Conversations in Cairo
Bidoun is back! And it has published a series of interviews with folks in Cairo. I know most of the people in these conversations, at least a bit, and I found them all well worth reading.
But my favorite is Lina Attalah -- editor of the independent news site Mada Masr, which has just been blocked -- interviewing Laila Soueif, professor, activist and mother of an extraordinary clan that includes Alaa Abdel-Fattah, Mona Seif and Sanaa Seif. Some of the other exchanges are clouded by a pained ambivalence over the uprising, its aftermath and its meaning. Whether you agree with Soueif's analysis or not, these two women talking to each other both have a hard-won, warm-hearted lucidity.
Here is Soueif on her children:
LS: I don’t think children eat up your career. Your free time, but not your career. But I didn’t mind. When Alaa was born, he became my primary source of entertainment and relaxation. I would only go to social events if I could take him along. Otherwise, I just didn’t go. You lose some freedom, of course, but it’s worth it. If Alaa hadn’t been with me in France, I would have gone mad.
For me, children are a source of emotional satisfaction in the face of distress. I knew of that at the time — once it was clear that Seif would be going to prison again, during that year that I was away from my PhD, I made sure to get pregnant. I knew I wanted to have another child to keep me busy, emotionally.
LA: Alaa always talked about his unique relationship with you, something far deeper than the traditional mother-and-son relationship.
LS: The fact that Seif was in prison when Alaa was very young created a very special relationship between us. Alaa came with me to France when I did my PhD. I had to explain things that you should never have to explain to a child — why his father was in prison, that there are bad police and good police — the good ones, who catch thieves and organize traffic, and the bad ones, who arrest people who oppose the government. You don’t usually need to know these things when you’re four or five.
But Alaa was always sensitive to things. When we were in France, there was a wave of discrimination associated with Jean-Marie Le Pen and the National Front. There were anti-immigrant ads with nooses, and it touched Alaa. He knew that the ad was addressing him somehow. Later, anytime someone said something negative about Christians, I told him that people who say bad things about Christians are like the ones who posted those ads. He became aware.
I think our relationship is also a function of Alaa’s character, though. I’ll never forget — one day, when Mona was a baby in France, I overslept. I’d had a cold. When I woke up I was frantic. It turned out that Alaa had taken Mona from her bed and made her breakfast. He just did this automatically. When Sanaa came along, it was the same. He took care of her, too. Of course Sanaa was extremely headstrong from the beginning. She still is. But when we fought with her, Alaa would take her aside and deal with her.
And on the political situation in Egypt:
LS: Well, some things have changed. What happened in 2011 has changed the country. Where we will go is a different story. Sometimes, I think my life has had three stages. There’s everything before 2000, everything between 2000 and 2011, and then the period after 2011. Before 2000, you were always part of a small group. It might have had a certain significance, but you were always aware that you were in the minority — not only in relation to the authorities, but in relation to the people, too. Those were the years of the Islamists’ ascent. Then from 2000 to 2011, we began to see a movement in the streets that was not Islamist. Of course, the Islamist movement was bigger and stronger, but there was a non-Islamist movement as well.
LA: The era of Kifaya, March 9, and the April 6 Youth Movement.
LS: Yes. And then 2011 expanded that into a real popular movement, which succeeded in bringing down Mubarak and then suffered major defeats. But it was a real popular movement. There’s a big difference between being part of a defeated movement and being part of a defeated popular movement.
LA: What does that difference mean for you? For us?
LS: While our movement is defeated, it has an audience of sympathizers in the hundreds of thousands, if not in millions. It is scattered and confused; it doesn’t know where it wants to go, it’s leaderless, it has every problem in the universe… but it exists. We’ve never lived anything like this before. As someone who lived what feels like an entire lifetime in which there was no movement at all, I wouldn’t call this a desperate place. I wouldn’t call this situation we’re in, where we’re discussing real issues of human rights, a desperate situation. It’s a very developed situation. We’re fighting for the equality of women, against torture, against homophobia. It is a problem that these are tools that were developed in the last stage, when we were a minority dealing with a more careful regime, as opposed to the current one that beats everyone with abandon. But the situation has changed, and it changed because we became dangerous. That’s the significance of being a popular movement, even in defeat. The regime is lashing out because the regime itself is desperate. So the fact that we haven’t been able to develop new tools for the new situation doesn’t mean we haven’t progressed.
LA: What would you point to as evidence of progress?
LS: I find it odd when I hear people say that conditions for women were better in the past. Maybe things looked nicer on the surface, but the situation of women on the ground today is deeply different from the 1960s and 1970s. Try to make women stay at home today. No way!
Or people are always saying that the youth are apolitical — they’re disrespectful, they won’t listen to grown-ups, they just do what they want. When you get on a toktok in Boulaq al-Dakrour [a low-income area], you will hear rebellious, political songs. And then there are the informal settlements, the so-called ashwa’iyat where so much of the population lives. People have been forced to deal with their own matters, by themselves. They’re effectively outside the authority of the state. It’s not ideal, but this is the better-case scenario.
LA: So people’s relationship to authority is changing?
LS: I would say that the authorities are losing their grip on power. We’ve witnessed the collapse of the legend of the glorious national army; that can’t be reversed. We have more possibilities today than ever. But also more opportunities for a complete breakdown.
LA: You say that the problem is that we need new conceptualizations, new tools. But tools to do what, exactly? What does it mean to be politically engaged? What’s the purpose? Is it to create autonomous institutions, outside the system? To take power? To build power? To cause discomfort to those in power?
LS: It depends on when we are talking about, but I think the least we can do is give the bad guys a hard time. If you have any kind of public profile, this is the very least you can do. I get so angry at people who have audiences who choose to remain silent. They tell you it’s pointless, but that’s just not true. If your words can have an echo for people, how can you be silent? I like to think that we are sitting like Banquo’s ghost for them. Even when we fail… like in the case of Tiran and Sanafir, the islands the government gave to Saudi Arabia last year — we mobilized, organized protests, filed lawsuits. And okay, so we may not have been able to screw the marriage, but we definitely screwed the wedding. It was not a political win for the authorities.
But real politics is not about this. It’s about giving people more control over their own lives, making people’s lives better. It’s about development — making it so that people aren’t dying from curable diseases. Of course, at that level, what can be done in power is much more significant than what can be done from the outside.
I used to think that our worst nightmare would be for our revolution to end up like the Iranian revolution, but I think it turned out even worse for us. In Iran, the Islamists were part of the fight that ended the old regime, and then they turned against their allies on the Left and took power. And of course, there is oppression, and it is a terrible regime that we have to keep fighting. But there was development, too. Iran today has less poverty, more and better universities, greater industrialization. In Egypt’s case, I honestly thought there was going to be a period of reform when the Brotherhood came to power. But they didn’t have any sort of plan for development. It just wasn’t a priority. So we experienced the worst.