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 https://twitter.com/DiabolicalIdea

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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Egypt’s Nubians: damned by the dam

 
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By Khaled Diab

Half a century after the inundation, Nubians may finally gain recognition and redress for the loss of their homeland.

Monday 23 April 2012

Lower Nubia is modern Egypt’s very own lost Atlantis. This ancient land today lies mostly under the waters of Lake Nasser, a massive reservoir created by the Aswan High Dam.

Now, half a century after the inundation, Egyptian Nubians are finally being offered the prospect of decent compensation for the loss of their homeland in the 1960s. Following years of concerted campaigning by Nubian campaigners, and their active role in the revolution, Fayza Abul Naga, the minister for planning and international co-operation, announced that Nubians would soon be compensated with new farmland and villages.

Ever since Egypt’s controversial decision, taken soon after the 1952 revolution, to construct the High Dam, questions have persisted as to why Cairo was so cavalier with both the Nubian people and the priceless archaeology in which the region abounded.

Defenders and apologists insist that Nubia had to be dammed so that Egypt, one of the driest places on the planet and almost wholly dependent on the Nile for its water, would not be damned.

And despite its severe environmental impacts, which were foreseen long before its construction, the dam saved Egypt, in the 1980s, from the severe drought upstream in Ethiopia, where most of Egypt’s water originates. It has also played a major role in the modernisation, electrification and industrialisation of the country.

It has also been suggested that racism played a role too. However, I am not convinced that racial discrimination was a conscious factor in the decision to flood Nubia. As far as I understand it, the Nile had only one cataract in Egypt and this happened to lie near the ancestral lands of the Nubians.

Then, there is the question of regionalism and class. Egypt has long been run centrally from Cairo and the urban centres of the north, while the south, in general, has had little say in its own or the country’s future. That would explain why Upper Egyptian peasants were also uprooted by the dam. The sacredness of “national unity” has also played a role, with Nubia’s distinct culture and language often seen as a threat by the Cairo elites.

In addition, as elsewhere in the developing world at the time, development and modernity were a far more pressing imperative in the minds of Egypt’s central planners of the time than cultural preservation and tradition. That helps explain why the Egyptian government had not given much thought to the preservation of the unique archaeological heritage of the region, home to the ‘Black Pharaohs‘, until an international furor erupted.

The international community managed, under the auspices of UNESCO, to pull off perhaps the largest and most impressive archaeological rescue operation in human history which rehoused Nubia’s most significant monuments, such as the temple of Abu Simbel.

The Nubians themselves were not as fortunate, and no massive international aid was forthcoming to help them relocate. Some 50,000 Egyptian Nubians were forced to move from 45 villages and relocated to Aswan, which has become a Little Nubia renowned for its hospitality and the warmth of its people, and to the ill-thought out  New Nubia, near Kom Ombo.

Though New Nubia was supposed to mirror old Nubia, preserving its culture while introducing modern utilities, it was in reality a charmless development of small concrete housing which, unlike the lush Nubia they left behind, lay in the desert.

Dissatisfied with their new homes, a large proportion the inhabitants of New Nubia migrated to other parts of Egypt, though many dreamed of returning as near as possible to their ancestral homeland.

The reality of discrimination is reflected in the marginalisation that Nubians still endure. For instance, a disproportionate number of Nubians are employed in menial work, such as bawabs (janitors). In fact, in some parts of downtown Cairo, a cluster of poor Nubian communities exist on the rooftops.

Despite that, a few Nubians have made it to the very top of Egyptian society. Culturally, the Nubian singer Ahmed Mounib was the first to introduce mainstream Egypt to the mellow sounds of Nubia. His protege, Mohamed Mounir – himself a refugee from the Aswan dam – has managed not only to put Nubian music on the map, with his funky fusion of traditional Nubian with jazzy western sounds, but was also one of the very few mainstream artists to sing socially conscious lyrics before the revolution.

Interestingly, in spite of their general underrepresentation, Nubians have fared markedly better in the highest echelons of Egyptian political life, perhaps due to the fact that the army has been one of the few routes open for the advancement of the marginalised.

The country’s third president Anwar Sadat, although he grew up in the north of Egypt, was the son of Nubian parents, while the country’s current de facto leader, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, is also of Nubian origin.

In recent years, attitudes towards Nubians have been changing, and there is a growing recognition that the Nubian people were wronged. This process has gathered pace since the revolution erupted, and one can only hope that Nubians will be allowed to resettle in what’s left of their homeland and be treated as full equals elsewhere in the country.

 

This article first appeared in The Guardian‘s Comment is Free on 21 April 2012.

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Egypt needs fundamental, not fundamentalist rights

 
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By Osama Diab

 Egypt’s new constitution should focus on democracy, equality and human rights, not religious identity or military budgets.

Sunday 1 April 2012

“We don’t need a constitution or legislation. Egypt needs love, devotion and conscience,” says this Dervish-like protester. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

When millions of Egyptians took to the streets last year and chanted “the people want to bring down the regime,” they were clear about what they wanted the regime to do, but not about the kind of system they would like to replace it with. Since Hosni Mubarak’s downfall in February last year, debate over the country’s identity has been fierce amid a power vacuum characterised by no clear plan or time frame for a peaceful transition of power and to democracy.

The intensity of the dispute peaked this week following the appointment of the 100-member constitution-writing committee by the parliament – composed mostly of Islamists. The interim constitutional declaration grants the parliament the power to “elect a provisional assembly composed of 100 members which will prepare a new draft constitution”.

Exercising this right, the Islamist-dominated parliament allocated about two-thirds of the 100 seats to figures from an Islamist background. The committee, of which 50% are members of the parliament, met for the first time this week to plan their task – an expectedly difficult one with three powerful ideological and political groups having conflicting interests in the writing of the constitution.

Egypt’s military rulers, the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF), are looking to maintain and entrench their privileged position in the new constitution. SCAF wants to be independent of any elected body’s supervision and key to this would be no parliamentary oversight over its finances. A list of SCAF-sponsored supraconstitutional principles, issued by the deputy prime minister Ali al-Selmy last autumn, was rejected by liberals, Islamists and leftists amid concerns of constitutionally establishing a deep military state. Article 9 of the document explicitly states that SCAF is solely responsible for all matters concerning the armed forces. It also grants the military the right to approve all legislation pertaining to its affairs including its budget.

The second player is the Islamist parliamentary bloc, who argue that they are currently the only elected representative authority in the country and that their choice would be the most reflective of the people’s choice; not to mention that they have the constitutional power to elect and appoint a constitution-writing committee.

An Islamist-designed constitution raises concerns from the third group – minorities and non-religious political forces, including different shades of leftwing and liberal politics, that would like the constitution to secure social, political and personal freedoms and equality rather than emphasise Egypt’s religious identity and discuss the military budget. Their argument is that a “temporary” parliamentary majority, that will be gone in four years, should not have a monopoly right over drafting a “permanent” constitution that will govern Egypt for generations to come.

Despite possessing only minimal representation in parliament, the political left still exercise some degree of influence by dominating civil society, especially human rights organisations, while the liberals maintain control of the media and much of the economy.

There are also fears that a potential showdown between the military and the Brotherhood could have a devastating effect on the country’s transition to democracy in a repeat of the 1954 scenario when the Brotherhood clashed with the then military rulers over writing the constitution and the sharing of power, especially after a public exchange of aggressive statements a few days ago over the Brotherhood’s demands for the dissolution of the military-appointed government.

The constitution, however, is not the right place to debate these matters. The constitution’s role should be to tackle fundamental issues such as personal freedoms, equality before the law, citizenship and democracy. On top of this, it should organise the relationship between the executive, legislative and judicial powers while setting the stage for all the political powers to compete equally and freely. Issues that are fluid and prone to change, such as the military budget and religious identity, should not be entrenched in the document.

Risking even further Islamist domination, the strife and disappointment have caused many non-Islamist members to withdraw from the committee as a gesture of protest against the under-representation of many groups.

Ziad Bahaa al-Din, a lawyer and parliamentarian who withdrew from the committee, wrote in an article for al-Shorouk newspaper that was translated into English by the Arabist blog saying that “all of Egypt – including all its legal, constitutional and academic experts, labour leaders, NGOs, judges, intellectuals, and writers, men and women, Muslims and Christians, people young and old – […] will be represented in the Constituent Assembly by 50 people, while the MPs alone have reserved the remaining half for themselves.”

The Brotherhood and other Islamist groups should realise that in drafting a constitution, parliamentary representation should be irrelevant, not just because it is temporary, but also because bigger religious or political groups should not be able to grant themselves greater rights. Democracy, equality and human rights should be the backbone of the new constitution; the role of the constitution in a democracy should be to limit, not increase, power of the majority over the minority.

This article was published in The Guardian‘s Comment is Free on 31 March 2012.

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