How the US is playing into the hands of the Salafiyeen

Though the protests at the US embassy in Cairo have begun to die down, the debate rages on.  I was in Cairo when these protests started — I wrote here why they should be ignored, arguing they are as a ginned up effort by certain Egyptian political factions to capitalize on controversy — and though many senseless things have been written about them since then by people who think we’re back in Teheran in 1980, two of the most insightful views (both via The Arabist) come from Ashraf Khalil in Time, who offers an on-the-ground description confirming the essentially tactical origin of these protests, and from Tariq Ramadan, who explains what those tactics are:

[T]here is something which is going to be one of the main challenges in the Muslim world today, in the Muslim-majority countries in the Arab world, is the religious credibility. How are you going to react to what is said about Islam? So, by touching the prophet of Islam, the reaction should be, who is going to be the guardian? And you can see today that the Muslim Brotherhood are in a situation where the Salafis, then the literalists, are pushing. And they were in Libya, they were in Egypt, they are now in Yemen. So, everywhere the Salafi are pushing by saying, “We are the guardian, and we are resisting any kind of relationship to the West or provocation coming from the West.”

That is the point: the Salafiyeen (who did well in the parliamentary elections but were shut out of the more recent presidential race) are engaged in a domestic political battle with the more mainstream Muslim Brotherhood (who won both elections) and this ‘guardian of Islam’ role is their principal point of leverage.  We have the choice now to grant them this authority by treating their every theatrical protest as representative of broader opinion — no matter how few in number are the protesters or, as Ashraf Khalil points out, how vague their stated political goals — or we can deny them that authority until they have proven themselves locally by garnering a majority of the votes in a free and fair election.  That seems a straightforward choice, but most people have gotten it wrong.

If you can look past the television images of angry youths burning the American flag, you’ll see that the vast majority of Egyptians right now are thinking about something else entirely: principally, making a living.  This is what we should be worried about, not some incendiary video trailer: a generation of unemployed Egyptian men in their twenties who aren’t especially well educated or political had their hopes raised that the revolution was going to change their circumstances and so far it hasn’t.  They are referred to as shabab in Cairo and though this just means ‘youth’ it conjures up a particular type: neither rich nor poor, skilled nor unskilled, privileged nor destitute, they lie in the middle of the spectrum and have been uniquely screwed by the last thirty years of failed governance, having tried to make the right choices in difficult circumstances and really having nothing to show for it.  They roam around downtown late into the night and their frustration is palpable.

Historically, this demographic in any society is fairly easy to direct towards some pretty sinister political ends and if they are not given something productive to do very soon you can expect a battle among demagogues for their loyalties.  Consider these US embassy protests as the first step in that direction.  When the shabab joined the revolution they gave it muscle to fight their peers on the regime’s payroll, who had been hired as thugs to beat back the rebellion.  Now they are up for grabs and more disillusioned than ever.  Seriously: we want these guys to have jobs.

But what has the US actually done?  The Washington Post reports that the US is postponing talks with Egypt about $1 billion in aid until the air clears from these protests.  That gets it exactly wrong.  First, the US has just communicated to the Salafiyeen that they have the power to affect aid negotiations, giving them a point of leverage on the Morsi government far, far more powerful than any they had previously.  I can’t even describe how much we will regret having done that.  Second, to the extent that a delay in talks worsens Egypt’s already dire economic situation, we leave this generation of shabab even less to hope for.  We will regret that too, as some small fraction of them will conclude that only radical action will change their circumstances.


Tina Brown (of Newsweek/Daily Beast) is an incorrigible opportunist so I am sure she thought she’d hit the media lottery jackpot with the new Newsweek cover entitled “Muslim Rage” and the related Twitter hashtag #muslimrage.  Well, she should have watched the many mash-ups of Hitler reacting in “Downfall” to see what happens when you lose control of a meme.  As Megan Garber writes in the Atlantic:

“The tagged reactions to Newsweek‘s proposal have been … mixed. Some tweets are funny. Some are satirical. Some are cruel. But they are pretty much united in their rejection of Newsweek‘s premise that “Muslim rage” is something to be talked about, under the magazine’s brand, on Twitter. Which is also to say: People rejected glibness. They rejected cynicism. They rejected reductive branding. And they did so, specifically, by reappropriating the hashtag Newsweek had proposed. They treated #muslimrage not in the way Newsweek had framed it, but instead as exactly what it was: a joke.

It’s worth scrolling through the thousands of #muslimrage tweets (and, relatedly, the satirical#muslimrouge and #muslimrave tags that have risen up along with them). It’s worth marveling at how prismatic they are in their tone and intent. The hashtag now includes tweets from people who seem to be Muslim. It includes tweets from people who don’t seem to be Muslim. It includes tweets from people who seem to be making fun of Muslims. It includes tweets from people who make fun of the people making fun of Muslims. The hashtag, as hashtags are wont to do, has taken on an organic life of its own, independent of its originator. (To wit: Max Read’s gloriously satirical take.) The whole idea of “Muslim rage” — as an idea as well as a hashtag — is being flipped on its head.”

Now, why is it that the Twitter hive has responded to this inflamed political moment with so much more wisdom than the Obama administration has?


Click here to see all my posts about Egypt and the Middle East.  If you have been to Garden City or Tahrir recently, leave a comment below describing what you’ve seen.  And if you haven’t, check out these photos of the protests (thanks again, Arabist!) by Mosa’ab Elshamy in Al Akhbar.


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