Can liberals unite ‘For the love of Egypt’?
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Friday’s gathering in Tahrir Square was intended to show both Islamists and the military that Egypt’s liberal camp had no intention of forfeiting “its” revolution. But there has been little evidence of unity in the liberal ranks.
“If the event is still on, I’ll go; but it’s all looking a little fuzzy right now,” said Aalam Wassef, an Egyptian activist and founder of the Peer Evaluation website, on Friday morning as he weighed his evening plans.
Wassef was referring to a scheduled Friday evening gathering in Cairo’s iconic Tahrir Square, where authorities have repeatedly attempted to clear demonstrators since the Egyptian uprising succeeded in February.
The gathering – dubbed “For the love of Egypt” – was intended to display the “unity” of Egypt’s liberal camp. Organisers also wanted to erase memories of a previous event on July 29, which was hijacked by boisterous Salafists calling for the establishment of an Islamic state.
It was hoped that the soothing tune of Sufi religious poems and chanting would dispel the Salafist battle-cry.
But by Thursday, of the 100 or so political parties and movements that were supposed to attend, only three Sufi orders and 30 other groups had confirmed their continued participation.
Organisers promptly accused state media of seeking to undermine the event by announcing earlier in the week that it had been cancelled.
In the end, hundreds of protesters did show up at Tahrir on Friday night, shortly after the iftar meal that breaks the daytime fast during the month of Ramadan.
Brief clashes erupted between protesters chanting "civil, civil" and "down with military rule" and security forces, who had assembled at the square in large numbers during the day.
But the gathering did not attract the numbers seen at several demonstrations over the past few months.
A fractious camp
To some extent, Friday’s “For the love of Egypt” gathering was a victim of differing tactics.
Many had called for the event to be postponed until the following Friday in order to await a promised statement by Prime Minister Essam Sharaf on a framework for a future constitution, to be released on August 15.
Others were more concerned about the growing weariness over the frequent gatherings in Tahrir Square, which have hurt businesses and disrupted transport in the Egyptian capital.
Among the notable absentees were the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, the El-Adl Party and the ElBaradei Support Campaign of the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize winner, Mohamed ElBaradei.
But their absence underscored the fractious and diverse nature of what has come to be described as Egypt’s liberal camp.
“Six decades without politics mean we have no notion of left, right or centre,” said the 40-year-old Wassef, in an interview with FRANCE 24. Instead, Egypt’s fledgling political spectrum is increasingly being portrayed as a tussle between liberals and Islamists. “If that is the divide, then I guess I am a liberal,” said Wassef, who would otherwise describe himself as a “secular socialist”.
Yet, ever since it played the leading role in the revolution that ended Mubarak’s 30-year reign, Egypt’s liberal camp has faced an uphill battle trying to coalesce under a unified platform. So much so that it is now best defined by what it is opposed to, namely Islamists and – increasingly so – the army’s grip on power.
The latest gathering was initially called by Sufi groups, who, along with Egypt’s numerous Coptic Christians, have recently been the target of violent attacks by radical Salafist groups.
Sufi orders, who advocate religious tolerance, have embraced calls for the establishment of a “civil state” that would preserve the recognition of Islam currently enshrined in the Constitution while falling far short of the theocratic state advocated by Salafists.
Their stance, which also includes guarantees on civil and political liberties, has been backed by many secular groups alarmed by the Islamists’ show of strength on July 29.
“I was deeply shocked by what happened on July 29,” said Laila Soueif, an assistant professor at Cairo University and a founder of the March 9 Movement which advocates academic freedom, for whom the Salafist takeover of Tahrir Square a fortnight ago was evidence that a common front with Islamist forces was no longer possible.
The scenes of men wearing skullcaps and clamouring for the implementation of Sharia law also cast doubt on the Muslim Brotherhood’s widely professed claim that its supporters, many of whom stood side by side with the Salafists, were not plotting to establish an Islamic state.
Soueif, who describes herself as an “independent with no particular problem with the Muslim Brotherhood”, said the events on July 29 had shown that the Brotherhood was incapable of controlling the more radical elements in the Islamist camp.
Wassef proved even less compromising. The Muslim Brotherhood, he said, simply could not be trusted to uphold democracy. “You can have moderate Islam,” he added, “but moderate Islamism is a contradiction in terms.”
A new Brotherhood or an old Brotherhood in new clothes?
Easily the most formidable force in Egypt’s political arena, the Muslim Brotherhood has worked hard to distance itself from its extremist past. Its leaders now insist that they would protect democracy, uphold women’s rights and respect religious minorities.
Tamer Ezz el din, FRANCE 24’s correspondent in Cairo, says there are strong arguments to indicate that the Muslim Brotherhood has indeed changed. “They agreed to take part in the recent elections in 2005 and 2010, and have accepted the notion that neither the army nor the people will allow them to wield absolute power,” he said.
Ezz el din said it was in the Brotherhood’s best interest to adhere to the democratic process, “simply because they are by far the most powerful force out there and the only one with a chance of securing a majority of votes”.
His assessment contrasted starkly with Wassef’s prediction that the Brotherhood would account for “at best” some 20% of votes in future elections and would therefore not be required as an (ever so awkward) ally.
The disparity in estimates of different parties’ actual political weight in a country with no reliable polling data has further complicated the delicate task of taking sides and forming alliances in post-Mubarak Egypt.
It has also led the more seasoned politicians in the liberal camp to opt for a wait-and-see strategy.
“People like El Baradei prefer to avoid confrontation with the army and the Islamists, responding to the government’s demands not to gather on Tahrir Square and sticking to a neutral line,” said Cairo University’s Soueif, adding that she “understood” El Baradei’s strategy even though she regretted “his failure to take a stand when people get shot”.
Taking back Tahrir from the military
Like many other Egyptian activists, Soueif has grown increasingly alarmed at what she sees as attempts to scupper the country’s revolution.
But the subject of her fears has shifted from Islamists to the military, once praised for siding with the people against Mubarak’s henchmen and now reviled by many of the activists who brought about his downfall.
Wassef agrees. “The army has become the architect of counter-revolution,” he said.
The changing focus of liberal activists was apparent as they prepared for Friday’s gathering. While it was originally intended as a response to the Islamist coup de force, its purpose changed after clashes erupted on August 1, when armoured tanks and riot police forcibly removed protesters from Tahrir Square. “Since then, it has been about taking back Tahrir Square from the military,” said Soueif.
According to Mohamed Ajlani, an Egyptian political analyst at the Paris-based Centre for Diplomatic and Strategic Studies, the transitional government appointed by the military is still fragile and in need of a clear strategy. “When push comes to shove, the people will ultimately prevail,” he told FRANCE 24.
Egypt’s powerful army has been known to bow to popular pressure, as was the case last week when the military finally agreed to put Mubarak on trial.
Wassef is hoping the military will give in again. “We need to recover the unity of the early days if we are to complete our revolution,” he said.
Not today though. While hundreds of protesters showed up at Tahrir Square, it was nowhere near the showing during the heady days of the revolution earlier this year. Wassef was not among them. In the end, he decided not to attend the Aug. 12 event.