Letter from Cairo: Alice in emergency-land


“But I have nothing to complain about!” This sentence, usually accompanied with a shrug and at times a “talk to the hand” kind of attitude, has become quite a common response to calls by political activists and pro-democracy groups for action to be taken against the regime and which started gaining ground a couple of years ago. In a couple of words, the speaker seems to be saying a whole lot of things that all boil down to one single conclusion: he or she has never come into direct contact with the ugly face of a regime that meant little more than the bad guy in any movie — possibly evil but most likely untranslatable into real life terms. This simple sentence, uttered in the most casual manner in response to the most serious of matters, is, in short, a euphemism for “I don’t give a damn!”

I remember how depressed I was for a long time after Khaled Saeid, the 28-year-old Alexandrian who had in his possession a video that proved the involvement of police officers in drug dealing, was beaten to death by security forces. I remember how a friend of mine, who first panicked at the thought that some tragedy must have befallen a loved one and then upon knowing the reason for the state I was in scoffed, “It’s not like he’s a relative of yours or something.” Her indifference shocked me, but I was adamant on making her acknowledge the magnitude of the incident. “You are a mother,” I snapped. “He could have been your son.” Well, I failed. “This will never happen to my son,” she confidently replied. “My son would never do things that allow this to be done to him.” I shut up at this point.

I could have gone on forever about how no one was immune, how you do not really need to do anything to meet the same fate and I would have gladly repeated that little piece of advice my mom gave me at a time when I was tempted to look underneath my feet and felt that looking at the bigger picture was too much of an effort: “Never be friends with someone who betrayed another friend before. Very soon, it will be your turn.” However, I decided against it, not for lack of stamina, but rather because I felt I had to be familiar with at least some of the mechanisms which informed that if-it’s-not-happening-to-me logic in order to deliver the message home, and I didn’t, so that was the end of it. I resolutely held on to this firm stance throughout the revolution and I exercised miraculous self-restraint when I heard comments like, “The regime never bothered me in the first place,” “Those people out there do not represent me,” “We were living in peace and this revolution screwed us,” … blah-blah-blah!

Predictably, my “goosfraba” tactic was too fragile and too contrary to my nature to last for long, for as it secretly kept wearing thin with every provocative piece of I-me-and-myself argument I have been hearing since the day the people rose to oust the regime, it officially and irreversibly vanished into dust the moment the emergency law made its heinous comeback and which happens to be the same moment a sizable portion of the population gave it a stately welcome.

Let me skip the bit about how critical a drawback it is for the revolution to see the very law that was amongst the causes of its eruption back even more forceful than before and let us instead focus on the logic — another one to which I have absolutely no clue — behind the support its extension is now garnering and the shamefully meager turn up at last Friday’s “No to the emergency law” protest. Thugs are running amok all over the country, a state of utter lawlessness is rampant, and only a procedure as deterrent as this one can stop them in their tracks and restore security to the Egyptian street, people seem to believe. However, you can’t help but wonder how they have come to reach that firm conviction without asking themselves if the crimes mentioned in the newly-added articles of the law — thuggery, destruction of public property, and possession of weapons — are not punishable by regular law and what difference it will make under which law their perpetrators are arrested if they will be brought to justice anyway. It is also intriguing how they totally overlooked other “crimes” the law targets and in which the entire catastrophe lie. If blocking roads and spreading rumors are rendered illegal activities under the emergency law, then this could mean bidding farewell to two of the most important gains of the revolution: the right to stage protests and freedom of expression and could also mean I should expect to be arrested the moment I set foot in Tahrir Square next Friday or the moment this article is published online. In short, this means we are once more the proud inmates of square one where it seems we are destined to stay and do nothing except lament the dream that never came true.

But who cares? As long as you “walk right by the wall,” as the Egyptian saying goes, keep a low profile, and go about your daily life as if nothing is happening, then you are more than fine. You stay at home when those delusional revolutionaries are protesting and you have never objected to anything the regime, former or incumbent, did or is doing. Therefore, the emergency law is nowhere near and will never be. Not really. Regardless of the crimes listed in the law, and which before the revolution became restricted to terrorism and drug trafficking, the emergency law gives the government and security forces unlimited powers that enable them to detain citizens indefinitely with neither a trial nor even a reason. Does anyone really believe that the tens of thousands of prisoners, some of whom stayed extra-judicially in jail for more than 10 years, were all terrorists and drug dealers? Any if they were, why weren’t they handed court verdicts in accordance with their offences?

Emergency Law for Dummies: The emergency law is when you wake up to find the walls of your house blown away and the clothes you slept in torn to pieces so that you end up naked in the middle of wilderness, waiting to be drenched with rain, struck with thunderbolts, and devoured by wolves. And there is no house made of steel and no clothes woven of iron and no place safe from the storm.

The emergency law is the state of no law … the art of it-could-happen-to-you.

So close that book of fairy tales and put your feet back on the ground, for the emergency law is not the mythic ghoul that kids soon realize has no existence beyond the colorful pages of bedtime nor is Egypt a wonderland of “drink me” bottles and “eat me” cakes and we better realize this before we all fall into that unfathomable rabbit hole that is bound to swallow our dreams, our dignity, and our country.

Letter from Cairo: Not all that hits the billboard …


A couple of years ago, I started hearing the name Mohanad who looked like he was becoming the prince charming of every Egyptian female aged 15 to 75. In no time, he became the talk of the town not only because he does everything a woman would want ─ which happened to be everything Egyptian men do not do ─ but also because he started becoming the direct reason for several divorces, whether because the wife kept whining about her husband being good for nothing compared to the blue-eyed heartthrob or because she put a life-size portrait of him on the wall of their bedroom or at least kept a miniature on her cell phone or computer or both. The end result being the husband felt trapped in a triangle where the third side is not really there yet is all over the place while the wife was left wondering a flesh-and-blood scoundrel was better than a non-existent chevalier. The fuss over Mohanad was playfully dealt with in a movie where the husband, an Upper Egyptian macho, almost shot his wife after finding out she had the man’s picture printed on her pillow.

Let me first tell you that Mohanad is not the name of a person; it is the name of a character in a Turkish soap opera. It’s not even the original name of the character, but the name given to him in the Arabic-dubbed version. Let me also tell you that probably no one, and that includes me, knows the name of the actor. Even the billboard that announced the imminent release of his new series read, “And Mohanad is back.”

In fact, it was this billboard, which I first saw one morning as I was driving across Cairo’s main flyover (and which I later found in several other places) that made me realize the craze is far from over: we were in for 100-plus episodes of what women should want and what men will never give and maybe another round of family squabbles and a couple more divorces. I did feel sorry for those Egyptian women who, like the rest of their compatriots of both sexes, seem to be always looking for something that turns out to be too far-fetched.

I don’t know if Egyptian women forgot about Mohanad, but I know I did … until a few days ago when I was driving across the same bridge and looked up at the exact same billboard space to find another Turkish superstar also “coming soon” but with a less tantalizing picture and a rather sober motto: “Together hand in hand for the future.” The new Turk on the block, who I later found on almost half the city’s billboards, was none other than Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

That same day, you would have been hard pressed to find a tweet or a Facebook status that did not in some way or another see the Turkish prime minister as the answer to every single problem Egypt has been facing before and after the ouster of the regime, and maybe since the beginning of time. Like Mohanad put all Egyptian men to shame as far as knowing how to treat a woman was concerned, all potential presidential candidates seemed absolutely incompetent compared to Erdogan and jokes about him winning the elections circulated with the speed of light. Once again everyone was glued to the screen, including men, to hear the champion of democracy in the Middle East lead Egypt’s first steps towards the post-revolution state it is striving to be and to crown Turkey the official Bon Pasteur of the Egyptian people.

The majority of Egyptians made some connection or another between Mohanad and Erdogan if only because they share the same homeland but there were many who scoffed at the comparison. “So is it just because they both are from Turkey?” Well, to a great extent yes. Mohanad is not the only handsome actor Egyptians have seen, but how do you explain that the American Tom Cruise or the Australian Eric Bana or the Spanish Antonio Banderas — all possessing the main attributes of a “beau” and definitely not in any way similar to Egyptian men — have not been half as popular? He is also in no position to compete with award-winning actors, many of whom also happen to be handsome, like the British Colin Firth or the New Zealander Russell Crowe. What makes him that different then? He comes from a country with which Egypt shares historic and cultural ties that go back several centuries ago, a country from where dolmas and Turkish coffee come, a country whose language influences can still be seen in modern Egyptian Arabic. Another factor which undoubtedly plays a major role in this preference for a sizable portion of women is that he is Muslim. Mohanad is, therefore, more “next door” than any of those dudes who speak English, drink coffee from the percolator, or have pancakes for breakfast. If he were real, he would be called “available” or “eligible.”

Erdogan is similarly not a superman. He is a politician, a good one for that matter, but certainly no Mandela or Gandhi and not even a Kemal Ataturk as far as the Turkish people are concerned. But like Mohanad, he is the most accessible option at the moment and an alliance with his country is the most practical at a time when any rapprochement with Israel will be seen as undignified and too much compliance with U.S. policies will be considered a sign of weakness. And as Mohanad is compared to Egyptian men, Erdogan is set in stark contrast with Arab leaders not only for being democratically elected, but also for his latest bravados with Israel, this last factor being of great significance for the Egyptian street and therefore capable alone of making Erdogan a hero of all times.

And like Egyptian women who fantasize about a lover who brings them flowers on the anniversary of every single thing they shared during their first year together, who gets down on his knees to propose, and who plays the violin under their balcony to say he is sorry for something he said or did not say, the Egyptian people dream of a proper leader who assumes power because they want him to and who quits because it is time for him to go.

Mohanad is fictional and Erdogan is real, yet both are equally a figment of the Egyptian people’s imagination: like the first will never alter through a soap opera the way Egyptian men view women, the second will not be capable of effecting from across the Phosphorous the change Egypt needs to create a real democracy. T.V. screens and political borders will remain in the way and billboards will never function as road signs.

So, while you lift your head up to see who the next billboard star is, bear in mind that not all that hits the billboard is the awaited Messiah. Otherwise, that man with the electric shaver or that woman in the pink baby doll would have been our next president and prime minister, respectively!

Letter from Cairo: Breaking and tampering


A long time ago, I read a sentence by British novelist Graham Greene, and it has ever since been my motto, not necessarily because it delivered some universal truth that was in line with my philosophical inclinations – I don’t think I had any at the time and am not sure I do now – but because it appealed to me and made me feel good every time I started to whip myself for not being objective enough about something.

“Sooner or later one has to take sides if one is to remain human,” Greene wrote.

Even though I have always made sure not to abuse my right at taking sides, I have also never robbed myself of the privilege of giving my emotions free access to my brain, and Greene was absolutely right: only then do I feel different from a lifeless data bank.

So, while I always try to look at any issue from all its perspectives and weigh its merits and drawbacks, the resulting judgment comes in the form of a bulk of solid external facts tinged with a shade of soft internal feelings. I have never consciously applied this mechanism, but I guess that is how things have been working for me.

The first time I could actually hear the gears squeaking and could detect each and every movement of this machination was on the day the Israeli embassy in Cairo was stormed.

Unlike what I usually do – most of the time I react as things happen and I get to know from the start where I would most probably stand at the end – I watched the whole thing as if I was in a movie theatre. I saw people destroy the wall, storm the building, toss documents from the windows, and remove the Israeli flag from the roof with a kind of detachment that was weird and frightening to me, for this was not my general mode of behavior and not my usual response to the one cause I have been most passionate about since I realized what the word “cause” meant.

Speaking of taking sides, I am pro-Palestinian – a stance I have taken for years based on both conscious and the unconscious levels and using my signature blend of objectivity and subjectivity – and I don’t recall a time when I supported Israeli actions anywhere, be that the Occupied Territories, southern Lebanon, the international waters, or the Egyptian border, and I was all for sending the ambassador back in objection to the killing of Egyptian soldiers and starting an international investigation into the incident.

If you think this is the right formula for condoning the attack on the embassy, let me correct you.

Perhaps part of the reason why I felt I was watching a movie was the feeling I and numerous Egyptians got that there was a script that detailed every move taken on that day. The Higher Council for the Armed Forces and the Interior Ministry announced on Thursday September 8 the withdrawal of all their forces in order to allow for “legitimate protests” to take place on Friday. Protestors are encouraged to give it a try and march to the embassy, and as expected, the coast is clear, not only on the way there, but also in front of the wall, inside the usually heavily guarded building, at the entrance to the country’s most protected embassy, and on the roof that had previously witnessed a “desecration” of the flag. The revolution is out of hand, external powers are wreaking havoc in Egypt, Israeli citizens are no longer safe, national security is hanging by a thread, and this is what happens when the army does not interfere and this is what happens when you give uncivilized people the chance to act as they see fit.

Bottom line, state of alert it is and emergency laws are back in full force.

Meanwhile, we are left wailing over one more damage the revolution has sustained and wondering if we’ll ever break free from the army’s grip. That is not a situation that makes anyone happy no matter how pro-Palestinian or anti-Israeli he or she might be.

But I was not shocked. As in Egyptian movies when a woman tells her husband to drive carefully and you automatically know the next scene will be him dead in a car accident, only the blind would not have seen it coming. Let me not blabber about the long history of animosity towards Israel, since I have already done that on more than one occasion, but let me just point out that in revolutionary Egypt, where there is no way people are going to give up the power they discovered they had to change the fate of their country and even the whole region, it is next to impossible that the killing of Egyptian soldiers by Israeli forces and the subsequent lack of action on the part of the government will see people going about their daily lives as if nothing had happened. Not anymore.

Anyone who saw protestors storm into the offices of State Security, previously thought off as invincible bastions, would easily surmise that the past’s most formidable is the present’s most accessible and that this fear on which all popularly unwelcome entities in the country, be it the Interior Ministry or the Israeli Embassy, depended for survival is apparently gone, with no intention of returning. Add to this the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador in Ankara and the way Egyptians have lately been looking up to the Turkish government as far as its stances against the Jewish state are concerned.

I am, therefore, quite baffled by how shocked everyone – that does not include the army of course – was that day and how naïve they were to assume that more red lines existed for the Egyptian people.

I was not sad, either. Even though this was the wrong move at the wrong time and might have done the revolution more harm than good, there is no denying that what the government failed, or did not want, to do in several weeks, whether based on strategic concerns or for ulterior motives, was done by the people in a matter of hours: the Israeli ambassador was sent home.

Regardless of all reservations about the way this happened, which are all valid, the will of the people has once more prevailed, and even though they seem to have fallen in a previously set trap, they have made sure not to come out of it emptyhanded and not to let a chance pass without reiterating that they are here to stay.

The movie did not end on a “happily ever after” note, nor was it a Greek tragedy. This type of ending requires a sequel, if not several. And after several hours of just watching, power was back to my good old system the moment the credits rolled and I realized that based on the circumstances the country is going through and the several hurdles the revolution is already facing, breaking into the embassy and tampering with a front that was better left untouched at the moment was far from being a good idea.

Yet, in that little space I leave for myself to take the sides I choose and make the judgments I feel like making, I was secretly – well, not anymore apparently – content that the message was brought home and that the voice of the masses has once again proven to be several pitches higher than armies and states and international treaties.

Letter from Cairo: The phantom of the courtroom


In the Paris Opera House, the enormous chandelier crashes to the ground, the lead singer lets out frog croaks in the middle of the performance, the tenor disappears during the performance – only to be found strangled by a Punjab lasso that threatens the lives of everyone who ventures into the appalling labyrinthine corridors unless they keep their hands at the level of their eyes – and the mirror in the new soprano’s dressing room takes her to an underground lake that she sails across to reach the eerie liar of the disfigured proprietor of the opera’s netherworld.

Add to that anonymous notes demanding money and determining the casting of performances, box number five that is always reserved for an invisible spectator, and the mystery of the soprano’s mysterious tutor. Those occurrences might be mysterious and are undoubtedly alarming, but at some point you get to know there is some “phantom” behind them, and whether he is man or ghost you are left with the comfort of putting your hand on the cause and knowing where to head if you want to eliminate it.

In the Cairo courtroom, the testimony of prosecution witnesses comes in favor of the defendants, a CD containing recordings of telephone conversations from the Interior Ministry’s control room is destroyed by the prosecutor’s main witness, the minister of interior turns out to have issued no orders to fire at peaceful protestors, riot police were armed with tear gas and water cannons only at the time of the protests, live ammunition was meant only to protect the Interior Ministry from the angry mob, police officers got clear instructions to treat the protestors as their “brothers,” the blatant contradiction between the testimony of the witnesses during interrogations and that of the very same witnesses in court is treated as non-existent.

No phantoms have so far claimed responsibility for that paranormal twist of events that suddenly made angels of demons and that made Egyptians who previously wondered whether it would be the capital punishment or life imprisonment prepare themselves for the possibility of an acquittal.

The glorious inauguration of that new type of judiciary procedure, which I believe should be called the “court of the absurd,” was made all the more festive by the stellar appearance outside the court of Mubarak supporters, who revealed that none other than Iran, Qatar, and Hezbollah started the revolution and none other than the very same countries killed the protestors in cold blood.

This, I have no doubt, would make a decisive testimony, one that is bound to determine the progress of the case, as is the announcement made the following moment that the deposed president is, in fact, a descendant of Prophet Mohamed. Witnesses should also include that Egyptian singer who insists Coca Cola and Vodafone slogans are proof of American and Israeli involvement in the revolution, and perhaps also that Cairo-based Syrian actress who comes on TV every other day to jump down the throat of anybody who accuses Bashar al-Assad of massacring his people, and one cannot forget that mosque preacher who yelled at worshippers that ousting the ruler is against Islam and stressed that every police bullet was shot in self-defense.

It will definitely do the case a great deal of good to try to track down all the crooks who used Photoshop to fabricate videos of security cars running protestors over and snipers shooting at unarmed civilians and to present to the court the criminal records of the so-called “martyrs,” who it turns out are nothing but thugs who ruthlessly attacked police stations and opened the gates of prisons.

“Something is rotten in the state of Denmark,” and that foul smell has become too sickening to be tolerated. The stink started flirting with our nostrils when Mubarak’s son waved the victory sign from behind bars after the judge declared a ban on broadcasting the trial, and when the former interior minister was greeted like a returning warrior by police officers who chaperoned him in and out of the dock and was always caught on camera with this confident he-who-laughs-last smile that does not become a senior official sentenced to prison and facing a death sentence if proven guilty, and when it was obvious to everyone that the ex-president who could also be hanged still dyes his hair black and is apparently allowed pre-court meetings with his makeup artists, and when his other son had the nerve to pull a piety act and appear in court holding a copy of the Quran.

The last whiff of stench blew much stronger as we saw scapegoats offered at bar on a silver platter and as the murderous officials of the corrupt regime seemed to be as wrongly accused as the wolf thought to have devoured Joseph.

Instead of speculating about how the trial will end and what kind of sentences will be passed, we are left wondering who moves the threads of what now looks like a puppet show and who is presiding over that under-court Hades in which all intrigues to abort the revolution are woven. More than once, we have been victims of sometimes naive optimism. The revolution was a miracle, and so was the first trial in the Arab world of a president at the hands of the people who deposed him.

This blinded us to the unfortunate fact that a regime like that could not be uprooted by the removal of its heads and that thousands of members of that regime would fight till the last breath to, if not to keep, at least to maintain the rules with which it played in order to protect their interests and/or keep their skeletons resting in the closet.

Mubarak and his interior minister are individuals. The trial of the first and the few years in jail handed down to the second do not by default apply to any of the cartels they used to lead and which are still at large and ready to strike all kinds of deals to save themselves through saving their bosses.

But who are “they”? And what kind of influence allows them to change testimony, destroy evidence, and wave a comforting thumbs-up at the defendants so they look that cool and unshaken? In whose interest is it to keep as much as possible of pre-revolution Egypt and fool the credulous public with an illusion of democracy while still remaining the hero of all times?

First of all, it must be an entity or a group or whatever you would like to call it that was part of the regime and whose existence is so interwoven with its practices that it will be gravely threatened if the entire establishment is leveled to the ground, AND it must wield the amount of power required to reverse several of the gains of the revolution or at least refrain from granting revolutionaries their demands, AND it must now be in a position that officially allows it to chart the course of post-revolution Egypt as it sees fit, AND it must at some point to have gained the trust of the regime’s enemies to be able to effect all those changes after the regime was presumably ousted.

Storming into that underworld is far from being an easy task, and lassos might be waiting at every corner, but keeping our hands at the level of our eyes is a skill we seem to have learned well throughout the past few months; courage is one thing Egyptians surely do not lack.

Whoever or whatever our “phantom” is, until finding the way to his lair our voices will echo with the song that will herald the end to its monstrous existence:

Track down this murderer, he must be found!
Hunt out this animal, who runs to ground!