Islamists To Obama: How Can We Ever Thank You?

The bad drives out the good. Or what little there was of it in the first place.

WSJ, Middle East News, August 2, 2011

Egyptians Turn Against Liberal Protesters

By Yaroslav Trofimov

CAIRO–Mobs of ordinary Egyptians joined with soldiers to drive pro-democracy protesters from their encampment in Tahrir Square here Monday, showing how far the uprising’s early heroes have fallen in the eyes of the public.

Six months after young, liberal activists helped lead the popular movement that ousted President Hosni Mubarak, the hard core of these protesters was forcibly dispersed by the troops. Some Egyptians lined the street to applaud the army. Others ganged up on the activists as they retreated from the square that has come to symbolize the Arab Spring.

Squeezed between an assertive military and the country’s resurgent Islamist movement, many Internet-savvy, pro-democracy activists are finding it increasingly hard to remain relevant in a post-revolutionary Egypt that is struggling to overcome an economic crisis and restore law and order.

“The liberal and leftist groups that were at the forefront of the revolution have lost touch with the Egyptian people,” says Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Institution’s Doha Center. “These protesters have alienated much of Egypt. For some time they’ve been deceiving themselves by saying that the silent majority is on their side–but all evidence points to the contrary, and Monday’s events confirm that.”

Monday’s turmoil in Tahrir followed a massive Friday demonstration on the same square by hundreds of thousands of Islamists, who called for transforming Egypt into an Islamic state–and railed against the liberal and secular youths who had helped motivate millions to rise up against Mr. Mubarak.

The Islamists’ numbers dwarfed those of the activists who have re-occupied Cairo’s central square since July 8, criticizing the slow pace of reforms, calling for police accountability and pressing for speedier trials of Mr. Mubarak and his associates. The Tahrir sit-in was organized by the April 6 Movement, one of the uprising’s main planners, other youth groups and relatives of protesters killed in the weeks before Mr. Mubarak’s ouster on Feb. 11.

These activists’ criticism of Egypt’s ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has failed to resonate in the streets. Their continuing protests have also angered many Egyptians who want an end to the unrest they say has frightened away foreign tourists, damaged the country’s economy and increasingly undermined their livelihoods.

The backlash among rank-and-file Egyptians became evident on July 23, when a march by revolutionary activists heading to the defense ministry was assaulted by residents of Cairo’s Abassiya neighborhood. More than a hundred people were injured.

Egypt’s secular and liberal activists have been campaigning for postponing parliamentary elections, initially planned for as early as June, so that they could better organize themselves and compete against the more established Islamists.

Elections have been pushed to November, but the liberals and the secularists appear not to have taken advantage of the delay. Instead of organizing themselves into a coherent bloc, they have set up minuscule rival parties and feuded among themselves, say analysts and diplomats.

“There is a power game going on–and the liberals and the entire secular movement are the weaker element, while the Islamists and the army are strong,” said Laila Soueif, a liberal activist and human-rights campaigner who teaches at Cairo University.

While the liberals and the leftists paint the military as a holdover of the old regime, the formerly outlawed Muslim Brotherhood and the more radical Salafi Islamist movement have taken pains not to criticize Egypt’s ruling generals.

“The military is a partner that protected the revolution and that pledged to achieve its demands,” says one of the Brotherhood’s top leaders, Mohammed Beltagy. “We’re against confrontation with them, even as we don’t give them an absolute carte blanche.”

The military has in turn given Islamists say in key government decisions. At the same time, the military last month stigmatized the April 6 Movement and its allies as a tool of foreign interests that has sought to sow sedition and undermine Egypt’s stability. The language was similar to that employed against the group in January by the Mubarak regime.

Following the military’s warning and Friday’s Islamist show of strength, the April 6 group and others behind the Tahrir Square sit-in called for a suspension of the protests during the holy fasting month of Ramadan. But a few hundred protesters, including several families of January’s so-called revolutionary “martyrs,” refused to go home.

On Monday afternoon, the first day of the Ramadan fast, hundreds of Egyptian army troops and central security police attacked the tent city on the square, shooting in the air and shouting “Allahu Akbar,” God is Great. Protesters’ belongings were dumped into garbage trucks. The soldiers beat the activists with truncheons and arrested dozens. The protesters who ran into surrounding streets encountered a hostile mob that included local shopkeepers and business owners.

Unlike in previous skirmishes, the activists interviewed Monday didn’t allege to be the victims of thugs paid by the government.

“The people were beating us and helping the army,” said protester Mahmoud Abdallah, catching his breath in a side street off Tahrir as an army truck hauled away detainees. “The people don’t know what is good for them. They don’t have any awareness. They just want to make money.”

As he spoke, Tareq Shawky, a 42-year-old toilet equipment vendor, interrupted the conversation. He said he had heard about the army moving against the protesters, and drove to the square so he could help dismantle the encampment.

“The Egyptian citizen wants only two things–security and low prices,” Mr. Shawky shouted. “The millions of Egyptians will do anything that the army tells us to do.”


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