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Prayers

Friday Prayers for Egypt: Russia, Rebellion, and Relevance

Flag Cross Quran

God,

Egypt’s presidential race is shaping up, and its arms race as well. The relevance of each is to be determined.

Hamdeen Sabbahi, who finished third in the presidential race of 2012, declared his candidacy, claiming to represent both the January 25 and June 30 revolutions. Many then saw him as the best alternative between the old regime and Muslim Brotherhood candidates, but many wonder now if his popularity remains.

God, give him clarity and courage. May his campaign highlight issues between which the people must debate and choose. Strengthen and equip him to bear this challenge.

Abdel Munim Abul Futouh, meanwhile, who finished fourth in the previous race, declined to run. He lamented the unjust state of the nation and said he would not lend credence to a foregone conclusion. He had some support then as a revolutionary, independent Islamist, but some wonder now if he has any support at all.

God, give him wisdom and prudence. May his campaign of a sort rebuke any foul play by the current authorities. Convict him to be upright and influential now, even if he is saving himself for a later challenge.

And subsequently, the Rebellion Campaign, or Tamarod, splits. They brought the possibility of a presidential election to the people through a massive signature campaign and protest to remove Morsi, but with a choice upon them they begin infighting. Some back Sabbahi, others back the yet to declare army general Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Millions backed Tamarod eight months ago, but having accomplished their goal, does anyone back them now?

God, give them perspective and chivalry. May their choice reflect the will of the organization, to the degree the organization exists. They have borne their challenge, shall they have another one?

Sisi, however, campaigned in Russia. He returned with the endorsement of the Russian president, but also with strengthened ties and negotiations for arms sales and military cooperation. This is seen as a counterbalance to the longstanding support given by the United States, implicitly protesting the widespread suspicion America is interfering in local developments.

God, give them leverage and diplomacy. May Egypt conduct its foreign policy with independence and find friends with mutual interests for the common good. This challenge is ongoing, and may not end soon.

Nearly everything in Egypt feels weighty, God, but does reality match? Is Sabbahi a real candidate or a willing foil to Sisi? Does Abul Futouh matter? Is Tamarod a discarded shell? Is Russia a replacement for America? Or is the status quo more or less immovable, with developments meant to dodge, distract, and squabble over scraps of relevance?

May it not be so. The heart is divided between selfishness and altruism; politics allows for both and no man is an angel. But may public leaders emerge having been proved as public servants. Satisfy the need for meaning and purify the desire for power.

Above all, God, make Egypt relevant, but only for good. Challenge her, and curb her rebellion. May she find the freedom that comes from doing right.

Amen.

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Interview with Ezzat al-Salamony of al-Gama’a al-Islamiya

Ezzat al-Salamony
Ezzat al-Salamony

This older interview, from August 2012, reflects a very different reality than the one Islamists experience in Egypt today. At the time they were in the ascendency; now, many of them scurry for cover. In preparation for a larger project on Islamist movements in general, however, Arab West Report only now is publishing this interview. Selected excerpts are below.

On his activity with the group in giving public lectures:

J: What is your history with the Jamā’ah al-Islāmīyah?

S: I joined the Jamā’ah al-Islāmīyah in 1979. I was at college during that time and thank God I worked with the Group and I used to preach on Fridays and give lessons. I was arrested in 1981. I am a member of the Guidance Council in Cairo, but regardless of my position, I serve as a Friday preacher and as a lecturer in conferences.

J: In a certain mosque?

S: Nowadays, I preach in many mosques. Of course before the revolution, we were totally prevented from preaching. There are two mosques here in al-Ma’ādi and another one in ‘Atabah, and on the fourth Friday of each month, I go to any mosque, for example in Helwan or sometimes outside Cairo, like in Suez or Alexandria, according to the desires of the people who want me to preach.

J: Are these mosques related to the Jamā’ah al-Islāmīyah? When you were prevented from preaching before the revolution, how could you have such relations with those mosques?

S: We have had relations for a very long time. I was prevented from preaching but not prevented from moving freely in society or from interacting with people. They would come to us to help them with their problems whether family issues or feuds between families and things like that. Instructions can be given to mosques not to let me preach in them, but I have great relations with society.

J: Are these mosques registered at the Endowments Ministry?

S: No, they are not. They are civil associations which house mosques. These associations resemble the Association of Religious Legitimacy [a longstanding Salafī non-governmental organization registered officially in Egypt and active since the early 20th Century].

J: Are they small, neighborhoodmosques?

S: No, they are large, but it depends on the civil association. There are many that have up to four mosques. They have permission from the Ministry of Social Affairs and they run their activities through associated mosques.

J: So they are legal?

S: Yes, but they are not supervised by the Endowments Ministry, which has no authority over them. The association and its administrative board supervises them and their expenses are submitted to the Ministry of Social Affairs.

Now, the government has reestablished (or, is reestablishing) its supervision and tight control of all mosques, allowing only approved speakers to appear. It is unlikely al-Gama’a al-Islamiya is finding official favor, though there is no campaign against them publicly as like with the Muslim Brotherhood.

But should their members wind up in jail, Salamony has been there before:

J: You said that you had been arrested for a while. When was that?

S: I have been arrested more than once. The first time was during Sādāt’s September decisions in 1981. It lasted a year and a half. Then there were other arrest periods that lasted between two months to a year up until 1990. In October 1990, I was arrested and stayed in prison for 15 years until January 2006, during Mubārak’s time.

J: What was the reason for that last long arrest?

S: There were many arrests during that time. I was arrested because I was a suspect in the case of the assassination of Rif’āt al-Mahjūb, the head of the parliament. But the judge gave amnesty to all the suspects and he said about me, “I have found one suspect in this case with no charges at all; that is ‘Izzat al-Salamunī,” and then I was set free.

We left the court to go back to prison with an arrest warrant. During that period my administrative arrest was open, which means that I could go to the court and present a grievance, and then receive amnesty. After that I would have to go to the state security, stay there for a night or two, only to be arrested again with a new arrest warrant.

At the prison in Damanhour there was a fountain in the center of the village, so the prison vehicle used to take the prisoners – who supposedly had be given amnesty – and go around the fountain once or twice, then send them back to prison.

But the main reason for that arrest concerned my preaching. I was preaching freely in mosques and conferences and criticizing the former regime, the tyranny and the injustice that have been unmasked since the January 25 Revolution.

Salamony says the campaigns against al-Gama’a al-Islamiya were all politically motivated, and that he personally was not involved in any illegal activity or assassination attempts. Instead, as above, he equates his group’s efforts to those of the January 25 Revolution, and the efforts of the state to prevent such an outbreak:

J: When it comes to preaching, did you call for the revolution or for any illegal movements?

S: No, I only preached about stopping injustice and corruption, and also about giving Egyptians all their rights so that no one would be enslaved or prevented from having a respectable life.

J: Did you use any means that you regret using, or perhaps you say they was suitable at that time but not nowadays?

S: No, the means I used did not go beyond words and preaching. We also called for demonstrating against any act of injustice, but all of our practices were peaceful. But starting a demonstration during that time worried the former regime, because people were submissive to oppression. If people who had influence went to the streets it was a very dangerous thing for them.

Once when I was arrested and blindfolded, in 1989, I asked one of the policemen, “Why are you doing all of this: torturing, arrests, breaking into mosques, and people get killed, why?”

He answered, “Honestly, if we let you carrying on all your social activities, and your Islamic preaching for one year, you will reach out to people and win them over to your side. Then you will overpower us and will strike us fatally, with no weapons at all. I will not give you the chance. When I arrest some of you, beat you up, and when you go on demonstrations against us, you only scratch us, which we can handle. But we cannot let you strike us.”

This has been their philosophy: to prevent anyone other than them from having influence over people, or to break the barriers of fear and terror that people had within themselves. That is why they thought that the Jamā’ah al-Islāmīyah was dangerous.

But it was not just political activism that al-Gama’a al-Islamiya was engaged in. It was social and moral activism as well:

J: What is Hisbah?

S: Hisbah, according to Islamic Law, is the promotion of virtue and the prevention of vice. The image of this concept has been distorted to many people. Islamic law states that promoting virtue can only happen through virtue, and preventing vice can never be through vice. Although it is a very beautiful image, people try to deform it. If it is applied correctly, its great fruits would be seen clearly in society.

We have to warn people that some of the things they do are wrong and harmful such as smoking and drinking alcohol. I tell them that these things are bad for their health. But some acts require intervention, like if I am walking around and see some guys trying to kidnap a girl. Here, religion tells me to protect her, and that is exactly the prevention of vice.

The Jamā’ah al-Islāmīyah practiced that guidance part within the limits of the Islamic law, and of course there were some mistakes as we are all human beings. Sometimes one may lose one’s temper, but we cannot blame our personal mistakes on the religious concepts.

He is keen to explain the ‘mistakes’. Elsewhere in the interview he describes how many occurred when the political leadership was in prison and could neither guide nor contain their youth. Escalation of attacks between the group and the police also contributed, he said.

J: What were your mistakes? You said you are just human beings who make mistakes.

S: Some of the youth misunderstood the concept of Hisbah and exceeded the limits. For example, if I saw someone committing a vice, I would go to that person and ask him politely to stop. But if I yelled at that person, I have committed vice. Religion only allows me to do what it takes to remove that vice.

J: To give an advice, for example.

S: Yes. I may only grab that person’s hand if it will remove the vice, but I am not allowed to slap that person on the face. So there are rules. Some youth would simply hit the person without giving him advice at all, which is religiously wrong. We have always warned our youth in mosques not to do such things. We have to confess these violations as we cannot prevent others from doing vice while we ourselves do it.

J: So now you know those mistakes, but during the 1970s and before your non-violent initiative, was Hisbah applied with few restrictions?

S: As leaders in the Jamā’ah al-Islāmīyah, we tried to put limits, but we could not following each and every member working here or there. But whenever we knew that a member of the Jamā’ah al-Islāmīyah did something wrong, we told him that was wrong, from the beginning.

But as I said before they were young, and youth were the majority of our members. With all of their excitement and with their little knowledge about religion, some incidents happened frequently. But as soon as we knew about them, we always acted and stated what was wrong. If a member hit someone, which is religiously wrong, we would go to that person and apologize to him and even give him the right to avenge himself by hitting that person if he wanted to do so.

J: I have read that in public gatherings, some youth used chains to disband meetings of mixed genders. These things really happened, but you see them as violations?

S: Those violations happened indeed, but some of them were done by people who do not belong to the Jamā’ah al-Islāmīyah, but their mistakes were blamed on us. Others were done by us and we stated that, before the initiative, but we were trying to settle things down. Now, thanks to age, experience, and increased religious knowledge, there are almost no violations among our members.

J: I have also read about attacks on liquor stores owned by Copts.

S: It happened once or twice.

But this was not a policy, nor was it permitted, Salamony said. But note how in his explanation he includes terminology that is very offensive to Copts, yet still has a sense of toleration about it:

J: The author quoted from Shaykh ‘Umar ‘Abd al-Rahmān stating that it is permitted to loot the Copt’s money. He issued a fatwa about that. Do you know anything about that?

S: This is totally untrue, and I heard Dr. ‘Umar ‘Abd al-Rahmān with my own ears once – as I accompanied him in many of his tours and lectures, and been with him around the whole country – saying that Christians’ and Dhimmis’ blood is prohibited to be shed, and that our religious laws state that their money is forbidden to be looted.

Even if I think that someone is infidel, not a Muslim, this does not give me the right to loot his money or shed his blood. Doctrines should be totally separated from practical life. For example, some Christians think of others as non-believers and infidels, like the Orthodox who believe that if someone does not take communion in their church, then he is a non-believer. To them I am a non-believer.

Belief issues have to do with people’s hearts. When it comes to the practical side, in the Qur’ān, God says: “God does not forbid you from those who fight you not for religion nor drove your homes, from dealing kindly and justly with them.”

From that we get that belief is one thing and how to treat people is something else. The money or blood of any human being living in the same country with me, or anywhere else in the world, is prohibited to looted or shed, as long as that person did not attack me or my religion.

in the late 1990s and early 2000s, al-Gama’a al-Islamiya began a non-violent initiative and published their change in policy along theological lines in The Revisions. This allowed many, but not all leaders to leave prison. Since then they have not called for violence, though some return to their social activism has been evidenced. But having assassinated President Sadat in 1981, and with several attempts on President Mubarak, the absolute nature of the rejection of violence is not clear:

J: I understand what you say and I sympathize with that explanation, but a couple of days ago I read that Tāriq al-Zumur commented on Sādāt’s assassin and said that he is a martyr. But how can he be a martyr, especially after your peaceful initiative and declaring that assassination is unacceptable?

S: Here, we have more than one side of the story. As I told you, to judge an issue, I have to consider its surrounding circumstances. Sādāt arrested people and criticized religious leaders like Hāfiz Salāmah that he was Suez’s lunatic. Sādāt said politics and religion should not be combined. The treaty of Camp David was also signed at that time. The general evaluation of the situation was that Sādāt was an enemy of religion and of Egypt.

That atmosphere pushed people like Khālid al-Islāmbulī and his followers to take an action. When I regard that issue now, it is not like when I regarded it at the time it happened. They were motivated by patriotism and religion with good intuition.

So when Tāriq al-Zumur said he was a martyr, he judged them according to their circumstances, which are different from ours. All the circumstances at that time showed that Sādāt was an enemy of religion. In order not to falsely accuse al-Islāmbulī, I must evaluate his situation according to the circumstances which led him to do so.

J: Why do you not just praise him and explain what he did without calling him a martyr as if it is a kind of justification?

S: In Islam, no one has the right to call someone a martyr or not, because only God knows who is a martyr and who is not. What we say is that we consider him to be a martyr, or pray for him to be one of the martyrs, according to his good intention. We pray for our brothers who have been murdered so that God would accept them as martyrs. But we cannot insure that a certain person is a martyr, because God is the only one who decides that.

Interesting to recall is that al-Gama’a al-Islamiya did not initially favor Mohamed Morsi for the presidency. After describing similarities and differences among the Islamist groups, he explained why:

J: I understand that there is a unity among you and that there is no competition among you as you have the same purpose. But the Jamā’ah al-Islāmīyah supported Abu al-Futuh during the presidential elections instead of supporting al-Shater and Muhammad Mursī, especially Mursī. Why was this?

S: It was the result of a certain view of reality. The leadership of the Jamā’ah al-Islāmīyah at that time formed a general assembly to gather our 300 members, and over the course of the day we listened to the programs of Dr. Mursī, Dr. Al Awa, and Dr. ‘Abd al-Mun’im Abū al-Futūh. The discussion lasted for nearly 15 hours and the majority supported Dr. Abū al-Futūh’s program in the first round in a democratic way, though some supported others.

J: What were the most important points that made the majority choose Abū al-Futūh rather than Mursī?

S: The majority chose Abū al-Futūh because he was independent and was a part of the Jamā’ah al-Islāmīyah in the past. He was thought to be friends with the liberals, unlike the Brotherhood as some people dislike them. We though he could gather the people around him better than any other candidate. The main point was to have unity within society. But in the second round, the Jamā’ah al-Islāmīyah chose Muhammad Mursī because at that time, the people categorized the candidates as representing the previous regime or the revolution. So the whole group chose Dr. Muhammad Mursī and their choice was based on a realistic study of the current situation at that time.

Even at the time of Islamist success, Salamony expressed doubts about the democratic outcome. But he was certain the people would not rise against them. Looking backwards his comments are poignant:

J: As a Muslim, you will do your best to deepen the roots of Islamic law in Egypt, but my question is what if the society is against you, you will continue your struggle against the people’s will?

S: That controversial assumption has no place in Egypt because the society has a religious nature, whether Muslim or Christian. If someone wants to change the identity or the nature of that society, we will face that change in a democratic way. Unfortunately, the Islamists are being judged in an unfair way.

They are accused of not accepting the other, which is not true. We accept the other but there is a difference between accepting the other and the other forcing himself upon us and that we must follow him or totally agree with him. I accept you when you stick to your opinion and I stick to mine. We can argue together and express our opinions to society. But what happens with Islamists is that they are being prevented from expressing themselves and even from speaking.

Now, when they have recently gained control, restrictions that are not forced upon anyone else are being forced upon them. So in that case, the democracy is not complete. They are talking about democracy but when it comes to us, it is being prohibited.

Please click here to read the full interview at Arab West Report.

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Interview with Abdel Munim Abul Futuh

Dr. Abul Futuh

Back in February I had the opportunity to participate in an Arab West Report interview with Abdel Munim Abul Futuh, a presidential candidate who was formerly part of the Muslim Brotherhood. At the time he was one of many. Though several candidates are still running, he and Amr Moussa, long time secretary of the Arab League, are considered the two frontrunners.

The interview was prepared by all but conducted by AWR Editor-in-Chief Cornelis Hulsman. The following are selections which I found most interesting. Please click here for the full transcript at AWR.

Egypt is currently deeply divided, including Islamists and liberals in the sense that many Islamists and Liberals primarily operate in their own circles. This also applies to many Christians. How would you be able to unite all Egyptians, regardless of their background, to rebuild the country?

First of all, your words that Egypt is divided are not right. Egypt has pluralism, but is not divided and the basis of pluralism in Egypt is political, not sectarian or religious, like many other countries. …

The Christian brothers after the Revolution left the “ghetto” [he means that they came out of their isolation] they were in before the Revolution. They became present in the Egyptian community, participating in political parties; they are present in the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) and other parties, doing their work. Christians went from protesting inside the church to protesting in their community, the community of all.

The nation belongs to all Egyptians, whether they are Christians or Muslims, men or women, Islamists or they have Islamic, leftist, or liberal ideologies. This is the state of our community: I believe it is a positive and a vibrant state and does not engender any division—this expression is not accurate.

When I go in circles of course these people who are crossing the boundaries are definitely there, but there are many who are not and who are afraid and they lock themselves up in their community. How would you unify them? How would you be a president for all?

The most important trait he should have is seeking and achieving the independence of the nation, meaning that the strategic decisions of the presidency seeks the interest of Egypt only, not the interest of a specific political party, or any foreign body; the interest of only Egypt and the Egyptians. This, in itself, will unify Egyptians because it means that the icon that brings them together and whom they elected to be their leader, is seeking to protect their interests.

The second most important trait is that this president is reconciled with religion. Egyptian people, Christians and Muslims, are religious from the time of Pharaohs; they are a religious people, they love religion. We do not have extremist secularism in Egypt as there is in Tunis or Turkey, which is why it cannot be imagined that a president who is against religion or who is secular will rule Egypt. There is no way the Egyptian people are going to elect him.

The third important thing is that this president seek to deepen the meaning of citizenship, so that citizens may feel that they are equal before the law and that the basis for any Egyptian to apply for any position is his qualifications not his gender, faith, or political orientation. …

The fourth trait: When there is justice with the presence of a real independent judiciary, it will make the citizens, whose rights were violated by any means, to refer to the judiciary to take their rights. Then the nation will be independent and will grow and develop.

You mentioned on October 2, 2011 that you would appoint a Coptic vice president if you win the election and then the caliphate was mentioned. What are your thoughts on the caliphate?

What is the caliphate? Caliphate is not a religious term, in all cases it is not a religious matter, it expresses the cooperation and unity of the Islamic countries, represented by the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC). That is it. But some of the ultra-conservative Islamists lent certain incorrect meanings.

In addition, we are not thinking about these matters now: Neither the unity of the Islamic world nor alliance, because we are occupied now with reforming the nation. What is the value of a unified world when it is ruled by dictators, corrupted, and diverted people? Of course it has no value.

Consequently, we are occupied with building our nation, not unity, unity with who? [laughing] Weak nation ruled by tyranny and corruption for 60 years! It is better to reform it and strengthen it before even thinking about cooperating with others.

According to Hasan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, God has given Muslims the right of sovereignty and hegemony, what does this mean?

What is Hassan al-Banna saying? Is this book written by Hassan al-Banna? Ah yes, “Who are We and What do We Want”. That is not the meaning of the verse and when God says “…you will be witnesses over the people and the Messenger will be a witness over you.”

If he interprets, “You will be witnesses over the people” as, “You will be guardians over the people” and dominance too, that is not true. Yes of course, if he wrote that text… I do not know where that text came from. Even if that text is of Hassan al-Banna or even Ahmad Bin Hanbal, that text is unacceptable because God in the Holy Qur’an never appoints a person to be a guardian over the other. Never.

For more clarification, when Allah told his Messenger, the Prophet and the Greatest human being in the Qur’an, in the Holy Qur’an: “So remind, [O Muhammad]; you are only a reminder. You are not over them a controller.” Allah said to the Prophet that his role is to advise only! Nothing else! Not dominance, not control, not a guardian of people! …

“To be witnesses over people” has the same meaning that God told the Prophet which is to be an advisor, wise, and give advice to people, not more. The greatest thing that came in Islam is human dignity, which opposes the idea that some human being like me can be a guardian or I become inferior to him because he is a Muslim and I am Christian for example. Or he is better than me? Or he is more religious than me? Who makes him better than me? If he is better than me to God then it is between him and God! …

What kind of government does Egypt need in your opinion? One with a strong president (such as France, USA) or one in which the parliament has a stronger role?

I support the existence of a president who has specialties, strong specialties, and I support the mixed parliamentary-presidential system, not only the parliamentary system because in the parliamentary system there has to be various parties which we do not have now. Which means three or four parties competing and that is not here.

What should be the role of the President and Parliament in overseeing the budget of the army? Would the army and police take orders from the President to maintain internal security?

Everything…the army is one of the power tools like the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. That is why the parliament should observe all these power tools whether it is the army, foreign affairs, police, etc.

The army is not above the power, it is a tool. But how we go with this with the parliament budget? These are details. It can be through a committee, like the committee of defense and national security, media committee, etc… These are details, but everything should be under the knowledge of the parliament. That is how it is done in the democratic respectful countries.

How should Article 2 of the constitution function in your opinion? Especially since Article 2 was used in verdicts in courts where it concerns religious conversions.

Freedom of Belief in the Azhar document is not related to faith switching. Article 2 does not contradict with the Freedom of Belief. Islamic Sharia has been there in the constitution since 1971 and the Egyptian people, including Christian brothers, approve of it. …

It is settled that the legislation is done through the parliament and there is no other body that can legislate except the parliament. Legislation is done under the observance of the Constitutional Court and the role of clerics—Christian and Muslim, is only to advise and give opinions and not to dominate, to legislate, or to monitor the legislation.

What percentage of Egyptians is Christian and would you make public the figures of the number of Christians from the ID cards?

I am not occupied with the number of Christians or the number of Muslims, because in a nation that has citizenship these matters are not important. Publishing information as information regardless of the way it is used.

Wrong or right, it is the right for any citizen to obtain the information they need. It is not acceptable to hide any information from citizens. As for misusing this information to hurt the interest of the nation, it is another matter.

On May 16, 2011, you stated that you support full rights of conversion to any religion, saying the state should monitor this and not Church or Azhar. How would you guarantee that conversions would be fully voluntary and how transparent would state monitoring be?

I did not say “supervise” I said “enable” the state to protect the Freedom of Religion. It is not acceptable that if a Christian wants to convert to Islam, we ask the church and vice versa. It is a personal right. That is why the Azhar document that was signed by the Azhar, Pope Shenouda, Azhar’s Grand Shaykh, political party leaders, and myself is for the Freedom of Faith. It is not the role of the church, the Azhar or the state to supervise it.

What is your stance on the proposed unified law on building places of worship?

I am against these laws. People have a right to build places of worship. I am only with laws to regulate the building of places of worship like any other building, for instance a house, only to ensure that the building meet the technical requirements.

Egyptians do not need churches or mosques, they need farms, scientific research centers, colleges, factories, houses; but churches and mosques are not needed. None of the Muslims or Christians complained that they do not have a place of worship. These matters are unnecessary. The interference of the state in these matters is the reason of all the tension.

Read the full transcript at Arab West Report, here.

Read an article about this interview at Christianity Today, here.

 

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Jostling for Position before Presidential Elections

Eleven dead after attacks in Abbasiyya Square.

The condition of Egypt is quietly very concerning these days. I say quietly for two reasons. First, in terms of the Western audience, most is slipping under the radar. Second, in terms of Egypt, the nation waits for presidential elections, and the areas of concern are easily ignored if no attention is paid to news headlines and their fascination with politics.

Yet it is in the realm of politics that power is often determined. Often, I say, because once again this struggle has been taken into the street.

Reminiscent of clashes prior to the legislative elections, eleven people at least were killed recently while demonstrating against the military council. Still, the odd quiet continues as these protests are near the Ministry of Defense in Abbasiyya, not in the iconic Tahrir Square.

Furthermore, they are characterized as ‘Salafi’ protests, as the initial gathering was by supporters of Hazem Salah Abu Ismail. The long-bearded presidential candidate was barred from competing at the last moment when it was determined his mother held American nationality. Current law requires candidates and their parents to hold Egyptian nationality alone.

Abu Ismail claimed fraud and conspiracy, and his followers took first to Tahrir, and then to Abbasiyya. There, they had been joined by many of traditional revolutionary spirit, looking to end military rule completely. The size of the sit-in was substantial without being overwhelming. Most in Egypt were just ignoring it.

But nothing in Egypt can be simple or straightforward. Repeatedly over the last week ‘thugs’ attacked the sit-in around midnight through the hours until dawn. As usual, the thugs are not identifiable with any particular party, but most assume some connection with either the military council or the old regime elements still clinging to their positions.

Yet this has been seen before, and the pattern is predictable. The best way to escalate a protest is to attack it. True to form, protestors have been increasing since then, and political forces, including the Muslim Brotherhood, are calling for massive protests tomorrow on Friday.

In past writing I have sought to dive into all of the different conspiracy theories to try to make sense of the senseless violence and loss of life. Perhaps reflective of the odd quiet is that my mind is boggled sufficiently after fifteen months of conspiracy that I am unable to do so and reluctant to try. Instead, the task requires description of the politics preceding the street fighting.

For months, the aforementioned Muslim Brotherhood has escalated its rhetoric against both the ruling government cabinet and the military council which stands behind it. Both prior to and following the disqualification of their own primary candidate for president – Khairat al-Shater – the MB has called for this cabinet to be sacked. In its place they ask to form the government themselves, as they reflect the majority will of the people in parliament.

The military council has refused, as is appropriate, even according to previous MB logic. During the run-up to parliamentary elections many liberal and revolutionary forces objected to the roadmap laid out by the military council. Rightly, the MB insisted on the ‘will of the people’ as represented in the results of the March popular referendum, which endorsed the military roadmap.

Yet this roadmap also made it clear the parliament had limited responsibilities which do not include executive authority. The MB recognizes this, but now translates the ‘will of the people’ into parliament composition, in which they are chief. The MB speaker of parliament took the unilateral step of suspending parliament activity as a pressure tool – since they cannot sack the cabinet themselves – and this was without any consensus from the larger body. It is not clear if he even called a full vote.

The Muslim Brotherhood is running a candidate for president, but he was the backup to al-Shater, and does not appear to enjoy wide popularity. The race – barring more surprises – has shaped into a choice between a former MB member, Abdel Munim Abul Futuh, and a former member of Mubarak’s cabinet, Amr Moussa.

Abul Futuh was expelled from the MB when he early on declared his intention to run for president while the group denied ambition to the post. He is an Islamist, but within this spectrum he is widely credited as a liberal.

Moussa, meanwhile, does not suffer unduly from the stain of Mubarak’s legacy as he enjoyed a lengthy tenure in the Arab League, away from the running, and corruption, of government. At the same time, due to his connections with government he benefits from the desire on the street to see a return to stability and is a somewhat anti-revolutionary figure, as opposed to the necessity of reform.

Some conspiracies say Abul Futuh is the secret MB candidate, and that his expulsion is theater. Others say Moussa is the candidate of the old regime, with the military seeking its re-formation through him.

And then there are the conspiracies which abound over the recent violence. Do some powers not want the issue of power decided in presidential elections? Is this the last final push before executive authority – of any stripe – is reasserted?

If so, is it from the frustrated youth who have seen their precious revolution mangled in the halls of politics?

Is it from the frustrated Salafis who have seen their populist candidate barred on the slightest of violations, if not on fraud altogether?

Is it from the frustrated Muslim Brotherhood, who also had a candidate barred and find themselves trapped in a powerless parliament?

Is it from the frustrated old regime, which finds itself on its last legs and is desperately trying to discredit the revolution and its democratic transition?

Is it from the frustrated military council, which desires to hold on to its privileges – if not its rule – while presidential frontrunners cannot necessarily be trusted to play along with it?

It is best, fitting with the lethal quiet, to put aside the conspiracies and simply say yes to all of the above, to whatever degree. There is a deep conflict over power playing out its final acts. This struggle has been rumbling ever since the revolution succeeded in overthrowing Mubarak but failing to decisively result in a change of system. Each actor has a role. As it may not result in one winner-take-all, each is seeking their biggest slice of the pie.

Given there are no deep patterns of democratic succession, it is unsurprising the conflict spills out into other means, even violence.

Yet it is the violence that is most concerning. Weapons have proliferated. Militant attacks occur in the Sinai. Suspicious fires – literal flames – have broken out across Egypt. While they may simply be the work of coincidence, the question of who is ‘burning Egypt’ has been a popular query, even if a manipulated one.

So, eleven Egyptians are dead in Abbasiyya, added to the post-revolutionary toll. Perhaps on Friday their numbers will swell further. Is more violence coming, or was the violence simply a means to increase the crowds?

Last time there was such violence, in November at Mohamed Mahmoud Street near Tahrir, it brought about a change in government as the cabinet was sacked. If the conspiracy which posits a deal between the Muslim Brotherhood and the military/old regime is in play, will we see the same soon?

Or, as a leftist presidential candidate with little chance of victory has interpreted this deal, will it result in a military coup? Recall, these protests are not in Tahrir; Abbasiyya hosts the military headquarters.

Perhaps one day Egypt will settle. Perhaps the positive social forces unleashed in the revolution will eventually coalesce into open and transparent governance.

These days are not now. It is likely Egypt must suffer a little while longer. There are three weeks remaining until presidential elections.

Perhaps, only perhaps, these will signal the end of transitional troubles.

 

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Interview with a Presidential Candidate, Summarized

Dr. Abul Futuh

Dr. Abdel Munim Abul Futuh is a frontrunning candidate in the Egyptian presidential elections. He has been a member of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Guidance Council for twenty-five years, but now finds himself officially outside the organization as a result of his desire to run for the presidency. The Brotherhood has stated it will not field a candidate for this post, and thus expelled him from the group. Nonetheless, his stature as a liberal-leaning Islamist positions him well among current declared candidates, and there is a better-than-fair chance he may be Egypt’s next president.

Arab West Report was able to secure an interview with him; questions were posed by Editor-in-Chief Cornelis Hulsman, and composed under his supervision by Yousef Habib, Jenna Ferrecchia, and myself.  Prior to the full transcript and analysis thereof I will place now a brief preview. The final transcript will be posted with a link to the video of this interview in a few days.

The interview was conducted in Arabic, so the nuances of his answers must wait until the proper and precise translation is finished.

How do you plan to unite Egypt as president, given her current divisions?

Egypt has diversity, not division. In order to unite Egyptians the president must have four characteristics:

  • He must work for Egypt’s independence and national benefit
  • He must be religious to fit with the population
  • He must deepen the reality of citizenship
  • He must render justice according to the law

Are you truly independent from the Muslim Brotherhood?

I take pride in the Muslim Brotherhood and in its moderate Islamist ideology. But my separation now is not a tactic. I do not represent the Brotherhood and am completely independent in terms of organization.

What is your opinion about the caliphate?

This is not an Islamic religious term. It represents simply the idea of international cooperation but is misused by many. In any event it does not concern me. I am interested in building Egypt. Besides, as we are now, who can we unite with?

What is your opinion of the Hassan al-Banna quote: ‘The Qur’an has made Muslims to be the guardians for an incapable humanity, giving them the right of superintendence and sovereignty over the world.’

If Banna or anyone else said this, it is an incorrect idea. No person may claim guardianship over any other person, and Islam does not support this. If someone claims to be on better standing with God than someone else, fine, but let him take this up with God. Between men, anyone who sets himself up as better than another, even religiously, damages the essential dignity of humanity.

Note: al-Banna is the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood. Click here for a summary translation of a compilation of his writings, here for an analysis thereof, and here for the response of a regional leader of the Brotherhood to some of its quotes.

Earlier your said creating the Freedom and Justice Party was ‘a risky gamble’ in the likelihood it would mix proselytizing and politics. What do you think now after their electoral success?

Now as before I do not support the Muslim Brotherhood in creating a political party, as there is an obvious mixture between the two. Every day you get some Muslim Brother – non-affiliated with the Freedom and Justice Party – speaking about politics. It is not good.

How do you see the proper role of Egypt’s president and parliament?

The president should have strong powers but these should be shared with parliament, which maintains both a legislative role and one of oversight on the executive branch.

How do you view the process of reform at the Ministry of Interior?

It is not simply a matter of firing officers, but engineering a change in culture so the police become in service to the people. But this must be done with respect to the preservation of stability.

What are you views about the coming constitutional assembly?

This must be representative of all sectors of society, some of which may come from parliament, but not most. It must produce a national dialogue in order to create consensus, even if this takes time. But out of respect to the March referendum, the writing of the constitution should take place after presidential elections, not before.

What is your view about Article Two of the old constitution, making Islam the religion of the state and the principles of Islamic sharia to be the source of legislation?

It was part of the 1971 constitution and was approved widely by the people. Today, everyone supports it, including Christians.

How many Christians do you think are in Egypt, and should their official number be made public?

I do not have an estimate on their number, but the fact of their number should be part of public information. What is done about this number is another matter, but as a statistic it should be released.

You stated previously there should be no barriers to religious conversion in any direction. What is your view?

Freedom of doctrine is a basic human right and enshrined in the recent Azhar document. But neither the Azhar nor the church should have any role in conversions, as if they must give their approval. It is the state alone which must guarantee this freedom.

What do you think about the unified law for building houses of worship?

This is an invented issue. There is no need for a law but only for administrative permits where there is a need. But really, Egypt does not need more mosques or churches; it needs farms and factories.

How do you view issues of marriage and divorce?

In Islam, marriage is a civil matter, not a religious issue. But if a Christian wishes to have a religious marriage, this is a matter for his community. But in terms of the state marriage and divorce should be civil matters. The problem some Christians have in getting divorces is simply a matter between him and the church; the state is not involved.

What are your ideas on economic policy and Islamic banks?

Time does not permit a full answer, but the gap between the rich and the poor is largely an issue of corruption and poor administration. As for Islamic banks, they exist now everywhere in the world. People should have the freedom to choose the bank they wish to use, with all options available.

Thank you very much for your time, Dr. Abul Futuh.

Update: The interview has now been transcribed. Please click here for the post.

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Good Guys and Bad Guys in Egypt: A Look at the Recent Demonstrations in Tahrir Square

Demonstrator with Gas Mask, an Unfortunate Reality in Recent Protests

As an American Christian in Egypt I find that I instinctively view events here through the following lens: Liberals are the good guys, Islamists are the bad guys, and the army is somewhere in between, perhaps neutral, perhaps not. Complicated times beg for simplistic narratives, and this one suffices. Other groups maintain their favorites, but for most rooting interests become established, even if objectivity is sought. In crucial times such as these, witnessed in the recent clashes in Tahrir Square less than one week before scheduled legislative elections, complexity is overwhelming, and a lens is not only a false crutch, but a dangerous one. This text will aim to set the scene as honestly as possible, admitting its unfortunate bias from the beginning.

The lens is dangerous because so much is at stake, with interests colliding from numerous directions as lives fall in the process. Yet all lenses have criteria, and mine is this: Manipulation.  No matter who is confined where in the ‘good guy – bad guy’ evaluation, a place is assigned by the degree to which self- or group interest is sought on less than transparent terms. All have a right to seek their interest, and politics in essence is a mutually accepted game of manipulation – none of this is rejected. What colors the lens is the favor or disfavor granted to a particular outcome of the process, even if legitimately won.

I stated my natural predisposition above; I set forth my conviction here: I am a foreigner in Egypt, and neither have nor seek a stake in the outcome of events. I wish the best for this country in accordance with the will of its people, and will honor both winners and losers of the current political struggle. What I hope is that the struggle will be transparent, and in this spirit, for the benefit of readers I will narrate events according to my best observation and judgment. Please remember that much is uncertain, and in the end, I have little idea where Egypt is headed. It is far too premature to label anyone good or bad.

The Basic Story

At his resignation following the protests beginning on January 25, President Mubarak ceded power to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, headed by Field Marshall Tantawi. Riding a wave of popular acclaim for their decision not to violently suppress the protests, the military council assumed legitimacy to head the democratic transition process as the only undamaged institution remaining in Egypt. This legitimacy was validated in a national referendum on March 19, endorsing the military transitional vision. It called for legislative elections to determine a parliament, whose members would choose a constituent body to write a new constitution. Following a referendum to approve the constitution, presidential elections would be held. The entire process envisioned the military returning authority to the people within six months.

Ten months later, the transitional process has been very uneven. The economy has faltered as the security vacuum has expanded. The military has stood accused of violating basic human rights, and sectarian attacks have afflicted Muslim-Christian relations. The military’s impartiality has been called into question vis-à-vis the other political powers, and a specter of ‘hidden hands’ has been blamed for many ongoing troubles. After much political wrangling, legislative elections have been set to take place in three stages, beginning November 28.

The Lead-Up

Roughly three weeks before elections, Deputy Prime Minister Ali al-Selmi introduced a supra-constitutional document meant to bind the future constituent assembly in shaping the future constitution. This document resurrected a dispute from months earlier, which divided liberals and Islamists over the guarantees necessary to preserve Egypt as a civil state. Islamists are generally believed to be the dominant plurality, if not majority, following elections, and liberals feared they might write a constitution leading to an Islamic state. Islamists and others, meanwhile, decried the process as being ‘against the will of the people’, since the national referendum gave parliament alone the right to craft the constitution. The earlier crisis was averted through the intervention of the Azhar, the chief institution of Sunni Islamic learning, in which all sides pledged to preserve basic human rights in a civil state – in a non-binding document.

Al-Selmi, with elections looming, sought to gain binding approval. His document mirrored the Azhar’s, but included clauses that gave the military privileges to guarantee the constitutional nature of the state, as well as be exempted from legislative financial oversight. Furthermore, it imposed stipulations on the makeup of the constituent assembly to draft the constitution, drawing the majority of members away from legislative designation. It imposed a timeline to complete the draft, which if transgressed would reset the whole process through a new assembly chosen entirely by the military. Lastly, it ruled that if the final constitution violated any provision of the supra-constitutional document, it would be annulled.

All Islamists fumed at al-Selmi’s initiative, and though many liberals appreciated aspects of it, most balked at the privileges given to the military. Negotiations continued, with Islamists especially threatening massive protests if the document was not withdrawn. Though al-Selmi yielded by amending objectionable sections and removing its binding nature, the protest had gained too much momentum, and went forward anyway, on November 18, ten days before scheduled elections.

Friday, November 18

Principally organized by the Muslim Brotherhood and more conservative Salafi Muslim groups, the demonstration also witnessed substantial youthful revolutionary participation, including leftists and liberals, with some Copts as well. Most liberal political parties refrained, however, believing the protest to be threatening to public stability or just being too Islamist. Yet the turnout was massive, demanding not only the withdrawal of the al-Selmi document, but also a defined timetable for military transfer of power to civilians after presidential elections in April 2012. Many political forces threatened to turn the demonstration into an ongoing sit-in protest. By the end of the day, however, most organized parties, including the Muslim Brotherhood, withdrew by nightfall. A handful of Salafi and revolutionary groups camped out overnight in tents in the central Tahrir Square garden. Their numbers vary, but top estimates equal around a couple hundred.

The next morning security forces dispersed the remaining protestors, as they have done with lingering protestors previously. On this occasion, however, something triggered a wide response among the activist and revolutionary community. By afternoon, many began descending to Tahrir Square to protest at, and clash against, the violent dispersal. These were also met by force, and rapidly thereafter the numbers began to swell. By nightfall, Tahrir was re-occupied by several thousand.

Saturday – Monday, November 19-21

These thousands encamped in the square rather peacefully, but on a side street to Tahrir a pitched, violent struggle was taking place. While over a thousand people crowded into Mohamed Mahmoud St., several hundred engaged the police force with rocks and Molotov cocktails, while police responded with tear gas, rubber bullets, and alleged live ammunition. The street led eventually to the Ministry of Interior, though the battle was as of yet a ways removed. Hundreds of injured began to multiply, along with the death of one or two. These were scurried to makeshift field clinics hosted in various parts of the square. As the frontline protestors tired or fell injured, others would surge forward to take their place.

This scene continued almost nonstop for all of Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday, not only in Cairo but also in Alexandria and multiple other cities of Egypt. Official figures now list thirty-five dead and 3,256 injured. Most of the dead are from Tahrir Square.

Inside the square was a different story. Numbers multiplied but did not fill it, and all remained peaceful. That is, until sunset on Sunday, when a joint police – army initiative stormed the square, violently dispersed thousands of protestors, and burned their tents and banners. Rather than securing the area and preventing further occupation, however, they withdrew after an hour, apparently content with destroying the sit-in preparations. As they pulled back, protestors returned, and even more descended following the operation.

Noteworthy is the makeup of the protesting crowd. Most were the leaderless masses resembling the initial January uprising – youthful, middle and lower class together, along with the oft-violent soccer hooligan bands. Yet it also included the prominent Salafi presidential candidate Hazem Abu Ismaeel, who called on his followers to join them. Though in January the Muslim Brotherhood participated in the uprising, Salafis did not, as their doctrine generally requires obedience to the ruling leader. In this case, the Brotherhood was making equivocal statements as per their participation, but eventually decided not to come, though some of their youth, especially, were undoubtedly there. Other Salafi groups distanced themselves, but Abu Ismaeel brought along with him a substantial religiously-oriented minority. It is not clear who made up those fighting on Mohamed Mahmoud St., but it appears they were both youth and hardcore activists.

All were chanting no longer about the al-Selmi document or a timetable for elections. Instead, it mirrored that of January: The people want the fall of the regime, or more specifically, the fall of the field marshal. Such chanting – as well as the fighting – went on all day Monday, and on Tuesday the demonstrators called for a million man march the next day.

During this period speculation became rampant that the solution to the crisis might lie in forming a national unity government. The possible presidential candidate Mohamed el-Baradei has been advocating for months a reset button, in which a civilian presidential council would be formed, a constituent constitutional assembly, and following their work and a referendum, elections would be held for president and parliament based upon the new system. Yet only a day before the large Friday Islamist dominated protest Baradei re-proposed his idea in the form of a national unity government. Then, on the night of the million man march he appeared on a popular satellite program to make his case to the nation.

He made it, however, with Abdel Munim Abul Futouh, a Muslim Brotherhood member who was kicked out of the party when he declared his intentions to run for president, while the group insisted it would not field a candidate for the post. They spoke of their willingness to work together for the sake of the nation, a liberal and an Islamist, to guide the transition through. Meanwhile, the April 6 Movement, a key organizing figure for the ongoing protests, also issued a call for a national unity government, naming Hazem Abu Ismail, the Salafi, as another member, a prominent judge, and leaving a space for the military to add one from its ranks.

Media reports circulated meanwhile that the government of Prime Minister Essam Sharaf was tendering its resignation, and that the military council was in deliberation over appointing Baradei as the new head. All the while, the numbers of protestors increased, and the fighting continued in the side streets.

Tuesday, September 22

The day of the million man[1] march resembled the uprising in January. Every corner of Tahrir Square was full, and every segment of society was represented – men, women, and children. Only one party was absent – the Muslim Brotherhood. Earlier in the day Mohammed el-Beltagi, one of the leaders of their political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party, announced his support for the protestors against the brutality of the police, and visited the square. Frustrated with the Brotherhood reticence to come earlier, and perhaps also with the fact he arrived with a small group and not hundreds of supporters, the protestors kicked him out and sent him away. A short while later the Brotherhood announced it would not participate, preferring not to add to the instability of the situation, and compound traffic. Other figures stated they feared a trap from the army.

Such fear did not prevent the Brotherhood from negotiating with the military council that day, joining in with other political parties. They and other Islamist currents joined the liberal Wafd Party, a longstanding member of the faithful opposition to Mubarak’s National Democratic Party. Others joined in, but the liberal Free Egyptian Party boycotted until all violence stopped against protestors. The liberal Social Democratic Party, their election coalition partners did participate, but later issued a public apology for doing so, following the events of the next few hours. Oddly enough, this included the defection of two army officers into the crowd of protestors, shouting against Tantawi, arguing that much of the military was against him. One was Captian Ahmad Shoman, who joined demonstrators in Tahrir in January as well.

Around 7pm Field Marshal Tantawi delivered a taped message addressing the nation, an act which had been generally handled by other officers. He painted a picture of the great efforts the military council has expended to bring about a democratic transition under difficult circumstance. He mentioned the faltering economy and differentiated between the army and the police. Then, to a degree, he offered the concessions.

Some minor ones were significant. He declared the investigations surrounding the deaths of protestors in Tahrir would be investigated by the general prosecutor, not the military. Additionally he transferred investigations surrounding the death of twenty-seven mostly Coptic protestors at Maspero, allegedly at the hand of the army, though some believe third-party thugs were involved. There has been much criticism that a case involving the military had received military jurisdiction.

As for the most substantial concession, he made it toward the political demonstration of Friday, not toward the mass popular demonstrations since then. He announced the military council would cede power following presidential elections no later than July 2012. He also announced the acceptance of the government’s resignation, but not until the formation of a new government, but made no mention of personnel or timetable. He did, however, declare the elections would be held according to their scheduled date, now only six days away.

Finally, he added a clever wrinkle. He stated the welcome of the military council to leave power immediately, if that was demonstrated as the will of the people through a referendum. As such, he widened the question beyond Tahrir Square to all of Egypt, where substantial support for the army remains.

As for Tahrir Square, it was furious. Protestors compared it to the first speech of Mubarak, offering meager concessions. They held up their shoes in protest. They chanted for the immediate transfer of power. They were confident the events of January were replaying themselves, and they smelled triumph. Soon they smelled something else.

All during Tantawi’s speech the fighting raged on Mohamed Mahmoud St., including the constant use of tear gas. Veterans of this struggle against the regime have been subject to tear gas for months, but in these past few days they noticed it was of a stronger makeup. Some believed it to be CR gas, which is a banned chemical weapon in the US, as opposed to regular CS gas.

Those fighting in the side streets were pushed back near to Tahrir Square, and the tear gas began to fall on its periphery. Some said it was launched into the square itself. Others stated the gas now in the square was colorless – unlike the white plumes from the regular issue – and incapacitating. Rumors stated the people were under chemical attack, even coming up from the metro ducts, to drive them from the square to make it look like Tantawi’s speech was convincing. Others stated it was only the waft from the side streets, yet recognizing how painful ordinary tear gas is. Baradei, however, tweeted it was nerve gas, and Abul Futouh concurred some sort of gas dispersal effort was underway. Many left Tahrir, but it was clear that many thousands remained as well. Confusion reigned, and protestors vowed to continue their sit-in until their demands were met, yet fearful a military crackdown might come at any minute. As the night passed, it did not.

Wednesday, November 23

The next day violence continued on the side streets though Tahrir Square remained calm. Truces were brokered to end the fighting, with one effort secured through the intervention of Azhar sheikhs, after which hugs were exchanged and protestors even began cleaning up the street from debris. Yet after each period of peace violence would inevitably flare up again. ‘Who started it?’ is a question almost impossible to demonstrate, but most place the blame on the security forces. Though Tantawi stated the police would be replaced by military personnel, this did not take place.

On Thursday the army itself intervened, separating protestors and police, and erecting a barrier between the two sides. The police were finally withdrawn and the military secured both this road and other side streets in the direction of the ministry of the interior. Furthermore a group of protestors, believed to be the youth of the Muslim Brotherhood, formed a human wall where Tahrir Square enters into Mohammed Mahmoud St., preventing passage from either direction. Salafis present in the protest also made sure to condemn the violence. Some stated they shared in the demands of Tahrir, but others insisted they were there only to protect the people.

Thursday, November 24

When calm prevailed I decided to visit the square myself. I went to the field hospital hosted by Kasr el-Dobara Church one street to the south of Tahrir Square. Rev. Fawzi Khalil stated they had even treated three police officers, in addition to the dozens and dozens of injured protestors. Yet he verified the account of strange tear gas, and that it had been directly fired into Tahrir Square for thirty minutes straight following the address of Tantawi. One of their own volunteers, Dr. Safa, had passed out while treating others.

Dr. Muhammad Menessy had been a volunteer at one of the field hospitals within Tahrir Square itself, and as a general surgeon he handled the serious cases. He moved to the church, however, following the deliberate targeting of the hospital by security forces. Though basic clinics remained, all critical injuries were moved to places of worship, here or at Omar Makram Mosque, as their safety was inviolable. He testified he had seen spent canisters of CR gas, as well as numerous cases of people convulsing and losing consciousness in repeated pattern over several hours. Though there had been no fighting at all that morning, I witnessed one patient still in the cycle of symptoms.

Before reading to leave two random events provided more context on events. First, a crowd of people came down the street in front of the church, chanting something. A thief had been caught in Tahrir Square. Apprehended by protestors, they beat him severely, and then brought him to the church for treatment, and safety. Not all were happy at his transfer, though, and some scaled the walls incensed at his delivery. These were calmed by the intervention of a Muslim sheikh who was on the premises, as well as others, and then went away.

Second, a young protestor stumbled into the clinic, fully conscious but bloodied from obvious blows to the head, which were bandaged. Able to interact, I asked if I might speak to him, wishing to discover why these youths were fighting so ferociously in the side streets. As the conversation ensued I learned he was Maged al-Semni, better known by his Twitter name @MagButter, and a member of the Alexandria chapter of the No to Military Trials organization. He was not a fighter, but was on the side streets none the less.

Al-Semni was with fellow renowned Twitter activist Mona el-Tahawy, who he had only met personally that day. They wished to see the side streets where fighting took place, but were blocked by the human wall. Instead they went to see Bab el-Luk Square, where other fighting occurred nearby. After moving in the direction of Mohamed Mahmoud St., they were noticed and fired upon. Bystanders in civilian clothes motioned to a safe place to hide out, but then were beaten there, Mona was sexually harassed, and both were turned over to the police. Maged was transferred to Tora Prison, had his cell phone stolen, spent the night with other detainees, and then released in the morning. He had worked his way back to Tahrir Square, and sought medical attention in the church clinic.

The rest of the square was in waiting mode. Friday was the call for another million-man demonstration, and though there were several thousand people milling about, it was quite easy to navigate. Some were cleaning up trash, others were handing out surgical masks for tear gas defense. I sat with a few Islamist-looking youths due to their long, scraggly beards, and asked their opinion. They were elusive about which religious or political strands they belonged to, emphasizing instead the unity of Islam. Yet one asked why America continued to incarcerate Omar Abdel Rahman, convicted for inciting the 1993 World Trade Center terrorist attacks, when he was clearly innocent. Another lauded the youth of Tahrir as akin to the youth of the early Islamic conquests, in whom religious strength resides. They were with the protest 100%, wishing to see the military council give up its power immediately. Yet they would vote in elections for anyone who promoted the good of Egypt – Islamist, socialist, or liberal – and celebrated that ‘the street’ was there with them. They believed the majority of these demonstrators wished Islamic rule. From appearances, though appearances can be deceiving, I disagreed. So did Rev. Khalil, who estimated 90% of protestors were in favor of a civil, non-religious state, however important Islam is to them as a faith.

Friday, November 25

On Friday Tahrir Square was filled as expected. There was no violence, but political wrangling began in earnest. The military council appointed Kamal Ganzouri as the new prime minister, bequeathing him with full powers to form a national salvation government, in accordance with the spoken will of the demonstrators. The square rejected him out of hand, not only was he 78 years old and been Mubarak’s prime minister in the 90s, the protestors had their own desires for a national salvation government. They selected a representative who presented what was described as the will of the square, to name Baradei as prime minister. They asked that fellow presidential candidates Abul Fotouh and Hamdeen Sabahi, a Nasserist, be his deputies, and also named a prominent economic journalist and reform minded judge to complete the council.

Friday witnessed two other competing protests, and then one more that developed following the political impasse. The International Union for Muslim Scholars called for a demonstration in support of al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, and the Muslim Brotherhood backed it. Only a handful of people attended that gathering at the Azhar Mosque. Azhar officials, meanwhile, backed the Tahrir protest, and a deputy of the Grand Sheikh spoke during Friday prayers.

The other protest was organized by supporters of the military council, and drew several thousand people. They lauded the efforts of their leaders during difficult times, and opposed the disruption at Tahrir Square. There were fears the two groups might march one toward the other, but each stayed put without confrontation.

That statement is not entirely true. A few hundred demonstrators in Tahrir Square departed and readied for a confrontation – not toward the counter-protest, but toward the prime ministry. They marched several blocks and occupied the space in front of its offices, to deny the now-appointed Ganzouri the ability to enter the building and begin his work. A standoff is in the works, and rival governments are on the horizon. Though neither Baradei nor the others have accepted any official designation, the political situation is tumultuous, with no clear endgame in sight. Meanwhile, elections are only three days away, now extended to two days per round.

Conclusion

There is much in Egypt currently that does not make sense, which opens wide the public discourse for all manner of conspiracies. Were these crowds manipulated into massive demonstrations? If so, by whom, and why? Does the military wish to sabotage elections to stay in power? Has the military struck agreement with Islamists to deliver them an electoral victory? Has the military struck agreement with liberal forces to discredit the otherwise democratic Muslim Brotherhood? Are the protesters minority revolutionaries now seeking power by pressure since they will not win elections? Are the protesters Islamists who fear their popularity might not deliver a clear victory in elections, so they are seeking an alternate route? Aspects of the above narrative can be marshaled to evidence any one of these theories.

Or, are the events just happening? Do they represent genuine anger between protestors and the police force? Do they represent political forces trying to position themselves in light of circumstances? Do they represent the military council seeking balance for the best national outcome, if through soldierly tactics or otherwise? Much is at stake in Egypt, and many wish to grasp at power. Could events simply be the conflation of mutually antagonistic strivings for self-interest, mixed with miscalculations, mistakes, and failures in dialogue?

These questions figure prominently in determination of the original question: Good guys, bad guys, and rooting interests. If all have manipulated, are they all disqualified? Or has the manipulation been within acceptable grounds of politics? Or, if one’s rooting interest is strong, have the ends of a favored party justified their means? Yet as of this writing over thirty people have died, and there is little justification for this, however blame is distributed.

Perhaps events will only be understood in retrospect, or perhaps they never will. Egyptians especially have the responsibility to gauge actions, weigh motivations, and cast their lot with one side or the other. They must do so with partial information and political biases. Through either cooperation or competition their divergent interests will come together in a decision, with winners, losers, or degrees of the same. Yet if one or more parties are manipulated out of the game entirely, they risk all becoming losers. In times of revolution, excluded parties may choose to fight, and fight violently.

I hope for peaceful solutions. I hope for transparency. I hope for an outcome pleasing to the national will, for the good of Egypt. There need not be good guys or bad guys, only sons and daughters of the nation. If there are bad guys, may they be exposed; if there are good guys, may they be successful. Yet may all be honored, and may all see the triumph of their nation, forged anew in this historic time.

 


[1] The term ‘million-man’ has become popular since the uprising in January, but more scientific estimates posit that at a number of four people per square meter, Tahrir Square could hold upward of 250,000 people. This is an impressive accumulation of people, but not approaching the literal figure implied.