The Revolution Happened and You Killed Me

Turmoil in Egypt Through My Facebook Window

The Revolution Happened and You Killed Me

AFP / Getty Images

CHAOS IN THE STREETS The Muslim Brotherhood has led an outrage campaign against Egyptian security forces, Christians, and anyone supporting Morsi’s ouster. This photo, taken August 18 in the central Egyptian city of Minya, shows a burned car outside a building belonging to a Christian charity, ransacked earlier this month.

Since the demonstrations in Egypt in late June, I have been glued to Facebook. As an immigrant caught between homes, I selfishly hope for an Egypt I might be able to live in again one day, which is a flawed position to start with. The appeal of Facebook is that my friends—who come from different political views—share the news headlines and photos while annotating them with their opinions and experiences. (The news feed also comes entangled with pictures of dinner plates at Tom Douglas restaurants from my Seattle friends, together with posts about avant-garde American poetry and its factional disputes, all of which act as what can be described as postmodern flattening distraction.) Online, occasionally, I find myself playing interpreter between worldviews. When Mohamed Morsi, of the Muslim Brotherhood, was ousted by the army on July 3, many of my progressive friends, along with Egyptians who were educated in the West, were unable to see anything but a coup—which is not exactly how I saw it. After all, what about the 22 million people in the streets demanding his removal? For many Americans, it's extremely hard to imagine that democracy is anything but election booths. But those 22 million people couldn't wait for another election cycle, and isn't it democratic to honor their will? At the very least, it can't easily be dismissed as nondemocratic.

Then, on August 14, the situation took a turn for the worse: Egyptian security forces dissolved two Muslim Brotherhood sit-ins by force, killing hundreds of Morsi supporters. At that moment, I became an interpreter who's no longer sure how to interpret what I'm seeing.

I was born and raised in Cairo, the number one city in the world that doesn't sleep, according to the latest survey. Walking its streets with friends and grabbing a bite at 2 a.m. was typical. When the Muslim Brotherhood came to power last year, one of the first decisions they took was to turn Cairo into a sleep-early city, passing an executive decision for shops to close at 11 p.m. This decision was very telling of the culture of the Muslim Brotherhood, which carries within its composition the eternal tension between the rural and the urban—how the rural views the city as a scary place, a loose woman that you should tame. The decision was laughed at, of course, and they couldn't really execute it, but it started a mistrust between many average nonpoliticized Cairenes and the Muslim Brotherhood, as the Cairenes started to see the Muslim Brotherhood as a force that is trying to paternalistically discipline them.

After the army ousted Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood led an outrage campaign demanding nothing short of his return, and their protests included a serious amount of instigation of sectarian violence against Copts—i.e., Christian Egyptians—calling them "dogs of Tawadros" and threatening to burn them. Amnesty International reported evidence that "indicates that supporters of deposed president Mohamed Morsi tortured" political rivals, and the allegations included beatings, electrocution, stabbings, and shootings.

Amnesty International stressed that "the Egyptian government must not, however, use these crimes, carried out by few, as a pretext to collectively punish all pro-Morsi supporters or use excessive force to disperse their sit-ins." Nevertheless, on August 14, in the early-morning assault mentioned earlier, Egyptian security forces attacked two large Muslim Brotherhood sit-ins, leaving roughly 600 dead. "At least one protester was incinerated in his tent. Many others were shot in the head or chest, including some who appeared to be in their early teens, including the 17-year-old daughter of a prominent Islamist leader," the New York Times reported.

The Muslim Brotherhood, in turn, burned about 50-plus churches and attacked stores owned by Copts. They also carried out large-scale attacks on police stations and municipal buildings.

In 2012, just a couple of days before Morsi won the election against Ahmed Shafik by a slight margin, the Muslim Brotherhood filled Tahrir Square and issued a threat that "we will burn the country" if the election was handed to Shafik. Some argue the scenario of "we will burn the country" is what is being done right now. In earnest, though this is very speculative, I believe that three years from now, if Morsi had been left to lose an election, the same violence from the Brotherhood would have erupted.

When it had power, the Muslim Brotherhood was incompetent, extremely arrogant, and mistrustful of everyone. (It was Morsi who issued a constitutional declaration giving his decisions immunity from judicial overturning.) As someone who once thought of himself as a pacifist, however, I have serious ethical problems with all the deaths caused by security forces. My position for the time being is twofold: (1) The Muslim Brotherhood as we currently know it is a closed-minded hate organization that has its own haphazardly armed militia, and it is not fit to govern, or maybe even to practice politics, and needs to undergo deep reforms before it can truly participate or be entrusted to take part in any civil or democratic process. And (2) the security forces and the army are heavy-handed and are causing lots of unjustified deaths. The trouble is, a collapse or a split in the army means a collapse of the Egyptian state and a descent into further chaos and bloodshed.

In my opinion, the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamists in general never believed in the separation between church and state, and this is the essence of the struggle that is going on right now. My opinion of the Muslim Brotherhood doesn't come from news reports only; it comes from their history and from firsthand experience.

I remember an incident during my last year in the engineering department at Cairo University, which gave the world both Hassan Fathy (the sustainable architect of New Gourna village) and Mohamed Atta (the architect of 9/11). The incident was an altercation with a Gama'a Islamiyya student. Gama'a Islamiyya is the Islamist group that used to be led by Omar Abdel Rahman, the blind sheikh responsible for the first World Trade Center bombing. This student came to a lecture hall before a lecture started in order to make a public announcement: "Please come to elections of the student body, don't be passive like the Jews and the people of the book," he said, meaning Christians.

I objected: "Can't you call for an election without insulting me?"

Although a Copt, my disagreement was purely from a secular point of view. What made it easy for me to object was that the majority of my friends at school were Muslims—I actually didn't particularly like hanging out with my Coptic colleagues—which I felt earned me the right to speak whatever I thought. The caveat is that I am not much of a courageous person, so this was a bad move. We exchanged few more sentences in front of the students who were in the lecture hall, and eventually the professor came. All the conversations that happened afterward with my Muslim and Christian friends were mostly supportive or witty, except with one Muslim Brotherhood guy who took me aside a few days later and told me, "Maged, you were lucky."

The Gama'a Islamiyya student whom I'd objected to was a gentle guy, otherwise something bad would have happened to me, the Muslim Brotherhood guy said, adding: "I worry about your safety. Don't do this again." I hadn't been scared in the lecture hall, but I was terrified now, receiving the Muslim Brotherhood dude's veiled threat. I'd finally experienced firsthand the double-faced scare tactics I'd read about. Even as I write this now, part of me is scared of the possibility of retaliation, no matter how slim it is.

In the 1920s, under British occupation, the city called Ismailia witnessed the birth of the Muslim Brotherhood. Their slogan was (and still is) "Allah is our objective, the Quran is our law, the Prophet is our leader, Jihad is our way, and death for the sake of Allah is the highest of our aspirations." This group from its early inception had a conflicted relation with modernity.

When Britain left Egypt, the army turned around and ruled the country, a 1952 coup that Egyptians call a revolution since this what their history books call it. Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser was in charge of the army then, and he and his posse disbanded all political parties. As part of ending politics in Egypt, Nasser—after an attempt at his assassination by the Muslim Brotherhood—terrorized the group and imprisoned lots of its leadership. While in Nasser's prison and awaiting execution, one of the intellectual leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, Sayyid Qutb, came out with the concept that the whole society is an infidel. This use of society as singular is terrifying, as it puts the faithful (the Muslim Brotherhood or the Islamists in general) in a position that is against every single person and every single institution. This position seems to have haunted the Muslim Brotherhood's thoughts and actions since, and despite their claims of modernization, they seem to still see Egypt and Egyptians with this lens, which explains why it took only a year for them to be deeply hated by the apolitical masses. It is probably worth mentioning that the current head of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohamed Badie, who was arrested on August 19, was imprisoned with Qutb in 1965.

In Seattle, talking in Arabic comes as a treat. A dear friend of mine is an Egyptian feminist and political-science scholar, and recently after having a bite to eat in the International District, we decided to share a large bottle of sake while sitting outside of Uwajimaya—a minor simulacrum of hanging out in Cairo streets. Under the effect of sake, we sat discussing life between different worlds: between Cairo and Seattle, between an American right wing that views Islam as equivalent to terrorism and a hip academic breed of liberal and leftist Middle East scholars who built their careers on promoting moderate political Islam as democratic without really knowing that it isn't. Both positions are mistaken, we agreed, and it is a nightmare to keep up the thread against each side. These American scholars who were promoting "moderate political Islam" as a democratic group that the West should do business with ended up having the upper hand in policy making in the United States and Western societies that were and are looking for security in a post-9/11 world. Anne Patterson, the US ambassador to Egypt, is one of the folks who are influenced by this movement. It didn't hurt much that all of the Muslim Brotherhood's leaders are staunch neoliberal businessmen who look up to the United States as business partners.

As the women's movement taught us, the personal is political, and sitting with my friend sipping cheap sake on a street bench, we realized our bodies and experiences are marked by a complex set of national and international power struggles between different ideologies and political systems. We also knew we were the lucky ones who got to have such rich experience in this knowledge. Yet we were also aware of a certain sense of hopelessness that is looming inside us, despite the laughs we had.

I had hoped that after January 25, 2011, the Muslim Brotherhood would use the moment to build a wide alliance and establish a new Egypt. I remember being disappointed in one decision after another, only later realizing what I'd known deep down all along—that a group that preaches a narrow mind-set can trust only itself. The failure of the Muslim Brotherhood, the most viable political Islamist group in Egypt, is profound, and it will haunt the world for a long time. The big unknown is: Does their failure mean the end of political Islam, or is it just one step, in a dialectical way, toward a new movement that is more loyal to the spirit of Islam than this bunch? The answer will be manifested in what we call history, which is very personal, very personal indeed.

For now, I am just following the news on Facebook, like everyone else, and hoping for the least possible casualties. While at it, here is a Facebook post that seems as close to truth as anything else I know: "One thing for sure until now, most of the ones who die (not all) from all sides are [the] poor." recommended

Maged Zaher is the author of three books of poetry, most recently Thank You for the Window Office, published by Ugly Duckling Presse in 2012. He is a finalist for a 2013 Stranger Genius Award in literature.


Comments (21) RSS

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There's no mention at all of the fact that the energy shortages, crime surge, and traffic snarls that plagued Egypt under Morsi all vanished abruptly less than 48 hours after the coup.

The anti-Morsi demonstrations are described as democratic, representing demands of the people; the anti-coup demonstrations are not granted any such distinction, described instead as an "outrage campaign."

Like most Tamarud supporters and sympathizers, Maged Zaher appears to favor an authoritarian Egypt with a false front of democracy, where candidates for parties supported by the Muslim Brotherhood (and the factions to their right) are simply outlawed. But without all these unsightly massacres, if you please.

A truly democratic Egypt would be a right-wing Egypt, and Maged Zaher knows this, notwithstanding the little fantasy about Morsi being replaced with an imaginary candidate without Muslim suppport (and somehow precipitating the same Muslim Brotherhood reaction that the massacres have produced).

You can't force a liberal society first, and put off democracy until later. The United States did not wait until men without property were considered equal before it established democratic institutions. It did not wait until women were considered deserving of a vote. It did not wait until it was unacceptable to own another human being outright.

Democracy must come first.
Posted by robotslave on August 21, 2013 at 10:16 AM · Report this
The Accidental Theologist 2
It seems to me that secular Egyptians and liberals are between a very hard rock and a very hard place, and thank you Maged for giving voice to that.
The question being how to organize a substantive alternative to either military dictatorship or religious dictatorship. Support for such an alternative is clearly there, but the civic framework for organizing it is not. At least not yet.
Leaving for Vienna, as el-Baradei has done, doesn't help. I wish I knew what would.
Posted by The Accidental Theologist http://accidentaltheologist.com on August 21, 2013 at 10:34 AM · Report this
Pope Peabrain 3
Iran is the perfect example of an Islamist theocracy. And who wants to live there? Iranians aren't entirely to blame. We forced them into it with our CIA.
Posted by Pope Peabrain on August 21, 2013 at 11:48 AM · Report this
The one thing I see missing from all of the justifications/half-justifications of the coup is what specifically Morsi was doing that could justify such an extreme action. Mandating that shops close early in Cairo?

As @1 mentions above, the majority of the population in Egypt are conservative Muslims, hence you would expect that a democratically elected government would be conservative and Muslim. I can see where this would not sit well with liberal-minded urbanites, it sure would not sit well with me either if I was Egyptian, but democracy means you are stuck with the will of the majority. And if you want to do something about it you wait for the next election.
Posted by Rhizome on August 21, 2013 at 12:06 PM · Report this
" the majority of the population in Egypt are conservative Muslims, hence you would expect that a democratically elected government would be conservative and Muslim "

It is a MYTH now . Morsi refused early election because MB Leadership knew that result would have been disastrous .. they accepted sort of civil war rather that being defeated in an election
Posted by Mohamed Naeem on August 21, 2013 at 12:29 PM · Report this
You guys have awful reading comprehension.

You missed: "(It was Morsi who issued a constitutional declaration giving his decisions immunity from judicial overturning.)"

Do you not get it? There was no democracy under Morsi. There was an election. But that is NOT democracy. Saddam Hussein, Nasir, Sadat, and Mubarak all had election too. That doesn't mean shit.

Morsi rigged the one thing that mattered: The Constitution.

There is no democracy under a theocracy.

And no. The MB does not represent most Egytians or all Muslims in Egypt as this article makes clear. There is no clear good guy here. There are less bad guys. That's best you get. The military in the eyes of most Egyptians are the less bad guys.
Posted by tkc on August 21, 2013 at 1:18 PM · Report this
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Thank you, Maged for such a personal viewpoint on this complex situation. I think the West too often believes that if you follow a recipe of open elections it will lead to democracy. Democracy is a messy and difficult thing and we are still plagued by issues with it in the US as evidenced by the deep divisions in our own electorate and recent Supreme Court rulings on the VRA and Citizens United. LIke you, I have no idea where the answer lies but I think that the US must tread gently and thoughtfully and not respond with knee-jerk measures that could further destabilize the situation.
Posted by nikolai on August 21, 2013 at 2:04 PM · Report this

In a fair, independently audited election, Egypt would have a majority conservative Muslim government.

You seem to be the only person offering an opinion about this, anywhere, who doesn't agree with that statement.
Posted by robotslave on August 21, 2013 at 7:50 PM · Report this
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Posted by braindanial on August 21, 2013 at 9:09 PM · Report this
It took decades for France to become a real democracy after their revolution, I don't see Egypt as having a head start on their road.
Posted by tiktok on August 21, 2013 at 9:39 PM · Report this
@10 and you unfortunately are part if a large contingent of know nothing's foolishly fetishizing elections as if they are the sole markers of civilized democracy. Saddam fucking Hussein had elections. It's the fair and functioning legal frame work of the constitution that matters. This is what you seem to refuse to understand. A theocratic system is not a democracy.

And "conservative Muslim" in no way automatically means Muslim Brotherhood. There is a wide spectrum of Muslims there. In fact MOST Muslims in Egypt favored a secular democratic state. Egyptians are not single social category robots.

What blows me away is here you an Egyptian sharing her experience and concerns. But YOU'RE an Egyptologist all of a sudden who knows more than she does. Even though you've never even been there.
Posted by tkc on August 22, 2013 at 5:20 AM · Report this
guerre 14
Great piece Zaher. I recall Ian Bremmer's 2006 book "The J Curve" in which he stated that the only opposition group allowed was the Muslim brotherhood, suggesting their rise to power after Mubarak. His prescription was to not sanction Eypgt.
Posted by guerre on August 22, 2013 at 2:08 PM · Report this
Laurence Ballard 15
Whatever ultimately happens politically in most of the Islamic world, it won't be on the West's terms or timeline.

Many people tend to conflate democracy with freedom. This is an illusion. Here's another: elections guarantee democracy and freedom. It's been said before: Democracy will always be two wolves and lamb voting on what to eat for lunch. And true freedom is the recognition certain rights shall not be denied, even by a 99% vote.

An article in a recent issue of The American Interest touched on the arrogance behind the assumption all peoples seek to embrace liberal democracy, casting off undemocratic rule, holding elections and automatically welcoming Western values. We've spilt too much blood and spent too much treasure in both Iraq and Afghanistan on this presumption. And it wasn't just the NeoCons who preached this policy--so have a goodly number of progressives and liberal democrats, up to and including the current President.
Posted by Laurence Ballard http://laurenceballard.com on August 27, 2013 at 4:56 AM · Report this
@6 Judicial review of the constitutionality of the actions of an elected official is a brake on the function of democracy, not an example of democracy
Posted by pemulis on August 27, 2013 at 6:01 AM · Report this

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Posted by alan12221 on August 27, 2013 at 1:53 PM · Report this
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Posted by alan12221 on August 27, 2013 at 1:56 PM · Report this
@16 What? No.

Morsi himself crafted a constitutional clause that gave him absolute authority to strike or add anything he wanted to the constitution with out ANY review by the courts. He was creating an super-executive power that bypassed democratic checks.

So if the courts decided an executive law was unconstitutional - like baring women and christians from voting - he could say tough shit any time he wanted.
Posted by tkc on August 27, 2013 at 5:11 PM · Report this
Thanks Maged for this thoughtful piece. I can identify with the loss of hope time after time, the anxiety, confusion, and the terrible position to be in when one needs to choose between evil and more evil.
This comes from a neighbor from the north-east although living here in Seattle for a long time now.
As you may suspect I belongs to the other group of people described as "passive" by that student, though I'm wondering where the idiot got that khara from.
Kulna majanin fi'l sharq al awsat.
Posted by fif on August 27, 2013 at 11:02 PM · Report this
Ibtihal 21
I still have hope that real democracy will be achieved one day in Middle East, but I'm certain it won't be during my lifetime.

Thank you, Maged Zaher, for the great read.
Posted by Ibtihal http://www.ibtihalmahmood.com on August 28, 2013 at 9:56 PM · Report this

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