chapter  9
Between Cairo and Washington: Sectarianism and counter- revolution in post- Mubarak Egypt
Pages 27

In the run-up to 30 June 2013, the day of mass protests against President Muhammad Mursi, Egypt had been strained by the escalating tensions between his supporters and his detractors. Just one week before the protests, a new convulsion of violence targeted one of Egypt’s most marginal groups. On 23 June, a mob of Sunni Egyptians, incited by the Salafi imam of their local mosque, lynched four Shi’i Egyptians in the Giza village of Zawiyat Abu Musallam. Scores more Shi’i residents fled in terror, and many of their homes were torched. At the time, analyses pointed to the disturbing rise in such sectarian incidents in Egypt, highlighting domestic dynamics to the exclusion of regional and international contexts (Hellyer 2013, Ruthven 2013, The Economist 2013). Yet a different perspective reveals that beyond the eight men later charged with murder, responsible parties included political elites in Washington, Riyadh and Doha, as well as at the Muslim Brotherhood headquarters and in Cairo’s presidential palace at the time. Since 2011, these power players’ differing interests had converged against the principal demands of the 25 January Revolution in an attempt to preserve the economic and foreign policy orientations of the old regime while ushering in a new administration. As this chapter will discuss, one of the primary means through which they pursued this goal was the fostering or toleration of socio-political processes of ‘sectarianization’ among the population. This aimed to dissipate the unity that had characterized Egyptians’ revolutionary momentum, breaking up coalitions that could mobilize for fundamental change. Within Egypt, the sectarianization process rested on discourses and practices that excluded non-Islamist voices and that were productive of difference where alternative, pluralist frameworks of community were being imagined. The principal agents were the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF ) – primary power brokers during the first eighteen months of the post-Mubarak period – alongside the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafi parties, which consolidated their positions with electoral victories in 2011 and 2012. The three deployed a normative discourse built on varying degrees of religiously infused legitimacy to confront revolutionary demands. Where the Islamists were acting on norms embedded in their conservative Islamist worldview, the SCAF generals were motivated primarily by the desire to open up fissures in the revolutionary camp of early 2011 and to create disorder. Their varying motivations notwithstanding,

one common outcome was sectarian violence, starting with the attacks on churches from March 2011 (Shenoda 2011) and continuing with the anti-Shi’a violence in 2013. Understanding this phenomenon also requires attention to the role of US Middle East policy and its historical preference for conservative Islamist and authoritarian rule among its clients. The United States was a principal political and financial backer of both the SCAF and the Brotherhood between 2011 and 2013, as were Saudi Arabia and Qatar. These states shared an interest in expanding the influence of a constellation of Sunni forces in the region and in containing the so-called Shi’i ‘axis’ of Iran, Syria and Lebanon’s Hizbullah. The difference in sect between the two camps did not drive this conflict: the more relevant fault-line lay in their positions on US regional policy, particularly towards Israel, and within international and regional networks of neoliberal economic interests. If sectarianism was not the prime driver, however, it was certainly a desired outcome. A comparative historical perspective here is illuminating: the sectarianization processes of 2011 have their roots in the strategies of former president Anwar alSadat, who employed a range of mechanisms to empower the Islamist right against the nationalist left, and whose decade in rule saw the first incidences and rise of sectarian violence. The ensuing dynamic of ‘outbidding’ between tolerated Islamist opposition and ostensibly ‘secular’ government continued under Hosni Mubarak. Again, these policies need to be understood within a particular regional and international political context: as Sadat’s regime sponsored politically conservative religious actors and opened up the Egyptian economy, he earned the financial and diplomatic support of rising Gulf powers and the United States. After he signed the 1978 Camp David Accords with Israel, he was rewarded with two billion dollars of annual US military aid. For each party, the break rather than unity in ranks of potentially or actually disgruntled Egyptian citizens was an advantage. This chapter investigates the contemporary sectarianization process by linking its domestic, regional and international drivers and setting them in historical context. It argues that both the SCAF and Islamist actors in post-Mubarak Egypt worked to highlight and foster sectarian divisions in Egypt in a bid to contain revolutionary change, and that they enjoyed regional and US backing throughout. It focuses on the period of Muhammad Mursi’s presidency (June 2012-June 2013), whose demonstrated compliance with US-sponsored regional arrangements facilitated its growing relations with Washington based on the same interests that had underpinned US-Egyptian ties under Mubarak and Sadat. Meanwhile, Mursi received financial and political support from regional states rich in oil wealth and willing to invest in a new and dependent regime in Egypt, where traditional competition from former National Democratic Party crony networks was vastly weakened. This chapter’s discussion of sectarianization builds on the literature on religious politics and internecine tension in Egypt and the wider Arab world and draws attention to the ways in which the process of producing difference can be

propelled from a distance as well as between the immediate subjects of mutual identification. By training a critical eye on the implicated regional and international actors, the chapter brings existing theoretical work on ‘ethnicization’ and the production of difference into conversation with the literature on geopolitical shifts and political economy in the Middle East during the early twentyfirst century.