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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.

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Personal

Optimism from an Egyptian Sandmonkey

The Sandmonkey

Sandmonkey is the name of a popular Egyptian blogger, particularly active during the revolution. He now continues to strive to make sure the revolution’s advances continue toward greater liberty, freedom, and democracy. In one post of his I came across recently, he outlines seven myths about Egypt post-revolution that have been repeated pervasively. These, he believes, are pervasively wrong.

I obviously cannot attest as credibly as he can, but I hope he is correct. I encourage you to read the whole essay, but here is a summary of his analysis.

Myth One: The Army is co-opting the revolution/trying to establish another military dictatorship.

Reality: The army should be viewed as individual generals, and these are old, conservative, and now extremely overworked. Yes, they repeat the patterns of the past, but they hardly know anything else, and are being called on to solve every problem, both domestic and international. They are tired, want to get back to their barracks, and are more afraid of the people than vice versa.

Myth Two: The NDP/Mubarak is still controlling the country.

Reality: They are terribly afraid, each one waiting for their sins to be exposed to the public. Mubarak, in particular, will be deemed the greatest traitor in Egypt’s history when all is said and done. The NDP figures around him will not fare well either.

Myth Three: The Islamists are hijacking the revolution.

Reality: Salafi Muslims are terrifying normal Egyptians with their call to return to the 7th Century, and the Muslim Brotherhood is suffering from terrible internal divisions now exposed by the light after years spent underground. These groups lose popularity by the day. People exhibit condescension when they think the ‘normal Egyptian’ will be swept away by religious rhetoric. They know better, and should be trusted.

Myth Four: New Parties are the only way to save the next elections.

Reality: Existing parties are important, and the new ones will be important in time. But the real power is forming outside this system. The same groups that protected neighborhoods during the revolution have kept their spirit and are becoming social forces seeking change from the bottom up. Not only this, but their perspective is sophisticated, yet their existence is widely unknown to the elites who think ‘awareness campaigns’ are necessary everywhere outside their own backyard.

Myth Five: Amr Moussa / Baradei is the new President.

Reality: While these may pass through the crucible, by all accounts neither figure will be able to survive and pass muster with the Egyptian population. More likely is that a figure emerges closer to the elections, after these two have been long chewed up and discarded.

Myth Six: International forces will destroy the revolution.

Reality: They are trying, but will not succeed. Saudi Arabia and Israel are pushing hard to keep Egypt in an alliance against Iran, but Egypt is now demanding its sovereignty be respected. Their opening to Iran is not a victory against traditional allies, but rather a confidence in the new realities of the region, post-Arab Spring. Regional powers desire the old order, but it is fading fast. More likely is that the old order undergoes its own significant popular changes soon as well. The virus is spreading.

Myth Seven: There is doom and gloom everywhere!

Reality: Optimism is ruling the day. Yes, the economy is ailing, but the state of Egypt is akin to a patient recovering from an extended illness. The side effects of medicine and bed rest produce discomfort, but will restore health. Among other examples, consider how many young people, children even, have had their political consciousness awakened. They see the world differently than their parents ever did. Their voices, as they age, will not be easily suppressed.

My take: In the past few weeks I have been tempted to surrender to many of these myths. Many Egyptians and international observers already have. Yet it is the isolated, contrarian voice that often sees things more correctly.

It could be, though, that this is the perspective of an activist, one who has poured so much into the revolutionary effort. Such people cannot allow themselves a hint of pessimism, lest their personal commitment, on which so much rides, come to naught.

Yet in the greater struggles of life, victory is often won simply by defining the reality in which the struggle takes place. Sandmonkey is keen to highlight positive continuations of the revolution. The negative ones, producing his ‘myths’, are equally true. The Egyptian future may well depend on which perspective moves to the forefront.

Update: Sandmonkey may be fudging a bit on Myth One. Here is his latest post.

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Personal

Friday in Egypt: A Decisive Day, a Turn to Religion?

So far the demonstrations in Egypt have been remarkable in that there have been few signs of religion. Though widely reputed as one of the most religious countries in the world, protests have been absent of either Muslim or Christian slogans. Tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets in cities throughout the nation to call for economic reform, lifting the state of emergency, dissolving the Parliament, and dismissing the president. The effort has been driven by social media-savvy youth from the disenfranchised middle and upper classes, but has also involved the urban man on the street. It has not involved Allahu Akbar.

The reality of the secular nature of these protests provides both its strength and its potential weakness. The strength is seen in the unmasking of the typical government plea and Western fear that if democratic change is introduced in the Arab world, the result will be Islamic rule and law, detrimental to Western interests. This position was articulated recently by Egyptian Finance Minster and Copt, Yūsuf Butrus Ghālī, in an op-ed to the Washington Post in the lead-up to the legislative elections. He wrote concerning his ruling National Democratic Party,

The main alternative to our vision is offered by those who would steer the country away from economic liberalism, religious tolerance and social progress and toward greater fundamentalism, eventually creating a religious state in a country that has always embraced diversity. Imagine for a moment an Egypt in the hands of fundamentalist mullahs, fomenting instability and allied with rogue regimes.

Certainly it is too early to tell in which direction these protests will evolve, or if they will succeed at all. The fact that they have not been religious, however, has prevented the government and its allies from squelching the outcry in defense of a secular state. Instead, their call is clear – it is a vote of no confidence in the ruling system, a pining for freedom and democratic reform. Whether they are right or wrong is another matter, but without religious overtones there is no confusion about their purpose.

The potential weakness in the secular nature of the protests is that Egyptians are largely not secular people. This is not to say that the average citizen favors an Islamic state or Christian independence; rather, it is that events and their importance are filtered through a religious lens. Will they rally behind a secular cause?

It is difficult to be precise about the makeup of the demonstrations. Certainly, tens of thousands of people are bound to include elements of every stripe. Yet observations suggest that poorer, lower class Egyptians – the majority of society – have not dominated the scene. This is in line with the general assessment of Egyptian character as anti-revolutionary and fatalistic. Though a generalization to be sure, until sixty years ago Egyptians endured the presence of foreign rulers on their soil since the days of Alexander the Great. Are they liable to join an uprising now? Can an uprising succeed without them?

In the past few days of protests the numbers have dwindled as the opposition has fortified. Friday, however, portends as a decisive day, potentially in one of two directions.

The first direction is signaled by the return of Muhammad al-Barād‘ī. The Egyptian statesman and would-be presidential candidate has drawn the ire of many opposition figures for his extended periods abroad, away from the struggles of the Egyptian street. For his part, he has stated that if the people lead, he will follow, but that otherwise, he cannot take on the ruling party alone. Apparently, enough people are leading, and al-Barād‘ī has announced he will participate in the protests on Friday, and seek to manage the anticipated transitional change. Himself a secular figure, he could prove to be a rallying point and titular head of an otherwise largely leaderless movement. Yet will the Egyptian street support him? It is an open question.

Yet, why return Friday? The second direction is signaled by the social media call of protestors to conduct a nationwide demonstration following the conclusion of Friday prayers. In and of itself, this is not a call to religion, simply to organization. The youth movements driving the protests tend to be secular in orientation in comparison to the population at large. Yet as millions of Muslims gather to pray in the mosques, if mobilized they would be an unstoppable force exiting en masse in demonstration against the government. Here is the key question: What slogans will they be chanting?

Before exploring this question it is useful to survey the few expressions of religion that have emerged around the demonstrations. Following the self-immolation that spurred on the uprising in Tunisia several Egyptians acted similarly. Islamic authorities here, however, were quick to condemn such economic or political suicide on religious grounds. Meanwhile the Muslim Brotherhood put forth an Islamist perspective that the Egyptian regime must quickly reform to preserve its control.

Yet despite initial indications, the Muslim Brotherhood maintained that it did not organize a presence during the Police Day protests. Another group that declined to participate was the church of Egypt in all its denominations, which, though no official statement was made, urged through senior bishops, priests, and pastors that Christians not join in such sedition. Instead, the Orthodox Church held an exceptional mass on Police Day to pray for Egypt. Meanwhile, many Islamic scholars from the Azhar ruled that participation in the protests did not conflict with Islamic law.

As the demonstrations continued but waned in numbers, Twitter chatter created a strategy to regroup from a position of strength, suggesting the next large demonstration organize around Friday prayers. Today this sentiment picked up steam. The Muslim Brotherhood, of which individual members joined in protest but had no official participation, declared it would join in but not seek to dominate the Friday gatherings. The rumor-slash-plan then prompted the government to warn protestors against using the mosque as a launching pad for anti-government activity. Meanwhile, there has been significant Christian backlash against the stance of the church, and many Twitter postings of solidarity with Muslims, to ‘guard their backs’ as they pray. Perhaps some were inspired to reciprocate Muslim efforts to stand as human shields and participate in Christmas mass following the bombing of the church in Alexandria.

It is interesting to note the unique religion-state relationship that exists in Egypt, which makes ironic much of the above news. Islamic institutions such as the Azhar, Dār al-Ifta’, and the Endowments Ministry which supervises all mosque activity are all under the authority of the government. As such, no matter their attainment in scholarship and erudition, these high officials and most imāms in the country can be understood as civil servants. Their job involves representing the government. As such, the allowances granted to join in the protests represent a significant departure from the government position. No one would maintain that official Islamic scholars always toe the line, but in the middle of a crisis of legitimacy, their statement is substantial.

From an opposite perspective, so is the stance of the church. While Islamic institutions and mosques are in some sense an extension of government bureaucracy, the church is fully independent. Its churches and financial endowments exist outside the sphere of government control and supervision. So while the church and state have maintained an often strained but inherently stable relationship of cooperation, the decision of church leadership to abjure participation in the protests was fully voluntary, at least officially. As Rev. Radi Atallah of the Attarine Evangelical Church in Alexandria explained, there are nervous wonderings that these protests could be an activity of the Muslim Brotherhood, but that as a rule, if minorities join protests in the wrong direction, they could lose everything. It is the wiser course of action, he believed, for the church to simply observe. Individual Christians, though, should be allowed diversity of thought and action, as long as their participation remained peaceful at all times.

This comparison calls for a return to the original question: What slogans will they be chanting? Given that the majority of mosques are overseen by government affiliated imāms, it is fully unlikely that Muslims will receive encouragement to protest during the Friday sermon. Scripting guidelines for the sermon will be a tremendous task for the government, which must walk a fine line between not becoming overly political as if it were a press release, while urging the faithful to personal piety and respect for order. In all likelihood, the sermon will be received by most of those itching for protest as irrelevant. Their minds are made up, but will the sermon help or hinder the expansion of the movement? Perhaps for these it will be irrelevant also. The movement has been largely secular; the exit from the mosque as a location will not change this.

Yet, there are hundreds of mosques that are not affiliated with the government. In these the imām simply represents the makeup of his constituency. Many perhaps are simply pious Muslims with no Islamist leanings, but many others are decisively such. These will rally hard against the government, and may whip their followers into a religious frenzy. If these began chanting Islamic slogans, will other normal Muslim protestors follow? Might it marginalize Christian supporters? Could it lead to sectarian clashes?

Some Twitter statements have encouraged Christians to exit their churches into demonstrations, but timing issues will complicate matters. Friday mass typically ends around 11am, while during winter months the mosque sermon and prayers finish around 1pm. Christian numbers will likely be statistically insignificant in and of themselves, if indeed they protest. Yet if they move toward the mosque to wait and possibly defend, how will this be received by security forces? Will there be an effect on the national unity of the protests? Will it change the nature of the slogans?

These are some of the issues at stake for the protestors on Friday. If calmer heads prevail, unofficial leaders of the movement will take all steps possible to limit the religious nature of the demonstration. Having a religious nature is part and parcel of being Egyptian, and thus the addition of religious sanction, no matter how unofficial, can only aid their chance of success. But religious fervor in a charged, highly emotional climate can easily get out of hand. There has been significant sectarian tension in Egypt in recent years, even weeks. There have also been efforts to combat this through emphasized national unity. But if things go wrong, especially in poorer areas, there is potential for clashes. This must not be overstated lest it fuel the fears of authorities and Western analysts. Egyptians, like all human beings, tend towards rationality and moderation. Yet like all human beings, they are capable of error and excess. There is no Egyptian or Islamic predisposition to violence, but all should be wary of simple human nature.

In this vein, to end the text where it began, it is of utmost importance for protestors that their image on Friday does not yield to a preponderance of Islam. This is to speak nothing against the faith; it is that many – through misunderstanding or deliberate distortion – may seize on this transformation to label the demonstrations as a threat to the prevailing world secular order. A sectarian clash would spell the end of world sympathy; even simple Muslim slogans with no vitriol towards Christians could be interpreted as evidence of a sinister plot for Islamic regional dominance. It is understood that in suppressing the protests the government has shot itself in the foot; on Friday, protestors will have opportunity to do the same. In coordinating activity at the mosque they stand the chance to multiply their numbers and influence; they also stand the chance, however limited, that things could spiral out of control.

Besides, the world waits for what will come. Is the Muslim Brotherhood lurking in the background, allowing the idealistic youth the stage so that they with their greater organizational prowess and appeal to religion may win the popular struggle in the end? This is the fear of many Christians. Is it legitimate? Is the Brotherhood democratic, or do they play at democracy? If successful, will the protests lead to greater freedom, or to chaos? Is the ruling system in Egypt the best guardian for the interests of the Egyptian people? On Friday, answers may begin to appear. The day may be decisive, in any number of directions. Religion has been on the sideline of this story so far, but on Friday, it may make an appearance. Tension is high, as are expectations. Let us pray for the good of all. This is right religion; it must also be the foundation for decisive conduct.