Echoes of Nasser

Nearly 60 years ago, Egypt's generals tried to crush the Muslim Brotherhood. It didn’t go well.

It was October 26, 1954, and Gamal Abdel Nasser was regaling a crowd gathered in Alexandria's Manshiya Square. A Muslim Brother named Mahmoud Abdel Latif squeezed through the crowd and fired eight shots at the Egyptian leader, all of them missing. Perhaps Abdel Latif was a poor marksman or perhaps, as many have since wondered, the assassination attempt was staged -- whatever the case, Nasser went on to finish his speech to the thunderous approval of his audience. The extraordinary boost in popularity that the failed assassination attempt gave Nasser and his military comrades provided the regime with wide latitude to crush the Muslim Brotherhood: In Cairo, activists soon destroyed the Brotherhood's headquarters, while near the Suez Canal, regime supporters sacked Brotherhood-affiliated businesses.

Nasser used the "Manshiya incident," as it came to be known, to justify repression of the Brotherhood. Three days after Abdel Latif missed him, Nasser denounced Supreme Guide Hassan al-Hudaybi; the press, meanwhile, warned darkly that the Brotherhood's paramilitary organization -- al-jihaz al-sirri ("the secret apparatus") -- sought to topple the regime.

For the remainder of the Nasser era, the Brothers were either underground or imprisoned. This rendered the Islamists a non-factor in Egyptian politics for the next two decades -- but the showdown in 1954 between Egypt's generals and the Muslim Brotherhood would have a profound impact on Egyptian politics for decades to come.

It's possible to read too much into the comparisons between 1954 and 2013. No one in today's Egypt has tried to assassinate anyone -- at least not yet, thankfully. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is not Nasser, though he seems to be coming into his own. But even taking into consideration the vast differences, the political dynamics of July 2013 are eerily similar to October 1954, which does not bode well for Egypt's stability, not to mention its democratic development.

After the attempt on Nasser's life, the Muslim Brotherhood's leadership was rounded up and placed before kangaroo courts. A "people's tribunal" presided over by officers Salah Salim, Hussein Shafei, and future President Anwar Sadat sentenced the supreme guide and eight others to death, though the verdicts were all commuted to life sentences. An additional 1,100 Brothers were also jailed, while another 1,000 were incarcerated without being charged.

But while Nasser and the military could repress the Brothers and shatter their political power, they were unable to erase entirely the principles and ideas that animated the organization. Within Egypt's prisons, debates raged between the Brotherhood's rank-and-file and leadership about the identity of their enemy, and from where legitimacy to govern stems.

It was during this time in prison that Sayyid Qutb, the one-time minor Ministry of Education official who had become the head of the Brotherhood's propaganda section, began laying the groundwork for a more radical and uncompromising Islamism. During his imprisonment, he revised his eight-volume magnum opus In the Shadow of the Quran and excerpted much of it in his 1964 Milestones Along the Way, which he wrote specifically for a Muslim Brotherhood vanguard who sought his guidance during their imprisonment. Milestones would become an inspiration for generations of extremists.

The growing extremism of Brotherhood members of that era carries a grim suggestion of what could be next for Egypt -- but more relevant is the narrative that developed among the Brotherhood's mainstream as a result of their experiences in the 1950s and 1960s. After his arrest, Supreme Guide Hudaybi's primary concern was the survival of the Brotherhood: He first tolerated Qutb's activism for that reason, though ultimately distancing himself from the Islamist firebrand and his radicalized followers over a variety of doctrinal and political issues. What's more, the Islamists's prison experience helped crystallize their view of the Egyptian military elite as a politically corrupt, irreligious, and fundamentally illegitimate regime.

For Nasser and his fellow Free Officers, bringing down the Brotherhood -- which had been an ally of sorts -- was critical to consolidating their power and advancing their political agenda. In the process, however, they helped create a dedicated and widely influential opposition. The ensuing struggle between the Muslim Brothers and the Egyptian state -- despite moments of accommodation -- has been one of the major pathologies both destabilizing Egyptian politics and used to justify the authoritarian nature of the political system for six decades now.

In the aftermath of the July 3 military intervention and the subsequent crackdown on the Brothers, the same risks for Egypt's political maturation are evident today. In a sad replay of history, Prosecutor General Hisham Barakat has issued arrest warrants for a who's who of high profile Brothers: Supreme Guide Mohamed Badie; his predecessor, Mahdi Akef; and such well-known figures in the West like Essam el-Erian. The charges include spying, killing protesters, inciting violence, possession of weapons, and breaking out of prison. Meanwhile, former President Mohammed Morsy remains in military custody -- not so far charged with a crime, but out of the political game nonetheless. There are also lawsuits seeking the dissolution of the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party.

The Brotherhood's determination to resist such moves adds a new and potentially dangerous factor to Egyptian politics. In fact, these efforts to undermine the movement may actually give it new life at a moment when it is at its weakest. A narrative of victimhood that runs from October 1954 to July 2013 is a powerful mechanism of mobilization for the Brothers's base: The organization is already talking about a "culture of oppression," and can add this latest episode to their narrative about the injustice of contemporary Egyptian politics.

The only hope, according to some supporters of the coup and leading members of the new government, is "to bring the Muslim Brothers into the political process." Even if these kinds of declarations were not dripping in hypocrisy -- the same figures just spearheaded an effort to forcibly remove the Brotherhood from the process -- the Brothers's best strategy is to stay outside the political game and agitate against what they believe to be the fundamental illegitimacy of it. This will only add further instability to Egyptian politics, auguring more force, more arrests, and ultimately, authoritarian measures to establish political control.

There's always the risk that repression may produce splits and radicalized offshoots of the Brotherhood, but the longer-term consequences of July 3 are likely political. The precedent of pushing an elected president from power -- no matter how contested the election or unpopular the president -- suspending the constitution, and potentially banning political parties sets a dangerous precedent for Egypt's future. Morsy and his colleagues were intent on creating institutions that enhanced their power, which makes them no different from political and economic elites the world over. But what happens the next time a group of people determine they do not like their political chances? The July 3 military intervention could grow into a dangerous precedent for using authoritarian measures to alter Egyptian politics.

Morsy and the Brotherhood proved to be incompetent in government, but the real problem going forward may be the ease with which Egyptians believe they can disregard the political rules of the game. This will ultimately make it easier for authoritarians to rig the political system in their favor, all in the name of order and stability. As those who follow Egyptian history well know, it's happened before.

Even as many welcomed Sisi's move against Morsy and the Brotherhood as a way forward for Egyptian politics, the echoes of the past are ever-present. Egyptians might want to keep in mind that in October 1954, Egypt's generals rewrote the British-era military regulation as part of their effort to ensure their power after the confrontation with the Brotherhood. The revision expanded the powers of the military and became the forerunner of the Emergency Law of 1958 -- a symbol of tyranny that survived until Hosni Mubarak's era, and which provided a legal veneer for his crackdown on Islamist and non-Islamist opponents alike.

EPA/Farook Ibrahim


Censuring the Censors

Why U.S. tech firms that help dictators restrict the Internet need to be held to account.

"Scourge," "the worst menace to society," "the best example of lies can be found there." That was Turkish Prime Minister Recept Tayyip Erdogan's characterization of Twitter as protesters, besieged by his armed forces and inflamed by his imposition of hardline Islamic law, took to the network in droves to criticize his government last month. They were not idle observations. On June 26, Binali Yildirim, Erdogan's transport and communications minister, demanded that Twitter open an office in Turkey in order to comply with orders to censor content and reveal user data. "Otherwise," Yildirim said, "this is a situation that cannot be sustained." A wholesale crackdown has yet to follow, but activists wait with bated breath. With the likelihood of Twitter opening a regional office to collaborate with government censors decidedly slim, the request was hollow -- but the threat of retribution was not. Turkey blocked access to YouTube for two years in 2008.

Cracking down on Internet content has long been de rigueur in Muslim countries, but a recent spate of censorship reveals a problem spiraling out of control -- no doubt triggered by the increase in protests against unpopular regimes. In June, Saudi Arabia suspended access to the popular messaging application Viber and threatened similar action against WhatsApp and Skype. Pakistan, ushering in its first-ever democratic transition of power, dashed hopes for reform when its new information technology minister began her first day on the job with a public threat to block Google for failing to expunge "blasphemous" content.

By breeding mistrust of government institutions and deepening fault lines between leaders and a frustrated, networked younger generation, this trend stands to destabilize a swath of countries at the heart of today's global security challenges. Reversing this trend will require a concerted effort from governments, religious leaders, and especially technology companies around the world -- both those threatened by state censors and those that have played a surprising role in making this new era of censorship possible.

Internet censorship is not a Muslim phenomenon. Many of its most powerful proponents, like China, lack Muslim majorities. But the reality is that such censorship has become endemic in the Muslim world. Almost 80 percent of the 31 Muslim-majority countries tracked by the Internet freedom organization OpenNet Initiative use some form of systematic Internet filtering. Of the seven exceptions, two (Afghanistan and Iraq) simply lacked sufficient infrastructure to filter web content, while four (Algeria, Egypt, Bangladesh, and Malaysia) censored in other ways, such as criminalizing content or harassing and arresting bloggers. Only one, Lebanon, was found to have no evidence of filtering and no censorship by other means.

Many of these countries struggle with tensions between Islamic identity and modern connectivity. These tensions are rooted in valid, deeply held convictions. But they have been exploited by repressive regimes looking for a convenient excuse to limit political expression and silence opposition. Pakistan, for example, regularly offers religious rationales for its censorship efforts. Its non-secular government has made clear that bans on scores of websites, including YouTube, are motivated by objections to material officially deemed to be "blasphemous." However, a probe by Canadian researchers found that Pakistan exhaustively blocks sites featuring political dissent -- from discussion of secession by minority groups to criticism of Pakistan's military's budget by Western media outlets.

Often, the behavior of Muslim communities has played into the hands of state censors. At one extreme, Islamist groups that have stoked violent protests of blasphemy create a culture of fear that has paralyzed even progressive politicians. At the other, the young, networked protesters that toppled governments in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen have driven the fearful regimes left behind, like Bahrain's, to further crackdowns.

These countries are vulnerable to the exploitation of religious sentiment because they lack the cultural norms and legal infrastructure required for protecting free expression. This is especially true when that expression takes place on the Internet. Some of the countries threatening new crackdowns lack a single law specifically addressing Internet freedom. Others, like Pakistan, have plenty of Internet laws in place -- all of them banning its various "objectionable" uses. By contrast, Lebanon, the Muslim country with the strongest culture of Internet freedom, is distinguished by strong laws proscribing censorship, and even a regulatory agency charged with "liberalizing" telecommunications.

State censors often rely on technology from Western companies to crack down on Internet access. These aren't passive relationships. The companies involved must maintain regularly updated lists of websites to be blocked -- featuring everything from skepticism about Islam to political dissent. For example, the computer security software company McAfee, owned by Intel, provides its SmartFilter technology to censors in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Oman, and Tunisia. The Canadian content-filtering company Netsweeper, meanwhile, blocks websites for Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Yemen, and Pakistan. San-Diego based WebSense provided a similar service to an ISP in Yemen.

With one exception, those companies and others like them have remained tight-lipped on the subject of Internet freedom. Representatives from McAfee, Netsweeper, and others declined to comment for this article. The lone exception, WebSense, is a stark illustration of what can and should be common practice: Upon discovering an ISP utilizing its technology to censor content, the company worked to disable the provider's capacity to do so and collaborated with watchdog groups to decry the practice.

The technology sector must do more to follow that lead and hold companies that sell services to state censors accountable. With censorship tied to religion in so many of these countries, companies will need to proceed with sensitivity. But fears of religious violence offer no defense of the censorship of political dissent. Companies should start by no longer maintaining lists of websites to be blocked based on politics. Making that behavior a reality will require industry-wide action. To that end, technology executives should create a consortium of companies committed to increasing transparency and oversight.

Other industries have successfully self-regulated on divisive issues. In the wake of the meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in 1979, nuclear utility executives banded together to create a safety oversight group -- the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations -- that is widely regarded as having improved nuclear safety. The chemical industry responded to similar public debacles with the Responsible Care program, committing companies responsible for 90 percent of the world's chemical production to standards for safety and environmental protection, with mixed results. The movie and music industries have long self-enforced rating standards. These self-regulation efforts aren't perfect, but they are meaningful attempts to take responsibility.

In the technology sector, there have been tentative steps in the right direction: The Global Networking Initiative, established in 2008, works to reform the behavior of technology companies with regard to human rights and freedom of expression. But its member list remains long on human rights groups and short on corporations that actually sell services to state censors. Technology companies need to start taking responsibility themselves.

Like the chemical and nuclear industries before it, the technology sector faces a turning point. Violence continues to mount in countries where tech companies help governments restrict the freedom of their people. Their reputations, not to mention the rights of millions, are at stake. It's time for them to act.

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