Tahrir turning points

Al-Shaab Yureed Tatbiq Shari'a Allah!  The people want to implement God's Sharia! That chant rang through my ears as I struggled through a jam-packed Tahrir Square on Friday, as hundreds of thousands of Islamists packed the symbolic home of Egypt's revolution to demand that their presence be known. Two days later, the ill-advised occupation of Tahrir Square by mostly secular and leftist political trends which began on July 8 largely ended, as most groups decided to pull out and then security forces cleared the remains. Feelings are running raw in Egypt as the revolution approaches yet another turning point. The galvanizing events of the weekend mark a new stage in one of the most urgent battles in post-Mubarak Egypt: who owns the revolution, and who may speak in its name?

Friday's demonstration was originally planned as an Islamist show of strength, defined by demands for "identity and stability," support for the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, and rejection of liberal efforts to draft "supra-constitutional principles." The "Day of Respecting the Will of the People" brought together an "Islamic Front" uniting most of the major Islamist trends including the Muslim Brotherhood, the Gama'a al-Islamiyya, several salafi parties, and others. Its planners saw it as a response to the July 8 protests which launched the Tahrir sit-in, and to a series of political gambits launched by liberals and secularists which, in their view, were meant to sidestep the will of the people as expressed in the March referendum.

In the days before the demonstration, a group of political activists brokered an agreement to focus on the unity of the revolution rather than on divisive demands. This was a noble effort, but it proved impossible to maintain in the face of the enthusiasm of the mobilized Islamist cadres. Many of the political trends felt betrayed by the slogans and behavior of the Islamist groups, and pulled out of the demonstration in protest only to return for a counter-demonstration in the evening after most of the Islamists had departed. The days since the rally have been consumed with furious arguments and counter-arguments. Islamists argued that there should be nothing divisive about demanding sharia, and the fact that the tense Friday passed without any of the feared violent clashes proves that they lived up to the most important part of the agreement.

The arguments are about far more than the question of who violated which agreements. The Islamist demonstration directly challenged the claim of the secular political forces to embody the revolution or the will of the people, and marked a significant escalation in an ongoing battle of narratives and identity. Why should a coalition of a few dozen small groups of activists have a greater claim on revolutionary legitimacy than the millions of ordinary people who made the revolution? Did the 77 percent yes vote in the referendum on constitutional amendments truly reveal, as so many argued, that the silent majority rejected their revolutionary vision? The show of massive Islamist numbers was meant to show that they, not the political trends, represented the Egyptian people. I overheard a number of proud and excited salafis on the square marveling at their own presence and their numbers. That the Muslim Brotherhood demonstrated its well-honed organization skills came as no surprise, but the ability of the usually disorganized salafi trends to organize transportation for a large number of members into Cairo could not be dismissed.

The Western media coverage of the Islamist rally was misleading. I can't say that there were no chants or slogans about Osama bin Laden, since it was a long, crowded day in Tahrir. But bin Laden had virtually nothing to do with the day's message. The closest thing I heard to supporting terrorism was a surprisingly huge number of posters and chants for the repatriation of the blind shaykh and convicted terrorist Omar Abd al Rahman, a pet issue of the Gama'a al-Islamiyya. Nor is the frequently repeated claim that the Islamists avoided Egyptian flags accurate; in fact, there were thousands of Egyptian flags throughout the square. And while there were not nearly as many women as in earlier rallies, there were plenty there -- including a group of women wearing niqab who reached out to help one of my female colleagues during a frightening crowd surge.

The common slogans demanding sharia or the cries of "Islamiyya Islamiyya" should not be taken as a sign of the consolidation of a single, undifferentiated Islamist trend rising to power. The joint slogans masked considerable ongoing disagreements and competition among Islamist groups. All chanted for implementing sharia, but when pressed on specifics few seemed to have much more in mind than keeping Article 2 of the Constitution which defines Egypt as an Islamic country. The Muslim Brotherhood and the salafis do not agree on what implementing sharia in Egypt would look like, or on many other issues, and will as likely be political rivals as a unified bloc. I watched two salafis during the rally argue furiously over a flier opposing any constitution other than sharia, with the other equally enthusiastic Islamist insisting that there must be a constitution informed by sharia.

The more important point, easily lost in the political tumult, was that the salafis and the Gama'a have now shown themselves to be all in for the game of democratic politics within the framework of the nation-state. When I met with leaders of the salafi al-Nour Party in Alexandria a few days before the march, they spoke eagerly about democratic participation and drafting a platform offering practical solutions to economic and social problems (though of course Islamic identity, demands for sharia, and conservative social norms still loom large in their worldview). For salafis who have long defined themselves by the rejection of political participation and of nationalism, this is no small thing. After years of reading ideological tracts by salafi figures explaining the illegitimacy of democracy and denouncing the Muslim Brothers for their political participation, it was rather exhilarating to hear hundreds of thousands of them demanding early elections. Many Egyptians continue, with reason, to worry about the depth of their democratic commitments and their conservative social agendas. But the changes have been remarkable.

The Muslim Brotherhood, for its part, faces a delicate situation. While it clearly relished the show of Islamist power, it also now has to worry about a backlash against that display of strength and the blurring of long-cultivated distinctions from other trends such as the salafis. It has long sought to position itself as the moderate face of Islamism, triangulating against the more radical salafis and Gama'a to capture the pious middle ground. Sharing the stage with those forces on July 29, not only infuriated potential secular coalition partners but could also complicate its long-term efforts to reassure mainstream voters. Brotherhood leaders such as Essam el-Erian and Mohammed el-Beltagy were almost immediately backpedaling, disavowing the more controversial slogans and claiming to have honored the agreements with the other political forces even if the salafis violated the deal (the salafis, for their part, claim to have never signed the deal in the first place). Muslim Brotherhood youth activists I spoke with after the rally were furious about how it had unfolded, and many even refused to participate.

But the Brotherhood's dilemma pales next to the new reality facing the political activists. The decision to occupy Tahrir looks increasingly like a grievous strategic blunder. Their appeal to revolutionary legitimacy grows more threadbare by the day, absent direct engagement with the issues about which Egyptians really care. While they clearly felt that they had no other way to maintain pressure on the SCAF, the sit-in quickly alienated almost everybody. The violence led by hostile locals that greeted their march on the Ministry of Defense in Abassiya seemed to symbolize their loss of popular sympathy. During a week in Cairo and Alexandria, I could not find a single person other than the protestors themselves with a good word to say about the Tahrir sit-in. The decision by most groups to end the sit-in ahead of Ramadan offered an opportunity for a fresh start -- though the tenor of political discussion among the various activist groups suggests that there is no consensus about the lessons of the sit-in or the path forward.

The SCAF has contributed to the tense political environment. Its attack on the April 6 Movement and the activist community more broadly for its alleged foreign funding has cast a pall over their activities. In Alexandria, the sit-in organizers made me leave after an hour out of fear that I would be photographed in the tent city and used as evidence of American backing. Many participants in the ill-fated march to the Ministry of Defense believe that the hostile reception by the local neighborhood residents was the result of systematic disinformation and agitation against them. The SCAF itself has encouraged some of these problems by responding to some protestor demands, and thus validating their choice of street politics, but never going far enough on core demands like police reform, stopping military trials for protestors, or compensation for the (increasingly controversial) martyr's families. It is not clear why they felt the need to forcibly empty Tahrir square after most groups had already decided to leave. But at least it seems to remain committed to the most important point of all -- the need for elections as soon as possible to create a legitimate civilian government and allow their return to the barracks.

The display of bearded men and women in niqab clearly shocked the political groups that had made Tahrir their own. The reaction was not just about the violation of the agreement, but ran much deeper. On Twitter and Facebook and around the square, they made fun of the Islamist interlopers, ridiculing their behavior and their appearance and their intellect. But their fury could not hide some uncomfortable truths. How could these Islamists not be viewed as an integral part of the Egyptian people? The people wanted Hosni Mubarak gone, but they do not necessarily share the radical political demands of determined socialists or anarchists or cosmopolitan liberals. The salafis bused in from the provinces are also Egyptians, and they can not simply be defined out of the newly emerging Egypt if it is to become genuinely democratic. The activists have long talked about "bringing Tahrir to the people." But when those people came to Tahrir, the activists fled.

It is easy to understand why frustrated protestors feel that taking to the streets is the only way to meaningfully pressure the SCAF, but street politics are not democratic politics. Making the size of crowds the currency of political power actively invited this week's Islamist response. Given their increasingly open skepticism of democracy and growing recognition that they are unlikely to win through elections, I would put even money at this point that they will opt to boycott the elections, on whatever reasons seem sufficient at the moment. This would be a disaster for them, and for Egypt. The Islamist demonstration and the end of the Tahrir sit-in should be a moment for all sides to catch their breaths, focus on their shared desire for a return to civilian rule and a transition to democracy, and prepare for the coming elections and a return to civilian rule.


Marc Lynch

Our Man in Damascus

"I have seen no evidence yet in terms of hard changes on the ground that the Syrian government is willing to reform at anything like the speed demanded by the street protestors. If it doesn’t start moving with far greater alacrity, the street will wash them away."

That was the blunt verdict offered by U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford in a wide-ranging telephone interview with Foreign Policy today. Ford sharply criticized the Syrian government's continuing repression against peaceful protestors and called on President Bashar al-Assad to "take the hard decisions" to begin meaningful reforms before it is too late. Not, Ford stressed, because of American concerns but because of the impatience of the Syrian opposition itself. "This is not about Americans, it is about the way the Syrian government mistreats its own people," Ford stressed repeatedly. "This is really about Syrians interacting with other Syrians. I’m a marginal thing on the sidelines. I’m not that important."

Some might disagree. Last Thursday and Friday, Ford made a dramatic visit to the embattled city of Hama to demonstrate the United States' support for peaceful protests and its condemnation of the Syrian government's use of violence. His trip to Hama electrified supporters of the Syrian opposition, and marked a sharp escalation in U.S. efforts to deal with the difficult Syrian stalemate. It also sparked a vicious Syrian response, as government-backed mobs attacked the U.S. Embassy in Damascus, inflicting considerable damage. In a caustic note posted to his Facebook page, Ford called on the Syrian government to "stop beating and shooting peaceful demonstrators." Ford's sharp criticism of the Syrian government's violence against peaceful protestors and detailed outline of multilateral and American diplomatic efforts to pressure the Syrian regime suggest that the recent U.S. rhetorical escalation does mark a new stage in the ongoing crisis.

Ford warned that the Syrian government still failed to understand the depth and extent of the changes in their country. "They need to begin a really serious transition and not just talk or make promises," and to grant real political freedoms and to begin taking apart the oppressive and unaccountable security apparatus. While acknowledging that some Syrian gestures towards reform were significant within the local context, he dismissed most of the regime's reform proposals as "irrelevant." The Syrian government could not be credible while it continued to violently repress peaceful marches or to arrest a kid for spraying anti-regime graffiti -- in the eyes of its own people, regardless of what outsiders like the U.S. might think. The Syrian government "is not even close to meeting those demands. That is a genuine problem."

While the situation in Syria today may look like a stalemate, Ford sees it as far more dynamic beneath the surface. Compared to only a few months ago, the opposition has expanded and organized impressively, and has demonstrated phenomenal courage and remained largely non-violent. In part he chose Hama for his dramatic outing because "people in Hama over the last two months have been very conspicuous in avoiding violence." He noted that while touring Hama he saw nearly a dozen government buildings, unguarded, with only two broken windows on one building. Compare that, he wryly noted, to the extensive damage to his Embassy inflicted by the regime's thugs.

The Syrian people have broken the fear barrier, he argued, and now people are speaking more freely. Syria is changing, and the government needs to recognize that and respond appropriately rather than continuing in a futile effort to resist change through force. He marveled at the impact of satellite television and the Internet, which have dramatically shaped the worldviews and expectations of young Syrians. They simply will not accept what earlier generations did, and have already demonstrated powerfully that they will not shut up in the face of threats of violence. That is why Ford repeatedly deferred questions about specific political demands: "It's not an American decision. What we will not do is to claim to speak for them. They are capable of speaking for themselves."

But thus far, the Syrian regime has chosen to violently crack down on peaceful protests across the country, and has not made the kind of reforms which might have at an earlier point saved the regime. I asked Ford when the Syrian regime's violence would cross the line, when the repression and violence might have gone too far for any peaceful transition to be possible. "That's really not a question for Americans," he responded. "It's a question for the Syrian opposition, a lot of whom are quite tough. I've met enough of them, and believe me, they are a lot tougher than anyone in the Washington Post or the U.S. Senate. They know exactly what they are doing. I have talked to people who have lost immediate family, who have been killed or jailed. Nothing focuses the mind like that."

Ford dismissed the idea that prior to Hama he had been a captive in his Embassy, unable to engage with anyone. Quite the contrary. He has had access to both the Syrian government and to key sectors of Syrian society such as the business community. The threat of violent retaliation and intimidation of Syrians who meet with American officials is real, though, and he acknowledged that some had refused invitations out of this fear. Senior administration officials have told me several times in other conversations that Ford's conversations were one of their most important sources of information in assessing the Syrian scene. This is one key reason why they considered his presence essential even before his electrifying visit to Hama persuaded most of their critics of his value.

Ford waved away suggestions that he might rein in his activities in the face of official pressure. "I’m not going to stop the things I do," he said quietly. "I can’t. The president has issued very clear guidance. It’s morally the right thing to do." He plans to take further trips around the country, to continue to meet with as many Syrians as he can, and to push to open political space and to restrain regime violence. He doesn't think that the Obama administration will recall him, and has no indication as yet whether the Syrian government will expel him.

For now, he sees his role as doing what he can to open political space for the Syrian people to push their own demands for political freedoms, restraints on an unaccountable and anachronistic security apparatus, and a meaningful political transition. The United States, he emphasizes, is not supporting any specific Syrian opposition movement or personality. Nor is it endorsing a specific transition plan, a move which he believes would reproduce the mistakes made by the Bush administration in Iraq in 2004. The process "has to move at Syrian speed, not at a speed set in Washington, London or Brussels."

His emphasis on the role of the Syrian people and on multilateral action reflects the general approach of the Obama administration to this year's Arab upheavals. Ford refused to put the United States at the center of what is fundamentally a Syrian uprising for political rights, or to substitute an American transition plan for the ideas developed by the Syrian opposition itself. He refuses, wisely in my view, to make an Arab story about America -- even as he works tirelessly behind the scenes to construct effective action in support of popular demands. "This is a Syrian decision, not an American one. We will certainly encourage the Syrian people to demand their rights." That includes continuing to work multilaterally with Europeans and with Syria's neighbors, to coordinate targeted sanctions on people in the regime responsible for repression, and to push the Security Council to take on the issue.

The goal is to create a "space for genuine politics and free expression without the threat of violence." That remains an ambiguous and even murky endpoint in an increasingly violent and polarized environment. While he declined to answer the question of whether such an outcome was possible with the Asad regime in power, it is difficult at this point to see how it could be. That decision will ultimately be one for the Syrian people, not for the United States, Ford repeatedly stressed. But as the Obama administration's rhetoric sharpens and actions follow suit, it may become more and more difficult to maintain that balance.