Letter from Cairo: the liberals, the Brothers, and the poor

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Voting in Egypt
Salafist campaign workers in Cairo’s Shobra district (@mmbilal on Twitter)

So this is what violence in Cairo is like now: the city has grown inured to it. You can stroll down a sidewalk in perfect serenity, and ignore the fact that a few blocks away lies what the foreign journalists call a “war zone.” Tuesday night — the end of the first round of the parliamentary elections — I was wandering Mahmoud Bassiouny Street downtown. I reached street’s end and a tangle of highways by the Egyptian Museum, and suddenly there were people rushing across the pavement and screaming, and bright crashing flashes that I recognized as Molotov cocktails. Behind me, abruptly, aggressive young guys in leather jackets had built a makeshift barricade across the street and were diverting traffic, and waving large knives. Among their shouts, I could distinguish “Eid wahda” —“One hand.” A few shopkeepers motioned me to get the hell away. For months crowds have targeted foreigners amid gathering xenophobia, reviling them as spies. There was, however, no obvious place to run. I walked as calmly as I could back past the barricade and the multiplying mob, and it was only at Talaat Harb Street, as the usual bustle of the city settled in, that I checked Twitter and called my friends and realized I’d been in the middle of the latest installment of the Battle of Tahrir. By night’s end, around sixty people, democratic protestors attacked by their opponents, were in the hospital. At midnight, I watched demonstrators carrying their comrades, swathed in bandages, across the square.

I’ll say more later about exactly what was going on. First, though, the elections.

The returns have been dribbling in for two days. This was the first round of three: a third of Egypt’s governorates, including Cairo and Alexandria, cast ballots. The sweep of the Islamic parties’ victory surprised everyone, including some wings of the Islamists themselves.

Freedom and Justice (FJP), dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, carried about 40% of the vote. More shockingly, el-Nour, the main Salafist party — representing literal, puritan, right-wing Islamists — won about a quarter of the ballots to come in second overall. The Egyptian Bloc, a coalition of liberal and largely secular parties, placed third, slightly behind it. The next election rounds will largely be held in more conservative parts of the country. Unless the Coptic vote in Upper Egypt shows unexpected strength, Freedom and Justice will hold close to a majority of seats; with el-Nour, they could control the new parliament completely.

Most people expected the Brotherhood to win, though by a lesser margin. At a polling place downtown I visited on Monday, Freedom and Justice organizers swarmed everywhere, flush with leaflets and paraphernalia, while the other parties were pretty much invisible. Several observers heard the same comment over and over from FJP activists: “We’re confident because we’ve been organizing for this moment for 80 years.” Certainly, for at least two decades the Brotherhood have been the only opposition force with a real grassroots presence. This time, they had the chance to try it out in a fair election. On the other hand, the Salafists’ success seems to have shocked even the Freedom and Justice Party. Mubarak jailed and tortured the ultraconservative Islamists with still more fervor than he devoted to repressing the Brotherhood; driven underground, they had few of the Brothers’ opportunities to organize in cities or villages. Their ability to pull millions of votes out of a hat this time shocked many across Egypt.

In the US, naturally, neoconservatives bray that Egypt is the new Iran, making up in population for what it lacks in plutonium: “Egypt’s turn toward Islamic revolution would be catastrophic. As the largest country in the Arab world, it has influence that Iran could never hope to achieve.”

I spent most of the last week talking to “liberals” in Egypt — a catch-all term defined quite differently than in the West. It includes Communists of various sorts, socialists, social democrats, anarchists, and free-market liberals, most but not all secular, united by a commitment to democracy, divided by disparate beliefs in what it means — some wedded to the parliamentary process, some dreaming of direct self-governance. Few, though, had an apocalyptic sense about the Islamists’ victory. They talk about three key things. First, as democrats they can’t reject out of hand the outcome of a democratic election. Second, the parliament will have little power in a government still run by a military junta. And third, the junta remains the real enemy.

The generals are killing people. I spoke last night to two gay friends who have been committed revolutionaries since January. Both were in Midan Tahrir the week of November 20, and their rage against SCAF (the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces) was palpable. That week, the junta reacted to a renewed sit-in in the square with brute force. They sent Central Security police down Mohamed Mahmoud Street, leading from the Ministry of the Interior, to beat and abuse protesters. The protesters fought back, blocking the street and throwing stones at the police. The police in turn soaked the street in tear gas, till mushroom clouds of it loomed above the city; they fired at the demonstrators with rubber bullets and birdshots — aiming, it’s clear, at the eyes to blind them. The square these days is full of people with bandaged sockets, bandaged faces; friends of my friends lost their eyes. One police marksman, Sobhi Mahmoud Shenawy, became known as “the eye sniper.” Forty-three dissidents died. “This was a deeply personal fight,” Ahmad told me. “You could see they would kill you in a minute.” And Yehia, one of my gay friends, added, “You felt that such people, who would fire to blind you, didn’t deserve to rule a city block, much less a country.”

Wounded warriorspaper-bird.net/2011/12/02/from-egypt-the-class-impasse/
Wounded protesters, Nov. 20 (@NadimX on Twitter)

As gay men, my friends don’t much fear the Brotherhood or the Salafis. They remember that the worst persecution of gays in Egypt’s history, and probably anywhere in the region, happened under the secular Mubarak regime, from 2001-2004. The FJP could hardly augur anything worse.

To be sure, the Brotherhood, always opportunists, sold out in the last weeks, giving their support to SCAF. But the new Prime Minister whom SCAF plans to puppeteer, Kamal el-Ganzouri, is a Mubarak veteran who presided over mass torture of Islamists during his last term as premier in the 1990s. The Islamists have long memories; they will not forgive him. Already, the FJP has announced it expects a government responsible to the parliament. SCAF quickly warned them the new cabinet will answer to the generals alone. “The Brotherhood can mobilize a million people in the street if they want,” my friends told me. “If it comes to a face-off with SCAF, they’re almost the only political force with a chance to win.”

Still, liberals — and feminists, and gays, and Egypt’s large Coptic minority, and many others — hardly trust the Brotherhood. And the Islamists’ triumph raises serious questions about where the revolution is going.

Back to last Tuesday night’s violence — because it illuminates those questions. How did the fighting start? On Tuesday morning, the revolutionaries in Tahrir decided to expel some of the vendors who populated the place. The square has become a market; in addition to tea, juice, food, and fruit, hawkers pitch T-shirts, flags, and souvenirs. The vendors have a bad reputation; they’ve been accused of peddling drugs; the dissidents thought they might besmirch the image of the revolution. Out with them!

This has happened before, once over the summer; back then the vendors got violent, and they did this time as well. In the evening, they counterattacked, assaulting the square with stones and Molotov cocktails. Or somebody counterattacked. The men I saw blocking traffic didn’t look like vendors; it’s possible SCAF took advantage of the situation to send in its own provocateurs. (Their battle cry, “One hand,” was SCAF’s own slogan: “The army and the people are one hand.”) What matters, though, is that the revolutionaries decided to turn on Egyptians who were using the revolution to scrape by. A protester I met in Tahrir two nights ago said plaintively: “We fought the revolution for the poor. And why should we throw them out of here so shamelessly? Just so we would look more clean?”

Yehia told me last night, “On the front lines at Mohamed Mahmoud, it was mostly poor people. They were fighting bare-handed, bare-chested; they couldn’t even afford gas masks on their faces.” And Ahmad added,

They’re the ones exposed to daily insults from police officers more than anybody else. And I don’t think they take values as relative, the way we usually do as part of the middle class. Sacrificing your life — we calculate about it: it this the time, today? Maybe this battle isn’t worth a life. But they have more absolute values of sacrifice and courage. For them, being on the front lines was a matter of human dignity.

But the revolution has failed to do justice to their dignity. The poor may be at the forefront of the battles, but the revolution’s leaders are overwhelmingly middle-class. The front lines of democracy and the front lines of class are not the same. And the bourgeois leaders have failed to reach across Egypt’s yawning class divide.

Some of the failure has been programmatic. Over the summer, as revolutionary groups struggled to agree on a list of demands, they found consensus on democracy and civil liberties easy — but their concession to addressing economic issues dwindled to an anodyne promise to raise the minimum wage. Strikers from factories to public services who had put their bodies and jobs on the line for Mubarak’s overthrow felt ignored.

But some of the failure was more physical. The revolutionaries failed to leave Tahrir, failed to go into the neighborhoods and towns and villages, to talk to workers and peasants, to organize. The Salafists, despite years underground, didn’t make that mistake. They spent the summer recruiting a third of a million active members for el-Nour. The revolutionaries waited for the masses to come to them. The result is written in the election returns. Even Zamalek, the liberal island of the haute-bourgeoisie in mid-Nile, went for the Brotherhood. The doormen and maids and porters who slave for the wealthy live in Zamalek too, shunted to cellars and rooftop shacks — but they emerged, and they voted for the FJP.

The encampment in Tahrir is an ideal and almost a fetish for many leftist Egyptians. You can see why if you’ve been there: it’s an Arab Woodstock and Brook Farm, an alternative space to a corrupt society and state, a place where diverse identities can meet and share, where unities grow out of differences and one can imagine a new way of life, a new world. It’s beautiful. But too much time, many feel, was wasted this summer and fall defending Tahrir against the military, and too little speaking to the rest of society. An alternative community may represent the dream of comprehensive change, but does little to realize it. The hard work of talking across class boundaries and building solidarities to encompass the rest of Egypt fell by the wayside.

There’s still time to recuperate the revolution. But it will take hard work. It will take dialogue. It will take renewed respect for the multiple meanings of dignity.

Over the summer, revolutionaries tried to stage a march on the Ministry of Defense in Cairo’s Abbasiyya district. Together with an Egyptian friend, I got there late; the marchers had been stopped several blocks short of the ministry, surrounded on three sides by massed troops and tanks. We tried to go through the surrounding neighborhood, and get into the demonstration from the fourth side. The rundown, impoverished streets teemed with tense, angry citizens — enraged at the marchers, whom they regarded as invaders. And at one point we found ourselves suddenly in the midst of a river of running people, men and women pouring out of buildings, armed with big knives that glinted in the light of Ramadan lanterns strung above. They were shouting: “They’re attacking us! Strike back! Defend yourselves!” They could easily have turned on us, but somehow they raced past us unseeing. They engulfed the protest, and beat and brutalized many demonstrators. We couldn’t break through to join our friends; shaken, we limped home.

It was a fine example of false consciousness, you could say: the poor enlisted to defend an arrogant and indifferent regime. But the protesters too had their arrogance. When they first met the residents of the neighborhood, who blocked the way and demanded why these outsiders were marching through, many shouted back “It’s a public street! We have the right to march here.” That claim of possession is not what you say to Cairo’s poor, whose back streets and close communities are all they have. The revolutionaries are learning about dignity the hard way.

About Lizzy Ratner

Lizzy Ratner is a journalist in New York City. She is a co-editor with Adam Horowitz and Philip Weiss of The Goldstone Report: The Legacy of the Landmark Investigation of the Gaza Conflict.

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