Special report: Making harassment history

 
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This Chronikler special report examines, through personal testimonies and analyses, the causes and consequences of sexual harassment and what can be done about it.

Some blame women for sexual harassment, saying the way they dress and act "invites" unwanted male attention. Both statistical and anecdotal evidence show this to be a myth.   Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Some blame women for sexual harassment, saying the way they dress and act “invites” unwanted male attention. Both statistical and anecdotal evidence show this to be a myth.
Photo: ©Khaled Diab

This special focus section was launched on 20 June 2011, which Egyptian activists had declared as a day for blogging against sexual harassment. Since then, The Chronikler has sought to shed light on this troubling social phenomenon, its causes and consequences, the pain and distress it causes women, the insult it represents for men who do not harass, and its ramifications for society as a whole.

Though many of those who harass and humiliate women in this way dismiss sexual harassment as little more than a bit of fun and harmless ‘teasing’ (‘mua’kasa‘), sexual harrasment, despite being a universal phenonmenon, has reached crisis proportion in Egypt and some other parts of the Arab world, making going out in public a living hell for millions of women: conservative or liberal, young or old, educated or uneducated, rich or poor.

In Egypt, the situation has gone from crisis to catastrophe since the Egyptian revolution. Some blame the victims, saying the way women dress and act “invites” unwanted male attention. Both statistical and anecdotal evidence show this to be a myth. This intensifying of the situation is partly due to the breakdown in law and order, the deployment of sexual harassment as a political weapon, the increasing assertiveness of women and the accompanying backlash from the threatened male order.

The articles below relate the personal trauma and humilation harassment causes, the socio-economic and cultural factors behind it, and what can be done to combat it.

Sexual harassment and the medina

November 2014 – In Egypt, sexual harassment is a largely urban phenomenon fuelled by a sense of male powerlessness, insecurity and unrealistic gender ideals.

The antidote to Egypt’s sexual harassment epidemic

March 2014 – The cure for Egypt’s sexual harassment crisis is to liberate society from outdated and toxic gender ideals and to rethink notions of “honour”.

Sexual harassment: Undressing naked prejudice

March 2014 – To those who believe the way a woman dresses invites harassment, hear this: she is not to blame – her harassers are, reiterates Nadine Marroushi.

I was harassed and I’m stupefied!

June 2011- Until the revolution in social attitudes comes, women should face their harassers with a loud voice and a shebsheb (a slipper), insists Yosra Zoghby.

No online way out

June 2011 – Blogging won’t raise awareness about sexual harassment more than it already has. We must focus our efforts on lobbying the government to do more, argues Osama Diab.

18-day social revolutions do not exist

June 2011 – Tackling harassment requires much more than a political revolution: it needs a social movement that restores people’s dignity and promotes equality, says Kholoud Khalifa.

Dreaming of a harassment-free Egypt

June 2011 – Efforts to break the silence and taboo surrounding sexual harassment will eventually lead to a harassment-free Egypt, believes Rasha Dewedar.

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The fall of Egypt’s symbol of progressive Islam

 
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By Osama Diab

 Joining itself with an authoritarian regime caused harm to the millennium-long history of al-Azhar University.

Thursday 12 May 2011

al-Azhar in Cairo. ©Khaled Diab

“[Egypt] didn’t change the basic tenets of Islam, but its cultural weight gave Islam a new voice, one it didn’t have back in Arabia. Egypt embraced an Islam that was moderate, tolerant and non-extremist.” With these words, Naguib Mahfouz, winner of the 1988 Nobel Prize in Literature, gave his last statement about Islam, after decades of being on the death lists of extremist Islamist groups and an assassination attempt in 1994.

The moderate Islam that Mahfouz was referring to had a protector and a promoter: al-Azhar University. Throughout its long and proud history, al-Azhar had remained unrivalled as the prime centre of Islamic teaching, attracting millions of Muslim students from all over the world to its campus in Cairo. Many of the most notable liberal reformists in Egypt’s history, especially in the 19th century, were Azhar graduates. Tolerance and not getting too involved with state affairs have been central to its teaching for centuries.

The father of Islamic modernism, Rifa’a al-Tahtawi, a 19th-century scholar and an Azhar graduate, saw no contradiction between Islamic thought and ideologies drawn from the European Age of Enlightenment. He studied in France and, on his return to Egypt, he worked at modernising the country, calling for liberal reform in the Muslim world.

Mohamed Abduh followed in al-Tahtawi’s footsteps, urging open dialogue with European civilisation and the reformation of Islamic thought, arguing that Muslims can’t rely on medieval interpretations of religious texts. He also argued for the secularisation of Muslim countries. Both scholars spoke European languages fluently and wrote positively about their experiences in Europe.

My fatwa against yours

However, it seems that slowly this progressive form of Islam is being replaced with a more radical Salafist ideology, one that blatantly calls for a return to the practices of the first three generations of Muslims, who lived more than 1,400 years ago. Salafi Islam is considered Muslim orthodoxy at its strictest, and is influenced by the teachings of Muhammad ibn Abdel Wahab, an 18th-century Muslim theologian whose radical ideas still shape how the Saud family runs its kingdom today. Evidently, al-Azhar in Egypt is falling prey to ideologies funded and encouraged from across the Red Sea in Saudi Arabia.

Speaking to al-Youm al-Sabei newspaper, Mahmoud Ashour, the former deputy of al-Azhar, said that the Salafist ideology has infiltrated the university. He blamed the phenomenon on young Egyptians’ feeling that society is unjust and their refusal to believe what they are told without experiencing reform on the ground, the paper reported.

A few months ago, in reaction to news of the rising influence of Salafi ideology within the walls of the university, the president of Tajikistan recalled 134 students he had sent to study at al-Azhar.

The clash between the two credos, Salafism and moderate Islam, reached its peak in 2009 when Mohamed Sayed Tantawi, a former sheikh of Azhar, called for a ban on the niqab – the full face veil – inside schools. The growing popularity of the niqab is a manifestation of the growing ascendancy of Salafi ideas among young Egyptians. Protests and sit-ins held by face-veiled students broke out, not just at al-Azhar, but at many other universities across the nation, all protesting against the cleric’s declaration.

Another collision took place when the Azhar Scholar Front (ASF), which was dissolved in 1999 after rejecting some of the fatwas issued by Tantawi, restarted its activities unofficially from Kuwait in 2007. The ASF is now considered attractive for those who split from al-Azhar due to opposing views, and usually adopts more radical positions, such as the ASF’s call a few months ago for an economic boycott of all Egyptian Christians as a riposte to an alleged kidnap by churchmen of a Coptic woman who had converted to Islam. Declarations of conflicting fatwas and heated exchanges have been common since the ASF was informally re-established.

But another reason why many have turned their back on al-Azhar’s ideology and fallen prey to more radical views is al-Azhar’s close association with the former president Hosni Mubarak and his increasingly disfavoured authoritarian regime, which many think has impoverished Egyptians.

The appointment of the sheikh of al-Azhar, the highest Sunni Muslim authority in the world, was the gift of Egyptian leaders by presidential decree. The sheikhs were usually loyal to the presidential palace and hardly ever issued fatwas that would go against the regime’s will or policy.

Chief whip of journalists

Tantawi was also notorious for his tailored fatwas to “Islamically” back up some of the regime’s actions, such as supporting the building of an underground wall on the border with Gaza and prohibiting anti-government street protests.

He also famously called for the “whipping” of journalists who publish false reports, after the appearance of a 2007 article by Ibrahim Eissa, a former editor of al-Dostour newspaper, questioning Mubarak’s health and the future of the presidency in Egypt.

What’s more, the recently appointed new sheikh of al-Azhar, Ahmed al-Tayeb, was a member of the policy committee in what used to be the ruling National Democratic Party. The policy committee division of the NDP was led by Gamal Mubarak, the president’s son.

This kind of co-operation with Mubarak’s regime is what made al-Azhar lose credibility. Paradoxically, it also made it easy for other, more radical Islamic groups, which were usually in conflict with the unpopular regime, to “infiltrate” the influential university.

At this critical phase, Egypt needs al-Azhar as a defence wall against extremist ideologies, to promote a culture of peace, progression, citizenship and dialogue with the West, and to thwart a rising Salafi influence that incites nothing but regression, hate and violence, clashing with and discriminating against the other. Egypt and the entire Muslim world, now more than ever, are in desperate need of enlightened scholars such as al-Tahtawi and Abduh to move it forward to modernity, instead of attempting to take us back to a 7th-century culture.

This article first appeared in the New Statesmanon 7 April 2011. Published here with the author’s consent. ©Osama Diab. All rights reserved.


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Egypt’s counter-revolutionary bogeyman

 
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By Osama Diab

Fear of retaliation from the old regime shouldn’t be used to limit Egyptians’ hard-won freedoms and attack peaceful protesters.

Monday 2 May 2011

Egyptian hopes for a more democratic future were crushed on Friday when security forces from the police and military raided Tahrir Square in Cairo, leaving two people dead and arresting 41. The army blamed counter-revolutionary elements for provoking the clashes and denied responsibility for the bloodshed.

The attacks on protesters came two weeks after the recently appointed cabinet passed a law restricting protests. The minister of justice, Mohamed Abdelaziz el-Guindy, told Egyptian television that this was a measure to protect the revolution.

The violence in Tahrir wasn’t the only act justified with this scapegoat. The demolition of Sufi shrines, the burning of a Christian church in Atfih and the subsequent violence, and even labour strikes and sit-ins have all been described as counter-revolutionary acts.

The law, which was approved by the ruling supreme council of the armed forces in the absence of a parliament, makes participating in protests and strikes that hinder the work of public institutions or authorities during a state of emergency illegal. This kind of vagueness and open-endedness could make any strike or protest subject to this law, which provides for punishment of up to three years in prison.

Deposed president Hosni Mubarak ruled Egypt for 30 years with an emergency law that was instituted after the assassination of former president Anwar el-Sadat by Islamists in 1981. Since then, Mubarak used Islamists as an excuse to crack down on any attempt at political change. Just a few hours before leaving office, he told Christiane Amanpour of ABC television that if he left now, the Muslim Brotherhood would take power in Egypt.

With a new military regime in place, signs of similar Mubarak tactics are starting to emerge. This time, Islamists, last season’s scare tactic, are replaced with the remnants of the previous regime – Egypt’s new bogeyman.

This fear of a counter-revolution could potentially be extended to include all sorts of freedoms. Restrictions could be put on the media and civil society, for example, claiming that some of its elements are part of a counter-revolutionary plan.

The law against demonstrations, nevertheless, was welcomed by many to end the “politics of the street” in which whoever has control over the streets of Egypt has influence over public policy.

Despite the harm that might occur from taking every simple demand to the streets during this critical time, this should have been dealt with through swift reforms rather than criminalising protests.

Political stability is always something to aspire to, but the best means of achieving it is still up for debate. What Egypt needs now is genuine stability driven by social equality, political freedom and a fair enforcement of law, rather than a fake stability imposed by oppressive laws and the heavy hand of brutal security. The policies of Mubarak and his cohort of Arab dictators have all led to instability, despite an endless number of oppressive laws and brutal security forces.

There are plenty of existing laws that could be used against remnants of Mubarak’s regime who try to instigate chaos. Corruption, hooliganism and vandalism are already punishable in the courts.

“Any move to curb freedom of assembly and the right to strike in Egypt would be an alarming step backwards and an insult to those who risked – and lost – their lives calling for change over the last two months,” an Amnesty International spokesperson said.

Egypt has had enough of the politics of fear and division, and if the revolution is to achieve its goals, loose accusations of “counter-revolution” should not be used by any group to win support or justify actions that otherwise cannot be justified.

Until now, no one has had a clear understanding of what this counter-revolutionary threat is, what its goals are, what is it trying to achieve, or its methods of achieving it. But it has been used by some groups to accuse their opponents and abused by those in power to restrict freedoms.

This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free section on 11 April 2011. Read the related discussion. Reprinted here with the author’s permission. © Osama Diab. All rights reserved.

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Should Egypt’s next president be old guard or vanguard?

 
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 By Khaled Diab

Amr Moussa is very popular with Egyptians, but should Egyptians play it safe with the best of the old guard or choose someone from the vanguard.

Saturday 12 March 2011

After years in the political wilderness heading up the glorified talking shop known as the Arab League, Amr Moussa is back on the national scene in Egypt. Following weeks of public speculation and private deliberation, the popular and charismatic one-time foreign minister has announced his intention to run for Egypt’s recently vacated top job.

“I am ready to nominate myself for the presidency. I see this as a duty and a responsibility,” he told the independent Egyptian daily al-Masry al-Youm.

Long slated as a possible replacement for Hosni Mubarak by opposition figures seeking a bridge to democracy, Moussa’s candidacy seems to chime with the public mood. A recent poll revealed that almost half of Egyptians support the idea of him becoming Egypt’s next president.

Although the vast majority of Egyptians aspire to transparency and good governance, the instability of recent weeks has created a certain amount of anxiety and apprehension, leading many to cite their immediate priorities as being “political stability” and “security for the masses”.

And as my wife argued in a debate in which I expressed my doubts about Moussa’s credentials, the Arab League chief and former foreign minister could well be the best candidate to engineer a stable transition to democracy.

Although he is a member of the old guard, Moussa somehow kept himself immune to the rampant corruption and rot which surrounded him, and his decade at the Arab League has kept him at a safe distance from one of the most unpopular governments in Egypt’s recent history, the so-called “businessmen’s cabinet” of ousted prime minister Ahmed Nazif.

During his decade-long tenure as foreign minister (1991-2001), Moussa was indisputably the most popular politician in Egypt and he was even described by Time magazine as “perhaps the most adored public servant in the Arab world”.

And in a country where public servants act like masters and are generally despised, being popular is a rare commodity indeed. So rare, in fact, that many Egyptians strongly believe Amr Moussa was “kicked upstairs” to the Arab League by Mubarak who was envious of and feared his popularity.

On a personal level, Moussa exudes charisma and gravitas, as I experienced on the one occasion I was in the same room as him, and has both the refinement of the polished career diplomat and a natural “common touch” – two hugely important ingredients for success, according to Rudyard Kipling. As foreign minister, he was admired for his dexterous management of Egypt’s international relations, particularly with the Arab world, and his perceived straight talking on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Despite his obvious strengths, I cannot help but conclude that Moussa’s weaknesses are far more troubling. Although he never personally indulged in the excesses of the former regime, he has been and remains a Mubarak loyalist.

While opposition figures have risked life and limb, or at least their reputations and security, to push for reform, Moussa has never openly criticised the old regime nor was he involved in any meaningful manner in the revolution. During the 18 days it took to topple Mubarak, Moussa sounded more like Catherine Ashton expressing the EU’s dithering position when he urged all sides “to show restraint”, rather than a possible people’s choice as their future leader.

Moussa as president could well provide the stable bridge to democracy that his supporters desire, and he has reassuringly suggested that he would only serve a single term: “The coming president of Egypt, whoever he is, must, in my opinion, stay for one term only … to lead the process of reform and put the country on the road to stability.”

Nevertheless, there is the chance, though he is not popular with the army, that his popularity with the people and loyalty to the past would be used by the military to provide a democratic facade without real democracy.

Personally, I would back Amr Moussa as transitional president if the presidency was stripped of its power and transformed into a ceremonial position to provide Egypt with a unifying figure during its democratic transformation and a recognisable face to the outside world. But Moussa himself is opposed to Egypt becoming a full parliamentary democracy, at least for the time being.

Well, if not Amr Moussa, then who? Other names doing the rounds include former IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei and the head of the al-Ghad party Ayman Nour. Though neither are popular candidates according to the poll cited above, ElBaradei has the advantage of being a non-partisan figure around whom the opposition have rallied, especially prior to the revolution, while Nour is young and has the credibility of having been at the forefront of Egypt’s struggle for democracy which landed him in jail for having dared to run against Mubarak in the 2005 elections.

On the downside, after decades walking the corridors of international diplomacy, ElBaradei is something of a “Johnny-come-lately”, while many Egyptians fear that Nour and his liberal party will continue the neoliberal economic policies that have aggravated inequalities in Egypt.

Who will become Egypt’s next president will, hopefully, be for all Egyptians to decide later this year. But with the range of established political figures being so uninspiring and in the spirit of the fundamental change awakened by the revolution, the conditions for running should be so eased that the young leaders of the revolution and even unknown citizens with well thought out platforms can run and perhaps become the next president.

Some view the absence of clear presidential candidates as a problem which, at some levels, it is. But if Egyptians choose someone to lead them who is not part of the political class, then they may just create a true “government of the people, by the people, for the people” – and perhaps even reinvent democracy itself.

This column appeared in the Guardian newspaper’s Comment is Free section on 233 March 2011. Read the full discussion here.

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Defiantly delusional

 
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By Christian Nielsen

Muammar Gaddafi and Silvio Berlusconi have something in common: delusions of grandeur that keep them desperately holding on to the reins of power.

Tuesday 1 March 2011

History remembers the likes of Winston Churchill and Charles de Gaulle somewhat fondly for their jingoistic rhetoric and their, well, dogged outlook in the face of adversity. But the sort of defiance we see from the Muburaks, Mugabes, Gaddafis and, closer to home, Berlusconis and Putins of this world will get less generous treatment in the annals.

But what do these admonished leaders have in common that can be added to the world compendium of bad leaders – a must-read for opposition parties in countries striving for democratic legitimacy? Take Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi for a telling case of two ageing leaders who do everything and anything to maintain their grip on power.

Indeed, their rise to power tells us as much about the men as their antics to keep it. Today they have the misfortune of sharing more in common than any other two world leaders in the news. And the kinship goes way beyond their defiant stand in the face of popular unrest and the obvious colonial connection between their countries.

Gaddafi and Berlusconi are indubitably the most egocentric, obdurate, corrupt, eccentric, vainglorious and conspicuously rich leaders on the planet. These two are clearly cut from the same shroud – they like to think of themselves as the second coming for their respective peoples.

And so it is today that they now face a common dilemma: meet demands to cede power and face the ramifications (legal or otherwise) of their actions, or go down fighting to the last hair plug.

Let’s look more closely at these two characters to understand how their people came to burdened with them.

A military man, the young Gaddafi took control of the country in 1969 following a bloodless coup which sent Libya’s monarch packing. After seizing power, he took a populist approach in an attempt to win over Libyan hearts and minds among the many tribal factions. His pan-Arab, anti-imperialist agenda subsumed elements of Islam along with a more Western mercantile mentality – he allowed small-scale entrepreneurship, but kept control of larger, strategically important companies, including oil-related and media businesses.

Among his famed eccentricities, Gaddafi sleeps in a Bedouin tent guarded by female bodyguards on trips abroad. The international journalist John Simpson once implied that the Colonel would pass wind as freely as he would opinions on the ills of Western society.

His record of ruthlessly crushing dissent and repressing civil society was well established long before any of the actions he has been accused of ordering during the February 2011 people’s revolution. His attempts to rally Arab states to band together in dealing with regional issues were generally rebuffed, so he turned his attention towards pan-Africanism, later influencing the creation of the African Union.

A reflection of these extreme views can be seen in his now-acknowledged sponsorship of terrorism, including his alleged ordering of the 1988 Lockerbie bombing.

Ever the unpredictable, his antics have gained him (un)welcomed media attention during his four-decade rule, including such recent exploits as staging a hero’s ‘welcome home’ party for Abdel-Baset al-Megrahi, the Libyan convicted of masterminding the Lockerbie bombing, who was released on ‘medical grounds’; a grand-standing one-hour lecture to the UN on all the ills of the world system; and inviting young Italian women during an official trip to the country to convert to Islam – a gesture he thought would help to cement ties between Tripoli and Rome!

The subject of women leads us neatly on to Silvio Berlusconi, whose now infamous ‘bunga bunga’ parties, involving scores of women as captive audience for his crooning and swooning evenings, were reportedly inspired by Gaddafi’s penchant for travelling ‘en harem’. Speculation is rife where the term comes from – with no apparent Arabic roots, some suggest it came via an old joke about three Westerners being forced to choose between death and bunga bunga, only to discover if they chose bunga bunga that their fate would be “death by bunga bunga!”

But the latest scandal surrounding the mercurial Berlusconi won’t go away so easily. Hundreds of thousands of Italians (spurred on by women’s movements) took to the streets earlier this year to protest against their leader’s intransigence. Italians, who arguably freely elected the man ( his control of the nation’s limited media offering make fair elections unlikely), are finally speaking out, and they are saying “enough is enough”.

And the judiciary might also finally get its chance to catch the playboy politician out. He is currently facing charges of abusing his power in attempts to hide his involvement with a young Moroccan club dancer called Karima Keyek – aka Ruby Rubacuori the ‘heart stealer’.

Italian prosecutors allege that upon learning that Keyek was being held by Italian police on possible theft charges, he used his influence to get her out. Alas Berlusconi remains typically defiant – yes, that word again – denying the charges as “disgusting” and “groundless”. The trial will begin on 6 April.

The Economist takes some pleasure in reporting the antics of “slippery Silvio”, as they’ve called him, and the mysteries of Italian politics. Back in December 2004, following his acquittal on charges of bribing judges, the weekly magazine wrote:

“There is no point debating if the prime minister of Italy might have bribed judges. But the party he leads was created by a friend who was in league with the Sicilian Mafia. That, in its shocking essence, is what two Italian courts decided last weekend. They were giving two separate judgments, one on Silvio Berlusconi and the other on Marcello Dell’Utri, once head of Publitalia, the cash generator in Mr Berlusconi’s media empire, and the man who conjured up his party, Forza Italia, in 1994.”

As recently as January 2011, under the title ‘A party animal’ The Economist took another swipe at the Teflon-PM: “The solution to this crisis that might suggest itself in most other countries was flatly ruled out by the prime minister on January 18th. ‘Resign?’ he asked journalists. ‘Are you mad?’ Once again, he seems bent on facing down claims that would persuade most normal public figures that the time had come for retirement, perhaps to a monastery.”

This article triggered a flurry of readers’ letters. One – by Nevios, presumably an Italian commentator  – underscored the strengthening case that leaders driven by megalomania can easily slip into dictatorial behaviour in an attempt to hold onto power with the sort of defiance (of the facts on the ground) that only the delusional could entertain.

Nevios writes:

“I am thunderstruck by Berlusconi’s ability to deny and repel every [bit of] blame he receives by half the world. He stresses his innocence and moral purity and behaves as though everything were going just perfectly! He is becoming more and more like a dictator, covering up every misdeed that concerns him, limiting the freedom of the press… This is why I thank The Economist, and the foreign newspapers in general, which informs [sic] us objectively and thoroughly about what is going on in Italy.”

In a decade or two from now, how will the world remember the defiant posturing of Berlusconi, Gaddafi and their ilk? Or will we have so many new dictators that the class of 2011 will become a footnote in the annals of delusional leaders?

 

This article is published here with the author’s permission. ©Christian Nielsen. All rights reserved.

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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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When the chips are down

 
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By Khaled Diab

Arab revolutionary fever has spread to Europe as Belgians raise their freedom fries, not to bring down a regime but to ask for one to be formed.

Wednesday 23 February 2011

Missing the most defining moments in Egypt’s recent history by a few short weeks and watching the revolution unfold in my native land from afar has been frustrating.

But some of that revolutionary spirit has infected my adoptive land, Belgium, where young people have started what has been called the friet revolutie or “fries revolution” (after that most popular of national symbols, Belgian chips) to express their anger and frustration at their country’s ongoing failure to form a government.

Creative events have been held across the country to mark the world-record-breaking 250 days without government, including a strip protest, beer demos, and the continuation of longstanding actions such as shaving and sex strikes. The largest event was held just down the road from where I live in Ghent, where protesters occupied one of the city’s main squares and partied until midnight, when a delegate from Iraq – the former record holder – handed over a trophy.

“We want to show our politicians that we are proud of their performance,” one of the organisers told Belgian TV with a heavy hint of irony. “At first we thought: what in God’s name are they up to? Are there no important problems that need solving? When we realised they were obviously going for this world record we decided they deserved a celebration.”

Of course, no one is proud that Belgium has won this dubious record, but irony and the surreal are two qualities that cross the language barrier and unify Belgians. In my personal view, Belgium broke the ‘no government’ record a long time ago, with its failure to build a lasting coalition and the political crisis that has ensued since the previous elections in 2007.

In a piece on Comment is Free, Laurens de Vos wrote, “the feeling is growing that if the country is bound to be split up, so be it”. This strikes me as wishful thinking on the part of De Vos, who is a member of  the Flemish nationalist N-VA, which seeks the gradual creation of an independent Flemish state and which – along with intransigent elements in the Francophone community – is largely responsible for the current impasse.

My impression, supported by the gathering protest movement, is that most ordinary Belgians feel the country faces more important issues than the so-called “federal reform” currently paralysing Belgium’s political class. The reform debate is allowing politicians to be distracted from crucial issues, such as agreeing a budget, tackling growing unemployment, and allaying the fears of foreign investors and financial markets.

De Vos also recycles a typical Flemish nationalist chestnut, citing the apparently irreconcilable differences between the country’s two communities. “There have been disagreements on virtually every single topic between the socialist south, oriented to ‘Latin’ Europe, and the north with its more Anglo-Saxon approach,” he says, though the more generic “Germanic” is the more typical term used to describe Flemings.

This is a transparent attempt to butter up to British readers by suggesting that Flemings and Brits are in the same club and those Walloons are ‘Latin’, with all the negative stereotypes that label carries. But this bears little resemblance to reality, except on the linguistic front. In my experience, Belgians are very similar culturally, despite the language difference – far more so than the regional differences within larger countries, such as my own Egypt.

It is true that the political landscapes in Flanders and Wallonia are different, but this is largely due to the fact that the south (which used to be the most prosperous) has a concentration of declining heavy industry and mining, and hence tends to vote socialist, while the north is traditionally more rural and, in recent decades, has become a hub for hi-tech industry and services, and so tends to vote more liberal and conservative. It’s like the divide in the UK between the home counties and the north – yet at the moment few people are calling for the breakup of England.

Moreover, the political diversity within the regions is large. Flanders has areas with a strong progressive and socialist tradition, such as Ghent and the former mining communities of Limburg. In fact, to register its opposition to Flemish separatism, Ghent declared its independence from Flanders and became a city state for a day.

In keeping with his party’s separatist agenda, De Vos proposes a number of decentralising policies that will rob the federal state of most of what remains of its powers, leaving Belgium an empty shell, effectively dead. But, as I’ve argued before, independence is not in the best long-term interests of either Flanders or Wallonnia.

So, what’s the solution to the deadlock? In my view, and that of many of the protesters, Belgium needs to reinvent its political landscape and recreate national political parties, because local parties cannot hold national appeal in federal elections, and social security must remain federal. On the social front, Belgium needs a national media and a universally bilingual education system.

If Belgian politicians fail to resolve their differences soon, then may be it will be time for a real revolution in which the political class are given their marching orders and Belgians seize direct control of their democracy, making their country the first post-party state.

This column appeared in the Guardian newspaper’s Comment is Free section on 18 February 2011. Read the full discussion here.

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Freedom from fear

 
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By Khaled Diab

The Egyptian revolution could usher in freedom to the Middle East, but Arabs and Israelis must break free of the chains of prejudice, history and fear.

Saturday 19 February 2011

Millions of Egyptians have accomplished what many thought was improbable: They defied their dictator and won. After three decades as Egypt’s uncontested leader, Hosni Mubarak’s downfall has understandably been cause for euphoria and celebration in Egypt and across the Arab world.

Egyptians have made history. But now, they need to ensure that this revolution does not become a footnote in their history.

While the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions have inspired ordinary Arabs everywhere, they have been largely met with trepidation and fear in Israel. But as a wave of hope and empowerment begins to ripple through the Arab world, it would be a shame and a grave mistake to continue in ‘business-as-usual’ mode on the Arab-Israeli front.

The changing Middle Eastern landscape is a wake-up call to both sides to transform what were once two competing nationalisms (pan-Arab and Zionist ) into complementary ones. The first step toward achieving this is to acknowledge that not everything is the other side’s fault.

Nevertheless, Israelis worry that rather than heralding the dawn of democracy next door, the unfolding revolution marks the sunset of secularism. The frenzied analogies fixate on Iran and 1979, and assume that the Muslim Brotherhood will spearhead a counterrevolution and orchestrate a theocratic takeover of Egypt.

Though I despise the stifling impact of the Muslim Brotherhood on Egyptian society, I doubt this scenario. While the Iranian and Egyptian revolutions share a common denominator in that both were popular revolts against Western-backed despots that took the world by surprise, there are numerous vital differences between them.

One of the most critical is that Egypt has no ‘cult’ religious revolutionary figure like Ayatollah Khomeini. The nearest to a ‘face’ that the Egyptian revolution has is Mohamed ElBaradei, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, seasoned international diplomat and avowed secularist. The only thing the two men share in common is that they returned home to lead something that they didn’t start.

In addition, the Egyptian Sunni clergy – which has long been subservient to the secular authorities – is generally not involved in politics and is not held in the same kind of awe as its Shi’ite counterpart, which was politicized.

As for the Muslim Brotherhood, it was not only a latecomer to the revolution, but is also largely made up of conservative and rather grey laymen who tend to be drawn from the ranks of professionals, i.e. doctors, lawyers and engineers.

Moreover, Egypt today is not Iran circa 1979. The revolution comes at a time when Egypt, which has long had close contact with the West, has had almost two centuries of modernising and secularising experience.

Of course, Israeli fears stem not from whether or not Egypt will become a theocracy – as a friendly theocracy would, I imagine, be all right – but from whether or not the new order will be more hostile to an Israel feeling isolated and insecure.

The Muslim Brotherhood is probably the most hostile party to Israel. However, suspicion, distrust, dislike and fear of Israel cut across party lines, both out of sympathy for the plight of the Palestinians and out of the humiliation Israel has heaped on the wider Arab world. This probably means that the cold Egyptian-Israeli peace will become frostier.

Nevertheless, pragmatism is likely to prevail, and I don’t think any likely Egyptian government would risk reneging on the peace agreement. The army has already demonstrated this with its statement that Egypt will respect all its foreign agreements.

For Israel, the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions should be taken not as a threat but as an opportunity. Israelis need to realise that the road to their security lies not through Cairo, but through Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza.

As the Palestine Papers and before them the Oslo Accords clearly demonstrate, along with Israel’s non-reaction to the Arab Peace Initiative, Israeli intransigence, founded on military might and superpower sponsorship, is no substitute for justice. Authority built on oppression, as Mubarak found out, inevitably crumbles.

Following the revolution, Egyptians would be justified in keeping their economic distance from Israel, but they need to stop cold-shouldering Israelis, because this fuels the popular fear that Arabs are not after peace with Israel, but its defeat and destruction by any means possible. The only way to allay these worries and build the necessary popular groundswell for peace is to engage in a direct, grass-roots conversation and dialogue.

The Egyptian revolution could usher in an era of freedom in the Middle East. But for it to do so, Arabs and Israelis must break free of the chains of prejudice, history and fear.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 15 February 2011. It was commissioned and distributed by the Common Ground News Service.

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Political idealism triumphs over Egypt’s cruel political reality

 
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By Osama Diab

The power of an idea proved stronger than tanks, water cannons and bullets.

Thursday 16 February 2011

When I saw images of Tahrir Square’s peaceful-but-angry protesters gathering in the hundreds of thousands, I involuntarily linked them in my mind to images of police mistreatment of citizens, such as a man with one foot inside a public bus and the rest of his body hanging out, risking his life to go home. I knew that among these protesters were Egyptians who spent a big chunk of their lives waiting patiently in line for subsidised bread. I knew among them were mothers who had lost their sons, sunk in ships in an illegal and desperate attempt to seek a better life on the other side of the Mediterranean.

When I saw the protests in Tahrir Square, pictures of Khaled Said’s fractured skull [warning: exremely graphic image], of Emad Elkebir being sodomised with a cane by a police officer, of protesters being kidnapped by plain-clothed National Democratic Party thugs sprang to my mind. I remembered doctored pictures, state TV lies and the massive media outlets funded by our money to act as the propaganda arm of former president Mubarak’s regime. I remembered waking up every single morning of my life to Mubarak on the first page of the al-Ahram state-run newspaper on our breakfast table.

When I saw the anger, frustration, determination, resilience and great hope in a better future in the eyes of protesters, I also remembered what those who dreamed of change had to face other than state-security intimidation – except until a few months ago, those who have dreamed of change were scattered, unconnected, unorganised and weak.

These millions of people trying to pull down the Mubarak dictatorship have been told that political idealism is one thing and political reality is another. Political idealism in this battle was represented by protesters camping in Tahrir, driven by the desire for fresh political change, democracy, restoration of their dignity and a better future for their kids. They were armed with nothing but faith, sheer determination and great courage.

Political reality favours short-term, fake stability at the expense of freedom, human dignity and social justice.

For a long time, political idealists were accused of being naive. The power of their ideas – of liberty, freedom and justice – has always been underplayed. Ending the Egyptian dictatorship seemed like a mission impossible. It wasn’t a fight against one man, but against all Arab dictatorships, Israel and the United States, which all had vested interests in keeping Mubarak in power.

This scepticism was completely justified. Mubarak’s authoritarian infrastructure was a brilliant combination of three things: military loyalty, horrifying state security and intelligence apparatuses, and a ruling party of billionaire businessmen who help with funding this whole process of maintaining the status quo in return for “economic favours”. What is more, all this was internationally backed due to Mubarak’s good friendship with Israel – or, better said, Mubarak’s unquestioned obedience to Israel.

Amid all these challenges, how did peaceful protesters, armed with nothing but a love of dignity, freedom and social justice win this battle against political realism, despite the arrests of its members, the torture and killings? How did the mighty state security force collapse in a matter of a few hours? How was a cabinet of wealthy businessmen dismissed in a matter of days? How did one of the world’s worst dictators fall in just 18 days?

It’s because the power of an idea proved much stronger than the power of tanks, water cannons, bullets, batons, tear gas and Molotov cocktails. When the idea is right, it can prove more resilient than an out-of-its-mind police state, which wouldn’t hesitate before running over [warning: extremely graphic footage] peaceful protesters with ugly armoured vehicles.

I salute those who turned one of the world’s strongest men into one of its weakest, as well as those who did not favour a fake stability imposed by the heavy hand of brutal security over a stability driven by social equality and political freedom. But, most importantly, I salute those who gave their lives so that others can enjoy a better one.

This article first appeared in the New Statesman on 14 February 2011.

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The Arabic for freedom

 
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By Khaled Diab

By toppling their dictator, Egyptians have made history, but now they need to ensure that this revolution does not become a footnote in their history.

Saturday 12 February 2011

One day, I couldn’t believe he was staying. The next day, I could hardly comprehend that he was actually going. Hosni Mubarak’s vacating of the presidency reminds me of that old song by The Clash

Despot, come on and let us know

Why do you stay; when will you go

It’s always seize, seize, seize

You’re happy when we’re on our knees

 After his obstinate performance on Thursday night when he refused to step down with whatever shreds remained of his dignity, I was so downhearted, and I’m hundreds of miles away from the action, that I can only imagine the overwhelming wave of frustration, anger and despondency that must’ve torn through the hearts of all the protesters on Tahrir square and massed elsewhere across the country. 

By the next morning, I’d penned an open letter to our dictator who obviously thought it was beneath him to be dictated to by his “sons and daughters”, thereby ensuring, with his undignified refusal to exit left (or any other direction), that Egyptians would only ever remember the worst about him. 

I told him – not, of course, that he was likely to be reading this open letter or any of the others I’d written to him over the years – how much Egyptians loathed him and how he had “the extraordinary knack for snatching mediocrity from the jaws of greatness”. I warned him that “Egyptians have discovered their own latent power” and that they would “write their own future”. 

And the very next day, on Friday 11 February, the millions of Egyptians who have taken to the streets did just that, when Mubarak’s resignation was announced unceremoniously by his recently appointed vice president and intelligence chief and palace executioner, Omar Suleiman.

Just as our wise former leader warned, he’s departure has left chaos in its wake: a beautiful, sweet, intoxicating chaos in which millions are partying to the beat of their own freedom. It was the chaos of a football crowd after the biggest win in its history; the euphoria as high as if a third-division club had somehow won the World Cup. To borrow again from The Clash, the news rocked the midan and thousands of midans, streets and alleys across the country, not to mention the region and the world. 

Even here, so far away from the action, and even though I contributed little to the revolution beyond my sympathy and words, I was gripped by joy, elation, a slight sense of disbelief and relief that he was finally over. I was overwhelmed that Egyptians managed to dethrone their dictator after three decades and convince the army that it was time to deliver on its six-decade-old promise of a transition to democracy in under three weeks. My brother jokingly says he wants to write a book entitled The guide to overthrowing a dictator in just 18 days. 

It just goes to show that the mighty are not as mighty as they seem, and that the regime’s power had been hollow for years and it survived simply because not enough people realised this or believed it. So, thank you Tunisia, and Egypt’s savvy youth, for convincing ordinary Egyptians that the opposition was not fighting a losing battle and that true freedom was not a lost cause. 

But the party will soon be over, and the revellers will wake up with a hangover when they realise what a monumental wreck the regime has left behind. Revolutions succeed when they overthrow the old order, but they cannot cry victory until they have replaced it with something better. So many past revolutions ended in disappointment, disillusionment, frustration, or even the creation of a worst monster than what went before it. To avoid this fate, after the Egyptian revolution, there must come evolution, not devolution, on every front: the political, the economic, the social and the cultural.

The challenges ahead are truly mind-boggling in their complexity. How do you manage the transition to democracy? How do you convince the army, after almost 60 years in power, to return to their barracks and leave the country to the civilians to run? How do you neutralise the once-might state security apparatus and ensure it is not resuscitated or does not go renegade? 

How do you ensure that the civilians who take over don’t replace one dictatorship with another? How do you shore up the institutions of the state so that none have excessive power? How do you guarantee that the will of the people is done, while ensuring a fair society and justice for all, including religious minorities and non-believers, women, not to mention those with other sexual orientations? Exciting as the revolution was, it was costly in human and economic terms. How do you prevent the need for future ones by not only responding to the will of the people but creating a clear and transparent mechanism for the regular transfer of power? 

Then, there are the massive economic challenges. The desire for decent jobs and economic dignity were among the primary reasons that brought people out on to the streets, particularly the young, the unemployed and underemployed, the poor and the lower middle classes. How do you create enough opportunities for such a large population in a relatively resource-constrained country? How do you build greater economic equality, or at least bridge the yawning chasm, between the haves and the have-nothings? How do you deal with the dictatorship of the global marketplace and the economic imperialism of the great powers and large corporations in a way that does not harm the people? 

On the social and cultural fronts, the challenges are no less perplexing. How do you weed out the corruption that has seeped into every layer of society? How do you get people to live within the system rather than parallel to it or through its backdoors? After this dramatic period is over, will Egyptians remain politically active and pay taxes responsibly (particularly the wealthier)? 

Will we replace the current wasta-ocracy with a meritocracy? How about Egypt’s attitude to authoritarianism? Will we rise up against and neutralise all the mini-Mubaraks stifling the country’s creative and innovative energies? Will we invest more and better in education? Will Egypt finally make full use of its abundant youth? Will Egyptians free their minds or allow them to be held back by the suffocating brand of religion that has swept through the country in recent years? 

Young as it is, the revolution has already answered many questions regarding the ability of Egyptians to rise up and be counted, stand up for their rights, and instigate a process of peaceful change. But, as you can see from the above, many more questions loom on the horizon.

Whatever the future holds, one thing is for certain, Tunisians and Egyptians are in the galvanising process of defining the modern Arabic for freedom, and armed with that houriya, the future is theirs for the taking.

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