Whatever scares Egyptians?


On January 28, 2011, during the beginning of the uprising, the Egyptian government cut off internet and mobile services. The first thing that came to my mind was that they wanted to make sure people would not be able to get in touch with each other and would, therefore, find it impossible to agree on when and where to meet so that eventually most of them would lose interest and stay at home while the few remaining others would be scattered and unorganized. This scenario made a lot of sense since Egyptians are not the type of people who would make appointments a couple of days in advance and even in regular outings they would keep calling each other till the last minute to see who arrived and who will be late so that each one in the group would make sure he or she is not the first to go and sit alone waiting for the others. In fact, this may be the only reason they might decide to car pool. So, whoever thought that blocking all channels of communication would abort the protests was not a fool after all.

Being one of the few Egyptians who do not wait for confirmations, I decided to be on time for the appointment hoping that a considerable number of my compatriots had realized that dinner on a weekend is slightly different from a protest to topple the regime. I was having breakfast that morning with a couple of my fellow punctual friends to brace for the long day and the TV was on in the café. It was then that an on-screen headline popped up and it literally translated into, “Cutting off communications in Egypt forebodes a massacre.” It was a private, non-Egyptian news channel, so this statement was not a message the regime was trying to deliver to protestors, but rather came as a purely objective analysis of the motives behind such a procedure. I realized how stupid I was when I invented that whole theory about the gathering habits of Egyptians. It was much more basic than that. The regime simply took advantage of the sense of entrapment people were bound to feel as they became totally isolated from the outside world and from each other and of their subsequent realization that with no rescue around the corner, perdition would be the inevitable outcome of such a miscalculated adventure.

The numbers were astounding

That day I knew the real meaning of collective consciousness. The regime dared Egyptians to a duel and was only made aware of its erroneous judgment when the presumably spineless opponent took over the whole arena. Call it stubbornness, troublesomeness, or recklessness but the message was one and the same. Egyptians are no longer to be trifled with, belittled, or perceived as cowardly and will no longer be shooed, bullied, or intimidated.

Had regimes been able to learn from the mistakes of their predecessors, dictatorships would have vanished from the face of the earth ages ago. A massive rally by the ruling Muslim Brotherhood and its Islamist allies had the exact same purpose as the January 28 show of power with its organizers hoping to scare Egyptians away from taking to the streets on June 30 to call upon the president to step down. Under the slogan “No to violence” and in response to clerics who sanctioned the bloodshed of the opposition, the “peaceful” demonstrators, who miserably failed at hiding the way they projected their violence on their opponents, promoted crushing anti-regime protesters and ruthlessly standing up to any attempt at undermining the president’s legitimacy.

The way they violently denounced violence instantly brought to my mind a photo from an earlier Islamist demonstration in which one of the protesters held a banner that read, “We shall behead whoever claims Islam is a religion of violence,” thus summing up their presumably subtle way in promoting violence peacefully or promoting peace violently or whatever formula they assume would drive the message home.

Another tactic

This approach is very similar to the fuel crisis that always precedes massive popular protests against the regime and that has reached its peak in the past couple of days and is expected to get worse in the days leading up to June 30. How the regime assumed that a people who are not grounded by death threats would find empty tanks a deterrent remains a mystery. The same goes for the regime’s inability to understand that there are several ways of reaching the presidential palace other than the bridges closed “for repairs” and the roads blocked by “construction work” and that power outages offer the perfect pretext for seeking some fresh air outside.

Last Friday’s demonstration did in fact push many Egyptians who were convinced of the futility of attempting to topple the regime at this stage and who were, therefore, reluctant to fight what they perceived as a losing battle, to make up their minds about June 30, if only to spite those in power and teach them one more lesson about the Egyptian people.

Dictatorships, which all seem to use the same manual, provide substantial assistance to revolutions that set out to topple them not just because of their tyranny, but rather because of their arrogance. It is not just because of how they suppresses their people, but rather because of how they underestimate them.

Egypt champions the Syrian cause… now?


I was stunned when George W. Bush won a second term in office in 2004. The popular reaction to the war on Iraq and subsequent calls for impeaching the president gave any outsider the impression that not one single American would make the same mistake again. It was indeed such a miracle to see him reelected that evangelical churches started talking, seriously so, about some divine intervention. When I asked the Americans I knew, all of them, including those who did not vote for Bush, had almost the same answer: he was not doing bad domestically. This was more or less how political analysts interpreted it, too. So, basically a considerable number of voters seemed willing to forgive Bush for his foreign policy blunders, fatal as they were, because he offered them something that might have struck a balance and actually managed to convince a sizable portion of the population to see some bright side to the war on terror.

Mohammed Mursi tried to play a similar game in a reverse manner when he tried to make up for domestic failure with what he assumed, or rather wanted us to believe, was foreign policy achievement. The first time was during his electoral campaign when the program he offered, and which was marketed by the Muslim Brotherhood as a one-of-a-kind project that would make of Egypt the world’s ultimate superpower in no time, boiled down to nothing whatsoever. This lack of vision had to be compensated with an external cause that is known for its popularity amongst all of Egyptians and that was nothing other than Palestine. Mursi was hailed by his supporters as the Saladin of the twenty first century and slogans about liberating Jerusalem eventually superseded all pressing local issues that were supposed to top any candidate’s agenda. Apart from strategic votes, basically cast by intellectuals and revolutionaries who did not want to see Mursi’s rival become president of Egypt and preferred an Islamist to a member of the former regime, some average citizens were actually affected by the Jerusalem rhetoric, especially insofar as it places Mursi in stark contrast with Mubarak, who was known for his alliance with Israel at the expense of the Palestinian cause.

Heroic, trans-border act

Mursi, therefore, must have assumed he can pull this heroic, trans-border act every time he is unable to abide by the president’s job description, forgetting that one year into his term, anger was mounting to such a level that made it impossible for pretentious chivalry to make his situation the slightest bit better. When he decided to hold a conference in support of Syria in a stadium packed with his Islamist supporters and announce severing diplomatic ties with the Syrian regime, Mursi made a bunch of miscalculations that rendered his magnanimous feat just another proof of his absolute lack of credibility as well as a frantic attempt to emotionally blackmail a population that is vehemently opposed to the atrocities committed against the Syrian people. His announcement came immediately after the American Administration made public its intention to arm Syrian revolutionaries, so it was obvious that closing down the Syrian embassy in Cairo was far from being an independent decision solely made for supporting the national and humanitarian cause of a neighboring country.

It was also hardly a coincidence that the conference was two weeks before massive protests are scheduled to take place in front of the presidential palace to demand that the president step down and, therefore, betrayed how desperate the president is to garner as much support as he could get and to dissuade as many people as possible from joining the protests. While the president might have presumed that the timing of the conference was part of a shrewd plan to undermine the conspiracy to overthrow him, I am not sure he believed that he was being subtle about the link between the two events when he in a function allegedly dedicated to Syria, he explicitly lashed out at the opposition and accused them of attempting to being back the former regime.

Had all of the above not betrayed the president’s intentions, his choice of audience would have undoubtedly gotten the job done. The president made sure to create the overwhelming spectacle of a legendary leader and a cheering crowd and that would not have been possible had he invited members of the opposition or even ordinary Egyptian citizens outside the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist factions. For some strange reason, he still presumed he can fool the people through portraying his supporters as the righteous majority and his detractors as the delinquent minority. It was also obvious that he wanted to guarantee the loyalty of ultra-conservative Islamists so that in return for supporting their fellow-Jihadists in Syria, they would rally by his side against the opposition and maybe manage to crush the protests and or at least scare off the protesters or both. The response was quicker than expected with one fatwa after the other sanctioning the bloodshed of the “infidels” setting out to undermine the president’s “legitimacy.”

Most dangerous of all, the president has in fact subscribed to the sectarian rhetoric that is currently dominating the conflict in Syria, thus presenting the Syrian revolution as a war between Sunnis and Shiites and attempting to transfer this divide to Egypt. In doing so, he seemed to want to divert the popular stance on Syria so that instead of supporting the Syrian people’s right to freedom and democracy regardless of religious affiliations, Egyptians would start perceiving the revolution as a war for Islam and hopefully applying the same logic on the domestic level through dealing with the regime-opposition confrontation as one between Muslims and apostates.

It is interesting to see how none of the schemes, if they can be labeled as such, behind the impressive rally bore fruit if only because they were so poorly orchestrated and even more poorly carried out. This is simply because while someone like Bush made mistakes externally, he had something to offer internally, Mursi has nothing to offer on any front. True, he might have championed a legitimate cause, yet did so for all the wrong reasons and, therefore, is turning his aspired victories into irreversible losses.

How democratic is [Egyptian] democracy?


“Democracy is overrated,” said my Chilean friend when business mogul Sebastián Piñera was elected president of Chile. “Democracy is the illusion of consensus,” said my Egyptian friend when Muslim Brotherhood member Mohammad Mursi was elected president of Egypt. Several years and thousands of miles apart the two incidents occurred and numerous comments of the sort must have been said in almost every country that calls itself, rightly so or not, a democracy. Even though my two friends were voicing a personal opinion about candidates they obviously did not support, their remarks underline one fact that a lot of people and most heads of state tend to overlook; democracy in its current form never reflects the will of an entire people. This means that while citizens take part in the democratic process in an attempt to bring to power candidates they trust, they are also aware that they will have to respect the decision of the majority and this is how opposition is created. Like democracy, the concept of majority is also quite problematic if we take into consideration that it might mean 50 percent plus one, therefore an elected president can be opposed by 50 percent minus one of eligible voters. Democracy, therefore, would seem to be much less indicative of popular unison than its marketed image, yet it remains the best available alternative to dictatorship and the most legitimate form of governance.

While citizens of a democracy are capable of accepting a result they did not desire, they are never willing to be as complacent when they end up with an elected dictator. This is exactly when a wide range of popular actions can be taken and which could range from street protests through calls for impeachment to outright toppling of the regime, with the level of the reaction depending on the tyranny and/ or inefficiency of the target president. Elections, therefore, do not provide an eternal shield for the elected official and can never be used to justify a series of failures and autocratic practices. This is particularly why Egyptians, who a couple of years ago staged a revolution for democracy, are now setting out to rebel against “democracy.”

The international experience of protests

Officially deemed an attempt to undermine democracy, the massive protests that are to take place on June 30 to call upon the president to step down are not very different from similar reactions to the policies and practices of elected officials and nation-wide demonstrations that swept the United States after George W. Bush decided to go to war on Iraq offer the best example. True the situation in Egypt is particularly different, insofar as the criteria based on which voters made their choices and the violations reportedly committed by the winning party, but had the electoral process been impeccably free and fair, Egyptians would have still decided to take to the streets on that day to demand the toppling of not only the regime, but also the type of democracy that brought it, and Hitler, to power.

Demonstrations against Tony Blair, Hugo Chavez, Nicolas Sarkozy, and most recently Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, to cite a few examples, manifest, I believe, a popular rejection of the form of democracy that allows one person or a few people to make decisions on behalf of all citizens for a given number of years, in other words “representative democracy.” This type of democracy does not necessarily create dictators in the proper sense of the word, but it does allow power to be monopolized by a small number of people who gradually turn into a ruling elite that starts serving its own interests rather than the people’s. Those are chosen by voters based on a set of rosy promises and no realistic guarantees. Once in office, the equation starts changing as a totally new arrangement of priorities emerges so that imperialist expansions, business enterprises, political alliances… etc. take precedence over people’s needs, hence the anger that takes the shape of protests and is likely to evolve to a more drastic level of action if the people are not pacified in one way or another. So, basically it is a one-way street in which you can’t go back after you realize you were wrong and in which you stand helpless as you see a number of crimes being committed in your and democracy’s name.

What is democracy?

A democracy in which the role of the people stops at the ballot box is a contradiction in terms, especially if we bear in mind the original meaning of the word that gave rise to the system; the rule of the people. In addition to the actual damage which befalls any country that is entirely controlled for several years by the same minority, people’s anger will never subside as long as they feel eternally trapped in the vicious circle of pre-election exploitation and post-election marginalization. It is, therefore, time for another form of democracy in which people are more involved in the decision-making process, in other words a “direct democracy.” This type of democracy is based on the active participation of the people whether as independent individuals, through taking part in referenda to decide on an already proposed issue or signing petitions to initiate a certain policy or action, or as members of lobbying groups that have the ability to direct the vote or both. Applying this system will see the emergence a new power balance between the government and civil society so that a strong popular front is formed to counter any official decisions seen as detrimental to the people and/or the country.

The June 30 protests are the culmination of a nation-wide campaign that aims at collecting 15 million signatures to oust the president and hold early presidential elections. Whether they realize it or not, the initiators of this campaign have taken sure steps towards the establishment of a direct democracy. They, as well as every Egyptian who signed the petition, are actually setting a precedent in Egypt through asserting their right to lead a “recall,” a procedure through which elected officials are to leave office before their term is over if enough signatures are collected to demonstrate public discontent at their performance. Through this campaign, the Egyptian people are declaring that after decades of totalitarian rule they will not be fooled into accepting a dictatorship in a democratic guise and that after one year of conventional democracy they will not stand still while they are reduced to vote casting machines. Lacking in political awareness as they might seem to be, average Egyptian citizens have managed to engage in a practice that is typical of long-established democracies where people are fed up with having their fate controlled by a bunch of untrustworthy politicians.

Regardless of how much of a change the protest can actually effect on the ground, June 30 is a historic day in post-revolution Egypt, for it does not only force us to ask the inevitable question, “How democratic is Egyptian democracy?” but also another even more inevitable one: “How democratic is democracy… as we know it?”

Egypt’s war of the waters


For the past year, Egyptians have been jokingly providing evidence on how the president brings bad luck wherever he goes. They do this by listing a series of human tragedies and natural disasters that took place in countries he visited, whether during or right after the visit. The joke went so viral that Russian media reportedly linked Mursi’s visit to the earthquake that hit the Kuril Islands while the president was in Moscow and one newspaper even wrote: “It is no joke that Mursi brings bad luck.”

Egypt, argued initiators of the theory, has had the lion’s share of the bad luck that, according to them, started from the blackout that took place when he was taking the oath and continued with the countless catastrophes that have been relentlessly hitting the country one after the other. Then came Ethiopia’s decision to divert the course of the Blue Nile and to complete the construction the Renaissance Dam, which was announced immediately following the president’s meeting with the Ethiopian prime minister in Addis Ababa to dispel all doubts about his supernatural ability to attract calamities both at home and abroad.

Egyptians do like to joke and are the best to make fun of their misfortunes and this has for long been believed to be one of the few reasons they are able to survive. My absolute rejection of superstition and my absolute belief that political crises, like earthquakes, have a scientific explanation aside, let me point out that we have long passed the sarcasm phase and that choosing one single person or party to lay the blame on all but solves the problem.

The incompetence, to say the least, of the current regime is nonnegotiable and there is a long list of miserable failures that bear witness to that, this list is actually much longer than the one produced by the bad luck camp. However, it is important to bear in mind that the construction of the dam is only a symbolic manifestation of the fiasco that is the Egyptian government, yet is not in any way a direct result of any of its numerous flaws. Contrary to what many believe, Ethiopia did not announce the construction of the Renaissance Dam following the president’s visit, but rather the diversion of the Blue Nile as one of the steps required to complete the project, made public in 2011. Therefore, it was neither the president’s lousy management skills nor even his paranormal powers that inspired Ethiopia to make a decision that is bound to have a drastic impact on Egypt’s share of the Nile’s waters. The current government, in fact, inherited the Nile Basin file from the former regime and with its stark inability and/or reluctance to deal with even the most basic of local problems, it was not expected to take any action in such a major strategic ordeal. This was simply translated into Ethiopia’s announcement and its timing, both seeming to convey, in the most embarrassing manner, the deterioration of Egypt’s influence in Africa. A gesture as simple as sending the Ethiopian minister of mining to receive the Egyptian president would be enough to illustrate what has become of the continent’s one time leader, champion, and role model.

Egypt’s once lofty position

During the Nasser era, also referred to as Pan-African Nasserism, names of freedom fighters turned heads of state like Patrice Lumumba, Kwame Nkrumah, Ahmed Sekou Toure, and Julius Nyerere among others were known to every Egyptian with Egypt’s 1952 revolution and 1956 nationalization of the Suez Canal becoming a source of inspiration for independence movements across the continent and with its president offering unconditional support to the then nascent governments and equally unconditional protection to the unfortunate among his fellow leaders. Respect for the country’s position and gratitude for its president’s dedication to the cause made it impossible at the time for any African country to deliberately embark on any action that was to inflict direct and severe harm on Egypt, let alone one that infringes upon its almost only source of life; the River Nile. It was this peculiar mixture wise foreign policy and genuine human solidarity that deservedly bestowed on Egypt this soft power over an entire continent and created an unwritten agreement that obliged each country to respect the national interests of its allies.

Sadat’s approach was different, but was nonetheless effective. When talk started about Ethiopia’s intention to build dams on the Blue Nile, he simply responded, “we depend upon the Nile 100 per cent in our life, so if anyone, at any moment, thinks of depriving us of our life we shall never hesitate to go to war.” Sadat was in no way endeared to African leaders like Nasser was, but he was feared and that was apparently enough to consider the case closed. Mubarak took a totally new path when an attempt on his life in Addis Ababa made him decide to snub Ethiopia and give up on Africa altogether and soon after the remnants of respect disappeared, so did apprehensions of a military intervention. It was not long before Egypt was neither feared nor endeared. Proof of this is when the 1929 agreement that regulates Nile water shares was discovered to be “colonial” and when the Nile Basin Initiative, which allows the construction of dams along the river, was established and when riparian states simply declared they are sick of taking Egypt’s permission with every project they start on the Nile.

The Nile’s waters

Ethiopia, obviously like the rest of the Nile Basin states, did not find in the post-revolution regime a potential ally or an equal partner simply because it has taken the country into an even deeper abyss than that created by Mubarak. Through the Blue Nile announcement, Ethiopia made a clear statement that Egypt’s role as a regional power is now history. The regime did a very good job at proving this assumption true as was made clear in its reaction to the announcement that sent panic waves across Egypt and triggered strong protests on the part of the opposition. While experts explained that the Blue Nile supplies Egypt with 60 percent of its share from the river and that building dams on it is bound to reduce its annual 55.5 billion cubic meters, the minister of irrigation was optimistically saying that Egypt has enough water for now so there is no need to worry, adding that the Nile will keep flowing no matter what. However, experts warned that even without the dam Egypt will have needed an additional 21 billion cubic meters by 2050 to cover the needs of a growing population, so the dam is bound to speed up the crisis and increase the needed amounts. In light of the situation, Islamist politicians talked about an Israeli conspiracy to starve Egyptians to death.

And while there are no scientific doubts about the drastic reduction of Egypt’s water share following the operation of the dam, the president declares he is “sure” that the water will actually “increase!” And he advises us to pray to God.

We will indeed pray to God, but Mursi needs to be careful what he wishes for from now on because I so much doubt he is aware of what we will all pray for!