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Yassin and Ali, both of generation Tahrir, were embroiled in a heated argument ahead of the presidential election between presidential candidates Ahmed Shafiq, Hosni Mubarak’s last prime minister, and the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsy.
“Shafiq will be impossible to depose. He will be the legitimacy of a free and fair election, the old regime on his side, and all backed by the military,” pressed Ali.
Yassin shook his head vigorously in dismay and rejection.
“What the fuck are you talking about!” he barked back. “If Morsy comes to power, the Brotherhood will infiltrate all state institutions, and with the power of religious language, they will win elections indefinitely!”
They bickered on until the day of reckoning came. Ali had convinced Yassin to vote for Morsy by assuring him that even if the Brotherhood wanted to reconstitute the old regime structure, it would be inconceivable and impossible given Egypt’s newfound revolutionary fervor.
Lemon People and civil groups
Morsy won by a narrow margin, one afforded to him by scores of Yassins, now commonly known as “Botoo’ al-Lamoona,” or the Lemon People. They are those revolutionaries who are described as having “squeezed a lemon over themselves” (as a coping mechanism) ahead of voting against their better judgment.
One hundred days later, with the country’s economic indicators still in rapid decline, with little palpable change from the pre-election transition, with electricity and water a luxury afforded mostly to the affluent, and with seemingly haphazard domestic and foreign policy tracks for the country, the Lemon People have become the accused.
With every Brotherhood decision to shut down a television network, fire an editor-in-chief, criminalize strikes, physically assault opposition protesters, incite against liberal activists, pressure the judiciary into submission and steamroll non-Islamists in the drafting of the constitution, the Lemon People lament their decision, which handed the government over to the Brotherhood.
There is no doubt that the country is in a far worse place now than it was at any point in its contemporary history, post-1967 war exempted. The combined political polarization and disenchantment has reached a crescendo, as every current feels the country is slipping.
The non-Islamist parties and fronts, notoriously weak and disorganized, have shown signs of life since the presidential election, as notables such as Hamdeen Sabbahi and Mohamed ElBaradei remain influential on the political scene. Nevertheless, they lack the groundswell, the discipline, commitment and motivation to pose a serious enough threat to the Brotherhood unless the latter commits enough blunders to warrant the success of a haphazard alternative.
It is fair to say that this is the lowest point thus far for the “civil” (the Egyptian nomenclature for liberal and secular, given the public stigma associated with both terms) political groups.
In the coming months and years, their ability to mobilize both in protests and voting will be tested to the limits. With every meagerly attended and misnamed million-person march and every electoral loss, the Brotherhood will settle more comfortably and perennially into every branch of the state apparatus, thereby acculturating Egyptian public life into a version of the Brotherhood.
In the absence of organized campaigning and canvassing in every governorate, municipality and neighborhood, their chances of competing against the Brotherhood and other Islamist political groups are far-fetched.
And while the struggle for Egypt’s state should be a competition over policies that privilege alleviating the misery of the subjugated, the lexicon of power-hungry politicos is of symbolism and sloganism.
How often and where the president prays is an issue of national concern and attention. Preachers aligned with the Brotherhood appear on television exulting Morsy, already proclaimed leader of Al-Ummah al-Arabiya wa al-Islamiya (Arab and Islamic Ummah), and calling on him to come down on his detractors, critics and adversaries with an iron fist.
And, as if basking in the glow of preemptive heroism, Morsy manufactures a populist — dare one say Nasserist — moment, by ceremoniously driving in an open carriage along the track of Cairo stadium before 90,000 cheering members of his ruling Freedom and Justice Party on the anniversary of the October 1973 war.
And if it weren’t ironic enough that the very stadium that hosted this propagandistic extravaganza was the same ground where the revolutionary ultras football fans ritualistically shouted down the police state for years, the invited attendees of the celebration included none other than Aboud al-Zomor, one of the people charged in the assassination of former President Anwar Sadat — the very architect of this war being commemorated!
Despite seeming to have free reign in the country since Morsy’s ascent and the departure of the top military brass, the ruling party doesn’t have it so easy. The Brotherhood, often accustomed to charitable social development projects targeting the poor, is unable to scale up its unsustainable initiatives to cover the country’s growing impoverished class.
With a scriptural and ritualized system of initiation and indoctrination that keeps its members loyal, agreeable, disciplined and motivated, the Brotherhood cannot manage a disparate and heterogeneous populace using the same tools without employing a strong-handed legal instrument and a ruthless police state. In the absence of any vision and the appointment of an inexperienced, so-called technocratic government, the Brotherhood regime has desperately stumbled back toward the tried and tested, albeit flawed, policies of the Mubarak era.
Whether it’s accepting World Bank and International Monetary Fund money without safeguards, maintaining strong and collaborative relations with an oppressive Israeli state at the expense of the Palestinians (despite the Brotherhood’s hostile domestic rhetoric), failing to improve wages or create a conducive environment for tourism, attacking labor action, asphyxiating anti-government expression, reducing subsidies on basic necessities, maintaining chummy ties with the Americans and Saudis, or continuing the enmity with Iran, the Brotherhood is essentially a Mubarak regime with zebeebas — the Arabic word for raisin, used colloquially to describe a discoloration and scarred marking on the foreheads of those who pray frequently.
The zebeeba front also includes Salafis, once the darlings of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces-led transition period and surprise placers in the parliamentary elections. They have also hit the wall as their parties and movements become increasingly disorganized, their rhetoric conflicting, and violations and contradictions exposed publicly.
The one identifying feature that distinguishes them from their competition is their religious interpretations and their obsession with the imposition of Sharia. Today, there are at least 10 competing parties and visions that share this condition as a platform, in some instances supporting one another, and in other cases scandalizing one another.
With the Brotherhood in power, the Salafis are caught in a bind — use their weight and popularity to serve as an opposition, or join ranks with the ruling party and reserve the role of runners-up.
However, both scenarios are excruciatingly risky. A sinking Brotherhood ship is one the Salafis would be best advised to avoid. Alternatively, with no comprehensive plan of their own, the Salafis are desperate to benefit from the Brotherhood’s plan.
Islamists and liberals
Whether hidden behind Gamal Mubarak’s accentless English or Morsy’s beard and zebeeba, the policies of the Brotherhood government are indistinguishably counter-revolutionary.
But, in the post-Mubarak era, the zebeeba goes a long way. Today, signs of piousness and religiosity are emblems of the new regime. This is an administration whose rhetoric is adorned with Quranic verses, anecdotes from the Hadith and religious salutations accenting every expression.
To emulate this style or at least adapt to its pervasiveness is to be in sync with the tones and vernacular of power today. But tone and vernacular alone don’t feed, treat, send children to school, or pay the bills.
In the coming period, and following the 12 October altercations between the two political camps in Tahrir, the prospects for both an empowered but weary Islamist camp and a debased but confident liberal front are in the balance. For either group to effectively prevail, they must first shake off the facade of their symbols.
The Lemon People, no longer benefiting from their strategic votes, cannot afford to continue camouflaging their political identity in the name of the “common good.”
And for those who proudly don the raisin, it is their responsibility to represent far more than a trend, a party or dogma. With both groups having voted for the same president, and to whom he owes justification for his faltering, it is their honest and transparent political will that Egypt so direly needs between now and the next round at the ballot.
Adel Iskandar is a media scholar and lecturer at Georgetown University.
This piece was originally published in Egypt Independent's weekly print edition.