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.

Follow Osama Diab on Twitter

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

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By Josephine Littlejohn

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

Friday 31 August 2012

Dr Dardery in “Western” clothes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

1. Egypt without the hype… and away from Cairo

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

3. Minority voices in Upper Egypt

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Egypt without the hype… and away from Cairo

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By Josephine Littlejohn

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

Wednesday 15 August 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

1. Egypt without the hype… and away from Cairo

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

3. Minority voices in Upper Egypt

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The liberation of exile

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By Khaled Diab

My father’s secret police file reveals that my newly wed parents were right to flee Egypt. But I’m grateful for the liberation of “exile”.

Tuesday 10 July 2012

‘This is your life’ was a British TV show in which special guests were taken by surprise on a trip down memory lane with the aid of a ‘big red book’ of their lives.

Though this format never made it to Egypt, the secret police, diligent to a fault when it comes to documenting the achievements of Egyptians, ran for decades its own Orwellian biographical service, accumulating clandestine archives on the “enemies” of the state.

That such documents existed would surprise only the most naïve Egyptians, as most dissidents, opposition politicians, political activists and critical writers and journalists have long suspected there was a binder with their name on it lying in some dusty state security archive or dungeon. On occasion, I have been curious whether I, or other outspoken members of my family and circle of friends, had an unofficial state biographer and what information my unauthorised biography contained. Who knows, perhaps I am privileged enough to have multiple biographers, including an Israeli one chronicling my sojourn here.

The idea that anyone would ever be able to lay hands on their file once seemed like a distant fantasy. But in the mayhem and chaos that followed the collapse of the Mubarak regime, revolutionaries were able to enter a number of state security fortresses – which some likened to the storming of the Bastille – and get their hands on numerous files before they could be destroyed by panicked agents.

It turns out that state security’s prolific biographers had profiled my own father. A dissident for the greater part of his life now, he entered one of those ransacked “temples of torture” and a revolutionary who recognised him handed him 25 partially scorched pages from his police file. The fragments of my father’s unauthorised biography, while containing a smattering of facts, were mainly a work of creative fiction. In addition to detailed information about his family in Egypt, the file contained a number of far-fetched claims – foremost among them was that he had once led a militia in South Lebanon.

“I never even learnt how to shoot a gun,” my father, whose poor eyesight had got him out of military service, told the BBC, his tone reflecting his utter disbelief. The mere suggestion that my bespectacled, somewhat corpulent old man – who has come no nearer to commanding columns than those found on a newspaper page – was some kind of Arab Che Guevara or was capable of wielding anything more threatening than a pen is truly amusing.

My father regards the very existence of his state security file as a sign of the state’s profound insecurity and weakness. He also believes that the tall tales it contains were not the fevered workings of a paranoid mind, but were a carefully crafted attempt to fit him up in the event that they ever got their hands on him. “They were preparing something to get rid of me. There was a plan to do something,” he speculated.

If he is right, then my parents’ decision to flee Egypt was a wise one and saved us all the grief of political imprisonment, a show trial, or perhaps worse.

But what my father’s file doesn’t contain is the human consequences of dissent and exile, and the profound role it has played in shaping an entire family.

When my father learnt that he was being watched, my parents decided to get married in a hurry and the nearest they got to a honeymoon was to flee to Libya, which was relatively open and booming in the early 1970s, before Gadaffi had gone completely mad.

I was born in Tripoli (as was one of my brothers) and, though I remember almost nothing consciously of our sojourn there, my birthplace has cast a shadow over my life. For example, exhibiting a comparable level of paranoia to the Egyptian regime, American Homeland Insecurity has quizzed me as to whether my toddler self ever served in the Libyan armed forces, which would give a whole new meaning to infantry.

From Libya, my parents decided to move on to the UK, at a time when it was still relatively easy to immigrate because my folks were against the idea of seeking political asylum. But my mother returned to Egypt to give birth to my sister (the only sibling born in Egypt) among her family while my father sorted out a place for us to live. What was supposed to be a short visit morphed into a three-year enforced stay as the Egyptian regime effectively held us hostage in a bid to lure my father back.

My courageous and versatile mother, who was juggling the demands of caring for three children and holding down a job, took the government to court and the judge always ruled in her favour, yet each time we went to the airport, we found our name on the notorious “banned from travel” list. Actually, I should point out here that, though my father is the official dissident of the family, my mother is the real rebel, willing to go against social convention to stay true to her convictions. In addition, she is the founding mother of our democratic household.

Eventually, the court was able to impose its will and we finally made it out of the country, only to embark on a long tour of the Middle East trying to find a country which wasn’t pissed off with my father where we could meet and finish the paperwork to move to Britain.

For the next decade or so, we lived in London and were unable to visit family in Egypt. During that time, my mother lost her mother and one of her sisters, losses made the more painful by distance. The memories I have of my favourite grandmother are shrouded in mist: I recall her lovingly tending her birds, kissing the food into their beaks, in her intriguing rooftop pigeon coop, and the frenzied activity she coordinated on the eve of Eid to produce delicious homemade sweets.

In a way, our return to Egypt did not end my sense of “exile”. Although I felt a strong bond of belonging at a certain level, some aspects of life there remained foreign to me and quite a few compatriots viewed me as an honorary foreigner. In addition, my years abroad had bred in me a certain wanderlust and I eventually departed the banks of the Nile once again.

Despite the challenges of distance, I do not share the sentiments of many Egyptian and Arab political and economic migrants who lament their estrangement and long passionately to return. But, unlike for some, such as Palestinians and Arab Jews, my “exile” is an entirely voluntary one and, hence, different.

The unusual circumstances surrounding the formative years of my life have played a part in shaping my personality and identity, and gave me an early object lesson in the importance of being your own person and thinking your own thoughts.

Despite the occasional conflicts between them, I am thrilled by my multiple identities (at once Egyptian, Arab, British, Belgian, European and, above all, human). Each has its own distinct voice in my head, reminding me that the world is a complex place that can be viewed from so many different perspectives. Learning other languages can also help you savour the various accents of life with different tongues.

Being one half of an international couple has been a hugely mind-expanding experience, involving, as it has, tripping round the world with my wife. Our toddler son’s multicultural background is already showing signs of instilling in him a sense of adventure: he is currently missing travelling and has been loudly demanding to go on a plane, switching languages to make his point absolutely clear.

I sometimes wonder what my life would have been like had I spent its entirety in Egypt and I usually conclude that it would have been much the duller. I am profoundly grateful for the kaleidoscope of experiences the accident of my birth has opened up to me. Though I feel quite out of place everywhere, I can also make myself at home just about anywhere.


You can follow Khaled Diab on Twitter at

This column first appeared in The Jerusalem Post on 9 July 2012.

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Egyptian presidential election: A young radical’s voting dilemma

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By Karim Medhat Ennarah

Should a young radical seize his last chance to vote for a president or is the true struggle for radical change in Egypt on the streets?

Thursday 24 May 2012

There are two reasons I didn’t vote yesterday. One is that polling extends  over two days and I’m a natural procrastinator. The second is that I’m not sure if I will vote or not and I have put off this decision until the last minute. I do not have any particular moral qualms about voting in an election that many perceive is undermined by the very fact that it is being held under the administration and oversight of the unelected Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) – electoral mechanisms within established constitutional democracies are, for me, already a significant moral compromise.

A perfect electoral process is not the perfect culmination of revolution anyway and it is definitely not the best example of self-governance. Since I do not really believe in it, my participation is not contingent on whether it is perfect or compromised. I have voted  before, the first time was in the parliamentary elections in  2010, although back then it was a completely different farce. I considered my ballot an act of petty resistance, for some reason, and voted to make the task of rigging slightly more annoying. I knew my vote wouldn’t count anyway (it didn’t at all, the ruling NDP decided to go for blatant rather than moderate rigging). Back then things were also  pretty black and white, and there were limited channels for political expression.

Now the situation has been reversed, and the only way the regime can save itself is through democratic politics. Voting is not just symbolic anymore. It can actually mean something, and what the military junta wants it to mean is the establishment of the rule of legitimate political institutions which would in turn — or so they think — bring an end to the incredibly fluid and chaotic political landscape that has existed over the past 18months.

This is what concerns me more than the possibility of rigging. Although there is more than one way for the ruling military junta and the state bureaucratic machine — which sometimes seems like it has taken on a life of its own and is making its own decisions — to interfere with the voting process, the chance that such interference will alter the results of the elections significantly or even marginally is, in my point of view, doubtful. Sure, some dead people will still cast their ballots, and some government institutions will forcibly mobilise their workers to vote for specific candidates, but the possibility of rigging will at best be a secondary factor in determining the outcome.

The election process is tightly controlled and widely observed, participation is relatively high, and generally speaking I do not buy into the myth that the military is actually fully in control of everything, or that the outcome whatever it may be will perfectly suit them. Despite the impression one might get from the images of the army’s armoured personnel carriers running protesters over in the heart of the city, this is a much weaker police state than it used to be, and significantly more disorganised and dysfunctional. The transitional period has been characterised by sheer survivalist brutality. The parliament might pass a law (it just did, in the preliminary voting round) which increases penalties against property crime — but people will still commit these crimes on a daily basis. The crime, in this case, being re-appropriating land that is owned by the state and is not being used or has been allocated to private sector investment projects.

The state is trying to restore its ability to look fearsome, in a desperate attempt to stop the rapid erosion of its authority. SCAF and its cronies still obviously control most of the country’s economy, but their methods of enforcing their control on the streets are becoming less and less effective every day.

This corrosion in their effectiveness and authority has led the laws and their enforcing agencies to become more brutal, diminishing their legitimacy further. A democratically elected president and parliament that are still controllable to some extent is thus the regime’s last ditch effort to restore some sort of respect to the state apparatus.

I also voted in the 2011 parliamentary elections, but then I did have moral qualms, and I was extremely emotional. We had just emerged from a week of violent confrontations with the army and the police, that forced the army to reconsider its plan for a slow transition stretched over three years that keeps everything intact. One particular image, of the body of one of our martyrs being dragged by a soldier and then dumped into an impromptu garbage dump on the corner of Tahrir Street shortly after it was temporarily taken over by the military, was still fresh in my mind (and I look at it every once in a while to keep the memory fresh). I thought it would be very cynical to vote in a supposedly democratic election just a few days after this incident, and that maybe it was time to turn the tables and accept nothing of this faux political transition. Ultimately, I controlled my rage and decided at the last minute — to be precise five minutes before polling stations were about to close — to vote anyway. I have partly regretted my decision.

I will never get over this issue, that inner struggle between voting and not voting. I don’t call it boycotting because my problem is a fundamental problem with electoral politics and with social democracy. My problem is that I do actually believe that Egypt needs conflict at the moment, and that a conservative democracy — at best some distorted, rhetorical version of a social democracy, if one can be so ambitious — is just a way of harmonising a conflict of interest that is very real.

Different shades of conservative, representative democracy are still able to sustain their dominance, despite several historical blows. And the question of whether to tactically take part in it or whether, by doing so, we’re missing out on other opportunities of fundamentally changing the system (not to speak about overthrowing it), of making it more radical and more participatory and more just — is a question we will never be able to answer. But what I do know, at the very least, is that a complete overhaul of the social and economic order in Egypt is not something any of the different political forces are interested in achieving.

It suddenly became clear to me, after the revolution took off, that Egyptian apathy towards electoral politics does not stem from ignorance or passiveness. It is actually an active political stance because none of the political alternatives will deliver the needed structural change. There is no immediate solution to this conundrum.

We will go through this transition anyway, whether we like it or not. The radicalisation of politics at the grassroots level is also happening anyway, whether politicians like it or not, and it will not be curtailed by whatever is taking place in the upper echelons of politics. The state will be able to exercise varying degrees of control on the political centre. It will deploy the army in heavy numbers in the port cities, industrial towns and in the countryside to crack down on the exploding number of labour strikes, blockaded streets and railways and government buildings coming under assault, the semi-daily affair of confrontations between local communities and the police over land issues or fuel shortages.

This is where the politics of livelihood dominates and where the state is becoming the weakest player. This is a victory that is hard won and that is much more promising than the establishment of a liberal Western-style democracy with all its inherent limitations. Our active participation in top-level politics level may make it more conducive to this state of fragmented, localised revolution, or it may not. I cannot tell.

If I take part in this electoral battle, it will be with a completely different objective than electing a candidate who represents me. This electoral contest is actually an attempt to reset politics in Egypt (bringing it to a “normal condition”, if I may borrow from computing terminology). We don’t actually have a real political landscape — left-wing and right-wing politics in Egypt today are nothing more than masturbatory exercises in newspapers and academic journals. We are still bogged down in the Islamists versus secularists politics (or rather, non-Islamists, to be precise), and in a very superficial manner — there is very little debate about actual rights.

My fluctuating interest in this electoral contest stems from the fact that it may have the ability to establish a system where issues of social and economic justice, of rights and services, may become a subject of interest to politicians. For that reason, I may vote for someone who has a chance of winning, a rather pragmatic choice, and who is likely to move us past the religious versus non-religious dichotomy. I do not expect him to deliver — I expect him to be busy fighting battles over executive power on several fronts, and I genuinely believe that the current elections will not change anything on the ground. But at least bringing such discussions into the realm of institutional politics can play a complementary role to the battle for rights which continues to be fought by the grassroots. The government will continue to be my arch-enemy, but an enemy with different ambitions from the previous enemy and whom I can engage in a different manner.

I believe that, regionally and globally, we’re living through one of those moments in history where the possibility of radical, revolutionary change — for something so much more than just changing governments and shuffling politicians — is high, and I also believe it’s going to be a long and drawn-out struggle.

For me, the burning question is: can I take part in an electoral process that, deep inside, I have little respect for and that supports state institutions that I will be working hard to cut down to size? Can I both participate in the process and oppose its outcome? Or are they inevitably contradictory courses?

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High time for a fly-in to Syria

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By Yovav Kalifon

Though risky, a civilian fly-in to Syria will send out a clear message that the world cannot stand idly by while ordinary people are slaughtered.

Friday 18 May 2012

I’ve been thinking a lot about Syria.

What started as an ‘Arab Spring’ wave of demonstrations in early 2011 has developed into a bloody civil war, with 10,000 civilians dead in over a year of fighting. We keep receiving video footage and eye-witness accounts from Syria portraying widespread atrocities, such as massacres, torture, rape, burying people alive, maiming adults and children, just to name a few.

Syrian hopes and calls for reform have turned into barbaric chaos, misery and death.

I won’t try to play the political analyst and tell you who is fighting whom and for what aim. For what I am about to suggest, it is not even necessary for us to agree on who’s the good guy and who is the bad guy in this story. Even if you subscribe to the theory that foreign agents are at play in Syria and that it’s not a real rebellion, you should keep reading. All we need to agree on at this point is that the situation in Syria is bad, that it is out of control, and that civilians are caught in the middle of it.

The other thing I hope you’ll agree with me on is that the situation in Syria has gone on for long enough. The UN, the Arab League, and Turkey in particular, have tried to exercise their influence over Syria, but to no avail. UN observers are having a hard time getting into the country and reaching the necessary places. Humanitarian aid is concentrated mostly outside the borders of Syria, where refugees find help only after they have already lost everything.

With the situation as complex as it is, there is no obvious solution that will satisfy all sides of the conflict. Still, the sounds and images coming out of Syria leave no room for doubt – there is an ongoing slaughter which must be stopped, and our governments are not up to the challenge.

Seeing how all other attempts end in failure, I would like to suggest a civilian, multinational, self-organised fly-in to Syria:

What does a fly-in mean exactly?

The idea is for groups and individuals to make plans to travel to Syria, by land, sea or by air, and arrive there within a set time frame. The aim is to make it clear that the international community is not merely monitoring the horrors from far away, but actually mobilising itself to arrive on Syrian soil, out of genuine sympathy and concern.

A fly-in by whom?

The people who will travel to Syria will mostly be ordinary civilians, people like me and you, as well as private groups and relevant NGOs. As unofficial representatives of the international community, it will be easier for us as volunteers to cross into Syria and to move around. So far, official governmental workers who are required to coordinate their actions with the Syrian authorities were not able to move around effectively enough, for the reason of being official representatives, bound by rules and regulations.

Why a fly-in and not something else?

Our governments and their organisations have had over a year, and there is no obvious sign of them having much influence over the events. Signing online petitions is a nice gesture, but Syria is so deep in blood that they probably don’t notice and care even less. Sending more field hospitals and humanitarian aid to help fleeing refugees is important, but tte ongoing slaughter is creating more refugees.

We all remember what usually happens when our governments intervene militarily in remote conflicts, such as what happened in Libya, for example. I believe most people will prefer not to resort to military means yet again, not in Syria, and not anywhere else. There is reason to give internal disputes a chance to resolve themselves, and when they don’t, there is reason to think of non-violent means of intervention, and to give them a chance to work.

The only non-violent intervention I can think of that will deliver humanitarian aid into Syria proper, inject hundreds of (unofficial) observers and reporters, and breathe hope into a desperate situation, is to stage an international civilian fly-in and cross-in directed at Syria.

What will volunteers do there?

Once in Syria, volunteers should make their presence clearly felt. This will send an important signal, one which will ripple in two opposite directions:

First, the signal to Syria will be that it’s unacceptable, in the 21st century, to slaughter civilians, when we can all see them calling out to us from Youtube, Twitter, FaceBook, etc.

Second, the signal to all the world’s nations will be that it’s unacceptable, in the 21st century, to stand idly by while civilians are being slaughtered, when we can all see them calling out to us from Youtube, Twitter, FaceBook, etc.

The most practical thing volunteers should do in Syria is exactly the work of UN observers, reporters, and humanitarian aid workers. As much as circumstances allow it, volunteers should shed light on the situation, deliver humanitarian aid as best they can, and call on others to join them.

For that to happen, volunteers should equip themselves with cameras, laptops, cellphones, medical aid and equipment. They will function as humanity’s eyes, ears, mouth and conscience.

Hopefully, as more trained individuals and specialised NGOs join the initiative, experts will get involved, specific guidance will be circulated, equipment will be obtained, funds will be raised, logistical support will grow, and the effect will be much greater. Some of the organisations I’d like to see getting behind this initiative are Doctors Without Borders, the Red Cross, Amnesty International.

What will be the effect?

Already in the preparation phases, as more and more people apply for visas to Syria and contact their consulates, their respective governments will notice the rising interest in Syria, and may start to wonder. This alone might lead some countries to rethink their attitude towards the crisis in Syria, and its affect on them.

Assuming the situation continues as it does and the fly-in gets under way, one can expect Syria and other states to interfere with the plan. The Syrian authorities are likely to arrest people whom they suspect to be activists, and then deport them. That is fine since it still gets the job done; it occupies the authorities, it mounts diplomatic pressure on Syria and the international community, it raises global awareness in general, and it sends a message of hope and solidarity to the embattled Syrians. Giving Syrian authorities something of this sort to worry about might lead them to lower the levels of hostilities from their side. Having our governments prevent us from travelling to Syria will similarly compel them to act more responsibly and decisively, knowing full-well their public is greatly concerned about what is happening to Syrians.

Assuming the fly-in eventually gets off the ground and volunteers spread throughout Syria, the presence of international civilians on Syrian soil should have a pacifying effect on all fighting sides. Realising they are being watched in person and in real-time, fighters will adjust their tactics and become less openly brutal. By the same token, and as a later consequence, conflicts in other parts of the world will be affected by the precedent set in Syria of an international civilian fly-in to calm a civil war down.

Of course, a civilian fly-in will only be the beginning of change. It will affect the way the crisis is perceived and addressed, leading to change in how it develops. As the situation calms down gradually, official, trained workers will be able to follow suit and deliver much needed professional aid to Syrian civilians.

But is it safe?

Absolutely not. Syria is not safe, not for you, not for me, not even for Syrians. If it were, I wouldn’t be talking about a fly-in. Drastic times call for drastic measures. When no-one is willing to take risks for what is right, people should expect to see more wrong. This initiative is not for amateurs, thrill seekers or anarchists. It is a serious matter of global concern, a matter of life or death, right and wrong. The fly-in requires commitment, audacity, hard work, confidence, and perseverance. Responsible people should think hard before committing themselves to it, accept responsibility for themselves, and take their stand. The riskiness can be reduced if professionals with experience in conflict zones got involved and organised support and training for inexperienced civilians, that ‘fly-in’ activists who make it to Syria arrive in large groups and ensure that they always have a connection with the outside world.

Why Syria?

It is true that civilians the world over are facing hardships. They too could use our attention and our immediate support. But we don’t have to deal with one single conflict at a time. That would take us forever. Devoting too much global attention to one conflict only will allow other conflicts to flare up and spin out of control, all the while remaining out of sight. Media consumers should insist on having access to a balanced coverage of various issues.

Personally, I feel Syria deserves a lot of media attention right now; resulting in more immediate action. This crisis is still relatively fresh, and should be treated before it becomes the normal situation in Syria. In the Middle East, disputes like the one we see in Syria can easily spill over to engulf other groups and states. They can develop into something much bigger that lasts much longer.

Setting a memorable precedent in Syria, such as conducting a massive fly-in, will have a positive effect on other countries in the region, and far beyond. A demonstration of that sort will advance human rights in an area where it is clearly needed. The Arab Spring happened for a reason, and as the results remain undecided in Syria, a fly-in seems necessary to get the process back on track.


Note: The Chronikler advises any civilians interested in taking part in such a fly-in to consider the risks involved carefully and to seek professional advice.

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The battle for the soul of the Arab man

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By Khaled Diab

The polarised debate over Arab women overlooks the fact that men can be victims of the patriarchy too and their identity is a cultural battlefield.

Friday 18 May 2012

‘Why do they hate us?’ was the controversial question posed by the Egyptian-American columnist Mona Eltahaway in the hotly debated May/June issue of Foreign Policy magazine. “Until the rage shifts from the oppressors in our presidential palaces to the oppressors on our streets and in our homes, our revolution has not even begun,” writes Eltahaway. “Name me an Arab country, and I’ll recite a litany of abuses fuelled by a toxic mix of culture and religion.”

Although Eltahawy’s essay is, sadly for Arab women, factually accurate and I agree with almost everything she says, I find myself differing with her about what she omits to say.

To borrow her own words, Eltahaway’s essay, despite the substantial space available to her, does not move beyond reciting a long “litany of abuses” without making any attempt to depict the complexity of the situation and highlight the grey areas. Largely missing from her analysis are the diverse shades of opinion and attitudes across the Arab world, and the very real gains made by Arab women in many countries, especially in the professional and educational spheres.

As a long-time admirer of Eltahawy’s journalism and activism, I find it hard to fathom why liberal, empowered Arab women who have challenged discrimination in every walk of life hardly feature in her article, though she does mention some who have resisted the abuse of “virginity tests” and forced marriage, or defied the Saudi ban on female driving.

Her loaded ‘why do they hate us’ question also turns a blind eye to a highly inconvenient reality for advocates of gender equality like myself: many Arab men and women do not regard traditional gender attitudes to be a sign of hatred, but rather of love and respect. In an interesting turning of the tables, conservative Arabs are reciprocating the Western interest in the subordinate position of Arab and Muslim women by setting up think tanks to examine the “oppressed” status of the Western woman.

Weird, you say? Yes, until you consider that many conservatives in the West hold similar views of their societies, as reflected by the recent so-called “war on sex” launched by many of the candidates in the Republican primaries. And I’m sure many Haredim women in Israel do not regard a “dignified” dress code or the erasure of women’s faces from billboards or de facto gender segregation on some buses, with women forced to sit in the back, as signs of their inferiority.

In fact, you could say that one major factor behind the patriarchal orders durability and longevity, which survives to some degree even in the more egalitarian West, is its ability to co-opt and condition certain women into accepting and even embracing the status quo and linking the status of some women to the oppression of others.

This brings me to another breed of Arab men completely absent from Eltahawy’s essay: those who believe in women’s rights and have stood shoulder to shoulder with women in their quest for (greater) equality. In fact, perhaps the first advocate for greater rights for women in Egypt was Qasim Amin who echoed Eltahawy more than a century ago in his The Liberation of Women (1899). “Throughout the generations our women have continued to be subordinate to the rule of the strong and are overcome by the powerful tyranny of men,” he wrote. “The inferior position of Muslim women is the greatest obstacle that prevents us from advancing toward what is beneficial for us.”

It would also seem that just as women have become a political football in the culture war between a hegemonic West and a defensive Arab world, it is my view that men have too. Western discourse, especially in conservative circles, tends to focus on the Arab man as a woman-hater or terrorist, ignoring the liberal breed of Arab men I mentioned above. Meanwhile, in a supposed bid to defend their culture against the onslaught of modernity, as well as to protect the patriarchal privileges they enjoy, conservative Arab elites talk up traditional gender roles and mock and demonise men who deviate from them either as weaklings or Western stooges.

Moreover, one factor behind the enduring presence of patriarchy in the Arab world is what the academic Deniz Kandiyoti called the “patriarchal bargain” in which the Ottomans, British and French bought the submission of men by offering them absolute power over women. Arab dictators like Mubarak have played similar tricks. As one Egyptian feminist put it to me: “If you can’t control your income, the fate of your family or the politics of your country, then you will try to control what you can, that is the private sphere.”

In addition, though women are the traditional patriarchy’s greatest victims, many men suffer too. After all, the patriarchal order is in place primarily to serve the interests of the top dogs, the alpha males, with the beta and gamma males often oppressed severely, as the beatings and rapes of young male protesters in Egypt clearly illustrate.

Traditional concepts of manhood can also hurt those men unwilling or unable to live by them. The gap between the regular Arab man, the “average Mo”, and the Arab myth of manhood is bound to breed feelings of inadequacy, because, in societies – where many women have become men’s equal and even surpassed them in schools, universities and the workplace – the chasm between fantasy and reality is a yawning one.

Moreover, it can leave impressionable men who hold no grudge against women and have no objections to living in equality with them unwilling to do so publicly to avoid mockery from their peers and superiors. As long as conservative circles continue successfully to equate female emancipation with male emaciation, capitulation to foreign powers and the loss of cultural authenticity, the quest for gender equality will stall.

What we need are mainstream, “average Mo” role models who demonstrate that believing in gender equality squares with being a man, and that empowering women also empowers men and society as a whole. And this is one lesson that the revolutionary youth in Egypt and Tunisia who have inspired the Arab world can teach over time.

This article first appeared in The Jerusalem Post on 15 May 2012.

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