Egypt simmers with fear, anxiety
It wasn’t long ago that my Welsh uncle, who visited Egypt for the first time this summer, told me how impressed he was with Egyptians. “I’ve never met such kind, polite and good humored people in my life,” he said. He was amazed at the respectful way people treated one another. I agreed wholeheartedly. Just a few short months ago before President Muhammad Mursi’s power grab and his rush to push through a controversial Islamist-weighted constitution, Egyptians respectfully disagreed with one another over the country’s future while those in the liberal camp adopted a wait-and-see attitude. “Let’s give him (Mursi) a chance,” went a common refrain. Since then, the atmosphere has visibly soured.
The days when Islamists, moderates and Coptic Christians stood shoulder-to-shoulder in Cairo’s iconic Tahrir Square united in their objective are long gone. Reason and dialogue has been replaced by intimidation, threats, violence and insult. As Egypt’s first democratically-elected president, Mursi has blown an historical opportunity. He may be touting his win. His constitution was accepted by 64 percent of some 30 percent of the population that bothered to vote in the phased referendum. But what price victory when the country is not only divided as never before, people are seething with fury over irreconcilable, ideological differences; their views becoming more entrenched as each day passes.
In the one corner are people like our carpenter who camped out with thousands of other Islamists outside Cairo’s Media City. He said he was there to defend his president against a hostile media broadcasting filth and had said a last goodbye to his wife just in case he didn’t return. “What will happen to your wife and son, in that event,” I asked him? “Allah will provide,” he answered. On Friday, I was appalled to see young Islamists among the tens of thousands who were demonstrating outside a mosque in Alexandria tie green bands around their foreheads and shouting slogans characterizing opposition protesters as Mubarak remnants, or worse, “infidels.”
Who is instigating those young men to wage jihad against their own compatriots and co-religionists? Whoever they are, they need to re-read the Holy Qu’ran and reabsorb its message of tolerance and peace.
Somewhere down the line, in their minds, politics and religion have been conflated. Anyone who opposes Mursi is automatically a non-believer or a Mubarak supporter, never mind that the opposition includes Muslims who were once friends and colleagues, people they once prayed with and who wanted Mubarak gone just as vehemently as they did. Those who are stuffing impressionable youthful heads with this madness, that’s nothing less than a recipe for bloody civil war are irresponsible and destructive.
I watched dozens of women from the lowest socioeconomic strata being interviewed on Al Jazeera Mubasher as to their opinion of the constitution, who invariably interjected Islam into the equation. Quite a few painted the “no” camp as anti-God, as though that 63-page-long document was a sacred tract instead of a man-made blueprint for a secular, albeit predominantly Muslim, state where between 10-15 percent of the population is Christian.
In the other corner are individuals like the forthright Egyptian television presenter on the Cairo Today channel Amr Adeeb, a Muslim who talks as though his country has been invaded by pod people, strangers who don’t listen to the songs of Umm Khultoum, who don’t eat fasikh (dried, salty, fish) during Sham El-Nessim (a public holiday celebrating the onset of spring) or engage in any traditional Egyptian pursuits.
On Sunday night, his angst was palpable. He rejects what he perceives is a Muslim Brotherhood takeover of his homeland and is incensed by slurs that people upholding democracy’s core secular values are non-believers. He was also furious that a prominent Islamist had cast aspersions on the morality of Egyptian womanhood. Who are you to insult our mothers, our sisters, our daughters and your own, he yelled, adding that his country’s true sin resided in the plight of the country’s poor, hungry and jobless, people who have no access to clean water and can’t afford bread.
Adeeb’s fearless self-expression has elicited personal abuse and death threats that propelled him to leave the country for the safety of the UK a few weeks ago. He has since returned to expound his views with even greater gusto than before.
Egypt’s answer to Jon Stewart is Bassem Youssef a surgeon cum political satirist who hosts Al Bernarmeg (The Program) on CBC. He has been attacking the Muslim Brotherhood using ridicule. However, on Sunday, a complaint was filed with the Prosecutor-General alleging Youssef had insulted Mursi by clutching a pillow embossed with the president’s face surrounded by hearts.
It’s safe to say that just about every Egyptian regardless of his religious or political persuasion is affected by gnawing anxiety as the economy continues to free fall in parallel with the nation’s instability. Most of the people I know are sick and tired of riding a rollercoaster; they simply want to see progress that brings them tangible rewards. One of the reasons the ‘yes’ ballot was higher than the ‘no’s’ was due to a percentage of voters who weren’t necessarily convinced about the constitution’s merits but who wanted the process over and done with in hopes the turbulence would recede. Unfortunately, it’s not about to any time soon unless…
President Mursi makes a determined effort to glue his population back together with inclusive political decisions. He should reach out to the National Salvation Front led by Amr Moussa and Mohamed ElBaradei and listen to their concerns about the more controversial of the constitution’s articles without preconditions. He should respect the independence of the judiciary and reassure people that he will never again seek to expand his powers in an undemocratic fashion. Simultaneously, religious sheikhs should be advised to cease inflaming passions during their Friday sermons. Once heads are cooler and fears have been quelled, President Mursi can work to win back confidence.
The name of the game is dialogue and conciliation before Egyptians, who have always co-existed harmoniously and celebrated their differences, become mortal enemies. If that happens, there’ll be no going back.