This was originally published on Tahrir Squared
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:
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.”