Letter from Cairo: As velvety as it can ever get


The term “velvet revolution” refers to the uprising that overthrew the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia in 1989. The meaning of the original Czech term is explained in its Slovakian equivalent “gentle revolution.” Both terms refer to a non-violent rebellion that effects change in the smoothest and most peaceful way and that involves a gradual shift from one system of governance to another. Although the term “velvet revolution” originally denoted a specific event in a specific country, it later came to be applied to unarmed protests in several parts of the world like the Color Revolutions (the Orange Revolution in Ukraine and the Rose Revolution in Georgia), the Singing Revolution in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, the Iranian Green Movement (also called “enghelab-e makhmali,” Persian for “velvet revolution”). The names given to all those revolutions/ protest movements are in themselves indicative of their peaceful nature and this, in turn, implies the absence of any kind of military-like action on the part of the revolutionaries and/ or the lack of involvement in the revolution on the part of the state army.

However, the moment you set foot in Egypt, you expect to have history so drastically contradicted, politics so flagrantly subverted, and logic so absurdly challenged. Only in Egypt would a velvet revolution be staged by none other than the army.

In Egypt, the velvet revolution does not only acquire a different meaning because the party that starts it is the furthest from anything peaceful if only by virtue of its possession of all the tools of violence required to effect the most drastic of changes without need for waiting and/or negotiating, but also owing to the stages through which the revolution had gone and which, in fact, makes it the “velvetiest” history has ever witnessed.

When the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces said it was siding with the revolution, it was one of the rare instances in history where you saw an army join the ranks of a peaceful revolution ─ and not stage a coup. Of course everyone knew at the time that the army’s stance was not as purely altruistic as they wanted it to seem at the start simply because all Egyptians were aware of how military leaderships strongly opposed the bequest of power to the president’s son and had countless reservations on the way a bunch of young business moguls was starting to threaten their economic interests. It was a case of mutual gain and that was fine by the revolutionaries as long as the end result would be establishing the democracy for which the revolution started.

Despite several fatal mistakes on its part, using excessive force with peaceful protestors being the most typical example, the army took several steps towards this yearned-for democracy or at least a not-so-bad semblance of it. This started with the referendum on the Constitutional Declaration, designed to temporarily replace the old constitution until a new one is drafted, and seeing the way people got excited about queuing in front of polling stations tell you a lot about how real the change felt for them. But I can always hug you while I thrust my hand into your pocket and you would still enjoy the hug and pretend you had no money on you to start with. Apart from the fact that the actual declaration contained much more articles than the ones on which people voted, this presumably democratic document was the very means for subverting the democratic process later on.

The unexpected rise of Islamists to power through a sweeping victory in parliamentary elections did bother a lot of people, mainly revolutionaries and liberals, not only because the Muslim Brotherhood and other conservative parties were seen to be taking advantage of a revolution they have not really taken part in from the start, but also because their ideology is totally contradictory with one of the revolution’s most crucial demands: a civilian state. But if this is what the people want, so be it.

That was the only consolation at the time and it wasn’t a very effective one for that matter because it required overlooking all the violations those parties committed to manipulate the people into voting for them and later bearing with the MPs’ lousy performance. This did not last for long when it was very obvious how Islamist powers, especially the Brotherhood, were out to have a finger in every cake. Their insistence on excluding liberal factions from the Constituent Assembly and their decision to field a presidential candidate were two big straws that almost broke people’s faith in democracy and made them wish those elections never took place. A similar feeling started taking hold of a larger amount of Egyptians when the presidential elections run-off ended up with the Brotherhood candidate and one of former regime’s strongmen and speculations about whether the devil is not as risky as the deep blue sea became a daily activity.

Two days before the elections, the real bombshell dropped. A court ruling dissolved the parliament citing a loophole in the Constitutional Declaration. Egyptians fed up for long with the Brotherhood could not help but celebrate, not realizing how short-sighted they were and not trying to imagine what they would have felt had this been a parliament that really represented the revolution.

On the same day, a lawsuit contesting the participation of the former regime candidate in the presidential elections was dropped and Egyptians preoccupied with getting rid of Islamist MPs could not help but feel less furious than they actually should have not only because of the man’s background but also owing to speculations about him being the military’s candidate and about the possibility of rigging elections in his favor. Very few people wondered why being the de facto ruler of Egypt, the military council did not stop the elections from the beginning if they violated the declaration and why they waited until people really wished the parliament would go to take such a step like they did with the Salafi candidate who turned out to have an American mother only after people were horrified at the possibility of having him for president. The majority was, however, sure that the former regime candidate is the coming president not only because of the support he was getting from the army and all parties interested in going back to the pre-revolution era, but also because almost all Brotherhood haters, and these were steadily increasing, and almost all opponents of a religious state, and these were quite a lot, were expected to vote for him. Of course, his victory would have started an endless honeymoon between the president and the army and there would have been no better context to killing the revolution as softly as can be.

But ballot boxes are sometimes tricky and democracy is always unpredictable, so what of the Brotherhood candidate makes it? The Brotherhood and the army are not really best of friends and even though the former is willing to strike a deal with the devil in return for some power, it also likes to flex its muscles every now and then to garner popular support and pose as the guardian of the revolution. A gentle clipping of the wings of the new self-proclaimed phoenix the night before election results were out was the best way to handle the situation and nothing could be more perfect than issuing a supplementary constitutional declaration that brings all powers back to the military council and renders the president as dissoluble as the parliament that preceded him. Rigging the votes would have been an unnecessary hassle, wouldn’t it, and issuing another document takes little time and no money and the timing when people were starting to give precedence to their peace of mind over democratic transition could not have been more ideal

Now we are back to square minus one. The army is once more in control like it was right after the toppling of the regime except that there is no influential revolutionary force to counter that as was the case at the time. We are back to some murky zone we have never been to before or after or during the revolution, one that looks and sounds too quiet for the tumult it has been witnessing, one in which you are attacked painlessly, stay bleeding noiselessly, and get buried stealthily.

I do salute the military council for going down in history as the first armed entity to stage the softest of coups and eliminate its adversaries with weapons of velvet destruction and for offering a perfect example of the gentlest counter-revolution that allows no blood on its hands and leaves no crimes in its record.

Letter from Cairo: Rockiest of rocks, hardest of places


The September 11 attacks remain the most shocking spectacle I have seen till this moment. It’s not because nothing of the same atrocity level has happened in the world in my lifetime, but because I was watching it as it happened and this is not usually the case with such catastrophes. Despite the fact that each and every single detail in the whole thing was more horrendous than the other, there is one thing that I found most alarming at the time. People were fleeing the crumbling towers ─ jumping from top-floors only to delay their death a few seconds.

I assumed that in such situations people are not capable of thinking and therefore their reactions cannot be seen in the light of rational reasoning, but on a second thought I found out I was quite wrong. Those people who jumped were, in fact, exercising their mental skills in the best way possible given the circumstances. They were escaping immediate death to the slightest possibility of survival and that made perfect sense. True, there were no mattresses waiting to receive them as they landed on the ground or a Spiderman to catch them midway, but there remained a faint glimpse of hope that some miraculous power might interfere in the last moment and it was definitely worth giving it a shot. The outcome is often equally tragic, but the fewer your options, the more forced you are to determine the lesser of the two evils and go for it before the greater one robs you of the last straw you might be able to hang on to before it’s too late.

Although the case of victims who run from a certain to an almost certain death is one purely based in the self-preservation instinct, which endows you with that power to cling to life for the longest time possible and through whatever means available, political choices are taken to a more conscious level where extensive deliberation precedes the acknowledgment and subsequent selection of the less damaging of two almost equally bad options. “Better the Sultan’s turban than the Pope’s mitre” is one of the earliest and most illuminating epigrams on this issue. It describes how the Orthodox Christians of the Balkans saw an Ottoman conquest better than a Roman Catholic one because in the first scenario they would be allowed to keep their faith while becoming second-class citizens whereas in the second they would be forced to convert. This in no way makes the turban a choice they would make voluntarily, but it would not look that repulsive when the alternative is the mitre.

In a modern context, this concept is best illustrated in elections where voters are stuck between two unfavorable candidates and instead of looking for the merits of each, they count who has less drawbacks. There is no need to mention cases like Al Gore and George W. Bush in the 2004 U.S. elections or Jacques Chirac and Jean-Marie le Pen when Egypt is offering the marvelous duo of Ahmed Shafiq and Mohammed Mursi.

The results of the first round of Egyptian presidential elections left voters in all sorts of dilemmas that evolved over time from the turban-mitre metaphor and that includes the devil and the deep blue sea, the rock and the hard place… etc.

Let us first note that the problem with the two candidates does not start with the ideology each of them represents or how unfit any of them is to rule Egypt at this critical stage like many would assume. The real crisis stems from the fact that none of the two constitutes from near or far can show an achievement of even one of the revolution’s goals. In fact, the rise of any of them to power would mean an outright elimination of the revolution, both the actual action and the abstract concept.

While the Shafiq was an integral part of the regime the revolution erupted to topple, Mursi is the arch foe of the civil state the revolution erupted to establish and between the two types of tyranny, Egyptians are left wondering which choice would leave them less guilty of undermining the revolution and dragging the country to the point of no return.

Both candidates are not a problem for what they are as much as what they represent, what kind of institution they are supported by and the way those two factors shape the future of Egypt, at least for the next four years, in the bleakest manner possible.

However, examining the background of the two candidates or nursing grudges over how each of them betrayed the revolution in a certain way is not what Egyptians are interested in at the moment. They are only focusing on acquiring the skills necessary to determine which evil is lesser or just waiting for some last minute twist of fate that would rid them of a burden under which their backs are bound to break even if with various degrees of damage.

There are a few reasons why Shafiq is the lesser of the two evils. He was part of a regime that has already been toppled and is therefore no longer as powerful as he used to be especially since his staunch supporter, former president Hosni Mubarak, is now serving a life sentence and that other remnants of the past era that remain at large are too weak to regroup in a similar entity. Even the Higher Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which is said to support him, has not been capable of intimidating the revolutionaries and there is no reason why Shafiq should be any different. Plus, the man is just a tool to guarantee safe exist for the former regime’s top officials, including SCAF members, who would have been in real trouble had a revolutionary candidate came to power. When this mission is accomplished, he will be faster than you can imagine in packing up, running away, and never looking back. Plus, if Shafiq becomes president, he (and whoever is supporting him) will be fully aware that this is not in any way the result of the trust people put in him, but that he is just the only escape from an anticipated theocracy in case the rival wins. He will then be made aware of how at the first blunder, people will be quicker that he can ever imagine to rise against him and it will take much less than 18 days to lose the job.

There are few reasons why Mursi is the lesser evil. He is the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood that has, for the longest time, been regarded as the most dangerous threat to Egypt’s stability ─ not only because of the religious state it aims to establish, but its frightening attempts at monopolizing power. But with a lousy performance in parliament and a subsequent drop in popular support, this is no longer the case. In a few months, the Brotherhood has managed to sustain a variety of self-inflicted damages that would make it very hard for the group to impose its will on the people or establish a system of governance they are not going to accept. The Brotherhood will also not have the guts to try to turn Egypt into another Iran not only because of how impossible it is to erase a centuries-long history of religious moderation and cultural diversity, but also because many of the tricks they used to play to emotionally manipulate the poor and the simple-minded are not longer working. Plus, if Mursi becomes president, he and the Brotherhood will be fully aware that this is not in any way the result of the trust people have imposed in them, but the only way to escape a much-feared return of the former regime. He will, therefore, also be aware that at his first blunder, people will be quicker that he could ever imagine to rise against him and it will take much less than 18 days to lose the job.

There are a lot of reasons why going to the polling station and placing a cross in front of both names while writing the words “the revolution continues” is the most ethical choice any conscientious Egyptian will make. It is not only the option that will make you sleep much better at night and spare you the agony of holding yourself partly accountable for any disaster that befalls the country, but also the one that will create a third scenario that the authorities did not offer but that the people have decided to create. Nullifying the vote is not a passive action as people claim it to be, but choosing a candidate only because he is less bad is the worst form of passivity.

At times, it seems like you either have to perish on the rooftop or jump to your death on the ground, but there might be more ways out than anyone can imagine. Let us first be thankful that we are not in the die now or a second later situation and we still have the clarity of mind to look for unexplored emergency exists.

Letter from Cairo: Revolution adjourned!


A few years ago I bought a book called “The Trial: A History from Socrates to O.J. Simpson.” While you might easily guess that the book would definitely have in its table of contents the Inquisition, the witch hunts, Nuremberg, and the Moscow show trials, not in your wildest dreams would you have imagined a whole chapter on the trial of animals. For almost five centuries, it was quite common in court cases in several parts of Europe to have an animal as a defendant or for animals to have verdicts issued against them. The cases ranged from donkeys engaging in sexual activity with humans to locusts destroying crops while verdicts ranged from execution and the severing of hooves to offering compensation in cases where it was proved defendants did not have malicious intentions.

Till this very moment, nobody knows what the logic behind those trials was and whatever happened to the simplest of cosmic rules stating that “innocence and guilt depended on the rational exercise of free will” which, by the way, was very well known at the time to lawyers, some of whom actually defended the animals, and theologians, many of whom actually blessed the trials.

Reading about courtrooms where lawyers and clerics waited for rats to respond to a subpoena and which issued verdicts allocating plots of land to beetles and ants might have made my jaws drop, but remembering those very courtrooms saved me from a certain stroke as I watched what has come to be known as “The Trial of the Century” in Egypt.

The way Hosni Mubarak and his interior minister received a life sentence while the latter’s six top aides were acquitted is even more farcical than a case with an animal where the half-eaten body of a five-year-old was found surrounded by a sow and six piglets. After investigating and hearing witnesses, only the mother was sentenced to death while the little ones were found innocent. The pigs’ case does seem more logical within its context than this one because if we assume, according to what people might have believed back then, that pigs have the ability to tell right from wrong and can, therefore, be tried with human laws, then maybe this should not apply to “minors” who have not yet reached this kind of awareness. It made sense, then, to punish the “adult” pig only and consider the piglets’ presence at the crime scene a sheer act of innocent subordination to the murderous mother.

This is not even the case with the minister and his top aides. If the boss receives such a punishment for an action that was supposedly implemented by a group of people who report directly to him and this very group turns out to be innocent, then something is terribly wrong. Let us all agree that orders were issued to fire live ammunition at protestors and that it is absolutely ridiculous to buy the theory that all officers across the whole country were in a state of self-defense and simultaneously decided to use their own guns to shoot when they felt their lives were threatened by a bunch of unarmed youth while the ministry only ordered them to use tear gas and water cannons.

The question was who issued the orders.

Well, according to the verdict the former president and his prime minister are responsible for the death of protestors, but here comes the tricky part: they are not being punished for ordering this, but for seeing it happening and not doing anything to stop it. So, they have been handed a life sentence for passive reaction and not criminal action.

Let’s assume that this is true and that the verdict was for the political responsibility those two have towards the Egyptian people, who then gave the orders? It must have been top officials at the interior ministry who have massive groups of security personnel under their beck and call and who have the power to direct them and punish them if they don’t comply. But what is the alternative if all those were proven innocent? At this point, another question pops up: if we assume that those senior officers did not order the shootings, can’t they by virtue of their position be also responsible for not stopping the shootings and therefore get the same or a similar sentence as their minister? Another question: if they are not responsible, then who is? Will each and every officer be tried individually then?

According to legal experts, the verdict is technically correct because there is no way you can prove that this specific bullet coming out of this specific gun was shot at this specific protestor. I totally agree. But that is exactly why you hold officials at the top of the security hierarchy accountable for the actions of the officers they head and it is the responsibility of each and every one of those officials to start an investigation that unravels who of those officers did what and when.

The verdict as it is now actually implies a full acquittal of the entire interior ministry and the sentence handed to the minister means nothing at all simply because it is based on the responsibilities implied by the political position of the culprit rather than actual evidence of a crime he committed or ordered. In addition to the fact that when appealed the verdict might be dropped altogether, the minister, like the former president, is now similar to the Japanese mayor who resigned after an open manhole was spotted in one of the streets, even though he neither opened it nor knew it was open but was only in charge of the area in which it is located. I guess we should now feel sorry for him for he is paying the price of a crime he did not commit and would have loved to stop had he been given the proper chance. Perhaps we should also start wondering whether the interior ministry was not involved at all in killing protestors and that those who fired at us in cold blood were really Hezbollah and Hamas militants disguised as riot police like several ministry officials try to make it sound or maybe it was simply that “third party” the police and the army have been talking about every time their alleged self-restraint failed them.

Absolving the interior ministry of blame dealt a fatal blow to the revolution not only because toppling this brutal institution was one of its goals, but also because it is totally drenched in the blood of innocent Egyptians and not officially and legally admitting that makes it seem like those lives were wasted in vain. Absolute lack of trust in the judiciary and the prosecution, whose politicized stance has now become utterly unmistakable, add to the sense of abandonment revolutionaries feel.

I remember how I did not like the way the trial of Mubarak and his interior minister focused on the killing of protestors because you can’t just punish a regime for what it did in its last few days while ignoring all the crimes it committed in the past couple of decades. And I remember how many of my friends told me, “Be patient! This is just the start. We get this first and the rest will come.”

Well, looks like no “rest” is coming… not any time soon at least.

I need to re-read the story of the rooster in the 15th century who was tried, beheaded, and disemboweled for laying an egg. The egg, they said, was expected to hatch a freak of nature, part cockerel part serpent, which belches venom and glares lethal rays. It made sense then to get rid of the progenitor and the potential offspring and the verdict was quite commonsensical … Definitely more so than a lot of human trials.