Letter from Cairo: Best “unoriginal” screenplay


“Blood was spilling and all what we got was the Nile.”

In a few words, a revolutionary Egyptian singer and songwriter summed up the pathetic performance of state TV throughout the 18 days that followed January 25. This line describes the scenes audiences who were naïve enough to assume they could obtain the slightest bit of truth from official media saw when they tried to follow the news. They then realized that the alleged “commotion” falsely reported to have been caused by millions gathered in Cairo’s Tahrir Square was actually a figment of some hallucinating individuals’ imagination and the footage they got of the Nile a few kilometers from the center of the demonstrations, and which had almost become a screensaver during the time, proved that all was quiet on the Egyptian front and that talk of revolution was the making of sneaky satellite channel that destabilized the security of Egypt for a living.

In order not to be that unfair, there were times when a few people would appear in the scene, but these were either passersby going about their daily lives or a bunch of “infiltrators” who were out there to carry out a conspiracy devised by the United States and Israel and Qatar and Iran and Hezbollah and Hamas. The footage happened to be taken each time in only one street, and this street happened to be the one in which the television building was located, so they didn’t even bother to make some effort to fool people.

When clashes erupted around this place and parts of the protest was transferred to the front of the building, they apparently found nowhere else in Egypt to do the job, so they explored other realms of farcical performances. That was when people began speaking on air about foreigners in the square inciting Egyptians against their democratically elected government and tempting them with truckloads of Euros and boxes of Kentucky Fried Chicken. One such caller has become quite an icon because he kept whining for a good 10 minutes to one of the news presenters about how the square was infested with English speakers who were set to destroy the country and claim it was a revolution. The faked anxiety on the presenter’s face after hearing the testimony of what he labeled an Egyptian who got to know what was really happening “inside” firsthand – inside” being Tahrir Square – and the equally lousy part gay, part I-want-mommy act was one thing, and the stunning revelation that that witness to the occupation of Egypt turned out to be a presenter himself in Egyptian TV was totally another thing.

A long series of similar charades by other patriots kept coming in and with them rose calls for hanging the minister of information, who was by then considered not less of a criminal then his pal at the Interior who had unleashed his henchmen to kill unarmed civilians. Was Goebbels any less dangerous than Hitler, anyway?

For the January 25 Revolution, toppling official media came right next to toppling the regime, if not hand in hand with it, for the former was a servile satellite of the latter and they both spared no effort to rob the people of any right they should have to know the truth and they both also did their best to clamp down on independent media whenever it went anywhere near exposing their lies. This was bound to change after the revolution, and it did for a while, with people whose faces were banned from showing up on screen or whose names were replaced with “beep” making appearances and issuing statements on all kinds of channels as they proved they were not really the freaks of nature the former government portrayed them to be.

However, we all know that if honeymoons lasted forever the world would be a heaven on earth, for soon the new ruling institution realized that the benefits of freedom of expression are much less than the damages it incurs and the reins had to be pulled only for us to see a reenactment of an old charade that we foolishly thought ended its last season on the day the protagonist stepped down. Amazing how lacking in creativity the new sequel – how many seasons it will last remains to be see – turned out to be.

During Mubarak’s time, every flagrant violation the regime committed was accompanied by two procedures as far as the media is concerned: one, state TV mutates into a relentless propaganda machine; two, satellite channels receive a variety of threats that always revolve around closure in case certain pieces of “malicious” news are reported or certain species of “devious” guests are hosted. The 2010 parliamentary elections, forgery and vote buying and thugs and all the works, offered the starkest of examples, as we were left with the impression that the sweepingly popular members of the National Democratic Party would soon contest in the Congress.

It was hardly different with the massacre of Christian Egyptians on October 9, and no déjà vu has ever felt as powerful. On the same day when dozens of Copts were killed, a presenter at state TV announced that the army was under attack. “And by whom?” she asks. “Not by Israel or any other enemy state, but by a certain group that is also Egyptian.” The “group,” which according to her was willing to set the entire country on fire in order to build one single church, was responsible for killing and injuring several army officers. She, in fact, called upon “patriotic Egyptians” to run to the army’s rescue before the Coptic, unarmed, civilians tore them to pieces. Meanwhile, the bodies of 25 Copts who were shot dead or run over by armored vehicles were ferried to morgues in neighboring hospitals.

The Higher Council for the Armed Forces is a little bit smarter than the former regime, and therefore decided to add a twist to the plot. So, instead of appearing on a TV network whose history of catastrophic reporting made watching The Simpsons more credible, they opted for one of the most watched private channels and the most popular show on this channel and sent two of its senior members to absolve the council and the Egyptian army from any wrongdoing and to reiterate their pledge that not one bullet would be fired at an Egyptian citizen; they then went on forever about how grateful Egyptians should be to every uniform for supporting the revolution and saving the country and all that emotional blackmail in which they, I have to admit, managed to outdo Mubarak’s sacrifice and war blabber.

The script, however, is such a classic, and tampering with a few lines does not mean deviating from the main line of events. A couple of days after the council’s TV appearance, which took place quite a long time after the tragedy – seems they were too much at sea when a change of scenario was necessary –another private channel announced hosting also in its most popular show a famous Egyptian writer to comment on the statements made by council members regarding the killing of Copts. A revolutionary who has never hesitated to speak his mind, Mubarak or no Mubarak, this writer was not by any means expected to say half a word in favor of the army, and popular, as he is, the impact of whatever he was to say on public opinion was expected to be sweepingly forceful. The dictatorship bible is clear on that and so is the Egyptian script. That episode of the show was banned. Right after, the presenter announced suspending the show in protest of “the remarkable deterioration of media freedom” as he himself put it.

“Those in power think they can deny an existing reality or create a non-existent one … and I do not want to be part of this,” he said in the statement he issued right after his withdrawal.

And we keep yawning as we watch the same events unfolding again like we are in some of those harvest cycles in ancient mythology and as we wonder if, like the camera that was posted right outside the TV building and took shots of the same place over and over again, the military council is not even willing to be a bit innovative in showing the people who wears the pants in this country. It also shows how they look down upon their audience, whom they assume are stupid enough not to realize they are watching the same story but with very slight changes, like what happens in Egyptian soap operas when one actress gets pregnant and they have to search for another to play her role in the following season.

As if 30 years of the same performance were not enough! Even Lord of the Rings came in only three parts!

Well, the show’s name translates into “The Last Word,” and it is still remains to be seen whose last word it will be.

Letter from Cairo: The “De-Bastardization” of Egypt



The “De-” and the “-ation” are not new to the history of politics all over the globe and I am totally clueless why they should be in Egypt now.

True, giving the process a name, let alone legalizing it, is relatively new to our part of the world and may never have been heard until Saddam Hussein’s regime fell and we saw the introduction of “De-Baathifiation,” the word coined in 2003 to denote the purification of Iraqi politics from all members of the formerly ruling Baath Party. The purge not only stipulated banning Baathist politicians from taking part in the “democracy” the newly “liberated” country was about to become, but all civil servants affiliated to the party were to be dismissed from their jobs never to join any public sector institutions ever again. According to the declaration issued by the Coalition Provisional Authority, the policy was initiated for a reason that makes a lot of sense to anyone, Iraqi or not, familiar with Saddam Hussein’s regime: “Recognizing that the Iraqi people have suffered large scale human rights abuses and depravations over many years at the hands of the Baath Party.”

Born and raised in a culture where a ruler and his clique, be that party or family, only leave power at the very moment they leave life, Arabs were fascinated by the notion that they could be rid of an entity as formidable as Baath. Very few knew that the United States was just recycling its good old feats through an almost identical reenactment of the De-Nazification project that followed the Allied Forces’ victory in World War Two and which, as it becomes obvious from the name, initiated an out-and-out campaign to erase all traces of the Nazi ideology in all areas that fell under Hitler’s control, basically Germany and Austria. In addition to banning party members from participation in political life and disbanding all party organizations, De-Nazification also involved the removal of all physical signs of Nazism down to the tiniest swastika on the least conspicuous of statues.

A little less than a decade after, the Soviets embarked on a similar campaign that came to be called De-Stalinzation which set out erase Joseph Stalin from national memory whether through repealing his policies, forced labor and the Gulag topping the list, or removing his name from the countless places that allegedly paid him tribute, the city Stalingrad being the most memorable example. To make sure the tyrant would not get more than what he deserved even after death, it was no longer seen fit to have him buried next to the venerated leader of the Bolshevik Revolution and his body was actually removed from Vladimir Lenin’s mausoleum in Moscow’s famous Red Square.

Like they taught us in school, Egyptians are the world’s oldest and greatest pioneers and this was no exception. Horemheb spared no effort in defacing any signs of Akhenaten that he could get hold of and before him Thutmose III did pretty much the same with Hatshepsut. Egypt’s contemporary history is not much different — only it was no longer done through defacing statues or ripping off obelisks — for since the July 23 Revolution staged by the army 1952, it had been a relentless battle of legacies with Nasser eliminating everything monarchical and Sadat discarding everything socialist and Mubarak posing as the one and only hero of the October 1973 War let alone the accompanying changes in names of places and the number of allocated pages in school books as well as the marginalization, if not necessarily outright ostracization, of figures seen as representatives of a past era.

A quick look at the above makes it easy to realize that the practice of obliterating representations of a former ruler/regime can fall under two categories based on the initiator: First, an occupying force as in the case of Iraq and Germany and second, a subsequent holder of power as in the case of the Soviet Union and pre-January 25 Egypt. A third category came into being with the ouster of the Egyptian dictatorship and the subsequent call for banning members of the National Democratic Party from political life: the people.

The stark contrast between the first two categories on one hand and the third one on the other hand makes establishing similarities between them as far as procedures and consequences as irrational as comparing the change of regime in Egypt to that in any of the previously mentioned countries or in Egypt itself before the revolution. The anti-Baathist project was not confined to holders of influential positions or former officials known for abuse of power or proven to have been involved in acts of financial corruption or to have taken part in the regime’s repressive practices against its people nor was it limited to a ban on political activities, but rather extended to include each and every single person who belonged to the party and each and every single job they occupied. You didn’t need to be a clairvoyant to foresee the disastrous economic and security aftermath. As for Germany, there is no need to go through the repercussions of the guilt campaign on which the United States embarked in order to make every German citizen suffer for the rest of his or her life for being directly responsible for the atrocities carried out by one single mad person exactly as there is no need for contemplating the effect of this on the way Germany and all Europe handled the Palestinian cause and the creation of Israel. How horrible the Baath Party and the Nazi regime were and how necessary their elimination was for the good of the countries they ruled is beside the point now, for the implementation, how it was done and who did it, was faulty enough to turn a nation’s salvation into its eternal damnation.

In the case of individual rulers taking control of the history of their predecessors —and again how tyrannical they were is also beside the point at the moment — it is not very different from a colonizer that decides to shape the destiny of the colonized in a way which best suits its interests, only this time the perpetrator is the compatriot of the people whose destiny he decides to manipulate.

I am not sure any of this compares to the case of a revolution made by the people and for the people and of those same people demanding that the democracy for which they sacrificed their lives be totally devoid of any of the elements that hampered its existence and encouraged the violation of all its aspects. I am also not sure how enforcing a law that bans members of the National Democratic Party — anyone who enjoys the least degree of sanity knows what the party’s chairman, officials, business tycoons, and henchmen did to make Egypt the mock country it had become before the revolution — from inflicting further damage on a public scene struggling for a clean slate and only doing so following a court ruling that proves them guilty of political misdemeanor in anyway unfair or abusive.

Let us stir away from enumerating the catastrophes this party brought upon the country and its people before the revolution and let us instead focus on two little incidents: One, two months after Mubarak was ousted, the Supreme Administrative Court issued a ruling to dissolve the party and confiscate its property. Two, soon after calls to put into effect a law that gives the Egyptian prosecution and Egyptian citizens the right to take to court any former NDP member against whom they possess evidence of corruption started gaining ground, those “remnants” of Mubarak’s regime announced stocking up on weapons and threatened to stage massive violent protests, block roads and railway lines and even to “occupy” or “declare the independence of,” and I am obviously quoting, the provinces they come from not if they are banned from running in parliamentary elections or holding official positions, but the moment the law is declared effective. If we skip all the crimes the party committed before the revolution and just focus on those two incidents, we can ask ourselves: What will a party that was rendered illegal and whose former members are set to stage a civil war to cover up their shameful past do in a country that is currently in the process of cleaning house? What fate awaits a revolution if the forces determined to crush it are back in power?

It is now time for embarking on a wide-scale process that I have decided to call “De-Bastardization,” one that can finally bestow on Egypt the legitimacy that will never be possible as long as those who robbed it are still around. As long as they are, we will always be those little foundlings in search of a parentage they can count on and take pride in, the helpless babies left at mosque doors and next to trash bins by disgraced mothers who find no other way to pretend they have never sinned.

Not sure anyone enjoys having an orphanage for a home forever.

Letter from Cairo: For better, for divorce …


“Till death do us part … ”

Throughout my childhood years, that was the sentence that intrigued me most whenever I watched a wedding ceremony in a Western movie. At the time, I wasn’t able to fathom how two people who decide to be together are suddenly stripped of this same free will when they are rendered incapable of deciding they no longer want to be together and would rather wait for death to take one of them or maybe take them both à la “War of the Roses.”

The situation grew even more bizarre when in Egyptian movies one of the lovers would tell the other, “Even death will never part us.”

What confused me more was that in almost none of the two cases did those vows materialize for more than a few months and usually much more trivial things than death do part them in no time and with much ease.

For a child who was beginning to realize that Santa doesn’t exist, both assumptions about death being the only force that separates lovers or, in the Egyptian film example, too feeble of a force to do so, were purely silver-screen jargon that did nothing but trigger an instantaneous feeling of “My heart will go on” creeping on me from the ruins of some sunken ship.

Less than a year after I had reached those sublime philosophical conclusions, I was introduced to “Henry VIII” in school and I found out that the church did not want to divorce him and that was why he decided to break away from Rome and establish his own church. That was the first time I heard that somebody other than the husband and his wife can decide whether they should break up or not, and that this somebody was as big of an entity as a church made the whole thing much more surreal than the cheesy proclamations of love that I naively assumed held water only in fairy tales and in the imagination of kids under five years of age.

It was then that I learned what a Catholic marriage is, and not a long time after that I also got to know our version of the inseparable bond between a man and a woman that only death can break – the Coptic marriage.

Before I go further into this, let me point out something: this is not about religion. When I praised Tunisian law for banning polygamy and hoped the same could be done in Egypt, several of my friends, male of course, nearly jumped down my throat and accused me of objecting to the laws of God. I always had more or less one answer for them: “I am not going to fall for this trap.”

Indeed, regardless of what the religion is or what kinds of laws it ordains and with all due respect to those who belong to this religion and follow those rules, I find it impossible for me to think about anything other than the purely human aspect of such situations.

The struggle of members of the Coptic Orthodox church to be granted a divorce is not new, and there has been quite a commotion over some who, seeing no other way out, had to convert to Islam when death seemed too unpredictable to count on and when adultery, the only case in which the church grants divorce, simply turned out to be just one of a zillion reasons, and maybe even the least occurring, for ending a marriage.

It is quite intriguing that the recent furor is in fact over an issue that dates back to 1938, when the Coptic Personal Status Law was passed, and to 1971, which witnessed the issuing of the amendment that did away with all but one of the several reasons the law permitted as good reasons for divorce, which included insanity, contracting a fatal disease, imprisonment, physical abuse, desertion for five years … and adultery. This means that if my husband is diagnosed with bipolar disorder, turns out to be HIV-positive, becomes a convicted felon, beats the hell out of me, or has abandoned me on the wedding day, this is still not an excuse for me to ask for divorce and I will be left praying that he cheats on me and that I am able to prove it … or I might even start thinking of fabricating some pornographic shots of him with another woman to get it over and done with.

With the number of Copts seeking divorce or applying for a permit to remarry reaching unprecedented levels – 300,000 cases are reported to be pending at the Clerical Council – and with Egyptians generally becoming more vocal about their grievances following the revolution, the long-overdue explosion eventually struck with full force as hundreds of disgruntled Copts signed a collective resignation from the church and hundreds, maybe thousands, more are expected to follow suit very soon.

I could not help but go back several years ago and think of the time I was willing to give up anything and do whatever it takes to get a divorce, and I keep imagining how I would have had no case at all had the fate of my marriage been contingent upon this law, the original or the amended. Even before going through an experience that made me realize that not wanting to stay in a marriage is enough reason for ending it, I was fully aware that being married to a man who could technically make a wonderful husband does not by any means coerce me into going on with the relationship if at some point I feel that I don’t love him anymore or that we are no longer capable of communicating or any of those reasons that cannot be proven in a court that acknowledges only bruised faces, medical reports, and documented cheating.

What I find really ironic is that the deserters who in the age of Photoshop could have faked adultery charges against their spouses or who could have committed adultery themselves to get out of a failed marriage and who are apparently principled enough not to do either have at the end of the day been called “adulterers” by the pope following their decision to leave the church.

Well, sounds to me like they have now acquired the label that grants them the divorce they have for so long been after and any attempts on their part to refrain from committing a sin have gone down the drain and they end up with the Scarlet Letter anyway. I am not sure they care what they are called at this point, for when you are desperate for regaining your lost freedom, you surprise yourself by how many sacrifices you are willing to make.

The movement that led the resignation campaign is called The Right to Live, and this wraps up in the simplest of words the cause all the Copts are rallying behind and which, unlike the church’s assumptions, is not about defiling a relationship rendered sacred by God nor promoting the disintegration of the family and discarding the values of the community. It is rather about refusing to waive one of the basic rights of any human being: to choose the life to live and whom to live it with. This right need not be supported by evidence nor regulated by law, and it is taking it away that wreaks havoc in society in a manner that is much worse than the scenario envisioned by the church in case whoever wants a divorce gets it, for living with someone you no longer stand might drive one of them to make the “till death do us part” prophecy come true either by inflicting it upon the partner or upon oneself or both. Quite bleak, yet not impossible!

Those who left the church have by no means renounced their Christianity, just like those women who refuse that their husbands take second wives do not renounce her Islam. It is a dignified life they are both after, and if what they fight for happens to be in defiance of God’s laws, then let them be duly punished in the afterlife, but don’t rob them of the right to enjoy the ephemeral here and now and let what “does them part” be what they choose to part for!