Monday, October 12, 2009

A Gentle Intellect

On 10 October, 2009, a luminous intellectual and gentle soul passed away. Felled by cancer at the age of 59, Mohamed El-Sayed Saïd was laid to rest yesterday in his native Port Said. Saïd was among a handful of extraordinarily committed, preternaturally courageous public intellectuals and human rights activists who dedicated their lives to making Egypt a more just place. His life is an awe-inspiring string of achievements, spanning intellectual contributions, activist work, and a brief but vital experiment in social justice-oriented journalism. It’s customary for obituaries to list the deeds of such luminaries and mourn their loss, and Mohamed Saïd deserves nothing less. But I find myself first remembering his personal qualities as a wonderful human being.

Those who knew him remember that Dr. Mohamed was an exceedingly nice person--friendly, warm, and genuinely humble. The rough and tumble of public life in an undemocratic country hadn’t coarsened him one bit. He seemed to have swooped into this era from some other time and place, where people were soft-spoken, courtly, even-tempered, a tad shy. He had an air of serenity, unruffled by the constant interruptions of mobile phones and other trappings of the busy-and-important. I often ran into him in noisy public places—a cinema, a downtown street, a public political meeting—and he always seemed enveloped in some otherworldly calm. Once while we were chatting over coffee in his Ahram office, he received three successive phone calls from an irate person who was loudly reproaching him on some personal matter. Dr. Mohamed answered the phone each time and stoically endured the harangue, smiling at me impishly as the agitated person on the other end heaved and screamed.

For someone who had a truly searching mind and considerable erudition, Dr. Mohamed carried his learning lightly. He wasn’t pompous and he didn’t feel the need to dominate every conversation or gathering. He was dead serious about his calling, but didn’t take himself overly seriously. I once teased him about some clunky neologism in his writing (I think it was his literal Arabic translation of “reification”), and he laughed as loud as he permitted himself, blushing endearingly.

In the precincts of al-Ahram where there’s a hyper-awareness of rank and status, with individuals daily seeking to reinforce or augment their social standing, Dr. Mohamed was detached. He seemed embarrassed that he had a driver who ferried him around, and he explicitly refrained from the kind of name-dropping that others think lends them gravitas. Intellectually, he surpassed everyone in that building and far beyond; he was the kind of writer whom you had to read no matter what, because almost always you’d emerge with a new way of looking at an issue, or a clearer understanding of why you disagree with him.

Mohamed El-Sayed Saïd was born in 1950 in Port Said to a father who worked in the Suez Canal authority and a homemaker mother. He took part in the 1968 wave of student and worker protests, and again in the 1972 protests, along with peer
Ahmed Abdalla. He was imprisoned in 1972 for his student activism, and in the same year graduated from the Cairo University Faculty of Economics and Political Science. Shortly thereafter he was hired as a researcher at the al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, a professional affiliation that would last until 2007 when he left al-Ahram to head the editorial team of al-Badeel. He pursued higher education and in 1983 received a doctorate in political science from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, for a thesis titled “Integration as a Model of Ethnic Conflict Resolution in Sub-Saharan Africa.”

Mohamed El-Sayed Saïd was a thinking person. He wasn’t a clever wordsmith or a peddler of packaged ideas or a researcher in the narrow academic sense, but someone who seemed to be thinking during every waking moment, challenging received wisdom, looking more deeply at things we take for granted, and trying to communicate his mental strivings through writing and activism. As the obituaries are repeating ad nauseam, he was a socialist and a liberal who respected and was respected by all shades of the ideological spectrum, from Islamists to Nasserists to the most dogmatic leftists. A secular socialist he certainly was, but to me he represents the true meaning of an intellectual: someone who is constantly questioning why things are the way they are, and urging alternative readings of seemingly settled issues.

But Mohamed Saïd wasn’t the kind of intellectual who retreats from the world to better analyse it. I’ll lazily invoke the hackneyed phrase because it fits here: he tried to change the world. He made real contributions to two areas of Egyptian public life: human rights activism and the independent press. He was among the founders of the Egyptian human rights movement in the 1980s, both as a leading member of the Egyptian Organisation of Human Rights (EOHR) (and later the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies) and a participant in theoretical debates about reconciling international human rights norms with Islamic principles. Emboldened by their international ties, Egyptian rights groups were the only organisations monitoring the government’s policing, especially during the years-long standoff with violent Islamist groups.

Mohamed Saïd’s human rights work nearly cost him his life. In 1989, the loathsome, vindictive Interior Minister Zaki Badr ordered the violent storming of a steel factory to break up a worker strike (one worker was killed in the confrontation). Dr. Mohamed drafted the EOHR statement expressing solidarity with the workers and condemning the government response. He was rounded up along with colleagues Hisham Mubarak, Amir Salem, and Medhat al-Zahed and subjected to brutal torture. Undeterred, he intensified his human rights work after 1989, and became a valuable source of knowledge about the history, politics, and organisational dilemmas of the rights movement.

In 2007, Dr. Mohamed entered the lively independent press scene. He helmed the fledgling al-Badeel as an experiment in non-partisan, non-doctrinaire leftist journalism oriented to social justice and popular struggles. The newspaper offered superb coverage of domestic politics, from localised cost-of-living protests to national political events, while innovating the idea of opinion pages featuring fresh emerging voices instead of publishing familiar big names serving up their familiar fare. Almost instantly, al-Badeel earned its place alongside al-Dostor and al-Masry al-Youm as daily must-reads, and Dr. Mohamed’s daily column revealed a different side of the public intellectual, a readable, accessible yet no less insightful voice on a far wider range of issues than he had ever commented on in print. During its brief half life, al-Badeel enriched
contemporary Egyptian independent journalism and offered a platform for crucial societal debates. In 2008, when his illness became acute, Mohamed Said left the editorship but continued to write occasional pieces. Earlier this year, the paper lost its funding and sadly stopped printing.

The last time I saw Dr. Mohamed was in winter 2007, in the cavernous offices of al-Badeel in Bab el-Louq shortly after they started publication. The place was boisterous, full of energy, excitement, and good humour. Dr. Mohamed didn’t hold court or preside officiously, he darted from room to room, line-editing with journalists and editors, consulting with the website designers, bantering shyly with office staff. He announced a break and herded everyone around a table, a motley crowd of visitors, well-wishers, the newspaper’s funder, journalists, and a few oldtime leftists. We chatted amiably and sipped coffee as the winter sunshine flooded the room. Dr. Mohamed smiled beatifically, alternating sips of coffee with drags on his never-vanishing cigarette. And that is how I shall always remember him.

Photo: al-Masry al-Youm

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Who Should Rule Egypt?

Every summer, Egyptians ritualistically reflect on the July 23 revolution, going through the motions of enumerating its failures and accomplishments. This year is different, as Egypt faces an impending power transition that ironically may bring Egyptian politics back full circle. The ‘Free Officers’ replaced monarchical with military rule, but Mubarak has blocked the military feeder into the presidency and re-instated the hereditary route, albeit without the monarchical claim.

Mubarak’s management of his succession has led to a most unintended effect: a vital public debate about who should rule Egypt. By resolutely refusing to appoint a vice president and then choreographing his son’s political rise, Mubarak unwittingly opened up the question of what (and who) are the most legitimate sources of political authority. Debating such foundational questions is rare for any society; most political discussions focus on politicians’ actions, public policies, sometimes the rules governing the political game. This public discussion that’s been happening in Egypt for years now gets to a much more fundamental question: what kind of political game should we have in the first place? The debate has now crystallized into three camps: advocates of parliamentary rule, hereditary rule, and military rule. But let’s be clear: debates are one thing and who will actually assume power something else entirely. Yet no matter who eventually captures the presidency after Mubarak, Egyptians won’t stop debating the issue until they get to have a say in who rules them.

Parliamentary Rule

Debating who should rule Egypt became a burning issue during Mubarak’s tenure, but it didn’t start then. After 1954 when Nasser and his fellows made it clear that they wouldn’t return to the barracks, alternatives to military rule were imagined, but in the rarefied confines of intellectual salons and obscure legal journals. The issue began to percolate when Sadat pursued his plan of de-Nasserisation, packaged as democratisation. In the summer of 1971, he commissioned a group of experts to draft a “permanent constitution” that would ostensibly codify the rule of law and citizens’ rights. Judge and historian Tareq al-Bishri penned an important critical article flagging the draft constitution’s establishment of an unaccountable presidency. Informed by his deep knowledge of parliamentary politics in the 1930s and 1940s, Bishri alerted readers to the indispensability of a strong parliament to counteract the Egyptian bane of unchecked executive power.

Aided by the constitution, Sadat reinforced the imperial presidency in every particular, even dissolving parliament by fiat when a handful of its members dared to oppose him. In May 1980, a group of 54 intellectuals appalled by Sadat’s domestic policies wrote an open letter denouncing the president’s plebiscitary tactics and calling on him to cease sidelining parliament. Not exactly a resounding call, but its moderate, even deferential tone is a striking contrast to the proposals that would characterize Mubarak’s era.

Mubarak’s measured behaviour in his first term becalmed criticisms of unchecked presidential power, but when he renewed emergency law for the first time in 1988, opposition parties (they weren’t as risible as they are today) took up the call for a parliamentary system. In June 1991, ten opposition parties including the Ikhwan signed a 10-point joint statement calling for a new constitution that would establish a robust parliament with power of the purse. The 1990s saw a cascade of countless parliamentary proposals culminating with an autumn 1999 initiative timed to coincide with the referendum on Mubarak’s fourth term. Journalist-historian Salah Eissa elaborated on this 1999 proposal in his book Dustur fi Sunduq al-Qimama (2001). Like Tareq al-Bishri, Eissa drew on Egypt’s pre-republican political history, specifically the constitution commissioned by the Free Officers in 1953 but then shelved in 1954 when Nasser and his fellows decided to stay in power.

When Kifaya made its debut on the national stage in late 2004 as the embodiment of the anti-tawrith camp, it fused as no movement had before two strands of opposition to Mubarak: elite proposals for constitutional reform and parliamentary rule, and the strident rhetoric and systematic anti-presidentialism of the new adversarial press. Kifaya revised existing opposition proposals for a parliamentary republic, modernising them to incorporate new developments such as the judicial independence movement; one idea proposed that judges should lead a caretaker government that would organise fair elections to a new parliament.

As should be clear, advocates of a strong parliament aren’t just liberals, or Nasserists, or Islamists, or socialists. Debating who should rule Egypt cuts across this conventional and no longer salient ideological ordering. All those who advocate parliamentary rule do so out of the bitter experience of being governed by a president with unlimited powers. Naturally they differ about what type of parliamentary system they have in mind, but they agree that political power in Egypt should no longer be a matter of a few powerholders selecting the one man who will wield unlimited power. Instead, the citizenry should be able to select the few who will rule them (i.e. the few who sit in parliament), and those few should be periodically replaceable.

Hereditary Rule

The first thing to note about hereditary rule is that it began to be implemented and only later did its justifying ideas spread. Second, there is no principled argument for hereditary rule. All justifications emerged in direct service to the Gamal Mubarak project. Should Gamal Mubarak mysteriously evaporate from the scene, those touting his rule would disown their proposals faster than you can drop a scalding potato. I suppose there are those who pine for the pre-1952 monarchy, but they have no presence in public debate.

Designers of the Gamal Hosni Mubarak project knew that it was audacious and highly unpalatable, so first they had to have institutional cover. Thus the National Democratic Party was dusted off and repackaged as a real party, with nifty little organisational structures, specialised secretariats, internal elections, policy papers, oh my. If you have such a gleaming new party, the logical next step is elections so that the party can strut its stuff. So in 2005, Hosni Mubarak announced direct presidential elections and appeared in his shirtsleeves as the candidate of the spanking new NDP, and what do you know, he won.

But the institutional cover of parties and elections wasn’t all. The Gamal Mubarak project also fashioned for public consumption a few ideas for why Gamal Mubarak is a contender for ruling Egypt. A handful of sound bites were methodically repeated: “economic reformer”; “committed to the participation of young people in political life”. The New York Times chipped in with “intelligent handsome policy wonk.”

Among the welter of arguments for hereditary rule are the following, in no particular order: The expertise argument, that Gamal is qualified to be president because of his economic know-how and policy skills. The “devil you know,” notion, that Gamal is better than an unknown entity, frequently paired with a curious claim I heard several times, arguing in all seriousness that Gamal was “raised in a presidential household.” A related claim, packaged as a piece of popular wisdom, is that “Gamal is already sated so he won’t steal too much.” Then too there are the ideas produced by the shifty Gehad Awda, who in a 2004 book cast Gamal Mubarak as “Renewing National Liberalism” and in a 2007 book recast him as a “New Reformer.”

The cornerstone claim for the inheritance model is that Gamal Mubarak is the ticket to civilian rule. Peddlers of this argument frame it as a quid pro quo: accept Gamal as president, and he’ll deliver you from military rule. While advocates of parliamentary rule don’t accept this false choice, others rejoinder with the mirror image of the argument.

Military Rule

The idea that the Egyptian military is the one and only rightful claimant to rule appeared as a reaction to Gamal Mubarak’s steady encroachment on the presidency. In a series of widely-read, much-discussed opinion articles in 2008, analyst-turned-advocate Dia’ Rashwan called on Egyptians to support a military personage for president as the only way out of the inheritance scenario. In a portentous tone and deliberately mystifying language, Rashwan put forward a series of claims: first he set the scene by claiming “something mysterious imminent in Egypt”; then he coined the moniker “solid heart of the state” to refer to the military and to argue for its superior claim to rule; then he staked a position as a clear-eyed “pragmatist” and branded those who disagreed with him to be “noble idealists”; and his final flourish was a plea to the opposition to strike a “historic bargain” with a presidential candidate hailing from the military.

Rashwan ruffled many feathers with his explicit advocacy of military rule, generating insightful criticisms from such edifying people as ‘Imad Attiya, Mohamed El-Sayed Said, Nader Fergany, Farid Zahran, and others on the pages of the sadly defunct al-Badeel. What transpired was a remarkably detailed, frank discussion of what is and what should be the military’s role in politics. Rashwan’s critics didn’t just concentrate on his normative claim that the military should rule, they methodically examined his premises (that the military does indeed rule now but from “behind the scenes”), his rhetorical tactics (why the mystifying terms like “solid heart”?), and his framing of the issue (reducing the question of who should rule Egypt to The Son or The General instead of questioning the same exclusive conception of political power underlying both proposals).

Unlike the parliamentary and hereditary models, whose advocates are still energetically promoting their respective ideas, no one seems to have picked up on Rashwan’s explicit defence of a politicised military. This is puzzling because cryptic assertions that the military is the final arbiter in Egypt are regularly made, despite clear evidence of Mubarak’s methodical demotion of the military as a corporate political actor. Does the fact that Rashwan found no takers betoken public revulsion at his proposal? Perhaps. But I wouldn’t be surprised if the idea is resuscitated once zero hour arrives, or that a constituency develops around some military maverick, with a nod and a wink from influential third parties like the American administration. American governments have a longstanding fancy for pliable military strongmen running strategically important places.

The Irony

Breathless speculation over who will succeed Mubarak is the order of the day, but what’s the point of all this stale chatter? How on earth can anyone really know who will succeed Hosni Mubarak? The razor-sharp Ibrahim Eissa put it best: the question as posed may matter to the American and Israeli governments. But the question for Egyptians isn’t who’s next in line to be their overlord, it’s how to devise a system where citizens can install and remove their leaders.

Openly debating who should rule the country and how they obtain this power is now a defining feature of the political landscape, here to stay until a publically acceptable system of power transition is worked out. By upending the working system put in place by Gamal Abdel Nasser, Mubarak has basically invited the public to contest not just hereditary succession, but military succession and any other procedure involving a very narrow clique of deciders.

This doesn’t mean that Egypt’s citizens are on the cusp of choosing who rules them. Not soon and not for some time to come, alas. We don’t even come close to Iran, where voters periodically choose the group of elites who will rule them. It does mean that no system of rule is natural nor inevitable anymore, least of all Nasser’s model of officers running the show. Now everything is up for debate, every model of rule is subject to scrutiny, none get a free pass as the “most appropriate for Egypt,” “the most likely,” or whatever. Ironic, isn’t it? It’s the change-hating Mubarak who has ended up shattering the settled conventions for how Egypt is ruled, opening the door to the imagination of alternatives.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Other Egypt?

Bilal Fadl’s latest book has an attractive title and a laudable ambition. The irresistibly named The Original Inhabitants of Egypt: Stories about the Genius of the Place, the Idiocy of the Rulers, and the Indifference of the People (2009) promises to “narrate what I have seen and experienced of those human beings whom no one cares about, who harbour all the contradictions in the world and live in hope for a better fate in the afterlife.” Fadl has the credibility to pull this off. He was born into the category of Original Inhabitant of Egypt in 1974, his clever term for Egyptians who are neither rich nor middle class, but somewhere in the vast space beneath, what we alternately call lower-middle class, lower class, underclass, the marginalized, or the horrid “simple folk” (البسطاء). But despite his impeccable street cred, quick wit, and genuine affection for those he’s writing about, Fadl’s book falls flat. Unintentionally, it ends up being a condescending, forgettable series of ruminations about the woes of the little people.

Fadl is refreshingly honest about his “crossing over” to become part of the minority elite category, what he acidly calls The Inhabitants who Benefit from Egypt. He’s also frank about the irony that his embourgeoisement derives directly from his success at depicting the little people on screen. Fadl is now one of the most prominent screenwriters in Egypt, a trendsetter in the genre of ‘youth films’ and ‘shaabi films’, or rather, films featuring over-the-top, stereotypical lower class characters (with the outstanding exception of Wahed min al-Naas, 2006). Before that, he was a leading member of the feisty al-Destour team in its first incarnation (1995-1998), and he continues to be an editor at al-Destour. Indeed, Fadl made his name as an up and coming young practitioner of the Ibrahim Eissa school of journalism, a style characterized by pungent, ‘ammiya-laced prose; unambiguous and uninhibited criticism of rulers and their abuses; and plenty of hilarity to enliven the writing.

Not surprisingly given his current métier, the 29 essays in The Original Inhabitants of Egypt feature several stereotypical lower-class characters who the author presumably interacts with and then reports back to us readers. Inevitably, these caricatures speak in down-home, salty street argot, have wacky names and oh-so-eccentric habits, revel in conspiracy theories, and hold firm to the view that both the government and the opposition are welad kalb. Notwithstanding this unassailable last opinion, Fadl’s Original Inhabitants end up being extremely contrived, two-dimensional archetypes who we’re made to laugh at, not empathise with. They’re appendages of his middle class life, not real human beings with interests, foibles, and aspirations. Fadl regales us to “conversations” with the newspaper seller; his housekeeper Um Hind, who likes to call herself a “housekeeping manager” and yells at the TV screen when Hosni Mubarak is giving a speech (we’re supposed to chuckle on cue here); the fuul cart vendor, the makwagi, the bawaab, his friend’s chauffeur, unemployed patrons of a shaabi ahwa, and on and on down a list of stock figures from the underclass.

Instead of conveying Original Inhabitants’ work conditions or their emotional lives or simply straightforwardly narrating their experience of living a dispossessed life, Fadl parades before us a cast of made-for-TV stereotypes that we’re supposed to feel pity for. I understand that he wants to neither romanticise nor demonise Egypt’s denizens, a laudable aspiration, but surely there’s a better alternative than the mediocre stuff he’s penned here.

And an alternative there is, right in the same book. In a handful of essays, Fadl absolutely shines as a narrator and observer. These are passages where he recalls painful and hilarious experiences that he’s been through, back when he was an Original Inhabitant. One brilliant essay called “Why I hate Rahman Tables,” recalls a harrowing experience during Ramadan when Fadl was a lonely college student far from home. Against his instincts, he decides to break fast in the company of others at a local mosque; his description is one of the most outstanding tragicomic pieces I’ve ever read. It’ll make you laugh out loud while breaking down in tears. Another in the same vein recalls the first day of Eid when Fadl was a child, featuring the same touching mixture of hilarity, pathos, and startling insight.

The book’s last essay is a riveting piece titled “An Account of an Incomplete Popular Revolt in Heliopolis,” describing an incident that Fadl witnessed after Friday prayers one day in the posh Cairo neighborhood. The event itself is insignificant and routine: mosque-goers have a standoff with police who are attempting to confiscate some street peddlers’ merchandise. But Fadl’s beautiful description turns it into an eloquent, evocative allegory, one that ironically gives the lie to the book’s title.

These three pieces alone are nearly enough to erase the sour taste left by the rest of the book’s contents. Would that Fadl had dispensed with the reductive instincts of the pandering screenwriter, and gave free rein to his considerable skills as a participant observer and independent journalist. He could’ve written a perfect book.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Talk is Cheap

President Barack Obama made some stirring remarks yesterday about the suppression of popular protests against the election outcome in Iran. In respectful and admiring terms, he spoke of the Iranian people’s courage and struggle to decide their own future. He said, “We have seen the timeless dignity of tens of thousands of Iranians marching in silence. We have seen people of all ages risk everything to insist that their votes are counted and their voices heard.” He was at pains to emphasize that “the United States respects the sovereignty of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and is not at all interfering in Iran’s affairs.” For me, these brief remarks made at a press conference are far more significant than Obama’s ballyhooed Cairo speech to the “Muslim world.” I’ll save them to read again during the next major election coming up in the Middle East: the Egyptian parliamentary poll next year. (Tehran, 15 June, Getty Images)

The Cairo speech of 4 June was a ceremonious peace offering thin on policy details and thick with effusive praise about Islam and Muslims. Fine, that’s to be expected. Obama needs to inaugurate his term by distinguishing himself from George Bush’s maniacal and destructive Middle East policies. So he came to Cairo to “reach out” to the Muslim world, assalaamu alaykuming and quoting from the Qur’an. This is why I didn’t understand all the hoopla surrounding the speech, and all the so-called “analyses.” There wasn’t much there to analyse because it wasn’t a policy speech, it was a big group hug.

By contrast, the remarks at yesterday’s press conference are responses to actual events and portend concrete policies. The American president is responding to his domestic critics while at the same time chastising Iran’s rulers and signalling to the whole world that his government supports free and fair elections. Very good. Now he’s going to be held to his unambiguous words, and the upcoming Egyptian parliamentary elections provide the big test.

Recall the last elections in 2005. The first phase proceeded relatively smoothly, as Hosni Mubarak’s government watched carefully to get the lay of the electoral land. When voters spurned the ruling party’s hacks and preferred Ikhwan and other opposition candidates, the guns and tanks rolled out. Opposition candidates were obstructed and their campaign teams arrested. Voters were blocked from reaching polling stations, pelted with rubber bullets, and sometimes live ammunition. Judges counting the ballots were pressured or assaulted. Ballot boxes were energetically stuffed, and failing that, burned or hurled into creeks. Results were brazenly doctored, so we woke up one day and heard that the winners were the likes of Mustafa al-Fiqi, the dastard of Damanhour, and Amal Othman, the fossil from the Sadat age. Eleven citizens died during the elections, nine of them felled by security forces as they tried to vote. (Mansoura, 1 December 2005, AP Photos)

Recall the election aftermath. The whole world gasped and screamed because the Ikhwan netted 19.8% of the seats in parliament. Ya khabar eswed! Mubarak and his government swung into gear to make sure that this never happens again. In 2006, protestors rallying on behalf of wronged judges were brutally beaten and arrested, and variously abused while in detention. Later that year, the Ikhwan’s top leaders and asset-holders were arrested and referred to a military tribunal to deprive the group of its best strategists and bankrollers. In 2007, the government went for the jugular, rewriting the constitution to remove annoying clauses about judicial supervision of elections, minimum guarantees against arbitrary use of government power, and all that stuff. Then they wrote in explicit prohibitions against religious-based political mobilisation.

There, that should do it, no more opposition from now on. But wait, let’s not forget the 2008 municipal elections. Delayed for two years so that the government get a breather from the blow of the 2005 general election, when the time came, virtually all 52,000 seats went to the venerable National Democratic Party. Why so much fear about lowly municipal polls? Because the 2005 law organising direct presidential elections stipulates that any independent candidate for president must get the endorsement of at least 140 municipal council members.

Given all of the above advance preparations, it’s very likely that the 2010 elections will have none of the dynamism and sense of possibility that marked the 2005 poll. Aborting judicial supervision alone is probably enough to deflate the hopes of independent candidates and voters. Why go through the hard work of running or voting when the Interior Ministry will have control over the process? As we know, Egypt’s Lazoghly makes Iran’s Interior Ministry look like Mickey Mouse.

Still, in light of Obama’s forceful and precise words yesterday directed at Iran’s rulers, at least a portion of whom are actually elected, I’m going to await some equally strong words directed at Egypt’s ruler, who dares not put himself up for a real election. I’ll be looking for the American president’s condemnation of Egyptian police brutality and solidarity with citizens who “insist that their votes are counted and their voices heard.” And when police block roads to polling stations and break up peaceful election rallies so that the opposition doesn’t make gains, I’ll be waiting to hear Obama’s emphasis on “the universal right to free assembly and free speech.”

The credibility of U.S. policy in the Middle East will not be built on elaborate speeches in gilded halls and effusive remarks about Islam’s contribution to civilization. It will be based on American officials’ statements and actions in response to elections and their outcomes. I can’t speak for them, but I’d be willing to bet that most citizens of national states in the “Muslim world” care less about warm statements of cultural respect from American officials, and care a lot more about whether America’s government respects their collective choice in elections. And there’s the rub. When Iranians voted particular individuals into office in 1951, and Palestinians did the same in 2006, American power-holders at the time did not react so well. They preached free and fair elections but practiced brazen subversion because they didn’t like the groups that voters chose to run their government. (25 November, 2005, AP Photos)

The true test of the new American administration’s Middle East policy is whether it will respect the outcomes of elections, even when the winners are not America’s favourites, and even when the winners are against U.S. policies. After all, being against U.S. policies is not a crime and is not “anti-American,” and it won’t do to pretend that all groups who oppose U.S. policies can be put in the same basket as the murderous Osama bin Laden and his vile associates. Obama’s remarks about the Iranian elections are heartening, but the Iran case is too easy, because the American president is supporting voters who picked his preferred candidate. Obama’s words will mean something only when he speaks out for wronged voters elsewhere in the “Muslim world” who pick candidates he may not like.

Let’s see how the Obama administration responds to the upcoming elections in Egypt, where for years, voters have been trying to peacefully unseat some of America’s best friends in the whole wide world.

Thursday, June 11, 2009


Karima al-Hifnawy’s Diary of a Pharmacist (Dar al-Ain, 2008) is a work of quiet beauty and unusual restraint. Best known for her Kifaya and Karama activism and fearless presence at nearly every street protest over the past few years, Diary reveals another side of Dr. Karima. In print, she’s a light-footed, elegant narrator, relating her experiences as a pharmacist fresh out of university in the 1970s who chose to set up shop in a couple of small Delta villages. When I first saw the book, I quivered at the prospect of yet another elite intellectual regaling us with anecdotes of villagers’ quaint or backward folkways, an abhorrent tradition in Egyptian letters. Thankfully, Diary of a Pharmacist is anything but urbane condescension or didactic “observation.” It’s something far more original, luminous, and humane.

Barely 80 pages long, the book is structured into 19 vignettes, each rarely more than three pages long. They recount Hifnawy’s experiences interacting with village residents from the late 1970s to the 1990s, from her vantage as a medical professional dispensing remedies for all manner of ailments. Part of the great pleasure of the book is its writer’s genuinely unobtrusive presence, neither falsely self-effacing nor insufferably self-promoting. The introduction, just one paragraph long, is a study in the power of writerly economy. Hifnawy describes the book’s contents as “the reactions of an Egyptian woman pharmacist who lived among villagers for long years of her life, and they turned out just like this, with nothing added and nothing missing.”

The first scene-setting sketch, titled “The Train Station”, tells us that the village is the administrative node for seven surrounding hamlets. This privileged position was enhanced in 1979 with Hifnawy’s opening of her pharmacy, and then in 1984 when the village was blessed with a taboona to churn out ‘aish baladi, much to the pride and delight of residents. In a wry tone, Hifnawy relates the story of an enthusiastic elder who used to come by to her pharmacy every day to buy anything: some medicine, a bottle of cologne, baby formula for a grandchild. When she asked him why he encouraged everyone else to buy from her, the man relates a story from his past. As a young man, he banded together with other villagers to relentlessly petition the government for a train station stop at the village.

“We said to officials: we’re seven villages, and we have kids who travel back and forth to schools and universities, and we kept writing petitions and telling them how many people need this service. They told us we’ll build it, but if there’s no revenue from passenger tickets for the government’s treasury, then we’ll shut down the station. So me and all the other young men from the surrounding villages would walk three kilometers to the train station and buy tickets, not to ride the train but to keep the station running.” Different readers will draw different meanings from this story. I read it as a poignant and terse summation of a universal story: humble people’s resourceful extraction of basic services from apathetic governments.

Other vignettes describe various rural conditions, norms, and practices, but not in the remote analytical language of social science. Nor does Hifnawy pretend to “give voice” to ordinary people. Her words and opinions are clearly expressed, her criticisms matter-of-factly and calmly conveyed. I can’t quite describe this stance except to call it human grace. This comes to the fore most clearly in Hifnawy’s interactions with village midwives, women who are privy to residents’ most intimate secrets. Such material is not easily handled without salaciousness or voyeurism, but there’s none of that here, only the stories of women protecting other women from vengeful social codes.

There are plenty of lighthearted vignettes that don’t carry social commentary but simply relate the extraordinary stories of ordinary people, such as Fattheyya the vegetable peddler who must get back to work three days after giving birth to her eighth child, to support her children and disabled husband, a tuberculosis-afflicted shoe shiner. There’s a hilarious encounter between Hifnawy and some villagers after rumour spread that she was a communist, and an extremely moving story about a proud elderly woman who gifted the pharmacist with fresh eggs from her only chicken.

Diary of a Pharmacist recalls two canonical works in Egyptian letters that depict the encounter between the urbane intellectual and the rural poor: Tawfiq al-Hakim’s Diary of a Prosecutor in the Countryside (1942) and Nawal al-Saadwai’s Memoirs of a Woman Doctor (1958), both fictionalised accounts based on the authors’ experiences. But it is distinguished from these two texts both in form and substance. Hifnawy’s writing is minimalist and almost fragmentary, Hakim and Saadawi’s prose is more elaborate and garrulous. Substantively, Hakim and Saadawi are far more self-centered and self-regarding than Hifnawy, with an explicit project of societal critique and reform. Hifnawy is no less committed to social change, but she has the self-awareness not to grandly insert herself as the enlightened reformer uplifting the hapless natives. Hifnawy loves the villagers and they love her back.

If Hifnawy’s book simply defied the “oh-let’s-pity-the-poor-people” attitude so ingrained in how we speak about poor citizens (when we mention them at all), it will have done an immense service. But it does much more. As a writer, her precise prose is a refreshing reminder of the power of words. As a social critic, Hifnawy is at once respectful of people’s beliefs without necessarily validating the cruel traditions governing their lives. As an activist, Hifnawy doesn’t let anyone off the hook with comforting bromides about “giving voice to the voiceless”, or nationalist bombast aestheticizing poverty as “authenticity.” This little book shows us humans living in unjust conditions, and asks: when will these human beings become full citizens?

Friday, April 17, 2009

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Wages of Mubarak's "Realism"

Like many others, I’ve been watching in disbelief as the Egyptian government enables the Israeli destruction of Gaza. This time, Hosni Mubarak and his foreign policy muwazafeen have entirely thrown in their lot with Israel and the U.S., blaming Hamas, admitting that they can’t lift a finger without Israeli permission, and hoping that Israel will get the job done this time and extinguish Hamas once and for all. But as obscene and repugnant as his current stance is, Mubarak’s behaviour is of a piece with his foreign policy posture since he succeeded Sadat. That posture is based on a simple formula: “realism”, which translates into equating his interests with those of Israel and the United States, in exchange for scraps of economic rent; and revamped authoritarianism, which translates into repressing anyone who dares to challenge his realism and imagine alternatives. (Landing in Saudi Arabia, 13 January)

In the early years of his tenure, Mubarak didn’t stray from the substance of Sadat’s policies but did steer clear of his predecessor’s flamboyance and increasingly unhinged demeanour. He tried to appear firm with the Israelis, recalling Egypt’s ambassador in Tel Aviv after the Sabra and Shatila massacre and holding out for international arbitration of the Taba demarcation, which bore fruit and Taba was returned to Egypt in 1988. As is well known, Mubarak worked to roll back Egypt’s isolation after its separate peace with Israel, and in 1989, Egypt was readmitted to the Arab League and became part of something called The Arab Cooperation Council along with Yemen, Iraq and Jordan. But Mubarak was always a loyal follower of the Americans, contributing troops to the first Gulf War and allowing US warships unconditional access to the Suez in the 2003 war. At the same time that he was reintegrating Egypt into the Arab fold, Mubarak was also preaching the American gospel of cautious normalisation with Israel to other Arab rulers and forging coalitions with domestic capitalists eager to enrich themselves through ties to the Israeli economy.

The difference between then and now is one of style and not substance. If Mubarak today has no compunction about openly aligning his interests with Israel’s, this isn’t a sharp break from the 1980s so much as a shift in impression management. Before, Mubarak was just as cooperative with Israel as he is today, he simply invested more energy in rhetoric to hide this fact.
Today, he’s lost interest in keeping up appearances, and seems perfectly comfortable being a tinpot autocrat with nothing more on his mind than keeping his patrons happy and his population cowed. A series of developments starting around 2000 have driven Mubarak to this point. Three events in particular are relevant: Hizballah driving Israel out of southern Lebanon; Bashar al-Assad inheriting power in Syria; and the outbreak of the second Intifada.

The regional rise of Hizballah (and later Hamas) and the breakdown of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations cast doubt as never before on the supposed futility of standing up to Israel. Refusing to challenge Israel is part and parcel of the so-called moderate worldview embraced by Arab governments, including Fatah, who are willing to make all the concessions on Israel and America’s terms. By contrast, Hizballah’s routing of Israeli forces buoyed the positions of the two Islamist organisations and most of Arab public opinion. This stance is premised on treating Israel as an interlocutor, not an invincible power, and demanding that it make real concessions of its own. For Mubarak, Abdallah in Jordan, the Sauds, and Mohamed VI of Morocco, the Hizballah victory and the outbreak of the second intifada were very bad news, exposing these incumbents’ political dependency and crediting the alternatives promoted by their political rivals.

The reason why Bashar al-Assad’s assumption of power is significant is that it came at a time when the question of succession preoccupied the Mubaraks (Hosni and wife). They became intrigued by the Syrian innovation of republican power inheritance and soon began to apply it at home. As Mubarak (and wife) became more engrossed in engineering the handover of power to the son and preparing the domestic political arena for the transfer, he became less and less able to package his foreign policy as protecting Egypt’s national interests or serving as a credible counterweight to Israel. This is because Gamal Mubarak’s domestic rise went hand in hand with economic and political rapprochement with Israel. Cronies of the Mubarak family signed 15-year deals to sell Egyptian natural gas to Israel, and inked QIZ protocols allowing free access to U.S. markets contingent on Israeli input into the exports. On the foreign policy front, the story of Gamal Mubarak is the story of how the Egyptian government ceased to promote a broadly defined Egyptian national interest and worked to promote a narrowly defined ruling class interest organically bound up with Israeli interests.

Observe Mubarak’s behavior during subsequent regional developments: Sharon’s 2002 reoccupation of the West Bank; the United States’ 2003 invasion of Iraq; Israel’s 2004 incursion into Rafah; the January 2006 Palestinian elections and subsequent Israeli-American attempts to bring down the Hamas government and foment a Palestinian civil war; the summer 2006 Israeli bombardment of Lebanon; Hamas’ 2007 seizure of power in Gaza to pre-empt a Fatah coup; and Israel’s November 4 attack on Gaza. On each of these occasions, Mubarak took no independent initiative to assert Egypt’s role, remaining resolutely within the acceptable parameters set by the U.S. and Israel. Sure, he recalled the Egyptian ambassador to Tel Aviv in 2000 and emitted feeble gestures of opposition to the Iraq war in 2003, but with the approval of his patrons, who fully understand the necessity of these noises for domestic consumption. Mubarak also ventriloquised the U.S. and Israel, painting Hamas and Hizballah as irrational and reflexively violent surrogates of Iran, seeking to sow destruction in the region. He stepped aside and bunkered himself in Sharm al-Sheikh as other powers like Saudi Arabia (and now Turkey) stepped in to become credible regional mediators.

To be fair, Mubarak did sometimes take initiatives, such as when he makes sure that his police forces beat, arrest, and harass those citizens who dare express outrage at his behavior. (Protest in Cairo, 2 January)

I’ve heard a lot of people say that Mubarak should make a bold move now, like halt the sale of Egyptian natural gas to Israel or open the Rafah crossing to recoup his legitimacy, gain popular support, mend his self-respect, restore Egypt’s regional clout, or what have you. But why on earth should we expect Mr Mubarak to have a conversion experience late in life and do something absolutely out of character? He’s never believed in domestic popular legitimacy, that’s why he hates Hamas so much. And he fundamentally does not believe in contradicting U.S. or Israeli actions, ever, even if this means that hundreds of unarmed Palestinians die in batches every few months because Israel decides to punish them for electing Hamas and not Fatah. Free and fair elections are a very dangerous thing, you see. They bring to power the wrong kind of people, the kind who think they have a choice. (Protest in Amman, 13 January)

*AP Photos