The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Readers' letters

I have been receiving messages from people who want to speak out on this or that issue relating to the Egyptian revolution. I'd thought I'd put those letters here for all to see.

From "Farmer":

First i want to congratulate the Egyptian people for the lesson you gave the world in non-violent struggle!!!  The courage, strength, beauty, sacrifice, and love you have illustrated these past few weeks has been an inspiration to all of us, everywhere, who are working towards justice,  i have been glued to Al-Jazeera English on the computer watching for hours and hours on end and i have to say that i cried when i heard Mubarak had resigned (even though i was half asleep when it happened).

i was crying out of happiness because of how happy your people all looked and because of the most loving skills of humanity that you all expressed in the face of relentless oppression.

Second, i want to acknowledge that being an activist myself i want you to know that some people over here understand that it took a lot more than 18 days to topple the regime and a lot more than 300 that lost their lives.  There are years and years of organizing/protesting and hundreds and hundreds of people who died to get to this 3 week final push for  justice.   

Third, i am sure you know of this or thought of this yourself or discussed it among yourselves but i have seen, heard and participated in some discussion about the military being used in a role outside of war.  They have such a huge infrastructure and are so trained to do work as a large group that they could do a lot of good rebuilding the country as a green army.  That is doing things like environmental restoration, building earthworks that harvest surface runoff, etc.  Heaven knows that we sure need our army to do that kind of work in the drier parts of our country like the American Southwest and the Great Plains.  But, of course we are a lot farther away from reaching that point with our military than you guys are, i think.

The army can also do civil service projects like building schools, roads, and bridges.  Not that our military does any of that kind of work either -  New Orleans is still a shambles after Hurricane Katrina,  And that was six years ago!!!

Anyhow, if the army is given a role that is hard work and keeps them busy and helps to restore the health of the landscape that is so vital to the people's well being or the social infrastructure that is everybody's human fight; well then they can feel a part of something too, something a lot more positive than the usual stuff they typically fall back into.

i am ever so confident that Egypt is building something that can serve as a model for all other countries, including America.  Thank you!!


From W. Scott Chahanovich:

“The king is dead, long live the king.” This phrase, alien to popular consciousness in many democratic societies, is nonetheless alive and well. Outside of Barnes & Noble pop-history bestseller section or cinematic depictions of well-groomed monarchs á la Cate Blanchet in Elizabethan ruffles, this morbid declaration still heralds the transition of power. But not just in the U.K., the Netherlands, Belgium, and Spain. The Arab world has just experienced something ominously similar: the departure of Mubarak and the dawn of Omar Suleiman and his military rat-pack. As I write this, Al-Jazeera still broadcasts images of ecstatic Egyptians prancing in the street. The revolutionary élan has reached its nadir (horn-honking and face paint included). Mubarak failed to address the people’s demands earlier, and as a result they demanded nothing short of his head. But what goes up, must come down. The Egyptians celebrate now, but are they prepared for the work to come? I, for one, am not so optimistic.

Egypt does not have the institutional capacity to accommodate immediate socio-political change. Although the figure-head of corruption is now politically dead, Mubarak did not pack up the infrastructural problems of over-population, illiteracy, pollution, and a swelling population of unemployed youth. If anything, Mubarak is catching a few rays in the Sinai, having now left those problems solely to the jubilating masses in Cairo. 

Egypt has a population of approximately 81 million. It is the largest Arab country. The number, however, is most likely larger. The Egyptian government is incapable of carrying out a census; anyone who has entered the Mogama – an homage to bureaucracy – in the now famous Tahrir Square knows that paperwork in Egypt is as long and taxing as a Russian novel. Also, the Egyptians are loath to hand out personal information to a government they mistrust; hence why the population largely ignores paying taxes. Also, rural Egyptian families avoid registering male children for fear they will be drafted into the military, for example. Then there is the glaring problem of literacy among Egypt’s rural poor. If you can’t read, you probably won’t know how to fill out a form (never mind having the income to buy a spare pencil). Although there is space for community-based improvement outside the two metropolis of Cairo and Alexandria, the fact remains that Cairo – with a population around 20 million – is the Um (mother) of Egyptian politics and generally sets the tune of the Egyptian political tenor. Anyone who has lived in Cairo knows that the Bawaab’s (doorman) family of 8 lives underneath the staircase. The population problem is not captured in numbers, but the problem is tangible in the streets.

At 71.4%, illiteracy is not a dismal problem. But there is room for improvement. More importantly, however, literacy has many definitions. Having lived across the street from a typical public school in Sayyida Zainab – a popular district – reading, writing, and arithmetic do not meet the PISA Study standards. Although one can read, that does not imply proper judgment or maturity. Just look at most college undergrad’s in the U.S. Do they seem ready to undertake a revolution and draft a new constitution? And literate Egyptians do not posses the same skills sets as their Western European and North American counterparts. A graduate of the Engineering Faculty at Ein Shams University, Cairo University, Beni-Souef or al-Minya cannot compete with their colleagues from Germany or Canada. This is not a racist Orientalism, but a result of more than fifty years of educational stagnation. Poorly paid teachers, ill-equipped classrooms, institutional corruption, and a future of unemployment foretell a dim future for Egypt’s brightest minds. Education and unemployment sparked the flames of this revolution. As Alexander Pope aphorizes in his Essay on Criticism: “A little learning is a dangerous thing…” The shabaab (youth) are rightly frustrated that the education system does not work, that the economy cannot accommodate them, and that others elsewhere have it better. 

Pollution is a part of both the urban and rural Egyptian landscape. Anyone who has traveled along the Nile has seen the thick sludge and Styrofoam slosh licking its banks. In August 2009, al-Dostor reported that farmers were using sewage water to irrigate their crops. Typhoid and kidney failure is rampant among young children due to polluted water consumption. And Cairo is never short of an open, broken sewer pipe. The 2010 summer hit film Asl Iswid (Molasses) depicts the first experience of an Egyptian man, raised in the states, who comes back to Egypt to discover his roots. In the opening scene, the protagonist exists Cairo International Airport, only to choke on the smog-laced air and hitch a ride with a crafty cab driver who insists on dumping trash out the window as they drive through town. A rumor among many Egyptians is that the national fare fool (beans) is imported. Poor agricultural practices and pollution have made Egypt reliant on food imports. European or American markets will not be buying Egyptian comestibles anytime soon.

And of course: the shabaab. This revolution, after all, was started by politically active youth on Facebook. The revolution itself has been termed thawrat al-shabaab (the Youth Revolution). Mubarak, as well, in his final TV speech spoke to the youth directly. He understood who the majority audience was. 33% of the population is between the ages of 0-14. Approximately 31 million is under the age of 18. Though statistics are hard to find, the young population certainly swells even more when counting the young and unemployed graduates in their twenties. Nothing can fix this problem. Employment opportunities will not rain down from the sky. With Mubarak gone, the general malaise and frustration expressed by young people throughout Egypt over the past three weeks stands naked. A cold reality for Cairo’s warm February nights.

Lastly, with King Mubarak taking leave - like King Farouq before him - he surrenders Egypt to its ever-present guardians: the military. History seems to be repeating itself. As Marx once quipped, “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce." It is to be seen whether or not the military will play the same cards as Egypt’s first revolutionary guard, the Free Officers and their leader Gamal abd al-Nasser. The prospect, however, that Omar Suleiman and Co. will be stipulating Egypt’s political trajectory in the immediate future, one can only hope that self-less service to the people, rather than autocratic greed, will inspire Egypt’s uniformed philosopher kings. If not, long live the kings.

From Saada:

For Egypt, Are Elections the Way Forward?

The people of Egypt are standing at an historic crossroad. But to hear other people tell it, Egyptians are travelling down the highway to democracy. They’ve been stalled for decades but now their engines are revving and they are all but on their way to western style democracy. First stop: free and fair elections.

To all those who died and sacrificed, it would be a disservice to commence this trip without fully examining the destination and any and all alternatives. Required reading before you embark on this journey is Animal Farm by George Orwell. Moral: If new people are put into any version of the same system, no matter how reformed, you will eventually end up with the same results. The problems may be to a lesser degree, more benign, but you will not have the freedom for which people died.

As an American who dabbled in local politics, consider this my postcard from Destination: Democracy. I don’t wish you were here. Sure, I have a vote; I have a voice, but it is not heard. If you have a voice which you can’t use, are you in a worse position than one who can use their voice, unheard? What is the difference?

"Although Bahrain has a parliamentary system, many Shias feel elections have only served to co-opt them into the political system and did not improve their access to government jobs and services." ( - 2-12-11)

So, apparently, no difference. Free elections only encourage those who would, to achieve power, do and say anything, those with no scruples, the lowest of our low. Anyone who says they want to run for a political office should be immediately disqualified from politics. The process of running for office does not appeal to anyone who is, at heart, a good honest person. Isn’t that who we need now, good honest people?

There should never be a political class, a group of people who make their living as politicians. The political class is insulated, protected from the very people whom they are supposed to represent. How then, can politicians represent people?

Is there another way, a different road to take? First, decide what your destination is. For the voices of the people to be heard. For the will of the people to be enacted. To be free; to rule ourselves.

Well, it’s clear that free democratic elections won’t get you there. I suggest the direct route. Fill all political offices by lottery. It works for jury duty. I haven’t heard of that system being corrupt, beyond people trying to get undeserved exemptions. It works for military duty except, again, people trying to get exempted.

The people of Egypt could vote on the framework of the system. Who is included in the pool? How often can people from the same family be eligible for duty? Should eligibility for national positions rotate geographically?

During a term officers should receive a stipend equal to %200 of their salary from the previous year. They should continue to live in their house amongst their neighbors. It should be seen as a simple matter of changing jobs . Then after they have served a term or two they will go back to their old job.

Enough! of political intrigue and manipulation. Enough! of corporate interests before those of the people. Enough! of rule by the rich for the rich. Politicians are a scourge and they do not represent people. We the people should start to begin to represent and rule ourselves. In this age of crowdsourcing we know that we can create, we can collaborate. Yes, WE can. Not ‘we can get him elected to change things’; WE can make change.

If you don’t take this opportunity to now try something new you will regret it. For the highway to democracy is actually a ring road. Eventually you will end up where you started and you will see your grandchildren in Tahrir Square. But, they will go home unsuccessful, unheard. Because, they will live in a democracy and they will have a vote.