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.

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