Having attended the Friday of Rage demonstrations and having recently watched a news clip of the particular location from which I marched I thought it might be worth while sharing a few observations about religion, current events, and what little I’ve been able to read about this in the American media.
I’m not sure how clear it is to Americans that on the Friday of Rage (like most Fridays) things got started after the noon prayer. Many of the initial gathering spots were in and around mosques or even “outside” them where men also spread mats to pray. I was in the upscale area of Giza called Muhandesseen about halfway down the very large boulevard named Arab League Street. Although everyone was pretty much milling around as the Friday prayer proceeded, near the end everybody who wasn’t praying moved to the sides (the women, Christians and the small number of foreigners) so that the Muslim men could line up for the conclusion of the service. The atmosphere was a little tense but the worshippers were not frightening. The frightening part was realizing that tens of thousands of peaceful people—men, women and some children—were literally surrounded by guys who resembled the Imperial Troopers in Star Wars. They had the helmets, they had shields, and they had clubs. If they had been ordered to move in on us, it would have been a terrible bloodletting even without guns.
Then all of a sudden we started to move in the one direction the Security Police had left open. What wasn’t apparent to me that day but which stands out clearly on the film clip is that within a second of the conclusion of the Friday prayer what must have been thousands of men leaped up from their final prostration and moved into the street for the demonstration. And within minutes they were yelling the day’s slogans: “Bread, Freedom, Human Dignity” (it rhymes in Arabic) as well as shouting for the regime to go and, of course, “peacefully.”
Both the regime and some European and American commentators have argued that, should the events of the last two weeks lead to democracy, Egypt will become a state ruled by the Muslim Brothers and will become a link in a chain anchored in Iran that runs through Lebanon and Gaza. The Muslim Brothers, in this view, favor democracy but only in the hopes that it will bring them to power. Once there, the argument goes, they will cling to it as tightly as Husni Mubarak but with vociferous antagonism to Israel and the US. Partly in response many other analysts have stressed, correctly but somewhat incompletely, the degree to which the Muslim Brothers have been cautious participants in the recent events. Others stress the conversations they’ve had with members of the Brotherhood that provide evidence they are (or some of them are) truly committed to democracy. Still others, such as the eminent and brilliant scholar, Richard Bulliet of Columbia University go further to argue that the Muslim Brothers will participate as a significant party in a democracy but will fail to acquire a majority. He then suggests that democracy with the Muslim Brothers would be a final nail in the coffin of al-Qaeda.
Since I don’t know that much about the Muslim Brotherhood I’m not going to participate in the discussion about what they do and don’t think. However, I think that they realize at this point that whether they wanted it or not (and I suspect the answer is not) they are now themselves riding the tiger of popular revolt. Just to strain the metaphor, the tiger may not like the rider very much but he likes the tiger trainer who is standing in the corner with a whip and a gun even less. And oddly enough the tiger trainer is intent both on regaining control of the tiger and blaming the hapless rider. The tiger trainer, after all, lives by exploiting the tiger not the tiger rider (or more accurately riders).
Several people who I trust (and who also don’t know each other) have told me that when the thugs attacked the protesters in Midan al-Tahrir in the first week of February it was the Muslim Brothers who saved the protest. What they mean, pretty simply, is that when wealthy and conservative Egyptians sent thugs to attack peaceful protesters the Brotherhood effectively sent their own thugs to respond. Now I realize that the use of the word thugs here may offend some of my readers. But I spent too long in the trade union movement not to realize that when owners set thugs on striking workers, the workers need help. And you can talk about masculinity and violence all you want, but most men in the normal flow of daily life have neither the desire nor the capacity to inflict really terrible violence on other people. As Stanley Milgrom and Philip Zimbardo showed, you can organize things so people do it, but (for example) just hitting someone in the face as they’re walking up to you isn’t something most of us are willing or able to do. So every trade unionist I ever met who lived through the great organizing drives of the 1930s and 1940s had a soft spot in his (or her) heart for the pro-union thugs who defended them against the violence of the anti-union thugs.
I haven’t seen any references to this in print yet so perhaps it’s an urban legend. But I’ve heard it enough from people who don’t agree with and don’t particularly like the Muslim Brothers to give it credence. This turns the American neo-conservative doctrine on its ear. The Brotherhood may or may not be made up of convinced democrats. But like everybody else in this society they know they in particular will pay a significant price for the protest movement’s failure to achieve significant gains. They won’t be alone but they have quite a bit to lose individually and collectively. So it’s worth their while to defend it and it seems that they will.
Another point, however, is one that’s been made by the largely middle-class young people who set this whole thing in motion. Early on and ever since as well it’s been fashionable to say that the middle-class youth don’t represent society as a whole here. Older and poorer people, for example, aren’t crazy about people who let their pants hang down below their waist (yes, it happens here as well as in the US). But what the middle class young people point out is that nobody, probably since the 1919 revolution, has been able to get this many people into the streets to demand change in such a sustained fashion. That includes the Muslim Brothers. The Muslim Brothers may speak for many Egyptians and I would guess that they do genuinely speak in many voices (although they also show remarkable discipline) but they haven’t been able to mobilize this kind of oppositional movement as long as they’ve been around. They did really well in the 2005 parliamentary elections but for all the fear and awe they inspire in the US they never did and probably never could have instigated or led the events of the last two weeks. And anyone who thinks it’s just the middle-class in the streets has been wrong from the beginning and is certainly wrong now as working class strikes are beginning to break out.
Which leads to another point. Cautious as the Muslim Brothers have been it seems to me, admittedly as a somewhat casual observer, that there just hasn’t been much resonance to their slogans in the marches I’ve been in. There have been attempts to get people to chant “God is Great” (which is by no means a call on which the Muslim Brothers have any particular claim) but even that has generally not gone anywhere. Christopher Hitchens doesn't have many admirers here so it’s not that people don’t think God is great. They do. They just don’t seem to think it’s especially germane to current events in Egypt to say it in street demonstrations. I don’t think I’ve seen a single sign claiming the Islam is the solution or that the Qur’an is the constitution. These are the classic slogans of the Muslim Brotherhood. And people have made up some pretty interesting, provocative, and amusing signs from claims that Mubarak has to go because he’s a coward and an American agent (again, it rhymes) to simple requests in essence that, if he’s a vampire, he needs to go to a blood bank instead of living off the Egyptian people. So if you wanted to bring a sign that said Islam is the solution nobody is stopping you. The blood bank slogan is in the picture with two signs I’ve uploaded with this entry. And since early on there were even posters supporting the unity of the cross and crescent (that is Muslim-Christian unity).
The absence of such signs doesn’t mean that Islam (or Christianity for that matter) is unimportant. What it means for the present is that for lots of Egyptians being Muslim doesn’t carry the particular baggage that American pundits and politicians have spent so much time imputing for the last couple of decades.
To say that it doesn’t necessarily carry the baggage of prejudice, however, doesn’t mean it never carries that baggage or that there aren’t forces in this society that would like to increase mistrust and hatred between Muslims and Christians (both inside and outside Egypt). During the last year Egyptians have witnessed some pretty horrifying examples of sectarian violence: a drive-by shooting a little over a year ago in the Upper Egyptian city of Nag’ Hammadi and the bombing during the Christmas season of a church in Alexandria. In between a right-wing group of religious scholars from the Azhar issued a statement calling on Muslims to boycott Christian businesses. Events of the last weeks, but perhaps especially the Christian mass celebrated in the middle of Midan al-Tahrir last Sunday, was a stunning riposte by ordinary Egyptians to attempts to spur prejudice. Unfortunately many of those attempts over the past several generations appear to have been rooted in the activities of the state.