In Translation: A president who does not know how to address his people

This week’s translation — made possible by our partners Industry Arabic, whom you should hire immediately for your translation needs — is a light-hearted one to catch a break from all the doom and gloom.

Newara Negm is an Egyptian journalist and activist. She’s the daughter of the irrepressible leftist poet and world-class hashish smoker Ahmad Fouad Negm and the irascible Islamist writer Safinaz al-Kazem, and the author of the blog Gabha al-Tahyyes al-Shaabiya (Popular Front of Sarcasm). This commentary is a little hard to translate because of the casual writing style, but she provides an original take on one of Morsi’s mistake: he doesn’t know how to talk to the Egyptian people. It is largely in reaction to his most recent television speech, during which he waved his finger at the camera and scolded protestors.

That’s Not the Way to Do Things

Nawara Negm, al-Tahrir, 1 February 2013

A friend of mine from the Gulf, who loves Egypt and loves to speak in Egyptian dialect, told me that he deals with different nationalities in his capacity as a company manager, and he would do humorous impressions of each nationality. When he got to Egypt, he said that you can be three months late in paying an Egyptian’s wage, but you have to meet him with a big smile and speak to him with the warmth of kinship, saying “You’re different from the rest, you’re important.” No sooner than that will the Egyptian put his hand in his pocket and say: "Do you need money? Really, please, in God’s name, take it, please…”

But if you give him all the riches of Korah[1] as part of a dry transaction, he won’t leave the place, but will plot his revenge against you, though you won’t be able to accuse him of such a thing directly.

Fellow Arabs have come to understand this truth about the Egyptian character through contact at work, but it is something that has not yet been grasped by the Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi — who worked at NASA and yet did not work at NASA.[2]

Your Excellency the President, Egyptians will not stand for being shouted at or pointed at with your finger – especially when your suit is too big and the sleeves are too long and reach halfway down to your fingers, and your finger sticks out of the sleeves and we can’t see the rest of your palm.

To be fair, ruling Egypt in this tense period is not simple or easy, and trying to control a people that has just made a revolution is an impossible task. Though some people mocked [Prime Minister Hisham] Qandil’s admission that “It’s a weighty legacy,” I sympathize with him in that, it really is a weighty legacy. The country has decayed from within and the state has broken down, because Mubarak relied on a security strategy to govern the country and only saw in Egypt citizens, informants and thieves. Naturally he was the thief. Even though the building is crumbling to the point of collapse, there are people living in this home, and they are in fact really good residents. Egyptians are good people… and wicked at the same time, according to your taste. You can win the affection of Egyptians, bring out their good nature and get them to put their hands in their pockets saying, “Do you need money? Please take it,” or you could provoke them and get them to chant: “Screw the curfew!”

Why [are you acting like this], Mr. President? Why? Why are you shouting?

This brings to mind the saying of the microbus drivers: “That’s not the way.” Then when he comes to shouting, he shouts at the Canal cities? Does it do anyone any good to be yelled at?

The Muslim Brotherhood’s problem is that they do not resemble the Egyptian character in any way, they don’t have the Egyptians’ light touch and don’t understand the nature of the Egyptians whom they are trying to rule amidst this turbulence. They don’t understand Egyptian taste in food, clothes or arts. It is a “yes, master” organization ruling a people that only park their cars under “No Parking” signs; a highly organized group ruling a people who spray water in front of shops to cool things off; a dour organization ruling a people that never stops laughing at its own misfortunes; an organization that says “die in your rage” ruling a people that does not fear death even when crossing the street and that does not die when it is in rage, but takes revenge on those who inspired their rage and makes a joke out of them; it is a bureaucratic organization ruled by an official with a family, branch and bureau[3] all above him ruling a people that manages things on the fly.

What’s worse, the Brotherhood deals with us on the basis that we’re an “ill-bred” people and they want to teach us some manners. There’s no greater proof of that than the text of the constitution that the Brotherhood drafted, putting in every article expressions like “cultivation,” “morals,” and “values.” The only thing left for them was to put: “The people must brush their teeth and clip their nails.”

I don’t know what the reason is behind this naïveté on the part of the Brotherhood. Your Excellency the President, Mr. General Guide [of the Brotherhood], Mr. Khairat al-Shater, have you never driven a car on the streets of Egypt? If you do something wrong, smile at the person you wronged and say: “Sorry, I owe you an apology,” he will break out in a smile and say: “May God ease things for you, brother!” And if the other person is in the wrong and you open your yap at him, he’ll say: “Why are you shouting? Don’t I have a voice same as you…that’s not the way to do things…to hell with you.”

Easy… easy… Showing one’s anger doesn’t work with Egyptians. Egyptians are not afraid of a raised voice, since God has blessed them with a throat such that when they whisper in your ear in Imbaba, they’re heard in al-Tagammu al-Khamis,[4] and they don’t get startled or shaken. It’s through gentle coaxing that you gain our affection. This house on the verge of collapse will only be restored through the combined efforts of its residents, and they will not be made to cooperate by chewing them out, or by sending sheep to attack them at the Presidential Palace, or sending sheep to threaten them in Alexandria, then finally, the President wags his finger at them…no…that’s not the way to do things!

  1. Korah is a Biblical character who features in the Quran as Qarun (قارون), and is known for his extreme wealth as well as arrogance.  ↩

  2. A reference to the discovery that Morsi lied about working at NASA while in the US — he may have worked for a subcontractor but there is no record of him working for NASA itself.  ↩

  3. This is a reference to the structure of the Brotherhood, from the smallest cell unit (called “family”) to the Guidance Bureau at the top.  ↩

Imbaba is a northwestern neighborhood of Cairo, Tagammu al-Khamis a southeastern suburb.  ↩

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region,