Faith-based food justice
9 February 2012
November 2011, two weeks before Egypt´s first free parliamentary elections and a couple of days before the traditional Islamic rituals for the Feast of Sacrifice in Cairo, youth members of the Muslim Brotherhood stood outside mosques in poor neighborhoods under the banner “know us, join us” yelling out prices on discounted green beans, potatoes, onions and other vegetables. Critics called it vote buying, the Brotherhood responded that food justice is one of its historic activist conduits to all Egyptians.
In a neighborhood in old Cairo, a member of the Brotherhood carefully explains food policy outreach.“Our faith drives us. We do our work with respect and humility. Our aim is to facilitate the distribution of food for every Egyptian who needs it, without discrimination between women or men, Muslim or Christian." Egypt has a couple of subsidy programs that, when working right, provide the poorest with basic supplies of bread, cooking oil, rice, macaroni, lentils, tea, and sugar. People complain that goods are often not available and that the bread is uneatable. “Flour is sold on the black market and used for unsubsidized bread and cakes. What we get is not even fit for chickenfeed”. A father of three tells me that life has been getting worse after the revolution. “Jobs pay too little and food costs too much. Where is the bread, dignity and justice?” He voted for the Muslim Brotherhood because “they understand how society works. They help for love of God and give us some dignity back. And most of all they are not corrupt.”
We see a new supply of sugar and rice arriving. There is a large crowd of Egyptians pushing and shoving. Desperate faces. It’s a painful sight. A mother carrying her baby looks at the camera "Please don't take a picture. Let us keep some of our dignity." I put the camera away. Out of nowhere young men with trimmed beards walk over. One walks into the store, the others stand on the outside. The crowd calms down. Who are these young men? “Muslim Brotherhood food vigilantes,” laughs the mother with the baby. They act as guardians, keeping away food traders who bribe storekeepers into sellingthem subsidies which are then sold in the black market. Inside the store the brotherhood watch as the storekeeper gives each customer his or her ration. "Food production and distributions is a very complicated story," one of the Brotherhood says. Having followed Egypt´s many food riots since 2007 I appreciate what he says.
From more than 60 food riots since 2008 to the harassment of a Tunisian fruit vendor whose self-immolation set Arab world on fire, food tells us something important about human dignity.
Parliament is not a mosque
8 February 2012
Egyptians are watching the parliament very carefully. Nearly half its members are Muslim Brotherhood, a quarter are ultraconservative Salfi. “Parliament with a beard” critics call it. Tuesday it plunged into chaos when a Salafi MP insisted on making the call for afternoon prayer during the televised session where delegates were questioning the interior minister on the violence committed against civilians. "Don’t try to out-bid us. You are no more Muslim than any of us. Parliament is not a mosque” Saad El-Katatny the speaker of the Parliament and a leader in the Muslim Brotherhood tries to interrupt and stop MB Mamdouh Ismail.
We watch it all on TV. Everyone stops whatever they are doing. The speaker continues and we listen “MP Mamdouh Ismail has violated the protocol of this session. He used the time given to him to call to prayer without asking my permission. If you want to pray, I won't stand in your way. Go ahead. There is a mosque where you can call to prayer. This hall is also for devotion. We are trying to heal the pain of our nation. Don't you patronize us. Prayer is no less important to us than it is to you. You don’t need the media now." The assembly applauds.
The speaker gives the word to Sheikh Sayid Askar, a Muslim Brotherhood member and Azhar educated lawmaker. He stands up in his traditional Azhar robes. People around us hold their breath. Instead of praying five times a day as Islam requires us to do, Askar says, Muslim members of Parliament must, like himself, combine their noon prayers with their afternoon prayers to avoid disrupting parliamentary schedules. “We are here to serve the country.” Even the prophet Muhammad advised his followers to condense the prayer schedule in times of need. An obviously infuriated Askar continues by quoting the prophet that religion should not be used to embarrass others. “If you want to pray there is a mosque five steps from here.”
This is not the first time Sheikh Askar instructs his fellow delegates on faith. During televised sessions, Islamist lawmakers make a habit of quoting verses from the Koran or sayings of the prophet when giving comments or speeches. We have previously watched how in several debates, Mr. Askar interjects to reprimand MPs on their use of religious texts. Citations used by MPs, we heard him say, are based on dreadfully poor religious understanding. He is appalled.
The faith struggle in Parliament is not between Islamists and others. It’s not so much about religion as it is about religiosity. The battles are within Islamic groups. For researchers here, it is a workshop in religion and democracy.
Another crowd of Egyptians
7 February 2012
Ahmad Maher, the co-founder of the 6 April movement, is in hospital with serious injuries to the head. Egypt is long into the second revolution. Battles continue and more people are killed. Among the protesters, we still see the social blend of the 2011 revolution. Men, women, young, older, in jeans, suits, and galabiyas. Clean cut, trimmed, long beards, loose hair, half veiled and fully veiled women. Then there is another crowd. At the other end of the scale of Tahrir Square´s anti-structure and tear gas, other Egyptians socialize with family and friends in private clubs, espresso spots and sushi bars. They tell us that they support the popular uprisings and feel in touch with the hopes and creativity of young people who are "out there" demanding democracy. Yet, they have serious concerns. We are having lunch with one of them. Maha owns and runs one of Cairo´s swanky furniture store. Life is messy and she worries about the country´s stagnant economy. It’s a valid point. One year into what is now known as the second revolution, the economy is in ruins. She had to let several of her workers go. “This has cost them and me.”
"Like any Egyptian" she supports the protests, “people have legitimate demands” But explaining, and even more so, understanding, what is going on in Tahrir, Port Said Stadium, and at the gates of the parliament is problematic. The protesters have achieved miracles “Mubarak is gone and people say what they want. Now its time to get to work. This waiting stresses me.” Its not the Egypt she knows. Streets are not longer safe, and Egyptians are killing Egyptians “down-town looks like a war-zone. Its bad for business.” Conversation turns to the football tragedy. She is upset. Her best friend has a son who is an ultras. He was injured. “Thank God he will be ok.” In fact, she was astonished that her dear friend´s son “is one of them.” Like many Egyptians, she did not know that members of ultras cut across social classes. “They are from the American university, the medical faculty, the law faculty, the Jesuit school. They are from good homes.” I tell Maha about my conversation with a couple of ultras ahlawy I observed at the frontline fighting away security forces during the 2011 uprisings. As players, their technique is to tackle collectively. Their game is “hide and seek. Then we strike." They beat and get beaten. I go on about how they describe their code of honor, loyalty and secrecy “you don’t become an ultras. You are an ultras.” "That’s all well and good - Maha smiles, “tell me, sugar, who is going to tackle the economy? Hide and seek does nothing for the stock market. It doesn't bring the tourists back to Egypt and my workers back to my factory and shop.”
The fury of our mothers
6 February 2012
Egypt´s interior ministry and parliament are in the neighborhood of Tahrir Square. Both buildings are surrounded by huge concrete barriers and massive rolls of razor barbed wire attached to metal stakes and wooden poles. While security police stand on the outside of both buildings, the military surrounds the parliament on the inside. This is “to keep away thugs, Madame.” We were not allowed to take pictures “for your safety Madame. We are expecting trouble,” he points to the corner of a petrol station.
Here comes “trouble”. Very angry mothers from all walks of life. Most of them dressed in black. “The mother´s movement” streams, tweets, texts, facebooks and shouts, demanding the removal of military rule. They are accusing the armed forces of creating chaos in an attempt to stay in power and of collaboration with the old regime. A man in a fine suite shouts to those guarding the parliament “listen to the ladies. They are mothers. When mothers speak everyone must listen.” The air is thick with the stench of tear gas and the crowd outside the parliament is growing. The mothers are holding banners “Enough bloodshed, enough lies, “ “down with military rule” and “Egyptians will remain in mourning until there is retribution.” More security forces surround us. The air is still thick with the stench of yesterday´s tear gas. It’s very tense.
My friend is dizzy and I feel horribly sick. We walk to a side street. Protesters walk by. Someone says that a couple parliamentarians have announced a hunger strike and that presidential election is moved from June to 10 March 2012. “I don’t believe anything until they scrub clean the country,” says a grieving mother. She points to a group of anti-riot police walking towards us. I notice a thing or two that are different from last year. They wear newer visored helmets and carry longer and heavier sticks. She looks straight at them and shouts at the top of her voice “Down, down with military rule.” They walk passed.
We are all football supporters
4 February 2012
Away from Tahrir square, outside a grocery store, everyone is talking about what happened in Port Said. They agree that all the violence since the uprisings a year ago, including kidnappings of rich Egyptians and foreigners, robberies of banks, homes andcars, are planned by a hidden third party that does not want the revolution to succeed, “every time we feel there are positive developments disaster strikes.”
Across town football supporters are joined by various political parties for Friday´s Day of Pride march towards the interior ministry. We see national and football flags. Young people across social classes and football teams are united with new sets of banners: “The people demand the removal of the Field Marshal,” and “Down with military rule”. They tell us that family and friends across the country are protesting against the military and demanding compensation for all the violence committed against ordinary citizens since the revolution started one year ago. On Kasr el Nil bridge that joins Tahrir Square with al-Ahly football club (and the opera) we see that young men are drawing more people from across Egyptian society. “Even those who don’t like football have become supporters,” a lady shouts pulling the men behind her.
At the Ministry of Interior in Cairo battles with police take place. Clouds of tear gas fill the air. We hear shots and every few minutes an ambulance drives towards the field hospital which has been set up at the edge of Tahrir Square. A doctor says that most of the injuries are from tear gas. He tells us that people want answers and they want to see justice done. Until this happens the resentment will continue. According to him there is also growing anger among Mubarak supporters towards the military-led interim government.
A group of older men and women wearing goggles as protection against tear gas walk towards the square with food for the protesters. Another ambulance is heading towards Tahrir. The doctor shakes his head “it’s going to be a long night. Do you drink tea?”
Tackling the revolution
3 February 2012
We will never know what really happened in Port Said Stadium. Was it sheer incompetence or sinister politics at play?
Football is the most popular sport in Egypt. The one with most players, fans, songs and games. Fans are passionate, loud, and sometimes fierce. Matches often end up in street fights, but never murder. The brutality this time makes it different. In the streets people told us this was planned. What has aroused people´s suspicions is that al-Ahly supporters, the Ultras, were at the forefront during the 2011 uprisings. They used their long experience of confrontations with security police to defend the protesters in Tahrir. From being despised hooligans they have become honorable young men.
Angry men, women and children from all over Cairo are marching to al-Ahly club in the upscale neighborhood of Zamalek. A member of Ultras explained, “the passion for Egypt, the revolution and football ties all good Egyptians.” Another Ultras added, “there is a crises.”
Crises at a time when Egyptians are debating presidential elections and demanding the handover to civilian rule.
Tahrir has the power
25 January 2012
For the Egyptians that gathered at Tahrir Square, the 25th of January was a day of both great joy and unbearable sadness. There are visible scars of the past destructions and brutalities. But Tahrir still has the power, according to CMI-researcher Nefissa Naguib. She is now back at Tahrir Square, where she witnessed the protests a year ago. –The people at Tahrir Square marvel at the continued persistence against the formidable obstacle. As Mona, a law graduate told us “the road to Tahrir gets shorter and shorter.” If the newly elected parliament does not deliver, “ then we choose another. We decide now. This is people power – Egyptian power.”