Monday, 3 December 2012

Egypt's Morsi: Forget Planet of the Apes

Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi has been in the international news nearly every day for the past week or two. First it was the positive press coverage of his cooperative role in defusing the breakout of Israeli/Hamas hostilities in Gaza. President Obama himself took calls from Morsi at 2 a.m.! What a power trip for an obscure engineer, a Muslim Brotherhood party bureaucrat who was catapulted into the limelight to pinch hit for his party’s original candidate when the latter was disqualified from the presidential elections. At the time of his election, I wrote that Egypt had a history of obscure ‘second men’ who come to power accidentally and then entrench themselves in power for surprisingly long periods. Sadat was Nasser’s yes-man vice-president till he became his own man and turned Egypt around 180 degrees from East to West; Mubarak became president unexpectedly when Sadat was assassinated, and went on to rule for thirty years.
True to historical form, the mild-mannered Morsi showed his teeth soon after taking power. He managed to outmaneuver the Generals and force the resignation of the Supreme Military Council that had been running the country and pulling the strings. Today, though, the same liberals who had applauded Morsi’s ‘coup’ against the military last summer are now flooding the streets in outrage against his move to arrogate to himself powers even Mubarak did not claim. Yet Morsi does not seem to have forfeited support from the United States. What is going on?
As Sadat did before him, Morsi is now check-mating one ‘center of power’ of the old regime after another as they challenge his newfound authority. After having successfully foiled the Military, he is turning his guns against the Judiciary, claiming that the Mubarak-appointed Supreme Court that dissolved the Islamist-dominated but democratically-elected Parliament last summer was now about to dissolve the Islamist-packed Constitutional Council charged with drafting a new charter for the nation. In a breath-taking power grab, Morsi put himself and the Constitutional Council above the reach of the highest court in Egypt, in effect above the reach of the law, while he attempts to railroad through a half-baked constitution, even after a quarter of the Council’s members, namely liberals, women, and Copts, resigned.
In a lengthy interview in the latest issue of Time Magazine with his face on the cover, Morsi tries to explain his actions as ‘pushing Egypt through a bottleneck’ of crisis, in other words, till the Constitution is ratified by referendum, after which he would retract the absolute powers he has seized by decree. No one in Egypt, however, forgets that Mubarak ruled for thirty years under cover of ‘emergency laws’ announced right after Sadat’s assassination.
Much commented on in the U.S. media is a rambling reference Morsi makes in the Time interview to the Sci-Fi kitsch classic, Planet of the Apes. Morsi compares what is happening in Egypt today to the struggle between a subjugated human played by Charleston Heston and his Ape masters in a post-apocalyptic world. Regardless of the intended meaning behind the confused analogy, it is a clever piece of public relations. It is Morsi attempting to bridge the gap with the American public, to remind them that this bearded, bespectacled, card-carrying member of the Muslim Brotherhood is also a U.S. educated engineer who received his degree from the University of Southern California, lived and worked in the States, fathered a couple of U.S.-born children, and apparently watched his fair share of cult classic movies. By sharing a reference to the ‘Planet of the Apes’, he clearly hopes to score a point on relatability.      
Are the Obama administration and the U.S. media buying this? Why is criticism of Morsi’s overreach so muted? Is it that he was democratically elected, by all accounts? Or that his role in brokering the Israeli-Hamas truce has earned him residual good will? Or is there a darker scenario at play?
In Egypt, of course, conspiracy theories rule. The Sinai hypothesis, if you can call it that, has been floating around since summer, but now it is no longer being dismissed as preposterous. According to the conspiracy theory, there are secret negotiations to cede territory from the Sinai, Egyptian territory, as part of a U.S.-sponsored master-plan resolution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.
The Egyptian press, still largely dominated by anti-Islamist Nasserists or liberals, is mute or muzzled when it comes to this particularly treacherous scenario. Several editors, journalists and television personalities have seen their careers ended abruptly in recent weeks. One television chat show host closed her final episode days ago with a lamentation over the death of democracy, holding her own funeral shroud up in her arms.
Forget the Planet of the Apes. Watch the Sinai.

Sunday, 23 September 2012

The Flying Head of the Wolf: the Military and the Islamists

Egypt President Orders Retirement

Two seemingly unrelated developments in the Middle East, one in Egypt and one in Turkey, represent a radical departure from the 20th century history of the region.

On Friday, after a decade-long trial, Turkey sentenced 322 military officers to long sentences for the failed ‘Sledgehammer’ plot to topple the Islamist Erdogan government in 2003. After decades of dominance over the politics of the country, and repeated coups against civilian governments that dared to contest their power, Turkey’s generals had finally met their match in the Islamic AK party of Tayyip Erdogan.

On August 13, President Morsi of Egypt forced the resignation of Field Marshall Tantawi and his top generals, the de facto rulers of Egypt since the fall of Mubarak. After 60 years of regimes headed by military men, from Nasser to Sadat to Mubarak, the generals had thought to continue to rule behind the throne, and accordingly staged what amounted to a coup to strip the presidency of its powers when it became clear that the Islamist Morsi had been elected president in June. In August, Morsi made his highly risky move to reassert the powers of the civilian executive, and prevailed: Tantawi and the other top brass obeyed orders to resign.

As President Morsi boasted in an interview in the New York Times today: “The president of the Arab Republic of Egypt is the commander of the armed forces, full stop. Egypt now is a real civil state. It is not theocratic, it is not military. It is democratic, free, constitutional, lawful and modern.”

The last statement remains to be validated, but there is no denying the quantum shift in the power politics of the state of Egypt. To many, the acquiescence of the generals to Morsi’s demand for their resignation came as a surprise. But it is possible that the example of the once all-powerful generals in Turkey, on trial for their lives, served as a caution for Egypt’s generals. As they say in the Middle East, it was the lesson of the flying head of the wolf.

In the Middle Eastern fables of Kalila and Domna, from which La Fontaine derived many of his fables, the lion, who is King, is displeased with an answer the wolf gives him, and swats his head off with a blow of his paw. When it is the fox’s turn to answer the same question, the fox gives the right answer, and the Lion King asks him: “Who taught you that?” To which the fox replies: “The flying head of the wolf.”

It is also no coincidence that the civilian governments that managed to challenge the might of the military in both Turkey and Egypt are headed by avowed Islamic parties, the moderate AK in Turkey and the newly-elected Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Respected as the military traditionally is in Middle Eastern societies, the Islamists can draw on an even stronger counter claim to legitimacy with the people. Erdogan’s AK has turned out to be generally moderate and modernizing; Egypt’s Morsi and his Brethren have yet to be tested in office, in spite of the reassuring line he is espousing on his first visit, as head of state, to Washington.

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Do Muslims not Understand Free Speech? The Hate Film Furor

Photo: Have a look at these images from Libya, showing how the Libyan people condemn the attacks on US embassy.   So have the Libyan Ulama (religious scholars).   This attacks seems to be coordinated by al-Qaeda sympathizers, using this occasion to stage their assault.    More coming soon.  (excuse spelling in picture!)

There are some events so shocking that you cannot process them coherently in words, even a week later. The horrific news of the killing of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other diplomats in Libya on September 11 is one of them. This article is not about that. As it turns out, the armed attack on the American consulate in Benghazi may have been unrelated to the Islam-reviling video clip that launched coincidental protests first in Cairo and then across the Muslim world.
But the question remains, about the crowds of hundreds or in some cases thousands who mobbed American embassies from Tunisia to Indonesia with protest signs against the so-called ‘Innocence of Muslims’ trailer, do Muslims not understand free speech? Why the violent reaction to such a laughable, beyond-amateurish attempt to insult their Prophet? Why not simply shrug it off as the piece of insignificant Muslim-baiting it is? Are Muslims too unsophisticated to understand the concept of free speech?
It’s not that simple. Muslim societies are sophisticated enough to be aware that the concept of free speech is not an absolute, even in the West. They are aware that in France or Germany, anyone who questions the number of victims of the Holocaust, let alone denies it, is jailed. They are aware that in France, Muslim girls are not allowed to wear a headscarf, a symbol of their faith, to public school.  They may or may not be aware that in the United State, the most recent attempt to adopt an amendment to criminalize flag desecration- which would include use as clothing or napkins- was defeated in the Senate by a single vote in June 2006.
In Egypt, people remember that United States administrations intervened regularly to condemn and ask for suppression of films, songs, or books critical of Israel. As the Mubarak regime complained at the time to the Bush administration, the U.S. criticized the Egyptian regime for cracking down on free speech and then asked it to do just that when it disapproved of the form that speech took.
Free speech is not an absolute value, anywhere in the world. Every society draws its red lines in a different place. In the United States, the First Amendment does not protect you if you cry fire in a crowded room. Hate speech is not protected if it is an incitement to violence.
So it may be simplistic to assume that Muslims just ‘don’t understand’ free speech. Even if it were an absolute value in the West, which it demonstrably is not, that does not mean that the rest of the world accepts that value as absolute. Indeed, as Stanley Fish pointed out in the New York Times today, the majority of the populations of the world, not only Muslims, place respect of religion above respect of free speech.
This California-produced ‘film’ was made, distributed and exploited with the transparent purpose of inciting furor, against Muslims and by them. Still, the question goes begging: why do Muslims rise so easily to the bait, time after time? Why does the blowback spread so predictably across the world? Why do they not respond in more measured, effective ways, or better still, ignore the derisory provocation for what it is?
The answer lies in the context on the ground: a world in which two Muslim countries are invaded and occupied by the West; a third nation currently threatened with pre-emptive bombing; a fourth subjected to drone strikes and their ‘collateral damage;’ and so on. The powerlessness to resist these concrete forms of subjugation and humiliation, and the perception that the gratuitous insults to the Islamic religion are part and parcel of the same supposed ‘war against Islam’, make the region a tinderbox that explodes at the striking of the flimsiest match.   
And once again the tragic dynamics play out. The perpetrators of the provocation claim their right to impunity, and the images of rioting Muslims confirm the opinion of those in the West who see them, at best, as political primitives who do not understand ‘free speech’, or, at worst, as violent followers of a violence- prone religion. 

Monday, 20 August 2012

What Is Hilary Thinking? Egypt's Islamists and U.S. Foreign Policy

Since his recent election, Egypt’s Islamist president is executing a series of breath-taking power grabs that confirm the worst fears of his detractors and confound the expectations of observers who expected the obscure, uncharismatic Morsi to be a toothless, figurehead president. But, as I wrote at the time of his election, Egypt has a history of obscure, uncharismatic ‘second men’ occupying the office of the presidency by default and then entrenching themselves in power. Sadat was generally underestimated as Nasser’s yes-man vice-president until he succeeded him after Nasser’s death, upon which he immediately engaged in an existential struggle against the competing ‘centers of power’ that sought to overturn him. Emerging victorious, Sadat then turned the entire ship of state around, notably in foreign policy and the peace treaty with Israel. When Sadat was assassinated by Islamists in 1980 and his vice-president succeeded him, expectations of the unimaginative Mubarak were low; but he managed to consolidate his power and maintain it for thirty years.
The squat, sixty-year-old unknown, Mohamed Morsi, became the Muslim Brotherhood’s last-minute, default presidential candidate when the party boss, Khairat Shater, was disqualified. Since his election, Morsi has flexed the muscles of the Executive office- unchecked by the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated Legislative- and pushed back against the secular, hostile Judiciary. Faced with what amounted to a coup by legislative decree that arrogated all powers to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), Morsi bided his time and exploited a terrorist attack in the Sinai to counter by a stunning coup of his own, firing the top military generals of all branches of the Armed Services as well as the powerful Intelligence agency.  The latest, most troubling move on Morsi’s part was to crack down on criticism in the media. It is hard to not to see an out-and out autocracy in the making.
And where is U.S. foreign policy in all of this? Many Egyptians watch, bemused, as events unfold with what can be interpreted as tacit consent by the U.S. Some speculate on an understanding between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Foreign Office; an understanding that is vociferously resented by Egypt’s Coptic Christians, some of whom protested Secretary Clinton’s meeting with Morsi when she visited Cairo this summer and expressed their anger by pelting her with rotten tomatoes.  But the fact is that it is good policy for the U.S. to avoid at all costs the appearance of siding against a democratically-elected president and parliament, Islamist though they might be. It may also be the case that the U.S. Foreign Office and the Pentagon have at least as comfortable an understanding with the younger generation of military generals Morsi appointed to replace the geriatric Marshall Tantawi and his cohorts.  Like the U.S.-educated Morsi himself and his Prime Minister Qandil, many of this younger generation of Egyptian military received training in the U.S. rather than in the Soviet Union, as was the norm in the Nasser years.  The non-alarmist reaction by Israel seems to confirm the understanding over the peace treaty.
But Secretary Clinton may be making a serious mistake. She may be discounting the history of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, a history that has proved, over and over again, that they are not to be trusted. Since the inception of the organization, one Egyptian ruler after another has tried co-opting the popular support for the religious appeal of the Muslim Brotherhood, only to have them turn against him. King Farouk tried to present himself as the Caliph of his day, and lost his throne; Nasser sought Brotherhood support for his revolution, until they attempted to assassinate him; Sadat, in his later years, tried to re-invent himself as a devout Muslim, and was assassinated by a Brotherhood officer; Mubarak alternately mollified and cracked down on the Brotherhood, and watched them reap the benefits of the revolution that overturned him.
Secretary Clinton may be counting on a policy of giving Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood administration enough rope to hang itself. Nowhere in the Arab world has an Islamist government been tested by actually coming to power: in office, the slogans of the Muslim Brotherhood will come up short against the pragmatic realities of Egypt’s monumental economic problems, and their failure will be their undoing. But anyone who thinks they can dance with this particular devil should take another look at Egypt’s contemporary history.


Thursday, 2 August 2012

Muslim Olympians Invisible in the Spotlight

No, not the Egyptian silver medalist fencer Alaa AbdelKassem; not the Saudi runner in a headscarf, Sarah Attar. Not the members of the Olympics teams from the Middle Eastern Muslim majority countries, who are the subjects of articles about the conundrum of competing while observing the Ramadan fast. The invisible Muslim Olympians are the ones the media focuses the limelight on every day without once mentioning that they are clearly of Muslim heritage. A case in point is top Russian gymnast Aliya Mustafina, whose father Farhat was also a gymnast. 
Is it ever appropriate for the media to mention the ethnic or religious background of athletes? Perhaps the exception should be for athletes of a minority background who are rare role models, particularly Muslims, given that the media focuses first and foremost on the religious affiliation of a criminal or terrorist disproportionately if he or she happens to be of Muslim background. Is there any doubt that, if James Holmes had been called, say, Hussein Mustafa, that fact would have trumped all else in the coverage of the Colorado massacre?
All the better that Aliya Mustafina, like millions of women of Muslim heritage, wears no headscarf and never mentions her religion. The Olympics are about many things, and one of them is shattering stereotypes as well as records.


Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Caliphs and 'City' Girls: Split-Personality Muslim Television

Ramadan is the Islamic holy month of fasting and prayer, but it is also the Muslim world's television drama addiction month. At the end of a day’s deprivation, millions of Muslims from the Atlantic to the Persian Gulf gather in front of their television sets to follow daily episodes of month-long miniseries especially created for the Ramadan sweeps month. Every year, one or two of the multiple offerings becomes the breakout success, and the year’s forerunners invariably reflect the zeitgeist of the Islamic world.
This year, the two stand-outs are a mind-boggling contrast: on the one hand, a scholarly, pious docudrama of the life of Omar, a Disciple of the Prophet and second Caliph; and on the other, a wild Egyptian version of Sex and the City. It is disconcerting enough that ‘The Girls’, as the latter is called, is allowed to air in newly Islamist-governed Egypt and conservative Gulf Emirates- more about that later- but even more controversial is the life story of the Caliph Omar. That strikes at the heart of a particular Sunni-Shiite split in Islamic doctrine.
In the eponymous docudrama, actors play the Caliph Omar and other close disciples of the Prophet, as well as members of his family, breaking a long-standing taboo in the film industry of the Muslim world. So far, Arabic screens have been spared Cecile B. De Mille style religious epics with Victor Mature and Charleston Heston in biblical garb. 
But the interdiction on portraying Muhammad and his disciples is a Sunni tradition, never observed in Shia Islam. In Iran, black-browed, black-bearded, turbaned depictions of Muhammad, the Caliph Ali and his martyred son Hussein, are ubiquitous. On the other hand, in strict Sunni Saudi Arabia, the prohibition against idol-worship is so sweeping that the very shrines and tombs of the Prophet’s family were destroyed by Wahabi zealots in the eighteenth century.
Even in moderately Sunni Egypt, imams of the Azhar University have been ambivalent about the Ramadan docudrama ‘Omar,’ although the tone of the Emirates-based MBC production is irreproachably respectful, and the lead role is played by a sympathetic, brawny, charismatic young actor. The Prophet Muhammad is never shown or heard directly, although his off-screen presence is intimated in many scenes. The dialogue is enlivened by a few wrestling scenes and a love story featuring a Spartacus-like Ethiopian slave.
On the other hand, the four girls of ‘Girls’ Stories’ are blatant mimics, if not parodies, of the Sex and the City Quartet, down to the Carrie character’s habit of concluding each episode by recording her thought of the day on her laptop. They live in an unrecognizable, aseptic Egypt of gated communities and traffic-less roads, and pepper their vocabulary with five Americanisms per sentence. Camellia, the crudest and wildest, is the ‘Samantha’ character, but all four of the ‘girls’ vamp around in six-inch heels, skintight spandex, décolletage and nip-tuck faces. They chase elusive boyfriends and equally elusive jobs with the talentless single-mindedness of rhinos. They abuse any male at hand, including lackluster suitors and doting daddies- not Sugar Daddies, but their actual progenitors; for these Egyptian ‘girls’ are spoilt brats who still live under the roof of improbably indulgent fathers whom they treat with such contempt that one boyfriend actually objects. The girls are so unsympathetically drawn that it is a mystery which demographic these charmless protagonists are intended to attract.  
Unless, of course, wittingly or unwittingly by their creators, they represent a cautionary tale, girls gone wild, ‘secular’ values taken to a cartoonish extreme. In that case, it is no wonder that Egypt’s newly-elected Islamist government turns a blind eye to their onscreen shenanigans during the holy month of Ramadan.

Thursday, 19 July 2012

Suleiman: The Spymaster Who Came in from the Cold?

If ever a man knew too much, it was Omar Suleiman. The most powerful spymaster in the Middle East, Mubarak’s black box, the C.I.A.’s rendition agent in Egypt, Israel’s intermediary. The head of Egypt’s dread Mukhabarat, a spy chief so powerful that his very identity was unknown to the average Egyptian until he chose to go public a few years ago. The Intelligence Chief who, when asked by the C.I.A. to provide a DNA sample from the brother of Ayman Zawahiri, the Al Qaeda leader, offered instead to send them the man’s entire arm.
No wonder that the out-of-the-blue announcement of Suleiman’s sudden death, purportedly at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio when he was supposed to be in the Emirates, unleashed a flood of conspiracy theories worthy of a John Le Carré novel.
I sat a table away from Omar Suleiman at a wedding in February, by sheer chance. This was a year after Mubarak’s downfall, and a couple of months before Suleiman briefly and unsuccessfully ran for president of Egypt. It struck me then what a physically small man he was, in person, but how he commanded deference from his entourage. It was testament enough to his power that, in the year that elapsed since the January Revolution, in spite of Suleiman’s sulfurous reputation, in spite of his closeness to Mubarak, he was never at risk of being tried, let alone jailed, as so many ministers and other powerful regime figures were. The inescapable conclusion was that Suleiman knew so much about enough people to be untouchable. Even the news media seemed too cowed to touch him.
At the wedding we both attended, at tables nearby, there were a few sotto voce jokes about: “Where is the man behind Omar Suleiman?” A reference to the indelible, notorious television image of his pale and haunted face announcing Mubarak’s resignation on February 11th 20111, while behind his chair a stone-faced, burly man in glasses stood guard. Some, at the time, wondered if Suleiman were being coerced into reading the resignation announcement, but if ever a man had a face designed by nature to deliver mournful news or be painted by El Greco, it was Omar Suleiman.
Pity he wasn’t available to announce his own demise. Although there are plenty of conspiracy theories to suggest that he may well have been. After all, the circumstances are ripe for intrigue. First Suleiman’s two daughters precede him out of Egypt, then he himself is reported to have left for the Emirates; then it is suddenly announced that he had been at the Cleveland Clinic all along and that, although he was well when he checked in, he died during treatment. That doesn’t say much for the Cleveland Clinic. On the other hand, if Suleiman, like his former boss Mubarak, was trying to stage a temporary death- who can forget Mubarak’s miraculous resurrection in June, when he rapidly progressed backward from ‘clinically dead’ to ‘comatose’ to ‘stable’ to ‘commenting on the elections’ in three short days?
If Suleiman were trying to engineer a convenient disappearance beyond the reach of Egypt’s current Islamist-led government that might conceivably hold him accountable for ordering the torture of extradited Islamist suspects on behalf of the C.I.A., he could well have orchestrated his own ‘death’, with the connivance of his friends in the U.S. intelligence community, witness-protection style. Or there is a more sinister scenario possible:  the man who knew too much may finally have known too much for his own good. Only John Le Carré could have dreamed this stuff up, but then truth can be stranger than fiction. 

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

When Did Egypt's Revolution Get Downgraded to a Revolt?

 On February 3rd, 2011, the day after Mubarak ‘loyalist’ thugs rode into Tahrir Square on horses and camels and started bludgeoning the peaceful protesters camping there, I wrote:  ‘If (Mubarak) stays, the events of the past ten days will be referred to as "the uprising of January 2011"; if he goes, we will talk of a revolution. We owe it to these brave young protesters to make it the latter.’
Today, ominously, there are more and more references to Egypt’s ‘revolt’ in the media; just this morning, the New York Times referred to ‘Egypt’s postrevolt politics.’ Ironically, the context was an article about the reconvening of the first democratically-elected Egyptian parliament, after sixty years of what effectively amounted to one-party rule; at the behest of the first democratically-elected president in the first contested presidential election, after sixty years of yes/no referendums on the incumbent that invariably returned the sitting president with an incredible 90% plus approval.
True, there is controversy over the eligibility, under Mubarak-era rules, of Muslim Brotherhood candidates to run for one third of the seats they won. But even an observer like myself, dismayed by the sweep of the legislative and executive by Islamist candidates, must admit that vox populi had spoken.
True also that the election of the president turned out to be not the end but the beginning of an intensification of the tug of war between the civilian president and the military establishment. Those who object to the Constitutional Court ruling that invalidated one third of the seats point out that the Generals made a power grab by dissolving Parliament under the cover of a ruling by the Mubarak-appointee court. Others, like Mubarak-opposition leader Mohamed Baradei, uphold the authority of the Court on the principle of ‘a government of laws, not of men.’ This brings to my mind the parallel with the Bush/Gore impasse of 2008, when Vice President Gore bowed to the higher authority of the courts, regardless of the widespread criticism of their role at the time.
So democracy is messy, even in the country that prides itself on being the city on the hill. Democracy, as we understand the concept today, evolved over centuries in specific contexts that, until recently even in the West, did not include women, colored persons or the uneducated. In a country with Egypt’s rate of illiteracy, where a vast swath of the disaffected, disenfranchised masses turned to religion as ‘the solution’, is it any surprise that the outcome of the first free elections disappointed the ideals of the secular-minded young liberals who originally launched the January 25th revolution?
But that does not negate the fact that it was a revolution, not a mere revolt. To suggest otherwise is to insult the memory of the young idealists who suffered, sacrificed, and died by the thousand to break the cycle of fear and autocracy, once and for all.

Friday, 29 June 2012

Islamist First Family in Egypt: Style or Substance?

A parallel universe. There really is no other way to put it. More than anything today, Egyptians of all political stripes, whether devastated or delighted, are experiencing the surrealist sense of a parallel universe. In that universe, the all-powerful and ineluctable Pharaoh of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak, is a prisoner in a hospital somewhere, and a bearded, shabby, obscure Islamist called Mohamed Morsi, a veteran of Mubarak’s prisons, is shown around the presidential palace by the same presidential guard that would never have allowed him within a mile of Mubarak’s person. Less than eighteen months ago, such a scenario would have been too far-fetched even for a movie spoof.
When Mubarak, his wife or his son made a public appearance, it was the culmination of careful coordination and preparation intended as much to preserve the aura of grandeur of the First Family as to shield its members from friction with the public. Especially when you are preparing for the succession to your son, you cultivate the unapproachable mystique of royalty.
By contrast, today in his first public appearance in Tahrir as President-elect, Morsi concluded a passionate, theatrical speech by flinging off his jacket, waving aside his guards, and wading into the crowd of thousands, making a show of relishing his ‘bain de foule’, or bathing in the crowd, as the French say.

Suzanne Mubarak, and Jihan Sadat before her, fully embraced the publicity and power of her role as ‘First Lady.’ In the eyes of the world, where rumors of their greed and ambition rarely penetrated, the two attractive women were reassuringly Westernized; their elegance and polish did credit to Egypt in state visits and international women’s conferences. They shared much: both were half-British, on the distaff side; both married young, to officers of more modest backgrounds; both continued their education later in life and earned advanced degrees while their husbands were in power. Both espoused the typical causes of child welfare, education, and in Suzanne Mubarak’s case, the arts.
Mohamed Morsi’s wife Naglaa Mahmoud comes from a different world. She is not an Egyptian Everywoman, as the New York Times wrote recently; she is an Islamist Everywoman, and many Egyptian women would deny that she represents them. She is not just ‘veiled’, as so many Egyptian women are, with a headscarf; she wears a ‘tarha’ or prayer veil, that sweeps down to her knees. Unlike Turkish President Gul’s wife, who makes every attempt to look attractive and stylish in spite of her headscarf, wearing six-inch ankle boots to meet the Queen at Buckingham Palace, Morsi’s wife, by contrast, seems to make every effort to look as severe and dowdy as possible.

Although she accompanied her husband to the United States, where he studied engineering while she gave birth to two of their sons, she herself holds no college degree. Naglaa Mahmoud keeps her maiden name, not as a sign of independence from her husband, but rather in adherence to the convention of Muslim societies, where a woman never takes her husband’s name. In fact, ‘Suzanne Mubarak’ and ‘Jihan Sadat’ never existed outside of media parlance; legally, they kept their maiden names, as evidenced by the court charges, after the revolution, against ‘Suzanne Sabet’, the maiden name of Mrs. Mubarak.
As nervous observers in Egypt today try to decode style for substance, President-Elect Morsi and his wife will come under the closest scrutiny. How will Morsi, a virtually unknown back-up candidate brought in at the last minute by the Muslim Brotherhood to contest the presidential elections, deal with the pressures of office? But Egypt has a history of dark horses, once dismissed as lightweights- Sadat was derided as Nasser’s yes-man and Mubarak as an accidental president- who, finding themselves elevated to the position of president, prove to have the tenacity and cunning to not only hang on to power but to sustain their rule for decades. Morsi might prove to be just such an accidental president, confounding expectations. Whether that is a prospect to be dreaded or welcomed depends on where you stand in a divided Egypt today.

Sunday, 24 June 2012

Islamist President in Egypt: The Devil You Don't

Celebrating Morsi win in Tahrir photo by M. Serageldin
Egypt today was a country divided, nearly as neatly down the middle as the votes- 51% versus 49%- that elected Islamist Morsi over his rival for the presidency, the military-backed Shafiq. On the one hand, in Egypt today, there was celebration, horns tooting, flags flying; on the other hand there were tears, lamentation, fear of what the future might bring. Cairo alone was an ominous demonstration of national divisiveness: Tahrir Square was dedicated to the supporters of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, while Nasr City was the gathering ground for the supporters of the former general and Mubarak loyalist Shafiq.
It was the culmination of an escalation of events that began with the coup d’etat, by legislative decree, staged by the Generals on Thursday. For a few surreal days, Egyptians were in limbo: supporters of Morsi were happy their candidate won, but then so were supporters of Shafiq, who also declared he had won; those who wanted Mubarak dead were told he was clinically dead, and those who wanted him alive were reassured he was merely in a coma.
Now the suspense is over. On Sunday afternoon the head of the Egyptian Election Committee appeared on television, carried live by half the television stations around the world, and- as if determined to stretch his fifteen minutes of fame into fifty- launched into an agonizingly detailed accounting of the results of each precinct; at the end of which he finally pronounced the verdict the world was waiting to hear: Mohamed Morsi, of the Muslim Brotherhood, carried the day.
Tahrir erupted in cheers. It was not only Muslim Brotherhood supporters camped out in the square; there were secular liberals, as well, who were standing up for the sanctity of free and fair democratic elections and refused to see the revolution annulled and the clock turned back to Mubarak-era military rule. For those liberals, including Wael Ghonim of Face Book fame, the principle of democracy trumped ideological differences, however bitter the pill was to swallow.
But for many others in Egypt, it felt like the end of the world. For many of my friends who are distrustful of the military but outright terrified by the Muslim Brotherhood, the devil they know would have been better than the devil they don’t. One woman I know was choked up with tears, speaking on the phone from Egypt. Yet I remember a conversation with her, a year or so before the revolution, in which she’d dismissed my misgivings about the outcome of a hypothetical Brotherhood accession to power. “So what? They’ll make us wear a headscarf for a couple of years, that’s all, and then they’ll forget about it,” she shrugged at the time. Today she is in tears.
But this being Egypt, the air is thick with conspiracy theories. Morsi and the Generals must have reached an agreement, it is believed, hence the delay in announcing the results. The election of Morsi would avert the threat of massive unrest on the part of his cheated supporters; but with all powers concentrated in the hands of the military, he would be a toothless president reduced to a ceremonial role. Moreover, another, counter-intuitive conspiracy theory maintains, the election of an Islamist would further the secret plan of the United States to see Egypt broken up into two states, like the Sudan, Iraq and potentially Libya
And there are yet others in Egypt who will go to bed tonight weary of conspiracy theory, suffering from revolutionary fatigue, longing for a return to ‘normal’- with only the vaguest of notions of what normal might look like today. 

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Mubarak: Rumors of My Death are Exaggerated

‘Rumors of my death are greatly exaggerated,’ Mark Twain said, and of no one is that more true than of Hosni Mubarak. From a ‘clinically dead’ diagnosis on Tuesday, he seems to have made a miraculous recovery in the Maadi military hospital.
Ironically, it was the looming prospect of his death that provided the underlying catalyst of the Revolution of January 25th, and the reason it initially succeeded. Egyptians were, by and large, prepared to wait for the perennially imminent eventuality of Mubarak’s death of natural causes; it was the prospect of inheriting his son Gamal as his successor, and a perpetuation of Mubarak rule for another thirty years, that finally proved intolerable to the people of Egypt.
Most crucially, it proved inacceptable to the Generals. Gamal Mubarak and his elite coterie of civilian businessmen threatened the deeply entrenched powers, privileges, and economic interests of the Armed Forces, which controlled some forty percent of the economy of the country. Initially, when the revolution erupted, the military stood on the side lines, but in the end the Generals confronted Mubarak with an ultimatum: leave or be deposed. Had the military chosen to intervene against the demonstrators, the course of the revolution would have been very different.
The passing away of Hosni Mubarak just after the Generals staged a bloodless coup d’état would have been a curiously tactful bit of timing on his part, taking the potentially explosive issue of his controversial sentence off the table. Before the revolution, the hoariest joke about Mubarak went this way: Mubarak is on his death bed, and the people come to pay their last respects. His Generals come to him and say: “Mr. President, the people have come to say goodbye.” Mubarak replies: “Why, where are the people going?”
Apparently, it is not yet time for Mubarak to go. Except, perhaps, abroad for ‘treatment’ somewhere where he can live out his life in luxurious exile; this is the cynical rumor that is currently circulating in Egypt. For most of the eighteen days of the Egyptian revolution of January 2011, all the people in Tahrir asked of the Mubaraks was for them to go. “Leave, leave,” they chanted. The Mubaraks chose to stay, perhaps believing in a come-back. Today, given the mood of the country, after disillusionment and counter-revolution, violence and contested elections, exile may be more than Mubarak can hope to be granted.

Monday, 18 June 2012

Egypt: Equilibrium of Evils

It could not have been more blatant or more predictable: late Sunday evening, as the polls closed and the presidential run off elections projected a win for the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Morsi, the military rulers of Egypt declared a new interim constitution that severely restricted the powers of the president : he would be reduced to greeting heads of state at airports, as one friend put it, along the model of the Indian or Israeli presidents. Thus the ruling generals consolidated the coup d’état they staged on Thursday night- under the thin veneer of ‘court rulings’- that dissolved the Brotherhood-dominated parliament and arrogated to the generals all law-making powers, as well as control over the national budget; power to declare war; the naming of a constitution-drafting assembly; and complete freedom from civilian oversight. Moreover, the simultaneous re-assertion of draconian martial law effectively signaled that dissent would no longer be tolerated.
And so, at the moment when the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces had promised to hand over power to civilian authorities, they re-instated a military dictatorship: Mubarak on steroids. Regardless of the two-hour news conference the generals gave today, attempting to soften their message, there is no getting around that stark reality: this is what the revolution has wrought.
The power struggle is not over. No one is satisfied in Egypt today, but many look at the situation as an equilibrium of evils: neither a Muslim Brotherhood sweep of the executive and the legislative, which would have opened the door to an over-reaching Islamist government; or the election of the military-backed Mubarak throw-back, Ahmed Shafiq, which would have legitimized the ruling generals coup d’état. For some, including liberals who disagree on all points with the Brotherhood but cannot stomach rule by military junta, it might even look like a glass half-full. Half-full of a bitter drought, nonetheless.

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Which is the Lesser of Two Evils?

Egyptians today know they are voting for the lesser of two evils, but have a hard time determining which is the lesser. This is how part of my family in Egypt voted today in the presidential election run off : one couple went together to the polls together to cancel out each other’s vote. He suggested to his wife that they should spare themselves the hassle in the heat and just stay home, but she was determined to go to the polls, so he reluctantly had to go himself just to counter her vote. Although she had been a staunch supporter of the anti-Mubarak revolution, the wife voted for Shafiq, because she loathed the Muslim Brotherhood candidate Morsi and all he represented even more. Although he equally opposes an Islamist takeover, the husband voted for Morsi, on the basis that the people could always oust the Brotherhood, but could never oust the military, who wield the ultimate power and can only be minimally counterbalanced, at best. The critical factor in the husband’s reasoning is that the powers of the president have not yet been defined, and it is clear that the military is waiting for the outcome of the election: if Shafiq prevails, the military will define the powers of the president as virtually limitless, in other words Mubarak’s dictatorship on steroids; on the other hand, if the Islamist wins, the role of the president will be defined in the most limited terms possible. That rationale is not without merit.
Either way, many, even most, Egyptians are voting for the lesser of two evils, however they define the outcome. There is blame to be assigned on every side: the Muslim Brotherhood, unarguably, overreached in trying to control both the legislative and the executive, and in so doing spooked a sizeable proportion of the population. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces is making an even more naked grab for complete power, and is prepared to nullify elections results and squash dissent unmercifully: not a single officer, high or low, has been held accountable for the brutality exercised against demonstrators and the deaths that resulted from it.
Then there are those who are opting out altogether, and heeding the appeal by famous writer Alaa Aswany who makes the analogy that, when a team realizes that the game is rigged, the only option is to stop playing, rather than legitimize the fraudulent victory of the opponent. Vote, opt out, cancel each other’s votes: no good options, no good outcome for Egypt today. So there are those post all over their Face Book pages: Pray for Egypt!

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Egypt's Mitary Coup: Back to the Future

It’s not that a military power grab was not a scenario foretold: back in January 2011, with the revolution ongoing in Tahrir and Mubarak still in power, the warnings were many: Be careful what you wish for! You may get a historical first: an authentic people’s revolution that turns into a coup d’etat, sixty years after a coup d’etat in 1952, by Colonel Nasser et al, that turned into a socialist ‘revolution.’
Today, the worst case scenario has come to pass: ahead of this weekend’s presidential election, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces- Field Marshall Tantawi and company- mounted a ‘soft’ coup, in one swift blow re-instating martial law, dissolving Parliament, ruling for the eligibility of their own candidate, Ahmed Shafiq, and announcing the formation of a constituent assembly of their choice to set a new constitution, new parliamentary eligibility rules, and the powers of a new president.
The military’s candidate, Ahmed Shafiq, is a former Air Force Commander, just like his role model Hosni Mubarak; just like Mubarak, he is a strongman whose mantra is ‘I or the Islamists’.  In today’s Egypt, this slogan resonates with a wide swath of disillusioned, exhausted and intimidated citizenry, fearful of a Muslim Brotherhood takeover; they breathe a sigh of relief at the prospect of ‘back to the future’, carried along in a miasma of willful, collective amnesia about the corruption of the Mubarak elite and the brutality of his security forces, police and military alike. All over Face Book, they are giving thanks for sparing Egypt ‘the Iran scenario,’ even if it ends in a Turkey-style military takeover; over Iran, they will take Turkey any day. So would I.
But what if the alternative scenario is not Turkey, but Algeria? What if, by nullifying a parliamentary election in which Islamists won at the ballot box, the military will be risking a massive wave of protests and resistance that could lead to the kind of bloodbath Algeria experienced for a decade? Egyptians are not Algerians, the reassuring counter argument goes, with nothing like Algeria’s violence and tribalism. But then again, the conventional wisdom before January 2011, was that Egyptians did not revolt.
This weekend Egyptians may or may not go to the polls to elect a President whose powers are yet undetermined, in a country with no constitution, no Parliament, and under the heel of a Draconian martial law. A year and a half after a revolution that inspired the world, this is a bitter day for Egypt: the ideals of a revolution betrayed, the blood of the best and the brightest of its youth spilled in vain. 

Monday, 4 June 2012

Egypt's Long, Hot Summer

Egypt’s liberal progressives are going about stunned today. They shake their heads in despair: Has is come to this? A choice between equal evils for President: either Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood or Mubarak Redux personified in Ahmed Shafiq, the Mubarak-era Prime Minister who presided over the infamous ‘Battle of the Camel’ in Tahrir Square when peaceful young protestors were set upon by Mubarak thugs. Shafiq represents back to the future in every sense: for one thing, he is a military man like every president of Egypt to date: Naguib, Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak.  He is also an unreformed counter-revolutionary hardliner who in a recent public speech affirmed his admiration for Mubarak and promised, if elected, to ban demonstrations by cutting off electricity to ‘shut down Cairo in ten minutes.’
It is a dismaying sign of how far the perception of the security situation has deteriorated in Egypt over the past year that there are many ordinary citizens, who once supported the revolution, but would vote tomorrow for the ‘law and order’ candidate, as Shafiq presents himself. But that rationale overlooks a fatal flaw: the record of the SCAF (Supreme Council of the Armed Forces) in ensuring security in the eighteen months since the revolution has been abysmal, as has its record in policing its own forces in their dealings with civilians.
To ‘law-and-order’ voters, the mantra of ‘anybody but the Muslim Brotherhood’ is paramount, and for good reason. The shocking domination of the MB Party in the parliamentary elections has panicked secular-thinking Egyptians before the prospect of a complete takeover of power by the Islamist movement. The obscure and uncharismatic Morsi is a pinch-hitter for the Muslim Brotherhood boss, Khairat El-Shater, himself disqualified on account of his imprisonment under Mubarak. Alarmists warn that, if elected, Morsi will take his orders from El-Shater, just as Putin’s protégé place-holder president took his orders from Putin; they warn that Morsi will be unduly influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood ‘guide’, or spiritual leader, just as John Kennedy was suspected, as the first Catholic candidate, of taking his guidance from the Vatican.
The Coptic community has the most reason to be alarmed by the prospect of a Muslim Brotherhood domination of both the legislative and the executive branches. It has taken its guidance directly from the Patriarch’s office and thrown its entire weight behind Ahmed Shafiq.
Secular-minded women, as well, are alarmed at the specter of an Islamist victory resulting not only in a more restrictive social climate but to the actual revocation of certain gains for women’s rights in Muslim family law; these legal rights were acquired, or rather imposed by presidential decree, under Sadat and Mubarak, but remain controversial with a large sector of public opinion and are unlikely to withstand an open vote in Parliament.
But women, unlike Copts, do not vote as a block, and the Muslim Brotherhood counts among its activists many outspoken, committed women who support their cause wholeheartedly. Further complicating the picture for liberal Egyptian women voters is the brutality of the military in its crackdowns on women demonstrators: seared in their minds is the shocking image of the ‘blue-bra girl’, stripped, beaten, stomped on and dragged by the hair at the hands of a military riot squad. 
No wonder, then, that the young idealists who marched and died in the Revolution of January 25th feel doubly betrayed; they are left out of the political power game and cannot endorse either the Mubarak era hardliner who represents the counter-revolution or the Islamist opportunist who represents a religious absolutism that is anathema to the ideals of the revolution.
Curiously, Mubarak’s trial, which had receded behind closed doors, out of sight and out of the public mind, over the past couple of months, suddenly surged to the foreground and came to a rapid conclusion. Whose interests did this sudden closure serve? Many presume that the SCAF might have calculated that the political football of Mubarak’s trial was best taken out of the game before it could land at the feet of their candidate, Ahmed Shafiq. If so, the calculation backfired, as the sentence seems to have enraged rather than appeased a large segment of public opinion across the board. Mubarak was not held responsible for the killing of demonstrators at the hands of his security police; he was convicted only of failing to prevent the killing. The conviction has no basis in Egyptian law and is expected to be overturned on appeal; even if no appeal was granted, few expect to see Mubarak serve his life sentence in prison. Further adding to the grievance of the families of the victims and their supporters was the relative unaccountability also accorded to Mubarak’s reviled Minister of the Interior, to whom the police reported directly.  Mubarak’s two sons, widely suspected of wielding the power behind the scenes in the final days of the deposed dictator’s regime, were acquitted of all charges.
Since the sentence was proclaimed, hundreds of thousands of protesters have demonstrated in Tahrir and in city centers across Egypt. The second round of the presidential elections is scheduled for mid-June. If the MB candidate Morsi wins and the Islamists seriously engage in power struggles with the military, the SCAF might mount a coup. If Ahmed Shafiq wins, widespread unrest cannot be ruled out. Either way, it may be a long, hot summer for Egypt.

Sunday, 29 April 2012

The Egyptian Feminist's Dilemma: Mona Eltahawy

‘Why Do They Hate Us?” Egyptian-American writer Mona Eltahawy laments on the cover page of Foreign Policy, in an article illustrated by provocative photos of a naked woman painted to look as if she were wearing niqab. Who are the ‘They’ and who are the ‘Us’ referred to in the title of Eltahawy’s piece? She claims, in her many television interviews since the publication of the piece, that her intention was to turn the 9/11 mantra ‘Why Do They Hate Us?’ on its head. But in fact, she subscribes to it. The ‘Us’ she claims to speak for are Arab/Muslim women, but the ‘They’ accused of hatred are the same: Arab/Muslim men. In subscribing to that sweeping generalization, Eltahawy created a media controversy in the States but forfeited the support of a considerable segment of the women she purports to champion.
It is easy to understand and sympathize with Eltahawy’s bitterness and disillusionment: a vocal supporter of the January 25th Revolution in Egypt, she was assaulted sexually and had both her arms broken by riot police during a demonstration in Cairo. But Eltahawy’s article is a blanket condemnation, not only of the tactics of the riot police under Mubarak and his loyalists; not of a misogynist interpretation of Islam pushed by an extremist sect called Salafis; not even of regressive attitudes toward women arguably prevalent, especially among the less educated, in the Middle East.
Eltahawy’s generalization tars all men in the Muslim/Arab world with the same harsh brush, as if the riot policeman stripping a female protester were indistinguishable from the young man trying to protect her. She ignores the experience of thousands of Egyptian women who camped side by side with men in Tahrir Square day and night during the heyday of the revolution, without being subjected to harassment or intimidation.
With similar lack of distinction, she makes sweeping generalizations about all Arab countries, as if Saudi Arabia, the only country where women are not allowed to drive and are forced to wear a niqab, were indistinguishable from Tunisia, where policewomen direct traffic.
Eltahawy selects the worst instances of abusive laws or practices from each country and throws them indiscriminately into her quiver of accusations: for instance, the abhorrent practice of female circumcision is still common in parts of Egypt, but it is a Nilotic practice, not an Islamic one, and is unknown in the Muslim country most repressive against women: Saudi Arabia. On the other hand Egypt and most Arab countries enforce a minimum age of sixteen for marriage for girls, whereas Saudi Arabia does not.
By wielding her weapon so bluntly and indiscriminately, by making the same mistake Western feminists have historically made in trying to disassociate the ‘Oriental’ woman from her context, Eltahawy risks alienating the support of the women she may sincerely be trying to champion. A woman does not exist in a vacuum; she is a mother, daughter, wife, sister; she is a Muslim or an Arab. There are claims to her loyalty other than gender.  At a time in history when her sons or brothers are indiscriminately branded as potential terrorists for being Arab or Muslim, she will shrink from comforting those dangerous stereotypes by subscribing to an equally reductionist diatribe against them as misogynists; at a time when wars are being waged, or threatened, against Arab and Muslim-majority countries partly with the justification of ‘saving women’, these same women fear the consequences of such reasoning.  
But perhaps the most misguided aspect of Eltahawy’s indiscriminate attack in ‘Why Do They Hate Us?’ is that it leaves the women’s rights movement in these countries with nowhere to go. If feminists in Arab and Muslim-majority countries are to gain the full measure of rights and liberties for women, they will need to enlist the support of a sizeable segment of the male population, not antagonize it wholesale. Women’s rights cannot be imposed from outside, by marshalling public opinion in the West. Eltahawy’s courage and sincerity must be tested by the same measure as any feminist facing the same dilemma: by her efforts to change facts on the ground in Egypt, not by success in creating a media uproar in America.

Friday, 27 April 2012

Egypt's Presidential Primaries: Everything at Stake

This spring seems to be the season of hotly contested presidential primaries around the world. Now that the Republican primaries in the U.S. have been decided in favor of Mitt Romney, and Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande are facing off in France, perhaps the most critical presidential ‘primaries’ of all are being fought out in Egypt. Everything is at stake here, arguably not just for Egypt, but for the region and the world.
The future of the Arab Spring hangs in the balance, with three possible scenarios: Egypt’s elections return a hardliner Islamist for president, setting it on the path of Ayatollah Iran, confirming the worst fears of the West; or the military re-asserts its role in the power balance, along the lines of traditional Turkish politics; or, in a case of Mubarak redux, an old regime loyalist is brought in to protect the interests of the beleagured business elite.
In a region that has consistently demonstrated the validity of the mantra ‘as Egypt goes, so goes the Arab world’, the United States has vital interests, from Iraq to Israel; the run-up to the June-slated presidential elections is closely watched from Washington to Moscow. So it is intriguing that the process of elimination of candidates is taking place in the courts rather than at the polls.
The explanation for the critical role of the courts lies in a constitution riddled with Mubarak-era amendments jerry-rigged to ensure, in effect, that no one but the former president, or his offspring, stood a real chance of running for president of Egypt. One such rule, excluding anyone convicted of any misdemeanor, even on blatantly political, trumped-up charges, was intended to disqualify Ayman Nour, who had dared to run against Mubarak. After the revolution, the same rule was applied to disqualify Muslim Brotherhood candidate Khairat Shater, jailed under Mubarak for his Islamist activities.
Moreover, after the revolution, the Islamic-dominated new parliament voted into law new hurdles for presidential candidates, designed to exclude certain figures from the old regime or certain candidates it deemed too secular. On the one hand, Ahmed Shafiq, a Mubarak-era prime minister and the current military rulers’ candidate-of-choice, was recently disqualified according to the new rule against any ancien regime top ministers running for president. On the other hand, it was with considerable schadenfreude that many saw the most radical hardliner among the Islamist candidates, Abu Ismail, a vociferous reviler of the Unites States, disqualified by the courts on a technicality: although born of Egyptian parents on both sides, his mother had become a naturalized American citizen at some later date. 
But in this game of arbitrary court-decreed elimination, the ‘Mubarak redux’ lobby was dealt a blow of its own, when the courts disqualified Omar Soliman, Mubarak’s long-time spy chief, top liaison official with Israel, and eleventh-hour vice-president in the final days before Mubarak’s resignation. Soliman was excluded from running for the presidency on a technicality involving a mere 31 votes, a blow to the military rulers of the country, who considered Soliman, himself a military man, one of them: he was never caught in the wide-ranging net of prosecution that swept up the major cabinet and business elite figures associated with Gamal Mubarak, and is widely believed to have retained much of his behind the scenes power.
As have many of the old establishment, even those currently behind bars. Western observers who follow the trials of Mubarak, his sons and his loyalists focus on the ‘humiliation’ of ‘the cage’, as they call the traditional dock with bars, ubiquitous in Egypt and in some European countries. What Egyptians are more likely to note are the obsequious salutes with which these Mubarak politicians are greeted by the policemen assigned to guard them as they enter the courthouse, a clear sign that these men in white prison garb still wield power to be reckoned with, even behind bars, and that they have the tacit protection of the military rulers of the country.
So in the run-up to the June election, as one candidate after another is knocked down by the courts on a technicality, schadenfreude is short-lived, and new candidates pop up in their place: the relatively moderate Muslim Brotherhood and the fundamentalist Salafis are already fielding new candidates in place of their first choices, whereas the ‘secular-liberal’ movement is left with nothing but compromise options.
The first choice of the young revolutionaries and most liberals would have been Nobel Prize winner Dr. Baradei, but he has refused to throw his hat in the ring, opting instead for the rather Utopian goal of building a new, progressive party that would be ready to contest free, fair elections next time around. That decision may partly have been dictated by his lack of popular appeal among a certain sector of the masses which suspects Baradei of American bias, ironically, given that he was anathema to the Bush administration for his obstructionist role as head of the U.N. Atomic Energy Agency in the run-up to the 2003 Iraq War.
The compromise candidates before the secular liberals at the moment are narrowed down to two: Amr Moussa, former head of the Arab League and former Foreign Minister under Mubarak, but less tainted than he might be by this association on account of his reputation as an independent, nationalistic politician; and Abou El-Fotouh, a moderate former Muslim Brotherhood member who resigned from the party over his differences with them.
But there is still over a month to go till the June elections, and typically skeptical Egyptians predict that the military rulers of the country will step in and pre-empt them. Recent demonstrations against just such a scenario have united a broad spectrum of the population, Islamist and secular, but there is yet another contingent of the electorate that would welcome a military take-over in the name of ‘a return to security and economic stability.’ Meanwhile, the courts play an unpredictable game, disqualifying one candidate after another, and issuing equally arbitrary rulings in other cases: one of Egypt’s most popular comic actors was convicted on a charge of ‘insulting Islam’ in his films, only to be exonerated of the self-same charge in an identical case. The power struggle between the different political currents in the country is playing itself out in the courts, and if that is any indication, this will be a hot election season in Egypt.

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

The Crazy Woman is Back: Egypt's Social Rift

The crazy woman is back. You hear her shouting on the street in front of the building, early in the morning and at sunset, ranting yells as indecipherable as an infant’s existential angst. I never see her, only hear her; I don’t know how she survives. For several months there was no shouting, she was off the street; I only realized it when she came back, the way you only realize your tooth had stopped aching when it starts acting up again. I wonder where she had gone to, why she was back.

The street is in an upscale neighborhood of Cairo, but in Cairo proper, even in the best neighborhoods, the comfortable are not insulated from the poor; it has always been that way. In this city, the poor and the affluent cross each other a hundred times a day with easy mutual acceptance and civility. Residents of this neighborhood of embassies and banks share the sidewalks with doorkeepers, servants, delivery boys, shopkeepers, unofficial parking attendants, street vendors; high and low exchange a second-nature calibration of greeting according to status.
So, when the revolution broke out, there was some relief that it had not morphed into what is called here ‘a revolution of the hungry’, in which mobs stormed the villas and high-rises. Only in the new suburbs of October 6th and Qattameya were the gated communities obliged to hire armed guards to protect the villa dwellers from intruders. In Cairo proper, it was felt, that was not necessary.
But lately there has been an alarming up-tick in ‘drive-by’ purse-snatching, even in the most privileged neighborhoods. This scenario is typical: the robber sweeps by on a motorcycle with missing license plates, targets an elderly woman, swoops down on her, snatches her handbag, spilling her onto the sidewalk in the process, and speeds off. The modus operandi is ingeniously adapted to a congested traffic pattern where cars have zero maneuverability in narrow streets but motorcycles or bicycles can thread their way between the cars and zigzag in and out. The typically elderly victims of these drive-by raids often sustain broken bones as well as the theft of their purses.
Almost everyone, by now, personally knows of someone who has been the victim of a purse-snatching or a car-jacking. People avoid traveling at night now; they are more suspicious of strangers. It’s not that there are more thieves or kidnappers, some people sigh, only that before they were afraid of the long arm of the police state. On the contrary, diehard supporters of the revolution counter, the breakdown in order is a plot by the disaffected security forces to create a rising sense of panic that will strengthen the ‘law and order’ –read military- lobby at the polls in the upcoming presidential elections. Both viewpoints are correct, at least partly.
The presidential election in June looms as an uneasy deadline; some frustrated liberals are threatening to boycott the ballot boxes, rather than be faced with a non-choice between various shades of Muslim Brotherhood candidates. The MB wants a president ‘with them but not of them’ went the mantra, until they started to speak of fielding their own candidate. And in any case, bewildered citizens object, on what basis can you elect a president, when the constitution that will define his powers, retroactively, has not yet been written?
Meantime, the strategy of the ruling council seems to be to keep the citizenry off balance with rumors and counter-rumors, periodic shortfalls of gas, and setting Egyptians against each other over soccer matches. The Islamist-dominated Parliament, rather than focus on alleviating the crisis in unemployment and the economy, is playing diversionary politics by threatening to ‘clean up’ satellite television stations.
But there are many in the business community who, although wary of the Muslim Brotherhood, find reassurance in the fact that leading members of the Brotherhood themselves are known for being some of the most successful business men in the country. The most optimistic of these observers count on the military to guarantee security and the Brotherhood to foster business; ‘in five years, in ten years, we’ll be Turkey,’ one highly successful businessman assured me.
He could be whistling in the wind. More serious than the ‘lapses in security’ are the signs of an ugly rift tearing apart the social fabric just where it should be strongest: philanthropy. Philanthropists who had devoted a good part of their lives to charitable organizations are finding themselves under attack by the very people they had served. In one case, a group of women, both Coptic Christian and Muslim, who had successfully and tirelessly worked for years to bring electricity, water, and schools to a dirt-poor Coptic-Muslim village, find themselves resented and unwelcome by the very community that had benefited so tangibly from their efforts.
In another instance, a woman in her seventies who had devoted her entire life to running an orphanage that had been the 100-year-old legacy of her grandmother, and who had taken abandoned baby girls off the streets- raised them, found them employment, gave them a home till they married, and helped them set up house when they did- this elderly lady now finds herself accused in court of abusing the girls and turning them out into the street to become prostitutes. Her shock and disillusionment is so great the philanthropist now goes about like a bewildered shadow of her former self.
More callous observers assign this ‘biting the hand that feeds’ to unsuspected reserves of class resentment or to the effect on easily manipulated minds of a daily barrage of corruption exposés in the media. Whatever the case, it is a sign that the time-honored understanding that lubricated social interchange in the country, and provided for the needs of the least privileged, is breaking down. Take the case of the crazy woman who shouts in the street early in the morning and at sunset.   
Apparently she had worked for a resident of the building once, and when that lady died, the woman could not be rehired because of her mental instability. At some point she had been sent to an asylum, but was so ill-treated there she found her way back on the street, and from then on relied on the kindness of strangers. I have never seen her, but someone who knows her tells me she survives on ample handouts of food by the denizens of the neighborhood basements and garages: doorkeepers, chauffeurs, servants of the villas and high-rises, restaurant waiters. Periodically, some kind soul in one of the apartment buildings reels her in for a bath and a fresh set of clothes, and releases her back on the street.  
Why she disappeared for several months is a mystery that, like much in Egypt, is dismissed with a shrug if you ask the question. Perhaps someone took her in for a while; or perhaps someone got fed up with her mindless ranting and sent her away to an asylum again. Either way, the crazy woman is back on the street, yelling her existential angst to pained if tolerant ears. That is Egypt.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

The Dead Pope Rises: Coptic Conundrum in Egypt

The Dead Pope Rises : Coptic Conundrum in Egypt

The death of Pope Shenouda, spiritual head of Egypt’s Coptic Church for four decades, threw millions of Copts into mourning, and was marked by the Egyptian government as a state funeral, attended by top political authorities and the Muslim religious establishment, as well as foreign dignitaries. Copts were given an official three day holiday in which to mourn, and thousands took the opportunity to besiege the cathedral where Pope Shenouda’s body was displayed in state, first lying in a coffin, and then, as if risen, propped up on a throne, in his most magnificent robes and miter, looking peaceful, if ashen and close-eyed. Such was the crush to catch a last glimpse of their ninety-year-old spiritual leader that two elderly Copts suffocated to death in the crowd.
While the heads of the Azhar, Islam’s oldest university and religious authority, paid their respects, and many Muslims called their Coptic friends to offer condolences, Egypt’s Sunni Muslim majority followed the proceedings with awe and curiosity. There is no equivalent figure to the pope as spiritual leader in Sunni Islam, which, in this respect, is more akin to Protestantism. The head of the Azhar University, the highest religious authority in the land, commands considerable but by no means universal influence, and is regarded by many as a political appointee, with supporters and detractors. Nor is he seen as representing his Muslim countrymen, whereas the Coptic Pope has come to represent his coreligionists. His funeral would be a simple affair not much different than that of any other Muslim: the body washed and wrapped in white cloth and buried as rapidly as possible, on the same day or the next. The burial would be followed, within a day or two, by visits of condolences held in one of the major mosques of the city, at which one and all would be free to stop by and present their respects to family and close friends. Typically, men would receive in one part of the mosque and women in another.
If the spectacle of the deceased pope risen and sitting up in a bishop’s chair riveted Egyptians to their screens, the election of a new pope is similarly shrouded in exotic ritual. The council of bishops casts votes amongst themselves, and the names of the three top-polling candidates are placed in a box, from which a child draws one name, presumably under divine guidance; the bearer of that name becomes the new pope. The late Pope Shenouda the third was himself the second-ranked candidate in his election.
During his forty-year reign, Shenouda expanded the political power of his office to become a national figure, claiming to represent the Coptic community vis-à-vis both the Egyptian regime and foreign governments, while tolerating little in-house dissent among Copts. He oversaw the exponential growth of the Coptic Orthodox church in America, and in general reached out ecumenically to other churches as well as to the Islamic establishment. Popular in Egypt among many Muslims as well as Copts for certain patriotic stances, he fell afoul of Sadat and was exiled for four years in the Natron Valley Monastery in Egypt’s Western desert, where he was buried today. On the other hand, he consolidated his relationship with Sadat’s successor so that, at the time of the revolution, his diehard pro-Mubarak stand put him at odds with the younger generation of his base, who saw the deposed regime as complicit in the sectarian conflict it exploited to justify its draconian police state.
Dying at the ripe age of nearly ninety, after a long reign that spanned Nasser to post-Mubarak, Shenouda III leaves the Coptic community to ponder the succession and the conundrum of his legacy: the expanded role of the Coptic pope. If he is not only the spiritual head of his community but also its ‘national’ representative, does this not marginalize the Coptic community? At a time of the rise of Islamist parties in the Egyptian parliament, does this not exacerbate the danger of a polarization of the two communities? And given the extent to which personality shapes politics, will Shenouda’s successor have the clout and charisma to negotiate Egypt’s treacherous political waters today?

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Egyptian Women on International Women's Day: where from here?

Today is International Women’s Day, and women in Egypt are uneasy about where they will be same time next year. “Iran,” gloomily prognosticates a friend as she dithers between chocolate soufflé and Om Ali from the dessert buffet at lunch in a private home. “Next year we will be Iran.” Another woman nods. “We will be Saudi Arabia without the oil,” she predicts. “Next summer at the beach, will any of us dare walk around in a swimsuit?”

Several of the women present were preparing to march in today’s demonstration in Cairo, calling for a substantial representation of women on the constitutional council. Desperate measures are necessary after the near shut-out of women candidates from parliament following the recent elections. The women at the luncheon will shift from the worldly to the political as seamlessly as they slide directly from a visit of condolences to a baby shower: they dress in black and keep a bright jacket and colorful scarf in the car for a rapid change of look.

On the surface, life carries on as usual in Egypt, but look closer, and the strains show. Anywhere around Cairo, on any day of the week, an unpredictable demonstration is apt to disrupt life in the city: it could be disaffected students besieging the Ministry of Culture on the Nile in Zamalek, or disgruntled workers of a medical supplies company blocking traffic in front of the makeshift headquarters of the Council of Ministers in Heliopolis. Increasingly, the demands focus on issues of livelihood. The acute crisis in unemployment is manifest in the hordes of work-visa applicants who camp out in front of the Arab embassies in the leafy embassy neighborhood of Zamalek.

In the absence of police, the streets of many of the best neighborhoods in the city are turning into an unregulated parking lot, with cars double and triple parked on both sides of the street. On the highways and the October 6th overpasses, traffic is essentially self-regulated, and it is a miracle that it moves at all.

People are noticeably short-tempered. To object to being cut off while driving on the highway; to criticize the performance of a waiter in a restaurant; to question the bill of a tradesperson, is to risk an unpleasant argument. The civility and camaraderie of the early days of Tahrir are a distant memory.

The atmosphere of insecurity is maintained by the reports of incidents of kidnapping or robbery, infrequent, but enough to unnerve the residents of a city that was a byword for safety. But it is the uncertainty about the future that weighs even more heavily in the air. No one knows what the presidential elections will bring next June. The mother of a bride who is celebrating a lavish wedding at the Four Seasons today justifies the over-the-top event this way: “It might be the last of the big celebrations- perhaps even the last of the weddings where men and women aren’t segregated- so we might as well make the most of it!” In other words, today, eat, drink and be merry; tomorrow, we might be Iran. But there is always someone to rebut: “Fashar!” An untranslatable Arabic expression meaning; “Never!”