For a Cairo on edge, reason offers an alluring alternative
There have been many horrible images coming out of Cairo in recent days, as anger over a hastily produced anti-Islam video has set the Muslim world alight. But in Tahrir Square, once the scene of its own bloody unrest, Egyptians have had another agenda: to be heard.
"I completely reject the attack on the Benghazi consulate," said Ahmed Hussein, a quality control inspector at a local factory, when I approached him last week. "If you're expressing rage and frustration, do it in a peaceful way."
On Friday, the usual vendors were on the periphery, selling flags, macaroni and Muslim Brotherhood baseball caps. Police and military patrols were absent; had they been there they would have been bored.
Not far away thousands of demonstrators massed outside the US embassy, and one protester was killed in the melee. But as that tragedy unfolded, business as usual prevailed in the rest of Cairo. For many Egyptians, the only thing being hurled are words and ideas.
The arteries leading into the square began to fill with protesters, a diverse parade of football hooligans, young professionals and bearded Salafis. The protesters were angry. But not in the way that the amateur film at the centre of this debacle depicts angry Muslims, donning swords and screaming obscenities. Those in Tahrir were personally offended by the YouTube video and wanted to convey a message of peace.
"Islam is a religion of tolerance," was the most common refrain repeated by a dozen activists and passersby. "This is a country that loves the other," said Khairat Hijab, a tailor, wearing a neon green hat with an Egyptian flag. He had a surgical mask around his neck, anticipating tear gas, and he smiled profusely.
"Burning and killing is not Egyptian behaviour," said Hassan Ahmed, a communications engineer. "Our revolution was peaceful and will continue to be peaceful." He disavowed the outbreak at the embassy and called the violence an attempt "to damage the picture" of Muslims and the Muslim Brotherhood.
To each individual I spoke with, the protest was about something slightly different. For Amr, a 28-year-old football fan sporting a red Ahly Club jersey, it didn't just pertain to the film emerging from America - it was about the imperative of respecting religion.
"People here should be in the square as Muslims and Christians, without fighting," Amr said. "The only thing there's benefit in is in standing together. This demonstration should be far from the US embassy."
Another activist picked up: "Jews have a place in Egypt, and Christians have a place in Egypt," he said. "So long as they respect each other all religions and nationalities are welcome. All religions have a place." Four young men standing beside him nodded in approval.
"Those who don't know about the Prophet should try to learn about him," interjected a man with trim beard wearing a plaid shirt as a taxi zoomed passed us. Another pedestrian interrupted to scream, "Islam is tolerant. We respect everyone regardless, but they don't respect us," and then he walked away.
When Mohammed Morsi won the presidency in June, US President Barack Obama pledged to cooperate with him, "on the basis of mutual respect, to advance the many shared interests between Egypt and the United States." Nevertheless, a genuinely democratic Egypt will advance policies that reflect public attitudes that - not surprisingly - might run counter to Washington's geostrategic aspirations.
Today, Mr Morsi finds himself in a very tenuous position, in part because of his affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood. Mr Morsi has a full grasp on neither the state's coercive apparatus nor the various Islamists movements condemning the film. But he's an easy target for the western press, focused as it is on why it took the president a full day to issue a formal response to the embassy protest.
There is no Twitter hashtag, or defining trope, to capture all of the events occurring simultaneously. Was the film a trigger for the protests or just an excuse? Was the anger aimed at the police or toward Coptic Christians, who are frequently discriminated against?
It only takes two ruffians to start a riot, and that's exactly how violence has so quickly unfolded in various forms across the Arab and Muslim world. But in Cairo's most symbolic of spaces, some Egyptians revelled in the opportunity for dialogue.
Jonathan Guyer is associate editor of the Cairo Review of Global Affairs
On Twitter: @mideastXmidwest
Updated: September 18, 2012 04:00 AM