Cairo: A Tale of Three Protests
Last time I was in Washington D.C., a government official put it to me bluntly, if somewhat tongue-in-cheek: “Couldn’t you get the Egyptian protestors to change the day they protest the most? With the time difference and everything, Fridays are awfully inconvenient for us in D.C. — it really cuts into our weekend.” In the old days, Fridays in Egypt always used to be good for one fairly mundane thing — it was the best day for traffic. It’s a day off, and before the Muslim congregational prayer around midday, the roads are completely clear, which means you can get anywhere in a fraction of the time it would take on any other day. Otherwise, it’s like a Sunday in D.C. — dead.
Now, it’s rather different. Tahrir Square in Cairo has been a focal point for protests for months now, since the dramatic events which brought down former President Hosni Mubarak. There are demonstrations on and off Fridays, but Friday is always going to be the day when the most people come to protest, particularly after the masses depart the mosque after Friday congregational prayer. Those protests — who comes, what they are protesting about or for, how long they stick around, when did they arrive — have become a key, if unscientific way, to take the pulse of people. Three different protests in downtown Cairo this Friday each represented something quite different. There were two in Tahrir Square itself, and one outside the nearby television headquarters in Maspero — and each of them had a different story to tell about the emphasis and priorities of the Egyptian public.
Friday’s Tahrir protest began at 1 o’clock. Note, not at 1p.m. — but at 1a.m., on Friday morning. People stayed in Tahrir Square from 1a.m. until Muslim dawn congregational prayers at 3:30a.m., with many stopping to pray, and then continuing through. People are obviously keen to be in the square — and while some decided to go home to get some rest, and then return in the afternoon, others made it an all night/all day event. The protest at Maspero, by contrast, started earlier this week, and had varying degrees of intensity through the week, with a call to return on Friday for another renewed protest.
Maspero’s demonstration focused on support for Coptic Christian rights, and a call to bring the perpetrators of violence against two churches earlier this week to justice — in other words, an internal, domestic, inwardly looking affair. For the Copts, it was a chance to express their frustration against ultra-conservative Muslim groups they perceive to have been responsible for the violence earlier in the week. For the many Muslims who were also there, it’s an opportunity for them to express solidarity with their Coptic compatriots. While many lauded the solidarity of the Muslims and the Copts, others worried that this type of approach will further marginalise the Copts as a separate community. After a rally in front of the American Embassy earlier this week by a small Coptic group demanding American intervention, those feelings could intensify.
The second protest on the hallowed ground of Tahrir Square called for national unity against all forces that would seek to divide Egypt from within and without. There’s a strong feeling within Egypt that a key element of the violence earlier this week that saw six Muslims and six Christians die was counter-revolutionary in nature — that is, that forces linked to the former regime instigated it. There’s also a suspicion voiced on the streets that foreign forces have vested interests in seeing Egypt’s revolution fail — and this protest is aimed at both the internal and the external. Copts and Muslims are in full force in this one — and it reinforces the counter-sectarian sentiment that many in Egypt wish to promote in this new phase. Not that those participating are irreligious — at Maspero and in Tahrir, many of the protestors are visibly religious, with hijabs and beards. Moreover, a Coptic mass was held in the middle of morning, leading up to Muslim congregational prayer at midday. But religion in Egypt does not necessarily signify Islamist political trends. Muslims and Christians alike in Egypt are simply imbued with religion as religion, and not necessarily as a political tool for mobilisation.
The final protest marked the annual celebration of the Palestinian ‘Nakba’ (catastrophe), a demonstration in commemoration of the May 1948 declaration of the State of Israel. Egyptians and Arabs at large have marked this day with demonstrations and memorials to Palestine, the Palestinian refugees, and Jerusalem. This annual demonstration now came as an open rebuke to the common Western theme that the Egyptian revolution did not care about the Palestinian issue. This was never the case. Western analysts had made much — too much — of the fact that during the uprising in January and February earlier this year there had been little focus on Israel in the protests. The Nakba demonstration demonstrates the Egyptian public’s very real and continuing sympathy with the Palestinian cause — one, which this weekend’s violence across Israel’s borders shows, remains a burning issue able to mobilize Arab protestors.
The Egyptian military has made it clear that they intend to keep the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel intact. But at the same time, an intact peace treaty (i.e., a lack of war) does not necessarily mean warm relations. Mubarak’s government was the most favorable institution toward Israel. Public opinion at large is certainly not friendly to Israel, and the attention to domestic affairs in the protests against Mubarak never meant that Egyptians had lost interest in the fate of the Palestinians. The reality and intensity of those feelings may become evident in the election campaigns we are about to see unfold in Egypt.
Egypt is emerging as a prime testing ground for the revolutionary energy of the Arab world. It is a key experiment in how religion in the Arab world can be properly accommodated in a pluralistic political framework, where civil society can be born anew after decades of repression, how citizens can actually affect change in their country. And it will test whether a new kind of regional stability can be built on the shoulders of public opinion, as opposed to a Western backed strong-man. While the Friday protests in Tahrir might not be the most scientific way of judging public opinion in the country or the region, one would be foolish not to pay attention to them — even if does cut into Washington’s weekend.
HA Hellyer is a Europe Fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU). He is also a Fellow of the University of Warwick and director of the Visionary Consultants Group.
This article was published by Foreign Policy on May 16, 2011.