Remembering the real Raba’a

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By Khaled Diab

Competing myths have emerged around the Raba’a protest camp. But it was neither a terrorist den nor a gathering of freedom and democracy lovers.

 Tuesday 24 September 2013


“Smile, you’re in Raba’a,” a passing protester, perhaps reading the discomfort on my face, called out before I could register his face.

This comment has echoed in my head repeatedly in recent weeks, particularly when I hear pro-Morsi supporters described as terrorists, the sit-in in Raba’a al-Adawiya described as a terror camp, and the bloody dispersal of the protest encampments and the subsequent crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood justified as a “war against terrorism”. Meanwhile, in the opposing trench of the propaganda war, the crackdown is being depicted as a “war against democracy” to Western audiences and a “war against Islam” to the Brotherhood’s conservative support base.

And it is this distortion, this “war against the truth”, which has prompted me to recount my visit to the Raba’a encampment. It was a blisteringly hot Friday, and I set off just after midday prayers on a self-imposed personal mission to see for myself what the pro-Morsi protesters were all about.The taxi driver who took me there was a tall, distinguished-looking Nubian man who was still dressed in the galabiya he had obviously just worn to the mosque for Friday prayers. He looked at me with what seemed to be curiosity and suspicion, perhaps trying to read me.

This was possibly because, with my European-style clothes, I didn’t look like the typical pro-Morsi demonstrator. Or it could have been because he thought I was a Brother, but from a different ‘hood.

He asked me what I was going there to do. I told him that I wanted to see for myself and didn’t just want to rely on what others were saying, and that this was important to me both as a journalist and a person.

Looking visibly relieved that I wasn’t a protester, he seemed to relax. “I had nothing against Mohamed Morsi and thought, because he was a pious man, his heart would be on Egypt’s interests, but the Brothers messed up,” he said. “I don’t normally protest but I was out on the streets on 30 June. Everyone in my neighbourhood was.”

I asked him why that was. He said it was partly because thugs connected to the Muslim Brotherhood were out in force trying to intimidate locals into not joining in the 30 June protests, but this backfired and only served to decide the undecided. And there had been a lot of trouble-making and violence from pro-Morsi gangs in his district since the president’s ouster.

In the time I had been back in Egypt, people I encountered expressed everything from outright hostility to sorrowful disappointment, with remarkably few expressing any kind of support for the removed president. Although I suspected that Morsi would still be enjoying pretty strong backing in the countryside, particularly in Upper Egypt, Raba’a was the first place I would actually encounter any significant number of supporters for the ousted president.

Belonging as he did to the sorrowfully disappointed camp, the driver told me of how Morsi and his Brothers were “just as corrupt as the Mubarak regime but more incompetent”, citing a litany of examples of widespread corruption and cronyism.

As we drove past a couple of hundred Morsi protesters amassing at the bottom of one of the ramps leading up to the 6th October flyover, he pointed to the crowd and said sadly: “Look at how they just want to block off the main streets. In Raba’a, they’ve made life hell for the locals,” he said.

I reflected that anti-revolutionaries and counter-revolutionaries once also complained about how Tahrir protesters were disrupting traffic, the normal flow of life and the economy.

Journalist friends had warned me to be careful which direction I approached Raba’a from. At one end, there was a military barricade and the soldiers there sometimes didn’t let people through. At the other end, there was an impromptu security checkpoint manned by Morsi sympathisers.

I was told that I would need to walk a fair while to reach it, but the taxi driver, who seemed to know the layout of the camp well, managed to get me right up to the checkpoint, where he wished me luck and safety.

This was the only point where I would personally see “weapons”. A number of men with traditional wooden clubs (“shoom”) were standing by a pile of sandbags, obviously ready, if woefully under-prepared, to push back any attempts to storm the camp by authorities (the decision had just been taken that the encampment would be cleared). Volunteers were also wondering around armed with an arsenal of spray bottles which dispensed refreshing ice-cold water to keep the crowds cool and damp – in a bizarre Islamist version of a wet T-shirt contest.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Naturally, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. There were plenty of reports, some from reliable sources, that there was a cache of arms at the Raba’a sit-in, and certainly at the more radical Nahda protest camp. That is not to mention all the clear incitement to violence a number of leading Brotherhood figures engaged in. One example is Safwat Hegazi, a preacher banned from entering the UK, who threatened in Raba’a “whoever sprays Morsi with water will be sprayed with blood”.

That said, if there were really were so many weapons concealed in Raba’a and the camp really posed such a threat to national security, as claimed by Doria Sharaf el-Din (Egypt’s first female minister of misinformation), why didn’t they use this arsenal to defend themselves against the police onslaught? If the protesters were violent “terrorists” – as they’ve been depicted by the state media and the anti-Brotherhood movement, including Tamarod, which should’ve known better – why didn’t they go down with all barrels blazing? Where was the smoking gun?

The point I’m trying to make is that Raba’a was not a black-or-white place. The vast majority of the protesters were peaceful, ordinary-looking, conservative folk that would hardly merit a second look on any normal Egyptian street – though I did also run into some incredibly eccentric characters, such as this man in shades and a graffitied galabiya who claimed to be a millionaire from Alexandria.

That said, the protest camp was not some kind of spiritual peace fest inspired by the ‘God is love‘ Sufi saint for whom the Raba’a mosque and square is named. There was a lot of anger, fanaticism, and rampant antidemocratic sentiment, as I was about to discover.

With a sense of trepidation, I approached one of the gatekeepers who stopped me to check who I was and what I was doing there, his eyes full of weary suspicion. On the advice of fellow hacks, I did not mentioned any of the Egyptian or Arab papers I worked with due to reports of Egyptian journalists being attacked and beaten up because pro-Morsi supporters and the Muslim Brotherhood regarded the Egyptian media as being unsympathetic and hostile.

In contrast, they were very welcoming of the Anglo-American media. This is incredibly ironic in light of the Brotherhood’s traditional discourse, which is suspicious and hostile towards the West and the movement’s constant condemnation of the “corrupting” influence of Western culture and its mocking of secular Egyptians as westernised sell-outs of the Islamic cause.

For me, this translated into an Open Sesame moment. When the guard caught sight of my European ID card and heard the list of Western publications I wrote for, his manner shifted perceptibly, and he welcomed me warmly and ushered me in promptly. And he would not be the only one.

At first, I just toured the encampment – which was still not very full because the post-prayer, pre-iftar crowds had still not arrived – to get a feel for the lay of the land. I strolled along quietly taking in the food and drink vendors who were not yet dispensing anything as everyone was fasting, and the tired, hungry and thirsty protesters, many lying prostrate in the shade of tents and awnings. Others queued in front of an open-top lorry dispensing large blocks of ice, which seemed to be the air-conditioner of choice.

It must have been psychological, triggered by the knowledge that I would not be able to drink for a while, despite the sweltering heat. Only a few minutes into my visit, I was already feeling the first thirst pangs, which got me wondering how the child and teen me ever managed to fast in the summer, and thankful that the adult me had abandoned the practice.

Perhaps part of the trouble was also the party I had gone to the night before, which had provided a much-needed dose of fast living during the fasting season, but had left me dehydrated and a little hungover.

SONY DSCNow, this had the added effect of making me feel somewhat self-conscious among the conspicuous displays of piety all around me. Thankfully, fatigue induced by fasting (and perhaps also feasting) made those around me look and act more hungover than me, so I had plenty of camouflage.

Nevertheless, I did wonder what the pious protesters would make of it if they learnt my “dirty little secret”. Partying and drinking, and in Ramadan? What has society come to? Yes, it would probably confirm to them the justness of their cause – that the Brothers need to salvage society and save it from itself before it provokes God’s wrath further.

And the Muslim Brotherhood’s media-savvy democratic discourse notwithstanding, most of the protesters I heard and encountered did not want “shareya” (legitimacy) but “Shari’a”… or they believed that the two were one and the same, that legitimacy could be gained only by implementing “God’s law”, not through democracy.

“I want to defend my religion and my country’s Islamic identity, and my freedom and dignity,” Mohamed Eissa, 20, told me, adding that he wanted Egypt to implement Shari’a. And what about democracy, I probed? “If we apply Shari’a, we will have the best democracy in the world,” he claimed.

As this enthusiastic, passionate and intelligent young man who studied Quranic interpretation at al-Azhar spoke, I wondered to myself, what about my “freedom and dignity”, Mohamed? I will defend with all my power your right to worship whomever and however you want but would you extend me the same right not to worship or believe?

The reckless rebel inside me was whispering in my ear, rather like the Satan I don’t believe in, goading me to ask him and the rest of the crowd that had formed around me to air their grievances: what about my rights as an “infidel” and those of other Egyptian atheists and non-believers? Do you recognise our rights or do we, and Muslims with other interpretations of their faith, have the right to believe only what you want us to believe?

I managed to resist the mischievous demons inside my head and withstood the powerful temptation to play devil’s advocate – which was sensible and wise, given the size of the crowd that had formed around me, not to mention professional, since I had come to listen, as a journalist, not to air my own views.

Beside, though I cannot help begrudging the fact that they would probably not grant me the same tolerance with which I accept them, I also realise that they are victims of their surroundings and circumstances. They live in a society where religion tends to be a red line for most, though non-ideological Egyptians generally have a live and let live attitude. In addition, Islamist indoctrination has led them to the illusion that imposing Islam on society is the only path to true freedom and that God, the all-powerful, all-seeing, somehow needs and demands their protection.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab.

The crowd that had formed around me and I must have cut an interesting spectacle. They were all eager to tell their stories, some of which were of ugly brutality and murder at the hands of the authorities, especially when they learnt that I worked for the foreign press. What I presumed to be minders eyed my increasingly conspicuous presence with suspicion, but I overheard people in the crowd explain that I was all right, that I was there to highlight their plight.

As I’d forgotten my dictaphone, I had to rely on my low-tech paper notebook, some of the pages of which were becoming rather damp, as we were constantly being sprayed with ice-cold water to keep the heat a little at bay. In fact, my shirt was soaked through, while one volunteer wiped some of the sweat from my brow to ensure I could see well enough to keep on taking notes, while another sneaked up on me from behind and stuck a freezing block of ice against the nape of my neck, which sent a surprised jolt through my spine, presumably to prevent my brain from overheating.

Salvation was a common refrain among many of the demonstrators I spoke to, as were far-fetched conspiracy theories involving the United States and Israel. “I was born when Morsi came to office. I died when he was removed from office,” Yosri Ahmed said to nods of approval.

Not everyone there claimed to be a Brotherhood supporter. “I’m not an Ikhwani. I am here to oppose repression,” insisted Taher Aziz from Mansoura. “I want legitimacy. I want my voice to be heard. For the first time in Egyptian history, I have a constitution that respects my rights.” Perhaps the constitution respected his rights, but it violated the rights of millions of others.

One man, Ayman al-Werdani, who is the head of the court of appeals in Tanta, was introduced to me as an impartial judge who was there to defend legitimacy. “Following the 25th January revolution, popular mobilisation cannot be the foundation of democracy,” he insisted. “Change can only come through the ballot box… It’s not about Morsi or Islamism but about a dirty coup against democracy and a return to square zero.”

Although I believe that democracy is a multifaceted creature which includes popular mobilisation, the judge made a valid and well-argued case. However, I did not appreciate the attempts to pass him off as an impartial and non-partisan member of the judiciary, when a little research will quickly uncover substantial evidence of his close ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, including speaking at Freedom and Justice Party rallies.

With my notebook full of quotes, I delicately extracted myself from the crowd with the excuse that I needed to tour the camp further. I walked around to the stage and podium, which was currently devoid of speakers, and the abandoned TV camera on a crane. A crowd had formed in front of the stage, with a young man sitting on another man’s shoulders chanting slogans through a megaphone. I reflected how the religious were less colourful and witty in their political songs compared to their secular counterparts.

SONY DSCAs I headed for the exit, buying some Morsi posters on my way, I came across a stream of small groups marching into the camp. “Islamic, Islamic, Egypt rejects secularism,” a group of women sang in rhyming Arabic prose, their tone that of a wedding party. This echoed the “pop” Islamic song that had been playing on loudspeakers all over Raba’a: “Egypt is Islamic. Tell the world Egypt is Islamic. It isn’t secular.

Following the massacre on 14 August, I wondered whether any of the people I had met were among the dead. Although some had been shot at before and a couple had expressed boilerplate opinions that they were not afraid and were ready to die as martyrs, I sensed inside they were not. They too wanted to live but were ready to risk it all for what they believed in.

I hope none of the protesters I encountered and who shared their passion and views with me were killed, but I imagine quite a few of them perished in the hell that was unleashed. Despite their demonisation in the media and society, a process which helped people to accept the murderous rampage, I did not encounter demons, but humans, ones with flawed ideas, I grant, but they were not evil incarnate.

Although I disagree fundamentally with their fundamentalist politics and worldview, and even if some of them were “sheeple”, what cannot be denied is their dedication to their cause. Even if I believe they are misguided in their politics, the protesters at Raba’a did not deserve to die and become the sacrificial lambs in a war between the manipulative, self-serving leadership of the army and the Brotherhood.

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Egypt’s underground sisterhood

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By Khaled Diab

Egyptian women are under attack from a failing patriarchy. But what is overlooked is that they are fighting back through grassroots emancipation.

10 September 2013

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Surveying Egypt’s political landscape, you might be excused for thinking that women are a minority. Only five members of the Committee of 50 tasked with revising the constitution are women.

Unsurprisingly, this 10% ratio falls far short of the true proportion of the population women constitute, which in Egypt is just shy of 50%. Although women are politically under-represented everywhere in the world, in Egypt, the problem is particularly acute, as reflected in the pathetically low number of women in the first post-Mubarak (dissolved) parliament.

Egyptian women have been divided on how unfair this is. The Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights – which advocates the use of quotas to balance the gender disequilibrium in Egyptian politics – criticised this “lean” representation, which is only 3% higher than the committee formed during the Muslim Brotherhood-led constitution drafting exercise.

Others have drawn consolation from the apparent quality of the women involved. But no matter how high the calibre or how strong the mettle of these five women, can they truly advance the cause of female emancipation and gender equality?

Of course, that is probably the entire point. Male politicians generally want to preserve male privilege, and excluding women from the political process is the most effective way of doing so. That would explain why the draft constitution still claims that all Egyptians are created equal, but some – namely middle-aged, Muslim men – are more equal than others.

So, while Article 11 ostensibly guarantees gender equality, much of what it giveth, it taketh away with the qualification that this should not get in the way of a woman’s “duties towards her family” and should adhere to the “principles of Islamic Sharia”.

Although many women and advocates of gender equality are rightly depressed and demoralised by these developments, I feel this post-revolutionary conservative backlash is less a function of the patriarchy flexing its muscles and more a sign of a weakened traditional male order desperately trying to reassert its shaken and failing authority.

With Egyptian women increasingly equalling and even surpassing men in the academic and professional spheres over the past few decades, the patriarchy has sought to hold on to the vestiges of its ever-shrinking spectrum of privilege and to control women in the only areas left: at home and sexually.

This manifests itself in how many Egyptian women may be managers or doctors in the public sphere, but at home they still have to behave like, or pretend to be, obedient housewives. It is also embodied in the excessive focus on “virtue” in which women have traded greater socio-economic freedom for ostensibly less sexual freedom, again at least openly.

This can partly explain the horrendous level of sexual violence that has been witnessed since the revolution began. The security vacuum created by the collapse of the Mubarak regime not only enabled men with sick attitudes to women to roam the streets with relative impunity, it also unleashed the use of sexual violence as a political weapon to intimidate women from joining the uprising.

This weapon of mass degradation has been employed to varying degrees by Egypt’s various leaders over the past two and a half years, from assaults and rapes on Tahrir Square to “virginity tests”.

Although this has succeeded to some extent, many women have refused to be cowed and admirably still continue to play prominent roles in Egypt’s revolution, both for collective freedom and their own. Women have even braved further assault to protest against sexual harassment, while a number of campaigns have been launched to protect women attending demonstrations, such as OpAntiSh, and to monitor and combat the phenomenon, such as HarassMap.

One recent attempt to reclaim the streets, ‘Hanelbes Fasateen‘, urged women to go out in dresses in defiance of harassers. Using old black-and-white images of elegant young Egyptian women in summer dresses strolling unharassed down the street, the campaign employed a certain amount of nostalgia for a lost Egypt of greater social freedom.

Once upon a land in a time not so far away, the overwhelming majority of Egyptian women went around with their hair uncovered and many dressed in revealing western fashions. Interestingly, in the 1950s, even the daughter of the Muslim Brotherhood’s general guide, who wanted to force all Egyptian women to cover up, did not wear a headscarf.

While there is some validity to this sense of loss, there is a danger of over-sentimentalising the past, Although Egypt until the late 1970s was freer in some ways than now, in others, it was just as conservative or even more so.

Egypt’s modernising secular elite may have seen female emancipation as a crucial component of development and progress, but wider society was still largely traditional and agrarian. This meant that modernity was often fabric deep and did not extend far beyond the emulating of the latest Western fashions.

Women of my parents’ generation were still making the first tentative steps into higher education and the workplace, with all that entailed of battles against entrenched traditionalism. In contrast, today, despite increasingly conservative attire, Egyptian women have succeeded in just about every walk of life. Moreover, young women have plenty of role models to look up to, and female education and employment is taken for granted by millions.

Unsurprisingly, liberal Egyptian women want to protect what hard-won gains, relatively few and precarious as they may be, the feminist movement has made, and to try to build on them. However, they have to contend against not only the reactionary voices of Islamists and other conservatives, but also against those sympathetic to their cause who claim now is not the time, we have bigger fish to fry.

But if not now, when, if ever? Never? Since the 1919 revolution, Egyptian women have shared the pain of the struggle for freedom but have reaped few of the gains. Instead of being rewarded for their sacrifices, they have seen their cause constantly relegated, in the battle against imperialism, neo-colonialism, dictatorship, etc.

In addition, the West hasn’t helped by exploiting women and their cause to mask its hegemonic ambitions in the region, which has enabled Islamists to smear female emancipation as a “Western import” designed to tear apart the fabric of society.

While there may be some credibility to the notion that women cannot be free if the rest of society is not, I believe the inverse is far more true: society cannot free itself if half of the population lives in relative subjugation. A country wishing to prosper, resist internal repression and foreign domination cannot do so without gender equality.

As prominent feminist Nawal El Saadawi recently put it: “Democracy means economic equality, social equality – you cannot have democracy under a patriarchy when women are oppressed.”

In fact, the subjugation of women is partly a product of these ills – when politics is closed off to the masses, the vulnerable suffer. Moreover, the Ottomans, the British and Egypt’s domestic tyrants had an unspoken hierarchy of repression: the elite runs the public domain while men will run the private sphere.

This means that Egyptian revolutionaries looking to free society cannot postpone women’s liberation to an undefined “better” future, but need to make it a central and integral pillar of the collective struggle for “bread, freedom and social justice”.

More importantly, with the Muslim Brotherhood project discredited by Morsi’s presidency and its divisive politics, many Egyptians are questioning their former faith in Islamism. This provides a golden opportunity to advocate more muscularly for women’s rights.

Sadly, this seems unlikely in the political mainstream, which will continue to exclude not just women but also the young for some time to come. Nevertheless, it is heartening to see that Egyptian women are not taking this passively and are engaging in grassroots action to change their reality.

Though pioneering Egyptian women lack the safety net of a progressive legal system which safeguards their rights against regressive traditions, they are not waiting for their rights to trickle down from on top.

Every time I have visited Egypt since the revolution, I have been impressed by the increasing number of women I encounter who are defying social norms to live their individual and collective aspirations. These range from the political activists who risk life and limb for the cause to the growing number of women who pursue unusual careers, travel abroad or defer being married off (sometimes indefinitely).

When I first decided to live alone in the Cairo of the 1990s, this was unusual even for young men to do. When I was in Egypt a few weeks ago, I was impressed by the surprising number of women who are choosing to live alone.

And not all of them are from the “elite”. One young woman I met was born and raised in a small, conservative village outside Fayoum. University enabled her to escape the stifling atmosphere of rural Egypt. Not only does she live in her own apartment in Cairo, she has worked in China and the Gulf.

“The status of women has deteriorated a lot,” she admitted. “If the civil [Egyptian for ‘secular’] current gets its way, things will get better. I hope to one day see the first female president.”

While such an aspiration seems like wishful thinking today, I believe that it is entirely possible as grassroots change climbs gradually upwards. After all, if the Islamist counter-culture of the 1970s managed to mainstream its values, why can’t the secular current do the same? Political revolution needs social evolution.


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the updated and extended version of an article which first appeared in The Daily News Egypt on 7 September 2013.

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Islamism is the illusion

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By Khaled Diab

Islamism is not the solution but is built on an illusion. Islam’s past strength was actually a secular one based on free thought.

Saturday 17 August 2013

SONY DSC“The people want to apply God’s law,” one group of male protesters chanted.

“Islamic, Islamic, Egypt rejects secularism,” a group of women sang in rhyming Arabic prose, their tone that of a wedding party.

As if that wasn’t enough, all over the Raba’a al-Adawiya encampment, what seems to be a current hit on the Islamist charts was urging everyone within earshot of a loudspeaker to “Tell the world that Egypt is Islamic.”

But that is not exactly the message that has been reaching the international community from the pro-Morsi camp. Although only a single letter separates the two in Arabic, there is a world of difference between the democratic legitimacy (Shari’ya) the Muslim Brotherhood asks of the world and the Shari’a protesters were loudly demanding.

“I want to defend my religion and my country’s Islamic identity,” Mohamed Eissa, 20, told me, adding that he wanted Egypt to implement Shari’a. And what about democracy, I wondered? “If we apply Shari’a, we will have the best democracy in the world,” he claimed.

I doubt many non-Islamists when they think of Morsi’s “democratic legitimacy” would ever associate that with implementing Shari’a, as countries which have done so sit near the bottom of the league in terms of freedoms and rights.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

As I stood there in Raba’a, a scarce secular soul, I pondered a question I have asked myself repeatedly: what exactly is the point of the Islamist project in a Muslim society?

After all, Egypt already implements Shari’a in its personal and family law, with all the gender and other inequalities that involves. In addition, there is absolutely nothing to stop a devout Muslim from practising every facet of his or her faith.

In contrast, Egypt has no civilian family courts for those who wish to run their personal affairs according to modern, secular standards. Moreover, though freedom of expression is a constitutional right, this freedom has been severely curtailed in recent years by the obscure, vague and innovative legal concept of “insulting religion”.

But does centuries-old Islam, the world’s second largest religion, really need self-appointed defenders to shield it from “insult”, when the Qur’an itself welcomes doubt, questioning and even ridicule?

And why do these self-appointed defenders of the faith contradict the example of the prophet they claim to emulate? For instance, Muhammad pardoned one of his scribes, Abdullah Ibn Saad, even after he claimed that the Qur’an was invented and Muhammad was a false prophet.

These examples highlight how Islamism, rather than providing the solution, as it claims, is actually built on an illusion.

Islamist discourse, on the whole, holds that the reason for the Muslim world’s decline is its deviation from Islamic law and values. That explains why Hassan al-Banna, despite his attempts to inject some elements of modernity into traditional Islamic thought, fixated on questions of morality and Shari’a. One of his ideological descendants, Sayyid Qutb, went so far as to invent the dangerous idea that Muslims were living a period of modern “Jahiliyyah” (pre-Islamic ignorance).

But by misdiagnosing the malaise afflicting society, Islamists have prescribed totally the wrong medicine, with severe and debilitating side effects.

Any objective, dispassionate reading of Islamic history reveals that Islam’s former glory was actually built on a largely secular foundation. In addition, the start of its decline coincided with the victory of rigid dogma and orthodoxy – represented by the likes of the “father of Salafism” Ibn Taymiyyah in the 14th century – over reason and intellect.

Muhammad himself never established anything resembling what we would call an “Islamic state” today. His secular-sounding Constitution of Medina actually defines Jews, Christians and pagans – i.e. every member of Medina’s society – as being full and equal members of the Ummah.

During what is widely regarded as Islam’s “golden age”, the political and social mechanisms governing the lives of Muslims were generally secular. Though the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphs derived their claim to legitimacy from Islam, they were essentially secular rulers, presiding over secular governments. They were autocratic, not theocratic.

In fact, their honorific title “commanders of the faithful”suggests that caliphs derived their authority from their Muslim (and other) subjects and not from Islam itself. Moreover, most enlightened caliphs were derided by conservatives and traditionalists as immoral and decadent.

Take Harun al-Rashid, the fifth Abbasid caliph and stuff of legends. Under his rule, the sciences, culture and the arts flourished, despite clergy’s disapproval of the company he and his libertine son, al-Amin kept, including the outrageous and camp court poet, Abu Nuwas, considered the greatest poet of his time.

Freethinking philosophy also flourished during this era, both under the Abbasids and the Umayyads. The Muʿtazilah, for example, held that rationality, expressed through reasoned debate known as “kalam”, are the “final arbiter” that trumps “sacred precedent”.

In such a climate, it is unsurprising that non-belief was accepted and atheistic scholars, such as Ibn al-Rawandi were published, only to have their works destroyed by later, less tolerant generations.

The reasons for Islam’s subsequent relative decline are manifold: the loss of dominance over global trade, the Mongol invasions, intellectual stagnation, infighting and factionalism, colonialism, and more.

However, deviation from some imagined “pure” moral state is not one of the factors, and belief in this illusory mirage will delay effective reform. In the 21st century, the best system that encompasses the spirit of past Muslim success is enlightened secularism. That might explain why the renowned 19th-century reformer Muhammad Abduh once said that in France he saw “Islam without Muslims”.


Note: This article was written before the violent dispersal of the pro-Morsi encampments occurred.


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of an article which first appeared in The National on 15 August 2013.

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Egypt and the West: the liberal-Islamist paradox

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Why do some Western liberals committed to democracy, gender equality and minority support a president and movement that respects none of these?

Thursday 15 August 2013

Photo: ©Khaled Diab.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab.

One of the gatekeepers at the protest encampment in support of ousted Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi outside the Raba’a al-Adawiya mosque in Cairo stopped me to check who I was and what I was doing there, his eyes full of weary suspicion.

But then when he caught sight of my European ID card and heard the list of Western publications I wrote for – on the advice of fellow hacks, I had not mentioned any of the Egyptian or Arab papers I worked with due to reports of journalists being attacked andbeaten up – his manner shifted perceptibly, welcoming me warmly and ushering me in promptly.

And he was not alone. Once I began to interview one young man, a crowd formed around me, all eager to tell their stories, some of which were of ugly brutality and murder at the hands of the authorities, and express their support for the deposed president. “I was born when Morsi came to office. I died when he was removed from office,” Yosri Ahmed said to nods of approval.

Quite a number were convinced that Morsi’s unseating was a Western conspiracy, yet they were keen for me to communicate their message to the West.

What was behind this? Part of the reason is simple pragmatism and real politick. Despite US pro-democracy rhetoric, it is generally accepted round these parts, and often true, that few leaders last long – or can be reinstated – without Washington’s approval. That explains why the Muslim Brotherhood has sought to reassure and even court the US and its Western allies.

Another factor is the relatively sympathetic hearing the Muslim Brotherhood has received in the European and American media, especially the more progressive and liberal segments. This is a far cry from the anti-Morsi hostility, even demonisation, pervading Egyptian society, though there are some segments of the independent media trying to give Morsi and the Brotherhood the fair hearing the Islamist media denied secularists.

Some might see a contradiction in how people who believe in freedom and equality, especially for women and minorities, are now throwing their weight behind a man and movement who have spared few efforts to promote inequality, especially for women and minorities.

What is behind this paradoxical Western liberal-Egyptian Islamist union? After much reflection, analysis and debate, I have come up with a number of explanations. In some segments of the mainstream media, especially those closely aligned to government, there is also a question of pragmatism, and “protecting US interests” involved returning Morsi to power, since Washington tends to prefer “stability” over principle.

In the liberal/progressive reaches where principle matters most, there has been confusion over which principles take priority, mixed in with a profound misunderstanding (sometimes wilful) of Egypt’s political reality.

This is clearly illustrated in the fixation on democratic process over undemocratic reality, that the ballot box should be respected even when its outcome is undemocratic. Yes, it is true that Morsi was elected democratically, but the sheer scale of protests against him acted effectively as a popular impeachment.

Moreover, Morsi was no democrat and he did not preside over a democracy. This is reflected in the undue influence the military exercised over Egyptian politics. In fact, those who are convinced that the army re-entered politics with Morsi’s ouster should be made aware that the generals never actually left.

Over and above this, the office of president remained far too powerful, which enabled Morsi to temporarily grant himself superhuman powers to push through a troublingly undemocratic constitution. Then there was the clamping down on protests, the intimidating of opponents, not to mention the attempts to push through legislation to limit protest and to pass NGO laws that were “more draconian” than Hosni Mubarak’s.

Such behaviour would have probably led to the prosecution of the president in a country with more robust and independent checks and balances.

Beyond this is the fact that Morsi’s behaviour did not fit into the liberal discourse on moderate Islamism. Partly in reaction to the ugly discrimination and bigotry unleashed by George W Bush’s “War on Terror” and the prevalent rightwing idea that Islam and democracy don’t mix, I was among those who said that the Muslim Brotherhood and other moderate Islamists could survive in a democracy, despite the inherent tensions in reconciling “God’s law” with man’s.

Sadly, Morsi and his entourage behaved as though they were a poorly acted parody of anti-Muslim stereotypes. Faced with Morsi’s project to become Egypt’s first democratically elected dictator and to establish a theocracy, millions took to the streets in protests at least as large as those which ousted Mubarak.

Yet numerous liberal and leftist observers chose to gloss over this. And the Muslim Brotherhood has been trying to exploit this reticence to the fullest. While their representatives speak at length about “democratic legitimacy” to the outside world, protesters at pro-Morsi rallies chant for Shari’a and the downfall of secularism. “Egypt is Islamic. Tell the world Egypt is Islamic. It isn’t secular,” a song playing all over the Raba’a encampment said in no uncertain terms.

But why would people committed to democracy, human rights and equality take such counter-intuitive stances? Part of the problem is that the world is a complex, morally ambiguous place which throws tricky conundrums at us.

Many Western progressives are used to seeing Muslims as the underdogs, either as vulnerable minorities in the West or as the victims of Western aggression. It is true that in Europe and the United States the issue is about providing members of a religious minority with the space and respect to exercise their faith freely. But in Egypt, where Muslims are free to practice every tenet of their religion, the Muslim Brotherhood project is about imposing their conservative religious vision on society as a whole.

But this does not, as some liberals wary of criticising the Brotherhood might feel, in any way imply that Islam or Muslims are incompatible with democracy, only the current Brotherhood project is. The majority of Egyptians are pious Muslims and yet they have risked their lives and livelihoods for nearly three years, toppling three dictators along the way (Mubarak, Field Marshal Tantawi and Morsi), for the sake of democracy, freedom and socioeconomic justice.

In Tunisia, where they have Islamists with more common sense and tolerance, the Ennahda party has, despite opposition and controversy, steered a fairly pluralistic route. Unlike their Egyptian counterparts, they wasted no time on the question of Shari’a, even though the Tunisian constitution makes no mention of it. “The values of justice, liberty and equality are Islamic values, and they are in the constitution,” explains Rached Ghannouchi, the party’s chief.

And contrary to the popular legend, the clash in Egypt is not between a secular elite and the conservative masses. Morsi’s opponents include pious and liberal, rich and poor, young and old, men and especially women. It brings together those who wish to keep religion out of politics with those who felt Morsi was serving just the Brotherhood and had ruined the country further, rather than rebuilt it.

Of course, some outsiders express support for Morsi as the lesser of two evils, with the Brotherhood cast as being better than the army. Though I share a similar aversion to the junta, for millions of Egyptians who caught a glimpse of the Islamist abyss ahead, they decided that taking their chances with the military was safer.

That is not to say that Egyptians generally prefer dictatorship over democracy, as some have asserted. Egyptians still want democracy more than ever, but they trust the military to deliver it more than they do the Brotherhood and other Islamists. This trust is very likely to prove unfounded, as it did during the first transition.

But many Egyptians feel that gaining their freedom from men with guns will be easier than trying to wrest it from men who claim to have God on their side.


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The Huffington Post on 9 August 2013.

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Democracy is (still) the solution

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By Khaled Diab

In Egypt, neither Islamism nor jingoism is the solution. We need is a visionary founding document, and the stillborn 1954 constitution fits the bill.

Saturday 3 August 2013

It is a sign of just how awry the situation has become this past week that al-Gama’a al-Islamiya actually sounds like one of the more sensible players on the political stage. The group said the very preservation of the state depended on genuine reconciliation based on respect of the constitution and legitimacy.

Despite al-Gama’a’s continued belief in Shari’a as a “complete and perfect” system, this moderate, conciliatory message is a far cry from the 1990s when the organisation was engaged in a violent insurgency aimed at destroying the state. This included the assassination of leading secular intellectual Farag Foda and the 1997 Luxor massacre.

Meanwhile, the state which al-Gama’a failed to destroy seems strangely fixated on self-destruction, or at the very least implosion, while the Muslim Brotherhood, from which al-Gama’a split away because the former abandoned violence, is ratcheting up its inflammatory rhetoric and refuses any dialogue or compromise. Likewise, the army has been doing its own inciting and engaging in evermore violent crackdowns against supporters of ousted president Mohamed Morsi.

Last week, General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, dressed in the ultimate dictator chic of sunglasses and full military regalia, urged people to take to the streets on Friday to give the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), chillingly, a “mandate” to “face possible violence and terrorism.”

Though shocking, it is not so surprising that a military man should think that a political problem can be resolved by force of arms. But if history and common sense teach us anything it is that words cannot be fought with swords; you can only combat ideas with ideas.

Sure, if some extremists resort to violence, then they should be handled with reasonable force to protect other civilians and society. However, if the ideology that led them to take up arms is not engaged  with and challenged effectively, and the root causes tackled, then the idea will live on and mutate, even if some of its advocates are imprisoned or killed.

That is why it is so worrying and terrifying that many otherwise sensible and intelligent people responded to Al-Sisi’s call. It is also disappointing that some movements that stood up to Morsi’s bullying and tyranny have decided, at least for now, to throw in their lot with the freedom-loathing military.

Take Tamarod. After employing admirably peaceful and democratic means in its grassroots campaign against the ousted president, which saw the rebel movement collect 22 million signatures on a petition calling for Morsi’s departure, it urged people to show their support for al-Sisi. “We call on the people to take to the streets on Friday to support their armed forces… in confronting the violence and terrorism practised by the Muslim Brotherhood,” Tamarod leader Mahmoud Badr was quoted as saying.

There is certainly a lot wrong with the Brotherhood and other Morsi supporters, but accusing them of “terrorism” is disingenuous, to say the least. Yes, a minority has committed acts of violence, but for the most part, the protests have been peaceful. Besides, playing the terrorism card , which comes straight out of the neo-conservative and Mubarak handbook, only fuels demonisation and leads to escalation.

Regardless of what wrongs the Brotherhood as an organisation may or may not have committed, the truth of the matter is the killing of unarmed civilians, as occurred during the massacre on Saturday, will not only do nothing to combat terrorism, in many definitions of the term, it counts as an act of state-sanctioned terror.

Luckily, a growing number of voices are rising up against the din of jingoistic nationalism to say neither the military nor the Brotherhood, neither Morsi nor al-Sisi. There are early signs that some in the anti-Brotherhood camp are already regretting and questioning their support of the military they had opposed so hard, and to such cost, during the first transition.

Even Tamarod is taking small steps in that direction. On Sunday, the movement voiced alarm at Saturday’s massacre. “Our campaign supports the state’s plans in fighting terrorism; however, we have earlier stressed that this support doesn’t include the taking of extraordinary measures, or the contradiction of freedoms and human rights,” Badr said.

It won’t be long, I hope, before it dawns on Tamarod that a so-called “war on terror” cannot be waged, as George W Bush demonstrated so decisively, without undermining freedoms and human rights. This can be seen in how the Ministry of the Interior, probably with SCAF’s blessing, has reinstated state security departments ostensibly tasked with combating extremism and monitoring political activity.

This Orwellian apparatus was shut down thanks to the 2011 revolution and, unsurprisingly, Tamarod has rejected this “return of Mubarak’s state security.” And herein lies the rub: Mubarak, Field Marshal Tantawi, Morsi and now Sisi are all cut out of the same authoritarian cloth.

Morsi, the Brotherhood and the Islamists proved conclusively that Islamism is not the solution. Pretty soon, people will wake up to the realisation (yet again) that al-Sisi and the SCAF are definitely not the answer.

What we need is a third way in which religion is for the individual, the army is for defence against foreign aggression and the nation is for everyone: secularists and Islamists, young and old, women and men, rich and poor.

One effective, potent and highly symbolic way to achieve this is to revive the stillborn 1954 draft constitution, which lay forgotten and collecting dust for decades in the basement of the Arab League.

Showing remarkable foresight of the dangers ahead, it set out to craft Egypt as a parliamentary democracy, which would’ve prevented the presidency from accumulating the arbitrary powers it now enjoys. It is also full of progressive ideals, including “absolute freedom of belief”, freedom of expression, labour rights, women’s rights, social justice and solidarity, including with foreigners who do not enjoy the same rights in their home countries.

Had this constitution become the republic’s founding document, Egypt today would have been a very different, and much better place. Adopting it, albeit belatedly, can help Egypt become that better place by laying the foundations for true equality.


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The Daily News Egypt on 30 July 2013.

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Egypt’s coup de quoi!?

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By Khaled Diab

The millions on the streets, not dressed in khaki, democratically ejected Mohamed Morsi. Now it’s time to remove the military from Egypt’s politics. 

Wednesday 10 July 2013

As an Egyptian abroad, I cannot but bow my head in admiration and appreciation at what my compatriots have achieved back home… again. In the space of less than two-and-a-half years, millions and millions of ordinary men and women with no previous experience in revolt have bravely and unflinchingly stared down and defied authority… and shaken its authority to the core.

They endured hardship, intimidation, violence and constant uncertainty to topple a tyrant, send the generals scurrying to take cover behind the veil of a flawed democracy, and bring down a would-be dictator-in-the-making.

The sight of millions and millions of people setting aside their daily worries and rivalries to come out again and again and again to tell their leaders – Hosni Mubarak, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the Muslim Brotherhood – never again will we tolerate dictatorship has been truly inspiring to behold.

And it is not just the big picture. Zoom into the imposing, awe-inspiring crowds and you witness thousands of individual stories that can bring a tear to your eye, swell pride in your chest, storm your brain, flood your emotions, raise your spirits with a chuckle and even restore your faith in humanity (at least for a while).

And all this from a people who, until 25 January 2011, were seen, and saw themselves, as apathetic, even docile, in the face of authority. “Why do the Egyptian people not rise up,” was a common question, famously asked by Alaa al-Aswani, but also other concerned Egyptians, including myself.

Today, Egyptians have not only rewritten their political rule book, they need to think about revising their phrasebook of popular proverbs. Out will go such defeatist sayings as “Keep away from harm and sing to it”, “Shut the door that brings in a draught” and “The eye cannot rise above the brow”.

With all this in mind, it is unsurprising that millions were swept up in an irresistible tsunami of elation, and partied all night long. But a collective hangover is bound to set in once people wake up to the Herculean tasks still ahead – and the worrying signs of new clouds forming up above and on the horizon.

But not everyone was celebrating. The Muslim Brotherhood and the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), and their supporters were, in contrast, actively grieving. This is, of course, understandable. After decades of waiting underground and then in the wings, they not only lost their newfound grip on power, they also saw their president arrested, as well as other leading Brothers, and a number of Islamist broadcasters shut down, not to mention Al Jazeera Mubashir.

This sends out troubling signals of a return to the bad old days when the Brotherhood was barely tolerated, outlawed or outright persecuted. We must be vigilant that this never occurs, that the Islamists remain part of Egypt’s political landscape and that they are allowed to make future bids for power. Not only is this what freedom and equality is about, it also avoids their grievances boiling over to create a more toxic conflict.

Muslim Brotherhood sympathisers are understandably – though hypocritically, given how Mohamed Morsi tried to turn the presidency into a Brotherhood fiefdom and all the antidemocratic measures he passed – crying foul, and claiming that what happened in Egypt was a ‘military coup d’etat’.

While I can see why Brotherhood/FJP supporters would use such a charged term in this context. Less understandable is why the term is being bandied around by so many in the Arab and Western media. In fact, given how much blood, sweat and tears millions have invested in ousting Mohamed Morsi, many Egyptians must feel insulted that their defiant efforts are being so apparently denigrated.

Although some who use the ‘C’ word do so out of vested interests, many others do so out of genuine concern. Coups are usually antidemocratic and lead to the rise of dictators and authoritarianism. And I see where the confusion is coming from: the army serves a 48-hour ultimatum and then deposes the democratically elected leader.

Indeed, the army did forcibly remove Morsi from office, but this was not the product of a secret plot in murky underground sleeper cells, but was the response to what have been described as the biggest protests in Egyptian, some say human, history. And the millions of people out on the streets who forced the military to take such drastic action were not wearing khaki, as far as I could see.

If we’re going to describe the events of the past days as a ‘coup’, should we also call the entire Egyptian revolution a ‘palace coup’. After all, even if the 18 days of protest put the sword in front of Mubarak, it was the Supreme Council of the Armed Force (SCAF) which pushed him to fall on it. Moreover, the army has not yet really gone away, given that it set the rules of the ‘democratic’ game during the transitional phase, laid down red lines to protect its interests, dissolved parliament and how it is believed to still hold major backroom influence over Egypt’s political machinery.

Besides, all the hand-wringing over the unceremonious jettisoning of Egypt’s first democratically elected leader overlooks the crucial rider that Morsi was also democratically ejected. Democracy is ultimately about the will of the people. Just as voters give politicians mandates, they can withdraw them – and they don’t need to wait to do it via the ballot box if the need is pressing, and they can deliver their vote of no confidence via the streets.

And what a spectacular vote of no confidence it was. When he was voted into office last year, Morsi managed only a puny 13.2 million votes, even though he was running only against one candidate, Ahmed Shafiq. Meanwhile, with turnout at just over half and many actively boycotting the vote, the ‘no’ candidate got about as many votes as the two hopefuls combined.

Contrast this with the estimated 17 million people who took to the streets on 30 June, and the millions more after. That’s not to mention the 22 million signatures the Tamrod petition managed to collect.

Those who argue that the electorate should have kept their grievances for the ballot box ignore the fact that the street is a legitimate democratic forum – in fact, it is the purest form of direct democracy – as reflected by the constitutional protection of people’s right to protest in every mature democracy.

And those who refuse to acknowledge that Egyptians don’t yet live in a stable system like the UK’s – which hasn’t experienced a coup since Oliver Cromwell dissolved the Rump parliament in 1653 – do not generally offer much of an alternative. What was the population to do in the face of Morsi’s stubborn refusal to cede power? Storm the Bastille, so to speak, with all the loss of life that would have involved? Descend into civil war like Syria and Libya did? Perhaps had Syria’s generals forced Bashar al-Assad out, the situation there would be imperfect but far better than today.

While concerns over the potentially dangerous precedent this sets are valid, if a future president faces the same level of widespread and sustained opposition, (s)he deserves to go. In addition, a neglected flip side is that if Morsi had been left to nourish his pseudo-dictatorial tendencies, that would have also set a perhaps more dangerous precedent in a country where the spectre of dictatorship has still not gone away.

Some might see this as little more than a debate over semantics. But this is hugely politicised terminology, which can be used, in the wrong hands, to de-legitimise the revolution and the unprecedented opposition to Morsi.

I should stress that all of the above does not mean that Egyptians should trust, much less express undying devotion to, the military, as a worrying number of people are doing. The people and the army are not a “single hand”. After six decades of military or ex-military dictators, we can safely say that the army got us into this mess in the first place. Moreover, while some in the SCAF undoubtedly act out of an interest in the greater good, collectively the generals are out to preserve, as much as they can, what is left of the military’s privileged status.

This underscores the crucial point that Egyptians should not just say ‘no’ to Morsi, but also to the military. Egypt is under new management, and that management is the people.


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The Daily News Egypt on 4 July 2013.

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The Middle East’s sinking leadership

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From Egypt to Turkey, Middle Eastern uprisings have not only been leaderless but have even been a rebellion against the idea of leadership itself.

Wednesday 26 June 2013

It is ironic and iconic that Turkey’s nascent uprising was triggered by a protest to protect a small inner-city park against the unsentimental and merciless bulldozers of developers seeking to build an ultra-modern shopping centre.

“Before the Muslim Turk only needed three or four things,” Said Nursî, one of the founding fathers of Turkey’s modern Islamic revival who advocated teaching modern sciences in religious schools and religious sciences in secular schools, wrote sentimentally in 1959. “The present tyrannical Western civilisation has encouraged consumption, abuses, wastefulness and the appetites, and, in consequence, has made the nonessential into essential.”

As I watched events unfold in Istanbul, I wondered what Nursî would make of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s staunch defence of “tyrannical Western civilisation” right in the heart of the former capital of the former caliphate, as well as the yuppie class of Islamists in sharp suits that has emerged during the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) decade in power.

Naturally, this gaping chasm between discourse and reality is not surprising to anyone familiar with Islamist ideology and traditional Islamic society, which arguably founded modern globalisation.

In fact, a casual and short stroll down to Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, Kapalıçarşı, that ancient Ottoman shopping temple, one of the oldest and largest in the world, would dispel any romantic notions that the West somehow cut out Islam’s spiritual heart and consumed it soul with consumerism. It can even be argued that the whole concept of faddish fashion so derided by Islamists carries a distinctly ‘Made in Islam’ designer label.

This might explain why Erdoğan’s Islamising agenda has set off so few alarm bells in Washington and other centres of capitalism, since the AKP – like its disciple, the similarly named Freedom and Justice Party in Egypt – reads from the same neo-liberal hymn sheet, while the Turkish delight of rapid economic growth and free markets has kept the Western business elite sweet.

Since the protests in Turkey erupted, the media has been filled with speculation as to whether modern Istanbul’s central plaza, Taksim, has become the Turkish “Tahrir Square”, and there are protesters in both countries who have expressed mutual solidarity.

Whether or not Turkey actually becomes a revolution, there are certainly clear parallels between the two, but also some crucial differences. Both uprisings started as small-scale protests organised by savvy, mostly young urban activists against perceived growing authoritarianism, but quickly mushroomed to embrace disparate socio-economic groups seeking greater freedom. In both cases, the protests tapped into a deep pool of economic discontentment created by growing economic liberalisation which, though it improved the macro outlook, ultimately benefited a narrow elite.

But the differences are no less telling. Democratically elected Erdoğan, though increasingly authoritarian, is not a dictator in the Mubarak mould. In fact, despite the Islamic creep that has set in, it is arguable that, with the military relatively sidelined, Turkey is actually a maturer democracy now than it used to be. But protesters are justified in wishing to preserve and build on these gains, as well as the country’s hard-won secular tradition.

In addition, though “bread”, in addition to “freedom” and “dignity”, is an important rallying cry in Turkey too, it is less so than in poorer Egypt. Nevertheless, if the leaders of the Turkish protests are to draw any lessons from Egypt, it is that you ignore the bottom line of economic justice at your peril.

That said, on the symbolic, visual and tactical levels, there are enormous parallels between Taksim and Tahrir: a decentralised nationwide revolt, continuous and cascading protests, regular mass rallies, a stream of iconic images of unarmed protesters facing down the state’s mighty machinery, such as that of the “lady in red”, national media blackouts, not to mention the desperate attempts by both leaderships to paint the protests as foreign conspiracies and the protesters as thugs and vandals.

But the most interesting parallels, in my view, have to do with leadership. On the one hand, as mentioned above, there is the channelling of public fury against a single “authoritarian” leader as shorthand for all that is wrong with the country. On the other hand, there is the clearly leaderless nature of the uprisings.

While this leaderlesness was instrumental in decapitating the regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen, by creating a hydra with millions of heads which leaders could not contain and keep down, it is also prone to fall victim to its own success. Although it can topple regimes rapidly, it is far less capable of building a viable and robust alternative, at least in the short to medium term.

This raises the danger that unsavoury powers can walk into the vacuum, as occurred with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, sparking a paradoxical nostalgia among a troublingly growing body of Egyptians for Mubarak’s “good old days”.

Even if Turkish protesters manage to bring down Erdoğan, they are in danger of ending up, at least in the immediate aftermath, with something worse – though in Turkey, this is more likely to be a return to military-sponsored semi-authoritarianism – if they fail to formulate and implement a far-sighted transitional vision.

Although the risk of sliding towards authoritarianism afflicts all societies, the modern Middle East seems particularly prone to this. But what is the reason behind?

Some Western academics and scholars argue that it is something intrinsic to Islam. While there are many problems associated with Islam, I do not think it is any more prone to absolutism than its Abrahamic cousins and other religions.

I would say that, in much of the region, it is more a product of the legacy of Ottoman and European imperialism, the authoritarian tendencies of post-colonial leaders, both former masters and subjects, and how “modernisation”, even if triggered by popular uprisings, eventually became a top-down process that did not involve the masses sufficiently.

For example, the region’s first stabs at modernisation, which interestingly took place in Turkey and Egypt, were pretty authoritarian endeavours, whether undertaken by Muhammad Ali and his dynasty in Cairo, or the Tanzimat of reformist sultans Mahmud II and Abdülmecid I in Istanbul.

Moreover, later republican projects to eradicate royal absolutism, foreign meddling and to modernise and impose secularism often began as popular movements but led to varying degrees of military-backed secular authoritarianism, from the toxic Young Turks to the relatively benign Kemalism of Atatürk in Turkey and the Nasserism of the Free Officers in Egypt.

With some variety of authoritarianism rearing its ugly face whether in the guise of a caliphate, revolutionary republicanism, monarchism, secularism, socialism, liberalism, conservatism and Islamism, along with the region’s loss of global status, it is unsurprising that millions of Middle Easterners seem not only to have lost their faith in their leaders but have abandoned the sinking vessel of leadership altogether.

The Middle East is in desperate need of a new generation of leaders who not only rise to power by the people, but are of the people and govern for the people.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of article which first appeared in Haaretz on 19 June 2013.

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Egypt’s rebels without a pause

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By Khaled Diab

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

Thursday 20 December 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

We do politics differently now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Revolutionary generation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The sport of revolution

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

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

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

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

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

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

A revolution in search of a leadership

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joining the political party

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

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

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

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

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

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


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

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

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News of revolution (part III): Televising the life and death of an Egyptian president

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By Osama Diab

Anwar Sadat was the first Egyptian leader to exploit television’s propaganda power – and even his assassination was unwittingly televised.

Saturday 3 November 2012

In 1970, President Gamal Abdel-Nasser died and with him the  dream of uniting the Arab world from the “ocean to the gulf” under his leadership. However, despite the humiliating defeat of 1967, Nasser died as a popular, yet wounded, leader and his extremely emotional funeral – which was attended by at least five million in Cairo alone, not to mention all the mourners who poured on to the streets of cities across the Arab world – was one of the largest in history.

Initially regarded as a weak leader and an interim figurehead until Nasser’s “true successor” emerged, Anwar Sadat was quick to try to establish himself as the undoubted leader of Egypt by carrying out a self-described “corrective revolution” which involved pursuing and purging what he called “marakiz al-qowa”  (“centres of power”) who were believed to be pro-Soviet and loyal to Nasserist ideology.

On 15 May 1971, Sadat announced that more than a 100 “centres of power” had been charged with plotting a coup to overthrow him. Continuing this trend of overturning Soviet influence, Sadat took a landmark decision in 1972  to expel the Soviet military advisors from Egypt. After fighting the October War against Israel in 1973, Sadat continued his aggressive reforms by opening up Egypt’s state-run command economy to private enterprise and engaging in peace negotiations with Israel which started in earnest with his historic visit to Jerusalem in 1977 and culminated with the signing of the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty.

Throughout the 1970s, Egypt gradually shifted its orientation from the East to the West — the former rivals of Egypt during the Nasser era — and broke off relations with Nasser’s Soviet allies. This new policy direction was accompanied by a relative openness in the political climate and the incorporation of the principles of liberal democracy in Egypt’s official discourse.  The aggressive liberalisation of the economy and remarkable change in foreign policy required a new type of national narrative, especially when the Arab world decided to isolate Egypt after Sadat extended the hand of peace to Israel, the Arab world’s then-official enemy.

Mahmoud Shalabieh, the Jordanian media scholar, argues that, although radio was utilised by Sadat in the same way it was by Nasser, to publicise his policies and persuade the nation their merits, Sadat possessed a powerful new media weapon: television. Shalabieh argues that television influenced the way Sadat and then-Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin behaved during the peace talks. “By knowing that the whole world was watching, they seem to have been self-conscious about the long-lasting effect they were creating by engaging in these peace talks,” Shalabieh argues.

However, television, even more so than the press, was under Sadat’s total control. The 1970s could be described as the decade of television and the press, while Nasser’s favourite medium, radio, experienced a relative decline. As it became more affordable and its reach spread to every corner of the country, television replaced radio as the main tool for propaganda. In a way, TV also suited Sadat’s extroverted personality and his love of basking in the spotlight.

Sadat focused more on Egyptian affairs as opposed to Arab issues, and asserted that Egypt was his first responsibility. According to Shalabieh, he adopted “Egyptian patriotism” as the major value of Egypt’s foreign policy, a far cry from Nasser’s assertion that Egypt’s main responsibility and focus was to the Arab world. This brand of nationalism, often referred to as “Pharaonism”, was not new at the time, but had reached its peak during Egypt’s liberal era, after its official independence in 1921 and up until 1952.

Sadat was very aware of the power of television as a medium to express his fury against Egypt’s suspension from the Arab league. In a televised speech before the parliament in the last days before his assassination, Sadat sent a clear Egypto-centric message to Egypt’s one-time Arab “brothers”: “We are the origin of the Arabs. Hagar, the wife of Abraham, is the mother of Ismael, the ancestor of the Arabs. Hagar is Egyptian. So if there is someone out there who wants to belong, they should belong to Egypt, not Egypt to them. There is no point in these debates about whether we belong to the Pharaohs or not. Our blood is Arab and we are the origin of the Arabs and they belong to us.”

Adeed Dawisha, an Iraqi scholar who wrote extensively on Arab nationalism, explained: “Given the inherent strength of this feeling of ‘Egyptianism’, it was hardly surprising that Abdel-Nasser’s successor, Anwar Sadat, would use it in order to escape the overbearing legacy of his towering predecessor.” He explains that Sadat began by changing Nasser’s name for Egypt, the United Arab Republic, to the Arab Republic of Egypt, “where ‘Arab’ is only the adjective and ‘Egypt’ is the noun.”

“Simultaneously, Sadat embarked on a policy of cultural reorientation toward Egypt. This was evident in subtle changes in school curricula, highlighting Egypt’s long history, cultural prominence, and unique personality. The government-controlled media similarly spotlighted Egypt’s prestige and status in international affairs. By the end of the 1970s, Egyptian nationalism had won the day in Egypt,” observes Dawisha.

The press also played an important part in shaping this era and in telling us its story. As Sadat wished to give his liberal reforms a democratic and pluralistic sheen, a partisan press was allowed to form, and was partly tolerated, as an outcome of the Political Parties Law of 1977. Sadat initially allowed three parties to form representing the left, the centre and the right. The first partisan newspaper to be launched was al-Ahrar, which belonged to what Sadat decided to be Egypt’s rightwing party.

In addition, the tolerated-but-banned Muslim Brotherhood was allowed in 1976 to publish a monthly magazine al-Da’wa (The Call to Islam). The Brotherhood’s publication was very critical of Arab nationalism, communism and secularism, and this, some believe, served the goal of a Sadatist state that was more troubled by Nasserism and left-wing ideologies than with pan-Islamism.

The magazine’s cover, which is often indicative of what a publication stands for, had headlines such as “The Qur’an is above the constitution”, “Islam between the slumber of its followers and the attacks of its enemies”, “Where will the encroachment of communism lead?”. These topics were more or less the main themes of the magazine until it was shut down in 1981.

The Sadat-Brotherhood alliance began to sour after the peace treaty and when his regime began to obstruct the student movement which was openly backed by the Brotherhood. The Brotherhood did not escape the massive crackdown on dissent and arrests Sadat ordered before his assassination as his popularity in a desperate bid to salvage his plummeting popularity and his increasingly shaky grip on rule.

Although Sadat utilised different forms of media to propagate the country’s new, supposedly open political line, the insecurity he felt towards the end of his rule led him to abandon his promise of pluralism and greater freedoms. Many writers, politicians and journalists who opposed him were imprisoned and more restrictive measures were imposed on the media.

Despite this, the relative openness of the political climate compared with the Nasser era, meant that the Sadatist discourse received some competition from other non-official nationalist narratives, such as the struggling pan-Arabism and the emerging pan-Islamism. However, Sadat believed that these attempts were only operating in a margin of freedom he himself and so posed no threat to his rule.

In this, as hindsight reveals, Sadat was clearly wrong, as demonstrated by his assassination during the 8th celebration of the October War, in 1981, at the hands of Islamic militant groups who succeeded in infiltrating the military. Interestingly, Sadat was not only the first Egyptian leader to exploit the power of TV, but he became the only Egyptian leader whose death was televised.

But Sadat’s assassination failed to kill off his policies. Although some areas, especially in Upper Egypt, fell under the temporary control of militant Islamic groups after his death, the attempt to overthrow Sadat did not succeed in establishing a new Islamist order. Sadat’s successor Hosni Mubarak can now be seen in retrospect, especially in his early years, as having maintained and extended Sadat’s policies and official nationalist discourse, despite his success in bringing Egypt back into the Arab fold and his decision to release most of his predecessor’s political prisoners.

Egypt’s alliance with the West, peace with Israel, the façade of democratisation masking his dictatorial regime and the emphasis on Egyptian nationalism remained intact throughout most of Mubarak’s 30-year-long rule, which eventually brought about an unprecedented level of corruption, nepotism and inequality, at least in Egypt’s republican era.

This is the third part in a series of articles exploring the role of the media in shaping Egypt’s modern national consciousness and Egyptian nationalism, as well as fomenting revolution. Part I focused on the role of the nascent print media in shaping Egyptian nationalism and national identity in the 19th century. Part II dealt with Nasser’s use of radio to propagate his pan-Arabist ideology.

Part IV will deal with satellite television, the internet and the explosion of independent media, as well as how Egypt’s new rulers, the Muslim Brotherhood, despite decades of opposition, are largely continuing the Sadat-Mubarak line.

Follow Osama Diab on Twitter

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The paradox of military-backed civilian rule

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By Osama Diab

Supporting a military dictatorship to impose secular ideals is paradoxical and will only perpetuate and entrench the deep state in Egypt.

Tuesday 26 June 2012

The soft military coup currently being orchestrated by the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) has the backing of many Egyptians who think that they are supporting “civilian” rule. This is roughly the same group who voted for former Prime Minister and Air Marshal Ahmed Shafiq.

It might sound paradoxical that those who support a civilian state would wholeheartedly back an army man and the ruling military council in the hope of realising their aspirations.

This oxymoron exists partly for linguistic reasons. The words “secular” and “liberal” have become taboo because religious conservatives have denigrated them to mean anti-religion and used this to demonise the secular camp.

We all remember the Islamic preacher Hazem Shuman infamously screaming his lungs out trying to explain to his mosque audience what “liberalism” means. “It means that your mother won’t be allowed to wear a headscarf,” he told his audience.

Faced with this kind of pressure, secular Egyptians began using the term “civilian” (“madaniya” in Arabic) as a more socially acceptable way of referring to secularism without actually employing the word. Egypt’s deep state, which some are trying to preserve to act as a defence line against Islamism, is neither civilian, for obvious reasons, nor secular, for perhaps less obvious reasons.

Secularism, in essence, means that the state does not impose any system of belief on its citizens. The Egyptian state officially allows its citizens to belong to one of the three main Abrahamic religions: Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, and places enormous obstacles in the way of people wishing to convert from one to the other.

In practice, the situation is even gloomier. The security-obsessed state, which invariably links security to religion, views only adherents of one interpretation of Islam as “safe” citizens. The state only sponsors a moderate and soft Azhari version of Islam; and either bans or keeps a close state-security eye on anyone who diverts from this path, let it be a Salafist, Coptic Christian, atheist, Baha’i, Shiite Muslim, Jew, etc. They are normally treated in state security offices as a threat to the country.

“The security state considers religion and religious minorities, and pretty much anyone who does not follow the officially sanctioned brand of Islam to be a matter of national security” says Karim Medhat Ennarah, a security sector researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. “How they dealt with them varied depending on various factors. The way state security handled Salafi groups or issues related to Copts was very different from how they dealt with the Baha’i or Shiite minority, which they consider a direct threat to national integrity and security.”

Ugly ideological and religious wars like the ones in Algeria, Ireland, Sudan, Lebanon, Iraq and even in Egypt in the 1990s could be avoided by establishing a political system which allows for everyone to express their ideals peacefully. Political rights would be developed according to a constitution that clearly and unconditionally emphasises these freedoms and a state that is determined and serious about protecting them. Many countries have come to this conclusion after going through costly and bloody conflicts. We should be wise enough to learn from the experience of others rather than learn it ourselves the hard way.

It is about time for proponents of a “civilian state” to stop trying to impose their agenda through the back doors of democracy. The best we, secularists, could do now is to embrace a system that might not be perfectly reflective of our hopes and ideals of equality, but that is reflective of the reality on the street, while negotiating with and pressuring Islamists groups and state institutions to remain neutral politically and religiously and not fall prey to a single ruling party.

Accepting this situation is the price we have to pay for remaining in our philosophical castles in the air. In contrast, supporting a military dictatorship to impose our ideals is paradoxical. It is neither civilian nor secular and will only perpetuate the presence of the deep state, if not further entrench it. It also carries the risk of turning the situation into the very thing it tried to prevent, a broken society that is divided along sectarian lines.


This article first appeared in The Daily News on 24 June 2012. Republished here with the author’s permission.

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