Saturday, 11 July 2015

Omar Sharif and The Jewish Quarter


 Omar Sharif and The Jewish Quarter
This isn't one of those “how I met Omar sharif” stories, although I did, in effect, meet him. It's about the Egypt that Omar Sharif represented, the cosmopolitan, open, tolerant society it always was until suddenly, it wasn't. It's the Egypt portrayed in The Jewish Quarter, an Egyptian television miniseries set in 1948. But that is not the only connection. Omar Sharif’s real name was Michel Chalhoub.
But to backtrack for a second: every year during Ramadan, when postprandial spectators are a captive audience in front of the television set, there is one breakout miniseries that reflects the zeitgeist of the the year. This year it is The Jewish Quarter, which has the audacity to Egyptian Jews fully integrated in 1948 Egyptian society, living side by side in close quarters with their Muslim and Christian neighbors in  a modest neighborhood  of cloth merchants, dairymen, pickle sellers and cafĂ© owners called The Jewish Quarter.
Ali, a Muslim military officer, and Leila, a Jewish saleswoman in the upscale Jewish department store Cicurel, are neighbors and childhood sweethearts. The religious difference might pose a problem- particularly for the girl’s mother, who would object even to a Jew of a different sect-but ultimately it should not be an insurmountable obstacle. Until, that is, the 1948 war with Israel begins, and the community is set asunder, dividing families and pitting neighbor against neighbor.
In spite of some inaccuracies and anachronisms,  the series clearly makes an effort to show Jews going about their business, their prayers at the synagogue, their kosher butcher, with mutual respect and understanding from their neighbors. All of the characters, Muslim, Coptic or Jewish, are shown as complex, capable of both tolerance and prejudice, patriotism or misplaced loyalties. The line is drawn rather sharply between Egyptian Jews and Israelis. The single all-out villain in the drama is a Muslim.
So what does this miniseries indicate for the political zeitgeist in Egypt? For one thing, it glorifies the military, no surprise. But it is also significant as a step in the rehabilitation of the Egyptian Jewish community in the eyes of younger generations of Egyptians brainwashed by Islamist rhetoric.
So what is the connection between The Jewish Quarter and Omar Sharif, aka Michel Demetri Chalhoub? He was born Christian but he converted to Islam when he married Egypt’s sweetheart movie star, Faten Hamama, who was Muslim. In those days, back in the fifties, it didn't matter. Would he have been likely to have lived in The Jewish Quarter? No, because it was a very modest neighborhood, and Omar Sharif, like middle class or wealthy people of any religion, lived in upscale Garden City or Zamalek or wherever they could afford; there was no such thing as a ghetto. The connection is the era evoked by Omar Sharif and The Jewish Quarter, a truly cosmopolitan, tolerant, modernizing Egypt that once was and might be again.
Oh, and where did I meet Omar Sharif? At a family wedding, where the bride’s father was a schoolmate at Victoria College, and then, twenty years later, at the Cairo Opera, where he was charming and tactful enough to pretend to recognize me. May he rest in peace, but not so the Egypt he knew and loved.








Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Daesh: Don't Call Them ISIS

John Kerry does it. London Mayor Boris Johnson thinks about it. Queen Rania of Jordan gives impassioned speeches explaining why we should all do it. As she argues, they are neither Islamic nor a state. Don't call them ISIS or ISIL or whatever self-styled aggrandizing title they choose to call themselves. Deny them that prestige, and deny them a recruiting tool. Just call them Daesh.
What is that? It's a sort of acronym in Arabic; "sort of" because acronyms are not used in Arabic, just abbreviations. For instance, Egypt's Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, known as SCAF in English, was commonly abbreviated in the Egyptian media as "The Supreme." In Arabic, therefore,  Daesh is intentionally a pejorative, delegitimizing label used by their enemies and victims in the Arab world- and it's worth remembering that the victims of Daesh's unspeakable brutality are overwhelmingly fellow Arabs and Muslims.
So what's in a name? Does it matter if we in the West and the Western media call them Daesh rather than Islamic State? Yes, it does.  Deny them that association with the religion they give a bad name to, and deny them a recruiting tool. So come on, Mayor Johnson, just do it.
 

Thursday, 30 April 2015

Back to the Future: Prospects for Democracy in Postrevolution Egypt

So pleased there was a record turnout for my talk on Egypt at the Carolina Friends of the Foreign Service luncheon today. But the credit goes entirely to the interest in the topic taken by this highly experienced association of former diplomats, Stare department heads, including Hodding Carter III, elected officials, and others. They made for penetrating questions and courteous listeners.

Sunday, 15 February 2015

The Chapel Hill Muslim Student Shootings


“Chapel Hill”. The first time I heard it used like that: not Chapel Hill student shootings, just Chapel Hill, as an immediately recognizable reference in the media, like ‘Ferguson’ or ‘Waco,’ as a byword- the first time I heard this it came as a shock. Particularly when I’m overseas, I tend to idealize Chapel Hill as the ‘Southern part of Heaven’, that uniquely liberal and diverse enclave in conservative North Carolina, the town with more PH.D.’s per capita than Cambridge, MA, situated as it is at the crossroads of three great universities: UNC, Duke, and NC State. 
And now this. Around the world, the name Chapel Hill coupled with the senseless triple murders of three local college students, promising and optimistic young people who also happened to be openly Muslim American. I never met them or their families, but I know them: the model minority, a little more driven than your average student, from immigrant, educated Middle East families with high expectations for achievement, surrounded by a strong, supportive faith community. 
In most ways, all-American. Deah Barakat was basketball mad and copied his idol Stephen Curry’s pose in a photograph, but he was also a serious young man dedicated to service who used his UNC Dental School training to help underprivileged people in this country and abroad. He looked up to his older sister Suzanne, a San Francisco physician. His wife Yusor and her sister Razan, daughters of a Clayton psychiatrist, were an aspiring dentist and architect, respectively; ambitious, bright young women who could have been Amal Alamuddin Clooney in an Islamic veil, if they had lived.  
I was never ‘that sort of Muslim,’ as someone I knew once put it: the easily identifiable sort who wore a headscarf and sent their children to Islamic Sunday school. But I knew many of them, and like the Barakat and the Abu-Salha children, they felt confident that they belonged in Raleigh or Chapel Hill. If they had anything to prove, they believed their achievements would speak well for their community.
Like many religious minorities, they made a conscious effort to reach out and to represent their community among society at large.  According to Rabbi Greyber of Beth El in a letter to his congregation, his colleague Rabbi Solomon of Beth Meyer in Raleigh knew Deah, Yusor and Razan quite well. “All three were very active in inter-religious affairs including an interfaith Habitat for Humanity, and Farris Barakat, the older brother of Deah Barakat, attended Beth Meyer Synagogue services and, with the Barakat family, recently opened his home to Beth Meyer congregants to share the breaking of the Ramadan fast.”
These three young people were the best and brightest of their community. What a waste. And why? This is not the place to discuss whether the murders were motivated by a parking dispute or bigotry, or a toxic mixture of both. Deah Barakat’s articulate, poised sister, Dr. Suzanne Barakat, points to the role of a media culture that relentlessly portrays all Muslims as violent terrorists, and cites as an example films like American Sniper.
What that film refuses to show is that Chris Kyle, the real-life sniper of the story, was not killed by an Iraqi or Muslim but by a fellow white American veteran at a shooting range near Chalk Mountain, Texas. Eddie Ray Routh, a former marine, is accused of turning on Kyle and another friend and shooting them dead. His motive? According to one witness, Routh shot them ‘because they wouldn’t talk to him.’ Think about that for a moment. Then think about this. Craig Hicks took the lives of three young people because, according to his wife, he didn’t like them sharing the visitor’s parking spot with him. Is that all it takes to make an armed white man turn killer in today’s America? And is that particularly reassuring to those who would dismiss the Chapel Hill murders as ‘just a parking dispute’ rather than a hate crime?
The families of the three student victims, or ‘our three winners’, as they prefer to call them, in true American style, are understandably seeking to assuage their unspeakable pain with the hope that some positive legacy might come of this tragedy, some re-examining of prejudice, some coming together of communities. And indeed, Stephen Curry, the basketball star whom Deah Barakat idolized, expressed a desire to honor his murdered fan. Rabbi Solomon of Beth Meyer, whose congregants Farris Barakat had invited into his home, is setting up a discretionary fund to help the families of the three victims or the charities of their choice. At the very least, what photos of the smiling faces of the three young people seem to be calling for, is the hope that America looks past the headscarf or the headline and sees Muslims as neighbors, not the eternal and suspicious Other.   




Sunday, 18 August 2013

Egypt: What It Isn't


It isn’t Tiananmen Square.  
It isn’t Syria.
It isn’t Muslim against Christian.
It isn’t secular against religious.
It isn’t a question of a coup or not a coup.
It isn’t a question of democracy against authoritarianism.
The situation in Egypt is so desperate, so complicated, that an attempt to grapple with it might well start with setting out what it isn’t. Some observers might see shades of Tiananmen Square; for twenty million plus Egyptians who marched on June 30th to oust the Brotherhood administration, it was the shades of the Ayatollah takeover in Iran that mobilized them. The bloodshed over the past six weeks has been sickening and horrific, but Egypt is not Syria with its regional, armed factions; a civil war isn't imminent.
It isn’t Muslim against Christian; one can safely assume that the Coptic minority is unanimously against the Muslim Brotherhood, but so is more than half of Egypt’s ninety-percent Muslim population.  It isn’t secular versus religious. Most Egyptians, Muslim or Copt, would claim to be personally religious; where they clash is over the role of religion in politics.
Whether or not to call the deposing of President Morsi on July 3rd a coup is a question of semantics which concerns U.S. law and foreign policy alone.
It isn’t a question of championing democracy against military authoritarianism. The Morsi administration was as authoritarian as the interim Supreme Council of the Armed Forces that preceded it, or any that is likely to follow it. It is a question of what kind of authoritarianism, and to whose benefit.
And therein lies the violent clash of currents that brought out millions to the streets over the past months, to demonstrate against the Morsi regime and for it. By the unprecedented millions who marched against Morsi, his administration was seen as governing narrowly for the Brotherhood; it was also of the Brotherhood, in every appointment from cabinet ministers to nine governors; and by the Brotherhood, through the influence of his party’s bosses and their spiritual 'Supreme Guide.’ Morsi himself often referred to “my people and my community” when speaking of the Brotherhood. When his supporters marched in the streets, they waved the green Brotherhood flags rather than the red, black and white Egyptian flag, until the negative reaction prompted them to switch. But the discourse of the pro-Morsi demonstrators, and the signs they brandished, remained the same: ‘Islam,’ ‘Shari’a’ and ‘Legitimacy.’ To many Egyptians, the question became: “Where is Egypt in all this?” Are these people Egyptians first or Brethren first?
The Islamists counter: But where is democracy in all of this? A vote is a vote. But is a vote a vote in a country with a high proportion of illiteracy in the electorate, thrust into the polling booth after sixty years of autocratic one-party rule? And does a democratically-elected president continue to be legitimate if his regime is not only autocratic but also disastrously incompetent? By most accounts Egypt under Morsi was spiraling into economic free fall and insecurity, and that its very territorial integrity was threatened in the Sinai. The rights of women and minorities were also being menaced alarmingly. Indeed, in the aftermath of Morsi’s ouster, the attacks on Christian churches by his rampaging supporters is an indictment of Brotherhood ideology, whether or not the leaders were responsible for inciting the sectarian violence.

The violence, on both sides, on every side, whether Morsi supporter or opponent or security forces, is horrific. But it comes down, finally, to a split vision of Egypt: secular versus Islamist in political life, liberal versus fundamentalist in private values, national versus Islamic in world view. In Egypt today, these visions have proved to be irreconcilable.Conversation I participated in today on State of Things

Monday, 5 August 2013

Morsi's Martyr Children


Anyone watching the world media’s coverage of the Morsi-supporters camped out for the past month in two major squares in Cairo will have noticed the numbers of women and children among them, and the prominence with which they are brought before the cameras. The women, in headscarves or even full niqab, are vociferously vocal and many speak passable English. One teenage girl I saw on the news insisted that she, and the other protesters, would refuse to leave the camps unless Morsi were re-instated or they were killed, adding: “the greatest dream of any of us is to die a martyr.”
Who put these ideas into the girl’s head? What are the Muslim Brotherhood leaders inculcating in impressionable young minds? And even if this particular girl were of an age to make up her own mind about what her life is worth, what about the hundreds of children, babies, toddlers, crawling all over the camps and trotted out before the media as potential victims: what kind of parent or guardian makes the decision for their child that any cause is worth ‘martyrdom’?
On Sunday the Brotherhood marshaled a group of youngsters, dressed them in white shrouds, gave them signs proclaiming 'Martyrs', and paraded them for the benefit of the media. Even more disturbing and reprehensible, the MB are accused of rounding up many of these children from the streets of the slums of Cairo, and busing them to the site of the sit-in at the Rabaa Mosque. The United Nations Children’s Fund has expressed dismay at children being deliberately put at risk as victims or witnesses to violence, and at least one man has been arrested when he was caught transporting forty children to the site.  
There are also no doubt penniless, homeless people, adults and children, who are drawn to the tent city for the free food and shelter as an alternative to starving on the streets. There is no doubt, also, that the MB leaders are exploiting the situation for propaganda: they may or may not be fanatics, but they have proven their dexterity in manipulating both traditional and social media.
It is an effective strategy: nothing stays the hand of the police or military from evacuating the camps by force as much as the presence of women and children and the potential for disastrous images of innocent ‘martyrs.’ The strategy of hiding behind women’s skirts and children’s ‘shrouds’ is all the more shameful and hypocritical on the part of the MB leaders precisely because they themselves used to denounce their opponents in Tahrir for the participation of women, claiming that parents and guardians should keep their women home and accusing the girls who spent the night at the sit-ins of loose morals. 
A video clip taped by members of the Tamarrod group who organized the revolt against Morsi makes just that point: “When our women and girls participate in protests, you call them immoral; when yours do, you say it is normal. When our children are killed, you hold their lives cheap; but here’s the difference between us: when your children are killed- we don’t hold their lives cheap.”
The so-called Morsi supporters in the tent sit-ins seem to be unaware, or not to care, that they are being used as a pawn in a negotiation that has nothing to do with reinstating Morsi, which is impossible given that he cannot govern with the military, the judiciary, the bureaucracy, the police, and every institution of government against him. The real negotiation is to save from arrest and prosecution the real leaders of the Brotherhood, the ‘Supreme Guide’ Badie, the party boss Khairat El-Shatter, and his deputy Bayoumi. Morsi himself was nothing but a figurehead who was brought in as a pinch-hitter presidential candidate at the last minute when El-Shatter was disqualified. Morsi’s resignation and the peaceful disbanding of the protests are the price being negotiated for the freedom of the real party bosses.   
But what happens after the Morsi-supporter camps are disbanded, as they will be, one way or another; what happens when these vocal women go home? Will they be allowed a voice in Islamist political affairs commensurate with the role they played in the protests? Or will they be relegated to the hearth and nursery? And what will the ‘martyr’ children have learned?

Monday, 29 July 2013

Egypt: Seeking a Way Out

A friend asked me recently what Egyptian liberals were thinking these days, and I replied ruefully that I imagined it felt like scrambling back into the frying pan to get out of the fire. That is, if post-Mubarak military rule was the frying pan, then Muslim Brotherhood rule was the fire. He also asked if, given the roiling polarization in Egyptian society between secularists and Islamists, and the stalemate between Muslim Brotherhood supporters and the military, civil war loomed on the horizon. The state has a monopoly on force of arms in Egypt, unlike in Syria or Iraq, and the Muslim Brotherhood has no militias at its command- yet- so civil war in the classic sense is not imminent, but if the situation continues to deteriorate and foreign powers intervene to arm factions, it will be a very real threat.
So is there any way to pull back from the brink, to diffuse the crisis without more bloodshed? 
For the past month, there have been hundreds of thousands of Morsi diehards camped out in front of a mosque in Cairo’s Nasr City neighborhood. All efforts to dislodge them have failed so far, in spite of clashes with the authorities that have led to a hundred killings. They are digging in, literally digging up sidewalk bricks to build a wall around the perimeter of the mosque. The unsanitary ad hoc tent-living conditions have become a serious health hazard, not to mention the traffic impasse and total disruption of the lives of the hapless, infuriated residents of the neighborhood, who are hardly mollified by some protesters’ offers of flowers and apologies.
The military authorities have warned that they will ‘soon’ move to dislodge the encampments. It is a necessary step, most Egyptians believe, to clear, not just the Morsi supporter mosque sit-in, but also Tahrir and all the other offshoot sit-ins as well. The right to free speech and assembly, even in a democracy, means the right to march and demonstrate, with the prerequisite permit, and police protection- after which everyone goes home. It does not mean the right to take over every public space and turn it into a permanent, lawless, tent city cum soup kitchen cum street fair populated as much by the homeless, the hungry, or the jobless as by committed activists. Egyptians want, need, and deserve a return to civility, to patrolled city streets, to functional city squares, and to law and order.
On the other hand, it would be a serious mistake for General El-Sissi and the military to interpret the massive turnout in their favor as a mandate to massacre. Moral issues aside, there is more appetite on the Muslim Brotherhood side to create martyrs than there is on the military’s, and for good reason. The Muslim Brethren are a minority, unquestionably, but their support runs deep. For every Morsi supporter camped out in front of the mosque, for every card-carrying Muslim Brotherhood member, there are multiple sympathizers in the society at large, and that is true across the socio-economic divide. I can think of one example of twin sisters, thirty-something young women whose father, on their eighteenth birthday, bought each a matching Mercedes sports car to drive to college. One marched in support of the Military takeover, and one supported the Muslim Brotherhood. Families are divided on the issue, brother against sister, and husband against wife.
The hope, therefore, is to diffuse the crisis through negotiation, and not by forcible eviction of the encampment. There are signs of political will on the part of Western powers to find a peaceful solution. The European Union has sent its Foreign Policy chief, Catherine Ashton, to Egypt to try to broker a deal, officially at the behest of the stakeholders. On the Egyptian government side, she will find competent, experienced interlocutors in Vice-President Mohamed Baradei, former chief of the U.N. Nuclear Agency, and Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmi, former ambassador to Washington. On the MB side, president Morsi is held incommunicado and other leaders are under arrest, but there are other prominent heads of the movement to negotiate through. Intriguingly, a group of younger cadres who call themselves the “Brethren Without Violence” have dissented from the MB leadership and may lead the way out of the mosque encampment.
For its part, the Obama seems to grasp the wider implications of the crisis for the stability of the region and has charged Foreign Secretary Kerry to broker talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders with a view to re-launching the peace process. It truly is the eleventh hour, but the hope seems to be that Israel might recognize the urgency for stability in an increasingly unstable region, and that the Abbas administration in the Palestinian Territories might recognize an opportunity when its rival, Hamas in Gaza, is weakened by the loss of the Morsi administration’s support.
For the U.S., Israel and the world, not only Egypt but also Gaza and Syria are in play. The Brotherhood were to all evidence supporting Islamist radicals in an increasingly lawless Sinai, as well as supporting Hamas in Gaza and the Islamist insurgency in Syria against Bashar Assad. Egyptian volunteers were allegedly travelling to Syria for jihad, and might come back radicalized and pose a threat to their own society and beyond.

Pursuing a peaceful solution to the impasse in Egypt that allows the MB to save face is worth every iota of patience and self-control the military can muster and the civilian authorities can urge. The alternative is a bloodbath and the creation of martyrs that will serve as a radicalizing myth to inspire generations of terrorists, and cleave a fractured society irreparably in two.

Friday, 26 July 2013

Egypt: Making a Hero of the Military- Again



Almost everyone I know personally in Cairo is celebrating the massive turnout Friday to support General Sisi’s call for a mandate to quash ‘terrorism’, which in Egypt is a euphemism for the Islamists. Coptic church bells rang in sync with the call from the minarets announcing the breaking of the Muslim Ramadan fast at sunset. Friends posted defiantly ‘Egyptian and proud, no matter what the rest of the world thinks.’ Some of them had left their comfortable summer resort homes to drive back four hours to Cairo to take their place among the sweltering masses at Tahrir- without breaking their fast.
So I feel like the Grinch with my caveats: We don’t need another hero. Don’t make a savior of General Sisi. Remember the history of military ‘strongman’ regimes, and I don’t mean just in Egypt or even the Arab world. Remember how quickly, after the coup of 1952, Naguib proved to be a mere figurehead who was ruthlessly shunted aside by Colonel Nasser, ushering in a sixty-year regime of successive military rulers in civilian clothes. Hold Sisi and the military to their promises to hold elections and give civilian, secular democracy a chance- or be prepared to take to the streets again if they don’t. But remember that the military have proved how brutally they are capable of squashing protests- does anyone remember the blue-bra girl?
But I understand. Roughly half of Egypt, give or take, including almost everyone I know, doesn’t want to hear it. It has come down to a secular/Islamist divide in Egypt, with the secularists now overlooking their differences, Wafdist liberals embracing Nasserites, capitalists cozying up to socialists. This unprecedented solidarity, while highly commendable, is likely to prove ephemeral, and more workable, in practice, on the street than in a Cabinet or Parliament. This may be one reason why so many, today, put their faith in the Army, rather than a civilian coalition government, to face down an Islamist challenge.
While this half of Egypt rejoices, roughly the other half of the population, give or take, turns out to call for the re-instatement of deposed president Morsi, now under arrest and accused of controversial charges of treason. At the time he was deposed on July 3rd, I was as relieved as anyone to see the end of the disastrous, rogue Muslim Brotherhood regime and the damage it wrought in barely a year. But today, I can’t help feeling that it was the place of the head of the civilian government, or of a liberal party, not a General, to call for demonstrations. The Military should be above partisan politics. And I can’t help feeling queasy about giving the Military carte blanche to crack down on anyone, even the Muslim Brotherhood. So at the risk of antagonizing the half of Egypt whose secular, liberal values I share, I will continue to dampen the parade, all the while hoping my reservations turn out to be unfounded. Perhaps this time, the Military will keep in mind that the masses might take to the streets again to hold them to their promises.


Friday, 19 July 2013

Egypt: Everybody Coups


Everybody coups, let me say upfront, is not my expression but John Oliver’s on The Daily Show last night. But I actually don’t agree with Oliver’s point about the June 30th popular uprising in Egypt that led to the military intervention that deposed Muslim Brotherhood President Morsi. Oliver seems to be claiming, substantially, that ‘a coup by any other name’ is still a coup, to paraphrase Shakespeare; or more vulgarly, ‘if it walks like a duck, talks like a duck, it’s a duck.’
But if Oliver insists that it was a military coup that deposed Morsi, then he must accept that Morsi himself, in his short but catastrophic one-year administration, staged repeated unconstitutional coups-by-decree against every legitimate opposition he encountered: he staged a coup against the military, decapitating the entire top tier of generals, including Field Marshall Tantawi; to their credit, the generals went quietly. He attempted to decapitate the entire top tier of judges by decreeing a immediate retirement age of 60; the judges, for their part, dug their heels in, and Morsi backed off. He attempted to decapitate the opposition media by harassing and pursing talk show hosts and closing down media channels. Morsi also staged a coup against the constitution, by declaring himself and his decrees above judicial review while he railroaded overnight a Muslim Brotherhood-cobbled ‘constitution’ against the strident objections of the entire spectrum of the political opposition.
In other words, Morsi acted illegitimately from day one, and was hell-bent on purging all government and non-government entities of political opponents and replacing them with incompetent but sworn Muslim Brotherhood. He ignored the fact that his narrow margin of election at the ballot box came, not only or even mostly from Islamist supporters, but from a wide swathe of the liberal, secular, revolutionary forces that deposed Mubarak in 2011, and that only voted for Morsi in 2012 because they could not stomach voting for his Mubarak-clone opponent in the election.
The irony, today, is that Morsi’s Moslem Brotherhood supporters cling with a death grip to the claim of ‘legitimacy’ as grounds for re-instating the deposed president. The same people who now claim the sanctity of the ballot box forget that they have always claimed, and still claim, that Shari ’a is above democracy, ballot boxes, and man-made laws.
If June 30th 2013 was a military coup, it was a military coup by popular demand, not all that different from January 2011; after all, it was the generals, in the end, who went to then-president Mubarak on February 11 and told him that it was time to go. So John Oliver is right in a way: everybody coups. But a rose by any other name is not the same. Whether the Obama administration calls it a coup or not makes a great deal of difference legally as far as aid to Egypt is concerned. Most of the 1.3 Billion in aid goes to the Egyptian military, and much of it comes back to the U.S. in the form of arms industry contracts; the aid also guarantees Egypt’s adherence to the peace treaty with Israel. Suffice it to say, it is not in U.S. interests to stop military aid to Egypt.
Not to mention that U.S. foreign policy is unpopular enough in Egypt today without any added grievances. To the bemusement of American media commentators, both the Muslim Brotherhood side and the liberal secular side seem to be critical of U.S. foreign policy at the moment, and each side is accusing the other of being the ‘teacher’s pet.’ The unfortunate fact is that there is a widespread perception, regardless of political bent, that the ‘West’ is carrying through a long-term strategy of destabilizing and fragmenting the Arab Middle East, with Iraq and today Syria as the prime examples. Until that perception is changed, whatever the U.S. does, it will be damned if it does and damned if it does not.
But the West is right to point out that the newly re-enfranchised liberals are displaying heedless triumphalism and attempting to marginalize the Muslim Brotherhood too harshly. Returning to the repressive measures of the past and settling of accounts can only exacerbate the fractures in Egyptian society and lead to more instability. The Brotherhood and their supporters are not going away; the only option- difficult, distasteful, and uncertain as it may be- is to attempt to co-opt and re-engage the more moderate currents among the MB in the democratic process, while containing the more extremist currents. Bassem Youssef, Egypt’s Jon Stewart and the Islamists’ bĂȘte noir, made that same point in an article recently.

Hubris brought Mubarak down, and hubris brought Morsi down. That is a lesson that should not be lost on the new liberal/secular administration of Egypt. Or it will be ‘everybody coups,’ again.

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

A Time to Kill: Egypt's Tragic Ramadan


Rarely has Ramadan come at a more tragic time for Egyptians, or for that matter for Syrians. The spirit of the season is intended to be a holy month of peace and worship; of turning away from the material world and tuning in to the spiritual; of seeking forgiveness and redemption through fasting and self-abnegation. And yet the new moon that announces the advent of this year’s Ramadan shines a grim light on Egyptians killing Egyptians in the streets.
The elation was short-lived for the millions who marched to oust Morsi and his catastrophic administration on June 30th. First there was the backlash from the Muslim Brotherhood, echoed by a chorus in the international media accusing 'a coup against Egypt’s first democratically elected president.' The fact is that the Islamists, notably the Brotherhood and the Salafis, cannot lay claim to the Revolution of January 25th , a revolution they initially boycotted, and whose ideals they neither subscribed to nor sacrificed for. If anyone stole the revolution, they did. Similarly Morsi supporters’ mantra of ‘legitimacy’ rings hollow: he acted illegitimately in office from the day he was elected, grabbing power, riding roughshod over the institutions of government, putting himself above the law, and stuffing his administration with incompetent cronies.    
On the other hand, the liberal/secular camp- for want of a better catch-all designation for the diverse factions forming the opposition to the Islamist parties- the liberal camp exaggerates the role U.S. foreign policy played, or could have played, or should have played, during the past year and in the days leading to the June 30th uprising. Had American policy openly supported an uprising backed by a military coup against Egypt’s first democratically-elected, Islamist president, how would that American support have played domestically in Egypt and in the Arab/Muslim world? It is hard to imagine that the Muslim Brotherhood camp would have failed to make propaganda of the fact that the Egyptian military is the United States closest interlocutor, and that the ousting of an Islamist regime in Egypt is welcome news in Israel.
There has been much criticism of how the aftermath of the ‘coup’ was handled, with house arrest of leading Muslim Brotherhood leaders, and taking Islamist television channels off the air. But these media were being used to enrage and incite the mass of Morsi supporters, who shouted into the cameras blood-curdling threats of revenge and killing, particularly against the Christian minority. By any measure, in any country, these threats constitute hate speech and incitement to violence, and would have been taken off the air.
Nevertheless, the deaths of fifty-plus Morsi supporters demonstrating before a mosque at dawn on Monday is a sickening and tragic development. It should never have happened. Even if there had been provocation on the part of the Brotherhood supporters, the military should have been ready to control and contain a confrontation, not overreach with lethal force. The same use of deadly military force against protesters resulted in the deaths of more than 25 protesters, mostly Coptic Christians, during the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces' eighteen-month rule in the transition from Mubarak to Morsi. It was such incidents that turned public opinion against the military and brought thousands into the streets chanting ‘Down, down with Military Rule’. How could that lesson have gone to waste?
The path to a positive future for Egypt is anything but straightforward. The Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist parties cannot and should not be excluded again from political life, but it is not at all clear that their participation, now or in the near future, can take a constructive turn. Egypt’s Islamist parties have shown that they do not subscribe to the spirit of democracy, as opposed to the ballot box. In fact they do not even claim to subscribe to it. For them, the separation of politics from religion is illegitimate, and a plurality of opinion is heresy. For them, the ballot box is only a means to an end, and once that end is achieved, the box is to be discarded once and for all.