in murder and mayhem.  

And while the police hold no particular love for the Brotherhood; certainly, there is an alliance of convenience between the two. Like their SCAF forebears, the Brotherhood has provided the police with what they most desperately require in a post-revolutionary Egypt: reliable protection from being brought to account for past and present crimes.

Yet, the new rulers of the country are not satisfied with the level of lawlessness and brutality afforded them by the established police force. Increasingly isolated, loathed and under siege, they – along with some of their Salaifist and Jihadist allies, have been floating ideas and proposed legislation that would effectively open the way for setting up Islamist militias in the country, a Sunni version of Iran’s “Islamic Revolutionary Guard”, thereby taking lawlessness and civil violence to its zenith.

They’ve been doing this in typical Brotherhood governance fashion, ineptly, deceitfully and in the now familiar pattern of attacks and bungled hasty retreats, denials and lies.

Yet even as they hastily retreated on their mumbling of new “citizen arrest” legislation, and “popular (policing) committees”, their members are already setting up “policing” militias in the provinces, especially in Upper Egypt, and horrific mob lynchings – previously unheard of – have been taking place with increasing prevalence. Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, Egypt’s foremost political writer and analyst, described this in a recent TV interview as a recipe for disaster, for the creation of war lords, and for civil war.

The Somalization of Egypt may be far-fetched; it is after all one of the earliest and most centralized modern states in the South, let alone one of the oldest unified states in the world. But the prospect seems ominous enough and real enough to warrant serious concern within the nation’s political society.

In a recent Facebook posting I compared the psyche of Egypt’s Brotherhood rulers to that of a compulsive gambler in a Las Vegas Casino (I’ve been to that most bizarre town only once a long time ago, squandering all of $10 on the slot machines, so the metaphor is owed to Hollywood rather than to personal experience).

Like that compulsive gambler, the Brotherhood – fervently bent on capturing Egypt’s state and society in one fell blow – are inherently unable to cut their losses, but rather are constantly and with growing desperation betting on the next hand, the next throw of the dice, the one that will compensate them for all their losses, and ‘lead [them] to fortune”.

Meanwhile, their chips are dwindling fast, their debt to the House piling up, and the pit-bosses are hovering in the background.

The pit-bosses in that little metaphor are of course the military.








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