Mission & Name
US Foreign Policy (Dr. El-Najjar's Articles)
On Egypt's Class-Struggle:
Oppressed Rabi'as of the World Unite
By Ramzy Baroud
Al-Jazeerah, CCUN, August 22, 2013
"Lord! You know well that my keen desire is to carry out Your
commandments and to serve Thee with all my heart, O light of my eyes. If I
were free I would pass the whole day and night in prayers. But what should I
do when you have made me a slave of a human being?"
These were the
words of the female Muslim mystic and poet, Rabi'a Al-'Adawiya. Her journey
from slavery to freedom served as a generational testament of the resolve of
the individual who was armed with faith and nothing else.
story is multifarious, and despite the fact that the Muslim saint died over
12 centuries ago, few Egyptians are failing to see the centrality of her
narrative to their own. In the north of the Nasr City district, tens of
thousands of Egyptians chose the iconic mosque named after her to stage
their sit-in and demanded the return to shar-iya (legitimacy) after it was
seized in a brazen military coup which ousted elected President Mohammed
Morsi on July 03.
Rabia’s narrative is essential because it was
about freedom. She was born into a very poor family in Basra, Iraq.
According to Farid ud-Din Attar who related her story, she was so poor that
when she was born the family had nothing to wrap around her, not even oil to
light their only lamp. Years later when Rabi'a was a grownup, she was
kidnapped and sold into Egyptian slavery as she tried to escape a deadly
famine in Iraq.
Rabi'a didn’t exactly challenge her master through
organizing strikes and defiant sit-ins. She was alone and dominated by too
many powerful forces that made her life of slavery and degradation absolute.
So she spent most of the day as a slave, but late at night she would stay up
and pray. It was more than praying, but an attempt at reclaiming her
humanity, at comprehending the multitude of forces that chained her to
earthly relations of slave and master, and in a sense, she tried to discover
a level of freedom that could not be granted by a master’s wish.
fact, her true ‘miracle’ was that of her faith under the harshest possible
conditions, and her ability to strive for freedom while practically
speaking, she remained a slave. It is as if this female poet, a heroin and a
saint by the standards of many poor, downtrodden people, managed to redefine
the relationship of the ongoing class struggle, and found freedom within
herself. It is believed that her inconceivable faith was so strong that her
master could not deal with the guilt of holding a saint a slave. So, she was
Regardless of the precision of the details, Rabi'a Al-'Adawiya’s
legacy has passed on from one generation of Egyptians to the next. Like her,
many of these Egyptians are mostly poor, immensely patient, and are hostage
to the same century-old class struggle by which Rabia was defined.
In some way, the January 25 revolution included millions of Rabia's fed up
with oppression and servitude. But the class division that was highlighted
after millions of Egyptians rose against the military coup became clearer
than ever. These were the poorest of the poor, long alienated and
dehumanized by both the ruling class and the conceited, intellectual
groupings of self-described liberals and socialists. The unprecedented union
between Egypt’s ruling class and anti-Muslim intellectual elite succeeded,
to an extent, in blocking our view from the substantial class struggle
underway in Egypt, where the poorest communities – yes, workers and peasants
– were leading a historic struggle to reclaim democracy from the upper and
middle class intellectuals. The former committed hideous murders against
peaceful protesters, while the latter group found a way to explain why it
was completely fine to mow down thousands of people staging massive sit-ins
in Nahda Square, and yes, Rabi'a Al-'Adawiya Square, named after Rabi'a.
The Rabia's of Egypt are not hated, they are loathed. They have always
been treated as sub-humans that live in their own dirty quarters which are
unbelievably neglected shantytowns made up of haggard buildings stacked atop
one another. The Rabi'as of Egypt struggle to merely survive on a
Faith serves the poor more than it serves the rich, so
they have their mosques. It is a last escape against the harsh grinds of
life. When the January 25 revolution erupted, a temporary union existed
between the poor and the disenchanted middle class, as they had access to
local and international media forums, and were disproportionately
represented in their access to social media.
But when the first vote
following the removal of Hosni Mubarak was held on March 19, 2011, all the
way until the presidential runoff elections on June 16, 2012, the
discrepancies began showing: Egypt’s poor seemed to have a whole different
world of political preferences, favoring religious parties that spoke their
language, over the liberals, socialists and all the rest. The loudest
liberals and socialists seemed to appear on television, but as several
rounds of voting had shown, they were the less relevant among Egyptians. The
trend was unmistakable, Egypt sought a political program that was democratic
and positioned with a religious discourse.
Liberals and socialists
were once more alienated, this time democratically. Their own interpretation
of a western-like democracy was in reality neither western-like nor
democratic, and their combined numbers placed them at the bottom of the
ladder of political relevance. They blamed everyone for their failings,
initially the military, the remnants of the regime, and eventually the
Previous Egyptian regimes had invested
precocious resources to demonize any Egyptian Muslim with a political
preference that didn’t venerate the regime. They demonized the Islamists in
ways that reduced them to the level of sub-humans in the eyes of the ruling
class. Many of the liberal and socialist forces that took part in the Jan 25
revolution grew up knowing no other discourse except seeing political Islam
as evil that must be defeated. That discourse was strengthened after the
signing of the Camp David Accords in the late 1970’s, for Israel was no
longer the enemy, and the enemy were those who dared protest Egypt’s pro-US
and pro-Israel policies.
Culture doesn’t change overnight.
Collective thinking is not switched off and on with the press of a button.
The fact is that the dominance of the Islamic narrative in post-revolution
Egypt terrified those who became accustomed to the marginalization of
political Islam. It was to the extent that the temporary alliance between
the poor and the middle class was done with, in favor of a sinister alliance
with the forces allied with the last regime, including the military. The
combination was deadlier than any other time in Egypt’s modern history.
Thousands of people fell dead and wounded in a few hours on August 14
starting with a crackdown on Rabi'a Al-'Adawiya’s Square. The mosque was set
ablaze. The depravity of the violence that followed, hailed by liberals and
socialists, as well as regime supporters as a victory for democracy, is
But as bloody and heart-wrenching as the last few
days in Egypt have been, a sense of clarity finally prevailed. The Jan 25
revolution, inspiring as it was, left numerous questions unanswered, and
presented the military with the opportunity to break away from the Mubaraks
and re-brand itself as the protector of the nation. But real democracy
proved too much for the military and the layers of corrupt political and
economic elites it represents. Now, the rosy image of a peaceful revolution
guided by its military to achieve a better tomorrow is over: the masks have
all been lifted and the reality is much uglier than previously thought.
Egypt's real struggle for freedom and political definition is just starting.
Rabi'a’s 12- centuries- old legacy will not vanish even after the
mosque was burnt. Many of the dead were witnessed and filmed raising their
forefingers to heaven in one last prayer as they let go of their last
breath. The images from Egypt were gory to say the least, but the faith of
Egyptians remains strong.
- Ramzy Baroud (www.ramzybaroud.net)
is an internationally-syndicated columnist and the editor of
PalestineChronicle.com. His latest book is: My Father was A Freedom Fighter:
Gaza's Untold Story (Pluto Press).