Reach of Turmoil in Egypt Extends Into Countryside

Great reporting in the NYTimes on the tensions and the harassment of MB families outside Cairo. On the funeral of one MB member:  

In this small, close-knit and rural Nile Delta town, it is customary for the community to gather behind the family for the procession to the graveyard. Mr. Abdel Aal, however, was greeted with epithets — someone called him a dog, someone else an infidel. One family even held a wedding at the same time, something unheard-of.

Meanwhile, another Times article gives a more complex picture of the recent operation to "liberate"Dalga, a town near Minya where Christians have been terrorized by local Islamists (and opportunistic thugs). 

But the security forces did not bring such heavy weapons to protect Christian residents. Interior ministry officials said the expedition was an attempt to capture a single fugitive Islamist, and it may depart soon. The overwhelming force, they said, was merely for self-protection: the surrounding province of Minya is still considered a bastion of Islamist support for Mr. Morsi.

 

Impunity

I took over from Issandr this week to pen a post for the New York Times' Latitude blog about the so far unreleased (but now partly leaked) fact-finding report into the deaths and abuses of protesters, ordered -- but so far buried -- by President Morsi.

Last week, the British paper The Guardian published leaked chapters and several articles about the report that was written -- but not released -- by the fact-finding committee President Morsi created in July 2012 to investigate killing and injuring of protesters from the time of the revolution until his assumption of office (although in fact the committee appears to have focused on the revolutionary and early post-revolutionary period only). The Egyptian newspaper El Shorouk had already been reporting on the committee’s findings for several moths. Nour The Intern has heroically waded into these leaks and their coverage, to try to give us a sense of what has emerged from the committee’s work so far. Read it all after the jump. 

Read More

Blind Ambition

I'm sitting in the beautiful old Radio movie theatre in Downtown Cairo, watching a black and white movie filmed on a cell phone. On screen, people (all so familiar I feel I crossed them once in the street) are complaining, arguing, not listening to each other while charging forward in endless linguistic loops. The dialogues, as one audience member suggest afterwards, are as frusrating as unresolved mathematical equations. They are also captivating, the way overheard snatches of intense conversation often are, full of urgenty invoked cliches and naked self-assertion and self-righteousness.

We laugh, out of both the pleasure and the discomfort of recognition. Humour, I would venture to say, is rare in contemporary art films, which is another reason that Egyptian artist Hassan Khan's "Blind Ambition" is worth seeking out (although I do wonder how much of this very verbal film is lost to non-Arabic speakers). I saw it last night, as part of the ongoing D-Caf cultural festival. As Khan explained after the screening, it is based on "daily, personal observations" but also elaborated through a painstaking directing/acting process (which as far as I understand toes the line between scripted and improvised) and clever formal choices meant to undercut the exchanges' seeming naturalism. When people aren't speaking, for example, the film is silent. It is as if the characters' voices make them "come into being," says Khan -- the space of single, memorable moments. 

Here's a good write up in Egypt Independent, too. 

The Bassem Youssef case

A lot of ink has been spilled already over the charges that have been filed (by individuals absolutey not formally affiliated with the Freedom and Justice Party) against Egyptian comedian Bassem Youssef of insulting the president, and religion, and Pakistan.

I was (I think) the first English-language journalist to profile Bassem, back when he was filming his show in a room of his appartment (and I can barely ever claim to being a trend-spotter). I have been following his career with interest ever since, as he has morphed into a social and media phenomenon and, now, a test case in the ways the revolution may have broken the stale old bounds public discourse. 

Sarah Carr has written a great post about the double standards here regarding what "proper" language and behaviour is. Youssef has challenged this by speaking and joking in a way that is much closer to the way people actually express themselves -- this is the basis of his appeal and of people's discomfort with him. 

After being questioned by the Public Prosecutor, and being featured on the Daily Show, and causing a minor diplomatic spat on Twitter between the US Embassy in Cairo and the presidency, Youssef dedicated an entire show to Qatar, the "little brother" that is buying up Egypt now (and supposedly backing the Brotherhood). Please forgive me for linking to MEMRI, but here is a sub-titled video of the send-up of Arab nationalism that has become an instant classic. 

French academic Yves Gonzalez-Quljano has a great analysis on his blog Culture et politique Arabes, in which he writes: "Plunging his scalpel unceremoniously into the open sore of national amour propre, with only a strong dose of humour for anaesthesia, the former surgeon has seemingly dashed any hopes on the regime's part of silencing him. More than ever, he can count on powerful supporters, not just among the defenders of freedom of expression around the world, but even more among Egyptians, who were hit in the heart -- the expression isn't too strong -- by a parody of nationalist operetta that provoked exasperation and enthusiasm." 

Youssef's influence and reach is such that the show was enough to ignite a public debate -- and a lot more satire --  over Qatar's growing leverage and influence. In Qatar (where I travelled just last week) the public reaction was more muted but predictably negative. But after a visit from Prime Minister Hesham Qandil probably intended to smooth things over, Qatar pledged several more billion dollars in assistance. 

Islam, politics and academia

Sitting on a curb outside the college where she was recently expelled, Eman is defiant.

"I did it for the sake of God," the 21-year-old Tunisian history student—who asked to be identified only by her first name—said of her insistence on wearing the niqab, the full-face veil. Such a display of piety is banned in the classrooms of the University of Manouba's Faculty of Arts and Letters, and she has been forced to leave. "He will reward me in other ways."

Eman is covered head to toe in flowing brown-and-beige polyester. She wears gloves and shields her light-brown eyes from view with a second, transparent veil. Depending on whom you talk to in Tunisia, her attire, and the militant strain of Islamism it is associated with, represents either the future of the Arab Spring—or the greatest threat to it.

To her supporters, Eman is staking a righteous claim for a greater role for religion on campus. To her opponents, she embodies a threat to the university's liberal values and to academic freedom itself.

Fundamentalists like Eman, says Habib Kaz­daghli, a dean at the university, believe that the primary purpose of the university is "not to deliver knowledge but to serve as a place for spreading religion."

This is from a piece I wrote for The Chronicle of Higher Education (it is behind a pay wall but this link gives temporary access) looking at the fights that have erupted, after the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, over the role of religionon campus. I visited Manouba University in Tunisia, where Dean Habib Kazdaghli has taken a hard line against allowing women in niqab to attend class (and is now facing what he says are trumped up charges of slapping a munaqaba student). I also visited the ancient Islamic university of Al Azhar here in Cairo, to look at how a historical model of Muslim learning has evolved into the 21st century. 

Women's safety and participation

I attended a day-long meeting in Cairo yesterday, facilitated by the NGO Safer World, addressing women’s safety and political participation in Egypt, Yemen and Libya. The meeting was attended by activists as well as a few government representatives.

Although the situation varies quite a bit from one country to the other -- in Yemen the context is much more rural, for example, than in Egypt, and geographic isolation plays a big part in women’s security and participation -- there were many similarities. In all three countries, women are the victims of violence -- and of an ideological discourse that blames them for that very violence -- that intimidates them away from the public and political sphere.  Also in all three countries, women’s groups are extremely frustrated and angry with the Islamist groups and parties that have come to power since the uprisings, who they describe as “dictatorial” and accuse of wanting to undo progress on women’s rights. 

In Egypt, as the New York Times recently reported, Islamist members of parliament and preachers have been saying grotesque things about women who were victims of gang rapes in Tahrir. The FJP has condemned some of the recent statements -- but only at the prodding of journalists, and even as some of its members have also expressed similar sentiments. 

President Morsi’s office sent a young female advisor on human rights and women’s rights to the meeting. She responded to the indignant questions of the activists with platitudes about the Freedom and Justice Party’s desire to listen before acting and the need not to demonize each other and to work together. In response to a question about the FJP’s position on lowering the age of marriage for girls, she said that the party had never advocated doing so and that there were “extreme” positions on all sides -- while some Islamists call for lowering the marriage age (to as low as 9), non-Islamists call for defending homosexuality. The claim prompted one activist to ask: “Why are you always bringing up homosexuality when we’re discussing women’s rights?”

Read More

Protests as seen by the FJP's newspaper

In an attempt to report public opinion towards all the protests that took place in the past eight months since Morsi came to power, the Freedom and Justice Party's newspaper, al-Horreya wa al-Adala, published this news article on 15 March in its Youth and Sports section.

Despite the fact that people are clearly divided about everything from Morsi to the weather, MB’s report shows a uncharacteristically unified image of society. From the Ettihidiya clashes and Tahrir sit-ins to Port Said protests and the Ultras’ attacks; the Egyptian people who had one collective view on the matter: Protesters are thugs.

The article, which is merely a collection of tweets and FB status updates by ungoogleable individual(s), begins with this headline: What do you want to be? A thug.

The sub-headline then goes:“It's a great job, gets you fame and money..."And if you get caught, you're an activist!"

Sohila Mahmoud on Facebook: "I don't see any reason to block the roads, why is everyone silent about these continued acts of thuggery against the average Egyptian citizen, who wakes up to make a living, only to go back home empty-handed?"

According to the article, “activists,” on Facebook have unanimously confirmed that these protests Mahmoud is referring to are "crimes" which can only be committed by "thugs."

"This is a crime against society. Thugs who throw rocks at the police, or Molotov cocktails, carry guns or knives should be immediately shot, so that we'd get rid of the National Damnation Front's thugs and the toppled president's as well," hopes Mohamed Abdullah in his FB status.

Read More

Solar eclipse

I'm not sure whether I linked to it, but last week my Latitude piece was about the shortages in diesel fuel in Egypt (called Solar). It's here.

For a closer look at the frustrations faced by microbus drivers, who have been blocking roads in protest at shortages, there is a fine piece of reporting in the Daily News Egypt. It's also the top story in many of today's Egyptian dailies, with fighting breaking out during protests and at gas stations. Some report that fuel is being diverted to Gaza (it is much cheaper to get Egyptian fuel than Israel fuel, after all.) Others that the fuel shortages reach as much as 60% in some provinces, and 30-40% in most. Apparently several fuel tankers are awaiting to be paid to unload their cargo — but the government has no cashflow.  

Lessons from Egypt's student elections

To follow up on last week's news about a Brotherhood routing in student elections, we sent Nour The Intern to Ain Shams university to see what happened exactly and what lessons might be drawn for national elections.

“(The Brothers) can't have the presidency and the student union," happily exclaimed a dentistry student at Ain Shams university, Shaymaa Hosny. 

According to recent results of student elections and the commonly outspoken sentiments against the Muslim Brotherhood in universities; Hosny is not alone.

"Students didn't just vote for the not-MB candidates only because they're not-MB," argued Amany Bahgat, a Masr Al Kawia 2nd year candidate in Economics and Political Science at Cairo University, "but also because not-MB candidates had actual work plans."

Masr Al Kawia Party (Strong Egypt, centrist Islamist party founded by former Brother and presidential candidate Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh) has been working on its campaign and forming alliance with Al-Destour (social democratic party founded by Mohamed ElBaradei), and others, since January, Bahgat explained. She speculates that the reason why the MB did so poorly - aside from their popularity dip thanks to Morsi's blunders - was because the MB's youth, unlike all the other parties, didn't put much effort into their campaign and lacked a solid program.

Read More

In Translation: How the Constitutional Declaration came to be

Much of the mayhem currently taking place in Egypt is a direct result of the Constitutional Declaration President Mohammed Morsi announced on 22 November 2012 and the political upheaval it caused. There has been much speculation as to why the declaration was made when it was (just after the end of the Gaza crisis), who had planned it and who was out of the loop and what its purpose was. Mohamed Basal, a reporter for al-Shorouk newspaper, has the inside story of how the Declaration came to be, shedding some light on some of these questions. We bring it to you in English thanks to the upstanding folks at Industry Arabic who make our In Translation series possible.

Basal's article is meticulously — though anonymously — sourced and provides a plausible narrative of how the Constitutional Declaration came to be. Some key points:

  • It was largely drafted by the Legal Affairs Committee of the Freedom and Justice Party, in consultation with Brotherhood leaders, but only with late input from presidential advisors.
  • Key judicial figures were only consulted late and opposed some of its provisions.
  • It was initially intended to include bringing the retirement age of judges down to 60 years old. Such a provision could still be implemented later this year to purge a large number of senior judges. The Vice-President threatened to resign over this.
  • The Minister of Justice and the Vice-President, both judges, fought against several of its provisions and did not think it was necessary — or legal — to "protect" the Constituent Assembly from a Supreme Constitutional Court decision.
  • Morsi and the Brothers believed a conspiracy was afoot (this much we know from their cryptic statements) for the Supreme Constitutional Court to launch impeachment proceedings against President Morsi — even though there are no constitutional means for this. They were also receiving information of a destabilization campaign from "sovereign bodies", meaning intelligence agencies.
  • The Constitutional Declaration was originally intended mostly to deal with the replacement of the Public Prosecutor and the extension of the Constituent Assembly, which by late November was far from finishing its work. It was the FJP's legal committee that added other provisions, backed by Morsi notably on the question of protecting the Constituent Assembly from dissolution and giving himself extraordinary powers (intended to deal with a perceived threat of unrest caused by the opposition).

Here's the quite long and detailed article for Egypt-watchers who want to understand the steps that led to the Morsi administration's biggest mistake to date.

Read More

Khaled Fahmy on police reform

Khaled Fahmy asks What doesn't Morsi understand about police reform?, looking at a landmark 1861 decision to end beatings by the Egyptian police.

After I spent many years exploring the National Archives, I concluded that torture was repealed from the Egyptian criminal code in the 19th Century because of a decision from within the state apparatus itself, specifically the police which reached an advanced degree of professionalism. It was also a reflection of a high degree of centralisation, strength and self-confidence of the state’s administrative apparatus, at the heart of which is the police.

It is disappointing to watch the serious regression of the Egyptian state over the past 30 years; a regression back to torture practices at police stations and locations of detention in Egypt.

Even more upsetting is that those in power today do not recognise the dangers of continuing to ignore this explosive issue, especially after a revolution which – in my opinion – primarily occurred to end torture and other systematic abuses by police against citizens.

The president has not said a single word about torture; the prime minister went to the headquarters of Central Security Forces after recent clashes in Port Said to promise them he would give them more weapons; the government has brushed aside all initiatives to reform the police; the minister of justice denied torture existed under President Morsi, and has often said the police cannot be reformed except from within and based on initiatives by its leadership. And so it seems, President Morsi’s government has made up its mind on this matter and does not wish to address police violations, and at the same time cannot force police leaders to change their ways in dealing with the people.

Egypt: Brothers get routed in student elections

Results for student elections taking place in Egyptian universities this week suggest the Muslim Brotherhood, normally one of the best-organized and most successful political movements in student politics, has lost much ground. This tends to confirm and accelerate trends first seen last year of new political movements on campus becoming more popular, as well as some good coalition-building between radicals, leftists, liberals and others to face challenges by Brothers and the Salafis. The trend has also been seen in professional syndicates over the last year, and may also grow this year. This should be striking, as one would expect the Brotherhood to reap the benefits of being the party in power. But the opposite is happening, and the failure of the Brotherhood to win a majority in a single election yesterday (although of course there will be more) is telling of the discontent with them.

Three things stand out to me other than the Brothers' relatively poor performance:

  1. Coalitions of non-Islamist political trends seem to work quite well, suggesting it is worth it for them to contest elections;
  2. I think the formation of Salafi factions on campus is a new thing (someone tell me if I'm wrong — Update: Assiut of course had strong Gamaa Islamiya presence in university), and they are doing well in places (like Minya in Upper Egypt), possibly at the expense of the MB.
  3. In several places the Destour Party (of Mohamed ElBaradei) is running in coalitions or alone and doing quite well — which shows that contrary to the prevalent armchair punditry that they are getting out there and mobilizing to some extent.

How does this translate in a national election? It's not clear. Obviously university students are more educated and live in an urban environment (although many, of course, will come from a rural background — or what passes as rural in one of the mostly densely populated countries in the world.) They are not that representative of the national whole, and vote for different reasons. The Brotherhood's electoral machine alone, depending on who else is running, makes its goal of winning an outright majority in the upcoming parliamentary within reach — although I think it's a longshot.

Below are results of elections in various university faculties, culled by Nour The Intern from the @afteegypt Twitter account which has been doing some sterling coverage of student politics.

Read More

The speech ElBaradei could have made after meeting Kerry

Much has been made about the refusal by National Salvation Front leaders, aside Amr "I never miss an opportunity to show I'm a big shot" Moussa, to meet incoming US Secretary of State John Kerry. I'm not sure not meeting him was that much of a missed opportunity, because I'm still not sure what the NSF exactly has to say for itself. Beyond, that is, describing Washington's urging for the opposition to compete in the upcoming elections as a form of foreign interference, thus echoing both the Mubarak regime and SCAF's (and the Brotherhood regime's) hysterical accusations and hyperventilation every time someone outside the country suggests something.

Imagine ElBaradei (or Sabahi, or whoever) coming out of a meeting with Kerry and, at the press conference, making a speech that begins along these lines:

We just had an honest and forceful exchange of views with John Kerry, whom we welcome to Egypt and wish good luck as he begins his tenure as Secretary of State. The United States has a long history of relations with Egypt — not always good relations, it is true, but relations that have nonetheless been pivotal to the region and its future. I told Secretary Kerry that as he begins a new job, and the Obama administration begins a second term, many Egyptians will be watching him for what direction America takes.

Under the Mubarak regime, many of us felt that the US had made the wrong choice in backing a president and a regime that grew more authoritarian and unjust over the years. We hoped such a mistake would not be repeated again, and were optimistic to see President Obama speak of the need for democracy in the region in 2011. But, more recently, some of us have been sorely disappointed.

We have a hard time understanding how the country of Benjamin Franklin, George Washington and John Adams — a country whose people, perhaps more than any other in the world, takes great pride in its founders' framing of its constitution — stayed silent when a new constitution was shoved down the throats of Egyptians. We wonder whether Americans would find it acceptable that the majority party of the day rush the approval of their nation's covenant in less than 24 hours. Or that their Supreme Court be fettered by an all-powerful president. 

We do not believe that the Egyptian people deserve any less a constitution than the American people. And we were puzzled to hear Washington call for consensus only after the recent referendum, precisely after the opportunity to create a wide consensus had evaporated.

We hear Secretary Kerry's calls to focus on our foundering economy, and could not agree more: it has been terribly mismanaged by an administration that decided to sacrifice Egypt's economic and social well-being for short-term political gain. But we ask Secretary Kerry: was Egypt ever likely to be able to tackle its challenges and take painful decisions for the sake of reform without establishing a genuine consensus? Where was America's advice in December, when the decisions that have led to the current economic crisis were taken?

Secretary Kerry, a long time ago you fought against your president's decision to prolong an unnecessary war in Vietnam, and more recently you had the wisdom to speak out against another president's policies in Iraq. Some called you unpatriotic, but history proved you right. When Egyptians denounce their president today, they do not do so out of spite — they do so out of concern for their country and their future. We believe history will prove us right — but fear the costs we will have to pay in the meantime.

Secretary Kerry, we will not take part in the next elections not because we are afraid of losing, but precisely because we do not think the consensus that is necessary to set Egypt on the right path politically, economically, and socially has been created. We will not legitimize an administration that believes winning one or two elections gives it the right to single-handedly write the rules of the game and treat other parts of our great nation in an arrogant and humiliating way. We know this might be a risky proposition — but we must stand by our principles. And we ask: what are America's principles?

. . .

The point is not the content of the speech, in which I echo what I see as potential NSF talking points rather than my own opinion. The point is, as an opposition leader, why not leverage such an occasion to make a speech that might send a strong message to the US, play to concerns of some American groups (some in Congress, parts of the media, civil society, elements of public opinion, etc.) that can put pressure on the Obama administration? That also sends a message to a domestic audience that it has leaders that are able to stand next to an American Secretary of State and sound both statesmanlike and defiant — but without being petulant? Why not take every opportunity to score political points?

Clean streets, first sign of elections

Only 15 minutes away from where I live, right off Gisr El-Suez, there is a garbage dump. The all-encompassing pile of trash is routinely picked up in the morning by the government's waste collection truck, only to reappear again the same night, at the same spot, thanks to the same truck that whisked it away earlier. According to local popular belief, the government no longer knows what to do, or where to put, the trash it collects, so they simply transport it from one location to the other; creating a temporary illusion of cleanliness and sparing everyone the sight of street children fishing for anything to eat or sell in the elusive dump.

One day about two weeks ago, the truck picked up the trash for its usual tour of Cairo, only this time they didn't drop it back off. 

“Look there, turns out we've got a sidewalk! But doesn't the street look naked?” said Ramadan, the owner of a kiosk overlooking the dump. The following day, Ramadan was surprised to see that the now naked sidewalks were growing sickly-thin trees, and the wall behind them was freshly painted. Slogans in bright green, red and blue, were drawn on it, one of which informed passersby that "A true revolutionary rebels against corruption, and once he removes it, calms down to build and prosper." Further down the road, a bench that was installed during the last parliamentary elections was replaced by a new one and a sign that said "Brought to you by the Freedom and Justice Party." 

Read More

The Brothers crave legitimization more than aid

What the U.S. can do for Egypt - By Tamara Cofman Wittes | The Middle East Channel

Tamara Coffman-Wittes gets where America's leverage over Egypt lies:

It's true that, with all their flaws, the Brotherhood won the freest and fairest elections in Egypt's modern history -- and may win the next elections too. But electoral victory does not absolve the group of the obligation to adhere to democratic rules and norms -- not if it wants to be recognized, and it most certainly does, as a democratically legitimate actor in Egypt and on the global stage. This is Washington's real leverage -- that the Brotherhood-led government wants U.S. recognition, and seeks U.S. partnership and support. Love it or hate it, there is simply no substitute for that photo-op in the Oval Office to signal to the world that you have arrived.

One wonders, though, whether the new Secretary of State's first acts should be in a visit to Cairo in this case.

Egyptian writers and revolutions

"Black, not noir," is how our friend Adam Shatz describes Sonallah Ibrahim's groundbreaking debut novel Tilka El-Reiha, which has just been translated -- along with Ibrahim's early prison diaries -- by Robyn Creswell as The Smell and Notes from Prison

Readers of the blog will know that I am a great admirer of Ibrahim's (I'll post a profile of him I wrote a few years ago, on the occasion of the English translation of his autobiographical novel Stealth, at the end of this post). Not only is he one of the most original and talented writers of his generation, but he is also one of its most principled. What marks both his writing and his politics is a startling, almost compulsive honesty.

Shatz looks at the relationship between Ibrahim's prison memoirs (he was incarcerated by Nasser, in his early twenties, for being a Communist) and his fiction, and at the literary, personal and political influences and traumas that find expression in both. 

Only faint echoes of the cause that inspired Ibrahim can be heard in That Smell. An old comrade of the narrator’s rhapsodises about the masses, but seems to lack conviction, and this is the last we hear of the revolution. In occasional, italicised flashbacks, Ibrahim pays tribute to the solidarity the party created among its members, the small kindnesses that made prison life more bearable. On a visit to the wife of a comrade who died in prison, the narrator remembers sitting in the back of a police van while her husband sang ‘snatches of an old love song over and over’. He doesn’t share this memory, because just at that moment his friend was given a beating and taken away: ‘that was the last time I saw him.’ She asks if her husband loved her, and the narrator replies that he did, but also thinks to himself: ‘What could I say, what was the point of going into it after it was over, and who knows what goes on inside another person anyway?

Apart from these flashbacks, That Smell takes place in the dead zone of the present, ‘after it was over’: ‘it’ is the experience of a generation of Egyptian leftists who rallied to Nasser’s revolution only to find they had nowhere to go other than prison or exile. ‘The narrator’s stupor,’ Creswell writes, ‘is the daze of depoliticisation.’ But the narrator isn’t the only one wandering around in a daze. The conductor on the metro stops to ‘put a lump of opium in his mouth and sip some tea. Lucky man, I thought. He’d found a way to live that let him put on a brave face.’ Images of death and disfigurement are everywhere: on the street, a dead man lies ‘covered with bloody newspapers’; a pretty girl the narrator notices on the train turns out to be missing a limb. Even those who have found happiness, or what they’ve been told is happiness, seem doomed: his brother’s wife won’t have sex with him unless he pays her; his friend Samia, now a wife and mother, is ‘stuck for ever. There was nothing to do but submit.’ Desire is consummated with something like satisfaction – or honesty, without the pressures of marriage or the need for cash incentives – only when members of the same sex are involved. Ibrahim has spoken obliquely of his own relations with men in prison, and writes in his story ‘The Snake’ that after prison one comes to see ‘everything as normal’. The lack of normalising judgment, much less homophobia, in his work stands in contrast to, say, Alaa al-Aswany’s Yacoubian Building, where gays are represented as sex-crazed, dandified predators.

For some reason reading about Ibrahim made me think of this very powerful (and fantasmagorical) piece of writing by novelist Youssef Rakha. It's in a completely different register from Ibrahim's affectless chronicle of alienation (and it uses global consumerism -- the destructive reach of which is a theme of Ibrahim's later work -- as an international vernacular). But it also captures a different moment of political disappointment, which in this cases produces enraged flippancy rather than numbness. I have to quote at some length: 

You’ve been in Cairo six months, you say. So you know: first we agitated on Facebook. We set a date, a time, and a venue for a big demonstration. Tahrir Square, yes. The riot police killed some of us, and we had an even bigger demonstration. That day they killed so many we ended up occupying the place—millions of us, eventually—protected by the Army. And what were we protesting? Brutality and bureaucracy, control and corruption. Plans to make the presidency a hereditary post, the way it is in Syria. Not, you understand, the conditions of Islam. The plight of the Umma was not on our list of grievances; if anything, we were angry because we didn’t feel we were part of the non-Umma. When we realized something was happening we called it a Revolution, the second, must-see episode in the Arab Spring series.

That was January–February, 2011. And, until February–March, 2012, when it became obvious that our protests were playing into Islamists’ hands and I fell prey to despair, I was deeply involved: as a tweep, a chant-author, a maker of improvised anti-tear gas masks, a field hospital doctor (because, even though I’m thirty-two years old, I’m still a medical student hoping to graduate some day). I was there for every demonstration, every portable slaughterhouse. I saw bodies dismembered by corrugated wheels and blunt swords gashing heads. I hurled stones at people in uniform. I chanted. And that’s how I got the name Che Nawwarah, after the Communist icon Che Guevara. He too was a failed physician. Though now that I’ve read about him, I suspect he was only a fanatical psychopath, a serial killer with pretensions.

The protests started to feel like voluntary sacrificial rites to help the bearded bastards get more power, and I stopped going. I didn’t even try to warn my comrades because I knew they wouldn’t listen. In my despair I could tell the mini-inquisitions were round the corner. Already strangers ruled over us, worse than the tyrants of before. Now that the Islamists were identified with the Revolution, there was no one that would deliver us out of their hand. We would be getting our bread with the peril of our lives because of the thug’s sword. Good Muslims would hang by their hands—not only metaphorically, either—and, by sexual harassment, premature marriage, and female genital mutilation, the women of Cairo would be ravished, so would the maids of the Nile Delta. The faces of true human beings who spoke out would not be spared—but wait! I should explain the difference between Muslim and Islamist in case you’re not an operative and don’t know.

Most Egyptians are Muslim by birth. Many practice, but until the hijab became ubiquitous in the nineties, you could hardly tell. The Islamists are the ones who carry Islam on their person the way you carry an electronic gadget on the subway. From months of study I’ve decided that they don’t stand out in any other way, except maybe by hating women and Christians, foreigners like you and so-called liberals like me. They just have pre-cultural Bedouin beliefs that they call Islam. And they flaunt those beliefs in a range of brands: Nokia-Jihadi (kill the infidels), Samsung-Salafi (kowtow to the autarch and marry as many as four circumcised nine-year-old girls at a time), Apple-Muslim Brotherhood (win elections, win more elections, and win still more elections). . . . The Islamists were the ones who, unbeknown to us, somehow, inherited the Revolution.

Finally, here is my profile of Ibrahim, who better than any other writer in Egypt articulated what was rotten in the land:

Read More

Even more on the opposition

I just want to add a few links to Issandr's detailed breakdrown of the Egyptian anti-MB opposition's quandaries and inconsistencies.

In a recent column in Al Youm Al Sabaa by Ahmad Maher, the April 6 leader, he summarized the reactive attitude of the oppositoin as "Act now, decide later" and its clinging to the methods of the revolution, two years on, as "eating soup with a fork." He ends thus:

Marches, sit-ins and demonstrations are important means, despite the presence of tens and perhaps hundreds of other means, but they miss the decisive factor for the equation: “the people."
The January 25 revolution did not succeed without the people, people are the decisive factor [...]. The battle to overthrow the regime is not only the departure of Mubarak or the departure of the military power or even the departure of Morsi, but it is a long-term battle that will not be resolved in one round, but in fact it is waves and battle points, a battle primarily with the forces of the past and the forces of tyranny in various forms. A long-term battle against the ideas of the past, methods of the past, rules of the past, parties of the past and behaviors of the past.
The people are crucial in that battle, as they were crucial in the beginning of the revolution, and we have to look around a little and ask ourselves: Is Tahrir Square the same Tahrir Square ? Are the marches still marches ? Are the sit-ins the same ? Is the “violence and chaos followed by army rule scenario” the revolution?
People are a crucial element, a maker of change, and in order to move forward they must be reached, talked to and convinced of the importance of defeating the forces of the past for a new future. But the “act first, decide later” approach will only cause further loss of time, effort, and the lives of young people .

It's worth noting that April 6 has not yet decided whether to support a boycott.

To boycott or not to boycott, that is the opposition's question. Elections were used, almost from the start and quite explicitly, to contain the revolution, not to advance it. The suspicion of the "democratic" process is not unjustified. And it is evident in writing such as this column, in which activist Amr Ezzat notes that these days "the broad public conversation around the 'value of democracy' and the 'choice' of army intervention seems very 'democratic,' to the point that one can imagine 'military coup' as one of the available choices in the upcoming elections. Why not? Doesn't democracy just mean letting the ballot box decide?" Ezzat goes on to argue, tongue in cheek, that since Islamist feel free to redefine democracy to match their own concept of cultural identity and "Islamist authoritarianism," then supporters of a military coup can certainly manage to find a way to similarly stretch the concept of democracy far enough to fit army rule. Ezzat coins a clever new word,  sunduqratiya ("boxocracy") to describe many non-Islamists' view of democracy in Egypt so far: purely electoral competition, where victory gives the winner the right to excercise power in the same old authoritarian ways. 

Read More

On the Egyptian opposition

The National Salvation Front’s recent decision to boycott the upcoming parliamentary elections in Egypt that reminded me I have been thinking of writing a post on the subject of the Egyptian opposition for weeks. Warning: it's a long post.

Anyone who follows Egyptian politics will have probably made two broad conclusions by now. First, that the Muslim Brotherhood and President Mohammed Morsi, out of a combination poor judgement, paranoia and greed, have made the choice of sacrificing the possibility of a stable and inclusive transition for the sake of consolidating their control over the old regime machinery rather than reforming it. Second, that the “liberal” or secular opposition gathered under the banner of the National Salvation Front (NSF) is missing a golden opportunity to benefit from the Brotherhood’s actions and the public indignation they have caused by behaving in an utterly politically clueless manner. Let us deal with the second part of that equation.

Whatever bluster the MB is making about having a mandate from the parliamentary and presidential elections — and I believe it does have a mandate, albeit not one to act as they have done — its actions as of November 22, 2012 (when Morsi enacted his constitutional decree) and thereafter (its humiliating rushing of the constitution) have sent the opposition into spinning hysteria. It appeared, at first, that the move would unite a disparate group — after all the NSF was formed — but today, despite the united position on a boycott, there is still a good chance individual politicians and parties will still participate. I’ll get back to the wisdom of a boycott later.

The NSF may be right to be angry, and it is not the only political actor to share in that anger (look at the Salafis’ recent blistering critique of the MB as power-hungry and bent on appointing supporters in local administration for electoral advantage) but the anger has not been channelled constructively. Dissonant voices inside the NSF (ranging from ones which claimed, at least until a few days ago, respect Morsi’s legitimacy but ask him to mend his ways to those who want to overthrow him), a growing disconnect with protestors, changing demands and lack of organizational savvy are causing the opposition to appear totally out of touch and incapable of representating a viable alternative. Rarely are politicians handed such a golden opportunity as the opposition was on November 22, and while it got the secularists (mostly) under one umbrella, the NSF has squandered it.

Read More

Morsi's popularity dips (just) below 50%

The latest poll conducted by Baseera, one of Egypt's better pollsters, illustrates the hit the Morsi administration has taken in the last two months: President Mohammed Morsi, whose approval rating reached 78% in September at its peak, is now less than 50% for the first time. The trend is clearly a downwards one, and that's in the absence of a strong alternative leader in the opposition. The National Salvation Front, on the other hand, has also taken a hit but may face a greater challenge: some 35% of those polled had never heard of it, a devastating measure of the NSF's lack of street presence (although, to be fair, the NSF's components and individual leaders may be better know.

The full press release from Baseera is after the jump.

 

Press Release on the Poll Conducted by Baseera Center on the Performance of the National Salvation Front and the President’s Approval Rating after Eight Months in Office

Magued Osman

President’s approval rating continues to decline, falling to less than 50% of Egyptians.

One third of Egyptians have not heard of the National Salvation Front, while more than 50% of those who have do not support the NSF.

Read More