The MOD sit-in: Sometimes with the Islamists, Never with the State

During the Monday march in solidarity with the Abbassiya detainees, a young comrade I know from Cairo University, a medical student who was among the field hospital doctors during the MOD sit-in, approached me, and told me the story of a Salafi woman in niqab, who kept on kissing the Revolutionary Socialists red flag during the sit-in, while shouting: “Forgive me I didn’t know about you before!”

I replied back with the story of another comrade, who was entering the MOD sit-in and was being searched by a Salafi sheikh. When the latter found in the student’s bag the flag of the Revolutionary Socialists, Marxist books, as well as issues from The Socialist newspaper, he told the young student: “Come in son, May God be with you!”

These were just two stories, among many, witnessed by our comrades during the controversial MOD sit-in which lasted for a week, during which it was subject to attacks by knives, swords, firearms, machine guns, fired by plainclothes thugs working closely with the army, and was finally suspended by a crackdown by the military police and army’s special forces last Friday, resulting in the arrest and torture of hundreds.

The sit-in started by a group of supporters of the disqualified Salafi presidential candidate Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, who marched on the Ministry of Defense Friday night, 27 April, and decided to stage a sit-in calling for the dissolution of the Presidential Electoral Committee, which they blamed for the disqualification of their candidate, but the SCAF-controlled committee has also been the target of the revolutionaries’ wrath from all shades of the political spectrum.

If you think Islamophobia is on a worrying rise in Europe, you should have seen the Egyptian twittersphere during that week of sit-in, with liberals and leftists reacting in the most disgustingly way.

There are those who by default will stand against anything Islamist, anything with a beard or niqab, and will avoid them like a plague. Hence their position varied from neutrality, as if this fight between the Islamists and the army is happening on another planet; or praying that the two sides by some miracle will finish one another off; or support the army’s crackdown on those Islamists.

And of course you got the usual “مش وقته” chorus, which always comes up whenever there are clashes with the police and the army, shouting “It’s not the time for this, we have other important matters.” And usually those “important matters” are elections, or another SCAF-sponsored milestone in the political process.

But the “Islamists” are NOT a unified homogeneous block. We are talking about millions of Egyptians from different backgrounds and provinces who are part of the Muslim Brotherhood and the different Salfist groups. It’s even wrong to lump “Salafists” all in one basket. Let’s remember that young Salafis took part in the January 2011 uprising contrary to virtually all the Salafi celebrity sheikhs’ pro-Mubarak position. Many of the workers I have been bumping into during strikes from 2007 onwards have beards that almost reach their bellies and are followers of Salafi sheikhs. The latter had prohibited strikes and demonstrations, yet their poor followers obviously were moving in a different direction. Already the salafi movement is splintered, and the dismal performance of Abu Ismail in the crisis, including disowning repeatedly his supporters, is bound to create a disillusioned base. Isn’t there a critical mass that could be won to the side of revolution? Of course there is, and the revolutionary socialists have to play a role in influencing this base as much as they can, according to their capabilities and political weight.

There is nothing more farcical than the notion that the Muslim Brotherhood is an iron fist organization whose members are following the Supreme Guide’s orders blindly. The organization has been marred with factions and splits for years along generational and class lines. Despite refraining from mobilizing an entire year following February 2011, there is not a single time a serious clash happened with the state without stumbling on a group of young MB members who attended the protests or the clashes contrary to the group’s line. And I personally witnessed that on several occasions.

What do you do as a revolutionary socialist in the midst of this? One should not stop exposing the hypocrisy and the counterrevolutionary politics of the MB leadership, but we should not give up on trying to attract the youth and those in the MB who are sincerely pro-revolution once again to the revolutionary camp and even winning them to socialist politics, something that I’m also increasingly witnessing. And that’s not going to happen by sitting on Twitter and ranting about the MBs like many leftists are doing, but by physically being present on the ground in the events they organize, and continuously argue and debate with their young members. And when a fight breaks out with the state, you don’t withdraw and say may God burn them both, you have to take sides. But you take sides, while still maintaining your organizational independence and fight under your own red banner and shout your own chants.

The MOD sit-in presented a step forward for the revolution, not a regress, despite the army’s onslaught that saw several comrades detained, and brutally tortured. We have taken the fight to a new level, breaking a great taboo, which is staging sit-ins and direct actions in front of the headquarters of the counterrevolution itself; as well as reaching out to and earning the respect of the most revolutionary wing of the Salafist movement. I salute the bravery of all the comrades who took part in the sit in and in resisting the army’s crackdown.

All Revolutionary Socialist activists and sympathizers are now out of prison, but there are hundreds of Islamists, independent activists and ordinary citizens who are still languishing in custody and await military prosecution. We must do our best to stand by them and secure their release. We will continue to organize against SCAF and we should be more than keen to reach out to the Islamist cadres who are willing to join this fight. The polarization within the Islamist movement will only increase with every betrayal and compromise the Islamist leadership brokers with SCAF, with every confrontation with the state, with the growth of a revolutionary left that could provide an alternative for the disillusioned youth, and more importantly with the escalation of the strike wave. But in all cases, we must be vigilant enough to remain organizationally independent, move under our own banners, with our own literature, and compromise none. Sometimes with the Islamists, never with the state.

The Friday of Reaction and Bigotry

Islamists in Tahrir

What was originally announced as a “Friday of Unity” was anything but that. You can call it, the Friday of Disunity, The Friday of Bigotry and Reaction, the Friday of Religious Fanaticism.

For weeks, the Islamist forces, without exception, have been denouncing the Tahrir sit-in, spreading all sorts of cheap, filthy, sensationalist lies against the largely secular protesters, amid agitation by SCAF also, that already incited Abbassiya residents against marchers on 23 July.

The Islamist forces, whose leaders, also without any exceptions, are in one way or another allied to the SCAF awaiting their shares of the booties in the coming parliamentary elections and constitutional reform, decided to escalate their moves against the Tahrir revolutionaries by announcing roughly two weeks ago they were calling for mass protests in the square, to “assert Egypt’s Islamic identity, denounce supra-constitutional principles, and to demand the application of Islamic sharia.” Such announcement was coupled with an agitation campaign that spoke of “purging Tahrir from the secularists.”

There was tension in the square over the past few days. We didn’t know what to expect on Friday. Some were expecting an “Islamist invasion” of the square, medieval style, with swords and sticks. Others thought it was going to be a peaceful day.

الشعب المصري إيد واحدة لإستكمال أهداف الثورة

Some, like me, expected troubles, but we were hoping to at least try to polarize the Islamist protesters around different demands that their leaders had put forward. I suggested that Islamists would be welcomed at the gates, while distributing leaflets on the military tribunals, detainees, torture, retribution for the martyrs’ families, and social demands. There were calls by some to try to block the Islamists from entering. This was totally impossible even if you thought it was politically correct. It would have been a massacre.

As the countdown to Friday started, shuttle talks were taking place between protest leaders, representatives from leftist, liberal and secular groups with officials from the Islamist groups including the Gamaa Islamiya, Salafi Nour Party and last but not least, the Muslim Brotherhood. An agreement was announced yesterday whereby the Islamists vowed not to include the application of sharia on the list of their demands and not to attack or provoke any secular protesters. In exchange, the leftist and liberal groups agreed not to engage in the “Elections First” or “Constitution First” debate and promised not to chant against SCAF (liberals in general are not those who meant by the agreement, it was largely the leftists, since the liberals are cowing down everyday to SCAF). A statement was issued, with a list of demands agreed by all parties.

Islamists in Tahrir

What happened since the night of Thursday was a complete disgrace. The Islamists have broken the agreement. They started showing up on Thursday evening setting up their stages, only to be followed later by sound systems blasting anti-secular, anti-leftist propaganda, calls for the application of sharia and pro-SCAF chants.

To be fair, some young Muslim Brotherhood organizers tried to intervene and control the situation, but they failed. The ones who mainly broke the agreement were the Salafis. Over hours and hours, till Friday 7pm, Tens of thousands of Islamists were chanting for Sharia, the Quran as a constitution, intimidated secular activists and non-veiled women.

Left wing and liberal groups held a press conference in the afternoon announcing they were withdrawing from the activities of the day, denounced the Islamists for breaking the agreement, but asserted they would resume the sit-in. The liberals, freaking out, are crying asking the army to protect the secularism of the state. The army?! The liberals are only repeating the same mistake in the 1990s, when they as well as the Statlinists, threw themselves on the side of Mubarak in his war against the “Islamo-Fascists.”

Protesters carrying crosses, chanting for national unity متظاهرون يحملون الصلبان ويهتفون للوحدة الوطنية

Many secular protesters, especially the women, decided to leave the square, feeling completely uncomfortable with the situation. Others stayed and tried to engage in discussions with the Islamist protesters. There were marches too, and protests, where Muslims and Christians chanted for a secular state and national unity.

By 7pm, most of the Salafis and the Islamists had left the square as planned. Many of the Salafi protesters came from the rural provinces, not from Cairo. Buses awaited them to transport them back home from Abdeen, Talaat Harb Squares and Abdel Moneim Riyadh Squares.

And it was then that the secular forces started reclaiming the square again. Marches started, with strong chants: “Civil (State)! Civil (State)!”, and other chants for social justice and retribution for the martyrs’ families.

لا لاغتصاب الثورة

While leaders of the Islamist forces are knee-deep in their opportunism and clientalism to SCAF, I continue to be hopeful that the Islamist youth, those who defied their leaders and took part in the uprising shoulder to shoulder with their leftist and liberal brothers and sisters, would break the ranks and join us.

Counterrevolution: Islamists and the Military Junta

As revolutionaries flock to Tahrir Square, the Muslim Brotherhood continue to refuse taking part in protests today, while the Gamaa Islamiya and the salafis mobilized a protest in el-Fath mosque in Ramses Square, denouncing the “secularists, Marxists and foreign agents” in Tahrir.

Also, few hundreds of pro-Mubarak supporters have also gathered in Roxy Square in Heliopolis, to express support for the ruling military junta and the police, and to denounce the protests in Tahrir.