Egypt without the hype… and away from Cairo

 
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By Josephine Littlejohn

Contrary to the distorted and Cairo-centric media view of Egypt, Egyptians have an extraordinary breadth of views about  revolutionising their country.

Wednesday 15 August 2012

I have been horrified by some of the Western news coverage of Egypt. It seemed from British and American outlets that the Salafis were in power, that the pyramids were about to be blown up, the temples covered in wax, tourism brought to an end… the shock-horror stories abounded and no-one seemed to question the reality of these rather creative ‘reports’.

I love Egypt, for a variety of reasons, so I decided to find out for myself. I began to read Arab and Western news, Arab blogs of all persuasions, and two striking realisations became immediately obvious. One was that the news could not be trusted (duh!) and the other was a more complex realisation: Egypt now has elbow room for political discussion, but no real practical political experience or knowledge to draw upon.

It was like reading the idealistic debates of middle-class, first year political science undergraduates with no life experience. Add to the pot the constant silly declarations from rather smug religious ‘spokesmen’ intent on displaying how ‘pure’ they are… It made for pretty depressing reading.

So the crunch came: I had to go back and see for myself, hear the voices, look at the situation on the ground and come to my own conclusions. I went with no political or religious agenda: I have no political alignment, and I am not active in any particular religion, but I am not an atheist either. I felt, deep in my gut, that it was really important not to judge the situation based on these superficial presentations, not to have preformed ideas and to try and listen to the voices without filtering them through my own cultural and spiritual values. The voices need to be understood from within the struggle….after all the solution comes from within, not from without.

I talked to members of the Muslim Brotherhood and its Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), to Catholics, Copts, secularists, people in the souk, the bus drivers, expats, regular visitors and I even managed to find a neo-fascist white supremacist. I talked to whoever I could, which caused a bit of a stir to action by the tourist police and the security services at one point. Needless to say I was not hauled off and slung in jail and after a couple of hours of fevered phone calls, furtive discussions and sideways glances, I was off the hook. Phew.

The voices on the street told me of the joy of freedom finally and the growing unease regarding the gradual collapse of law and order, the piles of rubbish, fear of the growing sense of power and arrogance among the Salafis, and the lack of tourists and their money. The feeling on the streets lurched from desperation to euphoria and then seemed to settle into a slow dawn of understanding of just how hard it is going to be to get Egypt on its feet.

I went through similar swings of emotion and the enormity of the task Egypt has ahead of her is still unfolding itself before me, as my understanding of the complexity of the situation grows. In reality, there is no real government, but there are technocrats put in place to keep the wheels turning while Egypt decides her next move. Although President Mohamed Morsi was heavily criticised for the appointments in his cabinet, in truth there was little else he could have done. Few people outside of the old regime know how to actually run the country, and the nearest contender is the Muslim Brotherhood with their long experience in social work. A situation oft described as being stuck between a rock and a hard place.

The secularists wanted a revolutionary government but what do they mean by that? They wanted new ideas people. What new ideas? Who would implement them and how? The country is currently teetering on the edge of collapse. It does not need experimental ideas for now, but requires the kind of stability that can act as a foundation upon which new ideas, once properly and practically formed, can be cemented. And those new ideas need to come from a place of understanding, of knowing the long-term effects and ramifications of the practical application of a specific policy. I was truly saddened to see just how fragmented, politically illiterate (in terms of actual application) and out of touch the secular opposition is. A strong opposition keeps a government in check and prepares to become a government itself.

The dizzying array of various socialist workers parties, their parroting of outdated Marxist speak acquired from text books and their complete inability to truly connect with and understand the vast voting underbelly of the country brought to mind a scene from the 1979 Monty Python comedy film The Life of Brian. There is a wonderful scene in which the Jewish underclass, straining under Roman military rule, are assembled for a day at the Colosseum and begin a discussion about revolution. It quickly dissolves into spats between the People’s Front of Judea, the Judean People’s Front, the Judean Popular People’s Front… you get the idea.

I mean really? A 19th century political theory dreamed up by a couple of Germans and expanded upon by the Russians (who immediately began squabbling and fragmenting into factions)? And you think anything born out of that era and culture is going to even remotely fit in Egypt? It would be like feeding Russian boiled cabbage to Sicilians. Similarly, Adam Smith’s free market economic theory would fit Egypt like a round peg in a square hole. And don’t get me started on the remote possibility of a theocracy…shudder…. Egypt needs its own structure: take a lesson from the West… we made a mess, don’t copy us; grow your own sustainable future, that way it will last.

During my visit, there was so much information, so many voices that had important and valuable things to say that it is impossible to do them justice in one article. So over the next few weeks, I will be posting a series of articles and two in-depth interviews (on with an FJP parliamentarian and the other with a secularist). I want to cover the many political, religious, economic and gender issues that emerged from the conversations: people spoke passionately, honestly and from the heart and I want these voices, voices from the streets and villages far away from Cairo to have a chance to be heard.

 

This is part of a series of articles on Egypt’s political transformation as seen from the rural and provincial grassroots. Below is the full list of articles in the series:

1. Egypt without the hype… and away from Cairo

2. Egypt needs are human, social and educational, not religious, says Islamist MP

3. Minority voices in Upper Egypt

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Israel and Egypt’s other revolution

 
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By Khaled Diab

The creation of Israel sparked a revolution in Egypt, and Nasser, the legendary champion of the Arab cause, once sought peace with the Jewish state.

Tuesday 24 July 2012

While Gamal Abdel-Nasser was still officially prime minister, and Muhammad Neguib was the Free Officers’ figurehead president, Nasser engaged in secret, indirect peace negotiations with Israeli premier Moshe Sharett.

Monday marked the anniversary of the Egyptian revolution. Not the “Tahrir Square” revolution that began last year – that is on 25 January – but the 23 July revolution of 1952. At a recent event I attended in Ramallah to mark the occasion, an Egyptian diplomat said that 2011 was a continuation of 1952.

Though somewhat bizarrely he exalted the “noble” role of the military in both revolutions – the same junta which seized power six decades ago and has clung on to it selfishly ever since – I do agree with him that the two are linked, but in the same paradoxical way that Hosni Mubarak can be described as the “father” of Egypt’s emerging democracy.

Nevertheless, it would be a mistake simply to dismiss 1952 as a “coup d’etat”, a purely military plot that lacked popular support or involvement, even if it was indeed spearheaded by the army. A secret cell known as the Association of Free Officers, led by the charismatic Gamal Abdel-Nasser, was responding to popular disaffection with the palace, the landed gentry, the British occupation and influence, and stark socio-economic inequalities.

This manifested itself in mass demonstrations throughout the late 1940s, which culminated in the rioting and looting during the mysterious ‘Cairo Fire’ of January 1952, which showed all the signs of being orchestrated but, to this day, nobody knows who was behind it.

In fact, though Egyptians had a reputation, prior to last year and even among themselves, for being apathetic and docile, the past century has seen three revolutions (1919, 1952 and 2011) and a constant stream of smaller scale political dissent and labour action.

Ironically, despite the fact that the Free Officers seemed genuinely committed to democracy and egalitarianism and enjoyed popular support at first, the allure of power, paranoia and their determination to put Egypt on the fast track to development led them to ignore the transitional period they had set themselves, clamp down on freedom and create a new ruling class, first made up of army top brass, and later of nouveau riche entrepreneurs.

Since last year’s protests in Egypt began, panic bells have been sounding in Israel, where pundits have been searching high and low for signs that the Tahrir Square revolution’s claims of being about “bread, freedom and social justice” is just a cunning smokescreen for its true target: the Jewish state. Despite a number of isolated incidents, such as the trashing of the Israeli embassy, and some hardening of rhetoric, Israel has hardly featured, and Egyptian-Israeli relations look likely to continue along the same path: a cold and frosty peace.

But the picture was different in 1952. Though that revolution too was about bread and freedom, Israel played a significant indirect role in shaping its timing and direction. At a time when the Arab world had recently emerged from centuries of Ottoman imperial domination and was looking forward to shaking off European rule, the 1947 UN partition of Palestine was seen as a colonial slap in the face to Arab aspirations of freedom and self-determination, which might explain why the Arabs unwisely rushed into a war for which they were ill-prepared.

The military blamed the crushing defeat of 1948 on the corruption, nepotism and ‘mediocracy’ of King Farouq’s court and the ruling pasha class.

Nasser himself had fought in Palestine in 1948, and his unit was one of the few that had performed well, managing to hold out for four months under siege in Faluja, near Gaza. Nasser saw in Israel’s victory an unflattering reflection of his own country’s weakness and underdevelopment, leading him to the conclusion that the real battle lay at home. “We were fighting in Palestine, but our dreams were in Egypt,” Nasser later recalled, in his book, The Philosophy of the Revolution (1955).

Soon after his return to Egypt, Nasser and his comrades began to act concretely towards his vision for regime change. Following the bloodless coup, Nasser’s attempts to steer a more independent course for Egypt quickly elevated him to the status of bogeyman in Britain, France, as well as Israel. Though his negative image has undergone major revision in Europe, in Israel, Nasser was and is still widely regarded as a kind of “Hitler on the Nile”.

But there is no evidence to suggest that Nasser was driven by antisemitism or wished to wipe out the Jews. What motivated him was sympathy for the plight of the Palestinians and anti-imperialism. Despite Zionism’s self-image as an anti-colonial movement, Arabs saw it as a manifestation of Western hegemony designed to undermine their independence.

Moreover, contrary to what many Israelis and pro-Nasserist Arabs believe, there is evidence that Nasser was a pragmatist who quickly came to the personal realisation – despite his later fiery rhetoric designed to appeal to the ‘Arab street’ – that Israel was here to stay and that the Arabs would have to reach an accommodation with it eventually.

As early as 1953, Nasser engaged in secret, indirect negotiations with then Israeli premier Moshe Sharett. Even the ‘Lavon Affair’ in 1954 – in which Israeli agents carried out  “false flag” sabotage attacks on US and British interests – did not weaken his resolve. Nasser decided not to blame Sharett – who was in fact not aware of the clandestine operation – and between October 1954 and January 1955, the two men worked on a blueprint for Israeli-Egyptian relations, border issues, solutions to the Palestinian refugee crisis, Israeli shipping rights and avenues for economic co-operation.

That same month, Nasser wrote in an article for Foreign Affairs: “We do not want to start any conflict. War has no place in the reconstructive policy which we have designed to improve the lot of our people.”

Alarmed at Sharett’s dovish overtures, David Ben-Gurion came out of retirement and replaced him as prime minister in 1955. Almost at once, Israel’s founding father launched a major raid on Gaza, leading to a dangerous escalation of border skirmishes. The following year, Ben-Gurion signed his young country up to the tripartite attack – alongside France and Britain – to punish Nasser for his entirely legal nationalization of the Suez Canal.

Following this, Nasser lost confidence in Israel as a potential peace partner, and the stage was set for the downward spiral to disaster.

In 1967, tensions between Israel, Egypt and Syria reached fever pitch. Nasser, knowing his army was a shambles and under pressure from Arab rivals, hoped to deploy his most potent weapon – a barrage of eloquent, precision bombast – and defeat Israel in the diplomatic battlefield without firing a single shot.

Israel had other ideas and launched what it called a pre-emptive attack on its Arab neighbours. In just six days, Israel not only captured large tracts of Arab territory, but destroyed the pan-Arab secular dream represented by Nasserism.

Despite the famous “Three No’s” of the Arab summit in Khartoum, Nasser counselled caution and diplomacy to the radical Arab camp. He had also come full circle back to his position of the early 1950s, that a negotiated settlement was the only solution.

Shortly before his death in 1970, Nasser agreed to the American-brokered Rogers Plan. Nasser did not appear to hold out much hope, perhaps based on his previous experience, that Israel would accept the plan – which he described as the “last chance” before military action became inevitable.

Who knows what would have happened had Israel accepted the Rogers Plan or the Egyptian overtures of the 1950s, or if an Arab leader of Nasser’s stature and popularity had actually been honest about his convictions and publicly advocated for peace with Israel? Perhaps the 1967 and 1973 wars would not have happened, and may be Israel and Palestine would be living in peace among friendly neighbours.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter

This is an extended version of an article that appeared in Haaretz on 23 July 2012.

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The liberation of exile

 
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By Khaled Diab

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

Tuesday 10 July 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Egypt: from revolution to evolution

 
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By Khaled Diab

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

Friday 15 June 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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Safeguarding Arab media heritage… in Israel

 
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By Khaled Diab

The world’s largest Arabic-language press archive is located in Israel. Should Arabs use it or boycott it?

Wednesday 6 June 2012

Some vintage Egyptian newspapers. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

After a lively encounter at Tel Aviv University with the renegade Israeli historian Shlomo Sand, author of the bestselling The invention of the Jewish people, I met a friend, the young Israeli Arabist and historian Ofir Winter who has a profound interest in Egypt and is researching Arab perceptions of Israel.

“I have a surprise for you. It’s one of the university’s hidden gems,” he told me as he led me to a poorly lit and rarely visited corner of the campus. Our destination: the university’s Arabic press archives which, its curators claim, is the largest collection of Arab print media in the world.

Pleasantly surprised by the unexpected visit from an Egyptian, the two Michaels who seem to be temporarily in charge following the untimely death of the archive’s founder Haim Gal proudly showed me around, including a couple of the seven massive halls containing some 24,000 boxes of publications of all sorts dating back to the 1950s. In the archive’s main hall was row upon row of leading and obscure Arab publications – not just newspapers and political journals, but also lifestyle and women’s magazines – not to mention Turkish and Persian titles.

Since the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions erupted last year, the archive’s resource-strapped team, mostly made up of volunteers, has struggled to keep up with the explosion in new publications that have emerged, especially online. “New titles are coming out all the time and we have to be fast in downloading them because some don’t stay online for long,” explained one researcher as she clicked away at her computer.

One of the Michaels showed me an item that seemed to hold pride of place in the collection, even though it was only a facsimile, the first-ever edition of Egypt’s oldest newspaper still in print, al-Ahram, dated 5 August 1876. Instead of the paper’s famous masthead featuring the three pyramids of Giza, the original showed only two pyramids and the Sphinx. Unlike today’s bulky version, issue one was one large sheet folded into four pages. It is also very difficult to read for the modern eye, because it contained no columns or headlines.

“The most exciting materials I found there were the October magazines from the time of Sadat’s peace initiative,” Winter tells me. “I was moved deeply when I saw images of Sadat arriving at Haifa port in September 1979, with happy Israeli children waving the flags of both Egypt and Israel.”

Of course, the very existence of this archive is likely to arouse suspicion in the minds of some Arabs, who are bound to view it as an intelligence-gathering apparatus. The archive’s management itself insists that it is a resource open to all academics, though the media and the government are welcome to consult it. Academics from Jordan, Iraq, Palestine and other Arab countries are also among its clients, despite the Arab boycott of Israel.

“I don’t know the exact motives of its founders,” admits Winter. “But maybe, just maybe, you can interpret this huge archive as an attempt to bridge the qualitative distance (or isolation) between Israel and the Arab world quantitatively.”

But this message of building bridges is likely to get lost amid the ding of the call for an international cultural and academic boycott of Israel. Omar Barghouti, who wrote a widely praised book on the subject of boycott, divestment and sanctions, calls on “every conscientious academic and academic institution to boycott all Israeli academic institutions because of their ongoing deep complicity in perpetuating the occupation and other forms of oppression”. Yet Barghouti holds a master’s degree in philosophy from Tel Aviv University, which he acquired after co-founding the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel – a contradiction he has refused to explain.

Although many Israeli academics are complicit in perpetuating the inhumane status quo, others are not. For instance, Sand, who I had come to meet, can hardly be described as an apologist for Israeli oppression, was friends with Palestine’s national poet Mahmoud Darwish, insisted that the Arabic version of his book should be published in Ramallah and not Cairo or Beirut, and advocates transforming Israel, in the framework of the two-state solution, into a truly democratic state for all its citizens.

Yet Sand finds himself in the bizarre situation of being effectively under boycott. “They will not invite me to Ramallah because I teach at Tel Aviv University,” he told me. “Any pressure that is not terror is welcome. But be careful. You have started to boycott the most liberal segment of the Israeli political culture.”

While I support a targeted economic boycott against Israel to ensure that the outside world does not bankroll the occupation and oppression of Palestinians, I find a blanket cultural or academic boycott to be unfair and counterproductive. Far better would be two parallel campaigns: one to boycott Israeli peacebreakers and another to embrace and engage with Israeli peacemakers.

This article first appeared in The National on 5 June 2012.

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Egyptian presidential election: Anti-revolution v counterrevolution

 
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 By Khaled Diab

Should Egyptians side with the anti-revolutionary military old guard or the counterrevolutionary Islamist vanguard when choosing their next president?

Monday 4 June 2012

The counterrevolution is gathering pace in Egypt.

After initial elation at the spectacle of millions of Egyptians queuing patiently, in a country where jumping the queue is a national pastime, to cast their ballot for one of more than a dozen candidates in unprecedented presidential elections in which the winner was not known in advance, a by-now familiar feeling of disillusionment set in when the results of the first round were announced.

In a turn of events that proved surprising to just about everyone, the last two candidates left standing were Mohamed Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood’s conservative wing and “Mubarak’s man” Ahmed Shafiq, one-time air force commander, ex-aviation minister, and Mubarak’s unpopular first choice for prime minister when the revolution broke out early last year.

Neither Mursi nor Shafiq were the pundits’ favourites. In fact, both men were hovering low in most polls prior to the elections. The early favourites were the reform-minded, pluralist and relatively liberal former Muslim Brother Abdel-Moneim Aboul Fotouh and Amr Moussa, the popular one-time foreign minister who emerged from the revolution relatively unscathed, because of his personal incorruptibility and the distance he took from some of the Mubarak regimes most notorious and abusive years during his decade-long tenure as secretary-general of the Arab League.

Though I, in common with most young revolutionaries, opposed Moussa’s candidacy because of his close association with the former regime, some long-time dissidents have expressed their support for him. One example is Hisham Kassem, the veteran independent publisher and human rights activist. “I want a strong president,” he told me prior to the elections while seated at a dusty desk amid the bare concrete at the Cairo offices of his soon-to-be-launched newspaper which he has optimistically named al-Gumhoriya al-Gadida (The New Republic) to reflect Egypt’s changing reality. “I don’t want Egypt to enter a Latin American scenario of political collapse and a new president every six months.”

While Moussa had the support of “stability-seeking” reformers like Kassem, Aboul Fotouh had the vote of many in the antiestablishment but pragmatic middle ground, who sought a consensus candidate. “Aboul Fotouh genuinely believes in equality,” the prominent human rights activist Hossam Bahgat, who founded the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, reflected as a number of shishas or waterpipes bubbled thoughtfully around us.

However, these two men confounded expectations, with Aboul Fotouh ending up fourth and Moussa fifth, with third place going to the late-starting favourite for the secular, revolutionary vote, Hamdeen Sabahi, a reform-minded leftist and diehard Nasserist.

With the race for the presidency now reduced to a contest between a counterrevolutionary, neo-liberal Islamist and an anti-revolutionary, neo-liberal general, revolutionaries and pro-revolution Egyptians have been left with an extremely bitter pill to swallow and a stark choice to make at the ballot box: vote for “felloul” (remnants of the old regime) or conservative Islamism.

A heated debate is taking place between secular revolutionaries about which of the two candidates to vote for in order to best preserve the  aims of the revolution, or whether it would be more principled to boycott the second-round vote altogether to show that neither man enjoys a sufficient mandate.

But what brought about this “nightmare scenario”, as it has come to be described in revolutionary circles?

Well, both men appear to have been helped by the fragmentation and disarray of the revolutionaries and the low turnout of just over 40%, which is tiny considering that this election was Egypt’s first truly free presidential race and some had hoped it would mark the birth of the “second republic”. This low turnout was reflective of the paucity of good candidates, the disillusionment felt by pro-revolutionaries that their revolution had been “stolen” or “hijacked”, and disappointment at the revolution’s failure to deliver concrete socio-economic results following high initial expectations.

Ahmed Shafiq, who has the tacit backing of the army and the police, managed to steal votes from the Moussa “stability” camp but also capitalised on the “fear” vote, drawing support from those who harboured Mubarak sympathies and those who are terrified by the prospect of an Islamist takeover in Egypt, including the country’s vulnerable Christian minority. For his part, Mohamed Mursi seems to have walked away with the conservative Islamic vote, particularly in the more traditional rural areas in the south of the country.

Does the victory of these two contenders who have questionable democratic credentials mean that Egyptians do not prize freedom? There are certainly some Egyptians who seem enamoured of authoritarianism, as reflected by the surprising number of people I met in Cairo who voiced support for Omar Suleiman, Mubarak’s shadowy and dangerous intelligence chief, as Egypt’s next president, but he was later disqualified from the race.

That said, candidates who represent the vanguard of the Egyptian revolution walked away with around two-fifths of the vote. Furthermore, quite a lot of those who voted for the top two candidates did so not out of some anti-freedom platform but because they have other, more immediate fears and priorities for the transitional phase.

But if Egyptians vote for Mursi to oppose Shafiq as the symbol of the old regime that would mean that the Islamists will win the double whammy of the parliament and presidency. What would be the consequences of such an outcome on the future of Egypt?

As someone who believes wholeheartedly in a new Egypt of full freedom, equality and economic and social justice, I fear what impact this conservative current will have on society. But in order to understand its possible consequences, we need to delve into its causes.

Fundamentalist Islam, like fundamentalist Judaism and Christianity, is partly a response to the onslaught of modernity and the insecurity it has engendered. In Egypt, it is also a backlash against the corruption, nepotism, oppression and failure of the country’s secular regimes, as well as the unequal global order, to deliver prosperity, equality and dignity to ordinary people. Also, in situations of grinding poverty, poor education and stark inequality, people often fall back on the safety cushion of religion.

Moreover, part of the appeal Islamists enjoy is due to the fact that they have always been in opposition, and the few months they have been at the wheel of parliament has already corroded their popularity and turned many former supporters against them, who accuse them of being a religious version of Mubarak’s now-defunct National Democratic Party. If Islamists fail to deliver visible improvements on crucial bread-and-butter issues, such as employment, health and education, then the electorate is likely to conclude that Islam, or at least Islamism, is not the solution to their woes, and may turn to the secular revolutionaries as an alternative.

But what if these elections turn out to be “one person, one vote, one time”, as Western critics of Islamism claim? “Don’t panic”, is Hisham Kassem’s attitude. “I don’t think the Islamists are powerful enough to change the identity of the state,” he says.

Many Egyptians also believe that the Islamists-secularists fault line is exaggerated and even a distraction. While it certainly does exist, it is not a black-and-white division, with a significant proportion of secularists supporting traditional values and religious intolerance, while many Islamists, particularly younger ones, believing in democracy, religious freedom and individual rights. Also, the ranks of the rightwing and leftwing, the revolutionary and counterrevolutionary, the progressive and reactionary are to be found on both sides of the Islamist-secularist border.

“It’s much more comfortable for the two sides to engage in a culture war,” observes Hossam Bahgat. “But the real issue is building a democratic system, and striving for social justice and economic justice. The battle over identity is just polemics.”

 

This article first appeared in The Jerusalem Post on 30 May 2012.

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Egyptian presidential election: A young radical’s voting dilemma

 
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By Karim Medhat Ennarah

Should a young radical seize his last chance to vote for a president or is the true struggle for radical change in Egypt on the streets?

Thursday 24 May 2012

There are two reasons I didn’t vote yesterday. One is that polling extends  over two days and I’m a natural procrastinator. The second is that I’m not sure if I will vote or not and I have put off this decision until the last minute. I do not have any particular moral qualms about voting in an election that many perceive is undermined by the very fact that it is being held under the administration and oversight of the unelected Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) – electoral mechanisms within established constitutional democracies are, for me, already a significant moral compromise.

A perfect electoral process is not the perfect culmination of revolution anyway and it is definitely not the best example of self-governance. Since I do not really believe in it, my participation is not contingent on whether it is perfect or compromised. I have voted  before, the first time was in the parliamentary elections in  2010, although back then it was a completely different farce. I considered my ballot an act of petty resistance, for some reason, and voted to make the task of rigging slightly more annoying. I knew my vote wouldn’t count anyway (it didn’t at all, the ruling NDP decided to go for blatant rather than moderate rigging). Back then things were also  pretty black and white, and there were limited channels for political expression.

Now the situation has been reversed, and the only way the regime can save itself is through democratic politics. Voting is not just symbolic anymore. It can actually mean something, and what the military junta wants it to mean is the establishment of the rule of legitimate political institutions which would in turn — or so they think — bring an end to the incredibly fluid and chaotic political landscape that has existed over the past 18months.

This is what concerns me more than the possibility of rigging. Although there is more than one way for the ruling military junta and the state bureaucratic machine — which sometimes seems like it has taken on a life of its own and is making its own decisions — to interfere with the voting process, the chance that such interference will alter the results of the elections significantly or even marginally is, in my point of view, doubtful. Sure, some dead people will still cast their ballots, and some government institutions will forcibly mobilise their workers to vote for specific candidates, but the possibility of rigging will at best be a secondary factor in determining the outcome.

The election process is tightly controlled and widely observed, participation is relatively high, and generally speaking I do not buy into the myth that the military is actually fully in control of everything, or that the outcome whatever it may be will perfectly suit them. Despite the impression one might get from the images of the army’s armoured personnel carriers running protesters over in the heart of the city, this is a much weaker police state than it used to be, and significantly more disorganised and dysfunctional. The transitional period has been characterised by sheer survivalist brutality. The parliament might pass a law (it just did, in the preliminary voting round) which increases penalties against property crime — but people will still commit these crimes on a daily basis. The crime, in this case, being re-appropriating land that is owned by the state and is not being used or has been allocated to private sector investment projects.

The state is trying to restore its ability to look fearsome, in a desperate attempt to stop the rapid erosion of its authority. SCAF and its cronies still obviously control most of the country’s economy, but their methods of enforcing their control on the streets are becoming less and less effective every day.

This corrosion in their effectiveness and authority has led the laws and their enforcing agencies to become more brutal, diminishing their legitimacy further. A democratically elected president and parliament that are still controllable to some extent is thus the regime’s last ditch effort to restore some sort of respect to the state apparatus.

I also voted in the 2011 parliamentary elections, but then I did have moral qualms, and I was extremely emotional. We had just emerged from a week of violent confrontations with the army and the police, that forced the army to reconsider its plan for a slow transition stretched over three years that keeps everything intact. One particular image, of the body of one of our martyrs being dragged by a soldier and then dumped into an impromptu garbage dump on the corner of Tahrir Street shortly after it was temporarily taken over by the military, was still fresh in my mind (and I look at it every once in a while to keep the memory fresh). I thought it would be very cynical to vote in a supposedly democratic election just a few days after this incident, and that maybe it was time to turn the tables and accept nothing of this faux political transition. Ultimately, I controlled my rage and decided at the last minute — to be precise five minutes before polling stations were about to close — to vote anyway. I have partly regretted my decision.

I will never get over this issue, that inner struggle between voting and not voting. I don’t call it boycotting because my problem is a fundamental problem with electoral politics and with social democracy. My problem is that I do actually believe that Egypt needs conflict at the moment, and that a conservative democracy — at best some distorted, rhetorical version of a social democracy, if one can be so ambitious — is just a way of harmonising a conflict of interest that is very real.

Different shades of conservative, representative democracy are still able to sustain their dominance, despite several historical blows. And the question of whether to tactically take part in it or whether, by doing so, we’re missing out on other opportunities of fundamentally changing the system (not to speak about overthrowing it), of making it more radical and more participatory and more just — is a question we will never be able to answer. But what I do know, at the very least, is that a complete overhaul of the social and economic order in Egypt is not something any of the different political forces are interested in achieving.

It suddenly became clear to me, after the revolution took off, that Egyptian apathy towards electoral politics does not stem from ignorance or passiveness. It is actually an active political stance because none of the political alternatives will deliver the needed structural change. There is no immediate solution to this conundrum.

We will go through this transition anyway, whether we like it or not. The radicalisation of politics at the grassroots level is also happening anyway, whether politicians like it or not, and it will not be curtailed by whatever is taking place in the upper echelons of politics. The state will be able to exercise varying degrees of control on the political centre. It will deploy the army in heavy numbers in the port cities, industrial towns and in the countryside to crack down on the exploding number of labour strikes, blockaded streets and railways and government buildings coming under assault, the semi-daily affair of confrontations between local communities and the police over land issues or fuel shortages.

This is where the politics of livelihood dominates and where the state is becoming the weakest player. This is a victory that is hard won and that is much more promising than the establishment of a liberal Western-style democracy with all its inherent limitations. Our active participation in top-level politics level may make it more conducive to this state of fragmented, localised revolution, or it may not. I cannot tell.

If I take part in this electoral battle, it will be with a completely different objective than electing a candidate who represents me. This electoral contest is actually an attempt to reset politics in Egypt (bringing it to a “normal condition”, if I may borrow from computing terminology). We don’t actually have a real political landscape — left-wing and right-wing politics in Egypt today are nothing more than masturbatory exercises in newspapers and academic journals. We are still bogged down in the Islamists versus secularists politics (or rather, non-Islamists, to be precise), and in a very superficial manner — there is very little debate about actual rights.

My fluctuating interest in this electoral contest stems from the fact that it may have the ability to establish a system where issues of social and economic justice, of rights and services, may become a subject of interest to politicians. For that reason, I may vote for someone who has a chance of winning, a rather pragmatic choice, and who is likely to move us past the religious versus non-religious dichotomy. I do not expect him to deliver — I expect him to be busy fighting battles over executive power on several fronts, and I genuinely believe that the current elections will not change anything on the ground. But at least bringing such discussions into the realm of institutional politics can play a complementary role to the battle for rights which continues to be fought by the grassroots. The government will continue to be my arch-enemy, but an enemy with different ambitions from the previous enemy and whom I can engage in a different manner.

I believe that, regionally and globally, we’re living through one of those moments in history where the possibility of radical, revolutionary change — for something so much more than just changing governments and shuffling politicians — is high, and I also believe it’s going to be a long and drawn-out struggle.

For me, the burning question is: can I take part in an electoral process that, deep inside, I have little respect for and that supports state institutions that I will be working hard to cut down to size? Can I both participate in the process and oppose its outcome? Or are they inevitably contradictory courses?

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Egyptian presidential election: Who should the revolution vote for?

 
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By Osama Diab

Egyptian revolutionaries dream of electing a president who emerged from Tahrir square, but should they vote for pragmatism or principle?

Tuesday 22 May 2012

When Egyptian go to cast their votes on Wednesday, they will not just be choosing their president for the next four years, but in the process of selecting Egypt’s first democratically elected president,  they will be setting the tone  and shaping the identity of the nation and the political system perhaps for decades to come.

Some call it the Second Republic, while others call it the Third Republic, but regardless of how many republics we have witnessed since the monarchy was overthrow in 1954, what is certain is that the post-revolutionary system will be radically different, or at least this is what the revolutionaries are hoping for, especially in light of the desperate attempts to reproduce the old regime but with new faces.

In order to avoid the re-establishment of the Mubarak regime itself and to prevent the possible emergence of an Islamist single-party political system, the pro-democracy revolutionary forces are excluding the Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsy and other Islamists, as well as ministers who served under Mubarak, such as one-time foreign minister Amr Moussa.

Having identified who not support, deciding on who to vote for is proving much tougher, and many are still undecided. The Tahrir voting bloc is torn between three main candidates: Khaled Ali, Hamdeen Sabahi, and Abdel-moniem Aboul Fotouh.

Khaled Ali seems to be the candidate who best represents the revolution’s spirit of “bread, freedom and social justice”. Despite his history of labour activism, young age and his key role in the toppling of Mubarak, Ali is probably the one with the slimmest chances of winning among the three major revolutionary candidates. However, many idealists are still giving him their support and refuse to vote tactically against what they stand for.

The real dilemma is about choosing between Aboul Fotouh and Sabahi, both of whose ideological background stands against many of the principles of the revolution. Even though Aboul Fotouh, a former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, is a believer in democracy and was expelled from the Islamist movement when he announced his intention to run for president, he still praises Hassan el-Banna’s regressive political project and compares his vision with that of the Brotherhood’s founding father.

Hassan el-Banna’s ideology was centred around his belief in a one-party Islamic system, because he believed that a multi-party political system would promote division and strife and that no nation could develop under such system. Aboul Fotouh’s followers, even though they might have some reservations about his anti-democratic tendencies, think he is flexible, adaptive and has the biggest chance of defeating reactionary candidates from the former regime and the Brotherhood.

“I consider my choice to be a tactical one. Aboul Fotouh is the only candidate from Tahrir square that has a serious chance of winning,” says Ahmed Atef Fayed, a 32-year-old psychiatrist from Alexandria who camped in Tahrir square to overthrow Mubarak and defines himself as a secularist. “I understand the concerns of my secular friends and Aboul Fotouh definitely belongs to an opposite political ideology that progressive powers need to work hard on the streets to compete with one day, but in the meantime he is an opposite that I could imagine living with, unlike candidates from the Brotherhood or the former regime.”

An example of Aboul Fotouh’s diversion from el-Banna’s principles that reassures secularists like Fayed is his plan to lift all exceptional laws that restrict freedoms, such as the emergency law and legislation that govern the formation of political parties and journalism, as well as his stance towards unrestricted freedom of innovation and expression. Despite distancing himself from the foundation on which the Muslim Brotherhood was built, Aboul Fotouh still seems to be at least emotionally tied to the founder of the Islamist movement, as reflected by thesection on his website dedicated to el-Banna, or the “Martyr Imam” as his followers prefer to call him.

Hamdeen Sabahi is also haunted by and diverted from his ideological roots. A self-described Nasserist in 2012 will obviously face questions and concerns about his position towards multiparty democracy. However, his supporters see in him the only major secular candidate that is both revolutionary and not part of the former regime. Just like Aboul Fotouh, Sabahi still makes statements about how his programme is inspired by former president and leader of the 1952 revolution, Gamal Abdel-Nasser, but in reality and under the pressure of the revolution’s calls for political freedom, it isn’t really. He, for example, advocates the right to form independent unions, political parties, and promotes the strengthening of civil society and democratic institutions – all of which were anathema to his idol.

Even though the programmes of both Aboul Fotouh and Sabahi look good, at least on paper, and are distant from the schools of thought of their historical political idols, el-Banna’s political project seems to be more of a threat today than Nasserism. There are fears that the rise of political Islam and radical Islamist groups, such as the Salafi al-Nour party, will try to influence Aboul Fotouh’s policies in return for their electoral support. The rising popularity of Sabahi, as indicated by various opinion polls, reveal that an increasing number of Tahrir voters feel less threatened by Nasserism, which they regard as a dying ideology, than by a single-party Islamist system that appears to be gaining ground.

And if Sabahi wins, this carries the additional advantage of enhancing political diversity and creating a true multiparty system in Egypt, instead of establishing a political spectrum which is only made up of different shades of Islamism.

 

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حرية السينما الحقيقية في القدس الشرقية

 
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بقلم خالد دياب

هل تستطيع حرية الأفلام السينمائية مساعدة الفلسطينيين على تحقيق الحرية الحقيقية؟

الأربعاء 7 مارس 2012

أثّر الاحتلال في القدس الشرقية كثيراً على الخريطة الثقافية للمدينة. كان من آثار انعدام الاستثمار المزمن وتوسيع المستوطنات والجدار الهائل، الذي تقول إسرائيل أنها بنته لأهداف أمنية ويدّعي الفلسطينيون أنه يهدف إلى اختطاف المزيد من الأراضي، امتصاص الحياة من الجزء الفلسطيني في القدس وتحويل مركز الثقافة إلى رام الله في الضفة الغربية. إضافة إلى ذلك، يبدو أن العديد من الفلسطينيين المقدسيين لم يتمكنوا من التخلص من عقلية منع التجول التي سادت الانتفاضة، والتي انتهت قبل أكثر من سبع سنوات.

إلا أنه في السنوات الأخيرة، تم إطلاق جهود لإحياء وإغناء خريطة القدس الثقافية المتواضعة. آخر هذه الجهود إعادة إحياء سينما القدس القديمة، التي أغلقت أبوابها قبل ربع قرن أثناء الانتفاضة الأولى (التي استمرت من عام 1978 وحتى 1993). وهي الآن، رغم أنها لم تكتمل بعد، مركز يابوس الثقافي. إضافة إلى عرضها للأفلام، تستضيف السينما أحداثاً فنية ومسرحية وموسيقية، بما فيها عرضاً للصور الفوتوغرافية عن الثورة المصرية وحفلات لموسيقى الجاز.

استهل مركز يابوس إعادة افتتاحه بأسبوع أفلام الحرية. العنوان مناسب إذا أخذنا بالاعتبار العطش للحرية السياسية والاقتصادية والاجتماعية، الواضحة ليس فقط في أوساط الفلسطينيين وإنما للشعوب عبر المنطقة، بما فيها إسرائيل، حيث ثارت حركة احتجاج اجتماعي واسع الصيف الماضي. أعلن المحتجون الإسرائيليون جادة روتشيلد في تل أبيب “ميدان التحرير” الخاص بهم، كما أطلق المعلّقون العرب اسم “الربيع الإسرائيلي” على الحركة.

ومن الأفلام التي عرضت في يابوس فيلم “لن نترك”، الذي يعرض نضال الفلسطينيين ضد النزوح الإجباري في القدس، وفيلم “فليجة”، الذي يوثق الاعتصامات الملهمة والابتكارية التي نظمها الناشطون التونسيون بعد سقوط الدكتاتور زين العابدين بن علي، وفيلم “القاهرة 678″، الدراما التي حطمت الممنوعات عن التحرش الجنسي في مصر.

تقول ريما عيسى، منسّقة سينما يابوس ومسؤولة المهرجان أن الفلسطينيين المقدسيين عانوا من “غيبوبة سينمائية”. وهي ترى المهرجان ومركز يابوس الثقافي على أنهما “جسر لإعادة العلاقات التي انقطعت منذ وقت طويل بين الجمهور الفلسطيني في القدس ودور السينما”.

ولكن هل تستطيع حرية السينما مساعدة الفلسطينيين على تحقيق الحرية الحقيقية؟

“دور الثقافة حاسم”، تقول ريما عيسى، “وشعبنا يتوق إليها”. وهي تؤمن أن باستطاعة السينما المساعدة على الربط بين جيل جديد من الفلسطينيين المقدسيين الشباب مع المضمون العربي والعالمي الأوسع، الأمر الذي يمكنهم من نقل وضعهم وكفاحهم إلى العالم الخارجي وإنهاء سنوات طويلة من العزلة.

وقد تمكنت العديد من الأفلام والمخرجين الفلسطينيين في السنوات الأخيرة من زيادة الوعي بكونهم بلا دولة وسعيهم للحصول على الحرية وإنشاء الدولة، والاعتراف الدولي بهم. ومن الأمثلة البارزة على ذلك مخرج الأفلام الفلسطيني الإسرائيلي إيليا سليمان الذي أصبح فيلمه السوريالي الهزلي الأسود “تدخل إلهي” الذي أخرجه عام 2002، عن قصة حب عبر الحواجز بين فلسطيني وفلسطينية يقيم أحدهما في إسرائيل ويقيم الآخر في الضفة الغربية، أصبح ذو شهرة عالمية وصيت ذائع. كما حصل فيلمه الأول الطويل “قصص الاختفاء” (1996) على سمعة واسعة في أوساط النقاد السينمائيين.

إلا أن ريما عيسى، وهي مخرجة أفلام وأول فلسطينية تتخرج من أشهر مدرسة سينمائية إسرائيلية هي “سام شبيغل”، لا تؤمن أن باستطاعة السينما بناء الجسور بين الفلسطينيين والإسرائيليين بسبب عدم المساواة الكبير بين الطرفين.

يخالفها صانعو أفلام آخرون الرأي. على سبيل المثال، تشارك الفلسطيني عماد برنات والإسرائيلي غاي دافيدي في إخراج فيلم “خمس كاميرات محطّمة”، وهو فيلم يوثّق الكفاح اللاعنفي لسكان قرية بلعين الفلسطينية، المسلّحين بالكاميرات فقط، لوقف سلب الأراضي.

ومن الأفلام الرئيسية المثيرة للاهتمام دراما الجريمة “عجمي” الذي يخرجه صانعا الأفلام للمرة الأولى اسكندر قبطي وبارون شاني، والذي يصف بشكل واقعي الحياة في حي العجمي المحروم في مدينة يافا، وليتعمق في تعقيدات الحياة الإنسانية بين المسلمين والمسيحيين واليهود في إسرائيل. وقد حصل كذلك على جائزة “أوفير”، وهي أعلى جائزة إسرائيلية للأفلام وترشح لجائزة الأوسكار في الولايات المتحدة.

ولكن قوة الأفلام لا تتوقف عند قدرتها على تحويل أساليب الناس في التفكير وتحدي ضمائرهم. تساعد مسارح السينما نفسها على إيجاد شعور بالتماسك المجتمعي. على سبيل المثال، تستذكر جارتي الفلسطينية التي يقارب سنها التسعين عاماً فترة ما قبل التقسيم والحرب عندما كان جيرانها اليهود “أصدقاء” يجلسون أحياناً جنباً إلى جنب في دور السينما وعندما كانت الممثلة المصرية اليهودية الأثيرية ليلى مراد هي المفضلة بشكل خاص بين المجتمَعَين.

في المضمون الحالي المقسّم بشكل لا يخلو من المرارة، تظهر هذه الصور على أنها خيال سينمائي بعيد التحقيق. ولكن ذلك كان صحيحاً في يوم من الأيام، وقد يصبح كذلك في يوم قريب.

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Confessions of a would-be Egyptian revolutionary

 
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By Khaled Diab

Returning to Egypt for the first time since the revolution, an expat desktop rebel discovers the inspirational, the troubling and the simply bizarre.

Thursday 26 April 2012

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

“The next president of Egypt will be the Mahdi,” Dr Omar, who claimed to be a paediatrician who had treated injured protesters on Tahrir Square, told me. In his hand, he held up a petition calling on the government to dig up, at a precise location in a poor Cairo suburb, the Ark of the Covenant because, he claimed, it contained the Mahdi’s identity.

At first, I simply assumed that the good doctor and his not-so-merry crew, who stood on the tented central island of Tahrir Square, were using the sharp wit and humour that have been part and parcel of the revolution to mock the anti-democratic tendencies of the military junta still running the show. But after a little extra probing, it dawned on me that they were deadly serious and they expected the messianic Mahdi to return and reclaim his earthly throne by becoming president of medium-sized Egypt, rather than, say, the United States or China.

Endorsing the Mahdi. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

This was not quite what I had been expecting to hear on my first visit to Tahrir Square since the Egyptian revolution began in January 2011. Although when I last departed Egypt, a few short weeks before the now-legendary uprising, I was feeling pretty sick of home, and all its corruption and cronyism, with my wife and I speculating about what kind of a second homeland awaited our son. Less than a month later, I began to feel homesick. Even though I’m not into patriotism and I regard nationalism to be safe only in small doses, nonetheless, in addition to the humanist admiration for the underdog, the revolution awoke in my a certain amount of national pride and I longed to be with the protesters rewriting their history.

But I was in the wrong place at the right time, and the best I could manage was the whole-hearted support of the sympathetic spectator. Of course, I could have followed the example of some expatriated friends who, in their haste to return, almost parachuted into Tahrir. But at the time, I was temporarily on my own holding the baby, and then came our move to Jerusalem and… and… and… perhaps I simply wasn’t really a hands-on revolutionary.

May be I also felt a certain unworthiness. Sure, in my journalism I had for years harshly criticised all that I saw wrong with the Egyptian regime and society and dreamed – or wishfully fantasised, as some alleged – of a free and democratic Egypt of social and economic justice for all.

But these newspaper columns, though they could have come crashing down around my ears during one of my regular visits, also supported the ivory tower which afforded me, the expat Egyptian with a foreign passport who was working mostly for foreign outlets, relative protection. So, while I had spilt rivers of ink pontificating, intellectualising and agonising, millions of Egyptians were actually demanding their freedom, dignity and hope, and paying for it with their blood, sweat, tears and fears.

This emotional baggage could perhaps explain why I entered a futile debate with these Mahdist maniacs on the messianic margin, and even got threatened with violence by a couple of them in the process, rather than just walking away scratching my head. Then again, sometimes my mouth is just bigger and my tongue sharper than the weights and pullies that are meant to keep them under control.

Moreover, Tahrir had finally, thanks to the combined will, determination and courage of millions of protesters, lived up to the promise of its name, liberty, freedom. And so if Tahrirites were to endorse the presidential aspirations of anyone, it should be a candidate with some democratic credentials, not an unelected spiritual leader whose rule, benign or not, would be tantamount to a divine dictatorship.

Of course, the unprecedented display of people power deposing the country’s anointed pharaoh-in-chief and the unpresidented prospect of Egyptians actually choosing their own leader may have been too much for some to absorb, and a “miracle” like this is bound to awaken millennialist ideas in the quackier reaches of society.

Even in more “sensible” and “rational” quarters, some worrying signs of antidemocratic tendencies could be seen, such as the pro-stability Egyptians I came across who express support for the Vladimir Putin of Egyptian politics, the mysterious and shady Omar Suleiman, Mubarak’s right-hand man and Egypt’s chief of military intelligence, as the country’s next president because they think he’s a “real man” who can restore order to the country and, with his vast insider knowledge, manage its transition.

Even a top newspaper editor who had spent his entire career opposing Mubarak surprised me by expressing his view that it was time to curb the revolution and work towards stability, otherwise the country would go to the dogs. He said former Arab League chief and one-time foreign minister Amr Moussa was his choice for president. And Moussa’s age and ties with the former regime did not seem to bother him. “If Moussa proves incompetent or unworthy, we can always change him at the next elections. The days of lifetime tenure are over,” the editor argued. When I quizzed him about what he thought of the revolutionary youth making all these sacrifices and so far getting nothing in return, his response was pretty cold and unsympathetic. He blamed the revolutionaries’ refusal to end the revolution and “play politics” for their own demise.

Though I was aware that the elation of the early days of the revolution had been replaced by caution and concern, it was disappointing to arrive in what had once been dubbed the Republic of Tahrir by elated protesters to find time had transformed the beautiful utopian state in the centre of the city back into an ugly, traffic-choked and crowded plaza. Perhaps this dread, as well as the desire to soak in any changes which may have occurred, was part of the reason why I had decided to walk the few miles from my family home to Tahrir, stopping off at some old haunts, including an old cappuccino bar which seemed to be caught in the same time warp I had left it in.

Fallen symbol of the past, the NDP building near Tahrir. ©Photo: Khaled Diab

On the way, I encountered some colourful characters, including a man with a toilet brush moustache and sunglasses who claimed to have worked for the former disgraced culture minister Farouq Hosni and believed that, with the right leadership, Egypt could become the richest country in the world, with “85 million billionaires”. So, watch out America, the pharaohs are coming!

On the central island on the Nile known as el-Gezira, as I walked alongside all the plush floating restaurants and past a gathering point for dozens of manual labourers in traditional galabiyas, I caught sight of the first visible topographical change: the burnt-out, grey concrete hulk of the headquarters of the defunct National Democratic Party, one of the symbol’s of the Mubarak regime’s hegemony and the presumed launching pad for his son, Gamal‘s presidential ambitions.

Yes, Tahrir isn’t what it used to be, friends told me. Constant pestering by the authorities and anti-revolutionary forces, friends explained, had driven the vast majority of real revolutionaries away from Tahrir, except when “millioniya” Friday demonstrations were planned.

But signs of the spirit of the revolution and the new, defiant Egypt were all around. In a city whose crumbling walls had once been mostly bare, the colourful explosion of revolutionary street art and graffiti all around were a sight for sore eyes. One wall just off Tahrir Square had a striking image which merged the faces of the deposed president Hosni Mubarak and the country’s current de facto leader Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein el-Tantawi in a single sinister head.

Field Marshal Tantawi: Mubarak 2.0. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Revolutionary police? Photo: ©Khaled Diab

In a bid to control and limit demonstrations, the military junta had constructed makeshift walls all over the town centre. In a show of peaceful disobedience mixed with civic duty, urban artists had transformed these ugly barriers into attractive murals featuring common streets scenes or even the street on the other side of the wall.

A few blocks from Tahrir, young protesters determined to bring down the junta had set up camp and prepared to dig in for the long haul. On the way to their demonstration, I passed the bizarre sight of police officers, hated for being the shield behind which the regime hid and the fist with which it crushed dissent, protesting outside the Ministry of the Interior, calling for the overhaul of the police force and the weeding out of corruption, complaining about their working conditions and telling the interior minister that “The revolution means freedom”. One of the demonstrators insisted that the police was unfairly smeared and that there are officers who are patriotic and support the aspirations of the people.

A block away, the Ultras, football fans turned revolutionaries, would beg to differ, as one banner which read “All cops are bastards”, succinctly put it. Like young activists throughout the revolution, the Ultras not only flouted the easy assumptions about the apathy and selfishness of their generation, but also about the pettiness and fickleness of football fans. In fact, with football being one of the few mass activities people were comfortably allowed to rally around, the Ultras managed to employ the nationwide networks of supporters, the almost tribal loyalty of fans, and years of experience in pitched battles with the police, all of whom were bastards according to one banner I read, to devastating effect during the 18 days it took to topple Mubarak.

Despite the sombre air evoked by the banners and posters commemorating the 78 fans who died in pitched battles during a recent match in a massacre which the Ultras allege was orchestrated by the regime to punish them for their revolutionary activities, the vibe at the protest was upbeat, rebellious and festive.

Songs of rage. Ultras sing about the Port Said massacre. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Isolated circles of singing converged into a coordinated chorus when one of the biggest voices of the revolution, Ramy Essam, arrived, guitar in hand, to sing some of his own cheeky, sarcastic and defiant songs, as well as the Ultras’ own thundering lyrics of rebellion. They sang about the treachery in Port Said, mercilessly mocked a would-be presidential candidate connected to the old regime, sarcastically apologised to the police for the disruption caused by the revolution, and advised fellow citizens “Keep your head down, hang it low, you live in a democracy, you know.”

Given the machismo of football, the Ultras themselves are all men, but there were also plenty of women in the crowd, from the hip and modern to the hip and traditional. Some of the women in hijab figuratively let their hair down, singing enthusiastically and gyrating their hips vigorously. And standing on the sidelines were a few women in the full face veil known as niqab, singing discreetly along.

The revolution has brought women out in force on the streets, including my own courageous sister who lives the struggle with every pore of her being, where they have stood – and fallen – shoulder to shoulder with men. And this despite the traditional protectiveness of the Egyptian family towards its female members and the additional risks being a woman carry, including the notorious “virginity tests” to which some female activists were subjected last year.

Despite proving themselves the match of men in terms of courage and dedication, women have experienced something of a backlash from conservative circles in society, who seem more willing to accept the right of women to fall as comrades than to stand as equals.

Although most women I know did not expect their status to change overnight and realised that their struggle for full equality would take years to reach fruition, the dominance of Islamist parties in Egypt’s first parliament after the revolution, especially the unexpectedly strong showing of the ultra-conservative Salafi parties, has many secular and reformist women spooked.

“Salafists want to reduce the age of marriage and to segregate women and men in the workplace. This gives you some idea of their priorities,” noted Gihan, a feminist who will soon be publishing a book about the women of the revolution. Seated in an outdoor restaurant located on a tranquil island on the Nile which seemed a million miles away from the nearest revolution, Gihan admitted that she was troubled by what kind of future might await her teenage daughter, though she expected and hoped that the revolution would still manage to deliver improvements for women in the longer term.

A promising sign is the extra confidence, even swagger, with which many women now seem to be carrying themselves. Even young women in the hijab, who used to be the coyest group when I was at university in the 1990s, now are out in force late into the night, dance in mixed groups at concerts, as I witnessed at a concert by the satirical fusion folk band Salalem, and some even walk arm-in-arm with their boyfriends.

Hoda, Gihan’s academic friend who was sitting across the table, tried to find a silver lining. She noted that despite all the bad press Salafists received, their women had achieved a partial sexual liberation of sorts. “They are well-read in Islamic jurisprudence and take seriously the rights to sexual gratification and foreplay it guarantees them, and many of them demand divorce if their man doesn’t satisfy them,” she noted.

This led me to reflect on how Egyptian society, in a desperate bid to avoid “decadent” Western ways has revived a number of old-fashioned “decadent” Islamic ways to enable couples to have sex or to live together, such as Zawaj Misyar, which is a no-strings-attached “marriage” entered to allow a couple to engage in sexual relations. But such convoluted attempts to cover sexual freedom up in an Islamic veil, not to mention the traditional approach of turning a blind eye, often lead to dishonesty and hypocrisy in social relations.

But it is not just women that are worried by the Islamists who, like politics itself, have become the talk of the town. Christians and secularists are nervous too. I was sitting with a group of the two in a downtown watering hole appropriately named Houriya (Liberation) which was part traditional teahouse and part boisterous bar fully visible to passersby.

As we choked on the smoke of a hundred fuming political conversations in the tightly packed bar without ventilation, I wondered what the Islamists made of such public displays of boozy merrymaking. As we joked about the ubiquitous campaign of the popular Salafist presidential hopeful Hazem Abu Ismail and speculated about what kind of future the Islamists might have in store for us as they battled with the secularists and military junta to dominate the drafting of Egypt’s new constitution, a solitary drinker at the next table who appeared to be drowning his sorrows, joined our conversation.

Introducing himself as Andrew, he told us how he had been working for a moderately Islamic satellite TV channel aimed at young people which had recently been taken over by Salafists. On the day of the takeover announcement, they promptly gave him his marching orders because, his boss told him in private conversation, Andrew’s religion did not match the channel’s new orientation.

“I don’t understand how my religion affects my role as a director,” he complained, as he fiddled with his purple-rimmed glasses. “Youssef Chahine made some of the best films about Islamic themes, including the victories of Saladin over the Crusaders, and he was Christian.”

While we agreed with this principle and that he should pursue a case of unfair dismissal, one of my friends pointed out that if he had stayed on he may have been forced to make programmes with which he would have been uncomfortable.

“I don’t care about compensation, I just want to make sure that what happened to me does not happen to others,” Andrew said a few nights later, when he turned up at the same bar while an atheist friend and I were talking religion. Informing us that he had spoken to a lawyer, he expressed his determination to stay in Egypt, at a time when thousands of other Christians were fleeing due to all the uncertainty and their vulnerable position.

Talking to Andrew, like other conversations with Christian friends, was making me gloomy. Egypt at its best, and the Egypt I am fond of, is a place of pluralism where one’s religion only matters in one’s place of worship. Naturally, I have long been aware, with the spread of inequality and Wahhabi-inspired conservatism, that Egyptians who think like this have become a rapidly dwindling group, as reflected by a spate of recent attacks on churches, including one just weeks before the revolution, on New Year’s Eve, the day I had last departed the country, feeling down.

But I had hoped that the show of national unity following this horrific bombing, during which Muslims formed human shields around churches, and the spirit of equality and solidarity the revolution awoke would help Egypt turn a new leaf. But we have still not reached this new chapter of full tolerance.

Another minority which prior to the revolution almost dared not speak its name and still has an uncertain and vulnerable future in Egypt are atheists and other non-believers. In fact, so deafening was the silence of most that some readers of my column in The Guardian believed that I was the only one. Some decades ago, atheism was an accepted position, even if ordinary Egyptians frowned upon it, as can be gleaned by the number of writers and intellectuals who openly expressed atheistic and/or anti-religious views, especially between the 1950s and 1970s. However, in recent years, an unholy alliance between intolerant Islamists and a discredited regime desperate to garner some legitimacy as a protector of Islam led to a number of high-profile cases against freethinkers, mostly liberal believers, for allegedly “insulting” or “disparaging” Islam or religion which effectively silenced the vast majority of sceptics and non-believers in the public sphere.

But the trend that started over the past few years of sceptics defying such intimidation to voice their views has accelerated since the revolution, and the number of people who I have come across who openly express their lack of belief has grown significantly – and we even sat in cafes speaking irreverently and in no hushed tones about our views of religion and God. However, their future freedom of expression hangs in the balance.

But this dichotomy between Islamists and secularists is a false one and a convenient sideshow to enable the powers that be to continue to exercise control, insist some activists. Hossam, a prominent human rights activist, told me over his bubbling shisa with its sweet-smelling smoke, that the real division we need to consider is between democratic and anti-democratic forces.

There are Islamists who believe in freedom of belief and expression and gender equality, he pointed out, while there are secularists who are religious bigots and misogynists. I got a taste of this on Tahrir Square when an Islamist stood up for my freedom of belief by telling a youngster who was angry at my criticism of religion that I was free to express what opinions I wanted, even atheistic ones.

For Hossam, the true battle lines for the coming period lay in establishing the rule of law, protecting vulnerable groups and minorities, making the military and intelligence services fully transparent and accountable, and achieving greater social and economic justice. And he is confident that these are battles which can be won, as reflected by the growing political literacy of ordinary people too often dismissed as novices who are taking the fate of their workplaces into their own hands and even campaigning for their local environments, a pursuit once seen as “elitist”.

Others see the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the shadowy junta managing Egypt’s revolutionary transition, as the greatest immediate threat facing the country, because though the Mubarak regime may have lost its head, in more ways than one, its body is still largely intact, armed and dangerous.

The road to democracy in Egypt is a long and perilous one, and the road to revolutionising Egypt’s social and economic system to make them fairer and more equitable is yet longer still. The way ahead is filled with uncertainty and pitfalls that can potentially derail the aspirations awoken by Egypt’s young revolutionaries, but the genie of freedom, dignity and equality is out of the bottle and there is no way that any power can banish it. Though they may fight, delay and procrastinate, they cannot avoid the inevitable, that Egypt’s people will one day be free.

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