The Arab world’s rebels without a god

 
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By Khaled Diab

In Egypt and other Arab countries, the atheism taboo has been broken. Atheists are rebelling against the status quo and demanding to be seen and heard.

Atheists are carving out a space in the Arab world's narrowly defined religious landscape. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Atheists are carving out a space in the Arab world’s narrowly defined religious landscape. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Wednesday 26 March 2014

Sometimes a film can change your life. This is exactly what happened to Alber Saber, but not in the way people usually mean. Little did the young activist suspect that the fevered imaginings and rantings of a religious bigot on the other side of the world would spark furious chaos right outside his front door. The “film” – or, more accurately, trailer – in question was Innocence of Muslims, the low-budget YouTube sensation that caused global controversy in 2012 for its crass and offensive depiction of Muhammad.

On 12 September 2012, a mob of angry neighbours gathered outside the apartment building where Saber lived with his family, angered by rumours that the boy next door had posted the controversial video on his Facebook page.

In fact, Saber had not posted the video. So why did the angry mob target him? Perhaps because Saber comes from a Coptic family – like the maker of Innocence of Muslims – and, unlike him, is an atheist.

Distressed and concerned, Saber’s mother phoned the police, expecting them to turn up and protect her son and the rest of the family. Instead, the police returned the next day to arrest the outspoken blogger and activist who was actively expressing his atheistic convictions on social media. Saber was insulted during his interrogation and a junior officer incited fellow prisoners against him, provoking one of them to cut him with a razor on his throat.

In December 2012, Saber was sentenced to three years for “insulting” and “disdaining” religion by “creating webpages, including Crazy Dictator and Egyptian Atheists”. “This made me feel that anyone who thinks differently to the religion or ideology of the state is a criminal,” he asserts. “But I will not give up my right to think.”

During his appeal, the young activist fled the country. “I really miss my life in Egypt because I am now living in Switzerland far away from my family, friends and country,” he told me from his exile, “even if my country does not respect my rights and has caused me a lot of trouble.”

Saber admits that despite the dangers he faced in Egypt, he did not want to flee. “If it were up to me I would stay and defend myself even if I were to be executed,” he said in an interview at the time.

The sensationalist corners of the media had a field day during Saber’s ordeal, depicting him as the atheistic equivalent of the Islamophobic, Quran-burning American pastor, Terry Jones. “A segment of the media inserted untruths about my case. They alleged that I burnt or tore up the Quran,” he recounts. “Many people still believe this, even though my case revolved around the articles and videos I made about my personal beliefs.”

And it is not just Saber. Ever since the revolution took off in 2001, Egyptian non-believers have felt emboldened and empowered, emerging from the shadows to carve out a space for themselves on social media.

This has had a ripple effect on the mainstream media.

For example, the widely watched 90 Minute talk show recently hosted a young atheist and social media activist, Ismail Mohamed, in an episode titled ‘Penetrating the secret world of atheists in Egypt’. While the programme brought the subject of atheism to a public platform, it was a missed opportunity to promote a mature public debate on non-belief. Despite the presenter’s assertions that she wished to give Mohamed a podium to express his views, she displayed blatant hostility towards the subject. Her guests included a psychiatrist who suggested that atheism was caused – as is similarly suggested about homosexuality in the Arab world – by psychological, financial and family problems and so atheists deserved patience and pity.

The inconvenient truth is that atheism is not a psychological disorder. “I did not become an atheist,” counters Milad Suleiman, a young atheist blogger from Imbaba, a poor Cairo suburb that was gripped by an Islamist insurgency in the 1990s. “Atheism is a state of thought. It has no specific starting point.”

Paradoxically, many atheists arrive at their convictions as the product of an attempt to deepen their faith, understand their religion better or silence doubts plaguing their consciences. “When I started university in the 1980s, I realised that I was very knowledgeable about lots of things, except my own religion. So I decided that I was going to delve deep into it and be as expert as possible,” Ayman Abdel-Fattah, a socially minded businessman and affably outspoken atheist in his late 40s, told me in a noisy watering hole in the upscale Cairo neighbourhood of Zamalek. But  instead of reaffirming his faith, this exercise, Abdel-Fattah admits, “gave me the shock of my life” because he found that the founding fathers and mothers of Islam were very human, for the most part cynically political, motivated by self-interest and riven by infighting, jealousy and overriding ambition.

Others begin their journey as deeply conservative believers. “I was a very religious person when I was a teenager. I used to teach kids in church and remote villages about Christianity and Jesus,” recalls Mena Bassily, a young Egyptian computer scientist now living in New Zealand. Unsatisfied with the clergy’s textbook responses to his growing doubts, Bassily embarked on a journey of spiritual self-discovery that eventually led him to jettison his faith.

Before the revolution, Abdel-Fattah says, Egyptians preferred to adopt a deathly silence on the subject. “There was not a single attempt for any serious academic study or genuine analysis of the social repercussions of the trend, despite the fact that it was easily observable through the blogosphere and social media at large,” he points out.

So what prompted the media to wake up to this phenomenon? “[Everything] changed after it became apparent [that] the Islamists were going to take over,” Abdel-Fattah explains. “[The media] concluded there was one, and only one, reason for this ‘atheism tsunami.’ It was the Islamists’ rule.”

The expression “atheism tsunami,” evoking images of a Biblical god flooding the world with atheists rather than the more conventional water, fire or brimstone, was memorably used by Amr Adeeb, the loud-mouthed host of the popular talk show al-Qahira al-Youm (Cairo Today). The ‘experts’ on Adeeb’s show concluded that young people were turning to atheism as a reaction to the reactionary brand of Islam that had taken hold in Egypt.

“Following the coup, a lot of people reacted against religion as a rejection of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood,” observes Amira Mohsen, a British-Egyptian journalist and media analyst.  In addition, the military regime has manipulated the widespread fear that Egypt could become the next Saudi Arabia to demonise the Muslim Brotherhood and justify its persecution of the movement.

Blaming radical Islamists appeals both to atheists and religious moderates. For atheists, it supports the hope that society will, one day, throw off the shackles of conservative religion and choose secularism instead.

For religious moderates, placing blame elsewhere sustains their belief that it is not religion which is the problem but the way it is abused by extremists.

But while disgust at the surge of Islamic extremism may have prompted a number of Egyptians to abandon their faith, far greater influences appear to be intellectual conviction, more openness sparked by the 2011 revolution, and a gradual discarding of old, tired philosophies that tried to create homogeneity by ignoring the country’s diversity.

“Egyptian society has always been diverse and varied in terms of beliefs, opinions and cultures,” notes Alber Saber, the exiled blogger. “This has made many tolerant of those with differing outlooks.”

Beyond Egypt’s mainstream media, a profound public debate on belief has begun. This can be observed particularly in social media, which has seen a profusion of blogs, citizen journalism and films tackling this complex topic.  

In the progressive ranks of the Egyptian media, there have also been efforts to portray atheists sympathetically. For instance, the online al-Badil (Alternative), which describes itself as “the voice of the weak”, produced a video documentary in which a number of atheists were given the space and freedom to elaborate on their beliefs, lives, concerns and worries.

Atheists hope that the revolution of consciousness which has overtaken Egyptian society will expand to include them. “I don’t think I will witness any earth-shattering changes for atheists’ rights or recognition in my lifetime,” concludes Ayman Abdel-Fattah, “but I’m also certain that the momentum has reached an irreversible point.”

Tunisia: the atheist spring?

Tunisia, the unexpected epicentre of the revolutionary wave that washed across the Arab world is once again providing lessons to the rest of the region in what freedom truly means.

The only difference is that this time around, instead of being the first to rise against a despotic regime, Tunisians were the first to pass a new constitution. This is a document that, despite being drafted in compromise with the moderate Islamist al-Nahda party, guarantees “freedom of belief and conscience” and, most notably, contains no references to Sharia.

Calling the constitution entirely secular may, however, be a bit of a stretch. Islam is still defined as the religion of the state and it is clearly stated that the president must be a Muslim. Also potentially problematic is the state’s dual duty to “protect the sacred” and to “prohibit charges of apostasy”. This could one day potentially be used to curb freedom of belief, a right that includes that of questioning the sacred and being an “apostate”.

It is in fact no coincidence that, although Tunisia tolerates non-believers more than most other places in the Arab world, atheism is still a taboo. This limitation is especially noticeable in the media, segments of which deliberately spread lies about what atheists are and what they believe. One example is that of the male student OM, whose name was concealed for undisclosed reasons. In an interview with Tunisialive, he complained about a journalist who interviewed him about his beliefs and afterwards wrote that “atheists worship stones and the sun, and that they drink urine and blood”.

Until recently most Tunisian atheists kept their convictions behind closed doors, but since the post-revolutionary rise of Islamist parties, more and more are starting to become vocal. At the same time, there seems to be a growing acceptance of atheistic beliefs.

“There are a number of associations that have made the defence of atheists’ rights their main battles,” says OM. “I am hopeful that we will reach a stage when atheism is tolerated.”

Unholy in the Holy Land

The Dome of the Rock. The Holy Sepulchre. The Western Wall. As the cradle of the Abrahamic faiths, the Holy Land is better known for belief than non-belief, yet atheists walk amongst the faithful.

However, when it comes to Palestinian non-believers, life can be lonely and finding like-minded people difficult. “I don’t know many non-believers,” George, a Palestinian atheist from Jerusalem who works in IT, told me.

Whether this is a sign that Palestinian atheists are few and far between or that they keep a low profile is unclear. “The Palestinian media doesn’t deal with the issue,” George explains.

Atheism wasn’t always confined to the sidelines as it is today. In 1948, after the loss of Palestine doubts about the importance of religion were widespread. For the first decades of the Palestinian struggle against Israel, communists played a prominent role in Palestinian politics and society. Although Palestinian and Arab communists were ambiguous about their convictions regarding the existence of God, they were openly sceptical or hostile towards organised religion.

For instance, the writings of both Mahmoud Darwish and Ghassan Kanafani deal with shaken faith. “God does not come to the poor,” Darwish declares in one of his poems, while a character in one of Kanafani’s stories declaims: “May the curse of the God who does not exist anywhere pour down on you.”

Non-belief in the cradle of Islam

As a strict Wahhabi theocracy, Saudi Arabia does not tolerate the presence of other religions or other branches of Islam in the public space. Conversion and atheism are both considered “apostasy” and according to the Kingdom’s law are punishable by death.

Unsurprisingly, citizens and foreigners living in Saudi are very careful when expressing their views about religion. But there are a growing number of exceptions who are challenging these restrictions.

One example is Saudi poet Hamza Kashgari who, in early 2012, posted three tweets on an imaginary encounter with Muhammad during the festival of the prophet’s birthday (mawlid) in which he declared “I shall not bow to you” and “I have loved aspects of you, hated others”. After more than a year and a half in prison for his “blasphemous” outburst, Kashgari was finally released in October 2013.

This is part of a broader backlash against Saudi’s Wahhabi establishment which has included a civil disobedience campaign by women wishing to drive. Even the fearsome Mutaween, the once untouchable religious police, is coming in for increasingly harsh criticism and opposition, including lawsuits and protest actions, especially after its agents drove two young brothers who were playing music off a bridge to their deaths in a high-speed car chase.

Despite the risks involved, an anonymous and secretive atheistic underground movement, albeit a small one, has emerged in Saudi. In order to discuss and share ideas this group of dissident atheists mostly gathers in online forums and chats, but in rare occasions it also manages to meet face to face. “We non-believers have meetings and groups in a lot of Saudi cities,” one atheist told Your Middle East in 2013. “If you go into them, then you will be shocked by the numbers and elements of society.

___

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This feature first appeared in the March 2014 edition of The Outpost.

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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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Egyptian rebels with a cause… and effect

 
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By Khaled Diab

The dedication and success of the Tamarod rebellion against President Morsi is awe-inspiring, but the movement’s current trust in the army is worrying.

Tuesday 6 August 2013

A stone’s throw away from Egypt’s emblematic Tahrir Square stands the Groppi Rotund, a tearoom which was once the preserve of well-heeled Europeans and wealthy Egyptians at a time when Cairo – at least its European quarter – had pretensions of being the Paris of the Middle East.

Groppi’s, a dusty, crumbling ghost of its former self, has borne immobile witness to most of the major events and upheavals which have gripped Egypt over the past century or so. It is even rumoured that the Free Officers, who met to plot the overthrow of the monarchy at another café just off Tahrir Square, used the phone in Groppi’s to communicate.

If true, this was an appropriate venue to meet a group of young activists in the Tamarod movement, most of whom describe themselves as Nasserists, though the movement itself is non-partisan. Tamarod, which means ‘Rebellion’ in Arabic, was a petition campaign, which began life in late April 2013, calling for President Mohamed Morsi to step down and launch early presidential elections.

Though he looks like your typical Egyptian guy next door and is not rebellious in his appearance, Hassan Shahin, 23, a journalist who is still completing his degree in media at Cairo University, was the originator of the idea. “The source of the concept was that we wanted to reach ordinary citizens in order to instigate change in society,” the young revolutionary told me after he’d finished some urgent-seeming communications on his tablet. “There was a sense of depression amongst the people, and they didn’t believe that the Muslim Brotherhood would go without bloodshed.”

The reason they felt the need to “reach ordinary citizens” was because “the opposition had lost touch with the people”, Shahin observes. “They talked about political questions and ignored social demands. You need to respond to social demands to move the street.”

This was reflected in the care the Tamarod activists took to pitching the message of their campaign. “The petition was a way to reach ordinary citizens, so we worded it in a way that would appeal to them,” he explained.

It also manifested itself in the campaign’s grassroots nature and its successful efforts to shove the Egyptian secular opposition out of its comfort zone in Cairo and some major cities and make it a truly national movement. “Citizens had ownership of the project,” Shahin said. “We had representatives in every governorate and we gathered over 10,000 volunteers in the first two weeks alone.”

It is a sign of how far Egypt has come that a mass, nationwide mobilisation campaign should have such a, well, rebellious name in a country once famed for its apparent placidity and conformity, and where causing “fitna” (“sedition”) was frozned upon. Tamarod, whose name was inspired by a radical Syrian political magazine, Shahin informed me, was a movement both to rebel “against”, but most importantly to rebel “for”.

“The idea was to rebel against the Muslim Brotherhood’s project of religious fascism which was causing popular disillusionment and depression,” Shahin noted, though I found his casual use of such a loaded word as “fascism” troubling. “But our rebellion was also more for than against  – for law and order, for equality, for social and economic justice.”

Although the young revolutionaries behind Tamarod were confident that their campaign, which was dreamed up in a small Dokki flat, would make a large splash, they did not expect it to be quite so enormous. “We had confidence in the Egyptian street, but we were surprised by just how many people got involved,” admits Shahin.

Tamarod says it managed to collect some 23 million signatures (a figure which has not been independently verified), which is only a couple of million short of the total number of votes both Mohamed Morsi and Ahmed Shafiq collected in the second round runoff.

I put to Shahin the criticism that Tamarod and other supporters of Morsi’s ouster were anti-democratic to get his views on the matter. “Morsi had an illusory democracy. He abused the constitution, represented just the Brotherhood, and used its militias to terrorise,” he asserted, employing yet another emotive word. “People came out in rebellion against this terrorisation and intimidation.”

The Muslim Brotherhood have warned of – many say “threatened” – the dire consequences of Morsi’s ouster, including the prospect of civil war. For his part, Shahin contends that the reverse is true. “If the army hadn’t intervened the situation would’ve escalated into a civil war,” he believes, one that would’ve pitted an embattled, desperately unpopular president and the Muslim Brotherhood against revolutionaries and much of the population.

How about those who contend that civil war is now more likely? “There are risks ahead but it is impossible that there’ll be a civil war. If the Egyptian people were bloody and violent, they would’ve gone to Raba’a [al-Adawiya] in their millions to finish of the Muslim Brotherhood,”

“What happened on 30 June was a popular revolution supported by a patriotic army,” said the young activist who just a year and a half earlier was out protesting against this very same “patriotic army”. Shahin even quite literally got trampled upon by the heavy boot of military rule when he attempted, on 28 December 2011, to aid a woman who was being brutally beaten and dragged away by soldiers, exposing her torso blue bra, in an iconic moment which symbolised everything that was wrong with the direct interim rule of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF).

This shift baffled and bothered me, so I decided to probe him on it, especially in light of how Tamarod had heeded General Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi’s chilling call to take to the streets to provide him with a popular “mandate” to combat “violence and terrorism” (Luckily, some revolutionary movements, such as the 6th April Youth Movement, refused to participate). And how about the deaf ear the generals turned to the demands of revolutionaries to hand over power immediately to civilian rule during the first transition? What about the red lines SCAF drew around its empire and the back room influence it enjoyed over Morsi? How could Tamarod bring itself to trust the junta now?

“The first transition created deficiencies at the time. Even if there were errors committed by SCAF, it was the president’s job to establish the right foundations for Egyptian democracy,” insisted Shahin. “We need to differentiate between the institution of the army and a group of leaders who made mistakes… The army which produced Orabi and Nasser is patriotic.”

Shahin suggested that the problem was not with the military but with Field Marshal Mohamed el-Tantawi’s leadership of SCAF. But is Sisi’s leadership any less self-interested or any more democratic? Why is General Sisi engaged in such transparent efforts to bolster the army’s popularity by inciting against the Muslim Brotherhood, and why is he employing classic divide and rule tactics? I heard both whispered and loud speculation while in Egypt that Sisi was planning to ditch the khaki and run in elections as a civilian – and if he were to do that, many expect him to win a landslide victory.

Besides, is the army not repeating many of the same mistakes it made in the first transition? No, insists the Tamarod spokesperson. “The second transition is much better. This time, there is the idea of drafting a constitution first. The revolutionaries are now in government,” he cites as two examples.

Even if CC, as his opponents call him, is well-intentioned and honest about his lack of ambition to rule, it is surely not healthy for so many people, including hard-nosed revolutionaries, to be acting like starstruck teenagers at a rock concert.

In fact, many have likened the charismatic and savvy general to Egypt’s legendary second president Gamal Abdel-Nasser. But despite his many achievements – and catastrophes – Nasser was no democrat by any stretch of the imagination. As Shahin and his companions at Groppi’s were also self-declared Nasserists, I wondered how they reconciled their admiration for Nasser with their long battle to bring democracy to Egypt, which began for Shahin in 2008 with the anti-Mubarak umbrella movement, Kefaya.

“Nasser made mistakes. He was human,” Shahin admits, though in terms those persecuted by the popular president, whether leftists, liberals or Islamists, would probably find more than a little understated. But to his credit Shahin did not attempt to go to the fantastical lengths Alaa al-Aswany once did in a short story in which he had Nasser giving Mubarak lessons in democracy from beyond the grave.

“But [Nasser] established true social justice and national independence,” Shahin added, echoing one side of what I call Egypt’s clash of freedoms, in which competing concepts of liberty are currently competing for ascendancy. “I came out on 25 January [2011] to complete the [23] July [1952] revolution.”

To my mind, this last comment is the ultimate proof of why revolutionaries, like the Brotherhood before them, should not express such unconditional affection for the army. After six decades of denying Egyptians their democratic rights and many of their fundamental rights, it is obvious that any love is largely one-sided and unrequited. I do not doubt that the army is “patriotic” – it would be a catastrophe if it weren’t – but its behaviour often belies some uncomfortable home truths: it loves Egypt and its own self-interest more than it does Egyptians.

“People will not be cheated by the army. It is a patriotic institution,” Shahin insists. “The political process is now inclusive and the army has no role in this phase beyond defending the Egyptian people.” Of course, many would beg to differ with this assertion, even if Sisi is officially only a deputy prime-minister.

But what if what Shahin regards as the unthinkable were to happen? “There is no military rule now and if it re-appears, I’ll be the first to oppose it,” he emphasises in no uncertain terms.

How about those who say no to both the Muslim Brotherhood and military rule, like the Midan el-Talet (Third Square) movement? “There is no such thing. They are Muslim Brotherhood supporters like [former presidential candidate Abdel-Moneim] Aboul Fotouh and those who represent US interests,” Shahin says.

His words echo the dismissive attitude I heard from many about the Third Square. Does this really reflect the nature of the movement or has the current pro-military public mood led people to turn on anyone who distrusts SCAF or expresses the view that the army should be kept out of striking range of politics? Additionally, the movement, though it does possess an Islamist element, involve all political persuasions.

I had tried to meet the Third Square to find out more about them while in Egypt but their spokesperson failed to get back to me.

Turning to the future, I probed Shahin on what he thought should happen to the Muslim Brotherhood. “We want the Brotherhood to be part of the political process, but they refuse,” he noted. “The trouble is that they believe that the will of the Brotherhood is the will of the Egyptian people.”

Thanks to Arab and international mediation, there have been some early signs that after talking themselves into a corner – or better said, a trench – the Brotherhood is looking for a dignified exit from this crisis, such as a face-saving manner for Morsi to step down.

But it is not just the Brotherhood that has been towing a hard line, the security services and many in the armed forces reportedly want to continue the tough approach they have so far taken, perhaps out of the belief that they can “teach” the Brothers a lesson. But if they do that, it is a sign that they have more than a few lessons to learn themselves.

I ended our encounter by asking Hassan Shahin where the future would take the Tamarod movement. “Tamarod is shifting from being an opposition movement to one that pressures and campaigns for change,” he told me. As an example, he mentioned their latest project called Write Your Own Constitution.

And what about Egypt’s youth who spearheaded this whole revolution with their courage, conviction and creativity; for how much longer will they be left out in the wilderness? Shahin believes that this transition is already bringing some positive developments. “The role of young people has become clear since the road map,” he noted, citing the inclusion of youth deputies.

I left Groppi’s trusting that Egypt’s youth would continue to inspire and challenge society. I also hoped that young Egyptians would lead us towards a brighter future and finally get their fair share of the country’s economic, political and social pies.

As for Tamarod, I greatly admire the rebellious spirit that  gave birth to this daring idea and the rebellious souls who  propelled it to such heights. However, I feel that the movement’s current infatuation with the army undermines its anti-establishment credentials and is a potentially dangerous liaison. But I sense that this is a temporary blip, the honeymoon will soon be over and the young rebels will once again be at loggerheads with the old generals.

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Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter

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The human wrongs of the Holocaust

 
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By Khaled Diab

A new museum in Belgium seeks to make the Holocaust relevant for contemporary visitors by placing it in the wider context of human rights.

Wednesday 6 February 2013

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The original Kazerne Dossin. photo: ©Khaled Diab

Located half way between Belgium’s two largest cities, Brussels and Antwerp, prosperous Mechelen, which was once the capital of the Low Countries, has for centuries played a pivotal role in the economy and the arts.

During the Industrial Revolution, the first railway line in continental Europe connected Mechelen to nearby Brussels. Just over a century later, when the Industrial Revolution gave way to industrialised devolution in Europe, the extensive rail network running through Mechelen led the Nazis to choose it as the location for an infamous transit camp for Belgium and Northern France.

Between 1942 and 1944, the camp, which was located in Kazerne Dossin, a 17-century infantry barracks constructed during the Habsburg era, deported 25,500 Jews (as well as 352 Roma) to Auschwitz-Birkenau, of which only 5% survived the Nazi’s Final Solution.

In 1996, Belgium’s Jewish community set up the Jewish Museum of Resistance and Deportation (JMRD) on the ground floor of one wing of the Kazerne Dossin. Last month, a larger state-of-the-art museum and memorial opened its doors to the public.

The two generations of museums owe their existence to two men touched personally by the tragedy of deportation. One was Nathan Ramet, an Auschwitz survivor who reportedly refused to speak about his ordeal until he decided to establish the JMRD, who sadly died a few months before the new museum was opened. The other was the then Minister-President of Flanders Patrick Dewael whose grandfather, Arthur Vanderpoorten, died in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp for his anti-Nazi activities.

The €25-million cubic complex is a sombre white mausoleum-like structure which its designer, the celebrated Flemish architect Bob Van Reeth, says was built with a brick for each person deported from the site, while the museums entire volume is equivalent to the freight cars in the 28 convoys which transported the victims to their eventual death in Poland.

Inside, echoing the Hall of Names at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, a wall rising the entire height of the building carries photos (or empty spaces where no pictures survive) for every single victim transported from Mechelen, in a bid to re-humanise them.

But with dozens of Holocaust museums and memorials around the world, including in nearby London and Paris, how does Kazerne Dossin intend to stand out?

“Naturally, we can’t tell the story of Auschwitz here. We focus ourselves on the Belgian story,” Sarah Verhaert, the Kazerne’s spokeswoman, told me.

And the Belgian story is retold through photographs, newspaper clippings and other material from the time, as well as interactive personal testimonies from a number of survivors.

Caricatures and newspaper clippings from the time illustrate clearly that Judeophobia was not just a German ill but infected significant strata of Belgian society, as it did much of the West, though there was also great opposition to it too.

With its own ready supply of home-grown antisemites, a natural question arises of whether or not any Belgians actively took part in the Nazi persecution. The issue of collaboration remains, in fact, a touchy one in Belgium, even today – but the museum does not shy away from addressing it.

The accepted narrative is that only a tiny minority aided and abetted the Nazis out of ideological conviction, while others, such as the civil servants who helped draw up Belgium’s first-ever register of Jews, did so because they had no other choice.

“We have to challenge the myth that the Nazi occupation left no room for manoeuvre,” explains the museum’s curator Herman Van Goethem, a prominent professor of history at Antwerp university. “In the hierarchal context of the time, Belgian civil servants had a margin for administrative resistance without putting their lives in danger.”

This margin for dissent could help explain why only roughly half of the 85,000 Jews in Belgium at the time (many of whom were refugees from further east) were registered and how deportation occurred more smoothly in some places and with difficulty in others, such as Brussels.

“This museum has had to deal with a lot of sensitive issues, such as the role of the palace,” notes Verhaert. “At a certain moment, the palace had turned its head and looked away from what was happening.”

The part played by the Belgian monarch at the time, Leopold III, is particularly controversial. Although he defied the German occupiers at times and was kept under house arrest and even deported, his sympathies seemed to lie more with the Nazis than the Allies, whose expected entry into Belgium to push out the Germans he regarded as an “occupation”.

That said the monarchy, as well as the Catholic Church, played a pivotal role in in extracting assurances from the Nazis that no Jews with Belgian citizenship would be deported, and Leopold’s mother, Queen Elisabeth, organised the rescue from deportation of hundreds of Jewish children.

But the most heroic, dangerous and defiant forms of resistance came from ordinary people, who harboured and hid Jews, at great personal risk. Some 1,500 of these everyday heroes are commemorated among the Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem. These include Yvonne Nèvejean, who helped hide some 4,000 Jewish children.

Jews also played an active part in the resistance, with many joining the Belgian underground. Perhaps the most audacious (and simple) example of this underground resistance was the daring rescue of Transport XX, one of the convoys from Mechelen. A Jewish doctor, Youra Livchitz, and his two non-Jewish friends, Robert Maistriau and Jean Franklemon, managed, equipped with little more than a makeshift red lantern, to stop the train to Auschwitz long enough for 231 of those on board to escape, half of whom were recaptured or killed.

21st century relevance

In addition to shedding light on the Belgian page of this dark chapter of European history, the new museum approaches the Holocaust from what it describes as a unique perspective. “Kazerne Dossin is the first Holocaust museum that explicitly takes up human rights in its mission,” explains Herman Van Goethem, the museum’s curator.

Linking the Holocaust to the theme of human rights in general was chosen as a way of enabling modern audiences to better relate to this tragedy and to draw the necessary lessons from it.

The installations explore the dynamics of intolerance and exclusion, from bullying in the playground to discrimination against entire groups in society, and how this can escalate to mass violence. Segregation in the United States and Apartheid in South Africa are among the case studies highlighted.

“Visitors find the link that is made between the Second World War and human rights today to be very interesting,” observes Sara Verhaert.

But the connection has sparked some controversy. “The most common question that we get is, ‘Why haven’t you included the Israeli-Palestinian conflict’?” admits Verhaert. “But that is such a sensitive issue to address, especially here, which is a memorial for so many Jewish people.”

Although the atrocities committed in King Leopold II’s “Congo Free State” get a passing mention, questions have also been raised about why Belgium’s colonial ghosts have not been given greater prominence at Kazerne Dossin. Moreover, Belgium has no museums dedicated to its dark history in Africa. Though she admits that this is an unfortunate oversight, Verhaert notes that: “No country likes to be confronted with its war history and its colonial legacy.”

And her observation rings true in many instances. For example, though Washington is home to a centrally located Holocaust museum, the nearby National Museum of the American Indian has been criticised for failing “to confront the clash between foreign colonists and the native people they found here”.

Moreover, echoing a debate that is familiar elsewhere in Europe, Israel and the United States,  the question of whether it is valid to compare the Holocaust to other atrocities also played out over the decade it took to plan and construct Kazerne Dossin, with some leading politicians insisting that  “the unique character of the Shoah” must be preserved.

Herman Van Goethem finds such objections to be both unfounded and potentially dangerous. “The exclusive focus on the uniqueness of the Shoah can lead to us isolating it, placing it completely outside ourselves, and viewing it as a completely incomprehensible event,” he argues.

And the greater the distance in time and social reality grows, the harder it becomes for people to get their heads around the sheer scale and inhumanity of the Nazi’s Final Solution. “The younger generation find it all very hard to imagine,” notes Verhaert. “I conducted a tour and the multiracial group of young people found it hard to believe that there were some things that people were not allowed to do, that Jews were not allowed on the tram, or in the park or the cinema.”

Verhaert sees this as a good sign, despite the growth of discrimination and intolerance in some quarters of Belgian society. Kazerne Dossin, she believes, can help make upcoming generational more appreciative of how special the multicultural reality they live in today is, and the need to be vigilant in order to preserve it.

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Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 31 January 2013.

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The hair that binds

 
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By Christian Nielsen

Despite its bonding potential, a trip to the hairdresser’s can inflict trauma on soap-phobic pre-adolescent boys and their mullet-phobic fathers.

Friday 11 January 2013

I can think of three traditional male-bonding rituals between father and son: fishing trips, the first football match together and that birds and bees chat. Today, I am reminded of another … going to the hairdresser together.

I’m sitting in an over-lit salon on a white faux leather couch flicking through magazines with my eldest son in search of a hairstyle that doesn’t make him look more of a Muppet than he currently does. It’s not going well. He’s all attitude and insists he just wants the fringe out of eyes and may be less hair on the sides.

As someone raised in the 1970s and 1980s, I can see that instructing the hairdresser to do this will result in only one thing … the dreaded mullet. Remember Bono in the 1980s, Billy Ray Cyrus in the 90s and, for those familiar with Australian Rules Football, the 21st century incarnation of this fashion travesty Richmond player Ivan Maric.

Failure to face this challenge today in an adult way, failure to overcome the fear of making a scene will have serious consequences. It will scar the memory of this landmark father-son bonding moment. The pointed finger of shame will be cast in my direction for months (until the mullet grows out) as parents recognise my salon failure, my inability to instruct the hairdresser on the appropriate length and style for a nine-year-old boy.

As I mull over the perils of this decision, an executive-looking guy walks in with his preteen son and says with authority to the hairdresser, “Can I leave my boy here to wait for a cut … make it short for school but perhaps not too much off the fringe!” The hairdresser flutters agreement to this alpha male and he walks out of the salon, leaving the boy to finger his smart phone morosely while he waits his turn.

“You see how lucky you are?” I say to my boy whom I clearly think shouldn’t care how his hair looks. “Some dads just tell the hairdresser how to cut it and that’s it.” After months of badgering him about the state of his hair, my wife decided it was time that I stepped up and did what fathers do … problem is, I’m not really sure what they’re supposed to do in this situation.

Fishing trips aside, my dad was not the most hands-on in these matters. For example, the birds and bees thing was a memo delivered via my mum along the lines … “Get him some condoms and make sure he uses them!” My mum obliged but her timing was a bit off. I was 14 and still very much a virgin. The procured box of condoms was met with some bemusement at first but that gave way to amusement for my friends and I who found a good use for them as water bombs.

So, here I sit 30 years later with my own son and sometimes I possess barely an inkling of the requirements that this entails. Next to me is a man waiting equally as uncomfortably on this white sofa, enduring the top ten R&B tunes of today on a mounted TV and humming some incessant tune of his own. Second thoughts … it’s a tick and it’s really starting to wind me up.

Two hairdressers work on three women at various stages of what appears to be their Saturday wash-and-dry routine, while a chatty woman with a red nose waits her turn. Builders bring in materials for renovations and the red-nosed woman takes up position as traffic cop opening and closing the door each time they return with planks and boxes.

Meanwhile, my son has narrowed down his choice of hairdos to two possibilities. I struggle to hide my envy that he has a choice at all. Hair loss is cruel. I like both cuts, but one could really work with his hair, and although it is ‘fashionable’ it is also boyish, so perfect for his age!

I’ve got Time magazine’s people of the year edition open in front of me, but as interesting as Obama, Cook and co. may be, it’s impossible to concentrate. Inane nattering, R&B warbling, coiffed madams complaining, builders bantering … Human suffering gets a makeover in the salon.

Finally, it’s my boy’s turn. He approaches the spray-tanned stylist and shows her the page with the look he wants. She seems impressed. He sits and she pumps the seat to the right height.

Mullets now safely behind us, fresh concerns bubble to the surface. Will she go too far and turn my innocent boy into a Dorian dandy? What will his mother say when I walk him in with a new romantic flick that would put Spandau Ballet to shame?

I take a seat next to him and my panic is palpable. She starts at the back. He says, “Don’t let her cut too much off’, in Swedish (his mother is a Swede) so the girl doesn’t understand. But all my own fears of making a fuss come back to me. I get a flashback of the times I sat in the salon chair saying nothing as I see the next three months of my life being destroyed until the tragedy she is creating on my head grows out.

I tell him it looks great. I can tell he’s not convinced, but he can’t see what she’s doing so it’s still safe. Then she starts on the sides and front. Hair piles up on the floor. With every chunk jettisoned he winces. I can picture him starting to cry and embarrassing the hell out of me when she finishes.

Then it starts to take shape. My dread subsides momentarily. My boy smiles as the fringe is tidied up. I say it looks great and really mean it because it does. No mullet, no new romantic. We think it’s all over when she pulls out another pair of scissors and starts cutting it all again. I say cutting but it looks more my scraping as she distresses the ends … and me … with every pull.

Next comes the razor and I think this is where I have to say enough is enough, but I remember her being so pleased to be able to work on a proper hairstyle, from a book and all. I don’t have the heart to take this creative moment away from her. I sacrifice my child to her tepid career in a provincial salon. I close my eyes and pray that it will be over soon.

“Umm, do you want me to put gel in it?” I open my eyes and see that the creation is finished. “Gel?” she says slower and louder like young people do when speaking to the elderly. I look at my son, and he screws up his nose.

“No, I think it’s fine the way it is,” I say with a measure of exhaustion creeping into my voice. She brushes the hair off his face and back and removes the smock. He turns to me, catching himself in the mirror on the way, and I’m just waiting for that look which means “Daddy, I’ll never trust you again”.

It doesn’t come. Instead I get a broad smile and glint of pride. It’s a cool cut from a magazine but it still makes him look like a boy … a beautiful nine-year-old boy. The stylist is pleased with herself. The customer, my son, is pleased with himself. The father, me, is relieved as hell. We leave the salon and he takes my hand as we walk back to the car.

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Egypt’s rebels without a pause

 
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By Khaled Diab

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

Thursday 20 December 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

We do politics differently now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Revolutionary generation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The sport of revolution

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

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

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

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

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

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

A revolution in search of a leadership

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joining the political party

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

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

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

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

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

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

___

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

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

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Minority voices in Upper Egypt

 
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By Josephine Littlejohn

A publisher in Luxor who happens to be Christian shows how Egypt’s majority and minorities, despite growing tension, share similar dreams and fears.

Wednesday 19 September 2012

Mena Melad floating on the Nile.

In Luxor, I caught up with Mena Melad, the editor-in-chief and owner of Luxor Times, a glossy magazine and newspaper for Luxor’s English-speaking community. The publication is targeted at expats and tourists, and covers local issues, archaeology, the arts and current events. Melad is also from the Catholic community, a minority among Egyptian Christians, with the majority being Copts. I had not realised there was an Egyptian Catholic community, and so my curiosity was piqued.

I arranged to meet Melad and another member of the Catholic community, a local bus driver, to get their thoughts on post-revolution Egypt. Melad is young, sharp, educated and very much reflects the new generation in Egypt: hungry for change and desperate to modernise his country.

His frustration at the system, and the slow pace of change since the revolution began. “Laws area not being implemented. Rubbish is piling up everywhere and no one does anything about it. The crime rates are going up but the police don’t want to upset anyone and cause another riot. People expect things to be done for them,” complains Melad. “A group of us went out into the villages and helped with trash collection, showing the villagers how to recycle, what to separate out, and how to bag up their trash for collection. We did that for a couple for weeks to get it going but when we went back a few weeks later, it was back to being strewn everywhere and just tossed out of windows.”

His despair and frustration were obvious. The mountain that stands before him and before Egypt is not just a matter of voting in a new government, it is the massive process of slowly turning around how a population thinks. People are used to paternalistic rule. Individual and communal responsibility had been ruthlessly engineered out of society’s grassroots in the past in order to dis-empower the population, so it will take a long time for the people to recover.

Melad talked at length about local resources, unregulated construction and the fragility of the Nile itself. To illustrate, he took us out onto the west bank so that I could see for myself. Business people and some expats had taken advantage of the political turmoil and the subsequent lull in law enforcement to throw up apartment buildings to sell at inflated prices (by Egyptian standards) to foreigners looking for a cheap holiday home. I was appalled at what he showed me.

Gaps of land in between the regular buildings had been filled with new apartment blocks, pushed cheek to jowl against existing homes, cutting off any views or privacy the existing residents may have had. The roving editor also showed me how precious agricultural land, necessary for growing food crops, had been built on indiscriminately.

“There are available building plots further inland, and that is where any expansion should be. This land, close to the Nile, is needed for growing food; this land is precious and is already under strain. We could have sustainable housing 5km away from the Nile, we should not build near the Nile,” he pointed out.

We then moved on to Luxor, and the political and communal uncertainties brought about by the revolution.  The bus driver expressed his worries: “As a Catholic, I am already a minority within a minority, and it worries me. Will my community suffer discrimination? Will we get fair [treatment from] the authorities if they are run by an Islamic group? Will we get fair justice? Will we get fair arbitration with local conflicts? Or will we become second class citizens?”

I could see his fears really troubled him. He was a quiet, gentle man struggling to provide for his family. He told me how his income had dropped considerably as work dried up. No one had money to spend, and now because of the relative lawlessness, he was afraid to work late at night in case his bus was stolen from him or his earnings robbed. He was very concerned for the future of his young children and his ability to provide for them.

“We need order restored, we need the police to [serve] us, not just the tourists, and we need local government to start doing its job,” the bus driver urged.

I asked Melad about the future of the governorship of Luxor under the new government as there was an impending reshuffle. What did he think would be a good way forward in the future? What qualities did he think a future governor would need?  Melad thought it important that a future governor would be “an outsider to Luxor. ” I asked him why? I would have thought someone local who knew the community well, who knew its needs and its problems intimately, would be more helpful.

“Yes, that is a good point,” he said. “But we are worried about the issue of tribal allegiance. If we get a local, there will be the risk of getting someone who gives more attention to his extended family and community rather than the whole of Luxor.”

That was a good point and one I had not thought of.

Melad went on to tell me about a local organisation that had grown in Luxor, The Love of Egypt. This group of young people of all different faiths and backgrounds come together to discuss the community’s problems and try to find joint solutions. It sounded like the younger generation in Luxor were really on the ball and taking an active role in birthing a new Egypt.

I asked him what he thought the most pressing problems were that faced the communities in Luxor. He was very clear: “Clean water, proper sewage processing, decent education and proper medical facilities. We need people to do their jobs in these areas too. Often these days, people do not want to put in a hard days work, they all want to work in offices, come into work at 11am and leave at 2pm.”*

I then asked him about what he’d like to see develop in Egypt as a whole: “Decent quality education. We have quantity but not quality. In the state schools, the supplies that children have to buy are expensive for them, and the method of teaching used is not that good. Then they can leave school at 11 or 12, which is not enough. But they want to leave at that age, they want to be grown up. We need to encourage them to stay on to high school.”

Melad also wished to see greater transparency and freedom. “I want freedom of information, like you have in the UK, freedom of speech and no corruption in authority. The internet has enabled us to see what other countries have and we want those things too,” the young journalist added.

This highlighted something that I had previously been unaware of. There is an image in the minds of young Egyptians who had not travelled much or at all of places like the UK being bastions of real free speech, of no corruption, and of fair wealth distribution. Although the UK is not suffering the problems of Egypt, it certainly has its own skeletons rattling away in the cupboard.

I came away from the meetings with Mena Melad with a sense of real hope: there was a bright energy in young Egyptians like him, a drive for a better world, and an intelligent awareness of their own community. It struck me that the opinions, aspirations and fears that Melad, as a Catholic, had shared with me were the same as those that members of the Muslim community had also shared. Let’s hope they work together towards them, with respect and the mutual admiration that each part of Luxor’s rich communal tapestry deserves.

 

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

 

* This paragraph was amended on 24 September 2012 to remove a factual error.

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Ill-gotten pains

 
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By Khaled Diab

Children are the innocent victims and future perpetrators of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For their sake, a political solution must be found.

Thursday 6 September 2012

Two attacks in August have shocked Palestinians and Israelis alike. First, there was the firebombing of a taxi in the West Bank, believed to have been carried out by settlers, which injured six members of a Palestinian family, including two critically.

The second attack, widely described as a lynching, occurred just hours later in downtown West Jerusalem, where a mob set on a small group of young Palestinians, beating Jamal Julani to within an inch of his life. Some reports even suggest that Julani would have died had it not been for the intervention of an Israeli medical student, who resuscitated him.

Despite recriminations, these two tragedies have resulted in a rare moment of agreement between Palestinians and Israelis, the vast majority of whom are disgusted by the attacks, with even senior figures in the normally anti-Palestinian Likud strongly condemning the actions.

Much of the public debate has focused on whether these attacks were surprising and if they constituted “terrorism”, but one interesting aspect which has largely eluded discussion is the alleged perpetrators’ ages. In both incidents, the suspects who have been arrested so far are minors.

Although this may shock many, it is not really that surprising when one scratches a little beneath the surface. Adolescence is a tough phase to live through in the best circumstances. It is a period when the uncertainties of physical metamorphosis and its accompanying identity crises lead some to take shelter in the certainties of black-and-white beliefs, and it is also when hormonal upheavals can surge up into eruptions of aggression and recklessness.

Add to this a few measures of old-fashioned tribalism, stoked by deep-seated racism – as reflected by one suspect in the “lynching” claiming that Julani “could die for all I care – he’s an Arab” – and dehumanisation that decades of conflict create, and you have a highly combustible and volatile brew.

Moreover, the toxic political environment, in which young people seem to be guaranteed cradle-to-grave conflict, plays a significant role in poisoning young minds. Not only does this toxicity drive youngsters towards lashing out at the “enemy”, it might also be pushing them towards generally more aggressive and violent behaviour.

According to a new study – which was conducted by a team of American, Israeli and Palestinian researchers – there is a correlation between violent behaviour in Palestinian and Israeli children and their exposure to political violence, especially for those who witness it from a very young age. This phenomenon is “more severe” than a contagious disease, one of the American academics behind the study claimed.

“It is well known that there are victims in every war, but mostly we think of direct victims,” said Simcha Landau, one of the Israeli scientists involved. “But we found that children who are exposed to violence are indirect victims, and that exposure to violence has results on the ground.”

Other studies have revealed that, while the conflict affects Palestinian children disproportionately, neither side is immune to its psychological trauma. In fact, post-traumatic stress disorder is, sadly, far too common among children on both sides of the Green Line. PTSD is particularly bad during periods of increased violence or in hotspots like Gaza, where the highest incidence is reported, and its Israeli neighbour Sderot.

As someone who grew up in peaceful societies, I can hardly fathom what childhood must be like for a Gazan child who has had to live through the incomprehensible devastation and terror of invasions and incursions, blockade and bombardment, demolitions and destitution. Likewise, I can only begin to comprehend the terrifying fear and confusion a child in Sderot – where the economic destitution suffered there is not a million miles away from that in Gaza – must experience when confronted with the regular whistling of air raid sirens, the long hours spent in bomb shelters and the barrages of inaccurate Kassam rockets – which, though puny when compared to Israel’s formidable arsenal, are nonetheless traumatic.

Although I have little sympathy for their elders, life for the offspring of radical settlers must, on so many levels, be horrendous. Not only have they, like children in general, no say in where they are born and little chance to move away even if they want to, they find themselves, inexplicably to their young minds, living in heavily guarded fortresses as unwelcome invaders and indoctrinated to hate their neighbours.

Despite the detrimental effects of political violence on children and its highly dubious efficacy in resolving this longstanding dispute, it remains alluring to influential groups on both sides. Why is this?

Part of the reason is the simple cyclical nature of violence – with one act begetting another, with every attack a “response” to an earlier atrocity or outrage – especially in such an apparently intractable context, where squaring the circle of conflicting Israeli and Palestinian demands has eluded all.

But beyond that there is an ideological and psychological underbelly. Although violence has been generally low intensity – the total death toll over the past century is less than a bad week in the trenches of World War I – it has been a terribly entrenched facet of the conflict, guaranteed to flare up into major confrontations at regular intervals.

This is partly because modern Jewish and Arab nationalism were born at a time when violence and militarism were glorified and fetishised, and they haven’t been able to move beyond this significantly. Even though non-violence has made significant headway, it has not yet laid down deep roots, with Israeli pacifists making exceptions for futile acts of destructive violence that they regard as legitimate, such as the 2006 invasion of Lebanon, and Palestinian advocates of non-violence stressing to their critics that armed resistance targeted at non-civilians, though legitimate, has become ineffective.

Perhaps paradoxically, the fixation on violence is borne out of a sense of weakness and vulnerability on both sides. Though Israel enjoys unchallenged military superiority, the historic weight of enduring regular oppression, pogroms and the Holocaust, not to mention (diminishing) regional rejection, casts a long shadow over the Israeli psyche. Ideologically, this sense of insecurity has translated into Zionism’s determination to create the muscular, tough Jew and the conviction among many Israelis that overwhelming force is the answer to everything, and those who question the wisdom of this are dismissed by hawks as weak ditherers and self-haters. In violence, there is redemption for past weakness and prevention of future catastrophe.

In a similar vein, Palestinians for centuries have lived like strangers on their own land, ruled from distant imperial capitals and controlled by oft-cruel governors who cared little for their well-being and treated them like chattel to be profited from, especially during the brutal death throes of the once tolerant Ottoman Empire. When the British took over Palestine, instead of granting it independence, and promised it too, at least in part, to the Zionists, this led to the conviction among Palestinian radicals that “what was taken by force can only be regained by force”, and the humiliating string of defeats has made the redemptive power of force all the more alluring in the minds of extremists, especially since moderates have so far failed to deliver any significant successes.

 However, these beliefs and attitudes are highly destructive because in a political conflict of this nature only enlightened political solutions can work, while violence only begets more violence as it draws new generations into its unforgiving vortex. For the sake of the children and future generations, Israelis and Palestinians must unequivocally reject violence, not because they are cowards, but because they are brave. It takes true courage to lay down your arms and open your arms to embrace your long-time enemy in peace.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 4 September 2012.

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Confessions of a would-be Egyptian revolutionary

 
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By Khaled Diab

Returning to Egypt for the first time since the revolution, an expat desktop rebel discovers the inspirational, the troubling and the simply bizarre.

Thursday 26 April 2012

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

“The next president of Egypt will be the Mahdi,” Dr Omar, who claimed to be a paediatrician who had treated injured protesters on Tahrir Square, told me. In his hand, he held up a petition calling on the government to dig up, at a precise location in a poor Cairo suburb, the Ark of the Covenant because, he claimed, it contained the Mahdi’s identity.

At first, I simply assumed that the good doctor and his not-so-merry crew, who stood on the tented central island of Tahrir Square, were using the sharp wit and humour that have been part and parcel of the revolution to mock the anti-democratic tendencies of the military junta still running the show. But after a little extra probing, it dawned on me that they were deadly serious and they expected the messianic Mahdi to return and reclaim his earthly throne by becoming president of medium-sized Egypt, rather than, say, the United States or China.

Endorsing the Mahdi. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

This was not quite what I had been expecting to hear on my first visit to Tahrir Square since the Egyptian revolution began in January 2011. Although when I last departed Egypt, a few short weeks before the now-legendary uprising, I was feeling pretty sick of home, and all its corruption and cronyism, with my wife and I speculating about what kind of a second homeland awaited our son. Less than a month later, I began to feel homesick. Even though I’m not into patriotism and I regard nationalism to be safe only in small doses, nonetheless, in addition to the humanist admiration for the underdog, the revolution awoke in my a certain amount of national pride and I longed to be with the protesters rewriting their history.

But I was in the wrong place at the right time, and the best I could manage was the whole-hearted support of the sympathetic spectator. Of course, I could have followed the example of some expatriated friends who, in their haste to return, almost parachuted into Tahrir. But at the time, I was temporarily on my own holding the baby, and then came our move to Jerusalem and… and… and… perhaps I simply wasn’t really a hands-on revolutionary.

May be I also felt a certain unworthiness. Sure, in my journalism I had for years harshly criticised all that I saw wrong with the Egyptian regime and society and dreamed – or wishfully fantasised, as some alleged – of a free and democratic Egypt of social and economic justice for all.

But these newspaper columns, though they could have come crashing down around my ears during one of my regular visits, also supported the ivory tower which afforded me, the expat Egyptian with a foreign passport who was working mostly for foreign outlets, relative protection. So, while I had spilt rivers of ink pontificating, intellectualising and agonising, millions of Egyptians were actually demanding their freedom, dignity and hope, and paying for it with their blood, sweat, tears and fears.

This emotional baggage could perhaps explain why I entered a futile debate with these Mahdist maniacs on the messianic margin, and even got threatened with violence by a couple of them in the process, rather than just walking away scratching my head. Then again, sometimes my mouth is just bigger and my tongue sharper than the weights and pullies that are meant to keep them under control.

Moreover, Tahrir had finally, thanks to the combined will, determination and courage of millions of protesters, lived up to the promise of its name, liberty, freedom. And so if Tahrirites were to endorse the presidential aspirations of anyone, it should be a candidate with some democratic credentials, not an unelected spiritual leader whose rule, benign or not, would be tantamount to a divine dictatorship.

Of course, the unprecedented display of people power deposing the country’s anointed pharaoh-in-chief and the unpresidented prospect of Egyptians actually choosing their own leader may have been too much for some to absorb, and a “miracle” like this is bound to awaken millennialist ideas in the quackier reaches of society.

Even in more “sensible” and “rational” quarters, some worrying signs of antidemocratic tendencies could be seen, such as the pro-stability Egyptians I came across who express support for the Vladimir Putin of Egyptian politics, the mysterious and shady Omar Suleiman, Mubarak’s right-hand man and Egypt’s chief of military intelligence, as the country’s next president because they think he’s a “real man” who can restore order to the country and, with his vast insider knowledge, manage its transition.

Even a top newspaper editor who had spent his entire career opposing Mubarak surprised me by expressing his view that it was time to curb the revolution and work towards stability, otherwise the country would go to the dogs. He said former Arab League chief and one-time foreign minister Amr Moussa was his choice for president. And Moussa’s age and ties with the former regime did not seem to bother him. “If Moussa proves incompetent or unworthy, we can always change him at the next elections. The days of lifetime tenure are over,” the editor argued. When I quizzed him about what he thought of the revolutionary youth making all these sacrifices and so far getting nothing in return, his response was pretty cold and unsympathetic. He blamed the revolutionaries’ refusal to end the revolution and “play politics” for their own demise.

Though I was aware that the elation of the early days of the revolution had been replaced by caution and concern, it was disappointing to arrive in what had once been dubbed the Republic of Tahrir by elated protesters to find time had transformed the beautiful utopian state in the centre of the city back into an ugly, traffic-choked and crowded plaza. Perhaps this dread, as well as the desire to soak in any changes which may have occurred, was part of the reason why I had decided to walk the few miles from my family home to Tahrir, stopping off at some old haunts, including an old cappuccino bar which seemed to be caught in the same time warp I had left it in.

Fallen symbol of the past, the NDP building near Tahrir. ©Photo: Khaled Diab

On the way, I encountered some colourful characters, including a man with a toilet brush moustache and sunglasses who claimed to have worked for the former disgraced culture minister Farouq Hosni and believed that, with the right leadership, Egypt could become the richest country in the world, with “85 million billionaires”. So, watch out America, the pharaohs are coming!

On the central island on the Nile known as el-Gezira, as I walked alongside all the plush floating restaurants and past a gathering point for dozens of manual labourers in traditional galabiyas, I caught sight of the first visible topographical change: the burnt-out, grey concrete hulk of the headquarters of the defunct National Democratic Party, one of the symbol’s of the Mubarak regime’s hegemony and the presumed launching pad for his son, Gamal‘s presidential ambitions.

Yes, Tahrir isn’t what it used to be, friends told me. Constant pestering by the authorities and anti-revolutionary forces, friends explained, had driven the vast majority of real revolutionaries away from Tahrir, except when “millioniya” Friday demonstrations were planned.

But signs of the spirit of the revolution and the new, defiant Egypt were all around. In a city whose crumbling walls had once been mostly bare, the colourful explosion of revolutionary street art and graffiti all around were a sight for sore eyes. One wall just off Tahrir Square had a striking image which merged the faces of the deposed president Hosni Mubarak and the country’s current de facto leader Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein el-Tantawi in a single sinister head.

Field Marshal Tantawi: Mubarak 2.0. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Revolutionary police? Photo: ©Khaled Diab

In a bid to control and limit demonstrations, the military junta had constructed makeshift walls all over the town centre. In a show of peaceful disobedience mixed with civic duty, urban artists had transformed these ugly barriers into attractive murals featuring common streets scenes or even the street on the other side of the wall.

A few blocks from Tahrir, young protesters determined to bring down the junta had set up camp and prepared to dig in for the long haul. On the way to their demonstration, I passed the bizarre sight of police officers, hated for being the shield behind which the regime hid and the fist with which it crushed dissent, protesting outside the Ministry of the Interior, calling for the overhaul of the police force and the weeding out of corruption, complaining about their working conditions and telling the interior minister that “The revolution means freedom”. One of the demonstrators insisted that the police was unfairly smeared and that there are officers who are patriotic and support the aspirations of the people.

A block away, the Ultras, football fans turned revolutionaries, would beg to differ, as one banner which read “All cops are bastards”, succinctly put it. Like young activists throughout the revolution, the Ultras not only flouted the easy assumptions about the apathy and selfishness of their generation, but also about the pettiness and fickleness of football fans. In fact, with football being one of the few mass activities people were comfortably allowed to rally around, the Ultras managed to employ the nationwide networks of supporters, the almost tribal loyalty of fans, and years of experience in pitched battles with the police, all of whom were bastards according to one banner I read, to devastating effect during the 18 days it took to topple Mubarak.

Despite the sombre air evoked by the banners and posters commemorating the 78 fans who died in pitched battles during a recent match in a massacre which the Ultras allege was orchestrated by the regime to punish them for their revolutionary activities, the vibe at the protest was upbeat, rebellious and festive.

Songs of rage. Ultras sing about the Port Said massacre. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Isolated circles of singing converged into a coordinated chorus when one of the biggest voices of the revolution, Ramy Essam, arrived, guitar in hand, to sing some of his own cheeky, sarcastic and defiant songs, as well as the Ultras’ own thundering lyrics of rebellion. They sang about the treachery in Port Said, mercilessly mocked a would-be presidential candidate connected to the old regime, sarcastically apologised to the police for the disruption caused by the revolution, and advised fellow citizens “Keep your head down, hang it low, you live in a democracy, you know.”

Given the machismo of football, the Ultras themselves are all men, but there were also plenty of women in the crowd, from the hip and modern to the hip and traditional. Some of the women in hijab figuratively let their hair down, singing enthusiastically and gyrating their hips vigorously. And standing on the sidelines were a few women in the full face veil known as niqab, singing discreetly along.

The revolution has brought women out in force on the streets, including my own courageous sister who lives the struggle with every pore of her being, where they have stood – and fallen – shoulder to shoulder with men. And this despite the traditional protectiveness of the Egyptian family towards its female members and the additional risks being a woman carry, including the notorious “virginity tests” to which some female activists were subjected last year.

Despite proving themselves the match of men in terms of courage and dedication, women have experienced something of a backlash from conservative circles in society, who seem more willing to accept the right of women to fall as comrades than to stand as equals.

Although most women I know did not expect their status to change overnight and realised that their struggle for full equality would take years to reach fruition, the dominance of Islamist parties in Egypt’s first parliament after the revolution, especially the unexpectedly strong showing of the ultra-conservative Salafi parties, has many secular and reformist women spooked.

“Salafists want to reduce the age of marriage and to segregate women and men in the workplace. This gives you some idea of their priorities,” noted Gihan, a feminist who will soon be publishing a book about the women of the revolution. Seated in an outdoor restaurant located on a tranquil island on the Nile which seemed a million miles away from the nearest revolution, Gihan admitted that she was troubled by what kind of future might await her teenage daughter, though she expected and hoped that the revolution would still manage to deliver improvements for women in the longer term.

A promising sign is the extra confidence, even swagger, with which many women now seem to be carrying themselves. Even young women in the hijab, who used to be the coyest group when I was at university in the 1990s, now are out in force late into the night, dance in mixed groups at concerts, as I witnessed at a concert by the satirical fusion folk band Salalem, and some even walk arm-in-arm with their boyfriends.

Hoda, Gihan’s academic friend who was sitting across the table, tried to find a silver lining. She noted that despite all the bad press Salafists received, their women had achieved a partial sexual liberation of sorts. “They are well-read in Islamic jurisprudence and take seriously the rights to sexual gratification and foreplay it guarantees them, and many of them demand divorce if their man doesn’t satisfy them,” she noted.

This led me to reflect on how Egyptian society, in a desperate bid to avoid “decadent” Western ways has revived a number of old-fashioned “decadent” Islamic ways to enable couples to have sex or to live together, such as Zawaj Misyar, which is a no-strings-attached “marriage” entered to allow a couple to engage in sexual relations. But such convoluted attempts to cover sexual freedom up in an Islamic veil, not to mention the traditional approach of turning a blind eye, often lead to dishonesty and hypocrisy in social relations.

But it is not just women that are worried by the Islamists who, like politics itself, have become the talk of the town. Christians and secularists are nervous too. I was sitting with a group of the two in a downtown watering hole appropriately named Houriya (Liberation) which was part traditional teahouse and part boisterous bar fully visible to passersby.

As we choked on the smoke of a hundred fuming political conversations in the tightly packed bar without ventilation, I wondered what the Islamists made of such public displays of boozy merrymaking. As we joked about the ubiquitous campaign of the popular Salafist presidential hopeful Hazem Abu Ismail and speculated about what kind of future the Islamists might have in store for us as they battled with the secularists and military junta to dominate the drafting of Egypt’s new constitution, a solitary drinker at the next table who appeared to be drowning his sorrows, joined our conversation.

Introducing himself as Andrew, he told us how he had been working for a moderately Islamic satellite TV channel aimed at young people which had recently been taken over by Salafists. On the day of the takeover announcement, they promptly gave him his marching orders because, his boss told him in private conversation, Andrew’s religion did not match the channel’s new orientation.

“I don’t understand how my religion affects my role as a director,” he complained, as he fiddled with his purple-rimmed glasses. “Youssef Chahine made some of the best films about Islamic themes, including the victories of Saladin over the Crusaders, and he was Christian.”

While we agreed with this principle and that he should pursue a case of unfair dismissal, one of my friends pointed out that if he had stayed on he may have been forced to make programmes with which he would have been uncomfortable.

“I don’t care about compensation, I just want to make sure that what happened to me does not happen to others,” Andrew said a few nights later, when he turned up at the same bar while an atheist friend and I were talking religion. Informing us that he had spoken to a lawyer, he expressed his determination to stay in Egypt, at a time when thousands of other Christians were fleeing due to all the uncertainty and their vulnerable position.

Talking to Andrew, like other conversations with Christian friends, was making me gloomy. Egypt at its best, and the Egypt I am fond of, is a place of pluralism where one’s religion only matters in one’s place of worship. Naturally, I have long been aware, with the spread of inequality and Wahhabi-inspired conservatism, that Egyptians who think like this have become a rapidly dwindling group, as reflected by a spate of recent attacks on churches, including one just weeks before the revolution, on New Year’s Eve, the day I had last departed the country, feeling down.

But I had hoped that the show of national unity following this horrific bombing, during which Muslims formed human shields around churches, and the spirit of equality and solidarity the revolution awoke would help Egypt turn a new leaf. But we have still not reached this new chapter of full tolerance.

Another minority which prior to the revolution almost dared not speak its name and still has an uncertain and vulnerable future in Egypt are atheists and other non-believers. In fact, so deafening was the silence of most that some readers of my column in The Guardian believed that I was the only one. Some decades ago, atheism was an accepted position, even if ordinary Egyptians frowned upon it, as can be gleaned by the number of writers and intellectuals who openly expressed atheistic and/or anti-religious views, especially between the 1950s and 1970s. However, in recent years, an unholy alliance between intolerant Islamists and a discredited regime desperate to garner some legitimacy as a protector of Islam led to a number of high-profile cases against freethinkers, mostly liberal believers, for allegedly “insulting” or “disparaging” Islam or religion which effectively silenced the vast majority of sceptics and non-believers in the public sphere.

But the trend that started over the past few years of sceptics defying such intimidation to voice their views has accelerated since the revolution, and the number of people who I have come across who openly express their lack of belief has grown significantly – and we even sat in cafes speaking irreverently and in no hushed tones about our views of religion and God. However, their future freedom of expression hangs in the balance.

But this dichotomy between Islamists and secularists is a false one and a convenient sideshow to enable the powers that be to continue to exercise control, insist some activists. Hossam, a prominent human rights activist, told me over his bubbling shisa with its sweet-smelling smoke, that the real division we need to consider is between democratic and anti-democratic forces.

There are Islamists who believe in freedom of belief and expression and gender equality, he pointed out, while there are secularists who are religious bigots and misogynists. I got a taste of this on Tahrir Square when an Islamist stood up for my freedom of belief by telling a youngster who was angry at my criticism of religion that I was free to express what opinions I wanted, even atheistic ones.

For Hossam, the true battle lines for the coming period lay in establishing the rule of law, protecting vulnerable groups and minorities, making the military and intelligence services fully transparent and accountable, and achieving greater social and economic justice. And he is confident that these are battles which can be won, as reflected by the growing political literacy of ordinary people too often dismissed as novices who are taking the fate of their workplaces into their own hands and even campaigning for their local environments, a pursuit once seen as “elitist”.

Others see the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the shadowy junta managing Egypt’s revolutionary transition, as the greatest immediate threat facing the country, because though the Mubarak regime may have lost its head, in more ways than one, its body is still largely intact, armed and dangerous.

The road to democracy in Egypt is a long and perilous one, and the road to revolutionising Egypt’s social and economic system to make them fairer and more equitable is yet longer still. The way ahead is filled with uncertainty and pitfalls that can potentially derail the aspirations awoken by Egypt’s young revolutionaries, but the genie of freedom, dignity and equality is out of the bottle and there is no way that any power can banish it. Though they may fight, delay and procrastinate, they cannot avoid the inevitable, that Egypt’s people will one day be free.

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

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

Thursday 26 January 2012

Photo by Gigi Ibrahim

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Gigi Ibrahim

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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