International Women’s Day: Empowering the average Mo

 
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By Khaled Diab

Arab men who do not fit the traditional ideal of manhood are often regarded as inferior, and this stereotype holds back the emancipation of women.

Thursday 8 March 2012

The feminist cause in the Arab world has generally progressed less than in the West, particularly in the last few decades of rapid Western emancipation.Last year, the egalitarian mass protests that marked the eruption of the Arab Spring looked like they might finally change all that. In Tunisia and Egypt, women from a wide range of backgrounds and walks of life stood shoulder to shoulder with men as equals in the battle against tyranny and for dignity and freedom. “Attitudes toward women are better among the young generation, particularly the middle class, to which most of the politically active women belong,” notes Egyptian feminist and activist Gihan Abou Zeid.

Although women are treated as relative equals by the revolutionary youth movement that has orchestrated the two revolutions, the Muslim conservatives that have made the greatest gains in parliamentary elections in Tunisia and Egypt do not share such enlightened views, although Tunisia Islamists are more progressive than their Egyptian counterparts. And in Egypt, the most troubling development for women has been the unexpected success of the ultra-conservative Salafists who tend to believe that women should neither be seen nor heard.

The reasons that the Arab Spring has not yet blossomed into a summer of gender equality are many and complex. They include the conservative Islamic current that has swept society in recent decades, the discrediting of the Arab model of secularism and suspicion of “Western imports”, and the fact that revolutionising deeply ingrained social attitudes takes far longer to take hold than instigating changes to the political structure.

In addition, one oft-overlooked cultural factor is that, in the bid to invent the new Arab woman, her complement, the new Arab man, has often flown beneath the radar. While independence-seeking Arab women often have clear and positive role models to aspire to in their quest for emancipation, the men in their lives are often left swimming against the tide of popular perception.

Over the years, I have met legions of Arab men who resist female emancipation not out of any abstract objection to gender equality but out of peer pressure and fear of what their families, workmates or neighbours will think of them. Where progressives have failed to capture the imagination of the masses, conservative myth-makers have worked tirelessly to idealise and idolise the vision of invincible, insurmountable manhood. With some brilliant exceptions, television soap operas tend to be the Arab world’s strongest bastion of traditionalism and overt, unsubtle moralising, particularly during the fasting and feasting month of Ramadan.

One hit series which took the Arab world by storm was the Syrian soap opera Bab el-Hara (Alleyway Gate). Set in French-mandate Syria between the two world wars, it paints a sentimental and nostalgic picture of a society peopled by brave and gallant men and their dutiful and obedient women. Director Bassam al-Malla said he intended to create nostalgia for “a world with values, honour, gallantry … and the revolutionary spirit”.

But the world Bab el-Hara attempts to recreate never existed in the first place. “The series conceals all those women who had a political and cultural presence in the Syrian street at that time,” writes Juhayina Khalidiya, in a feminist critique of the TV programme, published in as-Safir newspaper (in Arabic). She notes that expunging such revolutionary women from the narrative is, first and foremost, unfair to their legacy.

This same airbrushing of the heroic and pivotal role women have played in the transformation of society is occurring as we speak among the conservative forces, particularly Islamists, working to hijack the Arab Spring. “The attitude towards women has not been impacted by the historic victory,” says Marwa Rakha, and Egyptian author, broadcaster and blogger. “Men chanted slogans against them like: ‘Men want to topple feminists’ and ‘Since when did women have a voice?’ They were asked to go home and obey God. They were let down by the average Egyptian man and woman alike.”

In addition to the undoubted insult to women this denial of their role represents, the gap between the Arab man, the “average Mo”, and the Arab myth of manhood is bound to breed feelings of inadequacy, because the chasm between fantasy and reality is a yawning one. In the more secular Arab countries, women make up their fair share of the labour force, hold top professional and political positions, often perform better academically than their male peers and refuse the deferential role their grandmothers and great-grandmothers took for granted.

This gap between ideal and reality carries echoes of England from the 19th and up to the first half of the 20th century. In his book The English, Jeremy Paxman writes that British men were “uneasily aware of the injustice of denying women a full role in society”. As if commenting on Bab el-Hara, he notes that: “The stronger the challenge [to the male order], the more vociferous the evangelism about how the family was the cornerstone of the safe and ordered society.”

In contrast to the idealised “real men” of the past in Bab el-Hara, another hit Ramadan series distorts the contemporary reality by depicting the modern man as weak, indecisive and dominated by the women in his life. Yehia el-Fakharani, one of Egypt’s most accomplished actors, abandoned his normal roles of the sophisticated lawyer, MP or professor, to play that of a 60-year-old mummy’s boy in “Yetraba fi Ezzo”.

In the series, his character, Hamada Ezzo, is completely dependent on his mother for direction in every aspect of his life. “This kind of negative character is one of the causes of our falling behind the technologically advanced nations … We see his type frequently in our midsts as Egyptians and Arabs,” the London-based Arabic daily, al-Hayat, quoted el-Fakharani as saying.

He went on to express his belief that the coming generation had to be more hardworking and conscientious to keep up with the times and not depend on past glories. While it is hard to fault this sentiment, the choice of a man living under his mother’s thumb as a parable for the times is telling.

This soap is an odd way to inspire the young generation. If that was truly the writer’s aim, why not, instead of fixating on a nearly-retired man’s subservient relationship with his mother, challenge the rigid and stifling pecking order that keeps the young from reinventing society or the prejudices that keep the female half of the population from fulfilling their full potential?

In real life, Yehia el-Fakhrani is quite an admirable picture of the modern man, a middle-aged “metrosexual”, which makes his pandering to this warped view all the more confounding. He is gentle, caring, considerate and tolerant, while the women in his life are intelligent and successful. His wife, for instance, wrote a critically acclaimed TV drama chronicling the reign of King Farouq.

As long as conservative circles continue successfully to equate female emancipation with male emaciation, the quest for gender equality will stall. Although Arab cinema and literature have carried plenty of examples of modern, progressive men, particularly in the 1960s and 1970s, the problem is that these tend to be quite westernised, and hence alien to your average Arab man on the street.

What we need are mainstream, “average Mo” role models who demonstrate that believing in gender equality squares with being a man, and that empowering women also empowers men and society as a whole.

More articles on gender issues can be found here and here.

This is an updated version of a column which appeared in The Guardian’s Comment is Free on 26 October 2007. Read the related discussion.

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Detained Egyptian musician vows: “I will not be silenced” about police brutality

 
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Mohammed Jamal, the lead singer of the popular Egyptian indie band Salalem, tells The Chronikler his story about a night of hell in police custody.

Sunday 12 February 2012

 

I thought it over carefully before deciding to write about this humiliating incident – an incident that has no rhyme or reason to it, but reflects the reality that the police force still needs to be completely cleansed of the corrupt Mubarak-era officers who still think they are free to hurt the dignity of anyone they simply don’t like. My friend and band mate Walkman and I were victims of these immoral cops.

We were heading home one night after our concert at the Cairo Jazz Club, where we had performed with the Canadian singer NEeMA, when we approached an ordinary police checkpoint. The police signalled for us to pull over and politely asked to see my driving licence and our identification cards – which we handed over, also politely. They then asked to search the car and search us and, out of politeness, we let them. After they were done and had not found anything illegal or suspicious on us, they allowed us to continue on our way, and we did.

Shortly after I drove off, I realised that I hadn’t taken back my ID card from the police officer who had searched us. Just to be certain, we searched the car first for the card, and when we couldn’t find it, we decided to return to retrieve it.

Back at the checkpoint, we tried to find the policemen who had searched the car (it was busy and there were a lot of cars being checked over). When I found the officer in question, he insisted that he had given it back to me and then asked me to park because I was blocking the traffic and that he would come and search the car with me for it. Meanwhile, Walkman had wandered off to ask other if they have seen my ID. As I was searching the car with the officer, Walkman innocently asked another policeman about my ID, which he somehow took personally as an accusation of theft and proceeded, with a gang of other coppersm to kick and punch Walkman. When I came to Walkman’s aid, the police turned mercilessly on me too.

Our attempts to arrest the blows flying at us were futile. After a long session of beatings, we were dragged to a waiting police car. They confiscated my car and our phones. On the way to the police station, a police officer handed me my ID and told me, “Here you go, your card”. When we reached the station, we were already in complete shock and awe from what had just happened to us – something we had never experienced before. They walked us to a room in which there was a miserable, low-ranking officer from the remnants of the former regime. No one touched us in the police station but they were very generous with the swearing and insults.

By this stage, we were already so depressed and humiliated that the names they were calling us had no affect. We were also accompanied by a large number of serious criminals, many of whom seemed to be friends with the cops and they all had a laugh together.

The officer then approached us and said, “Fuck the revolution that made you think you could mistreat police officers. Why the fuck am I being drained on the streets all day. Isn’t it for you? What a fucking revolution.” He then sent his colleague off to write a police report to “screw us” with. The other officer then opened a drawer and got out a big knife, a bar of hashish, and some paper and left. About an hour later, he came back with a closed envelope, the big knife and a written paper. We later learnt that they hqd fabricated a police report accusing us of possessing two grams of hashish, a big knife, and attacking a police officer while on duty.

We were eventually taken to a middle-ranking police officer who was very respectful. He apologised to us when he heard the story and knew we were respectable people but he all he managed to do was to order the guard to keep us apart from the serious criminals until we were transferred in the morning to the prosecutor’s office. He allowed us to use our phones and to ask our families to hire a lawyer. First thing I did was to tweet because I didn’t know who to call at 6am. Walkman called his brother and asked him to come with a lawyer to the prosecutor’s office.

Handcuffed, we were taken to the prosecutor’s office in a police van full of criminals and our sense of humiliation was growing but we remained silent, thinking silence was the smart thing to do.

All we wanted at this stage was for the investigation to pass so that we would be released, whereupon we could think about how to regain our rights. A decent lawyer came to our aid and the prosecutor was also very respectful. He tried to explain that what had happened was because we looked “weird” and that our attitude as musicians might have provoked the officer. Unfortunately, that’s the mindset many in the police force have. We were released on LE400 bail and now Walkman and I are charged with three quite serious crimes.

Even though I am facing these serious charges, I will not be silenced, and neither will Walkman, until this officer is sacked. I will not be silenced and this is why I wrote this note and decided to post these pictures because no one should go through this and be silenced. The cleaning up of the police force might be a lengthy and difficult process but it is not an impossible one.

 

This text was originally written in Arabic. Translated by Osama Diab,.

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Egyptian football violence: Between hooliganism and state thuggery

 
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By Osama Diab

The deadly battle of Port Said may be another attempt to make a return to a police state the most attractive option for Egypt.

Friday 3 February 2012

Since the violence erupted in Port Said on Wednesday night, leaving more than 70 dead, debate in Egypt has centred on whether it was deliberately plotted by police to get back at the fans, or was simply a case of football hooliganism – the kind we see all over the world (as Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, head of the ruling military council, said in a TV interview after the tragedy).

It is probably a mix of both. In an atmosphere of brutal rivalry between the Cairo and Port Said fans, football violence comes as no surprise.

But the Ultras football fans, known for their anti-establishment behaviour, have taken part in many of the clashes with police in and around Tahrir Square during the last year. Young and excited, they always formed the front line and acted as protectors against the onslaught of security forces. They have also brought the revolution to football stadiums and turned its stands into a political battlefield.

So it is also very likely that the police didn’t think of the Ultras as worthy of their protection or interference. In the eyes of the police, they are the enemy, and a bunch or worthless teenage hooligans.

The Egyptian state is more than capable of successfully securing a football match given the vast size of the army and police forces. I have been to Egyptian stadiums dozens of times and, typically, heavy security is used to make it virtually impossible for opposing fans to clash, even outside the stadium, let alone invade the pitch.

Egypt’s security forces successfully maintained order during the tense parliamentary elections, in which almost 30 million voters participated, so how could they possibly fail to keep a football match with 20,000 fans under control? Clashes between Al-Ahly and Al-Masry in Port Said have turned violent before and extreme security measures are normally in place to prevent clashes from exploding.

On the other hand, most stadiums in Egypt have very poor or non-existent safety measures – with the result that if serious trouble does break out it can easily turn deadly.

This inefficiency of the security forces is a result of a police-state culture that lacks accountability: officers know they will not have to face any consequences for their actions.

Just one week after a partial lifting of the 30-year-old state of emergency, the Port Said violence raises many questions about the police. Are they unable to do their jobs without resorting to outright brutality, or are they virtually on an unspoken strike to blackmail the public into asking for the return of a police state?

The latest deaths are also seen as yet another attempt to turn people against the revolution: to make them believe that Egyptians are not ready for democracy, as former vice-president Omar Suleiman stated a few days before Hosni Mubarak stepped down. The president, too, had claimed that the choice was between himself and chaos. But we must realise that democracy is different from lawlessness. No society can function in a complete absence of law and order.

There is clearly more to the Port Said tragedy than everyday football hooliganism. It may pose the biggest threat so far to military rule in Egypt, or it may help the military to become even more entrenched. It could go either way, depending on how the struggle for democracy unfolds in the coming days and weeks.

 

This column first appeared in The Guardian‘s Comment is Free on Friday 3 February 2012. Read the related debate.

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Revolution@1: Sex and the citizen in Egypt and America

 
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Fundamentalists in America and Egypt are obsessed with “virtue “and “vice”. But the rise of Islamists threatens to bind Egyptian women in a moral vice.

Thursday 26 January 2012

Photo by Gigi Ibrahim

It is a longstanding marketing truism that sex sells. But it (well, hostility towards it) doesn’t just market products, it can also be marshalled to sell wholly unsexy politicians. This was amply demonstrated by what has been dubbed as the “War on Sex” during the Republican primaries, with candidates vying to outlaw birth control and promote abstinence, ban pornography and act against the “sin” of homosexuality. This has led some bloggers and journalists to compare Republican candidates, such as Rick Santorum, unfavourably to the leaders of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

“If someone wants to ban pornography, make life as hard as possible for homosexuals, and stigmatize sex before marriage… exactly what is it about Sharia law they don’t like?” asks Front Toward Enemy  in the Daily Kos.

And for all their mutual loathing and belief in a clash of civilisations, in the form of a global “jihad” against Christianity or an international “crusade” against Islam, the Christian and Muslim religious right are fighting on the same side, albeit in different trenches, in what can be called their War against Modernity, especially when it comes to sexuality and gender equality.

Half a world away, Egypt’s first post-revolution parliamentary election was, thanks to the Islamists, dominated by similar issues. Egypt is facing a spate of urgent political, social and economic issues, such as mass youth unemployment, a tanking economy and a cabal of diehard generals who just refuse to call it quits.

But you wouldn’t know it from listening to the discourse of Islamists, particularly that of the hardline Salafist Nour party, who have focused excessive attention on issues of “morality”, including talk of banning booze (as if prohibition has ever worked or Islam ever actually stopped Muslims from drinking), prohibiting or restricting bikinis and censoring “sex scenes” in Egypt’s vibrant film industry, known as the Hollywood of the Middle East.

Although brave women from all walks of life have been at the forefront of the popular uprising and are treated as relative equals by the revolutionary youth movement which has orchestrated the revolution, the burden of this moralising, as is often the case, has fallen on the shoulders of women. This has led Egypt’s secular, liberal women and feminists to look to the immediate future with a mixture of apprehension and worry.

“When Egyptian media spends hours and hours discussing bikinis and alcohol with presidential candidates, it tells you where women are going,” says Marwa Rakha, an Egyptian writer, broadcaster and blogger. “After the revolution, we saw women exposed to humiliating virginity tests, fired at, beaten up, arrested, molested, and stripped naked by army officers. Why would I be optimistic?”

But why is Egypt’s Islamic right so obsessed with sex and women, and seems to view both as the root of all evil?

One reason could be that with all the apparently insurmountable problems facing Egypt, it is a cynical populist ploy. “They want attention, lights, and media presence. How else will they get there unless they talk about women and their evil bodies?” opines Rakha.

“These are issues that people can relate to on a personal level,” explains Karima Abedeen, a secular British-Egyptian living in Cairo. “They are also vague and not quantifiable and most of the people who use these issues as their platform haven’t a clue about how to solve any of the other, more urgent social and political issues.”

On a more ideological plain, Muslim conservatives have quite successfully painted sexual liberty and gender equality as a Western import designed to weaken Egypt’s Islamic identity and corrupt Egyptians, and it is only by embracing Islamic traditions and morals wholeheartedly that Egyptians can resist Western hegemony and recreate their past glory.

“Focusing on issues of morality sends a message to the community that parties like the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis will protect our Islamic identity against the Western identity which liberals try to promote,” observes Gihan Abou Zeid, an Egyptian activist and feminist who is working on a book about the women who took part in the revolution. “Many Egyptians believe that following Islamic orders would fix many of the current challenges that Egypt is facing.”

In this, Islamists and their supporters are confusing the symptoms with the disease. In addition to complex international geopolitics, the reason Egypt has not made sufficient headway is not because it has veered too far from tradition, but because it has not embraced secular modernity enough and is suffering from the relative marginalisation not only of women but of young people too.

Moreover, similarly to Christian fundamentalists, Islamists and other social conservatives are alarmed by the corrosion of the traditional patriarchal order caused by the increasing emancipation of women. The loss of centuries of male privilege, especially in the public sphere, that this entails fuels the panicky public fixation on and obsession with what should be private issues, such as virginity and promiscuity. In this world view, strong, independent women are regarded with suspicion, as if they are carrying a volatile sex bomb that will explode upon contact with freedom and mushroom out to shred the fabric of society in its wake.

That said, despite the clear similarities between Egyptian Muslim and American Christian conservatives, the social context in which they operate is quite different. Egyptians on the whole may not necessarily be more religious than Americans, who seem far less inclined to abandon their faith than Europeans, but Egyptians interpret their faith far more traditionally.

Additionally, secularisation has progressed far more in America than in Egypt, where it has been partially discredited through its association both with Western neo-imperialism and the corruption and failure of Egypt’s secular dictatorships. In addition, American Christian fundamentalism is a strong movement founded on freedom and imperial swagger, whereas Egyptian Islamism is a reaction to weakness and decline, where people who have, for decades, been stripped of power in society focus on those few areas on which they can exercise control, i.e. “morality”.

Photo by Gigi Ibrahim

This means that, whereas religion is a fairly flexible and personal affair in America, in Egypt, by contrast, religion, or tradition, is more often than not about conformity and rigidity. And those who challenge this hegemonic view often suffer greatly for their “indiscretion”, as witnessed by the massive overreaction by Egyptian society pretty much in its entirety to the decision by a bold art student, Aliaa Elmahdy, to post naked images of herself on her blog to protest the growing Islamisation of society and demand her freedom of expression.

This traditionalist mindset could also partly explain the paradox that, although millions of Egyptian women have entered academia and the workforce, often outdoing and outperforming men, they have not become sexually freer but have had to compromise by stressing their “virtue” through such coping mechanisms as the hijab. As men lose control of women in the public sphere, they try harder to control them in the family, suggests Abou Zeid.

In fact, it would seem that, in Egypt, secularists, although they view women more as their equals, share the Islamists fear of female sexuality and their objectification of the female form. “The secularists and the conservatives are two faces of the same coin when it comes to women,” concludes Rakha. “Most of the politicians in both currents objectify women – one side wants to cover us and lock us up, while the other wants to strip us naked and show us off.”

Be that as it may, it would be a mistake to view the attitudes and agendas of secularists, many of whom believe in relative gender equality, and Islamists towards women as being identical. Moreover, even the Islamist camp is split between the right-of-centre and heterogenous Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) and the “Tea Party” Salafis. For example, Abou Zeid points to the fact that the Brotherhood is not against women working, albeit within limits, but the Salafis want them to “return” to the home.

The Salafis, she also adds, want to force women to cover their faces, as demonstrated by their vigilante “morality police” which has been roaming rural areas of Egypt, though, fortunately, Egyptian women have been fighting back.

A version of this article appeared in Salon on 23 January 2012.

Some are even more equivocal. “The Salafis are mad. They represent the very, very dark ages. The Muslim Brotherhood are not all bad,” says Abedeen. “I think the fact that the Salafis exist should push the Muslim Brotherhood towards a less conservative approach.”

In addition to the likelihood that the FJP will align itself to liberal, albeit economically conservative, parties, the wind is not yet out of the sails of the secular revolutionaries who have so far spearheaded change in Egypt, as illustrated by the defiant “Revolution Continues” movement.

One consequence of the revolution is that it has empowered the previously marginalised, namely the young and women, and made them believe that they can be agents of their own destiny. “Attitudes towards women are better among the young generation, particularly the middle class, to which most of the politically active women belong,” notes Abou Zeid.

This is bound to widen the gap between the young generation and secularists, on the one hand, and older generations and traditionalists, on the other, leading to a more polarised social landscape. “I think that women’s attitudes towards themselves have changed,” observes Abedeen. “The new generation of women is much stronger than older generations and is much less willing to compromise.”

Abedeen also believes that, once Egyptians see what the Islamists are like in power, they will soon fall out of love with them. “I am trying to stay positive and tell myself that it is natural that people should gravitate towards a more conservative option, hoping that these people will not be corrupt,” she says. “I am hoping, down the road, that people will realise that is not the way forward for Egypt, but we will have to see.”

But when all is said and done, it will be largely up to Egyptian women to carve out their rightful place in society. “Looking at Egypt now, I see a lot of courageous defiant women, but I also see millions who realise how oppressed they are yet do nothing about it,” surveys Rakha. “It is up to each woman on her own, in her house, at her desk, in her car, on her way to and from places. This is an individual fight whose collective gains and losses will reflect on the status of Egyptian women.”

 

A version of this article was published by Salon on 23 January 2012. This article is part of a special Chronikler series to mark the first anniversary of the Egyptian revolution.

 

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التغلب على الخوف، الخطوة الاولى لنساء مصر

 
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بقلم جيهان ابوزيد

قبل الثورة لم يكن سهلا ان نتخيل نساءا تتحدى سلطة الاب او الزوج وتخرج للتظاهر لكننا وجدنا نساءا واجهن الموت والخوف ,وتلك هى الخطوة الاولى لمواجهة اى غبن  

الأربعاء ٢٥ يناير ٢٠١٢      

 لم يمر أسبوعا واحدا منذ إندلاع الثورة المصرية فى الخامس والعشرين من يناير إلا وأتلقى سؤالا أو أكثر حول موقع نساء مصر بعد الثورة دورهن فى قيادة المرحلة القادمة بعدما ساهمن فى إندلاع الثورة وفى حمايتها ,وبعدما دفعن الثمن دماءا وانتهاكا.مازالت عشرات النشيطات يعالجن فى المستشفيات,واضعافهن يتلقين العلاج فى المنازل ,ومازالت أسر الشهيدات تبكى . نعم مازال الواقع يتذكر أن النساء شاركن مناصفة فى تلك اللحظة التاريخية ,لكن ذلك الاعتراف لا يعنى تقديم الحقوق المتساوية على طبق من فضة هدية للنساء و إعترافا بدورهن. فالمراة المصرية كانت على مدى التاريخ فاعلة سياسيا ,ومشاركة فى كافة اشكال المقاومة وأكثرها عنفا, ففى عام 1957 شاركت الفتيات فى لجان المقاومة الشعبية فى مدن القناة ضد القوات الانجليزية و الفرنسية و الاسرائيلية. لكن ذلك لم يؤدى الى تغيير جذرى فى موقع النساء فى المجتمع.

الامر يشبه ما يحدث مع السيدة ” ليلى” وملايين مثلها ,فهى تعمل لأكثر من إثنى عشرة ساعة يوميا فى تنظيف المنازل لتعول اسرتها بعدما اصيب زوجها فى احدى قدميه و توقف عن العمل. تعود “ليلى” للمنزل يوميا فى حوالى العاشرة مساءا لترعى شئون منزلها و ابنائها,لكن حين تقدم لخطبة ابنتها شاب جيد رفض الزوج ,فهو فى نهاية الامر الرجل و متخذ القرار. ان تحمل ليلى المسئولية الاقتصادية منفرده واعالتها لاسرة مكونة من خمسة افراد لم يغير من موقعها السياسى داخل الاسرة ,وظل زوجها الذى يدخن من مالها صاحب الكلمة العليا. هناك نسخ متنوعة من ليلى,وكذلك من زوجها,فالنساء الائى خرجن للمشاركة فى الثورة المصرية ودفعن الثمن كما الرجال عدن الى موقعهن الاول,واستمر الرجال فى موقعهم ايضا .

ان مشاركة النساء فى الثورة المصرية اذن لن يغير تلقائيا من موقعهن السياسى, فتغيير موقع النساء سياسيا اواى فئة مهدرة الحقوق له شروط مختلفة . الشرط الاول: ان ترغب النساء فى تغيير موقعها و تجتهد للتحرك الرأسى,لكن الواقع يشير الى ان صوت المجموعات المنادية بحقوق النساء خافت مقارنة بالدعوات الاسلامية التى تدعو النساء للعودة للمنزل وترك ساحة العمل للرجال . الشرط الاخر هو: امتلاك بناء تنظيمى يعمل على حماية مصالح النساء. لقد حصلت المصريات على بناء تنظيمى له صلاحيات واسعة لكنه كان ابن شرعى للسيدة الاولى يعمل وفق رؤية النظام  و بما يخدم مصالحه,ولم تكن مصالح النساء ابدا ضمن اولويات النظام السابق ,لكنها كانت اداه لتجميل وجهه اذا تطلب الامر.وبالتالى فقد هذا الكيان التنظيمى شرعيته لدى جموع النساء بل صار مصدرا للسخط على المنظمات النسائية و عبئا عليها بعدما ارتبطت  حقوق النساء لدى المواطن البسيط بالسيدة الاولى ,او بالاحرى بالنظام .

الشرط الثالث ,هو وجود قنوات مشاركة تسمح للنساء ببناء قدراتها وبالتواصل مع المجتمع .لكن النظام السابق كان قد اغتال  كافة قنوات المشاركة ,فالاحزاب هرمت و غطى التراب اروقتها,والنقابات و الاتحادات الطلابية صارت فى اغلبها حكرا على جماعة الاخوان المسلمين.

من ناحية اخرى تمددت التيارات الدينية فى المجتمع و توغلت فى القرى و فى المدن,فضلا عن نجاحها فى تحقيق حضور مؤثر بين شرائح الطبقة الوسطى, اولى نتائج هذا التمدد الدينى تحصدها النساء بعدما بات عليهن البقاء فى المنزل و الانسحاب من منافسة الرجال فى سوق العمل,كما ان عليهن الالتزام بالزى الاسلامى حصدا لمكافأة الاخرة وحماية للرجال من الفتن ,فضلا عن الالتزام بطاعة الرجل لضمان تماسك الاسرة المصرية.

على انه يجدر الاشارة الى ان التيارات الدينية ليست هى المسئولة الوحيدة عن عزل النساء عن ساحة العمل العام ,فثقافة المجتمع ليست مرحبة بخروج النساء بصفة عامة,ومازالت اثار الاحتلال العثمانى باقية مستيقظة فى وعى المصرى ,ومازالت قصص الجاريات فى قصور الحاكم المملوكى تجد صداها فى الحس الشعبى ,ومازالت هوية الانثى معتمدة على الضعف و على الاغراء. كما ان ثقافة القبيلة مازالت حاضرة فى المجتمع المصرى,وهى الحاكمة لسكان صعيد مصرالذين يمثلون حوالى  40% من شعبه , لقد توغلت ثقافة القبيلة مع هجرة القبائل العربية من الجزيرة العربية و استقرارها فى شمال مصر,وقد حافظت القبائل العربية على تماسكها و هويتها,وبرغم احترام القبيلة للنساء ,الا ان الاحترام مرهون بتنازل النساء عن كافة اشكال السلطة وتقديم فروض الطاعة للرجال و لقوانين القبيلة.

ويبقى الشرط الرابع وهو تمكين النساء. هذا وتقع مسئولية تمكين النساء و كافة المواطنين على الدولة ,فهى المتحكمة فى العملية التعليمية بما تتضمنه من معارف و قيم ,واسلوب تعليم, كما انها المسئولة عن حرية التعبير و اتاحة مناخ نقد صحى يساهم فى البناء الفكرى للمواطنين ,والدولة هى المسئولة عن توفير كافة مصادر المعرفة واتاحتها للمواطنين بكافة شرائحهم, كما ان الدولة هى الصانعة لمنظومة القوانين التى من شأنها تعزيز علاقات منصفة بين المواطنين. وبنظرة سريعة على القوانين المصرية و خاصة قانون الاسرة, نجد ان النساء ضحية قوانين مصاغة لمصلحة الرجال بعيدة عن توفير حقوق عادلة للجنسين. الامر الذى يصبغ حياة النساء وكل النساء بالخوف. هذا و لايختلف الاعلام المصرى كثيرا عن الاعلام الدولى,فمازال الاعلام يكرس للمراة المفعول بها ,ويهتم باجساد النساء عوضا عن الاهتمام بحقوقهن , وكذلك التعليم –الحكومى- يكرس لعلاقة هرمية بين الرجال و النساء ,فضلا عن انه لا يمد المتعلمين بالمنهج الذى يمكنهم من نقد الواقع لتطويره .

تلك الشروط الاربع  لم تكن سرا خافيا يوما ما, لكنها لم تجد البيئة المواتية لتغير واقع النساء, و اندلاع ثورة يناير لا يعنى تحقق تلك الشروط تلقائيا ,انما يعنى قرع الجرس لوضع خطط تمكننا من تحقيق تلك الشروط , وبعد مرور عام على يناير 2011فقد صعدت تحديات جديدة امام النساء و امام كافة المدافعين عن حقوق متساوية بين الجنسين, لكن وكما صعدت تحديات فهناك ايضا مكاسب تحققت,فمشاركة النساء فى المظاهرات و فى كل الفعاليات لم تعد محل نقاش على الاقل بين التيارات الليبرالية,لقد صارت واقعا, كما خرجت و للمرة الاولى نساء المحافظات هؤلات المقيدات بثقافة تعدد انفاسهن, جبن شوارع المحافظات وخططن لمظاهرات اخرى ومازلن يبحثن عن دور فى مجتمعاتهن . قبل يناير 2011 لم يكن سهلا ان نتخيل نساءا تتحدى سلطة الاب او الزوج وتخرج للتظاهر والمبيت فى الميدان ,لكننا وجدنا نساءا واجهن هراوات العسكر وسلاحه , ووجدنا نساءا واجهن الموت , وكلهن جميعا واجهن الخوف ,وتلك هى الخطوة الاولى لمواجهة اى غبن.

This article is part of a series of special Chronikler articles to mark the first anniversary of the Egyptian revolution 

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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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Defining Egyptian democracy: “Not like America and not like Iran”

 
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By Josephine McCarthy

Provincial Egyptians believe that moderate Islamists can construct an Egyptian model of democracy that respects their traditions and identity.

Tuesday 20 December 2011

While on a research trip to Luxor, I decided to find out for myself what the ordinary people of Egypt really wanted from the revolution and to see if that matched in any way what was being reported in the UK’s popular press. So I donned my hijab, and my partner and I wandered the city for a few days before setting off and visiting the villages on the west bank of the Nile. We talked to a wide range of people over the space of a week, including a former English professor, hotel workers, farmers, felucca owners, beggars, shop keepers and women street vendors.

It became clear very quickly that, although language was not a barrier, vocabulary and its understanding was. People spoke freely, often with passion, with desperation at times and with a joy at being able to voice their opinions. They all, without exception, voiced fear of a religious government, a wish to have order, a fair share of wealth and proper jobs. The fear of a strict Islamic government was very clear, but there was also distaste for a Western-style amoral society. And that was the first hurdle of vocabulary for me to overcome. When someone says to me they do not want a religious government, I assume they want secularism. When in fact what most of the people seem to want is something in the middle, which would explain the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood.

“I don’t want to have to grow a beard and shut my wife up, but I don’t want that either,” said one felucca captain as he nodded at a passing tourist, female, in very little clothing. There is a strong belief on the streets of Luxor that secularism means decadence, greed, corruption and a lack of morals. His tale, like many of the personal stories I had in that week, was very sad. A man in his 60’s, very well educated, very well travelled, he could not get work anywhere except shunting tourists up and down the Nile for 20 Egyptian pounds (£2 sterling). He studied English literature, taught in Cairo in his younger days and travelled throughout Europe with his wife (she is my all, he said wistfully). He is also a practicing Muslim and feels that a life without God is no life. These days he wanders the east bank of the Nile, quoting Shakespeare to tourists in the hope of catching the attention of someone, someone who will hire his boat, someone who will pay him a pittance, so he can get through another day.

Photo: Josephine McCarthy

I asked him about the situation between Copts and Muslims, as it does seem to be an issue according to the UK news. “Pah” he says, “Luxor is 40% Copt, they are our brothers and sisters, our family. We have no problems between us. Our only problems are from the beards. By the way, don’t believe everything you hear on al-Jazeera.” I asked him if he had worked today. “No,” he said, “I have not had work for a week, thanks to newspapers scaring away tourists. You were not afraid to come, tell people to come, please.”  I told him that I had spent a lot of my childhood visiting Belfast, during the early 70’s, and that it takes a lot to scare me off. We could not leave him in such a way, so my partner hired him for the afternoon, at English rates, so they could chat further as they drifted down the Nile. I set off to wander the streets, to find other voices, other opinions.

“Come see my shit” was the opening line of a shopkeeper desperately trying to drag me in from the streets to ‘buy his shit’. I declined to make a purchase but we ended up chatting over hibiscus tea and tobacco. It did seem to be a good ‘drawing tool’, the fact that I dressed as an Egyptian woman and rolled my own tobacco. People were fascinated. They first assumed I was smoking hashish, but when I explained that it was just tobacco, they wanted to join in, drink tea and talk to this rather bizarre woman. Two other shopkeepers came, their business almost dead, to join in the tea and company. I asked them what life has been like since the revolution began and what their hopes for the future were.

The first thing that everyone mentioned was the absence of policing, the lack of regulation in the city that was causing mayhem for the shopkeepers. They bemoaned the fact that tourists had been scared away by reports of riots, and that the upcoming elections (2 days later) were confusing. There were many candidates, too many probably, and no one seemed to know what they stood for, who they were and what they would bring to society. Small images, often unrelated, identified the candidates and when I asked what the candidates offered, the shopkeepers shrugged. Do you want a secular society I asked. “Like America?” Yes, I replied. “No, we do not want that sort of mess.”

“Do you want a religious government, like Iran?” The men fell about laughing. “NO,” they all shouted in unison. “We want a government which is fair, not religious, that works for everybody and doesn’t tell us what to think.”

This highlighted for me the problem with vocabulary and understanding yet again. It would seem that people equated secularism with a decadent society of greed, disrespect and degeneration. I was beginning to see how the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) was being so successful in the elections. They promise compromise, pragmatism and social justice.

“And if we do not like who gets in to government, then we will just kick them out again” was the parting words of one shopkeeper. It would seem that the people of Egypt had finally found a sense of their own power. As I walked back to my hotel, I came across a woman sitting by the side of the road, a pile of colourful scarves in her arms. She did not have the energy to chase the occasional tourist, instead she sat, holding out her arms as people walked by. I went and sat by her, bought some of her wares to ensure she had money for that day, and got into conversation with her. She was a divorcee, supporting her three children alone, and despite having a good education, the only work she could get was selling trinkets to tourists. What were her hopes and fears for the future of Egypt?

“I am afraid of Egypt becoming like Iran, that is my biggest fear of all for the future.  I am a Muslim, I love my family and I work hard, but I want our government to work for all of the people. I don’t think government should be religious, that is not it’s job.”  So I asked if she wanted a secular government?  No she replied, “People who do not believe in God cannot be good people.” It was becoming very obvious that ‘secular’ was being equated with ‘atheist’.

“What about a government made up of Muslims, Copts, etc., which just worked on government issues and not religious law? “That is the FJP, they will do that,” she replied. I hope she was right, I told her.

The following day, I set off the to the west bank villages, the place where the farmers and urban  manual workers lived. I struck up a conversation with a middle-aged sugar cane farmer who was curious as to why a woman in hijab was rolling tobacco (it always peaks curiosity and curiosity is the biggest opener of doors). I rolled him a cigarette and he produced the tea. It was a long and interesting conversation that would probably not have happened only 12 months ago. He was scathing in his attack on the government ,both now and under Mubarak. So I asked him what it was about the current government that was making him angry. “Corruption,” he replied, “corruption at every level”. Nothing had changed for him except that there was more crime on the streets now. He told me that, as a farmer, he sold raw sugar to the government for 90 Piastres a kilo. He then had to buy it back as processed sugar for his family at 7 Egyptian pounds a kilo. He could not understand why he got so little for his product and yet so much profit was obviously being made. We began talking about society in general and where he felt Egypt was heading. He spoke a lot about the region needing a sense of ‘right and wrong’, of a moral society that cared for all people. I asked him if he meant a Muslim Government. “Yes” he replied.

“Like, say, Iran for example?”

“Oh no, not like that, that is not Islamic anyhow, that is just ignorant bullying.”

So I asked him about the Muslim Brotherhood. Did he think they could do a good job? He nodded vigorously. “Yes, they care for our brother Copts as well as us. They care about all of us and they respect the poor. They will look after us, all of us.” So I ventured into more searching questions, and asked his opinion on the more traditional al-Nour party. The man shook his head while kicking the dirt at his feet. “We want our way, the Egyptian way, the respectable way, but we do not want to have to grow beards, we do not want to go backwards. We want to go forwards, but be respectable. You dress like a good Egyptian woman, you know what I mean.”

I nodded, I was beginning to understand. I asked him if a lot of people will vote tomorrow (Luxor elections) for al-Nour? He nodded sadly. “There are too many candidates, it’s too confusing and people are frightened. They are fearful of corruption, of decadence, of poverty. If someone says they will give money to the poor, they will get votes. We are also worried about becoming like the West. We are not the West, we are good people, we work hard and respect our families. We want tourists to keep coming, to bring their money, we do not want to be like Iran.”

It struck me that the Iranian model was none too popular and was frequently used as an example of what people did not want.

As we spoke, a group of young boys were touting trinkets to tourists. They were fashionably dressed and could have walked straight off a New York street. They chased the scantily clad tourists mercilessly, physically grabbing the women, and making a general nuisance of themselves. One of them spotted me rolling a cigarette and wandered over in curiosity. “You give me hashish?” said a boy who can’t have been more than 10-years-old. I waved him away as the farmer I was talking to shook his head. He nodded at the boys, whose passing comments to women would have turned a corpse red, and pointed out that he felt his whole country would become like them if they had a “godless” government.

My last interview victim was a Copt working in the city of Luxor. I was staying in a Coptic-owned hotel and had chatted with the staff throughout the week. He pointed out to me the need for elections sooner rather than later: the lack of stable government at both the local and national level was creating chaos on the streets. Too many taxi drivers, no policing: the country needed regulation and soon. What about the Muslim Brotherhood? “They will be ok, I think, but the Islamic parties are a worry if they get in. If they do, I am moving out.”

I pointed out that the Brotherhood is an Islamic party, and is seen in the West as a potential threat to democracy. The man smiled and shook his head. “We have nothing to fear from them, they are about government, not religion, if they know what is good for them and for Egypt, we will have a democracy with them. And if they do turn out to be too religious, then we will kick them out.” Yet again, this expressed the new sense of popular confidence and people power on the streets.

What about secular parties, I asked? “Liberals? La (no). What do they know of family responsibilities, they are not respectable people, they are not Egyptians,” was the Copt’s dismissive reaction.

Later, I sat by the Nile and pondered over the voices I had heard over the week as I watched the military trucks filled with soldiers park quietly up the back streets in preparation for voting. One thing had become patently obvious: the secularist parties were not listening to the people, to the ordinary rural folk trying to get through life with some dignity. The people needed straight talking, down-to-earth practical understandable solutions, agendas and a manifesto that fitted Egypt, not the West. Instead they bandied about concepts and issues that the local people could not relate to, and most important of all, they have done nothing to truly connect with the ordinary, everyday person outside of Cairo.

Maybe the FJP would be a good bridge to the future, if they kept in mind that the people will no longer tolerate oppressive rule. That would give the liberal parties chance to get their act together and find a way to speak for all of the people, not just the educated middle classes. This is a major turning point for Egypt and it has to work from the inside out, it has to come from the people, all of the people. Personally I think at this point in the game, a western style secular free market economy would be a cultural disaster for Egypt, it certainly is not the answer to all ills, as we are finding out in the west, for a number of reasons. There has to be a way to have a socially conscious government without religion being involved. Maybe Egypt will birth something new, a socially conscious society that is intellectually free and a government that keeps its nose out of people’s hearts and minds. We can all live in hope of such a dream.

 

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Egypt’s middle-class cyberheroes

 
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By Osama Diab

Social networking and blogging voices the dreams and aspirations of the young and middle-class in Egypt, leaving other underrepresented groups as marginalised as ever.

Friday 25 November 2011

News of the prominent and outspoken Egyptian-American journalist Mona Eltahawy’s arrest and assault, which left her with two broken wrists, spread around the twittersphere at something approaching the speed of light, and then was picked up and covered by most major news outlets. Of course, this level of attention is unsurprising as Eltahawy is not only a brave journalist and campaigner, she is also well-known and admired both among Arab secularists and among liberals in the West.

When Alaa Abdel-Fattah, the Egyptian political activist and blogger, was arrested, my Facebook newsfeed, in a matter of minutes, was dominated by posts condemning his arrest. Profile pictures were changed to a Guevara-style silhouette version of his picture in solidarity with the young activist. He was quickly portrayed as the ultimate freedom fighter and the symbol of resistance. He indeed is. Abdel-Fattah comes from a family of political activists and has been an active force of resistance against Mubarak’s tyrannical rule for nearly a decade. He extensively blogged and participated in numerous protests against the ousted and the current regimes.

Despite my empathy with Alaa Abdel-Fattah as a fellow blogger who fell victim to his opinions, he is neither the only nor the most vulnerable victim of Egypt’s successive ruthless regimes, including the current transitional military junta. Khaled Said, Mina Daniel, Maikel Nabil Sanad, and now Abdel-Fatah, have all caused online uproars following their arrest or killing. They are most definitely and without doubt victims, but so are tens of thousands of others whose cases go unreported because Egypt’s middle-class, educated online activists fail to identify with them.
Egypt’s internet demographics explain the selectivity of victims, heroes and symbolic figures in the country’s online struggle for democracy. The internet penetration rate is still a low 20%, which means that if you are a member of Egypt’s online population, you are most likely a member of an educated middle-class in a big metropolis, mainly Cairo and Alexandria.
There is also about a 65% chance that you’re a male, and about a 90% chance you’re aged between 13 and 34. In order to be an active contributor in cyberspace, you also require a certain level of technological expertise, such as video-editing and blog-managing skills, which again would probably be higher among educated, male and young users.
Even among active internet users, there are still different levels and shades of contribution – not everyone contributes equally or has the same impact. In 2006, a study carried out by Forrestry Survey found that only 13% of internet users are active creators or users generating, rather than just viewing, content, while the majority of users were described as ‘passive spectators’ (33%) and ‘inactive’ users (52%). In other words, the majority of internet users are there to view content with a very minimal contribution of opinion, information, etc.
What this means is that people who play an active role online are a tiny percentage, not just of the population at large but even of internet users. They are mainly young, middle-class, urban and predominantly male. Looking at these figures, it is no surprise that the revolution’s cyberheroes match the profile of the typical Egyptian Facebook user.

The background of the majority of social networkers dictates the narratives and views you find in Egyptian cyberspace.  This explains why it is very hard to find accounts of  other victims from different backgrounds in Egypt’s shanty towns and rural areasAge, gender, residence and social status are all factors that confine online participation and lobbying power to certain groups.
Online activism did undoubtedly play a big role in educating, raising awareness and mobilising people in the build-up to the Arab revolts of earlier this year. But if we have more men than women, urban  than rural people, young than old online, then these groups are better-positioned than others to mobilise, express their opinion and lobby policy-makers, even if young people have yet to make it in large numbers into mainstream politics. This poses a challenge to the whole idea that new social media are more empowering compared to traditional media outlets.
If empowerment is restricted to certain groups of people, then social media kind of loses its perceived altruistic nature. Even the very idea of media empowerment was also introduced in cyberspace by those very people empowered by the media. This participatory media was  utilised by educated online communities to make up for the lack of democracy in the real world. Being unable to vote or affect public policy for decades has made the internet a haven for those who long for political rights and desire to play an active part in shaping their own future and the public policy of their country. Therefore, an old, illiterate farmer’s wife in a Nile Delta village will probably be a lot more sceptical about how Facebook can empower her.
In a way, this is reminiscent to when only white male Protestants were allowed to vote in the United States – a strategy employed to shape public policy in favour of a certain privileged group. Even though it is logistically and practically impossible to connect every Egyptian to the internet and get them to participate equally, especially when the illiteracy rate is still as high as 30% and nearly half the population lives below the poverty line. However, we can still find some consolation in the fact that more and more people are coming online every day. The number of internet users is expected to rise exponentially by 2012, which will enable more people to learn some of the 21st century’s tricks of grassroots, bottom-up campaigning.

This article is published here with the author’s consent. ©Osama Diab. All rights reserved.

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Egypt: a country raped by its guardians

 
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By Osama Diab

Dear generals, you are like a therapist abusing rape victims, so don’t be surprised when Egyptians revolt against your cruelty.

Thursday 24 November 2011

Do not be deceived by the laughs and the singing in Tahrir square. Egyptians are in fact traumatised and this is merely their way of dealing with the trauma. It is from this anguish that their incredible courage is derived.

The protesters realise that the enemy, who is armed to the teeth and hiding behind shields and helmets, fears nothing more than facing an unarmed young man, or woman, in civilian uniform, armed only with their convictions and absolutely no fear of dying. The protesters understand that lacking rifles, gas canisters and armoured vehicles, the only weapon they possess is sheer determination and the unshakeable willingness to make some value of their lives by putting them on the line for the right cause.

They want to restore their pride at any cost, even if the price is their souls. Since they live without dignity and their lives are not valued by society, they would rather live as heroes in the eyes of their family and friends, and among their comrades on Facebook. Forsaken as living souls, they seek their redemption by facing down the regime’s death machines.

My dear generals, this is a country in trauma whose people were dehumanised by you, so don’t expect them to act rationally and responsibly now. Don’t ask them to go back to work and rebuild the country. They will only rebuild a country that they own, in which they have a real stake. What is the point of rebuilding the country if you, your business elite and your foreign investor friends will reap the fruits of their hard work and leave them struggling to make ends meet and die in the queue for subsidised bread, which they call “ayesh” (“life”) because their sustenance depends on it?

Egyptians under your tutelage, my dear generals, are like rape victims who have been raped by their  therapist, who is meant to give them emotional and psychological support. It doesn’t just stop there, the therapist, in whom they initially trusted, tries to convince them that systematic rape is an essential part of their recovery. He tells them that the solution to their problems, is not getting rid of him, but to focus on their studies, learn how to play the guitar or possibly repaint their room. No Sir, the solution is to get rid of you, as soon as possible and by whatever means possible.

State violence doesn’t breed violence. It breeds the desire to make a statement. A statetment that is a lesson for would-be tyrants. They want to produce an image that will inspire future generations and warn future rulers. They want to be the focal point of the next elected president’s inauguration speech, and they will be.

They want to be the centre around which their future nation revolves, and the light under which democracy and human rights flourish. They want to be the past that future generations will remember with pride and cherish, while working together to prevent from being repeated ever again. Violence doesn’t breed violence, but breeds the desire to live as proud martyrs in future history books rather than as forgotten, voiceless citizens in the contemporary annals of neglect.

The conservatives will carry on condemning the ‘violence’, but this violence is nothing but a proof of life  – evidence (to themselves more than anyone else) that they are still human. News reports will talk about how this is affecting share prices, investors will freak out, and big hotels will ‘suffer’ from receiving no tourists, but many of those on the front line never owned stocks, possessed bank accounts, or went on holiday, so why would they give a damn now about the numbers and arrows on the holy markets’ computer screens? Investors  neglected Egypt’s marginalised and crushed population while they were accumulating their wealth, so it is only fair for the protesters in turn to neglect the gamblers of the stock exchange while they fight to win back their humanity.

 

This article is published here with the author’s permission. © Osama Diab.

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Islamist-driven democracy is not a snowball in hell

 
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By Osama Diab 

Islamists are not all Osama bin Laden and secularists are not all Atatürk . They can work together to achieve democracy.

Friday 28 October 2011

After the announcement of Libya’s transitional leader Mustafa Abdul Jalil that the country will be embracing Islamic law and the victory of the moderate Islamist an-Nahda party in the Tunisian parliamentary elections and the expectation of a similar result next month in Egypt’s parliamentary elections, secularists not just need to accept the fact that Islamists will be part of the region’s political future, they actually might be at the forefront of shaping it.

Secularists should not panic though, as being at the political forefront during this difficult transition to democracy might be more of a curse than a blessing. Likewise, to make up for their lack of experience in handling such historical responsibilities, Islamists should start learning a lesson or two from recent events in the region and also lessons from the broader historical context. There are many facts that – if realised – could actually turn Islamists from a feared group of religious fanatics into a force pushing for more civil liberties.

Firstly, the realisation that the current political demographics that seem to be on their side are not eternal. The number of political parties and ideologies that once seemed invincible and now only exist in history books are numerous. Nazism, Fascism, Communism and even regional political movements like Arab Nationalism, were all once sweeping ideologies in certain historical and regional contexts. The systematic mistreatment of citizens, human rights violations and restriction on freedoms is what accelerated the demise of these ideologies.

If Islamists don’t push for more civil rights, their power might be unsustainable and short-lived. The revolutions across the Arab world were not for or against specific ideologies; they were rebellions against abuse, corruption and dictatorship.

Islamists should not be deceived by the support of their core ideological followers. This support is not necessarily unconditional. For example, even though Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak imposed a relatively secular regime and fought a fierce battle with Islamist groups, that didn’t stop millions of pro-democracy secularists from revolting against him. Similarly, former Tunisian president Zien el-Abidine Ben Ali also presented himself as the last defence line against fanatical Islamists, yet hundreds of thousands of Tunisian secularists preferred the risk of ending up with an elected Islamist regime to Ben Ali’s secular dictatorship.

Even within the realm of Islamism, many young Muslim Brotherhood members have rebelled against their old guard and conservative leaders, and decided to join and form other – often secular – parties.

Ruling by Islam is not the ultimate protection either. The Ottoman Empire, which was the Caliphate of Islam and stretched over three continents and more than 15 countries until the early 20th century, was dismantled by the progressive Young Turks laying the foundation for what had later become the secular Republic of Turkey.

This year’s uprisings against some of the cruellest military dictatorships in the region show that no regime, regardless of its material strength, is immune to popular revolts. Amidst this appetite for protest and political activity, it will be increasingly hard for any group, including Islamists, to practise absolute power and disregard the needs of the majority and the rights of the minorities.

Unlike many other secularists, I wouldn’t be quick to announce the clinical death of democracy before it is even born just because a religious conservative party, which has even expressed its commitment to secular democracy, has won a 40% relative majority in the Tunisian parliament. Islamism is an umbrella term that covers a wide variety of thought. Self-described Islamists include many highly educated academics, and widely disagree over fundamental issues even among themselves. The portrayal of an Islamist as a one-dimensional evil fanatic inspired by the Taliban is just a simplistic, lazy and inaccurate view.

Islamists are not all Osama bin Laden, and sharing some of the legislative power with them doesn’t necessarily put democracy at risk if they learn to understand the rules of the democratic game. Secularists need to be there fighting against and with Islamists to achieve democracy in the next parliamentary and presidential elections, and Islamists need to understand that a secular government and institutions that respect human rights regardless of religion, gender, political affiliation, etc. is the only guarantee for the stability and sustainability of the political process as a whole and a safeguard for Islamists as an integral part of this process.

The moderate and progressive views of some Islamists was the reason why Karim Medhat Ennarah, a devoted, left-wing human rights activist, decided to support the former senior Brotherhood member Abdelmoniem Aboul Fotouh: “I have always had a lot of respect for Aboul Fotouh, despite my disagreements with the Muslim Brotherhood. He’s had a reputable career as an opposition figure, most notably his work with the Arab Doctors Federation and his efforts to break the siege on Gaza.”

Ennarah beleivesAboul Fotouh has expressed progressive views on issues relating to personal and religious liberties and is more proactive on the ground and among the people than Mohamed Elbaradei, a liberal opposition leader and a potential presidential candidate whom Ennarah previously supported.

I have vowed to never resist democratic change just because ‘I’ think its outcome might be unfavourable. This is not at all a call for secularists to raise the white flag without a fight. An Islamist victory in next month’s Egyptian elections is not yet a foregone conclusion. Secularists should fight the parliamentary battle fiercely, yet peacefully and gracefully, and act as a lobbying power for more democratic gains in the future even if parliament does become dominated by Islamists.
“I don’t know if Islamists can be a threat to pluralism if they were in power. There are so many uncertainties surrounding them,” says Ennarah. “But I do know, however, that wholesale exclusion of a political group that has the support of a significant percentage of the population is a much more tangible threat to pluralism.”

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