Egypt’s accidental democracy?

 
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By Khaled Diab

Bad as things are now, Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, despite his dictatorial tendencies, may unwittingly preside over Egypt’s transition to democracy.

Image: al-Sisi's official Facebook page.

In the past, Egypt’s dictators had rubber-stamp parliaments. What I call “democra-Sisi” takes this to the next level by mobilising the electorate to rubber stamp the president’s will and provide him with a sheen of popular legitimacy. Image: al-Sisi’s official Facebook page.

Thursday 26 June 2014

Egypt is witnessing a new dawn of freedom – at least it is, according to Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi. “Our two glorious revolutions have paved the way to an era devoted to strength, not hostility… which defends the rule of law, enhancing the judiciary and security, while maintaining rights and freedoms,” al-Sisi told the jubilant audience at his inaugural address.

So “iconic” is this moment that al-Sisi called on Egyptian artists to create masterpieces that would “travel the world and commemorate all the martyrs”.

So what is this unique model that will honour the sacrifices of all those who suffered, and those who paid the ultimate price, over the past three years to build a better, fairer and freer Egypt?

Having analysed his speech and his behaviour to date, the only singular element in al-Sisi’s vision of liberty is that it has our new president at its heart.

In a speech which lasted close to an hour, I only noticed one mention of “democracy”. “You proved that your ability does not stop at toppling tyrannical and failed regimes but you also translated it into a democratic will through the ballot box,” he said.

This, I feel, encapsulates al-Sisi’s attitude towards democracy: the will of the people is welcome as long as it limits itself to giving him a licence to act as he sees fit. In the past, Egypt’s dictators had rubber-stamp parliaments. What I call “democra-Sisi” takes this to the next level by mobilising the electorate to rubber stamp the president’s will and provide him with a sheen of popular legitimacy.

This was reflected in his populist calls last summer for the public to take to the streets and give him a mandate to fight what he called “terrorism and violence”. He echoed the same sentiment when he rather aloofly told Egyptians before the elections that he expected an 80% turnout – as if he could order citizens to do his bidding, as if they were subordinate soldiers in the military.

Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi has often been compared to Nasser. I have joked that he does share something in common with the legendary Egyptian president: they are the only two Egyptian presidents not named Muhammad.

But in reality there are some likenesses between the two men. In addition to their respective wars on the Muslim Brotherhood and deep suspicion of the Islamist movement, al-Sisi seems to pursue a Nasserist-light conception of freedom.

In rhetoric at least, he focuses a lot on national, social and cultural freedom to the detriment of political and personal freedom. “Egypt must be open in its international relations,” al-Sisi emphasised. “But the era of subordination is over.” To the rest of the region, the president promised that Egypt would regain her status “as an older sister”.

Unlike his Islamist predecessor, al-Sisi praised the role of Egyptian women, albeit to a predominantly middle-aged male audience. “I will do all I can to ensure that [Egyptian women] are represented fairly in the representative councils and in executive positions,” he promised.

But so far this has only been rhetorical, as reflected by his appointment of just four women to his early-worm first government, unchanged from the previous cabinet, drawing criticism from the National Council of Women.

The president also pledged more for the country’s marginalised youth who “lit the fuse of revolution” and for the downtrodden poor who “have endured so much and seen their suffering multiply”.

How al-Sisi intends to square this with his previous statements calling on the poor to tighten their belts further, not to mention his pro-business agenda and his efforts to rehabilitate Egypt’s “patriotic and honourable” businessmen was unclear, especially since he presented no electoral programme during the elections.

Nevertheless, he promised all Egyptians that they would “reap the fruits during this presidential term and we will accomplish the unprecedented”. How? Through vague pledges to invest in industry, tourism and agriculture, as well as renewable energy. Though I think that his pledge to install energy-saving bulbs in every home is unambitious – he should work to place solar boilers on every roof.

Perhaps through mass philanthropy? Hoping to lead by example, the president pledge to give away half his salary and half his wealth to Egypt and called on others to follow his example. Whether many will take up his call remains to be seen. But a more effective mechanism would be to pursue, rather than rehabilitate, all those corrupt tycoons, and put in place a fair and effective tax system.

His recent pormises go contrary to his previous efforts to lower expectations of what can be achieved to avoid the pitfall into which his predecessor, Mohamed Morsi, fell by promising change within 100 days.

And it is likely to prove an equally poisonous chalice, especially when Egyptians discover no meaningful alteration to their well-being, coupled with the expected return of the disgraced Mubarak business elite.

But al-Sisi has an ace up his sleeve: the national security card. “There will be no co-operation with and no appeasement of those who wish to undermine the state’s prestige,” he vowed. “And the near future will witness the Egyptian state regaining its prestige.”

And this week’s multiple attacks on the metro, which killed one, is not only a worrying portent but can provide the regime with the opportunity to crack down even more heavily.

“I will not permit the emergence of a parallel leadership to rival the state. There will not be a second leadership. There will be only one leadership,” he warned ominously later in the speech, for good measure.

Ostensibly, al-Sisi possesses the tools to make this no idle threat, as already demonstrated when he ran Egypt from the background as its uncrowned king. The new president exercises apparent control over both the military and civilian arms of the state, and has tamed much of the mainstream media to his will – and so it would be natural to expect him to consolidate his grip to such an extent that he could become an elected dictator for life.

But counterintuitive as it may sound, al-Sisi may, despite his dictatorial tendencies, unwittingly and inadvertently preside over Egypt’s transition to democracy.

Although a snap public holiday and a third day of voting were announced to mobilise the vote, not to mention the hysteria in the visual media urging citizens to exercise their democratic duty, the turnout remained relatively low.

This has given the new president a much lower mandate than he had hoped for. More importantly, the decision of millions of voters to stay home and not join in the love fest has punctured his image as the popular saviour the Egyptian masses were awaiting.

This weak support base – which is bound to get weaker when his well-oiled propaganda machine is no longer able to counter the reality of his probable failure to resolve Egypt’s myriad problems and the vested interests his regime is likely to serve – is likely embolden his critics, activists and even the currently docile mainstream media.

This week’s ludicurous verdict in the Al Jazeera trial, based on non-existent evidence, is extremely troubling. But if it’s intention was to cow the media and critics of the regime, the effectiveness of this kind of extremely punitive exercise seems to have succumbed to the law of diminishing marginal returns.

While the pro-Sisi fan club in the visual media cheered on, the print and alternative media, as well as Egypt’s courageous human rights activists, refused to be intimidated and took a more critical position, with some journalists lamenting the degeneration of the country’s once-respected judiciary, while veteran human rights activist Negad Borai condemned the judiciary for losing its sense of “justice, consicence and humanity“.

Rather than be cowed, social media has been swept by a tidal wave of contempt and satire, with every action, remark made and idea fielded by al-Sisi mocked mercilessly. If al-Sisi hoped to restore the state’s “prestige” and “aura” through his person, then he is far from declaring mission accomplished.

This refusal by growing numbers to tow the party line leaves al-Sisi with some stark choices. One option would be to muster what is left of the might of a state massively weakened by more than three years of revolutionary upheaval and decades of mismanagement to brutally repress dissent. But with the state already in top gear when it comes to repression and brutality, this is an unsustainable path, and could push the country off the cliff into a millions-strong uprising or, worst, open warfare.

The other choice is to be pragmatic and to learn the art of political compromise and consensus politics. The state is showing some early, tentative signs of pursuing this path. If al-Sisi chooses this path – which I hope, for the sake of Egypt, he will – he may still, whether or not he intends it, find himself going down in history as the harbinger of Egyptian democracy.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the updated version of an article which first appeared in Daily News Egypton 21 June 2014.

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The Arabs, apartheid South Africa and Israel

 
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By Khaled Diab

Reactions to apartheid South Africa differed across the Arab world and were coloured both by anti-colonial solidarity and the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Nelson Mandela with troops from the Algerian Liberation Army. Photo: www.sahistory.org.za

Nelson Mandela with troops from the Algerian Liberation Army. Photo: www.sahistory.org.za

Friday 27 December 2013

Like just about everywhere else, the death of Nelson Mandela triggered passionate responses across the Arab world. “Men and women everywhere feel they have lost someone very close to them,” said the respected international diplomat and peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi.

“Humanity has lost its greatest son,” tweeted former IAEA chief, prominent anti-Mubarak opponent and short-lived transitional vice-president Mohamed ElBaradei, himself also the winner of a Nobel peace prize.

Egypt even took the extraordinary measure of announcing three days of national mourning to mark the great man’s death. Algerian president Abdel-Aziz Bouteflika went a step further and ordered eight days of national mourning during which all flags were to be flown at half-mast.

Unlike in the West, however, Arab sentiment and sympathy towards Nelson Mandela stretch back decades, back to the days he was a radical rebel and not yet a hallowed peacemaker – some Arabs even prefer that Mandela of yesteryear.

Previous generations of Arabs saw in the long and bitter struggle against apartheid and its precursors in South Africa – spearheaded by the African National Congress (ANC) – the reflection of their own plight under the boot of European colonialism and imperialism. This was particularly the case in North Africa, which also felt a sense of African solidarity.

According to Mandela himself, who admired Algeria’s long battle for independence, the situation in French Algeria most closely paralleled that of South Africa.

In this light, it is unsurprising that the ANC received training, funds and support from Algeria. In 1961, during his clandestine Africa tour after which he was arrested, Nelson Mandela spent time with the Algerian Liberation Army and the rebels of the National Liberation Front in Algeria.

Although Mandela was impressed by what he saw, even back then he realised that “there was no point in trying to overthrow the apartheid regime; the ANC had to force them to the negotiating table.”

Algeria also provided the ANC with constant diplomatic support, such as helping spearhead the pan-African charge against apartheid South Africa. For instance, Abdel-Aziz Bouteflika, when he was president of the UN General Assembly in 1974, ruled that South Africa could not participate in its proceedings.

And Algeria was there right to the end. For example, Lakhdar Ibrahimi was the UN Special Envoy for South Africa and monitored the transition to democracy. Ibrahimi is also a member of The Elders, a group of world leaders founded by Mandela to promote global peace.

Nasser’s Egypt also provided the ANC with strong support, in its multiple roles as a member of the United Nations, the Arab League, the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) and the Non-Aligned Movement. Although Egypt did not shut down the South African embassy in Cairo until May 1961, the Egyptian capital hosted offices for the ANC from the late 1950s.

Mandela’s time in Egypt clearly impressed him, both in cultural and historic terms, but also for the new regime’s efforts to develop the country. “President Nasser had an impressive programme of economic development based on African socialism,” he wrote in his unpublished memoirs written on Robben Island.

Solidarity was not one way either, and the ANC supported Egypt whenever it could. In Egypt’s hour of need during the Suez Crisis, known as the Tripartite Aggression in Arabic, the ANC said: “We pledge our solidarity with the Egyptian people and are confident that the people of Africa will not allow themselves to be used against their fellow Africans in any predatory war.”

Showing early signs of his conciliatory humanism and inclusiveness, Mandela spoke up and lobbied robustly in 1962 against strong sub-Saharan African opposition to the entry of North Africa to the Pan-African Freedom Movement for East and Central Africa (PAFMECA), which became the Organisation for African Unity (OAU) and eventually evolved into today’s African Union.

“An aspect that particularly disturbed me was the attitude of most delegates in the PAFMECSA area to visitors from West Africa and the Arab countries,” Mandela recalled. “The whole issue upset me and I felt I could not keep quiet.”

“The trouble Nelson is that in North Africa you have Africans who are not Africans,” one delegate yelled out, not without justification. Nevertheless, Mandela carried the day and paved the way to Egypt, Algeria and the rest of North Africa to become full members of the African club.

It should be pointed out that the Arab world was not uniform in its stance towards apartheid. North Africa and the secular, revolutionary states were generally more sympathetic to the ANC than the conservative monarchist regimes, which feared that the contagion of radical socialist politics would spread within their own borders.

Moreover, some corners of the Arab world, namely some countries in the Gulf, still lived under the dark shadow of perhaps the worst form of apartheid: slavery. Saudi Arabia, for instance, did not abolish slavery until 1962, and only under immense pressure from Egypt’s then-unrivalled propaganda apparatus.

This may in part explain the Saudi regime’s ambivalent attitude towards apartheid and how Riyadh was quite happy to supply South Africa with oil until the oil embargo which accompanied the 1973 war with Israel forced its hand. This may have not lasted long, however, as there is some evidence to suggest that Saudi became South Africa’s leading supplier during the sanctions-busting secret trade of the 1980s.

That said, Saudi Arabia, despite its contradictions, also deserves credit for being among the first nations to push for international action against the apartheid regime. It was, for instance, a co-signatory of a 1952 letter to the UN Secretary-General asking for South Africa’s apartheid policies to be placed on the General Assembly’s agenda.

In addition to anti-colonial solidarity, many Arabs saw South Africa through the prism of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, drawing parallels between the two. This remains the case, as the rest of the region, the general view goes, has gained its independence but the Palestinians continue to live under occupation and subjugation. While this is sadly true, this overlooks the fact that there are others who remain deprived of their right to self-determination, such as the Kurds and Sahrawis.

The ANC and Mandela’s sympathy for the Palestinian cause has won them many Arab hearts and minds, as illustrated by the genuine sense of grief felt across Palestine at Mandela’s passing.

However, what both Palestinians and Israeli critics of Mandela do not seem to realise  is that the great reconciler’s solidarity with the Palestinian struggle did not equate to hostility towards Israelis. “I always thought it unrealistic to ignore the existence of Israel and maintained that the Jewish people are as entitled as any other nation in the world to have their own national home,” Mandela reflected on Robben Island.

Beyond the Holy Land, South Africa’s experience continues to resonate and remains relevant. As Arabs struggle against dictatorship, Mandela stands as a shining example of a liberation leader who not only established a largely functioning democracy but also stepped down graciously, in stark contrast to the Arab model of leader-for-life or until revolution strikes.

Despite post-apartheid South Africa’s many imperfections, this rainbow nation also provides our bitterly divided region with an inspiring model of reconciliation and healing.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 19 December 2013.

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Egypt’s revolution in the breaking

 
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By Khaled Diab

Although Egypt has been eclipsed on the Western media radar, it remains caught in a deadly bind between popular jingoism and religious demagoguery.

Monday 14 September 2013

No news is good news, the adage tells us. But just because something does not make it on to the evening news that does not mean the situation has improved, as demonstrated by the US-sparked civil war in Iraq, which continues to exact a heavy toll.

Though the situation is nowhere near as bad, Egypt, too, has been eclipsed in the United States‘ and much of the Western media by the ongoing carnage in Syria, and by the new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s conciliatory gestures and charm offensive towards the West, not to mention the weekend’s US raids in Somalia and Libya.

But it is still very much news for us Egyptians and those who take a deep interest in the future of the country. In fact, as my four-year-old and I embark on a trip home to his “fatherland”, I am plagued by worries and dogged by questions.

How much further will the violence escalate? Where will the clash between pro-military jingoism and divine demagoguery lead the country?

Borrowing from the neocon American lexicon once so despised in Egypt,General Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi’s “war on terror” has, like its US counterpart, mushroomed into a war of terror, as reflected in the recent death of at least 50 people during pro-Morsi protests.

That is not to say there hasn’t been terrorism. There has been plenty of it. Not only have prominent Muslim Brotherhood members incited violence, but their sympathisers have torched churches across the country, and are mounting an insurgency in the already restive Sinai.

In addition, while pleading “legitimacy” and “democracy” abroad, Muslim Brotherhood leaders have falsely accused Christians of being behindMohamed Morsi‘s downfall. This has fanned the flames of hatred towards an already vulnerable minority, leading even as far as murder.

But the Muslim Brotherhood does not have a monopoly on demonisation and false accusations. Though I am a secularist to the core and, being an “infidel”, am vulnerable to the Islamist project, I have been distressed and alarmed by the fever pitch that mainstream hostility towards Brotherhood sympathisers has reached.

For example, the idea that they are all terrorists and that the Raba’a al-Adawiya protest camp was a terrorist den, which goes against the evidence of my own eyes, has gained a surprising amount of traction. Besides which, the situation in Sinai is far more complex than the official narrative allows. The local Bedouins have been sidelined, forgotten and neglected for decades, leading to a lot of grievances that Islamists can exploit; and the military has allegedly targeted civilians, not just militants.

Then, there are Egypt’s rebels who lost their cause. The Tamarod movement did a great job of highlighting Morsi’s loss of legitimacy and channelling public anger at his dictatorial ways. Yet, the movement today sounds like a cheerleading squad for the military and its man of the moment, al-Sisi – even going so far as to defend the military trialsagainst civilians it once opposed.

Little wonder that the revolutionaries who have not taken leave of their senses and principles are despondent. As Ahmed Maher of the April 6 Youth Movement, one of the main driving forces behind the 2011 uprising against Mubarak, said: “We are at square one as a revolution.”

What can America do, some might wonder? Probably not that much, in light of Washington’s squandering – by propping up dictators and engaging in military misadventures – of what remained of the goodwill and credibility it once enjoyed, long ago.

There is one trump card Washington holds, though. It can threaten to cut off military aid if the army does not end its crackdown, release political detainees, and implement serious reform rapidly. (In fact, I would argue that Washington should also make military aid to Israel contingent on reaching a peace deal with the Palestinians.)

But the truth is that the situation is in the hands of the Egyptian people.

At a certain level, I understand why Egypt has reached this point. For me and other desktop revolutionaries outside the country, it’s easy to talk ideals when we’re not confronted with the bitter daily reality. After nearly three years of revolt, with precious little to show for it, Egyptians are suffering a sort of revolution fatigue.

Nevertheless, if Egypt does not change course, all the blood, sweat and tears Egyptians shed in their quest for freedom may prove to have been for nothing. Morsi and the Brotherhood peddled the illusion that they had a divine, magical solution to all Egypt’s problems. Instead, they proved to be a bearded version of the Mubarak regime. They talked democracy, but they walked theocracy.

But it is a grave error to believe that my enemy’s enemy is my friend. The army may have learnt to speak democracy, but autocracy is still in its blood. Six decades of military dictatorship, a disastrous first transition following Mubarak’s ouster and a campaign that seems bent of purging Egypt of the Brotherhood – which could push Egypt over the abyss into civil strife – are not promising signs.

More troubling still, al-Sisi has become a cult hero, with campaigns petitioning him to run for president and polls showing he would win, if he ran. Even if we give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he is a man of integrity, the temptations of excessive power and popularity could potentially doom Egypt to decades more of dictatorship.

For that reason, I hope Egyptians reject both the military and the Muslim Brotherhood, and reject violence, no matter whom its target is.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The Guardian on 9 October 2013.

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Remembering the real Raba’a

 
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By Khaled Diab

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

 Tuesday 24 September 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: ©Khaled Diab.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Egypt’s underground sisterhood

 
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By Khaled Diab

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

10 September 2013

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

___

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

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

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Egypt’s rebels who lost their cause

 
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By Khaled Diab

Can the political alliance between Tamarod and the Egyptian military last, especially as the movement turns on the army’s benefactor, Washington?

Tuesday 3 September 2013

Tamarod is the Arabic for “Rebellion” and, in its early phases, the Egyptian movement which bears this name certainly lived up to it. It is a sign of how far Egypt has come that a nationwide grassroots campaign should have such a, well, rebellious name in a country once famed for its apparent placidity and conformity.

Dreamed up by five activists in a small apartment in the middle-class Cairo district of al-Dokki, the audacious campaign strove, through a nationwide petition, to withdraw confidence from Egypt’s now-former president Mohamed Morsi.

“There was a sense of depression amongst the people, and they didn’t believe that the Muslim Brotherhood would go without bloodshed,” Tamarod’s Hassan Shahin, 23, told me at a dusty and down-at-heel old-world café a stone’s throw away from Cairo’s emblematic Tahrir Square.

Although the young revolutionaries behind Tamarod believed that their campaign would make a large splash, they did not expect it to be quite so enormous. “We had confidence in the Egyptian street, but we were surprised by just how many people got involved,” admits Shahin.

Tamarod says it managed to collect some 23 million signatures (a figure which has not been independently verified), which is only a couple of million short of the total number of votes both Morsi and Shafiq collected in the second round runoff.

I put to Shahin the criticism that Tamarod and other supporters of Morsi’s ouster were anti-democratic to get his views on the matter. “Morsi had an illusory democracy. He abused the constitution, represented just the Brotherhood, and used its militias to terrorise,” he asserted.

Although Morsi had been elected in what was billed as Egypt’s first democratic election, he barely pulled through the vote, and it was partly thanks to the rallying of Egypt’s revolutionary forces behind him that he managed to defeat the army’s candidate, ex-military-man-turned-politician Ahmed Shafik.

Like millions of Egyptians, I recall how baffled I was that these two unpopular men, one of whom (Morsi) was also obscure, managed to defeat all the candidates that had led the opinion polls, including poll toppers Abdel-Moneim Aboul FotouhAmr Moussa andHamdeen Sabahi.

Moreover, the democracy he presided over was something of a mirage, given that the military stood like a director in the wings and the power of the presidency remained largely unchanged, leaving the door widen open for abuses. And abuse it Morsi did, flagrantly, in the service of the Brotherhood, ultimately alienating the rest of society.

Nevertheless, there were many options that should’ve been explored following the mass protests on 30 June, the first anniversary of Morsi’s presidency, instead of the army rushing in to remove the president, such as a referendum on his rule.

But Shahin believes that Morsi’s ouster averted a greater disaster. “What happened on 30 June was a popular revolution supported by a patriotic army,” he maintains. “If the army hadn’t intervened the situation would’ve escalated into a civil war.”

Others fear that Morsi’s removal and the subsequent crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood are more likely to plunge the country into the cauldron of bloody conflict. Shahin dismissed these concerns. “There are risks ahead but it is impossible that there’ll be a civil war,” he said.

Shahin’s cheerleading of the army was both surprising and troubling. Surprising because a year and a half earlier the young revolutionary was out protesting against this very same “patriotic army.” Shahin even quite literally got trampled upon by the heavy boot of military rule when he attempted, on 28 December 2011, to aid a woman who was being brutally beaten and dragged away by soldiers, exposing her torso and blue bra, in an iconic moment which symbolized everything that was wrong with the direct interim rule of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF).

“Even if there were errors committed by SCAF, it was the president’s job to establish the right foundations for Egyptian democracy,” argued Shahin. “We need to differentiate between the institution of the army and a group of leaders who made mistakes.”

He suggested that the problem was not with the military per se but with Field MarshalMohamed Tantawi‘s leadership of the SCAF during the first transition. Shahin praised Tantawi’s successor, Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, who has become a popular hero since ousting Morsi and asking the people for a “mandate” to combat “violence and terrorism”.

“People will not be cheated by the army. It is a patriotic institution,” he reiterated.

Although I do not doubt that the army is “patriotic” – it would be a catastrophe if it were not – it is also the reason why Egyptians have been deprived of democracy and many of their freedoms for the past six decades.

Since our conversation, which took place days before the bloody dispersal of two pro-Morsi camps in Cairo, leaving hundreds dead, I have wondered whether Shahin has had any cause to regret his stance.

But from a first reading of the movement’s actions it would seem not. Unlike Egypt’s human rights organisations and other revolutionary political groups, Tamarod heeded al-Sisi’s call for a “mandate”.

Following the bloody purge, Mahmoud Badr, another co-founder of Tamarod, showed little sign of regret or doubt. “What Egypt is passing through now is the price, a high price, of getting rid of the Brotherhood’s fascist group before it takes over everything and ousts us all,” he claimed in an interview with Reuters.

Some critics in Egypt have wondered whether Tamarod’s cosy relationship with the military and its growing jingoism is a sign that the movement sold out its revolutionary ethos to become a loyal lapdog to the SCAF.

My reading of the situation is that Tamarod is largely in an alliance of convenience with the military, after concluding that, for the time being, SCAF is Egypt’s king-maker. But like Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood before, the young activists are bound to learn the hard way that, once their paths diverge, the king-maker will likely transform into the king-breaker. And early signs of cracks are already emerging.

This began with Tamarod’s alarm over the revival of a number of Orwellian state security department which had been shut down thanks to the 2011 revolution, which the movement described as signifying the “return of Mubarak’s state security“.

The movement has also rejected some of the recommendations of a panel tasked with proposing amendments to the constitution.

A more serious sign of confrontation ahead is Tamarod’s latest campaign to cancel US aid to Egypt and the Camp David peace deal with Israel.

Personally, I can see the rationale and sympathise with the need to end the dependency on American aid, especially as it encourages a culture of corruption and patronage and much of the money flies straight back to the United States anyway. But demanding the tearing up of the peace treaty with Israel is reckless and dangerous, and will do neither Egypt nor the Palestinian cause any good.

Moreover, with the military the largest recipient of American assistance in Egypt and the Egyptian-Israeli peace agreement one of the main bulwarks of the country’s foreign policy, not to mention a binding treaty obligation, this latest move looks likely to put the young activists on a collision course with the generals.

And with Tamarod signaling its intentions to form a political party, the honeymoon period will soon end and the group will again live up to its name of being rebels and join forces with the other revolutionaries they abandoned.

___
Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The Huffington Post on 30 August 2013.

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Egypt’s false state of security

 
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By Wael Eskandar

Handing Egypt’s security services a licence to repress the Muslim Brotherhood will return us to the police state the revolution worked to overthrow.

Friday 16 August 2013

There is a real problem with the forcible dispersal of Muslim Brotherhood sit-ins, both the heavily armed encapment of Nahda and the lightly armed one at Raba’a al-Adawiya. One can argue that it is immoral to kill over 500 people, or that armed protests using unarmed protesters as human shields is despicable or that the unprovoked attacks on security personnel is reprehensible. But putting aside moral issues, real problems persist.

The trouble is using force without much thought to the problem at hand. That is what stood out in the Mubarak era and what we are witnessing a return to. Security solutions rarely work to solve a problem without a political course of action to back it up. The Muslim Brotherhood leaders are stubborn. They did not listen to anyone when in power, never listened to reason when out of power, alienated their allies and rarely if ever kept their word. They made negotiations near impossible. But that’s all the more reason why dealing with them needed to be smarter.

This path will only mean further empowerment of the police. When extremist groups are pushed into hiding, the police will use that as an excuse to collect data, interrogate, torture, abuse. The people, blessing the crackdown, will gladly accept. The crackdown has already radicalised many of the supporters of the deposed president. The appointment of retired generals as governors means the state has opted for a security solution instead of a political one.

State Security now has an excuse to meddle in our affairs, again in the interest of national security. Egyptians will be asked to support their government in whatever decisions they take because there is a real threat from Islamists. Anyone who criticises the government can be accused of supporting Islamists. Will anyone care?

The path is a dangerous one. There is reason to believe that the brutal Mubarak police force will return to its practices, namely that the police force itself has not changed in anyway, never reformed, and never held to account.

There will always be the rhetoric of “What choice did they have?’ , “Was there another way?”, “You can never have negotiated with them”.

Police could have put a plan in place to protect the churches that were attacked as a backlash to the dispersal. Police could have only targeted armed personnel. But the police have not been reformed or trained and, in effect, the army brought in a butcher to do a heart surgeon’s job.

The Muslim Brotherhood is handing back the police their licence to act with brutality, but so are all the other Egyptians sponsoring the impunity of security forces. They have criticised ElBaradie for turning his back on this path. In reality, there is no role for a politician in a state that chooses a security solution to every problem.

The question of whether we will return to a police state full of political incompetence and brute force is an important one. Is there any revolutionary fervour left in the people not to accept this route? Or have they been drained through all the blood and the failed attempts at starting something that looks closer to a democracy?

The blessing of a security solution by the people is worrying. The persistence of the problem of Brotherhood supporters will only sustain the need for a continuing security solution. It is uncertain how long such a state can be suspended, or what it would take not to travel down that path of a police state. Maybe it will take another act of brutal injustice by the police for people to change course. Who knows how many Khaled Saids, Jikas or Guindys it will take for us to get back on the right course of a revolution that was primarily triggered by police brutality.

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Democracy is (still) the solution

 
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By Khaled Diab

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

Saturday 3 August 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

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

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Egypt’s clash of freedoms

 
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By Khaled Diab

Events in Egypt are not just a conflict between Islamists, secularists and the military. It is a fundamental clash over conflicting ideas of “freedom”.

Friday 26 July 2013

The millions of anti-Morsi protesters who flooded the streets across the country were out to oppose what they saw as a dictator-in-the-making who was robbing them of their freedom, even going so far as to call upon the curtailer of their freedom for six decades, the military, to intervene.

Morsi sympathisers, who have risked life and unpopularity to camp out in support of their president, also believe that they, too, are fighting for freedom.

Is this simply sloganeering and rhetoric or can both sides simultaneously be defending freedom?

On the anti-Morsi side, though the sheer scale of the calls for his ouster made him lose what was left of his shaky democratic legitimacy, not to mention his credibility, the behaviour of many since has been cynical and troubling. There are those who sing the praises of the army, even as the military manoeuvres to dominate and neuter another “transition”, and others cheer at the arbitrary arrests of Muslim Brotherhood leaders and members, forgetting that they could be next… again.

But the ultimate cynics in this drama have been the Brotherhood. After a year spent knocking out the teeth of what little democratic freedom Egypt had, Morsi’s supporters now cry “democracy”. By deftly switching a single letter, their traditional rallying cry of Sharia has now morphed intoshariya, or legitimacy. And they manage to keep a straight face while accusing the opposition of chumming up with the military, even though they spent the past two years ingratiating themselves to the generals while leaving the rest of the country to get on with the business of revolution.

More infuriatingly, and worryingly, while they engage in an apparently rational discourse with the outside world about democratic legitimacy and due process, it is an entirely different matter with their loyalists. Forget about democratically elected, Mohamed Morsi was actually divinely selected.

A preacher associated with the Brotherhood told pro-Morsi supporters that visions had confirmed that the angel Gabriel had visited their encampment at Rabaa Al-Adaweya and that the prophet Muhammad himself had stood aside for Morsi to lead prayers.

This cult-like devotion, in which the will of the people is trumped by the will of the anointed, will convince many Egyptians that getting rid of Morsi was the right thing. But such incidents should not be used to tarnish every Islamist with the same brush.

There are plenty, especially among the younger, more liberal wing of the Brotherhood who truly believe in democracy. That is why they broke away and joined the revolution, while their elders insultingly told Egyptians that it is their “duty” to obey their ruler, even if he was a tyrant. It is also why many young (former) members are distancing themselves from the movement today.

Moreover, beyond this cynical power tussle, there is a deeper struggle over values, a clash between conflicting conceptions of “freedom”. The revolutionary Tahrir model of democracy is a grassroots one in which the people become their own masters, without dictators, generals or religious authorities, and in which freedom is both inclusive and individual, where the leaders are actually the followers of the people’s will.

In contrast, the Brotherhood has always taken a paternalistic, collective view to “freedom”. Even though the movement has evolved from an early disdain and hostility towards democracy to adopt many trappings of secularism and an increasingly democratic discourse, with its continued ideological focus on the Islamic world as a whole, the Brotherhood’s idea of freedom is to “liberate” the Umma, and not to empower individual choice.

Of course, that does not mean that the Brotherhood would have abandoned “democracy”. But the framework they favoured seemed to be one loosely based on the Iranian model in which the people get to go to the ballot box every four years to choose a figurehead president and a toothless parliament, while a group of elders and betters decides the real affairs of state.

The Brotherhood’s holier-than-thou attitude to Egyptian society is reflected in everything from the theories of its main intellectuals and its ossified internal hierarchy to how Morsi seemed to be the president of the Brotherhood’s Guidance Bureau rather than “of all Egyptians”, as he promised in his inaugural speech.

It was also evident in how his 12 months were spent not in addressing Egypt’s myriad practical crises, but mainly in trying to consolidate the Brotherhood’s grip on power, engaging in identity politics and setting in place the ideological and legal groundwork for an Islamic state.

Morsi appointed loyalists and allies to prominent positions, such as lapdog prosecutor general Talaat Abdallah, jokingly known as the president’s “personal lawyer” and “private prosecutor”, who, among other things, targeted anti-Islamist activists and the judiciary. He also expended every effort to raise the prominence of Sharia in the constitution and to give the state the power to act as the people’s moral guardian, including suspending democracy altogether last November to pass through this controversial founding document.

That Egypt’s Big Brother so fiddled while Egypt burned has struck many Egyptians as psychotic. But when viewed through the Brotherhood’s ideological prism and when you apply the movement’s closed-circuit logic, Morsi’s irrational behaviour makes much more sense.

One of the Brotherhood’s founding myths and fundamental articles of faith is that the weakness of Egypt, and Muslims in general, in the contemporary world is not due to a complex interplay of political, economic, social, historical and political factors but is simply a symptom of moral decadence and so the sooner Egyptians return to the “straight path” and adopt the Quran as their constitution, the better.

Like rightist, back-to-roots, supremacist movements around the world, the Brotherhood’s simplistic, reductionist diagnosis worked just fine to win them support when they were untested in opposition. But when faced with the realities of running a real country, their ideology was found seriously, troublingly and disastrously wanting.

It would be unfair to single out the Brotherhood, as paternalism is not alien to the Egyptian political landscape. Not only did Mubarak patronisingly regard all Egyptians as his sons and daughters, but the Egyptian military has, for the past six decades, treated the population like errant children, not responsible citizens, starting with the fateful decision not to hand over power to a democratically elected civilian government within three years of the 1952 revolution/coup.

Similar to the Islamists, the army sees itself as the protector of a number of fundamental freedoms. In addition to safeguarding Egypt’s freedom from foreign occupation, the military sees itself as the ultimate guarantor of Egyptians’ social freedom and safety, not to mention what it regards as the nation’s collective dignity.

And, despite the military’s miserable track record in suppressing political freedoms, its more relaxed attitude to social freedoms is one vital factor behind the 30 June mass revolt. Egyptians had risen up in 2011 to increase the sum of their freedoms but were then gripped by the fear that, in return for a notional, nominal ‘democracy’, they would fail to gain political freedom and lose the social freedoms they once enjoyed.

This is perhaps best illustrated by rewinding back to the 1950s when Gamal Abdel Nasser and his fellow free officers established a single-party socialist state which restricted political freedom severely, but strove, in words if not in deeds, to maintain the values of equality between all Egyptians, solidarity, social and economic justice and freedom of belief. Of course, back then, there was also an element of collective freedom, but it was class-based and anti-colonial, rather than faith-based.

In terms of social freedom, the 1953 constitutional declaration not only made no mention of Islam, it also declared that “freedom of belief is absolute”, something that is almost unthinkable in the current political climate. The 1956 constitution does mention Islam as “the religion of the state”, but when read in the context of the document as a whole, it seems like a descriptor of the majority situation rather than an article of faith, but makes no mention of Sharia.

This is reflected in the intellectual climate of the time which often expressed a clear disdain for religion and tradition as holding progress back, and in how some writers and artists openly rejected faith or questioned it in their works. It is also visible in how almost all Egyptian women, empowered by the constitution if not by society, did not cover their hair and in how Nasser refused the Brotherhood’s demands to impose the hijab.

So we are left with something of a paradox. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, Egypt had a modernising political elite trying to drag a largely traditional population towards their vision of modernity. In the 21st century, we have a traditionalising elite trying to drag a modernising population back to their vision of tradition. And in both cases, the sum of all freedoms enjoyed by the people adds up to not enough.

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Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The Daily News Egypt on 18 July 2013.

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A manifesto for Egypt’s future

 
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By Khaled Diab

As Egypt risks another disastrous transition, it is time to create a unique model for Egyptian democracy. No president, no parties, direct democracy.

Wednesday 10 July 2013

The past few days in Egypt have been filled with tension, uncertainty, ever-greater polarisation, growing violence and recrimination. The army’s handling of pro-Morsi protests, its arrest of leading  Muslim Brotherhood members and the killing of dozens of protesters is reprehensible and must be condemned unequivocally by all Egypt’s political and revolutionary forces.

Some have seen in the army’s disproportionate actions and excessive use of force confirmation of the gross miscalculation and hypocrisy of Egypt’s opposition and revolutionary forces by backing the forcible removal of Egypt’s “legitimate” and “democratically elected” leader.

But I see the army’s actions and the clashes between pro- and anti-Morsi supporters not as the product of political legitimacy undermined but as a symptom of illegitimacy compounded until the entire house of cards came tumbling down.

Morsi, as I argued in my previous article, lost any claims to legitimacy that he may have once had. But the problem runs much, much deeper than that. Egypt’s botched transition towards democracy excluded or sidelined most of the revolutionary youth movements due to restrictive and prohibitive conditions for party formation, which favoured the established and highly organised, such as the Brotherhood.

Over and above this, the transitional constitution was seriously flawed, as was the idea that Egypt’s new constitution should be drafted by parliament. This left Egypt in a ‘cart before the horse’ situation, in which the race was being run before the rules had been set. More importantly and surreally, the players, especially those on the winning side, were given the chance to write their own rules.

This, as critics pointed out, would favour whoever managed to come out on top in parliament and would enable them to load the rules of the game in their own favour. And so it came to bear, and the Brotherhood and Salafis created a document which declared that all Egyptians were “equal” but some Egyptians – middle-aged, conservative Muslim men, to be precise – were far, far more equal than others. More chillingly, it empowered the state to “safeguard and protect morality and public decency” and to “maintain a refined level of upbringing”.

Furthermore, next to nothing was done during the transition to reform the office of the president, which retained most of its powers, and to strengthen other institutions against it, in order to create the kinds of checks and balances that would avoid the emergence of another Mubarak.

This was amply demonstrated in November 2012 when Morsi, confusing himself for Superman, transferred to himself, with the simple flourish of a pen, unlimited powers to “protect” Egypt and legislate without any oversight, which he was later forced to repeal due to a massive wave of protests.

And then there is the murky, antidemocratic role of the military. Some mistakenly see the removal of Morsi by the army as a dangerous sign that the military had come out of its barracks to interfere in politics once again. But the point is that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) had never withdrawn from the political arena; it just retreated tactically behind the facade of a subservient political system largely of its own making.

Revolutionaries had warned the Brotherhood against this and asked them to join in the struggle to push the SCAF out of politics, but the Freedom and Justice Party and Morsi chose ‘pragmatism’ and self-interest over principle, even as demonstrators and protesters were being killed and arrested by the military. They made a pact with the devil and the devil won.

Egypt’s political woes are not just structural and institutional. There is also the country’s leadership challenge. Six decades of dictatorship left Egypt without a clear pool of competent leadership material. That is not to say that there are no competent leaders but just that they are inexperienced, untested and often even unknown to the public.

Someone with Morsi’s obvious absence of calibre, who could have authored the Islamist version of How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, is a sad manifestation of this. The disarray, division and disastrous infighting in revolutionary and opposition ranks is partly a symptom of this, and partly a manifestation of the dilemma of any mass revolutionary movement which unites disparate groups with ultimately divergent goals.

In addition, the disparity in organisational competence and reach between the Brotherhood and the so-called ‘official opposition’ is often attributed to the superior skills of this Islamist movement, undoubtedly good as they are, or is seen as a product of some kind of traditional affinity Egyptians have with religious conservatism.

However, it is often forgotten that the Brotherhood’s conservative religious agenda was once anathema to large swathes of the Egyptian population, even in the countryside. For example, in a rare film featuring former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser talking about the Brotherhood, a witty farmer suggests that the movement’s Supreme Guide should be the one to don a hijab, rather than Egyptian women!

Some argue that had it not been for Nasser’s repression, the Brothers would’ve ruled Egypt a long time ago. Personally, I’m not so sure. Nasser was an equal opportunities tyrant who, if anything, crushed his secular opposition, which represented a more direct threat to his rule, more ruthlessly and brutally than the Islamists, who at the very least had the mosque to retreat to.

And had it not been for the blowback of Nasser’s torture chambers, Sadat’s dangerous game of empowering the Islamists to crush his secular opponents, and Mubarak’s penchant for giving the Islamists some leeway to scare the outside world, the Brotherhood might have remained an effective charitable and social movement, rather than a dangerous and divisive political one.

But with their boundless reserves of creativity, Egypt’s young revolutionaries – who sometimes seem to be rebelling also against the very concept of leadership – turned a weakness into a powerful political weapon which decapitated the Egyptian regime three times in two and a half years. The leaderless protests created a hydra with millions of heads which the regime could not contain and keep down.

However, though leaderless mass uprisings can topple regimes rapidly, they are far less capable of building a viable and robust alternative. And we are witnessing this again, as the army steps into the void and shows signs of attempting to engineer the same kind of short-sighted “transition” that got us to this impasse in the first place.

So, how can we overcome this weakness and the other challenges outlined above?

The current situation provides a golden opportunity to reinvent Egypt’s political system and to create a unique model of Egyptian democracy that is tailored to this reality in which there is no clear leadership, institutions are weak and there is an overriding public desire for direct democratic participation.

And this new system should be shaped through an inclusive national conversation that involves not only all of Egypt’s political currents, but all interested citizens who wish to contribute their views.

As one of those citizens, here is my vision for creating a uniquely Egyptian democracy. First, given the abuse to which it has been put over the decades and the temptation for all its occupants to turn to dictatorship, I suggest that the Egyptian presidency be stripped of all its powers and transformed into a ceremonial position.

The shambled remains of Egypt’s first democratically elected parliament increase my conviction that Egypt should do away with parties altogether. Given that political parties are the cornerstone upon which most governments around the world, whether democratic or not, are built, this may sound radical, bizarre or even bonkers.

But not only does Egypt not have a strong party political tradition, abolishing parties will allow the country to create a democratic parliament in the truest sense of the word, and overcome the current destructive factionalism that sees people forced to choose sides in a polarised and explosive standoff.

Moreover, parties have certain antidemocratic tendencies, such as forcing members to vote along party lines, regardless of their individual convictions. Then, there is the ‘tyranny’ of the party system, which can concentrate power and hinder change, due to the antidemocratic inertia exerted by the mainstream parties. This is a particularly severe problem in the first-past-the-post system, such as in the United States and Britain, where voters may be hungry for change but will almost never vote for small parties because they believe they cannot win.

Little wonder, then, that some of America’s founding fathers warned against the dangers of party politics. “[Parties] serve to organise faction, to give it an artificial and extraordinary force; to put, in the place of the delegated will of the nation, the will of a party, often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community,” George Washington cautioned in his farewell address.

For that reason, Egypt would be better served with a flexible non-party representative democracy in which individual candidates run, whether for parliament or the presidency, on their own merit and personal manifesto.

This will provide individual politicians with the flexibility to vote according to their conscience and the will of their constituents, while organising informally around certain issues of the day. For example, on certain key matters – such as youth unemployment, gender rights, social policy, trade, foreign policy questions, etc. – groups of politicians of similar conviction can form temporary, unofficial alliances, rather like the Egyptian opposition has already been doing for numerous years, such as with the Kefaya movement.

Over and above this, in order to avoid the emergence unrepresentative ‘representative democracy,’ politicians’ power can be kept in check through a hybrid direct democracy in which, like in Switzerland, the people are consulted directly on vital issues.

In addition, to move mass protest out of the streets and into the formal political arena, and to respond to Egyptians’ newfound hunger for direct political participation, concerned citizens who are unhappy with certain decisions taken by their representatives or wish to launch their own initiatives should have recourse to a formal mechanism that enables immediate action, if they gather enough signatures.

This also moves us away from the condescending idea in representative democracy that voters should be seen every four years at the ballot box but not heard the rest of the time, and towards the idea that every citizen is a partner and player in the political process.

Egyptians have a golden opportunity to put in place a true democracy of the people and for the people. And, above all, it will be created by the people.

___

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is an updated version of an article which first appeared in The Daily News Egypt on 7 July 2013.

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