Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Protest Ascendant, Gamal Descendant?

The importance of what happened yesterday cannot be overstated. Defying a police ban after sunday's Ikhwan demonstration, Kifaya-organized demonstrations broke out in Cairo, Alexandria, and Mansoura. Kifaya's Cairo demonstration was prevented from marching to parliament, so protestors brandishing Kifaya's signature yellow sticker rerouted to the press syndicate. Police blocked Kifaya people from filling Manshiyya Square and confined them to the court steps, and then stepped aside as the square was taken over by a staged pro-Mubarak gathering (see this blogger for a beautiful account of the Kifaya demo). In Mansoura, NDP thugs attacked Kifaya demonstrators. General accounts can be found in the BBC and Reuters.

Brilliantly overturning all those tired assertions about the 'death of politics' and Egyptians' supposedly legendary 'apathy', the small clumps of demonstrators have breathed new life into Egypt's streets. It's too soon to herald a return to street politics; never underestimate the brutality of interior minister, city security directors, and police chiefs. But the important thing to note is that the costs of repression are escalating by the day. With all eyes on the region's corrupt, repressive elites, they are bound to think a million times before quashing protest in full view of the international media and the not inconsiderable pent-up wrath of their 'own' publics. I put it in quotes because I can't stomach the lie that we the people are tied to these thugs in any way. We didn't choose them, we don't want them, we sure as hell can't stand them, and we're trying hard to get rid of them.

The Christian Science Monitor should be commended for a fine story on why Arab democrats are anti-American policies, but not reflexively so. And a real political scientist, Mustafa Kamel El-Sayyid, bets on the persistence of Arab exceptionalism, a bet he says he'd be happy to lose.

As for the regime, NDP Secretary-General Safwat al-Sherif, a fossil from a putrid era, explains to us the importance of the 'preventative requirements' put in place for the presidential elections, "with the aim of immunizing this distinguished position from infiltration so that it reflects Egyptians' will and preserves its independence and capacities, without being indebted to money or external support." They don't lack for gall, these regime hacks.

A week after he announced that he has no presidential ambitions, the dull-eyed Gamal Mubarak has resurfaced in the government press, in his capacity as NDP bigwig and head of something called "The Future Generations Foundation" (his very own NGO, aren't we proud). For months the press hasn't reminded readers of Gamal's extracurricular interests; is this their way of "convincing" us he's out of the presidential running? Well I've got breaking news for them. Egyptians are nothing if not ultra-skeptical; we'll rest only when Gamal and his privileged friends go back to private life and submit to a thorough auditing of their finances, in line with one of my favorite Egyptian sayings: min ayn laka hadha? ("where the hell did you get that?").

al-Wafd's talented Amr Okasha

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

The Day's Harvest

A hilariously inept article by a clueless journalist paints Nawal al-Sa'dawi as launching a one-woman feminist insurgency "in one of the world's most female-unfriendly political environments." Oh my God, this just in: Egypt's political environment is exceptionally unfriendly to.....EVERYBODY! (Where do they find these "reporters"?) The writer quotes Sa'dawi as saying she's waging "a campaign to unveil the minds of people. I want to mobilise people to think, to see the paradoxes of society".

Now with all due respect to Dr. Nawal (who is an actual doctor unlike the many charlatans who go by that label), she really has to stop this line she's been plugging about "waking up" the Egyptian people. Anyone who thinks Egyptians' minds are "veiled" (the double entendre is beyond stupid) isn't worthy of respect, least of all a 76-year-old with her latest vanity project of running for president. I respect Dr. Nawal, her medical past treating poor rural Egyptians, some of her writings, and her general presence as a gadfly in our public life. I respect her most of all when she's at her most Marxist and analytical, and least of all when she paints herself as the only thinking person in Egypt and talks down to all of us "veiled minds" apparently unaware of the "paradoxes of society." Dr. Nawal, instead of sounding suspiciously like all those other presidential candidates claiming "It was the young people who persuaded me to stand," please do something constructive and selfless (for once) and join Kifaya or any of the other myriad citizen initiatives to unseat Mubarak.

Sorry to break it to Dr. Nawal, but it's unseemly for someone who's 76 to be running for president, however symbolically. Not because hoary Egyptians shouldn't run, but what's the point of replacing Mubarak with another septuagenarian who shows a disturbing contempt for the people they're ostensibly bidding to serve?

A decent article on the Ikhwan highlights the multiple visions contending for influence within the group's ranks, the first in a foreign newspaper that finally gets this basic point. The journalist who wrote this article at least knows what he's doing; see his challenging of the ridiculous Mohamed Kamal, "political scientist", Shura Council member (don't laugh), and Gamal Mubarak crony.

Speaking of bogus "political scientists," I've decided to start a "political scientist" watch to track all the lies these people think they can feed us (See my previous rants about these individuals here and here). Who are these people, and why don't they get a real job? Their sole purpose in life is to write articles about how wrong everyone is and how wise and farsighted the regime is. They also all seem to be really against a new constitution. Hmmm, can anyone else smell the rotting fish here?

The latest "political scientist" outrage: Gehad Auda in al-Ahram has resurfaced to tell us that changing the 1971 constitution is a really really really bad idea. Why? "The 1971 constitution is a vanguard in its texts concerning social and political freedoms; abandoning it is a big mistake and the whole nation will pay the price. Let's all hold fast to the presidential system and disagree about the logic of organizing the powers." Now you should know that Gehad Auda is the selfsame political "scientist" who wrote that book about how Gamal Mubarak is Egypt's best hope for change (the one with Gamal Mubarak on the cover flanked by all the greats in Egyptian history, including Saad Zaghlul, Nasser, Huda Sha'rawi). Now Gehad Auda is defending the presidential system with some byzantine sophistry about parliamentary systems being suitable only for divided societies. I've got news for Gehad: I remember my introductory political science class ages ago, and there was nothing in there about parliamentary systems being for divided societies and presidential systems for homogeneous societies. So Gehad, with all due respect, please shut up and go back to figuring out how to kiss up to the president and his son. You wrote an entire book marketing Gamal Mubarak's unique gifts. How low can you go, and how do you live with yourself?

I much prefer proud, card-carrying sycophants. Don't miss Muhammad Magdi Morgaan's latest masterpiece: "As a citizen who's lived through the previous life of humiliation and whom luck has befriended by experiencing the era of light, freedom, and democracy, I call on Mubarak in the name of millions of loyal and knowledgeable ones not to abandon us while we're in the midst of the ocean struggling with whales and whirlpools and resisting rocks and hawks, and to run in the elections and go through the experience that he has sown, established and raised."

I don't know if Mr. President has had a chance to see Mr. Morgaan's piece yet, he's quite busy. For five hours, he toured farms and agricultural lands in Sharq al-Owaynat "in connection with his extreme concern for monitoring national projects aiming to ensure a secure future for the present generation and future generations." In a harbinger of spring, the president inaugurated the barley and wheat harvest in the area, and there's a lovely photo of him picking a ripe, green guava, shielded under a canopy of sun-dappled tree branches.

Fahmi Huwaidy has written an uncharacteristically restrained opinion piece on the current hoopla in the US led by self-described "progressive" Muslims "against terrorism". Huwaidy interprets these as efforts to "fragment Islam." I can't blame him when professional Muslim-hater Daniel Pipes is cooking up something called the "Center for Islamic Pluralism" to shove aside the elected leaders of the American Muslim community and replace them with "moderate," "progressive" stooges. The "Center for Islamic Pluralism" opened for business on March 25, 2005 (they list no address or headquarters), and is directed by a convert to Islam named Stephen Schwartz and a roster of other shady personalities with no constituencies. Apparently, this is not without parallel in the United States. Max Blumenthal in The Nation has an article ("The Minister of Minstrelsy") on unknown black conservatives backed by wealthy white conservatives who make a living vilifying recognized leaders of the African-American community.

al-Ahram Hebdo has an interesting gallery of potential presidential candidates, some downright scary. Even scarier is that the names of Amr Moussa and Muhammad Hasanayn Haykal are being thrown around as contenders.

Nabil Abdel Fattah (a real political scientist as opposed to all the fake ones we have) tends to write the same article over and over again, but this time his intervention is thought-provoking, if only for concluding with the political elite's inexcusable contempt for the public.

In response to Mubarak's comments to Le Figaro, Kifaya has challenged regime figures to a televised debate before the Egyptian public. To coincide with today's planned demonstrations, Kifaya has also issued a 7-point program outlining "a cluster of democratic demands" in the name of the "silent majority" of Egyptians. A slap in the face of those peddling the virtues of our rotten and abusive presidential system, Kifaya's program calls for a parliamentary republic with a strict separation of powers.

Huwayda Taha has a hilarious piece on the fleeing of the president and his Kyrgyzstan. She also has a sobering, on-point rumination on why Hasanein Haykal has irrevocably and rightly lost his hallowed mystique.

Monday, March 28, 2005

Ahmad Zaki

Ahmad Zaki, 1949-2005

Actor Ahmad Zaki died in a Cairo hospital on Sunday, March 27 after a long battle with lung cancer. He was 55. His Cairo funeral drew weeping thousands.

Zaki was Egypt's greatest character actor and one of the world's greatest actors. He didn't have the connections or cosmopolitan air of Omar al-Sherif, but if he'd had similar opportunities he would've held his own among the most capable actors in world cinema.

A predictable onslaught of obituaries is hailing Zaki's "greatness" for portraying two past presidents and being feted by the current president (here and here), and we can expect more drama and antics from Egypt's acting community over the next few days. That would be the worst possible tribute to Ahmad Zaki's work, so let this be an alternative eulogy, not from a movie critic or an establishment scribbler but a big fan.

Ahmad Zaki was born in Zaqaziq on November 18, 1949 and graduated from vocational school there. He moved to Cairo and enrolled in the Theater Arts Institute, graduating in 1973. He came to public attention with his role as the scrawny, serious student in the play Madrasat al-Mushaghbin (written by Ali Salem believe it or not) and a similar role as the level-headed son in the comedic play el-Eyyal Kibrit. He was slated to play the male lead opposite Soad Hosni in al-Karnak, but apparently the film's producers balked at Zaki's skin color and cast Nur al-Sherif instead. As news reports are pointing out, Zaki did break the color barrier in Egyptian cinema, but he also broke caste, class, and political barriers, working with socially-committed auteurs such as the late Atef al-Tayyeb and Muhammad Khan and portraying an enormous range of characters from wildly varying class backgrounds.

Zaki moved seamlessly between stage, television, and silver screen. He became a household name with his portrayal of Francophile intellectual Taha Hussein in the serial al-Ayyam (with a haunting score featuring Ali al-Haggar) and from there moved on to a series of memorable film roles. His portrayal of the powerful and famous were not his "greatest successes"; long before he tackled them, he had made a reputation for himself as an exceptionally versatile actor, with his uncanny embodiment skills and empathy and understanding for the characters he brought to life.

When I think of Ahmad Zaki, I think of him playing the tragic lead opposite Soad Hosni in the aesthetically stunning Shafiqa wa Metwalli; the struggling student in al-Hubb fawqa Hadabat al-Haram; the wily bawwab in al-Bey al-Bawwab; the life-hardened hustler in Ahlam Hind wa Kamiliya; the smooth-tongued lawyer in Didd al-Hukuma; the menacing, careerist amn al-dawla officer in Zawjat Rajul Muhim; the glamorous, mustachioed Saidi fugitive in al-Hurub; the elusive shepherd in the claustrophobic al-Rai wal Nisa'; and the angst-ridden police officer in Dawoud Abdel Sayed's Ard al-Khawf. Above all, I remember Zaki in his greatest role: the good-natured, rural, filial security forces recruit face-to-face with a crushing reality in al-Bari'. Remember how the brilliant Atef al-Tayyeb assembled an all-star cast (Gamil Rateb, Mahmoud Abdel Aziz, Ilham Shahin, Mamdouh Abdel Alim, Zaki) to portray torture in Egypt long before it became an epidemic making international headlines. Could such a film ever be made today? Who would direct the actors to realize their fullest potential? And who would give us such a transporting performance of an ordinary, illiterate Egyptian inducted into the brutal realities of state-sponsored violence?

By the time he portrayed Nasser and Sadat, Zaki's best work was behind him, yet he pulled off convincing, entertaining performances of both presidents because of his uncanny mimetic skills and perfectionist rendering of every project, which he also brought to his last film on Abdel Halim Hafez. The descent into hagiography mirrored Egyptian cinema's turn away from probing searing issues of class and power to a gauzy rendition of the past and comforting reflections on the present.

Still, till the very end, when his body was ravaged by illness, Zaki was the hardest working and most talented actor in Egyptian cinema, heads above his mentors and putative role models. Unlike Adel Imam, he never succumbed to the trappings of power and the adulation of the establishment (talk of him portraying Mubarak notwithstanding). Unlike Nur al-Sherif, Mahmoud Abdel Aziz, and Salah al-Sa'dani, he never lost his creative edge, physical discipline, or perfectionist impulse. Unlike Ezzat al-Alaily, he was capable of a far broader range of human emotions and complex characters. And unlike Yahya al-Fakharani, Zaki transcended his own affable persona to embody some positively revolting characters. In short, Zaki never became the shell of a former self that these actors sadly did.

Zaki's hailing by the Egyptian establishment and Arab press is bound to glorify his late work and neglect the old, so let's remember him for his exceptional gifts and his refusal to rest on his laurels. Miraculously, he evaded the ambient mediocrity, triviality, and instant gratificationism pervading most cultural output these days. He illuminated hidden, maligned, and poorly understood corners of the Egyptian condition, driven by an artist's empathy and a citizen's sense of basic dignity. Like all great artists, his legacy will continue to edify us.

Mahmoud Said's "The Prayer"

Sunday, March 27, 2005

Presidential Preoccupations

In Egypt today, it appears as if one can't turn a corner without coming up against a pervasive public issue: the role of the president. It extends far beyond the person of Hosni Mubarak to the very nature of the Egyptian presidency and the hyperpresidentialism of our state structure. What role should the presidency assume? Does it have too much power? Is a constitution enough to limit these powers? Our ill-fated former president certainly did not think so. In fact, he had his own very original ideas about constitutions and presidents. As Ahmed Bahaeddin reports, Anwar Sadat told him, "Oh Ahmad, Abdel Nasser and I, we're the last pharaohs. We don't need constitutions to rule. I made the constitution for Ahmad, Umar, and ordinary presidents, they'll need it to get by." This came to mind when I realized that the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty was signed 26 years ago this month, perhaps the most fateful act of the erstwhile pharaoh-president.

I doubt that the current president can be so blithely confident. In an interview with the French Le Figaro, Hosni Mubarak made some noteworthy remarks about domestic affairs, including the Kifaya movement, Article 76, presidential powers, the Islamists, and the issue of selecting a vice president, remarks that as usual Egyptians have to learn from foreign newspapers rather than the Egyptian press.

  • On Article 76: "It's been under study for two years and I planned on announcing it in February 2004 but we delayed it because we needed to finalize certain economic reforms"
  • On Kifaya: "Certain movements are directed from abroad, we know this very well. But it's the people who'll decide in electing the president."
  • On running in the September elections: "It's a difficult mission. I haven't decided yet."
  • On the VP: "For some years I wanted to name a vice-president but numerous persons dissuaded me saying this will be interpreted as designating a successor."
  • On the Ikhwan: "The law doesn't authorise political parties based on religion. I don't prevent the Muslim Brothers from belonging to different political parties, they're free."
  • On Emergency law: "In Egypt, only the Islamists demand the abrogation of this law but I will never let chaos reign."
  • On presidential powers and term limits: "To the extent that the president is elected by universal suffrage, limiting the number of terms would be a contradiction of the people's will. As for the reduction of presidential powers, that would relegate the president to a figurehead role and the prime minister who would have power will be subjected to pressures he cannot face. The president of the republic is the guarantor of stability."
  • On Hamas sweeping upcoming municipal elections: "This is a phenomenon that does not disturb us, Hamas must participate in the electoral process."

al-Araby editor and Kifaya member Abdel Halim Qandil shot back in a stinging column without a whiff of deference that Kifaya has carved out the political right of criticizing the president, against constitutional and legal prescriptions. And he concluded with this flourish: "We hope that it's true that president Mubarak has not yet decided to run in the September elections, and perhaps we and others will invite him to take the decision not to nominate himself. Most vital currents of the Egyptian people aren't simply demanding an end to emergency law, they're calling for the wholesale end of Mubarak's rule. If Mubarak does it, the Egyptian people will rest." Note Qandil's sly reference to Kyrgyz president Askar Akayev's fleeing the country in the face of popular protests. And while we're at it, here's a nice report on Zimbabweans fed up with president Robert Mugabe (25 years in power and still going). And let's not forget the Togolese people's demonstrations against father-son presidential succession last month.

Yet, Qandil's irreverence toward the president hasn't taken root in all quarters of the Egyptian punditocracy. In his much-hyped al-Jazeera appearance on events in the Arab world (transcribed by al-Usbu), full of his usual name-dropping and "I hobnobbed with famous men" anecdotes, Muhammad Hasanein Haykal declared that the upcoming September elections would be a "one man show" but then made the following bizarre remarks: "In Egypt there's an attempt [at reform] but it must be discussed with decorum, because the position of the presidency in Egypt is a symbol of a certain thing...but this position has a political trait." Haykal's plugged this "president mystique" line before. What does it mean? And more importantly, why should we take seriously what this man has to say about the presidency given all that he's done in the past to augment and mystify the powers of this office? Haykal of course is the co-architect of the modern Egyptian imperial presidency under Nasser, and for this reason I have no interest in his babblings about the sanctity and "symbolism" of this position. The president is not a symbol, the president is a job description, with qualifications and performance criteria. Enough of this obfuscating, false, and dangerous sanctification of what is an executive, not regal position. And enough of ex-presidential advisers lecturing us about conducting "decorous" reform. Haven't we suffered enough from the Nasserist legacy of hyperpresidentialism? Kifaya!

The president received more support recently, but from unusual quarters. I'm referring to Muhammad Eid Dabous' conviction for allegedly conspiring to assassinate the president. Dabous got 25 years for the plot and an additional 10 years for espionage, and an Iranian national was sentenced to life imprisonment in absentia. The conviction by the Emergency State Security Court cannot be appealed at any level; Iran's foreign ministry spokesman ridiculed the verdict and said Egypt "set up a kangaroo court just to please Israel." The stunning thing about the verdict is its hyperbolic, non-legal language and clear political bent. The court stated that the two defendants allied "in a sinful attempt to harm the leader of this nation...without regard for the love of the Egyptian people for their leader, who achieved stability and was chosen as their president out of conviction and love." The language is less surprising when it's known that Adel Abdel Salam Gomaa is the judge who handed down the verdict. Gomaa was the judge who convicted sociologist Saad Eddin Ibrahim for a second time in July 2002, and the same judge who sentenced that hapless tour guide to 15 years for holding four German tourists hostage for a couple of days to publicize his custody battle.

Finally, the president figured in the most unlikely and inappropriate of places. I'm referring to al-Ahram's front-page obituary for Egypt's greatest character actor, Ahmad Zaki. Egypt's newspaper of record made sure to inform readers that the president dispatched his chief of staff to attend the funeral on his behalf, and quotes film producer (and self-identified liberal) Emadeddin Adib as saying, "Up until the last moments of his life, before he was stricken with the coma, [Zaki] felt gratitude for president Mubarak, who provided him with all the means of treatment within and outside Egypt." The insertion of this slavish, unbecoming, and offensive item is testament to how debased al-Ahram has become; see al-Wafd for a proper notice. Is it any wonder that an article in the same issue by Abdel Moneim Said pooh-poohed specific calls for trimming presidential powers and called for shifting the debate to "broader" (read more vague and wishy washy) issues? For a while now, the once-venerable al-Ahram has been writing its own obituary.

What does it all mean? It's clear that open debate about the president's office, powers, and prerogatives is here to stay, with the incumbent himself repeatedly compelled to justify what he has heretofore considered something akin to an ironclad birthright. The once-rarefied topic of presidential powers, confined to constitutionalist salons, is now a very public, contentious tug of war between democrats and constitutionalists on the one hand and powerholders and their intellectuals on the other. Public debates alone will not trim the powers of the presidency, that's for sure, but they've punctured the pernicious penumbra surrounding the Egyptian president (Haykal's prattle notwithstanding). The current denizen has unwittingly abetted this process marvelously. Like re-braiding a punctured cobweb, it's going to be very hard to recuperate the mythical status of the Egyptian presidency.

Friday, March 25, 2005

Cairo demonstration protesting Mubarak's presidential candidacy, March 23, 2005. Courtesy Abdalla Hassan.

Routinizing the Right to Protest

For the fifth week in a row, relatives of detained al-Arish residents protested their incarceration in connection with the October 7 Taba bombings. al-Jazeera reports that demonstrators chanted "Down with the Interior Ministry!" al-Ahram Weekly has a follow-up report on the events in the Nile delta town of Sarando, with a breathtaking lead (for once) by the article's author; citing figures from the Land Center for Human Rights, the article cites 49 farmers dead, 328 injured and 429 arrested in land-related violence since tenancy Law 96/1992 came into effect in 1997.

Anyone following Egyptian events for the past few months can't have failed to notice the regular, almost cyclical outbreak of protests and demonstrations in both large cities and smaller towns. From the Cairo pro-democracy demonstrations (Kifaya, Ayman Nour's supporters, Hizb al-'Amal members) to the Arish anti-police brutality protests to student demonstrations coinciding with the Algiers Arab summit to demonstrations marking the second anniversary of the American invasion of Iraq, street protests have emerged as almost routine expressions of public frustration and anger at public authorities. In the capital city, Tahrir square in front of the Stalinesque al-Mugamma' has morphed into a de facto gathering place for all demos, in addition to the highly symbolic sites of Cairo University and the High Court Complex on 26 July street.

If we want to date this phenomenon more precisely, then it goes back to the outbreak of al-Aqsa Intifada in fall 2000, which unleashed a wave of pro-Palestine demonstrations and solidarity committees across Egypt, cresting with the spring 2002 reinvasion of the West Bank by Ariel Sharon's government and the spring 2003 American invasion of Iraq. Back then, knee-jerk cynics dismissed these massive outbursts of student-led public anger as "safety valves" used by the government to deflect criticism of its policies, conveniently and predictably ignoring the on-the-ground dynamics of the protests, where protestors mouthed witty and biting anti-government slogans as frequently as they condemned the American and Israeli governments; let's not forget the ripping off and burning of the huge Mubarak poster from the NDP headquarters in March 2003 (NDPers had the good sense not to put up a replacement). Only recently, beginning with Kifaya's December 12 demo, did they 'discover' that Egyptians do actually protest domestic issues. A ubiquitous Egyptian commentator in the American press does an admirable job of touting this comfortable, false conventional wisdom here.

But before the cynics and know-it-alls come up with some other lazy, dismissive 'explanation' for how the regime has 'allowed' these protests, let's get one thing clear: aside from the government-permitted and Ikhwan-organized protest in February 2003 and the pro-Mubarak counter-demo earlier this week, all other protests have taken place despite and not because of the government. This seems like such a basic point to me. The interior minister's remarks before a parliamentary committee earlier this week (fulminating against those who "curse state leaders" in the demos) and the pathetic pro-Mubarak demo are both indications that the regime is responding to and not dictating the public's incremental actions over the past five years. Those incremental actions have routinized street protest in the face of one of the most obsessively policed cities on earth. It's no longer a matter of allowing demonstrations or not (unless you're a pusillanimous opposition party leader who still asks the government to please please allow their demonstration); it's a matter of how you're going to manage protests. Hemming in demonstrators inside campuses or cordoning them off from passersby with three rows of Amn al-Markazi recruits is the preferred method. I'd give an arm and a leg to take a look at one of Amn al-Dawla's elaborate plans for policing protest, and to see whether and how it has changed in the past five years.

Let's give credit where credit is due: routinizing the right to protest would've never happened without the countless, anonymous students who braved the rubber bullets and tear gas to make the exceptional routine. And it would've never happened without organizers extraordinaire like Kamal Khalil, the man with the patterned sweater at the literal center of most every Cairo demonstration, coining on-the-spot slogans and rhyming chants. Khalil is the picture of a kind, humble Egyptian citizen; when I met him, the phrase "salt of the earth" finally made sense. The way his ever-present smile reveals his scraggly teeth is one of the most endearing traits I've ever seen. One blindingly sunny winter afternoon, in a coffeeshop tucked away in a windswept alley, Khalil vowed to make this the year of snowballing protests. It's late March, and the hail of snowballs shows no signs of abating.

Hala Mustafa's thoughts and other amusing topics

The airy Hala Mustafa has penned yet another article (with her obligatory picture appended, yes). But this time, her point is harder to figure out than usual. No doubt, there's the requisite praise of the president ("President Hosni Mubarak recently breathed life into Egypt's political scene when he announced the beginning of a new era of political reform,"), and some characteristically self-serving remarks ("Political commentators, as a result of the specific nature of their work, are often the most aware of where the boundaries of freedom lie,"), but beyond these staples I can't figure out what she's on about. But you see, that's the point. Mustafa and her ilk have built a career on writing reams that say absolutely nothing, for deniability purposes later on should political winds blow in different directions. Her written output, in Arabic and English, is identical: weasely, imprecise language laden with generalities and platitudes, signifying nothing, but always clearly vilifying and maligning regime critics and challengers, especially the Muslim Brothers.

Mustafa and her friends in al-Ahram and the Cairo University Faculty of "Political Science" want it both ways: they want to praise the regime and compete with each other to cook up myriad "theoretical" justifications for its policies, but they also want to convince people that they're "independent", serious, neutral social scientists. Sorry, game's up. No one takes Mustafa seriously as anything but a regime hack desperate for crumbs (in her case, getting appointed to the laughingstock Shura Council, which she still hasn't achieved. Poor Hala, but cheer up, maybe next round). No one in Egypt that is. Foreign journalists and "experts" are another matter. I was highly amused a few weeks ago to read one Steven A. Cook's lauding of Mustafa as enjoying "a reputation for intellectual independence" in the Jan/Feb 2005 issue of the widely-read Foreign Policy. I'm curious, how did Mr. Cook arrive at his assessment? Is he aware that Ms. Mustafa is a member of Gamal Mubarak's "Secretariat for Policies" in the NDP? Has he read Mustafa's gushing praise of Mubarak? Has he read her repeated claims against including "populists" and Islamists in the electoral process? Has he perused her articles claiming that Arabs are beholden to the past and need to get rid of the legacy of pan-Arabism? What about her argument that Egyptians should refrain from calls to reform the constitution and presidential powers? (made before Mubarak's announcement, of course). I don't know, is this what constitutes "intellectual independence" for Mr. Cook?

In other amusing news, Gamal Mubarak recently surfaced (was he on vacation? we haven't heard from him in a while) to announce that not only will he not be running in the presidential elections, but that his father hasn't decided whether he'll be running either. To speculations that Article 76 will be amended so Gamal could run for president, he countered, "If certain people want to create such illusions and believe in them, that's their problem." Wow, I guess it is the entire country and the international community's problem that they've been commenting on the fact of Gamal's skyrocketing political rise.

Finally, al-Ahram Weekly has an interesting piece on how the real residents of the Yacoubian Building are miffed by author Alaa' al-Aswani's unflattering depictions of characters very much like themselves. Let's save discussion on the instantaneous prominence of Aswani's novel, the swift production of an English translation, and the making of a multi-million-pound movie based on it for another time. For now I want to note how irritating and more than a little disingenuous it is for Aswani to coyly plead artistic license every time he's confronted by his characters' obvious resemblance to real-world figures. His translator makes a big deal out of the whole "any relation to real-life individuals is purely coincidental" shtick and so does Alaa', but come on: he clearly wrote this novel as a socio-political commentary on current events, and that's why it's so powerful. Instead of seeking refuge in the old "it's all my imagination" trope, Alaa' should just be honest and say yes, my characters are composites of real-life individuals and my imagination. Every writer is granted this right and people will invariably be upset, but Alaa', please stop pretending that you wrought your characters without any reference to real-life people (Kamal al-Fuli?!).

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Gearing Up

Now that election season is upon us, we can expect a lot of announcements like the two in al-Ahram today. First, Ayman Nour and six of his associates have been referred to Cairo Criminal Court for allegedly forging 1,435 signatures on al-Ghad party's petition. See the charge sheet and Prosecutor-General Maher Abdel Wahed's sternly-worded mouthful of a warning, "Any attempt to use this case to incite foreign forces against Egypt's sovereignty and the independence of its judiciary by sowing domestic discord under the pretext of human rights abuses is rejected in whole and in part." Reading the charge sheet, I was transported back to the case of Saad Eddin Ibrahim, who was similarly charged with forging voter registration cards as part of his research center's voter registration project. Unlike Saad, however, Nour is lucky that he's not being tried in an exceptional court and thus has a real chance at an acquittal. The question is, will this come quickly to enable him to run in the elections, or will he be consumed by a long trial and perhaps even a conviction, which would permanently disqualify him from taking part in any political process (unless he's exonerated by the Court of Cassation).

The second message comes from interior minister Habib al-Adli, who in remarks before the defense and national security committee in parliament vowed that demonstrators who "curse" and use "profanity" against "state leaders" will not be permitted to carry on with their nefarious utterances and "will be dealt with in another manner." His excellency clarified, "We do not prohibit demonstrations, but unfortunately there is a deviant minority and we will apply legal procedures against them." And added, "The rumors spread here and there aim at destruction and are backed by weak souls." Minister Adly pointed to the necessity of having confidence in state leaders and confronting these rumors with facts.

The intrepid Ahram reporter avers that MPs emphasized the necessity of sanctioning those who receive funding from abroad, and that MPs consider some associations to be "nodes of treason" because they receive funds and send reports. The selfsame MPs called on security forces to monitor such activities, especially since we're in an election year and some seek to use the situation within Egypt to threaten her stability.

The newspaper of record goes on to report the minister's statement that in the upcoming period, some prisons will be transferred outside of cities because the presence of prisons within cities has become abnormal. The minister also declared that emergency law is reviewed on a daily basis and any one whose position is deemed sound is released immediately.

Where Journalism Meets Poetry

The inimitable, inspiring Anthony Shadid has written a heartbreaking piece on two years of war in Iraq, from the pregnant vantage of a Baghdad bookseller.

Bush's Kinder, Gentler "Public Diplomacy"

The New York Times quotes a couple of US government officials waxing poetic about Dina Powell's attractiveness; she apparently is the "Mideast Card" in the administration's "Mideast Strategy," or so says the headline. Last week, Powell was appointed as something called "deputy under secretary of state for public diplomacy." Since then, she has been all over the press plugging her line about her Egyptian roots, the stuffed grape leaves in her lunch box, etc. while co-workers gush to reporters about her looks (first) and skills (second).

Why is it completely predictable that this administration would pick an American woman of Arab background to sell US policy to those stubbornly anti-American Arabs? For one, the US's earlier forays into "public diplomacy" failed miserably. State Department-conceived Radio Sawa and "Hi" magazine were greeted with the withering criticisms they deserve. I remember flipping through a seriously overpriced, ultra-glossy issue of "Hi" last summer, laughing at the clumsy didactic presentation of US life as happy, productive, and exciting, and the ultra-happy smiles of the magazine's staff, who included some appropriately Arab names and faces, of course. No matter which way you cut it, state propaganda is state propaganda, no matter how many slick PR firms massage it. "Hi" has the same overpowering whiff of disinformation as the hoariest autocratic state agitprop. And whoever came up with the zine's title needs to have their head checked.

For another thing, this administration apparently thinks that locating and cultivating Arab-Americans as fronts for its policies will immediately win over those tribal Arabs who reflexively cleave to their own, even if their own are agents of destruction (cf Gen. John Abizaid). Sounds like Fouad Ajami thought that one up, since as you know atavistic Arabs can't apprehend ideas or policies, only ascriptive identity. And as you know force is the only language Arabs respect and understand (and other favorites of the American and Israeli Likud). The New York Times piece quotes a spokesman for the Egyptian Embassy in Washington claiming that Powell is "a celebrity in Egypt." Really? That's odd, because when Dina Powell met with some actual Egyptians in Egypt last year, they didn't treat her as a celebrity but asked her some very tough questions about her political and career choices. Quoting an Egyptian Embassy spokesman for facts is like reading "Hi" for information.

The saddest aspect is that this administration, in 2005, still thinks it's a matter of "public diplomacy" and spin that will win Arabs' hearts and minds, not actually changing US policies. Because the problem of course is not tangible, concrete US policies; it's all a matter of perception and perceived US policies. See, if the perceptions of the US are changed, so will the hostility. Because Arabs don't really know it but they're actually victims of their own perceptions, and when they change their perceptions reality will change, not the other way around. Tragic, isn't it, how "perception" has morphed into the most powerful weasel-word in the English language?

I can't resist a final note about Powell's gender: this is certainly not the first and it won't be the last time states deploy women to sell ruthless policies in kinder, gentler packaging (see Powell's concluding comments in her meeting with the Egyptians). I won't wade into "false consciousness" territory here, because women are entitled to make their own political and career choices (and bear the consequences), and many women choose to be bureaucrats, and that's their prerogative. But please, spare us the bromides about "women's empowerment", "women's equality", "carving out opportunities for women", and all the rest. State feminism is state feminism, and it's never to my knowledge changed anything about the status of women, anywhere. But it's especially ugly when state feminism is combined with the crudest and most insulting form of identity politics. Good luck, Dina Powell.

Monday, March 21, 2005

Police Brutality Files

A new chapter in the Egyptian police's ongoing predation against citizens. Since March 4, police have laid siege to the Delta hamlet of Sarando, detaining women, children, and elderly village denizens. A local landowning family has been trying to evict the villagers from lands they have farmed for generations; the police are enthusiastically assisting them. Egyptian human rights groups monitoring the case since January estimate that the land dispute involves 10,000 residents of Sarando and environs. Villager Nafisa al-Marakbi, 38, died after being beaten by police officers. As usual, no autopsy was performed on the body and police made sure it was buried the same day. Read Human Rights Watch's description based on the courageous monitoring work of Egyptian rights groups.

When activists and journalists tried to file a grievance with the Prosecutor-General, State Security officers beat and detained them, including MP Hamdeen Sabahy (apparently parliamentary immunity counts for nothing). Prosecutor General Maher Abdel Wahed finally agreed to meet with the activists and ordered Marakbi's body exhumed and an autopsy conducted.

Meanwhile, al-Arish residents are still reeling from the arbitrary round-up of some 2,400 residents after the October 7 Taba bombings, many of whom remain detained. al-Ahram Weekly describes the situation; see also the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights' November 2004 report.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Mahmoud Said's "Nabawiyya in a flowery dress" (1959)

Friedman Froth

In his latest desperate attempt to shape the tenor of debate on the Middle East and Iraq, The New York Times' Thomas Friedman declares that Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani merits the Nobel Prize. Last week, he informed Americans, "Free Lebanon and free Egypt's economy and they will change the rest of the Middle East - for free." Let's put aside the man's revolting tendency to write on Arabs only as objects of US action and reform, never as sentient subjects with their own political projects and aspirations for--horrors!--autonomy and dignity. Speaking to the likes of Egyptian playwright Ali Salem and Egyptian "political scientist" (and Gamal Mubarak crony) Mohamed Kamal doesn't count as treating Arabs as agents. Salem is the craziest man in Egypt, and Kamal can't think an independent thought if his life depended on it. Both of them tell Friedman what he wants to hear; I laughed out loud watching the New York Times' man on his Discovery channel "documentary" listening with contrived intensity to the babblings of Salem and nodding enthusiastically as Kamal insulted his Cairo University students and complained to Friedman that they still adhere to "old" ideas of Palestinian rights and opposition to normalization with Israel. Would Friedman have ever given them a hearing if they were not pro-Israel or at least pro-normalization?

Friedman strikes me as the quintessential salesman: packaging stale and/or defective goods in glossy new packaging: "New and improved!" "More taste without the weight!" Every one of his columns and "books" is a hodge-podge of ambient cultural tropes dressed up as Friedmanesque insight. Let's examine his Nobel for Sistani proposal, which of course Friedman did not think up but picked up from several Internet petitions and discussions circulating over the past few weeks. Sistani "brings to Arab politics a legitimate, pragmatic interpretation of Islam"? Sistani "put the people and their aspirations at the center of Iraqi politics, not some narrow elite or self-appointed clergy"? Sistani as a Mandela or a Gorbachev? What planet is Friedman living on? Since when has he become so enamored of senior clerics claiming the exclusive right to represent their co-religionists, not as individual citizens with rights but as an undifferentiated flock? How precisely has Sistani "put the people" at the center of Iraqi politics? Was it just space constraints that prevented Friedman from mentioning the crucial fact that in exchange for wringing elections out of the Americans, Sistani agreed to their request not to demand an immediate withdrawal of American troops on his party's slate? Did Friedman interview Sistani or read any writings evincing the man's purportedly "pragmatic interpretation of Islam"? Inquiring minds want to know. Was Friedman uncomfortable stating point-blank that Sistani has been a model of cooperation with the American occupying authorities and so felt the need to dress up the man's wily political calculus as "instincts and wisdom"? "Tastes great without the weight"!

Last week's column urged the American administration to hurry up and sign a free trade agreement with Egypt so that an Israel-friendly private sector can emerge and Egyptians can finally "ignore the protests of the old Nasserites who want to boycott Israel." At least in this column, the advocate-pundit is explicit about his desire to have a pro-American, pro-Israeli Arab world where all other dangerous opinions (especially those damn Nasserists) are silenced or marginalized. He seems to think that Egyptian workers who want a cut of the QIZs are automatically pro-Israel; he also thinks new Industry Minister Rashid Mohamed Rashid is "impressive." Well, I guess both must be true if Friedman says so. With his know-it-all
declarative prose and missionary zeal, Friedman might just convince American citizens who know little or nothing about the region.

Friedman is a great peddler, but what business does he have being a journalist? When I think of journalists, I think of the early George Orwell, Ryszard Kapuscinki, Amira Hass, Robert Fisk. Writers who have their very strong politics but who also take their profession seriously, constantly ask themselves and their readers uncomfortable questions, and find it beneath them to be cheerleaders for any government. Writers who above all respect and value their subjects, every word of their quiet, angry, poetic, luminous prose animated by that respect. When I read Friedman, I feel like someone turned the channel to a shrill, hyperventilating infomercial selling defective goods: "Not available in stores, so order now and save!" "Unbelievable savings!" "Buy now, pay later!"

Cairo Demonstration

More evidence that the Kifaya movement (of which I'm a proud card-carrying member) is setting the agenda: today's anti-war turned anti-Mubarak demonstration in Tahrir square featured a small counter-demonstration of about 100 organized by the NDP, chanting "Long live Mubarak." What next? Another NDP candidate to run "against" Mubarak in the September, elections?

Not Enough

In an editorial shorn of its newfangled venom towards the Mubarak regime, the Washington Post for once rightly points out that Kifaya members (the Egyptian Movement for Change) were not thrilled by Mubarak's Feb. 26 announcement amending Article 76 of the constitution. Only regime hacks sang its praises (see the Court rhapsodists' effluvium on March 18 below). Independents and the opposition greeted the announcement with a mixture of dignified praise and anticipation of yet another round of political trickery. Ordinary Egyptians were even more doubtful. "President Mubarak will remain in charge, and everybody will keep playing their roles," said a 30-year-old gardener quoted in an excellent Los Angeles Times piece published on February 28.

It's worth lingering on this issue for a spell. What does Mubarak's announcement mean? A quick glance at what independents have been saying reveals that no one is taken in, and activists are demanding additional (and more fundamental) reforms. Nader Fergany in al-Araby says the real issue is a redistribution of socio-economic and political power, not theatrical "democratic" pronouncements. Muhammad Hammad writes that the era of presidents knowing what's best for Egyptians is over. "Prior to amending a single constitutional article, people are demanding an amendment of how the presidency is viewed," Hammad says. Salama Ahmed Salama in al-Ahram goes beyond Article 76 to raise meaty issues of election monitoring, ending emergency rule, and securing a transparent, official stance against torture. And head of al-Wasat Abul Ela Madi in al-Ahram Weekly critiques the requirements placed on potential presidential candidates but proposes an equally problematic alternative requirement that "serious" candidates gather 10,000 citizen signatures in at least 10 governorates. Finally, Huwayda Taha in al-Quds al-Araby has a probing piece on the extent to which Kifaya can garner the support of key social sectors such as the police, army and judiciary.

The only exception to the critical reception is the puzzling and disappointing official response of the Muslim Brothers. A statement on their website dated 20 March quotes General Guide Muhammad Mahdi Akef as saying the group is prepared to back Mubarak for a fifth six-year term if the (intensely Ikhwan-averse) president opens a dialogue with the Brothers and restores civil liberties. The statement seems to confirm what Ikhwan critics have always claimed about the group's expedience and willingness to trample on principle in exchange for recognition by the regime. I wonder what the Ikhwan's rank and file make of their General Guide's statement; the group is famously riven by diverse currents of opinion, and many Ikhwan members privately and publicly adhere to considerably more critical opinions than their leader.

A fascinating article in the 20 March issue of the respected literary weekly Akhbar al-Adab covers a meeting by disgruntled university professors discussing issues of university administration and reform, from the longstanding demand to elect faculty deans and university presidents (the latter currently appointed by the President of the Republic) to issues of research funding and methodology to the prospect of a university professors' professional association.

Meanwhile, al-Ahram reports NDP Secretary-General Safwat al-Sherif making some bizarre claims at something called the NDP's "election campaign training sessions," flanked by a stony-faced, apparently chastened Alieddine Hilal, former youth minister booted out in the July 2004 cabinet reshuffle. First, clearly in response to Egyptians' lack of enthusiasm for Mubarak's maneuver, the Secretary-General called for a "spirit of optimism" and counseled against following "those who seek to empty the President's initiative from its content." The article includes the following announcements:
  1. The referendum on amending Article 76 will take place in late May.
  2. Complete constitutional reform will take place at "the appropriate time" in appropriate doses that society can absorb.
  3. There is a commitment not to apply emergency law to the elections, candidates, and voters.
  4. On May 9, the rules governing candidates for president will be announced.
  5. We must distinguish between presidential and parliamentary elections; the former is the entire nation's campaign and the presidential candidate "belongs to the masses" and not to a specific party.
  6. The NDP is prepared for parliamentary elections by marketing its platforms reflecting dreams, reality, and the interests of the masses; [the platforms] are prepared by the NDP Policies Secretariat in a scientific manner.

Well, I'm relieved.

Friday, March 18, 2005

The Curious Rise of Ayman Nour

Before he became an international cause celebre and a very special concern of US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, Ayman Nour was a relatively young, wealthy, super-slick ambitious politician known only to his constituents and Egypt's political class. The five (maybe seven) Egyptians who watch parliamentary debates on TV knew him as the beefy, garrulous guy with the carefully coiffed hair. With his arrest in late January, however, he morphed into an overnight celebrity, hailed by the foreign press as a "top liberal", an "opposition leader" whose prison musings were printed in a very high-profile outlet (it helps that his wife works for the outlet). Secretary Rice made short work of Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit at their 15 February meeting, affirming "I did raise our concerns, our very strong concerns about this case. I did talk at some length about the importance of this issue to the United States, to the American Administration, to the American Congress, to the American people. And I expressed our very strong hope that there will be a resolution of this very soon." And the ubiquitous Hisham Kassem, in his latest turn as Nour's international affairs Veep in al-Ghad (Tomorrow) Party, pronounced his party president the only one who could challenge Mubarak in an election.

Who is Ayman Nour? The scion of a wealthy Wafdist lawyer-landowner from Daqahliyya governorate, Nour joined his father's storied party while still a student; he would stride in to party and student union meetings fresh from his late-model Mercedes. Back then the "new Wafd" (est. 1984) was not quite the shell of its illustrious past it has since become. Once Egypt's most popular political party from 1920-1952, [the print edition of] al-Wafd's daily newspaper still sports party founder Saad Zaghlul's famous motto al-Haq fawq al-Quwwa wa al-Umma fawq al-Hukuma (Right over Might and the Nation over the Government, one of my favorite political slogans). In 1995, Nour won a parliamentary seat for the low-income Bab al-Sha'riyya neighborhood and since then has become a regular fixture in what passes for politics in Egyptian life, earning re-election in 2000. For a time he was also a board member of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR). Nour's website lists his accomplishments in full detail.

Nour was by far the Wafd’s savviest and most ambitious young member, and for this reason soon fell afoul of new party president No’man Goma. In a move echoing earlier generational disputes in Egyptian opposition parties, Goma expelled Nour in 2001 and cancelled his column in the party’s daily paper. The toadying editors took to snidely calling Nour "the Russian doctor" in reference to his doctoral degree in international law from a Russian university. Truth be told, Nour was one of the most frequent speakers in parliament, judging by the number of times he appeared on TV sparring with Fathi Sorour or Kamal al-Shazli. And he maintained a steady stream of patronage to his low-income constituents, cultivating his own and his TV anchor wife Gamila Ismail’s image as wealthy, kind benefactors to the poor hordes of Bab al-Sha’riyya. But Nour was certainly not the underdog, bold liberal democrat conjured up by the foreign media and US administration after his arrest. Without the Bush administration’s intense interest in tapping secular "liberal" elites in Arab countries as alternatives to Islamists, nationalists, and crusty regime stalwarts, Nour would have remained a run-of-the-mill Egyptian politician: ego-driven, not above deal-making with the government, with financial resources of murky provenance, and above all else: a man unknown outside of Cairo.

Before this whole debacle, a Christian Science Monitor article back in October captured this unusual new interest in Nour. Shortly afterward, Nour’s al-Ghad was legalized by Egypt’s notorious Political Parties Committee (est. 1977 and since then legalizing only two parties while rejecting dozens), which had earlier thrice rejected al-Ghad, the Islamist al-Wasat (Center) and the Nasserist Karama (Dignity) parties. Immediately, the rumor mill churned out speculations that the regime chose to legalize the least threatening of the three party projects, to endear itself with Washington while maintaining its iron grip on political life. Nour, flanked by party secretary-general Mona Makram Ebeid (another scion of a prominent nationalist Wafdist family), held a ridiculously self-important press conference on the steps of Beit al-Umma (Saad Zaghlul’s villa-turned-national-museum), all of them draped in orange sashes emblazoned with "Tomorrow is Coming." For a moment, it seemed as if both the regime and foreign interests were throwing their lot behind Nour and his acceptable Ghad.

Nour maintains that his party was legalized because the Committee feared an embarassing court ruling overturning its rejection, but this has never stopped it in the past; all of Egypt's opposition parties established in the 1990s came into being through court orders. And why legalize al-Ghad but turn down al-Wasat for the third time and Karama for the second time despite their certain recourse to the courts? The fact is, al-Ghad had all the right ingredients: a "liberal" outlook, read friendly to the free market (good with the Americans), a credentialed woman secretary-general (good with the Americans and good for Egypt's image), a relatively young president (good for the regime's image), and an English-speaking "vice president for international relations" whose sound-bites are hungrily lapped up by every foreign journalist and do-gooder diplomat (good for spicing up foreign news stories).

All was calm until Nour's abrupt arrest and charge with forging thousands of signatures on his party petition; never mind that Law 40/1977 governing political parties requires only 60 signatures. Why the abrupt turnaround? A lot had transpired between October and late January, notably a visit by former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who reportedly had a four-hour meeting with Nour at his home, in the presence of the ever-imperious, ever-irascible American ambassador David Welch (now off to the State Department in D.C.) and Egyptian government dignitaries. Perhaps Nour overstepped a regime "red line", perhaps Albright was too enthusiastic about his leadership prospects (thus eclipsing the fortunes of that other fortyish "liberal" ambitious politician, Mubarak junior), we'll never know. What we do know is that Nour was resoundingly expelled from the regime's grace in a manner eerily similar to sociologist Saad Eddin Ibrahim's comeuppance in 2000. Remember that Ibrahim was also hailed as a courageous dissident--"Egypt's Sakharov" to the fanciful Weekly Standard--but international accolades do not a domestic reputation make.

Sorry to rain on Ayman Nour and al-Ghad's parade, but his case is merely the latest chapter in the intense jockeying for position among a handful of powerful actors: the Mubarak regime, the Bush administration, the Europeans (in a slightly less influential role), and wily Egyptian elites of all stripes. The machinations did not begin with September 11, only intensified in its wake. In these Orwellian times, every actor drapes its intentions in the cloak of freedom, democracy, and "women's empowerment," but only a gullible consumer is taken in by glossy packaging. To be sure, Ibrahim, Nour, and any other ambitious strivers should not have their health destroyed and their reputations sullied because the regime is hell bent on monopolizing the political limelight. But they also shouldn't be touted as Egypt's best and only hope for democratic salvation. By choosing international patronage over the painstaking and unsexy work of coalition-building and consensus-forging with other domestic forces, Nour et al's Icarus wings will invariably melt every time they get too close. The many plots now being hatched to cultivate a new and improved Egyptian ruling elite might have all the right twists and dramatic turns, but let's be clear: it's not the drama of democracy, and Egyptians know it.

Mubarak, Article 76, and the Predicament of Court Rhapsodists

Since February 26, pundits both pallid and profound, at home and abroad, have weighed in on the meaning of President Mubarak's announcement calling for amending Article 76 of the 1971 Constitution to allow for direct, multi-candidate presidential elections. Far be it from me to add to the breathless acres of print on the subject; insta-commentary is the last thing we need, and some silent observation and reflection are long overdue.

But I can't help pointing to Abdel-Moneim Said's latest eruption in al-Ahram Weekly, a pitiful face-saving maneuver if ever there was one. One of the Mubarak regime's loyal house intellectuals, Said had only three weeks previously pronounced the Egyptian presidency's staggering powers "a result of the centralism of the Egyptian state since Mena unified the northern and southern parts of the country 5,000 years ago." Pity the rest of the third-rate court Brahmins, who tripped over themselves to pen elegiac odes to Mubarak's about-face. The ever-resourceful Osama El-Ghazali Harb informed us that Mubarak's move "could be the greatest historical achievement in Egypt's modern history," while the unfailingly deferential Hala Mustafa decided that February 26 is the real start-date of "comprehensive political reform." Lo and behold, the Said-Harb-Mustafa troika are card-carrying members of the ruling National Democratic Party's "Higher Council for Policies", the premier member of which is Gamal Mubarak.

While Said et al were cooking up such palaver from the plush comfort of their well-appointed, taxpayer-funded offices, Abdel Halim Qandil, editor of the hardscrabble Nasserist Weekly al-Araby (Egypt's boldest newspaper), produced another of his trenchant pieces in the 13 March edition puncturing all the blather surrounding the issue. Regarding the apparent requirement that any "serious" presidential candidate garner the support of members of parliament and local councils, Qandil opined:

It's a requirement that confiscates the desideratum: these legislative bodies are all rigged or of a disputed constitutional status, and almost all of them are under the administration and control of something called the "National Democratic Party"...And the amusing thing is that they speak of the French constitution and borrowing the idea of a parliamentary endorsement from the French system. They want to borrow the French constitution without France, which has complete liberties and elections that are fair to the utmost degree, whereas in Egypt there is general repression and elections that are guaranteed to be rigged to the utmost degree. In France, there is neither Safwat al-Sherif nor Kamal al-Shazli, nor that empire of fear-mongering called "State Security Investigations" (mabaheth amn al-dawla); there is no quashing of the dignity of citizens as if they are remnants of subjects, no father-son parallel presidency, no state-monopolized media obsessed with tracking the comings and goings of the blessed family.