The ‘occupied territory’ of Cairo

The ‘occupied territory’ of Cairo

by Abdallah Schleifer


“Occupied Territory!” That is what mini-bus drivers call out as they drive by the Rabaa al-Adawiya Mosque intersection in Nasr City.

Indeed, it is an occupied city, a portion of Cairo occupied by the cadres, friends and families of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and Salifi allies, with its walled-off barricades made from broken paving stones and sandbags.

The areas are patrolled by armed MB security guards. The less obvious the arm appears, the more lethal the guard.

A small occupied territory near Cairo University, the site of the MB sit-in or more accurately “sleep-in,” of Orman Gardens (one of Egypt’s most famous botanical gardens) has joined the list of occupied territories, most notably, the West Bank.

Every inch of the newly occupied territory is a functioning settlement, teeming with men, women and children. The adults are convinced just as the Jewish religious nationalist settlers on the West Bank believe that they are on God’s path.

Whoever challenges their conviction is some sort of “kafr” (a disbeliever or denier) known in Palestine as a “goy” (a Jew turned Gentile).

Muslim Brotherhood protests

Do the children at Rabaa al-Adawiya , who were paraded around in white shrouds carrying their own symbolic coffins, think this was a game? Adult organizers demonstrated an underlying love of martyrdom, a prevailing, but usually downplayed, belief within the cadres of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Perhaps for those children it was all a game, oblivious to the salafi-jihadi significance of their dress. This is a settlement, however temporary, like the West Bank settlement. It is a fortified township with swings for the children, when they are truly at play; a community kitchen that churns out rice, vegetables and occasional pieces of meat; a pharmacy, field hospital and roughly constructed partitioned toilets. To add to this, there is a well-stocked media center with computers, Ipads and speedy internet connection to the MB and Salifi social networks.

Of course some left-wing Arab media are joining in the same chorus sung by the MB, except that the left, unlike the MB, carries a form of critical integrity into this new “anti-Armed Forces” alliance.

It could be said to be a miniature recreation of one of history’s more bizarre, if short-lived moments, when the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany signed a non-Aggression Pact during the Second World War. The functional if unsung lyrics to the chorus go; “The army is ruthless, the army shows no restraint.”

But the on-going existence of the “Occupied Territory of Cairo” is possible due to the restraint of the armed forces and the security forces that follow their lead.

At other times and places, like 19th Century France when the Paris commune was crushed, armies can easily set up rows of belt-fed heavy machine guns (removing the need for continuous reloading of ammunition) and mow down thousands of people, in a matter of minutes.

Will Cairo face a siege?

However, not only has the “Occupied Territory of Cairo” not been raked with machine gun fire, heavy volleys of tear gas or powerful streams of water shot by water cannon, but we are yet to observe an imposed siege. This is not happening, citizens are permitted to move back and forth, allowed to return to their homes, source food and have access to electricity.

A siege would enforce a contrasting lifestyle. On the contrary, it is the MB with their Salifi allies, their families and less affluent Egyptians living in the countryside who are reportedly transported into cities with the promise of food.

They are besieging neighborhoods, with the noise of overhead tannoys blaring out speeches, the sound of drums beating long into the night, and the noise of large crowds.

Of course one should not talk about “occupied territories” as is the case in the Palestinian territories which according to the occupiers are now the “disputed territories.” Nor should one talk of the Muslim Brotherhood; they are but a small part of this sudden swelling of zealous, self-described defenders of democracy and Mursi. Is it a coincidence that he happened to be leading Egypt back into an authoritarian state, an Islamist authoritarian state?

It is important is to ask why there are no other occupied territories beyond Cairo. Particularly because the decisive second round of the presidential election showed Mursi’s support came from the countryside. The answer: just about every member of the MB (and according to reliable sources this meant 750,000 card carrying members at the time of the elections) have been ordered to take turns coming in to the capital for these dramatic stand-offs.

Al-Sisi’s popularity

Between the time this column is being written and its publication some hours later, the future of Egypt is uncertain. A siege could be imposed. This is what most Cairenes want, but Cairo is hosting important mediators from the Arab Gulf, the United States and Europe. General al-Sisi is in an active negotiating mode and says he is seeking a negotiated peaceful settlement that will end the sit-ins.

Just how popular is al-Sisi? Judging by the proliferation of al-Sisi posters, hand carried placards and very favorable wide ranging local media coverage, it would appear that General Abdul Fattah al-Sisi is the hero of the hour who is a bastion of hope for many hours to come.

For more than two and a half years, millions of Egyptian people failed to elect an appropriate leader following the ouster of Mubarak. A leader could not come from the old leadership of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) compromised by decades of collaboration with Mubarak.

The ineffectual political opposition have been unable to unite, supporting one leader or cohesive program. Al-Sisi speaks directly and intelligently. His military bearing, his combination of patience and boldness and his readiness to speak the truth to American political figures reminds nationalists or simple patriots of Gamal Abdul Nasser at his best.

Al-Sisi’s reputation as an observant Muslim and his interest in Islamic history, as well as military theory, reassures the pious. Moreover, the absence of religious rhetoric in his brief speeches reassures secularists.

Yet, a number of foreign journalists for international NGOs are puzzled if not hostile to the armed forces and to the idea of al-Sisi as leader of Egypt. Why? Tune in next week for my bi-weekly column.

Until then, disclosure: I am neither puzzled nor hostile. Indeed, covering the Republican Convention in the summer of 1952 as a junior reporter for the New York Daily News, I found General Dwight David Eisenhower to be inspiring, despite my strong Democratic Party leanings. And, having closely followed all U.S. Presidential campaigns ever since, I must say that General al-Sisi has all the qualities one describes as presidential material.

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Originally published on Al Arabiya and reprinted on TAM with permission of the author.  Prof. Schleifer’s Alarabiya column will now be posted regularly on The American Muslim (TAM), and on Arab Media and Society, an electronic journal as well as the links twitted on a weekly basis to Arab Media and Society subscribers.

Abdallah Schleifer is Professor Emeritus of Journalism at the American University in Cairo, where he founded and served as first director of the Kamal Adham Center for Television Journalism. He also founded and served as Senior Editor of the journal Transnational Broadcasting Studies, now known as Arab Media & Society. Before joining the AUC faculty Schleifer served for nine years as NBC News Cairo bureau chief and Middle East producer- reporter; as Middle East corrrespondent for Jeune Afrique based in Beirut and as a special correspndent for the New York Times based in Amman. After retiring from teaching at AUC Schleifer served for just over a year as Al Arabiya’s Washington D.C. bureau chief. He is associated with the Middle East Institute in Washington D.C. as an Adjunct Scholar. He was executive producer of the award winning documentary “Control Room” and the 100 episode Reality- TV documentary “Sleepless in Gaza…and Jerusalem.”


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