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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.

 

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