Wednesday, January 5, 2011

An Egyptian Reichstag Fire?

Sydney Morning Herald pundit, Gerard Henderson, unlike his colleague, the dreadful, rambammed Paul Sheehan, usually avoids commenting on Middle Eastern affairs, for which we're all terribly grateful. However, with Christians - in Egypt this time - the target of yet another terrorist outrage, he couldn't resist weighing in with this utterly pedestrian guesswork:

"The bombing of a Coptic church in Alexandria, Egypt, at the weekend, apparently by a radical Islamist, was widely reported as a suicide attack... Egypt's President, Hosni Mubarak, has said that the work was the work of 'foreign hands'. He seems to believe that the suicide/homicide attack was organised by a person loyal to al-Qaida who entered Egypt to commit crime - following threats by Osama bin Laden's followers directed at Egypt's Copts. This analysis is probably correct." (The intelligence & the luck that saves us from murderers, 4/1/11)

As'ad AbuKhalil (aka The Angry Arab), a genuine expert on such matters, however, smells a rat - or two:

"I wouldn't put it past the Mubarak regime to plot a deterioration of the security situation as a necessary prerequisite for the coronation of Jamal Mubarak. They want to subjugate and intimidate people first." (, 2/1/11)

"Another scenario for what happened in Alexandria is that the military-intelligence apparatus engineeered the explosion in order to sabotage the coronation of Jamal Mubarak and promote a candidate for the military-intelligence apparatus as the rescuer. With those sinister regimes, expect the most sinister of scenarios." (ibid, 3/1/11)

Now as Dr Phil always reminds us, the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. So, keeping AbuKhalil's suspicions in mind, I think it's perhaps worth going back to Egypt in 1981, to the days of Mubarak's predecessor, Anwar Sadat, and having a look at an earlier round of sectarian conflict there.

First, a little context:

"The jama'at islamiyya [Islamic Associations] were the Islamicist student associations that became the dominant force on Egyptian university campuses during Sadat's presidency [1970-1981]. They constituted the Islamicist's only genuine mass organizations. Although they were at first a minority within the Egyptian student movement (then dominated by the Nasserist left and Marxist currents) that arose just after the country's defeat in the 1967 war, the Islamicist students made their breakthrough during the period of relative calm that prevailed on the campuses after the October war of 1973. A mere 4 years later, they were in complete control of the universities and had driven the left organizations underground. Having managed to dominate the Student Union and the most important faculties, the jama'at now represented a threat to the regime, which had initially favoured them. They began to exploit opposition to the policy of peace with Israel on which Sadat, the 'peace president', had gambled his legitimacy and political survival. From that point onwards they suffered administrative harassment and later police repression by the government that had previously handled them with kid gloves. The jama'at islamiyya thus won recognition as an opposition force. From then on, their numbers rose steadily. The regime saw no way of heading off the danger except direct confrontation, dramatized by the 'confessional sedition' in az-Zawiyya al-Hamra in June 1981. In September of that year the jama'at islamiyya were dissolved (although they had never been legally registered in the first place); their infrastructure was destroyed and their leaders arrested. One month later, Sadat was killed by an Islamicist militant, Khalid al-Islambuli, whose brother, a leader of the jama'at islamiyya at the University of Asyut, had been maltreated during his arrest in September.

"The jama'at islamiyya were therefore an important part of the Egyptian political scene during Sadat's presidency. Although they were a student movement, their actions had effects which reached well beyond the confines of the universities, and they intervened directly in political life.

"The jama'at islamiyya referred constantly to the umma islamiyya, or 'Community of Believers' as it existed, in their view, at the time of the 'golden age of Islam' during the reign of the first 4 caliphs, the 'rightly guided caliphs' (al-khulafa' ar-rashidun). Their objective was the renaissance of this umma through the restoration of the caliphate. The means they employed to achieve this aim were meant to offer a foretaste of what life would be like in the radiant future, while simultaneously manifesting their militant and exemplary break with contemporary Egyptian society." (The Prophet & Pharaoh: Muslim Extremism in Egypt, Giles Kepel, 1984, pp 129-130)

Now to those events in Cairo's az-Zawiyya al-Hamra district:

"The jama'at were attacked and liquidated by the regime as centrifugal forces whose aim was the destruction of the 'Egyptian nation', based, according to an old myth reactivated by Sadat, on the harmonious coexistence of the Copts and the Muslims. When the state's attack came, there were no massive expressions of solidarity with the Islamicists on the part of Egyptian Muslims. In order to establish a confessional balance in the repression and thus to disarm any potential Muslim solidarity, the regime also dealt heavy blows to the Coptic Church and hierarchy, which were cast as the Christian equivalent not of al-Azhar, which is the institutional reality, but of the jama'at. Sadat's position in mid-1981 was precarious. During the past year the peace treaty with Israel had won him considerable prestige among a population weary of the uninterrupted state of war that had prevailed since Nasser's time. But the benefits the president had drawn from the treaty were being whittled down by the various insults that came from the Begin government, the most deeply resented of which was the proclamation of Jerusalem as the indivisible capital of the Jewish state. The state's inability to deal with Egypt's internal problems was also becoming more manifest day by day.

"Threatened by the Islamicist movement (which capitalized on the general disenchantment), criticized by the Coptic Church, and pilloried by intellectuals in the few tolerated opposition bulletins, the president was also isolated on the Middle Eastern scene, and felt that he had been abandoned by the Reagan administration, which no longer accorded him the privileged status he had enjoyed under Carter. Sadat had also aged. The political genius who had consistently outmanoeuvred his adversaries, playing one against the other, had become a self-satisfied autocrat intoxicated by the fulsome praise heaped upon him by the Western mass media. His political advisers had been replaced by courtiers, careerists, and cops. Nabawi Isma'il, the minister of the interior, ran an army of agents provocateurs, thugs, and anti-riot brigades of ever-increasing size and influence. It was in this fin de regne atmosphere that the June 1981 incidents broke out in Cairo's az-Zawiyya al-Hamra district.

"The origin of the events is not clear, and the various accounts are contradictory. Some say that it all started with an altercation between two local gossips, one Muslim and the other Christian, others that militants of the jama'at islamiyya had taken over a plot of land owned by a Copt to build a mosque on it. Whatever the truth, a pitched battle soon erupted between the two communities in this poor and overcrowded Cairo neighbourhood. They were egged on by mysterious provocateurs, and probably further inflamed by the intense summer heat and the cuts in the water supply. Atrocious crimes were committed by people who had earlier lived together peacefully: men and women were slaughtered; babies were thrown from windows, their bodies crushed on the pavement below; there was looting, killing, and arson. At the same time, leaflets were distributed elsewhere in the city urging each community to take up arms. The neighbourhood was finally sealed off by the police, who according to most witnesses intervened only after irreparable damage had already been done.

"The horror aroused in the country by news of the atrocities committed by extremists on both sides created the situation the regime needed to crush the jama'at by severing the bonds of solidarity with the mass of Muslims: they were charged with particularly odious crimes. On 8 September a long article in al-Ahram presented the official version of the background to the events. The jama'at had just been dissolved, and their members were being sought by police throughout the country." (ibid pp 166-167)

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