Saturday, April 30, 2005

Kifaya: Asking the Right Questions

Might vs. Right: Kifaya's March 30, 2005 protest in downtown Cairo. Cairo Security Chief General Nabil al-Ezabi and his men (left) face off with Kifaya organizers George Ishaq and Amin Iskandar (right).

On Wednesday, April 27, The Egyptian Movement for Change (Kifaya) orchestrated its most dramatic protest yet, fanning across 15 Egyptian cities, though many of the demonstrations were scuttled by security forces (see accounts here, here, and here). The protest was Kifaya’s first to extend beyond the usual Cairo-Alexandria-Mansoura troika to include the south (Minya and Aswan).

Let’s reflect on this for a moment. Less than a year ago, the nucleus of Kifaya was formed, immediately after the July 2004 cabinet reshuffle, when 300 some intellectuals and public figures signed a founding statement demanding real political changes, an end to economic inequality and corruption, and an end to Egypt’s dependent foreign policy. Between August 2004 and April 2005, nine months, Kifaya has grown from a small gathering of politicos and intellectuals to a movement that has routinized the right to protest Hosni Mubarak’s policies and unending tenure. Signatures on the founding statement now stand at 4,917, with every conceivable vocation, confession, and extraction represented (full disclosure: mine is one of those signatures).

The Egyptian independent and opposition press and international media have undoubtedly boosted Kifaya’s cachet and visibility. The American media especially have tried to fold Kifaya into the general “Arab Spring” narrative allegedly attributable to Bush’s invasion of Iraq. That staunch friend of Arab democrats, the Washington Post, claimed on 18 January in an editorial entitled “’Enough’ in Egypt”: “Hoping that Mr. Bush is serious, Egyptian opposition movements have formed a coalition to call for fundamental reforms.” The more ingenuous BBC got it right, thankfully, and the CS Monitor truthfully noted Arab democrats’ antipathy to U.S. policies.

So what is Kifaya and what are its prospects? Is it the most dangerous threat to Mubarak’s rule as its supporters have billed it? Or is it yet another bevy of isolated intellectuals as its critics have panned it? Predictably, it’s neither. Asking the right questions is critical here, to avoid fruitless and boring cogitations about exactly how many people showed up at this or that Kifaya protest or assigning meaningless, unwarranted labels to the movement (The CS Monitor recently called it “a mostly liberal” movement, without explanation).


It behooves us to note two facts. First: the emergence of Kifaya was unthinkable and hardly predictable just three years ago, and if anyone claims to have foreseen it then I take my hat off to them in awe. It is a genuinely new type of movement, perpetually under construction. Two: defining what Kifaya is is genuinely difficult. It fits none of the available models found in the (admittedly dessicated) Egyptian political landscape. It’s not an “opposition party”, it’s not an NGO, it’s not a professional association, it’s not a solidarity committee, it’s not a party-in-waiting (like Wasat and Karama), and it’s not a grassroots initiative. It’s none of these even as it borrows personnel, tactics, and organizational repertoires from all of them. The ever-observant Amina Khairy of al-Hayat lyrically reflects on the Kifaya conundrum here.

Kifaya’s maddeningly paradoxical status tempts partisan claims of ownership. To socialists, Kifaya is their cherished moment in the sun, their long-doubted proof of relevance to the Egyptian street. For Nasserists Kifaya is their baby, buoyed by their newspaper and their leading lights. To communists, Kifaya holds the potential to reclaim their 1960s-era mystique and centrality on the national political stage. To “liberals”, Kifaya is a home away from the inhospitable Wafd and businessmen’s outfits tainted by pro-U.S., pro-normalization stances. To sundry Islamists, Kifaya is a redeemable entity ripe for the infusion of an Islamic ethos, while the Ikhwan in particular see the movement as yet another platform where they must flex their muscles and establish their presence.

All the more reason to be clear about how we approach this movement. Instead of fighting over labels, see how it incorporates all labels. Instead of bickering about its “strength,” trace its actions and development of its strategy. Instead of bombastic claims and cynical dismissals, understand how this movement piggybacks on earlier initiatives yet strikes out in genuinely new directions. And don’t get lost in details and forget the big picture: yes, Kifaya has no clear program, no headquarters, and no coherent alternative vision of a post-Mubarak order. But the big picture is that Kifaya has been established and manages to survive in a political system designed to kill politics. That's a remarkable fact.

The movement has no powerful patrons, no big guns, and no money to speak of. It has no grant writers or savvy entrepreneurs to rake in lucrative foreign funds and support. Holding it up to the standards of an organized opposition in a democratic regime is ludicrous, disingenuous, or ignorant, as the case may be. Need we belabor this obvious point? The balance of power between the Mubarak regime and Kifaya is stupendously skewed, and the regime has scary guns aplenty, but this embryonic thing somehow coordinated a 15-city demonstration against the regime and its leader. How did it happen?


Kifaya owes much to earlier gatherings of pro-democracy intellectuals that date back to the 1970s. The wonderful Abdel Ghaffar Shukr, a walking encyclopedia of Egyptian political life, wrote an important book on this titled al-Tahalufat al-Siyasiyya wa al-‘Amal al-Mushtarak fi Misr, 1976-1993 (Political Alliances and Joint Action in Egypt, 1976-1993) (Markaz al-Buhuth al-Arabiyya 1994), complete with appendices of these forgotten alliances’ fascinating ephemera.

The most recent incarnation of these roundtables came in September 1999, with a call for constitutional reform made from the headquarters of the EOHR by a ragtag coalition of human rights groups and political parties. Slated to coincide with the referendum on Hosni Mubarak’s fourth term, the call received some polite media coverage but that was about it. The Mubarak Port Said incident in the same month (billed as a nefarious assassination attempt) hogged all attention, and the constitutionalist initiative soon fell into a desultory state as the usual squabbles erupted between Islamists and leftists, Wafdists and Nasserists, and everyone in between.

Noteworthy: at the press conference announcing the initiative, al-Wafd’s loose cannon Ibrahim Desuqi Abaza vowed to mount a civil disobedience campaign if their demands for a new constitution were not met, drawing snickers from observers and swiftly delivered emollients from other panel members. How times have changed. In 1999, civil disobedience was laughable and shunned, completely outside the accepted script of remonstrating with elites. In 2004, former judge Tareq al-Bishri invited Egyptians to respond to state violence with non-violent resistance, propping the emergent Kifaya movement with intellectual ammunition from an impeccable and widely respected source.

An observant reporter back in 1999 honed in on what the participants were trying to achieve: “People involved with the conference were at pains to explain that long term organization is really what is taking place here. More important than any conference or petition is the creation of a new political movement outside the traditional political structures in the country.” It’s this selfsame impulse that galvanized Kifaya organizers in the days after the July cabinet reshuffle. But even as they built on past ventures, Kifaya organizers repudiated the beseeching model and opted for action. Their audience shifted from state elites to the public at large. “Kifaya control, kifaya corruption, kifaya hypocrisy, kifaya negativism, kifaya talk,” read the links on the Egyptian Movement’s website. As al-Bishri exhorted, “There’s no exit from the condition of fragmentation except by going beyond the dictates of the personalized state. This breaching does not come about through demands addressed to the personalized leadership but through practice. Here, national groupings must realize that the legitimacy of action and movement does not derive from a personalized leadership and its decisions, but from societal organizations and constitutional provisions for liberties and human rights.”

Building on skills and contacts learned in earlier years, a hefty dose of personal friendships, and an opportunity to tap into a pervasive sense of social malaise and outrage, Kifaya moved to turn closed-door meetings into street action.


Organizers were adept at reading social cues. Between 1999 and 2005, three waves of protest marked Egyptian politics. First, the al-Aqsa Intifada in October 2000. Student protests rocked the country, midwifing cross-country Intifada popular solidarity committees that succeeded where other social movement had failed: mobilising ordinary Egyptians. The committees activated the palpable sympathy of everyday Egyptians for the Palestinian cause; solidarity was woven into the fabric of quotidian life. Housewives boycotted American cleaning agents and foodstuffs, even if it meant buying the crappier Egyptian brand. Rural Egyptians contributed livestock and other valuable assets, which were then sold by committee organizers at fundraising auctions. Middle-class students and truck drivers alike stuck boycott stickers and solidarity insignia on their respective vehicles. Islamists worked side by side with socialists to stock and send aid caravans to the Rafah border, not in perfect harmony to be sure and with a fair degree of friction, but guess what, that’s politics.

The second wave came in spring 2002 with Israel’s reinvasion of the West Bank and massacre at Jenin. By that time solidarity committees had established themselves on the political landscape, their organizers invariably harassed by the state: recall Farid Zahran’s arrest. It was impossible to separate Sharon’s brutality from the Mubarak government’s emasculated response. Student protestors and intellectuals alike castigated the Egyptian regime’s purely rhetorical, weak-kneed approach to the Israeli behemoth. Pregnant, unflattering comparisons were drawn: “Hosni Mubarak zayy Sharon, nafs al-shakl wa nafs al-lawn!” (Hosni Mubarak is like Sharon, same looks, same breed!” cried the demonstrators. The old canard that anti-Israel protests vent steam that would otherwise be directed at the government bears no relation to the lived reality of such protests. In 2002 as before, they served as incubators and not deflators of discontent with the government.

The twining of protest issues was on fabulous display in the third wave of protest, the 20 March 2003 anti-Iraq war demonstrations that brought thousands of citizens into Tahrir square, coordinated by mobile phone text messages sent out by Egyptian youth, those souls endlessly and baselessly maligned as apathetic, ignorant, or both. They tore down Mubarak’s huge poster from the NDP headquarters, ominously chanting: “Ya Ala’ ul l-Mubarak, il-manasa fi Intizarak!” (Ala’ tell Mubarak, the reviewing stand awaits you!). The chilling reference to Sadat’s assassination leaves no doubt as to how some young Egyptians feel about their current president. Normally staid and centrist intellectuals took the opportunity to disagree publicly with Mubarak. The chipping away at the untouchable halo surrounding the president had begun, while young people, especially women, were inducted into politics.

A little more than a year later, the nucleus of Kifaya was formed. The immediate context: weeks of speculation fed by the state-owned press about an impending significant change in government personnel. Writers and word on the street hoped against hope for a once-and-for-all purge of hated figures and a more aggressive stance on corruption, unemployment, rising prices, and sundry other facets of the Egyptian condition. When the cabinet reshuffle turned up nothing, bringing in Gamal Mubarak cronies instead, the stage was set for “enough.” Al-Wafd’s expressive Amr Okasha penned a sketch of an irate citizen throwing down a newspaper in disgust and delivering his bottom line, “Who cares new government or old government, are prices going to go down or not?!” The tease of public opinion, the patent disrespect for ordinary Egyptians’ myriad hardships, and the all-too-visible failures of domestic and foreign policies: all had piled up into a reservoir of public disgust ready to be tapped.


Kifaya is an umbrella organization binding together all sorts of contradictory groups, organizations, ideologies, and visions. The only consensus is that Mubarak must go; everything else is up for debate. Hence the capacious yet pithy, deliberately indeterminate name. Kifaya wants change, but there are as many blueprints for change as there are individuals in the movement. How does such a thing organize? There’s no general assembly of voting members, as with a professional association. There’s no board of trustees, as with an NGO. Certainly no politburo as ostensibly exist in those structures generously dubbed “opposition parties” in Egypt. “There’s no set organizational framework, because the whole idea is to break down barriers and burst open closed doors,” says a Kifaya organizer.

As befits an emergent social movement, the main organizing structures are functional committees, each entrusted with a distinct task: media outreach, constitution drafting, development, and so on. A youth component is now ever more visible, as this perceptive press account makes clear. The functional committees are in daily contact with the core group of activists who staff the coordinating committee, the day-to-day operations room of Kifaya. Coordinating committee members plan, negotiate, seek out venues, negotiate, speak to the press, negotiate, brainstorm, negotiate, raise money, negotiate, go home and sleep, wake up, eat breakfast, negotiate, maneuver, negotiate. You get the idea. If nothing else, Kifaya is that rare opportunity to watch up close, in real time, how social movements happen. All the more reason to try and understand what this new organism is rather than try to shoehorn it into our stale, inadequate categories.

The Cairo-based structure piggybacks on and networks with distinct, autonomous structures in the provinces developed out of the Palestine solidarity committees, which are in turn residues of earlier organizational incarnations forged out of earlier struggles, the 1997 land law protests being a prime example. The magical cell phone, beloved by us garrulous Egyptians, is the glue binding it all together. Not to mention an even more binding mechanism: a core of 1970s generation activists who’ve grown up together, campaigned and competed against each other, were prison mates together, and have refused to settle into tranquil middle age without seeing at least some marginal payoff of a life’s worth of activism. They bring to the movement considerable organizational skills honed from years of sparring with the regime. At its best, Kifaya is a warehouse of the nation’s most creative political talents.

The conscious spurning of ossified and authoritarian forms of leadership makes Kifaya a truly collective-run enterprise. There’s no one familiar face of the movement, there are several. There’s not one spokesman, but several. There’s not one leader, but several. And to complicate matters even further: there’s not one ideology, but several. How many Egyptian organizations can we say that about? Even (no, especially) human rights groups are led by one boss who’s the go-to guy for everything. From the family to the state, there’s always a big man (sometimes woman). It's an open question how long Kifaya will continue to escape the social curse of shakhsanat al-sulta (personalization of power).

Faced with the awesome resources of the Egyptian state, every Kifaya demonstration is a logistical miracle in my eyes. A 15-city demonstration is an swesome feat. The movement’s porous structure makes it especially vulnerable to infiltration, factionalism, and disintegration. The infant movement’s self-professed desire to distinguish itself from anything familiar in Egyptian society earns it many enemies, and worse, trepidation from those it seeks to attract. Coordinating committee meetings are heated, loquacious, dramatic affairs where it’s often difficult to separate deliberately divisive grandstanding from genuine and productive disagreement. That anything gets planned at these gabfests is another miracle. Egyptians have been alienated from political action for so long it’s at once startling, jarring, and exhilarating to see them start it from scratch, together.


“Among citizens, there’s a widespread feeling that Hosni Mubarak has ruined their lives.” “Our most difficult task is to tie the issue of presidential election and term limits to the ordinary citizen’s daily problems.” Two different visions of the “Egyptian street,” and consequently two very different visions of how to act. Kifaya activists agree on a bare minimum set of demands, but like virtually everyone else, they disagree about the tendencies, proclivities, and desires of the Egyptian public. Are Egyptians congenitally passive, cowards as some claim? Are they the easiest people in the world to rule, as the nauseating Kamal El-Foly opines in Alaa’ al-Aswany’s Imarat Yacoubian? Or are they patiently storing up years of oppression set to explode at any moment, as the conventional wisdom holds? After years of enforced atomization, Egyptians don’t know much about themselves; organizing a movement courting your fellow citizens becomes a well-nigh impossible task.
As with the venture into the street without permission, Kifaya activists are determined to venture beyond the formulaic rhetorical constructions of elite reform initiatives. A new constitution, yes, but how do you translate that into something ordinary people can understand? How do you make the link between a lousy life bereft of dignity and the right to choose those who govern? How do you demystify the word “emergency law” and whittle it down to the bare bones essentials that Egyptians understand only too well: humiliation and beatings at police stations, random stop and search on the street, anyone in uniform lording it over anyone without one, a pattern of impunity and abuse woven into daily life. (Not an exaggeration: nearly every taxi driver I have talked to has had at least one horrible experience with police and amn al-dawla officers, from repeatedly being forced to drive them around gratis from one end of town to another to prison time on trumped up charges orchestrated by vengeful or sadistic officers).

Kifaya members are fully aware that they’re targeting an entire political culture, that in effect, they’re telling Egyptians: government is not a matter of fate but choice. The president is not king, but your public servant. He needs our permission to rule, we don’t need his permission to live. “We’re through with the idea of asking permission, we’re gaining the right not to ask permission,” is how a Kifaya organizer put it. To translate this requires considerable skill, understanding, and respect for the ordinary Egyptian, a rare commodity among intellectuals used to alternately improving or blaming the ignorant masses.

No one is more gifted at rendering the highfalutin concepts of politics into ordinary language than Kamal Khalil, the grizzled man with the bullhorn who riles up the crowds and draws furtive smiles from the hapless gendarmerie at every demonstration. Civil engineer, Trotskyist, inveterate protestor, lifelong activist: Kamal Khalil is a very Egyptian mix of boyish charm, genuine modesty, and strong convictions. He’s one of the most unpretentious creatures I have ever met. Born and raised in the poor interstices of the fashionable Dokki neighborhood, Khalil credits historian Mohamed Anis for his political awakening. “I’m the youngest of nine children, we really lived a miserable life. Until age 19, I had no interest in politics. Then one evening I was dressed nice and off to a date when Dr. Muhammad Anis stopped me and asked where I was going. He used to lead young people in community service work in the neighborhood, and then convened seminars in the qahwa at night. He spoke to me for a bit, I ended up picking a shovel and clearing garbage and didn’t go to my date! I’m forever indebted to him for this transition in my life.”

The organic intellectual soon developed a reputation as an inventive and effective sloganeer. He was first arrested in the January 1972 student protests, and 12 more times since (we listed and counted). Watching Khalil think up his ditties is a rare treat: here’s someone with his finger on the proverbial pulse of the proverbial street, who has a sense for mocking the powerful in layman’s terms, of giving moral outrage a political tweak. And he’s not afraid.

Changing minds and overturning concepts takes time, and Kifaya’s tack of borrowing Egyptians’ resonant everyday language to package complex and counterintuitive political ideas is an uphill, rocky road. Democracy is a strange, unnatural idea. Rule by the unqualified many is abhorrent to many people, including many in advanced and old democracies. Think how even more difficult it is in a system founded on decades of popular repression and oligarchic rule, in a society riddled with class bias and inequality in every corner. It’s not easy to convince Egyptians that they can and must choose their governors, when a huge propaganda machine and ambient social relations reinforce and sanctify obedience and fear of authority. Hence the importance of frequent, repeated protests, no matter how small, each time chipping away at elaborate ideological structures of manufactured fear and servility. As Kifaya organizer George Ishaq told al-Ahram Weekly of Wednesday's protest, “We don't care about the number of people who joined the protest, but rather about the fact that such acts of opposition are taking place.”

Given that they have set themselves the narrow, focused task of changing ordinary Egyptians’ views on the place and power of government in their lives, it’s nonsensical to criticize Kifaya for not forwarding a coherent program or alternative vision. Alternative visions are a dime a dozen, take your pick; every political group and party in Egypt has a written manifesto and blueprint, some wackier than others, all printed in nice booklets stacked up in the corner gathering dust. Every cabal calling itself a party starts by commissioning a pamphlet. What’s needed now is not yet another pamphlet to throw on the pile, but someone who’ll speak to the people, in plain language. “The problem in Egyptian politics is the lack of consistency between actions and words, and between even words and words. Qualitative transitions should be our focus now, not tit-for-tat statements in response to the government, the Ikhwan, or whoever else,” says a Kifaya organizer.

Significant Others

The government and the Ikhwan are indeed Kifaya’s two most formidable organized interlocutors. I think it’s safe to say that Kifaya has wrested the initiative from the regime, putting it on the defensive, in perpetually reactive mode. Because of the intense international scrutiny on many Arab regimes, the costs of repressing Kifaya are increasing by the day. The recent international furor over Ayman Nour might be repeated, and that would be the last thing the regime wants. But let’s be cautious: forecasting the Egyptian regime’s behavior is a fool’s errand. They’ve stepped in the shit many times before, and always seem game for more repression no matter how colossal a blunder it proves to be.

What’s clear is that Kifaya has earned the right to negotiate with the government, even if just at the street level with security chiefs, as the above photograph demonstrates. That’s a whole lot more than what “opposition party leaders” get. Kifaya has forced Hosni Mubarak to come up with reasons for what he thinks he’s accomplishing by running again. It’s forced the state-owned press to think up attacks on the fledgling movement, and it’s forced the Interior Minister to make statements about how he won’t tolerate demonstrators' “curses” and “profanity” at “state leaders.”

There’s no doubt that Kifaya has unmoored the Ikhwan, revealing as never before the multiple factions contending for influence within the presumptively hyper-organized group. The Ikhwan have sent mixed signals to Kifaya, keeping a cordial presence under the umbrella lest they be excluded but going it alone when it comes to demonstrations and street protest. It’s clear that influential Ikhwan leaders, General Guide Muhammad Mahdi Akef prime among them, are not ready to openly ally with the Movement, perhaps holding out for the repeatedly dashed hope that Hosni Mubarak will wake up tomorrow and reconcile with them, bringing them into the warm embrace of power.

Other Ikhwan members say Kifaya is very popular with the group’s rank and file, reinforcing the leadership-membership split widely rumored to be the Ikhwan’s Achilles Heel. Kifaya organizers echo this view, seeing Akef as the Ikhwan old guard’s last hurrah, after which the group will be run by a younger, more savvy cadre less interested in building privileged links to regime leaders and more interested in developing horizontal linkages with other social groups. Be that as it may, the curiously under-reported General Guide’s 27 April statement contains the Ikhwan’s first-ever explicit announcement of their intention to form a civil political party “with an Islamic reference,” a point of contention for years within the organization. Is this Ikhwan ripose to Hosni Mubarak's dismissal of religious parties on his TV "interview" emboldened by Kifaya?

Lifecycle of a Movement
If Kifaya is seen as a dynamic social movement in perpetual transformation, influencing and being influenced by its environment, then different sorts of questions need to be asked about its structure, functions, prospects, and strategies. It cannot be shoehorned into any one of the available political templates in Egypt because it transcends and defies them all, setting itself the task of mobilizing for change, tout court. If it evaporates from the scene tomorrow as social movements often do, it will still have wrought a significant change in the character of public politics in Egypt even before any regime change has taken place. It might be remembered as the first sustained effort to bring together ordinary and elite Egyptians under a common project of resisting native rather than foreign tutelage (as was the case in 1919). Historiographers might see in it a merging of their beloved, oft-sundered twin processes: the struggle for democracy and the struggle for national independence, the former always readily sacrificed once the latter was attained. Economic historians will detect changes in the structures of production and labor markets as catalysts for social mobilization, while historians of ideas might perhaps mark Kifaya as the beginning of the consolidation of the democratic idea in Egyptian popular politics.

As a work in progress, the Egyptian Movement for Change cues and is cued by its significant others: just as it has pushed the state and the Ikhwan to modify and adapt their modus operandi, so have these interlocutors structured Kifaya’s incremental, protest-centered strategies and orientation toward the vast, excluded though not indifferent Egyptian public. But its momentum is not unstoppable: if the state cracks down, if Kifaya’s tactics cease to capture the public’s imagination, if international attention is averted, then the movement will wither. It might fade from the scene, devolve into contending factions, or morph into one of the familiar slots in the current political mold. Just as it’s too soon to declare it a success, it’d be equally foolhardy to pronounce it a failure.

I can't resist ending on a rousing, perhaps farfetched, but still uncannily resonant note. An irascible, tendentious, cutting observer of Egyptian affairs once wrote: “For in the Land of Paradox grapes do grow from thorns and figs from thistles. If the conditions, under which the government of Egypt has to be carried on, seem like a nightmare, the revival of the country during the last few years, under and in spite of these conditions, is almost worthy of a fairy tale. Here, again, the spirit of the eccentric and the improbable, which seems inseparable from all things Egyptian, has rollicked in a new surprise.” Alfred Milner in his England in Egypt (1892) was referring to what he liked to think were the revivifying effects of British occupation. I like to think how horrified he would be to behold the current picture of contentious Egyptians agitating for self-rule from their own native sahibs.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

A Family Affair

Egyptian Postal Stamp (2003)

Arab “first ladies” have always had undue influence, but undoubtedly they all pale in comparison to Mrs. Suzanne Mubarak nee Thabet. Yes, the above is a real Egyptian postage stamp, of 2003 vintage, and as far as I know it’s still in circulation. So Suzanne Mubarak’s visage is not just on every “community garden” and “women’s empowerment initiative”, but on this highly symbolic national emblem. How did it come to this?

Shakhsanat al-Dawla. The personalization of state power. This is retired judge Tareq al-Bishri’s apt moniker for the end-result of 24 years of the Mubaraks’ rule. We’re talking about something qualitatively different here from personal rule à la Nasser, to take the most cited instance. We’re talking about the parceling out of portions of the state to members of Mubarak’s immediate family. The executive branch is now divided into three spheres of influence: Mubarak pere takes care of the “sovereign” ministries: defense, interior, foreign affairs, and the intelligence agencies, and the justice ministry is his turf as well. Mubarak fils holds sway in information (now headed by his buddy Anas al-Fiqqi, a former encyclopedia salesman), investment (headed by crony Mahmoud Mohieddine), foreign trade, industry, and the premiership. The female Mubarak is particularly influential in Culture and Education (booted minister Hussein Kamel Bahaeddine was a big acolyte), the National Women’s Council which she heads, and something called the National Council on Motherhood and Childhood.

This is not my theory, but widely acknowledged fact. Credit where credit is due: the writer who first warned of this in print is of course al-Quds al-Arabi’s Muhammad Abdel Hakam Diyab, the ever-vigilant, ever-worthwhile dispenser of political analysis and gossip in the paper’s weekend edition. When I first read about the stamp in one of his columns, it didn’t register. It did register when a friend sent me a letter with the offending item. Tactile proof. I stared at it for minutes and experienced what I can only describe as an Orwellian moment. The utterly abnormal and unthinkable is real. Welcome to Egyptian reality.

I’m tempted to write reams about the gall, the hubris, the intoxication with power, the inevitable day when the mighty shall fall. I’ll resist the temptation and save my ode to Greek drama for another time. Here I want to reflect on the unaccountable and illegitimate ubiquity of Suzanne Mubarak in Egyptian public life.

When I was small, I vaguely remember watching on “live” TV Suzanne Mubarak’s flamboyant predecessor, Jehane al-Sadat, “defending her thesis” at Cairo University on our grainy, black and white TV with the humongous channel knob. I remember some charity group she had called Gam’iyyat al-Wafa’ wa al-Amal (The Faith and Hope Association). I remember my parents and grandparents indignantly discussing her excessive public visibility and praising Taheyya Abdel Nasser for shunning the limelight and being a “respectable” president’s wife. I remember thinking that Jehane al-Sadat was fake and loud.

Decades later. A cold winter’s evening. I’m couch-ridden with a bad cold, drifting in and out of a hallucinatory sleep. I sit up and try to watch some television. On Channel One, I see a very elderly Egyptian woman in black tarha and gallabiyya, from Manshiyyet Nasser, led up a podium before clicking and whirring TV cameras. In a rehearsed speech that failed to dampen this woman’s natural warmth and enthusiasm, she heaped profuse thanks and praise on Suzanne Mubarak, who sat frostily in the front row flanked by her coiffed and bejeweled associates. The woman thanked Suzanne Mubarak for running water, electricity, I think maybe a children’s center or a school or something of the sort that had been constructed in the neighborhood. She was then led from the podium to shake hands with Suzanne Mubarak, who smiled superciliously and sat down. And an adorable little girl wearing her best clothes was trotted out for the same routine, except they made her sing a song for “Mama Suzanne.”

Perhaps if Sadat had lived, Jehane would have carved out a similar niche of impunity. But he didn’t, and she couldn’t. What we know is that Suzanne Mubarak makes Jehane al-Sadat look like a retiring woman. Apparently it is not enough that Suzanne Mubarak has amassed a stunning array of prerogatives and powers. Obscene spectacles like the above would have us believe that the bare minimum rights of citizenship are benevolent grants of the president’s wife. The right to read and have affordable books has been usurped as a Suzanne Mubarak idea. The right of girls to have a basic education has morphed into a Suzanne Mubarak insight. The old Egyptian tradition of public libraries has been turned into a Suzanne Mubarak invention. Public gardens are billed as Suzanne Mubarak bequests. UN and US efforts to combat violence against and “empower women” have been folded into a local narrative of Suzanne Mubarak’s feminist credentials. Defending street children has become a Suzanne Mubarak vanity project. The grade-school fact that war is bad for development (gasp!) is trumpeted as a Suzanne Mubarak finding. Tomorrow they’ll tell us Suzanne Mubarak discovered the low-carb diet and the dangers of smoking.

The debasement of the meaning of citizenship, the humiliation of poor Egyptians, the abuse of language—all are symptomatic of the rank abuse of power for 24 years. Let’s be clear: Suzanne Mubarak is also merely a symptom. I don’t share the hugely popular depiction of her as a Lady Macbeth manipulating a henpecked husband and a dimwitted son and carrying on the affairs of state by remote control. Suzanne Mubarak would have been an utterly unexceptional, easily forgotten quantity had she been married to a president who had an iota of understanding and respect for the powers of his office. Cherchez l’homme, pas la femme. We have a deep-seated tendency to ascribe all sorts of horrible motives to the scheming wife, but let’s not kid ourselves, the personalization of state power in Egypt is not your aunt’s household writ large. The domestic model of the control-freak wife does not do justice to an entire state structure divvied up into three spheres of influence.

Hosni Mubarak is responsible. Not Hosni Mubarak the person or the husband but Hosni Mubarak the president. He is responsible for an out-of-control “First Lady” who controls appointments and policies and is absolutely unaccountable to anyone but her own whims and the dictates of the foreigners she so desperately wants to please. He is responsible for an out-of-control police force that maims and kills citizens. He is responsible for arming Egyptian citizens with clubs to beat other Egyptian citizens who are demanding their rights. He is responsible for every Egyptian citizen who drowns in the Mediterranean trying to escape poverty and hopelessness at home. He is responsible for every Egyptian citizen who commits suicide to escape daily humiliation. He is responsible for the pilfering of state assets and disintegration of public services. He is responsible for the death of Sarando’s Nafisa al-Marakbi, 38, mother of four, at the hands of criminal police agents. He is responsible.

But president Hosni Mubarak is busy right now repairing his shot legitimacy with a clumsy media stunt obligingly emceed by the cloying, gag-inducing Emadeddine Adib (but he’s a “liberal”!) He’s busy recalling dubious martial glories in exceedingly boring, trivial detail. He’s testing out a new moniker: “the hero of the first airstrike”. He’s busy telling us how hard he works to feed and clothe us, his perpetual burden. He’s preoccupied with “remembering” how embarrassed he always felt when Sadat praised him. He’s patiently explaining that governance is an exceedingly difficult, nay esoteric craft that only those who have practiced it for 24 years are fit to tackle it for another 24. He’s busy telling the Egyptian people to spurn their 24 years of experience with his rule and substitute that with a gullible embrace of the fantastical and untrue.

And the pundits have got themselves in a perfect little tizzy, panting for more details, blathering about Mubarak’s “authority”, deciphering every little gesture, lapping up every “revelation,” doing their bit as perfect little extras in the cheap carnival. From their despicable behavior, you’d think a true leader was sharing his hard-won wisdom, not a nervous, unimaginative dolt at the end of his tether.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Mahmoud Said's "Etude for the Amazing Catch" (1933)

The Sadly Declining Art of Bootlicking

One of the notable facts of living in Egypt is that one gets to see an endless parade of aspiring court intellectuals ply their miserable trade in the daily papers. In moments of crisis (to use an overused word), the idiot savants of sycophancy compete feverishly for inclusion in the court. Today’s offering featured Osama Saraya in al-Ahram’s opinion page blathering on about the infinite wisdom and foresight of “the political leadership” (obvious and pathetic code for the president). Saraya is wonderfully, unabashedly, unashamedly fifth-rate, a contemporary incarnation of those perfunctory, generic, Nasser-era sycophants whom no one ever read, and whose names have been rightfully consigned to the trashbin of history.

But since I’m benighted with this habit of tracking the emissions of the toadies, here goes: it seems Mr. Saraya wishes to discredit domestic advocates of political reform as a deviant, unrepresentative minority with no right to speak for “the silent majority”. Now surely you’re aware that this is the oldest and least creative argument in the bootlicking book. Apparently, Mr. Saraya just couldn’t be bothered to avail himself of the more interesting techniques in the how-to-grovel manual. So he sufficed with the novice techniques at the beginning of the book.

He scrawls, “We see now a surge from some influential forces that want to benefit from the transitional moment so they set about pressuring the policies of change,” (aside: how do you pressure policies?). But these nefarious forces will be stymied because “The silent and rational majority will move with a submerged and accumulated consciousness behind the leadership, which will in turn move to activate Egypt’s organizational, economic and political capabilities with a thin thread whose pivot is reform, building institutions capable of development. The signs of this reform are the transition to the free market state, aggrandize the state of institutions, separation of powers with political reform that amplifies the state of law, with a contemporary, organized spirit. We have arrived at the era of political wisdom via struggle, the possessors of this wisdom realize the price of this transformation, and we will pay it, because we know the value of the future and what awaits us in it.” Got all that?

It seems that putting up with such atrocious trash has become a fixed rite of Egyptian citizenship. But it needn’t be this way. Here’s a proposal: redirect a reasonable amount of state funds for better training at Abla Nazira’s School for Snivelers and Spaniels. I’m quite concerned at the budgetary cutbacks they’ve experienced lately, it’s obviously taking a toll. Rumor has it that all the money is going to the spanking new NDP Policies Secretariat with all their fancy computers and expensive software. If this is true, then this is just unacceptable. Sycophancy is a hallowed occupation with a long history here, and there’s absolutely no reason it should go to seed like this. As Egyptian citizens, we ought to demand refurbishing Abla Nazira and outfitting it with the latest in toadying technology and know-how. The “best practices” approach is relevant here; refurbishers would do well to emulate the superior product of American house intellectuals. I want to see crisper metaphors, more ardent arguments, and for God's sake better writing. I certainly hope decision-makers will take note, and that we’ll see improved results on the pages of the “national” newspapers soon. Thank you.

Saturday, April 23, 2005


Mirror mirror on the wall, who’s the craftiest of them all?
The most assured, the most possessed of enviable gall?
Well my child, since you ask, there’s none but he,
The chutzpah-filled interpreter of the land of Araby.

What does the erudite professor profess?
He does possess an unctuous and glib finesse.
Long ago he reached a momentous conclusion:
The route to fame demands intimate collusion.

Our adroit doctor kept one foot in the harmless academy,
And another firmly planted in the environs of national security.
His task was precise: deciphering the unruly Arab mob,
To the unlearned and gullible American sahib.

The Arab street you see is a dangerous, atavistic place,
In thrall to ancient hatreds and putrid Arab nationalist theories.
The professor partook before his deliverance by some mysterious grace,
So he’s uniquely positioned to purge the Arabs’ fantasies.

In newspapers and journals and books and TV,
The scholar proclaimed: the Arabs are hateful, envious, unfree.
They don’t believe in peace, or Israel’s security,
Why if they had the chance, they’d throw the tiny state into the sea.

Negotiations, engagement, diplomacy, it’s all humbuggery.
Arab potentates, princes, presidents and pashas,
Wrote the book on the ways and means of skullduggery,
They understand only force, bombs, any violent fracas.

Bomb Baghdad, Sudan, perhaps Damascus too,
And the Arabs in gratitude will learn to be free.
But never forget to give credit where credit’s due,
It was George W. Bush who stumbled upon Arab liberty.

So democracy is advancing, it’s the autumn of the autocrats,
Our florid professor is all aflutter at his finding.
A storm wave of freedom will usher in the democrats,
But ustaz doktor Araby cautions it may not be binding.

But details, details, who cares for mere facts?
They’re so stale and boring, let’s stick with fictive acts.
They lend themselves so easily to rousing flights of rhapsody,
And that’s the preferred genre of our faithless doktor Araby.

Friday, April 22, 2005


Once upon a time in the antique land of Egypt,
In the rarefied precincts of the People’s Assembly,
There lurked a formidable man who presided over the abode of Egyptian democracy.
Possessed of such an imposing, zaftig embonpoint was he,
That a small army of security was deemed a necessity.
Rosy-cheeked, charmingly grizzled, and outfitted in Italian finery,
Our powerful potentate was unmatched in the arts of legislative parley.

What is the origin and trajectory of such a creature, you ask?
Very well, then, let’s get right to the task.
On a blessed day in the unsuspecting town of Bagour,
An infant’s cry was heard, a ululation emitted, the sun shone upon the village’s moor.
Unbeknownst to the famously wily residents of Menoufiyya,
Their governorate was set to become bar none the most famous mudiriyya.

Behold the ambition and meteoric rise of the methodical magnate,
Tethering himself to high-profile platforms where he could pontificate.
Socialism, mixed economy, capitalism, whatever the zeitgeist brought in,
Our covetous climber was not one to be bothered by scrupulous precision.
And so he seamlessly moved through the Youth Organization, the Arab Socialist

Union, Hizb Misr, and the very National, very Democratic Party,
Whatever would keep him close to the commanding heights of the presidency.

Hard work pays off, gentle readers, so contemplate and consider:
To travel high up in the state's elechons one can’t afford to dither.
Our vigorous Vizier is finally in the rarefied inner circle,
A fixture, a power broker, a practiced dispenser of the requisite treacle.
But in the People’s Assembly, behold his famous tongue-lashing,
Of renegade, refractory, or respected deputies no matter how dashing.

At the end of his long days filled with admonishment and machination,
Our burly baron retires to his tranquil, plush, and well-heeled habitation.
He works on his memoirs, perhaps reflects on his conquests,
Perhaps he has reveries, or draws up his bequests.
Perforce he must plan, concoct, and connive,
Hatch schemes and designs to perpetually survive.

A new day dawns, Egypt waits to be ruled,
There’s much to attend to, slaying democracy’s ghoul.
Street protests and mutiny, the people have arisen,
The final solution, is to repress and imprison.
Too much is at stake, the viability of powers-that-be,
Methinks our once intrepid politico is considerably uneasy.

The Restless Mind

Safinaz Kazem's Writing: Visions and Self (2003)

This lovely book was my companion on a recent Alexandria-Cairo train ride. I found it tucked away on a shelf in the cavernous, dusty GEBO bookstore on Sa'd Zaghlul Street, for an incredible LE6.50 and took it for the ride. As the bucolic Delta scenery whizzed by under a gentle afternoon sun, I was lost in the magical world of Safinaz Kazem, one of our most entrancing and stimulating writers. In person, Kazem is a famously curmudgeonly presence, quick to exasperation, but not without humour. Anyone who's seen Tahani Rached's wonderful "Four Women of Egypt" remembers Ustaza Safinaz as by far the most lively and opinionated of the lot; I'll never forget her hilarious dream about Gamal Abdel Nasser, and her whimsical bedroom furnishings. In writing, Ustaza Safinaz is a lyrical, irrepressible, utterly engaging voice. I laughed out loud many times, at her seamless twining of the mundane and profound, the literary and the quotidian, the beautiful, bad, and the ugly. She's one of a handful of cultural critics who actually write criticism, as opposed to tedious, inept summaries of texts. For this alone this collection is a worthwhile treat.

But there's much more. Writing: Visions and Self is a wide-ranging series of essays reflecting the range of Kazem's interests: essays on artists coexist with heartfelt tributes, tender reminiscences about her ever-vivid childhood, reflections on what she calls "writing as affliction", cutting remarks about revered figures (her send-up of Ghada al-Samman is priceless), and superb narratives of her colorful life: brief marriage to the poet Ahmad Fuad Nigm, giving birth to her only daughter Nawarat al-Intisar in October 1973, and her long and productive life as a creative writer in the state-owned press since age 18, working with Ahmad Bahaeddine, Mustafa Amin, Makram Muhammad Ahmed, and the hateful and hated Yusuf al-Seba'i.

Every word, every comma, every image in Kazem's writing is agonized over and painstakingly chosen. This is a writer who's gifted--and afflicted--with the power of saying what she means. I read the 316-page book and found not one extraneous sentence. How rare is this in modern Arabic writing, when acres of precious print are wasted on saying nothing at all? Like George Orwell, Kazem never reaches for the stale, commonplace image or turn of phrase; there's a wonderful freshness that graces her prose. Kazem's words on Salwa Bakr apply equally well if not more to her own writing: "The first trait in Salwa Bakr's fiction is that it lures you into reading and pulls you to engage with the pages. This has become a rare trait. And so it bears mentioning whenever the days smile upon us and we encounter it in a piece of writing," (p. 199).

Safinaz Kazem was born in 1937. At the age of 18, she started work in journalism under the tutelage of great mentors: Mustafa Amin, Musa Sabri, Ahmed Bahaeddin. In 1956, she was part of Rawiya Attiya's campaign team, Egypt's first woman representative in parliament. They roved the country drumming up support, Attiya and a flotilla of seven young journalism interns, all women, repeating the slogan: "Rawiya Attiya, miyya al-miyya!" Kazem poignantly recalls that heady era:

"Every morning we met in the garage of Akhbar al-Yom with Rawiya Attiya leading the consciousness-raising caravan. We got into the newspaper's cars and drove around under the June sun, from morning to late afternoon, going into factories and hospitals and traveling to villages and hamlets. Rawiya was energetic and enthusiastic, neither fatigue nor boredom catching up with her from the speaking and repeated explaining here and here and there. She would hold up the voting card for electing Gamal Abdel Nasser, with his picture and two circles under it: "yes" and "no". Consciousness-raising consisted of steering opinion to the "yes" circle, a foregone conclusion...At that time, Gamal Abdel Nasser was the undisputed, beloved popular leader, upon whom all hopes and dreams were pinned. Rawiya Attiya's love for him was sincere, and our love for him--at that time--was also sincere. "Patriotism" in the minds of the female masses, whom we were urging to exercise their right to vote, meant electing Gamal Abdel Nasser," (pp. 48-9).

From 1960-66, Kazem lived in New York and attended New York University, living in the bohemian Greenwich Village, a time she always recalls fondly as a formative period in her development as a writer. I'll never forget the hilarious bit in "Four Women of Egypt" when she describes her camping trip with her sister in the United States and their proud plugging of the achievements of Nasserist Egypt. "Well, do you have snow in Egypt?" they were asked. "We will after the High Dam is built!" Upon her return to Egypt, Kazem resumed her work as a journalist. In August 1972, she married Nigm, surely one of the most whimsical unions in Egyptian cultural life, and Kazem has an equally whimsical explanation for it. "Whenever someone tried to dissuade me from marrying him, my feeling of the necessity of expediting the marriage intensified. It wasn't a love story between him and I but a story that no one believes when I tell them; it was a poetic stance on my part that exceeded in its beauty coventional tales of love between men and women," (p. 22). Despite this amusing self-regarding gloss, Kazem is reflective rather than bitter when describing their break-up. She continued writing columns in various magazines, distinguishing herself as a theater critic. Since 1997, she's become a regular contributor to the monthly al-Hilal, where she's a consistently provocative, moody, and thought-provoking presence, her purview expanding beyond theater to take in all matters cultural (and sometimes political).

There's plenty of what might conventionally be called nostalgia in Kazem's essay collection, and in fact it's one of the most endearing qualities of her writing. But somehow, she escapes the worst aspects of this genre; there's none of the condemnation of the present and idealization of the past that seem to define so much of nostalgic writing. And thank goodness she's not nostalgic about Wust al-Balad; I've had enough of the trendiness of downtown Cairo and its refined European ethos bla bla bla. Instead, Kazem constructs incredibly vivid portraits of her Abbasiyya childhood, and it's clear that her girlhood is still very much with her. Her current Abbasiyya residence is an attempt to recreate her beloved childhood apartment, she tells us. Also not to be missed are Kazem's accounts of her family's cordial but increasingly tense relations with their Jewish neighbors after the 1948 creation of Israel. Unlike Andre Aciman's memoir Out of Egypt or Radwa Ashour's novel Qit'a min Orobba, Kazem's account of Jewish Egyptian life is a rare child's-eye view unfiltered by political agendas or the insufferable romanticization of upper-class Jewish life that Aciman has turned into a lucrative career.

Instead, Kazem narrates life with her Jewish neighbors as a child would, with hilarious and politically uncorrect candor. Safinaz and her sister carry on a graffiti war with their neighbor Sheila about Palestine's rightful owners ("Jews" covers "Arabs" and vice versa in an endless contest that Safinaz and her sister started) until Sheila's Rabbi grandfather comes up to talk to Safinaz's mother. The parents have a tearful chat in the parlor about their common identity as Arabs and the bonds between neighbors, each vowing to give their respective daughters a good beating; Safinaz and her sister eavesdrop nervously and quickly make themselves scarce when they hear their front door close behind the Rabbi and their mothers' determined steps approaching (pp. 79-80).

After a wistful stroll through her childhood neighborhood with filmmaker Tahani Rached, Kazem writes, "We decided that the notion of a "beautiful bygone era" (al-zaman al-gamil) is largely illusory. The label "beautiful bygone era" has become attached to every past in politics, culture, fiction, art, and cinema. And even though as I have shown I yearn for many things I experienced in my childhood, glimpsed in a street, building, book, etc., I acknowledge that objectively I cannot elevate individual nostalgia and feed it to people as a supposedly collective nostalgia for an era that was not as beautiful as the nostalgia illusion makes it out to be," (p. 69). Is it just me, or is this level of self-awareness and self-critique nearly extinct in contemporary cultural life?

Who else can write with sagacity and insight about figures as diverse as the American writer Ernest Hemingway, the Iraqi crooner Kadhim al-Sahir, retired judge Tariq al-Bishri, late feminist (and Kazem's grade-school teacher) Latifa al-Zayyat, the journalist Sana' al-Beesy, "the obsessions of film director Muhammad Khan", the Palestinian poet Murid al-Barghouti, the women's rights pioneer Nabawiyya Musa, nationalist leader Fathi Radwan, Czech writer Milan Kundera, and last but not least the famous radio personality "Baba Sharoo", Muhammad Mahmoud Sha'ban, whose radio programs shaped Kazem's generation and to whom the essay collection is warmly dedicated. I can think of no other contemporary writer with such versatility and eclectic interests. Also sprinkled throughout the essays is what can best be called "the poetry of everyday life", where Kazem spars with her cat "Vivian Leigh", nourishes her plants, washes the dishes to ward off writerly anxiety, and otherwise fills hers days with a poet's angst and insight.

I didn't realize it when I picked up the book, but it is a beautifully wrought journey into recent Egyptian history. If you love history or want to know more, this is a fun place to start. Kazem has lived a long, examined, sentient life, and her uncanny memory illuminates so much of our recent past. Her life intersects in so many fascinating ways with other notable Egyptians, yet she's also very much an ordinary Egyptian woman with a child's sense of sprightly wonder and humor. In short, her ego is not an issue, and how many people can you say that about in public life?! Therein lies the power of her reminiscences and narratives.

Perhaps it's necessary to deal with the elephant in the room: Kazem's turn to Islam and the higab. Frankly, this is her least interesting and least creative side as far as I'm concerned. When Kazem ventures to talk about politics, her interventions are stupid. When she feels compelled to give unsolicited lectures about Islam, she's defensive and shrill. I can't quite get my head around this aspect of her personality, but I suppose it's part and parcel of her general cantankerousness. As "Four Women of Egypt" showed so well, each of the women is a delightful and very Egyptian bundle of contradictions, and none more so than Kazem. Her Islamic "turn" is part of who she is, but it doesn't surface at all in this essay collection. And neither do her bizarre takes on politics, thankfully.

Two of Kazem's pieces particularly resonated with me. On the occasion of her 60th birthday she writes, "Everything for me begins and ends with the self, and the terms "self" and "selfhood" for me are positive because, honestly, I have not had the honor of encountering "objectivity" in all my life....All my columns were corners from which I emerged from my self to talk about all aspects of life, art, theater, and issues of creed, nation, and humanity, responsible for myself, separate from the arenas of debate and give and take."

Finally, Kazem's last essay is a truly transporting piece of writing, perhaps because I experienced an intense pang of recognition. "My restorative trip to Sharia al-Ghuriyya" (rahlaty al-ta'wideyya fi sharia al-Ghuriyya) is a walk I too have taken, along the long snake of street connecting al-Azhar street to al-Qal'a. "This place is the essence of Cairo." On a January day, from 11 in the morning to four in the afternoon, Kazem leisurely strolls up this artery, picking up plastic bags full of carrots, tangerines, and green beans along the way, and beautiful woolen shawls and Fayoumi kilims with "Proudly made in Egypt" emblazoned on them in English. As she reaches sharia al-Qal'a, "To my regret I awoke, and would that I hadn't, from my restorative five hour trip from the entrance of Ghuriyya, where I cleansed my heart and filled it with joy." I'm sure I'm not the only one who's had this same magical, cathartic feeling on this particular stretch of street, full of "cleanliness, kindness, mutual aid, and religion, as if the street is a long corridor in a family house." But I doubt that anyone else can write about it with such grace and wonderment.

Thursday, April 21, 2005


Congratulations and respect are due to Yahya Zakariyya Nigm, charge d'affaires at the Egyptian embassy in Caracas, Venezuela. On 21 February 2005, Mr. Nigm penned a letter of resignation that stands as an eloquent indictment of Egypt's dependent and ineffective foreign policy. I quote a portion: "Egypt's policy since about the mid-1970s has become a policy alien to us, distant from our historical, national, religious, and traditional precepts and sometimes even contradictory to them, approaching policies and projects alien to us. We have been struck by despair, depression, and sometimes shock at these positions, and comprehending them as well as articulating and defending them has become a burden too heavy to bear. On one hand we do not want to shirk our professional duties, and on the other we do not want to go against our conscience and beliefs."

Mr. Nigm's dignified response to this dilemma was to recuse himself from representing the Egyptian government, a remarkable rarity. He might be the first Egyptian functionary in recent memory to take this step. The last resignation I recall is foreign minister Muhammad Ibrahim Kamel's resignation in 1978 in protest at Anwar Sadat's Camp David negotiations. Mr. Nigm concludes his impressive missive with a play on a resonant saying: "We borrow from our predecessors: For the sake of Egypt we entered the Foreign Service and for the sake of Egypt we leave it." The reference is to former PM Mustafa al-Nahhas' famous 1951 parliamentary declaration "For the sake of Egypt we signed the 1936 Treaty and for the sake of Egypt we abrogate it." The announcement was part of the social upheaval leading to the momentous regime change of July 1952. Dare we draw tempting parallels?

Mr. Nigm's letter deserves to be read in full, for its cogency, social conscience, and glimpse into the details of everyday corruption in the Egyptian government's Venezuelan outpost. Like novelist Sonallah Ibrahim's statement spurning that prestigious award back in October 2003, Nigm's letter encapsulates an ambient zeitgeist. By what mysterious alchemy will the spirit of the times morph into actual change?

The Art of Saying Nothing

Lucky me, three of my absolute favorite pundits made interventions this week, I feel giddy like a kid in a candy store. First, the unctuous Thomas Friedman shared his unsolicited thoughts on democracy in the Middle East. He even brought himself to write about—gasp!—Israeli extremists, typified by the settlers, and equates them with “Nasserists and fundamentalists” as “bad guys” for democracy. Um, no. Nasserists and “fundamentalists” are Friedman’s intellectual foes, not dangers to democracy. His attempt to demonize his opponents as threats to democracy (with absolutely no evidence) is exactly like our oh-so-democratic Arab leaders excluding Islamists and then saying, “But they’ll destroy democracy.” Exclude people and call them “bad guys” and you have a sure recipe for social violence. Exclude your opponents and competitors and claim they're bad for democracy and you’re just a threatened, disingenuous autocrat cynically pleading democracy to crush your foes. I would’ve expected Friedman to evade this obvious trap, but perhaps I expect overmuch.

I certainly don’t expect Friedman to know that writing about democracy in terms of valorized “good guys” and vilified “bad guys” is acceptable for a fifth grader but not for a thinking adult. You see, Tom (and tell me if I need to speak more slowly), democracy works precisely because it envelops all social forces within an electoral/parliamentary frame, and forces them to duke it out with each other peacefully. That’s why radical parties become astute horse-traders when they get into parliament. Jewish settlers, however, have spurned parliamentarism in favor of Biblical directives, while Islamists and Nasserists haven’t and instead have been nearly begging for parliamentary inclusion for decades, lapping up whatever crumbs their governments throw them here and there. So what’s Friedman equating? I don’t understand, unless with a sleight of hand he wants to discredit his ideological foes to an unsuspecting American readership by claiming Islamists and Nasserists are as violent as the settlers when they’re plainly not. It makes me ill to think that many Americans get their foreign policy knowledge from Friedman and Co.

Next, our fair Hala Mustafa is back with some more from her bottomless pit of earth-shattering revelations. Please do read her latest piece and marvel at the writerly lucidity, intellectual profundity, and analytical probity. And contemplate her revealing and expressive titles: “Confronting present and past”. I do declare, Egyptians are so fortunate to have minds of Mustafa’s caliber revivifying and profundifying our public discourse, blazing trails and shattering received truths, pushing us out of our complacency to ponder Dr. Hala’s priceless nuggets of wisdom. Listen as she holds forth, “There is always a time when a given political system confronts change. That critical juncture may usher in a point of no return just as it pulls others back.” When I read this breathtaking opening clause, I put down the newspaper and gazed into the distance, letting the full effect of her words do their magic on my enervated brain.

Truly, may Dr. Hala continue to brighten our days and illuminate our nights with her courage and intellectual independence, her angelic visage gracing her stupendous articles, her matchless sartorial elegance setting the standard for the modern career woman. What an inspiring role model Dr. Hala is for other Egyptian women like myself; verily I will be overjoyed if I attain but a quintile of what she has accomplished. Every time I am in the vicinity of the al-Ahram buildings, I cast about anxiously for a glimpse of the beauteous doctor. But when fortune invariably frowns upon me and we fail to cross paths, I feel secure at the thought of her ensconced in her office, engrossed in deep reflections on the Egyptian condition.

Finally, another titan from our punditocracy adorns the newspapers this week. As with all of Dr. Mustafa El-Feki’s pieces, the latest requires, nay demands repeated perusal for a thorough and penetrating understanding. Superficial and indolent minds will complain that Dr. El-Feki is stating the obvious, dressing up banalities as insights, and packaging apologetics for Mubarak’s foreign policy as dispassionate analysis. To them I say: shame on you. Clearly you’re not applying yourself if that’s all you can come up with after reading Dr. El-Feki’s far-sighted analysis. Do you know who Dr. El-Feki is? He’s the former ambassador to Vienna, don’t you realize that? It’s because of such hapless souls that Dr. El-Feki feels compelled to preface all his remarks by reminding us that he was the former ambassador to Vienna, for God’s sake. Historically, of course, former ambassadors to Vienna have returned to Egypt to become leading opinion-makers. Please read up on your Egyptian history, will you?

Not only is Dr. El-Feki a career diplomat, he also proudly tells us that he’s never had to do the scutwork for the posts he’s held, always parachuting in by presidential decree. “I didn't sit any exams to enter the foreign service, or contest the elections to enter parliament.” Between 1985 and 1992, Dr. El-Feki was president Mubarak’s “Secretary of Information and Follow-up.” Of president Mubarak he says, “He's very objective. I have never seen anyone like him. He may like someone 100 per cent, but he will end his service if he makes a mistake. He makes a clear distinction between the personal and professional. I was one of the closest people to him on the personal level, but when he was convinced that I made a mistake on the job, he did not hesitate to end my service at the presidency. He is a hard worker, very nationalistic in a practical way. Not a man of slogans, but one of action.” El-Feqi also greatly “admires and respects” Mrs Mubarak, whom he describes as “a good scholar and a bright woman.”

The disciplined Dr. El-Feki likes to start his day at 7 am, by dictating his article du jour. “I prefer to dictate because you can just close your eyes and say what you want. My concentration is focused on thinking only and not divided between thinking and writing.” Then he’s tied up for the rest of the day in parliamentary sessions, cultural salons, and so forth. To recharge his batteries, Dr. El-Feki confides, "I have a special weakness for London. For 30 years I have kept a flat in this cosmopolitan city, where you can do anything and everything; shopping, studying, medical treatment." You’d do well to recall that Dr. El-Feki is also former U.S. ambassador David Welch’s favorite writer, in contrast to Salama Ahmed Salama, whom Welch dismissed as possessing "obtuse judgment." Someone who's had the enthusiastic patronage of the powerful throughout his long career perforce commands awe and approbation. I can hardly get enough of Dr. El-Feki's wisdom and insight, and thankfully every time I go to al-Shuruq bookshop his books are always plentifully stocked, seemingly untouched by the insufficiently subtle minds that populate our woefully obtuse city. Sigh.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005


Once upon a time, in the antique land of Egypt,
There lived a filial, kind, and besotted man,
By the name of Dr. Muhammad Magdi Morgaan.
Writhing with torment and despondency,
Our poor Dr. Morgaan weathered crippling bouts of jealousy.
He could nary stand to let a lone week pass,
Without heaping praise and blessings upon his most favored lass.
His beloved was not a bewitching or playful damsel, you see,
Nay, nothing less than the elephantine Egyptian presidency.

One dark Khamaseeny Wednesday,
Dr. Morgaan penned a huffy and indignant piece of poesy.
But what had ruffled our tender Doctor so?
It seems as if a few judges had the temerity,
To demand their long-pilfered autonomy.
Well, an affront this grave just could not stand,
So our loyal doctor set to brewing his noxious brand.

He began with soothing words of commiseration,
For the Herculean burdens borne by a hero-president on behalf of an ingrate nation.
Thousands of tons of bread, housing, and clothing do they ravenously consume,
With nary a nod of thanks to the chronically pained father-president overcast with gloom.
Behold, Dr. Morgaan's profound and recondite theory,
Of the proper terms of communion between the president and the citizenry.

After peppering his paean thus with a scold here and a supplication there,
Our determined doctor plunges with gusto into his merciless tear.
Beware the "enemies of the homeland" and "inciters of anarchy," says he,
Those dastardly magistrates and their dastardly liberty.
Why should upstanding professionals speak out and demand self-rule?
How could they feed their tender charges such baleful gruel?
Hark! Justices should pore over weighty tomes of code and law,
And divest themselves once and for all of rotten notions better left stuck in the craw.

Oh, dear readers, how edified, chastened, and relieved am I,
That the pure Dr. Morgaan towers over all those knaves who would ferret and pry.
Momentous matters of national unity and security,
Trump all trivial, narrow concerns of professorial or judicial autonomy.
And so our valiant Pandarus perpetually stands vigil,
Crushing in the bud any emergent sybils.

The Egyptian Professoriate: Enough

Egyptian university professors, chafing under decades of government intrusion, join the society-wide reform Intifada. Yesterday at Minya University and today at Cairo University, faculty staged silent processions demanding academic freedom and political reform. The great Awatef Abdel Rahman, graduate of Sadat's prisons, says "Professors here are also demonstrating in solidarity with Egyptian judges." After submitting a letter with their demands to the university president, four of the Minya professors were referred to disciplinary hearings.

Note well: Egyptian university professors are even more obssessively monitored and controlled than judges. Their intimate contact with impressionable young people, their traffic in ideas, their social prestige: all render them too dangerous to be left alone. So, soon after the Free Officers took power, they made sure to render the universities an adjunct of state power. Faculty lounges and departments turned into prime recruitment grounds for government ministers, advisers, and miscellaneous intellectual apologists. The road to a ministership more often than not passes through an academic deanship. Think Alieddine Hilal. Think Fathi Sorour. Think Mufid Shihab. And let's not forget "opposition parties": No'man Gom'a was a former dean of the Cairo University Law Faculty.

As heavyweight sectors of Egyptian society join the calls for reform, others are emboldened and inspired. Call it reform fever, call it the infectious cry of "kifaya", call it what you will. But watch it closely.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

Cairo, Midan al-Qal'a

Kifaya reductionism, Kifaya gossip, Kifaya misrepresentation

With each passing day, the Egyptian regime seems less a tightly wound cabal issuing consistent policies and directives than a labyrinth of contending factions and organizations angling for supremacy and control. There's a long tradition in Egypt of reducing "the regime" (al-nizam) to not simply the executive branch but even more narrowly the president and his handful of advisers; cf. the endless speculations over Nasser and Abdel Hakim Amer, Sadat and his serial confidants/nemeses, Mubarak and Abu Ghazala, etc. Western "risk analysts" and pseudo-academics picked this up and elevated it to the status of dogma.

This was never accurate then, and definitely is not now. Even at the height of Nasser's super-presidency, Egyptian regime dynamics were ten times more variegated than these simplified images. If you want to believe that the regime is reducible to the president and his men, good luck explaining the ferment enveloping Egypt at least since the 2003 American invasion of Iraq if not before (I date it to the onset of the recession in 1999).

Instead, the regime encompasses not just the sprawling bureaucracy, overlapping security agencies, and other Executive branch bodies, but parliament and the judiciary, with their own institutional complexities. I'm not talking about how much real power these other two branches hold; everyone knows they're constitutionally dwarfed by the Executive. But over and over again in Egyptian history, under certain conditions when the Executive was under domestic and international stress, the politics of the other branches jump to center stage. And no wonder: political openings create room for new and old players. Parliament was a critical arena in 1950-51 before the fall of the monarchy; the judiciary was a key player in the post-1967 weakening of the Nasserist state; both branches took center stage in the last years of Sadat's increasingly erratic rule. At least since the 2000 ruling stipulating judicial supervision of elections, politics of the judicial branch took center stage in Egypt. Look no further than late last week.

On Friday came a fascinating inkling of the complexity of Egyptian regime dynamics. 1,200 Alexandria judges issued a statement threatening to boycott the upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections if they don't have full oversight from A to Z, i.e. no medddling from security forces and Interior, no interference with voter rolls to include dead people and emigres, no bussing in of public sector workers, no intimidation of voters outside polling stations, no blockading of streets leading to polling stations, and on down the litany of abuses witnessed in the 2000 elections. Judges also reiterated their demand for a new law guaranteeing them autonomy (currently the draft bill is held up in some parliamentary committee). Middle East Online has nice coverage of the judges' meeting and who said what, including the scheduling of a May meeting in Cairo to include all judges to hammer out a consensus. The Financial Times got in on the act, but their breathless assertion that "The Egyptian government is facing an unprecedented challenge from the country's judges" is inaccurate (see below).

Importantly, elected head of the Cairo-based Judges Club Zakariyya Abdel Aziz attended the Alexandria meeting and said, "I am committed to executing all that comes out of this meeting." Judge Hossam al-Ghiryani said, "The beginning of any political reform must go through a strong independent judge. We want a truly independent judiciary through which we can protect freedoms and human rights, and the first of these rights is one's right not to have one's will falsified through rigged elections."

These brave judges had caused quite a stir several weeks ago, prompting The Supreme Council for the Judiciary to issue a statement on 12 April denying that judges were "in revolution" and affirming their "distance from working in politics." Judge Hossam al-Ghiryani in particular deserves special mention. He was the judge who issued the Cassation Court report invalidating the 2000 election results in al-Zeitoun, which is none other than Zakariya Azmi's district, and Azmi of course is Hosni Mubarak's chief of staff and point man in parliament. Needless to say, such a report was highly embarrassing to Mubarak and Azmi, and unbelievably gutsy on the part of Ghiryani. To the regime's rescue, in March 2004 the thoroughly tamed Supreme Constitutional Court issued a binding interpretation of the long-running dispute over who gets defined as a judge, with the effect of upholding Zeitoun's election results and overruling Ghiryani's verdict.

The upcoming May meeting of the judges in Cairo promises to echo the significance of the March 1968 meeting of the Judges Club. That historic meeting of course produced the famous declaration that the 1967 war was a result of domestic repression and absence of rule of law. For their efforts, leading judges who authored and signed the statement got sacked by Nasser in the "massacre of the judiciary" (madhbahat al-qada') in August 1968. Egyptian judges are part of the regime yet have always been nettlesome wild cards. Where do they fit in the caricatured conceptions of the regime as the president and his men?

Meanwhile, in the land of gossip and dish, hanger-on Mustafa Bakri runs down the options for the presidential elections. Now, Bakri has always been a loyal servant of his paymasters over at the Interior Ministry, dedicating the pages of his rag to character assassinations and inept innuendo about regime enemies of the month, so I'm not about to lend credence to anything that he says or writes. His gossipy piece last week is all agog with "three scenarios" based on unsourced and unidentified reports by "concerned agencies" and "American reports". Two of the "scenarios" concern the selection of General Intelligence chief Umar Suleiman as either presidential candidate or vice presidential candidate to Mubarak, while the third says the presidential candidate will be Gamal. Another (is this a fourth?) says Suleiman will be prez while Gamal will head the NDP, from which perch he'll contest the presidential elections in 2011. The article reads like a very strained attempt by Bakri to convince us that he's a regime insider in the know.

I don't know what game Mustafa Bakri and his brother Mahmud are playing, because the next issue of al-Osboa contains a hotly worded warning to the government by Mustafa entitled "Egypt is boiling!" and a hyperbolic salute to the dissident judges by Mahmud entitled "The Judges' Intifada". They want to play both sides: informed sources one week, government "critics" the next. How pathetic. I'm not good at deciphering innuendo and don't care to join the carnival of speculation about who's in and who's out in the corridors of power and which "journalists" have the ear of power and which don't. I'm inclined to see Mustafa and Mahmud Bakri's antics as crumbs thrown to public opinion and sensationalism to sell their worthless paper. No wonder all their good columnists left.

Finally, the Arab Reform Bulletin describes Kifaya as a "liberal" movement. What does this mean? Kifaya is a diverse umbrella representing all of Egypt's political sects. It's not "liberal", it's not "conservative," it's not "Nasserist", it's not "Wafdist", it's not "Islamist", it's not "communist," it's not "socialist". It's all of these, and much more. Kifaya meetings and protests welcome everyone, including the sizeable number of politically undecided and/or uncommitted Egyptians. Is that too much for the editors of the Bulletin to handle?

Friday, April 15, 2005

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Empowering Women, Anywhere but the U.S.

In a recent interview, Elizabeth Cheney, daughter of the American Vice President and a State Department employee in the Near Eastern Affairs section, encourages feedback about the "Middle East Partnership Initiative" (MEPI). First of all, I'd like to tell Ms. Cheney that her contention that Iraqi elections energized the region is false. In her words, "What we’re seeing I think are people feeling inspired and a beginning of a lifting of the burden of fear." "We" have seen this before, in earlier waves of "Arab democratization" that didn't pan out. Arabs did not look over at the Iraqi elections and say "we want to be like that" as American officials like to think. We've had elections forever (here in Egypt at least since the 1920s); Arabs saw in the elections a deepening of ethnic and sectarian divisions, not a triumphant reclaiming of citizenship. Arab history didn't begin with Iraqi elections in 2005.

Second, I couldn't find information on Ms. Cheney on the State Department's website beyond news of her appointment (her job title is too long for me to reproduce), so I'd like to know: as the second-ranking Middle East diplomat at the State Department (number one is the former American ambassador to Egypt David Welch), what are Ms. Cheney's qualifications? What is her knowledge base about the region? Does she speak a regional language? Since she's the chief administrator of MEPI, I'm assuming she knows something about the region, but perhaps I'm wrong. Since she enthuses in her interview about "empowering women", what is her view of the state of women in the region?

The Cheney interview is predictably uninformative; she evades important issues and speaks in measured, meaningless, pious diplomatspeak: "We are guided in all of what we do by individual people in countries who are working for freedom. We provide support to people who want the support. I also think there is a bit of a misconception. President Bush has—in a more public and direct way than any previous American president—put the United States on the side of people fighting for democracy in the Arab world. We are very sincere in that. We want people to judge us by our actions and we want to provide support where we can." So for more information, I went to the MEPI website.

The website's main page features two women (one of whom is muhaggaba of course, the State Department has no problems with muhaggabat who are "for women's rights") at some Cairo conference funded by USAID. Just in case you haven't gotten it yet: the US wants to "empower women" in the Middle East, just like Mrs. Suzanne Mubarak wants to "empower women." This is a side issue, I'm sure: what does the US government do to "empower women" in the United States? I mean, what does the US government do about gender-based inequalities in the US and the conditons of poor and minority women? A recent report finds, "At the rate of progress achieved between 1989 and 2002, women would not achieve parity for more than 50 years." The report also says: "African American, Native American, and Hispanic women all have lower earnings and higher poverty rates than white women. But all groups of women have lower earnings and higher poverty rates than white men. Women are less likely to own a business and are less likely to work in high-paid occupations, such as jobs in science and technology or top levels of business." So, women in the US are far from "empowered" and face daunting structural gaps in their earnings and job prospects. Yet the US government is employing Elizabeth Cheney to parachute into the Middle East and teach women how to be empowered. Fascinating.

MEPI has "four pillars": political, economic, education, and women's "pillars". Read about them on the website, I summarize here (all below are direct quotes):
  • President Bush announced plans to launch a major new effort to provide resources for the Arabic translation of early reading books for use in primary schools in the region.
  • Partnership Schools also will focus on developing relationships with private industry. Businesses that invest in the schools and/or offer internship or job training opportunities will benefit by molding a prospective workforce. The goal of MEPI's Partnership Schools program is to demonstrate to governments, businesses, and communities that truly “transformed” schools can produce educated youth with the skills necessary to positively contribute to their society and economy.
  • Since each of the foreign national participants will be selected because of his/her demonstrated leadership capacity, it is assumed that he will utilize the experience derived from this program in positions of stewardship for reform in their home countries.
  • This program aims to empower women at the grassroots level through establishing advocacy networks supported by the National Council of Women in four Governorates in Egypt.
  • On U.S. Business Internships for "Young Arab Women": The mutual professional and business relationships forged on the corporate and personal levels will be a platform for the Middle East's economic future -- a future shaped with American partners.
  • On Judicial and Legal Reform: "In all elements of the program, MEPI will look for cost-sharing opportunities" and "All of the judicial and legal reform elements will have an emphasis on women's inclusion in the judicial and legal professions."

With the single-minded focus on translating books from English into Arabic (why?), exporting the US business model, "looking for cost-sharing opportunities", encouraging private industry-school links (why?), and all the rest, is it any wonder that those oh-so-paranoid Arabs worry that MEPI is nothing more than cultural-economic imperialism through the back door? The insistent drone on "women's empowerment" and "girls empowerment" is not fooling anyone. MEPI is designed to foster a core of pro-American, pro-business "critical elites" to occupy "positions of stewardship for reform in their home countries" and proceed to tether their home countries even more tightly to American interests. This is the lesson American officials took from September 11, and now they're industriously applying it. They can earnestly plead that they're "deepening" and "strengthening" "democracy in the Middle East" all they like, it's clear to anyone with half a brain that they have no intentions of doing any such thing. They've just figured out that "empowering women" and "strengthening democracy" are seductive accessories with which to garnish their hardheaded, interest-based foreign policy goals.

It's not coincidental that MEPI is premised on working with and through the existing regimes, as the National Council for Women bit cited above shows. The Council is of course chaired by Suzanne Mubarak and staffed by her garish high-society friends and third-rate toadies. What a feat: empowering women by giving money to the president's wife. Brilliant, Elizabeth Cheney, can you tell us more about how you plan to empower women in the Middle East while American women far less privileged and pampered than yourself struggle to escape grinding poverty or to get equal pay for equal work?

Empires have long made claims to "empower" and "rescue" women in the "backward" societies over which they ruled. Remember that Lord Cromer was an avid champion of girls' education and wrote about it at length in his memoirs, just as he waxed poetic about his unique friendship with Egypt's fellahin and his contempt for the know-it-all effendiyya. What better way to justify an invasion/occupation than to claim concern for women's oppression, thereby disarming domestic critics in the Metropole and confusing public opinion in the colonies. As Professor and blogger Juan Cole aptly puts it, "colonial occupation gives the occupiers an easy sense of self-worth and powerfulness. Thus the appeal of occupying other countries precisely for those sections of the dominant "whites" in US society that are least secure in their whiteness (e.g. lower middle class Southerners). Much about the Abu Ghuraib torture scandal can most easily be explained in these colonialist/racist terms. Likewise, the sex and power fantasy of white men saving brown women from brown men, which has figured so prominently in the new discourse of American empire, is best explained in this way."

How does it feel to be an object of earnest US instruction and reform (with the enthusiastic support of some American feminists)? I'll save that for another post if I have the energy. Back in the real world: A recent article in the Wall Street Journal shows how MEPI works on the ground: unknown "civil society activists" have mushroomed overnight to lap up the influx of dollars, which they'll use ostensibly to train people to run for parliament and "show Egyptian movies not often aired locally." Of course, I forgot about that: showing rare movies has been proven to "deepen" and "strengthen" democracy. The article also details the squabble between the Egyptian government and Egyptian "activists" over the money, like mangy dogs competing for scraps of fetid meat. A government official grovels to the reporter: "You are taking money from our bilateral program and giving it to someone else," while Moheb Zaki, a "senior adviser to the Ibn Khaldun Center" pants "Getting money directly from Washington puts us almost on a par with the Mubarak government." My, what an edifying spectacle. Note to self: never, never underestimate the venality of Egyptian government officials and "civil society activists."

A plague upon all their houses: hypocritical American officials, servile Egyptian bureaucrats, and grabby activists. Democracy and women's empowerment are innocent of them all.