Letter from Cairo: In the beginning was ‘disobedience’


The word “disobedience” is a crime in a dictatorship and a sin in a patriarchy, so just imagine how catastrophic it can be in a society that combines both. Latin America is the proud host of a bunch of the world’s most respectable democracies, yet it remains the stronghold of machismo and Tunisia before the Jasmine Revolution was a dictatorship, yet its women had for years remained the model every Arab feminist aspired to. Egypt has neither this nor that and one year through the revolution “Yes is the answer. What is the question?” is still expected to be the response of each and every single citizen to each and every single authority and the result is an absolute lack of personal and public freedoms and a unflinching rejection of any attempt at slaughtering that sacred cow every repressive society strives to keep alive and healthy for good.

It does sound peculiar, in fact quite absurd, to talk about the sanctity of obedience in a country that has just been through one of history’s most enthralling acts of disobedience, but this just sheds a little light on how far the revolution has gone or whether it has gone anywhere at all or what the definition of a revolution is to start with. The conundrum this might seem to be is in fact an extremely simple formula that can be summarized in the most basic of terms.

The revolution ousted a regime and in no time was hijacked by a similar one that is only different in the way it is structured for it now comprises two parts, both of which supported the revolution only for the opportunities it is offering them and never for the cause it is fighting for. Islamists and the military are by definition dictatorial entities and the fact that the first came to power through elections and the second was initially supported by the people does not change that. It is quite hard to assume that a group in which a pledge of obedience is the number one rite of passage and/ or membership requirement and in which rebellion is the number one reason for severe punishment and/or disgraceful expulsion is willing to accept nonconformity or be tolerant towards the idea of resistance. It comes naturally, therefore, that both of them would do all that it takes to undermine the civil disobedience initiative, scheduled for the first anniversary of the president’s ouster, and to demonize all those taking part in it, let alone propagate the most twisted definitions of the concept and the values it stands for.

The anti civil disobedience campaign in the post-revolution era required an instant exhumation of dictator jargon in the pre-revolution era and the result was a grotesque discourse comprised of avowals to protect the revolution through crushing the revolutionaries and threats to eliminate democracy by defending the power of the people, all against the backdrop of once again equating peaceful protests with destructive attempts at bringing down the state and rendering rebellion against tyranny a declaration of war against God, not to mention the emotional blackmailing of average Egyptians into viewing any act of objection as detrimental to the economy and any calls for freedom as an implementation of some foreign agenda, let alone working hard to issue a bunch of laws that that strip citizens of the right to protest.

It is quite surprising that the February 11 civil disobedience is promoted by the ruling authorities and viewed by a lot of people as an outrageous action that is bound to have grave consequences and I have no clue how the first dared make this argument and how the second fell into this trap, but what I am certain of is that one party is lying to the other while the other is lying to itself and both are doing their best to overlook what civil disobedience is really about.

I hate to sound like a teacher, which I am, but a quick look at the two words of which the expression is made, a process which will take a little more than two minutes, is enough to prove how hollow all the talk about civil obedience being a mischievous plot to turn in Egypt into a lawless state is. “Civil” is the opposite of “military” and if anything military denotes by definition the involvement of weapons then according to the most basic forms of empirical logic, the one we studied in high school, anything civil is, also by definition, unarmed and therefore involves no acts of violence and no intention of destruction whatsoever. “Disobedience” ─ needless to say ─ is the opposite of “obedience” with all the repressive connotations this word carries. Obedience, unlike what is commonly believed in a culture like ours where one’s strength is only asserted through another’s weakness, is an act of submission to some form of law or norm that does not necessarily conform to my values or that can even be in flagrant violation of one or more of them. Therefore, obedience, by definition as well, is an action, or rather an inaction, devoid of any choice simply because if I get to choose I wouldn’t be “obeying” and consequently I wouldn’t have anything to object to. That is why it goes without saying that the decision to put an end to obedience is the core of every single revolution and is also the first step of any path to freedom. Putting the two together would mean that civil disobedience can be defined as peaceful or nonviolent resistance or revolution. Does that sound familiar? Isn’t it, if I am not mistaken or stoned, the exact same thing that became the January 25 Revolution and that was blessed by the exact same powers that are now trying to stunt its growth?

According to Henry David Thoreau, abiding by an unjust law automatically means taking part in the forms of injustice resulting from the application of that law. That is why he thought that all citizens that oppose slavery should understand that paying taxes constitutes an implicit approval of the practice since they are funding the government that practices it and are, therefore, not different from those who support slavery and should not hold them only accountable for failure to abolish it. The question is: Will those who abstain from paying taxes in this case be looked upon as anarchists or saboteurs or terrorists or is it possible that they are exercising their right to put pressure on a government that is betraying their trust? The same question could be asked about people who changed history and gave a new meaning to resistance and freedom fighting like Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, couldn’t it? Endless other questions could pop up about a whole bunch of revolutions from the Velvet through the Rose to the Orange and the answers will remain hanging in the air for all those who choose to blind themselves to the truth.

The right to participate in civil disobedience in Egypt is the right of every Egyptian citizen who cannot stand still while seeing the demands of the revolution going down the drain one after the other and while feeling helpless as more of his or her innocent compatriots are killed in cold blood and while realizing that every alleged protector is nothing but a vengeful predator in a different guise. They will not watch while all this happens and they will continue to resist till the day comes when they are certain that their brethren’s blood was not spilt in vain and they will fight with the weapons their oppressors do not possess and will never dream of possessing simply because bullets are for cowards while willpower is the cannon of the brave.

They will follow the instructions of the greatest of poets Percy Bysshe Shelley and with that they will prevail again like they did before.

Stand ye calm and resolute,
Like a forest close and mute,
With folded arms and looks which are
Weapons of unvanquished war

Letter from Cairo: Come 8th of July


“Did the Egyptian revolution make mistakes?” wondered prominent Egyptian writer Alaa al-Aswany in his last article. “Yes,” he replied to his own question. “Twice.” The first time, he explains, is when all the revolutionaries went back home the moment the president resigned and the second when those same revolutionaries started engaging in endless disputes while none of the revolution’s demands has yet been fulfilled. I might not 100 percent agree on the first not because it’s wrong but rather because looking back now is entirely different from living the moment then.

Anybody who was in Tahrir Square when the regime officially fell would understand why Egyptians thought of that as the ultimate victory and anybody who experienced this regime first hand would realize how improbable, impossible, and out of this world arriving at this end was. Asking protestors to think of anything else would have been absurd. “Wait, but what about the constitution?” or “Let’s stay here till we make sure the elections are fair” or “This is just a little thing so let’s celebrate when we do something really big.” Of course not! We were euphoric to the extent that we didn’t care if we died the next day because at least we would have seen Egypt free even if for a couple of hours. Just think of that: Egypt celebrates for a few weeks when it gets the Africa Cup of Nations. Imagine how long it would take to celebrate a revolution that is bound to change the face of history.

Now we come to the second mistake and since we mentioned football, let me share with you an analogy a friend of mine made a couple of days ago and which I find very relevant now: Egypt during the revolution was a reenactment of the Africa Cup of Nations where all Egyptians—players and fans alike—are united behind one single goal, while Egypt now is similar to the two years that separate each round from the next one where teams go back to their endless squabbles and fans don’t miss a chance to jump each others’ throats during or after any game. This was the real mistake.

During the revolution’s 18 days, a new Egypt was being formulated and it was coming out beautifully as Tahrir Square transformed itself into a utopia that defied all speculations about a people who the more oppressed they were, the more hostile they grew. I was never a football fan and never cared who won what but my friends who are so much into this have always told me that while generally in a crowd there is a very big chance you will be harassed if you are female and you can be robbed if you are from either sex, this never happens during football victory celebrations that usually take part all over the streets of Egypt right after the game is over and till the next morning. This was the case in Tahrir and this is when everyone realized that Egyptians can move mountains if they rally behind the same cause and cannot bring themselves to climb a couple of stairs when each of them goes off on his or her own way.

The moment everybody went home elated at the miraculous achievement of ousting the regime, the common cause seemed to have started fading away as each faction started designing the Egypt it wants and which best fits its ideologies while totally forgetting that a zillion other common causes have not yet been resolved and will never be if this “I want it my way” attitude persists. Summoning up the spirit of the revolution that managed to effect the most drastic of changes has become the only way of making sure this very change does not end up going down the drain. That is when the July 8 rally comes in.

As tradition has had since the start of the revolution, every Friday protest is given a name that in a word or two states the reason for yet another expression of indignation at one thing or another—usually related to revolution demands that have not been met. Since reasons for disappointment at post-revolution achievements or rather lack of achievements are many, there was yet another dispute about choosing a name for this Friday and that, I believe, was quite a frustrating start. Some wanted to focus on drafting a constitution before parliamentary elections, others argued that trials of policemen involved in killing protestors is the topmost priority, and other others believed the revolution will boil down to nothing if the government is not purged of all allies of the former regime. The list was endless and each group had a valid point, but we were back to square one: wasting all energy in arguing and getting breathless when it’s time for real action. Luckily, alarm bells warning of the imminent threat to the revolution were too loud to ignore and they all agreed on one slogan that is supposed to unite them the same way the ouster of the regime did on January 25 and till February 11. After endless arguments over what comes “first,” turns out that going into details defeats the purpose and that there is no such thing as one demand being more important than another. Everything that people call for and that moves us one step forward in the road to democracy is a priority in itself and gains legitimacy by virtue of serving the mother cause: the revolution. So, Revolution First Friday it is!

This is the Friday of reunion where Egyptians will be renewing their vows by going to the same altar and reenacting the communal rite of passage they performed all together the day the tyrant’s departure initiated them into the world of freedom and dignity. There will be one major difference, though. This time we will not go back home with the assumption that it’s over like we did that day, but rather with the determination that this revolution is here to stay and that letting it slip heralds the death of all of us and drags Egypt towards its doom.

We have indeed reached the point of no return and going back is out of the question even if we try. Last night I closed my eyes to an inspiring sentence with which one of my favorite presenters ended his talk show:

“Can you try death then choose to come back to life? Of course, you can’t. This is how freedom works. You can never taste freedom then give it up.”

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.

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.”

Letter from Cairo: Best actor in a deriding role


“Who is this bearded man? A relative of yours?”
“Of course not! This is Che Guevara!”
“Is he a freedom fighter?”
“Yes, one of history’s greatest freedom fighters.”
“In Afghanistan?”

This is part of a scene in an Egyptian film called “The Terrorist.” The film tells the story of a jihadist who, after carrying out a major terrorist operation, hides undercover with an upper-middle class family in a Cairo suburb and starts acquiring a different perspective as he becomes exposed to the typical “infidels” he has been taught to eliminate in order to “purify” society and establish an Islamic state.

The above-mentioned bit is part of an exchange between this terrorist and one of the members of the family he stays with and with whom he shares his room. His comment on Guevara’s portrait gives insight into the mindset of someone who has been brainwashed into thinking that freedom fighting only happens in Afghanistan and that only Muslim militants deserve to have their pictures hung on walls. That explains the gasp he let out upon knowing that the so-called great fighter is in fact Communist and serves as a prelude to his perception of the entire family. “I am staying with a family of apostates,” the terrorist tells his senior over the phone.

The protagonist is an Egyptian actor who was recently sentenced to jail on charges of “deriding Islam” in a number of his movies that tackled terrorism and fundamentalist Islamists, on top of which comes this one of course. I am no big fan of the actor not only for finding his performance quite average, but also owing to the way his movies on religious extremism came as part of a regime-backed propaganda campaign that glorified State Security and supported government claims about repression being the only means to protect the country form the ever-looming specter of terrorism. For me, his movies on this topic were more or less a justification of state terrorism not only because they have always adopted the official story, but also due to the way they overlooked the complexity of the relationship between security and jihadists and which over the years have seen a spat of alliances between the two against the Egyptian people who were meant to stay scared and submissive all the time.

All this aside, I have to admit that simplistic and didactic as it is, a movie like “The Terrorist” honestly depicted a time in Egypt that I personally find one of the most disturbing. The scenes that featured the operations in which the protagonist is involved summed up the nightmare in which Egyptians lived in the early 1990s when attacks on Christians, the killing of tourists, booby trapped cars in residential areas, and the assassination of intellectuals was everyday news. So regardless of the motive for making such a film or the lack of depth that marred both script and on-screen adaptation, the facts were true and terrorism in the name of religion and on such a brutal scale was an indisputable part of our reality at the time. It is, therefore, quite baffling to have a lawsuit filed against the actor for his role in deriding Islam in this movie and its likes, namely those that depict Islamist extremists.

The question is: What exactly is it that really bothered the ultra-conservative lawyer who filed the suit? Is it, like he claimed, the mocking of what he saw as Islamic symbols? Maybe a look at those symbols will help in answering the question. According to the plaintiff, several of the actor’s movies made fun of the type of appearance/outfit pertaining to conservative Muslims like the beard for men and the face veil for women. Another question has to follow: If we assume that mockery and not the depiction of reality was the films’ sole purpose, does that constitute an insult to Islam as a religion? I do agree that with many observers that the verdict against the actor is what actually demeans Islam because it reduces the religion to a few hairs on the chin or a black cloth over the face. Yet, I have to admit that this is not my main concern. The main argument should not be about which work of art breaks what taboos, but rather the catastrophe of having those works subjected to censorship in the first place. Sadly enough, I believe that this is a very advanced stage that we are not likely to reach any time soon, at least not while such relentless attempts at demonizing all sorts of difference or “otherness” are ongoing at such scary pace.

If we set aside the flagrant violation of the right to creativity and artistic expression at the moment and just focus on this specific lawsuit and if we decide to become reasonable enough to realize that it is not about beards and veils, another question pops up: What is the real motive behind filing the lawsuit, which, I believe, is not the unilateral action of a disgruntled conservative who saw his faith threatened by a couple of reels?

Let us first agree that the timing of such a lawsuit could not have been better. With the fall of a regime seen as the archenemy of Islamist powers and which despite the several deals they struck together still remained the powerful partner that had at its mercy any faction that did not toe the line and with the sweeping ascension of Islamists to power, a lawsuit of that type was expected to garner considerable popular support from a category of the population that is now more vocal than ever about its resentment of liberalism and the civil state. Yet, it was not from a position of power that this lawsuit was filed. True, Islamists are at the helm now and liberals, including the real revolutionaries, are gradually shriveling to a voiceless minority, but this did not in any way eliminate the accumulated insecurities of the current majority and which basically stems from a history that can be anything but spotless, transparent, or guilt-free.

One of the main issues raised right after the sweeping victory of Islamists in parliamentary elections was the fact that a sizable portion of the new MPs were at some point or another jail inmates, some as political prisoners and others for actual criminal charges that involved terrorism and killing of civilians. I remember this psychiatrist who said on TV that people who spend long years in jail cannot just come out to practice politics not only because many of them are criminals, but also because in general the jail experience, especially under a repressive regime, is traumatic enough to render prisoners unable to live normally for a while after their release let alone occupy decision-making positions and be in charge of charting an entire country’s future. “Those people need years of rehabilitation in order to go back to being normal human beings,” he said. Of course, the duration and effect of this rehabilitation differs according to the crime, for while it is possible for those who were imprisoned just for belonging to one outlawed group or another, I don’t see it applicable to actual murderers who are expected to resort to violence again whenever they see fit.

What this actor did was not insulting Islam or tarnishing the image of Muslims, for extremist Islamists are already doing that as masterfully as can be and no one can outdo their amazing ability at deriding religion. He is, in fact, guilty of a much graver offence: the depiction and documentation of a phase in their lives that they are doing their best to obliterate as they attempt to pose in front of a gullible as men of God who will salvage the nation from the hands of apostates. Egyptians are generally an emotional people known to forgive too fast those who wrong them and the sympathy they felt for Mubarak after one of his cheesy speeches during the revolution serves as the best example.

Suing this actor is part of an attempt to destroy as much implicating evidence as possible ─ not because his films will be obliterated from the memory of the film industry ─ but rather because his indictment will serve as a proof of how much of a liar he was when he portrayed them in this way. For them, he is part of the former regime, and he indeed is. Yet, they are not concerned about the regime as a repressive entity that stripped the people of their rights since this is exactly what they have started doing the moment they came to power. They only traces of the old regime they are keen on eliminating are the ones that bear witness to their appalling past and otherwise they will be duplicating it and we will be surprised at how well they would do that.

The deriding awards ceremony has just started and this actor will not be the last to mount the stage to be handed the verdict and maybe allowed a goodbye speech before being ushered to the stake.

It will then be only a matter of time before history takes a different course and Guevara is crowned an official member of the Afghan mujahedeen.