8:36 a.m. July 5, 2013

The Morsi Code

Mohammed Morsi, president of Egypt, has joined the ranks of political has-beens, forced-out by the military after street demonstrations by an incredible 33 million people.

Army chief General Abdul Fattah al-Sisi made the announcement in a television address, saying Morsi "failed to meet the demands of the Egyptian people". Adli Mansour, the head of the country's constitutional court is expected to be sworn in as interim leader as I write.

Whether this will lead to fresh elections remains to be seen. The army says it will, but it should be quite clear at this point that Egypt's army is far from under the control of the people. Certainly it's not under the control of the presidency, which in the immediate term is probably a good thing but it does pose questions as to where power really lies in the Egyptian state. Still, what is more interesting for the moment is watching the contortions of Morsi's erstwhile Western supporters, particularly those on the left who have, leech-like, attached themselves to Islamists in the hope of giving the US a slap.

In the dim and distant days of, er, 2012, for instance, Britain's Socialist Workers' Party (SWP – known in the US as the International Socialists) declared:

The victory of Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, is a great achievement in pushing back this counterrevolution and pushing back this coup d'etat. For now, this is a real victory for the Egyptian masses and a real victory for the Egyptian revolution.

This might not seem clear on the surface of things. Many people, especially in the West, and also over here, have an Islamophobic attitude that does not allow them to see the nature of the Muslim Brotherhood. So many people here, even on the left, could say that there's no real difference between Morsi, the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Shafiq, the candidate of the military – that they're both counterrevolutionary forces, and the victory of any of them is a victory of the counterrevolution and a defeat for the Egyptian revolution.

Now this is a complete mistaken view of what is actually happening and of the nature of the Muslim Brotherhood and of Islamists in Egypt and the Arab world. The Islamists are reformists. They took part in the revolution and at the same time tried to make deals with the generals who are ruling Egypt.

On July 4, 2013 it declared:

Egypt is making world history; in particular, world revolutionary history. Already, it is firmly up there with the two axiomatic revolutions of the modern world, the French and Russian Revolutions.

Oddly, given the date, the author seems to have forgotten to bother mentioning the American revolution – you know, the one that inspired the French to revolt? Leaving that aside for the time being, let's just concentrate on the fact that in 2012 Morsi's victory was one of "reformism" and opposition to him was "Islamophobic". What a difference a year makes…

The SWP is a fairly fringe organization with no more than a few thousand members at most, but it's not alone in hailing Islam as the stern face of the future.

In its leader column today the respected Guardian newspaper warned its 37 readers not to celebrate the toppling of the Islamist president, arguing:

The liberals, nationalists, Salafis and head of the Coptic church have joined sides with Egypt's unreformed and unreformable deep state. The ousted Muslim Brotherhood on the other have gained a cause even more potent than Islamism. They are now fighting for constitutional democracy.

Er, what?

Britain's other left-liberal newspaper The Independent was only marginally more upbeat:

For the country that was the poster child of the Arab Spring, such developments are as disappointing as they are alarming. Nor is it enough to shrug them off as evidence that Arab countries have no aptitude for democracy. The desire for political and social freedom, and the economic benefits to which they are allied, is not the sole preserve of the West. But the path from autocracy to democracy is rarely a smooth one. And, for all the cheering and the fireworks, Egypt just took a step backwards.

Morsi was democratically elected, true. The army has seized power, also true. What happens next, though, is not up to newspaper leader writers, it's up to the people of Egypt. It the state needs reforming, or for that matter smashing, it's up to them – and them alone. Not that you'd think that from the complaints of the left and liberals. In their bizarro-world view of events, the Muslim Brotherhood was a moderate force in Middle Eastern politics. Deviate from this narrative and you can expect trouble. Shrill, career-ending claims of racism are unbelievably common on even the liberal left, with sad, but sadly effective, attempts to link anyone who's not too keen on political Islam to crackpots like Pamela Geller or even Norwegian mass murderer Anders Brevik.

This is, of course, all rank hypocrisy. While silent about Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood-penned constitution, a constitution whose provisions for freedom of religion excluded Bahais and atheists and made "the insulting of prophets" a crime, European liberals never stop moaning about Viktor Obrán's political project in Hungary, which included measures such as as putting the central bank under the control of parliament. Shocking. What kind of country would let democratically elected politicians dictate monetary policy? Britain until 1997, for one, when Labour finance minister Gordon Brown gave-up control of the Bank of England and made it 'independent' (read as: unaccountable). That move turned out just fine, of course.

Orbán's constitutional reforms aren't even in the same ballpark as Morsi's, not to mention the fact that the Egyptian regime has been harassing, beating, imprisoning and killing the opposition, so the difference in attitude is breathtaking. Say what you like about Orbán, he's certainly a rum character, but he didn't pen a constitution that gives and then takes away as clearly as this: "The State is committed to taking all measures to establish equality between women and men in political, cultural, economic and social life and all other fields without prejudice to the provisions of Islamic Sharia." When it comes to Morsi, given his attempts to undermine democracy from within, Western liberals' refrain about his being democratically elected implies a permanent mandate on the basis of a single election. Will-to-power indeed.

This isn't the first time Westerners have been blindsided by the public in the Islamic world. Recent cheering-on of Turkish protestors is made easy by the fact that, as yet anyway, the protestors haven't actually won, but attempts to frame what was a simple demand for rights and an objection to creeping theocratic rule in society as a protest against neo-liberalism or even nascent environmentalism would be painful if they weren't so funny.

The problem is it simply doesn't follow that opposing Islamists makes one a supporter of imperialism or, as is frequently claimed, racist or "Islamophobe". British-based anti-Islamism campaigner Maryam Namazie, for instance, is a member of the central committee of the Worker Communist Party of Iran, making her unlikely candidate for leader of the Rudyard Kipling fan club.

Prisoners of history, the left is desperately trying to recreate a radical Arab politics in the Middle East from a thin gruel of insurrectionary Islamism. For many leftists today, the radicalism of the likes of Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas become a stand-in for the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and People's Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). But just as you can't make a car out of cheese, you can't make democratic, secular and humanist movement, left or right, out of religious fundamentalism. These are not your father's radicals.

There's more to this than 'my enemy's enemy is my friend', though.

The deep conservatism of the Islamist movements also appeal to a left, imbued as it is with a hatred for modernity tinged by anti-consumerism and green politics. Opposition to modernity in all its forms is a key theme for both the far- and liberal-lefts, obsessed and disgusted with consumption and now incapable of marshaling any arguments about economic production. Lacking a historical understanding of modernity, the modern and the capitalist have been welded-together by a group of people whose hatred of the latter is so strong they are ready to deny – at least to others – the benefits of the former.

Little wonder then that a group of secular Puritans obsessed with policing behavior would find common cause with veil-obsessed reactionaries. When what passes for leftist critique these days is little more than a series of non-sequitur complaints about individual behavior you know you've arrived somewhere far from the politics of liberation.

At a recent conference I attended on women's rights Maryam Namazie spoke of female genital mutilation and stonings for extra-marital sex. Another speaker moaned about Cosmopolitan magazine and said sexism was caused by 'neo-liberalism'. Unintentional as it was, complaints about Cosmo had an important resonance: there is nothing the revived left hates more than cosmopolitanism. "Rootless", modern individuals stand in opposition to the conservative communitarian politics of identity that say individuals must identify as members of ethnic, religious or social groups.

The fact that capitalism has never liberated all of humanity isn't the point. It never claimed to. Attempts to pin an ideology onto capitalism, whether by libertarians, leftists or even in the form of the milquetoast-meets-bombs Clinton-era 'Third Way', entirely miss the point. Capitalism will use, then chew-up and spit out ideology before going on to sell it back to you just as happily as it does Che Guevara t-shirts. The business of business is business, not politics, and beyond keeping the wheels of commerce greased, politics is purely contingent. Sounds bad, right? Maybe, but liberals and leftists should take a long hard look at themselves before applying the now popular curiously inverted racism to people who have as many individual desires as anyone else.

The shallow critique of consumerism – itself charged with sexism – and individualism, when stripped of its radical-sounding patina, is little more than an enjoinment to stay in your place. The 'it's neo-liberalism duh!' gang get things right from time to time, but stopped clocks are right twice a day, and, anyway, life under western capitalism is far superior to the only alternatives actually on offer.

The authenticity of Islamism is also questionable. Generations of Muslim migrants to Europe have certainly been mistreated, but the younger generations of EU-born Muslims are significantly more radically conservative than their immigrant parents and grandparents. For some reason this doesn't seem to give anyone pause for thought.

Islamism is a thoroughly post-modern phenomenon, and its roots lie in the West as much as in the Middle East. US support for the Mujahideen in Afghanistan is well-known and Cold War-era politicking certainly has a lot to answer for. It didn't stop in the 1980s, either. Western support for Bosniak Muslims in the Yugoslav civil wars conveniently overlooked the role of Saudi money and jihadists in the conflict.

Additionally, Western politically correct multiculturalism refuses to deal with people as individuals, instead forever locking them into misbegotten cultural boxes by assuming that self-appointed 'community leaders' have any right to speak on behalf of their communities. Having watched precisely the same process at work in Northern Ireland for two decades – where everyone is supposed to identify as Protestant or Catholic – it's obvious to me that anyone on this path is on a hiding to nothing, but the snooty arrogance of those in settled polities – the people who think they know better – just never goes away. If a post-conflict situation throws-up problems it couldn't possibly be because the wrong questions are being asked; no, it's that the people involved are all Neanderthals.

Arab leaders have plenty to answer for, too. Secular military regimes in the Middle East so thoroughly crushed the internal left opposition that the only people capable of organizing politically were the lads down the mosque. If the choice is one between mustaches and beards, then the mustache is probably a better option, but don't kid yourself that it's the kind of choice people in the West get to make.

Decrying the Arab Spring's failure to throw-up a liberal government is, at best, political necromancy. At worst its necrophilia. Having not only failed to support, but even actively opposed, leftists, liberals and trade unionists in the Middle East, just how a Western-style civil society was supposed to invent itself from the whole cloth is a mystery.

So, if anyone is trying to work out the 'right' position on what's currently going on in Egypt, especially if they're seeking to explain away now embarrassing support for the Muslim Brotherhood, here's a thought: it's their country, not yours. Who's the imperialist now?