Thursday, 13 December 2012

The Four Futures of Egypt

Looking into Egypt's coming years, I see no sign of Iraq, Iran or Saudi Arabia and certainly none of Lebanon.

Four other countries do loom though depending on the interactions between the key players on Egypt's political playground.

Briefly these players are: the army, the "Islamists", the "revolutionaries", the "liberals", Mubarak regime remnants and of course the 40 million or so Egyptians who belong to none of these teams. (Inverted commas indicate the caricaturish nature of these groupings).

I will purposefully ignore the 40 million spectators, because they do little more than cheer when a goal is scored or scream foul when the referee makes a poor call.

Here are the four countries Egypt may metamorphose into. They are in no particular order. Parallels may not be exact, but the form and flavour are clearly there.

Scenario 1: Islamists "win"

Should the MB led government manage to hunker down and ride the storm then align with the army and together either co-opt or "remove" the liberals, revolutionaries and old regime die-hards from the scene, we are likely moving in the direction of Pakistan.

That's where a quasi-Islamic government leads the country with the army, intelligence apparatus and security forces in tow. What little opposition exists, does so in silence and/or impotence. Presidents and prime ministers come and go but the general picture remains the same. While some may romanticise  the idea of an Islamic and nuclear Egypt, others may dread the collusion of army and semi-theocracy.

 2: MB et al wake up and smell the revolution. Revolutionaries wake up and smell reality.

It is also possible that the current spate of unrest will end up with no clear winner. This may lead to a moderation of all positions. The FJP could decide it is wiser and more profitable to reach out to other players. The liberals/revolutionaries could decide it is best to accept the fact that in any popular vote, the Islamists likely have the upper hand - having started grass-roots work decades ago. The army will most likely take a neutral position in such a situation assuming its most critical demands are met. Naturally this is the scenario least favoured by remnants of the old regime. A conciliation among current conflicting parties means they have no crack to place a wedge in. Should all these "ifs, coulds, mays and mights" come to life, we are likely moving in the direction of Turkey.

That is where a moderately Islamic, ostensibly secular government shares some power with the liberal secular Kemalist parties and both keep the army at bay.

Scenario 3: Revolutionaries "win"

Should the current turmoil lead to the overthrow of President Morsy by the revolutionaries, liberals and Mubarak's remnants through continuous demonstrations, large scale civil disobedience and low but consistent and rising levels of violence, Egypt may turn into the Algeria of yester-decade.

It is there that the Islamic Salvation Front party was leading first round parliamentary elections but was denied its impending win and democratic right to govern. "Les generalles d'Algerie", through the National Liberation Front, were neither neutral enough to stay off the pitch nor adventurous enough to stage a full-fledged military coup and decided to cancel further election rounds.

The disgruntled Islamists, having played by the rules only to have them changed halfway, waged a guerrilla war on the government and the army. The army and the various security forces fought back. This led to a decade of violence between the state and the Islamists with deaths on both sides totalling an estimated 2% of the population. For Egypt that translates to some 1.6 million dead.

Scenario 4: Nobody wins. Chaos. Army intervenes.

It is also possible that none of the previous scenarios will come into play. Perhaps the MB will not be able to weather the storm but the revolutionaries/liberals/Mubarakists will be unable to wrest power from them. Maybe neither side will moderate their position and explore the middle ground. Those yearning for a return to Mubarak's Egypt would love to see such a scenario unfold. Their interests would go unharmed, they will revive their pre-revolution situations and all's well that ends well. To push in this direction they could well foster continuous unrest on Egypt's streets, more bloodshed, more deterioration in the economic and security situations hoping that at some point, the army will yell: "Enough!"

Should that happen, it will not be for the first time since the January 25th revolution. Last time round, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces was forced into a temporary caretaker governor position and decided to honour "temporary".

If the messiness continues they may intervene on a somewhat less short-term basis. Should that happen, we will be moving in the direction of rather familiar territory. The country we will most resemble in this scenario is geographically identical to ours, it has the same composition of political players, the same economic problems and the same history. The only difference is temporal. That country is Egypt 1952.

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Five Facts Beyond Good and Bad. SCARY

Much has been - and I am sure, will be - said written of the rights and wrongs of the past two years. And much has been and will be said about who's to blame and what could have been or should have been, if only this or that.

But with the political scene in Egypt as it is, with opposing groups taking unbridgeable opposing stands, how this is relevant at this dangerous juncture is beyond me. Who did what to whom and who to blame for what is irrelevant. 

Who is responsible now though, is very clear.

Responsibility lies with the President. The buck stops with him. He who took it upon himself to guide Egypt into the future.

As things stand right now, that future is scary.

Not because the liberals may never unite and stop bickering and get themselves organized; sooner or later, they probably will. And not because the MB et al will turn Egypt into Afghanistan/Pakistan/Iran/Saudi Arabia; they probably won't. Not even because we are moving blindly, but at full speed, towards a more-likely-than-not soon-to-be-approved constitution which many are unhappy with and which by most reasonable accounts is not what post-revolution Egypt had hoped for and deserves.

All of the above is just more material for discourse i.e. not scary. More discussion, more blame throwing, more endless eloquent lines added to each side's argument. It doesn’t scare me.

What does scare me is the extreme and deepening polarization in my country.

We are at a point where on one side some are calling for boycotting MB owned businesses – yes, a la Israel-aimed Palestinian BDS movement - while on the other, some are advising liberals who dislike the way things are to leave - as if Egypt were their private club and not all of our country. 

This is not a sustainable situation. We have to learn to live with, talk to and (I dare dream) cooperate with each other.

The deeper these positions get entrenched - and all evidence points in that direction - the harder it will be for them to get de-trenched. And de-trenched they will have to be, regardless of who "wins".

The following five facts necessitate de-trenchment. 

1. Neither side is going away any time soon.

What both sides seem to be thinking is that by "winning" they will somehow eradicate the opposition. Just before the presidential elections, happy rumours were raging among the Shafik crowd that as soon as he wins, there will be a massacre of MB leadership and survivors will be thrown back into jail "where they belong".

Likewise among the MB/Salafists many believe that once the referendum is over (and they win), the liberals will just shut up and/or disappear. As if the mere cosmetic of an approved constitution will lead to change in people's minds and dreams.

You know what? It's not happening. We're all here to stay.

2. Both sides have sincere hopes and beliefs

Through a steady "demonization of the other" process, both sides now fail to understand that "the others" are sincere in their positions. Being lucky enough to have (and unlucky enough to have lost a few) friends on both sides, I can assure you this is true.

On the one hand, the MB and their supporters have a sincere belief that if only we were to have an Islamic constitution, things will get better for all of us (there are strong theological - let alone logical - arguments against this, but this is not the venue for them).

On the other, the liberals point to the prosperity of secular nations and the failure of theocracies worldwide as evidence of the veracity of their claims (again, there are many arguments against this line of thinking, and again, this is not the venue for them). 

You know what? It is as impossible to expect a Salafy to forget about Sharia as it is to ask a liberal to forget about personal freedoms. (Between you and me and imho, the two platitudes are just about completely compatible).

3. This is Egypt! Accept it

Whether or not we like it, Egypt is home to both these sets of Egyptians. The "MB can only win votes by handing out oil and sugar" mantra may or may not be true, but its truth or lack of it are  irrelevant. The fact is some  40% of the population lives on less than $2 a day, and any time you give such a person a jerry-can of oil and a few kilograms of sugar you're a good guy. Similarly the silly question "what ill has God ever done to you that makes you hate his Sharia?" is equally irrelevant. Many Egyptians want the freedom to decide their level of religiosity or lack of it without it being mandated by law. 

Egypt, as has been made crystal clear over the past 24 months, houses us all. 

4. The Economy is a Time Bomb

Of all the statistics that came out of the presidential elections, the one that scared me most was the 50% of eligible voters who never even bothered to go to the polling stations.

Think about this for a second please.

This was the first ever presidential election in the 7,000 year history of Egypt and half those allowed to vote couldn't care less. Barring the thousands (or hundreds of thousands) who decided to boycott, the rest of that 50% is people who are apathetic to the outcome. 

This is the 50% who could care less whether Sharia is applied or whether the constitution specifically mentions Baha'i rights or whether the President is from the MB, the army or whether we even restore the monarchy. They are living hand-to-mouth and so long as there's enough in the hand to fill the mouth, they will neither participate nor, crucially, complain. 

But, and here's the biter, the hand in these last couple of years, hasn't been earning enough to fill the mouth and soon (I hope I am wrong), those who cannot put food on their tables will become angry. Nobody wants to see that.

More pragmatically, nobody will be able to do anything to stop their anger should it erupt.

5. Morsy is an elected President

For better or worse, this is an undeniable fact. He may have won by the slimmest of margins, and there are even claims of foul play, but the fact remains. Dr. Morsy is our first ever elected President. The success of any stupid adventure aimed at removing him without due process will be disastrous. I am happy to report that to date his wisest opponents have not set this as their goal.

His being an elected President doesn't just mean we need to respect the democratic process (flawed as it may have been) which brought him into power.

What it means is that ultimately, he is responsible for closing the schisms which are widening by the day. He must offer confidence building measures (yes we're flat in the middle of conflict-resolution linguistic territory now) to his opponents. He needs to reach out to those who see him and his clan as tyrants in the making and reassure them with concrete steps.

Such steps might look like this:

A.   Given the sweeping powers he has given himself, Morsy can and should alter the acceptance threshold for the Constitutional referendum from 50% to 67%. This is a constitution, 50.0001% just doesn't cut it.
B.    Voting should be Chapter by Chapter rather than wholesale take it or leave it.
C.    Define what exactly the limits are on decrees he can make with immunity/impunity. He has already vaguely hinted that they only include a certain level of decision. We need specificity.
D.   Commit to and implement a bi-weekly state of the union type address where he talks less and says more than he usually does. We need a performance report. What is being done, why, what is the level of achievement. Facts only please, no rhetoric

Such steps would go a long way to starting the dialogue which must be started. Tough positions can and likely will be taken by the opposing parties, but as President, Morsy needs to elevate himself above this conflict and send all Egyptians clear signals of neutrality, wisdom, foresight and levelheadedness. 

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Dear Dr. Morsy. My Conditions for Voting for You.

I am not afraid of the Muslim Brotherhood .

I don't believe you plan to turn Egypt into Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia and force my daughter to wear the veil. I don't believe that you will differentiate between Egyptian Copts and Egyptian Muslims. I don't buy that you will start a war with Israel or ignore Egypt's international commitments. It doesn't bother me at all that you were your party's second choice and I have no worry that the country will be run by the Murshed. None of these threats, for various reasons, rings true for me.

Furthermore, I am convinced that, with very few exceptions, all your party's changes of direction, actions -and  inactions - over the past 18 months were based on logical reasoning (albeit flawed at times) and were carried out with some tactical or political objectives in mind. I am even not unhappy about your cutting the odd deal with SCAF.

I am convinced that all but the most naive will not classify your behaviour as lies, treason to the revolution or broken promises.

I don't blame you and your party for chasing power. Which politician or party on earth doesn't?

You're simply playing the game. That doesn't bother me.

So you see Dr. Morsy, I am not even slightly Ikhwanophobic.

Yet, I cannot simply vote for you.

I cannot risk handing over so much power to one person and his group.

I am concerned that one body, no matter how benevolent, no matter how well-intended, will be in control of parliament and presidency. I understand that you will not immediately have much influence over SCAF/army, the Ministry of Interior, intelligence, judiciary and state media. But that is just a matter of time.

At the same time, I cannot with a clear conscience vote for Mr. Shafik. Not under any circumstances. Not if he were running alone.Not if he were running against the devil himself.

I am not yet convinced that boycotting or annulling are wise options. But , they may become appealing or unavoidable, unless a better option appears.

This better option is to vote for you under specific conditions.

Actions. Not promises.

Promises and assurances are no more solid or binding than political stances which, we all know, may, and sometimes must, change with circumstances.

Here are my conditions and please note, there is not much time:

1. Announcing the names of the 100 people who will form the constitution committee prior to the runoffs. These hundred people should include no more than 15 MB/FJP members and no more than an additional 5-10 parliamentarians. The rest should all be non-MB, non FJP, non Islamist. They must include constitutional experts of course, but also Copts, Nubians, Bedouins, women, revolutionaries, army and police officers, farmers' representative and union officials. It should probably include representatives of the Churches and Azhar too. This list must be announced to the people and guaranteed by SCAF.

2. Announcing, from Tahreer to the Egyptian people, SCAF, MB leadership and MB youth that in case you win, you will appoint the second and third runners up in the presidential elections as Vice Presidents, regardless of who they are. Yes, even if Mr. Shafik is number two, you must commit to appointing him as one of your Vice Presidents. If he rejects, then you must go to the next two candidates. The guarantee of this announcement will be a document you present to the Higher Constitutional Court and/or SCAF, signed by yourself and MB/FJP leadership committing to this and granting SCAF the right to enforce it.

I understand this is difficult, but please remember that even if the disenfranchisement law is not passed, even if Mr. Shafik accepts your offer and even if some of your supporters are angered by such a commitment  Mr. Shafik garnered 5 million votes in the first round which need to be respected and that you will tap into the votes of the third and fourth runners up who, in case Mr. Shafik refuses your offer prior to the runoffs, will both become Vice Presidents in case you win.

3. In the same document and with the same guarantees, you will declare that no decisions you make regarding all matters, may pass without the approval of at least one of your Vice Presidents. Similarly, no decisions regarding the constitution, national security and international treaties may be signed without the approval of both your Vice Presidents.

4.  Announcing the names of four or five non-MB/FJP technocrats, one of whom you commit to appoint as Prime Minister. The guarantee of this is negotiable but may be inclusion in the afore-mentioned document.

These four actions would give me (I speak here collectively for the millions of us who do not want Shafik but worry about an Egypt exclusively led by the MB) the comfort to go out and vote for you.

I would be comfortable that you will not (because you cannot) write a "majority" constitution, that you are willing to share power with two other presidential candidates who some 50% of Egypt has voted for, that there are checks and balances in place to correct you when you make mistakes and that you have done your level best to give me these assurances.

Clock ticking. Your move.

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Five Neutral Criteria for Selecting Egypt's Next President

Well well well. Talk about a rock and a hard place. Just about everyone I speak with is not so much choosing a candidate as refusing his competitor. A mantra currently being repeated is "I am not voting for Morsy, I am just rejecting Shafik," along with its opposite number "I am not voting for Shafik, I am just rejecting Morsy". 

Far from attempting the futile and trying to prove who is a better candidate, the bulk of discussions focuses on who is "less worse." 

For one thing, you can remove that emotional pressure of having to opt for the lesser of two evils, because there are other options. You don't have to choose Morsy just because you can't tolerate the idea of voting for Shafik, and likewise you don't have to choose Shafik just because you hate Morsy. 

You may boycott or annul your vote.

But if - like me - you don't like the idea of the boycott for a reason or another, here are five, non-ideological, Egypt-centric, criteria for helping you (and perhaps me) decide who to vote for. 

1. The Constitution

The only real guarantor of future political diversity and stability, human, civil and minority rights protection, ending of the police state and setting the stage for the development of a modern country is a sound constitution. Which of the two candidates is likely to help produce that? What process will each candidate propose/support for the formation of the constitution committee? Who is more likely to minimise the number of "special" articles favouring this faction or that group or this ideology or that power base? 

2. Freedom of Political Activity

To minimise the risk of Egypt falling under the hegemony of the MB or remaining under the control of the army, freedom of political activity is a necessary ingredient. 
We need to ask ourselves, who, Shafik or Morsy, is more likely to tolerate serious political competitors? Which one will accept the possibility of leaving power in four years, not just in person but as the group they each represent? Who will ensure Egypt can take first steps down the road to real political diversity? Who is more likely to allow forming parties by notification? Who will accept demonstrations and protests? How would each of them react in the face of a hundred, or a hundred thousand, chanting against him in Tahreer? 

3. The Economy & Social Justice

All but a few Egyptian pockets are suffering to one degree or another. Some will have to skip the new Benz to be able to do the Cote d'Azure this summer; others are desperately saving to ensure they can pay school fees in September and others still are struggling to put even one daily meal on the table. But make no mistake, the past 15 months (and the year of the global financial crisis and rising food prices before them) have taken their fiscal toll on everyone. Which of the two candidates can get the economy moving again? To whose call will investors from the Arab Gulf and further afield respond? Who will be able to address the grievances and howling stomachs of the estimated 20%  of the population living below the poverty line (income less than $1.25 per day)? Who is more likely to offer solutions to tackle sky-rocketing prices including basic food items? Who has a stronger, more viable, more balanced economic program? 

4. Fighting Corruption

It has long been my contention that if you were to distil all of Egypt's problems and then filter the distilled product and put it through a fine sieve, you'd end up with: Corruption. Financial, political, judicial and indeed across-the-board governmental corruption were at the core of Egypt and the Egyptians' woes. Which of the two possible presidents do you believe will fight corruption? Which of the two will promote transparency in the awarding of government contracts and in the judicial system? Who is more likely to have the stronger impact on rampant bribery and nepotism? Which of the two can tighten the legal loopholes through which billions are syphoned from state coffers to private pockets?

5. Re-uniting the Country

Last, but by no means the least, Egypt is facing several rifts, between those pro and those anti the revolution, between Islamists and secularists and leftists and right wingers. These rifts threaten to widen and if they do, there is a lot at risk. Which of the two candidates is more likely to reunite Egyptians? Who can narrow the gaps between disparate and estranged groups? Who can provide the leadership needed to put differences aside and work for a common goal? Which candidate, Shafik or Morsy can paint a picture of the future which all Egyptians would like to be in? 

I haven't a clue. If you decide, let me know.

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Presidential Elections: Two Thoughts

Two thoughts go through my mind when I see all these people lined up for an election WITHOUT a pre-determined winner: 1. WE'VE ALREADY WON! and 2. This is a game-changer for the Middle East.
We've already won because this was unthinkable a couple of years ago. Hosny would go (to heaven or hell or home), Mubarak Junior aka Jimmy The Beast would take over and we'd turn into the second monarchic republic in the neighbourhood (the Assads of Syria take the inglorious first spot). We've won, because that nightmare scenario is in the garbage bin of history, right at the bottom of the pile, underneath police brutality, arrests without warrants, torture in State Security cells, blatantly rigged elections, corruption nauseum.
History will not, in this particular case, repeat itself.
Not even if Shafik wins.
And let's face it, that's the only real nightmare scenario here. Another decorated military man with no more credentials than the ability to fly planes (building a billion pound airport on a three billion pound budget is no success) takes the helm attempting to recreate his idol's regime. Not a chance General. You so much as hint at putting a toe over that line and we're back to January 24th 2011 in no time. I suppose I should rephrase that previous statement, if his-story attempts to repeat itself, our-story will repeat itself too. Sharpish!
But let's briefly look at (only) the bright side of the other possible outcomes:
Mousa: Well-known to the outside world, he will likely succeed in quickly comforting Western and Israeli fears and possibly loosening Gulf/IMF/World Bank purse strings. Flexible (to use the euphemism for unprincipled) he will not take any stand which may antagonise SCAF, the MB or anybody else, ensuring more stability (to use the euphemism for stagnancy). Egotistical, he may well try and do a good job if only to nicely round up his CV.
Morsy: Spare tire or no spare tire (Morsi was only selected by MB as their candidate after first choice el-Shater was forced out of the race), the man has the greatest, best-organized machine in the country behind him. The MB/FJP's El-Nahda Project is arguably the most detailed and most realistic among the lot. He will have a (perhaps too) harmonious relation with parliament and for good measure MUST allay fears of MB/Islamic hegemony by steering clear of sectarian/libertarian land mines to ensure a second term for himself and match the success of his party in parliament five years from now.He is the only front-runner with a party and platform behind him.
Aboul Fotouh (my choice) is a centrist by all standards. As evidenced by his supporter pool (includes hardcore Salafis, liberals, moderate Islamists and strictly secular leftists), he is neither too liberal nor too conservative, nor too far to the right or left. He has an excellent opportunity to bring Egypt together on a moderate platform of civil liberties and economic growth based on bridled capitalism with a dash of social justice. He's one of us. I like that. No flash, no nonsense.
Sabbahy: How can you argue against the leftist in him with 70% of the population at or below the poverty line? (Well, you can, but it would be uncool). The man clearly has the worst off in mind and that's got to be a good thing. Besides, he (along with ma man AF) is the one who most comes across as "one of us". It would be a good thing to have "one of us" in power.
The rest of the runners, are no more than that, runners. No chance of getting into the runoffs,
So we've won.
The second thought is a bit further reaching. I can only imagine what must be going on in Saudi, Kuwaiti, Syrian, Sudanese, Yemeni, Moroccan and other Arab heads as they watch us partake in our elections. Envy? Perhaps, but probably also gratitude. we've opened a door which may prove impossible to close.Although there is a lot I dislike (and some I like) about Berlusconi, but the previous Italian PM did phrase it oh so well when after the ouster of Mubarak he declared "There is no surprise, the Egyptians are making history again."
And now I'm getting goosebumps, so I'll stop.

Sunday, 20 May 2012

Is Amr Moussa "folool" ?

The word "folool" has been bandied about for the better part of the last fourteen months and has served as a ketch all for a variety of sinners. Those who served under Mubarak, those who aided and abetted in the corruption of Egypt (financially, politically and even morally), those who benefited financially from their posts in Mubarak's regime, those who have a Master-Slave view of the relation between state and public etc..etc...

But the definition of the term has also been challenged. "Folool" to some minds simply means someone who wants the security and economic stability of  pre-revolution days to return at any cost, or alternatively somebody who given the choice between fascist Mubarak and fascist Islamists prefers Mubarak, or even someone who's just had enough of this revolution that promised so much and has, so far at least, delivered near nothing at all.

To many of us who believe in the revolution, electing a "folool" (by just about any definition) is simply unacceptable.

Over two separate coffees, one a few days, the other a week ago, a young intelligent and highly liberal friend and an older, equally intelligent and slightly less liberal friend said to me, quoting each other almost verbatim "I know Mousa may be the best technical choice, but I just can't bring myself to vote for him." They both had the same pained look on their face.

Upon probing I discovered that "best technical choice" meant the one with the most direct experience for the job, most recognizable internationally and most likely to lure back the investors and the tourists. So why not vote for him? I asked and both, again as if reading from the same script, literally word for word responded "I just can't, it wouldn't be right". I am assuming based on the rest of both conversations that they mean because of his long old regime ties.

Both my friends believe the revolution was a good thing. Neither wants Mubarak's regime and modus operandi back.

So what gives? Is Moussa "folool" or not?

The only smart thing must be to first offer my own personal definition of folool:

It is someone who satisfies three or more of the following conditions:
  1. Served for a lengthy period with Hosny Mubarak in a very senior capacity 
  2. Visibly approved of Mubarak's methods of running the country
  3. Gained financially from and/or contributed to the corruption prevalent during Mubarak's rule
  4. Has a proven view of the relation between government and people which is authoritarian, policing and superior
  5. Has an elitist, arrogant view of the majority of Egyptian people, sees them as ignorant and/or unintelligent, undeserving/incapable of entry into KG1 of democracy school
  6. Believes it was possible to reform Mubarak's regime and that revolution was not inevitable and/or necessary
  7. Contributed directly to the corruption of political life in Egypt and would again
  8. Contributed directly to the demeaning of Egypt's regional/international status and would again
I realise several of these defining characteristics are open to debate, and so they should be (especially in post-revolution Egypt). I also realise that some of the criteria are not conclusive enough. How does one for example confirm Moussa's views on the relationship between the government and people of Egypt? Well, one watches, one listens and one reviews history and then, one decides.

So here it is:

  1. YES (Mousa is Mubarak's longest serving foreign minister with ten years worth of tenure)
  2. YES (Mousa is on record saying "I know how Mubarak manages the country, I would vote for him if he runs for president")
  3. NO. Not so much as an accusation which is near miraculous given the amount of accusations chasing so many of Mubarak's previous cabinet members.
  4. NO. Actually arguable, he's pretty arrogant, but no evidence I have seen confirms that he would continue in this vein of "government as baton-wielding police force". Let's give the man the benefit of the doubt on this one.
  5. NO. Again, arguable, but nothing apart from the wiggling of the forefinger to prove this. Again, benefit of the doubt.
  6. YES. Refer to 2 above.
  7. YES and NO. Is being a senior member of the regime evidence of involvement? I'll leave it to you.
  8. OH YEAH! Moussa, like his ex-boss, is an adherent to the school of thought which basically says "Grovel to the Americans, their Israeli proxies and the Gulf Arabs, for they hold the purse-strings and more".
Final verdict: Moussa is folool, not as blatantly as say Ahmed Shafik or Safwat Sherif, but quite clearly folool. 

He's out for me.

Monday, 30 April 2012

Mona, We Don't Hate You

VIEWPOINT: Mona Eltahawy, Your Facts Are Wrong But We Don’t Hate Women

Mona Eltahawy’s recent article in Foreign Policy “Why Do They Hate Us?” (as in why do Arab men hate Arab women?)  fell far short of my expectations for such a widely read columnist. Not only as an Arab, Muslim man who doesn’t hate his mother, sister, wife or daughters (nor knows, or has even anecdotally heard, of any other Arab Muslim man who hates his), but also as someone with some insight (some 30 years of it) into the Middle East, having lived in Kuwait and Egypt and travelled and worked in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Libya, the Sudan, Iraq, Syria and the Emirates.

From the selected platform, title and subtitle, to the accompanying artwork, arguments and conclusion, everything about this article is, well, just wrong. Even the interpretation of the opening paragraph quoting Egyptian author Alifa Rifaat. Even, (yes it’s true), even the “facts.”

Let there be no doubt that on the premise of the existence of misogyny in the Middle East, Eltahawy and I fully agree. But that’s the extent of our accord, except perhaps for the natural consequence of that concurrence, namely the need to do something about it - presumably the purpose of the article. This purported purpose raises the first question/objection.

Why Foreign Policy?

Why indeed?

It is not a widely read publication in the Middle East, least of all by the very people we assume Eltahawy wishes to address. Arab women in need of emancipation and Arab men in need of hate reduction are hardly typical FP enthusiasts. According to the breakdown of readers for the printed version - 84% of readers are male (Do women hate FP?) and their average household net worth is almost $ 1.5 million (99% of all Arabs will never make that much money throughout their entire lives, let alone own assets of that value). The number of subscribers outside the US at large (never mind the Middle East in specific) is clearly so small it does not warrant a mention in their advertising material.

So again, why FP? Who is supposed to read this article? According to the same source, most are American opinion leaders and policy makers and shapers.

Had I been a conspiracy theorist (I’m not), I would have said that Philip Brennan’s intelligent and brilliantly analyzed response to Eltahawy’s article, as well as Monica Marks’ insightful commentary offer a clue. Titled respectively “On Arab-Muslim Issues and the Danger of Aiding the Neo-Liberal Colonialist Agenda” and “Do Arabs really Hate Women: The Problem with Native Informers”, Brennan and Marks argue, among other things, that articles such as Eltahawy’s provide ammunition to those who would further the “War on Terror...for geo-political or material gain” and support the “manufacturing of consent” by telling Westerners in general and conservative Americans in particular (read Rush Limbaugh et al), what many already believe: “Arabs and Islam are misogynistic; let’s bring them and their women democracy รก la Iraq”. There’s even a hint in Eltahawy’s article itself (if you’re a conspiracy theorist and I am not). Coming under Eltahawy’s whip, Saudi Arabia, she says , has the “double whammy advantage of having oil and being home to Islam's two holiest places, Mecca and Medina.” Oil and Islam, huh?

But let’s not assume conspiracy, let’s just say, articles such as this one may do harm and do no good, and in any case this conspiracy theory is not claiming to be fact. Which is more than can be said for the subtitle, which does claim to be fact and is just plain incorrect.

“The real war for women is in the Middle East” it reads.  Is that true?

 Every piece of information Eltahawy quotes to bolster her argument is, I assume, true. But here are some more relevant gender facts, ignored for some reason, despite them originating in, of all places, the very same issue of FP via Valerie Hudson’s infomaps:

Discrepancy in education: Half of the world’s women fare worse, or far worse, than the Middle Eastern ones. Girls in Sub Saharan Africa, India, Afghanistan, Pakistan and China (total population of these countries is about 3 billion or about ten times that of the Arab world) all get a worse deal than their Arab counterparts.

Inequity in Family Law – Apart from Saudi Arabia all Arab countries are on par with China, most countries in South America and most of Sub Saharan Africa.

Child Marriage Practices – Apart from Saudi Arabia and the Sudan the whole of the Arab world is on par with Western Europe and in some cases ahead of the US and well ahead of sub-Saharan Africa, Pakistan, India and most of South America.

Maternal Mortality – Most Arab countries are level with Asia, ahead of South America and ahead of sub Saharan Africa and India. On this particular statistic, Saudi Arabia is on par with US and Western Europe.

Polygyny - Apart from Saudi Arabia, all Arab countries are on par with all of Asia as well as the US both of which are worse off than South America and Europe.

Son preferences - All Arab daughters are more welcome than their counterparts in India and China (again practically half of the world’s population). Furthermore all Arab daughters are either as welcome or more welcome than daughters born into European, Russian, Indian, Chinese, Australian and even Canadian homes.

Yet we hate our daughters and wives?

None of the information quoted in Eltahawy’s piece is incorrect as mentioned earlier, but it falls so short of qualifying that subtitle.

Clearly the Really Real War for Women is in China, India and sub-Saharan Africa, consistently the darkest green of misogyny represented in the maps.

But please also note this: the Arab world generally doesn’t do much better on pretty much any indicator, gender-linked or not, not GDP/per capita, hospital beds/citizen, child labor rate, not literacy, not life expectation, nothing. We are for the most part a mediocre part of the world, in the middle or thereabouts.

But back to those maps. If Saudi Arabia were removed, the Arab world would rank at, or above, the 50th percentile in all but one or two categories. No better, but certainly no worse than about half the world.

Not to belittle in any way the suffering of Saudi Arabian women (although Eltahawy pretty much reduces it to their inability to drive and get into cars with strangers – incidentally countered by the fact that the men there don’t choose their leaders nor frequently their own wives- but there are about 13 million Saudi women to (generally far worse off) China and India’s 1.3 billion, almost exactly 1%.

Yet the REAL war is in the Middle East?

It seems to me, Eltahawy noticed this small, billion-woman+ problem, not only with the rest of the world but with her decade-long chosen homeland, and deftly brushed it aside with a simple “let’s put aside what the United States does or doesn’t do to its women.”

But allow me to move beyond the subtitle


The by now somewhat infamous naked lady with painted-on niqab was objectification at its most Western (one can almost hear the conversation - we’ve got to have a naked lady on this, it’s about women. But she has to look Arab Muslim. Errr...mmmm....grey cells in full swing! Naked AND niqabbed). I will not comment except to say that I agree fully with Naheed Mostafa’s verdict that the depiction is nothing more than “lazy and insulting.” Read the rest of what she brilliantly has to say here. Her analysis and reasoning are as incisive as they are inarguable.

Sadly, Eltahawy’s analysis and reasoning are both non-existent. She jumps from the too sadly very true suffering of Arab women to her conclusion: Arab Muslim Men Hate Women (and, not-so-subliminally, Islam itself is misogynistic), without so much as a nod to ergo. I read, and re-read and re-re-read Eltahawy’s piece in search of a missing link, but there was none. At one point she says “They hate us. It must be said.” That’s all I could find.

But there are more leaps and bounds.

About half way through, “Arabs” become “Islamists” and now it’s not Arab men who hate Arab women, but Islamist men who hate all women. Quotes from clerics, moderate and otherwise litter the article, but one of the most poignant is the opening paragraph, lifted lock, stock and sexually bored Arab Muslim wife from Alifa Rifaat’s short story Distant View of a Minaret.

Eltahawy paints a picture of a woman who, hating her sex life with her careless husband, finds “sublimation in religion.” It seems, according to Harvard Divinity School’s first professor of women studies and personal acquaintance of Rifaat, Leila Ahmed, that this is far from true. In her rebuttal Ahmed says the happily veiled author told her in a meeting that she found “joy in her religion.. In fact Ahmed says “I find it entirely unimaginable that Rifaat in fact shared, as Eltahawy assumes she does, Eltahawy's own sweepingly dismissive views of prayer and religion”. It seems then that Eltahawy has completely misread the author.

Is it possible she has just as sweepingly misread the men and women of the Middle East?

Apart from the articles quoted above, there have been several brilliant responses to Eltahawy’s article, some critical, some arguing different roots to the problem, some offering alternative solutions to what is undeniably a very serious issue. I point you towards the best I have read.

These are all by women, all Muslim, all Eastern, all free.

And none of whom I hate.

Ayesha Kazmi’s equally Muslim, equally American and equally female perspective

Gigi Ibrahim’s of Egyptian revolutionary socialist fame

And, last but by no means least, the consistently impressive Dima Khatib’s mona.html

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Make a deal please

Banking on typically uncompromising logic, Socrates chose hemlock. I salute his choice but cannot recommend replicating it.

But first....

As the latest gambits flew in rapid succession across the chessboard that is the Egyptian political scene, with Shater's check leading to Omar Soliman's stalemate, we the Egyptian people are now between an army Glock and a hardliner's face.

After months of opening gambits and weeks of  pawnish nudges - appealing formation of cabinet - met by knightly rebuffals - threatening disbanding parliament - parried into reprising ripostes - requesting IMF loan details - and so on and so forth, the gloves are now off.

The introduction of the equally regal Khayrat el Shater and Omar Soliman, ends the gentle, tactical moves (so gentle they were frequently understood to be the harmless quibbling of secret lovers) and signals the beginning of the end-game.

Now on show is a no-holds-barred, bare-knuckled, winner-take-all rush to kill. And assuming no fraudulence, we the Egyptian people, must stop spectating and pull the trigger one way or the other.

Our top choices appear to be :

1. A revolution-insulting, 14-month throwback to a stable, secure and secular sadism (Soliman reportedly offered the CIA a suspect's arm in response to their request for a DNA sample)


2. A potentially freedom-limiting, Koran-thumping, Israel-provoking, bearded boardroom (Shater sounds  like he's applying for leadership of an investment bank not a country)

I say "potentially" in Shater's case for a purpose I will come to in a paragraph or so. Hang on.

We pretty much know what Soliman means. His history and school of thought speak for themselves. His presidency would replicate Mubarak's with human rights abuses and corruption galore and little or no development on the democratic front. On the upside, it would send a comforting signal to our cousins across the Sinai that "plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose", and allow SCAF to maintain its cozy, regionally stabilizing relations with our benefactors in the US. Funds (IMF, World Bank, Gulf investors etc...) may well flow freely again, but possibly/probably into the same old pockets. On the street it would be chaos, with revolutionaries blaming Islamists, Islamists (violently) blaming the army and the bread queues getting longer and longer.

That's the Soliman story.

Back to Shater's hanging "potentially" (excuse the pun)

Islamist front runner Shater represents a body which does not recognize Israel and, despite assuring trips across the Atlantic, he has consistently and increasingly elegantly, dodged questions on his own recognition of the Jewish State, arguing his personal view is irrelevant given Egypt's formal peace treaty and his interest in moving Egypt's rule from individual to institutional.

We are not sure what Shater (or Mohamed Morsi, Aboul Fotouh, el Awa or even Abu Ismail) would really mean for Egyptians. Ostensibly, they are all (with the possible exception of Aboul Fotouh and perhaps El Awa) radicals in moderate clothing. Yet if you listen to the rhetoric, the right to the two Bs - bikinis and booze - is safe in any of the their hands. With hardliner Abu Ismail's exception, they all promise "a civil state based on Islamic broad guidelines", with only the slightest of nods towards the more radical among their constituencies.

If for no other reason than considering the next elections, any Islamist president would not touch personal freedoms nor minority rights. Hijab will not be enforced, usurious banks will not be shut down. In fact an Islamist government/president would probably focus all energy on the economy for the first four or five years after re-establishing internal security.

But the problem with Shater et al is not internal. After all, every single litmus test from the 2005 parliament to  the Constitutional amendments referendum and the 2012 parliamentary elections says the Islamists own close to 80% of the active street. (The MB only got 88 parliamentary seats in 2005, but were only allowed to contest the first round's 112 openings, and 88 out of 112 yields an eerily familiar 78%)

The problem with the Islamists lies abroad. Should they win, the pragmatic Americans may well deal with them, but it will be the cold discomfort of a forced relation, not the warm closeness of old (which Soliman's win would automatically recreate). More dangerously, an Islamist government in Egypt, historically and ideologically close to the one in Gaza and already promising closer ties to Iran would send shivers up Israel's spine.

History tells us the Israelis don't  grab a hot water bottle when they shiver, they get busy.

It is no coincidence that Israel claimed rockets were fired from the Sinai and threatened retaliation, albeit rather sheepishly, as soon as Shater announced his candidacy and then conveniently forgot the incident as soon as Soliman announced his.

And so where does that leave me and my 84,999,999 compatriots?

Well, in a nasty position to be frank.

Most seem unaware of the regional implications and see the situation as either:

A fight between the evil, domineering army and the puritan Islamists


A fight between the evil, domineering Islamists and the patriotic army.

If I were Socrates I would pick the unconfirmed evil of the Islamists (regional stability be damned), over the six-decadely confirmed evil of military dictatorship. But first, I am not Socrates and second, I have to live here, all the sage had to worry about was death!

I am not going to propose that we should base our vote on what Israel may or may not do, nor on our estimate of which is the lesser evil, the AK-47'd guy prodding you into a detention center or the man ending your dream of the perfect tan.

Either winner means Egypt loses and it looks deadlocked.

Several candidates with considerable followers have already announced their belief that Soliman can only win through fraud and have promised a second revolution in that case. A second revolution which may not be as peaceful as the first and which Egypt can't afford, literally.

At the same time, the army under external pressure and the threat of an Islamist stranglehold on parliament, presidency and ultimately cabinet will not sit by and watch Shater win.

Given the complexity of all the internal and external variables, it is not as simple as one will win and the other lose, we all shake hands and go for a coffee.

There is a way out though. A solution, which I hope the wise and connected will hear and heed.

A deal (dirty as the word has become) needs to be made.

In a clash of the two only real powers in the country, the only loser is the country itself, no matter who wins.

We need a deal which:

a.  Allows elections to run free of fraud. (Any messing about could be disastrous both immediately and in the longer term), and
b.  Leave the army in complete control of its national security responsibilities and its economics (they have all the tanks, so let's be reasonable)

Such a deal might look like this:

The establishment of a National Security Council headed by Field Marshall Tantawy or Soliman, and made up predominantly of military and intelligence representatives with a smaller number of  parliamentary National Security Committee members and an even smaller number of civilian specialists.

The NSC would be responsible for all national security related matters which the statute of its establishment would define. It would have responsibility for, under presidential oversight, of all national security matters. It would further be responsible for reporting to the National Security Committe at parliament on the army's budget. Finally the NSC would play an advisory role for strategic foreign relations.

A truly free and fair presidential election which all previous evidence says would lead to an Islamist in the Egyptian White House.

Apart from the authorities enjoyed by the NSC, all remaining authorities to be split by constitution between President and Prime Minister with parliament having the right to appoint the cabinet. In order to remove cabinet parliament needs a 75% majority ensuring no one party or faction has complete control over government.

This kind of setup seems to me the only way to avoid:

1. A clash between the revolutionaries, the MB, the Salafis on one hand and SCAF on the other should any monkey play take place to ensure Soliman wins
2. A complete and immediate withdrawal of SCAF from politics which neither they will allow nor Egypt needs
3. Any silliness on our borders
4. Complete control of executive and legislative branches by one body
5. Setbacks to the achievement of the revolution's goals through bringing back into the presidency what is essentially a reincarnation of Mubarak.


Wednesday, 21 March 2012

What's the Point of Electing a President?

A friend of mine observed once that he was born while Hosni Mubarak was president, graduated from college and got his first job during his reign, met his wife-to-be, married her and fathered his children under Mubarak’s rule and fully expected to die, and perhaps even (he added only half-jokingly) to be resurrected while Hosni or some younger Mubarak sat in Egypt’s White House.

But that’s all changed and in a mere 16 weeks Egyptians will, for the first time ever, elect as their president Aboul Fotouh or Amr Moussa or Mohamed Selim el Awa or  Hazem Salah Abu Ismail or Ahmed Shafik or maybe even Hamdeen Sabahy. In the past, Egypt’s presidential choices were limited via referendum to “Mubarak” and “Not Mubarak.” This time around Egyptians have a reasonably broad spectrum of candidates to select from. This fact alone is enough to inspire hope.

But Egypt’s future  president will have to contend with and manage such a long and complex list of ailments, from the economy and security to poverty and corruption; he will have to deal with  a high level of expectations from revolutionaries, Islamists, liberals, local and international business communities as well as average Egyptians; and he(/she) will have to manage such a wide range of regional and international issues that it would be unreasonable to expect him(/her) to make much of an impact on any of them. I would probably be more realistic to hope that by the end of his(/her) term Egypt will have positioned itselffor success in the next presidential elections.

The truth, however, is that the issue of whoever becomes Egypt’s next president  represents, at best, just a quarter of the challenges the country is currently facing. At least three other variables will have an equal, if not greater, impact on whether and how Egypt’s revolutionary dreams of social justice, poverty eradication and ending the twin evils of military dictatorship and the police state are fulfilled. These three variables are:

·         The system of government – whether it should be presidential, parliamentary or somewhere in between.
·         Elements of the election process itself
·         The relationship between the president and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF)

Since the collapse of the monarchy back in 1952, Egypt has operated under a presidential system, with practically all power concentrated in the hands of the state’s chief executive himself. The list of powers and titles held by the president is formidable. Many Egyptians, including perhaps, understandably, the Islamist majority in parliament, believe this should change and that the powers should be shared between the president and parliament to avoid over-concentration of power in a single branch of government. It is unclear at this stage whether that will be the case. This, along with the formation of acommittee charged with drafting a new constitution which may enshrine the new power-split, certainly represents one of the upcoming battles on the Egyptian political scene.

The specific powers of the president will be at least as important as his persona will be.  Or, as one political pundit put it: It’s is somewhat strange to be “hiring” a president before having a job description for him(/her). Will the president appoint the cabinet? Will he be the commander in chief of the Armed Forces? Will he have the right to dissolve parliament? These questions appear to be the subject of intense negotiations between SCAF and the parliament. The answers will have crucial impact on Egypt’s political future.
No less important is the process of electing the president. What Egyptians do and how they do it this time around is likely to set the future standard. Several elements in this process are neither regulated nor defined.
Currently there are no clear rules on how campaign money is raised, spent or capped. There’s never been a need for such rules. Mubarak spent what he wanted on advertising himself and, besides, there was never any competition. It is unclear whether such rules will be announced or whether candidates will be allowed to obtain and spend any amounts of money from any source and on any activity throughout their campaign.
Additionally, none of the existing candidates was fielded through an existing political party. In other words, voters will have no way of learning of a candidate’s platform and philosophy except from scripted TV talk shows. There is no mechanism for presidential debates between candidates as a way of allowing voters some insight into the their positions regarding various issues. In essence, Egyptians are expected to vote for candidates based on how well they do with this or that talk show host.

Media time is yet another unregulated electoral process. Whether state TV will offer equal air time and equal spots to all candidates remains to be seen. Given the lack of forums for candidate-voter interaction, State TV time is key.

These elements will all create biases for and against individual candidates, and some form of process needs to defined to ensure that the elections are indeed fair, free and transparent.
Finally, it is as yet unclear what exactly the position of the SCAF will be in a future Egypt. All the rhetoric points towards them removing themselves from the levers of power once the next president has been elected. But being in power officially is one thing and pulling strings is another. The SCAF’s multi-billion business empire and traditionally secret budgets, their historical role as the real power-brokers of the country, their close ties to the American military and the fact that every president Egypt has ever had has come from the military mean that it would be naive to expect the SCAF’s complete and immediate withdrawal from political life.

Whoever the next president is, he(/she) will have to deal with the army and its role in running Egypt, if not at the steering wheel then certainly from the back seat yelling instructions.  
The size and complexity of the tasks at hand, the split of power between the presidential palace and legislative chambers, the way Egypt’s elections  are regulated and the relationship between president and the SCAF  – aren’t these the issues that would need to be resolved before Egyptians head to the ballot box?

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Social Orwell

In all fairness, neither Orwell, nor Huxley, the other great English disutopian could have seen this global stupidity coming. Both assumed, quite reasonably, that the police state would evolve and start clawing its way into our lives, violently, forcibly, prying away at our privacy, until all was revealed. Two-way TV sets would be mandatory and would  reveal our daily motions even from within our very homes minute-by-minute. Thought police would invent creative tools of mind-infiltration to read our ideas just as they formed inside our stubborn heads. We, the wise, prudent citizens, would resist this invasive state, this wish-to-be-omniscient fraternal overseer. We would hide our actions and thoughts and protect our wheres as jealously as we defend our whys.  

How could they have imagined that a short score and a half years after 1984, we would willingly (nay happily, gleefully, sheep-among-the-wolfishly) give the world access to our daily routines, activities, pictures, friends, relatives, religious and political views and even our very thoughts, wishes, hopes and fears? How could they have foreseen that a day would come when so many would so agreeably peel off the remaining fig leaf of privacy and four-sqaurely announce to the world their whereabouts in real time?

No. In all fairness, they could not have known or guessed that what was once quite naturally considered private would become so public as to be the property of Facebook or Twitter, Google or FourSquare. So much so, that one privacy policy says any information given may be handed over without consent to third parties. 

Instead of the feared two-way TV, we now click a button, unforced and under no threat of rats running around on the inside of a face mask, which allows some obscure application developed by someone, somewhere complete, unadulterated access to so much personal data. Data so personal, that if a close acquaintance were to ask for it, we would likely consider them quite lacking in basic etiquette, gauche, tactless or simply rude and nosy. And you need to know where I am right this minute why exactly?

The question is now removed but used to be "What's on your mind?", now it's just called status update. What's on my mind? WHAT'S ON MY MIND?? Is it not enough for you to know who is in the photo with me and where and when and on what occasion it was taken? 

Yet, we, who have become so cynical in so many areas of our lives it's scary, are so naive when it comes to privacy, accepting the promises of the social media overlords, gulping down the lies that our data is safe with them. Even after credit card numbers are stolen and passwords revealed we still believe. Even when not a day passes without a formal half-serious apology is made from one or more of the new landlords of my data and yours, about this or that breach, hack or back door, we forgive. We're sorry, these pathetic apologies start, we made a mistake, and now every little detail about you is out in the open, immortalized on the web (in case you were hoping it would disappear into some virtual black hole soon) and of course searchable too (in case you were dreaming it might be lost in the deluge of over people's data).

But let's stop at search for a moment. Watch this please and dread your future. Of course it's scary that all our data is out there, but it's equally scary that the data coming in to our perceptive field is being filtered and "personalised" so that if you and I were to right this second punch in the exact same search term into google, we would get completely different results. Why? Well because as you just saw "A squirrel dying in front of your house may be relevant to your interests than people dying in Africa." Ouch! That hurt! Almost physically. No. Not almost. Actually physically.

One more example and I will move on. Have you noticed how Facebook chooses for you whose friends updates you get in your feed? Of course you could spend the next three years customizing your settings and get exactly what you want, but the nice guys in Palo Alto have created a little algorithm which goes something like this: yesterday and the day before Hatem didn't read the status updates of X, Y and Z, hmmm...that must mean Hatem is no longer interested in them, so I will no longer show him their updates. That is scary and pretty uncool too.I don't want some engineered algorithm deciding for me what I want. I want to decide what I want!

We are not only being revealed, but in a sickly self-feeding loop, all that is revealed about us, is being used to further deepen us into ourselves and far from the Internet being the wonderful, open, no-limit world it promised to be, it is becoming a self-perpetuating, narrowing down tool which is limiting our horizon, filtering, without our consent or input, what we get to see, in effect, editing our future selves as it were.

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Three Goats

I read the following parable a few years back. If memory serves it was from the Jewish tradition and involved a man going to his rabbi to complain about how difficult his life is.

Married with six children, the man complained that his income barely kept his family fed and clothed, and his house was so small he and his wife and kids frequently bumped into each other going from the one bedroom to the one bathroom they all shared.

The rabbi listened carefully, nodding his head in sympathy and finally, to the man's shock he advised "Buy three goats. Put them in the house with you, feed them well, come back next week."

Not used to much humor from his mentor, the man had no choice but to take him seriously. Being a good obedient Jew, he followed the rabbi's instructions to the letter. Off to the market he went, purchased the three goats and a few kilos of feed for the week and went home to a wife who was already at the edge of tears on account of the difficulties her life presented and who on sight of the three goats and the (clearly expensive) feed and after hearing her husband's assurances the goats would be sharing their already exploding-at-the-seams home, was driven over that edge.

But, he was a good Jewish man and she a good Jewish woman and so they persevered in following the rabbi's orders.

A week following the first visit, he went back.

"How are things now?" asked the rabbi, clearly concerned.

"Well, it is really very difficult," the man answered. "The goats cost me most of my meager savings, their food is anything but cheap, our house is turning into a barn, the smell is unbearable, and we trip over goats going from room to bathroom."

"Oh!" exclaimed the rabbi, seemingly surprised by this account. "You mean things are worse?"

"Yes," responded the man, not understanding how that was not obvious to his normally sharp rabbi, but instinct preventing him from asking.

"Then," continued the rabbi after much thought, "I can think of no other solution. You must buy a cow. House it with you, feed it well and come back next week."

This time the man was sure his rabbi could not be serious.

"A cow? A cow? A moo moo cow?" he wondered out loud, hoping the response would be in the negative.

Instead his rabbi smiled and nodded "Yes, moo moo and sometimes holy too. Now go."

The man again told himself that his mentor had always known what was right and followed the orders to the letter. Back at the market, he found himself a cow, bought it with the rest of his savings, purchased the best feed he could afford (not forgetting to get a week's supply for the three goats too) and went home to a wife who was at that very moment  tripping over one of the goats and who, on sight of the cow, duly passed out.

After reviving her, he explained these were the rabbi's orders and being a good woman, she acquiesced, although secretly she was beginning to harbor doubts regarding the sanity of both men.

Needless to say the family went through a hellish week. The cow and the goats didn't get along very well. They mooed and bleated angrily and on more than one occasion even tried to attack each other, but there was not much space to charge properly. For most of the week, the family had nothing to eat on account of having no money to buy food with and although the two more pragmatic of the children had taken a liking to the cow feed, the father, having committed to feed the cow properly, forbade them from touching it.

The following week, the man arrived at the rabbi's home certain that he would finally be offered an explanation.

"Rabbi, I beg you," he implored, "my life is hell. The cow and goats are all over our tiny house, they are defecating and urinating everywhere, my wife is threatening to slaughter them, for food if nothing else. My children have not eaten in a week and I am going to have to go into debt soon if things don't get better."

The rabbi seemed genuinely shocked.

"I don't understand," he began, stroking his beard sagely. "You mean things are not better, in fact they are worse? Am I correct in understanding this?"

Having heard a similar comment a week earlier, right before the order to buy a cow, the man was wary to confirm that things were indeed deteriorating rapidly. He was however a God-fearing man and nothing but the truth ever escaped his lips.

"Yes indeed rabbi," he said, meekly, expecting the worst. "Your understanding is most accurate. Indeed, things are a lot more difficult."

The rabbi thought long and hard. He gazed into the ceiling as if waiting for inspiration to resolve this poor man's dilemma. He closed his eyes in concentration as if seeking the inner strength to tell this poor man the solution which would end his suffering.

"It seems there is but one final thing to do. You must buy a horse. House it with you, feed it well, come back next week."

The man was too shocked even to voice his shock. Dejected, foreseeing the worst, he left to the market, bought the horse after pawning his grandfather's watch, bought its feed, as well as that of the cow and the three goats and went home. His wife, escaping from the cow and goats was at the window and when she saw him and the horse approach, did and said nothing. After all, what was there to do or say?

That week was significantly worse than the previous two. It was the man thought, the worst week of his life. Horses are not designed for confinement and this horse it seemed more so than others. It neighed at the cow and goats, and kicked and bit them more than once. It let its anger at its imprisonment be known throughout the day and most of the night. It ate the food supplied quite happily but apart from that did everything a horse could do to make life for the poor man, his wife and their six children even more miserable than it had already been.

The man knocking on the door of the rabbi the following week was a shadow of himself. He was visibly thinner, dark bags pulled his haggard face downwards under his sleepless eyes, the weight of the world rested on his skinny shoulders. He went in, sat down and uttered not a single word. Surely this time if he complained he would be ordered to buy an elephant he thought and smiled inwardly at the idea.

The rabbi, always a perspicacious man, did not miss the smile.

"Aha!" he exclaimed. "You are smiling at last! Things have finally gotten better."

The man was beyond responding and he just sat there, his shallow eyes unseeing sockets in his sallow face.

"Well well well!" continued the rabbi with obvious glee. "This is call for celebration. You must immediately sell the horse. Come back next week."

The man could not muster the energy to try and fathom the relation between selling the horse and celebration but as in the previous 3 visits, he was resigned to obedience. He went home took the horse by the reins, removed it from the tiny bathroom which it had occupied, walked it to market and sold it.

Having money in his pocket was a new feeling for the man and after reclaiming his grandfather's watch at the pawn shop, he bought some food for his family and even a small, inexpensive bunch of flowers for his long suffering spouse.

The following week was significantly better than the preceding. So much so, the man caught himself smiling once or twice, but quickly wiped the grin off his face so as not to tempt fate. After all, there was still a cow and three goats residing in his most humble abode.

At the assigned time he visited his rabbi, who on cue asked him how things were and when the man replied that there was a slight improvement now that the horse was gone and they only had to contend with a cow and three goats, the rabbi was evidently thrilled.

He ordered the man to sell the cow and return the following week.

The man took the cow to market, sold it at some minor profit, bought his wife a shawl instead of the one the goats had eaten and went home with a basket half-full of vegetables for dinner.

That week, he and his wife lured the three goats into the bathroom and locked them in. His children managed to sleep through the night for five of the seven nights and the smell, while still strong was as rosewater to sewage compared to the previous weeks.

Finally the week was over and he went to his rabbi, a small spring in his step, his belly slightly rounder, he had eaten six square meals that last week.

His rabbi took it all in at once, and without asking how things were going at home, hugged him close and kissed his forehead.

"My dear man, sell the three goats. Come back next week."

Doing as he was told, and surprised to find himself a little sad at selling the goats he had grown so awfully accustomed to the man went home with money and food. His wife was smiling after having cleaned up her house and put everything back where it belonged. A woman is always proud of a clean, well-organized house. She waved to him from the window and greeted him with a kiss at the door.

They had a wonderful week, the room and bathroom were tidy, his wife aired it out and the fresh smell of a newly cleaned house filled their nostrils. The children were no longer afraid to leave the room, there was no noise. Life could not have been better.

On his next visit, the man was beaming and the effect was not lost on his rabbi.

"So my friend," the rabbi began, a knowing smile spreading from ear to ear. "How are things in your house?"

"I cannot begin to thank you enough. You have saved my family. I don't know what I would have done without you."

The man left the rabbi's home, went back to his own, and, as every wonderful story must end, lived happily ever after.

BUT WAIT! I hear you gasp. Nothing has changed!

But sure it hasn't, and now I get to the point of my story.

This was not written to uncover the mysteries of rabbinical teaching, nor the horrors of animal-human cohabitation, nor indeed the wisdom of having six children. Not at all!

This was written from a purely political, purely Egyptian perspective!

This, in short, is what SCAF et al have been doing to us for the past year!

Think about it. I trust you will see that many of us are beginning to wonder when SCAF will finally allow us to sell the three goats and go back happily, gleefully to the very state we were in a year ago.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Identify Your Enemy

That Egypt is in a state of quasi-war is clear.

Hundreds of Egyptians have been killed. In football stadia, near the Ministry of Interior, at the Cabinet sit-in, in front of the national TV building at Maspero, Egyptian lives have been taken. There is polarization along just about all spectra. Information is scarce and what little is available is mixed with rumour and fed into media which routinely adds its own spice before feeding it to a public split among too many lines. A great deal of mistrust is in the air, between every possible faction and its opposite number.  And did I mention Egyptians are getting killed? So we’re at war, quasi-war anyway.

Every war, even the quasi variety, needs an enemy. Right now, depending on who you talk to, there are four prime suspects for the title of The Real Enemy.
Namely, these are the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF); the deposed Mubarak and his family and friends - either in collusion with SCAF or not; the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and their Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) and the revolutionaries themselves. The logic these groups of blamers follow is sometimes straight, sometimes convoluted but simply put goes something like this:

 That SCAF is the enemy is a view held by many, maybe most, Tahreer regulars. SCAF is in power yet has done nothing to accelerate the trials of the ex-regime’s men, nothing to improve the security and economic situation, nothing to counteract the strong and growing suspicions that they want to stay in power and nothing to exact justice from those who have killed Egyptians. Furthermore, SCAF has consistently blamed “third parties” for the mayhem without naming - let alone bringing to justice - these third parties. This, the holders of this view argue, proves complicity, conspiracy or worse, direct involvement.

Others in Tahreer claim Mubarak’s men (a catchall for family and mostly business tycoon friends) are the real opponent because they are the ones with the most to lose from the revolution. They are fighting tooth and nail for their survival and the continuation of a setup of which they were the key beneficiaries, both in terms of raw power and the financial benefits this has brought them over the decades. They are well financed, well-manned and have even foretold the current turmoil scenario in the infamous speech when Mubarak himself simultaneously threatened and forecasted that it was either “him or chaos”.

Yet others see the MB/FJP as the true adversary because they got onto the revolutionary bandwagon only to achieve their less than honourable objectives of political power through majority in parliament and have, after securing their seats, abandoned the revolution. Over and above the now-majority-holding FJP have not taken serious action to promote the goals of the revolution and have clearly made a deal with SCAF.

Apart from Tahreerists, there are millions of Egyptians who view the revolutionaries themselves as the real enemy. The argument is enough is enough; these people don’t know when to stop and are acting like a bunch of spoilt, impatient brats who have been upping their demands and deadlines as soon as old ones are met. We have presidential elections in a few months; can’t they just wait instead of their continuous demonstrations and sit-ins which are the root cause of the financial and security ruin we are living in?

Each of these arguments has merit. However none of them is correct. Here’s why.

When on the 25th (and more vocally and effectively the 28th) of January 2011, Egyptians took to the streets demanding “regime change”, we were fundamentally revolting against three aspects of our lives.

The police state: unwarranted arrests, routine torture and human rights abuses, security apparatus control of everything from university professor appointments to Friday prayer sermons and even bread distribution.
2.       Social injustice: income distribution, sky-rocketing prices, widening crevice between haves and have-nots, massive financial corruption and decreasing ability of most Egyptians to make ends meet, let alone fulfil their ambitions.

      Lack of political freedoms: Draconian laws for party establishment, looming handing of presidency from Mubarak Senior to Mubarak Junior, consistent and ruthless crackdown on any potential politically threatening opposition, forged elections

These are the core reasons why we took to the streets.

The four key suspects mentioned earlier, SCAF and Mubarak’s business buddies and certainly MB/FJP and the revolutionaries themselves have little or nothing to do with any of these grievances.

Until the revolution, most Egyptians had never so much as heard of SCAF. While the army is widely accepted to be no less, but also no more, financially corrupt than the rest of the Egyptian government, they have never had interaction with the general public and thus have no role in the enacting, enforcing or promoting the police state. Likewise their involvement in impoverishing Egypt and Egyptians is peripheral at most through their corruption but not direct in any way. The same is true of restricting political freedoms. While SCAF and the army were indeed the last line of defence for Mubarak’s regime’s stability, they have never been used to enforce his dictatorship.

Similarly there is no link between Mubarak’s business buddies and human rights abuses and similar practices. Their thieving and corruption are more closely linked to social injustice in as much as their looting left less to go round (this was billions of dollars worth of looting) and their closeness to Mubarak or one of his sons allowed them to break commercial laws with impunity, laws including anti-trust, import restrictions, SEC regulations, pricing and others. They have mostly though been rather tame since the revolution and financial scandals are decreasing on a monthly basis and in any case many are already either in jail or under investigation. On the third grievance, only a few of them were very directly related to political corruption and they too are jailed or awaiting trial.

Far from being involved in arresting, detaining or torturing Egyptian citizens, the MB/FJP have over the decades frequently been on the receiving end of such practices. Seen as the only credible threat to Mubarak’s regime’s continuity, MB members were routinely harassed by police and their leadership systematically rounded up and jailed before parliamentary and local elections. Likewise, MB have historically played a positive role in the social justice sphere, financing hospitals, soup kitchens and offering financial support for Egypt’s least fortunate. Their involvement in Mubarak’s political strangulation of Egypt was as proxy. Mubarak used the MB as a scare-mongering tool, both locally and internationally.

Finally, there is no case to be made linking the revolutionaries to any the three main complaints which pushed Egyptians into revolution. None at all, so I won’t waste time. People who believe the revolutionaries are the enemy are simply redefining the objective. Instead of a better Egypt, they just want a superficially stable Egypt and they want it now.

So who then is the real enemy?

Well, it’s the police, The Ministry of Interior (MOI). Or more specifically, the much-feared State Security arm of the MOI.

It is they who we meant when we were calling for the regime to fall. It is they who have the blood of most of the revolution’s martyrs on their hands, either directly or through the forever-lurking-in-the-background third party. It is they who have access to the thugs who have been wreaking havoc throughout Egypt. It is they who have used their weapons on us. They who have kidnapped activists, tortured witnesses, destroyed evidence, shot people’s eyes out and killed demonstrators.

They were the enemy during Mubarak’s reign, they were the enemy during the earliest days of the revolution, they are the enemy now and they are the key player in all three of our fundamental grievances.
If Mubarak was a tyrant it was the police which was his tool of tyranny, the thick stick which Mubarak used to beat opponents and indeed the whole population into submission. Tens of thousands of illegally detained citizens were routinely electrocuted, beaten, threatened with rape, sodomised and subjected to every imaginable, and many unimaginable forms of torture.  All at the hands of NOT SCAF, NOT Mubarak’s business buddies, NOT MB/FJP and certainly not the revolutionaries.