A Nation Divided - Center for Contemporary Arab Studies | Georgetown University
"Down with the announcement of the Constitution!" declares a sign in the protestor's camp.

By Bassam Haddad

No sooner had I landed in Cairo than I found myself whisked into a series of daily protests. Thousands of Egyptians were protesting the sweeping powers President Muhammad Mursi afforded himself and the impending constitutional decree that was proposed.

I travelled to Egypt to attend a conference at the American University of Cairo (AUC) addressing the field of Middle Eastern studies and the state of the production of knowledge on the region. Ultimately, I got a lot more than I bargained for, as I found myself learning from people on the streets representing both sides of the brewing stand-off. Suddenly, I was not only opining on the field of Middle Eastern studies; rather, I became a participant observer in the unfolding events that dominated the press, Internet, and satellite television.

V is for Vendetta Cairo MasksShortly after arriving at my hotel, I did what everyone in his or her right mind would do during times of upheaval in Cairo—I set out for Tahrir Square. There I encountered the camp erected by opponents of Mursi and Al-Ikhwan (the Muslim Brotherhood). They were protesting a number of recent statements, decrees, and maneuvers aimed at strengthening the hand of the President and decreasing his accountability to the people. Mursi argued such measures were needed to secure the gains of the revolution from the fulul, or supporters of the previous regime. But the protestors, not necessarily all “secular” (however one defines that word), thought otherwise. They asserted that not only were these measures unconstitutional, but that they were likely to roll back the gains of the revolution and exclude key groups with political goals different from those of the Brotherhood. Moreover, the protestors argued, Mursi’s assumption of such extensive powers would strengthen the marriage between the executive branch and the military, keeping the Parliament under their control. Speaking to dozens of protestors from all walks of life, I found it refreshing to hear similar political opinions from people who came from disparate regions, quarters, parties, religions, and social backgrounds.

Members of the Ikhwan The evening after, the Muslim Brotherhood staged a large sit-in near the Presidential Palace, which caused serious friction around the area known as Al-Ittihadiyyah. Reports differ, but the most common narrative is that members of the Brotherhood dismantled the tents of those who had been set up there, and in the process killed several people. This was the same night when I was giving my talk at AUC. Television screens were beaming with news and footage from the mayhem that ensued. After the talk, I headed to the Presidential Palace. I was advised not to proceed to where the Brotherhood were station because it was “dangerous.” Ignoring such advice, I arrived near midnight to find that the sit-in was quite civil. I spoke with dozens of Brothers and kept hearing the same argument: “The opposition is upset because they lost [this or that election]” or “The opposition is headed by the fulul.” They demonstrated almost no awareness that the other side was claiming that the new decrees would make the President less (or un-) accountable. All the men I interviewed (and there were only men) were extremely polite and reserved. Yet, they were as adamant about their position as were the people I interviewed the night before.

After a couple of hours of conversation, I headed to Roxy Square, where everyone was warning that the violence was escalating again. Within minutes, I found myself in the middle of a street confrontation between proponents and opponents of Mursi. They faced off behind metal shields, throwing at each other rocks, Molotov bombs, and nearly everything they could find. Instinctively, I went to the forefront and captured the scene on video (see its publication on Jadaliyya). In the process, I experienced the effectiveness of tear gas, and learned that this struggle will engulf Egypt for a long time to come.