The national museum in Cairo is a treasure trove of artefacts, many of them brought from the cavernous tombs inside those miracles of ancient Egypt — the pyramids. The museum overlooks Tahrir Square, where Egypt witnessed a modern-day miracle in 2011 and 2013. In one of the biggest-ever mass protests staged in world history, Egyptians ousted two unpopular regimes. A favourite song of the revolutionaries was “Ana-i-Sha’b (I am the people)” sung originally by Umm Kulthum, Egypt’s greatest singer, to celebrate the country’s 1952 anti-monarchy revolution: “Every man and woman let out a voice free/ Strong, ancient, deep, and lofty/ Saying: I am the People and the Miracle”.
Ironically, a majority of the same torch-bearers of democracy now want their country to be ruled by an army strongman — Marshal Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Stranger still, el-Sisi has suddenly emerged as the most popular leader in modern Egyptian history, after Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat. For a place that caught the imagination of democracy lovers all over the world three years ago, Tahrir Square has a thoroughly unremarkable appearance. It doesn’t have the humongous size of Tiananmen Square in Beijing. It lacks the architectural splendour of India Gate and its environs in New Delhi. It’s just an ordinary open space at a traffic roundabout, which a visitor to Cairo, hassled by the vexatious vehicular movement in the city, is quite likely to miss. But in January 2011, this square, and the roads leading to it, became the face of the Arab Spring in Egypt. The protests that began here ended the 30-year-old dictatorial regime of Hosni Mubarak. The promise of democracy was celebrated in Egypt, and welcomed all over the world.
But soon, when democracy came in the form of the Muslim Brotherhood in the saddle, with its leader Mohammed Morsi as Egypt’s first-ever elected president, Tahrir Square again became the seat of massive protests. This time round, the army openly backed the protesters and, in a swift and ruthless takeover in July 2013, put Morsi behind bars. This change was far from peaceful. When angry supporters of Morsi protested, the military crackdown killed over 1,000 of them. Not only was the Muslim Brotherhood outlawed again, but for the first time in its 80-year history, it was also declared a terrorist organisation.
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Is Egypt back at square one? No. The situation has too many contradictions to lead to such a simplistic conclusion. Political instability, its crippling impact on the economy (tourism, the main revenue earner and employment creator for Egypt, has shrunk to less than one-fourth of its peak levels) and the lurking fear of a Syria-like violent social conflict if the Muslim Brotherhood were to return to power, have led most Egyptians to believe that their country will be safe only if a strong leader comes to the helm. Their hopes are pinned on el-Sisi, the current army chief and defence minister. Thanks to the tough action he took on Morsi and his followers, he has suddenly become a cult figure, a saviour of Egypt, indeed the person most Egyptians want as their next president. Posters eulogising him are visible everywhere in Cairo. There are el-Sisi T-shirts on sale in streets.
“Is this orchestrated by the military?” I asked my friends in Cairo. They are by no means supporters of the military takeover. They crave democracy, the original promise of the Tahrir movement. In private conversations, they strongly oppose restrictions on the media and the torture of imprisoned Brotherhood workers. Yet, all of them are unanimous in saying, “No, this show of support for el-Sisi is not orchestrated. It is authentic.” Unlike his predecessors, Morsi was a democratically elected president. However, the undeniably broad public support for the army takeover is a measure of how quickly he and the Brotherhood incurred the wrath of a majority of the Egyptian population because of their own undemocratic, untrustworthy and socially polarising rule.
Why did Muslim-majority Egypt rise in revolt against the Muslim Brotherhood? I put this question to Professor Mahmood Azab, who serves as an advisor to the Grand Imam of Al-Azar, a 1000-year-old globally respected centre of Islamic learning. He said, “Muslims in Egypt believe in moderate Islam. They believe in pluralism and peaceful co-existence with their Christian brethren. They are also proud of their pre-Islamic civilisational heritage. All this is unacceptable to the Muslim Brotherhood, who want to impose their extremist ideology of Islam on Egypt. A peculiar circumstance in the aftermath of the 2011 revolution helped them come to power. But the Egyptian people soon realised that the Brotherhood was exploiting Islam for its own narrow political and social agenda. It even branded all those Muslims opposed to it as ‘infidels’. It became so unpopular that over 30 million people came onto the streets all over the country demanding its ouster from power.”
Here is a lesson the BJP could learn in India. If a party plays polarising politics in the name of the majority community, it could be spurned by a majority of the people belonging to that very community. Here is also a heartening lesson for women in Muslim societies around the world. Egyptian women played a pivotal role in bringing down the Muslim Brotherhood government. Suzy el-Geneidy, assistant chief editor of Al-Ahramnewspaper, told me: “This is because Egyptian women, whose struggles have won them an important place in public life, felt threatened by the Brotherhood’s extremist agenda to disempower them in the name of Islam. Women in our country are highly religious. But they don’t like the Brotherhood’s coercive ways.”
Interestingly, women have become el-Sisi’s ardent supporters. I heard an explanation for this curious phenomenon from Osama Diab, a researcher-activist with the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, which is critical of the human rights violations under the current army-led ruling establishment. “There is no doubt,” he said, “that el-Sisi has rare charisma. People, especially women, admire him because he is seen as a strong leader. But they also admire him because they see him as a soft-spoken, emotional and down-to-earth leader. Moreover, he is deeply religious. He presents himself as a person who is firm and self-confident in dealing with the Muslim Brotherhood, but tender in dealing with the people.”
What has also endeared el-Sisi to a majority of Egyptians is his image as a unifier of a society in which the Brotherhood had sought to sow Muslim-Christian and Muslim-Muslim divisions. When he went on television on July 3, 2013 to announce that Morsi had been removed from power, he had Ahmed al-Tayeb, the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar, and Pope Tawadros, the spiritual head of Coptic Christians (who constitute about 10 per cent of Egypt’s population), flanking him. This commitment to safeguarding national unity, religious plurality and security of all citizens was conspicuously missing during Morsi’s rule. Indeed, many Egyptians I spoke to said that one of the reasons they disliked the Brotherhood was the suspicion that the latter was “more loyal to the Ummah (global Muslim ‘nation’) than to Egypt”.
If el-Sisi offers himself as a candidate in the forthcoming presidential election, scheduled to take place in April, he is certain to win by a huge majority. However, it’s equally certain that he will have a difficult task leading an impatient nation facing severe economic problems. He also cannot afford to suppress people’s, especially the Egyptian youth’s, aspirations for freedom, dignity and democratic rights. If he succeeds, it’ll be a miracle. If he fails, Tahrir Square could come alive again.
The writer, former national secretary of the BJP, is a socio-political activist