Hazem Kandil, a political sociologist at the University of Cambridge, outlined in a lecture in Oxford last week his view of the movement as a politically naïve cult acting on an innovative understanding (discordant within the Islamic tradition) of religious determinism – the idea that God will confirm them in the rightness of their path and that faith is ultimately all that matters. In this he refocused attention on an important aspect of the Egyptian Brotherhood that is often overlooked by political analysts who are more interested in examining its success, its failures, its alliances and its intentions. The conclusion is generally avoided in media discourse that they don’t have much of an idea about what they want to do at all.
But Kandil goes further in attempting to answer the question why peace-loving Egyptians turned into a “bloodthirsty pact” – his words – after July 3. He starts by dismissing the element of government brainwashing through media control, arguing that media discourse is something Egyptians are inherently suspicious of, therefore there must be something else to explain it. In his view, this something else is the Brotherhood’s clueless cultism. He argues that ordinary Egyptians finally woke up to the Brotherhood’s cultic nature in the weeks following the coup, as Brotherhood and other Islamist figures took to the podium at the Rabaa Mosque sit-in which police and the army broke up over a month later. During those weeks the Brotherhood’s internal discourse became plain to the outside for the first time and when Egyptians saw this, “it shocked them”. “They felt like they were aliens that should be flushed out as soon as possible,” as Kandil put it.
It was not, then, their plans for an “Islamic state” or “caliphate” that shocked them (as standard analysis has it), it was the Brotherhood’s millenarian belief that God could not forsake them. The Brotherhood’s idea of tamkeen, that God sends signs to validate their actions on their path to “empowerment”, came out into the open. Nasser’s ditching of the monarchy was God’s work after the king had Hassan Al Banna assassinated, Nasser’s defeat in 1967 was divine desserts for killing Sayed Qutb and the others. They fasted and they prayed, so God brought down Mubarak. Thus, Kandil says, the group never bothered to develop coherent and convincing policies. During Morsi’s presidency they did not believe that expounding an economic policy should be the focus of their attention. So when The Fall came it was incomprehensible to them. “This made Egypt shudder, ‘this is a heretical sect’,” he said.
I would say there are problems with this. Did Egyptians just discover after July 3 that Islamist movements put blind faith in God above all else? If there was an internal discourse concealed from the public, it was surely throughout the entire post-Mubarak period that it became manifest to the public, through the manifold media outlets that appeared, not during Rabaa. Would people turn so rabidly against them because they were shocked at their cultic naivety? If the public were angry that the Brotherhood didn’t elaborate concrete economic policies, we should perhaps be more appreciative perhaps of the discerning nature of the Egyptian body politic.
While Kandil has touched on important truths, I think the key issue here is a wider problem of an underdeveloped political culture in which the public put their faith too readily in individuals and groups, and the political outfits available are all cultic, centred around leader figures and lacking on the policy front. Secondly, it is this naïve political culture that is capable of being mass manipulated by mass media in return. Surely the Brotherhood exposed something on the podium of Rabaa – and throughout the year – to have provoked such a hysterical reaction against them among its political enemies, with their intimate ties to media. There was an internal discourse, but one which the movement’s enemies were able to pick up on and use to turn the public, tired after over two years of violence and economic deterioration against them. It must have been a discourse that was threatening to some, and those some must have been ready and willing to mobilize the public to accept their view. Since what has taken place is the substitution of one cult for another, and neither of them are naïve.