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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Egyptian presidential election: Who should the revolution vote for?

 
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By Osama Diab

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

Tuesday 22 May 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Revolution@1: Sex and the citizen in Egypt and America

 
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Fundamentalists in America and Egypt are obsessed with “virtue “and “vice”. But the rise of Islamists threatens to bind Egyptian women in a moral vice.

Thursday 26 January 2012

Photo by Gigi Ibrahim

It is a longstanding marketing truism that sex sells. But it (well, hostility towards it) doesn’t just market products, it can also be marshalled to sell wholly unsexy politicians. This was amply demonstrated by what has been dubbed as the “War on Sex” during the Republican primaries, with candidates vying to outlaw birth control and promote abstinence, ban pornography and act against the “sin” of homosexuality. This has led some bloggers and journalists to compare Republican candidates, such as Rick Santorum, unfavourably to the leaders of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

“If someone wants to ban pornography, make life as hard as possible for homosexuals, and stigmatize sex before marriage… exactly what is it about Sharia law they don’t like?” asks Front Toward Enemy  in the Daily Kos.

And for all their mutual loathing and belief in a clash of civilisations, in the form of a global “jihad” against Christianity or an international “crusade” against Islam, the Christian and Muslim religious right are fighting on the same side, albeit in different trenches, in what can be called their War against Modernity, especially when it comes to sexuality and gender equality.

Half a world away, Egypt’s first post-revolution parliamentary election was, thanks to the Islamists, dominated by similar issues. Egypt is facing a spate of urgent political, social and economic issues, such as mass youth unemployment, a tanking economy and a cabal of diehard generals who just refuse to call it quits.

But you wouldn’t know it from listening to the discourse of Islamists, particularly that of the hardline Salafist Nour party, who have focused excessive attention on issues of “morality”, including talk of banning booze (as if prohibition has ever worked or Islam ever actually stopped Muslims from drinking), prohibiting or restricting bikinis and censoring “sex scenes” in Egypt’s vibrant film industry, known as the Hollywood of the Middle East.

Although brave women from all walks of life have been at the forefront of the popular uprising and are treated as relative equals by the revolutionary youth movement which has orchestrated the revolution, the burden of this moralising, as is often the case, has fallen on the shoulders of women. This has led Egypt’s secular, liberal women and feminists to look to the immediate future with a mixture of apprehension and worry.

“When Egyptian media spends hours and hours discussing bikinis and alcohol with presidential candidates, it tells you where women are going,” says Marwa Rakha, an Egyptian writer, broadcaster and blogger. “After the revolution, we saw women exposed to humiliating virginity tests, fired at, beaten up, arrested, molested, and stripped naked by army officers. Why would I be optimistic?”

But why is Egypt’s Islamic right so obsessed with sex and women, and seems to view both as the root of all evil?

One reason could be that with all the apparently insurmountable problems facing Egypt, it is a cynical populist ploy. “They want attention, lights, and media presence. How else will they get there unless they talk about women and their evil bodies?” opines Rakha.

“These are issues that people can relate to on a personal level,” explains Karima Abedeen, a secular British-Egyptian living in Cairo. “They are also vague and not quantifiable and most of the people who use these issues as their platform haven’t a clue about how to solve any of the other, more urgent social and political issues.”

On a more ideological plain, Muslim conservatives have quite successfully painted sexual liberty and gender equality as a Western import designed to weaken Egypt’s Islamic identity and corrupt Egyptians, and it is only by embracing Islamic traditions and morals wholeheartedly that Egyptians can resist Western hegemony and recreate their past glory.

“Focusing on issues of morality sends a message to the community that parties like the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis will protect our Islamic identity against the Western identity which liberals try to promote,” observes Gihan Abou Zeid, an Egyptian activist and feminist who is working on a book about the women who took part in the revolution. “Many Egyptians believe that following Islamic orders would fix many of the current challenges that Egypt is facing.”

In this, Islamists and their supporters are confusing the symptoms with the disease. In addition to complex international geopolitics, the reason Egypt has not made sufficient headway is not because it has veered too far from tradition, but because it has not embraced secular modernity enough and is suffering from the relative marginalisation not only of women but of young people too.

Moreover, similarly to Christian fundamentalists, Islamists and other social conservatives are alarmed by the corrosion of the traditional patriarchal order caused by the increasing emancipation of women. The loss of centuries of male privilege, especially in the public sphere, that this entails fuels the panicky public fixation on and obsession with what should be private issues, such as virginity and promiscuity. In this world view, strong, independent women are regarded with suspicion, as if they are carrying a volatile sex bomb that will explode upon contact with freedom and mushroom out to shred the fabric of society in its wake.

That said, despite the clear similarities between Egyptian Muslim and American Christian conservatives, the social context in which they operate is quite different. Egyptians on the whole may not necessarily be more religious than Americans, who seem far less inclined to abandon their faith than Europeans, but Egyptians interpret their faith far more traditionally.

Additionally, secularisation has progressed far more in America than in Egypt, where it has been partially discredited through its association both with Western neo-imperialism and the corruption and failure of Egypt’s secular dictatorships. In addition, American Christian fundamentalism is a strong movement founded on freedom and imperial swagger, whereas Egyptian Islamism is a reaction to weakness and decline, where people who have, for decades, been stripped of power in society focus on those few areas on which they can exercise control, i.e. “morality”.

Photo by Gigi Ibrahim

This means that, whereas religion is a fairly flexible and personal affair in America, in Egypt, by contrast, religion, or tradition, is more often than not about conformity and rigidity. And those who challenge this hegemonic view often suffer greatly for their “indiscretion”, as witnessed by the massive overreaction by Egyptian society pretty much in its entirety to the decision by a bold art student, Aliaa Elmahdy, to post naked images of herself on her blog to protest the growing Islamisation of society and demand her freedom of expression.

This traditionalist mindset could also partly explain the paradox that, although millions of Egyptian women have entered academia and the workforce, often outdoing and outperforming men, they have not become sexually freer but have had to compromise by stressing their “virtue” through such coping mechanisms as the hijab. As men lose control of women in the public sphere, they try harder to control them in the family, suggests Abou Zeid.

In fact, it would seem that, in Egypt, secularists, although they view women more as their equals, share the Islamists fear of female sexuality and their objectification of the female form. “The secularists and the conservatives are two faces of the same coin when it comes to women,” concludes Rakha. “Most of the politicians in both currents objectify women – one side wants to cover us and lock us up, while the other wants to strip us naked and show us off.”

Be that as it may, it would be a mistake to view the attitudes and agendas of secularists, many of whom believe in relative gender equality, and Islamists towards women as being identical. Moreover, even the Islamist camp is split between the right-of-centre and heterogenous Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) and the “Tea Party” Salafis. For example, Abou Zeid points to the fact that the Brotherhood is not against women working, albeit within limits, but the Salafis want them to “return” to the home.

The Salafis, she also adds, want to force women to cover their faces, as demonstrated by their vigilante “morality police” which has been roaming rural areas of Egypt, though, fortunately, Egyptian women have been fighting back.

A version of this article appeared in Salon on 23 January 2012.

Some are even more equivocal. “The Salafis are mad. They represent the very, very dark ages. The Muslim Brotherhood are not all bad,” says Abedeen. “I think the fact that the Salafis exist should push the Muslim Brotherhood towards a less conservative approach.”

In addition to the likelihood that the FJP will align itself to liberal, albeit economically conservative, parties, the wind is not yet out of the sails of the secular revolutionaries who have so far spearheaded change in Egypt, as illustrated by the defiant “Revolution Continues” movement.

One consequence of the revolution is that it has empowered the previously marginalised, namely the young and women, and made them believe that they can be agents of their own destiny. “Attitudes towards women are better among the young generation, particularly the middle class, to which most of the politically active women belong,” notes Abou Zeid.

This is bound to widen the gap between the young generation and secularists, on the one hand, and older generations and traditionalists, on the other, leading to a more polarised social landscape. “I think that women’s attitudes towards themselves have changed,” observes Abedeen. “The new generation of women is much stronger than older generations and is much less willing to compromise.”

Abedeen also believes that, once Egyptians see what the Islamists are like in power, they will soon fall out of love with them. “I am trying to stay positive and tell myself that it is natural that people should gravitate towards a more conservative option, hoping that these people will not be corrupt,” she says. “I am hoping, down the road, that people will realise that is not the way forward for Egypt, but we will have to see.”

But when all is said and done, it will be largely up to Egyptian women to carve out their rightful place in society. “Looking at Egypt now, I see a lot of courageous defiant women, but I also see millions who realise how oppressed they are yet do nothing about it,” surveys Rakha. “It is up to each woman on her own, in her house, at her desk, in her car, on her way to and from places. This is an individual fight whose collective gains and losses will reflect on the status of Egyptian women.”

 

A version of this article was published by Salon on 23 January 2012. This article is part of a special Chronikler series to mark the first anniversary of the Egyptian revolution.

 

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The ghost of Christmas past

 
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By Khaled Diab

The Holy Land is where Christmas began. But with the relative decline of Christianity there, does the yuletide still retain its spirit?

Wednesday 28 December 2011

Santa on the Via Dolorosa. ©Khaled Diab

In one of the bizarre contrasts I’ve grown to associate with Jerusalem, one of the first signs of the approach of Christmas was actually an unintentionally symbolic juxtaposition of birth and death: a kitsch inflatable version of the legendary gift bearer Father Christmas (Santa Claus) watching over pilgrims – and shoppers – as they progress along the sombre Via Dolorosa (Way of Grief), the route Jesus is believed to have followed on the way to his crucifixion.

In the land that quite literally put the Christ into Christmas, the run-up to the holiday season in the public sphere is pretty low key, given that the majority of the population is either Jewish or Muslim. “You see some decoration around, but Christmas here is a normal time of year,” says Dimitri Karkar, a Palestinian Christian businessman. Karkar lives in Ramallah, which has grown, with the influx of refugees from other parts of historic Palestine and Israel’s continued annexation of East Jerusalem, from being a small Christian village to become the de facto administrative capital of Palestine, where about a quarter of its population today is Christian.

This demographic reality inevitably affects the spirit of the season. “On Christmas Day, the majority of people are working, so most Christians work too,” notes Karkar, although he does point out that Orthodox Christmas, which is on 7 January, has been made a public holiday for Christians and Muslims alike in the West Bank. “My wife and kids are travelling but I have to keep my restaurant open.”

Although there is not much sign of Christmas in the public sphere in either Israel or Palestine, in private, the spirit of the season is alive and well. “I most enjoy the family gatherings,” Ameer Sader, a young Christian from Haifa, one of the major Arab population centres in Israel which is notable for its relatively good track record of coexistence. “The colours make me cheerful and full of holiday spirit.”

The way Christmas sheepishly sneaks up on you in Israel and Palestine sits in sharp contrast with the all-pervasive festive cheer in Europe and the United States. “Christmas here feels spiritless and meaningless in comparison to the West,” reflects Sader, who teaches English and works as a young guide at the National Museum of Science and Technology. “I’ve had the opportunity to celebrate Christmas in Paris. I felt the religious meaning of Christmas for two weeks long, as the midnight mass was an integral part of Christmas and the highlight of the celebrations,” he adds, while stressing that he is not a religious person.

With church attendance at an all-time low in Western Europe and the near-comprehensive secularisation of the festival in recent decades, Sader’s idealised description of Christmas in Paris would come as something of a revelation to many Europeans, who spend much of the advent period making offerings for their loved ones at the altar of consumerism, while the “spirit” of the season tends to be a merry genie inside a bottle shared with family and friends.

For their part, foreign Christians and pilgrims tend to romanticise the “purity” of Christmas in the Holy Land. “Christmas here is fantastic because there’s absolutely no sign of the trappings of materialism,” believes Richard Meryon, who is the director of Jerusalem’s Garden Tomb, which is in a kind of spiritual territorial dispute with the Church of the nearby Holy Sepulchre due to its claim to be a strong candidate for the location of the crucifixion, burial and resurrection of Jesus.

“People in England hardly know the difference between Santa Claus and Jesus,” jokes Meryon, who has something of the quintessential English vicar about him, while a group of Singaporean pilgrims sing melodic hymns in the background. “Commercialism has taken Jesus out of Christmas.”

Pilgrims sing Jesus' praise. ©Khaled Diab

And the guitar-strumming young Singaporean who had led his evangelist group of pilgrims in song seemed to share Meryon’s sentiments. “Being here is incredible. I can see Jesus all around me,” he said, I imagine, figuratively. Lacking any semblance of religious faith and not being of a spiritual disposition, in all my time in Jerusalem, I have never seen Christ figuratively. I have, however, repeatedly spotted a pilgrim fitting his description making his lonely way through the old city.

The reality of Christmas here seems to me to lie somewhere in the middle between what Sader and Meryon describe. In a land where people are generally more religious than in the West – whether they be Christians, Muslims or Jews – church attendance is high.

For obvious reasons, Bethlehem, whose population today is still about half Christian, is a popular pull for local Christians and pilgrims alike, with the highlight for the faithful being the midnight mass at the Church of the Nativity on Christmas Eve. And like for Joseph and Mary, those who leave it too long to book find that there’s no more room at the inn. “I just enjoy the whole atmosphere of worshipping in the place where Jesus was born, but it doesn’t look like a smelly cave with a manger and cows and cow poo,” says Meryon.

Despite the greater spirituality and religiosity, consumerism has been making rapid gains in Palestinian society, as reflected, for instance, by the ostentatious nature of weddings, which can last days and consume vast quantities of fireworks. In his grandparents’ day things were different, says Sader. “People back then couldn’t afford the extravagance which we are witnessing nowadays,” he explains, recalling his grandmother’s stories of how she and her sisters would spend days making new clothes for the children and baking Christmas cakes.

Back then, the Holy Land was far more Christian that it is now. During the British mandate, Christians comprised nearly 10% of the population of Palestine in 1922 and around 8% in 1946. Today, Christians make up about 4% of the West Bank’s population, although there are still a few Christian-majority villages about, such as Taybeh, whose skyline is dominated by church spires and produces the only Palestinian beer. Meanwhile, in Israel, though Christians make up 10% of its Palestinian population, they only constitute 2.5% of the total population. In Gaza, the Christian minority is even smaller, representing just 1% of the population.

A variety of push and pull factors are behind this relative decline. One major push factor is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Arab-Israeli war of 1948 caused hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to flee or be driven out of their homes, most never to return – and each subsequent war has led to more Palestinians leaving. Today, though Palestinians are often materially better off than other Arabs, restrictions on movement, lack of economic opportunity, unemployment and the constant indignity of living under occupation prompt many to seek out new homes.

And being relatively better educated and sharing a common religion with the West, Palestinian Christians have generally been better placed to make the move. “Many Christians prioritise their religion over their nationality, thus feeling at home in western Christian countries as immigrants,” says Sader. “Also, the fertility rate among Christians is the lowest within Israel and Palestine, playing a role, however small it is, in their decline.”

But it would be a mistake to see this as a predominantly Christian phenomenon. “What is often ignored is the huge number of young Muslims who are leaving. And don’t forget there are more Palestinian Muslims living abroad than Christians,” points out Karkar.

Paradoxically, Christian charities and missionaries, who often do valuable work here, have played an unwitting role in this dynamic. “I think that an awful lot of well-meaning Christians in the West, whether they are in America, Britain or other places, have poured a lot of money into the West Bank, and specifically into the churches and ministries here,” observes Meryon. This, he notes, “is causing a haemorrhaging of Palestinian believers”, although, as a counterbalance, the numbers of foreign believers and Messianic Jews who believe in Jesus are rising, he points out.

Of course, not all Christian activity has been “well-meaning” towards Palestinian Christians. For example, so-called Zionist Christians are passionately, even virulently, pro-Israeli, and many come to the Holy Land, including mounted on Harley Davidsons, to express their support.

This undermining role was rhetorically summed up by Republican presidential contender Newt Gingrich, who in an apparent bid to court the Christian Zionist and pro-Israel right, made the outrageous claim that “We have invented the Palestinian people”, as if the Palestinians I encounter every day here are a figments of my imagination created in a Hollywood basement somewhere.

Nevertheless, Palestinian Christians in Palestine and Israel I have met insist that, although they may face a certain amount of discrimination from the country’s two major faith groups, especially with the rising tide of Islamic and Jewish fundamentalism, they are by no means “persecuted”. “Being a minority inside a minority is not a healthy and helpful situation,” contends Sader. “Christians feel rejected by their Muslim brothers (and vice versa) and of course by non-Arabs in the country.”

“There is no Islamic persecution here,” insists Karkar, who points out that it was a Muslim, the late Yasser Arafat, who not only symbolised national unity by marrying a Christian but also restored the status of Christmas in Bethlehem after years of Israeli-imposed isolation had made it impossible for Palestinian Christians from other parts to visit the birthplace of Christ. Karkar also contends that even the Islamist movement, Hamas, is not “anti-Christian”.

And in light of the pride Palestinian Christians hold in having produced some of Palestine’s most notable political and intellectual luminaries, Karkar’s assertionis understandable, especially given the traditionally secular nature of the Palestinian struggle for statehood. However, the recent rise of Islamism, although it may not have yet led to outright persecution, has certainly made Christians grow more uncomfortable as they are viewed with greater suspicion.

This discourse of “national unity” notwithstanding, not all is well in communal relations between Muslims and Christians. This is manifested in the growing significance of religious identity politics, as reflected, for example, in the increasingly overt displays of religious dress and the regularity with which I get asked whether I’m a Copt or a Muslim.

The future health of Christians and Christianity in the Holy Land will depend largely on politics and whether Israelis and Palestinians will be able to find a just resolution to their conflict. If peace and justice reign, many diaspora Palestinian Christians may be encouraged to return and help build a brighter and more inclusive future for all.

 

This is the extended version of an article that appeared in Salon on 23 December 2011.

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Secular Egypt: dream or delusion?

 
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By Khaled Diab

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

Thursday 15 December 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

But is there cause for panic?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Islamist-driven democracy is not a snowball in hell

 
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By Osama Diab 

Islamists are not all Osama bin Laden and secularists are not all Atatürk . They can work together to achieve democracy.

Friday 28 October 2011

After the announcement of Libya’s transitional leader Mustafa Abdul Jalil that the country will be embracing Islamic law and the victory of the moderate Islamist an-Nahda party in the Tunisian parliamentary elections and the expectation of a similar result next month in Egypt’s parliamentary elections, secularists not just need to accept the fact that Islamists will be part of the region’s political future, they actually might be at the forefront of shaping it.

Secularists should not panic though, as being at the political forefront during this difficult transition to democracy might be more of a curse than a blessing. Likewise, to make up for their lack of experience in handling such historical responsibilities, Islamists should start learning a lesson or two from recent events in the region and also lessons from the broader historical context. There are many facts that – if realised – could actually turn Islamists from a feared group of religious fanatics into a force pushing for more civil liberties.

Firstly, the realisation that the current political demographics that seem to be on their side are not eternal. The number of political parties and ideologies that once seemed invincible and now only exist in history books are numerous. Nazism, Fascism, Communism and even regional political movements like Arab Nationalism, were all once sweeping ideologies in certain historical and regional contexts. The systematic mistreatment of citizens, human rights violations and restriction on freedoms is what accelerated the demise of these ideologies.

If Islamists don’t push for more civil rights, their power might be unsustainable and short-lived. The revolutions across the Arab world were not for or against specific ideologies; they were rebellions against abuse, corruption and dictatorship.

Islamists should not be deceived by the support of their core ideological followers. This support is not necessarily unconditional. For example, even though Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak imposed a relatively secular regime and fought a fierce battle with Islamist groups, that didn’t stop millions of pro-democracy secularists from revolting against him. Similarly, former Tunisian president Zien el-Abidine Ben Ali also presented himself as the last defence line against fanatical Islamists, yet hundreds of thousands of Tunisian secularists preferred the risk of ending up with an elected Islamist regime to Ben Ali’s secular dictatorship.

Even within the realm of Islamism, many young Muslim Brotherhood members have rebelled against their old guard and conservative leaders, and decided to join and form other – often secular – parties.

Ruling by Islam is not the ultimate protection either. The Ottoman Empire, which was the Caliphate of Islam and stretched over three continents and more than 15 countries until the early 20th century, was dismantled by the progressive Young Turks laying the foundation for what had later become the secular Republic of Turkey.

This year’s uprisings against some of the cruellest military dictatorships in the region show that no regime, regardless of its material strength, is immune to popular revolts. Amidst this appetite for protest and political activity, it will be increasingly hard for any group, including Islamists, to practise absolute power and disregard the needs of the majority and the rights of the minorities.

Unlike many other secularists, I wouldn’t be quick to announce the clinical death of democracy before it is even born just because a religious conservative party, which has even expressed its commitment to secular democracy, has won a 40% relative majority in the Tunisian parliament. Islamism is an umbrella term that covers a wide variety of thought. Self-described Islamists include many highly educated academics, and widely disagree over fundamental issues even among themselves. The portrayal of an Islamist as a one-dimensional evil fanatic inspired by the Taliban is just a simplistic, lazy and inaccurate view.

Islamists are not all Osama bin Laden, and sharing some of the legislative power with them doesn’t necessarily put democracy at risk if they learn to understand the rules of the democratic game. Secularists need to be there fighting against and with Islamists to achieve democracy in the next parliamentary and presidential elections, and Islamists need to understand that a secular government and institutions that respect human rights regardless of religion, gender, political affiliation, etc. is the only guarantee for the stability and sustainability of the political process as a whole and a safeguard for Islamists as an integral part of this process.

The moderate and progressive views of some Islamists was the reason why Karim Medhat Ennarah, a devoted, left-wing human rights activist, decided to support the former senior Brotherhood member Abdelmoniem Aboul Fotouh: “I have always had a lot of respect for Aboul Fotouh, despite my disagreements with the Muslim Brotherhood. He’s had a reputable career as an opposition figure, most notably his work with the Arab Doctors Federation and his efforts to break the siege on Gaza.”

Ennarah beleivesAboul Fotouh has expressed progressive views on issues relating to personal and religious liberties and is more proactive on the ground and among the people than Mohamed Elbaradei, a liberal opposition leader and a potential presidential candidate whom Ennarah previously supported.

I have vowed to never resist democratic change just because ‘I’ think its outcome might be unfavourable. This is not at all a call for secularists to raise the white flag without a fight. An Islamist victory in next month’s Egyptian elections is not yet a foregone conclusion. Secularists should fight the parliamentary battle fiercely, yet peacefully and gracefully, and act as a lobbying power for more democratic gains in the future even if parliament does become dominated by Islamists.
“I don’t know if Islamists can be a threat to pluralism if they were in power. There are so many uncertainties surrounding them,” says Ennarah. “But I do know, however, that wholesale exclusion of a political group that has the support of a significant percentage of the population is a much more tangible threat to pluralism.”

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Egypt, Israel and Palestine: towards the promised land of peace?

 
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By Khaled Diab

 It is high time for Israelis and Palestinians – with grassroots support from Egyptians – to unlock their latent people’s power and forge a popular peace.

Monday 15 August 2011

Although it has primarily focused on domestic issues, the Egyptian revolution has sent ripples of hope and shockwaves of fear across the Middle East. Not only has Egypt traditionally been regarded as the unspoken leader of the Arab world, the dramatic exhibition of people power in action has inspired ordinary people everywhere and terrified the region’s fossilised leadership. 

As Egyptians grapple to redefine their relationship with those who govern them, questions are being asked about how the revolution will affect Egypt’s foreign policy. One area of particular interest is how the ‘New Egypt’ will relate to Israel and the Palestinian struggle for statehood. 

Like other political elites across the Middle East, the Israeli and Palestinian leadership – including both Fatah and Hamas – have been eyeing the Egyptian revolution with nervousness, because it threatens to upset the status quo on which they depend. But reality is gradually sinking in.

Many questions about the future remain. Can post-revolution Egypt play a more dynamic mediating role in the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process? Will Egypt’s cold peace with Israel chill further? Will popular anger at Israel’s occupation spill over into Egypt ‘tearing up’ its peace accord with Israel, as many Israelis fear? Is the enthusiasm of some Palestinians that Egypt’s ’return to dignity’ will help their cause warranted? How will the Egyptian revolution affect Israeli and Palestinian politics and how the two sides relate to each other, and to Egypt?

I will seek to answer these questions, as well as to consider how Egypt can best walk the tight rope of championing the Palestinian cause and nudging Israel towards a just resolution of the conflict, without returning to the ‘bad old days’ of futile belligerence. I will also explore what role the largely uninvolved Egyptian grassroots and civil society can play in bridging the gap between the two sides.

Israelis: between fear and enthusiasm

First, I will consider the Israeli response to the revolution and how the revolution has played out among Israel’s political class, the general public and progressive activists. When the revolution first broke in late January, the initial reaction of the Israeli government and establishment was one of concern and even panic, though ministers and officials were initially ordered not to make any public statements on the issue.

This ‘wait and see’ attitude rapidly shifted when the Mubarak regime looked in real danger of collapsing. Israel’s hard-line prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu even toured Europe and the United States to try to convince Western leaders to prop up the collapsing and corrupt dictator, though he now, at least rhetorically, welcomes the prospect of democracy in Egypt.

So what was behind this diplomatic panic and why was Israel, which describes itself as the Middle East’s “only democracy”, so fearful of the Egyptian people’s democratic aspirations?

In Israel, like in the United States and some parts of Europe, Mubarak was seen as a ‘benign dictator’ who protected both Western and Israeli interests against the perceived threat of extremist Islamism and kept Israel’s western front, historically the most dangerous, quiet.

In addition, many Israeli leaders, including Netanyahu, have long been lecturing that the reason that peace has been elusive is not due to the Israeli occupation but to the absence of democracy in the Arab world. Now what if the dawn of Arab democracy arrives and Israel still fails to resolve its conflict with the Palestinians and the wider Arab world?

In addition, I suspect that the current extremist Israeli government, despite its rhetoric of wanting peace with the Palestinians if only there were a true “partner for peace”, feared the unknown impact of the Egyptian revolution on the Palestinian question. Would Palestinians follow the Egyptian and Tunisian examples of mass protest and disobedience? Would a revolutionary Egypt ratchet up the pressure on Israel to reach a deal with the Palestinians or, worse, side more clearly and robustly with the Palestinians?

Among the general Israeli public who know little about Egypt and the Arab world, and understand it even less, the experts and officials who lined up to deliver dire warning that Egypt could well become the “next Iran” and tear up the Camp David peace treaty pumped up the fear level among a population which already felt isolated, surrounded and beleaguered.

A typical response was delivered by Israel’s president Shimon Peres in February. Expressing his feeling that Mubarak’s “contribution to peace will never be forgotten”, he warned that “”Elections in Egypt are dangerous. Should the Muslim Brotherhood be elected they will not bring peace.” 

At the time, I wrote that such fears were unfounded: that Egypt was no Iran and that the country was unlikely to renege on its peace treaty with Israel, though, given the plight of the Palestinians, “this probably means that the cold Egyptian-Israeli peace will become frostier”. 

Since then, events seem to have largely confirmed my analysis. Although the Muslim Brotherhood is a significant force in the post-revolutionary landscape, it is by no means the only show in town, despite backroom deals between its leadership and the army’s top brass. In fact, a July poll showed that the Ikhwan’s approval rating stood at only around 17%.

In addition, now that the possibility of entering government has become realistic, the group has demonstrated its political pragmatism. Despite its official opposition to peace with Israel and its call for the Camp David agreement to be reviewed, a spokesman has said that the future of the peace treaty would be up to “the Egyptian people and not the Brotherhood”. 

And it appears that most Egyptians desire peace. Two recent polls (here and here) showed that, in addition to supporting the creation of an independent Palestinian state, nearly two-thirds of respondents were in favour of maintaining the peace deal with Israel. 

But it would be a mistake to think that the Egyptian revolution lacks support in Israel. Not only have some in the liberal and progressive end of the Israeli media spectrum expressed support for the revolution, a number of voices in its more conservative reaches have also publicised their backing. 

Writing in The Jerusalem Post last week, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach chastised Israel’s former deputy prime minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer for expressing admiration for Mubarak. “The unseemly spectacle of the Middle East’s sole democracy failing to support a revolutionary freedom movement in Arab countries is a stark omission that the Arabs are not likely to forget,” he wrote.

More importantly, the Egyptian revolution and the ‘Arab Spring’ in general enjoy a surprising amount of grassroots support in Israel, especially among the young and liberal, with various groups releasing songs and letters of support. I have personally encountered numerous Israelis who wax enthusiastic about it. “[The Arab Spring] has made me more eager to dream that the borders will open one day,” Mati Shemoelof, an Israeli journalist, poet and activist told me over drinks. “And I feel that we can only learn from this fabulous, new, brave movement,” he added.

As if to confirm his point, Israel has subsequently been gripped by protests over soaring housing prices, centred on Tel Aviv’s Rothschild’s Avenue, which has been described by some commentators as the country’s own “Tahrir Square”. Moreover, the protests provide a perhaps unprecedented opportunity for Israelis and Palestinians (both Israelis citizens and those in the West Bank and Gaza) to rally around a common issue – housing shortages – that affect them all.

Although the protests have so far remained apolitical, more and more Israelis are connecting the housing crisis within Israel to the generous state subsidies lavished on West Bank settlements and the high cost of maintaining the occupation.

By removing the single most divisive issue in Israeli politics, the protesters have created a safe space for Israelis of all ethnic, national and class identities to act together,” Dimi Reider and Aziz Abu Sarah wrote in the New York Times earlier this month. “Israel will never become the progressive social democracy the protesters envision until it sheds the moral stain and economic burden of the occupation,” they went on to caution. 

Palestinians: inspired but disillusioned

Palestinian reactions to the Egyptian revolution have been complex and divided, both at the official and popular level. Fatah, which received a lot of backing from the Egyptian regime, tried to walk the tight rope of supporting both Mubarak and the “legitimate demands” of the people. 

“We hope that Egypt manages to overcome this crisis while preserving its achievements and meeting the legitimate demands for democracy, political reform, and popular participation,” was Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s reaction in early February, according to the al-Ayyam newspaper.

 The extremist Islamist group Hamas, too, has been lukewarm about the Egyptian revolution. Although Hamas despised the former Egyptian regime’s hostility to the movement and Egypt’s collaboration in the blockade of Gaza, the secular nature of the youth spearheading the revolution and the sidelining of the Muslim Brotherhood worried the Islamic movement. In addition, like the PA, Hamas also benefits from the status quo and has entertained fears that the Egyptian people’s example might inspire Gazans to rise up against Hamas and its increasingly repressive rule.

 Hamas witnessed an inkling of this possibility when a Facebook page calling for a ‘Day of Rage’ in Gaza against the Islamist movement attracted 10,000 members within only three days, despite the intermittent power cuts and relatively low internet penetration in the Strip.

This might explain why both Hamas and the PA suppressed, in the early days of the revolution, rallies in support of the Egyptian and Tunisian revolts.

However, at the grassroots level, the majority of Palestinians seem to feel solidarity with their Egyptian neighbours. Ever since I moved to Jerusalem a few months ago, most Palestinians I have encountered have reacted very positively to the Egyptian revolution. Everywhere I go, I receive warm congratulations as if I was the father or the midwife of the uprising!

While out researching an article in a tiny Palestinian village effectively cut off from the outside world by settlements, the locals I met got sidetracked from talking about their demoralising plight to enthuse about the achievements of the Egyptian people. “You Egyptians have raised the head of every Arab,” Mohammed Barakat, a local lawyer, told me, in a typical reaction.

Even in the more glitzy surroundings of a luxury hotel in Ramallah, at an official celebration of the 23 July revolution hosted by the Egyptian consulate, Salam Fayyad launched into rhetorical acrobatics to pay tribute to both the 1952 and 2011 revolutions, even though the latter only came about because the earlier failed to deliver on its promises.

In addition to awakening hopes that the Egyptian revolution will lead Egypt to become more supportive of the Palestinian struggle for statehood, the protest movement in Egypt has inspired some dedicated young Palestinian activists, under the umbrella of the so-called March 15 movement, to agitate for change

The date refers to the day when organisers employing social media, text messaging and word of mouth managed to draw thousands of protesters on to the streets of Ramallah and other parts of the West Bank, as well as Gaza City.

 However, their demands were not wholesale regime change, but reconciliation. “Our top priority is to end the divisions within Palestinian society. This is the only way to deal with the occupation,” Z, one of the young founders of the movement in Ramallah, explained to me.

That said, the movement has not managed to replicate the most successful ingredient of the protests in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Bahrain: constant pressure from the streets. This is partly due to the two-tiered nature of the oppression facing Palestinians, and the restrictions on their movement imposed by the occupation. “Unfortunately, we have two levels of repression in Palestine: Israeli and domestic,” says Z.

In addition, there is the psychological barrier of widespread despair and disillusionment afflicting wide swaths of the population. “The problem among Palestinians is that revolutions are nothing new, yet nothing changes or things get worse,” Z observes. “Neither uprisings nor negotiations have worked, Palestinians believe – we’re still under occupation.”

This sense that whatever happens, the Palestinians are screwed might help explain why quite a few Palestinians I meet are despondent about the ultimate outcome of the Egyptian revolution, with some expressing their expectations that Egyptian will revert to dictatorship. A few, probably drawing on their sense of powerlessness, have even expressed their suspicions that the revolution is not an expression of the will of the Egyptian people but a joint CIA-Mossad conspiracy.

Nevertheless, a number of observers believe that the Egyptian-brokered Hamas-Fatah reconciliation agreement – despite its clear weaknesses – was partly a sign of the success of the youth protest movement. It was inspired, they say, by the fear that ordinary Palestinians would follow the Tunisian and Egyptian lead and rise up against the oppressive rule of Hamas in Gaza and Fatah in the West Bank. In addition, it has been viewed as an indication of the more robust role post-revolutionary Egypt can play in the Palestinian struggle. Similarly, Egypt’s decision to open the Rafah crossing has been interpreted as an early indication of the New Egypt’s more sympathetic approach to the plight of the Palestinians.

 September: Palestine or the Palestinians?

We are only a few short weeks away from the moment of truth, when the Palestinian leadership plan to go to the United Nations and demand the world body’s recognition of Palestine as a state. 

It strikes me that Palestinians, disillusioned, demoralised and desperate are screaming out to the international community, and particularly the United Nations: “You got us into this mess. Now get us out of it.”

There are parallels to be drawn between this bid and the 1947 UN partition plan which paved the way, despite Arab rejection, to the creation of the state of Israel. However, this time around it is unlikely to serve the Palestinians as well because they are too weak, the Israelis too powerful and the international community lacks the wherewithal to impose a solution on the two parties. Besides, if we are to learn anything from the tragic past, it is that UN involvement with only one side’s support was disastrous, and there is no reason to think it won’t be again.

Personally, I can’t help thinking that, rather than grant Palestinians the statehood they desire, the unilateral UN option could backfire by ending in failure or resulting in a virtual but hollow state that enjoys the sheen of international legitimacy but does not actually exist on the ground.

And I’m not the only one with misgivings. Earlier this week, a young Palestinian activist told me: “I think that nothing will really change on the ground.” He added: “I am really afraid of the PA because they will not ask for a full membership of the UN and instead they will go for non-member status which will not help us in this movement but they will sell it to us as a victory.”

The main reason that Palestinians might shy away from demanding full membership is a function of the way the UN operates. For a country to gain membership to the world body, the UN Security Council must first recommend statehood to the General Assembly. And judging by previous and current form, Washington is very likely to veto any such proposal. In fact, some US officials have warned that Washington could withdraw its funding for the UN, if the proposed vote goes ahead.

Of course, there is a chance that Abbas and the Palestinian leadership are actually not seriously contemplating going to the UN and are using this as a bluff to focus Israeli minds, lure Israel back to the negotiating table and force it to offer the Palestinians a viable state along the pre-1967 borders. But if that is the case, it looks like Israel has decided to call their bluff.

The Israeli reaction to possible UN recognition of Palestinian statehood is difficult to gauge but it is unlikely to be positive. The UN option enjoys the backing of some Israelis who see in it a ‘win-win’ solution for both sides. But such an enlightened Israeli view is a minority one, and the Israeli government and much of the public interpret the plan as an act of hostility.

Besides, previous declarations of statehood achieved little. Palestine, which has existed as a virtual state for decades, and is currently recognised bilaterally by over 110 countries, including Egypt, still remains a state-in-waiting. For example, the 1988 unilateral Palestinian Declaration of Independence, which was made in exile by the PLO in Algiers, was little more than an exercise in symbolism.

The real gains for the Palestinian cause were being made, a quarter of a century before the ‘Arab Spring’, by the ordinary Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza who rose up in the largely peaceful and leaderless first intifada, paving the way to the peace process and the two-state solution. 

New Egypt and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Until now, the impact of the Egyptian revolution on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been difficult to gauge. Nonetheless, a number of positive and negative ramifications can be discerned.

On the negative side, the upheavals in Egypt and other parts of the region connected to the Arab Spring have diverted much of the global interest away from the Palestinians question. It has also enabled Israel to more or less quietly create more ‘facts on the ground’ ahead of the Palestinians plan to go to the UN in September. This can be seen, for instance, in the accelerated rate of evictions, displacements and demolitions in East Jerusalem and ‘Area C’ of the West Bank this year.

On the positive side, Egypt has already taken some action that was aimed at improving the situation, such as brokering the Palestinian reconciliation agreement and easing restrictions on Gaza. More intangibly, the Egyptian revolution has provided both the Israeli and Palestinian leadership with a taste of what can happen when an unjust and untenable status quo is left to fester unattended for too long.

In the longer term, many commentators have expressed hope that a democratic Egypt can play a more robust and vibrant role as a peace broker and help mediate some form of reconciliation and peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Some more militant and extremist Palestinians hope, and many Israelis fear, that Egypt will become more hostile and belligerent in its support of the Palestinian cause and its opposition to the occupation.

Personally, I don’t expect either outcome is likely. However, a democratic Egypt more in tune with its public’s mood might act as a deterrent against excessive Israeli militarism. That said, for many years to come, Egypt will be embroiled primarily in domestic affairs. This includes the construction of a new political system, fixing the economy, addressing inequalities, combating corruption, dealing with sectarian tensions, and more. Moreover, even a democratic Egypt will lack the clout to impose a resolution and Egyptians have learnt through long and bitter experience that belligerence leads nowhere.

So, it would perhaps be a mistake for those Israelis and Palestinians who pine for peace to await an Egyptian saviour. Instead, they should look to the more intangible support that Egypt can provide, namely that they need not await a foreign messiah because their true saviour is within themselves.

Egypt has provided Palestinians and Israelis, long cynical and disillusioned that the powers that be can bring about any meaningful change in their situation, with a dose of much-needed hope and inspiration, especially in their own latent powers as people.

People power: the missing link

I am a strong believer in the idea that ‘people power’ is the missing link in the quest for peace between Israelis and Palestinians. The vast majority of the discourse relating to the conflict focuses on a top-down solutions in which an international broker or brokers bring the two parties together to the negotiating table and lean on them until they kiss and make up and agree to live together happily ever after.

The trouble with this model is that it overlooks the fact that no external mediator enjoys the kind of clout or willpower necessary to push through a resolution. In addition, it ignores the glaring disparities in power between Israelis and Palestinians. It also turns a blind eye to the fractured and divided political landscape on both sides which makes reaching a consensus over the painful realities both sides must accept for the sake of peace a task of Herculean proportions.

This is particularly the case given the decades-long mutual distrust and loathing, which renders the necessary groundswell of popular opinion required to achieve peace impossible to attain.

I believe that it is time to follow a new track in which ordinary people lead the process and not just act as passive by-standers. Palestinians and Israelis need to awaken to their own power and unlock their dormant potential to steer their own destiny towards peace and reconciliation. And the best way to do this, as the ‘Arab Awakening’ is illustrating, is through mass, peaceful joint activism.

For many years, a minority of activists on both sides have joined forces and found common cause in opposing the occupation, settlement building, the separation wall and home demolitions and evictions. This needs to be stepped up and activists must find creative ways of inspiring the mainstream – they need to make their movement go viral.

Being the dreamer that I am, I cannot shake the vision in my head of joint Israeli-Palestinian activism infecting the masses, and the current housing protests could be a good foundation upon which to build such a movement.

In my vision, squares in cities across Israel and Palestine would be filled with people rallying around a single goal: “The people demand an end to the occupation.” Protesters on both sides would also pitch tents at checkpoints to demand their removal and, who knows, perhaps one day have their own Berlin wall moment.

Likewise, ordinary Egyptians need to overcome their own apathy and passivity and help facilitate and mediate such a ‘people’s peace’. For the sake of peace and the future, Egyptians need to cast aside their ideological opposition to dealing with Israelis and act in active and open solidarity with the Israeli-Palestinian peace movement and export the spirit of their revolution to neighours who are in desperate need of it.

This article is based on a talk given by Khaled Diab at a conference on the future of Egypt organised by the International Peace Studies Centre which took place in London on Saturday 13 August 2011.
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Atheists: Egypt’s forgotten minority

 
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By Osama Diab

Egyptian atheists and religious sceptics are a minority that exists in reality but not in official statistics.

Thursday 7 July 2011

Denial has been the primary strategy used by successive governments in Egypt regarding certain issues they deem to be ‘sensitive’, even though turning a blind eye has proven to be ineffective when it comes to handling these critical issues.

For example, in the minds and the statements of successive government officials, Egypt has always been free of HIV/AIDS, sectarian tension, political dissent and even sexual harassment.

This same denial strategy extends to religion and belief. Identity cards, which are used to give undisputed facts about their holders, such as their name, date of birth, etc., cites a person’s father’s religion as their own. This implies that one’s religion and personal beliefs are undisputed facts the same way, for example, that their gender or name is.

In Egypt , everyone by law belongs to one of the three main Abrahamic religions: Islam, Christianity, and Judaism – the only religions recognised by the state. Accordingly Egyptian statistics on religious belief are usually very simple:

90-94% Sunni Muslim

6-10% Coptic Orthodox Christians

And that’s it – except for some statistics that acknowledge the existence of a very small number of people adhering to the Baha’i faith and a handful of Jews.

Most polls and statistics completely ignore that among these “Muslims” and “Christians” are a number of people who choose not to define themselves as such. Due to the official and social stigmatisation of people holding alternative beliefs,  religion-related surveys in Egypt are often skewed. The most dramatic example of this was when Gallup decided, based on its research, that Egypt is the world’s most religious country because 100% of its population is religious. These polls and statistics obviously lack statistical and factual accuracy due to the taboo status of the surveyed topic. A statistic like Gallup’s technically means that it only takes a few people who don’t consider themselves to be religious to disprove it.

“There are more non-believers in Egypt than most people think,” says Tarek Elshabini, a 23-year old Cairo-based engineering student who doesn’t identify with his parents’ religion and defines himself as an atheist.

Elshabini thinks that religious sceptics are concentrated in educated and wealthy urban circles. He says they are mostly men, due to the patriarchal nature of the culture he was raised in where men have better chances and more freedom to be exposed to different ways of thinking.

“Most of the works written or made by ‘infidel’ thinkers and artists were never properly translated into Arabic, The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins is a very good example. This book was even banned in most of the Middle East, and the only reason someone like me knew about it, is that I can read English and have access to the  internet,” explains Elshabini.

Unlike Elshabini, Ahmed Amin, a Cairo-based project manager in his 20s who also defines himself as an atheist, thinks that irreligiousity is not confined to wealthier circles and that the less fortunate also have their doubts about religion. He believes that the scepticism of those who belong to lower socio-economic classes is driven by the injustice and unfairness they suffer.

Based on the same assumption, he also thinks that many Egyptian women started to walk this path because of the discrimination they experience, often in the name of religion. “I don’t know the exact percentage of non-believers in Egypt, since we do not have any statistics that show the religious distribution here. Even regarding Christianity, Muslim Brotherhood members or Salafi Muslims, we still don’t know their exact numbers either,” says Amin. “However, I think that there is a small number of non-believers here in Egypt, but what I’m sure of is that this small number is increasing.”

People like Tarek and Ahmed never appear in statistics for a number of reasons. Firstly, the state forces everyone into a religion a few hours into their birth - birth certificates, like ID cards, state the newly born’s religion . Secondly, non-theism or religious scepticism is still frowned upon, if not persecuted, in Egypt, which means that most non-believers won’t admit to it in public.

Some of the victims of religious intolerance include a large number of thinkers who didn’t even come close to announcing their non-belief , but only expressed an unconventional opinion on a “sensitive” religious issue. Farag Fouda, an Egyptian writer and human rights activist who was assassinated by Islamists in the early 1990s, did not even declare his apostasy but was only critical of the violence of militant Islamist groups.

Likewise, Nasr Hamed Abu Zaid, who defined himself as an Islamic scholar, was declared an apostate by a court ruling based on what he wrote in his PhD thesis. Hw was subsequently forcibly divorced from his wife because he was no longer considered a Muslim and, therefore, shouldn’t be allowed to remain married to his Muslim wife.In order to remain with his wife, he had to escape to the Netherlands until shortly before his death about a year ago.

Raising this issue is especially important now, in the wake of the 25 January revolution which has left Egypt struggling to define and shape its new identity. The main debate in this post-revolutionary period is whether Egypt’s identity should be secular or Islamic, and if individual liberties should include belief in any religion or lack thereof.

hose who call for a religious state argue that the vast majority of the population wants that based on these distorted and inaccurate statistics, which are in turn based on social stigma and intimidation faced by anyone who might have second thoughts about what they have been born into.

Given the secular nature of the revolution and the secularism of the young people who set it in motion, it’s simply not a fair game for Islamists to reap the political benefits now, after years of intimidating and violently draining their opponents by threatening their lives, putting their reputations at risk or simply accusing them of being “at war with Islam”.

Many have been talking about the rights of Coptic Christians, Baha’is and other religious minorities, but everyone, even the most devoted rights activists, have chosen to ignore the rights of those who chose to embrace none of the Abarahamic state-condoned religions, and who are possibly the most vulnerable ‘religious’ minority in the country.

“The way I see it, Egyptians will never start treating us with respect, unless we start being honest and come out,” says Elshabini “Only then, when we’re able to talk about our beliefs and ideologies openly without fear, will they realise how normal we actually are, and they will want to kill us less,” he concludes.

This article is published here with the author’s consent. ©Osama Diab. All rights reserved.

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Hostility to the West may shape Egyptian politics

 
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By Osama Diab

Islamists and Arab Socialists share a history of clashing with foreign influences.

Thursday 9 June 2011

Egypt has been moving fast with its plan to ‘modernise’ its economy, ever since the 1992 economic reform programme aimed at deregulating the market. This plan, encouraged by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, privatised public sector entities and carried out legal, tax and administrative reform to make the country friendlier to both local and foreign investors. Since then, ruthless, corrupt capitalism has been imposed on a poor nation that only managed to put food on the table with the help of socialist policies, such as subsidised food and energy, and free education.

It wasn’t just neo-liberal economic policies that were imposed on the people by an unelected regime. Relative secularism and friendship with Israel and the US were also introduced, against the will of many of the people. Egypt was named in 2009 by Gallup as the most religious country on the planet, but its regime was relatively secular and was engaged in a fierce battle with Egypt ‘s Islamist groups.

With the 25 January revolution, Egyptians revolted against 30 years of Hosni Mubarak’s rule which left behind a dire economic situation and a very poor human rights record. Now, in the aftermath, Egyptians seem to relate mainly to two political groups or ideologies that better meet their religious and socialist standards. The first is Islamism; the second is the Arab Socialism inspired by former president Gamal Abdel Nasser’s ideology, calling for Arab unity, socialist economics and promoting anti-imperialism.

Despite these ideologies sitting on opposite ends on Egypt’s political spectrum – with Islamists representing the religious right and Arab Socialists the secular left – they still have a lot in common.

The fact that both groups have traditionally and historically collided with the West could help both sides score a few political points amidst increasing xenophobia. This is caused by a repetitive state-run media narrative that foreign elements, attempting to destabilise Egypt, were behind the chaos caused during the revolution.

On top of this media rhetoric, many Egyptians realise that their strategic geographic location at the intersection of the world’s three major continents is a great asset, but could also be a great curse. This leaves them with a constant sense that danger is always around the corner. This is fed by the reality that Egypt, throughout its history, was occupied by successive colonial powers from the Romans through to the Arabs, the Ottomans and the Brits.

Even though Egyptian xenophobia has traditionally been directed towards Israel, the US and the West, it has now grown to include new names, such as Iran, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. What is more, it includes certain Egyptian political groups who are perceived as arms for these powers. This leaves many in Egypt fearing their own shadow.

This narrative was also abused internally by leaders who wanted to gain a heroic status as Egypt’s guardians against the ambitions of colonial powers. The only political groups that are able to thrive in this atmosphere of mistrust are ones who actually promote it; again, Islamists and Arab Socialists who constantly accuse the West of being at war with Islam and the Arab world respectively.

Political groups, or figures that lack this history of clashing with the West, are accused of collaboration. A senior position in an international organisation or even a PhD from a foreign university could now be enough to destroy a politician’s career in Egypt .

Mohamed ElBaradei, the former chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Nobel Peace Prize winner, is suffering from such accusations prior to his presedential campaign. This is due to the false idea that he gave the US the green light to invade Iraq when he led the IAEA. Amr Hamzawi, a young and vibrant Egyptian politician and human rights activist who received both his master’s degree and PhD in Europe and is currently the Middle East research director at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, is seen at best by many cautious people as “too foreign” or “too Western”, if not actually serving a foreign agenda.

Blaming anything and everything on foreign powers did not appear to heal Egypt’s serious wounds after the 1952 military coup, which eventually replaced a monarchy with a totalitarian socialist republican regime. There is no reason to think why it might now.

By managing to overthrow a regime that was a friend of the US and Israel, Egyptians have proved that they can defeat all conspiracy theories and achieve impossible heights if they put their differences and divisions aside. However, Egyptians will find it very hard to achieve stability, democracy and economic prosperity if they don’t stop conveniently blaming all their problems on factors taking place beyond the country’s borders.

In order to build a healthy democracy in Egypt, we will have to work closely with international organisations, allow foreign as well as local media to report freely, stop accusing politicians of serving a covert agenda, integrate ourselves with the rest of the democratic world, and most importantly, ensure minorities have equal rights.

One would hope that this state of extreme cultural and political paranoia is only a short-term result of the severe shocks Egypt has been suffering lately. An age-old tourism industry and traces of what was once a melting pot for people from diverse cultural and religious backgrounds can potentially put Egypt on the path to democracy and prosperity – if Egyptians abandon these obsolete ideas about foreign agendas and treason.

This article was first published in the New Statesman on 2 June 2011. Republished here with the author’s consent. © Osama Diab. All rights reserved.

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