Letter from Cairo: Winter of the Patriarch


There are many ways to tell whether a specific country mixes politics with religion, but none of them is as striking as the death of the highest religious figure for the citizens of this country or members of one of the main religions/sects that constitute a sizable portion of its population. This is not only demonstrated by the degree of veneration given to a man that many could consider a representative of God on earth or at least the most trusted source on divine laws and the ideal guide through the path to heaven, but also by the way this man’s destiny is believed to be tied to that of his followers.

Take a little look at the death of Pope John Paul II of the Vatican and Pope Shenouda III of Egypt and compare the reactions of Catholics worldwide to the first and Egyptian Copts to the second and you will have a picture of what I am trying to say. It is not about the number of mourners, but rather the form and reason of mourning. It is also about that time lapse that makes our part of the world stick to the balance of power that existed for several centuries since when a word from the pope mobilized millions of Europeans to the Holy Land and when the church could sell you a one-way ticket to salvation. I am aware of how inaccurate, and quiet unfair, the comparison is between the tyranny of the religious establishment in medieval Europe and the technically unforced authority of the Coptic Church in contemporary Egypt. The analogy basically aims at pinpointing the discrepancy between the most common models of the modern state in which faith is personal and politics is public and our case in which the lines demarcating the two are as blurred as can be.

In the case of Pope Shenouda III in specific, it is hard to determine who interfered in whose business first or who wanted to drag who into what. It started when the pope was, much to the displeasure of late president Anwar Sadat, pretty vocal about his objection to the peace treaty with Israel. It was not the pope’s opinion about a political matter that made of him more than a religious figure. The statements on controversial issues made by Pope John Paul II, for example, were not confined to same-sex marriages, contraception, and abortion—all seen as religious as they are social—but he openly condemned the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and expressed, on several occasions, his solidarity with the Palestinian cause as part of his role as a spiritual guide who supposedly represents human conscience in its agenda-free form. That is why the situation started becoming different with Pope Shenouda when Sadat decided to banish him, thus turning him from a religious symbol into an opposition figure.

It is, of course, debatable whether Sadat trapped the pope into the world of politics to create an imaginary animosity through which he is likely to garner support if only because the enemy was Christian and the pre-dominantly Muslim society was heading fast towards sectarian polarization or whether the pope had made a conscious decision to take the role of the church a couple of levels further. This might not matter a lot at the moment, for the end result was the same and everything that followed served to accentuate the pope’s newly acquired character and which was strongly highlighted by threats of excommunicating Copts who go on pilgrimage trips while Jerusalem is under Israeli occupation, which I believe was the real start of the politicization of the Coptic Orthodox Church and the era where “the mind replaced inspiration and planning replaced prayer,” as one of Egypt’s most prominent monks chose to put it. It was also when Christian laypeople were made to think they are answerable to the clergy and the beseeching messages of apology dozens of them published in official newspapers at the time to express deep regret for embarking on the forbidden trip offer the best example of the complicated relationship that started to develop between the two.

From that point onwards, it seemed that Coptic Egyptians, who were feeling increasingly alienated, realized how unwise they would be to disobey the only person who knows what is in their best interest and therefore started looking to Pope Shenouda for protection and adopting whichever stances he espoused no matter how different they would turn out to be from previous confrontational ones that had earned him the title “firebrand”… and four years in the middle of the Nitrian Desert.

It is hard to tell whether it was gratitude to the man who brought him back to the papacy or fear of another standoff with the regime that was not really that different from the one before or a bit of both that drove Pope Shenouda to make himself amenable to Hosni Mubarak for decades to come. There is also no way to ascertain that the pope really believed that Mubarak fended for Copts against radical Islamists who are bound to exterminate religious minorities the moment the regime falls or that this was just the argument he used to justify his alliance with a president who was no less of a dictator than his predecessor. Again, it doesn’t matter, for anyway both pope and flock ended up in total denial as they, consciously or unconsciously, started overlooking the role that the state, which claimed to protect Christians, played in igniting sectarian strife as part of the seemingly outmoded yet timelessly effective divide-and-rule tactic and even abandoning any attempts at seeing justice served in attacks that targeted Copts. The pope, therefore, indirectly took part in suppressing Copts not only by towing the line of a regime that manipulated them to consolidate its power, but also by constantly talking them into following in his footsteps. Copts did not have much of a choice, for even though going against the will of the pope might have sounded like the right thing to do, they were not sure they could face the consequences of losing the only pillar of support they had in the face of the rising Islamic tide and growing hostility towards non-Muslims. They were, therefore, left with the self-imposed conviction that it is only because of how wiser and more far-sighted he is that the pope is doing so.

The January 25 Revolution was no exception and it was not a surprise that the pope, who a couple of years earlier publicly supported the bequest of power to Mubarak’s son, to ban Copts from joining the protests and to call for giving the regime a chance. While many obeyed, others disobeyed, and some of the first joined the second shortly after the revolution had started in an obvious attempt to shed off the different levels of subordination to which they were subjected. That moment could have been the start of a long and winding road towards the de-politicization of the church and it was obvious how a sizable portion of previously-submissive Copts found in the revolution the most legitimate channel to make this possible. The revolution, which called for equality and citizenship, sort of replaced the church as the protector that does not demand submission in return and for the first time in a long while Copts were made to feel both independent and safe.

Not for long, unfortunately. The fast and scary rise of Islamists to power made many of those newly-liberated Copts not only recoil back to the old shelter but also start reconsidering their faith in the revolution and even realizing that the pope was right in his predictions about the status of Copts in post-Mubarak Egypt. So, as the pope befriended the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), presumably the new protector and the only power that can counter Islamist rule, Copts started once again seeing how wisdom coupled with passivity is much safer than rebellion rife with risks. And as armored vehicles crushed Copts under their tracks and Coptic families were forced out of their homes and the rhetoric against Copts grew more belligerent, the pope thanked senior army officers for attending Christmas Mass and few Copts objected.

When the pope passed away, Copts did not lament the loss of a religious figurehead or a spiritual guide. They cried their hearts out for the man who “protected” them and who remained, after all, the only source of security they had ever known, for it can always get worse and the future looks a lot bleaker than the turbulent past and the menacing present. I guess nothing can be more symbolic than keeping the embalmed body of the pope seated on the papal throne for a few days before the burial and mourners flocking to cast a last glance at what they can later refer to as their golden era.

Can anyone blame them?

Letter from Cairo: Nation deflowered


On March 8, I saw the then-proud 25-year-old girl, who took the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to court over virginity tests conducted on several female protestors arrested during a sit-in one year ago, at a International Women’s Day march. On March 11, I saw that same now-broken girl trying to come to terms with a court ruling that acquitted her assailants. In those couple of days, I saw Egyptian women take a nose dive from the peak of hope to the bottom of despair. Obviously, I am no exception.

It was not just the shocking fact that a man who forced a woman to take off her clothes and took the liberty to embark on such a flagrant violation of her body was suddenly absolved of all blame. Nor is it about the mindboggling fact that the senior military officers who had earlier admitted that virginity tests are a common procedure with female detainees are now treating the matter as a figment of the victim’s imagination. Not even the sickening fact that she lost the case because she could not remember the name of the prison warden and was not able to determine the rank of the doctor-conscript who examined her. And, believe it or not, it is not the simple fact that she is a woman.

A compulsory virginity test is a form of physical abuse and this, for me, is like rape in the sense that both are not really sexual acts, for even in the most conservative of societies there are so many ways of having sex that do not involve the humiliation of the second party. Therefore, the culprit in the two is not really different from a wife beater, for the three crimes come in handy owing to one single assumption: the weakness of the object of the act whether physically and socially. The three of them are also an easy outlet for a terribly insecure person who is desperate to feel powerful and has no other means to do it except by physically prevailing over another person who is not likely to resist and with whom emerging victorious is a finished business. By virtue of their alleged vulnerability, women feature as the perfect candidates of such violations, but that is not the case all the time.

Men, too, are often subjected to abuse that can be seen as sexual when they are placed in a situation where they are the helpless party, sodomization in police detention being the most typical example. Whether male or female, the victim is meant to be humiliated in the worst possible way and there is nothing more effective than sexual-oriented repression. I am not quite sure why anything related to private parts is more traumatic than electrocution or beating, but I guess it is more cultural than physical because such acts violate the sanctity of the body as perceived by females who are always expected to preserve their chastity and by males who associate any assault of a sexual nature to loss of manhood. Of course, this is much more accentuated in conservative countries that tend to stick to these fixed conceptions of what makes a woman precious and a man worthy of respect.

As much as virginity tests are all about women, they are not really so and as much as the verdict that implicitly endorses them dealt a fatal blow to women’s rights, it did not really do so. Virginity tests are about humanity and the verdict is simply the latest addition to an already deplorable human rights record. It took me such a strenuous effort to see the girl breaking into tears upon realizing that her degradation was adorned with the official stamp as a human being rather than a woman and even though this might sound so un-feminist, I see it as the most advanced form of feminism. I believe that if I focus on the fact that the victim was a woman and turn this fact into the crux of the matter, I will be indirectly supporting that fixation on women’s sexuality as untouchable and I will be, like most people around me, not as shocked when a woman is beaten up or verbally abused as when she is sexually assaulted. I, therefore, made the conscious decision of seeing the girl who was tested for virginity as one more Egyptian deprived of the most basic of rights to which citizens of any decent democracy are entitled. This, however, made me come to a quite depressing conclusion, for looking at this case as part of a much bigger picture made it just another testimony to a floundering revolution that has so far been unable to achieve any of the goals for which it erupted, on top of which was human dignity.

Yet, on a second thought I realized it didn’t look that bad after all and I even reached the point of believing that there is no reason why the girl should be no longer proud or why those supporting her should feel broken. In fact, if this lawsuit and any similar ones have any positive side to them, it is definitely the documentation of a series of violations to which Egyptians are subjected and if this verdict and any equally unjust ones serve the revolution in any way, it is definitely through shedding light on desperate attempts at squashing the revolutionaries. The more lawsuits and verdicts of that type are made known to the public, the uglier the face of the current ruling authorities appears.

This girl was not really defeated as she appeared to be not only because her courage is even more highlighted than it has ever been, but because she just hammered one more little nail in the coffin of the military council which was not even smart enough to indict one person in return for making an entire institution, whose reputation has already been compromised for quite a while now, look a tad better. Hence, she defeated them twice: first, when she, through filing the lawsuit, proved that she was not intimidated and that what they did to crush her actually made her stronger and second, when she, through losing the case, became a live demonstration of a tyrannical rule and a politicized judiciary.

At the end of the day, it is not she that was abused, for whatever they did to her they did to the entire country in her person … and more. While she was forced to strip naked and had her genitals groped and her body prodded by men who claim they would rather die before seeing “their” women touched, Egypt was being deflowered by those who claim to be its guardians. Deflowering, like the virginity test, does not make a woman the victim of a sexual act but makes a human being the sufferer of a brutal physical and psychological infringement and makes a nation the subject of a sweeping invasion that is not necessarily led by outside enemies. Deflowering, unlike what is commonly believed in our part of the world, is an act that disgraces no one but the sadist perpetrator and is redressed by neither a hymenoplasty nor the demonization of the victim. It is only when the culprit gets what he deserves and preferably keeps out of the victim’s sight so that she can be given the chance to get some healing from a past everyone around her calls shameful and build some defenses for a future everyone around her believes is bleak.

Otherwise, the deflowering act will never be the last stop for it is bound to be followed by others of a similar, yet more traumatic, nature.

And let us always remember that if deflowering by definition happens only once, rape can recur as long as the rapist is alive and the raped is helpless.

Letter from Cairo: The Rescued, the Scapegoat, and the NGO


The letters NGO stand for Non-Governmental Organization. A Non-Governmental Organization is a body that engages in activities related to the welfare of society in which it operates but without being affiliated to any official institution or political party. This is the description of an NGO I have known since I was aware the term existed and there has never been a reason why I would assume that belonging to one could in any way be a criminal offence. But in Egypt, everything acquires a new meaning.

It is quite normal for a dictatorship to clamp down on any institution that makes people aware of their rights, advocates democratic reforms, or empowers minorities simply because it is quite expected from a dictatorship to do all what it takes to keep its citizens in the dark as far as how oppressed they are and how capable they are to topple their oppressors are concerned. I am not sure what is normal for a dictatorship that was technically toppled and realistically consolidated, but if a regime’s relationship with civil society is one of the many criteria for measuring the degree of democracy, then judging by the latest NGO showdown we are definitely still in a dictatorship both technically and realistically.

Several years ago, a famous NGO was closed down and its founder, a prominent human rights activist and a staunch critic of Hosni Mubarak’s regime, was sentenced to jail on charges of defaming Egypt for publishing a report on sectarian clashes in an Upper Egyptian village. This, more or less, laid the foundations for the “healthy” relationship NGOs should establish with the regime and which should basically revolve around the first painting a rosy picture of the second and that was apparently the only way they can both coexist happily ever after. Sounds totally logical! Any regime that has a lot to hide would do its best to turn NGOs into an enemy that for its own survival has to be subjugated rather than an ally that for the public good should be supported. In fact, you can judge the severity of violations committed by a regime by the intensity of its crackdown on NGOs.

For this very reason, the continuation of the diabolical depiction of any civil society related institution even after the revolution hardly took anyone by surprise and all those who saw the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces as an offshoot of the former regime and who followed the nonstop campaigns against revolutionary activists, freedom writers, and outspoken MPs would see the latest attack on NGOs as one more chapter in the saga. However, it was not the leveling of seemingly very serious charges against four NGOs and 43 of the their employees, both Egyptian and foreign, that saw our jaws dropping, our eyeballs popping out, and our minds boggled, but rather how all that was done and how we suddenly became the spectators of a third-rate melodrama in which an old gypsy-like woman, who turns out to be a midwife, storms into the church as the priest is about to finish his “speak now or hold your peace forever” to announce that the groom is the bride’s twin brother.

I will have to skip the fact that those NGOs have been working for years in Egypt and were actually given official permission to monitor parliamentary elections. I will also not talk about the illegal funding issue not only because of how hackneyed it has been and how incapable I am of understanding what makes one funding legal and another illegal, but also because this sounded like a terribly bland accusation compared to other much more sinister ones like possessing maps that reveal a plot to divide Egypt into four statelets and taking photos of restricted military sites. Apart from the fact that the those charges, unraveled by the two judges in charge of investigating the case and who set a precedent by making public the details of the indictment before the trial started, turned out to have not been part of the official accusations, which turned out to be nothing more than receiving donations without permission and operating without licenses, in the first place and nobody knows where they came from till now, it sounded a bit confusing to see the prosecutor establish five years as the maximum sentence for crimes that could amount to high treason for Egyptians and espionage for foreigners. Meanwhile, statements by the prime minister about Egypt never “kneeling” no matter how much pressure it is subjected to gave the impression that the country is up against some cosmic attack and pushed the audience to the edge of their seats as US threats to withhold the aid and speculations over the severing of diplomatic relations menacingly loomed in the horizon. Tension kept mounting when only two days after the trial started, the entire panel of judges withdrew from the case citing “discomfort.” The climax drew close as the new court panel, formed on the same day the old one pulled out, lifted the travel ban on the 14 foreign defendants, six of whom are American. One more twist of events was required and there was none better than an American aircraft landing at Cairo Airport, the very next day, and the credits rolled with the triumphant takeoff of the former guests of the criminal court dock.

Even the conspiracy-detection skills I have started developing lately have miserably failed me and I am not alone in this. With the exception of the military council that seems to have won the Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Director, the prime minister who must have acquired a great deal of fitness after such an intensive kneeling exercise, or the Muslim Brotherhood who look like they are now bosom friends with Senator John McCain, I don’t think one single Egyptian understands what that fuss was about or who exactly the members of the cast that gave such a lousy performance were. Everyone was left wondering whether the US was, like the authorities, an actor in the charade or, like us, a dumbfounded spectator and what the fate of the remaining Egyptian defendants, still facing the same charges, will be and how amazingly independent the Egyptian judiciary is.

It is almost impossible to know for a fact how this whole thing happened, but we have the liberty to make as many wild guesses as we can about why it happened. It is equally impossible to impose a rational interpretation on an absurd occurrence, so there goes my disclaimer. The military council, together with the government and possibly the parliament, was becoming increasingly annoyed at the continuous exposure of human rights violations and political blunders by NGOs, which were maybe expected to convey a more positive image of Egypt now that the regime is toppled and all sorts of elections are being held. When this proved to be wrong, another round of former-regime-like NGO clampdowns became necessary, but it couldn’t be done in the old fashion. There had to be a way that would make the authorities sound justified in their action while not being regarded as belonging to the pre-revolution school of undermining civil society. Sensationalism was the answer and nothing better than charging foreigners working on Egyptian soil and flirting with the popular outside infiltration scenario, therefore turning it into a case of sovereignty and national security, could have done the job of instigating the public against NGOs. The fiery rhetoric of officials and their striking indifference to antagonizing the world’s superpower served to make the story more credible and the threat more tangible. It was only when the choice of the foreign, especially American, factor that the plan backfired simply because it lacked the most basic of calculation skills to the extent that they assumed the U.S. would have its hands tied while watching its citizens banned from travelling and threatened with jail sentences for a crime they have not committed and there is so much the U.S. can do to put pressure on Egypt and see the un-kneeling prime minister prostrating. Between a rock and a hard place, the compromise was reached with the Americans, and the rest of the foreigners, untied from the rock and the Egyptians remaining in the hard place. This way, it is honeymoon as always with Uncle Sam and hell like never before with any Egyptian who worked or will work in any institution that monitors the transition to democracy or advocates political reform.

And as the film ends with the westbound plane loaded with homesick passengers breathing a sigh of relief and hitting friendly skies, a post-credits scene features the Egyptian defendants behind bars listening to jail sentences and hitting rock bottom.

The Rescued, the Scapegoat, and the NGO … now in theatres.

Letter from Cairo: Tyrant till proven guilty


“My country remains the dearest no matter how unfair it is to me and my compatriots remain the most loving no matter how cruel they are to me.” This is my humble translation of the first two lines of a famous Arabic poem whose authorship is disputed to date. There is no need to know who the poet is or under which circumstances the poem was written to guess that it is a moving proclamation of love by an obviously oppressed patriot who argues that one’s loyalty to one’s country and compatriots is never shaken by any form of injustice one might experience within its borders. Logically speaking, these words would most likely be said by any of the activists who are constantly threatened, harassed, and imprisoned for speaking their minds and who are still unable to give up on their country no matter how much pain it might inflict upon them. Absurdly speaking, these words were amazingly said by the ousted president who is telling all Egyptians how unfairly he was treated and how, despite having every reason to hate Egypt and its people, he still loves them and will remain to do so.

The emotionally-charged verses concluded Mubarak’s address to the court on the last session before the verdict and which came as a truthful account of how honorable a president he had been and how patriotic an Egyptian he will forever be. It was, in fact, the best-written absurd text I have read since “Waiting for Godot,” a play in which two men wait endlessly for someone who never shows up and while doing so engage in all kinds of fragmented conversations that make us doubt whether they know that Godot in the first place or whether he or they exist to start with.

I will try not to go into the details of the historic statement since I find it as boring as the bedtime story my mom once told me when I asked why I was not treated like normal kids instead of being told about social justice and the power of the people and other things that at the time sounded even more cryptic than algebra. I will do my best to only focus on a few points that shed a bit of light on how attempts at fabricating the most brazen of lies combined with hopes of finding the most delusional of audience can produce the perfect live example of absolute nonsense.

I will just comment on something he has kept mentioning since the start of the revolution and which appears to be the only achievement he really made and that is why is never wastes a chance to talk about it: the role he played in the October 1973 war. Here I would like to ask a question: What was the commander of the Air Forces expected to be doing while his country was in a state of war? Be celebrating Yom Kippur with the enemy combatant? Can I keep reminding my students how benevolent I am for coming to class? Plus there has been talk anyway about how his role in the war was blown out of proportion and how that of others was totally overlooked to create that mega-size ego that neither ouster nor imprisonment seems to be able to deflate.

I might as well try to make sure who Mubarak was talking to when he mentioned the economic boom Egypt witnessed during his time. Maybe the business tycoons who were given free hand to treat national revenue as their pocket money? Or officials whose astronomical salaries, exclusive of bribes and commissions, could feed half the population? Or the privileged few who own summer houses in Palma de Mallorca and shop in Paris every season? Those are possibly the same people he intended to address when he talked about the dignified life he strove to secure to all Egyptian citizens. I assume it was just by sheer mistake that he forgot to include the 40 percent who live under poverty line and the 35 percent who have never been to school and these of course would have reminded him of the way a glass of potable water, a toilet, or a job that would secure one meal a day have become the ultimate ambition of millions of those Egyptians he claims to have made his priority.

I find it a bit hard not to feel quite intrigued by Mister President’s assertions about his unflinching support of the Palestinian cause partly because they seem quite contradictory to the progress made in inter-Palestinian relations right after he stepped down and partly owing to the fact that it is not hard at come up with concrete evidence of his relentless attempts to deepen the rift between Fatah and Hamas and his role in tightening the noose on Gaza and facilitating Israeli aggression against the strip’s defenseless residents. Yet there is no point trying to give examples of Mubarak’s wholehearted support of Israel, but maybe keywords like “natural gas” can offer a tiny insight into the last of a series of concessions offered to the friendly neighbor.

What I really fail to grasp is that hackneyed scenario he insists on reiterating whenever he gets the chance about how he would never under any cost order the police to kill unarmed revolutionaries and how, on the contrary, he gave clear instructions that they be protected and allowed to practice their right to protest and how any ensuing tragedy was the making of this group of secret operatives that officials drag into any mess they create to absolve themselves of blame — the so called “third party” or, as Mubarak chooses to call them this time, “infiltrators.” It is also quite baffling how he attempts to present police forces, who he claims were facing this unprecedented crowd of angry protestors who were out to topple the regime without live ammunition, as victims who only withdrew after being unable to deal with the situation.

It’s pointless trying to make sense of these absurdities, but is there at least any logic behind such swaggering proclamations at this time? Is Mubarak hoping these words would have an impact of some sort on the court? That is quite far-fetched especially in the light of how bland and unimpressive they are. It is more likely that the target audience is the people who are expected to gloat in case of a harsh sentence and grumble in case of a lenient one. For some odd reason, Mubarak believes he can gain the sympathy of Egyptians even if the court ruling comes in his favor. After all, an official exoneration is worth nothing without a popular one, for while probabilities of getting the first are as many as the loopholes in any law, the last is the hardest to manipulate and it is lack of it that can send anyone to eternal historical doom. This he will never get from Egyptians no matter how many speeches he gives and how many poems he recites not because of how vindictive they are but rather because he really has nothing to say to make them change their perception and that of history about him being anything other than the worst of rulers and the most exemplary of tyrants.

There is fat chance the defendant might turn out to be innocent of the charges specified in this particular case and which we all know are as hard to prove as finding the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Where on earth can the recordings of instructions to shoot at protestors be found? And how on earth can evidence of the suppression, impoverishment, and humiliation of an entire people by one veteran dictator be submitted to court? And what supernatural power on earth can come up with documentation of embezzlement, squandering of public resources, abuse of power over three whole decades? One morning we might even wake up to a picture of him sipping on rum punch at some Caribbean beach and sticking out his tongue at all those stupid Egyptians who once thought justice could be served. But there is no way he will go down in history as anything other than a tyrant who did everything in his capacity to degrade his people and a court verdict issued in a still-corrupt regime by an absolutely un-independent judiciary will not do anything to change that. And while his name will go hand in hand with those of Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Augusto Pinochet, Pol Pot, and all those sadistic nutcases who measured their power by how much blood they spilt, the story of Egyptian revolutionaries will be written alongside the freedom struggles of Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Václav Havel and all those altruistic patriots who measured their power by how much blood they prevented from spilling.

A convicted tyrant is surely better than an acquitted one but the first designation loses meaning as the second confirms it is here to stay long after court orders are recycled into grocery bags. It’s no big deal if following a long list of his crimes, a couple of words are written about how lenient their penalty was. No one would say, “Oh! Looks like he was a good man despite everything!”

In fact, the only bit that makes some sense in this entire gibberish of a speech is the final one about how history will eventually judge him for who he really is. Indeed, it will and it is indeed high time for people to learn to be careful what they wish for.