Wednesday, December 01, 2010

A Day in the Life of an Egyptian Electoral District

Balteem is a captivating town of majestic palm trees and generous people situated on Egypt’s northernmost tip. Jutting out into the Mediterranean and flanked by Lake Burullus to the west, the city and its adjoining modest resort town were best known as Umm Kulthum’s favorite place to spend her summer holidays. But it was suddenly thrust onto the national political map in 1995 when charismatic neo-Nasserist activist Hamdeen Sabahy ran for parliament to represent the large constituency comprising Balteem and the adjoining southern town of Hamoul. Since then, Balteem has become a flashpoint district in every national election.

Sabahy’s 1995 bid was unsuccessful. Two of his female voters died when security forces fired into a crowd of women amassing before a polling station. He ran again and won in 2000 and 2005, thanks to the onset of judicial supervision, unseating the NDP’s four-term incumbent Ahmed Se’da and losing another voter to police violence in 2005 named Gom’a al-Ziftawy.

Sabahy is an unusual figure in Egyptian politics, a leading member of the Cairo opposition political class who happens to have a large and loyal constituency in his provincial hometown. Born in July 1954 to a father who made a living as a farmer, Sabahy was one of millions of beneficiaries of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s redistributive policies. He majored in journalism and mass communications at Cairo University and had his first sampling of national fame when he and fellow university student activist and Muslim Brother Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh carried on an unscripted, live televised debate with President Sadat on 2 February 1977. Sabahy’s ties to his base fit none of the familiar categories that structure Egyptian electoral politics. He doesn’t come from a family of local notables. He’s not an Islamist, in a district with a Muslim Brother following. And while he does provide services to the district, notably irrigation pumps for Balteem’s farmers, the scale of benefits is nowhere near what even a middling NDP member can muster.

The links between Sabahy and his constituents are based on his politics and personal qualities. On domestic policy, he supports the package of constitutional reforms long demanded by the opposition and recently taken up by Mohamed ElBaradei, and favors a large government role in the economy. On foreign policy, he advocates a stance independent of American and Israeli interests and much more pro-active in defense of Palestinian rights.

This year, Sabahy’s main contender is NDP member Essam Abdel Ghaffar, backed by the NDP’s Ahmad Ezz and dubbed a “distinctive deputy under the parliamentary rotunda” by the government party. Abdel Ghaffar is a local entrepreneur with a support base centered in the town of Hamoul. He secured the labor seat for the district in the 2005 elections but this year is running for the professionals’ seat, after an NDP rival sued to compel him to change his labor affiliation, pointing out that Abdel Ghaffar is a businessman listed in the city’s commercial registry. His moment of fame came when he and two other NDP MPs assaulted a parliament photographer during a plenary session when the latter photographed Abdel Ghaffar chastising a Wafd MP for printing in the Wafd newspaper a photo of Abdel Ghaffar sleeping in parliament.

Election day begins at 6:30 am. A gentle sunrise blankets the town as campaign workers and early bird voters make their way on the hushed streets to their voting stations.

7:10 am. A women’s polling station in Balteem junior high school. Sabahy’s authorized representatives review the day’s checklist before the official start of voting at 8 am. “You have to check and make sure that each box is empty before voters come in, especially if it’s a wooden box,” instructs the most knowledgeable representative who’s been working with Sabahy since 1995. “Never for a minute leave your ballot box unattended. Stay glued to it until it’s safely transported to the counting stations in Hamoul. If the head of the polling station asks for it, give him a copy and not the original of your certification papers.”

An elderly woman voter comes in ten minutes later, panting from the strain of the walk. I look at her and she breaks out in a huge smile. “I always vote for him,” she says shyly.

8:30 am. Sabahy’s representatives rush to photocopy the new certification papers required to gain access to polling stations. Early that morning at 12:30 am, Sabahy’s campaign was dumbfounded to learn of sudden new regulations for the papers, requiring that they be stamped from police precincts rather than notary publics as had been announced earlier. Certain that this is an 11th hour rule manipulation to bar Sabahy’s agents from accessing polling stations, campaign workers spend all night driving to police stations to get the necessary stamps. Now they’re scrambling to photocopy the agents’ papers so that they can hand them to heads of polling stations when asked, retaining the originals.

9:10 am. The first reports of foul play trickle in. Candidate agents from 12 polling stations phone in that they have been kicked out of polling stations, and one says her certification papers were ripped up despite having the necessary police stamp.

10 am. Campaign workers convene in the courtyard outside Sabahy’s house to plan next steps. The burning issue is how to get to the town of Hamoul to check on the conduct of polling there. The NDP’s Essam Abdel Ghaffar is from Hamoul, which has a larger share of the district’s votes than Sabahy’s base in Balteem. Campaign workers strategize on who should go to Hamoul and how to avoid the ubiquitous threat of assault by either security forces and/or thugs hired by the government candidate. They decide on a select all-male group who will travel to Hamoul in cars with Cairo license plates rather than plates from the governorate of Kafr al-Shaykh (where the electoral district is located). The Kafr al-Shaykh plates would be more easily identifiable as Sabahy’s partisans and thus more likely to come under attack.

11:15 am. A polling station for both men and women in Borg al-Borollos primary school. Borg al-Borollos is a hamlet in Balteem with a voting bloc of approximately 15,000. Borg residents have no fixed allegiance to either Sabahy or Abdel Ghaffar. Some see a split in the town’s partisan support along generational lines, with youth supporting Sabahy for his national political profile and older residents preferring NDP candidates born and bred in the town. Turnout appears to be relatively active. Several riot police trucks are parked unobtrusively nearby, along with a large tour bus holding conscripts. This year, riot police were bussed into districts in tour buses in addition to the customary olive-green trucks.

A pick-up truck with a large megaphone planted on top pulls up directly in front of the school and stands there for five minutes. The megaphone exhorts voters not to give their support to “outsiders” (a reference to Sabahy) but to government candidates who pledge their support to president Mubarak, “the caretaker of all Egyptians.”

A pack of 9-12 year old boys disembark from the truck and gather round the Sabahy campaign car where I’m sitting, and a round of infectious giggles ensues.

1:00 pm. Sabahy’s representatives sent to Hamoul and agents of other candidates who are sympathetic to Sabahy begin to phone in reports of ballot-stuffing in favor of Abdel Ghaffar in villages surrounding Hamoul.

1:25 pm. Reports of rigging in Hamoul come in fast and furious. Now reports from the Borg al-Borollos primary school where we were earlier are also coming in, noting severe irregularities. A sense of defeat and disappointment begins to seep into the Sabahy campaign. A male journalist and ardent Sabahy supporter begins to weep quietly. Campaign aides say Sabahy should hold a press conference immediately to denounce the fraud. Campaign cars and Balteem youth on foot make their way to the courtyard outside Sabahy’s house.

1:50 pm. Balteem’s main streets are lined with men congregating and sitting on the sidewalks, expressions somber and nerves frayed. A procession of cars and pickup trucks loaded with youth speed past in the direction of the highway. “They’re blockading the highway!” Spontaneously, Balteem and Borg youth decide to blockade the highway to protest what is now a certain sense of election rigging. The news travels like wildfire and some cars change route and head for the highway rather than Sabahy’s house. Frantic calls to campaign cars instructs them to make sure no women are headed to the highway, in anticipation of violence between protestors and riot police.

2-4 pm. Town youth blockade the highway with burning tires and clumps of tree branches and wooden sticks. Highway traffic comes to a standstill, with freight trucks backed up as far as the eye can see. A campaign worker says to no one in particular, “Didn’t I say that this morning was the quiet before the storm?”

Crestfallen residents mill about outside their houses, some cursing the government and others eerily silent, sitting on the stoops of their houses with blank expressions. The elements seem to be in tune with the general mood; the day’s earlier blinding sunlight has given way to grey clouds. It finally dawns on me that the government is serious about keeping Sabahy out of the 2010 parliament.

4 pm. Townspeople converge on Sabahy’s courtyard and the candidate comes out to speak, standing on a pick-up truck. Livid, fiery youth and men climb on the pick-up truck and demand revenge. Sabahy struggles to control the crowd’s emotions, saying he’d rather withdraw and give up his seat than join this scandalously handpicked parliament. A fully veiled woman in black climbs on the truck and pulls the microphone from his hand, screaming, “Don’t you dare withdraw, Sabahy! Don’t you dare withdraw!”

The crowd chants, “Balteem boxes won’t leave! Balteem boxes won’t leave!” By law, counting stations for the entire district are located in Hamoul but since Hamoul was experiencing rigging, residents feared their ballots would be destroyed or disappeared en route to the counting station.

5 pm. A contingent of the crowd breaks away like a renegade train car and heads for polling stations, to confront the clerks engaging in fraud and ballot-stuffing. Riot police are called to the polling stations and begin firing tear gas canisters into the crowds, blockading streets, and chasing down any young men. I accompany a handful of journalists trying to get close to the action to take photos. The gas burns our eyes as we get closer and I can’t see well from the tears. I ask a matronly woman standing outside her house for a couple of onions. Without a word she rushes inside and comes back 15 seconds later with two onions sliced down the middle, stuffing them into my hand. We snort the onions and immediately feel better, our sinuses and eyes completely cleared.

We ask a couple of residents for access to their roofs so we can take photos, but they refuse. “Why are they scared? I would’ve let you in if it was my house,” says a high school student walking along with his mate, their school notebooks under their arms. “The private lesson is cancelled today,” his friend quips as he sees me looking at his notebooks in puzzlement.

I come upon a row of riot policemen with their backs to me, blocking the street to a polling station. I start to get closer to take a clearer photo but one of them turns his head, spots me, and starts moving towards me with an extremely long rifle slung over his shoulder. A journalist comes out of nowhere and grabs my hand, and we run like mad.

6 pm. It’s getting dark now, but people are still milling about on the side streets. I come upon a group of mirthful women clustered outside a house, clapping, laughing and loudly chanting one of Sabahy’s campaign slogans: Shemal, Yemeen, Benhebbak ya Hamdeen! I never expected this corner of joy on such a grim day, and I start laughing too. They implore me to take their photo and I’m happy to oblige.

6:30 pm. Everyone convenes back in the courtyard of Sabahy’s house, and rumors fly about that elections in the district have been suspended. The mood is suddenly jubilant, and people mill about waiting for Sabahy to come out and give a speech.

7:00 pm. Sabahy comes out and is immediately mobbed by the crowd, lifting him on their shoulders and giving him a hero’s welcome. He gives a rousing speech in which he denounces the government and several Amn al-Dawla officers by name for fixing the elections in Hamoul, and reiterates his position of withdrawing from the elections. The crowd presses him to authorize and lead a peaceful protest march to the police station to protest the rigging, but Sabahy fears security forces’ violent response and does not want injuries and casualties among his supporters, as in the past. The back-and-forth goes on for an hour that feels like an eternity, but in the end Sabahy prevails and the people are dejected, though none take matters into their own hands as some did that afternoon. Things wind down quietly and people begin to disperse, while others sit in silence mulling over their stolen election.

8:15 pm. In the large mandara of Sabahy’s house, partisans and campaign workers sit in exhaustion on large couches arranged in a U-shape along the sides and back of the room, trading election war stories and surveying the day’s catch. A tear gas canister from the afternoon confrontation is displayed, its noxious powder causing people to sneeze and tear up all over again. Crumpled, voting cards filled out for Sabahy and the Ikhwan labor candidate Ali al-Sheshtawy are passed around, said to be found thrown outside polling stations and replaced with forged ballots for the NDP. A spent live bullet is passed around in awe, the initials A.R.E. (Arab Republic of Egypt) engraved clearly on its bottom. News comes in that 18 residents have been arrested in the day’s events, but no serious injuries are reported.

10 pm. Time to get some sleep. I walk down a lane and am greeted by the shrill cry of the insomniac rooster who kept me up the night before. No one is sleeping in Balteem tonight.

*Photos 2 and 6 from the Sabahy facebook group.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Control the Message

The sacking of maverick newspaperman Ibrahim Eissa is only the tip of a vast iceberg. The broader project is to discredit and intimidate independent media outlets and those who run them, ahead of the 2010 parliamentary elections and the 2011 presidential selection. The regime’s goal is clear: to control the flow of political information at an exceptionally sensitive time, limiting the public’s exposure to alternative constructions of political reality. Here’s the true import of Ibrahim Eissa as a media maverick. He didn’t just criticize Hosni Mubarak and his cronies. He challenged the entire set-up of their political language, puncturing the government’s mystifying rhetoric with no-nonsense, down-home critical thinking. Eissa promoted a clear-eyed view of political reality, a dangerous thing during elections. (AP Photo)

Let’s put aside the silly spin that Eissa was dismissed for his incompetent management of al-Dostor, or get trapped by distracting minutiae about Eissa’s monthly salary, his chauffeured car, and what have you. These discrediting attempts by al-Dostor co-owner al-Sayed al-Badawi are transparent and risible. The purpose is to portray Ibrahim Eissa as just another sleazy careerist on the take, banking on the Egyptian public’s weary cynicism about any public personage. But unlike other fake dissidents and phony self-professed gadflies, Eissa has street credibility and an unassailable reputation for service in the public interest.

Ever since he was a cub reporter at Ruz al-Yusuf, Eissa had ambitions to be different, to bring down all sacred cows and smash conventions of deference to the rich and powerful. He implemented this vision when he helmed al-Dostor in its first incarnation, from 1995 until 1998, when the government cancelled its Cyprus-based operating license. Motivated by a notion of the public’s right to know—the newspaper’s tag line was and remains “popular sovereignty”--the weekly tabloid represented something entirely new in the Egyptian media landscape. It was a boisterous, opinionated, oftentimes sensational takedown of ministers and their shady dealings with emergent big business. There was next to no news reporting, the focus was on audacious exposés of erstwhile untouchables, a precursor to the adversarial brand of journalism Eissa would pioneer in the newspaper's second incarnation.

When the newspaper was no more, Eissa pursued his muckraking itch in novelistic form, penning Maqtal al-Rajul al-Kabir (Murder of the Big Man), a funny, gossipy, expletive-filled whodunit set in the presidential palace. For the longest time, Maqtal was prime samizdat; in 2008, it was reissued by Dar Merit and is now widely available at all bookstores. This paradigm shift in the tolerable boundaries of political discourse was triggered by mavericks like Eissa, and later by writers such as Eissa’s fellow traveler Gamal Fahmi (Egypt’s greatest satirist, in my opinion), Abdel Halim Qandil, Magdi Mehanna, and the political articles of novelist Alaa’ al-Aswany.

When al-Dostor resumed publication in 2005, now operating under license as a domestic publishing company, the Egyptian media market had dramatically changed. Privately owned print and broadcast outlets had mushroomed everywhere. Some were purposely sensationalist, like Sawt al-Umma and al-Fagr, and others were self-consciously “professional”, such as al-Masry al-Youm and al-Shorouq. A few years later in 2008, electronic media such as youtube, facebook, and weblogs became vehicles of political communication and mobilization, making possible the 6th April movement, the exposure of police torture, and Mohamed ElBaradie’s petition drive for political reform. The government monopoly on political communication had broken down; gone were the days when state newspapers al-Ahram and al-Akhbar were considered go-to sources for decoding the official mindset. The diversified media market necessitated new strategies of command and control.

First, the government sponsors its own agents to enter the market and get its message across; hence the daily Ruz al-Yusuf newspaper; the daily party rag al-Watani al-Yawm; talk shows on state-owned television such as al-Bayt al-Baytak and Lamees al-Hadidi’s various inane vehicles; and talk shows like Amr Adeeb’s al-Qahera al-Yawm on the Orbit satellite television network. Regardless of his self-proclaimed status as “a media star in the Arab world” and his scripted, phony populism, Adeeb is scion of the Adeeb media empire, a family corporation that has always served the powerful and profited handsomely. Adeeb’s brother Emad interviewed Sadat and then carried out the six-hour interview with Hosni Mubarak during his 2005 presidential selection spectacle. Adeeb’s wife Lamees al-Hadidi was the PR manager of Mubarak’s campaign. Adeeb’s brother Adel heads the Good News film production company that operates several posh cinemas.

Second, the ruling regime cheerily takes credit for the diversified media landscape, presenting it as a “significant result” of its political reform process. Government agents represent the hard won gains of the opposition as mere effects of government largesse. As the dutiful press attaché in the Egyptian embassy in Washington avows, “Criticism of the government, even the head of state, is now a staple diet of the media,” going on to laud the expanding scope of freedom of expression.

Third, the government mobilizes its arsenal of penal laws to silence, intimidate, or wear down independent journalists and editors. Ibrahim Eissa has been the most targeted; in 2006 he was sentenced to one year in prison (later commuted to a fine) simply for publishing an article about a citizen’s lawsuit against the president. In 2008, he was sentenced to two months in jail when he wrote about Mubarak’s deteriorating health in 2007. In one article, he wrote “The president in Egypt is a god and gods don’t get sick. Thus, President Mubarak, those surrounding him, and the hypocrites hide his illness and leave the country prey to rumors. It is not a serious illness. It’s just old age. But the Egyptian people are entitled to know if the president is down with something as minor as the flu.” Eissa was spared jail with a presidential pardon on 6 October 2008.

Eissa has been removed because he’s a newspaperman with a vision and a superior communicator. When al-Dostor went daily in 2007, the paper’s diverse opinion pages were supplemented with solid news reporting that illuminated key spheres of Egyptian society. Eissa cultivated beat reporters who began systematically covering the universities, the courts, protests and demonstrations, and the Coptic Church. He continued to pack the newspaper’s opinion pages with the widest range of political viewpoints of any Egyptian broadsheet. And he managed to keep on writing his own daily column of hard-hitting socio-political commentary, all while also hosting a television show that showcased his skills as a communicator. In one clip, Eissa broke down weighty matters of political economy into an accessible, digestible, humorous module for public edification.

As Egypt heads toward parliamentary and presidential elections, a time when the free flow of political information takes on heightened significance, the government is intent on controlling all sources of alternative knowledge. Newspapers like al-Dostor that pose the greatest threat are effectively shut down, via an elaborate scheme using al-Sayed al-Badawi as the agent and poor management as the pretext. For other independent dailies such as al-Masry al-Youm and al-Shurouq, they are deterred with veiled threats, inducing them to self-censor and scale back their news coverage during election season. Witness the recent series of openly threatening editorials in the government daily Ruz al-Yusuf, warning the editors and owners of all independent dailies and even threatening them with disappearance by 2012.

For the broadcast media, new regulations have been handed down prohibiting the filming of courtroom proceedings. Little to no information is released about the Higher Elections Commission, the new body tasked with overseeing election supervision after judicial monitoring has been scrapped. And new regulations on election candidacy are issued by the Interior Minister in virtual secrecy, without publication in the official government press.

In this climate, it’s no wonder the government has silenced a man who makes it his life’s work to provide the public with unvarnished information. As he wrote in his penultimate column, “It’s impossible for the Egyptian regime to give up election rigging. So the solution it has devised is instead of putting a stop to rigging, it would put a stop to the talk about rigging. Hence the steps to rein in the satellite media; up next are newspapers; and perhaps soon we’ll see urgent legislation to snuff out Egyptians’ freedom of expression on the internet. And several understandings will be arrived at with representatives of the Western media in Egypt.”

Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Truth Teller

It’s a wonderful thing when poets write prose. Their perceptions are so acute, clarity of expression so exquisite, and images so fresh that reading their prose awakens the mind and refreshes the spirit. When poets write, they restore the act of reading as active engagement and appreciation, like listening to a stirring song, offering a respite from reading as necessity, as chore, or as mild form of torture. For this reason alone, reading Mourid Barghouti’s I Was Born There, I Was Born Here is a stimulating experience, whether or not you’re emotionally attached to Palestine and the Palestinians. If you happen to be so attached, Barghouti offers rousing reading plus a haunting, heart-piercing love song.

Because Barghouti is a poet and not a journalist, policymaker, academic, or any of the other very important people that determine how we perceive Palestine, we experience it anew. We experience the permanent disorientation of being Palestinian, either constantly on the move or forcibly fixed in place, always at the behest of others. We see things that are never shown, like the petty joys and idiosyncrasies of ordinary people striving for normalcy. We smell the oranges, jasmine, and coffee that have a special place in the poet’s taste-memory. We hear the sublime voices of Fairouz and Luciano Pavarotti, sacred parts of his writing routine. Reading I Was Born There is like living in Barghouti’s mind for a while, a rich, funny, profoundly insightful place to be.

Written in the same contemplative voice of his earlier I Saw Ramallah (1997), Barghouti’s I Was Born There, I Was Born Here(2009) continues his journeys into Palestine after a 30-year exile. Unlike his first visit in 1996, however, this time the poet’s shuttling back and forth between Cairo, Amman, Ramallah, and his birth village Deir Ghassanah are shadowed by grave events: the al-Aqsa Intifada in 2000, Ariel Sharon’s 2002 reinvasion of the Occupied Palestinian Territories, the Iraq war in 2003, the 2006 elections that brought Hamas to power, and the subsequent machinations of the losing Fatah to unseat Hamas, backed by Israel, the United States, and client Arab regimes. The book also takes in events of personal significance for the poet, like accompanying his son Tamim (himself an accomplished poet) on Tamim’s first visit to Dar Ghassanah and Jerusalem in 1998; Tamim’s deportation from Egypt in 2003 by Mubarak’s government for opposing the Iraq war; and the poet’s brief, unhappy tenure managing a World-Bank funded cultural project for the PNA in 1999.

Barghouti’s pensées are structured in 10 intricately arranged chapters and a four-page coda, chapters that move back and forth in time in a non-sequential ordering that mimics the workings of the mind. The sensibility that made I Saw Ramallah so original and compelling fills the pages of I Was Born There. There’s Barghouti’s poetic concision, the capacity to distill volumes into a few arresting lines. “The occupation soldier stands on a piece of earth and confiscates it, calling it “here”; all that’s left for me, the owner of the earth exiled from it in faraway lands, is to call it “there.” There’s his distinct approach to philosophical rumination. I don’t mean the declamatory, vacuous musings that often pass for philosophizing, but the sort of disarmingly simple, sharp, quiet observations of an introspective soul. As he and Tamim stroll through the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem, Mourid wonders what it must be like for Tamim to finally experience the city after only knowing it through stories, statistics, and photos. He thinks, “But imagination cannot be cancelled out by reality. The reality that surprises us soon generates in the mind another image. I wonder, is there a reality outside of human imagination? The answer perplexes me.”

But the real pleasure of Barghouti’s memoir are the images that grace nearly every page, images that can only be crafted by someone of uncommon sentience. The powerful opening chapter is chock-full of these. Titled “The Driver Mahmoud,” it tells the story of Barghouti’s trip from Ramallah to Amman via Jericho, on the eve of Sharon’s reinvasion of Ramallah and other Palestinian towns in spring 2002. The Israeli army is on high alert and has blocked major roads. Barghouti takes a taxi from Ramallah to Jericho with six other passengers, helmed by an indomitable young driver named Mahmoud who’s determined to get his passengers safely to Jericho, from where they will take a bus to cross the bridge into Amman. To avoid Israeli checkpoints, soldiers, and tanks, he veers off the main road and takes unpaved back roads in the middle of fields.

Older than his years and unconsciously heroic, Mahmoud takes out a thermos of fresh coffee and small plastic cups and distributes them to his passengers. Barghouti notes, “With the pouring of the first cup, a cunning race ensues between the scent of cardamom and the scent of coffee. The cardamom gets there first, of course.” He looks out the window and sees massive uprooted olive trees as far as the eye can see, “lying out in the open like humiliated corpses…For every olive tree uprooted by an Israeli bulldozer, a Palestinian peasant family tree falls off the wall. ” As the car winds its way through the wilderness and the misty grey valley, it comes to a complete halt in a ditch. Now only a deus ex machina can save them, thinks the poet. Within minutes, a huge yellow crane appears between the trees, gleaming under the drizzle, operated by two young villagers gesturing to Mahmoud to prepare for the rescue operation. Mahmoud reassures his passengers, “Fasten your seat belts, don’t be afraid. We’re going to ride the carousel!” The metal fingers of the crane clasp the taxi, “like fingers plucking a pomegranate seed,” lift it and put it back down on the embankment. All disembark and hug one another, and “we find ourselves clapping, as if celebrating a grand victory.”

Barghouti’s image-making, poetic concision, and philosophical rumination in the new memoir recover the same themes he broached in I Saw Ramallah, themes that are by turns political, aesthetic, and formal. For it would be a mistake to read Mourid Barghouti as a Palestinian poet, rather than a poet who is Palestinian. To be sure, his identity is one wellspring of his art, but his art is not contained by his identity. His sensibility as a writer is just as acute as his love of homeland. Formally, Barghouti uses to great effect the technique of association of ideas. An observation or sensation triggers a memory, which calls forth another memory, which may be followed by a meditation on some object, a preview of some future event, or a return to the present. Each of the book’s chapters is intricately structured in this way, narratives nested within other narratives that flow back and forth across time and space. In the remarkable, eponymous fourth chapter of I Was Born There, while visiting Deir Ghassanah with Tamim, father and son come upon the village school. Mourid is prompted into a reverie on the contrast between his hardscrabble childhood and his son’s relatively privileged upbringing. We’re then transported to an extremely moving flashback into the poet’s childhood, his first time in school, and why his birth certificate lists his first name as Nawaf. The memory morphs into a loving, heartbreaking portrait of his orphaned mother, robbed of an education and forced into a marriage, twin tragedies that she spends her whole life ensuring that her children and grandchildren won’t experience.

Chapter 6, “The Ambulance” is another standout example of the technique of nested memories. At the height of the Israeli reinvasion of Ramallah in 2002, when Israel besieged the city and blocked entry, Barghouti undertakes a risky venture to cross into Ramallah from Jericho in an ambulance. The experience prompts a memory of the first time he rode an ambulance years earlier in Amman, while accompanying the body of his beloved brother Mounif on its return from Paris. A small detail about the devastating death of Mounif recalls for the poet his presence at the hospital bedside of Palestinian historian Emile Touma when he died in Budapest in 1985. Then, Barghouti is momentarily jolted back to the present when the ambulance worker asks him a question, which prompts another memory and portrait of fellow Palestinian poet Hussein Barghouti, who had recently died of cancer as Mourid was being smuggled into Ramallah in an ambulance.

Given the events of the past few years, what was only hinted at in I Saw Ramallah is spelled out in I Was Born There. That’s to say politics, the corruption of the PNA, and its groveling before the Israelis. A stand-in for this state of affairs is the detested figure of Nameq al-Tijani (Glorifier of the Crown), Barghouti’s sarcastic moniker for the lowly, careerist PNA underling who will sell his soul for a handful of shekels. Whenever he sees this type on a bus or at a café, the poet tenses up and removes himself from the premises, so revolted is he with what the Nameqs of Palestine represent. The poet reacts the same way to his one-year stint in 1999 directing a PNA cultural project riddled with corruption. An episode bitterly remembered and elliptically recounted, Barghouti first confronted the corruption at his new workplace, then resigned in protest and went off to Amman for 35 days. After the mediation of trusted friends, he returned to Ramallah to reluctantly finish out his term, though mentally he retreated into the security of his inner world. Of the experience he states tersely, “I decided to respect my voluntary isolation and resume it forever.”

Disillusionment with the PNA isn’t the only political theme in I Was Born There. More original are Barghouti’s reflections on the Palestinian condition. Much more sharply than he articulated in I Saw Ramallah, in the new memoir Barghouti nests Palestinian displacement within the broader regional condition of dictatorship. “Occupation, like dictatorship, doesn’t just ruin political and party life but also individuals’ lives, even those who are non-political.” No Palestinian family is without tangible experiences of ill-treatment and obstruction at the hands of Arab governments. So what is the difference between Israeli occupation and Arab dictatorship? Watching helplessly as Egyptian policemen yank Tamim out of his home in 2003, rifles pointed at his back, Barghouti says, “Violent power is the same, whether Arab or Israeli. Brutality is brutality and violation is violation, regardless of the perpetrator.”

Barghouti is a gentle soul and a discerning mind, but that doesn’t mean he won’t occasionally lapse into unoriginality and coarseness. I grew tired of his gratuitous jabs at Arab feminists, his predictable disdain for the overt religiosity of some Palestinians, especially women in his family, and repeated announcements of his disgust at the PNA. An unusually hateful remark about Palestinian women who veil their face (p. 241) made me sad, not simply because it’s the secular mirror-image of religious bigotry and intolerance, but it commits the same blithe reductionism that the poet so vehemently detests.

For it’s his uncompromising refusal to simplify that makes Barghouti a writer to reckon with. In I Saw Ramallah, he spelled out his disdain for cheap rhetoric masquerading as art: “I wondered again about that rubbish they call the ‘poetry of the stones’ and the poems of solidarity with the ‘children of the stones.’ It is the simplification that takes the accessible and the easy from the human condition and so blurs that condition instead of defining it, misrepresents it at the moment of pretending to celebrate it. It is the eternal difference between profundity and shallowness. Between art and political rhetoric.” (Ahdaf Soueif’s translation).

The battle against platitudes, derivative language, and sheer numbness is fought out on nearly every page of I Was Born There. The poet-philosopher isn’t merely “resisting” but engaging in the most difficult, the most rewarding task there is. “I don’t weep over any past, I don’t weep over this present, I don’t weep over the future. I live with the five senses, trying to understand our story, trying to see.”

Neither the lamenter of his people’s sufferings nor the chronicler of their greatness, Barghouti is something else. “We will tell the story as it ought to be told. We will tell our personal histories one by one. We’ll tell our little stories as we lived them, as our souls, eyes, and imaginations remember them. We won’t leave history to be the history of great events and kings and soldiers and the tomes on dusty shelves. We’ll recount our individual stories, the stories of our bodies and senses that to the ignorant eye appear to be shallow, incoherent, and meaningless. The meaning is etched in us, one by one, women, men, children, trees, houses, windows, and cemeteries where no national anthem is played, and forgotten by a historian blind of pen. We’ll recover history as the history of our fears, our anxieties, our patience, the desires of our pillows and our improvised braveries, the history of preparing a dinner meal.”

Sunday, August 01, 2010

The Wonderful World of Kamel Kilani

A long time ago in Baghdad, under the reign of Haroun al-Rashid, there lived a moderately wealthy trader named Ali Cogia. One night, Cogia had a portentous dream in which a shaykh exhorted him to make the pilgrimage to Makka forthwith. When the dream recurred the following two nights, Ali decided he had better heed it. He packed up his belongings, rented out his house, and gave his neighbor Hasan a large earthenware jar filled with olives for safekeeping. Unbeknownst to Hasan, Ali hid one thousand dinars of his savings in the bottom of the jar under the olives.

Cogia spent seven years on his travels, going from Makka to Cairo, Jerusalem, Damascus, and Bilad al-Fars, doing a brisk and profitable trade and enjoying the sights. In the meantime, his neighbor Hasan accidentally happens upon the dinars and decides to filch them, refilling the urn with fresh olives. But lo, Ali returns a month later, thanks his neighbor and retrieves the urn. When he finds no dinars, he gingerly asks Hasan if he has borrowed them in a time of need. Hasan lies through his teeth, Ali takes him to court and loses, and finally submits a petition of complaint to Haroun al-Rashid himself.

On the eve of deciding Ali’s case, al-Rashid goes on one of his incognito perambulations around Baghdad, inspecting the condition of his subjects. He overhears a group of boys acting out the court case between Ali and Hasan, and is highly impressed with the acumen of the boy who plays the judge. The next morning he dispatches his vizier Jaafar to summon the boy, has him sit in judgment over the real Ali and Hasan, gently chastises the judge who exonerated Hasan, and rewards the boy with a sack of 100 dinars for his uncommon discernment.

Forever after, on moonlit nights, children all over Baghdad and beyond would role-play the story of traders Hasan and Ali, just as the children’s judge and his friends had.

I first read this story decades ago one lazy summer afternoon. It was the first I heard of Baghdad, and imagined how it must be a wonderful city full of mystery, riches, and exotic headgear. Harun al-Rashid going undercover struck me as most clever, his elegant folds and drapes perfectly disguising him, no doubt. And he was so progressive, taking seriously a common little boy who happened to be more astute than the most senior judge. Excellent.

I gobbled up more stories from Alf Layla, as selected and expurgated by a man named Kamel Kilani. There was the one about greedy Baba Abdallah, another Baghdadi trader who gets his just desserts by being blinded and then eaten alive by a pouncing lion. Then there was the good Abu Sayr and the evil Abu Qayr, two Alexandria tradesmen who seek their fortunes in some unnamed North African city. After a string of cruel acts, the dastardly Abu Qayr gets his just desserts too, by being stuffed into a sack and hurled into the sea. And of course those wicked robbers, who meet a most horrible death by having boiling oil poured over them by the plucky Morgiana as they crouched hiding in oil jars.

The hard-won triumph of good over evil, the endurance of basic impulses of greed and wanderlust, the recurrent human failure to think through consequences-- these are the building blocks of Kamel Kilani’s strange and wonderful story world. It’s a world that captivated me and millions of other young readers ever since he published his first story in 1928. The stories are handed down from generation to generation; my grandfather bought them for my father, who loved them and introduced me to them. The genius of Kilani is that he managed to make his stories didactic but not preachy, edifying yet fun, written in mellifluous modern standard Arabic but without a hint of stilted formality. Kilani understood the power of story, and made it his life’s work to enchant young people.

Kamel Kilani Ibrahim Kilani didn’t set out to be the modern Egyptian pioneer of children’s literature. He just adored stories and had fond memories of a Greek nanny who raised him on a steady diet of fantastic myths and legends. He also recalled being captivated by tales of Abu Zayd al-Hilali and al-Zanati Khalifa recounted by an itinerant Azharite poet and storyteller in Midan al-Qala’a. Kilani was born on 20 October 1897 in the citadel neighborhood in Cairo, to a father who was a prominent engineer. He studied English literature in high school and enrolled at the Egyptian University (now Cairo University) from 1917 to 1930, reading French and English, and also attending Arabic grammar, logic, and morphology classes at al-Azhar. He spent a few brief years as a high school English teacher and was then appointed as an editor and reviser at the Awqaf Ministry in 1922 (where Naguib Mahfouz also worked), where he spent the rest of his career until retirement in 1954.

Kilani’s day job didn’t prevent him from becoming a prolific, prominent man of letters in the vibrant Egyptian cultural scene of the 1920s-1940s. His passion was the preservation and cultivation of the Arabic language, and he was party to polemical debates with Ahmed Amin and others against the increasing use of ‘ammiyya in newspapers and books. In 1920, Kilani began hosting a literary salon that met every Saturday at his home, and between 1929-1932 he was part of a short lived, pan-Arab literary club named the Arabic Literature Association that included Ahmad Shawqi, Khalil Mutran, and Sameh al-Khalidi as members.

After a brief and unsatisfying stint as a literary critic, which Kilani abandoned because he considered it a quick route to vacuous fame, he opted for excavating and disseminating the gems of Arab letters to a wide audience. He spent his evenings combing through the rich fund of classical Arabic poetry, from which he had memorized hundreds of quatrains, sifting, selecting, and redacting his favorites and publishing them in accessible editions that were soon to be reprinted over and over and distributed throughout the Arab mashreq. Before long, Kilani became a one-man translation and editing powerhouse.

In 1923, he produced the philosopher-poet and skeptic Abu al-Ala’ al-Ma’arri’s 11th century Resalat al-Ghufran (with a foreword by Taha Hussein), and in 1943 Dar al-Ma’aref published an English translation by Gerald Brackenbury based on Kilani’s Arabic redaction. There followed Diwan Ibn al-Rumi (1924, with a foreword by Abbas al-Aqqad), a history of Andalusian Literature (1924), Diwan Ibn Zaydun (1932), chronicles of the prophet’s life and that of his successors (1929), al-Ma’arri’s Resalat al-Hana’ (1944), and a score of books on literary criticism, collections of Greek myths and European stories, and a travelogue based on his visit to Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine in the early 1930s.

The 200-some stories that would eventually constitute Kilani’s library for children and young adults began with the publication of Sindbad the Sailor in 1928. As he would in many of his stories, Kilani prefaces the story with a brief dedicatory page to one of his four children, and in a brief foreword notes with chagrin the sorry state of Arabic books for children compared to the attractive and well-produced ones for European children. He wrote: “Since our children are in need of Arabic books that instill in them the love of reading, I availed myself of the opportunity provided by their instinctive orientation to hearing stories and embarked on publishing a suitable segment of stories from One Thousand and One Nights and other sources.” He exhorts parents and teachers to help explain the language to young readers, and matter-of-factly remarks “girls are no less in need of these stories than boys.”

The ten stories from Alf Layla would be followed by story sets that Kilani translated and redacted from a remarkably catholic range of sources: Shakespeare plays, the epics Ramayana, Mahabharata and other Indian narratives, Greek mythology, Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Ibn Tufail’s Hayy bin Yaqdhan, the travels of the Andalusian geographer Ibn Jubayr, Joha stories, and tales by Hans Christian Andersen and the brothers Grimm. In the 1940s, Kilani produced some of his stories into lovely, quite readable English, placing the Arabic text side by side with the English rendition.

Here’s an extract from Scheherazade the Vizier’s Daughter, in which Scheherazade makes a winning case to her skeptical father, convincing him of her bold plan to transform the murderous Shahriar:

And so, if the gazelle, through her artifice, has been capable of drowning in the water, the ghoul of beasts, surely I am capable—God willing—of drowning the ghoul of women in a flood of magic which will fill his heart with mercy and compassion and replace his cruelty and aggression with security and tranquility for my friends. Needless to say, you are prudent enough, father, to realize that the cruelty and violence which Shariar shows are not due to his base nature, but rather to a casual mental derangement, which befell him when his wife became unfaithful and betrayed him…And it is quite likely that had he come across a good and staunch woman, he would have been loyal to her and enjoyed her company, and thus would have reverted to his old ways of charity, compassion, justice, and kindness.

In addition to the literary adaptations, Kilani penned a delightful series he called “Scientific Stories” featuring a menagerie of frogs and toads, geckos, rabbits, owls, industrious bees, squirrels, and spiders, all conversing with each other in perfect Arabic. The critters expatiate on the beauty and harmony of the natural world and rue humans’ casual cruelty to animals. Some stories are supplemented with mini-dictionaries at the back, containing animals’ diverse Arabic names. Did you know that the bear is also called Abu Juhayna?! And the giraffe is Um Eissa?! (A large collection of Kilani’s stories, including the Arabic-English ones, can be downloaded here).

Kilani received accolades for his work starting as early as the 1930s, and no shortage of honorifics: “A leading light of the literary renaissance”, “The pedagogue of the generations”, “The pioneer of Arabic children’s literature.” He was canonized in his own lifetime, with several of his stories replacing the atrocious fare that students were force-fed in schools in Egypt, Palestine, and the rest of the Levant. And countless luminaries wrote contemporaneous and retrospective paeans to his dedication, modesty, sense of humor, and sheer love of his métier.

But thankfully, Kilani was not co-opted, and remained essentially a lone man in his study, churning out fantastic story after story in impeccable Arabic, almost until the day he died in October 1959. It was as if he was communing directly with the minds of children, addressing them as “little reader” in the text, occasionally appending witty verses for memorization at the end of the story booklets, stocking each story with beautiful, expressive illustrations (of unknown provenance), and always including synonyms of unfamiliar words in the text, so that you’re effortlessly building your vocabulary while enjoying the tale. I was especially happy that all the stories had clear and thorough vowellization. The lack of these in other books tormented me; how was I to know that there was a shadda in قبعة if there was no tashkeel?!

Boredom was banished by Kamel Kilani. My attention was held in thrall by all the strange and fantastic goings-on in his story-world, and I resolved to visit Baghdad when I grew up and could do whatever I pleased. I revisit the stories now and am awed by Kilani’s perfectionism; his fidelity to the original stories, making only surgical redaction; the accuracy with which he transliterated foreign names into Arabic. Kilani obviously delighted in language and was exceptionally skilled in building narrative momentum. But his enduring appeal lies in the singular gift of all superb storytellers, the capacity to excite fancy and kindle imagination.

“She was the most beautiful of her kind, the best of form, the most pleasing to behold. Her handsomeness, the brightness of her eyes, the neatness of her tiny pink nose, the nimbleness of her fur-covered paws made her a model of comeliness. If you saw her saunter and strut in her white drape, you wouldn’t be able to contain your admiration. Her most coveted food was clover, which she favored over all other kinds of food. It’s no surprise that her friends and companions called her 'The Clover Flower.' She was, among rabbits, as beautiful as the flower that sprouts on cloverleaf.”

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Questions Never Asked

An elderly couple get on each other’s nerves, bicker, and occasionally enjoy simple moments like eating homemade ta’amiyya together. Their quiet lives revolve around fleeting visits by their two grown sons, trips to the hospital or to collect the pension, and mundane daily tasks like folding laundry, having breakfast, and watching lots of television. Retired government clerk Ustaz Khalil and his wife Ihsan have been married for over 40 years, but seem to still be something of a mystery to each other. Ustaz Khalil has a tendency to think too much about insignificant things and to share his thoughts with his wife. Ihsan is more pragmatic and blunt, exasperated by Khalil’s musings and mocking him in a way that hurts his feelings. All this doesn’t sound like material for great literature, but in the hands of Ibrahim Aslan it turns into the stuff of luminous art.

Readers familiar with Aslan’s fiction will find his latest novella very familiar. Written in his trademark economical prose and very short chapters strung together by the thinnest of plots, Two Bedrooms and a Living Room: A Domestic Sequence is vintage Aslan. Nothing much happens: people eat, drink, and talk to each other; they go to weddings and funerals, they look at old photos, they argue and make up, and life goes on. The people about whom Aslan writes are utterly unexceptional. They’re not “the marginalized”, as lazy critics love to call them. They’re certainly not the rich and pampered. And they’re not downtrodden yet heroic peasants. They’re just ordinary people, what sociologists would call the urban petit bourgeoisie but whom Aslan turns into some of the most compelling, hilarious, and moving portraits of human beings in literature.

As always with Aslan, we never get more than a few sentences to describe a character. His characters come alive through eerily real dialogue, dialogue that captures the absurdities and profundities of everyday conversation, the cadence of how real people speak. Characters are then made even more real with their many little tics: how they doze, how they like their fuul in the morning, what makes them scowl or smile, and when they feel puzzled, lonely, or at peace. Barely a couple of chapters into the novella, I felt like I was sitting in the old couple’s living room, hearing them exchange a few words now and then as they move leisurely from the kitchen to the living room to one of the two bedrooms.

In a chapter titled “End of the Day,” after a visit by their grown sons, Ustaz Khalil follows his wife into the old boys’ room and asks her, “Did that boy Suleiman get taller?”

“Suleiman who?”

“Your son.”

“What do you mean, get taller?”

“I mean is he taller than before?”

“Before what? When he was little?”

“No, taller than last month, for instance.”

“Does someone still get taller when they’re thirty?”

Abu Suleiman considered his words and asked her, “Then is it me who’s gotten shorter?”

She looked him up and down and said, “How would I know?”

“I don’t know if it’s me who’s gotten shorter or he’s the one who’s become taller.”

“But how would I know?”

“From your point of view (and he straightened his back), am I like I used to be, or have I gotten slightly shorter?”



As he turned to leave the room she called after him, “Why don’t you bring me a tape measure so that I can constantly measure you and measure him.”

The 28 compact chapters each capture a mood, a moment, a lifetime of love and resentment condensed into barely four pages. When read in succession, they mimic the ups and downs of the couple’s daily interactions, a relationship that the author neither stereotypes as bitter nor romanticizes as warm and awww-look-at-the-sweet-old-couple. Ihsan and Ustaz Khalil’s is a real marriage, one marked by familiarity, comfortable silences, and not a little distance. A chapter in which Ihsan makes a touching peace offering to Ustaz Khalil is followed by one where she mocks his deliberativeness, followed by a chapter where Ustaz Khalil tears up at the thought of Ihsan dying and remembers her as a young woman. He methodically thinks through the steps of how he’ll react once the inevitable happens. In the event, Khalil doesn’t follow his sequence.

Aslan’s depiction of Khalil’s grief is breathtaking in its power. In a chapter titled “The Seamstress’s Needle” immediately following Ihsan’s funeral, Khalil opens the closet and stands gazing at the dress clothes that he now wears only on special occasions. He fingers a pair of dark slacks and finds a tear in them, and suddenly finds himself energized by the task of mending them since he hasn’t mended anything since his youth. He pulls out the spool of black thread and needle from the old chocolate tin in the drawer where Ihsan kept them, puts on his reading glasses, and spends three hours trying to thread the needle, to no avail. The chapter ends with this arresting image of a man in mourning:

He nearly wept but stopped himself immediately so that his blood sugar wouldn’t go up. He stuck the needle in the spool and put it in the old chocolate tin with the faded designs, and left it there in front of him without returning it to the drawer.

The second half of the book follows Khalil in the 40 days after Ihsan’s death. He moves to their old apartment, gingerly reacquaints himself with old neighbors and friends, and tries to face life alone. He keeps himself company by living in his memories, of a time when he was surrounded by the din of his young wife and sons and assorted oddball neighbors. The novella’s longest chapter is a haunting memory of Osta Mahmoud the cobbler, an old neighbor of Ustaz Khalil’s who used to live across the hall and was unraveled by the death of his wife al-Hagga Thoraya.

I wouldn’t be too quick to classify Two Bedrooms and a Living Room as a novella about aging. That’s one dimension of this quiet little work. But I saw in it something more philosophical, a meditation on the regrets of a life decently but not quite fully lived. In a chapter titled “Side Alley,” Ustaz Khalil puts on his starched white gallabiyya to go to the Friday prayers. On his way there, he spots a woman sitting on a stoop throwing her chickens bits of crusty old bread. He doesn’t look at the woman, but his eyes follow a brown hen as it pecks to and fro. The call to prayer rouses him and he hurries off, but on his way back he musters the courage to ask the woman about the brown hen.

“Good day, hanem. Regarding the brown hen.”

The woman looked at the hen and waited.

“I mean the brown hen.”

“What about it?”

“I wonder, is it your hen?”

“Who else’s would it be?”

“Actually, just a question.” He thought a bit and added, “Have you had it since it was a chick?”


“This is the answer I was looking for, nothing more, nothing less.” And he remained standing.

The woman said in a low voice, somewhat suspiciously, “And why do you ask?”

“It’s your right to know why I’m asking.” He adjusted his glasses and said, “A long time ago ya sitti, we had a brown chick the same color as this hen. It was one of the chicks the hagga bought to raise them. That chick left and never came back, disappeared. And as I was passing by I spotted your brown hen, and it reminded me of the chick that left and never returned, and it occurred to me to ask you.”

The woman relaxes somewhat and they strike up a friendly yet guarded, polite conversation. Before Ustaz Khalil makes to leave, he says to her:

“You see, I wasted at least 60 years of my life having these kinds of questions. I wanted to ask them but I wasn’t able to, because I was embarrassed. This is a tragedy ya hanem, and the proof is what happened just now. Have you been harmed by the question?”

“God forbid anything bad like that.”

“Because of this, ever since the death of the hagga I’ve decided that any question I have I ought to ask it right away. And you too, any question that preoccupies you, go ahead and ask it. That’s my advice to you. Asking questions is never shameful. Is asking questions shameful?”

“Not at all.”

“I thank you. Salam ‘Alaykum.”

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Ibrahim al-Desouqi Fahmi, Alabaster (2001)
oil on canvas

Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Wildcard

Five years ago today, when Hosni Mubarak made his big announcement about direct, multicandidate presidential elections, he couldn’t have dreamed that five years down the line, he’d face a most unexpected challenger. Someone who is everything that Mubarak and his son aren’t: internationally respected, intellectually nimble, and domestically popular.

Who knows whether ElBaradei has a real chance at the presidency? What’s clear is that his return to Egypt has completely flummoxed Mubarak and his retinue. Up to now, they’ve dealt handily with all the domestic politicians and pressure groups who’ve opposed their rule, ridiculing some, imprisoning others, co-opting still others, and simply exhausting whoever’s left. Along comes ElBaradei, with an energetic mien and an organized plan. His international standing ensure that he can’t be repressed or ridiculed. He’s made it crystal clear that he won’t be co-opted. And the incredible surge of popular enthusiasm that’s enveloped him makes it unlikely that he’ll get tired and retreat.

Mubarak’s henchmen have so far done a laughable job of dealing with this unwelcome surprise. His arrival on the scene a full year and a half before presidential elections has caught them off guard; they hadn’t yet devised their strategy for 2011 elections. So they’ve been scrambling to respond, dispatching pathetic regime hacks to sling cheap shots at al ElBaradei that only make him more popular. See the priceless interview tactics of the revolting Amr Adeeb, who trips over himself to please his master Zakariyya Azmi. Haga zibala.

At this point, it’s hard to see how ElBaradei can even run in the elections, much less have a real chance at winning. But I think he’s doing more than launching a symbolic campaign. He’s raising the costs of electoral engineering for the Mubarak regime, making 2010 and 2011 the toughest polls yet in Mubarak’s tenure.
What’s more, ElBaradei’s entry comes at a time when the regime is at its weakest. Mubarak is fast fading, his son is flailing, the bureaucracy is riven with unbelievable corruption and civil servant protests, and all social classes are literally fed up and can’t stand the Mubaraks anymore. None of this means that ElBaradei is going to displace the system, but it does mean that the regime will have to work harder than it ever has to weather the electoral cycle.

Elections have always been nuisances for Mubarak, now they’re turning into nightmares. Why? First because ElBaradei shows up the ridiculous rules governing the political game. The laughingstock Political Parties Committee, the crazy restrictions of Article 76 on presidential candidacy, the elimination of judicial supervision over elections, and the nefarious provisions littering the law governing political participation. The Egyptian opposition has been crying foul over these things for decades and decades, but the criticism sounds a lot more credible when it comes from someone with impeccable international standing.

Second, ElBaradei’s entry certifies the beleaguered Egyptian opposition. I’m talking about the real opposition, not the fake opposition parties in Wust al-Balad and Dokki licensed by the regime. Some so-called analysts’ favorite pastime is to sit around announcing the demise of Kifaya, the Ikhwan, al-Ghad, the various reform groups among the professions, civil society associations, etc. ElBaradei’s joining of their ranks and endorsement of their decades long demands for constitutional reform, fair elections, and redistributive policies suddenly raises their profile and makes it that much harder for the regime to dismiss them as fanatics, lunatics, foreign agents, loudmouth nationalist-populists, or what have you.

Perhaps the scariest thing for Mubarak, wife, and son is that ElBaradei’s social democratic centrism, liberalism, and personal air of gravitas is rapidly forming him a constituency inside and outside Egypt. Like any dictator, the purpose of Mubarak’s existence is to snuff out the bottom-up formation of constituencies around rival groups or individuals. So far, Mubarak has succeeded in blocking or containing the growth of constituencies around challengers. Because elections are the time when constituency-building happens, they’ve always constituted an annoying but ultimately manageable nuisance for him. When the Ikhwan’s constituency-building threatened the parliamentary majority of Mubarak’s party in 2005, state violence was at the ready to strike at both voters and candidates. When Ayman Nour’s unexpected constituency-building in 2005 threatened to embarrass Mubarak, he mobilized his media and legal machine to smear Nour and put him safely behind bars. These tried and true tactics won’t work with ElBaradei. I’m going to enjoy sitting back and watching how the Mubaraks deal with this wildcard.