Archive for June, 2011

Letter from Cairo: Did we ‘couvre’ the ‘feu’?

Curfew is a concept that is very alien to a country half of which plays dominos in coffee houses till 3:00 a.m. and the other half wakes up to the dawn call for prayers and half of each half sits in front of the TV till the first and second reruns of the day’s movies are aired.

In Egypt, people start going out at the time when any European city is getting ready to sleep. If you decide you’re too lazy to move, whole fleets of home delivery motorcycles venture into the bustling streets of Cairo to make your cravings a reality till the first hours of the morning. If you go to any of the Nile promenades any time after midnight, you are almost certain it is midday in a flea market or rush hour in downtown Karachi.

Egypt is where there is little difference between a highway and a shopping mall and where no neighborhood is unsafe and nobody warns you of carrying cash or walking alone after dark. I only recall that the word “curfew” is only used in reference to the time parents tell their daughters to come home and I don’t think that more than 10 percent of the population had any idea that the word meant anything else. They probably thought “curfew” was synonymous to “my dad makes my life hell” or “my mom takes pleasure in torturing me.”On January 28, also known as the Friday of Fury, sunset was approaching and inhaling the entire stock of the country’s tear gas had made worn us out and the sound of live bullets had made us realize what we’re really up against. We decided to take a break and protestors living nearby decided to go home and watch the news to know what they were saying about the bunch of saboteurs who were out to ruin the country. I went to buy a snack from a convenience store and got back at the same time when our field reporters had returned and when I suddenly heard the word “curfew” a hundred times in one minute. “The police are out, the army is in, and a curfew is imposed as of right now,” everyone said. “Curfew? What does that mean?”

Well, I was one of those who asked this question, not because I didn’t know what a curfew meant, but because I couldn’t envision how it could possibly be applied to Egypt, let alone Egypt during a revolution. I remember that I couldn’t go back home that day—I live far from downtown Cairo—because there were no cabs or buses or anything to take me back and that was an ultimate sign that something had gone terribly wrong. I had to spend the night at a friend’s house and while I was thinking of where the country was going after that day that was bound to change the face history, I was also trying to figure out what do people do in a curfew.

“Nothing,” said my friend at whose house I spent the night. “You just stay at home.”

“You can’t be serious,” I scoffed.

I guess that was the only day the so-called curfew was really implemented, possibly because this new word to the vocabulary of Egyptians seemed like something you need to obey especially for those who know that in other countries you get shot if you break the curfew.

The next day, I looked around and searched for the curfew then realized that like anything else, Egyptians have to have their own touch. Curfew time was when the fun started for all Egyptian youths who formed those neighborhood watch committees in order to protect their houses and neighborhoods after the police was withdrawn from every single street in the country.

The moment the curfew started—at one point it was as early as 3:00 p.m.—makeshift checkpoints were erected at the entrance and exit of every street. They asked pedestrians for their IDs and searched cars while asking for news updates from all those curfew-breakers and who were mostly coming back from Tahrir Square.

“So how was it today?”

“Any hope the man might go?” they would inquire.

This done, they made sure you really lived where you said you did by asking you a few questions about the neighborhood and if your answers are correct, you get to pass. When some car owners started complaining that they were delayed because they had the trunk, the salon, and the glove compartment searched at every single checkpoint—there was one every couple of meters—the neighborhood watchers started inventing codes and they told you for how many checkpoints it was valid so that you would spare yourself part of the hassle.

You might also be required to give a specific sign that exempts you from the coming two or three searches like making a left signal, raising your windshield wipers, or turning on the salon light. To make sure they are capable of carrying out their new mission, the after-curfew rangers carried anything that can be used as a weapon. This ranged from kitchen knives and baseball bats to broom sticks and tennis balls. Barriers of all types were stationed across the street to make sure a car doesn’t speed up before undergoing the required procedures and that included tree trunks, bed planks, and dining tables. After several days passed and the self-proclaimed gendarmes started showing signs of fatigue, the questions underwent a slight change. “Do you still have energy to fights, guys?” “Why don’t you end the whole thing so we can all go home and get some sleep?” Then, they realized that was not going to happen, so they started taking TV sets from their living rooms to the street so they can get some entertainment when there was nothing to inspect and no one to interrogate. Some also started organizing football tournaments.

Amid the danger we felt as we awaited the moment we would be exterminated and the tension that permeated every part of Egypt as the future kept getting more and more obscure by the minute, I looked forward to meeting our new “protectors”—genuine ones who replaced a security apparatus that was only there to guard the regime— every night I headed home from Tahrir Square. I looked forward to the question they asked each time they stopped me to search the car: “Why are you out at the time of the curfew?” I would smile and shrug my shoulders. I knew they knew why, so there was nothing really to say. They would smile back, hand me my ID and driver’s license then say, “Stay safe.”

When the regime was toppled and normalcy was partially restored, curfew hours went down and checkpoints were dismantled. For several days, I drove around with my documents at hand and ready to answer any questions about where I am going and in which building I live and I felt sad as I realized those boys must have gone back to their classes or offices or simply to make up for all the sleep they had missed when they were “on duty.” I am sure they felt the same as they got deprived of that part they were for the first time in their lives allowed to play. I bet they were not only grateful to the revolution that rid them of a despotic regime, but also for the curfew that made them feel in charge of the safety of their compatriots who were out there fighting for their freedom. I missed them and missed the time I felt that exceptionally sheltered despite of having every reason be frightened to death.

Just in case you didn’t know, the word “curfew” comes from “couvre-feu,” French for “cover the fire,” in reference to the time when lamps and candles were put off when curfew time came. I wonder if our kind of curfew did not ignite that fire instead. At a time when you were not supposed to see a soul, I saw all Egypt, and at a time when you could have been shot or taken to jail for roaming the streets when you were supposed to, I felt safer than when I cowered under the blankets in my own bed. This curfew reignited the long dormant ashes and breathed life into the spark that was extinguished by decades of oppression, despair, and lack of purpose. Our curfew was an “allume-feu.”

On June 15, the curfew was officially lifted, but I wonder if this is also the fate of everything it inspired. If we lit the fire at the time it was supposed to be doused, I hope we are not going to start dousing it at the time when we are supposed to go on lighting it. As I spend my first curfew-free night, I thought what my former guardians might be doing at the moment and whether like me they are remembering the days when they found themselves entrusted with the whole country and in charge of shielding its citizens at home and in the streets. I hope they are recalling those days, too, and realizing that the curfew—our own version of it—is not over even if now we are allowed to stay out all night.

Letter from Cairo: Hamayouni to Hamayouni and back

“The Sultan personally is the only one who has the right to authorize building and renovating churches and non-Muslim cemeteries,” said article three of the 1856 Ottoman law known as the Hamayouni Decree and which was meant to introduce a series of reforms to what was becoming modern Egypt. More reform was needed, of course, so the 1933 law for the regulation of the construction of churches—aka how to make Christians prefer having Judas as their liberator to thinking of building a church—was issued. The law consisted of 10 clauses, the most striking of which for me was that churches are not to be built next to mosques nor in a predominantly-Muslim neighborhood or a neighborhood that has another church nearby and that a report has to be made about the number of Christians in the area in which the church is to be built and whether the location chosen for building the church is close to a bridge or a canal or any public utilities the church might obstruct. And still the head of state—Sultan or not—has the final say in the procedure under which the church will probably be ready for the coming generation, if ever. As part of a series of sweeping reforms implemented during the past three decades and which aimed at achieving equality between Muslims and Christians, the former president delegated the authority to grant permission for renovating churches to governors and kept the authority to approve construction to himself. The fair distribution of dictatorial duties is, as we can see, the first step towards a full democracy. As they say, the devil is in the details so regardless of which law was issued when and under what circumstances, one fact remains: building a church in Egypt is similar to reaching a destination on time during the rush hour in Cairo.

Now, let’s take a look at the other side of the spectrum. There is a mosque every other block in all kinds of neighborhoods, which makes it very rare to find a Christian who does not listen to the call for prayers five times a day from his or her own bedroom. That could be okay with Christians, yet if this is the case, why shouldn’t it be equally okay for Muslims to listen to church bells from the very same room? On Fridays, mosques spread prayer rugs across the street so that no cars can pass until the prayer and the sermon are finished and just give a try and object and if you’re still in one piece, let me know what happened? How different is a bridge or a canal from a street? And was there ever a request to build a church right in the middle of any of those “public utilities” anyway? And if the obstruction of public services is such an issue and places of worship are not supposed to contradict with the interests of citizens, how come thousands of garages are turned into mosques and, consequently, thousands of cars end up cramming the already congested streets without anybody—individuals or government—objecting to the nuisance this causes? How about the observation made by several people—Muslims and Christians alike, resentfully or boastfully—that with every new church a new mosque is built shortly after across the street in a not-very-implicit “we are there” gesture. “No need to remind us. It is obvious you are there,” say the resentful from both faiths. “Yes, we are here and this should stay the case,” say the boastful from one faith.

With the toppling of the regime at the hands of a revolution that made equality and social justice its top priority and with the breaking of sectarian clashes in which fundamentalist Muslims made public the hostile sentiments that have for long harbored against Christians and in which Christians got unprecedentedly adamant about obtaining their long robbed rights, rectifying shameful and obsolete laws that place endless restrictions on building churches became as necessary as drafting a new constitution. The law that political activists and human rights organizations have been calling for since time immemorial—the unified law for the building of places of worship—finally saw the sun. Well… during an eclipse it seems!

Using the word “unified” is quite misleading since it gives the impression that the application of the law will result in Muslims and Christians obtaining equal rights as far as places of worship are concerned. This is not the case simply because the number of mosques is a million times bigger than that of churches and because the law will not be applied retroactively so mosques that are now considered in violation of the law will not of course be demolished. The law, therefore, starts with the status quo, that is from a situation in which extreme inequality seems to be the rule. In other words, the new laws might curb the building of future mosques, but still does not grant churches enough existence opportunities and does not offer a real departure from the old laws. The fact that the request to construct a new mosque or church requires the approval of the Ministry of Local Development and the governor and that applicants need to get the approval of the body to which the place of worship is affiliated—the Ministry of Religious Endowments in case of Muslims and the authorized representatives of the relevant sect in case Christians—deprives those places of any kind of independence and makes it totally up to the government and the whims of officials—who can happen to be begrudged Copts or Salafi Muslims—to decide what should be built and what should not.

If we assume that the officials involved in making the decision are totally unbiased—well… in Egypt this means they need to be Hindu—approving or rejecting the request will be according to a set of rules. The number of places of worship in a given governorate or town or district should be proportional with the number of residents following the religion this place is supposed to serve. However, the law did not specify a percentage so we don’t really know how many Muslims deserve a mosque and how many Christians have the right to build a church, but it seems that it should not be necessary for a town with 10 percent of its population Christian to have a church and that having a hundred mosques in a town with 90 percent of its population Muslim seems like commonsense. As for the article stipulating that each place of worship should be built on an area of minimum 1,000 square kilometers, this sounds to me like setting an exam with questions that you know very well the students cannot answer and then blame them for failing. The same applies to prohibiting the building of places of worship on arable land and which I guess excludes almost all Egyptian villages and ushers a new era of making the desert the best place to worship.

I guess it would have been much better to replace the phrase “places of worship” with the word “churches” because this law will by no means have a negative impact on mosques, with which Egypt already abounds, yet is in fact adding more restrictions on churches, which are already too few for the existing number of Christians. What will happen then will be that a few mosques and very few churches will be added to the already existing ones. So if we had 10 mosques they will be 15 and if we had three churches we will end up with six. I wonder how this equation can arrive at anything that can be labeled “unified.”

I am personally not sure what “unified” should mean, but I guess it can be something along the lines of lifting all restrictions related to where Muslims and Christians are concentrated or how many of them live where or how far is one church from another or whether the mosque is built in a Christian area. For me, “unified” means anything that is contrary to the exclusion implied in the law’s division of Egypt along sectarian lines through its reinforcement of the concept of percentages, proportions, and distances separating one place of worship from another. “Unified” means mosques and churches should be everywhere and anywhere as long as they do not violate laws applicable to all construction works, be they places of worship or schools or beauty spas. Until this happens, let’s keep the old name or maybe we can add the year so it would be Hamayouni 2011 or let’s call it Hamayouni-posing-as-unified law.

The law, however, provided me with some comic relief when it specified that places of worship are those dedicated only to performing the rituals pertaining to the religions “recognized” in Egypt. That really made me laugh. As if somebody might come up and submit a request for the construction of a Buddhist temple or a Masonic lodge. I would love to imagine what would happen then. That would be extremely “unified” indeed!

Letter from Cairo: I spy with my ‘big’ eye

“Israeli soldier took part in the revolution to create a rift between the people and the army.”

“For the first time… the fall of a Mossad agent running a spying network in Egypt.”

“A painful blow to the Mossad.”

These are a few excerpts of the sensational headlines of Egypt’s official and independent newspapers and which reminded me of those Egyptian films that depict the intelligence war between Egypt and Israel and naturally end with the Mossad being crushed at the hands of some Egyptian intelligence officer and in several cases it is a woman and specifically the type who has to wear bikinis and perform a semi-striptease in order to save her country from the hands of the Zionist enemy … giving the box office a boost does not, after all, contradict the patriotic principles that the films are supposed to propagate among the teenager audience who, of course, see the movie for patriotic reasons. Well, that was just the indirect, maybe quite boring, way of asking a more straightforward question: What is that all about?

I am not going to pretend that I am familiar with the espionage business—nobody should, I assume, and that’s the whole point—but from the few things I read, I understood that spying is mainly divided in two parts: one is the military and two all other things (society, economy… etc.). This is in terms of what an intelligence agency of a given country is interested in knowing about another given country.

As for the chronological development, I would think intelligence, like anything else, went through two phases: one is the old days and by this I mean the time when the world consisted of closed cubicles where the resident of one cubicle would need tremendous effort to break into the neighboring cubicle let alone take the time to watch what’s happening inside it. Two is the new days where the world has turned into what seems to me like a public bath not only in the sense that there are so many people in same place who have very easy access to one another, but also because those people are placed in the situation in which they are their most exposed state; the towel wrapped around you can fall any moment and then all the other bathers will have a blast staring at your naked body.

Let me give you a concrete example. In the 1960s, part of the spy’s job was to sit in coffee houses and mingle with the people to listen to their grievances, which usually revolved around economic matters and how they linked their financial situation to the performance of the government. This spy would then write a report that might contain notes on the rising prices of sugar or the scarcity of fuel or cite a couple of jokes that poke fun at the president. Those seemingly trivial points were for the spying country extremely crucial as they gauged the general mood in the spied-on country and consequently acquainted the former with the main weak points through which it could attack, not necessarily in the military sense, the latter.

Nowadays, this very same spy—if he should still be called as such— who in the past had to board a plane and sometimes stay for years in the country on which he was spying can enjoy a cup of coffee on the cozy couch in his living room and check Facebook or watch a couple of videos on YouTube and in less than an hour would have a report ready on how the people of this country feel and what they’re planning to do including even toppling the whole regime like what happened in the January 25 Revolution and which was all over the virtual world several days before it took place.

Let me tell you a little incident that can help make things clear. When the protests started in Syria, an Egyptian man was arrested by the Syrian authorities on spying charges. The proof they had was that he took pictures of one of the protests that was taking place at the Omayyad Mosque in Damascus and that he was going to send them to Israel which was in dire need for information about the situation in Syria. I guess the absurdity of the story speaks for itself and therefore no further analysis is required on my part.

Now, back to the Ilan Chaim Grapel, the man arrested in Egypt and accused of spying for Israel and destabilizing national security in post-revolution Egypt. According to press reports, Grapel’s laptop contained pictures of the protests staged after the ouster of the regime and which called for the trial of the former president and speeding up political reforms…etc. and of sectarian clashes that took place in several parts of Cairo. Pictures were also taken of him in those same places in which, according to Egyptian authorities, he was present in order to mar the relationship between the people and the army as well as incite Muslim-Christian hatred. Investigations also revealed that he collected information about the Muslim Brotherhood, the Copts, and the youths involved in staging the January 25 Revolution.

For me, and I might be naïve or stupid, all the pictures and information the man had supposedly sent to the Mossad are not of any strategic significance and do not require sending a spy to stay in Egypt for months in order to obtain them, and I don’t think this man managed to have access to something absolutely classified since what has been announced so far is that he basically talked to people in the places where he was photographed.

I also don’t find it logical that this man took part in igniting tensions between the people and the army or Muslims and Christians because those tensions are not fabricated and there are numerous reasons why they exist and why they escalate at certain times. I don’t think it is this man who instigated the army into performing virginity tests on female activists or beating up protestors in front of the Israeli embassy or not being firm enough with Islamist fanatics and I don’t think he instigated the people into being furious at those actions. It was definitely not this man who made the Salafis burn churches or who organized the sit-in Copts staged in response.

I am not claiming that Israel has no interest in spying on Egypt or that what happens in Cairo does not have its repercussions in Tel Aviv a few minutes later or that Israel was not shaken to the bone by the fall of the Egyptian regime, which had been its closest ally in the region. I am just unable to believe that the Mossad is as naïve as to send a man, who is almost posing in all the pictures taken of him, to report on incidents that you can find in Wikipedia or that the Egyptian authorities are as naïve as to fall for a scenario that is even less plausible than the movie called “48 Hours in Israel” or the other one called “A Mission in Tel Aviv” and in which espionage seemed liked a much more complicated process. What, then, is the deal with this X-man?

The first thing that comes to mind is that we’re not getting the entire picture and that the reports on Grapel in the media are what the authorities want to disclose at the moment and that there is much more to it than what meets the eye. In this case, I guess it would have been much better had the entire matter not been unraveled now until all details can be made public or until it becomes clear that not announcing it at all is for the best.

Yet the story as presented now does not make it news material at all, especially that Israelis do not come to Egypt via the Gaza tunnels so there is nothing really fishy about an Israeli citizen taking pictures in Cairo or even talking to people about the future of the country.

The other possible option is that the whole mystery is a sheer act of provocation that aims at causing a fuss over an issue that holds no substance. If we assume that this man is sent by the Mossad, it is definitely not to gather information available to every single internet user, but possibly to make an appearance and show everyone he’s there because I don’t see how an Israeli spy who pretends to be a Western journalist would visit a synagogue and the Jewish quarter in Alexandria—very undercover indeed. Grapel might have come to Egypt in order to be seen, watched, and arrested so that the message will be clear: Big Zion is watching you! Israel might have wanted to make a statement that Mubarak or no Mubarak, Egypt can still be infiltrated and Israel will still guard interests in the region no matter what kind of government comes to power. It is like someone sending you an email from your own email account to show off his hacking skills and to warn you that changing the password will not guarantee your protection.

All this might just be a summer afternoon rambling that would later prove absolutely groundless like I would prove absolutely out of my mind. Yet, these are the times of far-fetched speculations and wild guesses and this is what keeps us going now. Otherwise, we are bound to go mad with all the strange things happening almost on daily basis and for which we have no explanation but what our humble imagination allows. I, for one, want to stay sane.

Letter from Cairo: Once upon a strike…

It is not without reason that Karl Marx equated workers’ rights with social justice. They say you can measure how civilized a country is by the way it treats echelons of society generally considered weaker, more vulnerable, and more dependent than the rest of the population, and they cite children and the elderly as the most typical. I would add workers. It is not that any of the previously-mentioned attributes apply to them, but they belong to another category whose members have for years been subjected to various forms of oppression, lack of appreciation, and even humiliation—the marginalized, the downtrodden… you name it!

When African-American poet Langston Hughes wrote his radical poem “Good Morning, Revolution,” he did not tackle racial discrimination as he had always done. Instead, he created of workers the main stimulant for any revolution and the most crucial tool for arriving at a formula that grants the prevalence of equality in any given country. Hughes makes the oppression of workers similar to slavery in a clear reference to “wage labor,” the system that renders workers enslaved by their employers through a meager amount of money paid not for the final commodity they produce, but for the time they spend in manufacturing this commodity. A huge discrepancy is, therefore, created between the money the workers get and the profit the business owner makes. By not sharing in the fruit of their toil, workers no longer become active participants in the production process, but rather become similar to factory machines which get no more than the lubrication that gets them going.

Being the most forgotten in several parts of the world in general, workers are of course the most aggrieved in dictatorships in particular. Naturally, they become the inextinguishable fuel of any attempts at toppling a government that permits, even encourages, the creation of a constantly widening gap between the rich and the poor and that looks down upon the underprivileged as a “mob” that might eat cake when bread becomes scarce. Egypt was no exception!

December 2006 witnessed the first spark that ignited the long-dormant volcano. Not only did this strike, started by all 27,000 workers at a state-owned spinning and weaving facility north of Cairo, set the stage for an unprecedented wave of labor protests over the following four years, but it also alerted all Egyptians to the power with which people become endowed once they share a common cause.

When the first strike was staged and when more later picked up at an astounding speed across Egypt, it was still hard to discern that a nation-wide revolution was in the making and that what seemed to be sporadic uprisings pertaining to specific demands by one category of the Egyptian society was in fact a rehearsal for the much bigger scale event that was bound to change the course of history in the country. Tracing the development through which these strikes underwent is very helpful in this sense as it underscores the way a few thousands of workers managed to become the spokespeople of the millions who later realized that their own voice was also coming out in the disgruntled chants of those laborers who decided enough is more than enough.

While the close association between this relatively limited labor movement and the sweeping revolution that took place four years after the first strike wave kicked off might not have been perceived before January 25, not making the connection now translates into inflicting the most flagrant injustice on and making even more invisible the warriors who changed history and never asked to take credit for doing so. Issuing a law that bans the only channel they have to voice their grievances is an unforgivable crime not only against them but against the revolution they started and the country they saved.

According to law number 34 for the year 2011—passed on March 24 and forcefully put into action now—anyone who takes part in or calls for a strike will be put to jail for up to one year and fined a maximum of 500,000 Egyptian Pounds. To make sure freedom of expression is by no means curbed, the law specified that not all strikes are banned… only those that involve stoppage of work and obstruction of productivity. I wonder if whoever drafted the law or approved it took a couple of minutes to look up the definition of “strike.” Strikes are meant to stop work and the effects of that on productivity is, in fact, what a strike aims to achieve in order to put pressure on the party that possesses the authority to ameliorate the conditions of indignant workers. As far as I know, workers do not strike out of spite and they should not be treated as destructive forces that aim at destroying the economy simply because they are the economy and that is exactly why they should be respected, appreciated, and granted their full rights. Workers are not politicians with connections nor are they businessmen with money and therefore have no other means of lobbying. Speaking of money, how is a worker supposed to pay half a million pounds in fine when it is his inability to feed himself and his family that drove him to stay for months on end in a sit-in that braves the cold and cares not for the sizzling heat? Maybe that’s another question those who drafted the law might have given another extra minute—to add to the time consumed in looking up the definition—to provide an answer for. Another question since we’re at it: Will “productivity” resume when workers are arrested like they have recently been in different parts of the country?

I hope my bias toward workers does not blind me to the fact that the country is indeed going through a tough time and that a couple more workflow hurdles are bound to send the economy staggering and another couple might deal the already deteriorating financial situation the final and fatal blow and that when this happens neither the workers nor any of us will find the subsidized loaf of bread we used to label “not fit for human consumption” nor shall we have the breath to shout in protest. Will banning strikes put an end to this problem? I believe not. In fact, I believe the exact opposite will happen. While they knew that the injustices to which they have been subjected in the past were part of a whole regime that practically sidelined everyone who did not toe the line, they must be extremely baffled now as they are treated in the same manner after a revolution which they actually initiated and whose main aim was social justice toppled this very regime. In fact, reaction to strikes now is seen as much fiercer than before for while Mubarak’s regime followed the “leave them until they get bored and go home” policy, the Higher Council of the Armed Forces obviously prefers “beat them, jail them, and they will never do this again.”

This is not a battlefield, the army needs to realize, and while they check the definition of “strike,” they can also look into the history of Egypt within the past 30 years and try to deduce that violence brings hatred and almost never achieves the desired degree of deterrence. Workers, like all other Egyptians, saw in the revolution an end to their suffering and only when they are reassured of that will they agree to reach a compromise that neither jeopardizes their rights nor undermines national interests. Nothing could be more detrimental to the revolution and its objectives than treating workers as a disruptive force to a country in which they are the ones who introduced the culture of protests and heralded the end of decades of passivity and political stagnation. The constant reference to workers as a distinct category—always in a negative sense—is equally humiliating for it implies an automatic separation between manual labor and other types of professions that are generally looked upon as more prestigious and of course more regime-friendly by virtue of their better salaries and “higher” social status. Workers are Egyptians who wanted freedom and refused to accept an incomplete form of it. I don’t see how different workers are from political activists who insist on a series of reforms right here and now and refuse any delay in the materialization of the revolution’s goals, only the former go on strikes and interrupt production. Yes, give them other powers in addition to the only one they have and they will use them instead to call for their rights. And remember that it is this very power they used before that is liberating us now.

With every strike, a revolution is struggling to find its way. Suppressing the first aborts the second and drags nations further down into the fathomless pits of tyranny in which they have already been stuck for decades.

Letter from Cairo: Of veils and minarets

In 2004, the French parliament passed a law that prohibits “conspicuous” religious symbols in public schools. Since those symbols were not specified, the law was understood to apply to crosses, skullcaps, and of course the most conspicuous of them all—the headscarf.

Despite the wide scope of religious manifestations it covered, the law was understood by many as targeting the Islamic veil in particular and that is why the biggest row over it was stirred by Muslim countries and Muslim communities in the West. Muslims, I believe, realized that they are the group that would sustain the biggest losses when the law was enforced since Christians and Jews were compensated by being allowed to wear “discreet” religious symbols like small crosses and Stars of David. Following suit for Muslims wouldn’t make sense because wearing a pendant with a verse from the Quran for example will not do the same job as the headscarf since the latter is considered a religious obligation and therefore nothing else can replace it and it can never be less conspicuous. The ban, legislators in favor of the law argued, is meant to protect the secular character of France, which is compromised by excessive display of religious affiliation.

In 2009, a national referendum on a popular campaign launched by the right-wing Federal Democratic Union to ban the construction of minarets in Switzerland was held, and 57 percent of the citizens voted in favor. Minarets, argued the initiators of the proposal, transcend their architectural value and become a symbol of the political hegemony of Islam and the call for applying Sharia law, hence the “Islamization” of Switzerland. Posters featuring a minaret penetrating the map of Switzerland and missile-like minarets erected on the Swiss flag preceded the campaign whose organizers used a quotation by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in which he said that “Minarets are our bayonets” to establish a link between minarets and militant Islam.

If I were a religious Muslim living in any of those two countries, I would be extremely mortified. If I am a veiled woman in France, I would see the law as an infringement not only on my religious beliefs, but also on my personal freedom since my hair is my private property and whether I cover it or shave it or trade it for fleece is my own business. I would think that placing a scarf over my head hurts no one and if it does that’s their problem, and I would assume that if Indians can walk around in saris then I can also stick to wearing what I believe defines my identity. I would also be struggling with the guilt of not abiding by teachings of my religion for no good reason. Minarets are not as personal and not as religiously ordained, but if I were a Muslim in Switzerland if I don’t feel insulted I would at least feel very unwelcome and totally out of place. In both cases, I would be really bewildered about the bastion of human rights Europe claims to be and how contradicted those procedures are with the fact that Paris houses the continent’s third largest mosque and that Switzerland has for years been known for nothing—apart from chocolate and watches and trains that run like clockwork— more than its neutrality and detachment from political squabbles and religious prejudices.

If I were a Muslim in my homeland, I would be equally hurt that my brethren are treated as intruders in countries where they are full-fledged citizens and would, as similar discriminatory incidents recur, start developing a feeling which borders on conviction that I and my people are a target of an organized tarnishing campaign and might even subscribe to that Islamophobia theory that renders Muslims the most persecuted group in the world. I might take part in protests calling for the rights of Muslim minorities and exposing the double standards of the so-called “civilized” West and nobody can blame me for doing that or call me fundamentalist or anti anything of those terms we’ve been hearing lately in this alleged “clash of civilizations” that gained special momentum after the September 11 attacks.

But as I take up the role of the democracy advocate and wave the banner of justice for my expatriate co-religionists, do I ever ask myself if I have done my job toward my compatriots and if there are not other minorities that deserve the same support and maybe more? In Egypt, we have two main football teams, one called Ahly and the other called Zamalek, and Egyptian football fans, who are a lot, treat their team affiliation very seriously and sometimes don’t mind fighting or beating each other up over one game or another. One day I was talking to a friend, a fanatic Ahly fan, about how I find it strange that people make it look like the team they like as important as their country or religion or any of those traditionally irreplaceable facts of life.

“Yes,” he replied very confidently. “If Israel is playing against Zamalek, I would cheer for Israel.”

This enlightening phrase hit me like a thunderbolt when I saw how angry Egyptians were about the French and Swiss laws and I asked myself a question whose answer should have been more enlightening than my friend’s response, yet I have not till now found one. “What if Egyptian Copts go to war with Indonesian Muslims?”

Born a member of the majority, I have always had access to the full picture as far as how the minority is perceived and how far people would go to defend Muslims who live hundreds of miles away and for whom this support might not make much of a difference and what their reaction would be like if Copts were subjected to the very same injustices and who are in dire need of every kind of support. I wondered how many times Egyptians took to the streets to protest the restrictions imposed on the construction of churches and demand that all places of worship be subject to the same laws. I was thinking that maybe giving Copts a citizenship right as basic as going to Mass whenever and wherever they want should be slightly more important to Egyptians than a minaret in some small town in northern Switzerland not because the latter is not important but rather because the former is extremely crucial to the wellbeing of a country that has for long been suffering from sectarian tensions, ones that could have easily subsided had enough solidarity been shown from the other side.

In fact, I was quite shocked to see the exact opposite happening and to hear for myself people—educated and sometimes even academic—flatly support those acts of discrimination under the pretext that it is normal for the minority to succumb to the will of the majority and that this happens anywhere in the world. “Why then do you get so exasperated when Muslims abroad are discriminated against?” I ask. Silence. “Do you defend the rights of minorities or only the minorities you choose?” More silence. “Who is closer to you? The Muslim in Europe or the Copt next door?” And the silence turns into resentment as I find myself crowned the queen of the damned.

I was once talking to a colleague who lives in Europe and she kept complaining about the looks people in public places give her because she is veiled. She went on for hours slamming the double standards of the West and decrying the blatant persecution of Muslims. I was really amused by what she was saying because I kept recalling how shocked she was to see my knee-high skirt and I imagined how she, too, must look at those same people she accuses of disliking her outfit. I was not surprised, though, because that’s how a large portion of veiled women look at their unveiled compatriots—another minority that has emerged recently in the country—all the time now and whenever this happens I remember the French ban and the complaints of veiled women in Europe and I wonder if it is only indecent to look at a veiled woman and it is totally fine to stare at an unveiled one. One day at the grocery story I was so annoyed by the way the woman next to me at the fruit display was staring at me that I finally decided to ask her, “Is something the matter?” She pretended not to hear and I guess I would do the same if I were her because I would find nothing to say. “I am staring at you because you are different and I can’t accept difference” would be the only honest answer and I personally don’t think I would have the nerve to say so. I wished I could ask her what her reaction would have been had I been the one who stared like that. I wonder how she will feel if she is stared at in the same manner in a place where she becomes the minority.

Why is it so difficult for us to put ourselves in other people’s shoes and see how shameful it is to do to others what we do not accept to be done to us? Accusing the West with “double standards”—regardless of how true this is—will not get us anywhere because had we known the real meaning of this phrase we would have detected all its symptoms in ourselves. How can we expect—and actually demand as our right—that people accept us when we are the “other” and make a big deal when they don’t even though we take every possible chance to show our own “other” the exact opposite. I am not by any means implying that the West is perfect because it’s not, but I am just hoping that before hurling accusations at other parties we should check if we’re not a replica of them—only in a different way.

It is your absolute, indisputable right to support the women who want to keep their veil in France and to feel sorry for the minarets that won’t see the light in Switzerland, but I don’t see how a right stays valid when it is emptied of all the duties attached to it. Maybe the veils and the minarets were a blessing in disguise, an alarm bell that alerts us to the fact that maybe it’s time we get a little bit consistent and realize that a noble cause starts from home because otherwise it will lose breath and die by the time it crosses seas and travels across continents.

Letter from Cairo: The one-article constitution

I once heard a political analyst in one of those post-revolution seminars about the future of Egypt wonder why the Egyptian constitution is made up of 211 articles while the American constitution has only seven and the United Kingdom has no constitution at all.

“Let me ask you something,” he addressed the audience. “Does the number of articles reflect the amount of freedom enjoyed by the citizens of the country governed by this constitution?”

“Of course not,” replied the audience confidently.

I guess he and they overlooked a very crucial point, that since the regime was toppled and talk started about what the next phase would be like, the constitution has in so many cases boiled down to one single article.

“Islam is the official religion of the state, Arabic is its official language, and Islamic law is the basic source of legislation,” says article two of the Egyptian constitution.

This article has been in the constitution for decades and had only undergone a few amendments, yet it has not really been a source of controversy among Egyptians maybe because they had never felt they had an important part to play in their constitution anyway and to a great extent because the article appealed to the predominantly religious/conservative society that considers Islam an integral part of its culture and that cannot envision its life independent of the daily details associated with it.

However, when the January 25 Revolution ousted the president, the constitution that was in force, and which basically catered to the interests of the regime and paved the way for the bequest of power, was suspended, and a new one that should reflect the democracy Egypt is supposed to become was to be written that things took a different turn.

It was then that people started to be alarmed.

“They will change the constitution. What will happen to article two?”

“There is no way article two will be removed? Are we going to become a Western or a secular country or what?”

“If that’s what the revolution is bringing, then we were better off with the former regime.”

“We will die for article two if that’s what it takes.”

When a referendum was held on the amendment of some articles—article two not included—the majority of those who voted “yes” did so because they feared if the amendments were rejected and an entirely new constitution were drafted, article two would be removed.

Several Islamic preachers even started propagating that churches incited Copts into voting “no” in order to have article two removed.

“Are Copts going to rule the country?” they yelled at cheering crowds, and after the “yes” vote scored more than 70 percent, they celebrated the “victory of Islam,” and in a series of menacing statements stressed that “the country is ours and those who don’t like it that way should pack and leave.” As the tone got more belligerent and a declaration of war seemed to be looming in the horizon, I couldn’t help wondering what it is in article two that makes it look like its removal is equivalent to abolishing Islam altogether.

I can understand why Copts would feel insecure—and they indeed do—if article two stays in an atmosphere where radical Islam has resurfaced after the fall of the regime that repressed it for years, and I can understand if Muslims in the West feel threatened by a similar article that is likely to rob them of their rights as a religious minority. I can also understand when Egypt’s liberals and seculars voice their concern about how this article might be abused with the new changes in the political scene and the possibility of an Islamist majority in parliament. Yet, I really fail to grasp the reasoning behind this obsessive fright that has seized Muslims as if their lives depended on those couple of lines in a text that has a lot of much more alarming articles and which are really much more critical as far as where the country is going is concerned.

Muslims in Egypt are the majority. That is a statistical fact. Practicing, pious, or conservative Muslims are the mainstream. That is a social fact. Different aspects of Islamic life—the way Ramadan and other religious occasions go hand in hand with national holidays, the call for prayers that resonate from the thousands of minarets that adorn the country’s landscape, the veil that is now almost the official costume of more than 80 percent of Egyptian women, and the Quran you hear in every store you go into and every cab you take—have become part and parcel of the overall character of Egypt.

How on earth would the removal of one article in the constitution eliminate all that so that you wake up one morning and find your family praying in a Hindu temple or your son getting dressed for his Bar Mitzvah or the whole population receiving the flesh and blood of Jesus when they are supposed to break their fast with milk-soaked dates? Not that I wouldn’t love to see Egypt becoming this kind of haven for all sorts of religions and cultures, but this is simply not the case and won’t be in the coming couple of centuries.

So, if Muslims have all what it takes to feel at home in Egypt, why do they bother about stating that Islam is the official religion? How do they expect to be harmed or have their faith undermined if this article is removed or replaced by another that asserts equality between citizens regardless of beliefs? Why do they act as if one of the proposed amendments includes replacing “Islam” by “Christianity” and “Islamic laws” with “the rules of the Coptic Orthodox Church ecclesiastical council”? For me this is a very peculiar case of the majority being afflicted by the insecurities generally—and logically—attributed to the minority and totally subverts the hypothesis that it is the majority’s responsibility to abate the fears of the minority and not the other way round. If Muslims have the privilege of numbers, why do they feel reluctant to give groups deprived of this privilege another one in return?

Some claim it is about identity, and I am sorry to say that I don’t buy that. Egypt’s identity is comprised of all religions and cultures that made it what it is now and in this sense overlooking the country’s Coptic heritage is a cultural and ethical more than a religious crime. Plus how exactly is it important to decide the identity of a people—if that can be decided at all—in their constitution? Does this also imply that in a constitution you can have the official race or the official skin color? In other words, is the job of the constitution setting the principles of citizenship or promoting an exclusionist ideology that makes one group feel superior and other groups feel inferior? As for those who say that neither Christians nor seculars should worry because Islamic laws will protect their rights, don’t you find this a bit patronizing? I believe that the concept of offering protection stands in stark contrast with the concept of equality since it establishes a tyrannical majority that patronizes the “weak” minority and constantly reminds it of how grateful it should be.

True there are countries that mention religion in their constitution, but how is that done and how does that affect the daily and/or political life of their citizens? For example, the Argentinean constitution states that “The Federal Government supports the Roman Catholic Apostolic religion,” yet according to a Supreme Court ruling, Roman Catholicism is not the official religion of the state and the article of the constitution that required the president to be Roman Catholic was removed. “Catholic” here has, therefore, become a symbolic term that rather refers to the country’s heritage and the affiliation upon birth of the majority of its population, but does not entail the application of religious laws nor does it imply the interference of the church in state matters. Egypt is different because saying that Islam is the religion of the majority is one thing and establishing it as the official religion and making its laws the main source of legislation is another thing. In the latter, there is an obvious preference on of one group over the other and the threat of having this article come to full force in case an Islamist government comes to power will never be dissipated. Think of why the Islamist government of Turkey is unable to discriminate against seculars or religious minorities even though it might have gladly done that had it ruled Egypt. The answer is pretty simple: the Turkish constitution will never allow Erdogan, despite his neo-Ottoman rhetoric, to do so.

I believe that this keenness to maintain the existing balance of power in its exact position without any willingness to add one single ounce in the other party’s weighing pan is indicative of a peculiar mixture of tyranny and weakness. Those people who resist removing or amending article two are the same who suffered under the yoke of a repressive regime that left them with no source of power other than religion, and maybe having this written in an official document affirmed the existence of this power and endowed them with the self-esteem they had lost in all other fields of life.

The confidence they imbibed by virtue of being the nation’s proclaimed “strong” and which they always hoped would make up for other failures lent them a despotic authority that not only led them to hold on firmly to this one asset, but also to reject any attempts of sharing it with others. They, therefore, adopted the methods of the tyrants that had been ruining their lives for years and proved the theory that a dictatorship produces dictatorial citizens, each practicing his/her own version of dictatorship whenever opportunity permits.

If this era in Egypt’s history is one of liberation from dictatorship, let us not focus on the external dictatorship that is already gone now. Let us instead look for the dictator inside each of us and stage another little revolution. If those individual revolutions manage to topple our internal regimes, we will suddenly realize how foolish we were engage in endless bickering over a matter that doesn’t matter. Think of article two of the constitution as the religion slot in the national ID card—another controversy that stays unresolved till the moment. Will you stop being Muslim if the word is removed from your identification documents that are basically meant to prove that you are Egyptian? Think of the answer and when you find it, apply it to the constitution and liberate yourself once and for all from all those prejudices that have done nothing except ruin a country, which had once been a beacon of tolerance, peace, and coexistence.

Letter from Cairo: Beware the ‘S’ word

The English language has the “F” word and Egyptians have the “S” word. You commit the most horrendous of racial slurs if you call an African-American a “nigger”… it is extremely inappropriate to refer to Hispanics as “spics”… misanthropist is what you will be if you label Asians “yellows”… and don’t you even dare think of saying you want Egypt “secular.”

“He is an atheist… he has no religion… he is a democrat.” I find this one of the most cynical lines in the history of Egyptian cinema. In the 1986 political comedy entitled al-Bedaya (The Beginning), a plane crashes and the passengers are stranded in the middle of the desert. One of them, a businessman, sweet-talks his way to power, and once he becomes ruler of the oasis where all survivors take refuge, he establishes a totalitarian regime and suppresses all forms of opposition. When a disgruntled artist prepares for a revolution and starts mobilizing the “citizens,” the tyrant embarks on a character assassination campaign against him. Knowing how sensitive his “subjects” are when it comes to religion, he convinces them that the word the rebel uses to describe his ideology, “democrat,” means “atheist.”

“If you don’t believe me, ask him,” he tells two citizens whose jaws are dropping in disbelief after hearing the news. “He cannot deny he is a democrat.”

“He will burn in hell,” he adds.

“We have to act quickly,” says the first man.

“Where the hell is he?” asks the second. And they both rush to hunt down the “democrat” before he “democratizes” their mini-state and drags all its citizens to their doom.

How prophetic! Quarter of a century later, this scene is reenacted in almost every part of Egypt except that the word is not the same. Now it is a new word, one of dozens that were added to the vocabulary of Egyptians after the revolution, not because they had not existed before, but rather due to their irrelevance at a time when people had no say in what kind of government is to represent them or what ideology they want to see prevail. The difference between this word and its fellow newcomers is the repulsion it elicits in the majority of Egyptians, the fear it evokes when it is brought up as a possible system of governance, and the harsh criticism directed at anyone who shows signs of supporting it.

So what does “secular” mean for most Egyptians? I am just going to state a few of the scenarios people imagine would take place in case Egypt becomes a secular country. Muslim women will be forced to take off their veils and calls for prayers will be abolished … homosexuals will be allowed to tie the knot with impunity … abortion will dethrone giving birth as the normal end to pregnancy… alcohol will replace sugarcane juice as the country’s official drink… topless foreign women will be as abundant as stray cats… extra-marital sex will be a rite of passage as compulsory as elementary education… and so on and so forth of that talk that aims at giving Muslims the impression that secularism is a return to the Jahiliyyah or rather a revival of the time when early Christians were thrown to the lions at the Coliseum.

I don’t want this to sound like a Wikipedia entry, but I feel some kind of mysterious obligation to offer an objective explanation of what the newest addition to Egyptian taboos means. Secularism, in very simple terms, is the separation between state and religion in the sense that religion shifts from the public to the private sphere so that individuals practice religious rituals pertaining to their faith, but the state does not use the rules of this faith to regulate relationships between citizens.

This entails replacing religious laws inspired by holy books with civil ones that do not favor one religion at the expense of another. Judging by its linguistic origin—the Latin “secularis” meaning “worldly,” secularism is all about running the affairs of a country in accordance with human rather than divine laws, not because the latter are rejected but rather because the former might at times be more practical. For example, in countries whose population is made up of followers of several religions—take India for example—it becomes very difficult to write a constitution derived from holy texts because in this case you will either follow the religion of the majority, which will constitute a flagrant violation of the rights of religious minorities, or you will draft different laws for different faiths, which is next to impossible to apply in any modern state.

The problem does not stop at one religion versus another but extends to different denominations of the same religion—the Sunnis in Iran or the Shiites in Bahrain being typical examples. Secularism is, therefore, meant to dissolve tensions between citizens of the same country due to affiliation to different, sometimes seemingly conflicting, religions. It is, in this sense, similar to anti-discrimination acts in several countries all over the world except that those are more comprehensive as they include race, color, and gender.

By equating secularism to atheism and all forms of what they perceive as moral disintegration, Muslim Egyptians fall into one trap with the two “democrat” slayers in the movie simply because they treat as accurate information they obtain from staunch opponents to a secular state not because it is prohibited in Islam but because it neither serves their interests nor bestows upon them the kind of power they have always dreamt of.

This information focuses on linking secularism to all behavioral patterns that are considered unacceptable in a pre-dominantly conservative society and intentionally presents secularism as a social rather than a political system so that they are made to believe that it implies an absolute disintegration of all the moral values they are so protective of.

A great deal of confusion, therefore, ensues between enforcing new social norms or making available other alternatives to the already existing ones and you are free to choose which one to follow.

The first scenario is entirely not fit for application in Egypt since a secular state does not come up with a new people neither does it push them through a mutation process that will change them from conservatives to liberals so that suddenly veiled girls will be wearing skimpy skirts or all the population will turn into gays.

The second scenario basically sets the foundations of a secular state in a way that does not disrupt the social makeup of the country nor impose on a people that have for centuries been quite religious rules that for them violate their basic beliefs. It is of course problematic in the sense that some laws are bound to stir endless controversy by virtue of having their origin in Islam like polygamy, inheritance, marriage contracts, conversion to another religion, and abortion.

Putting my personal opinion on those matters aside—I admit I do not represent the majority of Egyptian as far as those are concerned—reaching a middle ground in such sensitive issues is quite tricky and requires a great deal of patience, research, and, most importantly, a break from that self-righteous attitude that some echelons of the society have been adopting. “I am right, but you are also right,” is what secularism is about. “I am right and you are wrong, but I am allowing you to exist out of the kindness of my heart,” is what is happening now.

People should stop treating their religious beliefs as a material possession that will be stolen from them because this is not true and this is not what a secular state is about. People should also start realizing that what suits them does not necessarily suit others and that it is time that citizenship becomes the first and foremost principle that governs a country that is supposedly undergoing a real democratic transition.

When conducting awareness campaigns that aim at acquainting people with their rights as they start to take part in the political process that is to determine Egypt’s future, several of my fellow-campaigners gave me the same advice: “Do not mention the word ‘secular.’ Just say ‘civil.’ They are not as offended by it.” And I disagreed. “You know when you say ‘civil’ it implies both non-religious and non-military so that is much milder.” I still disagreed. “Then you can start explaining what it means and in the middle mention the separation between religion and state.” I did not budge. A taboo is created of anything—no matter how trivial it is—when we decide not to address it because then we would be accomplices in the criminalization of the legitimate and will be guilty of helping to keep people in the dark and therefore aiding other forces that have been doing so for a long time.

Let’s treat secularism like sex education… it feels awkward in the beginning yet makes a whole lot of difference in the end, and like the two men in the movie must have realized by now that it is the “democrat” they should follow, give it some time and the word “secular” will come out from its hiding place in the Glossary of the Big Don’ts and we will bid farewell to euphemisms for good.

Sonia Farid: Is the ‘immortal’ really ‘happy’?

In Arabic Khaled means “immortal,” and Saeid means “happy.” Khaled Saeid is indeed immortal, for without realizing it he engraved his name in the memory of all Egyptians and although hardly anybody knew of him alive, his death constituted the cruelest of wake up calls for a people who had for long caved in then finally decided that enough is enough. Is he happy? That is quite a tricky question.

Yesterday, a year had passed since the brutal murder of the 28-year-old Alexandrian at the hands of two security officers, an event that sent a million chills down the spine of Egyptians and hammered the last nail in the coffin of a regime that proved so dexterous in watering the seeds of its own destruction. The picture of the smiley, clean-shaven boy in a grey jumper placed right next to a disfigured, hardly-identifiable face that was posted all over the Internet and independent newspapers, shown on prime-time TV shows, and held in dozens of protests calling for prosecuting the perpetrators kept reminding us that we all have his blood on our hands and that remaining silent meant betraying him and all other victims of the ruthless police state Egypt was. From that point onward, avenging Khaled Saeid, who later came to be called the “Bou Azizi of Egypt,” became equivalent to liberating Egypt and calls for the protests that eventually crystallized into the January 25 Revolution were initiated in the Facebook page We Are All Khaled Saeid and which presented the “emergency law martyr” as the epitome of any uprising that aims at ousting Hosni Mubarak. In fact, one of the most memorable banners seen in Tahrir Square and later in newspapers and social networking websites was a cartoon that depicted a big Khaled Saeid holding up with the tips of his thumb and index finger—a gesture that demonstrates disgust—a tiny, frightened Mubarak by the back of his jacket. For me, that was the perfect summing up of the possible relationship between the two in post-revolution Egypt.

With every step taken toward freedom, Khaled Saeid was deemed to have rested in peace after his and his fellow victims’ rights were restored and the culprits brought to justice. The ouster of the president, the incarceration of the former interior minister and the dismissal of several of the ministry’s leaderships, and the storming of State Security offices constituted for many, amongst them the martyr’s family, an indication that Khaled Saeid must be happy now as he sees what he has done to make Egyptians rise and what they have done to make sure his blood was not spilt in vain. Well… seems that was too idealistic and seems that the relative smoothness with which the revolution arrived at its main objective—deposing Mubarak and toppling the regime—has deceived all of us into thinking that the next day we’re going to wake up in the Garden of Eden. Within the month the preceded the first anniversary of Khaled Saeid’s death, two outrageous cases of torture to death took place in two police stations in Cairo. On May 23, Ramzy Salah el-Din was summoned to the police station after a complaint filed against him by a man who claimed he took money from him in return for buying him a three-wheel motorcycle cab (also known as tok-tok) and neither bought nor gave him back the money. On May 24, Salah el-Din was declared dead. According to the police, he showed signs of fatigue during interrogation then was transferred to hospital, and there he died. According to the coroner, the death was caused by internal bleeding and broken bones. Apparently, fatigue does to bones and what the bag of marijuana did to Khaled Saeid’s face (police claimed Saeid was a drug dealer and that his face got disfigured after he swallowed a bag of marijuana upon watching the officers approaching). On June 2, Mohamed Saeid, a bus driver, was asked by police officers to show his documents after he stopped in the middle of the street and obstructed traffic. A brawl ensued after the driver allegedly slapped the sheriff on the face and passersby started beating him up for showing no respect for the police. The sheriff, the official story goes, managed to save the driver from the angry mob and took him to the police station where guess what happened to him? He showed signs of fatigue—seems that’s a virus that infests all police stations—and passed away.

The fact that those two incidents almost coincided with the commemoration of Khaled Saeid’s death in the same barbaric manner was both beneficial and detrimental for Egypt and the revolution. On one hand, it was a much needed eye opener that alerted Egyptians who had been focusing on violations committed by the army—which are also not to be downplayed under any circumstances—that they have another battle to fight. On the other hand, hopes that the police have undergone an extreme makeover following the expulsion of the most notorious of its senior officials were crashed as it turned out that the torturing of the not-yet-proven-guilty is not just a modus operandi that can be suspended by the removal of its architects, but is rather a culture so deeply entrenched into the psyche of those officers who were taught starting first year Police Academy that outright physical abuse is the ideal way of dealing with “unruly” citizens. While some thought that after the revolution the police would revise its policies towards the public as part of the turning-a-new-leaf spirit that has been in the air since the ouster of the regime and as a way of admitting that power is indeed to the people, others argued that unless the entire police force is replaced by youths who have not been contaminated by long years dedicated to humiliating the subjects they were supposed to protect, nothing will change.

It would be overtly ideal to assume that after 18 days of protests—even if they were wrapped up by the toppling of the regime—the police will really abide by its resurrected slogan “The police are at the service of the people” and which came to replace the one introduced by the regime’s biggest top henchman former Interior Minister Habib al-Adli: “The police and the people are at the service of the nation”—the “nation” here meaning nothing other than the regime of course. On the contrary, the police were dealt the most fatal blow when this once formidable fortress collapsed disgracefully in the face of the will of the people and when it was suddenly the policeman who was afraid and running away and the citizen defiant and dauntless. The bitterness that followed this shameful defeat must have surfaced every time a cop felt he was forced to treat a citizen respectfully while deep down he wanted to grill him alive, let alone if this citizen decides to get back at the entire police force in the character of this policeman in one way or another. Some policemen manage to hold their reins even if this comes at the expense of their concept of pride—the one taught to them at the academy and the ministry—while others are incapable of swallowing the insult of having a citizen demand his rights and even threaten to retaliate if these rights are not duly granted. The result would be an immediate switch to the good old habits, which in some cases never die at all, through going back to those deterring tactics that put this “scum” in its place and shows who the boss is.

As much as I detest what had happened, I am not sure it is those officers that are to blame. If you feed a sparrow meat every day, it will eventually become a bird of prey and you can’t just turn it back into that sweet little singing creature it had once been years ago just by giving it some grains for breakfast for a week or two. I once heard an activist saying that policemen need rehabilitation and I couldn’t agree more. Policemen have become like someone who was unjustly sent to jail, yet comes out a real criminal and commits all the crimes he was once wrongly accused of. Can you then take him back to the time when he was a law-abiding citizen?

Not only are policemen not familiar with ways of handling citizens—suspects or not—other than bullying them, torturing them, and beating them to death, but they might have also developed a series of psychological disorders that made them insusceptible to any kind of remorse and unwilling to trade authority for mercy under any circumstances. They are in a much worse situation than war returnees who might forever live unable to get over the trauma of taking other people’s lives because at least the latter feel guilty and supposedly had a cause to fight for. So now you come and tell a policeman, “You know what? We had a revolution and you better be good” and you expect him to grow a halo the next day? What kind of knowledge of human nature, psychology, or sociology would make anyone adopt such a naïve hypothesis?

Does anyone realize what a lengthy process it is to raise a new generation of cops who are aware that their main job is to make the people feel safe instead of being their worst nightmare and what a lengthier process it is not only to rehabilitate policemen who operated during the former regime but also to heal the scars of their victims then have both put the past behind them?

Well… how about entitling the first class of first year Police Academy and the first policemen psycho-therapy session “The story of Khaled Saeid”? Show the first how low they can stoop if they trade their humanity for a sick pursuit of power and show the second how desperate they should be for restoring the humanity they have decided to give up. Make the boy who made a revolution that is bound to be the most memorable in modern history without getting the chance to see it happen a not-so-gentle reminder of how the spilling of one person’s innocent blood can bring about the annihilation of entire nations and think of what killing the albatross did to the Ancient Mariner.

We can then start breathing a little—only a little—sigh of relief and look up to the heavens above hoping to find a sign from the “khaled” that he is now really “saeid.”

Letter from Cairo: Green for ‘go.’ Red for ‘go’

Red light, red light
What do you say?
I say stop-stop
Right away.

For me, this nursery rhyme so belonged to the world of fantasy that I had once thought it must have been imported from another planet. Since we repeated the traffic lights song and watched the teacher explain the system that governs the movement of vehicles all over the world, I had been looking for those legendary creatures that stop at the red light and in many cases looking for the red light itself.

When I started driving, I realized that running a red light, parking under the no parking sign, or entering a no entry street are the teaser you get to see when you are an outsider… the real action starts when you are actually behind the wheel and when you view a bumper car ride as safer and more law-abiding than maneuvering your way through the streets of the capital. Try to look at a main Cairene street during rush hour from the tenth floor and you will spare me the strenuous effort I would have to exert to describe a spectacle no sane mind can conceive as anything other than the most advanced level of some car racing game, except that in the Egyptian version it is not who arrives first at the destination, but who breaks more rules, who calls fellow motorists more names, who runs or is about to run over as many pedestrians as possible, who gives more honks, and who double, triple, and quadruple parks until you end up with a one-lane street. I remember when in the U.S. a friend of mine told me I can use her car whenever I wanted, and another friend looked at her in disbelief and said, “How can you let an Egyptian drive your car?” She looked at him scornfully then replied, “If she can drive in Egypt, she can drive anywhere else in the world.”

The international reputation of Egypt’s traffic was not new to me because a couple of months before this conversation, I heard a joke that represented for me the perfect example of a tragic-comedy: A man takes a cab in New York and is terrified to see how the driver runs a red light. “Don’t worry… Egyptian,” goes the driver. One red light after the other and the passenger gets the same response: “Don’t worry… Egyptian” until it was time for a green light and, to the passenger’s astonishment, the driver stops. Before he could inquire, the driver was quick to answer: “Maybe unuzzer Egyptian.”

Back to my friend who gave me the car… I do owe her lot because it is thanks to her that I learnt that driving could be a pleasure and that people can go out of their houses for a drive. For me, this was a totally absurd concept since in Egypt you drive because you have to and had you been given the choice, you would not have gotten out of your house in the first place. When I discovered how relaxing it is to drive while abiding by the rules and while everyone around you does the same, I wondered why Egyptians choose the hard way and make a battle of the shortest of trips while they can just sit back and listen to Dixie Chicks “Taking the long way round”—a favorite of mine and this friend— while moving smoothly towards wherever they’re going. Breaking some rules could be fun for many people, but this doesn’t apply to traffic because every time you run an errand, you go back home with the feeling that you have been hiking up the Andes and because if you look around you, it becomes very obvious that none of those law-breakers is having a good time at all.

I don’t want to seem like I lay the blame for every single problem in the country on the former regime, but I can’t help doing so even if my theory is wrong. The parallelism between traffic and the regime became obvious to me when the more tyrannical the regime grew, the more chaotic traffic became and the more aggressively motorists, from owners of sports cars to bus drivers, behaved. For me, this was not really attributed to the regime’s indifference as far as abiding by the law is concerned even though I know that the regime thrived on breaking the law neither is it a direct result of the regime’s encouragement of all kinds of behavioral patterns that distract the people from the real reasons behind their miserable lives even though I know that the regime always managed to nourish animosities whenever possible—sectarian tension and football rivalry being the most notorious instances. Apart from the regime’s attempts to ensure the prevalence of chaos, and which had always worked very well, it is important to see why people responded to those plans and, in fact, seemed to implement them with much ease and a quite shocking steadfastness.

The road was one of the very few domains where Egyptians were able to be in control and the rage vented out on it was the only means of proving that this is where they can prevail. Road rage, for me, is like sexual harassment, for I don’t subscribe to the theory that the frustration that drives a man to grab parts of a woman’s body is really “sexual” and is motivated by the youths’ inability to get married and have an intimate relationship with a woman.

I see sexual harassment as an act of pure violation in which the perpetrator’s resentment at almost every lack of fulfillment in his life comes out in one of the very few actions in which he can prove he is strong and capable of wanting something and getting it. Sexual harassment becomes the best outlet because it is directed at a person always looked upon as weaker and more unlikely to react violently, which will not be the case if he decides to punch another man in the face for example. With road rage, it is played safe, too, since almost all parties involved in traffic brawls know that with each fighter sheltered in a car and with each hostile act taking no more than a few seconds, two birds will be hit with one stone—you will vent your anger and you will most probably emerge unscathed.

So when a fellow motorist gives a left signal and you press the gas pedal with all your might so you can pass in the narrow space between him and the curb right before he turns—even though you might be going right after all—it is as if you feel insulted by this signal that should oblige you to give in to somebody else’s will. “It’s not up to you to decide,” you seem to be warning him. And when a pedestrian shows the first signs of wanting to cross and you also press the gas pedal, a little harder this time maybe, so you can go first even if this means that you might be a split of a second away from running him over and might have to make a sharp swerve to avoid doing that, it is as is letting him cross means bestowing upon him a privilege he doesn’t deserve. “Nobody respects me, so why should I respect you?” he might be wanting to ask the pedestrian who would then be jumping in fright and wondering if he should have written a will. It is an eye for an eye most of the time.

That same pedestrian might intentionally jump from nowhere in front of you car and knowingly risk his own life so he can see the expressions of shock and confusion on your face and even some guilt if the car does actually hit him—he doesn’t mind a couple of bruises here and there for the fun of it—in order to deliver to you more or less the same message—with a little variation, though: “If you can kill me, I can make you wet your pants.” And when you curse a fellow motorist and all his ancestry and offspring because he honked at you or asked you to turn off the high beam or complained that you double parked in front of his car, it is not because you don’t feel you’re wrong and you won’t get equally furious if the same happens to you. It is just that in a place where you can’t speak your mind and can’t choose who makes decisions on your behalf and can’t live as a respectable citizen, you wouldn’t mind labeling the driver next to you with all those nasty attributes you have been for a long time piling up against the president and the ministers and the police and the regime and the whole country. It is a very basic process of re-channeling anger and, consequently, putting off an always-imminent explosion.

Watching Cairo traffic from a distance gives you the impression that this a country at war with itself, that all its people have turned against each other and every citizen is impatiently awaiting the chance to jump his compatriots’ throats. Although this is not entirely true, it is also not entirely wrong. They were engaged in this not-so-mortal combat because they had to create imaginary enemies in the only place where they felt powerful even for a few minutes, rather hours since we’re talking Cairo traffic. However, think how the situation would be if all those whose main preoccupation is cutting off other cars, tailgating cars that they think are too slow, cussing at whoever takes their parking spot, and stopping in the middle of the road just to retaliate on the driver behind you for honking too much are suddenly faced with a humongous trailer moving towards them at the speed of light and intent on crushing anything that stands in its way. Would they still engage in trivial skirmishes until their cars, with them inside, are leveled to the ground? Would anyone think about who goes first and who parks where and who honked at whom and who cursed the day on which who was born? Maybe not!

Maybe they will reflect for a moment, look at one another then to the monster approaching then yell in the most melodious of unisons, “Don’t worry… Egyptians!”

Letter from Cairo: From the couch with love

“The couch party is one whose members watched the January 25 Revolution from their home couch and only got up to make a cup of tea,” wrote young Egyptian actor Ezzat Amin—or so goes my translation of his words—in a note he posted on Facebook 10 days after the regime was toppled and in which he made one of the most memorable contributions to the outstanding terminology that started emerging with the beginning of the 18-day protests and that is currently playing a major role in reshaping Egyptian slang and Arab pop culture.

As it becomes obvious from the definition presented at the very beginning of the originally Arabic note entitled “Message to the Great Couch Party,” Mr. Amin is addressing all Egyptians who were following the revolution from a distance, who had never been to the protests nor took part in the Tahrir Square sit-in, maybe nor even took to the streets till the early hours of the morning to celebrate the fall of Hosni Mubarak.

The note does not really focus on what the Couch Party is like, why it was formed, or how it feels about being called as such although several of those questions are more or less answered in the comments that have been flowing till yesterday. The only information Amin provides about the party he formed, or rather named, was that it includes both supporters and opponents of the revolution, which sounds like quite a huge ideological discrepancy if we’re talking about members of the same party, but that did not matter to him. What really interested Mr. Amin was the fact that, by virtue of being stationed between the cushions, members of this party, both the cheering and booing camps, have centered their lives around the TV set a few steps away and which they thought would give a real live transmission of the world outside.

In an attempt to dissipate the confusion triggered by absence from the scene of action, the writer of the note decided to bring Tahrir to the living room for a few minutes through answering 20 questions that he imagined are the most pressing in the minds of couch dwellers and the most recurrent in conversations conducted on or around the headquarters of the new party—who the January 25 youths are and why they still have demands after toppling the regime, and the meaning of words that had suddenly become part of the daily speech of every Egyptian family like “counter revolution,” “secular,” and “technocrat.”

He also tackles rumors that only people at home would believe like the involvement of the United States, Israel, and Iran in the revolution, addresses the naivety that only those who follow the popular uprising from the “fauteuil loge” develop and which results in assuming that Mr. Mubarak was not aware of any wrongdoing in the country and that it was the people around him who were “bad,” and shakes off that susceptibility to emotional manipulation that brings some of the revolution audiences to tears in sympathy with the deposed president. Amazing how insightful those questions are to the extent that you come to wonder whether Mr. Amin himself is a founding member of the Couch Party. In fact, in the last question, he assumes that he will be asked by party members whether he took part in the protests—even though the answer is in every line—and he replies that he would rather keep that to himself then ends by saying, “Many happy returns of the revolution.”

By founding the party yet neither listing any of its attributes nor stating his take on the stance of its members, Mr. Amin has stirred in me—and I bet many others—a relentless curiosity to explore the reasons behind some people’s decision to make of the revolution another Avatar experience—at least the latter was 3D—and the means through which they acquired this extraordinary ability of self-distancing.

First we need to think who qualifies to be a member of the Couch Party. I, for one, would exclude those who opposed the revolution from the very beginning and argued throughout that the protestors were out to destroy the country—the comfiest of couches are designed for those in fact—and those who supported the revolution and felt the couch as cozy as a bed of thorns yet had very strong reasons not to leave home—fear not being one of those from my own point of view. I would say that the Couch Party consists of those who had the ability to go and chose not to, citing all sorts of reasons that hardly reflect the truth, ones which they themselves might not have delved deep enough into their souls to be aware of.

When talking about the Couch Party, there is one important thing we have to remember: Egypt had for decades not gotten up from the couch. So, you can imagine the repercussions of the abrupt shift from an absolutely sedentary lifestyle to the most vigorous of physical, mental, and emotional activities. Could you in a couple of days breathe life into your inert muscles and shake those loads of flesh off your bones as well as battle osteoporosis, depression, diabetes, heart problems and all other impacts of having yourself seated in the same place for years?

That would be a “miracle,” and that is exactly what the revolution proved to be. What about those who jumped off the couch in a split of a second and looked like they had been Olympic champions all their lives? Well, these had occasional trips away from the couch and had enough warm up to get them going. They were either activists or social workers who had always lobbied for change, members of opposition parties and youth movements who had always made public their wish to see the regime go, laborers who organized dozens of demonstrations in protest of their deplorable working and financial conditions, or even disgruntled citizens inside whom a revolution was slowly fomenting with every frustration they encounter and every humiliation they are subjected to.

As for the others, they had nothing to complain about or so they thought. As long as you have a decent job, live in a nice house—with the right kind of couch of course—and drive an air conditioned car, and are not really interested in what happens outside the little circle at whose center you sustain your grand existence, then why bother? Even those who every now and then found it tempting to give their blood circulation a boost were quickly beaten by the pain that comes with the first exercise, so they ended up like those who keep saying, “Tomorrow I go to the gym” and never do.

When calls for launching nationwide protests were all over the Internet, the soon-to-be Couch Party founders said, “Nothing will happen.” When something did happen and the protests swept every city in Egypt, they reflected for a moment then said, “It will die.” When it didn’t, they reflected for a couple of moments, cleared their throat, then said, “They will drag the country to its perdition.” When they actually led the country through the most invigorating of births, some cheered, “I knew it! Those are the real Egyptians” and others muttered, “Who do they think they are? Let them show how they will rule.”

When the regime was toppled, the Couch General Assembly seemed to have convened an urgent meeting after realizing what an awkward situation the party has put itself into by having its members not move a part of their body other than the thumb they used to flip the channels. They had one of two options: they support the revolution and claim they have always thought Egypt would never be the same again or slam the revolution as an irresponsible act by a group of reckless youths who thought they can take charge of the country. In the first case, members were trying to save face by siding with revolution because it would seem too foolish not to after it really succeeded, while in the second case, they were trying to… well… also save face by holding on to their previous position for fear they would be called hypocrites if they change their minds. Between one way of saving face and another, none of the two groups really believes the argument it is defending; they are just looking for an exit in a situation where too much limelight is thrown upon them. Had they been given the choice, their utmost hope would have been to be left alone. Never imagining that just staying on a couch inside their houses would cause such ruckus, they might actually be wondering why while the country is going through such a critical historic transformation, so much attention is given to the people who had nothing to do with it as well as hating the moment they had to defend themselves against accusations of cowardice, indifference, and even lack of patriotism and not be able to say something along the lines of “I don’t give a damn,” which is most likely what they still feel.

The problem with the Couch Party members is not what they say to justify their previous inaction or what they do to gain the respect of those who have been slamming their passivity since the revolution started. The real problem lies in the fact that they are not aware that nobody cares now why they preferred the couch to Tahrir Square or why the popcorn was more rewarding than the country’s freedom. What is done cannot be undone, and the revolution had arrived at its goal without them, so what is to come becomes the crux of the matter now. In an attempt to take the matter to the next level and transfer this group from the realm of jokes to that of national action, the Couch Party had its name changed to “the silent majority”—of course they had no say in the second designation like they had none with the first. The definition also expanded to go beyond people who did nothing during the revolution and became people who have not been taking one stand or another in Egypt’s new political life and whose numbers—note the word “majority”—makes wooing them an urgent procedure as far as the country’s future is concerned. With the country approaching parliamentary elections and the battle heating between Islamists, mainly represented by the Muslim Brotherhood, and the liberals, who are now organizing their ranks in a group of nascent political parties, it has almost become a matter of life or death for each camp to win that passively troublesome group to its side and give it the voice it has been willingly deprived of.

So the situation is as follows: the couch is not the place to be at such a decisive time in Egypt’s history and apparently if they don’t get up, some force or another will unseat them. They will be left with two options: They can go with the flow and respond to whatever approaches made to them and allow themselves to be sheer tools in the hands of whatever party or movement that chooses to use them for furthering its political agendas or they can start realizing that whether they like it or not they are part of this country that now requires the contribution of each and every one of its citizens—on the couch, under the bed, doesn’t matter. If after all this, they still prefer the couch, they have to know that this time it is the point of return, for if their passivity was overlooked in the past, it will not be now, and if they are important now, they will not be in the future.

Frankly speaking, if after all this they still find the couch their safest shelter, then I am sorry to say that it is the homeland that best suits them and they will unfortunately be stuck with it forever and when at some point they try to get up, some gravitational force will pull them down again and they will realize they are there to stay.