Thursday, June 30, 2005

Democracy on the brain

I don’t know of anyone who would argue that democracy is a panacea. Democracy is known to coexist with high levels of social inequality and poverty, sometimes social violence (privatised and otherwise), ethnopolitics, and the deepening of patronage politics. In the short term, the competitive logic of electoral democracy may even intensify such pernicious phenomena; indeed, in many times and places, democracy was synonymous with patronage politics. But it’s no longer tenable to continue justifying the deferral of democracy by pointing to its hypothetically destabilising consequences. And it’s no longer acceptable to argue for “democracy in doses,” to be administered by national and foreign governments acting as tutors over Arab peoples. In Egypt, it baffles me how proponents of these arguments ignore or willfully suppress the dismal facts of life under Egypt’s ballyhooed authoritarian “stability”: 44% illiteracy, 44% of the population living below $2/day, a UN Human Development Index of 120 (the lowest in the Middle East save for Morocco {125} and Yemen {149}), a Corruption Perception Score of 3.2 (out of a perfect 10), and an out-of-control police force that routinely tortures and kills innocent citizens, let alone criminals. Goodness, democracy really is a terrible danger, let’s make sure we never come near it lest it dent Egypt’s all-around shining performance.

Two veteran Egyptian democrats weighed in this week with timely and important articles on real vs. fake democracy. Eminent law professor Hossam Eissa takes on Osama al-Baz in al-Araby, delivering a devastating and eloquent rejoinder to Baz’s latest turn as a philosopher of discourse ethics. Baz of course is the long serving presidential “adviser” and Gamal Mubarak’s guru (Eissa’s description, I love it). Eissa’s bottom line: “In the end, we are not in need of concord [as al-Baz argues], we need to open the doors to social and political struggle for all schools of thought and action in Egypt.” In Monday’s al-Ahram, esteemed political scientist Mohamed el-Sayed Saïd reflects on the death and revival of politics, calling the NDP’s “New Thinkers” bluff. “Reviving politics is a dialectical process that involves accumulation gained through learning. For example, the ruling party cannot be revived unless it is forced to really compete with strong parties and movements in a peaceful manner…relying on the skills of politics, not on using the state apparatus.” Real thought from real thinkers, how refreshing. All the more so at a time when the NDP is desperate to hog not just political action but political language.

Hossam Eissa and Mohamed Saïd are not government apologists masquerading as “independents,” nor instant experts pontificating about what they don’t know, nor reflexive oppositionists (if there be such). They’re among Egypt’s most respected and widely read public intellectuals, and both are very sweet persons to boot, with the genuine modesty of real scholars. They happen to be committed leftists, of the sort who sincerely believe in the Islamists’ right to participate fully in public life. Saïd came within a hair’s breadth of dying from prison torture in 1989 when he was rounded up in the so-called “Communist party” case with Kamal Khalil and the late human rights activist Hisham Mubarak. Eissa was a high-ranking member of the Nasserist party before firmly distancing himself from its internal squabbles and dictatorial management. Among the acres of political verbiage these days, Eissa and Saïd’s interventions are always lucid and thought-provoking. Their recent pieces prompt me once again to reflect on democracy and its dimensions.

Democracy as Idea

Democracy is based on a simple, radical, counterintuitive idea: the business of rule requires no special qualifications. Anyone can rule if they submit to a periodic popularity contest called elections. This is what amused and horrified Plato so much: “Isn’t it magnificent the way [democracy] tramples all this underfoot, by giving no thought to what someone was doing before he entered public life and by honouring him only if he tells them that he wishes the majority well?” (Republic, VIII, 558c). If the word is stripped of all its very recent, very positive sexiness, democracy is a very strange, unnatural notion that goes against deeply held beliefs about merit and achievement, “distributing a sort of equality to equals and unequals alike,” as Plato rued. Most people, regardless of what culture they live in, are loath to accept the idea that they’re equal to those less qualified or gifted, and that is why there are very few principled democrats. It seems to me democrats are made and not born. Actual experience turns people into democrats, not philosophical speculation nor even instinctive political temperament. I don’t particularly like the idea of someone intellectually inferior to me telling me what to do or how to live, but if they’ve been through a grueling process of public election by a majority, I’ll accept them and figure out how to vote them out in the next round. But I’ll fight them to the end if nobody elected them and nobody wants them yet they persist in controlling others’ lives.

There’s another, less simple idea that lies at the heart of democracy, and that is the frank acknowledgment and acceptance of pluralism: pluralism of values and interests. The insight here is that no society can rally around a single ‘vision’ or ‘project’ or set of values, different social groups have ineradicably different and often conflicting interests and values. Herding all of society into a single organic unit is doomed to fail. Even imposing on society in compulsory functional groupings will be unsuccessful to the extent that sizeable social interests are marginalised or silenced. Fascism failed not just because it used force, but because it repudiated interest and value pluralism and thought that state power was sufficient to bundle disparate social interests into fake collectivities. Gamal Abdel Nasser was certainly not a fascist, but he did seek to monitor and limit Egypt’s dizzying array of diverse social interests into state-chartered organisations. His project failed because like any society, Egypt is too textured, too history-rich, too diverse, and too unwieldy to be managed by simple blueprints based on social harmony and manufactured institutions. The crux of the idea is that no one can be excluded, by either fiat or subterfuge, and everyone must learn to coexist no matter how unpalatable they find the views of others or superior they think they are to others. Conflictual pluralism, not harmonious unity, is the default state of affairs.

Democracy as Process

Ideas have a way of losing their allure when they descend down to the level of actual practice. That’s why democracy in history does not look like a group of civil people politely exchanging views around a table and arriving at some magical “word of concord,” as the Qur’an-quoting Mr. Osama al-Baz would have us believe. And it’s not a school where headmasters instruct the people in the virtues of democratic ‘values’ until they learn, as Mr. Alieddine Hilal claims. It’s clumps of people noisily and vociferously fighting for their interests, realising that they cannot get everything they want, and reaching settlements with their erstwhile adversaries and interlocutors to get at least some of what they want. Right, it’s the art of compromise. Sanitised, idealised histories of democracy in the “the West” paint it as a purposive project led by enlightened and valiant individuals. In truth, religion was intertwined with and often propelled politics, demagoguery and chauvinism were legion, wars and bloodshed were frighteningly common, and all manner of despotism flourished. How did they get democracy, then? Groups struggled with each other and with their governments to reach settlements based on delicate and ever-shifting balances of power. They got democracy even when they were not intentionally looking for it but fighting to preserve their interests.

Kings fought each other over territory and glory. To finance their wars, kings fought nobles over money and turf. Nobles got huffy and said to kings, you can’t keep stealing our money to fight your stupid wars, we want to have a say in how we get extorted. So Parliaments were born and started to fight kings over money and turf. Big changes in the economy created new actors, and burghers started fighting kings and nobles for money and turf. Peasants fought kings, nobles, and burghers over money and turf. Burghers sometimes made alliances with peasants and fought everybody else. They got into parliaments and started fighting the kings and their little dauphins over everything from taxation to terms of coronation. Resource-hungry kings tried to pack parliaments with their cronies and even bought some of them outright. But then things got complicated when ever more new actors kept complicating matters, such as workers, and later students, and later women. People formed combinations because it was easier to bargain and struggle as groups rather than as individuals. Then they formed political parties and started demanding the vote. Then kings and chancellors started to fear these potent new combinations and started welfare programs to seduce workers away from—gasp!—trade unions.

Out of this mess called history, democracy was born and developed in increments. There’s not much civility and consensus here, as Dr. Eissa reminds. And there’s plenty of iterated struggle and learning by doing, as Dr. Saïd says. Democracy came about because foes realised that they either had to live with one another or exterminate each other and they chose self-preservation. Often, tenuous democracy broke down, unable to cope with organisations hell bent on total dominance. Interwar Nazism and fascism are the textbook examples, but I’d like someone to show me how they triumphed because of democracy, as the charge is often hurled, rather than economic depression or the particular design of Weimar and interwar Italian democracy. Democracy is not perfect, and it’s certainly not irreversible. But it can also rebound. My favorite example is Indian democracy under Indira Gandhi, when for 19 months between 1975-77, the Prime Minister single handedly turned one of the world’s most vibrant democracies into an autocracy worthy of an Arab president or a Latin American general, while her crazy son Sanjay lorded it over slum dwellers and other poor Indians. Gandhi was roundly voted out in 1977, only to return to office three years later, when she abided by democratic rules until her tragic end in 1984. That’s democracy: imperfect, certainly not violence-free, but with a remarkable ability for self-correction, if left to run its course without foreign meddling.

Democracy as Procedure

If one were to strip democracy of highfalutin slogans and historical baggage, there remains a remarkably powerful core: democracy is a procedure for managing social conflict in a transparent, relatively peaceful manner. Democracy is a brilliant recipe for coexistence among any society’s necessarily contending and competing factions. The idea is that all must submit themselves to public vetting, and let the chips fall where they may. If group X wins over group Y, there’s a strict time frame within which the victors get to try out their programs, and they can count on being evaluated again in the near future. The set-up also maintains incentives for the losers. They have to figure out what they did wrong and work to alter their strategies, and often, their very identity. Periodic, competitive games such as elections are like an alluring siren, they draw in even the most puritanical and unwilling and turn them into shrewd vote-seekers. As long as the game’s outcome is truly mysterious, any political player worth his/her salt wants to enter the fray, even if it means losing but rebounding to try again. I was struck by this extremely perceptive and honest admission by Mohammad Ali Abtahi, Khatami’s vice president for parliamentary and legal affairs, in the wake of the Ahmedinejad victory: “Being able to accept that you have been defeated is more important than showing your happiness over victory.”

Because of the game’s mysterious outcome, there are always real surprises. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s out-of-the-blue victory is the most ambient example. But before that, there was George W. Bush’s re-election in 2004, an outcome that stunned much of the world. Before that, former shoeshine boy and seasoned trade unionist Luiz Inácio da Silva became the president of Brazil in 2002. Before that, Ariel Sharon was elected Prime Minister of Israel in March 2001. Before that, Hugo Chavez was elected to the presidency of Venezuela in December 1998. I have my own strong opinions on who the good guys and the bad guys are in this gallery, but who cares? In each case, much of the outside world together with domestic defeated parties condemned the outcome, but again who cares? The important point as Mr. Abtahi reminds is to accept the popular will, and if you’re a losing candidate, work to understand how to better represent it in the next round. But to condemn people’s electoral choices because they don’t comply with your preferences and interests is to go down a very dangerous path.

Specific election results matter less than the integrity and validity of the process. And in the final analysis, what outsiders feel matters far less than the feeling of voters that the process is fair. That’s why on the Iranian elections, I couldn’t care less what American Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice thinks, preferring instead to learn what Iranians think. As is known, the Iranian process is significantly controlled by the unelected Guardian Council, prompting no less a figure than the Nobel Prize-winning human rights activist Shirin Ebadi to boycott the poll. I have the utmost respect for her nuanced stance: “I don’t want anyone to follow my decision. People are politically wise enough to decide for themselves.” How incredibly transparent that Ms. Rice criticised the Iranian process, which anyone with half a brain would deem is loads more competitive than anything Egypt has ever seen, while soft-pedaling Egypt’s unholy guardians and their utterly phony democracy antics. And it must be said that with all its imperfections, the Iranian process could not prevent a two-term win for the reformist Khatami (1997 and 2001) and reformist parliamentarians (1997). I can scarcely imagine a Khatami or an Ahmedinejad coming to power in Egypt, not because we don't have their counterparts, but because we don't have the Iranians' vibrant electoral procedures.

Egypt and Democracy

I don’t know of anyone who would argue that democracy is a panacea. Democracy is known to coexist with high levels of social inequality and poverty, sometimes social violence (privatised and otherwise), ethnopolitics, and the deepening of patronage politics. In the short term, the competitive logic of electoral democracy may even intensify such pernicious phenomena; indeed, in many times and places, democracy was synonymous with patronage politics. But it’s no longer tenable to continue justifying the deferral of democracy by pointing to its hypothetically destabilising consequences. And it’s no longer acceptable to argue for “democracy in doses,” to be administered by national and foreign governments acting as tutors over Arab peoples. In Egypt, it baffles me how proponents of these arguments ignore or willfully suppress the dismal facts of life under Egypt’s ballyhooed authoritarian “stability”: 44% illiteracy, 44% of the population living below $2/day, a UN Human Development Index of 120 (the lowest in the Middle East save for Morocco {125} and Yemen {149}), a Corruption Perception Score of 3.2 (out of a perfect 10), and an out-of-control police force that routinely tortures and kills innocent citizens, let alone criminals. Goodness, democracy really is a terrible danger, let’s make sure we never come near it lest it dent Egypt’s all-around shining performance.

My point is that it’s no longer coherent or acceptable (if it ever was) to deny Egyptians and Arabs the right to make their own choices and their own history by invoking some hypothetical “side effects” of democracy. The logic is absurd: forego treatment because the side effects are painful! While Egyptians have never had truly competitive elections at the national level, we have had electoral contests of varying qualities since the 1920s. Even during the politically monistic Nasser years, some elections were bitterly fought, so the pitfalls of elections are not untried here. We would all do well to ponder English writer D.H. Lawrence’s derisive but truthful insight about democracy: “The more I see of democracy the more I dislike it. It just brings everything down to the mere vulgar level of wages and prices, electric light and water closets, and nothing else.” Democracy is much more often about mundane matters of public services than grand tussles between ideological visions.

So why is the Egyptian regime and its friends so afraid to enter the game of fair elections if as they claim they only want the public good? Why are the government’s legal tailors working round the clock to produce complicated and exclusionary election laws rather than innovating ways to strengthen their popular base? Why not test out Gamal Mubarak’s “New Thought” in the court of public opinion rather than air-conditioned hotel conference rooms and invitation-only receptions halls filled with credulous foreign journalists? Why not test out the Ikhwan’s electoral strength in the real world rather than sit around speculating whether they’ll get 30% or 60% or 42.7% of the vote? Why not allow Ayman Nour, the Nasserists, the Wafdists, and everyone in between to submit their programs to a vigorous public vetting? Isn’t it possible that Gamal bey and his cronies might just win in a free and fair contest? If that happens, I’ll gladly eat crow and then wait like a good citizen for the next electoral round, muttering and grumbling in the interim. Unless and until Egypt’s powers-that-be participate in an undistorted contest, their jejune democracyspeak will be worth much less than the fancy paper it is printed on.

I’d like to conclude with Salama Ahmed Salama’s column in al-Ahram today. Salama of course is another one of the last honourable men, always truthful, sincere, and delightfully pithy. Reflecting on the Iranian and Lebanese elections, he writes, “The Egyptian people have a right to at least the basic political and legislative requirements and conditions to ensure a free and fair poll, presidential and parliamentary, where the citizen can carry out his electoral duty without being subject to deception, fear, or intimidation.”

Friday, June 24, 2005

A tribute to four Egyptian greats

All analysis and no whimsy makes Baheyya a very dull girl. So apropos of nothing, I’d like to fondly remember four of my absolute favourite actors, all full of whimsy, humour, and great art. Every time I happen upon one of them on television, I have to sit down and watch, and every time without fail, they make me laugh and laugh, offering the best respite from our very unfunny surroundings these days.

The 1940s was an immensely prolific time for Egyptian cinema, when these greats made their mark. I particularly love the freewheeling and clever dialogue in the films of this era, especially the liberal use of put-downs such as “gatak dahya!” and expressions like “ya khabar eswed!” and “yikhreb baytak!” used with such relish by Ismail Yasin. I don’t know why, but I always find these endlessly amusing and giggle like a kid. They were just damohom khafeef, without any coarseness.

These films delighted me as a child and I’m still laughing as a grownup, now appreciating the intelligence and hard work behind the slapstick. All of these actors were such excellent professionals, making the craft of acting look so easy. The best part is that they all seemed to be enjoying themselves as they acted. The older I get, the more luminous they look. They’ll shine on forever.

Abdel Fattah al-Qosari (1905-1965)

How can anyone not love this man?! I love his waddle and the eccentric way he talked, especially his intentional mangling of English words, which will always put me in stitches (“Bzrentation”, “Knock-Aawet”). I remember the whimsical name of his boat in Ismail Yasin in the Navy: "Norm-andy II" (accent on the Two). One of my favourite scenes is in Bishara Wakim’s Laaw Kunt Ghani (If I Were Rich, 1942), when he dishevels his copiously glycerined hair and puts on a zany act to extort somebody, yelling “Katakeet! Katakeet!”

Zeinat Sidqi (1913-1978) (right)

The queen of Egyptian comediennes. I love her hyper-garrulousness and busybody demeanour in all of her films, that ringing zaghrouta, and those classic Egyptian features and perpetually rouged mouth, so de rigueur in that era. One of my favorite scenes is when she spills a tisht of mulukhiyya from her balcony on Abdel al-Salam al-Nabulsi in Sharia al-Hubb (1959). And how she cloyingly wooed him in that film, he the over-serious band leader named Hasaballa the 16th! I also love her maternal role as a kind landlady in the tragic Ayamna al-Hilwa (1955).

Marie Munib (1905-1969) (center)

The other queen of Egyptian comediennes, the inimitable Marie Munib. Less sprightly than Sidqi, she had that slow, deliberate way of speaking that accented every word and hinted at whatever plot she was hatching. I’ll always remember her as the nightmare mother-in-law, in that scene with Lubna Abdel Aziz in I forget which film, when she has the prospective daughter-in-law break a walnut with her teeth to see if they’re real and tugs at her hair to make sure it’s not a wig. My favorite is when she feigns crying, peering from behind her “tears” to see the effect she’s having.

Mahmoud al-Meligi (1910-1983)

The dean of Egyptian gangsters, classy and menacing. The great Mahmoud al-Meligi was eons more sophisticated than his frequent bad guy co-star Farid Shawqi, cultivating that unique ice-cold, heartless gangster persona that he had, never without a devilish sense of irony. I love how he clobbered the good guys but always came out unruffled in his meticulous 3-piece suit. Too gifted to be typecast, Meligi went on to play his most memorable role as the downtrodden, heroic fellah Abu Swaylam in Youssef Chahine’s masterpiece al-Ard (The Land, 1969). A class act until the very end, he played the earthy, wry grandfather in Chahine’s autobiographical Eskendriyya Leh? (Alexandria…Why?, 1978). It’s a quiet, powerful performance, a fitting end to an illustrious and artful career.

*All photos from Mustafa Darwish, Dream Makers on the Nile (1998)

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

This is what democracy looks like

22 June, 2005: Mahmoud Allam, a 75-year-old Shoubra resident, marched with his two grandchildren. “I’m training them to learn about freedom and democracy, to know their rights and never give them up,” he said.

22 June 2005: families of 75 detainees in Wadi al-Natroun prison will start a hunger strike tomorrow in protest against the government's repeated refusal to implement court rulings ordering the detainees' release.

22 June 2005: “We’ll never find anyone better than Hosni Mubarak,” said a middle-aged man who declined to give his name. “Those opposition people are just thieves who have been hired.”

22 June 2005: “Change must come through democratic means,” said Gamal Mohamed, an education ministry employee.

21 June 2005: “We are known in this society. We are active in the villages, in the universities, in the parliament, in the mosques...We're organising, building strength.”

20 June 2005: "Give Mubarak a visa, and take him with you Condoleezza!"

20 June 2005: The Prosecutor-General has ordered the immediate release of all four detainees, and in a phone conversation with the Mansoura Prosecution, emphasised that displaying Kifaya stickers is not a crime punishable by law.

16-22 June 2005: Addressing 200 workers and veteran trade unionists at a Press Syndicate meeting sponsored by CTUWS on Monday, Abbas called for “the fundamental right to establish free and independent trade unions.”

19 June 2005: "They ask what's the alternative to president Mubarak, but they don't think to ask the more logical question given what's happening in Egypt these days: where is president Mubarak?"

19 June 2005: "We've said before and we repeat: this constitution cannot guarantee the development of the country on democratic lines, it cannot accommodate the long delayed hopes of the Egyptian people."

16 June 2005: “In my programme, I will request a list of names of those who have more than one million dollars in bank accounts in Switzerland and the United States,” he said. “Sadat did not leave Egypt in such a state.”

14 June 2005: "We do not want to infect our political process, to have it determined by religious slogans."

8 June 2005: "The aim is to assert the right to demonstrate and to defy the big dose of violence, especially the sexual harassment of women."

9-15 June 2005: "We need to understand that democratic development in any society involves a major process of reeducation."

6 June 2005: “We want independence of the press and freedom of publication for newspapers, and the election of heads of public newspapers by their general assemblies.”

6 June 2005: “We are preparing a workers' conference to put in place alternative trades unions parallel to those which currently exist and which are part of the General Union of Egyptian Workers, dominated by the state and which do not look after our interests,” said one of the founders, Kamal Abu Eita.

26 May-1 June: “Better [Mubarak] than anyone else…I don't trust the opposition parties because all they want is 'the chair', and not the public's interest.”

26 May-1 June: “We are not spinners…We simply have a good story to tell. Sometimes we might not have a good storyteller, but it is to the party's credit that a vibrant debate is taking place in the country right now, and that this is only the beginning.”

31 May 2005: "I just mirrored the sentiment of thousands of people...It's not a movement, not a party, it's just citizens fiercely defending what is left of their public space."

Generational angst?

Ahmed al-Aidi's An Takun Abbas al-Abd (To be Abbas al-Abd) (2003)

I can’t remember the last time a literary work filled me with such an overpowering sense of desolation and alienation. I read Ahmed al-Aidi’s 120 pages in one sitting, all the while trying to find something endearing, comforting, compelling, or insightful. There’s certainly plenty of humour, and a real knack for capturing the clever, linguistically agile argot of young people, and some deft portrayal of the minutiae of everyday life. But none of the perhaps conventional or traditional qualities of literature: ideas, or well-drawn characters, or absorbing settings, or verbal artistry, or skillful image-making. There’s only an impoverished, mind-numbing reality as experienced by the deeply depressed, twentysomething male narrator. Perhaps this is what’s called the ‘post-modern condition’, but I have no idea since I don’t know what that means. There is, however, one cardinal condition of worthwhile art that Ahmed al-Aidi’s debut novel fulfills marvelously: it’s deeply unsettling. I emerged perturbed and perplexed, a little unsure of my own reality, transposed into a strange mood by a tale I’m still struggling to understand.

I’m not sure if al-Aidi’s novel falls within what has come to be called literature of the “90s generation” but I had heard that it was much talked about and praised and that its first edition had briskly sold out. But I also heard criticisms of its unmoralised portrayal of how some young people actually live and the uncritical embrace of pop culture. New writers can always count on being dismissed for not fitting the mold. So-called “’60s generation” writers Sonallah Ibrahim, Gamal al-Ghitani, Ibrahim Aslan, and Yahya al-Tahir Abdalla were similarly put down for shunning the didactic conventions of Arabic letters and searching for a new language and new forms to articulate their own experiences. Now they’re the leading lights in Egyptian literature (Abdalla posthumously), and have even attained something of the status of cultural gatekeepers. I wasn’t surprised to learn that Ibrahim and Ghitani shepherded al-Aidi and were instrumental in getting him published, along with Miret Publishing House director Muhammad Hashim. Hashim has helped many wonderful and unknown talents see the light; he’s done more than anyone to shake up the networked and exclusionary world of Egyptian publishing and to enrich a desiccated cultural landscape.

To be Abbas al-Abd puzzles me because I still can’t decide whether I like it or not, a few days after finishing it. That in itself is testament to the strange power of this slim novel, blurring easy categories of ‘like’ and ‘dislike’ and demanding a more probing engagement. Most of the time I had the feeling of trespassing into a deeply bizarre, solipsistic world of a maladjusted young man who couldn’t care less about anything that happens outside his own tormented mind. Indeed, at the end of the list of people to whom al-Aidi dedicates his novel is “the ceiling of my room, which enveloped me when the world moved a few centimeters forward.”

Yet, rather than some Cartesian philosophical rumination, al-Aidi offers up some very astute transcriptions of the texture of daily conversations on microbuses, ‘ahwas, upscale mall cafés, and his group therapy sessions with an overbearing female psychiatrist eager to push the latest antidepressant medications on her hapless charges. The humour in these sections is irresistible and real, extremely clever, and full of bathos at the same time. For instance, the protagonist ends a hilarious phone conversation with the aged, Alzheimer’s-afflicted landlord of his friend Abbas al-Abd with the ironic quip, “I’ll never understand this generation.” His Americanised pop culture references are legion and used to great effect. As the therapist turns on “The Godfather” soundtrack to soothe her patients, the narrator comments wryly, “the music wafts through the room like a sedative, the music that you can’t refuse.”

One of the novel’s most powerful scenes is during one of the group therapy sessions, when it’s the protagonist’s turn to divulge his demons. Prodded by the bossy, new-age therapist, he recalls his abusive psychiatrist uncle ‘Awni, who raised him after the death of his parents by essentially using him as a guinea pig for all sorts of freakish, sadistic ‘experiments’. In one of the most tragic and perturbing literary passages I have ever read, the terrified perspective of a 7-year-old merges with the commentary of the wry narrator in a deafening yet lucid cacophony. Describing the contorted position ‘Awni put him in for one of his experiments, the narrator says, “But I am not Batman, and this below me is not the sky of Gotham City.” An intense, almost crazed description ensues, mimicking the workings of his brooding brain, culminating in: “A muted laughter gets louder, the kind of laughter that you hear in the background of the sitcom ‘Friends’.”

The ubiquitous pop culture references are not contrived nor mere name dropping, but a cornerstone of the protagonist’s cloistered existence, reinforcing his sensory deprivation and tenuous connection with other human beings. Though he seems to interact fine with those around him, his mental energies are entirely consumed by his scarred childhood and a phobia of life tout court. Some interesting formal and stylistic aspects of the novel reinforce the narrator’s sense of detachment and distrust of others. Every chapter is fronted by a four-line aphorism beginning with “don’t believe her.” The name of every imaginable phobia flits about throughout the pages, relics from the protagonist’s childhood with the abusive ‘Awni that have survived to haunt his every waking hour. The preface and epilogue are mirror images of one another. Pop culture permeates the very structure of the text. al-Aidi’s staccato, streamlined prose is further broken up by computing-centric English words in Latin script and familiar cultural insignia such as the generic male/female icons on the doors of public bathrooms.

Enter the quasi-mythical Abbas al-Abd, a shrewd alter ego who’s seen it all and wants to take the narrator out of his solitude. They meet at an ‘ahwa and become roommates; Abbas is everything the narrator isn’t: confident, brash, worldly, fearless, coarse, and perverse: he collects gecko tails in a carefully maintained jar (“it’s a hobby just like collecting stamps”) and spouts the very latest youth lingo. Abbas sets up the introverted protagonist with two of his own girlfriends, and the latter’s rendezvous with both of them at the same café is a hilarious page-turner. It reminded me of scenes in old slapstick Egyptian films, and I wonder if al-Aidi had these or other celluloid products in mind as he constructed this scene (he does make a reference to a musalsal and a silent cartoon).

On a less humourous note, several of al-Aidi’s dead-on descriptions here hint that he means to make a larger statement about gender relations among twentysomethings, but it’s not clear what that statement is. A few pages later, the comic scene morphs into a tragic denouement that vaguely recalls similar scenes in modern Egyptian fiction where chance intimate encounters turn into chastening lessons about class, exploitation, and the degradation of humanity. At the end of the scene, the guilt-ridden protagonist muses, “What happens to make us abandon who we are and become, without noticing, someone else entirely?” It’s one of the few moments where he’s led to reflect on matters outside of himself.

On one level, this is a novel about a young person’s search for self amidst powerful feelings of existential angst and alienation, and as such it’s a story as old as youth, transcending cultural boundaries. It bears some resemblance to Sonallah Ibrahim’s Tilka al-Ra’iha (That Smell) and perhaps might prompt the same moralised distaste that Ibrahim’s short story did back in 1966 (Ibrahim is one of the writers to whom al-Aidi’s novel is dedicated). But unlike the 1960s when politics pervaded fiction writing, al-Aidi’s novel could be set anywhere (save for a fleeting reference to the Palestinian Intifada). It reads like the diary of a depressed yet mentally agile and witty young man who has some arresting insights about contemporary life from his own distinct perspective. Depression has always been a crutch to creativity, but it seems that al-Aidi is one of the first to openly embrace this in Arabic rather than continue to stigmatise or ignore it (Safinaz Kazem too is open about her bouts of depression and use of antidepressants).

Yet the novel also seems to harbour inchoate ambitions of becoming something like a generation’s manifesto. Here is where the writing seemed most stilted and contrived to me, sounding flat and unimpassioned. The same goes for the gimmicky ending, which also seems to aspire to a social statement about a supposedly ‘sick’ society. Not to sound crotchety and stodgily sociological, but why the impulse to represent anyone other than oneself in a deeply personal work of fiction? On p. 41, the author writes, “In Egypt there was the naksa (defeat) generation. We’re the following generation, the generation of “I have nothing to lose.” We’re a united generation living under the same roof, with strangers who have names that resemble ours…You say with the wisdom of someone weary with experience, “there’s nothing worse.” Bullshit. Here’s the upgrade of the wisdom and the update of the experience: what could be worse than not having anything worse?” (English words in the Arabic text in bold).

On one level this reads to me like the ponderous musings of many young people grasping at meaning, and that’s fine but not terribly interesting nor insightful, nor necessarily publishable. On another level, it reads like an attempt to encapsulate some sort of a generational ethos, a self-conscious attempt to be a generational prophet of sorts. This is what I found least attractive about the novel; it injected an unwelcome note of falsity and a hint of posturing. It seems to me much more honest for al-Aidi to stick to the navel-gazing quality of his novel without venturing into broad, meaningless claims about whole generations.

This goes beyond al-Aidi’s novel. I never understood the obsession in Egyptian letters to group writers by ‘generation’, such that it’s become de rigueur to introduce or identify a writer as belonging to or embodying a particular generation rather than expressing certain ideas or experimenting with particular forms. Generational classification has become the dominant organising principle in criticism and publishing and writing, and has led to silly sweepstakes about who’s the best or the most representative or the most accomplished of a supposed generational clique. Yet surely each generation accommodates writers of vastly contrasting hues and temperaments: Ahmed al-Aidi and Nagwa Sha’ban are both of the “90s generation”, but their styles and concerns couldn’t be more different. Insisting on grouping writers by generation is tantamount to treating works of fiction as straightforward reflections of social reality, with no autonomous aesthetic merits of their own.

To be sure, social context infringes on and molds the output of creative writers, but that’s a different matter entirely from classifying writers in generational straitjackets and then proceeding to organise criticism and publishing and literary marketing based on such a rigid and meaningless taxonomy. Writers should unleash their creative energies without worrying about representing or speaking for or excelling over their presumptive cohort. The most compelling parts of To be Abbas al-Abd have nothing to do with generationalism or whatever else, but show a writer who transcribes the intricate processes of his restless mind without guile or artifice. Who cares what generation that might belong to if it’s serious, perturbing art?

Friday, June 17, 2005

The Changing Face of Egyptian Politics

Sayyeda Zeinab Protest, 15 June 2005. Photo courtesy of Wa'el Abbas.

New protest venues, new political language, new public actors, age-old struggles. Egyptians’ pent-up political energies are filling the public square, propelled by ill-understood young people falsely alleged to be uninterested in public affairs. The hoary activists are still there, full of commitment and experience, but the young people are making their debut: sending out the e-mails and text messages, manning the demonstrations, suffering the truncheon blows, plotting the next steps, and writing the narratives that will help us revisit these inebriating times. Just think: since “black Wednesday” a few short weeks ago on the 25th of May, species of citizen action have sprouted like bulbous white mushrooms in a dank hothouse. Lo and behold, the panicked and unimaginative want a piece of the action, pathetically trying to appropriate the very energies they fear and loathe. The irony is delectable.

Egyptians’ homegrown democracy demands are ever louder, bolder, more insistent, more luculent, more focused. In the past few weeks, writers, doctors, journalists, motley women, youth, and God knows who else are staking a claim to the reform juggernaut. Meanwhile, the lazy pipers of Egyptians’ “stagnation” and “apathy” who've been doing a brisk business for at least 10 years are now scrambling around like crazed lab rats trying to refurbish their punctured credibility by riding the “change” wave. The very wave, you understand, that they contemptuously scoffed at just six months ago when Kifaya came out on the High Court steps on 12 December. But that’s their problem. To quote the estimable Gamal Mubarak, son of the “glamorous” Mrs. Mubarak, the pundits’ exertions have “nothing to do with reality.”

New Faces

I feel compelled to point out that this is certainly not the first time we see young faces in the world of Egyptian politics. Let’s not let class bias and political blinders mask a painful truth: young Islamists and their families have been paying dear for their public activism for the last 15 years. As we speak, there are at least 16,000 of them in prisons scattered across Egypt, and none of them have ever come before a judge. Three hundred of them have been on a hunger strike in Wadi al-Natroun prison, but no one seems to care. Many of them go for years without seeing their families, by order of the Interior Minister who has the power to close off prisons to all visits from family and lawyers, in flagrant violation of Law 396/1956 governing prisons. This law, by the way, seems like the epitome of enlightened penal reform compared to the Ministry’s practices.

These young men are the non-telegenic ones, the ones we’ve all forgotten, all save for the heroic people at Muhammad Zarie’s Human Rights Association for the Assistance of Prisoners. al-Arabiyya did well to cover their female relatives’ sit-in at the bar association, these long-suffering women who yet have the presence of mind to tether their suffering to the ambient reform spirit. There’s talk that they want to form a league of mothers and wives of the detained. I hope they get all the help and encouragement they need, and the attention. Ignoring and remaining silent about their plight is a painful, serious issue that merits its own conversation.

Young people are active in Kifaya through the offshoot Shabab min Ajl al-Taghyeer (Youth for Change), the ones who carry the protest signs decrying the lack of employment and prospects and any semblance of a dignified future. There’s no doubt that this year has seen the political coming of age of many young people, but as always there are precedents. How could there not be in the past five eventful years? The spring 2003 anti-war protests ‘raised consciousness’ (as the charming old phrase goes), as did of course the Palestine solidarity campaigns, as noted here by the sagacious Amira Howeidy. Note especially Howeidy’s mention of the impromptu girls’ march to the president’s residence in 2002, swiftly aborted of course. Foreign journalists all agog at the presence of women in today’s protests would do well to read up on recent and not-so-recent Egyptian history. Meanwhile, the amazingly brave young women who were assaulted on 25 May are now being threatened and intimidated. “On Monday, two officers came and gave me 48 hours to withdraw my case against the government. They have threatened to arrest my father, make my brothers lose their jobs and threatened to arrest me or even kill me if I didn’t comply,” al-Destour journalist Abir al-Askari told the AFP.

It is not difficult to see why youth activism is a deadly development from the regime’s point of view. The very presence of articulate young people with cramped life chances is a ticking time bomb. They’re that much more threatening when they voice lucid critiques of their situation, not buying the drivel fed to them about overpopulation and all the other official arguments. So dissenting young people must be quelled no matter the costs. Remember the death of Alexandria University student Muhammad al-Saqqa, 22, on 9 April, 2002. He died from rubber bullet shots to the face and chest, according to the medical report of the University hospital (see the EOHR’s account here). What’s even more threatening to the powers that be is not participation in demonstrations but steady involvement in politics evincing any kind of creativity. This is why Youth for Change members Muhammad Shafiq and Ahmad Saad (both 28) were ordered detained for 15 days by the State Security Prosecution. Their offense: distributing leaflets in the metro stations written in colloquial Arabic exhorting citizens to come together to think up means of change. Kifaya has called for a gathering at the bar association today from 11am to noon in solidarity with Shafiq, Saad and the threatened women journalists.

More new faces are in the newly minted women’s gatherings “The Association of Egyptian Mothers” (Rabetat al-Ummahat al-Misriyyat) and “The Street is Ours” (al-Shar’i lana). These are a mélange of seasoned activists such as Aida Seif al-Dawla and Laila Soueif and newly active women outraged by the vile assaults of women on 25 May. “The Street is Ours” evokes Egypt’s proud history of women’s street activism since 1919. Back then, when women first marched the streets and chanted anticolonial slogans at the top of their lungs, they did so fully clothed and veiled. The 1st of June “day in black” gathering was a wonderful show of Egyptian women’s sartorial diversity. There was no whining here about the backwardness of the higab bla bla bla (except maybe from Dr. Nawal Saadawi). The issue is not what Egyptian women wear and how much they cover up, the issue is how they all banded together to resist attempts to get them off the streets. (I can’t help noting here as an aside that it’s not the bogeyman “Islamists” who represent the greatest threat to women’s citizenship rights, at least in Egypt, but that’s right, it’s the regime). Would that the Association of Egyptian Mothers and the Street is Ours band together with the mothers and wives and daughters of the detained Islamists, as indeed they did briefly at the 9th of June meeting.

Finally, globalisation has brought in more new faces. Like so many others, I was delighted and touched to no end by the South Korean Kifaya solidarity protest in Seoul last week. My favorite slogan, “Stop repressing true democracy in Egypt!” It’s no wonder. South Korea’s transition to democracy in 1987 is a perfect instance of regime change spurred by popular action; student demonstrations in particular have a long history in that country. The South Koreans are more than able to “handle” democracy; that some of them saw fit to support the Egyptians’ struggle in a symbolic, meaningful stand is a gesture that will not be forgotten.

New Modalities

With the new faces and the youthful energy have come new ideas for tackling the Achilles’ Heel of many political movements: how do you reach the general public? How do you transform a small gathering into a tangible phenomenon? Personally, I think this is already underway, in ordinary people’s living rooms and qahwas and on street corners and in taxis and workplaces and microbuses and everywhere else Egyptians talk to one another. Everybody is talking about change, everybody is wondering whither this regime, everybody wants to know what’s going to happen in Egypt. That it may not be visible doesn’t mean it’s not there; only someone who doesn’t interact at all with the street and shuttles about in air-conditioned car from one air-conditioned venue to the next can fail to grasp the palpable ambience. Having the foreign and pan-Arab media spotlight on Egypt sure helps thicken the reform mood, but young activists are not relying on this alone.

I was particularly struck by Muhammad Shafiq and Ahmad Saad’s action. Not only were they distributing leaflets, a very daring act sure to get them nabbed, but written on those leaflets in Egyptian ‘ammiyya is a beautifully crafted citizen’s call. I’ve only seen portions cited in press reports, such as: “We’re a group of youth protesting the current condition of no health, no education, no work, no housing, no humanity, no freedom. That’s why we decided that it’s necessary to change all that. We’re sure you too feel as we do, let’s think together and act together so we can live well.” If that’s not a powerful demand for basic rights, I don’t know what is.

Talking in ordinary people’s language has always been a concern for activists steeped in street politics, people like Muhammad al-Ashqar and Kamal Khalil. Khalil as we know is gifted at coining impromptu protest slogans that tug at the hearts of ordinary passersby, as he did at the 1st of June day in black assembly. He addressed the Central Security Force conscripts directly, sloganeering about their terrible work conditions and inhumane treatment by superiors. The young Manal and Alaa Abdel Fattah and Wa’el Abbas and their creative co-conspirators are at the cutting edge of building bridges to the hallowed but ill-understood normal Egyptian citizen.

Precisely this impulse drove the Sayyeda Zeinab gathering on 15 June, when young activists thought up the idea of invoking a popular ritual at a popular venue to bring the reform caravan to ordinary people. “Kans al-Sayyeda” or sweeping the Prophet’s granddaughter’s tomb-mosque comes from Egyptians’ rich trove of popular religion. Sweeping the mosque entrance with those old-fashioned straw brooms is considered both a literal act of paying respects to the mosque and a symbolic call for aid from the beloved Zeinab’s spirit. When all else fails and one is at the end of one’s tether, seeking spiritual assistance (madad) against all manner of injustice is a Sufi-inflected mode of popular resistance that Egyptians have long invoked against tyrants, usurpers, and today, police brutality and immunity.

Amr, Masrawi, Mohammed, Zamakan, and Africano have stirring accounts of that day. The idea was embroiled in heated controversy, with many arguing against using “backward” folkloric beliefs that also exclude Coptic citizens and others warning against the dangerous gap between articulate elites and ordinary people. Whichever side one takes in this important debate, I focus on two more general points. That the debate is happening at all is salutary and welcome, and we need much more of it. And that protests have not just become a weekly event (remarkable in itself) but show clear evidence of new ideas, new language, and new props (brooms and candles) is doubly salutary and welcome. In ’19, young Egyptians created the template for the modern street demonstration in Egypt, complete with its own rituals and slogans but fused with older accoutrements. Today too, new traditions are being filigreed over the old, in what I can’t help but admire as a rich palimpsest of popular politics.

Old Struggles

Egyptians have been struggling for decades to get democracy, with very modest results as we see all around us. But that’s the nature of the beast. It’s a truism by now, but no less true: democracy is the business of a couple of centuries, not decades but also not millennia. It would be utterly missing the point to dismiss today’s upheaval as fleeting or chaotic or confusing or ‘unorganised’. It’s the name of the game, political struggle is messy and noisy and above all, confusing. Even if it all ends tomorrow, it will still have added enormous value to the process of public deliberation that will surely revive on another day. Let’s not get bound up in the admittedly fascinating details and ignore the prize: movement, ferment, debate, disagreement, new ideas twining with old practices, even mistakes, charlatanism, perfidy, and all the rest. Getting democracy is not a fairy tale story but a noisy, chaotic canvas where even the ‘bad guys’ can be incorporated into the game peacefully. The real bad guys are those who would deny Egyptians and Arabs the right to have their noisy debates and struggles and the right to publicly deliberate on their institutions, policies, and other public choices. Bad guys want to shut down debate to ram through their own designs and neat little ideas for how others should live.


The trees are dark ruins of temples,
seeking excuses to crumble
since who knows when—
their roofs are cracked,
their doors lost to ancient winds.
And the sky is a priest,
saffron marks on his forehead, ashes smeared on his body.
He sits by the temples, worn to a shadow, not looking up.

Some terrible magician, hidden behind curtains,
Has hypnotized Time
so this evening is a net
in which the twilight is caught.
Now darkness will never come—
and there will never be morning.

The sky waits for this spell to be broken,
for History to tear itself from this net,
for Silence to break its chains
so that a symphony of conch shells
may wake up the statues
and a beautiful, dark goddess,
her ankles echoing, may unveil herself.

*Faiz Ahmed Faiz (1911-1984), “Evening”

Sunday, June 12, 2005

America's "Arab Democracy"

The put-upon camel of Egypt is weighed down by "knavery," "tyranny," "impecuniosity," "debt," etc.
"Messoo" says, "If you cannot lead him, mon cher, let me!" John Bull says, "No, thank ye. If I can't lead him, I'll ride him!!" Punch, 19 January, 1884. Reproduced from Afaf Lutfi Al-Sayyid, Egypt and Cromer: A Study in Anglo-Egyptian Relations (1968).

There’s been much chatter lately about what the Americans will or won’t do, should and shouldn’t do, ought and ought not to do, about democracy in the Arab world. The predictably strong electoral showing of Hizbullah and Hamas in Lebanon and Palestine has rekindled speculation on how the Americans really view moderate Islamists, the Egyptian Ikhwan included. Will the Americans “accept” them? Will they work with them? Do they “trust” them? Writers at assorted American “think tanks” are issuing mounds of policy verbiage at an alarmingly quick rate, eager to affix their “intellectual” imprimatur to the American government’s foreign policy toward the Arab world (and perhaps coveting official employment). American writers (and the occasional British commentator) weigh in with their own recipes for how Arab democracy should proceed. The Arab Human Development Report is obsessively brandished (but not read) like a talisman, as if to say: see, even the Arabs themselves say they need democracy!

The current American debates about how much and in what ways the United States government ought to promote Arab democracy are simply the latest disputes between longstanding policy schools within the American foreign policy establishment. Each faction’s attempts to bolster its own credentials by including a few token Arabs or “Arabists” has more to do with winning the upper hand in the domestic debate than understanding or supporting Arab democratisation. Need it really be pointed out that real Arab democratisation means Arab citizens having a real say in every aspect of their lives, rather than submitting to new control projects masquerading as “curriculum and school reform,” “NGO capacity building”, “empowering women,” “modernising religious discourse,” “gradually opening up the political system,” “transparency and accountability,” and all the other euphemisms for continued government tutelage with American blessings? Above all, real Arab democratisation means the right to oppose U.S. and Arab government policies without being accused of anti-Americanism, recidivist Arab nationalism, Islamic “fundamentalism”, shrill whateverism, and generally being treated like a mental patient who only needs a good dose of American “public diplomacy” to make everything all better.

American Primacy

The whole debate about American democracy promotion is conducted for and by Americans, it matters little that some participants have Arab names. What’s at issue is not whether and how democracy has developed or will develop in the Arab world, or indeed anywhere, but which kind and how much democracy is acceptable to American interests. When official Americans and their advisers discuss Arab democracy, they are not observing nor reporting nor heeding Arab democracy debates, they’re engaged in their own heated exchanges about the best ways to preserve American national interests, even if they sprinkle their efforts with a quote from some “articulate” or “moderate” Arab here and there. As an unadjectived Arab democrat, I admire the intensity of the debate, but I’m under no illusions that it’s genuinely concerned with Arab democratisation.

This is a debate about what sort of “doctrine” American policy should adopt in its management of the Arab world. It is a debate in which Arabs are objects, problems, threats, inscrutable masses, sometimes self-appointed advisers and confidants, but never political agents with their own political projects and visions, projects that might include—horrors!—an end to American meddling in Arab affairs. Arabs are either dangerous terrorists, or intransigent ruling elites, or destabilising demagogues, or foaming-at-the-mouth nationalists, or power-hungry Islamists, or ambitious counter-elites, or submissive women, or wily women, or desperate immigrants, or hyperbolic alJazeera newscasters, or uppity intellectuals. Each requires a discrete and smart strategy of neutralisation, containment, or mobilisation, as the case may be. Arabs, it must be said, are still not allowed to have their own experiences, make their own choices, learn from their mistakes, and develop their own political institutions. Powerful foreign governments and their local subsidiaries are ever at the ready, making sure Arab citizens are bound in a straitjacket of tutelage.

There is decidedly no “partnership” here, much as the “Middle East Partnership Initiative” strains to coin ever more participatory rhetorical terms. Arabs ceased to be credible partners after the end of the 1973 war, when Anwar Sadat turned his personal conviction that “America controls 99% of the cards” into the ironclad foreign policy we’re living with today. Thus began the systematic diminution of Arab strategic horizons and interests, led by a defanged and demobilised Egypt under the management of two presidents who traded an independent foreign policy for American patronage and beneficence. The scourge of Arab nationalism now safely buried with the corpse of Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egyptian and then Moroccan, Jordanian, and Tunisian ruling elites struck separate “pragmatic” bargains with Israel and its patron. The contractual terms are clear: incremental but dogged normalisation with Israel in exchange for guarantees of regime survival under U.S. auspices, with judicious doses of domestic repression and economic promises meted out when opposition erupts. Regional strongmen who deviate from the script are either swiftly clobbered (Saddam Hussein) or theatrically surrender of their own pusillanimous accord (Mu’amar al-Qadhafi).

“Democracy promotion” was not invented by the George Bush administration; Clinton’s doctrine of “democratic enlargement” hinged on the export of “market capitalism” and American “values.” But in the case of the Arab world, it was never really about democracy. Sure, train a few judges here and there, “build the capacity” of Arab parliaments (which as far as I can tell means buying them nice computers), help Arab women come to Washington and be free by becoming avid capitalists, and teach “anger management” to those angry young Arab boys, but for God’s sake don’t tinker with the systematic disenfranchisement of Arab populations. If ruling elites can still deliver, then reward them handsomely while showing your bona fides by making noises about democracy and women’s empowerment.

George W. Bush’s Arab world policy picked up where Clinton left off, but added more aggressive democracy promotion rhetoric accompanied by military intervention. Troops, bombs, and tanks in Iraq (plus massive asset theft and privatisation) complement quieter methods of cultural transformation in Jordan, Morocco, Tunisia, and Egypt. The latter is essentially what MEPI is: a framework for transforming and improving those recalcitrant, angry Arabs into American-friendly, market-oriented, politically neutral consumers of American-made products. Arab ideologies and Arab political aspirations are problems that must be massaged through incremental but comprehensive identity change. MEPI goes hand in hand with something called “public diplomacy,” an intricate exercise in impression management. Public diplomacy has a simple guiding premise: to shift the focus from outrageous and reprehensible American policies to Arab “perceptions,” “attitudes,” “impressions” of America tout court. It shifts the issue from why and how Arab citizens are opposed to specific and tangible U.S. policies to how Arabs as a lumpen mass “hate” or “resent” America. It requires not that American policies be changed (heavens no), but that Arab “hearts and minds” be won over, by upgraded public relations devices such as “Hi” magazine, al-Hurra television station, Radio Sawa, and other tools of mass distraction. “Public diplomacy” is premised on not taking Arabs seriously.

Subverting Democracy

So I fail to see how the latest American rumpus about “Arab democracy” has anything to do with Arab democratisation, or how it addresses me and millions of other Arab democrats. It is simply competing lists of proposals and instructions for the Bush administration, aided and abetted by well-connected Arab petitioners who wish to see their interests and passions reflected in the superpower’s policies. I will not even begin to entertain that these petitioners are representative of any sort of constituency within the Arab world outside of a narrow set of ambitious counter-elites eager to claw their way into the seats of the incumbent autocrats. They are the Egyptian and Tunisian (and Syrian?) brethren of Kanan Makiya, Ahmed Chalabi, Eyad Allawi, Fouad Ajami: need I name more? If the U.S. administration (or factions therein) wishes to convince itself that the “independent” Arab individuals who whisper in its ears are representative of broader movements or social trends, that is its prerogative. But don’t ask others to believe the patently false and spurious.

Wherever there have been meddling “great powers” hell bent on reordering entire societies and engineering congenial political arrangements against popular will, ambitious flatterers and self-appointed “spokesmen” have followed suit. The only instance I can think of where private citizens transformed themselves into true national representatives with moral authority and political clarity was in inter-war India and Egypt. Barristers Mohandas Gandhi and Sa’d Zaghlul won the respect and love of their peoples and were popularly and legitimately delegated as spokesmen for their nations’ twin causes of democracy and national independence. Today in Egypt we have Ayman Nour, Saadeddin Ibrahim, Tarek Heggy,et al, but they’re no Sa’d Zaghlul. They are many things but, at best, dubious democrats with nugatory constituencies.

I realise that no state can build its foreign policy on magnanimity or charitable sentiments. But states who build their foreign policies on the systematic frustration and containment of democratic popular wills will never have peace. The United States and Chile is the easiest example. Henry Kissinger decried the “irresponsibility of the Chilean people” for electing the socialist Salvador Allende and so rammed through a murderous American client who now has the distinction of being one of the most reviled dictators on earth, pathetically cowering under house arrest until the Chilean legal system decides his fate. In 1953, the Anglo-American “Operation Ajax” ejected the popularly elected and beloved Dr. Mohamed Mossadegh and installed the skittish, unpopular, and inept Mohamed Reza Pahlavi. Remember that when Pahlavi was ousted by a popular revolution in 1979, Iranians held aloft large posters of Mossadegh in the streets. Toppling democrats and installing autocrats may not be what the United States is now doing in the Middle East, but the same blithe disrespect for and fear of mechanisms for the expression of popular political sentiment are as strong as ever.

What is certainly the same is half a century of manipulation and intervention in Arab politics. And a security-centric focus on Arabs as problems to be managed and barbarians to be neutralised rather than citizens with legitimate political projects to be negotiated with. There are three culprits responsible. First is Israel’s insistence on ensuring not only its primacy over the region but its moral superiority compared to the Arabs’ dysfunction and depravity. The Israeli-centric narrative of Arabs as problems “who understand only the language of force” and other such staples is tightly woven into American foreign policy; look no further than the Pentagon’s use of the racist and hateful The Arab Mind written by Israeli Rafael Patai as the handbook for treating Iraqi prisoners. The second culprit is Arab ruling elites, bereft of any political legitimacy other than their faithful custodianship of American interests. When they are domestically challenged for monopolising political and economic power, they quickly conjure the bogeyman of the Islamists. The third culprit is American policy makers who out of either expediency or myopia have chosen to embrace the Israeli-centric view and the bargain with the usurping elites, all the while making noises about democratisation.


There are alternatives to such a deadly troika. There was a time when the United States government was seen as a potential friend to the Arabs, particularly in the aftermath of the First World War and the lead-up to the Paris Peace Conference. The story is by now well-known: American president Woodrow Wilson’s “fourteen points” and sympathy for national self-determination stirred serious hopes in subject populations chafing under British and French control. “Why Egypt Rebelled: National Ideals Awakened by Peace Conference Principles” proclaimed a headline in the Washington Post of 31 May, 1919. Sa’d Zaghlul and his delegation (Wafd) made direct appeals to the American government to support the Egyptians’ struggle for national independence from the British, as did ordinary citizens. Villagers in the Nile Delta town of Ashmoun sent a telegram to the American embassy in Cairo dated 25 March 1919. It reads, “We beg you to kindly interfere in the Egyptian question for which the blood of innocent Egyptians is being shed, and their personal liberty is being violated. This should be transmitted to your great country which we respect, and which is looking for peace.”

This and other direct pleas for intervention resonated in some quarters of American public opinion. Washington Post correspondent William T. Ellis wrote a series of remarkably detailed and astute dispatches on the Egyptian uprising of 1919; so sympathetic was he to the Egyptian cause (reportedly delivering a speech at al-Azhar) that he was detained and threatened with deportation by British authorities. The American Senate’s foreign relations committee heard the “appeals of subject peoples who feel that the Versailles Treaty did not give them justice,” as the New York Times wrote on 26 August 1919. Ex-governor of Missouri Joseph W. Folk, counsel for the Peace Commission sent to Paris by the Egyptian Legislative Assembly, thundered: “England’s dealings with Egypt have been contrary to every principle of right and honor.”

In April 1919, even as Woodrow Wilson made diplomatic noises of support for the “legitimate aspirations of the Egyptian people for a further measure of self-government,” he left no doubt as to the American government’s recognition of the British protectorate over Egypt (proclaimed in 1914). Undeterred, American journalists and Senators continued their advocacy. Senator Borah, Republican of Idaho, read into the Senate record on 19 August 1919, “I object to forming a partnership with any nation or any combination of nations which have not constructed their civilization and their government upon principles in harmony with the principles of this republic.” Marvelling at internationally isolationist Senators suddenly turned friends of Egypt, the New York Times of 1 March 1920 sneered, “Senator Norris took four hours of the Senate’s time the other day to recite the wrongs of Egypt, bedewing the floor of the Senate Chamber with tears such as one cannot remember his shedding over Belgium and Poland.”

Yet, as they often do, principles of right crumbled before the seductions of might. As his reporting became more involved, the sympathetic journalist Ellis revealed a disturbing American messianic bent, more interested in replacing British with American supremacy than aiding Egyptian independence. Editorialising on the Egyptian and Indian uprisings of the spring of ’19, the Chicago Daily Tribune expressed it best: “Self-determination (in American slang “the spirit of ‘76”) may encounter even more effective opposition in the future than in the past. It is an interesting question whether peoples that are backward, in the sense of scientific knowledge, are not more backward relatively than in the past. A city or district bent on self-determination could be brought to realization of the sharp limitations of that principle more promptly by bombing planes or gas waves than by cavalry charges or even the later machine gun. It may be the world is tending toward an unescapable centralization of power, founded on the strategic possession of special knowledge and the resources of power,” (24 May, 1919).

Democracy Without Conditions

It is an eminently basic point that real democracy is not what foreign powers or local autocrats think it should be, but the outcome of on-the-ground struggles that no one can predict. This applies anywhere and not just the Arab world. But given official America’s framing of the Arab democracy debate, let’s repeat. Real democracy is not what the U.S. government wants or thinks should happen; it’s not those who U.S. embassies bless as ‘democratic’; it’s indubitably not those who the U.S. currently underwrites in the Arab world, and it’s certainly not those ruling elites-in-waiting whom the U.S. is flirting with in several Arab states. And it goes without saying that real democracy is completely innocent of any claims made by Arab rulers. Real democracy is how Arab citizens of all political persuasions will forge it, in spite of and not thanks to American involvement. Would that America’s democracy administrators for once listen and learn from Arab democrats, rather than incessantly attempting to tutor and co-opt them.

Real democracy is not what anyone says it should be, least of all those shoring up the status quo. In Egypt, real democracy is not Gamal Mubarak’s lectures, or Ayman Nour’s political entrepreneurship, or the Ikhwan’s manifestoes, or the crusty opposition parties’ pathetic maneuverings. Real democracy is all of these parties’ undistorted engagement with each other on a level playing field, and the people will decide who among them or between them can rule. In an undistorted, unengineered democracy, the people will also decide if the likes of Mr. Alieddin Hilal should continue to be a part of public politics. The NDP’s desperate hanger-on kindly took some time out of his current purgatory (after being unceremoniously booted from the cabinet last July) to share his philosophical musings, reeking of profundity as per usual. My favourite: “Mark my words: Egypt is pregnant. Great change lies ahead, and the problem is that we as a society have yet to assimilate the depth and profundity of what is taking place today in our country.” I have yet to assimilate the startling fact that Mr. Hilal goes about making these pronouncements when he has so unambiguously and repeatedly failed as both public official and university professor, his ostensible vocation.

Real democracy means all political forces subject themselves to the unforgiving and decisive game of electoral politics. Real democracy means non-interference by the American government and its client Arab regimes, under whatever guise or guile. Real democracy means no one gets excluded or defined out of the political game, and real democracy is when the outcome of electoral contests is never preordained. Real democracy means the end of the tutelage of any one social force over the others, and the beginning of a genuine, undoctored, organised, and periodically repeated process of public choice-making that goes by the name of elections. Election rules are to be decided through public debate, not behind closed doors by ruling parties who then trumpet them as “incentives for competition.” Everyone must be put to the test of elections, no excuses, ifs, ands, buts, or maybes. And let the people be the judge.

Arab regimes have long made clear that they will stop at nothing to make sure this does not happen, and therefore they are the single biggest obstacles to democratic development. If the U.S. government can stand not to set any preconditions and instead accepts the fundamental uncertainty of Arab electoral processes, then it will gain maximum credibility and respect as a promoter of democracy, because it will have respected the choices of Arab electorates, no matter how unpalatable to the American government. But if it stipulates preconditions, intervenes to shore up its supporters and marginalise its challengers, and continues to engage in age-old realpolitik while claiming the mantle of democracy promotion, then its already dangerously depleted credibility will plunge to sub-zero depths, if it hasn’t already got there.

A final note. I’m especially offended by so-called American liberals and self-appointed democracy doctors, whining incessantly about the Arab world’s “democracy deficit” and what “we” (read do-gooder Americans) can do about it. Ever since the American invasion and occupation of Iraq, legions of these instant democracy experts have spun lucrative careers dispensing their overnight wisdom about the nature, pace, rules, and “prospects” of democratic development in the Arab world. They direct their exertions not to the region’s citizens but to Washington’s denizens, and are not above lending their services to the U.S. occupation authorities in Iraq. This is all well and good if they were honest about their project: defending U.S. national interests. That is their prerogative as American citizens. What grates on me is their insistence on cloaking their moment in the sun as genuine concern for Arab democracy (of the “liberal” variety of course). I cannot speak for other Arabs pining for democracy, but I can speak for myself: “liberal” do-gooders sound suspiciously like the “liberal imperialists” of yore, those earnest hand-wringers who really really really wanted the natives to learn democracy and got all exercised about how best to teach it to them. It’s la mission civilisatrice, redux. I don’t know what’s more offensive: suffering the systematic subversion of Arab democracy by the U.S. government and its local supplicants, or having my hand held and being reassured that it’s all about “women’s empowerment,” “capacity building,” and “education reform”.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Debunking the myth that won't die

Nasser Ibrahim, ed., Dissent and Protest in Egyptian Society during the Ottoman Era (2004)

It is a standard truism that Egyptians are “apathetic,” “politically stagnant,” “quiescent” and all the other well-worn adjectives said to capture both Egyptian history and contemporary Egyptian politics. Such claims have acquired the status of self-evident truths, oh-so-wisely invoked to explain anything and everything about the Egyptians. So it’s doubly entertaining to now see journalists and analysts tripping over themselves as they jettison the “stagnation” trope after current events have exposed it for what it is. One day, I’d like to hear how they explain the shift from “stagnation” to the social action we’re seeing all around us. But right now, I’m more interested in going beyond conventional and/or suspect ideas to knowledgeable insights.

Wednesday’s memorable candlelight vigil outside of Saad Zaghlul’s mausoleum merged innovative tactics (candles, relative silence) with Egyptian protest staples from the 1970s: street theater, poetry reading, music, earthy signs. The scene recalled the 1920s, when Beit al-Umma (Saad Zaghlul’s villa-turned-national refuge) was the site of frequent, vigilant throngs. The day in black protest of 1 June featured the same mixture of old and new, reclaiming the slick and grandiose steps of the Press Syndicate as the pivotal protest site of 2005. The Tahrir Square vigil of 20 March 2003 recalled the student sit-in of January 1972 in the same locale, when area housewives walked over food and blankets to the protesting students. This wonderful new book goes back much further than the last 35 years, offering an in-depth look at Egyptian social protest in from the 17th-19th centuries. My point is not to draw a seamless link between the past and events of today. My point is that social protest in general, and state-oriented protest in particular, is an undeniable feature of this country’s history. The myth of Egyptian quietude has always been a lie. Can we lay it to rest once and for all?

The edited volume is the outcome of the Egyptian Society for Historical Studies’ annual seminar during 2002-03, ably supervised by the dean of Egyptian social historians, the great Ra’uf Abbas. Abbas pens a pithy preface rightly taking to task “the theorists of Egyptians’ passiveness” as he calls them, outlining a research agenda to test their claims against incontrovertible, inconvenient facts. The 18 contributors, historians all, are a mix of established academics such as Latifa Salem and Asem al-Desouqi and masters’ and doctoral students at various Egyptian universities. All essays are in Arabic save for one in French on Cairene revolts during the French occupation, as seen by French writers Jean-Joseph Marcel and Alexandre Dumas.

As with any edited volume, the quality is uneven. Some essays are nothing more than pages of unstructured rumination that add little information or insight, but most are carefully constructed historical accounts, copiously footnoted and tightly written. I am particularly struck by the genuine intellectual modesty instilled by the historian’s craft. After presenting detailed evidence culled from primary sources, many authors enumerate what they still cannot explain, or where the evidence contradicted their impulses and biases, or where nothing more than a tentative hypothesis can be ventured. How refreshing to see such scholarly honesty and humility, and what a contrast to the ignorance and arrogance of those who pontificate and proclaim from the safety of their armchairs and underwhelming brains.

Despite the generally starchy language used by historians, and the no-nonsense layout style making absolutely no concessions to design, there’s a wealth of fascinating detail in these pages. The essays review the gamut of protest modalities, from individual resistance to aesthetic expression to armed rebellion to acts of foot-dragging, sabotage, and simply: flight. Nasrah Abd al-Mutagalli’s essay mines court records in Daqahliyya, Damietta, Rosetta, and Mansoura for clues about why individual fellahin and sometimes whole rural communities fled their home villages and settled elsewhere. With the caveat that court records are an inherently tendentious source, since those who filed the reports of flight were often irate multazims (tax farmers), the author shows that exorbitant taxation and abusive state power were the two main propellants of peasant flight. To those who shrug off flight as a “passive” form of resistance, al-Mutagalli effectively demonstrates the extent to which the Ottoman administration in Istanbul was perturbed by Egyptian peasants’ flight, fearing copycat actions and the disruption of agricultural production. They went so far as to circulate written guarantees (waraqat amaan) to the peasants promising that their grievances would be addressed by the administration if they returned.

Additional essays survey the black slave revolt in Mameluk Cairo in 1445, the forms of protest by ulama in the 17th century, and Sinai Bedouins and state power in the 19th century. Our friend Sayed Ashmawi contributes a rambling essay on “Resistance by Stratagem in Ottoman Egypt”. It’s mostly an entertaining collection of proverbs attesting to Egyptians’ arts of subterfuge, dissimulation, humour, satire, rumour-mongering, and that quintessential Egyptian word used to describe all manner of corner-cutting street smarts and subversion of established rules: fahlawa. While these traits have now become something of a composite national character, Ashmawi makes a fleeting, almost accidental reference to a point I wish to underline: these are not cornerstones of “the Egyptian personality” (whatever that is), but as the proverb has it: “necessity breeds stratagem” (al-haga tiftiq al-heela). There are always tangible reasons for the way behaviours and habits develop, it’s never some mystical “essential condition.” Perhaps it’s pedantic to repeat this, but given how blithely traits of “national character” are marshaled to shore up all sorts of bankrupt claims with transparent political aims, it bears repeating. Material conditions determine culture, not the other way around.

A much more focused and analytically astute piece than Ashmawi’s is Ibrahim Sha’lan’s “Dissent and Protest in Proverbs”, which shows the push-and-pull between ordinary people and their rulers through a survey of proverbs that alternately preach quiescence and resistance. Sha’lan is to be commended for his clear demonstration that for every proverb exhorting passivity, there’s one preaching defense of honour and resistance. Why is it that we only focus on the former and pretend that the latter don’t exist? One that stands out: “Live like a rooster for a day, never like a chicken for a year.”

Two other strong essays are case studies of peasant responses to military conscription between 1820-1882 and ordinary people’s resistance to 19th century shingles immunization efforts. The first essay in particular is an excellent elaboration on what every Egyptian schoolchild is taught in primary school about peasants gouging their eyes out to escape conscription; this fearsome fact still haunts me as an adult. Autor Niveen ‘Alwan not only details the myriad additional self-mutilation techniques and how they were reflected in moving sorrow songs, but how the state responded, from holding family members hostage until fugitive would-be conscripts gave themselves up, to creating domestic passports without which peasants could not leave their home villages, to publicly crucifying mothers who had intentionally ruined their sons’ eyes. It is not an exaggeration that the modern state is premised on blood and tragedy.

By far the most empirically rich, lucidly written, and carefully organised essay is Emad Ahmad Hilal’s “The Petition: The Voice of the Protesting Egyptian Peasant in the Second Half of the 19th Century.” I love Hilal’s opening lines: “The petition (‘ard hal) is the most important document for studying the development of the modern state in the 19th century, for examining how the idea of rights and obligations—the basis of the modern state—spread among the most significant productive sector: the fellahin.” The historian reveals that the National Archives (Dar al-Watha’iq al-Qawmiyya) house approximately 1 million petitions from Egyptians of all walks of life: peasants, craftsmen, civil servants, military conscripts, men & women, Christians, Muslims, and Jews. He argues that the rise in petitions is correlated with the rise of Mehmet Ali’s interventionist bureaucratic state; the administration cut out middlemen and regional bosses and sought direct contact with fellahin through an elaborate hierarchical system of state functionaries who were, remarkably, accountable.

The 1843 edict establishing this direct intercourse penalised state employees with up to three months’ imprisonment if they lost or ignored popular petitions. Relish the paradox: the violent state also puts in place formal grievance mechanisms that are then energetically deployed by those it seeks to discipline and control. The fellah “encircled the state with its own weapons,” writes Hilal.

Hilal’s account shows how fellahin quickly and resourcefully resorted to the petition to file their grievances against state agents: ‘umda, police chief, and even mudiriyya head. They filed so many petitions, some of them false, that an 1855 law stipulated a light prison sentence for petitioners who falsely accuse public functionaries. As to outcome, out of 196 petitions between the years 1849-1864, 94 were found in favour of peasants and 82 in favour of the administration. Hilal concludes with an intriguing hypothesis: the ‘Urabi revolt of 1881-82 was partly a response to the narrowing of petitioning opportunities, for when peasant petitioning was at its height, revolt and collective action were rare.

The lack of an editor’s introduction tying together the very different contributions and/or proposing a specific research program is an annoying lacuna that leaves the reader adrift in trying to make sense of the tons of empirical information scattered throughout the essays. Another obvious oversight comes in the penultimate essay, where the author focuses on a pivotal reform manifesto by the polyglot Alexandrian Misr al-Fatah society in 1879 but fails to reproduce the actual manifesto in an appendix nor even adequately quotes portions of it to give readers a sense of its style or the wording of demands (mostly having to do with checking despotism, the separation of powers, equal rights under the law, and an end to the strangling of peasants by excessive taxation).

As with all thought-provoking works, this volume raises but does not answer some tantalising questions. Can a theory of state-society relations be developed out of the available evidence, one that rebuts the passivity theory that all the authors are correctly very much against? How did the various forms of protest surveyed in this volume mutate into the more modern, organised forms that debuted in the 20th century, beginning with the law school students’ strike of 1906? If Egyptians have been protesting and sparring with their public authorities for so long, why haven’t they succeeded in achieving representative self-rule and democracy? Why does the myth of passive, politically apathetic Egyptians refuse to die?

I have no answers to the first three questions, and a strong hunch about the last. Stupid and false mantras, parroted often enough and by ostensibly learned people, will stick and spread like thick algae over a deep pond. Fortunately, however, algae have no roots, leaves, or stems. So even if they spread and multiply, they can always be easily brushed aside to reveal the crystal-clear water underneath. As Egypt’s streets are once again enlivened and energised by collective action and protest, and a thousand reform manifestos bloom, and people demand unconditional democracy, the algae-peddlers and hawkers will work overtime to spread their concealing, falsifying fare. Brush them aside.