What This Hand Gesture Means for Egypt's Future

The four-fingered Rabaa has replaced the “V” symbol among the country’s protesters, and that could be a bad thing.
A member of the Muslim Brotherhood holds a "Rabaa" sign during a protest near Rabaa al-Adawiya square, at Cairo's Nasr City district, on September 13, 2013. (Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters)

Astute observers of recent pro-Morsi protests in Egypt will note a new symbol cropping up in photos of the protesting crowds: Demonstrators are now holding four fingers in the air. Many carry yellow posters emblazoned with the same gesture.

This new hand sign refers to the Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque, the site of a violent confrontation between Morsi’s followers and the Egyptian army. Reported deaths from the clash range from hundreds to thousands of Muslim Brotherhood supporters. In Arabic, "Rabba" means “four” or “the fourth;” hence the new Rabaa symbol.

The new hand sign is important because it signals both a conscious shift in the Muslim Brotherhood’s focus from a global audience to an Arabic one and a rejection of the ideals of the Arab Spring.

The Rabaa replaced a more recognizable sign in the Arab world: the two-fingered “V for Victory” salute, a gesture that transcends language and nationality. Many Americans know of the V as the peace sign after its widespread use by the anti-war and counterculture movements of the late 1960s and 1970s. Invented by the BBC in World War II as a pan-Allied propaganda campaign — think a cigar-smoking, pinstripe-wearing Winston Churchill flashing the V and a grin — the sign came to the Arab world when Yasser Arafat popularized it in 1969. To this day, Palestinians have exhibited a two-fingered V upon their release from Israeli jails, and the sign is well represented at rallies in Gaza.

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During the Arab Spring, the Victory sign linked the disparate uprisings across the Middle East into a unified movement. From Libya to Egypt, from Jordan to Syria, the V gesture allowed protestors to communicate a set of shared ideals embodied in the initial self-immolation of a Tunisian fruit seller: half economic freedom, half national self-determination.

As a visual image in the age of social media, the V helped the Arab Spring surpass the many linguistic and cultural barriers that crisscross the Middle East — otherwise, a rebel in Benghazi would have been hard-pressed to understand the dialect of a protestor in Tahrir Square.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton poses with Libyan soldiers upon her departure from Tripoli in Libya in October 2011. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

The V also allowed the anti-regime demonstrators of the Arab Spring to talk to the West. When Hillary Clinton met with Libyan rebels in October of 2011, she posed for a photograph in which she -- and they -- displayed a Victory salute. The message was clear: The U.S. and Libya share the same cause.

In Egypt today, the Muslim Brotherhood has deliberately eschewed the V in place of the four-fingered Rabaa. Here are four reasons why that matters:

First, with the Rabaa, the Brotherhood has chosen to limit its message to the Arab-speaking world. Unless you follow the intricacies of the Egyptian army’s crackdown on pro-Morsi demonstrators, the four fingers mean nothing to you. The word “Rabaa” itself is foreign to Westerners, and the new sign has no pre-existing connotations. The use of the Rabaa means the Brotherhood cares about building political support in their own region — and has written off Western political opinion as less important.

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Nathaniel Zelinsky is a master's student in history at Clare College, the University of Cambridge.

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