This week's window on the Middle East - January 21, 2013

Arab Awakening's columnists offer their weekly perspective on what is happening on the ground in the Middle East. Leading the week: National myth in Egypt

Arab Awakening
21 January 2013
  • National myth in Egypt
  • No anniversaries in Sudan
  • Two years on: a revolution is a process, not an event
  • A crisis in identity: Egypt’s opposition is caught up in a futile debate
  • Don't hate the revolution, hate the power-play
  • In Tunisia, another Sufi shrine is vandalized
  • National myth in Egypt

    By Refaat Mohamed

    I was attending a workshop conducted by a Lebanese filmmaker who lived most of her life in the US, and we were talking about Egypt. She said that she fled to Egypt as a kid from the civil war in Lebanon, and went again around 2007. This time, she said, things are really changing, and to the shock of most of those present, added that things are getting much much worse.

    My fellow participants and I did not see this coming. But if we were shocked, so was the filmmaker who couldn’t believe that we didn’t see this for ourselves.

    Thinking about it, for as long as I can remember Egyptians in all the different strata of society have been fed the notion that Egyptians are a kind of higher race, or a different race to be more precise. Egyptians are capable of great things, but they have fallen for this self-congratulatory stance hook, line and sinker. Competing athletically, we are supposed to win just because we are Egyptians. Egyptians think that no common or garden monetary or economic rules apply to us. The Egyptian pound can do well just because it is the Egyptian pound. Egyptians would survive the most adverse conditions just because they are descendants of the pharaohs.

    We tend to believe that given a slightly more benign environment we could conquer the business world, and procure for ourselves the most beautiful women without the usual hassle that the rest of the world needs to undergo. Hence the many Egyptian youngsters who drown in the middle of the sea, convinced they are about to reach the better shores offered by Europe.

    The former regime loved this and nurtured it. It worked hard to underpin the myth and render its magic more powerful, because this was a numbing effect. It deflected people from their worries, and sustained their hopes regardless.  That is one big reason why no problem ever had to be solved by the former regime, and this state of affairs seems still to be the case.

    Morsi’s administration is following the doctrine of Mubarak’s regime to the letter, which is not as surprising as it might sound. The truth is, they loved what Mubarak’s regime was doing with regard to the media, information, freedom of speech, and propaganda. So the media is demonized; false information is widely on offer; freedom of speech is confined to the boundaries they require; and the propaganda machine is up and running at full spate. Still enjoying a plentiful supply of credibility among the common public, the current regime is doing its best to deny we are facing any profound problems, shamelessly bragging about minor or non-existent accomplishments even on the part of the president himself, surrounding themselves in hot air, and blaming anyone to hand who is not half as involved as they are  - the opposition, the media, and foreign conspiracies – for anything that goes wrong. This is very similar to what you would have heard from the regime three years ago. And it is completely different from what Morsi and his friends were yelling about at the same time.

    Logically, problem-solving processes start by identifying a problem and thereby admitting that it does exist. So unless we, the people, and the regime that is in charge of the country, admit that we are very close to rock bottom, we had better be prepared to face the dire consequences.

    No anniversaries in Sudan

    By Reem Abbas

    Yesterday, in the afternoon, an email circulated about the path to be taken by  the envoy carrying the body of Mahmoud Abdul-Aziz, a popular Sudanese musician and activist. Before 6 pm, thousands were blocking the traffic on Airport road and inside the airport, even reaching onto the airport runway.

    The route outlined was from the airport to the Musicians Union across the bridge in Omdurman, before another bridge would take people across to Khartoum North, where the singer lived and would be buried. 

    The authorities had a different plan, The security forces picked up the box and rushed to the cemetery. The fans who were waiting to accompany the body from the airport and the others waiting for him at his family's house and the Musician's Union were left confused and angry. Clashed ensued, tear-gas was fired to disperse the fans who accordingly became protestors. 

    On the same day, but 17 years ago, a Sudanese musician and social icon died in exile. Mustafa Seed-Ahmed was one of the most known and loved Sudanese musicians. His fight against dictatorship and his songs about the poor, the war and injustice gave him a Mandela-like status in Sudan. 

    Every year, when a Seed-Ahmed memorial event happened in Khartoum or other cities, it would be prohibited or raided by the police. A lawyer told me that she used to bail out attendees of Seed-Ahmed's memorials on a regular basis.

    Today marks the 28th anniversary of the execution of Mahmoud Mohamed Taha, a scholar and religious leader, by the dictatorship of Jafar Nimeri for sedition and apostasy.

    Taha had a following and his execution, which was public, triggered mass protests and as some claim, was a factor behind the 1985 revolution that took place a few months after his execution, toppling the Nimeri regime.

    Taha's family organized lectures and a series of events today and tomorrow at his house to commemorate the anniversary of his execution: the house has become a cultural centre. My family and I were getting ourselves ready to attend those evening lectures. 

    Before Sudan had recovered from the events at the airport yesterday, it found out that police forces were blocking all the roads leading to Taha's Cultural Centre and that security forces were reported to be surrounding the centre.

    All these events have caused confusion in the public who don't understand why the authorities would not want them to celebrate the anniversaries of individuals regarded as public figures.

    A year ago, Sudan's most famous singer, Mohamed Wardi, passed away. I arrived with my father who is his relative to the cemetery, only to find out that the police forces were surrounding the place with government officials at the forefront, cayrring his body down to the grave. 

    My dad, who was his friend, said loudly, "all his life, Wardi fought dictatorships only to be buried by dictators".

    The government, because it does not enjoy the same popularity as those artists and public figures, dislikes the attention they receive and tries to stop commemoration events from happening. This always backfires and causes even more dissent from people who are not politically active, people who just wanted to celebrate the anniversaries of their beloved musicians.

    Two years on: a revolution is a process, not an event

    By Amro Ali

    The 25 January 2011 revolution is nearly two years old, and with every anniversary reflection sets in, and so do the cynical questions thrown at me: “What has the revolution achieved?” and “It brought extremists to power”. It’s as compelling as the French asking themselves the  same question in 1791, two years after the start of their bloody revolution. Yet I would be wary to compare Egypt to the bloody track record of the historical titan of revolutions or even to the current mess in Syria. Egypt, for all its faults, is not a country with a history of mass graves.

    An insight dawned on me on a train journey from Alexandria to Cairo on the eve of the first anniversary of the revolution, heading to join my friends at Tahrir Square. In my carriage, were about a dozen and a half soldiers who had been recalled from the coastal city to secure parts of Cairo in anticipation of anniversary violence. Sitting next to me was the most senior army officer in that carriage and it had to be one of the most uncomfortable trips in the heated anti-SCAF (Supreme Council of the Armed Forces) days – my head sporting a beret next to his military cap could not have struck a more vivid contrast. You can imagine I felt awkward, surrounded by soldiers uttering statements like “If it wasn’t for us, the revolution would be dead.” Those ungrateful Egyptians.

    In the final fifteen minutes of the journey, I decided to strike up a conversation with the officer. It was a cordial discussion until I asked, “That Tahrir girl who was beaten up by the army last month and her blue bra exposed..” before I could finish, he raised his voice, “That was a lie, do you ever see us wearing running shoes?” and he threw in the stock-in-trade conspiracies surrounding that incident. It was then that many officers came in to listen to the conversation of their commander but did not utter a word in deference to the chain of command. At that moment, I realised something: could I have even dreamed before the revolution of openly posing such a question to an official who, in a different era, might have had me arrested? It all comes down to what defines the post-revolutionary Egyptian public psyche – the vanquishing of fear that remains the strongest bulwark against the counter-revolution. It is the absence of fear that translates into the protests, sit-ins, strikes, street art and the list goes on. 

    Cynics interpret every “successful” move by counter-revolutionary generals or the opportunistic Islamists as fait accompli – checkmate rather than check – all without considering the dynamic that such political actors just do not know how to coerce a public that no longer fears authority. I often say a revolution is not an event but a process – there is the 18 days that have come to be the 25 January 2011 Revolution. But then there is the extended revolution that has produced intense protest dynamics surrounding the cabinet killings, Maspero massacre, Mohammed Mahmoud clashes, Port Said soccer massacre, Presidential palace protests and so forth. Enough drama to produce hundreds of Ramadan TV shows.

    With this loss of public fear in mind, there is an ominous sign for the Brotherhood and any political actor who wishes to turn back the hands of time. Otto Von Bismarck defined political genius as consisting of “hearing the distant hoofbeat of the horse of history and then leaping to catch the passing horseman by the coattails.” The implication is that Egypt’s aspiring or established political actors who miscalculate or mistime their leap will end up on the wrong side of history while the horse gallops into the sunset leaving them behind. The strength of the Brotherhood and counter-revolutionary actors is illusionary, in that clinging desperately to the practices and models of the former regime only increases their chances of failure - not only missing the ability to shape Egypt’s future, but increasing the structural tensions and further rupturing the sync between ruler and ruled, policymaker and public.

    With the economy in a downward spiral, increasing media censorship, growing repression, the Brotherhood’s legitimacy rapidly eroding, the undermining of institutions, and with little being done to address the very factors that sparked the revolution two years ago: 2013 has many surprises in store for Egypt.

    One of the most oft-quoted lines two years ago by commentators was the story of when Henry Kissinger once queried the Chinese Premier Zhou En Lai in 1971 for his views on the consequences of the French Revolution. Zhou famously responded, “It is too early to tell”. Some 180 years on(an overstatement but a poignant one) notwithstanding, Zhou’s point was that consequences of revolutions do not unfold until much later. We just might need to give Egypt a little longer than two years.

    A crisis in identity: Egypt’s opposition is caught up in a futile debate

    By Ahmed Kadry

    Secular vs. Islamist. This is the bird’s eye view you would see if you scanned the horizon of the political landscape in Egypt. But you would be misled. This version of events only barely scratches the surface of the conflicts that currently plague Egypt, none more evident than Egypt’s opposition to President Mohamed Morsi and his politicized Islamic agenda.

    The meteoric rise of the Muslim Brotherhood is a result of regimental organizational skills and years of recruitment underground while they were imprisoned and oppressed under Mubarak’s thirty-year regime. It is no wonder, then, that they bloomed immediately after Mubarak’s fall, sweeping through the parliamentary elections in December 2011 to successfully win the race to Morsi’s presidency in June 2012, although it should be noted that his success was also due to non-Islamist voters who chose an Islamist candidate in the second round of elections in preference to former Mubarak lackey, Ahmed Shafiq.

    Since his victory in June, the spin that Morsi and the Brotherhood have put on the period of eighteen months, has begun to show how thin it is. Self-appointed presidential powers forcing through of a new constitution that is vague at best and specifically designed in order to allow for abuses at worst, has once again drawn the liberal/secular opposition out in force onto Egypt’s streets. Protestors were calling for a rescinding of Morsi’s powers and a postponement on the constitutional referendum when the majority of the constitutional assembly responsible for drafting the document hailed from Islamist backgrounds. They claimed that the secular and minority members of the assembly had been bullied into withdrawing their participation. Those protests soon escalated into a full-blown demand for Morsi’s resignation, which has since seen Morsi rescind his supra powers, but continue with a constitutional referendum that has now been passed.

    But what exactly does secular discourse mean in the Egyptian context as a binary opposition to politicized Islam? The discourse itself is not new in Egypt, as strands of secular ideology could be seen in the 1952 Egyptian Revolution led by the charismatic Gamal Abdel Nasser who banned and imprisoned the Muslim Brotherhood. However, he also banned numerous other political parties. It is a dangerously loose formulation to suggest that Nasser was a secularist. He wasn’t. His motives were political rather than religious. Yet, it is almost as if secular discourse has begun a new lease of life as a result of the rejuvenation of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist parties in the post-Mubarak era, despite the fact that not so long ago it would never have been used to define the political opposition to Mubarak (many of whom, excluding the Brotherhood and other Islamist parties, now oppose Morsi) who framed themselves as anti-corruption and pro-democracy, rather than in the religious framework that the term secular implies.

    One of the accusations lodged against the revolutionaries during the eighteen day uprising against Mubarak, a criticism that continues today in their opposition to Morsi and his government, is a lack of vision and concrete aims. This is true also of the way the opposition define themselves as secular, a reactionary response to the growing rise of politicized Islam. In fact, ‘secular’ does nothing to strengthen the opposition except mark their opposition to politicized Islam. That is a trap that needs to be avoided. A far more transparent label is a label of pro-democracy, the same message that spread like wildfire during the uprising against Mubarak. This indeed is a message that Muslims who have lost faith in the Brotherhood but who do not also see themselves as “secular” can rally behind.

    Only Morsi and the Brotherhood benefit from the chance to demonize secularists as atheist pro-western agents. They would have much more difficulty in undermining the opposition if the opposition stopped playing religious politics and focused on their own pro-democracy agenda. Then they really would start to eat away at Morsi’s support. Perhaps most importantly, Morsi and his government have made numerous mistakes in the post-revolutionary period, and as the old adage goes, “when your enemy makes a mistake, don’t interrupt them.” But to put Morsi and the Brotherhood under significant pressure as we approach crucial parliamentary elections within two months, it is time for the opposition to stop getting drawn into a religious discourse, and to focus on a political pro-democratic discourse that the other side are clearly not much good at.

    Don't hate the revolution, hate the power-play

    By Meriem Dhaouadi

    Weariness with unfulfilled promises, deteriorating economic conditions and the rising threat of violence was rather visible on the day celebrating the second anniversary of the revolution. One sign of major failure on the part of the current political players has been their ability to feed nostalgia for the old regime. Today you can actually hear voices glorifying the old days of Ben Ali’s dictatorship.

    The constituent assembly

    It is true enough that the elected constituent assembly has proved to be a great waste of time and money. Tunisia held elections a year ago to pick 217 constituent assembly members to draft a constitution fulfilling the commitments made during the uprising to a robust and inclusive democracy. Today, the constitution remains incomplete with no accurate date for completion or elections in sight. A group of expert drafters, followed by a referendum, would have been a more efficient transition towards democracy. Instead, self-interest seems to be emerging as the prime motivator of government’s policy makers and the opposition alike. Fierce competition for political leadership surpasses any interest in the greater good.

    The old bad guys are still with us

    On March 9, 2011 Ben Ali’s Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) was finally dissolved by the Tunisian courts. Two years later, the identical policies pursued by the leaders of the (RCD) party are still endorsed and practiced by a good proportion of Tunisian politicians and their supporters. The old structure turns out to be still in place. Far from withdrawing from political life, the old elite has simply regrouped and they operate in two popular political parties in Tunisia: the Ennahda party (the ruling party) and Nida Tounes (led by former interim government Prime Minister Beji Caid Essebsi).

    Corruption, oppression and intimidation of the opposition are still practiced. Post-austerity double standards appeared a few days ago when a Tunisian blogger named Olfa Riahi disclosed the scandal of Sheratongate. Rafik Abdesselem, Tunisia’s minister of foreign affairs, is accused of using taxpayers’ money to spend several nights at the fancy Sheraton hotel in Tunis that happens to be across the street from Mr Abdesselem’s office. The blogger provided copies of the bills. The minister denies the accusations and the leader of the Ennahda Party, Mr Ghannouchi, has suggested that anyone proven to have supplied false testimony should by rights receive 80 lashes under Islamic law.

    Economic stagnation remains at the heart of the crisis, with the coalition government seemingly paralyzed in tackling development problems, especially in the interior regions.  The current leadership promised quick solutions and all the post-election blessings of social justice, employment and development. Today, they are met with loud voices of “Dégage”  (get out) whenever they leave their luxurious offices and TV studios to actually encounter people in the streets. The tourism sector, one of the pillars of the Tunisian economy, is still suffering not least from the violent actions of extremist groups.

    Never again

    But calling for the old days of Ben Ali is a painful sign that the revolution is taking the wrong path. The political leaders of the country should be held accountable for this. Since they have proved conclusively that at their core, that they are the cloned products of the police state of Ben Ali. Meanwhile, the majority of Tunisian people cling against hope to their bottom line: “things will not go back to the way they were”.

    In Tunisia, another Sufi shrine is vandalized

    By Sana Ajmi

    Last weekend, vandals set on fire a shrine in Sidi Bou Said. Sidi Bou Said, the scenic tourist village in the northern suburb of Tunis took its name from the burnt Sufi mausoleum.

    "We strongly condemn the crime against our cultural and religious heritage," said the presidency on the January 12 attack.

    Even though the vast majority of Tunisians follow a mainstream form of Sunni Islam, the country also contains significant numbers of adherents to the more mystical Sufi traditions. In Tunisia, shrines represent a cultural and historical symbol and for decades people have been visiting shrines for worship and prayer. 

    Similar desecrations occurred in recent months to the shrines of Tunisia's best known Sufi saints including Saida Manoubia and Sidi Abdel Aziz. It is unclear who is responsible for the destruction of these Sufi shrines, however, on social media many have accused ultraconservative Islamists of committing such acts, since the radical version of Sunni Islam does not tolerate saints or shrines. These accusations have been denied. “Salafists are peaceful people, they don’t resort to violence. We try to speak to people peacefully to convince them of our ideas but we do not force anyone to do anything,” said Sofien Hosni, a salafist spokesman.

    The attack was condemned by many parties as well as national and international officials.  A symbolic march took place on January 13 condemning the act.  Both the minister of the interior, Ali Laayredh and the minister of culture, Mehdi Mabrouk visited the burnt shrine.

     “A plan of action will be worked out by the Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry of Culture to preserve historical monuments, such as mausoleums and religious monuments,” asserted Laarayedh. The Director-General of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) called in a press release last Wednesday, "on Tunisian authorities to take urgent measures to protect the heritage sites, which represent the country's cultural and historical wealth, from any attack against their integrity”

    In its official statement, the ruling Islamist Ennahdha party condemned “this heinous crime” and called for an investigation into the fire and its causes. However, for many opposition parties the government is not doing enough to protect the country from extremism.  

    This phenomenon has not only occurred in Tunisia, but also in neighbouring country Libya, where at least three Sufi shrines have been vandalized. Interim interior minister, Fawzi Abdelali submitted his resignation after members of the parliament accused his ministry of not doing enough to stop attackers. However two days later he reversed his decision to quit, saying his resignation would, "further complicate security".

    “These kind of violent acts should not happen in our country. People sacrificed a great deal to gain their freedom and they have the right to choose and exercise any kind of religious practices they want. Today they burn the holy shrine and tomorrow they will burn a church,” said Sarah Mahmoudi, a local resident of Sidi Bou Said.

    “Books of the Qu’ran were burnt in the shrine. As Muslims we shouldn’t let this happen”, she concluded.

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