Even from a distance, the past few days have a nightmare quality. Once upon a time, the only danger I associated with Egypt was the risk of getting run over crossing a busy thoroughfare. In fact, after moving to Egypt from the UK as a teenager, I used to wonder how Egyptians managed to avert violence so effectively.
Today mundane Cairo landmarks I have long been familiar with have been transformed into urban battlegrounds, with gunfire shattering people’s hopes and aspirations.
And for what?
So that some men who believe they should rule Egypt because they have God on their side can struggle for control of the state with other men who run Egypt because they have guns by their side.
As part of this supposedly existential battle, in the khaki corner, the country’s self-described guardians, defenders and uber-patriots have decided to fight terror with greater terror, tried to shoot down ideas with bullets and massacred hundreds of unarmed citizens exercising their democratic right to protest, ostensibly to protect democracy.
People whom I had admired for their belief in freedom, their tenacity in keeping the revolution going and their one-time opposition to both the army and the Islamists terrify me with their newfound admiration for Egypt’s tormentors of the past 60 years and their glorification of all the blood-letting.
In the green corner, men who claim they are not afraid to do the Lord’s work and have decided vengeance is theirs and not His, have been marauding through the streets, firing their guns, burning churches and generally terrorising the population to the extent that, for the first time in two and a half years, Egyptians have actually heeded a curfew and stayed indoors. With Brothers like that, who needs enemies?
Caught in the crossfire are millions of ordinary Egyptians who have been compelled to choose sides and buy into the existential narrative. Otherwise sensible and rational people have been defending the indefensible with a troubling passion.
The word “terrorists” is rolling far too easily off too many lips. Although I saw many people I disagreed with in the Rabaa encampment, I didn’t see anyone who would make even a passable impersonation of a “terrorist”, even though I had been concerned by reports that thugs there were detaining and beating up Egyptian journalists.
That is not to say there weren’t arms there. It is possible they were, but they were well-hidden and none of the protesters I saw carried weapons. So this much is clear to me, the vast majority of the protesters were peaceful. Which begs the question: why was their encampment forcibly uprooted and so many murdered so brutally?
In the spirit of democracy and freedom, should they not have been left there to express their views freely? In fact, simply leaving them there was actually in the regime’s advantage, since it revealed just how limited the support for the Muslim Brotherhood actually was, and it was dissipating by the day.
In addition, letting the Brotherhood participate in the political game not only made good principles, it also made good sense. As opposition, they had the lifeline of untested mystique. In mainstream politics, they fashioned a noose to hang themselves with from their incompetence, fanaticism and factionalism.
Even if the protests needed to be disbanded, what happened to the smarter ideas of only allowing people out and not in, or of cutting off supplies? Surely, going in with literally guns blazing was the dumbest of all the available ideas. As is the current talk of banning the Brotherhood, which is both unprincipled and unsound, because driving the movement underground would make it far more dangerous than leaving it out in the open.
On the other side of the fence, even moderate supporters of Mohamed Morsi and the Brotherhood also defend the indefensible. The Brotherhood’s stubborn refusal to compromise, despite having been the ones who originally compromised the revolution by agreeing to be the army’s fig leaf in order to get their bums on the seats of power, is everyone’s fault but theirs.
Morsi and his Brotherhood’s anti-democratic, authoritarian behaviour – as well as the movements’ democratic discourse abroad and its autocratic Sharia discourse at home – are really just democracy in disguise, or under a veil, these supporters posit.
Months of threats and incitements against the anti-Morsi population, not to mention the sudden appearance of a substantial arsenal of weapons, including machine guns, and the willingness to use them, have been excused and downplayed. But if they truly do care about their fellow Muslims and believe we’re all brothers, why are they doing their damnedest to push the country towards civil war?
Some have even gone so far as to blame the torching of churches up and down the country on the victims themselves, the Copts, a largely vulnerable and powerless minority that has been, in recent years, held hostage by an increasingly muscular and exclusionary Islamist discourse.
And how exactly was it their fault? Because of their involvement in the 30 June protests and their alleged role in toppling Morsi. Never mind that the vast majority of the millions who came out against the deposed president were Muslims, many even former Brotherhood supporters and voters.
In such an atmosphere of distrust, hatred and recrimination, there is a lot of pressure to take sides – and that appears to be exactly what the military and the Brotherhood want.
In this clash of the Titans, it is ordinary people who get crushed underfoot and die, in a warped distortion of the messianic formula, so that two competing elites can live. In fact, judging by the carnage, both the military top brass and the Brotherhood’s leadership have a wanton disregard for the lives of Egyptians.
What are those with a conscience supposed to do in such an atmosphere? Which side should those of us who believe in humanity take when both sides behave so inhumanely? How can we save Egypt from these dark forces?
Even though I usually sit on the sidelines and reflect, if I were in Egypt right now, I would be possessed with an urge to go out on the streets, even if on my own, chanting, “Not in my name”, neither the military nor the Brotherhood. “Human wrongs can never be human rights.” “No more killing in the name of nationalism or God.”
It is high time for sensible Egyptians – the silenced and intimidated majority who toppled three authoritarian leaders in their quest for bread, dignity and social justice – to take a side: the side of justice and humanity.
Instead of Fridays of “rage” and against “terrorism”, I propose a Friday of Peace, a silent march to mourn all the dead and fallen, no matter who they were, and to reject all forms of violence, no matter the justification. If Egypt is to be saved from civil conflict or even war, the bulk of the population must make clear its total rejection of violence.
Egyptians of all backgrounds should take to the streets to make clear that, though they may disagree fundamentally with one another, they will only defend their beliefs peacefully. People must make clear that they believe in the preciousness of every human life, and in the pragmatic, life-saving, once thoroughly Egyptian notion of live and let live.
The era of artificial national unity is over. But we don’t need to be a unified nation to prosper, and aspirations to becoming a single hand have tended to lead to a crushing, stifling, conformist hegemony. Divided we can also stand tall and strong, if we agree to disagree and accept that the way forward is compromise and consensus, not winner takes all.
Even amid the ugliness of the past week, there have been moments of utter, tear-jerking beauty, such as the Muslims who have come out in force, again, to protect local churches with human shields of decency, respect and love, just as Christians protected Muslim worshippers during the 2011 revolution. Or the drawing by a Christian girl of a worried mosque comforting a weeping church.
On the Friday of Peace, I imagine Muslim sheikhs walking hand in hand with Coptic priests. I picture bearded men marching together, some conservative Muslims and others secular progressives, as well as veiled and unveiled women – all there to show that they can live with their differences, without violence.
Young and old, women and men, well-off and poor, can all march together towards a new, more equitable Egypt. And they should do this not because Egyptians are one, but because we are many, and it is this diversity, if properly respected and utilised, that can be one of our greatest strengths.