Modern Egypt through the eyes of an untypical teenager

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Reflections on Cuba

This summer, I had the fantastic opportunity to visit Cuba; Surreal is the only adjective that comes to mind.
From the very first day, Cuba has taught me to reconsider my assumptions and keep them in check. After a two-hour delay in the flight, we arrived in Havana at 4:00 pm and had to wait for more than three full hours before our luggage had arrived. This incident highlighted the polychronic nature of Cuban culture; time here is slow and thick, like viscid honey pouring down sulkily from an unattended jar. Even before I arrived, the culture started humbling me in unexpected ways. While waiting in line for my flight, the woman ahead of me in line called my attention to the fact that I was the only person whose baggage was not wrapped in plastic. I asked why such wrapping was necessary. She laughed, explaining how, otherwise, some of my personal belongings might get ‘lost’ on their way to Havana. This showed me that the existing social capital is minimal between inhabitants of the island and their expat counterparts on the mainland. The third lesson so far has been about my over-dependency on the internet and electronics. Since internet here costs $10 an hour, I have kept my use to a minimum. It is quite hard to not know what is happening in the rest of the world and have very limited and little access to information. At first it was stressful; now, it just is.
One week living in Havana, I definitely calmed down after my initial ‘spasmodic’ reaction. The city has grown on me, with its chaos and crowded buses that cost 5 cents. There is something oddly trancing about the feeling of solidarity aroused by melding into a desolate background with hundreds of people going about their lives. To a passerby, I am just another Cuban. This visual reality eases my life, encouraging strangers on the streets to open up to me, albeit my foreignness. These encounters are allowing me to draw a more detailed image of Havana and life under a socialist regime. The stories I gather interweave to form an intricate canvas that makes no sense.
The other day, my know-all attitude got me sick. Thinking that I would save money, I bought ingredients from local markets and started cooking. An eggplant, some chicken, onions, and carrots—nothing too fancy. The vegetables and fruits here are 100% chemical-free (by product of necessity than environmentalism but that’s beside the point) so they tasted fresh. With these simple ingredients, I started making an Egyptian dish that I have perfected over the years. I ate to my heart’s content but got quite ill that night. You see, even though the vegetables looked the same, they were variations of the same species, which changed some of their essential characteristics. The eggplant, for example, was too absorbent of the oil in which it was fried and the chicken’s muscular tissue needed longer to be cooked. My impulse to apply my culinary knowledge to a different context without adapting has resulted in a failure that harmed me. Instead, I now give money to Nery, my host mother (78), who prepares delicious pork-free food for me within a tight budget.
This incident has made me realize that the future of development for Cuba will have a very similar reality. Like me, idealistic international organizations will be coming in, ready to apply their skills and knowledge. They will want to get their hands dirty and do things themselves, distrusting the Cuban governmental agencies and existing structures. Like me too, they are bound to fail and harm themselves. A better approach would be to find their Nery, a local structure that do more than counsel them on culture. Cubans do not need skills and knowledge—their biggest asset is their human capital, since the government spends more than 10% of GDP on education compared to Egypt’s 3%. They need material support, the money to buy the ingredients that makes sense to them and their context. That way, the international organizations’ egos will be fed and the local communities will benefit.
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Anti-Sexual Harassment in Egypt

Egypt has criminalised sexual harassment and introduced penalties including prison terms and fines, as the country attempts to control a rise in attacks on women.

Adly Mansour, the outgoing president, on Thursday approved a decree to make sexual harassment an offence punishable by up to five years’ jail, or fines of between $400 and $7,000.

The decree defines harassment as any sexual or pornographic suggestion or hints through words, signs or acts, until now the country has not had a law defining sexual harassment.

A minimum two-year jail term was introduced for harassers who hold a position of power over their victim, is in uniform or is armed with a weapon. Penalties would double for repeat offenders.

Yes, it is indeed interesting that the government has decided to implement such a law for two main reasons: the timing and the content. As the article suggests, the problem of sexual harassment has been ubiquitous in Egypt since the rise of unemployment associated with the end of the liberalization-induced and temporarily-high economic growth of the 70s and 80s. Despite the persistence of the problem, the government has done little to address it lest deeper inquiries lead to the discovery of the bleak economic reality of the country and a subsequent political upheaval. Hence, many expected such law to be passed right after the 2011 popular unrest that toppled Hosni Mubarak (who was more an incompetent leader than a dictator per se). Yet nothing happened. Three years later, the law is passed days after a military candidate, whose views on women’s rights have been criticized, has won the presidential elections. If you ask me, the law is a peace offering to highlight the benign intentions of the new president and reeks of political manipulation.
As for the content of the law itself: fines are seen by many Egyptians as a way to increase illicitly the salaries of over-worked and under-employed police officers. Rarely has the implementation of such laws been successful in the land of the pharaohs. More importantly, the taboo nature of ‘sexual harassment’ as a concept, probably will hamper any attempts by citizens to take advantage of this law. That is, I can easily imagine a scenario in which a woman walks into a police station, wishing to report a harassment incident, only to be refused by an officer that is too wary of such taboos. De facto and De Jur laws are worlds apart in Egypt.

 

Video

Excuse my French!

It has been such a long time since I last saw a good Egyptian movie. Props for the profound insight into a taboo topic that is too readily overlooked as non-existent despite its ubiquity. Even though the unneeded hyperbole detracts from the film’s impactful depiction of Egypt’s sectarianism and its public educational system, the astounding soundtrack, the cleverly-integrated symbols, and the subtle manipulation of Arabic’s diglossic nature renders this movie superb. Truly, the only major drawback is the disappointingly anti-climatic ending. Definitely worth a watch! Let me know if you come across a version with English subtitles.

On Disappointment and hypocrisy

The last few weeks have born witness to a transformation in Egyptian politics. The country remains divided between supporters of democratic legitimacy who are calling for the return of President Morsi to office and proponents of the maximalist approach orchestrated by Tamarod and the Armed Forces. As the dust of euphoria settles and people look back, one cannot help but be disappointed at the actions taken by various players in the last few weeks.

The Muslim Brotherhood (MB):

Although the MB has committed various problematic miscalculations that eventually led to the June 30 popular protests, what particularly disappointed me were their lack of inclusivity and lack of cooperation.

It is fair to agree that when the MB took over power, the country was already on a steady path of turmoil. The foreign reserve was almost empty, the countries institutional apparatuses needed rapid and thorough reform and the 49% of the population who did not vote for Morsi needed to be convinced of his competence. Teti puts it well when he notes: “Morsi’s not-so-creeping authoritarianism was in your face … He handpicked a prosecutor-general in an attempt to neutralise the judiciary, rammed through a partisan (and poorly written) Constitution, played with the fire of sectarianism, and passed a constitutional decree conferring on himself powers so vast they probably made Mubarak blush”. Morsi also marginalised or ignored any political voice not supporting the Brotherhood, and actively tried to neutralise any opposition, targeting political groups, the media, civil society, and independent trade unions. This lack of inclusivity frustrated the opposition and portrayed the MB as confused, largely incompetent and power hungry.

What was even more frustrating was the MB’s lack of cooperation. As millions took to the streets, Morsi’s speech was seen as desperate. What escapes me is the tenacity that the MB exhibited. The Armed Forces announced that they sent two formal requests to Morsi asking for a national referendum on whether he should continue as president or not. This would have provided a democratic tool that would have prevented further division in the Egyptian society rather than the unfortunate military intervention that took place whose ramifications are worrisome.

The Opposition:

The opposition’s position is not much better; In fact, it seems more disappointing. After Morsi was deposed by the Armed Forces a vicious attack aimed at the MB was carried out. Various pro-MB independent satellite channels were shut down and high profile members of the MB were detained without clear charges. Today, all banks accounts of MB leadership have been frozen whilst they are being interrogated on changers of “corruption”.

Not only is it astounding that such actions were executed in country that is calling for ‘real reform’ and ‘free media’ but the opposition’s reactions were highly disappointing. The National Salvation Front coalition’s leader Al Baradei revealed in his interview with CNN “supported the closure of independent media as a necessary step for the immediate future”. Bassem Youssef, Egyptian satirist namede of the world’s top 100 influential personalities by Time magazine earlier this year, was no better. On his twitter account with more than 1.7 million followers he tweeted: “Instead of writing numerous tweets here’s one to sum it all up MB are the new form of Nazis got it? I said it on the show and saying it now”. Another tweet reads: “MB leadership sending its youths to die at army HQs to victimize themselves against the world. Blood for publicity. Cheap. #not_a_coup.” Eventually, after 50 MB supports died in clashes with the Army his only retort was “enough (kifaya)”. It is worth emphasising that Bassem’s show Al-Bernameg (quite similar to Daily Politics) phlegmatically attacked the MB and is accredit with changing a good portion of the public opinion against them.

Do not get me wrong, I am not taking sides here, I am merely pointing out that in these instances the opposition did not adhere to its ideals of a ‘fee media’ or ‘no name-calling and dehumanization’. With the interim prime minister about to announce his new cabinet, it is worth stressing that maintaining these unfortunate double standards will be detrimental to the future of this country. The last thing we want is an entire generation of Islamists completely disregarding the functionality of democracy and resorting to violent means to achieve their grievances.

 

UPDATE: Despite the aforementioned tweets of Bassim Youssef, he has released an article in which he distances himself from the post-30june hypocrisy. He writes:  “those who claim to be freedom fighters and have been denouncing the fascism and discrimination of the Brotherhood are now contributing to the building of sympathy towards them. They are a disgrace to the principles of freedom they claim to stand for.” I think the article is worth reading and I thought it appropriate to try and be as objective as possible.

To Coup or not to Coup?

If you have had any access to TV, internet or any newspaper, you have probably heard of what is happening in Egypt. After exhilarating mass protests and a highly-tense few days, the army has made its move and Mohamed Morsi has been deposed. Reactions vary from wide condemnation to what seems to be a military coup d’état to a state of utter rapture and happiness. What is the situation and what should we be focusing on? Two very important questions to answer right now.

The Philosophical side of things:

A military, a deposed democratically-elected president, mass protests? all in a third world country? Sounds like a recipe for a coup d’état! Implicit attacks and skepticism regarding the Army’s move is plenty in Western Media and there is no need to go over them. Over here, however, the situation is quite different. People are indignant at the thought that this ‘second revolution’ is a coup. Firstly, they claim, the army’s move was not organic for personal gains. As millions took to the streets (14+million, some estimates are as high as 44million!) and demanded early elections, a bleak possibility of a civil war between opponents and proponents loomed in the distance, so did the heavy threat of civil disobedience. What the army did, claims the not-coup camp, was simply a reaction to the people’s demands and an attempt to prevent the country from spiraling to a dark unknown future. In effect, the people’s massive movement against the president gave legitimacy to the army’s move. Another reason, they maintain, is the absence of violence and the declaration of intention. The army has given the presidency a 48hour ultimatum and hence, the coup was not really a surprise. Moreover, the army has not kept any of the power and has appointed a neutral figure as the interim president.

You can see how although these arguments contain some truth, they are somewhat flawed. Sovereignty and legitimacy are touchy subjects and really, the question of whether to call this move a coup or not boils down to a series of linguistic and philosophical questions: What constitutes a coup? To what extend is a coup, against a democratically-elected president, supported by the majority of the People legitimate? And so on.

I am quite content to leave the answers of such questions to eager scholars and political philosophers. Right now, I think it is fair to focus, pragmatically, on what we are faced with.

The Current Situation:

Egypt's interim president

Egypt’s interim president

Al-Sisi, head of the army, announced yesterday a ‘roadmap’ for the coming period. It includes:

-The temporary suspension of the current constitution.

-Empowering the head of Egypt’s High Constitutional Court (HCC) to run the country until a new president is elected via early presidential polls.

-Forming a new technocratic government and asking the HCC to hasten the passing of a parliamentary elections law, currently being reviewed by the HCC, to allow for parliamentary elections.

-Forming a committee to amend controversial articles of the temporarily suspended constitution.

– Laying down a media code of ethics to guarantee the media’s professionalism.

– Forming a committee to foster “national reconciliation.”

– Taking immediate steps to include youth in decision making circles.

The hitches and ditches:

Right now, in my opinion, Egyptians should focus on the resolution of a multitude of potential problems that are mainly unanswered questions, happiness and inadvertent international issues:

Unanswered Questions:

Although I was pleased that the aforementioned ‘roadmap’ stayed well away from explicitly giving the army any political power, I would be deceiving myself to think that the army will have no say henceforth in what comes next. Although the military’s power is an issue that very few can claim they have an answer for, it is one worth asking nonetheless.

The statement did not indicate a clear duration of the transition period. Is it a few months, six months, a year? It also did not indicate whether the presidential election should take place before the parliamentary elections or vice versa. It also shied away from explaining the current distribution of power. You see, the president had executive power, he was deposed. The shurah council (the upper house of the parliament) had constitutional power but was dissolved by the Armed Forces’ statement. This leaves the judicial power, which the HCC already holds. That being said, it remains unclear whether all these powers have simply congregated and are in the hands of Adly Mansour. It is rather self-explanatory why this could be problematic.

Happiness as Hash:

Imagine you are on a drug. Your jocular side is aroused, you are a tad slow-ish and ideas which you would have refused outright before do not seem as bad. It seems that the euphoria is overwhelming the judgment of some people. Within the last 24 hours, Muslim Brotherhood’s (MB) satellite channels have been forced to shut down, protesters for the legitimacy of Morsi have been ‘encouraged’ to leave their sit-in and a wide travel ban and arrest campaign has been carried out against some members of the MB. All while the majority of people are celebrating in the streets. This is simply not right, I believe, for this stinks of double standards; The double standards that caused Ammu to break the Love Laws and lead to Velutha’s death – is not one tragedy enough? I maintain that the people should be weary of the army and not welcome them with open arms. Celebrations in Tahrir Square

Demands of the MB’s prosecution and dissolution should be dismissed. History speaks for itself: when Islamic factions were prosecuted, excluded and alienated, a rapid radicalization took place and produced thinkers such as Sayyd Qutb and Ayman al-Zawahri in Egypt. The last thing we want is for a wide re-radicalization of Islamic groups to take place and for that to hamper progress even further. If people have deposed Moris for being exclusive, inclusivity should be honored and respected with – no exceptions.

International Issues:

My posts have been as different from Western Media as salt and sugar. True, both seem similar – white, granular and small but taste differently beyond argumentation. Western Media seem to have portrayed the second uprising as a wave of disappointment – the Egyptians are not so great after all, they are acting against the Western Democratic Model. These savages, how could they so ruthlessly depose their democratically-elected president?! I believe the confusion springs from the discrepancy in the importance of democracy. Western societies, it seems, have given democracy an inherent value whereas most Egyptians merely see its instrumental value. Democracy per se was never a main goal in the Jan 25 revolution, better standards of living definitely were. Egyptians see democracy as means rather than a worthy goal, I daresay. Hence, it made sense that when Morsi did not meet their demands, when electricity, fuel and safety were scarce, he was deposed.  This misunderstanding needs to be corrected. The world needs to see, they need to realize how complex the situation is and not judge this as simply an undemocratic coup d’état.

Water – that’s the other political problem that we need to face. There needs to be a clear communication with Ethiopia during the transition period. The last thing we want is wake up the next day and see one fifth of our annual water influx gone. I urge the interim President to speak to the world and reassure them, especially our African brethren in the basin of the Nile.

With that said, it is as clear as a rude mooning that the next period will be quite difficult. My prayers go to Egypt. Let there be hope for a better future.

Why the Armed Forces should not sprinkle sand on its pudding

In my last article I emphasized that the army is a substantial player in determining the outcomes of June 30th protests. In a statement made by Tamarod yesterday, the movement’s leaders gave the presidency a deadline of Tuesday evening to resign or face civil disobedience. The announcement, although a tad disconcerting for some, gave a pristine message: “leave or face the wrath of the people”. In all honesty, I was very surprised when I returned from Tahrir Square yesterday and found out that approximately twenty two million Egyptians took to the streets in various governorates.

My surprise was even bigger when the Egyptian Armed Forces issued a 48 hour ultimatum to “fulfill the people’s demands”. To me, this potent statement seems to spring from a variety of reasons.

Firstly, the Armed Forces had called earlier this week for all ‘major players’ to come together and find a reasonable plan to overcome a potential crisis. Their demand was largely ignored, with the presidency merely asking the opposition for another ‘national dialogue’. It is worth mentioning that the National Salvation Front (NSF a coalition that includes 35 opposition parties) had announced before that they would halt all dialogues with the presidency until some of their demands have been met. Hence, the invitation was, in effect, superfluous.

Secondly, the Armed forces must have seen the number and sheer determination of the protestors who took to the streets yesterday. The protestors probably have won more support of the armed forces with how peaceful yesterday’s protests were.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, the Armed Forces, as are all the other major players in current Egyptian politics, are quite apprehensive of the potential civil disobedience.  Moreover, the possibility of further clashes between Morsi’s proponents and opponents can yield dreadful consequences. Yesterday, individuals ransacked the Muslim Brotherhood’s headquarters in Moqattam and according to officials “eight people were killed” there (BBC 2013).

The military’s support to what the people want, in my opinion, is a beautiful gift; like ice-cold pudding on a humid sunny afternoon. I fear the ambiguity in the statement issued by the Army, especially the part that states: “otherwise the armed forces would present a political “roadmap” for the country that would include all political currents”. Egyptians have already tasted the Military ruling during the transition period (Jan 2011 – July 2012) and let me tell you, we did not like it. It was like an inane stolid waiter who, on serving you dessert, brazenly sprinkled grains of sand on top and gleamed at you with faked innocence that could not be mistaken for anything but lumpishness.

Mohamed Mahmoud Clashes

You ask why? Here are a few incidences to refresh your memory.

In November 2011, security forces “brutally dispersed a sit-in of about 200 relatives of those injured or killed during the revolution earlier that year”. After an intensive use of tear gas, ammunition and constant exhausting raids on protesters “more than 38 died and many more were injured” (Egypt Independent 2012). Another scandal was the notorious virginity test that some female protesters re subjected to against their wills. Amnesty International broke the news with a report on the case of 18 women detained by the military for protesting at Tahrir Square on March 9 2011 (Murphy 2011). The practice was said to be an intimidation tool against female protestors, inciting them to remain at home and refrain from protesting the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces’ (SCAF) rule. The story gained popularity when the CNN announced that a “senior Egyptian General admits that “virginity checks” were performed on women arrested at a demonstration this spring” (CNN 2011).7-e1322079107664

That is not to mention their perpetual infringements on freedoms of expression during their rule. For example,  Michael Nabil Sanad, an Egyptian political activist and blogger,  was arrested three times between November 2010 and March 2011, the last of which resulted in a verdict of three years imprisonment on charges of “insulting the military” (Sanad, 2011). A similar story is that of Asmaa Mahfouz, an Egyptian blogger and political activist who is one of the founders of April 6 Youth Movement. She is accredited to be one of the youth who sparked the revolution through her online contributions and was placed at number 381 on Arabian Business’ list of the World’s 500 Most Influential Arabs. Asmaa was arrested later in 2011 with charges of defaming the Egyptian military rulers by calling them a “council of dogs”. On October 30th 2011, Alaa Abdel Fattah, another Egyptian blogger and software developer, was arrested on charges of inciting violence against the military during the October 9 Maspero demonstrations. After thousands of protesters took to the streets in Cairo and Alexandria and after various international appeals for his release, the public prosecutor office ordered his release on the 25th of December, yet he remained subject to a travel ban (Egypt Independent, 2011).

Thus it seems clear that Egypt under the SCAF was in an awful state when it came to human rights. Now, I must stress my desire for a transition period that prioritize a proper restorative justice program, rewriting the constitution and saving the economy. It remains my humble opinion that only a secular transition government will be capable of achieving these objectives. I will end on the optimistic vision that reassures Egyptians that  the Armed Forces have learnt their lesson the hard way and know better than to re=enter the political scene of Egypt at the moment. Regardless of the consequence, let us pray for Egypt and its future.

Works Cited

CNN. Egyptian general admits ‘virginity checks’ conducted on protesters. 31 May 2011. 1 July 2013. <http://edition.cnn.com/2011/WORLD/meast/05/31/egypt.virginity.tests/&gt;.

Independent, Egypt. Out of sight, but not out of mind: Mohamed Mahmoud remembered. 19 Novemeber 2012. 1 July 2013. .

Murphy, Dan. Virginity tests: Misogyny and intimidation in Egypt. 1 June 2011. 1 July 2013 . <http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Backchannels/2011/0601/Virginity-tests-Misogyny-and-intimidation-in-Egypt&gt;.

Sanad, M. N. (2011, 3 8 ). The army and the people wasn’t ever one hand. Retrieved from Maikel Nabil : http://www.maikelnabil.com/2011/03/army-and-people-wasnt-ever-one-hand.htm

Aside

almost there

On my way back from Tahrir where literally hundreds of thousands of people are protesting Morsi. It was incredible. People were very coperative despite the heat and the sun. I was delighted to know that this scene is replicated throughout the country. Thank you for eveeyone who took to the streets to show the MB how we feel.
Obviously optimistic and euphoric, the end is near!