The Challenging Paradoxes Facing Morsi – OpEd


By Ali Harfouch

It did not take long before the euphoria from our brother Muhammad Mursi’s[1] “victory” was clouded by the paradoxes and inconsistencies packaged with the illusion of power. The real scope and parameters of Mursi’s “power” proved to be more constraining than liberating in any progressive sense. Prior to the cinematic elections, revolutionary extra-[formal]institutional activism brought about by the Arab Spring allowed activist to locate and channel power, where the loci of power actually existed; the People – at a grassroots level. Autonomy and the independence of such informal activism allowed activist leaders to fully represent the demands and interests of the revolting populations. This advantage however, was short-lived after the autonomy of the revolution was replaced by the demobilizing and neutralizing formal participation which had over the past decades proven to be ineffective. A self-defeating return into the realm of ‘formal politics’ will prove to be devastating and the counter-productive to the demands enunciated by the revolting populations primarily because the political institutions systems in the Muslim world are not neutral, neither ideologically nor in terms of interests.

Far from being ‘neutral or channels for progressive participation, the politico-economic architecture in the Muslim world is a reflection power-relations – sustained and legitimized by three concentric spheres of power: Domestic, Regional, and International. All of which strip the political agent/object of autonomy and entangle the agent within a matrix of power-structures all of which preserve, sustain, and legitimize an oppressive status-quo. Participation itself involves the very action of legitimizing these power-relations and engaging in asymmetrical political engagement and a fall into what Fanon calls the “strategy of encirclement”.  Military independence was replaced by political and economic dependence – the legitimacy of which was maintained by a reconfiguration of the identity of the colonized subject. Colonial establishments served to both legitimize the hegemonic concepts embedded within the consciousness of the subordinated nations while preserving the geo-political, strategic, and economic interests of the West. And as such the native elites- or the ruling elite within these establishments have no real power per se but rather the authority to paradoxically represent the interests of both the hegemonic international players, and the interests of the people at the same time. From the very beginning, this dual-responsibility was recognized by the Brotherhood and U.S Senator John Kerry’s visit to the FJP’s headquarters in Cairo amidst their electoral victory, and the week long visit of key FJP members to Washington is explicitly indicative of such. However, meeting there interests of an opportunistic Imperial West on one hand, and an anti-Imperialist and anti-Zionist population on another will prove to be impossible, if not, regressive . Tamim al-Barghouti put its aptly “the position of the native elite, between the colonized population and the colonizing power, results in a paradox of representation. any act of representation requires the consent of two parties; the party represented and the party to which the representation is done. both have to accept the agent who does the representation. In the case o the colonial power and the colonized population, the two parties have contradictory agendas. The agent doing the representation must thus acquire the consent of two opposites”. [2] Paradoxical representation entails not only the preservation of the colonizers political interests but also his economic interests. Mursi, situated within the colonial Egyptian state is now forced to deal with this paradox. Worse yet, he must meet these conflicting interests within an anarchic, fragmented, and violently hierarchical state apparatus which fetishizes power, and thus only exacerbating the growing chasm between the two conflicting groups whose interests he must represent. For Muhammad Mursi, Sinai and the IMF are embodiments of this paradox.

Sinai and the not-so “Post-“Arab Spring

The recent attacks against Egyptian soldiers in Sinai, and the security measures and proclamations made shortly after by Mursi and his administration are examples of such. On one hand, the Egyptian population and more so Mursi’s “Islamist” support base is anti-Israeli and staunchly against Imperial U.S policy. Much of his support comes from the expectation that he will now, as one writer put it, liberate al-Quds or as the leading MB member Safwat al-Hijazi declared to thousands of constituents shortly after the election results were announced. Perhaps this is an exaggeration although it shows the extent to which the delirium amidst his illusionary victory distorted any sort of strategic ambiguity. Nonetheless, a change in Egypt’s policy towards the Arab-Israeli conflict was expected and an easing of the Rafah Border a promise of Mursi. On the other hand, the colonial Egyptian state is embedded in a matrix of internal and external power-structures and power-relations set up to protect American and Israeli interests in the region. A preservation of this system, and relations is required and expected by those who executively “run its affairs” if stability is to be maintained. It is thus not surprising that one of the first promises made by Mursi, paradoxically, was the recognition and preservation of internal [transgressive] treaties and pacts previously held by the state. And thus, Mursi must now also represent and preserve the interests of the hegemonic powers who initially created the system of subordination which stretches across the Muslim world. Maintaining security, for the colonial powers, is the chief role of the native elite. Camp David, and the securing of the Sinai peninsula are explicit examples of such and now going as far as destroying the tunnels used to smuggle minimal supplies into Gaza.

While anti-Israeli slogans and calls for the dissolvent of the Camp David accord thunder across Egypt following the death of 16 Egyptian soldiers – the newly found government has been forced to do  the exact opposite and has increased security across the peninsula. The discontent forced Mursi to not attend the funeral of the slain soldiers amidst security concerns and anti-Brotherhood slogans. Ismail Haniya, the leader of Hamas which is from the same ideological camp as the Muslim Brotherhood has renewed his request that the President ease the border closings. The point is that, regardless of Mursi’s motives or those who carried out the attack, the new president has put himself in a position in which he must take two contradictory stances.

Similarly, economic disparity in Egypt embodies within in two contradictory demands; economic independence and development as demanded by the revolting populations and economic dependence and subordination to the capitalist core by the West. and few would deny the cataclysmic effect and influence that economic inequality had on fueling the revolution. However, addressing the economic demands, and the economic contradictions requires a recognition that they are the product of inherently structural contradictions which cannot be fully and adequately addressed without a complete transformation of the economic infrastructure and architecture of the Fordist Capitalist state. Why else, were meetings with the IMF and the World Bank part of the MB’s electoral and presidential campaign? Meeting the demands of the population would include long-term development projects, freeing (the 60%) public revenue from the repayment of crippling and interest-based debt, the prevention of money hoarding and a proper distribution of wealth, elimination of corporate monopolies (e.g. 67% of the steel industry is controlled by one company) etc. All of which are part of the Islamic economic system[3]. Instead, another interest-based and crippling loan was secured with the IMF under the auspices of Mursi and the Freedom and Justice Party. Again, the contradictory interests of two conflicting parties cannot be met and as a result priority and preference is given to one over another. From the onset, no new substantial economic projects have been introduced but rather a continuation of economic liberalization stretching back to the bleak Mubarak era. Nothing new. The only difference being that the upper-middle class and upper-class sectors of society experienced gradual economic “growth” under Mubarak while the post-Arab Spring has been packaged with major economic setbacks “After growing 5 percent in 2010, Egypt’s GDP grew less than 2 percent in 2011″.[4] If anything, the reference to a Post-Arab Spring might be imprecise if ‘Post-’ is used to refer to a discontinuity with the past.

Mursi’s Dilemma

An unprecedented string of revolutions and global-regional structural transformations make the stakes for Mursi higher than that of previous elites;

(1) Mursi came to power after an Arab Spring and his “victory”, to many, inaugurates a new post-Arab Spring world marked by change. Meaning that, as the President within an unaltered political system in a Post-Arab Spring Egypt he must both maintain the status-quo and preserve the mechanisms of inequality which led to the structural contradictions giving birth to the Arab Spring – discontinuity. Yet, he must also meet the demands of the Arab Spring – continuity.  Richard S. Katz and Peter Mair explain:As party programmes become more similar, and as campaigns are in any case oriented more towards agreed goals rather than contentious means, there is a shrinkage in the degree to which electoral outcomes can determine government actions. Moreover, as the distinction between parties in office and those out of office becomes more blurred, the degree to which voters can punish parties on the basis of generalized dissatisfaction is reduced. At the same time participation in the electoral process implicates the vote by casting elections as the legitimate channel for political activity, other potentially more effective channels are made legitimate. Democracy becomes a means o achieving social stability rather than social change and elections become dignified’ parts of the constitution.[5]

(2) A post-Mubarak Egypt was marked by a bipolarized struggle for power between the newly elected Civil government and the SCAF which represented, for many, the vestiges of a despotic Mubarak era. A bipolarization of power however proved to be an unsustainable configuration and not was not favor of neither “reformist” who sought change in Egypt nor the “conservatives” within the Military who came to represent the “enemies of the revolution”. And thus an “untelevised” reconfiguration of power was inevitable and the competing political actors across the Egyptian political spectrum recognized that the tug-of-war between Mursi and the SCAF was bound to end in the favor of the latter, who on face values represented the will of the revolting population. And of course, without ignoring the international and regional dimension of the struggle – the opportunistic Powers, including the U.S recognized the instability of the situation and supported a transition to a “Civil Democratic Regime”. Events in Sinai accelerated and provided justification to the expected transition. Consequently, Mursi’s call upon the former defense minister Tantawi to resign came as no surprise to political analyst from across the ideological spectrum yet shocked and reignited a sense of euphoria amongst major segments of the Muslim world who conflated the move which was simply part of a preconstructed narrative and political schema

Previously most strategic and military blunders fell upon the SCAF and protection of Western interests, including the Sinai buffer zone with Israel was understood to be a necessary evil and upheld by the military and not the President who was supposedly in a power-struggle with the military institution. The recent soft coup and semi-neutralization of the SCAF leaves Morsi facing the full brunt of this responsibility and the preservation of the ‘necessary evil‘s. A responsibility which he proved capable of fulfilling following the raids and attacks on Sinai and his commitment to the formation of a Civil Democratic State in Egypt. Co-option of junior military officers and members of the judiciary along with a removal of the unpopular figure heads which dominated the latter essentially cements a cooperative bargain and relationship between the Brotherhood and the Military institution.

(3) Meeting the demands of the revolution and providing the much needed transformational leadership requires a unified and strong political front and leadership – a basic and necessary requirement for any healthy transition. Additionally, structural problems require long-term solutions. Egypt’s frail political architecture however makes such a transition largely impossible. Constitutional Democracies are not centralized nor are they based on a uniform channel for policy formation. But are intentionally fragmented – in order to create a system of checks-and-balance. This makes decision-making essentially oriented towards short-term goals as opposed to long-term orientation. This is a natural result of a system which sets multiple constituencies in competition within a limited time-frame, generally over particular policies and not problems, or long-term agendas. Meaning that politicians are not encouraged to focus on segments in society facing large deficits and requiring long-term solutions, or deal with inherent contradictions within a system. Worse yet, a Parliamentary Democratic regime systemically  representatives who are “elected for the exercise of institutional power, or potestas – represent elitist groups that have become progressively corrupted”. [6] And thus, representing the interests of the oppressed segments of society requires the mediation of power through a political system which does not fetishize power and involves a dialogical relationship with the real base of authority; the People.

Ironically, this was acknowledged by Hassan al-Banna who called upon the King Farouq to abolish the Parliamentary system. In an address to the Brotherhoods youth he said:

“[The Muslim Brethren] believe . . . that in a representative, and even a parliamentary, system there is no need for a party system (especially if it is) like the one that exists today in Egypt. [This is true because] otherwise coalition governments in democratic countries could not survive. Therefore, the notion that a parliamentary government could only exist with a party system is unwarranted; for many constitutional and parliamentary countries are based on a oneparty system, and that is possible… [the Muslim Brethren] have also asked His Majesty to dissolve all the existing (political) parties, so that they could be consolidated altogether into one popular assembly, which will work for the common good of the ummah in accordance with the principles of Islam

(4) While his predecessors could espouse a blatantly secular and colonial discourse, al-Moursi must espouse a double-discourse which embraces both Islam and Secularism, the Ummah, and the nation-state, the sovereignty of Shariah and Democracy. An ambiguous discourse which represents both an inaugural radical break with the servile past through Islam while legitimizing and reproducing the past by maintain its reality-defining institutions, discourse, and structures. Dussel points out, quite aptly: ““Party corruption results from a loss of ideological clarity regarding the paradigm being struggled for, the nonexistence of discussion projects, and a lack of ethical coherence among party cadres”.  

This instantiates the problem of representation tremendously for the Muslim Brotherhood, and al-Morsi. For on one hand, their lack of ideological clarity dictates the employment of a ambiguous catchall discourse which in turn leads to fragmentation and disparity of the organization and social base, which leads systemically and perpetually forces the party to maintenance of the very same ambiguous discourse as to contain and preserve their increasingly ideologically diverse support-base. A vicious circle for the discourse carried by the Muslim Brotherhood must also represent the interests and opinions of competing trends within the movement itself. A requirement which even Imam Hassan al-Banna found difficult. If Morsi, and the leadership of the MB cannot represent the competing and divergent opinions even within its movement than it is unlikely that it can do so for an even more diverse and indecisive population. Mehdi Akef himself admitted during an interview in 2007 saying “there are pressures [on us] from the grass roots who are ready to explode but this explosion is not going to be in the interests of Egypt or the interests of the Ikhwan themselves”.[7]

The problem doe s not end here; the ideological underpinnings of the nation-state to which the establishment is bound, assumes that its interests are essentially and primarily national interests. From the onset, there is an act of systemic exclusion to the interests of those outside the colonial boundaries of the nation-state or the “Other”. Consequently, the interests of “Egypt” are represented independently of that of the Ummah. Had the interests of Egyptians been in conformity with those of the Ummah than no paradox or conflict exists. However they are at odds, for the very independency of “Egypt’s” interests from those of the Ummah create the very same political and military vulnerability (dependence) which legitimizes the exclusion of the Ummah’s interests. Again, another vicious circle.

A domesticated and conservative “Islam” which has accepted the parameters of the nation-state  is thus forced to choose between carrying the interests of the Ummah or those of “Egypt”. What we are left with, even on a domestic level is systemic failure;

“The tragedy[8] of the Muslim community/Umma, if one may paraphrase Rousseau is that it is in all Muslims religious and value interests to unite under a commonly agreed-upon sovereign/Imam in order to have a better chance of attaining a larger security bundle. Yet it is in the interest of each single regime or state to obviate that authority when it is to its own expediency. [9]

The “Will-to-Live”[10] versus the Illusion of Change.

Islam, following the Arab Spring, has been associated with change and the will for change continues to shake the streets – the Muslim Brotherhood’s inability to bring about real change yet continue to seek legitimacy through vacuous slogans will either lead to a major setback for all those associated with “Political Islam” or provide a catalyst and opportunity for the rise of more ‘radical’ and ‘revolutionary’ Islamic movements who provide an alternative political programme which can represent the interests of a Muslim world which has begun to dust off the residue of colonialism and demand change in face of the words staunchest Authoritarian regimes.

The oppressed segments of society which revolted against the likes of Mubarak and Assad will surely revolt against their replacement and continue to do so until there emerges a representative who will provide the transformational leadership needed to channel the delegated authority given by the Ummah to bring about the necessary change in the Muslim world.

Ali Harfouch is a student of Political Studies at the American University of Beirut working in Islamic activism with Islam Policy.

[1]  It is important to note from the onset of our political analysis that our critique is not of Muhammad Mursi but rather that of his policies and political programme. The politics of reformism employed by Muhammad Mursi are judged independently from his upright character and motives. And lastly, no leader – no matter how well-intentioned and righteous – is immune from constructive criticism.

[2]     The Umma and the Dawlah: the Nation-State and the Arab Middle East Tamim al-Barghouti

[3]  The Islamic Khilafah: A Manifesto for Change Hizb ut-Tahrir Britain

[4]  Was the Arab Spring Worth It? Hussein Ibish Foreign Policy

[5]  How Parties Organize Richard S. Katz and Peter Mair

[6] Twenty Theses on Politics Enrique Dussel

[7]  The Muslim Brotherhood and the Burden of Tradition, Alison Parteger

[8] Tragedy of commons: Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit – in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. (Hardin, 1968)”

[9] Islam and the Political Amr G.E Sabet

[10] Twenty Theses on Politics Enrique Dussel

New Civilisation

New Civilisation is an online political journal which provides a unique source of insight and critical analysis regarding the pressing political, economic and ideological issues of the time. Its motivation is to provide an authentic alternative to the standard analysis often found in mainstream outlets – opening a channel for advocates of alternative Islamic political models to present their critiques of other understandings and put forward their own opinions while allowing them to be discussed and challenged within an environment of informed and respectful discourse.

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