Friday 29 July 2011 had been billed as a “Friday of Unity” demonstration in Tahrir Square uniting secular and Islamic opposition forces to come out to push for further change in Egypt. But the arrival of approximately 1 million people calling for Islamic change drew fierce criticism from secular groups within Egypt, as well as secularists outside the region.
Some of the groups within the square criticised those calling for Islamic change – the so-called ‘Islamists’ – because they did not uphold terms the agreement beforehand.
But aside from those specific grievances, the blogosphere was full of pejorative anti-Islamic rhetoric from the supporters of the secular minority. There was talk of the ‘hijacking of “our” revolution – and that ‘extremists’ had come to ‘impose’ their agenda. The renowned left-wing activist Tariq Ali wrote a poem imposing his prejudices and stereotypes on the Islamic activists – and their beliefs – that was published on the Guardian website.
Fortunately there were some people present in Tahrir square who were not from the Islamic groups – some of them non-Muslims – who were tweeting that the atmosphere on the ground was neither aggressive nor imposing, merely a passionate expression of people present. This seemed to confirm the view from a distance – that this was more a case of sour grapes by advocates of a secular Egypt, whose limited public support was ruthlessly exposed when they were vastly outnumbered by those who hold a different vision for a Egypt – arguably one which is more in tune with its people’s values and history.
Revolutions are not solitary events
The demonstrations that led to the fall of Hosni Mubarak were neither the start nor the end of change in Egypt. For decades, non-violent Islamic activists and thinkers paid a heavy price in terms of life and liberty opposing the oppression of the Mubarak, Sadat and Nasser regimes – when so-called moderates and secular groups were silent or even complicit in the actions of the regimes. Their contribution, maintaining pressure [both real political pressure and moral pressure] through their efforts and sacrifice cannot simply be discounted from what is happening in Egypt today because they failed to adequately move the population at the time. The process of opposition was started by those people, who won the moral argument against the regime long ago, and has now moved on.
When a new generation of protestors in Tahrir square they managed to capture the public mood earlier this year because ordinary people had had enough of the regime. All were united against the existing order.
But secular commentators had deluded themselves that the population of Egypt were also united in favour of a Paris or London style ‘freedom’; despite evidence on the ground – both in terms of polling and actual behaviour of the population – was firmly not likely to be calling for this; especially since the whole region was immersed in an Islamic identity until relatively recently.
The people of Egypt – whose history, values and religion cannot simply be dismissed by a secular elite and their western proponents – were the flesh and blood that led to Mubarak’s demise. If the ‘Facebook generation’ helped cause the ‘wave’ that swept him away, the people of Egypt were – as someone else put it – the ‘sea’!
Coming full circle in the Arab Muslim world
Sixty years ago, in the immediate post colonial period, a vigorous debate emerged about the future political direction of the region. At that time the options on the table were Islam, Communism, Arab Nationalism and Western-style capitalist secular democracy. The advocates of Islam quickly won the educated youth and the intellectual debate and their message increasingly message won greater sections of the masses.
The police-states we know today began when the post-colonial client regimes started an oppressive crackdown to deal with this opinion for Islam.
Now people are rising up against these regimes, with mixed results so far, the emergence of a space in which to debate the future will see Islam, once again, as an option on the table.
But two crucial factors suggest Islam is in a stronger position now than it was even sixty years ago, to emerge as the victor in this debate – notwithstanding further suppression and exclusion by its detractors.
Firstly, the evidence from all the protests – most especially seen in the changes of the past six months in Tunisia, Egypt and ‘freed’ Libya – is that where the regimes have taken a blow, people have rapidly started to express their Islamic values and aspirations.
Secondly, the role model for people to aspire to is not the western model that competed with communism as a model for stability, prosperity and a model of governance. The double-standards in the War on Terror; the economic instability in the West and the fragility and vulnerability of capitalism that has been exposed as a result; all of these and more have devalued more than just currency in the west.
It is against a diminished capitalism, upheld by today’s ‘sick men’ of the world [the United States and European Union], that Islam – hitherto brutally suppressed and excluded from the debate – now competes.
So let us hope that instead of cheap insults, shallow stereotypes and brutal repression this long overdue debate can now commence.