Egypt and the Islamic State: Two Sides of the Same Medal?

I am currently reading Iron Curtain: the Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-56 by Anne Applebaum. Her book deals with the rise of Communism and the crushing of opposition in post-war Eastern Europe (more precisely in East-Germany, Poland and Hungary). In particular, Applebaum’s aim was to give an insight into how totalitarianism works in practice, how a totalitarian regime comes about. The definition of totalitarianism that is quoted in the introduction to the book is the definition that was enthusiastically adopted by Italian fascist Benito Mussolini: “Everything within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.”

While reading one of the last chapters titled “Reluctant Collaborators”, I started drawing parallels between the post-war situation in Europe and the current situation in Egypt, Syria and Iraq. A couple of sentences in particular made me think of the Egyptian military dictatorship of al-Sisi. When Applebaum explains a number of reasons for many apolitical people to remain silent in the face of increasing oppression, she writes the following:

The devastation of the war, the exhaustion of its victims, the carefully targeted terror and ethnic cleansing – all of the elements of Sovietization described earlier in the book – are part of the explanation. Both the memory of recent violence and the threat of future violence hovered constantly in the background.

Although some of the reasons Applebaum cites are mostly applicable to the process of Sovietization, I believe the last sentence is very relevant to Egypt’s current situation. Immediately after the revolution, the Egyptian state sought to get the people back in line again. The violent crushing of dissent, sometimes through state agencies, the police and the military but also through the use of gangs of civilians, continued like no mass demonstrations ever happened.

The failure of the Muslim Brotherhood, whether because of sabotage or incompetence (probably both) to get Egypt on track posed a huge opportunity for the military to regain absolute control. The military benefitted from the immense impopularity of Morsi’s government while in the mean time demonstrations turned more violent each week. This threat of more violence, or even civil war as al-Sisi put it when he forced Morsi to resign, is why the military was thanked for “saving Egypt.”

Currently, the threat of violence is being kept very much alive by the state’s destructive “anti-terrorism” campaign, given credibility by extremists who are bombing police officers in public places or killing conscripts at military check-points. One could argue that because this threat is credible and even real to some extent, the road to a totalitarian dictatorship was put wide open, with many “apolitical” people cheering on its arrival while standing on the side of the road.

This leads me to the other totalitarians who are on the rise in Syria and Iraq. The Italian fascist definition of totalitarianism suits them even better than the Egyptian regime, I believe. The Islamic State, or ISIS, “achieves its aims by psychological means and a reputation of extreme violence” as Ha’aretz put it. In Iraq, anger with the increasingly authoritarian Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has encouraged some Sunni groups to support ISIS in its fight with the Iraqi government. By no means all Sunni groups support ISIS, but as one of the persons interviewed by Ha’aretz points out: “One hundred percent of people are angry that the Islamic State is here but there is nothing we can do.” Villages that resist the rise of the Caliphate are given an ultimatum, after which most of them swiftly comply, facing terror campaigns, kidnappings and destruction.

Obviously there exist many differences between the two totalitarian regimes described above. However, in practice, the outcome is the same: absolute control of the state over all aspects of society through the use of force. Unfortunately it seems that both of them are here to stay, although the Egyptian dictatorship appears to be the more “stable” one. Ironically, in the fight against the Islamic State and similar groups, Egypt will most likely be perceived as an ally (like it was an ally in the “War on Terror” under President Mubarak), instead of the other side of the medal of oppression.