By Mina Fayek
Three years ago, I joined the military to complete my compulsory service. According to Egyptian law men, after completing their studies, are obliged to serve in the military or police forces. Unless this compulsory service is served or you are exempted for medical or legal reasons, you lose your civil rights as a citizen and are put on trial.
There are different types of service. If you hold a university 'higher education' degree, you either serve three years as an officer with the same full privileges as enrolled officers, or as a conscript for one year. If you hold a high school degree, you serve for two years as a conscript; if you have a lower degree or no degree, you serve for three years as a conscript. I fell under the first category. So, luckily, I served for one year as conscript. However, this was not just any year, it was the year of the revolution!
“Aboud on The Border” (Aboud al el-Hudoud) is an Egyptian comedy movie that sheds light on the process of enrolment in compulsory service, with all of its sufferings. In the movie, Aboud was about to join the army after his graduation. But because he was overweight he was hoping to be exempted, which enraged his father who was a former military officer.
His father wanted him to join the military by hook or by crook. So he decided to do everything he could to delay Aboud’s medical examination, which would have determined if he was exempt or not. From sauntering, to refusing to take a taxi and finally, nagging the taxi driver, the father succeeded in his plan and poor unfit Aboud had to spend some time in the army performing exhausting exercises until the next examination date. The movie then displays a series of grievances and hardships many conscripts face in a very humorous way. I thought, prior to my enrolment, that they were exaggerating - until I joined up.
One of the famous slogans of the Egyptian army is: “The Armed Forces is the factory of men”, indicating that it emboldens and encourages members. This is one of the many nationalistic and religious slogans that meet the conscript newcomers and accompany them till the very end of their service, in an attempt supposedly to lift their morale.
Unlike Aboud, my colleague in service, Sabry, had no reason to get exempted. Sabry was in his early twenties, with a high school diploma. His father had passed away, and he had to look after his mother and sisters. Like the majority of Egypt’s conscripts, Sabry worked hard during his vacation. This vacation would usually last one week after every three consecutive weeks on duty.
After a preliminary short training period we arrived at the unit, and Sabry, who had joined a year before, was the first to welcome us. He and I became friends despite our differences. At one point, I asked him if he felt he had become “stronger and emboldened” after this experience in the military and the answer was “No, I became a coward and a liar”. Ironically, my friend Sabry who lives in a poor village in south Giza and works as a craftsman so that his family can get by, feels that his durable personality that has faced many life tragedies has been negatively affected by spending time in the “Factory of Men”. This comes as no surprise.
Another example; the doctor responsible for medical care inside the unit told me a story about a soldier who felt strong pain in his abdomen and went to him asking for medication. After checking, the doctor suspected that it might be his appendix and wanted to refer him to hospital straight away for further examination. To do that, as the law states, the doctor has to ask the officer in charge to take him to the nearest hospital. Surprisingly, the officer asked the doctor (who was also a conscript) to give the sick soldier a painkiller as he was too busy playing Playstation with his colleagues and didn’t have the time.
I’m not a doctor, but I do know that an exploding appendix can kill a man. Thankfully, this didn’t happen as the doctor was persistent and the officer finally ceded his Playstation tournament, and the soldier was saved. Of course, this is probably not the case in all army units, but it was shocking to see how some may recklessly be reluctant to perform their duty when it comes to human lives.
There are three conditions under which a conscript is allowed not to obey a senior rank’s orders. These are: giving up money, uniforms or honour (engaging in forced homosexual relations), in addition to verbal and physical assault. Other than that, conscripts are expected to show blind obedience to higher ranks, which include senior conscripts who joined the army days before.
In Egypt, laws might sound good, but do institutions abide by them? The answer is no most of the time, and the military is no exception. Despite the law, I myself witnessed people getting beaten and humiliated unlawfully. The sad thing is that most conscripts do not know their rights. All they do know is not to retaliate for their own good, even if they have valid legal reasons. I still remember being told “The young [in rank], can never hurt the major [one]”.
My service was at the time the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) was ruling the country after Mubarak’s downfall. After watching events from inside and outside the ruling institution, I had a different perspective, especially when it came to the atrocities committed under SCAF’s rule.
The world was shocked when they saw footage of the “Blue Bra Girl”. I was also shocked, yet after some thinking I understood the reasons behind such brutality and inhumanity. These soldiers who faced oppression and appalling conditions inside their units became oppressors themselves; releasing their rage that should have been directed at their superiors on people in vulnerable situations; the lady in the blue bra.
This finally gave me an understanding about what my friend Sabry told me; becoming a “coward and a liar”. It’s a chain of oppression that gradually dehumanises everyone.
Two months ago, El-Shorouk newspaper published statistics of the army and policemen who died in terrorist attacks over the past couple years. More than 400 were killed in these various attacks, and most of them were conscripts. According to the statistics, the largest number of killed soldiers was in Rafah, under Morsi’s rule, in August 2012. Fifteen soldiers were killed while breaking their fast during the month of Ramadan. After hearing the call to prayer, the soldiers rested their weapons and gathered to eat and this is when they were attacked. Of course the attack is vile and despicable, and no words can actually describe how awful it is. That said, I believe part of the responsibility falls on the leaders shoulders who did not train their soldiers to secure the place they were gathered to eat at. Has any leader been held accountable for not assuring the competency and readiness of the poor soldiers? I highly doubt it.
After finishing my service I visited a renowned Egyptian rights group and asked if there was a programme for following up on the conditions of soldiers and the whole recruitment process. The answer was a no with a promise to put together a plan for this in the future.
Last week I stopped by a booth that sells snacks called “Batates & Zalabya” and bought some Zalabya. For someone who served in the military, it was easy to figure out that these booths are owned by the army. Given their locations; just a few meters away from army units and on the same sidewalk. Civilians couldn’t dream of building that close to army units. Another give away is the way the workers are shaved and uniformed. These workers are army conscripts who are supposedly serving their country. Instead, they are being deployed as the workforce in military economic projects. This does not only take place in these booths, but also in gas stations, supermarkets, factories, clubs... etc. These conscripts work hard for a pittance of a salary, which is usually EGP 250 (USD 35) per month, and the army doesn’t pay any taxes on its commercial activities. Nevertheless, I did enjoy the Zalabya.
Due to lack of transparency, we don’t have accurate numbers about Egypt’s army manpower. The numbers according to different sources vary from 750 thousand to 1.5 million. This tells us how the issue of conscription affects hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Egyptian families and should be addressed among Egypt’s other social and economic problems.
While it is true that a civilian oversight on Egypt’s military might seem far from being attained for now, so is every other demand of the revolution. If 'human dignity' is one of the 25 January 2011 goals, then every political party and rights group should demand it for everyone, including Egypt’s soldiers who patriotically serve the country, putting their own lives on the line despite their ongoing ordeal.
By Aya Chebbi
The world has been applauding Tunisia for its new progressive constitution and 'new consensus' caretaker government of technocrats who are administrating the country until the elections later this year. However, this celebration seems confined to the leadership, members of the National Constituent Assembly, political parties and their allies. In fact, the unemployed, the poor, the students and the workers, among other Tunisian citizens, are yet to celebrate.
Aya Chebbi. All rights reserved.
After changing the government five times during the past three years, this current administration has been the most praised for its apparent stability. Nevertheless, if we have a closer look at Tunisia’s internal issues - besides the pictures of the Tunisian Prime Minister shaking hands with Barack Obama - we will find files of terrorism, corruption, accountability, human rights violations and censorship that need to be addressed. In fact, abuses are continuing under the interim administration.
Instead of addressing these issues, the ministry of interior has decided that the most important issues to be addressed are those related to the accountability of criminals and legal cases related to events during the revolution. By accountability, unfortunately, the ministry doesn’t mean snipers, or the militia who killed over 300 people, or the police who injured over 700 people (left un-hospitalised) or even the former corrupt leaders who stole the state's wealth, but accountability applies only to the young revolutionaries who dreamt of social change through their social movement... The ministry has arrested more than twenty young people (mostly from Menzal Bouzayen) accused of burning police stations back in 2011.
The flow of these ironic events and abusive practices, similar to the old practices of Ben Ali's police force, started on April 12 when a military court ordered the release of five ousted security officials who served under the former regime. Ali Syriati, former head of the president’s security service, and Rafik Haj Kacem, who served as Minister of Interior from 2004 to 2011 are among the officials who were released.
Meanwhile, thirty-one year old blogger and activist, Azyz Amami, started a campaign called “I Too Burned a Police Station” to defend demonstrators arrested and facing criminal charges for burning police stations in protests during the 2011 revolution. Amamy spoke on TV Ettounsiya in an interview on the talk show Labes accusing the police of burning down their own offices to destroy archives and files - confirmed with videos and testimonies. He denounced the arrests against the youth, emphasising the absence of evidence. Azyz is also one of the founders of the independent citizen initiative #AlSajin52 (Prisoner52) for the reform of Tunisia's notorious Law 52/1992 , which states that a citizen found in possession of or having consumed narcotics may be sentenced for up to five years in prison and fined up to 3000 Dinars. He talked about the dilemma of the cannabis law, its consumption and police corruption.
Aya Chebbi. All rights reserved.
A few days after this show, on May 12, Azyz was arrested in La Goulette, a beachside neighbourhood of the capital, at between ten and eleven o’clock on Monday night, with his friend, photographer Sabri Ben Mlouka. They were purportedly pulled over and detained for the possession and consumption of marijuana. Amamy was beaten up by police officers, as confirmed by his father. Both young men may face one to five years in prison for drug use, under harsh penalties of a law passed more than twenty years ago. It’s important to note that out of roughly 25000 Tunisian prisoners, 8000 are accused of drug consumption. So, the same law Azyz has been mobilising against is now used against him to silence dissident voices.
The core issue is not marijuana. Azyz is one of the young bloggers associated with the uprising in 2011 and is widely known for his political activism, which imprisoned him under former President Ben Ali. He was psychologically and physically tortured while held in the ministry of interior. His reputation as an activist and dissident has earned him notoriety among the authorities, particularly his involvement in supporting the families of the martyrs and injured of the revolution as well as his advocacy for the young revolutionaries. Azyz has been blogging about state abuse and police aggression since 2008, and has worked on the Ammar 404 campaign to demand an end to state surveillance and censorship, along with some of Tunisia's most influential cyber-activists. He is frequently at the forefront of and is considered by many to be an icon of the revolution. Accordingly, he is now guilty of being a militant as the revolution has become a crime under the philosophy of the current leadership.
The core issue here, is to what extent the police have refrained from violent practices compatible with the second republic’s dreams and values? Fabricated charges of marijuana possession is a classic practice that has traditionally been used by Tunisian authorities both before and after the uprisings to disguise politically motivated arrests. The arrest of Azyz seems to have been planned and used as a pretext to silence an independent and singular voice.
"Down with the police state". Aya Chebbi. All rights reserved.
The arrest eventually caused an outcry in Tunis and Azyz's supporters have claimed that the arrest is politically motivated. Furthermore, social media has exploded with #FreeAzyz trending on Twitter and Facebook. A protest in support of Azyz took place on May 13 in downtown Tunis. Some of the slogans that were raised: “Ministry of Interior is Ministry of Terrorism”, “I Too Burned a Police Station”, “Loyalty to the blood of Martyrs”, “Free Azyz Free Sabri Free Bou Zayan”, "Down with the Police State"... “If the revolution is a crime, then charge all of us”...
Tunisia's transition has been seen as a model of compromise and democratic process for a region still in turmoil after the 2011 revolutions that promised new freedoms. However, today, Azyz, Sabri and others remain behind bars of injustice until they face trial on May 23, while Seriati and Bel Haj Kalem, accused of repressing protesters (the same youth in jail) during the uprising, are set free. So, is this what it is to compromise, to accept ex-Ben Ali officials back into politics and imprison the generation of change?
66th Memorial Day in Safed: Israeli youth in northern Galilee hold flags at attention near a memorial to casualties in the Israeli state's 1948 War of Independence. Demotix/Dave Bender. All rights reserved.
Israel Independence Day took place earlier this week. As usual my village celebrated with a short ceremony to end Israel Memorial Day followed by song and dance and a big village cookout. The festivities went on until about midnight with the younger crowd continuing into the night. I came home to find three new articles on openDemocracy and I couldn’t think of a better post-Independence Day activity than to sit down and compose a response to them.
My first response is to "New Media and the Changing Narrative on Palestine" by Victoria Brittain dated May 5, 2014. She divided her article into four parts and I will divide my response accordingly.
In the first part she noted “the great strategic importance placed on media by Israel’s government and its allies.” Though the author presented this as something new, I do not see anything particularly new in this either for Israelis or Arabs.
When I was in university and engaged in Israeli oriented activities on campus in the late 1960’s and early 70’s, I enjoyed reading the publications distributed by the Arab Student Association. I especially liked their characterisation of the Zionists as a well-coordinated highly financed and extremely effective propaganda machine. My response to such descriptions was, “Well, at least we have the other side fooled.” Ms. Brittain has carried on this tradition of painting the other side in heroic proportions and in truth, reading her comments was an enjoyable experience for me because it brought back fond memories of an earlier time. It has always seemed to me that the most successful example of presenting the case for Israel was not an academic study or any particularly clever propaganda strategy but a novel; Exodus by Leon Uris which sold tens of millions of copies and was made into a popular movie. Its effectiveness was best summarised by a whimsical comment made by a friend during a discussion about American Jewish opinion when he prefaced his remarks with, “Since the publication of the sixth book of Moses (Huh?) “Exodus” by Leon Uris…”
In the Second part of Brittain’s article, she discussed the intellectual guerrilla war carried on in the new media in the Anglophone world. Once again this type of thing is not something particularly new but rather an extension of the 'guerrilla warfare' that has been going on for decades. Back in the 50’s and 60’s the Arab petroleum-producing states spent large sums of money on financing Middle East Institutes in various prestigious universities and near the centres of political power. These regularly promoted the Arab line (there was no Palestinian narrative in those days) and could be counted on to recruit scholars and retired diplomats; the former by financing academic research and the latter by providing well-paying post retirement positions. In exchange these individuals possessing credentialed eminence, were ready to give credibility to the argument that support for Israel was detrimental to American national interests. One example of such an individual with whom I was personally acquainted was Harry Howard. I met him while doing research at the Middle East Institute in Washington D.C. and his opinions were quite predictable.
It has been a very long while since I was a graduate student involved in American academia but there are reports that Arab oil money still plays a leading role in the sort of intellectual guerrilla war that takes place on American campuses.
In the third part, Brittain focused on the Middle East coverage of the New York Times. Here she argues that the most prestigious institution in American journalism is shifting from an exclusively pro-Israeli to more of a pro-Palestinian editorial position. Though a content analysis of New York Times articles comparing past with current writings would have been appropriate, Brittain chooses to cite personnel changes and the appearance of what she deems significant opinion pieces to substantiate her claim. I will leave it for regular readers of the NYTimes to decide the accuracy of Brittain’s description. However, a study reviewing NYTimes content by a pro-Israel media monitoring group comes to a very different assessment of NYT bias than does Ms Brittain.
In the final part Brittain examines what she describes as “the rising tide of activism on Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions in US campuses and the role of the new media’s fearless and professional Palestinian writers in creating this new moment of global popular struggle”. I find Brittain’s applauding of the rise of the BDS movement on campus more than a little ironic. However, I have no doubt that when the dynamic of what is actually happening becomes clear in a few years, we will probably be told that the BDS movement was a clever part of Zionist conspiracy. While claiming a success or two, it has by and large been ineffective in generating the kind of anti-Israel boycott of Israeli products and businesses that was organised by the Arab League in the early 1950’s.
But there is something much more important happening. Brittain noted that Netanyahu has devoted much time and effort to raising the BDS into the limelight. Netanyahu realises that BDS is a gift to Israeli propaganda. If it didn’t exist he would probably invent it, and I suppose at some point he will be accused of doing so. The BDS movement in so many words calls for the destruction of the State of Israel. There are quite a few Israelis and liberal Jews who oppose the occupation of the West Bank, but only a small minority of them seek the destruction of the Jewish state. This should be clear through an examination of the comments made by Norman Finkelstein about the BDS movement. I think this is the reason why Netanyahu has become a major publicist for the BDS movement. We shall see how this plays itself out in the future, but I have a strong suspicion that Ms. Brittain will not be happy with the outcome.
Though Victoria Brittain’s article basically dealt with advertising strategy, she had very little to say about the product being promoted. This was handled in the two other articles, which, if examined closely, do not paint a very positive picture of that product.
Let us begin chronologically with "Palestinian Reconciliation and the Future of Israel-Palestinian Negotiations" by Omar Ali, dated May 3, 2014. After expressing doubts about the probability of the Hamas-Fatah peace agreement actually being put into effect, the author makes an interesting observation about what brought about the agreement. As he put it:
“…both groups signed the agreement in the midst of experiencing serious crises and have an interest in its implementation. For Hamas, various factors have intensified the Israeli siege of Gaza, such as the overthrow of the Morsi government in Egypt, the loss of its operations in Syria, reduction of Iranian support, the Saudi-led suspicion of everything related to the Muslim Brotherhood and especially the closure of the tunnels leading into Egypt. They simply need to find partners for existential reasons.”
“As for Fatah, its policy of negotiating with Israel has led to another dead-end especially with the US supporting the new Israeli demand for recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. Abbas’ leadership has suffered a serious decrease in popularity, and by signing this deal he stands to cement his place as the legitimate Palestinian national leader. So, unlike previous agreements which did not lead to any concrete steps because both parties viewed compromise as a loss in their power, both Hamas and Fatah stand to gain from this agreement.”
In short, both sides were under severe pressure to reconcile their differences. This flies in the face of much of what is written about ways to encourage the Palestinians and Israelis to reconcile their differences. What we hear are mostly calls for increased American pressure on Israel. Perhaps what the Hamas-Fatah agreement teaches is that increased pressure in the form of monetary losses should be applied to the Palestinians because such negative sanctions are the only things that seem to work toward reconciliation at least in the Palestinian internal political context.
Another observation by Omar Ali that may have relevance to Israeli Palestinian negotiations is:
"Another factor that gives cause for some optimism relates to the PLO’s official recognition of Hamas and Islamic Jihad as legitimate actors within the Palestinian political spectrum."
Could it also be said that a Hamas official recognition of Israel as a legitimate partner in negotiations might also lead to those negotiations having a more successful outcome? My guess is that Omar Ali might not agree with the implications I have drawn from his description of the Palestinian domestic reconciliation process.
Omar Ali sees the creation of a Palestinian state as the consequence of international action or alternatively some sort of Palestinian protest movement. This issue of strategies for creating a Palestinian state leads us to the third article "If Kerry fails, dissolution or collapse of the Palestinian Authority becomes inevitable" by Khalil Shikaki dated May 4, 2014.
Summarising the findings of a Palestinian civil society taskforce report published in February this year, the Director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah makes some pertinent observations with what seem to me to have significant implications. First he examines the failure of the Palestinian Authority to deliver on statehood. He identifies two elements to this failure; the inability to build state institutions and the failures on the diplomatic front. Other significant failures include failure to achieve reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah and the increasing economic collapse on the West Bank and Gaza.
Shikaki identifies two avenues of Palestinian reaction to the current situation. The first involves diplomatic warfare against the State of Israel which has already begun. The second is to end the existence of the Palestinian Authority and return the keys, so to speak, to the Israelis.
Shikaki acknowledges that the second action will have a profoundly negative impact on the Palestinian population.
"Similarly, PA disappearance will make life difficult for Palestinians. Indeed, it will dramatically affect Palestinian society in the West Bank. It goes without saying that the worst domestic consequences are likely to be triggered by the combined effect of the anticipated collapse of law and order and the disappearance of more than 3 billion dollars of current PA public spending.
This development will deliver a severe blow to the private sector and will lead to the gradual collapse of the justice system as well as service delivery in most sectors from health and education to communication, water, and energy. Poverty rates, crime and lawlessness are likely to increase dramatically. Armed militias are likely to take the law into their own hands, creating a greater potential for domestic and Palestinian-Israeli violence."
His suggestion to ameliorate the resulting catastrophic domestic Palestinian situation resulting from a PA dissolution is to form a Palestinian government in exile and have local community and economic institutions take charge of Palestinian society. One aspect of his proposals, not apparent to Shikaki, is that with relatively minor alterations it happens to be an excellent blueprint for the continuation of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank without the necessity of either officially annexing the territory or extending Israeli citizenship to the Palestinians living there. It is quite close to Menahem Begin’s idea that he proposed over three decades ago of keeping the territory but providing some level of autonomy to the various Palestinian communities.
Looking over the analyses and proposals of Shikaki and Ali, I cannot help but recall one of the serious disputes that divided the Zionist movement prior to World War I. In those days there was a great deal of debate within the Zionist movement about the goals of Zionism and how to achieve them. The discussion centred on the dispute between what were referred to as the Political Zionists versus the Practical Zionists. The Politicals insisted that authorisation in the form of a charter from the international community or the great powers had to be obtained before Jews could return to the homeland and begin building the new society. The Practicals argued that the way to an independent future for the Jewish people was to return the Jews to the homeland and build the economic, social and political institutions of a state which, once in place would be recognised and granted statehood by the international community and the great powers.
As history played itself out both avenues were followed simultaneously. The Zionists obtained international recognition through the Balfour Declaration, the League of Nations Mandate and the 1947 UN Partition Plan. At the same time the nuts and bolts of a state were created as the Zionists built agricultural villages, universities, industries and political institutions. Looking back we can see that both the Political Zionist and the Practical Zionist paths were absolutely essential to the successful achievement of Jewish statehood. Had either one been absent, there would have been no Jewish state.
The Palestinian national movement, since its early days under the leadership of the Mufti of Jerusalem, through Shukieri, Arafat and Abbas have restricted themselves to following the kind of political course of action advocated by the Political Zionists and have totally ignored the practical job of building state institutions. The one exception to this was the period when Salam Fayyad was Prime Minister.
The proposal to close down the Palestinian Authority as a stepping stone to statehood sounds totally illogical to Israeli ears. Perhaps the Palestinians know something that we Israelis don’t. However they are still looking for an independent state while the citizens of the State of Israel this week celebrated the state’s first day of its sixty-seventh year of independence.
Morsi supporters rally to highlight plight of political prisoners. Demotix/Dave Evans. All rights reserved.
In Egypt, things are not as they first appear on the surface. Take schooling for example; free education is a right supposedly guaranteed by the constitution for all Egyptians. Yet, you will find an overwhelming number of Egyptian students undertaking expensive private tuition to make up for the abysmal education they receive in state schools.
These pretences are not solely confined to the education sector. The Egyptian judiciary, often touted as an 'independent' body by the majority of Egyptian officials, recently hit the headlines for sentencing hundreds of individuals to death in what international human rights organisations have condemned as a sham trial. These ludicrous sentences were issued by the same judiciary that has seen fit to imprison thousands of innocent citizens, including activists and journalists, accusing them of committing the heinous crime of protesting whilst officers, accused of killing protesters, are acquitted of all charges. The most common phrase you hear about the police in Egypt is “the police is in the service of the people.” But it seems that the only services they provide come in the form of routine torture of detained citizens in every police station across Egypt.
The list of fakery goes on and is promoted, not only by Egyptian officials, but internationally as well. John Kerry, the US secretary of state stated that the army is restoring democracy in Egypt, “And the military did not take over, to the best of our judgement - so far. To run the country, there's a civilian government. In effect, they were restoring democracy” said Kerry in a television interview last August. The British minister of foreign affairs, William Hague, at least expressed concern over the closure of political space - (as if political space had ever existed in Egypt to begin with).
This paradox applies most fittingly to the coming presidential elections, where the former minister of defence and champion of last July’s coup, General Abdel Fatah El Sisi is competing against the leftist politician, Hamdeen Sabbahi, who also supported the coup that ousted the first elected civilian president of Egypt. With election day nearing, it is interesting to note the amount of attention being given by both local and international media outlets to the programmes of each candidate, analysing their chances, ideas, and campaigns, as if a genuine election were taking place.
Yet as with all the previous artifices, the word 'election' is devoid of any meaning in relation to Egypt’s current political context. This is not an election, it is a sham, a tool to provide the General with a deceptive aura of legitimisation. There is no point in spending any time following news regarding the events or the turnout for this so-called election, because the results are known to all. In fact, the results have been clear since last year's coup, which brought the General and his military establishment to power. Despite several failed endeavours to portray the interim government as civilian, by exploiting prominent civilian figures and using them as tokens, it became glaringly obvious that this cosmetic make over was nothing more than an attempt to make the coup palatable to the international community. The real power lay in the hands of the military who soon reinstated the oligarchs and handed back power to corrupt Mubarak-era figures.
Nothing will change in Egypt after the ascension of Sisi to power except that the puppet master working behind the scenes will now take centre stage. However, if there is one beneficial outcome from this theatrical electoral campaign, it is the fact that it has forced the General to reveal more about himself. From the various interviews and questions (despite avoiding live confrontational interviews and tricky questions), it is not hard to discern the nature and the style of governing employed by Sisi to rule Egypt, which he has been doing since the coup.
Like any third world General, deficient in vision and culture, Sisi will use the only thing he knows to rule Egypt…his gun. With no electoral programme or any clear vision about how to deal with the dire economic and political challenges facing the country, the General will use the security card both internally and externally. On the internal side, it is expected that the crackdown against the opposition, which extends from the Islamists to secular groups who initially supported the coup, will continue and that the so-called ‘war on terror’ will be used as a justification for the failure of the government to solve the core economic and political crises of Egypt.
With a growing and defiant Anti-Coup movement, and the absence of any meaningful political process, the instability in Egypt is expected to worsen. On the external level, the security card will be used to convince the Gulf monarchies to pour even more billions into Egypt to eradicate the Muslim Brotherhood whom the princes and kings feel threatened by.
The same card will be used by the General with the west, especially the US, to gain more financial and military support to counter the increasing insurgency and justify the heinous human rights violations being committed by the military regime in Egypt. The General and the military, to guarantee continual western support, may find themselves becoming more involved in external operations including involvement in Libya (Sisi himself claimed that NATO did not finish off the mission there) or in Gaza, where the media and Generals accuse the besieged strip of exporting terrorists and arms to Egypt. These operations, besides offering services to the west, will be utilised to solidify the picture of the "strong man" in the eyes of the Egyptian public, large sectors of whom have become increasingly despondent as they experienced the worsening conditions since the coup.
Those expecting any genuine change after the elections will be sorely disappointed. However the attempts to reproduce the Mubarak regime are not expected to succeed any time soon despite the massive financial and political investments made both internally or internationally. Instead, the real question everyone should be discussing is not who will win the next elections? Rather, it is how the situation in Egypt can possibly evolve under such a precarious regime? A question that so far, has no answer.
1.5 million people gather for a meeting of the AKP in Istanbul. Demotix/Aurore Belot. Some rights reserved.
It is not every day that one gets to witness the judiciary bowing out to the legislature. Not in a democratic country, to say the least. In Turkey, however, democracy works in strange ways, or better put, in ways that its Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan deems proper. The point could not have been made any clearer by the Prime Minister himself. In a speech given a few months back, Erdogan openly criticized the judiciary for presenting an “obstacle” in their [Justice and Development Party/AKP’s] path: “The legislature, the executive and the judiciary should pursue the people’s interest initially” he argued and added, “and then should consider the state’s interest.”
On 10 May 2014, the Turkish Prime Minister has shown that he is ready and willing to challenge the country’s judiciary, if need be. “Don’t get angry dear Prime Minister. What I am saying here is something nice, dear Prime Minister.” These were the words of the President of the Union of Turkish Bar Associations, Metin Feyzioglu, following a furious intervention on the part of Erdogan. In his address to the participants of the 146th anniversary of Turkey’s Council of State, Feyzioglu criticized the government for its failure to respond to the victims of an earthquake that had struck the province of Van in 2011. The 7.1 magnitude earthquake had killed over 600, and left thousands homeless, who, Feyzioglu argued, live in dire conditions in containers to this day. Feyzioglu asked the government to be more accountable for its actions and also demanded more prudence from political leaders as Turkey enters the final phase in its Presidential elections track (expected to take place on August 10, 2014). Seated right across the way in the front row next to the Turkish President Abdullah Gul, Erdogan subsequently went on the offensive. Breaking with the protocol, Erdogan rose to his feet, interrupted Feyzioglu’s speech and criticized him for not speaking the truth, making a political statement and lacking the proper manners. Then, he left the room.
It is also not every day that following such an embarrassing event, you see people, including the Mayor and the residents of the same earthquake-struck province come rushing to the Prime Minister’s defence. Turkey, however, is used to its Prime Minister Erdogan storming out of sessions and his bitter remarks gain him supporters. This, in fact, is characteristic of Erdogan. Recall Davos 2009, where he clashed with the Israeli President Shimon Peres. Following that event, Erdogan’s return to Turkey occasioned a festival-like atmosphere. Hundreds, if not thousands had gathered outside of Istanbul Ataturk Airport, waving Turkish and Palestinian flags, and waiting exuberantly many hours past midnight for their “Sultan” and “Conqueror” to return back home.
“If what is needed is a witch-hunt in this country, that we will also do” pronounced the Prime Minister at a meeting following the exchange at the Council of State reception. Witch-hunts, historically, have served as means to stifle dissent and to reconfigure power back to where it always belonged— with the King, the Son of God—in early modern Europe. It was always a way to eliminate the production and dissemination of information about the secular and the mystical, the natural and the supernatural. It instilled belief that the central authority was still strong and in charge. Today, it serves much the same purpose.
The making of a man of the people
“People’s Man. Lover of God. He’s the light of hope for the millions” [“Halkın adamı, Hakk’ın aşığı, O Milyonların Umut Işığı”] So went the Justice and Development Party (AKP)’s election jingle for the local elections in late March.
The local elections ended with a decisive AKP victory once again. There were many sound reasons as to why this election might have ended with different results. Not that many expected a sudden shift in power… however, with the corruption scandal, audio tapes (uploaded on Youtube, hence contributing to that platform’s banning in Turkey) outlining shady deals involving the Erdogan family, Erdogan being publicly reproached by one of his closest allies, Fethullah Gulen—thus expected to lose a portion of his voter base—as well as attempts to unify the opposition (by asking voters of the opposition camp not to vote for their party of choice, but rather, to strategize by voting for the strongest alternative to the AKP), it was to be expected that the AKP would at least lose some of the metropolitan municipalities. This could have sent the AKP cabinet a clear warning signal to rethink Erdogan’s capacity to lead Turkey. Erdogan, in the event, stood strong, increasing his party’s votes by around four percent compared to the previous (2009) local elections.
On 30 March 2014, Turkish voters may have gone to the ballot box to cast their votes for the local elections. What we experienced, however, was more than elections: it was a war. Blades had long been sharpened and blood has been shed. This was not yet another victory won by the AKP—it was the beginning of a new era, “the wedding day of the new Turkey” as Erdogan would proclaim, where he would rise as the almighty amongst an electorate which longs for the chosen one.
Where do we locate the source of legitimacy in politics? A seemingly simple question with a straightforward answer: the ballot box, that is, the people—or in Turkey, around half of them. When Erdogan addressed those who criticized him for having lost the credibility to run the country following the corruption charges, the ballot box was the first place he pointed to. In a speech given in 2013, he stated to his provincial chairs in a somewhat fatalistic manner: “We know that the people will judge us. We also know that so will God in the Armageddon. Each step we take carries such awareness, fear and understanding.” Whether it is the “silent majority” during Gezi Protests or his supporters in the social media, or bussed in to demonstrations en masse, Erdogan dared his critics to challenge him democratically, by which he meant through the elections. Erdogan’s critics, however, were reluctant to take him to the ballot box, which has been dominated by the AKP in the previous years. Arguing that Turkey had drifted away from its democratic path, and that the votes were tainted through Erdogan’s populism, the critics wanted Erdogan simply to step down, repenting thereby for his sins. This was wishful thinking at best.
The crises the AKP has been going through in the last few years, and particularly in the last few months have been thoroughly examined by scholars. We do not aim to reiterate their points in this piece. Instead, we find that what remains to be asked is how the AKP gains legitimacy in a way the opposition cannot. In other words, we would like to think about what deifies Erdogan in the eyes of his supporters. Here we have two hypotheses, which maybe surprisingly take us to the writings of the sociologist Max Weber, for whom religion (religious authority) and economy (economic power) could not be thought of as separate, but rather remained always intertwined.
First comes religion. The AKP may not be the only political party to play the religion card. However, it plays it so skilfully in that it reinvents a leadership whose religious aura exceeds others, and reaches the hearts of the AKP’s electorate. Erdogan becomes the proper representative of Islam in Turkey today. His words draw the moral boundaries—the do’s and don’ts—through which everyday life is organized. In fact, one could argue that his words draw the limits to life itself. Following a mine explosion in the province of Zonguldak in 2010 where 30 miners were killed, Erdogan asserted that it was the “fate” of this profession. He continued: “If you have no belief in fate itself, well then… that is another story.” This answer did not change much over the years. As this piece is being written, Turkey has been struck by one of the very deadliest mining “accidents” in its history. As the death toll nears 300 in the coalmine located in the district of Soma/Manisa, Erdogan’s response, in addition to offering his condolences, is that events as such are of the ordinary: “These are ordinary things. There is a thing in literature called ‘workplace accident’... It happens in other work places, too.”
Erdogan’s authority, moreover, emanates from an Islam whose borders are not stuck within Turkey, but that is transcendental. Take, for example, Erdogan’s speech in the widely attended Istanbul rally. In his address to the audience, in which he criticizes the leader of the main opposition party, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, he stated:
Look Kilicdaroglu, how do you like our montage? [implying the leaked tapes] Isn’t it nice? Don’t you like it? Why not do the same yourself? Let others call it montage; let others say that you ‘packed’ the demonstrations, let them belittle enthusiasm on such a scale. But know this, Istanbul! Today, the orphans of Gaza and Ramallah are watching you. Today, those circumambulating the Kaaba (“House of God”) are praying for you, and saying: We are expecting good news on the night of the 30th [local elections].
This may be sheer populism at its best. However, it is also the kind of populism that brings millions to fill the election rallies cheering with joy. Erdogan becomes a symbol that unites Muslims in Turkey with Muslims outside. These may often include the oppressed, such as Muslims in Palestine, but also reaches out to the diaspora in Europe or the US, the majority of whom have close ties to the homeland.
Playing the religion card is particularly important at a time when AKP’s credibility as a world power comes under interrogation through events like the corruption scandal, natural disasters or work-related ‘accidents’. Erdogan claims that it is not his party per se, but an ambiguous “parallel structure” that has infiltrated into the state and its various institutions such as the judiciary, police, national intelligence and high courts in Turkey. As the local elections show, many in Turkey also seems to think in line with him, seeing the corruption claims, as well as the leaked tapes as products of this parallel structure, which, in their understanding, is associated with the usual suspects—the United States and Israel. That the leader of the hizmet movement, Fethullah Gulen, lives in Pennsylvania rather than Turkey adds further tension to this debate.
In every crisis Erdogan faces, we witness him skilfully utilizing the religious repertoire. Rather than responding to worldly problems within the confines of the secular realm by drawing from the legal framework, for example, Erdogan chooses to divert attention to the otherworldly one by citing saints, wise ones (ermişler) and Quranic verses. Through this strategy, he aims to replenish the worldly legitimacy that he and his party might have lost through crises, with the otherworldly. This makes him more than a Prime Minister. His control of secular institutions is confirmed by his proximity to the sacred. He is elevated to the status of an elected Ottoman Sultan, a figure who historically also served as the Caliph, gainin his legitimacy from God. When no other politician claims legitimacy through religion or competes for the position of Turkey’s new Sultan, Erdogan’s tactic works perfectly.
Second, there is the economy. Or better put, a strange kind of fetishism for economic stability. In the early years, it was economic growth that instilled in people the belief that Erdogan was capable of changing Turkey for the better, and turned him into the omnipotent character he has become. Today, it is the fear of recession and a total collapse. While the economic crisis of 2001 may be over a decade away, its memory still lingers. Having taken Turkey out of that crisis, the AKP is seen as the miracle-maker. And who would want to lose their miracle maker?
The AKP gains legitimacy through fear and conflict, particularly within the context of financial stability. The financial market did not give a warm welcome to Turkey’s recent economic shuffles, not because they were violent in nature or detrimental to Turkish democracy. From the point of view of capital, these concerns would possibly rank the lowest on the list. Investors responded to these crises negatively because these crises brought in an element of uncertainty. When the AKP’s power got challenged, whether in the form of a mass demonstration (June 2013) or a corruption accusation (December 2013), the Turkish stock market sent out alarming signals. No one knew whether/how Erdogan would handle the pressure. Rather than panicking, Erdogan has taken concrete steps by unleashing his police force. Through that, he was able to assure investors of Turkey’s sturdy image.
Big capital, contrary to the common claim, may have a religion or an ideology, but it certainly has no tolerance for uncertainty. It is clear that an electoral win in local elections, which translates into seeing more of Erdogan and his AKP in the near future, also means more protests—particularly in light of the coming anniversary of the Gezi Protests. However, protests become manageable (if not profitable) for a government that does not hesitate in using greater police violence against its citizens. Were the AKP to lose the local elections, however, no one knows how Erdogan would react in the following days. Through playing the card of uncertainty, and instilling fear throughout that a Turkey without Erdogan would be a place much worse than it already is today, the AKP remains a strong contender in these elections—further adding to Erdogan’s image as an almighty man.
During its 12-year rule, the AKP has created an image of a Turkey without alternatives. Having dominated the scene for this long, Erdogan was able to suppress voices critical of his way of handling politics. His stories have become the only stories to be told and his way of telling them has also become the only way. And in that, many in Turkey have broken ties with the possibility that perhaps an alternative way of handling a project, let alone running the country, would bear more fruitful results.
Sadly, we are heading towards a destination where life itself cannot be envisioned in any way other than what we have at hand. Or maybe, we have already reached that destination. In a TV-interview conducted hours after the mine explosion in Soma/Manisa, a miner—who, we are told, had just escaped the explosion—asserted that he would go back into that same mine because he has loans to pay. Is it possible to be critical of a power on which you so wholly depend? Maybe it is simply easier to sit back and watch the show when the chosen one gets up on stage. With all eyes fixed on him, he will continue to tell us the myths, verses and stories of past, present and future… Dream on!
Many might argue that serfdom, in its traditional form, as a social condition has died out and that the majority of the world is, more or less, free. Even in places suffering from autocratic rule, the social condition of 'serfdom' is not apparent; the majority might see oppression as a macro phenomenon.
However, for those like myself, who grew up in the shadow of a dictator - this mysterious, benevolent, and cruel father figure, who seems so distant yet so present, and oppressive at the same time - oppression is present in everyday life, and it even follows you abroad. Unlike my previous article where I shared my experiences living abroad, this article will share my experiences growing up in Mubarak’s Egypt with a continuous sense of alienation that I, as well as millions, felt. This experience is not limited to the Arab World, it extends to most of the developing world. In other words, the vast majority of humanity who live as 'serfs' in their master’s fiefdom.
The first hallmark of this experience is 'alienation', a term borrowed from the humanist Marxist tradition, where workers feel 'alienated' from their work due to an exploitative relationship with the capitalist. In the current context, alienation extends to cover alienation from one's country, work, family and sometimes friends. The modern serf suffers from contradictions of self-loathing combined with a deeply rooted sense of superiority. In other words, one feels a sense of contempt for one's fellow serfs combined with a sense of admiration for one’s own position among the serfs.
So I told myself, “I am better than them”, it is “their fault”, and that somehow my disposition is more “western”, “liberal” or “secular”. This complex manifested itself in a conversation I had with friends who were justifying European right wing racism as the direct product of Arab immigrants’ behaviour, rather than a complicated historical dynamic of colonialism, neo-colonialism, as well as European policies of segregation. In the end Franz Fanon’s dictum: “the oppressed believe the worst about themselves” has proven to be undeniably and painfully true.
This is also fed by autocratic elites, who mix a rhetoric of ultra-nationalism combined with self-contempt. This contempt, however, is primarily reserved for the lower classes, especially those who reside in rural areas i.e. the majority of the people. This rhetoric helps to build up a general anti-democratic sentiment, reminiscent of the struggle for universal suffrage in Europe, where the upper classes feared that the lower classes would overthrow the current order through the ballot box. It places the elites alongside the urban middle class in the role of guardians of the nation, who will guide the “lost children” to the correct path. Apparently, the old colonial elites left deputies behind to continue their work. Thus, the nation becomes divided between those who identify themselves with the western world and those who are left behind.
The sense of ultra-nationalism manifests itself in the imaginary achievement of the elites, especially on the international scene. The idea that the nation is somehow better than other nations is engraved in the minds of the urban middle class and propagated to the lower classes. The comparison, however, is usually restricted on a regional level. A clear example of this is the sense of superiority that many Egyptians feel in relation to Gulf States, even though Egypt has become ever more dependent on them for aid and financial support. Thus, the average Arab suffers from a multilayered experience of oppression, one that relates to direct government oppression, in the traditional sense; another that relates to the oppression of the urban middle class regarding the lower classes, and finally the oppression the serf applies to himself by believing in his own inferiority.
The second hallmark, is a traditional hallmark of serfdom, which relates to being tied to the land. Unlike in Europe or the western world, freedom of movement in the Arab World is severely limited for most countries. This limitation means that the ability of surplus labour to find appropriate employment is almost non-existent, lowering their ability to bargain for better wages or conditions. In other words, the mass of the people are overworked and underpaid, with little hope or prospect of escape. The most that one can hope for is an escape to the capital, which might provide better opportunities, but chances of ending up in large slums and working informally are more than likely.
How does this translate into daily life terms? This means that the oppression of the elites seeps through to the work place, and the employer, who usually belongs to the elites, has a share in the powers of the country’s autocrats. In other words, oppression is not limited to the macro level, it is rather a holistic social condition that encompasses the entire existence of the oppressed. Organs of civil society, for example, defined in the broader sense of the word, are part of the machinery of oppression.
This oppression needs an ideological backbone, and this is built by immersing the oppressed in 'neo-colonial' rhetoric, and a particular version of history that favours the elites. This is done through film and educational institutions, where history is re-written to create heroes and villains, omitting others from its pages. This method involves the creation of a mind-set of obedience and absolute truth. So the serfs oppress one another if one tries to question the 'official' version of history: since this makes life even less bearable, the oppressed tend to prefer to have a 'false consciousness'.
Here, Plato’s allegory of the cave comes to mind, where one of the prisoners leaves the cave in which he was imprisoned, only to be heavily critiqued by the other prisoners upon his return for speaking about the outside world .
The third hallmark is the dispersal of oppression into all levels of life. The workplace, school and even the home. There is only one absolute truth, and its owner is the benevolent father figure.
The fourth hallmark, is the arbitrary nature of this oppression. In the Arab World, societal power is concentrated in the hands of a small elite; there is no legal protection for the average citizen as laws are tailored for the protection of these elites. Under these conditions, one need only inadvertently get entangled in a conflict with one of the elites to face a rather grim fate. Even a personal conflict can escalate into a rather grim affair, where the serf would be oppressed by the official organs of the state with no legal recourse. In other words, the elites are immune, while others suffer from severe oppression over non-political issues. Oppression is ever present.
The final attribute is the global nature of this condition. Even if one of the serfs escapes fiefdom to the west, he faces a new type of oppression. Usually arriving and hoping to join a more humane and tolerant society, she or he harbours dreams of 'belonging' and of becoming European, in every sense of the word. However, he/she faces a new kind of oppression, one that treats their existence in Europe as a mistake that needs to be corrected. The newcomer faces the trauma of rejection by a society that they thought they belonged to.
This trauma causes a break with their old identity as 'superior' to the other serfs. They realise that in the eyes of the west they are nothing but serfs, no better than their compatriots, and they come to realise, as I did, that there is no escape from Mubarak or, now, El-Sisi. My oppressors know no bounds, and my fate is tied to theirs. This, of course is limited to the urban middle classes that have the financial resources to escape to the west. However, the masses of serfs are either unable to escape, due to their societal and financial standing, or make their way through illegal immigration on hazardous journeys, where death by drowning seems more plausible than safe arrival. If they survive the trip, they face another array of oppressive tactics that include physical oppression.
This almost complete system of oppression can only be broken on an international scale. The struggle is against a global, rather than domestic system of oppression. It is important to understand that the struggle of Egyptians, Syrians, Iranians…etc is in essence a struggle against a social condition, what I call “modern serfdom”, which has its roots in international, as well as, domestic social orders.
Today’s Arab societies are known for three characteristics: the concern over politics, the place of religion, and the importance of family. The political importance of the Arab region as a natural resources rich location and geopolitically significant space have created many political tensions within the region. Talking politics for the local population has often been associated with fear of oppression and torture, but also despair in one’s power as a political actor. As for religion, Islamists representing the religious majority have wrestled for power in all these societies, in certain instances leading to the radicalisation of society. Meanwhile, the sanctification of the family in Arab societies is often attributed to the warmth of its peoples: however, it is also associated with coercive norms such as honour killings.
Moroccan society can boast these Arab features alongside other features and identities (e.g. the Berber identity). Indeed, a preoccupation with politics since independence was declared in 1956 has led to years of turmoil, with two coup attempts in the seventies, followed by a period of autocratic state measures against dissidents that led to particular tensions in the eighties (also known as the Years of Lead). In Morocco, the recent Arab Spring uprisings have brought political concerns back to the limelight, and not only as a result of local concerns but also with regard to regional concerns.
Professor Abdeslam Maghraoui, who teaches political science at Duke University, recently investigated this 'Arabness' trilogy in a study of social norms in Morocco. The aim of his study was basically to find out, among these three features of the state, Islam, and the family, which feature was the strongest in Moroccan society. His work bears an overall concern for social identity theory, and he used survey experiments to test his hypotheses.
Some of the hypotheses and assumptions in Professor Maghraoui’s study concern the local population’s reaction when one of these three features is under attack i.e. Moroccans act differently towards violations depending on their socio-economic background; Moroccans are less tolerant when Sharia, or Islamic law, is violated compared to when it is not a matter of Sharia; Moroccans are more intolerant towards women violating the rules of gender, than towards men.
The study was conducted with 550 college students from different universities in Morocco representing two views: a 'metropolitan' point of view, in the bigger cities or more international environments; and a 'peripheral' point of view, in smaller and more rural locations. Of course, this choice of participants represents problems of representativeness yet it fulfils the basic need of the study which is to interview Moroccans who are able to deliberate over issues of the state, Islam, and the family. Different groups were formed: a group neutral to Islam concerns, that was the negative control group, and a group sensitive to Islam concerns that represented the positive control group. The aim then was to see whether the positive group was more conservative towards norm violations concerning the state, Islam, and the family.
When presenting his study, Professor Maghraoui explained that he was interested in investigating the process of deliberation for Muslims. Indeed, this was his attempt to test the assumption that Muslims do not deliberate when there is a violation of Islam. Here we can recall the example of the virulent accusations from Muslims around the world when prophet Mohamed was caricatured in a Danish newspaper in 2005. This assumption about a lack of deliberation from Muslims represents, according to Professor Maghraoui, a discrimination bias in political science studies. Given the notorious sanctification of the state and the family in Morocco, Professor Maghraoui decided to test these two other features, along with Islam, to see if a deliberative process is used when these fundamentals are at stake.
Surprisingly or not, the research did find that Muslims in Morocco deliberate when confronted with cases of norm violations: for instance, unlawfully breaking the fast in Ramadan, constructing without a proper building license, or disobeying the will of parents. The study also revealed that family is the most powerful producer of social norms in Morocco. When it is about family, however, it was found that there was much less deliberation.
The study showed that Sharia norms were not perceived as the most important norm violation. Unlawfully breaking the fast in Ramadan was perceived by even the most conservative participants as a case that needed some deliberation and was not unanimously condemned. Family on the other hand represented the most important norm violation in which they seemed to deliberate less and punish more. For instance, marrying against the will of one’s parents was for liberal and conservative participants alike an unforgivable act. Even participants who were consistently liberal were conservative in what concerns family violations.
These three features of state, Islam, and the family are ones that I associate with 'Arabness', because in my research I have seen their importance in Arab societies. Professor Maghraoui, on the other hand, associates these features with the wider Muslim world and intends to test his hypotheses in other Muslim countries such as Turkey (i.e. non-Arab) and Indonesia (i.e. non Middle Eastern). So stay tuned for more!