To Wake the People: Egypt’s Interminable Haul to Democracy
by Youssef Rakha
“The People are asleep my darling”
So she’d tell him;
Was careful not to wake the People,
To endure its dreams
Like a kid’s kicks,
To ape its slack tongue like a fool,
To crawl before it on all fours
That he might tell it the story of creation…
— Mohab Nasr (translated by Robin Moger)
Two and a half years after the January 25, 2011 uprising, I’m with my friend Aboulliel in the room I still have at my parents’ house. We’re slurping Turkish coffee and dragging on Marlboros, absorbed in conversation, when suddenly it feels as if we’ve been on the same topic since we sat here for the first time in 1998 or 1999: what should Egypt’s army-dominated government do about the Islamists’ sit-ins?
There are two of them, each thousands-strong, in Rabaa Al-Adawiya Mosque and Al-Nahda squares (east and west Cairo), the latter within walking distance of Dokky, where this apartment is located. They are crippling Cairo’s hobbling traffic and, as a security hazard, blocking the inflow of much needed tourist cash. They include all kinds of adherent of political Islam: Salafist, Jihadist, Jihadist-Salafist, Muslim Brother, renegade Muslim Brother and independently operating Islamist. And they’ve been going on for nearly 40 days, immobilizing the middle-class residential community of Rabaa and taunting the Cairo University students and faculty shuffling about campus near Al-Nahda. Their “defense committees” function like checkpoints, with club-wielding men searching baggage and reviewing IDs. Amnesty International has corroborated reports by independent local news channels like OnTV and CBC that “spies” caught inside them were secretly buried after having their fingers chopped off, among other atrocities. The media claims that each garrison harbors hardcore weaponry, and machine guns have been sighted in use against pro-army citizens who picked fights with protesters marching through their neighborhoods…
Aboulliel is a London-based psychiatrist and philosophy scholar who happens to be here for a routine break; I am a journalist and novelist in Cairo. We were schoolmates who had long fallen out of touch when we became friends. Our lives followed similar but opposite routes, and our friendship took root in the ultimately brief moment when the lines intersected for a few years at the turn of the millennium. Disappointed in the quality of education available in the arts and upset about my intellectual and sexual prospects in Egypt, I had managed to persuade my parents to dispense with all their savings to send me to the UK, after which I returned with a double-honors degree in English and philosophy, more willing to engage. And I did find a niche as an English-language journalist in Al Ahram, the state’s best funded press conglomerate, and gradually came to feel like a permanent, privileged resident of the home I had categorically rejected in my teens. In the meantime Aboulliel was reluctantly completing his medical degree as an intern doctor at the Qasr Al-Aini university hospital, asking the consultant about the howls of one neglected patient only to be told, with a chuckle, “Him, oh — he’s been messed with in several hospital departments,” enduring his prescribed role of minion to the resident doctor – a young man barely a year older who had nothing to teach him, and growing suicidal about his medical career. By the time he left, we had grown close.
I remember Aboulliel’s first visits at my parents’ house as the time of my father’s last illness and death: the dark, drugged-up buildup to and wind-down from 9/11. They were fiendish, fatalistic times when all of Egypt seemed just as prone to hallucinations as Aboulliel and I would be, in this same room. And perhaps that is why, hoarsely sober as we are now, over a decade later — while Egypt simmers more visibly this time — disgruntled voices start reverberating, first in our heads then in our utterances, accents and all, like random people invading our conversation to make their point.
It is August 7, 2013 when this happens, while we’re slurping coffee and smoking. And even as we impersonate these purely aural ghosts, taking turns with each character as the podium speakers at the Rabaa sit-in — live on Al Jazeera — are libeling not only “liberal secular military infidels” like us and our visitations but also non-Islamist politicians, the judiciary, the intelligence, the police, the media, Coptic Christians, Shiite and even moderate (as opposed to fundamentalist) Sunni Muslims, urging protesters to wreak virtuous vengeance on army partisans and personnel. In the last two weeks, their attempts to garner support have included parading children from a Muslim Brotherhood-funded orphanage wearing the white sheets used to wrap corpses for burial in a Palestinian resistance-style “martyrs-on-demand” expo.
The protesters take it to heart, too. During one week in July, according to the Egyptian Ministry of Health, the rate of death by Islamist reached ten per day. But on two occasions when they clashed with state forces near Rabaa — the first an attempt to break into the Republican Guard, a designated military building — it was the Islamists who sustained casualties (the ministry’s body count was 51 and 80 for July 8 and July 27), the carnage graphically broadcast by Al Jazeera. In what appears to be peaceable political protest, the Islamists bear images of the long-time Muslim Brotherhood politician Mohamed Morsi, “Egypt’s first civil, democratically elected president”, who was inaugurated under military rule on June 30, 2012.
From a distance, and especially to someone with no grasp of the context and implications of what they’re saying, it cannot be clear to what extent now that their man is no longer in power, the Islamists have been showing their fanatic streak. And if Morsi is the hero of this comic-strip epic, the villain is the Armed Forces Commander Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, who on July 3 took the decision to depose the fundamentalist president and suspend the newly adopted constitution.
To the pro-democracy, anti-coup d’etat observer, it’s a plain enough scene: the army stepped in to remove an elected president and the people are protesting that. But there is a prequel to the story that completely alters its meaning.
First, this is but a tiny proportion of the people, who since 2011 have seldom agreed on anything as they do on not wanting Morsi for president but, since June 30, have had no reason to protest. Secondly, when Al-Sisi went on air to announce these decisions, he was responding to phenomenal anti-Islamist demonstrations on June 30, 2013, the first anniversary of Morsi on the Korsi (“Chair” in Arabic), which — unaided by the ballot box though they were — clearly expressed the will of the majority. June 30 was the crowning of the months-old tamarod (or “rebellion”) campaign: a kind of petition to replace Morsi with the head of the Constitutional Court and annul the constitution in preparation for early presidential elections that by then had reached its 22nd millionth signature. By the time he gave Morsi a 48-hour ultimatum to “respond to the will of the people” on July 1, hoping that like any self-respecting head of state Morsi would simply step down, Al-Sisi had already prevailed on the president more than once to give up the presidency…
The third main character in the saga is the former director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Nobel Peace laureate Mohamed ElBaradei. He was so excited by Al-Sisi’s decision he finally condescended to accept an official position as the Acting Vice President for International Affairs. An early champion of democracy, ElBaradei is the closest thing we have to an ideologue of “the 2011 revolution”; and his enthusiasm for June 30 as “the completion of January 25” has evidently been so crucial to clarifying to the international community that Al-Sisi’s decisions were less a coup than a popular uprising, despite the fact that it is now the Islamists who are on the street. Always reluctant to take official responsibility, ElBaradei was vetoed out of the post of Prime Minister by the Salafist Al-Nour Party, the one Islamist faction (and former ally of the “the political arm” of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Freedom and Justice Party) that supported June 30, but his work to clear human rights issues related to the Brotherhood with the international community is frequently denigrated in pro-army media channels as unpatriotic and Islamist-sympathetic. Removing Morsi is one thing, but the indefinite jailing, along with other Islamists, of Morsi and Khairat Al-Shater, Deputy Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood and its apparent maverick mastermind, is another; and ElBaradei seems to agree with the Islamists that they should be released. Except for Morsi, however, all detainees are in legal custody as part of civilian trials.
In a spectacular address, Al-Sisi — sunglasses under army cap, warm smile emphasizing sincere concern — requested and duly received, in the form of millions-strong demonstrations on July 26, “a mandate from the people to confront terrorism”, the mainstream media’s catchword for Islamism these days. This was generally understood to mean the forced disbanding of the sit-ins Aboulliel and I are now talking about.
It’s been nearly two weeks, however, and disband or seriously contain them, neither Al-Sisi nor the acting presidency nor the interim cabinet has attempted. Many believe the majority’s will is stayed by Western pressure on ElBaradei, whose popularity is already dwindling. Neither Acting President Adly Mansour, the former head of the Constitutional Court, nor Prime Minister Hazem Al-Biblawi have had much popularity to start with.
As “the hero of June 30”, Al-Sisi is likened to Gamal Abdel-Nasser (1954-1970), the iconic army major who founded the republic by coup d’etat 60 years ago. But for the Nasser-hating Islamists “Sisi”, often graffitied as “cc” — the word means “pony”, incidentally — denotes “traitor and murderer”.
What they don’t seem to realize is that, to ElBaradei as to the nucleus of January 25, “Nasser” is no accolade. Though doing so with apparent popular consent, it was “the Immortal Leader” who abolished parliamentary democracy and introduced a communist-style one-party system, only to lose the 1967 war with Israel. Nasser built up a police state that was only partly dismantled under his successors Anwar Sadat (1970-1981) and Hosni Mubarak (1981-2011). He established the dictatorial military-president-for-life convention that kept the latter in power for 30 years. Among Nasser’s feats was very nearly eliminating the Muslim Brotherhood in the sixties, a fact unthinkingly brought up in attacks on Morsi…
And then it occurs to you, says the True Liberal, that the failure of January 25 to achieve democracy reflects a vicious circle not of Third World backwardness — the “poverty and ignorance” of the masses being the pretext for governance that produces ignorance and poverty — but of the historical grand narrative where Arabs or Muslims feature as the underdog, and that many current complaints about Muslim Brotherhood rule are delusional at a level too deep to be visible — moderate, apolitical Islam being precisely what sustains fundamentalist and militant religion in the “democratic” sphere — so, as you watch the Nasserist founder of the Egyptian Movement for Change— Kefaya Abdel-Halim Qandil frothing at the mouth that he is “not secular”, explaining that secularism is a negligible byproduct of imperialism and that Islamism is but a misunderstanding of “true Islam”, it occurs to you that perhaps the 2011 uprising wasn’t about freedom of belief and other civil rights denied by the Mubarak regime as you assumed when you became part of it but about that regime’s failure to espouse a grand narrative where the pro-Israel West remains an enemy of Islam, and it occurs to you that the religiosity and rhetoric driving Islamism are just as fundamental to the left-wing identity politics now plying the market as the alternative offered by the 2012 presidential elections’ second runner-up Hamdeen Sabahi, another Nasserist, Nasserism being the commitment to emulate the later president’s disastrous stab at pan-Arab “renaissance”, and who is going to admit that like Islamism this is essentially a collective inferiority complex whose main symptom is the irrational compulsion to go to war with and (fail to) defeat a superior colonial or “infidel” other while excluding voices that appear to agree with that other at home, the kind of populism that will hinder any reform or development so long as they depend on the other in question which inevitably they do, and at this point you realize that both “socialist” and Islamist nation building still model themselves on the perpetually lost cause of Arab Palestine even though Egypt is neither a British colony nor subject to Zionist occupation, stewing Sunni sectarianism and the imperative to “resistance” into a bogus vision of revival rather than trying to develop an effective economy or making any consistent contribution to contemporary human civilization, and by prioritizing hyperbole over rational policy-making automatically regenerating identity issues as a massive distraction from material and moral growth, because Brotherhood or no Brotherhood there can be no excuse for such self-righteous authoritarianism if you’re not even considering acknowledging my right to say that though born Muslim I am an unbeliever, and how will a less rigorous version of Sharia free me of my sixth-century Arabian straightjacket so long as Nasser’s heady brew of fellahin chauvinism, pan-Arab nationalism, and fascist grandiosity continues to underlie your version of dissent so many decades after its expiry date, this “progressiveness” so shockingly conservative it wouldn’t be worth mentioning if not for the part it’s played in emptying the uprising of meaning…
But, stallion or steed, as I point out to Aboulliel, now — pitching him the lighter, which he expertly fields with his foot — Al-Sisi had little choice. In the space of a year Morsi had managed to drown the treasury in foreign debt, yet inflation was soaring and a chronic fuel shortage slowed life considerably. Power cuts occurred up to three times a day for up to five hours, and rumor had it the government was secretly funneling not only gasoline but also the diesel oil used to generate electricity to the Gaza Strip, where the Palestinian wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, happens to be in charge. While giving incredibly unconvincing speeches about revolution, the people, and “legitimacy”, Morsi made foreign-policy about-faces with Russia and Iran over the Syrian crisis, brought negotiations with Ethiopia over the future of Nile water to a critical stop, and showed far too much friendliness with Israel. Though backed by the Brotherhood, he appeared unable to control blunders like his leaked letter to the Israeli President Shimon Peres, in which he wished what is still seen as an enemy country “safety and prosperity”. Or, on June 3, 2013, the live broadcast on national television of what was supposed to be a secret meeting with high-profile politicians on the Ethiopian dam project behind the water crisis. He was an embarrassment abroad. He looked at his wristwatch while Chancellor Angela Merkel was speaking and adjusted his crotch while being seated by Prime Minister Julia Gillard.
Having been away for over a year, Aboulliel has factual gaps in his understanding of previous episodes and I must fill him in.
On November 22, 2012, Morsi issued a constitutional declaration placing his edicts above legal questioning, which breached the legal agreement by which he became president. And on December 25 he approved a rights-violating constitution drafted unilaterally by Islamists then passed by referendum almost unnoticed. The document — widely judged to be sectarian and misogynist — was finished off hurriedly over a single night after all the remaining non-Islamist members in a Constituent Assembly already ruled unconstitutional had withdrawn in protest of the former parliamentary-majority Freedom and Justice Party and its allies, Al-Wasat and Al-Nour parties, practically monopolizing proceedings. Objecting members included the representatives of both the Coptic Orthodox Church and Al-Azhar, which to the Sunni world is roughly what the Vatican is to western Christendom. In the meantime, the Brotherhood used Morsi to replace the two highest levels of leadership in the ministries, the trade syndicates and the governorates with its own mostly incompetent cronies. Once again in defiance of legal procedure, it appointed a pro-Islamist Prosecutor General, Talaat Mustafa, who proceeded to protect Brotherhood figures and pursue non-Islamist protesters. Having had convicted terrorists released from jail by presidential pardon and opened the Gaza border to Hamas officials, the Brotherhood now reportedly imported Hamas militias from Gaza. Through its members and affiliates, who on December 5 were given pellet guns and electroshock batons and sent to disband, capture and interrogate the non-Islamist protesters staging a sit-in at the presidential palace in protest of Morsi’s constitutional declaration in November, it also orchestrated counter-demonstrations, laying siege to the Constitutional Court and the Media Production City. It antagonized politicians, businessmen and intellectuals, polarized society into Islamists and the rest, and otherwise disturbed Egypt’s delicate and age-old bureaucratic balance. Discontent gave way to unprecedented dysfunction as more and more people finally mouthed what they had been reading silently on the wall since the outcome of the Presidential elections: Morsi is the puppet of the Brotherhood’s leadership council, the Guidance Office, and the Guidance Office will start — too soon — to lay the foundations for a Sunni equivalent of Iran’s Shiite Islamic Republic, presumably a step on the way to reviving the Caliphate, achieving for the proposed Islamic empire the kind of global dominance known among Islamists as Professorship of the World.
As the core of the Egyptian state and the institution least affected by the turmoil of the previous 30 months, only the army had the authority to put its foot down. Military intervention is supposed to impede democratic process, I explain to Aboulliel, but it is no secret by now that democratic process for the Islamists is a means to be dispensed with once it brings them to power, or at most replaced by an inter-Islamist, Vilayat-e Faqih-type Shura congress, the end being the Umma, or Allah, or the Caliphate: nothing pluralistic, egalitarian or “civil” (Egypt’s pathetic euphemism for “secular”), but nothing very tangibly desirable to most contemporary Muslims either, and — most important of all — nothing that isn’t wildly implausible in the foreseeable future.
To anti-army “revolutionaries” as much as pro-army “honorable citizens”, Al-Sisi’s “coupvolution” against Morsi — the match in which ElBaradei was taking on the role of referee — looked like a last-ditch dash to circumvent institutional collapse and nation-wide armed conflict. To reinstate “the legitimate head of state”, which is the principal demand of the Islamists’ sit-ins, is too far-fetched to be meant or taken seriously.
Still, Aboulliel responds, the number of protesters raising Al-Qaeda’s black flag and their Qaeda-black ferocity do not bode well for peace and prosperity. And what the Brotherhood hopes to achieve by the protests remains unclear. The “safe exit” that the media has been disparaging ElBaradei for supposedly negotiating with foreign diplomats seems a low price to pay for security. But the resident desperation goes beyond an end to protests.
Having compared the Brotherhood to the former regime, people want its leaders summarily incarcerated. But even without taking the Brotherhood into account, it is utterly disingenuous to argue that Morsi hadn’t turned out significantly more autocratic, corrupt and ineffectual than Mubarak, whose ouster on February 11, 2011, subsequent trial and prison sentence had promised a “second republic” but only delivered a parody of theocratic fascism; and that without liberating the state from military hegemony.
Mubarak’s ouster had also demonstrated that, whatever else you say about it, the army is the limit: without the army, there is no nation.
The trouble is that the majority not reflected in the ballot box of a year ago also realize that the sit-ins are an actual example of what, for them as for Aboulliel and me, had always been the hypothetical bogeyman of Mubarak’s regime, its lame excuse for self-generating emergency law: “a threat to national security”. While camping out in Rabaa, leading Brotherhood member Mohamed Al-Beltagi told the press that, if Morsi were reinstalled, the ongoing terrorist attacks on army and police deployments in Sinai would immediately stop.
By aiming for a remake of the Syrian horror B-movie Revolution Becomes Civil War — attack state property, urge army officers to defect, attack non-Muslim minorities, declare not only Bashar Al-Assad and his regime but all non-Sunnis apostates, get as many young people from all over the world to die for Islam as you can, get as many countries involved in your internal affairs as possible, start an active arms trade across the borders… then sit back and complain about dictatorship — the Brotherhood has shown it is readier than Mubarak could ever be to rend state and society asunder.
Well, aside from the anti-Islamist hysteria reeking of yesteryear’s “counterrevolutionary” miasma, Aboulliel and I end up agreeing that what people are desperate for is not the start of Al-Sisi’s “war on terror” as such but the end of that other, seemingly never-ending story.
It’s a story that begins in 1928 in the Suez Canal town of Ismailia, when — with clandestine support from MI6 — a pious, not very intelligent schoolteacher named Hassan Al-Banna sets up a global fraternity for Muslims who feel disinherited by the loss of the Ottoman Caliphate four years earlier. It evidently did not end with the Twin Towers coming down in 2001 while we were getting stoned in this room, and it’s many chapters — always bloody, always with the West cast in a leading role — seem to be climaxing in the Arab Spring.
Having seen how it dances with power after so many decades of courting it, Egypt wants lights out for political Islam.
“A fair desire, too,” Aboulliel says quizzically before we launch into a long discussion of the relative merits of the sit-ins ending and going on. We eventually conclude the sites must be cleared no matter how many protesters are killed in the process. And it is then that we catch each other comparing Central Security and Military Police forces for sheer efficiency, knowing that neither form of riot control has any interest in preserving human life. “Nazism!” Aboulliel interrupts me. And, while we’re laughing, I repeat the word several times.
We here seven thousand years civilization you must understand. So speaks the Honorable Citizen, whether in the year and a half after Mubarak’s ouster when the army was in charge or now. We not new people. Muslim, Christian, Jewish prophet. All Pharaoh Gods come here, they stay. One sip Nile water brings anyone back. No joking bad. And with us best soldiers of earth according to Prophet. You going to argue with Prophet? Prophet Muhammad of Holy Quran says Egyptians best soldiers of all earth. So energy man goes to demonstration, he says army bad it means Allah wrong. This his business. I explain. America people they make conspiracy. They say New Middle East. For to make New Middle East they say revolution. Many many demonstrations security breakdown, no life. New Middle East many many countries, each country with it one religion. Like Israel Jewish country, Bahai country Berber country Coptic country, like that. They make Arab cake small slices how to eat. Sudan finished early but far away. First Iraq army, now Syria make divided. Next Egypt if no Allah, He protects. This blessed land. You must understand Allah puts food in mouth, nobody business. Now you see Egyptian soldier citizen have hand in hand with all the people. Strong in love. Islam and Christianity and all good people, Jewish no because Jewish Zionist. This beautiful like that. Country security and stability then economy, it grows. Poverty but happy then suddenly New Middle East conspiracy. How you jump two lovers? Take energy man and terror man and slot in demonstration say human rights. They agents like spy. They pull state down and make divided. The divided, make more divided. They have not Egyptian blood. Egyptian blood in them rot poison. Killers work for Jewish Zionist and America people. Terror man, he uses religion for to make poor man elect him. Energy man evil no Egyptian blood, he helps. He makes conspiracy against seven thousand years civilization and three Great Pyramids of Giza. First they use religion poor man says they Allah people, poor man elects them then what they do? They sell Suez Canal to Qatar. They make energy man spy and energy man refuses they put in prison. They give terror man big gun. They make soldier citizen and all the enemies. They terror man but they use religion say we Allah man and work underhand for Zionist. Which only way for to protect any country unity? Who dies fending off? Who brave and real man free? Best soldiers of earth according to Prophet Muhammad. Great man Nasser? Soldier. Great man Sisi, soldier. Nasser fights English Sisi bigger fight. He fights English in Egyptian. We with him, we all fight. Terror man he is rot poison in Egypt, no Egyptian blood. Like cancer. Terror man must go. Energy man chooses. No many demonstrations, more life and economy, it grows. Egypt great Muslim country, no revolution. No terror, no energy for to make demonstrations every anywhere like that.
The last time we were at my parents’ house, Aboulliel and I had used the apartment as a base for leaving to and coming back from the 18-day sit-in that forced Mubarak to step down.
Sensing that events were too momentous to miss, he had rushed home from London a few days into the occupation of Tahrir Square, where I’d been going daily since I witnessed its start at the end of January 28, 2011, the “Friday of Anger”, having taken part in the day-long, many-frontiered battle with Central Security. We never clearly said so to each other, but we both envisaged a country free from the social and “cultural” constraints that had kept Egypt a backwater of civilization since long before July 23, 1952, when the coup that led to the abolition of the monarchy and was credited with liberating the country from British occupation took place.
Because to our minds democracy was rooted in unequivocally secular and liberal soil — because, in a sense, it was “Islamophobic” by default — democratic procedure sounded like the answer, the development that would eventually enable Aboulliel to settle in Egypt once again and me to leave my job at Al Ahram and be a full-time freelancer without becoming too financially or socially vulnerable. January 25 sounded like the beginning of systematic law and order, the granting of civil rights in a framework of transparent rule of law to non-Islamists as well as law-abiding Islamists, and the prioritization of competence.
That was all Egypt could hope for, as yet. For even then we realized that, apart from being a tourist attraction and a broker for regional stability, Egypt had few resources with which to stand on its own two feet, let alone revolt against the global status quo. We probably realized that the very survival of the state depended on its remaining in harmony with the presiding neoliberal order, which anyway it would take more than “peaceful protest” in a relatively insignificant part of the world to shake.
Since Sadat’s time the state had indeed been part of that order; and it was under “globalization”, initially in the context of the Cold War, that the fundamentalism that justified and encouraged political Islam was allowed to spread to counter the Soviet influence and Nasserism. But society itself had never benefited from the kind of neoliberalism of which ElBaradei and his large Twitter following were the positive face. Under Mubarak one aspect of the state’s function seemed to be to prevent citizens from becoming aware of the rights and freedoms that neoliberalism is supposed to grant them, something the regime did by sustaining religiosity as much as anything. And our enthusiasm for democracy reflected the desire for society to embrace not only administrative rigor, universal values and the science-based worldview but also a sense of existence freed from the hang-ups of (post) colonial inferiority. However necessary it might be, voting and its outcome was but a tiny part of that.
For it is not as though the hallowed ballot, the Secular Historian pronounces, shall yield fair representation in a land where valid votes can be obtained in bulk, nay oftentimes veritably purchased by the powerful, nor shall the (post) colonial powers that be in body or in mind supportive of those Islamists that seem simpatico find aught that is simpatico or in sooth benefico about such clients, howbeit they abet the Islamists though they should know by now that saber-wielding fundamentalism lives not merely in the bushy beard of the Taliban nor in their RPG but wheresoever Muslims were once wronged, belief being forever in the heart and the heart of even a besuited and Rights of Man-savvy Islamist ticking to the drip of ancient tribal biles, and the Mohammedan Machiavellians like some subtle toxin spreading stoke the fanatical fires of this here mob to bring upon it the wrath of common reason but erelong whimper in your unfamiliar ear, Obama, that they’re Majority David by Minority Goliath’s infamies abused, yet know you now and know you too, bamboozled Ban Ki-moon, that they make slaves of women and of children and more than that make war on People of the Book and people of the mind withal, raid homes and cut the organs of the body in pretension that so be God’s will, and by divine provenance arbitrarily bestowed break every honored covenant under the sidling sun, for it is not as though the liberal values you so treasure of equal rights and silver for the honest taking or power like the shafts gyrating on a wheel or even every man believing what he will shall manifest by dint of their dominion, and it is not as though—lest you should think it is—that they can truly cease the sabers of less pleasant Islamists tearing within your metropolitan bowels, nay they shall dangle them by your eyes like frighting wraiths that you must do their bidding, not knowing they can stop them if they will, and meanwhile we the peoples of the realms long shackled to your milder clients shall be as dartboards for their flying whimsey, whole countries rent to rubble wherein hatred for the godhead delivers greater murder in his name, so that the ballot reels as bad memories foretold and warring tyrants look like rescuers, while in the darkest corners of some Islamist autarchy two friends shall meet in an old room of Dokky to trade despair, ignore the cackling fire at their doorstep and roll their eyes at one more activist comparing Morsi to the great Mandela the in their utter misery laugh in your sad face, lest you believe they shan’t, for they shall laugh at your impossible ignorance, powers that be supportive of simpatico Islamists, in your sad face.
It is August 11, and I’m still staying at my parents’ house, recalling the vocal apparitions that possessed Aboulliel and me a few days ago as I think about the sit-ins and the immediate future of Egypt. Al-Sisi’s mandate has not been used, and it looks even more ludicrous than it did on July 26, but it is the irony of our “Nazism” that strikes me.
At least until we began to feel that protests were taking place for their own sake — as of the second half of 2011, Egypt succumbed to an obsessive demonstration fetish unbound by anything positive or consistent — we too thought of those who commanded the police forces, thug militias, and army troops attacking protesters as traitors and murderers, the way the Islamists think of Al-Sisi now.
Of course there are circumstantial differences between early “Arab Spring activists” like Aboulliel and me and the Islamist protesters of the present time (who, it should be admitted, whether or not as part of a global conspiracy, are the truer representatives of the Arab Spring): we were trying to topple a corrupt regime, they are trying to bring one back; we were spontaneously gathered and more or less peaceful, they are organizationally directed and more or less violent; we were secular and pro-rights, they are sectarian and anti-freedom; we took issue with the substance of power, they have a problem with who owns it…
But such differences can hardly ameliorate the incongruity of our present position; and it is clear by now that, whenever you control riots in Egypt, you do tend to kill people. It is also clear that revolution is practically about being killed, which would imply that what the Islamists are doing is revolution. Was what we did?
Because the institutional channels of reform were more or less blocked, because it placed the protesters on the moral high ground, and because it promised major change, the term “revolution” for what happened in 2011 was inescapable. Today when ElBaradei says “revolution”, however, it is clearer than ever before that what he means is “democratic transformation”. And though we did accept the word, I don’t think we had any illusions about storming the Bastille.
We would’ve been against a straightforward overtake of power by generals and/or mullas however many Egyptians might approve it. And even if a rhetoric-riddled majority sought to elect an illiberal regime, under a democratic system surely the politicians and/or ideologues eager to instate such an order would be legally prevented from taking charge. It didn’t occur to us that democracy could so readily reduce to (faulty) democratic procedure backed by much of the world community to clearly undemocratic ends. What we found revolutionary about events was the way they suddenly made it possible to reclaim public space in order to yell about police abuses and other unspoken issues, but not — as has frequently been claimed in the last two and a half years — to break a totalitarian system.
This was neither Libya, Syria, Iraq under Saddam, nor Egypt under Nasser. If governance was arbitrary, that reflected institutional failure of which the people and much of the opposition were part. It reflected political culture, not ideology. We did have problems with the military and religious underpinnings of the nation, but those had nothing to do with Mubarak’s regime in particular. The regime’s evils were definitely worth protesting about but they were different: corruption and nepotism apotheosized in plans to hand over the presidency to Mubarak’s son Gamal in time for the dinosaurian patriarch’s death, economic and sexual deprivation more or less systematically regulated by the state, prostitution and begging as behavioral models commanding daily life and politics.
The revolution was not Mel Gibson as William Wallace on horseback. But, despite the occasional adoption of the mask from V for Vendetta at demonstrations, neither was it the local Edukators vandalizing metropolitan Egypt.
It was of course many things and the things it was were rarely free enough of religion and rhetoric to herald true transformation, but for a while it was also something that managed to transcend those things. And despite later taking a hostile stance on the army, its champions could no more deny that military protection was crucial to the survival of their first 18-day sit-in than they could affirm the pro-Mubarak lie that it was all an American-mediated conspiracy to bring the Brotherhood to power.
The revolution was the ability of contemporary young people, self-conscious citizens of the world unaided by ideology or arms, to picture a better place to live, then take peaceful steps to make it happen. They did so only to be confronted with the appropriation and eventual distortion by Islamists of their essentially apolitical vision; and when they chose Morsi over Mubarak’s last Prime Minister Ahmad Shafik in the runoff vote, they actively embraced such distortion.
Then again, pandering to the sacrifices of young people is something the Islamists have consistently done to gain power. But, having achieved their goal, they almost always went against the people who had helped them, whether by subverting unreformed institutional structures under Morsi or — now, in and around Rabaa Al-Adawiya and Al-Nahda squares — through a more or less convincing imitation of our insurgence against Mubarak. Like it or not that too was driven as much by the casualties we sustained as anything, but it is the Islamists’ eagerness to sustain casualties that seems remarkable. To say that the Islamists are like Jews edging on their army-perpetrated holocaust might be something of an exaggeration, but the irony is that liberals like Aboulliel and me should be so eager to give it to them.
Yet irony underlies much that we have learned on the road to June 30, which — unlike ElBaradei — we know not to confuse with the democratic promise of January 25. There were no horizons in the “second revolution”, no sense of danger or joy, no major hopes beyond resuming a lowest-common-denominator status quo in the absence of the dinosaur and after several months of direct military rule followed by the year-long diversion of the Korsi.
There were no attempts to exclude the Mubarak partisans known as fuloul (an obscure word meaning “remnants”) or deny the possibility of a role played by the posited “deep state” that is supposed to have purposely made life difficult for the revolution, then for Morsi. Though impossible to describe as such, June 30 was an admission of defeat.
The Brothers and Salafists were among us for a good while in Tahrir Square. Thus the Revolutionary Activist. We were comrades who faced death together, but that’s not the only reason we trusted and chose them over the symbols of the fallen regime even when those symbols seemed relatively adept and good. This was before the Brothers and Salafists were joined by Jihadists and other terrorists, long before they turned directly against us, having ensured that we served our purpose in bringing them to power. They weren’t always so mercenary and so unethically pragmatic, or they did not seem that way at first. Of course we believed they were part of the national movement; they might have different priorities to us, they might stress different aspects of the national struggle, but we believed they too wanted the greater good. As religious believers ourselves — and all Egyptians are deeply religious — we didn’t find their discourse strange or frightening, but we certainly didn’t think they could be such liars. So if there was no one running who could truly represent the revolution in the November 2011-January 2012 parliamentary elections, we chose their candidates. It’s hard to believe in retrospect that, while we faced death protesting against military rule and police violations, dealing with brutal attacks on our lives on Mohamed Mahmoud Street, off Tahrir Square, and again at the cabinet headquarters in downtown Cairo, many of us would leave their comrades seriously injured in order to cast our votes in the first People’s Assembly after the revolution, which would later be dissolved by a Constitutional Court verdict, and then return to join the protests again. The Brothers ignored what was happening and allied themselves with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and the Ministry of Interior. When asked about the demonstrations they said they were an attempt by the fuloul to disrupt Egypt’s first ever “democratic wedding”. They would recant such statements and promise not to let us down again in time for the presidential elections, but while as MPs they used the People’s Assembly to make attempts at legalizing FGM and underage marriage and finally to exclude national forces from drafting the new constitution, they took to vilifying us, claiming we were thugs and agents of the deep state. When we voted for Morsi in order to stop Shafik from becoming president, which would’ve been the ultimate defeat of the revolution—and many symbols of the revolution cut a deal with Morsi whereby he would work to achieve the aims of the revolution: bread, freedom, social justice, and human dignity—we never thought we would end up being killed not by police or military forces but by the Brothers themselves. They were even more evil to us than Mubarak. They certainly killed as many of us in their effort to quell demonstrations. Morsi revoked his legitimacy when he issued his constitutional declaration in November 2012, so no one has any right to talk about legitimacy. Toppling Morsi and his Brotherhood was a revolutionary and a national duty and, whether or not the army continues to live up to the aspirations of the revolution this time, we could no longer stand aside while they destroyed the nation.
As the days go by, with conflicting reports of the imminent clearing of the protests and decisions to let them be, I remember how I used to hate and fear the sight of Central Security vehicles stationed downtown for no apparent reason. Now that regime change had occurred there were many more of them or else there were none at all and, suffering from the chaos generated by the informal economy and the protest mania, I actively wished there were.
“Perhaps the point of revolt is not so much to remove excessive security as no longer to fear and hate it,” I tell Aboulliel over the phone, “having seen why it is there.”
He just sighs loudly in response.
It’s the evening of August 14 and the streets are eerily quiet. Aboulliel is sleeping on the floor of my old room in Dokky while, sitting up in bed, I smoke cigarette after cigarette, sipping tea. He is due at the airport tomorrow afternoon, but he could not go home due to the curfew announced after his arrival; it will last from 7 pm to 6 am daily, and judging by the news it is necessary.
On the tiny television screen, silenced now, reports of burnt up churches and stormed police stations all across the country are pouring in.
For a month as of today the country is officially in a state of emergency, exactly the way it was year after endless year under Mubarak. The difference is that, this time, no one will have it in them to object. And whether the police will manage to use “emergency law” as intended rather than for blackmail and extortion is an open question, but with armed bands of Islamists on the prowl there seems little opportunity for extortion and blackmail anyway. The fulfillment of the promise to “burn Egypt”, repeatedly made by Islamists since the second round of the presidential elections, seems to be underway. And the civil war that has been casting its shadow over the country since Shafik was pitted against Morsi may be upon us.
Starting at 7 am this morning, police finally moved in on the two sit-ins, backed by bulldozers to remove the barricades made by the protesters using sandbags and dismantled pavements. While the Al-Nahda sit-in ended with relative speed and few casualties, it took until the evening and seven policemen dead to clear the Rabaa Al-Adawiya protest.
The extent of the gore that went down was hard to determine with exaggeration on both sides. At one point when there couldn’t have been over 10 casualties, Al-Jazeera reported over 2,000 dead; one Brotherhood spokesman told Alarabiya the massacre could only be compared to the Rwandan Genocide; he might’ve been mildly convincing if he used the example of Tiananmen Square instead. Pro-army sources in their turn spoke of Islamists killing and burning up their own corpses to implicate policemen; they claimed the protesters were heavily armed to a man, with anti-aircraft missiles and rocket launchers at the ready.
The police did seize ammunition and arms at both sites, however, and many eyewitness reports from Rabaa testified to protesters using firearms in the course of the day. Weeks-old bodies were also uncovered half-buried there. Among the casualties of Al-Nahda was Al-Beltagi’s 15-year-old daughter Asmaa, of whom he spoke emotionally from Rabaa, and Al-Shater’s son in law.
By sunset the interior of the Rabaa Al-Adawiya Mosque was in ruins and much of the surrounding infrastructure destroyed. It was hard not to be moved at the sight of the Islamist protesters trooping past a passageway in the twilight: I felt no empathy for them, but the scene was evocative of the aftermath of some great catastrophe. The overwhelming sense of the fragility of life in Egypt that I had experienced early in the morning of January 29, 2011 came back to me; and I could only blame the poisoned roots Nasser had laid in this soil again.
The Ministry of Health eventually acknowledged a total of 525 dead and 3,717 injured in both sit-ins. According to the independent Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, reprisals — which, two days later, are still ongoing — started well before the end of the battle at Rabaa. They included dozens of attacks on churches, monasteries, Christian houses, shops, and schools as well as police stations and government buildings. In one assault on the Kirdasa Police Station, 11 policemen were killed and their bodies mutilated.
By now “popular committees” set up to protect residential neighborhoods from assault by dispersing protesters are emerging everywhere. When Aboulliel and I went out for a brief walk after 8 pm, we saw bands of young men at street corners. Some held sticks and kitchen knives; some had set up relaxed checkpoints with wooden bars across tin cans. Momentarily I wondered why neither such people nor the estimated 33 million who went out to demand the deposition of Morsi seemed to have any voice in the Western press.
All the shops were closed. There were no moving vehicles in sight. Two old women sat on the edge of the pavement speaking into mobile phones. “I don’t know,” one was saying while we stepped on the asphalt, her voice nonchalant and dismissive. “It looks like they’re starting that revolution of theirs again.”
The atmosphere was reminiscent of January 28, 2011, but this time there is nothing remotely meaningful about the attendant panic, the sense of impending change. There is only menace and uncertainty.
None of this is what’s keeping me up, however, which is another item of news altogether: the sudden and quiet resignation of ElBaradei. I had staunchly disbelieved what I took to be a rumor that he threatened he would resign if the sit-ins were disbanded by force. He had been remarkably reticent about the Islamists’ violence after June 30, and now his constant references to “the need for dialogue” with the Brotherhood sounded myopic at best.
Like the “world community” where his allegiances clearly lie, my only possible hero seemed to overlook the glaring contradiction between democratic liberalism and militant sectarianism, worrying less about the palpable nightmare of the Syrian scenario than procedural incompatibility between Egyptian reality and the Western democratic paradigm. Like Obama and Ban Ki-moon, he seemed to think that human rights were only applicable to machine gun-wielding Islamists besieged by army troops, not to the people such Islamists killed, detained, tortured, and bullied, nor to Christians, seculars, atheists, and others whom an Islamist state would make a point of persecuting, nor to a whole society the Brotherhood was willing to hold hostage indefinitely with no plan beyond legalizing FMG.
Don’t you dare tell me about human rights now, snaps the Patriotic Journalist, knowing they were not invoked when 28 Coptic demonstrators were killed by the army under General Mohamed Hussein Tantawi on October 9-10, 2011 — they actually had their heads kneaded by armored vehicles, some of them, in case you’ve forgotten — nor were human rights invoked when, after Morsi convened the Salafist Shiite-bashing bonanza known as the Syria Solidarity Conference on June 15, Hassan Shehata, the leader of Egypt’s tiny homegrown Shiite community and three of his closest followers were not only killed but also dragged through the streets on June 23, but that’s not even bringing up what it would be like for you and me if the Islamists had their way with this country and it doesn’t matter in the least whether they get there through voting or not because you know as well as they and I do that deep down they despise democracy and will only go for it when they know they can buy votes and play on the religious sentiments of the dispossessed, they who have been killing and attempting to kill not only their political adversaries but also innocent people since the thirties, who assassinated the outspoken secular theorist Farag Foda in 1992, tried to separate the Islamic scholar Nasr Hamed Abou Zeid from his wife and drove him out of the country in 1995, and tried to kill the Nobel Literature laureate Naguib Mahfouz by slitting his throat in that same year, who perpetrated all the tourist and police killings of the nineties, including the Hatshepsut Temple massacre of Luxor in 1997, when 62 innocent tourists were summarily executed to embarrass the government and paralyze the economy; and don’t you dare tell me any of those politicians now accusing Egypt of human rights violations would ever allow a fraction of what was going on here in their own countries, least of all Erdogan who only weeks ago disbanded the Taksim sit-in by force, because you know as well as I do that when you have someone running around firing at people that is not an occasion to stand up for the rights of the aggressor, and when a group of so called civilians start pelting a military building with Molotov cocktails and discreetly firing their guns at soldiers while they attempt to storm the building, they do so at their own risk, so enough of your pathetic cant and enough of Al-Jazeera’s straightfaced lies and listen instead to the voice of the incontestable majority telling you it is moderate and peaceful and keen on the state monopolizing the right to use violence, which is an entirely different question from that of whether the state is overusing that right, because that majority are keen on the survival of the state and they realize that the armed forces are the only remaining guarantee for its survival.
Long before he provided the global powers that be with his resignation as all the cover they need to see the disbanding of the two sit-ins as a breach of human rights and a sign of coup-like ruthlessness — and just in time for one Western nation after another to recall its ambassador while several of them demanded that the UN Security Council should hold an emergency meeting on Egypt — ElBaradei had begun to look less like the Egyptian face of secular neoliberalism than neoliberalism’s Islamist-sympathetic emissary to Egypt.
Many feel that his leap into the life-raft of I-don’t-have-anything-to-do-with-this at the 11th hour is, more than a failure to live up to his responsibility, a stab in the back of what looks like the closest thing we have had since February 2011 to a transitional democratic government.
My own sense is that idealism is the last resort of the mediocre. Since I have always thought of him as the leader of the 2011 uprising, I can only conclude that — beyond imposing the Western paradigm willy nilly — ElBaradei had no idea what he was doing when, in 2009, he first called for an end to Mubarak’s “dictatorship”. And, yes, I’ll say it. It was irresponsible of ElBaradei to trigger the transformation that has landed us in such straits. The least he could do was stick around for the end of it.
It’s been ten days since Aboulliel and I first discussed the Islamists’ sin-ins and, while he managed to reach the airport and return to his country of residence — “You should think about immigrating” was the last thing he told me on the phone — I’m still barricaded in Dokky, smoking, following the news and thinking. And I have only just arrived at what might really be my greatest political-analysis breakthrough since 2011.
Now it is very early in the morning of August 17, and I’m about to have a well-deserved rest from 24 hours of intense anxiety. All through the day, Islamist marchers — flanked by machine gun-bearing militants, Al-Qaeda flags fluttering over their heads, their chants now threatening the people as well as the army and the police — targeted police stations and government buildings.
In imitation of January 28, 2011, they called it the Friday of Anger, but it’s been a very different event. In Cairo they apparently even fired at the windows of residential buildings, which reminded me of how we would bark at those same windows as we marched, in impassioned chorus, two and a half years ago, Enzel, enzel (meaning “Come down”). The sight of young men quickly taking off pajamas and running inside, only to appear among us a few minutes later; the sight of older women throwing us fruit and bottles of water: it is something I don’t think I will ever forget.
Now the people Al-Jazeera is presenting as our successors are being pelted with eggs and tomatoes, physically assaulted by perfectly ordinary citizens wherever they are seen — and they’ve been shooting at the windows that made it all possible, so many lives ago — before, gathering in force on one of the city’s main arteries, Ramses Road, they torched the Red Crescent building near my place of work and prevented the firefighters from reaching it for hours.
Not far, in Azbakiya, 60 of them were arrested trying to occupy the police station; they included at least one non-Egyptian, from Islamabad. As I write, the remaining group of Islamists have locked themselves in the Al-Fath Mosque, off Ramses, surrounded by Central Security and disgruntled residents. OnTV is broadcasting live and it is clear no one has laid a hand on them, least of all Central Security, who are actively protecting them from the anti-Islamist mob. But, refusing to leave, they have dismantled parts of the window and are pelting the soldiers with them. They are also using a fire extinguisher to generate what looks like white smoke and wearing smoke masks while, on Al-Jazeera — also broadcasting live, but from the opposite angle, inside the mosque — the tear-gassed Islamists, besieged by Mubarak-like tyrants, raise the Quran to the faces of the marauding troops.
This is not the first time I’ve halfheartedly found myself and ElBaradei guilty of being enthusiastic about January 25, but such agonized self-blame has nothing to do with my breakthrough. What I’ve arrived at is this:
While January 25 reflected the desire for greater integration into the world order in the hope that such integration would free us of the shackles of identity, rhetoric, and the evils of a corrupt regime, all that such integration can actually do in reality is to deliver us to the Islamists. It remains a complicated political-science question why it is that neoliberal democracy in the Arab world will only translate to revivalist theocracy. It isn’t the fault of the West, necessarily, but neither should it happen against the will of the majority even where said majority is unable to assert itself to the satisfaction of the West’s democratic standards. By accident or design, where Egypt is concerned, neoliberalism does not mean administrative rigor, universal values, the science-based worldview, and freedom from the hangups of (post) colonial inferiority. Where Egypt is concerned, neoliberalism means Professorship of the World. Obama, Ban Ki-moon, and ElBaradei can blow as much theoretical hot air as they like, and they can feel morally superior about it; the fact that what “peaceful democratic transformation” reduces to is sectarian dictatorship remains the ugly empirical truth.
And the inevitable implication is that, while some form of democracy remains a goal to be aspired to, the neoliberal paradigm has far more to do with the empires of times past and present, with MI6 and the Cold War, with George W. Bush, the Taliban, and the Al-Nusra Front, than anything Aboulliel and I might have aimed for when we went out to “topple the regime”. The evidence is on the street and in the statements of world leaders: the West’s very own Guantanamo material, including the self-acknowledged perpetrators of 9/11, are burning Egypt. Yet it is the only force capable of controlling the fire, the army, that is being blamed.
The True Liberal, the Honorable Citizen, the Secular Historian, the Revolutionary Activist, and the Patriotic Journalist are but five voices that have this perspective and are not being heard in the West. There are many more voices like them besides me and Aboulliel. They are not all rational or informed voices, some of them are no less illiberal or dishonest or bloodthirsty than some Islamist voices, but together they make up a country I and millions like me can at least recognize. That country, unlike the Islamists’, is a nation state with some degree of sovereignty over its borders, where religious belief and political affiliation are not things people should be killed over, and the bearing of firearms — let alone using them — is a grave offense. It’s a country that had problems — lack of democracy, for one — so many and so serious that, living in it, you sometimes felt as if the only answer was a nuclear bomb. With the advent of regime change as an ongoing possibility, it seemed as if some of those problems could be solved to some degree. What has happened since then is that the country itself has ceased to exist, to be replaced by a democratic hell of death and fanaticism, fanaticism and death, while elegantly dressed men with silk ties tut-tut about the need for dialogue.
I am more or less confident that Egypt will manage to sidestep civil war, however long it has to keep hopping. I am confident that the burn-Egypt backdrop will prove to be part of a temporary movie set, and before too long the police — discredited by January 25, honored by June 30 — will be using some version of emergency law to practice blackmail and distortion again. What I am equally confident of, however, is that the events of the past two and a half years will leave us no closer to the dream of a contemporary, hangup-free country where rights and freedoms are respected than we were before. Nor will the West’s arms-trading pietism help us on the way there. The chances are, those events will in fact leave us a little further away from that dream, but hopefully, in the end, only a little.
October, 2013. Skimming through the morning papers, I notice a prominent cartoon, titled “Fantasy”. It is a day or two after this year’s October Victory celebration: a mildly fascist bonanza of military and police worship, Azharite piety, conspiracy theory-inspired misinformation, Islamist bashing, of course, and just general patriotic excess. The occasion is the only victory the Arabs have claimed over Israel, dating to October 6, 1973 and involving the famous Crossing of the Suez Canal, up to and including the destruction of the allegedly indestructible Bar Lev Line.
But never before was it commemorated with such gusto. Since August, in the media and official discourse, yesteryear’s “counterrevolutionary” miasma has spread to an extent I wouldn’t have thought possible after all the country has been through. The doodle I’m looking at is by Egypt’s best celebrated cartoonist, Mustafa Hussein, a supposedly well informed and, one would’ve thought, sensible commentator, considering his seniority. It features the received personification of Egypt as a young peasant woman. She is looking not only happy but also docile, borne in the arms of a superhero with an S on his shirt and a seemingly oversized army cap, who is flying triumphant over the Cairo skyline. “Don’t be surprised,” the caption reads. “This is no American film. It is only SISIMAN after saving the Well Protected,” one of Cairo’s (and, by extension, Egypt’s) traditional names, “before she fell.”
It must be due to the commander’s superpowers that the security situation has been relatively stable, then. My sense, in fact, is it’s nowhere near as stable as it might be. Violent demonstrations violently suppressed have been routine; so has the occasional, foiled explosion, including an attempt on the life of the Minister of Interior Mohamed Ibrahim. The curfew is ongoing, so is emergency law; it has been long enough for people to take both for granted. There is enough electricity and fuel for life to progress normally, but traffic dysfunction and urban chaos are worse than ever.
Economic recess continues, yet all that the allegedly responsible parties can talk about is fighting terrorism. Constitutional amendments to remedy the horrors of the 2012 document are in progress, but the end result is very unlikely to make any substantial improvement on the 1971 constitution, annulled in 2011, with which we started. The Islamists’ experience at Rabaa, marked by images of the sorriest excuse in human history for a political hero — i.e., Mohamed Morsi — has turned into something of a faux Stalingrad, immortalized in a hand sign-turned-black-on-yellow-logo (four fingers for “fourth” or *rabi’ah*); in the form of large banners, it flutters alongside said images. In the meantime “terrorist loci” have been “purged”, policemen have been killed purging them, displays of public grief have been put on for killed policemen, and thousands have been (legally and illegally) arrested.
Aboulliel is not in Egypt and I doubt he’s thinking about it. I feel like telling him of all people that, while I was relieved and hopeful for a while, pro-army sentiment now all but suffocates me — first the series of multi-star pop numbers in the tradition of the patriotic song, notably Tesslam el ayadi (or “Saved be the hands [that staged the coupvolution]”), and now SISIMAN. If a pro-Muslim Brotherhood cartoonist had wanted to make fun of the army commander, I’m thinking, he would have fared no better than Hussein. Yet as far as the anti-Brotherhood majority is concerned, such a cartoon is just another lighthearted stab at patriotism — ha ha — a contribution to the “New Crossing” that was Sisi’s decision to depose Morsi. With an old, unremarkable jingle rearranged for the purpose and truly nauseating, self- and Sisi-congratulatory lyrics, on the other hand, Tesslam el ayadi is played everywhere: on public transport, in grocery shops, at weddings… And it is while looking at the cartoon, thinking of Aboulliel, the song ringing in my head, that I realize I am even more disappointed than I expected to be. Ha ha. It’s been almost three years and neither universal rights nor administrative competence have even been brought up.
Absolutely no effort is made to make society realize that Morsi is its own Frankenstein, that it was religiosity that gave rise to and will continue to sustain political Islam, as the bare minimum of a step on the way to secularism.
No lessons learned, then: only another Immortal Leader on whose personal limitations the future must depend. Will Al-Sisi become president? Through elections or (as many are actively demanding) also by direct “mandate”?
Leading the nation out of its current difficulties, the media will evidently never tire of saying, is Al-Sisi’s responsibility. Only he holds the key to our ultimate salvation, having effected our deliverance from the Islamists — and once again, presumably, the president-for-life convention will be established? Sooner or later, I know by now, political Islam will rise again; and again we will blame the outside world for our ever worsening problems. Always there will be exceptional measures”. It won’t matter in the long run whether what is offered by way of justifying them is a reason or a pretext. In place of reforms and/or freedoms, periodic and progressively more tasteless resurgences of militarized madness—and no way to oppose them without endorsing the madness of fanaticism—will give the lie not only to Egypt’s will to democracy but equally to Egypt’s readiness to go past leader worship, inferiority complex, other hatred, and self-parodying — baroque — philistinism. I’m thinking I won’t phone Aboulliel tonight. I have nothing to tell him, I have nothing to say. Had all the money, time, effort, scheming, and human life spent on the so called revolution since 2011 been funneled into the building of schools and hospitals, I feel, the world might’ve made more sense. As it is it feels as untenable, rationally, as it’s ever been.
Images courtesy of the author
About the Author:
Youssef Rakha is a writer and journalist whose works have appeared in The Daily Telegraph, The New York Times, Aeon Magazine, McSweeney’s and the Kenyon Review, among other publications.