Friday, March 25, 2005

Hala Mustafa's thoughts and other amusing topics

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

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

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

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