Sonia Farid: Let’s call a mask a mask

In May 2000, Israel ended its 22-year occupation of Lebanon after sustaining serious losses at the hands of Hezbollah militias, which not only forced the Israeli Defense Forces to retreat to the Blue Line, demarcated by the UN in 1978, but also dealt a fatal below to Israel’s proxy, the Southern Lebanon Army, which totally collapsed after a spate of attacks by the Shiite resistance group.

In July 2006, Israel waged war on Lebanon in retaliation for the abduction of two Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah. For 34 days, the militia surprised its opponents with sophisticated weaponry and highly trained fighters as well as an unprecedented number of rocket attacks into the inside of Israel.

In February 2011, Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah said the Egyptian revolution is bound to change not only the region, but also the entire world. “Today, with your voices, blood and steadfastness, you are retrieving the dignity of the Arab people; the dignity which was humiliated by some rulers of the Arab world for decades,” he told Egyptian revolutionaries.

In January 2009, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan stormed out of Davos after a heated debate with Israeli President Shimon Peres over Israel’s 2008 invasion of Gaza and after giving a speech slamming the Hebrew state for the atrocities committed against civilians in the strip and accusing the rest of the world of cowardice and inaction.

In May 2010, the Turkish ship MV Mavi Marmara led a humanitarian aid convoy heading to Gaza to defy the Israeli blockade on the strip and was attacked in international waters by Israeli Naval Forces, which resulted in the death and injury of several Turkish nationals.

In January 2011, Erdogan declared his support of the Egyptian revolution, warning the former president that he is not immortal, and asking him to step down. “No government can survive against the will of its people,” he said emphatically.

Throughout all this time, Egyptians were watching with a mixture of astonishment and fascination as they saw other leaders in the region taking such a firm and honorable stance in support of the Palestinian cause, which the Egyptian regime had technically abandoned in favor of catering to Israel’s “security concerns” and abiding by the United States’ rules of strategic partnership. While Egypt was placing one hurdle after another in every chance Palestinian factions had to reach reconciliation, Hezbollah fighters were dying on the Israeli border to liberate Southern Lebanon and Turkish activists were risking their lives to break the blockade on Gaza, Egyptian authorities closed the Rafah crossing, gave the Egyptian citizenship to children born to Egyptian mothers except if the father is Palestinian, and approved of—or at least never openly objected to—the killing of civilians in Gaza. So whereas Egypt had Mubarak, Lebanon had Hassan Nasrallah and Turkey had Mr. Erdogan.

Putting aside the first’s “suspicious” ties with Iran and what they imply as far as Shiite infiltration is concerned or speculations about Hezbollah’s involvement in the killing of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri and also putting aside rumors about second’s keenness to restore the “glories” of the Ottoman Empire and apprehensions of the way his Islamist tendencies might undermine the only secular state in the region and which constitutes a pattern several liberal intellectuals look up to, the two men have for the past couple of years been hailed as heroes in Egypt even by those who had strong reservations on their ideologies or internal policies. The “heroism” bestowed by Egyptians upon Messrs. Nasrallah and Erdogan, from my own point of view, was emotional rather than political, for both men provided them with an example they have not seen for years, particularly since Mubarak came to power since even Nasser and Sadat were looked upon as heroes in some way or another.

The comparison between Messrs. Erdogan and Nasrallah might seem far-fetched for many since one is the prime minister of his country while the other is the leader of a militia specialized in guerilla warfare and labeled terrorist by several world power, yet let me point out that within the context of the resentment Egyptians felt for their president for his subservience to the U.S. and Israel made all those demarcations fall and rendered the two men simply “brave,” “honest,” and “strong.”

The protests in Egypt ended with the toppling of the regime and we all became one happy family—the freedom fighters—and the two “great” men were sometimes even cited as role models of the Middle East people’s ability to rise against injustice and put an end to tyranny. Then came quite an unexpected sequel—the Syrians followed suit. Are you familiar with the Jekyll and Hyde story? I bet now you are!

In May 2011, Hassan Nasrallah rejected the sanctions to be imposed on the Syrian regime, whose endless merits he kept enumerating, probably on the grounds that the killing of hundreds of peaceful protestors does not call for such a harsh action and definitely because it is an American and Israeli ploy—not sure if using the Western conspiracy card can work here. He also called upon the Syrian people to support their president and he even said why they should do so: unlike other Arab leaders Bashar al-Assad is serious about implementing political reform. It is just that those protestors are not giving him the chance. Oh! That makes a lot of sense. Now I can see why he’s killing them.

In a not-so-subtle reference to protestors as saboteurs, Mr. Nasrallah said Syrians should “preserve” their country, and in a not-at-all-subtle menacing remark he added that they should preserve the “ruling regime.” What if they don’t is something he didn’t tackle, possibly because the answer is known and has been implemented since the protests started, only it will be on a much bigger scale if that warning is not heeded.

Also in May 2011, Mr. Erdogan reiterated—in case his earlier statements were overlooked or misunderstood or most probably thought of as absolute gibberish—his support for Bashar al-Assad who, he said, is currently working on meeting his people’s demands. He even went as far as claiming that he is indeed a popular leader: “I see the people’s love for Bashar al-Assad each time I visit Syria.” Looks like he and Nasrallah study from the same textbook for the later said almost the exact same thing: “The majority of the Syrian people still support the regime and believe in President Bashar al-Assad.” Where is the problem then? If the president and his people seem to be enjoying an open-ended honeymoon, who is protesting? And would any of the gentlemen care to let us know what he thinks of the torture and killing of 13-year-old Hamza al-Khateeb? Maybe later… when they have time… or when, and if, they have something to say…

I don’t think it is important now to use clichés like double standards, hypocrisy, and the prioritization of interests over any ethical or humane considerations because all this has been said over and over in different situations, especially by those very same men in reference to the United States, Israel, and the European Union. I am not also sure if it is important to investigate the motives behind this utterly shocking change of heart or mind or whatever. I only want to say that if—as is apparently the case nowadays —part of the job description of a politician (my deep apologies to Mandela and Gandhi and all those who remained the pride of their people and the whole world in life or death) is manipulating the truth and twisting facts and sanctioning the bloodshed of unarmed civilians and endorsing despotic regimes when common interests are at stake, then it is better for all of them to do so in silence and to refrain from issuing chivalrous statements in defense of democracy and in support of human rights and from lashing out at rulers—who are not friends or allies of course—who violate any of those much-cherished values.

Wouldn’t both Mr. Nasrallah and Mr. Erdogan been in a slightly better position now that they support the Syrian regime had they not repeated those empty slogans about Palestine or Egypt? In fact, there is a double benefit in that. They would not be as loathed as they are now since being always the devil is one thing and being the devil now when a couple of minutes ago a halo popped out of your head is another. Let them just stay silent so they won’t be faced by those waves of anger and this spat of disgust. They better become like Hitler—Nazi all through—and always bear in mind that no one seemed to have been shocked when Stalin starting killing members of his own Communist Party or when Slobodan Milosevic turned out to be the mastermind of the Bosnian genocide campaign.

Instead of bearing the weight of the masks and the health hazards this might entail on the skin and the respiratory system, they should have left their faces bare so that we could have seen the malicious grins and the sly eyes from the start. The effect of the sudden removal of the mask is traumatic for both the one who wears the mask and those who witness the taking off process, so why bother? In The Phantom of the Opera, Christine insisted on seeing the Phantom’s face and when she did, it was the beginning of the end, for she realized how repulsed she will always be and he realized she will never be his. Had he deposed of the mask before he first met her, they would certainly not have lived happily ever after, but at least each of them would have known where he/she stands and both would have been spared the shock that accompanies the discovery.

In Egypt, we refer to an insolent person as one with “a bare face.” Well, that is how it is supposed to be from now on. Better insolent than hypocrite! Masks have become démodé and faces are back this summer… so better stay as “stylish” as you are always known to be!

Letter from Cairo: The underground-hood goes ‘above’

In almost all vampire movies, you see the creatures of the darkness always meeting their end in more or less same manner. Assaulted by malicious rays of light, their bodies start disintegrating until nothing is left of them but a heap of dust similar to the ones you see at the end of one of those sandy wind attacks that hit Egypt in springtime.

Watching vampire movies is one of the most confusing experiences for any human being who is not yet familiar with the contradictions inherent in this earthly life.

Being a creature who loves the sun and loathes nothing more than darkness, grey skies, and cloudy mornings, I could never grasp the idea of having your death triggered by exposure to light, the very source of life and vitality and everything that gives you power to survive. As a child, I was extremely disturbed by those scenes not because they frightened me, but rather because the concept of death by light seemed too absurd to be even mythologically plausible. When I started crossing the threshold of that black-and-white world and took my first steps into the realm of the grey, I started viewing the matter from a totally different angel and gradually the association between death and light became not only good material for folktales, but also turned out to be amongst the main components of the essence of reality.

They say that one of the things that causes a baby to scream the moment it is pulled out to the world is the fact that its eyes are forced to encounter something that is the total opposite of the place it called home for the past nine months. Yet as it discovers that it is here to stay, that other “lit” place gradually becomes the normal and darkness the exception. They also say people who are born blind then restore their eyesight when they are adults find it extremely hard to cope, much harder than the baby because in this case their stay at the “womb” had been unpredictably extended. So, what does a blind man do if he tries to cross the street right after he is able to see? He will most probably be run over by some speeding car. And what if he drives a car? He will most probably run some passerby over. He will either end up dead or in jail… in addition of course to the emotional damage triggered by failure to adapt to an environment that should from now on be the his one and only world. There is also the feeling of reaching the point of no return. Is he going to pull an Oedipus act and gouge his eyes to get rid of this ordeal once and for all? No, he won’t simply because the temptation of having firsthand experience with the objects he has only been hearing about is too overwhelming. The newcomer to the world of shapes and colors is too curious to ruin the chance of satisfying this obsessive instinct. Do you remember what curiosity did to the cat? So, he would rather risk his life or that of others than give up such a priceless “bounty.”

Since it saw the “dark” in 1928, the Muslim Brotherhood has been almost exclusively an underground organization not in the sense that its presence was not known or acknowledged, but rather in the way it has operated and the secrecy with which it has always shrouded its activities—past, present, and future.

Defining the Muslim Brotherhood is as hard as trying to predict what they’re up to. The group’s involvement in politics does not make it a political party proper, and parliamentary elections provide the best demonstration. Because their group was always referred to as “banned,” Muslim Brothers only ran as independents even though they posted the slogan “Islam is the solution” on their banners and even though the candidates’ affiliation was known to any Egyptian with the slightest knowledge of the political scene. They are also not a purely social movement despite their involvement in several charity projects and not purely religious despite listing preaching and the revival of Islamic principles as its main goals.

The Muslim Brotherhood is a peculiar mixture of all those, and this is part of the mystery with which it has always been endowed since Hassan al-Banna—himself quite enigmatic—decided that the Quran and Sunna should be the “sole” reference of individuals, society, and state.

The several question marks that surround the Muslim Brotherhood are, for me, basically due to the fact that since its inception no one really managed to get straight answers about the ideology—other than the declared religious one—on which the group was formed. Are they violent? They say they are not, yet several bombings and assassinations were attributed to them and words like “jihad” and “death for God” do come in the group’s manifesto. Do they believe in equality among all Egyptian citizens? They insist they do—they even named their new party Justice and Freedom—yet they opposed in the agenda they drafted a couple of years ago having women or Copts run in presidential elections. Are they hostile to non-Islamic cultures? They claim they are not, yet al-Banna, who they still regard as their main source of inspiration, saw Western influence as the reason for the “corruption” of Egyptian and other Muslim societies.

For a little less than a century, those questions remained unanswered and Egyptians seemed to have gotten used to the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood will always remain like The Scarlet Pimpernel, and some even gave up trying hard to figure out what they want, how they work, or how influential they are. Part of this growing indifference, I guess, was due to the fact that the regime had always had its eyes peeled and gazing and popping out for the group whose members spent more time in jail more than at home and had more money confiscated than spent. So, everybody knew that regardless of what it wants or plans to do, it is only within the space the regime allows it that the Brotherhood acts. A group that adopts secrecy as its modus operandi is pushed several more miles under the ground by a regime that suppresses any threat to its hegemony… perfect recipe for a full-fledged mystery!

The revolution gave the Muslim Brotherhood the first chance ever to shed off the two shades of darkness with which it had been enveloped—the voluntary and the imposed. Now that all Egyptians were “set free,” the Muslim Brothers saw no reason why they should stay in the dark while everyone else is coming to the surface and basking in the long-stolen light. In fact, they must have assumed they should have the lion’s share in the newly released rays owing to the fact that they had been the most ruthlessly drenched in pitch-blackness. It was then that the real farce started.

Breaking the decades-long ban on public appearances, Muslim Brothers have suddenly become the daily guests of every single show on state TV and privately owned satellite channels, the keynote speakers in scores of seminars and conferences, and the most requested preachers in nation-wide religious sermons. That was it! The once blind man threw the window shutters open the moment he knew he could see.

Throughout their history, members of the Muslim Brotherhood have been used to talking to one another, and they seemed to have never had a problem in that simply because they shared similar beliefs and worked toward the same goals. They have not seen the shock their words can elicit nor have they realized how much their statements constitute a flagrant offence to anyone who does not belong to their group or how their fiery rhetoric betrays an absolute lack of savvy when it comes to winning support outside the circle of their original followers.

A couple of days ago, I saw one of the best-known Brothers on TV lecturing hundreds, maybe thousands, of people and asserting in what sounded to me like a declaration of war the impossibility of removing the Muslim Brotherhood from Egypt’s political scene and referring to Hassan al-Banna as the one and only savior of Islam. He then slammed “seculars” and “heretics” who oppose the establishment of an Islamic state. The highlight of the speech was his attack on Brotherhood men who marry women from outside the group and who he basically labeled as “lacking manhood.”

The speech was not the worst part; his attempt to defend it was. When asked by the host of a popular talk show about the reason for insisting that Brothers have to marry Sisters, he replied—thinking he is making things better—that the group does not raise its “chaste” female members so that men can marry another women “from the street.” Regardless of the fact that he refers to women from outside the group as unworthy—that’s the mildest way to put it—and that they don’t deserve the honor of becoming the Brothers’ wives, the way he talked about Sisters was in fact extremely offensive. I, for one, was made to feel he is a barn owner who breeds cattle for sale. Now, time for the biggest faux pas he made on air: he swore to God that he had no idea who the other guest—a liberal writer who slammed his statements and labeled them “fascist”—was. When the host insisted that he was told in advance and faced him with the fact that he “had taken the Lord’s name in vain,” he grew nervous and was on the verge of leaving the studio.

I was surprised to see my fury at the man’s unbelievable tactlessness and his absolute disregard of all Egyptians who do not subscribe to his ideologies was tinged with a spec—a little one—of pity. I have never been a fan of the Muslim Brotherhood and I am a staunch proponent of the civil state and a stauncher opponent of religious parties and the exclusionist agenda that comes with the package, yet as much as I detested every word the man said, I could clearly see a perfect example of self-destruction.

While assuming he was out to score a victory for the Brotherhood, he was only making a fool of himself and the group and with his own hands giving Egyptians a very good reason to dislike him and all his likes. He might not have done that out of malice, yet his inexperience as far as public statements are concerned and his cluelessness of the diplomacy required for such situations came out in the nastiest form ever. Yes, I felt slightly sorry for him because suddenly he was required to use tools with which he is not equipped in the first place, and he, consequently, emerged as a lousy actor hit by rotten tomatoes after the first line.

The euphoria of toppling the regime had an intoxicating effect on the Brotherhood and, therefore, did not allow them to reflect on the possible scenarios of their instant emergence from six feet under. They thought that now that they have the chance to speak, the whole crowd will applaud, yet they forgot to take some oration courses… they thought the stage is clear for them to deliver a monologue that will drench the theater in the tears of the moved audience, but they forgot that this is a multi-actor play.

I asked myself what would happen if vampires were gradually subjected to light instead of being overwhelmed by a flood of destructive rays. After dwelling for a long time on what I like to call “mythological probability”—myths have to be credible even if in a different way, you know—I found out that they would still not be saved. They will just undergo a gradual annihilation simply because their bodies are not designed for the light. They will be left with the option of staying under the ground if they opt for survival or coming above the surface if they opt for suicide. The most powerful of genetic mutation is needed to change this, one of the type that makes cats grow beaks or ducks become beasts of burden. Sad, but true!

Sonia Farid: Attraversiamo

This is the only word I remember from the movie “Eat, Pray, Love,” the cheesiest I’ve seen since “Titanic.”

I am not sure why “Attraversiamo,” Italian for “Let us cross over,” stuck to mind, but definitely not due to how touched I was by the scene in which Julia Roberts tells Javier Bardem that she has finally agreed to take that boat ride with him across the lake nor because I was so impressed by the “symbolism” that was meant to give an illusory depth to a chick flick you would only not mind seeing if you are in the couch potato mood and have nothing better to do. I guess I have always been fascinated by the idea of crossing over, maybe since the first time I looked at a world map and asked my mom why there are dotted lines between countries and who drew them and whether they can be changed. She looked really confused, not because I was asking about things older than my age—the “where did I come from?” kind of questions—but because she herself did not have the answer. I remember how she shrugged her shoulders and said to me with a rather resigned tone, “I guess that’s how things are.”

A couple of years later, I studied the Sykes-Picot Agreement in school and it made things much more complicated for me, first because it proved that those lines are not God-sent and that like they were “drawn,” they can be “withdrawn,” and second because it baffled me a great deal as to who decides to draw and why. I went back to my mom, and I could see she realized that the previous answer would no longer be satisfactory, so she tried to explain to me that in the world of politics it is always the stronger party that decides. When I said that this is unfair, she shrugged her shoulders again—I have to admit this got on my nerves—and said, “Life is not fair, so imagine what politics is like.” She didn’t realize that at the time I had not known what the word “politics” means, yet I grew up considering it the most malignant of practices on earth because it gives people with power the ability to confine those with less or no power to lines that look so suffocating and crippling. We later studied the difference between natural and political borders and that confirmed my idea. If the border is a mountain, a lake, or a forest, then this is “natural,” yet if it is a line on a map translated into a checkpoint, barbed wire, or a miles-long fence, it is apparently the most “unnatural” way ever to determine the relationship between human beings.

The restrictions those borders place on human interaction were much clearer to me when I first knew that to leave my country, I need a permission from the country to which I am heading and that granting this permission depends on whether your destination is willing to receive you or not. Coming from the Middle East, I need a visa to go almost anywhere on the face of earth. I used to joke with my foreign friends when they asked if, for example, I needed a visa to Honduras or the Comoros Islands and I would reply, “I guess I need a visa to go to Alexandria.” When freedom of entry was granted to citizens of the EU members states, I couldn’t help but admire the concept of falling barriers—I felt that same sensation that overtook me when the Berlin Wall was pulled down—and with more countries joining, my admiration for the continent grew stronger. True reservations were voiced by conservatives over the unemployed of the impoverished East flocking to the prosperous West and, through offering cheap labor, competing with the natives of those countries which are themselves not devoid of economic problems. Their argument is not totally invalid, but they could have chosen to look at it from a different perspective and in a more far sighted manner: Yes, some serious issues might arise from the removal of travel restrictions between countries that do not share a similar social, financial, or political makeup, yet dissolving the barriers is the only way toward seeing these dissimilarities gradually fade and reaching the point of making no distinction between what is still categorized as East Europe and West Europe.

I am not going to go babbling about how unfortunate it is that not a sign of a similar system to be applied in the Arab world is visible because this—with all the implications it carries—is not what is preoccupying me at the moment. I would rather talk about how I felt when the border with Gaza was finally opened and the siege on the 1.5 million inhabitants of the strip was at last lifted. First, I have to say that I had so many mixed feelings upon hearing the news. I wasn’t sure who exactly I should be happy for, the Palestinians or the Egyptians, and I wasn’t even sure whether I should be happy in the first place.

Having been always haunted by the idea of barriers, the Separation Wall that Israel built in the West Bank felt like a thorny collar around my neck, and every time I read about it or saw it I was overwhelmed by those claustrophobic fits that made me feel the breath I was taking at that moment was my last. But after all, it was Israel tightening the noose around Palestinians—quite understandable, though utterly unjustifiable. Yet when it is Egypt doing the exact same thing on the other side, this will never be understandable and is, it goes without saying, absolutely unjustifiable. The Egyptian regime’s compliance with the Israeli manual was for me a flagrant violation of the natural order—something along the lines of incest—and the degree with which Egypt had throughout the years contributed to the suffering of Gazans was nothing less abominable than fratricide. I don’t think I need to describe how it felt when reports came out that the Egyptian government did in one way or another condone the 2008 war on Gaza or how fed up all Egyptians were becoming whenever they heard the sickening official statements about arms smuggling and Hamas rocket attacks and the destabilization of national security.

Of course, I felt happy for the Palestinians who, for a change, will no longer feel stranded in that 360-square-kilometer prison in which they and their offspring seemed to have been doomed to a life sentence, sometimes the capital punishment. Nevertheless, my happiness for Egypt is… I wouldn’t say greater, but rather more overpowering. For years, I had tried to come to terms with the shame of having my country give up on the only people who really deserved our material and moral support—no, rather for whom providing support is our national and ethical duty—and of seeing Egypt praised in Israel for its role in safeguarding the Jewish state’s interests. I remember how bitter I felt when several non-Egyptians, including Arabs, I met would scoff at my pro-Palestinian proclamations and retort with phrases like, “It is indeed very obvious how Egypt supports Palestine!” or “How about the white-and-blue flag that flutters over the Nile in Cairo?” Even when I explained that the regime does not represent the people, some would say, “And what are the people doing to prove otherwise?” I wanted to disappear.

Well, now I don’t. On the contrary, I want so much to appear and lift my head up high and say that my homeland is no longer letting me down and that this revolution was not only for the people who live within that space on the map that occupies the northeastern part of Africa, but was an embracement of all the values of freedom and humanity and altruism—ones whose meanings we were on the verge of deleting from our disgraced memory. Let me also add sovereignty.

I am happy for myself, for Egyptians, and for the revolution, but I am not so happy for the painfully long time justice takes to be served. My elation over the restoration of a bond that was unnaturally and brutally severed is unfortunately marred by the agony I still feel for those who were killed, injured, rendered homeless, or will live forever with an irreversible emotional damage as a direct or indirect result of the former regime’s policies. The flood of pride that drenched me head to toe the moment I learnt that both Egyptians and Palestinians have started taking the first little steps toward liberation has not yet enabled me of snatching that Scarlet Letter that is almost now engraved in my flesh. My sadness over the fact that we—apparently in such situations no one makes a distinction between regime and people—had been a major source of misery for Palestinians turned out to be too chronic to heal with the first tablet of pain killer. For now, I am grateful that the first signs of recovery are starting to show and that gives me the courage to display more perseverance during the coming phases of the seemingly long convalescence.

I don’t think that the opening of the Rafah crossing and the heartbreaking spectacle of the cheering Gazans who are finally able to make it to long overdue medical appointments, years-late family reunions, or even a one-day supplies’ shopping trip will effect a change to that map I have been staring at since I learnt to use my eyes. But as I grew taller and was able to take a closer look at the colored territories, I realized that maps are not static and that two Germanys became one and one Soviet Union became 15, and thousands of years ago there might have been a continent called Atlantis.

Like Palestine, a map is not a jigsaw puzzle that only has one way to assemble … nor is it some cake made to the taste of a bunch of hungry stomachs… it is a creature as throbbing with life as the zillions of cultures, races, and languages it houses and as open-armed as the oceans that embrace it. I will go back to my map and with my eyes scan all its territories and as I do so will erase all those lines that had bothered me for all those years. I will think of the globe as Atlas bore it on his shoulders. Then I will bring a magnifying glass and bring it closer until I see “the promised land” opening up like a heart-warming geyser. At that moment, I will extend my hand and call in a softest, yet the most forceful, whisper, “Attraversiamo!”

Letter from Cairo: Laws of the Lady

For decades, Suzanne Thabet Mubarak had been for Egypt what Elvis Presley was for Memphis.

Her pictures adorned hundreds of schools, libraries, and charity organizations and her name was given to all institutions that had to do with motherhood and childhood and sisterhood and all the “hoods” that imply benevolence and compassion and all those elevated forms of human sentiments. She was spoon fed to Egyptians as the guardian of women’s rights, the protector of underprivileged children, and the number one promoter of culture.

Before satellite dishes made their way into almost all Egyptian houses and we were forced to watch state TV, there were times when the entire news would be a report on a visit she made to this hospital or that school with special focus on how people in either place enumerate the countless merits of having her in their lives and how much they owe her. The phrase “Under the auspices of Mrs. Suzanne Mubarak,” in both its written and spoken forms, had over the years become the “In God we trust” of Egypt. In fact, the first lady did gradually acquire several holy-like attributes that reminded me of the La Virgin de Guadalupe, the Mexican edition of Virgin Mary and who, besides her traditional religious role, serves as communal mother to whom all the Mexican people turn for comfort, advice, and blessing. Apologies due to the venerable Virgin!

When the regime was toppled and the halo was snatched from the “patrona” by the power of the people, a nationwide campaign to obliterate any proof that she had ever existed took me back to the post-Akhenaton Eighteenth Dynasty and the vociferous attempts by the Amun-ists to deface all traces of the Tel al-Amarna epoch. Apologies due the monotheistic pharaoh and to Atun!

A few days after the president stepped down, dozens of schools were rendered nameless as their signs were pulled out or, in case they were too big or too difficult to remove—like the lady seemed to have been—you would see big white or black paint stains over her name and/or face. A lawsuit was indeed filed to have Mrs. Mubarak’s name removed from all state-owned facilities, yet before the ruling—which came in favor of the people’s demand—was out, the procedure was already being carried out in what I perceived as a forceful reminder that revolutions do not wait for official approvals.

Removal of names and pictures constituted the start of a long list of steps to eradicate the legacy of a much-hated regime and revolutionaries decided to begin with that not because it was the most important, but rather the easiest and fastest in addition, of course, to the message such action delivered. Moving from the symbolic to the practical, it was time to embark on a more critical purge, one that involves the substantial evidence of the lady’s hegemony over the country’s social and political scene during the past 30 years. It was the turn of what came to be known as the “Laws of Suzanne,” a series of civil status edicts that regulate a number of family matters and which, the majority of Egyptians now argue, were only authorized by parliament because the “hanem”—the former president’s wife nickname and Arabic for “lady”—wanted it that way. Those laws, rumor had it, had nothing to do with the welfare of Egypt or the Egyptians and were only meant to serve Mrs. Mubarak’s personal ambitions. Some say the laws provided her with the prestige she wanted in international conferences and especially with other first ladies, with whom she was able to brag about her role in advancing women’s rights in a society generally known to be male-oriented. “Imagine the challenges I face,” she must have told them. Others even go as far as attributing the changes she introduced to her keenness on being considered for the Nobel Prize for Peace. This might explain the grudges the whole Mubarak family harbored against Mohamed ElBaradei—prior, of course, to his emergence as a staunch opponent to the regime and a potential presidential candidate.

Two specific laws are most associated with the former first lady and currently under attack and facing annulment demands: Unconditional divorce, in which a woman is empowered to obtain a divorce without needing to go through the routine legal procedures and without having to provide reasons for her decision provided that she forfeits her financial right, and visitation rights, in which a divorced father is only allowed three hours per week with his children in a public place and under the supervision of a court official. It took me a while to find out what is common between the two laws in question until I realized that it is definitely men who want to revoke them, yet this doesn’t make the two laws nor the possible reasons for the criticism leveled at them similar in anyway.

In the first case, it is obvious that Egyptian men, raised to believe they are superior to women, are disconcerted by the control given to wives over their marital life and by the fact that they were robbed of one of the powers they had always thought was exclusive to the male sex. Let me point out here that this law does not of course deprive men from the right to divorce their wives. It is just the humiliation of not being the sole decision-maker as far as the continuation or termination of the marriage is concerned. Let me also clarify that this law had existed since the dawn of Islam and was condoned by the prophet, so even for those who use religion as a pretext to suppress women have no case at all. Now, with all the arguments for cancelling unconditional divorce rendered absolutely invalid, those men have been offered a new leeway on a silver platter—the revolution.

There is no point going through how I feel about exploiting a noble cause for furthering a personal end neither am I going to elaborate on how the law, as mortifying as it is for men, is not that fair to the woman who opts for unconditional divorce since it deprives her of the financial rights to which she becomes entitled upon divorce. I would rather ask those who want to see the law go one question: Should we cancel all the laws issued or proposed or authorized by Mr. Mubarak or any members of his family or any of the former regime’s officials? What would happen if you had benefited from one or more of the laws approved throughout the past three decades? Are you willing to give that up, too?

I would also like to ask them another question which I allowed myself to borrow from a dear friend of mine and which, to me, made so much sense: How about the sons of Egyptian mothers and foreign fathers who were granted the Egyptian citizenship, also upon instructions from the first lady? Should they be stripped of that now? Or are we even being selective with the “Laws of Suzanne”?

The major difference between the first and second law from my point of view is that the men protesting against the latter have a legitimate demand that does not look like it is driven by some blind desire to prove who wears the pants. I am a feminist, and I do admit that women in Egypt still have a long way to go and that any semblance of gender equality has been possible mainly in upper-middle classes, yet I find the law in flagrant violation of fathers’ rights. I am vehemently against the way it assumes that all men are out to retaliate on their ex-wives and/or kidnap their children and that they all do not perform their duties towards their children and therefore deserve to be punished. According to several women interviewed on the issue, the father would do his best to tarnish the mother’s image in front of the children and would have a better chance to do so if he gets to spend more time with them. Is there a reason the mother would not do the exact same thing? Isn’t there such a thing as an incompetent mother? And don’t mothers sometimes lose custody for being unfit to raise kids?

I believe that gender equality does not mean being biased to women and I am totally for granting divorced parents equal rights when it comes to spending time with their children as long as none of them violates the ethics of partnership. Yet again I worry about the rationale used to abolish the law and which puts the men who make sense in the same box with those who don’t. The “Laws” argument mars the cause they are fighting for, and which I believe is a very noble one, and renders them subject to the same accusation hurled at the first group. There is no way I can be as unfair as to claim that they are intentionally dwarfing a sublime patriotic action that is bound to change the course of history into a tool for settling personal disputes or reducing the rampant corruption from which the country had suffered for 30 years to a couple of family status laws favored by the former president’s wife. Yet, without realizing it, they are facing the risk of joining the ranks of male chauvinists who are purely driven by an obsessive desire to maintain the balance of power from which they apparently derive their self-esteem and assert their flawed notion of manhood.

Like her husband and two sons, Suzanne Mubarak has indeed caused the country a great deal of damage and there is no doubt that the interest of the country has never been among her priorities. Bringing her to justice is a prerequisite for the completion of the revolution, yet taking advantage of the anti-regime sentiments that have been prevalent in the country since the start of the revolution in order to garner support for demands that are in themselves legitimate weakens the cause, and the sympathy it might have initially gained will gradually fade away.

True, the law was and still is associated with “Suzanne,” yet capitalizing on this association to get it annulled only benefits those who do not have a cause and were only able to come up with one just because an umbrella under which they can do so suddenly descended upon them from the high heavens.

Letter from Cairo: To whom the gallows beckon?

One single trait seems to unite almost all the news we have been hearing and reading since the start of the revolution: they all trigger conflicting reactions within a very limited time span so that the way you respond to a piece of news the moment you hear it is the exact opposite of how you would feel about it 15 minutes later.

The former president inaugurated this trend when, in a speech he had to give after it was clear to him that protests had reached a point of no return, he said, in response to demands that he steps down, that he did not intend to run for another term anyway. Amazing! Nothing could be easier. The man is staying till September and after that we can have “fair” elections.

Let’s go back home and celebrate our two-day revolution that made the miracle of forced the three-decade ruler to decide not run then make it look like this was his original intention to save face. “He couldn’t stay against the will the people. He realized he is no longer wanted” some even went as far as saying. I am not going to say how emotional the Egyptian people are and how gullible they can be, and I am not going to go through how much several of them were touched to see his health deteriorating and his voice shaking because this wasn’t what it was all about.

True, several people sympathized with him, but even many of his staunchest opponents who would have accepted no alternative to his immediate resignation, ones who are known to be immune against all kinds of blackmail, had for a few moments thought that his declaration was quite an achievement. “What? Are we going to wait till September? Hell no!” was the reaction after those moments were over. “He won’t run, but his son will,” was the reaction of the moments after the moments. “Not running my a**! Of course he will. The likes of him will cling to power till their last breath” was when obscenity started becoming the inevitable reaction.

A similar scenario happened when the former interior minister was handed 12 years in jail for financial corruption. “Justice is finally served” and “for the first time in Egypt, a top official as powerful as Habib al-Adly is tried and sentenced to jail” were the typical reactions you would find on social networking websites and media outlets. Then came another reaction that was seemingly no different from the first ones, but in reality was the reason for igniting its reverse counterpart: “Now, the martyrs can rest in peace for the murderer who killed them is now paying for his crimes.” “But wait a minute… he is in fact going to jail for money laundry. You got to be kidding me!” Suddenly, the verdict that was heralded as one of the revolution’s most crucial achievements turned into a shameful setback that started drawing angry reactions from all over the country. “12 years? Is the new version of the capital punishment nowadays?” “What logic on earth is it to press corruption charges against the monster who ordered firing at the peaceful protestors and was the direct reason for the death of many of them?”

The list went on endlessly as the crowds cheered when the former president was placed under hospital arrest then started demanding that he be put on jail with the rest of the “gang” and when the millions his wife decided to waive to the state were welcome as a partial rescue of the crippled economy then it was made obvious that this was nothing but a bluff to evade prosecution… same with incarcerated business tycoons-cum-political hawks who offered skyrocketing sums in return for amnesty. A wave of enthusiasm also swept the country when the army started referring “thugs” and regime “remnants” to military courts, then all woke up to the revelation that activists and peaceful protestors were placed in the same ranks and cries of indignation at the principle of having military trials for civilians regardless of which category they belong to and regardless of who exactly decides who belongs to which category started resonating everywhere.

News of sentencing to death a policeman proven guilty of killing 18 peaceful protestors and injuring another 15 on January 28, aka Friday of Fury, unleashed another spat of mixed reactions and again put into question the validity of similar decisions that seem to be meant to distract and/or pacify the public rather than see justice duly and properly served. Local and international media dubbed the sentence, the first of its kind since the start of the revolution, a “historic” one that demonstrates the state’s unrelenting determination to hunt down each and every one of those criminals who murdered unarmed civilians in cold blood. The sentence, they added, constitutes a crucial step towards making the Egyptian people rest assured that the blood of their compatriots was not spilt in vain. The euphoria that accompanied the news was heightened by the fact that the defendant is not a high-ranking policeman—he is, in fact, not strictly a policeman, but rather some kind of assistant and not a graduate of the Police Academy—which, many argue, shows how all members of the former regime’s notorious security system, regardless of their position. Well, I guess they meant that nobody would have taken notice had the suspect’s name not been mentioned at all and had he not been tried.

As usual, the cheers of joy faded into mumbles of frustration as the excited crowds took some time to reflect on what such a verdict may imply. Turns out one little piece of information was lost to the recipients of the news or rather overshadowed by this kind of ecstasy that makes you sometimes unable to see the little, yet perhaps extremely critical, details. The man was tried in absentia… indeed, he was not there to be interrogated, bring witnesses, or tell his version of the story… he is at large in fact and his whereabouts are still unknown. The culprit’s family staged protests in front of the Ministry of Justice demanding to know on what basis their son was handed the capital punishment out of all sentences when he did not present himself to the court and wanted the investigation into the shootings reopened. The family’s concerns are now voiced by a large portion of Egyptians who are questioning the legality and fairness of the verdict. Contrary to the argument that prevailed upon the announcement of the verdict, the fact that the defendant is a low-ranking policeman casts more doubt on both the trial and the ruling. The scapegoat strategy, first adopted when Mubarak sent to jail several top officials and business tycoons in the hope of fooling the protestors into thinking that reforms are being implemented, reemerged as several questions were asked: Why start with leveling charges against someone who is nowhere to be found while dozens of his colleagues are already in custody and can be summoned to court right here and now? How did the court manage to verify that the defendant’s victims were indeed peaceful protestors and not thugs like the ones who attacked all police stations across the country? In other words, are we sure this was not an act of self-defense? How about reports that the police station in which this policeman worked was not among those that witnessed remarkable protests?

Now, time for the million-dollar question: The former minister of interior, the architect of all sorts of police brutality in the country and the number one culprit not only in killing protestors but in the entire post-Friday of Fury turmoil that saw prison gates opened and criminals given free hand to steal, terrorize, and rape… how come he is not being tried for the lives he took, the people he tortured, and the atrocities he committed over two decades against the citizens he was supposed to protect?

For those who are not familiar with the barbarities perpetrated by his Excellency and who do not want to get into too many details and waste so much time investigating the man’s horrendous curriculum vitae, just Google the name Khaled Said and let me know if you do not think he should have been hanged a million times for that only.

By the way, I am generally not a supporter of the capital punishment and I wish the day would come when it will be abolished in Egypt even though I realize how far-fetched that is. However, as long as the capital punishment is enforced then at least hand it to those who deserve it and not to those who are easier to sacrifice. Maybe this policeman deserves the punishment he got, but definitely not more than his superior and absolutely not before him.

If you set the gallows, make sure you think carefully before you decide who mounts them. Otherwise, we might fall into the trap of mock trials and summary executions which marred the noble cause of dozens of revolutions around the world and of which our blessed, bloodless revolution should always stay clear in order to remain one of the noblest and most peaceful in the history of mankind.

Letter from Cairo: The Good, the Bad, and the Army

An introverted man who has hardly been in a relationship and a mortified woman who has been into several abusive relationships have a blind date in the middle of a hurricane and are expected to get to know each other and work on their and each others’ issues as well as conquer the circumstances that would hinder the possibility of their union in a healthy relationship that makes up for their turbulent pasts. That was how Egyptians and the army got to know each.

On October 6 of every year and for the past four decades, we would be bombarded with a series of patriotic films—the same ones every time—to commemorate the 1973 war in which the Egyptian army crossed the Suez Canal, restored the Sinai Peninsula, and defeated Israel. In those films, there is usually a love story and the protagonist—a soldier of course—is thought dead then suddenly comes back victorious and is united with his beloved in a “touching” scene that combines passionate longing with nationalistic zeal. Each of those movies would feature this protagonist and his comrades—usually his closest friend dies in his arms to show that war exacts a dear price even if it ends up in victory—crossing the canal in inflatable boats, pulling down the Bar Lev Line with water cannons, and finally raising the Egyptian flag on the usurped land. In the meantime, the lover/fiancée/wife would be glued to a radio that transmits blurred reports from the front and crying and praying and all the works. She might also volunteer to tend to the wounded in the hope of finding her man among them or meeting any of his friends—sometimes one of them would also be in love with her. Have you seen Pearl Harbor? Well, it’s more or less the same thing except that no one beats Ben Affleck’s ability to show no emotion whatsoever even if he is shot at, forced into the trenches, and captured by the formidable Samurai.

To cut a long story short, this was the only channel through which the Egyptian people had any contact—if it may be called so—with the army. It is true that the 1952 Revolution, which toppled the monarchy and established the Arab Republic of Egypt—which is what we are till now—was led by the Free Officers, which made it a military coup rather than a popular uprising, and all four presidents who had ruled ever since came from the army, yet Egypt did not really qualify as a military dictatorship. The despotic regime in Egypt was in no way similar to those of Latin America for example, where a military junta is the de facto ruler of the country and where it was the army that exercised absolute political control on both the domestic and the international levels. Since 1952, Egypt had had military rulers who made sure their authority was derived from their own individual power and not from their affiliation to the Armed Forces, most likely out of a sheer egoistic desire to have their star shine outside any collective entity that might overshadow their desire to remain the one and only symbol of the nation. If we have to give it a name, I would agree with analysts who regarded the system of government in Egypt as a personality cult dictatorship rather than a military rule.

Egyptians, therefore, never had the chance to have a proper interaction with the army and the only source of authority they dealt with on daily basis was the police, which in fact played the role of the junta as far as abuse of power, human rights violations, and suppression of personal freedoms are concerned. January 28, 2011, also called Friday of Fury, featured both the climax and the denouement of the decades-long saga of unmitigated brutality and ruthless repression, for whereas in the morning of that day, all police forces were mobilized like never before to crush the protests at any cost, by sunset not one single policeman was to be seen anywhere across the country. Yet, Egyptians were by no means able to celebrate the vanishing of one of their staunchest enemies because they were starting to realize that they were being “punished” for their “misconduct” and because at the time when cops were taking off their uniforms and heading back home for an “open vacation” as they were told by their superiors, prison cells were flung wide open one after the other and their inmates were given free rein in an abrupt shift from a Police State to a police-less combat zone.

It was then that the army made an appearance and it was also then that Egyptians started to feel they were not totally abandoned. Hence, the emotionally-charged reception of the soldiers who, being suddenly ejected from their barracks to a battlefield that does not in any way resemble the ones they are familiar with, were as baffled as the civilians, who without warning found themselves in the custody of the seemingly untouchable Herculeses they had only seen on screen and who came to rescue them from what appeared to be an inescapable Armageddon. That is why what would generally appear as a frightening spectacle, the country turning into a barrack, was a welcome relief and, believe it or not, a source of entertainment. For what I assume is unprecedented in history, people started mounting tanks and taking pictures with the soldiers and children seemed to confuse armored vehicles with Ferris wheels and donkey carts. Taking it for granted that the army is totally supporting them—therefore, overlooking the fact that the president is also head of the Armed Forces—protestors even felt free to write “Down with Mubarak” on those very same tanks and armored vehicles. And guess what? None of the soldiers intervened to stop this from happening. Chanting slogans that emphasized that the army and the people are “one” and “stand hand in hand” and so on not only revealed the people’s feeling towards their new saviors, but also served as an invitation for the army to quit its so-called “neutrality” and join the ranks of the revolutionaries. When this happened, the Armed Forces became the one and only national icon, in real life this time.

However, a blind date is a blind date and mishaps do happen, for the long time single man is not savvy enough to deal with women and the relationship-weary woman has learned that every man is guilty until proven innocent. Despite the patriotism for which it was hailed when it chose to side with the revolution and aid in the toppling of the regime and despite the magnanimity its marshals displayed when they refused to fire at the peaceful protestors, the army has in many occasions been accused of several offences—complicity with the former regime, violent repression of post-revolution protests, and laxity in penalizing subversive groups being the most prominent examples.

Questioning the army’s loyalty to the people goes back to February 2, the day the bloody confrontations known as “The battle of the Camel” took place in Tahrir Square between the revolutionaries and mercenary thugs of the then-incumbent regime. On that day, the army was accused of its inability to protect the protestors—tanks tightly surrounded the square and it was literally impossible for men armed with knives, whips, and Molotov cocktails to enter on board camels and horses unless the army had made way for them—and of still pledging allegiance to Mubarak’s regime despite “pretending” to side with the people’s demand to topple it. This incident also gave rise to countless apprehensions as the striking revolutionaries wondered if they would one day be the victims of another Tiananmen Square.

Nothing less than the actual toppling of the regime, which took place nine days after the notorious battle, would have quelled the fears of Egyptian youths and it actually did. As the Higher Council of Armed Forces took over and amid talk that it was the army that “forced” Mubarak to resign, another honeymoon started and prospects of a love story were starting to emerge for the newly acquainted couple.

Had relationships been that easy, the words “break up” and “divorce” would not have entered our dictionary. While for a long time the “hand in hand” chants resonated across the country and another glory was added to the army’s honorable record, things started to look bleak again shortly afterwards. While complicity with the regime was no longer a valid accusation, suspicion over the possibility of a deal struck between the army and the Mubaraks started undermining the restored confidence as the progenitors of the revolution demanded a justification for not bringing the former ruling family to justice at the time when dozens of senior officials were being detained pending trial. Even though the arrest of the two sons contributed to clearing the skies a little bit, keeping Mubarak in a hospital for health reasons and releasing his wife after pledging to waive her wealth to the state raised more questions about some kind of immunity granted to the couple prior to the president’s resignation. The announcement in an independent newspaper that Mubarak intends to apologize to the people in return for amnesty added fuel to the fire, and the army was accused of playing games with the people to gauge their reactions and prepare them for the “forgiveness” scenario. The fact that the military council later dismissed the story as groundless did not pacify the public who believed that its members only did so after seeing the furious reaction with which they news was met.

The eruption of sectarian clashes in several parts of Egypt served to further discredit the army, which was forcefully reprimanded by Copts and Muslims alike for its inability to clampdown on those responsible for burning churches and attacking Christians. Activists belonging to both faiths believe that the army is being too soft on Salafi groups, the main suspects in the latest turmoil, not only for not arresting those of them involved in igniting the strife, but also for sending Salafi clerics to places where these incidents took place in order to “pacify” both parties. The contrast between what is seen as “incompetent” or almost “nonexistent” intervention in the Muslim-Christian clashes while they were taking place on one hand and the violent repression of protests staged in front of the Israeli embassy in commemoration of the Nakba on the other triggered strong statements about the army being selective as to when and where it should pull the iron grip card. Speculations have reached their peak as many observers charged the army of dealing with national crises upon its whims and even the personal ideologies of its leaders.

Meanwhile, the army responses are as ambivalent as their actions and as their relationship with the people. While this is understood by many as prevarication, many others see it as confusion. The best description I have read till now about the army’s demeanor—or misdemeanor—since it took charge of the country was one by Egyptian columnist Galal Nassar who summarized the army’s problem in not knowing the difference between “running” and “ruling” the country.

I am not sure if this argument acquits or implicates the army, but it makes sense in all cases. Having been totally detached from the political scene and not going anywhere outside the battlefield at times of war and the barracks at times of peace, they were suddenly required to play president in a country rife with conflicts and plagued by numerous plights, let alone just emerging from a revolution, and were expected to manage civil matters with the same efficiency with which they did military ones. Maybe that was quite a lot to ask, but you can’t blame the people for asking either, and while the army accuses the people of impatience—and sometimes ingratitude even though not in so many words—the people feel that the state—in whichever form it takes—owes them a great deal.

A vicious circle it is. The man expects the woman to bear with him as he gropes his way through a type of relationship in which he has minimal experience, and the woman requires that the man does all what is in his capacity to restore her trust in the male sex, and both think the other is too focused on his/her own needs. She might accuse him of not showing enough interest for a long time and he might accuse her of being too paranoid for pretty much the same time, and while this process of incrimination is going on, they also have to remember that both of them might be knocked down by the hurricane that seems to get more menacing by the minute. So, it’s either they make their priority to take shelter together in some safe place where they can have the clarity of mind to reflect on their situation or they can engage in endless bickering until they are buried under heaps of rubble. Their choice!

Sonia Farid: The New Merriam-Egypt for Advanced Revolutionaries

When you are asked what the January 25 Revolution has done, the first thing that would come to your mind would of course be toppling the regime, that is if you are the type of person who believes every question has one straightforward answer.

If you are the type who believes every question has one obvious answer and another deep one, you would say it restored the dignity of the Egyptians and opened their eyes to the amazing potential they’ve always had, yet have never utilized. If you are of the cynical breed that believes every question has one obvious answer and a thousand absurd ones, you would say it added a whole lot of new idioms to the dictionary of Egyptians, enabled them to invent new words, or make up new approaches to already existing ones.

Let me first start off by saying that before the revolution, average Egyptians—even a sizable portion of the educated amongst them—hardly knew what was really meant by words like “constitution,” “parliament,” or “elections.” Lest I might be misunderstood, I am not blaming them, for they lived in a country plighted for decades with a chronic political stagnation that made such words absolutely irrelevant to them and of no impact whatsoever on their personal or public lives.

Even for those who understood what they meant, the state of utter despair they had reached made it pointless to discuss them or even refer to them in a casual conversation. As “what articles of the constitution do think need to be changed?” and “What will happen if the Muslim Brotherhood get parliamentary majority?” replaced “Good morning” and “How are you feeling today?” a long list of terms that either acquired new meanings or were resurrected from the dead started self-compiling, walking down the streets of Cairo you would listen to an entirely different language that would make you feel you had just passed by 10 Downing Street or the United Nations headquarters.

For Egyptians, an “agenda” is basically a leather-covered, 365-page book designed for jotting down appointments and day-to-day to-do tasks, but mostly used by students for taking down notes in class, by housewives for grocery lists, household-related budget, and recipes, and is the “dear diary” of teenage girls who like the boy next door. For a few people, usually those who work in the private sector, “agenda” is the list of topics to be discussed in a meeting. “Agenda” became a cuss word right after the protests had started, particularly when it became synonymous to Iran, which, as part of its Shiite infiltration campaign and its determination to see Vilayat-e Faqih rule the region, incited Egyptian youths to stage an “Islamic revolution” modeled after its 1979 role model, to Hezbollah, whose leader Hassan Nasrallah said he wished he were in Tahrir and this automatically meant he was supplying the revolutionaries with weapons, to Qatar, which pressed the protest buttons from the controls of Al-Jazeera.

In the “related words” section, “agenda” was also associated with Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood, and even the United States and Israel. Officials interviewed after the protests broke out used the word “agenda,” always preceded by “hidden” and/or “foreign,” in every answer to questions that sounded like, “Sir, could you please explain why this uprising is happening?” A couple of days later, identifying words were removed as the word “agenda” gained its independence and stood on its own to mean “conspiracy,” “espionage,” “threat to national security,” and anything sneaky, destructive, and with ulterior motives.

So to save his time and energy for more important things like figuring out where to smuggle the billions he plundered from public money or determining who his scapegoat would be in case the revolution works, the minister or MP or governor interviewed would just say, “Those kids out there have an agenda” without bothering to add a description of what it is about. Not only did it become a derogatory term, but it also turned from a noun into an adjective so I would become an “agenda woman” engaged in “agenda activities” and so on.

Directly linked to the “agenda” was Kentucky… yes, the fried chicken. As the regime was desperately trying to present the protestors as mercenaries used by those foreign powers who want to rule the world, it started spreading rumors that they were given a daily meal from Kentucky Fried Chicken—there is a branch in Tahrir Square—in return for continuing the sit-in and insisting on the toppling of the regime. Hilariously, the protestors who went around giving food and drink to their fellow “agendas” started hanging placards over falafel sandwiches bags and juice cans boxes that read “The best of Kentucky.” Even more hilariously, Kentucky Fried Chicken itself issued a statement in official newspapers stressing that all chain branches had been closed since the start of the protests and that no meals were by any means supplied to anyone.

“Masonry” puts “agenda” and “Kentucky” to shame as far as comic absurdity is concerned. When Google executive Wael Ghoneim made his first appearance on TV after 12 days of detention at the headquarters of the notorious State Security on charges of “incitement,” he became the talk of the town. This was not because he left his job in Dubai to see the dream of millions of Egyptians come true and certainly not because he was the creator of the Facebook page that mobilized Egyptian youths for the revolution, but because of something much more serious… he turned out to be “Masonic.”

What really struck me when I first heard this was not the allegation itself, but rather one fact I was sure of at the time: almost 99 percent of Egyptians did not know what Freemasonry was—not that they do now—but it was astonishing how the word gloriously replaced other taboos in Egyptian society like “secular,” “communist,” or “Baha’i.” Ghoneim’s shirts, and those of his kids as well, always sport a logo similar to that on Masonic temples, wears a rubber wrist band similar to the one worn by some White House officials and, like them, makes sure the hand in which he wears it appears in front of the camera, and he has the same hand gestures as George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. “Is that a coincidence?” asked hundreds of Egyptians who either invented or subscribed to this theory. “No, it’s not,” was the answer because there are several other proofs like the fact that Bill Gates and Warren Buffet are listed as people who inspire Ghoneim’s on Facebook… and worst of all, potential presidential candidate Mohamed ElBaradei.

This kind of unquestionable evidence makes you doubt yourself and start wondering that maybe Giordano is affiliated to some Masonic Lodge in Ireland or maybe cancer awareness campaigns aim at rebuilding the Temple of Solomon or maybe all Americans—presidents, politicians, and IT moguls—are by definition Free Masons. Like “agenda,” Freemasonry, on which apparently all Egyptians have always been experts, became equivalent to those powers of darkness that aim at wreaking havoc in Egypt under the pretext of democracy and civil rights. Consequently, “Masonic” replaced “traitor” and became part of the everyday vocabulary of those who opposed the revolution and all those “accused” of bringing it about.

“Activist” is another word that spread like fire through hay during the revolution, but that, for a change, has quite a positive connotation, though this varied depending on whether we’re talking post-January 25 or post-February 11. I once met a former colleague in Tahrir Square when the protests where at their peak and as I was engaged with some of my friends in a heated debate about whether or not the regime will be toppled. He interrupted us, looked at me, and asked in the most serious tone: “Now that I have come to Tahrir, will I be considered an activist?” I knotted my brows and gave him that “you got to be kidding me” look and, trying to be as composed as possible, asked him, “What exactly do you mean?” Obviously not seeing anything wrong with what he was saying, he explained as if to a stupid kid asking his mother how he was born: “I want to be called an activist because I know how prestigious that is now. Think of how it would look when I write on Facebook that I am an activist. Very cool, right?” I was growing more and more impatient and couldn’t help snapping, “You’re not an activist, ok? So go find yourself something else to brag about.” I could see he was taken aback by my abruptness, but I couldn’t care less. Yet, he managed to make me think about what he said in the middle of that entire ruckus and for a few days I kept wondering if he had ever heard that term before the revolution and if he knows what it means in the first place. After the president stepped down, the label became all the more desirable and the “activism” craze became as rampant as the 12th century plague and people sitting in coffee houses or shopping for groceries—many of them, I bet, had not been aware why the revolution happened—would be seen referring to themselves as activists and enumerating their political conquests.

After the “agendas” turned out to be “patriotic,” Kentucky reopened its doors for newly-liberated chicken lovers, Freemasonry turned out to have been confused with the Klu Klux Klan, and the word “activist” acquired epic proportions. It was then time for the “remnants,” the word that entered the Egyptian dictionary right after the toppling of the regime and which is used to denote members of the formerly ruling, now disbanded, National Democratic Party. The Arabic word used in this context is “fouloul” and that does not simply mean “remnants,” but rather the remaining groups of a vanquished army who sometimes attempt to get back at the victorious one even though they realize their chances at winning are almost nil. This word, found in classical Arabic poetry and never used before in colloquial Egyptian as far as I know, became a household utterance when it started to be mentioned at least a hundred times a day in different media outlets and when it became the magic reason behind any post-revolution unrest in the country. Whether or not there are actually “remnants” of the regime venting their anger and retaliating at the revolutionaries, it doesn’t matter because anyway whenever a disaster takes place it is them we have to blame.

So, you would say, “Did you hear about the church that got attacked last night?” and the response would be, “Yes, these are the ‘remnants’” or “Thugs are attacking people and stealing their cars on the highway,” and you would also get, “None other than the ‘remnants’ would so such thing,” or “Salafis are threatening to destroy Sufi shrines across the country,” and the answer is. “Yeah, that’s typical ‘remnants.’”

Regardless of whether they exist or not, the then soon-to-be “remnants” in one last desperate attempt not to acquire such a disgraceful title had done Egyptians a great favor by enriching their knowledge and allowing them to explore horizons they would have never come across had the circumstances been different. So, now they know the various meanings of “agenda” and realize that you can use it against whichever enemy you’re facing and regardless of the situation and they are fully aware of the role American fast food chains may or may not play in popular uprisings. They are all on the verge of getting their PhDs on Freemasonry and its manifestations in the form of Peugeot-like logos and one-dollar rubber bracelets and, most importantly, each and every one of them is an activist.

Don’t those little sneak peaks into a couple of entries in the latest of dictionaries and thesauri and which shows how amazingly creative as well as hilariously gullible its compilers are? The combination might indeed be lethal, but that one-of-a-kind reference is definitely for keeps and those people have always proven how unique they are even in the harshest of circumstance and the most life changing of revolutions.

Letter from Cairo: Big Obama’s House

The relationship between Egypt and the United States is not very different from that between an Egyptian woman and her husband who she knows has taken another wife behind her back. She cannot confront him because if she does so the only way to save face is to ask for divorce and there are several reasons that make this an unpleasant option—the kids, financial dependence, and / or emotional attachment being the most common examples.

He knows that she knows and is fully aware why she is pretending not to. In fact, he is content with her decision to act as if nothing happened because he, too, does not want to end their relationship for maybe two of the above mentioned reasons—the first and the third to be specific—and also for not wanting to be the bastard who abandons his wife and his family for a woman he has possibly only just met.

The wife’s acquiescence encourages him to take her for granted and minimizes any feelings of guilt he might have for hurting her womanhood. While she secretly hopes he will eventually redress the wrong he has done her and realize that the other relationship is a fling or a middle age crisis or a seven-year itch or whatever makes men assume they’re still high school kids, he keeps justifying to himself that, like all men, he is born polygamous and that one woman will never be able to give him all what he needs. So far, so good… life goes on and the charade seems like an Oscar-winner par excellence, yet tension starts when the wife starts losing patience and the husband starts fearing the day she will pull off the typical “It’s either me or she” act, and when both realize that while a breakup is undesirable, a continuation of the status quo is next to impossible.

I thought I could have made the analogy much easier had I just cited the example of France’s relationship with its former colonies in Africa, but I decided against that for two reasons.

One: the situation is a bit different since the United States did not actually occupy Egypt—we’re talking physical, traditional, invasion-like occupation. Two: the relationship between Western powers and the countries they had once occupied could, I believe, be likened to that of a possessive patron and a rebellious artist. The patron wants to get the best of the artist’s talents, but always tries to convince him that it is his best interests that he has at heart.

The artist knows this is not true and is dying for the day he will not be commissioned the artwork desired by the other people and which usually serve their political ambition and further their financial gains but not fulfill any of his aesthetic aspirations. When that day comes, the patron is infuriated at the artist’s rebellion, but is smart enough not to sever all ties with him and the art he can offer. He, therefore, turns into some kind of big brother, also under the pretext of helping the artist out whenever it is too tough for him to manage on his own and when this happens—and it usually does because the patron is very aware that the artist has not yet reached the degree of independence required to totally do without any external help—the patron would jump at the chance and hurry to “rescue” the artist in whatever ordeal he is facing while deep down enjoying the satisfaction of proving how indispensible he is. Take a look at France’s intervention in the latest crisis in Cote D’Ivoire and you will fully understand what I am talking about.

Being generally an unconventional imperialist power—the conventional type being the French and British empires—the United States’ relations with countries where it exercises considerable hegemony—and these are a lot—is much more complex and hard to define. It also differs from one country to another, so the Egyptian example is not necessarily applicable to other countries whether inside or outside the region. Regardless of the strategic importance of Egypt in the Middle East, whether in terms of political influence or geographical location, the United States’ interest in Egypt has certainly taken a different turn after 1948 and has grown into an obsession after 1979 when the Arab world’s staunch enemy became Egypt’s best buddy. One American administration after the other reiterated Egypt’s importance in maintaining peace in the Middle East—read “with Israel”—yet Obama’s luck has been exceptional—good or bad remains to be known—for during his couple of years in office, he has witnessed Egypt go through the most important transformation in its contemporary history.

When President Barack Obama chose Cairo to address the Muslim world in 2009, many were surprised and many more were skeptical, not out of underestimating Egypt’s impact on regional affairs, especially as far as American interests are concerned, but because other countries might have seemed more “Islamic” for that matter. He could have gone to Saudi Arabia, home of Islam’s two holiest sites, or to Indonesia, the world’s biggest Muslim nation as well as one in which he spent several of his childhood years.

Like many of those skeptics, to whom I obviously belong, I believed that Mr. Obama’s choice of Egypt had nothing to do with Islam or Muslims and that those two words were only used to appeal to a population that is pre-dominantly religious or at least for whom religion is in some way or another part of their daily lives—add to that the fact that Mr. Obama hails from Muslim ancestry. Acknowledging the role of al-Azhar as “a beacon of Islamic learning” and hailing “civilization’s debt to Islam,” stressing that he was seeking “a new beginning between the United States and Muslims,” and quoting verses from the Quran constituted indeed a remarkable departure from George W. Bush’s “crusade” rhetoric—in itself not such a bad initiative—yet for me this did not herald the beginning of a reconciliation with the religion perceived with increasing hostility after September 11, but rather proved how gullible we were.

Sugarcoated with praise of Islam and the principles it promotes, Mr. Obama’s speech offered just a different way of emphasizing the strategic partnership between Egypt and the United States—and when I say Egypt I mean the former Egyptian regime and not the “Muslims” he kept referring to. Obama was just playing it smart by renewing vows with Hosni Mubarak’s regime while attempting to make Egyptians like America a little bit or at least hate it less. Nobody knows what Mr. Obama was thinking exactly, but sometimes I wonder if one of the motives behind the speech was preempting any possible revolt against the despotic government that America wanted so desperately to keep in power. Quite a crazy thought I know, but all is fair in love and war and politics.

The United States’ apprehension about a regime change in Egypt and the possibility of a new government that might be hostile to the West or, most importantly, to Israel was very obvious in Mr. Obama’s confused—and confusing remarks—on the popular protests that started on January 25.

One time Mr. Obama would urge Mr. Mubarak to “live up to promises he made about political, social and economic reforms,” and another time US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton would demand “a peaceful and orderly transition”; and between this and that, the Egyptian people were left to guess whether the United States wanted Mr. Mubarak or wanted to see him go.

Of course we all know it was the first, yet we realized that hinting at embracing the second was important for a country that prides itself on being a beacon of democracy. It was the Egyptian people who relieved Mr. Obama of the tough decision he had to make and it was their will that prevailed, regardless of all other political interests and strategic calculations.

It was then that the second speech on Egypt—though not from it—came. Acknowledging the Egyptian people’s “hunger for change,” and admitting that the January 25 revolution is “history taking place,” Mr. Obama has again played it smart by wooing the people instead of wooing the regime—not that he had so much of a choice, though. Mr. Obama did praise the revolution not because he wanted it to happen or was happy that it happened, but simply because it did happen and when he said that Egypt “will never be the same,” he did not necessarily mean that he liked the change.

Again, I am not claiming I could read his mind, but I could see that while delivering this speech, he was still unable to come to terms with what happened and had not yet figured out what he meant by the “assistance” the United States is offering to post-revolution Egypt. He knew one thing: there is an inseparable link that needs to be maintained, a partnership that has to be remolded in light of the new conditions, and strategic interests that cannot be compromised… “How?” is presumably what he asked himself after he stepped down from the podium and was able to catch his breath.

Having had a couple of months to think, Mr. Obama came up with a third speech which was definitely more thought over than its hasty predecessor and in which, consequently, he took more liberty lashing out at the very regime of which he and his country had been staunch supporters, not missing the chance to mention that animosity toward Israel was only an outlet for the anger harbored against domestic tyrants. Knowing that while it was nice of him and all to refer to the revolution as one of the many “shouts of human dignity” sweeping the region and while it might have been touching—maybe more to Americans—to quote the Egyptian mother who said she can “breathe fresh air for the first time,” he had to wrap up the sweet talk and get down to action.

He then reached the most important bit—how will the US “help” in baking—and no doubt eating a big portion of—the cake? Asserting that his country will never be out of any equation by virtue of the power it wields was an attempt on Mr. Obama’s part to restore control in a relationship that took abrupt twists and hazardous turns. Mentioning the killing of Osama Bin Laden as the ultimate proof of America’s ability to eliminate terrorism, reiterating America’s intolerance of Iran’s nuclear program, and again making sure the word “Israel” was inserted in every other sentence, were gentle reminders of who the boss still is even though the balance of power might have been tipped—temporarily he hopes—toward the other side.

“I will go with the flow, but you are not to outsmart me,” Mr. Obama seemed to have been saying.

So after realizing that his wife will no longer tolerate being pushed to the margins, the husband comes back home laden with gifts for the first wife and learning by heart a few promises that might help to nip the nascent rebellion in the bud. However, while taking her in his arms, whispering that she is the love of his life and vowing that this other woman means nothing to him, he makes sure he reminds her how much she needs him and how at times she will have to swallow her wounded pride. The little independence she has started sporting will thus appear contingent upon how far his patience can go before it wears too thin.

At the end, it remains up to him, not to the wife’s indignant fits of anger or even threats to end the relationship, to leave the other woman or not and being sweet or apologetic does not translate into being weak or easy to control.

“I will always be your man, but you are not to twist my arm,” the husband thinks as he begs the wife not to leave him.

Letter from Cairo: Consumerism for Dummies

A couple of years ago, I went to a Frida Kahlo exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Arts that brought together the Mexican artist’s most characteristic paintings, especially the ones that reflected the emotional and psychological pangs she had suffered throughout a life replete with disruptions, obsessions, and agonies.

The exhibition featured several of Kahlo’s haunting self-portraits and I remember the choking sensation that had overcome me when I saw the one in which she depicted herself wearing a thorn necklace and strongly felt the bodily torture she was going through when I stood for a few minutes gazing at the one in which she wore a steel corset and where her broken spinal column showed from beneath her skin. It was inevitable to identify with her pain in the Henry Ford Hospital, where she depicts the life-threatening miscarriage she went through, and to reflect on the turbulent childhood she must have had in Girl with a Death Mask, in which a four-year-old girl is wearing a skull for a face. Even in paintings that did not depict her own personal pain—The Suicide of Dorothy Hale, where she depicts a woman jumping to her death in a manner that makes you feel you are actually seeing it happening, and A Few Small Nips, where an unfaithful woman lies in a pool of blood after her jealous lover stabs her to death, being the most memorable ones—it is very hard not to see the connection she makes between her own misery and that of others who go through similar physical or emotional ordeals.

I left the exhibition hall gasping for breath. It took me a few minutes to extract myself from this enchantingly macabre world which I thought could have held me hostage for eternity and a little longer to gradually dissipate those inexplicable feelings of guilt that assault my conscience whenever I witness any type of suffering regardless of whether the object of this suffering is alive or dead at the moment. In a desperate attempt to seek some distraction and to recover from such an emotionally draining experience, I went to the museum’s gift shop and up till this moment I regret having done so for I realized I had better stayed entrapped in Kahlo’s thorns and steel corsets. Nothing whatsoever—not even going for a greasy double cheese burger at some junk food diner or shopping for a bathing suit a one of those one-dollar shops—could have been that anticlimactic.

It might sound normal to find a variety of postcards with Frida Kahlo’s paintings, biographies and illustrated books on her work, may be a collection of letters, diaries, or similar things in her own handwriting, and this indeed I found. However, to find Frida Kahlo’s photos and self-portraits on mugs, coasters, kitchen aprons, and even socks, that was quite shocking. That’s not all I’m afraid… there was, in fact, a book of Frida paper dolls with Spanish and English notes on the artist’s life at the back of each of the costumes! I was forcefully and ruthlessly snatched from the captivating world of La Casa Azul to a booth of I Love New York paraphernalia in JFK Airport or a stuffed animals store in the San Diego Zoo.

This is not, as many who are reading this now might think, turning into a Letter from Mexico City for in post-January 25—February 11 to be more accurate—Egypt, Cairo has in record time turned into one huge gift store that sells the most “in” commodity in town, the one and only that guarantees the widest customer base and the most instant profit, one the competes with the most stylish fashion brands, the most delicious foodstuffs, and the most elegant real estate properties—the revolution.

The revolution and everything associated it with have become part and parcel of every billboard, every marketing campaign, and every TV commercial regardless of the product promoted or the service advertised. Suddenly all companies, state-owned or private, have realized that whatever they’re offering to the people has played an important role in the revolution or will at least be of indispensible benefit in building the new Egypt as envisioned by the revolutionaries. This, of course, required an out-and-out change of slogans that basically made all advertised items look like they offer the same thing and you had to make such a great effort to distinguish one from another.

It does look a bit strange when instead of telling customers how fast the connection is, the Internet service provider makes its slogan, “Let us build Egypt.” This patriotic phrase is usually written in such a huge font that it takes a while to know which company is that and for a few seconds you think it might be in the construction industry. Instead of telling you how many calls you get for how many pounds or things of that sort, the mobile service provider seems to have launched a literacy campaign that aims at enabling all Egyptians to read in a couple of year, again for the purpose of building Egypt. There was even an underwear company, known for its cotton products, that replaced its slogan about how comfortable or something along that lines their stuff is with one that reads, “Cotton speaks Egyptian.” I almost got into an accident when I first saw this billboard in Downtown Cairo. A whole range of other companies stuck to slogans like “I am Egyptian”—quite a surprising revelation, isn’t it? —and “because I am Egyptian,” I pledge to do one thing or another—mostly around “will not harass girls,” “will not throw trash in the street,” and “will not run a red light.” These are some behavioral patterns that do require a revolution, don’t they?

If the product is too small for such elaborate slogans, you will now find the Egyptian flag and maybe the word Egypt next to it on almost everything you buy—water bottles, soda cans, potato chips packs… you name it! Only toilet paper seems to have not caught up yet with the trend as far as I can notice… that would be really something, wouldn’t it?

The “a la revolution” craze made a glorious appearance in the media with all those new talk shows named after either the R-word itself or something related like “midan,” Arabic for “square” and used to refer to Tahrir Square, the center of the protests, or “Tahrir,” referring of course to the very same square. The same was seen in newspapers and, ridiculously enough, official ones in specific: one of those even issued a new supplement under the title “The youths of Tahrir,” assuming that people were too excited about the revolution to remember that the February 10 issue made of the president a demi-god and of the protestors a gang of reckless saboteurs.

It was the déjà-vu I got when I walked or drove around Cairo a few days after the toppling of the regime that allowed me to make this connection between the “revolutionary products” and the Frida Kahlo gift shop. I couldn’t help thinking how countries, no matter how advanced or underdeveloped they are and no matter how many thousands of miles separate them, think exactly alike when it comes to making money. Typical of any capitalist society, profit becomes the first and foremost priority and all facilities available are channeled towards that end. I personally have no problem with that when it comes to items that you can actually call a “commodity,” a product made for market consumption and which can be sold in return for a price that is determined based on the “value” of this product.

But what happens when it is “invaluable” and when dealing with it in terms of supply and demand constitutes a direct affront to its worth and a demeaning of the impact it had or will have on the human race. Like Frida Kahlo, the revolution is a symbol that does not take material evaluation and that is not by any means subject to commercial rules or market economies. Trying to get profit out of any of the two is not only a vulgar way of exploiting a noble cause, but is also detrimental to the history and documentation of this cause as well as inconsiderate to all the people involved. Imagine what families of martyrs would feel when they see the revolution their loved ones gave their lives for turn into a consumable good, be that food or drink or clothes or some service or another.

I have always wondered how Che Guevara would have felt about having his picture on zillions of T-shirts, key chains, and bumper stickers across the globe. I bet he would have been extremely mortified by the way he was demoted from a freedom fighter to a pop star. This is of course regardless of the fact that if we’re talking about Egypt in particular, where El Che is also all over the place, half the population does not know who he is and the other half confuses him with Bob Marley

Letter from Cairo: The She-Male

In Egyptian black-and-white movies, a woman who stands for her rights, demands equality with men, or stays unmarried beyond the socially accepted age is portrayed as not very different from a man, only with the exception of a few bodily parts that indicate otherwise. She usually has her hair pulled back, wears dark colors, and dresses almost exclusively in pants. She has a stern look, a military walk, and an expressionless face.

She is, therefore, not only depicted as man, but an unpleasant one for that matter. It is only when she starts dressing in those strapless, fluffy dresses with flower patterns—which seemed like the only outfit the female body is designed for—and wearing her hair loose and adds a few sexy gestures and a couple of seductive smiles that she is officially retrieved into the world of women and that she is able to attract the men who were previously put off by her “manly” attitude.

I recall the 1956 movie “Daughters of Eve,” the title being indicative enough of the way all women were grouped under one category whose members are expected to abide by certain rules in order to deserve becoming the daughter of the progenitor of all females in the globe. In this movie, a strong, career-oriented woman is placed in sharp contrast with her pretty, hyper-feminine sister and while the former is constantly reprimanded for scaring away men and not wanting to settle down in marriage, the latter is lauded as the perfect example of the female who does not attempt to surpass the role assigned to her by society. Only when one man decides to take up the challenge of snatching her from that world to which she does not belong and bringing her back to where women should, does this woman become what she is expected to be. The movie, therefore, concludes with the happily-ever-after ending and the moral of the story is too clear to be stated.

More than half a century later comes the movie “Taymour and Shafika.” This time the approach is different for, unlike Eve’s daughter Essmat, Shafika is already attractive and elegant and sexy. So Taymour, who is not very different from Wahid who triumphantly tames Essmat, does not have to go through the hassle of “feminizing” the “unfeminine.” He faces a bigger challenge, though. Ambitious Shafika becomes minister and macho Taymour is appointed her bodyguard, thus dealing a fatal blow to his ego and initiating a flagrant disruption in the globally recognized, Arab/Egyptian-emphasized balance of power. A fierce struggle for dominance ensues with Shafika vehemently unwilling to give up her professional future and Taymour relentlessly opposed to her assumption of a position higher than his. He eventually asks her to choose between her career and their relationship, and they reach a dead end… not quite dead it turns out, for she finally decides to quit her job and the movie ends with the same happily-ever-after scene—the wedding that could finally materialize now that the bride abides by the groom’s rules and wisely decides to recoil back to where she originally belongs. Do you still want me to state the moral of the story?

It saddens me to admit that the change that took place on the ground as far as women’s rights are concerned is as meager as the one you can trace in the two movies and the 51 years that separate them. In fact, comparing those two movies unravels how superficial any improvements in the status of women in Egypt have been. Many people might disagree with what I say and would start citing a long list of the various positions woman are now capable of holding and which were previously reserved for men by way of tradition.

“Women have become ministers and judges,” one friend once told me. “What more do they want?” Forgot to tell you this friend is a “he” in case you haven’t guessed already. “We’re all over state institutions and the private sector,” another friend said in response to my complaints about inequality. “We are much stronger than men now.” That was a “she” of course.

I listened to both of them and to several others who adopt the same view and I wondered how on earth can’t they see that having a couple of female judges here and another couple of female ministers there does not by any means indicate that women have become equal to men and does not make the government very different from the mother who while shopping at the mall buys her daughter a pack of M&Ms to distract her from asking for the more expensive Barbie doll.

This was clearly manifested in the quota system that reserves a specific number of seats for women in the parliament. While the decision to apply this system was hailed as a huge step toward gender equality and emancipation of women, it is exactly the other way round. In fact, the quota system is demeaning for women because it implies that forcing voters to choose female candidates is the only they can ever have access to the parliament. It is also quite intriguing that very few were able to detect the condescending nature of this system in the sense that it makes the political future of women contingent upon the government’s “benevolence,” and gives minority status to a group that makes up more than half the society.

Most important of all, the quota system, like the M&Ms, was supposed to offer the perfect distraction for activists who, like the little girl, keep “whining” about how unjustly they are treated. The kid won’t stay a kid forever, though, and one day she will realize how deceived she was. When that happens, the doll won’t do and nothing less than a tree house would satisfy her.

The controversy that raged last year about the appointment of women judges at the State Council offers a miniature example of how women are still seen as unfit for specific kinds of jobs. I am not going to go through details of the disputes between members of the council’s General Assembly, who ended up issuing a ban on the appointment of women, or of the lawsuit filed at the Supreme Constitutional Court, which eventually ruled that the ban is unconstitutional. I would rather like to take a quick look at the reaction of Egyptian women, yes women, to the issue and I want you to imagine what men would think—I personally did not attempt to find out for fear of the horrendous responses I would get—if they were asked.

“A woman is jealous by nature,” one woman, an academic if that helps in understanding where she’s coming from though I doubt it does, said. “If she is presiding over a court session where the defendant is another woman and this woman is wearing nicer clothes or looks prettier, she will definitely hand her one hell of an unfair sentence.”

“What if she is PMS-ing during one of the sessions?” a friend of mine wondered. “Would she be able to think straight and make wise decisions?”

Now get ready for the most memorable of them all: “What if she has a session and her husband orders her not to leave the house that day?” a female lawyer asked in a TV interview. The host, interestingly a man, seemed so baffled by his guest’s argument that he stayed silent for a few seconds while she stared at him waiting for an answer.

If this is the case with court appointments, can you imagine how it would be if a woman runs for president? In fact, you don’t need to imagine because the case is closed before it is opened. A survey conducted recently by a local NGO revealed that 100 percent of Egyptians interviewed—40 percent women and 60 percent men—were opposed to having a woman for president. The reasons might sound diverse, but they all boil down to one single thing: women are not fit for positions that require strength of character, decision-making skills, and physical and mental effort.

The reason for this is not, God forbid, because women are inferior to men in any way. On the contrary, women are of course equal to men and should have the same rights. “They are just, by nature, too delicate for such tough jobs,” they say. This reminds me of another back-and-white Egyptian movie when two women had to disguise as men to work in a mining site and prove that they are capable of doing the jobs seen as too “strenuous” for a creature that fragile and that incapable of enduring hard work and adapting to harsh environments.

Men who argue that a woman loses her femininity when she takes “manly” jobs have all the right to believe what they want, and women who agree with this argument are encouraged to hook up with these men and they can make the perfect couple for the “just married” postcards you find in Hallmark stores.

As for women who have a different take on femininity and who would rather be independent than “cute,” it is now time for the kid to stamp her feet until she shakes the ground beneath her and to scream at the top of her lungs that she will no longer be fooled with a pack of artificially-colored candies until everybody around runs to see what the deal is.

The mother might finally be convinced and buy the Barbie doll and might only want to avoid making a scene and still buy the Barbie doll. And as the stamping grows stronger and the screams get louder… the tree house it is then.