Account of the Islamists’ overtake of Friday demonstrations in Alexandria, Egypt

Mostafa Ali, Sunday 31 Jul 2011

Thousands of Salafists turn up in Alexandria in a surprise show of force to call for sharia law, disenfranchising the families of the victim’s of the revolution who have been sitting-in

(Photo: Reuters)

During the afternoon hours of Friday 29 July the streets of Alexandria, Egypt's second largest city, home to millions and many vacationers, were relatively empty. Many residents decided not to go to the beach or shop as they usually do on the weekend.

Many Alexandrians feared that thousands of Salafists, who were descending on the downtown district of the city to call for an Islamic state, might clash with hundreds of families of 25 January Revolution martyrs, who have been holding a sit-in at Saad Zaghloul Square since 8 July to demand justice.

According to an agreement that revolutionary youth coalitions and Islamic groups reached earlier in the week, all political forces should have held a joint demonstrations in different cities around the country on Friday to press the government of Prime Minister Essam Sharaf and the ruling military council for five basic demands centred on social justice and justice for the martyrs, whose killers, mostly police and security forces, have not yet been tried or have been released.

However, by Thursday night it became clear that Islamic forces had decided to ignore the signed agreement in order to turn the “Friday of unity” on 29 July into their own “Egypt is an Islamic state Friday.”

Worse yet, from the point of view of the families of the martyrs and revolutionary youths, the Islamists planned to use the historic birthplaces of the Egyptian revolution, Tahrir in Cairo and Qaed Ibrahim Mosque plaza in Alexandria, as platforms to indirectly press for an end to the great social struggles of the past few months - including the fight for justice for the martyrs.

In Alexandria, a historic stronghold for Salafists, 10,000 Islamists, from Salafists to Jihadists, gave vengeful speeches and chanted Islamic slogans in the Ibrahim Plaza for hours.

Tens of members of the Salafist movement and their Nour Party, two of the largest Salafist organisations in Egypt, used a massive podium with loudspeakers they erected in the centre of the plaza to methodically work the bearded crowd into a state of frenzy. 

Speaker after speaker wearing the so-called Islamic, white grab that hang inches above ankles, claimed that majority of the country supported the implementation of sharia (Islamic) law and the formation of an Islamic state.

Speaker after speaker denounced the enemies of stability in clear jabs intended against revolutionary youth groups and leftist and liberal parties who were camping a mere 5-minute walk from the Salafists’ stage.

They charged that a minority of what they called secularists (which they treat as atheists), liberals (which they treat as immoral) were conspiring to offset the results of the referendum of March 2011, which they hope would give them a lever to reach political power in parliamentary election, in order to implement sharia.
"Secularists and liberals are proud of their beliefs. We, the Muslims, should also be as proud - if not more. After all, we are the majority," a Salafist imam ranted. The crowd roared. Thousands screamed and usurped the famous chant of the 25 January Revolution. Instead of chanting “Lift your head up: You are Egyptian,” the brothers chanted: “Lift your head up: You are Muslim.”

Even the moderate Muslim Brotherhood representative who spoke from the podium and the only one who wore a suit felt that he needed to up the Salafists by one. "This has been and will always remain a state with an Islamic foundation," he told the crowd that seemed to just want more.

Sporadically and intermittently, out of the endless number of the defenders of God's words, who preached to the sweltering crowd, someone remembered to call for a speedy trial for the deposed dictator, Hosni Mubarak, who is due to be tried on 3 August.

However, none of the speakers even alluded to the fact that Salafists had reached an agreement that the with what they lump together as secularist and liberal a couple of days ago, which stated that Friday was meant to unite Egyptians around achieving some of the outstanding 25 January Revolution goals.

For example, no speakers supported an end to military trials, a living minimum wage or any of the other joint demands that Salafists signed on just hours before.

In fact, thousands of Salafists hijacked another famous chant of the 25 January Revolution after another and twisted them to serve their sharia agenda. All day, thousands of Salafists repeated the revolution's chant “One hand, one hand.”

During the revolution, “One hand” referred to, at some points, the people and the military, and at other times to Muslims and Christians. However, the Islamists on Friday 29 July made it clear they meant “Muslim and Muslim: One hand.” 

Tens of young Salafist men worked the crowds waving black flags that read “No God but God” and signs that read things like “If not Islamic, then what?”

Hundreds of emotionally excited and charged, yet peaceful, Salafists debated their positions with a small group of socialists and leftists who were selling revolution literature. From dozens of conversations that took place, the Islamists were near unanimous in their support for the military council. In fact, the majority of the crowd said that they believed that the Tahrir sit-in, the criticism of the military council, and even those demanding an end to military trials are simply a plotting against “our patriotic generals and the military.” 

Others walked around the plaza to separate men and women in the crowd. Security personnel told some European female journalists that they could not attend the rally because they were not “properly dressed.” Other zealous men even tried to prevent some women from listening to heated conversations that some men were having with the leftists. "You should walk away because you will get hurt if a fight breaks out,” one such pious volunteer tried to convince two young, veiled women who were trying to listen in on one of the ongoing debates.

Overall, the Salafist protesters felt an incredible sense of power. Despite their mediocre showing of thousands in a city where 5 million people celebrated on the city's famous Mediterranean boardwalk  the night of the fall of Mubarak last February, Salafists left the plaza feeling emboldened. For one; the crowd was aware that their allies had just flooded Tahrir, piously waving over a million Qurans.

Back in Saad Zaghloul Circle, the mood among the families of the martyrs and the activists who held the Alexandria sit-in together for 3 weeks was a mix between sober and anxious.

Many in the crowd, who did not trust Salafist intentions in signing the joint Friday agreement to start with, were stunned that the Salafists went as far as they did in breaking it. Many were angry that Salafist demonstrators did not make the cause of the martyrs a key part of their discourse throughout the day. 

"They talked about sharia. They forgot that justice for those killed unjustly is a main tenet of sharia. They have a political agenda and are using sharia talk to achieve it'" one activist at the sit-in told Ahram Online.

As night fell on the city, hundreds of people had poured back into Saad Zaghloul Circle to support the sit-in. Earlier in the day, only 100 people held their Friday prayer in the circle.

Many people in the sit-in circle were debating whether the Salafists were preparing for an Iranian-style Islamic coup against, or at least taking over the revolution. Their paranoia seemed to be somewhat founded. In fact, all day long, speakers at the Salafist rally egged young, bearded men on to continue jihad and described them as “God's army to implement God's will on earth.”

New people and seasoned activists argued and debated on whether to continue or suspend their sit-in but did not reach any definitive conclusion. One thing is certain: the families of the tens of Alexandrian martyrs killed by Mubarak’s security forces during the uprising did not want to leave until those officers are brought to justice.

As night fell, millions of Alexandrians poured back into the streets to shop and frequent the boardwalk cafés. The main Mediterranean boardwalk was jammed as it customarily is on summer nights.

Most Alexandrians were relieved that no physical confrontations took place between Salafists and revolutionaries. Many, however, were also clearly weary of what the Salafists were up to.

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