Archive for category Opinion

Cairo: The morning after the night before

They say that when the Sandinista revolutionaries stormed the palace of Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza, they only found his uniform flung over a sofa. It was too symbolic to be true, but it apparently happened. This image of hollowness and illusory power has ever since persisted in Latin American literature, most vividly in Gabriel García Márquez’s masterpiece Autumn of the Patriarch, in which vultures are seen hovering over the corpse of the dictator so that the city finally “awoke out of its lethargy of centuries with the warm, soft breeze of a great man dead and rotting grandeur.”

The eve of June 30 looked like the aftermath of a similar downfall and that felt quite eerie. In front of the presidential palace were thousands waving flags and cheering and dancing and honking in a spectacle that felt carbon-copied from February 11, 2011, the day Mubarak stepped down. The air smelt of freedom and it was freakily contagious, for a few minutes after I wandered what kind of spell took hold of those loonies, I got seized by the exact same feeling and almost started envisioning that deserted palace infested by rats and swathed with cobwebs.

June 30 – a calculated adventure

June 30 was not much different. Unlike January 2011 when a revolution seemed like an uncalculated adventure, June 2013 made it seem like toppling the regime was only a matter of time. “Please stay in touch,” read a huge banner that delivered the people’s message to the president with such a confident tone that was more alarming than comforting. It only takes being in the middle of the crowd to grasp the rationale behind this collective state of mind that has spread like wildfire amongst millions in almost no time.

Taking a look at the people who took to the streets that day makes the equation much easier. Apart from the regular revolutionaries who since January 25, 2011 have taken it upon themselves to see Egypt turn into a real democracy and have vowed not to rest until they see this happening, almost every other segment of the Egyptian society, minus of course the Muslim Brotherhood and their Islamist allies, was out calling for the president to step down. This included those who were against the revolution from day one and believed that Mubarak was the only one fit to rule and would not have minded had he bequeathed power to his son, those who supported the revolution but linked its success to the intervention of the army and, therefore, did not mind replacing an autocracy with a military rule, those belonging to the so-called “couch party” and who followed the revolution from their living rooms and were against protesting in principle whether out of fear or passivity and regardless of how far they agreed or disagreed with the cause any given protest promoted, those labeled “lemon squeezers” and who strategically voted for the president in order to prevent his rival from winning and assuming he might not be that bad after all, and last but not least those who neither hated nor loved Mubarak or the revolution or the Muslim Brotherhood, but have simply been deprived of the most basic of their needs under the current regime.

On the ground

As for those who were for some reason or another unable to go to the presidential palace or Tahrir in Cairo or the main squares in other Egyptian cities and who could belong to any of the previously mentioned groups, they decided to stand in front of their houses holding placards that read “Go away” and “Down with the Muslim Brotherhood” and chanting anti-regime slogans. This trend spread across the entire country and according to eyewitnesses, including myself, there was hardly a building without its own little group of protestors. Some even protested from their balconies while those who were too old to stand simply brought out chairs on the sidewalks.

Taking another look at the demands of all those people is even more helpful in deciphering the mystery. The regime had done its best to sow the seeds of mistrust among protestors so that each group would feel the others are working against its interests. They basically did that through alleging that those who would take part in the demonstrations are either remnants of the former regime who want to undermine the revolution or proponents of the return of the army, a tactic that mainly aimed at repelling revolutionaries, who constitute the main impetus of the protests and the real danger to the regime and whose withdrawal was likely to abort the protest or at least diminish their effect. There were even rumors that protestors will be carrying pictures of Mubarak and calling upon the army to stage a coup. There was, however, one single demand that was shouted out at every corner of the country and that was nothing other than “Leave!”

This was the first time in two and half years that almost all Egyptians had a unified, precise goal and it was of no importance at all whether they have had this goal for long or have only decided to go for it a couple of days ago. It was simply not the time for settling scores and exchanging incriminations, but rather the time for learning from mistakes and rising above differences.

June 30 is the day that marked the initiation of the Egyptian people into political maturity. Nothing guarantees that their demands will be met any time soon, if ever, or that a nation-wide civil disobedience will materialize as desired or that the peacefulness of the protests will not be disrupted by the other party. Yet, everything guarantees that the people have reached a level of confidence in themselves and their cause that is bound to change the balance of power in the coming stage.

Whatever scares Egyptians?

On January 28, 2011, during the beginning of the uprising, the Egyptian government cut off internet and mobile services. The first thing that came to my mind was that they wanted to make sure people would not be able to get in touch with each other and would, therefore, find it impossible to agree on when and where to meet so that eventually most of them would lose interest and stay at home while the few remaining others would be scattered and unorganized. This scenario made a lot of sense since Egyptians are not the type of people who would make appointments a couple of days in advance and even in regular outings they would keep calling each other till the last minute to see who arrived and who will be late so that each one in the group would make sure he or she is not the first to go and sit alone waiting for the others. In fact, this may be the only reason they might decide to car pool. So, whoever thought that blocking all channels of communication would abort the protests was not a fool after all.

Being one of the few Egyptians who do not wait for confirmations, I decided to be on time for the appointment hoping that a considerable number of my compatriots had realized that dinner on a weekend is slightly different from a protest to topple the regime. I was having breakfast that morning with a couple of my fellow punctual friends to brace for the long day and the TV was on in the café. It was then that an on-screen headline popped up and it literally translated into, “Cutting off communications in Egypt forebodes a massacre.” It was a private, non-Egyptian news channel, so this statement was not a message the regime was trying to deliver to protestors, but rather came as a purely objective analysis of the motives behind such a procedure. I realized how stupid I was when I invented that whole theory about the gathering habits of Egyptians. It was much more basic than that. The regime simply took advantage of the sense of entrapment people were bound to feel as they became totally isolated from the outside world and from each other and of their subsequent realization that with no rescue around the corner, perdition would be the inevitable outcome of such a miscalculated adventure.

The numbers were astounding

That day I knew the real meaning of collective consciousness. The regime dared Egyptians to a duel and was only made aware of its erroneous judgment when the presumably spineless opponent took over the whole arena. Call it stubbornness, troublesomeness, or recklessness but the message was one and the same. Egyptians are no longer to be trifled with, belittled, or perceived as cowardly and will no longer be shooed, bullied, or intimidated.

Had regimes been able to learn from the mistakes of their predecessors, dictatorships would have vanished from the face of the earth ages ago. A massive rally by the ruling Muslim Brotherhood and its Islamist allies had the exact same purpose as the January 28 show of power with its organizers hoping to scare Egyptians away from taking to the streets on June 30 to call upon the president to step down. Under the slogan “No to violence” and in response to clerics who sanctioned the bloodshed of the opposition, the “peaceful” demonstrators, who miserably failed at hiding the way they projected their violence on their opponents, promoted crushing anti-regime protesters and ruthlessly standing up to any attempt at undermining the president’s legitimacy.

The way they violently denounced violence instantly brought to my mind a photo from an earlier Islamist demonstration in which one of the protesters held a banner that read, “We shall behead whoever claims Islam is a religion of violence,” thus summing up their presumably subtle way in promoting violence peacefully or promoting peace violently or whatever formula they assume would drive the message home.

Another tactic

This approach is very similar to the fuel crisis that always precedes massive popular protests against the regime and that has reached its peak in the past couple of days and is expected to get worse in the days leading up to June 30. How the regime assumed that a people who are not grounded by death threats would find empty tanks a deterrent remains a mystery. The same goes for the regime’s inability to understand that there are several ways of reaching the presidential palace other than the bridges closed “for repairs” and the roads blocked by “construction work” and that power outages offer the perfect pretext for seeking some fresh air outside.

Last Friday’s demonstration did in fact push many Egyptians who were convinced of the futility of attempting to topple the regime at this stage and who were, therefore, reluctant to fight what they perceived as a losing battle, to make up their minds about June 30, if only to spite those in power and teach them one more lesson about the Egyptian people.

Dictatorships, which all seem to use the same manual, provide substantial assistance to revolutions that set out to topple them not just because of their tyranny, but rather because of their arrogance. It is not just because of how they suppresses their people, but rather because of how they underestimate them.

Egypt champions the Syrian cause… now?

I was stunned when George W. Bush won a second term in office in 2004. The popular reaction to the war on Iraq and subsequent calls for impeaching the president gave any outsider the impression that not one single American would make the same mistake again. It was indeed such a miracle to see him reelected that evangelical churches started talking, seriously so, about some divine intervention. When I asked the Americans I knew, all of them, including those who did not vote for Bush, had almost the same answer: he was not doing bad domestically. This was more or less how political analysts interpreted it, too. So, basically a considerable number of voters seemed willing to forgive Bush for his foreign policy blunders, fatal as they were, because he offered them something that might have struck a balance and actually managed to convince a sizable portion of the population to see some bright side to the war on terror.

Mohammed Mursi tried to play a similar game in a reverse manner when he tried to make up for domestic failure with what he assumed, or rather wanted us to believe, was foreign policy achievement. The first time was during his electoral campaign when the program he offered, and which was marketed by the Muslim Brotherhood as a one-of-a-kind project that would make of Egypt the world’s ultimate superpower in no time, boiled down to nothing whatsoever. This lack of vision had to be compensated with an external cause that is known for its popularity amongst all of Egyptians and that was nothing other than Palestine. Mursi was hailed by his supporters as the Saladin of the twenty first century and slogans about liberating Jerusalem eventually superseded all pressing local issues that were supposed to top any candidate’s agenda. Apart from strategic votes, basically cast by intellectuals and revolutionaries who did not want to see Mursi’s rival become president of Egypt and preferred an Islamist to a member of the former regime, some average citizens were actually affected by the Jerusalem rhetoric, especially insofar as it places Mursi in stark contrast with Mubarak, who was known for his alliance with Israel at the expense of the Palestinian cause.

Heroic, trans-border act

Mursi, therefore, must have assumed he can pull this heroic, trans-border act every time he is unable to abide by the president’s job description, forgetting that one year into his term, anger was mounting to such a level that made it impossible for pretentious chivalry to make his situation the slightest bit better. When he decided to hold a conference in support of Syria in a stadium packed with his Islamist supporters and announce severing diplomatic ties with the Syrian regime, Mursi made a bunch of miscalculations that rendered his magnanimous feat just another proof of his absolute lack of credibility as well as a frantic attempt to emotionally blackmail a population that is vehemently opposed to the atrocities committed against the Syrian people. His announcement came immediately after the American Administration made public its intention to arm Syrian revolutionaries, so it was obvious that closing down the Syrian embassy in Cairo was far from being an independent decision solely made for supporting the national and humanitarian cause of a neighboring country.

It was also hardly a coincidence that the conference was two weeks before massive protests are scheduled to take place in front of the presidential palace to demand that the president step down and, therefore, betrayed how desperate the president is to garner as much support as he could get and to dissuade as many people as possible from joining the protests. While the president might have presumed that the timing of the conference was part of a shrewd plan to undermine the conspiracy to overthrow him, I am not sure he believed that he was being subtle about the link between the two events when he in a function allegedly dedicated to Syria, he explicitly lashed out at the opposition and accused them of attempting to being back the former regime.

Had all of the above not betrayed the president’s intentions, his choice of audience would have undoubtedly gotten the job done. The president made sure to create the overwhelming spectacle of a legendary leader and a cheering crowd and that would not have been possible had he invited members of the opposition or even ordinary Egyptian citizens outside the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist factions. For some strange reason, he still presumed he can fool the people through portraying his supporters as the righteous majority and his detractors as the delinquent minority. It was also obvious that he wanted to guarantee the loyalty of ultra-conservative Islamists so that in return for supporting their fellow-Jihadists in Syria, they would rally by his side against the opposition and maybe manage to crush the protests and or at least scare off the protesters or both. The response was quicker than expected with one fatwa after the other sanctioning the bloodshed of the “infidels” setting out to undermine the president’s “legitimacy.”

Most dangerous of all, the president has in fact subscribed to the sectarian rhetoric that is currently dominating the conflict in Syria, thus presenting the Syrian revolution as a war between Sunnis and Shiites and attempting to transfer this divide to Egypt. In doing so, he seemed to want to divert the popular stance on Syria so that instead of supporting the Syrian people’s right to freedom and democracy regardless of religious affiliations, Egyptians would start perceiving the revolution as a war for Islam and hopefully applying the same logic on the domestic level through dealing with the regime-opposition confrontation as one between Muslims and apostates.

It is interesting to see how none of the schemes, if they can be labeled as such, behind the impressive rally bore fruit if only because they were so poorly orchestrated and even more poorly carried out. This is simply because while someone like Bush made mistakes externally, he had something to offer internally, Mursi has nothing to offer on any front. True, he might have championed a legitimate cause, yet did so for all the wrong reasons and, therefore, is turning his aspired victories into irreversible losses.

How democratic is [Egyptian] democracy?

“Democracy is overrated,” said my Chilean friend when business mogul Sebastián Piñera was elected president of Chile. “Democracy is the illusion of consensus,” said my Egyptian friend when Muslim Brotherhood member Mohammad Mursi was elected president of Egypt. Several years and thousands of miles apart the two incidents occurred and numerous comments of the sort must have been said in almost every country that calls itself, rightly so or not, a democracy. Even though my two friends were voicing a personal opinion about candidates they obviously did not support, their remarks underline one fact that a lot of people and most heads of state tend to overlook; democracy in its current form never reflects the will of an entire people. This means that while citizens take part in the democratic process in an attempt to bring to power candidates they trust, they are also aware that they will have to respect the decision of the majority and this is how opposition is created. Like democracy, the concept of majority is also quite problematic if we take into consideration that it might mean 50 percent plus one, therefore an elected president can be opposed by 50 percent minus one of eligible voters. Democracy, therefore, would seem to be much less indicative of popular unison than its marketed image, yet it remains the best available alternative to dictatorship and the most legitimate form of governance.

While citizens of a democracy are capable of accepting a result they did not desire, they are never willing to be as complacent when they end up with an elected dictator. This is exactly when a wide range of popular actions can be taken and which could range from street protests through calls for impeachment to outright toppling of the regime, with the level of the reaction depending on the tyranny and/ or inefficiency of the target president. Elections, therefore, do not provide an eternal shield for the elected official and can never be used to justify a series of failures and autocratic practices. This is particularly why Egyptians, who a couple of years ago staged a revolution for democracy, are now setting out to rebel against “democracy.”

The international experience of protests

Officially deemed an attempt to undermine democracy, the massive protests that are to take place on June 30 to call upon the president to step down are not very different from similar reactions to the policies and practices of elected officials and nation-wide demonstrations that swept the United States after George W. Bush decided to go to war on Iraq offer the best example. True the situation in Egypt is particularly different, insofar as the criteria based on which voters made their choices and the violations reportedly committed by the winning party, but had the electoral process been impeccably free and fair, Egyptians would have still decided to take to the streets on that day to demand the toppling of not only the regime, but also the type of democracy that brought it, and Hitler, to power.

Demonstrations against Tony Blair, Hugo Chavez, Nicolas Sarkozy, and most recently Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, to cite a few examples, manifest, I believe, a popular rejection of the form of democracy that allows one person or a few people to make decisions on behalf of all citizens for a given number of years, in other words “representative democracy.” This type of democracy does not necessarily create dictators in the proper sense of the word, but it does allow power to be monopolized by a small number of people who gradually turn into a ruling elite that starts serving its own interests rather than the people’s. Those are chosen by voters based on a set of rosy promises and no realistic guarantees. Once in office, the equation starts changing as a totally new arrangement of priorities emerges so that imperialist expansions, business enterprises, political alliances… etc. take precedence over people’s needs, hence the anger that takes the shape of protests and is likely to evolve to a more drastic level of action if the people are not pacified in one way or another. So, basically it is a one-way street in which you can’t go back after you realize you were wrong and in which you stand helpless as you see a number of crimes being committed in your and democracy’s name.

What is democracy?

A democracy in which the role of the people stops at the ballot box is a contradiction in terms, especially if we bear in mind the original meaning of the word that gave rise to the system; the rule of the people. In addition to the actual damage which befalls any country that is entirely controlled for several years by the same minority, people’s anger will never subside as long as they feel eternally trapped in the vicious circle of pre-election exploitation and post-election marginalization. It is, therefore, time for another form of democracy in which people are more involved in the decision-making process, in other words a “direct democracy.” This type of democracy is based on the active participation of the people whether as independent individuals, through taking part in referenda to decide on an already proposed issue or signing petitions to initiate a certain policy or action, or as members of lobbying groups that have the ability to direct the vote or both. Applying this system will see the emergence a new power balance between the government and civil society so that a strong popular front is formed to counter any official decisions seen as detrimental to the people and/or the country.

The June 30 protests are the culmination of a nation-wide campaign that aims at collecting 15 million signatures to oust the president and hold early presidential elections. Whether they realize it or not, the initiators of this campaign have taken sure steps towards the establishment of a direct democracy. They, as well as every Egyptian who signed the petition, are actually setting a precedent in Egypt through asserting their right to lead a “recall,” a procedure through which elected officials are to leave office before their term is over if enough signatures are collected to demonstrate public discontent at their performance. Through this campaign, the Egyptian people are declaring that after decades of totalitarian rule they will not be fooled into accepting a dictatorship in a democratic guise and that after one year of conventional democracy they will not stand still while they are reduced to vote casting machines. Lacking in political awareness as they might seem to be, average Egyptian citizens have managed to engage in a practice that is typical of long-established democracies where people are fed up with having their fate controlled by a bunch of untrustworthy politicians.

Regardless of how much of a change the protest can actually effect on the ground, June 30 is a historic day in post-revolution Egypt, for it does not only force us to ask the inevitable question, “How democratic is Egyptian democracy?” but also another even more inevitable one: “How democratic is democracy… as we know it?”

Egypt’s war of the waters

For the past year, Egyptians have been jokingly providing evidence on how the president brings bad luck wherever he goes. They do this by listing a series of human tragedies and natural disasters that took place in countries he visited, whether during or right after the visit. The joke went so viral that Russian media reportedly linked Mursi’s visit to the earthquake that hit the Kuril Islands while the president was in Moscow and one newspaper even wrote: “It is no joke that Mursi brings bad luck.”

Egypt, argued initiators of the theory, has had the lion’s share of the bad luck that, according to them, started from the blackout that took place when he was taking the oath and continued with the countless catastrophes that have been relentlessly hitting the country one after the other. Then came Ethiopia’s decision to divert the course of the Blue Nile and to complete the construction the Renaissance Dam, which was announced immediately following the president’s meeting with the Ethiopian prime minister in Addis Ababa to dispel all doubts about his supernatural ability to attract calamities both at home and abroad.

Egyptians do like to joke and are the best to make fun of their misfortunes and this has for long been believed to be one of the few reasons they are able to survive. My absolute rejection of superstition and my absolute belief that political crises, like earthquakes, have a scientific explanation aside, let me point out that we have long passed the sarcasm phase and that choosing one single person or party to lay the blame on all but solves the problem.

The incompetence, to say the least, of the current regime is nonnegotiable and there is a long list of miserable failures that bear witness to that, this list is actually much longer than the one produced by the bad luck camp. However, it is important to bear in mind that the construction of the dam is only a symbolic manifestation of the fiasco that is the Egyptian government, yet is not in any way a direct result of any of its numerous flaws. Contrary to what many believe, Ethiopia did not announce the construction of the Renaissance Dam following the president’s visit, but rather the diversion of the Blue Nile as one of the steps required to complete the project, made public in 2011. Therefore, it was neither the president’s lousy management skills nor even his paranormal powers that inspired Ethiopia to make a decision that is bound to have a drastic impact on Egypt’s share of the Nile’s waters. The current government, in fact, inherited the Nile Basin file from the former regime and with its stark inability and/or reluctance to deal with even the most basic of local problems, it was not expected to take any action in such a major strategic ordeal. This was simply translated into Ethiopia’s announcement and its timing, both seeming to convey, in the most embarrassing manner, the deterioration of Egypt’s influence in Africa. A gesture as simple as sending the Ethiopian minister of mining to receive the Egyptian president would be enough to illustrate what has become of the continent’s one time leader, champion, and role model.

Egypt’s once lofty position

During the Nasser era, also referred to as Pan-African Nasserism, names of freedom fighters turned heads of state like Patrice Lumumba, Kwame Nkrumah, Ahmed Sekou Toure, and Julius Nyerere among others were known to every Egyptian with Egypt’s 1952 revolution and 1956 nationalization of the Suez Canal becoming a source of inspiration for independence movements across the continent and with its president offering unconditional support to the then nascent governments and equally unconditional protection to the unfortunate among his fellow leaders. Respect for the country’s position and gratitude for its president’s dedication to the cause made it impossible at the time for any African country to deliberately embark on any action that was to inflict direct and severe harm on Egypt, let alone one that infringes upon its almost only source of life; the River Nile. It was this peculiar mixture wise foreign policy and genuine human solidarity that deservedly bestowed on Egypt this soft power over an entire continent and created an unwritten agreement that obliged each country to respect the national interests of its allies.

Sadat’s approach was different, but was nonetheless effective. When talk started about Ethiopia’s intention to build dams on the Blue Nile, he simply responded, “we depend upon the Nile 100 per cent in our life, so if anyone, at any moment, thinks of depriving us of our life we shall never hesitate to go to war.” Sadat was in no way endeared to African leaders like Nasser was, but he was feared and that was apparently enough to consider the case closed. Mubarak took a totally new path when an attempt on his life in Addis Ababa made him decide to snub Ethiopia and give up on Africa altogether and soon after the remnants of respect disappeared, so did apprehensions of a military intervention. It was not long before Egypt was neither feared nor endeared. Proof of this is when the 1929 agreement that regulates Nile water shares was discovered to be “colonial” and when the Nile Basin Initiative, which allows the construction of dams along the river, was established and when riparian states simply declared they are sick of taking Egypt’s permission with every project they start on the Nile.

The Nile’s waters

Ethiopia, obviously like the rest of the Nile Basin states, did not find in the post-revolution regime a potential ally or an equal partner simply because it has taken the country into an even deeper abyss than that created by Mubarak. Through the Blue Nile announcement, Ethiopia made a clear statement that Egypt’s role as a regional power is now history. The regime did a very good job at proving this assumption true as was made clear in its reaction to the announcement that sent panic waves across Egypt and triggered strong protests on the part of the opposition. While experts explained that the Blue Nile supplies Egypt with 60 percent of its share from the river and that building dams on it is bound to reduce its annual 55.5 billion cubic meters, the minister of irrigation was optimistically saying that Egypt has enough water for now so there is no need to worry, adding that the Nile will keep flowing no matter what. However, experts warned that even without the dam Egypt will have needed an additional 21 billion cubic meters by 2050 to cover the needs of a growing population, so the dam is bound to speed up the crisis and increase the needed amounts. In light of the situation, Islamist politicians talked about an Israeli conspiracy to starve Egyptians to death.

And while there are no scientific doubts about the drastic reduction of Egypt’s water share following the operation of the dam, the president declares he is “sure” that the water will actually “increase!” And he advises us to pray to God.

We will indeed pray to God, but Mursi needs to be careful what he wishes for from now on because I so much doubt he is aware of what we will all pray for!

Who is afraid of Egyptian atheists?

For some time, I have been receiving emails from some foundation about a course entitled “How to talk to an atheist?” I ignored the whole thing the first couple of times, but was intrigued when the same email kept coming almost once a week, so I decided to see what this is all about. When I checked the “course description,” I found out that “talking” to atheists meant talking them out of their decision to become atheists and I was even more intrigued. Why would anyone want to interfere in people’s personal choices in such a blatant manner, let alone be trained in the strategies required to do so? I have no idea if there are any people who enroll in this course and if they are already out guiding stray sheep back to the flock, but that is not the point!

A ‘remarkable rise’ in atheists

A few days ago, I read that Egypt’s predominantly-Islamist legislature is to discuss the reasons and repercussions of the “remarkable rise” in the number of atheists in the country. Those discussions, from what I understood, are to bring together all state institutions that influence public opinion to figure out the means of containing the crisis before it gets out of hand. Let me first point out that it is impossible to have accurate statistics of the number of atheists in Egypt, not only because of the lack of documents that prove so, but also because in a country where the official discourse is becoming increasingly hostile towards minorities, including Christians, it will be a little bit unwise of atheists to “come out” at this stage. However, the actual number of atheists and whether or not it has actually increased lately is not the problem!

What matters most here is the sudden interest in an issue that could not in any way be linked to any of the innumerable political, economic, and social disasters Egypt is currently going through and that is too personal to be a subject of public debate to start with. It is very easy to go along with the traditional conspiracy theory and claim that this is just another of those distraction ploys the regime has been in the habit of devising to sedate frequent bursts of discontent and we cannot totally rule out this option. However, it will be simplistic, and quite hazardous, to stop at that simply because of how deliberate the choice of topic is and how ominous the outcome could be.

Abolishing freedom of faith

Warnings of rising atheism have nothing to do with the danger they might pose to national security which is compromised on many other fronts that the government is totally overlooking. It actually has to do with laying the foundations of a religious state and abolishing all principles of citizenship and which include freedom of faith. Like any dictatorship, the regime is selecting a group of enemies on whom it can lay the blame for anything it chooses to label as “destabilizing” and a term as broad as “atheist,” like its medieval equivalent “heretic,” would be perfect for instigating public opinion and presenting the state as the guardian of faith. The charge known as “deriding religion,” which was leveled against a number of journalists and activists, was actually a prelude to that of atheism and a test balloon in a society that does not see religion as debatable and would automatically turn against anyone who is suspected of questioning its very essence.

Add to this the fact that Islamists, especially the Muslim Brotherhood, have for some time been trying to present the any of opposition’s initiatives against them as malicious attempts to undermine the Islamic identity of Egypt and establish a “secular” state which, according to them, has no other business except marrying off homosexuals and promoting abortion. Labeling any of the troublemakers as “atheists” would, therefore, be much easier than other hackneyed charges that no longer sell like the traditional “compromising national security,” “inciting violence,” and “spreading false information” or the brand new “insulting the president” and would guarantee substantial damage to the public support the accused would have gotten had the accusation been any of the above. It might not be long before new laws are drafted to criminalize atheism and to come up with all absurd types of legal definitions and incriminating evidence.

Freedom as a restricted concept

Presenting atheism as a malignant ailment that is bound to destroy the Egyptian society also portends a serious clampdown on personal freedoms and which, of course, includes choice of faith. Dealing with atheism as a problem implies an obligation to follow particular religion(s) and transforms those who do not conform into outcasts, thus generating a sense of hostility that can later translate into aggression towards difference and rebellion. Freedom would, paradoxically, become a restricted concept and would only be practiced within the limits set by an authority whose only means of survival is the subjugation of its subjects. This would not only apply to religious beliefs, but would eventually encompass all sorts of ideologies that are seen as detrimental to the ruling powers and all sorts of actions that stir the indignation of the public at their inefficiency. And if we assume that freedom of thought is the most sophisticated form of human emancipation, it is no longer hard to imagine what the fate of other freedoms would be if this one is eliminated.

Although I realize that this is not the crux of the matter, I couldn’t help asking myself if the number of atheists in Egypt is really on the rise and if so what the reason could be. It was then that I wondered if the esteemed institutions that decided to sound the alarm bells on the catastrophe are not aware of why such a drastic change could happen at that point in time and in a society that is generally known to be religious. I was also curious to know if they decided to champion the cause because they want to lay the blame on another party or just hide their role in the very problem they are trying to solve or simply furnish a proper introduction for a whole set of drastic measures to come or all of the above. I was even more curious to discover if they were taken by surprise that it is their own religious discourse that created those anti-religious sentiments or if this discourse was originally meant to create those sentiments.

A few days ago Pope Francis said that atheists are “good people if they do good.” He was not under any pressure to say so and would not have been reprimanded had he implied otherwise. He was not interested to know how many atheists there are or what their reasons might be and did not launch any initiatives to “talk” to them. He simply had the moral responsibility to deliver such a universal call for tolerance and coexistence, one that, believe it or not, might change many people’s take on Christianity, unfortunately the exact opposite is occurring in Egypt with regards to Islam.

Egyptian soldiers between a rock and a hard place

Everybody knows the man by the name of Gilad Shalit. He was a corporal in the Israeli Defense Forces who was abducted by Hamas in June 2006 and was not released until October 2011. During those five years seemingly endless negotiations, frequently permeated with threats by Israeli authorities, lobbying by the International Community, and the mediation of third parties, went on relentlessly in an attempt to reach a deal that would secure Shalit’s safe release.

My political stance on Israel aside, I have to admit that I was impressed by the Israeli government’s persistence in rescuing Shalit and its willingness to offer a few hefty concessions to see this materialize. Shalit was not just treated as a citizen whose natural right is to be protected by his country, but his situation was all the more critical because he was a soldier in the army, a man who would sacrifice his life for his country so his country, in turn, is required to do all what it takes to ensure his safety. Israel considered the abduction of one of its soldiers an attack on its army and, therefore, a direct affront to its dignity. That is why it was ready to take all the possible paths to have him released, for it would not accept to be looked upon as the country that abandons its “boys” even if this costs a drastic change of policy towards groups it has since time immemorial, considered terrorist. What also impressed me, even though it was in a sad way, was the fact that Shalit was exchanged for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, some of whom are, according to Israeli authorities, responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Israeli civilians. There would have never been a more explicit message regarding what an Israeli soldier is worth for his country.

Terrorism and Kebab

Not everybody knows an Egyptian movie by the name Terrorism and Kebab. It tells the story of an average citizen who, fed up with endless bureaucracy and feeling humiliated at his inability to obtain his basic rights as a citizen, seizes a government building and takes some of its employees hostage, thus immediately becoming a terrorist and creating a crisis that necessitates the intervention of security forces who first try negotiations then decide to use force. In one of the scenes, the interior minister holds a microphone and calls upon the hostages not to worry if they are killed while his forces storm the building, for they would become martyrs and their families would get proper compensation. In a scathing critique that the regime, by some miracle, overlooked at the time, the Interior Ministry, presumably in charge of protecting the people, is seen to have a totally a different set of priorities. The police are mainly concerned about its image in front of the public which, it believes, will be severely damaged if it agrees to hold negotiations with the terrorists they are expected to ruthlessly crush. That is why it would give precedence to saving face over saving human lives.

Egypt’s experience

The recent abduction of seven Egyptian officers in the Sinai Peninsula was bound to raise all kinds of questions about the value of the citizen in a regime that is quite similar to its predecessor as far as prioritizing prestige over people is concerned. The only difference this time is that the case involves two parties that do not seem to agree on the way the situation should be handled, even though they both share a conviction that the reputation of the institution is far more important than the life of the citizens. The presidency and the army might not have the same approach, with one opting for almost total inaction and the other threatening too much action, but both mainly aimed to preserve the status they allegedly hold amongst the Egyptian people or in front of the world, God knows what else they were trying to preserve!

While the president announces he is not to be blackmailed by the kidnappers, which gives the impression the he is not going to respond to their demands, he goes back to say that all options are open and expressed his keenness to protect the lives of both the culprits and the victims, which gives the totally opposite impression; that he is ready to negotiate. He then calls upon opposition factions to join him in a “national dialogue” to discuss ways to deal with the situation, which gives the impression that he is trying to give the impression that he is unable to figure out what to do.

All those impressions aside, the president took no actual steps towards solving the problem whether in favor of the kidnappers or the kidnapped, or both, or neither. Apart from the indifference he has displayed in dealing with Egyptian citizens who can lose their lives any minute and who actually pleaded with him in a video to save them, the president’s reaction raised question marks about his own role in the state of lawlessness that currently prevails in the Sinai where Jihadists are on their way to establishing a state within the state. Questions are being raised over his reluctance to engage in any kind of standoff that would portray militant groups in the peninsula as terrorists in order to avoid antagonizing his ultra-conservative Islamist supporters. In short, by neither negotiating nor taking firm action, the president is leaving the matter entirely to the kidnappers who can choose to kill the hostages or singlehandedly attempt to release their detained fellow-militants, or both. He is indirectly creating the ideal training camp for a thriving paramilitary. Where the safety of Egyptian citizens figure on his agenda and how much of a national disaster he sees in the abduction of police and army officers remain to be known or is, in fact, quite known!

The army is busy settling scores

The army, on the other hand, seems to be too busy settling scores and attempting to prove who the boss is in a country that is for the first time not only ruled by a non-military president, but also by a group that makes no secret of detesting each and every remnant of the former regime’s institutions. Sending officers and armored vehicles into the Sinai portends an escalation that would most likely be detrimental to the hostages without even succeeding in prevailing over the militants. The army is, therefore, embarking on such a quixotic adventure to restore its long-established, yet recently jeopardized, image as the guardian of sovereignty and the protector of the land and to underscore the contrast between its prompt decision to reclaim control over the Sinai and the lackluster response of the Egyptian president, who, together with the Muslim Brotherhood, has been engaged in constant attempts at sidelining military leaders and is even rumored to be gladly watching the generals trapping themselves in a rugged terrain, the nooks and crannies of which they are, unlike their target militants, quite unfamiliar with. Some regime loyalists went as far as hinting that in an attempt to flex its muscles and embarrass the president, the army did orchestrate or at least facilitate the abductions. Regardless of who is swallowing whose bait, it would be quite naïve to assume that the outcome would be in favor of the victims who are now turning into cannon fodder and whose safety has become of minimal significance even for the institutions to which they belong and which are busy tipping the scales in the balance of power.

They say that the degree of a state’s success is measured by the value it bestows on its citizens and the effort it exerts to preserve their lives and dignity. Success is also measured by the citizens’ confidence that the state will never let them down in situations where they require its assistance and/or protection. You don’t have to be taken hostage to decide where you stand as a citizen and/or have your life threatened to understand what kind of a state you pledge allegiance to.

‘Let them play,’ said Egypt’s president

“Let them play has become one of Egypt’s most quoted phrases after the revolution even though it received little attention at the time it was said, or so it seemed. “Let them play” was the extremely basic, yet shockingly revealing, response of the former president when told of the opposition’s intention to establish a parallel parliament to the one dominated, through flagrantly rigged elections, by the then ruling National Democratic Party. “Let them play” was in a nutshell the attitude of a dictatorship that mistakenly saw itself as invincible towards an opposition that it, mistakenly too, perceived as helpless. “Let them play” was the ultimate manifestation of a type of arrogance that blinded itself to every possible threat to the extent that it needed not clampdown on any of its sources and would rather have fun watching the “game” whose results were presumably pre-determined.

Turned out they were not playing after all and the president did not stay in power long enough to see how impossible it would have been for the nascent entity to challenge his authority. The parallel parliament did not actually topple the regime nor did the president’s phrase stir people into action on January 25, 2011, but the incident has ever since served as a classical example of the irony inherent in the reversal of roles that directly followed this showdown. For a very brief time, people started thinking of what a shadow government could do and how far it would be permitted to do it, but the eruption of the revolution rendered the matter totally out of context as hopes for a real government rendered a shadow one redundant.

It was only when the new regime proved beyond doubt that it is becoming a replica, a disfigured one for that matter, of the old regime that the issue of a shadow government was brought up once more. Abandoning all hope in any substantial change in the policies of the current government, the National Salvation Front, Egypt’s main opposition bloc, announced its intention to establish a parallel one in accordance with the initial aspirations of the revolution, none of which having materialized since the coming to power of the current president and the blatant exclusionist approach he and the Muslim Brotherhood have been adopting ever since.

Shadow government selection

The new government, expected to include 20 plus ministers, marks a significant departure from conventional awareness campaigns about democracy, citizenship, and power sharing as it moves to the practical level through offering the people an actual alternative to what they have, one through which political novices, which all Egyptians are, will be expected to get a glimpse of how a proper government is formed and on what basis its ministers are selected so that the end result would be an entity whose first and foremost priority is doing what is in the best interest of the country and its citizens rather than gathering as many members of the ruling clique as possible regardless of qualification, popularity, and patriotism.

Adding new portfolios, like human rights, Sinai affairs, and the Nile Basin to the shadow government underscores critical files that have been equally overlooked before and after the revolution as well as alerts the people to the inefficiency of a government that was supposed to right the wrongs of its predecessor.

The initiative is another chapter in the seemingly lengthy saga of peaceful resistance that had started a few years before the revolution, an extremely commendable one in fact. It remains problematic, though.

Besides offering a viable alternative, which is what a shadow government is generally for, the Egyptian version has set as its ultimate goal putting an end to the Muslim Brotherhood’s rule and this is exactly where the problem lies. A shadow government is supposed to monitor the performance of the actual government and offer solutions to problems it is unable to solve while exercising pressure on the various ministries to redress policies seen as damaging to public welfare. Yet being always established in democracies, toppling the regime is never on a shadow government’s agenda, simply because it does not question the legitimacy of this regime in the first place, which is not the case with the Egyptian opposition, currently collecting signatures to oust the president. A shadow government is an “opposition” and not a “revolutionary” group. The two terms are, however, used interchangeably in Egypt and the confusion is quite understandable for the same groups that form political parties are also resistance movements that organize street rallies against the government and their leaders are politicians-cum-freedom fighters. This overlap is here to stay as long as the status quo persists and as long as the current situation is too blurred to have clear cut demarcations applied to it.

It is, thus, hard to call this initiative a shadow government and even harder to call it by any other name. While finding an adequate definition might seem to mirror a state of uncertainty, which is the case with everything in Egypt at the moment, some certainties are powerfully starting to emerge. It is certain that the shadow government announcement offers another proof of the incessant pressure to which the government is being subjected as it stands accused of hijacking the revolution and betraying the Egyptian people and as disgruntlement is reaching its peak both in the street and among political circles.

There has so far been no official response to the announcement and even though the “let them play” discourse is undoubtedly the current government’s motto as well, neither the president not any member of his group seems willing to say it out loud. They have possibly come to realize that “playing” is not that harmless after all and that its outcome can be fatal for whoever belittles the “players,” which in itself indicates that we are not as fully back to square one as some pessimists would have us believe and that at least we have come to the point when the ruler is becoming aware of the sweeping power of those he had in the past only perceived as “subjects.”

As for the naming ordeal, it could be simply called an “Egyptian shadow government,” for Egyptians have become amazingly flexible when it comes to twisting, tweaking, and reversing all universally acknowledged concepts to create some previously unheard of structure that would suit an eternally bizarre situation that is not apparently not likely to come to an end any time soon!

Lobbying for democracy in Egypt

There is not one European or North American city I visited where I did not see individuals or groups collecting signatures for some cause or another. The activists involved would be lobbying for or against all sorts of things, but as far as I can recall it was usually about the cutting of trees, the rescuing of endangered species, or the renovation of some local park, a “make love not war” kind of cause that you only hear of in beauty pageants.

This is not in any way an attempt to belittle such causes or downplay the effort exerted by their initiators, but rather to underscore the fact that they are far from being make-or-break issues that would have an impact on, for example, the future of the state or the structure of the government. This is simply because such matters are determined in a totally different manner that involves ballot boxes, polling stations, vote counting, and all that jargon we have recently learnt as we try to decipher the mystery by the name of “democracy.”

In other words, those people leave national issues to their representatives, whom they have already elected, and focus on more local ones which they believe they can handle in a variety of ways including exercising pressure on the legislature to draft new laws that they perceive as solutions to problems facing the community. That is why in a democracy you don’t see citizens signing a petition to change the head of state or dissolve the parliament. True, there had for example been calls in the United States for impeaching George W. Bush when he went to war in Iraq, but such a demand had apparently no legal or constitutional grounds, so it never materialized.

The case in Egypt

In Egypt, the signature collection ritual takes a very different shape. Let me first point out that the entire practice had not actually existed in the country until 2010 when Mohamed el-Baradei founded the National Assembly for Change, which started collecting signatures on a document that listed a series of demands seen as a step towards democratic reform. The initiative was quite striking at the time, not only because it heralded an era marked by people’s realization that it was only through them that change could happen and that shedding off their fear of openly opposing the repressive regime was the only means of doing so, but also because it underlined absolute lack of trust in the so-called representatives who belonged to the ruling party and who everyone knew came to power through rigged elections. Scoffed at by the regime and considered too idealistic to be true by the opposition, the initiative yielded stupendous results with one million signatures in less than seven months and the stage was set for a revolution that toppled the regime altogether.

Technically speaking, the signatures neither modified the articles of the constitution stated in the assembly’s statement nor did they determine the path Egypt was to take following the revolution, but they did change the face of the political scene in the country and effected an outstanding transformation in the balance of power between ruler and subjects with the second no longer blindly subservient to the first and the first no longer capable of counting on the second’s perpetual submission. It was, however, too early for the new culture to be rechanneled towards problems pertaining to trees, animals, and public parks.

A peculiar situation

The situation this time is as different as it is peculiar, for the new campaign, launched by one of Egypt’s leading opposition blocs, the Egyptian Movement for Change, is now collecting signatures to topple a “democratically” elected president and hold early “democratic” elections.

As absurd as the idea might seem to be, it does shed light on a very significant aspect of this phase of Egypt’s history and possibly that of several countries in transition; the gap between procedural and actual democracy, between elections as a timed process that ends with the counting of votes and as an ongoing system that brings the elected official to task with the slightest sign of mismanagement, between voting as a bargain in which religious, tribal, or financial factors take precedence and as a mature choice determined by objective assessment of the political situation and comprehensive awareness of national interests. This campaign, therefore, aims at revisiting the concept of legitimacy so that it is no longer solely contingent upon election results, but is rather measured by post-election performance. Therefore, the more the signatures, the stronger the proof of the president’s failure in living up to the expectations of the people he was supposed to serve and who in turn should reserve the right to take back the privilege they had once bestowed upon him. It also pinpoints the fact that democracy can and does breed dictators and that is why, in a country where there is no actual separation of powers and where state institutions are in the process of being controlled by the president’s clique, it becomes time for the people to draw the line and teach the tyrant in the making that power is not a given.

There is little chance that those signatures, even if they reach the targeted 15 million, will actually strip the president of his legitimacy because, unless he chooses to step down, there is no law or article in the constitution that acknowledges the role of signatures in determining the duration of the president’s term in office. It remains, therefore, as symbolic an initiative as its predecessor insofar as it reflects the meager, if any, change in the Egyptian people’s perception of their government and how elections do little to embellish the image of a head of state if his performance remains lousy. The act of signature collection also stresses that the new culture of popular lobbying is here to stay. The symbolic nature of the new campaign does not, however, make it any less influential. Regimes, thus, better beware that symbolic actions are not really that symbolic, exactly like signatures are not really ink on paper and like forests can redirect the course of motorways or halt the construction of entire housing projects!