Muslims, who constitute the largest part of the Egyptian population, held the largest and best organized demonstration in Cairo’s Tahrir Square since the “revolution” of last winter, calling for a new Egypt under Islamic law. Secularists and liberals, who led that revolution, were awed and silenced by the massive turnout of true Muslims, and fled the square in impotent protest.
What will the pro-Muslim-“democracy” liberals and neoconservatives in the U.S. say to that? Never fear. They have a built-in answer that assures that their prediction of Muslim democracy—which, of course, they define rather differently from Mahmoud Nadi—can never be falsified: “We never said it would be easy. Of course there will be many stumbling blocks along the way. But the liberation of the voice of the people shows that democracy is already succeeding.”
July 29, 2011
Islamists Flood Square in Cairo in Show of Strength
By ANTHONY SHADID
CAIRO—Tens of thousands of Egyptian Islamists poured into Tahrir Square on Friday calling for a state bound by strict religious law and delivering a persuasive show of force in a turbulent country showing deep divisions and growing signs of polarization.
The shape of Egypt five months into its revolution remains distinctly undecided, and Islamists have long been the best organized political force in this religiously conservative country. Some activists speculated that their show of strength would serve as a jolt to the secular forces who helped to start the revolution but who remain divided, largely ineffectual and woefully unprepared for coming elections.
Others speculated that it might force groups to pick sides in a country where the glow of unity after President Hosni Mubarak’s fall in February has dimmed amid recriminations over the pace, style and substance of change.
“Islamic, Islamic,” went a popular chant. “Neither secular nor liberal.”
After days of negotiations between the rival factions, the demonstration Friday had been billed as a show of national unity, but adherents to a spectrum of religious movements—from the most puritan and conservative, known as Salafists, to the comparatively more moderate Muslim Brotherhood—vastly outnumbered other voices in a sun-drenched Tahrir Square. The numbers of Salafists, in particular, represented the most definitive declaration yet that they represent a formidable force in Egyptian politics, riding an ascent since the revolution that has surprised and unnerved many secular and liberal activists—and poses new challenges to the Muslim Brotherhood.
“It’s simple,” said Mohammed Awad, a 28-year-old accountant. “We’re stronger than any other force in the country, and we’ve made that clear on this day.”
Though the rally was peaceful, the few secular activists who attended contended that they were silenced; some said they were escorted from the square. Most of them decided to boycott the event, in protest of the demonstration’s tone, ceding the square to the more religious.
After the clarion call of the uprising that overthrew Mr. Mubarak on Feb. 11, Egyptian politics have entered perhaps their most opaque moment yet. Divisions have deepened—between the military leadership that inherited power and secular activists who helped lead the revolution, between liberal and religious voices, and within the ranks of Islamists, liberals, leftists and others.
In a caldron of summer heat and deep uncertainty, clashes in the streets have erupted, most recently last Saturday, when pro-army toughs attacked a protest march in the neighborhood of Abassiya.
Some activists were already calling Friday’s demonstration a turning point—a remarkable display of the Islamists’ ability to monopolize space, be it Tahrir Square, the streets or the coming elections, and of their skill at organization and mobilization, which for secular activists served as a bitter contrast to their own shortcomings.
“We’re showing today—to both the people and to the military leadership—that we’re the majority of the population,” said Haithem Adli, a 29-year-old resident, holding a banner that read in part, “Together on the path to heaven.”
“That’s the reality,” Mr. Adli said. “You simply have to look at the square today to see the reality on the ground.”
His estimation of the Salafists’ popularity was undoubtedly overstated, but more secular constituencies seemed taken aback by the size of the rally.
“They’ve come to show their muscles,” said Amr Hamza, a 25-year-old secular activist who has camped out in the square for weeks. With a hint of awe, he looked around the square, dominated by people in conservative dress. “There sure are a lot of them.”
Around a dozen liberal activists huddled in a tent they pitched in the square three weeks ago, their faces gloomy. Occasionally, they chanted, “The people want the fall of the field marshal,” a reference to Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, who leads the ruling body of 19 generals. But their slogans were soon drowned out.
“We will keep our ground,” said Salma Said, one of the activists in the tent, who promised to continue the sit-in. “They will leave by the afternoon, and we will continue.”
In terms of turnout, one of the largest since the revolution, the demonstration on Friday evoked past scenes in Tahrir Square. But many of the similarities stopped there. Cries for national unity and coexistence between Christians and Muslims made way for familiar religious chants and demands that Egypt adhere to Islamic law, known as Shariah.
“Islamic law is above the Constitution,” one banner read.
Egyptian flags were for sale, but business was desultory. Ribbons that recalled a famous nationalist slogan of almost a century ago—“Religion is for God, and the nation is for everyone”—drew little attention from a crowd that seemed to think otherwise.
Crowds played on slogans made popular during the epic protests that culminated in February. Heard often back then was a cry that soon became famous: “Hold your head up high, you’re Egyptian.” On Friday, “Muslim” was substituted for “Egyptian.” The chant that became the revolution’s anthem, “The people want to topple the regime,” changed on Friday to “The people want to apply God’s law.” The crowd itself seemed buoyed by the impressive show.
“If democracy is the voice of the majority and we as Islamists are the majority, why do they want to impose on us the views of minorities—the liberals and the secularists?” asked Mahmoud Nadi, 26, a student. “That’s all I want to know.”
Egypt remains one of the most pious countries in the Middle East, and a moral conservatism held sway even under the ostensibly secular government of Mr. Mubarak. Salafists were largely on the sidelines of Mr. Mubarak’s overthrow, but as elsewhere, new freedoms have given voice to long-repressed currents.
For a country in tumult, the Salafists’ calls for stability and piety—itself seen by many as an antidote to so many years of breathtaking corruption—have played well in the streets.
In past weeks, a growing divide has pitted protesters seeking far-reaching change against a military leadership that has stumbled but seems intent on maintaining a semblance of the status quo. Islamist groups—Salafists and others—have echoed the military’s calls for stability, and many secular activists see an emerging alliance between the two.
As the divide deepens, some wondered whether the Muslim Brotherhood, still the best-organized group in Egypt, would side with the more conservative forces or seek to act as a bridge to the liberal or secular forces. Some liberal activists said some elements in the Muslim Brotherhood had tried to mediate between the opposing sides until Friday morning, but failed.
“Some of the dividing lines have become clearer, and there will be a lot more pressure at this point on the Brotherhood to clarify where they are,” said Michael Wahid Hanna, a fellow at the Century Foundation in New York, who attended the rally. “It puts some pressure on them to define who they are and where they stand in the political process.”