Thursday, June 25, 2009

Talk is Cheap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 11, 2009


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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