My Dinner With the Muslim Brotherhood
The evening call to prayer signals sundown and the time to break fast on the first day of Ramadan. Two trucks arrive in Cairo's Tahrir Square, loaded with Iftar meals for the protesters who remain here to defend what they see as their revived revolution.
A small, rough crowd swarms the trucks. There are a lot of jumpy street kids, here for the excitement and perhaps the free meal; a few crazies (one carries around a banner describing the Muslim Brotherhood as ``the garbage Egypt burned,'' among more personal insults for individual Islamist leaders); and a small core of activists, including the Egyptian movie director Khaled Youssef.
Youssef, who organized the meals and is making a movie about the revolution, tells me the protesters will have to stay here "until the revolution is secure.'' That could be a long time. He shrugs. One indication that the revolution is on track will be the shape of the new transitional government, which has to include people who agree with the street movement, he says. Another sign will be when the Muslim Brotherhood's supporters, who are staging similar sit-ins across town, go home.
``We can't have Tahrir empty while they are protesting. It doesn't work,'' says Youssef. Still, for now this feels like a hollowed-out street movement that has served its purpose. Power has shifted from the street to the military, and the millions who turned out to protest against former President Mohamed Mursi are celebrating the beginning of Ramadan at home with their families.
Asked why he trusts the military now, when just a year ago they represented the enemy, Youssef has two answers. First, the army has different leaders now. A younger generation of generals has replaced the old ones, who ran the country so disastrously after the 2011 removal of former Hosni Mubarak. Secondly, these new generals ``stood up to America.''
``What happened in this revolution isn't that the military stood up to Mursi, the people did that,'' he says. ``What the military did was to stand up to America, which only a few days before told them not to intervene. The military chose the people over the U.S.''
President Barack Obama isn't terribly popular across town either, where Mursi supporters are also breaking their fast. The atmosphere here, in front of Cairo University, is very different from Tahrir. The crowd is much larger. It is a family affair, with kids running around and large numbers of women strolling or sitting on picnic blankets. Some are clad in hijab headscarves, others in niqabs, the black habits that leave just slits for their eyes. Only the youngest girls are uncovered.
It is much calmer here. When the call to prayer sounds again, the adults form orderly lines to pray, men and women separate. The kids go on playing, raucously.
``We get shot at, and we are called terrorists … What did we do?'' asks Mohamed Anwar, a 40-year-old carpenter who is clearly bewildered by the recent turn of events. ``There are rules of democracy that are accepted all around the world, but they don't apply to us. The U.S. support our military and make them strong against us -- but you won't do the same in your own country. Why is that?''
The hurt and grievance Anwar feels is exacerbated by the fact that he and his movement had to go through an intense debate to accept electoral democracy in the first place. There are three verses in the Koran that explain why the correct way to rule is by God's word, and rule by men is "corrupt'' and "unjust,'' he says. He goes on to explain how only a machine's maker can write the instruction manual, not the user. Ruling is the same: God made the world, so he writes the rules.
"We never believed in democracy,'' Anwar says.
His friend Walid Shaarawi objects. Another verse in the Koran enshrines democracy through the idea of a "shura'' council, where rulers go to consult, he says. Islam and democracy are completely compatible, it's wrong to say they aren't. The men work together. It is evident that this is a debate they've had many times before.
"When we saw the majority of the people wanted democracy, we gave into the will of the people temporarily, for the good of the country,'' says Anwar. "We accepted the rules. Mursi made mistakes perhaps, but he didn't break the rules. He didn't steal, he didn't falsify any elections.''
They are hurt, too, by the way so many Egyptians turned against the Brotherhood and its government. They describe how Egypt's news media spewed constant lies to demonize the Brotherhood and turn people against Mursi, and how the old regime bureaucracy blocked the former president at every turn so he would fail. Now that old regime is back in the open, they say. Literally, the police are back in the streets for the first time since 2011.
A youngster who has stopped to listen shows the bullet wound he received through his thigh, exiting his buttock, when police attacked the square last week. He's limping, but clearly proud of the injuries -- he keeps the photographs on his iPhone.
Egyptians like these have no obvious recourse. The Brotherhood's sole aim is to see Mursi restored to the presidency, which won't happen. They say their movement, which may include as many as 30 million Egyptians, won't take part in future elections otherwise. They say they will use only peaceful means, but the rhetoric of the movement's supporters and leaders is laced with talk of sacrifice.
"We will stay here until Mursi is reinstated or we die,'' says Shaarawi. "We won't live in a police state again.''
(Marc Champion is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board. Follow him on Twitter.)