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On Sheep and Infidels

[Pro-Morsi protester. Image by Sarah Carr] [Pro-Morsi protester. Image by Sarah Carr]

Before I begin, let me state some facts so that when people begin the ad hominem attacks they can try to rein them in within the following boundaries:

I voted for Mohamed Morsi in the second round of the presidential elections (to keep out Ahmed Shafiq).

I am one of the administrators of a blog called “MB in English” that features English translations of awful statements of a sectarian, conspiratorial, or bonkers nature that the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) intends for domestic consumption only.

I am against army intervention in politics.

I state all this because Egyptian politics and society in general are split along identity lines in a way that they have never been in the last three years. This problem is so chronic that the merits or flaws of an argument are almost entirely determined by who is making the argument in a haze of fury and suspicion.

For the past week I have been trundling between the pro- and anti-Morsi protests. It is like travelling between two planets. The pro-camp has significantly more men than women (although there are women and children there) and it lacks the social diversity of the anti-camp. I have never seen one unveiled woman who is not a journalist there. I have never met a Christian or encountered any other journalist who has met one there. It is important to note that pro-Morsi protesters and pro-Morsi media have often claimed that there are Christians attending their sit-in. At the same time, they also allege that the church was behind the feloul-US-Zionist plot to oust Morsi.

The point is that that the pro-Morsi crowd is largely homogenous. Their opponents use this homogeneity as evidence that the MB, is at best, an organization that has failed to market itself to non-supporters and at worst a closed group unconcerned with non-members.

While the MB’s opposition might be correct in this assertion, many go one step further. They suggest that Morsi supporters are all members of the Muslim Brotherhood, and all unthinking androids programmed by the Supreme Guide. The popular derogatory term for them is khirfan (sheep). The aim here is to dehumanize and deny agency, much in the same way the Muslim Brotherhood dismiss their opponents as kuffar (infidels) or feloul (Mubarak regime beneficiaries or loyalists).

On 4 July, the day after Morsi’s removal, I went to the Nasr City sit-in. There was a line of tanks about a kilometer from the entrance checking bags and bothering journalists. Behind the tanks, barbed wire had been put in place. Two men stood five meters apart in silence, both carrying pictures of Morsi.

A man went past them and began shouting. He was an engineer with a lisp who explained in a desperate tone that he did not take part in the 25 January protests but that these protests taught him “how to state an opinion and protect it.” He had voted for Morsi in both rounds of the elections, but insisted that he was at the protest not to support an individual, but “an idea.”

“I learned democracy from the elite. So I voted. But I have learnt that there is no revolution and no democracy,” he said.

As he was talking, a man nearby started screaming in the direction of the army while holding up a poster of Morsi. He was so furious that he succeeded in pulling his poster in two, at which point he crumpled into a ball on the ground and wept.

On Saturday I attended the somber and low-key funeral of Mohamed Sobhy, a father of two who was shot in the head outside the Republican Guards Officers’ Club. Eyewitnesses say that this happened after he put a Morsi poster on the barbed wire in front of some troops who seem to have gotten nervous. In total, four men died at the protest.

I saw his body half an hour later, covered in a sheet and surrounded by bewildered protesters. I tried to tweet the picture but the network was not cooperating and it would not send. So I tweeted that a man had been killed and his body was still here and that I was trying to send a picture for all those who I know would say I was lying.

The problem is not that people did not believe me after the first tweet (it is always good to be cautious). The problem is that they were disputing that a man had died even when the photo was uploaded. One man responded: “he doesn’t have Egyptian features.” Others suggested it was an old photo. When a video appeared and it was no longer possible to dispute the fact that a man had been shot outside the Presidential Guards Officers’ Club in Cairo at the same date and time as the pro-Morsi lot were alleging, attention turned to his injuries. Sobhy was facing the army when he fell to the ground, and blood gushed out of the back of his head.

There was an almost immediate consensus that he had to have been shot from behind. The most popular conclusion was that the MB themselves had killed Sobhy to incriminate the army. The outpouring of outrage in response to a suspected army killing of a civilian that usually characterizes such events was completely absent. There was not a single Egyptian news outlet at the funeral other than Mada Masr.

The situation was very different at the funeral for youths from Manial killed in clashes between the Muslim Brotherhood and residents of the Cairo neighborhood. Lots of media, lots of sympathy, and lots of outrage—all certainly deserved.

An almost identical scene played out on Monday morning, as Egypt woke up to the news that over forty people had been killed, again outside the Presidential Guards Officers’ Club. State television and private satellite channels such as ONTV restricted their coverage to airing interviews with army casualties and stating conclusively and irrefutably that armed pro-Morsy protesters instigated the attack against the army.

Presenter Amany El-Khayat talked about “terrorists” (i.e., the pro-Morsy supporters) hiding out in residential areas. When making reference to the bodies of pro-Morsy demonstrators being kept in the Rabaa el-Adaweya Mosque—the location of the pro-Morsy sit-in—her tone was derisory andmocking.

In describing these scenes, I am not seeking sympathy for pro-Morsi supporters. I disagree with them politically. Some of them have themselves been responsible for acts of unimaginable, barbaric violence. Independent journalists have reported that some of them are armed (just as they have reported that their opponents have arms). Their decision to march to Maspero via Manial (and Tahrir) was a provocative act of such crass stupidity that anyone with any shame should have disassociated themselves from the protests.

My problem is with the reaction to them. The nominally non-partisan media variously ignores, belittles, or demonizes what represents a large section of Egyptian society. There is none of the nuance of the coverage of the anti-Morsi protests. The virulent, xenophobic anti-American sentiment of some protesters is not held to represent the collective. Systematic acts of sexual violence against women in Tahrir Square are not used to discredit the entire cause. When the pro-army tone started to appear it was emphasized that not all protesters back the military. The Egyptian media has by and large overlooked any similar inquiry into the motivations of the other side.

This is problematic for three reasons, and all of them concern Egyptian society at large rather than the Morsi brigade.

Firstly, it confirms once again that local media is more interested in telling us what it thinks should happen rather than what is happening. Secondly, it underestimates the danger posed by an alienated and committed group who believe that they have been robbed. Lastly, it is a cheap way of avoiding a debate about the issue that actually mattered until 1 July: whether an elected president should be removed via mass protests.

There is a visceral hatred of the Muslim Brotherhood and its Salafi associates amongst some Egyptians. This hatred spans all social classes and predates current events. It is born out of an arguably justified mistrust and fear of the group, who have lied, put their own interests first, excluded other groups, ramrodded through an excuse for a constitution, attempted to give Morsi dictator powers, flirted with the military and dallied in sectarianism politics in a frightening way. It failed to understand that it was running a country, and it missed the point that for public relations purposes if you are an Arab president who desires to quash dissent through an organized group you better make sure that that group is in uniform.

Perhaps most importantly, they were feeble as hell at governing Egypt at a time when amateurs really just would not do.

When Morsi supporters attempt to put their case forward their arguments bounce back off a wall of hate, but—deep breath—in my opinion these arguments were not without merit—up until 30 June.  Morsi’s intransigence and the behavior of his supporters after 30 June outweighs any legitimacy they once had. Mendacity, poor governance, self-interest, and sidelining of other political powers are pretty much the watch-words of all political groups and are not, in isolation, enough to justify a president’s removal by the military.

The constitutional declaration was an outrage and perhaps a harbinger of sinister stuff to come but Morsi rescinded it. He waded through blood after the events that constitutional declaration sparked at the Republican Palace in December 2012 when the Muslim Brotherhood deployed their men against anti-Morsi protesters.

The MB’s sectarian language, the increase in sectarian incidents, the attack on the St. Mark’s Cathedral in April, Morsi’s failure to react to a sheikh who called Shi‘a “filth,” and the entirely useless response to the Sh‘ia lynchings in June were all important indications of an unwillingness to rein in fringe extremist elements on the Islamist scene. Most significantly they showed that Morsi was never interested in representing all Egyptians. But again, Morsi inherited a tradition of state discrimination and sectarianism from his predecessor, he just cranked it up several thousand notches.

As for flirting with the military, it is in fashion right now.

So my position on events pre-30 June has not been changed by events since: the Muslim Brotherhood should have been left to fail as they had not (yet) committed an act justifying Morsi’s removal by the military. The price Egypt has paid and will pay for the consequences of this decision are too high. It has created a generation of Islamists who genuinely believe that democracy does not include them. The post-30 June fallout reaffirms this belief, especially with Islamist channels and newspapers closed down as well as leaders detained and held incommunicado, apparently pursuant to an executive decision. For thirty years, Mubarak told them that due process is not for them, and a popular revolution is confirming that. It is Egyptian society that will pay the price of the grievances this causes, and the fact that, with a silenced media and no coverage from independent outlets they have been left with virtually no channels to get their voice heard.

I will not weigh in on the coup/revolution debate other than to say millions of Egyptians were on the ground demanding Morsi be removed while military jets drew hearts in the skies above them and then Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi announced that Morsi had (forcibly) buggered off. Nothing has changed. The real revolution will happen when army involvement in politics is a distant relic of history. 

In any case the debate is semantic and tedious and the nomenclature will not be decided now. The only aspect of the wider argument that interests me is the notion that an elected president’s legitimacy falls when millions take to the streets. If this is a precedent, then it means shaky times ahead when the masses’ interests do not coincide with those of the army.

Politically, Egypt finds itself once again in an almighty mess. As the euphoria fades, the opposition remembers that if they were asked to debate how many legs a cow before them had, one faction would question whether the animal was actually a cow, another would say four, and yet another would claim the tail a limb. The fun times have just started with the Salafi party, al-Nour vetoing Mohamed ElBaradei’s nomination as prime minister on the grounds that he is divisive while Tamarod declares it is him or else.

If the army has any sense it will see that the legitimacy of the 30 June regime (for want of a better term) need not be predicated on crushing Islamists, no matter what the public appetite is. They have to be included because they are not going anywhere. The barely functioning political system born of 25 January has been replaced with something even more fragile: fractious squabbling with no clear means of resolution, the military as arbiter and an incensed MB that feels it has been cheated. Fasten your seatbelts.

 [This article is published jointly with Mada Masr.]

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