The Mubarak enigma

 
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By Khaled Diab

The removal of Hosni Mubarak was likely the proudest moment in Egypt’s recent history, yet, five years on, some Egyptians miss the deposed dictator.

Mubarak_Sadat

Tuesday 16 February 2016

It was one of those paradoxes of revolution. Hosni Mubarak’s most hotly anticipated speech was to prove to be his last.

Never much of an orator, whenever a Baba Mubarak speech was on TV, Egyptians tended to switch off. Even when the former dictator had a captive audience, they too would switch off – behind glazed eyes or patient, polite nods.

But on 10 February 2011, millions of Egyptians – on Tahrir Square, in public spaces across the country and abroad – waited with baited breath to hear whether their self-appointed leader would fall on his proverbial sword.

When he finally appeared Mubarak defied the military’s hints and disappointed the fevered speculations. Claiming that he “never sought power or fake popularity”, Mubarak insisted that it was his duty to “take Egypt and its people to a safe harbour”.

Sharing the disappointment of the jeering crowds on Tahrir, I penned a futile open letter in which I accused Mubarak of possessing the “extraordinary knack for snatching mediocrity from the jaws of greatness”.

The next day, 11 February 2011, the once unimaginable, even unthinkable, happened. Reflecting the mundanity of many historic moments, the hastily appointed vice-president, Omar Suleiman, sounding like a bored civil servant, announced Mubarak’s resignation in a short, lacklustre statement.

Egyptians partied on the streets as though Egypt had not only qualified for but also won the World Cup. And in a way it had. Against all the odds, Egyptians from all walks of life, led by their youth, had toppled the despot – whom most feared would leave office in a coffin and anoint his son to succeed him – and brought his repressive police state to its knees.

Although it was the evening twilight, it was as if a blinding new dawn had just broken.

Even though I was far away in Europe, those mesmerising 18 days were the proudest moments of my life as an Egyptian, despite my aversion to nationalism and my misgivings about how, after making Mubarak walk the plank, the army had taken over the reins of power directly.

I felt a burning pride for those millions of courageous, everyday heroes, those masses relegated to the footnotes of history, and how they had smashed their way through the margins, armed only with their willpower, to write – for better or for worse – a new chapter in Egypt’s history.

“History will judge me and others for our merits and faults,” Mubarak insisted defiantly in one of his final speeches.

And how should history judge him?

During the uprising, Mubarak reverted repeatedly to the chestnut he had been parroting for years, that the choice for Egypt was between the “chaos” of Islamism and the “stability” he supposedly safeguarded. At his trial, he returned to the theme when he blamed Egypt’s subsequent turmoil on “merchants of religion and their local and foreign allies”.

And for a surprising number of people, the mayhem and turbulence of the past five years vindicate Mubarak. A recent example of this was when the Egyptian actress May Ezzeddin, during an interview about her private life and career, suddenly decided to thank the former president for “the security I felt during your rule”.

Mubarak sorryThis sentiment is not new. Right from the start of the revolution, previously quiet Mubarak supporters suddenly emerged from obscurity to apologise to the president on Facebook, hold counter-protests, beat up protesters, and even hack revolutionary sites.

Known disaparaginly as “feloul”, the Arabic for “remnants”, many were part of or closely connected to the former regime. Others were simply those who feared the abyss and preferred the devil they knew.

So would Egypt have been better off with Mubarak?

I doubt it very much. What the former president’s supporters overlook is that Mubarak planted and nurtured the storm Egypt is harvesting now.

His three decades of one-man rule continued the stifling military dictatorship Egypt has lived under since 1952. The Free Officers’ promise to steer Egypt towards democracy after a three-year transitional period was left broken and unfulfilled for over six decades, despite the deep belief in civilian and parliamentary rule entertained by Egypt’s first figure-head president Muhammad Naguib.

Unlike efficient one-party states, such as China, Mubarak’s Egypt had no clear rules for succession and unlike his two predecessors, he even refused to appoint a vice-president, making the question of succession, even from dictatorship to dictatorship, let alone democracy, a murky one, fraught with uncertainty.

So regardless of whether or not millions had taken to the streets, Egypt was hurtling towards a brick wall come election time in late 2011 and possibly off a cliff if Mubarak were to die in office.

Corruption and state incompetence, a problem under every president, became an incurable plague during Mubarak’s years. Bringing democracy to Egypt is an easier challenge, in my view, than correcting the culture of bribery, mismanagement and incompetence dogging most sectors.

And the neo-liberal “reforms” introduced by the international financial institutions and Egypt’s politicised crony capitalists has stripped down and sold off the state and Egypt’s resources at bargain basement prices, and privatised just about everything, including the banks of the Nile.

While the 1% thrived, education, health, employment regressed to levels in which youth without the backing of well-off families found themselves under-educated, prospectless and repressed.

It was highly likely that this crumbling state, like a derelict, badly constructed house, would collapse without the big, bad wolf of the “unwashed masses” blowing it down.

The 2011 revolution has, in many ways, helped to make the most of Egypt’s sorry state. It has given Egyptians the belief that they can change their country’s unpleasant reality and it has put Egypt’s leadership on notice that, no matter what they throw at the population, if they do not deliver positive results, they could be next…

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera on 11 February 2016.

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Egypt’s other Tahrirs

 
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By Khaled Diab

Tahrir may have been pacified for now, but the revolution is still playing out in Egypt’s economic and social squares.

Sana Seif

Friday 5 February 2016

In January 2011, Egypt captivated the entire world but, above all else, Egyptians surprised and mesmerised themselves.

If revolution means, as the word implies, sending the established order and accepted norms into a spin, then what occurred in those heady winter days in 2011 was a revolution with a capital “R”.

Only the tyranny of death would manage to oust the ageing tyrant, many believed. Instead, millions of Egyptians taking to the streets gave Hosni Mubarak his marching orders.

Egyptians are docile and apathetic, was the received wisdom. But they shock off the chains of apparent lethargy to rise up, en masse, against the despotism of the dictator, the junta and the theocrats.

Egyptians need, nay desire, the iron fist of a strongman. Although a surprising number of people lamented the downfall of Mubarak, the majority were jubilant and partied like there was a tomorrow when the news of his demise broke.

In addition, the crowds’ sustained and uncompromising demands for bread, freedom and social justice put paid to the lie that Egyptians do not desire nor understand democracy, even if some are reluctant or passionate supporters of military or Islamist dictatorship.

Today, it is hard to believe that those momentous events occurred just five years ago. Like a 21st-century Alice, Egyptians seem to have fallen into a wormhole in which time, space and history have been warped and speeded up.

In just five years, Egypt has gone through more changes in leadership than over the preceding six decades. The country has hurtled through revolution, counterrevolution, and anti-revolution, and its people have ridden the emotional rollercoaster that has taken them from the heights of elation to the depths of deflation.

Though everything promised to change, nothing seems to have changed. This sad reality was poignantly summed up by the solitary courageous protester, Sanaa Seif, who marched defiantly through the indiffrent traffic on Tahrir Square with a short bearing the slogan: “It’s still the January revolution“.

This has led to a sense of despondency and despair, with many signing off on the revolution’s death certificate or, worse, claiming that it was never born in the first place.

But is this disillusionment justified?

It is true that the existing order has proven remarkably adept at clinging on to power. First, the regime sacrificed its head to save its body. Then the military attempted to rule directly and co-opt the revolutionaries. Failing this, it hid behind the democratic façade provided by a pliant Muslim Brotherhood. When Mohamed Morsi got too big for his shoes, he was unceremoniously evicted and the apparent loyalist he appointed to run the armed forces, Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, became Egypt’s newly minted military dictator.

The counterrevolution has been so apparently successful that it seems to have brought Egypt full circle back to square one. However, appearances are deceptive.

The incremental and unprecedented use of force and coercion, not to mention efforts to frighten the population into submission, are signs of weakness, not of strength. It betrays just how desperate the regime has become after everything has failed to keep a rebellious population in check.

And even though Egypt’s jails are overflowing with prisoners of conscience, not to mention all the dead, other activists, critical journalists and outspoken citizens take their place, some many times over.

Ahmed Gamal Zyada is just one “typical” example of this courage in the face of adversity. A journalist who previously spent 500 days in prison, he was recently stabbed and left for dead in what his family allege was a political assassination attempt.

“I’m not going to lie, pretend that I’m a hero and say I don’t feel fear,” Zyada said in an interview after his release from prison. “I am afraid, but I’m not going to be silent.”

But it is not just revolutionaries who feel fear. Despite being the one with the guns, the soldiers, the police and the prison cells, the al-Sisi regime is the one that is acting terrified, especially so in the run-up to 25 January.

This panicked fear has been amply demonstrated by what has been described as “the toughest security crackdown in Egypt’s history” which has included a spate of arrests, and the random, arbitrary searching of thousands of downtown apartments.

The underlying reason for this fear are clear: while Egyptians have changed, their leaders have not, and they live in a delusion that the old ways can be restored through violence. “A profound gulf now exists between a ruling class intent on governing as if nothing has changed and large swathes of a democratic citizenry for whom something fundamental has altered,” writes Jack Shenker, who covered the revolution for the Guardian, in The Egyptians, a new book which will be released soon.

In addition to the ferocity of the counterrevolution, the trouble with the revolution was that the euphoria it aroused raised too many high expectations. Problems that have accumulated over the six decades since the army took over power take time to unravel. The brutality of the modern Egyptian state over the past two centuries cannot be blunted immediately. The damage done by foreign control and meddling that has been Egypt’s lot for more than two millennia cannot be repaired in an instant.

When the revolution first erupted, I argued that a political revolution will fail without an accompanying social (r)evolution, to dethrone the million “mini-Mubaraks”, weed out endemic corruption, promote equality and egalitarianism, create a meritocracy and more.

While the political revolution has stalled, the social and cultural one is in full swing. It has been spearheaded by workers demanding their rights, women struggling for equality, and the growing assertiveness of previously discreet minorities, such as atheists. Young people have perhaps been the greatest agitators for change and have given their elders lessons in courage, determination and grit – schools have even become breeding grounds for rebels.

Even if Tahrir has been pacified for now, Egypt’s thousand of mini “Tahrirs” have not. This is reflected in the paradox that, despite or perhaps because of the escalating use of state violence, the number of daily protests under Sisi is almost triple what they were under Morsi and five times higher than the turbulent final years of Mubarak’s rule.

Although Egyptians did not heed the call of the shrunken ranks of activist to take to the streets once again on 25 January, it does not mean they won’t ever again. Egyptians have discovered their latent ability to move immobile mountains and broken the fear barrier.

When they do eventually rise again, a deep social revolution may enable them to unleash their creativity to the maximum – perhaps even reinventing democracy to suit their needs.

“I am deeply convinced that the future is ours and that we are now witnessing the beginning of the end of this tyrannical state,” believes Khaled Fahmy, a history professor who has been chronicling the revolution.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the updated version of an article which first appeared on Al Jazeera on 23 January 2016.

 

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Egypt’s other Great Pyramid

 
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By Khaled Diab

The Mogamma, that high temple of Egyptian bureaucracy, will be shut down. Welcome as it is, this will not solve the underlying problem of “el-routine”.

irhab kabab

Friday 22 January 2016

Like the pyramids of Giza, it is a colossal structure known to Egyptians and foreigners alike. Unlike the pyramids, it is the object of almost universal contempt and frustration.

Yes, of course, I am talking about the Mogamma on Tahrir Square, the high temple of the Egyptian bureaucracy, as anyone familiar with Egypt will have realised. Egypt’s “most hated” building, as one news site put it, is slated for closure in 2017, which is bound to result in millions of collective sighs of relief.

And the dimensions of this monolith are truly imposing. The 14-storey complex houses some 30,000 government employees in 1,350 rooms, while some 100,000 citizens navigate its labyrinthine maze of corridors in an oft-futile quest for the magical sequence of stamps required to legitimise their paperwork.

Despite popular belief, the building was not a socialist edifice built by Gamal Abdel-Nasser but was constructed during the era of King Farouq as a symbol of Egypt’s march towards the mid-20th century as Britain vacated its barracks there. Today, that seems like a pipe dream.

Kafkaesque does not even begin to capture the dust-laden, claustrophobic, yet boisterous and loud, alienation felt when one enters this bureaucratic maze. It can only be described as “mogammaesque”: one measure Kafka, one part Orwell, with a liberal dose of Magritte’s surrealism and a dash of native wit. The Mogamma is real-life black comedy coloured by the irrepressible light-heartedness of Egypt.

The indifferent, contemptuous gaze of the typical Mogamma civil-servant-cum-master causes the average visitor to metamorphose from a proud human into a shrinking, trembling, deferential insect. Ingratiating terms of respect – like “pasha”, even though Egypt abolished the gentry decades ago – are tossed around liberally to curry favour, in a variation of the old Egyptian adage: “If the dog has something you need, call him ‘master’.”

Although bureaucracy is a global problem hobbling hundreds of millions of people around the world, the Egyptian version is especially convoluted, snail-paced, impenetrable and arbitrary, making it a haven for corruption and ineptitude.

Despite the dominant and oft-traumatic role bureaucracy plays in Egyptian life, there is surprisingly no widely circulated local word for it, with Egyptians appropriating the English word “routine” to describe it.

However, there is an abundance of words used to describe ways to circumvent it, including “wasta” (“connections”), “mahsoubiya” (“favouritism” ) and “kousa” (“courgette”) to describe string pulling, or “halawa” (“halva”), “shai” (“tea”) or even bakshish (“tip” ) to describe bribery.

Given the outsized and tyrannical role played by bureaucracy in the lives of Egyptians and Egypt’s love of comedy, it is unsurprising that “al-routine” is a staple fare of street humour and popular satire. One Egyptian newspaper used to carry a memorable rogues’ parade of characters working in the civil service who frequented the “Civil Servant’s Teahouse”.

It also features in black comedy, such as in a film which explores the desperate attempts of a poor fisherman, who lives off the state’s radar on his Nile boat, to register his son’s birth retroactively so he can start school.

The Mogamma itself is the star of a 1990s hit film, el-Irhab wal-Kabab (Terrorism and Kebab) in which a hard-pressed man who works at Cairo’s sewage treatment plant visits the high temple of bureaucracy in a bid to transfer his son to another school.

The man in charge of transfers is never there and his colleagues are too busy talking on the telephone, preparing vegetables for dinner or constantly praying. When security try to eject him for attacking the bearded civil servant, he manages to grab one of their rifles and triggers a panic that a terrorist attack is in motion.

When asked by the interior minister what his demands are, the hostage-taker and the hostages cannot decide and so decide to order kebabs. When they finally demand the resignation of the entire government, the minister is so incensed he orders the raiding of the building.

Two decades later, real citizens took over Tahrir Square and demanded more than the resignation of the government: the downfall of the entire regime. Although they managed to decapitate it, the body survived and grew a new head.

In 2011, protesters managed to shut down temporarily the despised Mogamaa and, instead of seeking stamps and signatures, revolutionary artists signed and tagged it. The diverse  graffiti included one expressive image of a young activist chiselling away at a pyramid-shaped rendition of the word “corruption”.

And herein lies the crux. The Mogamaa in itself is not the main problem; it is simply a symptom. Closing it down  may remove some of the congestion from downtown Cairo and free up prime real estate, but rebuilding it elsewhere, as has previously been suggested, will not only be a colossal undertaking but will, without reform, result in the same colossal problems downstream.

And with Egypt’s new parliament investigating the state’s chief auditor for “defamation” over his claims of endemic corruption, deep reform, never a serious prospect, now seems an ever-more distant hope.

What Egypt needs is to rationalise its bureaucracy, in both senses of the word, decentralise its highly centralised state architecture, pay civil servants a decent living wage and, above all, weed out the rampant corruption choking citizens. This may result in less comedy but it will put a smile on every Egyptian’s face.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera on 18 January 2016.

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The tip of Egypt’s snobbery iceberg

 
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By Khaled Diab

The replacement of one snobbish justice minister in Egypt with another who believes judges are lords and masters shows how deep elitism runs.

A_Group_of_Boys_at_Moqattam_Village_Dec_2009Wednesday 20 May 2015

Mahfouz Saber was certainly no minister of social justice. The now-former Egyptian justice minister said during a television debate that the judiciary was not a suitable career option for the offspring of rubbish collectors and other modest occupations because “a judge must hail from an appropriate environment”.

His remarks, which effectively marked millions of Egyptians as human refuse relegated to the dustbin of society, unleashed a wave of popular outrage across Egypt. “When the concept of justice is absent from the nation, nothing remains,” tweeted Egyptian Nobel laureate and former figurehead of the anti-Mubarak opposition Mohamed ElBaradei, who is himself a legal scholar.

Part of the outcry was due to the symbolic importance of Saber’s job, even if the judiciary does discriminate against women too. As justice minister, he must have been aware that his remarks conflicted with the guarantees of equal opportunities and the prohibition of discrimination based on class, religion, race or gender enshrined in Egypt’s constitution, not to mention the many international human rights treaties to which Egypt is a party.

In addition, for the millions of Egyptians who took to the streets during the revolution to demand “bread, freedom and social justice”, this was yet another rude slap in the face reflecting how little Egypt had changed in the meantime.

The blogger Mina Fayek saw the incident as “yet [more] proof that justice in Egypt is just a farce”. With Egypt’s increasingly politicised judges meting out once-unimaginably draconian rulings, including mass death sentences, it is hard to believe today that the judiciary was until very recently seen as one of the few (relatively) independent institutions and an important check on the executive’s excessive powers.

As calls for Saber’s resignation multiplied, the justice minister was persuaded to fall on his word, with Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab saying that the disgraced minister was leaving out of “respect for public opinion”.

Though this is a hugely important symbolic victory for the cause of equal opportunity in Egypt, Saber’s attitude is simply the tip of Egypt’s snobbery and nepotism iceberg. The opinion Saber voiced was more politically incorrect than factually incorrect – and not just in the judiciary. People applying for prestige posts, such as the diplomatic corps, are routinely vetted socially.

In fact, a number of activists recalled the tragic case of Abdel-Hameed Sheta who, even though he came first in the entry exam for the diplomatic corps and had proven himself repeatedly at university, was passed over because he was deemed “unsuitable socially.” After years of material sacrifice on the part of his impoverished parents and endless hard graft on his part, the shock proved too much for Sheta and he took his own life.

Some believe that nepotism also played a role. Whether or not it did in Sheta’s case, it certainly is rampant in Egypt, where the sons and daughters of the wealthy, well-positioned and powerful mysteriously always seem to land on their feet, even if it crushes other people’s toes.

That is why Egyptians have so many colloquial synonyms for nepotism and cronyism, including the famous Arab-wide expression “wasta” (“connections”) and “mahsoubiya” (“cronyism”), as well as the baffling “kousa” (“courgette”). Claims voiced by a leading judge have emerged that Saber himself got into the judiciary thanks to his father’s wealth and the good word of his uncle, a prominent judge.

This social reality is a far cry from the ideals espoused by two revolutions, in 1952 and 2011. The Free Officers were successful in abolishing the old feudal order and the monarchy, and their socialist-inspired coup brought about universal education, land reform and introduced the principle of egalitarianism.

However, it quickly became apparent that the old landed gentry were simply replaced by a new elite made up of army officers, who talked the talk of equality but walked a very different walk. With the neo-liberal reforms first introduced by Anwar al-Sadat and completed by Hosni Mubarak, the military top brass allowed a new business elite to join it at the high table, bringing Egypt full circle.

Throughout, and despite the lip service paid to equality, classism has survived in Egypt at most strata of society. This is reflected in how the old titles, such as Pasha and Bey, though robbed of any official weight, continue to be used with gay abandon by Egyptians wishing to express deference to people they see as their social betters.

It also lives on in such insulting descriptions as referring to someone as being “ibn/bent nas” (“son of people”), as if implying that others are the offspring of animals, or the lengths to which many Egyptian families go to ensure that their children marry someone of their class.

That said, there is social mobility in Egypt, as reflected in the (relatively) modest backgrounds of every single Egyptian leader since 1952, and the opportunities afforded many by universal education when it was still of a decent level.

However, many who do make it up the ladder, too often kick it away and many even downplay their own roots, as reflected, for example, in how almost anyone with an education or career, regardless of where they came from, adopts the Cairene accent of the well-to-do.

For a beautiful, fleeting moment in the Republic of Tahrir these class divisions were ignored and there was a conscious effort to erase them. Let’s hope the justice minister’s departure is a sign that Egyptians are rediscovering their appetite for social justice.

President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi swears in Ahmed al-Zind.

President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi swears in Ahmed al-Zind. Photo: Egyptian presidency

 

Unfortunately, the state has shown its own appetite to be lacking in this respect. In fact, in Egypt, justice has proven itself to be both blind to reason and deaf to protest. As if to slap down those who dared object, it was announced that Saber’s replacement would be Ahmed al-Zind, whom has been described as just as elitist “yet more extreme“. As a sign of this extremism, al-Zind said in a controversial 2014 television interview: “On the land of this homeland, we are the lords, and others are slaves.”

It is clear that al-Zind is no fitter to be justice minister than his predecessor. I think it’s time to start a campaign to demand the new minister’s resignation and ask that al-Zind be replaced by the son of a rubbish collector from al-Zabbaleen. Only then can we be certain that we will have a justice minister who cleans up garbage rather than spews it out.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the updated version of an article which first appeared on Al Jazeera on 12 May 2015.

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Egypt’s other revolution

 
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By Khaled Diab

Revolutionary disappointment in Egypt has concealed the ongoing social revolution whose shifting sands are likely to result in a political earthquake.

Women are at the vanguard of efforts to subvert the established social order.

Women are at the vanguard of efforts to subvert the established social order.

Wednesday 28 January 2015

The fourth anniversary of the Egyptian revolution “brings back memories of what might have been,” a relative of mine remarked.

And for those who were there, on Tahrir Square and in pretty much every town and village across the country, those memories are precious and magical. “I’m proud. We did good, we did right,” said a friend who was active in the 2011 uprising. “True, we lost [and] the villains are back in power… but we were right, and we tried.”

At the time, Egyptians discovered their latent and long-dormant power to rock the president’s throne and unseat the pharaoh – all in just 18 days. In addition  to elation and euphoria, this led to a sense of near-invincibility, that the revolution could surmount any obstacle and transform Egypt into a vibrant, free and equitable society.

In light of the brutal and deadly efficiency of the counterrevolution, four years on, even the most optimistic are disillusioned and disenchanted, with people I know calling it the “cruelest joke”. Some even wonder whether the revolution was just a mirage, an illusionary oasis for the thirsty millions stumbling through Egypt’s dry desert of oppression.

But the political revolution was real, though it has been derailed and delayed, and I am convinced it is not over, not by a long shot, but it, like its French predecessor and others, will be a multi-generational project.

This is because, despite popular belief, the issues are not just political – they are social, economic and cultural too. Ever since the start of the revolution, I have warned that we must curb our enthusiasm because the uprising would not succeed without an accompanying social revolution, without the unseating of Egypt’s million “mini-Mubaraks” stifling society and without addressing the country’s centuries-old leadership vacuum.

And even at a time when the political revolution is fatally wounded, the social revolution, largely unnoticed and unappreciated, is, at many levels, in full swing. One area where revolutionary socio-economic change is visible is the organised labour movement.

The uprising of Egyptian workers actually predated the revolt in 2011 by a few years. In addition, Egypt’s independent unions, despite the attention lavished on middle-class youth activists, played a pivotal role in the revolution, organising thousands of strikes and mobilising workers.

Moreover, the al-Sisi regime’s efforts to contain and break the labour movement, and to co-opt some union leaders, have not succeeded. In 2014, despite the controversial anti-protest law, understated official figures show that Egypt witnessed 287 strikes, with independent estimates suggesting that the country was shaken by 2,274 incidents of industrial action. And continued failure to tackle this economic bottom line could well prove to be the current regime’s undoing.

Beyond Egypt’s workers, another long-marginalised group, which constitutes half of society, has also been up in arms. Tired of generations of having their rights deferred in the service of this or that greater cause, women are actively and muscularly agitating for change, both collectively and individually.

In a phenomenon I call Egypt’s “underground sisterhood”, women are fighting Egypt’s sexual harassment epidemic, including support networks, challenging the social stigma associated with being single, and even struggling to become mosque preachers, not to mention the growing number of “feminist” men, even from traditional backgrounds.

In addition to the huge ranks of women involved in every line of activism, this is reflected in the rising number of women rejecting the hijab or headscarfed women choosing lifestyles previously associated with their “liberal” sisters, as well as those who break away from convention by living alone. Then there are the women intruding on traditional male domains, such as the traditional men-only tea houses, and even the iconic photograph of a public kiss between a girl in a hijab and her boyfriend.

Despite the risks involved, even previously unrecognised minorities, such as atheists, are beginning to demand attention and rights.

While the social ground shifts and quakes, political activists are digging in for the long haul and trying to learn from their mistakes. “That’s our homework: to prepare a substitute,” Mohamed Nabil, a leader in the now-banned 6 April Youth Movement, was quoted as saying. “At the end al-Sisi is lying, and the Egyptian people will react. You never know when.”

In fact, I sense that al-Sisi may find himself unwittingly presiding over Egypt’s transition to democracy. This is not because the Egyptian president is ready for democracy – none of them have been – but Egypt will be.

With the social ground rumbling beneath his feet and oppositions forces regrouping despite the repression, al-Sisi will eventually find himself faced with a stark choice: reform or perish. Given the weakness of the state and the fact that the repression machine is already working at full throttle, pragmatism and self-preservation would require al-Sisi to recognise Egypt’s pluralism and make major concessions.

Failure to reform could, at best, spark a third revolutionary wave or, at worst, push Egypt off the cliff into the abyss of full-out civil conflict. Today, as in 2011, the answer to Egypt’s woes remains freedom, democracy, and socio-economic justice.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera on 24 January 2015.

 

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Freedom of repression in Egypt

 
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By Khaled Diab

The Republic of Tahrir revolutionaries dreamt of an Egypt of freedom, but the only thing that seems free these days is the value of human dignity.

Saturday 10 January 2015

In December 2011, the glimmer of hope that would spark revolution across the Arab world was ignited in Tunisia with its jasmine-scented revolution. While Tunisians have managed to take advantage of the intervening four years to set in motion a process of rapid democratisation – including two sets of free elections (2011 and 2014), the drafting of a non-partisan constitution, not to mention the democratic and peacefaul transfer of power – other countries in the region have not been so fortunate.

The Tunisian path of consensus politics, which helped the country navigate some of the greatest hazards and perils of revolution in a largely peaceful manner, has been absent from Egypt, where each change in leadership came with a “winner takes all” confrontational and combative attitude.

As we approach the fourth anniversary of the Egyptian revolution, the high hopes of “bread, freedom and social justice” seem as far away as ever – some fear that they have moved impossibly out of reach.

In addition to the nose-diving economy, which has been kept afloat since 2011 through the largesse of the Gulf allies of the moment, this regression has been felt acutely and painfully in the area of freedom of expression, particularly the media.

While the revolutionaries of the Republic of Tahrir had dreamt briefly of an Egypt that would be a beacon of freedom, the only thing that seems free these days is the value of human dignity. The counterrevolution – which actually began with the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, when the regime amputated its head to keep its body intact – seems to be reaching an end goal of sorts, through a process of heavy-handed crackdowns and co-options.

In terms of repression, 2014 was a particularly harsh year, in which Egypt found itself in the uncoveted top 10 jailers of journalists. “Egypt more than doubled its number of journalists behind bars to at least 12, including three journalists from the international network Al Jazeera,” said the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), an independent NGO based in New York which has been dubbed “journalism’s Red Cross”.

Like Al Jazeera’s Baher Mohamed, Mohamed Fahmy and Peter Greste, many of the imprisoned journalists listed by CPJ are accused of having links or sympathies with the previous regime of Mohamed Morsi. These include members of the highly influential citizenship journalism site Rassd News Network (RNN), which is affiliated with or at least sympathetic to the now-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.

RNN’s Mahmoud Abdel Nabi has been in jail the longest of the dozen reporters behind bars. He was arrested, in July 2013, while covering clashes between pro-military and pro-Morsi protesters in Sidi Beshr, Alexandria. He is accused of inciting violence and the possession of weapons.

The other RNN staff members in jail are Samhi Mustafa and Abdullah al-Fakharany,  who were indicted in February, along with dozens of others, for allegedly “forming an operations room to direct the Muslim Brotherhood to defy the government”.

Even for journalists without any alleged political allegiances, simply doing their jobs during the dispersal of the al-Raba’a and al-Nahda protest camps – which Human Rights Watch calculates led to the death of at least a thousand, including four journalists – could easily land them in jail.

This is exactly what happened to the freelance photojournalist Mahmoud Abou Zeid, a contributor to the UK-based citizen journalism site and photo agency Demotix, who was arrested in August 2013 while covering the dispersal, though the French photographer and Newsweek journalist he was with were later released.

Some reporters have fallen foul of the regressive and controversial anti-protest law passed in 2013. These include Ahmed Gamal, a photojournalist with the online news network Yaqeen, who was arrested on 28 December 2013 while covering student protests at al-Azhar University in Nasr City, Cairo. Ahmed Fouad of the local news website for Alexandria, Karmoz, who was arrested in January 2014 during pro-Muslim Brotherhood protests in Sidi Beshr.

Despite such incidents, the anti-protest law is intended primarily for protesters and dissidents, both of the Islamist and secular variety. In fact, some are convinced that this law criminalising dissent is part of a “targeted mission to eliminate the prominent revolutionary figures”. This political purge has targeted such leading revolutionary figures as the sibling duo, Alaa Abdel-Fattah, who is accused of not being a “true” revolutionary and of seeking the country’s “destruction”, and Mona Seif, who went on a hunger strike for 76 days to protest her brother’s incarceration.

The al-Sisi regime has also had reformists and human rights defenders in its crosshairs. These include Yara Sallam, a transitional justice officer at the independent Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), who was sentenced to three years at the end of October for allegedly participating in a political march. In December, this was reduced to two years.

EIPR and other NGOs in Egypt are threatened with closure due to the government’s insistence to apply the letter of a controversial 2002 law and even more regressive draft legislation.

But coercion is not the only tool the regime wields. It has also blended this with the co-option of high-profile voices. A number of prominent private television channels and TV personalities have weighed in behind Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi’s leadership.

This was on clear display during last summer’s war in Gaza. For example, the regime’s leading cheerleader, Tawfik Okasha, ridiculed Gazans for not being “men” because “if they were men they would revolt against Hamas,” he blasted.

Beyond the media, some lawyers have taken it as their personal mission to shut down free speech. A recent example was the law suit brought against the famous pro-revolutionary Egyptian actor Khaled Abol-Naga which accused him of “high treason” for daring to criticise President al-Sisi. The case has triggered a wave of anger and protest amongst artists.

Although “Sisimania” has cooled down considerably since the former general became president, there are still many patriotic readers who take any sleight to the leader personally, as reflected in the mirthless reactions of readers to the cartoons and caricatures of Mohamed Anwar.

To add insult to injury, the regime has co-opted the revolution itself and has appointed itself as its sole guardian and guarantor, as reflected in the presidential decree al-Sisi intends to issue which “criminalises insulting the 25 January and 30 June uprisings”.

The regime is also positioning itself as the self-appointed defender of public morality, as highlighted in the recent spate of arrests of alleged homosexuals, in spite of the fact that homosexuality is not actually illegal, as well as the arrest of people suspected of being atheists, despite their being no law in Egypt outlawing atheism, and the recent closure of what the media dubbed the “atheists’ café”.

Amid this onslaught on the media and the freedom of activists and citizens to express their political thoughts, it is easy to feel despair for Egypt’s future and its people’s aspirations for freedom, dignity and equality.

However, it is important to contextualise matters. Despite the devolution, Egypt at its worst is still freer and its people more openly defiant than just about everywhere in the Gulf at their best. For instance, Qatar’s domestic media does not enjoy freedom nor does it agitate for it, exercising a great deal of self-censorship.

Contrast that to Egypt where, despite all the crackdowns, arrests and intimidations, there are still independent voices who refuse to be cowed, coerced or co-opted. This is embodied in Egypt’s dynamic citizen journalism scene and its independent publications, such as Mada Masr.

Even private TV does not always sing from the government’s hymn sheet. A recent example of this was an ONtv programme exposing the ill-gotten gains of the mysterious billionaire Hussein Salem, who was recently acquitted of corruption charges alongside his patron, Hosni Mubarak.

Many activists and human rights defenders are still striving to fight the corner of freedom. The award-winning Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE) has not taken the regime’s recent infringements lying down. It has issued numerous scathing reports on the subject, including one entitled “Has journalism become a crime in Egypt?”

Understandably, the ranks of the defiant are shrinking in Egypt, as many once-critical voices are silenced and an increasing number of journalists and activists take flight mostly out of despair, but also out of fear.

But this situation is not inevitable nor necessarily indefinite. Just as a generation of young idealists defied all odds and expectations to bring the regime to its knees, the spirit they set free may be suppressed for a time but it cannot be extinguished.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Al Jazeera on 28 December 2014.

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Can Egypt start a new chapter of Middle Eastern history?

 
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By Khaled Diab

The new constitution says Egypt is a “gift” that will “write a new history for humanity”. Should neighbours welcome or fear greater Egyptian influence?

Saturday 25 January 2014

For the past three years, Egyptian history has been in overdrive. After six decades with just four presidents, Egypt is already into its fourth leader since January 2011, and a fifth, possibly General Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, will take over the helm soon. In that same span of accelerated time, Egypt has seen a mind-spinning array of revolutions, counterrevolutions, anti-revolutions, coups, evolutions and devolutions… often simultaneously.

Needless to say, the past 36 months have been an emotional rollercoaster and space jump for Egyptians, especially those at the frontline of the revolution, but also for those, like me, observing from the sidelines.

Although I shun nationalism and the word  patriotism troubles me, during the 18 days it took to topple Hosni Mubarak, I was the proudest I’d ever been of my birth nationality. Despite dreading the hangover which would follow, I too was caught up in the euphoria of the moment, that “beautiful, sweet, intoxicating chaos in which millions are partying to the beat of their own freedom”, as I wrote back then.

On this, the third anniversary of the mass uprising that has succeeded in mobilising millions again and again and again, the question on everyone’s lips is whether or not the Egyptian revolution has been defeated.

Though many have been reading the revolution its last rites, I am of the conviction that the uprising may have been contained for the time being, but the aspirations and it unleashed are uncontainable. And like “liberté, égalité, fraternité” survived to fight another day, “bread, freedom, dignity” will remain a rallying cry for generations.

Another question which has preoccupied many is what are the ramifications of events in Egypt, the most populous Arab country, for the Middle East, and how will it shape or reshape Egypt’s regional role?

In some quarters of Egyptian society, the domestic issues the revolution has focused on have been rather too bread and butter for their tastes, and they dream of Egypt (re)gaining its regional clout.

This is reflected in the flowery, sometimes jingoistic preamble of the new constitution which takes poetic licence with Egypt’s place in the world. “Egypt is the gift of the Nile to Egyptians, and the gift of Egyptians to humanity,” reads the very first sentence of the constitution’s preamble.

Taking note of the conflicts between East and West, and North and South, which have torn apart the world, the founding document declares Egypt’s intention to help “write a new history for humanity”.

What is the likelihood that Egypt will fulfil these dizzyingly high aspirations?

Given that the world is a much bigger and more complicated place than at the dawn of civilisation and Egypt is only a middle-income, middle-sized country, any role it can play is bound to be limited, even at the best of times.

Nevertheless, many Arabs expect Egypt to play a central role in regional affairs. I am constantly surprised by the number of Palestinians I meet who regard Egypt’s natural position as the central player in the region, even repeating the tired platitude which I had once assumed was mostly a domestic comforter – that Egypt is the “Mother of the World”.

At one level, it is touching to observe how Palestinians, despite the multitude of problems they face, take such a keen interest in my country’s affairs, feeling elation for our successes and depression for our failures. “We have always looked to Egypt for inspiration and support,” one Palestinian I met recently told me.

The Israeli perspective is more complicated. Many Israelis, especially the young and progressive, voiced support for the Egyptian revolution and sent messages of solidarity, including in song, to the protestors, while the epicentre of the 2011 social protests in Israel, Tel Aviv’s Rothschild’s Avenue, was known as “Tahrir Square” to many demonstrators.

However, when it came to the Israeli political establishment, fear and fear-mongering were the order of the day. “I highly doubt that the Muslim Brotherhood will succeed, in a post-Mubarak democratic Egypt, of gaining complete control of the country through an Islamic counterrevolution,” I wrote before Mubarak’s downfall, in response to Israeli concerns that Egypt would become “another Iran”. “The cold Egyptian-Israeli peace would remain just as cool or may well chill a few degrees, regardless of the composition of a future democratic government.”

And as time would tell, when they gained power, the Muslim Brotherhood proved keen on maintaining the peace, for reasons of realpolitik. Ousted president Mohamed Morsi even earning accolades from Israel for his government’s mediation of the 2012 military confrontation between Israel and Gaza.

Moreover, today Egypt’s policies towards the Palestinians are even more in line with Israel’s than they were under Mubarak, and to greater public approval. Tragically, this has translated into Egypt becoming an even greater accomplice in Israel’s blockade of Gaza, the vilification of Gazans, and whispers that the regime may be planning to do what has eluded Israel: topple Hamas.

Yet many Palestinians and Arabs still hold out hope that Egypt will play a benign role in the neighbourhood. “Egypt is the bellwether Arab state,” an Emirati journalist and commentator put it to me succinctly. And this “bellwether” role could explain why the Gulf has been pumping billions into the Egyptian economy – to keep the revolutionary bug at bay and to buy political leverage.

And once upon a time, Egypt was not only the most populous Arab country but also its wealthiest. This gave it automatic top dog status, with mixed results.

On the plus side, Egypt launched the Arab world’s first modernising project in the 19th century, has long been an intellectual and cultural dynamo, helped its neighbours resist imperialism in the 20th century, played a pivotal role in constructing a sense of post-colonial pride, and acted in solidarity with non-aligned countries everywhere.

But there is an ugly underbelly to Egypt’s regional influence, and ignorance of it or failure to appreciate it could have serious consequences. For example, even if Egypt was a major anti-colonial influence, it was also an imperial power in its own right.

Khedive Muhammad Ali may have freed Egypt from Ottoman rule but his son, Ibrahim Pasha, ruthlessly and bloodily built his father an empire which, at some point or other, encompassed the Hijaz, Sudan, parts of Anatolia, much of the Levant and Crete, with even Constantinople within military but not political reach. However, imperial Egypt proved as unpopular as any other imperial power in the conquered regions, particularly Sudan.

Following the 1952 revolution/coup, or revolutionary coup, Egypt became a powerhouse of anti-imperialism and pan-Arabism. It lent support to some countries seeking independence and provided inspiration to others, with millions dreaming that the Arab world could become a single nation under the leadership of Gamal Abdel-Nasser.

But the only actual attempt to realise this dream ended in both tragedy and farce. Even though Nasser did not want to enter into a union with Syria, the Syrian government, fearing a communist takeover, forced his hand.

Instead of the United Arab Republic being a marriage of equals, Nasser quickly destroyed Syrian democracy and turned it into the personal fiefdom of his most-trusted confidante, the highly incompetent Abdel-Hakim Amer – perhaps evoking bitter memories of Ibrahim Pasha amongst Syrians.

Then there was what many have called Egypt’s “Vietnam” in Yemen, not to mention the disasters of the 1948 and 1967 wars with Israel.

How much and what kind of a regional role or influence – and whether it will be benign or aggressive – Egypt will have in the coming years will depend on many factors. But it is certainly possible that, if elected president, al-Sisi, like many leaders during tumultuous times before him, will involve Egypt actively, perhaps even aggressively, in regional politics to distract attention away from pressing domestic issues or to fill the country’s empty coffers.

But rather than exporting the troubling brand of nationalistic chauvinism that has been emerging in recent months, what I’d like to see is Egypt sharing the irrepressible spirit of the Republic of Tahrir so that, together, the region can grow free.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 23 January 2014.

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The square root of the Egyptian revolution

 
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By Khaled Diab

The Egyptian revolution is fatally wounded but it is far too soon to sound the death knells. The dreams it unleashed are impossiblee to contain.

25 January 2014

The word “revolution” perfectly encapsulates the events of the past three years. It is almost as if Egypt was strapped into history’s rollercoaster and taken on the most exciting, thrilling, terrifying, inspiring, demoralising, deadly ride in generations.

Meanwhile, the country has gone through a spin cycle so intense and severe that its political, social and economic fabric is in tatters and it is unclear whether this will be rewoven into silk or polyester. For the time being, we’re left with a blood-soaked rag, as the Egyptian regime undertakes one of its bloodiest political purges in recent history and faces an increasingly deadly Islamist insurgency.

The Egyptian people’s success in defeating three dictators (Mohamed Hosni Mubarak, Mohamed Hussein Tantawi and Mohamed Morsi) in as many years caused short-lived elation which was quickly eclipsed by the dictatorial tendencies of Egypt’s leadership.

On the third anniversary of  the Egyptian revolution, it seems increasingly likely that Egypt’s latest despot, albeit one with a “popular mandate”, Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, will run for president, consolidating and deepening his grip on power, especially if the presidential vote precedes parliamentary elections.

While a significant proportion of the Egyptian population – weary after three years of instability and unrest – seem to welcome this eventuality, a growing number of people are beginning to see through the current regime’s hollow democratic rhetoric and are becoming fearful of its brutally autocratic methods. For their part, the pro-Morsi camp continues to scream democratic legitimacy while dreaming of divine dictatorship.

The polarisation between two autocratic visions has left those who aspire for and believe in the values of the revolution with a bad taste in their mouths and a sense of despair. “We view ourselves back at square one, because what is happening now could be more dangerous, more complicated than what was there before January 25, 2011,” Ahmed Maher, co-founder of the 6th April Youth Movement which helped spearhead the revolution, said back in August, shortly after the blood-soaked dispersal of the Raba’a el-Adawiya protest camp.

And “more dangerous” it has proven to be. Not only have unknown numbers of Morsi supporters been killed and thousands more imprisoned, with the Muslim Brotherhood branded a “terrorist organisation”, the regime is now turning its attention back to the secular activists it had temporarily neglected while it dealt with its former Brothers.

“Nothing symbolised the end of it all like the protest law and Maher and others getting arrested,” confessed one activist. “We are now in a situation that is even worse than what we had under Mubarak.”

It is a sad indictment of the direction matters have taken in Egypt and of the power of the counterrevolution’s counteroffensive that three of the most prominent youth leaders who were behind the anti-Mubarak uprising – Maher, Alaa Abdel-Fattah and Ahmed Douma – all received politically motivated three-year sentences last month… for protesting, of all things.

So, does all this mean that the revolution is dead and done for?

Well, all things considered, our short-term prognosis must be that the revolution is fatally wounded but it is far too soon to sound the death knells. To borrow a military analogy that our de facto leaders would understand, the battle may be lost but the war is far from over.

If we can take the past as a compass for the future, revolutions are often betrayed or defeated – either by the old guard or the revolutionaries themselves – but the dreams and ideals they unleash are impossible to repress.

Take the French Revolution. In its immediate wake, France went through Robespierre’s “reign of terror”, which makes the current crackdown in Egypt look like junior league, a bloody civil war and wars with neighbouring states. It also resulted in Napoleon Bonaparte’s coup d’etat and, after that, the restoration of the monarchy, among other setbacks.

One can only imagine the despair and disillusionment felt by those French citizens who believed in the revolution’s original objectives. Yet the French revolution’s vision – summed up pithily in those three eternal words “liberté, égalité, fraternité” – survived to fight another day… and another… and another… inspiring  struggles for freedom across Europe and the world. And, in France, it was eventually and largely realised, albeit after five non-consecutive republics.

Likewise in Egypt, whether it gets a new military dictator or not, the genie is out of the bottle and there is no turning back, bleak as the outlook may seem now. Although the revolution’s goals are unlikely to be achieved any time soon, its rallying call of “bread, freedom, social justice, human dignity” will resonate for generations to come.

In addition, what can be called the spirit of Tahrir Square, though it is really the spirit of revolutionary Egypt as a whole, may be suppressed and even repressed for a time, but it cannot be eliminated. Although Egypt’s political class does not seem to have  read the memo that the times have changed, Egyptians have already overcome and overthrown the most oppressive dictatorship of all: the despot inside their minds, the tyranny of fear.

Even if Egyptians now allow themselves to be intimidated into acquiescence or worn down into submitting to the status quo, this will only be temporary. They are bound to rise again, much to the admiration and respect of outside observers like myself, to demand more than a few crumbs of bread, a foot of freedom or a drop of dignity.

There is a latent, implicit recognition of this reality amongst the political elite. Although both the Muslim Brotherhood and the military are autocratic in nature, they both talk the language of democracy, freedom and equality. This is visible in al-Sisi’s constant reference to popular “mandates” and obeying the “will of the people”. It is also apparent in the Brotherhood’s constant references to “legitimacy” and their claims that Morsi’s overthrow was a betrayal of the revolution.

Moreover, even if there is no clear sign of light at the end of the tunnel politically, Egypt is in the early throes of a profound social and cultural revolution which is rising from the grassroots up. This can be seen in the clear antiauthoritarianism of many Egyptians, the growing independence of young people, the increasing social and political assertiveness of women, not to mention previously unnoticed minorities, such as non-believers.

In 2011, I argued that Egypt’s uprising would only succeed if it set off a true social (r)evolution – and, unexpectedly, this seems to be one of its few true successes to date. And with time, as society changes from the bottom, up, so will its political landscape.

“I still have confidence that one day we will see a new Egypt,” Ahmed Maher said. “My generation might not see these changes. We might be paving the way for the new generation to see these changes.”

And sadly, though I wish that the millions of Egyptians who have sacrificed, and will continue to sacrifice, in pursuit of the revolution’s ideals would be rewarded for their pains, they are likely to be the lost generation. The true gains from their efforts will only be reaped by the next generation… or even the one after that.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Daily News Egypt on 16 January 2014.

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Remembering the real Raba’a

 
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By Khaled Diab

Competing myths have emerged around the Raba’a protest camp. But it was neither a terrorist den nor a gathering of freedom and democracy lovers.

 Tuesday 24 September 2013

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“Smile, you’re in Raba’a,” a passing protester, perhaps reading the discomfort on my face, called out before I could register his face.

This comment has echoed in my head repeatedly in recent weeks, particularly when I hear pro-Morsi supporters described as terrorists, the sit-in in Raba’a al-Adawiya described as a terror camp, and the bloody dispersal of the protest encampments and the subsequent crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood justified as a “war against terrorism”. Meanwhile, in the opposing trench of the propaganda war, the crackdown is being depicted as a “war against democracy” to Western audiences and a “war against Islam” to the Brotherhood’s conservative support base.

And it is this distortion, this “war against the truth”, which has prompted me to recount my visit to the Raba’a encampment. It was a blisteringly hot Friday, and I set off just after midday prayers on a self-imposed personal mission to see for myself what the pro-Morsi protesters were all about.The taxi driver who took me there was a tall, distinguished-looking Nubian man who was still dressed in the galabiya he had obviously just worn to the mosque for Friday prayers. He looked at me with what seemed to be curiosity and suspicion, perhaps trying to read me.

This was possibly because, with my European-style clothes, I didn’t look like the typical pro-Morsi demonstrator. Or it could have been because he thought I was a Brother, but from a different ‘hood.

He asked me what I was going there to do. I told him that I wanted to see for myself and didn’t just want to rely on what others were saying, and that this was important to me both as a journalist and a person.

Looking visibly relieved that I wasn’t a protester, he seemed to relax. “I had nothing against Mohamed Morsi and thought, because he was a pious man, his heart would be on Egypt’s interests, but the Brothers messed up,” he said. “I don’t normally protest but I was out on the streets on 30 June. Everyone in my neighbourhood was.”

I asked him why that was. He said it was partly because thugs connected to the Muslim Brotherhood were out in force trying to intimidate locals into not joining in the 30 June protests, but this backfired and only served to decide the undecided. And there had been a lot of trouble-making and violence from pro-Morsi gangs in his district since the president’s ouster.

In the time I had been back in Egypt, people I encountered expressed everything from outright hostility to sorrowful disappointment, with remarkably few expressing any kind of support for the removed president. Although I suspected that Morsi would still be enjoying pretty strong backing in the countryside, particularly in Upper Egypt, Raba’a was the first place I would actually encounter any significant number of supporters for the ousted president.

Belonging as he did to the sorrowfully disappointed camp, the driver told me of how Morsi and his Brothers were “just as corrupt as the Mubarak regime but more incompetent”, citing a litany of examples of widespread corruption and cronyism.

As we drove past a couple of hundred Morsi protesters amassing at the bottom of one of the ramps leading up to the 6th October flyover, he pointed to the crowd and said sadly: “Look at how they just want to block off the main streets. In Raba’a, they’ve made life hell for the locals,” he said.

I reflected that anti-revolutionaries and counter-revolutionaries once also complained about how Tahrir protesters were disrupting traffic, the normal flow of life and the economy.

Journalist friends had warned me to be careful which direction I approached Raba’a from. At one end, there was a military barricade and the soldiers there sometimes didn’t let people through. At the other end, there was an impromptu security checkpoint manned by Morsi sympathisers.

I was told that I would need to walk a fair while to reach it, but the taxi driver, who seemed to know the layout of the camp well, managed to get me right up to the checkpoint, where he wished me luck and safety.

This was the only point where I would personally see “weapons”. A number of men with traditional wooden clubs (“shoom”) were standing by a pile of sandbags, obviously ready, if woefully under-prepared, to push back any attempts to storm the camp by authorities (the decision had just been taken that the encampment would be cleared). Volunteers were also wondering around armed with an arsenal of spray bottles which dispensed refreshing ice-cold water to keep the crowds cool and damp – in a bizarre Islamist version of a wet T-shirt contest.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Naturally, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. There were plenty of reports, some from reliable sources, that there was a cache of arms at the Raba’a sit-in, and certainly at the more radical Nahda protest camp. That is not to mention all the clear incitement to violence a number of leading Brotherhood figures engaged in. One example is Safwat Hegazi, a preacher banned from entering the UK, who threatened in Raba’a “whoever sprays Morsi with water will be sprayed with blood”.

That said, if there were really were so many weapons concealed in Raba’a and the camp really posed such a threat to national security, as claimed by Doria Sharaf el-Din (Egypt’s first female minister of misinformation), why didn’t they use this arsenal to defend themselves against the police onslaught? If the protesters were violent “terrorists” – as they’ve been depicted by the state media and the anti-Brotherhood movement, including Tamarod, which should’ve known better – why didn’t they go down with all barrels blazing? Where was the smoking gun?

The point I’m trying to make is that Raba’a was not a black-or-white place. The vast majority of the protesters were peaceful, ordinary-looking, conservative folk that would hardly merit a second look on any normal Egyptian street – though I did also run into some incredibly eccentric characters, such as this man in shades and a graffitied galabiya who claimed to be a millionaire from Alexandria.

That said, the protest camp was not some kind of spiritual peace fest inspired by the ‘God is love‘ Sufi saint for whom the Raba’a mosque and square is named. There was a lot of anger, fanaticism, and rampant antidemocratic sentiment, as I was about to discover.

With a sense of trepidation, I approached one of the gatekeepers who stopped me to check who I was and what I was doing there, his eyes full of weary suspicion. On the advice of fellow hacks, I did not mentioned any of the Egyptian or Arab papers I worked with due to reports of Egyptian journalists being attacked and beaten up because pro-Morsi supporters and the Muslim Brotherhood regarded the Egyptian media as being unsympathetic and hostile.

In contrast, they were very welcoming of the Anglo-American media. This is incredibly ironic in light of the Brotherhood’s traditional discourse, which is suspicious and hostile towards the West and the movement’s constant condemnation of the “corrupting” influence of Western culture and its mocking of secular Egyptians as westernised sell-outs of the Islamic cause.

For me, this translated into an Open Sesame moment. When the guard caught sight of my European ID card and heard the list of Western publications I wrote for, his manner shifted perceptibly, and he welcomed me warmly and ushered me in promptly. And he would not be the only one.

At first, I just toured the encampment – which was still not very full because the post-prayer, pre-iftar crowds had still not arrived – to get a feel for the lay of the land. I strolled along quietly taking in the food and drink vendors who were not yet dispensing anything as everyone was fasting, and the tired, hungry and thirsty protesters, many lying prostrate in the shade of tents and awnings. Others queued in front of an open-top lorry dispensing large blocks of ice, which seemed to be the air-conditioner of choice.

It must have been psychological, triggered by the knowledge that I would not be able to drink for a while, despite the sweltering heat. Only a few minutes into my visit, I was already feeling the first thirst pangs, which got me wondering how the child and teen me ever managed to fast in the summer, and thankful that the adult me had abandoned the practice.

Perhaps part of the trouble was also the party I had gone to the night before, which had provided a much-needed dose of fast living during the fasting season, but had left me dehydrated and a little hungover.

SONY DSCNow, this had the added effect of making me feel somewhat self-conscious among the conspicuous displays of piety all around me. Thankfully, fatigue induced by fasting (and perhaps also feasting) made those around me look and act more hungover than me, so I had plenty of camouflage.

Nevertheless, I did wonder what the pious protesters would make of it if they learnt my “dirty little secret”. Partying and drinking, and in Ramadan? What has society come to? Yes, it would probably confirm to them the justness of their cause – that the Brothers need to salvage society and save it from itself before it provokes God’s wrath further.

And the Muslim Brotherhood’s media-savvy democratic discourse notwithstanding, most of the protesters I heard and encountered did not want “shareya” (legitimacy) but “Shari’a”… or they believed that the two were one and the same, that legitimacy could be gained only by implementing “God’s law”, not through democracy.

“I want to defend my religion and my country’s Islamic identity, and my freedom and dignity,” Mohamed Eissa, 20, told me, adding that he wanted Egypt to implement Shari’a. And what about democracy, I probed? “If we apply Shari’a, we will have the best democracy in the world,” he claimed.

As this enthusiastic, passionate and intelligent young man who studied Quranic interpretation at al-Azhar spoke, I wondered to myself, what about my “freedom and dignity”, Mohamed? I will defend with all my power your right to worship whomever and however you want but would you extend me the same right not to worship or believe?

The reckless rebel inside me was whispering in my ear, rather like the Satan I don’t believe in, goading me to ask him and the rest of the crowd that had formed around me to air their grievances: what about my rights as an “infidel” and those of other Egyptian atheists and non-believers? Do you recognise our rights or do we, and Muslims with other interpretations of their faith, have the right to believe only what you want us to believe?

I managed to resist the mischievous demons inside my head and withstood the powerful temptation to play devil’s advocate – which was sensible and wise, given the size of the crowd that had formed around me, not to mention professional, since I had come to listen, as a journalist, not to air my own views.

Beside, though I cannot help begrudging the fact that they would probably not grant me the same tolerance with which I accept them, I also realise that they are victims of their surroundings and circumstances. They live in a society where religion tends to be a red line for most, though non-ideological Egyptians generally have a live and let live attitude. In addition, Islamist indoctrination has led them to the illusion that imposing Islam on society is the only path to true freedom and that God, the all-powerful, all-seeing, somehow needs and demands their protection.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab.

The crowd that had formed around me and I must have cut an interesting spectacle. They were all eager to tell their stories, some of which were of ugly brutality and murder at the hands of the authorities, especially when they learnt that I worked for the foreign press. What I presumed to be minders eyed my increasingly conspicuous presence with suspicion, but I overheard people in the crowd explain that I was all right, that I was there to highlight their plight.

As I’d forgotten my dictaphone, I had to rely on my low-tech paper notebook, some of the pages of which were becoming rather damp, as we were constantly being sprayed with ice-cold water to keep the heat a little at bay. In fact, my shirt was soaked through, while one volunteer wiped some of the sweat from my brow to ensure I could see well enough to keep on taking notes, while another sneaked up on me from behind and stuck a freezing block of ice against the nape of my neck, which sent a surprised jolt through my spine, presumably to prevent my brain from overheating.

Salvation was a common refrain among many of the demonstrators I spoke to, as were far-fetched conspiracy theories involving the United States and Israel. “I was born when Morsi came to office. I died when he was removed from office,” Yosri Ahmed said to nods of approval.

Not everyone there claimed to be a Brotherhood supporter. “I’m not an Ikhwani. I am here to oppose repression,” insisted Taher Aziz from Mansoura. “I want legitimacy. I want my voice to be heard. For the first time in Egyptian history, I have a constitution that respects my rights.” Perhaps the constitution respected his rights, but it violated the rights of millions of others.

One man, Ayman al-Werdani, who is the head of the court of appeals in Tanta, was introduced to me as an impartial judge who was there to defend legitimacy. “Following the 25th January revolution, popular mobilisation cannot be the foundation of democracy,” he insisted. “Change can only come through the ballot box… It’s not about Morsi or Islamism but about a dirty coup against democracy and a return to square zero.”

Although I believe that democracy is a multifaceted creature which includes popular mobilisation, the judge made a valid and well-argued case. However, I did not appreciate the attempts to pass him off as an impartial and non-partisan member of the judiciary, when a little research will quickly uncover substantial evidence of his close ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, including speaking at Freedom and Justice Party rallies.

With my notebook full of quotes, I delicately extracted myself from the crowd with the excuse that I needed to tour the camp further. I walked around to the stage and podium, which was currently devoid of speakers, and the abandoned TV camera on a crane. A crowd had formed in front of the stage, with a young man sitting on another man’s shoulders chanting slogans through a megaphone. I reflected how the religious were less colourful and witty in their political songs compared to their secular counterparts.

SONY DSCAs I headed for the exit, buying some Morsi posters on my way, I came across a stream of small groups marching into the camp. “Islamic, Islamic, Egypt rejects secularism,” a group of women sang in rhyming Arabic prose, their tone that of a wedding party. This echoed the “pop” Islamic song that had been playing on loudspeakers all over Raba’a: “Egypt is Islamic. Tell the world Egypt is Islamic. It isn’t secular.

Following the massacre on 14 August, I wondered whether any of the people I had met were among the dead. Although some had been shot at before and a couple had expressed boilerplate opinions that they were not afraid and were ready to die as martyrs, I sensed inside they were not. They too wanted to live but were ready to risk it all for what they believed in.

I hope none of the protesters I encountered and who shared their passion and views with me were killed, but I imagine quite a few of them perished in the hell that was unleashed. Despite their demonisation in the media and society, a process which helped people to accept the murderous rampage, I did not encounter demons, but humans, ones with flawed ideas, I grant, but they were not evil incarnate.

Although I disagree fundamentally with their fundamentalist politics and worldview, and even if some of them were “sheeple”, what cannot be denied is their dedication to their cause. Even if I believe they are misguided in their politics, the protesters at Raba’a did not deserve to die and become the sacrificial lambs in a war between the manipulative, self-serving leadership of the army and the Brotherhood.

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Egypt’s underground sisterhood

 
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By Khaled Diab

Egyptian women are under attack from a failing patriarchy. But what is overlooked is that they are fighting back through grassroots emancipation.

10 September 2013

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Surveying Egypt’s political landscape, you might be excused for thinking that women are a minority. Only five members of the Committee of 50 tasked with revising the constitution are women.

Unsurprisingly, this 10% ratio falls far short of the true proportion of the population women constitute, which in Egypt is just shy of 50%. Although women are politically under-represented everywhere in the world, in Egypt, the problem is particularly acute, as reflected in the pathetically low number of women in the first post-Mubarak (dissolved) parliament.

Egyptian women have been divided on how unfair this is. The Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights – which advocates the use of quotas to balance the gender disequilibrium in Egyptian politics – criticised this “lean” representation, which is only 3% higher than the committee formed during the Muslim Brotherhood-led constitution drafting exercise.

Others have drawn consolation from the apparent quality of the women involved. But no matter how high the calibre or how strong the mettle of these five women, can they truly advance the cause of female emancipation and gender equality?

Of course, that is probably the entire point. Male politicians generally want to preserve male privilege, and excluding women from the political process is the most effective way of doing so. That would explain why the draft constitution still claims that all Egyptians are created equal, but some – namely middle-aged, Muslim men – are more equal than others.

So, while Article 11 ostensibly guarantees gender equality, much of what it giveth, it taketh away with the qualification that this should not get in the way of a woman’s “duties towards her family” and should adhere to the “principles of Islamic Sharia”.

Although many women and advocates of gender equality are rightly depressed and demoralised by these developments, I feel this post-revolutionary conservative backlash is less a function of the patriarchy flexing its muscles and more a sign of a weakened traditional male order desperately trying to reassert its shaken and failing authority.

With Egyptian women increasingly equalling and even surpassing men in the academic and professional spheres over the past few decades, the patriarchy has sought to hold on to the vestiges of its ever-shrinking spectrum of privilege and to control women in the only areas left: at home and sexually.

This manifests itself in how many Egyptian women may be managers or doctors in the public sphere, but at home they still have to behave like, or pretend to be, obedient housewives. It is also embodied in the excessive focus on “virtue” in which women have traded greater socio-economic freedom for ostensibly less sexual freedom, again at least openly.

This can partly explain the horrendous level of sexual violence that has been witnessed since the revolution began. The security vacuum created by the collapse of the Mubarak regime not only enabled men with sick attitudes to women to roam the streets with relative impunity, it also unleashed the use of sexual violence as a political weapon to intimidate women from joining the uprising.

This weapon of mass degradation has been employed to varying degrees by Egypt’s various leaders over the past two and a half years, from assaults and rapes on Tahrir Square to “virginity tests”.

Although this has succeeded to some extent, many women have refused to be cowed and admirably still continue to play prominent roles in Egypt’s revolution, both for collective freedom and their own. Women have even braved further assault to protest against sexual harassment, while a number of campaigns have been launched to protect women attending demonstrations, such as OpAntiSh, and to monitor and combat the phenomenon, such as HarassMap.

One recent attempt to reclaim the streets, ‘Hanelbes Fasateen‘, urged women to go out in dresses in defiance of harassers. Using old black-and-white images of elegant young Egyptian women in summer dresses strolling unharassed down the street, the campaign employed a certain amount of nostalgia for a lost Egypt of greater social freedom.

Once upon a land in a time not so far away, the overwhelming majority of Egyptian women went around with their hair uncovered and many dressed in revealing western fashions. Interestingly, in the 1950s, even the daughter of the Muslim Brotherhood’s general guide, who wanted to force all Egyptian women to cover up, did not wear a headscarf.

While there is some validity to this sense of loss, there is a danger of over-sentimentalising the past, Although Egypt until the late 1970s was freer in some ways than now, in others, it was just as conservative or even more so.

Egypt’s modernising secular elite may have seen female emancipation as a crucial component of development and progress, but wider society was still largely traditional and agrarian. This meant that modernity was often fabric deep and did not extend far beyond the emulating of the latest Western fashions.

Women of my parents’ generation were still making the first tentative steps into higher education and the workplace, with all that entailed of battles against entrenched traditionalism. In contrast, today, despite increasingly conservative attire, Egyptian women have succeeded in just about every walk of life. Moreover, young women have plenty of role models to look up to, and female education and employment is taken for granted by millions.

Unsurprisingly, liberal Egyptian women want to protect what hard-won gains, relatively few and precarious as they may be, the feminist movement has made, and to try to build on them. However, they have to contend against not only the reactionary voices of Islamists and other conservatives, but also against those sympathetic to their cause who claim now is not the time, we have bigger fish to fry.

But if not now, when, if ever? Never? Since the 1919 revolution, Egyptian women have shared the pain of the struggle for freedom but have reaped few of the gains. Instead of being rewarded for their sacrifices, they have seen their cause constantly relegated, in the battle against imperialism, neo-colonialism, dictatorship, etc.

In addition, the West hasn’t helped by exploiting women and their cause to mask its hegemonic ambitions in the region, which has enabled Islamists to smear female emancipation as a “Western import” designed to tear apart the fabric of society.

While there may be some credibility to the notion that women cannot be free if the rest of society is not, I believe the inverse is far more true: society cannot free itself if half of the population lives in relative subjugation. A country wishing to prosper, resist internal repression and foreign domination cannot do so without gender equality.

As prominent feminist Nawal El Saadawi recently put it: “Democracy means economic equality, social equality – you cannot have democracy under a patriarchy when women are oppressed.”

In fact, the subjugation of women is partly a product of these ills – when politics is closed off to the masses, the vulnerable suffer. Moreover, the Ottomans, the British and Egypt’s domestic tyrants had an unspoken hierarchy of repression: the elite runs the public domain while men will run the private sphere.

This means that Egyptian revolutionaries looking to free society cannot postpone women’s liberation to an undefined “better” future, but need to make it a central and integral pillar of the collective struggle for “bread, freedom and social justice”.

More importantly, with the Muslim Brotherhood project discredited by Morsi’s presidency and its divisive politics, many Egyptians are questioning their former faith in Islamism. This provides a golden opportunity to advocate more muscularly for women’s rights.

Sadly, this seems unlikely in the political mainstream, which will continue to exclude not just women but also the young for some time to come. Nevertheless, it is heartening to see that Egyptian women are not taking this passively and are engaging in grassroots action to change their reality.

Though pioneering Egyptian women lack the safety net of a progressive legal system which safeguards their rights against regressive traditions, they are not waiting for their rights to trickle down from on top.

Every time I have visited Egypt since the revolution, I have been impressed by the increasing number of women I encounter who are defying social norms to live their individual and collective aspirations. These range from the political activists who risk life and limb for the cause to the growing number of women who pursue unusual careers, travel abroad or defer being married off (sometimes indefinitely).

When I first decided to live alone in the Cairo of the 1990s, this was unusual even for young men to do. When I was in Egypt a few weeks ago, I was impressed by the surprising number of women who are choosing to live alone.

And not all of them are from the “elite”. One young woman I met was born and raised in a small, conservative village outside Fayoum. University enabled her to escape the stifling atmosphere of rural Egypt. Not only does she live in her own apartment in Cairo, she has worked in China and the Gulf.

“The status of women has deteriorated a lot,” she admitted. “If the civil [Egyptian for ‘secular’] current gets its way, things will get better. I hope to one day see the first female president.”

While such an aspiration seems like wishful thinking today, I believe that it is entirely possible as grassroots change climbs gradually upwards. After all, if the Islamist counter-culture of the 1970s managed to mainstream its values, why can’t the secular current do the same? Political revolution needs social evolution.

___

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the updated and extended version of an article which first appeared in The Daily News Egypt on 7 September 2013.

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