By Lauren Unger-Geoffroy
Editor’s note: We asked Lauren Unger-Geoffroy, an Arabic-speaking American who lives in Cairo, to share her perspective of life in Egypt after the revolution.
Ramadan Kareem, my friends. This year’s month of fasting and purification, healing, reflection and prayer has fallen in the hottest month, August, and comes amid unprecedented earthly distractions in Egypt, the ongoing tragic massacre in Syria and crazily careening instability around the globe. There has been such a rush of events that before I can finish checking the truth and sources of any one report, rumor or development, another big one arrives. For example:
Mubarak is in the accused cage! In public court! The people are in awe that they have actually achieved this, and it is a stroke of karmic irony that Mubarak’s hugely viewed and commented-upon nose-picking has rendered him less sympathetic and quelled much of the anticipated wave of regret and vestigial emotional attachment of the people who might have protested against the ignoble treatment of their historic tyrant/father figure. The pro- and contra-crowds outside throwing rocks at each other were anticipated and abruptly controlled. The location of the trial, in an area difficult to access for most, made the melee manageable. Friends told me that after the nose-picking images went viral on Twitter, the rock-throwing seemed to decrease.
It was incredible and surrealistic to see Mubarak in his bed, flanked by his sons and the detested former Interior Minister Habib al-Adly in the cage—though videos of al-Adly leaving the court show him smiling arrogantly and officers treating him with great respect and deference! Is this a show? What will happen? It doesn’t matter. The people did it. They will not let it go—they will have satisfaction. Sunday’s proceeding was just the roll call and list of accusations and pleas, of course in Egyptian flavor, with dozens of lawyers all standing, speaking at once, waving handfuls of paper and shouting sometimes ridiculous statements over each other. The real trials will begin next Sunday, inshalla.
Iftar is the evening breakfast meal of Ramadan, the breaking of the daylight fast, after not eating or drinking even water from 4:30 a.m. In Cairo this year iftar is at 8 p.m. Traditionally people join with friends and family to share food and drink in a joyful meal. Last Friday, 150 to 300 people met in Tahrir Square for iftar. For many in Cairo, over the months the square had become the people’s place to gather and meet, hang out on Fridays and in the evenings. And having taken up the habit of protesting, last Friday they did begin some “Hang Mubarak” chants after eating, but they were violently dispersed by military police. This was an unfortunate and sad follow-up to the previous Monday’s zealously aggressive emptying of the last tents of the sit-in. The people say ouch when they are beaten back, and another seed of resentment toward the military has been nourished by violence in the name of order versus chaos.
The people will no longer passively accept being treated this way. Now there are plans for a mass iftar next Friday and a protest “for the love of Egypt” that starts just before the Marghreb prayer (at sunset) and gathers all political powers. “This time they won’t be able to prevent 1 million people from having iftar in the square,” one Egyptian said. “We reject such [repressive] acts altogether. Any area in Egypt is a space for people to express themselves. We are free now. Horrayya. Freedom.”
The people are uniting again, joining with the million-person rally planned by numerous Sufi orders, Copts and Liberals and various pro-democracy political forces that are discussing ways to respond to this rising tide of conservative Salafist and other Wahhabi-oriented Islamist forces calling for a religious state. (Sufism is the mystical, spiritual, esoteric branch of Islam. In Egypt, at least 6 million people—one in at least every four young men—belong to one or another of the more than 40 Sufi orders. Millions of followers of Sufi orders, both men and women, attend more than 40 massive moulids (festivals that honor specific spiritual iconic figures of different orders) throughout the country). Well-known Sufi singers and Christian choirs as well as performers such as Ali El-Haggar, Azza Balbea, Rami Essam will hold a concert in the square following iftar.
Organizers said that they hope to set a Guinness record by mobilizing the largest number of people for a public iftar in the history of the Muslim world.
Many Islamist and Salafist political forces charge that Sufi rites and practices, especially gender-mixing, are un-Islamic.
The Salafi demonstration in Tahrir on July 29 brought in Salafeen in large numbers, elevated through Twitter, Facebook, websites, textos, emails, chats and TV channels. Buses were lined up from all over Egypt. Yes, they filled the square with bushy beards and religious clothing and slogans. Yes, they were many, and, yes, they want an Islamic Egypt and, yes, they were chanting “Obama Obama, we are all Osama” and “Shut up, shut up, you seculars. Egypt will continue to be an Islamic state.” All the entrances to the square were guarded by members of the Salafi movement and the Muslim Brotherhood, who were wearing orange uniforms with Quranic verses written on them. Thousands of groups adhering to the Salafi movement arrived at Tahrir Square in buses from different regions to take part in the protests. They chanted, “We want it Islamic” and “People want Shariah to be applied.” (Conflict was expected, but the ambulances stationed at three locations were largely unnecessary, alhumdulalla, as the military did not intervene. Hmmm.)
Americans keep asking me about this development and I need to say: DON’T FREAK OUT. The numbers at the gathering were misleading, and the groups concentrated their supporters, importing them from all over Egypt, with what we suspect was the support of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). The Salafi movement in Egypt is not united; it is made up of different groups and movements. They are new to politics and awkward and obedient to the SCAF, to Field Marshal Tantawi. This demonstration in Tahrir Square was a message from the SCAF to the West, especially to the U.S., using the old Islamist boogeyman to scare foreigners about real democracy in Egypt. Some protesters were holding photos of Omar Abdel Rahman and Osama bin Laden. Some Salafi groups also used slogans and shouted demands that were not approved by the majority of political forces, breaking the agreement to unify their rhetoric during the Friday protest—and of course the SCAF is happy to support the divergence of power and weakening of the masses. Though its members were not present in great numbers at the Salafist rally, the Muslim Brotherhood too referred to “the uncontested Islamic identity of the Egyptian people, which is spelled out in Article 2 of the outgoing constitution.” Twenty-eight secular parties and coalitions, rejecting the slogans, decided to pull out from Tahrir in opposition to what they called the Islamists’ hijacking of the protests with their own demands.
“The participation of well-organized Islamist forces, as well as Wafd Party, have made the 29 July demonstration look much stronger than former ones,” claimed Maj. Gen. Mohamed Abdellatif Tolba. Yet military officers asserted on Friday that the Egyptian people will not accept a state governed by religion.
The demonstrators ignore the fact that they are being used as pawns in the same old political game of psych-out, division, distraction and mass manipulation that the system has perfected over the years.
We still do not know each other at all. Rumors rule. The truth is not important. No one is talking about the funding of the Salafi television channels—though they sure did talk last week when there were big accusations of the April 6 Youth Movement being funded and trained by foreigners! When a New York Times article reported that that organization and a number of Arab revolutions and revolutionary groups have been supported by United States funding and training, local media jumped on it.
According to spokesmen from the April 6 movement, the reports of foreign funding were false, having been fabricated by individuals not affiliated with the party, including Essam al-Erian of the Muslim Brotherhood and members of the National Democratic Party.
Erian, vice chairman of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, criticized the provocative slogans used by some Islamists in Tahrir Square on Friday. The Freedom and Justice Party formerly rejected these types of minority demands, and today it is also rejecting the actions of Islamists trying to impose their vision on the people’s revolution.
The Muslim Brotherhood is organizing itself and holding internal elections. This either means they are gaining clarity and focus or they will splinter. Waiting to be seen. The vast majority of the people are still firmly if confusedly cohabitating the political center. There are no less than 30 political parties now. The people still want unity; most push for a democratic Egypt but many cannot fully understand what exactly they want. It is all new and there is no precedent to follow. All they recognize as familiar are the emotions—fear, anger, pride, revenge, unity, nationalism, hope, suspicion, disappointment, grief, joy, faith … trust and distrust, love and hate. “Each political group or party has a certain viewpoint on Egypt’s problems, but the whole Egyptian population will decide who they will trust to manage their affairs,” Erian of the Muslim Brotherhood said.
Incidentally, Egyptian intelligence chief Mourad Mowafy met Friday with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Washington, D.C., to talk about regional issues and the process of democratic development in Egypt, according to U.S State Department spokesperson Mark Tone.
I have been out of Egypt again, in the USA, and observing Ramadan here has been a challenge, but it’s been interesting getting to know a broader Egyptian- and Muslim-American community and their perspectives. Stopping in France on Wednesday, and I am returning for the big iftar on Friday, inshalla, and to watch the real beginning of the trial of Mubarak.
In California people arrived in nice cars for the iftar, panicking about “Black Friday” and the recession in the USA. Is a big depression coming? I have family and friends losing their homes and jobs … while in Egypt, the ex-dictator is on public trial, people throw rocks at each other outside and make plans for gathering a million people foriftar, pushing the world and their country forward, a huge show of support for unity. But unity in what? And it is all still a big fog; the people cannot see the future yet, but they can see the Pharaoh Mubarak picking his nose in his hospital bed in the accused cage of the people’s court. This trial is huge and they made it happen—whatever the ending. Don’t think that because the people do not understand politics and are being used as pawns they are weak or stupid. No, they are strong and learning what they want. And they have tasted blood.
AP / Ben Curtis
Ramadan Ahmed, 51, whose 16-year-old son Mohammed was shot by police while protesting and killed during Egypt’s uprising, reacts upon seeing former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on television at his trial, while being interviewed by a reporter in the Associated Press office in Cairo.