Letter from Cairo: Many revolutionary returns!


If I give birth to a baby who weighs something like half a kilo and it is to be placed in an incubator for a whole year, maybe more, to have its organs properly functioning, I am not sure I would be throwing a party and making a gift list. I might do so if I had been barren for years and had lost any hope of having children then suddenly and without the least effort on my part found myself pregnant and grew obsessed with the idea itself while totally overlooking how well it would materialize. So while in the first case, I would be staying up all night monitoring the baby’s progress and helping it to gently cross into normal life, in the second I would leave the poor soul struggling with the dozen tubes that provide it with a semblance of life and get busy bragging about my fertility and denying all malicious allegations about my incomplete femininity. In the first case, I am a normal woman whose main priority is to see her child healthy. In the second, I am either too insensitive and extraordinarily selfish or utterly delusional and none of those is known to be among the main characteristics of a real mother.

I really fail to understand where the people who wanted to celebrate the first anniversary of the revolution were coming from and I very much doubt they are delusional, but I am almost sure of their insensitivity and have no doubt at all about their selfishness. It doesn’t take so much mental effort of any person equipped with a minimum level of sanity to look back at the past year and realize that there is no cause for celebration at all not because the revolution was a failure, but rather because it is till now too unfinished to be treated as over … unless, of course, in some peculiar forms of human behavior it is common to celebrate unachieved achievements!

I and many of my fellow “untamable” Egyptians have been continuously rebuked for how “ungrateful” and “greedy” we are and have been reminded all the time how a year and one day ago we would have never dreamed of an ousted government, a prosecuted president, and an elected parliament. Have I ever denied that? What kind of a fool would anyway? But is this all what the Egyptian people wanted when they shouted at the top of their lungs, “The people demand the toppling of the regime”? Is a regime about president and parliament? I am sorry, but this is KG-level politics and it’s about time we grow up a little bit!

Let me rephrase the question in case the previous one is too existential for people who prefer to have their fingers placed on the exact problem: In what kind of a democracy are peaceful protestors in general killed, tortured, or maimed; female protestors subjected to virginity tests or stripped of their clothes in public and the Coptic ones, also in particular, crushed beneath the wheels of armored vehicles while none of the culprits are put on a fair trial or receive a proper punishment? Is it democratic to refer tens of thousands of civilians to military courts, to raid NGO offices, to clampdown on activists, and to turn freedom demands into destruction plots? Which definition of “democracy” includes brainwashing gullible citizens into repeating words along the lines of “foreign agendas” “third parties” “anarchy” and “infiltration”? Or let me group all of those questions into a more comprehensive, yet not so abstract, one: Which of the words repeated throughout the 18 days we mistakenly thought were the duration of the revolution have turned into reality? Social justice? Citizenship? Freedom of speech? Independence of the judiciary? Purging the police force? There is so much more on the list, but this is just a portion of the demands that drove people to take to the streets on January 25, 2011.

On January 25, 2012, Egypt was divided into two camps: one that had an honest and objective answer to those questions and which decided to have a revolution re-run on that day and another that either chose to find itself illusory answers or to ignore the questions altogether and which decided it’s party time on the same day. For the second, the first were the fun killers who loved trouble for trouble’s sake and for the first, the second cared about nothing except their own gains and which took precedence over the revolution and the interests of the entire population. So in Tahrir Square was the second basking in parliament glory and pledging allegiance to the ruling authorities while all over Cairo was the first stressing that neither the demands of the revolution nor the martyrs that paid their lives to see them happen will ever be forgotten.

Joining the first camp came as naturally to me as turning around when somebody calls my name. For the first time since the start of the revolution I was surprised to see that it didn’t bother me not to be in Tahrir Square and that nothing was as fulfilling as marching through the streets of the capital that rocked under the feet and around the shouts of those freedom fighters vowing to finish what they started.

On that day, all parts of the city turned into replicas of that version of Tahrir Square that we have summoned every time we were on the verge of despondence. So yesterday I went back to not worrying about feeling thirsty because I was sure that in a split of a second a thousand bottles of water will be given to me, to not fearing harassment because I had no doubt that all those men in the crowd would take it upon themselves to protect me from any fake revolutionary, to feeling that a million plus people can feel like siblings and first cousins and bosom friends. It was during the five hours the march took that the real voice of the revolution reached every Egyptian cowering under a blanket, turning up state TV volume to the max, or signing opera in the shower. None of the revolution’s demands was missing and on top of that came bringing to justice every single official, from the most senior to the most junior, responsible for shedding the blood of innocent citizens, the equal distribution of wealth, the creation of a civil, nonreligious and nonmilitary, state, the release of political detainees. It was astonishing to see children that would not by any means exceed five years old yelling shoulder-borne that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has to step down, a group of Libyan youths declaring solidarity with their revolutionary brethren, and a women’s march swearing not to enjoy a minute of rest until they see all their abused “sisters” justly avenged.

Only such spirit would make you forget about the hunger creeping into your tummy, the muscles burning in your thighs and calves, and the vocal cords worn with protesting shouts. This same spirit makes you feel totally alright with finding not one single moving vehicle to take you back where the march started and with eventually settling for a boat ride to do the job.

Like all literature nerds, I read too much into things and that was exactly why I considered ending the day in the middle of the Nile and the liberating feelings that instilled into my and my fellow-protestors’ souls are just another symbol of where the revolution is heading and of the destiny of freedom no forces of evil can stop from happening. What I actually find more symbolic is that fact that the boatman found nowhere to drop us off except where one of Cairo’s liveliest cultural centers is located. So there we were suddenly hopping into the place and watching those who sat in the café or attended any of the center’s activities turning round and wondering where on earth we came from. That’s not new, I must say. We have always surprised our beloved compatriots… the whole world in fact. So why would yesterday out of all days be an exception? And we are determined to keep doing so until Egypt becomes what it deserves to be and until we make sure we carve our names in history as the makers of the globe’s most peaceful uprising.

Many happy returns of the revolution and many revolutionary returns of the true Egypt!

Letter from Cairo: Do you speak Baradei?


Now the whole square had one language and one speech.

And they said, “Let us build ourselves a nation, and a democracy that puts every tyrant to shame; let us bring ourselves dignity lest our humanity becomes lost till the end of time.”

But the forces of darkness came down to see the spirit of the children of the square and they said, “Indeed those people are united and they all speak one language, and this is where the trouble lies. Now, nothing can stand between them and their dream.”

“Come, let us go down and confuse their language, so that none of them would understand what the other is saying.”

So, instead of speaking in one single voice, each started shouting at the others and the others followed suit until the entire square was turned into a cacophony of jumbled sounds and deafening echoes.

And that, in a nutshell, is how the Egyptian Babel saw the light and how we all ended up talking to ourselves and even stopping to hear what we had just said. Apologies to Genesis are due of course!

Yet, one little difference makes the plight of Biblical Babylonians much milder than that of Tahrir Egyptians. In the first case, tower builders realized that each of them is the sole speaker of that strange new tongue and therefore they all had no option but to disperse across and create nations that would speak the same language. A bit later, each nation became inhabited with citizens that spoke the language of its founder and nobody felt lonely anymore. In the second case, speakers of the new languages did not have to leave at all not only because in no time language groups were created and communications remained possible even if with a more limited number of people, but also because each language now sees itself as the most superior and is therefore engaged in a survival war that aims at declaring the square a mono-lingual zone.

Some languages are approaching official status while others would be lucky if they get minority recognition, yet neither the rising popularity of former is indicative of how rich they are nor the recession of the latter is a sign of the limited vocabulary of which it is comprised. It is simply about the hurdles placed in the way of any refined language as it attempts to gain access to the majority, partly because of how detrimental its propagation is for every barbarian terminology and partly because of how challenging it might seem to those who are not in the habit of hearing, let alone using, such sophisticated idiom.

Mohamed al-Baradei is the doyen of the most endangered species of languages not only because very few are able to understand it, but also because very many are keen to install the kind of subtitles that relegate it to the position of its rival tongues. He is, in fact, this rare language with all the values that make up its nouns and the magnanimity that inform its verbs.

Anyone who listens carefully and objectively to the statement in which he announced his decision not to run for president would detect the characteristics that distinguish the Baradei language, as subtle as it is, from others, as loud as they are. It is very hard to miss this single component that dominates his discourse and which he himself mentions as the reason for his withdrawal from what he rightly sees as poorly-directed charade: dialogue with the conscience.

It goes without saying that any language must involve some kind of dialogue, but with who and about what are the crux of the matter. His is not the dialogue that curries favor with the Higher Council for the Armed Forces through turning a blind eye to their crimes against Egyptians in return for some begged-for power, that terrorizes the despondent with God’s retaliation and lures the poor with half a kilo of meat, that forges alliances with the devil as long as he exercises some influence, or that thrives on demagogic speeches and fawning applause. His is rather a dialogue in which he makes sure that, as he said, he can look into the mirror and feel self-respect and in which a set of uncompromising ethics take precedence over the most tempting of ambitions and the most desired of offices.

Baradei gave up the chance to win a position that I think none deserves as much as he does if only by virtue of being the main impetus of the revolution, let alone his integrity, courage, and patriotism, all of which made him risk his safety, reputation, and peace of mind to see real change. “But nothing whatsoever has changed,” he said as he attempted in a couple of words to justify his decision and to slap on the face whoever thought the revolution is over. The transitional period has been run in the worst way possible, official media remains the mouthpiece of a deceitful regime, the judiciary has not achieved any independence, arbitrary arrests and in-detention torture have not stopped, and the real revolutionaries are pushed to the margins while the power-hungry are hijacking the revolution.

He seemed to be asking us or let’s say those amongst us who are still impartial enough to see things for what they really are, “Would any man of honor be willing to take part in such an absurd semblance of democracy?” The logical answer is obvious for any sane person including those who saw Baradei as one of the few sources of light at the end of the tunnel and I am one of those. For the speakers of the same language, his decision might have been disappointing, yet is definitely consistent with the rules of a discourse of dignity where concessions are only permissible as long as they do not jeopardize the moral infrastructure. Those same speakers were, like him, aware that the presidency or any other official position is crippling rather than empowering in the current circumstances where apparently how much authority you get is contingent upon how skilful you are in towing the line and bending over backwards and knowing who wears the pants in the country.

In order for him and his conscience to remain engaged in this soul-searching dialogue and in order for all Baradei native speakers to stay true to the dictates of their language, they all reached the conclusion that steering away from anything official is till now the best way to be able to retain one’s autonomy and honor and to have the freedom any struggle for democracy requires.

The Baradei language is by no means elitist as many who are unable to fathom it claim as they look for an excuse for neither understanding it nor even attempting to listen to it let alone learn about its rules. It is only as far-fetched as any altruistic action in the midst of a ruthless fight for as many morsels of the cake as one can get and it too human to be grasped by those who value parliament seats more than they do flesh and blood.

Latin may have become extinct, but it remains the language of some of the world’s earliest masterpieces, the major source of universal scientific terminology, and the epitome of hard-earned knowledge and a sophisticated intellect and nothing can change that. It will go through short phases of renaissance and long eras of demise, yet it will forever stay the topmost aspiration for every scholar and the proof of mastery for every clergyman and the peak of learning for every layman.

The most highly-educated speak Latin and the most truly-patriotic speak Baradei. True, both are difficult to master and hard to maintain, yet both are undoubtedly the fruit of some sincere desire to reach an understanding of a more elevated order that more or less makes you feel complete, secure, and fulfilled.

Letter from Cairo: Lord of the preys


“We do not sell Danish products” did at one time become the title of a free of charge marketing campaign almost every major grocery store in Cairo launched following the cartoons that infuriated the entire Muslim world. Whoever ran those places needed not be geniuses to realize that a tombstone-like sign modeled after “those are pearls that were his eyes” that points to that deserted place in the display fridge where Lurpak butter used to shamelessly lie and a little bit of PR about championing the noblest of causes despite forecasts of horrendous losses offered the perfect guarantee of a spectacular sales hike. Very few were bothered to think that nobody would have thought of buying the butter and its fellow blasphemous products at the time anyway, hence transferring them to another fridge until the storm passes was not by any means going to bring the least of financial mishap and that manipulating public emotions to get commercial gains is Marketing 101 in any capital-oriented society.

I totally believe in boycotting as a peaceful means of protest and I would personally refrain from using the products of a country whose domestic or foreign policies clash in one way or another with my personal principles or political stand, but would certainly not boycott an entire country because I am mad at what one of its citizens did.

Boycotting, like other forms of resistance, is expected to exert pressure on some party believed to be capable of redressing the wrong they have done you or your people or anything you believe in. But how were the people who embarked on a frantic investigation of the origins of all cheese and biscuit brands that have Scandinavian-looking names expecting that they or their faith would be avenged? Did they actually believe that the cartoonist would be arrested and beaten up in the police station until he tells on the intelligence agency that hired him to destroy Islam? Or that perhaps he would turn out to be the mastermind of a global plot to exterminate Muslims on the planet? I hate it when high hopes go down the drain, but I am sorry to say that I do not sympathize with those who lack the slightest ability to distinguish between one culture and another or one system of government and its exact opposite and who could not arrive at the conclusion that neither consumer boycotts nor flag burnings, embassy attacks, and death threats would send the man to the gallows.

We can have an endless debate about whether the cartoons were provocative or racist and whether it was insensitive of the cartoonist to be totally indifferent to the feelings of a billion people and whether real art is not that which nourishes on demonizing the “other.” What I see as indisputable is the man’s absolute freedom to do what he pleases as long as he did not violate any law in the country of which he is citizen and especially if the culture to which he belongs views this act as a normal practice of the freedom of expression this same country and a whole bunch of international charters granted him. But relativity is not a legitimate theory in our part of the world and for some strange reason we believe that whatever is sacred for us has to be so for the rest of the world and that every human being on the face of earth should make sure he or she is not hurting us before thinking of laying down a single brush stroke. That explains why we cannot come to terms with the fact that “deriding Islam” is not the most heinous of crimes across the world and that the culprit was able to get away with it.

Shortly after, the cartoon crisis was over. The butter returned, but the grudge remained. The mortified vulture licked its wounds and waited for the coming prey while bearing in mind that it better be edible this time. Well, looks like it is … perfectly so!

There is a cartoon involved, but the crime looks a lot different for many reasons. This time, the identity of the cartoonist is unknown, and will most probably remain so under the circumstances, and the culprit is basically guilty of posting it on the internet. This time, the figures depicted in the cartoon do not, as far I know, hold any special status in Islam but are, as far as people say, endowed with Islamic traits and that is how a bearded Mickey and a face-veiled Minnie derided Islam. It didn’t stop at this! The offense was rendered all the more criminal by the offender’s objections to mixing politics with religion and his view of the veil as a social phenomenon rather than a religious duty.

By the way, what the man did is quite insignificant, for it is apparently nothing compared to insulting none other than the prophet himself. It is rather who he is that makes all the difference, for this is what makes of him the most perfect of all preys. He is Christian and this in itself is proof enough that deriding Islam is what he does for a living. He is one of the richest and most known businessmen in Egypt and this makes tarnishing his image quite destructive on both the personal and the financial levels. He is the founder of a quite influential liberal party in post-revolution Egypt and this renders questioning his values detrimental to all political powers that subscribe to the same line of thought. There remains the most important ingredient in this recipe of the most delicious catch: the man is within reach, easy to get back at, and definitely prosecutable! Filing a lawsuit was as much of a piece of cake as the mobilization of the majority against a member of the minority is. In no time, the man was turned from a victim of a rising tide of religious fanaticism and a society that views freedom of speech as a deadly sin into a menace to national identity and an enemy of the state.

And because he is not Kurt Westergaard’s compatriot, he does not have the luxury of sitting back and resting assured that he is part of a system that will fight with all its might against any infringement on his basic rights. He, therefore, ended up in the exact position in which his fundamentalist detractors wanted to corner him and where he is to forced account for all the “crimes” committed by others who were lucky enough to be born in Denmark or any spot in the world that is capable of rescuing its citizens from those lethal claws that have by now mastered the art of prey selection.

Vultures do not necessarily derive their predatory powers from the speed with which they seize their prey or from this prey’s inability to detect imminent danger or escape sudden attacks, but more from the environment in which they thrive and which either nourishes their thirst for blood or teaches them that not all that moves is food. No laws govern the open wilderness and only God knows how many members of the species needs to perish in order for the rest to be listed as endangered.

Letter from Cairo: Happy New Egypt!


Making a list of resolutions never means you are resolute to do any of them and wishing yourself or others a happy new year never means you have a good reason to believe there is any happiness looming in the horizon. In fact, the resolutions and the new year in which they supposed to be put into action are one and the same thing. The decisions we make at the end of the departing year are our idea of what could make the coming one “happy.” I believe that is exactly why we engage in an activity that proves futile almost 99 percent of the time: to feel good about ourselves and the future and to resist admitting defeat for trying and failing to do the same bunch of things over the past decade or so.

How many times have you said or heard the phrase “as of next year” preceded by some grievance and followed by some solemn vow? How far did you manage to go on a diet if half your clothes don’t fit, to hit the gym every morning if you gasp for breath every time you climb a couple of stairs, to stop yelling at your kids if every time you overhear them talking about you the word “crazy” has to pop up, to follow the instructions in “Why Men Love Bitches” if your boyfriend is taking you for granted, to quit smoking if your blood pressure is hitting lethal levels, or to start admitting that women also wear pants if your wife announces she is no longer taking your chauvinist gibberish?

The level of challenge posed by these resolutions vary and so does the willpower of the people who make them, yet one fact remains the same: comfort zones are not called as such because they are technically comfortable, but rather because getting out of them is uncomfortable. That is why most people would rather stick to lousy old habits than make the extra effort of acquiring healthy new ones and would rather keep feeling bad where they are than try feeling good in a different place. And that is how the “resolutions” is emptied of any meaning and that is also how “wishes” sounds like the most logical substitute. Being the down-to-earth person I am and realizing that a failed resolution is much more traumatic than a wish not coming true, I stopped using the first since I was in high school and started investing all my energy in the second.

A few minutes before 2010 came to an end, exactly the time when I am usually hit by that barrage of wishes for the coming year, I found out that I only had just one that summed up almost everything I felt at the moment on both the personal and the public levels and that sounded too complex it had to stand alone.

“I want to be a citizen of a democracy,” I whispered to myself as I fixed my gaze on the dial getting closer to 12.

“Oh! I have never had a wish come true that fast,” I said not a long time after as if to the genie who had just granted it, while struggling to fathom how on earth can weight loss resolutions fail that miserably and revolution wishes happen that gloriously. I remembered those cheesy “Eat Pray Love” kind of books where the power of a plea is determined by how many people share it and where you immediately summon the image of a group therapy session with people repeating some tedious mantra while holding each others’ hands and where your only reaction is always “Duh!” But who knows, I wondered, maybe it really works. Maybe a few other millions made the same wish at the same time and maybe the emotion each one of us vented into his or her wish was intense enough to make it come true and genuine enough to transform itself into a resolution.

Based on this assumption and regardless of how dreamy or ridiculous it might be, I decided in the last moments of 2011 to reenact the same pseudo-hypnotic ceremony in the hope that fellow supplicants from last time will be there again for a second round of sweeping resolutions.

– I want all remnants of the former regime to rot in jail
– I want all revolution hijackers to disappear
– I want the army back where it came from
– I want the police to do what it is supposed to do
– I want no more talk of religion in politics
– I want to stop hearing disparaging remarks about women
– I want to stop hearing discriminatory nonsense against Copts
– I want people to know that votes are too priceless to be sold … or bought
– I want human rights classes in every single elementary school across the country
– I want every Egyptian to be able to distinguish between Arabic and Mandarin Chinese
– I want all Egyptians to look up the words “secular,” “liberal,” “civil,” and “socialist” in a beginner’s dictionary
– I want the dignity of the Egyptian citizen to be the first article in the constitution
– I want members of parliament who do not think it is a musical chairs game
– I want a president who feared not to be a dissent at the time when it was life threatening
– I want a government that supports the Palestinian cause
– I want a people who know what they deserve and are willing to fight for it
– I want no more black strapped photographs of Egypt’s bravest youths
– I want the Egyptian revolution to go down in history as the noblest and most peaceful of all time

I know the list maybe a little bit longer than last year’s, but I and my partners in “wanting” have become too demanding and too confident … and rightly so! But I made sure I started earlier so that I would be done by the time it struck 12. I hope they did the same.

I finished, took a deep breath, and heard the midnight strokes then saw millions of crossed fingers starting a countdown for Egypt as we all want it … happy and new.