Wednesday, April 25, 2012

It will be wonderful... when women can walk freely

Can music and art bring together the many different political and religious factions occupying Tahrir Square?

By Mark LeVine

It might be wonderful after all

Liberals and Left forces in Egypt by and large have little love for the Salafis, and the Ultra's lesson was well-received by most of the activists I saw after the protests. But the reality is that the Salafis belong in Tahrir Square, as movements like April 6 acknowledged when they invited all the country's main forces to join them in Tahrir for the day under the banners "Together to protect the Revolution" and "No to the Felool". Where else should they be but Tahrir to press for their demands? They too suffered horribly under the Mubarak regime, when untold thousands languished in jails and suffered brutal abuses, even as their leaders were largely coopted by the system in the last 15 years.

Indeed, the Salafis may have come late to the revolution, but they remain one of the few and most organised truly revolutionary voices in Egypt - not merely in what many would perceive as the negative sense of desiring a state based largely on their conservative interpretation of the Sharia, but because they have a much stronger social justice discourse than the increasingly establishment Muslim Brotherhood. They are thus a crucial component of any alliance against the emerging political-economic elite and its deep state patrons.

And this is what makes Tahrir so wonderful. The Salafis conquered a large part of Tahrir, but even after doing so they were forced to listen to music sung with abandon by thousands of people, who didn't go up in a poof of smoke or descend directly to Hell merely for doing so. Salafis on the street were dialoging with women and men from very different sociol-political orientations about the best way to complete a democratic transition, even as preachers regularly intoned verses from the Quran or the Shahada. The Salafis with dayglo vests who have suddenly took over security for the Midan were no less polite or smiling than the Shabab who'd traditionally run Tahrir's civilian security.

The more that Salafis or Brotherhood members have to share public space with other Egyptians (including, one hopes, a lot more Christians than were in Tahrir on Friday), the more both sides' views of the other will begin to shift towards greater understanding, and just perhaps, the beginnings of some sort of shared political vision. This is, of course, the most fundamental role of the public sphere, to enable debate that, however spirited, ultimately leads to a conception of the common good that furthers the most basic rights of all citizens.

Of course, conservatives of all religious persuasions have a hard time accepting the necessarily pluralistic and tolerant definition of the public sphere. And here is precisely where art plays such an important role. As both Ramy Essam and the members of the Freedom Theatre explained after their joint performance Friday evening, the most important job of art is precisely to represent the unrepresentable, to reflect a mirror back on society that shows not just its ugliest realities but the glimmers of hope they so often obscure. And in so doing, to give people the strength and imagination to do the seemingly impossible, and in the process change the basic frameworks through which they shape their identities and act towards to those around them.

Watching the audience, including a few Salafis, move their heads to Essam's guitar and the rhythmic motions of the Freedom Theatre's actors, the future of Egypt seemed just a bit brighter than it had when I first left my friends' apartment, 12 hours before."

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