‘Muslim Rage’ and the Politics of Distraction in Egypt
Photo Credit: Courtney Radsch
Last week the world witnessed a wave of violent outrage in various Muslim countries, triggered by a film produced in the United States that defames the prophet Muhammad. While there is speculation on whether the attacks against U.S. embassies were spontaneous or orchestrated, that is not really the most crucial issue in this tragedy. More important is the way the overall phenomenon is being used to draw attention away from pressing political and economic problems in the affected countries.
It is safe to say that the violent protests were not really about the film, or even about religion. Most of the people who took to the streets have not even seen the film. And it is telling that the only Arab country where such protests did not take place was, ironically, Saudi Arabia. The violence is actually a continuation of the politics of distraction in the Arab world.
In Egypt, during the 30 years of the Mubarak regime, external issues served to distract the public from grave internal economic and political problems. Labor strikes and protests by reformist groups like Kefayah never gained the same level of media attention as the mass protests held in solidarity with the Palestinian intifada, or the demonstrations against the American invasion of Iraq. Political doublespeak also prevailed during that time. As Mubarak played friends with the United States and Europe, his state-controlled media continuously criticized Western attempts to infringe on Egypt’s sovereignty, particularly when it came to human rights and democracy. The Muslim Brotherhood (MB) is now following the same approach.
The MB’s doublespeak was exposed when one of its leaders, Khairat al-Shater, published an apology letter in the New York Times, even as the MB webpage (Ikhwan online) fueled further anger among Muslims about the film. When the Brotherhood’s official Twitter account posted a sympathetic note to the @USEmbassyCairo Twitter account about the incident, the embassy replied caustically, saying, “Thanks. By the way, have you checked your own Arabic feeds? I hope you know we read those too.”
The politics of distraction has continued in more pernicious ways. While the world was busy observing the protests in front of the U.S. embassy in Cairo, a host of strikes were mounted across different sectors—by bus drivers, teachers, university workers, students, and industrial workers. President Morsi and his cabinet responded by deploying security forces to violently disperse, arrest, and harass the protesters. And the Ministry of Industry issued a decree banning strikes and protests, and making participation in strikes punishable by law.
Moreover, recent leaks to the media about drafts for a new constitution indicate that there could be major restrictions on freedom of expression, such as an article against insulting religious figures and other figures of authority. The danger is that the definition of an insult and who is considered a figure of authority are left open to interpretation, allowing for arbitrary enforcement. But even without new laws or a new constitution, the signs of a crackdown on freedom of expression are already visible. A 25-year-old Egyptian Copt named Albair Saber was detained for posting the trailer of the contentious anti-Islam film on Facebook earlier this week, and remains in detention even though no particular legal charge has been filed against him.
In a more visually symbolic move, two days ago, Morsi’s government ordered that all of the revolutionary graffiti on the walls surrounding Tahrir Square should be wiped clean. For many families of those who have died during and since the 2011 uprising, the faces posted on the walls were the only recognition they received after the loss of their loved ones. For many other Egyptians, this graffiti was the only remaining evidence that a revolution had even taken place.
Yet again, the world was paying more attention to the reactions to anti-Islamic expression, this time to cartoons published in France, than to the fate of the Egyptian people’s desire for freedom. Such misdirection only makes it easier for foreign governments to give up on the country’s democratic development and return to a long-standing pattern of managing relations with blatantly undemocratic partners in the Arab world.
If this trend continues, the last traces of the Arab Spring in Egypt will fade, giving way to a new winter of sadly familiar repression.
Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.