The mirage of the meek Muslim woman

 
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By Khaled Diab

Incurable misogynist Donald Trump has Muslim women all wrong. They are not silent and submissive.

Ghazala Khan

Ghazala Khan

Wednesday 10 August 2016

George Washington once opined that “offensive operations, often times, is the surest, if not the only… means of defence”.

In his campaign to become president of the United States, Donald Trump seems to have been inspired by Washington’s idea – common in modern warfare – but, with his questionable command of the English language, has misinterpreted the word “offensive”.

Ever since he began his bid for the presidency, the Republican nominee has managed to offend an untold number of individuals, not to mentions groups as diverse as women, Muslims and Mexicans – and yet, somehow, stay ahead.

The latest victims of his outrageously offensive campaign are Khizr and Ghazala Khan, the bereaved parents of Captain Humayun Khan, who was killed while serving in Iraq.

In response to Khizr Khan’s criticism of Trump’s politics of hatred and division at the Democratic National Convention, all the Republican candidate could rouse himself to say was “I’d like to hear his wife say something.

“If you look at his wife, she was standing there. She had nothing to say,” he elaborated in a later interview. “She probably, maybe she wasn’t allowed to have anything to say.”

Unsurprisingly, such a callous attack against a grieving “gold star” mother, in a country where the military is regarded as sacrosanct, sparked outrage, even amongst conservatives.

In a moving article, Ghazala Khan explained that her silence was not because she was some kind of downtrodden Muslim woman but was down to grief. “It has been 12 years, but you know hearts of pain can never heal as long as we live,” she wrote. “The place that emptied will always be empty.”

Offensive and insensitive as Donald Trump’s comments were, he was bringing nothing new to the table. Tapping into what seems to be his family’s penchant for “borrowing”, Trump was recycling one of the most common stereotypes about Islam in Western Islamophobic circles: the notion that Muslim women are silent, submissive, subservient creatures living under the thumb of their menfolk.

Earlier in the campaign, Republican hopeful Ben Carson, the neurosurgeon who was out to prove, but failed, that running for president wasn’t brain surgery, made a similar point:  “[Muslim] women must be subservient,” he insisted.

I wondered if Carson would have the guts to tell Hend Wagih, Egypt’s first female bodyguard, that she is subservient to men to her face – I should warn him that she is a champion martial artist and a bodybuilder.

While Islam, like all major world religions, is patriarchal, Muslim women – who come in all shades of conformity and rebelliousness – are far from silent and submissive.

Were my maternal grandmother around today, she would have shown Trump and Carson just how coy and obedient Muslim women are with a few deft, well-targeted lashes of her tongue.

Although my grandmother was raised in a traditional Egyptian milieu, she was a formidable character who was queen of her castle, and woe betide anyone who trespassed on her turf.

My gran raised birds on her rooftop. One time, a burglar had the audacity – and misfortune – to land on my grandmother’s roof. Sensing that her precious birds were in mortal danger, my grandmother grabbed a knife from the kitchen and a stick. Looking out of the window, she ordered the burglar to stay where he was because she was coming to teach him a lesson. The terrified man leapt to a neighbouring rooftop and ran as if his life depended on it.

Her daughter, my late mother, perhaps partly inspired by this role model of strong womanhood at home, and how it belied the idea that men were superior, grew up to become a firm believer in gender equality.

A promising young writer and activist, my mother, in the 1960s, was inspired by the leftist, pan-Arabist dream of female emancipation. My mother’s was the first generation of Egyptian women to gain equal access to higher education, employment, the right to vote, meaningless as that was in Nasser’s Egypt, and the right to run for public office.

Slain blogger Qandeel Baloch. Source: Her Facebook page

Slain blogger Qandeel Baloch.
Source: Her Facebook page

While many Western critics of Islam are convinced that Muslim women must either choose Islam or feminism, for my mother, this was a false choice. Although I believe that all religions are intrinsically sexist, mum was convinced that the essence of Islam was one of egalitarianism and equality between men and women.

She attributed the gender inequalities in Islam to centuries of male scholars being the main interpreters of the faith. “Why do they ignore the stories of the prophet Muhammad darning his own clothes and helping out with the housework?” mum was fond of asking.

The high hopes of full women’s liberation entertained by my mother’s generation hit the rocks of a conservative backlash and an Islamist cultural counterrevolution. Nevertheless, women have been fighting hard, in recent years, to regain the momentum and press for complete equality – in every walk of life and profession, even if it occasionally costs them their lives, as it did the Pakistani blogger and activist Qandeel Baloch.

Donald Trump’s snarky, ignorant, bigoted remarks are an insult not just to Ghazala Khan but also to the millions of Muslim women around the world bravely fighting for their rights every day.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of an article which first appeared on Al Jazeera on 2 August 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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The language of Arab (dis)unity

 
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By Khaled Diab

The romantic myth that Arabs share “one heart and one spirit” led pan-Arabism to talk unity while walking the path of disunity.

Charismatic and a natural orator, Nasser appealed to millions of Arabs, including this crowd in Syria. Photo: al-Ahram.

Charismatic and a natural orator, Nasser appealed to millions of Arabs, including this crowd in Syria. Photo: al-Ahram.

Sunday 4 January 2015

Given how widely it is spoken and understood, Arabic is one of the UN’s six official languages, alongside English, French, Chinese, Russian and Spanish. Spoken by some 300 million people as a native language, Arabic is also used liturgically to varying degrees by the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims.

The Arabic language gave us not only timeless contributions to philosophy, the sciences, literature and art, but also to the formation of modern Arab identity and nationalism. “Every Arabic-speaking people is an Arab people. Every individual belonging to one of these Arabic-speaking peoples is an Arab,” claimed Sati al-Husri (1882-1968), an early Arab nationalist of Syrian extraction who, ironically, grew up in a well-to-do family which was closely linked to the Ottoman Empire.

Al-Husri believed that this common linguistic heritage gave Arabs “one heart and one spirit” which, in turn, qualified them both as a single nation and a single state. This romantic notion was central to efforts to create secular Arab nationalism, from Baathism to later Nasserism. Michel Aflaq, one of the founding fathers of pan-Arabist Baathism, believed that both language and history were unifying forces for Arabs.

But surveying the current state of destructive disunity plaguing the Arab world, one might be excused for wondering if Arabs truly are of “one spirit”, why it is they have failed so dismally to  beat together as “one heart”.

Not only did the dream of a single Arab nation collapse many years ago, even the individual nation states so despised by pan-Arabists are crumbling before our eyes, with the two strongholds of Baathist ideology, Syria and Iraq, lying in smouldering ruins.

How did we arrive at this sorry state?

Diehard pan-Arabists place the blame squarely with (neo-)imperialism, with the conservative Arab regimes and with the failure of the revolutionary regimes to implement pan-Arabism properly.

Some old-school Arab nationalists with whom I’ve spoken portray Syria as having been the last bastion of pan-Arabism and the last hope for the Arab nation, and that is why the West conspired to bring it down. Even the Islamic State (ISIS) is seen by some as being part of an elaborate Western plot.

The trouble with this theory is that Syria had long stopped even trying to pay lip service to pan-Arab ideals. In addition, the rot and corruption within had so weakened the state that when Bashar al-Assad decided ruthlessly to cling to power at any cost, it sent Syria into a reeling tailspin and meltdown, leaving it wide open to become a multinational battleground.

Moreover, placing the bulk of the blame at the outside world’s feet facilitates a dangerous level of self-deception. It also curtails an honest analysis of why pan-Arabism failed.

While it is true that, in its heyday, pan-Arabism, such as the Nasserist model, had many foes, both regionally and in the West, it also contained many of the seeds of its own downfall.

One major failing was the utopian idea that just because millions of people spoke the same language, they somehow constituted a single nation whose nature was unity and, so, any discord was seen as going against the natural order. This is in spite of the fact that, like in Europe until recently, the Arab world has never been unified except at the point of a sword – and often simultaneously under the control of competing empires or dynasties.

But even linguistically, Arabs are not unified. While some dialects of Arabic are mutually intelligible, others are so far removed that, in other contexts, they would be classified as separate languages. For example, even after years of exposure to Moroccans in Europe, I, as an Egyptian, still do not understand their darija.

The reason these dialects – which can be about as mutually intelligible as the Romance languages are to each other – are classed as “Arabic” is more political than linguistic.

This is why Arabs from different countries often resort to fusha (Modern Standard Arabic) to make themselves mutually intelligible, in a phenomenon known as diglossia. However, not all Arabs can speak fusha and those who do communicate with it use it as a second language.

And just like linguistic diversity is concealed under the umbrella of “Arabic”, social, cultural, economic and political diversity has traditionally been glossed over in pan-Arabist discourse, as if it were an inconvenience rather than a reality.

Despite some common features between clusters of Arab societies in terms of culture and history, there is a mind-boggling array of differences not only between Arab states but also within them. This clash between ideology and reality is one factor behind pan-Arabism’s efforts to suppress diversity rather than to accommodate and celebrate it.

To complicate matters further, Arab countries have and had radically different forms of government, levels of wealth and degrees of development. Even for the best-thought-out integration projects, this is a major challenge that requires years of serious planning and preparation.

But the idea that speaking the same tongue makes us “one” has reduced the concept of Arab unity either to hollow slogans or to disastrous marriages that were rushed into hastily and impatiently, such as the damaging United Arab Republic (Syria and Egypt), the United Arab States (the UAR and North Yemen) the Federation of Arab Republics (Libya, Egypt and Syria) or the still-born Arab Islamic Republic (Libya and Tunisia).

That does not mean that the principle of pan-Arabism is necessarily a bad idea or an unattainable ideal. In certain respects, it was an unsurprising product of its times. The increasingly feverish and intolerant Turkish nationalism which accompanied the decline of the Ottoman Empire led Arab intellectuals, activists and reformers to grope around for an alternative.

Pan-Arab nationalism was an attempt to square the circle of gaining independence from Turkish repression while maintaining the advantages of  a frontierless region bestowed by the Ottomans. That partly explains why Egypt was not an early convert to this ideology, because it had already removed itself from the Sultan’s sphere of influence.

El-Qawmiya el-Arabiya also recognised that, alone, each Arab state would be weak.

Today, as much as a century ago, the region desperately needs to find a way to rise out of the ashes of conflict and weakness and towards a future of co-operation and strength. This time, the utopian dreams and hollow slogans of yesteryear are gone.

In their place, an organic, bottom-up process of common identity building is taking place, spearheaded largely by young people. From pan-Arab TV hits like Arab Idol to the previously unthinkable level of interaction facilitated by social media, Arabs are discovering their rich diversity as well as the shared features of their identities and common causes.

This loose sense of a common plight and a common destiny was reflected, exactly four years ago, in how the spark of hope lit in Tunisia spread like wildfire across the region. In the early days of the Egyptian revolution protesters borrowed Tunisian slogans and chanted “We are all Tunisia”, while activists exchanged tips for dealing with police and teargas.

Despite the ongoing collapse of the current Arab order, this grassroots route to greater co-operation offers some hope for the future.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The National on 20 December 2014.

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The death throes of Arab thuggery

 
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By Khaled Diab

Arab civilisation has not collapsed but the thuggish political, economic and religious mafias dominating the region are dying violently.

Prompted by social media, pro

Prompted by social media, pro

Friday 17 October 2014

In an influential essay in Politico, the veteran Lebanese journalist Hisham Melhem who is the Washington bureau chief of Al Arabiya, sounded the death knell for Arab civilisation.

“Arab civilisation, such as we knew it, is all but gone,” was his bleak prognosis. “The Arab world today is more violent, unstable, fragmented and driven by extremism… than at any time since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire a century ago.”

Melhem then goes on to detail a long list of ills plaguing the Arab world: from the apparent defeat of the Arab Spring revolutions in most countries to the failure of Arab secular and monarchist regimes, not to mention the proliferation of fundamentalist violence.

“Is it any surprise that, like the vermin that take over a ruined city, the heirs to this self-destroyed civilisation should be the nihilistic thugs of the Islamic State?” he asks.

But to my mind, the domino-collapse of one state after another is not a sign of the death of Arab civilisation, but is rather the result of the implosion of three bankrupt forms of despotism: that of the tyrannical Arab state, Islamist demagoguery and foreign hegemony.

Despite the massive differences in the forms of government and the nature of the governed, most post-independence Arab states shared one thing in common: they all served a narrow elite to the detriment of society as a whole. Wherever you turn your gaze, you will find, almost without exception, seated in the place of the previous imperial overlords are local masters.

In addition, the foreign rule of yesteryear did not go away, it just changed its face and modus operandi. The loose-knit Ottoman empire in which local leaders and elites paid lip service and tribute to the Sultan but sometimes behaved like independent leaders, such as in Egypt, was replaced by the British and French who spoke the language of independence but often engaged in direct rule.

When the United States muscled out the old-world European powers, it spoke the language of self-determination and anti-imperialism but created its Pax Americana empire which exercised control through vassal leaders in client states and a ruthlessly punitive approach, including crippling sanctions and invasions, towards those who rejected its hegemony. The upshot of this is that Arab populations have lived under a double oppression: that of their native rulers and that imposed on them from distant capitals.

Just like Washington tolerates little regional dissent, domestically, Arab regimes have shared, to varying degrees, a ruthless attitude to opposition. This had the dual effect of robbing their societies of a clear cadre of effective alternative leaders and empowering ever-more extreme forms of opposition by side-lining or eliminating moderates.

Although a lot of attention has been directed at regime crackdowns against the Islamist opposition, especially the various chapters of the Muslim Brotherhood, less well-known is that secular dissidents suffered repression easily as harsh or more so, especially leftists.

This is to be expected of the Gulf monarchies whose claim to legitimacy is founded on dubious religious pretexts. However, the revolutionary republican regimes of Egypt, Syria and Iraq, despite their reputation in America for having been closet communists and pro-Soviet, not only dealt ruthlessly with the liberal opposition but were also bitterly anti-communist. For example, Nasserist Egypt not only banned the liberal nationalist al-Wafd party in 1953 but also carried out a harsh crackdown against leftists and communist critics. This was partly out of distrust of Moscow and partly to maintain their claim as the sole representatives of progressive values.

In Iraq, the communist party was, for decades, one of the most influential opposition currents, yet was not tolerated neither by the “liberal” royalists nor the “progressive” Free Officers and Ba’athists which came later. The most brutal anti-communist crackdowns were probably those carried out by pro-British Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Said in the late 1940s and in the 1960s following a failed anti-Ba’ath coup attempt. Saddam Hussein also dealt ruthlessly with the party, both as head of security and intelligence in the late 1960s and on the eve of becoming president in the late 1970s.

Though the reasons varied, the decades-long oppression of secular opposition forces in the Arab world had far-reaching consequences. One was the decimation of the ranks of viable alternative leaders, which was acutely felt when the leaderless Arab uprisings did not manage to assemble a credible leadership quickly enough to consolidate their gains.

This, along with the weak, corrupt, incompetent and dysfunctional nature of Arab secular regimes – not to mention the “democratic” fig leaf the West used to disguise its interests – led to the discrediting of secularism in the minds of many, and, after decades of being in vogue, Westernisation became a dirty word rather than something to aspire to.

This left an ideological and political void which radical, anti-authoritarian Islamism managed to occupy, for a time.

To counter both the secularist and Islamist threat to their legitimacy and rule, a number of Gulf states went on the offensive and actively exported, lubricated by petro-dollars, their own brand of Islam, such as the ultra-conservative Wahhabi ideology from Saudi Arabia or Salafism from Qatar.

For a while, political Islamism’s simple “Islam is the solution” formula apparently won a lot of supporters as a counter to the failure both of secular pan-Arabism and conservative monarchism, but this is waning.

Though the secular opposition forces may have been down, they were definitely not out. This was reflected in the progressive, leftist, pro-democracy nature of the 2011 Arab uprisings, especially in Tunisia, Egypt and Syria.

This set alarm bells ringing in what had become the trinity dominating Arab politics: the Arab autocracies (whether republican or monarchist), the Islamist opposition and the US-led West. And each of these set in motion their own anti- or counterrevolutionary forces.

The one country where these forces did not manage to cause major mischief is the only place where the Arab Spring has been a relative success: Tunisia. For a time, Egypt looked like it might also escape this fate but, instead, turned into a battleground for regional and international forces.

But the worst proxy battleground has been Syria. Caught between the intransigent and murderous Assad regime and its allies in Russia, China and Iran, on the one hand, and the unholy alliance between the United States and the conservative Gulf monarchies, on the other hand, the peaceful, secular uprising didn’t stand a chance.

What the above reveals is that it is not Arab civilisation which has died, but the political order put in place almost a century ago following the collapse of the Ottoman empire is going through its death throes. And like dying wild animals, these beasts are at their most dangerous when fatally wounded.

Despite the surface decay in Arab society, submerged underneath are the fresh shoots of a robust, youthful, dynamic civilisation kept from blossoming by the stranglehold of the suffocating weed on the putrid top soil of the established order.

This is visible in the courageous youth who led the revolutionary charge against despotism, neo-liberalism and socioeconomic inequality. It can be seen in how tens of millions of Arabs have lost their deference to their leaders and their awe of authority. It can be traced in the innovative reinvention of religion and in the growing assertiveness of the a-religious, not to mention in the pent-up creative social, economic and even scientific energies eager to be unleashed and harnessed.

Once the crushing weight of the oppressive weed has been removed, future generations will have the space and opportunity to enable a true Arab Spring to bloom. But the road to recovery and then progress is long, hard and gruelling.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 2 October 2014.

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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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The Arab-Israeli war of narratives

 
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By Khaled Diab

On the 40th anniversary of the 1973 war, Egyptians and Israelis still cannot agree on the conflict’s name, date or outcome.

Egyptians crossing the Suez Canal. Source: Military Battles on the Egyptian Front by Gammal Hammad

Egyptians crossing the Suez Canal. Source: Military Battles on the Egyptian Front by Gammal Hammad

Wednesday 9 October 2013

That history is written by the victors is one of those truisms that is actually often untrue. Take the Torah. It hardly paints a flattering picture of the “victor”, Egypt, the regional superpower of the time. In fact, the Biblical narrative comes across as an anti-Egyptian propagandistic diatribe which depicts a very different Egypt to the official pharaonic propaganda.

The modern world, in which the majority of societies are literate, showcases the energetic resilience of competing narratives – and mythologies – of the same event. This is nowhere more apparent than across enemy lines. In the Arab-Israeli context, I have been exposed to the conflicting histories on both sides of the divide.

I am currently reminded of this reality when I consider how both Egyptians and Israelis are (separately) marking the 40th anniversary of the same war, yet are unable to agree on its name nor even its date – let alone its outcome.

Employing the Hebrew calendar, Israel has already commemorated the 1973 Yom Kippur war, while Egypt, using the Gregorian calendar, celebrated the October war on the 6th of the month. To add to the temporal confusion, Egypt also marks, but with much less pomp and ceremony, the anniversary of the war on 10 Ramadan, the date on which the war began according to the Islamic calendar, which shifts back 11 or so days each solar year.

In Egypt, this year’s celebrations were bound to be spectacular. The army released a special jubilee logo and urged Egyptians everywhere to take part in the planned festivities, as well as to fly the Egyptian flag from their windows.

In light of the bloody upheavals of the last couple of months and the massive question marks hanging in the air, rejoicing over a moment of past glory can provide some much-needed feel-good optimism for a population worn down by nearly three years of revolution and counter-revolution.

With Egyptian society more polarised than ever, this symbolically significant anniversary is a golden opportunity for the military to cobble together a semblance of national unity – and to score a propaganda point against the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as secular critics of military rule.

Not to be left out, the pro-Morsi Anti-Coup Alliance urged its supporters to converge on Tahrir Square. Seeking to cut them off at the pass, the pro-military Tamarod movement is mobilising its followers to mount rival demonstrations, also in Tahrir.

This raised the spectre that the commemoration of a landmark war, and the supposed national unity it instilled, could descend into bloody street battles. Given the symbolic importance of this anniversary, the Egyptian authorities warned ominously that they will not allow anyone to spoil their party. In all, at least 50 people died in the protests.

Over the past four decades, both Egypt’s armed forces and its top brass have used the October “victory” as a central plank of their claim to legitimacy – as defenders of Egypt’s borders, reclaimers of its land and restorers of its honour.

Anwar al-Sadat, the president who launched the surprise attack against Israel, never tired of reminding the Egyptian people that he was the architect of that war, and his government went on a naming spree to mark the historic conflict: a political magazine, two of Cairo’s satellite cities, an elevated highway which now spans most of Cairo, and much more.

Sadat was assassinated during a military parade celebrating the very same October war in 1981, and shortly thereafter his vice-president took over the helm. Not to be left out of October’s glorious radiance, Hosni Mubarak, who was commander of the air force at the time, claimed to have flown the first sortie of the 1973 war.

In leaked secret recordings of private conversations between Mubarak and his doctor in prison, the former president talked at length about his “completely secret” airstrike.

In addition, Mubarak’s lawyer has said that the toppled leader was planning to write a book about his and the airforce’s role in the war. An unpublished manuscript on Mubarak’s exploits dating back to the late 1970s is also due out soon.

General Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, Egypt’s defence minister who responded to a popular uprising against Mohamed Morsi by removing the president, is widely regarded as the real driving force behind Egypt’s current brutal and bloody “transition.”

With talk of him being the “new Nasser” and “Egypt’s Eisenhower”, not to mention a campaign urging him to run for office, speculation is rife that Sisi might have ambitions to become Egypt’s next president.

Since Sisi is too young to have played a role in the 1973 war, it is unclear how and whether he will exploit its legacy if he does mount a bid for the top job in the land. But if Sisi decides to go against his promises and assurances, it would not surprise me if he announced it amid the nationalistic euphoria which will accompany the 40th anniversary of the “glorious victory”.

But was it actually a victory?

Now back to thqt other war, Yom Kippur, which took place at the exact same time and place as the October war, but with a different outcome. Although Israel originally described it as a stalemate, and despite the trauma the war caused to the national psyche as reflected in the endless post-mortems, Israel now claims it as a heroic act in which it snatched victory from the jaws of defeat.

So who was right? In some ways, both sides were.

In the first phase of the war, Egypt’s spectacular crossing of the Suez Canal, with closely coordinated military backing from Syria on Israel’s northern front, and the Arab oil embargo constituted the most successful example of joint Arab action in the 20th century. Egypt’s ingeniously low-tech breaching of the once-insurmountable Bar-Lev Line and early advances caused such panic among Israeli leaders that Golda Meir’s inner circle may have come perilously close to deploying the “bomb in the basement”.

(As an aside, though Israel does not allow its media to mention with certainty the presence of an “alleged” Israeli nuclear arsenal, I think this episode eloquently underscores the urgent need for Israel to become part of regional efforts to rid the Middle East of WMD.)

But what is not taught in Egyptian school textbooks, rarely shown in its media and totally ignored in the October war panorama in Cairo’s Nasr City district is that the victory turned to stalemate and, within a matter of 10 days, when Israeli troops had crossed to the western side of the canal and got to within a 100km of Cairo, to near defeat.

By the time I was born on 30 October, which some Egyptians I encounter regard as a glorious coincidence, large-scale combat had ended, Israel was in possession of 1,600 square kilometers of land on the Egyptian mainland, but was surrounded by Egyptian forces or natural barriers, while the Egyptian third army was under siege in Sinai, though it maintained its combat integrity and advanced to occupy extra land to the east.

The blanking out of these latter Egyptian losses – which I have mainly learnt about over the years from foreign sources – is dangerous. It encourages a false sense of might among Egyptian and Arab critics of the peace treaty with Israel, who are often under the false impression that Egypt had defeated Israel, while all it had managed was to avoid a defeat as crushing as 1967.

This misapprehension also makes Sadat’s subsequent diplomatic manoeuvres seem more baffling than they actually were. In addition to his strong conviction that diplomacy was the ultimate solution –  similar to his predecessor Nasser’s own private beliefs  – Sadat was faced with a desperate deadlock on the battlefield and growing public pressure to deliver the victorious return of every inch of Egyptian territory he had promised the people.

Although Israel’s assessment of the 1973 war is more honest and it has drawn many lessons from it, most have been of a military nature, such as the need to neutralise its most dangerous neighbour, Egypt, through a treaty to end to hostilities.

Before Israelis rush to congratulate themselves that the Arabs have more bombast than bombs, they should pause to consider that they too possess an arsenal of potent weapons of mass self-deception. Despite Israel’s existential angst which has caused it to be in a constant state of military over-preparedness and often to underestimate its own might, it also entertains destructive mythologies.

In spite of the knock to Israel’s military prestige and sense of security delivered in 1973, the country is still punch-drunk on the stunning 1967 victory. This has lured the Israeli establishment and society to believe that there can be a military solution to Israel’s every problem, and rather than forge a comprehensive peace in the 1970s which included the Palestinians, it settled for removing Egypt from the equation.

But what this overlooks is that the 1967 war did not actually end, like the creation of the world in Genesis, in six days but continued until 1973’s stalemate, that Arab weakness and division were as much or perhaps more of a factor in the victory than Israeli might and prowess, and that Israel’s military dominance is underwritten by a superpower whose continued willingness or ability to support are not guaranteed.

The 40th anniversary of the October/Yom Kippur war should give Egyptians and Israelis pause to reflect on the futility of armed conflict between them, to realise the destructiveness of jingoism and to work on the popular level to enlarge the circle of peace to include the Palestinians.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 6 October 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.

___

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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The reel story of Egyptian Jewry

 
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In telling the story of Egypt’s vanished Jewish communitya new documentary sheds light on a forgotten chapter of history.

Friday 29 March 2013

 
[YouTube:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cYFwtgeOypQ]

The Jews of Egypt, the reel history of Egypt’s Jewish minority, was due to be screened in Egyptian cinemas a couple of weeks ago, after the documentary had successfully featured in a number of domestic and international festivals.

As someone who is keenly interested not only in the Arab-Israeli conflict, but also its human ramifications and implications, I was excitedly looking forward to the opportunity to see the much-awaited documentary upon my next visit to Egypt. In fact, so keen was I to view this ground-breaking documentary, and to meet its maker, that I travelled especially to Rotterdam a couple of months ago, but through some misunderstanding, director Amir Ramses did not manage to make the rendez-vous.

“I was very enthusiastic for the commercial release,” a jet-lagged Ramses told me from Cairo, shortly after getting off the plane from New York. “I thought that three years of work might finally be worth something and that the message I wanted to transmit was going to reach audiences on a larger scale.”

And the message? Through a mix of personal testimonies from Egyptian Jews in exile, statements from historians specialising in the era and archive footage, Ramses sought to shed light on a largely forgotten chapter of Egyptian history. He wanted to show that once upon a time Jews were an integral part of Egypt’s cosmopolitan social fabric and felt just as Egyptian as their Muslim and Christian compatriots.

In my view, this message is an incredibly important and relevant one. Decades of animosity and conflict have led to the redacting by both sides of the inconvenient chapters in which Arabs and Jews coexisted largely peacefully, leaving the impression that “Oceania had always been at war with Eurasia”.

Though I have personally been aware for years of the kaleidoscope of Egypt’s Jewish past, The Jews of Egypt was a golden opportunity to reacquaint a new generation of Egyptian audiences, beyond older people and a narrow intellectual elite, with this suppressed aspect of the nation’s identity.

In addition, the documentary represents some much-overdue recognition of the historical wrong committed against Egyptian Jews. Caught as they were in the crossfire of the Arab-Israeli conflict, between the rock of pan-Arabism and the hard place of Zionism, the Jews of Egypt first became ostracised and then were unfairly expelled or pressurised out of their homeland.

An Egyptian Jew I know from London, who was forced out of his homeland in his teens but still maintains ties with Egypt, shares these sentiments. “The film not only showed that Jews from Egypt felt strongly towards their time in the country and are fond of their experience there, but it would also have opened the eyes of a number of people concerning a past that seems to have been obliterated from their history,” said the man who wished for personal reasons to conceal his identity.

Sadly, however, it looked like this might not happen, after all. Even though Jews of Egypt  had received the necessary green light from the censor (and had even been viewed by the minister of culture as recently as December 2012), national security stepped in at the last moment and called off the release. Whether or not the film has actually been banned was unclear.

The sudden eleventh-hour decision to stop the screening left Ramses – who, along with producer Haitham el-Khameesy, self-financed this indie production in order to maintain its independence and ensure it does not serve one agenda or the other – unsurprisingly miffed, bewildered and furious. Interpreting the move as a means to “terrorise freedom of expression and suppress creativity”, el-Khameesy has indicated their intention to sue all the relevant authorities.

And it seems that efforts by the filmmakers and their supporters, and the ensuing stink abroad, led to a reversal of the decision and the film got another green light and was set to appear in theatres last Wednesday.

“I expected harassment before I got my permit, but I was ready for that and prepared to discuss the film with censorship committees. But they gave me the permit and I was relieved,” Ramses reflected. “But for national security to do something that is constitutionally not their right, that was a total shock.”

But what is behind this mysterious move – the sort of cloak and dagger arbitrary authoritarianism that Egypt’s revolutionaries had hoped would become a thing of the past?

“I think it must be the usual paranoia of the Egyptian authorities towards the word ‘Jewish’,” Ramses hypothesises, citing as an example of this, “when you say Jewish to a policeman, it’s like saying bogeyman.”

For his part, the director of the censorship committee, Abdel-Satar Fathi, who has “supported the film all along”,  says he called national security for an explanation. In confirmation of Ramses’s speculation about the state’s state of paranoia, the censor was told that “the film’s title might cause public uproar”.

The Egyptian Jew from London, who is now in his 70s, finds this contemporary distrust and hostility inexplicable and surreal. “It is ironic that when there were some 80,000 Jews in Egypt there was no rampant anti-Jewish feeling as there is today when there are hardly any Jews in the country,” he poses.

In my view, the fact that there are currently probably fewer than 100 indigenous Jews left in Egypt actually makes easier the strong anti-Jewish sentiment gripping most strata of Egyptian society. Most Egyptians never come into contact with Jews, and the only Jews they are regularly exposed to, through the media and popular culture, are two-dimensional Israelis who oppress Palestinians and deny them their rights.

This anger at Israel’s excesses towards the Palestinians has been accompanied by Arab powerlessness to do much about it. Rather than admit that Arab defeat is largely a symptom of Arab weakness and disarray, there are those who exaggerate the power of their enemy, which makes some subconsciously seek solace in the anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, first floated in Tsarist Russia, relating to Jewish plots for world dominance.

In contrast, when Egypt was home to a prominent, visible and diverse Jewish community, the fact that many people knew Jews personally or saw positive Jewish role models all around them not only tempered the suspicion with which majorities often view minorities but also presented a picture of surprising harmony. In fact, it would strike many as surprising today, but Egypt, particularly then-cosmopolitan Alexandria, was regarded as a safe haven, and land of opportunity, for Jews fleeing persecution elsewhere.

Jews, perhaps unsurprisingly, were prominent in business, banking and industry – establishing Egypt’s most famous department stores and helping set up its first national bank as part of economic efforts to resist British domination.

Layla--murad2

Like Hollywood, Egyptian cinema, widely known as the Hollywood of the Middle East, was at first dominated by foreigners and minorities, partly because in the early days, people from “good families” did not go into acting and partly because of the creative insight being a relative outsider affords.

Though Jews were more often involved in production and direction, some of Egypt’s best-loved stars were Jewish. One example was the singer-actress Leila Mourad, who captivated an entire generation with her ethereal voice and girl-next-door demeanour, and whose films even brought Jews and Arabs together in mandate Palestine.

Although Mourad’s diva status was second only to that of Um Kulthum and she managed to hold on to her place in people’s hearts until she died, the Arab-Israeli conflict cast a long shadow over her later career.

She took early retirement at the peak of her fame in the mid-1950s, perhaps troubled by the Syrian-led Arab boycott of her films and music, though Egypt’s revolutionary regime defended her, and she was even briefly the first “voice of the revolution”. However, as a sign of her enduring popularity, a popular Ramadan bio-soap was made about Mourad – ironically, a Syrian production – which dealt sensitively with her Jewish heritage.

Looking back from my vantage point a couple of generations down the line, the thing that has most caught my eye as my awareness of Egyptian Jewry has deepened is just how closely involved Egyptian Jews were in Egyptian nationalism and the country’s struggle for independence.

For example, the name Yaqub Sannu might not ring many bells today, but in the 19th century he was a big deal in Egypt’s nascent nationalistic movement. This Egyptian Free Mason and Jew, whom my brother drew my attention to, established one of the country’s first anti-imperialist publications, The Man in the Blue Glasses.

One extremely colourful revolutionary political agitator featured in Ramses’s documentary is Henri Curiel, the son of Egypt who spoke poor Arabic and the son of a wealthy banker who became a communist revolutionary. Even after he was exiled from Egypt and stripped of his nationality, Curiel continued to feel Egyptian and supported the region’s independence struggles from his base in France, especially in Algeria. According to Jews of Egypt, Curiel warned Nasser of the impending tripartite attack by France, Britain and Israel in 1956, though the Egyptian president did not take the warning seriously.

“I was surprised the most by the passion of the Jews of Egypt even after they were expelled. They never stopped loving their country. They never lost their sense of belonging,” Amir Ramses told me. “I made this film as a tribute to that time in history when Egypt was a cosmopolitan and tolerant country.”

Although there was a lot wrong with that era and I try to resist rosy-coloured nostalgia, narrow nationalism has caused Egypt and the Middle East to fall out of love with diversity and to become less tolerant towards difference. I hope in the future the region will be able to rediscover this spirit of acceptance.

__

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 24 March 2013.

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