Anne Alexander examines the political backdrop to the recent round of protests in the Middle East
Protests across the Arab world triggered by the trailer for an anti-Muslim film on YouTube have set off a predictable deluge of Islamophobic commentary. For many in the mainstream media, the protests express the irrational and violent nature of Muslims.
Anyone who has been inspired by the Arab revolutions should oppose the bigotry that lies behind explanations like this. Moreover, the anger at US imperialism across the region has deep-seated causes that are not figments of conservative Salafi preachers’ imaginations.
Nevertheless, there are also other pressures at work in the recent series of demonstrations and attacks. In Libya it seems likely that the attack on the US consulate was the work of an armed group that used the film controversy as an opportunity to act.
In Tunisia, protesters who stormed the US embassy were condemned by the ruling Ennahda party that won last year’s elections.
Ennahda was the main Islamist opposition group under the old regime and its relationship to the Salafist groups blamed for the embassy protest is complex. The two groups are competing for votes and support in the street.
But Ennahda also benefits from the Salafists’ efforts to shift the main focus of politics away from the issues of social justice and genuine democracy. Its government offers ordinary Tunisians neither of these things.
Similar pressures are at work in Egypt. Just over three months ago the political scene there was rather different. It seemed the generals of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf) might succeed in returning former dictator Hosni Mubarak’s last prime minister to power.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate, Mohammed Mursi, was ridiculed as a “spare tyre”. Mursi was shoved onto the electoral bandwagon at the last minute.
As the votes were being counted, Scaf moved to bring in constitutional changes which would turn the newly-elected president into a powerless puppet.
Now the Brotherhood’s room for manoeuvre in relation to both elements—the old regime in the state and revolutionaries in the streets—has increased. Mursi sacked the figures in Scaf who had led the onslaught against the revolutionary protests of the past year.
The new president also simply undid Scaf’s constitutional changes with his own decree. Brotherhood leaders have had greater success recently in speaking a political language that resonates on the streets and beyond.
Mobilisations over the anti-Muslim film and in solidarity with Syria have seen marches in Egypt’s provincial capitals—some of them mobilising thousands.
The Brotherhood’s increased confidence reflects the fact that the epic struggle between Scaf and revolutionaries over the past year ended essentially in a stalemate.
The massive popular mobilisation from below wasn’t strong enough to cause a new crisis in the state and break the core of the old regime. Strikes and protests did not synchronise during the uprising in November 2011. And the appeal for a general strike last February failed to win support.
But important sections of the military preferred to strike a new deal with the Brotherhood rather than risk an all-out assault on the revolutionary movement.
This does not make the balancing act that Mursi has carried out in relation to the film protests easy to sustain.
Attacking the US for “insulting Islam” is much safer territory than addressing the question of Palestine. It allows the Brotherhood to skirt difficult questions about Egypt’s role in maintaining the siege of Gaza. But it is very difficult in practice to keep these issues separate.
And there are other problems for the Brotherhood. The biggest of these are the state of the economy and the ongoing strike wave. Teachers and university lecturers have struck, while Cairo bus drivers have walked out. But Egypt’s budget deficit has risen to 11 percent of GDP.
If the International Monetary Fund agrees to give Egypt a loan, it is widely expected the price will be cuts in food and fuel subsidies. Clearly, further storms are coming.