By Khaled Diab
Competing myths have emerged around the Raba'a protest camp. But it was neither a terrorist den nor a gathering of freedom and democracy lovers.
Tuesday 24 September 2013
“Smile, you're in Raba'a,” a passing protester, perhaps reading the discomfort on my face, called out before I could register his face.
This comment has echoed in my head repeatedly in recent weeks, particularly when I hear pro-Morsi supporters described as terrorists, the sit-in in Raba'a al-Adawiya described as a terror camp, and the bloody dispersal of the protest encampments and the subsequent crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood justified as a “war against terrorism”. Meanwhile, in the opposing trench of the propaganda war, the crackdown is being depicted as a “war against democracy” to Western audiences and a “war against Islam” to the Brotherhood's conservative support base.
And it is this distortion, this “war against the truth”, which has prompted me to recount my visit to the Raba'a encampment. It was a blisteringly hot Friday, and I set off just after midday prayers on a self-imposed personal mission to see for myself what the pro-Morsi protesters were all about.The taxi driver who took me there was a tall, distinguished-looking Nubian man who was still dressed in the galabiya he had obviously just worn to the mosque for Friday prayers. He looked at me with what seemed to be curiosity and suspicion, perhaps trying to read me.
This was possibly because, with my European-style clothes, I didn't look like the typical pro-Morsi demonstrator. Or it could have been because he thought I was a Brother, but from a different ‘hood.
He asked me what I was going there to do. I told him that I wanted to see for myself and didn't just want to rely on what others were saying, and that this was important to me both as a journalist and a person.
Looking visibly relieved that I wasn't a protester, he seemed to relax. “I had nothing against Mohamed Morsi and thought, because he was a pious man, his heart would be on Egypt's interests, but the Brothers messed up,” he said. “I don't normally protest but I was out on the streets on 30 June. Everyone in my neighbourhood was.”
I asked him why that was. He said it was partly because thugs connected to the Muslim Brotherhood were out in force trying to intimidate locals into not joining in the 30 June protests, but this backfired and only served to decide the undecided. And there had been a lot of trouble-making and violence from pro-Morsi gangs in his district since the president's ouster.
In the time I had been back in Egypt, people I encountered expressed everything from outright hostility to sorrowful disappointment, with remarkably few expressing any kind of support for the removed president. Although I suspected that Morsi would still be enjoying pretty strong backing in the countryside, particularly in Upper Egypt, Raba'a was the first place I would actually encounter any significant number of supporters for the ousted president.
Belonging as he did to the sorrowfully disappointed camp, the driver told me of how Morsi and his Brothers were “just as corrupt as the Mubarak regime but more incompetent”, citing a litany of examples of widespread corruption and cronyism.
As we drove past a couple of hundred Morsi protesters amassing at the bottom of one of the ramps leading up to the 6th October flyover, he pointed to the crowd and said sadly: “Look at how they just want to block off the main streets. In Raba'a, they've made life hell for the locals,” he said.
I reflected that anti-revolutionaries and counter-revolutionaries once also complained about how Tahrir protesters were disrupting traffic, the normal flow of life and the economy.
Journalist friends had warned me to be careful which direction I approached Raba'a from. At one end, there was a military barricade and the soldiers there sometimes didn't let people through. At the other end, there was an impromptu security checkpoint manned by Morsi sympathisers.
I was told that I would need to walk a fair while to reach it, but the taxi driver, who seemed to know the layout of the camp well, managed to get me right up to the checkpoint, where he wished me luck and safety.
This was the only point where I would personally see “weapons”. A number of men with traditional wooden clubs (“shoom”) were standing by a pile of sandbags, obviously ready, if woefully under-prepared, to push back any attempts to storm the camp by authorities (the decision had just been taken that the encampment would be cleared). Volunteers were also wondering around armed with an arsenal of spray bottles which dispensed refreshing ice-cold water to keep the crowds cool and damp – in a bizarre Islamist version of a wet T-shirt contest.
Naturally, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. There were plenty of reports, some from reliable sources, that there was a cache of arms at the Raba'a sit-in, and certainly at the more radical Nahda protest camp. That is not to mention all the clear incitement to violence a number of leading Brotherhood figures engaged in. One example is Safwat Hegazi, a preacher banned from entering the UK, who threatened in Raba'a “whoever sprays Morsi with water will be sprayed with blood”.
That said, if there were really were so many weapons concealed in Raba'a and the camp really posed such a threat to national security, as claimed by Doria Sharaf el-Din (Egypt's first female minister of misinformation), why didn't they use this arsenal to defend themselves against the police onslaught? If the protesters were violent “terrorists” – as they've been depicted by the state media and the anti-Brotherhood movement, including Tamarod, which should've known better – why didn't they go down with all barrels blazing? Where was the smoking gun?
The point I'm trying to make is that Raba'a was not a black-or-white place. The vast majority of the protesters were peaceful, ordinary-looking, conservative folk that would hardly merit a second look on any normal Egyptian street – though I did also run into some incredibly eccentric characters, such as this man in shades and a graffitied galabiya who claimed to be a millionaire from Alexandria.
That said, the protest camp was not some kind of spiritual peace fest inspired by the ‘God is love‘ Sufi saint for whom the Raba'a mosque and square is named. There was a lot of anger, fanaticism, and rampant antidemocratic sentiment, as I was about to discover.
With a sense of trepidation, I approached one of the gatekeepers who stopped me to check who I was and what I was doing there, his eyes full of weary suspicion. On the advice of fellow hacks, I did not mentioned any of the Egyptian or Arab papers I worked with due to reports of Egyptian journalists being attacked and beaten up because pro-Morsi supporters and the Muslim Brotherhood regarded the Egyptian media as being unsympathetic and hostile.
In contrast, they were very welcoming of the Anglo-American media. This is incredibly ironic in light of the Brotherhood's traditional discourse, which is suspicious and hostile towards the West and the movement's constant condemnation of the “corrupting” influence of Western culture and its mocking of secular Egyptians as westernised sell-outs of the Islamic cause.
For me, this translated into an Open Sesame moment. When the guard caught sight of my European ID card and heard the list of Western publications I wrote for, his manner shifted perceptibly, and he welcomed me warmly and ushered me in promptly. And he would not be the only one.
At first, I just toured the encampment – which was still not very full because the post-prayer, pre-iftar crowds had still not arrived – to get a feel for the lay of the land. I strolled along quietly taking in the food and drink vendors who were not yet dispensing anything as everyone was fasting, and the tired, hungry and thirsty protesters, many lying prostrate in the shade of tents and awnings. Others queued in front of an open-top lorry dispensing large blocks of ice, which seemed to be the air-conditioner of choice.
It must have been psychological, triggered by the knowledge that I would not be able to drink for a while, despite the sweltering heat. Only a few minutes into my visit, I was already feeling the first thirst pangs, which got me wondering how the child and teen me ever managed to fast in the summer, and thankful that the adult me had abandoned the practice.
Perhaps part of the trouble was also the party I had gone to the night before, which had provided a much-needed dose of fast living during the fasting season, but had left me dehydrated and a little hungover.
Now, this had the added effect of making me feel somewhat self-conscious among the conspicuous displays of piety all around me. Thankfully, fatigue induced by fasting (and perhaps also feasting) made those around me look and act more hungover than me, so I had plenty of camouflage.
Nevertheless, I did wonder what the pious protesters would make of it if they learnt my “dirty little secret”. Partying and drinking, and in Ramadan? What has society come to? Yes, it would probably confirm to them the justness of their cause – that the Brothers need to salvage society and save it from itself before it provokes God's wrath further.
And the Muslim Brotherhood's media-savvy democratic discourse notwithstanding, most of the protesters I heard and encountered did not want “shareya” (legitimacy) but “Shari'a”… or they believed that the two were one and the same, that legitimacy could be gained only by implementing “God's law”, not through democracy.
“I want to defend my religion and my country's Islamic identity, and my freedom and dignity,” Mohamed Eissa, 20, told me, adding that he wanted Egypt to implement Shari'a. And what about democracy, I probed? “If we apply Shari'a, we will have the best democracy in the world,” he claimed.
As this enthusiastic, passionate and intelligent young man who studied Quranic interpretation at al-Azhar spoke, I wondered to myself, what about my “freedom and dignity”, Mohamed? I will defend with all my power your right to worship whomever and however you want but would you extend me the same right not to worship or believe?
The reckless rebel inside me was whispering in my ear, rather like the Satan I don't believe in, goading me to ask him and the rest of the crowd that had formed around me to air their grievances: what about my rights as an “infidel” and those of other Egyptian atheists and non-believers? Do you recognise our rights or do we, and Muslims with other interpretations of their faith, have the right to believe only what you want us to believe?
I managed to resist the mischievous demons inside my head and withstood the powerful temptation to play devil's advocate – which was sensible and wise, given the size of the crowd that had formed around me, not to mention professional, since I had come to listen, as a journalist, not to air my own views.
Beside, though I cannot help begrudging the fact that they would probably not grant me the same tolerance with which I accept them, I also realise that they are victims of their surroundings and circumstances. They live in a society where religion tends to be a red line for most, though non-ideological Egyptians generally have a live and let live attitude. In addition, Islamist indoctrination has led them to the illusion that imposing Islam on society is the only path to true freedom and that God, the all-powerful, all-seeing, somehow needs and demands their protection.
The crowd that had formed around me and I must have cut an interesting spectacle. They were all eager to tell their stories, some of which were of ugly brutality and murder at the hands of the authorities, especially when they learnt that I worked for the foreign press. What I presumed to be minders eyed my increasingly conspicuous presence with suspicion, but I overheard people in the crowd explain that I was all right, that I was there to highlight their plight.
As I'd forgotten my dictaphone, I had to rely on my low-tech paper notebook, some of the pages of which were becoming rather damp, as we were constantly being sprayed with ice-cold water to keep the heat a little at bay. In fact, my shirt was soaked through, while one volunteer wiped some of the sweat from my brow to ensure I could see well enough to keep on taking notes, while another sneaked up on me from behind and stuck a freezing block of ice against the nape of my neck, which sent a surprised jolt through my spine, presumably to prevent my brain from overheating.
Salvation was a common refrain among many of the demonstrators I spoke to, as were far-fetched conspiracy theories involving the United States and Israel. “I was born when Morsi came to office. I died when he was removed from office,” Yosri Ahmed said to nods of approval.
Not everyone there claimed to be a Brotherhood supporter. “I'm not an Ikhwani. I am here to oppose repression,” insisted Taher Aziz from Mansoura. “I want legitimacy. I want my voice to be heard. For the first time in Egyptian history, I have a constitution that respects my rights.” Perhaps the constitution respected his rights, but it violated the rights of millions of others.
One man, Ayman al-Werdani, who is the head of the court of appeals in Tanta, was introduced to me as an impartial judge who was there to defend legitimacy. “Following the 25th January revolution, popular mobilisation cannot be the foundation of democracy,” he insisted. “Change can only come through the ballot box… It's not about Morsi or Islamism but about a dirty coup against democracy and a return to square zero.”
Although I believe that democracy is a multifaceted creature which includes popular mobilisation, the judge made a valid and well-argued case. However, I did not appreciate the attempts to pass him off as an impartial and non-partisan member of the judiciary, when a little research will quickly uncover substantial evidence of his close ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, including speaking at Freedom and Justice Party rallies.
With my notebook full of quotes, I delicately extracted myself from the crowd with the excuse that I needed to tour the camp further. I walked around to the stage and podium, which was currently devoid of speakers, and the abandoned TV camera on a crane. A crowd had formed in front of the stage, with a young man sitting on another man's shoulders chanting slogans through a megaphone. I reflected how the religious were less colourful and witty in their political songs compared to their secular counterparts.
As I headed for the exit, buying some Morsi posters on my way, I came across a stream of small groups marching into the camp. “Islamic, Islamic, Egypt rejects secularism,” a group of women sang in rhyming Arabic prose, their tone that of a wedding party. This echoed the “pop” Islamic song that had been playing on loudspeakers all over Raba'a: “Egypt is Islamic. Tell the world Egypt is Islamic. It isn't secular.”
Following the massacre on 14 August, I wondered whether any of the people I had met were among the dead. Although some had been shot at before and a couple had expressed boilerplate opinions that they were not afraid and were ready to die as martyrs, I sensed inside they were not. They too wanted to live but were ready to risk it all for what they believed in.
I hope none of the protesters I encountered and who shared their passion and views with me were killed, but I imagine quite a few of them perished in the hell that was unleashed. Despite their demonisation in the media and society, a process which helped people to accept the murderous rampage, I did not encounter demons, but humans, ones with flawed ideas, I grant, but they were not evil incarnate.
Although I disagree fundamentally with their fundamentalist politics and worldview, and even if some of them were “sheeple”, what cannot be denied is their dedication to their cause. Even if I believe they are misguided in their politics, the protesters at Raba'a did not deserve to die and become the sacrificial lambs in a war between the manipulative, self-serving leadership of the army and the Brotherhood.