‘Egypt First-ism’ turns its guns on Islamists

One of the key themes the coup regime has developed in Egypt against its Islamist opponents is a rehashed version of the chauvinistic nationalism of the Mubarak regime. This involved an ‘Egypt First-ism’ vis-a-vis the Arab-Israeli conflict that gave a veneer of respectability for security paranioa over Palestinians that verged on racial hatred. The redux of this fascistic nationalism has anti-Syrian racism thrown in for extra. This nationalism emerged specifically in an Arab nationalist context, as a response to the Nasserist years with its failures. It was traditionally challenged by leftists and Arab nationalists, and lately among the youth activists behind the Jan 25 uprising.

It was not generally deployed against the Islamist movement which had its own issues with Nasser and an Arab nationalism that everyone understood was the context in which Egypt First-ism should be seen. The Brotherhood, on the contrary, was generally unchallenged as being quintessentially Egyptian in character and outlook, despite its historic origins, rising after the demise of the caliphal institution in Istanbul, and its transnational reach. Indeed, the Brotherhood may have developed particularly close links over the past decade with Turkish Islamists, but its primary arena of activity beyond Egypt’s borders is the Arab world. It is also – as Saudi Arabia well knows – interested in reestablishing relations with Iran and open to Hizbullah, because it lacks Wahhabism’s sectarian problem with Shi’ism (a sectarianism which of course Al Saud allows to flourish because it so well divides its rivals).

In other words, the Brotherhood can be interpreted as rather Arab nationalist in approach. Historically, political Islam gained in strength after secular Arab nationalism failed to challenge the West and Israel. One of the Egyptian military-security establishment’s major concerns over Brotherhood rule was its intent to establish a new relationship with Gaza. The Islamists, as their opponents rightly stated during their year in power, were so obsessed with neutralizing army, American, Saudi and Israeli opposition to their rule that they ended up veering very little from the Mubarak policy on Israel-Palestine. But their failure to cooperate on just a couple of issues regarding Sinai and Gaza was enough to raise heckles among the army top brass.

It’s not a surprise then that the new ruling group have taken the chauvinistic nationalism of before to frame the Islamists as un-Egyptian and lacking in patriotism. Nasserism, political Islam, the Left – it doesn’t really matter: The real issue is whether Egypt remains oriented towards the West, with all that means in terms of foreign policy in line with Saudi and American interests, or tries to project Egyptian power in a way that would disturb those interests, as well as the traditional power groups in Egypt (such as in the army) who have staked their futures on it.

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