Did they beat us to the gallows?

A boy and a girl in the peak of their youth smile at us with raised fists. Her hair hangs over her shoulder, their gestures are full of joy, and in the background the traffic is at a standstill.

This is a description of a very famous snapshot attributed to a street celebration in Iran sometime following the 1979 revolution. But surely, the picture was taken prior to the revolution’s conversion into an “Islamic revolution,” with very different kinds of supporters and photos — photographs of public executions of “non-Islamists” hanging from nooses that were suspended from cranes that took over the streets, possibly to set an example. 

There is a reason why a friend of mine posted this photo of the boy and the girl last December. His accompanying comment read, “Beauty, enthusiasm and welcoming the unknown with a wide smile.”  We have been haunted by such revolutionary travesties, by a fear that the fate of “non-Islamists” in Iran will be ours, that we will be crushed by populist Islamist crowds that are moved by leaders intoxicated by the same tyranny that they would not stop whining about. 

In December 2012, the Muslim Brotherhood seemed steadfast in tightening its grip on power. Brotherhood supporters and the police attacked us at the Ettehadiya Presidential Palace for protesting the ousted Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi’s presidential decree, which granted him expanded powers over the Constitution and the prosecutor general. This decree was a huge leap towards tyrannical rule, and a plunge into a deep unknown.

Meanwhile, a Brotherhood activist messaged me to tell me that he had personally written my name in a report filed to the prosecutor general’s office, threatening to jail me and other colleagues. Ironically, we were once comrades in the “Islamist current” during our college days at Cairo University, before the years and diverging convictions led us to drift apart.

Those were tough times under Morsi, especially as the Brotherhood excelled at fulfilling its desires through procedural “legitimacy,” or exceptional means backed by followers they could mobilize to take to the streets in support of the group’s decrees well before they were even declared. But there was always room for some biting sarcasm, nonetheless.

I commented on the photo of the boy and girl, saying that one day we will pity Morsi’s supporters in the same way that we feel sorry for those Iranian youths, knowing the dreadful fate of “non-Islamist” revolutionaries in Islamic Iran. I added that when this day comes, I, as a human rights activist, will make sure to convince people that the Brothers have the right not be prosecuted and to practice their faith freely, even if it is at ceremony halls. I was, of course, making reference to the dire straits of Egyptian Christians, who face huge legal hurdles when it comes to building new churches, and thus have to sometimes resort to holding their religious services in ceremony halls.

Writing that comment, I wouldn’t have imagined that my — and our collective — menacing sarcasm and protest against Morsi’s tyranny would be appeased that quickly. The tables were turned on the Brotherhood in no time. Crowds from all walks of life joined the pro-democracy protesters, while state institutions turned against Morsi’s rule, thanks to the Brotherhood and Islamists’ recklessness.

But one could definitely predict that such a “coup” would lead to violent sectarian retaliation by Islamists, who would soon be designated as a “violated sect,” a category that is not uncommon to the Egyptian scene.

In the small village of Zawyat Abu Musalam in Giza governorate, a man was caught on camera saying, “The Shias and the Brotherhood are ruining the country.” A woman corrects him, “No, the Shias only,” and he replies, “the Shia … the Shia.”

Zawyet Abu Musalam is where four Egyptian Shias were beaten to death by an angry mob, led by Salafi sheikhs who torched and attacked the house where they secretly held a religious sermon during Morsi’s rule, only days before his ouster.  Ironically, that hate speech has now backfired on the Brotherhood.

Satellite channels and anti-Brotherhood newspapers have escalated their media war, where defiance of tyranny is muddled with false propaganda. This was to match the opposing incitement and propaganda by the widely watched Islamist channels and miserable, poorly circulated newspapers. The media propaganda eventually fueled the war on the “terrorists” who had just left office, creating a real need to convince people that Islamist have rights, regardless of the conflict we have with them.

Blood was soon spilled, and this time Islamists are the ones posing for photos with raised fists. But their fists are open, gesturing the four-finger salute that refers to the massacres that took place during the dispersal of the Rabea al-Adaweya and Nahda Square sit-ins.

The battle is complicated, frightening; side-switching is a common phenomenon in this war, and the drums are banging with the sounds of fear and cruelty. Our voice struggles to be heard amid the archaic speakers who have long dominated.

***

I was in the Tahrir movie theater in Dokki last December watching the American film Argo. The film is based on the true escape story of six American diplomats after Iranian forces raided the US embassy during the 1979 Iran hostage crisis.

I received one of those news SMS alerts stating that supporters of the Salafi preacher Hazem Salah Abu Ismail had attacked the Wafd Party headquarters, which is very close to the cinema. It is also where the National Salvation Front — the main anti-Brotherhood coalition formed to obstruct Morsi’s Constitutional Declaration — often held its meetings.

I was tense. Everyone around me was as well, checking the news on their smart phones. But we were probably also stressed out by the events in the movie.

Several years ago, I would have sympathized with the crowds of this popular Iranian revolution, regardless of their digressions; but now it is personal, and I unquestionably identify with those struggling to escape the vicious Iranian “revolutionary guards,” whose rhetoric and foolish demeanor that I saw on the screen immediately reminded me of the Islamists we were battling in the streets.

I started thinking then that I would never be one of those “revolutionary ideologues” who turn a blind eye to the deviations of a revolution, even if it imprisons or executes them. Those ideologues learn not to take oppression personally, so you find that they sympathize with late President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s regime and are understanding of the populist route of the Iranian revolution.

“Goddamn the Brotherhood!” More than one person murmured this curse as we exited the movie theater, sighing in relief that the film’s heroes were able to escape.

There was more cursing as I joined a couple of the cinema dwellers in a chat outside. I jokingly used Abu Ismail’s presidential campaign slogan, “We will live dignified.” They were not happy with my joke, so I felt I had to add, “We will all live dignified, or else they [referring to Islamists] are damned.”

My audience still disapproved, one of them saying, “No, nothing would work with them except sheer force, or else they will crush us all. They must be damned.”

***

In a fancy café in one of Cairo’s posh neighborhoods, I meet my Salafi friend who resides there, who had recently become a supporter of Abu Ismail.

“People like you, Amr, who lure Muslims away from their religion, will have a chance to repent once an Islamic authority restores the citizens’ authentic identity and applies Sharia,” he tells me.

“Seculars are not Muslims. This is not the words of those you call terrorists, but also the stance of [the late popular Muslim jurist and preacher] Sheikh Mohamed al-Shaarawi, and will be the judgment of Al-Azhar under a new leadership. So, there is no way out; come to your senses, Amr!” he adds with a giggle.

“You wish,” I respond.

“Then the punishment of apostasy awaits you. And I will not even feel sorry for you, if you waste all the opportunities to repent, insisting on your ignorance,” he tells me in a serious tone.

“You will unfortunately die,” he says, before calling the waiter to order a café latte.

I order tea and smile back at him before responding, “So be it! But ‘you will see how I will disturb you’.”

I was making reference to an article by the same title that I had recently written, and which I borrowed from a pop song by the Lebanese star, Myriam Fares. In the article, I pledged that I will put a nail in the coffin of the Islamic rule, if it continued to strip me of my freedoms.

I sent a text to my Salafi friend on June 30, quoting the lyrics of another Myriam Fares song, “How are you? … Hope you’re well … Do you still remember me well?”

He sent me a short reply, “We have the legitimacy. Die of resentment!”

The rest is history. We lost dozens of our friends and acquaintances. And we were resentful.

***

I spent hours upon hours trying to write after June 30, but failed. I only ended up scribbling angry posts on social networks. I was bitter. I was resentful of those who cheered for death in order to regain power, and of those applauding the killing of “terrorists.” 

“The general is on our side, the battle is ferocious
It is not defeat that I fear, but victory
For the way to the castle is paved with corpses.”

This is part of a poem, “A prayer of fear,” written by my poet brother, Mahmoud Ezzat. He sums up the feeling of freedom activists, who do not believe that they are on their way to rule.

There is still a long way ahead of us, and the fact that Islamists have beaten us to the gallows does not mean we have won. This is nothing more than an ugly reversal of their victory. The gallows still await the defeated.

My friend who posted the boy and girl snapshot from Iran, commenting on how they welcomed the unknown with a smile, was taking part in the protests of the National Alliance to Support Legitimacy — the legitimacy of the former Brotherhood president, of course.  He was convinced that there was a need to protest the viciousness of the current regime, regardless of what the future brings, regardless of the unknown. He participated even though he was irritated by the Islamist slogans calling for their Islamic state; empty slogans that are like chasing a mirage.

He returned from one of “their protests” to sarcastically write how a pretty girl waved disapproving hand gestures at them from her balcony as the protest passed under her house.

“Evil cannot be that beautiful,” he added. 

He changed his stance.

He was now convinced that this pretty girl couldn’t be blamed for loathing those who were ready to throw her future into the abyss. He told me that he could no longer participate in such victimization rituals, these protests for authoritarians to rebuild their tyranny.

We have probably been venturing into the unknown all along; any revolution is essentially an uncertain endeavor. But we try to swerve the revolutionary path towards the collective path.

Islamists suppressed their fascist slogans in the name of religious dissimulation when they participated in the collective revolt of January 25. Our collective chant, “Bread, freedom and human dignity,” prevailed.

But this collective cry has not won yet. We have not won yet. We have participated in part of the battles — sometimes with the generals on our side. Confrontation was inevitable, and so was death. But those who savor the gallows are likely to be hanged. And I refuse to risk my neck. This time, it is also personal.

The battle is complicated and frightening. Side-switching is a common phenomenon in this war, and the drums are banging with the sounds of fear and cruelty. Our voice is struggling to be heard amid the archaic speakers who have long dominated.

We might have survived, but this is not our victory.

The Arabic version of this article appeared in Al-Majalla.

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