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Egypt Diary

A week in Egypt reveals the beauty of its history and the complexity of the history in the making - political changes following the revolutionary events of January 2011. Progressives, intellectuals and everyone who participated in the January revolution that saw the back of Hosni Mubarak are, however, bracing for a winter of discontent as the military still calls the shots in the country.

COMMENTARY

Egypt Diary

Ritu Menon

to be in for a long haul, the US is far from unhappy with that, and there is no real organised political opposition, apart from the Muslim Brotherhood. But the Americans have said they can comprise no more than

A week in Egypt reveals the beauty of its history and the complexity of the history in the making – political changes following the revolutionary events of January 2011. Progressives, intellectuals and everyone who participated in the January revolution that saw the back of Hosni Mubarak are, however, bracing for a winter of discontent as the military still calls the shots in the country.

Ritu Menon (ritumenon1@gmail.com) is a feminist publisher and writer based in Delhi who visited Egypt in October.

Economic & Political Weekly

EPW
december 10, 2011

Friday, 21 October

T
ahrir. Now an iconic space, almost as hallowed as the Cairo Museum that is situated at one end of the square or, rather, circle. That first evening, on the way to Zamalek from the airport, we had to cross it, of course, but would have gone there anyway to see it for ourselves. Evening crowds, families, young men, lots of them, out at day’s end, older men sitting with their hookahs, playing dice, kibitzing. Women with children strolling, hawkers hawking, balloons dotting the sky. In one corner a largish knot of people listening to an impromptu speech, but we cannot make out what it is about, and Hamad, Ahdaf’s driver, does not know e ither. Not a planned meeting, it seems, unlike the demonstration outside the Arab League offices where people are protesting against Bashar Assad.

Zamalek, a little island of leafy green streets, fashionable shops, the posh oasis in a city of 18 million. Omar or Robbie, Ahdaf’s son, dismissively refers to its rich denizens as fulouls – the irrelevant ones. The counterrevolutionaries. Robbie, a filmmaker, was an active participant in the January 2011 revolutionary, youth-led protests in Tahrir, and now works in an alternative media collective that produces material to counter the misinformation put out by the state. And the military. Misinformation like the deliberate lies around the shooting of Copts in Maspero, in old Cairo, on 9 October. Unofficial video footage that Robbie and his friends managed to get hold of established that the military opened fire first on a peaceful demonstration – for which the protestors had permission – and not that they were attacked by an unarmed crowd. Deaths resulted. Anger is growing. The general impression is that the military is creating the circumstances which will allow them to claim a state of chaos and declare a postponement of the elections due to begin on 28 November 2011.

No, things are far from positive in this Arab Autumn in Cairo as far as the political situation is concerned. The military appears

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30% of an elected government.

So, is this the outcome of Mubarak’s exit? Did the revolutionaries simply do the military’s job for it – oust Mubarak so that they could step in without a coup? They were never too happy with Mubarak, anyway, especially after his attempts at sidelining the military in favour of the police, and replacing senior military officers as ministers with business cronies, thus d oing them out of lucrative sinecures.

Some of this will be part of the writer Ahdaf Soueif’s personal/political memoir of the heady 18 days in January-February 2011 that she was writing, called Cairo: My City, Our Revolution, due for publication on 19 January 2012, marking the first anniversary of the revolution. That morning, news of Muammar Gaddafi’s assassination had simultaneously closed and opened a chapter in next-door Libya’s eight-month long bloody revolution.

Ahdaf decided we needed to put all this political stuff out of our minds for the moment and spend our first evening in Cairo in the historic Islamic part of the city. Well, it took us a good long while to get there because we were stuck in the mother of all traffic jams which continued for kilometres! We just crept along, inch by inch, as pedestrians hurried past, but for sheer liveliness of street life it was hard to beat. Pavement vendors, food and bric-abrac, hardware, all manner of kitsch, like any market square in old cities, bustling with busyness. When we got to the old Islamic quarter eventually, it was positively quiet by comparison. And lovely old mosques and residences restored with sensitivity, wide streets, very clean – and, compared to Chandni Chowk, very orderly. The same streets divided by wares, gold, silver, textiles, pottery, spices, etc, but walking was a pleasure, not an obstacle race. And the jaalis on buildings, both wooden and stone were simply beautiful.

Saturday, 22 October

The following day, after a fascinating visit to the Cairo Museum and Coptic Cairo, we dined with Ahdaf who had invited her

COMMENTARY

sister, Laila Soueif, a professor of mathematics at Cairo University, her aunt, Lulie, an oncologist in Alexandria, and her brother, Ala, an IT professional, and as they were all actively involved in the January revolution, naturally dinner table conversation was dominated by what is in store now, politically, with the elections around the corner. Laila, a founder member of the Kefaya Movement, regaled us with stories of the ineptitude of the political parties scrambling to nominate candidates; wary of alliances with other parties but unable to make it on their own; united in wanting the military out but fumbling and floundering on strategy and direction. So much so that none of the three presidential hopefuls – including El Baradei and Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh of the Muslim Brotherhood – wanted to run as part of a political group – they were standing as independent candidates. Even as we spoke and listened, Ahdaf’s brother was presenting a restructuring plan for the bureaucracy to the ministry of the interior in order to bring about the changes that the collapse of the Mubarak regime was supposed to accomplish. The mood that evening vacillated between pessimism and a kind of resigned compromise, which acknowledged the glaring shortcomings and reversals of the past two months, but believed in getting the political process going through the elections, however flawed. And in the meantime, expose, expose, expose the government through all the media means available to them.

It is such a complicated political context that it could either revert to business as usual or herald another round of resistance and protest – but this time with the anticipation of violence by the state.

It was strangely exhilarating – but also a little disquieting – this juxtaposition of an extraordinary ancient culture with an equally extraordinary contemporary political reality.

Sunday, 23 October

Ahdaf arrived at 10:00 am and we set off for Giza and the Pyramids. Five thousand years ago, Pharaonic Egypt, spanned three centuries and thirty dynasties, divided into three kingdoms – old, middle and new. Ancient Memphis became the capital of a unified Upper and Lower Egypt at the point where the Nile Delta met the valley. The year was 3100 BC, and Memphis remained the capital till the seat of power shifted to Thebes (now Luxor) at the time of the New Kingdom. Pharaohs and Pyramids go together but even so, the number of them scattered over Memphis is pretty staggering. Over a hundred, easily, with more being discovered every few years.

Ahdaf’s mother had a fruit garden a little beyond the Pyramids in a village off the road to Mansouraiah; the term “village” is a bit misleading as the entire road is urban, built up right till the turnoff to the villages, a cluster of modest dwellings, all pakka, some even two or three storeys high. Ahdaf’s mother’s house is situated in about two acres of garden, mostly date palm, lemon and mango trees, and a vine trellis over the courtyard. Palm trees in the courtyard, as

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december 10, 2011 vol xlvi no 50

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well, their fronds a slatted umbrella filtering the sunlight. An air of cool quietude filled our being as we sat in the courtyard eating fresh dates, succulent and honeysweet. On the roof, the red and gold fruit was ripening or drying, but if you have not tasted fresh dates you have not really eaten dates. We left the village and made our way to a friend of Ahdaf’s farm, near Dahshour, about 30 kms away.

The light was slowly fading as we arrived at Sherif’s farm, his little piece of heaven in the countryside, a refuge from “the hell that Cairo has become”. Sherif is a one-man publisher, publishing books that he wants to, surviving on sales from just a couple of bookshops. Distribution is a “disaster” in Egypt, he said (oh, familiar strains) and it is difficult for the books to get around, but he is obviously a man of some means or he could not have remained in business.

Darkness falls quite early these days, and as we talked, the birdsong ceased and the sky slowly filled with stars. The conversation turned – as it so often did when we were with Egyptians – to the elections and what they portend. Sherif is an idealist. Was at Tahrir every day during the January-February revolution, helped with money and other resources, and is passionate in his denunciation of SCAF – the Supreme Council of Armed Forces. It is a manipulative institution which will not relinquish power easily, he believes, will strong-arm the Muslim Brotherhood into a compromise alliance which will legitimise its authority and enable it to retain control of the country. The rest of the opposition – liberals, communists and others – he thinks are ineffective. Once installed, the government would be invulnerable because it would have been democratically elected, and the transformation that the revolution worked for, would be neutralised – or abandoned. So, what is your strategy, asks Ahdaf, what should be the next step in the process? More protests, he says, continue the resistance and keep up the pressure till the SCAF is dismantled and the army returned to the barracks. There will be bloodshed this time, counters Ahdaf. Sherif agrees, but believes there will be blood on the streets anyway, should elections be held, but it will not be spilled in

Economic Political Weekly

EPW
december 10, 2011

vain. His pessimism is shared by many, especially as alliances are being made and unmade every day. The Democratic Alliance for Egypt, which initially had more than 34 parties across the political spectrum and was the single largest bloc to contest the elections, had been reduced to 10 – even the newly formed Islamist parties consisting mainly of the Salafists, had pulled out. Amr Hamzawy, professor of political science and a founder of the Freedom Egypt party maintains that one of the weaknesses of the Egyptian political elite is “its inability to work collectively, manifested by the election and political alliances and struggle among parties over candidates’ lists”. Unlike Tunisia, where power was transferred to a civilian authority, in Egypt authority passed to SCAF; moreover, many former members of the dissolved National Democratic Party are being fielded as candidates in the parliamentary elections, so that many seats might well be won by remnants of the Mubarak regime!

Meanwhile, the bureaucracy and governance are on hold, the economy is sluggish, and tourism has been hit badly. And the one-word cause of it all is: Revolution.

Monday, 24 October

At dinner that evening, Ahdaf had invited her brother and sister-in-law, Sohair, as well as the writer, Radwa Ashour and her son, Tamim Barghouti, a poet, and a few people from the British Council. The restaurant was the Charmerie in Zamalek, a lively Egyptian eatery with excellent food and atmosphere, even if a bit noisy! It was lovely to meet Radwa and Tamim again, and we drank to Radwa’s latest award – the Nord Sud Foundation in Pescara had recognised her latest novel on the Palestine naqba, the only one of her novels to be published in Italian.

Tamim (who cannot vote in the forthcoming elections because he has not yet got Egyptian citizenship, his father being Palestinian) is back in Cairo, having resigned his teaching job at George Washington University. Like many other young Egyptians, he is immersed in the antimilitary-SCAF resistance, his long poem on Tahrir has been recited and broadcast repeatedly on television so that he is a minor celebrity, not only as a resistance poet but as a rising star of classical Arabic poetry. This evening, though, it was his analysis of the equation between the Muslim Brotherhood and the military that was most incisive. Within the Brotherhood there is rebellion in the ranks, with younger members resenting the authoritarianism of the elders and their stranglehold on the organisation. (In Tunisia, apparently, the opposite prevails, with older members of Ennahada much more progressive than their younger conservative colleagues.)

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Desperate to keep the unity, the leadership will agree to any compromise with the majority party in the elections – as low as 20% of the seats, according to Tamim – so that they retain their control over their flock.

In another conversation around the table, the discussion centred on the People’s TV channel that media activists, intellectuals and the revolutionary youth plan to set up as an alternative news and information medium. To be publicly subscribed by the sale of shares ranging from £E 10 to a maximum of £E 30 per share. Whether and when they will get permission to do so is a moot question as all media, print and broadcast, are state-owned.

Thursday, 27 October

Back in Cairo after a visit to Karnak, Luxor and the Valley of the Kings we were pulled up short by the news that Ahdaf’s nephew, Alaa, Laila’s son, had been summoned to the Military Court to be interrogated for some offence he was supposed to have committed at a demonstration the previous week against the military firing and killing of 28 Coptic Christians in Maspero. Alaa was accused of “inciting violence” through his blogs and “damaging military property”. Of course, he was also part of the campaign spearheaded by his sister, Mona, “No to Military Trials” which resisted the interrogation and trial of civilians by a military court. He was to be prosecuted on 30 October, a Sunday, but that Friday, 28 October, there would be a rally in his support at Tahrir, to coincide with a planned protest against the torture and death in custody of a poor labourer picked up on a drug-related charge. Increasingly, it seemed to be SCAF that was guilty of criminal action against ordinary citizens, but who would try them?

We could not participate in that demonstration because we were in Alexandria – but, there, too, people were out on the streets, and at the prestigious Bibliotheca Alexandrina the entire staff was on strike, demanding the resignation of the director, who was Suzanne Mubarak’s “puppet”. They had managed to shut down the library but showed up every day and sloganeered and declaimed on the premises, accompanied by revolutionary songs composed

Economic Political Weekly

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december 10, 2011

during the 18 days between 25 January11 February 2011. We were quite shocked by the huge disparity in salaries that the strikers were protesting: £E 66,000 (or $11,000) per month to the director, but only £E 1,500 (or $200) to the librarian, and as little as £E 300 to the security staff. And at Cairo University, Radwa told me, a full professor’s salary is £E 6,000 (or $1,000) per month, but the vice chancellor (VC) earns close to a million. “Institutionalised robbery”, she said, because a new ruling apportioned a small percentage of the fee charged by every faculty in the university to each student – upwards of 3,00,000 – as the VC’s share! Mubarak’s scheme for buying loyalty.

We looked in vain for Durrell’s and Cavafy’s Alexandria (though we stayed at the Cecil, war-time base for Churchill and the British Secret Service, as well as favourite haunt of Somerset Maugham and E M Forster and Noel Coward), but realised that theirs had been a largely Orientalist fantasy superimposed on a colonial European project. Egyptian Alexandria has little to do with the effete Europeans of the Alexandria Quartet, or its imagined “natives” – although I suppose Cavafy’s romance with the city was real enough for him. Even the city’s few Greco-Roman ruins are slender pickings. We were disappointed, except for the sweep of the Corniche and the splendid vista it afforded of the Eastern Mediterranean. That was wonderful.

On 30 October Alaa was remanded to military custody, handcuffed and led into prison. He had refused to answer the prosecutor’s charges, saying that SCAF, as an accused itself for the killing of innocent civilians, could not turn interrogator. It had no locus standi. Fifteen days of detention, followed by another 15, up to a maximum of 45 days before his trial could commence. He is in his late twenties, expecting his first child in late November. His father is one of the most highly regarded human rights lawyers in Cairo, but Alaa’s decision to challenge the legitimacy of the charges against him had been a family consensus. The issue was larger than Alaa, they said, it was against military courts and they would mobilise against it with greater fervour. On Monday, 31 October, a rally of more than 3,000 people gathered at Tahrir,

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and 22 lawyers pledged support to Alaa, said they would appear on his behalf and ask for bail when his appeal was heard on 3 November. The court of the military prosecutor rejected his appeal and Alaa was handcuffed and imprisoned again.

Less than one week later, the interim government appointed by SCAF said it would impose a 22-article charter of “principles” that would be binding on the committee appointed to draft a new constitution. It would prohibit parliament from supervising the military budget, and would also declare it the “protector of constitutional legitimacy”. Moreover, under the new plan, the military would nominate 80 of the 100 members of the proposed constituent assembly – only 20 would be from among elected parliamentarians. Other provisions give the army the right to reject any constitutional article it disapproves of, and to dissolve the constituent assembly if it does not produce a document that the army approves of within six months. On 18 November, the Muslim Brotherhood came out in strength in Tahrir, ostensibly to pressurise the military into diluting the provisions of this charter, especially with regard to protecting constitutional legitimacy. They see this as the spectre of secularism disguised as safeguard. Liberals and revolutionaries kept away and the demonstration was largely peaceful. But the very next day, Saturday, 19 November, activists and others in the tens of thousands thronged the square to protest SCAF’s intentions and demand its immediate withdrawal from government. The full force of the police rained bullets and batons on them; to the more than 1,000 dead in the January-February struggle have been added another 35, with several hundred injured. And Alaa is still in jail.

Watching from the sidelines, one could not help thinking that the 18-day Egyptian Spring had morphed into what could be a very long winter of discontent.

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