Exile and the Prophetic: American vigilantism and Egypt’s too

US Politics
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Egypt is off the front pages of American newspapers.  It was only a matter of time, a week or so, for the story to run its news-cycle course.  Today it’s the Trayvon Martin verdict.  Race remains the American divide.

Watching President Obama twist and turn with the verdict is interesting.  He knows that vigilantes come in different forms and that often in American history such behavior has been sanctioned by the legal system.  As our first African American President, though, what is he to say?  

Nonetheless, anyone who has followed the Trayvon Martin case can only despair that America produces – and sanctions – so many George Zimmerman’s. 

Despite the lack of interest, the unfolding events in Egypt merit attention.  Vigilantism is American as apple pie but is found far from our shores as well.  The Egyptian army is vigilante behavior – organized.  The Muslim Brotherhood isn’t above vigilantism either.

The Guardian reports that the Muslim Brotherhood is in negotiations with the army.  Who would have thought? 

The negotiations are stylized. Each party is trying to assert itself while saving face. The Muslim Brotherhood is demanding Morsi’s reinstatement so his legitimacy as President is recognized – with the proviso that Morsi would immediately call for new elections.  They’re posing.  The Muslim Brotherhood knows the army isn’t going anywhere near that proposal since it would delegitimize the army’s actions in the first place.  Since the army has the upper hand, why would it give the Muslim Brotherhood a huge victory within its overall defeat? 

What’s the Muslim Brotherhood’s end game?  The only hope for the Muslim Brotherhood is a guaranteed place in the new government.  Yet that hope is shadowed by the New York Times report that the bank accounts of top Muslim party officials and supporters are being frozen.  No doubt that includes the Muslim Brotherhood officials who are in jail and on the run.

The Egyptian army is ascendant.  Despite its following, the Muslim Brotherhood is on its heels.  Any place in the new government for the Muslim Brotherhood will be symbolic, restrictive and monitored.

I can’t imagine the Egyptian army allowing any real possibility of the Muslim Brotherhood returning to power through negotiations or later through elections.   Egypt will go Islamist only over the army’s dead body.  That dead body would also include the progressive forces that have aligned themselves with the military.   

Those within Egypt and Egypt watchers should brace themselves for yet another decade of military/civilian repression.  Any liberality will come within repression.  But that was true with Mubarak.  The idea that Mubarak’s rule was only and everywhere repressive is untrue.  Like most dictators, Mubarak guided Egypt through an era of modernization.  The stability his rule afforded was important to that (extremely uneven) effort.  Stability without repression in Egypt remains unexplored territory.

This may be a central factor in the army’s seizure of power.  Egypt’s deep state could only see instability ahead and a retreat from Egypt’s modern course it is so heavily invested in.  Islamist politics represents a retreat for them.  To allow its reemergence now would be folly.  The most the Muslim Brotherhood can hope for is a place to bide their time – again.

The state is right to discipline religion.  Religion in power is so hypocritical it drives people into exile from the very religion they once embraced.  In fact, the hypocrisy found in religion when it has power is rivaled by only one other hypocrisy – the state exerting its power. 

The state rightly disciplines religion when it has power.   Who is going to discipline the state?

In Egypt, the army keeps pointing at the Muslim Brotherhood – understandably.  The Muslim Brotherhood keeps pointing at the army – understandably.  Progressive forces keep pointing at the Muslim Brotherhood – understandably – and wants to point at the army – but can’t afford to.  The reason is the progressive forces don’t have the power of their own. 

But then the army and the Islamists are afraid of progressives that might come to power without anyone to discipline it.  Of course, progressives can’t imagine why they might need to be disciplined.  Progressives see forces that want to discipline them as vigilantes.

Is this Egypt’s fate, to be eternally contested by vigilantes of different stripes?

Is Egypt only a microcosm of a world contested by vigilantes?

The George Zimmerman’s of the world.  If we think, it’s only an American issue, we’re kidding ourselves.

About Marc H. Ellis

Marc H. Ellis is retired Director and Professor of Jewish Studies at Baylor University and author of The Heartbeat of the Prophetic which can be found at Amazon and www.newdiasporabooks.com

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