The Friday of Pragmatic Fudging to Reach Consensus

Actually, the official name of tomorrow’s demo in Tahrir is the Friday of People’s Will and United Front. Linguistically awkwardness aside, I’m glad that the Islamists and non-Islamists have managed to combine the two competitive demos  that were going to be in the square today. The Ikhwan and Salafis had been planning to organize a massive demonstration aimed at swamping the current Tahrir occupation by force of numbers, a plan that easily could have led to violence. I’m a pretty staunch secularist but I can see where the Islamists were coming from: by dint of their physical occupation of Tahrir, some leftists and liberal were acting as though they were in a position to set the agenda for the rest of the country, notably by calling “principles above the constitution” that would presumably have restricted the Islamists’ ability to shape the constitution, assuming they do well in upcoming elections. The Islamists’ response was, well, if you think you can dictate terms simply by putting people in Tahrir, we can do that too.

But now, at least, the factions seem to agreed that competitive marches are maybe not the best way to go about this. I’m sure that both sides will try a few stunts to one-up each other tomorrow, but the general idea seems to be to go with a set of demands that everyone can agree upon: in particular, stopping the military trials of civilians, speedier trials of Mubarak-era officials, “justice for the martyrs” of January, and a minimum wage.

I’m glad that there’s finally a good solid front against military trials. I understand why people want swifter trials, but I think it’s a bit silly to stage a mass protest calling for them. Do they want acquittals? Judges have been coming forward in the past few weeks saying look, investigators aren’t actually giving us the evidence we need to convict. Do you want us to convict without evidence? That message doesn’t seem to have completely sunk in, but then the Casey Anthony shows that a fair number of Americans have trouble wrapping their heads around the idea of “burden of proof” as well.

I went down to the square earlier tonight, and it was filling up pretty briskly — in part, no doubt, because there was a nice breeze tonight. I’m not sure how many people were aware of the finer points of the unification agreement. A couple of shebab said that they had come down “for the sake of the martyrs”, which is on the list, but a pair of Salafi-looking lads said that they were there to object to super-constitutional principles, a more divisive point which was left off. As often happens, my quick vox pop drew in a few bystanders and then quickly expanded into a wide-ranging debate. Among other points, the two Islamists wanted to emphasize that Christian/Muslim violence could only be the work of foreign agents. This prompted a bystander to intervene: foreign agents — did they really believe that? They asked him — was he a Copt? Don’t ask that question, he said, just answer mine. (I paraphrase somewhat).

I got pulled out of that end of the conversation to deal with another Islamist-looking fellow’s questions on US Middle East policy, but it was a reminder of how Tahrir is one of those rare places where people with radically different viewpoints on Egypt’s recent history are forced to confront each other’s narratives. The Mubarak regime went out of its way to avoid having people tread on each other’s sensitivities, particularly when it came to Coptic/Muslim relations, but what they got was not tranquility but hypersensitivity. The oldly way to build a functioning pluralist society is to allow each other to hash out their differences in public.

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