The Middle East’s sinking leadership

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From Egypt to Turkey, Middle Eastern uprisings have not only been leaderless but have even been a rebellion against the idea of leadership itself.

Wednesday 26 June 2013

It is ironic and iconic that Turkey’s nascent uprising was triggered by a protest to protect a small inner-city park against the unsentimental and merciless bulldozers of developers seeking to build an ultra-modern shopping centre.

“Before the Muslim Turk only needed three or four things,” Said Nursî, one of the founding fathers of Turkey’s modern Islamic revival who advocated teaching modern sciences in religious schools and religious sciences in secular schools, wrote sentimentally in 1959. “The present tyrannical Western civilisation has encouraged consumption, abuses, wastefulness and the appetites, and, in consequence, has made the nonessential into essential.”

As I watched events unfold in Istanbul, I wondered what Nursî would make of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s staunch defence of “tyrannical Western civilisation” right in the heart of the former capital of the former caliphate, as well as the yuppie class of Islamists in sharp suits that has emerged during the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) decade in power.

Naturally, this gaping chasm between discourse and reality is not surprising to anyone familiar with Islamist ideology and traditional Islamic society, which arguably founded modern globalisation.

In fact, a casual and short stroll down to Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, Kapalıçarşı, that ancient Ottoman shopping temple, one of the oldest and largest in the world, would dispel any romantic notions that the West somehow cut out Islam’s spiritual heart and consumed it soul with consumerism. It can even be argued that the whole concept of faddish fashion so derided by Islamists carries a distinctly ‘Made in Islam’ designer label.

This might explain why Erdoğan’s Islamising agenda has set off so few alarm bells in Washington and other centres of capitalism, since the AKP – like its disciple, the similarly named Freedom and Justice Party in Egypt – reads from the same neo-liberal hymn sheet, while the Turkish delight of rapid economic growth and free markets has kept the Western business elite sweet.

Since the protests in Turkey erupted, the media has been filled with speculation as to whether modern Istanbul’s central plaza, Taksim, has become the Turkish “Tahrir Square”, and there are protesters in both countries who have expressed mutual solidarity.

Whether or not Turkey actually becomes a revolution, there are certainly clear parallels between the two, but also some crucial differences. Both uprisings started as small-scale protests organised by savvy, mostly young urban activists against perceived growing authoritarianism, but quickly mushroomed to embrace disparate socio-economic groups seeking greater freedom. In both cases, the protests tapped into a deep pool of economic discontentment created by growing economic liberalisation which, though it improved the macro outlook, ultimately benefited a narrow elite.

But the differences are no less telling. Democratically elected Erdoğan, though increasingly authoritarian, is not a dictator in the Mubarak mould. In fact, despite the Islamic creep that has set in, it is arguable that, with the military relatively sidelined, Turkey is actually a maturer democracy now than it used to be. But protesters are justified in wishing to preserve and build on these gains, as well as the country’s hard-won secular tradition.

In addition, though “bread”, in addition to “freedom” and “dignity”, is an important rallying cry in Turkey too, it is less so than in poorer Egypt. Nevertheless, if the leaders of the Turkish protests are to draw any lessons from Egypt, it is that you ignore the bottom line of economic justice at your peril.

That said, on the symbolic, visual and tactical levels, there are enormous parallels between Taksim and Tahrir: a decentralised nationwide revolt, continuous and cascading protests, regular mass rallies, a stream of iconic images of unarmed protesters facing down the state’s mighty machinery, such as that of the “lady in red”, national media blackouts, not to mention the desperate attempts by both leaderships to paint the protests as foreign conspiracies and the protesters as thugs and vandals.

But the most interesting parallels, in my view, have to do with leadership. On the one hand, as mentioned above, there is the channelling of public fury against a single “authoritarian” leader as shorthand for all that is wrong with the country. On the other hand, there is the clearly leaderless nature of the uprisings.

While this leaderlesness was instrumental in decapitating the regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen, by creating a hydra with millions of heads which leaders could not contain and keep down, it is also prone to fall victim to its own success. Although it can topple regimes rapidly, it is far less capable of building a viable and robust alternative, at least in the short to medium term.

This raises the danger that unsavoury powers can walk into the vacuum, as occurred with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, sparking a paradoxical nostalgia among a troublingly growing body of Egyptians for Mubarak’s “good old days”.

Even if Turkish protesters manage to bring down Erdoğan, they are in danger of ending up, at least in the immediate aftermath, with something worse – though in Turkey, this is more likely to be a return to military-sponsored semi-authoritarianism – if they fail to formulate and implement a far-sighted transitional vision.

Although the risk of sliding towards authoritarianism afflicts all societies, the modern Middle East seems particularly prone to this. But what is the reason behind?

Some Western academics and scholars argue that it is something intrinsic to Islam. While there are many problems associated with Islam, I do not think it is any more prone to absolutism than its Abrahamic cousins and other religions.

I would say that, in much of the region, it is more a product of the legacy of Ottoman and European imperialism, the authoritarian tendencies of post-colonial leaders, both former masters and subjects, and how “modernisation”, even if triggered by popular uprisings, eventually became a top-down process that did not involve the masses sufficiently.

For example, the region’s first stabs at modernisation, which interestingly took place in Turkey and Egypt, were pretty authoritarian endeavours, whether undertaken by Muhammad Ali and his dynasty in Cairo, or the Tanzimat of reformist sultans Mahmud II and Abdülmecid I in Istanbul.

Moreover, later republican projects to eradicate royal absolutism, foreign meddling and to modernise and impose secularism often began as popular movements but led to varying degrees of military-backed secular authoritarianism, from the toxic Young Turks to the relatively benign Kemalism of Atatürk in Turkey and the Nasserism of the Free Officers in Egypt.

With some variety of authoritarianism rearing its ugly face whether in the guise of a caliphate, revolutionary republicanism, monarchism, secularism, socialism, liberalism, conservatism and Islamism, along with the region’s loss of global status, it is unsurprising that millions of Middle Easterners seem not only to have lost their faith in their leaders but have abandoned the sinking vessel of leadership altogether.

The Middle East is in desperate need of a new generation of leaders who not only rise to power by the people, but are of the people and govern for the people.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of article which first appeared in Haaretz on 19 June 2013.

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De paradox van de Egyptische revolutie

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 Door Osama Diab

De Egyptische revolutie was een geval van collectieve en spontane genialiteit. Maar dit succes in het verkopen van de opstand kwam op een prijs

Thursday 18 April 2013

Arabic version

Photo: © Zaza Bertrand

Photo: © Zaza Bertrand

Twee factoren versterkten de slagkracht van de Egyptische revolutie: ten eerste was men zich volledig bewust van de impact van de beelden die de wereld werden ingestuurd en besefte men hoe belangrijk deze waren in de perceptie van de gebeurtenissen.

Men was ervan overtuigd dat deze revolutie een rijke erfenis zou nalaten. Honderdduizenden mobiele telefoons en honderden professionele camera’s registreerden elk lied, vlag, kwetsuur, dode, traan, lach, schot en gebed. De zoekopdracht ‘Egyptian revolution’ levert op Google alleen al in het Engels negen miljoen beelden op. En dan hebben we het nog niet over het aantal zoekresultaten in andere talen.

Ten tweede was er de nood aan steun. Er was het verlangen te kunnen rekenen op de sympathie, de empathie, het inzicht en de erkenning van de hele wereld.

Om succesvol te zijn en sympathie op te wekken, moest de revolutie zich inpassen in de idealen die de westerse media propageren. Aangezien men dit besefte, was er geen tekort aan Engelstalige spandoeken op het Tahrirplein, klaar om door de camera’s geregistreerd en doorgestuurd te worden.

Een van de meest bekende en centrale spandoeken op het Tahrirplein was “het volk wil de val van het regime”, het motto van de revolutie, zowel in het Arabisch als het Engels.

Een jongeman droeg een tweetalig bord waarop stond “Facebook tegen iedere tiran”, wat benadrukt dat het geschoolde, stedelijke Egyptenaren uit de middenklasse waren die deze opstand leidden. Betogers, de ene al wat vloeiender in het Engels dan de andere, waren enthousiast om de internationale media toe te spreken om de sympathie van de internationale gemeenschap te winnen.

“We zullen niet zwijgen, of je nu moslim, christen of atheist bent”, riep een salafistische manifestant in perfect Amerikaans Engels. Door het discours van de Westerse media over mensen die eruitzien als hem, is de jongeman het soort persoon naast wie men zich in een vliegtuig niet helemaal comfortabel zouvoelen. Het feit dat hij sprak zoals ‘wij’ en ‘onze’ warden deelde, bezorgde de Egyptische revolutie een gunstig imago.

“Dit is heel slecht, voor mij en mijn regering” roept een andere, oudere, man in zwaar gebroken Engels terwijl hij op weg is naar één van de meest dodelijke demonstraties, die van 28 januari 2011. “Ik heb geen eten, ik heb niets. Ik en mijn kinderen. Ik ga vandaag sterven!” Hoe kan iemand niet sympathiseren met deze ongewapende en niet-ideologische oude man, wiens enige ambitie is zichzelf en zijn kleine kinderen te kunnen voeden?

Dit is hoe een revolutie eruitziet in een tijdperk van geglobaliseerde media: de Egyptische revolutie moest de hele wereld, de media, politici, NGO’s en burgers overtuigen. Men moest ter plaatse public relations en marketingcampagnes verzorgen en leren omgaan met de media die het Tahrirplein massaal inpalmden.

Eén van de belangrijkste en sterkste beelden van de revolutie was dat van koptische christenen die een menselijke cirkel vormden rond moslims om hen te beschermen tijdens het bidden. Beelden van vrouwelijke dokters die de gewonde betogers behandelden en video’s van vreugdevolle liederen en humoristische spreekkoren hebben de harten en de geesten van miljoenen overal ter wereld beroerd.

Hoe zou een politicus kunnen verantwoorden dat hij een dergelijke egalitaire revolutie niet zou steunen? Hoe kan om het even welk systeem dat vrijheid en democratie predikt een dictator steunen tegen deze eisen in van de betogers en hun demografische samenstelling?

Photo: ©Harry Gruyaert

Photo: ©Harry Gruyaert

Aanhangers van de revolutie waren er snel bij om deze krachtige beelden te verspreiden. Deze beantwoorden nauwelijks aan de stereotypen gecreëerd door de wereldmedia en hun post-Koude-Oorlogsdiscours, waarin naties met een meerderheid aan moslims officieel de voormalige Sovjetstaten hebben vervangen als de ‘Andere’ van het Westen. Het was precies dit verwerpen van identiteitsdenken dat noodzakelijk was om Mubarak ten val te brengen. Het was het ongeplande doel en het onuitgesproken akkoord om, door nadrukkelijk nietideologisch te zijn, de wereldleiders moreel te verplichten der evolutie te steunen.

Wanneer we kijken naar de ontwikkeling van de Amerikaanse reactie tijdens die achttien dagen, wordt meteen duidelijk dat dit spontane, aan de basis ontsproten propagandaplan bijzonder doeltreffend was. In de vroege dagen van de revolutie weigerde de Amerikaanse vice-president Joe Biden Mubarak als een dictator te omschrijven, hoewel een eindeloos aantal internationale organisaties, inclusief Bidens eigen ministerie van Buitenlandse Zaken, Egypte veroordeelden vanwege zijn bijzonder zwakke mensenrechtenreputatie. President Obama zelf had eerder Egyptes corrupte dictator omschreven als een ‘vriend’ en een ‘factor van stabiliteit’.

Enkele dagen later begon minister van Buitenlandse Zaken Hillary Clinton te praten over ‘hervorming’, maar nog niet over ‘verandering’, toen ze commentaar gaf over wat er diende te gebeuren in Egypte in de periode die later bekend is geworden als een revolutie.

Naar het einde van de achttien dagen toe, veranderde de Obama-administratie haar toon drastisch. Mubarak was niet langer een ‘vriend’ of een ‘factor van stabiliteit’ en in plaats van ‘hervorming’ werd er gepraat over onmiddellijk opstappen. “De transitie moet nu beginnen,” zei president Obama enkele dagen voor de val van de Egyptische dictator.

Het was, minstens ten dele, een gevolg van de kracht van het beeld. Als de minste hint van identiteitspolitiek zichtbaar was geweest op het Tahrirplein, dan zou Mubarak nu nog steeds aan de macht zijn met steun en hulp van de VS.

Als iemand dit revolutionaire festival had willen vergallen, zou de gemakkelijkste wijze geweest zijn de Israëlische of de Amerikaanse vlag te verbranden en Fox News de rest te laten doen. Men kan zich afvragen waarom Mubarak hier niet aan gedacht heeft.

De revolutie bereikte pas zijn kritische massa en keerpunt nadat duidelijk werd dat we niet méér vroegen dan de rechten die men in het Westen geniet. Wij zijn geen radicale islamisten.

Wij zijn niet antisemitisch. Wij zijn geen militante marxisten. We gebruiken Facebook net zoals u en we spreken net zo goed Engels als u. We passen niet in één van de door de media gecreëerde vooroordelen die u van ‘ons’ hebt.

Dit was een klassiek geval van collectieve intelligentie. Ik twijfel er geen seconde aan dat de meeste betogers werkelijk in deze waarden geloven, maar het talent om de revolutie te promoten en te marketen zonder media-, reclame- of PR-plan is niets minder dan een daad van collectieve en spontane genialiteit.

Een discours dat zich zo expliciet op deze ontegensprekelijk universele en nobele waarden beroept, kan toch geen weerstand opwekken?

Het addertje onder het gras

Om de steun van de wereld te winnen, gebruikten de revolutionairen een politiek correct discours over vrijheid en democratie. Het probleem zit hem echter in de aard van het concept “discours.” Elk discours impliceert namelijk een kluwen van vaak onuitgesproken conceptuele relaties tussen objecten, concepten, symbolen, beelden, waarden en axioma’s. Binnen een discours is een uitspraak over de ene waarde onlosmakelijk verbonden met een ander concept, dat op zijn beurt weer vasthangt aan een ander beeld, enzoverder.

Het is belangrijk zich bewust te zijn van dit “relationalisme” binnen elk discours, moreel systeem of waardenkader.

Binnen het discours van de liberale democratie in zijn neoliberale vorm bestaat er bijvoorbeeld een conceptuele relatie tussen het idee van “moderne, economisch gezonde natie” enerzijds en vrije handel en een gederegulariseerde economie anderzijds. Ideeën zoals zelfvoorziening,

welvaartsstaat, een betere verdeling van de welvaart, en maatregelen om de nationale industrie te beschermen worden allemaal als verouderd bestempeld. Ze worden niet meer toegestaan. Ze zijn kortweg geen onderdeel van het discours waarin we ons ingeschreven hebben. De Amerikaanse filosofe Judith Butler beschrijft discours dan ook als “de grenzen van wat aanvaarbaar is om gezegd te worden, de grenzen van de mogelijke waarheid”.

Het concept van relationalisme helpt ons te begrijpen wat er nu verkeerd zou kunnen zijn met een discours van vreedzame protesten, egalitarisme, technologisch determinisme, enzovoort. Velen in Egypte zijn akkoord met de waarden die vandaag als westers worden beschouwd, zoals gendergelijkheid, algemeen stemrecht, vrijheid van religie, enzovoort.

Anderzijds weigeren velen het westerse liberale democratische model te erkennen als de enige geldige manier om landen te besturen en een samenleving te doen functioneren. Ze willen het niet kritiekloos en blindelings overnemen zonder ervoor te zorgen dat het beantwoordt aan de ei genheden van de natie, in het bijzonder wanneer het economische luik een ernstige hypotheek legt op de mogelijkheid voor arme families om brood op de plank te brengen.

Een diplomatiek telegram, getiteld Volgende stappen om de democratie in Egypte vooruit te helpen, gelekt en gepubliceerd door Wikileaks, somt op hoe ogenschijnlijk louter humanistische waarden vaak gekoppeld zijn een economischeagenda.

“USAID’s nieuwe programma Rechtvaardigheid voor families zal NGO’s engageren om het publiek meer bewust te maken van de wettelijke rechten van vrouwen en kinderen, alsook de wettelijke diensten die beschikbaar zijn voor deze achtergestelde groepen. Deze inspanningen zullen ook stuiten op reactionaire kritiek in de trant van ‘omkoping’ en ‘bemoeienis’”, leest men in het Amerikaanse diplomatieke telegram.

De zin die onmiddellijk volgt op deze ogenschijnlijk altruïstische bezorgdheid voor Egyptische achtergestelde groepen luidt: “[We moeten] erkennen dat economische hervormingen democratische hervormingen aanvullen: we moeten het Vrijhandelsakkoord nieuw leven inblazen en advies uitbrengen aan het Congres bij de eerstvolgende politieke opening.”

We leven in een periode van volatiliteit die deels het resultaat is van een te grote aanpassing aan het westerse economische en politieke model. Egypte is bedolven onder een torenhoge schuld en is op een systematische manier verarmd door corrupte privatiseringsschema’s en slechte arbeidsomstandigheden.

Als we hier kritiek op uiten, betekent dit niet dat we tegen vrouwen- of minderhedenrechten zijn. Deze kritiek past niet gemakkelijk binnen het politiek-economische discours van de westerse liberale democratie zoals verwoord in het telegram, dat zichzelf het monopolie op dergelijke waarden toemeet.

Het westerse model is immers hét model geworden, omdat politieke en militaire macht geconcentreerd is in het Westen.

Sinds de revolutie heeft Egypte vrije en eerlijke verkiezingen beleefd, maar deze hebben alleen een inefficiënt parlement en inefficiënte opeenvolgende kabinetten opgeleverd. Dit bewijst dat verkiezingen en een ornamentele liberale democratische structuur niet per definitie de levens van tientallen miljoenen arme en gemarginaliseerde Egyptenaren zal verbeteren.

In tegendeel, de kans is zelfs groot dat hun situatie zou verslechteren.

De te grote nadruk op verkiezingen (de hoeksteen van een liberale democratie) gaf macht aan partijen en groepen die over enorme middelen beschikken. Deze stelden hen in staat om campagne te voeren en sociale netwerken te bouwen in zowel rurale gebieden als stedelijke centra.

Dit is duidelijk in het geval bij de Partij van Vrijheid en Rechtvaardigheid van de Moslimbroeders, die wordt gefinancierd door een klasse van zakenmannen-miljardairs en die erin slaagde om 47% van de parlementszetels en het presidentschap te winnen. De rijkste man van Egypte, Naguib Sawiris, slaagde er eveneens in om slechts enkele maanden na de oprichting van een politieke partij 15% van de zitjes in het parlement te behalen, ook dankzij zijn miljarden.

Deze verkozen politici hebben hard opgetreden tegen stakingen, weigerden een minimumloon op te leggen in weerwil van een gerechtelijke beslissing, en maakten geen haast bij het uitoefenen van druk op Europese regeringen om Mubaraks activa terug te geven en een deel van Egyptes zware schuld kwijt te schelden.

In plaats daarvan lenen ze geld van het IMF en andere kredietverstrekkers, wat een verwoestend effect kan hebben op de toekomst van de Egyptische economie. Erger nog, dit is de toekomst van Egyptenaren die worden opgezadeld met een schuld voor geleend geld dat ze zelf niet eens hebben kunnen uitgeven en waarvan ze niet hebben kunnen genieten. Als op schulden gebaseerde groei de toekomst van de welvarende Europese Unie op het spel zet, dan kan men zich inbeelden welk verwoestend effect dit kan hebben op arme ontwikkelingslanden.

Dit alles gebeurt terwijl andere bronnen voor de financiering van publieke uitgaven en de beperking van het begrotingstekort duidelijk voorhanden zijn.

Wist u dat bronnen dicht bij de Wereldbank schatten dat meer dan $132 miljard uit Egypte verdween tijdens het bewind van Mubarak? Wist u dat belastingsachterstallen in Egypte 65 miljard Egyptische pond bedragen? Wist u dat de grootste bedrijven in Egypte slechts 0,5% betalen, zelfs al verdienden ze miljarden nettowinsten ingevolge belastingsvrijstellingen (of beter gunsten) speciaal ontworpen voor bedrijven die dicht bij het voormalige regime stonden?

Wist u dat het Verenigd Koninkrijk weigert de activa van het Mubarak-regime te bevriezen hoewel de EU een sanctielijst had uitgevaardigd die de activa van mensen die tot het voormalige regime hoorden bevriest? Wist u dat Egypte een hoogste belastingsaanslag van 20% heeft, wat betekent dat een familie die 1000 dollar per maand verdient evenveel moet betalen als een zakenman die dat bedrag op een minuut binnenrijft?

Wist u dat als u 420 Egyptische pond (50 Euro) per maand verdient, u op 10% wordt belast terwijl sommige ondernemingen die miljoenen verdienen 0,5% betalen door belastingsmanipulatie? Zelfs de meest kapitalistische economieën hebben een progressieve belasting. De Verenigde Staten bijvoorbeeld, hét bastion van het kapitalisme, hebben een hogere belastingsaanslag van 35%.

Nog steeds zijn er verkozen islamistische parlementsleden die de IMF-narratieven herhalen en spreken over buitenlandse directe investeringen en BNP-groei als een wondermedicijn voor al onze politieke, sociale en economische problemen.

Daarbij vertonen ze een schokkend gebrek aan creativiteit en een onvermogen om buiten de lijnen van de IMF-aanbevelingen te denken. Het is het vermelden waard dat we in de jaren voorafgaand aan de revolutie getuige waren van één van Egyptes grootste economische groeiperiodes en buitenlandse directe investeringen in zijn moderne geschiedenis.

Tegelijkertijd bereikten sociale frustratie en politieke onrust hun hoogste peil uit de recente geschiedenis. Als groei en sociale vrede al niet omgekeerd evenredig zijn, dan kan men ten minste stellen dat ze zeker niet direct evenredig zijn.

Dit is hoe discours gerelateerd is aan macht en media. Het bouwt een raamwerk van wat acceptabel, legitiem en juist is, en is zodanig dwingend dat het mensen niet toelaat om buiten dit kader te denken, spreken en handelen. Zelfs als de vrijheid om buiten dit raamwerk te opereren technisch gezien bestaat, dan mag men zich verwachten aan pasklare beschuldigingen als ‘islamitisch extremisme’, ‘links radicalisme’, ‘antisemitisme’ of ‘afgunst voor de rijken’.

In een wereld die nog steeds lijdt aan een postkoloniale kater, beschrijven deze woorden van Jean-Paul Sartre, hoewel geschreven in 1961, nog steeds adequaat de keuze van de hedendaagse ‘Oriënt’ tussen algehele aanvaarding of verwerping van het westerse modernisme:

“Hun schrijvers en dichters hebben met ongelooflijk geduld geprobeerd ons uit te leggen dat onze waarden slecht strookten met de werkelijkheid waarin zij leven, dat zij deze niet volledig konden verwerpen, maar ook niet helemaal konden aanvaarden. Grof gezegd bedoelden ze: ‘u maakt van ons gedrochten: uw humanisme geeft ons een universele waarde, maar uw racistische praktijken verbijzonderen ons.’”

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كيف يمكن لنجاح الثورة المصرية أن يُفشِلها؟

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بقلم أسامة دياب

استطاعت الثورة المصرية من خلال قوة الصورة إلغاء الصور النمطية التي كانت قد ترسخت في الأذهان وتكونت عنا، و لكن هناك ثمن لا بد أن يدفع في المقابل.

الاثنين ٢٥ مارس ٢٠١٣.

Dutch version

Photo: © Zaza Bertrand

Photo: © Zaza Bertrand

أدى عاملان إلى زيادة العنصر الأدائي في الثورة المصرية: أولهما الوعي الكامل بقوة الصور التي يتم إرسالها إلى العالم وإدراك لمدى تأثيرها على تطور الأحداث. كان من المؤكد أن تلك الثورة ستترك ورائها ميراث غني، لهذا قامت مئات الألاف من كاميرات الموبايل ومئات من كاميرات وكالات الأنباء بتصوير وتسجيل كل هتاف ورفرفة علم وإصابة وحالة وفاة ودمعة وضحكة وكل طلق ناري وكل صلاة، فإذا قمت بالبحث باللغة الإنجليزية عن  (الثورة المصرية) على محرك جوجل فستسفر نتائج البحث عن حوالي 9 ملايين صورة، ناهيك عن البحث باللغات الأخرى

العامل الآخر هو الاحتياج للدعم أو الرغبة في أن يتعاطف العالم مع الصراع الدائر وأن يشعر به ويدركه ويعترف بوجوده

اضطرت الثورة لضمان نجاحها ولكسب التعاطف تبني نماذج ومُثُل تروج لها وسائل الإعلام الغربية، لهذا لم يخلو ميدان التحرير من لافتات مكتوبة باللغة الإنجليزية صورتها الكاميرات وقامت بنشرها. إحدى أشهر اللافتات بميدان التحرير هي تلك التي تم تعليقها بوسط الميدان وحملت شعار الثورة الأشهر “الشعب يريد إسقاط النظام” باللغتين العربية و الإنجليزية

كما حمل أحد الشباب لافتة كتب عليها “فيسبوك على كل ظالم” باللغتين العربية والإنجليزية للتأكيد على أن الطبقة الوسطى المتعلمة هي من تقود هذه الثورة. حرص المتظاهرون على التحدث إلى وسائل الإعلام الأجنبية بالإنجليزية – بدرجات مختلفة من الإجادة – لكسب تعاطف المجتمع الدولي

 هكذا صاح متظاهر سلفي بأعلى صوته مستخدماً لغة إنجليزية أمريكية ممتازة: “لن نصمت، إن كنا مسلمين أو مسيحيين أو ملحدين”. أدى خطاب وسائل الإعلام الغربية عن من يشبهون هذا الشاب إلى تصنيفه تلقائياً ضمن نوعية الناس الذين قد لا يرتاح المرء تماماً للجلوس بجوارهم في الطائرة، لكنه استطاع بحديثه مثلهم و بمشاركته لنفس القيم الإنسانية التي يؤمنون بها رسم صورة مُحببة للثورة المصرية

“صاح رجل عجوز آخر مستخدماً إنجليزية ركيكة جداً وهو يتجه إلى إحدى أخطر المظاهرات التي أقيمت في الثامن والعشرين من يناير 2011 “هذا وضع سيء، لي ولحكومتي” . “لا أملك الطعام. لا أملك أي شيء. أنا و أطفالي. سأموت اليوم!” كيف لا يتعاطف المرء مع هذا العجوز الأعزل الذي لا يحمل أي أيديولوجيات ولا يطمح سوى لإطعام نفسه وأطفاله

هذا هو الشكل الذي تتخذه الثورة في عصر عولمة وسائل الإعلام، لهذا احتاجت الثورة المصرية إلى إقناع العالم أجمع بوسائل إعلامه وسياسييه ومجتمعه المدني ومواطنيه، واحتاجت إلى القيام بحملات علاقات عامة وتسويق تلقائية وتعلم كيفية التعامل مع ميدان أثقله التواجد الإعلامي الكثيف

كانت إحدى أهم و أقوى صور الثورة عندما صنع الأقباط جدار بشري أحاط بالمسلمين وحماهم أثناء صلاتهم، كما تمكنت صور لطبيبات يعالجن إصابات المتظاهرين ومقاطع فيديو لأغاني مبهجة وهتافات طريفة من أسر قلوب وعقول الملايين حول العالم

كيف لا يساند أي سياسي ثورة كتلك، قامت لتطالب بالمساواة في الحقوق؟ كيف لأي نظام يدعو إلى الحرية والديمقراطية أن ينحاز لديكتاتور ضد متظاهرين لديهم تلك المطالب المشروعة؟

حرص المساندون للثورة على نشر تلك الصور القوية، وهي صور لا تتفق مع أي من الصور النمطية التي خلقتها وسائل الإعلام الدولية في خطابها من بعد الحرب الباردة والتي قامت من خلاله باستبدال دول الإتحاد السوفيتي السابق كغريم للغرب بالبلاد ذات الاغلبية المسلمة. هذا هو بالتحديد نوع الرفض لأي هوية سياسية الذي كان ضروري لرحيل مبارك، كان الاتفاق غير المعلن هو إحراج قادة العالم وإجبارهم على مساندة الثورة عن طريق المبالغة في عدم اعتناق أي أيديولوجية

Photo: ©Harry Gruyaert

Photo: ©Harry Gruyaert

عند النظر إلى تسلسل ردود أفعال الإدارة الأمريكية على مدار ال18 يوم، نتيقن أن تلك الخطة الدعائية الشعبية والعفوية نجحت إلى حد كبير. في أول أيام الثورة، رفض نائب رئيس الولايات المتحدة “جو بيدين” وصف مبارك بالدكتاتور رغم إدانة العديد من المنظمات الدولية – ومن ضمنها وزارة الخارجية الأمريكية نفسها – للنظام بمصر لسجله المتواضع فيما يخص حقوق الإنسان، بل أن الرئيس أوباما نفسه كان قد سبق ووصف الدكتاتور المصري الفاسد ب”الصديق” و بأنه “قوة استقرار للمنطقة”

 بدأت وزيرة الخارجية الأمريكية “هيلاري كلينتون” بعد بضعة أيام في الحديث عن “الإصلاح” (و ليس “التغيير”) عند تعليقها على ما يجب حدوثه في مصر خلال ما أصبح يعرف لاحقاً بالثورة

غيرت إدارة أوباما من نبرتها تماماً قرب نهاية ال18 يوم،. ولم يعد مبارك “صديق” أو “قوة استقرار” ولم يعد الحديث عن “الإصلاح” بل عن التنحي الفوري. صرح الرئيس أوباما بأن “عملية إنتقال السلطة يجب أن تبدأ الآن” قبل سقوط الدكتاتور المصري ببضعة أيام. حدث هذا، جزئياً على الأقل، بفضل قوة الصورة. كان أبسط تلميح لوجود أي هوية سياسية في ميدان التحرير كفيل بالإبقاء على مبارك في الحكم بدعم أمريكي

كانت أبسط الطرق لتخريب هذا المهرجان الثوري هي حرق العلم الإسرائيلي أو الأمريكي وترك باقي المهمة ل”فوكس نيوز”. يتعجب المرء: كيف لم يفكر مبارك في هذا؟

لم تبلغ الثورة ذروة شعبيتها إلا بعد أن أوصل المتظاهرين رسالتهم بوضوح: نحن لا نطالب سوى بنفس الحقوق التي تتمتعون بها في الغرب. لسنا إسلاميين راديكاليين، ولسنا معاديين للسامية، ولسنا ماركسيين مسلحين. نحن مثلكم: نستخدم الفيسبوك ونجيد تحدث الإنجليزية كما أننا نختلف عن الصور النمطية التي كونتها لديكم وسائل الإعلام عنا

كان هذا مثال كلاسيكي على الذكاء الجماعي، وأنا لا أشك ولو للحظة في أن غالبية المتظاهرين كانوا يؤمنون فعلاً بتلك القيم، ولكن القدرة على تسويق الثورة والترويج لها دون أي خطة إعلامية أو إعلانية أو خطة علاقات عامة هي عمل جماعي وعفوي عبقري ينبع من موهبة فذة

من الصعب الاعتراض على الالتزام بهذا الخطاب اللائق، ولكن الخطاب السياسي عبارة عن مجموعة من الرموز، ومهما كانت مكوناته عامة وشاملة وسامية فهي ليست كيانات منفصلة تعمل في الفراغ بل هي متعلقة برموز ومفاهيم أخرى تأتي كلها عادةً في حزمة واحدة

أين إذاً العيب في ما حدث؟

ما هو إذاً الخطاب بالضبط؟ و ما مشكلة محاولة الالتزام به طالما اتفقنا مع القيم التي يروج لها؟ يصف الفيلسوف الفرنسي “ميشيل فوكو” الخطاب قائلاً: “هو مجموعة من التسلسلات والرموز”، فهو يرى أن الخطاب يحدد إطار ما يمكن أن تقوله ويكون مقبولا من قبل المؤسسات ذات السلطة والنفوذ. أما الفيلسوفة الأمريكية “جوديث باتلر” فتصف الخطاب ب “حدود الحديث المقبول، حدود الحقيقة الممكنة”

 وتجيب النظرية العلائقية على السؤال المشروع حول ما يمكن أن يعيب المظاهرات السلمية ومبدأ المساواة ونظرية الحتمية التكنولوجية، إلخ

أي خطاب هو عبارة عن نظام مُكَوَن من بعض القيم المترابطة ومن المهم أن ندرك المفاهيم التي تتعلق بعضها ببعض في كل خطاب أو نظام أخلاقي أو مجموعة قيم، حيث توجد علاقات مفاهيمية بين الرموز والأفكار والمواضيع والتصريحات يشكلون معاً بنيانا من المعرفة

فعلى سبيل المثال، العلاقة المفهومية التي تربط بين الدولة الحديثة ذات الإقتصاد القوي وبين التجارة الحرة المتحررة من القيود هي علاقة مُضمنة في الخطاب الديمقراطي الليبرالي في هيئته النيوليبرالية، وهو خطاب تصبح فيه أفكار مثل الاكتفاء الذاتي أو دولة الرفاه أو تقسيم أفضل للثروة أو إجراءات حماية الصناعات الوطنية جميعها أفكار قديمة وتشكل عائقا للنمو الاقتصادي وخلق الثروة، فهي باختصار لا تشكل جزء من الخطاب الذي التزمنا به

يتفق الكثيرون مع القيم التي تعتبر في يومنا هذا قيم غربية مثل المساواة بين الجنسين، وحق الاقتراع للجميع بدون تفرقة ليشمل جميع المواطنين البالغين، وحرية العقيدة، إلخ. ولكن يرفض أيضاَ الكثيرون تبني النموذج الغربي الليبرالي الديمقراطي دون تبصر أو تفكير باعتباره الطريقة الوحيدة التي تصلح لإدارة البلاد، وباعتباره النموذج الاجتماعي والاقتصادي الأصلح دون التأكد من ملائمته لخصوصيات البلد خاصة وأن الجانب الاقتصادي منه يشكل تهديداً قوياً لقدرة العائلات الفقيرة في الحصول على الطعام وأساسيات الحياة

توضح برقية دبلوماسية بعنوان “الخطوات التالية لتحقيق التقدم الديمقراطي في مصر” سربتها ونشرتها “ويكيليكس” أن ما قد يبدو كقيم إنسانية خالصة غالباً ما يرتبط بأجندة اقتصادية وسياسية. تقول البرقية الدبلوماسية الأمريكية: “سيدفع برنامج العدالة الأسرية التابع للوكالة الأمريكية للتنمية الدولية المنظمات غير الحكومية إلى زيادة الوعي العام حول الحقوق القانونية للمرأة و الطفل بالإضافة إلى الخدمات القانونية المتاحة لتلك الفئات المتضررة. ستقابل هذه المجهودات بانتقادات رجعية تتهمها بال”رشوة” و بال”تدخل في الشؤون الداخلية”

 يبدو ما سبق انه اهتمام حقيقي وغير أناني بالفئات المتضررة والمُهَمَشة في مصر، و لكن يليه تلك الجملة: “[علينا أن] نقر بأن الإصلاحات الاقتصادية مُكملة للإصلاح الديمقراطي: علينا أن نحيي اتفاقية التجارة الحرة ونُعلم الكونجرس بها في أقرب فرصة ممكنة.” مصر دولة تقيدها الديون وتم إقفارها بشكل ممنهج عن طريق خطط الخصخصة واستغلال العمالة. انتقادنا لهذا لا يعني أننا ضد حقوق المرأة أو الأقليات، و لكنه انتقاد لا يتناسب مع خطاب الديمقراطية الليبرالية الغربية الموجود بالبرقية والذي يسمح لنفسه باحتكار تلك القيم

نعيش في مرحلة من القضايا المُعلقة نتجت جزئياً من الالتزام الزائد بالنموذج الاقتصادي والسياسي الغربي. القوة السياسية والعسكرية تتركز في الغرب، لهذا أصبحت القيم الغربية خصوصا في الجانب الاقتصادي بديهية لا يمكن التشكيك فيها. يشرح “فوكو” قائلاً: “القوة تنتج المعرفة … القوة والمعرفة تؤديان أحدهما للأخرى … لا توجد علاقة قوة دون التكوين المترابط لحقل معرفي … ولا توجد معرفة لا تستلزم وجود وتكوين علاقات قوة”. شهدت مصر منذ الثورة انتخابات حرة ونزيهة ولكنها لم تسفر سوى عن برلمان غير كفء ثم عن حكومات ووزارات غير كفء وهو ما يثبت أن حتى ولو كانت عملية عد الأصوات نزيهة، وحتى ولو كان النظام مُزين ببنية ليبرالية ديمقراطية، فهذا كله لن يحسن من حياة ملايين الفقراء والمهمشين من المصريين، بل في الغالب سيزيدوها سوءا وفقرا

أعطى الاهتمام الزائد بالانتخابات (وهي حجر زاوية الديمقراطية الليبرالية) قوة وسلطة لمجموعات تمتلك موارد ضخمة مكنتها من تنظيم حملات سياسية ومن تأسيس شبكات اجتماعية في المناطق الريفية والمدن. ثروتهم هي التي أدت إلى اتصالهم المباشر بالمجموعات المعنية. يظهر هذا جلياً مع حزب الحرية و العدالة التابع للإخوان المسلمين والذي تموله طبقة من رجال الأعمال فاحشي الثراء، ونجح الحزب في الحصول على 47% من البرلمان بالإضافة إلى كرسي الرئاسة. كما نجح أغنى أغنياء مصر نجيب ساويرس في الحصول بفضل ملايينه على 15% من البرلمان و ذلك بعد بضعة أشهر من تأسيس حزبه السياسي

قام هؤلاء السياسيين المُنتَخًبين بقمع الإضرابات العمالية، ورفضوا فرض حد أدنى للدخل رغم وجود حكم محكمة بذلك، وبدلاً من الضغط على الحكومات الأوروبية لاسترجاع الأموال التي سرقها مبارك وإسقاط بعض من ديون مصر اتجهوا للاقتراض من صندوق النقد الدولي ومُقرِضين آخرين وهو ما قد يدمر الاقتصاد المصري مُستقبلاً، بل ومستقبل المصريين الذين ستغرقهم ديون لم ينفقوها ولم يستفيدوا منها، فإذا كان النمو الاقتصادي المعتمد على القروض يشكل خطراً على بلاد الإتحاد الأوروبي الغنية، علينا أن نتخيل مدى الدمار الذي قد يسببه للبلدان الفقيرة النامية

يحدث كل هذا حين تتوفر بوضوح مصادر أخرى لتمويل الإنفاق الحكومي و التقليل من عجز الموازنة

 هل تعلم أن مصادر قريبة للبنك الدولي قدرت الأموال التي اختفت من مصر في عهد مبارك بأكثر من 132 مليار دولار؟ و هل تعلم أن الضرائب المتأخرة في مصر تُقدر ب65 مليار جنيه مصري؟ و هل تعلم أن بعض أكبر الشركات في مصر تدفع ضرائب قليلة جداً تصل إلى 0.5 % رغم أن أرباحها تقدر بالمليارات نتيجة لإعفاءات ضريبية (أو بالأحرى جمائل) صممت خصيصاً لرجال الأعمال القريبين من النظام السابق؟

 هل تعلم أن المملكة المتحدة ترفض تجميد حسابات نظام مبارك على الرغم من إصدار الإتحاد الأوروبي لقائمة بالحسابات التي تخص النظام السابق و المطلوب تجميدها؟

 هل تعلم أن أعلى شريحة ضريبية في مصر هي 20 %، مما يعني أن العائلة التي تربح ألف دولار شهرياً ورجل الأعمال الذي يربح نفس هذا المبلغ في الدقيقة الواحدة يدفعون نفس الضريبة؟ و هل تعلم أن الفرد الذي يربح 420 جنيه مصري (60 يورو) شهرياً يدفع 10 % من دخله للضرائب بينما تدفع بعض الشركات التي تربح الميارات 0.5 % عن طريق التلاعب الضريبي؟ حتى أكثر الاقتصادات رأسمالية تستخدم نظام تصاعدي للضرائب، فعلى سبيل المثال، في الولايات المتحدة، حصن الرأسمالية، أعلى شريحة ضريبية هي 35 %. لازلنا نرى نوابا إسلاميين مُنتًخًبين يرددون نفس روايات صندوق النقد الدولي ويتحدثون عن الاستثمار الأجنبي المباشر ونمو الناتج المحلي الإجمالي كما لو كانا الحل الشامل لجميع مشاكلنا السياسية والاجتماعية و الاقتصادية مفتقرين إلى أي قدرة إبتكارية أو أي قدرة على التفكير خارج إطار توصيات صندوق النقد الدولي

من الجدير بالذكر أن مصر شهدت في السنوات التي السابقة على أكبر نمو اقتصادي و أكبر تدفق للاستثمار الأجنبي في تاريخها المعاصر، تزامنا مع أعلى مستوى من الإحباط الاجتماعي والاضطراب السياسي تشهده في تاريخها الحديث. فالنمو الاقتصادي والسلام الاجتماعي إن لم يكونا متناسبان عكسياً هم، على الأقل ودون شك، ليسا متناسبان طردياً

 هذه هي العلاقة التي تربط الخطاب بالقوة ووسائل الإعلام، فهو يبني إطار لتحديد كل ما هو مقبول وشرعي وصحيح ويمنع الناس من العمل خارجه. و حتى لو أتيحت عملياً حرية العمل خارج هذا الإطار فسوف يقابل هذا باتهامات جاهزة من نوعية “التطرف الإسلامي” أو “اليسارية الراديكالية” أو “معاداة السامية” أو “حسد الأغنياء”. تنطبق هذه الكلمات ل”جان بول سارتر”، على الرغم من إنها تعود إلى عام 1961، على الاختيار الذي تواجهه بلاد الشرق في يومنا هذا بين القبول أو الرفض الكامل لحداثة الغرب في عالم لا يزال يعاني من أثار الاستعمار والعقلانية الغربية الحديثة: “حاول كُتابهم و شُعرائهم، بصبر كبير، أن يشرحوا لنا أن قيمنا لا تنطبق مع الحقائق التي يعيشونها يومياً، و أنهم لا يستطيعون رفضها كُلياً ولكنهم لا يستطيعون أيضاً هضمها. كانوا يقولون باختصار: أنتم تصنعون منا مسوخ، فلسفتكم الإنسانية تدعي أننا وباقي العالم واحد ولكن أساليبكم العنصرية تُفرقنا.”

This essay first appeared in Cairopolis, a book and photography exhibition about the Egyptian revolution.


الاثنين ٢٥ مارس ٢٠١٣

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Wednesday 27 February 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Reading between the lines of the Middle Eastern media

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By Khaled Diab

Despite its bottom ranking in the Press Freedom Index, the Middle Eastern media is freer than it appears at first sight.

Saturday 16 February 2013

Despite all the sacrifices made by citizens and journalists across the Middle East and North Africa, the region has come in bottom of the global media freedom league, according to the recently released 2013 Press Freedom Index (PFI).  

Though not entirely surprising, this unenviable distinction is a dispiriting reality check for how far the region still has to go before it delivers the freedoms coveted and demanded by its citizens – at least, that is how the current situation as reflected by the PFI league table seems at first sight. 

The bottom 10 contains two Middle Eastern countries: Syria (placed in 176th position) and Iran (174th). Surpassed only by the truly terrible trio of Eritrea, North Korea and Turkmenistan, Syria, which for decades has not been a bastion of media freedom, has seen its track record worsen significantly ever since it erupted into a bloody civil war in which journalists, like civilians, have been targeted, mainly by the government, but also by opposition forces. 

In all, four journalists were killed in Syria in 2012, and a further 41 media professionals and netizens were imprisoned. This made Syria the most dangerous country in the world to be a journalist, according to Reporters sans frontiers (RSF), the organisation behind the index.  

As an indication of the sorry state of the region, the highest scoring MENA country only managed 77th place. Surprisingly for many, this number one spot goes not to Israel, the self-styled only democracy in the Middle East, nor to Lebanon, long regarded as the capital of the freest Arab press and its most vibrant publishing sector, but to the small emirate of Kuwait. 

In addition, despite having a population of just 2.8 million, Kuwait is home to a broad range of quality dailies and weeklies of varying political stripes and, according to RSF, the most liberal press legislation in the region.  

While Kuwait seems to be for the large part practising and not preaching when it comes to its media, the same cannot be said for nearby Qatar, which occupies the 110th position in the PFI ranking. While al-Jazeera, which often exhibits greater editorial freedom than certain segments of the Western media, has revolutionised the Arab world’s staid media, providing those who previously had no access to a free media an open window on the world, and has been boldly and enthusiastically at the frontline of the revolutionary wave sweeping the region, the domestic media in Qatar remains tame and subservient to the ruling elite. 

This has resulted in Qatar suffering from a form of cognitive dissonance, with the government at once defending al-Jazeera’s editorial freedom, even occasionally to the detriment of relations with Arab and Western allies, yet not tolerating dissent from its domestic media. Likewise, this daring channel which walks the walk abroad dares not talk the talk at home, exhibiting “restraint, even self-censorship”, in the words of RSF. Or as one journalist friend put it, “al-Jazeera’s motto is to speak truth to power, except the one that pays the bills”.

Defenders of al-Jazeera sometimes claim that the news channel is not practising self-censorship when it comes to domestic Qatari affairs but rather that the tiny land of 1.7 million is a backwater where little of interest to regional and global viewers ever happens. While there is some merit to this view, there are plenty of Qatar-related issues that would interest a broader audience, such as its restrictive media laws, its sluggish progress towards democratisation, not to mention the controversial presence of a US airbase there.

The ultimate test of al-Jazeera’s vaunted independence would be how it would report on events if Qatar caught the revolutionary bug. Possible indications of how this might play out are provided by neighbouring Bahrain, whose uprising, Bahraini opposition figures complain, has received relatively little coverage.

In fact, since the Arab Spring broke out, a wave of allegations, including from discontented ex-reporters with the network, has emerged that al-Jazeera’s once enviable independent stance has become increasingly subservient to backroom manipulation from the palace, including, in an echo of the traditional practices of state-owned Arab channels, the re-editing of a report on a UN debate on Syria to lead with the comments of Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani – you know, the hereditary leader who deposed his father to gain power over that backwater which doesn’t normally merit media coverage.

Despite its poor showing, Qatar is still two places ahead of Israel (112th place). This low ranking is bound to bewilder, bemuse and even anger many Israelis. But I believe it is both justified and unjustified.  

It is justified because of military censorship and the severe restrictions Israel imposes on Israeli, Palestinian and foreign journalists working in the occupied Palestinian territories. In addition, the Israeli military bombed two buildings housing media in Gaza during last November’s Gaza conflict.  

Moreover, not only are Israeli journalists not allowed to operate there, Palestinian journalists are often harassed. It sometimes seems that Palestinian journalists are under siege from all directions, faced as they are with the double whammy of Israeli and domestic repression, especially in Gaza. Fortunately, as Fatah and Hamas try to mend fences, the situation is improving slowly, and Palestine has risen eight places to the 146th spot.

Israel’s handling of the media in the West Bank and Gaza caused its ranking to plummet 20 positions because RSF decided to combine the “Israel extraterritorial” score with its domestic one. Some will cry foul at this apparent sleight of hand, but Israel, as an occupying power, has responsibilities to guarantee fundamental rights in the Palestinian territories. Moreover, if Israel can consider making denial of the occupation an official policy, then why can’t RSF hold it accountable?

Even without including the extraterritorial element, Israel would still rank an uninspiring 92, way, way, way below its declared obligation of being a “light unto the nations”, as David Ben-Gurion claimed.

That said, RSF readily acknowledges that Israeli journalists “enjoy real freedom of expression”. And from my experience working with Haaretz and other Israeli media and the time I spent practising my profession in Jerusalem, I would broadly agree. Personally, I have never had my work censored and I have been given space to express some ideas very critical of Israel.

Even dissidents acknowledge Israel’s pluralistic tradition, at least towards its Jewish citizens, though they express fears about the spate of new anti-freedom laws that have been passed recently, such as the anti-boycott law currently before the Supreme Court, and the ‘Nakba Law’, which outlaws  the commemoration of what Palestinians and Arabs call the ‘Catastrophe’ of 1948 in public institutions. 

“When I studied [the Nakba], I didn’t face the law, I didn’t face the secret service, I faced the community,” the dissident Israeli academic Ilan Pappé told me in an interview some months ago. Though he acknowledges that the Israeli system once tolerated a broad margin of dissent, this, he fears, is changing. “[Israel] is becoming a mukhabarat state. I mean Israel is becoming a state of the old Middle East, of the old Arab World.” 

A surprising number of Israelis I know share this idea of regional convergence. And there are plenty of signs that the Arab world is catching up with Israel – and in a way that this index cannot capture.

Although Kuwait scores the highest in the PFI, I believe the greatest promise for a free media lies not in the Gulf but in the revolutionary states, especially Egypt (158th place) and Tunisia (138th).

This is because certain intangibles cannot be captured in the PFI’s subjective scoring system, based as it is on the assessments of various local and International observers, which means that countries with a more critical culture could score more poorly than countries which are less critical. It also does not take into account qualitative criteria, such as the actual content, as well as the plurality, accuracy and scope of the reporting and commentary in the media, and its daring.

This translates into the fact that although no Kuwaiti journalists were arrested last year, the profession as a whole tends to self-censor to stay within the carefully delineated “red lines”, while attempts by Mubarak, the army and the Muslim Brotherhood to impose restrictions in Egypt through intimidations and periodic crackdowns, have been met with defiance and open rebellion by much of the independent media.

“When Kuwait comes ahead of Egypt, this confounds me,”  Hisham Kassem, a veteran Egyptian publisher and democracy advocate admitted to me amid the bare concrete and dust in the future offices of his ambitious new media project in Cairo a few months ago. “If rulers in the Gulf were exposed to the same level of attacks that Mubarak was in his last years, then heads would roll.”

Mubarak, the military, Morsi and his Muslim Brothers have all tried to revert to politics as more or less usual, proving that denial is more than a river in Egypt. But despite their best efforts to do their worst, the genie is out of the bottle. And it is this revolution of the mind and heart, and whether it can be sustained, that holds the key to the future of the region.

Surprising as it may sound, Israel’s domestic arrangement was once held up by Arab reformers as an example of the freedom they should strive for – and they are striving for that liberty. Today, it is the turn of Israelis to learn from their neighbours and overcome their complacency to defend their hard-won rights from further corrosion and turn the tide back.


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 11 February 2013.

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The naked truth about Egypt’s body politic

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By Khaled Diab

One young woman’s daring nude protests are unlikely to emancipate Egyptian women, but will they actually hurt the cause of freedom and equality?

Monday 7 January 2013


Photo: FEMEN

“Sharia is not a constitution” is a sentence that many Egyptian secularists and progressives would, under normal circumstances, wholeheartedly agree with. However, when these words are scrawled in lipstick red on the totally naked body – except for glasses and a headband of flowers – of a young Egyptian activist, then the medium suddenly eclipses the message, especially in a society as conservative as Egypt’s.

Aliaa ElMahdy, 21, was protesting, with European feminists in Stockholm, Egypt’s controversial draft constitution ahead of a referendum which appears to have approved it, despite incredibly low voter turnout. But this wasn’t the first time that ElMahdy had used her naked body to try to expose the hypocrisy of Egypt’s body politic. She had already gained notoriety and stirred up controversy in 2011 when she posted naked images of herself on her blog to express her opposition to the growing influence of Islamists and to demand her full freedom of expression.

An old joke claims that the best way for a woman to please a man on a date is simply to turn up naked. In contrast, it would seem that the best way to outrage the patriarchal male order is to protest in the nude – judging by the insults, threatened legal action and even some death threats which the nude activist received.

Personally, I have long been bewildered and sometimes outraged by the amount of outrage the human body, especially the female form of it, and sex can provoke. For instance, a US president can be impeached for lying about his sexual relations but not apparently for lying to start a war. Likewise, at a time of massive revolutionary ferment, how society can find the time or interest to obsess over an amateur black-and-white photo of a solitary nude woman on her personal blog is beyond me?

Of course, if even in some liberal societies, nudity can still offend many, I can understand that in a society where the vast majority of women now cover their heads in one way or another, that nakedness can cause distress. But there is more to it than that. After all, nudity is a mouse click away for millions of Egyptians and, as one observer pointed out, there is reportedly a popular niche in pornography involving women in hijab and even niqab (the full face veil). Moreover, semi-nudity and sexually suggestive imagery is on billboards, television screens and cinemas everywhere you turn in Egypt.

The trouble with Aliaa is that her photos were too subversive: they were naked but not sexy, and they were saying “fuck off” and not “fuck me”. Her nude protest against the constitution was similarly seditious: she was using a tool many would regard as immoral to deliver a highly moral and principled message.

So, though many Egyptians may agree with her message, few approve of her means. In fact, revolutionaries and secularists have been tripping over themselves to give ElMahdy a full dressing down.

This is partly out of genuine disapproval. Egyptians are generally conditioned to see nudity as a sign of licentiousness and debauchery, and so when a young activist strips in protest, they reach the “inescapable” conclusion that she is either bad or mad, or possibly both.

Many leftists regard ElMahdy as self-absorbed and selfish and that she, through her reckless actions, has potentially set the cause of female emancipation back years. And they have a point – up to a point.

ElMahdy’s actions are unlikely to sway many, if any, ordinary Egyptians to the cause of greater freedom in Egypt, and may even strengthen the dictatorship of, and through, the masses.

Religious and social conservatives and bigots have used her political striptease as proof made flesh of the “corrupting” influence of secularism – which has become something of a dirty word in Egypt since Islamists successfully and inaccurately equated it with atheism – and that the only way to combat this is by curtailing personal and political freedoms.

In addition, the fact that ElMahdy’s most vocal defenders have mainly, but not exclusively, been expatriate Egyptians and Europeans has played up to the paranoid idea promoted by the former and current regime that the revolution is an anti-Egyptian foreign conspiracy designed to shred the country’s social fabric and destroy it by stripping it of its moral rectitude.

And since a family’s, and by extension, a society’s honour and strength, lies, for some bizarre reason, between the legs of women, ElMahdy has been transformed by the patriarchy into a biological WMD – a dirty bomb, you could say – and has helped them cement the traditional view of women as highly volatile sex bombs who will spontaneously explode upon contact with greater freedom.

Activists fear that this will hurt the aspirations of Egyptian women seeking equality with men and fighting against discrimination. But is this enough to abandon ElMahdy?

On this issue, Egyptian democracy activists are caught between a rock and a hard place. Defend ElMahdy’s right to do what she did and this will be equated with agreeing with her actions. Criticise her or stay silent and be guilty of curtailing freedom of expression yourself.

In 2011, ElMahdy confessed that she was shocked by how the April 6 Youth Movement, which was one of the main secular, youth-led dynamos behind the revolution, had issued a statement not only clarifying that she was not part of their organisation, which is correct, but also that they do not accept “atheism.”

“Where is the democracy and liberalism they preach to the world? They only feed what the public wants to hear for their political ambitions,” she complained at the time.

That said, it is unfair to single out ElMahdy, who does not possess any political affiliation nor does she claim to speak for anyone beside herself. Just as she is not single-handedly destroying Egypt’s traditional social fabric, as conservatives claim, the blame for the apparent setback secularism and feminism are facing in Egypt cannot be placed solely on her shoulders.

Had Aliaa not stripped, it would have made very little difference to the outcome of the draft constitution – it is still incredibly unpopular and uninspiring, as reflected in the low voter turnout and the huge demonstrations. Had Aliaa kept her clothes on, it would not have deterred Islamists from their project to roll back whatever hard-earned freedoms Egyptian women have gained – they would simply have ignored her.

What this episode reflects is how, despite opposing the revolution and not taking part in it, Islamists have become more emboldened and, at least, apparently powerful. It also highlights how in spite of the fact that secular and oft-young revolutionaries have instigated a process of radical change, many still remain apologetic for their convictions and allow themselves to be browbeating and intimidated by religious conservatives.

The attitude seems to be one of, “if you can’t beat them, join them”, and so secularists have increasingly appropriated some of the rhetoric of the Islamists. But what some have failed to notice is that the Islamists, in order to survive, have also had to appropriate the secular discourse of democracy and freedom.

Another problem with this approach is that as Islamists gain confidence they are becoming more militant once more, and progressives may soon discover that the only option left will be to “beat” them. And the Islamists, who have been rapidly planting the seeds for their own downfall, are unwittingly providing pluralist secularists with plenty of opportunities to steer Egypt towards a more tolerant and inclusive future.

As the polarisation between conservative and progressive forces in society grows, persuasion and bridge-building will become increasingly necessary, but so will confrontation, especially on issues of principle and fundamental freedoms.


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 2 January 2013.

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Egypt’s rebels without a pause

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By Khaled Diab

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

Thursday 20 December 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

We do politics differently now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Revolutionary generation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The sport of revolution

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

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

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

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

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

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

A revolution in search of a leadership

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joining the political party

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

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

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

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

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

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


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

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

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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 I): How the nascent print media gave birth to Egyptian nationalism

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By Osama Diab

The spread of print media in the 19th century played a profound role in shaping modern Egyptian nationalism and its quest for full independence.

Wednesday 26 September 2012

A page from the revolutionary 19th-century Egyptian newspaper Abu Naddara Zarqa.

From its very inception, modern Egyptian nationalism was defined by its struggle against foreign influence. The Albanian military commander who became the Khedive Muhammad Ali is widely believed to be the founding father of modern Egypt, and also the founder of its bureaucratic establishment, which prompted a growth in the native urban Egyptian middle class, or the “effendis”. The middle class up to this point had largely been confined to Ottomans and Europeans, while the vast majority of native Egyptians focused on farming in this highly agrarian society.

This rise in literacy and the wave of modernisation led to an explosion of print culture, which was also central to Muhammad Ali’s plan. Many newspapers and periodicals were founded in the 19th century. Education and migration from the countryside to urban centres brought Egyptians into contact with Europeans and Ottomans in the workplace and the same neighbourhoods. This made the striking injustice in this ‘caste system’, things such as a separate a judicial system for Europeans known as capitulations, more obvious and glaring by the day.

Adib Ishaq, a Syrian-Christian journalist and writer who lived in Egypt in the second half of the 19th century wrote: “Not a day goes by but we hear that such-and-such Italian or Maltese stabbed an Egyptian national with a dagger. The wounded victim is carried to the hospital,whereas the assailant is delivered to the consulate, and put in a luxurious room where he eats gourmet meals. He is released almost as soon as he arrives.”

The American historian Juan Cole describes Ishaq as one of the first in Egypt to write extensively on ideas of liberalism, constitutional monarchies and democracy, but was never given enough credit for it. “His technical interests as a journalist led him to support freedom of speech and free criticism of government policy. His [Free] Masonic ideals of service to mankind, his vaguely Young Ottoman political culture, and the patronage links he established in Egypt reinforced these interests,” explains Cole.

Cole argues that the rise of ideas about freedom and democracy in Egypt could be traced back to the emergence of cultural salons and political clubs, such as those belonging to the Free Masons (which Ishaq himself belonged too), the Young Egypt and Young Officers movements. All these had a number of goals in common: they strove to bring an end to European hegemony and to reform Egyptian society into one based on the ideals of equality, liberty and democracy.

The development of the print media, postal service, telegraph lines and the extension of the railway network under Khedive Ismail, allowed dissident organisations to recruit and coordinate with members in other cities.

Cole describes print culture as the most significant means of communication between like-minded people who could not meet face to face. This echoes Benedict Anderson’s theory that print-capitalism laid the foundation for national consciousness by creating “mechanically reproduced print languages capable of dissemination through the market”. It was easy then to form what Anderson calls the “imagined community”  – a community whose geographical boundaries extend beyond that daily face-to-face interaction of its members – a prerequisite for national consciousness.

The first Egyptian newspaper was published in 1828 during the Muhammad Ali era, although Al-Waqa’e Al-Masreya (Egyptian News) was only circulated among government officials and military officers. In the 1840s, Islamic reformist Rifa’a al-Tahtawi became the newspaper’s editor and used it as a platform for his reformist ideas, which proved so unpopular with the new ruler, Khedive Abbas I, that Tahtawi was exiled to Sudan.

Another major revolutionary publication of the time was Abu Naddara Zarqa (The Man with the Blue Spectacles), which was founded in 1877 by Egyptian Jew and Free Mason Yaqub Sannu. It was a platform for the newly-born Egyptian nationalism and its political cartoons were critical of the political and economic situation of the time. Because it was perceived as too revolutionary, Sannu was, like Tahtawi, also exiled, but this time, to France, in 1878, after publishing 15 issues of the magazine.

Cole wrote that, being a Jew and a Mason, Sannu promoted religious tolerance among Egyptians, but was still willing to use Islamic rhetoric against European exploiters of the country. He continued to produce the magazine from France and the controversial publication was reportedly smuggled into Egypt and widely read despite the ban.

The emergence of an educated middle class with such ideals and the imposition of higher taxes on the peasantry due to Egypt’s financial hardship led to discontent and anger which took the form of continuous protests in 1879 against Khedive Tawfiq. Tawfiq replaced his father, Ismail, who was more of an inspiring and accomplished leader.  Khedive Ismail, who was deposed by the Ottoman Sultan at the insistence of Britain and France, was angry at growing European influence due to Egypt’s inability to repay its debt, and called on Egyptians to rise up against the Europeans.

Led by the legendary Egyptian army general Ahmed Orabi, this uprising drew the support of both the liberal middle-class and the struggling peasantry, and towards its end, Orabi was in complete control of the military, and some argue, the country as a whole.

This struggle against foreign influences and the unjust social reality is believed by many scholars to have marked the beginning of the construction of modern Egyptianism as a cultural and intellectual movement. For a long time prior, Egypt was defined as a state within larger empires and its identity had revolved around its ruling dynasty. For the first time in modern history, Egypt started having a personality independent of its rulers. The Orabi movement led to dramatic changes and promoted ideals which still define Egyptian identity today.

But what defined the first version of Egypt’s modern nationalism? As Cole argues, revolutions against informal empires typically appeal to native symbols, and the most obvious one in the case of the Orabi movement was local religion: Islam. This is why another Western historian Alexander Schölch claimed that the Orabi revolt was not a French secular type of revolution.

It is true that Orabi did not revolt against the religious establishment like the French revolution did, but this could be because the struggle was against a foreign nobility not a local one, as was the case in France. Although Orabi’s Islamic tendencies were unmistakeable and his role in Islamic education in his exile in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) is evidence of that, the focus of his discourse was social justice and freedom, and his dichotomy was Egyptians versus foreigners, not Muslims versus Jews or Chrisitians. This is apparent in one of the revolution’s slogans “Egypt for the Egyptians”, which drove people like Ishaq, a Syrian Christian, to abandon the revolution after initially supporting it.

The Orabi movement was so successful that the Khedeivite regime seemed to be on the verge of collapse when Tawfiq escaped to Alexandria and the popularity and power of Orabi was on the rise. However, this all changed when British forces conquered Alexandria to thwart Orabi’s revolutionary project and save Tawfiq Pasha. The British military invasion of 1882 succeeded in defeating the Orabi forces in the famous Elkebir hill battle.

The occupation resulted in Orabi’s exile to Ceylon and the restoration of Khedive Tawfiq as the ruler of Egypt, but, as Egyptian nationalism was largely based on the struggle for independence, the British presence did nothing but boost it.

This is the first 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 II will focus on the role of the media in moulding pan-Arab nationalism and Nasserism.

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The Mubarak regime’s legalised robbery

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By Osama Diab

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

Monday 17 September 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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