The Great Divide
Recent events in Egypt have led to deep intellectual and moral fractures; Egyptians are both shocked and offended at the way the media is handling things, and the media is shocked, and by turns disgusted and dumbfounded by how Egyptians see things.
The divides have been brutal, creating what appears to be vast moral and intellectual divides between people who, just two weeks ago, had considered themselves aligned.
There are several things to consider, so I will try to proceed in some rational order.
The Democratic Coup Paradox or Ceci N’est Pas Un Coup
This issue has received the greatest deal of attention both locally and internationally. There are some facts; Mohamed Morsi got 5.7 million votes in the first round of elections in 2012, a number far outsized by those who protested to remove him on the 30th of June, 2013 – and in the days leading up to it.
The actual removal of Morsi was performed by the military after a vast national petition campaign called Tamarod had given him almost two months to react. In fact, Morsi had been given deadlines both by Tamarod initially and then by the military as the 30th drew closer. In his last, desperate, angry, and very poorly delivered speech, the word he yelled, furiously and repeatedly, was ‘legitimacy.’ When the military spoke, the words it used most often were ‘the people”.
The vast majority of Egyptians both demanded and supported his removal by the military when they took to the streets despite their reservations about the military after a year under the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. It is a fact that this is not the best way to remove a president. However, it is also true that Morsi had effectively blocked all other ways. In short, it was – and this formulation will not please anybody, because otherwise, there’d be no issue; a military coup backed by vast popular demand. Whether that makes it a ‘coup,’ a ‘democratic coup,’ or a revolution is a semantic problem that the vast majority of Egyptians would not have cared to discuss had others not fixated on the ‘legitimacy’ of Morsi as an elected president.
But they did, to surprising fanfare…
Frozen in Mind; The Muslim Brotherhood & International Media & The Xenophobic Result
Many Egyptians have been aghast at what they perceive as the insulting one-sidedness of much of the foreign press. To all those who protested on the 30th of June, it seems as though the foreign press has taken the side of the Muslim Brotherhood simply by using the ‘c’ word, and this has predictably contributed to a growing xenophobia.
The strange thing here is that none of this makes any sense. The xenophobia is not coming from the Islamists, who are, by far, the ones you would expect to be excessively xenophobic, but from the opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood, who some like to label as secular when any Egyptian who was in the streets on the 30th knows damn well it was just regular Egyptians, all kinds of them.
So what’s going on here?
Lapses in Time
Examine this excerpt from an article on the TIME site –
“Until Wednesday afternoon, they held the presidency, the cabinet, the upper house of parliament, and the prospect of months before being called to account by voters in the next election. Then-President Mohamed Morsi was taken into custody by the army, arrest warrants were issued for 300 others, and the armored personnel carriers moved into place.”
The reason this article is so offensive to any Egyptian reader is that it, quite literally, leaps. It performs a huge, almost miraculous leap, between Morsi being in power and having all the keys to the kingdom, to (in one sudden and abrupt moment) his removal at (assumed gunpoint) by the military. There isn’t a single sentence in between those two conditions in that article. The deposition is dramatic and is taken in the space it takes you to go from there to here.
Revolutionary Time is Dilated
But it didn’t take the one second it took for your eyes to go from ‘there’ to ‘here’ to remove Morsi. It took a year. It took a long, grueling, painful, disappointing, depressing, quarrelsome, horrifying year, filled with countless days of blood, and horror, and martyrdom, and a mass of injustices that piled on so broadly and to such a great height that over 22 million people signed a petition demanding, at the very least, what the whole world seems to understand as democracy; elections.
They didn’t get it.
Morsi gave nothing, and as he had done when faced with every previous plea by a nation falling to ruin for the last year, Morsi, once again, just dug in.
There would be no early elections. There would be no concessions. He was like a wife-beater who relied on the same defense all the time, but..you…married me. I have a contract. I can beat you up for another three years because that’s when our contract runs out, and not one day before. In doing so, he was completely blind to the fact that he had, himself, annulled the contract several times over.
Now the vast majority of Anti-Mubarak (in 2011) and Anti-Military Rule (2012) protesters had not been heavily armed. They had, usually, rocks and Molotov cocktails, and sometimes fashioned quick inventions (like flaming tennis balls filled with just enough petrol to bounce erratically towards confused and concerned Central Security Forces) – but apart from some exceptions here and there, they were not really what anybody could really call armed.
Morsi was either going to be taken down by the army, or he was going to destroy the people. That is the simple choice that Egyptians were left with, and so, they decided once again to roll the military dice.
So why doesn’t such an article in TIME mention all of this? How dare it leap from “Morsi in Power” to “Morsi Removed by Generals” without explaining what happened between those two events?
It would be easy, and almost inevitable that Egyptians, for whom every day of that last year felt like it took a week, who have not slept properly in a year under Morsi, and whose very lives were under physical as well as economic threat by Morsi’s polices – to feel betrayed. The international media that referred to their first throes of revolution as a revolution, that had described the people as noble heroes who had fought oppression, were now portraying those same people either as closet Nazi’s who supported a return to a military regime, or idiots, who did not understand the tragedy of what they were doing, lemmings, that as one journalist wrote “were jumping off a cliff,” another journalist took it upon himself to explain to Egyptians, at length, how they were ‘betraying’ their own martyrs. The gall. Histrionically, he called it ‘The Day the Revolution Died’ – as though anybody, anybody at all – can guess when or how whatever started on January 25th, 2011 would end.
I do not doubt that perhaps some journalists were, in fact, driven by an agenda; anybody who believes there are no conspiracies in this world is simply ignoring the historical record. However, it is also insane to think that everybody out there is in on it.
But this skewed perspective of things is shared by the Muslim Brotherhood, who still believe, that the majority of Egyptians support them, that only infidels and homosexuals and Coptic Egyptians oppose them, that Morsi is still the legitimate president of Egypt, and that what happened was just as the international press described with such unusual veracity – that their hero, the Democratic Muslim Morsi had been deposed by a military that was backed by, at best, an unappreciative or impatient people, or, at worst, the Mubarak Nazis.
Holiday Snapshots & The Tahrir Chest Spread
Egypt doesn’t show up on the news all that often, at least not until the crap hits the proverbial fan. How often does the average person outside of the Middle East read about Egypt or see any news about it? Don’t reflect on the last week; reflect on the last two and a half years. Not so much. That’s not a hypothesis; that’s a fact. The media tend to pay attention to other countries when a story has already gained momentum. How many of them, for example, had any news stories whatsoever about a threat to Mubarak’s leadership before Jan 25th? How many of them covered in any detail or nuance the long two and a half years since Mubarak was removed? How many of them know the sheer amount of news that it would take several volumes to even scratch the surface of, but which was experienced in slow, agonizing succession by every man, woman, and child living in Egypt?
Very, very, very few.
The result is that the Morsi that the international media remembered best was the Morsi that they last remember seeing, the Morsi that won against Ahmed Shafiq, and went to Tahrir to thunderous applause, and pulled his jacket open wide, claiming to wear no bullet-proof vest underneath, secure in the love of the people who had elected him. It seemed like a happy conclusion to many people, so they got out of their seats and left the theater, not realizing that they had only seen the first chapter. That is all they remember, like a holiday postcard of a place you cannot quite remember having visited.
But wait! Somebody yelled at them a year later. Something is happening in Egypt! There are tens of thousands, no, wait…maybe even millions of people on the street! A military intervention, Morsi has been removed by the generals! Hadn’t they gotten Morsi to get rid of the generals? What was going on? What is wrong with Egyptians?
Are these people CRAZY?
No, you simply haven’t been looking, and while you weren’t looking, the world changed. It changed dramatically, and it did not change in regular time. It changed in revolutionary time. For more than a year now – average Egyptians have woken up every morning to read the details of who got removed, who got replaced, who got killed, who got acquitted, what law got passed, who passed it, who was arrested, who got tried by the military, who got murdered by the police, who ordered the so-called security operation…what constitutional declarations were made, what did they mean, what judge got replaced, why –
Egyptians have been doing this every day, not just for a year but for two and a half years.
The Morsi that many foreign spectators seem to remember is the same Morsi that the Muslim Brotherhood cannot forget. They really did believe they had it all, and that is because they did. They had everything, as the massively simple-minded article I quoted explained; they had the presidency, the cabinet, the upper house of parliament, and a constitution that they had tailor-made to fit both them and the military and ignore every other part of society.
Of course, that’s all they remember because from then on, the impossible happened; their leaders did not usher in a great new golden age of Islam. Rather than appreciating their supposedly pious guidance, the people on the streets found them ineffectual and ridiculous. They failed on all ground, with their representatives plagiarizing economic plans from the opposition to seem like they had one, to standing up in full view of the Egyptian public and arguing, to a starving nation, that girls should be married at puberty.
Of course, they will fixate on Morsi’s greatest moment, the histrionic chest bearing in Tahrir because everything that came next was unthinkable; in their minds, the alternative was to believe that Islam itself, not just Morsi, had failed.
A Coincidence of Contraries
And so, we come to the current day, the media, remarkably ignorant of the last year, does not understand what Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood had become, and the Muslim Brotherhood had failed to accept it.
In their minds, they propound, and some believe, that they represent the ‘democratic legitimacy,’ and yet – simultaneously, they believe that they are the victims of a popular conspiracy against them. The fact that those two beliefs are mutually exclusive does not seem to cross their minds very often.
The result? An otherwise inexplicable alignment in views between the Muslim Brotherhood, which by habit distrusts foreigners, and the world at large, unaware of history and nuance, and who usually, by habit, would otherwise distrust the Muslim Brotherhood.
They had both arrived at the same position through completely different means.
The real problem now is not the international media, which makes a lot of noise and flashes many cameras, but is so far behind the pace of events that most news items read to Egyptians like somebody who is constantly reminiscing.
The real problem is how we can get out of this, break this standoff between the Pro-Morsi supporters who find it very difficult to alter their perception of the situation and the rest of the Egyptian people, to whom the very notion of Morsi returning to power is about as plausible as a Mubarak revival.
Let’s assume that there are several classes of Pro-Morsi protesters; the leadership, the lieutenants, and the unfortunate followers and recruits (more on this later) who will most likely end up as cannon fodder if this situation is not resolved with some caution.
It is easy to underestimate the sheer fury that some of these men must be feeling, but you have to consider it. The Morsi supporters believe that they were victims of a joint betrayal by the military and the opposition. In their view, this opposition (in reality, the mass of Egyptian people who no longer supported ‘Political Islam’) did not merely snatch victory from the jaws of the Islamists but their very stomachs. The Brotherhood had salivated at the prospect of legitimacy and its promise of power, then they put it in their jaws and had gulped it down. They could feel their digestive juices churning, and the military, backed by the ‘deceitful’ opposition and the ‘ungrateful or stupid’ people, had colluded to snatch their victory away from their very guts.
Their digestive juices had already been flowing. If you doubt that, look at the constitution; it is a document worn thin, like something thrown up. It is an item ravaged by greed and the desire for unlimited and unaccountable power.
They Will Not Go Gently
In viewing the footage of the last clashes between the Morsi supporters and the army, some have been confused and distressed by the sight of supporters giddily chanting “Allahu Akbar” when one of their own is killed. To the average secular mind, it makes no sense at all…
However, it has a parallel –
I met a man who told me that he was on the Qasr El Nil Bridge on Friday, January 28, 2011 – when we were battling the police forces to get into Tahrir. He was near the front lines and witnessed an incredible act of heroism; a young man had seen a police officer raise his gun towards a veiled girl that was with them on the front lines and had leaped in front of her and taken the bullet in her stead. The young man fell back onto her, fatally wounded. Men rushed to the girl, who was now on the ground, clasping the boy’s still body as tight as she could. She refused to let them have the body and screamed at them that he was ‘her flesh,’ and then she ululated – made a long, wavering, high-pitched vocal sound usually made to celebrate. Confused? Don’t be.
To her, this young man had just gone to heaven.
If you’re not religious, that’s all just silly. He was dead, yes – but you have to understand how she saw it – to her, he had died a hero’s death. He had, in effect, checked, one by one, any reasonable requisites for being a heroic martyr; he had died fighting a tyrant, he was unarmed, he died saving a girl’s life, and he did so with great and enviable courage. In Germanic terms, he had secured a place in Valhalla, among the greatest of the gods.
It was, undeniably, a noble death. It recalls to my mind that line from the Italian poet Tansillo, that Giordano Bruno (himself burned at the stake in 1600) loved so much, and which I translate as “That I shall fall dead to the ground, of that, I am well aware – but what life can equal this death of mine?”
It is from such metals that heroes are forged.
Contrast this with the Pro-Morsi supporter; he is bearing arms (real arms, not flaming tennis balls, or improvised Molotov cocktails), he is either complicit in or knows that he is a partner to people who have thrown children off roofs, terrorized residential areas in which they’ve demonstrated, beaten people up unnecessarily for having the gall not to wear a veil, supported his leader despite his leader having become a tyrant, and now had died facing an army with whom, just a year ago he had formed an unholy alliance, an army that a year ago, he had branded others as ‘thugs’ and ‘whores’ for disobeying.
Again, two people, who believe they have reached the same place, but through incredibly different means.
A ≠ B
In trying to be humane, it is easy to be blind to the inhumanity of others. It is an easy mistake to make, but it doesn’t make one kind. It makes one cruel, for, at that moment, one has put both a monster and a kind man – on the same pedestal. William Blake understood the injustice of this seemingly kind act when he said, “One law for the lion and the ox is oppression.”
It is not okay to equate the protesters at Tahrir with the Pro-Morsi protesters; it is an act of cruelty that pretends to be one of kindness. It is an appearance of generosity played out at somebody else’s expense, and it is wrong.
It is also wrong, however, to assume that all of Morsi’s supporters are equal.
They are not.
At least some testimonies have indicated that there are protesters in that crowd who believe they are cornered and that now, they will be hunted down simply for being Islamists. This is a horrendous prospect. There have also been some reports of people involuntarily being recruited to the demonstration, a notion that sounds unlikely to those thinking in terms of what they would do but not seeing what the Muslim Brotherhood have shown themselves to be capable of doing.
An Image He Chose To Spare His Children
Months ago, after some clashes had taken place at the Presidential Palace in the wake of Morsi’s (un)constitutional declarations, made on Nov 21st, 2012, just a short 4 or 5 months after he was elected, I spoke to a man who told me that he had been driving his car near the Palace as the clashes broke out. He was curious, he parked the car at what he thought was a safe distance away, and he watched as the clashes began. He explained to me that Morsi supporters came out and surrounded his car and held him hostage for almost the entire duration of the clashes, over two days. He was, he said, repeatedly beaten and humiliated. First, they suspected him of being paid to come and observe them, and then they asked if he was Christian, then, after checking his ID, and deciding he was Muslim, asked him why he was not fighting at their side. None of this was pleasant conversation. For two days, he was beaten and humiliated. He said that some of the police force outside seemed off balance and did not know what to do when Morsi’s supporters and their opponents clashed, but that some were inside with the Muslim Brotherhood and participated in torturing him and others. One of them, he told me, liked to throw him to the ground and then place his shoes against the man’s face. This man is over 60 years old. As he told me this last detail, he came to tears, recalling the humiliation of the experience. When he noticed that I had seen the tears, he apologized to me and told me that it was the first time he had told anybody this story, that he could not tell his family; not his wife and certainly not his children, because he did not want them to imagine him that way. It was a humiliation he could not bear to impose on his children; it was an image he chose to spare them from ever having to imagine.
Finally, when the battle was nearing its end, he was released, but it wasn’t that simple. We have your phone number, and from your ID, we also have your address, they told him. If you do not come and demonstrate with us next time, we will be visiting your home. I asked him how he would deal with that, and he told me that the first thing he did after they released him was to throw away his telephone and thank god for having (as is common in Egypt) an old address on his ID card.
This man had voted for Mohamed Morsi. This was a man who, in his own words, could not bear to ‘betray the martyrs and vote for Shafiq’ – the only other candidate left and a man who had been appointed Prime Minister by Mubarak before Mubarak was removed. This old man voted for Morsi because he would not betray the martyrs and because he believed that even if he didn’t like Morsi, Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood were religious men who ‘knew god,’ and they would do the right thing.
This is a man, who three months later, had decided that Morsi had offered him nothing but lies.
This man was lucky, and he was safe, but I suspect others may have been successfully coerced. Others may prefer to go home but fear that they cannot. Fear that they will either be murdered in a popular witch hunt, thrown into the darkest of Egyptian dungeons, or, failing that, be murdered by their own Brotherhood brethren for betraying them to the infidels.
Those are the victims that we must try our very best to save.
That some will die has now become inevitable. There is more than enough guilt to go around, from the world that misunderstood, to the Egyptians who knew full well that by resorting to the military, blood would flow, to the leaderships of the Brotherhood who exploited the faith and ignorance of their many believers, and whose lust for absolute power shattered a nation, many times over, to the Mubarak regime that created the illiteracy and ignorance in which the Brotherhood found root, and to the Morsi supporters who remain willingly when, by now, they should know better.
It is almost a given that negotiations are being made, and some sources have expressed as much; that the Brotherhood’s leadership is exploiting the current climate of violence to try to, at best, retain some measure of power, and, at worst, to exit the scene safely. That they are willing to sacrifice some scapegoats is also predictable. I do not use the word exploit lightly. However, when the Freedom & Justice Party’s official Facebook page posts old photographs of dead Syrian children, claiming that they are theirs, the word is unavoidable. I am not sure what the final body count of the battle of July 8 is, and I am myself uncertain if it includes any women or children, but I cannot help but be plagued by a simple question; why lie when you have, by everybody’s admittance, already lost so much? The most disturbing possibility is that it has become a habit, a modus operandi. That it was or has become their way of playing the filthy game we all call politics.
The Escape Clause
It is necessary to do as much as possible to reduce the bloodshed that we will invariably witness and for which we bear (to varying degrees) both responsibility and guilt. The military must minimize the losses as much as possible, and we must urge it to do so while still trying to protect the residents of the sit-in’s neighborhood. The media and the state must make it clear, in radio, on television, and through some form of a National Reconciliation Committee, that anybody who has not so far taken a life or incited others to do so is a free man, who has the full moral, social, and security backing of the people and the state. It is even possible that some would require something akin to a witness protection program.
For the leadership, the issue is far more insidious. It is incredibly naïve to underestimate the amount of damage that the more criminal ones are capable of if released in some deal, whether it included the release of all of them or only some.
Any criminal who has tasted the kind of power that the Brotherhood thought they would retain has already become a security risk. A security risk that cannot be taken lightly, and nobody in Egypt wants to have years of shopping-mall explosions to look forward to, or vengeful acts of violence on the streets, against Copts, against Non-Veiled woman, and against others whose only crime is that they have, in the eyes of the Islamists, betrayed the Brotherhood’s ambitions.
Politically, things are equally, if not more, complicated; Egypt now has, ostensibly, political parties that are, regardless of their claims otherwise, ipso facto religious parties. If you do not understand why this is unfavorable, you are reading the wrong article; in short, it is untenable to have campaign posters mostly competing on a ‘Piety’ platform.
They must be dissolved, which of course, would infuriate any ‘Political Islamists’ left in the wake of these events, including the half-baked Islamist parties that are, effectively, rubber stamps for the Brotherhood, as well as those from the Salafi current, including the Nour Party. Sadly, most of us have seen that they really do not have much to offer, whether politically, socially, or economically.
Because of this political poverty (a poverty shared by many of the so-called secular opposition as well, only they do not claim to represent a religion), they rely so brutally on marketing themselves as representatives of Islam. The Islam with which I am familiar, however, is one in which nobody, technically, is more qualified to know what is right than anybody else is, because God makes himself available to all equally, and hence the phrase ‘istaftee qalbak,’ which literally means – consult your heart.
Tie yourself to the mast, my friend, and the storm shall surely pass.
Note: This was submitted to the Egypt Monocle but rejected both for length and on the grounds of editorial policy. I understand the length part.