Letter from Cairo: Forgive thy president


Now we can finally sit back and breathe a sigh of relief. Let us enjoy a cold drink, have friends over for a movie night, or go shopping before the new summer collection is sold out… or even better, plan a weekend trip and get some vitamin D and a nice tan, maybe take a dive in the Red Sea to explore the beauty of the undersea world now that the one above has practically turned into a heaven on earth.

Our troubles are over and only now can we really claim we have made a revolution because only now is this revolution arriving at the objectives for which it initially broke out and only now can Egyptians rest assured that their long years of suffering have not gone to waste and that the tattered dignity they have lived with for decades is now fully restored and as good as new. O ye people of Egypt, rejoice! The president hath ask for thy forgiveness!

The news to which I wake up determine to a great extent how the rest of the day—maybe a few days to some, depending on the magnitude or even absurdity of this news—would be like. This morning, I was stunned, with all the feelings of shock, astonishment, and resentment this word could carry, to read in one of the newspapers, and later all over the internet and TV, that our former, in fact I prefer “ousted,” president is planning to give another of his “moving” speeches to the Egyptian people, this time asking for their forgiveness.

It is not only the nonsensical nature of this provocative piece of news that got on my nerves, but also the fact that a rather annoying yet catchy disco/techno song I heard a couple of times on the radio while I was stuck in Cairo traffic one crazy afternoon has been resonating in my head ever since I was made aware of the president’s upcoming feat. The song, performed by some British band, is entitled “Audacity of Huge,” and I think now you might have guessed why, even though nothing gets further from what I call music, this was the first thing that hit my mind upon opening my eyes to such a surprise. The song is basically about a man who has everything it takes to live a good life, yet is unable to grab the attention of this one woman he likes and keeps wondering why is it not possible to get her when he always gets all what he wants. So, he enumerates several of the privileges he has then ends with the refrain,

I got it all,
Yes it’s true.
So why don’t I get you?

Regardless of how different the two situations are, the title of the song says it all and the new version—excuse my lousy rhyming skills—would be,

Screwing your lives is what I’ve always done,
So why don’t you let me get away with this one?

What is it exactly that the president wants people to forgive him for? Let’s see… may be for sucking dry the country’s resources and piling the revenues in Swiss banks and worldwide mansions … or for being the direct reason for making 40 percent of the people live under poverty line and for having Cairo surrounded by a belt of shanty towns that offered a perfectly thriving environment for crime and terrorism… maybe for suppressing freedom of expression, clamping down on activists, jailing journalists, and embarking on elaborate charter assassination processes against whoever sounded the alarm bells over the dark pit into which the country was nose diving with the speed of lightening… possibly for the innocent civilians beaten, raped, and tortured to death in police stations by the Interior Ministry’s henchmen who were given green light to take out any soul that threatened the regime grip on power in one or another… how about for a messed up foreign policy that dwarfed Egypt’s role in the region, created of Egypt the puppet mouthpiece of Israel and the United States and the major hurdle in the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, and compromised Egypt’s share in Nile water… and don’t forget the dilapidated infrastructure, the soaring rates of unemployment, the deplorable medical services, the rampant corruption in government institutions… Oh! And one more insignificant thing: a dignity-less existence.

I have consciously decided not to include firing at and killing peaceful demonstrators because this requires entire volumes on tyranny, brutality, and lack of conscience.

The next question is: What is he offering to Egyptians in return for their forgiveness? The money he took? Is that a confession to the theft in which he and his family have been involved for decades? Or is he giving this money by way of charity and out of the kindness of his heart?

According to the story that reported the former president’s intention to give this speech, he and his wife will give all “their properties” to the Egyptian people. Do I take it that they still insist they wealth they accumulated is “theirs,” and that it was obtained by legitimate means but that they are noble enough to waive it to the people if that’s what they want? Wait… it gets better… he will also announce that they will live on whatever pension the state allocates to them. A definition of the word “pension” might help to underscore the absurdity of this condescending statement. Based on my limited knowledge of the English language, a pension is the state’s way of rewarding a civil servant for spending years in the service of the country. I guess it goes without saying that this “reward” is not granted to employees charged with graft, corruption, and abuse of power, let alone murder, torture, and slander.

One more question, the easiest in fact, is left: Does Mr. Hosni Mubarak think he will still be able to emotionally manipulate the Egyptian people in a way that makes them give up their persistent demands for having him brought to justice? Well, he tried it several times since the start of the revolution and it relatively worked—on a very small scale though and not with the revolutionaries—not because he managed to play it right, but owing to the fact that it is easy to appeal to the emotions of Egyptians. However, even those who were deceived by the former president’s pledges to introduce political reforms and not to run for another term and were moved by his “deep sorrow” for the way he was being treated by his own “compatriots” and by his reiteration of the “sacrifices” he made for the country, realized the emptiness of his promises and falsity of his pleas.

In fact, it is quite interesting that in all the speeches in which he tried to press the people’s emotional buttons he had only one achievement to brag about when it came to what he gave to the country: being the architect of the air strike against Israel in the October 1973 War. Three little points I would like to underline here: One, Mr. Mubarak’s most outstanding accomplishment—according to him—did not take place during his three-decade presidency. Two, Mr. Mubarak was commander of the Egyptian Air Force at the time, so it was part of his job description—not a sacrifice he offered to make—to carry out an air strike in a war. Three, even the magnitude of the October air strike and its role in granting victory to Egypt are currently being questioned.

Egyptians will indeed forgive their president on one condition… and it’s not if he is genuine in his apology or if he offers the proper compensation or if he discloses any information that might help in bringing down other members of the cartel. Only if he could compile a list of all the crimes he had committed against his people since the day he assumed power till the day he was relieved of his undeserved position—that is exactly 29 years, two months, and 17 days just to save him the hassle of calculation—will Egyptians probably think of considering, not necessarily granting, his request just in recognition of the fact he tried doing some self-judgment, of course provided that the information he submits are accurate. Actually, saying “Egyptians” in the previous sentence is quite unfair and dishonest because that is how I see and I don’t represent all Egyptians. In this case, I have a better idea. Let’s ask what each and every Egyptian would like Mr. Mubarak to offer in order to forgive him. Each citizen is allowed to request reparation for something that he/she suffered as a direct or indirect result of the regime’s despotism or for any of the offences that inflicted damage upon the country and its people in general… or for both!

After collecting the requests and after the president fulfills—for the first time ever— all the requirements of the Egyptian people and after each of them acknowledges that the wrong done to him/her and/or to the country is finally redressed, we can issue one collective statement:

“We hereby forgive thee, Mister President!”

Letter from Cairo: March of the Saladins


The economy is gasping for breath and they say it is a matter of months before we all embark on a compulsory, open-ended fast… people who used to stay out till the crack of dawn playing dominos and going to the midnight show at movie theaters now cower under their blankets before sunset with mugging and thuggery becoming daily occurrences.

Muslims and Christians are killing each other as warnings of an imminent civil war resonate all over the country like wind chimes during a tornado… parliamentary and presidential elections are a few months away and nobody knows who’s running for what and the majority does not even know what “parliament” or “president” means… the police are too “hurt” to impose law and order and the army is too “busy” to attend to trivialities and the people are proudly getting straight “A”s in Self-Protection 101… But time cannot be stopped and all the above can be done at our leisure throughout the remaining days of the year…it is May 15, the anniversary of Palestinian dispossession, and this cannot wait!

Before the January 25 Revolution, you would only see Egyptian flags on top of a few government buildings, not exactly fluttering, but rather flaccidly hanging there coated with layers of dust that betrayed decades of neglect for their value and that of the country they stood for. Torn at the sides and with the red, white, and black fading into one single pale shade that looked like something between the grey of a thousand-year-old mummy and the yellow of lifeless autumn leaves.

There is no need to mention what this extreme lack of care for the flag signified for a people who might have reached the point of preferring to sing the Barbadian anthem and pledge allegiance to the Sultan of Brunei. There is also no need to point out the reasons behind the stellar change that took place not when Egypt was rid of the despotic regime that rendered everything national bland and colorless as many would like to think, but the moment Egyptians realized that they belong to a country that is worth fighting for and it was time they stop pretending to salute a worn-out rag.

Now, however, you can hardly spot a house or pass by a car or come across a store or eat at a restaurant that does not carry one size or another of the Egyptian flag and display some form or another of finally reconnecting to the long-neglected motherland.

For days and months the fluttering of Egyptian flags, all new and bright and throbbing with color, has become part and parcel of the country’s landscape, but this nationalistic fervor started taking a different shape as the flag of the country that made one of history’s most memorable revolutions made way for another one that so much yearns for the moment it merges with the usurped sky of which it has been deprived for the past 60 plus years. After seemingly sinking into oblivion together with the cause it stands for, the Palestinian flag made a glorious comeback to remind Arabs and the whole world not only that the struggle for freedom knows no limits, but also that gone are the times when the Palestinian cause had no longer become a priority for Egypt and come the times when revolutions prove they can break separation walls, pull down checkpoints, and bid farewell to refugee camps.

After living with the shame of being part of a regime that gave precedence to Israeli interests and deepened the rift between the Palestinian people, Egyptians were once again allowed the chance to bring back to life the Arab dream that they considered clinically dead since the signing of the Camp David treaty, viewed by nationalists as the official abandonment of Palestine that sealed the end to a collective Arab unity against a Zionist enemy.

With the removal of a president labeled as “Israel’s man,” Egyptians were finally able to exercise their right and duty as Arabs to defend their next of kin who are suffering from a kind of oppression—rather a form of genocide—that might not be similar to the one they suffered before the revolution yet can still be eliminated by the same means. Seeing the revolution gaining momentum in Libya, Syria, and Yemen, not wanting to waste more time on slogans and long-term plans, and deciding that tearful commemoration of the Nakba only rubs salt into the all-time sore wound, they made up their minds to take the first step—quite a lot of steps in fact—and march to the land on the day its people were rendered land-less.

Attempting to recapture that moment of Arab nationalism that most of the youths who planned the march had not witnessed but only dreamt of, constituted a reenactment of past glories that are not called so because they brought about any triumph—they were in fact all moments of bitter defeat—but owing to the long-gone values they stood for—a unified cause fought for against all odds. The 1948 War, in which Arabs hurried to the rescue of Palestine, immediately came to mind as the prospect of a similar communal action—a different kind of resistance though—started reemerging as part of the Egyptian psyche.

Stories from the days of Nasser, as controversial as he was and still is, are now being retold to younger generations and the spirit for which he stood are becoming an inexhaustible source of inspiration for Egyptians nostalgic for the long-lost Arab dignity. He might have been a dictator—indeed he was—and he might have dragged the country to the most horrendous defeat by flexing his muscles in the 1967 War—indeed he did—but, they argue, he loved this country at least. Nasser, who was the only Arab leader to have an ideology named after him, inspired nations across the world, not because he was an ideal ruler, but because he came at a time when countries struggled to assert their independence and fought to regain their nationalist pride, and he relentlessly and unflinchingly supported that cause with all his might.

It is this cause that made so many world leaders label themselves “Nasserites” till the present moment.

For me, it is neither the memory of 1948 War nor the spirit of Nasser that are summoned up with the calls for the march towards the “promised land.” My mind has made a longer journey back in time as the image of Saladin—interestingly not an Arab—presented itself to me, and suddenly I envisioned the Kurdish warrior mobilizing his troops to liberate Jerusalem.

The May 15, 2011 march was called by its organizers as the day of “zahf,” an Arabic word that literally means “creeping” or “crawling” but that is usually used to denote the slow, yet determined, movement in the direction of a much-coveted place, in many cases a holy land unjustly usurped by powers seen as formidable or invincible. Saladin had done what Nasser failed at despite the centuries that set them apart: he combined the soldier with the sage and never allowed ardent faith in the cause to miscalculate his careful moves towards an all-sweeping triumph. He knew what he wanted, but also knew when he could get it… he was a man of war and an epitome of peace… he was what Egyptian perpetrators of the revolution and the initiators of the march aspire to be as they set out to prove that history can, in fact, repeat itself.

The analogy between the Egyptians’ march to Gaza and Saladin’s liberation of Jerusalem might not have escaped the Israelis who have been attacking the strip and obstructing humanitarian aid heading its way since they got wind of the approaching earth-shaking treads of a once crippled opponent. The threat they perceive in a group of peaceful activists embarking on a symbolic act of conquering—they were not planning to besiege Israel with catapults nor expel its “crusader” inhabitants after all, were they?—is quite indicative of the power inherent in the Palestinian cause and the victory it can accomplish once Arabs are no longer drained by fighting tyranny at home.

To those, both average citizens and state officials, who had objected to the march on the grounds that more pressing issues are more worthy of the energy and effort of Egyptians and under the pretext that the country is going through a critical phase in which any distraction, no matter how minor, is not welcome, I say one thing. Those Egyptians who managed to uproot a regime as deeply entrenched in its soil as its most ancient obelisks and who did so without shedding one drop of blood are capable of all sorts of things.

This might sound pretty naïve and a little bit dreamy slash idealistic slash romantic, but it is equally true slash possible slash bound to happen: those very same Egyptians are capable of reconstructing the country they have just liberated while not allowing themselves to indulge in border-confined dreams that exclude those whose destiny has always been intertwined with theirs or to fall into the same moral abyss in which their previous despots felt so much at home.

Forgot to tell you that the word “zahf” also implies movement toward different directions and penetration of several fronts. Who on earth charted one single, straight-line path toward freedom? What course would history have taken had Saladin not braved the hazardous terrain from Tikrit to the Levant? What could have happened had Che Guevara remained a medical student in Argentina?

Sonia Farid: Talibanization by association


The distance between the northeastern tip of Africa and the northwestern territory of the Indian Subcontinent is pretty long; cultural, historical, or political similarities are quite unlikely. Nevertheless, the blasts that shake Pakistan send a chill down the spines of Egyptians who in every passing breeze detect an all-sweeping monsoon that is bound to uproot them from their soil, blow them into the air, and shatter them to pieces. Today—Friday, May 13—was no exception.

The scores who lost their lives in Peshawar at the hands of Taliban militants felt like our own compatriots and the bombing has indeed added one more crack to the fragile walls inside which we seek an illusory protection that grows fainter by the hour.

Back in 1996, we were glued to the screen as we watched bearded militants take over Kabul, declare the creation of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, and issue a series of edicts that seemed as unintelligible as the questions Arabs are sometimes asked in Europe and North America like “Do you go to work on a camel?” Banning music and cinema, criminalizing greeting cards and fashion catalogues, restricting education, work, and sports to men, and declaring nail polish and firecrackers un-Islamic were just a few examples of what looked like the main articles in the constitution of a state founded a few centuries after the Middle Ages.

We followed the news with a mixture of awe and—I have to say I am ashamed to admit that—amusement. We waited everyday for updates on the Taliban’s latest and greatest like Mexicans who are nowhere to be found in streets at 9:00 p.m. because it is time for the evening “telenovela.” The sight of bearded, sullen-looking men in turbans, who summoned up the visual image we created as children of the 40 thieves in Ali Baba’s tale, “shooing” women off the streets and beating men with hair longer than dictated made us watch the whole thing with the aloofness of movie audiences who know that no matter how scary, bloody, or disturbing the film is, they will be back home in a couple of hours relishing a warm meal, laughing time away in a family gathering, and enjoying the feeling of being so far away from all the “bad guys” that do not seem to have a chance of crossing the silver screen into the real world.

Now, we are realizing how superficial, self-centered, and insensitive we had been, and it saddens me to admit that we only came to this realization when we felt that South Asia feels closer than Sudan and that I, for example, might be in the same boat as those Afghani women who were not allowed to peep from the window and whose appearance in any public place was treated like a descent of Satan from hell.

Though precipitated by a purely selfish fear of the direct damage that could be inflicted on us if a similar scenario in reenacted in Egypt, this moment of illumination opened our eyes to the fact that fanaticism knows no boundaries and bigotry carries no passports. We were snatched from the bubble in which we confined ourselves and given the chance to rise above the “as long as it’s not me” slogan that had been controlling our reactions to tragedies in what we alleged was the land of wonders and fairy tales.

This reminds of a story my mother told me when I was child and I wonder how different I would have felt had I made the connection a few years ago. The story dates back to 1961 when Congolese independence fighter and Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba was arrested after a coup staged by Chief of Staff Colonel Mobutu Sese Seko and specifically to a footage of Sese Seko’s men forcing into Lumumba’s mouth copies of his speeches right before executing him.

Moved by the humiliation to which a freedom fighter was subjected at the hands of a bloodthirsty tyrant, my mother started crying. A very close friend of hers who was watching with her was extremely bewildered by her emotional reaction and said something she has never forgotten since then: “If it’s not happening to you, why bother?” Even though more than 20 years had passed since this happened, she was never able to forget those few words that made her see this friend in a totally new light: “Things were never the same between us after that day,” she said.

I wonder if when in 2001 we lay on our couches again munching on some cheese crackers or sipping apricot ice tea while watching the Taliban embark on the long and perseverant process of shelling and dynamiting the gigantic 6th century Buddha statues in Bamyan Valley it ever occurred to us that the Karnak Temple, the Sphinx, or Abu Simbel might face the same fate. Of course we did not. Indiana Jones’s Temple of Doom will always be nothing but a fantasy.

Have we been wise enough to start changing our minds when a group of extremist Islamists set out to destroy several Sufi shrines on the grounds they constitute a novelty prohibited by the Salafi school of thought? How about when one of the Salafi clerics—he is in fact known as the Taliban sheikh—announced that monuments in Egypt are idols and that destroying them is a duty ordained by God? How about another cleric—Taliban-educated, too, no doubt—who argued that any man who is capable of controlling a woman can be president of Egypt? How about the burning of churches and the attacks on Copts? How about increasing calls for depriving women of the right to unconditional divorce?

If it tires your mind and eyes to look all the way to Afghanistan and Pakistan, why don’t you just embark on a little journey to the south of our own “stan” and take a little walk down memory lane as you enter Luxor’s Deir el-Bahari where an unforgettably horrendous massacre took place and where even 13 years later you still get the shudders the moment you set foot into the mortuary temple complex whose constructors had never imagined facing such challenges to their immortality. Even though it was human beings who were targeted in the Luxor killing spree and it was the economy and the government, rather than the monuments that the perpetrators of this crime aimed at destroying, it is time we stop making literal comparisons and start looking at the bigger picture.

It is also time we keep remembering; for forgetfulness is lethal to any nation that might for a split of a second think it is an island—even if it actually is. If you have a weak memory and 1997 seems too far away, how about September 11, 2001? They say that several Americans had not been aware before that day that Manhattan was surrounded by water from all sides… I just hope their eyes were opened to much more than that!

If globalization has any benefits at all, I bet it is terrorist organizations that would emerge as the most prominent beneficiaries. Violence and extremism turned out to be much easier to export oversees than tolerance and coexistence, and “no one is safe,” to quote the taglines of several action movies. Only now it is no longer a movie and we are no longer sitting comfortably in red velvet seats eating caramelized popcorn and thinking of where to go for dinner afterward.

I know that the idea of a world without boundaries was not meant that way, but I have just realized this is the only context in which we can use it at the moment, especially when the positive connotation this concept initially represented has never been able to materialize.

I hope now you can take a fresh look at the illuminated world globe you have on your desk, the atlas you kept since high school, or—even quicker and much easier— lonelyplanet.com. Maybe then you will realize that the Aussie kangaroo can hop to the Himalayas and the Andean condor can find plenty of prey in Mount Kilimanjaro.

Letter from Alexandria: Grasping for the past, falling into the future


I grew up in Athens hearing my neighbors talk about Alexandria as their dream city. Finding a family that did not have half of its members related to Alexandria in one way or another was as hard as going into a Greek café and ordering Turkish coffee.

Those who lived in Alexandria dreamt of going back if only for a cup of tea in the Athenios or a sunset walk along the Corniche, and those who didn’t thrived on memories of their compatriots; they nourished along the years an idyllic image of this city that offered a peculiar combination of authenticity and diversity.

I belonged to the second group and, like them, I couldn’t wait to set foot in the Bride of the Mediterranean, yet unlike them I was the proud citizen of the country that embraced this jewel and, therefore, was never susceptible to those nostalgic fits and the melancholy that accompanies them. Turns out nostalgia comes in so many different shapes.

When Jewish Alexandrian writer André Aciman released his memoir Out of Egypt, he was not only telling the story of his and family’s “exodus” from their birthplace at the time when his likes were no longer wanted at the city that once housed the largest Jewish community in the world, but he was also speaking on behalf of all those who lament the loss of the Alexandria they have either seen or dreamt they would see.

The once cosmopolitan city which had for decades been home to Greeks, Italians, Armenians as well all Egyptians of all faiths and denominations, the center of the Hellenistic civilization and the seat of one of the world’s most venerated ancient wonders, and the hometown of the Greek poet Constantine Cavafy, is no longer any of those. Forget about the Pharos, the Roman amphitheatre, the necropolis, and the catacombs and never mind the Bibliotheca Alexandrina—the old or the new—for now Alexandria is all about two totally different things: mosques and churches.

For some strange reason Alexandria was thought to have remained different from other Egyptian cities, so while Islamic fundamentalism and sectarian tension were starting to gain ground in different parts of the country, there was always hope that Alexandria had all what it takes to emerge unscathed. Maybe it was its history of religious tolerance and multicultural coexistence, maybe it was the popular concept that port cities, owing to their location, are always less prone to those inland prejudices that result from too little exposure to the outside world, and maybe it was just a last straw that we all needed to cling to… well, a straw is a straw, after all.

While nothing has remained of the polyglot society Alexandria once was except restaurant signs and some street names, and even though increasing conservatism had started taking over the city whose beaches were once the destination of vacationers from all over Egypt, how ugly things turned was still utterly shockingly and absolutely unbelievable. I had personally thought blind fanaticism had left Alexandria since the killing of Hypatia. Nothing wrong with admitting that you were naïve… rather stupid!

“I Was Blind but Now I Can See” was a play performed at the Saint George Coptic Church about a Christian student who converts to Islam and is later bullied by the same Muslims who paid him to convert when he decides to go back to Christianity. The CDs of the play are rumored to have been sold in the neighborhood. Muslims demand an apology; the church issues none… to the Bastille, citoyens!

The attempt by Muslim protestors to storm the church in retaliation for the staging of a play that “defamed Islam,” and whose only proof of existence was a sensational story run in some tabloid, served to reveal the unfortunate fact that Alexandria is not immune and that the last fortress of coexistence in a country that has been swiftly eaten up by extremism had actually fallen… and with it fell all our hopes at regaining our old selves.

When 2011 was inaugurated with the blast that hit the Two Saints Church, also in Alexandria, that fortress was buried six feet under the ground. When the revolution toppled the regime that was always charged with sowing the seeds of sedition between Muslims and Copts to guarantee a conflict-ridden population that is too drained by strife to challenge its power and with the honorable contribution of Alexandrians to this historic achievement, much of the fortress’s rubble was unearthed and seemed ready for reconstruction.

Seems it was too soon to jump to such idealistic conclusions. Tuesday night’s clashes, which broke when thousands of Christians took to the streets in protest of the attack by Muslim fundamentalists on a Coptic church in Cairo, alerted us to the fact that the ailment of this beautiful city is far from cured and that the wound is much deeper than we had thought and that we have to stop thinking of Alexandria as a special case because it is not. In fact, it all depends on how you define “special.”

For me, yesterday’s incidents were not that shocking and wouldn’t be for most Egyptian if they just went back in time a little bit and thought of another piece of news that had unfortunately gone unnoticed or was intentionally overlooked by the media and the state. A few weeks ago, social networking Websites and a couple of independent newspapers and private satellite channels reported that Salafi groups in Alexandria distributed flyers ordering female residents of the city to wear the head scarf on going out and threatening to “assault”—some said “kill,” others said “burn with acid”—women who did not comply.

Regardless of the fact that a senior Salafi cleric from Alexandria dismissed those reports and stressed that his group only uses peaceful means of preaching, letting this pass makes us accomplices in the crime and holds us accountable for the darkness Alexandria is slipping into. Suppose we believe that these reports were totally baseless, what about the posters put in several neighborhoods in Alexandria with unveiled women surrounded by insects and fiery statements condemning all those who dress “indecently”?

This is the same city where 15 years ago I saw women in their bathing suits sitting next to their “decently clad” counterparts on the beaches of Alexandria. This is also the same city were now you can see the “us and them” look from eyes peeping behind a black face-veil and you can’t help asking yourself, “How does she see me?”

It is indeed very intriguing that the most liberal of Egypt’s cities has now become one of its most conservative and I sometimes think it is the former that led to the latter.

A city as diverse and multicultural as Alexandria was an ideal battleground for all those who took it upon themselves to eliminate “vice” and promote “virtue” and erasing a centuries-long history of tolerance and coexistence was the only way to do so. I am not going to go about babbling again about the role the regime played in fostering such bi-polar animosities throughout its 30 years of “leave them breathless” policies because this has now become quite ipso facto.

I would rather trace the whole thing more than 50 years back when the post 1952 Revolution regime embarked on what seemed like a purging campaign that might have had Jews as its main target, yet by doing so managed to undermine the basic social structure upon which Alexandria was based. Whether on purpose or unintentionally, the Nasser government established a direct link between the creation of the state of Israel and the presence of Jews and acted accordingly, announcing, “All Jews are Zionists and enemies of the state.”

As Jews, born and raised in Egypt, suddenly became a threat to national security and consequently expelled and having their property confiscated, the first nail was driven into the coffin of Alexandria’s religious and ethnic makeup. The disappearance of the Jewish community in Alexandria heralded the city’s fall as a model of diversity and shortly thereafter other communities followed, not necessarily because they were persecuted or kicked out, but simply because it was no longer the friendly homeland it had once been. The black-and-white era had begun and their “grey” identity had no place in it.

They are gone, but the purge is not over… only the target changed. And don’t fall into the trap of thinking that the Coptic community is the only opponent because all Egyptians who strive for a civil state are. It is a long process of alienation that ascribes to the same dichotomy promoted by former regimes and that aims to alienate any party considered “other,” be that Copts, Seculars, Leftists, moderate Muslims… you name it!

When and if this happens, can we blame the Mediterranean if it divorces its once-beautiful bride and all-time beloved?

Letter from Cairo: Thus dies Frankenstein… On lives the monster


In the past, not very long ago, you would leave Egypt for months and even years on end and come back to find everything pretty much the same: the same despotic regime, which then seemed as irremovable as the Great Pyramid, doing its best to make the life of its people miserable and to crush every hope they might have for a dignified life.

Maybe the only substantial development that might have taken place during one’s absence from the country was that the rich were getting filthy richer and the poor deplorably poorer, and even this followed a remarkably steady pattern that it could no longer be called change.

In fact, political life in Egypt used to remind me of “The Bold and the Beautiful,” an American soap opera in which it would take a dozen episodes for one of the characters to explain to his girlfriend why he cheated on her and another dozen for her to explain to him why she left him at the altar, and might in the process dedicate a couple more episodes to another detailed account of the time he cheated on her since it was related in one way or another to her decision not to marry him. You were, in short, given the privilege of skipping thirty plus episodes and still not missing out on anything.Now, after three decades of yawning in front of “The Bold and the Beautiful,” we are panting as we follow “The Fast and the Furious.”

Having already had a hard time trying to follow the breakneck speed at which things have been developing since January 25, you can imagine what a torture it is not only when you are away for a couple of days, but also when all hell decides to break loose in those very same couple of days and you are left with the excruciating task of trying to figure out what was and is going on.

Suddenly, you are sitting at the edge of your couch, breathlessly trying to look for a rerun of the previous days while quickly flipping to today’s episode and worrying about how much you might miss in the few seconds between this and that.

While the pace at which things have happened since January 25 hardly left Egyptians a chance to catch their breath, and forcefully snatched the population from a state of utter stagnation to one of unprecedented action, the way events are unfolding now is an entirely different story.

Throughout the 18 days of protests, we were all waiting for the regime to fall and fearing what might happen if it didn’t, may be occasionally coming up with alternative scenarios that in most cases seemed bleak and unpromising.

Yet, as anxious and apprehensive as we were, we understood what we wanted. We had a clear vision, a well-charted path, and one common dream… now we are left wondering if we still retain any of those.

After February 11, when the revolution seemingly came to a glorious closure with the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, a communal sigh of relief shook the entire country only to be cut short by the realization that while the regime might have fallen, the fruits of its relentless “divide and rule” tactics are now rising; and instead of trying to work on figuring out how to build a post-revolution Egypt, our one and only preoccupation has instead become understanding the pre-revolution Egypt.

There is not a more mind-boggling example than Saturday’s attack on a Coptic church in Cairo over some interfaith love story/marriage—the on-vogue trigger for most of the latest sectarian clashes in Egypt. Tension between Muslims and Christians is not new to Egypt and occasional majority-minority strained relations are quite common in different parts of the world, yet the case now is absolutely different as the specter of a nation-wide civil strife looms over the newly-”liberated” people.

I am not generally a member of the camp that easily adopts conspiracy theories and that is why I am not going to point fingers at “remnants” of the old regime as most Egyptians automatically do when similar conflicts break out and which I personally view as the easy way out of those crises that have befallen the country since the toppling of the regime.

In fact, I view the matter in much simpler terms: the former government had raised a few monsters and while the former departed, the latter stayed. Now, we are left to deal with them.

For decades, the regime has been playing a “dirty”—excuse my French— game with Islamists and ultraconservatives, a.k.a. Salafis, in order to maintain a web of extremely intricate power-relations between Muslims and Copts, and between the regime and its subjects. There is an Egyptian saying that best applies to the strategy the government followed with Islamists—giving something with your right hand and taking it back with the left one.

Islamist-leaning factions—moderate or extremist—had always been suppressed on the grounds of the threat they posed to the “civil state” the regime claimed Egypt is and in order, of course, to allay the fears—be they justified or not—of the United States and Israel as far as the Iranian model is concerned.

Yet while Islamists were hunted down, persecuted, and put to jail, they were in other ways encouraged, empowered, and assigned a major role in the country’s domestic policies.

Islamists were given free rein in poverty-stricken districts throughout Egypt, where they brainwashed the people into believing that Islam forbade rebelling against the ruler, and that whatever misery they were suffering was a test from God and that passing this test is what would grant them a place in heaven after death.

They were occasionally, and rather implicitly, given the green light to bully or publicly condemn Copts so that the latter would resort to the government for protection and, therefore, never strive toward a democracy that might bring to power the potential perpetrators of a Coptic holocaust.

The same Islamist card was used by the former regime with the West to guarantee remaining in power and to evade any pressure for political reform, which indeed worked at the beginning of the revolution when several Western heads of state stated, even if not in so many words, that Mr. Mubarak could be a dictator but was indispensible for his outstanding record of keeping religious movements at bay. Islamists were vital for the survival of the regime, which derived the biggest part of its internal and external support from fighting the monster it created.

Now that the regime is gone, the “monster” is able to break all the shackles and all geared up for making a full reality of what has until recently been to a great extent a legend. No longer under the mercy of a government that pats on its shoulder with one hand and slaps it on the face with the other, they are now more eager than ever to abandon their mortifying place as instruments and assume the new role of masterful players in the “It’s our turn” orchestra.

Let’s just hope we don’t end up listening to our requiem and let’s not leave the concert hall for a split second. This is a performance that allows no intermissions and missing one single note might very well herald our perdition. Let’s not go anywhere for only then can we be the tenors of our own fate and the vocalists of the new anthem for the new Egypt.

Letter from Cairo: Down goes the terrorist, hail to the martyr


Osama bin Laden is dead. Since the crack of dawn, this has become Cairo’s new “good morning” and “how are you doing?” and “any plans for tonight?” All those I’ve met or talked to since the fate of the much-hyped militant was made known to the whole world seem to have been connected to Osama bin Laden in one way or another and his death suddenly seemed like the piece of news that is bound to change their lives.

Which, really, is quite interesting since as far as I know, very few Egyptians cared about bin Laden if not because he does not have a direct impact on Egypt then maybe because his destructive powers were believed to have been blown out of proportion by the US administration to justify its war on terror.

For several others, bin Laden is just this crazy man who every now and then makes a TV appearance threatening to wipe the United States off the map or blow up the whole world or, of course, he’s this cartoon character who gets highest viewer rates on YouTube.

Why then is he suddenly so important and how come his death is becoming as much important news as the ouster of the Hosni Mubarak regime under whose brunt Egyptians suffered for three decades? What do they see in bin Laden’s life or death that they relate to? And most important of all, why is it that while Americans have been celebrating since President Obama announced the fate of the world’s most wanted terrorist, none of this joy is spotted here in Cairo, and apprehension is the first reaction you get when the topic is brought up?

For average Egyptians, bin Laden is neither the mastermind of the September 11 attacks, nor the bombing of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, nor the main supporter of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, nor the man held accountable for the indiscriminate death of civilians in several parts of the world.

Go back in time a little bit more and you will realize who bin Laden is for the majority of Egyptian citizens… yes, as far back as 1979… when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. Bin Laden then emerged as the man who revived the idea of the “jihad,” or the holy war, and fought for the dignity of Islam… and he has been remembered as such ever since.

For many Egyptians, “jihad” is a word they learnt at school to refer to the struggle of The Prophet and his companions to protect Islam against those who wanted to nip the new religion in the bud. The word, therefore, has become impregnated with all those pristine values associated with the dawn of Islam, and proponents of jihad are seen as protectors of the religion and its followers.

Separating between the context in which the concept of jihad originated and the circumstances in which it was revived is what many Egyptians failed to do. Veneration of any kind of action precipitated by a religious cause created heroes of the Afghan Mujahedin and rendered their leader, Osama bin Laden, an icon of Islamic valor and the architect of God’s war against the powers of darkness.

Believe it or not… till now when you mention the name Osama bin Laden to a cab driver, a shop attendant, or a civil servant, you get more or less one response: “Ah! He is the man who fought the Communists,” or “the infidels” in some other versions. Indeed, Osama bin Laden had done a great job pulling just the right strings as far as his war on “the enemies of Islam” is concerned.

He capitalized on the traditional association between Communism and atheism to demonize the Soviet Union; very few bothered to check the facts and realize that Islamist militants in Afghanistan committed as many atrocities as the Marxist government they were fighting. One other fact was totally overlooked: bin Laden and his Mujahedin were funded, trained, and supported by the United States, which wanted to give the Soviet Union its own Vietnam and which found in Afghanistan the perfect opportunity to fight a proxy war and score a memorable victory against its staunch enemy… the Cold War was never that “cold” any way!

While average Egyptians may focus on bin Laden the man, intellectuals are preoccupied with bin Laden the tool. For them, bin Laden was just a pretext for a neo-colonial approach adopted by the United States under the pseudonym of “the war on terror.” Hunting down the reported perpetrator of the Twin Towers attack and several other terrorist operations, they argue, was the excuse the American Administration used to pose as the world’s promoter of democracy and the rescuer of “backward” nations from the quagmire of autocratic/ extremist regimes—the same rationale used in Iraq, only with Islamic fundamentalism replaced by weapons of mass destruction.

Double standards are also not hard to detect here, for the same bin Laden of whom the United States made a hero owning to his ability to crush the Soviets had suddenly become the most menacing threat to the world’s security and wellbeing, and his elimination had become as necessary as destroying Nazi Germany… or may be even bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki!

While those very intellectuals are aware of the crimes against humanity bin Laden had been committing since the Afghan War, they also reject the polarizing effect the United States aimed at creating and which revolves around George W. Bush’s famous assertion that it’s either you are with us or against us.

Since the start of the propaganda campaign to justify the invasion of Afghanistan, the United States had been coercing public opinion, nationally and worldwide, to the effect that if you are against bin Laden, you have to support the United States in whatever attempts it makes to rid the world of his evil. Therefore, opponents to the war on Afghanistan suddenly turned into proponents of terrorism and maybe bin Laden sympathizers; and those who did not object to the killing of thousands of civilians in search of one single person were not only on the good side of America, but also participants in the noble mission of spreading world peace and saving humanity.

For both categories of folks, bin Laden’s death was definitely not good news. For the first, the United States has become the new “infidel” enemy of Islam—remember Bush’s remark about “crusades”—and Osama’s death signals an unmatched victory of a country whose influence on the Muslim world has so far been nothing but destructive.

This sentiment is becoming more overtly highlighted with the increasing influence wielded by the Islamist trend in Egypt and with the way it portrays the United States as the promoter of Western ideals that violate the principles of Islam. Some of them might realize that bin Laden is no angel, yet they do not want to see America emerge victorious from what they perceived as its war on Islam, and they do not want to see the repercussions of this victory echoing in their homeland.

“If Americans rule the Muslim world, they will ban the veil, allow gay marriages, and spread vice all over the place,” goes the most common answer to “Why don’t you like America?”

While realizing that bin Laden is indeed a criminal, the other group is categorically opposed to the way his end was orchestrated—same reservations being voiced about the trial and execution of Saddam Hussein. The fact that the United States is now posing as the superhero that saved the world is absolutely unacceptable for Egyptian intellectuals who are very well aware of the “fine line” between imperialism and benevolence.

Their realization of how the bin Laden card will be flashed for decades to come in the face of anyone who dares question America’s sincere wish to see justice prevail and might even serve as a pretext for more “wars on terror” in the futures makes them extremely apprehensive. The anticipated rise of US hegemony in the region following the “heroic” taking out of the “villain” is, according to them, a prelude to another occupation… not one with tanks and warplanes, but the more dangerous type—that which makes you fully and totally under the mercy of a Big Brother who for the sake of protecting you keeps threatening to kill you!

Between this and that, there remains one fact: terrorist or martyr, dead or alive, bin Laden has indeed managed to baffle the world. How he managed to do that does not really matter. Who enabled him to do is what really matters… and that will be enough food for thought until we manage to solve the conundrum… if we ever do!