A Conversation with Talal Asad on Egypt After Morsi
Ayça Çubukçu (AÇ): After the military intervention on 3 July in Egypt, some commentators have claimed that what we have witnessed on 3 July is a strategic effort on the part of the Egyptian army to contain revolutionary forces within Egypt—more specifically, that the army was forced to intervene by a popular uprising which it wanted to contain. Others have claimed that the Egyptian army was supporting the uprising against President Mohamad Morsi in some sincere fashion, or that what we have seen in early July is a continuation of the 2011 revolution. Yet others have insisted that what we have witnessed is an outright coup d’état against a democratically elected president. What is your interpretation of this debate?
TA: The old Mubarak regime still had control, and I see the army as being part of it. The army was not giving orders to the civilian government so long as its primary interests— economic and social—were secure. Just after the Mubarak regime, and during that so-called transitional period, the army did intervene in the civilian political sphere that had been temporarily created. There is an interesting idea of the absence of being free to act as one wants (i.e., of not being controlled) in Roman law, which is also found in the Shari‘a, through a definition of slavery: what is crucial to this idea is not manifest control but the continuous possibility of control. Even if the power of controlling another is not actually used, a person is unfree (under someone else’s control) so long as he/she is subject to the arbitrary power of another. Slavery, as Skinner—the British historian of political ideas—once put it, is “not knowing what may happen to you.” It is widely known that the army has not only enormous means of violence at its disposal, that it controls nearly forty percent of the national economy, and has very close links with and support of the United States–personal, institutional, and financial–which in effect is the bribe it has received ever since the mid-seventies on the understanding that it help maintain the region’s Pax Americana, and in particular Anwar al-Sadat’s peace treaty with Israel. I think that has been a very important factor in the army’s power to get others to respond to its wishes. In that sense, the army has been continuously present. They have remained very powerful even when they have not always needed to intervene in civilian matters. But when an opposition was stitched together, as happened in the last few weeks before the ouster of Morsi, then the generals could come out and say: “We need to restore order, we want to respond to the people’s revolutionary demands, but we will also restore a genuine national consensus.” But clearly, al-Sisi’s ultimatum, given ostensibly to both sides, was an ultimatum to the president only. And so, I would forget about the legality or otherwise of deposing an elected president. The point is that the army generals took advantage of a political struggle to present themselves again as an umpire, and as an umpire who needs to act only when needed. (The slave-master uses his stick only when it is needed.)
There has been a lot of discussion, in the Egyptian papers as well as elsewhere, about whether or not the army was right to respond to the people’s demand, as represented by the massive anti-Morsi demonstrators, or wrong to depose the president who was the people’s electoral choice. I do not know quite what, in this kind of critical situation, the modern discourse of “the people” is supposed to do. Who are they? Who speaks for them? How do those who speak in their name acquire their authority to do so?
“The people” is a fantasy. Elections do not express “the common will” of the people. Elections are necessary because there is no common will. At best, elections are a way of resolving differences. In other words, if you recognize that there are deep differences, and you wish to resolve them without resort to force, you may turn to elections. But if elections have nothing to do with expressing “the people’s will,” then nor do popular demonstrations that invite the army to claim that they must respond to “the people’s will.” That kind of rhetoric on the part of the army, as well as on the part of the opposition, has been most puzzling. In a situation of violent conflict there is no such thing as legitimacy. Claims to legitimacy in that situation (as in the terrible Syrian civil war) are simply ways of trying to keep partisan spirits up.
So, the opposition consists largely of an elite that is still in power: the rich businessmen who established themselves during Mubarak’s neoliberal regime; high court judges that maintain close links with the army; ambitious politicians and ex-politicians; television directors and show hosts; famous newspaper journalists; the Coptic Pope and the Shaykh of al-Azhar; and so forth. The fact is that the senior army officers are very much part of this elite, and in spite of all the talk on the left about an army-Muslim Brotherhood pact, each has much to fear from and wants to make use of the other: the army dislikes the latter both for its ideology as well as its country-wide grassroots organization (potentially the most popular opposition); and the Brotherhood is suspicious of the former because of its historical role in repressing them, and its contemporary monopoly of the means of violence. The fact that the elite (together with the Salafi leaders said to be financed by Saudi Arabia) agreed to support the army intervention at the so-called consensus meeting where General Sisi made his declarations and suspended the constitution, seems to me to be astonishing but in retrospect not surprising. There are all sorts of things in the constitution that many in the opposition disapprove of, but they could have argued over and modified or changed them after the new elections for the new parliament which were imminent. And in the new parliament, the Muslim Brothers—who had already lost a lot of popularity—were extremely unlikely to gain a majority again. But the army and the Mubarak beneficiaries seem to have together decided that this was not what they wanted, that what they wanted could only be guaranteed by an army intervention that was seen as responding to “the people’s demands.” I fear the worst, because I always fear an army intervention in political affairs, for whatever reason. If further turbulence provides the generals with excuses to stay on “to restore order” and “to oversee the roadmap,” that is bad. If they do actually withdraw after a brief period, they will have helped openly restore a status quo ante, and provided a bad precedent.
AÇ: So, how should we interpret a situation where—if reports are correct—many people among the opposition are supportive of the army? There are of course political forces who share our critical take on the army and who oppose military intervention in principle and/or in practice, but then some reports suggest that many more people on the streets have supported the army. Should this change our interpretation of the opposition forces in Egypt?
TA: Yes, I think it should. To begin with, it is necessary to keep firmly in mind that there is not a single opposition. There has been a lot of rhetoric about this being an expression of the people’s will, a second wave of the 25 January 2011 uprising, a restoration of the revolution, and so on. Numbers have been thrown around whose precise validity is difficult to establish. But you know, between the 25 January uprising, whatever its limitations–and there were very important limitations–and the 3 July intervention, there is one very important difference which has not been much remarked on: There really was a popular unity among the opposition during the weeks that eventually led to Mubarak’s ouster. The beneficiaries of the Mubarak regime (i.e., the fuloul) were on the whole very quiet and did not come out too openly. But in the present case there were two great demonstrations, anti- and pro-Morsi. It is all very well talking about the opposition being the popular will, (“the greatest popular demonstrations in Egypt’s history” I read somewhere), whatever that means. But there were people who supported Morsi. True, there was the large Tahrir demonstration, and it may very well have been much larger than the pro-Morsi demonstrations, who knows. The media were determined to inflate the anti-Morsi size, verbally and in images, and to ignore the supporters of Morsi. And besides, the pro-Morsi demonstrations were not all followers of the Muslim Brotherhood. They also included people who felt they should support the so-called legitimate, or constitutionally-elected, president. In this case, unlike the end of the 25 January uprising against Mubarak, the army formally intervened in a situation that was already polarized. So, the suggestion that the army intervened in essentially as it did on the earlier occasion (by responding to the people’s will) should be regarded skeptically.
AÇ: Some argue that beyond legality, there is something called revolutionary legitimacy, which can “rightfully” make a revolution. In other words, our political imagination should not be limited by the horizon of legality, that there is a different set of criteria to evaluate what we have been witnessing in Egypt. Do you entertain this possibility of a revolutionary legitimacy beyond the question of legality?
TA: My own view would be that we have a very complicated situation, in which the issue is not who has “genuine” legitimacy. The issue that concerns me now, and I am sure concerns very many people in Egypt, is what kind of activities are, to put it rather simply, the most sensible, effective, and achievable in a decent sort of way–and I do not mean “decent” in a liberal sense, but in the sense of advancing the chances of a just and tolerant society. Of course, under certain circumstances violence may have to be used by an opposition confronting a ruthless power. I am not in principle a pacifist. And supporting the chances of justice and tolerance may require the use of coercion against certain established interests. One cannot respect all the rights of the rich and powerful if one wants to help the downtrodden. But the question is how one can think of things like the constitution, legitimacy, justice, in the light of various forces, internal and external, as elements in one’s judgment of what steps one can or should take. So I do not think that an “either—or” opposition, the insistence that there is another kind of legitimacy, one opposed to the bourgeois kind, called revolutionary legitimacy, really makes good sense. I do not think this kind of binary is very useful for thinking with. It is important to think constructively, and strategically, about what is possible, what is achievable, and whose interests are served in the different decisions one might make, and what the longer-term outcomes are likely to be. Of course, one takes risks and in serious, volatile situations the risks are inevitably greater. But it seems to me a grave mistake to suppose that claiming “revolutionary legitimacy” achieves anything significant. And yet, it is echoed again and again by some people in the Tamarod movement. I am not in principle either for or against so-called “revolutionary legitimacy.”
AÇ: So, when people demanded “the fall of the regime” in Egypt right before 25 January 2011, do you think capitalism was a part of it? Or is what we have been witnessing in Egypt strictly political, if we can isolate the so-called economy from the political?
TA: I do not think you can separate the two completely, no. But nevertheless, I think that the overthrow of Mubarak and his group—his gang, as they were called by critics—was I think a very important, a very significant step. It did not of course, it could not achieve, everything. And one of the reasons why it was unable to achieve everything was precisely the entrenchment of all of those institutions in the country I mentioned earlier–the media, the high judiciary, the ministry of the interior, the police, and security services. If you remember the piece I wrote a year and a half ago on Egypt, which is now of course totally dated, you may remember I quoted a long piece from an acquaintance whom I met through a mutual friend, a person in his mid-sixties, who said how he admired the idealism of the young, but that they often did not know how to proceed in revolutionary Egypt. None of us, he said, knows how to proceed, because the biggest crime Mubarak perpetrated against Egypt was not so much the financial one but the corruption of an entire society. What I think he meant was not just that officials were willing to take bribes. I think what he meant, or at least what I understood him to mean, was that the entrenchment of a number of interlocking interests and dependencies made it very difficult to act objectively and neutrally. The example he gave, which you may remember, was the demand by the pro-democracy movement that the security service be purged. There are over a million people in the security service, he said, and if they were all to be thrown out onto the market, what would they and their dependents do for a living? And would they not be available for further mischief? And who, other than all these dismissed individuals, would train the new people? So this is what I think he was trying to say when talking about the corruption of society–that this was a complicated issue. He was not talking about the corruption of individuals, but the fact that the dependence of so many people with the regime in place made it very difficult to reform one part of society without immediately affecting all of it. He was talking about the complete corruption of a system.
AÇ: Many have argued that the Muslim Brotherhood, perhaps like the beneficiaries of the Mubarak regime, should be part of a new consensus to emerge from Egypt one way or another. They have to be included as well. They are part of the differences, as you said, which should be accommodated within the new social consensus that is to emerge from Egypt if the situation is not going to lead to some form of civil war, I am afraid.
TA: Yes, of course, and one remembers Algeria here. You are absolutely right. Although this is precisely what I think was a serious mistake on the part of those in the opposition who do not belong to the old beneficiaries of the Mubarak regime: Not to see that if you call in the army, it will repress the one determined attempt to shift things, whatever that turns out to be, whether positive or negative, and the army will want to stop that. Because instead of saying: “Well look, we will only come act if there is violent public disorder, and we will stop the actual or potential fighting in the streets.” Instead of which they arrested large numbers of Muslim Brothers, killed over fifty or wounded hundreds in front of the Republican Guard headquarters. All these people, including their leaders, were aggressively treated–attacked, arrested, their buildings and vehicles burnt, their assets forcibly seized, and the ex-president charged with crimes against the state. Is this not quite extraordinary as a way of building a national consensus? The army, as you know, has a record of shooting at demonstrators it does not like. During the transition to an elected presidency, there were several confrontations with the army in which a lot of civilians were killed—Including one outside the state TV station where a large number of Christians were killed while demonstrating. So it wants to show an iron fist every now and then, to show people what could be done to them if they do not behave. Of course, the army prefers if possible not to shoot its own citizens. They like to have civilians behind whom they can hide. But among the civilians they chose this time were the Salafis, who are even more fundamentalist–I do not like this expression, as you know–and more conservative, and who are very close to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries, from whom they have received a lot of money. That the consensus should be built with the very conservative al-Nour Party representing “Islamists” generally, even though they are not as numerous in Egyptian society as the Muslim Brothers, seems quite farcical.
AÇ: How do you explain the choice on the part of the army and the Salafi al-Nour Party to cooperate with each other in this recent turn of events?
TA: Well, I think, I do not find it so puzzling, because for the army and the broad opposition they represent a manageable element of the Islamist current, and hence their inclusion in the so-called consensus for the future of Egypt. You must also remember al-Nour Party is very close to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, both of whom are strong supporters now of the military-sponsored interim government. They offered eight billion between the two of them, and Kuwait has also promised more. Saudi Arabia has been very close to the Salafis and not to the Muslim Brothers. In fact, they have been very strongly anti-the Muslim Brotherhood, as you know. And so, too, the United Arab Emirates who, like Saudi Arabia, are afraid of a populist Islamist movement but not afraid of the Salafis. So, I do not see it as being so strange. The army was also in touch with Saudi Arabia immediately after the coup–and before. Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf countries, have not only been very strongly against the Morsi government, but they are also, let us not forget, very close allies of the United States.
One of the foolish foreign policy moves that Morsi made, incidentally, was at first to suggest that a group of states might get together and negotiate a political solution to the civil war in Syria: Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, and Egypt. And that proposal was thrown out by Saudi Arabia (as well as by the United States). As a result of this, Morsi withdrew his proposal and changed his posture on Syria. Morsi’s foolishness consisted not in his original suggestion (which was excellent), but in his withdrawal as soon as he encountered Saudi and US opposition.
AÇ: And, on a related note, there is the question of the discourse of terrorism’s reemergence and the reposing of the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization within the national discourse in Egypt, from what I can judge. What is your interpretation of this? Is it a simple consequence of the resort to the “law and order” paradigm by the army, or is something else going on here? Why the prevalence of the discourse of terrorism now to refer to the Muslim Brotherhood and their supporters?
TA: Well, it seems to me part of the demonization of the Muslim Brotherhood that was already present during the Mubarak regime. Mubarak attempted to legitimize himself in the eyes of the United States and Europe in great part by foregrounding the “fight against terrorism,” by claiming to keep Islamic fundamentalism in check. That is a way in which the army continues to justify itself in Sinai as the scene of so-called Palestinian terrorism. And here, their interests combine with Israel’s, so that—as we are told by media outlets again and again—the Muslim Brotherhood equals Hamas, a “terrorist organization,” and Hamas equals Gaza, and that equals Palestine. It has not always been explained by the media that “security” in the Sinai was always a responsibility of the Egyptian army, who in turn kept in close touch with Israeli security.
AÇ: How do you interpret the extent to which the discourse of terrorism is being embraced by the opposition?
TA: One way to see the opposition is to recognize in it several elements: shameless opportunism among the leaders from among the Mubarak beneficiaries (including the army); some secularist paranoia especially–but not only–among the pro-democracy movement; and widespread gullibility among much of the population.
One of the things that has been happening, even going back to the Mubarak era, in the long history of the Muslim Brotherhood is the breaking off of extremists from the main organization on the grounds that it was too much concerned with electoral politics, with achieving political power by peaceful means, and that this would not work. That is how you got all the violent extremists like Islamic Jihad who carried out atrocities in Upper Egypt against tourists. The Muslim Brotherhood, as you know, has had a lot of tensions within it, lots of disagreements between the younger and the older, between the more thoughtful and the more rigid, members. For example, Abdel Moneim Abul Futuh who stood as a presidential candidate was a senior member of the Muslim Brotherhood, a doctor who began his activism as a student leader and was jailed for a long time under Mubarak. I do not know whether you remember this at all, but when he put himself forward as a candidate he said that he could do something important if he won. He said he wanted to build bridges between secularists and women and liberals and Islamists, and that this was what was now needed in post-Mubarak Egypt. And of course, the Muslim Brotherhood leadership said no, we have decided on a policy of not fielding a presidential candidate. And then they did. This is one of the dishonest things that they did. But they forced Abul Futuh out of the organization, of course. He stood anyway, but he did not get anywhere near the number of votes the others did. So he was Muslim Brother, but much more open minded and thoughtful than the leadership, and he was in effect thrown out completely. So, the Muslim Brotherhood has these conflicts within it, and many of those dissatisfied with it have left it. But then, many of these have rallied to the support of Morsi on the grounds that the military is the primary danger to a just society. And that has led them to being called terrorists by the anti-Morsi media. The Muslim Brotherhood was of course the largest organized opposition to the Mubarak regime, and I think one cannot stress this too much. This leads the army to be much more nervous of it, especially if you recognize that the army’s “natural” interests align them with the beneficiaries of the Mubarak regime. The army was part of the Mubarak regime, it continues, like all the other state institutions, and it is politically the most important of the institutions in the present situation. And so, talk of actual or potential “terrorism” can be very useful. The United States uses it, after all, all over the world, and uses it to do all sorts of exceptional things even within the United States. So it is not surprising that this rhetoric has been used, and continues to be used by the present supporters of the state to maintain and extend control.
AÇ: What kind of future awaits Egypt if the Muslim Brotherhood is once again to be excluded from the domain of legitimate politics?
TA: It seems to me that the outlook is very dire, very, very unhappy. Of course, one can never tell with certainty what will happen and how effectively the Islamists will be repressed, but they were repressed very effectively by Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1953-54 on. He put many of them in jail, hanged several, and exiled others. That was how he got rid of them as a major opposition. So, I think that maybe the army is contemplating something like that, and I think that the pro-democracy people who are supporting the army are not thinking through this question clearly. What happens to the future of “democracy” when a new era begins and continues with a savage repression?
At any rate, I think that this is not the time to anticipate immediate revolution. People are using revolutionary language in a way I think is mistaken. Total revolutionary change is not, I think, the most important issue on the table at the moment. I do not mean that “gradualism” is always the answer in politics. No, I have no fixed position on this. It seems to me that a sound political position would always have to be worked out by the people on the ground. But that does not mean that every decision they make, every step they take, is necessarily a sensible one, a good one. But certainly, at present everything seems to be leading to an absence of consensus, and the creation of a situation where the Mubarak beneficiaries–and among the beneficiaries I include the army here–may well be able to entrench themselves more strongly against the possibility of a decisive shift toward a more just and open society.
AÇ: So, what are we are left with here? Is what we are witnessing military rule? Or is this part of some revolutionary process that was to be expected from the beginning, especially if a revolution is not a single event, but a process?
TA: Well, in a sense everything is a process. If you look back historically, the decisions that are made, actions that are taken, or even accidents that happen, always have a chain of consequences, intended or not, as their outcomes. So I am not sure that calling it a process gets one very far. But naming a political situation is itself part of the preparation for, a way of defining one’s entrance into, political action.
AÇ: Do you view what we now see in Egypt as a story that has been told already, or should we expect a miracle? Could things turn around?
TA: At the moment, I do not think so, unfortunately not. And I may be completely wrong, but it seems to me that there are far too many people interested in maintaining the status quo than there are people who want to really change things in a more just direction (one of the slogans of the 25 January uprising). And I fear that those people are now in a powerful position, they are entrenched even as they use the rhetoric of the revolution itself. This is why I am concerned less with the question of whether this was really a coup or not, and more with how the various moves of the different elements that came together to form the opposition against the Morsi government have actually changed the kinds of political options now available.
Of course, people who are genuine in their desire for change also use “revolutionary” slogans, but it does not follow that they will be effective in getting the change they hope for. I think there are also forces outside, which for political and economic reasons, want to perpetuate the old state of affairs. This includes all international forces who want the continuation of neoliberal policies, the very policies that have created so much poverty in the country which is impossible to address without very substantial shifts in the nature of power, both of popular and state power. I think it is very difficult to achieve this shift in the present situation–and the secular left has contributed to this difficulty. You know about the negotiations over the IMF loan. There were all sorts of obstacles and demands before the loan could be finalized. Now, a couple of days after Morsi’s dismissal, suddenly there are no obstacles and the loan is available. This is not to suggest that none of the Muslim Brothers was in favor of a neoliberal economy, but only that the IMF saw more political problems in maintaining that kind of economy under the Muslim Brotherhood than under the opposition. This attitude overlaps with the more explicitly political reservations the United States and its regional allies had about the complete reliability of the Morsi government to play according to the old rules. The situation looks to me more like the old situation under Mubarak, with some modifications of course but nothing very substantial.
AÇ: Is there something you would like to add?
TA: What I have said about the situation is as much as I know–and probably even more than I know. But it is very, very distressing. Unfortunately, what I find most distressing are the activists who are neither heroes nor villains but have contributed to making the situation in Egypt more difficult.
Jadaliyya’s Egypt Editors: First, many observers have charged that popular expressions of political dissent against the Morsi government in Egypt have predated the emergence of Tamarod and the 30 June demonstrations, and that—along with Tamarod—they have been decentralized and encompass a lot more than anti-Morsi Cairene elites. Are we in danger of reducing a broad, diverse opposition to Morsi’s rule into a narrow consensus between the elites and the military?
TA: My reference to “anti-Morsi elites” relates not to the centralization or otherwise of the anti-Morsi opposition, but to some of the sources that contributed to the demonization of the Muslim Brotherhood. The incompetence of the Muslim Brotherhood, I say, consisted primarily in their not anticipating that they would be demonized as “Islamists” in charge of the state. I do not say that the opposition was simply organized by the elites and the military. I also mention other instances of Muslim Brotherhood incompetence, such as “their inability, or unwillingness, to reach out to parts of the opposition.” This implies that the opposition was diverse enough for the Morsi government to have tried to reach out to some parts of it more successfully than to other parts. In any case, I want to stress that however diverse the opposition (a point I make, as others have done, in my responses several times) Tamarod would never have succeeded on its own in ousting the president were it not for the fuloul and the army. In other words, it was the de facto alliance between Tamarod (with its claim to speak for “the people,” for “Egypt,” for “democracy”) on the one hand, and those who controlled the financial, communicational, and repressive apparatuses of the state on the other hand, that was effective.
Egypt Editors: The second issue concerns the critics of the Brotherhood. They charge that the Muslim Brotherhood since day one of Morsi’s presidency willingly entered into an alliance with the traditional bureaucracy, especially the military and the police, instead of building bridges with revolutionary forces in order to wage an effective alliance against entrenched bureaucratic forces. How do you interpret such views?
TA: I have already said that the Muslim Brotherhood did not try to build bridges with those in the opposition it might have. But I have further comments on this issue. First, building bridges is a two-way process. If there is no willingness on the other side, bridges cannot be built. And the “revolutionary forces” (or a significant part of them) rejected Morsi’s presidency as illegitimate from the very beginning. If some accounts are to be believed, Morsi did invite some in the opposition (even Hamdeen Sabahi, apparently) to join the government and they refused. Whether they refused because they did not trust the president, or because they did not want to be seen as having been associated with a Muslim Brotherhood government, it is not easy to say. Motives are often difficult to divine at the best of times: in situations of social and political upheaval this becomes almost impossible because where strong suspicions prevail political opponents are continually attributing negative intentions to each other. So I ask: Did Morsi “willingly” ally with the traditional bureaucracy or did he think he was making a tactical move (however misguided we may see this) to overcome obstacles to his government? More important: Did the revolutionary forces willingly ally themselves with the Mubarak beneficiaries or do so only for tactical reasons? I suggest that instead of always speculating about the various political actors’ real motives in doing what they did in their stated objective of ejecting the elected president by force (on the grounds that he was authoritarian and that he considered himself to be above the law), we must focus on the fact that the revolutionary leadership did join the Mubarak beneficiaries in calling for military intervention, and that it did welcome the coup when it happened! Who is in bed with whom? And is this the kind of thinking and acting that will lead Egypt forward to a more just and decent society?
Talal Asad is a Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at the CUNY Graduate Center.
You can listen to an audio recording of this interview here.