Dispatch from Cairo

Between demonstrations and elections, Egypt finds itself on the cusp of necessary change, writes religion professor Ken Garden
voters in Cairo
Women and men form separate lines to vote in Cairo on Nov. 29. Photo: ALFRED/SIPA/AP
December 6, 2011

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There is an Egyptian joke that made the rounds for years. Driving Hosni Mubarak home from his inauguration, his chauffeur, who had also driven the new Egyptian president’s predecessors, came to an intersection. “This is where Nasser used to go left, and Sadat used to go right. Which way do you want to go?” the driver asked his new boss. Replied Mubarak, “Let’s just sit here.”

A year ago, while making plans to spend the fall 2011 semester in Egypt, my wife and I expected to encounter a country that had, in many ways, just been sitting there for three decades, under a leadership with no imagination for a better future but real ingenuity in stifling any competing vision, whether cultural, social, religious or political. My wife had not lived in Egypt for 10 years, and I hadn’t even visited in 15. Nonetheless, we didn’t expect to find the country fundamentally changed.

A few months later, we watched from Massachusetts as massive protests in Cairo’s Tahrir (Liberation) Square and throughout the country forced Mubarak to step down, handing power to a military council that was to rule until elections ushered in a fully civilian government. The 25th of January Revolution, as it is known here—or simply “the revolution”—was as unexpected and, in retrospect, as inevitable as the wave of revolutions that swept through Eastern Europe 20 years before. We were in for a very different experience in Cairo than we had anticipated.

Campaign posters for the parliamentary elections. Each candidate is represented by a symbol: here, a mango, an eye, an umbrella, and a ladder. Photo: Margaret LitvinWhat we found when we arrived in September was a country rediscovering itself. Now that the Mubarak regime is gone, what are the power centers of the country? Which religious or political tendencies—now no longer facing overt police harassment—hold the greatest allure for Egyptians? What solutions are on offer for the profound problems of this country, such as lack of opportunity and illiteracy? Who is offering them, and which do Egyptian voters find compelling as they go to the polls in the first free elections this country has experienced since 1923?

If there is a single word that could describe the situation in Egypt today, it would be “fluid,” as different groups emerge and compete for influence, and as today’s urgent crises, clamoring for solutions, become yesterday’s headlines. Some of the major players that have emerged are the Liberals, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafis, the Couch Party and the army.

The Liberals

Our contact with the Liberals in Egypt has been mainly through our attendance at the “Art of the Square” gatherings, held on the first Sunday night of every month in Abideen Square, in front of the old presidential palace in downtown Cairo. It is very much like a Somerville street fair, with artists doing portraits, vendors selling books and handicrafts, and others performing music or theater.

The Liberals have a new respect in the country, having catalyzed the demonstrations that brought down Mubarak. But their bohemian lifestyle puts them out of touch with an Egyptian society that has become increasingly pious in recent decades. Attendance at these events was thin and mostly limited to a hipster-ish crowd. The same could be said for many of the “million-man marches” the Liberals called for over the course of the fall. Having sparked the revolution, they have had little success in articulating—let alone winning—a following for their vision of a nonsectarian, civilian-ruled post-Mubarak Egypt.

The Muslim Brotherhood

Ken Garden talks with Muslim Brotherhood volunteers outside a polling station during the runoff election on Dec. 5. Photo: Margaret LitvinThough their membership is estimated at only half a million in a country of 80 million people, 30 years of playing a circumscribed role under the old regime has given the Muslim Brotherhood political savvy and an organization unmatched by any of their rivals.

Consider just one example. The standard poster for a political candidate here is a photo of the candidate’s face accompanied by the candidate’s name, party affiliation, a slogan that gives some sense of his political inclinations and a picture of his symbol (an apple, a radio, a motorcycle) for the 50 percent of Egyptians who are illiterate, and thus cannot read the ballot.

By contrast, the Brotherhood-affiliated party, the Freedom and Justice Party, is the only one I have seen that has put up posters actually addressing issues such as health, transportation and education, all sectors in dire need of improvement and very much on voters’ minds.

We have received three different campaign flyers from the Brotherhood, but just text messages from a couple of other candidates. The flyers were well produced and address issues such as worries by some that the Brotherhood is too radical. Above all, the Freedom and Justice Party promises competent governance, which many Egyptians want more than anything else in a post-revolutionary period that many describe as anarchy (fawda).

The Salafis

Salafism’s guiding principle is a return to what it presents as the uncorrupted practice of the Islam of the first three generations of Muslims, called the “Salaf” or “ancestors.” The full Salafi look—a long beard with a short mustache, a white skullcap, a shin-length white robe and a callus on the forehead from its fervent pressing on the ground in prostration during prayer for men, and a black robe and face-covering veil (niqab) for women—stands out even in conservative parts of the city, much as an Amish man or Hasidic Jew does in an American city.

But not all Salafis cultivate this look, and the post-revolutionary period has seen the emergence of hip Salafis. One group I have met here are the Costa Salafis, named after the English coffee chain whose franchises they often meet in—the Starbucks Salafis, we could say. They are young, professional and all have the beards, but sport none of the other accoutrements.

The aim of their group is not politics, which they say they hate, but building bridges with other groups in society, including Christians and Liberals. They want to focus, they say, on the 95 percent of issues that unite them, not the 5 percent that divide them. Theirs seems to be a minority outlook among Salafis, whose political parties have done surprisingly well in the ongoing elections and who seem poised to press for divisive cultural changes, such as requiring Muslim women to wear veils. (That said, wearing the hair-covering hijab has become so common that Muslim women who do not wear it are often taken for Christians.)

The Couch Party (hizb al-kanaba)

This is a derisive term I have heard used by the Liberals and the Costa Salafis for the silent majority of Egyptians, who they characterize as passive and politically inert. The army, in particular, claims their allegiance. During the revolution, the army insisted that even if there were a million people demonstrating in Tahrir Square, there were 80 million other Egyptians who supported the army.

My conversations with many Egyptians who are not overtly political suggest that the overriding desire among the majority is simply for stability in the face of what many perceive as chaos, and some semblance of prosperity in the face of the current economic free fall.

The Army

Or maybe we should call it The Army Inc. In addition to providing a national military, the army runs major fish-farming operations, olive groves, poultry farms, tourist resorts, ports and construction firms. In many cases, factories are built on state land and run by military conscripts. These operations are worth billions per year for the generals who profit from them.

Mubarak was a military man, and the interim government here, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, or SCAF, is fundamentally a continuation of the old regime, minus Mubarak. In the fall, Field Marshal Tantawi, head of SCAF and formerly Mubarak’s minister of defense, visited Tahrir Square in a civilian suit, evidently testing the waters to see whether Egyptians might be willing to have a military man in Egypt’s all-powerful presidency again. The negative public response seems to have led to these ambitions being set aside, but the army is not easily going to relinquish its economic empire and immunity from even minimal civilian oversight.

Politics as Usual

On Friday, Nov. 18, Islamist parties, Liberals, and activist groups called for a million-man march, urging the SCAF to promise a full transition to civilian rule by April 2012. The rally was a success, drawing participants from the Liberals, the Brotherhood and the Salafis. At the end of the night, everyone went home, except for a small group of those wounded in the January Revolution and the survivors of the martyrs killed there, most of whom are still awaiting promised compensation. They vowed to camp in the square until their demands were met.

The state security police cleared them out violently, leading to renewed protests and violent clashes the next day, which then blossomed into raging street battles that lasted more than a week. The Liberals participated, as did many Salafis, but the Brotherhood remained aloof, not wanting to jeopardize their expectations for a strong showing in the upcoming elections.

Campaign posters for the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party in the Shubra neigborhood of Cairo. Photo: Ken Garden As the week wore on, casualties mounted. In the end, more than 40 people were killed and more than 3,000 injured. The Couch Party began to sympathize with the demonstrators, and young members of the Brotherhood defied the organization’s leadership by going to Tahrir Square as individuals, a sign of a broader generational split in Egyptian society.

The mass protests and street violence were being called Revolution 2 by mid-week, and different parties called for a transitional “salvation government” to lead the country until presidential elections could be held in the spring.

Many denounced the pending six-week election process, slated to begin on Nov. 28 for the lower house of Parliament, as irrelevant under the circumstances. After stewing in military-grade tear gas and enduring heavy casualties for a week, the demonstrators in Tahrir felt that theirs was the only voice in the country with the moral authority to negotiate the country’s future. They were in no mood to compromise with SCAF.

Then, on Saturday, Nov. 26, the army erected a concrete barricade on Muhammad Mahmoud Street, where the worst of the fighting had happened, separating the demonstrators and State Security Forces. On Monday, the elections began, and the headlines in all the newspapers shifted from Tahrir Square to the long lines at polling stations. On Wednesday, results started being announced, revealing an even stronger showing by the Brotherhood and Salafi parties than had been expected.

By Friday, the crisis in the square had been all but forgotten. The national conversation seems to have shifted to speculating about the implications of the electoral results.

Will the Brotherhood focus on the existing economic crisis, or on social and cultural policies that many Islamists hold dear, but that induce panic in Liberals, Christians and the West? Or will it do both?

Will the Brotherhood govern in concert with the Salafis, or with the Liberals in hopes of calming domestic and foreign opponents? Will the Liberals look to the hated SCAF as a guarantor against total Islamist rule? How will the Couch Party, Liberals and Egyptian Christians react to an even more overt role for religion in Egyptian politics and culture?

We can only hope for the best for a country that desperately needs good governance.

Ken Garden, an assistant professor of religion in the School of Arts and Sciences, is on leave in Cairo this semester, where he is doing research on currents in contemporary Islam. He can be reached at ken.garden@tufts.edu.