Egypt’s super hero

In a new Egyptian sit-com that combines fantasy with absurdism and science fiction, a scientist manages to create a formula that gives human beings superpowers. The scientist injects this formula into a man who swiftly becomes a national hero.

The Hibiscus Man, so called because hibiscus is the main component of that formula, is instantly regarded as the solution to all the country’s problems. He starts with everyday issues like traffic jams, road accidents, and bread queues. Then he is sucked into the world of politics as he becomes the winning card for any political party or presidential candidate that he agrees to support.

He gains international acclaim when he beats his arch-foe Spider Man in a wrestling game closely followed by the White House. There is no doubt that this is bound to change the balance of power between Egypt and the United States.

The whole story could pass for the perfect refreshment following a long day of work, heat, and fasting. It is the ideal comic break from the ever-depressing political situation, but there is more to this farcical depiction of man-turned-superman than meets the eye.

The Hibiscus Man, which is also the name of the series, is a protagonist that is a savior capable of putting an end to Egypt’s ordeal by virtue of the paranormal powers he possesses. It is, in other words, a tongue-in-cheek way of making it clear that Egypt needs a miracle and that no rational course of action can work at this moment.

Fact and fiction

So far there isn’t a problem, for art is the craft of the imagination and nobody could blame you when you make humans fly and animals talk. The problem starts when you mix fact with fiction and start imagining that superheroes are around the corner waiting for the chance to save the day the way they do in American Armageddon movies.
There is no way to tell if the makers of this series were projecting on current events especially because the series must have been filmed a while before the latest developments.

However, what seems to be certain is that the character of the Hibiscus Man either predicted the turn of events following the June 30 protests, which is impressive, or simply aimed at highlighting the Egyptian people’s ability to confuse reality with legends and to create demi-gods of human beings with regular and sometimes limited abilities.

Personally, I can see this happening with the commander-in-chief of the Egyptian Armed Forces who started to acquire mythic proportions the moment he announced the end of the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood.

It was amazing how less than an hour later people carried posters of the general and placards with slogans that glorified his wisdom heralding a new utopia under his auspices. It is not possible to deny the role the general played in saving the Egyptian people from an unfathomable abyss, but he cannot be made to look like the epitome of the second revolution.

Put simply, he would not have been able to oust the president had it not been for the millions who took to the streets without whom it would have been an illegitimate military coup. I am not also questioning the man’s genuine desire to rid the country of a ruling clique that was bound to lead it to perdition, yet it was practically impossible for him to act singlehandedly and that is why there is no reason he should take all the credit.

However, it is hard to blame him for the people’s over-emotional reaction to his role in ridding them of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Moreover, it is hard to assume he was seeking personal glory and it is equally hard to pretend he had no role in maintaining this kind of relationship with the people. This was clear in the way he personalized the struggle against the crimes committed by the former president’s supporters when he called upon the people to “delegate” him to “eliminate violence and terrorism.” Two days later the people rallied in compliance with his request and in affirmation of his indisputable power.

The response of the people

The response was as peculiar as the request since both assumed that the general would be doing the people a favor and that is why they needed to ask. Both parties totally overlooked or blinded themselves to the fact that it is the army’s duty to protect national security and to act in accordance with this duty whenever a threat appears imminent. This is regardless of whether or not the people decide to be part of the equation.

The general has transformed himself from the commander of an army who is responsible for an entire nation to a patriarch in charge of protecting a bunch of family members. Combining a professional and personal role is just another way of creating a new dictator who always makes sure to remind his “subjects” that it is out of the kindness of his heart that he is fending for them.

Certainly, to different degrees both parties are to blame, for they both seemed to have signed a pact where one party played on the other party’s weakness and that other party gladly responded to that maneuver.

The commander was fully aware of the willingness of the people at this stage to create a superhero. What’s more the people made sure not to let him down. Both might mean well but good intentions are not really effective at these critical times.

Motives aside, it is absolutely necessary that he stops acting like he has a magic wand and it is equally necessary that the people stop waiting for the moment that this wand could change their lives.

In Western cultures, children are quite shocked when they discover that Santa does not exist and that it was their parents who filled their stockings with gifts. In Eastern cultures, adult citizens remain unable to cope with the shock that their leaders do not possess any out-of-the-ordinary powers. Children have an excuse, adults don’t. Almost all children get over the trauma; many adults are still unable to.

Egypt: the ‘sisterhood’ revolution

– What kind of nonsense is that? I said women of the Muslim Brotherhood must take part in the demonstration. Why don’t they want to comply?

– They are concerned about harassment. It is a matter of chastity for them.

– It is not for nothing that I am ordering them to take part in the demonstration and take their toddlers with them so that the police would not attack the demonstration.

– Excuse me, but who is supposed to protect who? Women are supposed to protect men or men are supposed to protect women?

– Jihad is the duty of both men and women. We do not get husbands for these women and educate their children so that they would come up with lame excuses when we call upon them to take part in the Jihad. Women who refuse to join the demonstrations must leave their husbands’ houses and go back to their parents’.

This is the translation of a scene from an Egyptian TV drama of a dialogue between the supreme guide of the Muslim Brotherhood and a senior member of the group. This drama was released during the Mubarak era, so it might be considered as yet another attempt to tarnish the image of the Brotherhood, an accusation that was leveled by several of the group’s members against the writer. However, while Brotherhood sympathizers thought he was too harsh, Brotherhood critics thought he was too lenient. Neither of the two camps, however, paid much attention to this particular scene, until it was appeared in real life three years later.

Life imitating art

When “sisters,” the name given to female members of the Muslim Brotherhood, were recently killed while they were taking part in a demonstration that supported ousted president Mohamed Mursi, it was expected that group leaders would point fingers at supporters of the June 30 “coup” as well as the police and the army.

What came as a surprise was the reaction of some young members who accused the leaders of sending those women to their deaths, instantly bringing to mind this previously overlooked scene. For the first time, it emerged that the “sisters” never take part in demonstrations without the direct orders of the leadership. While the reason mentioned by the supreme guide in the drama (to prevent the police attacking the demonstration) could still be valid, it seems that emotional manipulation rather than the protection of the rest of the demonstrators is the real motive behind the forced participation of women in the demonstrations.

While both reasons betray the group’s scheme of using women as human shields, the second puts no value on the lives of those women and actually makes their death seem like some kind of victory for the Brotherhood because it demonizes the other party and garners more support for the victims and the camp to which they are affiliated.

Their version of “equality”

While there is no real ethical difference between using men or women as cannon fodder, it is striking how the members of the Brotherhood, including those who objected to the recent orders, assume that women have no will of their own. It is even more striking how in the above-mentioned scene the supreme guide advocates equality when he refuses to consider “jihad” a duty that is confined to men, yet he undermines the very essence of equality when he robs those women of their freedom of choice and forces them to engage in an action that is by definition voluntary.

The Brotherhood’s concept of equality is, therefore, contingent upon the extent to which it can serve their ends. Those ends apparently take precedence over other values presumably cherished by the “pious.” The foremost of these values should be to protect women from sexual assaults, to which they are likely to be subjected in such demonstrations. Even in the most “infidel” of cultures, women are always given priority in rescue operations and you only need to watch Titanic to realize that. The Brotherhood is adopting a form of equality that is too “sophisticated” to be comprehended by societies in which women have become ministers and presidents.

Double standards – sister or Egyptian?

What is even more intriguing is the distinction the Muslim Brotherhood makes between the
“sisters” and other Egyptian women, and which ironically casts those who are not “sisters” in a better light. When a female protestor who was not a member of the Brotherhood was almost stripped naked by army officers two years ago, Brotherhood leaders, who were staunch supporters of the de facto ruler of the country at the time, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, did nothing but repeat the famous phrase, “What made her go there?”

Regardless of the fact that they were laying the blame on the woman for the humiliation to which she was subjected in public because she decided to go to the protest, they implied that this woman is free to decide where to go and to bear the consequences of doing so.  And so while trying to portray this protester and her like as lacking in dignity for being subjected to sexual assault, they actually endowed them with the most dignified of human qualities, free choice, which they deny their own women by forcing them to go to protests.

The Brotherhood’s reaction to the incident of the stripped woman might give the impression that since they appear to believe women should stir clear of any context that might present an affront to their chastity, they would never accept to have their women in similar situations. Yet, the recent deaths of their female members proved that this assumption was absolutely groundless. A scene in a TV drama that lasted for no more than two minutes served to explain that the exact opposite is true, and that female members of the Muslim Brotherhood are not the protected gems of magnanimous knights who would die before seeing any harm come their way.

The myth that the Muslim Brotherhood has been trying to promote about the difference between their women and the rest of Egyptian women has, therefore, been irreversibly deconstructed, to the advantage of the women they have been trying to degrade.

Women from both sides are attacked, humiliated, and even killed as a result of their involvement in activities that sadly are likely to lead to such outcomes, yet one group does so willingly, out of faith in a cause. The other participates unwillingly out of compliance with some hierarchical order that they are forced to obey. It is only when members of the second group start contemplating the difference between those two sets of concepts and make their choices based on this differentiation that the “sisters” will be able to shed off that name and realize how much more valuable it is to be called Egyptian.

Egyptian neo-terrorism

It was 2:00 p.m. in the city where 2:00 a.m. is as safe and lively. I was driving along a road that I have been frequenting for the past ten years or so. On my rear glass was a sticker that said “go down on June 30” and which I had decided to leave there for some time in tribute to that memorable day. A young man, possibly in his twenties, spotted the sticker and quickly beckoned his comrades, who seemed to have sprouted from the ground and in no time, they were blocking my way, each brandishing a knife. They started banging on the windows while shouting and cursing. I am not sure I was able to discern the names they called me, but I knew for a fact they were related to that sticker and I only remember one sentence that they yelled in unison like a professional chorus: “let them come to your rescue now!”

I was certain they would break the window any second and it was then that I remembered the advice I have heard repeatedly about running over whoever blocks your way regardless of what the consequences would be. I was not, however, ready to take anybody’s life even if it was in self-defense, so I just pressed the gas pedal slowly hoping this would scare them away. I actually hit one of them in the leg and when he fell the others were even more provoked so one of them knelt and tried to tear the tire.

A few seconds later a car parked next to mine and out came a man. He opened the trunk, got out a machine gun, and chased the boys while swearing to tear them to pieces and “throw their bodies to the dogs.” They magically vanished so that at a certain moment I started doubting they had actually existed. The man came to me and asked if I was alright. As far as I remembered, I stared at him and did not utter a word. He offered to stay in his car until I drove away and he did. He even followed me for a few minutes until he made sure I was able to drive which I miraculously managed to do until I got home. I did not even get the chance to thank him.

It is pointless to try to describe how I felt in those few minutes, but suffice it to say that a couple of days earlier a woman from Alexandria faced the exact same situation, but was not as lucky I was. The stabs she got were enough to end her life and there was obviously no brave and armed passerby to intervene in the last split second. This woman’s fate did not only haunt me because it might have been mine too, but I was also tormented by what felt like a survivor’s guilt as I could not help but wonder why she died and I survived. It got much worse when the initial personal agony gave way to the more general picture, for at the end of the day it was neither about me, nor about her, nor were the two of us the victims of random crimes that you can report at a police station, in the hope of having something stolen from you returned or of seeing a person who hurt you behind bars.

Organized vengeance

This, together with other attacks we have been hearing about lately, is part of an organized vengeance scheme that ushers a new era of terror and a new type of terrorism. Back in the 1990s, we all lived through the “no one is safe” nightmare, but it felt like there was a clearly defined enemy against which all the people were united, which is by no means the case at the moment.

I don’t think it matters much whether the men who attacked me and the Alexandrian woman and a whole lot of Egyptians who declared in one way or another their support for the ouster of the president are true believers in the “cause” or were hired to do the job. What matters most is the fact that civilians are assaulted, at times killed, for their political affiliations and that this is done by their fellow civilians who at a first glance do not seem to pose any kind of threat. The traditional image of extremist militants seeking refuge in the middle of mountains and chased across rugged terrains, has become confined to the Sinai Peninsula which is now replacing Upper Egypt as the hotbed of terrorism while cities are currently being infested by what can be termed “neo-terrorists.”


Like Neo-Nazism, this emerging trend seeks to revive an old practice in an innovative manner that is basically characterized by the absence of a direct confrontation between two conflicting parties so that the adversary remains nobody and everybody and so that all demarcation lines are too blurred to determine when and if the battle has come to an end and who has emerged victorious. It is a type of terrorism that makes of every spot an operational territory and renders precautions a matter of formality for in addition to blocking roads and attacking “opposition” motorists, there have been several incidents that involve storming houses in areas surrounding Islamist sit-ins and torturing, sometimes to death, potential “spies,” and shooting at bystanders who seem to belong to the other camp.

By virtue of being a loosely-structured group whose members do not necessarily follow a specific leadership, the neo-terrorists act with remarkable impunity and most of them have so far succeeded in getting away with their crimes. Their job is also much easier because of the apparent self-restraint lately exercised by the army and the police, both apparently keen on eschewing further accusations of human rights abuses following international criticism over excessive use of force against supporters of the ousted president as they attempted to “liberate” him from a military facility. Even when this policy changes, it will still be hard to track them down and prove their involvement in acts that are too politicized to be only criminal and too haphazard to be purely terrorist.

Unlike conventional terrorism, neo-terrorism attempts to change the balance of power in a more subtle way since its main objective is intimidation rather than killing. Even those who are actually killed are not targeted as persons, but are rather presented as examples. Unfortunately, this tactic cannot be deemed a failure. I, for one, removed the sticker right after the incident and was advised to tell this story to everyone I know so they can follow suit. I wouldn’t go as far as labeling this reaction cowardly even though I couldn’t help seeing it that way for a while, but I have to admit that they managed to rob many of us of a right as basic as a sticker on the glass of your own car.

True we don’t fight for stickers. We fight for causes. But then again what is the use of fighting for a cause if you cannot declare you are doing so!

Witch-hunt politics in Egypt

The term “witch hunt” always brings to mind two major incidents; one explains its historical origin and the other highlights its most memorable political manifestation.

The story goes that in 1692 in the village of Salem in colonial Massachusetts, two young girls dropped the white of an egg in a glass and waited for it to make shapes that would show them what their future husbands would looks like. Coming from a Puritan society, they knew the game was forbidden and so was any attempt to see through the future. That is why all hell broke loose when one of the girls imagined she saw the shape of a coffin. It is not clear what followed this incident, which in itself is now more of a folk tale than an actual occurrence, but they say that the girls started exhibiting eccentric behavioral patterns like muttering unintelligible words that sounded like incantations and contorting their bodies into physically challenging postures.

Failing to reach a medical diagnosis for their condition, the doctors finally concluded that the girls were bewitched to the horror of their parents, the clergy, and the entire village. After being severely questioned, the girls claimed that a Caribbean slave taught them voodoo and told them about her encounters with the devil. A spat of accusations followed with each of the accused pointing fingers at others to save their lives and with several girls in the village starting to show similar symptoms. Hundreds were put into jail and trials on witchcraft charges started. Dozens were hanged while others perished in prison or were tortured to death as the craze was fuelled by both an increasingly hostile religious discourse and a mass hysteria that made claims of a diabolic intervention seem credible. And that was what “which hunt” meant in the literal sense.

In 1950, Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy announced that the State Department was infiltrated by Communists. At a time when the Soviet Union’s influence was growing in Eastern Europe and with the Chinese Civil War concluded in favor of Communists, Communism was already a major concern for the United States that served as the ideal soil for the “Red Scare” to take hold of citizens and officials alike. McCarthy accused many high ranking officials, both military and civilian, of Communist loyalties. His campaign included the administration of President Harry Truman, the United States Army, and Voice of America.

For two whole years, he interrogated his suspects, many of whom were reportedly tortured and forced into confessing crimes they did not commit and many others losing their jobs after their reputation was compromised. McCarthy was, however, unable to support his accusations by tangible evidence and he eventually failed to uncover any Communists whether inside or outside the government. Yet the reason for McCarthy’s fame, and which still endures till the present moment, was his astounding ability to engage the American public in a relentless pursuit of an imaginary enemy. It was this ability that led to the emergence of the term McCarthyism, which later came to mean the dogmatic leveling of unfounded accusations and the systematic use of intimidation to extract confessions as part of an attempt to eliminate an unproven threat. As McCarthy was referred to as a “witch hunter,” McCarthyism became the modern version of “witch hunting.” And that was how “witch hunt” became a political term.

Fear in Egypt

It was impossible not to remember those two classical examples when talk of witch-hunts started spreading across Egypt since of ouster of Mohammad Mursi and the subsequent clampdown on Muslim Brotherhood members and Islamic satellite channels. It was also impossible not to make a quick comparison between the current situation in Egypt and that of the United States in the 17th and 20th centuries. I managed to find one common factor and that was fear. Fear of witchcraft in an extremely religious society and fear of Communism in the context of the Cold War could be compared to fear of the return of the Muslim Brotherhood to the political scene. This fear is seen by a large number of activists and politicians as the main impetus behind the series of arrest warrants issued against leading figures in the group and the popular support for all measures taken to guarantee their exclusion from any future road map. This is not entirely untrue. This fear does exist and it is making many go as far as wishing to see every single Brotherhood member or sympathizer perishing in jail or banished to Siberia. Yet, unlike the devil and the red infiltration, this fear is not illusory and the communal shape it is taking cannot by any means be categorized as mass hysteria simply because the enemy is not imagined and its destructive powers are proven beyond any doubt.

Debating whether on not the official and popular reaction against the Brotherhood is a witch-hunt is similar to the revolution-versus-coup controversy in the sense that both cannot be evaluated in accordance with normal criteria. If we can call the June 30 protests a popular uprising with military support then the current stance on the Brotherhood can be considered a witch-hunt with real witches, each being an oxymoron that can only be addressed in a manner that is as exceptional as the circumstances through which Egypt is going at the moment. Arbitrary arrests and the closure of media outlets constitute a violation of civil liberties and collective punishment is definitely detrimental to the rule of law, yet it is only when seeing such actions in their context that the picture becomes clearer.

Used as cannon fodder

Muslim Brotherhood leaders, including the former president, clerics pledging allegiance to them, and channels promoting their ideologies are all implicated in a series of factional and sectarian crimes that were committed by their loyalists, who they use as cannon fodder, against whoever they perceived as a threat to their grip on power. The killing of Shiites shortly before the second revolution, attacks on Christians that have been going on since the Brotherhood came to power, and the recent attacks on peaceful protestors across the country and on a military establishment in which the ousted president is believed to be detained are but few outcomes of the jihadist discourse that has for the past year been breeding hatred against non-Islamists and which is still adopted by Brotherhood demagogues who are still at large. The victims would have doubled and tripled had the channels which were closed on the day of the ouster and which are known for their instigation of violence against religious minorities, women, and liberal parties and figures been left to do business as usual.

It is also important to note that while worshipping the devil might be a personal choice and espousing Communism is definitely an ideological preference, the Muslim Brotherhood is not an entity that can be integrated into the Egyptian political scene if not for all the disasters it had brought upon Egypt during its one single year in power then for the threat it poses on national security through sponsoring terrorism and pledging allegiance to an international organization whose project takes precedence over national interests. A quick look at the presidential pardons issued for militants serving prison sentences on terrorism charges, the fall of the Sinai Peninsula into the hands of extremist groups, and the suspicious alliance with Hamas all serve to drive the point home.

Nations go through life-changing moments that require drastic actions and the exclusion from public life of a party whose hands are tarnished with innocent blood and with whom the South African “truth and reconciliation” approach seems impossible becomes at times a national duty. If de-Stalinization was possible, there is no reason why de-Brotherhoodization would not. Plus, it is always permissible to hunt witches if you know for a fact that they exist!

Cairo: The morning after the night before

They say that when the Sandinista revolutionaries stormed the palace of Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza, they only found his uniform flung over a sofa. It was too symbolic to be true, but it apparently happened. This image of hollowness and illusory power has ever since persisted in Latin American literature, most vividly in Gabriel García Márquez’s masterpiece Autumn of the Patriarch, in which vultures are seen hovering over the corpse of the dictator so that the city finally “awoke out of its lethargy of centuries with the warm, soft breeze of a great man dead and rotting grandeur.”

The eve of June 30 looked like the aftermath of a similar downfall and that felt quite eerie. In front of the presidential palace were thousands waving flags and cheering and dancing and honking in a spectacle that felt carbon-copied from February 11, 2011, the day Mubarak stepped down. The air smelt of freedom and it was freakily contagious, for a few minutes after I wandered what kind of spell took hold of those loonies, I got seized by the exact same feeling and almost started envisioning that deserted palace infested by rats and swathed with cobwebs.

June 30 – a calculated adventure

June 30 was not much different. Unlike January 2011 when a revolution seemed like an uncalculated adventure, June 2013 made it seem like toppling the regime was only a matter of time. “Please stay in touch,” read a huge banner that delivered the people’s message to the president with such a confident tone that was more alarming than comforting. It only takes being in the middle of the crowd to grasp the rationale behind this collective state of mind that has spread like wildfire amongst millions in almost no time.

Taking a look at the people who took to the streets that day makes the equation much easier. Apart from the regular revolutionaries who since January 25, 2011 have taken it upon themselves to see Egypt turn into a real democracy and have vowed not to rest until they see this happening, almost every other segment of the Egyptian society, minus of course the Muslim Brotherhood and their Islamist allies, was out calling for the president to step down. This included those who were against the revolution from day one and believed that Mubarak was the only one fit to rule and would not have minded had he bequeathed power to his son, those who supported the revolution but linked its success to the intervention of the army and, therefore, did not mind replacing an autocracy with a military rule, those belonging to the so-called “couch party” and who followed the revolution from their living rooms and were against protesting in principle whether out of fear or passivity and regardless of how far they agreed or disagreed with the cause any given protest promoted, those labeled “lemon squeezers” and who strategically voted for the president in order to prevent his rival from winning and assuming he might not be that bad after all, and last but not least those who neither hated nor loved Mubarak or the revolution or the Muslim Brotherhood, but have simply been deprived of the most basic of their needs under the current regime.

On the ground

As for those who were for some reason or another unable to go to the presidential palace or Tahrir in Cairo or the main squares in other Egyptian cities and who could belong to any of the previously mentioned groups, they decided to stand in front of their houses holding placards that read “Go away” and “Down with the Muslim Brotherhood” and chanting anti-regime slogans. This trend spread across the entire country and according to eyewitnesses, including myself, there was hardly a building without its own little group of protestors. Some even protested from their balconies while those who were too old to stand simply brought out chairs on the sidewalks.

Taking another look at the demands of all those people is even more helpful in deciphering the mystery. The regime had done its best to sow the seeds of mistrust among protestors so that each group would feel the others are working against its interests. They basically did that through alleging that those who would take part in the demonstrations are either remnants of the former regime who want to undermine the revolution or proponents of the return of the army, a tactic that mainly aimed at repelling revolutionaries, who constitute the main impetus of the protests and the real danger to the regime and whose withdrawal was likely to abort the protest or at least diminish their effect. There were even rumors that protestors will be carrying pictures of Mubarak and calling upon the army to stage a coup. There was, however, one single demand that was shouted out at every corner of the country and that was nothing other than “Leave!”

This was the first time in two and half years that almost all Egyptians had a unified, precise goal and it was of no importance at all whether they have had this goal for long or have only decided to go for it a couple of days ago. It was simply not the time for settling scores and exchanging incriminations, but rather the time for learning from mistakes and rising above differences.

June 30 is the day that marked the initiation of the Egyptian people into political maturity. Nothing guarantees that their demands will be met any time soon, if ever, or that a nation-wide civil disobedience will materialize as desired or that the peacefulness of the protests will not be disrupted by the other party. Yet, everything guarantees that the people have reached a level of confidence in themselves and their cause that is bound to change the balance of power in the coming stage.