Fridays in Tahrir Square

Originally published in The News International, August 3, 2011: http://www.thenews.com.pk/TodaysPrintDetail.aspx?ID=60850&Cat=9

Since the beginning of the Egyptian Revolution, Fridays in Cairo’s Tahrir Square have gone by a number of names, some short and to the point, like the infamous “Friday of Rage”, but many overwrought and the result of endless political wrangling.

The Friday of “popular will and a united front” was redolent of the latter. The convoluted name of the march was the product of a hastily-brokered deal between Islamists and liberals, after plans for a mass Islamist day of action emerged, organised by Islamist political groups – most notably, the Muslim Brotherhood. The agreed-upon demands were of the least-common-denominator ilk, including faster retribution for the families of the revolution’s martyrs, trials for police officers accused of committing those murders, and no military trials for civilians.

Last Friday, July 29, several hundreds of thousands of Islamists crowded into the Square, from the politically-minded Muslim Brotherhood to the conservative Salafi sect and members of the radical guma’a islamiyya.

Chants ranged from declarations of a unified Islamic identity typified by “Raise your head up high, you’re Muslim” (an exclusionary variation of the original “Raise your head up, you’re Egyptian” that one heard during protests to bring down Hosni Mubarak) and “islamiyya, islamiyya,” to calls for the implementation of the shari’a. At the more extreme end, there were reports of chants supporting Osama bin Laden and the wearing of his image on a lanyard – a right formerly reserved for the revolution’s martyrs – and waving of the Saudi flag. While several heated arguments took place, the march stayed mostly non-violent.

In response, some 33 liberal and Leftists parties and movements withdrew their support, saying they had been betrayed. Even the Muslim Brotherhood’s own Freedom and Justice Party denounced the march’s Islamist turn.

Before jumping to conclusions, one should question the significance of these events. They certainly constitute a show of Islamic force by all accounts. The ability of these groups to mobilise quickly and effectively is impressive. They were able to pull together their members through satellite television channels and mosques’ networks, and put in the resources needed to transport thousands of people to the country’s capital.

But at the end of the day, the march was a gambit for political Islamists, one that may have blown up in their faces. The Muslim Brotherhood’s political aspirations are well known. Their support for a “yes” vote in the March constitutional referendum was predicated on the understanding that if the referendum passed, parliamentary elections would come first and the parliamentarians would select the committee that drafted the new constitution.

As the most organised political entity, the Brothers would have an opportunity to exercise the most coordinated partisan strategy in the upcoming elections. A well-timed march – three days before Ramadan and one month before the elections – would aid in shifting public opinion in such a way that the Islamists represented the revolution’s flag bearers.

The gambit, however, seemed to backfire. It became clear early on that the demands of the revolution were not in accord with demands that dominated the discourse of the day. In a sense, it became a reaction against the civil-based movements who have been the most vocal in speaking out against abuses by the supreme council of the armed forces. If the day was anything, it was a day for Islamists to vent their anger and take the internationally known stage as their own.

Second, many of these groups and sects are mostly apolitical, engaging in a political practice that stops at moral puritanism. And Friday was a day for them to “let their hair down” (ironic as that phrase must be when talking about a population that strongly espouses the niqab).

The rally itself was less of a political statement and more of a social one. The original organisers, among them some Muslim Brothers, objected to turning the day into one of Islamist demands. Juan Cole, an acclaimed commentator on political developments in the Middle East, argues that this show of force may even hurt the Muslim Brotherhood in the upcoming parliamentary elections.

My own experience was somewhat biased by the same opinion. Cairo’s Sadat metro station featured some of the most magnificent beards I have ever witnessed. I rubbed my own chin, self-conscious of my lack of stubbly prowess. Most of the day’s participants were heading back home or to buses that had brought them in from outside of Cairo. By 9 pm chants on stages emphasised – maybe overly emphasised in order to compensate – calls for a civil state.

Members of the Coptic Christian Maspero Youth Coalition, who had endured the day while holding aloft makeshift crosses, now had attracted a large crowd and were leading chants focused on Muslim and Christian unity. In general, the square looked much more like it did in January and February: more inclusionary demands and chants with a minority of religious scholars and politicians present calling for the same.

For those engaging in political activity in “free Egypt”, it will probably need to do less with chanting for an Islamic utopia and more with pragmatic political activity and organising. By one account, there’s 75 political parties in Egypt right now, some with names as convoluted as the Fridays that proceeded them. The democratic experiment must entail pragmatic political programmes, rather than pathos-laden rhetoric.

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