From the day the calls for a demonstration on Aug. 24 started, an unlikely alliance was revealed between politicians and infamous celebrities, who months ago would have considered each other adversaries.
The calls, which were initiated by a camp that has sworn allegiance to the military, were made before President Mohamed Morsi reshuffled the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and took over the powers it once ascribed to itself.
These decisions accentuated the confusion that is Egyptian politics: the perplexing overlap in alliances and opposition and contradicting objectives. Muslim Brotherhood opposition is now divided into three main camps: one against the Islamist group for cooperating with the military at the expense of the revolution and for the group’s own gains; the second against the MB because it’s a force against the military; and the third distrusts and despises the Islamists and sees the ousted generals as a necessary evil to balance the MB’s growing powers.
In the buildup to the scheduled date, the objectives of the demonstration were blurred as well as its target group of potential participants. Would they be the same group that protested for the military; the conservative camp that has usually condemned and consistently refrained from all acts of street action; the camp that has so far only sided with the authority in power regardless of its identity (before Morsi’s decision the SCAF was believed to be the most powerful) and never with the opposition; or those who have aligned themselves with the revolution but oppose the MB to which Morsi is affiliated?
One of the protest leaders is former MP Mohamed Abu Hamed, in and himself a curious case of political evolution and revolutionary dissolution. Notorious for his theatrical shenanigans at the People’s Assembly with Islamist MPs, who at the time refused to acknowledge the use of brutal force on protesters, Abu Hamed later teamed up with the Brothers’ rival at the presidential election, Ahmed Shafiq, the last prime minister appointed by ousted president Hosni Mubarak. It would have been a bygone conclusion hadn’t Shafiq been the man that ridiculed the revolution Abu Hamed had claimed to represent at parliament. In his bid to get back at the Islamist MPs for refusing to stand by protesters, Abu Hamed teamed up with the man said to be preferred by SCAF, which has ordered and overseen all the deadly crackdowns on protesters. After this surprising change of camps, he was photographed in tears after the death of Omar Suleiman, the late intelligence chief that became the notorious face of torture despised by revolutionaries.
The eclectic mix of leaders also contains Tawfiq Okasha, a consistently anti-revolution TV host, whose hate for the Muslim Brothers didn’t stop him from lashing at some military leaders, the same generals he has been pimping support for through the TV channel he owns. The infamous conspiracy theorist is currently facing criminal charges for incitement to kill Morsi.
On Aug. 24 as the demonstrators converged outside the presidential palace in Heliopolis, it was the unification of pro- and anti-revolution camps in a chant against the MB, using the same freedoms paid for in blood by youth vilified and insulted by a visible majority of participants on that day. The same rhyme of the “down with military rule” was used in “down with morshed rule” chants – “morshed” is Arabic for the guiding leader of the Brotherhood.
Although many protesters said that they would like to see Morsi out, they stuck to the pronounced objectives of the day: legal registration of the Muslim Brotherhood as a civil society group and transparency in its funding. Chants, however, called for dismantling the group. Protesters also spoke against turning state institutions into Brotherhood strongholds. While many outside the protest agree with the objectives, they decided against participation. The sentiment of fundamental disagreements with the convictions of the protest leaders cast a shadow on a minority of participants.
Okasha supporters were the majority of the participants, often quoting him and breaking into chants to bring back his channel that was closed down. Quoting Okasha and similar TV hosts, protesters told me about an MB-US alliance, the failing of the military to handle the Islamists “because they didn’t think like Abdel-Nasser”, and the way the Brotherhood allegedly staged protests against the army while at the same time assigned their members to stage oppositions against these protests. That woman who last December was stripped to her bra as a soldier stomped on her chest “was hired to do so,” a school teacher told me.
On Friday morning, I thought the contradictions in participants’ past convictions would culminate in a planned march that would pass by the ministry of defence, a site of deadly crackdowns on protesters. The question ringing through my head was, what will the military do about the two camps within the march? Will officers treat them like the supporters they’ve always welcomed or the opposition they previously attacked? What will protesters do with each other?
Yet the point of contention was much later, just before 8 pm. On the background of quite debates about a possible sit-in – one accountant told me he has always been against the idea of sit-ins and disruptive actions – a group blocked the Salah Salem Street, one of the main roads running across Cairo.
For those sitting in the middle of the road, blocking the exit of the Orouba Tunnel, it was the only way to make themselves heard, the only way to show the media “how big” the protest was. For the others that tried to dissuade them, blocking roads is wrong. They’ve always condemned such practices. “It’s not us; we don’t block roads,” they said.
The argument turned into a brief fist fight that was quickly contained, but accusations of infiltration, of being MB supporters, and of being thugs were hurled between both groups. One man suggested that those forced into the resulting traffic jam deserve it. They should’ve been patriotic and understand that they need to participate to save the country, he said. “They are cowards.” As few cars were allowed to pass, one protester smashed the rear window of one of them. It wasn’t clear why.
While the debate was about strategy, not ideological, it reflected the differences boiling under the lid of the alliance.
The accountant, Ahmed Amir, a former co-worker that I ran into that day, explained that such differences were exactly the same as when bickering political groups came together under one banner. True; this has been a cherished characteristic of the 18-day revolt in 2011. This unity intermittently appeared in other protests in the following months. But the unlikely alliance of Aug. 24 suggested the gap is wider and more substantial, even bigger than the time when revolutionary groups once critical of the MB supported Morsi during the election in a bid to defeat Shafiq.
For Simon Hanna, a journalist who has covered and supported the uprising and all consequent protests, the differences were very visible. He said he went with an open mind; his opposition to the Brotherhood trumped his rejection of and opposition to some of the Aug. 24 leaders. At the end of the day he saw fear, instead of dreams, lingering in between the badges adorned with the pictures of military leaders, Mubarak and Suleiman.
“These are the people who have been whipped up into a terrified frenzy over the Ikhwan (Brotherhood), and their entire raison d’être seemed to be anti-Ikhwan. Devoid of vision, this is just anti-something, it's not pro- a better alternative. This is not the basis for a political movement,” he wrote. “In their fear they want their strong dictator figures to protect them from the Ikhwan, irrespective of the crimes of those figures.”
Hanna eventually left, his opposition to Morsi intact, but his quest to find an opposition movement he could join and actively participate in continues.