Friday Prayers for Egypt: Camel Recall


Egypt has once again produced a crisis. This one may only be mini, but perhaps official reactions will reveal its extent. Tahrir filled with rocks and Molotovs, as demonstrators faced off one to another.

The crisis was slow brewing, and then sudden. For weeks liberals have railed against the membership of the committee tasked to write the constitution, saying it was unrepresentative of society and dominated by Islamists. For days they have called for a protest against it.

Then only two days before a bombshell was announced. The accused in the revolutionary Battle of the Camel were found not guilty on all charges. The Battle of the Camel followed on the heels of Mubarak’s promise not to run for reelection, and had quieted some revolutionary fervor. Once camels and horses followed afterwards – with snipers reported as well – the protest dug in its heels. Soon Mubarak was gone altogether.

It was a strange event, making little sense even at the time. It galvanized the opposition, with blame laid at the feet of members of Mubarak’s regime. Now, they are free men.

The Muslim Brotherhood especially and revolutionary forces additionally were outraged, and pledged to fill Tahrir in protest. The Islamists had previously dismissed and criticized the already planned demonstration; now, they appeared ready to overwhelm it.

Groups in opposition with contrary demands do not make good bedfellows. With the stage set for conflict, it erupted. Throughout the afternoon and evening Egyptians threw projectiles at Egyptians. Much of the time, it was hard to tell who was who.

What to make of this, God? Amid all the confusion, perhaps prayers should be simple.

Give justice to those responsible for all protestor deaths and injuries during the revolution. Be it the accused or others, men were willfully killed. To date, almost no one has been held accountable. Establish the truth, God, so that Egypt might know. Only upon the truth can there be healing, justice, forgiveness, and reconciliation.

These are requested between demonstrators as well, God. Old wounds were opened, causing recent ones to pain all the more sharply. The issues run deep, but so does the original unity of Tahrir.

But together, God, it seems Egypt is moving backwards. Judicial observers say the court case was handled poorly. Rock throwing is juvenile. But there is no time to lament steps in reverse when a constitution is pending.

Draw Egypt back, God. Mend her spoiled relations and develop her fractured politics. Give her good leadership and active citizens. Protect protests when they are necessary, but help most issues to congeal through consensus.

And though it is a near constant refrain, God, expose the manipulators and give transparency to the process. May those who plot evil fail. Rebuke them that they may repent, but keep them from a share in shaping Egypt’s future. May this be left to those who love her and honor all her citizens.

God, establish the right and the good in Egypt. Help her to live in peace.


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Muslims Care for the Heart of a Monk

A spiritual man, Fr. Mercurious knows the only guarantee is from the hand of God. At the same time, his surgery to prevent a heart attack was in the hands of Muslims.

A few weeks ago the forty year old monk in the Monastery of St. Makarious in Wadi Natrun had open heart surgery. Suffering from high cholesterol, his doctor advised this course of action at the earliest date possible.

With genetic propensity from his father, and narrow arteries from his mother, the simple diet of a monk was not enough to guarantee health.

Fr. Mercurious did not intend it to be so originally, though this had nothing to do with religious preference. Like many Egyptians, he inquired first if he could travel to the US or UK for surgery. When embassy procedures did not go anywhere, his doctor recommended a specialist hospital in 6 October City, a new development outside of Cairo.

The surgery went well. Muslim Egyptian doctors grafted veins from his arms and legs to bypass his arteries, which were blocked at 95%. They even gave him special deference due to his clerical disposition.

It is not a remarkable thing, really. Well trained doctors demonstrate their skills on a human being. Unfortunately, it is often not the sort of story heard about Egypt.

Fr. Mercurious related his operation in the context of the changing religious climate of Egypt. While admitting his isolation from the world, he keeps up with events through visitors to the monastery and their tales of political and social developments.

Before entering the monastery after university studies, Fr. Mercurious stated he had only the best of relations with all Muslims he knew. Yet in the past several years he had the impression that the number of ‘extremists’ was increasing.

Is this a function of real change in the character of Muslims, or of real change in the perceptions of his Christian visitors? Surely the two must be somewhat related.

Dr. Mohamed el-Menissy is a Muslim doctor who volunteered at the field hospital in Kasr el-Dobara Evangelical Church near Tahrir Square during clashes in November. In asking him about his experience – not his faith – he insisted over and over again that Muslims and Christians love each other in Egypt. He was near desperate to get this message across to the West. He even gave me the phone number of his Christian doctor colleague so as to confirm their friendship.

Of course Dr. Menissy is telling the truth of his experience, but does such single-mindedness betray a deeper reality frantically denied? Is he hoping the world to be right, if only by insisting it is?

Perhaps it is as simple as rightful offense at media – both Western and Arab – which focuses on problems to such degree it obscures reality, perhaps even to the extent of transforming it. Speaking to media, perhaps Dr. Menissy wanted to transform it back.

What purpose does this story serve, then? In highlighting a non-news event of a Muslim doctor operating successfully on a Coptic monk, do I help stem the tide of negative reporting? Or do I play into the narrative of distinction between Muslim and Christian?

Fortunately, I carry no such burden. I tell the story of the monk because he is my friend and it is interesting. I tell the story of Dr. Menissy because it fits in this context and honors his desire. Both show a slice of life that is worthy to be known more widely.

As for what these stories say about Muslim-Christian relationships in Egypt: They say the truth. It is not the whole truth, but it is an essential truth.

The next time a church burns, it is important to acknowledge this as the truth also. One story balances another.

Such complexity marks our own lives – we chafe at being reduced, simplified, or misunderstood. Let us grant the same grace to Egypt.

After all, as these stories show, she shows much grace to her own.

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Morsy Reinstates Egypt’s Parliament

Military Council head Tantawi (L) and President Morsy

That was fast.

After only one week in office, President Morsy has picked his first fight – he issued a decree to reinstate the dissolved parliament.

Shortly before the run-off election the Supreme Constitutional Court ruled parliament to be unconstitutional based on procedural grounds, and the military council issued a decree to dissolve it.

Morsy, now with the executive power of the presidency, has undone the decree of the council.

Moreover, he threatens the legislative power the military council afforded itself in the interim period between the dissolution of parliament and the writing of the constitution after which new elections will be held.

Morsy promised the return of parliament from his victory speech in Tahrir Square. He used language, however, which left him wiggle room to fulfill this promise simply with new, eventual elections.

When he took his oath of office in front of the constitutional court, however, it seemed he was accepting the court decision and military prerogative to set the path of transition until a new constitution was written.

When he was seen repeated hobnobbing with the generals, it gave the impression a deal, or at least an understanding, had been reached. That is, Morsy made his ‘revolutionary’ speech, but now was getting down to business in cooperation with the military.

He is certainly getting down to business now.

The ruling to dissolve parliament was questionable, but it was issued by the ‘independent’ court. Whether or not it is, of course, is also questionable, but Morsy pledged to uphold the law and respect the judiciary.

On the other hand, many observers see the court ruling and subsequent constitutional declarations by the military as a power grab, or at the least as an effort to balance the power of the president and an Islamist parliament. Yet both president and parliament were elected democratically – though perhaps this is also among the questionable issues of Egypt’s transition.

This statement is not necessarily to cast doubts on the results, only to reflect the common perception that Egyptian’s votes are only an aspect of the power struggles underway in the country.

Morsy’s move comes one day before the High Administrative Court was set to issue a ruling on the legality of parliament’s dissolution. It is unclear if this case will docket as scheduled. The military council is holding an emergency meeting at present.

Two items to cast shades of conspiracy. One, some suspect this is a continuation of play acting between the Brotherhood and military council. A few months ago they railed against the performance of the government and threatened to withdraw confidence. They never did, but used the episode to justify going back on their promise not to field a presidential candidate. Under this theory, the crisis was engineered then, and is engineered now to present the Brotherhood as a revolutionary force deserving of popular and international support. The military, it is posited, is simply being a foil for the emerging power, with which they are fully in cahoots.

Two, it is noteworthy that in the last day or two President Morsy received a letter specially delivered by the undersecretary of state, William Burns. Its contents were not made public, but the timing is suspicious. The released text, incidentally, narrates the parliament before the constitution.

‘It will be critical to see a democratically elected parliament in place, and an inclusive process to draft a new constitution that upholds universal rights.’

According to conspiracy, however, ‘secret’ instructions could either supplement the theory above, or, more deviously, could be telling the Brotherhood the US has your back in a move against the military.

Away from conspiracy, the next moves may be telling. Morsy’s move is a definitive challenge to the military’s authority. If there was a deal, it seems clear he is violating it.

The military’s position is difficult. It will be hard pressed to go against the executive authority of a popularly elected leader. Indeed, it is the right of the executive to implement – or ignore – administrative aspects of the state.

It was assumed, if there was a deal, that the military possessed a number of cards which could be played against Morsy, with which to hold him in check. There is a court case pending, for example, to dissolve the Muslim Brotherhood as an organization. There may also be challenges to the legality of his campaign. He, like all other candidates, violated rules. He may also – though this is speculated popularly – have received foreign funding.

After all that has transpired, it would be difficult to imagine any of these legal measures unseating a president, but Egypt has had surprise rulings before.

And at the end of the day, a coup d’etat is ever on the table.

It was not imagined Morsy would move against the military so quickly. The expected path was to accommodate and slowly squeeze them from power, as in Turkey, and to a degree, in Latin America.

It seems Morsy will play his cards now, however. Coming days will reveal either his flush or his bluff.

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Morsy at Tahrir

Addressing the crowd

Amid the celebrations, and worry, over Egypt’s new president, there has been a small crisis over where President-elect Morsy will swear his oath of office.

The military’s supplemental constitutional declaration says that in lieu of parliament, he must swear in at the Supreme Constitutional Court.

Many Islamists, however, fail to recognize this declaration and the dissolution of parliament, and insist he swear his oath in front of the chosen delegates of the people.

Revolutionaries, on the other hand, demand he swear his oath in front of them at Tahrir Square.

Mosry has chosen the balancing act, honoring two of three.

Seemingly submitting to the military dictate, Morsy is due to take his oath of office tomorrow. Many interpret this as a tacit acknowledgement of recent military decisions, or worse, indicative of a ‘deal’ or power-sharing arrangement.

Others say Morsy is simply playing along by the rules of the military in order to obtain the presidential office, at which point he will slowly, but surely, work to reverse their accumulated power. Under this scenario, he is currently cementing his revolutionary and centrist credentials so as to keep a popular mandate to resist, and then press against, the military.

Along this path, today Morsy pledged his allegiance to the Egyptian people at Tahrir.

During his 45 minute speech, he gave a little bit to everyone.

To the establishment he said he comes with a message of peace and Egypt will not attack anyone. Israel was not mentioned specifically but the intention was clear enough.

To the centrists he mentioned he would be the president of all Egyptians. He placed Muslim next to Christian, specified tourism workers, and included those who opposed him, and still do.

To liberals he pledged Egypt would be a civil, national, constitutional, and modern state.

But for the revolutionaries he saved his theatrics, worthy of Mario Balotelli’s pose. In the middle of his speech, Morsy left the podium and addressed the crowd directly. He then opened his jacket to reveal a plain blue shirt, and more importantly, no bulletproof vest. He trusted in God, and in the Egyptian people.

The triumphant pose against Germany
The dramatic pose at Tahrir

Morsy led chants honoring the ‘free revolutionaries who will continue the path’. He vowed not to accept any limitation on the powers of the president, implied in the supplementary constitutional declaration.

More poignantly, he pledged retribution for the martyrs and injured of the revolution. He did not specify, but most revolutionaries finger the military.

And when he finished his address, the official chanter boomed, ‘Field Marshal [Tantawi], tell the truth. Is Morsy your president or not?’ It was a direct challenge.

The only group left out of the above was the Islamists. There were no calls for sharia.

But he did tack them on at the end, almost as an afterthought. After referencing the large banner near the stage, he took up the cause of Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman. Known as the Blind Sheikh, he sits in an American prison for conspiring in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. From here he promised to work for the release of all prisoners incarcerated during the revolution, and included the Blind Sheikh in their number.

And finally, he called the people to unite in their love for Egypt. Yet to this he added such unity and love would ‘promote the cause of the umma’. Umma is an Arabic term generally taken to denote the Muslim nation as a whole. He did not elaborate, but perhaps hinted at, or subconsciously expressed, the greater aims of the Muslim Brotherhood project.

Reviewing Twitter later in the day, it was clear many Egyptians, even those opposed to the Brotherhood, were impressed. Perhaps not being raised in the arts of Arabic rhetoric I could not appreciate it, but I found the speech a bit rambling and repetitive. At the same time, however, it was a stark departure from the autocrat norm. Morsy was comfortable, engaged, and theatric. He reveled in his moment.

As for the content, a politician is often judged successful by how many constituencies he can please. In this case, he hit the mark. Morsy had to shy away from his base, but even the Omar Abdel Rahman reference can possibly be understood as one of justice, as I have written here, here, and here. At the least, a nation should be expected to lobby on behalf of its citizens jailed abroad, even its guilty ones. Still, the reference will give fodder for analysts to focus on Morsy’s extremist agenda, as well it possibly might suggest.

More likely it was a bone thrown to the Salafis and al-Jama’a al-Islamiyya, but who knows?

Another bone might concern the wrangling over the powers of the president. It is a key revolutionary demand, and of the Brotherhood as well. But largely it is nonsensical. Without a constitution, the powers of the presidency are undefined, yet to be determined by the people. That Egypt has reached this point is the fault and possible manipulation of many; but here, it is a rallying cry more than an issue of substance. That is, unless the charge is true the Brotherhood wish to gain control of everything.

In the end the largest question remains unanswered: Is their conflict or cooperation between the military and the Brotherhood? At Tahrir, did Morsy throw down the gauntlet, or simply pose for dramatic effect? Or, somewhat in between, was he establishing a bargaining chip? It is hard to tell. One’s answer here depends on the reading given to the revolution as a whole, not just on today’s speech.

A speech, which was on the whole successful. Is it his high-water mark, or is the best yet to come? Stay tuned, as the revolution continues. (Or not, depending on your interpretation…)

Post-script: After Morsy’s speech, Tunisian Prime Minister Rashed Ghannouchi addressed the crowd.[Ed. note: Ghannouchi leads al-Nahda Party, but is not prime minister.]Among other remarks he praised the martyrs of both the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions. To their number he added Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, who was assassinated, allegedly on orders of the government.

He then added Sayyid Qutb, who was hung following trial Nasser. While perhaps a victim of military rule, Qutb represent a strand of strident Islamism that employed violence and questioned the faith of Muslims who differed from his vision. Ghannouchi’s mention thereof, like Morsy’s reference to the umma, may reveal more beneath his public agenda. Or not; perhaps he just knew his audience.

Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

What Egyptian Christians Think about their New Islamist President

Morsy celebrating victory

My article on Morsy’s victory was originally published at Christianity Today on June 25, 2012.

In the most democratic elections since 1952, the people of Egypt have freely chosen their leader. And for the first time in history, that leader is a native-born Islamist.

Mohamed Morsy of the Muslim Brotherhood captured 51 percent of the vote, narrowly defeating his rival Ahmed Shafik (widely perceived as the candidate of the former regime) who gathered 48 percent. Jubilant crowds in Tahrir Square celebrated into the night, though for diverse reasons.

Many rejoiced at the triumph of the candidate of Islam, one who had pledged to implement Shari’ah law. Others, nervous at the prospect of Muslim Brotherhood rule, nevertheless exulted in the triumph of the revolution, first deposing Mubarak and then defeating his former minister.

Some, though not likely in Tahrir, quietly exhaled at a democratic election and rotation of power, hopeful these gains will not be reversed.

Meanwhile, at a Christian retreat center outside of Cairo, a number of Coptic women shed tears of despair over their community’s future, as they huddled around a television and watched Morsy be proclaimed the winner.

Some of the men tried to find the positive…

Please click here to continue reading at Christianity Today


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What’s Behind the Mubarak Verdict?

Mubarak, transferred to Tora prison

The headlines in the West will read, ‘Mubarak sentenced to life imprisonment.’ They may also say, ‘Egyptians take to the street in protest.’ Confused?

Unless one reads more deeply the obvious connection must be that protestors wanted his head, literally. The reality is rather simple, just not within the headlines.

Mubarak and the former Minster of the Interior Habib al-Adly were convicted, but the chiefs of the Ministry of the Interior were declared innocent. The statement says there was insufficient evidence to link them to the charge of killing protestors during the revolution.

So the primary revolutionary reaction sees a political ruling pure and simple. Mubarak and Adly were thrown under the bus – though many fear the case may be overturned on appeal. Meanwhile the figures on the ground who represent the backbone of the old regime are let free. The cry is that the regime is rebuilding itself, just in time for presidential elections.

To add salt to the wound, Mubarak, his two sons, and other financial cronies were declared innocent on corruption charges.

Therefore, this is where Egypt currently stands. A year and a half after the revolution, the president is in jail, but still no one knows who actually killed the protestors.

What is far more curious is the estimation of what is going on behind the scenes. It is little coincidence that the verdict was issued today; closing arguments were presented months ago. The only difficulty is deciphering what the coincidence means.

To preface, however, it must be stated first and foremost this may have simply been a ruling according to the evidence. Sufficient or otherwise, all involved may be honest men. It is noteworthy few voices are asserting this at the moment, though some have celebrated the achievement of a guilty verdict being issued against a former Arab strongman. Like the trial itself, it is a marked change in the traditional status quo.

But it is much more fun to engage in conspiracy, however sad the fact it is still the traditional status quo.

There are three main variations espoused:

The immediate judgment, for which thousands have now descended to Tahrir Square, is that the old regime is defending its own henchmen, though Mubarak has outlived his usefulness. Fitting in with halting efforts at implementing social justice and real democracy, protestors see this judgment as one more nail in the revolution’s coffin. The final one will occur with the election of Ahmed Shafiq, by hook or by crook. Many of this ilk judge his presence in the run-off elections as due either to their outright interference, or to the fostering of conditions prejudicing the people to desire the return of law and order.

How does the confusing judgment against Mubarak aid the Shafiq campaign? This removes the conspiracy one step beyond the revolutionaries who have been sucked in. Conspiracy number two has two prongs, the second nastier than the first.

The first prong states the verdict was made exactly to draw protestors back into the square. Over the past eighteen months the legitimacy of street politics has been whittled away as the people grow tired of endless protest. Given the revolution is still largely leaderless, protestors can be relied upon to trip over themselves in greater and greater radicalization. If not, well-placed infiltrators will foul things up for them. This pattern has been seen over and over again. Repeated once more on a large scale, the public will say – ‘But they convicted Mubarak, what more does the revolution want?’

Then they will go to the booths and elect Shafiq.

The second prong posits the conspiracy is not working solely for the preservation of old regime or military council power, but for a United States and Israel who desire to see Egypt devolve into utter chaos. Here, the powers-that-be are accomplices, but the Mubarak trial and the presidential elections are simply means to pull the rug out from under those whose appetite was whet for reception of power.

This could be the socialists, or it could be the Islamists. The point, as mentioned before, is radicalization. A coming corollary to the manipulation of Mubarak’s trial could be the ruling on the constitutionality of parliament, or on the constitutionality of parliament’s law to isolate Shafiq politically, not yet applied. Any number of vague, unclear, or manipulative judgments on these issues could get people back to the streets en masse. Take care to watch if somehow or other the presidential run-off elections are ‘postponed’.

At what point will aggrieved parties take up arms? This prong of the conspiracy is salivating at the question.

The final conspiracy batted about is not nearly as nasty but nearly equal in cynicism. This has been heard most often by Coptic voices and some liberals, finding a scheme in the works to bring the Muslim Brotherhood to power.

To introduce this strand of thought, it is noteworthy the Brotherhood has called upon members to take to the street in protest of the Mubarak verdict.

Of course, drawing the Brotherhood in fits well with the different prongs of conspiracy two. Back before parliamentary elections the Brotherhood stood aside while revolutionaries were being killed on Mohamed Mahmoud St. They feared a trap, and did not want to jeopardize the elections in which they were poised to do well.

As it turns out, pragmatically, they made the right decision. But though they won the great plurality of seats, they lost almost all of their revolutionary legitimacy. Now deeply committed to the presidential election, the Brotherhood is trying to claim it back. As Shafiq is clearly a non-revolutionary candidate, they must capture the revolutionary constituency if they wish to win.

Now back at the square, they can either be discredited or radicalized, but conspiracy three posits otherwise. It notes the Brotherhood has been in close collaboration with the military/intelligence service since the revolution began. It furthermore asserts that Brotherhood-regime bickering has been mostly a show.

The point at hand is in order to cede power to the Brotherhood legitimately, the population must embrace them democratically, and by a wide margin. A wary public and international scene would demand no less. Step one engineered the victory of Shafiq, to the detriment of other candidates with more revolutionary cred. Step two is to engineer crises in order to get the Brotherhood to lay claim to revolutionary leadership.

Most revolutionaries have not bought any of the Brotherhood’s efforts at rebranding, but this does not matter much. They have already been strong-armed into at least a boycott if not grudging support for Morsy out of their deep conviction against the old regime. They have little appetite for an Islamist project, even if some to many have Islamic sympathies. But they feel they can deal with the Brotherhood whereas a Shafiq victory will crush them.

But revolutionaries have no nationwide electoral weight, though the revolution bears much electoral sympathy. The conspiracy states the public is being shown every reminder of old regime corruption – gas shortages, shady court cases, financial fraud, and even the reconstituting of the Ministry of Interior – in order to lend their vote to anyone but Shafiq. Who would this be now, after the run-off? Only the Muslim Brotherhood, as all other revolutionary forces have been set aside.

Since this scenario is so counter-intuitive to the traditional status quo, the question must be asked about why. The simple answer is that in order to remake the old regime, it needs the Muslim Brotherhood. Mubarak’s political power rested in the National Democratic Party, which was thoroughly dismantled – and headquarters burned – after the revolution. No suitable party exists to take its place, except the formerly hated Islamists.

Of course, if this conspiracy is true, there are even more possibilities. The first is that the presidency is given to the Brotherhood for the same reason parliament was given – to discredit them in the eyes of the people. Perhaps the old regime, not truly in cahoots with them, will give four years to watch them fail in handling every crisis they inherit, and others to be provoked along the way. Then, finally, Islamism can be dismissed without weapons or prison terms – the ineffective methods of the traditional status quo.

The second and third possibilities return the conspiracy to the international scene. The United States (Israel features less prominently here) desire Islamist rule perhaps to foster regional stability in accordance with democratic principles. Egypt is Muslim, let the pro-business and pragmatic Brotherhood rule, and we can get on with our lives without incessant instability from Cairo.

Or, in the apocalyptic scenario, the United States desires another eventual enemy. The war on terrorism is running thin, with the only current conflicts parried about through drone warfare. The military-industrial complex needs more than that. The region – through Islamism – must become stronger to at least enable another Cold War. This will permit defense contracts to remain plumb parcels of every budget for years to come.

Unfortunately, this scenario works well to prove the depth of depravity to which conspiracy thinking leads. Unfortunately further, this is the reality in which Egypt is currently operating.

Perhaps the Mubarak verdict was perfectly just given the standards of law. The standards of revolution, however, are always murkier.


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Friday Prayers for Egypt: Ripples


As a tumultuous period has passed, though not been resolved, smaller items follow in succession. Largely Islamist protests the past two weeks in Tahrir rippled out to the governorates, where thousands of people demonstrated to ‘save the revolution’. It is hard to gauge the effect, but if Islamists decide to continue, and if revolutionaries decide to join them, Egypt could be shaken up and down the Nile, not just as previously in Cairo.

But for this week, revolutionaries did not join them. The quotes used earlier reflect their estimate that Islamist protest is only a tool for leverage against the military, not a commitment to the goals of January 25. It is an old question, but viewed through a new strategy. Revolutionaries have railed against the military for months; as latecomers are Islamists true converts or old manipulators? Regardless, should they join hands anyway, or let the two come to blows, if indeed that is fated?

God, the ripples are in advance of elections, when a tsunami may engulf them. Stabilize Egypt in the coming weeks that this first democratic experiment might hold and issue confidence.

Such confidence may be waning, as another ripple disqualified a candidate, only to bring him back again. Mubarak’s prime minister following the outbreak of the January revolution has long been a candidate for president. Parliament passed a law to bar all old regime figures, under which he was eliminated. Then, strangely, only a day later he was cleared in his appeal.

God, there is much that makes one shake the head in confusion. For the normal citizen, keep such vagaries from returning perspective to the prerevolutionary days of resignation.

For the political parties, aid their understanding of what must be fought for, and what may be accepted. If all must be fought, then give the strength and endurance to do so.

For Egypt’s judiciary, may members be men of integrity and courage, that they may interpret the law as it was intended, and for the good of the people. If this was not the intention, give discernment in the absence of clear separation of powers.

For the military council, give them steadfastness to complete the long period of transition. May they stand at arm’s length from each pursuant of power, and equip the people to make wise decisions. May they keep the nation from danger, especially that which is self-inflicted.

God, gear Egypt for these final coming stages. May she endure and overcome all challenges; may she emerge victorious in honor of all who have sacrificed for freedom. These are many, from all spectrums of society.

In the end, however different their viewpoints and disappointed their efforts, may they all embrace in celebration of what was wrought, that it may continue.

And God, may such success ripple throughout the region, that it too may know peace. Bless Egypt, God. May she soon have rest.



Friday Prayers for Egypt: Tahrir Return


As all competing forces have returned to street politics, what deductions should be drawn? Does it hurt or help the revolutionary cause? Is that cause itself to be celebrated or questioned?

Revolutionary forces have seldom left Tahrir, whereas Islamists abandoned it for politics and parliament a long time ago. Now that they return, should revolutionaries welcome them, reject them, or remain suspicious? Is there forgiveness in politics? Has any sense of repentance been offered?

While the protests united around a palpable rejection of military rule and deep doubt concerning the democratic transition, there was little coordination between forces. There is thankfulness that their developed acrimony did not translate into inter-Tahrir scuffles. But does a moment of common interest suggest deeper reconciliation?

Expressing doubt, there is less certainty concerning the common man. Certainly it took time for the masses to accept the January revolution. There seems to be less than worry or opposition now; it feels more like apathy.

Perhaps the politicians deserve it, God. The people do not. Are the politicians desperate? Does the return to the streets signal they are losing? Dare they escalate?

And if there is apathy, God, this is not a virtue. Convict the people, God, that they might care for their future, regardless of the party they believe will best shape it. Even if they dismiss parties altogether.

The times are confusing, God. What would you have an Egyptian do?

Give wisdom to the military council, God, that they might govern effectively and honestly.

Give wisdom to the parties, God, that they might represent the plurality of national interests.

Give wisdom to the people, God, that they might hold on to the values celebrated during the revolution. May they realize their commitment is necessary to see them through.

Bless Egypt. Make her path straight. May her people be righteous.



Friday Prayers for Egypt: Eligibility


Egypt grows more interesting by the day. The Muslim Brotherhood enters the presidential fray despite earlier assurances otherwise. A Salafi candidate teeters on the brink of disqualification on the technicality his mother may have obtained US citizenship late in her life. Yet all is trumped by the candidacy of Mubarak’s crisis-appointed vice president and long time head of the intelligence service.

All revolutionary forces loudly decry the latter, seeing in him the rebuilding of the old regime. Islamist forces took to the streets against him and filled Tahrir Square. Non-Islamists, however, stayed away, as transition frictions have sullied the relationships of original allies. They call for a protest next week.

May all end peacefully, God. Large scale protests have been infrequent recently, largely because so many have ended in violence.

There are fears for this one, as Salafi supporters of their candidate have remained in the square demanding an answer on his eligibility. Rumors abound a decision is pending.

Fill their hearts with righteousness, God, and protect them if disappointed. Protect them from the danger of their own anger; from the ill application of searching for justice. Protect them from any who would wish to pin such violence upon them and tarnish their image.

So much is confusing, God. May truth prevail.

Even the candidacies of the Brotherhood and Mubarak’s VP are questioned. Of the former, a criminal sentence of questionable validity could disqualify him, though a pardon was recently issued. Of the latter, Parliament passed a law of questionable validity to bar him and others from running.

Yet whereas the revolutionary camps’ divisions are hardening, may this not poison the people. May this rally bring blessing to Egypt, and may the following one do likewise. Subject all soon to the crucible of elections, that popular will be properly gauged.

May this be true even if the candidacy of the VP becomes a referendum on the election itself. Give Egyptians wisdom to make the choice best for their nation, resisting all competing manipulations. Honor their common sense and good nature.

For these and other candidates, God, test their hearts and establish the truest eligibility. May this be in terms of your values, not of rules and regulations. Honor the law, and help Egyptians to craft it accordingly. But give them a man after your own heart, one who will govern wisely, justly, and humbly.

Bless Egypt, God. Hold her steady as the tremors of transition unbalance many. Bring her through this period and establish her as a rock upon which your grace and mercy take hold. They have already enabled so much, including these controversies.

May they also pass, and may all be well.



Drawing through the Walls: Artists Beautify Cairo’s Barriers

Over the past several months the military council has erected massive stone barriers during street confrontations around the Interior Ministry near Tahrir Square. They have meant either to separate revolutionaries and police forces engaged in pitched battles, or, as a preventative measure to block the path to the ministry itself.

As a consequence, not only has Cairo’s traffic snarled even further, the city has grown ugly.

Here is an example:

On Qasr al-Aini Street

On March 9 revolutionaries decided to take a different tack, launching a campaign called ‘Drawing through the Walls’. Artists chose the day to set upon the erected barriers with brush, paint, and stencil. Beginning on Qasr al-Aini Street, across Sheikh Rihan, and down the now-(in)famous Mohamed Mahmoud, here is a collection of their work:

Qasr al-Aini Street, redone
Sheikh Rihan Street
Yousef el-Gindi Street, off Mohamed Mahmoud Street, as with all remaining pictures
el-Falaki Street
Mansour Street
Abdel Magid al-Ramali Street
Noubar Street; translation: Beware of the Families of Abideen; No to the Walls; Abideen - Revolutionaries and not Thugs

I’m not sure why this last wall off Mohamed Mahmoud Street didn’t receive the full artistic treatment. Perhaps the thugs, er, revolutionaries of Abideen preferred their warning? 🙂

Click here for a map of the area, and here, for full coverage of the project in the Egyptian English press.

Some of these pictures are rather simple, others reflect quite talented artistry. The striking resonance is of a world now lost. Paintings which extend the street and sidewalk as if all were normal best reflect this theme.

The world is not normal. Many revolutionaries are accused of sowing anarchy; of some this is surely true. Others, however, long for a world of freedom and beauty. They have registered their protest as best they know how, with creativity.

Beauty and creativity are the hallmarks of God. May these artists be honored in their imitation.

Note: This post was delayed about three weeks by Pope Shenouda’s death and other events, but has come back into the news as activists have partially torn down one wall as of yesterday. Click here for the article.

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Walls All Around

The disturbances in and around Tahrir Square in recent weeks have resulted in the erection of several walls cutting across downtown streets. These were built at the time to separate demonstrators from security forces as they battled in the streets. Additionally, some were built to provide additional protection from sensitive government facilities, especially the Ministry of the Interior, which runs the police. Some of these walls – namely near the Parliament building – are barbed wire allowing for foot traffic to flow while preventing mass demonstrations. The majority, however, are massive cement blocks which make Cairo begin to resemble an apocalyptic scene.

Julie’s parents have been visiting us, and the other day I accompanied them downtown to the Egyptian Museum, in the heart of Tahrir Square. I took advantage of the time to check out the scene. Many areas are too sensitive to photograph, but in and around the places of confrontation there were dozens of cameras – mainly for demonstrators seeking documentation – so I was more comfortable.

Fortunately I made my tour during a comparative lull in the conflict, but not without a reminder of how terrible tear gas is.

The most recent clashes occurred when angry protestors gathered near the Ministry of the Interior following the deaths of near eighty soccer fans in Port Said. While this may have been the result of hooliganism gone amuck, many people feel the tensions were deliberately stoked and facilitated by the security forces. The hardcore soccer fans then took to the streets, joined by other hardcore protestors who believe the police – the target of widespread anger in the January revolution – still reflects and works on behalf of the former regime.

In these street battles there is often little fighting. Usually a handful of protestors advances to the front lines, and will often throw rocks or Molotov cocktails. The police respond with tear gas, and there is a no man’s land in between the two sides. In addition, the police stand accused of using shotguns which fire pellets that scatter, resulting in small, but multiple wounds on a body. At times these have been fatal, or caused protestors to lose their eyes.

These clashes appear to have been different, though it is hard to verify. With all the walls downtown the Ministry of the Interior is effectively sealed off. Police could simply remain behind the walls, but some reports claim they have driven around the streets in their vehicles chasing after protestors. Whether or not this is true, other reports suggest the police have been the ones under pressure. One of the stone barriers has been destroyed as demonstrators filled the streets en masse. It also appears some demonstrators have fired similar shotgun pellets at police, resulting in many injuries. Whoever the aggressor is, to date around fifteen people have died in clashes over the past few days.

This picture is of a historic French research center housing many old documents. It was the scene of earlier clashes, in which an errant (or intentional) Molotov cocktail landed inside and destroyed the building with much of its content. Following the street to the right will lead to the largest Protestant Church in the Middle East, which has doubled in function as a field hospital during clashes over the past few months.

The next picture shows the street – Mohamed Mahmoud – which was also a scene of earlier clashes, described here and here. Not much was happening but many were gathered, and I wandered down to get a feel for the atmosphere. About halfway in the crowd turned and ran in my direction, but many at my level were calm and stationary. I turned to walk out with them, and soon knew why. The police had launched another round of tear gas.

I neither heard nor saw anything, but on the way out it became more and more difficult to breathe. My eyes watered and I was grateful to soon be back out in the open air of Tahrir Square. I stayed put for a little while just watching from a distance, but again, little was happening. The tear gas was meant simply to drive people back, keeping the sanctity of no man’s land.

I walked around town a bit to see where other clashes had taken place, as well as the barriers erected here and there. Near the Parliament I passed by about two hundred women who were leading a march to deliver demands to their representatives. They shouted against the military regime, and were viewed by many curious onlookers. Earlier in the day there was news of a larger ‘mother’s march’ which went to the site of the clashes to demand their sons stop being killed. This group, though, was much younger in appearance.

I kept moving and after taking several city blocks to maneuver around the barricades wound up on the other side of the clashes. The police line by this point was very calm, with many pedestrians milling about. This was the site of a great battle the night before, and many shops were damaged and the pavement scarred. All felt well, but it did not seem like the place for pictures.

Continuing the circuit, I wound up parallel to Mohamed Mahmoud looking in at the action from side streets. At the entrance were large crowds, appearing to regulate traffic in and out. It was not quite a human wall, but there were several arguments between people about joining the demonstrations or accusing them of ‘burning Egypt’. After several minutes of just watching, I meant to move through, but one of the group whistled and told me to come back. It was an easy decision to comply.

The next side street down had a similar scene. Again I waited within the crowd to get a sense of the situation. After a while I moved again to go to the main street and this time just sauntered by. It was eerie, as the street was deserted save for the handful of people moving either direction. Once I got back to Mohamed Mahmoud, though, I was back among the demonstrators and the several onlookers, as well as the multiple cameras, and all was well.

There was no conflict, except a philosophical one among those present. Several people rallied in the middle of the street and shouted, ‘To the Square, to the Square, he who goes is not a coward.’ Others adjusted their chant against the military council, shouting against this effort, ‘Down, down with the (Muslim) Brothers.’

There was nothing distinguishing about the effort to lead people away from the areas of conflict, but in the news were the efforts of different parliamentarians, among them the Muslim Brothers, who tried to mediate to end the clashes. The Muslim Brotherhood has positioned itself as the party of stability in the past several months. While this has played well among the electorate at large, it has infuriated the protestors who feel the Brotherhood is betraying the revolution now that they have won their legislative majority. Whether or not this effort was Brotherhood, it brought the anger of several. Most did not leave, even as the group clasped arms across the street and tried to sweep everyone away as they left.

Shortly after this I noticed a large contingent of Azhar sheikhs milling among the people as well. The Azhar has scholars of different persuasions, but is generally understood to be non-Brotherhood though socially conservative. Whoever these sheikhs represented, they were seeking a similar result, urging people to go back to the square.

Azhar Sheikh Holding a Megaphone

At one point a sheikh mounted a wall with a megaphone, but was drowned out by protestors shouting against him. His non-sheikh colleague took the megaphone and tried to gain an audience, beginning with ‘Down, down with military government.’ At this everyone cheered, and at least listened somewhat as they tried to argue the merits of protesting in Tahrir rather than in the streets leading to the Ministry of the Interior. They convinced no one, and after a bit the soccer fan among the protestors grouped together and raised their own cheers, dancing around and waiving their hands. All the while the police looked on from their line right even with the wall on which the Azhar sheikh stood.

By now several hours had passed and I started back to the museum to receive my in-laws. The following pictures show scenes from the center of conflict back out toward Tahrir Square.

A Wall Demolished by Protestors, between Tahrir and the Site of Clashes
The Size of a Single Boulder in the Wall
A Wall on a Side Street from Mohamed Mahmoud; Translation: Down with the Field Marshal, Down with Military Rule

At the end, I offered in-laws a chance to see the action and smell the lingering tear gas. All was calm, and they agreed, coming to the entrance to Mohamed Mahmoud before we found the nearest metro to return home. The following picture shows them in front of a sign accusing the military council figures of being oppressors, condemning them through a quote from the Qur’an.

Translation: And those who have wronged are going to know to what kind of return they will be returned.

There is a much different feel about the protests compared to that experienced last January. While the initial revolution was met with violence, there was a sense of hope and purpose, buttressed by the sheer number of people and the diversity of their backgrounds.

This time there is much revolutionary fatigue, and the revolutionaries are largely on their own. The anniversary of the 25th brought the masses, renewing their vitality, and every bloody incident serves to rally more troops. But for the most part those there now are troublemakers, curious onlookers, hardcore activists, street children, or some combination of the sort. Without commenting on the rightness or wrongness of their continuing struggle against military rule, the hope of earlier days has been replaced by the reality of death and struggle.

The following picture is a beautiful graffiti rendering of a few recent ‘martyrs’ who have perished on this street. Yet above them is written a curious phrase, seen elsewhere on city walls. It translates, ‘Peaceful is completely dead.’  In another place it continued, ‘Now we will take our rights by our own hands.’

In January every time the protestors were met with violence on the part of the police they called out ‘Peaceful, peaceful’. Now, though many still cling to this commitment, others have been induced to let it go. They feel that since Mubarak stepped down they have been increasingly killed during their protests, and must now change tactics. By no means is the situation as in Syria, where armed groups have formed among military defections, but this is a strong indication of the loss of hopeful idealism.

The latest change in tactics serves to take advantage of the final anniversary from the earlier revolution. Last year on February 11 Mubarak stepped down from power as the people celebrated. This year, a broad revolutionary alliance is calling for nationwide civil disobedience and a general labor strike, in addition to a boycott of all consumer products manufactured by the military.

It is unclear how much support this initiative has. The Muslim Brotherhood has condemned it, while several university student groups have indicated their participation. It is not a turn toward violence, but rather an effort to find another avenue toward hope (or chaos) – forcing the military to surrender power to civilians. The demand is that power be given to the Parliament with presidential elections to follow at the earliest moment possible.

The military council is currently weighing its options, and a prominent general has promised ‘good news’ will shortly be issued. What this entails is anyone’s guess.

So is the next phase in the Egyptian revolution.

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Understanding January 25, Again

Tahrir Square, January 25, 2012

In Tahrir and in squares throughout the nation, Egyptians once again filled public space. In fact, by appearances they did so in greater numbers than at the height of the January 25 revolution which deposed President Mubarak. What is not clear altogether is why they were there, or who they represent.

Tomorrow may tell.

Some Egyptians, the revolutionaries, are very clear. They demand the fall of the regime, just as they did a year ago. Mubarak, they say, was only the public face of a military regime that still stands. For Egypt to be truly free, the army must return to its barracks, guard the borders, and yield to a civilian president.

There are different variations on this theme. Some want power immediately transferred to the parliament, with its speaker as head of government as an interim measure. Others desire the formation of a civilian presidential council to guide through the writing of a constitution and election of a president proper. Nearly all, however, find the military council to be leading the counter-revolution seeking to preserve the status quo under a new guise, and many find the Muslim Brotherhood to be complicit in a power sharing agreement.

The Muslim Brotherhood is also in the square. Their presence is less clear. They have taken the lion’s share of responsibility to secure entrances to Tahrir, to prevent unruly factions or clandestine weapons to enter. They stop short of proclaiming today as a day of celebration, but they are pleased. One of their leading figures declared revolutionary legitimacy is in the hands of parliament, and no longer in Tahrir. Yet they still speak of an unfinished revolution, though they rarely speak ill of the military council. Another leader has proposed the idea of a ‘safe exit’ for the military, implying they have committed crimes while in power. Yet they firmly stick to the announced military timetable to hand over power, after presidential elections in June.

Salafis are also in the square, but their voices are diverse. Some are very anti-military council, others less so, equally pleased with their gains in parliament. Yet Salafism is not a united movement, even having banded together under a political party. While committed throughout their ranks to a state which enforces sharia law – however gradually – some see military rule as an obstacle while others see it as a fight not worth waging, as long as they have room to transform Egypt socially. Salafi presence is not a dominant makeup of today’s protest, but they are there.

Then there is the average citizen, who is impossible to qualify. The military council has been heavily lauding the January 25 revolution, billing today’s anniversary as a great celebration. They praise the heroism and bravery of the youth. They also praise the armed forces, as guardians of the revolution. Revolutionaries claim they have brainwashed the people through state media; equally likely is that the average citizen has always trusted the army, as most men have served within its ranks. Is the average citizen there to celebrate with them?

Or has the average citizen, at least in Tahrir, come to see the military council as the problem? Following the most recent clashes on Qasr al-Aini Street outside the Cabinet building, a female volunteer at a field hospital in Tahrir was beaten by military personnel and in the attack stripped of her full length niqab, revealing a provocative blue bra. This image was widely circulated, and a newspaper the next day posted it on its front page, with the title – Kazeboon (Liars). The military denied using force to dismiss the sit-in, and this paper was outraged.

In the weeks following this incident activists have created a Kazeboon movement, taking a projector through the lower class streets of Cairo and showing footage of the clashes in public spaces. They have often been resisted forcefully by military sympathetic residents, or, according to some accusations, paid thugs.

Has this campaign affected the average citizen? Is this why the numbers in Tahrir have swelled?

What is clear is that the numbers came from everywhere. Previous demonstrations used Tahrir as a gathering point; this effort recalled January 28, 2011 when marches set off from around the city to converge there. Most of these marches today appear to have been of revolutionary sentiment, and found Tahrir Square filled before they even arrived. As such they encamped in the side streets and on bridges crossing the Nile, while the mixed groups described above gathered around their various stages – Islamist, liberal, socialist, and families of the martyrs.

The differences are immense, one year to the next. In 2011 the demonstrators were met by security forces who confronted them with batons, water cannons, and tear gas. From a different angle, once the demonstrators secured the square after the withdrawal of security, there were no stages in Tahrir; all the people were one. Now, the paths to Tahrir were open to all, but divided once they arrived.

This description illustrates why tomorrow may be indicative. Revolutionary groups have announced efforts to conduct an open sit-in. Meanwhile, the Muslim Brotherhood has announced they are leaving the square. The average citizen will go back to his home and sleep. What will he do tomorrow? Today, the numbers were immense; what will they look like tomorrow?

Perhaps tomorrow will not be deciding, in the same manner January 26 meant little last year. Yet still, the script is flipped. On January 25 the demonstrations were led by activists, with the Muslim Brotherhood wavering on the sidelines, and the Salafis largely maintaining political quietism. The 26th and 27th were met with smaller confrontations, but momentum was building in anticipation of Friday, the 28th, the Day of Rage. On the weekend, following Friday prayers, the nation was asked to validate the revolution. They, including the Muslim Brotherhood, did.

This time, religious groups have begun in participation, but at least in the case of the Brotherhood, now withdraw. Tomorrow, the 26th, will see a sit-in, but what will be of Friday, a day earlier this calendar year, on the 27th? Tomorrow and continuing there will be no conflation of Tahrir revolutionary celebrants; all who continue will be revolutionaries.

Without the Brotherhood and their vast skills of mobilization, can they succeed?

The question may not be that simple, as we still have a day in-between to change the equation. Since the fall of Mubarak sit-ins have ended violently. Often there has been an attempt at escalation, which eventually was met by force. Some say the escalators are infiltrators seeking conflict so as to mar the public opinion of continued revolution. Others say the escalations have been peaceful, and met with a security response that has been unwarranted and reminiscent of the Mubarak regime, or worse. What will happen with tonight’s sit-in, if anything?

Already some of the revolutionaries have moved the place of protest from Tahrir Square about three blocks to the north to the Maspero Radio and TV Building – the seat of state media. In occupying this site they wish to highlight what they believe to be media distortions, but they do so at a point of great state sensitivity. Will they be allowed to stay? Or, do some wish to storm it altogether? If so, are they infiltrators looking to spark a fight?

Also in the air are rumors the demonstration will move to the military hospital where Mubarak is residing, so as to bring him to the square for trial. Additionally a procession is foretold that will move to Tora Prison to bring his sons and other remnants of the regime yet to receive full trials. If these are more than rumor, they will certainly merit resistance. But who issues the rumor/plan – revolutionaries or infiltrators?

Engineered or otherwise, the spark that may change the equation is violence. A simple attempt by police to violently clear a small sit-in in November made immediate waves on Twitter. Within hours it brought a deluge of support, leading to five days of street fighting on Mohamed Mahmoud Street outside Tahrir. The square itself filled once more, leading to the sacking of the government when all was said and done.

Surely the military council will not use violence tomorrow, but who knows? Or, will someone use violence in effort to pin blame on them, or their supposed plain clothed thugs? If violence occurs, will it keep people away, or attract them in numbers? So much is unknown.

Equally unknown is the reaction if no violence occurs. How big will the sit-in be? Will it grow on Friday? Can it maintain itself until forcing the military council to hand over power somewhere? Will it maintain its presence until June, waiting for presidential elections? So much is unknown.

And, equally unknown is where the Muslim Brotherhood will be. By siding against Tahrir now do they reveal an understanding with the military council? Or, are they the best revolutionaries of all, seeking to undo the military state via an elected parliament with widely accepted legitimacy? Do they risk losing their own popular legitimacy among the people? Or, are they waiting in the wings – perhaps as before – to see where the winds blow? The Brotherhood has consistently denied any interest in securing the presidency since the first days of the revolution. Yet if the military council were to fall, might they claim this prize as well, maintaining public posture that they never sought it?

Of course, the next few days may pass entirely without incident. If it is true the majority sentiment from January 25 is against military rule, perhaps today is only a preview of June, in case of delayed presidential elections or the ascension of a military candidate. The Brotherhood, and the people, may not wish confrontation now – might the numbers padded through their mobilization have been a warning shot?

Such is Egypt during revolution, one year on. It is nearly impossible to read the tea leaves, as conventional wisdom is consistently turned on its head, and surprises await around every corner. Even today, no one expected these numbers.

Tomorrow may bring more clarity.



From a Year Ago:

And then the internet went out.

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Brotherhood Deliberations

Leaders in the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party

The latest violent crisis in Tahrir finally de-escalated through the courageous act of thousands of women marching to the square demanding an end to clashes. Meanwhile, political leverage is being sought as parties propose an idea to hurry the presidential elections. The military council succumbed to such pressure following the clashes of Mohamed Mahmoud Street off Tahrir, to guarantee these elections before the end of June 2012. Current ideas now call for elections to be as soon as January 25, the one year anniversary of the revolution.

Proponents of this idea argue that the military must be returned to its barracks as soon as possible, having mangled the democratic transition if not actively opposing it. This cry is heard from across the political spectrum, from liberals and Islamists alike.

The issue for Islamists, however, is that they have repeatedly based their decisions on the ‘will of the people’ as expressed in the March referendum. This mandate granted the army the right to oversee the transition, during which the lower house of parliament would be elected, then the upper house, then the constitution drafted, and finally presidential elections held. Should Islamists call for departure now they go against their own rhetoric.

It appears they have, and then shortly after, they haven’t.

The Ikhwanweb Twitter account represents itself as ‘The only official Muslim Brotherhood’s English website. Our Tweets represent the official opinions of the Muslim Brotherhood’. On December 19 the account tweeted:

Democratic Alliance demands #SCAF to handover both legislative and executive power to the elected parliament no later than February 2012.

The Democratic Alliance is the coalition led strongly by the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party. While it includes a variety of liberal and Islamist parties, the FJP is widely understood to control the direction of the group.

Here, the coalition demands not simply the early election of the president, but the transfer of executive power to the legislature, which, not coincidentally, is controlled by 40% FJP alongside 25% Salafi party members. By all appearances it is a power grab. It certainly represents a departure from the March referendum and the ‘will of the people’.

Perhaps in recognition of this fact, or in a desire to not confront the military directly, the website of the Muslim Brotherhood released a statement on December 21 to return to the mandate of the referendum. They state:

3 – The FJP believes that to end the violence, which erupts on the scene each time popular will requires full-throttle efforts to complete the legislative elections so the elected People’s Assembly participates in the peaceful transfer of power. Furthermore, the party deems premature all calls for immediate handover of power to the People’s Assembly Speaker-elect, and rejects them, because the idea is not compatible with the current Constitutional Declaration.

  4 – The FJP asserts that demands put forward for holding presidential elections before January 25 will not solve the current crisis, because the issue is now about who is stirring strife, sedition and crises, who is acting with exemplary short-sightedness, and fails to appreciate the requirements approved by all parties in the Constitutional Declaration – which provides for elections of the People’s Assembly, then the Shura Council, drafting the new constitution, and finally the presidential elections.

Analysis elsewhere can determine the wisdom of either statement, the opportunism therein, or the best interests of the democratic transition. What is interesting is to wonder who in the Brotherhood authorized the Ikhwanweb Twitter account to demand transfer of power to the parliament? At what level did this reflect the consensus of the organization, and what transpired to result in this second announcement?

Though the Muslim Brotherhood is a pyramidal organization, its members consist of diverse trends and political pragmatism. These statements perhaps can be viewed through the lens of organizational groupthink, of internal deliberations which spilled out into the public.

Another possible insight is that these statements belie the idea the Brotherhood is the possessor of a grand conspiracy to move events along until power is consolidated in their hands. While this may or may not be an ultimate goal, the contradictory statements indicate the group is trying to figure things out as they go along, much like everyone else. In all likelihood they have a strategy, but they do not pull all the strings.

In the meanwhile, in the current relative calm of Tahrir, all political forces and the military council are regrouping, repositioning to come out on top. Even after Friday and the latest massive demonstration gathering, there is no clear indication who is winning.



Pessimism from an Egyptian Sandmonkey

The Egyptian Sandmonkey

Mahmoud Salem, the self-moniker-ed Sandmonkey, has made a few previous entries into this blog. Several months ago when the revolution appeared to be faltering over the summer, this widely-read Egyptian blogger outlined the reasons for his optimism. Later on, I had the opportunity to hear and wrote about his campaign speech as he ran for parliament in the recent elections (and lost). He has been quiet on the internet since then, but resurfaced with a new post – Underneath– which I will excerpt from below.

‘Underneath’ is Sandmonkey’s effort to put to words his diverse thoughts about the current Egyptian situation. Several weeks ago protestors were fighting the police in Mohamed Mahmoud Street off Tahrir Square; now they are fighting the army in Qasr al-Aini Street a further 90° to the south. The mood is sour, people are dying, and a media battle is underway about who deserves the blame.

Within this context Sandmonkey’s earlier optimism is gone. What remains is his lucid commentary as a revolutionary partisan. The opinions are his, but they summarize what many are thinking. Or perhaps more appropriately, what many are confused about. I rank myself among the confused, and trust he will forgive my additional comments interspersed with his own.

This is not an uplifting post. You have been warned.

On the Context

My helplessness reached its peak when my friend S. came over two nights ago, and she was not alright. Fighting to release the thousands that are getting military tried over the months has been a draining crusade for her, and it only got worse the moment she got involved in trying to ensure that the death reports of those killed in Mohamed Mahmoud do not get forged, which meant she had to be at the Zeinhom morgue the night those bodies would come in, surrounded by wailing families and crying loved ones, seeing dead bodies after dead body come in, and almost getting arrested by the authorities that didn’t want her stopping the cover-up. She told me after wards that she now sees those dead bodies everywhere, and she can’t escape them. But that night, 2 nights ago, she had just come back from Tahrir, where a man, standing inches away from her, ended up getting set on fire due to an exploding Molotov cocktail. She could see the fire engulf him, the smell of burnt flesh and hair, his agonizing screams for help. She was silent. Very calm and silent. She was sitting next to me and I couldn’t reach her, and all I could do is hold her without being able to tell her that things will be alright. Because… how? How will they be alright exactly?

Human rights activists have stated that over 10,000 people have been sentenced under military law since the revolution. The ‘No to Military Trials’ campaign has been helping individual cases and seeking a halt to the entire process. Certainly many of these 10,000 – I do not know how the number is calculated – have committed crimes of different natures. With the police ineffective and the judicial system painfully slow, the military has stated it must use military law to keep security and ensure justice. Activists claim it has been used against demonstrators – who get labeled as thugs – and in any case even a criminal is due a trial before a civilian judge. This particular activist is fighting hard against what she believes to be stark injustice, and seems nearly spent.

On Culture vs. Politics

One of the biggest mistakes of this revolution, and there are plenty to go around, was that we allowed its political aspects to overshadow the cultural and social aspects. We have unleashed a torrent of art, music and creativity, and we don’t celebrate or enjoy it, or even promote it. We have brought the people to a point where they were ready to change. To change who they are and how they act, and we ignored that and instead focused all of our energies in a mismanaged battle over the political direction of this country. We clashed with the military, and we forgot the people, and we let that small window that shows up maybe every 100 years where a nation is willing to change, to evolve, to go to waste.  

It is true Egypt exploded in hope and creativity following the revolution. I don’t know if idealistic artistic utopia can last forever, but it has certainly been sidelined by the political struggle for power. Particularly damaging has been the Islamist vs. liberal rhetoric which has dominated, casting many into a defensive politics of fear and culture war. This is not fertile ground for the arts.

On the Elections

The parliamentary elections are fraudulent. I am not saying this because I lost- I lost fair and square- but because it’s the truth. The fraud happened on the hands of the election workers and the Judges. People in my campaign were offered Ballot boxes, employees and judges in polling stations were instructing people who to vote for and giving unstamped ballots to Christians in polling stations where they are heavily present to invalidate their votes, and the Egyptian bloc has about half a ton of correct ballots- ones that showed people voting for them- found being thrown in the streets in Heliopolis, Ghamra, Shubra, Zaitoun, Alexandria, Suez and many other districts. The amount of reports of fraud and legal injunctions submitted against these elections are enough to bring it all down and have it done all over again. Hell, a simple request for a vote recount would be enough to expose the fraud, since the ballots were thrown in the street. The people, however, are not privy of this, because it all looked very functional and organized to them. This is very important, because it tells you the shape of things to come.

The Egyptian Bloc is the grouping of liberal parties which organized for a civil society, but appeared to be motivated chiefly by opposition to Islamist parties. Sandmonkey ran with the support of this coalition. All sides have engaged in electoral violations to some degree, but what he reports here, if true, demonstrates organized fraud. One member of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party – a member of the Egyptian Bloc coalition – went as far as to state the current violence is meant as a distraction from the electoral violations. Beginning one day after the vote, the world did not look at the elections but the violence which followed, maintaining the belief the elections were sound because they were comparatively free from violence. From my readings this is little reported internationally.

We had one of our campaign workers fall victim to a hit and run “accident”, a campaign operative getting arrested by the military police at a polling station for filming the army promoting the Salafi Nour Party (with a big banner carrying the Noor Party slogan being placed on the side of an army truck) and his film confiscated of course, our campaign headquarters got attacked with Molotov cocktails by thugs sent by a “moderate” Islamist centrist party, the hotel we were staying in got repeatedly attacked by thugs till 3 am, with the army platoon leader protecting the hotel informing me that if I don’t resolve the situation, he will “deal violently” with those outside and inside the hotel, the Leader of the 3rd Egyptian Army calling us looking for me, the Chief of Security for Suez doing the same thing, lawyers and thugs working for a semi-leftist party filed police reports against us claiming we hired them and owed them money when we didn’t, and the other campaign manager finally going to deal with the situation, ends up getting arrested, and the two campaign members that were with him were left outside under the mercy of groups of thugs, and we managed by the grace of God get them all out unharmed and we escape Suez while trucks filled with guys with guns going around Suez looking for us.

Oh, and we also sent in one of our campaign operatives dressed as a Salafi into the Suez central committee for vote counting, where army personnel assured him that they have helped the Noor Party and told him that they hooked them up with two seats, while winking.

Well, this is testimony. Take it or leave it. The Noor Party represents the electoral alliance of Salafis, who campaigned both against the Egyptian Bloc and the Muslim Brotherhood dominated Democratic Alliance. I have heard tales that American democracy was similar a hundred or so years ago. Doesn’t make it right, if true, but it might put a brake on judgmentalism, though not on demands for transparency.

So, why would the military be “helping” the Salafi Noor Party get votes? Well, mainly because they invented them. It was a match made possible by State-Security, who probably alerted the military of how reliable were the Salafis in their previous “cooperation” to scare the living shit out of the population into submission and supporting the regime. … Ensuring that the Salafis have a big chunk of the parliament (one that is neither logical or feasible considering their numbers in Egypt) achieves two goals: 1) Provide a mechanism for the security apparatus to keep the Muslim Brotherhood in check if they ever thought of using religion as a weapon against SCAF (As far as the Salafis are concerned, the MB are secular infidels) and 2) to really frame the choice in our (and the international community’s) heads between a “Islamist country or a military regime”, because, let’s face it, The MB are not scary enough for the general population. But the Salafis? Terrifying *#@!.

Even before the revolution there was suspicion that state security had its hands in the Salafi movement. The rationale was that their theology promoted obedience to the ruler, whereas the Muslim Brotherhood continually advocated for reform, criticizing the president and his policies. Salafis were supposedly built as a counterweight, and allowed freedom to propagate in mosques whereas the Brotherhood was constantly curtailed. As Mubarak maintained a policy of ‘it’s me or the Brotherhood’, the military council has now raised the Salafis to play the same game (it is maintained).

In speaking with Salafis since the revolution they counter this argument, saying their silence was because they did not want to take on a regime that would crush them if they got out of line. They preferred to focus on the moral reform of society along Islamic lines, and let politics be. For what it is worth, those I have spoken with have seemed perfectly nice and normal people. Some of their leaders on the other hand, at least in the media, well …

On the Electorate

There is a disconnect between the revolutionaries and the people, and that disconnect exists in regards of priorities. Our priorities are a civilian government, the end of corruption, the reform of the police, judiciary, state media and the military, while their priorities are living in peace and putting food on the table. And we ignore that, or belittle it, telling them that if they want this they should support what we want, and deriding their economic fears by telling them that things will be rough for the next 3 to 5 years, but afterwards things will get better on the long run. Newsflash, the majority of people can’t afford having it even rougher for 3 to 5 years. Hell, they can’t afford to have it rough for one more month. We tell them to vote for us for a vague guarantee and to not to sell their votes or allow someone to buy their loyalty, while their priorities are making sure there is food on the table for their families tonight. You sell them hope in the future, and someone else gives them money and food to survive the present. Who, do you think, they will side with?

Living in upscale Maadi, I don’t have a pulse on the economic state of Egypt, but conventional wisdom states it is degrading rapidly. Egypt was always suffering from poverty, however, and to my knowledge the state is maintaining its subsidies. At the risk of ‘letting them eat cake’, I wonder about the dire situation of the common family. They are poor, but are they destitute?

Nonetheless his point is interesting. It is well demonstrated Islamist parties joined their campaigning with social charity to sell meat or supplies or gas bottles at discount prices. Would liberal parties not ‘stoop that low’? Do they not know how, being far from the street? Meanwhile, praise God for their charity, but was it a masquerade for their manipulation? Only God knows their hearts.

Here is a fun fact: About 40% of the people head to the polls not knowing who they will vote for, and are simply there because they are afraid of the 500LE fine they must pay for abstaining to vote; about another 50% go to the polls with a piece of paper that has the names & symbols of the people they will vote for, people that they don’t know, or their history or anything about them. They simply asked their friends and they told them that these are “good people to vote for”, and this is true across the board in all classes, upper and lower, uneducated and educated. And you can’t blame them really, because each district has over 100 candidates fighting over 2 seats and only 4 weeks to campaign. If you are the average new voter, there is no time to meet or evaluate or educate yourself about all of them in order to choose objectively between them. I know people that voted for me simply because I was the only candidate they met. I am not kidding.

I don’t know where he got his statistic from, but the fine for not voting is correct, as is his description of the peoples’ virgin political experience. He could have continued with a description of how 1/3 of seats go to individual candidates, and 2/3 go to party lists, both of which must have 50-50 professional vs. worker/farmer representation. By compromise politics or design, these elections must have been among the most confusing ever.

On Liberal Opposition to the Islamists

So many times I have met people who are terrified at the electoral successes of the Islamic parties in the election, and while they acknowledge that there “must be a deal” between the SCAF and the Islamists, they sit back with a knowing smile and tell me: “But you know what? The SCAF are not stupid. They will screw the Muslim Brotherhood over. They are just waiting for the right moment and they will destroy them. You just wait and see!”

I tell them that they are disgusting for thinking this way. That they are like a raped woman who is rooting for her rapist to rape the other woman who got away so that she wouldn’t be the only raped one.

A violent and pejorative metaphor, but he describes liberal thought well. I don’t know they express this with the glee he puts into their mouth, but there is an expectation of this eventuality – unless there is a deal, which if it holds returns to the United States for their still-undetermined support of Islamists, which confuses everyone. Furthermore, the expectation is often one of relief. ‘If we don’t win at least they won’t either.’

And he is right to condemn it.

On the Army

I love it when a fellow revolutionary asks me:  “I don’t understand what’s going on. Why are the Police/Military shooting and killing people and prolonging street conflicts in Mohamed Mahmoud/Qasr al-Aini? What do they want? What’s the big plan?”

Well, to put it simply, the big plan is the same as the immediate plan: they want you dead. It’s not that they want to kill opposition; they want to kill the opposition, literally. This country ain’t big enough for the both of you, and they have everything to lose. And they have guns. And the media. And all the keys of power. And you want to overthrow them. How do you think they will react to that? Give you cookies?

I think his zero-sum analysis of power sharing is apt in the post-revolutionary struggle for power. But it is hard to imagine ‘the point’ is to be killing people. If they wanted people dead they could be much more efficient in their killing. Furthermore, it is not the major activists who are dying for the most part, but the average man in the street (as best I know – apologies to those who know them better). Do they want to kill off the opposition by attrition? Are there infiltrators in the military? This is where things get so confusing again. Unless Sandmonkey has hit the nail on the head.

On Tahrir, and Confusing the Symbol with the Cause

But here is the truth: Tahrir is not a magical land, one which if we occupy we can hold all the magical keys of our kingdom and bring down the evil regime of whomever is in Power. Tahrir is a square. A piece of land. A symbol, but a piece of land nonetheless. And just because it worked before, it doesn’t mean it will work again. We are like an old married couple trying to recapture the magic of their early days by going to the same place they went to on their honeymoon, or dance to the same song they fell in love to, and discovering that it’s not working because there are real problems that need to be resolved. Symbols are nice, but they don’t solve anything.

And this is why I didn’t get involved: I couldn’t understand the Battle for Mohamed Mahmoud, because it’s a battle to hold on to a street of no actual significance or importance, and yet some of the best youth this country had to offer died or lost their eyes or were seriously injured protecting it. The same thing goes for the current battle. What is the purpose? What is the end Goal? A battle for the sake of battle? Just like maintaining a sit-in for the sake of maintaining the sit-in, even though a sit-in is supposed to be a means to an end, not an end in itself? I mean, I would understand if the aim was to occupy Maspiro or something, but they are not even attempting that. They are maintaining a fight in the street, because they got attacked at that street, so the street immediately becomes a symbol and we must fight back and not be driven away even as we get beaten and killed. Because it’s all about the Symbol, and not about the cause or the goal, and people are dying.

Maspero is the center of State TV broadcasting, which critics maintain is whitewashing military abuses during these clashes. The confusion I mentioned above can be partially resolved here, in that the protestors are themselves confused. They are fighting a battle with little point, and the police and army oblige them. Determining the perspective on police and army still leaves ample room for confusion, but this clears up why so many people are sacrificing themselves. It is sad.


There must be a way out, but I can’t seem to find one without more blood getting spilled. There is no panacea here, no exit strategy. Just helplessness, and waiting for whatever it is that will happen next, even though we can rest assured it won’t be good news. I am sorry that I cannot comfort you, but maybe, just maybe, this is not the time to be comforted.

Here is where his pessimism reigns, and where he himself is probably most distraught. Sandmonkey is an ideas person who focuses on solutions. Here, he has none. Perhaps it will come soon, perhaps not. In this, at least, for now, he needs comfort. Comfort offered helps one regroup. Of course, in all this he could be wrong and deluded. Regardless, he and everyone else deserves comfort all the same.

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The Battle for Mohamed Mahmoud Street: Testimony

Mohamed Mahmoud Street, with barricades in the near- and far-ground, erected by the army

note: This is Part Two of the Mohamed Mahmoud Clashes. For Part One dealing with surrounding conspiracies, click here.

Balancing Conspiracy with Testimony

Each of these conspiracy theories has several flaws; indeed each flaw is revealed in the theory of its opposite. Furthermore, the theories thrive not on fact, but on speculation where facts are absent. In each of the above suspects there is little transparency; even where it exists it is doubted due to the sizeable stakes allotted to the winners. For more clarity direct testimony is needed.

Even testimony, however, is colored by the media. Furthermore, activists have their own causes which filter through their narrative. Even so, this report is able to present the testimony of one ‘combatant’ in the Mohamed Mahmoud Street clashes. His perspective appears credible, and sheds light on why many, perhaps, were there. At the least it reveals why he took part.

The testimony comes from a Coptic Christian resident of Shubra, Cairo, who prefers to remain anonymous. Though he has spoken of his tale on Facebook and Twitter, he believes these avenues to be largely ignored by the police. Foreign media, on the other hand, is monitored and suspect.

Non-Revolutionary Pedigree

Mina, as he will henceforth be called, was an onlooker during the January revolution, connected only to the pro-Mubarak State TV. Slowly he became politicized as he considered joining, but refrained, fortunately, the morning of the infamous Battle of the Camel. Yet momentum triumphed and he descended to Tahrir the Friday after Mubarak resigned, swept up in the euphoria.

Interestingly, Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the renowned Islamist scholar connected with the Muslim Brotherhood, gave the traditional Friday sermon. Mina’s church community in Shubra was long suspicious of the revolution as the agenda of political Muslims, and Mina found himself in the position of having to represent Tahrir Square to apprehensive friends and family. Qaradawi’s words, he said, were inclusive and wise.

Over the months that followed Mina became increasingly concerned about the fate of the revolution vis-à-vis the ‘remnants of the former regime’ or the slow-moving government cabinet. He followed devotedly major activists on Twitter and saw events through their lens. He lent his presence during many major summer demonstrations. Yet he also grew critical of the sectarian Christian slice of revolutionary activity. Following each sequential attack on a church or Christian community, he foreswore the Coptic-specific protests in Maspero in favor of wide ranging condemnations issued from Tahrir, only two blocks away.

Over time, in fact, Mina began to see his chief revolutionary contribution to lie in translation of Tahrir to the traditional Coptic residents of Shubra, at least those within his circle of influence. He began to go less and less to the square, instead spending more time defending it among his friends on Facebook.

In Mohamed Mahmoud Street

Until, that is, the Twitter community broadcast the injuries suffered in Tahrir Square on November 19. He followed along horrified, and then went down the next morning when he found a friend of like mind.

The idea was not to engage the police, but to swell the numbers of demonstrators. It was a well known rule among protestors that small crowds meant increased chances for violent suppression. Hoping simply to be one of many, Mina and his friend arrived in Tahrir and found some, but no signs of conflict.

It did not take much searching. Tahrir was peaceful but they followed the commotion to Mohamed Mahmoud Street and found themselves via a side street immediately at the front lines.

Their description fits with that above. Protestors and police swayed through patterns of advance and retreat. Though the security movement was based on tactics, the crowd relied on emotion and passion. Mina was drawn in; police brutality was a central point of the January revolution, a principal cause of transitional frustration, and was once again in play. His friend threw rocks, but Mina chose not to. Both soon fell into the semi-violent rhythm: Watch the tear gas canister shot through the air to gauge its landing spot, run away, re-congregate, and advance again from another angle. As protestors were either shot by pellets or collapsed from tear gas inhalation, a Salafi riding a motorbike would come and ferry the injured back to Tahrir makeshift field clinics. To Mina and his friend, this man was a hero.

Characterizing the Combatants

The Salafi was notable by his beard and robe, but fit right in with the diversity of the crowd. It was clear to Mina that some were upper class as they twiddled on Twitter or were outfitted with expensive gas masks. Then there were others with torn sandals, shabby clothing, and a piece of cloth tied under their nose for protection. Yet they were one, and Mina was with them.

They were the good guys. They coordinated with residents to remove cars from the street so they were not damaged in the clashes. They climbed the buildings to put out fires caused by errant tear gas canisters landing in residential apartments. There was no vandalism. At one point during a temporary halt in hostilities, the protestors cleared the street from all rocks and debris.

The police, meanwhile, were the absolute bad guys. Groupthink solidarity took hold and Mina and his friend purposed not to abandon their newfound colleagues. At one point after several hours they pulled away to buy a sandwich to refuel for the evening, and a stranger asked sympathetically for them not to leave them. It was their furthest thought. They were in it together, and they were angry. They were determined not to yield their ground to police. They would not be defeated.

Mina relates there were no plans to storm the Ministry of the Interior. Yet he confessed also he somewhat fantasized about it – what they would do if the police gave up. Its burning would not have been for the sake of destruction, he explained, but for the sake of its corrupt symbolism. The people must win; the institution needs purging. Though never feeling on the cusp of victory, their greatest advance led them within eyesight, 700 meters away.

The Role of the Army

To Mina’s surprise, their conflict was not with the police alone. Earlier in the day Mina and his friend tended to nature’s call in a computer mall on Bustan Street, a few blocks north from the conflict flashpoint. Shortly later they found themselves in a mix-up with the military, who, unknown to them, had just cleared Tahrir Square completely with the help of the police. In Taalat Harb Square he witnessed a soldier fire a tear gas canister directly at a protestor, who turned just in time to avoid being hit in the chest. Yet before this conflict tarried too long, the scene was quiet as all security forces withdrew. Their displaced local group lurched back to Tahrir, found it empty, and reoccupied. Meanwhile, the battle continued on Mohamed Mahmoud.

During the evening hours Mina believed the military was involved again. He judged from their brown uniforms and sturdy build, as opposed to the black of the riot police with their equipment covering their normal Egyptian scrawny bodies. At nightfall only the soccer hooligan contingent continued scuffles with the police, who were now more passive behind a barricade. On a Mohamed Mahmoud side street leading to Sheikh Rehan Street, however, the protestors fought the army.

Nightfall was much more violent, with more casualties. Tear gas canisters could not be sighted in the sky, and victims fell from gunshot, not just pellets. He saw dead bodies. Mina had never repeated calls against the military council, though he joined many in condemning military trials for civilians. Yet that night in the street he prayed God would not allow military rule to continue. He did what he could on his part, maintaining his presence until the early morning hours.

Once home he was grilled by family and friends. Once again they wondered why he was there at a Muslim protest. Two days earlier Islamists, primarily, had called for a massive demonstration which led to the small sit-in violently dispersed. He was far too tired to answer, or even to think coherently. After several hours of sleep he arose, answered all possible questions on this Facebook page, and referred all inquisitors there. He did not return to Tahrir, which continued its protest for several days. Mina relates his community now understands better what took place, trusts him, and is sympathetic.


It is only one testimony, and should not be generalized. Nevertheless the sentiment that comes through is of a situation that escalated quickly, pungent with emotion and a lingering sense of grievance. Anger and solidarity drove the protestors, not strategy. Where there is no strategy, there is also no conspiracy – at least not from their part.

While testimony is lacking, it may well be anger and solidarity which drove the police as well. Images from this and other confrontations with protestors depict police taunting and celebrating against their rivals. Rivalry may be an apt description; it is said police feel as if they ‘lost’ in January, while protestors feel their ‘win’ has not been cemented as the Ministry of Interior fails to reform. The explosion at Mohamed Mahmoud Street may have stemmed from these unresolved tensions.

This is not to absolve any ringleaders from the charge of conspiracy, whoever they may be. Rumors are the catalyst for conspiracy, and Twitter is fertile ground. Surely most retweets were innocent; could some have been planted to provoke an onslaught of support? Were the specters of Tahrir in play?

Little else from Mina’s testimony adds to charges against the other suspects listed above, except for his tentative identification of military contribution to the clashes. While the reasons behind clearing Tahrir Square remain mysterious, the contingent at nighttime may well have been seeking to stand between the two factions. Or not, but Mina’s words alone are not sufficient to state either way.

The main contribution is simply to highlight his own heart during the Mohamed Mahmoud clashes. Conspiracies concern the big picture, the puppet master, but may well have no basis at all in reality. On the other hand, Mina and thousands of others represent the detail. They do not represent puppets. They are the reality. They are flesh and blood willing to put their lives on the line for the most visceral – and perhaps noble – of reasons. Their mistakes may have been many; their wisdom may have failed them. Yet they were there, and may we trust they were there for good.

If testimony was available from the side of the police, it is quite possible similar nobility would come through. Individual policemen also represent the detail. They too are the reality. They stood their ground in front of what must have appeared an angry mob. They did their job.

If either one were puppets, may God forgive those who abused them. Much of Mohamed Mahmoud, and even Tahrir Square in its entirety, may only make sense in retrospect, several years from now. Until then, while focus is needed on the big picture, the individual details must not be forgotten. These are the lives fighting for Egypt’s future, just as much as any army general or political leader. Conspiracy may enwrap them all, but it must not obscure them. Each is given a share, and each will be held accountable.

May God honor all who strive for right.

Translation: Martyrs Street, formerly Mohamed Mahmoud Street
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The Battle for Mohamed Mahmoud Street: Conspiracies

Mohamed Mahmoud Street, Site of the Clashes

Note: Yesterday and today Tahrir Square witnessed new violence between demonstrators and the military police. Right before the start of elections, however, demonstrators were engaged in a pitched battle with the regular police. I wrote about it here, but did not delve into the surrounding issues, which were far to numerous and complicated. In this essay I do, aided by the testimony of a participant, which will be provided tomorrow in part two. As for any light shed on the larger question by today’s confrontations, well, that may still need additional reflection. May God aid Egypt.


One of the most confusing aspects of the recent clashes in Tahrir Square is why they happened at all. The basic story, told at length here, is that a small group of sit-in protestors were dispersed violently by police, and as word spread more and more protestors joined their ranks. Eventually several thousand, and then tens of thousands, re-converged in Tahrir, provoking another political crisis which eventually led to the resignation of the government and a promise to hold presidential elections by the end of June 2012. This is not what the protestors were demanding; they wanted no less than the return of the military to its barracks and the immediate transfer of governance to a civilian council. Yet this basic description obscures the fact that over forty people died during these few days of clashes, which is the most likely reason why there were mass crowds at all. Blood and suppression rallied the troops.

But why did they die? Most clashes occurred on Mohamed Mahmoud Street, which leads from Tahrir Square along the American University in Cairo and toward the Interior Ministry. During this time the square itself was peaceful, with one exception when police and army cleared it together, but then immediately re-allowed its occupation. From my observer standpoint the two posited explanations made no sense at all. One, the protestors were trying to storm the ministry and burn it down. Two, the protestors were defending Tahrir against the police, who wished to raid it and prevent further protests. I do believe that participants in Mohamed Mahmoud may well have believed these explanations, one against the other.

But with so many deaths and injuries, why did this fight rage for several days? Protestors could have pulled back to Tahrir and its relative safety; if the police stormed through their aggression would have been obvious. By continuing the fight the protestors enabled accusations against them.

Yet the same can be said of police. Though they suffered far fewer injuries, they could have pulled back to the Interior Ministry and set up barricades. By engaging the protestors so far from these grounds they enabled the accusations of trying to suppress peaceful proteStreet

So was either group then seeking one of these objectives? If police were seeking to clear the square, they could have done so from any number of entry points. In fact this was done (as mentioned), and required little effort at all. Why then did the fighting rage in the side streets?

Perhaps there were a few thousand protestors in Mohamed Mahmoud. Though they threw stones and Molotov cocktails, they were otherwise weaponless. Did they believe they would overcome police? Perhaps. Protests in January led to the burning of several police stations throughout the country, when the police withdrew. This is still a mysterious part of the revolution for me, but it is plausible, however unlikely, there was a real offensive underway.

A Video Depiction of the Conflict

Furthermore, video from Mohamed Mahmoud gives a different picture than the circulated images of ‘warzones’ from the media. This video was filmed on the 20th, while numbers were still growing. It was also filmed during the daylight, and testimony suggests there was more violence after dark. Yet assuming the manner of clashes was consistent throughout, the video depicts a very slow moving conflict.

A vanguard of a few dozen protestors stand at the front lines and throw stones, while another hundred or so mill behind them, with the mass of a thousand or so further back. The story is similar on the police side. One or two move forward with tear gas launchers, or bird pellet shotguns, and fire towards the crowds. Behind them are several others, with even more further back. Every once in a while they charge briefly, but all in all, the conflict rarely moves more than a few meters. Even more telling, between the two sides is the length of at least half a city block, or more. It is not trench warfare; it is a faceoff.

Even so, no one stands their ground to be killed for no reason. Something was at stake, but what?

Seeking Sense through Conspiracy Theories

The assumed implausibility of these two scenarios has led to a number of conspiracy theories. The chief line of conspiracy analysis says the protests were manufactured; excessive violence was employed and blood shed so that protestors would flock back to Tahrir Square. Telling support is marshaled in lieu of the elections, which were only a week away at the time. In whose interests were protests manipulated? That depends on the storyteller, but there are three candidates: The military, the liberals, and the Islamists, with shadowy Tahrir specters floating throughout them all.

Against the Military Council

The conspiracy for the military is simple. The armed forces have ruled Egypt since the 1952 revolution and they are loathe to give up power now. Circumstances have forced the Arab Spring upon them, and they are not entirely opposed, but must remain in control. Elections are a threat, whether liberals or Islamists come to power, so why not engineer a crisis to ‘postpone’ them, and continue to manipulate public opinion back to pre-revolutionary sentiments?

Against the Liberals

The conspiracy for the liberals is less simple. All indications pointed to an Islamist victory in elections, which could well lead to the cementing of an Islamic state in the new constitution. While ivory tower liberals could not engineer this crisis on their own, either the police or the army provoked a situation to delay elections and work towards a situation in which the powers-that-be – business interests, media, the political establishment – marginalize the Islamists. Here is where the simplicity is loStreet

One line of conspiracy imagines this crisis was meant as a trap for the Islamists. One day before the small sit-in was raided Islamist forces led a massive protest in Tahrir Square. Perhaps it was hoped that these forces would be drawn into conflict with the police, and then fall accused of fermenting violence, resulting in widespread discrediting. This is the interpretation publically issued by the Muslim Brotherhood. If it was a trap, they did not fall for it, as they refused to engage. Their official line was that participation would have led to more bloodshed.

The other line of conspiracy accounts for this possibility. The protestors of Mohamed Mahmoud were championed in many circles as heroes against the ‘Mubarak-style’ repression of police. By not joining the protests the Islamists would be seen as abandoning the original spirit of Tahrir Square for their long desired electoral success. In fact, the Brotherhood was panned by many, both political parties and simple residents of Cairo. Yet if it was a conspiracy to discredit them politically it failed, as Islamists are currently sweeping the vote in the majority of constituencies.

Against the Islamists

The conspiracy for the Islamists is complicated. Islamists are suspected of playing both sides of an issue, so they come out the winners on either result. Recounting conspiracies must therefore jump back and forth across possibilities.

In the background is the question of international support. Conventional wisdom and Egyptian history suggest the ruling powers are threatened by Islamists. Yet there is a flip side, casting shadows on all possibilities, that a shift is underway. Some observers believe the ‘West’, the US, and via their international aid the Egyptian military council as well, are now poised to accept Islamist rule provided it respects international norms and the market economy. The Muslim Brotherhood, perhaps, is pragmatic and business oriented enough to accept this arrangement.

If true, or even otherwise, why would Islamists be behind the events of Tahrir Square, which ostensibly threatened elections? It should be noted, first of all, that despite official Brotherhood denials, there were Islamists in the square. Salafis were present in good number, and many youth from the Brotherhood ‘broke rank’ and joined in as well. Brotherhood youth are revolutionary, and forged many bonds with their secular activist counterparts. Conspiracy suggests, though, they could have been there by design.

Why? There are two options. First, as long as the Brotherhood could publically deny their official presence, distance from the ‘revolutionaries’ could help their cause. As most liberal political groups threw their support behind the protestors – winning the sympathies of the Tahrir crowd – the Brotherhood remained in the background as the rest of Egypt grows tired of endless protests. Even if elections were to be postponed, the Brotherhood would do well whenever they were held. Perhaps some leaders even feared their support might not have been as strong as was rumored. An election delay, and further discrediting of Tahrir liberals, might give them a boost.

Second, if the demonstrations in Tahrir succeeded, the presence of Brotherhood youth would allow the group to stake its claim as a revolutionary force, similar to January, when official leaders remained in the background. There would be damage control to render, of course, but if the military council resigned the weight of the Brotherhood could not be ignored in subsequent negotiations.

Another scenario is that Islamists did not want the postponement of elections, but did desire the chaos leading up to it. In fact, they initiated the massive Friday protest preceding the clashes. The security situation in Egypt has been deteriorating with rumors rampant the elections would be terribly violent. Against the backdrop of Tahrir, many average Egyptians might be afraid to go to the polls. The Brotherhood is understood as benefiting from low turnout, as their political machine would be able to command its usual support. While deaths and injuries mounted, Islamists demanded elections be held on time.

Against the Revolutionaries

Finally, the conspiracy for the Tahrir specters is obscure. This theory centers on the makeup of the core demonstrators in the square. That the masses came was necessary, but others call the shots. A murky figure in this camp is Baradei, who was present among them briefly, and hailed as the savior of a proposed ‘national salvation government’.

The mechanisms to achieve success in this conspiracy are unclear however, as Tahrir has no real power. Yet many hard core activists insist on the reality of the term: Egypt has had a revolution, and it is not yet finished. Revolutions are not won through elections, but through the seizing of power by a few. Baradei is not a revolutionary, and he is not in the trenches. He is considered a liberal, connected with Islamists, and under suspicion by many. It is said he has no credibility on the Egyptian street, and could thus never win a popular vote. Is there another operation underway to bring him to power? Is Tahrir the method, whatever that means?

Part Two, focusing on a participant’s testimony, will be presented tomorrow.

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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.


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.


The Church Field Hospital at Tahrir Square

L - church; R - mosque

As clashes and demonstrations have resumed in Cairo and throughout Egypt, I have been closely following information to try and decipher what is going on. I wish soon to be able to publish a helpful summation of events, but things are happening so quickly, and in essence I remain confused about the ‘why’ of everything, as well as where it is going.

In light of this, here instead is a short human interest piece describing a video from al-Masry al-Youm, a local Egyptian newspaper, highlighting the efforts of Kasr al-Dobara Church,[1] a Presbyterian congregation one street removed from Tahrir Square, to treat the injured from the recent clashes.

This work was not unique. There were at least three areas in the square which had field hospitals, and another hosted inside Omar Makram Mosque which is a prominent feature of Tahrir. Yet the church opened its doors all the same, seeking to serve all who were in need. To note, while many churches in Egypt have adjoining clinics, this one does not. All medical supplies, in all locations, came through the donations of protestors or sympathizers with their wounded. The official count from the recent clashes count over twenty dead and over one thousand injured.

The video is a little over two minutes long, and in Arabic only. Below is a translation of both text and audio. Please click here to open the video.


Introductory Text on YouTube:

Maybe it wasn’t expected for the Kasr al-Dobara Church near Tahrir Square to become a temporary headquarters for a field hospital which treated tens of victims who fell during bloody confrontations between security forces and the army and thousands of protestors.


0:09        Caption: Kasr al-Dobara Church, Downtown Cairo, November 21, 2011

0:15        Chanting from a distance: The people want the downfall of the field marshal (Tantawi, de facto head of the ruling military council)

0:18        Caption: Victims of Tahrir in the Hospitality of Kasr al-Dobara Church

Speaker: Fayiz Ishaq

0:22        Have mercy on the tired ones. In the middle of events, this is the idea of the Bible, the idea of the church. In the middle of events we find ourselves invested in them. First of all, the church is downtown, in Tahrir Square, and this is a miracle. The church was built in the late 1940s when it was very difficult to build churches, and perhaps the reason for being here is revealed now, being so close to events.

Speaker not named, female doctor:

1:13        We knew there was pressure in the square, so we came yesterday around seven o’clock and opened the field hospital. For the first two or three hours we mainly distributed supplies. There were lots of people, and if the other field hospitals didn’t have supplies we’d send them out – tools, syringes, bandages. Then people discovered there was a field hospital here and began to come. In the first two or three hours there were about eight cases with simple injuries. By about 2:30 in the morning we heard they attacked the field hospital in the middle of Tahrir, and the doctors came here. They brought all their things and we set up three zones – here we dealt with the cases that were easy to treat, not dangerous. Over there we had two zones for the critical cases which required greater concentration.


It would be very interesting in the days to come to speak to church leaders and those involved to know more. If possible, I will relate these stories later. For now, it is good to see a church involved in its community, however temporary and extraordinary this community was.


[1] If you click on the link, the page will have a map of the church. Drag the picture down with the curser and you will soon see Tahrir Square to the north, with a large administrative building inbetween.

Arab West Report Aslan Media Middle East Published Articles

Clashes, Deaths at Coptic Protest in Maspero

Scene from the Violen Dispersal of the Protest

Egyptian State TV confirms 23 dead and over 170 injured in clashes between largely Coptic protestors, unknown assailants, and Egyptian military police on October 9, 2011. Protestors began their march from the heavily Christian neighborhood of Shubra at 5pm, culminating at the Egyptian Radio and TV Building in Maspero in downtown Cairo. The peaceful march was scheduled to end at 8pm, but was attacked at various stages along the route by unknown opposition.

I received word of the protest earlier in the day. Having witnessed the Coptic attempt at a sit-in at Maspero five days earlier, which was eventually dispersed by the army, I wished again to get a sense for the manner in which Copts were expressing their grievances. These largely centered on the burning of a purported church in the village of Marinab, in Edfu, in the Aswan governorate on September 30. Many Copts believe the interim government to be lax in protecting their community and securing equality of citizenship; what is certain is that a lack of security throughout the country has led to abuses.

I arrived by metro to Tahrir Square near Maspero at 7pm. Coming up from the underground I received a phone call from a colleague asking if I was on my way, and to be careful, as a protestor had been shot. Stunned by her statement, I immediately noticed the tension in the air as the metro entrance area was surrounded by Egyptians – many of them presumably Copts from lack of head coverings – pale, and in shock. Many had tears in their eyes. Shortly thereafter I did as well.

This group stated with vehemence they had been attacked by the army, emphasizing it was the army, and not simple thugs. People had been shot and armored vehicles had run over protestors as they swerved through the crowd. Some claimed there were snipers. Confusion reigned, and it was hard to know what was happening.

Only a few minutes later a group of protestors marched by where I was standing on their way to Tahrir Square. They were carrying what appeared to be dead body, chanting against Field Marshal Muhammad Tantawi, head of the ruling military council. I saw no signs of blood, but the body was inert.

I moved northward along the side of the Egyptian Museum toward Abdel Munim Riyadh Square, site of a major bus station. Hundreds of Egyptians were milling about, simply watching events unfold. From a distance I could see clashes between protestors and police taking place on the 6 October Bridge, both sides throwing rocks back and forth.

Ahead of me at an intersection of the Cornish Road along the Nile River several protestors were angrily destroying stop lights and street signs. A scuffle broke out around a taxi – it seemed two people were simply fighting to get in and drive away. Several of those standing around carried planks in their hands. Others carried crosses. The former were presumably informal members of ‘neighborhood committees’ which had been formed after the revolution to combat looting. The latter were presumably remnants of the protest, now scattered about.

One of these latter was an older gentleman from the church I attend in Maadi, Cairo. He was livid, but despondent. ‘Let the whole country get enflamed,’ he said. ‘It will serve them right. Do you see what is happening! They are killing us!’ I tried to comfort, and remind. ‘No, remember your faith. Let love hold in your heart. Copts must now be peacemakers.’ It was of little use, as we stood and watched another clash take place on the bridge. Comfort was better. I put my arm around him and cried. ‘I’m sorry for what is taking place. God protect Egypt.’ A moment later a stranger noticed me and asked if I was a foreigner. ‘Why are you here?’ he demanded. I kept quiet, said I was only watching, and moved away.

It should be noted that although I use the word ‘protestors’ throughout the text, it was impossible to tell Muslim from Christian, protestor from bystander from ‘thug’. Who was committing violence, and who was suffering it, was impossible to say.

This fact makes interpretation of events near impossible as well. A phone call to my wife allowed me to receive updates from the news and Twitter. Reports were conflicting. Wildly different numbers of dead were being reported, from two or three to thirty or fifty. Furthermore, there were reports that army personnel were also killed. Some said that Christians had machine guns. Others reported that State TV announced the army was under attack, and urged Egyptians to come into the streets to defend it. The largely activist and liberal Twitter community understood that official media was blaming the protestors for what happened, saying that they fired first.

I cannot say the truth of what took place, for I arrived no more than fifteen minutes or so late to the scene, and was never in a front line position. Yet before too long an acquaintance from the Maspero Youth Union recognized me and gave me his version of events. He stated there were 10,000 Copts and Muslim supporters in the march from Shubra, which was met with violence when their path was blocked. He blamed thugs sent by the army, but also that people were pelting them with rocks and glass from apartment buildings along the road. Eventually, they were able to proceed again. He insisted the group did not plan for a sit-in, but was ready to disperse freely at 8pm. Upon arrival at Maspero, however, the army began attacking immediately, he maintained. People were shot in the head, and others were run over by military vehicles. I discovered later that one member of the Maspero Youth Union, Michael Mossad, was among those killed.

As he was relating events tear gas was fired on the bridge, and he left to go check in on events. From time to time waves of protestors fell back, and gradually security regained control of the area, pushing everyone back toward the direction of Tahrir Square. Suddenly a fire engine sped through the area and was pelted by rocks as it went by. Whether or not this caused the driver to lose control of the vehicle, it swerved, hopped over the central median, struck one or two people along the way, and crashed into a street light. Waves of protestors then descended upon it, but I could not tell if they were beating the driver or pulling him from the wreck. Several climbed on top and began vandalizing. A car fire raged shortly thereafter on the other side of the street.

Contrary to media reports, however, I did not witness ‘clashes’ in Abdel Munim Riyadh Square between protestors and others. There was much tension, sounds of occasional gunfire, and tear gas lobbed throughout the area, but I never witnessed actual fighting except at a distance. The area is large, however, so I am hopeful if it took place I was stationed in the safer locations.

Contrary to other media reports, I did not witness large reactionary protests in Tahrir Square. Egyptians were all over, and at times small bands of protestors would march and chant slogans against the military council. Yet when I was present there was certainly not a mass gathering in response to what took place. I wandered a bit more throughout the area, before leaving to go home around 9pm.

As news continues to unfold there will be much to confirm amidst the rumors. There are reports the military entered media offices preventing transmission of live feeds. There are reports of clashes outside the Coptic Hospital where many injured are being treated. There are reports liquor stores – owned by Christians – are being attacked downtown. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Essam Sharaf has called for an emergency cabinet meeting tomorrow, and has posted on his Facebook page:

What took place was not a confrontation between Muslims and Christians but an attempt to create chaos and ignite sectarian sedition, which is not fitting for the children of the nation who were and will remain ‘one hand’ against the powers of destruction and extremism. Application of the law is the ideal solution for all of Egypt’s problems. I urge all children of the nation who are keen for its future not to answer those who call for sectarian sedition. This is a fire which will consume us all, without distinction.

These are wise words. May they prove true especially now and in the days to come. God protect Egypt.


Day of Rage 2.0

Translation: May 27; underneath is a list of demands

Tomorrow, May 27, could be a portentous day in the development of Egypt, post-revolution. Or, it could come to nothing. Activists, largely those among the earliest demonstrators at Tahrir Square, have returned to social media to call for a 2ndDay of Rage, in order to protest a slowing pace of reform from the ruling military council and interim government. A Facebook page asking for participation attracted 27,000 supporters, but of which only 5,000 said they would participate.

While there have been protests nearly every day since Mubarak stepped down as president, none have been as controversial as this one. The Muslim Brotherhood has declared it will not take part, and has in fact publically condemned the effort. Meanwhile, on the opposite side of the political spectrum, Naguib Siwarus, a wealthy Coptic businessman and founder of the liberal Free Egyptians Party, has also spoken against the demonstration.

At issue is not so much the list of demands; in fact, participants have not exactly put together a unified call. Rather, it is felt that the target of protest is directed at the ruling military council. Many activists have been careful not to directly point their finger at the army, but the understood complaint is reminiscent of the early revolutionary struggle. Protests since the revolution have tended to be about particular issues.

The fear is obvious: The army received unwavering popular support for its role in the revolution, refusing to fire on the people. In light of the violence in Libya, Syria, and elsewhere, Egyptians have been very grateful for army neutrality. Yet the 2nd Day of Rage threatens to drive a wedge between the army and the people. In fact, this is the chief accusation against the activists. If we cannot look to the army to guide our transition, to whom will we turn? The conservative Muslim Salafis, in this regard, have returned to their pre-revolutionary rhetoric – demonstrating against the leader is against Islamic sharia. The Muslim Brotherhood has labeled the activists ‘secularists and communists’, terms sure to draw rejection from a God-fearing population. Rumors are about that the hand of Israel and America are driving participation.

The demands of the activists do suggest dissatisfaction with the military council’s governance. They are frustrated with the slow pace of trials against leading regime figures, especially Mubarak, who only two days earlier was referred to prosecution. They condemn the use of military tribunals, of which human rights activists say up to 10,000 citizens have been subject since the revolution, many of which have been protestors. They call for the replacement of the military council with transitional civilian leadership drawn from all segments of society. Furthermore, they ask for the drafting of a new constitution prior to legislative elections, so as to secure a free and democratic society into which new representatives can be chosen.

This last notion in particular can be judged as somewhat partisan politics. One reason the Muslim Brotherhood is understood to oppose the march is that they are due to fare well in the legislative elections, and will have superior representation from which will constitute the body to craft a new constitution afterwards. Some activists have gone as far to suspect background deals between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood, but this is denied by both parties. Indeed, the Brotherhood seeks to assure Egyptians they seek participation with all political forces, to achieve a civil state. Yet figures from the Brotherhood periodically mention phrases such as ‘sharia law’, and make many wonder if their openness is a temporary strategy rather than a democratic commitment. The Brotherhood, for its part, states there is a media campaign to discredit them and twist words out of context.

With ‘only’ 5,000 people committed to the demonstration, however, will there be much ado at all? Egyptians are tired of protest, focused on the ongoing security lapses and deteriorating economy. If left alone, will the efforts of the activists simply fizzle out?

Perhaps. Yet some activists have been stating that the security lapses and an overemphasis on economy issues is part of the military strategy to slow down revolutionary gains. Youth activists complain they have been squeezed out of the decision making process, as most government pronouncements are issued from behind closed doors. A recent national dialogue has begun, in which many youth were invited. Upon arrival, however, they found senior representation including figures from the disgraced Mubarak regime. Most left in protest, and the dialogue ended abruptly.

Some steam may have been gained today, as four activists were arrested by the military police for distributing flyers calling for participation in the 2nd Day of Rage. The activists’ twitter campaigns went on high alert, mobilizing people immediately to go to their place of detention. They were released later in the day, but individual tweets proclaimed the arrests did the greatest favor for the call to demonstrate. Links to pictures of the flyers rapidly filled cyberspace.

Yet so did a foreboding sense of dread. One activist feared May 27 would come to represent the day the revolution died. Others tried to bring levity by calling on protestors to use humor, as they did so effectively in the beginning. Given the expected high temperatures, some wished to turn Tahrir Square into a beach scene.

On its official Facebook page, the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces stated clearly it would not fire on protestors. Yet it warned that certain shadowy groups might try to infiltrate and bring trouble. The message concluded by stating the army would not be present during the demonstrations, but would be guarding other essential government institutions.

Activists took this as a message that they would be left on their own. One of the young revolutionary groups, the April 6 Movement, declared it would take responsibility for securing the peaceful nature of the demonstration, to prevent any violent infiltrators from sabotage. Yet with the prevalence of ‘thugs’ who have attacked demonstrators previously, might these descend upon activists?

On the one hand, it is feared. On the other, it is feared as a scare tactic to limit participation. Tomorrow has the air of uncertainty that existed on January 24, when Police Day demonstrations were expected. Some of the same questions exist: Will this only be an expression of young, middle to upper class frustration? Will the street care, let alone join in? Regardless, for that protest 80,000 Facebook users committed to participate; the 2nd Day of Rage pales in comparison to previous mobilization.

No one is expecting a 2nd Revolution, though some activists are using that language. What is their expectation, however? How will they know if they win? If their fears are true, and the revolution is being thwarted, can this effort reverse the tide?

My guess is that the 2nd Day of Rage will make a loud protest, but eventually fizzle out. If there is bloodshed, however, will that change the equation? Or, will the popular perception be that they turned against the army, are working against the necessary stabilization of the economy, and will deserve what they get? The former regime tried such a strategy during the infamous ‘Battle of the Camel’; it failed miserably. Conditions are different now; most are still positive about the revolution and thankful for the army. Public relations are probably against the activists.

Does it deserve to be? It has only been four months since the revolution began. Former figures, including Mubarak’s sons, have been sent to prison. Elections are promised, and most analysts believe the military has absolutely no intention of staying in power long term. Meanwhile, security is weakened, as is the economy. The military proved itself trustworthy during the revolution; should it be given the benefit of the doubt during the transition? After all, it has undertaken governance and policing – two tasks absolutely necessary but for which it is ill equipped.

Tomorrow we will see. Yet positions appear to be hardening, creating fissures in the widespread revolutionary unity. Perhaps it was inevitable; it is also dangerous. No one accounts the revolution to be completed yet; might it derail as groups begin to fight for their own vision of success?

It is a very difficult balance fighting for what you believe in, holding others accountable, and maintaining unity at the same time. Perhaps it is too herculean to expect, but it can be pleaded for. May prayers be directed toward safety, sense of partnership, and ultimate freedom and justice to come to Egypt. The nation is still in need.