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At Tuesday’s protests by the Muslim Brotherhood, defiance is in the air. The Brotherhood’s political vehicle, the Freedom and Justice Party, was out on the streets alongside the Jama’at al-Islamiya and the Salafi Dawah – core elements of the newly formed Coalition of Islamist Parties to oppose the Salvation Front of “ Tahrir.” The Freedom and Justice Party’s Mohamed el-Beltagi was in full flight. “Secularists are jealous of the Islamists,” he said. “This is the underlying cause of all the latest events in Egypt. The Islamists are pissing off the Liberals and the secularists. We kicked the fouloul [regime remnants] from the syndicate of lawyers. We won the parliament by the ballot. They want to dissolve it. They said democracy, we said ok. Then Morsi won. They created problems around the constitution. We tell them we are standing up for you. We are watching you. We will fight you till the end. We stand behind an elected president.” The rally bore the name Protection of Legitimacy.
Buses stood on the sidelines of the protest at Rabia el Adawiyya Square in Nasr City/Cairo. “Nobody paid for them,” said Omar, who was part of the demonstration. “They all came on their own and they rented the buses.” He suspected my suspicion. “We come here out of conviction and principle. We don’t come for money. People who go there are paid. We come for the sake of god.” The there is very clear. He has in mind “Tahrir,” and the accusation from that square that the people who come to the Muslim Brotherhood demonstrations are for hire.
Turbans and “Islamic hats” dominate this podium, erected in front of a mosque. There are no Palestinian headscarves and caps, which one sees routinely amongst the demonstrators at Tahrir and Ittihadiya. The presence of women is tangible, partly because they are separated from men on one of the sides of the mosque. They can be counted separately. “We protect our sisters here. Do not worry,” says Samia, one of the protestors. “It is not like Tahrir where there is sexual harassment all the time. We abide by Sharia law and men see us as sisters here.”
A fight Between Secularism and Islam?
The political struggle over political rights and a proper constitution-drafting process is here reduced to a demonstration to defend Islamists and Islam. “It is a war against Islam,” says the Sinai Sheikh. The struggle against the character of the constitution has been reduced to a war against Sharia. Tahrir’s fight against the Muslim Brotherhood is seen as a religious struggle against Islam. “They sing: bread, freedom and social justice,” says one of the speakers from the podium. “This social justice of theirs: how is it going to be achieved without Sharia law? There is nothing called social justice outside Sharia, outside of Islam!”
Banners proclaim, “Yes to Morsi” and “Yes to the Constitution,” and pledge to fight corruption and the fouloul. “Islamic Law Despite the Secularists” (Islamiyya Islamiyya rughm Anf el 3ilmaniyya), is the dominant chant.
How did a political struggle collapse into a struggle over Sharia? “It is a cheap way to gather supporters,” says Mahmoud who I meet at the Ittihadiya demonstration. Batoul, a university student, answers my question with one of her own, do I see any banner calling for secularism in Tahrir or Ittihadiya? “We are asking for a constitution that ensures the rights of the Egyptians, that is worth the January 25 revolution. We want a constitution that preserves Social Justice for all, and not only for them; a constitution that is for all Egyptians not for one part of the Egyptians.”
Umm Ahmad, a housewife, is angry because the Muslim Brotherhood’s “defense of Sharia” insinuates that those who oppose the current constitutional process are against Sharia law. “We do not need it in the constitution. We all marry and divorce according to Sharia law, and we get buried according to Sharia law too. Why are they bugging us with it? God knows what they are aiming at!” Sayyed, who is a journalist and a Nasserite, says that the Muslim Brotherhood cloak themselves with Sharia: “they have nothing to offer, so they say Sharia. It is a way to shut the opposition up. Who dares defy Sharia and Islam?” Sayyed hands me a pamphlet that is being distributed and which describes which articles in the draft constitution are problematic. “It is a constitution against workers, children, women, against freedom in general,” he says. It does not “obligate the state to ensure any rights.” Even in articles that are supposedly about basic rights such as right to education, and to health the state’s role is supervisory. The state is to regulate these rights, but not provide them. “How is the state going to supervise this? And why is not it obligated to provide these rights? Why did we do the revolution to get a police state that supervise and overlook,” says Sayyed angrily.
Since they appointed themselves as the guardians of Sharia law, the speakers at Rabia el Adawiyya attacked the demonstrators on the basis of religion not politics. One of the speakers dismisses the opposition’s leaders. “They only care for their interests. One if fouloul – Amr Mousa. The other is a Communist agent who calls for socialism – Hamdeen Sabbahi. And the other is an American agent – El-Baradei. They spend their money just to fight Sharia and Islam.” Another speaker praised the crowd, “You are the true revolutionaries, the real ones, not those who are fouloul and communists. You are protecting God’s Law. They are only protecting their interests.” The opposition only worries about “the rights of Buddhists and Bahais,” said Hijazi to the restless crowd. “And they want to turn Egyptian women into westernized women.” He then looked at the demonstrators and asked them to ask their sisters in the demonstration what they need. The women chant, “the law of God the law of God.” “Yes to the Constitution, Yes to Morsi.”
A group of young people carried a long flag near the women. Sharia, Sharia, Sharia, go the chants. Their tune seemed familiar, as did the way the young people moved. “These are the Muslim Brotherhood Ultras,” Nabila, one of the protestors explained. The Ultras Ahlawy is a fan club for the Egyptian premier league team, al-Ahlawy. “God led them to the right way,” Nabila said of this splinter group from the Ultras. After the Revolution, Umm Ayman, explained, “some Sheikhs worked on a group of Ultras Zamalik and turned them into a militia for the Muslim Brotherhood. They were the ones who staged the sit in and the attack on the High Court, and they say they participated in the Ittihadiya attack, they are brave kids.”
Huriyya, Huriyya, Huriyya,( Freedom) goes the Tahrir Ultras chants, Freedom, Freedom, Freedom. This splinter group had the same rhythm, but different lyrics. Sharia, Sharia, Sharia.
“Only Sharia counts,” says an Azhari Sheikh. I had seen Azhari Sheikhs at Tahrir as part of the protests. “It is only the fouloul from Azhar who are for Tahrir,” says Hanan. “The real Azharis, the religious one who love God are with Sharia law,” she continued. Having dubbed Tahrir as communist and anti-Sharia, the Azhari Sheikh shouted, “our martyrs are in heaven. Their killers are in hell!” Sayyid tells me that all these social groups (Azhari Sheikhs, Ultras, Judges, lawyers) are divided between the two camps. “It is not anti-god or pro-god. We all take God into consideration (Ma Kullina benkhaf Rabbina ya sheikha),” he says.
It is Then a War — a Religious War
El-Beltagi is undaunted. “We are ready for the fight. It is an existential war that will move Egypt to an Islamic state, and make it a leader in the Muslim world. We are ready to die, to give our souls. We will fight them those bastards, those sons of dogs. Egyptians know the zero hour: if they try to break into the presidential palace or the state television building, if the state apparatus does not move – waves of people will come out in defense of legitimacy. If they fail to protect it, we will.”
For the Muslim Brotherhood, the struggle over power is fought as an existential war to defend Sharia and Islam. The chants around their demonstrations, each one a response to the opposition, underscored their determination. In Tahrir they chant, “Sell, Sell, Sell the Revolution, oh Badie” (Bee3e Bee3 el Thawra YA Badee3e), referring to the Muslim Brotherhood’s Supreme Guide, Mohamed Badie. The Brotherhood respond, “Oh Badie, you Order and we Follow” (Ya Badee3e Ya Badee3e inta tou3mor Wehna ntee3e).
Mayssoun Sukarieh lives in Cairo.