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Letter from Cairo: Taking the Via Dolorosa

A few years ago, I was having breakfast with a friend. Everything was fine till she picked at the butter and looked really irked. She called the waiter and asked him to please take it back and bring something that’s not Danish. It was the time when everyone was boycotting Danish products following the fury over the Prophet’s cartoons. The waiter complied and to her surprise, I didn’t say anything.

“You are not boycotting Danish products?” she asked, anticipating an answer she wouldn’t like. “No,” I said flatly. “Are you serious?” she looked shocked. “How come?” I talked for a good half hour about freedom of expression, cultural differences, the status of religion in the West, and the different perception of the concept of sacredness. She listened to me throughout and when she made sure I had finished, she made the most unexpected reply: “I cried all night when I heard.” That shut me up alright and made me feel how everything I had said was insensitive. I discovered that I had made a terrible misjudgment when I addressed an emotionally charged topic with logical argument. She might have already known beforehand the content of that lecture I was going to give and she might have even thought it made sense, but there was no way this would change the way she felt. I realized that it was not that clash of ideologies I wanted to believe, it was also not about which of us was able to memorize more articles from human rights treaties and U.N. charters. She is religious … I am not … Period.

From that point onwards, I have learned to bear in mind that religious feelings are not necessarily bound by the formal logic commonly used in earthly matters and that measuring spiritual sentiments with academic criteria is as insane as telling an atheist astronomer the story of genesis.

The Danish butter conversation took me back to a similar story. Several years ago, official newspapers started publishing a series of public apologies by Copts who performed the pilgrimage ritual in Jerusalem against the wish of the Pope who issued in 1979 an edict prohibiting members of his flock from entering the holy city as long as it is under occupation. I remember how, upon contemplating the supplicating tone with which they wrote their statement, I hated the fact that free individuals should answer to the clergy for their personal choices and how, upon examining the action for which they were apologizing, I resented what I saw was an outright recognition of the state of Israel. Between this and that, I thought that while the Pope should not have the right to prevent Copts from worshipping as they see fit, those same Copts should on their own accord refrain from taking the trip to Jerusalem under current circumstances. The commotion subsided shortly after anyway. No one was sure whether the flock was becoming more religiously obedient or rather politically aware, but the end result was the same: for years none of them ventured into that bumpy road.

The death of the Pope revealed that a large portion of Copts stayed away from Jerusalem because they chose peace of mind over risky proclamations of spiritual zeal, for soon after hundreds of them took a direct flight from Cairo Airport to Ben Gurion Airport and geared up for the first real Holy Week in decades. It was now crystal clear. In the absence of any authority that makes the consequences of the trip too grave to be tolerated, Jerusalem becomes once more the ultimate destination. The political administration of the city becomes of almost no importance at all as the religious passion takes over.

My friend was fully aware of the Danish cartoonist’s rights and similarly the pilgrims are fully sympathetic with the Palestinian cause. It is just a matter of priorities not in the sense that one single trip takes precedence over the lives of innocent Palestinians, but rather about this feeling of incompletion that is bound to persist as long as this ritual is not performed maybe together with a firm belief that religion should transcend politics like prophets should stay out of the realm of artistic freedom. Suffice it to imagine how many of those wanted to get one glimpse of the holiest site in Christianity before they die or how many others believed in the miracles such a blessed journey could work for them. It was a purely emotional act in response to a long-suppressed desire and which can in no way be considered a declaration of love for Israel or a lack of respect for the memory of the Pope.

The situation of the Grand Mufti of Egypt looks a lot different and the implications of the visit he made to Jerusalem and the prayers he performed inside al-Aqsa Mosque are seen as more serious. Unlike the few hundreds seeking communion in the holy land, the mufti is a public figure that supposedly represents millions of Egyptian Muslims who he must have guessed were very likely to be infuriated at such an initiative and indeed they were. Despite stressing that he traveled to Jerusalem via Jordan and that he did not obtain an Israeli visa, the mufti was accused of subscribing to the normalization project and calls for his impeachment and even trial have been echoing in both Egypt and Palestine.

Public reaction to the visit was quite predictable, but the mufti’s personal response was not. “God has bestowed upon me the blessing of performing the noon and afternoon prayers in such a holy place,” he said. Many people might see such a statement as a sheer theatrical cover-up, but I do see where he is coming from the same way I did with my Danish butter friend and the Palm Sunday Copts. A place as holy as that can apparently have a mesmerizing effect that blinds to Israeli flags fluttering all over the place and ultra-Orthodox Jews by the Wailing Wall or at least endows one with some conscious power that overcomes all that as it moves towards a nobler aim.

We could very easily ask ourselves why the mufti couldn’t resist while the Pope did or why Copts took the first flight to Jerusalem while Muslims never followed suite. The answer to that is as mysterious as the effect such a spiritual journey might have. Probably the pope was more conscious of his position as a figurehead who is not by virtue of his responsibility allowed to break an edict he himself issued and probably Muslims are more conscious of their moral obligation to abide by an implicit pact not to set foot in Jerusalem under occupation and which by virtue of their being the co-religionists of the majority of Palestinians and Arabs they are not at liberty to violate.

Reasons are not really important and as long as counter-arguments can be made about the necessity of Arab Muslims and Christians frequenting Jerusalem to prevent the Judaization of a city that is supposed to encompass all three faiths, there is no right and wrong as far as this goes. It is not fair to call those who go traitors exactly as it is not accurate to consider those who don’t patriotic. It is quite normal to follow your instinct in matters that solely and exclusively depend on the deepest of beliefs. It is also even more normal to be willing to bear with whatever trouble it takes for the sake of embarking on a journey towards salvation. Think of the physical hardships pilgrims to Mecca have to endure and multiply them by a zillion to imagine how it might have been before airplanes, air-conditioned buses, and five-star hotels and you have the simplest of examples about the way faith has the magical ability to surpass all sorts of pain.

I have learned not to judge people as long as I am not in their shoes and if I cannot say for sure that I would not have done as they did had I reached a degree of piety that makes a given trip cross the threshold from tormenting imperfection to eternal cleansing then I am not an authority on the matter. All what I know is that in my current condition, and which I do not expect will change, I will never embark on any kind of action that could imply from near or far a recognition of occupation forces or an endorsement of normalization with Israel no matter how keen I might be to see a historical and cultural treasure like Jerusalem.

This “Via” has apparently never stopped being “Dolorosa” and will remain so until further notice so those who take it have apparently more faith in its balm than fear of its agony. Wasn’t this same road, after all, the path to eternity more than two millennia ago?

Letter from Cairo: The scarecrow and the test balloon

“Why not from the start?” is an Egyptian saying I learnt as a child about the unnecessary postponement of an eventual outcome. Like many parents, my mother used to respond with “no” to any request I had even if she only heard half of it. It was therefore quite common that incomplete sentences along the lines of “I want to go to…” or “I need money for…” would be met with the most abrupt refusal. It was also quite common that after about a whole hour of negotiations, she would finally agree and I would, out of breath, half-furious, half-pleading, “Why not from the start?”

She never had an answer for that question and neither did all other parents. It was only when one of my schoolmates decided to come up with a theory that explains what she called “parents’ weird behavior.” According to her, parents are always after one of two things. They either want to teach you a lesson through proving who the boss is and making the final approval a condescending act on their part that should make us stay grateful forever. Or they really are not in the mood for approving any request or have reservations about it and do their best to push your limits until you give it up, but when you don’t they have no other option but to give in.

Of course, none of us cared about psychoanalyzing our parents. Finding a way to make them agree to a request within first five minutes of making it was the one and only priority we had. It was only later that I realized that there is no way you can look for solutions without going back to causes and it is impossible to understand an action without digging deeper into the brains and psyche of the person who did it. I am no longer in touch with this nerdy classmate of mine, but I admit I owe her a lot now, much more than she can imagine. I am too old to seek my mother’s approval for anything, but it is thanks to this theory that I am able to decipher actions quite similar to hers even though the comparison is too unfair. This time it is done on a much broader scale: a national one.

“Why not from the start?” wondered Egyptians as they stared at the TV screen to hear the Presidential Elections Commission announcing the exclusion from the presidential race of two of the most controversial potential candidates: the Salafi Hazem Salah Abu Ismail and former intelligence chief and Mubarak’s first and last vice-president Omar Suleiman. Nobody was able to figure out this unjustified delay even though it was obvious that none of them was eligible even if for different reasons. It was then when I retrieved the parents’ theory and was amazed at how applicable it is to the current situation and to any dictatorial system of governance that is constantly preoccupied with the means to teach its people lessons and use them as guinea pigs.

Reports about Abu Ismail’s mother being an American citizen, which violates one of the main candidacy conditions, were leaked, nobody has a clue by who exactly, at a time when his popularity had reached its peak and his supporters were multiplying at the speed of light and also at a time when there was growing concern over the possibility of his victory – an assumption that was totally dismissed two months before. It will be extremely naive to assume that Abu Ismail, a Salafi preacher who appears on religious TV channels and promotes all kinds of extremist ideologies under a government that had zero tolerance for Islamists, did not have his name adorning the cover of a fat file at the State Security Bureau. The file would definitely include all sorts of information about his family including his mother’s favorite underwear, let alone the fact she had lived for years in the United States and was already a registered voter in Santa Monica, California. The Interior Ministry, and of course the Higher Council of the Armed Forces, would have then taken the easy and most logical way and would have announced from the very beginning that the man could not run. Yet, they chose to let him place his posters in every single corner until he haunted us in our dreams and to be on TV every other day talking about his plans of forcing women to wear the veil and separating between sexes in the workplace and to garner that sweeping support that suddenly translated into in six digits. A clear-cut verdict on Abu Ismail’s inability to run could have also been issued on the spot. Yet, it was important to leave the matter hanging for a while to allow for mass rallies by bearded men carrying black flags and shouting slogans with every other word being “jihad” or “bloodbath” or their synonyms. The end result was scaring people to death of the theocracy Egypt was bound to become if the man made it and making many turn to the military council, which I believe has the last say over the court and the elections commission, for help in a tacit admission that it is only their last-minute interference that would save the day.

Is that a lot different from the “who’s the boss” strategy my mother religiously adopted? Not really! I would only change its name to “the scarecrow strategy,” one in which you need to make your adversaries feel how indebted they are to you and how unable they are to manage without your assistance.

Suleiman was the head of intelligence for two whole decades, a time seen as Egypt’s worst in terms of democracy and human rights. He was also the vice-president Mubarak chose to reassure the people about his sincere readiness to implement democratic reforms and respond to the demands of the street. Let us set aside a shameful CV, a big part of which can be compiled from Wikileaks, that includes his involvement in the siege on Gaza and the efforts he exerted to deepen the rift between Palestinian factions to suck up to Israel, his role in providing the U.S. with information about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, his supervision of extraordinary rendition programs in which terror suspects were sent from the U.S. for extortion of confessions under torture. Let us instead focus on one very meaningful scene that depicts the reaction of protestors in Tahrir Square to Suleiman’s appointment as vice-president and this will be more than enough to consider his candidacy an outright treason of the revolution. Let us also look at Suleiman’s interview with ABC, in which he clearly stated that Egyptians are not fit for democracy at the moment and accused all the revolutionaries of being funded by foreign powers while asking them menacingly to “go home.”

In short, there is nothing about Suleiman that would have made him play any part in a country struggling to get rid of an autocratic past together with all the people that represented this autocracy and helped it survive. Suffice it is to say that a few minutes after Suleiman’s candidacy was announced the imagined title of his campaign that got viral on the internet became “You are all Khaled Saeed” after the famous Facebook page “We are all Khaled Saeid” created to pay tribute to the young man brutally beaten to death by state security and who is considered one of the main triggers of the revolution. It is not clear who really fielded Suleiman but rumor had it that it was the military council. Even though the two are not generally on good terms, they were both an integral part of the former regime and therefore could be the only ones remaining outside bars who have full access to information about its crimes. They might find it in their best interest to cooperate towards the elimination of any of its traces that might implicate them in the future. The timing was also perfect to an extent that the man previously looked upon by Egyptians as a ruthless monster who would turn Egypt into an open air concentration camp, was starting to be seen by the misled-cum-scared few as the guardian angel who will save Egypt from the grip of Islamic rule. Yet, there was no consensus on the necessity of banning a candidate from running like that on Suleiman. It was actually because of him that some miraculous unity was forged between Islamists and liberals, regardless of course of the huge difference between the motives of each. Suleiman failed with misery in the test the military council set for the Egyptian people and he was out in a split of a second, definitely not because of the geographical distribution of popular endorsements or the missing four signatures.

Is that a lot different from the “push your limits” strategy my mother religiously adopted? Not really! I would only change its name to “the test balloon strategy,” one in which you gauge your adversaries’ reaction through embarking on a provocative action while pretending it is well-intended, then innocently withdraw when you are shocked by how furious they are at your decision.

One thing I am sure of: dealing with grownups as if they are children is bound to send you shamefully defeated and leave you utterly helpless as you lament your inability to judge how mature those “children” have become and how resistant to pressure they are.

Just think how the situation would be if those grownups are also revolutionaries!

Letter from Cairo: Vilayet-e-Brotherhood

On January 27, 2011, I sent a message to a group of friends on Facebook asking who planned to join the protests the following day, commonly known as the Friday of Anger. Amidst rumors that cell phones and the Internet might be cut off in a few hours, I was getting more and more nervous as I imagined this happening before we managed to agree when and where we would meet. As I was begging everyone to reply as soon as possible, one of my friends came up with what I thought was the most provocative response ever: “I don’t think I can make,” she wrote. “My mom and dad won’t let me go out.” I am not sure I thought for even a few seconds before I typed what I later realized was a very aggressive reply: “We are trying to save a country from falling apart and you’re worried about your mum and dad. I am afraid none of us has time for this bulls**t, so just stay at home and have fun.”

I was so furious and I felt totally fine saying that even though several of my friends who were included in the message said I was too harsh and warned me of judging people without first putting myself in their shoes. I was not convinced of course and I kept arguing that it is a matter of knowing what your priorities are and that it was messed up to allow a bunch of people to take precedence over an entire nation.

However, as the protests turned into a revolution and the question, “Do you go to Tahrir?” popped up into every conversation, I started realizing that the likes of the friend I snapped at were much more than I had imagined.

A lot of adults I know, especially women, would have liked to have taken part in the revolution but weren’t able to simply because they could not get their parents’ and/ or spouses’ approval. For someone as rebellious as me, this was absolute nonsense since there was nothing easier than “I am going whether you like or not” followed by a slam of the door. But I gradually started to think of friends’ advice about how flawed my judgment of other people’s actions will be if it is not based on a comprehensive analysis of the circumstances under which those actions happened or the pressure under which the people who did them were placed.

After a lot of deliberation, I reached the conclusion that it is quite unfair to expect everyone to be revolutionary because a sizable portion of them are just not made for that basically owing to an upbringing that created of them submissive creatures who are not willing to take the risk of defying the authority they have been obeying for years. I would be exaggerating if I said I found this a justification since a revolution would, by definition, be meaningless in the absence of a set of unyielding rules that will remain unbreakable unless some unruly power decides to change that. All what I can say is that I just managed to come to terms with the fact that some people are not free enough to be part of a freedom struggle and that if you personally lack an independent will you cannot demand it for others. To put in the simplest terms ever, we can say that some people are made to lead while others are content to be led.

After adapting to this theory as a fact of life, I stopped giving people hell for not taking part in the revolution or the protests that followed and I even reached the point of forgetting about this categorization altogether as I got more or less self-programmed in my choice of people I spoke to about activism and rebellion and all other forms of “outrageous” conduct. It was only with the sweeping hegemony of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Egyptian political scene and with the group fielding a presidential candidate in particular that this sharp division made a forceful comeback.

I have always had very strong reservations about the Brotherhood and this was not only about the way they used religion for emotional manipulation and political gain, shrouded all their activities in a kind of secrecy that made them more of a cult, struck deals with the devil as long as it gave them access to power, but also because of the way they demonized their rivals and created untouchable demi-gods of themselves. This is also in addition of course to the fact that they only joined the revolution when they were sure the cake was too delicious to be left to those who baked it. However, none of those is what makes me feel alarmed at the moment, for I am rather obsessed with the Brotherhood’s certain inability to be part of a revolutionary setup, let alone establish a democracy.

The most important rule any Brotherhood-to-be needs to learn before deciding to join it is absolute obedience of the leadership and indisputable reverence to the hierarchy based on which the group is structured. This makes of the Brotherhood an extremely conservative entity whose members operate within a predetermined order and work towards serving the interests this order dictates. Violations are punishable by one immediate measure: expulsion. It doesn’t seem likely that such an organization can produce freedom fighters and the moment it does they are instantaneously declared ungrateful dissidents and are sent to fight their battles “anywhere but here.” This means that all those who remain part of the group still subscribe to this ideology and do not, therefore, have a mind of their own nor do they represent their own individual selves in any action they take or any statement they make.

How then is it possible for the Muslim Brotherhood to be in control of a parliament and a constitution that are supposed to be the product of a revolution and are expected to embrace all the values enshrined by this revolution?

Let us put aside the argument they use about how they became MPs because the people wanted them to be or how they formed the assembly in accordance with the constitutional declaration and think of the outcome this might produce. Brotherhood members in both the parliament and the assembly will not cast their votes on legislations or constitution articles as individual freethinkers who act upon the dictates of their own conscience together with what is best for the country, but rather as parts of a whole that are put at the disposal of one individual who possesses the sole right of giving direct instructions and determining which course the group and its members should take.

By the same token, if the Brotherhood’s presidential candidate makes it, who or what will he pledge allegiance to? In other words, if the interests of Egypt and/or the demands of the people collide with the wishes of the Supreme Guide, who is he going to obey? Would he risk ruffling the feathers of the group that made him what he is and that has the capacity of stripping him of it all? Or would he simply usher Egypt into a new form of dictatorship where a spiritual leader is the actual head of state while the president is not more than an executive power?

A quick look at the Vilayet-e Faqih doctrine as explained in Ayatollah Khomeini’s book Islamic Government: Governance of the Jurist and as applied in Iran since the eruption of the 1979 revolution shows this system as the eventual product of a Brotherhood president. Shortly after, presidential and parliamentary candidates will have to be approved by the Supreme Leader who will function as the head of the army, the police, and the judiciary and as the one official who retains the exclusive right of declaring war and making peace. And by the way this has nothing to do with Iran being Shiite and the Muslim Brotherhood Sunni, for tyranny has no religion and abides by no sects.

My friends who preferred to stay at home during the revolution would have been lying to themselves and to everyone else had they claimed they are revolutionaries after the regime was toppled. Similarly, the Muslim Brotherhood is more synonymous than ever with hypocrisy now that its members pretend to carry the banner of an action that involved breaking the rules and rejecting any form of oppression, all capacities they are not equipped with and will never be as long as they do not change their affiliation.

I really respected my friends who stayed at home for realizing that if they leave they will either pack and take a one way road or come back with a declaration of independence and for not once thinking that a couple of visits to the square after all subsided would make them claim as their own victories they have never fought for. I respect them for acknowledging their limitations and living with them.

I guess this becomes a lot harder when the bounty involved is too big to allow space for a little bit of ethics.

Letter from Cairo: Constitutionally ever after …

A caricature of the parliament speaker with a dreamy look on his face sitting next to a portrait of the field marshal and listening to the classic Egyptian song, “Why did you make me love you?” came as a genius and timely depiction of that passion that has developed between the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) since the toppling of the former regime. While at a first glance such an unlikely union would seem like a fling, time and some other few calculations have proven otherwise and it seems the love birds are soon to be standing at the altar while closing the church door in the face of all the unwanted guests desperately trying to barge in and knowing that if they don’t “speak now” they will have to “hold their peace forever.”

The romance started almost right after the regime was toppled or that was rather the time when it was made public and when a long-term project to sideline the revolutionaries and create a new balance of power in post-revolution Egypt was given an official launch.

Early signs of flirtation were detected with the Islamist-dominated committee assigned the surreal mission of amending only a few articles of a constitution that was technically rendered void by the eruption of a revolution and that was supposed by be replaced by a brand new one. The resulting Constitutional Declaration marked the official inauguration of a long dating season with all lovey-dovey proclamations this might involve. In the declaration, the parliament was given the right to elect a 100-member committee to be in charge of drafting the new constitution and SCAF was endowed with all sorts of powers that enable it to become the de facto ruler of Egypt.

With the long-outlawed MB forming a political party and with the massive mobilization of the masses to approve the amendments in a ferocious campaign that put the people of God against liberal delinquents who want to rob Egypt of its Islamic identity, the picture was becoming a lot clearer. With 77 percent voting yes and 99 percent of those doing so in compliance with what was presented as a holy call, the results of the parliamentary elections looked as predictable as those held at the time of the former regime. Becoming more confident of a similar victory in the parliament, the MB waged war on all political powers that belonged to the constitution-first camp and with the blessing of SCAF, the elections were held without a proper constitution and the results were even better than expected and SCAF turned a blind eye to all the violations committed before and during election time whether in terms of bribing voters, slandering rivals, mobilizing Muslims against Christians, and campaigning in places of warship. The crowd cheered as SCAF and the MB exchanged a passionate kiss, after which the first whispered more promises while the second winked seductively.

It might not be very relevant here to talk about the unabashed public display of affection that happened under our very noses when SCAF sanctioned and/or covered up for the killing of unarmed revolutionaries and MB MPs kept referring to the first as the protectors of the revolution and the second as outlaws, but this serves to shed more light on all aspects of that thriving love story and the constitutional honeymoon in which it is expected to end. MB support for SCAF was important at that time to guarantee that the exchanged vows will remain unbroken in order for both sides to be able to bring to the world the much awaited fruit of their love: the constitution of post-revolution Egypt.

The reason why SCAF and the MB want at any cost to oversee, or rather monopolize, the constitution is the same one that drove both of them to take part in the revolution or pretend to side with the revolutionaries: fierce determination to maintain power in the case of the former and desperate keenness to come to power in the case of the later. Putting a long history of grudges aside, both needed to unite in the face of the one power that jeopardizes their ambitions: the revolutionaries. The genetically processed embryo would be a constitution that would establish the kind of state that for the first time in their would allow the MB to launch their Caliphate-like project while giving SCAF and the army the special status that endows them with constitutional legitimacy and protects the influence they have been exercising since the 1952 coup. SCAF will be much more lenient than the former regime as far as the Islamization of Egypt is concerned and will reassure Western powers that this is no way would harm their interests in the region nor threaten the security of Israel. In return, the MB would approve the inclusion of a few articles in the constitution that protect the enterprises run by the Armed Forces, which controls almost 60 percent of the Egyptian economy and owns a whole lot of businesses that range from electric appliances factories and tourist resorts to gas stations and bakeries, and that do not subject the army’s budget, with all the fishy items it is said to contain especially as far as arms deals and unjustified astronomical payments made to senior officers are concerned, to parliamentary scrutiny or public monitoring.

The formation of the Constituent Assembly that should be in charge of drafting the constitution signaled the start of a series of intimate encounters that are to be crowned with the arrival of the much-awaited baby. The MB-controlled parliament decided that 50 percent of the members of the committee will be from the parliament and of course it was no surprise to find out that 25 of those 50 were from the MB’s political wing the Freedom and Justice Party and 11 from the even more conservative the Salafist al-Nour Party while many of the remaining 14 were electoral allies of the MB. It is also no surprise at all that most of the 50 non-parliamentarian members of the committee were in some way or another linked to the MB and its party and this ranged from members through allies to sympathizers and/or vocal supporters. The remaining few were a bunch of liberals, seculars, and socialists, non-Islamists if wish to group them in one single ideological camp or third wheel if we wish to define their position vis-à-vis the unbreakable love affair that seems to have greatly thrived on the discovery of a common enemy. The withdrawal of almost all the unwelcome minority came as a logical conclusion to the farce they preferred to stay away from and to the copyright infringement offence they would have committed had they added their touch to the sacred constitution.

Timing and conditions for the long yearned-for “maculate” conception cannot be more favorable. The constitution of post-revolution Egypt will be different from that of pre-revolution Egypt only insofar as the identity of the tyrant(s) and possibly the means through which the people are to be subjugated. The shape the new state would take could also change a little bit so that it is taken from the basic level of a dictatorship to the more advanced category of a military theocracy where rebellion becomes both high treason and apostasy and where the people by which and for which the revolution erupted will shift from second to third rate citizens and where words like “rights” and “freedoms” will be followed by expressions along the lines of “provided that” and “as long as.”

It is, however, quite pointless to keep dwelling on how disastrous and how unrepresentative of a country that has just rebelled against oppression the coming constitution would be. It will be much more fruitful to wonder how long this constitution is expected to live and how long it will be before everyone sees it as a grave insult to the revolution and as detrimental to the democracy it was supposed to establish.

The life expectancy of the constitution is inseparable from the nature of the alliance that made it see the light and the sinister interests that united its progenitors. A freak of nature is likely to perish shortly after its birth and if it survives its chances at turning into a healthy being are almost nonexistent.

Couples are advised to undergo pre-marital screening lest their genes are too corrupt to make their union risk-free and their blood types too incompatible to beget a normal offspring.

Otherwise, so much for the happy ending.

Letter from Cairo: Winter of the Patriarch

There are many ways to tell whether a specific country mixes politics with religion, but none of them is as striking as the death of the highest religious figure for the citizens of this country or members of one of the main religions/sects that constitute a sizable portion of its population. This is not only demonstrated by the degree of veneration given to a man that many could consider a representative of God on earth or at least the most trusted source on divine laws and the ideal guide through the path to heaven, but also by the way this man’s destiny is believed to be tied to that of his followers.

Take a little look at the death of Pope John Paul II of the Vatican and Pope Shenouda III of Egypt and compare the reactions of Catholics worldwide to the first and Egyptian Copts to the second and you will have a picture of what I am trying to say. It is not about the number of mourners, but rather the form and reason of mourning. It is also about that time lapse that makes our part of the world stick to the balance of power that existed for several centuries since when a word from the pope mobilized millions of Europeans to the Holy Land and when the church could sell you a one-way ticket to salvation. I am aware of how inaccurate, and quiet unfair, the comparison is between the tyranny of the religious establishment in medieval Europe and the technically unforced authority of the Coptic Church in contemporary Egypt. The analogy basically aims at pinpointing the discrepancy between the most common models of the modern state in which faith is personal and politics is public and our case in which the lines demarcating the two are as blurred as can be.

In the case of Pope Shenouda III in specific, it is hard to determine who interfered in whose business first or who wanted to drag who into what. It started when the pope was, much to the displeasure of late president Anwar Sadat, pretty vocal about his objection to the peace treaty with Israel. It was not the pope’s opinion about a political matter that made of him more than a religious figure. The statements on controversial issues made by Pope John Paul II, for example, were not confined to same-sex marriages, contraception, and abortion—all seen as religious as they are social—but he openly condemned the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and expressed, on several occasions, his solidarity with the Palestinian cause as part of his role as a spiritual guide who supposedly represents human conscience in its agenda-free form. That is why the situation started becoming different with Pope Shenouda when Sadat decided to banish him, thus turning him from a religious symbol into an opposition figure.

It is, of course, debatable whether Sadat trapped the pope into the world of politics to create an imaginary animosity through which he is likely to garner support if only because the enemy was Christian and the pre-dominantly Muslim society was heading fast towards sectarian polarization or whether the pope had made a conscious decision to take the role of the church a couple of levels further. This might not matter a lot at the moment, for the end result was the same and everything that followed served to accentuate the pope’s newly acquired character and which was strongly highlighted by threats of excommunicating Copts who go on pilgrimage trips while Jerusalem is under Israeli occupation, which I believe was the real start of the politicization of the Coptic Orthodox Church and the era where “the mind replaced inspiration and planning replaced prayer,” as one of Egypt’s most prominent monks chose to put it. It was also when Christian laypeople were made to think they are answerable to the clergy and the beseeching messages of apology dozens of them published in official newspapers at the time to express deep regret for embarking on the forbidden trip offer the best example of the complicated relationship that started to develop between the two.

From that point onwards, it seemed that Coptic Egyptians, who were feeling increasingly alienated, realized how unwise they would be to disobey the only person who knows what is in their best interest and therefore started looking to Pope Shenouda for protection and adopting whichever stances he espoused no matter how different they would turn out to be from previous confrontational ones that had earned him the title “firebrand”… and four years in the middle of the Nitrian Desert.

It is hard to tell whether it was gratitude to the man who brought him back to the papacy or fear of another standoff with the regime that was not really that different from the one before or a bit of both that drove Pope Shenouda to make himself amenable to Hosni Mubarak for decades to come. There is also no way to ascertain that the pope really believed that Mubarak fended for Copts against radical Islamists who are bound to exterminate religious minorities the moment the regime falls or that this was just the argument he used to justify his alliance with a president who was no less of a dictator than his predecessor. Again, it doesn’t matter, for anyway both pope and flock ended up in total denial as they, consciously or unconsciously, started overlooking the role that the state, which claimed to protect Christians, played in igniting sectarian strife as part of the seemingly outmoded yet timelessly effective divide-and-rule tactic and even abandoning any attempts at seeing justice served in attacks that targeted Copts. The pope, therefore, indirectly took part in suppressing Copts not only by towing the line of a regime that manipulated them to consolidate its power, but also by constantly talking them into following in his footsteps. Copts did not have much of a choice, for even though going against the will of the pope might have sounded like the right thing to do, they were not sure they could face the consequences of losing the only pillar of support they had in the face of the rising Islamic tide and growing hostility towards non-Muslims. They were, therefore, left with the self-imposed conviction that it is only because of how wiser and more far-sighted he is that the pope is doing so.

The January 25 Revolution was no exception and it was not a surprise that the pope, who a couple of years earlier publicly supported the bequest of power to Mubarak’s son, to ban Copts from joining the protests and to call for giving the regime a chance. While many obeyed, others disobeyed, and some of the first joined the second shortly after the revolution had started in an obvious attempt to shed off the different levels of subordination to which they were subjected. That moment could have been the start of a long and winding road towards the de-politicization of the church and it was obvious how a sizable portion of previously-submissive Copts found in the revolution the most legitimate channel to make this possible. The revolution, which called for equality and citizenship, sort of replaced the church as the protector that does not demand submission in return and for the first time in a long while Copts were made to feel both independent and safe.

Not for long, unfortunately. The fast and scary rise of Islamists to power made many of those newly-liberated Copts not only recoil back to the old shelter but also start reconsidering their faith in the revolution and even realizing that the pope was right in his predictions about the status of Copts in post-Mubarak Egypt. So, as the pope befriended the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), presumably the new protector and the only power that can counter Islamist rule, Copts started once again seeing how wisdom coupled with passivity is much safer than rebellion rife with risks. And as armored vehicles crushed Copts under their tracks and Coptic families were forced out of their homes and the rhetoric against Copts grew more belligerent, the pope thanked senior army officers for attending Christmas Mass and few Copts objected.

When the pope passed away, Copts did not lament the loss of a religious figurehead or a spiritual guide. They cried their hearts out for the man who “protected” them and who remained, after all, the only source of security they had ever known, for it can always get worse and the future looks a lot bleaker than the turbulent past and the menacing present. I guess nothing can be more symbolic than keeping the embalmed body of the pope seated on the papal throne for a few days before the burial and mourners flocking to cast a last glance at what they can later refer to as their golden era.

Can anyone blame them?

Letter from Cairo: Nation deflowered

On March 8, I saw the then-proud 25-year-old girl, who took the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to court over virginity tests conducted on several female protestors arrested during a sit-in one year ago, at a International Women’s Day march. On March 11, I saw that same now-broken girl trying to come to terms with a court ruling that acquitted her assailants. In those couple of days, I saw Egyptian women take a nose dive from the peak of hope to the bottom of despair. Obviously, I am no exception.

It was not just the shocking fact that a man who forced a woman to take off her clothes and took the liberty to embark on such a flagrant violation of her body was suddenly absolved of all blame. Nor is it about the mindboggling fact that the senior military officers who had earlier admitted that virginity tests are a common procedure with female detainees are now treating the matter as a figment of the victim’s imagination. Not even the sickening fact that she lost the case because she could not remember the name of the prison warden and was not able to determine the rank of the doctor-conscript who examined her. And, believe it or not, it is not the simple fact that she is a woman.

A compulsory virginity test is a form of physical abuse and this, for me, is like rape in the sense that both are not really sexual acts, for even in the most conservative of societies there are so many ways of having sex that do not involve the humiliation of the second party. Therefore, the culprit in the two is not really different from a wife beater, for the three crimes come in handy owing to one single assumption: the weakness of the object of the act whether physically and socially. The three of them are also an easy outlet for a terribly insecure person who is desperate to feel powerful and has no other means to do it except by physically prevailing over another person who is not likely to resist and with whom emerging victorious is a finished business. By virtue of their alleged vulnerability, women feature as the perfect candidates of such violations, but that is not the case all the time.

Men, too, are often subjected to abuse that can be seen as sexual when they are placed in a situation where they are the helpless party, sodomization in police detention being the most typical example. Whether male or female, the victim is meant to be humiliated in the worst possible way and there is nothing more effective than sexual-oriented repression. I am not quite sure why anything related to private parts is more traumatic than electrocution or beating, but I guess it is more cultural than physical because such acts violate the sanctity of the body as perceived by females who are always expected to preserve their chastity and by males who associate any assault of a sexual nature to loss of manhood. Of course, this is much more accentuated in conservative countries that tend to stick to these fixed conceptions of what makes a woman precious and a man worthy of respect.

As much as virginity tests are all about women, they are not really so and as much as the verdict that implicitly endorses them dealt a fatal blow to women’s rights, it did not really do so. Virginity tests are about humanity and the verdict is simply the latest addition to an already deplorable human rights record. It took me such a strenuous effort to see the girl breaking into tears upon realizing that her degradation was adorned with the official stamp as a human being rather than a woman and even though this might sound so un-feminist, I see it as the most advanced form of feminism. I believe that if I focus on the fact that the victim was a woman and turn this fact into the crux of the matter, I will be indirectly supporting that fixation on women’s sexuality as untouchable and I will be, like most people around me, not as shocked when a woman is beaten up or verbally abused as when she is sexually assaulted. I, therefore, made the conscious decision of seeing the girl who was tested for virginity as one more Egyptian deprived of the most basic of rights to which citizens of any decent democracy are entitled. This, however, made me come to a quite depressing conclusion, for looking at this case as part of a much bigger picture made it just another testimony to a floundering revolution that has so far been unable to achieve any of the goals for which it erupted, on top of which was human dignity.

Yet, on a second thought I realized it didn’t look that bad after all and I even reached the point of believing that there is no reason why the girl should be no longer proud or why those supporting her should feel broken. In fact, if this lawsuit and any similar ones have any positive side to them, it is definitely the documentation of a series of violations to which Egyptians are subjected and if this verdict and any equally unjust ones serve the revolution in any way, it is definitely through shedding light on desperate attempts at squashing the revolutionaries. The more lawsuits and verdicts of that type are made known to the public, the uglier the face of the current ruling authorities appears.

This girl was not really defeated as she appeared to be not only because her courage is even more highlighted than it has ever been, but because she just hammered one more little nail in the coffin of the military council which was not even smart enough to indict one person in return for making an entire institution, whose reputation has already been compromised for quite a while now, look a tad better. Hence, she defeated them twice: first, when she, through filing the lawsuit, proved that she was not intimidated and that what they did to crush her actually made her stronger and second, when she, through losing the case, became a live demonstration of a tyrannical rule and a politicized judiciary.

At the end of the day, it is not she that was abused, for whatever they did to her they did to the entire country in her person … and more. While she was forced to strip naked and had her genitals groped and her body prodded by men who claim they would rather die before seeing “their” women touched, Egypt was being deflowered by those who claim to be its guardians. Deflowering, like the virginity test, does not make a woman the victim of a sexual act but makes a human being the sufferer of a brutal physical and psychological infringement and makes a nation the subject of a sweeping invasion that is not necessarily led by outside enemies. Deflowering, unlike what is commonly believed in our part of the world, is an act that disgraces no one but the sadist perpetrator and is redressed by neither a hymenoplasty nor the demonization of the victim. It is only when the culprit gets what he deserves and preferably keeps out of the victim’s sight so that she can be given the chance to get some healing from a past everyone around her calls shameful and build some defenses for a future everyone around her believes is bleak.

Otherwise, the deflowering act will never be the last stop for it is bound to be followed by others of a similar, yet more traumatic, nature.

And let us always remember that if deflowering by definition happens only once, rape can recur as long as the rapist is alive and the raped is helpless.

Letter from Cairo: The Rescued, the Scapegoat, and the NGO

The letters NGO stand for Non-Governmental Organization. A Non-Governmental Organization is a body that engages in activities related to the welfare of society in which it operates but without being affiliated to any official institution or political party. This is the description of an NGO I have known since I was aware the term existed and there has never been a reason why I would assume that belonging to one could in any way be a criminal offence. But in Egypt, everything acquires a new meaning.

It is quite normal for a dictatorship to clamp down on any institution that makes people aware of their rights, advocates democratic reforms, or empowers minorities simply because it is quite expected from a dictatorship to do all what it takes to keep its citizens in the dark as far as how oppressed they are and how capable they are to topple their oppressors are concerned. I am not sure what is normal for a dictatorship that was technically toppled and realistically consolidated, but if a regime’s relationship with civil society is one of the many criteria for measuring the degree of democracy, then judging by the latest NGO showdown we are definitely still in a dictatorship both technically and realistically.

Several years ago, a famous NGO was closed down and its founder, a prominent human rights activist and a staunch critic of Hosni Mubarak’s regime, was sentenced to jail on charges of defaming Egypt for publishing a report on sectarian clashes in an Upper Egyptian village. This, more or less, laid the foundations for the “healthy” relationship NGOs should establish with the regime and which should basically revolve around the first painting a rosy picture of the second and that was apparently the only way they can both coexist happily ever after. Sounds totally logical! Any regime that has a lot to hide would do its best to turn NGOs into an enemy that for its own survival has to be subjugated rather than an ally that for the public good should be supported. In fact, you can judge the severity of violations committed by a regime by the intensity of its crackdown on NGOs.

For this very reason, the continuation of the diabolical depiction of any civil society related institution even after the revolution hardly took anyone by surprise and all those who saw the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces as an offshoot of the former regime and who followed the nonstop campaigns against revolutionary activists, freedom writers, and outspoken MPs would see the latest attack on NGOs as one more chapter in the saga. However, it was not the leveling of seemingly very serious charges against four NGOs and 43 of the their employees, both Egyptian and foreign, that saw our jaws dropping, our eyeballs popping out, and our minds boggled, but rather how all that was done and how we suddenly became the spectators of a third-rate melodrama in which an old gypsy-like woman, who turns out to be a midwife, storms into the church as the priest is about to finish his “speak now or hold your peace forever” to announce that the groom is the bride’s twin brother.

I will have to skip the fact that those NGOs have been working for years in Egypt and were actually given official permission to monitor parliamentary elections. I will also not talk about the illegal funding issue not only because of how hackneyed it has been and how incapable I am of understanding what makes one funding legal and another illegal, but also because this sounded like a terribly bland accusation compared to other much more sinister ones like possessing maps that reveal a plot to divide Egypt into four statelets and taking photos of restricted military sites. Apart from the fact that the those charges, unraveled by the two judges in charge of investigating the case and who set a precedent by making public the details of the indictment before the trial started, turned out to have not been part of the official accusations, which turned out to be nothing more than receiving donations without permission and operating without licenses, in the first place and nobody knows where they came from till now, it sounded a bit confusing to see the prosecutor establish five years as the maximum sentence for crimes that could amount to high treason for Egyptians and espionage for foreigners. Meanwhile, statements by the prime minister about Egypt never “kneeling” no matter how much pressure it is subjected to gave the impression that the country is up against some cosmic attack and pushed the audience to the edge of their seats as US threats to withhold the aid and speculations over the severing of diplomatic relations menacingly loomed in the horizon. Tension kept mounting when only two days after the trial started, the entire panel of judges withdrew from the case citing “discomfort.” The climax drew close as the new court panel, formed on the same day the old one pulled out, lifted the travel ban on the 14 foreign defendants, six of whom are American. One more twist of events was required and there was none better than an American aircraft landing at Cairo Airport, the very next day, and the credits rolled with the triumphant takeoff of the former guests of the criminal court dock.

Even the conspiracy-detection skills I have started developing lately have miserably failed me and I am not alone in this. With the exception of the military council that seems to have won the Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Director, the prime minister who must have acquired a great deal of fitness after such an intensive kneeling exercise, or the Muslim Brotherhood who look like they are now bosom friends with Senator John McCain, I don’t think one single Egyptian understands what that fuss was about or who exactly the members of the cast that gave such a lousy performance were. Everyone was left wondering whether the US was, like the authorities, an actor in the charade or, like us, a dumbfounded spectator and what the fate of the remaining Egyptian defendants, still facing the same charges, will be and how amazingly independent the Egyptian judiciary is.

It is almost impossible to know for a fact how this whole thing happened, but we have the liberty to make as many wild guesses as we can about why it happened. It is equally impossible to impose a rational interpretation on an absurd occurrence, so there goes my disclaimer. The military council, together with the government and possibly the parliament, was becoming increasingly annoyed at the continuous exposure of human rights violations and political blunders by NGOs, which were maybe expected to convey a more positive image of Egypt now that the regime is toppled and all sorts of elections are being held. When this proved to be wrong, another round of former-regime-like NGO clampdowns became necessary, but it couldn’t be done in the old fashion. There had to be a way that would make the authorities sound justified in their action while not being regarded as belonging to the pre-revolution school of undermining civil society. Sensationalism was the answer and nothing better than charging foreigners working on Egyptian soil and flirting with the popular outside infiltration scenario, therefore turning it into a case of sovereignty and national security, could have done the job of instigating the public against NGOs. The fiery rhetoric of officials and their striking indifference to antagonizing the world’s superpower served to make the story more credible and the threat more tangible. It was only when the choice of the foreign, especially American, factor that the plan backfired simply because it lacked the most basic of calculation skills to the extent that they assumed the U.S. would have its hands tied while watching its citizens banned from travelling and threatened with jail sentences for a crime they have not committed and there is so much the U.S. can do to put pressure on Egypt and see the un-kneeling prime minister prostrating. Between a rock and a hard place, the compromise was reached with the Americans, and the rest of the foreigners, untied from the rock and the Egyptians remaining in the hard place. This way, it is honeymoon as always with Uncle Sam and hell like never before with any Egyptian who worked or will work in any institution that monitors the transition to democracy or advocates political reform.

And as the film ends with the westbound plane loaded with homesick passengers breathing a sigh of relief and hitting friendly skies, a post-credits scene features the Egyptian defendants behind bars listening to jail sentences and hitting rock bottom.

The Rescued, the Scapegoat, and the NGO … now in theatres.

Letter from Cairo: Tyrant till proven guilty

“My country remains the dearest no matter how unfair it is to me and my compatriots remain the most loving no matter how cruel they are to me.” This is my humble translation of the first two lines of a famous Arabic poem whose authorship is disputed to date. There is no need to know who the poet is or under which circumstances the poem was written to guess that it is a moving proclamation of love by an obviously oppressed patriot who argues that one’s loyalty to one’s country and compatriots is never shaken by any form of injustice one might experience within its borders. Logically speaking, these words would most likely be said by any of the activists who are constantly threatened, harassed, and imprisoned for speaking their minds and who are still unable to give up on their country no matter how much pain it might inflict upon them. Absurdly speaking, these words were amazingly said by the ousted president who is telling all Egyptians how unfairly he was treated and how, despite having every reason to hate Egypt and its people, he still loves them and will remain to do so.

The emotionally-charged verses concluded Mubarak’s address to the court on the last session before the verdict and which came as a truthful account of how honorable a president he had been and how patriotic an Egyptian he will forever be. It was, in fact, the best-written absurd text I have read since “Waiting for Godot,” a play in which two men wait endlessly for someone who never shows up and while doing so engage in all kinds of fragmented conversations that make us doubt whether they know that Godot in the first place or whether he or they exist to start with.

I will try not to go into the details of the historic statement since I find it as boring as the bedtime story my mom once told me when I asked why I was not treated like normal kids instead of being told about social justice and the power of the people and other things that at the time sounded even more cryptic than algebra. I will do my best to only focus on a few points that shed a bit of light on how attempts at fabricating the most brazen of lies combined with hopes of finding the most delusional of audience can produce the perfect live example of absolute nonsense.

I will just comment on something he has kept mentioning since the start of the revolution and which appears to be the only achievement he really made and that is why is never wastes a chance to talk about it: the role he played in the October 1973 war. Here I would like to ask a question: What was the commander of the Air Forces expected to be doing while his country was in a state of war? Be celebrating Yom Kippur with the enemy combatant? Can I keep reminding my students how benevolent I am for coming to class? Plus there has been talk anyway about how his role in the war was blown out of proportion and how that of others was totally overlooked to create that mega-size ego that neither ouster nor imprisonment seems to be able to deflate.

I might as well try to make sure who Mubarak was talking to when he mentioned the economic boom Egypt witnessed during his time. Maybe the business tycoons who were given free hand to treat national revenue as their pocket money? Or officials whose astronomical salaries, exclusive of bribes and commissions, could feed half the population? Or the privileged few who own summer houses in Palma de Mallorca and shop in Paris every season? Those are possibly the same people he intended to address when he talked about the dignified life he strove to secure to all Egyptian citizens. I assume it was just by sheer mistake that he forgot to include the 40 percent who live under poverty line and the 35 percent who have never been to school and these of course would have reminded him of the way a glass of potable water, a toilet, or a job that would secure one meal a day have become the ultimate ambition of millions of those Egyptians he claims to have made his priority.

I find it a bit hard not to feel quite intrigued by Mister President’s assertions about his unflinching support of the Palestinian cause partly because they seem quite contradictory to the progress made in inter-Palestinian relations right after he stepped down and partly owing to the fact that it is not hard at come up with concrete evidence of his relentless attempts to deepen the rift between Fatah and Hamas and his role in tightening the noose on Gaza and facilitating Israeli aggression against the strip’s defenseless residents. Yet there is no point trying to give examples of Mubarak’s wholehearted support of Israel, but maybe keywords like “natural gas” can offer a tiny insight into the last of a series of concessions offered to the friendly neighbor.

What I really fail to grasp is that hackneyed scenario he insists on reiterating whenever he gets the chance about how he would never under any cost order the police to kill unarmed revolutionaries and how, on the contrary, he gave clear instructions that they be protected and allowed to practice their right to protest and how any ensuing tragedy was the making of this group of secret operatives that officials drag into any mess they create to absolve themselves of blame — the so called “third party” or, as Mubarak chooses to call them this time, “infiltrators.” It is also quite baffling how he attempts to present police forces, who he claims were facing this unprecedented crowd of angry protestors who were out to topple the regime without live ammunition, as victims who only withdrew after being unable to deal with the situation.

It’s pointless trying to make sense of these absurdities, but is there at least any logic behind such swaggering proclamations at this time? Is Mubarak hoping these words would have an impact of some sort on the court? That is quite far-fetched especially in the light of how bland and unimpressive they are. It is more likely that the target audience is the people who are expected to gloat in case of a harsh sentence and grumble in case of a lenient one. For some odd reason, Mubarak believes he can gain the sympathy of Egyptians even if the court ruling comes in his favor. After all, an official exoneration is worth nothing without a popular one, for while probabilities of getting the first are as many as the loopholes in any law, the last is the hardest to manipulate and it is lack of it that can send anyone to eternal historical doom. This he will never get from Egyptians no matter how many speeches he gives and how many poems he recites not because of how vindictive they are but rather because he really has nothing to say to make them change their perception and that of history about him being anything other than the worst of rulers and the most exemplary of tyrants.

There is fat chance the defendant might turn out to be innocent of the charges specified in this particular case and which we all know are as hard to prove as finding the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Where on earth can the recordings of instructions to shoot at protestors be found? And how on earth can evidence of the suppression, impoverishment, and humiliation of an entire people by one veteran dictator be submitted to court? And what supernatural power on earth can come up with documentation of embezzlement, squandering of public resources, abuse of power over three whole decades? One morning we might even wake up to a picture of him sipping on rum punch at some Caribbean beach and sticking out his tongue at all those stupid Egyptians who once thought justice could be served. But there is no way he will go down in history as anything other than a tyrant who did everything in his capacity to degrade his people and a court verdict issued in a still-corrupt regime by an absolutely un-independent judiciary will not do anything to change that. And while his name will go hand in hand with those of Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Augusto Pinochet, Pol Pot, and all those sadistic nutcases who measured their power by how much blood they spilt, the story of Egyptian revolutionaries will be written alongside the freedom struggles of Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Václav Havel and all those altruistic patriots who measured their power by how much blood they prevented from spilling.

A convicted tyrant is surely better than an acquitted one but the first designation loses meaning as the second confirms it is here to stay long after court orders are recycled into grocery bags. It’s no big deal if following a long list of his crimes, a couple of words are written about how lenient their penalty was. No one would say, “Oh! Looks like he was a good man despite everything!”

In fact, the only bit that makes some sense in this entire gibberish of a speech is the final one about how history will eventually judge him for who he really is. Indeed, it will and it is indeed high time for people to learn to be careful what they wish for.

Letter from Cairo: The donkey and the Don

Many years ago, when I was 12 or 13, I hated my English teacher. Nothing personal! She just made Julius Caesar sound like Little Red Riding Hood and literature is one line nobody dared cross for me. My classmates had huge issues with her, too, not because they were fanatic about their Shakespeare, but rather because they were not sure how anything she said could translate into answers to exam questions. I said we should complain and they totally agreed except for a little detail: they were not going to. I don’t blame them, for why should they get themselves into trouble if they have a troublemaker on standby? So, I went to another senior English teacher and demanded that our class gets a new teacher. “And what is wrong with your teacher?” she asked me in a way that made me feel like I am a two-months old needing a change of diapers. “Because she doesn’t know anything!” She let out a loud gasp and was silent for a minute as she examined me from head to toe then stood up and beckoned, “Follow me.” In a matter of minutes, I was taken to the head of English teachers who had a very alarmed look on her face when she heard what I did and from there was led to the office of the principle who had a very vindictive look on her face when she heard what I did and shortly after there came my mother who had a very baffled look on her face when she heard what I did.

After giving my mother a lecture about how discipline starts from home and how respect for adults is the mark of the well-bred child and how lack of appreciation for teachers is a sign of ingratitude—all remarks that meant to make her regret the day she brought me to the world—the principle and the head of English finally issued the verdict: either I apologize for “insulting” my teacher or I am referred to some disciplinary committee that might end up dismissing me. My mother looked at me. “No, I am not going to apologize,” I said agitatedly. “I didn’t do anything.” At that point, my mom realized we could spend an entire week in this office and I would never change my mind, so she decided to take the easy way out. “Allow me to apologize on her behalf,” she said. “You know how stubborn kids are at this age.”

The two women looked at each other then looked at me gloatingly as they saw how humiliated I was by my mother’s reaction then the principle said condescendingly, “Well, fine for now, but you better make sure she doesn’t get away with such uncivilized behavior.”

I was fuming and pushed my mom’s arm as she tried to take me out of the room before I say anything stupid. When we got back home, I looked at her and said, “I will never forgive you” then locked myself into my room for the rest of the day. The next morning we had breakfast without saying a word but right before I got up to get ready for school she said, “You know what Don Quixote’s problem was?” I did not give a damn about Don Quixote so I did not answer. “He made imaginary enemies and wasted his breath fighting windmills.” That didn’t make any sense to me so I left thinking about nothing except how she let me down and made me feel so small in a situation where I was supposed to feel so big.

The teacher was changed.

This incident became so vivid in my mind a few days ago when a young MP and one of the most known revolutionaries gave a speech in the city of Port Said, where the stadium murders took place three weeks ago, and directly accused the Higher Council of the Armed Forces of planning and facilitating the carnage as part of a plan to wreak havoc in Egypt. In this speech, the MP pointed out that other parties held accountable for the tragedy in front of the public, like the city’s governor and head of security and the interior minister, are sheer scapegoats while the real culprit is at large. He then said that people should not be fooled into releasing the donkey and seizing the saddle, in reference to a famous Egyptian saying about blaming the wrong people or venting anger at those whose role is secondary while overlooking the primary cause. “The donkey is this case is the real criminal,” he said, as he explained the link between the image in the proverb and the case on the ground. To make sure no confusion might arise among the audience and just in case some of them are not so good at analyzing figures of speech, he said what he could have avoided had he counted from one till ten like they used to tell us as kids to do before saying anything stupid, a skill which I have always lacked of course. “The donkey is Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi.”

Now, he has to apologize. The man he called donkey is head of the military council and the de-facto ruler of Egypt, so it’s either he admits he made a terrible mistake and maybe kneel in front of his victim and start braying himself to prove who the donkey really is or he can face the consequences which would start with a disciplinary action possibly followed by the stripping of parliamentary immunity possibly in preparation for a military trial. Looks like he opted for trying his luck with all the possibilities in the second scenario for he made it clear that an apology is out of the question and made it clearer he still insists on his earlier remarks about the field marshal and the council.

I am not sure we can put aside the fact that the parliament does not have the right to interrogate, let alone penalize, one of its members for something he said or did outside its boundaries or that a few days before another MP, who sucks up to the military council for a living, labeled formerly potential presidential candidate Mohamed al-Baradei a U.S. agent during a parliamentary session and nobody moved a hair or that we are supposedly done deifying humans and considering freedom of expression a criminal offence. I am similarly not sure we can for a long time overlook the sickening double standards with which both the parliament and the military council are dealing with anything that happens in the country and the way very specific people are picked at just because they are outspoken revolutionaries while the horrible mistakes of others are totally forgiven just because they are fawning loyalists.

I will try to put all this aside for the time being and will also try to stir away from my personal opinion and my wholehearted solidarity with the embattled MP and just point out that while the word “donkey” is derogatory because it means “stupid” this is not what he meant when he equated the field marshal with the donkey in the proverb. This does not mean he did not hurl a blunt accusation at the field marshal. Of course he did. It was definitely not stupidity, though, or any of the characteristics associated with donkeys. What is quite ironic here is that the accusation the MP meant is much more serious than the one his detractors understood or chose to understand, for he meant that if the donkey in the image stands for the criminal then the donkey is the field marshal, which, according to empirical logic, makes the field marshal the criminal. Yet, it was much easier to make a fuss about a wrong interpretation because it makes an easy prey of the enemy than look into the right interpretation because it opens a Pandora’s Box many would rather keep locked for as long as they can.

I have decided to put aside the fact that the MP’s approach might not have been the most well-calculated or the most timely not because he does not have the absolute right to say whatever he wants whenever he wants and whoever doesn’t like it is welcome to sue him, but rather because he dragged himself into the wrong battle at a time when more important ones require every ounce of his energy and therefore gave the proponents of tyranny his head on a silver platter.

I have decided instead to go back to the story I recounted in the beginning and let you know that after I cooled down a few days later, my mom decided to explain why she did what I saw as high treason.

“You were not wrong because you demanded something that you believed was your right. You just didn’t choose the best way to go about it and that is only what the apology was for.”

The MP explained the figurative aspect of his statement and this constitutes an apology for the form. As for the content, he has nothing to apologize for.

The school was smart enough to accept the apology that saves its face while not holding on to a stance that could ruin its reputation, but can lousy teachers be replaced by a principal who promotes lousy education?

Letter from Cairo: The Balkan Republic of Egypt

There is not a region in the world that has been repeatedly disintegrated like the Balkans was and that is why it there was no better term to coin in reference to dividing a previously unified territory into small states than Balkanization. While the earliest conflicts in the Balkan Peninsula were directly related to the fall of empires like the Ottoman, the Austro-Hungarian, and the Russian and whose vast stretches of land had to start redefining their borders and creating of themselves independent entities, the most recent ones, commonly known as the Yugoslav Wars, were basically triggered by ethnic tensions and the desire of each group to become dominant in the place where it boosts a majority while getting rid of what it viewed as the disruptive minority. Dreams of creating a Greater Serbia serve as the best example not only in terms of emphasis on a nationalist ideology that works towards unifying all Serbs but also as far as the justification of annexing neighboring territories inhabited by Serbs and carrying out a genocide campaign against their non-Serbian citizens are concerned.

The failure of the Greater Serbia project did not, however, prevent the dissolution of the Yugoslav Federation not because of the validity of the ethnic purity theory but rather owing to the extremely fragile foundations upon which the union was initially based. From day one of its inception, Yugoslavia was obviously a patchwork of ethnicities, languages, and religious beliefs that was trying and constantly failing to present itself as the ideal model of every word with the prefix “multi.” Sharing the same colonial history is never enough for states to unite or else we would have seen a Latin American republic all the way from Mexico and the Hispanic Caribbean to Patagonia with the exception of Brazil. Serbia, Croatia, Macedonia, Slovenia, Montenegro, and Bosnia and Herzegovina did not have more in common than did Lithuania, Kazakhstan, and Russia and there was no reason why Yugoslavia wouldn’t follow in the footsteps of the Soviet Union. The Balkans carried within it the seeds of its Balkanization, yet I do not see how this can applied to a country that has been politically and geographically unified for thousands of years or how any group of perverted fanatics would dare to even give it a shot.

A couple of weeks ago, dozens of Muslim youth from a village in western Alexandria gathered in front of a Christian man’s house and asked him and his family to leave immediately citing rumors about a video that his son had been circulating among villagers and which contained sexual scenes between him and a Muslim girl from the village. Despite the fact that none of the eye witnesses had actually seen the video and that the police were not able to find any such thing with the boy, the group of angry Muslims, led by a preacher, grew into thousands from the village and the neighboring villages, all demanding the banishment of the Christian family while shouting religious slogans and brandishing guns, knives, and Molotov cocktails. After failing to break into the house, the crowds vented their anger on a couple of stores owned by members of the family and which they looted and completely destroyed then went on to attack and set fire to the houses and stores of other Christian villagers while another group made sure the fire engines, which had already arrived very late, from accessing and salvaging the remains of the buildings consumed by the flames.

After enough damage was done, the governor of Alexandria, the head of Alexandria’s security bureau, the leader of the Salafi movement in the area, and a couple of Islamist MPs headed to the village where they held a so-called reconciliatory session, which I naively assumed only existed in the pre-state era when the chieftain of the tribe was the only source of legislation. In this session, they all agreed that banishing the boy and his family was the only way to “quench Muslim wrath” and “restore calm” in the village. Yet turns out the wrath was too forceful and the calm more far-fetched than expected. Finding the “verdict” too lenient to be fair, more angry Muslims took to the streets again calling for the banishment of all Christian villagers and attacking a few other houses under the nose of security forces which only interfered to secure the remaining Christian houses hours later. Another of those sessions was convened and this time the expulsion of eight Christian families and the formation of a Muslim committee to sell their property looked like the best solution not only for the enraged villagers, but also for security forces that did not seem to mind this new approach to imposing law and order.

As strange and unnatural as this might sound, I have to admit that I find the afore-mentioned incident more disturbing than attacks on churches and clashes over conversion even though the latter proved to be bloodier. I find it hard to view this incident as an accidental fight that erupted between a few people and was fuelled by the exaggerated sectarian zeal members of both groups display or as one of those childish, albeit sometimes deadly, muscle-flexing feats the majority likes to perform every now and then to intimidate the minority. I rather see this as the start of an organized campaign to divide the country along sectarian lines so that Muslim-only areas would be separated from their Christian-only counterparts and with a little bit of luck the second might as well be “advised” to look for another country altogether. Did I mention that the banished Christian families were warned that should they at any time decide to go back to the village, they would be doing so “at their own risk” and no one would be “responsible for their safety”?

Is it possible to imagine what could possibly happen if these families refuse to leave their homes and stick to all the rights they are allegedly entitled to by virtue of being full-fledged Egyptian citizens? I am assuming that forced evacuation would be the most peaceful reaction on the part of Muslim villagers, yet anyone slightly aware of the reality of the Egyptian society and the increasingly belligerent disposition of its Islamist factions would realize that even such a flagrant violation of the basic principles of citizenship is too rosy to be feasible. The now-fashionable use of weapons in the most trivial of squabbles and the apparent apathy of the police and the army towards such clashes, basically owing to lack of impartiality on their side and their inability to prioritize their national duties over their personal prejudices, constitute the perfect ingredients in the sectarian division recipe. Christians in this case will be divided into two groups: one that resists and this will have to bear with the consequences which we all know will never be in their favor and another that will get scared and run for its life. The two scenarios will eventually intersect as they both yield the same desired result: getting rid of religious minorities and declaring Egypt 100 percent Muslim.

I am not in any way suggesting that this plan would work and comparing Egypt to the Balkans does not in any way mean that the Christians of Egypt are in as precarious a situation as had been the Bosnians of Yugoslavia not because the extermination of the latter was any less tragic than the expulsion of the former, but rather because no debate along the lines of whether Croats are better off living in Croatia can possibly ensue about where Egyptian Christians belong. Needless to say, Egypt, the world’s oldest nation, is not a frail union between Serbia and Montenegro and no Slobodan Milošević will ever have the power to tamper with its historic unity.

The question is: Do we have to wait for another Srebrenica to wake up to this fact?