Tahrir Square: For the sake of the forsaken

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By Osama Diab

For ordinary Egyptians, Tahrir is now a terrifying black hole, but for its marginalised occupiers, it is a liberator from political and social tyranny.

Wednesday 27 February 2013

Tahrir has become a black hole for ordinary Egyptians but a space of liberty for the marginalised. photo: ©Khaled Diab

Tahrir has become a black hole for ordinary Egyptians but a space of liberty for the marginalised. photo: ©Khaled Diab

“Do you like what’s happening in Tahrir?” taxi drivers ask me everyday on my way back from work, which is near the world-famous square. Fed up with this discussion and my inability to make any “acceptable” argument prompted me to consider moving somewhere that was within walking distance from my office.

For someone who has supported the revolution from the very beginning and throughout its different stages, and against the various counterrevolutionary forces – the remnants of the Mubarak regime, the military and the Muslim Brotherhood – this period has been the most difficult  when it comes to trying to sell and promote the revolution.

Any frequent visitor to Tahrir will notice a change in its demographic composition. The face of this highly symbolic square and its surrounding area has changed beyond recognition over the past two years. Before the revolution erupted, Tahrir was a symbol of state might and prestige, with high-ranking police officers aggressively managing the traffic flow of cars and pedestrians through and around the capital’s most strategic spot.

Within a kilometre of Tahrir in every direction is the highest concentration of state institutions in the country. The monolithic symbol of state bureaucracy, the Mugama’a, the parliament with its two houses, a large number of ministries (including the monstrous Ministry of Interior) are all located on the different ends of the Tahrir square area. The neighbourhood is also home to some of Egypt’s oldest and most luxurious five-star hotels overlooking the Nile, not to mention the famous Egyptian museum, the Arab league building and the former ruling National Democratic Party’s headquarters.

How did this area of potent political power and tight state control descend into a state of lawlessness is beyond most people’s comprehension. Many Egyptians now choose to avoid the area altogether while others are curious about who occupies and controls it. The motivation behind the recent clashes with the police during the revolution’s second anniversary were unclear even to the most competent of political analysts and to opposition forces. It is a defining characteristic of a revolution for events to move faster than the ability of most people to grasp them.

Many of those who occupy and control Egypt’s most institution-laden area are the country’s forsaken: street vendors, homeless teenagers and street children. They have replaced the generals, the police informants and government politicians who used to be in control just two years ago.

Tahrir moved from being the establishment’s headquarters to an area that is becoming rife with anti-establishment behaviour. It attracts the homeless, including children, rebel female activists, homosexuals, street vendors, substance abusers, etc. The groups who were the most marginalised for different reasons have found a refuge in an area completely liberated from oppressive state and societal authority. The occupation of Egypt most strategic square kilometre is a reminder of a triumph of the oppressed over the oppressor. For the outsider, Tahrir might have turned into a frightening, dark, and dirty black hole but for its occupiers it’s a breeze of freedom manifested in the absence of unjust authority.

The changing demographic make-up of Tahrir Square has turned it into a different world. No longer does it relate to the outer world where the state is gradually reemerging and playing its typical role of trying to control and dominate the public sphere. While the revolution outside of Tahrir is mostly defined as its first 18 days, in Tahrir, it has no clear start or end. It’s an ongoing feud with the authorities, society and the state. It is the fight of the marginalised to claim, even to grab, their share of the public sphere.

The revolution is no longer a well-packaged commodity produced by the so-called “Facebook generation”. It’s no longer a unified movement of educated and politically aware young voices who are able to organise, brand, rebrand and promote the revolution as a “civilised”, acceptable and legitimate movement in a near-Utopian setting.

Some people’s dislike of the current Tahrir occupation, and their disquiet towards its occupants, is partly classist and partly practical, because of the inconvenience to the flow of traffic they cause for commuters on their way to work. However, for the marginalised of Tahrir, this negativity is a proof of life, an affirmation of the viability and effectiveness of their actions. Unlike the Facebook revolutionaries, Tahrir’s occupiers have no desire to please society or cater to its norms. Their struggle, in a way, is against the social order, and so upsetting polite society is something for them to aspire to.

The dominant and privileged classes of society have acknowledged these groups’ wretched existence for the first time. Finally,  they are beginning to ask, Who are these people?. We denounce and disapprove of violence but did we listen to them when they were peaceful? Were they given any other option to be heard other than through the sound of their stones? Is this in a way not our violence echoed and thrown back at us?

For the “Facebook generation”, the revolution and the occupation of Tahrir was a means to an end that involved a vision for a freer society. An integral part of their strategy was to engage the wider community and convince it of the revolution and cater to its socially acceptable norms, which is why the social impact of the 18-day revolution was rather limited, despite its remarkable political impact.

On the other hand, for the marginalised of today’s Tahrir, who operate outside the societal framework, the revolution is the end, not a means. They for the most part lack the skills and the social acceptability to engage with and persuade the larger community of the rightness of their struggle. For that reason, they don’t aim for a better world, but just a tiny square of the world where they exercise a degree of control and enjoy a sense of ownership, even if it’s over a space that is frightening, dark and dirty to others.

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Egypt’s rebels without a pause

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By Khaled Diab

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

Thursday 20 December 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

We do politics differently now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Revolutionary generation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The sport of revolution

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

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

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

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

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

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

A revolution in search of a leadership

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joining the political party

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

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

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

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

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

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


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

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

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The Mubarak regime’s legalised robbery

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By Osama Diab

Since the ‘Mubarak mafia’ were not outlaws but were the law, proving that Egypt’s lost billions were ill-gotten is an elusively difficult challenge.

Monday 17 September 2012

“Tell us Mubarak, how could a pilot make 70 billion?” protesters chanted during the 18-day revolution which ousted former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in February of last year. The chant was a reaction to reports that Mubarak’s family fortune could be as high as $70 billion.

I was part of a BBC investigation team that was formed to reveal unexposed facts about “Egypt’s Stolen Billions”. The team produced a documentary on unfrozen assets in the UK related to the Mubarak regime which was aired recently on BBC Arabic.


Decades of authoritarian corruption helped Mubarak and his family and friends accumulate tens of billions of pounds, leaving millions of Egyptians living in dire poverty. It is impossible to measure accurately the economic cost of Mubarak’s rule, but figures from the World Bank suggest that $134.4 billion (817 billion Egyptian pounds) worth  of public assets went missing over the past 30 years.

So far Switzerland has frozen $800 million and the the UK about $120 million in assets related to the Mubarak regime, but Egypt hasn’t yet seen a penny of it returned. To do so, Egypt must prove that the money was “ill-gotten” first.

“It is crucial that the recovery and return of stolen assets is lawful,” Alistair Burt, UK Minister for the Middle East and North Africa, said in an official statement published on the website of the British embassy in Cairo last week. “It is simply not possible for the UK to deprive a person of their assets and return them to an overseas country in the absence of a criminal conviction and confiscation order.”

However, this statement, even though it sounds reasonable, ignores the legal challenges involved in proving the wrongdoings of the Mubarak regime.

To identify the truth amid the many rumours surrounding this sensational issue, it was necessary for the team to find solid and documented evidence of the systematic impoverishment of Egypt at the hands of its former rulers, who received the official status of being a network of organised crime from the Swiss government in May, as the BBC team has discovered.

During my quest in Cairo, I sipped tea and ate liver sandwiches on street cafes with dissident government officials. We spoke to economists, lawyers, activists, members of parliament and bankers over more than six months. Their reactions to our investigation ranged from daily calls to offer assistance to suspicion I was a spy working for the Mubaraks.

They were all trying relentlessly to expose facts about the Mubarak regime’s corruption. The problem is that they were trying to prove it according to existing laws which were put in place by the Mubarak institutions.

The parliament – which is responsible for drafting and passing legislation – was completely dominated by Mubarak’s National Democratic Party through vote-buying, rigging and political intimidation.The cabinet was also dominated by businessmen belonging to the ruling party. Since 2004, the Council of Ministers was unofficially known as the “businessmen’s cabinet”.

Reda Eissa, an independent economic researcher, shows through his research how certain companies benefited from tax laws and breaks introduced by these institutions for their own benefit. Companies owned by figures close to the regime ended up paying almost no to very little taxes. The Six of October Development and Investment Company (SODIC), a real-estate giant by Mubarak’s in-law Magdy Rasekh, was paying about 0.5% in tax, according to Eissa’s study.

I found out from my sources that in Mubarak’s Egypt, the laws allowed some banks, such as the Arab International Bank (AIB), to escape the monitoring of the Central Bank of Egypt (CBE) or any other local authority. This meant that some Egyptian banks could transfer any sums of ill-gotten gains without the knowledge of the CBE. The transactions simply did not appear on any records accessible to the authorities as stated by the law.

The founding charter of the AIB, which was established as a joint project in 1974 between the governments of Egypt, Libya, Qatar, Oman and the United Arab Emirates, states that the bank falls outside the authority of local governments and is therefore exempt from taxation, exchange controls and the CBE’s auditing regulations.

The bank was the subject of many allegations for being a channel for suspicious money transfers before, during and after the revolution. More than a year after the revolution, the bank finally responded by stating on its website that it falls under the jurisdiction and supervision of the Central Bank.

The team was also able to meet many dissident bureaucrats who have gathered hundreds of documents and are still struggling with them in the Egyptian courts. These dissident bureaucrats provided the BBC with proof of another “legal” practice which allowed for the exploitation of the country’s wealth. The government, namely the ministries of tourism and housing, had the legal authority to allocate land by  direct order at prices they decided to whomever they chose without recourse to any proper tendering process.

The bureaucrats gave us evidence that in many cases the land was gravely undervalued and given to either Mubarak’s in-laws or close friends. The documents, of which some are official government reports, show that due to this undervaluation Egypt has lost tens, if not hundreds, of billions of pounds in revenues – even though the practice was perfectly “legal”.

“We talk about $200 billion that were stolen illegally, but if you discuss the lawful mechanism that was unethical, we are talking about a trillion dollars,” says Mohamed Mahsoub, the current Minister of Legal Affairs in the recently-appointed cabinet.

When a mafia-like group ‘owns’ a state with its legislative, judicial and executive powers, corruption no longer becomes illegal. This ‘organised crime’ network, fostered by the family of Egypt’s ousted dictator, was not operating outside the law, because they were the law – in fact, they were everything.

Laws were simply drafted by them for their benefit. Law enforcement institutions were also their own private property. Accordingly, any effort to prove the Mubarak regime money was ill-gotten should not focus on whether they brok laws of their own making. What is acquired on illegitimate grounds should, by extension, also be illegal. The focus instead should be on the much easier task of proving the regime was an unelected dictatorship which benefited financially from being in power, even if on paper, it was all “legal”.

Follow Osama Diab on Twitter

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Egyptian presidential election: Anti-revolution v counterrevolution

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 By Khaled Diab

Should Egyptians side with the anti-revolutionary military old guard or the counterrevolutionary Islamist vanguard when choosing their next president?

Monday 4 June 2012

The counterrevolution is gathering pace in Egypt.

After initial elation at the spectacle of millions of Egyptians queuing patiently, in a country where jumping the queue is a national pastime, to cast their ballot for one of more than a dozen candidates in unprecedented presidential elections in which the winner was not known in advance, a by-now familiar feeling of disillusionment set in when the results of the first round were announced.

In a turn of events that proved surprising to just about everyone, the last two candidates left standing were Mohamed Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood’s conservative wing and “Mubarak’s man” Ahmed Shafiq, one-time air force commander, ex-aviation minister, and Mubarak’s unpopular first choice for prime minister when the revolution broke out early last year.

Neither Mursi nor Shafiq were the pundits’ favourites. In fact, both men were hovering low in most polls prior to the elections. The early favourites were the reform-minded, pluralist and relatively liberal former Muslim Brother Abdel-Moneim Aboul Fotouh and Amr Moussa, the popular one-time foreign minister who emerged from the revolution relatively unscathed, because of his personal incorruptibility and the distance he took from some of the Mubarak regimes most notorious and abusive years during his decade-long tenure as secretary-general of the Arab League.

Though I, in common with most young revolutionaries, opposed Moussa’s candidacy because of his close association with the former regime, some long-time dissidents have expressed their support for him. One example is Hisham Kassem, the veteran independent publisher and human rights activist. “I want a strong president,” he told me prior to the elections while seated at a dusty desk amid the bare concrete at the Cairo offices of his soon-to-be-launched newspaper which he has optimistically named al-Gumhoriya al-Gadida (The New Republic) to reflect Egypt’s changing reality. “I don’t want Egypt to enter a Latin American scenario of political collapse and a new president every six months.”

While Moussa had the support of “stability-seeking” reformers like Kassem, Aboul Fotouh had the vote of many in the antiestablishment but pragmatic middle ground, who sought a consensus candidate. “Aboul Fotouh genuinely believes in equality,” the prominent human rights activist Hossam Bahgat, who founded the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, reflected as a number of shishas or waterpipes bubbled thoughtfully around us.

However, these two men confounded expectations, with Aboul Fotouh ending up fourth and Moussa fifth, with third place going to the late-starting favourite for the secular, revolutionary vote, Hamdeen Sabahi, a reform-minded leftist and diehard Nasserist.

With the race for the presidency now reduced to a contest between a counterrevolutionary, neo-liberal Islamist and an anti-revolutionary, neo-liberal general, revolutionaries and pro-revolution Egyptians have been left with an extremely bitter pill to swallow and a stark choice to make at the ballot box: vote for “felloul” (remnants of the old regime) or conservative Islamism.

A heated debate is taking place between secular revolutionaries about which of the two candidates to vote for in order to best preserve the  aims of the revolution, or whether it would be more principled to boycott the second-round vote altogether to show that neither man enjoys a sufficient mandate.

But what brought about this “nightmare scenario”, as it has come to be described in revolutionary circles?

Well, both men appear to have been helped by the fragmentation and disarray of the revolutionaries and the low turnout of just over 40%, which is tiny considering that this election was Egypt’s first truly free presidential race and some had hoped it would mark the birth of the “second republic”. This low turnout was reflective of the paucity of good candidates, the disillusionment felt by pro-revolutionaries that their revolution had been “stolen” or “hijacked”, and disappointment at the revolution’s failure to deliver concrete socio-economic results following high initial expectations.

Ahmed Shafiq, who has the tacit backing of the army and the police, managed to steal votes from the Moussa “stability” camp but also capitalised on the “fear” vote, drawing support from those who harboured Mubarak sympathies and those who are terrified by the prospect of an Islamist takeover in Egypt, including the country’s vulnerable Christian minority. For his part, Mohamed Mursi seems to have walked away with the conservative Islamic vote, particularly in the more traditional rural areas in the south of the country.

Does the victory of these two contenders who have questionable democratic credentials mean that Egyptians do not prize freedom? There are certainly some Egyptians who seem enamoured of authoritarianism, as reflected by the surprising number of people I met in Cairo who voiced support for Omar Suleiman, Mubarak’s shadowy and dangerous intelligence chief, as Egypt’s next president, but he was later disqualified from the race.

That said, candidates who represent the vanguard of the Egyptian revolution walked away with around two-fifths of the vote. Furthermore, quite a lot of those who voted for the top two candidates did so not out of some anti-freedom platform but because they have other, more immediate fears and priorities for the transitional phase.

But if Egyptians vote for Mursi to oppose Shafiq as the symbol of the old regime that would mean that the Islamists will win the double whammy of the parliament and presidency. What would be the consequences of such an outcome on the future of Egypt?

As someone who believes wholeheartedly in a new Egypt of full freedom, equality and economic and social justice, I fear what impact this conservative current will have on society. But in order to understand its possible consequences, we need to delve into its causes.

Fundamentalist Islam, like fundamentalist Judaism and Christianity, is partly a response to the onslaught of modernity and the insecurity it has engendered. In Egypt, it is also a backlash against the corruption, nepotism, oppression and failure of the country’s secular regimes, as well as the unequal global order, to deliver prosperity, equality and dignity to ordinary people. Also, in situations of grinding poverty, poor education and stark inequality, people often fall back on the safety cushion of religion.

Moreover, part of the appeal Islamists enjoy is due to the fact that they have always been in opposition, and the few months they have been at the wheel of parliament has already corroded their popularity and turned many former supporters against them, who accuse them of being a religious version of Mubarak’s now-defunct National Democratic Party. If Islamists fail to deliver visible improvements on crucial bread-and-butter issues, such as employment, health and education, then the electorate is likely to conclude that Islam, or at least Islamism, is not the solution to their woes, and may turn to the secular revolutionaries as an alternative.

But what if these elections turn out to be “one person, one vote, one time”, as Western critics of Islamism claim? “Don’t panic”, is Hisham Kassem’s attitude. “I don’t think the Islamists are powerful enough to change the identity of the state,” he says.

Many Egyptians also believe that the Islamists-secularists fault line is exaggerated and even a distraction. While it certainly does exist, it is not a black-and-white division, with a significant proportion of secularists supporting traditional values and religious intolerance, while many Islamists, particularly younger ones, believing in democracy, religious freedom and individual rights. Also, the ranks of the rightwing and leftwing, the revolutionary and counterrevolutionary, the progressive and reactionary are to be found on both sides of the Islamist-secularist border.

“It’s much more comfortable for the two sides to engage in a culture war,” observes Hossam Bahgat. “But the real issue is building a democratic system, and striving for social justice and economic justice. The battle over identity is just polemics.”


This article first appeared in The Jerusalem Post on 30 May 2012.

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Confessions of a would-be Egyptian revolutionary

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By Khaled Diab

Returning to Egypt for the first time since the revolution, an expat desktop rebel discovers the inspirational, the troubling and the simply bizarre.

Thursday 26 April 2012

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

“The next president of Egypt will be the Mahdi,” Dr Omar, who claimed to be a paediatrician who had treated injured protesters on Tahrir Square, told me. In his hand, he held up a petition calling on the government to dig up, at a precise location in a poor Cairo suburb, the Ark of the Covenant because, he claimed, it contained the Mahdi’s identity.

At first, I simply assumed that the good doctor and his not-so-merry crew, who stood on the tented central island of Tahrir Square, were using the sharp wit and humour that have been part and parcel of the revolution to mock the anti-democratic tendencies of the military junta still running the show. But after a little extra probing, it dawned on me that they were deadly serious and they expected the messianic Mahdi to return and reclaim his earthly throne by becoming president of medium-sized Egypt, rather than, say, the United States or China.

Endorsing the Mahdi. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

This was not quite what I had been expecting to hear on my first visit to Tahrir Square since the Egyptian revolution began in January 2011. Although when I last departed Egypt, a few short weeks before the now-legendary uprising, I was feeling pretty sick of home, and all its corruption and cronyism, with my wife and I speculating about what kind of a second homeland awaited our son. Less than a month later, I began to feel homesick. Even though I’m not into patriotism and I regard nationalism to be safe only in small doses, nonetheless, in addition to the humanist admiration for the underdog, the revolution awoke in my a certain amount of national pride and I longed to be with the protesters rewriting their history.

But I was in the wrong place at the right time, and the best I could manage was the whole-hearted support of the sympathetic spectator. Of course, I could have followed the example of some expatriated friends who, in their haste to return, almost parachuted into Tahrir. But at the time, I was temporarily on my own holding the baby, and then came our move to Jerusalem and… and… and… perhaps I simply wasn’t really a hands-on revolutionary.

May be I also felt a certain unworthiness. Sure, in my journalism I had for years harshly criticised all that I saw wrong with the Egyptian regime and society and dreamed – or wishfully fantasised, as some alleged – of a free and democratic Egypt of social and economic justice for all.

But these newspaper columns, though they could have come crashing down around my ears during one of my regular visits, also supported the ivory tower which afforded me, the expat Egyptian with a foreign passport who was working mostly for foreign outlets, relative protection. So, while I had spilt rivers of ink pontificating, intellectualising and agonising, millions of Egyptians were actually demanding their freedom, dignity and hope, and paying for it with their blood, sweat, tears and fears.

This emotional baggage could perhaps explain why I entered a futile debate with these Mahdist maniacs on the messianic margin, and even got threatened with violence by a couple of them in the process, rather than just walking away scratching my head. Then again, sometimes my mouth is just bigger and my tongue sharper than the weights and pullies that are meant to keep them under control.

Moreover, Tahrir had finally, thanks to the combined will, determination and courage of millions of protesters, lived up to the promise of its name, liberty, freedom. And so if Tahrirites were to endorse the presidential aspirations of anyone, it should be a candidate with some democratic credentials, not an unelected spiritual leader whose rule, benign or not, would be tantamount to a divine dictatorship.

Of course, the unprecedented display of people power deposing the country’s anointed pharaoh-in-chief and the unpresidented prospect of Egyptians actually choosing their own leader may have been too much for some to absorb, and a “miracle” like this is bound to awaken millennialist ideas in the quackier reaches of society.

Even in more “sensible” and “rational” quarters, some worrying signs of antidemocratic tendencies could be seen, such as the pro-stability Egyptians I came across who express support for the Vladimir Putin of Egyptian politics, the mysterious and shady Omar Suleiman, Mubarak’s right-hand man and Egypt’s chief of military intelligence, as the country’s next president because they think he’s a “real man” who can restore order to the country and, with his vast insider knowledge, manage its transition.

Even a top newspaper editor who had spent his entire career opposing Mubarak surprised me by expressing his view that it was time to curb the revolution and work towards stability, otherwise the country would go to the dogs. He said former Arab League chief and one-time foreign minister Amr Moussa was his choice for president. And Moussa’s age and ties with the former regime did not seem to bother him. “If Moussa proves incompetent or unworthy, we can always change him at the next elections. The days of lifetime tenure are over,” the editor argued. When I quizzed him about what he thought of the revolutionary youth making all these sacrifices and so far getting nothing in return, his response was pretty cold and unsympathetic. He blamed the revolutionaries’ refusal to end the revolution and “play politics” for their own demise.

Though I was aware that the elation of the early days of the revolution had been replaced by caution and concern, it was disappointing to arrive in what had once been dubbed the Republic of Tahrir by elated protesters to find time had transformed the beautiful utopian state in the centre of the city back into an ugly, traffic-choked and crowded plaza. Perhaps this dread, as well as the desire to soak in any changes which may have occurred, was part of the reason why I had decided to walk the few miles from my family home to Tahrir, stopping off at some old haunts, including an old cappuccino bar which seemed to be caught in the same time warp I had left it in.

Fallen symbol of the past, the NDP building near Tahrir. ©Photo: Khaled Diab

On the way, I encountered some colourful characters, including a man with a toilet brush moustache and sunglasses who claimed to have worked for the former disgraced culture minister Farouq Hosni and believed that, with the right leadership, Egypt could become the richest country in the world, with “85 million billionaires”. So, watch out America, the pharaohs are coming!

On the central island on the Nile known as el-Gezira, as I walked alongside all the plush floating restaurants and past a gathering point for dozens of manual labourers in traditional galabiyas, I caught sight of the first visible topographical change: the burnt-out, grey concrete hulk of the headquarters of the defunct National Democratic Party, one of the symbol’s of the Mubarak regime’s hegemony and the presumed launching pad for his son, Gamal‘s presidential ambitions.

Yes, Tahrir isn’t what it used to be, friends told me. Constant pestering by the authorities and anti-revolutionary forces, friends explained, had driven the vast majority of real revolutionaries away from Tahrir, except when “millioniya” Friday demonstrations were planned.

But signs of the spirit of the revolution and the new, defiant Egypt were all around. In a city whose crumbling walls had once been mostly bare, the colourful explosion of revolutionary street art and graffiti all around were a sight for sore eyes. One wall just off Tahrir Square had a striking image which merged the faces of the deposed president Hosni Mubarak and the country’s current de facto leader Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein el-Tantawi in a single sinister head.

Field Marshal Tantawi: Mubarak 2.0. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Revolutionary police? Photo: ©Khaled Diab

In a bid to control and limit demonstrations, the military junta had constructed makeshift walls all over the town centre. In a show of peaceful disobedience mixed with civic duty, urban artists had transformed these ugly barriers into attractive murals featuring common streets scenes or even the street on the other side of the wall.

A few blocks from Tahrir, young protesters determined to bring down the junta had set up camp and prepared to dig in for the long haul. On the way to their demonstration, I passed the bizarre sight of police officers, hated for being the shield behind which the regime hid and the fist with which it crushed dissent, protesting outside the Ministry of the Interior, calling for the overhaul of the police force and the weeding out of corruption, complaining about their working conditions and telling the interior minister that “The revolution means freedom”. One of the demonstrators insisted that the police was unfairly smeared and that there are officers who are patriotic and support the aspirations of the people.

A block away, the Ultras, football fans turned revolutionaries, would beg to differ, as one banner which read “All cops are bastards”, succinctly put it. Like young activists throughout the revolution, the Ultras not only flouted the easy assumptions about the apathy and selfishness of their generation, but also about the pettiness and fickleness of football fans. In fact, with football being one of the few mass activities people were comfortably allowed to rally around, the Ultras managed to employ the nationwide networks of supporters, the almost tribal loyalty of fans, and years of experience in pitched battles with the police, all of whom were bastards according to one banner I read, to devastating effect during the 18 days it took to topple Mubarak.

Despite the sombre air evoked by the banners and posters commemorating the 78 fans who died in pitched battles during a recent match in a massacre which the Ultras allege was orchestrated by the regime to punish them for their revolutionary activities, the vibe at the protest was upbeat, rebellious and festive.

Songs of rage. Ultras sing about the Port Said massacre. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Isolated circles of singing converged into a coordinated chorus when one of the biggest voices of the revolution, Ramy Essam, arrived, guitar in hand, to sing some of his own cheeky, sarcastic and defiant songs, as well as the Ultras’ own thundering lyrics of rebellion. They sang about the treachery in Port Said, mercilessly mocked a would-be presidential candidate connected to the old regime, sarcastically apologised to the police for the disruption caused by the revolution, and advised fellow citizens “Keep your head down, hang it low, you live in a democracy, you know.”

Given the machismo of football, the Ultras themselves are all men, but there were also plenty of women in the crowd, from the hip and modern to the hip and traditional. Some of the women in hijab figuratively let their hair down, singing enthusiastically and gyrating their hips vigorously. And standing on the sidelines were a few women in the full face veil known as niqab, singing discreetly along.

The revolution has brought women out in force on the streets, including my own courageous sister who lives the struggle with every pore of her being, where they have stood – and fallen – shoulder to shoulder with men. And this despite the traditional protectiveness of the Egyptian family towards its female members and the additional risks being a woman carry, including the notorious “virginity tests” to which some female activists were subjected last year.

Despite proving themselves the match of men in terms of courage and dedication, women have experienced something of a backlash from conservative circles in society, who seem more willing to accept the right of women to fall as comrades than to stand as equals.

Although most women I know did not expect their status to change overnight and realised that their struggle for full equality would take years to reach fruition, the dominance of Islamist parties in Egypt’s first parliament after the revolution, especially the unexpectedly strong showing of the ultra-conservative Salafi parties, has many secular and reformist women spooked.

“Salafists want to reduce the age of marriage and to segregate women and men in the workplace. This gives you some idea of their priorities,” noted Gihan, a feminist who will soon be publishing a book about the women of the revolution. Seated in an outdoor restaurant located on a tranquil island on the Nile which seemed a million miles away from the nearest revolution, Gihan admitted that she was troubled by what kind of future might await her teenage daughter, though she expected and hoped that the revolution would still manage to deliver improvements for women in the longer term.

A promising sign is the extra confidence, even swagger, with which many women now seem to be carrying themselves. Even young women in the hijab, who used to be the coyest group when I was at university in the 1990s, now are out in force late into the night, dance in mixed groups at concerts, as I witnessed at a concert by the satirical fusion folk band Salalem, and some even walk arm-in-arm with their boyfriends.

Hoda, Gihan’s academic friend who was sitting across the table, tried to find a silver lining. She noted that despite all the bad press Salafists received, their women had achieved a partial sexual liberation of sorts. “They are well-read in Islamic jurisprudence and take seriously the rights to sexual gratification and foreplay it guarantees them, and many of them demand divorce if their man doesn’t satisfy them,” she noted.

This led me to reflect on how Egyptian society, in a desperate bid to avoid “decadent” Western ways has revived a number of old-fashioned “decadent” Islamic ways to enable couples to have sex or to live together, such as Zawaj Misyar, which is a no-strings-attached “marriage” entered to allow a couple to engage in sexual relations. But such convoluted attempts to cover sexual freedom up in an Islamic veil, not to mention the traditional approach of turning a blind eye, often lead to dishonesty and hypocrisy in social relations.

But it is not just women that are worried by the Islamists who, like politics itself, have become the talk of the town. Christians and secularists are nervous too. I was sitting with a group of the two in a downtown watering hole appropriately named Houriya (Liberation) which was part traditional teahouse and part boisterous bar fully visible to passersby.

As we choked on the smoke of a hundred fuming political conversations in the tightly packed bar without ventilation, I wondered what the Islamists made of such public displays of boozy merrymaking. As we joked about the ubiquitous campaign of the popular Salafist presidential hopeful Hazem Abu Ismail and speculated about what kind of future the Islamists might have in store for us as they battled with the secularists and military junta to dominate the drafting of Egypt’s new constitution, a solitary drinker at the next table who appeared to be drowning his sorrows, joined our conversation.

Introducing himself as Andrew, he told us how he had been working for a moderately Islamic satellite TV channel aimed at young people which had recently been taken over by Salafists. On the day of the takeover announcement, they promptly gave him his marching orders because, his boss told him in private conversation, Andrew’s religion did not match the channel’s new orientation.

“I don’t understand how my religion affects my role as a director,” he complained, as he fiddled with his purple-rimmed glasses. “Youssef Chahine made some of the best films about Islamic themes, including the victories of Saladin over the Crusaders, and he was Christian.”

While we agreed with this principle and that he should pursue a case of unfair dismissal, one of my friends pointed out that if he had stayed on he may have been forced to make programmes with which he would have been uncomfortable.

“I don’t care about compensation, I just want to make sure that what happened to me does not happen to others,” Andrew said a few nights later, when he turned up at the same bar while an atheist friend and I were talking religion. Informing us that he had spoken to a lawyer, he expressed his determination to stay in Egypt, at a time when thousands of other Christians were fleeing due to all the uncertainty and their vulnerable position.

Talking to Andrew, like other conversations with Christian friends, was making me gloomy. Egypt at its best, and the Egypt I am fond of, is a place of pluralism where one’s religion only matters in one’s place of worship. Naturally, I have long been aware, with the spread of inequality and Wahhabi-inspired conservatism, that Egyptians who think like this have become a rapidly dwindling group, as reflected by a spate of recent attacks on churches, including one just weeks before the revolution, on New Year’s Eve, the day I had last departed the country, feeling down.

But I had hoped that the show of national unity following this horrific bombing, during which Muslims formed human shields around churches, and the spirit of equality and solidarity the revolution awoke would help Egypt turn a new leaf. But we have still not reached this new chapter of full tolerance.

Another minority which prior to the revolution almost dared not speak its name and still has an uncertain and vulnerable future in Egypt are atheists and other non-believers. In fact, so deafening was the silence of most that some readers of my column in The Guardian believed that I was the only one. Some decades ago, atheism was an accepted position, even if ordinary Egyptians frowned upon it, as can be gleaned by the number of writers and intellectuals who openly expressed atheistic and/or anti-religious views, especially between the 1950s and 1970s. However, in recent years, an unholy alliance between intolerant Islamists and a discredited regime desperate to garner some legitimacy as a protector of Islam led to a number of high-profile cases against freethinkers, mostly liberal believers, for allegedly “insulting” or “disparaging” Islam or religion which effectively silenced the vast majority of sceptics and non-believers in the public sphere.

But the trend that started over the past few years of sceptics defying such intimidation to voice their views has accelerated since the revolution, and the number of people who I have come across who openly express their lack of belief has grown significantly – and we even sat in cafes speaking irreverently and in no hushed tones about our views of religion and God. However, their future freedom of expression hangs in the balance.

But this dichotomy between Islamists and secularists is a false one and a convenient sideshow to enable the powers that be to continue to exercise control, insist some activists. Hossam, a prominent human rights activist, told me over his bubbling shisa with its sweet-smelling smoke, that the real division we need to consider is between democratic and anti-democratic forces.

There are Islamists who believe in freedom of belief and expression and gender equality, he pointed out, while there are secularists who are religious bigots and misogynists. I got a taste of this on Tahrir Square when an Islamist stood up for my freedom of belief by telling a youngster who was angry at my criticism of religion that I was free to express what opinions I wanted, even atheistic ones.

For Hossam, the true battle lines for the coming period lay in establishing the rule of law, protecting vulnerable groups and minorities, making the military and intelligence services fully transparent and accountable, and achieving greater social and economic justice. And he is confident that these are battles which can be won, as reflected by the growing political literacy of ordinary people too often dismissed as novices who are taking the fate of their workplaces into their own hands and even campaigning for their local environments, a pursuit once seen as “elitist”.

Others see the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the shadowy junta managing Egypt’s revolutionary transition, as the greatest immediate threat facing the country, because though the Mubarak regime may have lost its head, in more ways than one, its body is still largely intact, armed and dangerous.

The road to democracy in Egypt is a long and perilous one, and the road to revolutionising Egypt’s social and economic system to make them fairer and more equitable is yet longer still. The way ahead is filled with uncertainty and pitfalls that can potentially derail the aspirations awoken by Egypt’s young revolutionaries, but the genie of freedom, dignity and equality is out of the bottle and there is no way that any power can banish it. Though they may fight, delay and procrastinate, they cannot avoid the inevitable, that Egypt’s people will one day be free.

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Opposing the Egyptian opposition

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By Osama Diab

The ornamental ‘official opposition’ in Egypt is as dangerous as the authoritarian regime itself.

Thursday 13 October

Even though I was quite clearly no big fan of the ousted president Hosni Mubarak, I wasn’t very keen on any of the official opposition during his era either and I never saw any of these parties as a viable alternative to his rule. The reason I describe it as the “official opposition” is to distinguish it from the movements and people who contributed greatly to shaping a new, more dynamic Egyptian political scene and have emerged from outside the traditional political parties and organised political groups.

The perceived lack of alternatives was not indicative of an actual absence. The ineffectiveness of the opposition wasn’t an accident or a pure coincidence, it was a deliberate strategy of the Mubarak regime which always endeavoured to purge any meaningful opposition from the political scene.

For Mubarak, what was more important than choosing his ministers and consultants was selecting those who, on paper, stood against him and his ruling party. In order for the opposition to serve its purpose as deemed by the regime, their leaders needed to be dull, highly uncharismatic, distant, lacking in vision and, most importantly, unwilling in any way to challenge his authority.

Mubarak’s tamed and carefully selected opposition – regardless of its position on the political spectrum – used to praise his wisdom in running the country day and night. Some presidential candidates in the 2005 election, such as the leader of the miniature Ummah party Ahmed al-Sabahi – a 90-year-old spring chicken at the time who insisted that everyone call him Mr President and vowed to reintroduce the fez – even went as far as to say that he would vote for Mubarak because he found him to be the best candidate.

This opposition, knowing no other role, are still prisoners of this subservient ‘court jester’ mentality. Even though Egypt has seen radical changes and a revolution, they seem to be programmed to serve the same purpose with any ruler. They are now serving the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) in the same way they served and were loyal to Mubarak.

After SCAF’s meeting last week with political parties led by al-Wafd and the the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice party, the political parties signed a document in which they “declared their full support for the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and their appreciation of its role in protecting the revolution”.

This also explains why the real opposition and revolutionary forces were not invited to the meeting. The youth movements, such as the 6 April Youth Movement, which was the real driving force behind the revolution, were not invited because their radical mentality makes it obvious they won’t settle for a few cosmetic concessions in return for a few seats in parliament. They are also more likely not to recognise the SCAF as Egypt’s legitimate rulers.

Al-Wafd, the Brotherhood and other forms of official opposition have a long history of abandoning the struggle in return for a few parliamentary seats or even just the permission to exist, and some are infamous for striking deals with successive regimes. New youth revolutionary groups are yet to be corrupted, but until this happens, they will stay unrecognised and uninvited by the SCAF and any authoritarian ruler. I still remember when the former heir apparent Gamal Mubarak mocked a man who dared to ask him, when he still had a senior position in the National Democratic Party, if he was willing to engage in a dialogue with opposition youth groups.

Most of the parties which met with the SCAF to discuss the future of the country did not play an active role in the sweeping revolution, some even actually worked against it, while others were cautious participants who steered clear of the front line. The Brotherhood and other official opposition parties did not risk officially joining the revolution until they were sure Mubarak’s days in power were numbered, and only then did they decide to jump opportunistically on to the revolutionary bandwagon.

Just like the previous regime, SCAF want a malleable opposition they can control . It seeks an opposition that will help them stay in power rather than compete with them for power, and that is willing to abandon its ideals for representation in parliament. In short, what the SCAF wants is an opposition they can trust.

The SCAF has made clear its intentions that it is here to stay, and by signing this document the official opposition helped the generals to anchor their position as the long-term rulers of the country, rather than its interim leadership for the six-month transitional period like they promised after the revolution.

I am sceptical that the official opposition under the Mubarak regime which has now switched to admiring the emperor’s new clothes can deliver any meaningful change. Though it calls itself the opposition, it is actually an integral component in the survival of a corrupt political system many are working hard to reform or remove.

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The fall of Egypt’s symbol of progressive Islam

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By Osama Diab

 Joining itself with an authoritarian regime caused harm to the millennium-long history of al-Azhar University.

Thursday 12 May 2011

al-Azhar in Cairo. ©Khaled Diab

“[Egypt] didn’t change the basic tenets of Islam, but its cultural weight gave Islam a new voice, one it didn’t have back in Arabia. Egypt embraced an Islam that was moderate, tolerant and non-extremist.” With these words, Naguib Mahfouz, winner of the 1988 Nobel Prize in Literature, gave his last statement about Islam, after decades of being on the death lists of extremist Islamist groups and an assassination attempt in 1994.

The moderate Islam that Mahfouz was referring to had a protector and a promoter: al-Azhar University. Throughout its long and proud history, al-Azhar had remained unrivalled as the prime centre of Islamic teaching, attracting millions of Muslim students from all over the world to its campus in Cairo. Many of the most notable liberal reformists in Egypt’s history, especially in the 19th century, were Azhar graduates. Tolerance and not getting too involved with state affairs have been central to its teaching for centuries.

The father of Islamic modernism, Rifa’a al-Tahtawi, a 19th-century scholar and an Azhar graduate, saw no contradiction between Islamic thought and ideologies drawn from the European Age of Enlightenment. He studied in France and, on his return to Egypt, he worked at modernising the country, calling for liberal reform in the Muslim world.

Mohamed Abduh followed in al-Tahtawi’s footsteps, urging open dialogue with European civilisation and the reformation of Islamic thought, arguing that Muslims can’t rely on medieval interpretations of religious texts. He also argued for the secularisation of Muslim countries. Both scholars spoke European languages fluently and wrote positively about their experiences in Europe.

My fatwa against yours

However, it seems that slowly this progressive form of Islam is being replaced with a more radical Salafist ideology, one that blatantly calls for a return to the practices of the first three generations of Muslims, who lived more than 1,400 years ago. Salafi Islam is considered Muslim orthodoxy at its strictest, and is influenced by the teachings of Muhammad ibn Abdel Wahab, an 18th-century Muslim theologian whose radical ideas still shape how the Saud family runs its kingdom today. Evidently, al-Azhar in Egypt is falling prey to ideologies funded and encouraged from across the Red Sea in Saudi Arabia.

Speaking to al-Youm al-Sabei newspaper, Mahmoud Ashour, the former deputy of al-Azhar, said that the Salafist ideology has infiltrated the university. He blamed the phenomenon on young Egyptians’ feeling that society is unjust and their refusal to believe what they are told without experiencing reform on the ground, the paper reported.

A few months ago, in reaction to news of the rising influence of Salafi ideology within the walls of the university, the president of Tajikistan recalled 134 students he had sent to study at al-Azhar.

The clash between the two credos, Salafism and moderate Islam, reached its peak in 2009 when Mohamed Sayed Tantawi, a former sheikh of Azhar, called for a ban on the niqab – the full face veil – inside schools. The growing popularity of the niqab is a manifestation of the growing ascendancy of Salafi ideas among young Egyptians. Protests and sit-ins held by face-veiled students broke out, not just at al-Azhar, but at many other universities across the nation, all protesting against the cleric’s declaration.

Another collision took place when the Azhar Scholar Front (ASF), which was dissolved in 1999 after rejecting some of the fatwas issued by Tantawi, restarted its activities unofficially from Kuwait in 2007. The ASF is now considered attractive for those who split from al-Azhar due to opposing views, and usually adopts more radical positions, such as the ASF’s call a few months ago for an economic boycott of all Egyptian Christians as a riposte to an alleged kidnap by churchmen of a Coptic woman who had converted to Islam. Declarations of conflicting fatwas and heated exchanges have been common since the ASF was informally re-established.

But another reason why many have turned their back on al-Azhar’s ideology and fallen prey to more radical views is al-Azhar’s close association with the former president Hosni Mubarak and his increasingly disfavoured authoritarian regime, which many think has impoverished Egyptians.

The appointment of the sheikh of al-Azhar, the highest Sunni Muslim authority in the world, was the gift of Egyptian leaders by presidential decree. The sheikhs were usually loyal to the presidential palace and hardly ever issued fatwas that would go against the regime’s will or policy.

Chief whip of journalists

Tantawi was also notorious for his tailored fatwas to “Islamically” back up some of the regime’s actions, such as supporting the building of an underground wall on the border with Gaza and prohibiting anti-government street protests.

He also famously called for the “whipping” of journalists who publish false reports, after the appearance of a 2007 article by Ibrahim Eissa, a former editor of al-Dostour newspaper, questioning Mubarak’s health and the future of the presidency in Egypt.

What’s more, the recently appointed new sheikh of al-Azhar, Ahmed al-Tayeb, was a member of the policy committee in what used to be the ruling National Democratic Party. The policy committee division of the NDP was led by Gamal Mubarak, the president’s son.

This kind of co-operation with Mubarak’s regime is what made al-Azhar lose credibility. Paradoxically, it also made it easy for other, more radical Islamic groups, which were usually in conflict with the unpopular regime, to “infiltrate” the influential university.

At this critical phase, Egypt needs al-Azhar as a defence wall against extremist ideologies, to promote a culture of peace, progression, citizenship and dialogue with the West, and to thwart a rising Salafi influence that incites nothing but regression, hate and violence, clashing with and discriminating against the other. Egypt and the entire Muslim world, now more than ever, are in desperate need of enlightened scholars such as al-Tahtawi and Abduh to move it forward to modernity, instead of attempting to take us back to a 7th-century culture.

This article first appeared in the New Statesmanon 7 April 2011. Published here with the author’s consent. ©Osama Diab. All rights reserved.

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Political idealism triumphs over Egypt’s cruel political reality

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By Osama Diab

The power of an idea proved stronger than tanks, water cannons and bullets.

Thursday 16 February 2011

When I saw images of Tahrir Square’s peaceful-but-angry protesters gathering in the hundreds of thousands, I involuntarily linked them in my mind to images of police mistreatment of citizens, such as a man with one foot inside a public bus and the rest of his body hanging out, risking his life to go home. I knew that among these protesters were Egyptians who spent a big chunk of their lives waiting patiently in line for subsidised bread. I knew among them were mothers who had lost their sons, sunk in ships in an illegal and desperate attempt to seek a better life on the other side of the Mediterranean.

When I saw the protests in Tahrir Square, pictures of Khaled Said’s fractured skull [warning: exremely graphic image], of Emad Elkebir being sodomised with a cane by a police officer, of protesters being kidnapped by plain-clothed National Democratic Party thugs sprang to my mind. I remembered doctored pictures, state TV lies and the massive media outlets funded by our money to act as the propaganda arm of former president Mubarak’s regime. I remembered waking up every single morning of my life to Mubarak on the first page of the al-Ahram state-run newspaper on our breakfast table.

When I saw the anger, frustration, determination, resilience and great hope in a better future in the eyes of protesters, I also remembered what those who dreamed of change had to face other than state-security intimidation – except until a few months ago, those who have dreamed of change were scattered, unconnected, unorganised and weak.

These millions of people trying to pull down the Mubarak dictatorship have been told that political idealism is one thing and political reality is another. Political idealism in this battle was represented by protesters camping in Tahrir, driven by the desire for fresh political change, democracy, restoration of their dignity and a better future for their kids. They were armed with nothing but faith, sheer determination and great courage.

Political reality favours short-term, fake stability at the expense of freedom, human dignity and social justice.

For a long time, political idealists were accused of being naive. The power of their ideas – of liberty, freedom and justice – has always been underplayed. Ending the Egyptian dictatorship seemed like a mission impossible. It wasn’t a fight against one man, but against all Arab dictatorships, Israel and the United States, which all had vested interests in keeping Mubarak in power.

This scepticism was completely justified. Mubarak’s authoritarian infrastructure was a brilliant combination of three things: military loyalty, horrifying state security and intelligence apparatuses, and a ruling party of billionaire businessmen who help with funding this whole process of maintaining the status quo in return for “economic favours”. What is more, all this was internationally backed due to Mubarak’s good friendship with Israel – or, better said, Mubarak’s unquestioned obedience to Israel.

Amid all these challenges, how did peaceful protesters, armed with nothing but a love of dignity, freedom and social justice win this battle against political realism, despite the arrests of its members, the torture and killings? How did the mighty state security force collapse in a matter of a few hours? How was a cabinet of wealthy businessmen dismissed in a matter of days? How did one of the world’s worst dictators fall in just 18 days?

It’s because the power of an idea proved much stronger than the power of tanks, water cannons, bullets, batons, tear gas and Molotov cocktails. When the idea is right, it can prove more resilient than an out-of-its-mind police state, which wouldn’t hesitate before running over [warning: extremely graphic footage] peaceful protesters with ugly armoured vehicles.

I salute those who turned one of the world’s strongest men into one of its weakest, as well as those who did not favour a fake stability imposed by the heavy hand of brutal security over a stability driven by social equality and political freedom. But, most importantly, I salute those who gave their lives so that others can enjoy a better one.

This article first appeared in the New Statesman on 14 February 2011.

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