The return of Tahrir?

The Islamist movements that sided with Egypt’s SCAF have turned full circle and flocked to Tahrir Square in protests.

People gather for a mass protest in Tahrir square
Thousands of Islamists who once shunned Egyptian revolutionaries have flocked to Tahrir Square [REUTERS]

Cairo, Egypt – In late December, a young female protester took a break from the havoc of Tahrir. Her arm, slashed as she ran from security forces hurling tear gas at the young demonstrators the previous day, was covered with bandages. She was exhausted from circling the Square, with medical supplies in hand, to help treat the wounded. The state forces in downtown Cairo seemed to outnumber the protesters; the roar of gunfire heard from the Square just before dawn broke the silence of the night.

An aggressive media campaign, waged by the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, and supported by – or at least met with silence by – the influential Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi groups, had at that point successfully convinced many that protesters were simply thugs who deserved to be dealt with violently.

As the young protester headed back to the demonstration, she joked in frustration: “When the rest of the people realise that our cause is right and come join us in Tahrir, we shouldn’t let them in the Square.”

On April 20, that day came. The youth who have continued demonstrating for democratic rule since Mubarak stepped down hoped that the Brotherhood and Salafis’ calls for renewed protests would invigorate the demand for an end to military rule.

The scene in Tahrir Square, however, was a great disappointment. It elucidated the Islamist groups’ unprincipled nature, their prioritisation of power above all, and their exploitation of religion to manipulate sizable sectors of the population.

When ‘yes’ means ‘no’

The young activists who called for demonstrations in January of 2011 had a history of protest. Through the Muslim Brotherhood, Kifaya (founded in 2004), the Sixth of April Movement of 2008, the National Front for Change of 2010 – and as unofficial groups – youth groups organised protests for years before the revolution, and suffered the consequences. They envisioned a democratic state long before it seemed remotely possible.

When President Hosni Mubarak stepped down and appointed SCAF to govern the country, many celebrated. Unlike most in the country, longtime activists quickly realised the irony of a no-longer valid president choosing his successors and staged protests for an immediate transition to civilian rule throughout the spring and summer of 2011.

In March of that year, the revolution took a turn when SCAF handpicked a group of jurists to draft a set of constitutional amendments to be put up for referendum; a “yes” would mean that the constitution with its amendments would be valid until presidential elections, while a “no” would necessitate the immediate drafting of a new constitution.

The referendum was widely hailed as Egypt’s first free voting process. Activists, however, struggled to convey the nonsensical nature of the referendum and demand that the revolution should bring with it an entirely new constitution, reflective of its causes. The voices of several prominent advocates of the revolution were enveloped by state media as well as directions from Salafis and the Brotherhood to their followers.

The referendum was portrayed in the media as a battle over the actually irrelevant second article of the constitution, on the Islamic nature of the state. Egyptian audiences were told that a “no” vote would endanger this clause of the constitution. Salafis used their influence over mosques, where religious leaders told their followers that a “no” vote would amount to a sin. A largely illiterate audience flocked to the polls, in what some felt was a religious duty. Some 77 per cent of voters said yes to the amendments, or as many incorrectly understood it: yes to the Islamic nature of Egypt.

 Thousands flock to Tahrir Square

Full circle

Ironically, it is those very constitutional amendments that Salafis advocated for that drove them to Tahrir on Friday. Amended Article 75 now states that the president’s parents must be only Egyptian. The Salafis’ popular presidential candidate, Hazem Salah Abu Ismael, was recently disqualified due to reports of his deceased mother’s US citizenship. Abu Ismael continues to deny the fact; his Salafi supporters largely believe Abu Ismael and disregard evidence suggesting otherwise.

Thousands clad with stickers and pins donning Abu Ismael’s portrait filled the Square on April 20, chanting against SCAF, in what demonstrated a remarkable departure from the recent political behaviour of the Salafis. At the height of the irony is the Salafis’ refusal to recognise the nonsensical nature of the amendment itself and their mistake in advocating for it. For the past year, Salafis have sided with SCAF over the causes of the revolution in order to maximise their own power, and it only seems just that they should suffer the consequences of their own mistakes.

The Muslim Brotherhood, whose bus loads of supporters from across the country filled the Square on Friday, has also only changed its position vis-a-vis SCAF and the revolution in recent weeks. The group was rumoured to be in negotiations with SCAF over their share of power since the fall of Mubarak. When protesters filled Tahrir during the summer and fall months, the Brotherhood was silent. Their performance in parliament, where they hold nearly half of the seats, was staunchly anti-revolutionary.

Despite the fact that the smell of tear gas could be sensed from the parliament building, only metres away from the scenes where hundreds of protesters were killed or injured by state forces, Brotherhood members not only ignored the situation but denied its existence. When one member of parliament held up shrapnel obtained from Muhammad Mahmoud Street, off Tahrir Square, a Muslim Brotherhood member attempted to snatch it from him in anger; the Islamist dominated body cheered as the speaker of parliament, Saad el-Katatny, conveyed a ministry of defence claim that protesters were not aggressed upon by the state.

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During their time in parliament, the Brotherhood did little, if anything, to meet the demands of the revolution. They exploited their position to form a constitutional committee which they dominated (likely the reason that they advocated against the earlier drafting of the document).

In recent weeks, rumours arose of the Brotherhood’s dissatisfaction with SCAF for its failure to improve the security and economic situations since the fall of Mubarak, and fear that these shortcomings would be associated with their own political capabilities. The dismissal of the Constitutional Committee and the disqualification of one of the Brotherhood’s presidential candidates made SCAF-Brotherhood relations more tense. Indeed, the Brotherhood’s Friday appearance as protesters in the Square may be a first since the fall of Mubarak.

The atmosphere in Tahrir on Friday, especially for those who had never stopped protesting, was peculiar. The Islamists who had shunned revolutionary youths for the past year dominated the Square, chanting the phrases that the youth had created. One chant, emphasising the cowardice of state forces and bravery of those who faced them, sounded bizarre coming from the very groups that deemed the revolution over long ago, and did nothing when the youth were being massacred.

The Egyptian population has been given the opportunity to recognise the hypocrisy of key political groups. The burden lies upon those truthful to the cause of representative governance to better convey their cause and offer a viable political alternative to a people searching for just leadership. 

Sarah Mousa graduated from Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs in 2010, and was a 2010-2011 Fulbright Scholar in Egypt.