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Meanings in the Blood and Turmoil of Egypt

BBC journalist Tim Whewell has posted a brilliant and provocative analysis of the current crisis in Egypt entitled: Egypt Crisis: does Political Islam have a Future? In it Whewell characterises the conflicts which have erupted in Egypt as first the demand for the removal of Mohammed Morsi a month or so back by secularists and since then the demand for his reinstatement by Islamists.

The desperate determination of the Egyptian secularists is summed up in Whewell’s piece by the Royal United Services Institute’s Shashank Joshi: “What we’re seeing is a coalition of liberal, secular, youth, revolutionary groups…who have decided that what they value is secularism at all cost, even if the cost is the shredding of every other liberal value that they hold.”

While the brutality of the military in repressing the Cairo Islamists is shocking and has drawn condemnation from right around the world, there is ambivalence towards it from many Egyptian secularists. There is real distrust of the Islamists; and the fear meme has spread virally, as Whewell indicates when he says: “President Morsi was removed as much through fear of what he might do in the future as anger over what he had done already.”

The Egyptian crisis is a conflict of  values
As a generalisation – with all the caveats that need to accompany generalisations – this is a values conflict between the rural and poor on one hand and the educated neo-Westernised urbanites on the other. In a sense, it’s a conflict between traditional society and modernity.

The rural and poor are largely driven by the PURPLE vMEME, seeking security in belonging, with a BLUE sheen of religious fundamentalism. Morsi’s Islamic Brotherhood has an excellent record of charitable works, particularly with the rural and the poor – charity being one of the 7 Pillars of Islam. This makes it easy – natural, even – for the rural and the poor to support the Brotherhood, to whom in God they belong. All it needs then is fanatical zealots, driven by a RED/BLUE vMEME harmonic, to whip them up and they will demonstrate on the streets for Allah, the Brotherhood and Morsi. And, if they are killed, then, as warriors in the service of God, they are told their place in Heaven is assured. (The ultimate security!)

Thus, the numbers of Brotherhood supporters facing off tanks, machine guns and snipers….!

As for the anti-Islamist urbanites, they appear to be mainly driven by a vMEME harmonic of BLUE and ORANGE. On YouTube and Facebook, they learn about the freedoms and the wealth of the West and, not unnaturally, they want some of that for themselves. What they don’t want is Sharia law restricting their Western-inspired freedoms and indulgences. Thus, there is a real fear of the Islamists and what they might bring in.

As the quest for ‘freedom’ appears threatened, then their ORANGE recedes somewhat and BLUE comes to the fore. What they want now is order and stability – which is what the interim government and the military also want, being only too aware that the Islamist protests are only further delaying the establishment of a new government with a programme to drag Egypt out of the social and economic mess it’s in.

BLUE, in nodal mode, will pay no heed to the human cost of doing ‘the right thing’. Thus, the brutality of the military crackdown and its tacit support by the educated, neo-Western urbanites who, only a few weeks ago, were supposedly bona fide ‘democrats’.

In Well, are the Arabs ready for Democracy? and in my annotation of Gerald Butt’s Do Arabs need a New Awakening to win True Democracy?, I’ve raised doubts as to whether the Arab mindset is ready for Western-style Democracy. There is, of course, clearly not a single Arab mindset. So far we’ve discussed 2 mindsets – secularist and Islamist – but even that is far too-simplistic. As Whewell himself points out, when discussing the demonstrations to oust Morsi: “Many of those demanding the overthrow of the Brotherhood were themselves devout Muslims. They just don’t believe the state should be governed by Islam alone.”

Whether those ‘Muslims’ would be considered ‘devout’ by Brotherhood extremists and the Salafists is highly doubtful….but clearly they identify themselves as ‘devout Muslims’ and would probably support many of Islam’s values on morality and codes of living.

So, even within the 2 big movements of those who want to bring about a Sharia state and those who want a secular state, there are many different mindsets.

Where Egypt goes from here probably means a path of bloodshed, repression, if not banning, of the Brotherhood and a period of martial law. While the military is supposedly committed to free elections, unless the Brotherhood is restricted in some way, the likelihood is that they will be returned to power again – for the same reasons they were elected in the first place!

The West should have learned from Gaza in 2006-2007 that one person/one vote elections in a desperately-poor but highly-religious context are likely to produce a religious government. Fundamentalist religions and fundamentalist-oriented versions of religions are, by nature, anti-democratic. Because they enshrine ‘the one true way’, their BLUE will insist on conformity and obedience and oppose ‘freedom’ and indulgence.

Aiming for Western-style Democracy is not what the Arab states need. The principles of Stratified Democracy should be applied so that the Arab states are relieved of pressure from the West to aim for Democracy and are allowed to develop a form of government that represents the interests of the people (as seen by ‘those who know best’), not just the interests of only a highly-moneyed elite, but stops short of full-blown one-person/one-vote Democracy.

Blueprints for this can be found in several European states – eg: the UK – where historically reforms were conceded to the general populations by the elites as they became more educated and could access the growing mass media. The trick is to concede the reforms before revolutionary movements get out of hand – a trick the UK just about managed to do but several of her European neighbours didn’t.

Of course, Egypt in 2013 is not the UK in 1832…but the basic principle of moving towards Democracy through stages of educate-and-concede provides offers a pathway to progress.

The West’s ambivalence towards Syria
One of the more unfortunate aspects of the so-called Arab Spring has been the ambivalent attitude of the West towards it. Having touted Democracy as the ultimate form of government since the end of World War II, Western politicians have all too often found themselves obliged to support the revolutionaries in rhetoric while fearing it would lead to Islamist governments.

The West was quite happy to support autocratic dictators like Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia and Ali Abdullah Saleh in the Yemen with no pressure for those leaders to implement Democracy. As long as they sold their oil to the West and were at least not threatening to Israel, the West interfered little with their ways of government. Even Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya was partly rehabilitated when the dictator renounced terrorism. There was even talk of a behind-closed-doors rapprochement between Israel and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad.

The Arab Spring has been a largely bottom-up series of movements demanding reform. While each movement has been unique to its locale, the common and most powerful driver right across the Middle East has been poverty and unemployment. While ethnicity, religion and political opportunity all have had their influences, each movement has been driven initially by the BEIGE/PURPLE vMEME harmonic to put food on the family table. Given the influence of the Islamic Brotherhood with the rural and the poor, it’s no surprise that the big winners where the revolutionaries have succeeded in bringing about free elections have been the Islamists.

So, while the West has been obliged to champion ‘Democracy’, Democracy has actually worked against its interests. In a sense, the ‘people’ have thwarted the politicians!

The bloody conflict in Syria has caught the West out especially. In theory, the West is against a brutal dictator like Assad and, in the first 2 years of the conflict, the Western media made great play of highlighting the brutality of Assad’s fight to stay in power.

Yet the West has staunchly resisted all attempts to involve it militarily – though the Syrian rebels seemed to expect it after NATO effectively became the opposition’s air force in Libya. Talk of a ‘red line’ being crossed if chemical weapons were used by the Syrian government forces has dissipated, in spite of admitting that evidence has pointed unequivocally to their use. Talk of providing weapons directly to the rebels has largely remained just that. Arms financed by Saudi Arabia get via Turkey and Jordan to keep the rebels going; but the West mostly confines itself to ‘non-lethal aid’, openly admitting its fear that game-changing weapons, if supplied could end up in the hands of ‘terrrorists’ to be used against the West.

Partly, the West’s reluctance is due to the conflict increasingly polarising along Sunni vs Shia sectarian lines. Partly it’s that the radical jihadists from the al-Nusra Front and their like have been in the vanguard of the rebels’ campaigns and responsible for many of their victories. Openly linked to al-Qaeda, the toppling of Assad by an al-Nusra-dominated opposition might not even lead to free elections but straight to an Islamic caliphate.

Tensions between the jihadists and the more moderate rebels became big news last month with the murderous execution of a Free Syrian Army general, Abu Bassir al-Jeblawi, by fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq & Syria, another radical group.

His forces having superior fire power and bolstered in some battles by fighters from the radical Lebanese Shia group, Hezbollah, Assad is slowly but surely gaining ground in his very dirty war.

Even if he can secure an outright victory, Assad’s Syria will remain a pariah state in the eyes of all but a handful of countries such as Iran and Russia. Moreover, he and some of his generals will be highly vulnerable to charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Plus, with over 100,000 people killed in the fighting, hundreds of thousands more injured and maimed, massive numbers of refugees on the borders, financial assets frozen (how ever reluctantly!) in the West’s banking system, sectarianism rife and a potential majority of his people incredibly bitter, nursing grievances and waiting for another opportunity…just how does Assad put his country back together?

It’s me or the jihadists!
That, Shashank Joshi says, in Tim Whewell’s piece, is the ‘narrative’ Bashar al-Assad has increasingly played over the past year…and increasingly that narrative is being given a warmer reception across the Middle East.

Whewell sees the Arab Spring driver of freedom versus tyranny as mutating into secularism versus religion, citing anti-Islamism demonstrations in Tunisia as well as the current crisis in Egypt.

He goes on to say that many secularist Arabs increasingly see “the dictatorship of President Assad is the lesser of the two evils”. As opposition to the Islamists finds form and organisation across the Middle East, so sympathy for the Syrian rebels’ cause fades. Assad is not just winning on the battlefields; he’s beginning to win hearts and minds – not on any merit of his, but simply because he’s not an Islamist.

Thus, the West and the Arab secularists might loathe the monster Assad allowed himself to become; but his dictatorship is better than an Islamic caliphate.

Interestingly, this tide of anti-Islamist feeling might just give Assad a way of bringing his war to a close – and starting on a path to rebuild his country – without having to fight his way through every remaining rebel-held village. Using the principles of the  Assimiliation-Contrast Effect, developed by Don Beck from the work of Muzafer Sherif, could Assad move more towards the centre and so draw in moderate rebels (assimilation)?

The rebels probably can’t win now; but continued resistance could drag the war on for another couple of years. If they can’t win, there is no point demanding Assad step down as a precondition for talks.

There then comes the question of what can Assad, from a position of greater strength, give to the moderate rebels that might persuade them to lay down their arms and desert their jihdist colleagues? As well as (clearly!) a verifiable amnesty, there needs to be the kind of ‘national dialogue’ Assad promised (but never allowed) in the very early days of the 2011 protests. The aim of this would be to establish a new kind of representative government, in which Assad and his Ba’athist cronies had certain protected interests – they were, by and large, the victors after all – but with many aspects of government opened up to non-Ba’ath party members. Assad would remain as head of state – so he’s clearly won – but with reduced powers and government posts open to non-Ba’athists, meaning the huge sacrifices the rebels made are not totally in vain.

Again, it’s a long way from Democracy as the West understands it; but, if it enables, sworn enemies to start working together in the interests on their country – the greater good – it’s most definitely a step in the right direction. And, if the West can only loosen its addiction to the theory (but not always the practice!) of Democracy, then it should be able to support such moves in the relief that Syria is saved from becoming a theocracy.

Whether either Assad and his cronies or the embittered moderate rebels can demonstrate the complexity of such 2nd Tier thinking to investigate these possibilities is highly debatable…but the secularist feelings demonstrated by the Cairo urbanites may embody the best opportunity for an early end to the Syrian conflict.

No need for a ‘Clash of Civilisations’
The likes of Samuel P Huntington (1993) have postulated that global politics and warfare especially will be determined in the post-Cold War era by culture, rather than ideology. Following the 9/11 destruction of New York City’s Twin Towers, American security and foreign policies have been heavily influenced by Huntington’s idea of conflict between monolithic cultures. So-called ‘hawks’ have predicted a inevitable ‘Clash of Civilisations’ between Western and Islamic cultures.

As if we didn’t know it already – from all the coverage of Sunni vs Shia – Whewell’s piece demonstrates clearly that Islamic culture is not only not monolithic but mutating in the real world. Who, 2 years ago, would have predicted that Arab countries, newly-freed and democratised via revolution would see ‘second revolutions’ against democratically-elected Islamist governments?

It almost beggars belief and challenges both the West’s theoretical idealisation of Democracy and its view of Islam as being homogenously radicalised. Just as many ‘Christians’ go to church and espouse Christian values but would not want to live in a Puritanical state, so it seems do many Muslims.

Globalisation may have little direct influence on the poverty-stricken farm worker out in the provinces; but it is making the world a ‘smaller place’ for his fellow in the city watching a Hollywood drama on internet TV.

There is no getting away from the tension and conflict peermeating the Middle East and doubtless MANY more lives will be lost before things stabilise in whatever form of representative government works for each of the Arab countries. However, I am encouraged by Whewell’s piece that there doesn’t need to be a ‘Clash of Civilisations’. What we may be more likely to see are clashes between modernity and tradition within civilisations.



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  1. Anna Plodowski says

    Many thanks for this blog, I find it extremely helpful in learning and thinking about the multiple complexities involved.

    As you say, we need to move on from the utter delusion of thinking our style of “democracy” can be imposed on, say, Arab Spring states right now; what is needed there is forms of government that encourage more participation, and more recognition of the need for multiple views… even if they are not yet “democratic”. It took us centuries to achieve it…