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

Bahrain bans Guy Fawkes masks

Via The Independent:

“The Kingdom of Bahrain’s Industry and Commerce Minister, Hassan Fakhro, issued an unusual decree this week: he banned the importation of a plastic face mask. Anyone caught importing the V for Vendetta Guy Fawkes mask now faces arrest, as anti-government protesters in the country have been using them to stay anonymous.”

Practically Pythonesque. The order for this also includes the phrasing “anything similar to it that conceals the face.” But it isn’t clear which other anonymity-granting facial covers used by Bahrainis such as t-shirts gas masks, scarves, bandanas, cardboard cutouts, paint respirators, niqabs, drywall dust masks and balaclavas are next on the state’s prohibited items list.

Of course, the Bahraini photojournalist Mazen Mahdi tweets that wearers of the banned masks are now proliferating in the crowds he’s observed: 

It’s worth noting that the documentation obtained by Al Akhbar authorizing the ban refers to them as “face masks” in Arabic, but then uses the English phrase “revolution mask” right after.

That this is the language the authorities chose to label, and then ban, this particular piece of political paraphernalia with is telling. It isn’t about keep the “black bloc” off the streets, or even keeping Bahrainis off the streets in general. No, the mask symbolizes something iconic, something readily understood in Bahrain and worldwide as opposition to the Khalifas and their order, and that’s the real “threat.” And the Khalifas are no strangers to Pythonesque efforts to manage their international image.

Jazeera loses audience share in Egypt, Tunisia

The recently relaunched independent Moroccan website Lakome has an interesting piece [Fr, original Ar here] up today based on an internal al-Jazeera report on what channels are watched around the Arab world. Some of their findings:

 

  • Al Jazeera is still the most watched Arab television channel across the region, with overall growing market share ahead of pan-Arab competitors such as al-Arabiya and (way ahead of) Sky News Arabia.
  • ONTV (a liberal channel owned by billionaire Naguib Sawiris — Update: recently sold by Naguib Sawiris to a Tunisian businessman — that hosts some of the best-regarded talk shows in Egypt, notably Yosri Fouda's Akher Kalam) has taken over al-Jazeera in popularity in Egypt.
  • In Tunisia, Jazeera's audience size went from 950,000 in January 2012 to 200,000 in December 2012, perhaps reflecting the growing anti-Qatar sentiment in the country because of the ruling Ennahda Party's close connections to the emirate. Local channels such as Hannibal are preferred by local TV watchers.
  • Al-Jazeera's bias in its Syria coverage is believed to be one of the reasons for the drop on popularity of the channel

 

What strikes me in this is not so much that al-Jazeera is growing unpopular because of its pro-Islamist slant (which varies across its various channels) but that locally produced and targeted content is getting more attention. This is entirely normal, and reflects the growth in country-specific satellite channels in recent years that can offer more targeted content to viewers and more targeted audiences to advertisers. 

5 Comments

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, www.arabist.net.

Judging Anonymous Tweets: The Case of @Mujtahidd

This post about the Saudi tweep Mujtahidd is contributed by Nathan Field, who has lived several years in Saudi Arabia. Here's an interview with Mujtahidd for more background.

An important ongoing development in the Arabic Twittosphere is the surging followership of a Saudi user known as @Mujtahidd. With daily tweets ranging from sensational rumors and gossip about the Royal Family to credible-sounding inside information about the Kingdom’s politics, he has quickly gained 925,000 followers – nearly half during the last six months, and is becoming one of the most followed feeds not just in Saudi Arabia, but increasingly the wider Middle East.

The caveat, however, is that Mujtahidd operates anonymously and there is no way to verify the accuracy of many of his dramatic claims, which poses a challenge for commentators looking to Twitter to glean insights into the region’s politics.

While some may dismiss the information coming from such a site as unreliable --- social media’s version of the National Enquirer --  a close survey over time shows that, in balance, they can offer good insights into the politics of closed and heavily censored countries like Saudi Arabia.

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

Censorship in the UAE

I have a piece in The Chronicle of Higher Ed about the abrupt cancellation of an academic conference on the Arab Spring.

The London School of Economics and Political Science abruptly canceled an academic conference on the Arab Spring it planned to hold over the weekend at the American University of Sharjah, in the United Arab Emirates, citing "restrictions imposed on the intellectual content of the event that threatened academic freedom."

The last-minute cancellation took place after Emirati authorities requested that a presentation on the neighboring kingdom of Bahrain—where a protest movement was harshly repressed with the support of Saudi Arabia and the Emirates—be dropped from the program.

The paper was to be given by a professor who the Emirati authorities say has "consistenly propagated views deligitimizing the Bahraini monarchy" (and who has written critically about political repression in the UAE).

Here's London School of Economics professor Kristian Coates Ulrichsen's own account. 

In Mali, it's not Françafrique

Stephen W. Smith · In Search of Monsters: What are they doing in Mali? · LRB 7 February 2013

Stephen Smith writes in a piece critical of the French intervention:

Since the end of the Cold War, the prerequisites for a ‘Franco-African state’ – a bipolar world order capable of overriding the commercial interests of other Western powers; the absence of democracy and hence of elite competition in Africa; manageable demographics for a mid-level power like France etc – have diminished or disappeared entirely. Yet observers still tend to explain what Paris does, or fails to do, in sub-Saharan Africa as an effect of la Françafrique. Old habits die hard even in unfavourable circumstances, and the French have needed time to come to terms with many inconvenient truths. This may account for the fact that la Françafrique is such a lively anachronism in their public debates. But if France’s decision to intervene in Mali had anything to do with la Françafrique, at least some of the following conditions would be met: Hollande would enjoy a cosy relationship with the ‘big man’ in power in Bamako, who would have secretly funded the French Socialist Party; thousands of French expats would be making a good living in the former colony; Mali’s mineral or agricultural resources would be firmly in the hands of French companies; and the country’s diplomacy would follow the French lead as unerringly as a sunflower follows the daystar.

So what is it, then? Not sure Smith finds a satisfactory answer to that question — and perhaps he just can't quite admit that an intervention that had received UN backing, was welcomed by most African states, and was at the request of the country's government need not have some great hidden motive.

1 Comment

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, www.arabist.net.

Is Egypt’s new parliamentary election law constitutional?

The following post was contributed by Nathan Brown of GWU and Carnegie — see Brown's previous posts on Egyptian constitutional matters here and here. (Updated with further commentary after the jump.)

The short answer is: Maybe. We’ll have to wait and see.

The quick retort: Not again?

The quick answer: Yes, it could be déjà vu all over again. But it might not.

Read More

Support independent journalism in Egypt

Almost every morning I read half a dozen articles in Egypt Independent, the English-language, online (and now weekly print) offshoot of Al Masry Al Youm. (Today, for example, I read this and this.) We link to their stories regularly.

I think the publication had gotten off the ground shortly before the revolution, and I remember their entire staff -- a dozen people at least -- sharing a room in the Semiramis hotel (which at the time had one of the only working internet connections in the city) to cover Tahrir. I don't think anyone in that room slept for a week. 

Since then, the publication has grown, cultivating talented local voices and reporters; becoming largely independent of its Arabic sister publication; and offering long-form investigative pieces like this that are rare. It features great photo slide shows and original columns from some of my favorite Cairo-based writers (Maria Golia, Sarah Carr), and from Egypt experts like Robert Springborg, Khalil Al Anani and Michael Hannah. 

At the moment, the entire private media in Egypt is suffering from the economic crisis, and EI is encouraging readers to subscribe. Please do -- you can see a message from them after the jump.

Have you benefitted from Egypt Independent over the past few years in getting news from Egypt? Has it been a regular source of information for you? Do you value their contribution to English language journalism in/on Egypt? Do you appreciate their writers, columnists, cartoonists, and staffers that strive to bring you top-notch work day-in and day-out? If you answered yes to any of these questions, and you are keen on making sure independent and free-wheeling journalism in Egypt continues to flourish, then you should subscribe to the weekly print edition for 300 LE a year. To do so fill in this form: 

http://goo.gl/pDSfU

I started out in journalism in Cairo many years ago at what was then the only independent English-language news publication in town, the Cairo Times. I was grevously underpaid, stupendously ignorant, and almost immediately hooked. English-language media in Egypt can get away with publishing stories that the Arabic media is pressured to squelch; it is a window on Egypt for the whole world; and it is often a great place for local and foreign journalists to learn from each other and combine their strengths. 

As media censorship and intimidation in Egypt increases, and the economic crisis makes it harder for alternative voices to thrive, it's more important than ever to support publications like Egypt Independent. 

How does the MB knows what is says it knows?

Egypt’s Brotherhood Still Operates Secretively | TIME.com

(CAIRO) — Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi speaks publicly of firsthand knowledge of a meeting where opponents allegedly plotted against him.

A few months earlier, the most powerful man in his Muslim Brotherhood group, Khairat el-Shater, says he has access to recordings of former military rulers and electoral officials engineering his disqualification from last year’s presidential race.

In Egypt, those statements are seen by security officials, former members of the Islamist group and independent media as strong hints that the Brotherhood might be running its own intelligence-gathering network outside of government security agencies and official channels.

Here's another possible interpretation: intelligence or state security is feeding information to Morsi about the opposition, whether real or made up, with the intention of making him more paranoid and rely on them more. That's one reason why it might not be willing to show its evidence.

Comment

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, www.arabist.net.

Kagan & Dunne: Time to get tough on Egypt

This is one of those times that I wished that the Washington Post's editorial board hadn't spent the last four years making all-too-often spurious criticism of the Obama administration's foreign policy, because this quite good op-ed by Robert Kagan and Michele Dunne would have more punch. Neoconservative wonk Kagan (perched at Brookings) and Egypt expert Dunne (who has done a sterling job running the Atlantic Council's Egypt Source) have good credentials to speak about this, they have been engaged in the democracy debate for years and Kagan is probably the only neocon whose intellectual credentials are respectable (and isn't mostly motivated on this issue by the question of Israel's interests). They call on Obama 2.0 to get tough on Egypt right now.
Read More

Ted Swedenburg on Egypt's post-revolution music scene

Egypt's Music of Protest | Middle East Research and Information Project

Great article on music and revolution in Egypt, by Ted Swedenburg who runs the great Hawgblawg. Here's the bit of my favorite style, mahragan, of DJ Amr Haha, Ortega and Figo fame:

If one were seeking an Egyptian parallel to rap music, then one’s attention should be drawn to the genre known as mahragan or “festival” music, which started to appear on YouTube in 2007. The music has been also called (mostly by outsiders) techno-sha‘bi or electro-sha‘bi. About one half of Cairo’s population lives in ‘ashwa’iyyat, “haphazard,” unplanned settlements that teem with the poor, working and lower middle classes. Sha‘bi music, rooted in the ‘ashwa’iyyat as well as the traditional popular quarters of Cairo, has long been derided as unsophisticated at best by Egypt’s educated elites. But many educated Egyptians listen to and appreciate sha‘bi music, if apologetically, and so several sha‘bi artists have crossed over to mainstream culture, to wit, Sha‘ban ‘Abd al-Rahim, Hakim and Ahmad ‘Adawiyya.

Mahragan is at once deeply rooted in sha‘bi practices and something quite new. The rhythms that drive mahragan are for the most part resolutely sha‘bi, but are often produced electronically. Over the sha‘bi beats that urge onlookers to shake their belly-dancing hips, singers chant or sing and occasionally rap, their voices most often distorted by synthesized autotuning. A DJ on computer and mixer, and on occasion, electronic keyboard, provides a heavily electronic musical soundtrack. Mahragan artists began to make names for themselves by playing at weddings in popular quarters, where they were appreciated not only because of the novelty of their music but also because it was cheaper to hire a singer and a DJ (and perhaps an additional percussionist) than to book the traditional troupe of musicians and dancers. Mahragan artists spread their reputations beyond their neighborhoods by circulating their home recordings via YouTube. They also began to organize on their own parties in their urban working-class neighborhoods. The name mahragan (festival) seems to refer to the carnivalesque atmosphere of the electro-sha‘bi parties and weddings, which resembles that of mulids, Egypt’s famous saint festivals, which typically are celebrated in popular quarters and are patronized by millions.

If the artists who performed at Tahrir in early 2011, and who continue to play there in ongoing protests since the uprising, mostly manifest veneration of the country’s national revolutionary repertoire, the usual attitude of mahragan artists to that tradition is one of irreverence, humor and even sarcasm. This sensibility is on full display in the mahragan song “The People Want Five Pounds’ Phone Credit” (Al-Sha‘b Yurid Khamsa Ginay Rasid) by DJ ‘Amr Haha (or 7a7a), from ‘Ayn Shams, and DJ Figo, from al-Salam City. The song opens to the slow strains of Egypt’s national anthem, “Biladi, Biladi,” penned by Sayyid Darwish, played on an electronic keyboard. The anthem quickly begins to grind down and then is abruptly halted with an electronic crash, as the beats of sha‘bi darbouka take over, and a vocalist (probably Figo) chants,

The people want something new [to think about]
The people want five pounds’ phone credit
The people want to topple the regime
But the people are so damn tired.

“The People Want Five Pounds’ Phone Credit” both invokes the famous slogan of the Arab revolts, and at the same time, the people’s (and especially the people of the sha‘bi quarters) exhaustion with it.

Here's a link to the song.

Comment

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, www.arabist.net.

Morsi, more Yeltsin than Putin?

✚ The Terrible Twos - By James Traub | Foreign Policy:

Egypt's revolutionaries have begun to think of President Mohammed Morsy as their Putin, consolidating power and crushing dissent. But it's much more likely, as Sestanovich observes, that Morsy will prove to be Egypt's Yeltsin, presiding fecklessly over weak institutions and an increasingly fragmented polity. Yeltsin's Russia resisted demands for market reform from the United States and the International Monetary Fund (IMF); Morsy's government has spent months putting off an agreement with the IMF even as foreign exchange reserves dwindle down to a three-month supply. Morsy has been unable or unwilling to curb the hated security forces directed by the Interior Ministry, deepening the outrage at his high-handed political tactics. We should remember that Yeltsin was first seen as a bully, and only later as a weakling. Morsy's own position is hardly secure; he may react to his growing unpopularity by becoming more autocratic, which will in turn provoke more protest.

Some interesting thoughts on comparing the post-Arab uprisings situation to the former republics of the USSR. Limited relevance, but some more things to worry about...

1 Comment

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, www.arabist.net.

In Cairo

I've written something on the London Review of Books blog about the last few weeks -- and the dispirited, unsettled mood -- in Cairo. 

I start by describing a little unwanted detour I had to take recently. 

The street lamps on the Kasr El Nil bridge are out. The Semiramis hotel is battered and shuttered: during the latest round of clashes the hotel was looted by a well-armed mob that showed up one night at 2 a.m. The staff called the army and the police, in vain. As our taxi turns the corner by the Semiramis – on the edge of Tahrir Square, a few minutes from the American Embassy – there’s a crowd of young men in the street in front of us. A boy with a keffiyeh wrapped around his mouth winds up his arm and lets loose, aiming squarely at our windscreen – but his hand is empty, he’s just joking. Another boy waves us through. The first boy comes running over and, hanging on the open window, yells at the driver. I’m too flustered to catch what he says, but it’s clear we won’t be let through. We head back to the bridge, back across the Nile, up the other side and home by a different bridge.

And go on to discuss how masked teenagers closing down major thoroughfares for kicks is the mildest form of the trouble we're in. 

Not even the MB really thinks the new constitution that great

One of the controversies about Egypt's new constitution is the way it has an ambiguous reference to al-Azhar having an advisory role as part of the expanded role of religion in state affairs. In January, we had the spectacle of the FJP's much-ballyhooed new Islamic finance law being twice rejected by al-Azhar, to the dismay of the Brothers, because it allows for (Islamically-correct) financial instruments to be used to raise investment in public infrastructure projects. Al-Azhar did not like the idea of foreigners owning such public infrastructure, and thus rejected the draft law — what seems like a secular rather than religious objection, although perhaps they had a religious reasoning too.

This was a great illustration of my fundamental problem with the constitution — the lack of forethought that went into it, and the unintended consequences of it. I think it's just the beginning, as this example unearthed by Nour the intern shows. She writes in first about the ongoing debate about the police (the Brothers' new best friends) but the second item speaks to my point:

Fast forward to minute 4, where Al-Qahira Al-Youm reporter, Mohamed Saad Eldeen, explains the Shura Council's session where MOI representative specifically stated that it is the police's job to "protect the legitimacy of the President" and they intend to do so. An outraged Wafd party member objected to their shamelessly political stance arguing that it's the exact same, wrong, stance they took for Mubarak. Instead of the MOI representatives defending themselves, Freedom and Justice party members did it for them, saying that it's the MOI's job to protect the regime and that the police should be using more force with the protesters. Eldeen added that the Minister of Interior didn't attend the session and sent a deputy instead, like every other minister who has been asked to attend for the past two weeks. The council later moved on to the European agreement with Egypt in the works. The agreement is worth €60 million, and includes loans and interest, which irked Salafi members who demanded the agreement be referred to Al-Azhar first, before they formally reject it. That's when Essam el-Erian intervened to stress the government's need for the money and that, with all due respect to Al-Azhar, "this is a legislative council." At that point, Salafi Nour party members reminded him of the continued existence of the constitution.

So many sessions are going to sounds like this one — one of the many factors that will add to the politicization of al-Azhar, because it has the potential to become a veto power (especially over Islamists, who can't very well just ignore the advisory opinions of the country's leading Islamic scholars the way secularists might) and that, therefore, controlling al-Azhar will become part of getting your ducks in a row when you want to pass legislation.

This is why I think the recent controversy over the election of the new Mufti is just the beginning of a long fight, as do Nathan Brown and Hisham Hellyer

1 Comment

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, www.arabist.net.

"Burning the furniture"

Egyptian spring could be European storm - FT.com

Interesting tidbit about the recent OCI transaction here — and a good and alarming piece overall:

Foreign currency is increasingly difficult to come by in Egypt, even if you are rich by local standards. A number of the companies represented in the Cairo share index have substantial, viable, foreign operations, which the equities allow you to buy for Egyptian pounds. What is supposed by capital markets theory to be a measure of investor sentiment about the future has become a measure of half-concealed capital flight.

It could be argued that an interesting recent example of this is the Orascom Construction Industries share exchange offer. This was talked about in some quarters as “Bill Gates invests in Egypt”. Well, no. Orascom is one of the few internationally competitive Egyptian groups; I have used the group’s mobile phone providers in the Middle East. The ongoing exchange offer essentially allows an Amsterdam-based holding company to buy the Cairo-based construction company in return for a net payment of something more than $1bn to the forex department of the Egyptian central bank. Bill Gates’s family group is among the investors in the Amsterdam holdco. This would allow the central bank to make up for a few weeks’ drain of forex reserves at the current rate of loss.

So a resounding vote of confidence in Egypt’s future may actually be a case of burning the furniture. On the other hand, buying three weeks to a month may seem worth it if it’s your food ration that is being financed.

Comment

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, www.arabist.net.