Last December at a protest against Egyptian president Muhammad Morsi in Egypt, it is alleged that an unveiled Christian woman was standing with other demonstrators when a hard-line Salafi fundamentalist came up to her and said “Cover your face you harlot!” She immediately reached down, took off her shoe, and slapped him across the face with it.
This story, now circulating on the internet, apparently originally appeared late last December in the Egyptian newspaper Misr an-Nahar-da (Egypt Today). It was reprinted in Al-Hasela.
Christians are about 10 percent of the population in Egypt, and many are middle class and well educated. Some in the community are very concerned with the rise of Muslim fundamentalism and what it will do to the status of minority Christians. The woman was understandably upset, but such physical responses to verbal provocation are unwise.
Coptic Church officials in Egypt have unhelpfully urged Christian girls to wear a headscarf in this conservative Muslim country.
The first visit of an Iranian president to Egypt, in the wake of the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran and the 2011 Egyptian Revolution against Hosni Mubarak, was expected to be a big deal. It wasn’t.
Oh, it marked a change. The Mubarak regime despised the Khomeinist government of Iran. Egypt’s staff generals helped Iraq fight Iran in the 1980s and I was told by an Egyptian foreign ministry source that the Iraqi military response to the 1988 Fao campaign was planned in Cairo. Egypt provided a security umbrella against Iran for Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. Mubarak insulted Shiites. There was no mutual diplomatic representation. The government obsessed about the few hundred or few thousand Egyptian converts from the country’s mainstream Sunni branch of Islam to Shiism. But this situation, as between Mubarak’s Egypt and Iran, was peculiar and not similar to that of Turkey or even Saudi Arabia (which despite being a Wahhabi state, hosted Ahmadinejad in Riyad for talks years ago).
But Ahmadinejad in Egypt did not make that big a splash, as Dr. Hisham al-Hamami argues in al-Misriyyun. In part, he points out, the country is riven with internal political divisions and most Egyptians don’t have the time of day for foreign affairs. In part, secular-minded and leftist Egyptians are worried about the rise of political Islam, what with having a Muslim Brotherhood government, and Ahmadinejad represented for them the worst excesses of that kind of politics. In part, Iran’s Syria policy made the Iranian president a skunk at the party in a revolutionary Arab state and among youth who largely sympathize with the Syrian rebels.
For its part, Iran is seeking to break out of the diplomatic isolation and economic sanctions imposed on it by the US, Israel and their allies in Europe. Egypt needs investment, but Iran will be hampered in that regard by the dramatic fall in value of the Iranian riyal.
Even the youth, more liberal wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, led by Essam Elerian, was uncomfortable in being lumped in with Ahmadinejad by the New York Times’s Thomas Friedman. The USG Open Source Center summarized his response from the Arabic web page of the Freedom and Justice Party (the Muslim Brotherhood’s civil wing):
” [FJP site:] Report by Mustafa Riyad dated 9 February: The report quotes the Vice President of the Freedom and Justice Party, Dr [Essam Elerian], as saying that the Egyptian revolution will not import the model of China or India and “we are not Afghanistan or Pakistan and we will not imitate Iran in any way.” In remarks which he published on his Facebook page, [Elerian] disagreed with the comparison made by US journalist and columnist Thomas Friedman. He said that the regime of autocracy has chained the hands of the Egyptians, and political power in Egypt was militarized. He pointed out that the situation is now different because the government will not turn into a whip used against the people.”
Many Egyptian youth sympathized with the 2009 Green Movement in Iran, which Ahmadinejad brutally crushed.
Ahmadinejad visited Egypt at a time when Iran is backing the secular, socialist, authoritarian Baath regime of Syria against its own revolution. To most Egyptians, Bashar al-Assad looks entirely too much like a Mubarak, and the Baath Party reminds them unpleasantly of the ‘National Democratic Party’ in Egypt that monopolized power and wealth for its cronies. So Ahmadinejad did not look like a populist in Egypt, but like a Kissinger-style Realist, willing to sacrifice the Syrian masses to Iran’s hegemonic geopolitical interests in the region.
Gone are the heady days of summer, 2006, when Iran backed Lebanon’s party-militia, Hizbullah, against a massive Israeli attack, and helped it avoid any crushing defeat at Israeli hands. Even staunchly Sunni shopkeepers put pictures of Ahmadinejad up behind their counters.
Reaching out to Iran for the purposes of mild diplomatic exchanges is a way for the government of President Muhammad Morsi to differentiate itself from the preceding Mubarak regime. It is a small rebellion against the United States, for which Egypt is still a client state, marking a little space of independence. But it doesn’t amount to much, and isn’t distinctive from what other American allies and clients in the region are already doing. It is also getting push back from the Arab oil states of the Gulf, who are worried that Egypt is going soft on Iran’s regional ambitions.
In the end, Ahmadinejad in Cairo was a disappointment not because of the Sunni-Shiite divide but because his government is out of step with the aspirations of contemporary Arab youth. They are in the majority left of center, he is an exponent of the Religious Right. He is a supporter of the hated dictator Bashar al-Assad, they are sympathetic to the rebel cause in that country. His government is authoritarian, they want more freedoms. His government is a theocracy, they want democracy. Even a Muslim religious politician like Essam Elerian doesn’t want to be tarred by the brush of Iran. Ahmadinejad in Cairo was not hip or cool. He was so 1979, representing a movement contemporaneous with the Bee Gees’ “Too Much Heaven.”
In the Delta city of Kafr Sheikh, 25 demonstrators were injured by the military-grade tear gas deployed by police. Kafr Sheikh is a big textile center, and textile workers have taken the lead since about 2006 is demonstrating and striking. Since the Muslim Brotherhood is socially conservative and partial to business, it hasn’t been good for unions, and many of the protests in Egypt are likely in part expressions of the rage of union members.
Morsi squeaked by to victory last June, but this fall began acting increasingly dictatorially, declaring himself above the courts and pushing through a fundamentalist-tinged constitution that has terrified secularists, women and Coptic Christians. Although Morsi has climbed down from his claim of judicial immunity, he is still acting high-handedly. His largely appointed, mostly Muslim Brotherhood-dominated Consultative Council (a sort of senate) has hastened to legislate without waiting for the lower house to be elected.
Worst of all, Morsi has not met the demands of workers for better wages and working conditions, among the major drivers of the revolution against Hosni Mubarak two years ago. His constitution attempts to regiment workers and only allows for one union per trade.
On top of everything else, over 20 football hoodlums in Port Said were sentenced to death two weeks ago for their role in provoking a stampede just about a year ago at the city’s soccer stadium, killing scores. After the verdict, local families tried to break into the prison and free their relatives or sons, provoking clashes that left 41 dead.
Despite a reconciliation meeting between Morsi and the secular or centrist opposition on Thursday, there isn’t much sign of reconciliation.
Morsi should not have rushed that constitution through. He had hoped to forestall further intervention against him by his bold gestures. Instead, he has alienated the leftist youth who spearheaded the revolution, and who had up until last fall been willing to work with the Brotherhood.
Wedeman also interviews retired Gen. Sameh Seif al-Yezal, who interprets al-Sisi’s statement as a warning against the country sliding into civil war, which al-Yezal thinks is a real possibility.
Meanwhile, President Muhammad Morsi backed off his decree of emergency law and suspension of civil liberties in the Canal cities of Suez, Port Said, and Ismailia, which have seen vigorous protests against his government since the Jan. 25 two-year anniversary of the beginning of the Egyptian revolution.
Protesters in the three cities refused to observe the curfew the president put in place on Monday and Tuesday nights, mounting demonstrations and playing soccer in front of government buildings. As Mr. Wedeman reported, the police seem uninterested in intervening.
Although most Egyptians are indignant at being compared to Algeria, it should be a cautionary tale for Dr. Morsi, as it is for Tunisian Muslim leader Rashid Ghanoushi. In 1992-2002, some 150,000 Algerians died in a vicious civil war between secularists and fundamentalists. The same division is emerging in Egypt, and the secular and moderate-religious forces are increasingly rejecting the legitimacy of Morsi’s rule. Two competing claims to sovereignty are what make for a civil war.
Morsi created this polarization by pushing through a fundamentalist-tinged constitution and by forming a Muslim Brotherhood government that excludes his opposition, even though he did not win the presidency by a very large margin. His tendency to issue sweeping decrees and to favor his Muslim Brotherhood cadres has created a fear that he just wants to be a fundamentalist Hosni Mubarak and does not really have the instincts of a democrat.
The canal cities of Port Said, Ismailia and Suez rejected the imposition of a curfew and of emergency laws on them Monday night. In the meantime, the major opposition parties declined President Muhammad Morsi’s call for a meeting to work out differences. The National Salvation Front, made up of leftists and old regime secularists, insists that Morsi widen his cabinet to create a government of national unity and that he take back out of the constitution paragraphs that threaten an imposition of a strict interpretation of Muslim religious law on everyone.
In Port Said, some 10,000 demonstrators defied the curfew, with representatives of all the major groups in the port city of nearly a million coming out to chant against President Morsi and against the Muslim Brotherhood. They cursed the Supreme Guide of the Brotherhood, Muhammad al-Badi`, and the former member of parliament for a district of Port Said in Parliament from the Brotherhood, Akram Sha`ir.
In the first round of the presidential elections last May, Port Said voted for leftist Hamdeen Sabahi. Sabahi did well but was not among the top two vote getters. That was Morsi and his rival, Ahmad Shafiq (Mubarak’s last prime minister and a man of the old regime). Port Said preferred even Shafiq to Morsi. This record of voting in recent elections suggests that Port Said has a strong secular orientation, and that labor unions are strong (it was likely the unions who got out the vote for Sabahi last May).
On top of everything else, a court just sentenced 21 young men many from the Green Eagle soccer fan club (supporting Port Said’s al-Misri team), to death for allegedly deliberately provoking a riot in the city’s stadium last February that left dozens dead. In the stampede, many fans of Cairo’s al-Ahli team died, and it was rumored at the time that elements of the old regime conspired with pro- al-Misri soccer hoodlums to punish the ultras or soccer hoodlums from Cairo for their role in overthrowing Mubarak. Many in the city seem to believe that the verdict against the Port Said fans was directed by the Muslim Brotherhood to curry electoral favor with Cairo (the Brotherhood hadn’t done well in much of Cairo, a metropolitan area of some 20 million).
The canal cities have played important roles in modern Egyptian nationalism, fighting off the British, and in 1956, they took on the British, French and Israelis. Their people reminded Morsi of these years of sacrifice.
Egyptian President Muhammad Morsi on Sunday put three Suez Canal cities under emergency law on Sunday for a month. Port Said, Suez, and Ismailiya had seen violence by angry crowds against government offices and in some cases the HQ of the Muslim Brotherhood. Being on the Suez Canal, the cities are sensitive for security reasons. The violence began on January 25, the commemoration of the beginning of the 2011 upheaval that overthrew president-for-life Hosni Mubarak.
Members of the leftist, centrist and liberal parties making up the National Salvation Front coalition condemned Morsi’s decree as a form of “treason against the nation.” It is not clear that any of them will agree to meet him, as he suggested, at 6 pm on Monday.
The National Salvation Front is demanding that Morsi resign and pave the way for new presidential elections, saying that he has lost his legitimacy because of his high-handed actions. Particularly resented is that Morsi rushed through a fundamentatlist-inflected constitution, which he had earlier agreed ought to be a consensus document.
Egypt’s protest movement has a long tradition now of agitating against the emergency law of 1981, which suspended key civil liberties. Morsi’s invoking of an emergency law angered them, since they had finally forced Egypt’s military and elites to revoke the state of emergency. Some Egyptians fear that invoking emergency laws risks returning to dictatorship. They remind Morsi that before he came to power in elections last summer, he had spoken of emergency laws as inherently dictatorial.
Morsi made himself highly unpopular with more centrist or secular-minded voters by rushing the completion of a constitution late last fall, then putting it to a referendum even though the judges went on strike in protest. The constitution is not a consensus document. Massive demonstrations were staged against him all over the country. Things had quietened down until last Friday’s two-year commemoration of the revolution.
It seems unlikely that the crowds can get rid of Morsi through street protests. He has lots of supporters, and he won the election fair and square last June.
On the other hand, many non-Brotherhood parties are beginning announce that they will boycott the parliamentary elections to be held this spring. They are calling on Morsi to call new presidential elections first and saying he has lost his legitimacy.
An Egyptian court ruled against the fans of the Port Said al-Masri soccer/ football team, sentencing 21 of them to death for their role in provoking a stampede on the field last year. It is widely believed in Egypt that the al-Masri fans, called ultras or football hoodlums, deliberately caused the stampede, which killed dozens of people, and that they were hand in glove with Old Regime security officials who wanted to punish the al-Ahli ultras for their role in making the revolution against Hosni Mubarak. The court appears to have taken this theory seriously.
The al-Ahli ultras in Tahrir Square in Cairo went wild with joy at the verdict. But in Port Said, families of imprisoned ultras tried to free them, and the city erupted in protests, so that the national army had to come in and occupy it.
Friday saw another day of big protests and police repression in Egypt’s major cities. The protesters, who want the military to withdraw from politics and go back to the barracks, were galvanized by the soccer tragedy at Port Said on Wednesday, where some 74 persons were crushed in a stampede after local ultras (soccer hoodlums) supporting the al-Masri team attacked those cheering for Cairo’s al-Ahli team.
Ahli soccer rowdies had played a leading role in the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in 2011, and I saw them lining up around Tahrir Square last summer to provide security to a second round of protests. Ultras had often fought police after games, and used that experience during the revolution. Those in Egypt’s dissident movement already predisposed to see the military and police as holdovers of the Mubarak regime darkly suspected that police in Port Said had their own thugs target Ahli ultras in an act of revenge.
Even level-headed Egyptian authorities, such as judges in the judiciary, took this theory seriously enough to forbid the head of the Egyptian soccer federation to travel abroad, along with the governor of Port Said.
You can’t really understand the Arab world unless you appreciate the importance of what Americans call soccer (in most parts of the world it is just “football”). “