Israel, the puppet master with no strings

 
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By Khaled Diab

Why is Israel, despite being a minor player, is seen by so many Egyptians and others in the region as the master puppeteer behind the crisis in Egypt?

Thursday 29 August 2013

Is this man the mastermind behind the crisis in Egypt or is he just a philosopher with "beautiful hair"?

Is this man the mastermind behind the crisis in Egypt or is he just a philosopher with “perfect hair”? Photo: Itzike

When news emerged that Hosni Mubarak was to be released from prison, I joked that Egypt was actually in the throes of a grand plot to punish the Egyptian people for having dared to topple their dictator. Part of this ‘conspiracy’ was the planting of provocateurs – Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, Mohammed Morsi and Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi – to lead the country off a cliff.

Of course, I was sarcastically expressing my frustration at the incomprehensible magnitude of the incompetence displayed by Egypt’s leaders, the shattering – one shard at a time – of the Egyptian people’s dreams of revolution, as well as mocking the improbable conspiracy theories that have been floating around.

One of the most outlandish was the assertion by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, perhaps trying to fill a little of the void left by former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, that Israel was behind the ouster of Mohammed Morsi.

His evidence? A Jewish-French intellectual, unnamed by Erdoğan, who said, in 2011, that the Muslim Brotherhood would not take power, even if elected, because “democracy is not the ballot box.” The intellectual in question, an aide later revealed to AP, was none other than Bernard-Henri Lévy.

Unfortunately, Erdoğan did not elaborate on how BHL, as he is often called in France, came to work for the Israelis. Nor did he explain how Lévy managed to brainwash millions of Egyptians into coming out to the streets to demand Morsi’s departure, providing the army with the necessary cover and support to mount its coup, or what inside track the French philosopher enjoys with General Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi.

Although this conspiracy theory may actually appeal to Lévy’s over-inflated sense of himself – whose shallow philosophy has been described as “God is dead but my hair is perfect” – he is not a one-man intelligence agency. In fact, he is little more than the French equivalent of the “liberator of Kabul” John Simpson and “gut feeling,” “cab driver told me,” world-shaper Thomas Friedman.

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In fact, anyone who actually watches the YouTube video can see that Levy is taking part in a panel discussion and is expressing his view that even if the Brotherhood won at the ballot box, he would not personally regard this as democratic. “Democracy is not only elections, it is values,” he asserted.

But, sadly, Erdoğan is not alone in spreading absurd rumours of this kind. In Egypt itself, there are some people in most camps who allege that Israel, usually in collaboration with the United States, is the master puppeteer behind the crisis there. For instance, one poster at the Rabaa protest shows US President Barack Obama dressed as pharaoh leading al-Sisi like a dog wearing a Star of David collar, while another –  which has stirred controversy in Egypt –  shows a Star of David stamped on the neck of a soldier. On the other side of the political spectrum, a caricature that appeared in a leading newspaper shows pro-Morsi protesters asking how to say ”Occupy Egypt and save us”  in Hebrew.

This attitude strikes me as being particularly pronounced and most vitriolic in the pro-Morsi camp. “America and the Zionists were against Morsi. But they will fail in their project,” said one protester at the Raba’a al-Adawiya sit-in, which I visited days before it was violently dispersed.

One outspoken young man who pushed through the crowd to speak to me claimed shockingly, outrageously and preposterously: “Hitler killed the Jews for his people. Al-Sisi is killing his people for the Jews.”

On the other side of the political spectrum, there are those in the pro-military camp who believe that Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood are agents of the United States and Israel.

It may be news for many Israelis to learn that, while still in power, Morsi, who is most famous in Israel for describing Jews as “descendants of apes and pigs”, was described as a “Zionist” by one prominent anti-Brotherhood, secular cleric.

Riding the wave of suspicion toward the United States and Israel, the youth-led Tamarud movement, which helped spearhead the opposition against Morsi with a petition signed by millions calling for his departure, has launched a new petition campaign demanding the cessation of US aid and the cancellation of the Camp David accords, which would enable Egypt to fix its “broken” sovereignty.

Many Israelis and Jews will see this as yet another sign of Egypt’s and the Arab world’s irredeemable anti-Semitism. Although racism and prejudice, bred partly by generations of conflict, are certainly a factor, the reality is far more complex and nuanced.

Like Syria before it, Egypt has become a proxy political battleground for numerous regional and international players, with the biggest hitters being the United States, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE and Turkey. And the fog of conflict ensures that along with real-world conspiracies, outlandish conspiracy theories also float around.

However, compared with these other players active backing of one side or the other, and even both, Israel’s role has been a passive, backseat one. If that is the case, why is Israel included among the top league of foreign meddlers, movers and shakers in Egypt?

Part of the reason is the perception that Israel is Washington’s loyal regional lapdog – or, more outlandishly, the tail that wags the dog – and as anti-American sentiment grows, Israel suffers by association.

In addition, there is the long history of actual plots in which Israel was involved – from the Lavon Affair and the Suez war to Netanyahu’s shuttle diplomacy to defend Mubarak – that gives fantastical conspiracy theories a superficial sheen of credibility.

Another factor is the emotive weight of utilising a decades-old enemy as a powerful weapon for discrediting political adversaries, which has been a long tradition in the Arab world – though more and more Egyptians are becoming sceptical of them.

However, the danger is that this distorts the reality of the situation. In fact, what’s happening in Egypt, in my view, is more a “clash within civilisations” than between them. This is illustrated in the United States’ overriding interest in “stability” to protect its interests, and that is why Washington backs the army right or wrong, because it incorrectly sees the military as Egypt’s only guarantor of stability.

The mutual dehumanisation and demonisation that has been going on for generations has sadly made Arabs and Israelis all too willing to believe the most implausible, inhumane theories about each other. This is reflected in how a significant number of Arabs have adopted the ancient Christian idea of the Jewish “blood libel” and how a large number of Israelis have reversed that blood libel and utilised it against the Palestinians, as demonstrated in the recent al-Durah affair.

But there is a danger to this. By attributing to your enemies a subhuman character and superhuman powers, you propel them out of the real world and into the realm of otherworldliness, leading to the untrue conviction that you are powerless to transform foe into friend and war into peace. But at a time when populism is more important than wisdom, suggesting that your common enemy is your opponent’s “friend”  is just too tempting an opportunity to miss.

 

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 27 August 2013.

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Egyptian rebels with a cause… and effect

 
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By Khaled Diab

The dedication and success of the Tamarod rebellion against President Morsi is awe-inspiring, but the movement’s current trust in the army is worrying.

Tuesday 6 August 2013

A stone’s throw away from Egypt’s emblematic Tahrir Square stands the Groppi Rotund, a tearoom which was once the preserve of well-heeled Europeans and wealthy Egyptians at a time when Cairo – at least its European quarter – had pretensions of being the Paris of the Middle East.

Groppi’s, a dusty, crumbling ghost of its former self, has borne immobile witness to most of the major events and upheavals which have gripped Egypt over the past century or so. It is even rumoured that the Free Officers, who met to plot the overthrow of the monarchy at another café just off Tahrir Square, used the phone in Groppi’s to communicate.

If true, this was an appropriate venue to meet a group of young activists in the Tamarod movement, most of whom describe themselves as Nasserists, though the movement itself is non-partisan. Tamarod, which means ‘Rebellion’ in Arabic, was a petition campaign, which began life in late April 2013, calling for President Mohamed Morsi to step down and launch early presidential elections.

Though he looks like your typical Egyptian guy next door and is not rebellious in his appearance, Hassan Shahin, 23, a journalist who is still completing his degree in media at Cairo University, was the originator of the idea. “The source of the concept was that we wanted to reach ordinary citizens in order to instigate change in society,” the young revolutionary told me after he’d finished some urgent-seeming communications on his tablet. “There was a sense of depression amongst the people, and they didn’t believe that the Muslim Brotherhood would go without bloodshed.”

The reason they felt the need to “reach ordinary citizens” was because “the opposition had lost touch with the people”, Shahin observes. “They talked about political questions and ignored social demands. You need to respond to social demands to move the street.”

This was reflected in the care the Tamarod activists took to pitching the message of their campaign. “The petition was a way to reach ordinary citizens, so we worded it in a way that would appeal to them,” he explained.

It also manifested itself in the campaign’s grassroots nature and its successful efforts to shove the Egyptian secular opposition out of its comfort zone in Cairo and some major cities and make it a truly national movement. “Citizens had ownership of the project,” Shahin said. “We had representatives in every governorate and we gathered over 10,000 volunteers in the first two weeks alone.”

It is a sign of how far Egypt has come that a mass, nationwide mobilisation campaign should have such a, well, rebellious name in a country once famed for its apparent placidity and conformity, and where causing “fitna” (“sedition”) was frozned upon. Tamarod, whose name was inspired by a radical Syrian political magazine, Shahin informed me, was a movement both to rebel “against”, but most importantly to rebel “for”.

“The idea was to rebel against the Muslim Brotherhood’s project of religious fascism which was causing popular disillusionment and depression,” Shahin noted, though I found his casual use of such a loaded word as “fascism” troubling. “But our rebellion was also more for than against  – for law and order, for equality, for social and economic justice.”

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

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

I put to Shahin the criticism that Tamarod and other supporters of Morsi’s ouster were anti-democratic to get his views on the matter. “Morsi had an illusory democracy. He abused the constitution, represented just the Brotherhood, and used its militias to terrorise,” he asserted, employing yet another emotive word. “People came out in rebellion against this terrorisation and intimidation.”

The Muslim Brotherhood have warned of – many say “threatened” – the dire consequences of Morsi’s ouster, including the prospect of civil war. For his part, Shahin contends that the reverse is true. “If the army hadn’t intervened the situation would’ve escalated into a civil war,” he believes, one that would’ve pitted an embattled, desperately unpopular president and the Muslim Brotherhood against revolutionaries and much of the population.

How about those who contend that civil war is now more likely? “There are risks ahead but it is impossible that there’ll be a civil war. If the Egyptian people were bloody and violent, they would’ve gone to Raba’a [al-Adawiya] in their millions to finish of the Muslim Brotherhood,”

“What happened on 30 June was a popular revolution supported by a patriotic army,” said the young activist who just a year and a half earlier was out protesting against this very same “patriotic army”. Shahin even quite literally got trampled upon by the heavy boot of military rule when he attempted, on 28 December 2011, to aid a woman who was being brutally beaten and dragged away by soldiers, exposing her torso blue bra, in an iconic moment which symbolised everything that was wrong with the direct interim rule of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF).

This shift baffled and bothered me, so I decided to probe him on it, especially in light of how Tamarod had heeded General Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi’s chilling call to take to the streets to provide him with a popular “mandate” to combat “violence and terrorism” (Luckily, some revolutionary movements, such as the 6th April Youth Movement, refused to participate). And how about the deaf ear the generals turned to the demands of revolutionaries to hand over power immediately to civilian rule during the first transition? What about the red lines SCAF drew around its empire and the back room influence it enjoyed over Morsi? How could Tamarod bring itself to trust the junta now?

“The first transition created deficiencies at the time. Even if there were errors committed by SCAF, it was the president’s job to establish the right foundations for Egyptian democracy,” insisted Shahin. “We need to differentiate between the institution of the army and a group of leaders who made mistakes… The army which produced Orabi and Nasser is patriotic.”

Shahin suggested that the problem was not with the military but with Field Marshal Mohamed el-Tantawi’s leadership of SCAF. But is Sisi’s leadership any less self-interested or any more democratic? Why is General Sisi engaged in such transparent efforts to bolster the army’s popularity by inciting against the Muslim Brotherhood, and why is he employing classic divide and rule tactics? I heard both whispered and loud speculation while in Egypt that Sisi was planning to ditch the khaki and run in elections as a civilian – and if he were to do that, many expect him to win a landslide victory.

Besides, is the army not repeating many of the same mistakes it made in the first transition? No, insists the Tamarod spokesperson. “The second transition is much better. This time, there is the idea of drafting a constitution first. The revolutionaries are now in government,” he cites as two examples.

Even if CC, as his opponents call him, is well-intentioned and honest about his lack of ambition to rule, it is surely not healthy for so many people, including hard-nosed revolutionaries, to be acting like starstruck teenagers at a rock concert.

In fact, many have likened the charismatic and savvy general to Egypt’s legendary second president Gamal Abdel-Nasser. But despite his many achievements – and catastrophes – Nasser was no democrat by any stretch of the imagination. As Shahin and his companions at Groppi’s were also self-declared Nasserists, I wondered how they reconciled their admiration for Nasser with their long battle to bring democracy to Egypt, which began for Shahin in 2008 with the anti-Mubarak umbrella movement, Kefaya.

“Nasser made mistakes. He was human,” Shahin admits, though in terms those persecuted by the popular president, whether leftists, liberals or Islamists, would probably find more than a little understated. But to his credit Shahin did not attempt to go to the fantastical lengths Alaa al-Aswany once did in a short story in which he had Nasser giving Mubarak lessons in democracy from beyond the grave.

“But [Nasser] established true social justice and national independence,” Shahin added, echoing one side of what I call Egypt’s clash of freedoms, in which competing concepts of liberty are currently competing for ascendancy. “I came out on 25 January [2011] to complete the [23] July [1952] revolution.”

To my mind, this last comment is the ultimate proof of why revolutionaries, like the Brotherhood before them, should not express such unconditional affection for the army. After six decades of denying Egyptians their democratic rights and many of their fundamental rights, it is obvious that any love is largely one-sided and unrequited. I do not doubt that the army is “patriotic” – it would be a catastrophe if it weren’t – but its behaviour often belies some uncomfortable home truths: it loves Egypt and its own self-interest more than it does Egyptians.

“People will not be cheated by the army. It is a patriotic institution,” Shahin insists. “The political process is now inclusive and the army has no role in this phase beyond defending the Egyptian people.” Of course, many would beg to differ with this assertion, even if Sisi is officially only a deputy prime-minister.

But what if what Shahin regards as the unthinkable were to happen? “There is no military rule now and if it re-appears, I’ll be the first to oppose it,” he emphasises in no uncertain terms.

How about those who say no to both the Muslim Brotherhood and military rule, like the Midan el-Talet (Third Square) movement? “There is no such thing. They are Muslim Brotherhood supporters like [former presidential candidate Abdel-Moneim] Aboul Fotouh and those who represent US interests,” Shahin says.

His words echo the dismissive attitude I heard from many about the Third Square. Does this really reflect the nature of the movement or has the current pro-military public mood led people to turn on anyone who distrusts SCAF or expresses the view that the army should be kept out of striking range of politics? Additionally, the movement, though it does possess an Islamist element, involve all political persuasions.

I had tried to meet the Third Square to find out more about them while in Egypt but their spokesperson failed to get back to me.

Turning to the future, I probed Shahin on what he thought should happen to the Muslim Brotherhood. “We want the Brotherhood to be part of the political process, but they refuse,” he noted. “The trouble is that they believe that the will of the Brotherhood is the will of the Egyptian people.”

Thanks to Arab and international mediation, there have been some early signs that after talking themselves into a corner – or better said, a trench – the Brotherhood is looking for a dignified exit from this crisis, such as a face-saving manner for Morsi to step down.

But it is not just the Brotherhood that has been towing a hard line, the security services and many in the armed forces reportedly want to continue the tough approach they have so far taken, perhaps out of the belief that they can “teach” the Brothers a lesson. But if they do that, it is a sign that they have more than a few lessons to learn themselves.

I ended our encounter by asking Hassan Shahin where the future would take the Tamarod movement. “Tamarod is shifting from being an opposition movement to one that pressures and campaigns for change,” he told me. As an example, he mentioned their latest project called Write Your Own Constitution.

And what about Egypt’s youth who spearheaded this whole revolution with their courage, conviction and creativity; for how much longer will they be left out in the wilderness? Shahin believes that this transition is already bringing some positive developments. “The role of young people has become clear since the road map,” he noted, citing the inclusion of youth deputies.

I left Groppi’s trusting that Egypt’s youth would continue to inspire and challenge society. I also hoped that young Egyptians would lead us towards a brighter future and finally get their fair share of the country’s economic, political and social pies.

As for Tamarod, I greatly admire the rebellious spirit that  gave birth to this daring idea and the rebellious souls who  propelled it to such heights. However, I feel that the movement’s current infatuation with the army undermines its anti-establishment credentials and is a potentially dangerous liaison. But I sense that this is a temporary blip, the honeymoon will soon be over and the young rebels will once again be at loggerheads with the old generals.

___

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter

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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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News of revolution (part III): Televising the life and death of an Egyptian president

 
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By Osama Diab

Anwar Sadat was the first Egyptian leader to exploit television’s propaganda power – and even his assassination was unwittingly televised.

Saturday 3 November 2012

In 1970, President Gamal Abdel-Nasser died and with him the  dream of uniting the Arab world from the “ocean to the gulf” under his leadership. However, despite the humiliating defeat of 1967, Nasser died as a popular, yet wounded, leader and his extremely emotional funeral – which was attended by at least five million in Cairo alone, not to mention all the mourners who poured on to the streets of cities across the Arab world – was one of the largest in history.

Initially regarded as a weak leader and an interim figurehead until Nasser’s “true successor” emerged, Anwar Sadat was quick to try to establish himself as the undoubted leader of Egypt by carrying out a self-described “corrective revolution” which involved pursuing and purging what he called “marakiz al-qowa”  (“centres of power”) who were believed to be pro-Soviet and loyal to Nasserist ideology.

On 15 May 1971, Sadat announced that more than a 100 “centres of power” had been charged with plotting a coup to overthrow him. Continuing this trend of overturning Soviet influence, Sadat took a landmark decision in 1972  to expel the Soviet military advisors from Egypt. After fighting the October War against Israel in 1973, Sadat continued his aggressive reforms by opening up Egypt’s state-run command economy to private enterprise and engaging in peace negotiations with Israel which started in earnest with his historic visit to Jerusalem in 1977 and culminated with the signing of the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty.

Throughout the 1970s, Egypt gradually shifted its orientation from the East to the West — the former rivals of Egypt during the Nasser era — and broke off relations with Nasser’s Soviet allies. This new policy direction was accompanied by a relative openness in the political climate and the incorporation of the principles of liberal democracy in Egypt’s official discourse.  The aggressive liberalisation of the economy and remarkable change in foreign policy required a new type of national narrative, especially when the Arab world decided to isolate Egypt after Sadat extended the hand of peace to Israel, the Arab world’s then-official enemy.

Mahmoud Shalabieh, the Jordanian media scholar, argues that, although radio was utilised by Sadat in the same way it was by Nasser, to publicise his policies and persuade the nation their merits, Sadat possessed a powerful new media weapon: television. Shalabieh argues that television influenced the way Sadat and then-Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin behaved during the peace talks. “By knowing that the whole world was watching, they seem to have been self-conscious about the long-lasting effect they were creating by engaging in these peace talks,” Shalabieh argues.

However, television, even more so than the press, was under Sadat’s total control. The 1970s could be described as the decade of television and the press, while Nasser’s favourite medium, radio, experienced a relative decline. As it became more affordable and its reach spread to every corner of the country, television replaced radio as the main tool for propaganda. In a way, TV also suited Sadat’s extroverted personality and his love of basking in the spotlight.

Sadat focused more on Egyptian affairs as opposed to Arab issues, and asserted that Egypt was his first responsibility. According to Shalabieh, he adopted “Egyptian patriotism” as the major value of Egypt’s foreign policy, a far cry from Nasser’s assertion that Egypt’s main responsibility and focus was to the Arab world. This brand of nationalism, often referred to as “Pharaonism”, was not new at the time, but had reached its peak during Egypt’s liberal era, after its official independence in 1921 and up until 1952.

Sadat was very aware of the power of television as a medium to express his fury against Egypt’s suspension from the Arab league. In a televised speech before the parliament in the last days before his assassination, Sadat sent a clear Egypto-centric message to Egypt’s one-time Arab “brothers”: “We are the origin of the Arabs. Hagar, the wife of Abraham, is the mother of Ismael, the ancestor of the Arabs. Hagar is Egyptian. So if there is someone out there who wants to belong, they should belong to Egypt, not Egypt to them. There is no point in these debates about whether we belong to the Pharaohs or not. Our blood is Arab and we are the origin of the Arabs and they belong to us.”

Adeed Dawisha, an Iraqi scholar who wrote extensively on Arab nationalism, explained: “Given the inherent strength of this feeling of ‘Egyptianism’, it was hardly surprising that Abdel-Nasser’s successor, Anwar Sadat, would use it in order to escape the overbearing legacy of his towering predecessor.” He explains that Sadat began by changing Nasser’s name for Egypt, the United Arab Republic, to the Arab Republic of Egypt, “where ‘Arab’ is only the adjective and ‘Egypt’ is the noun.”

“Simultaneously, Sadat embarked on a policy of cultural reorientation toward Egypt. This was evident in subtle changes in school curricula, highlighting Egypt’s long history, cultural prominence, and unique personality. The government-controlled media similarly spotlighted Egypt’s prestige and status in international affairs. By the end of the 1970s, Egyptian nationalism had won the day in Egypt,” observes Dawisha.

The press also played an important part in shaping this era and in telling us its story. As Sadat wished to give his liberal reforms a democratic and pluralistic sheen, a partisan press was allowed to form, and was partly tolerated, as an outcome of the Political Parties Law of 1977. Sadat initially allowed three parties to form representing the left, the centre and the right. The first partisan newspaper to be launched was al-Ahrar, which belonged to what Sadat decided to be Egypt’s rightwing party.

In addition, the tolerated-but-banned Muslim Brotherhood was allowed in 1976 to publish a monthly magazine al-Da’wa (The Call to Islam). The Brotherhood’s publication was very critical of Arab nationalism, communism and secularism, and this, some believe, served the goal of a Sadatist state that was more troubled by Nasserism and left-wing ideologies than with pan-Islamism.

The magazine’s cover, which is often indicative of what a publication stands for, had headlines such as “The Qur’an is above the constitution”, “Islam between the slumber of its followers and the attacks of its enemies”, “Where will the encroachment of communism lead?”. These topics were more or less the main themes of the magazine until it was shut down in 1981.

The Sadat-Brotherhood alliance began to sour after the peace treaty and when his regime began to obstruct the student movement which was openly backed by the Brotherhood. The Brotherhood did not escape the massive crackdown on dissent and arrests Sadat ordered before his assassination as his popularity in a desperate bid to salvage his plummeting popularity and his increasingly shaky grip on rule.

Although Sadat utilised different forms of media to propagate the country’s new, supposedly open political line, the insecurity he felt towards the end of his rule led him to abandon his promise of pluralism and greater freedoms. Many writers, politicians and journalists who opposed him were imprisoned and more restrictive measures were imposed on the media.

Despite this, the relative openness of the political climate compared with the Nasser era, meant that the Sadatist discourse received some competition from other non-official nationalist narratives, such as the struggling pan-Arabism and the emerging pan-Islamism. However, Sadat believed that these attempts were only operating in a margin of freedom he himself and so posed no threat to his rule.

In this, as hindsight reveals, Sadat was clearly wrong, as demonstrated by his assassination during the 8th celebration of the October War, in 1981, at the hands of Islamic militant groups who succeeded in infiltrating the military. Interestingly, Sadat was not only the first Egyptian leader to exploit the power of TV, but he became the only Egyptian leader whose death was televised.

But Sadat’s assassination failed to kill off his policies. Although some areas, especially in Upper Egypt, fell under the temporary control of militant Islamic groups after his death, the attempt to overthrow Sadat did not succeed in establishing a new Islamist order. Sadat’s successor Hosni Mubarak can now be seen in retrospect, especially in his early years, as having maintained and extended Sadat’s policies and official nationalist discourse, despite his success in bringing Egypt back into the Arab fold and his decision to release most of his predecessor’s political prisoners.

Egypt’s alliance with the West, peace with Israel, the façade of democratisation masking his dictatorial regime and the emphasis on Egyptian nationalism remained intact throughout most of Mubarak’s 30-year-long rule, which eventually brought about an unprecedented level of corruption, nepotism and inequality, at least in Egypt’s republican era.

This is the third part in a series of articles exploring the role of the media in shaping Egypt’s modern national consciousness and Egyptian nationalism, as well as fomenting revolution. Part I focused on the role of the nascent print media in shaping Egyptian nationalism and national identity in the 19th century. Part II dealt with Nasser’s use of radio to propagate his pan-Arabist ideology.

Part IV will deal with satellite television, the internet and the explosion of independent media, as well as how Egypt’s new rulers, the Muslim Brotherhood, despite decades of opposition, are largely continuing the Sadat-Mubarak line.

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News of revolution (part II): Voice of the Arabs or Nasserist mouthpiece?

 
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By Osama Diab

The Voice of the Arabs steered Egypt from isolationism and towards a pan-Arabist vision in which Nasser was the anointed leader of the Arab world.

Friday 5 October 2012

Charismatic and a natural orator, Nasser utilised Voice of the Arabs to reach the masses, such as this crowd in Syria, across the region. Photo: al-Ahram.

A few waves of unrest followed the British Occupation of Egypt with two important milestones: 1906 and 1919. In 1906, unrest erupted when five British officers accidentally injured an Egyptian villager and killed home-grown pigeons while pigeon shooting in the village of Denshwai. Villagers’ anger and the death of one of the British officers due to heatstroke during the dispute resulted in death sentence for four of the villagers, including the owners of the pigeons, and dozens more received varying sentences in a court dominated by British officers and their Egyptian allies.

It is believed that this incident fuelled a rapid grown Egyptian national sentiment and was a key landmark in the development of Egypt’s modern national identity.

The other major milestone was when nationwide demonstration in March and April of 1919 led to the declaration of Egypt’s independence in 1922 followed by the writing of a ‘liberal constitution’ in 1923. The emphasis in Egyptian national identity in the 1920s was culturally and territorially linked to its Pharaonic and pre-Islamic past which established the basis for a separate Egyptian sense of nationalism. Charles Smith, the American professor of Middle Eastern studies, writes that it was inspired by a foreign elites’ vision of indigenous nationalism and then further reinforced by the historic discovery of Tut-Ankh-Amon’s tomb in 1922. “This separate identity, and distinctiveness as Muslims from other Muslims, caused Egyptians to refuse to become involved in non-Egyptian issues, or to do so only in situations where Egyptian paramouncy would be assured,” he wrote.

The 1920s was a decade of consensus over this liberal and secular version of nationalism before the emergence of Islamic and Arab nationalism a decade later. In Redefining the Egyptian nation, the 1930s and the 1940s, some scholars argue, were an era of “supra-Egyptianism”, when a younger generation became more interested in the Arab, Muslim and Eastern worlds and presupposed the existence of a larger community to which Egypt belongs while not totally rejecting the uniqueness and distinctiveness of the Egyptian state and culture.

Up until the late 1940s, Egyptian national identity, these scholars assert, could be divided into two systems: a territorial imagining and a Western-influenced image of Egypt where a myth of common descent was created and modern Egyptians started to link themselves to ancient Egyptians. The dominant brand for at least a decade after the 1919 revolution advocated the culture and values of Mediterranean civilisation and the modern West. Politically, it assumed a necessary linkage between the state and the nation, whereas the supra-Egyptian nationalism that emerged in the 1930s and the 1940s situated Egypt in its wider Arab, Islamic and Eastern context and vis-a-vis the West.

Despite being the product of the imaginings of Western orientalists on Egypt and despite being driven mainly by a newly emerged middle class and educated elite, these nationalist movements seem to have appealed to the vast majority of Egyptians who suffered from foreign occupation. The struggle against the remnants of British rule and the privileged class of Turks remained in the 1930s and in the 1940s. In 1952, a secret movement within the army called the Free Officers Association brought this long struggle against the monarchy and British rule almost to an end when they carried out a coup against King Farouq and forced him into exile.

The rise of Egyptian military officers to power caused tragic changes in the development of Egyptian nationalism. For the first time, national sentiments were propagated by the official government and the new ruling elite instead of being directed against them. Also for the first time, the mass media’s potential in building national consensus was exploited by the state. It was a brand of nationalism that capitalised on the ‘supra-Egyptianism’ that had been building over the preceding two decades; one that centred on Arab nationalism, anti-imperialism and socialism. However, the new leadership developed an authoritarian single-party regime and cracked down on all the democratic, or rather semi-democratic, institutions the country had built up during its struggle against imperialism and the monarchy, such as the parliament and political parties.

Despite developing socialist policies, such as the wide-scale redistribution of land, the nationalisation of most key industries and enterprises, the new leadership heavily cracked down on protests, labour strikes and any form of dissidence or opposition. Less than three weeks after the Armed Forces took over power, two teenage labour activists were sentenced to death, for taking part in a strike in the Delta city of Kafr al-Dawar before a military court. In 1953, they made the decision to dissolve all political parties including al-Wafd, which was the major political party at the time which had emerged from the nationalist anti-colonial movement of 1919.

For obvious reasons, these political change took a heavy toll on the media scene. The relatively pluralistic and vibrant media scene that had prevailed before the 1952 revolution and was defined by the dynamism of the political scene and the struggle for independence was replaced by a much more monolithic and strictly monitored media environment after 1952. Newspapers which existed before the 1952 revolution started to be closed by the government, one after the other, and many journalists were jailed in the process.

In short, Egyptian president Gamal Abdel-Nasser performed a process of institutionalising national identity through the dissolution of parliament and all political parties, instead establishing a single-party political system to facilitate the process of political and social engineering he was about to initiate. Nasser realised the importance of mass media and once he began to establish his power as the uncontested ruler of the country, he started to propagate his new doctrines of social transformation through the radio to convey the government’s new plans and policies to the masses.

Nasser’s most significant media project was the powerful megaphone of Sout al-Arab (Voice of the Arabs) station, which employed the latest in radio technology to shape and influence larger communities in the Egyptian president’s ideological war against his opponents, both within Egypt and in the wider Arab world. “Like no other Egyptian or Arab leader before him, or among his contemporaries, Nasser recognised the immense power of radio, a power which, as a dazzling orator, he had used vigorously and effectively,” writes Adeed Dawisha, the Iraqi professor of political science.

Voice of the Arabs started life in 1953 with a transmission of only half an hour a day. However, in 1963, Nasser’s radio completed a new 1,000 kilowatt medium-wave transmitting station that was considered to be the most powerful radio transmitter in the world at the time. It extended Voice of the Arabs’ transmission time to 24-hours a day and helped convey its anti-imperialist and pan-Arab message to the whole of the Middle East, which further established its position as the flagship station of the Arab renaissance.

The Jordanian scholar and media personality Mahmoud Shalabieh argues that before the revolution of 1952, broadcasting had no national goals, and that it was Nasser who was the first to harness its power to develop Egypt and the rest of the world culturally and politically. Even though television was introduced in 1960, its growth was relatively slow in the beginning. It was confined to urban and rich audiences and was, hence, an ineffective tool of mass persuasion compared to radio, which had already been around for a few decades, reached Egypt’s most remote areas and was heard across the Arab world.

The late Wilton Wynn, described as a “dean of foreign correspondents” who was reporting for AP from Egypt during the Nasser years, observed, in his Nasser of Egypt: The Search for Dignity, the phenomenal popularity ofVoice of the Arabs: “A Saudi Arabian merchant buying a radio stipulated that he wanted a set ‘that picks up the ‘Voice of the Arabs’. The Palestinian refugees in camps in Gaza and Jericho gathered in vast throngs at public places daily to hear the fiery broadcasts of the ‘Voice’.”

Nasser banked on Egypt’s existing regional cultural superiority which was due to what Dawisha describes as a “post-Napoleonic renaissance in Egypt, which opened the country and its population to Western civilisation a full century before the rest of the Arab world”. In describing Egypt’s intellectual pre-eminence, he notes that: “In 1947, for example, Cairo boasted 14 daily newspapers and 23 weeklies . . . Egypt was the only Arab country with a viable film industry, and Egyptian movies in the 1940s and the 1950s competed vigorously with their Western counterparts in Arab movie theatres. Kamal al-Shenawy was as beloved a heartthrob as Clark Gable or Tyrone Power; Isma’il Yassin was a bigger comedic name than Bob Hope or Danny Kaye, and Fatin Hamama and Layla Murad were far more popular leading ladies than Vivien Lay or Doris Day.”

The same applied to music. “Egyptian singers and musicians were household names throughout the region, the most revered and beloved of whom was the majestic Umm Kulthum, an Arab icon, whose legendary five-hour concerts on the first Thursday gathered people around the radio sets in Baghdad, Damascus, Casablanca, Amman, and other cities throughout the Arab world,” Dawisha describes.

The Voice of the Arabs station was deployed to propagate the image of Egypt within its three circles: the Arab, African and Islamic worlds (probably in that order of importance). In his book, The Philosophy of the Revolution, Nasser stated that “there can be no doubt that the Arab circle is the most important, and the one with which we are most closely linked.” The station’s motto was that “the Voice of the Arabs speaks for the Arabs, struggles for them and expresses their unity” and it defined Egypt as “in the service of the Arab nation and its struggle against Western imperialism and its lackeys in the Arab world”.

With no rivals allowed to emerge, the state-run radio’s main theme was that the Arabs should unite under Nasser’s leadership, a theme that was used on every possible occasion and through all possible channels, with variations to suit the medium and the audience. At times, a religious tone was even employed. “This decisive turning point in the Arab world was the creation of Arab unity. Almighty Allah wanted this unification and nobody can change God’s will. Nasser has been ordained by the will of God to lead this unity,” one broadcast claimed.

Unlike most of his predecessors, Nasser was a charismatic leader with massive popular support due to his being perceived as the culmination of Egypt’s nationalist struggle for independence and a symbol of the country finally falling back into the hands of its rightful owners. He realised the importance of the media and he banked well on anti-imperialist sentiments and a strong desire for national sovereignty that had been gradually welling up over at least the preceding seven decades.

Charles Smith argue that the new military leadership managed to combine Egyptian nationalism and the more regional Arab nationalism through a supra-national identity in which Egypt was perceived as the leader of the Arab and Islamic world, rather than merely an equal member of it. This notion seems to have made distinct Egyptian and Arab brands of nationalism conflate rather than conflict for a period of time – at least up until the Nasserist brand of pan-Arabism began to crumble following the 1967 defeat, during which Voice of the Arabs broadcasted outrageous claims of victory, and until Egypt was suspended from the Arab league in 1979 for its peace treaty with Israel.

 

This is the second part in a series of articles exploring the role of the media in shaping Egypt’s modern national consciousness and Egyptian nationalism, as well as fomenting revolution. Part I focused on the role of the nascent print media in shaping Egyptian nationalism and national identity in the 19th century. Part III will deal with the reawakening of Egypto-centric nationalism during the Sadat era.

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Egypt’s needs are human, social and educational, not religious, says Islamist MP

 
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By Josephine Littlejohn

 Member of Parliament for Luxor AbdulMawgoud Dardery believes religion is a “personal issue”, and government’s job is to focus on collective challenges.

Friday 31 August 2012

Dr Dardery in “Western” clothes.

I arranged a series of interviews with Dr AbdulMawgoud Dardery, not to learn about the politics of Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), which is affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood, but to listen to an individual voice from within the party. I wanted to hear his own opinions, his dreams, fears and wishes for the future of Egypt. Dardery is a member of the People’s Assembly (the suspended lower house of parliament) for Luxor, a pivotal city far away from Cairo, a place where the rural farming sector and the tourism industry meet.

The first meeting got off to rather a bizarre start. It was the night before the holy month of Ramadan was due to start and the streets outside the hotel were buzzing with preparation. I was waiting in the hotel lobby and watched with interest as the security guards tried to stop a tired looking man dressed in a traditional galabeya from entering. It took a moment for me to realise this was Dardery and it took a bit longer for the security guards to realise this was their member of parliament, not a Kalesh driver touting for work.

He apologised for being dusty and tired, and explained that he had thought about going home and changing into “Western” clothing, but decided it was better that I saw him as he was when he was out working with his constituents. I appreciated his honesty. It certainly raised some eyebrows in the hotel lounge, something that was to repeat many times over the coming week.

What became clear immediately from the discussions was the struggle that Egypt faced squaring its progressive aspirations with the largely conservative values of much of the country. It would take a very special balancing act to develop international trade with an economic policy that did not suck its working class dry; to evolve laws that allowed elbow room and a political voice for the country’s minorities, its thinkers, artists, writers and dissidents, but that also worked in a way that did not tear apart its conservative underbelly. How did he feel about that challenge?

“We want to modernism but not Westernise. We want to take the materialistic obsession out of the culture. It is not the only way: you do not have to be very rich to be happy, and you do not have to be poor either. There is a middle way, a socially conscious democracy,” the parliamentarian for Luxor asserted.  “The revolution did not happen in a vacuum: there was a background of corruption, of destructive ideas, of greed and a wish for extreme wealth. We are trying to resist this, this culture of extreme materialism, something that creates inequality within the culture itself, and not to repeat the mistakes others have made.”

What struck me most was that Dardery had given a lot of thought to what he saw as a section of society wanting to emulate Western culture, laws and social structure without thinking about the real ramifications of transplanting a foreign system, unchanged, on a population that is culturally, religiously and socially unprepared for it. It was also obvious he had given a lot of thought to the damage that could be done to a society if it was too restricted or too religiously dogmatic. He had neither rejected or accepted aspects of ‘Western’ society, but had observed, weighed up the pros and cons, seen what works and what would not, and was trying to come to his own conclusions.

He made a very poignant point that would be pivotal to community harmony: “Being Christian or Muslim is a personal issue not a social issue. What do Christians and what do Muslims want in Egypt?”

“They want the same things,” Dardery answers in reply to his own question. “The rubbish problem is not a Muslim problem or a Christian problem, it’s an Egyptian problem and we solve it as Egyptians. Religion has nothing to do with it. Just like there are no Muslim health services or Christian services, there are just health services. Just like education… our health service and our education services are struggling badly. The problems in these services are critical and they need overhaul, investment.”

His expressed standpoint was one of tolerance, education, understanding, communal responsibility and diversity. He was also acutely aware of the ethical and moral structure of Islam, the traditional society, and how those elements would play out through the political arena in a predominately Muslim country. All of these critical qualities are necessary for a man who is going to be potentially voting for or against policies that will directly affect the nation.

He outlined for me the problems of years under military rule: the regime infantilised people, leading them to lose their own sense of self sovereignty, and their sense of responsibility for themselves and their community. He made an interesting comment, in the context of bribery and corruption which is rampant in Egypt, but it has a wider wisdom behind it: “There needs to be critical thinking about our actions and the actions of those around us… Islam teaches us to be responsible for our individual actions, and we need to live up to that, with understanding, through education rather than dogma. Excuses such as ‘it is my culture’, ‘or the way of my family’ do not hold water: it is important not to accept the status quo as ‘God given’, which is a crime in Islam… one has to always to strive to challenge the situation you are in.”

Personalising his philosophy, Dardery added: “I was born into a poor family; it was up to me to change that, rather than expecting God or anyone else to change it. We are individually responsible for our actions and as a Muslim working in the wider community, I have a personal as well as public responsibility to live up to that.”

However, it is clear from the political struggles taking place in Egypt that the intricate issues of freedom and democracy, and the actual practical implementation of the democratic process, is still not fully understood by many players in the current political arena. More than once we have heard a declaration or promise, only to have it overturned a few months or even weeks later.

My suspicious side wondered about propaganda and dishonesty (which has a role to play), but looking more closely I realised it was more a matter of pronouncing what appears to be a good idea at the time, followed by a swift reality check and furious back-pedalling. Then, there is simply the volatility that comes with revolution, and how one interest group can raise a prospect and another shoot it down.

Many Egyptians are fearful of another “Iran” emerging, of an Islamist theocracy, which would be a tragedy for so many reasons. “Extremism of any sort is easy. Extremism of any sort poses a threat and that is not what we want,” observes Dardery, who believes that extremism is directly linked to dis-empowerment and disenfranchisement. “People become extremist from fear and powerlessness: it is not part and parcel of this land or culture,” he explains.

“There are different forms of Islam, but that is people’s right. There are people who are different and think differently, and that is their right: but that difference is not to be forced upon others,” insists Dardery. ” Ignorance comes from lack of education and communication, which leads to prejudice which leads to hostility and violence.”

The answer? “Coming together and communicating, being friends and a community is the key to understanding, and finding joint solutions that suit all parts of the community. When people are ignorant they are fearful, then they become conservative and extremist: this is a major hurdle we have to overcome both at home and abroad,” Dardery reflects.

For now, with a military that has shown it is not competent to rule, a secular opposition that seems relatively out of touch with the wider, non-urban Egyptian electorate, and the shadow of Salafi theocracy hovering in the background, the Freedom and Justice Party are, in my view, currently the only viable option to move the nation a step forward. Dardery talked at length about his hopes for the next generation, about the need for the young people of today to think carefully about their path into the wider community.

He had this to say to the young members of the Freedom and Justice Party: “Don’t try and get deep into religion and go for the role of the religious scholar, we have enough of those. What we need are doctors, people who can go out and work for Egyptians. For example, we currently need an eye doctor who is willing to go out into the villages and check the eyes of the children to spot the problems before they do permanent damage”

“We have human needs, social needs, educational needs…not religious needs,” he elaboarted. “We need a comprehensive approach, the physical, psychological, social, political, economic and spiritual.”

Let us hope that the FJP will live up to its name and help deliver freedom and justice for all and that, over the next few years, the opposition parties will succeed in better connecting with the reality of the electorate, especially in rural areas, to act as a viable alternative to the FJP.  I came away from the meetings with a sense of hope for the future, a sense that although it is going to be a hard road to navigate, while there are people like Dardery on all sides of the political spectrum, it will be a road well worth walking.

 

This is part of a series of articles on Egypt’s political transformation as seen from the rural and provincial grassroots. Below is the full list of articles in the series:

1. Egypt without the hype… and away from Cairo

2. Egypt needs are human, social and educational, not religious, says Islamist MP

3. Minority voices in Upper Egypt

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Egypt without the hype… and away from Cairo

 
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By Josephine Littlejohn

Contrary to the distorted and Cairo-centric media view of Egypt, Egyptians have an extraordinary breadth of views about  revolutionising their country.

Wednesday 15 August 2012

I have been horrified by some of the Western news coverage of Egypt. It seemed from British and American outlets that the Salafis were in power, that the pyramids were about to be blown up, the temples covered in wax, tourism brought to an end… the shock-horror stories abounded and no-one seemed to question the reality of these rather creative ‘reports’.

I love Egypt, for a variety of reasons, so I decided to find out for myself. I began to read Arab and Western news, Arab blogs of all persuasions, and two striking realisations became immediately obvious. One was that the news could not be trusted (duh!) and the other was a more complex realisation: Egypt now has elbow room for political discussion, but no real practical political experience or knowledge to draw upon.

It was like reading the idealistic debates of middle-class, first year political science undergraduates with no life experience. Add to the pot the constant silly declarations from rather smug religious ‘spokesmen’ intent on displaying how ‘pure’ they are… It made for pretty depressing reading.

So the crunch came: I had to go back and see for myself, hear the voices, look at the situation on the ground and come to my own conclusions. I went with no political or religious agenda: I have no political alignment, and I am not active in any particular religion, but I am not an atheist either. I felt, deep in my gut, that it was really important not to judge the situation based on these superficial presentations, not to have preformed ideas and to try and listen to the voices without filtering them through my own cultural and spiritual values. The voices need to be understood from within the struggle….after all the solution comes from within, not from without.

I talked to members of the Muslim Brotherhood and its Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), to Catholics, Copts, secularists, people in the souk, the bus drivers, expats, regular visitors and I even managed to find a neo-fascist white supremacist. I talked to whoever I could, which caused a bit of a stir to action by the tourist police and the security services at one point. Needless to say I was not hauled off and slung in jail and after a couple of hours of fevered phone calls, furtive discussions and sideways glances, I was off the hook. Phew.

The voices on the street told me of the joy of freedom finally and the growing unease regarding the gradual collapse of law and order, the piles of rubbish, fear of the growing sense of power and arrogance among the Salafis, and the lack of tourists and their money. The feeling on the streets lurched from desperation to euphoria and then seemed to settle into a slow dawn of understanding of just how hard it is going to be to get Egypt on its feet.

I went through similar swings of emotion and the enormity of the task Egypt has ahead of her is still unfolding itself before me, as my understanding of the complexity of the situation grows. In reality, there is no real government, but there are technocrats put in place to keep the wheels turning while Egypt decides her next move. Although President Mohamed Morsi was heavily criticised for the appointments in his cabinet, in truth there was little else he could have done. Few people outside of the old regime know how to actually run the country, and the nearest contender is the Muslim Brotherhood with their long experience in social work. A situation oft described as being stuck between a rock and a hard place.

The secularists wanted a revolutionary government but what do they mean by that? They wanted new ideas people. What new ideas? Who would implement them and how? The country is currently teetering on the edge of collapse. It does not need experimental ideas for now, but requires the kind of stability that can act as a foundation upon which new ideas, once properly and practically formed, can be cemented. And those new ideas need to come from a place of understanding, of knowing the long-term effects and ramifications of the practical application of a specific policy. I was truly saddened to see just how fragmented, politically illiterate (in terms of actual application) and out of touch the secular opposition is. A strong opposition keeps a government in check and prepares to become a government itself.

The dizzying array of various socialist workers parties, their parroting of outdated Marxist speak acquired from text books and their complete inability to truly connect with and understand the vast voting underbelly of the country brought to mind a scene from the 1979 Monty Python comedy film The Life of Brian. There is a wonderful scene in which the Jewish underclass, straining under Roman military rule, are assembled for a day at the Colosseum and begin a discussion about revolution. It quickly dissolves into spats between the People’s Front of Judea, the Judean People’s Front, the Judean Popular People’s Front… you get the idea.

I mean really? A 19th century political theory dreamed up by a couple of Germans and expanded upon by the Russians (who immediately began squabbling and fragmenting into factions)? And you think anything born out of that era and culture is going to even remotely fit in Egypt? It would be like feeding Russian boiled cabbage to Sicilians. Similarly, Adam Smith’s free market economic theory would fit Egypt like a round peg in a square hole. And don’t get me started on the remote possibility of a theocracy…shudder…. Egypt needs its own structure: take a lesson from the West… we made a mess, don’t copy us; grow your own sustainable future, that way it will last.

During my visit, there was so much information, so many voices that had important and valuable things to say that it is impossible to do them justice in one article. So over the next few weeks, I will be posting a series of articles and two in-depth interviews (on with an FJP parliamentarian and the other with a secularist). I want to cover the many political, religious, economic and gender issues that emerged from the conversations: people spoke passionately, honestly and from the heart and I want these voices, voices from the streets and villages far away from Cairo to have a chance to be heard.

 

This is part of a series of articles on Egypt’s political transformation as seen from the rural and provincial grassroots. Below is the full list of articles in the series:

1. Egypt without the hype… and away from Cairo

2. Egypt needs are human, social and educational, not religious, says Islamist MP

3. Minority voices in Upper Egypt

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Egypt’s Mursi and the risk of friendly fire

 
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By Osama Diab

By courting his rivals, Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi could turn former allies into foes and bring to the fore the divisions among Islamists.

Monday 2 July 2012

Egypt’s new president, Mohamed Mursi, realises that he stands on shaky ground. He probably senses that many political groups, segments of the police state, the former regime, and regular members of the public would love to see him fail.

This is why he was quick to try and win the public’s hearts and minds by working to counter fears many people would naturally have about an Islamist president. He met with artists and novelists, while promising to appoint a Copt and a woman as vice-presidents. He also reassured the security services that not much will change by stating clearly in his meeting with police leaders that he rejects the term ‘cleanse’ when it comes to police reform.

One thing is for sure, both his opponents and proponents will be closely watching his performance. There is great hope to see him succeed and burning desire to witness him fail. Someone even established an online barometer, the ‘Morsi Meter’, to monitor and measure his actual performance against his pledges.

Of course, it is to be expected that the predators out for Mursi’s hide include secularists, liberals, summer holidaymakers at the North coast’s gated resorts, club-goers, whiskey drinkers, vodka sippers, opposition parties, perhaps members of the old regime, not to mention the Armed Forces. However, against all expectations, the main and most serious opposition might come from his own backyard: some factions of what is referred to as the Islamist movement.

Early signs of the kinds of clashes that might occur in the future can be seen in the Salafist al-Nour party’s rejection of Mursi’s decision to appoint Coptic and female vice-presidents, because such moves would contradict their interpretation of Sharia. They have reportedly threatened to withdraw from the presidential team if Mursi insists on taking these steps.

The full participation of Islamists in political and public life is a reality many still find hard to digest, which is why many people can’t get their head around the deep ideological divides between the different shades of political Islam. As a result, they think of them as a homogeneous force.

Centrist Islamist parties, such as al-Wasat and the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, could be better compared to the Christian Democratic parties in Europe, which are mainly characterised by their liberal, or neo-liberal, economic policies, but they remain moderately conservative on social matters, which are a lesser priority. The Brotherhood’s focus on the economy and their long history of working with all other political groups, including leftists, Arab nationalists, and liberals allowed them to develop a more pragmatic and moderate approach to certain ideological issues.

This was clear in Mursi’s visits, meetings and speeches after he was announced the winner. His reception of prominent author Alaa Al-Aswany, who is known for his progressive views, sexually explicit novels and his criticism of political Islam, shows that the Islamist organisation is willing to make concessions and extend a hand of cooperation even to those who sit at the opposite end of the political spectrum.

On the other hand, Salafi Islamist groups are more concerned with moral and social matters, and maintaining certain religious demographics. They wouldn’t shy away from resorting to violence and radical politics if needed. Unlike reformist Islamists, they don’t always work their way up the existing political system and institutions.

Salafists lack the Brotherhood’s pragmatism. This could be due to their strict ideological stances, their relatively short political history, or a combination of the two. It seems inevitable that Salafist rigidity will affect Mursi, accusing him of warming up too much to liberals and not staying true to his promise of establishing their own definition of an ‘Islamic society’. It’s not only priorities that differ, but Islamists also disagree on many fundamental juristic issues related to women’s rights, freedom of religion, corporal punishment, and so on.

This deep intrinsic ideological difference within what is collectively referred to as political Islam will rise to the surface now that the Muslim Brotherhood faces, for the first time, the pressures of making real political decisions after long decades of abstract ideas and mere talk. The Brotherhood is too pragmatic and economy-oriented to want to scare away tourists and investors and create enemies at home and abroad in the early days of their rule. But in the process of trying to make his traditional rivals happy, it is very possible that Mursi might accidentally turn old mates into new foes.

 

This article first appeared in The Daily News on 1 July 2012. Republished here with the author’s permission.

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Revolution@1: Egypt must learn from 1952

 
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By Osama Diab

 Like in 1952, the army is trying to silence opposition with the Muslim Brotherhood’s help. But can the Tahrir mentality stop history from repeating?

Friday 13 January 2012

In the final days of 2011, Egypt witnessed a crackdown on human rights organisations, while the ousted president Hosni Mubarak and his sons awaited a trial that seems more likely to be decided in the court of public opinion than through a fair trial. If you believe that history repeats itself, it might be time to revisit Egypt’s history to see what it can tell us about how the situation may unfold in 2012.

Attacks on a police station on 25 January 1952 ( a notable date, it seems) by the British forces in Ismailia sparked a popular uprising in the form of nationwide riots which set the stage for a military coup on 23 July, which became known as the1952 revolution. To commemorate the 50 police officers who died while resisting British occupation, 25th January was named Police Day and declared an official holiday in 2009. Fast-forward 59 years, where the once revered police has become a symbol of a corrupt and brutal ruling elite. On this 25 January 2011, people took to the streets not to defend the national police, but to protest against its brutality and corruption.

Despite the different motives for each uprising, the outcome was similar: a council of military officers took power to administer a transitional period. In 1952, a Revolutionary Command Council (RCC) of 14 middle-ranking military officers who conducted the coup took over running the country until 1956. Although the Free Officers had promised free and fair democratic elections, the RCC decided that they would be better able to run the transition if there were no political parties or a parliament. In 1953, they took the decision to dissolve all political parties including al-Wafd, which was the major political force for the three decades prior to 1952.

Today’s Ruling Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) is unlikely to tighten its grip on power in the same way. Wide-scale nationalisation and the global rise of socialism allowed the RCC to gain economic and political power their contemporary equivalents are unlikely to hold, and the scale of organised popular protest in 1952 was far more limited than today. However, the armed forces still enjoys many of the economic advantages they gained in 1952  and continue to use similar techniques to crackdown on building a healthy democratic life that threatens not only their privileges, but their whole existence.

When the military police raided local and international human rights organisations that have been active in both pre- and post-revolution Egypt in uncovering and documenting government (and now military) human rights abuses, the army justified its actions with the same argument used to dissolve political parties on 16 January 1953: “suspicion” that these organisations received illegal foreign funds. And the reason: after political parties were tamed by successive regimes in Egypt, civil society represents the biggest challenge to Egypt’s authoritarian rulers.

Another striking similarity is that both the SCAF and the RCC have been intolerant of labour strikes, protests and sit-ins. Shortly after 1952, two 18-year-old labour activists were sentenced to death, less than three weeks after the armed forces took over power, for taking part in a strike in the delta city of Kafr al-Dawar before a military court. Even though no one was executed in the aftermath of the 2011 revolution, the SCAF has nevertheless passed a law to criminalise protests, strikes and sit-ins that “that interrupt private or state owned businesses or affect the economy in any way”.

The role of the Muslim Brotherhood in both transitions was also very similar: allying itself with the military ruling council, while ignoring the military crackdown on media, civil society and political organisations. In both revolutions, the Muslim Brotherhood has been employed to disengage protests and break up sit-ins. In 1953, the Muslim Brotherhood silently watched the dissolution of all “counter-revolutionary” political parties on 17 January because the Islamist group hoped to run the country or at least co-run Egypt with the RCC.

This time round, the Muslim Brotherhood is repeating the same timeworn trick. They have been cautious to criticise the SCAF’s actions and grave human rights violations. They have hardly taken part in any major demonstration called for by other political groups against military police brutality, and their reaction to the crackdown on human rights organisations has been mild.

The military-brotherhood honeymoon period ended shortly after the 1952 revolution when they clashed over Egypt’s new constitution, and the Brotherhood was itself dissolved on 29 October 1954 after the regime accused it of attempting to assassinate then President Gamal Abdul Nasser (which the Brotherhood would try to do on numerous occasions), and many of their leaders were either sentenced to death or put in jail for long sentences. They had fallen into a trap of their own making. They were a victim of the absolute power and authority they contributed to produce.

The army was aiming for an Arab socialist, secular constitution while the brotherhood obviously wanted more Islamic law in it. It is expected that a similar clash will emerge between the military council and Egypt’s Islamist forces. Early signs of this clash already emerged back in November when Islamist groups took to the street for the first time to oppose the SCAF’s supra-constitutional governing principles that aim to grant the military political powers many have defined as illegitimate.

The story of Abdel-Qader Ouda exemplifies how conspiring to share power and halting the democratic process is not the best idea, even for the conspirators involved. Ouda, a Muslim Brotherhood judge and jurist, was asked by the military rulers of the time to help disperse a large protest in front of the Abdeen presidential palace in March 1954. This judge who was used by the military regime to calm down angry protesters was sentenced to death by the same regime along with other Brotherhood members after being accused of the alleged attempt to assassinate Nasser a few months later.

However, despite the striking similarities, there are still a few major differences. Even though there is no reason to believe that the contemporary military junta are more well-intentioned or moderate, in the circumstances surrounding the new revolution, they face more pressure and challenges that will hinder them from committing such acts as executing political leaders and labour activists.

The SCAF, unlike the revolutionary RCC, is the established order and, hence, lacks the vision that can empower it to win the heart and minds of the Egyptian people despite its abuses. Unimaginatively, today’s generals only seem to have the obsolete argument of stability, whereas the RCC carried out almost immediate reform,  such as land redistribution and free education, and took considerable steps towards building a more equal society.

Armed with $1.3 billion in US military aid, Egypt’s SCAF seem to care more about its image abroad than did the RCC, which was quite clearly in a clash with the West anyway. For example, they immediately retreated after the US expressed “deep concern” over the recent crackdown on human rights organisation.

In addition, the emergence of the Tahrir mindset among the masses and the so-called “Facebook generation” of activists acting as a watchdog over the transitional process and who will not hesitate to take to the streets again if they sense any diversion from the path to democracy has severely restricted the army’s freedom of manoeuvre. This generation is equipped with tools its predecessors did not possess, such as online citizen journalism, and despite so many hurdles along the way, they don’t willing to give up on their battle any time soon. While the SCAF defines the revolution as the 18-day protest that ended with the ouster of former president Hosni Mubarak, the youth of the revolution still believe it to be an ongoing struggle.

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Egypt’s general discontent

 
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By Khaled Diab

As millions of Egyptians cast their first democratic vote in decades, recent upheavals confirm that Egypt’s military is the biggest threat to freedom.

Wednesday 30 November 2011

Ahmed Harara is a walking metaphor for the Egyptian revolution. During the struggle to topple the former dictator Hosni Mubarak, he was blinded in one eye by a shotgun pellet fired by riot police. In the latest uprising against Egypt’s “transitional” rulers, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), Harara lost his second eye, again to shotgun pellets. Now blinded in both eyes, the brave activist has returned to Tahrir square and a hero’s welcome.

Like Harara, the Egyptian people metaphorically lost one eye in their fight against Mubarak and the other in their struggle against the generals who replaced him. Nevertheless, they are still drawn by the alluring light of freedom at the end of the tunnel.

Just as the Egyptian revolution seemed to be running out of steam, the recent crackdown, which has left dozens dead and hundreds injured, has re-galvanised protesters, triggering what some have referred to as “Revolution II”. Egyptians are outraged and defiant. They are outraged that the self-appointed guardians of their revolution have bitten the hand of peace and trust the people of Egypt had extended to them. One furious Egyptian journalist even likened the army’s betrayal of the revolution to a therapist re-raping a rape victim.

The renewed vigour of the protests culminated last weekend with the “Last Chance Friday” rally on Tahrir square, where hundreds of thousands defiantly refused to be placated by the army’s apology for the recent violence. They called for Monday’s parliamentary elections to be postponed and demanded that SCAF and its freshly minted transitional prime minister, long-time Mubarak loyalist Kamal el-Ganzouri, step down in favour of a “national salvation government” headed by Egyptian Nobel peace laureate Mohamed Elbardei.

Needless to say, this all fell on deaf ears and the generals decided to go ahead with the elections despite the widespread sense of anger and protest. “We will not allow troublemakers to meddle in these elections,” Egypt’s de facto leader, Field Marshall Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, warned ominously.

This general air of hostility towards the generals is a far cry from the chants of “the army and the people are a single hand” which resonated across Egypt back in February when SCAF persuaded an intransigent Mubarak to fall on his sword.

“SCAF’s first contact with the Egyptian people was a military salute to the revolution’s martyrs. This, together with the fact that the army did not visibly shoot at the protesters, portrayed SCAF as heroes,” recalls Aida Seif el-Dawla, the prominent human rights activist and founder of the Nadim Centre for the Psychological Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence.

Despite this mood of optimism, sceptics, including myself, warned from the start that SCAF is the villain, rather than the hero, of the piece who, in a bid to save the body of the regime, unceremoniously decapitated it. And following a brief honeymoon period, millions of Egyptians soon saw SCAF’s true face behind the mask of conciliation. Despite some improvements, the generals’ performance since February has confirmed that the army, after six decades on Egypt’s throne, has no intention of ceding power.

Activists, journalists and ordinary citizens I have spoken to catalogue a long list of abuses and errors which SCAF has committed in the nine months or so since Mubarak’s downfall. These include trying to load the dice of reform in their own favour, endemic human rights abuses, such as the summary military trials of thousands of activists and critics, alleged backroom deals with the Muslim Brotherhood, not to mention the apparent attempt to use ‘divide and rule’ tactics by stoking divisions within the opposition, or by fuelling religious tension and class hatred.

“The biggest mistake the generals made was to choose to spearhead the counterrevolution and abort all meaningful change,” observes Wael Eskandar, a young Egyptian journalist and blogger. “Another mistake was not delivering on most of the promises they’ve made. That lost them credibility.”

But speaking of “mistakes” and “errors” would suggest good intentions but bad execution, which is far from the reality of the situation. “SCAF didn’t make any ‘mistakes’,” reflects Seif el-Dawla sceptically. “They simply lost patience and removed the mask of ‘protecting the revolution’, exposing their ugly, violent face.”

Karim Medhat Ennarah, a young activist who has been involved with the 6 April Youth Movement, which is widely credited as being one of the main driving forces behind the revolution, agrees: “I think they intended to make a mess of the transitional period to create a sense of panic among the population that would give them the excuse they needed to put the brakes on any kind of institutional reform.”

However, the generals, like Mubarak before them, did miscalculate the Egyptian people’s resolve and determination to see change. “They thought they could neutralise the population’s raw anger. They failed to realise that they are not totally in control of all the different factors,” notes Ennarah.

While surprising and bewildering, SCAF’s unimaginative, if somewhat more skilful, use of its former boss’s tactics is hardly surprising given that the generals are led by one of Mubarak’s most loyal sidekicks, in close coordination with members of the former ruling party and big business, as well as the army’s “sponsors” in Washington.

“SCAF is just part of the old regime… It is following the same blueprint,” says Gihan Abou Zeid, an Egyptian activist and feminist who is working on a book about the women who took part in the revolution. Abou Zeid points to SCAF’s extensive control of the transitional government and its tight control of information as evidence of this.

It is far too early to speculate on the eventual results of the parliamentary elections, which started on Monday to massive turnouts and are scheduled to take a marathon four months. However, one outcome seems certain, unless the direct democracy of the Egyptian streets changes matters: like Egypt’s experiment with liberal democracy in the years prior to the 1952 revolution, this parliament will be a toothless talking shop behind which Egypt’s uncrowned khaki kings can take political cover.

“SCAF will never allow any real democracy,” is Eskandar’s gloomy forecast. “What they want is false layers of legitimacy for Egyptians to direct their anger at.”

The generals also have designs on running the future Egypt like invisible puppeteers. “Those who want elections hope that SCAF will leave after the elections. To my knowledge, no military regime left through elections,” says Seif el-Dawla. She notes that “SCAF has already announced that no civilian president will appoint the minister of defence or the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.” This would protect the army’s ample cookie jar for the generals and their subordinates and keep it out of the reach of the greedy, ungrateful hands of the public.

With Egyptian democracy caught by the army in a pincer movement, where to from here?

“The best way forward for Egypt is to get honest people into power and end SCAF’s reign,” concludes Eskandar. “To achieve this, we must either have a civilian presidential council with names that Egyptians can trust, or we can have a transitional government with real powers.”

But calls for the army’s immediate return to the barracks worry some. “SCAF leaving now will create a void,” believes Abou Zeid. “We no longer trust the ministry of the interior to be the backbone of our internal security and stability. The people don’t have any source of protection except for the armed forces.”

However, the army’s recent use of excessive violence against protesters has left Egyptians seething, with many comparing the military unfavourably to the police and state security thugs who attacked protesters at the start of the revolution.

This has led many to harden their position towards SCAF. “I urge the international community to boycott SCAF,” says Sabah Hamamou, a journalist with the state-owned al-Ahram newspaper, who also calls for international supervision of Egypt’s parliamentary and presidential elections. One way to do this without hurting ordinary Egyptians is for the United States to turn off its substantial military aid pipe to Egypt, suggests an “ordinary” Egyptian, Ahmed Mansour, who works as a consultant.

So, what can be done to foil SCAF’s plans to retain Egypt as its political fiefdom?

Since SCAF refuses to give Egyptians a proper representative democracy with true authority, Egyptians must continue to exercise their street version of direct democracy until their demands are met. Although the revolution has cost Egyptians a great deal of blood, sweat, tears and hardship, returning to ‘business as usual’ would make all these losses, at least in part, futile.

But can the revolution sustain the monumental pace it has so far maintained? Well, every day, Egyptians defy expectations with their appetite for freedom, from regularly taking to the streets to queuing for hours outside polling stations. Many activists and observers expect Egyptians to continue doing so.

“I don’t think this is the final phase of the revolution,” predicts Seif el-Dawla. “The workers have not joined yet, and their participation was crucial in February.”

This article was first published by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting on 29 November 2011.

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