Podcast: Back to Tahrir

After the last two days' exceptional events in Tahrir Square, Egypt seems to teeter on the brink of another revolution or political chaos. We discuss the recent violence and the scenarios the country faces: more violence and authoritarianism from SCAF, or a new political direction for the transition. Or will Egypt judt muddle through again — if it can?

Podcast #18

Some reflections on today's events in Tahrir

It didn’t have to be this way. On Friday, a large peaceful protest was held against the military’s attempt to impose itself into Egypt’s future constitution. The generals had tried to ensure that the military budget would be above parliamentary scrutiny and other measures. The funny thing is that it was tacitly understood for a while now that the military would remain powerful in the background. But they had to put the issue on the table, and therefore make it a public contestation point.

Most participants in Friday’s protests left that same evening, and a few stayed overnight. By the next day only a few dozen protestors who wanted to reoccupy Tahrir remained. The police was sent to clear them, using excessive violence and firing rubber bullets into the heads of protestors, killing at least two and blinding several in one eye. The protests escalated as a result, and after an attempt to take back the square in the early morning, there were many more protestors this morning (Sunday) than the previous one. The attempt to dislodge them during the day, culminating in a combined army-police assault at around 5pm — apparently to clear the tents that had appeared in the square’s central island — will probably only draw more people. Once again, the SCAF’s and interior ministry’s decisions have probably landed them in more trouble.

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Qatar, the GCC, and the Arab Uprisings

The Arab League’s deadline for Syria to stop the “bloody repression” has passed, paving the way for stronger action after the League’s surprisingly hardline stance towards the Assad regime. Jenifer Fenton looks at what is motivating the GCC states, most notably the one taking the lead in the new regional diplomacy, Qatar. 

Qatar, with its progressive foreign policy, is publicly driving the Gulf’s response to Syria and carving out a role for itself as a country that can quickly adapt to the sweeping changes resulting from the Arab spring, but the regional weight it carries and its motives are more nuanced. 

The six countries that make up the Gulf Cooperation Council  - Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and the United Arab Emirates - and the majority of Arab League member states agreed that there was a limit to the violence unleashed by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad it could tolerate.  The United Nations puts the death toll since the unrest began at well over 3,500 people. Last week, the Arab League decided to suspend Syria’s participation and to impose political and economic sanctions against the Syrian government.  

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Meanwhile in Syria

We live in Egypt, and so focus there, but obviously this weekend major protests took place in Syria. It looks like it will get worse there before it gets better, though, if Anthony Shadid's latest report is accurate:

As it descends into sectarian hatred, Homs has emerged as a chilling window on what civil war in Syria could look like, just as some of Syria’s closest allies say the country appears to be heading in that direction. A spokesman for the Syrian opposition last week called the killings and kidnappings on both sides “a perilous threat to the revolution.” An American official called the strife in Homs “reminiscent of the former Yugoslavia,” where the very term “ethnic cleansing” originated in the 1990s.

“Over the past couple of weeks, we’ve seen sectarian attacks on the rise, and really ugly sectarian attacks,” the Obama administration official said in Washington. The longer President Bashar al-Assad “stays in power, what you see in Homs, you’ll see across Syria.”

Video: Impressions from Tahrir, the morning after

I have been sick for the last few days and stayed at home yesterday as Tahrir Square, among other places, descended into violence. I headed out this morning to survey the damage — arriving from Qasr al-Aini, getting tear-gassed on Mohammed Mahmoud St, then circling around behind the police line from Bab al-Luk to take a look at the damage on the opposite side of Mohammed Mahmoud, near the American University in Cairo. Finally I headed back to Tahrir Square to listen to some of the chants and the hypnotic banging on railings protestors tap, just like last January. Sorry for the shaky camera, the idea is just to give readers an idea of what things are like today.

خريطة الأحزاب السياسية المصرية

Download this Arabic version of the map we previously published in English by clicking the link below. Who knows whether the elections will happen now but since we have it, we're putting it out there. The document was translated by Eng. Ayman Makhlouf, who can be reached at aymanmac [AT] aol.com.

خريطة الأحزاب السياسية المصرية

In Translation: Ziad Bahaa-Eldin on the "legal chaos" of the elections

In the last few weeks, we at The Arabist have been sharing our dismay over the slap-dash preparation of the Egyptian parliamentary elections, and our fears that they are so poorly and confusingly organized as to seriously undermine the democratic process. After the violence in Tahrir in the last 24 hours, we're not even sure if they will happen. If they do go ahead, they will take place among great logistical, security and legal shortcomings and confusion. 

For this week's translation -- courtesy our friends at Industry Arabic, as usual -- we have selected a column by legal expert, economic and political analyst and parliamentary candidate Ziad Bahaa-Eldin that appeared in the November 15 issue of the privately owned El Shorouk newspaper that clearly sets out some of the problems: 

How Will the Elections Be Held Amid This Legal Chaos?

My enthusiasm for the elections and for holding them on time has not yet died, due to my firm belief that they are the only means to emerge from this transitional period we are going through. Otherwise, the alternative is for the current chaos to continue and for people to become reluctant to continue the transition to democracy. Although there is a security vacuum, unstable economic situation and a serious disruption in basic materials and supplies, the only way to get out of this bind and achieve even incremental progress is to persevere and hold elections as scheduled.

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Revolution 2.0?

After the police violently  cleared 100 or so demonstrators (including a group of the relatives of revolutionary martyrs and injured) from Tahrir Square today, thousands more poured into the square and began clashing with the security forces, burning one police truck and trying to reach the Ministry of Interior. The Ministry of Interior denies using any bullets, pellets or bird shot, but witnesses have widely documented their use. Hundreds are injured, and one dead confirmed so far. Tens of thousands have streamed into Downtown Cairo and are demonstrating in Alexandria, Suez and Mansoura. The fighting goes on, and people are saying that it feels like January 28 all over again. 

These clashes feel almost unavoidable, given the military council's terrible performance, the increasing vocal criticism it is facing, the rising tensions of all kinds surrounding the upcoming (poorly planned, utterly confusing) elections -- given the terribly unclear transition process that has been put in place, and the fact that none of the revolution's demands, including the reform of the security forces and real transitional justice, have been met. 

Islamist leaders -- the Salafist sheikh Hazem Salah Abu Ismail and the Islamist presidential candidate Mohammed Selim El Awwa -- have gone to Tahrir. Mohammed El Baradei is once again calling for the creation of a "national salvation" government. 

This is a huge escalation, and it's not clear whether it may lead to something good (an accelerated transition to civilian government, and a better articulated plan for that transition built on a real consensus between all political forces) or to something even worse (a further army crack-down, the cancellation of elections without proposing an alternative). 

On TV tonight, there was plenty of criticism for SCAF, the government and the police and of lamenting of the fact that there is no governing body with legitimacy in the country today. But of course there were also the usual conspiracy theories and condenmations of "chaos." 

A chant in the square used to be "The People and the Army are One Hand." Today people chanted (with their usual wit) "The People and the People are One Hand." 

Finally, an Egyptian transition plan that makes sense

This idea has been around for a while, but finally some influential people are proposing something concrete:

A number of political forces and intellectuals have prepared a lengthy memorandum that includes a drastically reformed plan for the remainder of Egypt's transitional period.

Al-Masry Al-Youm has obtained a copy of the document, which the drafters said they will submit to the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) within days.

The memorandum suggests postponing parliamentary elections, and in their place forming a "national rescue cabinet," having Egyptians elect a constituent assembly to draft the new constitution, holding presidential elections and fully transferring power to a civilian government. After all this, the memorandum reads, parliamentary elections should be held in accordance with the laws set out in the new constitution.

Among those involved in drafting the memorandum were former President of the Democratic Front Party Osama al-Ghazaly Harb, presidential hopeful Mohamed ElBaradei, Coordinator of the National Association for Change Abdel Galil Mostafa, writer Alaa al-Aswany and journalist Sakina Fouad.

The planning of the current elections are an embarassment to Egypt, and they should be postponed to allow for better preparation (think that by some calculations if the participation is the same as the referendum voters will only get 1 minute each to cast their ballot). The only reason to hold parliamentary elections now is to cut short the part of the transition period that is directed by SCAF. This plan presents a reasonable compromise.

Such an initiative should have been put on the table a long time ago, and it will now be difficult to stop the campaigning that has started. I don't think it has much chance of succeeding, but the basic recipe — civilian control now, SCAF restricted to national security, and a constitution first so you can set up a proper system (and for instance get rid of the pointless Shura Council). The key will be convincing political forces, notably Islamist, that have banked on elections now to move the transition process as fast as possible.

Tahrir and the Islamist-secularist-SCAF triangle

Up front, signs calling for the fall of military government, in the back, a large poster calling for freedom for Alaa Abdel Fattah

I have a rather nasty flu at the moment, but I braved the elements and headed to Tahrir this afternoon not quite sure what to expect. It remains unclear where the dispute over the super-constitutional principles — the main cause of the protest — is at right now.

For a week, after the SCAF (via Deputy Prime Minister Ali al-Selmi) tried to impose exceptional measures for the military, rules for the formation of the constituent assembly and make the principles legally binding, there seemed to clear opposition from the Muslim Brothers, Salafists (who had never even participated in talks) and part of the liberal/progressive parties and revolutionary movements. Talks were ongoing until late last night to secure some kind of compromise — either on the content, or on the principles being binding, or both — but to no avail.

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Cairo 2050, Desert Fantasia

Freddy Deknatel reviews David Sims' Understanding Cairo in the LARB:
This past August in Heliopolis, the Cairo suburb built over desert by a Belgian industrialist in 1905, I sat in an architect’s office, a place called Cube Architectural Consultants, and heard a glowing, impromptu presentation on “Cairo 2050.” Cairo 2050 is a series of outlandish master plans and megaprojects for Egypt’s capital that the regime of Hosni Mubarak began promoting in 2008, with the help of the United Nations and the Japanese government. Its future, an earnest architect informed me gently, was “uncertain in the new Egypt.”

Imagine Dubai in the Nile Valley, if instead of building it on empty sand, futurist skyscrapers and business parks rose over what are now the packed, informal neighborhoods that today house the majority of Cairo’s estimated 17 million people. This authoritarian, outsized development “vision” would involve relocating millions to the furthest edges of the desert — areas banally termed “new housing extensions” — to make way for “10 star” hotels, huge parks, “residential touristic compounds,” and landing-strip-sized boulevards lined with a monotony of towers. It’s unlikely to happen in an Egypt after Mubarak — if it was ever possible at all, given budgets and popular resistance. Still, Cairo 2050 offers a glimpse at the Egyptian government’s approach to urban planning and policy. As David Sims, an economist and consultant who has worked in Cairo since 1974, writes in Understanding Cairo: The Logic of a City Out of Control, the Cairo 2050 project represents “a continued penchant for the manufacture of unrealistic dreams” on the part of “government planners and their consultants.”
Great review of a great book.

On sexuality and social radicalism in Egypt

Amidst all the worry about fundamentalists and military fascists and felool and insecurity in Egypt, the last few days have seen a decidely odd and unexpected phenomenon. First a young woman by the name of Alia Magda al Mahdi, who appears to be dating the formerly imprisoned blogger and radical atheist Kareem Amer, published a nude picture (full-frontal!) of herself on her blog as a an act of defiance (see more about it here). Then we hear about a Facegroup group calling for a "gay day" in Egypt. Not as in happy, but as in LGBTQ. 

Seeing things like this is a little bit of a shell-shock, because people are obsessed with the political process and Egypt's flawed transition all this stuff almost seems silly and juvenile in comparison. I love it all the more for it, although I also worry about Alia's safety and society's response. Egypt, to be blunt about it, is a deeply bigoted and narrow-minded place. Some people may even be angry with her for associating secular/liberal values with what many will simply see as debauchery.

I don't want to get into a discussion about cultural sensitivity and all that, but simply note and applaud the sheer brazenness of acts like this: they are so radical in this society they appear as if they are from another dimension. Societies need that kind of jolt every now and then, and it reminds me how the youth bulge in the demographics of Egypt and many Arab countries will inevitably shatter taboos, as the Baby Boomers did in Europe and the US. We should just remember that protestors of May 68 in Paris, as influential as they were, were dwarfed by the demonstrations of support for De Gaulle, and that the generation that gave us hippies in America gave us many more born-again Christians. 

The tragedy of YBG

Youssef Boutros-Ghali — better known as YBG — was Egypt's last finance minister under Mubarak, and probably one of the most disliked men in the country: he was constantly attacked by much of the media as the man who handled the state's pursestrings, and hated by the left (and the Mubarak regime's old guard) for his neo-liberal economic views. I met him several times in the last decade, and to me he was chiefly the overworked, fiercely intelligent, charismatic if arrogant, man who for some 30 years (in various capacities) spearheaded a single-minded project for economic reform in Egypt.

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Handy chart on Egypt's electoral process

By OREED (click for larger pic)The Daily News Egypt featured this chart, by OREED, in an article explaning the basic mechanisms of the elections. Get it in PDF here.

Major update to Egypt political parties map

Jacopo Carbonari has updated his map to include only essential parties that are on the full list of candidates made available by the Higher Electoral Committee. The full document now also includes which governorates the various parties are fielding candidate. You can get the 1.5MB PDF on the link below, or go here for an Arabic version.

Map and list of Egyptian political parties 2011-11-17

Podcast #17: Doom and Gloom

Ashraf, Ursula and I talk about the Arab League's surprisingly tough line on Syria — what what regional games may lie behind it — and then despair about how badly prepared Egypt's elections are, looking at all the things that might go wrong. And we remind you to send in your questions and suggestions at podcast [AT] arabist.net, and donate or advertise to keep this site and the podcast going!

Links for this week's episode:



The Arabist Podcast #17

Links November 11-14 2011

  • Challenges of Egypt's Economic Transition - Carnegie Endowment
    New report.
  • But who will save Maikel Nabil next time? - Ahram Online
    Great reporting on who took Nabil out of psychiatric hospital.
  • 24-Hour Dubai Timelapse Is So Beautiful It Seems Unreal
    RT @_BROWNBOOK: A gorgeous 24-hour timelapse of Downtown Dubai and the Burj Khalifa:
  • TRANSLATION: Alaa Abdelfattah’s latest blog post from Tora Prison « sarrahsworld
    RT @Monasosh: En Translation of Alaa's latest post: But the birth of Khaled, my first son, how can I miss it? #Fre ...
  • Why did Arab League move on Syria? - CNN.com
    Good post by CNN's Ben Wedeman.
  • Read More