The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts tagged fahmyhoweidy
In Translation: Egypt heading outside history

Courtesy Industry Arabic, the latest in our In Translation series, in which Fahmy Howeidy -- a writer with moderate Islamist leanings and a big following --  critiques 

Egypt Heading into the Unknown and Outside of History

Shorouq Newspaper, 22 October, 2013

Egypt’s current problem is that it is moving along a path leading outside of history, and one fears that Egypt will drag the Arab world along with it in the end.


Reading Egyptian newspapers these days and following the statements of politicians -- who have begun to compete with each other to court the military  and outdo one another in praising its role -- it might not occur to you that the newspaper headlines, the comments of the editors, and the statements of the politicians could almost be an exact copy of the discourse in Turkey around half a century ago. However, anyone who has read the history of the militarization of Turkish society notes that the voices calling for the armed forces to intervene to save the country from chaos and collapse reverberated loudly during every political crisis. Given the fragility and weakness of the political situation, everyone considered the military the savior and rescuer. The military had credit with the public that permitted it to play this role, since it saved the country from occupation after the First World War, established the republic and led the process of modernizing the state. This is the background that was repeatedly invoked in order to militarize society from the establishment of the republic in the 1920’s and for 80 years afterwards.

The episodes of this repeated and rehearsed scenario would play out as follows: Weak parties fail in running the state; voices are raised calling for the military to carry out its role as rescuer; the military gives a warning to the government, telling it to carry out its responsibilities; after the warning, the military announces the coup and takes over the administration of the country and the management of the out-of-control conditions. Barely a few years go by (most usually ten) before the crisis recurs and the same voices and calls reverberate again. Then the military would give its warning, followed by intervention to take over power as the only disciplined and cohesive institution, and the one with the force of weapons on the ground. This is a scenario that recurred with the coups in 1960, 1971 and 1980, until the coup of 1997 that was described as a “soft” or “post-modern” coup. The jumping-off point for these coups was the fact that the military considered itself responsible for protecting the principles of the Turkish republic, along with its job of protecting the nation. To fulfill this responsibility, it imposed itself as the guardian of society. The constitution of 1982 codified this guardianship, which was exercised by the National Security Council and which formed advisory offices for the country’s military, political, economic, cultural, and media affairs, etc. The military institution went on alert after the elections of 1995 that were a relative win for the Islamist-oriented Welfare Party. This win led to the formation of a coalition government with the True Path Party. The head of the government at that time was Necmettin Erbakan, the leader of the Welfare Party. The military leadership responded to this by pulling the strings that it had spread out through key posts in the state and the decision-making authority, until it forced Erbakan to resign from office in 1997.


The prevailing winds Egypt since the removal of Dr. Mohamed Morsi are going in this same direction against history, after the military council’s mission came to an end in 2012. The renewal of the hopes pinned on the possibility of democratic change and creating institutions that manage society -- all of that was dashed on the 3rd of July after the removal of the elected president, the freezing of the constitution, and the dissolution of the Shura Council and other councils that had been formed. It became clear that the orientation was towards betting on the military institution and boosting the state's power over society. In this climate, the preparations for issuing a new constitution were carried out by a group that was chosen, not elected, and the military institution became the de facto source of authority and the decision maker in shaping the new situation. In this, the military institution did not force itself upon society. Rather, its steps were supported and welcomed by the elite and the civil forces with their different orientations – liberal, nationalist, and leftist. The media was the strike force that succeeded in “manufacturing consent,” in Chomsky's phrase, using the failures of Mohamed Morsi’s rule to mobilize the public and incite them against his regime, and thus standing with the camp betting on the military institution.

Given the new situation, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Defense Minister and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, became the presidential candidate around which the civil forces coalesced. The presence of the armed forces in the committee tasked with drafting the constitution took on special significance when a clamor was raised over the defense minister’s immunity and the condition that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces approve the minister’s appointment. This action takes this authority away from the president or the prime minister. As a compromise, some proposed applying this just during a transition period of ten to twelve years. Also, the concept of trying civilians in military courts was retained, even though these courts are not even independent, but rather are subject to the minister of defense’s orders.

In this atmosphere, we read in the Al-Shorouk newspaper (edition of 10/5) important statements from a military source that the newspaper’s editor said is close to the military institution. In his statements, he focused on the following:

- That the experience of the last few years proves that the army is the only real power in Egypt for the foreseeable future, because of the weakness of secular political parties. Thus the army must have the means to guard the country against any organization or group that wishes to change the country's identity.  

- That under the current circumstances, the army can't hand the presidency to anyone it doesn't know. For the people can't lose the only weapon they possess, their national army. We don't want to far the possibility that someone disguised as a secularists gains the presidency, and appoint whoever he wishes as minister of defense, and thus can change the identity of the army. 

The newspaper Al-Shorouk did not say that the military source was speaking in the same of the armed forces, but he at least expresses a school or a trend within the armed forces that considers the military the only force and the highest authority in the Egyptian political arena. Also, he holds a position opposing the Brotherhood experience and is concerned only with avoiding a repeat of this experience, claiming that it could affect the identity of the armed forces. As for the nation’s identity and its greater good, this is a concern of secondary importance.


With the continuing expansion of the military institution in the current political vacuum and the military’s undeniably increasing role, Egypt has begun to move outside the course of history. At the very least, this means that the dream of the democratic civil state that the January 25th revolution aspired to is in a state of decline and retreat. The tangible advancements barely hint at the possibility of achieving a fraction of this dream in the near future.

The structure that is currently being set up in Egypt suffers from a fatal flaw in its balance of power and its vision. That is because it is taking place in the shadow of the strength and dominance of the military institution, and in the shadow of institutions chosen from sectors united only by their rejection of and enmity towards the Brotherhood. They represent fragile political groups without a popular base, to the point that these groups have begun to derive their legitimacy by relying on the military institution and riding on its coattails. This represents the heart of the current political crisis in Egypt. This large country cannot be built on a foundation made of an alliance between liberals and the military, and its program cannot be based simply on the idea of excluding the Brotherhood and continuing the war against terrorism. This is the observation made by numerous Western analyses that keep talking about how Egypt is headed towards the unknown now that its political influence has declined and it no longer has a notable role in regional affairs.

Not only that, but Egypt in its weakness finds itself surrendering to schemes for security and non-security cooperation with Israel, especially since the military institution is considered the most prominent pillar of the Camp David Accords. Perhaps the international predicament facing Egypt pushed it to become closer to Israel and to interact with it more. The current regime is comfortable and reassuring to Israel, contrary to President Mohamed Morsi’s regime, which Israel was uncomfortable with and found worrisome.

This same weakness – which arises from the confusion and perplexity that the strategic vision for the new situation suffers from – has driven Egypt to throw itself into the arms of Arab coalitions antagonistic to the Arab Spring in its entirety. These coalitions have their own ties and loyalties that are incompatible with the revolution’s goals and the desires of the Arab masses. When this happens while the Arab region is facing giant upheavals that could redraw its maps and subject it to plans for fragmentation and division, it reveals the high price that the Arab world could pay because of the upheaval and setback that occurred in Egypt.


The picture is not entirely frustrating, because the shocks and upheavals from which the regimes of the Arab Spring are suffering are almost completely confined to the outward manifestations of this Spring. However, the Arab Spring has another, hidden aspect that has not yet lost its vitality. I was among those who said previously that the Arab Spring, in its actuality, is a historical transformation in the constitution of the Arab person, who has begun to call for change and announce his rejection of the political and social oppression that regimes imposed on him. What I expressed was recorded in a report by the New York Times published on October 18th. This report talked about the manifestations of an unspoken mass movement that all of the Gulf Arab countries are witnessing, with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates at their forefront. This report was written by Christopher Davidson, a political science professor at Durham, a British university. He chose an evocative title for this report: "The Last of the Sheikhs?"

Egypt, if it loses itself through its current behavior will take the Arab world along with it as well. However, even if Egypt stands outside the course of history it will not be able to stop the wheel of history from turning. This is one of God’s rules for the universe, which is expressed in the Quranic text that states, {And if you turn away, He will replace you with another people; then they will not be the likes of you.} (Surah Mohammad, Ayah 38).


Fahmy Howeidy on Egypt's political crisis

I have in recent weeks neglected the blog, including the regular In Translation feature provided by the wonderful people at Industry Arabic, your go-to place on quick and quality translations from or to the language of the ض. I'll be posting some delayed pieces over the next few days. The first one is by the man generally regarded as Egypt's, and one of the Arab world's, most influential columnists, Fahmy Howeidy. It dates from a few weeks ago but the themes it raises are still relevant.

Howeidy is generally seen as an Islamist intellectual, but has not been an all-out partisan of the Muslim Brotherhood, even though he is sympathetic to them. In the piece below, his critique of the opposition mirrors that of many Islamists, and he also offers a critique of the Morsi administration striking lack of political deftness in handling a country still in transition. And he offers some suggestions for handling the coming time period leading to new parliamentary elections, including that the Brotherhood should steer clear of ministries involved in elections (thus echoing NSF demands). It's an interesting balancing act.

Read on.

Thoughts on a Way Out of the Crisis

Fahmi Howeidy, al-Shorouk, 26 March 2012

My greatest hope at the present time is that President Morsi's calm does not mean that he accepts the situation in Egypt, since if he were seeing what we are seeing, he would be stricken with worry and lose sleep over it.


Last week, an Egyptian worker wept while talking about the condition of his country during a chance meeting with some of my colleagues in the media, who had gone to a famous restaurant to have dinner. He rebuked them, saying that the image of the country shown by the Egyptian media disparages Egypt and Egyptians. He said that he personally had begun to suffer from such degradation every day due to the caustic and insulting remarks made by those who follow Egyptian television channels, which provoke sadness among Egyptians and ridicule among those from abroad. While he was speaking, this man got carried away and broke into tears.

You do not need to go to Doha to realize that the sorrow that Egyptians have begun to feel is real. While it is true that the private television channels and opposition newspapers spread a significant amount of grief, frustration and depression, these stories are hunted down and exploited for just such a purpose. I may not be exaggerating if I say that feelings of confusion, sadness and discontent have begun to reign over various sectors of society. Not long ago, the question on everyone's minds was: where are we headed? But now things have changed and the question has become: when will the deterioration in the security situation and the economy come to a halt? To be more frank, we must recognize that two years after the revolution, signs of hope have become fewer, the horizon has narrowed and the future has become dimmer. If this summation is correct, we must not acquiesce to it, but resist it by all means possible – not just to save the Egyptian revolution, but to defend the Arab dream that gleamed in the horizon when the popular revolutions were launched, declaring their rejection of authoritarianism and social injustice and insisting on taking back their countries from those who had despoiled them.


If we want to look for a way out of the crisis, it may be useful to start by identifying the factions that are acting on the Egyptian scene right now, which are at least three: President Mohamed Morsi, and his team and supporters; Morsi's opponents; and those who are in combined opposition to both of the preceding factions, i.e. they oppose the revolution itself and are leading the counter-revolution. I will hold off from speaking about Morsi for the moment since as the main person in charge, he is supposed to hold decision-making power and so the hypothetical solution should start with him.

The opposition in Egypt is distinguished by two things. The first is that they only agree on one thing, which is their rejection of President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood in particular. The second thing is that its main interest is in toppling the government, in the sense that it does not try to correct the President's mistakes or find middle ground with him, but from the beginning it has deliberately tried to put pressure on him to cause him to fail and then topple him. It casts doubts on the impartiality of the election that brought Morsi to power and contests the legitimacy of every step he takes to establish institutions for a new system. It withdraws from the Constitutional Assembly after the articles were approved. It boycotts dialogue just as it boycotts elections, and explicitly calls for the army to assume power. At the same time, it does not stop sending messages of protest by inciting street protests and giving them political cover, although the street protestors and people sitting-in in Tahrir Square do not constitute the base of support behind opposition figures. Even still, they both benefit from and exploit one another.

In addition to the political opposition the media, lying in wait and ready to pounce, uses its pulpit not just to promote, intimidate and counter-mobilize, but also to tarnish the President's image, attack him and insult his dignity.

On the same side, we find the politicized judiciary, some institutions of which can be counted among the tools of the former regime. This has become clear through several actions, such as some rulings of the Supreme Constitutional Court and the district attorneys’ protest that tried to force the Public Prosecutor to resign. We have also observed this in the positions of some leaders who have openly challenged authority, as well as in the acquittal of those responsible for killing protestors and the release of those accused of using violence in demonstrations.

Are we classing some elements and security agencies – especially the Interior Ministry – among the opponents of President Morsi? There are several connections that indicate that at the very least, they are not on his side. In this regard, no researcher can expect otherwise from a security apparatus that operated for more than 30 years in a state of emergency and above the law, with the Muslim Brotherhood to which Morsi belongs as the "strategic enemy." This apparatus was what pursued them, tortured them and fabricated charges against them. With this background, it is hard for us to expect them to offer their loyalty to a president from the Brotherhood in just two years. In this context, speaking with an official about the security deficiency, I asked him whether the security apparatus was unable, uncooperative or exhausted, and he responded that all three were the case.

Furthermore, it is worth noting that regime-toppling tactics and plans are well-known. Studies have documented them, their steps have been identified, they have been tried out and their goals were achieved in several Latin American countries in the 1970s. These tactics involve sowing chaos in the country, plunging it into rumors that cause instability and render the state incapable of defending the country, then wearing it down economically through a high cost of living and high rates of unemployment. This causes the state to fail and enables its overthrow.


Those opposed to the revolution – and not just President Morsi – are found both inside and outside Egypt. On a previous occasion, I mentioned that the deep state had not yet formed in Egypt, but was in the process of formation and its pillars were actually in place. These pillars are the remnants of the old regime whose political and economic interests have been harmed. If we bring to mind the model of the established deep state in Turkey, we notice that the agents of this state exist within the bureaucracy itself, and the security apparatus in particular.

In addition to these people, we cannot ignore the role of foreign countries whose interests have been harmed as a result of the revolution. In this context, forgive me for repeating my previous remarks that it cannot reasonably be expected that Americans and Israelis — who have found rich pasture in Egypt over at least the past 30 years – have withdrawn and abandoned their role after the revolution. Although we have not been able to point our finger at any particular act, that does not necessarily mean that they are absent.

What is new on the scene is that some Arab countries have been disturbed by the revolution out of fear that its contagion will spread to them. Then there are others who are worried by the Islamist victory in the elections that took place after the revolution. I have information that a senior Arab official rebuked Maj. Gen. Omar Suleiman for this on one occasion, and that he replied that he was not responsible for what had happened. At the time, Field Marshal Tantawi was head of the Military Council, and the Arab official informed Suleiman of two things: first, that his country considered him and Tantawi responsible for the Muslim Brotherhood's ascent to power. The second is that Egypt would not receive any assistance from them as long as the Muslim Brotherhood was in power. And this is what happened.


In any case, Mohamed Morsi's responsibility is greater than that of any other faction. The experience of the nine months that he has spent in power has revealed several gaps in his performance, the most significant of which are as follows: - Inability to communicate with society and lack of interest in convincing people through his vision or the background to his decisions. - Sluggish response in dealing with crises. - Weak presidential team assisting him, which has led to the resignation of a good number of his assistants, as well as confusion in some of his decisions. - Rumors of a climate of mistrust between him and the political class, which had received promises from him that he did not carry out, without any explanation. - Failure to establish political coalitions with forces and currents that are allied with him (the Salafis, for example) or sympathetic to him (Strong Egypt Party and Ghad al-Thawra). This is besides the number of independents who were not against him and we ready to cooperate, but who then left his side. - Whatever our reservations about the performance of others, or about the domestic or foreign elements that are plotting against or hostile to the revolution, President Mohamed Morsi is the main figure called on to put forth initiatives to get out of the crisis and defuse the current tension.

In this regard, I am claiming that the initiative should proceed on two parallel tracks. The first is to recover the trust of the elite and the national forces in Egypt. The second is to restore optimism in society and reassure it about the future, so as to dispel the current climate of frustration. This can be achieved as follows: - The trust of the elite can be recovered by expressing respect for them on one hand, and inviting them for consultation about how to solve the crisis on the other. This entails responding to the observations made on the election laws and examining controversial articles in the constitution. This response should take a practical form by including a representative of the opposition in steps dealing with outstanding issues. - Parallel with this, it has become necessary to enforce a separation between the Freedom and Justice Party and its political role on the one hand, and the Muslim Brotherhood on the other. Now that the Brotherhood has declared itself an NGO it has become a proselytizing association that has nothing to do with the political process. While this may weaken the party in the present circumstances and cause it to lose, it must do this in order to run without suspicion that it is getting a leg up from the Muslim Brotherhood or is under their tutelage. - In order to regain society's trust, reforming the current government is necessary and indispensable. This trust will be strengthened if this government is headed by an independent figure that has greater weight in society and if it includes a number of technocratic experts. If the Muslim Brotherhood must be represented in it, then this should be outside of ministries relevant to the upcoming elections.

At the same time, it is necessary to convince public opinion that the steps taken toward reform are serious and that clear action is being taken with regards to economic reform, transitional justice and restructuring the police force by holding conferences with Egyptian experts and specialists in each of these fields.

Of course, this is not the last word on the subject; these are only broad outlines. Most importantly, they represent an attempt to emerge from the crisis and get past the state of calm reigning in decision-making circles, while the street is full of rage and emotion and people are swinging between frustration and sadness. We want every citizen to be proud of his revolution, not to weep over what it has come to.

In Translation: Fahmi Howeidy on SCAF

For a variety of reasons, I was unable to put up a translated article about the early May clashes in the Abbasiya neighborhood of Cairo, near the Egyptian Ministry of Defense, that appeared earlier this month. The clashes may have receded into memory with the excitement of the presidential elections, but they’re still relevant — if only because more clashes might be expected if the results (as the polls predict) exclude revolutionary candidates or are seen to be rigged.

For a reminder of what happened in Abbasiya, check out this Storify stream compiled by Arabist contributor Paul Mutter, which he put up on FPIF. The column we’re featuring today deals not so much with the clashes themselves as the reaction from the SCAF, and their repeated lack of accountability and scape-goating in such incidents. It raises important questions about whether the next president will even to hold anyone accountable, since the army appears to have successfully buried the investigations with their cryptic talk of “third elements” and so on. In my mind, this is one illustration of why a presidential election should not have been held under military rule, as their record is far too flawed.

The column below was written by Fahmi Howeidy, who has had an interesting turn lately. A conservative writer often seen as close to the Muslim Brothers but also close to the Egyptian establishment, he has voiced doubts about the wisdom of the Brotherhood’s presidential run and is also increasingly critical of the SCAF. Since he is considered to be the most-read columnist in Egypt, his voice counts and speaks of the unease with the SCAF beyond revolutionary circles — and, if you read between the lines, the effort to distinguish between the military and the SCAF.

As always, this article provided by the translation gnomes at Industry Arabic, who do sterling work when it comes to putting out clear copy of your Arabic articles, reports, documentation, and much more into whatever language you want and vice-versa. Professional, bespoke translation with a fast turn-around — what more could you want?

They warned us, but did not understand us

By Fahmy Howeidy, al-Shorouk, 5 May 2012

It is not enough for the Military Council’s spokesmen to say that the army is innocent of the Abbasia massacre, and it is not appropriate for one of the Council’s members to say that the protestors rejected an offer from the authorities to protect them. The former statement could be made by anyone, with the exception of those who run the country, while the latter should not be made by any state official.

There is nothing new in the statements that seek to exculpate the army – and often the police – from the charge of suppressing protestors and opening fire on them. We have heard this talk several times before. Not only did some official spokesmen not wash their hands of the incident, but they went so far as to deny that there were snipers in the first place, even though hundreds of thousands of people saw them standing on the tops of buildings shooting at them.

These repeat occurrences, however, cause the argument to lose its credibility. It may be possible to accept the official version once, and doubt what everyone witnessed and experienced, but it is nearly impossible to believe these statements every time. The country is supposed to have investigative agencies and bodies whose duty is not to exonerate people of crimes, but rather to lay their hands on the elements responsible and the people pulling the strings in order to hold them to account and prevent a reoccurrence of such incidents. In this case, the choice is either to follow the thread of the crime to reveal those who planned and executed it, or to admit their failure to do so, and step aside to clear the way for those who are more up to the task. But when neither of these two things takes place, and society is expected to be convinced by their statements, and to be satisfied with the continual attribution to hidden “unknown elements” every time, that is what is hard to accept. Furthermore, this leaves the door wide open to suspicion, which could lead some people to believe that there are elements concealing and protecting the perpetrators of these crimes, whether because the official bodies are happy with what these unknown actors are doing, or because they are collaborating with them, if not directing them outright.

When Military Council officials are intent on exonerating the army every time, and content themselves with that, they are acting like the guilty person with a “head wound” they want to hide. It is noteworthy that people did not accuse the army in the first place, but were just wondering who perpetrated, planned and had in interest in suppressing and killing protestors. They draw a fine distinction between the Military Council that is governing the country — and it is their right to criticize its governance and policies — and the army, which continues to enjoy the trust and respect of the people. They also distinguish between the combat army that defends and secures the country, and some of its arms that have begun to carry out domestic roles. Condemning these arms – the military police, for example – does not have to go along with condemnation of the army, since its place in the transition period almost corresponds to the role played by the apparatus of the Interior Ministry that citizens have constantly been clashing with.

We know that the “thugs” were the Interior Ministry’s weapon in confronting people demonstrating against Mubarak and his regime, and that link indicates that talk about their connection to the authorities is neither an insult nor a slander. When newspapers publish statements by protestors talking about the weapons and gas canisters in the possession of these thugs, and the meals sent to them by some official guest houses, our suspicions mount that the authorities are not far from the issue.

We want to believe that the Military Council has no connection to the massacre that took place in Abbasia Square, but the statements by members of the Council do not help us with that. Their words are trying to convince us that they are watching the country, not responsible for running it. It is a statement we got from one of them, who said that the demonstrators refused an offer by the authorities to protect them, as if protecting citizens was not the state’s duty, but a choice. This means that there is confusion between the role of the official and that of the average citizen, or between the official’s role and that of the foreign tourist, who has no sense of obligation toward the society he visits.

In summary, the previously mentioned statements do not encourage us to have faith in the current investigations into the Abbasia massacre. Would that the People’s Assembly would form a committee from its members to investigate the “thugs” and figure out who is doing this, like it did before for the massacre of al-Ahly fans in Port Said.

My final remark on the press conference in which representatives of the Military Council spoke is that it was a form of self-defense and an attempt to deny the existence of “thugs” or rule them out. Then, they aimed to warn us and frighten us out of concern for our safety, and to make us understand, or offer us condolences for what happened in Abbasia.

Because we promised a time of fear, I’m claiming that what they said showed that they did not understand us, and that their remarks were an example of the wrong words at the wrong time.

In Translation: Fahmy Howeidy on Salafis

The electoral success of the Salafis has alarmed many in secular circles, but not only. Fahmy Howeidy, an Islamist writer considered to be one of the most-read commentators in the Arab world, wrote last week of his relief in seeing a prominent Salafi personality defeated in Alexandria. The article was translated courtesy of Industry Arabic, which is sponsoring our In Translation series.

Society Has Issued Its Verdict

By Fahmy Howeidy, al-Shorouk, 8 December 2011.

I cannot conceal my feelings of relief at the defeat of Eng. Abdel Moneim al-Shahat, one of the representatives of the Salafi movement, in the run-off election.1 I consider this defeat a message sent to him by society, which should be taken in by him and his ilk of fanatical Salafis, who incessantly terrify people with their abuse of both the sacred and the secular. When I heard the results, I said that the issue here is not a question of who won, but rather the real story is that this man failed and did not succeed.

I do not know Eng. al-Shahat personally, but whenever I heard him or followed him speaking in the media, I felt like he was launching a personal insult at me in my capacity as a researcher concerned with Islamic issues. When I learned of the final tally in the second round of elections in the al-Nuzha electoral district in Alexandria, I said that voters’ aversion to him was a sort of punishment vote against him for the statements he keeps spewing, especially as of late.  This is a story that deserves to be told.

In the first round of the election, Eng. al-Shahat captured about 191,675 votes, while his opponent, the independent lawyer Hosny Duwiedar — who received support from the Muslim Brotherhood — won 144,296 votes. He was known as an extremist ever since his days as a university student. We discovered him when he started appearing on satellite channels, and some newspapers vied with each other to shed light on him due to his perverse views that were considered rich game for those who like to hunt and provoke.

This was most evident when the host of a populist TV show invited him on and barraged him with questions that all focused on his views on people’s private lives, states of dress and undress, the hijab and the niqab, bathing suits, cabarets, alcohol, gambling, entertainment, etc. Our friend responded to all these questions in the negative, to the extent that it seemed like he wanted to overturn everything in society without any gradualism, moderation or compassion. The show’s host did not ask him about anything that concerns the masses like unemployment, education, health or development, but rather confined him to the problems of the elite and the interests of the upper class — which are the interests that most of the media still focuses on at the present time. The man subsequently attacked democracy and declared it to be bid’a2, and he went back to talking about growing out beards, closing down banks, and banning bathing suits. We didn’t hear a word from him about what he could accomplish to benefit God’s creation. It was as if he didn’t want to leave the realm of bans and prohibitions, and give people hope in permissible and recommended acts (those which are encouraged or desirable).3

One of his colleagues who graduated with him from the computer department in the University of Alexandria told me that the media tripped him up, and that the man — who is still in his 40s — is not good at expressing himself. I didn’t rule this out, but I replied that no one forced him to say what he said: he went along with the trick and didn’t disappoint those who laid the trap for him. In politics, speakers have no excuses; rather, they’re held to account for what they utter, and they may even be held to account for what they remain silent on.

Eng. al-Shahat’s views caused a negative impact once he declared them in public. The result of this was that in the run-off election, he lost more than 50,000 votes, as he got 144,296 votes this time, compared to 191,675 votes in the first round.  His opponent, on the other hand, who received around 170,000 votes in the first round, captured more than 28,000 additional votes in the second round for a total of 198,000 votes – and won the district as well.

I have heard from some people that the drop in turnout in the second round came at the expense of Eng. Al-Shahat, but I noted that this drop could have affected his opponent as well. However, those who went to the polls firmly rejected al-Shahat and voted for his rival after al-Shahat painted himself in a negative light, an image the media helped circulate among people.

Society has punished the man by rejecting him, I said, pointing out that this was not a rejection of the person as much as it was an aversion to extremism and an inclination toward moderation. I also said that I felt relieved that he didn’t win. I have another reason for relief, which is that the climate of relative openness that Egypt is now experiencing has allowed society to listen to in public what extremists were saying to their followers in secret. Although it may be considered an appropriate punishment if people turn away from them, such a rejection could lead them to reconsider their views and rein in their discourse. If this rejection takes place, then society will have averted a minor disaster; but if extremists rein in their discourse, then society will have gained a major advantage. In the first case, we would reap a reward; in the second case, we would reap a double reward. But God knows best.

  1. For more on this election, see al-Masri al-Youm.  ↩

  2. A religious term literally meaning “innovation,” bid’a has largely a negative connotation and refers to the sort of innovations in religious matters that constitute a deviation from the Qur’an and the Sunnah. ↩

  3. “Permissible” and “recommended” are terms from Islamic law here. “Permissible” (mubah) refers to acts that are considered morally neutral, i.e. one is neither recommended nor discouraged from performing them. “Recommended” (mandub) acts are those that are encouraged but not mandatory. ↩
In Translation: Fahmi Howeidy on Iran, Syria and Bahrain

We bring you another commentary piece from the Arab media in translation, courtesy of Industry Arabic, a  full-service translation company founded by two longtime Arabist readers, which specializes in English-Arabic-French technical, legal, and engineering translation management services.

Fahmi HoweidyThis week I selected an article by Fahmi Howeidy, a conservative Egyptian columnist who is widely believed to be the most influential pundit in the Arab world. Howeidy is well-connected and writes for multiple audiences (he is syndicated in Egyptian papers and several Gulf-owned ones). He has long championed a kind of elitist Islamo-populism which I personally abhor, but does have some resonance in the region. At his best, Howeidy is (was?) incredibly cutting of (some of) the regimes in place; at his worst he defends silly conspiracy theories and makes crude, unsupported attacks against his ideological enemies — including at times rather nasty personal attacks.

In recent years, Howeidy had been a defender of Iran in its standoff with Israel and the United States. As the author of several books about Iran with excellent access in Tehran, he consistently defended the Islamic Republic and its foreign policy. Even when the Hizbullah and the Iranian Republican Guards were said (plausibly) by the Mubarak regime to have operated an espionage network with links to Hamas in Gaza, Howeidy slammed the Egyptian regime. This shocked many at the time, since after all covert operations had been uncovered and public opinion tended to be critical of any foreign meddling. In other words, there was a time when, for Howeidy, Iran could do no wrong.

In the column below, Howeidy reports from a conference in Tehran and slams the Iranian stance on Syria, going as far as arguing that the Islamic Republic “has lost its moral compass.” He comes out strongly against the Assad regime and makes a compelling argument that what he had admired about Assad — his commitment to the “Resistance Front” against Israel and the United States’ imperial policies in the last decade — cannot take precedence over the regimes’ murdering of its own population, and that it further risks souring that population on supporting the Resistance Front. I recommend reading alongside Rami Khouri’s latest column, on the fall of Iran’s star in the Arab world this year. Howeidy’s take may be the surest sign of this trend. Finally, his equivocating on Bahrain in the latter part of the piece is also interesting — Howeidy is not quite ready to abandon the Bahraini royals, and their Gulf allies…

Syria, the muted truth

By Fahmi Howeidy, al-Shorouk, 1 October 2011.

Strong participant solidarity with the oppressed people of Bahrain was a major feature of the “Revival” (Sahwa) conference, held recently in Tehran. Surprisingly, however, there was no similar concern for the fate of the equally oppressed people of Syria.

Instead, any allusion during the discussions, to the current plight of the Syrians would open the door for a debate in which supporters of the Damascus regime loudly defended their government as the leading protector of the so-called Resistance Front, and the target of arrogant powers aligned with Zionism.

Indeed, when I stood up and declared my sympathy with the oppressed in both of these two countries, supporters of President Bashar al-Assad and company were not happy. I constantly heard strong reservations and objections from Iranian enthusiasts, and others from amongst the Bahraini youth who fled their country and took refuge in Iran from which they use as a base to defend their cause by various means.

What worries me most about the Iranian stance on Syria is that it gives preference to its political interests and considerations instead of opting for the principled position it is known for. It is no secret that there is a strategic alliance between Tehran and Damascus, and that it has played a major role in support of the Lebanese Resistance, represented by Hezbollah and its allies. It has also been critical in anchoring the Syrian’s regime’s position in the face of multiple crises. At the same time, the positive impact of the alliance on Iran was two-faceted: first, it helped it break out of the isolation imposed upon it by the United States and its allies; second it allowed Iran to play an influential role in the political scene in the Arab world.

More important than this particular Syria-Iran alliance is the fact that the Islamic Revolution was fundamentally based on a firm stance against injustice, in favour of the oppressed and vulnerable, and from the first moments of the Revolution’s triumph, for its vigorous defense of the Palestinian cause, all of this stemming from a system based on ethics and principles. Thus, considering that moral foundation, it is incomprehensible to see the Iranian Revolution remain silent in the face of the brutal atrocities the Syrian regime is committing against its opponents. Not just for humanitarian and ethical reasons, but because these people are Muslims and people of God. The Syrian regime’s security services and “gangsters” are repressing the Syrian people worse than the Israelis repress the Palestinians!

I’m confident that Iranian officials are aware of what is happening on the ground and I’m surprised to see them informed and yet ignoring the happenings and keeping their silence. I’m also increasingly surprised to know that they have been misled to the extent that they believe that such happenings are part of a premeditated imperialist and Zionist conspiracy. 

While looking at this state of the facts, it is clear that Iran’s priority is for safekeeping certain interests and not the principles, which regrettably leads me to state that the Islamic Republic has lost its moral compass, and drifted from the ethical values which were such a defining feature of its Islamic orientation.

I can’t deny that Iranian President Ahmadinejad’s statement that the Syrian regime must be responsive to the wishes of its people has eased the situation to some extent in recent weeks. Still, this declaration is like one small bright spot in a bigger painting covered in blood. The bright spot is there but it doesn’t change the overall unpleasantness of the picture.

I spoke with some Iranians and I told them that I agree in full with what they say about the Syrian regime’s stance on the Palestinian cause and the Lebanon resistance, and its legitimate credentials as a member of the Resistance Front. This is absolutely appreciated; no doubt about that, and that’s the good side of the picture.

However, when one looks at Syria’s domestic policy, based on a brutal and inhumane repression, it becomes obvious that this is something that cannot be condoned under any circumstance. One cannot remain silent in the face of murdering, lynching and dismembering of opponents under a pretext of defiance and national interests; one cannot believe that the system can be honourable in its foreign relations while murdering its people at home.

The persistence of this logic would make the Syrians reject the so-called Resistance Front and other national slogans if they perceived such slogans were being used as a pretext to justify their humiliation and killings on a daily basis. If it weren’t for the authenticity of the Syrian people and the sincerity of their patriotism, there would be no doubt that these demonstrators would have rejected them since the start of their uprising, six months ago. As far as I know, the masses disagree with all these slogans with the same energy they use to defend their freedom, dignity and pride.

I told the Bahraini youth, who admonished me for not writing about the suffering of their people, that I stand with their fight against oppression, and that in my opinion they should not stop demanding an end to their mistreatment and for the organization of free elections. However, I disagree with some of them who call for the toppling of the regime in Bahrain because such a claim far exceeds what the Gulf region can actually tolerate. I encouraged them to copy the Kuwaiti experience, which followed Bahrain in its passage to democracy. This is because the Kuwaiti opposition is active from within the regime, might clash with it or challenge it, but has never raised the idea of permanently changing it or toppling it. I haven’t had the chance to hear their reaction to what I said, but I could say that I behaved in line with my conscience; I made my point and I moved on…