Egyptian rebels with a cause… and effect

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By Khaled Diab

The dedication and success of the Tamarod rebellion against President Morsi is awe-inspiring, but the movement’s current trust in the army is worrying.

Tuesday 6 August 2013

A stone’s throw away from Egypt’s emblematic Tahrir Square stands the Groppi Rotund, a tearoom which was once the preserve of well-heeled Europeans and wealthy Egyptians at a time when Cairo – at least its European quarter – had pretensions of being the Paris of the Middle East.

Groppi’s, a dusty, crumbling ghost of its former self, has borne immobile witness to most of the major events and upheavals which have gripped Egypt over the past century or so. It is even rumoured that the Free Officers, who met to plot the overthrow of the monarchy at another café just off Tahrir Square, used the phone in Groppi’s to communicate.

If true, this was an appropriate venue to meet a group of young activists in the Tamarod movement, most of whom describe themselves as Nasserists, though the movement itself is non-partisan. Tamarod, which means ‘Rebellion’ in Arabic, was a petition campaign, which began life in late April 2013, calling for President Mohamed Morsi to step down and launch early presidential elections.

Though he looks like your typical Egyptian guy next door and is not rebellious in his appearance, Hassan Shahin, 23, a journalist who is still completing his degree in media at Cairo University, was the originator of the idea. “The source of the concept was that we wanted to reach ordinary citizens in order to instigate change in society,” the young revolutionary told me after he’d finished some urgent-seeming communications on his tablet. “There was a sense of depression amongst the people, and they didn’t believe that the Muslim Brotherhood would go without bloodshed.”

The reason they felt the need to “reach ordinary citizens” was because “the opposition had lost touch with the people”, Shahin observes. “They talked about political questions and ignored social demands. You need to respond to social demands to move the street.”

This was reflected in the care the Tamarod activists took to pitching the message of their campaign. “The petition was a way to reach ordinary citizens, so we worded it in a way that would appeal to them,” he explained.

It also manifested itself in the campaign’s grassroots nature and its successful efforts to shove the Egyptian secular opposition out of its comfort zone in Cairo and some major cities and make it a truly national movement. “Citizens had ownership of the project,” Shahin said. “We had representatives in every governorate and we gathered over 10,000 volunteers in the first two weeks alone.”

It is a sign of how far Egypt has come that a mass, nationwide mobilisation campaign should have such a, well, rebellious name in a country once famed for its apparent placidity and conformity, and where causing “fitna” (“sedition”) was frozned upon. Tamarod, whose name was inspired by a radical Syrian political magazine, Shahin informed me, was a movement both to rebel “against”, but most importantly to rebel “for”.

“The idea was to rebel against the Muslim Brotherhood’s project of religious fascism which was causing popular disillusionment and depression,” Shahin noted, though I found his casual use of such a loaded word as “fascism” troubling. “But our rebellion was also more for than against  – for law and order, for equality, for social and economic justice.”

Although the young revolutionaries behind Tamarod were confident that their campaign, which was dreamed up in a small Dokki flat, would make a large splash, they did not expect it to be quite so enormous. “We had confidence in the Egyptian street, but we were surprised by just how many people got involved,” admits Shahin.

Tamarod says it managed to collect some 23 million signatures (a figure which has not been independently verified), which is only a couple of million short of the total number of votes both Mohamed Morsi and Ahmed Shafiq collected in the second round runoff.

I put to Shahin the criticism that Tamarod and other supporters of Morsi’s ouster were anti-democratic to get his views on the matter. “Morsi had an illusory democracy. He abused the constitution, represented just the Brotherhood, and used its militias to terrorise,” he asserted, employing yet another emotive word. “People came out in rebellion against this terrorisation and intimidation.”

The Muslim Brotherhood have warned of – many say “threatened” – the dire consequences of Morsi’s ouster, including the prospect of civil war. For his part, Shahin contends that the reverse is true. “If the army hadn’t intervened the situation would’ve escalated into a civil war,” he believes, one that would’ve pitted an embattled, desperately unpopular president and the Muslim Brotherhood against revolutionaries and much of the population.

How about those who contend that civil war is now more likely? “There are risks ahead but it is impossible that there’ll be a civil war. If the Egyptian people were bloody and violent, they would’ve gone to Raba’a [al-Adawiya] in their millions to finish of the Muslim Brotherhood,”

“What happened on 30 June was a popular revolution supported by a patriotic army,” said the young activist who just a year and a half earlier was out protesting against this very same “patriotic army”. Shahin even quite literally got trampled upon by the heavy boot of military rule when he attempted, on 28 December 2011, to aid a woman who was being brutally beaten and dragged away by soldiers, exposing her torso blue bra, in an iconic moment which symbolised everything that was wrong with the direct interim rule of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF).

This shift baffled and bothered me, so I decided to probe him on it, especially in light of how Tamarod had heeded General Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi’s chilling call to take to the streets to provide him with a popular “mandate” to combat “violence and terrorism” (Luckily, some revolutionary movements, such as the 6th April Youth Movement, refused to participate). And how about the deaf ear the generals turned to the demands of revolutionaries to hand over power immediately to civilian rule during the first transition? What about the red lines SCAF drew around its empire and the back room influence it enjoyed over Morsi? How could Tamarod bring itself to trust the junta now?

“The first transition created deficiencies at the time. Even if there were errors committed by SCAF, it was the president’s job to establish the right foundations for Egyptian democracy,” insisted Shahin. “We need to differentiate between the institution of the army and a group of leaders who made mistakes… The army which produced Orabi and Nasser is patriotic.”

Shahin suggested that the problem was not with the military but with Field Marshal Mohamed el-Tantawi’s leadership of SCAF. But is Sisi’s leadership any less self-interested or any more democratic? Why is General Sisi engaged in such transparent efforts to bolster the army’s popularity by inciting against the Muslim Brotherhood, and why is he employing classic divide and rule tactics? I heard both whispered and loud speculation while in Egypt that Sisi was planning to ditch the khaki and run in elections as a civilian – and if he were to do that, many expect him to win a landslide victory.

Besides, is the army not repeating many of the same mistakes it made in the first transition? No, insists the Tamarod spokesperson. “The second transition is much better. This time, there is the idea of drafting a constitution first. The revolutionaries are now in government,” he cites as two examples.

Even if CC, as his opponents call him, is well-intentioned and honest about his lack of ambition to rule, it is surely not healthy for so many people, including hard-nosed revolutionaries, to be acting like starstruck teenagers at a rock concert.

In fact, many have likened the charismatic and savvy general to Egypt’s legendary second president Gamal Abdel-Nasser. But despite his many achievements – and catastrophes – Nasser was no democrat by any stretch of the imagination. As Shahin and his companions at Groppi’s were also self-declared Nasserists, I wondered how they reconciled their admiration for Nasser with their long battle to bring democracy to Egypt, which began for Shahin in 2008 with the anti-Mubarak umbrella movement, Kefaya.

“Nasser made mistakes. He was human,” Shahin admits, though in terms those persecuted by the popular president, whether leftists, liberals or Islamists, would probably find more than a little understated. But to his credit Shahin did not attempt to go to the fantastical lengths Alaa al-Aswany once did in a short story in which he had Nasser giving Mubarak lessons in democracy from beyond the grave.

“But [Nasser] established true social justice and national independence,” Shahin added, echoing one side of what I call Egypt’s clash of freedoms, in which competing concepts of liberty are currently competing for ascendancy. “I came out on 25 January [2011] to complete the [23] July [1952] revolution.”

To my mind, this last comment is the ultimate proof of why revolutionaries, like the Brotherhood before them, should not express such unconditional affection for the army. After six decades of denying Egyptians their democratic rights and many of their fundamental rights, it is obvious that any love is largely one-sided and unrequited. I do not doubt that the army is “patriotic” – it would be a catastrophe if it weren’t – but its behaviour often belies some uncomfortable home truths: it loves Egypt and its own self-interest more than it does Egyptians.

“People will not be cheated by the army. It is a patriotic institution,” Shahin insists. “The political process is now inclusive and the army has no role in this phase beyond defending the Egyptian people.” Of course, many would beg to differ with this assertion, even if Sisi is officially only a deputy prime-minister.

But what if what Shahin regards as the unthinkable were to happen? “There is no military rule now and if it re-appears, I’ll be the first to oppose it,” he emphasises in no uncertain terms.

How about those who say no to both the Muslim Brotherhood and military rule, like the Midan el-Talet (Third Square) movement? “There is no such thing. They are Muslim Brotherhood supporters like [former presidential candidate Abdel-Moneim] Aboul Fotouh and those who represent US interests,” Shahin says.

His words echo the dismissive attitude I heard from many about the Third Square. Does this really reflect the nature of the movement or has the current pro-military public mood led people to turn on anyone who distrusts SCAF or expresses the view that the army should be kept out of striking range of politics? Additionally, the movement, though it does possess an Islamist element, involve all political persuasions.

I had tried to meet the Third Square to find out more about them while in Egypt but their spokesperson failed to get back to me.

Turning to the future, I probed Shahin on what he thought should happen to the Muslim Brotherhood. “We want the Brotherhood to be part of the political process, but they refuse,” he noted. “The trouble is that they believe that the will of the Brotherhood is the will of the Egyptian people.”

Thanks to Arab and international mediation, there have been some early signs that after talking themselves into a corner – or better said, a trench – the Brotherhood is looking for a dignified exit from this crisis, such as a face-saving manner for Morsi to step down.

But it is not just the Brotherhood that has been towing a hard line, the security services and many in the armed forces reportedly want to continue the tough approach they have so far taken, perhaps out of the belief that they can “teach” the Brothers a lesson. But if they do that, it is a sign that they have more than a few lessons to learn themselves.

I ended our encounter by asking Hassan Shahin where the future would take the Tamarod movement. “Tamarod is shifting from being an opposition movement to one that pressures and campaigns for change,” he told me. As an example, he mentioned their latest project called Write Your Own Constitution.

And what about Egypt’s youth who spearheaded this whole revolution with their courage, conviction and creativity; for how much longer will they be left out in the wilderness? Shahin believes that this transition is already bringing some positive developments. “The role of young people has become clear since the road map,” he noted, citing the inclusion of youth deputies.

I left Groppi’s trusting that Egypt’s youth would continue to inspire and challenge society. I also hoped that young Egyptians would lead us towards a brighter future and finally get their fair share of the country’s economic, political and social pies.

As for Tamarod, I greatly admire the rebellious spirit that  gave birth to this daring idea and the rebellious souls who  propelled it to such heights. However, I feel that the movement’s current infatuation with the army undermines its anti-establishment credentials and is a potentially dangerous liaison. But I sense that this is a temporary blip, the honeymoon will soon be over and the young rebels will once again be at loggerheads with the old generals.


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Egypt’s Mursi and the risk of friendly fire

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By Osama Diab

By courting his rivals, Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi could turn former allies into foes and bring to the fore the divisions among Islamists.

Monday 2 July 2012

Egypt’s new president, Mohamed Mursi, realises that he stands on shaky ground. He probably senses that many political groups, segments of the police state, the former regime, and regular members of the public would love to see him fail.

This is why he was quick to try and win the public’s hearts and minds by working to counter fears many people would naturally have about an Islamist president. He met with artists and novelists, while promising to appoint a Copt and a woman as vice-presidents. He also reassured the security services that not much will change by stating clearly in his meeting with police leaders that he rejects the term ‘cleanse’ when it comes to police reform.

One thing is for sure, both his opponents and proponents will be closely watching his performance. There is great hope to see him succeed and burning desire to witness him fail. Someone even established an online barometer, the ‘Morsi Meter’, to monitor and measure his actual performance against his pledges.

Of course, it is to be expected that the predators out for Mursi’s hide include secularists, liberals, summer holidaymakers at the North coast’s gated resorts, club-goers, whiskey drinkers, vodka sippers, opposition parties, perhaps members of the old regime, not to mention the Armed Forces. However, against all expectations, the main and most serious opposition might come from his own backyard: some factions of what is referred to as the Islamist movement.

Early signs of the kinds of clashes that might occur in the future can be seen in the Salafist al-Nour party’s rejection of Mursi’s decision to appoint Coptic and female vice-presidents, because such moves would contradict their interpretation of Sharia. They have reportedly threatened to withdraw from the presidential team if Mursi insists on taking these steps.

The full participation of Islamists in political and public life is a reality many still find hard to digest, which is why many people can’t get their head around the deep ideological divides between the different shades of political Islam. As a result, they think of them as a homogeneous force.

Centrist Islamist parties, such as al-Wasat and the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, could be better compared to the Christian Democratic parties in Europe, which are mainly characterised by their liberal, or neo-liberal, economic policies, but they remain moderately conservative on social matters, which are a lesser priority. The Brotherhood’s focus on the economy and their long history of working with all other political groups, including leftists, Arab nationalists, and liberals allowed them to develop a more pragmatic and moderate approach to certain ideological issues.

This was clear in Mursi’s visits, meetings and speeches after he was announced the winner. His reception of prominent author Alaa Al-Aswany, who is known for his progressive views, sexually explicit novels and his criticism of political Islam, shows that the Islamist organisation is willing to make concessions and extend a hand of cooperation even to those who sit at the opposite end of the political spectrum.

On the other hand, Salafi Islamist groups are more concerned with moral and social matters, and maintaining certain religious demographics. They wouldn’t shy away from resorting to violence and radical politics if needed. Unlike reformist Islamists, they don’t always work their way up the existing political system and institutions.

Salafists lack the Brotherhood’s pragmatism. This could be due to their strict ideological stances, their relatively short political history, or a combination of the two. It seems inevitable that Salafist rigidity will affect Mursi, accusing him of warming up too much to liberals and not staying true to his promise of establishing their own definition of an ‘Islamic society’. It’s not only priorities that differ, but Islamists also disagree on many fundamental juristic issues related to women’s rights, freedom of religion, corporal punishment, and so on.

This deep intrinsic ideological difference within what is collectively referred to as political Islam will rise to the surface now that the Muslim Brotherhood faces, for the first time, the pressures of making real political decisions after long decades of abstract ideas and mere talk. The Brotherhood is too pragmatic and economy-oriented to want to scare away tourists and investors and create enemies at home and abroad in the early days of their rule. But in the process of trying to make his traditional rivals happy, it is very possible that Mursi might accidentally turn old mates into new foes.


This article first appeared in The Daily News on 1 July 2012. Republished here with the author’s permission.

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The Arab media paradox

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By Khaled Diab

Despite the general Arab decline in the press freedom rankings, the region’s media have, in many ways, actually become freer.

Monday 13 February 2012

Since the Arab quest for freedom from authoritarian rule rippled out across the Middle East and even beyond from the unlikely epicentre of Tunisia, the region’s hopes and aspirations for freedom and dignity have never been higher, at least since the end of colonial rule.

Against this backdrop, Reporters Without Borders’ latest Press Freedom Index (PFI) makes for a depressing and demoralising reality check – at least at first sight.

“The Arab world was the motor of history in 2011 but the Arab uprisings have had contrasting political outcomes so far,” the independent media watchdog said. “Most of the region’s countries have fallen in the index because of the measures taken in a bid to impose a news blackout on a crackdown”

The highest ranking Arab country is Lebanon (93), which is just behind regional leader Israel (92). This means that, given all the tied positions, around 100 countries have, according to the PFI, freer media.

On a relatively successful note, Tunisia, which provided the spark of hope which fired up the so-called Arab Spring and has since managed a fairly smooth transition to greater democracy, has risen 30 positions from 164th to 134th.

In contrast, my native Egypt – which captivated the world with its “Tahrir” spirit – has plummeted 39 positions to stand near the bottom of the global league at 166, sandwiched between Laos and Cuba.

Reporters Without Borders puts this down to “attempts by Hosni Mubarak’s government and then the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces [SCAF] to rein in the revolution’s successive phases”. These tactics included the arrests and convictions of Egyptian journalists and bloggers, not to mention the harassment of foreign journalists.

And at a certain level this relegation is justified. “The Egyptian media grew inside the dictatorship system, which shaped its values, principles, views and its performance, so we shouldn’t expect to see serious change in media performance [so quickly],” argues Gihan Abou Zeid, an Egyptian activist and columnist. “The window to our freedom of expression is sadly still narrow.”

“Abuses against the freedom of the press have increased significantly,” says Wael Eskandar, a young Egyptian journalist based in Cairo who has been closely following the revolution. “In every paper, there is a military censor… Reporters and media personnel are targeted during their coverage of important events on the streets.”


Eskandar sites as an example how talk show host Reem Maged and her guest activist and journalist Hossam el-Hamalawy were summoned by SCAF due to on-air accusationsthat the military, which has tried to portray itself as the protector of the revolution, had attacked protesters.

That said, Eskandar feels that his profession has become “more meaningful”. “Politics is now at the forefront of people’s thoughts and the opposition is real,” he reflects. He also admits to feeling freer, despite the obvious dangers of harassment and even prosecution by a military court. “At times like these, it’s worth the risk,” he says.

For all its strengths, the PFI is imperfect and incomplete because it is based on the subjective scoring assigned by various observers, which means that countries with a more critical culture could score more poorly than countries which are less critical.

It also does not take into account qualitative criteria, such as the actual content, as well as the plurality, accuracy and scope of the reporting and commentary in the media. Reporters Without Borders admits as much. “The index should in no way be taken as an indication of the quality of the media in the countries concerned,” the watchdog notes in its methodology.

What this boils down to is that the index can provide a misleading impression about the nature of the media in a given country. For example, someone who is unaware of the nature of the media in the region could easily conclude that Saudi Arabia (158th) enjoys greater media freedom than Egypt because it is eight positions higher in the index.

But this couldn’t be further from the truth. In many ways, it piles on insult to the injury already experienced by the dynamic segments of the Egyptian media which first faced down Mubarak’s state security apparatus and then SCAF’s military crackdowns, epitomised by the likes of dentist-turned-novelist-and-revolutionary-columnist Alaa al-Aswany whom Foreign Policy named its top global thinker for 2011. In contrast, most of their Saudi colleagues refused or have failed to rock the boat in the kingdom’s stagnant and closely controlled media.

Moreover, just because the regime hounds and intimidates journalists and tries to curb their freedom, that does not mean that it has been particularly successful in its endeavour. Sure, most of the state-owned media remains the loyal lapdog of whoever runs the show, whether it’s a pre-revolution dictatorship or a post-revolution junta.

But, in Egypt, it is really a  tale of two media, with the independent media breaking significant new ground, not only since the revolution but also in the years running up to it.

Although self-censorship remains something of a problem even in the independent media, as demonstrated by the controversy over the shelving of an entire print run of Egypt Independent, the revolution has galvanised legions of journalists and media personalities to take on SCAF as they did Mubarak.

Many Egyptian journalists and media personalities express a newfound pride in their vocation and an irrepressible determination to carry on exposing the truth. For instance, late last year, al-Tahrir TV’s talk show host, the hard-talking Doaa Sultan, dedicated a special episode of her talk show to mount a scathing if melodramatic attack on the Egyptian military and the media and political forces, including the Muslim Brotherhood, which it has co-opted as a fig leaf for its rule.

Moreover, there is a third pillar to Egypt’s media landscape that has overshadowed even the independent media, the social and citizen media, which spearheaded the revolution and refuses to be put down. A good example of this is the defiant blogger Maikel Nabil Sanad who, despite having spent more than 300 days behind bars (including at least 80 on hunger strike), was not cowed into silence. On his release, he said: “We have one enemy, the military regime and its political dictatorship … It is imperative that we bring [it] down.”

And that sense of defiance is Egypt’s greatest hope for the future.


This article was published in The Guardian‘s Comment is Free section on 9 February 2012. Read the related discussion.

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توجهات جديدة للنزاع العربي الإسرائيلي

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بقلـم خالد دياب

تتجاوز القضية الأخلاقية لصالح زيادة التفاهم في أهميتها قضية انتهاك حقوق النشر، حسب رأي الصحفي خالد دياب، رداً على قرصنة ترجمة رواية مصرية مشهورة إلى العبرية

الاربعاء   ١٥   ديسمبر   ٢٠١٠

EN version

لا يعتبر علاء الأسواني مرشحاً محتملاً لمنصب مخلّص الرواية المصرية. إلا أن طبيب الأسنان هذا، الذي ما زال يمارس مهنته في عيادته في قلب العاصمة المصرية، يعتبر بشكل واسع أنه أنعش الرواية المصرية وزاد من مصداقيتها في الشارع المصري ضمن هذه العملية. ويعتبر الروائي المصري كذلك مشارك مفوّه في حملة تساند الديمقراطية. وقد كتب عدداً من المقالات عبر السنوات حول الحاجة الملّحة للإصلاح الديمقراطي في مصر وحول الفساد والجمود في نظام الرئيس مبارك.

تسطع فطنة الأسواني وعدم توقيره في مجموعة قصصه القصيرة وعنوانها “نيران صديقة”. ويشكّل عمله الأكثر شهرة “عمارة يعقوبيان” الذي نشر للمرة الأولى عام 2002 استكشافاً شجاعاً لواقع مصر الاجتماعي الاقتصادي البائس، بنتوءاته ومشاكله، كما يعبّر عنه سكان مجمع شقق متداعٍ ولكنه كان عريقاً في يوم من الأيام.

ورغم أن “عمارة يعقوبيان” تُرجمت إلى عشرين لغة على الأقل، إلا أن الأسواني قاوَم وبشدة وصلابة محاولات ترجمة روايته إلى لغة معينة هي العبرية، تضامناً مع مأساة الفلسطينيين وتعبيراً عن معارضته للـ “تطبيع الثقافي مع إسرائيل”.

قرر مركز إسرائيل فلسطين للبحوث والمعلومات مؤخراً، وبعكس رغبات الأسواني، وبهدف معلن هو “نشر الوعي الثقافي”، قرر نشر ترجمة غير مصرّح بها لرواية “عمارة يعقوبيان” على شكل صورة إلكترونية (pdf) وتوزيعها على قائمة عناوين تضم 27,000 مشترك.

استشاط الأسواني غضباً كما كان متوقعاً. هدد متهماً المركز بالسرقة والقرصنة، باتخاذ إجراءات قانونية. إلا أن غيرشون باسكن، رئيس ومؤسس مركز إسرائيل فلسطين للبحوث والمعلومات لم يتراجع. “لم تكن نيتنا انتهاك حقوقه في النشر” حسبما صرح لصحيفة هآارتس. “القضية هنا هي ما إذا كان حق الإسرائيليين بقراءة الكتاب يعتبر أهم من حقوق الأسواني للنشر”.

حسناً، من وجهة نظر قانونية وفكرية، فإن الإجابة على موقف باسكن هي “بالطبع لا”. إلا أن الناشر الناشط في مجال السلام والذي تحول إلى قرصان قد يكون على حق عندما يقول، كما أشارت وكالة الأسوشييتد برس “لنعطِ الجمهور الإسرائيلي اليهودي فرصة لفهم المجتمع العربي بصورة أفضل”.

ورغم أن الأسواني يقف على أرضية قانونية صلبة جداً، إلا أنني أشك بالقضية الإنسانية والأخلاقية وراء معارضته العامة لترجمة عبرية، ليس لمجرد أن باستطاعة الكتّاب اختيار أمور عديدة، ليس قرائهم واحد منها.

تثير عواطفي، مثلي مثل الأسواني، مأساة الفلسطينيين والصعوبات التي يعانون منها تحت الاحتلال. إلا أنني غير مقتنع أن الانخراط في مقاطعة ثقافية شاملة ضد إسرائيل هو أمر فاعل أو عادل أو ملتزم.

بداية، ليس الفلسطينيون العرب أو المسلمين الوحيدين الذين يناضلون نير احتلال أجنبي. خذ العراق وأفغانستان مثلاً، حيث يعاني السكان مثل الفلسطينيين على أقل تقدير، بل وبشكل أسوأ من حيث عدد الضحايا. أعلم تمام العلم من قراءتي لأعمدة الأسواني أنه غاضب جداً من الدمار الذي تتسبب به هذه الغزوات الأنجلو أمريكية. لماذا لم تترجم هذه النقمة إذن إلى رفض مماثل للسماح بنشر ترجمة إنجليزية للرواية؟

هناك نوع معين من التناقض الظاهري، على شكل ردة فعل مفاجئة، في أوساط مفكرين مصريين يعتبرون تقدميين في الأحوال العادية، وخاصة هؤلاء من الجيل الأقدم، الذين يتصرفون كديناصورات عندما يعود الأمر إلى إسرائيل، حيث يعلقون في معارك الأمس ويتمسكون بأفكار الأمس العتيقة الكارثية، ولكنهم على استعداد وقدرة على رؤية المجالات الرمادية والفروقات الدقيقة في أمريكا، رغم سجلّها التاريخي المدمّر أكثر في أنحاء العالم.

إذا كان الأسواني مهتماً بالدفاع عن القضية الفلسطينية فإن السماح للإسرائيليين بالقراءة عن العرب كبشر عاديين، بدلاً من الشياطين التي تطارد كوابيسهم، والتوصل إلى فهم معمق للمجتمع العربي، سيوفّر مساعدة أكبر بكثير وفائدة أعم، من مقاطعة راوحت مكانها منذ عقود بدون أثر ملموس. شخصياً، أنا مع مقاطعة انتقائية لمتطرفين معروفين. ولكن رفض التعامل مع جميع الإسرائيليين هو نوع من العقاب الجماعي ننتقد نحن العرب إسرائيل لممارسته ضد الفلسطينيين.

تكمن إحدى المشاكل في أن المفكرين الذين يتعاملون مع إسرائيل في مصر يوصَمون عادة بأنهم خونة باعوا القضية. إذا كان الأسواني قلق من أن يبدو وكأنه يستفيد شخصياً من التعامل مع إسرائيل بينما يعاني الفلسطينيون، فهو يستطيع دائماً التبرع بدخل النسخة العبرية من كتابه لجمعية خيرية فلسطينية.

واقع الأمر هو أنني كنت آمل أن الأسواني كان سيستخدم ابتكاريته ووضعه وشهرته وشجاعته التي لا يشك بها أحد لأن يفتح طريقاً جديداً للنخبة الفكرية المصرية وإنشاء حوار مع إسرائيليين (إضافة إلى فلسطينيين) ذوي عقليات مماثلة من المصلحين وناشطي السلام، بدلاً من البقاء عالقاً في سلبية عدم التصرف. سوف يثري دعم صوت مصري بارز كهذا المعتدلين الإسرائيليين ويُفشِل سلطة المتطرفين لتجنيد الدعم المبني على الرعب والذم وتشويه السمعة.

لست ساذجاً لأعتقد بأن العلم أقوى من البندقية، ولكن من المؤكد أن بإمكان الكلمة أن تثلم السيف.

مصدر المقال: خدمة الأرضية المشتركة الإخبارية، 29 تشرين الثاني/نوفمبر 2010

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Novel approaches to the Arab-Israeli conflict

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By Khaled Diab

Despite infringing on the author’s copyright and wishes, the unauthorised Hebrew translation of a bestselling Egyptian novel highlights how the word can help blunt the sword.

25 November 2010

AR version

Alaa al-Aswany is an unlikely candidate for the job of saviour of the Egyptian novel. Yet this dentist, who continues to run his downtown practice in Cairo, is widely regarded as having revived the Egyptian novel and raised its street credibility in the process. The Egyptian novelist is also an outspoken pro-democracy campaigner and has written numerous articles over the years about the urgent need for democratic reform in Egypt and about the corruption and inertia of the Mubarak regime.

His irreverence and wit shine through in his novella and short story collection entitled Friendly Fire. His best-known work, The Yacoubian Building, first published in 2002, is a courageous exploration of Egypt’s grim socio-economic reality, warts and all, as expressed through the inhabitants of a declining but once-grand downtown apartment block.

Although The Yacoubian Building has been translated into at least 20 languages, al-Aswany has strenuously resisted attempts to translate his novel into one language in particular, Hebrew, in solidarity with the plight of the Palestinians and as an expression of his opposition to “cultural normalisation” with Israel.

Going against al-Aswany’s wishes, the Israel-Palestine Centre for Research and Information (IPCRI) recently decided, with the declared aim of “expanding cultural awareness”, to publish an unauthorised translation of The Yacoubian Building in pdf and distributed it to a mailing list of some 27,000 subscribers.

Al-Aswany was, predictably, livid. Accusing IPCRI of “piracy and theft”, he has threatened to take legal action. IPCRI’s head and founder, Gershon Baskin, is unrepentant. “We didn’t intend to infringe his copyright,” he told Israel’s Haaretz newspaper. “The question here is whether Israelis’ right to read the book outweighs his copyright.”

Well, from a legal and intellectual point of view, the answer to Baskin’s poser is “obviously not”. However, the peace-activist-turned-guerrilla-publisher does have a point when he says, as reported by AP: “Let’s give the Israeli Jewish public an opportunity to understand Arab society better.”

Although al-Aswany stands on very firm legal ground, I am doubtful about the human and moral case for his general opposition to a Hebrew translation, not least because writers can pick many things but one thing they can’t choose are their readers.

Like al-Aswany, I am moved by the plight of the Palestinians and the hardships they suffer under occupation. But I am not convinced that engaging in a blanket cultural boycott against Israel is effective, let alone fair or consistent.

For a start, Palestinians aren’t the only Arabs – or Muslims for that matter – struggling under the yoke of foreign occupation. Take Iraq and Afghanistan, where the populations are suffering at least as badly as the Palestinians, and worse in terms of body count. And I know, from my reading of Aswany’s columns, that he is outraged by the devastation wrought by these Anglo-American invasions. So why has this indignation not translated into a similar refusal to permit the release of an English version of his novel?

There is a certain paradoxical, knee-jerkism among many otherwise progressive Egyptian intellectuals, particularly those of the older generation, who behave like dinosaurs when it comes to Israel – stuck in yesterday’s battles, fixated on yesterday’s outdated and disastrous ideas – but are willing and able to see the greys and nuances in America, despite its far more destructive track record across the globe.

If al-Aswany is concerned about defending the Palestinian cause, surely allowing Israelis to read about Arabs as ordinary human beings – rather than the demons that haunt their nightmares – and gain an insight into Arab society is far more helpful and useful than a boycott that has lasted decades with no perceptible effect. Personally, I am all for a selective boycott of known extremists, but refusing to deal with all Israelis is the kind of collective punishment we Arabs criticise Israel for practising against the Palestinians.

One problem is that intellectuals who deal with Israel in Egypt are often branded as sell-outs and even traitors. If al-Aswany is worried about seeming to profit personally from dealing with Israel while the Palestinians suffer, he could always donate the proceeds from a Hebrew edition of his book to a Palestinian charity.

In fact, I would have hoped that al-Aswany would have used his creativity, stature, fame and undoubted courage to strike out in a new direction for Egypt’s mainstream intelligentsia and establish a dialogue with like-minded Israeli (not to mention Palestinian) reformers and peace activists, rather than remain stuck in negative inaction. Support from such a prominent Egyptian voice would empower Israeli moderates and undermine the power of extremists to mobilise support based on fear and vilification.

I am not naïve enough to believe that the pen is mightier than the gun, but the word can certainly blunt the sword.

This article first appeared in The Jerusalem Post on 21 November 2010. It was written for the Common Ground News Service.

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