In late April, supporters of a hardline Islamist group camped out in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to rally for their presidential candidate. I was visiting Cairothree years after I lived there, and downtown looked completely different than what I remembered. Men with full beards and women in black niqabs were rallying for shariah law and carrying the raya, the black banner often carried by Sunni fundamentalists across the region. These were rare sites a few years ago when downtown was packed with American University of Cairo students, tourists, and businesses thriving off of the capital city’s commotion. The demonstration occurred against a backdrop of street art depicting the young martyrs of the revolution, many of them clean-shaven and dressed in Western clothing. The contrast between these new protesters and those depicted on the wall illustrated the early evolution of the new Egypt.
Meanwhile, across the 6 of October Bridge, the activist band El Zabaleen headlined a concert for Earth Day. Zabaleen, which means “garbage people” in Egyptian Arabic, refers to a class of people who collect and recycle most of trash generated by Cairo’s 6 million residents. As students at American University of Cairo, the band formed as a way to bring attention to the grave environmental state of the city, and to Egypt as a whole.
Last week, Egyptians headed to the polls for their first free and fair elections. The resulting runoff between the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi and the former Mubarak official Ahmed Shafiq leaves voters in the tenuous position of having to choose between an Islamist domination of the government and a remnant of the regime they revolted against.
Though an Islamist domination ofEgypt’s politics seems highly possible now, this was not necessarily the case in January 2011 when the revolution seized Egypt. At that time, the members of El Zabaleen had joined their friends and classmates in Tahrir to protest a system, and a government that was no longer tolerable even for the wealthy and employed. Youssef El Kady, the founder of El Zabaleen, describes the other early revolutionaries: “You can’t really generalize by saying it was young people or Salafis or whatever, but from my perspective, I think that it started off not by the people who are struggling economically, but rather with the people who are fed up with the corrupt system that has been there all their life.”
In January 2011, many in Egypt shared El Kady’s perspective. While the Arab Spring found its catalyst in a poor Tunisian street vendor, the impetus for the revolution in Egypt was Wael Ghonim, an educated Google executive who was raised in a middle-class family. Ghonim and other young activists used not just their presence in Tahrir but also social media to topple Mubarak. There are disagreements over the extent to which Facebook and Twitter themselves produced the revolutions, but studies such as the Dubai School of Government’s Arab Social Media Report give empirical substantiation to the unique and prominent role of these online tools.
But on Earth Day 2012, none of these educated, well-off youth could be found in Tahrir. The liberal parties have taken a backseat to Islamist and military political dominance, despite Cairo’s prodigious graffiti and artwork depicting the martyrs of the revolution – many of whom were employed young adults or current university students.
Instead, Tahrir was packed with ardent supporters of Salafist leader Abu Ismail. While it is difficult to summarize the broad spectrum of Salafism with one definition, Center for Naval Analyses analyst and Johns Hopkins adjunct faculty Will McCants describes the practice in the Brookings report Lesser of Two Evils as “the method modeling one’s thought and behavior on Muhammad on the first three generations of Muslims, called the ‘forefathers’ (salaf).” Salafists generally adhere to a strict interpretation of the Qu’ran, and many shun participation in parliamentary democracy. As such, most of Egypt’s “quietist” Salafi leaders were apprehensive of or outright resistant to the uprising against Mubarak in early 2011, and conservative religiosity was uncommon in downtown Cairo even after the early days of the revolution.
So where did the Salafis come from, and how did the Salafis manage to win a quarter of the seats in the recent parliamentary elections?
El Kady explains, “When we went into the streets on January 25, we never dreamed of what could happen in a couple weeks. After Mubarak fell, we were ready for the Muslim Brotherhood but the Salafis were very much a surprise. We didn’t even realize there were Salafis in Egypt.”
McCants contextualizes not just the little-known presence of Egyptian Salafis, but also their unprecedented political participation. He explains that Salafis not only existed before Mubarak’s fall, but were able to organize freely because they shunned involvement in politics and thereby earned Mubarak’s “benign neglect.”
While there is a distinction between the now organized Salafi party members and the illiterate, religious, conservative masses who voted for Salafi parliamentarians, McCants concedes that it is hard to quantify this distinction from publicly available reporting. Nonetheless, it is clear that “the Salafi parties are formidable, drawing their support from charitable institutions with broad geographical reach, popular satellite channels, and deep pockets that are allegedly filled with Gulf petrodollars (estimated by one analyst at $1 billion).”
As for the original protestors, it should be no surprise that the majority of Egyptians are not liberal secularists. They are a very small minority of the Egyptian population; as Hudson Institute research fellow Samuel Tadros aptly writes, “Egypt is not Cairo and Cairo is not Tahrir Square.” Too, there is a sense, even among themselves, that the secular liberals retreated too early, pulling back just as Mubarak fell.
This has engendered sour feelings among those who had supported the young revolutionaries. Salwa, an artist and mother of two living in Cairo, told me, “I feel betrayed. I feel like we all went out into the streets and supported these young people and put our lives on the line. But as soon as they thought they won, the streets were left empty. They didn’t think ahead and now you have people in Tahrir who want to mix religion and politics and to take away our freedoms.”
Other secularists seem to have a more realist approach to the events of the Arab Spring, both in recognizing their populist shortcomings as well as the incumbency of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). Mariam Ali, the lead singer and eponym of another Earth Day activist band, AboMariam, explains, “SCAF kind of pulled the rug out from everyone, I think, by having Mubarak step down and having it seem like the revolution had succeeded – which it has in some ways, but it’s not even close to being over. Despondency and despair is our enemy, not people.”
As an outsider, I expected there to be more animosity between these rival groups and viewed the Salafis and Muslim Brotherhood as having hijacked the revolution. But many of the young secularists I spoke with repeated this sentiment that they are not particularly worried about who is in Tahrir. They were more optimistic that they were free of the initial grievance of the revolution, the state of emergency law. And it is abundantly clear that people, from Salafis to secularists, are finding a myriad of ways to remain politically active. Ali explains, “People are campaigning for their rights, engaging in political discussion, through music, film, theater, comedy, street art and much more. It’s like new life has been breathed into them. It’s enough for me that we feel we have a claim in our country and its future.”
Tara Vassefi is a faculty member with the Naval Postgraduate School’s Leadership and Development Education for Sustained Peace program. She received her Master’s from the University of St. Andrews and lived in Syria and Egypt from 2007-2008. These views are her own and do not represent those of LDESP, CCMR or NPS.