An Egyptian Obama?

The crackdown on the heavy metal scene in Egypt is indicative of where the country may be headed.

    Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated activists scapegoated Egyptian heavy metal bands in the latest pogroms [REUTERS]
    Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated activists scapegoated Egyptian heavy metal bands in the latest pogroms [REUTERS]

    Last week a couple of Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated activists, from a group called "We're Watching You", filed a complaint with the Interior Ministry through a lawyer working for the Freedom and Justice Party. They accused the Sawy Culture Wheel, the well-known cultural hub in Cairo's Zamalek neighbourhood, which was among the first venues to allow metal bands to perform inside Cairo in the last decade, of sponsoring a Satanic gathering - a metal show in which the attendees had t-shirts with "Satanic shapes and symbols" - and were performing "satanic rituals" - also known as "moshing" - in the centre of the crowd.

    It's heartening to see Egypt's metal community, long among the most powerful in the Arab/Muslim world, refusing to be cowed and instead meeting the attacks head-on [AR]. And let's face it, any metal show that didn't put the fear of God into activists from a conservative religious movement really wouldn't be worth the price of admission (which at Sawi can cost between 30 and 50 Egyptian pounds).

     PLAYLIST series 2, episode 6 - part 1

    While it's easy to dismiss the most recent attacks as the work of a few clueless conservatives with too much time on their hands, metalheads have good reason to be fearful, as religious extremists in Egypt are attacking and even murdering people just for holding hands in public. On the other hand, it seems that public opinion is on the side of the metalheads - "For the first time ever!" declared excitedly a leader of one the premier bands in the country. Sawy's owner is threatening legal action against the complainants, the police are helping bands file a complaint against the original complainant, and the lawyer who first made the complaint himself has declared his regret for filing the case and has stopped doing interviews.

    When I wrote my book Heavy Metal Islam back in 2008 I declared that metalheads where the canary in the coal mine for the health of the larger civil society in the Arab world, and by this measure things seem to be looking up for Egypt today.

    Who's guilty?

    While JFP activists were playing into the worst fears of secular Egyptians (especially those favouring long hair and black t-shirts), UK Foreign Secretary William Hague was declaring that the British need to "just relax" and get over their "post-colonial guilt" and keep building the "new and equal partnership" with Africa that has become the rage in Western policy circles in the last decade as China has made inroads into what was heretofore a Euro-American playground.

    Only a "small minority" of Africans (which we can assume includes Egyptians) still view Britain "in colonial terms", Britain's top diplomate believes. Instead, a "new generation" of Africans just wants to get along with the powers that be and join in the building of a shining neoliberal future on the benighted continent, where free markets and liberal democracy will be the rule rather than exception.

    It's a nice vision; and it's one, ironically that Morsi and the new-old Egyptian elite likely shares, as they negotiate new loan and aid packages from the IMF, United States, Europe and Gulf sheikhdoms.

    The problem is, of course, that, like the victim of a stabbing - including Arab North Africa - the wounds of colonialism take a lot longer to heal than they did to inflict; and Africa has yet to heal from the deep wounds caused by centuries of Western interference, imperial and colonial control.

    However much of the emerging post-Arab spring leaderships in Tunis, Tripoli or Cairo might like to just get along with the global powers-that-be, the masses of still struggling and often imisserated Egyptians and Arab citizens more broadly are still suffering from the systems that were either installed by colonialism (Morocco, Tunisia, Bahrain) or grew out of the first wave of post-colonial "revolutions" (Egypt, Algeria, Libya, and Syria), all of which wound up producing mafia states that were much closer to their former colonial masters than to their own people.

    Of course, it is precisely these powerful critiques offered against authoritarianism, corruption and violence characterising these governments that made heavy metal so popular among young Arabs, just as it appealed to young citizens of the Eastern Bloc two generations ago.

    In this regard, if the Egyptian government ultimately launches something resembling the "Satanic metal" crackdowns of the late 1990s and early 2000s, when well over 100 metalheads were arrested and the scene was pushed underground for most of the next decade, it will be a sure sign that Morsi is morphing into a younger and bearded version of his now disgraced predecessor.

     PLAYLIST series 2, episode 6 - part 2

    But let's be more optimistic and hope that President Morsi actually means well, and wants to build a democratic, relatively tolerant and economically developed Egypt. To the extent that this is true, the current US presidential race offers a very cautionary tale about how the new president will likely fare as he tries to reform the country without directly taking on the vested interests who have controlled the country's political economy for well over half a century - the military and economic elite.

    An Egyptian Obama?

    Since his election, President Morsi has promised to work towards building an Egypt that is for "all Egyptians", creating a "corruption-free future", including underrepresented groups like women and Copts in the government while protecting the basic rights and liberties that were routinely violated under the Mubarak regime. Barack Obama entered office with similarly bold hopes for bringing systematic change to the United States' political and economic system. Indeed, Obama came of age as a "community organiser" - someone who works against the prevailing system which, in the US, has a very powerful history of discrimination against people of colour and the poor.

    In a sense, the Muslim Brotherhood is one of the most successful grassroots community organisations imaginable; operating under often extreme conditions, it managed to create an infrastructure that provided both aid to the poor while offering an alternative to the existing system in its various incarnations. While their social and political views might be quite opposed in many areas, both Obama's and Morsi's seemed to represent an historical shift in their countries' politics.

    Equally important, both are facing incredibly powerful and durable systems, in which military and economic elites reign supreme. And both early on in the terms demonstrated a willingness to compromise and even buttress these power centres in order to secure their own position. In particular, while both pledged to reform systems of military detention, they remain essentially intact even as some prisoners have been released (on this score, Morsi is arguably doing a better job than Obama). Moreover, no senior security personnel have faced sanction for serious human rights violations they have been responsible for, while there is little evidence that the ability of the security apparatuses to run roughshod over basic civil, political and human rights has (in the US case) or will (in Egypt's) be curtailed.

    On the economic front, both Morsi and Obama represent constituencies who have historically had a strong focus on social and economic justice. Yet both have risen to power in good measure by embracing rather than taking on the neoliberal agenda that governs their two systems. This was evident even before each of them took power, in Obama's choice of economic advisors (largely from the same Wall Street figures who helped create the financial crisis in the first place) and Morsi in the increasing adherence to neoliberal economic policies by the Brotherhood leadership in the last decade.

    President Obama clearly determined early on that his best, if not only, way to survive in office was to appease America's military and economic elites, regardless of what it meant for realising the "hope" for real "change" in the fundamental relationship both between Americans and their government, and between citizens themselves. Coming from the patriarchal and conservative environment of the Brotherhood, Morsi will have even less trouble abandoning whatever shred of a liberal and egalitarian vision he brought with him to the presidency.

    Yet just as Obama is in danger of losing his reelection bid precisely because of the disappointment caused by his failures to deliver on most of his promises, Morsi's ability to survive in the long term depend on whether he can bring substantive improvements to the lives of tens of millions of extremely poor Egyptians whose lives he promised to improve. And here he has an advantage that Obama doesn't have: the patronage of uber-rich Gulf leaders who, whatever their doctrinal or political differences with Brotherhood, clearly prefer an Ikhwan-led Egypt to a more progressive political system.

    No matter how much Obama panders to Wall Street, he cannot compete for the affections of the country's corporate and financial elite against one of its own, like Mitt Romney. But Morsi, it seems, can count on tens of billions of dollars in aid and investment from the Gulf, most recently including the $17 billion pledged by Qatar for tourism and industrial projects, which alone would constitute around 8 per cent of Egypt's GDP. In comparison, Obama would have to secure $1 trillion in foreign direct investment to equal just Qatar's investment in Egypt. In 2010 the actual figure of FDI in the United States was under $200 billion.

    If Morsi can manage to attract enough foreign investment to stimulate the economy and create a million or more jobs above poverty wages, he might well survive the coming years, whatever his record on civil liberties and basic rights, including those of the country's once (and hopefully not future) beleaguered metal community. As Obama faces an increasingly dim economic outlook, he must wish he could find his own Gulf sugar daddies to rescue him, since America's corporate cleptocracy seems strongly behind his opponent. But in a strange confirmation of William Hague's argument in the New World Order where everyone can occupy whatever seat at the global economic table they can afford, it's Obama who's left holding the proverbial empty tin cup, while Morsi rakes in the billions in investment by wealthy Gulf allies.

    This may or may not bode well for the Egyptian metal scene, although the fact that there are increasingly vibrant and public metal scenes across the Arabian Peninsula and Gulf suggest they might not have too much to worry about. But it does show that still wounded and slowly healing countries of the formerly colonised world have a long road to travel before sustainable and evenly distributed economic and political development become the rule rather than the exception, even as the countries of the West that once epitomised such hopes for the future themselves move towards "third world" economic and political systems. It's a stuation that is sure to fuel the fires of extreme metal for years to come, across the Arab world, and in the West as well.

    Mark LeVine is professor of Middle Eastern history at UC Irvine and distinguished visiting professor at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden and the author of the forthcoming book about the revolutions in the Arab world, The Five Year Old Who Toppled a Pharaoh. His book, Heavy Metal Islam, which focused on 'rock and resistance and the struggle for soul' in the evolving music scene of the Middle East and North Africa, was published in 2008.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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