Inventing a country
The last few days have been dominated by news from Cairo. The beard-trimmers I saw on sale everywhere in the city two weeks ago have been brought out with a vengeance, and the army is back in the saddle. I am very struck by the stark contrast of views between the western press, long on cautions about the undermining of the democratic process, and the sheer exhilaration of every Egyptian I know. One dear friend, almost 80 years old, e-mailed me breathlessly from Cairo, after several days out in the streets:“The atmosphere was one of a massive carnival. The chanting for the PM and the Muslim Brotherhood, with its divisive philosophy, to clear off - and for a democracy to be institutionalised that reflected the country's true nature of equality between citizens regardless of religion or sex, and for social justice, went on almost non-stop. In some places there was even dancing. I guess we only needed a samba band. And Wow, when the news got out that the army had arrested the President ...”
I don’t know the answer (no one, if they’re honest, does), but I am suspicious of the easy caution which western commentators trot out, and which I sometimes hear myself beginning to formulate too. Certainly a military coup is a grave step; but intractable problems demand radical answers. A democratically elected government that understands the mechanics of the ballot box, but not the ethics of pluralism, and restructures the state and constitution for its own long-term accommodation, is not a normal government. Answerable to a shadowymurshid, Mursi's was not the democratic, unifying government that Egypt so desperately needed and needs.
General al-Sisi is a religious conservative, appointed by Morsi. Many Egyptians I have spoken to in the last few days believe that he has led the army in a coup that is not the heavy-handed intervention of two years ago, but a real attempt to rebalance an infant political system thrown wildly out of kilter by anti-pluralist majoritarians. The army's own record of course is far from democratic either, but it has been welcomed by the pluralists. We shall see.
Oddly, I find myself thinking of England in 1648, after its second Civil War, when the army saved the revolution with an equally brusque and unconstitutional intervention, seizing Westminster and purging parliament to prevent negotiations with the King. Howard Brenton has recently written a play about this short period, called 55 Days, in the course of which Oliver Cromwell says ““We are inventing a country. We are in an unknown region, floating on nothing, trying to think thoughts never thought before. We are in mid-air, Heaven above us, Hell beneath.” Cromwell of course went on to do what Mursi did, and fixed the constitution in his own image; but let's not underestimate the scale of the challenge, or too readily doubt the integrity of those taking it up.
Meanwhile, this film clip of the crowds in central Cairo is very inspiring – seen from the sky, floating on nothing, with everything beneath. I think it might be seemly to be reticent in our criticism of those who are inventing a country.
This blog was first published on Mercurius Maghrebensis in July, 2013.
Don't drive in Ethiopia
Being left alone with the car in Rabat (as I usually am when my wife goes to England for a fortnight in June) my mind turns easily to death on the roads. I enjoy halving my journey time into the centreville from Souissi, and nipping yellow-plated through the Mechouar; but the sheer self-centred insouciance and lethal anarchy of the driving is not good for my blood-pressure. Nonetheless Rabat traffic is often bruising but seldom fatal; the same cannot be said of the country’s road system more generally. 28.3 of every 100,000 Moroccans die in road accidents each year. This is a pretty horrible figure, but behind Egypt (42), Libya (40.5), Iraq (38.1), the UAE (37.1), Sudan (34.7), Tunisia (34.5) and Jordan (34), and shoulder to shoulder with Yemen (29.3), Saudi Arabia (29.0) and Lebanon (28.5). The world average is 20.8 and Britain 3.6, so there is certainly a great deal of room for improvement. Egypt is a premier league scorer in the road death league, beaten across the entire world only by the Cook Islands and Eritrea for the proportion of road deaths to population.
For Morocco this means between 10,000 and 11,000 deaths on the roads each year. But the statistical table has a second column which shows the number of deaths per 100,000 vehicles, and here the results are very different. In this second table Morocco earns a figure of 398.6, which means a death for every 250 vehicles. Egypt with its much higher raw score for deaths by population, scores 188.4 – or a dead Egyptian for every 530 cars. Egyptians, in other words kill many more people when driving, but even so, many more Egyptians drive safely than Moroccans. In fact Egyptians drive more than twice as safely as Moroccans. Other high scorers in the raw death column which have a greater majority of safe drivers are Jordan (a body for every 426 cars). Libya, where driving is terrible (believe me) and whose raw death rate is up with Egypt at 40.5 per 100,000 people, nonetheless actually kills only one of its own for every 718 vehicles on the road. Amongst major-league Arab countries, the top scorer is Iraq, with a death for every 132 cars on the road (having spent two years driving in Baghdad in the late 1980s, this doesn’t enormously surprise me).
But all these pale to insignificance when set beside African countries. Of the top ten only one, Bangladesh, is outside Africa. Otherwise, this is how many vehicles on the roads of each country it takes to kill one fellow-citizen: 8.6 in Ethiopia; 9.1 in Liberia; 10.6 in Niger; 14.1 in Mauretania; 15.4 in the Congo; 17.5 in Chad … and so on. Beside this Morocco’s 250 is almost respectable until you reflect that the world average figure is one death per 1071.8 cars; and in Britain it is one death per 14,285.7.
What is at the bottom of this strange and bloody contrast? It must, I suppose, be the number of cars. Egypt may kill a lot of people on its roads, but there are huge numbers of cars, so that the hecatombs are divided across many, many more vehicles. Ethiopia, I take it, has relatively few cars on its roads, so those few have to be very, very busy (almost purposeful) to keep the raw death rate so high. Libya is interesting: a fairly high proportion, relatively, of Libyans die on the roads, but there are so many cars relative to the population that most of them remain innocent of bloodshed. And Morocco … well, apart from Sudan, Yemen and Iraq, Morocco is the MENA country with the deadliest vehicles on the road. World Bank figures show that 46% of all fatalities globally are from the most vulnerable group - pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists. In Rabat I am constantly reminded of this by close encounters at night with unlit mopeds; and by the dreadful sight, all too common, of a male motorcyclist wearing a helmet while his child passengers are bare-headed.
This is pretty depressing stuff, and passes through my mind each time I am overtaken by a well-heeled, super-groomed woman driving a 4x4 with her telephone pressed to her ear and her hand-mirror positioned to give her a good view of her nose. But every now and then something happens to restore my faith in human nature. This afternoon I left my car on a timed ticket, and was 40 minutes late picking it up. One of those ominous red penalty stickers had been slapped onto my windscreen. “40 dirhams,” said the parking attendant with a sympathetic grin, “but if you don’t pay till tomorrow the penalty will cover your whole day’s parking too.” I decided to pay now, and we phoned the sabotier, who appeared five minutes later. “Bonjour m’sieur, ça fait 40 dirhams.” I paid, cheerfully enough. “You know,” he said, “if you hadn’t paid till tomorrow, the ticket would have paid your whole day’s parking, too.” Thank you, but tomorrow’s Saturday, and I won’t be in the office. “Well, I’m very sorry to be doing this.” Don’t worry, I said, it’s my fault. “It gives me no pleasure. Would you like a receipt?” I didn’t think so, and for a moment he looked quite hurt: “I’m not allowed to take money without issuing a receipt.” So he wrote a receipt which I took, and we shook hands and said goodbye. My blood pressure was resolutely normal, and I actually felt more cheerful, more at one with the world after this transaction than I had before it. I was reflecting on the very different charms of London and Rabat parking wardens, when the parking attendant, unshaven and wearing a blue cotton jacket over his vest, sidled up and said, “Well you don’t need to do that again. Just leave the driver’s window open half an inch and I’ll use this stick” – he flourished a long thin cleft stick – “to pop in the tail end of unused tickets, eh?”
Driving home I thought of a story I read three years or so ago in theEvening Standard. Boris Johnson, London’s mayor, had been in Marrakech on holiday, and had been in a taxi accident. The two drivers leapt out, abusing each other and throwing fists. A policeman appeared, held them apart, calmed them down and reproved them in avuncular fashion. Boris watched in amazement as the policeman gestured imperatively for them to make up, and rather sulkily they kissed each other. That, he ended by writing, is a little lesson for London’s traffic police: London drivers should be obliged to kiss and make up.
Talking of the police, one recent development here in Rabat has been the appearance of radically new transport arrangements for the cops. There has been an issue of very natty white golf-carts, in which they shoot around the town centre, with an air that is definitely more fun and accessible than squad cars and White Marias. And last week I saw (I had to rub my eyes to be sure) a pair of coppers on smart white bikes riding down Avenue des Zaers. They were wearing uniform cycle helmets, though like all cyclists they had to cope with the Potemkin cycle-lanes in Zaers, overlaid on the outside lane of the road itself with no adjustment to the road lanes at all. Ride carefully.
This blog was first published on Mercurius Maghrebensis in July, 2013.
Cairo this June
Cairo, where I have just spent a few days, grows much shabbier, the pavements prolapsing, the road-surfaces ridging into lethal berms at junctions; walls are covered with posters and stencilled protests and in memoriams; traffic is worse than ever, reaching in many parts of town an almost terminal constipation. Power cuts are becoming common, and water supply erratic. A friend of mine who has lived there for 60 years speaks of his home as Zamalek El Balad. And yet, for all that, it is a pleasure to be back in Cairo’s slightly sticky heat and to listen to the cacaphony of political debate, often vacuous but always vigorous. Some sort of crisis is brewing with growing rancour between an opposition that seems finally to be achieving a kind of, if not unity, then at least clotting-power, under the inelegant moniker of Tamarod; and an increasingly high-handed president who many sane, if fevered, middle-class Egyptians seem to think is plotting Armageddon. There is much talk of June 30th as a day of action, allegedly huge petitions and a great deal of fly-posting. The anti-Morsi posters seem in the town centre to outnumber the pro, though I doubt this has great psephological significance
I was tempted to read more, as I walked one evening around Clot Bey and the Ezbekieh Gardens (gardens no longer), into the fact that there are vast numbers of electric beard-trimmers on sale. I must have seen hundreds, laid out on street stalls, mostly of industrial quality. Could Egypt’s liberals be tooling up to deprive their salafi compatriots of the pious vegetation on their chins? I recall the story of the salafi amir who reportedly, soon after the revolution, launched a campaign called ’80 Million Beards,’ only to be reminded that some 50% of Egypt’s population are constitutionally ill-equipped for beard-growing.
The story of the week, though, is the occupation of the Ministry of Culture in Zamalek by intellectuals and artists, frothing with outrage at Alaa Abdel Aziz, the ikhwanji Minister of Culture, who has dismissed the heads of all the state cultural agencies from GEBO to the Opera and the National Library. Resignations followed, in protest – but also perhaps in recognition of the writing on the wall. Now this kind of purge does on the face of it seem high-handed and rather unattractive, but it also raises some interesting questions about state control of culture, and about the assumed virtues of the functionaries who have, doubtless to their own and their friends’ distress, been pensioned off. Ministries of Culture are an oddly bossy notion, reminiscent of Babar’s Celesteville, and given the very specific understanding of the nature of culture by the Ikhwan, it never seemed very likely that they’d leave Mubarak’s placemen in their places. The outrage is largely amour propreand puffery, I suspect.
So anyway, I was delighted to find an article rather along these lines in this week’s Ahram Weekly, by Youssef Rakha. It’s called The parable of the riots and the intellectual, and tells the story of a figure called just ‘Intellectual,’ in bunyanesque fashion, whose course through revolution and its aftermath is based, essentially, on vanity, self-aggrandisement and the avoidance of personal risk. “Intellectual,” a composite perhaps of some of the partying cultural panjandrums occupying the Ministry, “saw both power-seeking and nutjob religiosity socially, as Backwardness: bad; or he saw them politically as Resistance to the World Order which supported Israel and the old rulers: good. But whether from within or outside the government – and Intellectual had a foot in each space – he did very little to see, confront or, Allah forbid, imagine changing society: culture, reality, the world as it becomes, were of no interest to him so long as his own Culture was happening, however isolated it must remain from the vast majority of people.”
Now, Rakha goes on, when the pass has been sold and the battlefield evacuated, Intellectual decides to occupy the office of the newly appointed minister. There is good reason to be alarmed, though it is not new and has evidently required the purging of cronies in order to get Intellectual’s blood up. “But what about the fact that Culture within the State has always succumbed to religious pressure anyway, that nothing of any importance has come out of the Ministry in recent memory, that the ministry has always been corrupt and ineffectual? And since the cabinet of which the new minister is part was appointed by the new rulers, what on earth does Intellectual expect?” He concludes, “Psychosis is defined as a loss of contact with external reality. And where external reality consists of a dysfunctional government, nutjob fundamentalism and purposeless rioting … will anyone but a complete psycho think to show concern for the future of ballet?”
This is a vital question across much of the region: what is culture for, and who owns it? Ballet is a Good Thing, of course, and to be cherished; but it has a wonderful irrelevance to the great cultural questions of 2013. Under Nasser there was a genuine and often successful, if uncomfortably centralized, effort to bring culture to the masses across the country; as entropy eroded the 1952 Revolution, culture became both stiflingly bureaucratised and very corrupt, just as it became arrogated to the regime and its pursuit of international celebrity endorsement, glitz and reflected starshine. This isn’t, though many would like it to be, the culture of the majority of Egyptians which (as Intellectual would perhaps shudder to admit) is a mite closer to Mr Abdel Aziz’s conservative, unambitious and piety-based kitsch.
Between Celesteville culture and cosy kitsch there is, though, a third way. It’s not comfortable and it’s often not beautiful but it certainly is expressive. It gets spray-painted and stencilled on walls, sung in cafes and at open-air rallies. It is the raucous, disrespectful, grating, energetic and exciting art that has emerged since the Revolution, from its youth. One very striking thing, returning to Cairo after several months away, is that quite a lot of the street-art is disappearing (though I am told it is being carefully recorded). And who is disappearing it? Close to where I have been staying in Zamalek is the Faculty of Fine Art. When I was last in Cairo, its outside walls were covered in swaggering political murals, many of startlingly high quality. They have all gone, covered over by officially sanctioned and spectacularly dull mosaic panels.
Meanwhile back at the ministry, the party continues. I do rather hope that it wasn’t Intellectual who had the graffiti covered in mosaics. Either way, the stakes are not very high at Celesteville’s Palace of Art and Culture, when down the road in Babar’s palace Rataxes holds court, and the electric razors are out.
This blog was first published on Mercurius Maghrebensis in June, 2013.