Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Scenes from a Sit-in

Since Monday, thousands of tax collectors from the Real Estate Tax Authority have made a downtown street their home. They've converged on Cairo from all over the country to stage a massive sit-in in front of the Cabinet building. Their demands: wage parity with their better-paid colleagues in the General Tax and Sales Tax Authorities, and transferring their affiliation from the corruption-ridden municipal governments to the Finance Ministry (a demand they've made since 1976). Real estate tax collectors in the provinces are refraining from all revenue collection until their demands are met.

al-Karama's talented Peter Alfred has kindly shared these photos of the strike and sit-in. Peter has beautifully captured the determination, the humour, and the solidarity of these humble public functionaries, their refusal to cave in to the entreaties and threats of amn al-dawla and various nervous official emissaries.

As with the second Mahalla strike in Ramadan, hundreds of women civil servants are out in full force, braving the cold winter air and shattering tired stereotypes; they're camping out day and night alongside their male co-workers. What do state feminists, "women's empowerment" do-gooders, and assorted ladies who lunch have to say about that? Oh that's right, nobody cares what they think.

Also out in full force is the indefatigable Kamal Abu Eita, citizen-activist extraordinaire. Like Kamal Khalil, Abu Eita is a fixture at nearly every street protest in Egypt in the past 10 years. But he does have a day job, and it is in fact as a tax collector for the Real Estate Tax Authority, so this protest hits very close to home. Abu Eita is a walking treasure trove of information and insight about this most unusual and most significant of public protests.

Why is it significant? Because it's probably the largest and most coordinated strike action by functionaries of the Egyptian state in modern times. Because it opens a fascinating window onto the mysterious workings of a mammoth bureaucracy. Because it has the potential to cripple the state's lifeline (no revenue, no state). And because it's part of a grand wave of social protest that has been sweeping the country for nearly a decade.

Stay tuned.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

The Death of Deference

Thursday’s sentencing and fining of four independent newspaper editors is not particularly new or surprising. And neither is the impending trial of Ibrahim Eissa for allegedly spreading rumours about Mubarak’s health. First, the editors have all been hauled off to court before and have either been fined, sentenced, or had their cases settled out of court. Second, the two incidents do not herald an impending crackdown on the press, for the simple reason that Mubarak’s regime has been continuously cracking down on and intimidating independent journalists, from at least the early 1990s to the present. So I would caution against spinning these cases as unprecedented curbs on the freedom of the press. What’s more interesting to me about these recent events is what they reveal about the development of an adversarial press in Egypt.

Last year, I argued that one domestic effect of Israel’s assault on Lebanon was the further emboldening of the independent press in its campaign of diminishing the president through rubbishing his foreign policy. The suit against the four editors which was filed last year was one response to the seemingly unstoppable irreverence and vitality of the independent press. Another was the activation of the government Supreme Press Council to issue critical reports of independent newspapers for allegedly violating the journalistic code of ethics with their trenchant criticism of the president. A third was behind-the-scenes lobbying and pressure to remove Abdel Halim Qandil from the editorship of al-Karama. When that failed, government officials succeeded in drying up ad funds to the newspaper, leading to staff cuts, reduced salaries, and a general sense of besiegement. This compelled Qandil to leave the newspaper this summer, to ensure its survival.

With Qandil finally robbed of a platform, the authorities have now turned their attention to that other dogged muckraker, Ibrahim Eissa, the one-man journalistic phenomenon who has been enlivening Egyptian journalism since 1995 with al-Dustour (and a brief stint on Dream TV before being chased out of that venue). And for good measure, the government is also going after the post-Qandil Karama and the new leftist daily al-Badeel, edited by Dr. Mohamed El-Sayed Said. Last week, the Supreme Press Council fingered al-Dustour, al-Karama, and al-Badeel for alleged violations of journalistic ethics in their coverage of the Mubarak health rumours, and has called on their editors to appear before an investigative committee.

The Changing Print Media Market

To put today’s developments in context, it makes sense to review the press scene in the Mubarak years. The Egyptian press does have a rich tradition of challenging and lampooning public officials, especially during the 1920s (I’m thinking of al-Kashkul), 1948-1954, and the final years of Sadat’s tenure. But in none of these eras was the press as systematically aggressive as it is today, nor as diverse. And if we look at just the Mubarak years, there’s a marked shift in the character of the independent print media at the beginning and at the end of Mubarak’s tenure. Compare the style and content of the leading opposition paper in the early years of Mubarak’s rule (al-Ahali under the editorship of Hussein Abdel Razeq) to today’s al-Dustour and al-Karama. Today’s papers are not only stylistically bolder, using more explicit, even hostile prose and directly targeting the president and his family rather than his cronies and appointees, but the range of issues on which they castigate the president is far broader, encompassing domestic policies, foreign policies, and the open discussion of the regime’s own survival strategies, most especially succession. What caused this dramatic shift?

A slew of factors are at work. First are the eclipse of opposition parties and the partisan press. The decline of opposition parties in the 1990s also meant the decline of their mouthpieces, as the dysfunctional internal workings of these parties inevitably infected their newspaper teams; who reads al-Ahali now or even al-Wafd beyond a core group of partisans? Two prominent exceptions are al-Araby and al-Sha’b, both outlets that managed to carve out a space between party dynamics and the management of the newspaper, until the government shut down al-Sha’b and the Labour party in 2000-01. The decline of opposition parties and their mouthpieces left the field open to a new brand of journalism.

A second cause is structural shifts in how newspapers are produced. The broader economic trend of privatisation has influenced the press, where enterprising independent businessmen and journalists sought to enter the print market, using foreign licenses while still being subject to the state censor (the Cyprus press). This is how journalists like Ibrahim Eissa made their mark with al-Dustour (est. 1995), but the private press also includes shadier characters who produce sensationalist rags such as al-Naba’ and al-Khamis, and assorted businessmen who publish vanity newspapers to promote their wares and undermine their rivals.

A third cause is generational and stylistic: the tone of Egyptian journalism is more biting today than at any time since the 1920s because a new generation of journalists is at the helm. There’s no uniformity among these journalists and they come from starkly different schools and backgrounds, but together they’re a different breed from both the tame fare offered up by the old opposition press and the agitprop of the government newspapers. The new boldness in style is maintained by the mimicry and competition among the new papers: competition for readers, competition for ads, and competition for the social prestige that comes with being a bold regime critic and a good wordsmith.

The dense field of print media now includes a whole range of actors motivated by varying interests. There are high-end government outlets such as al-Qahira, ostensibly independent weeklies with informal ties to state agencies such as al-Usbu, liberal dailies such as Nahdet Masr, independent weeklies of indeterminate political ideology such as al-Fagr and Sawt al-Umma, partisan weeklies such as al-Karama, al-Ghad, and al-Araby, the independent non-partisan daily al-Masry al-Yawm (which deserves a separate study examining how it managed to supplant al-Ahram as the daily newspaper of record), and the most recent addition of al-Badeel, a leftist daily that aspires to buck the sensationalist trend by offering readers concrete policy alternatives and quality investigative reporting.

It’s important to remember that the current government has not “allowed” this press diversity so much as tried to alternately contain and control it. It has done this by making sure that administrative regulations to establish newspapers are as cumbersome as possible, that penal provisions jailing journalists and shutting down newspapers remain on the books, and by attempting to enter the lively print media market with newspapers of its own, such as the NDP’s new al-Watany al-Yawm and the Rose al-Yusuf newspaper (it’s interesting how this latter rag has appropriated the name of the doyen of contentious journalism in Egyptian history). When the tenor of criticisms against Mubarak reached a fever pitch last summer, the government activated the Supreme Press Council to assert its claim as the standard-setter for journalistic ethics and professionalism, accusing independent newspapers of violating professional codes with their criticism of the president. Last but not least, the government also resorts to threats and brute force with particularly intrepid journalists, as when Abdel Halim Qandil was kidnapped in November 2004, beaten and stripped naked, and warned to stop writing about his “masters.”

The Architects of the Adversarial Press

The two editors who more than any of their peers have created and promoted the contemporary adversarial model of Egyptian journalism are Abdel Halim Qandil and Ibrahim Eissa (though I must also recall the pioneering role of Magdi and Adil Hussein in the early 1990s). Both are consciously engaged in a systematic project of accusing, belittling, and criticising public officials, from the most hapless minister to the most powerful public official, the normally untouchable president. In light of the weakness of parliament and the fragmentation of citizen watchdog groups, both see journalism as a useful tool to extract a modicum of responsiveness from an unaccountable, unchecked imperial presidency. And both aspire to make a profound impact on the wider political culture, replacing existing norms of deference and decorum when addressing the powerful with a style marked by irreverence, profound scepticism, and a blunt, salty style. But though they’re fellow travellers in many ways, Eissa and Qandil come from very different backgrounds and are motivated by different impulses.

Ibrahim Eissa is a consummate newspaperman raised on the plucky, lively style of the Rose al-Yusuf school. Read his articles in that magazine from the early 1990s and you’ll recognise the pungency of his prose, the trademark brash style, and an aimless critical thrust that would be harnessed to much better use years later. Apprenticed by Adel Hammouda, Eissa soon outshone his mentor: he is sharper, more daring, and more adept at successfully managing a newspaper team. Journalism is his passion and life’s work. In 1995, at the age of 30, he launched al-Dustour, an entirely new experiment that proved wildly popular and successful, achieving a circulation of 150,000 and creating a new genre of journalism that spawned many knockoffs and imitators. Shut down by the government in February 1998, the newspaper resumed publication in 2005 and then went daily earlier this year.

Eissa’s success is a potent combination of writerly skill, political commitment, and strategic vision. He may be the first editor to put in newsprint how ordinary people talk and gripe about politics. His own writing is warm, playful, and conversational, drawing in the reader and eliciting hearty chuckles. His personal political commitment to social democracy is supplemented by truly catholic tastes that have earned him the admiration and respect of every ideological camp in the country, and have opened the pages of al-Dustour to writers of every conceivable persuasion. And he’s driven by the long-term goal of transforming the press from a passive chronicler to an active participant in the political development of the country. Eissa’s methodical, unrelenting pursuit of the president in print has done nothing less than create a new genre in Egyptian journalism that is likely to outlive its creator.

Abdel Halim Qandil is an old-timer (and hardliner) in Nasserist circles but a newcomer to the world of journalism. A physician by training, he became a household name when he and Abdallah al-Sennawi assumed joint editorship of the Nasserist party’s moribund al-Araby in the early 2000s. Their principled opposition to Mubarak energised the editorial team and transformed al-Araby from a pallid partisan rag to a must-read and sold-out item every Sunday. Unlike Eissa’s folksy writing style, Qandil’s prose is shorn and clinical, composed of short, dagger-like sentences that aim straight for the highest echelons of political power. And though it lacks the humour that leavens Eissa’s writing, Qandil’s prose more than makes up for it with a sense of purpose and precision that for me is a joy to read.

Qandil’s salty columns at al-Araby vilifying Mubarak, his policies, his family, and his foreign patrons (collated in the book Against the President and reviewed here) earned him the admiration of many readers and fellow activists and the undying hatred of the powers that be, hence the 2004 kidnapping and the pressure to eject him from al-Karama. But many were also put off by Qandil’s columns, calling them repetitive, shrill, insolent, and extreme. They turn up their noses in distaste at the violation of norms of decorum. I don’t share this view. I find Qandil’s targeted anger and relentless dressing down of the president (both the person of Mubarak and the office of the presidency) to be a refreshing, healthy alternative to the stultifying deference and enforced politesse of our political discourse, especially when it comes to public officials. In an authoritarian system like ours where public officials lord it over citizens, loot public resources, and muzzle those who dare protest, it is nothing short of indispensable to bring them down to size, embarrass them, perturb them, and compel them to justify their actions in the court of public opinion. If this is done in a shrill, repetitive manner, then so be it.

The Impact of the Adversarial Press

Eissa and Qandil set out to demystify and demythologize powerholders, and judging by the responses of the latter, they have succeeded marvellously. I find this photograph of Hosni Mubarak making a public appearance on 4 September quite revealing for his handlers’ attempt to assert presidential health and power in the face of an increasingly sceptical and irreverent public. See also Suzanne Mubarak’s recent interview in Egypt Today, where she elaborates on her hostility to what she calls “the media” and gushes about her pet projects. The interview is a stunning exemplar of stomach-churning deference; the interviewer shares with readers his opinion that Suzanne Mubarak is “the woman Princess Diana might have resembled in her autumnal years had God granted her the chance.” Quite. And last but not least, read Mufid Fawzi’s paean to the president in Saturday’s al-Ahram; in its desperate attempt to salvage the president’s “stature” and rubbish the new breed of adversarial journalists, it is the best indication of just how influential and effective this new genre has become.

A final word about what the new adversarial journalism and its architects have not achieved. They have not made an appreciable contribution to raising the quality of newsgathering and transmission. They have not worked to create a tradition of solid and hard-hitting investigative reporting, an urgent task that still eludes virtually all Egyptian newspapers. And they have not devoted any space or time to sensitive human interest stories, stories that would illuminate some of the many untapped dimensions of the contemporary Egyptian condition. But I don’t see these as fatal failures. An antagonistic press that disturbs the sleep of venal public officials is a considerable achievement and a real public service. It’s a very risky, overtime job that people like Eissa and Qandil have turned into a calling. I hope it is an enduring achievement, and I’m happy to wait for the other genres to follow suit.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Remembrance of Readings Past

I was a bookish child, and spent endless hours immersed in fantastic stories, tales peopled with strange and wonderful characters getting themselves into all sorts of ill-advised but oh-so-exciting adventures. On my eighth birthday, Baba bought me a stack of stories from Dar al-Maa’ref’s venerable Awladna series, a collection that has shaped untold generations of young readers. Books in the series include translations of world classics such as Ivanhoe, Don Quixote, and Tom Sawyer; abridged Arabic classics; and generic stories of indeterminate origin such as ‘Am Ni’na’ (Uncle Mint), a charming homily about a beloved neighbourhood stationer-cum-wise man whose shop turns into an agora for the local children to mingle and learn the values of truth, honest hard work, and good citizenship.

Now, riffling through my Awladna books after so many years, I’m struck by the unmistakable Platonic thrust of the series’ founding statement, issued in March 1947: “It is no secret that the life of the mind is the firmest pillar of happiness. Our love for our children compels us to pave for them the paths to this happiness by endearing them to the good book, so that they can seek it out as youngsters and become attached to it as adults, thus building the bonds of a firm friendship that sharpens their sentiments and emotions, refines their tastes, develops their talents, and endows them with a loftiness of soul.” The project of building young minds through stories was entrusted to none other than leading Egyptian pedagogue Muhammad Farid Abu Hadid (1893-1967), Dean of the Education Institute in Cairo and himself a prolific author of historical novels and translator of major works of world literature into Arabic.

I consumed the Awladna stories in quiet corners of my parents’ and grandparents’ apartments, while the rest of the family children played and ignored me. There was one particular story that riveted me entirely, that I read over and over again to revel in its menagerie of wondrous characters and the irrepressible insouciance of its lead protagonist. Pinocchio was like nothing I’d ever read before. It had movement, suspense, and more emotional drama than I could handle. I was enthralled by the story’s talking crickets, chicks, goats, and birds, by Pinocchio’s cap made of dough, and most of all by the kindly and trusting Geppetto. I teared up at all the pain he suffered on account of his errant, ungrateful little tyke. I couldn’t understand how Pinocchio could so blithely hurt his poor old father like that.

I open the book now and the same sense of palpable foreboding washes over me, the constant sense of dread at Pinocchio’s errant ways, from the first minute when he detours from school to see the Marionette Theatre to his ignominious metamorphosis into a donkey to his being swallowed up by the asthmatic shark. But then I remember that the story has a sweet, happy ending. Pinocchio learns his lesson and changes his ways, landing gainful employment and succeeding in the studies he had neglected. As a reward, he turns into a real boy and Geppetto grows younger and returns to his craft of wood carving. And all is well with the world.

For a brief spell, school reading nourished my imagination. Like so many of my contemporaries, I grew up on the two didactic props of the Ministry of Education: the smug Omar and his silly little sister Amal. Amal struck me as pathetic and annoying, imitating everything that her older brother did.

Omar was an insufferable know-it-all who inexplicably wore a skirt to school. I didn’t like how he knew everything and she was the buffoonish tag-along; it offended my sensibility as a serious girl (quite). Still, I was fascinated by their world, and still remember quirky things from the book: their friend’s name “Nargis”, a girl’s name I’d never heard before; their class visit to the consumer cooperative, which I envied because I heard adults talking about buying this or that from al-gam’iyya, but I didn’t know what a gam’iyya was; and their trip to the village, where Omar’s equally smug friend Ashraf informs us that the white egret is “the fellah’s friend” because he eats up all the worms in the fields.

Though the Awladna stories formed the core of my reading, I had catholic tastes. I read anything I could get my hands on to fill the hours of summer ennui, including snippets of newsprint and I consumed the frilly stories of al-Maktaba al-Khadra, but the fairy tales full of princesses and princes dressed up in fussy outfits eventually bored me. I read slim volumes of scriptural stories made for children that supplied the narrative details missing in the Qur’an’s elliptical exposition. I still remember the feeling of horror at the bloodshed in the story of Qabil and Habil; the evocative detail of the notable ladies of the city distractedly slicing their hands instead of the fruit as they sat transfixed by Yusuf’s breathtaking beauty (I kept trying to imagine what he looked like); and the story of Yunus being swallowed up by the whale, which terrified me. I kept wondering how he could breathe in there.

Kamel al-Kilani’s (1897-1959) stories were fun, especially the ones adapted from Alf Layla. I didn’t know anything about the author, except that my father grew up on his stories. I didn’t know that Kilani was a lifelong clerk in the Awqaf Ministry and an avid lover of literature, and that he is now considered the pioneer of Arabic children’s literature. I just liked the alliteration in his name, and the fact that all his books contained diacritical marks, so I could pronounce the words properly. I remember the whimsical, humorous tale of the hapless ‘Umara, a story that unfolds over seven days. ‘Umara is a lazy ne’er-do-well of unbelievable stupidity. He gets kicked out of school, and then his mother threatens to kick him out of the house if he doesn’t secure gainful employment. On his quest, ‘Umara quite accidentally brings laughter to a depressed sultan’s daughter; the sultan of course rewards him handsomely, and ‘Umara marries the princess and eventually assumes the throne, “and he ruled the land with justice.”

I gradually moved on to more contemporary fare, and distinctly remember one summer being entirely taken up with detective stories. My favourite were the five adventurers, a monthly series whose utterly ridiculous premise did not in the least faze me: five upper-class kids from Maadi helping to solve knotty and dangerous crime cases, with the enthusiastic cooperation of the local police station, no less. I obsessively collected their books, visiting the newspaper stand every month to get the latest. Those of a certain age will remember that the quintet consisted of Takhtakh, the portly but really smart ringleader who had superior deductive powers; the siblings Atef and Loza and the twins Noosa and Moheb, and the beloved dog Zangar. In an utterly self-flattering manner, I identified strongly with Loza, the youngest member of the crew and the smartest after Takhtakh. She was energetic, cute, and such an excellent sleuth. Plus, she was brave. When she was kidnapped by some ruthless criminals, she weathered the experience with grit and aplomb.

This was all very attractive and convincing to me, apparently, and I whiled away the hours consuming the fast-paced, thrilling adventures of the fabulous five. They spent their summer vacations pursuing dangerous criminals and sophisticated organised gangs (gasp!), while I spent summer vacations filled with crushing boredom. They put themselves in real danger, going undercover as street children and thugs to consort with the shadowy figures of the Maadi underworld. And they amassed valuable clues simply by engaging in systematic, logical thinking (the unsubtle moral of all the stories). In their downtime, the sleuths had a love-hate relationship with the grouchy Shaweesh Ali, who found them annoying (who wouldn’t?), but they enjoyed the enthusiastic support of Inspector Sami, an influential detective who always wore dark glasses and said things like “What I admire about you is that you are bold adventurers and diligent students at the same time.” Not only that, but Takhtakh had unmediated access to Inspector Sami, often phoning him on his direct line to offer clever advice and tips.

I flip through the books of my childhood, and find that they still grip, delight, and stimulate me. They taught me the beauty of words, the magic of imagination, the virtues of concentration, and the love of all that is quirky, unlikely, astonishing.

Monday, August 06, 2007

The Art of Ibrahim Aslan

Since he emerged on the literary scene in the mid-1960s with his elliptical, allusive, deceptively simple short stories that deeply impressed culture mavens Naguib Mahfouz, Latifa al-Zayyat, and Salah Abdel Sabbour, Ibrahim Aslan has been elaborating and perfecting a genre all his own. Mixing fiction with autobiography, short story conventions with novelistic forms, poetic economy with dramaturgical composition, Aslan’s art is a precious, wondrous creation. He has the poet’s ear for language, the painter’s feel for texture, the composer’s sense of movement, the layperson’s love of humour, and the photographer’s knack for finding the magic in the mundane.

Aslan’s latest work, Shay’un Min Hadha al-Qabil (Something like That), is a collection of the author’s terse and evocative columns in al-Ahram and al-Karama written in the past two years. Reading them once a week among the grim fare of news and opinion was like a breath of fresh air, a momentary flash of mystery and beauty amidst mind-numbing ugliness. But reading them in succession in a single volume is a more intense, absorbing experience, inviting contemplation of just what it is that makes Aslan’s writing perennially fresh, profound, and pleasurable.

Aslan is by far my favourite writer among his contemporaries. While very readable, Sonallah Ibrahim’s work is highly cerebral and lacks beauty (with the exception of his latest oeuvre). Baha’ Taher has become too transparently didactic and self-conscious in his writing, Khairy Shalabi’s storytelling is exuberant but unrestrainedly verbose and showy, Gamal al-Ghitani’s prose is too opaque and impenetrable, and reading Edwar al-Kharrat is grim work, what with all of his avant-garde philosophising. Mohamed El-Bisatie’s writing comes closest to Aslan’s poetic power and economical style, but his fixation on village life over-relies on predictable themes and characters.

Like his contemporaries, Aslan conceives of writing as a medium to communicate with and prod the reader, but unlike many of them, his writing has a very light, ethereal touch while still making a profound impression. He does not moralise or philosophise, nor does he use writing simply to experiment with technique or engage in word play. He doesn’t write to shock or condemn or complain. He writes for the same reason a painter puts brush to canvas or a composer puts pencil to music paper: to give form to some inchoate thought or inspiration and to share it with others. From his first published collection of short stories Buhayrat al-Misa’ (Evening Lake, 1971) to his present collection of vignettes, Aslan’s sources of inspiration have been Melete and Mneme, the muses of meditation and memory.

As with his vignettes in Khulwat al-Ghalban (Poor Man’s Hermitage, 2003), the 34 meditations in Shay’un Min Hadha al-Qabil (the title comes from an obiter dictum on p. 63) draw on Aslan’s memories from childhood and his early working life, as well as his quotidian interactions with peers, acquaintances, and neighbours. There are sketches of cultural figures Yahya Haqqi, Naguib Mahfouz, Mohammad Auda, and George Bahgoury, visits to St. Petersburg and Dostoevsky’s house, and everyday encounters with neighbours, Aslan’s car mechanic, a loquacious taxi driver, an exhausted old man, a besotted young newspaper seller, the author’s third grade English teacher, and a rural migrant to the city who’s written a real letter to God that Aslan surreptitiously filched from the undeliverable mail bin back when he worked at the postal service. None of these scenes are more than 2-3 short pages long, and the first five in the book are particularly revelatory of Aslan’s graceful melding of memory and meditation.

Of course, Imbaba serves as a sort of hidden motif. As is well known, the neighbourhood where Aslan was born and has lived all his life has featured centrally in his two novels, Malek al-Hazin (The Heron, 1983) and Asafir al-Nil (Nile Sparrows, 1999), and his short story collection Hikayat min Fadlallah Uthman (Stories from Fadlallah Uthman, 2003). But here, evocations of his beloved natal quarter have a special poignancy. As the author mentions, he has moved from Imbaba to a new domicile in Moqattam, an experience whose logistical and psychological dimensions are most beautifully explored in these etudes.

In small, precise gestures, this collection reveals much about Aslan’s life and art. We learn that one of his inspirations for becoming a writer was reading Anton Chekhov’s “The Death of a Government Clerk.” We learn that he wrote his first novel “out of pure coincidence.” That it troubles him that he can never remember his dreams. That reading every day is a reflex and compulsion of quasi-religious significance. That melancholy and humour commingle in his writing as they do in life. We learn the art of noticing, of living as fully sentient beings, in perpetual contemplation.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

To Drink, Perchance to Live

Talented photographer Amr Abdallah at al-Masry al-Yawm has kindly shared his photos of citizens' daily struggle for water, here in Giza. I'm in no mood for comment. What's there to say? Who isn't outraged by this suffering and deprivation, and who isn't enraged by the responses of Gamal Mubarak's ministers and his father's governors?

Friday, July 20, 2007

The Civil Disobedience Project

On Monday, 23 July, stay at home and raise Egypt’s flag.

That’s the initiative adopted by Kifaya and a half dozen other groups to inaugurate a long term, incremental, and very patient civil disobedience campaign to signal public disgust with Hosni Mubarak, his son, their government, and its policies. The idea is not to stage a symbolic, one-time performance but to begin working seriously and creatively to transform widespread disaffection with the Mubarak regime into concrete, coordinated, relatively risk-free acts that strip the regime of any residual vestiges of legitimacy.

The notion of organising a national civil disobedience campaign has been percolating for some years now, pre-dating the current spectacular wave of protests. In fall 2004, it gained the valuable intellectual and moral imprimatur of retired judge and historian Tariq al-Bishri, who wrote a lucid defence of non-violent resistance as the only feasible and effective method of engaging the increasingly violent and personalised rule of Hosni Mubarak. Reading it again, I’m struck by how much has changed since al-Bishri penned his words. The fragmentation and dearth of collective action that he lamented three years ago are unrecognisable today, replaced by incessant societal movement, to wit: the electoral mobilisation of 2005, the pro-judges’ protests of 2006, the innovative campus organising of 2005 and 2006, the workers’ uprising of 2006-07, and the more recent spate of ordinary people’s street action.

By civil disobedience, al-Bishri meant precisely the kind of street-based collective demand-making and reclaiming of rights that is now sweeping the country, spearheaded by labour unions, craft guilds, professional associations, student unions, and ordinary people. Kifaya et al’s recent initiative goes well beyond this mode. It ventures into the most challenging, the most difficult terrain: seeking to activate societal sectors unused to expressing opposition of any kind, whether street protest or dissent in salons and political parties or writing letters to newspapers or joining a block association or any of the myriad other ways that politically aware citizens air their views.

The stay at home initiative targets those who cringe from making any sort of visible statement about public affairs but are by no means indifferent about current events. It seeks to tap into the intense and ambient sense of anger at the authorities that has settled over the entire country like a thick, low-hanging cloud, the subject of every household conversation and office chatter. It attempts to normalise dissent by weaving into the rhythm of everyday life, whittling it down to a simple, doable, and above-all risk-free act of staying at home (what we all love to do anyway) and hanging the flag from a window or balcony, an eminently respectable and patriotic gesture tweaked just enough to make a bold but non-threatening statement.

It’s no surprise that the idea has generated heated, entertaining discussion on the Internet, independent and opposition newspapers, and satellite television programs. Reactions run the gamut from enthusiastic support to puzzlement to derision. Some laud the novelty and the brilliant simplicity of the idea, for how can State Security punish people for staying at home and raising the flag?! Others don’t see how staying at home constitutes any kind of proactive gesture, for isn’t it the height of passivity and indifference? And don’t people stay at home anyway on a national holiday? Still others are attacking the whole idea as silly and contrived. As for the rulers, I can only imagine how worried they must be right now. Anything that smacks of coordination and aims to enlist the latent energies of millions of citizens is a nightmare for them, especially right now when so much discontent is enveloping the country. So they’ve already mobilised their mouthpieces in the media to belittle and ridicule the initiative.

Personally, I think it’s a brilliant idea and a fascinating experiment. Not only is it simple and logical (a must for any kind of novel political act), culturally resonant, and accessible to all classes of the population, but it holds the potential to be extremely threatening to the authorities. True, the rulers and their agents would like nothing more than atomised families staying in their homes watching television instead of demonstrating in the streets or occupying public space. But if the home-staying is calculated and coordinated by independent groups acting together to make one peaceful oppositional statement; if it brings together the intellectual, the homemaker, the worker, and the farmer to take a simple stance against a corrupt, unjust government; if it is difficult to monitor and punish; if it gathers steam and midwifes more such acts; and above all, if it punctures citizens’ rational reluctance to oppose an ugly, repressive regime, then we’re talking about something more threatening than armed insurrections or a thousand street protests.

The organizers of the stay-at-home say that it’s a dry run for more civil disobedience campaigns to come, perhaps similar actions on work days, perhaps a few consecutive days instead of one, maybe other acts entirely. But the basic idea is to minimise the risk while maximising the impact, always making sure that actions ‘fit’ into the rhythms of everyday life and make sense to those who would otherwise shun or fear them. That’s a tall order for any political organiser, more challenging than orchestrating a street protest, factory sit-in, election rally, silent vigil, petition drive, public procession, or any of the dozens of other well-worn tools of political expression.

Borg al-Borollos villagers block the highway to protest their chronic lack of potable water, 3 July 2007. (Photo from al-Karama).

I don’t know what will happen on Monday, but I can’t wait to see. I’m sure there’ll be lively post-mortems pronouncing the stay-at-home as either a failure or a success, or maybe a non-event. Whatever the outcome, I can’t help but feel that we’re living in momentous times, not because of some purportedly impending regime change, but because we get to watch in real time as a complex society experiments with old-new political forms, grows more assertive and persistent in reclaiming rights, and struggles to craft a more representative and just government. Now some might think this is about as interesting as watching grass grow, but for pedants like me, this slow-motion political transformation is the stuff of riveting drama.

Friday, July 13, 2007

From Remonstrance to Rights

Egypt is so rife with protest these days it’s difficult and crucial to keep track. On any given day, at least one group of citizens takes to the streets to press demands, air grievances, and claim recognition. Sometimes, miraculously, they win. Take the example of the recently concluded strike by al-Azhar schoolteachers to protest their exclusion from the new wage schedule. In a rare display of collective resolve, the teachers refrained from marking thanawiyya exams, refusing to cave in to government threats, empty promises, and protest fatigue. Their brilliantly timed work stoppage in the thick of thanawiyya ‘amma season compelled Hosni Mubarak himself to intervene and decree their inclusion in the new wage structure. But protest by teachers and other professionals is nothing new, going back to 1919 if not earlier. Judges and parliamentary deputies have now also added street action to their tactical repertoire. And protest is the stock-in-trade of students, factory workers, and democracy activists. What’s striking about a recent spate of street action is the leadership of ordinary people.

These reflections are prompted by three recent instances of ordinary people’s collective action. First are the Qal’at al-Kabsh residents (above), whose homes were decimated by a conflagration in March. They immediately marched to the gates of parliament in protest, demanding alternative housing and action from their parliamentary deputy, none other than the venal Mr Fathi Sorour. The spectacle of homeless women and children fearlessly occupying prime pavement reserved for high officialdom was extremely threatening. Riot control were despatched to encircle the citizens and forcibly remove them. Second is the collective action by North Sinai residents against years of government neglect, discrimination, and police brutality. In response to police shootings of two Bedouins in April, Sinai denizens took to the streets in protest, staged a two-day sit-in, drew up a list of demands, and threatened an open-ended sit-in if those demands were not met. Third is the spectacular act of protest by Borg al-Borollos villagers on 3 July, when they blockaded the coastal highway in Kafr al-Shaykh for 12 hours to call national attention to their plight: the chronic lack of potable water for weeks and months on end. Residents are forced to purchase jerry cans of water at the scandalous price of £E40 per week, and the purity of this water is dubious since many cans were previously used to transport petrol.

Street action by groups of ordinary people isn’t new, but it’s far less documented and celebrated than similar action by workers, tradesmen, students, and other organised social sectors. Unlike these groups, ordinary people rarely distribute pamphlets or carry placards that survive as records of their action. Its sporadic character and focus on basic needs (food, water, housing) is often taken to mean that ordinary people’s protest is somehow less significant, less political than ‘real’ protest. By contrast, the press is currently portraying ordinary peoples’ protests as portending an impending national revolt and regime breakdown. Notwithstanding their excellent coverage, al-Masry al-Youm’s editors have inexplicably christened the water protests in Kafr al-Shaykh, Gharbiyya, Daqahliyya, and Giza as the “Revolt of the Thirsty,” implying that widespread popular wrath will inevitably translate into political upheaval and ‘chaos’.

But alternately downplaying and hyping citizen protest is a poor substitute for actually understanding it. There are several remarkable features of recent citizen protest that deserve recognition and more careful attention. First is the fact that there’s protest at all, in more than one locale and concerning more than one issue. What compels ordinary, powerless women and men to take extraordinary risks and confront those who have immeasurably more power and prestige than they? Wrath doesn’t explain it, since that’s ubiquitous and constant. For ordinary people to translate their anger into action is rare and remarkable, not just here but anywhere. It’s even more remarkable given citizens’ experience with the police state’s response to any kind of public assembly.

Then there’s how protest is conducted. All three instances of protest involve ordinary people peacefully but assertively taking over public space, space that is obsessively guarded and regulated by the government as markers of its power, ownership, and complete control. Consider the daring acts: Sinai residents blockading roads by burning tyres (above), Qala’t al-Kabsh women and children planting themselves on the pavement in front of parliament and refusing to budge or leave without a fight, and Borollos folks shutting down traffic for hours on a major highway. Let’s not forget the recent incident of al-Marg residents intercepting a ministerial motorcade to gain an audience with the housing minister about the recurrent problem of sewage flooding their streets. The boldness of these acts should not go unnoticed. These are not the acts of desperate people indiscriminately expressing wrath or engaging in some aimless ‘revolt.’ They’re acts directed at specific targets, seeking specific goals, and couched in specific claims.

It doesn’t take a genius to observe that high-ranking government officials are the unmistakeable objects of the recent citizen protests. These afflicted citizens are not beseeching religious figures or other social eminences to intercede on their behalf. They’re not wasting time on municipal government officials, because they know only too well that they’re useless or downright complicit in their plight. And they’re not attributing their problems to general injustice or resigning themselves in the manner of ‘things have always been like this.’ It’s because of the chronic, collective nature of their problems that they’re boldly demanding the involvement of high-ranking government officials. The recent spate of ordinary people’s protest targets specific government officials, includes coherent attributions of blame, advances detailed proposals for solving the problems at issue, and is couched in a clear, crisp language of citizenship rights and entitlements.

I think what we’re seeing is more than simply the extension of the street action repertoire to ordinary citizens who do not belong to nor know much about political parties, trade unions, or pro-democracy groups. We’re observing a structural shift in the way ordinary people deal with public authorities. A quick list: they’re more assertive in making their demands, so that rather than plead and grovel with some petty bureaucrat in a grimy government office, they’re choosing the streets so that the media pays attention and transports their grievances to the whole nation. They’re determined to reach high-ranking officials, so that rather than rely on the petty bureaucrat or even his boss, they’ll deal with no less than a governor or parliament speaker, knowing full well whom they answer to. And they present their demands as a matter of rights that are owed them than privileges that are bestowed on them. As Qal’at al-Kabsh and Kafr al-Shaykh residents have said, “Don’t people like us have the right to be treated as human beings and be compensated, even if it’s only with a one-room apartment?” And: “We are humans who deserve better treatment. We are citizens of this country. We should not be forgotten.”

If it’s true that ordinary people are innovating new ways of dealing with the government, why is this happening? The erosion and near-collapse in the infrastructure of basic services (sewage, potable water, irrigation water) is a key factor, but even more aggravating to citizens is that they’re still required to pay fees for services that they don’t receive. What’s more, the services they’re being deprived of are the very minimum required for human survival. We’re not talking about affordable healthcare, decent schooling, or subsidised alimentary goods, things they’ve long ceased to expect from this government. We’re talking about clean water, for God’s sake! We’re talking about the right not to suffer routine police brutality, as in the case of North Sinai’s residents. We’re talking about the right to have alternative housing when the government decides to “upgrade” the neighbourhood you’ve lived in for 50 years by clearing you out.

Another factor that may be causing ordinary people’s street action is the inefficacy of existing representative structures. Ordinary citizens have a long and bitter experience with unresponsive or corrupt municipal officials, so they’ve realised that they must surpass these ineffectual intermediaries and make a beeline for the national symbols and holders of political power. A third factor may be the changing nature of protest itself. Ordinary people may have noticed that street protest is now a common and well-worn method used to advance all manner of collective interests, whether by poultry farmers or unemployed university graduates or citizens opposed to the construction of mobile phone towers or families of disaster victims or congregants after Friday prayers. They see these groups advertising their grievances and they mimic their tactics.

If ordinary people are more assertively and more directly targeting top government officials, what’s been the latter’s response? Overall, they’ve been unusually amenable. Most Qal’at al-Kabsh families have been allotted housing; those who’ve been excluded are fearlessly and relentlessly claiming their rights. Fearing more instability in Egypt’s least controllable province, State Security caved in to Sinawis’ credible threat of an open-ended sit-in on 1 July and began releasing detainees held without charge in indiscriminate sweeps since 2004. As for the Borg al-Borollos villagers, their extraordinary action and their refusal to be hoodwinked by the usual palliatives meant that water was restored to the village, but it’s unclear for how long. In the meantime, the utterly loathsome Salah Salama has been peddling his line in the media that “the land mafia” incited the protest with the aim of ousting him because he’s apparently been bravely facing down their “corruption.” Salama also asserted that he refused to meet the protestors, “or else their demands would have increased and maybe they would have called for the presence of the Prime Minister or the President.”

That response is very telling. I’m convinced that government officials harbour a deep fear of ordinary people’s collective action; it’s unpredictable and novel and therefore less tractable than street action by students, workers, and professionals, sectors whose protests the government has a long history of managing and defusing. Just this once, the terror-stricken Salama is right: he refused to meet with Borg villagers because they were in no mood to remonstrate, plead, beg, and politely petition, the customary repertoire of action used by the powerless when confronting the powerful. Today, something else is afoot. Ordinary people are engaging in public, collective demand-making targeted at the highest state officials and couched in the unimpeachable language of citizenship and basic human rights.

Time will tell if this is a brilliant but ephemeral spark, or a new template for political action in Egypt.

*AP Photos

Friday, June 15, 2007

Monday, March 19, 2007

A Parliament to Watch

In what I think is a first in Egyptian political history, on Sunday 18 March, 102 opposition legislators began a boycott of parliament’s plenary sessions. The sessions are devoted to swiftly passing what the Mubarak regime is calling “amendments” to the 1971 constitution. In reality, the alterations augment executive powers and constitutionalise the exclusion of Mubarak’s challengers. Naturally, what gave the protest its heft was the presence of 88 Muslim Brother deputies, but equally significant was the active participation of Hamdeen Sabahy and Saad Abboud from the Karama party, noteworthy independents such as Gamal Zahran and Alaa Abdel Moneim, and maverick Wafdist Mohamed Abdel Haleem, among others.

Under a blinding high noon sun, the deputies stood swaddled in black sashes protesting the “constitutional coup” and carried bright-yellow signs announcing the death of the constitution, the end of personal liberties, and the extinction of free elections. Some wore black ties in mourning. Ikhwan MP Mohsen Radi brandished the constitution and called out, “Here’s the constitution that the NDP wants to destroy.”

As prominent deputies made fiery statements to an army of jostling reporters and cameramen, I couldn’t help pondering a couple of glaring ironies. First, Mubarak’s tampering with the constitution has transformed a flawed and musty document into a significant contract of basic rights worth defending. Second, the regime’s attack on the last vestiges of constitutional freedoms is unintentionally fostering coordination and collective action by the parliamentary opposition. For the past several days, independent deputies have been deliberating round the clock to weigh various courses of action, including collective resignation. Ultimately, that option was dropped because (a) lack of time to investigate the full legal and political ramifications of such a momentous decision, (b) the regime would like nothing more than to be rid of the high percentage of opposition deputies and to engineer new, better controlled elections, and (c) the boycott proposal was floated by a dubious source: the revolting and utterly untrustworthy Mustafa Bakri, State Security’s point man in parliament (who of course was not among the 102 boycotters).

Obviously we’re still a very long way from a real parliament capable of both checking and bargaining with the executive and forging durable extra-parliamentary coalitions. But I can’t shake off the feeling that what happened Sunday portends something new, perhaps even the spark that may ignite the parliamentarisation of Egyptian politics. The group of 88 are complicating business as usual under the rotunda. Recall their stand against the extension of emergency rule last spring, their participation in the pro-judges’ protests, and their tireless challenges to Fathi Sorour. If coordination between them and other opposition deputies continues on a variety of issues, then we may have to start taking parliament seriously.

For a few hours on Sunday, the grounds of parliament were overrun by the authentic representatives of the people, not the overfed, under-qualified cronies of the ruling regime. Parliament security guards, administrative staff, and buffet personnel gaped in awe at the independent deputies and the media menagerie they attracted, recognising that they had done something new and important. Passers-by lingered to stare and listen. An elderly woman smiled and wondered out loud to no one in particular, “Today is your day. Is this going to be on television?”

This here is Hussein Abdel Hafeez. He was on his daily round of errands in government buildings when he saw the colourful protest, so he decided to watch what’s going on. He had no idea what the protest was about and didn’t care that much, but he did care that it took him entire days to get basic services from the government bureaucracy. He said the MPs looked like good people who would listen to ordinary people’s problems, so he joined in to support them in whatever it is they’re demanding.

But then again, public support is trifling compared to what was heaped on judges last spring. Parliament is still very much perceived as the home of crooks, charlatans, and crazies, an institution best dismissed and mocked, and always steadfastly avoided. I can’t imagine Egyptians taking to the streets to rally around their legislators. But I also can’t stop wondering when and how the People’s Assembly will turn into a real institution. When will parliament make a real claim to represent the people and check the executive branch? I have no idea, but I’d bet on the role of independent MPs, regardless of their political affiliation. Their burgeoning collective action, the linkages they forge with constituents, and their ability to annoy and perturb the ruling regime and break up its power monopoly are the real building blocks of representative democracy.

Monday, March 05, 2007

The Perils of Succession

There are few more profoundly grotesque and unjust practices in Egypt’s republican history than presidential referrals of civilians to military tribunals, civilians who have done nothing more than peacefully express their political beliefs. Each of Egypt’s three presidents has tried and failed to defeat his challengers by using this faux-legal instrument. Nasser referred communists and Muslim Brothers to trial, Sadat referred our beloved bard Ahmad Fu’ad Nigm to a military court (because he couldn’t handle being mocked by the great one), and since 1995 Mubarak has sent to trial the most effective cadres of the Muslim Brothers, usually in the run-up to elections. Sadly, his 6 February referral of 32 members of the Muslim Brothers to trial is nothing new, and neither is the crackdown that has netted the group’s leaders and economic assets. What has changed this time around is the political context.

What distinguishes Mubarak’s current manoeuvres from both his own earlier tactics and predecessors’ actions is the extraordinary degree of uncertainty surrounding his regime’s future. This does not mean that it will collapse any day now. It means that the regime is on the cusp of a very risky succession. With Hosni Mubarak’s rapidly advancing senility and Gamal Mubarak’s incremental supremacy, the moment of power transfer is imminent and its direction appears clear. But there are so many wild cards and possible eleventh-hour developments at this juncture that the only certainty is that extraordinary uncertainty will accompany the process of succession.

A Risky Proposition

Succession is always a tetchy matter for undemocratic regimes, but the danger is even more acute in this case where the man in charge has hogged power for 26 years without cultivating a successor other than his own dull and despised offspring. To thicken the plot, the succession scheme appears to involve elections as both the mechanism and the legitimation of the power handover. How else to interpret the engineering of new constitutional rules to disqualify the regime’s most effective electoral opponent (the Ikhwan) and defang effective electoral monitoring (by the judges)? But as we know, elections are an extraordinarily complicated, exhausting project involving intricate coordination between many sites and very high levels of uncertainty. It’s as if Mubarak’s regime picked the most risky successor possible and planned to install him using the riskiest method possible.

If we adopt the logical though not inevitable scenario that Gamal is the heir apparent, what Mubarak and his newly nuclear son have going for them is the tacit endorsement of foreign patrons, principally the Americans, the self-interested enthusiasm of a circle of crony businessmen, and the co-opted top officials of the sprawling bureaucracy. That leaves organized sectors of the domestic public to be neutralised and/or crushed. As for the preferences and proclivities of the rest of the population, that is a total enigma.

Thus, the official retaliation against university students for organizing free and fair parallel elections; the crackdown on the Ikhwan for making trouble in parliament and generally acting like a real political force; the ostensibly legal throttling of the Karama and Wasat parties; the low-intensity battle against recalcitrant judges waged by the new strongman Minister of Justice, and of course the brazen plan to doctor the 1971 constitution. These strikes are needed not simply because many of these sectors are deeply opposed to a Gamal Mubarak presidency, and not simply because all are campaigning for honest and fair elections, but because the regime feels the need to signal toughness. It fears that its opponents will catch whiffs of its vulnerability during this transitional phase and attempt to use it to their own advantage. Like an ageing neighbourhood bully who lives by the credo of force, Hosni Mubarak’s regime is all about projecting strength.

Signalling toughness is especially critical given the steady stream of crises over the past year. There’s the cascade of transportation disasters starting with the February 2006 al-Salam 98 ferry sinking and the August Qalyoub train collision; the socio-economic fallout from the avian flu outbreak, the spring 2006 pro-judges’ street protests; the remarkable string of labour strikes in 2006 and 2007; bloggers’ and independent newspapers’ broadcasting of citizen torture in police stations; protests over the construction of mobile phone towers, and the recent scandal over collusion between the Health Ministry and a Gamal crony in disseminating contaminated blood bags.

For the most part, these are separate incidents, but their rapid cascade and government agents’ entanglement in each heighten the ambient sense of an embattled regime unable to control society. To make matters worse for the architects of succession, Egyptians have been a very contentious lot for some time now, yelling and screaming and complaining in a most unbecoming manner. They’ve been downright impudent and grabby, wanting rights and dignity and independence and fairness and so forth. And they’ve been organising to get those things. That can’t be allowed to stand.

Crushing the Ikhwan

Embarking on an electoral-hereditary succession means eliminating your most potent electoral rival. Hence the regime’s current crackdown on the Ikhwan. But there’s just one annoying kink: the Brothers are stronger today than at any time during Mubarak’s tenure. This is because of their relative success over the past ten years in building bridges with key actors: voters, nationalist and secular intellectuals and competing political forces, foreign parties, and their own sprawling membership base. Before and after their stunning performance in the 2005 elections, the Ikhwan put considerable effort in a reputation-building project aimed at normalising their position in Egyptian political life and transcending the silly but real constraint of their nominal illegality. They built effective, regularised links to constituents, courted secular rivals and assuaged their fears, and piqued the interest of foreign governments, whose agents began to probe the possibilities of engagement with the officially banned group. Equally important, the Ikhwan in the last few years have been working on their internal organisation. They have tried to re-establish ruptured ties between the leadership and rank-and-file, and worked to manage ideological, generational, and personality conflicts among their top decision-makers.

It doesn’t take a genius to see why this would constitute a nightmare for Hosni Mubarak. The Ikhwan’s capture of 88 seats in the 2005 vote was very inconvenient, causing the shaken regime to postpone municipal elections to avoid a damaging repeat, and to gain some breathing space to cook up the succession scheme. At first, the counter-mobilisation against the Ikhwan was predictable, reinforcing the group’s plucky underdog image and increasing public sympathy. In spring 2006, hundreds of Ikhwan were arrested for months for participating in the pro-judges’ protests (including Essam al-Eryan and Muhammad Mursi). Then, in a repeat of the 2005 vote, the government came out in full force to block the group from participating in the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce elections.

In April, to prevent professors affiliated with the group from holding faculty club elections, Alexandria University administrators locked the campus gates; professors had to convene their general assembly in the open air on the corniche. Meanwhile in parliament, the Ikhwan’s 88 deputies have been complicating the regime’s command and control tasks in this important arena, constantly sparring with Speaker-for-life Fathi Sorour and pressing parliamentary investigation of such inconvenient issues as very high-ranking official malfeasance in the Salam 98 sinking.

But it was an incident that took place on 10 December that was the regime’s real opportunity to roll back Ikhwan gains. On that day, Ikhwan students at al-Azhar were protesting their university administration’s obstruction of student union elections. During the protest, a contingent of students performed martial arts exercises, their faces swaddled in black, Hamas-style. Seizing this heaven-sent gift, the regime orchestrated a highly organised campaign in all of its publications and broadcast outlets designed to repel and frighten public opinion, just when it had gingerly begun to accept the group. The regime’s agents (from the president of al-Azhar University to State Security investigators to the lowliest government scribe) successfully portrayed the Ikhwan as a sinister, secretive organisation methodically infiltrating all critical societal institutions with the intent of taking over the country and turning it into an Islamic caliphate. Naturally, the specific context of the students’ act was obliterated to sow indiscriminate mistrust and fear, especially among those segments of the public that had always eyed the Ikhwan with some suspicion.

The spectre of the group’s 1940s violent wing was craftily invoked, in one fell swoop erasing years of work by the Ikhwan’s members to fend off claims that they’re nourishing militant underground cells ready to strike at the right moment. It was only a logical step for the government to then round up the organisation’s best cadres and send them to a military tribunal that would reliably put them behind bars for at least three years, thus depriving the group of critical skills and assets and fomenting internal dissension and confusion.

Abetting the regime’s offensive was the flustered response of the Ikhwan’s leadership. First they wrote off the martial arts exercise as a harmless skit, then they pooh-poohed it as a silly act by immature students, then they compelled the students to issue an ‘apology’ (thus reinforcing government claims of a militant organisation run by a handful of shadowy decision-makers), then they said they would form an official political party, then they backtracked and denied this. It would be an exaggeration to claim that Hosni Mubarak’s regime has wrought permanent damage to the Ikhwan’s carefully built political reputation. What the regime has done is recoup some of its own reputation for effortless control. This need to project strength is vital when considering the government’s unexpectedly non-violent response to striking workers.

Caressing Labour

The last thing the regime wants is a labour mutiny on its hands when all its energies need to be devoted to engineering succession. So aggrieved labourers need to be neutralised. I don’t think anyone has failed to notice the comparatively ‘soft’ manner in which Mubarak’s regime has handled the series of worker strikes at textile and cement factories and the national railways. This is noteworthy not just because of the contrasting gruffness with which Muslim Brothers and judges have been treated, but because of Mubarak’s past handling of organised labour action: the 1984-1987 wave of worker protest was met with swift police violence, mass arrests, and grave legal reprisals: in 1986, striking train drivers were referred to a High State Security court (it eventually acquitted them).

There’s one obvious reason why labour is treated differently: the regime’s security agents calculate that it would be suicidal to put down thousands of very angry labourers radicalised by years of substandard work conditions, maimed by avoidable workplace injuries, and steeped in a culture of collective action and protest. Putting down a few dozen white-collar demonstrators in the centre of the capital is easy, but wading into a sea of livid blue-collar protesters is another story entirely. Violent suppression at one plant could unleash a hellish cycle of copycat strikes, increased public outrage, more violence, and real instability that could seriously threaten regime survival.

There’s another important element in this wave of strikes that distinguishes it from past waves and gives the regime pause. Workers are not only demanding fair wages, payment of delayed bonuses, safer working conditions, and more benefits. And they’re not just blaming management anymore. They’re making concrete moves to recall their local union officials by organising massive petition drives for votes of no-confidence, and failing that, they’re threatening to simply withdraw from local union membership. Why does this matter? Because for as long as they’ve existed, the local unions have served as critical levers of state control over labour rather than as mechanisms for the representation of workers’ interests. The present wave of worker strikes is intimately connected to workers’ struggle for real representation.

Last year, workers began their collective action in the run-up to trade union elections to gain some leverage during a vote they knew would be cooked. When, as expected, independent candidates were barred from running and the same old cronies were elected, workers resumed their strike action. Their goal is to overhaul the structures that ostensibly represent their interests but in reality work to monitor their behaviour and abort incipient collective action. This is deeply threatening to the regime: a gathering mutiny against local union officials strikes at the heart of the state’s control and command structure over the critical sector of labour.

Thus, in a manner not seen in other areas of Egyptian politics, high-ranking officials have personally and publicly intervened to negotiate with and cajole striking workers, promising to deliver their unpaid bonuses and incentives in hopes of snuffing out grievances over representation. Everyone from the chairman of ETUF to the Minister of Labour to provincial governors have waded into the midst of the strikers, laden with conciliatory words and promises and a generous smattering of paternalistic discourse, as when Aisha Abdel Hady volunteered the information that Hosni Mubarak cannot sleep at night if he feels there is a single unhappy worker. Madame Abdel Hady has also recently exhibited a strong allergy to the term “civil disobedience.” During a parliamentary discussion of a possible wave of societal disobedience led by striking workers, she firmly averred that “civil disobedience” is not part of the make-up (khameera) of the Egyptian worker.

Containing Judges

Mubarak’s regime knows that we know that it has conceded to worker demands, and that this knowledge might provoke other forces to engage in collective action to gain concessions from a regime that has built its reputation on never negotiating. So it is of critical importance that it apply maximum toughness with the one other sector that can make a credible bid at negotiation: judges. Indeed, one reason why Minister of Justice Mahmoud Abou el-Layl was removed was that he showed too much readiness to negotiate and give and take with judges. His replacement is a perfect embodiment of the credo of non-negotiation.

Mamdouh Marei’s personal style and professional background are all about issuing orders: as a person, he’s brusque and bossy. Professionally, he does not practice collegiality but is condescending and supercilious, qualities he acquired from years at the helm of the judicial internal affairs department in the Ministry of Justice. Let’s not forget that his recent term of service as Chairman of the Presidential Elections Commission (PEC) drove a huge wedge between him and thousands of reformist judges. All in all, he is the perfect candidate for the job of quashing the movement for judicial reform and clean elections.

Marei and his bosses know from last spring that a PR campaign to discredit reformist judges will carry no weight with a public that adores and idolises leaders of the judicial independence movement. So Marei has cunningly selected an alternative, much more effective plank: judicial modernisation. Under this general rubric, Marei will focus on three tracks: judicial training, services and support, and the induction of women into the profession. How will these fragment and weaken reformist judges?

First, Marei will hitch onto the genuine problem of the abysmal training judges receive to push the idea that judicial supervision of elections should be at the bottom of judges’ priorities. Judges belong on the bench, not in the polling station, goes the technically correct argument. Instead of being drawn into the exhausting minutiae of electoral disputes, judges should focus their energies on professional development and the Ministry will help them do that. Judges who insist on “one judge for every ballot box” will appear to be ignoring their duties and ‘becoming involved in politics.’ The judicial training argument has real potential to divide the clean elections movement because it resonates with a strong current of opinion among judges.

Marei’s second strategy is to erode the mobilising potential of judges’ Clubs, particularly in Cairo and Alexandria. To this end, he has already started installing all sorts of critical judicial support services within courthouses (especially primary courts) so that judges won’t ever need to go to their Clubs for bank services and loans, housing and mobile phone benefits, and a host of other auxiliary services. At the same time, earmarked Ministry of Justice funds to the Clubs are being dried up or cut off altogether, and public utility companies are instructed to cut off or scale back water and electricity service. However, reformist judges are very alert to this strategy and have counteracted Marei’s actions by unanimously voting to raise individual monthly dues to their Clubs from £E2 to £E20.

The third strategy portrays the regime as the progressive, courageous champion of women’s rights valiantly resisting sexist, exclusionary judges who preach democracy and reform but refuse to allow women entry into the judiciary. Women’s accession to the judiciary in Egypt has been a hot button issue among judges for at least 10 years, eliciting very strong feelings, with a minority of ardent supporters and a majority of variously motivated detractors. Marei has already selected 124 women legal officers for qualifying exams and training in the National Center for Judicial Studies in preparation for their admission into the profession. By playing the woman card, the regime burnishes its own reputation, casts doubt on the integrity of its judicial critics, and drives a wedge between pro- and anti-women judges within the judicial reform movement that the regime hopes will block further collective action.

It’s far too early to call Marei’s strategies unequivocal successes or failures. So far, he has managed to bring together the conventionally separate administrative judges with the rest of the judicial corps in unified opposition to his policies and tough guy persona. The cynical bid to appear as the champion of women’s rights is waved off by judges as Marei’s toadying to Suzanne Mubarak’s wishes, and of course Suzanne’s imprimatur is a political kiss of death. Whether the regime will attain its real objective of wresting electoral supervision away from the Judges Club and entrusting it to a pliable central Commission remains an open question.

Savouring the Irony

Would Mubarak’s regime be crushing the Ikhwan, containing judges, and managing labour unrest if it wasn’t embarking on a delicate, very unpopular, and sure to be undemocratic succession? Absolutely. The difference that succession makes is that all of these manoeuvres become matters of political survival rather than garden variety political management. By raising the stakes, the regime unwittingly invites political challenges, unforeseen alliances, unexpected mobilisation, and acts of political adventurism and risk-taking unlikely in normal times; think of Ayman Nour’s gamble for the presidency that catapulted him from a small-time politician to a heroic national figure and international cause célèbre. Even if the succession proceeds smoothly, the post-succession days, weeks, and months promise to be full of turbulence as the heir works to consolidate his rule in the all-important early phases.

How ironic that in attempting to secure his regime’s survival, Mubarak is actually ushering in one of the most uncertain political junctures in Egypt’s republican history. It’s just like when his amendment of Article 76 to transfer the presidency to a handpicked successor actually turned into multiple opportunities for political mobilisation and societal protest. I’d like to think that the perils of succession might also hold the possibilities of an incrementally more democratic politics, with new actors plunging into the fray, old actors reinventing themselves, new alliances struck, and more competition in the political arena. Prescience or wishful thinking? I can hardly wait to find out.

*All Photos from AP.