By Khaled Diab
A child’s vision of freedom, infamous last words, street democracy, loving men in uniform, and men in hijabs. Seeing Egypt through Egyptian eyes.
Tuesday 30 July 2013
Egypt has been in the clutches of revolution since 25 January 2011, when protests first erupted against the regime of then-President Hosni Mubarak. Since the ouster of President Mohammed Morsi at the beginning of July this year, the clashes between pro-Morsi supporters, anti-Morsi protesters and the military have continued. Too much of the coverage of these events has ignored the voices of Egyptians, both leaders and the public.
Presented here is a personal selection of these voices, from a precociously perceptive 12-year-old boy’s analysis of Egypt’s democratic deficit and the eerie parallel between two presidents’ infamous last words, to aerial views of Egyptian street democracy in action and a retrospective of a more progressive age, when women walked bare-haired and Muslim Brothers were told they should don the hijab.
1. Democracy for dummies
Although this interview was posted online a few months ago, it has gone viral since the 30 June mass protests, with over 3.3 million views at the time of writing.
Despite his youth, Ali Ahmed (12) manages, in less than three minutes, to display a grasp of democracy, the shortcomings of the Egyptian political system and why the Islamist had lost their political legitimacy that would put most politicians, not to mention media pundits, to shame.
What I like about this film is how Ahmed’s eloquence challenges all the lazy stereotypes floating around. Secular democracy is not just supported by the “elite”. Muslims do “get” and want democracy. Being poor does not mean you support the Islamists. And, above all, that Egypt’s youth, who have spearheaded the revolution from the start, are often far wiser not just than their years but also than their elders.
Some have suggested that this young lad should become president one day. Personally, I think the need for him is more urgent. He should be appointed as a non-partisan arbiter of the current transition. Perhaps only then will the political establishment be shamed into acting like grown-ups.
2. Street-level democracy
This aerial footage provides a bird’s-eye view of the unbelievable river of humanity that took to Cairo’s streets, not just in the iconic Tahrir Square but across the metropolis, on 30 June to give Mohammed Morsi an unforgettable first anniversary present.
From the sky, it almost looks as though the entire city has turned out to tell the president to leave. And similar scenes played themselves out in Egypt’s other major cities, small towns and even villages. It is a reflection of just how skilled Egyptians have become at mass mobilisation that this spectacle does not inspire the same level of awe as it did back in 2011.
The millions of Egyptians who flooded the streets in protests – reportedly larger than those which toppled Hosni Mubarak – are a damning indictment of just how divisive and disastrous Morsi’s 12 months in power were.
Although Morsi had designs on becoming Egypt’s first democratically elected dictator, this impasse was not entirely of his making. Much of the problem was institutional and can be traced back to Egypt’s botched “transition”. Rather than true reform, the military was more interested in protecting its interests with a democratic fig leaf. This left the excessive powers of the presidency intact, the military over-powerful, the parliament toothless and robbed Egypt of a robust and fair constitution.
3. (In)famous last words
Despite being rambling and poorly orated, Mohamed Morsi’s final speech as president was interesting both for what it said and what it implied, for both its text and subtext. Defiantly, the president told Egyptians that he would not step down, even if it cost his blood.
As if repeating a mantra not only to convince a sceptical public but perhaps also himself, Morsi used the word “legitimacy” 56 times. Naturally the president’s supporters agreed with him wholeheartedly, while millions of protesters disagreed vehemently (the question of Morsi’s legitimacy is a thorny issue indeed.)
Speaking of which, it is unnerving just how eerily Morsi’s words echoed the final speech of his predecessor Hosni Mubarak. Both men’s tones seemed detached from the reality surrounding them. Both men insisted that they would only cede power at the ballot box. Both leaders claimed that their clinging on to power was not personal but was for the good of Egypt. Ironically, despite their well-documented anti-revolutionary credentials, the two presidents insisted that they were selflessly serving the revolution. And both warned ominously that they were the only guarantors of the country’s stability.
Still haunted by the spectre of dictators past, millions of Egyptians decided that it was time to exorcise this ghost of dictator present before he could take full form as the iron fist of dictatorship future.
4. Egypt ♥ the army
Protesters greeted news of Morsi’s forcible removal from power with jubilation late into the night, against the backdrop of a fireworks display and laser show on Tahrir Square.
Despite the fact that the army had technically committed a coup, I can understand the source of the joy – the protesters felt they had taken on another tyrant and won. They were also relieved that this quasi-dictator was out of office before he could grow up and become a despot with a capital D.
Less understandable, and far more troubling, is the rekindled love affair between large swathes of the Egyptian public and the military. This echoes the elation with the army that occurred after Mubarak’s downfall – also technically a ‘coup’ – when millions of Egyptians truly believed that the “army and the people are a single hand”.
But when that hand turned to an iron fist crushing dissent and a heavy boot trampling on the demands of the revolution during the first transition, people quickly fell out of love with the generals. This time round, as the army goes on a killing spree of pro-Morsi protesters, that will happen again. These battered lovers will soon discover that the military may have ousted Morsi because he was an enemy of democracy, but the junta are hardly its friends either.
This time there are clear signs that the infatuation will be much shorter, as more and more voices are raised: Neither Morsi nor the military.
5. Men in hijabs
This film is not about current events in Egypt, but it is a fascinating backgrounder. This rare footage of Gamal Abdel-Nasser, president from 1956-1970, hero to millions of Arabs and villain of the West, is interesting partly because it shows a human side – chatty, laughing, humorous, intimate – to a man whom history depicts as larger than life.
But more fascinating is the insight it provides into how Egyptian society and politics have changed over the decades. In this speech, Nasser relates his Free Officers’ well-known early overtures to the Muslim Brotherhood, back in 1953, but from a personal vantage point.
Nasser asked the movement’s leader what the Brotherhood’s political demands were, and the General Guide told Nasser that he wanted him to make every Egyptian woman wear the hijab.
Dedicated secularist and modernist that he was, Nasser balked at the idea. “If I did that, people would say: ‘We’ve gone back to the days of al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah [the Mad Caliph] who used to make people go out at night, not during the day,” the president joked.
And back then, the vast majority of Egyptian women not only wore their hair loose, many donned the latest fashions, even mini-skirts and revealing summer dresses. Moreover, revolutionary rhetoric, if not social reality, was generally empowering to women and depicted them as partners in Egypt’s development.
As a reflection of this vastly different social reality, the General Guide’s own daughter, Nasser informs us, did not wear a headscarf. In addition, one of the farmers in the audience shouted out: “Let [the General Guide] wear one,” to peels of approving laughter. As my wife points out, it is quite hard to imagine someone in even an urban audience, like in Cairo, saying that today.
More crucially, this anecdote is also a damning indictment of the Muslim Brotherhood. At a time when Egypt had just undergone revolutionary change and needed to focus on how to develop its way out of poverty, all this Islamist group could think of was women’s hair.
Likewise, since Morsi’s ascent, they have busied themselves with whether or not Sharia should be the primary or one of several sources of legislation; rural women’s “unclean breasts”; and safeguarding “morality and public decency”. All this at a time when the economy was imploding and society collapsing around their ears.
Of course, Nasser was no angel. His hatred of the Brotherhood led him to suppress the movement mercilessly, as well as to silence all secular dissent, especially from communists, but also liberals and socialists who dared to disagree.
Contrasting Nasser with the Brotherhood and future hopes for Egyptian democracy raises some thorny questions. Is democracy without social freedom or social freedom without democracy better? Which is more important: individual freedom or collective freedom? If one must choose, is it better to be free of want or free of spirit? If the majority choose to be ruled by religion, what happens to the minority who do not believe in it or do not wish to practise it?
This article first appeared in Haaretz on 24 July 2013.