Egypt’s other revolution

 
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By Khaled Diab

Revolutionary disappointment in Egypt has concealed the ongoing social revolution whose shifting sands are likely to result in a political earthquake.

Women are at the vanguard of efforts to subvert the established social order.

Women are at the vanguard of efforts to subvert the established social order.

Wednesday 28 January 2015

The fourth anniversary of the Egyptian revolution “brings back memories of what might have been,” a relative of mine remarked.

And for those who were there, on Tahrir Square and in pretty much every town and village across the country, those memories are precious and magical. “I’m proud. We did good, we did right,” said a friend who was active in the 2011 uprising. “True, we lost [and] the villains are back in power… but we were right, and we tried.”

At the time, Egyptians discovered their latent and long-dormant power to rock the president’s throne and unseat the pharaoh – all in just 18 days. In addition  to elation and euphoria, this led to a sense of near-invincibility, that the revolution could surmount any obstacle and transform Egypt into a vibrant, free and equitable society.

In light of the brutal and deadly efficiency of the counterrevolution, four years on, even the most optimistic are disillusioned and disenchanted, with people I know calling it the “cruelest joke”. Some even wonder whether the revolution was just a mirage, an illusionary oasis for the thirsty millions stumbling through Egypt’s dry desert of oppression.

But the political revolution was real, though it has been derailed and delayed, and I am convinced it is not over, not by a long shot, but it, like its French predecessor and others, will be a multi-generational project.

This is because, despite popular belief, the issues are not just political – they are social, economic and cultural too. Ever since the start of the revolution, I have warned that we must curb our enthusiasm because the uprising would not succeed without an accompanying social revolution, without the unseating of Egypt’s million “mini-Mubaraks” stifling society and without addressing the country’s centuries-old leadership vacuum.

And even at a time when the political revolution is fatally wounded, the social revolution, largely unnoticed and unappreciated, is, at many levels, in full swing. One area where revolutionary socio-economic change is visible is the organised labour movement.

The uprising of Egyptian workers actually predated the revolt in 2011 by a few years. In addition, Egypt’s independent unions, despite the attention lavished on middle-class youth activists, played a pivotal role in the revolution, organising thousands of strikes and mobilising workers.

Moreover, the al-Sisi regime’s efforts to contain and break the labour movement, and to co-opt some union leaders, have not succeeded. In 2014, despite the controversial anti-protest law, understated official figures show that Egypt witnessed 287 strikes, with independent estimates suggesting that the country was shaken by 2,274 incidents of industrial action. And continued failure to tackle this economic bottom line could well prove to be the current regime’s undoing.

Beyond Egypt’s workers, another long-marginalised group, which constitutes half of society, has also been up in arms. Tired of generations of having their rights deferred in the service of this or that greater cause, women are actively and muscularly agitating for change, both collectively and individually.

In a phenomenon I call Egypt’s “underground sisterhood”, women are fighting Egypt’s sexual harassment epidemic, including support networks, challenging the social stigma associated with being single, and even struggling to become mosque preachers, not to mention the growing number of “feminist” men, even from traditional backgrounds.

In addition to the huge ranks of women involved in every line of activism, this is reflected in the rising number of women rejecting the hijab or headscarfed women choosing lifestyles previously associated with their “liberal” sisters, as well as those who break away from convention by living alone. Then there are the women intruding on traditional male domains, such as the traditional men-only tea houses, and even the iconic photograph of a public kiss between a girl in a hijab and her boyfriend.

Despite the risks involved, even previously unrecognised minorities, such as atheists, are beginning to demand attention and rights.

While the social ground shifts and quakes, political activists are digging in for the long haul and trying to learn from their mistakes. “That’s our homework: to prepare a substitute,” Mohamed Nabil, a leader in the now-banned 6 April Youth Movement, was quoted as saying. “At the end al-Sisi is lying, and the Egyptian people will react. You never know when.”

In fact, I sense that al-Sisi may find himself unwittingly presiding over Egypt’s transition to democracy. This is not because the Egyptian president is ready for democracy – none of them have been – but Egypt will be.

With the social ground rumbling beneath his feet and oppositions forces regrouping despite the repression, al-Sisi will eventually find himself faced with a stark choice: reform or perish. Given the weakness of the state and the fact that the repression machine is already working at full throttle, pragmatism and self-preservation would require al-Sisi to recognise Egypt’s pluralism and make major concessions.

Failure to reform could, at best, spark a third revolutionary wave or, at worst, push Egypt off the cliff into the abyss of full-out civil conflict. Today, as in 2011, the answer to Egypt’s woes remains freedom, democracy, and socio-economic justice.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera on 24 January 2015.

 

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Egypt’s rebels without a pause

 
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By Khaled Diab

The failure of Egypt’s new leaders to address the needs and aspirations of young people means the revolution will not stop until there is real change.

Thursday 20 December 2012

Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi has set his successors a hard act to follow… he managed the remarkable feat of going from hero to zero in little more than 24 hours.

After days of escalating Israeli-Palestinian violence that threatened to spill over into a full-blown war and even a wider regional conflict, Morsi bucked the expectations of doubters and succeeded in brokering a ceasefire agreement between Israel and Gaza, eliciting a freak chorus of praise from all sides of the trenches: from Hamas, Israel, many Egyptians and even the United States.

The acclaimed ceasefire, which avoided the death, destitution and destruction of the Gaza war of 2008/9, went into effect on Wednesday 21 November. Rather than rest on his laurels for a while and bask in the glory of Egypt’s minor diplomatic victory – which highlighted and underscored the power of diplomacy over violence – Morsi decided to seize the moment.

No sooner had the Israeli missiles and Palestinian rockets fallen silent than the Egyptian president decided to drop a massive political bombshell on the home front. A day after the ceasefire, on November 22, Morsi delivered a declaration which effectively immunises him and the Islamist-dominated constituent assembly – which then hurriedly approved Egypt’s controversial draft constitution pending a referendum – from legal challenges from the judiciary or opponents.

Although Morsi insisted his move was a temporary measure, which would last only as long as it took for the new constitution to enter into force, and was designed to “protect the revolution”, opposition figures and revolutionaries were unconvinced, describing the President’s ambitions as being that of a “new pharaoh” and the declaration as a “coup against legitimacy”.

Many in Egypt saw the timing of this move as more than just a coincidence, with some going as far as to suggest that Morsi had received a nod and a wink from visiting US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to launch his bid to become Egypt’s new, American-backed dictator-in-chief.

We do politics differently now

Although Washington seems to look favourably on Morsi as the lesser of many evils for American regional interests, what seems the most likely is that the Egyptian president decided to reward himself for his success and prematurely cash in on his unexpected moment of popularity both within and outside Egypt by indulging in an impulsive act of flagrant opportunism – which has backfired spectacularly.

But even if the president has now, under immense popular pressure, reversed his decree, though not many of its rulings, he betrayed a seriously flawed understanding of the republic of which he has become the first democratically elected leader: the majority of Egyptians did not vote for dictatorship, and the Egypt that accepts autocracy is, like the past, a foreign country: we do politics differently now.

Most Egyptians, particularly the youth who spearheaded the revolution, no longer have the stomach for a “new pharaoh”, especially after all the sacrifices they have made to win their freedom (even if it is only partial, for now), and have developed a strong appetite for greater people power.

That is why Morsi’s attempt to impersonate ousted former president Hosni Mubarak was met by widespread contempt, opposition and anger… and in that longstanding Egyptian tradition, mockery and humour, such as the teenage protesters who placed a surgical mask on a statue in Cairo of Latin American revolutionary Simon Bolivar, presumably to protect his bronze eyes and lungs against the stinging, suffocating effects of teargas.

Since the fateful decree, millions of Egyptians have poured out on to the streets of Cairo, Alexandria, Mahalla and other towns and cities across the country to protest Morsi’s actions and the referendum, slated for Saturday 15 December, on the draft constitution which reformist Egyptians see as undemocratic and non-inclusive.

So many protesters came out to reoccupy Tahrir that one wit demanded the expansion of the world-famous square in anticipation of future missteps by the Egyptian president.

And in scenes reminiscent of Mubarak’s final days, the crowds chanted: “The people want to bring down the regime”, and vowed that they would not vacate the square until their demands were met. “Morsi has done in less than five months what it took Mubarak 30 years to achieve. With this latest move, he has messed up big time,” one young Egyptian diplomat observed. “I think his days are numbered.”

The new wave of protests has led to speculation as to whether Egypt’s stalled revolution has resumed. To me, it looks like we are entering the third phase of revolt: the first was against Mubarak, the second against the generals who replaced him, and now people are regrouping to take on Morsi and his Islamist cohorts.

Revolutionary generation

To many, the battle lines in the current standoff are between Egypt’s new Islamist rulers and the disgruntled secular opposition who had started the revolution but were apparently unable to finish it. While this Islamist-secularist division is partly true, it oversimplifies an extremely complex situation of overlapping alliances and rivalries.

Other battle lines include pro-revolution versus anti-revolution, rich-poor, women-men, democratic-autocratic, neoliberal-progressive, socialist-conservative, etc. Throughout nearly two years of upheaval and change, one of the most constant divides has been a generational one, between the more privileged older strata of society and the more marginalized youth. This is reflected in every opposition movement, including the Muslim Brotherhood, whose younger, more liberal, pro-revolutionary members broke away from the anti-revolutionary elders last year to join their fellow revolutionaries on the streets and squares of Egypt.

As was the case in February 2011 against Mubarak and in November 2011 against the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), though people of all backgrounds and ages were out on the streets, the bulk of the protesters were young. “I just want to say how brave these young kids are,” one protester, Ahmed, said upon returning from Tahrir Square. “Not even the choking tear gas was able to stop them from fighting for their freedom.”

The predominantly youthful nature of the protests is a natural by-product of Egypt’s young population – with more than half of Egyptians born after Mubarak came to power in 1981 – and the ongoing marginalisation of young people by the establishment, whether official or opposition. Although many young Egyptians have found success in all walks of life, politically they still occupy the fringes, leaving the main arena open to them the democracy of the street and the utopian possibilities raised by the egalitarian, if short lived, tent Republic of Tahrir last year.

“I believe Egypt’s political revolution is the product of Egypt’s ‘social revolution’,” says Nael Shama, an Egyptian political researcher and columnist. “This young generation is very dynamic and rebellious. They break taboos, revolt against prevailing institutions, norms and mindsets, and heavily assert their presence in public spaces, which usually puts them on a collision course with the official establishment.”

Although it is true that the Egyptian revolt started in January 2011 on the back of its sister revolution further west, events in Tunisia really only provided the spark of hope and inspiration required to trigger the chain reaction which shifted the existing movements for democratic and revolutionary change from the margins of Egyptian society right to its very heart.

During the decade preceding the revolution, calls for change were gathering pace, as reflected in the greater daring civil society and the opposition exhibited towards Mubarak and his men. In a society where criticising the president was once tantamount to political sacrilege, and like cardinal sins carried hefty consequences for the “sinner”, it was remarkable that an entire political movement existed, Kefaya (Enough), which united activists of all political stripes under the single platform of openly demanding that Mubarak step down. It even forced him, in 2005, to organise Egypt’s first multi-candidate presidential election, even if it was hardly free and fair, and this was an early sign of radical change in the making.

Even though Kefaya’s leadership, like much of Egypt’s established opposition, was dominated by older secularists, it had a strong youth element. Moreover, young people came into their own when they pushed beyond the consensus position of the opposition – which called for Hosni Mubarak’s ouster and rejected Gamal Mubarak’s suspected plans to take over power from his father – and set up a movement to agitate for more far-reaching social and economic justice. For example, the 6 April Youth Movement, which is credited with being one of the main driving forces behind the 25 January revolution, was originally established, in the spring of 2008, by young activists, most of whom were well-educated and had not been political beforehand, as an expression of solidarity with striking textile workers in Mahalla al-Kubra.

Moreover, the revolution of the mind, which had been building up gradually in the years prior to the revolution and which exploded in the regime’s face in January 2011, was nowhere more apparent than among youth, who have surpassed their elders in their confidence and courage and their determination to overcome the traditional fear and deference which has paralyzed Egyptian politics and society.

When people think of politically conscious and active youth, their minds tend to wander towards universities, and despite the Mubarak regime’s studious efforts to depoliticise Egyptian student life and the many years of apathy and indifference this spawned, campuses played, as they had in the anti-colonial period, a crucial role in young people’s political formation.

But the radicalisation of youth did not stop at the university gate. Despite or perhaps because of the poor education Egyptian public schools generally provided and their reputation for creating conformity in young minds, Egypt’s state-run school system was unwittingly producing a generation of politicised youth under the regime’s radar, as groundbreaking research carried out by Hania Sobhy of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), convincingly demonstrated.

And this rebellion and disaffection is hardly surprising, given the non-curricular lessons on class, youth exclusion, corruption, arbitrary and harsh punishment and the importance of connections and nepotism pupils receive in school. “The school gives very practical and concrete citizenship lessons to children, lessons about their differentiated entitlement to rights,” describes Sobhy.

One boy who spoke to Sobhy demanded portentously: “To fix things, everyone has to be removed…We need all new people.” As a foretaste of what was to come, less than a month before revolutionary fever gripped the entire country, pupils at semi-private state schools known as national institutes went on strike and organised sit-ins and marches in opposition to a ministerial decree they believed threatened their schools.

The sport of revolution

But perhaps the most surprising breeding ground for revolutionary fervour was not the education system, but sport. Around the world, football fans are rarely associated with politics, and soccer, in fact, has traditionally been regarded as a tool for channelling disaffection and discontentment into harmless club loyalty. But in a country where the government had managed to shut down all outlets for youth discontentment besides the mosque and (later) the internet, many of those who did not find Islamism appealing turned the stands of their favourite football clubs into political salons.

The Egyptian Ultras, as these politicised supporters are known, have truly put the fanatic, in the most positive sense of the word, back into fan. As someone who only has a passing interest in football and finds the petty tribalism of fan culture unappealing, the passion, commitment and courage of the Ultras during the 18 days it took topple Mubarak, and the vital role they played in holding on to Tahrir during the infamous “Battle of the Camels”, has filled me with a great deal of respect for these young idealists.

And the Ultras’ willingness to put their lives on the line for the cause of freedom has helped sustain and revive the revolution when it looked set to falter amid harsh repression. “I think the battles and clashes have kept the revolution alive, in the sense that they materialised the feeling, which persists, that there is still something to fight for (both in the pessimistic sense of ‘we’re not there yet’, and in the sense of not giving up hope),” observes Alya El Hosseiny, a 23-year-old Egyptian graduate student.

But it would be a mistake to think of the Ultras as simply urban warriors, as I discovered for myself at one of their sit-ins. The protest was well-organized and self-policed, and the participants were good-humoured despite their obvious anger at the lack of progress. They sang and danced to a whole repertoire of newly coined revolutionary songs, from the thunderingly defiant to the mockingly ironic. In one sarcastic song, they advised fellow citizens “Keep your head down, hang it low, you live in a democracy, you know.” Given the machismo of football, the Ultras themselves are all men, but there were also plenty of women in the crowd, from the hip and modern to the hip and traditional.

And the longer things change without really changing, the more the aspirations for change will grow. Mubarak and the generals of the SCAF have already learnt this lesson the hard way, but the Islamists are intent on repeating the same errors: the more they try to suppress and contain Egypt’s new revolutionary spirit, the wider it spreads. In fact, the sustained campaign to put the brakes on the revolution has only widened resistance to the previously unpoliticised and the even younger.

“What we’ve seen [in the latest confrontations] are very young people, including children, fighting the police,” says Wael Eskandar, a Cairo-based journalist who follows the revolution closely. “Not all of them are particularly aligned with what we think is the revolution, but such a generation is learning not to accept the status quo and to revolt against injustice.”

A revolution in search of a leadership

Over the past nearly two years, so much change has taken place that there are those, in Egypt and beyond, who wonder why there are still such large-scale protests, especially amongst the young. Not only has Mubarak been removed and the army increasingly sidelined, but Egyptians got to go to the ballot box to select their first ostensibly democratically elected parliament and president.

Part of the reason is that much of the change has been superficial and has not delivered the fundamental freedom, equality and economic opportunity young Egyptians yearn for. “The youth revolts but the leadership is still ancient. The youth want change yet the leaders cannot walk away from their comfort zone,” says Marwa Rakha, an Egyptian writer, broadcaster and blogger.

“Young Egyptians have more than once demonstrated that their aspirations are greater than the elite, that their vision is more farsighted, and that they are more willing to sacrifice for the cause,” echoes Nael Shama. “It looks as if the young live in a different time zone from the one within which the largely conventional political elite operates.”

In the eyes of many young revolutionaries, Egyptians have so far effectively substituted one set of fossilized leaders for another. The former ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) of the semi-autocratic Mubarak years has made way for the authoritarian-inclined Freedom and Justice Party of the Muslim Brotherhood and the wannabe-dictator Mohamed Morsi – with the only key difference being that one leaned more towards secularism, while the other is inclined more towards religion – but Egypt has changed, so its new rulers do not have the same room for manoeuvre as their predecessors.

Moreover, though young Egyptians started the revolutionary juggernaut rolling and arguably suffered the greatest pain for the revolution, they have seen precious few gains to date. Not only have they been largely excluded from the official political landscape by their elders, the country’s new leadership has shown little interest in empowering the very people who brought them to power, beyond paying lip service to their courage.

To add insult to injury, Egypt’s draft constitution – which is a wonderful document if you happen to be a conservative, middle-aged, male Muslim – takes a patriarchal and paternalistic attitude not only towards women but also young people, despite its insistence that Egypt’s is a “democratic regime” based on “equal citizenship”.

Joining the political party

Part of the reason for the continued relative disenfranchisement of young people, as well as secular revolutionaries in general, is their lack of political experience in comparison with the savvy veteran Islamists. This was compounded by the divisions and rivalries within revolutionary ranks, eloquently and tragically expressed in the splintering of the April 6 Youth Movement into two rival groups.

“At the beginning, young people had a clearer vision of what they wanted, which was to topple Mubarak and the old regime, and see some change in the country,” notes Lamia Hassan, a young journalist and filmmaker based in Cairo. “But as soon as this was over and the revolution was first hijacked by the military then later by the Islamic groups, the youth started to lose their way a little bit and were less [certain] about what they had to do to keep it alive.”

The reason for this disarray is partly due to the failure of a clear leader or group of leaders to emerge to steer the revolution. While the leaderless nature of the early uprising was a key factor in its success because it made it almost impossible for the regime to shut the revolt down, this one-time asset has turned into a liability.

“Yes, it’s the revolution of youth and the Egyptian people but they do not have a leader – an agreed upon leader. But the country needs a president and a whole cabinet of revolutionary leaders,” asserts Rakha. “In the 1952 coup, the officers had a president, a cabinet, and an array of consultants ready to replace the toppled king and his entourage. The 1952 revolution was disastrous on many fronts but at least they got that part right,” she adds.

To move out of the current intergenerational impasse, young revolutionaries need to become better organised and politically savvy, not just at toppling regimes but at building a new and better state for all Egyptians. In addition, the new political elite must realise that their future and that of Egypt’s is in the hands of young people, and so they must start sharing power with and creating opportunity for the new generation.

“To be effective, and even to survive, political forces (both old and new) need to understand the youth and incorporate their ideas and visions into their political doctrines and plans of action,” concludes Shama.

___

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This essay first appeared in the Palestine-Israel Journal on 13 December 2012 and was set to appear in its special print edition on the younger generation.

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The liberation of exile

 
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By Khaled Diab

My father’s secret police file reveals that my newly wed parents were right to flee Egypt. But I’m grateful for the liberation of “exile”.

Tuesday 10 July 2012

‘This is your life’ was a British TV show in which special guests were taken by surprise on a trip down memory lane with the aid of a ‘big red book’ of their lives.

Though this format never made it to Egypt, the secret police, diligent to a fault when it comes to documenting the achievements of Egyptians, ran for decades its own Orwellian biographical service, accumulating clandestine archives on the “enemies” of the state.

That such documents existed would surprise only the most naïve Egyptians, as most dissidents, opposition politicians, political activists and critical writers and journalists have long suspected there was a binder with their name on it lying in some dusty state security archive or dungeon. On occasion, I have been curious whether I, or other outspoken members of my family and circle of friends, had an unofficial state biographer and what information my unauthorised biography contained. Who knows, perhaps I am privileged enough to have multiple biographers, including an Israeli one chronicling my sojourn here.

The idea that anyone would ever be able to lay hands on their file once seemed like a distant fantasy. But in the mayhem and chaos that followed the collapse of the Mubarak regime, revolutionaries were able to enter a number of state security fortresses – which some likened to the storming of the Bastille – and get their hands on numerous files before they could be destroyed by panicked agents.

It turns out that state security’s prolific biographers had profiled my own father. A dissident for the greater part of his life now, he entered one of those ransacked “temples of torture” and a revolutionary who recognised him handed him 25 partially scorched pages from his police file. The fragments of my father’s unauthorised biography, while containing a smattering of facts, were mainly a work of creative fiction. In addition to detailed information about his family in Egypt, the file contained a number of far-fetched claims – foremost among them was that he had once led a militia in South Lebanon.

“I never even learnt how to shoot a gun,” my father, whose poor eyesight had got him out of military service, told the BBC, his tone reflecting his utter disbelief. The mere suggestion that my bespectacled, somewhat corpulent old man – who has come no nearer to commanding columns than those found on a newspaper page – was some kind of Arab Che Guevara or was capable of wielding anything more threatening than a pen is truly amusing.

My father regards the very existence of his state security file as a sign of the state’s profound insecurity and weakness. He also believes that the tall tales it contains were not the fevered workings of a paranoid mind, but were a carefully crafted attempt to fit him up in the event that they ever got their hands on him. “They were preparing something to get rid of me. There was a plan to do something,” he speculated.

If he is right, then my parents’ decision to flee Egypt was a wise one and saved us all the grief of political imprisonment, a show trial, or perhaps worse.

But what my father’s file doesn’t contain is the human consequences of dissent and exile, and the profound role it has played in shaping an entire family.

When my father learnt that he was being watched, my parents decided to get married in a hurry and the nearest they got to a honeymoon was to flee to Libya, which was relatively open and booming in the early 1970s, before Gadaffi had gone completely mad.

I was born in Tripoli (as was one of my brothers) and, though I remember almost nothing consciously of our sojourn there, my birthplace has cast a shadow over my life. For example, exhibiting a comparable level of paranoia to the Egyptian regime, American Homeland Insecurity has quizzed me as to whether my toddler self ever served in the Libyan armed forces, which would give a whole new meaning to infantry.

From Libya, my parents decided to move on to the UK, at a time when it was still relatively easy to immigrate because my folks were against the idea of seeking political asylum. But my mother returned to Egypt to give birth to my sister (the only sibling born in Egypt) among her family while my father sorted out a place for us to live. What was supposed to be a short visit morphed into a three-year enforced stay as the Egyptian regime effectively held us hostage in a bid to lure my father back.

My courageous and versatile mother, who was juggling the demands of caring for three children and holding down a job, took the government to court and the judge always ruled in her favour, yet each time we went to the airport, we found our name on the notorious “banned from travel” list. Actually, I should point out here that, though my father is the official dissident of the family, my mother is the real rebel, willing to go against social convention to stay true to her convictions. In addition, she is the founding mother of our democratic household.

Eventually, the court was able to impose its will and we finally made it out of the country, only to embark on a long tour of the Middle East trying to find a country which wasn’t pissed off with my father where we could meet and finish the paperwork to move to Britain.

For the next decade or so, we lived in London and were unable to visit family in Egypt. During that time, my mother lost her mother and one of her sisters, losses made the more painful by distance. The memories I have of my favourite grandmother are shrouded in mist: I recall her lovingly tending her birds, kissing the food into their beaks, in her intriguing rooftop pigeon coop, and the frenzied activity she coordinated on the eve of Eid to produce delicious homemade sweets.

In a way, our return to Egypt did not end my sense of “exile”. Although I felt a strong bond of belonging at a certain level, some aspects of life there remained foreign to me and quite a few compatriots viewed me as an honorary foreigner. In addition, my years abroad had bred in me a certain wanderlust and I eventually departed the banks of the Nile once again.

Despite the challenges of distance, I do not share the sentiments of many Egyptian and Arab political and economic migrants who lament their estrangement and long passionately to return. But, unlike for some, such as Palestinians and Arab Jews, my “exile” is an entirely voluntary one and, hence, different.

The unusual circumstances surrounding the formative years of my life have played a part in shaping my personality and identity, and gave me an early object lesson in the importance of being your own person and thinking your own thoughts.

Despite the occasional conflicts between them, I am thrilled by my multiple identities (at once Egyptian, Arab, British, Belgian, European and, above all, human). Each has its own distinct voice in my head, reminding me that the world is a complex place that can be viewed from so many different perspectives. Learning other languages can also help you savour the various accents of life with different tongues.

Being one half of an international couple has been a hugely mind-expanding experience, involving, as it has, tripping round the world with my wife. Our toddler son’s multicultural background is already showing signs of instilling in him a sense of adventure: he is currently missing travelling and has been loudly demanding to go on a plane, switching languages to make his point absolutely clear.

I sometimes wonder what my life would have been like had I spent its entirety in Egypt and I usually conclude that it would have been much the duller. I am profoundly grateful for the kaleidoscope of experiences the accident of my birth has opened up to me. Though I feel quite out of place everywhere, I can also make myself at home just about anywhere.

—-

You can follow Khaled Diab on Twitter at https://twitter.com/DiabolicalIdea

This column first appeared in The Jerusalem Post on 9 July 2012.

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Egypt: from revolution to evolution

 
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By Khaled Diab

Egypt’s next president is likely to be against the revolution, so revolutionaries must forge a viable opposition and push for social and economic change.

Friday 15 June 2012

The culmination of the race for the Egyptian presidency should be a proud moment for Egypt, yet paradoxically the country’s nascent democratic process has delivered an apparently anti-democratic outcome.

Although Egyptians are finally getting the unprecedented opportunity to pick their next leader, voters now have the unenviable dilemma of choosing between an anti-revolutionary, neo-liberal military man (Ahmed Shafiq) and a counterrevolutionary, neo-liberal Islamist (Mohamed Mursi).

This has left revolutionaries and supporters of the revolution in a double bind: participate and effectively vote against the revolution or boycott the elections and potentially undermine the democratic process you have been advocating.

Like Odysseus, Egypt’s revolutionaries have to find a way to navigate, without shipwrecking the revolution, between the multi-headed Scylla that symbolises the remnants of the Mubarak regime and the mysterious and treacherous depths of the whirlpool-inducing Charybdis of the Muslim Brotherhood.

One way of circumnavigating these two perils is to boycott the runoff elections, as many activists and some of the defeated candidates have been urging, in order to show that neither Mursi nor Shafiq enjoy a real mandate. As one protester on Tahrir Square put it, “It does not make sense to choose between two wrongs.”

One effective and creative way of doing this would be to turn up at the voting stations anyway and cast a spoilt ballot – say by writing “Mickey Mouse for president” on their ballot paper. If the number of invalid, or Mickey Mouse, votes outnumber those for Shafiq and Mursi, this would be a powerful message to Egypt’s future president that a Disney character enjoys more support than him.

While people have the right not to vote, such a course of action does involve certain risks. First and foremost, it enables opponents of the revolution to continue the long smear campaign against Egypt’s revolutionaries by suggesting that the boycott is undemocratic and motivated not by principle but by spite.

Pointing to the abuses committed during the transitional period, the unclear powers of the next president and the murky backstage role the junta will play once it officially hands over power, many revolutionaries have become so disillusioned that they plan to shun the entire political process and continue their struggle on the streets.

But this would be a grave error. While there will be a need for the protest-oriented ‘democracy of Tahrir’ for many years to come, the revolution should continue by all means possible – and that includes becoming part of the political process, imperfect as it may be.

Although the generals loaded the dice against the revolutionaries from the start, that was not the only reason behind their poor showing in both the parliamentary and presidential races. The low turnout, of around 47%, for the unique spectacle of 13 men vying for Egypt’s hitherto unavailable top job was effectively a vote of little-to-no confidence in all the candidates.

This failure to inspire is partly a result of the absence of inspiring leaders in the new electoral political brought about by decades of repressive rule, but it is also due to the disarray and fragmentation of the revolutionary movement.

For example, on Tuesday, I read that the 6 April Youth Movement, one of the main driving forces behind the revolution, was backing Mursi’s candidacy after the Islamist candidate had signed on to a ‘National Consensus Document’ and promised to appoint a vice-president who was not connected to the Brotherhood.

The very next day, I read that 6 April was calling for a boycott of the presidential election. Had the young revolutionaries changed their mind so quickly or was this some mistake? Neither, as it turns out. The first announcement was made by the so-called ‘Ahmed Maher Front’, led by one of the group’s co-founders, while the second was released by a splinter group known as the ‘Democratic Front’.

Instead of this infighting and political intrigue, Egypt’s progressive, secular revolutionary forces need to find a way to consolidate themselves and forge a viable opposition to the well-organised and disciplined Islamists over the coming four years if they are to stand a chance at the next election.

In addition, the Egyptian revolution is not just a political one, but is also social, cultural and economic. This is recognised in the revolutionary slogan of ‘bread, freedom and social justice’, but has not been acted upon sufficiently, except rather sporadically at the local level, mainly by workers and trade unions.

If more ordinary Egyptians are to be won over to the cause of the revolution, they need to be persuaded that there is something in it for them, that it can deliver them social and economic justice. Beyond this, creating a secular, liberal, tolerant and egalitarian society requires the removal of ignorance through decent education, and the combating of corruption, nepotism, patronage and the authoritarianism that bedevils Egyptian society not just at the top of the pyramid, but at almost every stratum.

Part of the Muslim Brotherhood’s success can be traced back to more than 80 years of nationwide grassroots social and cultural activism and charitable work. Secularists can learn, and are learning, a lot from the Brotherhood about instigating change from the bottom, up. Egypt does not just need revolution, it also need gradual evolution.

Note: Since this article was written, the Supreme Constitutional Court has dissolved the Egyptian parliament, which has been described by some as a “military coup” and raises worrying questions about exactly how much power the generals truly intend to hand over and whether this ill-conceived decision could spiral out of control and lead to instability and bloodshed. This verdict appears to be politically motivated, which not only undermines the Egyptian judiciaries hard-earned credibility but is also bound to boost the Islamists’ flagging popularity by transforming them into martyrs of political injustice.

 

This is an extended version of an article which appeared in The National on 15 June 2012.

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Egypt’s general discontent

 
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By Khaled Diab

As millions of Egyptians cast their first democratic vote in decades, recent upheavals confirm that Egypt’s military is the biggest threat to freedom.

Wednesday 30 November 2011

Ahmed Harara is a walking metaphor for the Egyptian revolution. During the struggle to topple the former dictator Hosni Mubarak, he was blinded in one eye by a shotgun pellet fired by riot police. In the latest uprising against Egypt’s “transitional” rulers, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), Harara lost his second eye, again to shotgun pellets. Now blinded in both eyes, the brave activist has returned to Tahrir square and a hero’s welcome.

Like Harara, the Egyptian people metaphorically lost one eye in their fight against Mubarak and the other in their struggle against the generals who replaced him. Nevertheless, they are still drawn by the alluring light of freedom at the end of the tunnel.

Just as the Egyptian revolution seemed to be running out of steam, the recent crackdown, which has left dozens dead and hundreds injured, has re-galvanised protesters, triggering what some have referred to as “Revolution II”. Egyptians are outraged and defiant. They are outraged that the self-appointed guardians of their revolution have bitten the hand of peace and trust the people of Egypt had extended to them. One furious Egyptian journalist even likened the army’s betrayal of the revolution to a therapist re-raping a rape victim.

The renewed vigour of the protests culminated last weekend with the “Last Chance Friday” rally on Tahrir square, where hundreds of thousands defiantly refused to be placated by the army’s apology for the recent violence. They called for Monday’s parliamentary elections to be postponed and demanded that SCAF and its freshly minted transitional prime minister, long-time Mubarak loyalist Kamal el-Ganzouri, step down in favour of a “national salvation government” headed by Egyptian Nobel peace laureate Mohamed Elbardei.

Needless to say, this all fell on deaf ears and the generals decided to go ahead with the elections despite the widespread sense of anger and protest. “We will not allow troublemakers to meddle in these elections,” Egypt’s de facto leader, Field Marshall Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, warned ominously.

This general air of hostility towards the generals is a far cry from the chants of “the army and the people are a single hand” which resonated across Egypt back in February when SCAF persuaded an intransigent Mubarak to fall on his sword.

“SCAF’s first contact with the Egyptian people was a military salute to the revolution’s martyrs. This, together with the fact that the army did not visibly shoot at the protesters, portrayed SCAF as heroes,” recalls Aida Seif el-Dawla, the prominent human rights activist and founder of the Nadim Centre for the Psychological Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence.

Despite this mood of optimism, sceptics, including myself, warned from the start that SCAF is the villain, rather than the hero, of the piece who, in a bid to save the body of the regime, unceremoniously decapitated it. And following a brief honeymoon period, millions of Egyptians soon saw SCAF’s true face behind the mask of conciliation. Despite some improvements, the generals’ performance since February has confirmed that the army, after six decades on Egypt’s throne, has no intention of ceding power.

Activists, journalists and ordinary citizens I have spoken to catalogue a long list of abuses and errors which SCAF has committed in the nine months or so since Mubarak’s downfall. These include trying to load the dice of reform in their own favour, endemic human rights abuses, such as the summary military trials of thousands of activists and critics, alleged backroom deals with the Muslim Brotherhood, not to mention the apparent attempt to use ‘divide and rule’ tactics by stoking divisions within the opposition, or by fuelling religious tension and class hatred.

“The biggest mistake the generals made was to choose to spearhead the counterrevolution and abort all meaningful change,” observes Wael Eskandar, a young Egyptian journalist and blogger. “Another mistake was not delivering on most of the promises they’ve made. That lost them credibility.”

But speaking of “mistakes” and “errors” would suggest good intentions but bad execution, which is far from the reality of the situation. “SCAF didn’t make any ‘mistakes’,” reflects Seif el-Dawla sceptically. “They simply lost patience and removed the mask of ‘protecting the revolution’, exposing their ugly, violent face.”

Karim Medhat Ennarah, a young activist who has been involved with the 6 April Youth Movement, which is widely credited as being one of the main driving forces behind the revolution, agrees: “I think they intended to make a mess of the transitional period to create a sense of panic among the population that would give them the excuse they needed to put the brakes on any kind of institutional reform.”

However, the generals, like Mubarak before them, did miscalculate the Egyptian people’s resolve and determination to see change. “They thought they could neutralise the population’s raw anger. They failed to realise that they are not totally in control of all the different factors,” notes Ennarah.

While surprising and bewildering, SCAF’s unimaginative, if somewhat more skilful, use of its former boss’s tactics is hardly surprising given that the generals are led by one of Mubarak’s most loyal sidekicks, in close coordination with members of the former ruling party and big business, as well as the army’s “sponsors” in Washington.

“SCAF is just part of the old regime… It is following the same blueprint,” says Gihan Abou Zeid, an Egyptian activist and feminist who is working on a book about the women who took part in the revolution. Abou Zeid points to SCAF’s extensive control of the transitional government and its tight control of information as evidence of this.

It is far too early to speculate on the eventual results of the parliamentary elections, which started on Monday to massive turnouts and are scheduled to take a marathon four months. However, one outcome seems certain, unless the direct democracy of the Egyptian streets changes matters: like Egypt’s experiment with liberal democracy in the years prior to the 1952 revolution, this parliament will be a toothless talking shop behind which Egypt’s uncrowned khaki kings can take political cover.

“SCAF will never allow any real democracy,” is Eskandar’s gloomy forecast. “What they want is false layers of legitimacy for Egyptians to direct their anger at.”

The generals also have designs on running the future Egypt like invisible puppeteers. “Those who want elections hope that SCAF will leave after the elections. To my knowledge, no military regime left through elections,” says Seif el-Dawla. She notes that “SCAF has already announced that no civilian president will appoint the minister of defence or the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.” This would protect the army’s ample cookie jar for the generals and their subordinates and keep it out of the reach of the greedy, ungrateful hands of the public.

With Egyptian democracy caught by the army in a pincer movement, where to from here?

“The best way forward for Egypt is to get honest people into power and end SCAF’s reign,” concludes Eskandar. “To achieve this, we must either have a civilian presidential council with names that Egyptians can trust, or we can have a transitional government with real powers.”

But calls for the army’s immediate return to the barracks worry some. “SCAF leaving now will create a void,” believes Abou Zeid. “We no longer trust the ministry of the interior to be the backbone of our internal security and stability. The people don’t have any source of protection except for the armed forces.”

However, the army’s recent use of excessive violence against protesters has left Egyptians seething, with many comparing the military unfavourably to the police and state security thugs who attacked protesters at the start of the revolution.

This has led many to harden their position towards SCAF. “I urge the international community to boycott SCAF,” says Sabah Hamamou, a journalist with the state-owned al-Ahram newspaper, who also calls for international supervision of Egypt’s parliamentary and presidential elections. One way to do this without hurting ordinary Egyptians is for the United States to turn off its substantial military aid pipe to Egypt, suggests an “ordinary” Egyptian, Ahmed Mansour, who works as a consultant.

So, what can be done to foil SCAF’s plans to retain Egypt as its political fiefdom?

Since SCAF refuses to give Egyptians a proper representative democracy with true authority, Egyptians must continue to exercise their street version of direct democracy until their demands are met. Although the revolution has cost Egyptians a great deal of blood, sweat, tears and hardship, returning to ‘business as usual’ would make all these losses, at least in part, futile.

But can the revolution sustain the monumental pace it has so far maintained? Well, every day, Egyptians defy expectations with their appetite for freedom, from regularly taking to the streets to queuing for hours outside polling stations. Many activists and observers expect Egyptians to continue doing so.

“I don’t think this is the final phase of the revolution,” predicts Seif el-Dawla. “The workers have not joined yet, and their participation was crucial in February.”

This article was first published by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting on 29 November 2011.

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Opposing the Egyptian opposition

 
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By Osama Diab

The ornamental ‘official opposition’ in Egypt is as dangerous as the authoritarian regime itself.

Thursday 13 October

Even though I was quite clearly no big fan of the ousted president Hosni Mubarak, I wasn’t very keen on any of the official opposition during his era either and I never saw any of these parties as a viable alternative to his rule. The reason I describe it as the “official opposition” is to distinguish it from the movements and people who contributed greatly to shaping a new, more dynamic Egyptian political scene and have emerged from outside the traditional political parties and organised political groups.

The perceived lack of alternatives was not indicative of an actual absence. The ineffectiveness of the opposition wasn’t an accident or a pure coincidence, it was a deliberate strategy of the Mubarak regime which always endeavoured to purge any meaningful opposition from the political scene.

For Mubarak, what was more important than choosing his ministers and consultants was selecting those who, on paper, stood against him and his ruling party. In order for the opposition to serve its purpose as deemed by the regime, their leaders needed to be dull, highly uncharismatic, distant, lacking in vision and, most importantly, unwilling in any way to challenge his authority.

Mubarak’s tamed and carefully selected opposition – regardless of its position on the political spectrum – used to praise his wisdom in running the country day and night. Some presidential candidates in the 2005 election, such as the leader of the miniature Ummah party Ahmed al-Sabahi – a 90-year-old spring chicken at the time who insisted that everyone call him Mr President and vowed to reintroduce the fez – even went as far as to say that he would vote for Mubarak because he found him to be the best candidate.

This opposition, knowing no other role, are still prisoners of this subservient ‘court jester’ mentality. Even though Egypt has seen radical changes and a revolution, they seem to be programmed to serve the same purpose with any ruler. They are now serving the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) in the same way they served and were loyal to Mubarak.

After SCAF’s meeting last week with political parties led by al-Wafd and the the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice party, the political parties signed a document in which they “declared their full support for the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and their appreciation of its role in protecting the revolution”.

This also explains why the real opposition and revolutionary forces were not invited to the meeting. The youth movements, such as the 6 April Youth Movement, which was the real driving force behind the revolution, were not invited because their radical mentality makes it obvious they won’t settle for a few cosmetic concessions in return for a few seats in parliament. They are also more likely not to recognise the SCAF as Egypt’s legitimate rulers.

Al-Wafd, the Brotherhood and other forms of official opposition have a long history of abandoning the struggle in return for a few parliamentary seats or even just the permission to exist, and some are infamous for striking deals with successive regimes. New youth revolutionary groups are yet to be corrupted, but until this happens, they will stay unrecognised and uninvited by the SCAF and any authoritarian ruler. I still remember when the former heir apparent Gamal Mubarak mocked a man who dared to ask him, when he still had a senior position in the National Democratic Party, if he was willing to engage in a dialogue with opposition youth groups.

Most of the parties which met with the SCAF to discuss the future of the country did not play an active role in the sweeping revolution, some even actually worked against it, while others were cautious participants who steered clear of the front line. The Brotherhood and other official opposition parties did not risk officially joining the revolution until they were sure Mubarak’s days in power were numbered, and only then did they decide to jump opportunistically on to the revolutionary bandwagon.

Just like the previous regime, SCAF want a malleable opposition they can control . It seeks an opposition that will help them stay in power rather than compete with them for power, and that is willing to abandon its ideals for representation in parliament. In short, what the SCAF wants is an opposition they can trust.

The SCAF has made clear its intentions that it is here to stay, and by signing this document the official opposition helped the generals to anchor their position as the long-term rulers of the country, rather than its interim leadership for the six-month transitional period like they promised after the revolution.

I am sceptical that the official opposition under the Mubarak regime which has now switched to admiring the emperor’s new clothes can deliver any meaningful change. Though it calls itself the opposition, it is actually an integral component in the survival of a corrupt political system many are working hard to reform or remove.

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The danger of an elected dictatorship in Egypt

 
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 By Osama Diab

The army is giving Egyptians a stark choice: choose freedom and endure anarchy, or choose stability and put up with us.

Thursday 29 September 2011

Last week, after the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) reactivated Mubarak’s 2010 extension of the emergency law,  it suggested holding a referendum on the reactivation to give its decision a sheen of legitimacy. If the emergency law passes through legal channels, it will allow SCAF to silence its opponents while claiming it has popular support for its actions.

Where once authoritarianism was imposed on Egyptians, Egypt is now facing the risk of “democratically” choosing to be governed autocratically, where the people themselves call for or support authoritarian practices such as military trials, emergency laws, etc.

Since the revolution, Egypt’s de facto military rulers have cracked down on media outlets,allegedly tried 12,000 people before military courts, reactivated Hosni Mubarak’s highly unpopular emergency law , and outlined no clear time frame for the transition to a civilian government – things even Mubarak wouldn’t have dared to do in post-revolution Egypt. But what is perhaps most appalling is that a growing number of people is supportive of this.

After the defeat and withdrawal of police forces from the streets on 28 January, the lack of security and this anarchy-like state have driven many people to express their willingness to trade in their dream of democracy in return for ‘normalcy’ by supporting authoritarian practices in the hope of stopping the country from descending into the absolute state of lawlessness they fear.

As a result, many Egyptian have voted in favour of reactivating Mubarak’s emergency law. On the Masrawy news website, 59% of those who took part in a poll agreed that the emergency law should be reactivated. The figure of an al-Shorouk online poll was nearly half.

There is no doubt that the past seven months since Mubarak’s ouster have been so overwhelming that many are now ready to give up their dream of democracy. The perceived rise in crime and the struggling economy have shifted many people’s priorities to security and stability over human rights and democracy.

The SCAF has capitalised on this fear to boost its popularity – at least in comparison with the former regime. May be some Egyptians are still grateful for the army’s refusal to open fire at protesters, especially when compared to the savagery of other armies in the region, or perhaps people simply see the military as the last line of defence against anarchy. This is why their use of Mubarakist techniques has worked better than it did for the man himself.

Unlike the ousted president, they seem to have successfully managed to draw some public support for them and stoked up opposition against pro-democracy activists. On top of the relative credibility they enjoy, the public support expressed for arbitrary laws is a result of the SCAF’s relatively effective propaganda which links stability to their policies and their way of administering the country, whilst connecting chaos and instability to those who dare to oppose them.

The message the rulers are trying to send is simple: if you want freedom you have to endure prospects of a wide-scale war with Israel, looting and thuggery, a collapsing tourism industry, a struggling economy, and a security vacuum. If you want stability, all you have to endure is us.

The SCAF has tried relentlessly to link chaos and mayhem to human rights and political activism by accusing many key players in the revolution, such as the 6 April Youth Movement and the Kifaya (Enough) coalition, of trying to destabilise the country and serving foreign agendas.

Despite being accustomed to working under an authoritarian regime,and the smear campaigns and the heavy-handed security that come with the territory, rights activists now also need to grow accustomed to working under popular “dissuport”.

Political and rights activists are now slowly losing their status as “heroes” and are gradually being cast as the “villains” instead of the regime. Opposing Mubarak’s dictatorship was seen as a heroic act. Opposing SCAF is being seen by a growing number of Egyptians as a form of “treachery”. 

Intensive propaganda has associated human rights, in the minds of many, with vandalism, chaos, instability and conspiracy. The main danger to democracy that Egypt is facing is not the practices of the military rulers, but the public support for such practices.

The SCAF should not be deceived or lulled into a false sense of security by this support, which is probably going to be short-lived and is only a result of the horrors of recent months.

Once the memory of the chaos becomes distant enough and the revolutionary dust settles, people will again start realising the government’s failure to deliver better living conditions, to enhance the rule of law, to fight corruption and to push for greater civil liberties.

Rulers with a security-only mentality who fail to address economic, legal and social issues run the risk of sharing Mubarak’s destiny or even worse, because next time people will make sure not to go home with an unfinished revolution or trust anyone but themselves to take charge of the transitional period.

Employing tired, old narratives and displaying a severe lack of political imagination, which is a typical characteristic of military rulers, would only serve to remind Egyptians of the old regime they despised for long undermining the power, energy and creativity of the people.

Civil rights and genuine stability can only come together, and the Egyptian revolution proved that the heavy hand of security can no longer achieve stability on its own.

Soon enough, those Egyptians who believe that military strongmen are more capable of maintaining public order than democratically elected civilian governments will discover that this idea is nothing short of a myth. What we have is not really a choice between freedom and stability, but a choice between having both or neither.

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The Arab Spring’s bottom line

 
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By Khaled Diab

The Arab uprisings are not just about democracy and dignity. But with domestic and global economic crises, how likely are they to deliver on bread and butter issues?

Tuesday 16 August 2011

The ideals of the ‘Arab Spring’ or have largely been dominated by the high, yet somewhat abstract, demands for liberté and égalité. This ‘Arab Awakening’ has been portrayed as an epic battle pitting the enlightened forces of democracy and dignity against the dark powers of dictatorship and despotism.

Based on this vision, the revolutionary discourse within the Arab world – and public debate beyond it – has mostly focused on making the political process more open and transparent, as well as applying the rule of law fairly and equally. 

While these issues are of critical importance to the future of the region, since they will help ensure that the poor or marginalised are not trampled on by the rich or powerful, and protect minorities from sometimes hostile majorities, the picture is missing a vital element: fraternité

You can have all the democracy and personal freedoms in the world, but without addressing the bread and butter issues of poverty and economic injustice, reform will be incomplete and hollow, as a number of mature Western democracies shaken by recent unrest are learning.

In fact, although the uprisings are regularly viewed as something uniquely Arab and separate from the rest of the world, I see them as part and parcel of a global backlash against growing inequalities and the increasing economic marginalisation of the young. In fact, the Arab world and Europe share surprising similar youth unemployment rates (around 20% and 25% respectively). 

That would explain why, a couple of years before young Tunisians and Egyptians took to the streets, their Greek peers across the Mediterranean were out in force protesting not only against police brutality but growing youth unemployment (which stands at over 40%). Despite the ugly and selfish scenes of looting and theft that have accompanied the UK riots, one important factor behind them is the economic and social marginalisation of young people – who are raised in a society of ‘born consumers’ yet too often deprived of their birthright.

This raises the question of why, given the obvious importance of economic justice and the strong presence of labour movements and unions in the protests, issues of job creation, wealth generation and economic solidarity have been left to fester by the wayside? 

In Tunisia, for example, the pace of reform has been incredibly sluggish, with little beyond a cash handout scheme appearing since the revolution. “There hasn’t been enough provided or offered,” one Tunisian economics professor complained. “The few programmes that came were late or insufficient.” 

This is doubly ironic when considering that in Egypt and Tunisia trade unions and workers were a vital driving force behind the protests, holding regular strikes and sit-ins. Even the 6 April youth movement, which called for the first protest of the Egyptian revolution on 25 January, was originally set up to express solidarity with textile workers.

One reason is the nature of the popular uprisings themselves. In Tunisia and Egypt, in order to topple the old order, they needed to appeal to all strata of society – young and old, rich and poor, socialist and conservative. To do this, they focused on the lowest common denominator: regime change, the creation of a level political playing field and the protection of human rights. 

But there has been no consensus about how to proceed on other pressing issues, and the once-united opposition has splintered into political factions. In addition, in Egypt, many of the revolution’s leaders, though young, come from educated and relatively privileged middle or upper-middle-class backgrounds, and so few were likely to seriously challenge the country’s underlying economic structure, despite its harsh inequalities. 

Moreover, the surviving elements of the political elite that have been leading the country in the interim have been working hard to ensure that as much of the old system remains intact as possible. Towards that end, Egypt’s supreme council for the armed forces has skewed the post-revolutionary political system, at least in the short term, away from the young and radical and towards more conservative opposition forces. 

This is epitomised by the electoral pact between the liberal al-Wafd and the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice parties, which numerous analysts say is likely to emerge as the largest bloc in the forthcoming parliamentary elections. Although the two parties are bitterly divided over questions of secularism versus religion, which threaten their alliance, they have remarkably similar neo-liberal economic agendas. 

Another factor might be termed the “death of political ideology”. In Arab countries, as in many other parts of the world, neither past socialism nor current neo-liberalism have delivered satisfactory results: one brought a relative equality of poverty while the other reaped a massive inequality of wealth. 

In fact, the Egyptian and Tunisian economies have not been doing at all badly in recent years, yet the fruits have only gone to a small minority with the rest of society excluded from the rewards. And with the high price tag attached to the recent domestic upheavals and global economic fragility, fuelled by the debt crises in the United States and Europe, the economic cake is unlikely to grow much but though the demands on it are likely to do so. 

One part of the solution is to foster entrepreneurship and innovation. But that alone will not bridge the gaping economic chasm. Egypt and Tunisia need to build (and in some cases rebuild) their welfare and solidarity infrastructures.

In Egypt, for example, the interim government has taken some steps in the right direction. The budget for the fiscal year that started in July sets a new government sector minimum wage at LE 700 (£72) per month, which though modest and insufficient will nonetheless boost the incomes of several million people. 

In order to finance such measures, the government is depending partly on foreign donors but also on the gradual introduction of progressive taxation, as well as indirect taxes. In fact, in a country where tax evasion has long been a problem, Egyptian tax revenues have actually risen by 16% – perhaps a sign of a greater sense of ownership of the political process and solidarity.

Still, the tax burden on the wealthier strata of society remains minuscule in comparison with the egalitarian social democracies of northern Europe and, if the Arab democratic spring is not to turn into a winter of economic discontent, then the haves need to do more to empower the have-nots.

 

This article first appeared in the Comment is Free section of The Guardian on 12 August 2011. Discussion of this article is available here.

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An Arab model for democracy

 
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By Khaled Diab

The time is ripe to crystallise a creative vision for Egyptian democracy, one that can perhaps be used as a model by other Arab countries.

Wednesday 23 February 2011

On Friday 18 February, as many as 2 million Egyptians gathered on the now-aptly named Tahrir (Liberation) Square for what was dubbed the Friday of Victory and Continuity. And the assembled throngs – resembling, at once, a World Cup victory celebration, Hyde Park Speakers’ Corner and a performing arts festival – had plenty of reason to celebrate, given that the revolution had succeeded, just one week earlier, in toppling, one could even say dethroning, Hosni Mubarak, the country’s pseudo-king for the past three decades.

But crying victory was somewhat premature, for the revolution will not be truly victorious until the old regime is replaced completely by a free and fair system that responds to the will of the people – not to mention triggers a profound process of social evolution.

The protesters and organisers are well aware of the dangers ahead and the Friday of Victory was a subtle warning  to put the army on notice that reneging on the revolution’s demands was not an option the people were willing to contemplate.

Ever since Mubarak’s ouster on Friday 11 February, the army’s supreme council has been in charge of the country. In the 18 days it took to topple Mubarak, the army won many fans among the Egyptian population for its intelligent and relatively enlightened handling of the demonstrations and its support for what it called the “legitimate demands” of the people, which prompted demonstrators to coin the slogan that the “army and the people are a single hand”.

Although expressing this level of trust was partly tactical in order to keep the army on the people’s side against Mubarak’s state security apparatus, police and other assorted thugs, it still caused me a certain amount of concern. The army may have extended a hand of peace to the population but what about its other hand: is it holding an olive branch or getting ready to slap the people in the face or, worst, crush them with a fist of steel when the opportunity arises?

After all, it is the army or its men who have run the country for the past 60-odd years, during which time the country has not had a single civilian president. That said, Mubarak, though he was a military man, had sidelined the army with his ‘businessmen’s cabinet’ and his strengthening of state security.

Naturally, there is the chance that the army is dealing with the people in good faith, and reluctantly executed what amounted to a sort of coup d’etat when Mubarak refused to go and to hand over his powers to an interim ‘council of the wise’. Then again, the military might see this as the perfect opportunity to re-launch its waning star, especially as it has suspended the constitution and dissolved parliament, ostensibly to meet the demands of the revolution, but effectively creating a situation of martial law which can potentially be abused.

So vigilance must be the order of the day. And the Coalition of the Revolution Youth, one of the main forces behind the demonstrations, has vowed to continue mass protest action until the revolution’s demands are met, including the ending of the decades-old ‘state of emergency‘, the creation of a temporary transitional presidential council and technocratic government drawn from across the political spectrum, and a clear timetable for the holding of free and fair parliamentary and presidential elections.

But in addition to this constant grassroots pressure perhaps it is also high time for the revolutionaries to force the army’s hand by creating certain facts on the ground. For example, the military has created its own diverse constitutional review committee, headed by the prominent judge Tarek el-Bishry to oversee the crafting of a new constitution. Although el-Bishry is highly respected among most of the opposition, the demonstrators need to ensure that the new document meets the people’s demands and expectations.

One way to do this is for the revolutionaries to set up their own parallel committee drawn from across the political and social spectrum whose members will not only deliberate among themselves but will launch a broad public debate on the content of the new constitution. In order to gather input from every strata of society, the power of traditional, online and social media can be harnessed, as well as good old-fashioned surveys.

Moreover, to guarantee maximum legitimacy and to avert any chance that the army or any other vested political interest can manipulate the process, the popular committee should pledge that any document it produces will be put to a referendum.

In addition to efforts to optimise the nascent Egyptian democracies founding document, the time is ripe, given that any action or inaction now will have ramifications far into the future, to crystallise a clear vision for Egyptian democracy, one that can perhaps be used as a model by other Arab countries.

At present, little or no effort is being made to visualise a democracy that meets local circumstances and needs. This is understandable, given that the revolution has a multitude of immediate concerns with which to deal. Nevertheless, if Egyptians are to create a system that suits them, then they must dare to unleash the creativity so abundantly demonstrated in this revolution further.

One concern that has regularly been voiced is that, after sixty years of either one-party rule or a toothless multiparty system, Egypt has been left with few viable political parties on which to rest its democracy. Moreover, the youth who unleashed and steered this secular revolution do not fit easily or comfortably into any of the existing political parties.

In Egypt, there has been talk of relaxing the country’s draconian party formation rules to allow all political currents to create their own parties in time for the elections. There is also the option of allowing protest movements, such as the 6 April Youth Movement and Kefaya (Enough), to register as parties.

However, even if a new slew of parties can be set up in time for elections, they will be, with the exception of the Muslim Brotherhood and the reinvented secular ‘official’ opposition parties, they will be largely unknown to the public.

In my view, this contemporary reality provides us with an unprecedented opportunity to rethink the mechanics of democracy, and especially the party political system. Given that they provide certain advantages, such as unity of purpose and discipline, political parties are the cornerstones upon which most governments around the world, whether democratic or not, are built.

That said, they suffer from certain severe drawbacks, such as the pressure they exert on members to tow a party line, even if they do not believe in it. In democracies, perhaps the most acute example of the ‘tyranny’ of parties is the first-past-the-post system. In the United States, for instance, the system has evolved to the point where voters have only two realistic options to choose from and many feel that the two main parties are so alike in their politics that they resemble more branded merchandise than true alternatives.

In fact, the dangers of partisan politics were foreseen by some of America’s ‘founding fathers’. “[Parties] serve to organise faction, to give it an artificial and extraordinary force; to put, in the place of the delegated will of the nation, the will of a party, often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community,” George Washington cautioned in his farewell address.

I believe that Egypt would be better served with a flexible non-partisan representative democracy in which individual candidates run, whether for parliament or the presidency, on their own merit and personal manifesto. This will provide individual politicians with the flexibility to vote according to their conscience and the will of their constituents, while organising informally around certain issues of the day. For example, on certain key issues – such as youth unemployment, gender rights, social policy, trade, foreign policy questions, etc. – groups of politicians of similar conviction can form temporary, unofficial alliances, rather like the Egyptian opposition has already been doing for several years.

Over and above this, in order to avoid the emergence of factionalism and unrepresentative ‘representative democracy’, politicians’ power can be kept in check through a hybrid direct democracy in which the people are consulted directly on vital issues and in which concerned citizens who are unhappy with certain decisions taken by their representatives or wish to launch their own initiatives can take immediate action, if they gather enough signatures, rather than have to wait for the next elections to voice their views.

Egyptians have a golden opportunity not only to reinvent their country’s politics but to reinvent democracy itself.

 

This article was first published by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting on 22 February 2011.

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Egyptian government fears a Facebook revolution

 
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By Osama Diab

Talk of banning Facebook is only the surface of a greater crackdown on independent media by an insecure government.

2 November 2010

Many Egyptians, in what is still a police state, regard Facebook as a safe haven where they can campaign and express their opinions freely. But that could soon change following a crackdown by the authorities against various types of media.

In Egypt, many opposition movements have either started or grown significantly on Facebook, most notably the 6th April Youth Movement and the national campaign to support Nobel peace prize winner Mohamed ElBaradei as a presidential candidate.

Understanding the impact Facebook now has on Egypt’s political life, the Egyptian TV’s most popular talk show, Masr el-Nahrda (Egypt Today), suggested banning Facebook or passing a law to regulate Facebook activities in Egypt.

The show’s host, Mona el-Sharkawy, and her two guests heavily criticised Facebook and warned viewers against its evil and how it can be used by intelligence apparatuses all over the world to gather secret information about target countries.

Gamal Mokhtar, a technology expert and a guest on the show, said that Facebook has definitely revealed itself as a political tool used by foreign powers to obtain secret information about certain countries.

“We need to prevent problems, strikes and vandalism in the country by regulating it,” said the technology expert. el-Sharkawy also cited the 6 April Youth Movement as an example of how Facebook can be used destructively. She claimed (on no factual basis) that members of the group, which started on Facebook, had destroyed Tahrir Square in Cairo during one of their protests.

This comes at a time when a crackdown on independent media is under way in Egypt ahead of both parliamentary and presidential elections. Ibrahim Eissa, the former editor of the al-Dustour independent newspaper, predicted a crackdown on the internet following the attack on many other media outlets.

“Perhaps soon we’ll see urgent legislation to snuff out Egyptians’ freedom of expression on the internet. And several understandings will be arrived at with representatives of the western media in Egypt,” Eissa wrote two days before he was dismissed from his post as al-Dostour‘s editor-in-chief.

Many other notable figures critical of the regime’s violations were also recently stopped from doing their jobs. Prominent political analyst Hamdi Qandeel and the internationally renowned novelist Alaa ElAswany have both had their columns in al-Shorouk newspaper removed.

Other pre-election measures have included stopping the broadcasting of four independent satellite channels and putting restrictions on the mass sending of mobile text messages (a practice widely used for campaigning by opposition movements in Egypt).

The recent media crackdown – and the talk of “regulating” Facebook in Egypt – is an indicator that the regime does not have the slightest intention of playing the political game fairly and freely. The crackdown is fed by the regime’s insecurity as it loses public support. With such lack of popularity, the regime has to choose between losing and cheating – and losing doesn’t sound like a viable option.

It won’t be surprising if the government tries to link some criminal incidents with the use of Facebook in order to gain support for regulation – for example, by making it a crime to start a political group on Facebook.

Worried by the fact that the state TV is only a tool for delivering the government’s message and that criticism of Facebook was probably not an arbitrarily chosen topic, a Facebook group entitled “together to stop the ban of Facebook in Egypt” has started campaigning and attracted more than 10,000 members in just a few days.

The suggestion of a ban on Facebook shows the regime is worried of any medium that shows real trends and statistics in Egypt, which they have no control over. It’s also because the regime is definitely losing the Facebook numbers game; it’s hard to imagine that Mokhtar would have still suggested control over the social network if it was President Hosni Mubarak who got a quarter of a million fans on his page rather than ElBaradei.

This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free section on 21 October 2010. Read the related discussion. Reprinted here with the author’s permission. © Osama Diab. All rights reserved.

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