“We live in a country where liberals renege on democracy, Islamists harm Islam and human rights activists champion oppression,” an Islamic television producer cynically remarked three months after Muhammad Mursi was ousted from Egypt’s presidency in July 2013. That summer, the televised images of multitudes of flag-waving protesters were uncanny in their resemblance to those of the 2011 revolution that forced Husni Mubarak from power. The arc of the unfolding political drama, it seemed, was also strikingly similar: The people took to the streets peacefully; the president was unmoved, vowing to complete his term and threatening chaos if removed; the military decided to side with the people; the revolution was saved.

But in 2013, as in 2011, this narrative was just one of many about the events transpiring. Broadcasts from the Muslim Brothers’ satellite channel Misr25 insisted that the footage being aired on Egyptian state television showing a seemingly unending stream of people marching against Mursi was in fact footage of people marching in his support. Experts opined on air that these were “Photoshop protests,” the spectacular results of a skilled manipulation of image and sound, rather than real people with real grievances. Even before the mass killings, the mass arrests, the mass trials, what was in dispute were facts. What happened? What did not happen? Who did what when and to whom? How can we know?

These disagreements over “reality” continue: Were the events of the summer of 2013 a coup? A revolution? Or were they something in between, a “revocouption” [1] or a “coupvolution”? [2] In the meantime, facts on the ground pile up like tired monuments to an authoritarianism that is wearily familiar: more than 40,000 political prisoners according to one estimate; [3] journalists convicted in sham trials; the systematic use of sexual violence by security forces against activists and detainees. Bombs routinely appear in subways and near government buildings, and more and more Egyptians, fearful and fatigued, mutter about this wretched revolution.

In the days after Mursi’s ouster, many ordinary Egyptians were unsure, unclear, about what was transpiring and what it meant for them and the country. Even at one of the region’s leading transnational Islamic satellite channels, where I had worked and done research from 2010 to late 2012, the producers and television preachers were divided about unfolding events. This channel defined itself primarily against the more recent salafi entrants into the Islamic satellite sector, including the channels that were closed down following the coup. One editor sounded subdued, tired. “I don’t know what to think,” she said slowly. “I sit with a pro-Mursi person and he convinces me. Then I sit with an anti-Mursi person, and he also convinces me.” She said that at the channel these three camps — pro, anti and undecided — had each carved out a little space for themselves. In the end, though, what distressed her most was not the severed friendships and truncated collegiality, but the new risks that were becoming commonplace. Making the long commute to work every day had become a perilous obligation, with gunshots ringing out and fights erupting without warning. Her husband was walking to the mosque one evening when a man, “a thug,” suddenly appeared brandishing a knife and asked him, “What do you think of the Brothers?” Her husband noncommittally shrugged his shoulders because he was unsure which answer would save him the pain of the knife.

When I visited the channel the following week, the two distinct political spaces and an uncertain one in between were apparent immediately. Those against the “coup” were congregating during their free time around a television tuned to Al Jazeera, while those for the “revolution” watched one of the private Egyptian channels together. In the meantime, a few unhappily drifted in and out of these two groups. One person in this group said that what saddened her most is the fact that women on the floor were no longer all praying together as we used to. It has become very hard to have a simple conversation, she said in a half-whisper.

By this time, the second week of July, sordid stories about the Muslim Brother/anti-coup encampment at Raba‘a Square were circulating fast and thick. Tales of torture tents where fingers were routinely chopped off; of tents dedicated to wanton fornication hypocritically legitimized in “jihad marriages”; of disease and uncleanliness; of the poor being bribed with food and a few pounds to stay, of the less poor going in and not being allowed to come out; of the brainwashed many and the manipulative few.

These stories were grittier versions of those that circulated about Tahrir Square in the 2011 revolution, before Tahrir was recuperated in the official state narrative following Mubarak’s ouster as the utopian space protesters claimed. Such were the stories that when I told a few people that I planned to visit the sit-in in Raba‘a, they thought I was either unbelievably heroic to be risking life and limb to document the “truth,” or that I was extraordinarily reckless, needlessly endangering my life to be among a group of “thugs.” Raba‘a Square, until now a largely unremarkable and perennially congested intersection among the non-descript high-rises of middle-class Nasr City, seemed like a different country.

The Other Egypt

Being in Cairo that summer was surreal — two dominant parallel realities existed on the ground, each with their own facts in the making. In a sense, Raba‘a was indeed a different country, an imagined community complete with its own founding myths, fallen martyrs, unifying symbols and charismatic leaders. Before visiting, I had morbid images running through my head of being gunned down by a sniper hiding atop one of the tall buildings surrounding the square. These mental images were more vivid versions of the grainy violence circulating on YouTube. In one such video, a protester approaches a group of soldiers holding a poster of Mursi. Suddenly, he crumples on the asphalt, blood spurting from his skull as the traffic whizzes by in the midday sun.

I did not go to Raba‘a until I found someone to go with me. Haroun was a friend of a friend, and his Facebook page showed reassuring “notes” about his experiences in Raba‘a, where he had being going almost daily, on top of taking part in the anti-coup marches. [4] He told me that the real danger is in the marches, not inside the square itself. Haroun is an engineer, as is his wife. He loves traveling — Amsterdam is one of his favorite cities. He goes dancing in the nightclubs there as well as in Cairo, although as an observant Muslim he will not drink. He recently went on a trip to the United States when his wife attended a conference in the Midwest, and he got a visa at the last minute. America impressed him, all big and shiny.

Haroun said he was never, and is not currently, a member of the Society of Muslim Brothers. In fact, his way of thinking is very far from their ideology. Yet he found himself voting for them in the 2012 presidential election because they offered something his fellow youth activists from Tahrir did not — the ability to mobilize through the ballot box and achieve power in order to get things done. He felt a vote for the Tahrir activists was a wasted vote. Ideologically, he mused, he would be closest to the thought of ‘Abd al-Mun‘im Abu al-Fotouh, the centrist Islamist candidate, but he did not vote for him because he realized that to fight someone like Ahmad Shafiq, the military candidate, you need a well-oiled machine behind you. The Brothers were certainly that.

We made a plan to meet on July 24 on the multi-lane road leading to Raba‘a. I parked my car behind a long row of others against the curb of the median and waited for Haroun. Two cars ahead, a family slowly piled out into the street. The husband was wearing a gray tracksuit and plastic flip-flops, the wife a floor-skimming jean skirt and paisley scarf, and trailing right behind them was a little girl in pigtails clutching a plastic bag filled with snacks. My eyes followed them until they disappeared under the banner announcing one of the main entrances to the sit-in, just next to a shuttered gas station. Later, I would wonder if this family was there two weeks later, the day security forces dispersed the sit-in, killing over 700 people in a few hours, and if they had managed to escape the bullets and the horror. They could easily have been. Later still, I would see on YouTube a video of a small boy sobbing uncontrollably in the arms of a man, maybe a stranger, imploring his mother to wake up. The camera swiftly pans down to the sleeping mother, lying dead in a pool of blood.

“Welcome to the new Tahrir Square,” Haroun says with a broad smile and a firm handshake when he finally arrives to fetch me. He carries a backpack filled with overnight supplies, and over his arm a blanket and pillow. He regularly spends the night in Raba‘a, going directly to his day job at a small design firm from the encampment. After being lightly frisked and having our national identity cards checked by volunteers at the entrance, we walk into a maze of tents, wooden structures and improvised footpaths. To the left and right are neat rows of men and women performing the special Ramadan prayers. Haroun walks to a little spot covered by a striped canvas canopy in front of a shuttered store and says he usually camps out here. He carefully places his blanket and pillows on the floor and we resume our walk, crossing a corner.

I ask him if he has made any new friends in Raba‘a — he shakes his head, saying that he does, however, meet with many of his old friends here. He says you never know who you are talking to — there are many mukhbirin (undercover agents) walking around. Can he tell who those are from their appearance? “No,” he says, “from their actions. I will have a conversation with him and he will agree with me, and then I hear him having a similar conversation with someone else during which he disagrees. And they always overdo it—they are the ones asking to be carried on shoulders to lead the chants.”

We stop in front of a pastry shop doing brisk business and order two teas from a makeshift stall an enterprising young man has set up just outside. We find two empty plastic chairs, and I sit after removing a glossy color poster of Mursi from one. We sip the sweet tea and watch the many children running around and playing tag while their mothers converse nearby in small groups. If it were not for the chants coming from the loudspeakers, it would be just another warm Cairene night during Ramadan.

Haroun describes the motivations that led him to come almost every day to Raba‘a. Most important is a political pragmatism that refuses the false choice between military authoritarianism and the purity of total revolution that can only criticize, never build. He sees the members of the Brothers first and foremost as builders. His tone is adamant as he describes how the people of Raba‘a see theirs as a religious struggle (sira‘ dini). People here feel that what is under attack, what is in danger of being eradicated, is Egypt’s Islamic identity, he says. They feel that if they leave the square without reinstating Mursi they would be returning to a world of dawn raids and repression. Over the past three years, it has been exhilarating to live without that fear, and they do not plan on going back. So they are here to defend their religion, not only their president.

Haroun says the people of Raba‘a believe Mursi was removed because he wanted to apply God’s laws. Yusuf al-Qaradawi, an influential Muslim Brother preacher, would later say in a sermon from Qatar that Mursi was removed because he prayed, fasted and recited the Qur’an. [5] Residents of the “other Egypt” resent the idea that the people in Raba‘a are more religious, more Muslim, than the people outside. Haroun is familiar with these complaints — half of his own family is against the sit-in and against him coming here so regularly. They ask him sarcastically if people are praying over a big statue of Mursi, their new prophet. Later, in a speech an Azhari scholar would liken Gen. ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi and Interior Minister Muhammad Ibrahim, saviors of the other Egypt, to the prophets. [6]

Haroun had never been interested in the history of Islamist movements in Egypt, but since June 30 he learned it quite well. While he was initially skeptical of some of the Islamists’ ideas, he decided that they are quite logical and attractive once properly explained. Take the caliphate — we should not be afraid of it, he says. All that it means is that Muslims will not need passports anymore to travel between Muslim countries — something like the European Union.

After the tea, we take a tour of the different stages set up around the square. We stop at one projecting onto a sheet a video montage set to sad music. The images pass by slowly — dead men with still, slack mouths, purple-red skin. The image of a pudgy teenage boy in glasses and a black and white kaffiyya wrapped around his neck comes up. It is Mahmoud, a soccer fan and avid drummer who was killed in a march two nights ago. His drum is on the stage, his portrait perched on top with a black ribbon in one of its corners. A young man in a purple t-shirt and scruffy jeans starts leading the crowd gathered below the stage in chants: “Sleep, Mahmoud, sleep and rest. We will continue the struggle.” Many of the men and women in the crowd are crying.

By now it is almost 11 pm, and Haroun offers to walk me back to my car. There are even more people packing the square. Haroun recounts the crowds of July 9, the day after pro-Mursi protesters were gunned down by security forces as they performed the dawn prayer in front of the Presidential Guards Club. He filmed the streams of people marching into Raba‘a for 20 minutes before running out of batteries. He could not stop crying because up until then he felt it was so easy to kill them because they were so alone. One night while everyone was praying, they heard rapid gunfire that sounded nearby. His heart pounded and he was very frightened, but all around him the women remained calm and concentrated on their prayers—the imam even made the supplication extra long as the guns continued firing.

A young woman approaches us with a smile. “Excuse me, I don’t mean to bother you,” she says, “but would you be willing to go to the Media Tent and record your reaction to Sisi’s declaration?” The day before, Sisi in his black sunglasses had made a speech asking Egyptians to take to the streets en masse to authorize him to “fight terrorism.” “We want to show people that many different kinds of people are here,” she continues, “including people with hair.” She means women who do not wear a headscarf. I suddenly realize that I have not seen another bareheaded woman since entering the square. I decline with what I hope is the same politeness.

As we are about to turn away from the stage, the young man in the purple shirt introduces a former member of Parliament affiliated with the Muslim Brothers’ party. The woman begins by telling us not to cry — Mahmoud is a martyr in the highest heavens of God now. She asks for a joyous ululation and several are offered from the crowd. This square, she tells us, is different from Tahrir because the people here have a righteous cause. The people here have religion and ethics. A woman in this square can walk its whole length and not be sexually harassed once, while girls are being gang-raped in Tahrir. The former parliamentarian then announces a short film clip.

On the billowing sheet behind her is projected a scene from The Lion of the Desert, starring Anthony Quinn. The dubbed scene is the famous interrogation of Quinn, who plays ‘Umar Mukhtar, the Libyan freedom fighter, by an Italian colonial officer. With increasing frustration, the general tries to persuade Mukhtar to stop his rebellion, alternately threatening him and negotiating with him. Mukhtar defiantly tells the Italian, “We will never surrender. Either we win, or we die.” Allahu akbar, the woman cries into the microphone; God is great, the audience echoes.

A Secular Coup?

A few days before I went to Raba‘a, I had iftar with one of my former colleagues in Islamic television production, Nawal, and her neighbor. Nawal is a pious woman even by the most exacting standards. She attends weekly lessons in Qur’anic recitation and interpretation at a mosque a full 45-minute drive from her home because she thinks the teacher there is particularly learned. She donned the headscarf at puberty, and over the years swapped her form-fitting pantsuits for wider and looser skirts and knee-length jacket ensembles. She reads the Qur’an daily, and during Ramadan shuns the television in favor of a marathon 20-cycle prayer set at the mosque. If she is very tired, she will do eight cycles, but she will not miss a single day of this ritually efficacious month, a month when the doors of heaven are wide open to those who beseech God.

Among those I came to know at the satellite channel, Nawal was one of the most vociferous critics of the Brothers. Once, back in 2012, a group of us gathered in a break rooms to watch a press conference by then-candidate Mursi. He declared that if elected president he would not pass a law mandating the headscarf for women. Nawal spoke over the din of the television: “Of course the Brothers are not going to pass a law. That would never work. It’s going to be more subtle — you are going to be walking down the street [at this point she turned to me, the only unveiled woman in the room] and someone, probably another woman, will come up to you and say, ‘Sister, protect your modesty.’ And you will hear that every day, everywhere you go, and in the end you will just get fed up and wear the hijab.”

Nawal was the only person at the channel who tried to persuade me, very gently, to wear a headscarf. What she was questioning was not the desirability of Muslim women abiding by this religious obligation, but the sincerity of the Brothers’ claim that they would never force them to. The only person to object to this cynical prediction was also the only person in the group who was actively campaigning for the Muslim Brothers, a young woman who was often good-naturedly teased by other employees for this choice.

As we ate, Nawal told us about a bad argument she had had with her good friend Amal. Amal is also a very pious woman — they had met during mosque lessons ten years before. Over the years, Amal started shunning her own suits in favor of monochromatic cloaks and most recently covered her face with a semi-sheer black cloth, a sartorial marker of salafi leanings in Egypt. Her husband lets his beard grow to his chest and shaves his mustache, also in the salafi style. Amal supports the Muslim Brothers, and had gone a few times with her husband to the sit-in at Raba‘a. As Nawal told it, Amal believed that those against Mursi were in fact acting against religion. Not only that, they were being supported by the Copts and the Shi‘a, who are infidels.

Nawal’s neighbor, who protested for the first time in her life not on January 25, 2011 against Mubarak, but on June 30, 2013 against Mursi, immediately started clicking her tongue against her teeth in disapproval. This Amal, she declared, is from the people that God speaks about in al-A‘raf, the seventh chapter of the Qur’an. She recited the specific verse: “A group [of you] He guided, and a group deserved [to be in] error. Indeed, they had taken the devils as allies instead of God while they thought that they were guided.”

Nawal started laughing, shaking her head at the irony as she told us that this verse is the very one that Amal used to describe her. Her face puckered, suddenly serious. “Amal is my best friend. She told me she has to stop speaking to me because her husband asked her to cut off ties with anyone against Mursi. Can you believe that?” What did you say to her, I asked. “I told her that I don’t want to know her, either.”

Nawal and others in the social world of Islamic media who supported Mursi’s ouster are not “secular liberal elites” as most accounts would have it. To the contrary — they explicitly believe that secularism cannot be legitimately justified or reasoned from within an Islamic frame. For them, Islam guides and makes normative claims on every aspect of human life, including political life. They were not against the Muslim Brothers because of the movement’s similar commitment to the “comprehensiveness” (shumuliyya) of Islam, but because they perceived it as arrogant and incompetent, nepotistic and exclusionary. The fact that the Brothers claimed to be acting in the name of Islam while behaving badly only made it so much worse.

Visions for a “New Egypt”

“I am against those using religion for their own personal gain,” one Islamic media producer explained when asked why she was anti-Mursi. “Islam is not new to Egypt. It wasn’t introduced into Egypt by the Brothers. In fact, the Brothers have tarnished the image of Islam. They do outrageous things, and when we tell them that this is not Islam, they call us infidels.” This producer’s support for the military’s removal of Mursi in no way hinged on seeing the military as a bastion of secularism.

To contend, then, that the widespread condemnation of the Brothers indicates a “reversal” of Islamization [7] presumes as descriptive the one prescriptive political claim that unites both secularists and pro-Brother Islamists in Egypt at this moment—that Islamization equals Brotherization. The Muslim Brothers’ narrative that whoever is against them is actually “against Islam” is one that many pious Egyptians find infuriating. Like Nawal, these Egyptians passionately contest the Brothers’ narrative using the same rhetorical strategies and authoritative citations of the Islamic tradition that the Brothers’ supporters use to make their own claims.

While posing secularism against Islamism is useful for a plethora of social actors — from the Brothers to Mubarak’s allies and for both liberal and leftist activists alike — it does not clarify what is actually at stake for many Egyptians who are active participants in the country’s long-standing Islamic revival, but refuse to conflate a commitment to Islamic principles, including political ones, with supporting the Muslim Brothers. The position of these Egyptians, including the Islamic media producers I worked with, is lost in framing the popular discontent and subsequent coup against Mursi as a binary opposition of Islamism and secularism.

Indeed, even those Islamic media producers who were against Mursi’s removal expressed their support for the former president in terms that were highly contingent and not at all predicated on accepting the claim that his party represents “Islam.” For example, a few weeks before the scheduled June 30 protest, one producer wrote the following post on Facebook:

I support the president in finishing his term, but I am not happy with his performance until now on many issues. I am among those who defend the right of the president and the Muslim Brothers to take their full chance in governing, but I don’t give them this support without criticism nor do I follow them blindly. I dream of a strong opposition with a real presence on the street that offers a real alternative to the ruling regime, but I am not for an opposition that destroys without offering something constructive in return. I am one of the sons of the revolution and its supporters, but I don’t feel that the revolution has a right to do anything anytime and anywhere and however it wants under the cover of revolutionary legitimacy. I believe that the Islamic trend should exist in the political field, but I don’t sacralize the parties within these trends or treat them like they represent Islam. I am prepared to vote them out for being incompetent, and vote in non-Islamist parties if they are better able to govern.

These sentiments illustrate that not only do some Egyptians not see the Islamism of the Muslim Brothers and secularism as the only two options available to them in organized political life, but also that these two ideologies do not exist in the world as their proponents insist (or wish) they do. Instead of subscribing to an either/or logic, many media producers within the “Islamic trend” evinced an activist sensibility that was largely indifferent to the competing ideological claims of organized Islamist groups and their secular liberal counterparts of what the “new Egypt” should be like.

Instead, they articulated a sociopolitical vision that, while incipient and not always coherent, was explicitly committed to the task of creating a shared space (masaha mushtarika) between Egyptians of different political orientations and moral sensibilities, including between those who identify themselves as pious and those who do not. With the military’s increasingly brutal repression of all dissent following Mursi’s ouster, speaking the language of a shared space became a radical act, a way of working to realize the revolutionary demands for “bread, freedom and social justice.”

Talk of solidarity and common action can seem at best naive amidst the militaristic vitriol that marks much of public speech in Egypt today, and at worst complicit in occluding the pain of destroyed lives and loved ones. But, for these Islamic media producers, it is the indifference of ordinary citizens to the silencing of those with whom they disagree, or dislike, that gives counter-revolutionary forces strength. Indeed, many of them were disturbed that so many Egyptians, including some of their friends and even close family members, could feel glee at reports of the killing or imprisonment of the “other side.” Outrage should not be stingily measured and doled out according to who is killing or who is being killed, they reasoned.

Trying to create this shared space, let alone inhabiting it, can feel arduous and uncertain. It can feel wretched. But for the Islamic media producers I came to know, insisting on both is necessary to overcome those who would make the “new Egypt” a more brutal version of the old.


[1] Juan Cole, “Egypt’s ‘Revocouption’ and the Future of Democracy on the Nile,” Informed Comment, July 4, 2013.
[2] See the search results for “#coupvolution” on Twitter.com.
[3] See WikiThawra: Statistical Database of the Egyptian Revolution. [Arabic] [4] All names are pseudonyms and identifying information has been changed.
[5] Available here.
[6] Available here.
[7] Steven Brooke, “Why Do Islamists Provide Social Services?” POMEPS Studies 6: Rethinking Islamist Politics (February 2014).

How to cite this article:

Yasmin Moll "The Wretched Revolution," Middle East Report 273 (Winter 2014).

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