Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Three Elections, One Principle

I’ve been watching with intense interest and much fascination three elections that have once again pitted members of the Muslim Brothers against members of the ruling regime. These are the internal elections for parliamentary speaker and deputy speakers, the trade union elections, and the student union elections. The press and assorted commentators have rightly noted similarities with the parliamentary polls, especially widespread thuggery and intimidation of opposition forces, broad administrative interference to block opposition gains, and the utter disregard for court rulings suspending faulty elections. But the common tendency to reduce these elections to the age-old contest between Ikhwan and regime captures only half the story, and the less intriguing half at that.
(Photo courtesy of Alltalaba.com).

The other half is the struggle for undistorted, unabridged representation. The MPs who made a symbolic bid to unseat chronic parliamentary speaker Fathi Sorour, the resourceful workers who energetically exposed their institutions’ unfree elections, the brave students who organised parallel elections—all were activating the fundamental democratic principle of representation. I don’t mean some rarefied concept in political theory, but the demand to be consulted on decisions and practices that affect one’s life. I mean a mechanism to organise binding consultation, a procedure for the management of conflicting interests, and a process that holds the potential to modify existing interests. Barring direct democracy, the principle of democratic representation is the only legitimate bottom-up selection mechanism to manage the affairs of complex collectivities. It would thus be a grave misreading to reduce recent sub-national elections to nothing more than a contest between the Ikhwan and the regime. If we get past such sensationalism and unthinking parroting of the obvious, it is clear to me that the elections revolve around the struggle for adequate representation, a battle that is at the core of the drama of democracy.

Fiercely contested sub-national elections have been a consistent and lively feature of the post-1952 Egyptian political landscape. Internal elections to every sports club, faculty club, chamber of commerce, professional association, student union, actors’ union, and some public sector boards are heated affairs, much more ‘real’ than parliamentary elections and therefore of paramount importance to the regime. Far from being staged rituals orchestrated by the ruling regime as a serviceable safety valve, sub-national elections are real contests involving real issues that all Egyptian regimes have tried to control and obstruct. Recall the phalanxes of riot police and security forces during the Alexandria Chambers of Commerce elections this past May. And remember the security forces’ blockage of all Alexandria University campus entrances in April to prevent the faculty club from convening its long-suspended internal elections. Undeterred, 800 professors convened their general assembly in the open air on the corniche sidewalk and freely elected a governing board. Now this is what democracy looks like.

The Persistence of Sub-National Democracy

Egypt's contentious lawyers assemble on the High Court steps to demand new elections, January 1989.

For more perspective on the significance of the recent elections, let’s reach back even further than last spring and recall some salient facts. Nasser manipulated the internal by-laws of professional associations to pack their voter rolls with his supporters, and went further by not-so-subtly endorsing handpicked candidates. When judges defied his regime and issued their March 1968 statement, Nasser gave the green light to mobilise massive regime resources to interfere in the Club’s March 1969 elections and oust the reformists, installing a much more government-friendly board. Sadat did the same: when social protest at his domestic and foreign policies peaked, he dissolved the board of the ever-contentious bar association and handed down a draconian new law that decapitated the national student union movement, the notorious ’79 charter.

Mubarak is no different and has gone even further: he rammed through parliament an entirely new law crippling robust internal elections in the professional associations (Law 100/1993) and placing them under government receivership. A year later, he issued a law that replaced decades of bottom-up faculty election of university deans with top-down appointment by university presidents, all of whom of course are appointed by him (another law replaced election of village ‘umdas with appointment). After a protracted legal battle ably steered by the proud attorney Fatma Rabie’, lawyers successfully threw off the yoke of government receivership and resumed their suspended elections in 2001. Engineers and doctors are still battling to do the same. For those professional associations that escaped receivership (the Judges’ Club and the Press Syndicate), Mubarak was keen to see government-friendly incumbents hog all leadership positions. That old order was spectacularly overthrown when the general will of fed-up electorates ousted the rotten incumbents and voted in independent reformists in May 2002 and December 2005 (judges) and July 2003 and October 2005 (journalists).

Let’s remember that Nasser and Sadat were not battling Islamists in these institutions, but an assortment of leftists, liberals, nationalists, Islamists, and independents. That today the Islamists are at the forefront of the battle for associational autonomy should not obscure the fact that what is at stake is institutional autonomy and undistorted representation. If today the Ikhwan were replaced by leftists as the major electoral and political force, would the regime back off and let them carry on? Absolutely not. Just look at the regime’s multi-tiered involvement in the journalists’ and judges’ associations, two institutions where the Ikhwan historically have had and continue to wield very little clout. So while it’s comforting to dismiss the recent elections as yet more staging grounds for Ikhwan-regime competition, it would be entirely missing the point.

For the regime, elections in any sub-national institution pose an acute quandary. One the one hand, elections can perform useful functions. They can incubate tractable new elites, quash useless old ones, and provide a robust barometer of the moods of critical publics such as middle-class professionals, workers, and students. On the other, elections are extremely destabilising. They can incubate intransigent new elites, quash trusted old hands, and infect broader swathes of the population with dangerous new moods and demands. Above all, any elections are bound to activate demands for adequate, bottom-up representation. Whether it’s the determined voters of Damanhour and Doqqi, the enthusiastic electors in the professional unions, workers in the trade unions and businessmen in the cambers of commerce, the desire to elect representatives responsive to constituents is unwavering and arguably intensifying.

This is precisely why the ruling party dares not hold internal elections, and also why we see fierce NDP intraparty competition during the opportunity window opened up by parliamentary elections. If there were real elections within the NDP, would Gamal Mubarak and his cronies be where they are? Perhaps, perhaps not. And there’s the rub. The regime fears two things: the sheer uncertainty of the free play of interests, even if its own interests are triumphant. And the constant threat that its interests will be thwarted or challenged by rivals. Both fears fuel a multi-pronged strategy of engineering, manipulating, obstructing, rigging, and suspending sub-national elections. Such fears are also behind the decision to postpone municipal elections until 2008. More than simply fear of the Ikhwan, it’s these elections’ enormous uncertainties and real opportunities for popular mobilisation that drove the Mubarak regime’s deferral decision.

What’s New?

So if real democratic enclaves have always existed in this undemocratic regime, what’s new about the recent elections? Let’s review in ascending order of magnitude. The Ikhwan and independent parliamentarians’ symbolic bid to challenge Fathi Sorour’s endless tenure as parliamentary speaker was new, since everyone knows that all parliamentary leadership positions are jealously hogged by the very National, oh-so-Democratic Party. The attempt to reinvigorate the principle of internal parliamentary representation is significant; the closest that non-NDP MPs had come to such a manoeuvre was Ayman Nour’s running for deputy speaker after the 2000 vote (he received a surprising 169 votes). To be sure, no one expected the sticky Dr. Sorour to be dislodged from his favourite perch, and even if by some miracle he had been ejected, no one expected parliament to turn into a real creature forthwith. The democratisation of parliament and the parliamentarisation of Egyptian politics is a very long way off. But the Ikhwan’s move betokens renewed resolve to activate the principle of representation. Who’s to say that five or ten years down the line, we won’t see real, unpredictable elections for the post of parliamentary speaker? When it happens, we’ll likely look back at the maiden attempt in 2006 and ponder its long-term consequences.

Next, the trade union elections. I can’t remember the last time that these elections offered anything meaningful to write about, so why is this year different? Again, most accounts point to the Ikhwan’s new participation in what for the group so far has been mostly terra incognita. But there’s much more to it than that. Demands for real representation have long been brewing on Egyptian shop floors, fuelled by rapidly deteriorating work conditions and the dangerous erosion of the state-sponsored social safety net of yore. Over the past 15 years, the industrial labour force has been squeezed by soaring costs of living and unfair work conditions without a corresponding increase in official tolerance for worker collective action (much less collective bargaining). The rotten labour aristocracy that is the Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF) has given up all pretence of worker representation and has instead embraced its role as first and foremost a state adjunct that polices workers and quashes any bottom-up attempts at independent representation.

A wave of labour protests all over the country in 2006 against declining or stagnant wages, forced early retirement packages, and other pauperisation policies set the stage for last month’s elections. Workers began mobilising to push for real representation to protect their increasingly threatened interests. Sensing this, the government took pre-emptive measures starting back in August, administratively disqualifying independent candidates and establishing a tight-knit infrastructure of procedural obstacles. Workers immediately appealed to the administrative courts and secured countless rulings verifying myriad election violations, but the regime of course ignored the rulings and elections went ahead anyway. Many pro-regime labour aristocrats were thus ‘elected’ or retained their posts uncontested. Credible, independent worker rights groups such as the Helwan-based Centre for Trade Union and Workers’ Services (CTUWS) have copiously documented election irregularities and violations.

Up to this point, the story would be a sad but familiar echo of nearly every election in Egypt. But events then took a dramatic and highly unexpected turn. Early this month, 20,000 Mahalla textile workers staged a sustained and massive work stoppage against management’s decision to renege on election-related promises to pay two months’ worth of bonuses. Workers went head to head not just with management but with Ministry of Manpower Aisha Abdel Hadi and high-ranking State Security officers. They adamantly refused several compromises brokered by Abdel Hadi and resisted State Security’s transparent divide-and-rule strategies. Above all, Mahalla’s workers (including 7,000 women) managed to valiantly weather credible threats of violence and reprisal, arming themselves with tree branches and sleeping in shifts to be able to respond to any sudden crackdown. Consciously and deliberately, Mahalla’s workers jettisoned the
politics of remonstrance and demanded full and unabridged citizenship rights. Remarkably, they won. The regime relented and management agreed to pay the full bonuses. Significantly, the strike ended with a worker petition drive that has so far collected 20,000 signatures for a vote of no-confidence in the recently “elected” company union. The struggle for real representation continues.

Egyptian Student Power, Redux

Cairo University students protest the 1979 Charter and State Security interference, April 2005 (AP Photo)

Amr Hamed is an articulate, serious, doe-eyed student in his penultimate year of medical school at Cairo University. On a blindingly sunny day, he sits on a low campus wall shaded by outstretched, leafy tree branches, fighting off an annoying cold while being greeted by friends and well-wishers. Unlike other students buried in reading for their exams, medical school students have some leeway before their brutal examinations start in the spring. So the Qasr al-Aini campus is abuzz with voluble conversation and warm sociability; students munch on biscuits and sip soda pop, chatting for hours. Medical residents walk in twos and threes in their pristine white coats and stethoscopes; haggard nurses gossip about pesky patients; professors park their spiffy cars and disappear into the Dean’s building. And Amr Hamed ponders the recent turn of events that crowned him secretary-general of Egypt’s first nationwide student federation since 1979.

The story has a long history; let’s start in the heyday of student power after the protest wave of 1968-1972. Students were arguably one of the most i
nfluential societal sectors in the mid-1970s. In February 1976, at a national student union conference in Shibin al-Kom, students demanded a new charter and gave the president a one-month ultimatum until March 22, after which they vowed to stage a nationwide general strike. On March 21, as Sadat was travelling abroad, his vice-president Mubarak signed into law a charter that contained very robust measures of financial and decisional autonomy for student unions. Cairo University students’ weekly magazine al-Tullab became a key opposition outlet, well before the ‘platforms’ and then opposition parties issued their own newspapers. But after skyrocketing domestic opposition to Sadat’s foreign and domestic policies, Sadat revoked the ’76 charter and issued a new one in 1979, which decapitated the student movement by abolishing the national student union federation. Student unions were now confined to their individual campuses, with no nationwide coordinating structure. The '79 Charter also reinstated the requirement of a faculty guardian who supervised each union and had the power to veto its decisions and withhold its funding.

Mubarak’s control of Egyptian campuses reached deeper. Not content with sundering the links between campuses, for the past ten years security forces have routinely intervened in individual campus elections. They exclude all independent, leftist, and Islamist candidates to clear the way for the pathetic candidates of the pro-regime campus union, “Horus” (even their name smacks of illegitimacy). This is in addition to the various other indignities suffered by college students, from inadequate course materials to abysmal dormitory conditions to a general and rapid decline in the quality of all campus services. This long train of abuses finally led Egyptian students to organise parallel elections in November 2005, when 15 universities held elections for a Free Student Union (FSU).

The initiative was repeated this year. Students organised a completely independent, parallel process from A to Z. They stipulated a four-day candidacy registration process, a three-day campaigning period, and a full day of balloting. They put together homemade transparent ballot boxes from plastic wrap and masking tape (I love it). They invited faculty members and human rights groups as poll watchers and ballot counters. And they invited uninterested, apolitical students to join in the ballot count.

In response, State Security hired thugs to intimidate students and faculty who participated in the FSU elections in Ain Shams, and the administration of al-Azhar University suspended students who ran and won in the FSU elections and referred them to disciplinary tribunals. Undeterred, students took matters a notch higher with the organisation of the first elections for a nationwide student union federation since 1976. Students from 12 universities participated (two elected student union leaders from each university for a total of 24 electors). The Muslim Brothers at the bar association hosted the election after the administration of Cairo University naturally refused. The Brothers of course have a vested interest since their fellow members are the overwhelming majority of elected student representatives on each campus, but as both Brothers and others emphasise, the FSU is a collective effort that includes Coptic, liberal, leftist, and Nasserist students, and several students with no set ideological commitments.

Amr Hamed from Cairo University’s faculty of medicine was elected as national secretary-general while Amr Abdel Bari from Mansoura University’s faculty of pharmacology was elected as assistant secretary-general. Asked why he thinks he got elected, Hamed is disarmingly modest, explaining that the symbolism of his university and the historic weight of his faculty within the university determined his fortunes. But watching him interact with his peers on campus tells a different story. Amr Hamed is first among equals. He does not carry himself with the arrogance of a leader or the strutting of a big man. He blends in with his constituents. He’s soft-spoken and focused, warm and congenial, and very very busy, gracefully fielding endless calls, discussions, and queries. The noon call to prayer sounds and his peers come to collect him to pray. I watch them walking off briskly and think, this is what democracy looks like. “The principle of appointment rules all across the country now,” he says, “that’s why this is significant.”

The Spectre of Democratisation

Ballot boxes in the Egyptian bar association, July 1989.

A spectre is haunting Egypt, the spectre of real representation. From 2000 to the present, parallel to the return of routinised street protest, there have been significant stirrings for genuine representation among the country’s vital sectors. Lawyers took back the bar in 2001 and 2005, judges elected a bold new leadership team in 2002 and 2005, journalists did the same in 2003 and 2005, Kifaya did serious representation work in 2004 and 2005, actors elected a more representative chairman and board in late 2005, industrial workers defied repressive rules and increasingly resorted to strikes, and university professors formed the March 9 movement for university autonomy. Egyptian physicians and
engineers are mired in a dogged struggle for the right to elect their representatives, as are independent and opposition parliamentarians. As is their wont, Egypt’s ever-resourceful students took it all a step further, not simply activating moribund institutions but setting up free, functioning, parallel institutions, and bringing back the nationwide student union federation for the first time since 1979. That’s amazing, mish keda?!

There remains the thorny question of how all this sub-national democracy interacts with the national autocracy. Seems to me that the relationship is symbiotic. The mobilisation accompanying national elections can filter down to energise sub-national polls by emboldening competing forces and raising the stakes of previously marginal contests. The outcomes of sub-national elections can percolate up to the national level by providing trained cadres and spreading a zeitgeist of participation among voters. It’s also possible though not likely that there is no diffusion either up or down, and it’s probable that autocratic practices at the national level do filter down to sub-national institutions; no clearer example of this can be found than in the Mubarak regime’s placement of professional associations under government receivership to punish their electorates for their democratic choice.

Egyptian political history contains ample evidence of cross-pollination between national and sub-national elections. There are also many many examples of cross-fertilisation between sub-national elections: journalists watch carefully how judges vote, engineers watch closely how lawyers vote, everyone watches how students vote, and the regime monitors everyone and works overtime to control the representation fever gripping the population. As elections gain currency and pull in more contestants, observers, and voters, we can expect to see more struggles for associational autonomy, more hard-fought battles for associational diversity (especially among workers), more bottom-up initiatives of genuine interest representation, and in the very very long term, the democratisation of the Egyptian polity.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Social Science in the Public Interest

The Marxist intellectual, prolific development economist, and stringent perfectionist Ismail Sabri Abdallah passed away on 6 November, 2006, at the age of 81 (photo courtesy of al-Masry al-Youm). Abdallah harboured many ostensible contradictions. He was a scion of patricians who devoted his life to redistributing economic and political power to the poor. He was a deeply knowledgeable, even zealous follower of Karl Marx’s ideas while being equally brined in the profundities of Arabic thought and history (especially poetry). He fused a deep familiarity with and respect for southern Egyptian folkways with a charming, uncontrived Francophile streak. He spoke and wrote precise and lucid prose in Arabic, French, and English. His adult life oscillated between membership in underground Marxist organisations, long stints in prison, equally long stints as a decision-maker in the highest echelons of government, and collaboration with a wide network of international development organisations.

Ismail Sabri Abdallah was one of a nearly extinct class of public intellectuals who also doubled as public servants, and were highly esteemed in both capacities. Toward the end of his life, he told me, “I’m still a Marxist until this moment because I haven’t found a better method to analyse social events. I’ve been in prison and in power and I still haven’t changed my mind!” Continuously since the 1950s, he worked to apply social science to real-world problems, to use conceptual tools to mobilise broad swathes of the public rather than enlighten only narrow segments of the elite. He was a rare gem in an intellectual field cluttered with irrelevant theorists, sycophantic yes-men, and a stultifying, generalised air of mediocrity.

Abdallah was born in 1925 to a family of rural notables that hailed from Upper Egypt. His cultured, erudite father invested much in his children’s education. Ismail’s sister was one of the first to attend a boarding school established by Nabawiyya Musa, the pioneer advocate of women’s education. Ismail’s early intellectual strivings were nurtured by his father’s extensive library, particularly rich in the classics of Arabic literature. Ismail then enrolled at the Law Faculty and immersed himself in the heady politics of Egyptian communism of the 1940s, when various communist factions alternately competed and cooperated with one another and with other ideological formations to recruit adherents. In a conversation with me toward the end of his life, Abdallah recalled that it was during this formative period that he understood that electoral democracy was meaningless without a bedrock of economic redistribution.

After graduating from law school in 1946, Ismail could not pursue serious study of economics in Egypt since there was no Economics faculty (the Economics and Political Science Faculty would eventually be established in the early 1960s), so he traveled to the University of Paris, where he earned a doctoral degree in economics in 1951 (he wrote his dissertation on the theory of money). But Abdallah’s time in Paris was not confined to the university library. He mingled in French leftist circles, where he met his future wife, Gulpérie Aflaton, a free-spirited Egyptian woman from an aristocratic family, the sister of equally spirited socialist-feminist activist and painter Injy Aflaton.

The couple returned to Cairo and married in 1951, and Abdallah took up a post as a lecturer in Alexandria University. In November 1954, the bright young economist was recruited to become an economic adviser to the president’s office, but less than a year later, in June 1955, he was arrested, charged with membership in an illegal communist organisation, and tortured in a military prison before being released by an irregular tribunal. The abrupt oscillation between elite technocrat and political prisoner would not end there.

After the nationalisation of the Suez Canal in 1956 and the Egyptianisation of banks and foreign businesses, Nasser’s regime created the Economic Institution (al-Mu’asasa al-Iqtisadiyya) in January 1957 as a public holding company to manage all existing public enterprises that were formerly British and French assets. Abdallah was appointed as head of the Institution’s Economic and Financial Division, a post that entailed considerable access to the president. For the Economic Institution was not only a source of unfiltered technical expertise, but an attempt by Nasser to check other state institutions, especially the Ministry of Industry led by the ambitious Aziz Sidqi.

But only two years later, on New Year’s Day 1959, Abdallah was rounded up again along with 200 other socialists and communists, including the recently departed and much-missed Ahmad Nabil al-Hilali. They were tried by military tribunals and sentenced to three- and five-year gaol terms. Abdalla and his colleagues are pictured in the dock on 6 September, 1959.

Abdallah was a key figure in the remarkable world created by Egyptian leftists during their desert prison confinement from 1959-1964. His death is a serious loss for any attempt at reconstructing an oral history of this defining moment in Egyptian political annals. Abdallah recalled fondly and very vividly the rich educational and cultural activities of the prisoners, including lessons in everything from astronomy to mathematics to the staging and production of plays by two theatre troupes. Abdallah taught international politics, Abdel Azim Anis taught mathematics, and Ahmad Youssef al-Guindi taught Russian. But when Abdallah embarked on a translation of Das Kapital (Part One), the prison administration confiscated his papers, he remembered with a raucous laugh. For Gulpérie Aflaton, this period was particularly trying, as both her husband and her sister were imprisoned, an experience that she recounts in her memoir La ballade de geôles (2002).

In yet another startling and abrupt transformation, after their release in 1964, the former prisoners of conscience were appointed to leadership positions in the state’s cultural institutions, essentially managing the Nasserist state’s remarkable patronage of the arts. Abdallah became chief editor of the venerable publishing house Dar al-Ma’arif. At the same time, he was on the editorial team of an entirely new and creative experiment, the leftist monthly review al-Tali’a (the Vanguard). When Gamal Abdel Nasser made a quick appearance at their inaugural editorial meeting, accompanied by Muhammad Hasanein Haykal, Abdallah (seated to Nasser's right) and al-Tali’a editor Lotfi al-Kholi (seated to Haykal's left) expressed surprise that the president would not sit down for a conversation. So Abdel Nasser sat down, and a sophisticated discussion ensued.

Reflecting on the man whose regime both violently harassed and dramatically promoted him, Abdallah’s tone held an unmistakeable hint of admiration, “He’s really a Shakespearean character: when he was powerful, he was not intellectually mature, but when he matured after 1967, he was no longer powerful.”

For about 10-15 years, al-Tali’a was one of a handful of the most important publications in Egypt, featuring pieces by leading public intellectuals such as Adil Hussein, Tariq al-Bishri, Fu’ad Mursi, Abu Seif Youssef, and a legion of unsung political economists. It was very much an effort to employ social science in the public interest, to air provocative findings and chart important trends for the benefit of both policy-makers and the general public. The pages of al-Tali’a are especially intriguing after 1968, when Nasser began to experiment with new policies and political structures, partly in response to sustained societal criticism of his regime after the 1967 war. And throughout the 1970s, I’d say the profile of the journal was heightened even further, as it turned into the leading forum to air candid and credible critiques of public policies, most especially Sadat’s Infitah.

Abdallah’s career as a public servant continued in the Sadat years. He was a member of the committee that drafted the Constitution in summer 1971, and was particularly instrumental in the inclusion of the clause in Article 18 that insists that the state “provide for the independence of universities and scientific research centres.” As the Director General of the Institute of National Planning (1969-1977) and Minister of Planning (1971-1975), Abdallah led a team of economists that sought to articulate a strategic vision for Egypt’s economic development based on a robust industrial policy and a cautious approach to integration in the international economy. But those visions were increasingly at odds with Sadat’s conception of Infitah, and so Abdallah resigned his ministerial portfolio when the new Mamdouh Salem government was installed in April 1975 to root out all obstacles to Infitah, including public officials with socialist commitments.

Naturally, Abdallah was among the 1,536 intellectuals and activists ordered arrested by Sadat on 5 September, 1981. In his collection of essays, Tabareeh Gareeh, journalist Salah Eissa wrote a very moving description of this prison stint, including anecdotes about their lively political discussions, and oral poetry competitions that the prisoners organised to pass the time. As Eissa tells it, Abdallah won every time, so deep and erudite was his stock of memorised extracts from the classical canon.

From the 1980s onward, Abdallah continued to apply the vocation of social science to the cause of social justice, but now outside the halls of government for good. He helped to direct the venerable Egyptian Society for Political Economy, Statistics, and Legislation, and then started the Third World Forum, whose mission statement reads, “Intellectual self-reliance is a cornerstone to assure the success of Third World struggle for development. Its work involves and is addressed to mass organizations, scientists, intellectuals, academicians, technicians and politicians. It promotes problem oriented theoretical and empirical analysis aiming to provide real options for policy makers and organized social groups.” The forum's signature project, Egypt 2020, builds on Abdallah's early work in Images of the Arab Future (1983), an attempt to map out an endogenous, strategic plan for Arab development that the Arab Human Development Report would later echo, though without the emphasis on the development of specific, alternative futures scenarios.

To me, Abdallah’s legacy is manifold and wide-ranging: His commitment to praxis, his fusion of sophisticated modelling techniques with careful attention to the peculiarities of the Egyptian case, his commitment to maintaining autonomy from “The Prince” while training his expertise on the content of public policies, his relentless energy and productivity, his critical stance on prevailing orthodoxies, his accuracy and precision. I know that I and perhaps many others will continue to be inspired by Abdallah’s core political judgements: his faith in popular mobilisation, his insistence that Egyptian policy-makers do have the choice to carve out independent, reasoned policies, his deep suspicion of attempts to romanticise Egypt’s monarchical past as some putative golden age of pluralist politics, and his clear-eyed assessment of how to overcome Egypt’s deeply rooted, undemocratic legacies.

Abdallah’s endearing personal qualities are no less evocative for me: he hated mediocrity and resisted it in his daily life. He was punctual to a fault, dapper but never ostentatious, gregarious but never babbling, truly modest but without a hint of falsity. He was exasperatingly stubborn and dogmatic about rival political factions, most especially the Islamists, the only issue in which his clear thinking gave way to what I think was really political envy more than anything else.

As those who knew him know well, Ismail Sabri Abdallah went to work every day in a nondescript office in begrimed building No. 36 on chaotic Dokki St., the kind of building that reeks of history, where the stairs sag under the accumulated weight of the years, the stairwells are pitch black, and the patterned tiles have taken on a dull, grey hue. His desk was perpendicular to the desk of his lifelong fellow traveller, Ibrahim Saad Eddin; the two looked like two ancient civil servants poring over administrative memoranda. While Abdallah was gregarious, Saad Eddin was the quiet scribe who softly interjected reminders or corrections to the occasional visitor who interrupted their quiet work routine. The tea always came in a chipped teacup and mismatched saucer, the chair was uncomfortable and downright evil, and the conversation was never anything but edifying, stimulating, and challenging.

Adieu, Doktor Ismail Sabri Abdallah.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Monday, October 16, 2006

Monday, October 09, 2006

The Magnificent Sharafantah

Though he never played a leading role, and he never attained much fame, I will always love Muhammad Kamal al-Masri (1886-1958). In every film I’ve seen him in, he acts his supporting roles with such gusto, skill, and evident fun that it’s impossible not to be taken in by his charm and naturally comedic face. The first time I saw him was in his final film, ‘Afreetat Ismail Yassin (1954), where he played the loony eccentric who dons furniture covers as capes to keep his clothes clean, with little ribbons running down the front of the cape (for style, naturally). I laughed out loud, envying such an absolutely ridiculous and brilliant idea!

The Cairene al-Masri was a born performer. He started acting at an early age, and later joined the theatre troupes of Salama Hegazy and Sayed Darwish. This vaudevillian milieu, so rich in turn of the 20th century Egypt, was nicely portrayed in Habib al-‘Umr (1947), where Masri plays an entertainer with the lively troupe led by Farid l’Atrache. “Sharafantah” is the name of a theater character that al-Masri once played on stage, a name that he would later adopt as his professional moniker.

Something about Sharafantah’s malleable face makes me giggle, and it’s not just the curled moustaches. It must be how swiftly the face morphs from serenity to wild anger, as it did in Miss Mama (1949), when a perfectly cordial barbering session ends with the irate Sharafantah threatening the terrified Muhammad Fawzi with a very sharp knife. But predictably, my favourites are the two classics, Salama fi Khayr (1937) and Si Omar (1941). Before this brilliant collaboration with Naguib al-Rihani, the two were actually on very bad terms. But luckily for devotees of Egyptian cinema, reconciliation ensued and spawned an unforgettable comedic duo.

The two films are based on identical gags, where the put-upon simple clerk played by al-Rihani is mistaken for a prominent and monied personage. Sharafantah, of course, plays the suspicious snoop who calls the bluff. As with so many flicks of that era, both films are conservative, crude morality tales about the perils of class mixing, at a time when political ferment and social transformations were unsettling the established order in Egypt.

But as comedies, they work beautifully. I enjoy Salama fi Khayr slightly more than Si Omar, mostly because of how much Salama (al-Rihani) and his uptight schoolteacher neighbour Bayoumi Morgaan (Sharafantah) revel in hating each other. It all starts when Salama, sitting down to a warm meal prepared by his kindly wife (a young Fardous Mohammed), is outraged by a huge chunk of ceiling that falls smack in the middle of his soup, courtesy of the incessant banging in Bayoumi effendi’s upstairs apartment. It’s all downhill from there, as both trade the most—how shall we say?—candid and pungent epithets (“you lowly dog!” “you shameless liar!”) Clearly, it’s much funnier in Arabic.

So during this Ramadan, which in its Egyptian version has come to mean not simply heightened spirituality but also cultural appreciation, I’d like to remember and esteem the great Sharafantah, for all the joy and laughter he brought to so many generations of film-lovers, for all the energy he brought to his roles, and for his positive inimitability.

*Poster of Si Omar found here, photo of Sharafantah from Mustafa Darwish, Dream Makers on the Nile (1998).

Sunday, September 24, 2006


Ramadan is here, with all of its magic and light.

Ramadan kareem, everyone. Try not to eat too much kunafa!

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

A Few of My Favourite Things

Every once in a while, I get a hankering for some of the commodities I grew up with. My memory is crammed with the locally produced goods churned out by our run-down, inefficient state factories of yore, with their no-nonsense packaging and unabashed use of garish primary colours. My retro streak returned recently. For no reason, I recalled Rabso, the all-purpose, can-do detergent in the lemon-yellow box with the flaming red sun surrounded by cheerful soap bubbles.

I feel the need to write an ode to Rabso.

When I was little, I pestered my grandmother to let me help on laundry day, when the bathroom turned into a steaming cauldron of boiling whites and the whole apartment was filled with the soothing smell of fresh-washed clothes. To pacify me, teta let me wash my grandfather’s cotton handkerchiefs in a small tisht. I happily sank both arms up to the elbows in the frothy Rabso suds, fiercely beating the delicate kerchiefs and spilling half the tisht water all over the floor. I also got to hang the kerchiefs, but only on the first clothesline closest to the balcony railing, and with teta firmly holding my hands and securing the wooden clothespins on the limp, chastened kerchiefs.

I didn’t care that Rabso always left tiny but painful blisters on my hands, even when I had rinsed them extra carefully. Helping with the wash was too much fun to pass up. I think it must have been then that I developed a loathing of dusting and sweeping and a love for laundry and all other water-based household chores.

Sadly, the mediocre Rabso and its pathetic “competitor” Omo (what kind of a dumb brand name is that?!) have been overtaken by the new, snazzier Persil, the hated Ariel, and the locally franchised versions of the American Tide and All. Now, “respectable” supermarkets and mini-markets wouldn’t be caught dead stocking Rabso and other such has-beens of the detergent world; they’re too passé for the upwardly mobile, brand-conscious bourgeois homemaker. The expiring public factories that produce Rabso and Omo would never even think to commission one of those chirpy commercials with the bouncy fellahat waxing enthusiastic in their fake rural accents. You have to go to the low-income stores and any of the surviving consumer cooperatives to find Rabso now. And there it’ll be, sitting on the dusty shelves with its eternally yellow box still stubbornly askew, relic of a bygone era of local industrialisation and sensible consumer thrift.

In my biased opinion, Biscuits “Marie” have got to be some of the most delectable cookies ever concocted by man. I grew up on these extremely brittle biscuits with the strong, artificial vanilla flavour and not-quite-crisp texture. Adults of a certain age will remember how the biscuits dissolve immediately the minute they’re dunked in tea. That’s the only way to have them, of course, soaked in black tea, although I recently devoured half a box of dry biscuits on an empty stomach and they were as delightful as ever.

Biscuits “Marie” (no idea why the quote marks) were both a favourite breakfast and a lovely dessert, light and filling at the same time, sublime in their straightforward plainness and absolute spurning of frill, save for the businesslike, faintly Grecian pattern engraved on each biscuit. The only extravagances allowed are the joyful blue-and-yellow ribbons on the package, a bit of whimsy perhaps from the marketing department at Biscomisr?!

Alas, the most excellent Biscuits “Marie” have not escaped the sad fate of Rabso. I’m sad to see them shunted aside on store shelves to make room for the fancy varieties from England, Denmark, and the UAE. In a bid at relevance, Biscomisr has appended an utterly unconvincing “New” to the package. But discerning tasters will know that the cookies have not changed a mote. And thank God for that. In a world of more-is-better and imported-is-best, the Spartan minimalism of my favourite biscuits is a delightful exception.

Once upon a time, it was chic to support local industry and buy domestic textiles. Nothing was finer than the threads produced by al-Mahalla al-Kubra’s many public factories. True, their towels and linens come in only limited colours and styles, but so what? I learned to love plain white and stay away from that peachy hue so ubiquitous on sheet sets. And I learned to love the chaotic designs and clashing colours on the Mahalla bath towels: who would have thought that pink and orange are a good combination?!

This advertisement from the 1970s boasts of the Egypt Textile Company’s productivity, £E34.5 million in exports made possible by 32,000 workers. Now, one by one, Mahalla’s textile companies are being privatised. The workers are laid off or given “early retirement” packages. The designs are spurning beautiful simplicity and embroidery for “modern” prints of large, ungainly flowers, or worse, atrocious “Pharaonic” designs all over the covertas. And for some ridiculous reason, a hideous shade of purple is now ubiquitous on the covertas, which aren’t made of 100% cotton anymore but increasingly incorporate polyester threads. To add insult to injury, there are now fake satin sheet sets that come in the most offensive colours. What is the world coming to?

In a grouchy mood, I went to el-Ghuriyya recently to look for some plain, cotton dinner napkins like the ones I bought years ago but are now too frayed. I didn’t even dare look for linen napkins with beautiful embroidered flowers, I know they’ve been extinct for a long time now. But even decent cotton napkins were nearly impossible to find, and I must have poked my head into every storefront on both sides of el-Ghuriyya and endured the bored stares of the shopkeepers. Finally, a curmudgeonly old vendor reluctantly pulled out a packet from a huge black plastic bag buried in the bottom of a cabinet. He grumbled and complained that the factories are being privatised and don’t sell such things anymore. He made it perfectly clear that I was quite an inconvenience, and yelled at me as if privatisation was my idea. But he did ask me what design I wanted, and let me riffle through them to choose. I picked half a dozen, pearl-white napkins with a subtle white-on-white floral design. They are so pretty I’ve decided not to use them, and keep them clean and folded in the china cabinet drawer.

I would now like to confess that I have always loved the stodgy, kitschy Qaha brand, with its cloying jams, syrups, and preserves that come in substandard packaging. I love the brand logo, the rotund orange with the chef’s hat and pea pods for arms. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything so whimsical. I would buy a Qaha jam any day over any of the concoctions put out by Vitrac, if I can only find them. Metro and other supermarkets have apparently decided that selling Qaha is not chic, as a manager there told me in so many words. They prefer to stock their shelves with the American Smucker’s and various products from Central Europe, since of course anything imported is automatically….more chic.

This ad from the 1970s was Qaha’s attempt to remain relevant when faced with the influx of Infitah-era foreign competitors. Overnight, Qaha company became “the symbol of progress,” boasting boxed juices, frozen vegetables (packaged in polyethylene bags!), and pure honey. I suppose the blond children in the ad were an assurance of just how progressive Qaha is. Still, and despite the desperate advertising, I love Qaha, especially its apricot jam and juice. I’d like to pay tribute to it now, before it disappears for good, if it hasn’t already. Like Safinaz Kazem, I don’t much appreciate nostalgia, but there are always exceptions.

If Korona were to ever compete with other chocolates, there’s no doubt in my mind that it would barely make the bottom of the list. It’s too sweet, the chocolate used is obviously mediocre, and it’s always too soft no matter what the temperature is. It doesn’t melt in your mouth so much as stick there in a heavy lump (am I right?) But to my seven-year-old palate, Korona is the best chocolate in the world. It’s the most exciting treat in the world. Korona reminds me of the excitement and perpetual sense of wonder of my childhood. It reminds me of going to Um Sana’ all by myself and buying it along with bim bim (coca-cola flavour, please). Every time I walk into a baqqal now, my eye zooms in on the neat teal square lying forlornly in the fridge, overtaken by Toblerone and Twix. The grocer devastates me with his offhand remark, “children don’t prefer it now.” Maalesh, maybe one day they’ll rediscover its ordinary charm.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

The Domestic Wages of War

It’s too early to really know whether and how Egyptian politics will be affected by the latest regional armed conflict. Looking for dramatic change makes no sense, but whining that nothing will change is no better either (and more annoying). Every regional cataclysm has had an impact on domestic Egyptian politics. After all, no informed person needs to be reminded that the very character of contemporary Egyptian politics was forged in lockstep with defining regional events, specifically in the year 2000 when Hizballah drove out Israel from southern Lebanon in May and Palestinians embarked on the al-Aqsa Intifada in September.

The oft-heard claim that Egyptians (and all Arabs) first used to protest against Israel, then supposedly switched gears and turned their wrath upon their own governments is a myth. Domestic and regional politics have always been joined at the hip: protest against Israel was never a substitute for or a “distraction” from protest against ruling regimes. Instead, ever since the 1979 Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty and the summer 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, Arab publics and oppositions have been protesting against both Israeli policies and their own governments’ foreign policies and domestic despotism. So although it’s early, I’d like to consider two domestic consequences of Israel’s 2006 war on Gaza and Lebanon: the intensification of criticisms of the president, and renewed debate over what constitutes (and who defines) Egyptian national security.

The President and the Adversarial Press

It’s no longer shocking to ravage Hosni Mubarak in the independent and partisan press. Let’s reflect on this for a moment. In the space of four short years, from Ariel Sharon’s reinvasion of the West Bank to the American invasion of Iraq to the present, the totemic untouchability of the Egyptian president has been shattered into a million little smithereens. It’s not just a matter of biting jokes and humour, because those have been circulating since time immemorial.

It’s a matter of holding the president accountable, as this headline from the 31 May al-Destour suggests. It’s a matter of developing serious critiques of Hosni Mubarak’s domestic and foreign policies, and questioning why the office of the Egyptian president, regardless of who holds it, should entail such stupendous prerogatives.

To give credit where credit is due: it was al-Sha’b newspaper in the mid-1990s that started it all, with its relentless pursuit of former kingpin Yusuf Wali (remember him?) and its none-too-subtle innuendo about the shady business practices of Mubarak’s sons. The 1995-1996 battle over the draconian press law originated in the government’s attempts to silence such muckraking, and Sha’b editor Magdi Hussein served gaol time more than once after being convicted of libel. The government bided its time and then pounced when it saw its opportune moment, shutting down al-Sha’b in May 2000 when the newspaper led a campaign against Haidar Haidar’s allegedly blasphemous novel A Banquet for Seaweed.

Fast forward a decade later, when innuendo has turned into blunt criticism, and newspapers have bypassed middling cronies and reached right to the top. Hosni Mubarak and his handlers kindly helped out in this project of presidential diminishment, with their remarkable mixture of incompetence, persistent miscalculation, and extraordinary indifference to the suffering of ordinary citizens. For instance, instead of resuscitating respect in the presidency and its current occupant, the 2005 presidential elections manoeuvre was swiftly exposed for the cynical sham that it was. Not only that, but the independent and partisan press took the election spectacle as an opportunity to imagine, debate, and demand countless alternatives to Hosni Mubarak and his hapless scion. Sadly, however, the politician who came closest to mounting a real challenge now languishes in prison, a permanent reminder of how poorly the Mubarak team managed their brilliant little exercise.

When Hizballah kidnapped the two Israeli soldiers on 12 July and the Israeli military responded by destroying Lebanon, every newspaper save for those owned by the government ratcheted up its tone against Mubarak. Whereas before, pungent criticism of the president was confined to the “extremist” Abdel Halim Qandils, Ibrahim Eissas, and Gamal Fahmis, now even “respectable” university professors, doctors, and judges joined in. The issue was not so much Mubarak’s rhetorical stupidity of blaming Hizballah as his utter failure to leverage Egypt’s regional heft into pressure on either the Americans or the Israelis. And just as al-Araby led the pack during the American war on Iraq and al-Destour excelled during the presidential election spectacle, it was al-Karama’s turn this year.

The independent Nasserist paper had been sparring with Mubarak and son since its founding last year, with biting words such as this front page of the 2 May issue, at the height of the judges’ crisis, and the blunt caricature from the same issue (top). But al-Karama dramatically upped the ante in its four most recent issues (Nos. 41-44), with blaring headlines asserting that Mubarak would be first on a top ten list of candidates for hell, speculating on whether he was guilty of treason, and averring that the first step on the road to liberation is the removal of the incumbent Arab regimes.

Naturally, the powers that be moved to put an end to this. Last week, they dispatched the venal Safwat al-Sherif, the head of something called the Supreme Press Council that licenses and attempts to control newspapers, to complain about “certain newspapers” abusing freedom of the press to “cause offense” to the president. In a bid to divide and rule journalists, the Supreme Press Council called on the elected board of the Press Syndicate to “apply the journalistic code of ethics” and discipline al-Karama and its ilk. This has caused a serious and genuine controversy among journalists and the public, especially because there’s a good case to be made that al-Karama veered from legitimate criticism of the highest public official to an indefensible speculation on his fate in the afterlife.

It’s nobody’s business whether Hosni Mubarak is slated for heaven or hell, and I believe al-Karama erred by venturing into this distasteful, moralising territory. Yet as its editors admitted, this was a mistake, one that should not be used to abridge nor impugn the crucial right to criticise the president, his policies, and his immunity from the accountability he promised with his elections. The regime sees this as a golden opportunity to conflate the issues of legitimate criticism of the president and illegitimate attack on his person, but my conjecture is that the free press and reading public will effectively resist the pilfering of this hard-won right.

Who Defines National Security?

Just as the Israeli war on Lebanon abetted the ongoing diminishment of presidential sanctity, so it has opened the Pandora’s box of what constitutes and who defines national security. All three Egyptian presidents have claimed the sole right to define the national interest and decide the components of national security, and for a while society did not resist. This changed with the 1967 defeat, when the swift and devastating Israeli victory was clearly linked to the regime’s ridiculous bravado and false assurances of protecting Egyptian territory. But societal forces did not mount a serious challenge to the president’s prerogative of defining national security until Sadat's 1977 visit to Israel and address before the Knesset, when almost all organised sectors of Egyptian society rose up against Sadat’s sudden, unilateral, and enthusiastic overture to the Americans and Israelis.

Here too the president’s behaviour aided his own challengers. The professionalism and gravity with which Sadat supervised the Egyptian military’s partial victory in 1973 began to give way to disturbing delusions of grandeur. Sadat entered his Pharaoh phase, when he began believing his ridiculous rhetoric about being “the father of the Egyptian family” dispensing “the morals of the village.” So desperate was he to live up to Israeli and American flattering of him as a courageous world statesman that he scorned and then attempted to extinguish mounting domestic criticism. When Nasserist parliamentarian Kamal Ahmed hurled the epithet of “traitor” at the president in parliament, a taboo was broken and never repaired.

Hosni Mubarak inherited the strategic choices of Sadat, but not his tactics. At the beginning of his tenure, he repaired the rift between Egypt and her Arab neighbours and visibly cooled his predecessor’s enthusiasm for peace with Israel and cooperation with the United States. But despite his best efforts, challenging the regime’s definition of national security was a genie that had permanently escaped the bottle. Opposing the alliance with the United States and normalisation with Israel by definition meant criticising the Mubarak regime. Think of the heated press debates in the 1980s over the “American infiltration of Egypt,” the recurrent controversy over the role of USAID, the massive protests over Mubarak’s decision to include Egyptian troops in the American-led coalition to oust Iraq from Kuwait, the popular celebration over Hizballah’s victory over Israel in 2000, the furore over Ariel Sharon’s visit to al-Haram al-Sharif that instigated the al-Aqsa intifada, protest at the government’s decision to sell natural gas to Israel and ink the QIZ, and on and on. Underlying all these events was anger at the Mubarak government for inaction or facilitation of American and Israeli designs. Which is why I will never understand the ludicrous claim that Egyptians used to protest against Israel and America, and then started protesting against their own government.

Both Sadat and Mubarak’s definitions of national security and foreign policy centre on what they have termed “pragmatism,” that is, accepting and working with the regional status quo. As Sadat famously put it, “99% of the cards are in America’s hands.” And as Mubarak recently quipped, in answer to a reporter’s question about charting a different foreign policy, “You want me to go into the lion’s lair?” Cautious mediation and working with rather than challenging the United States and Israel are the fundaments of Mubarak’s regional stance, earning him brownie points internationally as a “moderate” Arab ruler.

But I’m hard pressed to detect anything moderate in his effusive expressions of fealty and goodwill to American and Israeli leaders. (Mubarak with George W. Bush on 4 June, 2003 in Sharm al-Shaykh, and with Ehud Olmert on 4 June, 2006 in Sharm al-Shaykh). Can you feel the love?

Where Mubarak and his advisers see pragmatism, critics see at best ineffective use of Egypt’s regional clout and at worst complete surrender to American and Israeli dictates. In my opinion, the most provocative and sustained critique of the Mubarak regime’s understanding of the national interest is former judge Tariq al-Bishri’s series of 2002 essays, collated in a booklet titled The Arabs in the Face of Aggression. As with all of his ideas, bits and pieces of Bishri’s critique have been adopted by independent and opposition pundits in their commentaries on the recent war. They have characterized Egypt as no more influential than a courier, ferrying messages between the Americans, Israelis, and Palestinian officials. Hizballah’s fortitude in the face of the Israeli onslaught has once again proven Bishri’s point that the choice of “pragmatism” is just that: a choice (and an undemocratic one to boot), not the superior product of wise statesmanship nor an inevitable outcome of the regional power balance.

Throughout July and August, dozens of public meetings were held, manifestoes penned, opinion pieces printed, and demonstrations organised to vocally challenge the regime’s fundamental foreign policy choices. Dozens of protest slogans, citizen petitions, and household conversations violated the American-Israeli-Egyptian government-imposed taboo on questioning existing “strategic alliances” by wondering how Egyptian national security is preserved when 1.4 million Gazans are systematically impoverished and disenfranchised, dozens of Iraqis are killed each day, and the whole of Lebanon is destroyed.

I want to single out just one out of the mounds of protest ephemera produced since 12 July: the Judges Club statement issued on 3 August, reminiscent of earlier Club resolutions such as the anti-Iraq war statement, and of course, the classic statement of March 1968. In a seven-point resolution, judges declared their “faith that popular resistance is the only path to protect the Arab nation and maintain its honour,” called on Arab regimes “to take clear positions representative of their people to dispel the suspicion that their task is to protect American interests and guard the borders of the Zionist entity,” and said that “it is no longer acceptable for Egypt to comply with the peace treaty with the Zionist enemy, after Israel has assassinated any hope of achieving peace and declared unequivocally that it will not return the land it has occupied, including Jerusalem.”

The judges concluded: “The most salient cause of this ordeal is the weakness that has afflicted the nation due to corruption and repression, evading granting Arab peoples their right to participation and self-governance by diminishing judicial independence, restricting freedoms of expression and political association, neglecting fair elections while taking care to monopolise power, and obstructing the realisation of real democracy.”

This spring, I remember that the international press was a having grand old time making heroes out of Egyptian judges and waxing poetic about their stately Club. I wonder, will they continue to do so now that it’s clear that to be pro-democracy does not mean to be pro-American, pro-normalisation, and pro-“pragmatism,” hmmmmm?


(al-Destour, 26 July 2006)

If criticising the president now knows no bounds, and challenging the regime’s version of national security is now commonplace, does this constitute a net gain for Egyptian democratisation? I think yes. Almost all regional wars have had democratising effects on Egyptian politics, meaning that they have shattered political taboos, widened the opportunities for ordinary people to make their voices heard, and increased the number and potency of popular organisations challenging or monitoring the government. The Israeli war on Lebanon and Gaza fed the increasingly adversarial press, further whittled the president down to size, and broadened debate on national security. To the extent that very little is now sacred, that we have a rambunctious watchdog press curbing and embarrassing public officials, and that basic tenets of the regime’s national security doctrine are no longer off-limits, then the war has had democratising effects.

I see no evidence and little logic to the claim that Arab democracy was the big loser in the war. Unless of course democracy is defined as being “moderate,” “pragmatic,” pro-American, pro-normalisation, etcetera. This is an influential definition, but a very rotten and disingenuous one, mish keda?

But democratic gains are fragile and not irreversible. Regime crackdowns are always possible, and imminent. American, Israeli, and Arab government campaigns to discredit their challengers as “nationalist,” “fascist,” “demagogic,” “extremist,” etcetera are always in the making. A lively, muckraking press can dissolve into shrill inefficacy if not bolstered by a professional, investigative press that asks hard questions and puts forth creative solutions to social problems. Broad public debate on the components of national security is just talk if not accompanied by effective organising that can translate into policy change. Time will tell if the latest regional war has indeed democratised Egyptian politics, and how durable and transformative those democratic gains will be.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

The Games Regimes Play

Gamal Hosni Mubarak has never met a tragedy he couldn’t use. Remember when he staged a “moment of silence” for the al-Salam ferry victims back in February? Or when he led an “anti-war rally” in Cairo stadium during the American invasion of Iraq in 2003? Now, nearly a month into the Israeli destruction of Lebanon, Mr Gamal Hosni Mubarak finds it fitting to lead a “delegation” of government hacks and assorted nobodies to “express support” for the benighted country. They descended on Beirut in an Egyptian military plane, but not before they sought and received the permission of the Israeli government. As we all know, Egyptian and Jordanian military planes are the only ones Israel is allowing to land at Beirut’s Rafiq Hariri International Airport.

My, my, my. Look at Mr Gamal Hosni Mubarak, with the best seat in the house, posing for the cameras. Notice the facial expression, all steely-jawed gravitas. Proper, no? Mark the badge with the Egyptian and Lebanese flags on his lapel. Nice touch. He told Lebanese television that the trip “reflected the Egyptian people’s solidarity with the Lebanese people and government.” Marvelous.

Once again, Mr Gamal Hosni Mubarak dares to speak for the Egyptian people. But this time, he added insult to injury by pretending to care for the Lebanese people.

But why should I be surprised? What else should one expect from the Mubarak regime but grovelling to the Israelis, using the Lebanese for a photo op, and keeping one nervous eye on the outraged Egyptian public and another on the demanding American bosses? A despised, depleted regime desperately clinging to power should never be cause for wonderment. A despised, depleted regime seeking to salvage some paltry war profits should not be cause for surprise.

And yet, the sense of outrage never wanes.

Hosni Mubarak’s regime is doing what it does during every regional war. It manages a precarious balancing act between following American and Israeli orders to a T while simultaneously engaging in theatrics to prove to its people that it represents their sentiments. In April 2002, when Sharon re-invaded the West Bank and the Jordanian queen led a “solidarity procession” for Palestinians, Gamal’s mummy was not to be upstaged. She staged her very own stunt, leading a caravan of relief supplies to Rafah.

In March 2003, Gamal and friends staged-managed an “anti-war rally” featuring that veteran Egyptian anti-war activist: Adel Imam. And last year, Gamal made sure to attend Rafiq al-Hariri’s funeral and bond with his pro-American mate Saa’d. Today, it’s this business of the military plane carrying relief supplies and the photo op with the embattled Lebanese government. But not before Hosni Mubarak blamed Hizballah for ill-considered “adventurism” and merely pooh-poohed the crimes in Qana as “irresponsible.”

The regime’s dilemma is real, and never more acute than today. Its stock with both foreign bosses and domestic public is dangerously depleted, its credibility with both irrevocably undermined. Mubarak no longer carries any regional clout with the Americans and the aspiring regional hegemon, Israel. Ironically, his long years of dedicated advocacy of their interests have eroded rather than bolstered his value in their eyes. While he has not yet become a liability, he has turned into something of a nuisance, a bumbling old man bereft of intelligence or finesse, just barely doing his job as the go-between of last resort. He’s repeatedly called upon to thwart Hamas and press the Syrians to pressure Hizballah, he’s instructed to utter inanities about Arab Shia’s loyalty to Iran. And then he’s told to hunker down in Sharm al-Shaykh and shut up for a while until his next assignment.

Domestically, of course, Mubarak and his cronies are on an even more precarious footing. His compliant foreign policy has dramatically hastened his domestic fall from grace, ever since that fateful day in March 2003 when his huge poster was ripped off the NDP headquarters by anti-war protestors. Since then, his policies and his family have drawn nothing but non-stop condemnation and derision in the press, on the streets, and in salons. Another irony: Mubarak’s presidential elections manoeuvre actually unleashed new challenges to both his person and his office, instead of shoring up his legitimacy as planned.

It’s no longer shocking to accuse Mubarak of being a faithful guardian of foreign interests, as these protestors did in Cairo on 6 August.

The biggest irony of all is that the Mubarak regime’s predicament may be sustainable, constituting an equilibrium state rather than some harbinger of imminent downfall or transformation. Undemocratic client regimes, even incompetent ones, can survive indefinitely. Tempting and logical as it may sound, there’s no inevitable sequence that starts with regional war leading to an angry public rising up and ending in regime change or collapse.

That means that one should brace oneself for the unbearable but very likely possibility that Mubarak and son may yet continue their miserable existence, having no compunction about capitalising on the suffering of the Lebanese people to cling to power. In fact, the Israeli destruction of Lebanon (and the American destruction of Iraq before it) offers quite an opportunity for Gamal Hosni Mubarak to further insinuate himself into Egyptian public life. He can “express solidarity” all he likes and at the same time emphasise the fait accompli of his public, political role.

There remains the stubborn little fact that the Egyptian and fellow Arab publics are not for one second fooled by their regimes’ pathetic ploys. If anything, the games these regimes play provide delicious fodder for activists and oppositions to underline how unrepresentative and cynical their rulers are. Rather than lull or confuse people, such games expose how these regimes endanger rather than protect national interests. Rather than entertain or edify, the games offend, injure, and galvanise.

To find out how the games end, we have to wait and watch closely, as Arab regimes, the American and Israeli regimes, and Arab publics duke it out on the battlefield of conflicting interests.

*AP Photos

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Power Politics

In Tyre (Soure) today, 31 victims killed by Israeli bombs over the past week were buried en masse. The youngest victim is one-day old Sawsan Tajeldin (left), killed along with her mother, when the car they were fleeing from the nearby village of Bazouriyeh was hit by an Israeli warplane missile.

The war on Lebanon has eclipsed the unremitting Israeli offensive in Gaza, obscenely codenamed "Samson's Pillars." Late last week, Palestinians buried Anas Zoumlot, 12 (above), Asmaa Okal, 33, and her two daughters Maria, 5, and Shahd, 8 months, all of the Jabaliyya refugee camp.Dr. Mona El Farra writes from Gaza, “Our news isn’t covered, people are feeling disappointed, devastated and abandoned with the world’s reaction, especially the governments.”

On Wednesday alone, 23 Palestinians were killed, the same day that world “leaders” and regional rulers convened in Rome to do whatever it is they do, which did not include agreeing to an immediate cease-fire and compelling Israel to abide by it. Instead, Israeli Justice Minister Haim Ramon declared, “We received yesterday at the Rome conference permission from the world ... to continue the operation, this war, until Hezbollah won’t be located in Lebanon and until it is disarmed.” He continued, “What we need to activate in south Lebanon is tremendous firepower before ground forces enter. Our great advantage against Hezbollah is firepower, not hand-to-hand combat.” Carry on, then.

The Past

Israel’s latest futile war to extinguish Hamas and Hizballah, enthusiastically abetted by the American government, predictably calls to mind earlier “great power” ploys to crush nationalist forces. It’s a very old story, but let’s start 50 years ago, when Israel, France and Britain pooled their efforts to bomb Port Said after Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalised the Suez on 26 July 1956 (above). Three summers earlier, in August 1953, the Anglo-American “Operation Ajax” unseated Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadeq and forcibly restored the skittish Mohammed Reza Shah. The cause was the same effort to exert national self-determination.

Two years earlier, in March 1951, the Iranian Majlis electrified the world by nationalising Iran’s oil industry and appointing the honourable Mossadeq as prime minister. Such boldness was not acceptable to foreign businesses and governments, so they immediately started plotting. American and British oilmen boycotted Iranian oil, while their governments hatched a secret plan to overthrow the intractable Mossadeq and reinstall the hapless shah. And so it came to pass. In August 1953, royalist military forces captured Mossadeq, and he was tried by a military tribunal (below) and sentenced to three years’ solitary confinement. The nationalist politician who had attempted to democratise Iran spent the rest of his life under house arrest until his death in 1967. As for the Pahlavi Shah, he was kindly assisted by American and Israeli advisers in the creation of his internal security organ, SAVAK, the organisation responsible for the comprehensive surveillance and torture of political dissidents during the shah’s uninterrupted reign from 1953 to 1979.

Now, it’s very tempting to draw parallels between foreign powers’ machinations in the 1950s and today’s war. There’s much to be said about the American, British, and Israeli governments’ constant fear and loathing of any attempts at national self-determination (and the French government’s too when it comes to the Maghreb). In fact, the American government’s pathetic claims about democracy promotion and the Israeli government’s transparent propaganda about “fighting terror” are mediocre carbon copies of colonial Britain and France’s claims to educate the natives about self-government and purge them of “bolshevism” (what attempts at self-determination were branded back then).

Indeed, Israeli Minister Haim Ramon’s lust for firepower to quell the Lebanese natives echoes Mandatory Britain’s bombing campaigns of recalcitrant Iraqi tribes in the 1930s and Mandatory France’s massive bombardment of Damascus in 1945. So let’s not waste time debating the “democracy promotion” and “fighting terror” rubbish. The United States and Israel want pliant Arab (and Iranian) populations and recumbent regional regimes, end of story. No amount of U.S. “public diplomacy” or Israeli deployment of victimhood will dispel this stubborn fact.

The Present

But there's a key difference between the 1950s and now. Today’s nationalists are far more formidable foes for the hell bent powers. Hamas and Hizballah are immeasurably more significant than Nasser and even Mossadeq. Why? Because unlike Nasser, their legitimacy rests on a firm electoral base and decades of dogged constituency service. As Nasserists are the first to admit, Abdel Nasser did things for the people, not by them. His legitimacy was real, his popularity was palpable, but his undoing was swift. He did not put in the effort to build the links that would tide him over in rough times. And so when his system came under attack in 1967, it was unable to withstand the shock. The massive popular protests that erupted on 9 June 1967 to rally around the diminished president soon turned into destabilising popular protests in February 1968 demanding real accountability and meaningful political opening, while the judicial sector staged its first intrepid bid for both autonomy from and oversight over a rotten regime.

And though Mossadeq was a far more credentialed democrat than Nasser, with real links to those he represented, his National Front was a tenuous agglomeration of diverse interests that began to fragment when the international vise around Iran tightened. That was when the communist Tudeh party emerged as a real alternative to the imploding National Front. By contrast, both Hamas and Hizballah are disciplined, internally coherent political organisations. They have been remarkably adept at maintaining organisational resilience in the face of overwhelming centrifugal pressures.

What’s more, they have few to no competitors on the Arab political scene in terms of the clarity of their political message, the performance of their deputies, and the independence of their leadership. Leftists are unable to build durable links to the public, much less gain more than a handful of seats in any election. “Liberals” are unable to set down credible roots untainted by American sponsorship. As the ever-insightful Diaa’ Rashwan wondered recently, we know what they’re against, but what on earth are they for? And as for the ruling regimes, well, that’s a cruelly unfair comparison now, isn’t it? Please observe the unmistakeable mystique of the dignified, unbowed Islamists compared to the bloated, servile, imbecilic Arab incumbents, with their unfailingly awkward gestures and those moronic grins plastered on their faces all the time.

This placard at a Cairo protest on 26 July sums it up best: Hasan Nasrallah is a master, the trio of jokers on the left are nothing but slaves.

In a word, Hamas and Hizballah are underwritten by the gold standard of democratic legitimacy in a region replete with fakes and knock-offs. For obvious reasons, fragile revolutionary legitimacy à la Nasser no longer captures the public’s imagination. Tradition-based legitimacy is wearing thin in the monarchies, its rickety founding myths increasingly scrutinised and challenged. No one believes in economic performance-based legitimacy anymore, since nearly all the region’s governments long ago stopped delivering or enabling any sort of economic performance to the majority of the governed.

Democratic legitimacy is the criterion now, on the full understanding that those who don’t deliver are to be voted out. The real significance of the January elections in Palestine is that they offered an opportunity to demystify Hamas, to subject it to the unforgiving test of governance. Instead, the U.S. and Israel were gripped by an insane frenzy, orchestrating an international boycott of the Hamas-led government while bleating inanities about not dealing with “terrorists.” Of course, the boycott did nothing but intensify Hamas’ popularity and reinforce its aura of purity, while life for Gazans reached crisis levels.

The Future

Discipline, organisation, and hard work at the grassroots give today’s nationalists a formidable foundation for resistance. Hizballlah’s robust advocacy on behalf of the Shia untouchables of Lebanese society and Hamas’ credible representation of the Palestinian quest for dignity and justice are assets that are unlikely to erode as easily as Nasser and Mossadeq’s resources were diminished. It’s not a matter of social movements versus government officials, either, since both Hamas and Hizballah now boast plenty of government officials. It’s the nature of the linkage between leadership and the rank-and-file, and between the organisation and the public. Charisma alone is no longer sufficient. Democratic accountability and constituent service are now indispensable. A small but moving gesture: When Palestinian premier Ismail Haniyeh along with other government officials received half his salary earlier this month, he donated 7,600 shekels (US$ 1,700) to the family of Hadeel Ghabn (above), an eight-year-old girl killed by an Israeli shell back in April.

It is a delectable irony to me that Ms Condoleezza Rice’s much-maligned remark about the “birth pangs of a new Middle East” is actually accurate, but not in the manner she and her glib wordsmiths intended. The new Middle East that the US and Israel must now confront is a fundamentally different animal from the one their predecessors faced in the 1950s. Neutralising nationalist regimes was a cakewalk compared to the current task of attempting to pacify robust popular movements. This is the paradigm shift transpiring in the Middle East for the past quarter-century. As the US, Israel and fellow travellers reaped spectacular success in taming erstwhile intractable regimes (just look at the laughingstock Hosni Mubarak), they spawned a new class of modern socio-political movements that have held out the promise of inclusion and emancipation to millions of ordinary people, on a scale unseen since the dawn of mass politics in the late 19th century.

(Choueifat, southern Beirut, 18 July 2006).

These movements don’t just offer monetary loans, cleaned streets, affordable schools, and functioning hospitals. They offer the dignity and honour that comes from resistance, the same dignity and honour that motivated the anti-fascist resistance, the same dignity and honour that bolstered the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto. I want to know, does the Israeli government and its American enabler think they can extinguish this quest for human dignity with cluster-bombing, the destruction of infrastructure, and the killing of infants and toddlers?

*AP Photos