The Spectre haunting Egypt
by Abdallah Schleifer
We are overwhelmed by the latest breaking story, and this past week there have been an unnerving number of them. But a sense of an intensifying crisis – until now a largely ignored economic as well as the obvious political crisis has been intensifying since late November. The street violence has been escalating ever since. This is not to even mention the rising unemployment, periodic banditry on the highways, the looting and land seizures at archaeological sites across the country, garbage littered streets and an epidemic of car theft all of which preceded Mursi taking power.
What is different about much of the violence now and the street fighting back in January-February 2011 is that during the Tahrir Uprising, the protestors did not initiate the violence. It was the security forces then – police and riot police who attacked, and then when repulsed, were replaced by thugs and the tourist -trade camel riders, who were fought off largely by the experienced street fighters of the Ultras – organized fanatic football fans who have a deep and reciprocated hated of the police, and who rallied to Tahrir, as they would to any other cause providing an opportunity to fight the police. Alongside them then were the Muslim Brotherhood Youth who brought a strong almost Leninist sense of party discipline to the organization of security measures to protect Tahrir during those 18 days from both attacks and infiltration.
Taking the initiative
Now it is the demonstrators who are almost always taking the initiative and attacking the security forces—be they Cairo Ahali Ultras—protesting a court ruling letting off policemen accused of being party to the death of more than 70 mostly Ahali fans in Port Said more than a year ago—and putting a Police Club and the offices of the Egyptian Football Federation on fire ,or the protestors on the opposite side of the Nile. They are a different band, overwhelmingly street kids and unemployed youth who have taken the initiative in attacking security forces while attempting to block traffic on the Corniche – the main downtown artery near Tahrir and setting on fire two Egyptian owned restaurants nearby (believed to be owned by Muslim Brotherhood businessmen),as well as attacking the Five-Star Semiramis Hotel, throwing stones and Molotov cocktails. “Why are you attacking the hotel” the photojournalist Cliff Cheny who has been covering most of the action, asked the demonstrators.. “Because the police are protecting the hotel” replied one of the young men.
Not too long ago demonstrators were throwing Molotov cocktails at the Presidential Palace. The anti-Mursi, anti- MB sentiment runs strong, and is getting stronger by the day among all classes in Cairo. But here is what the educated youth and middle class Egyptians who articulate their anger as a defense of liberal, democratic values, fail to understand: If any demonstrator approached the White House or Number 10 Downing Street and lit a Molotov cocktail, he would be shot down by the security forces protecting the respective residences of the American President and the British Prime Minister, and probably before he could manage the toss.
As for Tahrir Square itself, a small number of protestors, less than a hundred occupied it for about three months, blocking traffic moving around the square, which is a major junction for downtown Cairo. Can anyone imagine Times Square, Trafalgar Square, or the Champs Elysee shut down for three months? When the security forces finally moved in, then the young street fighting enthusiasts who characterize the new 2012-2013 Tahrir rallied to the scene.
Sharing the blame
Of course one can fault Mursi on a number of issues, particularly in domestic affairs—just read the independent press. But if some of the actions and particularly the statements coming from Mursi have been clumsy, and in the case of the Islamist-dominated Shura Council have at times more than bordered on stupidity, one must also note that the Opposition, particularly the leadership of the National Salvation Front (NSF) has more than bordered on irresponsibility. NSF leaders have consistently refused Mursi’s invitation to meet with him for direct dialogue unless he first adopts all the demands of the Opposition. Can one imagine the leaders of the opposition in the United Kingdom, France or the U.S. refusing invitations to meet with the Prime Minister or President.
NSF leaders also denounce Mursi as a dictator, as worse than Mubarak. God alone knows what the future holds for Egypt, but if, right now, Mursi was a dictator, the NSF leadership and cadre as well as the editors of the pro-Opposition independent press would all be in prison.
Mursi and the MB/FJP have lost popularity but so has the Opposition and the demonstrators. That is why there is a growing sentiment—particularly among the working class poor who are struggling to find work and to put food on the table for their families—for a return to military rule.
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 little more than 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.”
Originally published on al Arabiya and reprinted with permission of author. Prof. Schleifer will now be a regular columnist on al Arabiya and share his insights with TAM also.