Sometimes when you set something in motion, people unnervingly different from you take it up and run with it.
“This was much tidier before the revolution,” our acquaintance complained as we threaded our way past the street vendors, with their wares spread out around the stairs leading down into the Cairo metro. “Now all these people are out here selling things,” she added in a slightly pained tone.
The massing of peddlers seemed natural enough, given the on-and-off swarms of thousands—and the pitching of quasi-permanent tents by a few—in Tahrir Square. Every large demonstration I saw in Egypt over the last month and a half had its camp followers purveying everything from drinks to nuts to national flags. A lot of pent-up energy had come out in these gatherings, with protesters propelled by their grievances and still drawn by the novelty of mass protest after decades of martial law under Hosni Mubarak. Not that the recent university graduate dismayed by the street vendors wholly appreciated those motivations, though. She had insisted over coffee half an hour earlier that unlike when the middle class students first came out against Mubarak’s police in January 2011, the people flocking into Tahrir Square now were a less creditable sort, without ideas of their own.
Some others with whom I spoke echoed this airy dismissal of today’s Tahrir hordes. On April 20, a demonstration against the machinations of the transitional junta brought out a vast number of protesters. As I meandered through the throngs with a middle-aged socialist activist, he looked around at the abundance of men with beards, and claimed that the vast majority had been bussed in from the countryside as a show of force by the Islamist parties. Only a handful of those present were genuine activists, he explained, as we made our way over to one corner so I could meet some others from his secular leftist alliance. They were at the margins of what was overwhelmingly an Islamist crowd.
Like many of the other leftists and liberals I was meeting, the fellow was a sincere warrior for a fairer society and had made sacrifices over the years to challenge the régime. He had shown me the slight bulge of pellets still embedded in his forearm, a reminder of a scuffle with the riot police last year.
But I could tell that, along with other heirs of the Enlightenment, he worried the revolution was being captured by, well, the wrong sort of people. In the first free parliamentary elections, two thirds of the vote had gone to an array of Islamist parties. The leftists and liberals ended up with less than a sixth of the seats. And things are likely to turn out the same way in the presidential election later this month. Egypt is speaking at last, and it is the Egypt of the countryside and the outlying slums of Cairo, not of the branch offices of liberal modernity. The gulf today between Egyptian secularists and the bulk of the populace is far wider than that between New York and the American heartland.
And much as in America, Egyptians who consider themselves enlightened often let fly with contempt and caricature when characterising their compatriots. The young woman who found the proliferation of street peddlers offputting startled me a few times by declaring that most Egyptians were stupid. Fear of the Islamists runs deep in some circles of Cairo society. I was told that their leaders should be put back in jail where they belong, that they are going to run the country into the ground if they win, and the like. And the expats who tend to engage only with English-speaking Egyptians of a certain class pick up the same themes. One Scandinavian restaurateur exclaimed “Thank God!” on hearing that one of the staunch Islamist presidential candidates had been disqualified. And a Briton commented that most Egyptians hate the Muslim Brotherhood, which was a relief to her because if they won the election they would put her on a plane, shoot her, or some such thing. It is much like the “reds under every bed” scares sixty years ago, when the narrative of power presumed anyone left of centre to be a sinister Stalinist in disguise.
I mostly held my tongue when hearing such loathing of the part of the political spectrum that seemed to have a firm majority of ordinary people behind it. It struck me as odd, because while in Cairo, I was spending a great deal of time talking to those who supposedly were the devil incarnate. And those enlightened souls who worried about Egypt falling into the Islamists’ hands seemed to think me a bit odd to take them seriously, and even to respect them.
Longtime readers of FPR may recall that when the Arab Spring was just getting underway in January of last year—even before Mubarak had fallen—I wrote some complimentary things about the Muslim Brotherhood and like currents. I urged traditionalists in the West to take such people as their natural allies, and to reorient Western foreign policy away from the Mubaraks of the region. My sympathies go back long before that. In my view, anyone taking a global perspective on the values of the Porch must recognise that much of what some currents of Islamists are trying to do makes them kindred spirits. Too often for our own good, wherever we are, we lose sight of a global conversation that needs to happen, at least if we are not to surrender the high ground to those who, bluntly speaking, view most of humanity as benighted.
In that vein, I have been in the Middle East for most of the spring this year. I came to Cairo to get a better sense, from this end, of the prospects for such a global conversation. The revolutions in Egypt and elsewhere have been national events, with some spillover of the Arab Spring among neighbouring countries. But what about farther afield? If this culture war is likely to play out globally in this century, how cosmopolitan are people like the Islamists, especially when it comes to parts of the world that share neither their language nor their faith?
This is a vital question because insularity is the bane of many a traditionalist. Now I do not mean the insularity that is just a due regard for one’s own place and a humility about adventures farther afield—that much is healthy, especially as a counterweight to liberal hubris. The more troubling sort of insularity is the kind that hinders making common cause, when necessary, against common enemies. Even worse, it often deforms a tradition itself, turning truths into mere allegiances.
While in Cairo, I spoke with a wide array of Islamist activists from across the spectrum, and got in depth into their view of the world. I came with an open mind, expecting to find the usual diversity of opinion from the xenophobic to the internationalist. On the whole, I found that the sort of people who are defining political Islam now and for the foreseeable future are far more cosmopolitan than their critics imagine.
For those Porchers who do not follow Middle Eastern politics much, it bears noting that the tumultuous political opening in Egypt and elsewhere is just the tip of the iceberg. Deeper shifts have been taking place over the last few years. For one thing, repression by the Mubaraks of the region forced the Islamists to reach out to leftists, Christians, and others, in a way that would have been unthinkable a generation ago. The younger generation within these movements is also internet-savvy and quite knowledgeable about the world. The information revolution is percolating downward in the developing world, so that it is no longer the property of English-speaking secular yuppies.
These people are still traditionalists in a deep sense, however. The broadening of experience does not mean a loosening of their underlying commitments to live a certain way. The women wear the headscarf and corresponding attire without exception, and are quite vocal about why they think this a good idea. Among the staunch Salafi conservatives, the men have long, untrimmed beards such that they could easily be transplanted from a modern café to the seventh century without looking much out of place. And on my several visits to the headquarters of one Islamist presidential campaign, I regularly saw the prayer mats being rolled out once the call echoed from the mosque loudspeakers nearby. More than one activist fingered prayer beads while talking to me.
This faith and the commitment gradually to remake Egyptian civil society sustained them through decades of repression. Mubarak could hardly shut the mosques, but those who fit the Islamist profile had a hard time. The Salafis got the worst of it, by all accounts I was hearing. The number of times they were arbitrarily stopped on the road and brought in for interrogation, had family social gatherings broken up because too many beards looked suspicious, and so on, made them feel more like citizens and human beings while travelling abroad than in their own country. And these were the ones who were politically inactive before the revolution. Those who went up against the régime directly had far more happen to them. Activists in the Muslim Brotherhood went through frequent arrests and even torture. Even the younger ones had been toughened by this, I could tell. The self-discipline I sensed beneath the surface was animating a formidable network to get out the vote. Perhaps they felt a bit too much that victory was their right, I admit, and that was starting to rub some people the wrong way. But human nature being as it is, one could hardly blame them, and quite a few average citizens with no ties to them told me of their admiration, even if they were still undecided about how to vote.
The personal really is political here. The ideological fault lines map very clearly on to the priorities of different sorts of Egyptians. I was struck by the contrast not only with the beneficiaries of the former régime, but also with many leftists and liberals. While the likes of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis had long been slogging to build civil society and do charity work in the slums and the countryside, the leftists had often been chewing over slogans from the 1960s about the inevitability of revolution. And one young liberal remarked, with a chuckle, that a lot of the youth vote for his party came from those who worried that the days of hashish might be over. Small wonder that one of my Salafi friends expressed frustration that the liberals are getting indignant over the prospect of restrictions on bikinis, while nearly half of Egyptians live under the poverty line.
The Islamists know what they stand for, but they hardly fit the stereotype of benighted ignorance and hostility to outsiders. Are there some who would like to chop off heads in public? Probably, though I did not meet them and they are not the ones at the centre of gravity. Unlike the caricature of the veiled housewife, the young women who wear scarves and gloves are also studying subjects like computer programming. And among the twenty-somethings and thirty-somethings who are driving the political agendas of the different Islamist campaigns, the view of the rest of the world is clear but nuanced. While most spoke Arabic with me, I found quite a number fluent in foreign languages, including Spanish and Chinese. Theirs is not a cosmopolitanism of indifferent enthusiasm. They call things as they see them, and are justifiably hard on the governments of America, Israel, and China. But the heady enthusiasm of their own revolution against tyranny makes them see spiritual counterparts elsewhere. I heard admiration of everyone from Mohandas Gandhi to Che Guevara. And one fellow advising one of the presidential candidates said emphatically, while twirling his prayer beads, that if his candidate won and if he were advising him on foreign policy, he would urge him to support popular revolutions as far away as China. Most of them feel a strong sense of global citizenship, even though it takes a form at odds with the élite-driven globalism of the Davos crowd.
I do not imagine that whoever wins Egypt’s presidential election will turn out to be quite so radical as some would like. Already, the taste of power being so close was making some of my interlocutors sound, if anything, too reasonable. The need of this relatively poor country to attract foreign investment and keep the bond markets happy will constrain and, I suspect, disappoint in the long run. The agenda of pro-poor development will probably not get as far as the optimists, in the flush of liberation when all seems possible, presently imagine. Hard trade-offs are going to hit.
But this is exactly why the shift to a more cosmopolitan outlook is so important. The world’s power centres—political, economic, and cultural—have followed the logic of divide and conquer with great success for a generation. As this new cohort of traditionalists rises, with its broader horizons, the prospect of cross-border and cross-regional alliances around a common purpose becomes more imaginable. Most of the Islamists I interviewed are open to the idea, at least in the abstract. It is in the abstract because their immediate battles as yet involve mainly the national arena. There, the revolution threw together people who never used to talk to one another. One group I have come to know well is made up of Salafis, Coptic Christians, secularists, and others. They met during the early protests against Mubarak and have since taken up doing joint charity work in poor areas of Egypt, partly because of dire need that the state cannot meet, and partly to break down psychological barriers that have caused them all grief for so long.
They have the healthy respect for one other’s differences that comes from being, separately, persecuted minorities for many years. They were for years on the receiving end of abuse themselves, not the kind of relentless religious majority that the liberals fear. And they tempered their political ambitions in part because they appreciated, with a sophistication that is never credited to them in the Western media, that God will judge them for how they live themselves, not for what they manage to impose on others.
The same way they are breaking down these barriers within Egyptian society, for the sake of political reform and social justice, we can also break down barriers beyond the nation-state. I suspect that such a cross-border coalition will eventually be motivated by the failure of purely national revolutions to reshape liberal globalisation. On many dimensions of the revolutionary project, the Islamists in Egypt will probably fail. Likewise, if anything of a Porcher flavour gains more influence in the American polity, it too will probably fail, for the same reasons. All would be merely nibbling away at the leviathan in a disconnected way.
And that is the moment at which we shall all come to realise that there is something beyond the despair of political failure. If we confine ourselves to thinking of our traditions as places and allegiances, then we are limited by being, each separately, a vulnerable minority on the global landscape. But that vulnerability is precisely what should motivate the kinds of creative, relatively tolerant alliances that I have seen emerging in Egypt. Many of these actors are well aware of the ethical commitments that they share as a majority across their other differences.
There are barriers to this global conversation, I admit. It will not be quick in coming. A few weeks ago, the group of Salafis, Copts, and others held a reception for a visiting American church delegation from Washington, DC. There was genuine interest on the part of the latter in the stories of their Egyptian hosts. But I could tell in conversation that the visitors did not wholly believe that the Islamists were as tolerant as they were saying. Some felt that persecution of religious minorities would pick up sooner or later. One guest rather implied that the repression under Mubarak had had its reasons. And the critiques of American foreign policy made many of those attending, with their apparently ample ties to the Washington establishment, visibly uncomfortable. The barrier in this instance did not seem, from my vantage point, to be erected mainly by the Islamists.
I would like to think that a Porcher audience would recognise more common ground, and would be less wedded to the longstanding Western image of an undifferentiated mass of Islamist aggressors. I entertain the hope that cooperation in civil society, however small, might lead on to greater things a generation hence.
That conversation has to start somewhere. I am probably not alone in my mental image of the Porch as filled with people sipping lemonade in a hot Midwestern summer. Keep doing so, by all means. But might I suggest adding some strong, sweet, black coffee and a sheeshah pipe?