Technically, I’m writing this on a Friday, since it’s past midnight local time in Cairo. But in the Islamic world, Friday is special. It begins at noon with the Jumm’ah prayer but it also ends with it in many ways, since the day is usually a national holiday and the prayer being the high-point of the day, gives an excuse to lay in bed for the rest of it. This lazy Friday dynamic was dramatically changed in the Arab spring, with each Jumm’ah being linked to politics and the mosques serving as the starting points for demonstrations. Today’s Jumm’ah is a big one, two Jumm’ahs are in opposition in Egypt. One called for officially by the anti-coup camp, and the other sponsored by the army’s commander Abdul Fatah al-Sisi, to give him the “authority of the people to face the probable violence and terrorism” as he puts it.
After hearing al-Sisi’s speech on Wednesday, I decided to head down on Thursday to the main pro-Mursi/anti-coup camp in Egypt, Rabia Al-Adawiyya to see the attitude of its occupants before the big day. I had met a taxi driver in my week here in Cairo, a Salafi, middle aged man who had offered to take me down to see the square and help me find my why around it. Apparently, he had been spending the past twenty eight days there to support the return of the man he had elected. I called him and we headed for the square, we reached it at around 4:00pm.
You smell the square before you actually see it. Sewage, musk, mango, sweat and smoke and a whole lot of other vapours mixed together. Then you reach the check points where you’re asked for your ID and searched thoroughly for any weapons by a number of volunteers from the youth groups in the square. The organization of these individuals wearing orange vests and helmets, both men and women is quite impressive considering the numbers they deal with. Once you’re in, you get the first glimpse of banners and flags, then you see them everywhere. Tents are the key feature of the landscape leading towards the heart of the square. I met entire families that practically live there.
As soon as I had removed my camera from my bag and produced my voice recorder a man approached me, eager to share his story. Many followed suite and quite soon, a considerable crowd had formed and their eagerness to express themselves was overwhelming. They didn’t ask for any press credentials or a background on who on Earth I was. They spoke with passion, real heart wrenching passion, but very little strategy. They felt deeply wronged by everyone: the army, the secularists and the intellectuals especially. Rashad Mahmoud, a lawyer from the crowd echoed the majorities sentiment: “they’ve been crying for ‘democracy’ over our heads for years, and when it produces Islamists it’s war from day one.”
I couldn’t extract from a single one of the people I spoke to a word of self-criticism or a recognition of the sentiments on the other side as being genuine. Nevertheless, it’s very hard not to respect the commitment of the people in Rabia. I met a group of elderly women from Gina, a Bedouin village 600km south of Cairo, they had come on a bus on the 30th of July and had stayed camping in Rabia ever since.
I had the chance to interview Wajdi Al Arabi, member of The National Council for Human Rights in Egypt and a prominent Egyptian actor. He had the following to say:
*Interview with Wajdi Al Arabi (Member of The National Council for Human Rights in Egypt)
Q: Sir, I’m a university student from the UK. I’ve come to cover the events taking place in Egypt. My first question is regarding your analysis of the latest events and the problem of media bias in covering them. The outside world is presented with news coverage part of which is sourced from the official Egyptian media outlets. Almost everyone I’ve talked to in Cairo regard these media outlets as being little more than propaganda machines for the armed forces. As a filmmaker and human rights activist on the ground, what’s your take on this?
A: Everything you mentioned about the media coverage is true. But even so, this opinion of mine isn’t worthy of note compared to the conclusions you yourself as an independent observer can form and convey to your people. Objectively, my own point of view may be flawed with prejudice. I may tell you things which aren’t accurate because I want my side to appear to be right. Perhaps my words are driven by national or cultural prejudices which you’re not aware of. But your eye is neutral, and as someone who belongs between them your word has more credibility then mine can ever have. Who in the outside world knows my name or attaches any credibility to it. I urge you to take a good look at the situation today in Egypt as fairly as you can, and to hopefully recognize that the individual responsible for bringing Egypt to this climax is Abdul Fatah al-Sisi.
Q: What do you expect will happen tomorrow? Al-Sisi’s speech yesterday, in which he asked of the Egyptian people to head to the streets on Friday, so as to give him authority to tackle “probable violence and terrorism”, was regarded by many as being a direct threat towards pro-Mursi protesters and an indicator that the army intends to spill blood.
A: I don’t understand his asking for “authorization from the people” for what he plans to carry out tomorrow. What about more than two hundred people dead, Under whose authority were they killed? Under whose authority were thousands wounded in these past weeks. When has he ever regarded the authority of anyone, he acts regardless of anyone’s authority. First he leads a military coup on the very authority he used to solute. He them demolishes the constitution discarding every article within it, articles he had previously sworn a heavy oath to protect and uphold. He then proceeds to appoint the head of the constitutional court as temporary president with himself as both deputy prime minister and minister of defense and to finish things of, he swears his new oath before the temporary president he himself appointed. So any talk of Al-Sisi’s regard for authority at this point is ludicrous. This is all a pretext of his own making. He wants to coat his actions with a layer of authority so that he can say when he commits a massacre: I didn’t do it on my own accord, I was merely carrying out the will of the people.
The scenario will be exactly the same as what took place on the 30th of last month. Protesters gathered in Tahrir square, six million they say! Even though we know that the square can’t hold anything close to that figure but that’s beside the point, so assuming the figure is true, what of those equally massive pro-Mursi demonstrations which took place in Rabia Al-Adawia square and Al Nahdah square and countless others on the very same day. He chose to look at the scene with only one eye. He selected those in Tahrir square and said : “you’ve dazzled the world”! What about the other protesters have they not dazzled the world likewise? So I think he intends the same tomorrow: one side will again “dazzle the world” and Al-Sisi will be forced to take action with their authority against their opponents.
Q: As a member of the arts community and the cultural circles in Egypt, how do you explain the fact that so many of these professionals, as well as the intellectual community choose to side so heavily with the official narrative of the armed forces against the Islamic movements regardless of their specific creed or Ideology?
A: Here I think many of the individuals involved in such communities can be excused. The narrative that has reached them from the Islamic movements has been corrupted. Also, I make no secret of the fact that some individuals belonging to the Islamic movements spread fear by saying things like: we’re coming for you, we’re coming to kill you! So many of them have feared for their lives and when Al-Sisi says give me authority, they reply: you have it, execute them all! Believe me, many of the supporters of the military coup would gladly watch as the ground of Rabia Al-Adawia be leveled with the corpses of the people in it.
Q: I spoke to youth members from Tamarud and I felt genuine sincerity in their words. However, when I mentioned Tamarud here in Rabia they were immediately dismissed as either traitors, or members of the ministry of interior in disguise. How do you understand Tamarud?
A: This movement (Tamarud) has been used to achieve the goals of a specific period and then they’ll be gone. These youths you speak of, they’ll be the first to find themselves stranded if the coup succeeds. Even the youth of the 25th of July will be left stranded. People like Wael Ghonim and Asmaa Mahfouz will be most unwelcome in Tahrir. They won’t be welcome because as far as the military is concerned, their role ended and they have nothing more to contribute in Tahrir. This is why I feel sorry for the youth of Tamarud, they really are in trouble. They used to chant “down with the rule of the military” and they meant it but they’ve been seriously played.
My final remarks are: don’t pay any attention to the news presented on the official Egyptian channels. People in the outside world know as well as we do that these channels speak for one side and produce lie after lie. They’re paid to do so. I believe that the sources of information online, and through social media outlets are much more accurate and reliable. Also I urge you to keep your heart open to the other narrative tomorrow. If you have any doubt where things stand, compare the way Mursi and his government dealt with decent, with the armies methods and judge for yourselves.
We left the square at around 11pm. On our way out we saw the orange vests filling up sand bags from a massive sand pit near the entrance. I asked one of them what they were doing and he replied: “we may need these to barricade the square tomorrow.” I hope they don’t, but unfortunately they’re partly to blame for their position. I say this not because I disagree with their demands but because I disagree with their politics. The people in Rabia have fallen in love with themselves completely. The intense religious and political rhetoric used on the stage cuts of all extended hands even those of their allies. Tactics that involve any kind of “retreat and regroup” are classified as outright defeats and can’t be considered. Their demands are also absolute. These remarks can’t be used to excuse the retaliation of the military, but it can be used to understand why so many Egyptians have been polarized, forced to choose sides between al-Sisi saying: we will not retreat one moment from the road map, and the brotherhood saying: We will accept nothing less than the return of Mursi as president.
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More Images from Thursday: