Winds Of Change Blowing In Egypt-- But Not Everyone Is Thrilled With The Direction
Last week in Tahrir Square- ©2011 Reese Erlich
How long will it take for Fox News to find this article in the English-language edition of the Egyptian newspaper Al Masry Al Youm and then start yowling about who lost Egypt... and it won't be McCain or Lieberman they turn their guns on.
Muslim Brotherhood Sheikh Hazem Abu Ismail announced his intention to run in Egypt’s upcoming presidential elections.
He said that if elected he would implement Islamic sharia law and cancel the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel.
...Abu Ismail said that his platform revolves around Islam, while "Mohamed ElBaradei, Amr Moussa, and Hamdeen Sabahi, the liberal candidates, will be unable to present a clear vision” for the country.
“If I could apply sharia in Egypt, all people, including non-Muslims, would applaud me four years later,” said Abu Ismail.
The sheikh said that no current presidential candidate represents the Egyptian people.
“We seek to apply Islamic law, but those who don’t want it prefer cabarets, alcohol, dancers and prostitution, as the implementation of Islamic law will prohibit women to appear naked in movies and on beaches,” Abu Ismail added.
...Concerning the peace treaty with Israel, he said, “The Camp David peace treaty is insulting to the Egyptian people, so it must be canceled, and I will do my best to convince people to cancel it."
Our old friend Reese Erlich is in Cairo this week, on assignment for a number of public radio networks and blogging for the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. He's been writing about the struggle to determine what kind of new government Egyptians will create post-Mubarak. Last week, on his first day in Egypt he "lit out for Tahrir Square."
Tahrir has taken on mythic status in the Arab world, but it’s really just a large traffic circle surrounded by high rise buildings. At one point several million people filled the square, symbolically stopping the government, and leading to the overthrow of the autocratic regime of Hosni Mubarak.
On this day, however, only a few thousand rallied here, chanting slogans against the military government that took over from Mubarak, and demanding release of political prisoners. Dozens had been arrested on May 15 for protesting in front of the Israeli Embassy. They were tried in military, not civilian, courts. Under popular pressure, one week later, almost all the protesters were given one-year suspended sentences and released. The military also released over a hundred demonstrators from previous protests.
And that’s the contradiction facing today’s Egypt. The old dictatorship has been replaced with a military council that carries out many of the same domestic and foreign policies as Mubarak, according to the Tahrir activists. It arbitrarily arrests dissidents, and still engages in abuse and torture. Tahrir activists want the military out of power as soon as possible.
But many other Egyptians support the military as a force for stability. They see developments in Syria and Libya, where most of the military supports the old regime, and praise the Egyptian Army for forestalling a similar disaster.
“We should give the government some time,” truck driver Ahmad Fathi tells me. “We shouldn’t have sit-ins and demonstrations every day. We need time for things to get back to normal.”
Tahrir activists admit they’ve got a lot of organizing to do if they are to have a significant impact on the wider public. “We need 5 million in the streets to make change,” Tahrir Square leader Tarek Shalaby tells me.
Everyone is scrambling to prepare for parliamentary elections now scheduled for sometime in September. Presidential elections may be held two months later, although no date has been set. Tahrir Square activists are hoping to consolidate their gains by backing leftist candidates. But so far the conservative Muslim Brotherhood and elements from Mubarak’s old party, the National Democratic Party, seem better organized.
Meanwhile, workers continue wildcat strikes demanding higher wages. Violent conflicts have broken out between extremist Muslims and Coptic Christians. And activists have called for a mass mobilization against the military government to be held in Tahrir on May 27.
The revolution is far from over.
This morning Reese sent us an update from Cairo as he prepares to set out for his next stop: Gaza via the newly-opened Rafah crossing. He writes that "for many young activists Egypt’s revolution isn’t over" and describes a large Tahrir Square rally he covered-- over 100,000 people-- Friday. It had been called by many of the same people who had called the rallies and demonstrations that had toppled the Mubarak regime this past January and February.
They demanded that a civilian dominated council take over from the current all-military government. They wanted an end to military trials for civilians and stronger protection for Coptic Christians being violently attacked by Muslim extremists. They were angry that former President Hosni Mubarak and his entourage weren’t already facing trials for corruption and ordering the murder of protesters.
Student activist Shimaa Helmy told me, “This is our day of anger because we feel our revolution is being taken over by people who didn’t participate.”
But the Moslem Brotherhood, which did participate in the Tahrir Square uprising, boycotted today’s event. Officially, Brotherhood leaders were affronted because they weren’t consulted about rally plans. But many protesters believe that the Brotherhood’s senior leadership doesn’t want to offend the military.
Some Moslem Brotherhood youth defied their leaders and came anyway. The Brotherhood faces numerous internal contradictions, with two of its former leaders announcing plans to run for president. They defied Brotherhood national leadership’s decision not to run anyone for president and to run parliamentary candidates for not more than 50% of the eligible seats.
Many of the demonstrators were middle class, but workers and urban poor also attended. Activist Helmy admits, however, that the mainly secular and leftist demonstrators had their work cut out to win over ordinary Egyptians.
“Some people are starting to hate the uprising,” she told me. “The prices are getting high, and they think it’s the revolution. We’re trying to explain ‘it’s for you, not just for us.’”
Pro-military government rallies were called in other parts of Cairo and a few hundred supporters showed up.
Protesters argued that popular support for the military is declining. They saw today’s demonstration as one more battle in what promises to be a long struggle for power.
To the degree most Americans have any interest in what's going on in Egypt, it revolves around how the events there-- a country of over 80 million people with immense influence on the entire Arab world-- impacts Israel's 7 million people. But, as Robert Naiman wrote for Common Dreams yesterday, "You can't love democracy and denigrate protest, because protest is part of democracy. It's a package deal. Likewise, you can't claim solidarity with Egyptian protesters when they take down a dictator, but act horrified that the resulting government in Egypt, more accountable to Egyptian public opinion, is more engaged in supporting Palestinian rights. It's a package deal."
It was the Tahrir uprising that brought about an Egyptian government more accountable to public opinion, and it was inevitable that an Egyptian government more accountable to public opinion would open Rafah, because public opinion in Egypt bitterly opposed Egyptian participation in the blockade on Gaza.
In addition, opening Rafah was a provision of the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation accord brokered by the Egyptian government-- an achievement facilitated by the fact that the post-Tahrir Egyptian government was more flexible in the negotiations with Hamas that led to the accord.
Mubarak had a deal with the U.S. government: I obey all your commands on the Israel-Palestine issue, and in exchange, you shut your mouth about human rights and democracy. Tahrir destroyed this bargain, because it forced the U.S. to open its mouth about human rights and democracy in Egypt, regardless of Egypt's stance on Israel-Palestine. When it became clear to Egypt's rulers that subservience to the U.S. on Israel-Palestine would no longer purchase carte blanche on human rights and democracy, there was no reason to slavishly toe the U.S. line on Israel-Palestine anymore.
The Mubarak regime also had a domestic motivation for enforcing the blockade: it saw Hamas as a sister organization of Egypt's then semi-illegal opposition Muslim Brotherhood, and it saw enforcing the blockade as a means of denying Hamas "legitimacy," figuring that more "legitimacy" for Hamas would mean more "legitimacy" for Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, thereby threatening Mubarak's iron grip on Egypt's politics.
But of course post-Tahrir developments in Egypt threw that calculation out the window: the post-Mubarak government in Egypt has reconciled with the Muslim Brotherhood, which is a de facto partner in the present interim government, and is expected to do well in September's parliamentary elections. It would be absurd for the Egyptian government to try to isolate the Muslim Brotherhood by trying to isolate its sister Hamas, when the Muslim Brotherhood is de facto part of the Egyptian government and the role of the Brotherhood in running Egypt is likely to increase.