On sheep and infidels
Before I begin, let me state some facts, so that when people begin the ad hominem attacks they can try to rein them in within the following boundaries:
I voted for Mohamed Morsi in the second round of the presidential elections (to keep Ahmed Shafiq out).
I am one of the administrators of a blog called “MB in English” that features English translations of awful statements of a sectarian, conspiratorial or bonkers nature that the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) intends for domestic consumption only.
I am against army intervention in politics.
I state all this because Egyptian politics and society in general are currently split along identity lines in a way that they have never been over the last three years. This problem is so chronic that the merits or flaws of an argument are almost entirely determined by who is making the argument, considered through a haze of fury and suspicion.
For the past week, I have been trundling between the pro- and anti-Morsi protests. It is like traveling between two planets. The pro-camp has significantly more men than woman — although there are women and children there — and it lacks the social diversity of the anti-camp. I have never seen one unveiled woman who is not a journalist there. I have never met a Christian or encountered any other journalist who has met one there (it is important to note that pro-Morsi protesters and pro-Morsi media have often claimed that there are Christians attending their sit-in). At the same time, they also allege that the church was behind the former Mubarak regime-US-Zionist plot to oust Morsi.
The point is that the pro-Morsi crowd is largely homogenous. Their opponents use this homogeneity as evidence that the MB is, at best, an organization that has failed to market itself to non-supporters; and, at worst, a closed group unconcerned with non-members.
While the MB’s opposition might be correct in this assertion, many go one step further. They suggest that Morsi supporters are all members of the Muslim Brotherhood, and all unthinking androids programmed by the Supreme Guide. The popular derogatory term for them is khirfan (sheep). The aim here is to dehumanize and deny agency, much in the same way the Muslim Brotherhood dismiss their opponents as kuffar (infidels) or feloul (Mubarak regime beneficiaries or loyalists).
On July 4, I went to the Nasr City sit-in countering the mass June 30 protests calling for the president's removal. There was a line of tanks about a kilometer from the entrance checking bags and bothering journalists. Behind the tanks, barbed wire had been put in place. Two men stood five meters apart in silence, both carrying pictures of Morsi. A man went past them and began shouting. He was an engineer with a lisp who explained in a desperate tone that he did not take part in the January 25 protests, but that these protests taught him “how to state an opinion and protect it.” He had voted for Morsi in both rounds of the presidential elections, but insisted that he was at the protest not to support an individual, but “an idea.”
“I learned democracy from the elite. So I voted. But I have learned that there is no revolution and no democracy,” he argued.
As he was talking, a man nearby started screaming in the direction of the army while holding up a poster of Morsi. He was so furious that he succeeded in ripping his poster in two, at which point he crumpled into a heap on the ground and wept.
On Saturday, I attended the somber and low-key funeral of Mohamed Sobhy, a father of two who had been shot in the head the day before outside the Republican Guards Officers Club. Eyewitnesses say that Sobhy was killed after he put a Morsi poster on the barbed wire in front of some troops who seemed to have gotten nervous. In total, four men died at that protest.
I saw his body half an hour later, covered in a sheet and surrounded by bewildered protesters. I tried to tweet the picture, but the network was not cooperating and it would not send. So I tweeted that a man had been killed and his body was still here, and that I was trying to send a picture for all those who I knew would say I was lying.
The problem is not that people did not believe me after the first tweet (it is always good to be cautious). The problem is that they were disputing that a man had died even when the photo was uploaded. One man responded: “He doesn’t have Egyptian features.” Others suggested it was an old photo. When a video appeared and it was no longer possible to dispute the fact that a man had been shot outside the Presidential Guards Officers Club in Cairo at the same date and time as the pro-Morsi lot were alleging, attention turned to his injuries.
Sobhy was facing the army when he fell to the ground, and blood gushed out of the back of his head. There was an almost immediate consensus that he had to have been shot from behind. The most popular conclusion was that the MB themselves had killed Sobhy to incriminate the Armed Forces. The outpouring of outrage in response to a suspected military killing of a civilian that usually characterizes such events was completely absent. There was not a single Egyptian news outlet at the victim's funeral other than Mada Masr.
The situation was very different at the funeral for youths from Manial killed in clashes between the Muslim Brotherhood and residents of the Cairo neighborhood. Lots of media, lots of sympathy and lots of outrage — all certainly deserved.
An almost identical scene played out on Monday morning, as Egypt woke up to the news that over 40 people had been killed, again outside the Republican Guards Officers Club. State television and private satellite channels such as ONTv restricted their coverage to airing interviews with security forces, and stating conclusively and irrefutably that armed pro-Morsi protesters instigated the attack against the army.
Presenter Amany al-Khayat talked about “terrorists” —the pro-Morsi supporters — hiding out in residential areas. When making reference to the bodies of pro-Morsi demonstrators being kept in the Rabea al-Adaweya Mosque — the location of the pro-Morsi sit-in — her tone was derisory and mocking.
In describing these scenes, I am not seeking sympathy for pro-Morsi supporters. I disagree with them politically. Some of them have themselves been responsible for acts of unimaginable, barbaric violence. Independent journalists have reported that some of them are armed (just as they have reported that their opponents have arms). Their decision to march to Maspero and to Tahrir via Manial was a provocative act of such crass stupidity that anyone with any shame should have disassociated themselves from the protests.
My problem is with the reaction to these protesters. The nominally non-partisan media variously ignores, belittles or demonizes what represents a large section of Egyptian society. There is none of the nuance of the coverage of the anti-Morsi protests. The virulent, xenophobic anti-American sentiment of some protesters is not held to represent the collective. Systematic acts of sexual violence against women in Tahrir Square are not used to discredit the entire cause. When the pro-army tone started to appear after June 30, it was emphasized that not all protesters back the military. The Egyptian media has by and large overlooked any similar inquiry into the motivations of the other side.
This is problematic for three reasons, and all of them concern Egyptian society at large rather than the Morsi brigade.
Firstly, it confirms once again that local media is more interested in telling us what it thinks should happen, rather than what is happening. Secondly, it underestimates the danger posed by an alienated and committed group who believe that they have been robbed. Lastly, it is a cheap way of avoiding a debate about the issue that actually mattered until July 3: Whether an elected president should be removed via mass protests.
There is a visceral hatred of the Muslim Brotherhood and its Salafi associates amongst some Egyptians. This hatred spans all social classes and predates current events. It is born out of an arguably justified mistrust and fear of the group, which has lied, put its own interests first, excluded other groups, ram-rodded through an excuse for a constitution, attempted to give Morsi dictatorial powers, flirted with the military and dallied in sectarian politics in a frightening way. It failed to understand that it was running a country, and it missed the point that for public relations purposes, if you are an Arab president who desires to quash dissent through an organized group, you better make sure that that group is in uniform.
Perhaps most importantly, they were feeble as hell at governing Egypt at a time when amateurs really just would not do.
When Morsi supporters attempt to put their case forward, their arguments bounce back off a wall of hate, but — deep breath — in my opinion, these arguments were not without merit — up until June 30. Morsi’s intransigence and the behavior of his supporters after June 30 outweighs any legitimacy they once had. Mendacity, poor governance, self-interest and the sidelining of other political powers are pretty much the watchwords of all political groups and are not, in isolation, enough to justify a president’s removal by the military.
The November 22 Constitutional Declaration that granted the former president unprecedented powers was an outrage and perhaps a harbinger of sinister stuff to come, but Morsi rescinded it. He waded through blood after the events that constitutional declaration sparked at the Presidential Palace in December 2012 when the Muslim Brotherhood deployed their men against anti-Morsi protesters.
The MB’s sectarian language, the increase in sectarian incidents, the attack on the St. Mark’s Cathedral in April, Morsi’s failure to react to a sheikh who called Shias “filth,” and the entirely useless response to the Shia lynchings in June were all important indications of an unwillingness to rein-in fringe extremist elements on the Islamist scene. Most significantly, they showed that Morsi was never interested in representing all Egyptians. But again, Morsi inherited a tradition of state discrimination and sectarianism from his predecessor; he just cranked it up several thousand notches.
As for flirting with the military, it is in fashion right now.
So my position on events pre-June 30 has not been changed by events since: The Muslim Brotherhood should have been left to fail as they had not (yet) committed an act justifying Morsi’s removal by the military. The price Egypt has paid and will pay for the consequences of this decision are too high. It has created a generation of Islamists who genuinely believe that democracy does not include them. The post-June 30 fallout reaffirms this belief, especially with Islamist channels and newspapers closed down, as well as leaders detained and held incommunicado, apparently pursuant to an executive decision. For 30 years, Mubarak told them that due process is not for them, and a popular revolution is confirming that. It is Egyptian society that will pay the price of the grievances this causes, and the fact that, with a silenced media and no coverage from independent outlets, they have been left with virtually no channels to get their voice heard.
I will not weigh in on the coup/revolution debate other than to say millions of Egyptians were on the ground demanding Morsi’s removal while military jets drew hearts in the skies above them, and then Defense Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi announced that Morsi had (forcibly) buggered off. Nothing has changed. The real revolution will happen when army involvement in politics is a distant relic of history.
In any case, the debate is semantic and tedious, and the nomenclature will not be decided now. The only aspect of the wider argument that interests me is the notion that an elected president’s legitimacy dissolves when millions take to the streets. If this is a precedent, then it means shaky times ahead when the masses’ interests do not coincide with those of the army.
Politically, Egypt finds itself once again in an almighty mess. As the euphoria fades, the opposition remembers that if they were asked to debate how many legs a cow before them had, one faction would question whether the animal was actually a cow, another would say four, and yet another would include the tail as a limb. The fun times have just started with the Salafi Nour Party vetoing Mohamed ElBaradei’s nomination as prime minister on the grounds that he is divisive, while Tamarod (the grassroots petition campaign behind the June 30 protests that led to Morsi's downfall) declares it is him, or else.
If the army has any sense, it will see that the legitimacy of the June 30 regime (for want of a better term) need not be predicated on crushing Islamists, no matter what the public appetite is. They have to be included, because they are not going anywhere. The barely functioning political system born of January 25 has been replaced with something even more fragile: Fractious squabbling with no clear means of resolution, the military as arbiter and an incensed MB that feels it has been cheated. Fasten your seatbelts.
This article is published jointly with Jadaliyya.