Day Seven in Cairo: Politics and Culture

By Sarah Eltantawi

Politics and Culture

“Fascism,” “totalitarianism,” Germans saluting Hitler, and sudden, mass collective brainwashing have been some of the more colorful ways “anti-coup” analysts have attempted to come to grips with Egyptians’ support for Sisi.

Another favored term to describe the millions who took to the streets to oust Morsi — “pro-coup Egyptians” — signals a partisan rather than analytic grasp on what has occurred.  I am not partial to grand, sweeping slurs to describe millions of people — isn’t that a bit Nazi Germany for comfort? — however, if you insist, “anti-Muslim Brotherhood” is probably more accurate.  After all, this same population rose against the military regime a mere two years ago.

But today, some of the most hated arms of Egypt’s security apparatus have now been re-empowered, including several special police units that were notorious in the Mubarak-era for committing some of the worst human rights violations.  However, civil society groups in Egypt that monitor state security brutality claim that these units were never shut down — despite claims to the contrary by SCAF leadership in March 2011.  They also assert that these hated units of state security continued their brutality virtually untouched under  Morsi.

Heba Morayef, who directs the Egypt office of Human Rights Watch, told the Guardian regarding the reinstatement of special police units:  “Basically, nothing changed at state security [in 2011] except for the name…So what is significant is that [Ibrahim] could announce this publicly. That would have been unthinkable in 2011.”

If the January 25 revolution was largely about dismantling this security state (in addition to bread), then how do we explain today’s rehabilitation?

The re-embrace of this order can be understood along one of two lines.


  1. The Egyptian population was caught in a wave of euphoria and supported Sisi to oust the Muslim Brotherhood because they were brainwashed and did not understand the full implications of what they were doing in “bringing back the old order.”  In essence, the Muslim Brotherhood was bad– but these people were duped and will be sorry.


2.  The Egyptian population understands what it means to empower Sisi and thus the security state, are upset that the “deep state/old order” will take advantage (and will get more and more upset as time goes on and the euphoria wears off), but since Morsi did nothing to reform state security services anyway and rather embraced them, the price of re-empowering the military (symbolically — it was never disempowered) is worth it if it means getting rid of Morsi.

I am more convinced by option two.  The millions on the street were a genuine slice of Egypt, which means that the majority are some form of Muslim, most some form of practicing Muslim, and most some form of traditional and conservative in outlook.

It is important that it is *those* people who have a cultural and religious objection to the Muslim Brothehood’s use of Islam in politics.  It is an absurdity to describe those millions as “liberals.”  Frankly, Egypt doesn’t even have that many “liberals,” whatever is meant mean by the term.  I suspect it connotes speaking French while replacing the poodle’s pink bow with a blue one and being an atheist, in which case a good sized phone booth rather than Tahrir would be a more comfortable place to gather.

In other words, if meeting the goals of the revolution, including reforming the security state, remains elusive, then people are objecting not only because no reforms are happening, but for cultural reasons.

When analysts fail to ask regular Egyptian people what prompted them to support Sisi, they miss this very important factor.  I have repeatedly heard, “al-Ikhwaan b’taagiru f’il diin” (the Muslim Brotherhood traffics in religion) repeated with disgust and the utmost disapproval.  Many told me that the Muslim Brotherhood are good at charitable activities and should continue them, but that religion belongs in the mosque and should be kept out of politics.  It is not (just) liberals who make this claim — it is conservative, practicing Muslims in the millions.

There is no question about it — Islamism — by which I mean grounding political legitimacy in some form of (usually highly reductionist) conception of Islamic law and theology has been dealt a severe blow in Egypt.  And what happens in Egypt reverberates in the Arab world.

And while some claim that Al-Azhar has been “co-opted” by the military in support of “the coup,” the fact is that Al-Azhar has been hostile to the Muslim Brotherhood for generations.  This is in part because the Brotherhood’s populism has included, over their decades of preaching, a rejection of traditionalism — for example sidelining the different and often subtle and complex legal differences of the four sunni schools in favor of “one Islam.”  It is the Salafis that insist on the authoritative posture of the ahl al sunna w’al jama’aa — not the Muslim Brotherhood, who I suspect find that traditionalist anchoring stifling for their political ambitions. It is easy to see how in the eyes of Azhar traditionalists, the Brotherhood are nothing but a renegade political movement that abuse the Islamic tradition to fulfill their personal aims.  It is no wonder, then, that the Brotherhood were aching to install Yusef al-Qaradaawi as the Grand Shaykh.

There is also a rejection of what we might call “Islamist culture,” including a genuine suspicion of the Muslim Brotherhood’s hierarchical structure, which can create a sense of “being separate.”  From filling the Cairo stadium with only their supporters and addressing them as “my family and my tribe” to smaller scale instances of group snobbery — one man described to me going to a wedding of mostly Muslim Brotherhood supporters and being left by himself at a table with no one to talk to — a rather unusual state of affairs in Egypt — the Egyptians who protested the Brotherhood to a significant degree did not feel culturally comfortable with the group.

Though some might be tempted to dismiss these cultural fault-lines as frivolous, I side with Aristotle — pathos is at least as important as ethos and logos in the polis; and in a revolutionary context that calls for, at bottom, a change in culture — this is perhaps the most important factor to get right.

[If you’d like updates on these, follow me on Twitter at @SEltantawi]



doftande lukt som jasmin, liksom, så unik brudklänning, är det inte också gör du älskar och fascineras av det brudklänning ?




Day six in Cairo: Polarization and Revisionist History

By Sarah Eltantawi

Today interim President Mansour authorized Prime Minister El-Beblawi to grant the military the right to arrest civilians.  This signals an intention to go after jihaadis in Sinai and pro-Morsi protesters — perhaps through a large scale operation.

In addition to the clear dangers this presents for innocent Islamists and everyone else in Egypt once a new group is declared “the enemy,” its profound tactical stupidity is difficult to overstate.

Any fair observer can see that the Morsi camp has a genuine, logical, and morally sound case — their elected president has been deposed and a military-appointed civilian government has been appointed (with the support of a massive popular revolt.)  This is a strange and unprecedented turn of events in political history, and where you fall on its outcome depends on the relative weight one places on individual factors.   In a revolutionary context, I would assign popular sentiment the lion’s share of the determinative weight, but I can understand Morsi supporters feeling quite differently.

On the diplomatic side, the state of negotiations between the new government and the Morsi camp is unclear, but one suspects the army is not bending over backwards to enfranchise Islamists, as they must, and that the Morsi camp is asking for “too much” (they could have gotten much more had they held early elections when they had the chance.)

The government’s military strategy, as we have seen, has been, so far, criminal.  What astounds me even so, however, is that the current regime does not seem to have learned a very basic historical lesson:  the Muslim Brotherhood thrives when oppressed.

In addition to the humanitarian atrocities that have and will result from dispersing pro-Morsi supporters violently, how can the current government fail to understand that creating “martyrs” will only prolong this stalemate and thrust Egypt into chaos?  It is a profound level of hubris that assumes Islamists will be silenced through killing and oppression.

In this sorry context it is easy to argue that Egypt has been thrust into a counterrevolution and reverted to its “old ways,” and many pro-Morsi supporters have been loudly making this claim.  But it is disingenuous.  The truth is, since the January 25 revolution, nothing in the security services’ behavior has changed.

The activist group “No to Military Trials” reported just over a month ago here that Morsi’s claim that no civilians were tried by military courts was incorrect.

Campaign member and human rights lawyer Ragia Omran stated, “I reject Morsi’s statement that no civilians have received military trials during his first year in office. We are in contact with detainees’ relatives and there are civilian detainees who are still awaiting military trials.”

The group also denounced Morsi’s threat to use his position as army commander-in-chief to utilize military law to sue opposition media.  As Wael Ghonim said on Twitter, “Mubarak tried Muslim Brothers in military courts because civilian courts acquitted them. Today Morsi is threatening to use the same military courts against his opponents.”

It as as if some pro-Morsi supporters want to suggest that Egypt has been enjoying a magical year of democratic freedom that has been disrupted by a simple military coup.  The facts belie that version of reality, and the Egyptian people who took to the streets on June 30 certianly do not feel this way either.

Subjecting civilians to military trials does not portend a counter-revolution, it is rather a continuation of authoritarian practices that have been left untouched over the past two and a half years.

At the same time, present historical moments do not simply revert to older historical moments.  Things are not good in Egypt today, but they are not the same as the Mubarak era.  Egypt’s best chance now is to capitalize on the fact that, at the very least, consciousness has been raised to the point that regular citizens are empowered to demand better.  Over these past years of turmoil, they   have been given the opportunity to name and critique various manifestations of the authoritarian enemy.

In this sense, the revolution continues.  It must.


Dr. Ahmed Hamad

This is Dr. Ahmed Hamad, killed by the security services at one of the pro-Morsi sit-in’s two days ago.  Ali Tobah makes the following comment about him on Facebook:

“For the past couple of days I’ve seen posts about this man. He is apparently loved very much by quite a few people, and seems to have been a pivotal figure in relief work in several countries. This is the type of terrorist that El-Sisi has been authorized to kill. Not only sickening, but also a crime that we lose such a person who could have done so much good. Positively sickening.”

He is just one of many victims, but one of the few to be humanized.  May he rest in peace.  Allah yarhamu.

Day Five in Cairo: On the Massacre

By Sarah Eltantawi

The night before last, Egyptian security forces committed a massacre of pro-Morsi supporters on the 6 October Bridge and at Raba’ al-Adawiyya square.

Massacre feet

I believe at this point, having had enough opportunity to look at available evidence, that the police in concert with armed civilians fired upon pro-Morsi protesters who were blocking the 6 October bridge and at Rabaa al-‘Adawiyya square.  I think those they fired upon were unarmed, or if they were armed, it was with very light if not negligible weaponry.  Having said that, I think the MB has a sizable arsenal, including weapons imported from abroad — ones that were not used in the context of this massacre.

I think this having read media reports and human rights reports, and for the simple reason that now that the bodies have been counted, it is clear that the vast majority of casualties and all of the deaths (as far as I know) are on the pro-Morsi side.

This was a criminal massacre by state security services that have a long track record of acting with criminal disregard for civilian life.  I think the struggle against Egyptians’ notoriously brutal security services is one of the main ongoing struggles of the revolution and one of the main impetus’s for the Jan 25 revolution.

The Muslim Brotherhood, while in power, despite being ruthlessly targeted by said security services over sixty years, did absolutely nothing to reform it during their rule, and in fact embraced it.  This is more evidence that rule for the sake of rule was the name of the game.

The 6 October bridge is some distance from Rabaa al-‘Adawiyya, suggesting that the protests are expanding to other parts of the city.  They are also near Cairo University and I heard reports of a sit in near Batal Abdel-‘Aziz street in Mohandaseen last night.

Pro-Morsi supporters have a right to peaceful protest in non-military areas, in keeping with international human rights and diplomatic norms.  That is a fact and I am stating it clearly.

However, I do not support continued sit-ins for the following reasons:

Practically speaking, on the best of days in revolutionary Egypt, we are a long way away from having the power to temper the murderous impulses of the security services.  These days, there is a pro-military mood in the country that virtually guarantees that the security services can act with a freely murderous hand with very little push back from the public, the vast majority of whom support the police and the army against the Muslim Brotherhood and their supporters.

Therefore, if they remain in squares throughout the country, and especially if they choke major highways, there is a virtual guarantee that there will be more bloodshed.  Furthermore, the longer they stay outside, the worse their fortunes will be when they finally (and inevitably, one way or another), leave.

Why is it inevitable that they leave?  Because their public support in Egypt is very small in real numbers and as a proportion of the population.  That number will continue to decline as Egyptians tire more and more of the protests.

I think the Muslim Brotherhood leadership understand this, but makes the following calculation:

They refuse to back down, because they feel this is their one chance at power, and they fear going home to face a possible round up by security services.

They traffic in martyrdom politics and its logic, which says that their best chance is to continue these struggles and sacrifice some people for the “jihad” (these people will all be inevitably poor).  While I do not think this strategy will win them much if any local sympathy (and will probably backfire), it may well win international sympathy.  But not enough, in my opinion, to reinstate Morsi.  That ship has sailed.

On social media, I have seen pro-Morsi supporters and those outraged by the massacre compare the pro-Morsi cause to the American civil rights movement and the Palestinian struggle, among other historical analogies.  I do not think this issue bears much resemblance at all to those movements.

This is how I read it:

There was a popular revolution on June 30 to remove President Morsi, which included large swaths of the population calling for the army to come back and take power.  The army did that, with a popular mandate.  There is no doubt that there was sabotage both by the army and the deep state along the way, but the Muslim Brotherhood squandered their opportunity in several fatal ways — politically, culturally, and technocratically.

I have never doubted that there was a popular revolution on June 30.  But now that I am in Egypt, I consider those who argue their wasn’t about as conspiratorial as those who claim man did not walk on the moon.  There is no question about this.  The Muslim Brotherhood is deeply unpopular here, and Egyptians do not want to be ruled by them.  I have written about this elsewhere and will not rehearse the reasons again here.

Governments need a mandate to govern.  Pro-Morsi supporters believe the elections Morsi won a year ago with 1.3% of the vote against the old, just deposed regime gives them that mandate until the next elections.  I disagree.  This is a revolutionary context.  This is not a society that has been conducting elections for generations.  The weight assigned to the revolution in this society is far greater than the weight assigned to this instantiation of the ballot box.  For several reasons, the Muslim Brotherhood lost their legitimacy.  The Egyptian people do not want them to rule.

Therefore, their sit-ins are not going to result in tangible gains for them, and will lead to more bloodshed.  The security services are criminally negligible and have demonstrated their brutality time and again.  For complex reasons that I have tried to explain elsewhere, the Egyptian people stand with the security services at this time.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s supporters should go home, accept that they have lost this battle, and refrain from any guerilla attacks of any kind. They should regroup, and learn how to work with other groups in Egypt to increase good will toward their organization.

If more of Egypt starts to look like this, the site of Sadat’s assassination (by Islamic militants) yesterday, which now resembles a war zone in Syria:


it would be justifiable, I’m afraid, to hold Morsi supporters as culpable for the destruction of Egypt as the murderous security forces.

Day four in Cairo: “We Egyptians Authorize our Army to Deal with MB’s”




This was originally published on Tahrir Squared


I am Egyptian citizen...


This pretty much sums it all up.  And these people are wide-eyed, not stupid at all, and dead serious (when not dancing, making jokes, lighting fireworks, and sharing food.)

I have spent the day observing and photographing pro-Sisi protests, doing media, and now I have taken respite in a quieter part of town at my aunt and uncle’s house, where I have just eaten my body weight in fish.  Must write before collapsing.

Let me say at the outset that I didn’t go to Rabaa or any pro-Morsi protests, for the simple reason that I had several appointments in the Tahrir area and it wasn’t going to happen.

The pro-Sisi protests, and what I glean as next steps for Egypt, are more complex than meets the eye.  I can’t claim to have it all figured out, put in a box and tied with a bow (unlike those who scream “textbook coup!” — often from afar), but I can share some thoughts that have been brewing.

The pro-Sisi protesters were out today in enormous numbers (it looks to me that pro-Sisi numbers dwarfed pro-Morsi’s, but I can not say that with absolute certainty.)  I saw a great, wide variety of people today, from the very poor to the very rich, Muslims of all stripes including several niqaabis, Christians (I assume) — really just everyone — a genuine slice of the country.

Here are some major themes that I heard repeatedly when talking to people:

1.  I heard a version of this about 1000 times:  “Look around you.  Does this look like a coup?  Do you see these crowds?  We authorize General Sisi to protect us from terrorism and secure Egypt’s borders.”  My sense is that when people say “terrorism”, they certainly mean jihaadis, some mean the Muslim Brotherhood en mass, but my reading is that “terrorism” here means the direction the MB seemed to be going in, including letting convicted criminals out of jail, and the persistent rumor that the Brotherhood was going to give parts of Sinai to militants from Hamas.  People are convinced that these groups are not only allied (that is an actual fact), but that the Brotherhood has a different vision for Egypt altogether, including what to do with its land, who its allies should be and not be, and what the Egyptian subject/citizen should act like, look like, and expect from government.  Most disastrously, according to this narrative, this vision has been pre-decided with Muslim Brotherhood murshids — they are not interested in the Egyptian people’s opinions on any of these matters.

The anti-Obama sentiment was extremely intense.  I actually found this one of the more confusing sentiments, considering that the U.S. announced today that they were not legally obligated to take a position on whether this was a revolution or a coup, and thus wouldn’t, and ergo military aid to Egypt would continue and no more would be said about this.  After a while though, I think I figured it out:  people are actually *insulted* that the international community does not understand this was a popular revolution and what the Egyptian people want, and they want this cleared up in no uncertain terms.

2.  The people at the pro-Sisi rallies truly believe Egypt has been rescued from the brink of disaster.  I detected palpable relief, as if people were exhaling at long last.  “We stayed quiet!”, they said, “until we could not take it anymore and were going to explode!  We love our country!”  As someone put it to me:  imagine if you came to rule Egypt, but you only spoke English, and only spoke to your American friends.  That is what Morsi did to Egyptians — he didn’t talk to us!  He ignored us and talked only to his group.  They would cringe, they told me, when Morsi would address (his) audiences as, “Ahli wa Ashiiraati” (my family and my ‘tribe’.  This is an ancient word for tribe — the classical Arabic use is often in connection with Arabian tribes of the pre-Islamic/early Islamic period) when addressing people as opposed, to say Gamal Abdul Nasser, who would say, “Aayuha al-ikhwaa il-muwaatinuun!!, (oh my brothers and fellow citizens!!), or Sadat, who modified it to say, “Aayuha al-ikhwaa w’al ikhawaat!”  (oh my brothers and sisters!)

3.  People are really and truly insulted that their religiosity and Islamic theology and practice has been questioned by people who seem to think they are better Muslims and thus better people than them.  This is hardly a way to win people over.  I was on the Qasr al-‘Ayni bridge when fitar time came; it was eerily silent with people breaking their fast despite the fact that thousands of people were there.  Church bells rang at the same time as the ithaan.

4.  The Muslim Brotherhood disrupted and disturbed what many people called “the Egyptian identity”.  “Our heritage, our gentleness, our openness, our tolerance,” people told me, “it’s like they do not like the Egyptian nature!”  In a context where people are suffering economically, this is the one thing you can not touch.  One person said to me, “it’s all we have.”

I am not in a mood to condemn these people for their feelings, which strike me as valid.  The embodiment of all of these desires in the person of Sisi is rather more problematic.  Again, I see the point — they feel rescued.  My discomfort — which is there, especially when seeing things like this:

Delegate our army

Is tempered by my attempts to soothe myself with the reminder that this is 1) a country with large swaths of the population in a moment of jubulation and relief, that this will pass, and that there is a number of things MB supporters can do to improve their image and fortunes, and 2) this is a population that two years ago rose up in a revolution against military rule, suggesting — optimistically, I admit — that if there is true over reach, there will be a reaction against that.

For what it’s worth, I did ask many people to elaborate on what they meant in carrying such signs — I said to several people, “aren’t the MB human beings too?”  The vast majority said, “of course, what we mean is that those who commit violence have to be arrested.  If you commit terrorism, you must be stopped.  Anyone who is peaceful is peaceful and should be left alone.”

Here are a few of my thought/predictions at this point:

1.  Sisi called for this carnival first and foremost for international consumption, particularly American.  A great many of the signs sent the message, “we the people want this, this is a popular revolution not a coup.”  The signs of Putin’s face that cropped up occasionally (particularly in Alexandria, it seems?) was to send the message:  we will break out of this current geo-political order and are more than happy to seek other patrons for our army.  We’re serious about this, America, stop insulting us by calling this a coup,  you don’t understand the Muslim Brotherhood, and, finally, butt out.

2.  I say this with the requisite tentativeness, of course, but I do not believe there will be massive bloodshed against pro-Morsi supporters.  However it is now the middle of the night in Cairo and there are reports of distributing the protests using tear gas.  I’m following this now.

3.  The Muslim Brotherhood do not share the same conception of Egyptian or nationalist identity as many if not most other Egyptians, and this is an identity people hold very dear.  I think this wave can be read as a return to some conception of Egyptianness first, and in fact in some cases a return to Arabism over a pan-Islamic identity.  I had a couple of very interesting discussions along the lines of, “I am an Egyptian, and an ARAB.”  Note in the above sign, the use of the phrase “Arab Republic of Egypt.”

I also question whether the Muslim Brotherhood respect Egypt’s borders in ways that reflect the thinking of most Egyptians.  All one has to do is actually read the literature to know that they do not respect borders, and call for a pan-Islamic region.  I have of course read their literature in the past and understood that this was their philosophy, and basically ignored it, thinking it lofty ideology that would be tempered by the realities of ruling.  Perhaps it was wrong to ignore this, in view of the fact that over the past year, we saw that the group handled many of the challenges of state power by turning inward.

4.  Here is how most people understand the legitimacy question, explained thusly by an intellectual and professional I know:

“Have you ever bought a can of corned beef that says it will expire in four years?  You buy it and put it on the shelf, and open it after a year, and see that it’s gone bad.  Do you eat it or throw it away?  You throw it away.  Bas.  You’ve now understood.”


Initial Sights and Sounds from Pro-Military Rallies in Tahrir, Cairo

Ventured outside around 1:30PM to buy batteries and found this steps from my door:



Here is a video from outside Tahrir – I didn’t have time to go into Tahrir, as that would involve being frisked multiple times


These are everywhere


Most stores are shut, but there is no problem finding fireworks


The all-important view from the local Shabraawi’s — where a man called Adel said to me:  “The Americans call this a military coup?  TELL THEM WHAT THEY DID IN IRAQ IS CALLED A MILITARY COUP AND TO SHUT UP AND LEAVE US ALONE.”

(He was literally yelling.  He may have spittled a bit of egg on me.  All in a day’s work.)


Sang staplade lager av tyllkjol staplade i ett torn, eller heap moln crepe, råsilke , silke bildas slumpmässigt snö liknande ljus och vacker, klänning tyg konsistens staplade elegant siluett av en brud att väva en vacker dröm

Sang staplade lager av tyllkjol staplade i ett torn, eller heap moln crepe, råsilke , silke bildas slumpmässigt snö liknande ljus och vacker, klänning tyg konsistens staplade elegant siluett av en brud att väva en vacker dröm Bröllopsklänningar

Day three in Cairo: “Sisi, go to the Square and Teach the Brotherhood a Lesson”

By Sarah Eltantawi

I’m beset now by a growing exhaustion.  The proximate cause is having forced myself to wake up in the morning hours, followed by long stretches of walking in the summer heat, but there is also a creeping emotional exhaustion.  This gem I picked up in Tahrir today has a lot to do with it, I think:


“Federation of Terrorism”

And this:

I love my country

“Egypt is dear to us.  I love you, my country”  — With Sis’s picture encapsulating these sentiments.

And this:

anzil ya sisi

“Go down (to Tahrir, or to the pro-Morsi sit-ins, more chillingly) Sisi, teach the Brotherhood a lesson”  (There are spelling mistakes on most of these posters, suggesting hasty production.)

And finally this:


“From 25 November to 33 (?) July”.  Gamal Abdel Naser in the center, surrounded by Jan 25 martyrs.

Tomorrow is the big day, the day the head of the Egyptian army asked Egyptians to go out in the streets to support the fight against “terrorism.”  This terminology is very ill-advised and disturbing in any case, but I see a disturbing interpretation and an ultra-disturbing interpretation.

The disturbing interpretation is that Sisi is trying to show the Muslim Brotherhood who is boss and who the people actually stand behind to get them to stand down and back off peacefully once and for all.  The reason this is disturbing, even thought it’s the least worst possibility, is that calling people a bunch of terrorists does not suggest a willingness to bend over backwards to enfranchise them politically.  Even though I am yet to find a single person “on the street”, as it were, who supports the Muslim Brotherhood (this really is astounding me), Islamists certainly do exist in this country, they are very organized politically, and they have every right to participate politically, should do so, and must do so.

But the caveat is this: there is simply no question at this point that Egyptians do not want to be ruled by Islamists or their vision. They are not interested, they’ve rejected the ideology, and they want absolutely no part of it.  No evidence at all that the Islamists have come close to internalizing this very clear fact; on the contrary, they are currently lobbying world powers to reinstate them “on principle.”  Unfortunately for them, principle is very much not a concept associated with their rule here in Egypt.  When you want to forcibly rule people who don’t want anything to do with you, you’re sending a message that all you want is to rule for the sake of ruling.  This is plainly true of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The ultra disturbing interpretation is that Sisi has called for this bizarre carnival of public support to justify to an international audience massive bloodshed as they begin to forcibly break up pro-Morsi sit-ins.  What we don’t know is what has been going on behind the scenes.  I am sure there have been negotiations.  But the fact that Sisi issued this call very likely means that those talks have gone nowhere.  Why?  We don’t know.  Was the military ever serious about giving the Muslim Brotherhood real incentives to stand down and tell their supporters to go home?  Was the Muslim Brotherhood completely obstinate?  We just do not know.  But unfortunately, I suspect the army did not give them a big enough carrot.  Why would they?  They are in a hugely more powerful position, have been nursing a tremendous grudge against the Brotherhood since last summer when Egyptian soldiers were killed in Sinai during Ramadan, and probably think they belong behind bars anyway.  I do hope I am wrong.

In any case, this is bad.

But there is something else that is bothering me.  If you talk to, let’s call them, regular Egyptians across class, so far as I can tell, I believe it is indisputable, as I’ve already said, that they are just finished with the Muslim Brotherhood.  Many people argue that Egyptians should have been more patient and waited for elections, but they miss an important point:  I think Egyptians would have been patient had they felt their government was leading them in a direction they wanted to go.  They didn’t feel that way.  They felt the Brotherhood had a different, shadowy agenda altogether, and that their first, second, and third priority was themselves and entrenching their own rule.  And frankly there is a mountain of evidence to support that claim.  To state this through an example — you can not blame the Muslim Brotherhood for failing to turn around Egypt’s disastrous economy in one year, but you can blame them for failing to consult with and empower Egyptians who actually understand the economy, opting instead to stack institutions with the unqualified party faithful.  Therefore, I do not blame Egyptians at all for being fed up, think they had every right to oust this government, and think that June 30 was a popular revolution.

So what we are left with is a population that is against the Muslim Brotherhood, Islamists who are outraged by what they call a simple coup, and a small liberal elite that is currently very angry at the army.  And though I find the above posters and the climate they engender and characterize to be truly noxious, there are several things that bother me about this liberal discourse.

Some of these liberals, many of whom are an English speaking elite, have struck the following pose:  we never liked the Muslim Brotherhood, but we don’t like the army either, and so we wish that Morsi had been allowed to serve out his term or we wish that Morsi had called early elections.  Two problems here:  first, the Egyptian masses made it perfectly clear that they had had enough and that they felt the country could not survive Morsi serving out his term.  Though the military establishment is cynical and self serving, I think they also had very genuine concerns about the state of the country generally, and about terrorism, especially in Sinai, in particular.

As for early elections:  Morsi was never going to agree to that.  So what we are left with is a purgatorial discourse that is actually practically meaningless, and ends up sounding like lecturing the Egyptian masses from on high about what they should have done if they were as clear thinking as these analysts.  But when you break it down, they really aren’t advocating for anything solid in particular, but striking a medial position that is discursive rather than real.  This strikes me as a different kind of elite discourse — the practically impossible but rhetorically “principled” one, and the tone of lecturing Egyptians leaves me a bit cold.  I can respect Morsi’s supporters clear denunciations of “the coup” more.  Ultimately, I fall on the side of majority of the population, who I think know what they do not want more than what they do want.

Moreover, it’s  easy to endlessly slag the Egyptian army on social media.  Plese don’t get me wrong — critiques of the army are more than justified — see: Maspero, virginity tests, and military trials of civilians.  On the other hand, zoom the lens out and look at the Arab world.  The Iraqi army was destroyed by the American invasion.  The Syrian army has been transformed into a genocidal militia.  The Gulf can not defend itself.  Lebanon can not defend itself without a shi’i militia that has disastrously cast its fortunes with Bashar al-Asad.  Tunisia and Libya are in post-revolutionary turmoil (Tunisian opposition leader Mohammed Brahimi was assassinated today – Islamists have been blamed.)  Let us not begin to speak of Palestine, the ongoing open wound.  What does this tell us?  The Egyptian army is the only standing army in the Arab world left.  It is also an army that is currently enjoying massive public support.  Unsavory as it may be, these are facts to be dealt with.

This later point is, of course, immaterial to the spectacle currently on display domestically in Egypt.  Despite the pro-army hysteria currently gripping the nation, I still think that if Sisi overplays his hand by confronting the Brotherhood violently without giving them a diplomatic way out, they will pay a big price in the long run.  The human rights establishment domestically and internationally will turn against them, Islamists region wide will obviously turn against them, and Islamists in Egypt will form violent militias bent on revenge.  The country will be thrust into chaos.  I’ve long held that the Egyptian army is an intelligent actor. If they fall into this above trap, then I will change my mind.

I do not want to begrudge Egyptians the right to be happy that a government they hated is gone, and if they want to go to the square, they should go to the square.  I also think it should be of interest to scholars and analysts that a population that launched a revolution against military rule a mere two years ago was so despairing of Islamist rule that they called the army right back.  The lesson here is one about the failure of Islamism, not the triumph of totalitarianism, fascism, or stupidity, as many strangely allege.  But if the army rides this wave of hubris too far, I might have to agree with a friend who said today that we are being “taken for a ride” by the army; but that would be a ride I think recent history suggests Egyptians won’t stay on indefinitely.

Day Two in Cairo: “First they Start Softly”


sudanese refugees

By Sarah Eltantawi

Last night as I walked down the street in search of a taxi I heard, “Sara!”  It was Ahmed again from the perfume shop, with a wide smile.  He asked me if I found my phone after all, and I assured him that I did.  He then flagged down a taxi and sent me on my way.

For about fifteen years now, I’ve been coming to Egypt whenever I can.  The more posh of my friends tend to gasp at my preference to live in neighborhoods like Sayyeda Zaineb; and a few refused to visit the time I lived directly in front of a spare butcher shop, where one could hear the loud sounds of dying animals mixing with dozens of ithaan for a good amount of any day.  But I lived there because it was interesting, central, and, safe.  I was often moved by people’s kindness.  One day my car broke down and the neighborhood men fixed and oiled it free of charge.  I got to know the bawaab who would lay newspaper in front of the door and eat simple meals of foul and salad with his family, often offering me some.  I suppose these people would be called poor, but they seemed like they had a lot to give.

I left Egypt last in the middle of November of last year, but have been hearing since that the security situation has really plummeted.  I am happy so far that I haven’t seen or felt much evidence of that, and so continue to walk around pretty much as I please.  In fact, I can’t prove it, but, I feel that tolerance for an unveiled western-dressing woman is a bit higher than I remember, almost as if people are glad to see such types of people reassert themselves in public space after Morsi’s ouster.

Unfortunately my mission to find a pro-Morsi supporter among random people in Cairo remains unsuccessful.  Once in the cab yesterday I fixated on the driver — blackened teeth, thin, tanned and lined face.  He was listening to Qur’an and seemed a quieter sort, so I just sat back and looked out the window.  But it wasn’t long before I caught him looking in the rearview mirror:


“No.  Egyptian.”



“Do you like Egypt?”

“I love Egypt….do you?”

“No.  Not these days.  There’s too much laghbatta (chaos)


At this point, I’m slightly ashamed to say, I felt a bit excited — a dissenter at last!


“So you’re not happy about what happened on June 30?”

“Oh, no.  I am very happy about that.  I supported Morsi!  I stood behind him!”

“But now you’ve abandoned him?”

“No.  He abandoned me.”


Let me safely say at this point that this sentiment is widespread.  This does not bode well for pro-Morsi supporters, who have now been ordered to clear Rabaa al-Adawiyya square by General Abdel-Fatah al-Sisi, who gave a chilling speech today urging Egyptians to go out into Tahrir to give him a mandate to “fight terrorism,” within 48 hours.  My sense is that that rally in Tahrir will be absolutely huge.

I am not pleased that Sisi used the term “terrorism,” which I think he did in a strategically ambiguous way.  What is occurring in Sinai is indeed terrorism, while peaceful protesters are not terrorists.  At the same time, these protesters have weapons, which were used last night, for example, in Mansoura.  But Sisi deliberately conflated jihadis with pro-Morsi protesters, and the problem is, he did so because a growing number of Egyptians are doing the same thing.  I am struggling, but not coming up with ways this can end well, unless there is a sudden deal between the Brotherhood top brass and the army.  But I’m afraid the army’s blood lust may be too large for that now, and in any case, the Brotherhood do not seem keen on negotiating.  This weekend will be tense at best.

I am honestly taken aback by the level of hatred of the Muslim Brotherhood.  But I can not go along with the theory that this hatred is the result of an abstract “haalat ikhwaaniphobia” as al-Jazeera Arabic’s analysts keep suggesting, or that this hatred is the result of coordinated brainwashing from fellol, liberals, and shady foreign powers.  I’m afraid the distaste has been well earned by the Muslim Brotherhood, and has been building steadily for a year.  I am getting the sense that the more you know the Islamists in power, the less of a fan you are.

Take the example of an extremely interesting person I met today, Bashir Sulaiman, a Sudanese activist from Darfur who goes by the name “Matar”, or rain.  This morning — well, afternoon, I am jetlagged — I walked bleary eyed out of my room holding my toothbrush and towel when I was greeted by Matar and my hosts.  I stood there listening to their conversation and decided to interview him.  He works for two organizations, the SCC, Sudan Contemporary Center for Study and Development, and COFS, the Coalition for Organ Trafficking Solutions (  It turns out that there is a terrible problem with organ trafficking here, where foreign workers mostly from Ethiopia, Eritrea and the Philippines are drugged and have their organs removed and sold, which are often to clients from the Gulf.  There is also a major problem with organ trafficking among certain Bedouin gangs in Sinai.  Just over a month ago Matar’s apartment was raided by Egyptian security services in coordination with Bashir’s government in Sudan — they confiscated three computers, USB drives, and reams of evidence of these crimes.   He was also part of the sit-in of African refugees in Mustafa Mahmoud square from September – December of 2005, which was finally eradicated by the security services, killing, according to Matar’s estimates, 180 people, including 35 children and 2 women.

Matar is an impressive person.  He told me stories of his life in Darfur, the death of his mother as a young child, followed by the murder of his father.  Given his history in Sudan, his track record of activism, and his many harrowing stories of torture both in Sudan and Egypt, and the fact that when nationalism in Egypt goes up, the fortune of refugees goes down, I would have thought that at last I had found a gentleman who was against “the coup.”

Not Matar — who was fasting.  He is far too familiar with the Islamists and their ways, he tells me.

He is happy on a political level about the splitting of South Sudan, but remarked that, “If it turns Islamist this will be the worst thing.  These people focus on the wrong issues.”  He said the Egyptian army was, “clever,” and this was, “absolutely a revolution.”

“We know that there is a coup under the table,” he added, “but even the coup is outside the army.  This is resistance.  I was there.”

I brought up the legitimacy argument.  He said, “This talk of legitimacy is not reality.  If you are elected, you have to be careful — you are being elected to improve life.  Democracy is not in the ballot box.  Morsi only brought his sectarian group — in this country you have Copts, Jews, and liberal Muslims.”

He added: “The reason you have countless Sudanese refugees in Egypt is because of the Islamists.  I know these people.  Hassan al-Turabi took his orders from Hassan al-Banna.  In the beginning, the Islamists are soft.  Then they entrench themselves.  Once they are in power, the first thing they do is attack Muslims who are not part of their group.  Then they try to co-opt some Christians.”

In sum, we have a man who has been repeatedly tortured by Mubarak’s security services who is dead set against the Islamists and celebrating the second phase of the revolution.


Later in the day I went to the Al-Jazeera English studios near Tahrir to comment on Sisi’s speech.  Media appearances are a kind of special thing, it’s not every day, after all, that someone picks you up in a limo and gives you mints and little bottles of water to hear your thoughts on something.  I must say, though, today is the first day I was told to wait by a ta3miyya stand near a big pink building across from the black fence to be picked up.

I remember something a Moroccan friend said to me as we were lounging on an idyllic leafy hill on the Middlebury College campus about five years ago.  Watching a stream glide by, he said, “You know, ten American days equals one Moroccan day.  The human being in Morocco is used up in fifty years.”

I see what he means, though Egypt must be even more intense.  Life is lived densely here.