Monthly Archives: July 2011

Just for salafs

If someone should say to you, this is politics, say: This is Islam, and we do not recognise such divisions.’ (Hasan al-Banna, ‘Between Yesterday and Today’)

I opened the window this morning and looked out onto Hoda Shaarawy to see four girls, about ten years old, holding an Egyptian flag and chanting Islamiyya, islamiyya, masr dawla islamiyya as passers-by stopped to film them on camera phones. Outside the mosque, clusters of dudes lay around on green mats in the shade. Snowdrifts of white robes had mounted in the side streets. The great beard march was beginning! AMW came out on the balcony beside me. ‘They’re everywhere,’ he said, in hushed tones.

I put on my least seductive outfit, ending up looking vaguely Amish, and we set off to talk to some Islamismists. As we headed down Talaat Harb, we played ‘scariest Salafi’. AMW won with a guy wearing a tea towel on his head. (That’s not racist, you know. He was actually wearing a tea towel. Just a practical attitude to sun protection.) The street was full of box fresh white robes and sensible sandals. It was a bit like a mirror image of this. ‘I’M HERE…TO PROTEST.’ Somewhere, Thomas Friedman was weeping at the sight of Muslims doing something he’d rather they didn’t. The crowd was incredibly thick in Tahrir Square and I could feel rivers of sweat running down my back and legs. There were many of those awkward moments when a Salafi jostled me in a crowd thinking I was a man (short back and sides, you see) before realising I’m a woman and pulling away as if they’d just accidentally touched a hot plate. There were chants that I hadn’t heard for a long time. The people and the army with one hand? So Jan25, guys.

I wondered where all the people in the tent city had gone. The central reservation was surrounded by a phalanx of bearded guys and there was no way of getting in to see what was left. I heard that secularists were still running the stage by the Mogamma but it was impossible to push through the crowd to see. Later I read that most of the groups making up the coalition for the 29th July had pulled out. The day was set for a particularly obnoxious show of strength by Egypt’s least lovable political grouping. (Although I guess ex-NDPians could give them a run for their money.) (I should point out, to any of you who are foolish enough to take this blog as your main source on Egyptian politics, that Tahrir Square has been occupied for the past couple of weeks by a large and shifting group of people from many different political parties or groups. The character of it has been largely secular. This was a pretty unusual display of Islamist force. This probably puts it best.)

AMW and I got talking to a man carrying a picture of the Dome of the Rock. This turned out to be a bad idea as he was an egregious example of what Jerry Seinfeld would call a close talker. AMW was accosted by some guys in white robes while I was left to dodge spittle as Dome of the Rock barracked me about Western support for Israel. I rehashed the usual arguments about the difference between government policy and personal opinion. He made the eminently fair point that we voted these cretins into office. I jokingly said that maybe the solution was no government at all and earned myself a slightly cold stare. A man standing next to him told me that he appreciated my support for the Palestinians. (About time someone gave me the recognition I deserve! Jesus! I’ve been sweating it out supporting the Palestinians for years without a word of thanks from an Arab!) He then proceeded to list for me the achievements of Arab civilisation and the ways in which it had contributed to science, literature, art, undsoweiter. He looked at me somewhat expectantly. I was conscious of a large sweat patch developing on my stomach. ‘Um, thanks,’ I said.

A young guy in a white t-shirt started telling me the life story of Muhammad. His accent was almost impenetrable and the only word I could work out was rusuul (messenger) which obviously came up a lot. I’m pretty sure it was the life story of Muhammad but couldn’t really be sure. Whatever he was saying, he really, really wanted me to take it in. Dome of the Rock kept interrupting but White T-shirt would brush him aside and fix me with his burning gaze, say Shouf ya ukhti, and carry on with his interminable tale. He then told me that every ruler in the history of Islam has been both political and religious. I asked him what the difference between politics and religion was. There is no difference, he said. Dome of the Rock at this point converted his sign into a makeshift awning to shade me and my rapidly growing crowd of interlocutors. A smartly-dressed young duktuur type asked if I had any questions for them. I asked him what their aims were. He told me that they wanted a civil state but with Islamic ‘concepts’ (mafahiim). I asked him to clarify and he said that a civil state meant civilian rule, democracy, a parliament, the rule of law, but based on Islamic concepts such as justice, social equality, gender equality. I gave up at that point and went to grab a guava juice. As we left we got talking to a man who named us Mohamed and Fatima and asked AMW for my hand in marriage. ‘My sister is far too young for you,’ said AMW with convincing disapproval and we turned on our heel towards the juice shop on Midan Falaki. ‘Good bye Fatima,’ said the man.

Cruising back towards Talaat Harb, we spotted a bunch of Hizb al-Noor (recently formed Salafi party) activists sitting in the ahwa at the foot of our apartment building and sat down to talk to them for a bit. They gave us the same line: a civil state with Islamic ‘concepts’. They also told us that the Qur’an comes down hard on litterers. One of them asked us if Britain had a constitution. We decided that ‘it’s more of a mutually understood, unwritten constitution, based on years of legal precedent’ was a bit beyond our language skillz so nodded assent. He then told us that everything in our constitution was borrowed from Islam. There wasn’t really a reply to that. Their rhetoric was a lot like the early Muslim Brotherhood: studious denials of any ‘political’ aims, and an assertion of total political and financial independence. The Egyptian Salafis remind me a lot of the Tea Party movement, in some ways. The idea that you can somehow affect politics by determinedly existing outside it, and the constant assertion that this is not politics, what we are doing, this is not politics.

It felt like a show of muscle. Supporters were bussed in from around the country and filled the square until any dissenting voice or even appearance was pushed out. The space was starkly coded in white and black, but mainly white, because there were very few women around. It was a marked contrast to the cooperation between groups which has been ongoing and developing for months: this wholesale, aggressive assertion of one point of view. Cooperation between different groups in Tahrir has not always been harmonious, by any means, but it has at least been attempted. But this was different: this was saying, look at us, look how powerful we can be, and be afraid.

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Fahrenheit 25Jan*

It’s pretty hot in Cairo right now. I get up at 8 or so and the sun has already heated the tiles on the balcony to a baking redness. Every time I walk past the tents in Tahrir I think how hot it must be under there. (Family camping holiday veteran, right here.) I don’t know if there’s a correlation between heat and road rage but I keep on seeing arguments in the street, more than I remember seeing in the past.

Living so close to Tahrir brings with it the feeling of verges and edges. The liminal public space (and shit). Every building around the square seems to face inwards like plants growing towards the light. Last night a couple of hundred people marched past my street, up Talaat Harb, and it was like some kind of fourth wall being breached. Sometimes, like yesterday evening at about 6pm, I find myself hearing events in the square and simultaneously following them on Twitter in my flat. It makes me think of the Ralph Waldo Emerson quotation about becoming a gigantic eyeball. (Or something like that.) Piecing together sensory perception is disconcerting. Was that a cheer from a football match or a roar as a fight breaks out in the middle of Tahrir between protesters and street vendors who were allegedly paid 50 LE (about £5) to start a fight in the square?

The space has been elevated to a suitably worthy place in the world’s collection of symbols. Even David Cameron went to Tahrir Square; my hopes for a Tamer Hosny-style ass-whuppin were unfortunately not to be realised. When the space becomes more important than the cause, that is when problems start. That’s what ended up happening in the Cambridge occupation. Holding a space for no reason other than, as George Mallory said, because it’s there, is deeply flawed. The stasis of it will fracture your movement and weaken your forces.

That’s not, I hasten to add, what Tahrir is like. It runs the risk, like any symbol, of becoming worth more than its actual meaning, but in Egypt, in this place, this time, this week even, that’s clearly balls. The thing worth remembering, though – and no-one in Egypt forgets this, but many people reading the news in London or New York might – is that the fight doesn’t stop at the edge of the square, even though it can feel like that. My first encounter with CS gas took place on Tuesday night; I retreated up Talaat Harb, availing myself of a baby wipe some dude had given to me, and within five minutes I was back in the wast il-balad that first smacked me around the retinas a year ago when the idea of a protest camp in Tahrir Square was just someone on the Siesta again. (CS gas was as unpleasant as you might imagine. I left soon afterwards because I was alone and it was past midnight.) The most surreal thing about it is the atomisation of the city. Overflow out of the square doesn’t have the forces to sustain itself. Whatever you think about the merits of attacking the Interior Ministry, even the hardiest of would-be occupiers has to realise that such an undertaking requires more manpower than they currently have, especially when the boys in blue hole themselves up inside the ministry and start lobbing rocks, displaying a subtlety of policing tactics I haven’t seen since, well, since the London Met horse-charged a bunch of sixth formers a few months ago. But I digress.

The fight doesn’t stop at the edge of the square. It continues into the neighbourhoods all around the country where policemen facing charges for violence against demonstrators are continuing in their normal duties. It continues into the hospitals in al-Arish and Minya facing armed attacks due to lack of security. It continues into the rural villages where women are injecting cleaning products into their vaginas because they can’t get a safe, legal abortion. (Those are just three particular press releases I translated at work this week.)

It’s been a strange, scrappy few days, with a lot of confusing and obscure events. Full, satisfying explanations have yet to be found for yesterday or Tuesday, although this comes close. It’s very hot in Cairo; sometimes unbearably so. The attempts of SCAF to cool things down are having little effect. The postponement of the Adly trial, although apparently (according to my colleagues in Cairo) following the letter of the law and justified under the circumstances, looks hella bad. The persistent patrician attitude of the Egyptian elites renders them seemingly incapable of explaining their actions. Don’t trouble yourselves, they seem to be saying. The (martial) law works in mysterious ways. This fundamental communication problem between the state and the people only makes this more tense. And the temperature rises. The SCAF Facebook page is a joke. Justin Bieber has a more sophisticated public relations operation than this. الشعب يريد رفع الاخفاء. WordArt on riot police shields doesn’t make your military state more transparent and welcoming, it just makes it look well ’90s.

But the problem lies deeper than the lack of explanation. For as much as I’d love to see Adly with stripes around his shoulders, these high-level prosecutions are quite obviously sops to keep people happy. Offering compensation to the families of the martyrs means little if the killers of their children are still on duty in Free Egypt. And while due process should be observed and no-one’s trial should be compromised, no matter how odious they are, no matter if they wear suits with pinstripes made up of their own name, it needs to be made clear that this is due process, and that no-one is above (or below) the law. And making that clear, not just clear but true, will take more than rapping senior NDP blowhards on the knuckles. It will take more, even, than justice for the families of the martyrs. It will take a comprehensive reform of security and policing in Egypt, which in itself will involve a fundamental re-evaluation of how the state relates to its citizens. Then maybe the temperature will cool, just a little.

*worst post title ever, apologies. it’s hard thinking them up, you know.

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