Sunday, September 8, 2013

The crisis in Egypt: Notes from Rabaa al-Adawiya

Rabaa al-Adawiya protestors
This post was submitted by a guest contributor who prefers to remain anonymous.
In response to the events of June 30th and the subsequent actions of the Egyptian military, sit-ins were held in Rabaa Al-Adawiya (Rabi'a al-Adawiya) in Nasr City and al-Nahda in Giza for a period of over 40 days. 

Accurate depictions of what was actually occurring in the sit-ins were hard to come by as the government seemed to make efforts to portray the sit-ins in a negative light and the protesters attempted to appeal to the international media with possibly skewed depictions of what was really going on inside the camps. 

The truth is usually somewhere in between. After feeling that I was unable to assess the sit-ins from news reports alone, I decided to visit Rabaa Al-Adaweya on the last day of Ramadan, one week before the sit-in was dispersed. 

I arrived at the Rabaa Al-Adeweya sit-in around 5pm with a friend whose father was in the sit-in. I wore a full black abaya, hijab, underscarf, and sleeves and could have easily been mistaken for an Egyptian. At the entrance, we encountered a sex segregated security checkpoint. A young, smiling woman searched my bag, gave me a pat-down, and checked my ID. As she viewed my French passport, she continued to smile and made conversation with me, attempting to figure out why I was there. After explaining that I had lived in Cairo for many years she sent me on my way.

As my friend and I began to walk through the sit-in, young men kept spraying us with water because it was hot. My friend became annoyed, as might occur when one continues to be unexpectedly sprayed in the face, and started to demand that they give him the spray bottle so he could spray them back in the face. The sit-in consisted of a sea of tents lined up in the form of a makeshift city. There was ample room to navigate the streets dividing the tents, and the level of organization was striking. 

There were a few men near the entrance lined up with hard hats and large sticks, but those were the only type of “weapons” I encountered throughout my visit. The atmosphere was almost festive, with swings and playground equipment for children, street vendors selling clothes, accessories, and tea, and later in the day, my friend even purchased a stencil set from a vendor. 

The sit-in was very clean and there were sweepers moving around maintaining the area. In fact, the Raba'a sit-in was cleaner than many areas of Cairo, though I would not say that that is a very high standard to which to be held. There were security personnel with orange vests, hard hats, and large flashlights walking around. As a woman, I felt relaxed, as there was no harassment or fights in the camp. 

All the tents had posters hanging on them in Arabic, English, French, and a few in German and even Russian. There were posters depicting Morsi, which read, “No to the coup,” in Arabic and a poster with a woman saying, “Killing won’t silence my voice,” in English. There were other posters with the words “We want the president and parliament,” “Anti-coup,” “Where is my ballot?” and “The revolution continues,” referring to January 25,, 2011. I even saw a sign with an Otpor fist. 

There were also a number of posters of martyrs with the face of the martyr in normal times and then another of the martyr on a respirator or dead and mutilated. One poster that caught my eye depicted a number of dead individuals lined up and said, “Paid for by U.S. tax dollars.” Young men were also walking around with posters on sticks, some with faces of martyrs on them. Throughout the sit-in one could observe many Egyptian flags.

When my companion and I arrived at the stage, the crowd was sex segregated. Nearby, I encountered a hanging effigy of the minister of interior (my friend identified who it was supposed to be) and a donkey was walking around with a boot hanging around his neck. Young children were standing on the stage in a row singing songs and later they remained on the stage while a boy around five years old took the microphone to lead anti-American and anti-government chants. One of the chants in the sit-in was, “Get out get out military rule.” 

We then made our way to my friend’s father’s tent. The tent was decorated with Sponge Bob and Mickey Mouse long balloons, which I thought was a little strange when later we started praying and we were praying in the direction of the balloons. In Islam, a person is not supposed to pray with pictures in front of him so that it does not seem as if he is praying to the picture instead of to God. 

The tent was all male, five Muslim Brotherhood members and the rest all independents. My friend whispered to me not to shake his father’s hand, as many conservative Muslim men will not touch a woman who is not a family member. The men of the tent were reserved but welcoming, and quickly provided a chair for me. I had a quick chat with my friend’s father about being French and converting to Islam, and then I read Qur’an in Arabic until it was time to break the fast.

The people walking around Rabaa looked like anyone walking down the streets of Cairo. There were men with beards, men without beards, women in niqab, women in hijab and abaya, and women in regular skirts, shirts and hijab. I only saw one or two women without head coverings. There were a number of couples strolling, as were families, children, and groups of men and groups of women. They looked mostly middle and lower class, but of course I cannot be sure. 

When it was time to break our fast, we had dates, water and juice, and then all of Rabaa prayed simultaneously in the tents before eating the iftar meal, in which Muslims break the daily Ramadan fast. I prayed behind the men in the tent, but in many tents that had both sexes, women and men were separated by a curtain. Each tent was like a mosque. One had to take off his shoes before entering. That way, people could pray in the tent. We had chicken and rice for iftar. I brought sweets and there were grapes for dessert. We also had tea and mango juice. It felt like a normal iftar I would have had anywhere in Cairo. 

I did not want to ask too many questions (for personal safety reasons), but I did ask one man whether or not he thought Morsi had done a good job as president. He told me Morsi did not have enough time in office to prove himself. He also spoke about “Islamic democracy,” but I did not have time to ask him how he defined the term. My friend’s father also mentioned something about the protest being a fight for religion. When we realized that the 'Eid had arrived, fireworks were set off all over the camp. 

Though I was dreading the inevitable, eventually after five hours I had use the bathroom, so we went on a half hour quest for a toilet. As my friend and I walked around, I felt like I was in a fair. One tent even had a sign posted that said, “Artists for Morsi.” I realized the protest site reached right up to the sides of residential buildings. The buildings seemed to be closed up and I wondered if people were trapped inside or if they had moved out. Radio Shack, a bank, and other businesses were closed, but I did not see any evidence of damage to the stores. 

At one point we walked by a tent that seemed to be holding some kind of press conference. One of the women sitting at the table was not wearing a hijab. I personally did not see any TVs in the camp and it seemed that most information was coming from a man speaking on a loud speaker who, according to my friend, talked 24 hours per day. The man on the speaker kept speaking about legitimacy and democracy. 

While we had to enter Rabaa through a checkpoint, when my friend’s father drove us home, we just walked through the protest and left through a space between two tents to his car, which was waiting right outside. A lot of people would go to work during the day, then go to Rabaa before iftar and stay for the evening or overnight. That meant that the person in traffic next to me or the man or woman at the grocery store might also be a Rab'aa protester. 

When I was in Rabaa, one man said he had one son in the military, one in the Rabaa protests, and one in the anti-Morsi protests. Another man I interviewed on another day who participated in the anti-Morsi protests said his mother is Salafi, his father is pro-Mubarak, and he protested on January 25, 2011 and on June 30, 2013. What can be seen is that it is not different groups of people who are divided in Egypt, it is different people within the same family, apartment building, or community.

The purpose of this piece is not to paint the Rabaa sit-in in a rosy light nor to demonize it. My aim is simply to depict what I saw and to try to understand why the people were there. While I engaged in limited conversation, from the people with whom I did speak and the posters I saw, my initial impression was that there were different people there for different reasons. 

One line that may be drawn between the 30 June protesters and those attending the Rabaa sit-in is different definitions of democracy. While there were many demonstrators on June 30th protesting Egypt's deteriorating economic conditions, the Muslim Brotherhood controlling the government, which was not inclusive, or the many embarrassing decisions made by the president, some of the protesters were in the streets because they saw democracy as a process, and though Morsi was elected, his rule was not democratic. 

Many protesters in Rabaa seemed to see democracy as elections, but not necessarily a process. One man I interviewed who was pro-Morsi, but not at the sit-in, said he voted for Morsi and then voted “yes” in the constitutional referendum because, if he voted for Morsi, he had to support everything he did. When I interviewed some members of the lower classes who were anti-Morsi, they defined democracy as “when their lives get better.” 

In terms of the less educated members of Egyptian society who are more concerned with putting food on the table, I think some were swayed by the pro-Morsi camp and others by the anti-Morsi camp that their lives would get better one way or the other.  In some ways they are the same people. To understand democracy as a process, it takes education, particularly education on what democracy means. Among the lower classes, I have found few definitions of democracy that go beyond freedom of expression and fairness. In reference to the man at Rabaa who spoke about Islamic democracy, I am not sure exactly what the term means, but I do not think it means what many common definitions of democracy imply. It seems that Islamic democracy leans more toward an Islamic state, rather than democracy. 

The sign I saw that said, “The revolution continues” points to different interpretations of the January 2011 protests.  As can be seen from many revolutions in history, protesters may agree that they want to remove the regime, but they usually do not agree on what should come next. While “bread, freedom, and social justice” was the 2011 Revolution's slogan, there does not seem to be consensus on how to achieve these demands. For many at Rabaa, Islam was the answer (Islam al-hall). 

Those who did not understand why the members of the Rabaa sit-in did not leave when asked to by the government and even remained when there was a clear threat of violence by the police against protesters, forget that many at the sit-in also protested on January 28, 2011 and the following days. If they did not leave Tahrir during the Revolution when the government asked them to leave and police were shooting at them, why would they leave Rabaa under the same threats, particularly if in their minds they were continuing the Revolution? Of course particularly with Islamists, there is often the additional promise of martyrdom. 

Finally, while there were many at Rabaa who were members of Islamist groups or who supported the Islamist agenda, there were others who simply wanted to know where their vote had gone. For those who see democracy as elections, rather than as a process, they may have voted for Islamists in the parliamentary elections, and then the parliament was dissolved, and they may have voted for Morsi, and then he was deposed. There were some at Rabaa who may have just been unhappy about the Egyptian population not giving Morsi his four years and that every time Islamists were elected, somehow they were removed.

In sum, I want to emphasize that this piece is not a justification for or an attack on the Rabaa protest, but is a description of what I saw and some conclusions I have made. I never saw any weapons in the sit-in and others I have talked to did not either. At the same time, many journalists reported that torture was taking place under the stage, there were men with weapons in specific areas, and dead tortured bodies were found near the sit-ins. 

I do not dispute these reports, but from my own experience, I wonder if families with children knew of the violence that was going on or whether the violence and weapons were concealed from the average protester. If I had attended the sit-in everyday with the experience I had, I might not have believed that there were weapons in the camp and may have thought that the news reports were bogus. However, there were films of speeches made on the stage that implied violence. Without further interviews, we will not know what the members of sit-ins knew or did not know and they may not be inclined to admit to knowing about weapons or expressions of violence if they were aware.   

All I know is what I saw at Rabaa, that approximately 1,000 pro-Morsi protesters were killed by security forces in a week starting seven days after I visited Rabaa, and that every week now there are reports of bombings, attempted bombings, and armed attacks on state institutions,the  military and security forces, and Egypt's infrastructure.

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