Archive for July, 2011

Letter from Cairo: To the Tahrir!

http://www.alarabiya.net/articles/2011/07/14/157675.html

Several years ago I bought a book called The World’s Worst Atrocities and it did live up to its title for it traced the most shocking crimes committed by humans against their fellow inhabitants of the planet. It went back as far as the Mongol invasions, the extermination of the Aztecs, and the Spanish inquisition then moved to epochs seen as the bloodiest in the history mankind like Nazi Germany, Cambodia under Pol Pot, Kurdish genocide in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, the Rwanda massacres, and many more. In the middle of all those horror stories, each of which sometimes haunted me for days to come, it struck me that two chapters in the book, one entitled “Reign of Terror” and the other “The Death of the Romanovs,” stood out and might have at the beginning looked quite irrelevant to the topic. Neither of them was about the out-and-out annihilation of a people or the razing invasion of a nation or the brutal silencing of an opposition. They were about two of history’s most important revolutions.

At the time when I got that book, I had read before about the French and the Bolshevik revolutions and I was aware that in both the noble cause and the quest for justice were marred by the amount of lives that were taken in the process and the bone-chilling eras that followed. However, placing those two events that are supposed to have changed the face history in a collection whose main focus is crimes against humanity made me look at the two revolutions from a very different perspective and suddenly I realized that, to me, the achievements they made may in many cases look much less than the horrendous acts they were engaged in, and that made me wonder if a revolution can really be self-destructive so that by time its name becomes associated with repression rather than freedom and bloodshed rather than lifesaving. Apparently so!

When the Egyptian revolution started, I was pleasantly startled to see that while we were all screaming at the top of our lungs that the regime has to go and while we were brimming with anger at decades of oppression and injustice, it was a 100% peaceful, unarmed protest and any spilt blood or lost lives was the doing of the security forces that were out to crush the rebellion by any possible, or impossible, means. Even at the times when protestors were attacked by swords and Molotov cocktails, they responded with stones and the whole world was left wondering about this uprising that has not yet been defined in history, one that amputates without shedding a drop of blood. The word “selmeya,” Arabic for peaceful, made headlines and became the slogan the world chose to single out this unprecedented species of rage that changed the meaning of a word commonly associated with rampant violence and countless casualties.

It comes naturally, therefore, that any discourse which contradicts this spirit would sound alarming even though it might make sense for other people. The ouster of the regime was done peacefully on the part of the protestors but as for the other party that would have gladly drowned the country in a blood bath had they been given the proper chance and enough time, scores were yet to be settled. A kind of communal vendetta ensued between the people who took part in or supported the revolution, not to mention had loved ones killed in the demonstrations, on one hand and the security forces involved in shooting at unarmed civilians and all former regime officials on the other hand. The revolutionaries made it very clear that ousting Mubarak was never the ultimate goal of the revolution, which will never be complete until all criminals are brought to justice whether for what they did during the protests or throughout the past three decades. This is an absolutely legitimate and indisputable demand and up till that point there was no problem.

The problem started when a comparison was made between the 18 days that took Egyptians to unseat a thirty-year-old dictatorship and the endless time it seems to be taking the government or the military or the judiciary or whoever is responsible to put all the culprits, on top of whom is the former president, behind bars. The outrage stirred by the delays was not only due to incompetence on the part of the relevant bodies as far as the purging process that is to rid the country of all “remnants” of the former regime is concerned and not only because of the innumerable conspiracy theories that started emerging about deals struck and money paid… etc., but also because the matter involved one of the most sensitive issues: the martyrs of the revolution.

The fact that the killers of protestors are still at large and some of them were even arrested then released amid rumors of attempts by several policemen to bribe the families of the deceased is considered an outright treason to the revolution and to the value of the blood that was spilt for it, says the revolutionaries. I can’t agree more. It is the rhetoric that followed later that I have a problem with. Ask yourself a very simple question: When the law does not bring you back what is inarguably your right, what do you do? One of two things: Some give up and others take the law into their hands. The second option sounds logical to all those who had loved ones murdered in cold blood by the security forces and who know both they and the deceased will never see a day of peace until they are properly avenged.

It is at this point that words which echo the horror of previous revolutions start coming to the surface. “I would kill those who killed my son with my own hands if the court doesn’t do so.” “The policeman who killed my brother has to be executed right here at the same place where he fired at him.” “All of them should hang in public so that everyone watches justice being served.” “Let all the executions take place in Tahrir.” There was even one incident last week when a man tried to disrupt a protest and actually fired a couple of shots in the air was about to be “executed”—that was the word the media used—by the protestors hadn’t it not been for the immediate intervention of the army. “Yes,” many people said. “He was about to shoot at them and they have the right to kill him.”

That reminded me of the first time I read Charles Dickens’ masterpiece A Tale of Two Cities and of how confused I was by the character of Madame Defarge who seeks a noble end through all the wrong means. I never miss any chance to declare my staunch objection to the capital punishment, which you now see on a whole lot of placards and hear in several protests, yet if this is how it is then there is nothing to do about except look for ways to tone down the new language that implies it will soon be the right of every citizen to inflict that punishment upon whoever he or she perceives as guilty of some crime or another. Doing that does not by any means entail blaming the potential vigilantes for a reaction typical of any human being that had undergone a similar tragedy for they have not taken this stance except after giving up on courts and trials and anything related to that law that proved unable to grant them the only solace they have left—seeing the murderers of their folks receive their due punishment.

It is the problem of those who are responsible for making sure this law is properly implemented—be that the Interior Ministry, the Higher Council of the Armed Forces, criminal or military courts, I don’t care—and bearing in mind that the slower they go, the more salt they are rubbing into the wounds of Egyptians—all of them and not just the ones who had a personal loss.

This is not just about the necessity of having each and every person who dared kill or injure a fellow Egyptian pay dearly for such an unforgivable offence, as important as that is. This is also about preserving the purity of a revolution that, I would say, put Gandhi to practice and gave an outstanding example of the miracles civil disobedience can do. We are a people whose only weapon was their love for their country and their determination to see it free and let us remain so.

Tahrir is no another Bastille and will never be and in the January 25 Revolution there is no place for guillotines and no summary shootings of Tsars. There is and will always be the slogan that begs to remain: “selmeya.”

Letter from Cairo: South-partum blues

http://www.alarabiya.net/articles/2011/07/12/157369.html

I watched South Sudan tear itself from a land it no longer considers mother with a peculiar mixture of labor pain with death pain, but it was definitely pain. I tried as much as possible to see my feelings in the light of the first since at least from this kind of pain a new life is to be born, yet the heaviness that dragged my heart down as I followed the referendum and the actual secession made me inclined to believe it is the second feeling that mostly takes hold of me.

The reason for my sadness would seem quite unjustified and indeed it is. A people decide unanimously to end decades of civil strife and pull away from a regime that had done everything in its capacity to make them strangers in their own country. Why should someone like me, who took part in a similar act in order that we all regain the citizen status we had lost throughout the past 30 years, feel that way towards a such a democratic process that sets a perfect example for the way people’s willpower can redraw the map of the world? What drove me mad as I struggled with this question was the fact none of the concerns that generally bothered politicians and officials in Egypt helped in providing me with the answer. I was not worried that another independent political entity with be added to the Nile Basin with all the possible trouble that might entail simply because I believe the damage has already been done so if South Sudan decides to build a couple of dams, that won’t make much of a difference when compared Ethiopia’s if-it-had-water-build-a-dam-on-it project or to sign the Cooperative Framework Agreement that is anyway bound to deprive Egypt of a huge part of it water share. Neither was it the fact that non-Arab, non-Muslim South Sudan will, as conspiracy theorists have it, develop close ties with Israel, which will enable the latter to invade and occupy the entire black continent. Nor is it about the whole set of procedures Egypt needs to take in order to formulate a diplomatic relationship with such a strategic quasi-neighbor.

“We’re next,” one of my friends told me right after the two states were officially separated. My heart sank when he said that. I starred at him apparently in a way that quite shocked him since he assumed what he was saying was not news for me. “What? Why are you looking at me as if I am some delusional jerk? Yes, if things remain the way they are in Egypt, Copts would want their own state and I wouldn’t blame them one bit.” Seeing the effect of his scary predictions on my face, he decided to start joking about it assuming this will being a little bit of comic relief. “Why are you upset? You can go live there by the way since this will be the only place in Egypt where women can walk around with their hair visible.” He actually made things worse.

As sad as this prediction made me and as appalled as I was by the possibility of such escalation, I don’t know why this was not really the cause of my apprehension maybe because at this point I was not thinking in terms of religions and/or ethnicity and I don’t think this was the only problem of the South Sudanese and maybe because for me Copts are the original Egyptians and we all came later. Maybe I was thinking more in terms of parts susceptible to separation not only by virtue of geographical location, but also by historical precedence.

I was not yet born when the Sinai Peninsula was seized and occupied by Israel in 1967 nor when the 1973 war paved the way for regaining it, and I was too little to know what a peace treaty meant when Egypt and Israel signed one in 1979, but I was starting to become aware of what was going in 1982 when Sinai was fully back to Egypt. The celebrations that swept the country at the time alerted me to the value of the peninsula for all Egyptians and made me develop some kind of an emotional attachment to it before I had even set foot there and when I did I remember how I cried with joy at the first sight of that land that for several years has, captured or liberated, acquired such epic proportions. The euphoria of victory was later followed by the craze of beaches, safari trips, and diving excursions and in a few years, Sinai became the top-notch tourist destination for all middle and upper-middle class Egyptians and for a wide variety of Europeans running away from the harsh winters of the north. And we were all happy.

Except in the middle of all the reveling we missed one little thing: while Israeli settlers came and went and while tourists come and go, some people had been there throughout and still are. How many times have we—people as well as government that is—stopped to wonder what kind of a life they are living and what kind of an impact the occupation has had on them and their posterity? When I first started hearing about the Bedouins—the term being commonly used to refer to the inhabitants of Sinai even though it is not exclusive to them—I was surprised to hear words like “treason,” “disloyalty,” and “collaboration” used in every other sentence. “They have never pledged allegiance to Egypt. They were crying bitter tears when the Israelis left.” I am not sure if anyone of those who said this classic line that I have heard over and over almost word for word had indeed saw for himself/herself those tears, but that’s not the issue. It is no secret that the Bedouins were quite prosperous during the occupation and that their businesses— be that agriculture, trade, or tourism—boomed remarkably at the time. Putting ethical questions about establishing ties with the occupier aside, let us take a quick look at the status of those same Bedouins after their land went back to its rightful owners. While the farewell tears were hearsay, other facts on the ground are not.

I can go on forever about the way Bedouins are treated as second-class citizens and the deplorable conditions in which they live as far as education, medical care, and infrastructure are concerned, but I would rather focus on the past few years in which Bedouins were rounded up, tortured, and detained without trials and in several cases shot dead by the police based on some supernatural assumption that any terrorist attack that took place in Sinai must have been planned and carried out by them. Why? Because they have always been traitors so why would they stop being so now? The animosity between Bedouins and security forces kept increasing amid fears of a violent escalation, especially that several of the Sinai tribes are known to be armed. That was quite alarming, but more so was the discourse that accompanied the clampdowns and which treated Sinai as a state with a state and played on people’s hostile feelings towards Israel by stressing that they are more citizens of the Hebrew state than of Egypt and the way news about hundreds of Bedouins trying to cross into Israel after killings by the Egyptian police was manipulated by the media was the perfect fuel to the fire. The ploy succeeded and sympathy for the nomadic compatriots—which gained unprecedented momentum after the brutal police raids— started receding bit by bit. Bottom line is we were back to square one—zero in fact.

Then came the time when we leaped several squares forward, when it was clear who pledged allegiance to what and in Tahrir I ran into Sinai Bedouins all the time, all calling for the ouster of the regime and for the liberation of the one country every protestor in the square belonged to. It was then that the specter of the South Sudan started fading and I saw nothing but unison and a common cause. Yet when this common cause—mistakenly thought at the time to be confined to overthrowing Mubarak—was victorious, each went to his or her house/city/village/peninsula and square one seemed like the last stop once more. True there had been attempts at reconciliation but sitting around the fire with the chiefs of a couple of tribes does nothing to solve the problem exactly like a trip to Uganda does not mean Nile Basin states have started a new honeymoon. I am sure the Bedouins of Sinai are not as alienated as before now that the regime that made them so is no longer in power, but sitting back and assuming that’s it will eventually trigger a relapse—maybe irreversible this time.

The South Sudanese did not vote for secession because they are not loyal, but rather because they are very loyal… to their people who had suffered for years under a government that classified citizens based on their compliance with the ruling party. I am not sure they would have done the same had they been treated justly, and I guess we can see that Quebec is still part of Canada and that the French and German speaking parts of Switzerland are still within the same borders.

Letter from Cairo: Kindly wait to be adjusted

http://www.alarabiya.net/articles/2011/07/12/157237.html

I have to admit I am becoming obsessed with the revolution. A couple of days ago I saw an ant staggering under the weight of a breadcrumb double its size and I thought, ‘It is this kind of perseverance that allowed us to oust the dictator.’ And I kept watching for a while to make sure it will reach home safe and with the bounty intact. I see one of those ragged street kids smiling and I say, ‘He knows that in the new Egypt his suffering will soon be over.’ I read some political poem written 50 years ago about some thing or another that happened at the time and I am like ‘See? Everybody who had the least amount of commonsense could predict that this revolution was going to happen sooner or later.’ I know very well that the ant is just being itself and that it was probably too hungry when I saw it and that the kid might have just heard a joke and was probably not aware how the revolution concerns him and the 1960s poet might have assumed the then-president of the country was some god who is susceptible neither to death nor to deposal. I am just in the mood for seeing everything in that light and no matter how unrealistic—sometimes even cheesy—this gets, I am enjoying it and I do realize it’s absurd so I guess this does not make it a disorder… yet!

This obsession almost bordered an incurable syndrome a couple of days ago when I watched ‘The Adjustment Bureau,’ a 2011 film based on a short story by sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick and starring Matt Damon, one of my favorite actors and maybe that was a factor. New York Congressman David Norris is being chased, rather harassed, by a group of men who call themselves ‘The Adjustment Bureau.’ The first time they abduct him, members of the Bureau explain to Norris that their mission is to ensure everything human beings do goes according to some ‘plan,’ illustrated in a peculiar book with maze-like figures that they attribute to the head of the Bureau, who they call the ‘Chairman.’ Because he is a unique politician with a promising future ahead of him and a potential presidential candidate, the Bureau is particularly interested in Norris and sets out to watch him and make sure he does not deviate from the path charted for him.

There is a problem, though. Norris is in love with a woman from outside the ‘plan,’ one they think will be detrimental to his political career not because she will intentionally ruin him, but rather because their relationship will provide him with the fulfillment he usually gets from his work so his ambition will become less ferocious and the country will sustain a crippling loss.

One more problem. Despite a series of threats to both Norris and his lover and even though actual harm starts befalling both of them, he is not willing to give her up and neither is she. After a series of failed attempts, Bureau members realize they are dealing with an unbreakable bond that defies all predetermined plans and insists on formulating its own fate. At the face of such invincible power, the Chairman of the Bureau succumbs and instead of forcing the lovers to act in accordance with his plan, this very same plane is redesigned to accommodate their unyielding desire to stay together.

Let not the happily-ever-after kind of ending deceive you for this is not a movie about star-crossed lovers and the perils they go through to save their love. This is a story of power relations and the different definitions of ‘fate.’ The Adjustment Bureau can be any authority—typically in a dictatorship I would say—that spares no effort to brainwash its subjects into believing that whatever situation they are in is part of a fate they cannot tamper with and that any attempt at changing the way things are going is equivalent to challenging the hegemony of God.

This strategy does not only consolidate the power of this authority and expand the scope of its tyranny, but also gradually undermines any belief on the subjects’ part that changing the status quo is by any means possible. The second part does indeed play a much bigger role since the more you make people believe they have no free will, the more you guarantee that they will not rebel. Subjugation, in this case, is not the result of fear but rather becomes the natural evolution of a growing sense of helplessness in the face of any force that is perceived as unchangeable. When the question of why Egyptians do not rebel was brought up, the expected answer would be that they are afraid of the reaction of the repressive regime, while the official response was a bit different: ‘The Egyptian people are just not ready for democracy,’ you would hear top statesmen say. While this started as the government’s discourse, it gradually become the people’s too, for Egyptians themselves started believing they are actually not ready for anything other than being told what to do since they are too incompetent to determine what they want to do with their lives.

Like the members of the Adjustment Bureau, whose identity is a peculiar mixture of the human and the divine, you start confusing figures of authority with untouchable beings and standing against them becomes equivalent to challenging God. In case of the Egyptian regime and the bureau, the idea of fate is constantly manipulated in order to instill in the people that fear of the consequences that would render them eternally paralyzed in the face of this power that no matter what they do will never be conquered. Knowing that any attempt at rebellion will not only be futile but might also incur a great deal of damage, they end up with an overwhelming despondency that is constantly justified as an acceptance of God’s will and a rejection of any semblance of ingratitude towards it. This becomes clear in the way Islamist fundamentalists used to talk simple-minded people into believing that rebelling against the ruler is against Islam since it constitutes an objection to some divine plan whose features might not be clear now but which will eventually turn out to be beneficial for them even if not in this life.

It is only when the two lovers decide their relationship is worth the risk that they are able to change the course of that plan imposed on them from ‘up above’ that they were able to take control of their lives. This fate, Egyptians also realized, was not ordained by anyone other than those powers that everything in the capacity to subjugate those they perceived as too weak to move a thumb or even think of doing so.

When in one of the several arguments he has with Bureau members Norris insists that he has the right to make his own choices, one of the top adjusters asks him to consider the destruction human beings had brought upon themselves and the entire planet when they were given free will and cited the Dark Ages, the two world wars, and the Cuban missile crisis. This is the twisted logic you use when you want to deprive people of a right that you know very well will empower them. It’s like not allowing your kids to eat on their own because you know how much mess this newly-acquired independence will entail but since this is not the argument that works with them, you tell them they will wet their bed at night if they do so. Yet stopping the kid from growing up into an independent human being who is capable of dealing with the mess he or she creates is a disruption of the natural order and at a certain stage wetting the bed becomes no longer a threat.

‘Fight for your fate’ is the tagline of ‘The Adjustment Bureau’ and should be the slogan of any uprising that decides to do away with the idea of changing fate as some kind of blasphemy. Conformity is the enemy of any revolution and it is only when you longer let yourself be adjusted that you shift from the passive to the active voice and that your fingers start becoming trained to moving the same strings used for decades to control every movement you make.

Letter from Cairo: Big Disney is watching you

http://www.alarabiya.net/articles/2011/07/10/157047.html

If my house is on fire and my family inside is screaming for help and I worry about my favorite dress because I have a wedding next weekend and will have nothing to wear if it is consumed by the flames, then I have a serious problem. My problem will not only be confined to my astounding inability to organize my priorities, but will also extend to an absolute loss of commonsense as I become totally oblivious to the lethal danger that will in a couple of minutes devour everyone in the neighborhood including myself as well as a shocking assumption that the world revolves around me and that even blinds me to the fact that I am not immune to that imminent destruction.

Egypt is like a ship that is being slapped right, left, and center by lethally ferocious waves during the most devastating of hurricanes. Those on board are torn between protecting themselves and fellow passengers from being swallowed by the ruthless currents, rescuing and resuscitating those who fell, and throwing out the water coming in from the holes that keep opening up in different parts of the hull. In the middle of all this, a couple of passengers run to you screaming and complaining that they got wet. What will your reaction be?

Throw them into the sea and show them what “wet” really means? Talk some sense into them by explaining how grave the situation is and how stupid and childish their behavior is? Pretend they don’t exist until they themselves do it on your behalf and willingly opt for the sea?

While you think of an answer, let me tell you a little story that you might be familiar with already but that might be helpful in offering a quick overview of what is happening now in a country struggling to protect its revolution from all crouching tigers and hidden dragons. Liberals and Islamists are fighting over what comes first, drafting a new constitution or holding parliamentary elections, anger is mounting as policemen charged with shooting and killing unarmed protestors are still at large, cries of foul play are echoing all over the country with unjustified delay in prosecuting the president and his family, patience is running thin as far as purging the Interior Ministry and other government bodies from “remnants” of the former regime are concerned… and so on and so forth… I will need whole volumes to explain how turbulent the situation is right now.

But lo and behold! A much more pressing problem has just emerged and turns out we suck at identifying our real enemies and were busying ourselves with trivial matters. The catastrophe started when a famous Coptic businessman posted on Twitter a cartoon depicting Mickey Mouse with a beard and Minnie Mouse with a face veil. With a caption that read “Mickey and Minnie after,” the cartoon was obviously a tongue-in-cheek attempt at envisioning what Egypt would be like in case fundamentalist Islamists reach power. He might have done that while drinking his morning coffee or on his way to work or while he was dozing off in bed after a long day of meetings, so may be he did not concentrate enough to realize that he was, in fact, waging a war against Islam.

Had reactions to rampant corruption, police brutality, and abuse of power in pre-revolution Egypt been half as forceful and quarter as fast as the response to this cartoon, we would have become the most democratic, advanced, and civilized country in the whole world. In what seemed like no time, fierce online campaigns calling for boycotting the mobile phone company owned by the telecommunications mogul and rendering every penny entering the man’s pocket blood money attracted thousands of supporters—around 60,000 on Facebook alone. Yet, what happens in the virtual world does not stay there more than a couple of hours, for stock market shares of companies owned by the same businessman were actually reported to have fallen following the campaign and more than 15 Islamist lawyers filed lawsuits against him for “deriding religion” and “mocking Islam” and all those charges leveled against any “heretic” who steps on the toes of Salafi ideologues.

He apologized by the way. Well, not sure if it was an apology or rather a lamentation over the way things are heading. “That was a joke and I am sorry if some people did not take it as such. No disrespect intended,” he tweeted, and the picture was then removed.

Did this solve the problem? In other words, what exactly does this “apology” mean? That he is now convinced he is the criminal they claim him to be and that he is now repenting and asking for forgiveness? That they now understand that this was a joke and will therefore not make the same fuss over similar incidents? The answer to both is NO. The alleged culprit confessed under duress and the self-appointed judge will pass the harshest verdict anyway and none of them will get over the other’s “offence,” so what’s the point? Plus, this is not about a picture posted or a tweet regretting it nor is it just about the rising tide of intolerance that has been sweeping the country since a group of extremists decided it is by their norms that all Egyptians should go. It is mainly about abusing a revolution that gave them on a silver platter the freedom they did not work to get—the slightest fraction of which they would have never dreamt of enjoying under the former regime—only to deprive others of it. It is also about the emotional blackmail of a public that is easily deceived into believing its religion is under constant attack by some dark forces that aim at taking Egypt back to the times when gods were made of date paste. All this aside, it is first and foremost and regrettably about shocking indifference to the insurmountable ordeals through which the country is going and unexplainable insistence on diverting the attention to superficial matters that would have not ordinarily taken more than a few minutes and a couple of laughs had they not been raised to threat level Red.

It is not of much relevance now to investigate whether Islamists were really offended by the cartoon—I find it very hard to figure out why anyone on earth would be—or if they are just making up for decades of in-the-dark existence through seeking as much limelight as they can get. In both cases, the ruckus stirred over the cartoon—which, I believe, should be studied as a work of social criticism and a testimonial of a time of blurred vision and conflicting ideologies—does nothing more than betraying an absolute apathy as far as national wellbeing is concerned and a corresponding ego-centric keenness to pull off some theatrical feat that grants the once behind the scene troupe a leading role in what they mistakenly assume can eventually be a one man show.

Back to the sinking boat and the whining wet. Throwing the trouble makers into the sea is in flagrant violation of all ethical codes that stipulate safeguarding the lives of all passengers regardless of how annoying they might be and is also bound to earn them a great deal of sympathy even from passengers who had themselves wished to opt for the sea exit. Reasoning with them when every split of a second could mean one more life lost or ten more liters of water into the boat will be setting the stage for the perfect homicide/suicide scenario so you will either die yourself or live forever with the guilt of abandoning your fellow passengers to the treacherous waves.

Leave them be or, to be more accurate, engage in this type of passive resistance that combines between not wasting the effort much needed for saving the boat and those on board and not allowing them to drag the rest of the group to that state of self-pity that robs them of their will to float.

Seeing that everyone around them knows their own priorities and are determined to move on, they will either feel left out and make up their mind to join the life/boat guards or feel left out and make up their minds to find refuge in the bottom of the deep blue. Their choice!

In all cases, Mickey will be able to shave and Minnie will once again reveal her smile and Sir Walt Disney, who must have been turning in his grave since the cartoon was released, can hope to rest in peace.

Letter from Cairo: For details, see the ultimate guide to ‘Sisterhood’

http://www.alarabiya.net/articles/2011/07/09/156888.html

There is a revolution and everything around us is changing and we need to do the same. Everyone is keeping an eye on us now more than ever and with all emerging political powers, our critics are multiplying and we are being accused of all sorts of things that render our ideologies unfit for the democracy Egypt is supposed to become. Time is running out and we better act before we wake up one morning and find ourselves outnumbered, outdated, outlandish, and all those outs. Let us try to prove them wrong and do something that demonstrates we are no less democratic than they are. What is it they accuse us of most? Well, all sorts of things of course, but maybe we can pick the most controversial. Women? Yeah, why not?

The so-called liberals claim we are against gender equality and that the way we view gentler sex is against the principles of citizenship… or was that last one about Copts? It all gets mixed up because they lash out at anything that abides by the teachings of Islam and call that “democracy.” We hope they know they are the ones who would burn in hell, but it’s no good time for judgment day issues; that’s politics now and we need to focus. We can throw some big event that shows how we appreciate women and believe in the role they play in society. But like what? Not charity of course. This is too cliché and is not the in thing now that everyone is talking revolution and parties and constitution. We have to show that statements about us excluding women are blatant lies that only aim at tarnishing our image. We need to give the impression that the “brotherhood” is not just made up of men. Sounds a bit weird? Yes, a little bit. How can we avoid that? Well then… how about having a “sisterhood”?

Let us have all the Muslim “sisters” in one place, have the supreme leader give a speech on the importance of women, get a lot of media coverage, and we’re done. Maybe holding a conference is a good idea and maybe we can give it some catchy name like… let’s see… “Women from Revolution to Renaissance”… very creative indeed!

And equally misleading if I may add.

Maybe there was a part of the conference that was held behind the scenes and this was when they talked about “revolution” and/or “renaissance” unless staying at home and raising the kids and maybe occasionally doing some religious preaching is the Brotherhood’s or Sisterhood’s definition of those two words. When the supreme guide gave a speech that was supposed to chart the course of the “sisters” in the “coming phase,” it was things like political parties, women empowerment, elections, and those topics that follow such a drastic change in a country’s history that we expected to hear. However, I challenge anyone to detect the slightest difference between any of the phases, coming or going. The “sisters” are now assigned the epic mission of guess what? Teaching their children ethics and values—because other women don’t usually do that?—and raising them in accordance with Islamic principles—well, women who don’t do that last bit don’t deserve to be “sisters” maybe. Of course, the supreme guide did not miss the most important duty any woman should be dedicated to—obeying her husband. No need to mention the eternal connection made between donning the veil and morality—who dares accuse them of exclusionism?

To avoid being unfair, there is another equally daunting task all the “sisters” should unite to carry out: being aware and raising awareness about the “malignant” conspiracies weaved against Muslim women, said a top “sister” at the conference. The closing statement warned of the same menace that aims at making Muslim women “deviate from their Islamic values.” It was not clear, however, who exactly is behind those conspiracies. The West? Egyptian “non-sisters”? Or is this just a continuation of the eternal tradition of self-victimization that might have been justified at the time of a repressive regime but now sounds as hollow as the attempt to project a fake image of women rights advocacy. Actually, this self-victimization may be the only thing that both “brothers” and “sisters” will have equal shares of in the “coming phase.”

As hundreds of “sisters” turned up, one couldn’t help but wonder where they have all been before and why this stellar appearance now. The deputy supreme guide has the answer: they were being “protected” from the brutality of Egyptian authorities and which only men were capable of facing. Apparently, the “sisters” enjoy a great deal of freedom within the group and that is why they only show up when they are given permission to do so and would agree to stay in hiding for decades because they are too fragile to do men’s work. In this case, it is only logical to ask for details about the “sisters’” role in the revolution? Did they take to the streets starting January 25 onwards and shout “Down with Mubarak!” and risked pay their lives in return for the country’s freedom? Or did they wait and see before getting into trouble with the regime in vain? Well, their “brothers” opted for the second so no need to give the matter too much thought anyway.

Ask me what I love about the Muslim Brotherhood—I am not being sarcastic this time—and I will tell you their unequalled ability at accusing others of tarnishing their image while no one does a better job than they do. Since the ouster of the regime, the MB has been offered a golden opportunity at exposing themselves to the public like never before and while thinking the revolution is helping them they overlooked the fact that it has so far been helping no one but their opponents who now have countless pieces of evidence that the group’s “justice” and “freedom”—the two words they used for their party—proclamations prove self-destructive the moment they come to the light.

Ask the “brothers” to issue a booklet detailing the requirements a woman should meet in order to be considered for membership of the “sisterhood” and those will be enough to sum up what I am trying to say. After that ask yourself how come a group that openly objects to women becoming presidents can have any respect for that entire sex or can really believe they have any role to play outside their household chores or independent from the men they have to obey.

Then let us all ask ourselves what the future of the country would look like if only “brothers” and “sisters” are eligible for citizenship.

Then let me be a bit selfish and ask myself whether in this case, I would prefer to be a “sister” and stay or remain a whatever-they-will-choose-to-label-me… and also stay!

Letter from Cairo: The whore and her gas

http://www.alarabiya.net/articles/2011/07/05/156270.html

Suppose every time I go out of my house I find a man standing next to my car and the moment he sees me, he shouts, “Whore!” then runs away. The first time, I wouldn’t pay attention at all. I might even forget the incident the moment I turn on the radio and listen to the morning news while on my way to wherever I am going.

The second time, I would be a bit surprised and think about it for a few minutes then get distracted by the first traffic jam and start wondering when on earth would I stop spending half my life trying to go somewhere.

The third time, I would start wondering if this is actually the same man who called me that yesterday and the day before yesterday and when I realize it is him, I would start thinking that something must be the matter. This cannot be a coincidence. The man must hold some real grudge against me and this is the only way he can vent out his anger at something I possibly did in the past and which, unlike me, he cannot obviously get over.

I will, therefore, be left with one of two options. I can totally ignore the whole issue and say to myself, “I don’t give a damn what names he calls me. Let him rot in hell!” or I can start investigating the issue and try to understand why I am being called names that I generally assumed did not apply to me. The first option looks much easier because a word told to me every morning won’t kill me and by time it will lose the shocking impact it had in the first couple of times and because I will always treat this word as a groundless accusation that can never make me lose my self-confidence or have doubts about whether or not I am a good person. This makes sense of course, but if I opt for this, there is one question I need to ask myself: Am I sure that it would stop at “whore”? Seeing that I am treating him as thin air, wouldn’t he start to take a different course of action whether to grab my attention or to get back at me for whatever wrong I had done him and also for insisting to ignore him? As for the second option, it is indeed more of a hassle, but at the end of the day I find it much fairer for both of us: I deserve to know what is it about me that provokes the man that much even though I am sure he is mistaken in his perception of me and he deserves to have his grievance heard even though I have a very strong objection to the way he voices it. If one day instead of getting into the car and turning on the radio, I stopped and asked him why he is doing this, I might either realize that I had in one way or another done that man some wrong and need to redress it or there may be some kind of misunderstanding that I can clear so the man can stop wasting his time with me and can go look for the real “whore” he is after.

The Egyptian government has so far chosen to go for the first option when, after the third time the pipeline that transmits natural gas to Israel was blown up, phrases like “act of sabotage” are still being used and the priority is still getting hold of who did it. Even though I agree that the action itself is indeed a criminal offence and that the culprits have to be penalized accordingly, I am astounded by how the crux of the matter is totally overlooked and how targeting this pipeline in particular is treated like setting tires on fire or blocking highways. When in several protests police vehicles were burnt, it was very obvious that this was not simply an act of vandalism but rather an expression of extreme indignation at the Ministry of Interior and the countless abuses in which it has been involved for decades. Does it make any sense then that destroying a pipeline that takes Egyptian gas to Israel is not seen in the same light?

Despite the necessity of bringing to justice those who did that—they are apparently the same people who did the first and second times since the exact same methods were used in the detonation—I am sorry to say that we need to focus on a much more crucial issue: why they did that. Of course the answer is known, but ways of addressing it are not.

Calls for halting the export of natural gas to Israel are not new and reports that Egypt was selling for a ridiculously low price such a substantial source of energy at the time when millions are living without electricity and specifically to what the majority of Egyptians looks upon as an enemy state only “added more water to the mud” as the Egyptian saying goes. Now, it’s getting much muddier than ever because the regime that was accused of selling the whole country, not only gas, is no longer around and a revolution whose main objective was restoring the dignity of Egyptians is expected to take a decisive action towards that end. Taking an action does not mean the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces should plant a couple of dynamite sticks in the pipeline or the minister of foreign affairs should shut down the Israeli embassy in Cairo. It rather means giving more time and effort to tackling the reasons that might have led to consecutive attempts at destroying the line and to realizing that it is not only about money and diplomatic ties and that we are supposed to be starting an era where priority is to what the people want.

People want to no longer feel they are betraying their Palestinian brethren; this terrible feeling that had gnawed at their hearts every time the border was closed to the 1.5 million trapped in Gaza and every time they heard reports that it was with Egypt’s blessing that the 2008-2009 brutal Israeli aggression was carried. They have had enough guilt trips every time they see the Israeli flag fluttering in the skies of Cairo and have always tried to convince themselves—and may I add failed to do so—that the peace treaty was for the best and that these are things whose magnitude ignorant people like us cannot grasp. Yet, to gladly and cheaply provide Israel with something of which both Egyptians and Palestinians are deprived—who is more entitled to those billions of cubic meters of gas?—is seen as an outrageous violation not only of the rights of Egyptian citizens but also of the Palestinian cause of which they are staunch supporters, and ignoring the angry reaction that had lasted for years was just another of the regime’s assertions that the people are its last priority.

Now, things are supposed to take a different course and the fact that they are not is what triggers those acts of “sabotage.” Whoever did that do not belong to thugs that looted stores when the police withdrew or to Mubarak supporters who want to scare protestors away from Tahrir Square when they were still hopeful the revolution would bear no fruit. Those who ventured into the bumpy desert roads to make Israel sure doesn’t receive the 45 percent of its gas needs Egypt provides it with is making a very clear and unmistakable statement and sending a warning that the prevalence of justice is not just about court hearings and constitution drafts.

The perpetrators of what I would like to call “a political operation” might eventually be identified and they will be arrested and interrogated then brought to court and may be later put in jail. Fine, but will that—and I mean that only—really solve the problem whether in the sense that the pipeline will be safe forever or that the entire population will end up offering gas home delivery service across the border?

Forgot to mention a third way of dealing with the man who crowned me as a “whore.” I can call the police, tell them he’s been stalking me for a while and have him arrested and make sure I never see his face again. But will I, or the police, guarantee that he won’t come back with vengeance and make sure I listen to that grievance I had previously ignored—except this time it may be by force and with chances at a real reconciliation almost non-existent?

Letter from Cairo: Humanizing the brute

http://www.alarabiya.net/articles/2011/07/04/156112.html

If the map of the world has become part of the psyche of all Egyptians trying to search for a model to follow amid talks of which system of governance could be the most suitable in the “long walk to freedom,” to quote Nelson Mandela, it is important that while letting our eyes sail through oceans and travel across continents not to lose track. Before doting on the Turkish experience, lauding Latin America’s impressive transition from brutal autocracy to full-fledged democracy, and citing East Europe’s outstanding ability at shedding the Soviet cloak, let us first spend some time in our own continent and take a scrutinizing look at this neighbor who we owe much more than we could imagine.

On January 28, the day on which Egyptians came to realize that what started on January 25 is much more than a momentary uprising by a few disgruntled youths who had nothing better to do, hours of marching came to a sudden halt when it was time to salute that red and white flag that proudly fluttered on top of a small building in west Cairo. “They did it and we will follow suit,” we shouted in front of the Tunisian embassy and with every minute our voices got much stronger as we imbibed the power of our newly-liberated brethren without whose inspiration we would have still been sitting at home and confining our growing indignation to a couple of tweets here and a few Facebook posts there.

Egyptians do owe their freedom to Tunisians and there is no debating that, yet we will be making the gravest of mistakes if we assume that the role of Tunisia in shaping the future of Egypt had ended with the day we decided to reenact the Jasmine Revolution or with the advice Tunisian protestors gave us regarding different ways of fending off riot police, dealing with tear gas exposure… etc. Instead of only examining the way democracies—the majority of which have been well-established for quite a while—work around the world, keeping a close watch on the steps undertaken by the nascent democracy of Tunisia as it works on achieving the goals of its revolution should, for me, be our first and foremost priority at the moment. Think about it. Does a toddler learn to walk from the few minutes older twin brother or the adult distant relative?

In addition to the several steps taken in order to ensure the materialization of the revolution’s objectives, like the several committees formed to monitor the government’s performance and oversee the drafting of the new constitution and which are all made up of members of the civil society, the appointment of Lazhar Akremi, a lawyer and civil rights activist, as Tunisia’s interior minister offers the ultimate proof of Tunisia’s insight as far democratic transition and political reform are concerned. Out of the several Tunisian initiatives that can be emulated in Egypt, this one acquires a special meaning, for it concerns the most-hated institution in pre-revolution Egypt—not sure this has changed much after the revolution—and one of the main reasons that drove Egyptians to oust the former regime. The purging, reformation, restructuring, or whatever you want to call it of the Interior Ministry has, therefore, been closely linked to the assessment of the success of the January 25 Revolution and its ability to effect the change that would guarantee the elimination of human rights abuses committed by this formidable enemy of the Egyptian people.

By choosing Mr. Akremi for this position, the Tunisian government has made true the dream of countless Egyptian activists: making the Interior Minister, and consequently the police, a civil force. For many people, mainly citizens of despotic regimes, the words “police” and “civil” might be contradicted whereas taking a quick look at the names of the police force in several parts of the world proves how untrue this assumption is. Check how many countries call their police force “civil” or “civic” guard. However, this is not the case with dictatorships in which it is either the military or the police or both that are in charge of subjugating the citizens. In both cases, the institution abandons the original mission for which it was formed. The military’s main role is no longer protecting the borders and the police’s main role is no longer protecting the people with both only focusing on protecting the regime. Eventually the arms—from a handgun to an F-16—initially provided to safeguard the country and those who live in it become the regime’s fastest and most effective means of silencing opposition and maintaining unrivaled hegemony. In the case of Egypt, the police were playing the role of the military juntas in Latin American dictatorships so that the word “civil” or “civilian” came to be the opposite of “police” and of anything related to the Interior Ministry in general, especially that for decades the minister had to come from the police. Breaking with this tradition, a la Tunisie, is, I believe, the only way the police can go back to its original raison d’être—the enforcement of law and order, the elimination of crime, and the protection of citizens’ lives and property. Much easier said than done of course!

“Appointing a civilian interior minister constitutes a crime against the Egyptian society,” said former deputy head of Egypt’s notorious State Security Bureau and who now calls himself a security expert. Why is that? Because, according to him, turning the ministry into a civil body is bound to make those working in it—policemen I assume—lose self-confidence and become frustrated. The outcome of this trauma, also according to him, is a widening gap between the police and the people. If anyone reading this can make any sense out of it, please let me know. Maybe the major general’s words will be much clearer if we read between the lines and replace the spoken words with their intended meanings. This “self-confidence” is apparently the tyranny on which policemen had been thriving for the past three decades and the “frustration” is the result of the loss of the pleasure derived from feeling that they are the masters and the citizens are the slaves. Of course the gap will widen because the cops will no longer feel superior and the people will for the first time realize that the police’s job is safeguarding their lives rather than taking them. We have two major problems here: Who do we ask? And who are we talking about?

What do you expect to hear when you ask a veteran policeman who for years belonged to that specific department of the police whose main duty was eliminating any attempts at struggling for freedom? And how come you’re referring to the impact of the reformation of the police force on those policemen who had operated under the former regime? Do we need to revise the meaning of the word “purging”? Well, maybe we do. In this context, it means neither seeking advice from nor applying the reforms on any member of the old guard simply because none of them knows a definition of the role of the police other than the one which they learnt at the academy and which they had been religiously playing for decades. Renouncing any of that would imply an acknowledgment of belonging to a bestial militia that had no scruples about violating all the possible rights granted to members of mankind both by international treaties and the human conscience—the first they were obviously not familiar with and the second they had obviously never had.

I remember an old Egyptian TV commercial that started with the sentence, “Destroy your old bathroom immediately.” Obviously, it was a ceramic tiles commercial that delivered the message that the desired result will never be reached unless you start from scratch. This could be the perfect slogan for the Egyptian police; it can even replace the clichéd “The police are at the people’s service.”

Forget about wasting so much time and effort analyzing the layers of meaning of the word “civil” and whether it was coined to be the antonym of “army” or “police” and examining the different takes on words like “purging” or “cleansing” or “reforming.” How about using words as simple as “human” or “humane” or “humanizing”? Much easier and more accessible, right? Replace the beasts that perceive any moving object as food with human beings with a heart that feels and a brain that thinks and the brand new bathroom will end up being your favorite part of the house and the best proof that patching your blanket will always leave you cold and that in renovating a building that is falling apart you will always end up without a roof above your head.

Letter from Cairo: Feast of the fanatics

http://english.alarabiya.net/articles/2011/07/03/155937.html

Place: The United States Embassy in Cairo. Time: June 30, 2011. Occasion: Protesting the incarceration of Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman. Demands: Higher Council for the Armed Forces to lobby for the prisoner’s release. Reason (political): The sheikh’s return to Egypt is bound to boost moderate Islamism and put an end to violence. Another reason (humanitarian): The sheikh’s health conditions render it an absolute violation of human rights to keep him in jail. One more reason (strategic): Rejecting calls for setting the sheikh free means the US is adamant on making us—no idea who the pronoun refers to—their enemies. Threat: The Egyptian government will be held accountable for any harm that might befall the sheikh as a direct result of the continuation of his imprisonment. Slogans: “What freedom is America claiming to espouse?” and “Freedom to the champion of Islam.”

Hint: Spiritual leader of Egypt’s most notorious militant group al-Gamaa al-Islamiya, which is responsible for the massacring of hundreds of Egyptians and foreigners and which is considered a terrorist organization not only by the United States, but also by Egypt, a close ally of Osama Bin Laden, and a leading al-Qaeda operative in Afghanistan. Keywords: Calling for jihad against “infidels” and attack against Western targets, the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, New York City bomb plot, fatwa sanctioning the murder of late president Anwar Sadat. Current status: Serving a life sentence in North Carolina. Verdict passed: 1996. Question: Why now?

Place: Tora Prison, Cairo. Time: March 12, 2011. Occasion: Cousins Aboud and Tarek al-Zomor, members of the Islamic Jihad militant group, are released. Reason for incarceration: Involvement in the assassination of late president Anwar Sadat. Declared reason for release: Inmates had completed their term in 2011 and were held in jail by the former regime for security reasons. Actual reason for release: Decree by the Higher Council of the Armed Forces. Repercussions: Yesterday’s assassins become today’s household items. Newspapers and TV channels engage in a breathless who-gets-a-first-interview marathon. More repercussions: The new stars begin to contemplate taking an active part in politics—forming a political party maybe, running in presidential elections even.

Place: Anywhere in Egypt. Time: Any day after toppling the regime. Occasion: Islamic fundamentalists setting out to burn shrines and vowing to do the same with anything they consider alien to the spirit of Islam as perceived by the Salafi school of thought. Same time: Co-ideologues reportedly threaten to assault women who would go out unveiled and preachers that lead them through the path of faith declare all presidential candidates except ones subscribing to the Salafi doctrine, infidels. Message: “We are here whether you like it or not.”

Detecting the rationale behind the continuous protests—there has been four so far—calling for the release of the “Blind Sheikh” is as easy as putting one and one together—I mean for anyone who possesses the minimum observation skills required for realizing that the majority of seemingly ambiguous occurrences unravel themselves as quite justifiable when placed in the right context. Demanding the release of an international terrorist held outside the Egyptian territories took many by surprise not because the man is accused of actions that are in stark contradiction with all the values of democracy and human rights—supposedly the main pillars of Egyptian society in the coming phase—and not only because he is likely to have been the architect of several of the terrorist attacks that took the lives of innocent Egyptians, but also because of the protestors “unfounded” assumption that they can put pressure on the army, which in turn will do the same with the United States Administration to release Omar Abdel Rahman. It makes you wonder what kind of power they think they can wield on the Egyptian government or its American counterpart. Well, maybe “unfounded” is not the right word.

If the murderers of the president of the country—how tyrannical this president was being beside the point—are treated as heroes, so why shouldn’t a man who thought every “infidel” has no right to live get the same treatment and be pardoned for all the horrendous crimes attributed to him? Wasn’t the president killed for being one of those “infidels”? In more precise words, based on whose fatwa did the two men decide it was their religious duty to rid the world of that enemy of Islam?

True the case of the Zomor cousins is not similar to that of Abdel Rahman, for the first should have been released ages ago while the second is serving a jail term that is supposed to last till the end of his life. However, one can’t help wondering why now. Why was releasing them one of the first decisions taken by the Higher Council of the Armed Forces after the ouster of Mubarak? Was it to right the wrongs of that dictatorship which unjustly kept prisoners after their term was over? So, do we take it that everything had already been fixed to perfection and it was only the release of those two that was going to put the final touch to the Utopia that is post-revolution Egypt? Can we blame those fundamentalists if they assume the military council is on their side? If I were them and I see that political activists are still being arrested and peaceful protestors are still beaten up while my people are released, I would think in the same way. Can anyone call them delusional if they believe they are getting stronger and are gaining more sympathy as they turn from culprits into victims? And who of the two parties can Egyptians, who watch in disbelief as the fanatic tide seems to be sweeping the shores of Egypt and swallowing anything that comes in its way, blame? The performers or those who set the stage for them?

Unfortunately—or rather fortunately—Bin Laden died too early. Were he alive now, we would see Salafis marching to Afghanistan or protesting in front of the Pentagon, calling for granting amnesty to the hero of all times whose only fault was killing a “few” people who, like Omar Abdel Rahman’s “infidels,” were born to be exterminated. Had the champions—the blind and the now deceased—been released, they might have both entered Egypt borne on the shoulders of their disciples and a huge carnival would have been held all over the country with us serving as the main course in the banquet.