Letter from Cairo: The donkey and the Don


Many years ago, when I was 12 or 13, I hated my English teacher. Nothing personal! She just made Julius Caesar sound like Little Red Riding Hood and literature is one line nobody dared cross for me. My classmates had huge issues with her, too, not because they were fanatic about their Shakespeare, but rather because they were not sure how anything she said could translate into answers to exam questions. I said we should complain and they totally agreed except for a little detail: they were not going to. I don’t blame them, for why should they get themselves into trouble if they have a troublemaker on standby? So, I went to another senior English teacher and demanded that our class gets a new teacher. “And what is wrong with your teacher?” she asked me in a way that made me feel like I am a two-months old needing a change of diapers. “Because she doesn’t know anything!” She let out a loud gasp and was silent for a minute as she examined me from head to toe then stood up and beckoned, “Follow me.” In a matter of minutes, I was taken to the head of English teachers who had a very alarmed look on her face when she heard what I did and from there was led to the office of the principle who had a very vindictive look on her face when she heard what I did and shortly after there came my mother who had a very baffled look on her face when she heard what I did.

After giving my mother a lecture about how discipline starts from home and how respect for adults is the mark of the well-bred child and how lack of appreciation for teachers is a sign of ingratitude—all remarks that meant to make her regret the day she brought me to the world—the principle and the head of English finally issued the verdict: either I apologize for “insulting” my teacher or I am referred to some disciplinary committee that might end up dismissing me. My mother looked at me. “No, I am not going to apologize,” I said agitatedly. “I didn’t do anything.” At that point, my mom realized we could spend an entire week in this office and I would never change my mind, so she decided to take the easy way out. “Allow me to apologize on her behalf,” she said. “You know how stubborn kids are at this age.”

The two women looked at each other then looked at me gloatingly as they saw how humiliated I was by my mother’s reaction then the principle said condescendingly, “Well, fine for now, but you better make sure she doesn’t get away with such uncivilized behavior.”

I was fuming and pushed my mom’s arm as she tried to take me out of the room before I say anything stupid. When we got back home, I looked at her and said, “I will never forgive you” then locked myself into my room for the rest of the day. The next morning we had breakfast without saying a word but right before I got up to get ready for school she said, “You know what Don Quixote’s problem was?” I did not give a damn about Don Quixote so I did not answer. “He made imaginary enemies and wasted his breath fighting windmills.” That didn’t make any sense to me so I left thinking about nothing except how she let me down and made me feel so small in a situation where I was supposed to feel so big.

The teacher was changed.

This incident became so vivid in my mind a few days ago when a young MP and one of the most known revolutionaries gave a speech in the city of Port Said, where the stadium murders took place three weeks ago, and directly accused the Higher Council of the Armed Forces of planning and facilitating the carnage as part of a plan to wreak havoc in Egypt. In this speech, the MP pointed out that other parties held accountable for the tragedy in front of the public, like the city’s governor and head of security and the interior minister, are sheer scapegoats while the real culprit is at large. He then said that people should not be fooled into releasing the donkey and seizing the saddle, in reference to a famous Egyptian saying about blaming the wrong people or venting anger at those whose role is secondary while overlooking the primary cause. “The donkey is this case is the real criminal,” he said, as he explained the link between the image in the proverb and the case on the ground. To make sure no confusion might arise among the audience and just in case some of them are not so good at analyzing figures of speech, he said what he could have avoided had he counted from one till ten like they used to tell us as kids to do before saying anything stupid, a skill which I have always lacked of course. “The donkey is Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi.”

Now, he has to apologize. The man he called donkey is head of the military council and the de-facto ruler of Egypt, so it’s either he admits he made a terrible mistake and maybe kneel in front of his victim and start braying himself to prove who the donkey really is or he can face the consequences which would start with a disciplinary action possibly followed by the stripping of parliamentary immunity possibly in preparation for a military trial. Looks like he opted for trying his luck with all the possibilities in the second scenario for he made it clear that an apology is out of the question and made it clearer he still insists on his earlier remarks about the field marshal and the council.

I am not sure we can put aside the fact that the parliament does not have the right to interrogate, let alone penalize, one of its members for something he said or did outside its boundaries or that a few days before another MP, who sucks up to the military council for a living, labeled formerly potential presidential candidate Mohamed al-Baradei a U.S. agent during a parliamentary session and nobody moved a hair or that we are supposedly done deifying humans and considering freedom of expression a criminal offence. I am similarly not sure we can for a long time overlook the sickening double standards with which both the parliament and the military council are dealing with anything that happens in the country and the way very specific people are picked at just because they are outspoken revolutionaries while the horrible mistakes of others are totally forgiven just because they are fawning loyalists.

I will try to put all this aside for the time being and will also try to stir away from my personal opinion and my wholehearted solidarity with the embattled MP and just point out that while the word “donkey” is derogatory because it means “stupid” this is not what he meant when he equated the field marshal with the donkey in the proverb. This does not mean he did not hurl a blunt accusation at the field marshal. Of course he did. It was definitely not stupidity, though, or any of the characteristics associated with donkeys. What is quite ironic here is that the accusation the MP meant is much more serious than the one his detractors understood or chose to understand, for he meant that if the donkey in the image stands for the criminal then the donkey is the field marshal, which, according to empirical logic, makes the field marshal the criminal. Yet, it was much easier to make a fuss about a wrong interpretation because it makes an easy prey of the enemy than look into the right interpretation because it opens a Pandora’s Box many would rather keep locked for as long as they can.

I have decided to put aside the fact that the MP’s approach might not have been the most well-calculated or the most timely not because he does not have the absolute right to say whatever he wants whenever he wants and whoever doesn’t like it is welcome to sue him, but rather because he dragged himself into the wrong battle at a time when more important ones require every ounce of his energy and therefore gave the proponents of tyranny his head on a silver platter.

I have decided instead to go back to the story I recounted in the beginning and let you know that after I cooled down a few days later, my mom decided to explain why she did what I saw as high treason.

“You were not wrong because you demanded something that you believed was your right. You just didn’t choose the best way to go about it and that is only what the apology was for.”

The MP explained the figurative aspect of his statement and this constitutes an apology for the form. As for the content, he has nothing to apologize for.

The school was smart enough to accept the apology that saves its face while not holding on to a stance that could ruin its reputation, but can lousy teachers be replaced by a principal who promotes lousy education?

Letter from Cairo: The Balkan Republic of Egypt


There is not a region in the world that has been repeatedly disintegrated like the Balkans was and that is why it there was no better term to coin in reference to dividing a previously unified territory into small states than Balkanization. While the earliest conflicts in the Balkan Peninsula were directly related to the fall of empires like the Ottoman, the Austro-Hungarian, and the Russian and whose vast stretches of land had to start redefining their borders and creating of themselves independent entities, the most recent ones, commonly known as the Yugoslav Wars, were basically triggered by ethnic tensions and the desire of each group to become dominant in the place where it boosts a majority while getting rid of what it viewed as the disruptive minority. Dreams of creating a Greater Serbia serve as the best example not only in terms of emphasis on a nationalist ideology that works towards unifying all Serbs but also as far as the justification of annexing neighboring territories inhabited by Serbs and carrying out a genocide campaign against their non-Serbian citizens are concerned.

The failure of the Greater Serbia project did not, however, prevent the dissolution of the Yugoslav Federation not because of the validity of the ethnic purity theory but rather owing to the extremely fragile foundations upon which the union was initially based. From day one of its inception, Yugoslavia was obviously a patchwork of ethnicities, languages, and religious beliefs that was trying and constantly failing to present itself as the ideal model of every word with the prefix “multi.” Sharing the same colonial history is never enough for states to unite or else we would have seen a Latin American republic all the way from Mexico and the Hispanic Caribbean to Patagonia with the exception of Brazil. Serbia, Croatia, Macedonia, Slovenia, Montenegro, and Bosnia and Herzegovina did not have more in common than did Lithuania, Kazakhstan, and Russia and there was no reason why Yugoslavia wouldn’t follow in the footsteps of the Soviet Union. The Balkans carried within it the seeds of its Balkanization, yet I do not see how this can applied to a country that has been politically and geographically unified for thousands of years or how any group of perverted fanatics would dare to even give it a shot.

A couple of weeks ago, dozens of Muslim youth from a village in western Alexandria gathered in front of a Christian man’s house and asked him and his family to leave immediately citing rumors about a video that his son had been circulating among villagers and which contained sexual scenes between him and a Muslim girl from the village. Despite the fact that none of the eye witnesses had actually seen the video and that the police were not able to find any such thing with the boy, the group of angry Muslims, led by a preacher, grew into thousands from the village and the neighboring villages, all demanding the banishment of the Christian family while shouting religious slogans and brandishing guns, knives, and Molotov cocktails. After failing to break into the house, the crowds vented their anger on a couple of stores owned by members of the family and which they looted and completely destroyed then went on to attack and set fire to the houses and stores of other Christian villagers while another group made sure the fire engines, which had already arrived very late, from accessing and salvaging the remains of the buildings consumed by the flames.

After enough damage was done, the governor of Alexandria, the head of Alexandria’s security bureau, the leader of the Salafi movement in the area, and a couple of Islamist MPs headed to the village where they held a so-called reconciliatory session, which I naively assumed only existed in the pre-state era when the chieftain of the tribe was the only source of legislation. In this session, they all agreed that banishing the boy and his family was the only way to “quench Muslim wrath” and “restore calm” in the village. Yet turns out the wrath was too forceful and the calm more far-fetched than expected. Finding the “verdict” too lenient to be fair, more angry Muslims took to the streets again calling for the banishment of all Christian villagers and attacking a few other houses under the nose of security forces which only interfered to secure the remaining Christian houses hours later. Another of those sessions was convened and this time the expulsion of eight Christian families and the formation of a Muslim committee to sell their property looked like the best solution not only for the enraged villagers, but also for security forces that did not seem to mind this new approach to imposing law and order.

As strange and unnatural as this might sound, I have to admit that I find the afore-mentioned incident more disturbing than attacks on churches and clashes over conversion even though the latter proved to be bloodier. I find it hard to view this incident as an accidental fight that erupted between a few people and was fuelled by the exaggerated sectarian zeal members of both groups display or as one of those childish, albeit sometimes deadly, muscle-flexing feats the majority likes to perform every now and then to intimidate the minority. I rather see this as the start of an organized campaign to divide the country along sectarian lines so that Muslim-only areas would be separated from their Christian-only counterparts and with a little bit of luck the second might as well be “advised” to look for another country altogether. Did I mention that the banished Christian families were warned that should they at any time decide to go back to the village, they would be doing so “at their own risk” and no one would be “responsible for their safety”?

Is it possible to imagine what could possibly happen if these families refuse to leave their homes and stick to all the rights they are allegedly entitled to by virtue of being full-fledged Egyptian citizens? I am assuming that forced evacuation would be the most peaceful reaction on the part of Muslim villagers, yet anyone slightly aware of the reality of the Egyptian society and the increasingly belligerent disposition of its Islamist factions would realize that even such a flagrant violation of the basic principles of citizenship is too rosy to be feasible. The now-fashionable use of weapons in the most trivial of squabbles and the apparent apathy of the police and the army towards such clashes, basically owing to lack of impartiality on their side and their inability to prioritize their national duties over their personal prejudices, constitute the perfect ingredients in the sectarian division recipe. Christians in this case will be divided into two groups: one that resists and this will have to bear with the consequences which we all know will never be in their favor and another that will get scared and run for its life. The two scenarios will eventually intersect as they both yield the same desired result: getting rid of religious minorities and declaring Egypt 100 percent Muslim.

I am not in any way suggesting that this plan would work and comparing Egypt to the Balkans does not in any way mean that the Christians of Egypt are in as precarious a situation as had been the Bosnians of Yugoslavia not because the extermination of the latter was any less tragic than the expulsion of the former, but rather because no debate along the lines of whether Croats are better off living in Croatia can possibly ensue about where Egyptian Christians belong. Needless to say, Egypt, the world’s oldest nation, is not a frail union between Serbia and Montenegro and no Slobodan Milošević will ever have the power to tamper with its historic unity.

The question is: Do we have to wait for another Srebrenica to wake up to this fact?

Letter from Cairo: Cry ‘riot’ and let slip the dogs of ‘stadium’


I have never been interested in football and I don’t recall watching one single game from beginning to end and I have no idea how different a midfielder is from a quarter back. The things I am familiar with are basically that Egypt won the Africa Cup of Nation two or three times in a row and that matches between Real Madrid and Barcelona are called El Clásico, but I am totally capable of distinguishing between stadium riots and pre-meditated murder.

Football is known to be the sport with the most fanatic audience and that explains why it is maybe the only sport in which supporters of rivaling teams are seated separately and why clashes, especially in important games, have for so long been seen as common news. That is exactly the logic behind the extreme security measures seen in any football match and the urgency of safeguarding lives and property in a context where adrenaline rush becomes more hazardous than a thunderbolt. I am also totally capable of distinguishing between cases when the situation spirals out of control and the police become unable to contain the crisis, like what happened in the 1989 Hillsborough Stadium disaster in the UK, and when the police make sure the stage is perfectly set for a blood bath and watch while it materializes, like what happened on February 1, 2012 in the Port Said Stadium in Egypt. Let me add that I am also totally capable of distinguishing between a human crush as in the first case and a homicide as in the second case.

For the longest time, I had thought of conspiracy as the easiest way out for those, usually average citizens, who do not want to bother with analyzing a specific incident and find it more comfortable to throw the blame on some sneaky power that is out to destroy the nation or those, usually the authorities, who want to distract the people from some grave mistake they have committed through keeping them busy with some imaginary culprit until they figure out what they can do to fix the problem. Yet right now I declare myself a conspiracy theorist and I insist that every single detail before, during, and after the stadium massacre was planned, coordinated, and executed with “malice aforethought” and falls, therefore, under the category of first-degree murder.

A quick look at the circumstances in which 70-plus football fans were killed and more than 1,000 injured allows the conspiracy to manifest itself in its most conspicuous form and without any effort on the part of anyone who is still wants to believe it was an accident. Fans with clubs and knives and illegal fireworks were allowed into a place where cigarette lighters and nail clippers are prohibited. Security forces were less than one fifth the numbers required to offer minimum safety to a crowd of this magnitude. Port Said governor and head of security made no appearance at the game in a suspicious violation of both protocol and tradition. The moment the game ended around 3,000 from the winning team’s part of the stadium rushed into the field from the gates that are supposed to stay locked until everyone leaves towards the losing team’s seating areas. At that very moment, the stadium’s lights were turned off. A few moments later the security barrier guarding the losing team’s area was opened to attackers who started climbing towards the seats of their targets. The terraces were turned into a battlefield as fans got fatally stabbed, strangled, hit on the head, and pushed from high altitudes while those who ran up the stairways in an attempt to escape with their lives found exist gates bolted and army officers standing on the other end not responding to their calls for help and it was only when the gates gave away under the pressure of the terrified victims that they managed to flee. Some managed to take refuge in the changing rooms and this was also where the injured, many of whom died later, were transferred. In the meantime, ambulances were no show and police and army no action.

A quick look at the victims allows the conspiracy to crystallize in a way that explains beyond doubt the motives of the murderers and the choice of the murdered. The dead and the injured are all members of the Ultras of the losing team. It might sound illogical since Ultras are mainly supporters of soccer teams who though always fanatical and at times violent are not generally involved in battle-like confrontations nor are they usually party to murder crimes whether as culprits or victims, but it does becomes absolutely logical upon remembering the role those Ultras in particular have been playing in the Egyptian revolution. Their organizational skills, physical fitness, and large numbers have not only made of the Ultras an indispensible part of the revolution and rendered their support vital in any confrontation between protestors and security forces, but also placed them as the most untamable of “trouble makers” and as the most draining challenge for the ruling junta. Add to that the Ultras’ incessant calls for toppling the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and putting its members on trial and which were deafeningly voiced all over the stadium in the last game played by the team they support. Terrorizing this group of Ultras and sending a message to other football fan groups that have started to follow in its footsteps and which were starting to join forces to organize massive rallies against the regime was just another chapter in that pathetic guide the army has been consulting every time its throne got shaken by the revolutionary tide and every time its leaders mistakenly thought the revolutionaries can be scared into abandoning the cause.

A quick look at the statement issued by the targeted Ultras group, entitled “We Demand the Execution of the Field Marshal,” reveals the plot to crush the brave youth to have turned out a miserable failure. “The Field Marshal is sending the Ultras a clear message: either we become content with practicing our freedom within the confines of stadiums or get exterminated for demanding freedom for the entire nation,” said the statement which made it clear that the retaliatory plan only made them more adamant on uprooting all forms of tyranny attempting to abort the revolution and that they are not going to wait until each and every single one of them perishes and they vowed to do all it takes to protect the revolution and make sure those who killed their brethren are duly penalized. “Yes, we have received your message,” they wrote addressing the Field Marshal. “Now, wait for the reply.”

And a quick look at the official response to the massacre puts the last piece of this self-resolving puzzle where it belongs not only because it serves as a tacit admission of involvement, but also because when placed in stark contrast with the Ultras’ reaction demonstrates how cheap Egyptian blood is for those who claim to defend it. Suffice it to compare this reaction, which is supposedly coming from the compatriots, let alone alleged protectors, of the victims to that of FIFA president the Swiss Sepp Blatter. “This is a black day for football. Such a catastrophic situation is unimaginable and should not happen,” he said expressing how “saddened” and “shocked” he feels and insisting that the incident cannot by any means be categorized under football rage. Not sure if it is relevant to mention the reaction of the Cameroonian Issa Hayatou, president of the Confederation of African Football who used words like “shock,” “tragedy,” and “deep mourning” in reference to the massacre. The Egyptian head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, and the de facto ruler of the country, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, made a slightly different statement. “This can happen anywhere in the world,” he said nonchalantly then added a few fragmented sentences in which as far as I understood he encouraged Egyptians to track down the murderers and promised to pay compensation to the families of victims. He then ruled out any plan to dismiss the governor or the head of security in the near future and inquiring about the minister of interior would have been too stupid at that moment.

I am not sure if we have become too experienced in deciphering conspiracies or maybe conspiracies nowadays have become too brazen to require any kind of deciphering in the first place. I am only sure of one thing: creating gladiator arenas of squares and stadiums or throwing revolutionaries to the lions is the key to the fall of tyrants and the triumph of revolutions and the fiercer the counter-revolution becomes the more forceful the revolution grows.