On 5 May 2014, ARC Distinguished CUNY Fellow Mojúbàolú Olúfúnké Okome appeared on PBS Newshour to discuss the abduction of hundreds of girls by Boko Haram, in Nigeria.
Danya Al-Saleh is an Anthropology Ph.D student at the Graduate Center, CUNY.
Taksim is Tahrir. Taksim is not Tahrir. As the Gezi-Taksim protests began to escalate in early June, these comparative and contrasting statements were proposed in the media and amongst activists. Responding to this debate, the Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (AKP) has continued to address the question of Taksim’s relationship to Tahrir. On 12 June, Prime Minister of European Union Affairs and Chief Negotiator Egeman Bağis quickly dismissed the question of Tahrir’s comparison with Taksim: “The situation in Turkey is not similar to the ones in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia. If Turkish electors are not happy with our practices they will show this in the next elections.” The distancing of Taksim from Tahrir was then reversed as the Turkish government began to assert itself in Egypt’s coup/revolution debate. In condemning the 3 July military intervention, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s avowal—“my president in Egypt is Morsi”—was also a stand in defense of himself.
Bağis’ comments assert that Taksim “is not” Tahrir, whereas Erdoğan’s aggressive defense of Morsi suggests that Taksim “is” Tahrir. Each of these “is” and “is not” statements is attached to critical stakes for the Turkish government. In the case of “is not,” the statement served to limit the scope and potential capacity of protest in both Gezi Park and Tahrir. The “is” statement, on the other hand, emerging through the AKP’s determination to define Egypt’s military intervention as a coup, represents a fearful response to protest movements in Turkey and legitimizes hegemonic visions of liberal democracy and stability.
Although the stakes outlined above speak to the AKP’s strategic interests, these definitive “is” and “is not” comparative statements more generally parse complex movements into manageable units of analysis. These analytical units, once rendered comparable, serve to limit the capacity and scope of protest, not only in Gezi Park and Tahrir, but elsewhere. The comparative framework imposed through these statements is bound up in motives and forces emerging out of the Cold War that continue to appropriate protest through technocratic and managerial logics. These logics, purported to systematically regulate democracy, economic stability, and electoral politics, fail to address the demands of mobilizing movements on the ground.
Rather than promoting a particular vision of comparison or complicating the decisive “is” and “is not” debate, we situate our contribution in between the statements “Taksim is Tahrir” and “Taksim is not Tahrir.”
Cold War Logics and the Arab Spring
Rather than discretely assessing the statements “Taksim is Tahrir” and “Taksim is not Tahrir” through immediate events, it is necessary to embed these debates in recent histories of protest and their representation by the media. The managerial logics that were used to represent what came to be called the Arab Spring, having lent a predictable and comfortable trajectory to the uprisings of 2011-2012, are currently being mobilized to order geopolitical ruptures in Turkey and Egypt.
Due to ossified ideas about the Middle East, the protests in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Bahrain, and Syria contained an element of unpredictability and surprise to Western observers. The term “Arab Spring” gained currency across the media because it organized disruptive geo-political ruptures, deemed both shocking and potentially terrifying to Western audiences, within a comforting historical narrative rooted in Cold War logics. This narrative is comforting because it emerged from a war that the United States won—ideologically, at least. This victory was best expressed by two texts. With the publication of Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man, American liberal democracy and capitalism became the master narratives by which the rest of the world was ordered. Four years later, Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations identified the fault lines where threats to the Last Man would emerge between self-contained “civilizations,” and prescribed a method to manage such clashes.
In 2011, the desire to compare Tunisia and Egypt to Libya, and Bahrain with Syria, worked to mold chaotic and therefore uncontrollable ruptures into a predictable unit of analysis. The naming of the “Arab Spring” was thus a project of homogenization, naturalization, and management. Rhetorically tied to the seasons, Arab Spring assumes a temporality that naturalizes the universalization of Western liberal democratic models. The Arab Spring is seen to be preceded by various Cold War springs (the Prague Spring, the Croatian Spring, and the Beijing Spring); in the West, these springs identified the political and economic “awakening” of Soviet and Maoist regimes to Western liberal democracy. While the framing of resistance, uprising, and protest in terms of seasonal change connotes progressive rejuvenation, the label brings to the forefront the establishment of liberal democratic governing structures through technocratic reform. Evacuated of their substantive demands, oriented around human repression and social justice, these sequences of Cold War “springs” indicated the inevitable thawing of the Cold War, broadly associated with the decentralization of the economy, self-determination, and various political promises of freedom and democracy.
In the case of Egypt, the term “Arab Spring” did not merely lend a comforting order to the events by analogizing disruptive revolution with the natural coming and going of the seasons. The notion of an Arab Spring has also managed the past events leading up to the “thawing” of liberal democracy: Through years of geopolitical maneuvering, development aid, and IMF restructuring policies, foreign governments such as the US and Britain have supported the Mubarak and Morsi regimes. Despite the historic relationship between the Mubarak regime, the West, and international financial institutions, the label “Spring” attributes the uprising to the absence of free and fair elections and the dismantling of a singular totalitarian despot. Additionally, in this historically post-Cold War event (which is nevertheless managed through a Cold War framework), the concern shifts from the human condition to questions of threats against Western hegemony (for instance, the Western media’s immediate concern about what January 2011 meant for Israeli security.)
Taksim IS NOT Tahrir
As the Gezi-Taksim protests escalated, the movement’s comparison with the Arab Spring became a subject of debate within the media. Articles were given titles that either alluded to the relationship between Taksim and the Arab Spring (such as “The Right to the City Movement and the Turkish Summer”) or explicitly addressed the Tahrir comparison (“Taksim is Not (Yet) Tahrir,” “Taksim Square is not Tahrir Square,” and “From Tahrir to Taksim: Are the Taksim Square Protests Turkey’s Arab Spring?”) However, amongst these scholars, journalists, and government spokespeople (spanning from the AKP to Russian diplomats), the predominant verdict was “Taksim IS NOT Tahrir.”
The “Taksim is Tahrir” statement was consistently dismissed by AKP officials based on the recognition that Turkey has already had its so-called “Spring”: liberal democracy prevails in Turkey, and if protestors want to enact change, they are free to do so at the polls like Americans and Europeans (Yel and Nas). The realization of free and fair elections in Turkey is extended to counter the Tahrir comparison: Erdoğan is a legitimate office-holder, it is argued, and unlike the former dictators of Egypt and Libya, he responded to protests as any politician would—with tear gas, batons, and pepper spray—as opposed to such undemocratic spectacles as men on camels and bullets.
The rejection of the “is” statement is also oriented around numbers: disparate death tolls and women’s rights abuses. The disparate numbers in deaths and sexual assaults in Tahrir and Taksim are pointed out to extend claims about the legitimacy of the Turkish government’s reaction to protest. Dashiell Bennet explained in the Atlantic: “To be sure, there has been a heavy hand and some abuse in Turkey, but the most shocking image (a woman being pepper-sprayed in the face) is no more harsh than what Americans saw at the height of the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement.” Numbers also serve to write off the violence occurring in Taksim-Gezi itself. Dismissing the comparison along these lines, Mohammed Khalid Alyahya begins another “is not” editorial by proclaiming his amusement with the Taksim protests: “I thoroughly enjoyed the pictures of the whirling dervish in a gas mask; he was unequivocally iconic. The pictures of the colorfully dressed yogis at Gezi Park were equally intriguing.”
Associated with popular concerns specific to late democratic societies, such as the environment, protest in Gezi Park is thus dismissed through these sorts of Tahrir comparisons. Differentiated from the larger, more immediate concerns of Egyptian protesters, such as free elections, issues such as urban green space are deemed irrelevant to those living under a dictatorship. The humor employed by protesters in Taksim Square—which is associated by these analysts with secularists, leftists, LGBT activists, and the Western-educated upper middle class elite—is also used to distinguish Taksim from Tahrir. Such comparisons do not merely render Taksim as the frivolous pursuit of playful fringe groups; the “is not” statement simultaneously erases the diverse claims and mobilizations in Egypt. In 2011, the protesters in Tahrir—themselves diverse in gender, class, sexual orientation, religion, and age—also drew on humor and were concerned with broad issues spanning the environment, education, security, and even pest control.
Returning to the organizing logics of “Arab Spring,” it is no surprise that the Tahrir/Taksim comparison was heatedly contested. Opinion pieces that dismiss the “is” statement are framed by the Arab Spring’s temporal framework, which translates protest as the inevitable universalization of liberal democratic institutions. This temporal understanding of liberal democratic progress neatly categorizes the world into free, unfree, and partially free nation-states. In a country that is already considered “free,” like Turkey, protest and uprising make no legitimate sense. Moments of uprising in “mature” democratic countries (like Occupy Wall Street) are considered internal problems that should neither pose a threat to established political and economic institutions nor require foreign intervention. Instead, these protests are attributed to technocratic mismanagement.
Through this temporal framework of free, unfree, and partially free, struggles over the human condition in Turkey are minimized; everything, from the environment to the economy, is considered a technocratic issue to be handled by apolitical experts. In this regard, as Mina Akrami writes, Erdoğan’ s effective “steering” of the economy enables the “Tahrir is Taksim” statement to be dismissed: “Since Erdoğan took office in 2002, the GDP growth has averaged over five percent…the Turkish economy grew by 8.5 percent in 2011 and is expected to continue growing.” In a “free” country, economic issues are understood to be resolved technocratically; those elected officials who sustain its growth through effective management cannot logically be the subject of popular protest.
Accordingly, determined as it is to join the European Union, the Turkish government must dismiss the Tahrir comparison: Turkey has already thawed and should not be confused with those Eastern countries that are still undergoing their successive Springs, requiring foreign mediation and intervention. Bağis claimed: “the Turkish Spring occurred long ago, when the AK Party revolutionized the country after winning a majority of seats in parliament in 2002” (Yel and Nas). With the temporal register of “Arab Spring” in mind, it makes analytical and political sense that the AKP prefers Occupy Wall Street parallels to the Tahrir comparison. By contrasting Taksim with Tahrir and comparing it instead with OWS, protesters’ claims, if acknowledged at all by the government, are considered manageable through tedious technocratic reform, rather than by the transformation of existing governing structures or the system’s overhaul.
Taksim IS Tahrir
After Egypt’s 3 July military intervention, journalists and academics immediately began addressing the event’s implications for Turkey, publishing policy recommendations (“Egypt Lessons for Turkey,” “Turkish Concerns Over Egypt’s Coup Derailment”) and comparative analyses (with titles such as “The Gezi Park Protests: Is Turkey Becoming Egypt?” and “Turkish Perceptions of the Egyptian Coup”). In light of 30 June, there continue to be critical stakes orienting the decisive statements that Taksim “is” or “is not” Tahrir, for both the AKP leadership and Egypt’s interim government. The struggle to assess the 3 July military intervention—as an illegal coup or as a people’s revolution—has taken place, in part, through this Taksim/Tahrir comparative framework. As we noted earlier, the Taksim/Tahrir framework pursues an analysis that categorizes events according to the universal expansion of liberal democracy. However, after 3 July, this comparative analysis has also emphasized the threat to democratic elections by military rule, subsequently neglecting the varied struggles over social and economic justice in Egypt and Turkey.
The Turkish government, asserting itself in the coup/revolution debate, immediately condemned Egypt’s 3 July military intervention and launched a campaign criticizing the West for its silence. On 14 July, Erdoğan declared, “Currently, my president in Egypt is Morsi because he was elected by the people.” A few days later, Erdoğan rejected a telephone call requested by Mohamed El-Baradei, Egypt’s acting Vice President. In remarks carried on the website of CNN-Türk, Erdoğan asserted that he would refuse dialogue with all interim leaders: “How could I speak to you? You were not elected, you were appointed by the orchestrators of a coup.”
With 3 July, the “is not” statement, which had been firmly asserted by AKP officials, quickly became a fearful suggestion of “is.” Fixated upon the specter of Turkey’s own military intervention of 28 February 1997, the events in Egypt could only be analyzed according Turkey’s past and imagined future. If Taksim Square is Tahrir Square, then Turkey might also be subject to a systemic overhaul. The attempt to define the military intervention as a coup is thus an attempt by the Turkish government to save itself from the threat of systemic change. In this sense, to defend Morsi is to defend Erdoğan and to defend Erdoğan is to defend Morsi. Such comparative analysis dismisses the reasons why the 3 July military intervention and the Gezi Park protests occurred in the first place, reframing these events in line with questions of democracy, elections, and military rule.
According to the logic encouraged by the framework of the “Arab Spring,” Egypt already began the democratic process with the election of Morsi. The guiding principle—“those who come by elections must be removed by elections”—serves to reinforce the irrelevance of struggles over social and economic justice to Egypt’s democratic course. According to this principle, after Egypt’s elections, Taksim “is” Tahrir; but before its elections (for all of the reasons outlined in the above section), Tahrir “was not” Taksim. By the time we reach 30 June, the protesters in Tahrir Square are viewed as more similar to Taksim protesters. From this perspective, Morsi and Erdoğan as elected officials can only be contested through democratic elections; popular uprisings and protests cannot legitimately pursue disruption in their leadership.
In addition to reducing current events to the mere derailment of Egypt’s democratic course, the “is” statement also limits imagination about future democratic practice. As the Morsi administration pursued a “$4.8 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund in Fall 2012,” the Erdoğan government “approved a five-year, $1 billion loan to Egypt with no repayment for the first three years” (Candar). A large sum for both Turkey and Egypt, the loan from Turkey was granted with the expectation that the Brotherhood government would model themselves upon the Erdoğan-led AKP of 2002-2011 (Ibid). The removal of the Brotherhood government has signified a threat to the AKP’s confidence in their Turkish model.
Projected as an archetype for “Islamic democracy,” the model’s rejection on 30 June became a problem, not merely of managing the present, but also of charting the future. Articles such as “As the Arab Spring Fades and the Turkish Model Collapses Can Islam Foster Democracy?” published by Forbes, argue that the Turkish model “has long been the great multicultural hope for mankind, an Islamic modern democracy. Investors were told to get on board before losing a great chance. The rest of the equatorial world was told to behold the new world of Islamic modernity. The recent ordeal of oppression and uprising…must come as a crushing disappointment.” Although this is an offensive dramatization of the Turkish model’s resonance within the region (the author also argues that Muslims have historically mismanaged the economy), such analyses, founded on the “is” statement, suggest that the dismantling of the Brotherhood government can only mean a bleak and undemocratic future for the Egyptian people.
not Tahrir. Taksim is not Tahrir
Thus, the former Taksim “is not” Tahrir statement was oriented around the fact that Turkey, unlike Egypt prior to its election of Morsi, is already “free”; the current “is” statement is defined by the fact that the 3 July military intervention entails a return to the past, a freezing over of liberal democratic processes.
Refusing to partake in the reductionist choice between elections or the military in Egypt, a choice that currently orients the Taksim/Tahrir comparison, Omar Robert Hamilton has asserted:
Neither the military nor the Brotherhood have any interest in delivering the people’s demands of “bread, freedom and social justice.” We know this. What we don’t know is what the people can do next…The people have spent two and a half years talking about little else other than politics. So is it too much to ask for commentators, writing in English, to stop telling us “how democracy works.” Because, from where we’re standing, the fire sale of Greece, the bailouts of the banks, the titanic advertising budgets of electoral candidates, the Tory Old Boy’s Club government, and the invisible muscle of the lobbies are just a few hints that no-one’s democracy is working properly.
In this spirit of refusal, we choose to situate ourselves between the statements “is” and “is not,” claiming that Tahrir (is) (not) Taksim Square. Through this reformulation of the definitive “is” and “is not” statements, we strive towards an analytic that refuses to totalize and capture Tahrir or Taksim into a predictable trajectory. The “is” and “is not” statements, which surrender to Cold War logics, such as the universalization of liberal democratic governance, limit the scope and capacity of on-the-ground mobilization. Instead, we strive for an analysis that recognizes the specificity and difference of protest, while also eliciting solidarity and unity. Perhaps, at this time, it is not our place as commentators to pursue comparative analytical frameworks at all; such pursuits, as argued above, have overwhelmingly undermined on-the-ground protest and mobilization.
In “Gezi Resistance as Surplus Value,” Zeynep Gambetti writes: “attempts to label and appropriate the surplus value created at Gezi Park in Istanbul demonstrate that it will indeed be very difficult to subsume the massive energy generated there under existing perceptual categories.” We appreciate her recognition that the messiness of protest eludes the explanatory purchase of existing environmental, economic, and democratic rhetorics. For Gambetti, this messiness “cannot be appropriated by any group in particular.” While she points to all of the ways resistance cannot be appropriated, through the course of this article, we have located a very specific appropriation by the Turkish government and in the English language news media. Many of these English-language writings about Taksim and Tahrir speak to audiences connected to the appropriation we are assessing. This appropriation, as we have argued, is bound up in motives and forces emerging out of the Cold War.
What we see in the numerous articles and statements definitively proclaiming “Taksim is Tahrir” or “Taksim is not Tahrir” is a shared desire. This desire channels the excessive and disruptive energy of resistance into comprehensible, clean comparative narratives. The messiness of protest, with its blood, sweat, gas, and tears, eludes such analytical language. Nonetheless, protest is ordered by this analytical language. Comparative analytics have proven particularly effective in rendering the disruptive capacity of uprising comprehensible, and subsequently, manageable: for example, the affective energy of Tahrir and Taksim is explained according to the comparative interplay of politics, religion, and history.
By contrast, the video titled “From Tahrir to Taksim: We Desire the Fall of the System,” released on 12 June by the non-profit citizen journalism group Mosireen, presents a distinctive comparative analytic. This short video represents the ways in which Taksim both is and is not Tahrir. Through its mixed use of sound, visuals, and language, differences and similarities between Tahrir and Taksim are presented simultaneously, engendering an opportunity for an honest solidarity. A common experience is expressed, not only through language, but also through visuals and smells, such as tear gas (marking this commonality, the group Comrades from Cairo entitled their solidarity letter “From Taksim and Rio to Tahrir, We Can Smell the Tear Gas”).
The Mosireen video makes the statement “Taksim is Tahrir” through a series of spliced visuals. This comparison is not oriented around numbers; instead, two bloody faces, one Turkish and one Egyptian, share the screen at 0:50 seconds. Emphasizing uncanny resonance, the video juxtaposes shared moments from Tahrir and Taksim: water cannons spraying down singular figures; protesters building barricades; police using tear gas to evacuate crowds. Sound intriguingly contributes to the comparison of these spaces of protest. At particular moments, there is no auditory differentiation between the images representing Tahrir and Taksim. Perhaps this is because it is assumed that the sound of batons, of shields and sticks, and of feet on pavement would be very similar, whether in Tahrir or in Taksim Square.
[Still from “From Tahrir to Taksim: We Desire the Fall of the System.”]
Through visual comparison, “is” and “is not” statements are simultaneously expressed, accomplishing what analytic language alone could not achieve. Accompanying the visuals are parallel statements made in Turkish and Arabic; there is no third language (English) to mediate translation. The audience for this video is limited to Turkish and Arabic speakers. In distinction from the “is/is not” statements cited above, the absence of English indicates that the video is directing its alternative comparative analytic specifically to those in Taksim and Tahrir. English translation is not needed to indicate that the Turkish and Arabic words have the same meaning: “Taksim and Tahrir, born of different conflicts, against the same enemy” and “The people want the fall of the system.”
Such visuals reject the logics orienting the Taksim/Tahrir comparison deployed by AKP officials, journalists, and academics. The visual elicits emotions that are not readily interpretable. The impact of an image may be immediate and powerful even when its precise meanings remain suspended, unknown, and contestable. Through the suspension of precise and decisive meaning, visuals invite many ways of seeing. The visuals that compose Mosireen’s video serve as alternative sites of meaning production, offering a comparative analytic that refuses to limit the meaning—and, subsequently, the potential—of Tahrir and Taksim. This video presents a comparative analytic that does not serve the appropriating framework of the AKP government or of US hegemony.
Undoubtedly, these events and movements will continue to be put into analytical language; however, we should, as commentators, activists, scholars, and/or government officials, be wary of how analysis, particularly of the comparative stock, is carried out. By situating ourselves between the statements “Taksim is Tahrir” and “Taksim is not Tahrir,” we are not commenting on the partial truths embedded in each statement. In the space between these statements, we find that the Taksim/Tahrir debate has largely served the appropriating framework of the AKP government and Western hegemonic powers. We situate ourselves in between “is” and “is not,” refusing to limit the meaning and scope of on-the-ground mobilizing action. Instead, we look towards an analysis with an impact that can be immediate and powerful, even when its precise meanings remain suspended, unknown, and contestable.
Danya Al-Saleh is an Anthropology Ph.D student at the Graduate Center, CUNY.
On February 26, 2012, 28-year-old George Zimmerman shot and killed an unarmed 17-year-old African American teenager who, after buying Skittles and iced tea at the local 7-Eleven, was on his way home. Zimmerman claimed he was acting in self-defense, and the Sanford, Florida police force, after a brief investigation, refused to press charges. Following several months of demonstrations, Florida Governor Rick Scott (no fan of anthropology, as you may recall) assigned the case to State Attorney Angela Corey, who charged Zimmerman with 2nd degree murder. A year and a half after the killing, on July 13, 2013, a virtually all-white (and all-female) jury found George Zimmerman not guilty of murdering Trayvon Martin (see journalist Charles Blow for an excellent discussion of the systemic racism that brought us to this moment). Though prosecutors, many journalists and large segments of the public saw the case as a quintessential example of race profiling—there is ample evidence, many believed, that Zimmerman profiled the teenager because he was a young Black man—during and after the trial both teams of lawyers and the jurors tripped over themselves proclaiming that neither the murder nor the subsequent not guilty verdict had anything to do with race. How do we explain these startlingly different responses as to the role of race?
Sanford Florida Courthouse. Photo courtesy Georgia Guerci by wikicommons
As a discipline, anthropology has a special relationship to race—the concept that figured so strongly in the Trayvon Martin case and, as I wrote in a 2005 article in the Annual Review of Anthropology, a conflicted history with respect to race and racism. Anthropology is the discipline that fostered and nurtured “scientific racism,” a world view that transforms certain perceived differences into genetically determined inequality and provides a rationale for slavery, colonialism, segregation, eugenics, and terror. Our discipline also has a significant tradition of anti-racism that emerged from the tumult leading to World War II.
Color-Blind/Post-Racial Racism: Denial
In the United States, after more than 200 years of slavery and 100 years of legal segregation, the Black Freedom Struggle culminated in the Civil Rights Movement and resulted in significant victories. “Whites-only” signs are gone, antidiscrimination laws have prohibited overt forms of discrimination, and we have elected a Black president. However, other means of exclusion support residential and educational segregation; voting is made increasingly difficult because of gerrymandering, voter identification requirements, and most recently the Supreme Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act. As well, the criminal justice system remains stunningly unjust—a phenomenon aptly named “the new Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander.
What has changed is that these inequalities are no longer explained in terms of the racist structures and practices that produce them; indeed the existence of racism is denied. We now live in what has been termed a post-racial age, with new ideologies of racism, such as “color blindness.” As sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva explains, the essence of the new “color-blind” racism is that “racial inequality is explained in terms of nonracial dynamics.” In other words, flagrant forms of racism coexist with the denial of racism. It is therefore not surprising that at the press conference following the announcement of the verdict, Zimmerman’s defense lawyer, Mark O’Mara, not only denied that the case was about race, but, when asked whether the outcome of the case might have been different if Zimmerman had been a 17-year-old African American teenager with a gun who followed and shot a 29-year-old white man walking home in the rain, O’Mara responded that if Zimmerman had been Black, “he would never have been charged with the crime.” Even Michael Steele, former chairman of the Republican Party and an African American man, was moved to ask, “Is he high?” Importantly, the ideological framework of color blindness not only rationalizes racial inequality; it also serves to erase and delegitimize antiracist activities. Hence O’Mara also felt free to attack the Civil Rights activists who called for the investigation that finally led to the trial.
Anthropology, Race and Racism
In the wake of the Civil Rights Movement, cultural anthropologists in particular have understood race to be a social construction—not a biological given (indeed, this is almost a mantra). Race is constructed in the sense that racial hierarchies are created at specific historical moments, frequently linked to labor exploitation, conquest, nation-building, and racialized definitions of citizenship. The racial projects that create the hierarchies are historically contingent, mutable, and at once structural and dynamic. Although the American Anthropological Association’s Race: Are We So Different? initiative has made a major contribution to addressing the racial ideologies of the world that anthropologists helped to make, what we have not always done so well is to demonstrate that though race is socially constructed, racism is a lethal social reality, constraining the potential, if not threatening the lives, of millions of people.
Given the major role anthropology played in the earlier elaboration of race as a “scientific” category, the Trayvon Martin tragedy should provide an opportunity for reflection on our discipline, our association, and our scholarship. Anthropologist Karen Brodkin correctly points out that many anthropologists have become race-avoidant in their practices, in their workplaces, and in the association, unfortunately and perhaps unknowingly reinforcing racism by ignoring or denying it. In 2007, former AAA President Alan Goodman created a Commission on Race and Racism within Anthropology and the AAA. The commission’s findings about practices in many anthropology departments were, to say the least, discouraging. Anthropology is one of the least integrated disciplines. The commission found that sister organizations, including the American Sociological Association, the American Psychological Association, and even the American Economics Association and the American Political Science Association had more robust, proactive and aggressive strategies to retain and attract scholars of color. The AAA Committee on Minority Issues in Anthropology, initially created in 1993 as an outcome of the Commission on Minority Issues, is the only association-wide committee charged with addressing the recruitment and retention of scholars of color. It has had a troubled history, despite the best efforts of able chairs and the support of several presidents. In its most recent iteration, the committee’s expanding charge and composition has evolved in such a way that anti-racism has not always been seen as a predominant concern. Sadly, this and the failure of other initiatives are in part due to the association’s reluctance, despite good intentions, to recognize, confront and act on racism.
Diversity has become a threadbare term used throughout the academy and the workplace to refer to almost any type of variation. Expanding diversity is admirable but does not in itself address the historical injustices of racial exclusion. To the extent that it substitutes for antiracist affirmative action, or underplays the US history of creating a hierarchy of racialized populations, emphasis on diversity obscures the systemic character of racism in the United States. All forms of discrimination are lamentable, but they are not equal nor even necessarily comparable, and often require different interventions. To lump the issue of all differences together and to expect a committee or any other body to address all inequalities is to guarantee failure, which then serves to support the view that the problem is intractable. The events of the Martin case underscore the importance of reestablishing anti-racism as CMIA’s primary aim and working more systematically to address racism in our discipline, association, workplace and the academy.
The Task Force on Race and Racism
In November 2012 I appointed a Task Force on Race and Racism, co-chaired by Karen Brodkin and Raymond Codrington. The Task Force set itself three modest priorities for the year: (1) to construct a website that is at least on par with those of our sister disciplines; (2) to hold a roundtable at AAA meetings to promote a discussion of recruitment and retention of racialized anthropologists in the subfields, particularly archaeology and biological anthropology, where they are woefully underrepresented; and (3) to administer a survey to the membership that could produce baseline data on both representation and the racial climate. This third priority is perhaps one of the more controversial initiatives; some of our members are understandably offended about being asked about their racial/ethnic identity. Task force members are well aware that individuals have many identities, but also know that, as anthropologist Lee Baker put it, there is a difference between identity and identification. In whatever ways Trayvon Martin may have conceived of his identity, it was how George Zimmerman identified him, supported by a structure of racism that led to his death. Those who suggest that concern about racism is a misplaced concern of the previous generation would do well to remember that Trayvon Martin was only 17 years old.
Needless to say, the problems of race in our association pale in comparison to the loss of a young life—but it would be a mistake to imagine that they are wholly disconnected. Those of us who research race, racism and inequality must continue to name racism without sugarcoating it; to analyze the ways in which racism is maintained and produced inside and outside of our discipline without overtly targeting its victims; and to use the tools of anthropology to identify the underlying social relationships and informal workings of racist projects. Most important, we need to interrogate the new hidden forms of structural racism and deconstruct, in the best sense of the word, the ways in which racism expresses itself in the age of “post-racial color blindness.” In this way, we do our best to honor the memory of those, such as Trayvon Martin, who have paid the ultimate price for racism.
Leith Mullings is the president of the American Anthropological Association and Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at the City University of New York Graduate Center. This article was originally published in Anthropology News.
– See more at: http://www.anthropology-news.org/index.php/2013/07/19/trayvon-martin-race-and-anthropology/#sthash.CJaOgf7X.dpuf
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.