Salafis in Tahrir

A few notes on yesterday's demonstration in Tahrir, generally viewed as an Islamist show of force. First, the numbers. Based on visual cues (beards, galabiyas), signs and slogans I'm guessing at least 90 percent of those in Tahrir were affiliated with the Islamists, and at least half of those were Salafi. I'm guessing also that this was one of the half dozen largest Tahrir "million" rallies since January. The square wasn't elbow-to-elbow all the way through, but it was elbow-to-elbow in some spots, and a lot of people stayed camped out on downtown streets where they had gone to pray. I understand why the numbers have alarmed revolutionaries who had come to think of the square as their own space.

There have been some reports that Salafis tried to forcefully take control of a speakers' stage, but the parts of the demonstration which I witnessed were peaceful. I saw no instances of bullying. Islamists and non-Islamists mingled and argued. I saw one angry anti-Islamist marching up Qasr al-Aini between ranks of weary demonstrators shouting "Egypt, my kind mother/I'm not leaving you to the Brothers!", yet she did not get much of a reaction.

The Salafis' slogans were provocative. I didn't hear the "Obama, Obama, we're all Osama" or "Shut up secularists!" lines that journalists reported, nor did I see Saudi flags. But the tone of what I did here was pretty defiantly affirmative of an Islamic identity for Egypt, ie, not a civic one. "Raise your head high! You're a Muslim!" might not sound so bad unless you realize it's a variation on a far more Christian-friendly original, "Raise your head high. You're an Egyptian".

A bit of background: Islamist groups including both Brothers and Salafis had originally planned a Friday rally to oppose the idea of "supra-constitutional principles" proposed by some left/liberals -- which as they saw it, was a way for Tahrir revolutionaries to decide what was going to be in the constitution before any elections, and before anyone else had a chance to contribute. But the mostly leftist and liberal groups occupying Tahrir weren't going to vacate the square, so it looked like there were going to be two rival demonstrations. Islamist and non-Islamists got together and agreed to merge the two rallies and focus on things with which they could agree -- ie, swifter trials for officials, justice for the "martyrs". But the demonstrators to whom I spoke, at least the Islamist ones, were clear that they were there to oppose the supra-constitutional principles, and for Egypt to "remain" Islamic.

Many liberals and leftists considered this to be a bit of an ambush. Look at it from the Salafi point of view, though. They're already worried that the established political forces, none of whom have got to where they are through elections, are going to shape the constitution behind their backs. They finally get a chance to organize an Islamist show of force to insist that they be listened to, but then it's decided that they can't actually be Islamist at it. So, it would have been a minor miracle had the Salafis stuck to the program, and chanted only anodyne, uncontroversial slogans.

The Ikhwan for its part has denounced the Salafis' Islamist slogans. Some activists however have been asking on Facebook why the Ikhwan, who after all had a speakers' platform and loudspeakers, did not try harder to quiet the radicals. I'm not sure if they would have had much luck. The mood of the crowd was pretty self-assertive. I heard one speaker try to rally the protesters in a unifying chant of  "Muslim! Christian! One hand!" but there did not seem to be many takers.

One interesting exchange I'd heard was between two very veiled, very middle class women, one a poli sci professor, trying to convince a bunch of Salafis that "liberalism" was not "secularism", that it did not necessarily involve separating religion from the state, and that "secularism" in the European sense was not really present in Egypt (I'm not sure I fully agree with that, but that's what they said). It was quite animated but all very respectful: the first words I caught coming in were, "No one here is trying to yikaffir anyone, ma'am." In other words, both groups were trying to argue that they had been misperceived, that neither was genuinely a threat to the other.

It would be nice to think that all problems could be resolved by dialogues like this one, but of course that's not going to happen. The Salafis seem to be a mixed bag, including some who want very much not to be demonized and to be considered within the pale of reasonable political discourse, and others who fly Saudi flags -- an act which they must know is not going to endear them to non-Salafis. But if all the Salafis together are pushed out of the dialogue surrounding the constitution, either by supra-constitutional principles or by any other means, Friday's demonstrations show that they can probably cause some masssive disruptions. Again and again, Salafis have asked me: isn't Egypt now supposed to be democratic? Shouldn't our voices be heard too? I'd argue that one subtext of yesterday's demonstration was this: If what it takes to be counted is to seize control of a square, we can do that.