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."
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.