By Norman G. Finkelstein
[This text is based on a talk Finkelstein gave in Vienna, Austria in May 2014, at a congress of Egyptians opposed to the military coup. Its focus is leftist and liberal secularists.]
In mid-August 2013 an Egyptian friend of mine asked how I would assess the prospects of the nonviolent protests against the military coup. The Obama administration would turn a blind eye to one, two, or at most three bloodbaths, I predicted, but then would be forced by international public opinion to rein in the Egyptian army. As it happened, I was wrong. The massacres continued, enabling coup leaders to entrench their power and clamp down on the opposition. The obvious question is, Why did Gandhian nonviolence fail in Egypt? In fact, it might have succeeded if, in the moment of truth, Egyptian secularists had not betrayed their avowed liberal values and effectively justified the mass slaughter.
Mahatma Gandhi conceived nonviolent resistance not as an act of martyrdom but as a practical, political tactic. To actively engage the broad public in support of a just cause, he believed, protesters had to make extraordinary personal sacrifices. The sight of their willingness to court physical injury and even death would evoke pity, then outrage and at some point active participation by sympathetic but normally quiescent bystanders. However, a protest movement could only elicit public support, according to Gandhi, if it satisfied a pair of conditions. It had to be “innocent” in both its means—that is, its tactics had to be nonviolent—and its ends—that is, its political goal had be perceived as just.
Although protesters in Egypt objectively met the threshold requirements of successful nonviolence, their heroic acts of self-sacrifice, marching unarmed, knowingly and willingly, into the line of fire, in order to restore a democratically elected government, failed to arouse global indignation. This was almost certainly because Egyptian secularists, who represent themselves, and command authority abroad, as principled, robust defenders of human rights, distorted the unfolding tragedy.
First, in a textbook display of false equivalence, Egyptian secularists declared that the means (tactics) of both sides were equally abhorrent. After the first army bloodbath on July 8, when several score nonviolent protesters were gunned down, Mohamed ElBaradei, who was uniquely placed to rattle the conscience of the West (he is a respected diplomat and Nobel Peace Prize winner), sermonized, “Violence begets violence and should be strongly condemned.” In mid-August, when the army had already killed hundreds of nonviolent protesters, novelist Ahdaf Soueif found cause to extenuate the bloodletting: “We need, of course, to remember that the sit-ins were to varying degrees armed…. We need to remember that the sit-ins caused death.” Even if a handful of protesters were armed (was there ever a nonviolent resistance that wasn’t infiltrated by the random armed protester?), the balance sheet of deaths attested to the fact that Egypt had witnessed not armed battles but a one-sided, protracted massacre.
Second, Egyptian secularists put the ends (goals) of the coup leaders and nonviolent protesters on the same plane of being either equally illegitimate (or equally democratic) and consequently equally undeserving (or equally deserving) of support. The question was put to Heba Morayef of Human Rights Watch, how did it come to pass that Egyptians who had “fought so hard for democracy…are now trying so hard to overthrow their first democratically elected government?” She replied:
I think that’s not really the question. I think the question is: Why did 14 million people turn out on June 30th? I think some of the coverage of this crisis in Egypt right now is oversimplifying it as a choice between democracy or the military and it’s really far more complex than that. Because 14 million people is the biggest demonstration that Egypt has ever seen and that was not a pro-military demonstration. That was an anti-Morsi demonstration. So the question is: Why have we got to a moment where 14 million people turn out in opposition to President Morsi’s rule and what has he done in the last year to bring us to this moment? Now there are those at this point who would welcome the military in with open arms. There are others who have deep reservations about …a return of the military to power. But I think the question is not purely one of legitimacy versus a coup.[*]
But was the choice between “democracy or the military” and “legitimacy versus a coup” really “oversimplifying” a “far more complex” situation? Morsi was the democratically elected president of Egypt. If a majority of Egyptians had come to sour on his rule by the end of June 2013, they could have impeached him if and when they won parliamentary elections, slated for a few months later. (No one has alleged that Morsi intended to cancel these elections.) For an authentic defender of democratic institutions and human rights, it’s hard to conceive a simpler choice.
The nonviolent resistance thus failed because Egyptian secularists, who enjoyed the status of Egypt’s moral arbiters and authoritative interlocutors in the West, falsely depicted the protesters’ means and ends as tainted. It was alleged that they were as culpable as coup leaders of deploying violence, and that their claim on democratic legitimacy was no better than that of coup leaders. Had respected secularists such as ElBaradei, Soueif, and Morayef unequivocally condemned the coup and concomitant bloodbaths, it would have put Washington in an untenable position. President Obama might have been compelled to act more decisively, which in turn could have caused the coup leaders to think twice whether to proceed with their murderous repression. The bottom line is, the equivocations, rationalizations and misrepresentations of Egyptian secularists enabled the coup leaders to drown the nonviolent resistance in a river of blood.
It remains to inquire, What accounts for the Egyptian secularists’ betrayal of their avowed principles? It sprang, as informed commentators such as Khaled Abou El Fadl have pointed out, from arrogance compounded by contempt for religion.[†] On the one hand, secularists are all for democracy so long as everyone in the room acknowledges they are the most enlightened and should be placed in charge. On the other hand, the pervasive belief among secularists nowadays is that religion epitomizes backwardness. Consequently, when forced to choose between an elected religious party and a secular military coup, secularists embraced the coup as the lesser of two evils. They were not duped by the military but, rather, made a conscious—or, to be exact, subconscious—decision to go along with it.
This secular revulsion of religious people is of relatively recent vintage. True, V.I. Lenin said that only a militant atheist could be a communist. But in the not-so-distant past, an amicable modus vivendi had been worked out between secular and religious progressives. Famed leftwing journalist Alexander Cockburn, recalling his father’s generation (spanning the 20th century), observed that atheists then “lived in a world and consorted with people for whom religion had profound meaning, often inspiring them to acts of nobility and extraordinary self-sacrifice.” Whereas in the secular mindset nowadays, he continued, “religious people are stupid,” in fact “they weren’t stupid, and the atheists…didn’t deride them, but cheerfully swapped quotations from the Sermon on the Mount. The context was one of respect and mutual striving for a better world.” Indeed, many signature progressive causes of my own generation, whether it be the U.S. Civil Rights Movement or the struggles in Central America, were steeped in religion.
What, then, has changed? Before, religion suffused the spiritual ambiance, while the hard core consisted of tangible political struggles for justice that resonated among secularists: equal rights under the law, anti-imperialism, the right of the poor to a decent life. But in Egypt, religion was not, so to speak, background music; it was the heart of the Muslim Brotherhood’s self-image and of the image it projected, while demands for social justice were submerged in, sidelined by, subordinated to, or at the periphery of this religious identity. It was, if not all, then nearly all, about religion. In the meantime, sexual politics—women’s rights, gay rights, etc.—have come to dominate and define broad sectors of secular culture, often overshadowing and taking precedence over solidarity with workers, the poor and outcast, which used to be at the center, and the natural constituency, of progressive secular politics.[‡] These “litmus test” sexual identity issues have come to decide whether one falls on the “backward” or “enlightened” side of the great divide. The Muslim Brothers in Egypt (like Christian conservatives in the U.S.) fall squarely on the “backward” side.
It’s pointless trying to adjudicate which side is “backward” and which side “enlightened,” if only because so much of the debate is culturally bound, and it’s nearly impossible to predict the verdict that History will render a century from now. Consider the question of dress codes. When Europeans came to North America, they decided that the Natives must be savages because they paraded their (comparatively) naked bodies in public. Now Europeans have decided that Muslim society is backward because Muslim women are (comparatively) overdressed. The simple facts are, every culture has a dress code, where it draws the line on the permissible versus impermissible is often arbitrary—what, pray tell, is the point of string bathing suits?—and cannot possibly constitute an inherent indicator of a progressive versus regressive society. Neither believers nor nonbelievers can, in retrospect, claim a monopoly on enlightened behavior. Secularists, for example, were certainly correct when they championed the rights of workers and racial minorities, but they were also dead wrong when they lent support, in the name of Science and Progress, to Eugenics (including forced sterilization of “defective” people), and to the horrors of Stalinism.
The critical question before us is, Can political alliances yet be formed between the Muslim Brotherhood and secularists? My sense is, only if both sides radically reorder their priorities, focusing on those commons concerns—the rule of law, equality under the law, the rights of workers and the poor—that enabled mutually beneficial and mutually respectful alliances to be forged between religious and secular constituencies in the past. If rational grounds for hope exist, it’s because each side needs the other. Each side has something to learn and gain from the other, and the combined energies of both are needed if the current nightmare is ever to end.
[*] For argument’s sake, I set aside that (1) this representative of a respected human rights organization uncritically repeated the absurd crowd figures touted by the military, and (2) in her mind the critical question was what Morsi, and Morsi alone, had done to cause people to take to the streets, as if those who, from the day after the revolution, set out to restore the ancient regime played no part in the ensuing social discontent and unrest.
[†] Professor Abou El Fadl’s commentary right after the coup puts the lie to the alibi of Egyptian secularists that its outcome could not have been predicted. Already on July 9, 2013, he wrote, “In a year from now, the young dreamy youth who rejoiced and danced when Morsi was overthrown will find themselves in the next cell block to the Brotherhood.”
[‡] Women’s rights now trump the rights of the working poor even as women constitute the majority among them. Thus, liberal feminists figured among President Bill Clinton’s most ardent supporters because of his public embrace of women’s issues such as abortion rights, although his policies such as “welfare reform” devastated the lives of the poor and women of color. On the other hand, the election of Bill de Blasio as mayor of New York City resulted from a successful marriage between the working-class politics of the Old Left and the identity politics (personified by de Blasio’s spouse and children) of the post-New Left.