Egypt's Islamists and Secularists avoid confrontation and join hands for yet another Friday of protest

Mostafa Ali, Thursday 28 Jul 2011

Thousands will take to Tahrir one more time on Friday as groups from all shades of the political spectrum, from Islamists to liberals to socialists, find common ground against the current government

Tahrir Square
Protesters walk past T-shirts with the word "Egypt", hung by a street vendor, as people enter Tahrir Square in Cairo July 8, 2011 (Photo: Reuters)

This Friday, 29 July 2011, hundreds of thousands of people will take to streets and squares all across Egypt to participate in one more massive million man march. But this Friday will be markedly different from other Friday mass protests that have taken place since Mubarak fell almost seven months ago.

In the past few months, well known radical youth organisations such as the 6th of April Movement and the Revolution Youth Coalition have called most Friday protests. On and off, two of the main Islamist political forces in the country, the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist organisations, have selectively chosen whether to participate or not in these protests based on their stance towards the set of demands others put forward at different times.

In fact, different political forces that took part in the January uprising seemed to be moving apart since liberal forces split with Islamist forces in March during the debate over the referendum on constitutional amendments, which centered on the role Islam should play in politics in a new Egypt.

Only a week ago, it seemed that the country had become irreversibly polarised between two major political camps over questions of state and religion and positions towards the ruling military council and the cabinets of Prime Minister Essam Sharaf.

On the one hand, some radical youth groups were moving in the direction of losing all trust in Sharaf and the council. For example, families of the martyrs of the January 25 Revolution and thousands of supporters have been occupying Tahrir Square and other squares around the country since 8 July.  

Revolutionaries argued that they had no choice but to occupy Tahrir in order to pressure what they believed to be non-responsive ministers and military generals on a number of issues such as military trials against civilians and the rights of martyrs’ families.

In recent weeks, many revolutionaries seemed to be running out of patience with the government. Some activists were beginning to call for the resignation of Sharaf and others even raised the slogan of ‘Down with the Military Council’.

On the opposite end, many Islamists, in concert with the media, increasingly charged that the Tahrir rebels were pushing the country towards instability and chaos.

Worse yet, Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya, the most conservative Islamist political force in Egypt, incited the public against Tahrir by issuing a statement that accused the square protesters of being “communists and secularists who want to hijack political power by formenting strife between the people and the army.”

Just a few days ago, last Saturday, tensions ran very high on all sides. Unknown thugs attacked Tahrir protesters who were peacefully marching on the headquarters of the military council and brutalised 300 people in the central Cairo district of Abbassiya along the aborted march route.

Many Islamists publicly rejoiced that what they called "a violent plot against our army" had been defeated, and seemed to imply that Tahrir troublemakers got what they deserved.

Given this increasingly tense and polarised atmosphere in the country, very few people could have predicted what actually took place just days after the Abbasiya "massacre".

Yesterday, in a seemingly bizarre and sudden turn of events, major youths organisations, many Salafist groups and the Muslim Brotherhood, groups that were at each other’s throats less than a week ago, have reached an agreement to join forces in Tahrir and elsewhere in Egypt around certain common demands.

These forces reached this agreement not as a result of a lengthy process of discussion in which each one realised that they all share common aims and goals. In fact, both sides seemed to be headed towards physical confrontation in Tahrir on 29 July.

On the one hand, the Salafist Call, one of the largest Islamist groups in the country, had been mobilising for weeks for a million man march to take place in Tahrir on 29 July to oppose the military council's plans to adopt so-called "supra-constitutional" guidelines on the process of preparing a constitution, and also to defend what it sees as the "Islamic identity of the nation" against those it accused of attempting to steer the country in a secular, liberal direction.

As the day of 29 July approached rapidly, rumours were spreading that some Salafists were not just organising a peaceful march but were actually preparing to mobilise supporters to forcefully end the 20-day old Tahrir sit-in.

Meanwhile, families of the martyrs and their supporters who have been at the centre of the Tahrir sit-in continued to insist that they will not cede the square to anyone until the government meets their demands that officers who shot protesters in the January uprising be prosecuted.

All this changed suddenly in the last few days.

First, revolutionary groups began to realise that their right to use peaceful tactics such as sit-ins and marches were being threatened by the government and counter-revolutionary thugs.

Therefore, many revolutionaries began to formulate a political response to the attack by thugs on peaceful protesters in Abbasiya, ideological attacks in the media on the Tahrir sit-in, as well as the military council’s attempt to smear their own political motivations.

On Monday, the Group of 21, a coalition of 21 radical youth organisations and parties that has played a key role in organising the current Tahrir sit-in, held a press conference to defend its decision to call for a peaceful march on the military council.

In the conference, youth activists from the Revolution Youth Coalition, the National Front for Justice and Democracy as well as Islamic imams who took part in the march placed all blame for violent acts that took place in Abbasiya on thugs and the police. Activists counter-charged that violence could have been averted if it was not for the fact that the military police stood by and watched in silence as hundreds of thugs bombarded protesters with rocks and Molotov cocktails for over two hours.

The same day, the 6 April Movement held its own press conference to clear its name and to refute military council allegations that it receives foreign funding. The movement volunteered itself for investigation by the government, telling the military council, literally, to put up or shut up.

The images of the bloody attack on protesters in Abbasiya brought back to the country memories of the NDP’s bloody attack on Tahrir on 2 February in what became known as the "Battle of the Camel".

Many supporters of the Tahrir sit-in who were beginning to agree with media propaganda that the sit-in might have gone on too long quickly sympathised with those who were attacked in Abbasiya. Rank and file members in some Islamist groups, such as radical youth in the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafist Call, pressured their leaders to declare solidarity with the victims of the Abbassiya attacks and to take a more positive stance towards the Tahrir sit-in in general.

By Tuesday, the Group of 21 had decided to build towards a massive united mobilisation on 29 July to expose and reject what it saw as attempts by the media and the military council to use divide and conquer tactics in order to weaken the revolutionary camp by smearing some revolutionaries or allowing attacks on others.

Here, members of the Group of 21 reached a conclusion that, despite differences on questions of the constitution and so on, it was important that followers of different Islamist organisations and other revolutionary youth groups who agree on the basic democratic and social justice goals of the 25 January Revolution join forces on Friday, 29 July, in Tahrir to send a message of unity to the public.

In fact, as early as Sunday, representatives from the Group of 21 and other forces on the broad left had already started negotiating with representatives of various Islamist movements at the offices of the liberal El-Shorouk daily newspaper to search for common ground and to attempt to co-sponsor a 29 July mobilisation.

As the week went on, certain leaders in the Salafist Call and in the much more pro-military council Muslim Brotherhood started to soften their tone towards the Tahrir sit-in.

By the morning of Wednesday, 27 July, the Group of 21 and representatives of various Islamist political organisations had reached an agreement on unifying their disparate calls for two separate rallies in Tahrir on 29 July into one major call.

More than 25 political parties and coalitions, from Islamist to liberal to socialist, agreed on a unified list of demands for the Friday demonstration.

Incredibly, Ibrahim El-Hodeiby, a liberal Islamist activist who followed the negotiations, told Ahram Online that Islamist groups and the left agreed to drop demands around their own separate views in the controversial debate of constitution or elections first, in order to build a united front.

At a press conference at the leftist El-Badil newspaper in downtown Cairo, representatives of all groups told reporters that they agreed to call this Friday’s mobilisation "The Friday of the People’s Will and United Front," and settled on five common demands.

Signatories to the statement included the Revolution Youth Coalition, the Popular Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, the Salafist Youth, the Popular Socialist Alliance, the Workers Democratic Party, the Beginning Movement, the Egyptian Social-Democratic Party, the Egyptian Current Party, the Revolutionary Socialists, the Free Islamic Coalition, and, incredibly, Gamaa Islamiya itself.

The five common demands that groups agreed on were: 1) an end to military trials for civilians; 2) justice for the martyrs; 3) swift trials for Mubarak cronies; 4) a minimum wage for workers; and 5) a call on the government to issue a treason law to punish those who corrupted political life in the Mubarak era.

With under a week to go before the trial of former president Mubarak is set to open, millions of Egyptians are now preparing for another mass mobilisation to fight for the revolution’s unfinished goals of democracy and social justice.

However, this time, protesters will do so in a more united way.

This afternoon, in a throwback to the divisive language that dominated the political discourse at the beginning of the week, Deputy Prime Minister Ali El-Selmi in the new government of Sharaf ridiculed those sitting in Tahrir by denying that they were the "real" revolutionaries of 25 January.

However, by the end of the day, El-Selmi could not count on the support of many political figures that would have supported his comments just hours earlier.

Indeed, the Egyptian Front for Peaceful Change and many others who are excited by the prospect of a united front against "divisive tactics" wasted no time in publicly condemning, and even mocking, the deputy prime minister’s comments.

For the time being, revolutionaries of all shades and on both side of the political "aisle" in Egyptian politics have managed to find key common ground in their quest for change.

Short link: