Sunday, August 28, 2005

All Eyes on the Judges

A few days from now on September 2nd, Egyptian judges will convene for another extra-ordinary general assembly in the stately precincts of the Judges Club in downtown Cairo. Kifaya and its cohorts have promised public rallies of support on that day. Egypt’s entire political class, untold numbers of ordinary people, and foreign parties invested in Egyptian affairs will be watching closely. September 2nd of course is the date set by the earlier extraordinary meeting of the judges on May 13th (photo above). On that remarkable day, judges issued a resounding ultimatum to the executive, demanding a revamped judiciary law and full supervision of elections from A-Z in exchange for their full cooperation.

Unlike the current presidential circus whose outcome we already know, the September 2nd meeting will be a true deliberative exercise whose results no one can foretell. Judges are not of one mind, surprising new developments are transpiring literally by the hour, and the stakes simply couldn’t be higher. This time, both the process of deliberation and its outcome are shrouded in mystery. When was the last time we’ve seen such genuine suspense in Egyptian politics?! I’m giddy with anticipation.

The Regime

Since May 13th, judicial-executive relations have been characterised by maximum fluidity, tension, and fevered negotiations at all times. Oscillating between tenuous truces and measured escalation, negotiations have broken down more than once as each camp (and factions therein) angle for advantage and try to anticipate and manipulate their interlocutors’ responses. Rather than rehearse the extremely long list of rumours flying about, let’s quickly review what we know.

For the past four months since the judges’ first meeting in Alexandria back in April, the executive has done its utmost to sway and fragment the judges. Sundry regime emissaries have used all the means at their disposal, from dangling lucrative material incentives before judges to pursuing strategies of divide and conquer to appealing to judges’ natural instincts for order and a smooth functioning of the state. Extremely skittish at the prospect that judges will actually refrain from election oversight, the regime has pursued at least three tacks. First, it has mobilised its vast army of legal functionaries to stand in for real men of the bench should the latter boycott. Such legal apparatchiks consist of state attorneys and those in the administrative and general prosecution.

Second, the regime has made some concessionary gestures. It’s trumpeted “the largest package of promotions in the history of the judiciary” by promising the advancement of 1,742 judges (see al-Ahram of August 18). It’s said that the 54,000 polling stations will be reduced to 9,000 to enable near-complete supervision by Egypt’s 8,000 men of the bench and additional assistance by the legal functionaries. This news was broken by Judge Ahmed Mekky in his al-Jazeera interview here. Mekky also indicated that the government agreed that each judge will also have purview over what goes on outside polling stations to ensure that no voters are intimidated or barred from entering altogether, the main problem in the 2000 elections. And that voters will dip their fingers in indelible phosphoric ink to prevent them from voting more than once.

Finally, and in many ways most significantly, the regime has maintained a halo of ambiguity around its position on a new law for the judiciary, the judges’ signal demand. The executive has made vague promises but no concrete commitments, least of all on the pivotal issue of budgetary autonomy for the judicial branch and an end to the corrosive practice of appointing sitting judges as “consultants” to various ministries and executive agencies, a transparent means of bribery. By keeping the door half-ajar on the much coveted new law, the government can nourish indecision and factionalism among judges and thus cloud their decison-making processes.

The Judges

Recall that immediately after the May 13th general assembly, the executive moved to challenge the status of the historic Judges Club as a legitimate representative body bringing together all of Egypt’s judges spread out among the country’s sprawling and labyrinthine judicial structures. Despite this, judges held fast to the leadership of Judges Club president Zakariyya Abdel Aziz and members of the board. In a remarkable move, in early July the Judges Club issued a damning report on the abuses and irregularities besetting the May 25th referendum, a clear signal to the regime that they mean business when they demand real judicial supervision. The report was entitled “Egypt’s Conscience.”

The judges’ next move was equally feisty. In a memorandum detailing their demands to the Presidential Elections Commission (PEC), judges stipulated that civil society monitoring groups must be allowed into polling stations to assist with supervision (al-Quds al-Arabi, August 18). This reveals that judges do not perceive citizen monitoring as encroaching on but rather supplementing their own efforts, a truly remarkable example of civil societal-judicial synergy on the cause of clean elections. This manoeuvre prompted an angry response from Mamdouh Mare’i, chief of the Supreme Constitutional Court and head of the PEC. Mare’i, by the way, has had rocky relations with judges ever since assuming headship of the PEC. The very latest reports indicate even more escalating tension between him and the Judges Club in the coming days.

It’s important to emphasise that a considerable number of judges are truly undecided and unsure of how to proceed on September 2nd. Many judges, conservative by nature, are genuinely reluctant to engage in such a high-level, risky tug-of-war with the regime, and many are extremely leery of being associated with international pressures on the regime. Yet, they are also frustrated by the regime’s constant obstructionism and its total unwillingness to concede any steps that might mean a more equitable distribution of power between state branches. Let’s not underestimate the predicament of Egyptian judges at this historic juncture.

The Future

Will judges maintain the remarkable esprit de corps that united them on May 13th, driving the hardest bargain the Mubarak regime has ever faced in its 24-year tenure? Or will they settle for some sort of a compromise formula and live to bargain again another day? Or will judges end up ranged among two or more recalcitrant factions? Whatever the outcome, a couple of points are worth underlining. Egyptian judges now know the power of making collective, public demands, buoyed by the admiration and support of pro-democracy forces and the glare of the international and domestic media. I wager that this is one genie not likely to disappear back into the bottle. Judges’ contemporary mobilisation has sown seeds sure to be reaped by them in future iterations of struggle, perhaps as early as the next round of elections to the Judges Club, and definitely during the parliamentary poll in November.

Most fortuitous in my view is one unexpected process of linkage that’s not likely to be sundered any time soon. The demand for judicial independence is no longer just a quaint slogan or narrow sectional interest, if it ever was. It has come to stand in for nothing less than the thirst for democracy and justice among Egypt’s society in movement. Fair elections mean total judicial supervision which means real judicial independence. From where I stand, that’s a wondrous chain.
*AP Photo.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Truth and Consequences

As the presidential selection spectacle rages on, Writers and Artists for Change staged their second protest in the public square yesterday. In Midan Tal’at Harb, the spirit of ’19 returned with the songs and likeness of Sayyed Darwish, looking on with his sad eyes. The sign says: “No to a fifth term, no to wresting legitimacy.” Mubarak’s electoral charade is not winning over these stubborn citizens. Like Sayyed Darwish, they like to speak the truth.
AFP Photo.
A protestor holds up a sign that says, “Down with the dictator Mubarak.” Today’s al-Ahram says, “President Hosni Mubarak, National Democratic Party candidate in the presidential elections, delivered an address from the heart to Egypt’s workers in Mahalla al-Kubra, in which he emphasised that £E1 billion will be earmarked to provide for the needs of industry… Mubarak stressed that he will not allow the use of the wide-ranging reforms encompassed by his election program as a backdoor for circumventing the rights of workers or encroaching on their gains.”
Reuters Photo.
Is it just me, or is there something deeply offensive about this particular frame? I don’t know why, but out of the dozens of contrived and awkward poses released by Mubarak’s campaign, this one stands out for me as particularly galling. For its shameless exploitation of the lovely Egyptian tradition of khamseena tea in afternoon. For the cynical evocation of filial respect. For the unsightly expression on Mubarak’s face. For the ruthless use of this woman’s genuine smile and generous offering as a mere election prop. Mubarak and his handlers’ sordid efforts to negate 24 years of his well-known aloofness and indifference to ordinary Egyptians have surpassed all decency. Kifaya.
AP Photo.
The kind Egyptian people will not be distorted. Outfit them in strange attire, barricade them from each other. They’ll always cleave to what’s noble and true.
Reuters Photo.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Who's Afraid of Change?

There are a lot of good reasons to be anxious and worried about what’s happening and what might happen in Egypt these days. Fearing change is not in our “national character” (whatever that is), but after 24 years of the same president and pretty much the same political system, it’s natural to cling to the status quo rather than wager on the unknown. “The one you know is better than the one you don’t know,” goes our popular adage, nicely captured by Anthony Shadid in his wonderful article summing up the Egyptian zeitgeist.

But there’s a world of difference between sincere fear of the unknown and intentional hatred of change. For the past two months, there’s been a rising tide of tendentious criticism of the Egyptian reform movements. Sometimes it assumes a tone of blasé dismissal, other times outright belittlement. Whether at family gatherings or on the pages of newspapers, there’s bound to be some holier-than-thou sage pontificating about why all of this means nothing and things will go back to “normal” after the elections. Finding fault with and second-guessing Kifaya, the Ikhwan, Youth for Change, Hizb al-Wasat, judges, and all the other movements daring to call for change has become something of a trendy pastime, an emblem of political sophistication, if you will.

Now, I’ve made my preferences clear. I’m thrilled by the pro-democracy ferment. I see in it such strong echoes of pivotal moments in our political history: the 1930s movement to restore the 1923 constitution, the intense mobilisation of the 1940s, the student, worker, and judges’ activism of February 1968-January 1972, and the society-wide dissidence of January 1977-September 1981. I’m happy I’m alive in these times, fleeting and reversible as they may be, and I know many Egyptians who feel the same. Even if everything ends tomorrow, Egypt’s society in movement has already made a huge imprint on the palimpsest of democratic struggle in this country.

But there are others who are scared and threatened by the spirit of the times, not simply concerned or contributing to the public debate. Ragab al-Banna’s rant against street protests in last Sunday’s al-Ahram is but one example. Ruz al-Yusuf and Akhbar al-Yom’s recent attacks against Kifaya are others. My favourite is the claim that Kifaya is “a TV phenomenon,” circulated by Mr. Abdel Moneim Said of the Ahram Strategic Studies Centre (strategic, indeed) and parroted dutifully by Banna and other fifth-rate scribblers. And let’s not forget Hosni Mubarak’s brilliant contention that Kifaya is nothing but a bunch of foreign agents.

When run-of-the-mill slurs fall flat, other tacks are tried. Ahmad Kamal Abul Magd styles himself an “enlightened Islamist” and leading public intellectual. But reading his extremely long intervention in al-Ahram of August 4th, one gets a sense of a confused mind unable to string together a coherent claim. Abul Magd, it appears, is peeved that certain ceilings have been shattered in Egyptian public debate. He’s offended that decorum hasn’t been preserved. He’s upset at “a general wave of criticism and opposition,” proceeds to school us on several abstruse points of law, and then calls for “unity of the ranks to face the future.”

‘Unity of the ranks’ or shutting down vibrant public debate? How sad to see a constitutional law expert make the most disingenuous use of words to mystify and mislead. Abul Magd would do well to abandon his intellectual pretensions and focus on his day job: vice-president of the governmental National Council on Human Rights and loyal servant of successive Egyptian regimes, from his short stint as a minister in the 1970s to his various tours of duty as one-size-fits-all adviser to the Mubarak family.

It’s elementary: real intellectuals don’t lecture the public as if they’re a bunch of sophomoric twits. Real intellectuals don’t seek to shut down the most intense public debate Egypt has seen in years. Real intellectuals don’t cramp our horizons but push them to areas we scarcely thought possible. Real intellectuals don’t tell us what’s “proper” or not, but nudge us to probe deeper and to ask the right questions. Abul Magd and his ilk are no intellectuals.

Besides those who dearly want to shut down debate and like to attack Kifaya and vilify the Ikhwan and curse Ayman Nour and have us continue to live a life of tutelage, there are those who are, frankly, clueless. Take this recent editorial in the Daily Star, which advised, “But if regime change is to be achieved, Kefaya will need to offer an alternative to Egyptians other than anarchy.” That’s rich. Whence comes the notion that anything other than Mubarak is “anarchy”? Who said that Kifaya hasn’t offered detailed alternative visions and proposals, easily accessed through its website or any of its articulate representatives or myriad policy papers? Indeed, every Egyptian group has a blueprint for the good society available through a website and ample documents, from Ayman Nour to Hizb al-Wasat to Hizb al-Karama to the Ikhwan to the Socialists. (Let me not forget the spanking new ideas of candidate Mubarak, post-facelift). The notion that “there’s no alternative” is utterly false, at best. Parroting it 50 times won’t make it true.

There’s a deeper problem. The idea that any or all of the current democratic forces are aiming to either take over or undermine state power is ludicrous. The Egyptian groupings for change want an end to Mubarak’s tenure, an end to many of his policies, and new rules of the political game to allow for maximum participation and the rule of law. All want a new constitution. What precisely is “anarchic” about any of this? Once again, an elementary point: social movements don’t aim to take over the state. Granted, powerful currents within the Ikhwan might see themselves as a regime-in-waiting, but there are equally powerful currents in that divided organisation that simply want more political participation. So when did this become a crime?

There are some serious critics, of course. The sharp Wahid Abdel Meguid takes to task Egypt’s “new opposition” for failing to dialogue with the regime over what he calls “a program for democratic transformation.” But it seems to me rather obvious that it’s not the reform groups who have refused dialogue, but the regime. Need this really be rehearsed? I respect Abdel Meguid but disagree with him entirely. He seems to pine for the days when the regime called all the shots and everyone adjusted accordingly. I’m afraid we’re well past that now, as many now realise the regime’s insoluble credibility problems.

To read the papers these days, you’d think social movements just can’t do anything right. Déjà vu. A couple of years ago, a commentator first branded Arabs as cowardly “mice” for not protesting the Iraq war to his liking. Then, when protests did break out, pundits waved them off for allegedly steering clear of Arab regimes (utterly false, but never mind). Now, when “Down with Mubarak” is a weekly slogan shouted in public on Egyptian streets, the reform movement is shrugged off as either lacking an “alternative vision,” or my favourite, really “tolerated” by Mubarak. What’s going on here? Is it reflexive contrarianism, sheer ignorance, laziness, or something more sinister?

Who cares? Let the regime hacks bark all they want and the uninformed pundits blather on. I think their motives are transparent enough. It’s ordinary people with their legitimate fears and doubts who really matter. They have every right to wonder what comes next. From experience, they know that even if there is regime change, their quality of life stays the same. Or gets worse. Will regime change mean decent schools, adequate and affordable public services, and a dignified life? Ordinary Egyptians have every right to invoke these bottom lines. And to hold fast to bits of homespun wisdom whose logic is impeccable. A man who works in the Ministry of Manpower and moonlights as a taxi driver said to me, “I don’t want Hosni Mubarak, but who knows what comes after him? At least he’s eaten and had his fill, a new one will start robbing us all over again.”

There’s a big difference between these sincere fears, and the efforts of mediocre wordsmiths who belittle and malign the extremely brave and noble actions of Egypt’s activists. So let’s separate the wheat from the chaff. It’s clear that many interests are threatened and bad old ways challenged by the current crest of activism. But this cannot be conflated with the wary sentiments of the public. And these sentiments in turn cannot be marshalled as “reasons” to impugn Egyptian democracy activists. Trepidation toward wholesale change is common even among publics in strong democracies. How much more so for a public suffering from two decades of political repression and economic dysfunction.

I can think of no better response to knee-jerk critics than Czech activist and (later president) Václav Havel’s calm retort to similar carping about his movement. In the The Power of the Powerless, Havel wrote: “Our concern is whether we can live with dignity in such a system, whether it serves people rather than people serving it. We are struggling to achieve this with the means available to us, and the means it makes sense to employ. Western journalists, submerged in the political banalities in which they live, may label our approach as overly legalistic, as too risky, revisionist, counter-revolutionary, bourgeois, communist, or as too right-wing or left-wing. But this is the very last thing that interests us.”

*AP Photo, Kifaya demonstration in Alexandria, August 10, 2005.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Chinks in the Imperial Presidency

The first-ever Egyptian presidential poll set for September 7 is shaping up to be a curious exercise, a paradox where the outcome is already known but the process is full of uncertainties. In every normal election, people have their eyes trained on the result: who wins, who loses, and how things will change. In this election, however, we all know Hosni Mubarak is going to “win” (barring some miraculous deus ex machina). Yet, the process is still worth watching. Not to see the state-owned media sell the election as a token of Mubarak’s fatherly benevolence. Nor to behold Mubarak junior’s desperate attempts to sell his spent father as a real candidate with a real platform. But to follow the intense public debates on whether or not to boycott. To see the other candidates tread uncharted territory. To watch an intricate network of groups and individuals step up to monitor the poll. And to savour the ever-shifting alliances and eleventh-hour reversals within Egypt’s political class. Fifty some years ago, Gamal Abdel Nasser built the modern Egyptian hyper-presidency, dwarfing everything in sight (including the military). Anwar Sadat re-tooled it, but it took the unexceptional Mubarak to preside over its creeping diminution. Direct presidential elections are not a magnanimous nor “astute” gesture by Mubarak, but a huge, reluctant concession, one whose long-term consequences neither he nor his successors can anticipate or control. Most unwillingly, Mubarak is actually abetting the rapid deterioration of the mystique surrounding the Egyptian president. And that’s a very good thing.

The Candidates

The obliging No’man Gom’a. Wafd party head No’man Gom’a’s last-minute announcement that he’s entering the presidential race set pundits and politicos aflutter and was a heaven-sent gift to Mubarak. He and his regime were highly perturbed by the prospect of a showdown with Ayman Nour, but not because Nour has any real chance of winning. Nour has other obvious advantages: he’s media-savvy, young, and possesses a certain vitality that’s only been amplified by his trial fiasco. Not to mention the matter of his tacit backing by the Americans. It doesn’t really matter that he has a shady past and no name recognition outside of Cairo; he has support from all the places Mubarak cares about. As we know, Mubarak is famously averse to any hint of a competitor, and to rub salt in the wound, Nour eclipses that other fortyish pro-American secular politician: Gamal Mubarak. So when Gom’a announced his candidacy (as much to spite Nour as to assert the centrality of the Wafd), I imagine that a huge sigh of relief wafted through the presidential quarters.

Gom’a is Mubarak’s dream candidate, as much a man of the regime as an Egyptian “opposition party” chief can be. The 70-year-old Goma’ is also from Menoufiyya and went to Mubarak’s same high school. While dean of the Cairo University Faculty of Law, Gom’a was a very cooperative administrator, handing over to State Security the names of Islamist students so they could be nabbed from their homes. He was the attorney of former NDP stalwart and Agriculture Minister Youssef Wali (remember him?) in Wali’s libel battle against Magdi Hussein’s al-Shaab, helping to land Hussein and his colleagues in jail. After the death of Fuad Serageddin, Gom’a ran the Wafd like his own personal empire, alienating both lifelong members such as erudite law professor Atef al-Banna and maverick members such as Ayman Nour (kicked out of the Wafd by Gom’a in 2001). For his latest cooperative gesture, Gom’a reportedly awaits a handsome reward in the form of a “respectable” percentage of the popular vote for president, plus enough seats in parliament to ensure the Wafd become the leader of parliamentary, ehem, “opposition.”

The slick Ayman Nour. Nour’s meteoric political rise over the past nine months is in no small measure propelled by the Bush administration’s sudden interest in his profile. The American government knows that Nour’s presidential chances are nil, but that’s not the point. The point is a long-term project of cultivating a cadre of cooperative, secular pro-free market Egyptian politicians to counter the refractory Islamists and nationalists the Americans just “can’t do business with.” I’m still amazed at Nour’s transformation from a slightly sleazy, wily politico not above cutting deals with the regime to a courageous young buck ready to take on the rotten establishment, photogenic wife in tow. To read the American press, you’d think Nour was Egypt’s best and only hope for democracy. Think again. Nour is a smart and ambitious creature, indeed, but he is and has always been a one-man show.

His Ghad (Tomorrow) party, legalised last October, had the potential to be a fresh new experiment in political party-building by relatively young politicians. Instead, it’s just as personalised and leader-centred as the other cardboard parties on the scene. Who’s in al-Ghad besides Nour and his orange-bedecked and surely loyal coterie of die-hard supporters? Former MP Mona Makram Ebeid cited the same issue as her reason for leaving al-Ghad a few short months after its birth. Al-Ghad is Nour and Nour is al-Ghad; he doesn’t even pretend to delegate authority or build grassroots support. Now, I’m glad Nour is out there unsettling Mubarak and turning Gamal’s face all green, but I’m under no illusions that he has a real constituency or that he cares about much other than his own political advancement, even if it means sidling up to the Americans. The obscene anti-Nour chants of the NDP’s rented mobs and the shooting of a 19-year-old Ghad supporter in the foot are just two disturbing instances of the degree to which the regime’s people detest Nour. But let’s be clear, personalised contests between Mubarak and nemesis de jour do not a democracy make.

The Debates

To Boycott or not to Boycott. Gom’a’s announcement accelerated a fascinating debate about the relative merits of boycotting the presidential (not parliamentary) election versus standing behind a consensus opposition candidate. Both sides make highly cogent arguments. Kifaya and the other myriad pro-democracy groups are pushing the boycott option as the most effective method to delegitimise Mubarak’s farcical election ploy. By refusing to help Mubarak repair his shattered legitimacy, the opposition can expose just how desperate and weak he is and further impugn his claim to rule. This would be fully in line with the pro-democracy momentum building up since last fall, based on withdrawal of consent to be governed and vocal demand for reform. I find this a particularly apposite response to what is clearly a cynical bid to extend Mubarak’s rule in democratic garb.

Yet, the other side invokes an equally compelling logic. As Salah Eissa wrote in last Saturday’s al-Wafd, the opposition should back one candidate against Mubarak as an alternative, proactive method to register opposition to the president. But I couldn’t believe my eyes when I read further down that Eissa supports Gom’a as the purported candidate and disagree with him entirely, but the basic idea is sound. Kifaya floated around this idea some months ago, and approached respected ex-judge Tariq al-Bishri as the desired candidate. If he hadn’t turned them down, we would have been faced with a truly original and exciting prospect: the unpopular Mubarak backed by the state, business, and NDP crooks, facing off with the unimpeachable Bishri backed by the Ikhwan, Kifaya, some opposition parties, and a wide swath of public opinion. Now this would have been a contest to savour: Mubarak “winning” over probably the single most esteemed intellectual and judge in Egyptian public life.

The Ikhwan’s choice. The big question now is what the Ikhwan will do. Deputy General Guide Muhammad Habib said they’re debating the issue in the group’s ranks across the provinces to decide which posture to take. The Ikhwan’s choice will be critical, and they basically have three options. Back Mubarak, and in return perhaps achieve legality, the release of jailed cadres, and a good chunk of parliamentary seats. Back Gom’a and continue the cooperation into the November parliamentary elections, especially if the government returns to the party slate electoral law. This will compel Ikhwan candidates to run on a party’s slate, and the Wafd is the only option available after the freezing of Labour (the Ikhwan allied with the Wafd before in the 1984 elections). Finally, maintain the boycott, nourish the tense cooperation with Kifaya, and focus on strategy for the parliamentary elections. Backing Nour is a remote possibility, despite news that he’s requested a meeting with General Guide Mahdi Akef. An unusual interview of Habib in the rabidly pro-Mubarak al-Gumhuriyya on Tuesday complicates any predictions of the Ikhwan’s strategy.

The Copts and politics. Another fascinating debate has erupted over controversial remarks made by Pope Shenouda III. In an interview in al-Ahram of August 1st, the Pope expressed unqualified support for Mubarak and had this to say about Kifaya, “These people would never have been so bold in previous eras, neither in Nasser’s nor Sadat’s time. So is this what this noble man deserves, he who hasn’t used his power against them?!” Pope Shenouda also dismissed out of hand the idea of a Coptic candidate for president. “The president should be of the majority religion,” he asserted. Angry reactions to Pope Shenouda’s remarks among Copts and Muslims alike have revisited the vexed question of Copts and citizenship. Most commentators are outraged at how religious figures are actively promoting Mubarak (a habit that also dogs Shaykh al-Azhar and the Mufti of the republic), belying any claims of fair coverage of all candidates. George Ishaq of Kifaya has said that the Pope’s remarks should never be binding on all Copts since he is a spiritual and not political leader, while bloggers Ramy and Africano have their own very worthwhile takes on Pope Shenouda’s incendiary stance.


The grassroots. In the past few weeks, several societal initiatives have sprung up to monitor the polls, mobilised by pure citizen outrage at security forces’ violence against protestors, especially on referendum day, May 25th. Most notable is (We see you), a true grassroots initiative spurred by English teacher Ghada Shahbandar, the woman who distributed the white ribbons on the June 1st Day in Black demonstration. Shahbandar and her fellow travellers are a wonderful and novel attempt at citizen vigilance; they’re purely self-funded and position themselves in support of the judges’ role. Another notable grassroots initiative is the Civil Society Coalition for Election Monitoring, coordinated by secretary-general of the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights Hafez Abu Sa’da and bringing together eminent political scientists and writers Mohamed el-Sayed Saïd, Mustafa Kamel al-Sayyid, Hani Shukralla, Amr al-Choubaky, Nabil Abdel Fattah, and Hasan Abu Taleb. The Coalition is gearing up to monitor elections from A to Z, from training poll observers to tracking media coverage and campaign financing to compiling election-related grievances.

The Americans (and Brits?). International scrutiny of the elections is already visible and only bound to intensify. I was amused to see the British ambassador pay a visit to al-Ahram last week, inquiring of its sordid new editor-in-chief Osama Saraya how he plans to give equal time to all candidates. Please see Monday’s al-Ahram for Saraya’s incredible response. As is well known, the government is extremely leery of any monitoring efforts and has still not given a straight answer to the Americans’ injunctions to have international monitors. Perhaps in an attempt to achieve a compromise, the governmental National Council on Human Rights has announced that it is setting up an “operations room” to monitor the elections. But the United States government is not really waiting for permission. In an aggressive new policy announced by USAID director Andrew Natsios some weeks ago, money is now to go directly to NGOs without first being vetted by the Egyptian government. Sure enough, several Egyptian NGOs announced that they have received $250,000 from USAID to monitor the polls.

Additional American State Department funds are also being earmarked for a “Women’s Political Participation in Egypt” project ($350,000) and “Establishing a Network of Democrats in the Middle East and North Africa” ($750,00). The latter seeks to establish “a formal network of democrats.” What’s that, I wonder? The announcement says “training sessions” will be organised and “moral support” proffered. Capital, where can I sign up? There’s nothing I’d love more than to spend my time being recruited and educated by the American government about democracy. I say, it’s so radically thoughtful of the Americans to offer us wretched natives some training in democracy.

The Regime

Coordination woes. Managing such an election under intense domestic and international scrutiny is clearly a challenge for the regime, if only at the level of coordination. The last few months have laid bare an unprecedented degree of irresolution, backtracking, and conflicting signals coming from the powers that be, as if a window has been opened onto all their byzantine intrigues and wars of position in these exceptionally uncertain climes. Take the security response to the protests, oscillating between savage violence as on May 25 and July 30 and dovish tolerance as during the August 3 Kifaya anti-corruption protest in Opera Square, or the June 22 Youth for Change Shubra demonstration, where security forces didn’t show up at all! Is this a deliberate strategy to keep protestors off-balance or a function of lack of coordination and mutual mistrust between the Interior Ministry and the NDP’s Policies Secretariat? I’m convinced it’s the latter, fed by the Interior Minister and his underlings’ anxieties about being booted, as rumours have been percolating for weeks. The Sharm el-Sheikh attacks have further disoriented al-Adli and his henchmen and cast doubt on their basic competence.

Spin. One area where coordination seems to be marginally smoother is in media strategy. Gamal has apparently been working very hard to apply the very latest American marketing prescriptions that he worships. He’s assigned his lieutenant Mohamed Kamal to be communications chief of his father’s presidential “campaign.” Besides being Gamal bey’s dutiful errand boy, Kamal of course is the NDP’s emissary of choice to sell its “New Thought” to foreign audiences and the Arab public on al-Jazeera. Like his boss, he’s enamoured of all things American, especially the superficial variety. Kamal thinks that if he spouts politically correct terms and repeats them enough times, people will eventually believe him (and even quote him). So the point is to stay “on message,” even if the message is meaningless. Recall the pomp and circumstance surrounding talk of NDP “primaries” to select the party’s presidential candidate. Whatever happened to that? Gamal and crew’s motto is simple: talk like an American, do as you wish. The true mark of modernity, à la Gamal bey.

Rumour & Rumblings. But Gamal and Co. need a lot more than spin to get them through the next few months. All does not appear well in the corridors of power. Fresh on the heels of the Ibrahim Se’da and Osama Harb defections, rumours flew about last week regarding eternal presidential adviser Osama al-Baz. Apparently, he tendered his “resignation” but Mubarak refused to accept it, goes the story. Could the barnacle Baz be defecting? Or was he booted out? Similar stories tailed gynaecologist Hossam Badrawi, member of a purported “liberal” wing in Gamal’s Policy Secretariat who’s seen his fortunes fall precipitously over the past few months. As the ruling party crafts its strategy for the upcoming parliamentary elections, rumours are also brewing that parliament speaker Fathi Sorour (the longest-serving speaker in Egyptian history) will be shoved aside and NDP legal henchman Mufid Shehab to be put in his place. Pre-election violence in Sorour’s Sayyida Zeinab district has apparently dimmed the speaker’s chances, and his days of loyal parliamentary service are said to be numbered. Finally, the grapevine has been weighed down for weeks with talk of businessmen dispatching their capital out of the country and liquidating their assets, with certain regime stalwarts doing the same. Quite the nice little mess, eh?

Cookery. The biggest headache for the regime just now is how to engineer the outcome of the presidential vote. By how much should Hosni Mubarak “win”? Anything less than 60% would cast serious doubt on his legitimacy and offer a solid rationale for undermining his authority. Yet anything above 80% would surely strain credibility, so the magic number would seem to hover in the 70s. The trick now is how to smuggle this past the thicket of independent or American-financed monitors and intrepid judges. A subsidiary concern is how to cook up the results such that No’man Gom’a come in second and Ayman Nour dead last. In the event of a run-off after September 7, this too has to be handled delicately, and eleventh-hour surprises must be avoided at all costs. Goodness, this election business is not as easy as one would have thought. My heart truly goes out to regime strategists as they work round the clock to navigate these mines. Godspeed, gentlemen.


Every Egyptian election year features some interesting debates, but this year is clearly different. Not because the presidency is at stake, but because for the first time the post of president is now subject to the deal-making and pitch-selling of politics, not the false veneration and above-the-fray stature of kingship. Imagine the legacies of this for the next election, and the one after that. As expressed by the most insightful observer of the Egyptian scene I know (you know who you are), something irrevocable has been set in motion, a process whose consequences we cannot fully fathom now, but a clear long-term victory for Egyptian democratic development. Mubarak and crew will no doubt make a cruel mockery of the meaning of elections this September, but the same cannot be said for 2011, or 2017. No matter who’ll be vying for the post by then, electing the president will bring him down to earth and start a process where he will have to bargain with (and be checked by) parliament, the judiciary, and societal organizations.

Manoeuvring for parliamentary elections will now be forever complicated by contention over presidential candidates, and can spill over into debate about the powers and prerogatives of the presidency itself. Already, Hosni Mubarak is adopting the constitutionalist language of the opposition, vowing to trim down and limit the powers of the president and amplify the purview of parliament in his new term. He has absolutely no intention of doing so, of course, but the fact that he feels compelled to utter such words is a startling and utterly unexpected coda to his tenure.

The true import of this election is best expressed by another sagacious observer, political scientist Mohamed el-Sayed Saïd in his al-Ahram column last Monday. Saïd wrote that the elections are an opportunity for candidates to answer the Big Questions in Egyptian public life: corruption, poverty, freedom, dignity, and a new constitution. “We await ambitious answers, answers that raise the ceiling of national ambition and inspire the people.” We don’t await them from any particular candidate, but from the debates, arguments, and repercussions the process has unleashed.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

My Madeleine

The bewitching scent of the yellow freesias struck some long submerged chord. A sharp, fleeting image of the tubular, red-orange flower returned with momentary clarity. I remember walking over a wooden bridge, greenery, a gazebo perched high, the texture of the velvety flower with the amazing, pungent, complex scent. Like a lily, it had strong, rubbery petals and I think pistils too, but it was much smaller than a lily and had a much sweeter scent. The walk over the bridge was a daily routine to a mundane destination, but in the corners of my memory it has taken on an ethereal, magical cast. Chronology gets all mixed up, facts are blurred, places are confused; only moods, moments, scents, and sounds remain. In a reminiscing mood, I dig up a trusty “literary” companion of my childhood: Megallet Meeky (Mickey Magazine). I riffle through its delicate, ultra-thin pages, its impossibly colourful cartoon stories, the bantering dialogue in pitch-perfect Egyptian ‘amiyya, the pictures of “Meeky’s friends” at the bottom of the pages, and the addresses of children seeking pen pals. They were from Syria, Iraq, Egypt. I always read their names and the names of the streets they lived on, but I never thought to write them letters. I am eternally grateful that I grew up with Meeky before its new look and patronage by the president’s wife. Even this cherished memento of childhood has not escaped corruption.

“Plants are a joy in every house!” is the title of this story from the issue I found. Meeky is a no-nonsense boss who runs a plant store. “We all have to work with lots of diligence and energy!” he says, and Bondoq and Kooka nod, “Of course ya Meeky!” (Much later I learned that their English names are Goofy and Clarabelle Cow). Kooka says, “I love plants very very much…how lovely they smell!” Later on in the story, she chides the hapless Bondoq for not understanding that plants are sentient creatures: “Plants breathe, they eat and feel happiness and sadness!”

Only now do I notice that every expression ends in dramatic exclamation marks. Back then, I was too absorbed in the tribulations of Bondoq as he tried to deliver the plants to customers and fell prey to the dastardly deeds of the plant thief Dongol (Peg-Leg Pete). But Dongol doesn’t know what he’s up against. A very sentient, huge plant comes to the aid of Bondoq and clobbers Dongol (“Boom!”) As he lies on his back fending off the plant’s blows, Dongol screams, “Kifaya! Haram!” The story ends with Kooka reporting back to Meeky how proud she is, and Meeky exclaims, “Our project was a 100% success!”

Meeky came out at the end of the week on Thursdays. ‘Am Mukhtar, the newspaperman, would pull it out from in between the pile of fresh newspapers he carried under his arm. It was a blaze of color amidst the grey newsprint. In my memory, ‘Am Mukhtar stands at the door in a pool of sunlight coming through the manwar window; the outside light contrasts with the dark interior of our apartment. ‘Am Mukhtar wore a galabiyya with an overcoat and had a meek bearing. Being a bookish child, I was always thrilled to hear his rap on the door, it meant hours of solitary reading fun, and the supplementary “gifts” that sometimes came with the magazine: stickers, colouring books, puzzles. When ‘Am Mukhtar came without Meeky on some weeks, I was so disappointed I wanted to cry, and pestered my father to remind ‘Am Mukhtar to bring it next time. Years later, I vaguely remember hearing that ‘Am Mukhtar had died. I felt a pang of intense sadness. The thrilling scent of fresh newsprint will always remind me of him. His name means “Chosen.”

I fell in love with the haunting sound of cooing pigeons in my childhood. My sister and I woke up early in the morning, put on our maryalas, and walked together to school with our red, box-shaped book bags that looked like miniature suitcases. They were lined with pale-yellow, soft cotton cloth and held our cahiers, crayons, and les gommes, the transparent pink and blue ones with the intoxicating bubble gum smell that we bought from the stationer’s near our grandfather’s house. My book bag always smelled of pencil shavings and bread; we carried our sandwiches of ‘esh feeno in there with our notebooks.

I remember standing in the balacona on a frosty grey morning waiting for my sister to get ready. I felt the intense alertness that comes on early mornings, and watched a cat delicately pick through debris on the rooftop across the way. Pigeons’ plaintive, insistent cooing hung over me like a gauzy canopy. Now, on the rare days when I hear cooing pigeons early in the morning, I stay silent and listen, but they stop after barely a minute. I wonder if they fly away or stand on the sill, silent.

At school, we would stand in our class queues and sing the national anthem, biladi biladi, and then a French song; the only lyrics I remember are “Une fleure pour maman, une fleur pour papa.” We had to turn to our right and left with hand outstretched as if proffering the fleure to each of our parents. I never understood what it means to feel mortified more than I understood it then. My parents insisted that we wear pants under our maryalas, to keep us warm in the winter. So there we stood in our class queues, with flaring bell-bottom pants under our maryalas, while all the other girls looked normal and happy in their sleek stockings. We looked like two clueless frumps desperately trying to pretend that it was completely normal to wear toasty pants in Egypt’s mild winter.

My parents also refused to give us pocket money to buy ‘asaliyya at school like all the other girls. ‘Asaliyya is a delectable stick of hard brown candy wrapped in plastic and made from molasses. Our parents thought that our constitutions were too delicate for the street sweet, which they damned as mish nedeefa (unclean). They tried to console us: I remember my mother standing in the kitchen with her arms elbow-deep in a bowl of thick molasses trying to churn out homemade ‘asaliyya so we wouldn’t feel deprived. Of course, she didn’t know what she was doing, and the final product was a colossal disappointment to both of us, bearing absolutely no resemblance to the coveted ‘asaliyya.

My manipulative younger sister would stop at nothing to get her fix. She actually browbeat me into going around asking random girls in our schoolyard, "ma’aki ersh? ma’aki ersh?" (Do you have a piastre? Do you have a piastre?) I will never understand how she reduced me to begging so we could buy ‘asaliyya. Now, I am attracted as if by a magnet to street hawkers selling odds and ends and the magic, uncouth ‘asaliyya. I buy five at a time and happily crush my teeth on the atrocious candy. It tastes more watered down than I remember, but everything pales in comparison to the happiness I feel at the taste of hardened, cheap molasses.

When school let out, my grandfather waited for us at the entrance, his hands atop his heavy, smooth, onyx-like cane. The distance from school to his house is extremely short, I discovered as an adult, yet he insisted on picking us up anyway. We walked past a store selling faded and chipped China teacups and saucer. I always turned to look as we walked by; they looked like toy tea sets and I wanted one badly. The store is still there today, as faded as ever, but it turns out the teacups are not for sale but rental, for large parties and weddings.

My grandfather had a commanding, purposive gait and walked briskly. We always had to be super-alert and not daydream while we trotted along beside him. He always nodded at and salaamed storeowners and passers-by, and they called out to him with affection and respect. Once, to my utter embarrassment, he sternly chided a complete stranger for dragging her toddler by his overextended arm instead of holding him firmly by the hand. To my shock, she accepted his instructions with deference and said, “hader ya ‘ammi” (yes, uncle).

When we got home, my grandparents’ small apartment would be filled with the smell of my grandmother cooking lunch, on the generic locally made two-burner stove in every Egyptian household before the advent of European imports. Half an hour later, my aunt would come home from work and we would all sit down and eat. Except for my grandfather. He never sat, he hovered.

As we dug into my grandmother’s delicious macarona with chicken or garlic-laced mulukhiyya, he would be wiping down the kitchen counter, getting the ice-cold watermelon ready for dessert, or putting out on the table his perfectly pickled cucumbers, which he kept in old sharbat bottles in the refrigerator. I’ve never tasted pickles like my grandfather’s, always green and crispy, with just the right hint of vinegar. He also made the most perfect karkadeh.

When we got up to wash our hands, he started the sacred daily ritual. He would pile up all the leftover bones and meat scraps, add rice and bits of bread, and put the mixture out in two bowls for the stray cats on the landing. They would already be rubbing up against the apartment door as we ate. When he opened the door, a litter of 10-20 famished felines would surround him as he set down their daily meal, then devour it in silence and quiet cooperation.

My grandfather finally ate his lunch standing up in the kitchen, after all God’s creatures under his care had eaten, had dessert, and settled down to nap or read. After eating quickly, he allowed himself to sit down and doze off, listening to the afternoon tamthiliyya on his antique Philips radio. In the summers, when we would stay with them all day, he would rise with the sun to buy fresh bread and feteer, the thick, buttery, crêpe-like Egyptian pancakes we loved to have for breakfast. The feteer would always be warm and flaky; we’d tear off pieces with our hands and dip them in rich molasses, leaving behind beige flakes of pastry floating in the dark puddle of syrup. I can never eat this, my favourite dessert, without remembering and missing my grandfather.

But the feteer is now greasy and heavy, and the molasses are thin and cloying. The cats are all gone, though one or two still linger in the corners of the landing, emaciated and drawn. Every time I visit my aunt, as I go up the steps and walk down the hallway to my grandfather’s apartment, with the round black plaque on the door bearing his name and profession, the cats follow me shyly, hoping for a glimpse of their beloved keeper.

*Inspired by Proust’s passage on the madeleine in his À la recherche du temps perdu.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Freedom Now

The people's bard reclaims his role as the gravelly-voiced chronicler of the struggle for freedom. Aged, hoary, and feisty as ever, the beloved Ahmad Fu'ad Nigm joined yesterday's gathering, "For Egypt...Baheyya," organised by Writers and Artists for Change. Joining him were actor Abdel Aziz Makhyun and writer Abdel Wahhab al-Messiri and a crew of Kifaya and Youth for Change folks. Writers and Artists for Change issued a statement saying in part, "Egypt is experiencing a historic predicament, and the prime responsibility lies with an autocratic, corrupt regime that does not represent the people. Exiting this condition requires effecting a bundle of real changes that have been agreed upon, in preparation for a transition to a pluralist, democratic society. A society that achieves the rotation of power, the meaning of participation, and the values of transparency and the safeguarding of citizens' dignity."

When Nigm leaves his perch up in Moqattam in the Rooftop Command Center (Magles Qiyadat al-Sutuh) and takes up his post among the people in the streets, I know all is well. "Girl, are you daft?" he berated me once when I doubted the capacity of Egyptians for action. He recited a rapid-fire series of proverbs about government and people, cracked some hilarious jokes, chased some of his stray chickens back into their coop, and tore off a velvety, fragrant leaf from one of the plants he was gently tending and told me to keep it. AFP Photo.

The spirit of Egypt's cultural virtuosos graced yesterday's gathering. Poet Salah Jahin, diva Um Kulthum, thespian Naguib al-Rihani, and nationalist songster Sayyid Darwish made an appearance, as did Islamist reformer Muhammad Abdu' and litterateur Taha Hussein. Drawing on Egypt's cultural past for sustenance to face the present is a newfangled, creative tack of the ever resourceful reform movement, akin to invoking our popular spiritual heritage at the Sayyida Zeinab protest. The struggle for self-rule, the quest for representation, the search for dignity and justice, and the recovery of aesthetic beauty--all are twined in the current upheaval. Lest we forget that art and culture, too, are casualties of the current regime.
AP Photo.