Inviting foreign militants into Egypt?

“I need money for a trip to Afghanistan,” I said, wondering why my mother looked at me as if I was a nutcase. “I am not going alone. The whole class is going,” I decided to reassure her. The next morning she went to meet the administrative assistant who laughed her heart out as she told my mom that the trip was to the zoo and that I must have misunderstood. “What kind of a misunderstanding could that be? Where did she get Afghanistan from?” my mom asked. “Oh! That’s another story,” the assistant replied casually. “The school is collecting money for the fighters in Afghanistan.” “Are you serious?” mom sounded like the answer had to be “no” and the woman did not sound like she was lying when she said she was unable to see the problem.

That was it, my mom gave the assistant a lecture that contained too many complicated words for a six year, it was something along the lines of “indoctrinating the children,” “marring the political outlook of future generations,” “mixing education with politics” and the like. My mom then insisted to know whose initiative it was, especially since this was a private school that does not get instructions from the government as far as its internal activities are concerned. “All schools are doing this,” the woman replied, and before mom was able to snap again, she quickly added, “this is to support Muslims in their fight against Communists, you know.” “Thank you for the information,” mom grinned, “but we’re not paying.” “As you wish, Madame,” the assistant replied in what seemed to be a euphemism for, “it’s not like your money will make a difference.” Mom made a dramatic exit from the woman’s office dragging me by the arm as I asked persistently, “so where will the trip be?”

Understanding with age

Later on I understood the reason for my mother’s reaction, but I also understood why the assistant found this reaction abnormal. The Muslims versus Communists discourse was intensively promoted by the Egyptian government. Late president Anwar Sadat had become a U.S. ally and was openly crushing Communists and flirting with Islamists and it was only after his death that Egypt’s logistic and military involvement in the Afghan conflict became common knowledge. The school initiative, which could have been recommended, even if it wasn’t dictated, by the authorities, was one of many manifestations of support for what was perceived as a war for Islam and of resistance to what was perceived as the threat of Communism. Very few, obviously including my mother, understood the meaning of a proxy war and foresaw the repercussions of internationalizing the Afghan conflict.

It was when fighters from across the Muslim world started joining Afghans in their struggle against the Soviets that the modern concept of jihad came into being, for it was no longer seen as the Afghans fighting foreign troops in their countries, but rather Muslims declaring war on infidels. That was also when any country in which “believers” engaged in conflict with “enemies of Islam” became an open battlefield. Iraq, then Syria, offered the most poignant example of the continuation of the foreign fighters’ tradition and it did not matter whether the enemy was an occupying force or citizens of the country. Similarly, it never mattered that neither the Soviet troops, summoned by the Afghani government, nor the mujahedeen, backed by the CIA, reflected the will of the Afghan people.

An invitation to Egypt

Toppling Muslim Brotherhood rule constituted an open invitation for jihadists from outside Egypt to join the conflict that ensued between members of the group on one hand and the police and the army on the other hand. The aim was to subvert the “coup” that was marketed as an attack on Islam. Recruitment of foreign militants seems to have been made possible through fiery speeches in which Brotherhood leaders called upon Muslims across the world to save their Egyptian brethren, speaking from the podiums of the sit-ins staged in protest of the ouster of President Mohammad Mursi and through religious edicts that rendered waging war on the Egyptian state a holy duty. However, the presence of those militants was actually made possible by the coming to power of the Muslim Brotherhood not only because of the presidential pardons Mursi issued for convicted terrorists, who of course maintained links with other organizations outside Egypt, but also because of the Brotherhood’s alliance with foreign groups that constituted its only line of defense against the Egyptian military. The collaboration between the ruling Brotherhood and Hamas facilitated the entrance of large numbers of militants from the Gaza Strip into the Sinai Peninsula, which has lately metamorphosed into a training camp for extremist groups and a death trap for police and army officers. Egypt’s borders had never been as porous as they were during the year of Brotherhood rule and that allowed huge quantities of heavy weaponry to enter the country from Libya and Sudan.

The Muslim Brotherhood was establishing its own militia which it would have used to suppress all sorts of insurgency, whether military or popular. It only did not have ample time to see the project completed and tested, yet the nucleus of this project made an appearance in the clashes the followed the ouster of Mursi and the dispersal of the sit-ins as militants from Palestine, Syria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, among other countries, were arrested as they fought alongside the Muslim Brotherhood. The black flags of al-Qaeda were also brandished in several pro-Mursi demonstrations in a clear indication of the link between the Brotherhood and terrorist organizations that operate internationally.

Unlike the conventional cases of Iraq, where there was an actual occupation, and of Syria, where the strife took a sectarian turn, Egypt is more alluring for foreign fighters since it provides them with the opportunity to take part in a universal scheme similar to the one propagated in Afghanistan and which portrayed their struggle as part of a broader mission whose outcome is bound to transcend the frontiers of the local war zone. The Muslim Brotherhood’s professed cause is not much different from that of the mujahedeen, one in which domestic gains are only a prelude to an international victory, of Islam in this case. That is why in the doctrines of both the Brotherhood and the jihadists, the unity of a given country, is a marginal issue and national disintegration does, in fact, expedite the achievement of the ultimate goal. Unlike the mujahedeen, who came from several parts of the world, members of the Muslim Brotherhood are Egyptian yet both engage in a war that is, unlike most wars, devoid of patriotic sentiments and that gives precedence to a project over a homeland.

Because of this ideological framework, it would be quite naive to assume that the role of foreign militants in Egypt would end with the elimination or disbanding of the Muslim Brotherhood. Islamist extremism was not uprooted with the withdrawal of Soviets from Afghanistan or Americans from Iraq and the same would apply to the toppling of the Syrian regime. Osama bin Laden was not ruined when the CIA abandoned him. The fall of an enemy or the loss of an ally does not usually weaken groups involved in international jihad for the first scenario would make them more confident and the second would make them more adamant.

The rise of ‘political effeminacy’ in Egypt

“Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists,” former U.S. President George W. Bush said in his address to Congress and to the American people on Sept.20, 2001. By this he meant that those who refused to support a war on Afghanistan would be condoning terrorism, thus eradicating all the shades of gray that might exist between black and white and overlooking all sorts of other sentiments that do not adopt one side of the argument or the other. He did not, for example, assume that it is possible to fully condemn the Sept. 11 attacks while not viewing a war on Afghanistan as the appropriate reaction. Neither did he deem it possible to fully support the elimination of the terrorist group responsible for these attacks while not viewing a war on Afghanistan as the appropriate means of achieving this end. The possibilities between “with us” and “against us” were countless at the time and they even included skepticism about issues that might have seemed givens to the majority of Americans, like the involvement of al-Qaeda in the first place. Those who were not fortunate enough to subscribe to one of Bush’s two camps would, according to that logic, be seen as terrorists, traitors, unpatriotic or “effeminate.”

The term “political effeminates” emerged in Egypt following the dispersal of the sit-ins that condemned the ouster of Muslim Brotherhood President Mohammad Mursi. Until that moment, Egyptian society had been sharply divided between anti-Brotherhood and pro-Brotherhood supporters. The first took to the streets on June 30 to demand the ouster of Mursi and the second staged sit-ins after July 3 to demand the return of Mursi. This division gave the impression that members of the first group would automatically support any action that clamps down on the second and that only members of the second group would oppose such an action. That was apparently a naïve miscalculation because no sooner had the casualties triggered by the dispersal been revealed, a third group made its surprise appearance. Members of this group, mostly activists, have always opposed the Muslim Brotherhood, did support the president’s ouster and were certain that participants in the sit-ins were far from being peaceful protestors, yet strongly believed that a political resolution was still possible. They did not object to the necessity of ending the sit-ins, but rather the way in which it was done. In other words, their concerns are ethical and humanitarian and have nothing to do with their political views, which have stayed the same throughout. They also have their apprehensions about the return of pre-revolution state repression as they see the police taking control once more and of post-revolution military rule as they see the army having the upper hand once more. In other words, they believe that popular support for the dispersal of the sit-ins has been taken advantage of by state institutions struggling to embellish their image in the Egyptian street and striving for a role in any future arrangement.

Human rights or national security?

This group managed to infuriate members of the camp that wholeheartedly supported the ending of sit-ins regardless of how violent this might turn out to be since, for them, uprooting the Muslim Brotherhood is the nation’s number one priority and since, also for them, human rights should step aside when national security is at stake. Supporters of the dispersal might have felt betrayed by that dissident group which, they must believe, aided, even if unintentionally, the Muslim Brotherhood in their self-victimization scheme and which created a rift in the ranks of the anti-Brotherhood camp, that seemed at one point to be comprised of all non-Brotherhood Egyptians, let alone lend credibility to Western claims about the return of autocracy to Egypt.

It is not clear who decided to call them “political effeminates” but whoever did it saw that as the perfect retaliation and succeeded, for the term is now used by almost all experts and analysts who believed there was no alternative to the bipolar status quo and who argue that any deviation from that would do nothing but empower the Brotherhood and compromise the case against its members. It is also not clear if this term in specific was chosen because of its impact on a society that adopts fixed concepts of masculinity and femininity, thus forbids any formula that lies in-between, but there is no doubt that the sexual rather than the political connotations determine popular reaction to such designation. What is quite clear, though, is the fact that the term does not really apply to the context in which it is used. If “effeminacy” means that a man is displaying female behavior then this often implies that this man in unable to make a decision about his identity , which is not the case with the anti-dispersal groups. Unlike what the media would like us believe, members of this group have made a decision not to support the clampdown on the sit-ins and not to change, meanwhile, their stance on the Muslim Brotherhood. They have made the decision not to separate politics from ethics and not to condone an action just because its end result might be desirable.

Black and white

In fact, this group drew everybody’s attention to the fact that there are always alternatives other than the ready-made ones offered by the powers-that-be for the sake of polarizing society between one extreme and another. They made it possible for the people to create their own choices even if they do not abide by the officially accepted ones and to see the contradictions inherent in a situation where “good” and “bad” are the least relevant units of measurement. This, by the way, is not related to how realistic their views are at this moment in time or how applicable their scenarios were within this context, but rather to how adamant they were not only to voice an opinion that is contrary to the public sentiment of the majority of Egyptians, but also to initiate a new approach to seemingly black and white situations.

The term “effeminate,” whether in its conventional or political sense, is meant to be derogatory on the part of the designator but not necessarily the designated. If society believes that a man needs to display a pre-defined set of behaviors that fall under “masculine,” this view is not necessarily shared by all men, so those who do not abide by it are not offended when they are accused of violating it and the same applies to political effeminacy.