Mohamed Morsi’s ghost will haunt Egypt for a long time

 
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By Khaled Diab

The death in court of Mohamed Morsi completed the incarcerated former Egyptian president’s unlikely metamorphosis from mediocre mundanity to mythical martyr whose political ghost will inspire generations of radical Islamists.

Wednesday 26 June 2019

Mohamed Morsi, the largely unknown and uncharismatic engineer and one-time professor at Cal State University who was jokingly referred to as the “spare tyre” when his party rolled him out of the closet to run for president in 2012, has gone from a backroom Muslim Brotherhood apparatchik to a widely sung symbol of the Islamist cause following his death in court.

And the creators of this tragic icon – who will almost certainly inspire generations of disgruntled Islamists – are none other than Egypt’s men in khaki. By ousting, arresting, putting on show trial and criminally neglecting until his death the man whose presidency lasted just 12 months, the Egyptian military, led by current president Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, made a hero out of a villain, transforming a hugely unpopular leader into the stuff of legend.

Morsi died on Monday 17 June, but his anointment as an immortal martyr of the cause has already begun, with his wife and other prominent Muslim Brotherhood members describing his death as martyrdom. Social media was awash with posts from pro-Morsi supporters eulogising the deposed president, including an image of the dead leader with angel wings ascending to the heavens. An Arabic hashtag describing Morsi as the martyr of the Islamic nation was popular on Twitter.

With Muslim Brotherhood sympathisers prohibited from organising a public funeral in Egypt, exiled members living in Turkey took to the streets to express their grief, chanting “Murderer Sisi, martyr Morsi,” with some holding up banners vowing that “putschists will be defeated”.

Islamists and conservatives from across the Muslim world have been paying tribute to his courage and defiance, describing him in terms normally reserved for saints. “History will never forget those tyrants who led to his death by putting him in jail and threatening him with execution,” said Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, a man who knows a thing or two about being a tyrant, putting opponents behind bars, including thousands in solitary confinement, and pushing to reinstate the death penalty. “May God rest… our martyr’s soul in peace.”

Morsi’s perceived martyrdom was wholly unnecessary and entirely avoidable. The Muslim Brother was, indeed, the first president in Egypt’s history to be elected in a multicandidate electoral race, but his ineptitude and divisive politics quickly made him incredibly unpopular, even among former supporters.

At the time, many Egyptians I encountered who had voted for him were disappointed that Morsi’s piety had not translated into compassion for his compatriots, let alone competence – that he was an incompetent version of Mubarak but with a beard. Like his predecessor, he also intimidated and locked up critics, and employed violence against protesters.

Morsi’s authoritarian tendencies and ambitions were on full display in November 2012 when he granted himself dictatorial powers, prompting angry protests which forced him to backpedal. Rather than being a conciliatory transitional leader, Morsi was deeply partisan and his top priority was to Islamise to the max the draft constitution and to place Brotherhood loyalists in positions of influence and power.

But it was not just about Morsi’s malice. For a party that had been preparing to govern for decades, the Muslim Brotherhood’s breathtaking incompetence in power confounded most Egyptians. One ironic example of this legendary ineptitude was when a confidential, leak-proof meeting to discuss options for dealing with Ethiopia’s plans to build a dam on the Nile was being broadcast live on television.

The popular discontent with Morsi and his Brotherhood prompted waves of popular protest, culminating in a mass uprising on June 30, 2013.

Had the military stayed out and left matters to run their course, the mass mobilisation on the streets may have eventually forced Morsi to call early elections or led to his government’s downfall. But General Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, who is currently Egypt’s president, had other plans… and ambitions.

Even after the undemocratic coup he engineered, Sisi could have navigated a more pragmatic and conciliatory path — after all, the Muslim Brotherhood was a spent force that had squandered in a few short months most of the popular goodwill it had carefully nurtured through decades of charity work and grassroots activities.

Instead, al-Sisi demanded a “mandate” to eradicate what he described as “terrorism,” perpetrating the bloodiest and cruellest massacre of civilians in Egypt’s modern history, in which over 1,000 civilians were butchered by security forces. This pivotal moment convinced many in the Muslim Brotherhood that politics was not for them and reawakened the movement’s paranoia and persecution complex.

The relentless repression since 2013 has radicalised some former members, propelling them towards more violent movements, and has helped the Brotherhood to regain some of the popular sympathy it has lost.

Rather than stamping out the terrorism the regime claims disingenuously to be fighting, Egypt is now faced with a full-blown insurgency in the Sinai and terrorist attacks on the mainland have become quite common place.

Like George W Bush’s disastrous and self-serving War on Terror, this failure was all too easy to foresee. That Morsi’s death after years of imprisonment and wanton neglect would prompt Muslim Brotherhood sympathisers to view Sisi as a murderer and “enemy of Islam” is also something that has been clear for some years now.

Beyond bleeding-heart humanists like myself, this terrifying possibility could have and should have been abundantly clear to the Egyptian regime. After all, it has been here before: In the 1950s and1960s, then-President Gamal Abdel-Nasser undertook a similar crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood. In 1966, the Nasser regime took the fateful decision to execute a radical Muslim Brother by the name of Sayyid Qutb. Qutb was transformed overnight into a martyr who has inspired violent Islamists ever since, including Osama bin Laden, who was at first embraced by the United States because it shortsightedly wanted to use his zeal against the Soviets in Afghanistan, creating even greater blowback.

This raises the pertinent question of whether there is method in the madness, or only madness in the methods employed by the Sisi regime. Is the Egyptian leader a cunning Machiavellian political operator who, needing a threat sufficiently scary, first needed to create the monster he will spend years attempting to slay, even if it runs the risk of pushing his country over the abyss?

Far more likely is that he simply lacks the capacity to react in any other way. Unlike Mubarak, who despite being a military man spent years in politics before becoming president, Sisi has only ever known the army, with its inflexibility, hierarchy and obedience, and this has made him view the political arena as a literal, rather than a figurative, battlefield.

Source: US Department of State

The silence from Washington will further inflame the false Islamist narrative which alleges that the coup against Morsi was a US-Zionist conspiracy against Islam. Of course, this flies against the evidence, as Morsi actually enjoyed good relations with Washington and continued Mubarak’s policies toward the United States.

Judging by America’s track record in the Middle East, its overriding concern is what Washington defines as its “vital interests”, and ideology plays a surprisingly marginal role. That explains why America has a decades-old special relationship with Saudi Arabia, the self-defined home of Islam, and the other conservative Arab Gulf states.

Nevertheless, Morsi’s perceived martyrdom will lead radical Islamists to bend and twist reality to serve their ideological and political purposes. The conspiracy theories about the evil forces which emerged following Morsi’s downfall will take on new life and ever more elaborate formats after his death, which will be juxtaposed against the angelic image of saintly virtue that has been constructed around the martyred leader, in whose memory and cause some of his followers will also wish to martyr themselves. And this is bad news for Egypt, the Middle East, America and the West.

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Egypt’s 21st-century plagues

 
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By Khaled Diab

While the Egyptian regime battles for its survival, Egypt itself may not survive as a viable state, as it faces a ‘plague’ of potentially crippling environmental, economic and social challenges.

Image: ©Khaled Diab

Monday 12 February 2018

For those of us who dared to hope that democracy would lay down roots in Egypt, the farcical run-up to the presidential election – one measure black comedy, one measure theatre of the absurd – is agonising to watch.

It is agonising to watch not because anybody (aside from incumbent president Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi’s most diehard supporters and loyal propagandists) believed the election would be anything more than a one-horse race. It is agonising because any pretence that the other horses even stood an outside chance has been abandoned, with the other serious contenders either crippled or disqualified or both.

This blatant match fixing led human rights lawyer Khaled Ali to announce his withdrawal from the 26-28 March vote, following the arrest of Sami Anan, who, like Sisi, is a former general who was a member of the military junta that governed Egypt immediately following the downfall of Hosni Mubarak.

Sisi’s apparent fear of every challenger that would run, in the end, left him with none. Eventually, one did emerge, a candidate of such heavyweight stature that he went from endorsing Sisi to competing against him: Mousa Mostafa Mousa, leader of the pro-regime Ghad party.

As if having a fan and ‘yes man’ as his opponent, rather than as his running mate, was not enough, Sisi threatened anyone challenging him (I mean, challenged Egypt’s ‘security’ – which are the same thing in his book), in an impromptu performance in which he sounded like a stern school teacher chiding errant schoolkids. Sisi even threatened the entire Egyptian population, whom he cautioned against even thinking about a repeat of 2011, warning that he would not allow it.

But this is not up to Sisi to decide. It is up to the Egyptian people, whom currently appear tired of revolting against a regime that will cling on to power, no matter the price or the cost.

That said, I am convinced that the Egyptian revolution, like its French equivalent, is far from over. However, it is in a race against the environmental, economic and social clock. If the ‘plagues’ threatening the country combine into a perfect storm, Egypt could become a devastated state before it becomes a democratic one; it could become Somalia before it becomes Scandinavia.

Civil strife

The sparsely populated Sinai peninsula has been in the grips of a large-scale insurgency against the central state ever since the Egyptian revolution erupted, with no clear end in sight. Armed groups there, namely the ISIS-affiliated Sinai Province, which pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in 2014, still remain strong, capitalising on the peninsula’s geography, relative lawlessness and disgruntled Bedouin tribespeople. While the murderous, bloody rampages of the jihadis, exemplified by the recent deadly attack on a mosque frequented by Sufis have alienated locals, the state’s brutal counterinsurgency tactics, including airstrikes, have done little to endear it to the peninsula’s population. This include mass displacements caused by the razing of the border region between Gaza and Sinai in Rafah. In addition, rather than tackling the socio-economic grievances at the heart of the unrest, the state has allowed the situation in Sinai to deteriorate by failing to implement effective development initiatives there, combined with the collapse of the economic mainstay of tourism. This has fuelled disillusionment, frustration and anger, according to the state-funded National Council for Human Rights. As a sign of the regime’s fixation on a solely military solution to the insurgency, a major military campaign was launched last Friday aimed at crushing, once and for all, the insurgents. Whether more of the same can succeed, especially without a comprehensive development strategy, has been greeted with scepticism by some experts.

Despite suffering a regular string of terrorist attacks, especially those targeting churches and Christians, the Egyptian mainland has so far been spared the same levels of sustained and vicious violence and lawlessness. However, the potential is, sadly, there for mass civil strife, or worse, to break out at any moment. The violence, brutality and excess with which the state has responded to every form of challenge and opposition, even against peaceful protesters and demonstrators, has the potential to fuel a cycle of ever-escalating violence, as formerly peaceful individuals reach the dangerous conclusion that the only way to combat a violent state is through violence. In addition, the precarious grip the state has over many provincial areas and the hinterland of the country could also facilitate a descent into violence.

Mutiny in the ranks

Another potential flashpoint for destructive conflict are power struggles within the military or between the country’s various security apparatuses. Although the army projects an image to outsiders of unity and depicts itself as the glue holding together the nation, there are signs of division within the ranks, including the senior ones.

This was highlighted by the curious case of Sami Anan. On paper, Anan made an ideal regime candidate who could have provided a sheen of legitimacy for the election while doing nothing to challenge the military’s grip on the reins of power. An ex-army general who was Mubarak’s chief of staff, Anan was the second most senior member of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) which governed Egypt directly following Mubarak’s downfall. Moreover, he was forced to retire by ousted president Mohamed Morsi, who is universally reviled by supporters of the military and anti-Brotherhood Egyptians. This meant that whether Sisi retained power or Anan defeated him, the army would still emerge as the winner.

The arrest and disappearance of Anan for simply daring to announce his candidacy may have simply been driven by Sisi’s overwhelming desire to stay in power at any cost. However, it also reveals a possible split within the army, and could also be, it has been suggested, a manifestation of the rivalry between different factions within the army and other powerful security organisations, such as the police, the homeland security agency, military intelligence and the general intelligence service.

This is not the first sign of unrest within the military. An earlier example of this was the 2015 conviction, in a secret military trial, of a group of 26 officers who had allegedly attempted to mount a coup to overthrow the Sisi regime.

If clock and dagger gives way to open conflict within the military and/or between it and other security agencies, the army, the country’s main functioning institution after it eliminated its rival power bases, could push Egypt over the edge of the abyss.

Economic faultlines

While the regime’s power centres jockey for ascendancy and power, and cash in on their influences, including the aggressive expansion of the army’s economic pie, the economy has been struggling and is heading towards a painful crash if something drastic and dramatic does not happen soon.

Although the Egyptian government aims for an economic growth rate of up to 5.5% for the current fiscal year (2017/18), which would make Egypt the fastest-growing African economy, this masks a number of bitter and troubling realities. Not only is this growth mostly debt-driven, financed by conditional loans from the international financial institutions or the influence-peddling of the regime’s Gulf benefactors, it has failed to create a sufficient supply of jobs. In addition to unemployment remaining high, the cost of this recovery has mainly been borne by the poor and dwindling middle classes. The floating of the Egyptian pound and austerity measures, including the removal of subsidies and higher indirect taxes, and the high inflation they create, have hit the average Egyptian family extremely hard – as they have been doing for years.

The government’s penchant for expensive white elephant mega-projects of questionable economic benefit and feasibility, as well as high environmental risk, could spell future economic disaster by indebting the country further and emptying state coffers. These include the much-vaunted $8-billion expansion of the Suez Canal, a new administrative capital, with an initial estimated cost of $45 billion, whose business district is being built by China, not to mention Egypt’s first nuclear power plant, to be constructed with a $21 billion Russian loan.

Needless to say, these tens of billions of dollars could be more usefully and productively invested in a country in desperate need of every penny. Instead of a new capital city, Egypt should decenteralise the state and invest in its neglected provinces and periphery regions. Instead of outdated, unclean, dangerous and expensive nuclear energy, Egypt could invest the money in setting up small-scale renewable energy projects across the country, which will not only generate more energy but create more jobs to boot, as I have argued before, helping it to significantly exceed its aim of extracting 20% of its electricity needs from renewable sources. Other examples abound of how Egypt could use its limited resources resourcefully to stimulate development and promote sustainability.

Heat tidal wave

Egypt is a hot land and one of the driest in the world. And human-induced global warming means that Egypt’s climate is getting hotter and drier, with experts warning that climate change could make much of the Middle East, including Egypt, effectively uninhabitable in future decades. Extreme weather, including more frequent and longer heatwaves, is becoming more common. A sweltering example of this was the weeks-long heatwave which hit the country, and much of the region, in the summer of 2015. By 2050, average temperatures are expected to rise a whopping 2-3°C, while the country’s already low rainfall is expected to taper off by another 7-9% – inflating the country’s water poverty beyond the current alarming levels.

Global warming is also causing sea levels to rise, already damaging and threatening Egypt’s northern coastal region, especially Alexandria, the country’s second-largest urban area.

Strike force Delta

Rising sea levels have not only already started to claw away at Egypt’s coastline, it is rendering growing areas of coastal farmland too saline as seawater seeps into soil and aquifers. In addition, inadequate irrigation, drainage and fertilisation practices have affected up to 43% of Nile valley agricultural lands. One report found that soil in the Nile Delta, Egypt’s most fertile area and perhaps the best farmland in the world, is being submerged at a rate of 1cm per year by rising sea levels. By 2100, as much as a third of the Delta’s 25,000 square kilometres of arable land could be lost to agriculture, experts warn. This problem is severely exacerbated by the subsiding of sediment, which means while the sea is rising, the Delta itself is sinking. This is largely due to the fact that the fertile sediment that used to shore up the Delta has not reached it since the Aswan High Dam’s reservoir began filling in the 1960s, causing erosion and a troubling rise in the water table, and with it greater soil salinity.

As I argued in an article I wrote at the time of the Suez Canal expansion, the price tag for protecting the Delta is, according to my calculation, lower than Suez Canal II – and defending Egypt’s breadbasket would have been a far more useful and productive use of scarce resources than this white elephant.

With Egypt already dependent on imports for an estimated 60% of the food needs of its burgeoning population, this failure to protect the Delta will have dire economic and security consequences in the future by making Egypt more dependent on expensive food imports at a time when global food supplies are likely to become more stretched and unreliable.

Population time bomb

A closely related plague is the unrelenting explosion in Egypt’s population, which not only corrodes the benefits from economic growth but is also placing unprecedented strain on Egypt’s ability to feed itself, its land resources, its environment and its ecological carrying capacity. It is almost unfathomable today that when Napoleon landed in Egypt in 1798, the country’s population was estimated at just 3 million, compared to France’s population of around 30 million at the time.

More recently, the 1947 census counted 19 million Egyptians, which is less than the current population of Cairo. Today, Egypt’s population is just shy of the 100 million mark, according to one estimate. Egypt’s population is growing by a whopping 2 million or more each year, partly due to the chaos that has engulfed the country in recent years. In panic, Prime Minister Sherif Ismail has described population growth as the biggest challenge facing Egypt and the government has revived its birth control programme, but it may be too little too late.

Concrete jungle and just deserts

Although Egypt is a huge country, the vast majority of Egyptians are squeezed into the Nile valley, which constitutes around 4% of the country’s territory. This has meant that, for decades, agricultural land has been swallowed up by the growing concrete jungle, as anyone flying over the country can clearly see, in a process of desertification that has been intensified by global warming and encroaching sands.

Even though Egypt managed to reclaim around a million acres of desert land in the three or four decades to the 1990s, a similar area was lost to urbanisation. Another study found that in the 1990s the net stock of agricultural land actually rose by some 14%. However, this reclaimed land was of far inferior quality to the extremely fertile vanishing agricultural lands of the Nile valley. The choice of crops, such as water-intensive banana and corn, and the use of inappropriate fertilisers have damaged reclaimed land. In addition, already by the mid-1980s, sand encroachment and active dunes affected 800,000 hectares.

Despite a long-standing ban on building on agricultural land, the trend has actually accelerated due to the relative breakdown in law and order, growing population and worsening economy since the 2011 revolution. An estimated 30,000 acres are lost annually today, compared with 10,000 acres before 2011. Then, there is the huge industry to bake red bricks, using the precious and fertile top soil which is essential to farming. The government has been working on stiffening fines for illegal construction on agricultural land, but it is unlikely to make a dent as Egypt’s population continues to creep upwards and the desert settlements are too expensive or unattractive for average Egyptians to make the move.

One promising avenue for combating desertification and the encroachment of the desert sands is to plant specially modulated forest areas using sewage effluent, which provide the bonus of being a sustainable source of wood in a country which currently imports almost all its wood requirements. An innovative pilot project just outside Ismailia has been so successful at doing this that it has elicited interest from German investors.

Curse of the Nile

Egypt has long been described as the gift of the Nile. In a way, the river is also its modern curse. If it weren’t for this legendary waterway, which courses through the country like a life-supporting vein pumping billions of gallons of vitality into a narrow strip of lush green, Egypt would be a barren desert dotted by occasional oases. Not only is the ‘eternal river’ dying a slow death, under strain from booming populations along its length, pollution and climate change, the water Egypt receives from the Nile is barely enough to meet its current needs, let alone its future requirements.

Two colonial-era treaties, one from 1929 and the other from 1959, allocate the lion’s share of the Nile’s water resources to Egypt and Sudan. Nevertheless, although Egypt gets almost two-thirds of the Nile’s 88 billion cubic metres, the country is struggling with water shortages. And with a growing population and global warming, Egypt’s needs are likely to grow.

Meanwhile, the needs of Ethiopia and other upstream countries are also growing exponentially. To meet the requirements of its rapidly growing population, which now exceeds Egypt’s, and its development plans, Ethiopia has constructed its Grand Renaissance Dam and is seeking to fill its giant reservoir, which could potentially cause significant disruption to the downstream flow reaching Egypt. This has caused years of brewing tensions between Cairo and Addis Ababa, which abated somewhat in 2015, following the sealing of a Declaration of principles, but have reignited in recent months, as negotiations have stalled.

These frictions could potentially trigger a ‘water war’ between Egypt and Ethiopia. Moreover, even if Egypt wishes to act in good faith with Ethiopia, any reductions in the water flow reaching Egypt could have catastrophic consequences, especially in years when rainfall in Ethiopia is lower than expected.

That said, with the right investment and innovation, redistribution does not need to hurt Egypt excessively, as it can actually get by on considerably less water. For example, though vital, the intricate system of irrigation canals dotting the country shed 3 billion cubic metres in evaporation alone, and more in wasteful usage, such as the practice of flooding fields instead of drip irrigating them. In fact, the Irrigation and Improvement Project believes it can save up to 8 billion cubic metres through greater efficiency.

Likewise, Egypt’s crumbling domestic water supply network is bleeding water. In Cairo, for instance, 40% of the water supply is wasted, according to government figures. Then, there are the water-intensive cash crops, such as cotton. Egypt must reduce its cultivation of these in favour of crops which are more suited to dry climates.

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The ‘plagues’ facing Egypt are formidable and would be challenging even for a rich and highly developed society. However, the Egyptian state can and must do more to secure the country’s survival against all these odds, rather than its fixation solely on the regime’s survival.

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Angela Merkel: The ‘Arab’ chancellor

 
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By Khaled Diab

If Arabs could have voted, Angela Merkel would have won by a landslide, rather than the embattled situation she currently finds herself in following the shock gains scored by the far-right.

Monday 25 September 2017

Unlike the ‘Hussein’ in Barack Obama’s name, Angela Merkel Muhammed is not related to a conspiracy theory that the German chancellor is a secret Muslim. Born in August in Münster, the Angela in question is the daughter of a grateful Syrian couple who fled the danger and desolation in their devastated homeland and were granted asylum in Germany in 2015.

Prior to this, like many Arabs on the progressive or leftist end of the political spectrum, I had not been impressed by Merkel’s destructive neo-liberal policies and economic nationalism, most notably demonstrated in her handling of the Greek debt crisis. But Merkel’s willingness to gamble her political future to defend the weak and vulnerable strengthened her image in my eyes.

Although unaware of it herself, Baby Angela embodies the admiration her adult namesake has earned in the Arab world since Merkel defied a sceptical and hostile Europe, and her own conservative and far-right opponents at home, to welcome hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants in 2015.

While Merkel was being booed by far-right protesters in Germany, Syrians and Arabs were sending her messages of love and admiration on social media. “We will tell our children that Syrian migrants fled their country to come to Europe when Mecca and Muslim lands were closer to them,” one Facebook user reportedly wrote in an expression of gratitude.

Merkel’s principled stance on refugees in the face of stiff opposition and a number of Islamist terrorist attacks earned her a great deal of respect and numerous Arab commentators showered her with praise. “Despite all this, Ms Merkel courageously refused to ‘shut the door’ in the face of any/all asylum seekers found to be legitimate refugees,” wrote London-based journalist Faisal J Abbas in July 2016, while urging Syrian refugees to become more adept at “cultural diplomacy” and “to show more keenness to integrate and respect the culture of their new home countries”.

However, Merkel has subsequently flip-flopped on the issue of refugees, supporting the much-criticised EU-Turkey deal and pursuing similar ‘one in, one out’ deals with North African countries. This may have shored up her support among conservatives at home but has damaged her image somewhat in the Arab world.

The EU’s efforts to block the migrant flow from war-torn Libya, where the central state has completely collapsed, has helped fuel what many witnesses and observers, including the UN, have classed as the emergence of a modern-day slave trade.

Although many Arabs echo the western praise of Merkel as the new ‘leader of the free world’ due to her willingness to stand up to Donald Trump, Arab pro-democracy and human rights activists, as well as opposition figures, are perplexed and critical of Merkel’s willingness to collaborate with dictators and despots to deal with the flow of refugees, to combat terrorism… and to do lucrative business.

While lauded and applauded in the pro-regime Egyptian press, Egyptian President Abdel-fattah al-Sisi’s visit to Germany in 2015 and Merkel’s visit to Egypt in March of this year, drew condemnation from human rights groups and Egyptian opposition figures. “After Merkel’s visit, Sisi is full of confidence that the big hitters have got his back, that they will turn a blind eye to his human rights crimes, with the excuse that he is fighting against terrorism,” wrote Wael Kandil, a journalist and liberal politician who went from opposing ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi to supporting him, becoming an outspoken opponent of Sisi in the process.

Some go even further and see Merkel as not only maintaining a cynical silence in the face of Sisi’s human rights abuses but of being a “tyrant” in her own right. “When it is in a certain direction, selling weapons, plundering economies, manipulating politics, bombing people, [it] is called business, diplomacy or humanitarian military intervention,” wrote Walid el-Houri of Berlin’s Institute for Cultural Inquiry, in 2015. “The human cost, the lives destroyed, the blood spilled by the German government, among many others, is no less than that by Sisi’s, and the two are no less than complicit.”

Despite such harsh criticism, Angela Merkel received generally glowing coverage ahead of the forthcoming elections in the Arab press. In the run up to the elections in Germany, many Arabic-language newspapers ran admiring profiles of the chancellor, focusing on her unusual path to power, her early life as a scientist in East Germany, and her apparent frugality and modesty.

Despite my own personal reservations about her economic policies and convenient embracing of certain dictators, this generally positive image resonates with many ordinary Arabs I know. “I like, respect and trust her,” said Marwan El Nashar, an Egyptian comic artist. “As someone who was a minister of women, youth and environment and with a scientific background, she’s [been] able to find a balanced formula in Germany and Europe,” echoes Nancy Sadiq, a Palestinian peace activist.

Judging by such reactions, if Arabs could have voted in this weekend’s federal election, it seems Merkel would have won by a landslide, rather than the embattled situation she currently finds herself in following the shock gains scored by the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD).

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A version of this article appeared in German in Die Zeit on 20 September 2017.

 

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Egypt’s Christians in the cross-hairs

 
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By Khaled Diab

The bombing of St Peter’s Church in Cairo exposes the growing vulnerability of Egypt’s Christian minority and the increasing mainstreaming of extremist Islamist discourse.

21 December 2016

It is a haunting image. A grieving Egyptian woman in a headscarf wipes tears from her eyes. But this woman is not a Muslim. She is a nun and she is standing amid the debris of the pews which were blown up during the grotesque bombing of St Peter’s Church (el-Boutrosiya, in Arabic), which adjoins St Mark’s Cathedral, the seat of Egypt’s Coptic church.

The only thing which distinguishes this woman from her Muslim sisters is the cross on her breast and the fact that she kneels to pray in a slightly different way. But this seems reason enough to kill 25 people and injure scores more whose “crime” was to be in a church performing mass.

What makes this slaughter even more obscene is that it occurred on the day millions of Muslims were celebrating the birth of their prophet, Muhammad, a time when families give out special “Halawet el-Moulid” to their neighbours, regardless of their religion. Instead of offering them festive sweets, ordinary Muslims found themselves consoling their Christian neighbours.

Outside the site of the blast, angry Copts were joined by Muslim sympathisers, whom together vented their collective outrage at the possible security lapse which led to this atrocity. Some of the slogans were telling of the vulnerability Copts feel in Egypt, with chants asking whether Coptic lives were cheap.

Others made clear their sentiments that Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi should not be invited to Christmas celebrations, which the Egyptian president has made a habit of attending since he took office.

The people demand the fall of the regime,” some shouted, reflecting just how far the Coptic community has drifted from the initial euphoria many expressed when Sisi removed the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi.

Whether this fury will galvanise mass protests seems unlikely at present. “People are angry about Sisi but they can’t see an alternative,” says Wael Eskandar, an independent, pro-revolutionary journalist based in Cairo. But Egypt is a place where one must never say never.

The chants outside the church echoed a revolutionary slogan used during the 25 January 2011 uprising. In the build up to the revolution, a church in Alexandria was also bombed, in the early hours of new year’s day, as worshippers were leaving midnight mass, causing a similar death toll to the latest attack.

Then as now, the worst of Egypt also brought out its best. An act whose goal was to kill Christians and drive a wedge between mainstream society and a vulnerable minority actually brought many closer together.

Outraged at the atrocity committed against their Christian brethren, Muslims of conscience stood in solidarity with Copts, at rallies, protests and clashes with security forces. On the eve of Coptic Christmas in January 2011, Christians attending mass were joined by Muslims, many of whom formed human shields around churches.

We either live together or we die together,” was the slogan thought up for the vigils by Egyptian artist Mohamed El-Sawy.

At a memorial service for the fallen, President Sisi revealed the identity of the suicide bomber he alleged perpetrated the massacre.  A day or so later the Islamic State (ISIS) claimed responsibility.

 

While many in Egypt have condemned the bombing, it’s also not surprising that it happened in the first place.

For years ultra-conservative preachers and conspiracy theorists – from members of the Azharite religious establishment, through TV personalities sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood to Salafis – have stoked the flames of sectarianism in Egyp. Many of them do not see Christians as marginalised. On the contrary, some are convinced that Copts are master puppeteers pulling the state’s strings. There have been even those who have gone as far as to allege that there is a secret project to “Christianise” Egypt.

The military coup that followed mass protests against the Muslim Brotherhood in 2013 further encouraged sectarianism. In its immediate aftermath, dozens of churches were attacked, as some Brotherhood sympathisers saw Christians as complicit in the military takeover of the government.

Such outlandish conspiracy theories about Christians have gained credibility, as rigid religious ultra-conservatism entered the mainstream, and encouraged portrayals of Christians as agents of the West and even “foreigners”.

The government, too, has played both a passive and active role in worsening the plight of Christians. Passive in its long-time insistence that, in the name of “national unity“, sectarianism did not exist in Egypt, the land of the crescent and the cross. Passive in its failure to protect Copts and to investigate crimes committed against them.

Active in its pandering to the basest extremist prejudices, while claiming to defend Christians. “I accuse a government that seems to think that by outbidding the Islamists it will also outflank them,” wrote the prominent Egyptian journalist Hani Shukrallah, echoing Emile Zola, following the new year’s attack in 2011.

Active in the state’s institutionalised discrimination against Christians. Active in its incidents of direct persecution of Christians, such as the Maspero massacre in October 2011.

Sadly, the precarious situation of Egyptian Christians may well worsen as the economy tanks further, the state pushes on with its crackdown on all forms of dissent, Islamophobia continues its ascent in the West and violent extremism ravages the region.

But I hope that the spirit of the crescent alongside the cross prevails – for the sake of Christians, for the sake of Egypt and for the sake of humanity.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera on 14 December 2016.

 

 

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Sisi’s fridge and Egypt’s frosty economy

 
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By Khaled Diab

A gaffe by Egypt’s president about his refrigerator reveals just how much Egyptians have cooled towards Sisi and his chilling economics.

A sneak peak inside Sisi's fridge.

A sneak peak inside Sisi’s fridge.

Monday 7 November 2016

You could say that Egypt has had its very own Watergate. But unlike its American counterpart, this was not about tapes and spying and political scandal, but about water and a refrigerator and a scandalised social media.

At the first National Youth Conference in the upmarket resort of Sharm al-Sheikh, Egypt’s president Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi demonstrated to young Egyptians how he was “one of you” by informing them that, despite being the son of a wealthy merchant, “I lived for 10 years with nothing but water in my fridge.”

To many Egyptians, an empty refrigerator is a sign of affluence, as it could well indicate that its owner is well-off enough to eat out or order in. Besides, when Sisi was young, fridges were luxuries and so possessing one only to chill water would have struck many of his contemporaries as an extravagance they could ill afford.

But this is obviously not what Sisi intended. The president’s comments sought to inspire young Egyptians to aspire to achieve great things for themselves and their country through “self-esteem” and “independence”. But rather than motivating citizens to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and tighten their belts – with the poor doing the majority of the tightening – his comments caused social media to erupt in guffaws of laughter.

Like his two predecessors, Sisi is prone to making memorable gaffes and Egyptians, who use humour to shield themselves against the unbearable tightness of seeing their country fall apart, mock such pompous soundbites bitingly.

One wit on Twitter likened the Egyptian president to Sponge Bob because he could survive on a diet of water. Employing the “one careful owner” format of advertising, another user pretended to sell a refrigerator on Twitter which, he said, had been owned by the “doctor of philosophers”.

This is a far cry from the Sisi-mania which gripped millions of Egyptians when the former general ousted his unpopular predecessor Mohamed Morsi, who is still languishing behind bars on trumped up charges. Sisi’s initial appeal was constructed on a studied mystique of impenetrable silence, an illusion which was quickly shattered by his increasingly eccentric and unfathomable pronouncements.

The initial enthusiasm of many Egyptians to this self-appointed leader whom they believed would be a strongman who could steer Egypt to safety and security has given way to growing unease, alarm and opposition to Sisi’s repressive, arbitrary and increasingly erratic model of governance.

Thousands of Muslim Brotherhood members and secular activists, including many of the leaders of the 2011 revolution, are in prison, while freedom of expression and assembly have been seriously curtailed.

Beyond authoritarianism and oppression, there is the economic bottomline. Exhausted by the upheavals of revolutionary change and counterrevolutionary inertia, many Egyptians were willing to turn a blind eye to Sisi’s myriad abuses and brutality, buoyed by his pledge of security, stability and, above all, prosperity.

Instead, the economy has continued to nosedive, as reflected in the devaluation, and the subsequent floating, of the Egyptian pound and the shortage of hard currency which has seen the dollar exceed 16LE on the black market. This highlight both Egypt’s economic ill-health and the unfairness of the global trading system, based as it is on “reserve currencies”, which can easily cause a crisis in smaller economies to spin into a catastrophe.

Of course, not all of this is Sisi’s fault. Like Morsi before him, Sisi inherited a poisoned chalice from the three decades of Mubarak excess and mismanagement – cloaked in neo-liberal hocus-pocus which gave the illusion of growth even while the economy tanked and wealth was concentrated in ever-fewer hands.

In addition, the negative feedback of Egypt’s various crises, especially terrorism and insurgency, has led to the drying up of many of its main exports, most notably tourism, the levels of which have hit record lows.

However, Sisi has made matters considerably worse. In fact, it is hard to imagine a less productive path out of Egypt’s economic malaise than that pursued by the current president. Instead of focusing on bread-and-butter sectors, getting the wheel of industry turning or addressing Egypt’s numerous social and environmental challenges, Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi has spent his presidency herding white elephants, including the aborted idea of building a new capital city.

Sisi’s first mega-project, the widening of the iconic Suez Canal was bound to run into dire straits. Even I, no clairvoyant or expert, predicted as much. In its first year of operations, revenues from the expanded canal remained largely stagnant. Billions are also being wasted on a nuclear power white elephant, when the resources could be better channelled into more effective means to shore up Egypt’s energy shortage.

The president’s difficulties are being exacerbated by the gradual shrinking of Arab assistance. Although Egypt has relied on foreign aid to varying degrees since the Free Officers came to power in 1952, the years since the 2011 revolution have seen Egypt receive an unprecedented flow of aid from the Gulf allies of the moment, with inevitable strings attached. However, tumbling oil prices and Egypt’s wish to steer an independent course from its allies is leading to the drying up of this source.

After years of faltering on the edge of the abyss, I fear that Egypt’s economy is close to freefall. For the sake the country, I hope Sisi and his government have some real ideas about how to bring Egypt back from the brink.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera on 31 October 2016.

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Giulio Regeni is the tip of Egypt’s police brutality iceberg

 
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By Khaled Diab

Many Egyptians find the allegation that the Italian student was killed by Egypt’s notorious security apparatus chillingly plausible. Italy must shed its former enthusiasm for the Sisi regime.

giulio-regeni

Thursday 12 May 2016

During a rambling and at times bewildering speech responding to accusations that his regime had “sold” two strategic Red Sea islands to the Saudis, Egypt’s president Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi seized the opportunity to defend his government’s record on the Giulio Regeni case.

“We Egyptians started circulating these allegations and lies, we made this problem ourselves, we made this problem for Egypt,” he said, sounding like a cross father scolding his children. “I’ve told you before – there are evil-doers among us who are accusing us [of responsibility].”

Following Egyptian assurances of a thorough and independent investigation, Sisi’s comments are bound to provoke dismay and anger in Italy, which has already recalled its ambassador over Egypt’s perceived obstructionism and its failure to hand over vital evidence.

Despite the denials from many segments of officialdom and in the echo chamber of the pro-regime media, I and many, many Egyptians, especially activists and independent journalists, find the working theory that Regeni was killed by one of the many tentacles of Egypt’s notorious security apparatus entirely plausible, not to mention chillingly so.

For me, as an Egyptian, the only surprise is that this happened to a foreigner from a wealthy, developed country. In an unofficial revival of the dual legal system that Egypt used to have during colonial times, Westerners, given the likelihood that their governments will make a stink, have generally been off-bounds to the guardians of the state’s insecurity.

In a sad indictment of the ill regard in which Egypt holds its people, even having dual citizenship affords one more protection than solely possessing Egyptian nationality. This, along with the fact that I don’t write in Arabic and live abroad, is, I am convinced, one of the reasons that I have not yet got into serious trouble for my critical journalism. I believe that the eight-hour interrogation to which I was subjected last time I visited Egypt potentially could have ended much worse were I only an Egyptian.

That is why I feel understanding for Egyptian activists and journalists who have gone into de facto self-imposed exile, after fighting a losing battle for seemingly no returns. As for those who, against all the odds and at the risk of their freedom or even their lives, have stayed to continue the struggle, I feel nothing but immense awe and admiration for their courage: from relatives and friends, to journalists and rights defenders like Hossam Bahgat, who continues to expose the concealed workings of the regime despite harassment and the decision to freeze his assets, or Aida Seif Eldawla and her team at the Nadeem centre who continue to support victims of torture and violence, despite repeated attempts to shut them down.

Though almost all the regime’s victims are Egyptians, over the past five turbulent years, during which xenophobia has grown due to the portrayal of the 2011 revolution as a foreign conspiracy, foreign journalists, activists and aid workers have become more of a target, as the Al Jazeera trials and the earlier American NGO crackdown attest.

But, as far as I’m aware, no Westerner has ever been tortured or killed by the security services. The only case that comes close is that of the French resident of Cairo, Eric Lang, who was reportedly beaten to death by inmates in a holding cell. The Sky News cameraman Mick Deane was shot dead while covering the violent, bloody dispersal of the Raba’a el-Adaweya sit-in in support of the ousted president Mohamed Morsi.

My personal suspicion is that Regeni’s death was an “accident”, caused by the lawlessness which now governs Egyptian law enforcement. One plausible scenario is that the researcher, who confessed to colleagues that he was being watched and feared for his life, was picked up to be interrogated. Once detained, he may have refused to answer questions or talked back too much, leading them to get rougher and rougher, until he died in their hands.

I personally doubt that any orders came from high up, especially as the embattled regime needs all the overseas allies it can get and Italy is Egypt’s main trading partner in the EU.

But little restraint exists when it comes to Egyptians, who have few defenders from the current “reign of terror”.

To give a taste of the magnitude, Corriere Della Sera recently published a list of 735 Egyptians who have been disappeared over the past eight months, while tens of thousands have been detained over the past three years. In addition, 7,420 civilians have been tried by military courts, many in summary mass trials, since October 2014, according to the Egyptian Coordination for Rights and Freedoms.

Regeni’s death and the rot within the Egyptian regime which it has exposed should give certain Italian politicians and journalists pause for thought over their previous enthusiasm for Sisi. Some have described Sisi as “courageous” and “enlightened” because he was mounting a “revolution” within Islam.

To Egyptian secularists and intellectuals, many of whom are rotting behind bars, the notion that our incoherent, iron-fisted leader is some kind of enlightened reformer will come across as a cruel joke. Sisi is not a revolutionary, he is a counter-revolutionary.

That is why it is important for Italy and the wider EU not to fall for the regime’s disingenuous “warnings” that not supporting it would “endanger the whole of the Mediterranean and Europe”, as Sisi warned in an interview with La Repubblica, by delivering Egypt to radical jihadists.

Human rights are supposed to be a central pillar of Europe’s relationship with Egypt and the rest of the region. It is high time for Italy and the EU to start seriously demanding from Egypt and its other Med partners respect for these fundamental principles and to implement serious democratic, social and economic reforms. These are the true safeguards against radicalisation and terrorism.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extendedversion of an article which first appeared in Italian in Corriere Della Sera on 16 May 2016.

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Podcast: Egypt’s cartoon villains and heroes

 
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By Khaled Diab

The battle between Egyptian revolutionary and counterrevolutionary forces is being played out in caricature.

The famous satirical cartoonist, the late Mostafa Hussein, lost his sense of humour to implore Sisi to run for the presidency in October 2013.

The famous satirical cartoonist, the late Mustafa Hussein, lost his sense of humour to implore Sisi to run for the presidency in October 2013.

Thursday 18 February 2016

It’s an arresting image – both figuratively and literally. A caricature of Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi has the Egyptian president’s hands pressed over his tightly shut eyes. An anxious frown is knitted deep into the dictator’s brow and his mouth is downturned as if the weight of the country hangs off it.

Entitled ‘Shy president’, the caption reads: “I don’t like being drawn.”

The cartoon was the brainchild of the outspoken pro-revolutionary cartoonist Mohamed Qindeel, who goes by the nom de plume Andeel.

Andeel’s caricature was a graphical protest at the arrest of fellow cartoonist Islam Gawish. “When I read the news about Islam I started drawing Sisi’s face before I even knew what I’d have him say,” Andeel says. “The fact that they wanted people to think they are not allowed to draw Sisi was enough to make me sure that I have to draw him.”

Gawish’s cartoons, which tend to be simple, child-like ink drawings, have become a runaway success with Egypt’s young. One memorable Gawish cartoon mocks the duplicity of the regime’s rhetoric compared with its reality. It features a balding stickman who represents Sisi or his regime.

“You need someone who will embrace you. Come here,” the authority figure urges a group of long-faced youth. The punchline arrives in the final panel in which the youngsters are still in Sisi’s embrace but are now standing inside a cage, with him on the outside.

Many, including Andeel, are convinced that cartoons like this were the reason behind Gawish’s temporary detention, as Egypt slowly reverts to the bad old days when mocking the president was a red line.

Following massive uproar, Gawish was released. However, his short-lived detention may have already served its intended purpose. “[Gawish] is young and mostly active on the internet. He doesn’t belong to the old-school intellectuals,” explains Andeel. “So making people believe he is targeted is supposed to make people realize that the authorities are as present online… as they are in the physical world.”

And with over 1.7 million followers on his Facebook page alone, Gawish is a big fish to net.

Egypt is in the grips of a major crackdown on dissent, with thousands of activists, artists and journalists languishing behind bars or fleeing into self-imposed exile. One prominent example of this is Ramy Essam, whose daring, mischievous lyrics transformed him into the unofficial “singer of the revolution”. He is now living in relative obscurity in Sweden.

Those left behind live in constant anxiety or fear that the arbitrary net of Egypt’s resurgent autocracy could nab them next.  “I’m thinking about the possibility of going to jail for the first time in my life,” admits Andeel.

But arrest and intimidation aren’t the only weapons in the regime’s arsenal. There is also the subtle and not-so-subtle art of counterrevolution.

There has been a concerted campaign to erase the revolution’s artistic legacy, including the literal whitewashing of Egypt’s flourishing revolutionary street art.

There has also been a clear, if piecemeal, effort to co-opt artists, including actors, singers and writers. Many of them have quite literally been singing his praises, in a revival of low-quality, cloying patriotic odes to the president and to Egypt which I and many others had hoped the revolution had relegated to the dustbin of history.

Cartoonists, too, in the state-owned media and some pro-regime outlets have played their part in this effort. “These cartoons tend to mirror official policies, whether that be the president’s speeches, government slogans, or campaigns,” observes Jonathan Guyer of the Institute of Current World Affairs who specialises in Egyptian political cartoons.

Sisi’s official anointment as president and the inauguration of the much-hyped extension of the Suez Canal were particularly active periods for counterrevolutionary artists.

Sisi the sailorIn contrast to the unflattering portraits of Sisi by Andeel or by the renowned graffiti artist Ganzeer – who depicted the president with a television head on which was the face of a cartoon bunny, the portrayals of many pro-regime artists couldn’t be more ingratiating – the portrayals of many pro-regime artists couldn’t be more ingratiating.

There is Sisi the conscientious, earnest labourer straining under the burden of carrying the country on his shoulders. There is also Sisi the skipper of the good ship Egypt, navigating it through narrow, perhaps even dire, straits, while trusting, smiling, stupefyingly grateful, flag-waving Egyptians stand behind him.

One common motif is to depict Egypt as a woman, “Um el-Dunya” (Mother of the World), with Sisi as her son, guide and defender – an image, Andeel believes, is “psychologically reflective of tyranny”.

These staid, formulaic cartoons lack, in the words of Guyer, “the artistic nuance or linguistic wordplays of some of the more rabble-rousing and creative illustrators for independent media outlets”. Andeel maintains that the desire for freedom means that rebel art “will revolve around fresh ideas” and be free of monotony and repetition.

Watani habibiThat’s not to say that pro-regime art always lakes creativity or artistic merit. The propaganda songs of the Nasser years are still popular today. But that was a time in which artists seemed, despite their misgivings, to believe in the national project. They wanted optimistically to help construct a nation, not keep one from imploding.

Those supporting and praising Sisi aren’t all hired pens, some genuinely believe his rhetoric and project, while others fear the alternatives to his rule.

This public sentiment could be gleaned in the “Sisi-mania” which gripped Egypt in 2013 and 2014. Citizens spontaneously produced and consumed Sisi paraphernalia, from chocolates to perfume, in a surreal show of leader love, even lust, in the form of Sisi lingerie.

With such a public mood and mainstream media hysteria, some fear that the window for subversive caricature and radical art in Egypt has shut. But Sisi’s heavy-handed repression and failure to turn Egypt around has replaced the mania with apathy in somen and bubbling restiveness in others.

Many who had offered their conditional love are withdrawing it. An example of this Guyer points to is Amro Selim, who was one of the first cartoonists to lampoon Hosni Mubarak in caricature, in the former dictator’s final years. Angered and fearful of Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, Selim was a supporter of Sisi’s violent power grab.

But Selim has gradually grown more critical. In one scathing cartoon, he has Sisi sitting on the head of a troubled journalist, like some sort of fat genie, watching carefully what the embattled hack is writing.

Abu NadaraMoreover, biting satire has been an Egyptian staple for decades, if not centuries, even if its mainstream form was forced to focus on social issues during oppressive periods.

When Egyptian rulers oppress, the satirical press doesn’t go away it just goes underground. This is reflected in Egypt’s first satirical magazine, Travels of the Man in the Blue Glasses, which was first published in 1877.

After it was banned in Egypt, its founder, Yaqub Sanu, began to publish it in Paris and thousands of smuggled copies continued to enjoy a massive underground following back home.

With social media and the internet’s intrinsic subversiveness and the endless possibilities they opens up for artists, the underground scene has grown exponentially since the days of Sanu.

And what sizzles and simmers underground is bound to, when the moment is right, bubble up to the surface again, turning counterrevolution back into revolution.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This report was first broadcast on the BBC World Service’s The Cultural Frontline on  13 February 2016.

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Egypt’s other Tahrirs

 
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By Khaled Diab

Tahrir may have been pacified for now, but the revolution is still playing out in Egypt’s economic and social squares.

Sana Seif

Friday 5 February 2016

In January 2011, Egypt captivated the entire world but, above all else, Egyptians surprised and mesmerised themselves.

If revolution means, as the word implies, sending the established order and accepted norms into a spin, then what occurred in those heady winter days in 2011 was a revolution with a capital “R”.

Only the tyranny of death would manage to oust the ageing tyrant, many believed. Instead, millions of Egyptians taking to the streets gave Hosni Mubarak his marching orders.

Egyptians are docile and apathetic, was the received wisdom. But they shock off the chains of apparent lethargy to rise up, en masse, against the despotism of the dictator, the junta and the theocrats.

Egyptians need, nay desire, the iron fist of a strongman. Although a surprising number of people lamented the downfall of Mubarak, the majority were jubilant and partied like there was a tomorrow when the news of his demise broke.

In addition, the crowds’ sustained and uncompromising demands for bread, freedom and social justice put paid to the lie that Egyptians do not desire nor understand democracy, even if some are reluctant or passionate supporters of military or Islamist dictatorship.

Today, it is hard to believe that those momentous events occurred just five years ago. Like a 21st-century Alice, Egyptians seem to have fallen into a wormhole in which time, space and history have been warped and speeded up.

In just five years, Egypt has gone through more changes in leadership than over the preceding six decades. The country has hurtled through revolution, counterrevolution, and anti-revolution, and its people have ridden the emotional rollercoaster that has taken them from the heights of elation to the depths of deflation.

Though everything promised to change, nothing seems to have changed. This sad reality was poignantly summed up by the solitary courageous protester, Sanaa Seif, who marched defiantly through the indiffrent traffic on Tahrir Square with a short bearing the slogan: “It’s still the January revolution“.

This has led to a sense of despondency and despair, with many signing off on the revolution’s death certificate or, worse, claiming that it was never born in the first place.

But is this disillusionment justified?

It is true that the existing order has proven remarkably adept at clinging on to power. First, the regime sacrificed its head to save its body. Then the military attempted to rule directly and co-opt the revolutionaries. Failing this, it hid behind the democratic façade provided by a pliant Muslim Brotherhood. When Mohamed Morsi got too big for his shoes, he was unceremoniously evicted and the apparent loyalist he appointed to run the armed forces, Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, became Egypt’s newly minted military dictator.

The counterrevolution has been so apparently successful that it seems to have brought Egypt full circle back to square one. However, appearances are deceptive.

The incremental and unprecedented use of force and coercion, not to mention efforts to frighten the population into submission, are signs of weakness, not of strength. It betrays just how desperate the regime has become after everything has failed to keep a rebellious population in check.

And even though Egypt’s jails are overflowing with prisoners of conscience, not to mention all the dead, other activists, critical journalists and outspoken citizens take their place, some many times over.

Ahmed Gamal Zyada is just one “typical” example of this courage in the face of adversity. A journalist who previously spent 500 days in prison, he was recently stabbed and left for dead in what his family allege was a political assassination attempt.

“I’m not going to lie, pretend that I’m a hero and say I don’t feel fear,” Zyada said in an interview after his release from prison. “I am afraid, but I’m not going to be silent.”

But it is not just revolutionaries who feel fear. Despite being the one with the guns, the soldiers, the police and the prison cells, the al-Sisi regime is the one that is acting terrified, especially so in the run-up to 25 January.

This panicked fear has been amply demonstrated by what has been described as “the toughest security crackdown in Egypt’s history” which has included a spate of arrests, and the random, arbitrary searching of thousands of downtown apartments.

The underlying reason for this fear are clear: while Egyptians have changed, their leaders have not, and they live in a delusion that the old ways can be restored through violence. “A profound gulf now exists between a ruling class intent on governing as if nothing has changed and large swathes of a democratic citizenry for whom something fundamental has altered,” writes Jack Shenker, who covered the revolution for the Guardian, in The Egyptians, a new book which will be released soon.

In addition to the ferocity of the counterrevolution, the trouble with the revolution was that the euphoria it aroused raised too many high expectations. Problems that have accumulated over the six decades since the army took over power take time to unravel. The brutality of the modern Egyptian state over the past two centuries cannot be blunted immediately. The damage done by foreign control and meddling that has been Egypt’s lot for more than two millennia cannot be repaired in an instant.

When the revolution first erupted, I argued that a political revolution will fail without an accompanying social (r)evolution, to dethrone the million “mini-Mubaraks”, weed out endemic corruption, promote equality and egalitarianism, create a meritocracy and more.

While the political revolution has stalled, the social and cultural one is in full swing. It has been spearheaded by workers demanding their rights, women struggling for equality, and the growing assertiveness of previously discreet minorities, such as atheists. Young people have perhaps been the greatest agitators for change and have given their elders lessons in courage, determination and grit – schools have even become breeding grounds for rebels.

Even if Tahrir has been pacified for now, Egypt’s thousand of mini “Tahrirs” have not. This is reflected in the paradox that, despite or perhaps because of the escalating use of state violence, the number of daily protests under Sisi is almost triple what they were under Morsi and five times higher than the turbulent final years of Mubarak’s rule.

Although Egyptians did not heed the call of the shrunken ranks of activist to take to the streets once again on 25 January, it does not mean they won’t ever again. Egyptians have discovered their latent ability to move immobile mountains and broken the fear barrier.

When they do eventually rise again, a deep social revolution may enable them to unleash their creativity to the maximum – perhaps even reinventing democracy to suit their needs.

“I am deeply convinced that the future is ours and that we are now witnessing the beginning of the end of this tyrannical state,” believes Khaled Fahmy, a history professor who has been chronicling the revolution.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the updated version of an article which first appeared on Al Jazeera on 23 January 2016.

 

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A utopian refuge for refugees?

 
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By Khaled Diab

Can an Egyptian billionaires vision of turning a Mediterranean island into a just republic for refugees help solve the refugee crisis?

Monday 14 September 2015

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.”

This verse from the poem by Emma Lazarus titled The New Colossus was not quite the words used by Naguib Sawiris, but it seems to be what he meant. The Egyptian billionaire caused a tempest when he announced his wish to purchase a Mediterranean island – possibly near Rhodes, where the original Colossus stood – to provide shelter for the region’s desperate refugees.

“Greece or Italy sell me an island, I’ll [declare] its independence and host the migrants and provide jobs for them building their new country,” Sawiris tweeted. And this brave, new refugee republic would be named Ilan, the Egyptian tycoon later elaborated, in  honour of Aylan Kurdi, the drowned Syrian child whose haunting image shook the world.

With neighbouring countries unable to cope further with the influx of Syrian refugees and wealthy Gulf states doing almost nothing to take them in – while even contributing by proxy to the Syrian refugee crisis and directly in Yemen – Sawiris is the latest entrepreneur to step into the void. One prominent example was Turkey’s yoghurt moghul, Hamdi Ulukaya, who pledged to give away more than half his $1.4 billion fortune to help Kurdish and other refugees.

Sawiris’s proposal resonated so widely because it is an appealing and symbolic notion which tugs at the heartstrings. As untold thousands of refugees take to the sea to escape the shipwreck of failed and failing nation states, Aylan island will provide them with a safe haven from the storm, and a place where they can live in dignity, and not be “treated and used like cattle,” in Sawiris’s word.

The scheme, though extremely costly for the Egyptian billionaire, sounds impressively self-sufficient. Housing, educational and other infrastructure on the uninhabited island would be built, and presumably operated, by the refugees themselves, providing them with a shot at independence and dignity, rather than the marginalisation and unemployment that often greets those fleeing conflict.

Sawiris’s implied faith in the refugees’ abilities, work ethic and potential for productivity is an implicit jab at Europe’s anti-immigrant right, who regard refugees and migrants as  lazy layabouts and a threat to their way of life. It would also help boost Europe’s capacity to absorb refugees by providing it with a purpose-built refuge.

That said, despite the presence of numerous candidate islands and the welcome income to the cash-strapped treasuries of Greece or Italy, it seems unlikely that either country will take enthusiastically to the scheme.

One major stumbling block is the question of sovereignty. Which European country would be willing to cede territory, which would be declared “independent”, to the eccentric scheme of a foreign billionaire?

Even if they were to accept this or were to retain sovereignty, there would be the possible fear that, rather than an alternative for refugees which would sidestep the European mainland, the island would simply become a stepping stone to Europe, rather like the Italian island of Lampedussa or the Greek island of Kos. This would especially be the case if Sawiris’s idealistic project ends up becoming little more than a glorified refugee camp, rather than a utopian republic.

But it is Sawiris’s almost Platonic discourse of  a just republic for refugees that is probably the most appealing to the Arab public’s ear, especially if, against the odds and expectations, this idealised and idyllic oasis can succeed where Arab regimes have failed. In fact, it would be extremely poignant – even poetic – if refugees fleeing murderous dictatorships and blood-thirsty non-state groups managed to construct a functioning and productive society which respects individual freedom and dignity. If successful, I imagine it would attract Arab immigrants, not just refugees.

In addition to the challenge of building an effective society from scratch by truamatised people from diverse backgrounds, one wonders whether Sawiris will have the commitment to carry through such a feat.

It is true that Sawiris was a self-declared supporter (and fairly enthusiastic for a businessman who made the bulk of his fortune under Mubarak) of the 2011 revolution, helping set up the “Council of Wisemen” which was rejected by Egypt’s revolutionary youth.

However, like with many Egyptians, the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and Mohamed Morsi spooked him, and the party he established, the Free Egyptians Party, backed Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi’s campaign for president, despite the clearly undemocratic way al-Sisi had got to where he was and his violent repression of dissent.

This raises the question of whether rich Egyptians and Arabs can help lead their societies down the path to freedom, justice, equality and prosperity.

Some Arab tycoons are joining the growing movement of billionaires committed to philanthropy. For example, Saudi Arabia’s Prince Alwaleed bin Talal has voiced his intentions to give away his considerable fortune.

Despite the undoubted value of philanthropy and the importance of interclass solidarity, the world’s billionaires are more a part of the problem than the solution, especially when you consider that the richest 1% own more than the rest of the world, and 85 or so billionaires are worth as much, in economic terms, as half of humanity.

This is the case in the Arab world, and perhaps more so. Not only is economic inequality massive, and widening, the region has become a living laboratory for unfettered neo-liberal economics and a stronghold for crony capitalism.

The intimate links, both explicit and implicit, between the business elites, the military and repressive regimes across the region mean that, no matter how well-meaning, the individual efforts of (relatively) enlightened tycoons are no substitute for systematic and fundamental change and reform.

More than greater philanthropy, the Arab world is crying out for greater social democracy, equity, solidarity, welfare systems, education and justice for all.

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Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera on 7 September 2015.

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Egyptian Jews, love triangles and conspiracy theories

 
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By Khaled Diab

Despite outlandish conspiracy theories, a Ramadan TV drama about Egypt’s lost Jewish community is not a missive to Israel but an ode to pluralism.

Haret al-yahoud

Wednesday 8 July 2015

Love triangles, unrequited love and the torment of separation are staples of Egyptian soap operas. This is especially the case during Ramadan, when fasting and piety dominate during daylight hours and feasting and revelry kick off once the sun goes down.

But one Ramadan drama stands out for a love story with an unusual twist. Leila and Ali are the classic boy and girl next door who have been madly in love since childhood, with Ibtihal their jealous neighbour, representing the obtuse angle of this triangle. So far so ordinary.

However, Leila is an Egyptian Jew and Ali is an Egyptian officer deployed to the Palestine front during the 1948 war. To complicate matters further, her brother is one of the few Egyptian Jews who has gone to Palestine to help the Israeli effort.

The Leila-Ali affair makes up one of the central storylines of Haret el-Yahoud, which is set in Cairo’s Jewish Quarter, the controversial historical drama that is currently airing in Egypt and across the Arab world.

I have watched the first few episodes of this slick production and have generally been impressed by the quality of the acting and the period mood it evokes of 1940s “belle epoque” Cairo.

Most of all, I am pleased that a largely forgotten and distorted period of Egypt’s recent history, that of the demise of the country’s once-vibrant, 80,000-strong Jewish community, has been made accessible to a broader public – and in a humane and sympathetic light.

Though many Egyptians have welcomed the series, it has also provoked inevitable anger and allegations of “whitewashing history” in some quarters, especially among those who seem convinced that Jews, Israelis and Zionists are the same thing.

One example of this is Ahmed Metwali, described as a professor of history at Cairo University, who claimed that Jews in Egypt isolated themselves socially and worked exclusively in trade and business.

Obviously, the good professor’s grasp of his own country’s history is shaky at best, or ideology has blinded him to reality. Though a small community, Egypt’s Jews were prominent in every walk of life, including culture and politics – and many were ordinary, working class folk.

In fact, it might surprise the learned professor to learn that Jews played a central role in awakening Egypt’s modern national consciousness. A good example of this was Yaqub Sannu. Though almost totally forgotten today, in the 19th century, Sannu established one of the country’s first anti-imperialist and anti-royalist publications, The Man in the Blue Glasses. He was also possibly the creator of the quintessential Ibn el-Balad (Son of the Country) character who stood for native virtue and the anti-imperial and class struggle.

Jews in Egypt felt so apparently comfortable that they not only made films, but some made films about Jews. At a time when German Jewish filmmakers were fleeing Hitler, Togo Mizrahi, one of the founding fathers of Egyptian cinema, made numerous films which had Jewish protagonists and main characters  – something that was rare if unheard of in 1930s Hollywood.

Even more unbelievably, Metwali claims that there were no love affairs between Muslims and Jews.

Has the history professor really not heard of perhaps the most famous on- and off-screen couple in Egyptian cinematic history, Leila Murad, who was once everyone’s favourite silver screen beauty with the golden vocal chords, and the debonair Anwar Wagdi? Out of love, Murad converted from Judaism to Islam to marry Wagdi (three times), who ruined their relationship by insisting on owning her entire career.

The character of Leila is done up in such a way as to pay tribute to her legendary namesake, while Ali, with his Clark Gable moustache, bears more than a passing resemblance to Wagdi.

Some critics have gone even further and taste the ingredients of a conspiracy by the al-Sisi regime to appease Israel and engineer a rapprochement by “narrowing the psychological gap between the two peoples”, according to Hossam Aql of the al-Badeel al-Hadari party.

But again, this strikes me as a case of conflating Jews with Israel. While the series portrays Egyptian Jews in a sympathetic light, the only Israeli I have seen so far was a two-dimensional sadist army officer who tortures Ali.

For Muslim Brotherhood supporters, it is Haret al-Yahoud’s less-than-flattering portrayal of their founding father, Hassan el-Banna, that seems to have provoked the greatest fury. “al-Sisi’s TV serials are a misrepresentation in favour of the Jews,” Anas Hassan, a prominent activist and the founder of Rassd, a pro-Brotherhood grassroots news site, wrote on his Facebook page, eliciting more than 2,000 likes. “al-Sisi is a complete Zionising project.”

The flimsy evidence for this is that the Israeli media has praised al-Sisi repeatedly. But if that is an indicator of being a “Zionist stooge”, then the Brotherhood’s very own Mohamed Morsi deserves that accolade just as much, given the acclaim he got in Israel and the love letter he sent to former Israeli president Shimon Peres.

In other posts, Hassan accused al-Sisi of being an “apostate” who was “raised by Jews”. Since al-Sisi’s rise to power, many Muslim Brotherhood supporters and activists have subscribed to outlandish ­– and frankly anti-Semitic – conspiracy theories about the Egyptian leaders ancestry, alleging that he is a Jew.

The damning case against him? According to a popular YouTube video, al-Sisi was born and raised in el-Gamaliya, in an alleyway which lies on the edge of the Jewish quarter. “Only Jews resided in the Jewish quarter,” the narrator tells us untruthfully, as the area, despite its name, was always a mixed one.

Though not all Muslim Brothers entertain such feverish fantasies, this kind of hate-filled, intolerant, sectarian discourse does little to counteract the image of el-Banna and his men, who set off a deadly campaign of bombings against Jewish targets in 1948 just because they shared the same religion as the enemy, presented in Haret el-Yahoud as violent fanatics.

To my mind, there is no pro-Israel conspiracy behind Haret el-Yahoud, but perhaps an alliance of convenience and some co-option. Many artists in Egypt feel threatened by the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamist intolerance in general, and this has, sadly, made many staunch or hesitant supporters of the ruthless military regime.

The series’ uncritical veneration of the army is a case in point. Even though al-Sisi hadn’t yet been born at the time of the 1948 war, the makers’ decision to set this drama in al-Sisi’s old neighbourhood and to make the main star a handsome, principled and sensitive army officer to whom women are instinctively drawn is a powerful subliminal message to audiences. Of course, any resemblance to real or living presidents may be entirely coincidental and unintentional.

For audiences and programme makers alike, the main draw to Haret al-Yahoud, in these tumultuous times, is nostalgia. Many look back wistfully to an Egypt that was once perched on top of the Arab and developing world. It was the wealthiest and most advanced Arab country, and a place where modernity and progress seemed to be on an unstoppable onward march.

In a contemporary Egypt where intolerance towards Christians, not to mention anyone who is different, many Egyptians feel that their country seriously lost its way in the second half of the 20th century, when it was supposed to have been liberated.

Haret al-Yahoud is not a missive to Israel but an ode to pluralism. By coming to terms with the injustice it committed against its Jewish minority, Egypt may be able to save its soul.

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Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera on 29 June 2015.

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