Sunday, July 31, 2011

Islamists in Tahrir Square

This Friday Tahrir Square was turned upside down. In what were likely the largest protests since the fall of Mubarak, hundreds of thousands of Islamists descended upon the square and completely overwhelmed the secular sit-in that has camped there since July 8th.

The Tahrir I had gotten to know changed overnight. As I write about here, Tahrir had become an exciting and even fun affair. Parents enjoying roasted nuts as their children get their faces painted. Animated political discussions sprouting up and dispersing. Revolutionary concerts and films to entertain and educate the crowds in the evenings. A small school for the children. A barber for those who have stayed since the beginning or for those who just wanted to talk shop. And underlying it all: a shared passion to complete the revolution that transcended political, religious, age and gender lines – even as they passionately debated what exactly such a revolution should bring.

That Tahrir was gone when I went to the protests on Friday. Bearded men and the occasional niqabi woman flooded the square. The average age of the protesters seemed to increase by at least a decade. Unity was dismantled one sectarian chant and one provocative sign at a time. The day before, all revolutionary groups whether secular or Islamist had agreed to a shared list of demands. The Islamists, and especially Salafists, did not uphold the end of their deal. In what was a surely coordinated effort from their leadership given the number and professionalism of their signs and banners and the fiery preaching of their stages, they completely ignored the deal they had just agreed to only 24 hours prior. The outnumbered secular protesters had no choice but to withdraw from the square entirely.

Much of the reporting has focused on the extremism of the Islamists and especially Salafists, but some of it has been sensationalized. For example, some outlets mentioned vendors selling pictures of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. This is true, but they were also selling pictures of Sadat, Gaddafi, Che, Nasser, and pretty much every other political leader. These vendors weren’t trying to make a political statement; they were trying to make a living. Moreover, as this picture I took on July 11th shows, they’ve been there for a while. But to be clear, many of the Islamist demands were anything but reasonable. Dozens of signs demanded the release of “political prisoners” like convicted terrorist Omar Abd al-Rahman and organizers were collecting signatures on a petition to achieve that release. My friend was yelled at a few times for not covering her hair.

There is no doubt Tahrir became a more sectarian, conservative, and volatile place Friday. Popular chants from the revolution like “Raise your head high, you’re Egyptian” became “Raise your head high, you’re Muslim.” The people no longer demanded the fall of the regime, but the “implementation of God’s Sharia.” There was an odd moment as I listened to anti-Western, anti-American, anti-liberal, anti-secular, and anti-Jewish chants and realized I was all five of those things. Yet despite the anger and prejudice of the chants, I was always greeted by the protesters warmly – hearty assalaamu aleikum greetings with kisses on the cheek were the norm.

Legitimate concerns that Tahrir would devolve into chaos and violence did not bear out – perhaps simply because there were so few seculars for the Islamists to confront. As the sun began to set and the evening call to prayer began to rise, the Islamists started to file out of the square. Buses were waiting to take them home, unknown numbers destined for locations far outside Cairo. Seculars began to regain their strength. Chants for Islamic rule were increasingly met with counter-chants for a civil state. By nightfall, the concert stage and cinema were once again up and running, as if the Islamists had never come at all. As one Egyptian told me: “Don’t be discouraged by the loud voices today in Tahrir. The vast majority want a civil state.”

After some reflection about the day’s events, I’ve come away with the following take-away points:

1. Islamism deserves a voice – Any political or religious trend that can mobilize tens and hundreds of thousands of people to descend upon Tahrir Square deserves a voice in molding the future of Egypt. In fact, any political or religious trend that can mobilize only tens or hundreds of people deserve that same right. Whether we like it or not, Islamism represents a significant portion of the population. A truly democratic Egypt will have to find a way to accommodate them, so long as they agree to play by the rules of the game. In the long-term, I have an admittedly hard to prove hunch that the most unsavory Islamists will fail to thrive in a prosperous and free Egypt.

2. Islamists need honesty to build trust – Islamists currently suffer from a deficit of trust in greater Egyptian society and especially the political elite. After all, some of the groups on the square were unabashed terrorists only a few years ago. Moreover, the goals of the Islamist project and their potential ramifications on Egyptian society raise legitimate concerns about Islamist intentions. Of course, the secular protesters face their own deficit of trust for different reasons. To quell such anxiety, Islamists will not only have to carefully calibrate their public messaging, but they must also change the way they interact with the rest of Egyptian society. By reneging on the unity deal, the Salafists have only confirmed widespread fears that they cannot be trusted. And if they cannot be trusted for something as simple as sticking to a list of agreed-upon chants, how can they ever be trusted with the reins of government? Political effectiveness is part grandstanding for sure, but it’s also about deal-making and keeping one’s word. Only the Islamist political parties who can balance the desires of their constituency while also projecting a trustworthy voice to the rest of Egyptian society will succeed during and after Egypt’s transition to democracy.

3. The Muslim Brotherhood is under pressure -As much as yesterday was about Islamists projecting their strength to others, it was also about an internal struggle over who best represents the voice Islamists deserve. The Muslim Brotherhood proved the most trustworthy yesterday, and therefore they proved the most effective representative of the Islamist voice. For example, a leader of their political party criticized his Islamist brothers for breaking their pledge to stick to a unity script. Yet at the same time, many of their chant leaders also broke the agreed upon script, and their image outside the Islamist camp may be tarnished along with the Salafists as a result. Yesterday was not the first or last time competing political forces will pull the Brotherhood in competing directions. Their ultimate goal of establishing an Islamic state naturally aligns them with the other Islamists that took over Tahrir Square yesterday. Yet their wealth of political experience and flexible pragmatism pulls them towards cooperation with secular partners. As Egypt democratizes, the Brotherhood will continue to be pulled in divergent directions, and such stress on the organization will exacerbate pre-existing fractures within the group that have already begun to widen. With their most skilled political operators and youth leaders already striking out on their own, the Brotherhood may be forced to rely increasingly on their Islamist allies, further alienating some of their own members and creating an opportunity for other groups to fulfill the role of, for lack of a better term, “Moderate Islamist.”

4. Nothing has changed – Not surprisingly, many secular Egyptians and especially those encamped in the square have expressed their dismay and even fear of yesterday’s events. But nothing about yesterday should come as a surprise. The protests proved that the Islamists are well-organized, loud, and sometimes a little scary. We knew all of this before yesterday. We’re just not used to seeing the truth so up close and personal. The biggest mistake the secular Egyptians (and international actors for that matter) could make is to overreact to yesterday’s events. The Islamists came, made their voice heard, and left. Business has now returned to usual and it’s time to refocus on the tasks at hand.

5. Tahrir is overrated – Regardless of what happened yesterday, the real battle between and within the secular and Islamist camps are outside Tahrir Square. Protests are about symbols. Elections are about results. The secular camp should take yesterday’s events as a wake-up call. As they discuss politics in Tahrir, Islamists are actually doing politics outside Tahrir. That is why Islamists can fill the square when they want to and that is why they will do well in the November elections. They have done the painstaking but essential work at the grassroots level. Secular groups – and especially the liberals – have so far failed to do the same.

You can see my pictures from the protest here. Below, I've embedded some video I took during the day.

UPDATE: Today has been a weird day. The protesters have announced the sit-in will end, but not everyone agrees so it's not clear how many will remain if any. Meanwhile, the military used sticks to disperse a protest outside the parliament. And finally, a group of merchants and vendors threatened to open traffic in the square by force before being talked off the ledge. Check out this post by Amr Bassiouny about why the protesters need to change strategy and this post by The Big Pharaoh about why the Muslim Brotherhood played Friday's protests perfectly.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

July 23rd Clashes

My friend and I were doing Arabic homework in a café in Zamalek – an upper class haven in Cairo - when the news came in. Violent clashes had broken out between Tahrir protesters and supporters of the ruling military council (SCAF). Protesters had marched from Tahrir to the SCAF headquarters to demonstrate peacefully , and they were met with violent resistance from stone-wielding civilians. We watched on TV as rocks and Molotov cocktails began to fly through the air, intermingled with the army’s live ammunition cracking over the heads of the demonstrators.

At the time of writing, reports are coming in that over 100 people have been injured, including the female presidential candidate Bothaina Kamel. I’m very worried the violence will escalate through the night. The last time there were clashes like this, over 1000 people were injured before the violence subsided. Some even are worrying that Tahrir Square itself may be in danger.

So how did we get here? Several developments in the past few weeks have made violence increasingly likely, if not inevitable.

First, the decreasing numbers of protesters present in Tahrir Square have made an attack more probable. When the sit-in began on July 8th, at least one hundred thousand people flooded into Tahrir. With the exception of the Salafists, every single political group and movement participated. But the unity and enthusiasm of July 8th have faded since then.

From the beginning, the Muslim Brotherhood refused to stay for the sit-in, though some of its youth members, nonetheless participated unofficially. More recently, the opposition party al-Wafd withdrew from the sit-in as well, its leader oddly claiming the Tahrir protesters played no role in the revolution. As the sit-in dragged on ever longer, the excitement of the square faded and only a vanguard of revolutionaries remained. Protests of over 100,000 had diminished to a sit-in of 1000, if that.

With such a small showing, it would no longer be hard for the military council to portray the protesters as fringe radicals bent on chaos and clamp down on the protests without angering the general public.

Second, protesters in Tahrir have grown increasingly frustrated and angry. As I wrote before, the festival atmosphere on July 8th belied the day’s foundation of anger towards the regime and, for many, the SCAF. While the sit-in has achieved some of its objectives, it has not realized its most important demands. Nor does the SCAF seem prepared to bend much further anytime soon. Rather, the SCAF has escalated its rhetoric against the protests in recent days, with finger-pointing generals attacking key revolutionary groups. Such provocation raised the political temperature even higher. Running out of time as the fasting month of Ramadan approached, many protesters felt the time had come raise the stakes. In such an environment, even a minor provocation from the SCAF could lead to a quick, unwanted, and avoidable escalation. On both sides, there was plenty of tinder ready to ignite.

Finally, many Egyptians have become increasingly ambivalent to, and even hostile towards, the Tahrir sit-in. Some Egyptians have admittedly been mislead about the Tahrir sit-in, especially as Salafists painted the square as a den of sex and drugs – a description that regime remnants surely were happy to proliferate. But even those who support the revolution and its cause have started to feel greater ambivalence. As I wrote last week, many Egyptians who participated in the revolution now worry about the economy, security, and the fragmentation of society. Meanwhile, overzealous protesters made unnecessary enemies with some of the vendors in Tahrir Square in a misguided and short-lived attempt to remove them from the square. Without the clear support of the people, the Tahrir sit-in grew increasingly isolated and thereby vulnerable.

In the end, the SCAF’s military psychology took over tonight. They looked at the Tahrir protesters and saw a weakened and aggravated adversary. With their numbers diminished, their tempers flaring, and their support ebbing, the time was ripe for an attack. By marching on the SCAF headquarters, the protesters stumbled into a trap. The SCAF only had to rile up the locals with rumors of incoming marauders and watch the mayhem unfold. So they did.

The key question now is whether the violence will spur the silent majority back into action. During the first revolution, small bands of demonstrators suddenly ballooned into million-strong protests largely out of disgust at the violence unleashed by Mubarak’s security forces and thugs. Perhaps the SCAF has just made the same mistake.

But that seems unlikely. The waiters at my Zamalek café watched al-Arabiya intently for a minute as news of the battle trickled in. Then with a shrug one of them changed the channel to watch music videos. Collecting my things, I made my way back to my apartment to turn on the news and follow the clashes on Twitter. Passing my doorman, I asked him about the violence. He replied, “What clashes? There can’t be any clashes. The people and the army are one hand.”

UPDATE: If you want to read more about what happened last night, you should check out the Egyptian blogger Zeinobia's blog.

Friday, July 15, 2011

July 15th Protests in Tahrir

Parachute pundits like talking to taxi drivers. They’re a one-stop shop to get the view from the street. The problem is taxi drivers – no matter how emphatically they claim to speak for their society – only speak for themselves. Extrapolate at your own risk.

This morning I jumped into a cab and told the driver to take me to Tahrir Square. Today massive protests were planned throughout Egypt, and I wanted to see whether the revolutionaries could build on the momentum from last week. My driver beamed with excitement when he heard our destination. He exclaimed, “As soon as I earn enough today to feed my kids, I’m going straight to Tahrir!”

I could’ve very easily written a taxi driver journalism piece on that quote alone: “Concerns that the revolutionaries in Tahrir Square have lost touch with the Egyptian street are overblown. Yes, the sit-in has caused some daily inconveniences for the average Egyptian, but as this taxi driver explained, the people still support the protests.”

But then I got into another cab and the story changed. Leaving the protests this afternoon, I asked the driver what he thought of the protests. He sighed before explaining, “Once, the protests were a beautiful thing, but today…no longer.” He went on to explain that the protests are fragmenting Egyptian society, damaging the economy, causing congestion, and could lead to chaos.

So which taxi driver is right? Do Egyptians generally support the Tahrir sit-in and protests? Or are they growing fatigued? For me, it’s an academic question. For the revolutionaries, it’s an essential one. The future of Egypt will be determined not by the 1% who chant in Tahrir, but by the 99% who hear those chants on TV. If the revolutionaries lose that 99%, then they will lose the revolution as well.

From my outsider perspective, I am increasingly worried that the revolutionaries are in danger of doing just that. Tahrir is a magical and exciting place, addicting even. It is also a bubble. So determined to achieve the demands of the revolution, the protesters in Tahrir may not fully perceive the shifting mood beyond the square.

Today’s protests were significantly smaller than last week. Some of this decrease is certainly because the Muslim Brotherhood refused to participate again (though some of its members unofficially joined). The hot weather also probably deterred some Egyptians from attending. But the question remains to what extent has support for the protests dissipated.

Earlier this week, Ramy Raoof wrote a blog post in Arabic on why he participates in the sit-in in which he lists a set of clearly demarcated and justified demands from the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. Yet Ramy’s post fails to answer the primary question he sets out to answer: why is a sit-in the best method of achieving those demands?

The revolutionaries should be asking that question among others. Besides protests, how else can they achieve their goals? Are some demands more essential than others? Can some goals be put off for later? Are their fellow Egyptians growing tired of protests? If so, how can they reinvigorate the spirit of the revolution? Do most Egyptians agree with the outlined goals, and if not, how can they be brought around?

When I recently voiced these concerns to my friend, he shrugged them off. He explained that at every stage, people have urged the revolutionaries to cash in on what they have earned and go home content. And at every stage, the revolutionaries have been right to keep pushing the envelope further. He suggested there’s no reason to think the revolutionaries have gone astray now.

Moreover, I know the people in Tahrir are debating these issues – in tents, on blogs, at tweet-ups, and on the streets. They are motivated, skilled, organized, and dedicated. And unlike me, they don’t need to rely on one-off taxi rides to gauge the public mood.

At the protest, I talked with a young teenager. When I asked him why he chose to go to Tahrir today, he boasted that he hasn’t left the square for a week. Echoing a popular protest chant, he vowed to stay until victory.

*You can see all my pictures from today's protest here.

Friday, July 8, 2011

In Tahrir At Last

Since I arrived in Cairo on Wednesday, I’ve struggled over how much I should stick my nose in Egypt’s business. I am here to learn about the revolution, to fill in the context that mainstream media ignores and the complexity social media obscures. But at the same time, post-Mubarak Cairo can be a dangerous place where sensitivities abound – sensitivities that a foreigner like me can all too easily tread upon.

Today I had to make my first decision: should I go to the largest protests since the fall of Mubarak? Not a single Egyptian friend urged me to go to Tahrir. Most were just nervous for my safety out of an abundance of hospitality. Some flat out told me to stay at home. But as I sat in my apartment watching the protests on TV – as I have done from DC since January – I grew increasingly antsy. What’s the point of traveling all the way to Egypt to just watch TV? Before I knew it, I was in a cab on my way to Midan al-Tahrir.

Passing through the citizen checkpoint on Qasr al-Nil Bridge – the site of pitched battles between protesters and police during the revolution – I felt a chill run down my spine. Almost 1000 Egyptians died fighting for their freedom. Thousands more have been injured, imprisoned and tortured. All Egyptians have sacrificed for this revolution, which has accomplished so much and yet has so much more to do.

It is for their sake Egyptians have decided to descend upon Tahrir Square once more today. Mubarak may be gone, but his regime remains. Entering the square, I could hear the simple demands of the protesters. Al-shaab yureed tetheer al-nizam. The people want the cleansing of the regime. They chanted for justice, for accountability, and for the resignations of Mubarak’s lackeys.

Much of the protests were as I had seen on TV and social media. Tahrir definitely exudes a festival-like atmosphere, and I can see why protesting can not only be fun, but addictive. Families milled about as children got their faces painted. Vendors hawked revolutionary paraphernalia and delicious street food. Protesters rotated between chanting, singing, and forming discussion groups. Those with the funniest or most artistic signs beamed proudly as bystanders took pictures. One teenager scaled a massive lamp post to wave the Egyptian flag for a cheering crowd. When dignitaries from Al-Azhar arrived, the crowd parted to make way for the sheikhs to mount the stage.

But there are so many details that press coverage would miss or ignore. A seven year old kid collected trash while puffing on a cigarette nonchalantly. A group of calm protesters would roar suddenly when Al Jazeera cameras appeared and go quiet just as quickly when the cameras turned off. Would-be speakers on various stages quibbled over who would speak next. Off-message speakers were forced to give up their mics as the crowd shouted at them to Enzl or step down.

Although Egyptians have united today around a core set of demands, schisms were also obvious in the square. Various groups erected their own makeshift stages, each with their own sound systems that competed with their neighbors. At one point, the Muslim Brotherhood – which enjoyed both the largest stage and audience – began to sing Allahu Akbar, Bismillah (God is Greatest, in the name of God) over and over again. The adjacent Christians broke in with chants of “Muslims, Christians, we are one hand. Long live Egypt.” Each group then tried to drown out the other, the tension tangible.

The underlying sectarian tension belied the festival atmosphere. So too did the real anger felt towards the regime. The stage next to the Hardees featured a series of speeches by the mothers of martyrs killed during the revolution. Some thanked God for the honor of becoming a martyr family, some yelled angrily about the crimes of the regime, others just simply cried. At one point, thousands chanted in unison for the execution of those responsible for killing martyrs. One chant leader, sitting on his friend’s shoulders, riled up the crowd, his eyes and neck veins bulging in rage. At another stage, a small Mubarak effigy was hung by a noose, the puppet body clad in a prominent Star of David.

It is that underlying anger – when confronted with regime antics - that makes Tahrir such a volatile place. Incidents can quickly escalate. The past few weeks have seen a series of acts of random violence by regime thugs and explicit intimidation of press and foreigners. Today, I did not hear of any such problems – likely because the protests were so large that the government was helpless to do anything but let today run its course.

Tonight, however, may turn out to be an entirely different story. Many core revolutionaries hope resort to the tactics of the revolution and turn today’s protests into a full-scale sit-in. But the Muslim Brotherhood has announced it will not participate in such a sit-in, and the average protester may not be willing to take the risk of staying the night. If the numbers thin out, the government would have a free hand to unleash the thugs.

I left Tahrir with two questions. First, as I wrote about yesterday, will anything be achieved beyond a bunch of shouting-induced sore throats? Second, how will the 95% of Egyptians who did not participate interpret today’s events? Both answers will hinge on how tonight unfolds.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Sore Throats in Cairo

As many of you know, I just returned to Egypt after a two-year hiatus. Stepping off the plane into post-Mubarak Egypt, I didn’t really know what to expect. What is actually new about the New Egypt? And what remains the same?

Some things have not changed at all. The hospitality, the traffic, the noise, the heat, and the pollution all remain. Already, the all too-familiar smog-induced sore throat has returned.

But some things have changed entirely. I have immediately noticed the public sphere has become more vibrant and inclusive. Before the revolution, Egypt had a relatively free press compared to its neighbors. Red lines did exist and the regime did ensure it stood on the tallest soapboxes, but political dissent could be expressed and heard. The problem was that dissent was expressed and heard by a minority of Egyptians.

That seems to have changed in post-Mubarak Egypt. Some observers have pointed to the increased use of social media as evidence of a strengthening public sphere. For example, the Facebook page “We Are All Khaled Said” – which supported and helped organize the revolution – boasts almost 1.5 million members. Yet with only 8% of Egyptians relying upon Facebook and Twitter to gets news about the revolution, it’s easy to overestimate the influence of social media.

Meanwhile, the traditional media have opened up since January 25th. Independent newspapers like Al-Masry Al-Youm and television channels like On TV are increasingly popular and trusted. Even the government mouthpiece, Al-Ahram, has caught (an admittedly very mild) revolutionary fever. Yet the change in traditional media is more evolutionary, than revolutionary. Censorship and propaganda, though more subtle, is still present. Although the envelope has been pushed back, red lines still persist – as Hossam el-Hamalawy recently learned.

The biggest change, then, has come in the way Egyptians interact on the streets. Whether on the plane, in a café, or in a taxi – every Egyptian I meet is eager to talk politics with me, a largely taboo topic last time I lived here. They listen attentively to my garbled Arabic before jumping in passionately.

Of course, the more important conversations are happening between the Egyptians themselves. As I walked through Tahrir this morning, I eavesdropped on one of several conversation circles (some more closely resembled shouting and shoving matches) that fill the square. This particular discussion focused on police brutality.

That issue will play a central role in tomorrow’s likely-massive protests. Every single major political force – with the exception of the Salafists - has announced their participation. Unlike the May 27th protests, major disagreements have been put aside to instead focus on the issues all sides can agree upon. In the words of Alaa Aswaany, “We will ask for purging the current government of the remnants of the old regime. We will demand fair and speedy trials for the killers of our martyrs. We will demand that civilians not have to face military tribunals under any circumstances. We will go to the square on Friday ready to pay the price of freedom. We will be like we were during the revolution, ready to die at any moment.”

The problem for Egypt is that despite all the tweeting, broadcasting, publishing and talking, the remnants of Mubarak’s regime remain in power. Key ministries are still run by Mubarak lackeys. Police who killed protesters go unpunished while 10,000 Egyptians have been prosecuted in military courts since the revolution. Families still do not know the fate of their loved ones missing since January. The New Egypt looks too much like the old Egypt – and that is why Egyptians will descend upon Tahrir tomorrow.

It is not clear whether the protests will clear out tomorrow night or if another sit-in will begin. Nor is it clear how the improved public sphere – of which tomorrow’s protest will play a part – can gain the political traction necessary to enact real change.

Leaving Tahrir, I passed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. A lone man, bullhorn in hand, stood outside shouting at the top of his lungs in an act of defiance impossible before the revolution. A few meters away, plain-clothed officers stood at their post absolutely indifferent to the ruckus nearby. At least for today, the man would achieve little more than yet another sore throat in Cairo.