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Egypt's Five Binary Myths and the Maverick Middle

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In Egypt today, those who reject the choice of 'the army or the Brotherhood' are marginalized at best, and threatened at worst. There are still a few venues where these individuals and groups, often referred to the 'maverick middle' can speak -- Mada Masr, Tahrir Squared, Shorouk, and Ahram Online, among very select other spaces. Such voices are challenging the myths that pervade so much of the current mainstream Egyptian media, where professional standards seem to be non existent (within which, the weather would be blamed on the Muslim Brotherhood if possible). They also challenge, however, many of the prevailing assumptions endemic in our own discourse in the West, and those who seek to understand Egypt more thoroughly ought to take some cues from their example. Here are five of those myths, with corresponding corrections:

1. The political crisis in Egypt is between an Islamic/Islamist majority and a secularist, military-backed minority

This conflation of Islam and Islamism has pervaded commentary on Egypt for quite some time, leading many to identify the Muslim Brotherhood and their allies as 'the Muslims' or 'Islamic' and their opponents as 'non-Islamic'. Yet the majority of Egyptians who opposed Morsi's government were Muslim, and most Egyptians in the first round of presidential elections voted for non-Islamist candidates. Islamism, a particular politicization of a certain religious approach in Egypt, cannot be equated to Islam as a faith. Otherwise, in a country where religion is routinely polled as extremely important, at least as an identity marker, the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi would not have lost such mass popular support.

Public opinion polls show a steady drop of support for the Brotherhood and solid base of support for the military. Given the concurrent 'shaking of confidence in the electoral process' (partly due to Morsi's own actions in office), it is regrettable that most Egyptians did indeed put their faith in the military. They may learn to regret that decision, but probably not to the Muslim Brotherhood's benefit.

2. The state and the Brotherhood are equally responsible for Egypt's woes -- or, all the blame ought to be put on one side

The state's basic responsibility in any country is to maintain public order and protect citizens. Its duty thus cannot be matched by the responsibility of any non-state force. It is not only right, but also necessary to criticize the state, because the failings of the state and its institutions are potentially far more disastrous than those of any non-government political force. An independent and impartial process is urgently needed to investigate the executive's responsibility in all such cases from Mubarak's time until now, and to engage in broad-based reform of the security sector. Otherwise, political disagreements will continue to incite violence. Any trials that put Morsi and other Muslim Brotherhood leaders on trial will continue to be viewed as political trials, rather than enforcement of the rule of law on the executive.

On the other hand, the Brotherhood's many current mistakes are not on the same level of error. After all, they are no longer in power. Focusing on them too much only implies that the Brotherhood might return to power in Egypt - which, based on Egyptian public opinion, seems rather unlikely.

3. State violence is justifiable and ought not to be questioned -- alternatively, the pro-Morsi camp is not responsible for any violence at all

When the state betrays its citizens' trust, as it has repeatedly done in the past three years through shows of excessive force (particularly in the crackdown on pro-Morsi sit-ins this August, the largest incident of civilian deaths in Egypt's modern history), that betrayal is qualitatively different than that by any non-state actor. Human Rights Watch, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, and others have systematically documented the state's unnecessary use of force many times in not only the past few months, but also the past few years.

With that said, all available evidence indicates that pro-Morsi forces are also carrying out attacks on churches, state institutions and civilians. Denying this or saying that they are all 'black-ops' is delusionary, and neglects the pro-Morsi camp's political and moral responsibility to oppose such violence. That does not mean the Muslim Brotherhood itself is responsible for these crimes. As Egypt's security services and army establishment have clearly stated, other pro-Morsi Islamist forces are likely responsible.

4. The Muslim Brotherhood is either a terrorist group or a heroic force struggling for democracy

If the Muslim Brotherhood were a terrorist group, then Egypt would be facing a civil war that made Afghanistan and Algeria look like picnics. The Muslim Brotherhood has a support base of around 12-15% of the country: that makes it a minority, but a minority of more than 10 million dedicated to terrorism would be problematic to say the least. The MB rejects violence as a political tool; but it has also used violence when its back is up against the wall - various Egyptian and international human rights organisations have confirmed as such. It has leveraged other groups' violence for political purposes, even though it does not direct those attacks - the MB should not be held responsible for such attacks, but it does indicate a certain ethical quandary the MB places itself in.

The MB is not a terrorist group, but that does not mean that the Muslim Brotherhood is merely a conservative political party. Historically, it has incorporated trends ranging from the heavily conservative (which have shocked other sections of Egypt's Muslim community), all the way to a neo-religious fascism (particularly under this leadership), which have resulted in the sectarian undertones in much Muslim Brotherhood rhetoric (particularly in Arabic). It also explains why most, if not all, of Egypt's Christian community tends to take a non-critical position vis-à-vis the military - the rhetoric of the Muslim Brotherhood and its Islamist allies will never be appealing to that community on a wide scale. On the political level, Morsi's disastrous decree in November 2012 that his decisions were above the law degraded the democratic process, enabling a sequence of events that led to military suspension of the democratic experiment in July 2013. Had the West been more critical of that part of Egypt's transition when it still held critical influence and leverage, Egypt might not be in this disastrous situation now.

5. Egypt is involved in a war on terror and thus requires new laws, which supersede human rights, to combat the threat

We Brits saw after 7/7, and Americans saw in the aftermath of 9/11, that the 'war on terror' discourse causes far more problems than it solves. A sustainable response to terrorism is not to give terrorists the victory they seek, which is destruction of just societies' commitment to fundamental rights. There is political violence in Egypt, and it must be taken seriously, but claiming a 'war on terror' allows the state to disavow rights that ought never be questioned. It is also entirely unproductive in terms of counter-terrorism strategy, only serving to strengthen a narrative of grievance that strengthens terrorist recruiting.

Egypt remains complex: most 'liberals' seem to have bought into the military as some kind of 'revolutionary saviour', while the Muslim Brotherhood calls Morsi 'a universal symbol of freedom and resistance and an icon of democracy'. Neither bears much resemblance to reality. The military intervened in February 2011 & June 2013 as it saw both presidencies as destabilizing to Egypt, which in turn affected its own position. On both occasions, it instituted flawed roadmaps that frustrated Egypt's democratic transition -- leading to hundreds of deaths in the second case. Egypt deserves better than that. She also deserves better than a Muslim Brotherhood that only provides alternative roadmaps that result in its own partisan empowerment without any real state reformation. There must be another route, one that does not force Egyptians to choose between either hyper-nationalistic, militaristic talk of a 'war on terror', and an oppressive style of Islamism. In the midst of finding that route, that maverick middle ought to be listened to more - not less - particularly by those who seek a pluralistic and just outcome for Egypt's transition.