Controlling the Narrative of January 25

by Jeffry R. Halverson

The protests in Egypt that began on January 25 are the culmination of a long simmering struggle between the police state of Hosni Mubarak and the common people it seeks to control. The state claims that its longstanding “security measures” protect the country from the ever-present threat of Islamist extremists, such as those that murdered Anwar Sadat in 1981 or massacred 58 foreign tourists and 4 Egyptians in Luxor in 1997. But the heavy hand of the state run by Hosni Mubarak for 30 years is felt by every Egyptian, save for members of an elite oligarchy that operates by its own set of rules.

It didn’t take long for me to see this reality first hand when I lived in Cairo ten years ago. Egyptian troops armed with AK-47s were stationed on the corner of my neighborhood in Zamalek around the clock. The blind shaykh at the mosque around the corner, I was told, had been arrested numerous times for criticizing the government in his Friday sermons. I could see and hear the frustration and apathy among the unemployed men and day laborers in the smoke-filled cafes across the street. I listened to young men tell me how they were afraid to grow a beard (as an act of piety) for fear that the state would imprison them for being “Islamists.” I heard the stories of the nepotism, the bribes, and the rampant corruption in the woefully inefficient and confusing state institutions, such as the notorious Mugamma. And as I follow the protests going on in Egypt this week, I recognize the places in the photographs and the cell phone videos appearing online. And I wonder about the safety and circumstances of the people I knew.

In Tunisia, the protests that led to the quick downfall of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali were sparked by an act of self-immolation by a 26-year-old merchant, Mohamed Bouazizi. In recent weeks, no less than six Egyptians have performed acts of self-immolation as an act of protest against Mubarak’s authoritarian regime. But the symbol of the Egyptian protests has been Khaled Said, a young blogger who was dragged from an internet café in Alexandria and beaten to death by police in the summer of 2010.  An online group called “We are all Khaled Said” was formed on Facebook shortly thereafter. As the Daily Beast has reported: “The group has organized demonstrations in honor of Said, and today its membership is approaching 380,000, which makes it the country’s largest and most active online human-rights activist group.” Like 2009’s election protests in Iran, social media has played a major role in the sequence of events underway in Egypt. The UK newspaper, The Guardian, reports that Egypt’s government has recognized this fact and tried to block Twitter, YouTube, Hotmail, Google, and the Chinese search engine Baidu.

Thus far, Egypt’s main opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood, has remained on the periphery, preventing the regime from casting the protests as an “Islamist uprising” or “revolution.” Nevertheless, the Egyptian government, as well as the Israeli government, has publicly attempted to blame the protests on the organization. The truth is the protests represent a broad swath of the Egyptian populace (including members of the MB). And the protests have, thus far, managed to avoid exclusionary associations with one political or sectarian faction. The Muslim Brotherhood must therefore tread carefully as it chooses to participate. If the narrative of the Egyptian protests is successfully cast as an Islamist uprising against the state, it will undermine the message of broad popular resistance to Mubarak’s regime.

The Muslim Brotherhood has already made numerous announcements concerning the protests. A statement from the Chairman’s office reported: “[Muslim Brotherhood Chairman Dr. Mohamed] Badie confirmed that the group insists on joining in solidarity with the other political trends demonstrating that the MB will not be intimidated and will never bow to dictatorship and fully rejects the security’s threats instigated by the ruling regime.” Addressing the events in Egypt is obviously inescapable, but the MB must avoid taking the reigns of the protests or it will risk destroying the political momentum underway. There is no doubt that some within the massive organization, particularly youth, think the MB, as the foremost opposition group, should assume that role and position itself as power fluctuates in the weeks and months ahead. But all political preferences aside, that would be a grave error for all  involved. The recent arrival of Nobel Laureate Mohamed ElBaradei in Cairo will undoubtedly help protect the nationalist narrative of the protests from being situated in the polarizing discourses over Islamism though. At a minimum, his presence ensures a watchful eye by the international community. Although there are substantial differences between Tunisia and Egypt, just as the Tunisian protests have been driven by the tragic story of Mohamed Bouazizi, so should Egypt’s protesters hold onto the story of the blogger Khaled Said. The events of Friday, January 28, will strongly indicate which course the narrative will take.

Editor’s Note: This blog entry comments on ongoing events in Egypt through January 27, 2011. We will update or provide additional posts as events warrant.