The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts tagged tantawi
Wael Ghonim's letter to Tantawi

It speaks for itself, was posted on Facebook (where else — although perhaps he should have used Google+), and is reproduced below to save you time.

Here are some reports on it:

I write to you after seven months have passed since the initial spark of the January 25th revolution. I write after I sought inspiration from the company of history books for the past few weeks to learn about our previous revolutions. I wanted to understand the real dynamics behind them and attempted to liberate myself from the influence of school curricula that imposed a single perspective; that of the decades-long rulers of our nation.

Without deliberation on my part, God has willed that my name became one of the many associated in people’s minds with the revolution. The association was formed when I was released from detainment where I had spent a brief period – brief, compared to the thousands who spent years and months in lockup or even lost their lives for the sole reason that they demanded an end to the agonies of our nation. I write as I picture my son reading this letter in 30 years. It makes me feel overwhelmed by the historical responsibility that I was forced to bear.

The corrupt regime, under which our parents were raised, was keen to maintain the people as objects who had no say or participation in the affairs of the nation. The generation preceding ours was taught to abide by popular principles such as: “Mind your own business and focus on your livelihood,” and “Whosoever is afraid, stays unharmed,” and “Walk quietly by the wall (where you cannot be noticed),” and “Cowardice is the master of morality.” Fearing the wrath of the security apparatus became a controlling and firmly established sentiment in people’s hearts.

The resulting passivity has deformed Egyptian life. A sham democracy was founded, composed of farcical elections, pseudo political parties, and hypocritical media outlets, while detainment centers were established for everyone who dared swim against the current. Our democracy bred presidents who, for decades, have won elections and referendums with surreal support levels that reached 99.99%.

But for any objective observer, the outcome of that regime’s actions was nothing short of a crime committed against generations who have known only one president for their whole life; a president whose oppressive security forces thrived during a reign of skyrocketing poverty, corruption, unemployment, and undereducation. As a result of this crime, hundreds of thousands of Egyptians apply to visa lotteries every year in hope that they would be lucky enough to escape their homeland, permanently, to a new home that would respect their humanity and offer them a decent life.

On February 11th, we all celebrated in jubilation our victory over a regime we thought we had overthrown. We began to dream after ridding ourselves of a nightmare that had been suffocating us for very long. Scores of Egyptian youth spent long days in the wake of our victory, meeting and working together, to generate ideas that would address the grave problems that have inflicted our nation. For the first time in many people’s lives, they felt that they got Egypt back. They felt they were now responsible for setting their nation on the right track to the future. Many Egyptians came up with endless initiatives on the internet, some of which were developed by Egyptians as young as 16 years of age. Although many initiatives were simple, they proved one thing; that the regime’s crime was devastating. The regime had spent 30 years doing nothing but inspiring horror and fear of change. They denounced all opposition as treachery and monopolized the nation’s resources for the benefit of corruption that was so skillfully managed and sustained.

After weeks and months, the mode of governance in our nation has not fundamentally changed and the excuse has been “stability,” and it did not matter if the result was stability at the bottom of the pit. No dialogue has engaged the youth, who have been angry at the significantly slow pace of fulfilling the revolution’s demands; the very revolution that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has not missed a chance to show pride in having safeguarded. In fact, some of these young Egyptians have been arrested and detained in military prisons after a military trial, while the key figures of the former regime continued to appear before civil courts despite the atrocity of their crimes. Accusations of treachery have targeted individuals who oppose SCAF policies under the premise that they are trying to sabotage the trust between the people and the Army. However, some of those accused were prominent members of the frontlines of a revolution that the SCAF has described as one of the greatest historical moments in the life of our nation.

You probably know better than I do that a regime does not merely consist of people. A regime is a philosophy and a methodology. What many youthful citizens have noticed is that the revolution has been able to change some people but not to impose real change yet, in the form of revolutionary legislation and decrees that set us firmly on the right course. Even the legitimate demands that have been fulfilled thus far have mostly been achieved under the pressure of protests and sit-ins in Tahrir Square.

More groups of youth become frustrated with every day that passes without a clear road map and fundamental changes in the way our nation is being governed. Some of them feel compelled to escalate matters, which would lead us all into an unknown of possibly unfavorable consequences. The experiences of others around the world prove that democratic nations are the most capable of perseverance and prosperity. We now live in an age where sustaining oppressive policies is becoming impossible in light of modern communications technology. Therefore, the final result is guaranteed to favor the people, not the despotic regimes.

There is a historical opportunity now for the SCAF to work with the people who have awakened and revolted in order to set Egypt on the right track. Egypt boasts professional cultured men and women in every sector of life. It is a golden opportunity for every one of us to offer their capacities for Egypt to realize its revitalization. But the opportunity requires achieving real change. It requires change in the way we think and operate and not just change of faces. We need change of strategy and not change of tactics. We need change that will achieve the social justice and freedom that we dreamt would follow decades of injustice and oppression.

As an authority that derives legitimacy from a revolution led by the people, we want you to quickly announce specific dates for the process of transferring complete power from the SCAF to an elected civilian authority that would control everything in the nation. This would be facilitated through determining dates and mechanisms that would find consensus among the different national players, for parliamentary, Shura Council, and presidential elections.

We want you to urgently intervene, firmly, to rebuild the nation’s security apparatus on bases of respect for human rights, without which the revolution’s goals would not be achieved. We want you to restore trust between the Army and the scores of angry revolution youth whose wrath is due to the sustained military trials of civilians. It is a fundamental right for civilians to appear before their natural civilian judge and to continue doing otherwise is an insult to a revolution that broke out to fight the oppression of liberties and an emergency law that stripped citizens of their rights.

We want you to rectify the discourse of state media so that it inspires hope among citizens and motivates them to rebuild and to anticipate a bright future following a complete transformation to democracy. The SCAF should be careful not to use language that focuses on treachery, conspiracy, fear, and warning against the unknown. A language of optimism and hope is the only means to achieving the necessary leap.

We want you to establish a real dialogue between the SCAF and the government’s Cabinet on one side and the people on the other. There needs to be regular communication through the media that is transparent and that reviews the government’s progress, and during which government officials, contrary to what we were used to, would admit to faults and commit to means of addressing them. The lack of transparency breeds greater dissatisfaction.

We want a strong government that enjoys complete power and does not require permission before it can implement revolutionary measures to fight the corruption that affected all governmental institutions. We want you to really protect the revolution by implementing radical changes in policies that will benefit the poor, who were initially excited about the revolution, but who now ask, “What has it done for us?” A good start would be the issue of subsidies that do not reach their rightful deserving citizens. We all know the billions of pounds that are wasted because of mis-targeted subsidy budgets.

We want you to believe in the Egyptian youth who have earned the world’s admiration for their revolution. We want you to believe that they have many solutions and to give them their deserved opportunity to lead the nation.

I know for a fact that many Egyptians who have dreamt of a better future for their children – and who have risked their lives with bare chests and witnessed the death of their peers who gave their lives for freedom and development – will never accept that their children and grandchildren read about our failure to achieve our dream.

The Power of People is stronger than the People in Power

Wael Ghonim

Message to Tantawi

 

TV presenter Mahmoud Saad presented Fadl's statement to the Field Marshal on air

Popular young screenwriter and columnist Bilal Fadl had a column in the newly established Tahrir newspaper last week, taking the head of the military council that rules Egypt, Field Marshal Tantawi, to task, and using some of the strongest language and imagery I've seen anywhere. Coming at the end of Ramadan, the column is both an implicit plea for clemency for the thousands of civilians condemned by military tribunals in the last six months, and a scolding, loaded with religious imagery, that daringly indicts the Marshall personally for the army's human rights abuses, reminding him that one day he will have to answer for them to his Maker. Most of the column is translated (by myself, and therefor amateurly) below:

I know that God is all-mighty and all-powerful, and that it is in his hands alone to decide who is the oppressor and who the oppressed. But I also know that you are responsible for the state of the country now, and that it’s my duty to let you know that young people face injustice at the hands of your men. Maybe you don’t know this because you don’t read the reports of rights groups, maybe because they tell you that they are biased and funded from abroad, and maybe some of them are, but I know with full certainty that most of them have taken it on themselves for long years to side with the wronged and expose the unjust; and your duty as a ruler is to listen to what they say and investigate.  Perhaps you are concerned with what you see as more important matters, in a country shaken by crises and problems, but do you remember with me the Caliph Raashed Omar Ibn El Khitaab, who feared that God would ask him about a female mule that tripped because he didn’t smoothen her way? Is there a greater recognition by any leader in history of political responsibility for everything that takes place in his era? Aren’t you afraid that God will ask you about the citizens who face torture and humiliation, who are submitted to military courts because of their political opinions which -- no matter how excessive or defiant they may be -- do not make them lose their right to appear before a regular civilian judge? And who says that all those who appear before military judges are really thugs or criminals -- just because they belong to poor backgrounds or because their faces bear the signs of ill-nourishment or because their stumbling step is their downfall with an officer who doesn’t fear God? 

I beg you to read the alarming testimony that the Nadeem Center published on the torture that citizens faced at the hands of the military police and the officers of the War Prison. I paused at the testimony of a young man who was arrested in front of Omar Makram Mosque. An officer insulted his religion and his mother; soldiers hit him and his colleagues with their shoes and told them “So you’ll stop saying: Down with the Field Marshal.” He replied to them: “The army isn’t the [Supreme] council [of the Armed Forces], that would mean that if the Field Marshal died, Egypt would die;” the military man answered: “The Field Marshal doesn’t die.” That’s how the soldier answered without thinking, whereas if he had a little he would have remembered that you inevitably will die, and if he’d asked you you would have told him you will die; all of us will die and will stand before God and his justice to be questioned on our mistakes and our crimes. I know calling for your ouster angers you (and let me tell you that it doesn’t make me personally happy, not just out of consideration for your person and your role in siding with the revolution, but also because I consider it an impractical slogan that may have a negative effect on military institutions, whose unity and strength is in the interest of Egypt, whatever the mistakes of their leaders). But let me ask you, sir: Do you think the young man chanting against you or against the military council does so because there is something personal between him and you, him and the SCAF? Why didn’t this young man chant these slogans right after Mubarak’s ouster on February 11or until March 9, when the human rights violations began, the violations of the right of young people to express their political opinion, aiming at nothing more than making this country better? 

What happened, Mr. Field Marshal? How was trust lost? Who is responsible for this? Whatever the justifications and the excuses may be, does anything excuse military police beating and humiliating young people; does anything justify the warden of the Hadra jail forcing them to crawl on the piss-covered floor and expose their nakedness to each other? Have you read the testimony of the activist Mohammed Mansour, who a military court exculpated of the charge of attacking the northern military district? If you haven’t read it, than I beg you to read it and the dozens of trustworthy testimonies of other young men and women; I myself have delivered some of these testimonies to the Prime Minister and to military leaders -- and yet there has been no punishment for these abominable acts. 

I am one of those who believes that escalation against the army harms more than it helps, but I also believe that “he who doesn’t speak out the truth is a mute devil” and that God will hold me accountable if I pass the violation of a person’s dignity in silence. And I am just a writer; how will the matter be with you, sir, who are responsible before God for all that happens in Egypt now? I don’t know what your stance towards the torture and human rights violations that happened in the days of Mubarak was, and I don’t want to know, for you may argue before God that this was not your responsibility; but you cannot do that now, for you are responsible for every injustice that happens in Egypt, with your knowledge or without. I sincerely advise, as God is my witness and yours, not to trust the security apparatus that you inherited from Mubarak, for you’ve seen what they’ve done with Egypt and where they’ve taken it. Listen to your citizens’ stories directly, receive them in your office and ask them to tell you what they’ve seen and lived, don’t have intermediaries between yourself and them, for there will be no intermediaries between yourself and God on the day of judgement. May God be my witness, I seek no heroism through my words, for the time of individual heroism has passed and we now live in an era of peoples’ heroism. All I hope is that you will go down in history as the military leader who didn’t just transfer power to civilians but safeguarded the dignity of Egyptians and upheld their rights and protected their freedoms. And if you are not concerned with history books -- which will never forget all that happens, for good or ill, in this time -- then be concerned with the ledger in which your good deeds and evil deeds are recorded, to be read before God on the day of judgement. 

 

What the XXXX?

There sure are a lot of XXXs in this redacted Wikileaks cable, citing an Egyptian parliamentarian's speculation that Minister of Defense Hussein Tantawi and Director of Intelligence Omar Suleiman might thwart Gamal Mubarak from succeeding his father, back from 2007:

--------------------------------------- 
XXXXXXXXXXXX
--------------------------------------- 
 
¶6. (C) XXXXXXXXXXXX noted that hisXXXXXXXXXXXX (per ref B, a 
XXXXXXXXXXXX), is XXXXXXXXXXXX at the XXXXXXXXXXXX, due to what XXXXXXXXXXXX termed the continuing XXXXXXXXXXXX.  According to XXXXXXXXXXXX, MinDef Tantawi called him XXXXXXXXXXXX to ensure that XXXXXXXXXXXX was satisfied as to how XXXXXXXXXXXX was being XXXXXXXXXXXX.  XXXXXXXXXXXX said he engaged XXXXXXXXXXXX with XXXXXXXXXXXX, asking him to help get XXXXXXXXXXXX, as he has already XXXXXXXXXXXX and 
"XXXXXXXXXXXX"  XXXXXXXXXXXX allegedly checked with XXXXXXXXXXXX, 
then replied that XXXXXXXXXXXX cannot be XXXXXXXXXXXX before he XXXXXXXXXXXX, as, "we are under terrible foreign pressure to XXXXXXXXXXXX, so cannot XXXXXXXXXXXX, as they will 
then criticize us for not XXXXXXXXXXXX too."  XXXXXXXXXXXX subsequent suggestion to XXXXXXXXXXXX both XXXXXXXXXXXX and XXXXXXXXXXXX went unheeded.  However, XXXXXXXXXXXX allegedly told XXXXXXXXXXXX that he had instructed XXXXXXXXXXXX to not 
undertake any procedures to divest XXXXXXXXXXXX of his XXXXXXXXXXXX; XXXXXXXXXXXX
therefore believes XXXXXXXXXXXX will be able to re-assume XXXXXXXXXXXX 
 
¶7. (S) Comment: While XXXXXXXXXXXX is a useful interlocutor and a 
well-placed parliamentarian, we stress that he is the only 
Embassy contact to date who has raised with us the spectre of 
a post-Mubarak military coup.  While discussion of 
presidential succession is a favorite parlor game in Cairo 
salons, hypothesizing about the acutely sensitive topic of a 
coup is certainly not regularly undertaken in Egyptian 
circles. 

 

Tantawi, eating his words

From the Pakistani newspaper Dawn, in a report on Wikileaks US Embassy cable reports on Pakistan: 

The dismissive attitude towards Pakistan is, however, not limited to Western governments. In a cable dated December 21, 2009, Egyptian Defence Minister Mohamed Hussein Tantawi told US Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair that Egypt encountered the same suspicions from Pakistan as the US did. Pakistanis, he said, “don’t trust Egyptians either.” He went on to say that “while the Pakistanis were ‘difficult’… Egypt was still trying to ‘work with them.’” According to the cable, Mr Tantawi, who has previously served as the Egyptian Defence Attache to Pakistan, also pointedly noted that “any country where the military became engaged in ‘internal affairs’ was ‘doomed to have lots of problems.’”

Priceless.

Tantawi's history as Egyptian Defense Attaché in Pakistan in the 1980s — probably as a major conduit in the Saudi and US-led effort to send mujaheddin to fight the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan — deserves a closer investigation. The relationships Tantawi must have developed with key actors in that semi-covert war (which Egypt backed, with even al-Ahram carrying advertisements to "join the jihad" in Afghanistan) such as Prince Bandar. Hence the long-held rumor that not only Tantawi has close relations with the al-Sauds, but also that he is a religious conservative whose views would not be out of sync with the Muslim Brothers. 

Sheikh Tantawi, 1928-2010

Sheikh Muhammad Tantawi

This morning, Muhammad Tantawi, Sheikh of al-Azhar, passed away in Riyadh from a heart attack. He was one of what may be, symbolically at least, the three most important men in Egypt, along with President Hosni Mubarak and Coptic Pope Shenouda III. All three were about the same age, and ill.

Tantawi leaves a mixed legacy behind him: overall, the immediate verdict may be that he was too liberal for conservatives, too conservative for liberals, too compliant with the regime for those who want al-Azhar to be independent, and too independent for those in the regime who needed Azharite support to enact policy changes on issues as varied as Palestine, banking and TV game shows. The overall image is of a man besieged on all sides, but adept at fighting bureaucratic battles in the bloated, clerical civil service that al-Azhar has become.

Tantawi was of the generation of men that have ruled Egypt for at least three decades, and had an incredible influence over twentieth century Egypt. He came of age in the 1940s, and considered himself privileged to have been a young Muslim Brother and benefited from direct contact with the movement's founder, Hassan al-Banna. He shared with al-Banna and many other Brothers at the time a provincial origin, a fierce nationalism and disdain for the cosmopolitanism of Egypt's ruling elite under the monarchy. He would eventually grow into one of the Brotherhood's favorite targets, accused of selling out Sunnism's most hallowed institution of learning to the regime. His record as the state Mufti between 1986 and 1995 was, in the Islamists' eyes, an era of unprecedented politicization of religious institution, and they never forgave him for it (never mind that they were fighting a battle to politicize these institutions against the regime all throughout that time.)

When Tantawi became Sheikh al-Azhar in 1995, replacing the conservative Gad al-Haqq, he immediately began what would amount to an internal purge. Al-Haqq had promoted the al-Azhar Scholar's Front, a conservative group opposed to the co-optation of al-Azhar, since 1992, in part in reaction to the murder of the leading secularist thinker Farag Fouda, whose martyrdom he feared would boost secularists in the regime. The Scholar's Front had been set up in 1946 as a group of anti-secularist scholars and thinkers to counter the ideas of Taha Hussein. Tantawi immediately broke with the front, and instead leaned on the Islamic Research Academy, seen as marginally more reformist, to sanctify his ideas.

Sheikh Metwalli ShaarawiThe context of Tantawi's rise in al-Azhar is important. Tantawi's career had been from government post to government post, and he had never distinguished himself as an opponent of the regime. Some saw him as too pliant, including the person who is perhaps Egypt's most influential religious figure of the late twentieth century, Sheikh Metwally Shaarawi. Shaarawi, who died in 1997, was a populist TV preacher whose posters still adorn many shops in lower-income neighborhoods. His influence — in my opinion for the worse, as his brand of religion, while accessible, was often crass and small-minded — cannot be under-estimated, and Tantawi had to deal with it. The story is that Tantawi chose to placate Shaarawi by appointing his son at the head of the Academy. With his help, Tantawi eroded the authority of the Scholars' Front, eventually succeeding in getting the government to withdraw its license. He also pursued some of its leaders — his main critics — in the courts, winning libel trials against them. But he would also clash with Shaarawi Jr.

Throughout his tenure at al-Azhar, Tantawi would provoke controversies, and he could not always count on the support of the Academy and his fellow Azharites. His detractors accused him of blindly supporting government policies, no matter what Islamic traditions said. For instance, he decreed that banks could charge interest without this being riba (usury), but rather ribh (profit). Later, he would also sanction the mortgage law, allowing Egyptians to borrow to finance home purchases (a major, and many think necessary, reform to avoid other types of loans or only being able to buy property with cash.) Some reformist thinkers, like the "red Sheikh" Khalil Abdel Karim, backed him tentatively because he agreed (but not all the time) that new ijtihad (re-interpretation of Islamic tenets) was necessary.

Other clashes with conservatives were more esoteric, or mundane. Tantawi was the first Sheikh of al-Azhar to attend conferences hosted by groups such as the Rotary Club, which have long been considered as suspect by many conservatives Muslims who consider them as beachheads for Freemasonry and its deism (and also because of the role Freemason-inspired secret societies played in politics under the monarchy.) He was tut-tutted for approving of TV game shows like "Who wants to be a millionaire?" Most recently, he became controversial for ripping a young girl's niqab of her face and saying no girl should wear the full-face veil. He was also constantly battling influential clerics like Sheikh Youssef al-Qaradawy — "Sheikh al-Jazeera" — on women's issues, as for instance when he decreed that women could be eligible for the presidency (an issue the Muslim Brothers still fight over). It was under his tenure that al-Azhar finally, without reservation, condemned Female Genital Mutilation, although his critics say that took longer that it should have.

Peres and TantawiPerhaps most public was his battle with al-Qaradawy, Islamists, nationalists, and many on the left over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In 1996, Tantawi became the first major Sunni figure to oppose suicide bombings in reaction to a particularly bloody attack on Israeli civilians that year. But within weeks, he backtracked in the face of a press campaign against him and called the bomber a "martyr." He battled the Mufti at the time, Sheikh Nasr Farid Wassel, over whether suicide bombings were acceptable. His meetings with Israeli figures, such as Israel's head rabbi or Shimon Peres, made many indignant, particularly after the Oslo process collapsed. It made it worse that he constantly waffled on the issue, pretending not to have recognized Peres. In the context of the war in Gaza and Egypt's shift of policy towards the Palestinians, as well as Peres' bloody past, this was seen as outrageous. The irony is that there has long been a rumor that Tantawi's doctoral thesis, titled "The Children of Israel in the Quran and Sunna", is believed to have been removed from al-Azhar's library because of its un-PC views of Jews.

It is likely that Tantawi will be remembered for these controversies and his clashes with journalists — he frequently yelled at them and is said to have hit one — as well as his sometimes coarse language. He leaves behind an unreformed al-Azhar — an institution that includes a university and a school system as well as a theological center — whose credibility has hit rock-bottom. This may be because Tantawi was too pliant towards the regime, or because of the growth of various trends in contemporary Islam that reject al-Azhar's centrality. While the Muslim Brothers dream of restoring al-Azhar to its former (imagined?) glories, Salafists and groups like the Quranists would do away with its mediation of religion altogether. The debate over al-Azhar and the trahison des clercs is far from over. Whoever replaces him — perhaps Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa, another tentative modernizer — will have much work to repair al-Azhar's standing and its vitality as a place of learning. It will also have to make difficult political decisions, especially on the issue of presidential succession, at a time when clerics are beginning to voice an opinion on the prospect of a Gamal Mubarak presidency.

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