What did we learn? Questions for the Egyptian Masses

Sidi Gaber

A few days ago, an Egyptian military leader asked his people to authorize him to fight terrorism.  I attended these demonstrations and now have two questions for the Egyptian people. Both of these questions are sub-items of a larger concern:  What did we learn?

Wait so…terrorists?

Terrorists? I’m not saying I know one way or the other and I’m definitely not saying that the Muslim Brotherhood hasn’t employed some terrorist tactics since the ousting of Mursi. What I am saying, is that I think it is a dangerous idea to label the entirety of the organization as terrorist. Believe it or not, some these people are rational human beings who feel they were wrongfully removed from power and deserve their chance at democracy. While I vehemently disagree, this does not mean they are terrorists, and they have every right to protest. In fact, when rational people like this who simply want to peacefully protest find themselves labeled as terrorist criminals, they may in fact later be motivated to employ terrorist tactics. Isn’t this a textbook cause of terrorism?  Labeling them as ‘the other.’ Inspiring the masses to oppose them in order to legitimate the state’s ability to forcefully suppress them completely? What did we learn?

Someone may respond and tell me, bombs have been found. Attacks have been carried out. Weapons have been funneled from outside of Egypt and martyrs have been called upon to fight with their own blood.  My response: Yes, this is true.  Some of these people are violent and have no qualms with turning Egypt into a warzone in order to get Mursi back in power. Terrorism is happening but we simply need to bring these people to justice the same way we would any other criminal. Then we allow the rest of the group to be integrated within a pluralistic society participating in a democracy. Isn’t a democratic system the type in which a group like the brotherhood should feel most protected? Isn’t it the type of government that protects everyone’s rights to express themselves? Isn’t it supposed to be the system of government which best seeks to give anyone who desires a chance to take part in government? If so, then why blindly label the entirety of the group as terrorists?  What did we learn?

Why are we becoming blindly obsessed with yet another military leader?

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m of the opinion that June 30th could not have happened without El Sisi and the military. Mursi’s administration seemed to misunderstand democracy as a system which is solely based on elections. If you’re elected, you officially have the right to rule the country however you please (more on my support for June 30th here). I am still of the opinion that he needed to leave and I’m still very happy that he did.

BUT. What has happened since has not only worried me but also come to cast a shadow on the pure joy and elation I experienced on June 30th.  At yesterday’s demonstrations I saw an absurd number of posters praising El Sisi, people chanting his name, children wearing masks of his face, and more. Really?! We are going to emerge from the June 30th revolution by singing the praises of one man? And a military man to boot!  Why is everyone so ready to accept the absolute leadership of ANOTHER military leader? Isn’t that a large part of why the  January 25th revolution happened to begin with? Are we going backwards or forwards here? You’re walking around holding up signs of El Sisi next to Abdel Nasser? I know Abdel Nasser did some great things for Egypt and the region at large but isn’t he the father of the Egyptian military state? Isn’t he the one who arbitrarily threw people in jail? Ran a one party system which allowed for zero dissent? Didn’t he oversee some of the first instances of police brutality? If we flood the streets singing the praises of one military man as the savior of this nation, don’t we run the risk of setting the clock back to pre-January 25th Egypt? What did we learn?

From yesterday's demonstrations, note the posters of Sisi and Abdel Nasser.

From yesterday’s demonstrations, note the posters of Sisi and Abdel Nasser.

Furthermore, why is El Sisi asking for people to demonstrate in the streets in order to authorize him to deal with terrorists? I thought we had set up an interim civilian government and he was simply backing it. You shouldn’t need to make such a request. It should come from another place. Where was Adly Mansour, the current president? Or Mohamed El Baradei, the Vice President? Shouldn’t they be calling the shots right now? Didn’t we just say we wanted a civilian government in place? One that would create a just constitution, one that would serve the interests of those who returned to the streets on June 30th, who proclaimed that ‘the January 25th revolution continues?’  Why are we allowing ourselves to rely so heavily on the military again? What did we learn?

I understand that these are dangerous times. Much of the country isn’t safe and its citizens need protection. But I question these methods. I question the absence of political process and diplomacy in decision making  and I question the way the millions of citizens who flooded squares and plazas all over Egypt yesterday seemed blind to this absence. It worries me for the future and just makes me wonder….

What did we learn?

Suhur

The other night I had the privilege of meeting up with some people to grab ‘Suhur.’ Suhur is when we eat a butt(ocks)ton of food before dawn in order to survive the long day of fasting ahead . When I’d fast back in the USofA, suhur was lame. No one was fasting with me so I’d just stay up a little bit past 2, guzzle 12-200 glasses of water, pound some vitamins, eat a piece of bread, and go back to sleep…only to spend the rest of the night going to the bathroom every 5 seconds for fear of peeing my pants…

ANYWAY. I’ve purposely tried to take advantage of my first Egyptian Ramadan by going out for suhur. The other night my friend invited me to this cool place in an area called ‘Syeda Zeinab.’ It’s in an old part of town, home to a mosque built in honor of Prophet Mohamed’s granddaughter………(wait for it)……Zeinab (surprise!). Alica Keys was wrong when she called NYC the ‘concrete jungle where dreams are made of’ because Syeda Zeinab is pure madness…although I’m not sure there is consensus on whether or not dreams are produced there, but I’d definitely say that it’s a concrete/asphalt jungle where something is something’d for the purposes of somethinging. Picture mass numbers of interwoven, narrow streets teeming with people who are casually walking in front of cars, motorcycles (which are typically being ridden by 3-7 people, perhaps a family of 3-7 people), and these weird car things that look like overgrown toys or a ride at Kings Dominion.

Hey man, what are you up to tonight? Wanna drive around Syeda Zeinab and go bowling for people? Come over!

Hey man, what are you up to tonight? Wanna drive around Syeda Zeinab and go bowling for people? Come over!

Now picture a few tables in the middle of all of that. I sat at one of these tables outside a restaurant called ‘El Gahsh’ or..’Little Donkey.’ Within seconds of taking my seat, a stack of pita bread is haphazardly thrown in the middle of the table and it is soon joined by several metal bowls of Egyptian awesomeness. In the background, stray cats casually stroll around the table, beggers approach selling packages of tissues, and employees attract potential customers by yelling “EL GAHSH” a millimeter or so from the face of anyone with legs who happens to pass by. There are no plates, there are no napkins. Just the bowls and the bread. It was incredible (the cool kind).

It's not gross man; I promise.

It’s not gross man; I promise.

Although suhur here is way more fun, it isn’t exactly effective. Everyday I wake up with a mouth that is practically sewn together with dryness, a yearning for pepto bismol, and about 7 hours of fasting ahead of me but my plans to grab shawerma at 230 tonight tell me that it’s all worth it.

The more you know, the more you dont.

I came to Egypt thinking that June 30th was a popular uprising, spearheaded by many of the young liberals who lead the January 25th revolution in 2011. Their revolution had been high-jacked and their vision for Egypt distorted by a man who had mistaken his election by popular vote as the ‘freedom’ to rule as a dictator. So on June 30th, they took to the streets once again, announcing that the revolution was still going, and that they had returned to take it back. This time they were joined by an unprecedented number of Egyptians from almost all factions of society and within a short period of time, the military (backed by a coalition of a wide variety of representatives) intervened on their behalf, turning everything over to an interim, civilian, government.

Since arriving in Egypt, I have set out to see if there’s more to the story.  Over the past few weeks I have had distinct pleasure of meeting with a wide range of politically inclined Egyptians. Some are activists, some hold leadership positions within political parties, some work for local NGOs, and others simply choose to identify themselves as politically inclined citizens. Each of these conversations has pointed to a bigger picture that I admittedly knew very little of.

I sat on bean bags and drank cookies and cream milkshakes with my revolutionary socialist/Leninist friend in his modern, hip, office enclosed by walls coated in contemporary Arab and Western art. Here I heard that the military is by far the most powerful player in the political landscape and that it was working in concert with members of the old Mubarak regime to find a reason to rid the country of Mursi ever since his election. The young people who returned to the streets in accordance with the Tamarod movement simply gave them the opportunity they needed to take action. Interests converged and voila…no more Mursi. While Tamarod’s intentions are pure, it has very little power and no one to effectively lead its supporters. As such, its alliance with the military and members of the Mubarak regime, while effective in removing Mursi, is dangerous for the future as they have welcomed much more powerful players which no longer share their mutual interests. As my Leninist friend bitterly mused, the country has effectively experienced a counterrevolution which could very well set it back to the way it was before the January 25th revolution.

But I also had kabab and kofta while seated next to a Muslim Brotherhood supporter at a nice sports club downtown. In between mouthfuls of food, this man angrily lectured me, aggressively posing rhetorical questions. He bitterly stated that people should have waited until parliamentary and presidential elections to remove Mursi. That Mursi never really had control over anything to begin with and that the military had been running the show a certain way the whole time in order to secure his removal. He also went on to tell me that I should be happy with the democratic system in Egypt, since I (an American) was the one who had imported it there.

I spoke with a few cynical NGO workers. I sat on the couch with them in an apartment in El Ma’adi, watching them smoke cigarette after cigarette and lament over their resignation to the fact that Egypt was and always will be a military state. Even if young people start a grassroots movement like Tamarod, they are basically powerless when compared to the military. So long as people railed against the military, true change would never happen; everyone’s better off just accepting their power for now so that we can move forward and try to make changes later. The only group the military can’t take on is the people, and the people’s love for them is so deeply woven into the fabric of the Egyptian identity that it will be a long time before they collectively oppose them. Even during the period of their interim rule following the January 25th revolution where they saw mass protests, their approval rating was still at a shocking 85% and that’s the lowest its ever been.

But still I returned to Ma’adi on another night and grabbed a seat at a nice outdoor cafe to chat with a member of Mohamed El Baradei‘s Dostour or ‘Constitution’ party who spoke to my own predispositions. As we sipped on our frozen mint lemonades, I felt reassured. The military was simply intervening on behalf of people who had lost their revolution. Those who had come to their aid and support on June 30th did so solely based on their mutual desire for basic freedoms and human rights. Wait until the next election?! Why? There’s no sense in waiting for the next round of elections when Democracy never existed to begin with. Democracy is not equivalent to voting and to act on this notion is disastrous. He continued to justify the events of June 30th by citing a laundry list of grievances which included a constitution that paid little attention to the rights of Christians and women, the Brotherhood’s alliance with Hamas and an increase in terrorism in the Sinai Peninsula, violence towards Christians, favoritism towards members of the Brotherhood (health care, food, propane), Egypt having to import fruits, vegetables, and cotton (goods it typically exports…think there’s a fancy economics term for that), electricity frequently cutting out, a gas crisis, and an overall authoritative style of government which had denied its people basic human rights, supervised an increase in terrorism and sectarian violence, and prioritized a regional Islamist agenda over the basic needs of the Egyptian people.

But just when I felt reassured, I thought back to something the Brotherhood supporter said. “Did you ever stop to wonder why the gas crisis was only a day long? Or why the electricity problem just happened to end right after Mursi was removed from power?”

So now what do I think about June 30th? I still think that Tamarod got things moving with all the right intentions, and that many others who joined them did so in order to further the goals of the January 25th revolution. However, I also believe that there was a certain convergence of interests going on. Certainly there are higher powers involved with their own interests in mind and I am apprehensive about what those higher powers will do moving forward. This is admittedly, a two-dimensional opinion, but it is only through continued discussion and research that I can confidently expand upon it.

“Wait so…where are you going right now?”

The title of this post is the question posed by my cab driver on our way to JFK after I told him I was on my way to Egypt to work in a position that had been suspended, on behalf of a school which had just informed me it could not sanction a trip to a country whose president had been removed only 48 hours ago.

The man had a point. I mean what in God’s name was I doing? A revolution had just occurred, my school wasn’t sanctioning my trip, my internship had been (what I hope is temporarily) suspended, and my parents had all but begged me not to go. Why was I doing this?

I’ve been trying to get to Egypt and do something valuable for nearly 5 years now. I’ve always thought it would be fun to go and spend some time here on my own, but I was hell-bent on making sure that I would also do something valuable during that time. So I’ve spent the past few years getting rejected from a Fulbright project, never hearing back from job opportunities, coming very close to accepting the opportunity to do grad school at the American University in Cairo, and more. Every time I’ve tried to make the trip here though, something has stopped me. Whether it be flat out rejection, or the realization that the value I had initially sought out was no longer present.

So here I was on the day of travel, presented with yet another reason not to go to Egypt. Except that this time, I was way too close to even think about turning around.

So I’ve decided to do an independent study on “Democracy in Revolutionary Egypt.” I want to understand exactly who is vying for democracy, what their vision for democracy in Egypt is, and how different groups differ from one another within this vision.

At the same time I’m also here for personal reasons. Sure I’m Egyptian, sure I speak Arabic, sure I’ve been to Egypt many times since birth, and sure I have plenty of family here. But I’ve never actually lived here.

Ultimately I hope not only to understand Egypt’s current political environment, but also to understand a place I have admired and been proud of my entire life but never actually lived in.

And if youre interested, I hope to keep you posted along the way.