The elephant in the room

Mona Anis , Thursday 14 Jul 2011

Division is replacing unity among protesters in Tahrir

As I write this, it's already five days since hundreds of thousands of Egyptians converged on Tahrir Square in Cairo for what was dubbed the Friday of Revolution First, an initiative called for by many political movements and parties to express their discontent at the slow pace of the Egyptian Revolution, which had succeeded in toppling the president of the republic along with some top figures in his regime but had achieved little else.‪ Last Friday ended with sit-ins in Tahrir Square, Suez, Alexandria and a few other provincial towns.

The declared aims of the different sit-ins, announced by some 30 different political groups, were: abrogating sentences handed down by military tribunals to civilians and retrying them before civilian courts; speeding up the trials of former regime officials charged with corruption and manslaughter; restructuring the ministry of the interior, placing it under judicial review and replacing the present minister with a civilian; replacing the present prosecutor-general; defining the power of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), thus giving more power to the prime minister to purge his cabinet of elements loyal to the former regime; and abrogating the state budget that was announced recently and debating a new one favouring the poor and underprivileged.

The prime minister and a highly-placed military general addressed the nation on Monday and Tuesday, respectively, offering some concessions, couched in terms of threats by the latter, but these were not enough, many protestors said, to end the sit-ins. As I write, the spectre of violence hangs over Tahrir Square, with much anticipation of yet another bloody confrontation between protestors and powers that be, whether directly in the form of police or military force or indirectly by deploying thugs. This could be a battle, some fear, which could plunge the country into greater division. Unlike the 18 days between 25 January and 11 February when the nation was united behind demands to oust Hosni Mubarak from the presidency, people are now divided as to which path to follow.

Tahrir Square itself, reflecting these divisions, no longer presents one united front. The divisions are now less apparent than they were on Friday, when different youth groups expressed their anger at the Muslim Brotherhood's announcement that it would participate in the Friday protest but not in the sit-in to be staged at the end of the day. They are there nevertheless, as any discerning look will reveal. There are now different enclaves within the Square, the most vibrant and vocal of which is perhaps also the most misleading. This is the one occupying the traffic island in the middle of the Square, where “the groupuscules of the revolution now have their individual tents with tiny carpets and plastic chairs on the dust, debating Nasserism, secularism, the Christian civil rights union,” as Robert Fisk put it in Tuesday’s edition of the London Independent. One thing Fisk got wrong, however, was in believing that the catholic medley of young people he met on the traffic island were representative of all the activists in the Square. He noted with confidence that the “Muslim Brotherhood are, of course, absent, along with the Salafists.”

Had Fisk taken a stroll to the periphery of the Square opposite the American University, he would have discovered a smaller enclave of some 15 large tents and dozens of burly looking young men guarding the location and requiring IDs from people wanting to enter. As I myself had previously spent a night in a women-only tent there, I discovered that this group was in charge of policing the Square and securing its entrances, with thieves and people arrested for trying to smuggle arms and drugs into the Square being brought to a tent in this location before being handed over to the authorities.

To my surprise, I discovered that these were the same people who had policed the Square during the 18 days of January and February, and it’s no secret that the Brotherhood played a leading role during those days. So, were the young people I spent a night benefiting from their hospitality in fact disenchanted members of the Brotherhood who had decided to remain after their organization had announced it was pulling out of the Square on Friday, or were they simply Brotherhood sympathisers with no organisational affiliation? Whichever way one looked at it, they certainly looked closer to the Brotherhood and the Salafists than the young people camping out on the traffic island in the centre of the Square.

Much as I would like them to be, since I relate to them with greater ease at the personal level, the young people in the middle of the square are not representative of the majority of Egyptians. As one British friend of mine confided, there was such a festive atmosphere in the middle of the square it was reminiscent of the Glastonbury Music Festival(I am not sure what the young people concerned would have made of this remark.) But I know that some people in the traffic island did not like the remark I made to some of them to the effect that they would be mistaken to believe they speak for everybody in the square; indeed they represent a hippie-like element which many feel does not mesh well with the far more conventional majority of those who visit the Square during the day.

And herein the dilemma: some of these young people seem to ignore the more conciliatory sentiment among the silent majority of the Egyptians, thus isolating themselves from popular support for the sake of a more radical stance. At this moment the two different blocks of young people at the centre of the square and on its periphery are not clashing, and I hope they remain at peace until the end of the sit-in; no clash will be in the interest of anyone, least of all a faction, all things considered, less representative of Egyptian sentiments as a whole.

Fisk concluded his article this Tuesday by saying that “the advantage of the revolution, it seems, was that it had no leaders, no one to arrest. But its disadvantage, too, was that it had no leaders, no one to take responsibility for the revolution once it was over.” Again, this is only half true, for among those who participated in the Revolution if there was one political force that was more organised and more entrenched, it was the Brotherhood. And the Brotherhood seems certain to reap gains in the coming period, as was evidenced by its overwhelming victory in the elections to the Pharmacists' Union two days ago.

The Brotherhood’s relative advantage over the rest has been behind much of the chicken-or-egg-style debate over the “constitution or elections first” in recent weeks, aiming to try to guarantee that the Brotherhood is not able to draft the country’s new constitution following its possible victory in the forthcoming parliamentary elections. There were signs last week that this vicious circle could be about to be broken, as many less-organised political forces were in agreement that it would be more productive to challenge the Brotherhood in elections than ask for the elections to be postponed until they were ready to fight.

However, there are renewed signs that another round of skirmishes is imminent. All parties are well advised to avoid another confrontation, since it is to the benefit of everybody to engage democratically in the battle over the minds and hearts of the silent majority. This is a long battle that will play out in a non-exclusive democratic manner - and will make no exceptions for those pretending to be blind to the elephant in the room.

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