Was there a way to avoid June 30 and its consequences? That was the question Mada Masr posed in the conversation it held on the third anniversary of the June 30 protests that led to the ouster of Muslim Brotherhood leader and former President Mohamed Morsi and the military government’s takeover. Researchers Amr Abdelrahman and Ibrahim al-Houdaiby, writers Amr Ezzat and Belal Alaa, and activist Elham Eidaros took part in the conversation, the first part of which centered on defining the pro-democracy movement that took part in the protests.
In the second part of the conversation, the group discusses the core relation between the pro-democracy movement and its political position vis-à-vis Islamists as opposed to its social position on broader questions of sectarianism and identity.
Amr Abdelrahman begins the conversation by arguing that the question of whether there could have been a different path after June 30 harbors the Muslim Brotherhood’s logic, which considers the act of protesting against Morsi to be an acceptance of military rule, which, in turn, means an acceptance of the Rabea al-Adaweya massacre where security forces killed hundreds of Brotherhood members and sympathizers who had organized a sit-in to protest the coup.
If the mistake did not inhere in the choice to protest against Morsi, and if we do not accept an argument based in political determinism, where, then, was the mistake? For Abdelrahman the mistake was twofold: the participation of pro-democracy political figures Mohamed ElBaradei and Ziad Bahaa al-Din in the July 3 government and the decision to not adhere to the stages of the political roadmap. This is where the conversation begins.
Amr Abdelrahman: I direct my anger at the illusion that you can rule side by side with the Armed Forces. What is the relation between June 30 and having a vice prime minister for economic affairs? Representatives of human rights organizations at the time met with Bahaa al-Din and he said he had projects for taxation. What did that have to do with what was happening in Egypt? If you want to buy yourself a space, you must introduce yourself as a strong opposition, as the Brotherhood did in 2011. That is the difference between those who worked for 80 years in politics and those who did for eight months. A state was being totally restructured. Why should I get involved? Bahaa al-Din introduced a law on tenders and auctions, in addition to for a school meal [in public schools]. With all due love and respect for the person, is blood the price of a school meal?
Because of the epic events that followed, nobody now remembers what the roadmap announced on July 3 was calling for. It simply called for early presidential elections within 60 days, followed by parliamentary elections and then a constitution, and a national reconciliation council in the meantime. However, the democratic wing called for a constitution before the road map and thus caused the demand for early presidential elections to disappear, and the country fell into the embrace of the Armed Forces. Show me what you will do. On June 30, you bought yourself a space, which you gave to the Armed Forces in exchange for contemplating the constitution. As a result, members of the democratic current in the revolution were drawn to the Islamists. And many of those who had taken to the street on June 30 rapidly joined the Islamists in the Ramses Square [protests] after the dispersion of Rabea. The coup became a coup. It killed 1,000 people. No one knew when the elections would be or whether [now President Abdel Fattah al-] Sisi would nominate himself. The old guard began to pick on us one at a time: Alaa Abd El Fattah in November, then Ahmed Maher, then Khaled al-Sayed, up to Yara Sallam, [all activists prosecuted and sent to jail]. They were literally having a good time picking on us.
Nael al-Toukhy (Mada Masr): But wasn’t there a desire among those who went to the streets on June 30 to foreclose the space of protest? Wasn’t there a fascist sentiment that actually wanted to close public space?
Abdelrahman: That does not mean that people wanted to slaughter the Brotherhood. If 100 were slaughtered instead of 1,000, nobody would have been upset. And, if no one was slaughtered, even better. I think the fascist public sentiment at the time is exaggerated. What was happening in the media is different from what was happening on the ground. But the Brotherhood twisted the arm of the Armed Forces. They refused to compromise even when the European Union’s foreign policy chief [High Representative] Catherine Ashton came to mediate between them. People understood that the Brotherhood did not want to reach a common understanding and wanted nothing but blood. There was nothing left to come but the scene of slaughter. There was no space for demonstration, but there was space for movement, pressure to reduce the transitional phase. ElBaradei could have mobilized his international relations to pressure Sisi into having the elections within 60 days as he promised in his roadmap.
Elham Eidaros: I have a problem with considering Rabea a milestone between what happened before and after. This is an acceptance of the Brotherhood’s narrative of events. I think that the people’s mood for blood began since the days of the Ettehadiya [Presidential Palace protests against the Brotherhood]. It was building up in light of the panic from repeated sexual and sectarian attacks. The Islamic current bears the responsibility for those sectarian attacks, and for preparing the masses for higher levels of oppression.
As for the democratic current, I agree with Amr Abdelrahman that it could have played the role of the opposition after June 30 rather than participate in the government. This is related to the constitution of democrats in Egypt and their self-image. Most of them, including ElBaradei, consider themselves patriotic intellectuals and not founders of an independent democratic movement. ElBaradei is an example of that patriotic intellectual, in the sense that he wants to reform the country, so he allies with Islamists to overthrow Mubarak, then hesitates in boycotting Morsi and does all he can to put reason in the minds of those in power. And it is thus natural for him to join the July 3 government to continue his role in reform. In my view, the main problem in all that is that the democratic movement did not take on the task of building a current in society, to create our masses, or the elephant, to use Amr Ezzat’s expression. We don’t know our own elephant. Islamists have a social body. But the democratic current didn’t consider building its body.
We as a democratic current do not know the difference between alliances that we enter to challenge a despotic authority and those we use to enter society. A great part of the defeat of the democratic current had to do with the fact that it did not build a movement.
The Revolutionaries Front [a loose group of pro-democracy activists] was one of the democratic current’s early answers to the question of June 30. But even this front did not search for a constituency. It considered that this [July 3] authority was despotic and it wanted to challenge it and thus raised the slogan “no to militarization.” It didn’t say anything else to attract the masses. So the people accused it of working with the Brotherhood, because this was the slogan of the Brotherhood. The front said it was against militarization but did not say what it supported.
The Revolutionaries Front opposed the current regime, but it did not totally reject its legitimacy, as proven by its call for protests against certain provisions of the new Constitution, which was being drafted. That was the first act of opposition to the authority after July 3 that was not from the Islamists. The front was hit in the Shura Council protests, which showed for the first time that others besides the Islamists were being oppressed. Why then did we lose the opportunity to build a democratic opposition that bases itself on the revolutionary front? Not because the front’s members were in prison, but because they suggested nothing other than “no to militarization.” For example, during the discussions of the Constitution, the front proposed a document that proposed minimal common issues that had gained a consensus, such as the rejection of militarization and securitization, together with issues related to economic and social rights and political freedoms. It did not mention anything about issues that created problems with Islamists, such as women, Copts and religious freedoms.
[Part of the democratic current’s inability to build a constituency is related to a confused position vis-à-vis the country’s Copts.] The Egyptian state has a reactionary and sectarian attitude toward Coptic Christians that dates back to the 1923 constitution. The difference between the state and Islamists regarding the Coptic question is the difference between a state, which killed 30 Christians in Maspero [in October 2011], followed by protests with Islamists who threw birdshot at the Cathedral. It is like the difference between the state’s discrimination against Shias and Islamists dragging them along the streets of Abu Nomros. What remains in the memory of a citizen is not that the Christians were killed in Maspero, but that protesters took to the street and were beaten.
No democrat in the world would not address minorities. How did we answer the question of minorities? Even after the reactionary and sectarian face of the Sisi regime became apparent, why do Christians continue to not like us and not consider us an alternative? Why do we struggle side by side with the Christians and then they go vote for the “For the Love of Egypt” [pro-state parliamentary electoral] list? Why don’t they consider ElBaradei or [liberal politician Amr] Hamzawy examples to follow? The answer is because we prioritize our problems with the authority over addressing society.
This is my reading for the choice of Abdel Moneim Abouel Fotouh [the former Brotherhood member who left the group and became the leader of a moderate Islamist constituency]. There are some who voted for him. Others voted for [left-leaning pro-democracy leader] Hamdeen Sabbahi in an attempt to answer the question of what was the right democratic alliance to build at that electoral moment [of the 2012 presidential elections]. Both answers are not wrong, if you are solely focused on challenging the despotism of state apparatuses and not addressing society. But how can you vote for an Islamist and ask Christians to vote for him?
Ibrahim al-Houdaiby: I disagree with the point that people’s protest against the Brotherhood was because of the Brotherhood’s position toward the Copts or Shias. I think the majority of people in Egypt have no problem with the oppression of Copts or Shias.
Elham Eidaros: I don’t agree. My understanding of women’s rights is very different from that of my village relative who also participated on June 30. I entered into a ridiculous conversation with her addressing her belief that the Brotherhood would kill female infants. For the radicals in their position towards sectarianism and patriarchy, the state, Islamists and the ruling regime are all reactionary. But what a traditional non-feminist woman would lose under Islamist rule is huge. Even women who live under patriarchy and are satisfied would not find the space they need, as if we were living in a country like Iran, Saudi Arabia and Sudan. I don’t have to be a feminist to feel that I don’t want to take this risk. In the presidential election between Morsi and [presidential candidate and former Prime Minister Ahmed] Shafiq, many women who can be described as traditional blamed me for annulling my ballot, and insisted I should elect Shafiq to save women’s rights.
The patriarchal component of the state is very obvious, but there is a difference between being a component, in addition to other things, and being the main characteristic.
Amr Ezzat: There is a difference between sectors that perceive themselves mainly as women, Copts and Shias, and between young Copts and Shias who joined parties and democratic movements. The first group looks upon the state’s position toward them as conservative, but it still allows for a few steps forward. Hence, as a group, they prefer to ally with the state, considering that they are mainly and pragmatically concerned with their own interests. However, those who chose the struggle for democracy seek to build a political current that represents them and tolerates their weakness and possibility for failure.
I have contacted a large number of Shias since 2011 as part of my research on freedom of religion and belief in Egypt, and I found the absolute majority of them now support Sisi. One of them, who suffered at the hands of State Security Investigation Services one day, was in a Hussainiya session [a Shiite ceremony] to which he invited Sisi and, afterward, he uploaded the video on YouTube. I spoke with this person and he said: True, security mistreated him, but the Brotherhood would kill him. At least security oppresses us but it also oppresses Salafis, [he said].
Ibrahim al-Houdaiby: Just like Muslims in the US. They don’t want to vote for Bernie Sanders because they don’t want a president from another minority.
Eidaros: That is the point. How to attract those sectors and make them realize that democracy is in their interest.
Ezzat: The same person who invited Sisi to the Hussainiya was supporting the Sabbahi campaign in his area. At the time, Sabbahi was being blackmailed by the Brotherhood who kept repeating that Shias are supporting Sabbahi. But, when the struggle escalated, he took his position based on his identity as a Shia. There are some who would not take the non-pragmatic choice to the end. They are those who joined us in the adventure in the beginning, but then sided with the stronger when they found that one party was winning and the other was weak.
Eidaros: The democratic current is weak and also inconclusive on issues of citizenship. When the democratic current bets on a person with an Islamist background, how can it expect to reach Christians? The sectarian issue was addressed with two answers in the 2011 parliamentary elections. The Egyptian Bloc gave a sectarian answer and coordinated with churches. The Revolution Continues list, which was a coalition of socialists from the Popular Alliance Party, liberals from the Egypt Freedom Party and Islamists from the Egyptian Current Party, drafted a good program from the perspective of religious freedoms but bad with regards to women’s rights, because we were blackmailed by the Egyptian Current Party, which is a group that splintered from the Brotherhood. They made us add that women’s rights do not contradict with the provisions of Islamic Sharia. Uniting youth groups who believed in the objectives of the revolution was important and correct from a democratic point of view, but it came at the cost of our ability to address Copts.
Belal Alaa: Since the revolution, the objective was to reach a consensus regarding democracy. But there is no longer democracy after June 30. There is an Islamist faction, which does not want to negotiate or compromise, and there is a democratic faction that has no answer to this dilemma. Islamists were not a marginalized minority to be simply considered a fanatic right and that’s it. They are one quarter of society, and in any election they would have won about 30 percent. They decided not to give up power, and you decided the only solution is that they give up power. Any proposal would have been mainly based on ousting them from the public space. This is the task that was proposed by June 30. It had to be done by somebody who would also reap its benefits. There was no option that State Security would do this and let democrats ascend to power. For me, it was very clear: Since Sisi is the only one capable of removing them from the scene and hence able to achieve the demands of June 30, he will rule Egypt. This is the nature of things. You say ElBaradei could have taken more steps? Such as what? I mean how does ElBaradei radically differ from Sisi? What would be the political scene he imagines without ousting the Brotherhood from it, i.e. bringing security authorities to the forefront? Security authorities don’t improvise. They play their role and reap the benefits. They ousted the Brotherhood and fought terrorism.
The alternative proposal for the democratic current in fact was based on splitting the Islamist current. That was the mission of ElBaradei, to split Islamists so that some of them would be willing to make concessions and enter the democratic process. That was also the role of State Security in the 1990s, which resulted in revisions [to the use of violence by different Islamist factions] and Islamists calling for freedom and democracy. We came through gaps in the public scene. Suddenly, at the moment of the revolution, we found ourselves to be a significant force and part of the public scene that is based on a minimal common understanding with the Islamists. But, what if the Islamists became real Islamists and demanded an Islamist state and thus ended this basic common ground? What would we do on the public scene? Do we have a formula for existing on the public scene now? Does the democratic wing want the Brotherhood to return to politics? No.
Eidaros: I don’t agree with this determination.
Abdelrahman: I personally wanted the Brotherhood to return to politics and have a party. But, at a certain moment, I reached the conclusion that they would not be good for that when Morsi postponed the parliamentary elections that were in his and his party’s interest. It was Morsi himself who introduced a provision in the Constitution, which required the Supreme Constitutional Court to review the election law, adding provisions that were easy for the court to reject and when it did reject them, he scheduled the elections during Coptic holidays. And so they were rejected by the High Administrative Court. That is when it became clear to me that the Brotherhood was not serious about solving the political crisis, and I reached the conclusion that early presidential elections were a must and that [Morsi] must be ousted.
On the other hand, we are talking about a state that kills people in their flats. I don’t comprehend the inevitabilities that some pose to us. The Brotherhood did not want to return to politics. Fine, but we cannot fire at them in their homes, nor give 500 or 600 death sentences in one court session.
I think we bear the historical responsibility of insisting that we can challenge the Brotherhood without 600 death sentences and killings based on identity. There really is a violent public sentiment, but containing it does not come from engagement from within it, but from outside.
Alaa: The attempt to contain state violence by the democratic wing, and behind it the revolutionary secular current, is coming too late. All the Brotherhood arrests were celebrated. The containment of state violence did not begin until after the arrest of Alaa Abd El Fattah. Even with regards to the Rabea sit-in, incitement for its dispersal continued until the moment it took place.
Eidaros: Not all the democratic current celebrated the Rabea dispersal. According to my information, before the dispersal, [former Prime Minister Hazem al-] Beblawi had a meeting with the heads of parties and told them they were planning to disperse the sit-in, and that he is expecting many to die. [Egyptian Social Democratic Party head Mohamed] Abul Ghar and [Popular Socialist Alliance head] Abdel Ghaffar Shokr objected and demanded to give it some time, because the dispersal should not be at the cost of many lives.
Abdelrahman: That is why I say that there is a difference between opposing the dispersion of Rabea while you are a vice president and rejecting it while you are in the opposition. In short, you cannot oppose them while you are part of their government.
Translated by Aida Seif El Dawla