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Muslim Brotherhood meets Tahrir: A conversation

Ahram Online is invited to record a rare meeting between a member of the Islamist group and an activist as tension mounts between the Muslim Brotherhood and protester

Bel Trew, Tuesday 31 Jan 2012
Many clashes erupted in Tahrir Square during the revolution
Many clashes erupted in Tahrir Square during the revolution's first aniversary between the Muslim Brotherhood supporters and protesters (Photo by: AP)
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‘Leave!’ protesters shouted on the "Friday of Honour and Dignity" on 27 January, a chant revolutionaries have directed at Egypt’s ruling military council in the past few months.  However, this time they were waving their shoes and pointing at the Muslim Brotherhood’s stage during the Friday protests marking one year of the January 25 Revolution.  The Muslim Brotherhood responded by playing the Quran so loudly it drowned out their voices.

The Muslim Brotherhood angered many when it publicly announced it would not join protesters during November and December crackdowns on protests by Egypt’s security forces, yet turned up on Wednesday to stage a large celebration.

Mohamed, 29, diving instructor and protester, has been sleeping on the square for three months. He tried to arrange a public discussion with the Muslim Brotherhood on their stage, on Friday 27 January, a day of that saw large demonstrations and marches, as well as the explicit tension between protesters and the Brotherhood in front of their stage. Instead the debate was conducted in a tent with Abdel-Nasser, 43, a Muslim Brotherhood member  and French teacher. Ahram Online recorded the rare meeting between the two sides.

Mohamed: How does the Muslim Brotherhood feel about the protesters raising their shoes at them?

Abdel-Nasser: When I saw this, I thought either they don't know much about the Muslim Brotherhood or they are against us, for example some liberal groups.

I don't understand. Lots of writers in Egypt wrote about how important the Brotherhood was in Tahrir Square last year. The Muslim Brotherhood members are the most tortured people in Egypt – both by the military and the police. I have been imprisoned four times from 1999 to 2008 by the authorities for being in the Muslim Brotherhood, including being detained with 6 April Youth Movement founder Ahmed Maher.

However, the protesters are always trying to say that we didn’t protest and that we do not play a vital role in the square.

Mohamed: We feel the Muslim Brotherhood has betrayed us. At a really important and difficult time for the revolution in Tahrir, like the Mahmoud Mahmoud and Qasr El-Aini clashes in November and December, your group left us fighting the Central Security Forces (CSF) and the military alone. While people were dying, you were working on your election campaign. Now you are the majority in parliament. Why didn’t you turn up? 

Abdel-Nasser: In Mohamed Mahmoud Street, Qasr El-Aini Street and now Maspero, it was a deliberate decision not to join. Sometimes we do not go to Tahrir because we know there are other ways of communicating our demands that are more effective than going to the streets. In our opinion it was not necessary.

Mohamed: How does the Muslim Brotherhood make these decisions?

Abdel-Nasser: Before we come to the square there are a lot of discussions. From our experience, we know there will be a lot of violence.

Even though we reject the way the police and military dealt with the protesters, it wasn't essential to be part of the clashes. Is it really necessary, in your point of view, to be part of this situation?

Mohamed: Wouldn't true Muslims protect their people in Tahrir Square? Why do you avoid putting pressure on the ruling authorities?  

Abdel-Nasser: We always have to keep the balance between establishing a system of government and the spirit of revolution. Any civilian country should have a very good internal system. If we don't follow a very organised way of establishing this system of government, like management departments inside courts, it’s not good. One of the ways to do this is to keep the peace within the country around the election period.

Mohamed: But isn't the point of a revolution that we need to dismantle the broken system and get rid of the corruption from the roots, not just from the head? Now whenever there is a fight between the Muslim Brotherhood and those on the square, the military use the Egyptian media to say that the protesters are fighting the legal authority, as the Muslim Brotherhood are in parliament. So we become thugs.

When I said I wanted to go on stage and open a discussion, the Brotherhood refused.  Why won't the Brotherhood meet protesters like me?

Abdel-Nasser: For you to talk on stage like this would work against the situation in Tahrir. If we were to start a public debate it would make people more angry and cause more problems.  

We are always arranging communication between the different parties and movements.

Mohamed: Why does the Muslim Brotherhood trust the military council even though they use increasing violence and haven't got rid of emergency law or handed over power, despite promises made in the Constitutional Declaration? It's clear the Brotherhood have made a deal with the military. Former vice-president Omar Suleiman said in one of his statements on Egyptian television that if the Muslim Brotherhood wanted to do a deal with the military, they should come to talk to him.  We know during the Mohamed Mahmoud clashes, the Muslim Brotherhood met with the military council. Now the Muslim Brotherhood have the overwhelming majority.

Abdel-Nasser: The army is wearing a mask. The Muslim Brotherhood accept this play.

We don’t trust the military but we have to work with them.  A lot of Muslim Brotherhood members were taken in by the military and tortured during January and February but we don’t want to talk about this. We don’t want to start a conflict with the army.

We are stuck between two choices. The first option is defeating the military.

The second option is to ignore the acts of the army in the 18 days in order to keep the military peaceful. It’s a careful balance. If we clash with the army then this will destroy the country because we are the two strongest forces. 

We must keep the balance for the benefit of the country during this hard period not for the advantage of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Mohamed: But you have benefited. You have the majority inside the parliament. The Brotherhood didn’t care about what was happening in Tahrir Square last year, then this year, you came and had a party. How can you continue reform as the parliament has almost no legislative power in the current constitutional declaration?

Abdel-Nasser: Right now, the parliament has the power for making, monitoring and carrying out laws. Since parliament first met we already cancelled one of the points of the Constitutional Declaration that reduced the power of parliament. We can work within parliament to make change.

We should respect parliament even if people started to lose faith in it and have doubts that the Muslim Brotherhood are capable of running it. We must fix this.

Mohamed: Why are you leaving Tahrir Square?

Abdel-Nasser: We took the decision beforehand that we would leave on Saturday. The chief of the Muslim Brotherhood told us we are going to celebrate from 25 January until Saturday.

Mohamed: It is a big difference between what you intend to do, and what you actually do. The Muslim Brotherhood have what they were looking for, the parliament, and now they don’t need Tahrir, they don’t need to talk to us protesters.

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