The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

The police and the people: one hand, for now
LUXOR, EGYPT - JULY 19, 2010: Egyptian police road check point, On July 19, 2010 Luxor, Egypt. Source: Shutterstock.

LUXOR, EGYPT - JULY 19, 2010: Egyptian police road check point, On July 19, 2010 Luxor, Egypt. Source: Shutterstock.

One of the main reasons many Egyptians are nostalgic about the Hosni Mubarak era is the absence of security. Or rather the false sense of it.

"The Interior Ministry never provided general security, just political security (i.e. crushing dissent and bullying the Muslim Brothers)," says a former member of Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party, who spoke on condition of anonymity and confessed to never quite understanding what gave the public the wrong impression. It was this sense of security that was overturned by the events following January 25, driven, the former NDP official sniffed, by “emboldened thugs” and the collective realization that one can drive in any direction one pleases on almost every road after the 2011 uprising.

Now, three years after the January 25 outburst of public fury they partly caused – which consumed much of their dignity, stations and vehicles, breached their prisons and relieved them of  their weapons – Egypt’s Interior Ministry is still struggling to get back on its own two feet and restore some of that longed-for political security with excessive force and arbitrary arrests, as always disregarding the risk of galvanizing more opposition. A practice justified by pointing at the recent bomb attacks on police installations.

There is, however, something new about the general attitude towards security forces. After all, they went from having to withdraw from the streets after failing to quell protests against Mubarak in 2011 to receiving shoulder rides and kisses for handing out water to anti-Morsi protesters rather than spraying them with it in 2013. The change in police activity and popularity here – as videos and reports of continued police abuses suggest – is not the fruit of quick and radical police reforms, but rather the result of the popular reconciliation with them and the military in the wake of their overthrow of the unpopular but elected president Mohamed Morsi. This would not have been possible if it weren’t for the incredibly effective “[image] polishing [media] campaign,” according to a grateful police general, who also asked to remain anonymous because he is not authorized to speak to the press.

It was hard trying not to stare at the 15 bullet holes in the wall behind the general’s head, while he was talking about how life has improved for police officers after June 30.

He caught me looking and laughed.

“These things [he looked over his shoulder to wave off the plaster-oozing evidence of attacks on the police station] happen in the best of countries,” he said. What matters is that policemen can, once again, sport their white uniforms everywhere without fear of verbal or physical abuse and they can arrest people without need for reinforcements to overcome the families and neighbors of the arrested, who used to body-block their vans to help a loved one or an acquaintance in cuffs. This is progress, he announced contentedly.

Much of that progress, the general, who is also head of a major explosives department noted happily, is thanks the media’s reframing of the police’s mission as a war on terrorism rather than a war on activism and opposition to the deep-state. This coverage of the shadowy war has substantially increased public sympathy for security forces in the past few months. Having decided from the very beginning that the terrorist attacks were too many to count or investigate, most journalists and TV presenters chose to simply blame the Brothers, even though Ansar Beit al-Maqdis claimed responsibility for them. These anti-MB media rants are always more zealous after attacks like the one on the Mansoura Security Directorate . In fact, had the constitution not been passed yet, they would have probably turned the attack into another Vote Yes To Disappoint Terrorists commercial, complete with blood dripping from the MB’s four-finger Rabaa sign for symbolism.

When asked to comment further on the media’s enthusiasm for this topic, the general  awkwardly admitted that they do exaggerate slightly, but they have good intentions. “It is not to spread panic in society, but respect (for policemen),” he added paternally.

While the uptick in attacks in Sinai seems more plausible given the region’s lawlessness, and drug, weapons and human trafficking trade, the reports coming out of the rest of the country are unreasonably exaggerated -- so much so that most of the police officers I have spoken to laughed when they heard the numbers and one asked if it included the tumultuous First Intermediate period of Ancient Egypt.

The few numbers reported in national and independent newspapers so far are 300 attacks in Sinai alone and a total of 1072 incidents of political violence, according to Democracy Index’s November report (that is, in four months here, more than double the total number of attacks in Iraq in the two years following the US invasion).

It is important to note that Democracy Index also supported the fantastical tales of 30 million protesters marching against Morsi in July and that newspapers used its figures to figuratively pat the state's shoulder, despite the fact that the report says that less than one-tenth of these attacks targeted state institutions.

FROM POLICE VS PEOPLE TO ‘RESIDENTS’ VS PEOPLE

According to the report, 190 of these acts of “political violence and terrorism” are clashes between protesters and security forces – 101 of which are clashes with plain clothed men dubbed “residents,” which, according to another former NDP MP, is code for baltageya (hired thugs) – which the MOI now uses to disperse protests to save the police force the effort and the damaging footage bound to emerge. Also, because there is the added advantage that no one seems to have qualms about a group of presumed civilians shooting one another, so long as the ones left bleeding are bearded. Sixty-two incidents are classified as protest that were dispersed by said residents; 16 attacks by Brothers on property, journalists and regular citizens; four attacks by citizens on MB property; 64 student clashes in universities and 32 clashes between students, security forces and the so-called residents. This leaves 610 incidents completely unaccounted for.

The real number of terrorist attacks, the head of the explosives department said casually, is around 100. Most probably. They, too, are not really keeping track. “(The count) is relative,” he said, airily.

That one-hundred-something, he added, includes all failed and successful attacks on police officers, soldiers, stations, checkpoints and churches, etc, that happened from July 3 to December nationwide. Yet Giza’s police department, for example, used to get an average of ten to twenty car bomb reports a week and about 200 reports of suspicious objects per month from mid-August to November.

“There is like a one in fifty chance the report is legitimate and it’s an explosive device...But just imagine that: an actual explosive device that can explode and kill people,” he said, as if shocked by the mere prospect of something blowing up in the middle of an allegedly merciless war.

Although driving for two hours with an explosives detection team for nothing is a pain, the general admitted, the police has and will continue to kindly refrain from legally pursuing citizens who make false reports, provided they are related to terrorism, to maintain the newly built bridges with the public. There is no point in arresting a housewife or shopkeeper wary of a dusty car parked in front of their property, when you can have a dog sniff it and save the day. This combined with the fact that the police seem to have taken the advice of national radio talk shows and now do ask nicely for one’s driver’s license in checkpoints has more than redeemed their image in the eyes of many, namely taxi drivers.

Meanwhile in Sinai, little to no news comes out, except for the rare Western report, and the army's daily self-congratulatory "(Insert any number) dangerous takfiri(s) down" reports and obituaries. This intense focus on defused terror threats stands in stark contrast to the reluctance to or disinterest in discussing the casualties and exact details of the “war on terrorism.” However, oddly enough, many are not denying the reported loss of civilian life and property due to the  military’s campaign in Sinai in comparison to the disturbingly sincere denial of the violence the Raba’a el-Adawiya sit-in’s dispersal, which the majority of the police officers I spoke to exhibit. To them, only 43 people died on August 14. And they were all officers, regardless of what the official health ministry’s 627-dead report says.

There are two main approaches to justify the casualties of the military’s campaign in Sinai. The first argues that the Egyptian army is doing what the US army did to Afghanistan in the American war on terror: Following an understandably violent, but ineffective strategy. Supporters of this approach blame the Sinai mess on the hobbling of Egypt’s hated State Security, which they say means there is little intelligence for the military to use to narrow down their targets, and so it has to go in blind. In order to improve the situation in Sinai, the minister, they suggest, should man up and empower National Security – which former interior minister Mansour el-Essawy created to replace State Security – so it can do what its predecessor has always done well: oppress the bearded. The second approach says to shush.

“The army is doing a good job and this is good practice,” proclaimed one of the interior minister’s aides. “They haven’t fought since 1973, this is very good,” he added, with a thumbs up.

Another gain from the June 30 protests and its subsequent polishing campaign, according to a Giza police colonel, was the end of  the “broken record” of complaints about police abuses of human rights, which briefly fooled people into thinking the police needed reform. “All that 'police are the tool of oppression' talk really got old,” he muttered.

The colonel’s reading of a leading cause of the 2011 uprising is unsurprisingly common inside the ministry. So is his ill-concealed contempt for the society that gave the Muslim Brotherhood a chance to rule, having failed or not even bothered to grasp the wisdom behind the ministry’s long history of persecuting it.

 

CAIRO - SEP 05: Remains of a big local store at Mostafa Nahas st and neighbors cars after explosion that was targeting the convoy of the Egypt's Interior Minister in Cairo, Egypt on September 05, 2013. Source: Shutterstock.

CAIRO - SEP 05: Remains of a big local store at Mostafa Nahas st and neighbors cars after explosion that was targeting the convoy of the Egypt's Interior Minister in Cairo, Egypt on September 05, 2013. Source: Shutterstock.

GRUDGINGLY BACK TO SCHOOL

In addition to pushing the subject of radical police reforms (a revolutionary demand) to the bottom of the list of things that can be discussed when (and if) the war ends, the media have also helped shove the fed-up security forces back to direct confrontation with protesters, namely student protesters. Ever since college campuses nationwide have become the center of MB protests, a debate within and outside the ministry has raged over whether or not the police should ignore another revolutionary demand (that they stay off campuses). The debate further exemplifies the police’s disdain for the civilian inability to appreciate their heavy-handedness.

“If Cairo University bursts in flames right now, I will not budge,” vowed the red-faced colonel, who still remembers the days when faculty members filed a lawsuit for the removal of security forces from campuses for freedoms and other nonsense, he said mimicking their voice childishly.

“The MOI is not (their) handmaiden, or anybody else’s for your information,” the colonel snapped, wagging a finger. “(Universities) kicked us out when we took care of things, so don’t come running back now. We don’t from and go as you please.” Which is why the police now require a phone call by the head of a university requesting their services before they make an appearance at or near the gates, where they obligingly position their weapons between the bars to shoot bullets and tear gas canisters at the protesting, rock-throwing students. Although they often wander further in and kill or seriously wound someone.

A NEW FRIENDSHIP

To many officers, the most significant change since 2011 in the ministry – besides the long-awaited pay raise, which was presumably granted to bring back absent officers who didn’t want to face angry Egyptians for less than 2,000 pounds a month – has more to do with the army and how the MB helped them get over their old rivalry with the Interior.

“There is used to be coldness between us,” said a young detective lieutenant. “We thought we were better than them and they thought they were better than us. But after Morsi, we started talking... And we worked on the street shoulder to shoulder, protected each other and broke bread together. We are one now,” he added, earnestly. This seems to corroborate a Reuters’ report about how mid-ranking police officers actively sought out and met their military colleagues to win them over and explain why their arch-enemy, the MB, should be a common enemy.

Some of the friction between the two is believed to have been born from police resentment of the additional financial and social privileges their army colleagues received, which should have been reduced by the pay raise, according to another ex-NDP MP.

However, some things don’t change – like the officers' respect for Mubarak's infamous former interior minister, Habib el-Adly, which they justify with tough-dad analogies and by citing his sagaciously heavy hand with Islamists and the creation of fancy sports clubs and hospitals for the force in his time. That deference to el-Adly has been passed down to the recently-graduated generation of officers, who never even worked under him and believe the rumor that the ministry’s budget allocated 6,000 pounds a month for their lowest-ranking officers (the lieutenants), when they were in fact only getting a meager 750 pounds. “[El-Adly] even used to tell officers who complained about their salaries that it was just their ‘pocket money'… you take your actual salary from the citizen,’” said the ex-NDP MP, chuckling at al-Adly’s (and her own) candour.

But despite the pay raise and the promise of more to come, lower level officers are unlikely to attain much social or personal gain in the coming years. A first lieutenant's salary is still, and will probably continue to be, not enough to afford him a life where he can sit in cafes often, shop or marry comfortably without the help of his father. “I have been working for three years now and I still have to take money from my parents,” a young detective said, laughing sheepishly. "Better than taking it from the citizen, right?"

The detective went on to say that if we ignore the fact that the force is underpaid, overworked, under-appreciated and under-equipped, it is one of the best in the world for it “has nothing, but does everything,” according to the impressed, and overtly envious, Western envoys his superiors told him about. “They [the Western envoys] always ask them: ‘How do you do this?’” he said with satisfaction.

Also happy with June 30 are the  feloul (remnants of the Mubarak regime) who are suddenly also proud of their label, the ex-NDP MP said.“You know, when I walk into a conference or meeting, the first thing I say is I am feloul. We all do. The best minister in the cabinet now is feloul,” she said, patting her ironed-stiff black hair before adding that there was and still is nothing wrong with supporting Mubarak’s dictatorship or the “inheritance project” [i.e the plan to pass down the presidency to his son, Gamal] since at least, she argued with a sneer, it would have yielded civilian rule – “the unlikeliest form of governance in Egypt now.”

Links 27 January - 17 February 2014
From the comic strip Luna of Cairo - see link below. 

From the comic strip Luna of Cairo - see link below. 

LinksThe Editors
In Translation: Why don't activists have armed forces?

Last month, as the hit documentary film The Square hit silver screens, there were several reviews that used its heart-wrenching footage of Egypt’s revolutionaries to address the failings of the mostly young protest movement. Some American commentators like Eric Trager (in the New Republic) and Max Fischer in the Washington Post argued that the protestors were “incoherent”, that they “practically never leave Tahrir Square”, naively “too principled for politics”, that they “so alienated their fellow Egyptians as to actually engender sympathy for security forces” to take The Square’s director, Jehane Noujaim, to task for “never really addressing the many errors of the liberal protest movement.” Similar sentiment was echoed elsewhere, most recently (and prominently) by the influential New York Times foreign affairs columnist Roger Cohen, who wrote in a piece generally despairing of the state of Egypt,

There is plenty of blame to go around — for Obama, for the hapless Morsi, for the paranoid power-grabbing Muslim Brotherhood, for the controlling military. But above all I blame the squabbling Egyptian liberals who fought for Mubarak’s ouster but did not give democracy a chance.

In our view, these observers of the situation in Egypt compound mistake after mistake, in both their analysis and their taxonomy. Reducing the protest movement of 2011 to an ineffectual, middle class, left-wing group people detached from more profound realities of a poor country is not just unfair, it is simply inaccurate. Like so many observers of the “Arab Spring”, they confuse the media depiction of the protestors with their complex, at times surprising, reality. They also repeatedly make the mistake of labeling those people were neither members of Mubaraks’ regime nor Islamists as “liberals”, rendering the word meaningless in a country where that group actually includes many illiberal leftists, nationalists, progressives, and, yes, conservatives. But much more fundamentally, their decision to appropriate blame at the weakest component of Egypt’s polity (rather than the two strongest actors on the scene, the Muslim Brotherhood and the military and its backers in the business elite) appears not just misguided, but grotesque. This is not to say that these “liberals” did not make mistakes – no one has escaped unscathed from Egypt’s tragedy. But these are arguments are so specious (yet so widely propagated, most often by Western liberals – a category of people that itself hasn’t exactly shone in the last decade or two) it as if these commentators come from another reality.

This why the text below, by noted Egyptian activist and writer Amr Ezzat, packs such a punch. His indignation is fully understandable (even if he is somewhat unfair towards Trager, whose article does contain some worthy insights) and it amounts to a powerful rebuttal of the simply bizarre current trend of assigning blame on a generation of Egyptians that, tentatively but bravely, dared to imagine that their country could be different.

Many thanks to Industry Arabic for translating the article below (please use their services to make it possible for them to continue providing us with content only available in Arabic!), and KK for suggesting it to us.


Why Don’t Activists Have Armed Forces?

By Amr Ezzat, al-Masri al-Youm, 6 February 2014

There are questions that everyone knows need no answer – questions like: “How much of my life before you is gone and passed, my love” or “What love did you come to talk about”[1] Linguistically, these are not interrogatory questions, and I believe that, grammatically, it is better not to put a question mark after them. These are rhetorical questions, the goal of which is to express emotions, like astonishment or condemnation. Any attempt to answer this type of question is an exercise in futility, just like trying to answer the question “Why didn’t the activists or the revolutionaries provide alternatives and political programs for governing instead of just protesting?”

This last question is one of the frequently asked questions repeated by talk show philosophers and establishment experts whenever they have extra time. Whenever it gets a little tricky to justify the current insanity, they alleviate it by repeating words that, in reality, have no meaning. Lately, however, some supposedly notable researchers have joined them. Not only have these researchers joined them in repeating this rhetorical question in different ways but also, in an impressive gesture, they have answered it.

In mentioning these researchers, I mean specifically Eric Trager, a researcher at the Washington Institute whom some find notable, and his article that comments on the documentary The Square. In this article, he volunteers ridiculous answers such as:

  • “It’s hardly surprising that the activists are so routinely and self-destructively caught by surprise: They practically never leave Tahrir Square. They don’t venture into the poorer neighborhoods of Cairo. They don’t speak with the citizens in the Nile Delta or Upper Egypt.”
  • “The activists never tried to form their own party.”
  • “The activists don’t have any clear ideology, let alone a policy platform, around which they could mobilize anyone beyond their own comrades.  They constantly intone, ‘bread, freedom, social justice and dignity’ but don’t give even a moment’s thought to what this slogan might actually mean in practice. Yet perhaps more than anything, the activists’ refusal to form a party is a consequence of how they see themselves: as simply too principled for politics.”

These ridiculous answers that are repeated in ridiculous television programs, ridiculous articles, and in ridiculous research, are entirely consistent with the ridiculous way that this question is formulated. There is a big difference between asking a rhetorical question that expresses distorted emotions towards media and cinematic images of young people demonstrating and revolting, and a serious question that seeks to get close to the problem and examine it. When one begins to seriously examine the issue, talking about “activists,” “protestors,” or “revolutionaries” as a single group becomes a kind of inability to see, which doesn’t deserve to be discussed.

The media or cinematic image taken at the moment of a mass protest or at the moment of clashes with the police forces, or clashes between different crowds, is the peak moment expressing the strength of the crowd or the conflict between the crowd and the police, or two opposing crowds. However, away from this moment of peak media interest, an interested observer – not necessarily a notable researcher – can see and follow thousands of events related to establishing parties, movements, fronts, ties, alliances, work groups, and different specialized initiatives to reform the state’s apparatus, policies and laws.

A close observer can see the faces of these “protestors,” “revolutionaries,” or “activists” when they are speaking in the name of the high committees of parties, alliances, fronts and the campaigns of presidential candidates or electoral blocs, or talking about technical details regarding the structure of the police apparatus or the amendment of laws that restrict freedoms. Such an observer could see them suggesting alternatives to reform unions, the system of local governance, religious institutions or the health, environmental, and urban systems, or even dealing with the status of the military institution and its powers. This observer could see the cultural or artistic movements that went to neighborhoods and governorates and organized cultural and artistic forums, campaigns, and events.

Of course, these organizational forms, initiatives, ideas, working groups, and events can be criticized, and one can measure the degree of their success and political effectiveness in facing the social and cultural situation, with its conservative legacies from which the traditional statist and Islamist forces benefit. It does not appear to be easy for liberal or democratic ideas and practices to challenge these legacies and win quickly.

However, such criticism is different from being stuck in front of the most attractive media images of a moment of protest, or being swept away by a film that shows a group of protestors and activists that participate in nothing but protest throughout the film. It is different from failing to notice that those who do nothing but protest always move in parallel with the activity of organized political groups that try to coordinate or express the movement of the street, like the “Revolution Youth Coalition” in 2011 or the “Salvation Front” in 2012 and 2013, or failing to notice the rally to protest under the banners of these fronts’ various parties, most of which are new parties established with the participation of a large number of the young “protestors/revolutionaries/activists.”

Of course, an interested observer – who does not have to be a researcher – could notice that, while there were protestors in the street, there were also “young people,” “protestors,” and “revolutionaries,” on the lists of the “Egyptian Bloc” and the “Revolution Continues” in the parliamentary elections. Of course, however, there was no party called the “Activist” party, nor was there an electoral alliance for the “Revolutionaries” – even if there was the “Revolution Continues Alliance” – because these people are not protestors, activists, and revolutionaries who live in Tahrir Square 24 hours a day and don’t know anything about Upper Egypt, the Delta, and the poorer neighborhoods, as Trager’s ridiculous words suggest.

Outside of the film The Square, and outside of peak moments on the screens, there are less attractive and more effective images. Everyone knows about these images but they don’t like to ask about them, because asking serious questions about their details is certainly more difficult than asking the stupid question, “Why don’t activists provide any alternative other than protesting?”

The serious researcher or the interested citizen will find that, usually, the real question revolves around the “crisis of non-Islamist forces that don’t want to become the lapdog of the military institution or of the network of old forces.” They will find complicated questions on problems and the obstacles to democratic political organizing among non-Islamist activists.

For example, we can talk about the way many rushed to organize in groups that, in reality, are not brought together by a coherent liberal, leftist, or nationalist inclination, even if this inclination is somewhat present among the leadership of these groups and in their senior cadres. However, in reality, the thing that pushed people into these organizational groups was a desire to participate in politics for the first time, a desire to experiment. Thus, these are essentially primitive forms of organization that interested citizens rushed to participate in. Some of these people are interested in “the revolution’s goals” or “democracy,” and within these groups there is discussion over details that have become difficult to agree on, and which need more time. However, there is one issue that will not wait: how to deal with the “Islamist forces,” which enjoy a strong network of support that can be immediately put to use in any electoral field.

Many of those who were interested and excited found that difficult tasks and a long road await any democratic current in a complicated social context rocked by moments of cultural, religious, and political confusion, at a time in which it enters power struggles that demand a decision now. That is to say nothing, of course, of the paranoid citizens who are not excited about revolution or democracy, and who hate revolutionary or political movement in general because, to them, these struggles appear frightening and they believe that they will end in the victory of the authoritarian Islamist currents.

Many who are now being blamed because they are “activists who didn’t provide alternatives” fought battles to provide an alternative, whether organizational or in the form of ideas or initiatives. They did so to provide alternatives to the old faces in the political world and in civil society. Most of them are people who are interested and excited, who wanted to fight the battle until the end, and still do.

But some who were interested became tired and frustrated, and joined the ranks of the paranoid haters, deciding that the decisive “force of the military” is the only power able to contain Islamist authoritarianism.

Those people, and the writers, experts, and talk show philosophers who represent their views – to say nothing of Eric Trager – express a distorted vision of contempt for the “democratic currents’” gamble, through ignorance, and the complete ignorance or denial of any effort in this direction, as though they themselves should not be participating in these efforts.

At the same time, they are celebrating the leader of the military as sole presidential candidate, when he has not said one word about politics, alternatives, and programs – unless words like “the people will wake up early and we will all share the food” are considered serious talk.

Serious talk is the fact that all of those frustrated people surrendered completely to the failure to enter the political gamble, the revolutionary gamble, and the gamble to demand freedoms and human rights. They think that serious talk has no relationship to programs or alternatives. Instead, what is serious is the force that enables them to stop the Islamists’ authoritarian plan of “empowerment,” even if that is accomplished by empowering a different authoritarianism.

Then, it seems like they will ask a more honest rhetorical question: “Why weren’t those who were working for democracy from the beginning of the revolution and before generals in the military like Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, so that they could defeat the Brotherhood by themselves, without all this effort?"

This is another stupid question, but it is honest and very real. Answering it is simple and does not take much discussion. It needs courage to recognize that we wasted our time talking about politics and democracy and we must look at the past three years and sing together for the military and the general without waiting for answers: “How much of my life before you is gone!”


  1. Well-known lyrics from Umm Kulthoum songs.  ↩

Pharaohs, Caliphs and Field Marshals

Eminent human rights activist Bahay eldine Hassan in the pages of the New York Times: 

Egypt has never ceased being a police state. Hazem el-Beblawi, the interim prime minister, says it “is run by the security bodies,” which control the presidency, cabinet, media and judiciary. Interrogations and court sessions take place in prisons, security directorates or police compounds. Eyewitnesses are no longer required to identify defendants. Warrants are issued by prosecutors after arrests. Brotherhood members are arrested based on their ranks in the organization rather than their involvement in crimes. When detainees ask to see a warrant, they may be hit over the head with the butt of a gun, as in the case of a leftist blogger, Alaa Abd El Fattah, and his wife, Manal. When a prominent international judge reviewed Manal’s account of the arrest, he described it as reminiscent of the days of apartheid in South Africa.

 

In the midst of its clampdown on the Brotherhood, the security apparatus shifted its focus and began targeting non-Islamist youth activists, under the same pretext of “fighting terrorism.” At the end of January, the Justice Ministry established special courts to accelerate trials for “suspected terrorists”; peaceful demonstrators, too, are referred to these courts.

Tarek Hussain, 20, was convicted last year of attacking the Brotherhood’s headquarters. Last month he was among dozens of young non-Islamist activists arrested as they demonstrated on the anniversary of the revolution. All were prosecuted as members of the Brotherhood.

Sayed Weza, 18, a member of the liberal April 6 movement, also took part in these demonstrations and was killed. His last Facebook post said, “Please tell the coming generation that we loved our country!”

 

On the Cairo Book Fair
Carriers can help avid book-buyers at the fair

Carriers can help avid book-buyers at the fair

I wrote something for BookForum on the recently held Cairo International Book Fair -- on what books were selling well (crime thrillers and an Arabic translation of Gustave Le Bon's 1895 Psychology of Crowds among others) and what kind of talks were being given by the country's cultural establishment (I missed one entitled "The Deep State and How It Protected Egypt's Identity Under Brotherhood Rule"). 

 

The book signing of rapper Zap Tharwat

The book signing of rapper Zap Tharwat

On our way to the area housing publishers from other Arab countries, a crowd of young people flows past us, emitting a collective high-pitched fluttering sigh of excitement. A girl in a hot pink hijab and matching lipstick tells me that there’s a book signing by rapper Zap Tharwat. Later, I find some of his songs online, a mixture of the genre’s required bragging with the social awareness that many of the new “revolutionary” artists exhibit—he describes himself as “king of the oppressed.”

Saudi Arabia has its own hangar, a huge expanse of beige carpeting and identical stalls put up by the kingdom’s Ministry of Islamic Affairs. The vast majority of the books on offer are on religious topics, and they all look similar, thick tomes with titles in intricate gilded calligraphy. Young men in sandals, socks, short pants, and long beards—the outfit of the fundamentalist—earnestly peruse the books. Giggling teenage girls take group photos in front of large pictures of the Kaaba.

Across the way, at the stall of the Lebanese publisher Dar El Saqi, Issam Abu Hamden is promoting Solo, by the Saudi novelist Nour Abdul Majid, which is set in Cairo and chronicles the affair between a doorman and the wife of one of the residents of his building. He also has an Arabic edition of a book by the Lebanese feminist and poet Joumana Haddad, Superman is an Arab, a critique of Middle East machismo. Haddad likes to provoke, and just for good measure there is a special introduction of the Arabic addition entitled, “Why I’m an Atheist.”

 

A visit to prison

The testimony of the wife of Khaled ElSayed, a political activist who helped plan the protests on January 25, 2011 and was arrested on January 25, 2014. Read the whole thing. 

And I was searched again – the same humiliating search. Then I saw Khaled, and I wish I hadn’t. He looked tired and could not talk. He did not utter a single word.

I asked him, “Did they do anything to you? Do you want to complain of something?”

He did not reply.

I asked him. “Do you need anything? Do you want me to bring you anything?”

Again he did not reply.

The look in his eyes made me feel that he had been through a terrible ordeal in the past 48 hours. I could not see any signs of beatings or obvious injuries in his face, but his condition made me feel sure he had been subjected to pressure and violations.

The officer said, “That is enough. Goodbye.”

I had hardly been there for two minutes. I looked into the bag where I had put his food. Everything was open and torn apart and could not be eaten.On my way out I heard a wife of one of the criminal detainees say, “I have never seen such a crowded day. It is like three quarters of Egypt are in prison!”

AsidesUrsula Lindseyegypt, prison
The Crooks Return to Cairo

Bel Trew and Osama Diab, writing for FP on the potential exoneration of former spook, Sinai magnate and Mubarak moneyman Hussein Salem:

But for the first time since Mubarak was toppled, Salem's fortunes -- and that of other Mubarak-era businessmen -- may be shifting for the better. Since Egypt's generals ousted Islamist President Mohamed Morsi last July, Salem said he has been ecstatic and is planning his return to Cairo, his lawyer Tarek Abdel-Aziz told FP. The billionaire Mubarak confidant phoned in to a popular television program in January to offer a deal to the new military-backed government: Cancel my convictions and I'll give Egypt millions.
Egyptian officials publicly welcomed the offer.
"Mr. Hussein Salem and other noble businessmen ... your initiative is really appreciated," said Hany Salah, a cabinet spokesman, during the phone-in on local channel CBC. "Anyone who proposes a noble and good offer, then the least we can do is listen to him for the best of our beloved country."
Tourab Amsheer | The Windy Month

At the blog Not Quite Moi, alibey writes a poignant portrait of an aging Egyptian writer:

to get to Tahrir he has to pass through a hole in a concrete wall erected by the army to stem the tides of demonstrations but the scribe must get to Tahrir Square, as the world knows it, but to him it is still and will always be Midan Ismail, not that monstrosity with the red granite monolith, thankfully now long removed, yes Midan Ismail, ever so elegant it was, Ismail the rightful name of Midan el Tahrir before it was taken over and renamed by a fraud if ever there was one

sad but the scribe has spent that last few decades since his one glorious moment, which he no longer remembers except vaguely, something to do with a reworked version of the story of Keiss and Laila, but he has forgotten writing it, he has even forgotten where it is in his library, his own book, and so wanders about his large mother’s apartment in Garden City looking for something but does not realize it’s the book he once wrote

and so he goes on, sleeping in the very bed his mother died in, looking out the same balcony window (which she referred to as the balkone, in that charmingly old-fashioned Ottoman way of hers), where she saw him carted off to prison in ’67 by Nasser’s goons, because he dared to say that something which he can’t remember now in his favorite beer parlor and the Secret Police overheard it

but all that was long ago and now he mostly wakes up at 4am and shuffles between his various fridges, obsessed with moving unneeded kilos of once fresh spinach, still with dirty roots, and wrapped securely in plastic bags, from one fridge to the another, not to mention all his other foods, which he boils regularly late at night, and which have been so long in the fridges that they are quite difficult to identify

and now a soldier lets him through the hole in the wall and now he is walking to Tahrir in order to get to Bab el Louk and sit down in Café El Horreya as he has always done yes this is his custom

he tried recently, always trying, helpless, to make sense of the animated mural of aegyptianess before him, the roving bands of thugs, the prostitution and drug selling in tahrir, the boys who attacked him in front of the same French Lyçée where he studied long ago

The life of a Muslim sister
A woman looks at a graffiti of a quote from the Quran, Tahrir Square, November 2011. Photo by Issandr El Amrani.

A woman looks at a graffiti of a quote from the Quran, Tahrir Square, November 2011. Photo by Issandr El Amrani.

Nadia is a former Muslim Sister with a gummy smile. She has run out of reasons to show it after the dispersal of the Rabaa al-Adaweya sit-in, which took the lives of 63 of her friends and acquaintances and a part of her that she can only describe by grabbing the air, her head or her chest.

Although she often finds herself in a depressive trance – remembering the overly-friendly girl she befriended during the sit-in who gave her a necklace as she had requested a few days before the dispersal, and how Asmaa el-Beltagy had promised to tell her an exciting secret upon her return to Rabaa – Nadia tries and likes to think that she derives strength from the bloodshed. “The sound of gunshots doesn’t frighten me,” she said, more to herself. This enables her to join the regular student protesters clashes with security forces at Al Azhar University, something many of her friends and relatives can’t do. “They would freak out at the sound of fireworks or any loud noise... and drive around all of Nasr City just to avoid Rabaa,” she added, before admitting that she too has only been there twice since the dispersal and had failed not to sob in front of the Central Security Forces (CSF, the riot-control police) leaning against their black vans outside the mosque on both occasions. But, to be fair, one of the outbursts was aided by a CSF van that followed her home (which is right down the street), matching her pace and discussing her mother on the way, to the great amusement of onlookers.  

Although she frequently gets labelled a Muslim Sister (and suffers for it), Nadia was among those mostly young men and women who left/were kicked out of the Brotherhood shortly after the 2011 uprising for objecting to what they saw as the leadership's deafness to criticism, political opportunism and betrayal of revolutionary goals in alliance with the SCAF.

That batch, she says, is now divided into two camps. The first camp, to which she belongs, that has seemingly and temporarily returned to the MB out of solidarity and sense of obligation. Others remain resolutely separate. Those who have returned are not always fully accepted and often face accusations of betrayal and abuse, especially if they voice any old or new criticism of the leadership’s actions and how they lead to the state the Brotherhood is currently in.

However, inside the MB itself, resentment is mainly directed at the Anti-Coup Alliance (ACA), which is frequently criticized for lacking organization and the clear hierarchy the MB once had, which allowed one to identify the source of a decision and set blame. A prime example of the ACA’s incompetence, Nadia said, was changing the anti-constitutional referendum protest venues last minute on FB, after many protesters had left their homes and internet connection behind, resulting in confusion and the arrest of over 400 Brothers; or trying to stage a sit-in at  Suk al-Sayarat (the car market), an unfriendly neighborhood that probably wouldn’t leave much protesters for the police to shoot.  “No one really knows who is making these decisions,” interjected Hoda, another young Sister, who was just lost in monologue trying to decide whether she should flash the four-finger Rabaa sign or put on a poker face when suspecting classmates inquire about her political views. “Everybody just ends up doing whatever they feel like, there is no cohesion; no vision,” she added, shaking her head before returning to her monologue and deciding to be safe rather than hungry like her brother, Hamza, who now resides in a 2x2 cell with an unspecified number of people and cockroaches that fly, unable to sit or sleep comfortably. She sees him for exactly one minute a day with an officer present. Some of his teeth are broken and so is his right wrist, she suspects. Hamza, she paused to beam, had tried to convince the police officers, who arrested him, that he was a non-religious, playboy who drinks, smokes and copulates before they did. They gave him a cigarette and asked him to prove it, he let out a telling cough and was summarily given for 15 days pending investigation. "Ah, Hamza," she sighed.

“Many of (those arrested) have wrist fractures and things of that nature, it’s the handcuffs,” guessed another Sister, Gehad, rubbing hers instinctively. She has been recently released after being detained for nearly  three weeks on the charge of “piercing a car roof,” carrying a camera and belonging to a terrorist organization trying to destabilize the country. “[Prisoner treatment] depends wholly on the officers and the jail or department you’re in,” she explained. She, for instance, was lucky enough to fall into the hands of a kind prosecutor, who gave her Nescafe. And she managed to charm the prostitutes and convicted murderers  they routinely detain Sisters with, "as a scare tactic," with her religious knowledge. “They thought that God wouldn’t forgive them, so I recited Quran to them and we prayed together,” she recalled with pride. More importantly, the pregnancy test they forced on her (virginity tests for female protesters -- i.e. sluts -- caused an uproar, but pregnancy tests have reportedly taken their place) didn’t break her as well because she knew it was meant to, Gehad said, speaking at a considerably higher volume intended to prove she was unaffected by the memory. Others, however, she said, had cigarettes put out in them, and if the corporal she bribed is to be believed, they were also whipped with belts, electrocuted, stripped and made to stand in a room with holes in the walls known as the Tellaga (refrigerator). Other reports of abuse include being forced to clean the police department, sexual harassment, spoiled food and denial of family visits (and harassment of family members and friends who came for them). 

It is worth noting that Gehad later managed to flee to Turkey, where a small Egyptian MB community has already formed, thanks to the failure of the Ministry of Interior (MOI) to update the no-fly lists. She was then given a five-year sentence in absentia. Also grateful for the poor coordination and communication between state institutions is the Kamal Youssef, a father who waits in line to get into Tora for an average of four hours, gets his bag x-rayed, his body aggressively searched and waits in the cafeteria in plain view for the minibus that will take him to el-’Akrab prison, where he will provide all of his personal information to visit his son, although there is a warrant out for his arrest. “They only let first degree family members in, but I sometimes visit about seven non-related people in the same prison and pretend to be their cousin and no one says anything,” Nadia said, grinning for the first time, before reassuming her inscrutable countenance. 

She then begins to systematically list the problems of getting her jailed friends their exams (if they have not already failed the academic year). Normally the prosecution only requires a registration certificate and the exam schedule from the detainee’s university to issue a permit for said detainee to take the exam, but since sending a bruised student handcuffed to a police corporal to take a test among their classmates might win them some sympathy, Nadia has to get a copy of the police report to prove to the university that the student is in jail and get permission from the student to take the test in jail. Only problem is books and papers are generally not allowed in, making the hassle of getting them their exams almost pointless since they can’t study and will probably fail anyway. This process of selecting what is and is not allowed in, like treatment, seems to be governed by whim. For instance, she once managed smuggle in a cell phone with Internet, but failed to smuggle in a pillow to the same person.

When the contempt Nadia receives from law enforcement wears her or her friends down, she comforts herself and them with the knowledge that they are not one of the leaders or the wives, whom the police targets for particular abuse, according to a number of unverified reports by MB activists.The abuse, they say, includes “threatening (the detainee) with his wife’s honor"  to flush him out or to force a confession out of him. The leaders have had to forgo family visits because theirs require them to sit behind a glass partition and talk over a phone that’s monitored. MB leader and former MP Mohamed el-Beltagy  was allowed to keep the poster of his dead daughter, Asmaa, that his wife, Sanaa Abdel Gawad, gave him -- but they wouldn’t give him the tape to hang it on the wall with, Nadia said. Instead of meeting, Beltagy and Abdel Gawad now exchange letters that a bribed officer delivers – and censors. 

“One time [Abdel Gawad] wrote 'I am proud of you and I love you' and the officer insisted that she crossed it out...They don’t allow anything uplifting through,” Nadia explained. “She just lost it and started praying for retribution so hard, one of the officers cried and asked her to stop because he has nothing to do with this. He is just following orders.” However, most officers were not as affected. They started clapping for a visitor who began singing the pro-Sisi song Teslam el-Ayadi, and bellydancing. What salted the wound, Nadia said, was that the visitor was the mother of a horribly treated prisoner. “The same thing happened with Om Hassan, she hadn’t seen or heard of her son in weeks and [police officers and other visitors] sang her Teslam el-Ayadi,” an offended Hoda said, thrusting a hand in my face like I was Mustafa Kamil (the song's writer and composer).

Although the desire for revenge is palpable within the MB, it is almost always accompanied by equally palpable helplessness and frustration. Regardless of the presumed-to-be-MB attacks on police and army officers, Nadia maintains that so far most of the MB’s retaliation has been limited to mean prayers, reciting Quranic verses like “Pharaoh and Haman and their soldiers were deliberate sinners. [28:9]” to necessitate the punishment of every soldier as well as the commanders. Sure, there is a list, whose accuracy and origin are a matter for consideration, of the officers who dispersed the Rabaa and Nahda sit-ins but no one has done anything with it – yet. Every Brother and Sister I’ve spoken to recently thinks someone is going to lose it soon and that whoever that person is; no one can blame him/her.

Revenge aside, Nadia advocates (and regularly participates) in the burning of police vans and in doing anything that would “upset” the MOI. When asked to explain how that can fall under the title of “peaceful resistance,” she screwed up her face in bored disgust. “They have guns, gas, cars and water. We have Molotov and rocks. It’s not a fair equation... We’re certainly more peaceful.” Nadia’s definition of peacefulness is popular in the MB (and in non-MB revolutionary circles). Ahmad Hijab, a Cairo University Brother, for instance, spent fifteen minutes explaining how not only are the student protesters completely peaceful, but that they must be because military chief, General Abdel Fatah el-Sisi, would love an excuse to have them all shot, before he casually added that he had never been to a protest without fireworks, Molotov and rocks. “What, am I supposed to stand there and let them kill me or go defenseless when I know they are going to attack me?” 

As far as the MB youth is concerned, it seems, the only viable course of action now is to aggravate the MOI at every opportunity. The future, many believe, will likely hold what the present is already offering: politically ineffective, routine clashes with the police like those of Al-Azhar University and Alf Maskan, deaths, injuries, arrests, broken bones, prison visits, uncomfortable body searches, deliveries of exams and medical supplies, police bribes, etc. “Things have to and will get much, much worse for everyone... everyone has to and will taste humiliation and injustice, it has to become unbearable, so they will revolt again,” Nadia hopes. “Or they will apologize and sing Teslam el-Ayadi,” Hoda told the ceiling, resentfully.

So while things get worse, Nadia is just going to deliver some food to detainees and continue to rearrange the digits of a cellphone number an MB prisoner scribbled on her hand, to reach his parents and tell them he has been in jail for the past month. “Is this a seven or an eight?” she asked no one in particular before deciding to try a six.

The names of the people interviewed for this post have been changed to protect their identity.

The pro-Mubarak belly dancer's talk show and other internet detritus

Nour Youssef writes to us regularly with a mix of legitimate, useful information and things I wish I'd never seen. I thought I'd put her latest missive up as a taste of the current ambient Egyptian insanity:

Reasons to at least limit ability to upload videos on Youtube:

Things that maybe interesting:

  • Bassem Youssef is coming back. On MBC.
  • The transcript of the absolutely ridiculous interrogation of Ahmed Abdelaty, head of the presidential office under Morsi, and one of the defendants in the espionage case. What's funnier than the fact that their "evidence" of the "crime" that is talking to people out of Egypt -- or worse, not even Egyptian people in Egypt, or even worse out of it -- comes from hacking his email is that they a) don't care/understand that that is a crime and so don't react to his emphasis on that and b) el-Watan picked this up and ran with it like it proved that Mohamed Badie surprised the smuggling of weapons from Libya to Egyptian MB youth in 2012, completely indifferent to or unaware of the fact that the word Libya was not mentioned in the interrogation, that the man denied all charges and that the investigative bodies are a).  
When will The Square be shown in Egypt?

Jehane Noujaim's documentary The Square has been short-listed for the Oscar, is now available on Netflix, and recently won her an Directors' Guild Award. But it has still not been released or even screened at a festival here.

There have been a number of recent reviews, which in one way or another have raised the question of the film's viewpoint and its portrayal of a deeply divided, deeply confusing reality. 

At the New Republic, Eric Trager argues that Egypt's protesters also "bear responsibility for the mess that followed." 

But one year later—and only 15 minutes after Morsi’s victory in the 100-minute film’s run-time—the activists are suddenly willing to accept the military’s return to power. Morsi’s dictatorial maneuvers and theocratic ambitions, combined with his use of Muslim Brotherhood thugs to torture and kill protesters, has incited a mass movement against him, and the film’s protagonists eagerly take to the streets. “Do you think the Army will act in the same way it did?” Ahmed asks rhetorically. He clearly doesn’t think so, because he is once again caught up in the enthusiasm of yet another mass protest, and thus convinced that “Now the power is in the hands of the people.” It’s as if the film’s first hour and ten minutes never happened. It’s as if the previous military regime hadn’t shot Ahmed in the head.

Max Fischer takes up and expands on criticism of the movie, focussing on what he sees as the unfair portrayal of the Muslim Brotherhood

The viewer receives the strong impression that the Brotherhood did not arrive in force until more than six months after Mubarak's fall, a flood of unwelcome Islamist men taking over the square, although in fact Brotherhood members were crucially present during the very first weeks of the uprising. […] The Brotherhood's role in the revolution itself is not just excised, it is rewritten into something much more nefarious. In the first weeks of military rule, the Brotherhood entered into talks with the new government about forming a transitional government. But the film makes the bizarre choice to instead describe this as cutting "secret deals with the military," the first of many intimations of conspiracy that the Brotherhood and the military are clandestine partners in subjugating the people of Egypt. 

The Square is undoubtedly skeptical of the Brotherhood (although one of its most compelling characters is a member of the group), but Fischer misses the fact that the Brotherhood and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces did collude, more or less immediately after the 18 day uprising, to put a stop to revolutionary momentum by pushing through the March 2011 referendum, which was sold as both pro-Islam and pro-stability, and inaugurated the disastrous, ambiguous road map under SCAF. The Brotherhood knew it would do well in elections, and it viewed the protests and clashes in the Fall of 2011 as destabilizing to its plans -- its leadership forbid its members from participating and expressed precious little sympathy when demonstrators were beaten, tortured and killed by the police and army. 

Evan Hill also had a nice in-depth look at the film, with some interesting details about when and how it was filmed and edited. Like the reviews posted above, he views the filmmaker’s romanticization of its revolutionary characters and its adherence to their point of view as problematic:

Though Noujaim re-edited the film in 2013, after its festival debut, to account for the coup against Morsi, she addresses the killing of his supporters only in a few brief YouTube clips, followed by a title card stating that "hundreds" died. The film concludes with Hassan, who expresses hope that the uprising has birthed "a society of consciousness" that no government can again repress. It gives little indication that matters are about to get worse. By aligning itself with Hassan and his fellow secular activists, "The Square" — which is fast becoming one the most influential accounts of the uprising outside of Egypt — takes on much of their idealistic and naive attitude, at the expense, some would argue, of the truth.

Yasmine El Rashidi, on the other hand, writes a generally glowing review of the film, and identifies with the filmmaker (an old friend) and her protagonists:

The choice of footage in the final cut was meticulous; intended not to offer a nuanced or comprehensive portrait of a political situation, but rather to trace how the thinking of a select group of young activists evolved as events played out. […] Some of the best parts of the film involve Abdalla and his family, relations that seem to capture the generational divide that so defined the uprising. These moments suggest a more complex reality than the film generally depicts— the split between young, educated, English-speaking activists, and a larger portion of the population with very different backgrounds and daily concerns. […] These moments, short, fleeting, possibly overlooked in the larger story of the film, are the crux of many of the struggles we have faced and still face today; a minority of exceedingly righteous idealists, somewhat privileged, fighting a growing majority who increasingly opt for stability over the more ambitious political goals to which the revolution first aspired. 

I don’t think there is anything wrong with the The Square sticking to the particular point of view of a few Tahrir activists. Nor am I convinced that it should be charged with romanticizing Tahrir. There is a deadly romance to revolutionary moments (young people who are risking their lives need to feel and act and speak in idealistic and theatrical and romantic ways), and it was very much part of the culture and atmosphere of the square. But I wish that the film-maker had pushed her subjects much harder to articulate their point of view, and to evaluate their actions and strategies. It's great to have the immediacy of those protests and clashes three years ago, but it would also be great to have some of the perspective that comes, precisely, from the passage of time. What were secular activists thinking on June 30 and, even more, on August 14? The last half hour of the film is where things fall apart for me, into a vague final fuzzy uplift that seems out of sync with events and gives little insight. One does not necessarily have to choose between celebrating what happened in Tahrir (it is emblazoned in my memory as one of the most moving things I’ve ever witnessed) and trying to figure out why and how it failed -- including the failures of the revolutionary forces and the so-called liberal political parties.

What did “we” learn in Tahrir? (perhaps, to start, how difficult it is to define that "we"?) Rashidi admits she can’t quite say. Unfortunately it seems that the military and the police are the ones who have had the steepest learning curve. They were genuinely caught by surprise by the uprising of 2011 but within two and a half years they were capable of turning mass street politics to their complete advantage. 

Meanwhile, The Square has yet to be released in Egypt. The film-makers say they were denied permission to screen in; the Censor’s office claims that it never received an official request; a new application is pending. The breadth and depth of the debate that the film has inspired makes it all the more clear that it should be shown here.

Al-Sisi, the presidency, and the officers

Hesham Sallam, writing in Mada Masr, hits on the central point of yesterday's announcement by SCAF endorsing Sisi as president:

If the purpose behind the general’s quest for the presidency is to afford the political status quo and the military’s dominant position the façade of democratic legitimacy, then yesterday’s announcement makes little sense. Notwithstanding the burdens Sisi has taken on and imposed on the military by entering into the presidential race, kicking off his bid with a formal mandate from the military proves and underscores the very realities that the general is supposed to conceal. Specifically, this development leaves no doubt in the minds of observers that political outcomes in Egypt are dictated by the military and not by a supposedly unpredictable, free-for-all democratic process that is responsive to popular will. By failing to unilaterally resign from his position and announce a presidential candidacy from a place of institutional independence, Sisi missed a perfect opportunity to dispel the claim that he is running as the military’s nominee. Instead, he chose to present his nomination as a direct response to the call of his own peers.
It is tempting to blame these missteps on sheer political incompetence. Yet more compellingly, this move seems to be highlighting Sisi’s insecurities about potential chatter among the officers’ rank and file that he is taking the military into risky political adventures for the sole purpose of personal gain. In such a context, yesterday’s statement signifies the publicized approval that Sisi needed from the officers in order to protect against possible backlash from within the military. By obtaining such a public endorsement, moreover, Sisi in effect made the whole military, as an institution, complicit in his personal bid for power. Such a measure makes it challenging for the officers to distance themselves from Sisi’s candidacy in the future. It makes it difficult for them to wait on the sidelines conveniently and strike a pact with whoever wins, as they had done in the 2012 presidential elections when former Air Force General Ahmed Shafiq and Muslim Brother Mohamed Morsi competed in the runoff vote.
AsidesThe Editorsmilitary, egypt
What Killed Egyptian Democracy?

Continuing today's reflection on the failure of Egypt's revolutionaries, do not miss the sequence of essays in the Boston Review on this issue, starting off with Mohammed Fadel who argues revolutionary purity was the enemy of pragmatic progress:

The January 25 Revolution was also a striking failure of political theory. More precisely, it was a failure of the theories embraced by the most idealistic revolutionaries. Their demands were too pure; they refused to accord any legitimacy to a flawed transition—and what transition is not flawed?—that could only yield a flawed democracy. They made strategic mistakes because they did not pay enough attention to Egypt’s institutional, economic, political, and social circumstances. These idealists generally were politically liberal. But the problem does not lie in liberalism itself. The problem lies in a faulty understanding of the implications of political liberalism in the Egyptian context—an insufficient appreciation of factors that limited what could reasonably be achieved in the short term. A more sophisticated liberalism would have accounted for these realities.

P.S. Fadel has more grim reflections on the state of Egyptian society on his blog, where he doubts the very existence of Egyptian liberals or revolutionaries. 

"Our sin was pride"

From a long essay by imprisoned revolutionary activists Alaa Abdel Fattah and Ahmed Douma, in which they reflect on what went wrong:

Our sin was pride not treachery. We said, “We’re not like those who came before us, and so the young of the Brotherhood are different and the young Nasserites are different and the leftist young are different and the young liberals are different.” The weakness of our myth was exposed when we came up against the young officers.

To read alongside Steve's post on the revolutionary's need for self-examination – can't really say it's not happening, just that it's happening too late.

The revolution in winter

The third anniversary of Egypt's 2011 uprising was a dismal day for the revolutionary activists that organized it. Its birthplace in Tahrir Square was filled by pro-army demonstrators calling on military chief Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sissi to lead the country. Small anti-military rallies in the streets around were quickly dispersed by security forces and chased through the streets by army partisans. Deadlier clashes in the city's outskirts left scores dead. Over 1,000 people have been arrested, joining many prominent activists already in jail. The mood in the movement echoes a poignant letter released several days before the anniversary from one of those imprisoned revolutionaries, Alaa Abd El Fattah: "What is adding to the oppression that I feel, is that I find imprisonment is serving no purpose, it is not resistance and there is no revolution."

This day has naturally triggered despondency in a movement that has long used anniversary protests to rebound from despair. Only a few months ago, activists were telling themselves that having toppled two presidents, Hosni Mubarak in 2011 and Mohammed Morsi in 2013, it could easily topple a third. But now they see both their key symbol - Tahrir - and their favorite tactic - street protest - appropriated by their opponents. If al-Sissi nominates himself for president, as seems increasingly likely, he will face the long-term challenge of presiding over a state and an economy that are far more delicate than they were under Mubarak. However, unlike Mubarak, el-Sissi has a confident and committed mass following that believes Egypt needs a strong Nasser- or de Gaulle-style leader. Unlike Morsi, he has the full loyalty of the security forces and the bureaucracy.

But while the activists are sober, few are self-critical. (Addendum, Jan 27: For some exceptions, see the essay by Abd El Fattah and Ahmed Douma referenced in the post above.) They portray themselves as being stuck between two illiberal forces -- the Islamists on one hand, and the army on the other. The tone is one of a helpless movement that doesn't quite know what happened to it, or maybe never had a chance to begin with, rather than one searching for where it went wrong.

I believe that the revolutionaries did have a chance to change Egypt. They could never have created a human rights paradise, but they did have an opportunity to set the country on a course where power revolved peacefully, where free expression had legal protections, and where police and officials had strong disincentives not to abuse their power. The revolutionaries lost this opportunity, and lost it because they failed to recognize the limits of their power.

It's obvious from voting patterns over the past three years that committed revolutionaries are a small minority. Their concentration in Cairo, and their lack of experience working inside political parties and other such large organizations, make them ineffective in elections. But this decentralization and energy, combined with their links to the media, does give them considerable power between elections: the ability to stage non-stop street protests which, combined with public reaction against the inevitable videotaped brutal police response as well as the disruption to city traffic and economic activity, have twice created a narrative of a beleaguered government, a country facing the abyss. When the revolutionaries have acted in concert (if not always in collaboration) with other movements, the Islamists in 2011 and former members of the National Democratic Party in 2013, that helped to create the momentum that convinces the army that it is safer for them to unseat the ruler rather than stand aside. Where the revolutionaries failed was to think through the ramifications of deploying that power.

I would argue that the point at which the revolutionaries and their liberal allies went wrong was the decision made in spring of 2013 to add their weight to the movement to unseat President Mohammed Morsi Morsi was not remotely friendly to the revolutionaries' agenda, but the means needed to topple him would destroy the environment in which the revolutionaries were able to operate.

As much as the revolutionaries insisted they did not wanted a coup, many knew very well _ or at least their leaders should have known _ that it would likely end in army intervention. This was, after all, what happened to Mubarak in 2011. Demanding new elections only a year into a leader's five-year term, while hinting at the possibility that the army might intervene if he did not, is basically tantamount to a forced overthrow.

But while Mubarak had been president for 30 years, using a variety of means to ensure he was never seriously challenged, Morsi became president through competitive elections generally viewed as mostly free and fair. This distinction makes a key difference to the outcomes of coups. The overthrow of an unelected leader usually brings an outpouring of goodwill and an incentive for all previously excluded parties to participate in the political process, which, if well-handled (it wasn't in Egypt), can bring about a successful transition. The overthrow of an elected leader favors force over procedure, creates a disincentive for parties to participate in peaceful politics, and polarizes the country - all factors that make a successful transition to pluralistic democracy less possible.

Activists say that they toppled Morsi to prevent an Islamist dictatorship -- and, indeed, if the Muslim Brotherhood had installed a theocracy, that would probably be even more hostile to the realization of their aims then Mubarakist restoration. But it seemed clear that since December, when the police and army outright refused to protect Cairo's presidential palace, that there was no serious danger that Morsi could ever have realized an Islamist dictatorship. The much-vaunted "Ikhwanization" was mostly limited to ministries with little power. (The state prosecutor did have power, but he was strongly opposed from within the judiciary.) Morsi's one attempt to move beyond a constitutional framework _ his constitutional declaration _ ended with him in retreat. This is not to say that Morsi was benign: having an Islamist in power did appear to give radicals the confidence to persecute Christians, particularly in the rural south. But the police were defiant of Morsi, the army was against him, the judiciary, the media, and the bureaucracy. He was about to face parliamentary elections that would probably have dealt the Brothers a fairly serious defeat. In choosing to lend their weight to Morsi's overthrow, as opposed to trying to block specific policies, the revolutionaries chose to replace a weak autocratic personality who had no choice but to operate within a basically democratic framework, and a strong autocratic system that could dispense with it.

Where does the movement find itself now? Any repetition of the tactics used in 2011 and 2013 while probably end in failure. The secular and Islamist wings of the opposition hate each other too much to unite. And in the remote chance that protests did force another change of government, the country is far too polarized to go through another peaceful transition.

But while it is probably right to say there is no more "revolution," in the sense that the tactics of mass uprising will not work in the near future, there is a "revolution" in the sense of a set of ideals and a historical legacy that can guide and inspire activists in the future. To accomplish its goals, however, the revolutionaries need to review why they have failed so far. A dynamic minority of activists can destabilize, but in doing so they only pave the way for someone else. To be a partner in government they need the kind of leverage that can only come from a nationwide mass movement, strong in the provinces as well as just the big cities. Right now Egypt has only three of these: the former National Democratic Party, the Brotherhood, and the Salafis. The first was created top-down by the state but the other two were built up painstakingly over decades, sometimes under conditions that are almost as hostile as those facing revolutionaries today. If Egypt's revolutionaries reconsider their tactics, abandoning the adrenaline and theater of protest for the slow unglamorous work of movement-building, it may have a chance in decades to come.

To succeed, the revolutionaries may need to reconsider their message. The Islamists use religion. The Sissists have what is still the most beloved institution in the country, the army. The revolutionaries have few key symbols that resonate with many Egyptians. What they do have is a vision of the future in which no one's basic rights are compromised. 

Since 2011, members of all prominent Egyptian trends have succumbed to the temptation to demonize their opponents to fire up their base. Islamists have agitated against Christians and secularists, pro-army speakers have labelled revolutionaries as drug-taking cosmopolitan libertines _ and revolutionaries too have at times denounced their opponents as feloul, terrorists, and sheep. They have also tossed around proposals that would essentially disenfranchise a large section of the country: a "political exclusion law" against Mubarak supporters in 2011, or the banning of the Muslim Brotherhood in 2013. 

To form a mass movement, revolutionaries will need to engage with other groups. To leverage a mass movement into power, they will need to make allies. All three trends are here to stay. The future may belong to whichever one learns to make the least enemies.

Steve Negus3 Comments