The majority of headlines about the Muslim Brotherhood these days describe the tensions accompanying their role in the political landscape as elections loom in late November; internal rifts, careful diplomacy, alliances broken and reformed.
But under the surface of this political positioning, something else is happening. Over the summer and into the fall, youth members of the Brotherhood have been building a collection of short films called Ikhwan Cinema. In each, a kitschy portrayal of Egyptian society teaches a moral lesson. In one, a civil servant demands a bribe, only to receive a phone call telling him his son is injured in the hospital. When he arrives at the hospital, he finds out that he can only get his boy to the emergency room with a bribe, fulfilling a kind of corruption-condemning karma.
Why create these videos? The Brotherhood preempted the question by releasing statements over the summer, arguing that "there is a noticeable link between violence and corruption and the messages that are portrayed in films and other forms of media." These videos are meant to be an antidote to that trend.
The Muslim Brotherhood, as well as other Islamic voices in Egypt, have been campaigning to clean up corruption and violence with Islamic principles for years. What I found amazing this time were the reference points. The Brotherhood's online statements linked to an American peer-reviewed article called "The Psychological Effects of Violent Media on Children" by Aimee Tompkins and a book chapter called "Media-made Criminality: The Representation of Crime in the Mass Media" by Robert Reiner. Elsewhere they referred to an article about how the shooting of Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was linked to violence in popular culture.
The fear of crime has been a major issue in Egypt since the revolution, especially among Egyptians who are skeptical of the benefits of ousting Mubarak. One of the primary symbols of unrest and instability in Egypt has been the baltageya, which is usually translated to mean "thugs." It was the baltageya, many believe, who wreaked havoc during the revolution, leading citizens to defend their neighborhoods with guns and clubs. It is the baltageya, claims the army, that continue to wreak havoc.
Large segments of Egyptian society believe that the baltageya, not the army, are the ones to be afraid of. Recent Gallup polls showed that although reported crime has remained steady since 2008, the number of people saying they "do not feel safe walking alone at night" jumped over 30% from late 2010 to mid-2011.
At the same time, intellectuals and journalists think the term is a fiction, used to whip up the fear of common Egyptians so that they will trust the army. I even heard an American reporter tell an Egyptian, point blank, that there "simply are no baltageya." Just like American politicians in the 1960s, they argue, the Egyptian military leadership is using the fear of baltageya, of crime and lawlessness, to maintain their support among Egyptians as defenders of security.
This is a political technique that may be familiar to Americans of an older generation. In 1967, Richard Nixon published an article called "What Has Happened to America?" in Reader's Digest, where he described the race riots that had recently embroiled the country. "Riots," he wrote, "were also the most virulent symptoms to date of another, and in some ways graver, national disorder -- the decline in respect for public authority and the rule of law in America. Far from being a great society, ours is becoming a lawless society."
In late 1960s America, the fear of crime, especially in the wake of calls for racial equality, had huge political implications. Nixon won the 1968 election, in part, because he was able to convince Americans that he could protect them from criminals. In 1973, he declared in his State of the Union address that Americans could not be truly free unless that had secured their "freedom from the fear of crime."
The Muslim Brotherhood, instead of debating who is responsible for violence and instability in Egypt, are attempting to stake out a claim as moral leaders, taking the example of American conservative leaders who blamed moral decay for crime and called upon citizens to fight the shadowy enemy of violence. For them, the shadowy enemy is internal, the product of a society that has turned towards a morally weak secularism. They are making the argument subtly, with films like those of Ikhwan Cinema and a political rhetoric constantly invoking the idea of morality. The military leadership, like Nixon, tries to play up fear of crime, while the Brotherhood tries to take the moral high ground.
Perhaps they know that in the U.S., a turn towards religion was seen as the answer, when in the 1980s middle-class followers of Jerry Falwell went to the ballot box for overtly religious candidates like Ronald Reagan, partially based on that same fear of crime. Perhaps, they think something similar can happen here, if not in the upcoming election, then in the future. After all, no one questions that the Brotherhood has always been playing the long game.
Follow Maurice Chammah on Twitter: www.twitter.com/MauriceChammah