Letter from Cairo: Sting vote


If you break your leg running away from a bee, you make more mistakes than you can ever imagine. Because your desire to escape imminent danger is not proportional to the magnitude of this danger, if we can call it so in the first place; the damage you inflict upon yourself is much more serious than the damage this danger could have inflicted upon you. So, had you just waited till the bee approached then slapped it dead or sprayed it with insecticide, you would have gotten rid of the danger while getting out of the confrontation intact. Physical injury aside, by running, you have also committed a terrible misjudgment because you overestimated the power of an enemy you could have crushed in a split of a second had you given yourself the chance to think for one whole second. You have also underestimated your own abilities and automatically assumed the challenge is too great to face therefore running looked like a much safer way out. And you have given your adversary, if we assume it had brains, the pleasure of knowing how weak you are and how easily intimidated you can get and the much greater pleasure of scaring you away whenever it sees fit.

Bottom line, you become the ultimate loser in a battle that you created and in which you chose to surrender to an illusory enemy.

I don’t see how this is different from the way the majority of Egyptians chose to vote in the country’s first-ever “free” and “fair” presidential elections with all the reservations I have on using those two terms in describing the process which took place a few days ago. There are so many factors that strip elections of those two conditions that are necessary for any real democracy, yet for me there is one major obstacle to making elections free and fair: fear, an unjustified one to be specific, and one that amounts to phobia to be more specific.

In the first elections to follow a historic revolution that toppled such a deeply-entrenched regime and liberated a people that have been enslaved for decades, you would expect a revolutionary candidate to sweep the polls but when the exact opposite happens you realize something is very wrong.

The two candidates that reached the runoffs are, in fact, the most non-revolutionary and representatives of two typically tyrannical institutions: the first being a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and the second a senior official of the former regime. The victory of the first was quite expected not owning to any skills he claims to possess or any political platform he offers, but rather because he is backed by a gigantic structure that excels in that one tactic that works best in the elections of developing countries, especially ones with high poverty and illiteracy rates and more so ones that are new to democracy: mobilization with all the meanings with which this word can be impregnated and which basically include different types of manipulation and bribery. The rise of the second one was the puzzle you seem totally unable to decipher.

The man was one of Mubarak’s ministers and closest allies for years and shortly before the fall of the regime was appointed prime minister and it is during his time that the massacre known as the Battle of the Camel ─ in which regime thugs mounting camels and horses attacked peaceful protestors with knives, whips, and Molotov cocktails ─ took place. He is also the man who is known to speak disparagingly of the revolutionaries and to have actually expressed how disappointed he was that the revolution managed to topple the regime, the man who was proud to say that Mubarak was his role model and that he would grant the former president amnesty when he comes to power, and the man who confidently declared he would use military force on protests that take place during his presidency. The man will be, and he is not denying it, a replica of the former regime and maybe more brutal for if Mubarak ruled over a bunch of submissive people, this one is up against a troublesome lot of angry nonconformists. And still those millions voted for him and are planning to do the same in the run-off and it is here where the bee analogy comes in.

The man is known for his mediocre abilities and he needed not do anything more than to portray the bee as a formidable enemy. A quick look at the surveys on which echelons of society chose to throw the revolution down the drain and vote for him is enough to make the puzzle seem like a nursery rhyme: Christians, businessmen, and the upper middle class, the three of which were willing to risk their freedoms as citizens and their dignity as humans to run from an illusory horror towards an equally illusory safe refuge. Fear of Islamists for the first and third group and keenness for the return of security for the second and third groups and the desire to retrieve a past era seen in many aspects as better than the present one drove these three groups to see the man as the best president material at the moment. This fear does not necessarily mean that all those who feel it are against the revolution or want the former regime, but they simply have their priorities and their safety comes first on the list. For them, revolutionaries might be the most honorable, yet they have not managed to leave the realm of dreamers and to prove they are capable of offering concrete reassurances on the ground. Maybe later, many of them say, in defense of their position and for which they were ruthlessly scolded and even accused of having on their hands the martyrs’ blood.

The man and his campaign managed to portray a frightful image of the Muslim Brotherhood and its candidate and what Egypt would look like under their presidency. I am not denying the dangers posed by the establishment of a religious state ─ it is one which I personally feel threatened by ─ yet giving the impression that the powers of political Islam are invincible is as ridiculous as believing that it’s better to break your leg than have the bee come anywhere near you. The result is that whoever placed the bee in your way and the bee itself would come out unscathed while you are the one who ends up with a broken leg and who knows if you will be able to walk again. You were also too short-sighted to see the other available options and which will not only save you from hurting yourself, but will also allow you to introduce to the scene other parties that are not as scared as you are and will, therefore, be able to see the bee for what it really is and not overestimate what it is capable of doing as well as deal with whatever damage it can cause.

This third part, thankfully, exists and in large numbers. This explains the millions who voted for the third candidate, the real representative of the revolution. He might not have technically made it to the run-offs, but the massive support he got which took all Egyptians, including those who voted for him, by utter surprise, proved that not all of us are willing to break their bones to eschew a potential sting.

A bee sting is rarely fatal and its pain subsides if you remove the stinger on the spot, but a broken leg will need weeks to heal and you could end up limping for the rest of your life. So, instead of giving in to apiphobia, it’s better try to face our fears and weigh our losses before getting ourselves killed while running for our lives from a situation that is not at all life-threatening!

Letter from Cairo: one of ‘all of’ us


Slogans have usually been notorious for ringing hollow and across the globe there has never been a better context than presidential elections to demonstrate not only how detached those few words written next to candidates’ names are from their reality and/or their political platform, but also how gullible voters can be when they decide to base their choice on consumerist mottos that are not a lot different from McDonalds’s “I’m loving it” or Nike’s “Just do it.”

Egyptian presidential elections are no exception. Even though you would think that for such a historic, first-of-its-kind event, some dashingly ingenious slogans would sweep us off our feet and toss us in utter confusion with all our options looking too perfect to be true, utter blandness and sheer clichés were what posters, billboards, programs, and TV commercials said about the presidential hopefuls they promoted. “Egypt, the strong,” “Up to the challenge,” “Renaissance: the will of the people,” and “Deeds, not words” meant absolutely nothing to me other than horrendous lack of creativity, extremely lousy PR, and, most importantly, a candidate with nothing to offer. Only one of a total of 13 managed to strike the right chord on both the political and the emotional levels and to make visible a glimmer of hope that there is after all one person who deserves to be the first president of post-revolution Egypt: “One of us.”

While “One of us” might, like its counterparts, sound like a melodramatic appeal to an easily-swayed people in a situation that is by definition emotionally-charged, all impressions of that sort are shed off the moment the meaning behind the slogan and the history that made it see the light become known. A very quick look at who Hamdeen Sabahi is more than enough to prove that he is really one of “us” with all the totality, comprehensiveness, and harmony with which these two letters are impregnated.

Born to working class parents and raised in a coastal little town in the Nile Delta, Hamdeen Sabahi grew up among farmers and fishermen and thrived on the social justice dream espoused by late president Gamal Abdel Nasser, who later became his main source of inspiration. His ability to identify with the grievances of the marginalized majority set him on the road he chose to take and in which he continues to struggle. Student activism was the first medium through which he was able to voice his revolutionary stances and being elected president of Cairo University’s Students’ Union positioned him as a representative of all those frustrated youths who saw the curtains fall on their national aspirations with the collapse of Nasserism and regarded the era of Anwar Sadat as the initiation of an elitist regime that would strip the poor of whatever meager gains they managed to secure after the July 1952 Revolution. Sabahi’s confrontation with Sadat in 1977 was his official inauguration into the world of nonconformity, freedom fighting, and struggle against all forms of oppression as well as a parallel, inevitable one of detention, persecution, and torture. In the historic speech he gave in front of a tyrant he knew very well never accepted criticism, Sabahi objected to the concentration of wealth in the hands of the privileged few and slammed Sadat’s Open Door Policy and the way it will turn Egypt into a model of monstrous Capitalism. “At the time when the people need every single penny, focusing on making the minority richer is absolutely unacceptable,” he said. Moving to the regional level, Sahabi lashed out at Sadat’s rapprochement with Israel and abandonment of the Palestinian cause. “We reject all sorts of compromises that imply the recognition of the state of Israel and deprive Palestinians from regaining their entire land.” He did not only pay for his “audacity” when he was banned from working in any government institution, including the university and all official media outlets, but also a few years later when in 1981 he was the youngest of opposition figures arrested and detained by Sadat one month before his assassination, thus starting a series of political detentions that went on for decades after and that have reached a total of 17.

Sabahi was arrested, detained, and tortured for all sorts of reasons that all revolved around challenging the authority of the regime and demanding an end to government policies on both the domestic and internal levels. These include leading mass protests against the Second Gulf War in 1990, against stripping farmers of their right to own lands they cultivate, and against Egypt’s support for US invasion of Iraq in 2003 as well as the framed charge of attempted murder against a police officer following a failed assassination plot orchestrated by the Mubarak regime in 1993. The threat he posed to the regime, and which mainly sprang from his participation in dozens of workers’ strikes and anti-Mubarak protests, was made obvious once more when thugs were sent to attack his supporters in the 1995 parliamentary elections, which he eventually won, and when in 2010 votes were rigged in his constituency to insure that he does not win again. In addition to his constant defense of the rights of laborers in the parliament, he was also the first MP to slam the export of Egyptian natural gas to Israel. Sabahi’s battle against the dictatorship then shifted to independent initiatives when he co-founded in 2004 the Egyptian Movement for Change, also called Kefaya (Arabic for “enough”), that opposed the bequest of power to Mubarak’s son and joined in 2010 the National Assembly for Change that called for democratic reform and constitutional amendments and that was seen as one of the main sparks that ignited the revolution.

Like many Egyptian revolutionaries, Sabahi saw catering to the needs of Israel at the expense of the Palestinian cause as one of the main reasons for the deterioration of Egypt’s position in the region as the center of Arab nationalism and his trip to the besieged Gaza Strip in 2008 was not only a proclamation of solidarity with the Palestinian people, but also a blow to the regime which he held accountable for the deplorable conditions in which Gazans lived as well as for the brutal 2008-2009 aggression that it had facilitated. He was, in fact, the first MP/politician to break the blockade on Gaza and to openly slam the construction of a separation wall on Egypt’s border with the strip. During his visit to Marj al-Zohour Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon in 1993, Sabahi made it clear that the Egyptian regime, which he dubbed “Egypt of Camp David,” is not representative of the Egyptian people who wholeheartedly support their Palestinian brethren, and that has also been his stance during the July 2006 war on Lebanon.

It came as no surprise that on January 25, 2011, Hamdeen Sabahi led protests in his hometown as he and his fellow-villagers broke the security barrier and marched to the headquarters of the then ruling National Democratic Party shouting, “Down with Mubarak!” and demanding the removal of the regime. It then seemed quite natural that he would run for president and now seems a lot logical that he becomes one. I personally believe that Hamdeen Sabahy is the only one among the candidates standing in Egypt’s presidential elections who really deserves to win, not only because of an honorable history of struggle against all forms of tyranny at a time when those who spoke their minds risked losing everything, including their lives, but also because, unlike other candidates who usually represent one trend or another, he is the spokesperson of the majority of Egyptians.

Farmers, laborers, and all members of the working class, the poor and the disenfranchised, revolutionaries, human rights activists, Arab nationalists, pro-Palestinians, intellectuals, and students can all find in Hamdeen Sabahi one of “them” and so do all Egyptians who do not want to see the revolution abused or its goals manipulated and who are aware of what a real democracy means and who are immune from all attempts at using religion, power, or money to buy the will of a people. All those can confidently refer to Hamdeen Sabahi as “One of us” like I, and proudly so, do, too.

I, hereby, pronounce that on May 23, I will do my part in building the Egypt I have always wanted to see and vote for Hamdeen Sabahi.

Letter from Cairo: Cali-state!


“If any Muslim woman screams his name, he will immediately run to her rescue.” The speaker of this impressive statement is an Egyptian preacher and the “he” is the Muslim Brotherhood presidential candidate. The idea is borrowed from a famous saying by the second Islamic Caliph Omar ibn al-Kattab: “If a beast of burden stumbles in Baghdad, God will hold me accountable for not paving the road there.”

The second sentence offers a wise ruler’s take on the idea of political responsibility and was actually quoted a lot at the time when controversy was at its peak over who should be blamed for the cold-blooded death of peaceful protestors. The first, however, gives a totally different impression and is better understood when compared to another statement said earlier by the former Muslim Brotherhood supreme guide. “I don’t give a damn about Egypt and I don’t mind a Malaysian president,” he said. While this bit might seem a little cryptic, the bit that came right after it made the whole idea much clearer, for he stressed that Ottoman rule of Egypt should not be called “occupation” because the so-called occupiers were Muslim. In the first statement, the woman who is going to scream is Muslim and obviously not necessarily Egyptian. Nothing is known, therefore, about whether a Christian woman is allowed to scream, too.

Both the preacher and the former supreme guide endorse the idea of a Muslim nation that transcends political borders and considers Muslims citizens of one big entity that takes in all adherents of the same faith. This, by the way, is the same concept the second caliph explains, only with a time difference of 15 centuries or so. The caliph was referring to a status quo and stating how he should act according to the given circumstances. He was a caliph and was, thus, responsible for all the territories encompassed in his caliphate. This, however, is not the case in an age of nation-states where sovereignty is determined through a set of internationally-accepted lines commonly known as borders. The two of them are, in fact, imposing a system of governance that has been long extinct and are doing so in the most exclusionist manner possible. A Muslim woman in, say, Nigeria can rest assured that the future president of Egypt is there for her and a Malaysian man is most welcome to govern Egyptians. Here, religion takes precedence over nation so that a Christian Egyptian is no longer a priority and even a Muslim occupier will feel more at home than he/she does.

The ruler’s alleged right at the choice of “subjects” was made pungently clear to me when I watched for the first time the campaign clip of this same presidential candidate. In the clip, all females, including teenage schoolgirls, are veiled, an explicit indicative not only of excluding Christian women, but also non-veiled Muslim ones. Add to this that while the clip starts with the Muslim call for prayers, a church is nowhere to be spotted in any of the scenes that depict different parts of a country of which Coptic culture and heritage form an integral and inseparable part. I am not sure how different this is from George W. Bush’s notorious “You’re either with us or against” and I am not sure how the new caliph would expect the “against” to shift to “with.” Is that an implicit and/or moral reenactment of the “conversion or expulsion” policy at the time of the Reconquista? Maybe that was not the case with the original caliphates, but it is definitely one of the aspects of the modern one in the making before our very eyes.

The caliphate rhetoric then witnessed an abrupt shift from insinuation to declaration with another clip by the same preacher explicitly crowning the same presidential candidate the next caliph of some new nation that he decided to call the United States of Arabia, leaving you wondering if the move to what looks like Arab nationalism is intended or if the man just happened to forget that Malaysia and Turkey are not Arab states or may be both countries and all their Muslim counterparts will be part of an Arab-led pan-Islamic caliphate. The third option would sound the most logical especially in the light of the sudden change of heart towards the formerly beloved Turkish invaders following Erdogan’s blunt response to attempts by Egyptian Islamists at dragging his name into the trans-border project and which he categorically dismissed by flatly stating that he is just s senior statesman of a modern, secular state that is predominantly Muslim. Jerusalem would be the capital of the new nation after, of course, the president liberates it, the preacher explained, unleashing a wave of applause by an audience who start chanting slogans about “depriving Jews of sleep” and offering “millions of martyrs” until Palestine is free. How relevant this is to the political platform the candidate is expected to offer about his future plans for Egypt remains a mystery unless the whole point was stressing the not giving a damn about Egypt theory and which might for some strange reason seem attractive to voters who think no prosperity is possible without the grand unification of a stretch of land that prioritizes scriptures over national identity.

While I can’t personally judge if Egyptians were better off at the time of the Romans or following the Arab conquest or under Ottoman occupation, there is one thing I am sure of: time machines would not have come into being had it not been for H.G. Wells and Universal Studios and other than that they do have no physical existence anywhere on the planet. The concept of the caliphate, which is technically not different from that of empire, could have seemed normal at a time when territorial expansion was the only way a given nation would prove its superiority and/or build defenses in the face of menacing adversaries. That was the same time when the word “people” was synonymous with subjugation and lack of an independent will and when concepts like democracy and citizenship were probably various manifestations of the barbarity of the ignorant masses.

Egyptians did not stage a revolution because they wanted to restore the caliphate nor did the most patriotic of its youths lose their lives in order to replace a dictatorship that humiliated each and every citizen with a theocracy that sets its own criteria of what a citizen should be like. And as much as Egyptians support the Palestinian cause and loathe the former regime for abandoning Palestinians, liberating Jerusalem was not one of the revolution’s demands and making a presidential candidate seem like another Saladin is just a cheap attempt at emotionally manipulating a generally religious public that rallies behind anyone who claims to be able to save al-Aqsa Mosque from the “Jews.” And seculars and Christians did not take part in the revolution in order to end up being treated as second-rate citizens or to be forced to comply with a set of rules that violate everything they fought for.

And definitely Egyptians did not rebel against decades of tyranny to be threatened with having their “dead bodies bitten in their graves by snakes for four whole years” if they do not vote for the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, like one venerable preacher warned in the press!

So, if you are not lured by the caliphate, you better be scared of the snakes. In both cases, you need to deviate from the goals of the revolution in order subscribe to some illusory project that is sold to Egyptians as the only means of returning some past glory while in fact it only aims at stripping them of one of the world’s most diversified heritages and most culturally-enriched identities in favor of a one-tracked system that considers compatriots within the same borders aliens and foreigners on the far side of the globe brethren.

Letter from Cairo: Cherchez le sheikh!


“The funeral is awe-inspiring and the deceased is worthless” is the closest translation of an Egyptian saying that describes the massive popularity of a person who deserves none at all. The metaphor seems to be the most appropriate since by virtue of being a posthumous event, a funeral is the best way to detect the real value of a certain person for a given group of people at a time they do not have to pay him/her any compliments for any reason and therefore their feelings are bound to be at their sincerest. Therefore, if thousands cry their hearts out for someone who is better dead than alive, then they have definitely been misled in some way or another, most likely by this very person who must have brainwashed them into thinking that he or she was God’s gift to earth and that his death is consequently a grave loss to mankind.

What aggravates the problem is the persistence of this feeling even after the funeral is over and the mourners’ determination to preserve the memory of their idol as they have always perceived it even if all signs point to the opposite direction and to fight at any cost whichever attempts to unravel the big lie this person had been.

I have not seen a person to whom this proverb and situation apply more than former presidential candidate, the self-proclaimed sheikh who managed to project an image that is in every way contrary to what he really is and by doing so earned himself a hysterical following and bestowed upon himself the exclusive right of turning his disciples into cannon fodder. This is where the unfortunate twist comes, for unlike the scenario in the original proverb he did not die and leave zillions of gullible supporters drown in their tears, but rather preferred to have them die for him thinking no nobler cause calls for martyrdom then measuring his importance with the amount of blood spilt in his name.

Hazem Salah Abu Ismail came from nowhere to claim he was the savior of the nation. He was the typical free rider who knows when exactly to turn changes in which he had absolutely taken no part to his own good. Apart from being the progenitor of the theory that Pepsi is the acronym for “Pay Every Penny to Save Israel,” Abu Ismail had nothing whatsoever to distinguish him from other preachers who gained access to people’s brains through those suspicious religious channels around whose sources of funding a great deal of question marks revolve. Neither Abu Ismail nor any of his co-preachers have ever been revolutionary. In fact, they were the ones who deemed rebelling against the ruler prohibited in Islam and this coincided with talk about their cooperation with the regime and State Security, which they now claim were their arch enemies.

The fall of the regime offered Abu Ismail and his likes the perfect opportunity to use their religious popularity for political gains and it was then that the sheikh decided he was to run for presidency and in record time became surrounded by hundreds of thousands of naïve Egyptians who, thanks to a bunch of promises that had nothing to do with domestic affairs, foreign policy, education, economy, and other things you usually find in a president’s platform, would make them “live dignified” as his electoral slogan went. None of his mesmerized followers bothered to ask him for a definition of “dignity” and consequently he didn’t bother to provide one. Nothing seemed of importance as long as he will do the one thing a sizable portion of the Egyptian population saw as the way out from their decades-long misery: turning Egypt into an Islamic state. This, accompanied by some anti-American rhetoric and a few criticism of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces here and there, made Abu Ismail in no time a modern version of Saladin, a Muslim version of the Messiah, and a Sunni version of the Awaited Mahdi.

The rise of a populist figure who used religion, of which he applied nothing in life, and used the revolution, which he never took part in, was quite alarming for a lot of Egyptians and while many did not take him seriously at the beginning because they were under the impression that the people who staged such a historic uprising would have enough awareness to realize what a lying demagogue the man was, fears of his possible victory in the elections kept rising. As disturbing and saddening as that felt, nothing compared to the developments that followed and which started with the discovery that the sheikh’s mother had an American passport and which meant he was not qualified to run for president.

The fact that he lied at the beginning then insisted on that lie when he was exposed and had the nerve to accuse the U.S. administration of forging documents to kick him out of the presidential race and to charge the Egyptian judiciary with treason seem quite in line with the character of someone who was ready to sell his soul to the devil in return for power. Neither was the fact that his programmed followers remained adamant that the entire passport issue was a conspiracy against not only the sheikh, but the entire country and the Islamic faith. It was rather the rhetoric he used to create of their support for him a holy war and the way he instilled in them the belief that dying for him is martyrdom and abandoning his cause is apostasy.

It was the smiley-faced poisonous manner in which he dragged thousands into waving black flags and declaring “jihad” and offering their lives and instigated them into moving their battle from steps of the court in which the ruling in his case was being issued to the gates of the Ministry of Defense in which the real conspirators resided. And they complied like their Christian counterparts did centuries ago after listening to Pope Urban II talk about liberating the Holy Land from the grip of Saracens.

Off the Hazemites marched to “enemy barracks” chanting more slogans about martyrdom, the rule of God, the public execution of army generals, and the elimination of seculars amid reports of weapons hidden in the tents they erected to start a sit-in that they vowed would only end when the conspiracy is aborted. Tension rose amid warnings from the ministry and threats by the protestors and you needn’t be a strategic expert to guess what was to come next.

Before coming to that, it is important to mention that the sheikh was nowhere near the battlefield. He had a torn tendon, he said. When clashes erupted and attempts to break the sit-in by force grew ugly, he was also nowhere to be seen even with horrifying accounts of the dead and the injured started hitting headlines and TV screens and even when activists who never supported the cause and had no respect for the man decided that joining the sit-in was the best way to make a statement about excessive use of force and the violation of the right to protest. In what many saw as a civil war kind of escalation, protestors grew more militant as slogans along the lines of “Listen carefully Obama, we here are all Osama” started echoing all over the place and news of terrorist threats seemed like the most logical outcome and an out-and-out clampdown looked like the handiest way to contain it and thousands were rounded up and detained pending military trial. Still, no sign of the Bon Pasteur.

Unlike what many Egyptians who enjoy living in denial would like to believe, this was not another one of those protests that ended with another of those bloody army/police confrontations with civilians. This was, for the first time since the revolution, a protest instigated by and staged for one person by people who have been deceived, misled, and manipulated by this very same person. He, and only he, is held accountable for all the damages sustained during that protest, not because the army and the police are not to be blamed for their brutality in evacuating the place, but simply owing to his creation of a false, and deadly, “cause” that he used to show off his might and scare away his adversaries while he and his tendons remain unscathed.

The “charismatic” sheikh needs to understand that it is not, and will never be, about him or about any other person and that the people who sacrificed their lives for the real cause did not do so to see Egypt fall prey to another personality cult where human beings are infallible and rulers are irreplaceable.

He also needs to come to terms with his new status as a full-fledged criminal whose skills encompass forgery, libel, incitement of violence, and pre-meditated murder and to realize that he will go down in history as that opportunist who abused a nation and toyed with the lives of its innocent citizens for his personal glory.

I do hope the Ministry of Defense massacre would be the last time we look for individuals moving the masses and high time we only see causes behind protests and realize that it should always be nothing but “Cherchez l’Egypte.”