Letter from Cairo: ¿Que pasò contigo, señor?


“The República Bolivariana de Venezuela is a distant country you need to cross vast stretches of land and sea to reach. More than 10 thousand kilometers away, on the far side of the Atlantic, lies the birthplace of Simón Bolívar… in that continent of which people hardly know a lot more than Shakira and Ricardo Kaka… on the turquoise beaches of the Caribbean where all what comes to your mind is tropical fruits and exotic carnivals. A country of Spanish-speaking Catholics, what could it possibly have in common with that part of the world which calls itself Arab except a few borrowed words during the occupation of Andalusia? A socialist president whose outspoken animosity towards the sole super power gives him enough battles to fight, why would he add to his enemies for the sake of a tiny strip of no more than quarter the population of Caracas? Walk in the streets of Gaza and ask passersby what Venezuela is and they would probably think it is a cartoon character or a designer brand. After all, it is just a mass of 920,000 m² that only came to existence when some Italian adventurer decided he knows a shortcut to India, and it only became a country in the early nineteenth century when other countries have already been there for thousands of years. Why would they know of these new additions that haven’t yet made it to their history textbooks? They only know of ancient civilizations that enlightened humanity in its quest for grandeur and gave history a mystery that has always been baffling the entire world. They know of Egypt…

“I wish they had never known!”

I posted this note on Facebook on January 8, 2009 in an attempt to come to terms with that peculiar mixture of euphoria and disillusionment that had swept me the moment I knew that Venezuela withdrew its ambassador to Tel Aviv in the aftermath of the brutal Israeli aggression on Gaza. This action only added to my admiration of that man who I had been looking up to since he came to power for the way he sided with the poor, resisted United States subjugation attempts, and called for a unity of Latin America that exists independently from the hegemony of all Western powers. Hugo Chavez was an emblem of the Pink Tide that caressed the shores of a continent which had finally decided it was done with the backyard role assigned to it for several decades by its northern neighbor. The Bolivarian leader was, for me, the perfect example of what a country like Egypt needed in order to take its first toddler steps towards social justice and I remember how I used to defend him fervently when people accused me of supporting a Communist whose role model is a dictator like Fidel Castro. “Communist, Castro, I can’t care less,” I used to yell at them. “He is a democratically elected president and that’s what matters.” Even when I had my doubts after he announced holding a referendum on making presidential terms unlimited and even as reports of a tyrant in the making swept the media, I kept saying to myself, “It is a referendum after all. He won’t do anything against the will of his people.” I won’t claim that I wasn’t alarmed by his desire to stay in power for much longer than originally stipulated, but I tried to see his point as far as the time required for implementing his socialist reformation program is concerned. When he won, I thought, “Well, that’s what the people want then.” This is the same sentence I repeated to myself when the referendum to recall Chavez from office was also resolved in his favor.

The note, which was simply and predictably entitled “Venezuela,” was not a childish attempt at proving how insightful I had been when I joined the ranks of those who rallied under the “Amèrica Latina Avanza” banner. True, I found Latin America “the” true example of the struggle for freedom in contemporary history, yet that was not my point then. I was, in fact, quite bitter when I wrote this note. As much as I admired Chavez, I had always envied every step he took towards liberating his country and empowering the disenfranchised and I lamented the fate of Egypt as I saw its president doing the exact opposite. Yet, when he chose to take the side of the Palestinian people at a time when we were closing the Gaza crossing and reportedly sanctioning the war on its people, this envy turned into fury. For me it felt like my mom stood watching me dying while a total stranger decided to take me to hospital, and I was so ashamed that I hesitated for a while whether I should post the note. As if not posting it will make the disgrace any less!

It is not why I wrote that note that matters here. Why I remembered it two and a half years later is what I assume makes a difference now. I have for a while been engaged in contemplating the way consecutive revolutions in the Arab world have succeeded in snatching several of the masks behind which a couple of leaders in the region were hiding and I specifically wrote about Hassan Nasrallah and Recep Tayyip Erdogan and their stance on the Syrian uprising and the way it was in stark contradiction with their reaction to the January 25 Revolution. Although I was quite shocked by the two men’s take on the massacring of Syrian civilians at the hands of Mr. Assad’s regime, my shock was much more intense with Chavez, possibly because I had already had reservations about the first two and almost had none about the third one. While for me Syria marked the fall of Nasrallah and Erdogan, Libya pulled Chavez to the Hades of my esteem.

Armed groups affiliated to Al Qaeda are attacking military barracks, was Chavez’s analysis of the situation in Libya, which he saw as blown out of proportion by the West and whose gravity he apparently decided to overlook when he offered to mediate between Muammar Gaddafi and those “civil war” instigators. There were even rumors that the Libyan leader had fled the brutality of those militias’ attacks on his and his army and sought refuge in the arms of his cross-Atlantic “revolutionary” friend. Of course, Chavez vehemently objected to the NATO strikes on Libya, not like many of us for fear it would turn into another Iraq, but simply because he wanted to protect his ally and naively thought that the imperialist conspiracy rhetoric can work this time. Do you think he was worried that the Hugo Chavez Stadium would be renamed? Well, tough luck! It was renamed anyway, a name that should have put him to shame—does he have any left?— “The martyrs of February.”

I am fed up with examining political alliances and analyzing the kinds of strategic ties that would push world leaders towards such a dishonorable exposure. I will not talk about oil or anti-US discourse or any of the other things that constitute this inseparable between the alleged champion of social justice and the butcher of his own people. This is not important at the moment, not for me at least. What matters more is the way I am starting to become concerned over the public figures I choose to respect and sometimes tend to iconize. It really bothers me whether it’s my fault or that of politics. Am I too stupid to make the right judgment or is politics too dirty for me to grasp? Most importantly, who can I trust? Or is it better if I assume all politicians are criminals until and if ever proven otherwise?

Until I find answers to those existential questions, I have decided to stick to the three that have so far not let me down: Mahatma Gandhi, Che Guevara, and Nelson Mandela. At least the first two are already dead and the third is too old to change his principles and too honorable to mar his history.

Letter from Cairo: Let the ‘faqih’ have his ‘velayat’ somewhere else


I can picture Egyptians spreading a nation-size world map and scratching their heads and rubbing their chins as they place little colored pins on all the democracies they feel can be fully or partially emulated in the coming stage. I can see pins on several places that made an impressive transition from autocracy to democracy like Latin America and East Europe, I can see one on Turkey which many believe offers a pattern that is most suited for Egypt given cultural similarities and geographical proximity, I can see one on India, the world’s greatest democracy, I can see some on former Soviet Union republics that underwent similar revolutions, I can see one on… no, this must be some kind of a joke or I must have been struck by some eye disease that places objects in all the wrong places… Iran?

The choices offered by the majority of activists, academics, and political observers as far as government systems that can applied in Egypt are concerned seem to have not been looked upon favorably by not so small a portion of Islamists apparently because words like “civil,” “secular,” or “non-religious” are used to label them. I guess they decided to search for any country that has the word “Islamic” in its name and so be it. Having to choose between Pakistan and Iran, the second must have sounded a bit milder and maybe for some strange reason more applicable.

I don’t have access to the minds and souls of the supporters of an Iranian-like regime in Egypt, but I will give myself the liberty to guess how exactly following Iran’s example can in any way effect the change for which the January 25 Revolution took place and for which Egyptians gave their lives.

Let me first start with a very important question: is any country that holds elections necessarily a democracy? If the answer is yes, then we need to make a quick review of the definition of democracy. Democracy is the political system where all citizens take part in determining the future of their country. Since it is made of “demos,” meaning “people,” and “kratos,” meaning “power,” it is simply and basically the style of governance in which power is to the people. It goes without saying, therefore, that democracy is by definition the rejection of the concentration of power in the hands of the few, let alone one single person. Now, how far does this apply to Iran? The question rephrased: what does the Supreme Leader do in Iran? Very insignificant things, indeed. He is the commander of the army, the police, the intelligence, and state security. He appoints the head of the judiciary, the directors of national radio stations and television networks, and even the preachers of mosques. He has the sole right of declaring war or establishing special tribunals. He is in full control of the 12-jurist Guardian Council which decides who can run in presidential and parliamentary elections. The next logical question would be: What is the role of the president or the members of parliament in Iran? Technically nothing. They act upon the will of the Supreme Leader to whom they have to pledge allegiance in order to come to power and continue to do so in case they want to stay in power.

Another important question: When does a regime qualify as a dictatorship? Well, there are many issues that need to be looked at to determine whether a country is dictatorial or not, on top of which is the way the government deals with the opposition. Let us take a quick look at what happened to unarmed civilians who took to the streets in 2009 in protest of the elections that earned incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad another term in office. Do we want to start talking about the role of the Basij in the violent oppression of peaceful demonstrations and may be go back a bit earlier and ask why this militia was created in the first place? Do we want to go into the details of torturing and/or raping detained protestors? What exactly is the value of the voice of people if every time they express their indignation at the government’s performance they are accused of treason and collaboration with foreign powers? Does blocking the internet and cutting phone services sound familiar? Does the name Neda Agha-Soltan ring a bell?

A third question begs for an urgent answer: is there any similarity at all between the Egyptian and Iranian revolutions? I mean other than the fact that they both toppled the regime (which is what most revolutions around the world usually do anyway)? There is no denying that the Shah’s regime was indeed corrupt and repressive and that social justice was almost entirely absent during the time of the monarchy and that a popular uprising had then become a necessity. However, the Iranian revolutionaries made a mistake that revealed an approach which can only be defined as black-and-white—a color scheme that cannot be applied in most things in life, let alone politics. They assumed that if the pre-revolution brutal ruler was Westernized and secular then the post-revolution state, which would supposedly right all the wrongs of the toppled regime, had to be a theocracy. The Iranian revolution was Islamic and the republic established in its aftermath naturally bears the same name, but this is not the case in Egypt where the grievances of the people were not centered around how secular or pro-Western the president was like the case of the Shah, but were rather about wanting to do away with a dictatorship under whose yoke they had suffered for three decades. Iranians felt there was a threat to their identity; Egyptians focused on the damage done to their humanity.

A fourth and, I promise, last question: what happened to Shiite infiltration? Wasn’t Iran until very recently the sneaky enemy that devised a destructive conspiracy against Sunni Islam and aimed at controlling the entire region from Qom? Will the Iranian model emulation package include embracing the Twelver faith or are we going to be happy with the autocratic bit only?

I would also just like to ask whoever placed the pin on Iran a simple question that requires a simpler answer: Do you know what the Egyptian revolution was about? Yes or No?

Letter from Cairo: When conspiracy hits the fan


In post-revolution Egypt every story has at least seven versions and nothing guarantees that one of them will eventually turn out to be truth. The result is that we are always left with a series of speculations and each of us chooses the scenario that best suits his or her inclination as to which way things are heading in the country in which hardly one day passes without action. One thing, however, remains common between the different analyses and the conflicting reports: conspiracy.

Detecting a dark force that aims at inflicting a damage of apocalyptical proportions is not new to our culture—and I mean the Egyptian and the Arab—for we are a people who tend to bestow an epical aura on all the battles we fight, maybe owing to the degree of self-confidence this assumption endows us with or to the heroic attributes with which we are to be labeled for fighting such a formidable enemy.

It could also be much simpler: the more the suspense, the more attention you get and the more time you buy whilst trying to figure out how to deal with some fix or another… and—this is something most people are not wise enough to see—the more distracted you get from the real cause and the more energy and time are wasted in fighting windmills while the real enemy—which might turn out to be your own self—becomes a few steps away from declaring you dead.

True we have always been like that, yet with an unprecedented revolution that together with toppling the regime unleashed the long-repressed complexities of the political, social, and religious situation in Egypt, this tendency to place a larger-than-life power behind each and every crises was taken to the next zillion levels.

The exact truth of the violent clashes that took place in Tahrir Square on Tuesday night remains unrevealed. The story we have so far is that a memorial service for those killed in the revolution was held in a theatre when a group of people—allegedly families of other martyrs who were not invited to the memorial and allegedly armed with cudgels and Molotov cocktails—tried to break into the theatre and a huge fight ensued when they were denied access.

The same alleged families of martyrs allegedly took the battle to Tahrir where clashes erupted with security forces and intensified in front of the Interior Ministry where police vehicles and motorcycles were burnt and where tear gas was fired to disperse the protestors/rioters.

The skirmishes, which lasted till dawn, left dozens injured and millions wondering what is happening in a country where it has become next to impossible to tell who is fighting who and who started what. Nobody really knows if those people who tried to enter the theatre were actually families of martyrs because if they were, why were they armed and why did they destroy the theatre? And why would they attack the Interior Ministry? To vent their anger at the government’s procrastination in putting policemen charged with killing protestors on trial? Maybe, but why have they decided to resort to violence all of a sudden while all their protests over the delay of trials have so far been peaceful?

If these were not what the press and some eyewitnesses claim they are, who are they? What else? They must be thugs? That doesn’t help a lot. Now, the word “thugs” is almost becoming synonymous with “people” so when you say that it is thugs who did, it is like you said nothing at all.

Thugs are usually believed to be dispatched by some person or some entity that has a direct interest in the situation although this is not necessarily the case. Here we come to the question that blew off the lid of Pandora’s Box: who sent the thugs? And all kinds of answers start popping up, and with each answer an entire world of sneaky intrigues and mischievous plots reveals itself to an audience yearning for an action-packed story that absolves them from blame and holds some invincible power accountable for their misery.

In order not to exert a lot of effort in order to make sure it is indeed a conspiracy, the Higher Council of the Armed Forces has already announced that the last Tahrir events are part of an “organized plan” to destabilize Egypt. This established, it was the people’s turn to figure out what kind of conspiracy it is and who is behind it and what their motives are and so on and so forth.

It was the “remnants”—I wish one day would pass without this word coming my way in some form or another—of the ousted regime, some said. They could be getting back at… not sure who—I assume not the court that issued the ruling—for dissolving the municipal councils, a haven for corruption, bribery, and nepotism in pre-revolution Egypt and from whose influence millions benefited during the Mubarak era. Those same remnants could also be engaging in one of their several attempts to undermine the gains of the revolution and discredit the post-Mubarak government that keeps promising to maintain law and order and constantly fails to do so.

While these theories are not totally implausible, there are many reasons that make them not as credible as they might sound to be. If we assume that those thugs who engage in such riots are hired, those who hire them must either want to gain one thing or avoid losing some other thing.

This, for example, was the case with the brawls that came to be known as the Battle of the Camel, in which supporters of the regime tried to scare the protestors away from Tahrir in the hope that the revolution would be aborted and that Mubarak would stay in power and, therefore, their interests would not be jeopardized. The same applied to Interior Ministry thugs who were out to terrorize the people that were left unprotected after the police was withdrawn on January 28 and to deliver the regime’s message that “it’s either us or chaos.”

Now, who hires those thugs and for what? The regime is toppled anyway and all those implicated in its crimes are either in jail or trying to figure out how to cover up decades of illegal practices and destroy flagrant evidence on abuse of power. How will sending thugs to a theatre be of any benefit to those “remnants” at the moment? To destabilize the country? Why again? I would have believed that had there been any hope that the regime might be restored and that they might eventually make up for their losses, but this is not the case.

I find it very hard to believe that if I am hit on the head, I would stagger after whoever hit me and risk losing consciousness while trying to do so rather than stay where I am and try to regain my balance, especially if I can see that the culprit is already miles away and that catching him would mean an inevitable suicide. I don’t see how the “remnants,” whether they are businessmen or former officials, can be actually paying money to thugs while they can become penniless any moment.

The “remnants” myth is becoming very dangerous and I am surprised that some people are still falling into this trap. Well, I am not as surprised as I think I am, for this is the same bait they happily munched on during the time of sectarian clashes. “This is a conspiracy,” they said. By whom? Of course, it’s “them.” Why? “Because Muslims and Christians will never do that to each other.” Well, they apparently did, so let’s face it and admit that there is something wrong with us and that we need to work on identifying and fixing it instead of always insisting that it is not our fault and that we are the victims of some attack from Mars.

I don’t think there is such a thing as “remnants” and if there is, they must be cowering in their hiding places, trying to get a ticket on the first flight to the Virgin Islands, or contacting as many lawyers as they can afford. Destabilizing and jeopardizing and undermining and all those verbs used in association with those mythical creatures seem to be the least of their worries now.

To be fair, I have to admit that Egyptians are not one-track minded and that they are resourceful and shrewd enough not to only blaming the “remnants” for all its post-revolution misfortunes. They are not that naïve to assume that everything has only one reason. There is another enemy that, according to several testimonies I heard, takes part in every action that is detrimental to Egypt’s security and that specifically took part in Tuesday’s events: Israel.

God! I wish the Soviet Union were still around. Wouldn’t the Communist flavor have added more spice to this “they are all against us” saga?

Letter from Cairo: Fly me to Georgia


Every time I think I have managed to grasp the countless merits of the Egyptian revolution, I turn out to be sometimes naïve, other times stupid, and most of the times both. I have even reached the point of doubting that toppling the regime is the greatest of the revolution’s achievements. Egyptians are not generally a reading people. When and if they do read, it is mainly newspapers and even this many can do without if they get the news from TV or the radio. A large portion of newspaper readers usually target specific sections. I would say sports comes first—football in particular—possibly followed by local news with special emphasis on reports that relate to them in one way or another like salary raises, privatization of factories, higher traffic fines, changing exam schedules…etc. Very few were really interested in what happened outside Egypt and fewer than those few would read a book—fiction, non-fiction, or anything else. Let me point out that of course I am referring to only 70 percent of the Egyptian population, i.e. those above 15 years old who can read and write. Let me also point out that I have not based this information on any statistics and that this is purely the result of years of observation, conversations with different echelons of society, and a few readings on the disposition of the people of Egypt.

What happened after the revolution was as shocking as it was impressive. Suddenly cab drivers are debating whether the Turkish model is the best for Egypt in the coming stage, store attendants believe that merging the parliamentary and the presidential systems like in France is the most suitable solution at the moment, waiters argue between shifts that if the Islamic state means a replica of Iran then it’s out of the question, and students cite Latin America as the best example for a steady transition towards democracy. Almost everyone who would either not read at all or would only read what is entertaining for him or her and who was not very keen on learning about the rest of the world is now navigating between continents in search for what’s best for Egypt. An article in one of Egypt’s independent, and most widely-read, newspapers about the reformation of the police force in Georgia served as a prefect indicative of where the readers’ preferences are heading, and the way this article was circulated all over the internet and discussed by Egyptians of different types proved how such a topic that would have seemed totally out of context a few months ago has become so relevant now.

The way this article, entitled “The Georgian Experience in Cleansing the Police Department after the Revolution,” attracted so many readers and was the talk of so many people is not only fascinating because it reveals the rising awareness of Egyptians as far as the necessity of knowing about other countries, but also since this is Georgia. It would be interesting to know how many Egyptians knew of Georgia and how many thought this is only the name of a US state—and even this we are not sure they knew—and how many knew it is a former Soviet Republic—or how many knew the Soviet Union existed—and how many of those who have heard the name—possibly in the news during the conflict with Russia—really remember where in the world it was. It is even more fascinating because this is not a story about Georgia in a global context—joining the NATO for example—but a very local one—reforming the police after a revolution that toppled an illegitimate regime. I guess the topic makes us much less surprised that Georgian domestic affairs have suddenly become known to average Egyptians for whom nothing is more soothing now than hearing stories about eliminating police brutality, be that in the Caucasus or the West Indies.

“If you spot on the highway that links the airport to the Georgian capital Tbilisi a gigantic glass building surrounded by gardens, do not think it is the opera house or an art museum. It is the headquarters of the Georgian Ministry of Interior,” said the article that made of this building a metaphor of the “transparency” the ministry decided to adopt after the Rose Revolution toppled former President Eduard Shevardnadze. This word is for Egyptians what chocolate cake is for somebody who had been on a diet for a year and the fact that it came into effect in a relatively short time—the revolution took place in 2003—given the corruption of the toppled regime makes the story all the more inspiring to a country struggling to turn a new leaf. The real, or let’s say the most astounding, inspiration is who orchestrated and implemented this cleansing of the police: Ekaterine Zguladze, a woman who was 27 years old when she was made deputy interior minister of the new Georgia and who is credited for “ending decades of police oppression,” as the article puts it.

Unlike the Egyptian government that started its purging process with the notorious State Security, Zguladze started with the Traffic Department. “I chose the Traffic Department because it is the one people dealt with on daily basis and they knew how corrupt it was. It was an ugly department. They collected bribes not only from drivers but also from pedestrians,” said Zguladze to justify such an unlikely beginning. The change was radical and quite shocking, for the entire department was disbanded and 18,000 officers were dismissed. It was also pretty risky: “We were afraid. They were armed and knew each other and had connections with criminals and outlaws, but we had to get rid of them.” It was within a month that the miracle happened. The Police Academy curriculum, also held partly accountable for officers’ violence in Egypt, underwent a total makeover while the ministry started recruiting replacements from amongst the thousands of civilians who were subjected to meticulous physical and psychological tests, extensive interviews, and general knowledge quizzes. There was, Zguladze stressed, one important criterion that determined whether the applicant is fit for the job: “He had to have the urge to serve others and not serve himself.”

After the month passed, the Traffic Department was replaced by the Patrol Police that made a stellar appearance in the streets of Georgia. “People were shocked,” she said. “The police were like creatures from Mars. How could there be officers who do not ask for bribes and do not accept bribes if offered to them?” The Traffic Department was the beginning of and a rehearsal for a series of reformations in other police departments—State Security, Investigation Bureau, Border Police… etc.—and dealing with the vacuum that resulted from withdrawing all traffic officers from the streets constituted a good exercise on dealing with similar situations that arose as the cleansing was taking its charted course.

The situation in Egypt is of course not similar to that in Georgia and it would have been difficult to make a similar start since at the time when State Security has become every Egyptian’s nightmare, very few really cared about traffic—as corrupt as traffic officers and employees at the Traffic Department were—and not even those few would have been relieved had disbanding it been the first step on the road towards the reconstruction of the Interior Ministry. In fact, the two actions are not really that different, for each country chose to do away with what the people perceived as their staunchest enemy. However, the details are not what matters. What does is the rationale behind them, the philosophy that enabled a young civilian woman to effect such a phenomenal change. It was not just about hunting down the corrupt and taking them to court, Zguladze pointed out. It was changing an entire culture in which corruption had become a daily occurrence so it no longer became a crime and even turned into a socially acceptable practice. It was then that she realized that the Interior Ministry is not just an executive body and that raising awareness is no less important of a duty than maintaining law and order. “We had to start redefining corruption so that we could win the people to our side and make them our partners in fighting the same battle.”

The ministry had, therefore, decided to no longer play the villain-in-the-ivory-tower role and to reach out to the people and bridge that gap that kept widening as more abuses were inflicted upon citizens by their so-called protectors. I personally find achieving this within such a short time a continuation of Zguladze’s Mars metaphor, for imaging trust being restored between the people and the police in Egypt in a manner that makes them act as one unified entity is currently as far fetched as seeing the Muslim Brotherhood call for a secular state even though claiming that no progress has been made at all in that direction would be extremely unfair on my part. As if Zguladze is listening to our concerns, she gives one more of the secret ingredients of her wholesome recipe: “What guaranteed the success of our mission was giving the police something they had never had before: self respect.” I am not really sure how Egyptian cops saw themselves and whether they learned in the academy that self-respect is derived from the ability to suppress, but as long as we assume that those cops were still human beings, there must have been a part in them that realized how despicable what they did was, especially if they reflect for one moment a day how people look down upon them even as they fear them. Turning a policeman from a criminal to a guard will not only allow him to respect himself and his job, but will also turn the people from an enemy that reminds them of their baseness to a friend that is grateful for their services.

There is so much to learn from a Eurasian country more than 1,200 miles away from Egypt, a country that made true one of our most precious dreams. However, let me tell you that the Georgian miracle is not just about the recreation of the police and the concept of policing. It is who did that and which, I am afraid, would be the toughest bit if we decide to follow suit down to the minutest detail. Imagine a woman in her twenties taking charge of the entire police force. Well, that would not only require changing the culture, but rather the entire population—remember we’re still debating whether women deserve to be judges and whether the only way they can get parliament seats is through imposing a quota system—with one that does not feel humiliated by taking instructions from a member of the gentle sex and that does not see women empowerment as a fatal blow to manhood.

Until this happens—we’ll wait for long I believe—could we have Ms. Ekaterine Zguladze on loan?

Letter from Cairo: Auto-da-fé


I woke up one morning to a deadly tremor. I opened my eyes and found out I was sucked into some capsule with a group of bewildered passengers who looked at me inquisitively hoping that I, being the last to join, might have at least a faint idea why we were all there. I hated to disappoint them, by my helpless shrug apparently did much more than that. The door closed and the sinister-looking pilot moved the transmission lever to “reverse” mode. I looked at the dashboard and saw digital numbers going down quickly in a meter that obviously measured something other than speed, fuel, or heat. When the number 1184 appeared on the screen, the capsule slowed down then finally stopped in Languedoc, where the first inquisition was set.

I stepped out of the time machine and inhaled the air of repression soon to be mixed with the smell of burning flesh. I saw stakes erected in a place that seemed too familiar to be southern France. I rubbed my eyes in disbelief and started feeling the flames consuming the brain for which all of us will be condemned to death.

Talk about corrupting the students through teaching texts that promote homosexuality started, ironically enough, after the revolution when a group of students staged protests over what they perceived as unfair grades. Led by one of the instructors at the department, the students were alerted to the fact that they can blackmail professors through accusing them of endorsing ideologies that violate social codes and religious teachings. They picked a short story in which two women engage in a symbolic sexual act that denotes a repressed woman’s attempt at reconciliation with her self and decided to crown it the Satanic Verses of 2011. Questionnaires citing the scene, which consists of a few lines in the 23-page long story, were circulated among the students and its results, which we never saw, were wrapped up in a report that condemned the text, its teacher, and the entire department. A journalist at an official newspaper decided to take part in the fight against academic debauchery in two illuminating articles in which he wrote that this text, which according to him is all about homosexuality, should no longer be taught to “our boys and girls” and that whoever is responsible for propagating vice among “our youths” should be persecuted. He, for one, is adamant on filing a complaint with the Prosecutor General. Seeing that nobody bothered to respond to this nonsense, the same journalist gave a TV interview reiterating his threats and vowing to fight till the last breath. When one of our respected colleagues from the department—also a passenger in the capsule of the damned—accused him on air of setting an inquisition for academics, he looked very offended possibly for one of two reasons: he thought it was an insult to compare his “peaceful” efforts to restore decency to the brothels that are Egyptian universities with such a violent practice that goes back to the Dark Ages OR his knowledge of what “inquisition” means is not very different from his ability to grasp one single meaning in the text he was out to slam as heretic.Going into the details of how this happened or who is behind it or what personal scores are being settled in the process or if the department had taught Islamic jurisprudence before deciding to deviate into this path of perdition is beside the point… or let’s say is not as helpful as it might seem to be at the moment. This is no longer about this specific text or the person who teaches it or the department or the university… this is about Egypt and the abyss it is going to nosedive into if this little incident does not turn into a slap on our unjustifiably complacent faces at a time when all what happens is reason for consternation. While some said the entire matter should not be given attention because it is simply motivated by personal grudges that found refuge in a journalist’s desperate quest for fame—I totally agree both man and co. are absolutely worthless—others believe intercepting the enemy before it lands on your shores is the best way of scoring a real victory. Being the confrontational person I have always been, you can easily guess which camp I support. If we let this pass now, we will find ourselves up against a much bigger scale attack on academic freedom and the independence of universities and the fiercer the fight will get, the more unable we will be to face those forces of darkness, not because they are right or even stronger but rather because they are becoming too many.

Since the revolution toppled the regime, two absolutely opposite things happened: A lot of freedom was granted and an equal lot of freedom was taken away. Egypt got rid of a despotic president and a corrupt regime that governed it by force for 30 years, parties have started forming and politics have become no longer exclusive to the ruling elite, and a real electoral process will give Egyptians the right to choose who represents them. Regardless of the numerous obstacles facing the realization of the revolution’s gains, historic changes are taking place and this country will never be the same. Now, a quick look at the empty half of the glass: factions previously persecuted by the regime—mostly religious and/ or fundamentalist—are now back with vengeance and already following the how-to-create-a-dictatorship-democratically manual word for word, many of the repressed—whether by the regime or any other form of authority they perceive as tyrannical—have decided to lash out at anything and anyone they can get hold of not necessarily because they were the source of their misery, but rather because they are eligible revenge objects, and “freedom” got jumbled up with several other words like “chaos,” “slander,” “retaliation,” and “spite.”

I don’t want to repeat myself and say how normal it is not to be able to practice freedom if you were not born into it or if you were never taught what it means in the first place because I have been doing this all the time both here and in several other contexts. In fact, I am not interested in the category of people who really confuse freedom with other things, but rather in those who are consciously abusing the values Egyptian protestors died for in order to further personal gains or secure illegitimate demands and are getting support for their hidden agendas from the rising religious tide that had swept the country since the regime was toppled. When my colleague who called the journalist on air insisted that the “controversial” text and other texts that may contain “sex scenes” is art, he cited the verse from the Quran in which Joseph is seduced by Mrs. Potiphar and which does not “arouse” readers like the text which according to him “describes the sexual act in detail”—this is not true and I wonder if he knows a word of English to begin with—does. “Can you contest the fact that the Quran is the highest form of creativity and is the most genius text on earth?” he asked her simply because he knew very well how he can turn the tables against her if her reply contradicts what the religious majority in Egypt would like to hear. Telling him there is no comparison between holy and human texts did not do much to change his “crouching tiger” attitude.

What this man—as insignificant as he is—is doing by this shameful attempt at slandering not only the department but the whole university and all other universities and by appointing himself judge, jury, and executioner is setting a dangerous precedent as far as the violation of academic freedom, the integrity of university professors, and the autonomy of higher education are concerned. Next thing we’ll find extremist groups calling for banning any text that contains anything they regard as immoral or un-Islamic and launching campaigns to burn the Arabian Nights, stop teaching Shakespeare, and label any writer who tackles “taboos” a heretic.

Could you please read George Orwell’s 1984 and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 to see what kind of a society we will end up with if we remain silent as we see our freedom robbed and our dignity tattered? And do so quickly for the inquisitors are closer to you than you expect and the court can be brought to your own house if there is no time to summon you; maybe you can add Franz Kafka’s The Trial to the list to see for yourself how this is done.

Letter from Cairo: And the “First” goes to…


Apparently infuriated by the “Constitution First” campaign that has been lobbying for postponing parliamentary elections until a new constitution is drafted, a medical student from Upper Egypt wrote “The Poor First, you bastards!” a Facebook note in which he slams what he sees as the excessive attention given to the political process in Egypt and the equally excessive negligence of the fast deteriorating conditions of the poor.

The note, now the most widely circulated among Egyptian users of Facebook, starts with exposing the bias of the media as far as the protestors who died during the January 25 Revolution are concerned and which is demonstrated in the way only middle and upper-middle class martyrs get all the coverage while the others, the pictures of many of whom he posted with the note, are totally forgotten.

“Hadn’t it been for the those youths who come for working class neighborhoods, the fall of the Interior Ministry would have been impossible,” writes Mohamed Abul-Gheit. “Why were their faces not among the pictures of the now much-celebrated martyrs?” The writer wonders if those youths who come from humble backgrounds are not part of the “flowers that blossomed in the gardens of Egypt,” the title of a poem by renowned Egyptian poet Ahmed Fouad Negm and which he dedicated to the martyrs of the revolution. “Anyway, they never cared about flowers, for they had something more important to worry about: bread.” Abul-Gheit then quotes a few lines from the great Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish:

We love flowers
But we love bread more
And we love the fragrance of the flowers
But we find wheat spikes much purer

Those poverty-stricken revolutionaries did not brave the streets of Egypt under a torrent of live bullets and tear gas bombs because they were preoccupied with whether constitution comes first or last or whether Egypt ends up Islamist or secular. For people who can’t afford to buy their daily bread, constitutions and parliaments and presidents are of absolutely no importance. They are in fact a luxury they cannot afford simply because when you’re hungry you can’t think straight and when you’re cold you can sell your soul to the devil for a blanket. The current discussions about the necessity of writing a new constitution before holding the elections for fear that one single faction would monopolize power in case this does not happen is, I believe, as provocative as TV commercials that advertise villas with swimming pools in gated compounds that are worth only a few million pounds. Yes, they did want to topple the regime, but not for the same reasons for which their fellow revolutionaries who live in cozy houses and drive air conditioned cars took to the streets: “They went out for reasons that relate to their own reality.” Then he cites food, housing, and clothes as their top priorities followed by the humiliation to which they are daily subjected whether through losing a job, dying for not affording medical treatment, torture in police stations, or any of the numerous manifestations of persecution only reserved to the weak and disenfranchised as the stop stimulants that incited them into rebellion.

For those people, talk about the constitution and the elections is nothing but ink on paper unless they see it reflected on their own lives, and as long as none of the activists who get so worked up about who gets a parliamentary majority or who chooses the committee the will draft the constitution starts addressing the problems of the poor, it will remain nothing but empty words falling on deaf ears.

“The poor first, you bastards!” Abul-Gheit concludes his note that leaves you with a mixture of shock, guilt, and helplessness.

He is, of course, right. The things middle class people, i.e. those with full stomachs and comfortable lives, consider vital are absolutely useless for others who cannot afford the basic needs without which they cannot function in anything else. I remembered how when I am hungry—and this means having not eaten in the past couple of hours—I get so edgy and become unable to do any work no matter how important it might be, and I felt I wanted to burry myself right where I was for also believing that the constitution is the most vital issue all Egyptians have to be preoccupied with at the moment. I thought of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and discovered that the two bottom levels of the pyramid, physiological needs and safety, are non-existent for the majority of the poor, so how do we expect them to climb to the top and have the same priorities as people for whom food and shelter are taken for granted?

I so much agreed with the writer of the note and admired the way it sounded alarm bells on a crisis that is recipe for disaster if overlooked or downplayed. I felt that the political “elite”—as much as I hate this word—are to blame for behaving as if they are all Egyptians and their needs are the prerequisites of Egypt’s wellbeing. Yet, on a second thought—I always have many of those nowadays—I felt kind of guilty for holding them responsible simply because they are doing what, according to their education, upbringing, and style of life, they see as the best for post-revolution Egypt and because it will be too unfair to assert that they have never had the poor in mind or are never planning to address their needs. May be they just have a different approach, I said to myself. Maybe even the poor possess a level of awareness that we have not explored before and we are, in fact, underestimating their take on national matters when assuming they do not know the close connection between a democratic government and social justice. True they might have been driven by their abject poverty when they decided to take part in the revolution, but how do we know that they were not fully aware that the advent of a democratic regime, which of course is not possible without a proper constitution, a balanced parliament, and an elected president, is not really separable from the problems they face in their everyday life and the solutions that can eliminate them? If you lose your job because the factory where you worked was privatized and hundreds of workers were laid off, if you can’t pay for medicine because the money that should go to medical care ends up in the pockets of officials at the Ministry of Health, if a policeman harasses you because he knows you have no power to fight back, if you can’t afford to buy breakfast for your children because the subsidy on bread was lifted, if and if and if… who is to blame? More importantly, who can redress that?

Wait! More ifs coming your way. If the constitution is not written in a way that guarantees equality for all citizens and gives power to the people over the ruler and if not all echelons of society are represented in the parliament because political parties had not had the chance to prepare for contesting in the elections and if the new president remains with the same powers that enabled his predecessor of enslaving his people and steeling their money for three decades… who will be the first to suffer?

I belong to the educated middle class and when I decided to join the throngs of protestors and yell, “The people demand the fall of the regime,” I was doing that undoubtedly to be able to have the right to enjoy my full citizenship rights and to feel the dignity of having a voice and taking part in the future of my country. Yet, I was not doing it only for myself, but also on behalf of the 40% of Egyptians who are unable to secure the basic requirements of a human being. We all risked our lives because we wanted a better life for all, each in his or her own way, and because we wanted to see an Egypt that embraces all its people like Tahrir Square did.

One of those days when we were in the square, a little boy—I guess he was around 12—sat beside us. One of my friends asked him if he goes to school and he said he couldn’t because he has to work and help with family expenses. She then asked him, “Do you know why we are all here?” “Because we want Hosni Mubarak to go?” he replied. “No,” she said. He was astonished at her answer and I could see he must have thought that she is crazy. “We are here so you can go to school,” she told him. He was really confused, looked at her with a blank face for a couple of seconds, then left.

He might not have understood then and may be till this moment he hasn’t grasped the meaning of what she said, but maybe by time he and many others will realize that toppling the regime is not different from bridging that gap between rich and poor so that one day when we ask, “What do Egyptians want?” the answer will come out the same and there will be no squabbles about what goes “first.”

Letter from Cairo: “We don’t need no education”


This line from Pink Floyd has always resonated in my mind every single time I did proctoring at the end of the academic term, but this time it was more like drums of war banging on my head with this classic whose creators would have never imagined how prophetic they were or how trans-continental their vision would turn out to be.

For ten plus years, proctoring has always meant much more to me than a duty assigned to members of staff and whose aim is to watch students during the exam and make sure they don’t cheat and/or misbehave. Instead, it has rather been an amazing way of gauging the students’ general take on the educational process and how much they like/hate—the second of course being the case most of the time—what they are doing. It saddens me to say that the conclusions I used to draw were always negative, for I could always see the anger, frustration, and sometimes vindictiveness on their faces and I could almost hear each and everyone of them say, “What the hell am I doing here?” Many times I imagined them wanting so much to yell at me, “Why don’t you bugger off and leave us alone?” I knew that it was not personal because these were not my students and it was usually the first time we see each others’ faces and, therefore, they had nothing against me in specific. By time I realized that any faculty members monitoring them during an exam would be looked upon as adding to their misery because they make an already obnoxious process all the more painful. In most cases, they hate what they are studying and the majority of those hate the concept of studying itself and for them the exam and all procedures related to it are the culmination of the torture to which they have been subjected throughout the semester. In the exam, they are not only required to provide the correct answers to questions that they consider as absurd as the courses they are examined in, but they are also threatened throughout exam time with that “witch”—feel free to replace the “w” with a “b”—that can at any moment throw them out, file a report against them, or at least reprimand them in front of their colleagues if they try to cheat.

Let me tell you that they have no scruples whatsoever about cheating in the exam. On the contrary, it is for them the only healthy outlet from an extremely unhealthy situation because it constitutes the best escape from the tyranny of the institution and those who represent it and the only way they can get back at this institution through breaking the rules it dictates on them. Anybody who tries to deprive them of this short-lived pleasure is their sworn enemy, and I could see how I become one only a few minutes after our eyes meet.

As I contemplate their facial expressions and listen to their occasional grumblings, I do admit I resent their attitude not only because for me they are irresponsible and reluctant to make minimum effort in what is supposed to be their only preoccupation—of course as a teacher I believe students’ one and only priority should be learning and studying—but also because they obstruct me from doing my job and hate me for being conscientious about it. However, I always try to resist the instantaneous blame-putting that usually accompanies situations that exasperate me. This does not mean that they are absolved of any blame, but rather means that their role in the fiasco that is Egyptian education is quite secondary when compared to the other factors that take the lead in the tragedy, society and state definitely being the main protagonists.

The Egyptian society is a very peculiar mix of indifference towards education and extreme veneration for anyone who gets one. In other words, it is the documented proof of education and not its essence that most Egyptians care about. For example, you can hardly find a middle class family that would accept to marry their daughter off to a man who only finished high school or who joined an institute that does not give a degree on the same level as B.A. and B.Sc. even though the educated men they are after can actually be no less ignorant that another who has not seen a classroom in his entire life. A university degree stays prestigious regardless of the real effect it has on its holder. A university degree is also the way to a white collar job and, therefore, to a better social status in a community that has little respect for the color “blue.” Fully aware of how society works, a sizable portion of parents force their children to go to college regardless of how interested they are in what they will study or of whether they want to study anything at all. It would be a disaster if the son comes out and refuses to get an education and insists, for example, on becoming a plumber instead, which by the way can be something he really enjoys doing.

The state—this includes the ministry of Education and Higher Education, the administration of each university as well as of course the regime itself—had done its best to make the students detest the process even more than they do the concept. They join university reluctantly, maybe hoping that something in there will change their minds only to find out from the first day of classes that this is the last place they would want to be and from that point onwards, they develop an unmitigated hatred for the system they have already had a terrible experience with when they were at school. The university becomes a continuation of that torture but on a higher level since students believe—and rightly so—that higher education is legally and technically not compulsory yet is still forced upon them. The government bodies in charge of the educational system had done nothing to make sure that those who join the university are qualified—and I mean psychologically—for this type of learning and the constant interference of the state in the affairs of universities had made it impossible for any efforts on the parts of professors in this direction to bear fruit. The adamant rejection by the university administration—which of course followed regime instructions—of several proposals by English Department professors to interview/ examine prospective students before enrolling them serves as the best example. The result is scores of students every year who neither appreciate literature nor know what it is in the first place and you are left with the duty of granting them a degree in literature and they are supposed to enter the job market as literature majors.

The extreme negligence with which vocational education has been treated since time immemorial is another of the state’s crimes, which had dealt two fatal blows to Egyptian youths. First, the state offered no alternative to academic education so that the son who wants to be a plumber can find a place to develop his skills and prepare him for a job he would like instead of having to study something as “useless” as history or law—things he couldn’t care less for because they won’t help in fixing the clogged drain in the bathroom sink. Second, by making no initiative to invest, whether through financial aid or marketing campaigns, in vocational schools and institutes, the state reinforces the existing social constructs as far as the inferiority of manual labor is concerned and, therefore, does nothing to change obsolete cultural perceptions and replace them with fresh ones to the effect that not all education come from books or that not all that is manual lacks ingenuity.

Over the years, I have seen a remarkable deterioration in the students’ morale and an increased hatred for the university and its teachers and anything that comes out of them and I kept blaming the corrupt regime for whom a good education had always been a formidable enemy. When the regime was toppled, I grew impatient to see education as liberated as the country from the ruthless grip of the ruling clique. However, before this materializes—and I know it won’t right now anyway—the revolution turned out to have effected another change. Yesterday when I was proctoring, I saw something totally different on the students’ faces. No, it’s not the light of freedom bestowing upon them an angelic serenity and all this post-revolution idyllic talk; I saw how they hated me much more than they used to show in previous years. They just felt that they are now more at liberty to express all the grudges they have been harboring against their torturers throughout the wretched times they spent on campus. Now that the country is finally rid of its tyrant, it is time they employ the newly-acquired freedom—their faulty perception of freedom aside—to get back at their own tyrants and show them they are no less hated than the despot that drove millions to take to the streets and shout at the top of their lungs, “Leave!”

Although I was initially taken aback by being slammed for an offense I have not practically taken part in and was quite shocked by the “I will kill right here and now” look one student gave me for throwing him out after almost a dozen cheating attempts, on a second thought I tried to look at the bright side—I hope there is any—and assume that this outburst of negative sentiments is for the benefit of everybody at the end of the day. At least we get to see the full picture now that the students feel less apprehensive about expressing how they feel even if this comes out in the nastiest forms. Learning the extent of their anger, I believe, makes us aware of all dimensions of the mess this system was and thus renders us more capable to handle the situation with all its unpleasant aspects. Let’s think of this revelation as one of the many blessings the revolution bestowed upon us and let’s make good use of it. Let’s try to quite our jobs as torturers and become only educators not by compromising any of the ethics of our profession—I will till the last day of my life penalize any student who cheats—but by making sure the university becomes the place for those who want t be there not those who think they are doing time in its lecture halls and by lobbying for an education that espouses all kinds of interests and nourishes all kinds of skills. Let both us and the students be liberated from the roles assigned to us despite of us so that one day I will enter a classroom in which an exam is held and maybe be met with a smile that carries a tacit dismissal of the prison warden stereotype.

Isn’t it time we remove this “another brick in the wall”?

Letter from Cairo: Who let the “thugs” out?


Talk about the Egyptian economy is all over the media and it doesn’t usually look very promising. Sometimes it is things I personally don’t understand like which stock market index plunged by this or that percentage and closing in green or red and like the drop in international reserves at the Central bank or like the status of some loan offered by the World Bank and countless terms most Egyptians—I am one of those who always skipped the economy section in any newspaper —have not heard of before or have not felt the necessity to know of. Other times it is things the economy-illiterate can easily grasp like “we’ll run out of wheat in a couple of months,” “tourism has almost ground to a halt,” “unemployment rates reach unprecedented levels” and so on and so forth of all the stuff lay people like myself can understand.

That is not the problem. Well, of course it is a fatal problem, but I mean that’s not what I am after here. Regardless of how simple or complicated economy updates are and how far they are understood by the majority of Egyptians, everybody can now see it doesn’t look so good. While some try to analyze the current conditions in order to try to foresee whether the future is as bleak as some reports have it—this is the group that knows economics—others try to understand, look for ways to help, or just hope things will get better—this is the group that knows no economics—and another others frown, scoff, or let out a bitter smile and blame the revolution—this is the group that knows nothing at all.

“I hope those who spent nights and days in Tahrir are happy now that we are on the verge of famine.” “So those people who claim to love the country do not mind seeing it starve?” “Let us see how we can eat and drink democracy.” It struck me the majority of complaints allegedly about the economy by this group of people focus on almost nothing other than food. This always reminds me of an Egyptian actress—a very mediocre one if that makes a difference—who was on TV ten days after the revolution had started and was almost in tears that her two-year-old nephew can’t eat the beef chops he is used to having every night for dinner—everyone was wondering what kind of a kid is that—and that her family is devastated for not getting their pizza delivered to their doors. For months, she was the laughing stock of social networking websites and newspapers, her words became the lyrics of several songs, and caricatures were drawn of this carnivore nephew of hers.

The actress’s words were not only shocking because of her extreme insensitivity to the people who had been dying to liberate the country, her astounding indifference to this country’s future, or her shameless display of selfishness, but also because she was telling a blatant lie; Nobody starved during the revolution. Well, if beef chops and pizza are her and her family’s only means of survival, then I am not sure this is the revolution’s problem, and if the other group that talks about food all the time is worried that one day they might not find gruyere cheese or chocolate chip cookies then I suggest they immigrate to Switzerland.

Thinking economy is all about food is not new to some Egyptians—a special type of them let’s say. I remember a few years ago a group of university professors from different specializations were talking about the deterioration of national economy since Mubarak came to power and started analyzing the negative impact of privatization and the monopoly of steel… etc. I kept silent because I knew this was not my thing. Then one of the junior members of staff—I am sorry to say she comes from my department—suddenly interrupted them and said, “What economy problems? This is absolutely not true.” They were all silent for a few seconds, then one of them decided to explore where the genius statement came from. “Would you please honor us with an explanation of why you believe there are no economic problems?” With a self-confidence I think the director of the World Economic Forum won’t posses, she replied, “How can you have problems with the economy when peanut butter is now in every supermarket?”

Food or no food, at the time of an uprising, the economy sustains of course a severe damage simply because any unrest negatively affects investments, tourism, trade, the stock market, and all the other things economists talk about and not because there is a specific party—the revolutionaries or anybody else—that has to take the blame. However, in the case of Egypt there is in fact one culprit, and it is certainly not those who risked their lives—or actually lost them—while others were whining about not having their favorite cereal for breakfast. Let me take you back to a day I shall never forget, January 28, aka Friday of Fury. After a whole-day battle between unarmed civilians and security forces with tear gas, water canons, rubber bullets, and live ammunition, the tumult suddenly came to a frightening halt and in a matter of minutes, not one single person in uniform could be spotted where we were. “The Interior Ministry withdrew the police,” murmured the dumbfounded protestors.

Nobody understood why a few moments ago they wanted to crush every single one of us and now they are leaving us in peace. The “peace” followed 15 minutes later. It was then that we realized it was not the security forces fighting the protestors that were withdrawn; it was the entire police force from the whole country. As I was walking in search of a place to go after Cairo turned into a city of ghosts, I saw dozens of motorcycles venturing into the deserted streets in what seemed like a parade. Then they started distributing themselves among stores and ATM machines and the hours-long looting lasted till it was broad daylight the next morning. On that same day, we knew that around 30,000 prisoners—many from the death row—ran away from jails and police stations after “stealing” every weapon they came across. The reinforcement soon joined the front lines in the breaking and entering saga that lasted for days. With not one single guard left and with all vital facilities left without security, it went without saying that banks, embassies, companies, and factories closed their doors and that all activities related to any of those came to a standstill. Even the border control officers at the airport were told to stay at home. Those whose workplaces were not directly threatened by the security vacuum stayed at home for fear of the 24/7 attacks by thugs or because they stayed all night in neighborhood watch checkpoints to protect their homes and families from the same thugs.

Meanwhile, thousands, and on some days millions, of Egyptians continued their peaceful protests in a square in Downtown Cairo to call for the ouster of the regime that not only left the country it is supposed to protect totally unprotected, but also unleashed an army of outlaws on its defenseless subjects and on all the businesses that upheld the national economy. And while they were doing that, we were also fending off the battalion of the regime’s thugs specializing in terrorizing the protestors—will anybody forget what is known as “the battle of the camel”—and anybody who attempts to help them. I will never forget the day I and a friend of mine were delivering food and first aid to the square and around 40 thugs surrounded us with clubs and prevented us from going in. At the same time, their colleagues at the other entrance to the square were throwing the food in the Nile to make sure the people there would starve so they would either die right there and then or go home and forget about toppling the regime.

What people who blame the revolution are doing is acting as if those thugs have always been part of our lives and that the protestors are the intruders, as if what they called the “occupation” of Tahrir Square was the reason for the terror they felt as they heard gunshot all night long and wondered if their house will be the next target, and as if those thugs did not constitute one last proof that the regime had a much uglier face than everyone had expected.

As for all the things you might not find in the supermarket for the coming period, let me ask you two straightforward questions: One, have you ever read about other revolutions and the damage that followed them? Two, is freedom not even worth giving up your favorite chocolate brand or the imported cherries you liked to have on top of your homemade cheese cake? (By the way those two are still available in Egypt).

Letter from Cairo: The tunnel is lovely, dark, and deep


“I was driving on the bridge at a normal speed when I heard the voice of a mosque imam yelling, ‘To all seculars, liberals, leftists, and other infidels… you are damned!’ I pressed the gas pedal and drove off at maximum speed,” wrote one of my friends in his Facebook status two days ago. One day later, he posted a video of the very same man who was giving this sermon, which did not coincide with the time of any prayer and thus was apparently dedicated to that accurate identification of enemies of the state.

In the video, the man stressed that when the people choose an “imam” or a “leader”—he didn’t use “president”—they have to make sure he is neither “secular,” “liberal,” “leftist,” “communist,” nor “democratic.” Why? Because all those terms, or “allegations” to use his words, and all those who follow them have nothing to do with Islam and those who choose for a ruler someone who does not “raise the banner of Islam” will be objecting to the will of God and rallying behind “nonbelievers” who deny His existence and go against His laws. All presidential candidates, he said, are enemies of God with the exception of one, a Salafi cleric who he believes it is the duty of every Muslim to choose, for those who will opt for any of the others will be committing a grave sin: “I am not even sure it is just a sin. It is something much more serious than that.” However, turns out that the problem is not whether the man will be elected or not, but rather that the other infidel candidates, who he also described as “criminals,” will be eaten up by “envy” and “jealousy” and will most probably attempt to kill him because “killing for them is simpler than anyone can imagine.” He concludes by saying that the country is divided in two camps: the secularists and the Islamists. The first do not harm one single hair in the head of the second, and anyone who believes in God and Islam should discard the first and join the second.

Of course I am not going to stop at the hate-inciting rhetoric nor the extreme intolerance to any kind of difference nor at the amazing ability to twist facts and manipulate people’s emotions because these are things that have been tackled zillions of times in newspapers, talk shows, and public lectures. I would rather like to stop at two words the venerable sheikh mentioned in his more venerable speech. The first is “democratic” and the second is “tyrant”—the former in reference to the candidate who we should not choose and the latter in reference to ousted president Hosni Mubarak.

According to the Salafi school of thought, democracy is a Western concept that, among others like human rights and gender equality, aims at undermining the values of any Muslim society and imposing the ethics, or rather lack of ethics, of Christian, sometimes infidel, Europe and/or North America. If you ask anyone in Egypt now—and I mean to point out the change people have undergone since the revolution as far as political awareness is concerned—what democracy is, they might not be able to form one coherent sentence, but whatever they try to formulate—depending on the degree of education—will definitely have the word “elections” in it. So, our sheikh here admits he and his companions are sworn enemies of democracy while he is in the same speech campaigning for that other Salafi candidate and calling upon all “true” Muslims to “elect” him. Does democracy become prohibited or allowed in Islam then? I would burn in hell if I vote for a democratic candidate, yet it is my religious duty to use democracy to choose the one and only candidate who “believes in God”? So is that an “aim justifies means” argument? And where does Machiavelli stand in Islam? Maybe the sheikh needs a sequel to his speech to explain this bit.

Maybe he also he needs the same sequel, or may be another one, to elaborate on the definition of the word “tyrant.” As far as I know, there is a whole set of practices that come with tyranny and that made Mr. Mubarak qualify as a tyrant. Absolute, even if pretentious, monopoly of morality and correctness, total rejection of all sorts of criticism, and exclusion of anyone who represents the opposition let alone crushing anything that poses a threat to the ruler’s firm grip on power are, for me, what makes tyrants deserve being called as such.

Let us take a look at the sheikh’s discourse and see if I am delusional to see those copycat similarities between the ideology he promotes and the “tyrant” he was happy to get rid of. Only he and his people are the ones who propagate decency in general and the principles of Islam in particular as opposed to all the others who spread vice and decadent behavior. Does this sound like being the perfect example of a self-righteous demagogue who believes that all those who disagree with him are wrong or am I imaging things? Dialogue with opponents to an Islamic state is out of the question because any objections they have to the Salafi movements are driven by pure hatred and sheer envy. Is this in anyway indicative of the slightest willingness to listen to views that contradict their beliefs? Anyone who does not choose to be part of the Salafi or any other Islamist movement does not believe in God and should not take part in shaping the future of the nation. No definition of exclusionism can sound better than that. Enemies of the Islamist candidate are all geared up to liquidate him because he stands in the way of their ambition—he must have read Macbeth before making this speech—and because they know that if he lived, he would expose how corrupt they are. Is this an indirect sanctioning of, or at least an introduction to, the concept of killing anybody who opposes you as a normal practice or am I reading too much into his words? I am now quite confused by who he meant when he said “tyrant” and am intrigued to know whether he really believes that being an enemy to a tyrant means you are definitely not one or that all adversaries of tyrants are by definition immune to being tyrants themselves or that fighting a form of tyranny automatically overrules the possibility of inventing your own version. Well… seems like we need several sequels!

After posting the video, my friend—who is obviously one of those “damned”—wrote a comment: “From now on, I will take the tunnel.” He was referring to an actual tunnel that would lead to the same destination as the bridge—in east Cairo where he lives—but being the nerdy literature teacher I am, I took that decision to the symbolic level and wondered what would happen if we all followed suit. In the tunnel, you are under the ground sheltered from all the noise that comes from above. You are in a tube that is only designed to take you where you want to go, yet which does not allow you a glimpse of what is happening around you and which envelops you in this darkness that makes you forget by the time you are about to get out whether it was night or day when you first got in. Had we been taking that tunnel all our lives, we would have felt protected yet ignorant and in all cases this protection would have been temporary since the disaster would happen anyway, only we would have been prepared for it had we insisted on taking the bridge.

This reminds me of Robert Frost’s “Stopping by the Woods on the Snowy Evening,” a poem in which the protagonist is tempted to leave all his responsibilities and seek refuge in the quiet woods that would isolate him from the tumult of his frantic life. While escape is enticing, he realizes that it is not feasible. Even his horse shakes the bells of its harness to express surprise that its owner has decided to stop in the middle of nowhere while they still have a long way to go and a lot of things to do. To his disappointment, he realizes that as much as he would like to leave everything behind and delve into the darkness of the soothing woods, the life to which he is committed will always keep pulling him away from this much-coveted shelter. The duties to which he is bound, he concludes, prevail over the siren to which he is lured.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Letter from Cairo: If the cart can pull the horse…


Like a woman who had for years been improvising the meals she cooked with her special sauces, and which usually turned out tasteless yet did the job of providing the required sustenance, then suddenly discovered a cookbook that would make every morsel she makes and eats an unequalled joy, Egyptians found out about the constitution.

For decades, we went about our daily lives almost never thinking of the existence of a document that set the basic rules according to which the country is governed and which in our case practically belonged to the regime.

Even at the time when 34 articles of the constitution were changed—not sure if there is such a precedent anywhere in the world—nobody really bothered to know what the articles were about or why they were being changed or how this change can affect them. They automatically linked any changes to consolidating the power of the president, facilitating the bequest of presidency scenario, and depriving citizens of as many freedoms as possible.It was only when Mohamed ElBaradei, former director of the International Atomic Energy Agency and now potential presidential candidate, came up with a statement that alerted Egyptians to the fiasco their constitution was and to the role they could play in changing it. Every signature collected meant one more citizen had become aware of the main articles of the constitution that contributed to making Egypt the dictatorship it was and had made one connection or another between personal ailments and this document that seemed to be of interest only to a group of powerful people.

The protests that started on January 25 aimed high since their offset, for they did not demand reform nor called for amending the constitution or even having fair elections; they wanted to topple the regime. Doing this, the revolutionaries knew, will automatically trigger the rest, for they were certain how impossible it was to implement any of the much-needed changes to the political scene without first getting rid of the power that did all what it can to obstruct those same changes. After the revolution achieved its main objective, it was time to start looking at the countless transformations the ouster of Mubarak gave way to and the constitution was on top of this list. However, ElBaradei’s initiative—which was as ambitious as it could get given the circumstances in which it was drafted and the absence of any signs that the regime would really go—was no longer the utmost aspiration of Egyptians for it was no longer a few articles that required amendments. The whole document needed to be thrown away and a new one had to be rewritten from scratch.

That is why the post-revolution referendum held on the amendment of some of the articles drove several political powers to launch a “No” campaign not because they did not approve the amendments themselves, but rather due to their strong objection to the idea of amending instead of rewriting. When the “Yes” camp won and a constitutional declaration based on the proposed amendments was consequently announced, we were left with one question: “What about the rest of the constitution?” Then came the answer that to me was as absurd as assuming that approving the amendments will bring about stability and speed up the democratic process. A new constitution will indeed be written. When? After the parliamentary elections!!! I felt like those confused cartoon characters that start scratching their heads when they are absolutely unable to understand what is going on.

Now, here’s what the situation is like. Parliamentary elections are scheduled in September—yes 2011—and a quick look at the political scene in Egypt can easily tell you what a mess that would be. During the three decades in which the regime suppressed any potential opposition and killed before birth any fetal political initiative that promised taking the country out of Mubarak’s pothole, we ended up with practically no parties fit for contesting in elections. With old parties turning into what several observers called “ornamental plants” that only served to give a fake semblance of a pluralist system and with the astounding hurdles with which emerging ones were faced, the ruling National Democratic Party had no competitors. Well, they actually had one, a rival you would be a fool to underestimate. Many of my foreign friends tell me how intrigued they are by the Muslim Brotherhood’s ability to survive all the regime’s nonstop clampdowns on its members and I tell them that this for two reasons. One, the Muslim Brotherhood has been since its inception not a political party in the proper sense of the word, but rather an underground movement. It was, therefore, like an iceberg and the regime was always dealing with the tip. Two, it was not in the regime’s best interest to eliminate the MB even if they could because they would then lose the Islamist threat card they waved at the West whenever political reform was brought to the table. I guess there is no need to mention the influence of the “Islam is the solution” slogan and the use of religion to manipulate the masses.

Let’s make that the third reason then. Bottom line is the Muslim Brotherhood emerges now as the only solid political power capable of organizing its ranks in the upcoming elections and winning a majority in parliament. Some might ask why this is a problem if the elections are fair and transparent. Isn’t this the democracy we have been fighting for in the past couple of decades? Yes, it is. However, the problem does not lie in the results of the elections, but in the fact that it is this new parliament that is going to draft the constitution. What kind of a constitution can a movement that bans women and Copts from running for presidency and that allies itself with fundamentalist Islamists produce?

One of the basic demands of the revolution was establishing a civil state and for those who try to play with words and say “civil” means non-military, let me tell you it means both: non-military and non-religious. It means a state that is governed by the principles of citizenship and that gives no privilege whatsoever of one religion over another neither of course one sex over another—both ideals not espoused by the Brotherhood. The disastrous media appearances of several of the group’s prominent members exposed the ideology they continue to adopt and which is in stark contradiction with what Egypt is meant to be as it enters a new era of freedom and equality.

This explains why liberal political powers are rallying behind the “Constitution First” campaign, which calls for drafting a new constitution before the elections to guarantee the participation of all factions in determining the future of the country instead of having what is supposed to be a collective procedure monopolized by one single party or movement. The constitution is the base on which other democratic processes build and not the other way round, they argue. Concerns over the possible bias of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces towards the Muslim Brotherhood have started surfacing especially in the light of the choice of two of the group’s members in the committee in charge of the constitutional amendment that were put to referendum. Several powers also warn that the Brotherhood’s “arrogance” as one leading politician put it portends another authoritarian regime that is not very different from the one toppled by the revolution.

This also explains why the Muslim Brotherhood are adamant on having the elections on time and are resisting with all their might efforts to draft the constitution first and boycotting conferences held to set the basic guidelines of the new constitution. Well, I can hardly blame them. With one tiny stone they will be able to hit two gigantic birds: win a parliamentary majority and draft the constitution. Not in a million years would they have imagined wielding such power in a country that never referred to them except with terms like “banned” and “outlawed.” This I don’t blame them for. As for putting their personal interests and political agenda ahead of Egypt’s welfare and the objectives of its revolution and standing against any form of power sharing, I am not sure “blame” will even begin to describe how I feel. Even if we assume that the Muslim Brotherhood will tone down its intolerant rhetoric and work towards the establishment of a civil state—I say this while I know it is impossible—the fact that they want to monopolize power and rob other nascent parties of their right to contest in the election is the utmost proof that they will never be part of a real democracy in which the widest array of political parties should be given equal opportunities.

If we replace one despotic party with another—the fact that they were enemies is absolutely irrelevant here—then we better declare the revolution a storm in a tea cup and go back to being once again the helpless subjects of the immortal pharaoh. And the woman shouldn’t bother looking into that cookbook because it turns out it is much easier for her to put everything she has in the fridge in the frying pan then eat while thinking she might as well be taking her nutritional needs for the day from a glucose tube and spare herself the hassle of the trip from the fridge to the stove.