‘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.