Mark Levine: Strange Days in Cairo
Strange Days in Cairo
“Hello, how are you? Welcome? Are you Muslim? Christian? Jewish? It doesn’t matter. This is democracy. Very Good”
So explained a man, one of hundreds, who was at the Muslim Brotherhood/Freedom and Justice Party rally on Friday after the noon juma’ prayers at the Rabi’a al-Adawi’a mosque in Cairo. I had come with a colleague from near the Presidential Palace, where according to the morning’s papers there should have been a mass gathering of at least 4 different marches of anti-Morsi/Constitution protesters. But hardly anyone was there. Tahrir too was only partially full (and a rather small part at that). But here it was a festive atmosphere. Everyone was very nice, even to a clearly Western observer with long hair who friends had warned to stay away because of the recent violence against foreigners observing protests. “But the Brotherhood are politicians,” an acquaintance who is a photojournalist for ash-Shurouq newspaper reminded me later. “They have no interest to look bad. They want to look good.”
And good they looked; at last here. Signs and chants abounded that would, surreally at first thought, have fit right into Tahrir. “No to the Felool!”–to the remnants of the old regime mixed with chants against the military regime. Teenage boys chanting and dancing and beating drums, just like in Tahrir. Speaking talking about democracy, just like in Tahrir. But there was one very big difference, the word “Sharia”–Islamic law. However moderate people were behaving, however much they talked about democracy, passed out pamphlets with the text of the draft constitution, and explained to passers-by “Vote yes or no, it doesn’t matter, just vote” (as another man told me), what is clear is that for the people at the rally a Yes vote to the constitution is a Yes vote to a state where as much of the law as possible will be derived from and in harmony with their vision of what Islamic law is. For those who vote Yes, “the greatest constitution in the history of Egypt,” as another slogan put it, had been written “for the sake of the Sharia (Islamic law), stability, building [the country] and the poor.”
Morsi may be the “symbol of legitimacy” for Brotherhood members and millions of other Egyptians, but he’s alienated a huge section of the population in his term–far more than most activists could have hoped, in fact. The trick that he and the Freedom and Justice Party/Brotherhood will have to pull of is to pursue these four agendas, three of which are crucial to securing a better future for all Egyptians, one of which is dividing the country like no time in recent memory. And it’s not just Morsy or the Brotherhood/FJP that’s a factor in this regard. The Salafis, who one a quarter of the vote in the parliamentary elections, are both against the present constitution and have an historically contentious and distrustful relationship with the Brotherhood, and want a much more Sharia-based constitution than the present one. As Mohamed El Baradei put it today as voting started, “To every Egyptian, man and woman, listen to the voice of reason and conscience and say No [to the constitution draft] to save Egypt and support of the nation… Adoption of divisive draft constitution that violates universal values & freedoms is a sure way to institutionalize instability & turmoil.”
At the same time, there is little doubt most of the supporters of the FJP really do want democracy. They are no more conservative than the average Republican of today in the US. In fact, their focus on “social justice” puts them far to the left of American conservatives, while their religious beliefs and theology are hardly more extreme than the average right wing Chrisian or Jew. However imperfect and troubling their vision from a progressive point of view in terms of personal rights, they at least have a strong social justice message (even if it is being completely betrayed by Morsi’s neoliberal policies). We shall see where all these working and middle class FJP supporters go in a few years when the JFP has sold them out to the highest bidder… My socialist friends are already banking on them moving to the left and have been doing the slow and painful work of building awareness and alliances with religious people in the villages and smaller towns of Egypt since the revolution, realizing Morsi and the Brotherhood would most likely have control of Egypt for the first post-revolutionary period, while they wait for their inevitable failure to achieve any of their primary goals besides sharia to build an alternative that can actually win at the ballott box.
If there is a weather-vane of where Egypt is going, it’s usually been Tahrir, althgouh not the last couple of weeks. The first night I was here last week Tahrir was attacke late at night, and since then it’s been very tense at night, when I like to be there. Yet it’s also incredibly mellow at times, with the 200 or so tent dwellers sitting by fires, sipping tea, and discussing politics until the wee hours of the morning. There is something about Tahrir, so many of my friends believe it’s only a pale shadow of the place it once was and that the relatively small numbers reflect the dying of the revolutionary spirit. But the intense spirit of the 18 days and subsequent mass occupations can’t last indefinitely. The fact is that while many people are derisive to the present tent-dwellers they are doing the yoeman’s work of the revolution. There is no doubt in my mind that if these people–women as well as men–weren’t willing to spend weeks sleeping in filth to hold Tahrir for the revolution then the Brotherhood and/or Salafis would have absolutely taken it over, totally hijacking the singular symbol of the revolution. Talking with them late at night, as they look at videos or posters of the violence against them is really an inspiring thing. The reality is that I didn’t spend a single full night sleeping outside at “my” occupation in Irvine, on the lush grash of City Hall’s front lawn, 10 minutes from my house, with full bathroom facilities available all the amenities of a communal camp-out. So It’s hard to have anything but incredible respect for these guys (in fact, I have spent more time sleeping in a Tahrir tent than any other kind).
Today, as people vote, Alexandria has already suffered violence. Cairo is calm but reports are coming in already of fraud. If this continues, Tahrir could be filled with tear gas and bird shot again in the next few days. Let’s hope not. But whatever happens, Egypt at least isn’t standing still and the struggle for a real democratic future is continuing.
Mark Levine is a contributing Editor for Tikkun Magazine and a professor of political science at UC Irvine.