Defining Egyptian democracy: “Not like America and not like Iran”

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By Josephine McCarthy

Provincial Egyptians believe that moderate Islamists can construct an Egyptian model of democracy that respects their traditions and identity.

Tuesday 20 December 2011

While on a research trip to Luxor, I decided to find out for myself what the ordinary people of Egypt really wanted from the revolution and to see if that matched in any way what was being reported in the UK’s popular press. So I donned my hijab, and my partner and I wandered the city for a few days before setting off and visiting the villages on the west bank of the Nile. We talked to a wide range of people over the space of a week, including a former English professor, hotel workers, farmers, felucca owners, beggars, shop keepers and women street vendors.

It became clear very quickly that, although language was not a barrier, vocabulary and its understanding was. People spoke freely, often with passion, with desperation at times and with a joy at being able to voice their opinions. They all, without exception, voiced fear of a religious government, a wish to have order, a fair share of wealth and proper jobs. The fear of a strict Islamic government was very clear, but there was also distaste for a Western-style amoral society. And that was the first hurdle of vocabulary for me to overcome. When someone says to me they do not want a religious government, I assume they want secularism. When in fact what most of the people seem to want is something in the middle, which would explain the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood.

“I don’t want to have to grow a beard and shut my wife up, but I don’t want that either,” said one felucca captain as he nodded at a passing tourist, female, in very little clothing. There is a strong belief on the streets of Luxor that secularism means decadence, greed, corruption and a lack of morals. His tale, like many of the personal stories I had in that week, was very sad. A man in his 60’s, very well educated, very well travelled, he could not get work anywhere except shunting tourists up and down the Nile for 20 Egyptian pounds (£2 sterling). He studied English literature, taught in Cairo in his younger days and travelled throughout Europe with his wife (she is my all, he said wistfully). He is also a practicing Muslim and feels that a life without God is no life. These days he wanders the east bank of the Nile, quoting Shakespeare to tourists in the hope of catching the attention of someone, someone who will hire his boat, someone who will pay him a pittance, so he can get through another day.

Photo: Josephine McCarthy

I asked him about the situation between Copts and Muslims, as it does seem to be an issue according to the UK news. “Pah” he says, “Luxor is 40% Copt, they are our brothers and sisters, our family. We have no problems between us. Our only problems are from the beards. By the way, don’t believe everything you hear on al-Jazeera.” I asked him if he had worked today. “No,” he said, “I have not had work for a week, thanks to newspapers scaring away tourists. You were not afraid to come, tell people to come, please.”  I told him that I had spent a lot of my childhood visiting Belfast, during the early 70’s, and that it takes a lot to scare me off. We could not leave him in such a way, so my partner hired him for the afternoon, at English rates, so they could chat further as they drifted down the Nile. I set off to wander the streets, to find other voices, other opinions.

“Come see my shit” was the opening line of a shopkeeper desperately trying to drag me in from the streets to ‘buy his shit’. I declined to make a purchase but we ended up chatting over hibiscus tea and tobacco. It did seem to be a good ‘drawing tool’, the fact that I dressed as an Egyptian woman and rolled my own tobacco. People were fascinated. They first assumed I was smoking hashish, but when I explained that it was just tobacco, they wanted to join in, drink tea and talk to this rather bizarre woman. Two other shopkeepers came, their business almost dead, to join in the tea and company. I asked them what life has been like since the revolution began and what their hopes for the future were.

The first thing that everyone mentioned was the absence of policing, the lack of regulation in the city that was causing mayhem for the shopkeepers. They bemoaned the fact that tourists had been scared away by reports of riots, and that the upcoming elections (2 days later) were confusing. There were many candidates, too many probably, and no one seemed to know what they stood for, who they were and what they would bring to society. Small images, often unrelated, identified the candidates and when I asked what the candidates offered, the shopkeepers shrugged. Do you want a secular society I asked. “Like America?” Yes, I replied. “No, we do not want that sort of mess.”

“Do you want a religious government, like Iran?” The men fell about laughing. “NO,” they all shouted in unison. “We want a government which is fair, not religious, that works for everybody and doesn’t tell us what to think.”

This highlighted for me the problem with vocabulary and understanding yet again. It would seem that people equated secularism with a decadent society of greed, disrespect and degeneration. I was beginning to see how the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) was being so successful in the elections. They promise compromise, pragmatism and social justice.

“And if we do not like who gets in to government, then we will just kick them out again” was the parting words of one shopkeeper. It would seem that the people of Egypt had finally found a sense of their own power. As I walked back to my hotel, I came across a woman sitting by the side of the road, a pile of colourful scarves in her arms. She did not have the energy to chase the occasional tourist, instead she sat, holding out her arms as people walked by. I went and sat by her, bought some of her wares to ensure she had money for that day, and got into conversation with her. She was a divorcee, supporting her three children alone, and despite having a good education, the only work she could get was selling trinkets to tourists. What were her hopes and fears for the future of Egypt?

“I am afraid of Egypt becoming like Iran, that is my biggest fear of all for the future.  I am a Muslim, I love my family and I work hard, but I want our government to work for all of the people. I don’t think government should be religious, that is not it’s job.”  So I asked if she wanted a secular government?  No she replied, “People who do not believe in God cannot be good people.” It was becoming very obvious that ‘secular’ was being equated with ‘atheist’.

“What about a government made up of Muslims, Copts, etc., which just worked on government issues and not religious law? “That is the FJP, they will do that,” she replied. I hope she was right, I told her.

The following day, I set off the to the west bank villages, the place where the farmers and urban  manual workers lived. I struck up a conversation with a middle-aged sugar cane farmer who was curious as to why a woman in hijab was rolling tobacco (it always peaks curiosity and curiosity is the biggest opener of doors). I rolled him a cigarette and he produced the tea. It was a long and interesting conversation that would probably not have happened only 12 months ago. He was scathing in his attack on the government ,both now and under Mubarak. So I asked him what it was about the current government that was making him angry. “Corruption,” he replied, “corruption at every level”. Nothing had changed for him except that there was more crime on the streets now. He told me that, as a farmer, he sold raw sugar to the government for 90 Piastres a kilo. He then had to buy it back as processed sugar for his family at 7 Egyptian pounds a kilo. He could not understand why he got so little for his product and yet so much profit was obviously being made. We began talking about society in general and where he felt Egypt was heading. He spoke a lot about the region needing a sense of ‘right and wrong’, of a moral society that cared for all people. I asked him if he meant a Muslim Government. “Yes” he replied.

“Like, say, Iran for example?”

“Oh no, not like that, that is not Islamic anyhow, that is just ignorant bullying.”

So I asked him about the Muslim Brotherhood. Did he think they could do a good job? He nodded vigorously. “Yes, they care for our brother Copts as well as us. They care about all of us and they respect the poor. They will look after us, all of us.” So I ventured into more searching questions, and asked his opinion on the more traditional al-Nour party. The man shook his head while kicking the dirt at his feet. “We want our way, the Egyptian way, the respectable way, but we do not want to have to grow beards, we do not want to go backwards. We want to go forwards, but be respectable. You dress like a good Egyptian woman, you know what I mean.”

I nodded, I was beginning to understand. I asked him if a lot of people will vote tomorrow (Luxor elections) for al-Nour? He nodded sadly. “There are too many candidates, it’s too confusing and people are frightened. They are fearful of corruption, of decadence, of poverty. If someone says they will give money to the poor, they will get votes. We are also worried about becoming like the West. We are not the West, we are good people, we work hard and respect our families. We want tourists to keep coming, to bring their money, we do not want to be like Iran.”

It struck me that the Iranian model was none too popular and was frequently used as an example of what people did not want.

As we spoke, a group of young boys were touting trinkets to tourists. They were fashionably dressed and could have walked straight off a New York street. They chased the scantily clad tourists mercilessly, physically grabbing the women, and making a general nuisance of themselves. One of them spotted me rolling a cigarette and wandered over in curiosity. “You give me hashish?” said a boy who can’t have been more than 10-years-old. I waved him away as the farmer I was talking to shook his head. He nodded at the boys, whose passing comments to women would have turned a corpse red, and pointed out that he felt his whole country would become like them if they had a “godless” government.

My last interview victim was a Copt working in the city of Luxor. I was staying in a Coptic-owned hotel and had chatted with the staff throughout the week. He pointed out to me the need for elections sooner rather than later: the lack of stable government at both the local and national level was creating chaos on the streets. Too many taxi drivers, no policing: the country needed regulation and soon. What about the Muslim Brotherhood? “They will be ok, I think, but the Islamic parties are a worry if they get in. If they do, I am moving out.”

I pointed out that the Brotherhood is an Islamic party, and is seen in the West as a potential threat to democracy. The man smiled and shook his head. “We have nothing to fear from them, they are about government, not religion, if they know what is good for them and for Egypt, we will have a democracy with them. And if they do turn out to be too religious, then we will kick them out.” Yet again, this expressed the new sense of popular confidence and people power on the streets.

What about secular parties, I asked? “Liberals? La (no). What do they know of family responsibilities, they are not respectable people, they are not Egyptians,” was the Copt’s dismissive reaction.

Later, I sat by the Nile and pondered over the voices I had heard over the week as I watched the military trucks filled with soldiers park quietly up the back streets in preparation for voting. One thing had become patently obvious: the secularist parties were not listening to the people, to the ordinary rural folk trying to get through life with some dignity. The people needed straight talking, down-to-earth practical understandable solutions, agendas and a manifesto that fitted Egypt, not the West. Instead they bandied about concepts and issues that the local people could not relate to, and most important of all, they have done nothing to truly connect with the ordinary, everyday person outside of Cairo.

Maybe the FJP would be a good bridge to the future, if they kept in mind that the people will no longer tolerate oppressive rule. That would give the liberal parties chance to get their act together and find a way to speak for all of the people, not just the educated middle classes. This is a major turning point for Egypt and it has to work from the inside out, it has to come from the people, all of the people. Personally I think at this point in the game, a western style secular free market economy would be a cultural disaster for Egypt, it certainly is not the answer to all ills, as we are finding out in the west, for a number of reasons. There has to be a way to have a socially conscious government without religion being involved. Maybe Egypt will birth something new, a socially conscious society that is intellectually free and a government that keeps its nose out of people’s hearts and minds. We can all live in hope of such a dream.


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Secular Egypt: dream or delusion?

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By Khaled Diab

Is Egypt on the road to theocracy or will it manage to build a secular, pluralist democracy?

Thursday 15 December 2011

The roller-coaster sensation of elation followed by deflation which I and millions of others felt in the early weeks of the revolution has been back recently. Dozens of protesters killed and hundreds injured – anger and depression. Activists defiantly risk life and limb to launch part two of the revolution and demand the army returns to the barracks – admiration mixed with pride.

Generals ignore their demands and go ahead with faulty parliamentary elections – bitter disappointment. Millions turn out and queue for hours (miraculously for Egypt, in orderly lines) to make their vote count – delight. Islamists make the biggest gains in the first round – concern mixed with a little fright.

For those of a progressive and secular disposition, the preliminary results of the first phase of Egypt’s first post-revolution parliamentary elections make for sobering reading. The Muslim Brotherhood-dominated Freedom and Justice party (FJP) list is unsurprisingly in pole position, with some 36% of the vote.

Al-Nour (The Light), the coalition of Salafist parties, emerged, almost out of the blue, to eclipse partially the dawn of Egyptian democracy by garnering an impressive quarter of the first phase vote, almost double what the secular leftist Egyptian Bloc – a major force in the revolution which was expected to come second – managed to salvage from their electoral train wreck.

Despite its bright name, if al-Nour ever has its way completely, Egypt would be run according to its ultra-conservative interpretation of shari’a, albeit in a “gradual way that suits the nature of society”, because, in their fundamentalist view, Islam cannot be separated from the state and secularism is tantamount to atheism (a common misconception among Egyptians).

The unexpectedly strong performance of the Salafists and poor showing of the secularists has been the subject of frenzied and worried debate in liberal and progressive Egyptian circles, including among my friends and acquaintances. Overseas, the early fears that Egypt would become the next Iran have been reawakened, and some Western friends who have been terrified by the prospect of an Islamist takeover of Egypt have been wagging an “I told you so” finger at my alleged naivety.

But is there cause for panic?

Of course, the Salafist vision for Egypt is not only terrifying to “godless” secularists, socialists and liberals but many aspects of it trouble pious Egyptians, even many of those who voted for the parties.

And sadly Salafism has regressed a long way from its original proponents. In the 19th century, “Salafis” were at the forefront of Egypt’s modernising drive and revival, which has come to be known as the “Egyptian Renaissance”. Muhammad Abdu, a reformist Azharite cleric, for example, once famously summed up his thought by saying: “I went to the West and saw Islam, but no Muslims. I returned to the East and saw Muslims, but no Islam.”

In his and other early reformers’ worldview, the West had successfully captured the ingredients of early Islamic greatness, and the only way for Islam to catch up and match this was to return to the spirit of the “Salaf”, the early generations of Muslims who innovatively and creatively interpreted their faith to suit the spirit of the times.

Inspired by the reactionary Ahmad ibn Hanbal, who believed that the graves of even pious “innovators” within religion was a “barren pit”, and spearheaded by such figures as Sayyid Qutb, the spiritual father of modern, radical Islamism, the contemporary brand of Salafism became not only hostile to the West but also to its values. In order to counteract Western hegemony, Salafists believe, Muslims must reject the West and live as the early Muslims did. This idealised view of the past has led many Islamists to interpret their religion rigidly and literally, at least the parts of it that suit them, and to get caught up in the minutiae of how the prophet walked, talked and even urinated.

An example of this is their fossilised attitude towards tourism. Although al-Nour’s economic platform has focused on reforming the banking sector along Islamic lines by outlawing interest (something that is bound to be popular among borrowers), it has steered cleverly away from delving too deeply into its position on tourism as being “un-Islamic”.

Salafists are well-known for their opposition to tourism for its “immorality” and “decadence” and many leading Salafi preachers call for it to be banned, while the violent extremists of the 1990s specifically targeted tourists, not only to undermine the government but also as a reflection of their rejection of the industry. One wacky manifestation of this opposition is the bizarre call by al-Da’awa al-Salafiyya (which founded al-Nour) to cover all Egypt’s ancient statues in wax veils.

But this kind of idol gesture is unlikely to go down well, since millions of Egyptians depend on tourism for their economic well-being and millions more are proud that their country – “the mother of the world”, as they call it – is the subject of such international fascination and reverence, and they love to say “Welcome” to foreigners.

But do the gains made by Salafists and the more moderate Muslim Brotherhood indicate that Egypt is on the slippery slope to theocracy or can it still build a democracy, albeit one with a pronounced Islamic flavour?

Although this result would suggest Egypt is far from the secular, progressive society I and like-minded Egyptians dream of seeing emerge, it is far from being the unmitigated disaster that doomsayers have been warning about.

For a start, the fear that the Islamists will form some kind of unified bloc in parliament is possible but appears unlikely at this juncture. After all, the Brotherhood and the Salafists, though their worldviews may overlap on numerous issues, are bitter rivals and the al-Nour party was formed by a breakaway faction from the FJP alliance that was unhappy with the moderate, pluralist line the FJP was towing.

Moreover, the FJP did not actually collect 36% of the vote – it was the entire Democratic Alliance of 11 parties, mostly secular ones. As the dominant member, the FJP is estimated to account for some 60-70%, which means that it captured between 22% and 25% of the vote.

On the bright side, this means that, combined, the Islamist vote accounts for half the total and the secularist for the other half. On the downside, it means that the relatively moderate Muslim Brotherhood and the extremist Salafists are neck and neck.

In addition, there is a good chance that the FJP will do more than pay lip service to its expressed commitment to secularism and pluralism in order to avoid spooking SCAF and the West and to avoid a replay of what occurred in Algeria. And after 90 years of oppression and inhabiting the political wilderness, the Muslim Brotherhood finally wants a shot at some form of direct power.

And perhaps after all these decades, it’s time they actually got an official stake in running the country, partly because this is only fair, and partly because allowing the movement to join the mainstream in earnest would finally rob them of the luxury of criticising loudly from the sidelines without actually having any of their ideas and contradictions put to the test. In parliament, the electorate can judge them on their actual performance and not just their sloganeering and grandstanding. Then voters can truly learn whether Islam, at least the version of it they preach, is the solution or part of the problem.

Perhaps one reason behind al-Nour’s unexpected success actually has little to do with religion, but is related to the far more mundane and worldly reality of economic inequality. With the revolutionaries focusing all their efforts on what might seem to the average Egyptian like abstract issues of political reform and the liberal parties, particularly the neo-liberal FJP, refusing to countenance the idea of radical income redistribution, al-Nour’s calls for a “fair and equal distribution” of not only income but wealth is bound to appeal to Egypt’s oppressed and downtrodden masses, many of whom are forced to live on less than $2 a day.  And so the unexpected success of the Salafists may actually be more of a protest vote against the other parties than a vote of confidence in al-Nour.

Some months ago, I cautioned that the revolution and the interim regime ignored or downplayed the economic aspect of the uprising, what I called the revolution’s bottom line, at their peril. “You can have all the democracy and personal freedoms in the world, but without addressing the bread and butter issues of poverty and economic injustice, reform will be incomplete and hollow,” I wrote.

Given Egypt’s pressing practical socio-economic issues, we may actually find that the first parliament is not preoccupied with identity politics but rather with more urgent bread-and-butter issues (at least, any sensible parliament should be). This may, paradoxically, lead to some weird alliances of convenience forming not around cultural or identity issues but around economic outlook. So, just as the Muslim Brotherhood has allied itself to al-Ghad partly based of the similarity in their economic outlook, so too might al-Nour, if it is sincere about its economic programme, find itself in an uncomfortable partnership with secular leftists, at least on issues of economic justice.

But there is another bottom line that we have not yet explored. Will the new parliament have real legislative teeth, will it manage to challenge the “pharonic” powers of the eventual president, or will it be yet another rubberstamp assembly? There is a widespread fear among activists and revolutionaries that SCAF has no intention of ceding (at least ultimate) power to the people. Even if the army does ostensibly return to the barracks, there is the real and present danger that they will form a shadow government there that will exercise an ultimate veto over the civilian government.

And SCAF’s behaviour has done little to allay these concerns. Not only has it said that it will have final say over the country’s new constitution, it has also indicated that the new parliament will have no oversight over the military’s budget.

It also seems that the generals are unimaginatively following the well-trodden path of Egyptian leaders over the past three decades and playing with Islamists fire. It is true that the Islamists undoubtedly hold appeal to certain segments of the population and the nascent revolutionary groups’ failure to score significant electoral success so far is partly due to their disorganisation and disarray.

Nevertheless, all indications reveal that the dice were loaded in favour of the Islamists, as part of what appears to be a counterrevolution. Not only did the country’s provisional constitution make it difficult to form parties, which handicapped the secular activist who launched the revolution, the rule that bans the formation of religious parties does not seem to have been applied to the salafists for some mysterious reason.

In addition, the SCAF’s policy of obfuscation and delay since the revolution erupted harmed the electoral chances of the revolutionaries because it enabled the regime and the Muslim Brotherhood to convince quite a number of Egyptians that the resulting instability was the fault of the activists and not the old guard. Had the army handed over power immediately to an interim “Council of the Wise” and had genuine elections been held during the early period of euphoria following Mubarak’s downfall, then the courageous and visionary revolutionary youth could well have led the political pack in Egypt’s parliament, rather than being left with almost nothing.

But why would the SCAF form an unholy alliance with the Islamists? For a number of reasons. Pragmatically, the generals realised that the Brotherhood, particularly its old and conservative leadership, was the lesser of two evils. The revolutionaries want complete regime change. In contrast, the Brotherhood – whose current leadership has been saying for years that good Muslims are obliged to obey their leaders even if they are tyrants – is willing to compromise and live with a power-sharing arrangement.

Additionally, there is an element of intergenerational conflict: the young revolutionaries, including the younger members of the Brotherhood itself, appeared to be a common enemy both to the ageing generals and the ageing Islamists at the top of the movement. And with the Brotherhood’s commitment to free market economics and its reassurances that it would not rock the boat with Egypt’s allies, the FJP must seem like the best guarantor of the elusive “stability” Washington so covets.

And like Mubarak before them, Field Marshall Tantawi and his inner circle may be trying to put the fear of God, so to speak, into the hearts of Egyptian secularists and the Western powers alike – perhaps as a prelude to freezing, rolling back or delaying further reforms.

When all is said done, this is still only the first phase of the elections, and the staggered nature of the vote may actually work in favour of the secularists, whose poor showing so far may prod them to redouble their efforts to win over voters in the rest of the country. It may also focus the minds of voters and prompt them to deny the Islamists, particularly the salafists, further significant gains. At the very least, it might encourage more Egyptians to vote for the FJP as the only realistic bulwark against al-Nour.

That said, what effect would an Islamist-dominated parliament have on vulnerable groups, including women, Christians and other minorities, such as Baha’is, atheists and simply those with alternative interpretations of their faith?

Well, at a certain level, the Islamisation of Egypt culturally and socially has been taking place for decades. When the 1952 revolution failed to deliver on its promise of granting Egyptians their full political and social freedom, and Gamal Abdel-Nasser mercilessly stamped out both secular and Islamist opposition to his rule, the discrediting of secularism began in earnest. The crushing defeat of 1967, and the accompanying destruction of the pan-Arabist dream, dealt a decisive blow to secularism and empowered the Islamists.

Then, in the 1970s, Anwar al-Sadat openly and cynically (though, of course, he had once been a member of the Muslim Brotherhood in his youth) began embracing the conservative Islamic current to counterbalance the fierce secular opposition he was facing, which he crushed ruthlessly, and when the inevitable blowback came, it was too late for him to turn back the tide.

His successor, Hosni Mubarak, tried to play both sides off against each other in a classic example of divide and rule. Under Mubarak’s leadership, the regime tried both to portray itself as the guarantor of secular freedoms and the defender of Islamic decency. Meanwhile, the sectarian tensions this awoke were ignored and swept under the carpet because it went against the prevalent discourse of national unity, until the ugly monster of sectarianism had grown to unmanageable proportions.

So, even without Islamist domination of the next parliament, it will take years of effort, dialogue, education and trust building to slay the dragon of sectarianism and rebuild the confidence of Christians that they are full and equal citizens of the country. Of course, an Islamist victory could well delay or set back such a process.

Likewise, the Islamists have succeeded in setting in motion a counter-feminist revolution which has reversed or frozen many of the gains made by women in their struggle for equality. And, paradoxically, as more and more women go out into the workplace and public sphere, they must do so heavily cloaked in piety and “decency” and, hence, not as equals to men. So, as misogyny is not limited to Islamists in Egypt and the sex divide has reached an unsustainable level, it is unclear whether matters will actually get worse for women.

Liberal, pluralist secularism also became contaminated through its association with the exercise of Western hegemony in the region, which was often conducted cynically under the banner of spreading “freedom” and “democracy”.

The upshot of all this is that, without being in power, Islamists have exercised a powerful and stifling influence on Egyptian society for years, as reflected in the growing pre-eminence of the conservative religious dress and the hounding and persecution of those who criticise religion. Whereas in the 1950s-1970s, many intellectuals in Egypt and other secular republics, despite the (more tolerant) piety of the general population, held proudly sceptical and even hostile views of religion and were openly atheistic. Today, even mild criticism of religion can land you in hot water.

This has resulted in the growing marginalisation and ostracisation of Egyptians who do not fit the mainstream Islamic mould, whether they be secularists, Christians, Baha’is or non-believers, a minority that might outnumber Christians if Egypt did not turn an official blind eye to atheists and agnosts and if people were allowed to be fully open about their beliefs, some suggest.

However, that is not the entire story. The Egyptian revolution has revealed a trend that has been going on under the radar for years. Millions of Egyptians who hold a wide spectrum of socially and politically liberal and progressive views have come out into the open, while Egypt’s tattered and bedraggled secular forces are regrouping, discovering a new sense of confidence and assertiveness which they will not cede easily to the righteous bullying of the Islamists and other religious conservatives. In addition, mainstream Islamists have been undergoing a process which I call “secularism in a veil“.

This means that, rather than a theocratic Egypt, what we might well see emerge is a battle between two increasingly polarised trends: the reactionary religious and pluralistically secular. Moreover, as Islamism is truly put to the test, we may look back in the future on this period as the “high point” of the Islamist political movement, as the electorate quickly grows disillusioned when its vision too fails to deliver improvements and results.

Egypt’s first democratic parliamentary elections since the 1952 revolution – faulty as they were – began on 28 November, our son’s second birthday. This led me to wonder whether the process this will unleash will be one that will create a new Egypt that will make him proud or ashamed of his Egyptian half. A truly democratic, free, tolerant and pluralistic Egypt – even if it is achieved politically – will probably take generations to implement socially, and will depend on decent education and economic prospects for all.

Here’s to hoping that our children and grandchildren will inherit an Egypt that they can live in and have a stake in.

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Egypt’s general discontent

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By Khaled Diab

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

Wednesday 30 November 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Egypt: a country raped by its guardians

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By Osama Diab

Dear generals, you are like a therapist abusing rape victims, so don’t be surprised when Egyptians revolt against your cruelty.

Thursday 24 November 2011

Do not be deceived by the laughs and the singing in Tahrir square. Egyptians are in fact traumatised and this is merely their way of dealing with the trauma. It is from this anguish that their incredible courage is derived.

The protesters realise that the enemy, who is armed to the teeth and hiding behind shields and helmets, fears nothing more than facing an unarmed young man, or woman, in civilian uniform, armed only with their convictions and absolutely no fear of dying. The protesters understand that lacking rifles, gas canisters and armoured vehicles, the only weapon they possess is sheer determination and the unshakeable willingness to make some value of their lives by putting them on the line for the right cause.

They want to restore their pride at any cost, even if the price is their souls. Since they live without dignity and their lives are not valued by society, they would rather live as heroes in the eyes of their family and friends, and among their comrades on Facebook. Forsaken as living souls, they seek their redemption by facing down the regime’s death machines.

My dear generals, this is a country in trauma whose people were dehumanised by you, so don’t expect them to act rationally and responsibly now. Don’t ask them to go back to work and rebuild the country. They will only rebuild a country that they own, in which they have a real stake. What is the point of rebuilding the country if you, your business elite and your foreign investor friends will reap the fruits of their hard work and leave them struggling to make ends meet and die in the queue for subsidised bread, which they call “ayesh” (“life”) because their sustenance depends on it?

Egyptians under your tutelage, my dear generals, are like rape victims who have been raped by their  therapist, who is meant to give them emotional and psychological support. It doesn’t just stop there, the therapist, in whom they initially trusted, tries to convince them that systematic rape is an essential part of their recovery. He tells them that the solution to their problems, is not getting rid of him, but to focus on their studies, learn how to play the guitar or possibly repaint their room. No Sir, the solution is to get rid of you, as soon as possible and by whatever means possible.

State violence doesn’t breed violence. It breeds the desire to make a statement. A statetment that is a lesson for would-be tyrants. They want to produce an image that will inspire future generations and warn future rulers. They want to be the focal point of the next elected president’s inauguration speech, and they will be.

They want to be the centre around which their future nation revolves, and the light under which democracy and human rights flourish. They want to be the past that future generations will remember with pride and cherish, while working together to prevent from being repeated ever again. Violence doesn’t breed violence, but breeds the desire to live as proud martyrs in future history books rather than as forgotten, voiceless citizens in the contemporary annals of neglect.

The conservatives will carry on condemning the ‘violence’, but this violence is nothing but a proof of life  – evidence (to themselves more than anyone else) that they are still human. News reports will talk about how this is affecting share prices, investors will freak out, and big hotels will ‘suffer’ from receiving no tourists, but many of those on the front line never owned stocks, possessed bank accounts, or went on holiday, so why would they give a damn now about the numbers and arrows on the holy markets’ computer screens? Investors  neglected Egypt’s marginalised and crushed population while they were accumulating their wealth, so it is only fair for the protesters in turn to neglect the gamblers of the stock exchange while they fight to win back their humanity.


This article is published here with the author’s permission. © Osama Diab.

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The sacred right to ‘insult’

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By Khaled Diab

Jailing Egyptians for insulting religion and the military goes against the revolution’s spirit, and violates people’s secular and sacred rights.

Monday 31 October 2011

The revolution seems to have made the Egyptian regime very quick to take offence from all those ungrateful pesky Egyptians. In April, the courageous blogger Maikel Nabil Sanad was jailed for three years on the ludicrous charge of “insulting the military” – which is an offence only to our intelligence. The posts that got him in trouble include one in which he contends that “the army and people were never a single hand” and another that accuses the interim regime of “recycling the same old shit” but this time on a china plate – not to mention his view that the Coptic Pope Shenouda III has a “long history of hypocrisy with [Egypt’s] leadership”.

In protest against his sentencing, Sanad began a long hunger strike in jail which has placed his health at serious risk. Now reports are emerging that he has been moved to a psychiatric hospital, drawing severe condemnation from Egypt’s mental health community. An interesting blog containing Sanad’s determinedly outspoken writings from prison has been set up by his friends.

Human rights activists cautioned at the time of Sanad’s imprisonment that it set a “dangerous precedent”, and their warning seems to have been sound. Since the revolution began in January, an estimated 12,000 civilians have stood in the dock before military courts, which is more than the total number of cases during the Mubarak era. This is despite the fact that one of the key demands of the revolution was to abolish the emergency laws that make it possible for the regime to execute such summary “justice”.

Now Egypt’s civilian courts have joined the fray of Egyptian institutions making offenders out of bloggers who cause offence. Ayman Youssef Mansour also received three years, but this time not for offending the demigods of the military but rather for “insulting” Islam, “promoting extremist ideas” and “inciting sectarianism” on Facebook.

Unfortunately, the court gave absolutely no details about what exactly Mansour had written and my repeated attempts to dig up his writings online only led me to the empty shell of his Facebook page. But judging from other online content, which has riled pious Egyptians, I suspect that, though Mansour’s page may have caused offence, especially if it was atheistic, it probably did not incite sectarianism or fitna.

Although atheism can be just as oppressive as any other belief system if it becomes the official ‘religion’ of a repressive state, as the Soviet Union amply demonstrated, I’ve never heard of any member of Egypt’s marginalised, unrecognised and forgotten atheist minority ever calling for a ‘jihad’ or ‘crusade’ against believers.

For instance, many Egyptians have been campaigning for the removal of a controversial satirical Facebook page, which mocks religion mercilessly. The content of the page ranges from juvenile and absurdist humour – “If a prophet comes who declare ‘Aha‘ [‘Oh Shit’] I shall believe in him” – to biting political satire and social commentary, but it is all rather harmless.

One post, citing God’s various haughty titles such as “King of Kings”, asks whether “God suffers from megalomania or is just the Muammar Gaddafi of the heavens”. Another post, mocking Mubarak’s attempts to hold on to power by ostensibly delegating his authority to his intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, reports: “God has declared … that he does not intend to run for a second godly term and that he is handing over all his powers to the angel Gabriel.”

Though each of these posts gets dozens of likes, indicating that many Egyptians and Arabs approve of this brand of humour, they also elicit hundreds of comments, many of them condemnations and childish insults by believers, many of which are, ironically, blasphemous in nature.

Of course, I can see why, in a largely religious society, the mocking or deriding of the most fundamental beliefs people hold dear can cause anger. But trying to shut down such debate or jail those who hold contrary views goes against the spirit of freedom embodied in the Egyptian revolution. And even for those Muslims who do not believe in modern secularism, Islam itself has traditionally guaranteed freedom of belief for all. This is spelt out, for example, in the constitution of Medina and the long tradition Muslim societies have had of tolerating criticism and the ridiculing of Islam.

More pragmatically, it is in every Egyptian’s interest to scrap the vague legislation that outlaws the “ridiculing or insulting” of any of the Abrahamic faiths. Though the law appears to accord all Egyptians equal rights, this is only the case if we assume that all Egyptians are Muslims, Christians or Jews – but there are those who belong to other religions or none. Then there are those with alternative, more liberal interpretations of their faith, such as academics, novelists and film-makers who have had cases brought against them by Islamists. And not only is this vague law a gift to ultra-conservative Islamists, it was also thoroughly exploited by the former regime to silence its critics.

And far from preventing the fitna the law is apparently designed to do, it may actually stoke the fires of sectarianism and division by creating a new battleground in the courts. This can be seen in how some conservative Christians have taken the Islamists’ lead and are, too, bringing cases to the courts against those they perceive as having defamed their faith.

And who is to determine what’s defamatory? In some ways the very existence of Islam and Christianity can be seen, at one level, as being mutually insulting to each other. After all, regardless of the respect Muslims hold for Christians and their faith, Islam ultimately emerged as a ‘corrective’ for the deviations that Christianity had apparently taken from the ‘true faith’, and challenges some fundamental Christian beliefs. Could that not be interpreted as insulting?

Similarly, Christianity still exists because Christians do not accept that Muhammad is a true prophet, regardless of how much many Christians admire and respect him as a man, leader and visionary. So, it is best for everyone just to live and let live.

The new Egypt must uphold the rights of everyone to believe in what they want and speak freely about their beliefs. It must also protect its minorities, not only Christians and Baha’is but also the officially voiceless but significant nonbelieving minority.


This article first appeared in The Guardian’s Comment is Free section on 27 October 2011. Read the related discussion

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Opposing the Egyptian opposition

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By Osama Diab

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

Thursday 13 October

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The danger of an elected dictatorship in Egypt

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 By Osama Diab

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

Thursday 29 September 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Lessons in revolt

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By Khaled Diab

Although designed to instil loyalty to the regime, Egyptian schools have been breeding grounds for rebellion and revolt.

Wednesday 14 September 2011

Although education systems around the world seek to produce “good citizens”, schools in Arab countries have the additional function of teaching students to obey – and fear – the regime.

“The curricula taught in Arab countries seem to encourage submission, obedience, subordination and compliance, rather than free critical thinking,” the Arab Human Development Report complained in 2003.

While few would dispute that Arab state schools try to inculcate subservience, it appears no one bothered to ask whether they were succeeding. But now, research by Hania Sobhy at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London suggests that in Egypt, at least, this most central exercise in promoting conformity and obedience has been deftly subverted and disobeyed by pupils, and to a lesser extent by teachers.

In addition to certain school subjects with an overtly “patriotic” focus that exalt the “achievements” of the state and effectively equate the Egyptian regime with the nation, the school day itself starts with the highly regimented morning assembly. “The central ritual of Egyptian schools is the taboor (line up),” Sobhy said.

The taboor is supposedly a time for pupils to connect with their nation and express patriotism by saluting the flag and singing the national anthem. In a telling indication of where the former regime’s priorities lay, what many would regard as a hollow ritual is so hallowed by the ministry of education that it is “decreed and carefully delineated”, Sobhy pointed out.

Yet, “more often than not, taboor is not in fact prepared nor performed,” she said. “More importantly, most secondary school students do not attend.”

When the taboor does take place, most youngsters fail to salute the flag or sing alternative – usually obscene – versions of the national anthem which, according to Sobhy, are “typically variations on themes of abuse by the nation, disentitlement and failure, of being violated or raped by the nation, or the nation being a ‘prostitute’.”

This rebellion and disaffection is hardly surprising, given that outside the official curriculum school provides pupils with harsh lessons on class, youth exclusion, arbitrary punishment and the importance of connections. “The school gives very practical and concrete citizenship lessons to children – lessons about their differentiated entitlement to rights,” Sobhy said.

This is a far cry from the 1952 revolution’s promise to provide free and equitable education for all Egyptians. In Egypt today, anything approaching quality education is provided only in the private sphere.

In addition to a plethora of private schools of varying quality and cost for those who can afford them, the dysfunctional state system itself is also largely stratified and class-based, with middle-class children going to general secondary schools, while the bulk of poorer pupils attend the marginalised and chronically underfunded technical schools.

Moreover, the state system has gone through a de facto privatisation in which underpaid teachers are unable or unwilling to teach in the classroom and coerce pupils – often using corporal punishment, even though it is banned – into taking private lessons if they want to pass their exams. This failure has transformed state schools into breeding grounds for disaffection.

“The level of boldness and opposition voiced point to how deep the resentment [and] anger … runs among large segments of the population,” Sobhy said. “There was a surprising level of ‘politicised’ and highly oppositional discourses given the stereotypes of apathy and submissiveness.”

And despite the best attempts of the state and teachers to beat pupils down, the youngsters interviewed by Sobhy demonstrated political awareness and voiced a powerful note of defiance similar to that expressed by millions on the streets of Egypt this year. “We don’t have belonging. We are growing up in an age when the country doesn’t give us anything,” one girl told her.

In this regard, Sobhy views schools as a weather vane of the mood in Egypt as a whole: they highlighted “the themes and content of the grievances that fuelled the popular movement that deposed Mubarak”.

“Would we be like this if we did not have all this theft and corruption?” one boy told her, while another insisted: “To fix things, everyone has to be removed … We need all new people.”

Less than a month before revolutionary fever gripped the country, pupils at semi-private state schools known as national institutes went on strike, organising sit-ins and marches in opposition to a ministerial decree they believed threatened their schools. “The demonstrations and chants – and the security presence and threats – were really similar to many of the scenes we saw in January,” Sobhy said.

The experience of young Egyptians in state schools shows that coming generations are both politically aware and are no longer willing to accept the scraps that fall from the regime’s table. Providing them with quality education and decent job prospects is not only good for them and good for Egypt, it will also be good for any future government’s survival.

This article first appeared in The Guardian‘s Comment is Free section on 10 September 2011. Read the related discussion.

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Egypt and Israel: cold peace or cold war?

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By Khaled Diab

Relations between Israel and post-revolution Egypt are proving tetchy – but ordinary people hold the keys to peace.

Friday 2 September 2011

It was a tense week in Egyptian-Israeli relations. It all started when unknown assailants crossed from Sinai to carry out a series of co-ordinated terrorist attacks in southern Israel, which left eight Israelis dead.

Terror was met with more terror and counter-terror, as Israel bombed embattled Gaza, leading to the deaths of at least 14 people, despite the absence of evidence that Gazans were behind the attack (some of the alleged perpetrators appear to be Egyptians), and Islamist militants in Gaza fired their Grad rockets into southern Israel.

In a reckless act that could have escalated the situation dangerously, Israeli troops – in a gunship that crossed the border, according to Egyptian security sources – also killed three Egyptian army and police personnel, apparently by accident.

Fortunately, Egypt refrained from taking a leaf out of Israel’s book and did not give chase across the border to apprehend the killers. Instead, it sensibly decided to follow the diplomatic track and demand an apology and a joint investigation into the incident. A statement announcing the withdrawal of Egypt’s ambassador to Israel was later retracted.

Though military tensions seem to have subsided, an escalating war of words is brewing between Egypt and Israel. In Israel, in addition to anger, grief and a desire for vengeance, allegations are flying that Egypt has “lost control” of Sinai. For its part, Egypt counters that the Israeli security apparatus was pretty much caught with its pants down in its failure to protect its borders. There is also a widespread foreboding that this is just a taste of things to come in post-revolution Egypt.

Egypt has also been gripped by anger, grief and calls for vengeance. Outraged protesters have spent days besieging the Israeli embassy – with one even climbing 21 storeys to replace the Israeli flag with an Egyptian one – to demand the expulsion of Israel’s ambassador and the severing of ties.

So, what does the future hold for Egyptian-Israeli relations in light of this latest spat, the Egyptian revolution, the current hardline Israeli government and Palestinian plans to go to the UN next month to seek international recognition? Will the cold peace endure, escalate into a new cold war or warm into a big thaw?

At this juncture, it is very hard to tell which way the wind will blow. My reading of the situation – which I elaborated on at a recent conference – is that in spite of this recent flare-up the Egyptian-Israeli status quo will remain essentially unchanged, though relations between the two governments are likely to grow frostier.

A democratic Egypt more in tune with its public’s mood is likely to collaborate less with Israel on security issues, such as the Mubarak’s regime’s unpopular involvement in the Gaza blockade, and might, I have argued, act as a deterrent against excessive Israeli militarism. In fact, some analysts and diplomats have concluded that the attack on Gaza was cut short out of fear of straining relations with Cairo further.

In my view, Israeli fears that a more radical regime, probably led by the Muslim Brotherhood, would “tear up” the Camp David peace accords are unfounded. Not only is the popularity of the Muslim Brotherhood a lot less than doomsayers have been warning – a recent poll showed its approval rating to be just 17% – now that the possibility of entering government has become realistic, the group has demonstrated its political pragmatism.

Despite the Muslim Brotherhood’s official opposition to peace with Israel, a spokesman has said that the future of the peace treaty would be decided by “the Egyptian people and not the Brotherhood”.

Moreover, the anger on the streets and the strong anti-Israeli stance taken by opposition politicians and ordinary Egyptians notwithstanding, there is little appetite in Egypt to return to the bad old days of confrontation. A number of recent polls, including this one, show that the vast majority of Egyptians are in favour of maintaining the peace treaty with Israel.

Even radical critics of Israel, such as the popular novelist Alaa al-Aswany, who famously refused to have one of his best-selling novels translated into Hebrew, has not called for the reneging of the accord.

Instead, he has demanded that Egypt renegotiate the articles relating to the presence of Egyptian troops in the Sinai. Perhaps al-Aswany will be disappointed to learn that senior figures in the Israel Defence Forces are, following last week’s attack, in full agreement with this suggestion.

It may take two to tango but in the case of Egyptian-Israeli relations, the dance is a three-way one, with the Palestinians making up the hate triangle. Despite the generally pessimistic tone of the Israeli discourse on the Egyptian revolution, Israel is not a passive bystander and can do much to improve future ties with Egypt, namely by working towards or reaching a just resolution with the Palestinians, the thorn in the side of Egyptian-Israeli ties.

Next month’s Palestinian bid to go to the UN should not be read as an act of hostility but as a desperate plea for freedom and justice, albeit a misguided one – something that an increasing number of Israelis are growing to realise. Sadly, such enlightenment is not shared by the ideologues currently leading the Israeli government, and the Palestinian leadership; both the PA and Hamas benefit in their own warped ways from the status quo.

With such inertia, what can be done to change the dynamics of the situation for the better? I believe that it is time to follow a new track in which ordinary people lead the process and not just sit back and wait for their ineffective leaders to do something or wait for the arrival some unknown saviour.

Palestinians and Israelis need to awaken to their own power and unlock their dormant potential to steer their own destiny towards peace and reconciliation, through mass, peaceful joint activism. Likewise, ordinary Egyptians need to cast aside their ideological opposition to dealing with Israelis and help facilitate and mediate such a “people’s peace”.


This article first appeared in The Guardian‘s Comment is Free section. Read the related discussion here.

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A tale of two media

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By Khaled Diab

Egypt’s independent media have earned their revolutionary stripes, while the state’s mouthpieces have simply switched allegiance to the ‘new emperor’. But which model will endure?

Wednesday 17 August 2011

In his final 18 days as president, Hosni Mubarak looked increasingly detached from the rapidly changing reality around him. The contrast between the gilded cocoon in which he lived and the seething anger on the streets was perhaps most dramatically illustrated by his final speech.

The whole of Egypt was out on the streets or glued to their television sets – as were millions across the world – in excited anticipation that the dictator would finally concede defeat on February 10. When he appeared on air, a couple of hours late, he delivered a recorded message that was a study in mediocrity and cliché.

With the pallor of a made-up corpse in an ill-lit funeral parlour, he paid lip service to Egypt’s youth – whom he patronisingly referred to as his “sons and daughters” – but defiantly refused to step down, claiming that he would not succumb to “foreign dictations”. In Tahrir square, this was met with cries of disbelief, hoots of derision and quite a number of raised shoes.

A similar contrast in narratives was discernible in how the revolution was being covered by the Egyptian media. While intrepid journalists working for Egypt’s independent media continued their ever-bolder defiance of the regime of recent years to report on the historic events gripping the country, the regime’s tame mouthpieces mostly continued, right up to the eleventh hour of Mubarak’s downfall, to describe the protesters as “hooligans” and the protests themselves as being orchestrated by “foreign powers”.

This awoke memories in the minds of some commentators of the public media’s disgraceful performance during the 1967 war with Israel, when they broadcast fictitious reports of Egyptian victories until the bitter reality emerged a few days later.

“With the revolution in full force, few thought the state’s toothless and incompetent television would actually revert to Voice of the Arabs strategies of completely fraudulent reports of the protests,” wrote media scholar Adel Iskandar in al-Masry al-Youm, Egypt’s best-selling independent daily. “In retrospect, the content from those 18 days has since become iconic – from fake foreign-trained protesters and KFC conspiracies to an empty Tahrir and massive pro-Mubarak rallies.”

Sawt el-Arab (Voice of the Arabs) was the Nasser-era pan-Arabist revolutionary broadcaster which was, despite it clear propaganda mission, was popular with millions of Egyptian and Arabs up until the 1967 defeat. In the early weeks of the current revolution, the state media reverted to old form with ludicruous reports that the protesters on Tahrir Square were only a handful of foreigners and foreign-trained agents whose allegiance was allegedly bought with buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken, despite the fact that the KFC restaurant on the square was closed down at the start of the protests and a makeshift clinic to treat protesters was erected outside it.

In a comically transparent real-life adaptation of Orwell’s “Oceania was at war with Eastasia: Oceania had always been at war with Eastasia”, the state-owned media now endorses the revolution – and the vandals have become heroes.

Despite this, old ways die hard. “On the whole, I would say the changes we’ve seen to the ‘end product’ of the Egyptian media have been largely cosmetic – although that doesn’t mean that more substantive reform isn’t underway below the surface,” The Guardian‘s Jack Shenker told me.

“There has been no meaningful change in the state media since the revolution,” echoes Amira Mohsen, a young journalist who used to work for Nile TV, the state-owned satellite news channel. “It would appear that the self-censorship that had always been in place still exists and has only switched to suit the requirements of the new [military] regime.”

After two years at Nile TV, Mohsen resigned last September, months before the revolution, out of outrage, at the endemic corruption, nepotism and propaganda she witnessed at the broadcaster, she said.

“I was exhausted and disgusted by the level of corruption taking place at all levels in Maspero [the Nile-side premises of Egypt’s broadcasting building],” she explained. “I also felt Egyptian state media was not journalism but rather working as public relations for the regime.”

While defections of journalists disillusioned with the state-run media, like Mohsen’s, have long occurred, the trickle only became a flood in the wake of the revolution.

“For decades, conscientious media workers had suffered in silence as failed and corrupt government policies were promoted across the airwaves and in print,” wrote Salah Abdel Maqsoud, who replaced Mubarak loyalist Makram Mohamed Ahmed as interim secretary-general of the Egyptian Journalists’ Union, in the Guardian in February. “Therefore, when the revolution erupted journalists were among the first on the street and among those who gave blood for the cause.”

In addition to resignations, strikes and walkouts across the state-run broadcast and print media, at least one government-employed journalist paid for reporting on the revolution with his life. Ahmed Mahmoud, a photographer with the largest government newspaper, al-Ahram, was shot in the head while filming police attacking protesters from the balcony of his home.

Prior to the revolution, the state-owned media was not uniformly propagandist, and certain journalists on the government’s payroll sailed very close to the wind. One example is al-Ahram Weekly under the editorship of Hani Shukrallah. As it is published in English and hence does not reach a mass Egyptian audience, the regime kept less of a close eye on it.

But Shukrallah’s bold editorial approach eventually got his superiors within the Ahram conglomerate nervous and he was removed from the Weekly in 2005. He recently returned to head up the newspaper’s new English portal in which he has infused his trademark outspokenness. For instance, weeks before the revolution, when a church in Alexandria was bombed on New Year’s Eve, he penned his very own J’accuse.

“I accuse a government that seems to think that by outbidding the Islamists it will also outflank them,” he wrote. “But most of all, I accuse the millions of supposedly moderate Muslims among us; those who’ve been growing more and more prejudiced.”

Another example is Salama Ahmed Salama, Egypt’s archetypal non-partisan journalist, despite having worked for decades for al-Ahram, whose front page was dominated for most of the past three decades with Mubarak’s image.

Although he accepted that the newspaper he dedicated so many years to was the “façade of the system”, he is a strong believer in press freedom and tested the system constantly until he left the government flagship to help set up the highly respected independent al-Shorouk. “The reader will get a different taste of modern journalism,” Salama promised in his first editorial for the upstart paper in 2009.

And it seems to have kept its word.

“I think that al-Shorouk is the most professional and objective newspaper on the market in Egypt,” says Mohsen. Unlike some of the other independent Egyptian newspapers, especially the opposition ones, which are clearly partisan or sensationalist, al-Shorouk does not shy away from complexity or controversy, but, like Salama himself, it steers clear of political allegiances and polemics, even in the wake of the revolution. 

But al-Shorouk is not alone, and nor was Egypt’s newfound media freedom built in a day. One of the first newspapers to push the political boundaries to their limit was the opposition al-Dustour, which was set up in 1995 by Ibrahim Eissa in Cyprus, due to Egypt’s restrictive press laws at the time. The government banned the outspoken and oft-sensationalist ‘foreign’ paper in 1998 but it managed to resurface again in 2005.

The growing boldness of Egyptian civil society and the opposition movement has been mirrored in the independent media which, in recent years, has slaughtered most of Egypt’s sacred political cows. For example, the unspoken journalistic taboos which forbade, above all, open criticism of Mubarak in the media was demolished by an increasingly iconoclastic press which openly criticised the then president for refusing to step down, covered rumours of his ill-health and expressed its opposition to Gamal Mubarak inheriting the presidency from his father.

So successful has the independent media been that al-Masry al-Youm, which was launched in 2004, quickly overtook the stagnant al-Ahram to become Egypt’s most popular and respected newspaper whose official circulation figures may be a little lower than the government flagship but its actual readership is far higher, according to numerous independent experts. And despite an internet blackout and animosity from the collapsing regime in the early days of the revolution, the more open atmosphere has been good for the independent press. For example, al-Shorouk saw its circulation double to reach 150,000 copies in the first weeks of the uprising.

Although private television, which the government kept on a tight lead, was years behind the printed press, it has come into its own over the past few months. Private channels have developed a niche in prime-time talk shows with key figures in the revolution. One such interview, with Wael Ghonim, the Google executive who set up a Facebook page which helped facilitate the revolution, became so iconic that it is credited with giving the revolution a “shot of adrenaline in the heart”, according to Egyptian columnist Mona Eltahawy, at a moment of deadlock when it looked at risk of losing steam.

And state-run broadcasters have not been immune to this trend. “Amr Khaled and Mohamed ElBaradei on state TV. Regular phone-ins from the ‘revolutionary youth’,” observes Shenker. “There is a broadening of the parameters of debate, that’s undeniable.”

So, what does the future hold for Egypt’s media? It is difficult to say and a lot depends on the kind of Egypt which emerges from the ruins of the former regime. On the positive side, Egyptian journalists are enjoying perhaps unprecedented freedoms and a new freedom of information bill which is currently in the pipeline could empower them to do their jobs better.

However, a number of clouds loom on the horizon. One is the self-censorship practised by some journalists weary of getting into a confrontation with Egypt’s de facto interim rulers, the oft-fearsome Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). “The notion of a benign, paternalistic deity at the apex of Egyptian politics remains, except in place of Mubarak we now have SCAF,” reflects Shenker. “And the mindless repetition of regressive narratives designed to delegitimise those who challenge that deity… continues as well, in the realms of both state and private media.”

Although headless, Egypt’s formidable propaganda apparatus is still largely intact. Many Egyptians have called for the complete dismantling of the Ministry of Information and the State Information Service, as well as for the removal of subsidies to the state-owned media.

However, Egyptians should be wary of private ownership too, which is not always beneficial, as the News International scandal in the UK and US is proving. The revolution provides Egyptians with a golden opportunity to learn from their own mistakes and those of the West to redefine the media landscape in a way that promotes truly free journalism.

Government media subsidies can be kept in place but should be channelled through a firewall which ensures independence, while private media should be encouraged, as much as possible, to be set up through non-interfering trusts and foundations.

“Kalam garayed” (“newspaper speak”) has long been a derisive term in Egypt which reflects the intuitive distrust in which Egyptian hold the media. Perhaps in the wake of the tumultuous changes gripping the country, future generations will seek “kalam garayed” as a positive thing.

This is the extended version of an article which was first published by The Institute for War and Peace Reporting on 12 August 2011.

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