Sunday, November 23, 2014

We're Losing the War on Terror



First published in DNE on 11 November, 2014.
Last week numerous country representatives congratulated Egypt on its progress in improving human rights over the years in the latest Universal Periodic Review held by the United Nations. It was disheartening to hear such comments at a time of the most sizable regression in human rights in Egypt’s modern history. It was quite understandable, however, that much of the warmth expressed was due to politics in the region and the recognition that Egypt was fighting terrorism, but as several speakers pointed out, fighting terror was no excuse for violating human rights. Furthermore, much to our dismay and that of countries standing in solidarity with Egypt, we’re losing the “war on terror”.
The media often reports the death of ‘terrorists’ unquestioningly; denying us the courtesy of challenging government narratives, choosing a language that simplistically assumes the guilt of those targeted without trial. When it comes to the war on terror, few media outlets question the official government line and, just like many people, cheer it on. What is constantly overlooked in the news, however, is the birth of ‘terrorism’.
Somewhere along the way, the meaning of the word ‘terror’ is quite forgotten. The term is not well defined but its most significant feature is the widespread fear of harm befalling an individual or group without reasonable justification. In simpler terms, it is the targeting of innocent civilians who have every reason or right to be where they are while being targeted.
Indiscriminate targeting of individuals is terror even if done in a uniform. When such acts are performed by the state, whose mandate is to bring about justice, it creates an environment conducive to breeding extremists, and they in turn become ready to indiscriminately target anyone for revenge. Torture and inhumane treatment can easily dehumanise individuals and devalue their own lives, and with that comes the danger of terrorism.
There is a real threat of extremism in the region as people are being radicalised. Every day injustice is not deterred, or is inflicted by the state, the context becomes more conducive to radicalised reactions. When injustice befalls someone, they must choose what to do. They can chose to do nothing, escape, or fight. Many with little going for them, poor education and no hope of a better standard of life find solace in radicalised interpretations of religion and notions of revenge.
The regime has cut off most alleyways of peaceful resistance and left no space for those who oppose them to object peacefully. Instead of positively reinforcing the value of expression through art or peaceful protest, the regime has responded violently to its opposition using arbitrary detentions, torture, killings, and censorship. In effect, rulers have taught those who oppose them the value of violence which its security apparatus practices on a daily basis.
It is as though we are unable to convince those we are fighting that their ideas on violence are incorrect. There are no serious attempts from the government to counter their simple and non-appealing ideas, and instead the government entrenches such ideas deeper by using extremist approved oppressive tools such as moral judgment, silencing opposition, violence and injustice.
People from around the world are flocking to fight alongside the ‘Islamic State’, but we’d be mistaken to think they’ve rejected the values propagated by some governments; on the contrary, they’re embracing them, but simply cheering on a different side.
What’s worse is that we’re losing the war on terror because we are becoming like terrorists ourselves. We are accepting that innocent bystanders are arrested, tortured and sometimes killed and we accept that they may be collateral damage in the “war on terror”. The easiest explanation for deaths caused by the regime is that they deserve to die, and the simplest way to justify locking up individuals is that ‘they wouldn’t have deprived them of their freedom for such a long time undeservedly’.
Yet day after day we are seeing people proven innocent in a court of law despite the politicised judiciary and extended detention. We are accepting that damage, we are accepting what the extremists are accepting; that innocents are harmed along the way for the greater goal. We are accepting the crackdown on creativity and expression in the name of the fight against those who would censor us.
Television shows, live concerts and various artworks are being censored, creating an environment that is antagonistic to culture and artistic expression. It is this sort of environment that extremists wish to create, except that it is now being created by those who claim are fighting them.
To gauge its success in fighting terror, consider the Egypt that is trying to fight terrorism. It is an Egypt that cracks down on peaceful protesters using the pretence of the Protest Law. An Egypt that delivers ultimatums to civil society, smearing notions of human rights in its tightly controlled media. An Egypt that militarises its streets and universities, thereby teaching students violence instead of promoting critical thinking. An Egypt that imprisons journalists and human rights defenders without evidence.  An Egypt that places people randomly arrested under extended pre-trial detention. An Egypt that censors opposition, grants its security apparatus impunity, and does all that in the name of the fight against terror.


The opposite of terror was never terror, it was always an end to terror, but as long as we accept injustices as part of our war on terror then the true enemy is never defeated, it only goes stronger.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Thoughts on the Sinai Operation


On Friday, October 24, 2014 an army checkpoint was attacked killing over 30 military personnel. I cannot claim to know the details of everything that is going on in Sinai, but the little I do know leads me to believe that there is bad policy in place. I truly hope this is a wake-up call to understand that there's something wrong about how things are being handled and many are paying the price of these mistakes, but I do not expect this will happen.

We must acknowledge the simple fact that most things are cause and effect, the failures we are witnessing are a result of numerous failures. An army that promises kofta cures in the modern age will not be able to provide a proper political or security solution when faced with a real threat.

There will be many angles regarding the war on terror, and the extremists in Sinai, but for a fuller picture, the problem with Sinai has always been that it was treated as an occupied land. There is no development and there is very high securitization. The government's policy has always been to keep its inhabitants under a tight leash with minimal development. More recently the military regime has been generally using more brutal security practices to address political problems, Sinai is no exception and all the more problematic due to extremist growing presence there.

The radical methods adopted by the army to 'fight terror' has only created more context for extremists to grow. Innocent people have been 'collateral' and it's only speculation here, but that probably has radicalized residents into cooperating with the more extremist factions. This means that the army's political grip on an armed region inhabited by oppressed locals has been diminishing.

Recent efforts on a wide scale crack down on 'terrorism' in the area seems to have backfired, with extremists fighting back. There is a failure in policy, and we're reaping its fruits now although there have been a great many critics of the security only policy adopted by the Egyptian regime in Sinai.

Those at the borders are martyrs of duty, but more importantly victims of their own leaderships. I won't shift the blame to the army leaders, the blame always lies on those who kill. But the truth is that the same thing can be said when the army targets innocent people.

Any activity needs broad consent, whether it's politics or terrorism. Consent is the least active of the roles which make you part of any action, as time goes by that consent can change into support and even help. The trouble with angering individuals who would otherwise be neutral is that you put them on a path of consent for actions done by your enemy. This applies both ways really. When terrorism affects those you identify with, you start turning against it and side with those who fight it, but the real danger now, particularly in Sinai, is that consent is not on the regime's side after they've mistreated Sinai and its residents. That's the real danger.

Needless to say, I don't think that targeting innocents works as a strategy, on any side of the fence.

There is real sadness about innocent soldiers who are in many ways targets of the regime as much as they were targets of their killers, but to pretend that we must support a regime that a great many of us predicted would bring about such failures and more is disingenuous, because it is exactly these sort of tragedies that we wanted to avoid. Please don't tell me now is not the time to talk about our animosity with the state because of their failed policies, because now *is* the time for which there was such animosity in the first place. We are not enemies of the state but rather of failed state policies that bring about such catastrophic failures.

We're approaching a '67 sort of defeat. The regime was cracking down on the student movement and all sorts of opposition and convinced people that they were the enemies of the state who would bring the country down, but even with them arrested, Egypt suffered a huge defeat. The problem is in the mentality that brings about disaster and blames the wrong people for their own failures.

The reaction of the state to this is even more important. Sadly, they will continue to crack down on opposition of all sorts, they will react like a lunatic state cracking down on all forms of dissent or criticism. What happens next will likely be even more ugly and brutal.

In the coming days the regime is going to sell you this story: This is a time of crisis, protesting policies that lead to this crisis is wrong. To be a true nationalist you need to support the government in its failed policies and post condemnation of the perpetrators if you like but you cannot condemn the policies that lead to this tragedy. If you do, then you're enabling terrorists. You must cheer on the failed leadership that lead us to where we are now, that is true patriotism.

Your role as a Sisi supporter is to mourn all the soldiers, share posts about them and not question how we ended up here or whether the regime could have done things differently as well as attack those who try to ask those questions and perhaps even curse them and call them traitors, spies and all sorts of derogatory terms.

If Sisi really wanted a united front against the extremist insurgency he would stop targeting peaceful activists and bring criminals to justice.

To me terrorism has always been the act of targeting innocent civilians. I'm not sure what to call it when guerrilla forces strictly target military personnel in uniform. Perhaps with all the polarization around, it may be necessary for me to point out that I'm against violence, but acknowledge that in some cases it needs to be used (as we all are in a modern society). However, I have witnessed the army being unnecessarily violent with innocent civilians and we've all seen them kill some. In that sense the army is more of a terrorist than the groups targeting the army. But with that said, extremist targeting which aims to bring about a more oppressive, more polarizing regime is not something that I accept.

To view this as objectively as possible, the acts at a first glance seem to be of extremists who view the Egyptian army as an occupying force and that would explain why they targeted the military and not citizens. It appears that in large, the people living in Sinai also view the military and the Egyptian state as an occupying force rather than an organizing force. We've heard horror stories about how the army deals with Sinai and that gives us a picture of how people might be feeling.

I think  we're talking about a war between armed forces that have no popular support in Sinai and extremists who are finding some consent to their 'resistance' within the populace continuously abused by the army.

We've mocked the words 'War on Terror' because of the word terror, but I don't think it's appropriate to mock the word 'war'. And for the record, I don't want any side to win particularly. If the extremists win it will be a disaster and will mean dark days ahead, and if the army wins completely, that would mean Sinai residents would be practically made prisoners on their own land, more so than they are already.

The only certain thing is that the existence of this war itself means dark days ahead.

*Note: I got a comment that asks to make a distinction between North Sinai and South Sinai, I would like to point out that all of this commentary applies to everything happening in North Sinai. South Sinai is a completely different story. It would be a mistake to put *all* residents of Sinai in one basket without making a distinction.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Extremists for Justice


“The question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be?” writes Martin Luther King, Jr. in his Letter from a Brimingham Jail.

It is no secret that extremity has taken over Egypt in many ways beyond the classical modes of terror attacks and fanatic religiosity. This sort of extremity permeates every aspect of society.

Media has become extreme in its fear mongering, it has become extreme in its role to obfuscate the truth rather than expose it. Nearly all channels and news outlets are predominantly state mouthpieces. There is extremity in oppression and the crackdown on dissent, extremity in hushing voices. There is extremity in police brutality and impunity, and extremity in the injustices carried out by the state and in particular the judiciary.

In Egypt lawyers no longer have a meaningful role. In recent conversations with lawyers I’ve known over the years, many who have been practicing for a long time cannot find their place in the judiciary system in Egypt or lack thereof. They bear testimony to law broken daily, systematically and blatantly by the police and judiciary charged to uphold it. The entire state along with its institutions have been radicalized to a farcical degree closer to fiction.

Radicalization is taking place in every pocket of Egyptian society. One needs only turn to Sinai for increasing militancy born out of years of discrimination and continued oppression. One may look to Ansar Beit Al Maqdes, who claimed responsibility for a large number of bombings and attacks on the state’s security apparatus, for a glimpse of utter radicalization and polarization. We can also see that the state's security apparatus has been driven to extremity and radicalization, acting more like the mafia than a civilian security enforcement apparatus.

Yet even with the current context there is radicalization towards holding on to revolutionary ideals.

“Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?” writes Martin Luther King, Jr.

In the midst of all this, some hold on to a dream battered by oppressive measures and smear campaigns. They are a few but hold strongly to moral convictions despite lack of resources. Just as we’ve seen signs of an extreme shift from decent human values, we’ve seen signs to indicate radicalization in the other direction. Despite the unfortunate weak position the January 25 revolution has been driven to, there are signs that its ideals will not easily fade away. Every day there are sacrifices by rights defenders to defend the rights of those they politically oppose, there are activists who bravely pay the price for their radicalized beliefs in love and justice.

In a world that forces us into extremism we have a choice as to what kind of extremists we will be. It is easy to drift to the extremes that empower you, such as extreme self interest, or extreme support of one oppressive power or another, but despite all that, there are some who have proven it is possible to choose something else.

The hope in Egypt was always for those two to prevail, love and justice. That hope was born with a great many in a generation reputed before 2011 to have been impotent. Such hope seems to have greatly diminished but not completely extinguished. True rights defenders stand for these at a time of radicalization towards the opposite, but as they do, the oppressors and other extremists have plans for them to perish.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Human Rights Watch on Rabaa: words aren’t loud enough

Originally published in OpenDemocracy.net

Somewhere between justifying the murder of a black man by police, the bombing of children playing on a beach, or the killing of over a thousand people in one day, the world has lost its moral compass.
Some citizens condemn the brutal violations inflicted upon ordinary lives, based on ethnicity or political affiliation, but the people’s alleged representatives, their governments, have applauded themselves or other brutal governments, offering empty justifications for other citizens to repeat.
The few governments that have objected have done so without taking steps to redress these injustices. Though they have the power to take stronger actions, which speak far louder than words, they choose words, and words that are not nearly loud enough.
Human Rights Watch released a report entitled ‘All According to Plan,’ on the events that took place in Egypt in July and August of 2013, and the Egyptian response has been that of a totalitarian state. High-ranking HRW officials were detained for twelve hours before being denied entry into Egypt in order to launch their report.
The state rejected the report, hurling accusations of bias and disregard for the law at HRW. Criticism was directed at HRW by the Ministry of Interior, the government’s State Information Services (SIS), the National Council for Human Rights (NCHR) and a mass media dominated by pro-regime figures.
The report itself was highly detailed and contained numerous references to back up the findings it presented. It made references to the Egyptian government’s own statements and crosschecked the statements with evidence it had found and collected.
It concluded that on August 14, security forces had opened fire indiscriminately on crowds of protesters in Rabaa square, on more than one occasion. The report does not deny that arms were used by a small number of protesters, but emphasises that the limited use of arms did not warrant the disproportionate lethal force used by the security forces. At least 817 but possibly more than a thousand protesters were killed, as well as eight police officers.
The police did not give fair warning, and did not provide safe exits until towards the very end of the dispersal. Snipers were used from atop buildings and from helicopters. Many of the wounded were denied medical attention and there was very little mercy shown to the protesters. HRW reported that it was not able to establish who fired first, but that the extensive testimonies gathered established that the dispersal happened in the early hours of the morning a little after six, and that live fire began shortly after the start of the dispersal.
The report also details the Nahda sit-in dispersal on the same day, which left 87 dead; the massacres that occurred on July 8 outside the Republican Guard building, where 61 were killed; and on July 27 near the Manassa memorial, where 95 were killed.
In Egypt, the report was overshadowed by the same brand of Egyptian absurdity, lies and baseless accusations aimed to discredit the report and deny any serious reading. The response from the government was largely erratic and unable to deal with the report’s findings. The government’s reaction reflected more of an attempted cover up, rather than a desire to address the violations it had committed.
The MOI’s excuse for denying HRW entry to Egypt is that it has operated and carried out its investigation illegally since it is not authorised to operate in Egypt. However, obtaining a permit is dependent on security approval that is rarely ever granted. The response to the content of the report that implicated the ministry was vague, dismissive and evasive.
The NCHR, whose findings and methodology were explicitly criticised in the report, had a similar response. Political figure and NCHR secretary general George Ishak accused HRW of bias, but failed to address any of the accusations of shortcomings specifically concerning the NCHR fact-finding committee. Nasser Amin, a member of NCHR, accused HRW of inaccuracy in their report but failed to point out examples of such inaccuracy.
Egypt’s State Information Services issued a statement accusing HRW of bias, and of failing to mention other contextual facts regarding the dispersal, many of which the report actually did mention. The accusations even made an implicit link between the operations of HRW and terrorism. The government concluded that “the dispersal of the sit-ins was conducted in accordance with the relevant international legal standards”.
Furthermore, in an attempt to further smear the report, Al Watan newspaper printed a feature entitled ‘Fifteen flaws in the infamous organisation’s report,’ full of misinformation regarding the HRW report. For example, the article claimed that the report failed to document that some of the protesters in the sit-ins were armed, something which it does explicitly.
The government’s position, being complicit in this gross violation of human rights and human decency, is understandable. What may come as a shock to some is that condemnation of the killing of 1000 protesters in one day is a controversial issue among Egyptians. Those who are staunchly against the Muslim Brotherhood have made excuses for the regime, which according to the HRW report, exercised “the indiscriminate and deliberate use of lethal force resulting in one of the world’s largest killings of demonstrators in a single day in recent history.”
But why should this be shocking, when a more heinous crime, such as killing children playing football on a beach, is being justified by parts of the world that claim to be civilised and democratic.
For Egyptians, this is not the first time they have turned a blind eye to killings performed by the state’s security apparatus. Events such as the trampling of Coptic protesters outside the Maspero state television building were largely ignored and sometimes even cheered on, despite footage showing army APCs trampling over unarmed protesters.
Even as far back as 2005, police violently dispersed a sit-in staged by an estimated 2000 Sudanese refugees opposite Mostafa Mahmoud mosque, killingat least 23 people including women, children and a nine-month old baby girl. Egyptians did not move. It did not really matter to most.
Numerous governments around the world have let their security services drive the agenda and act with impunity. From a militarised police in Ferguson, to a ruthless child-killing army in Israel, to a brutal security sector in Egypt, these bodies enjoy vast powers and the backing of their governments to get away with murder and racism. Accountability is lacking.
The Rabaa protests started on June 28 in support of Mohamed Morsi, and in a deeply polarised context it can be easy to forget that human rights violations – where innocent people lose their lives – remain politically agnostic and unjustifiable. There is a difference between supporting what the Rabaa sit-in stood for, and condemning its brutal dispersal.
For many, the idea of equal rights for all does not register. When words that speak of equality do not reflect the real values adopted by people, then all we will experience are words. When the value of a human life is not a factor in the equation, all sorts of atrocities are possible. When the value of a human varies depending on ethnicity or beliefs, then all sorts of murder can be justified.
One of the doctors who refused to leave when security forces asked her to abandon the three patients she was treating during the dispersal, describes her horrific experience:
One officer said, “I am ordering you to leave.” I said, “I can’t leave with injured here; take them out [of here] yourselves!” He didn’t respond; instead, he took out his pistol and killed the three injured men in front of me, shooting them in the heart. I was hoping he would kill me. I wanted to die. The pain was too much. I was shocked. I felt they were not human beings. I grabbed him and swore. He hit me. I am not sure why he didn’t kill me.
Those who died may have peace, but those who are living have to deal with the aftermath.

Monday, August 11, 2014

In Answer to Pope Tawadros, Now Is the TimeTto Talk About Human Rights



Last week Pope Tawadros issued the latest in a long list of fiery statements, when, in a visit to Norway, he remarked: “We can pray in a nation without a church but we can’t pray in a church without a nation.

The statement is an attempt at nationalism to support Egypt. Yet the notion of Christianity was never founded on nations, but on people having the same faith and the same values. On a philosophical level, the church is not the building itself but the congregation, but given Egypt’s history of state endorsed sectarian attacks on churches, the statement tends to undermine the historical struggle of Copts trying to build houses of worship and the attacks on such places.

This is not the first instance of nationalism for the pope. Earlier he had endorsed the constitutional referendum, going so far as to say ‘Yes brings blessings’. Later he also described President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi as a hero of the revolution.

Perhaps the biggest blunder by Pope Tawadros was when he claimed that people had a mistaken understanding of human rights, asking: “When the country is subjected to violence, terrorism and crime, how can we talk about human rights at a time like this?”

The question was clearly rhetorical. It angered some because it implicitly denounced human rights. But anger aside, the real problem is in trying to answer that question as though it was not rhetorical.

What is terrorism? Is it not fear that harm will befall you for no good reason? Harm is when something damaging befalls you or when to bodily harm by another human being, your right to be able to defend yourself against accusations brought against you, your right not to be humiliated and insulted through words or actions, through racism, through sectarianism. Terrorism is when innocent people are targeted, harmed and forced to pay a price they should not have to pay.

If there is a war on “terror” as they say, how can that war be waged using the same exact tools that make up terror? How can you fight the violation of rights through other violations of rights? These violations are supposedly what the fight is against. This fight should not just change the perpetrator. There can be no moral victory when the efforts to combat terrorism legitimise acts of terrorism. There can be no moral victory when those who are more powerful have the right to perform these acts. True terrorism is related to the acts themselves and not to who performs it. By fighting terror with terror, terrorism wins, and those claiming to fight it end up contributing to it.

Are mass death sentences not terror, particularly when a judge finds out by chance through reading the papers that he sentenced a child to death? Is torturing people not terror? And even if we put human rights aside, do Christian values allow for torture and execution, even in a country facing violence?

Human rights help safeguard basic rights, and the state is always accountable whenever these basic rights are violated. I’m not certain what Pope Tawadros meant by a mistaken understanding of human rights. How different does he think human rights values are compared to basic Christian values? The pope is not just a political figure commenting on values; he is a spiritual figure, positioned to represent and safeguard a set of values on behalf of an entire faith. The pope is supposed to be the ‘salt of the earth’, but the commentary of late is tasteless, if not bitter.

In much the same vein, many following the pope have adopted shaky moral stances in favour of nationalism. In a television interview, Anba Bola said that the murder of protesters outside Maspero at the hands of the military in October 2011 must be put behind us. In another incident a priest, Boules Ewaida, flattered Sisi’s good looks.

The shift in church rhetoric from the spiritual to the political and the complete alignment with the regime is worrying and may eventually weaken the church. The pope’s attack on human rights undermines many Coptic struggles such as the right to practice freely, the right to express themselves, equality, citizenship and the right to a fair trial. The fight for such rights has been integral to the Coptic plight in a sectarian state whose abuses have been well documented.

So in answer to Pope Tawadros’ rhetorical question: Human rights are extensions to Christian values and the Christian philosophy of helping the poor and the oppressed. We cannot turn a blind eye to injustices when the state performs them. So, yes, now is the time to talk about human rights, human values and even Christian values because they are the only real weapons in the fight against injustice, the fight for our humanity, our fight for our values and our fight against terror. Now more than ever is the time to talk about rights and values, because now, more than ever, is the time they are most needed.

This article was published in Daily News Egypt on June 29, 2014 

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

The Myth of Subsidy Cuts



Many have commented that the latest economic move to slash subsidies is a good thing. I can’t say I’m surprised because for over three years, the rhetoric was repeated incessantly by numerous economists and the IMF, that Egypt must cut subsidies for economic reform. The idea that cutting fuel subsidies is a good thing to start economic reform has become so ingrained that often times people do not stop and think why.

Subsidies are not good because the country ends up paying lots of money to help the rich as it tries to help the poor. They represent a form of unnecessary help given to the rich as well as the poor, which means the money is unable to distinguish between who it helps. 

Subsidizing some commodities for everyone irrespective of their level of earnings means that the state is wasting its resources helping those who do not need help. Subsidies need to be lifted so that unnecessary help given inadvertently given to the rich can be focused on assisting the poor even more. This can mean directing all the subsidy money granted to those who don’t need to subsidize the poor more directly through wage increases, fairer taxation and better public services. Taxing based on income helps for more equality.  Wage increases can be set up to benefit the poor. Public services should be designed to help the poorer classes.

When you lift subsidies without redirecting resources to more focused help to those who need it, you create more problems than you solve. Subsidy cuts needed to be accompanied by an alternative social security net and that is not happening. They needed to be accompanied by a fair justice system, so that those abusing the system can be brought to justice and help can be delivered to those who need it most and that is not happening. They need to be accompanied by new taxation schemes and salary adjustments that actually benefit the poor. 

Lifting subsidies in the manner that has been done in Egypt has burdened the poor because all prices have increased rapidly due to increase of transportation costs. This means that even basic commodities like bread and vegetables become more expensive. The cuts also introduced an increase in electricity bills. The poor have to conjure up some way to pay double the prices with their same wages. The poor have to think of ways to deal with the government’s decision without steps taken by the government to increase their wages, or help them cope with such increases.

Perhaps the most worrying aspect of lifting these subsidies is that there are no signs that this is a subsidy reform to help benefit the poor. There are many worrying indications that the money which the government saves will be channeled differently. Indication of the pattern of expenditure is that the army increased its budget over three billion pounds for 2013/2014. More so, energy intensive industries are still subsidized even though the subsidies have been lifted from the poor and at the same time these industries sell their products at international prices.

A distinction between 'subsidy cuts' and 'subsidy reforms' must be made, what happened in Egypt is the former. 

Contrary to popular belief, subsidies in Egypt do actually help the poor simply because these subsidies keep the price of basic commodities down and there are no alternative social nets, and no efficient means by which the government helps the poor. 

We have to be careful while looking at the economic situation. It cannot be devoid of the political context and the overarching economic policies. Steps in the right direction need to be in the right direction and not just seem to be. For example arresting thugs and locking them up for their crimes is a good thing, but when innocents are arrested in their place and they claim they're criminals, then it's not, it only seems so. 

The myth that Egypt 'has no choice but to lift fuel subsidies' is incomplete because it ignores that lifting subsidies is part of economic reform and it causes more problems if there is no economic reform. Too many have just repeated blindly that lifting fuel subsidies is a necessary reform and the entire meaning of the economic reform has been lost because of such blind repetition.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

The Zebra Crossing


Driving to work this morning I saw a zebra crossing and a conscript passing over it attempting to avoid cars which paid no heed to the lines drawn on the street. I wondered what it would take to get people to respect these lines and stop for pedestrians here in Egypt. We'd need policies and policing that enforces these policies. We would need to change our road culture and we would need to respect the human pedestrian.

But as I was thinking of all this, I realized that nations embrace the policies that reflect them most. Most policies are reflections of people's values. In certain places there is value to the individual, in others there's value to properties and in others there's value to nature. Governments enforce values they think are most important for their people. That's not to say governments are good essentially but they need to reflect their people's desires and values in order to survive, otherwise they become alien to people and are forced out.

Needless to say, as I contemplated over Egypt's values, I realized that I had been right all along to have felt alien to people. The short bursts of values and principles in 2011 seem to be the minority now. In my mind there's no sense to be pro military or pro Islamist, it's all the same mindset. Intolerance for the other and a narrow conspiratorial view on matters drives those parties. This madness and orthodox thinking is what I see before me irrespective of the side taken. 

As I think about the zebra crossing, I think about the different other values that people don't seem to mind, such as ruling with an iron fist, such as group punishment, such as police impunity, such as false respect for a judiciary which delivers injustice. Our values are truly being upheld by the government. They have only reflected what most people feel deep down.

We have a long way to go before people can respect a zebra crossing. They first need to respect and value human life.


Friday, May 09, 2014

An Answer to Pope Tawadros on the Question of Human Rights

Pope Tawadros name on paper as he was selected to be Pope

Earlier Pope Tawadros made the claim that people had a mistaken understanding with regards to human rights. He said, "When the country is subjected to violence, terrorism and crime, how can we talk about human rights at a time like this?"

This is a rhetorical question. It may have angered a great many because of what it says about the value system adopted by the pope. But anger aside, I will try and answer that question as though it wasn't rhetorical.

What is terrorism? Is it not fear that harm will befall you for no good reason? Harm is when any of your rights are violated, your right to move about freely, your right to live, your right not to be subjected to bodily harm by another human being, your right not to be humiliated and insulted through words, through racism, through sectarianism. Terrorism is when some innocent people are targeted and harmed and forced to pay a price they should not have to pay. 

If the war is on 'terror' as they say, how can that war be waged using the same exact tools that make up terror? How can you fight the violation of rights through another violation of rights? The violation of rights is what you're supposed to be fighting against, not just a change of perpetrator. There can be no moral victory when your own fight against terrorism legitimizes acts of terrorism, but only makes a claim that those who are more powerful have the right to perform it. True terrorism is related to the act itself not who performs it. By fighting terror with terror, terrorism wins, and those claiming to fight it end up contributing to it. 

So with that in mind, my answer to Pope Tawadros is, yes, now is the time to talk about human rights. I'm not certain what he meant by a mistaken understanding of human rights. How different does he think human rights values are compared to basic Christian values?  It surprises me that the Pope of all people should choose to ignore humanity at the worst times, where humanity and his own spiritual integrity is of most importance. He is not just a political figure commenting on values, he is a spiritual figure, positioned to represent and safeguard a set of values on behalf of a entire philosophy and faith. He is supposed to be the salt of the earth, but his commentary had a bitter taste instead.

So, yes, Pope Tawadros, now is the time to talk about human rights, and human values and even christian values because these are our only real weapons in the fight for our humanity, our fight for our values and our fight against terror.

Monday, April 28, 2014

A Crucified Revolution



From my article on Al-Monitor
Meanwhile, former believers in the revolution who have opted to trust the army curse at a defamed revolution, asking it to come down from its cross. The revolution had no cures to sell, nor an alternative structure to replace the current one. It appears that many hopes were riding on a crucial strength that never truly existed in the revolution. The strength to move mountains did not exist, because all the revolution ever relied on was the faith of people to do it themselves. The revolution’s strength lay in the misplaced belief of a better alternative, and those who have given up that utopian dream are bitter at those still holding on.

Saturday, April 05, 2014

Why Torture the Innocent?



Why would the regime arrest and torture someone if they didn’t do anything wrong or if they can prove their innocence?

Such a question seems to be a common logical retort by many Egyptians in response to accusations that the regime, personified in its security and judiciary bodies, carries out gross injustices such as random arrests, assault, torture, beatings, illegitimate detention, sexual assault and killing.  At first glance it seems to cast a shadow over irrefutable evidence that the regime is indeed torturing many of its citizens, including the innocent. That is why we must remind ourselves of reality and attempt to answer that question: Why would the regime torture the innocent?

Perhaps the answer to this question is best illustrated in the 1979 film, ‘We’re the bus guys’ where two people are arrested after a fight with the ticket collector on a bus. They are taken to police headquarters and mistakenly transferred with political prisoners to a torture camp. They defend themselves by explaining that there must be some kind of mistake – that they’re the bus guys – but no one cares to listen. The warden doesn’t care either, he doesn’t necessarily disbelieve them but he’s under orders to get confessions out of all prisoners, after all, it’s not like the other political prisoners are more criminal in any way. Torture and humiliation ensue in the name of the country and the reason they ended up there along with the political prisoners gets lost along the way.

The story is set between 1966 and 1967 and is based on true events. Back then, the mukhabarat, Egypt’s intelligence services, were dominant in dealing with political security matters. They told the guards – the torturers – it was necessary to lock these people up, they were enemies of the state and Egypt would triumph if they were held in prison. In 1967, after Egypt was defeated in the Six-Day War, one question haunted the torturers: “Why were we defeated if we locked all the bad guys in?”

The story of the bus guys is the story of the Egyptian regime post 1952 when the free officers enslaved an entire nation. Power was in the hands of a few self-seeking individuals who profiteered from their positions and constantly fought to retain them. It remains very similar to the story today.

The keys to the dynasty changed hands within security services, but the regime’s indifference – and perhaps even contempt for its citizens – carried over. Upon taking over, President Mohamed Anwar Sadat arrested old power brokers within the government in 1971 to empower himself and keep their followers from regaining ground. Sadat attempted to uphold Nasser’s previous promise to end the ‘intelligence state’ by reforming the security apparatus already notorious for its harsh oppressive practises.

Under Sadat, there were moments where such practises were reduced considerably but the targeting of political opponents remained focused and old security practises were revived at various times. Towards the end of Sadat’s reign, state security had been more empowered to deal with the country’s internal politics.
In 1981, officers within the military conspired with extremist Islamists and assassinated Sadat. When Hosni Mubarak became president, more power was granted to the police represented by state security, the sadistic arm of the Mubarak regime. This was partly due to the assassination of Sadat, which meant that the military was not immune to infiltration and that mukhabarat failed to uncover the plot to assassinate the president. Mubarak was also attempting to sideline Field Marshal Abdel-Halim Abu Ghazala, the defence minister at the time and a popular figure within the ranks of the military.

By the 1980s and 1990s, state security had become so strong that it replaced intelligence as the main driver of the political agenda. Along with other factors, shifting control to the Ministry of Interior allowed one ministry to become both the judge and executioner, and thereby, torture became systematic by spreading inside police stations and over a much wider range of offences not limited to the political.

Under the firm grip of either intelligence services or state security, citizens’ rights and their dignity are disregarded. The current security apparatus is not trained to serve the people, but the regime. But regimes aren’t human and perhaps that is why most members of the security apparatus are dehumanised. On a more practical level, those inflicting the torture are quite separated from those making the arrests; they are taught not to listen and to inflict pain no matter what words are uttered by their victims.

Another way to describe it is that the regime does not care how many innocent lives they destroy, but how many threats to the state are averted irrespective of the cost. There are bound to be a handful of threats amidst the thousands they have arrested and killed. In the end, torturers are not held accountable because orders come from the main agenda drivers who protect the state and, in many ways, are the state. In all likelihood they do not think that torturing innocent people is a mistake in the first place.

The state has been consistent in its approach but the more worrying aspect of today’s Egypt is the silence – and even blessing – in response to such practises. Many have not only turned a blind eye, but even blessed the brutality of the state and created excuses.

Perhaps it is as American philosopher Eric Hoffer says, “The most effective way to silence our guilty conscience is to convince ourselves and others that those we have sinned against are indeed depraved creatures, deserving every punishment, even extermination. We cannot pity those we have wronged, nor can we be indifferent toward them. We must hate and persecute them or else leave the door open to self-contempt.”

Many Egyptians today believe that the police state can help solve the current crisis by offering some sort of stability. Researchers Thomas Plate and Andrea Darvi described it best when they said, “The tragedy of the secret police solution is that it is such a blunt and crude instrumentality that in the name of preserving paradise it winds up creating hell. And when even the moderate critics of the regime are eliminated, incarcerated, exiled, or intimidated, the secret police machine rolls on … Enemies of the regime will be created even if real enemies have long since ceased to exist.”

In the end, the answer to the question as to why the regime would chose to torture the innocent is found in the question itself. It’s because the regime chooses the immoral act of torture in the first place. It is because the security apparatus that is violating the law also controls who is to be held accountable for violating the law. It is because the regime doesn’t really care.

The fact of the matter is that we’re all the bus guys. To be subjected to grave injustice is just a matter of chance. It does not help if you do everything right, abide by whatever laws you can, cheer for the police despite their injustices, or keep to yourself. Sooner or later, you or someone close to you will fall victim to these injustices. By that time, it will not matter to security forces if you had been protesting their rule or cheering them on.

First published in Daily News Egypt on 23 February, 2014.

Monday, March 24, 2014

No Apologies, Simply Blindness



There is a great divide between a very thin class of revolutionaries and the mainstream direction Egypt has taken. The gaps in Egypt are not just between the rich and poor, they’re not just between the classes but they seem to be in values too. 

Recently, Pope Tawadros II, the Coptic Orthodox pope made a baffling statement. He said, “You want to talk about Human Rights while there is terror and crime?”

I would have imagined human right values to be more closely aligned with Christian values. I wonder how what it would have been like had Jesus said, “Don’t talk to me about Christian values during times of persecution.”

But the Christian church isn’t the only institution that has witnessed leadership in direct opposition to the values it ought to preach. Gaber Nassar, a lawyer and supposed Human Rights defender seems to be making similar mistakes. In an incident involving the mass sexual harassment of a female on campus, he blamed the girl for her ‘mistake’ of dressing inappropriately. 

Such is the state of leaders of the Christian denomination and someone from the education sector. They’re not the only flawed leaders, in fact they are considered among the least scathed by accusations of corruption. But they fall short of the mark, they can perhaps be of use in medieval times, but not in today’s world.

Gaber Nassar later apologized for his mistake of blaming the girl and her attire for the incident. It wasn’t a very strong apology but it’s a start to a culture of apologies. In the same vein, Bassem Youssef apologized for ripping off an article in his weekly column, but Bassem is no official leader.In his apology he managed to give a lesson on how to apologize and what accountability means.

Leadership remains lacking in every sense. The head of the state that violates its constitution daily is the former head of the constitutional court, the police that’s meant to uphold the law break it every day. The head of the army that is meant to protect the borders and the constitution is sinking the army’s claws deeper into politics and the country’s economy and has tried to extend their expertise to medicine as well. The heads of religious institutions are diverging from core human values and delving into unprecedented modes of hypocrisy. 

All of Egypt’s leadership is letting its future inhabitants down, yet there are no apologies, particularly from those that have harmed this country the most, simply blindness.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Death of a Nation's Conscience



Setting aside miracles, something about the story of Jesus seemed incomprehensible to me when I was younger. I found myself wondering how people were so willing to cheer on Jesus’ crucifixion although he had done nothing but preach values of goodness. After three years of preaching, he was smeared and condemned to death. There is no surprise his deeds bothered religious leaders and rulers, but that people he’d helped turned against him so quickly was what troubled me.

Three years into the revolution, that part of the story doesn’t baffle me anymore. Jesus offered personal liberation not political, and because he was unable to provide for anything but the soul, he was blamed for not doing enough and his death cheered on. On the anniversary of the revolution, it has become apparent that the nation has turned against it.  The rumors surrounding the 25 January Revolution have ranged from accusations of treason and foreign funding, to being a plan hatched by the Muslim Brotherhood. The underlying issue that has turned people against the 25 January Revolution is that it did not deliver. For three years it preached nothing but values, but the biggest accusation against its prime actors is that they did not provide anything but a personal, impractical salvation. There are no policies in place, no projects and no formidable organisation representing this revolution. That is why people are cheering on its death.

Three years on, what’s left of the revolution remains isolated. Here revolution would have to mean those who have chosen to side with values rather than individuals, rights rather than ideologies. The block of individuals that once captured the imagination of Egyptians and the whole world has now been shrunk, targeted and smeared.
The reason why we’re still talking about the revolution that took place three years ago (other than its anniversary) is because this revolution is about conscience. It revolved around the idea that justice was possible irrespective of race or creed; that lies, corruption and crimes can be called out, no matter the perpetrator.

Today, none of these ideals seem to have picked up. Seeing all the regime crimes justified, it seems that the revolution is dying. On its anniversary, the regime celebrated by crushing protests that did not support General Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi. Such measures are widely accepted by Egyptian society. Many of its activists were arrested and imprisoned and it seems that there is no real control over the actions of the police who act with impunity.

The conscience of the nation seems to be at bay as Egyptian citizens are arrested, beaten and tortured without due process. Citizens are treated in a manner that contradicts the constitution they just voted on, but no one seems to mind. Many ask if those tortured, arrested or killed were Muslim Brotherhood members or supporters, as if it justifies these measures. Even when those arrested are described as activists opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood, you get the usual rhetoric that they must have done something wrong.

The space for peaceful opposition in Egypt is shrinking. How can there be opposition in a police state controlled by state security agenda and a supposed fight on terror? Egypt has drifted further from its promised goals of democracy and freedom, and what’s worse is the mass support for that drift. Many Egyptians have made their own gods, not only worshipping them, but cracking down on those who don’t. A revolution that has rejected such gods has now regressed.

The power of the revolution was in finding a moment with consensus that the only way forward was through justice, equality and dignity. Today, people don’t mind less bread, less freedom, less dignity. The consensus seems to be lost and the regime’s smear campaign against a revolution that aimed to end its corruption is now more effective than ever.

The real trouble is that the revolution seems to be confronting people now rather than the regime. The people chose to see its path as a failure, opting for a quick solution, finding a saviour in the army.  The revolution that fought for the people must not continue to confront them. After all, it was a revolution to give people choice, even if that choice is to reject it. Egypt must continue its path without revolutionaries until people realise once again that there is no way forward but equality, justice and freedom.  Perhaps the revolution and its conscience have to die for now before they can rise again.

First published in Daily News Egypt on 27 January, 2014.

Monday, February 17, 2014

A Referendum Caught Between Supporters and Traitors



A referendum is meant to be a vote by the public whereby they can freely express their position on a certain political matter, but what is the point of a referendum when you’re only allowed to “freely” express one position but not the other?

Enough has been said about the referendum to understand that it was never a vote on the constitution. The document itself is flawed as pointed out even by extremely biased state influenced media. The rhetoric used to urge voters to accept the constitution interprets the referendum as a means to legitimise their existence through means other than mass protests. It marks the desire of the regime to end street politics that are difficult to control, into the more easily containable ballot box.

A great majority of voters were transparent as to why they voted Yes. It was simply a way to emphasise their rejection of the Muslim Brotherhood and close the chapter. Other reasons branching from this general sentiment are the desire for stability, gratitude for General Abdel Fatah Al-Sisi and military intervention, approval of the roadmap and so forth.

These reasons are not to be undermined. That there is a great sentiment of resentment against the Muslim Brotherhood within Egyptian society is undoubted; however, questions arise as to whether the path chosen actually achieves the goals perceived by those who approved it.

The real question is whether the government, bent on selling lies to the public, is actually taking the Yes vote as a means to achieve what people think it does. Was the regime asking a question to its citizens through the referendum or sending out an answer?

The government sent out every possible message that Yes was the only acceptable answer to the referendum. The defamation of potential actors who disapprove of the fore-drawn path combined with state security crackdowns on both Islamists and their independent opposition sent out a message that dissent is not tolerated. Public personalities queued up to echo state rhetoric, media did not allow opposition voices and the streets were flooded with expensive advertisements both direct and subliminal to guide people into participating with a Yes vote.

This unnecessary oversell had adverse effects on some people who grew suspicious as they would of a salesperson overly insistent on selling a product they already thought was good. But perhaps the most damaging of all measures is the arrest of activists campaigning for the No vote in the referendum (that along with ridiculous incidents, such as the arrest of a voter who wrote “No to Military Trials of Civilians” on the ballot box). It is a message from the regime in the strongest possible sense that this is the same kind of faux democracy under Mubarak, where democratic procedures were allowed but not democratic participation. Choice would be allowed in theory and eliminated in practice.

It is not likely that the majority of the voting block sees the crackdown on No campaigners as necessary or even beneficial.  They probably see it as a needless, stupid act that is inconsequential to the results (and rightly so). But it is exactly because such campaigning would not have changed the outcome that there is a fundamental problem and that these arrests cast a biggest shadow on the legitimacy of the referendum. A democracy is measured by the strength of the opposition, but in Egypt there is no opposition, only supporters and traitors.

While people see this act as entirely unnecessary, it is possible to speculate that the current regime doesn’t. These acts, along with a referendum, are meant to establish order. A government needs people to obey and dissidents to fear, and what better means other than enforcing that which the majority has already agree to. The referendum holds a different promise to the regime than it does to people, the promise that people will accept what they’re told through media, songs, posters, threats and punishment, if necessary. After all, governments have no reason to exist unless they govern, and in Egypt’s case, its governance has meant it can mandate what people should think.

In my assessment, impunity for the regime was implicitly voted for along with some of the people’s aspirations. The real concern, however, is that state impunity and oppression will strengthen opposition against it. In the long run, this may even strengthen the Brotherhood once again, who can be regarded as the most powerful organised alternative in the ranks of the opposition if sufficient numbers survive this crackdown. The results don’t seem to help avert this path either. A medium turn out, with an approval percentage of nearly 98%, reminiscent of Egypt’s oppressive past will make it seem that a boycott may have worked at least within the ranks of the Muslim Brotherhood, even if it isn’t true.

The regime can avert this path by living up to people’s expectations, both those announced, such as moving towards a new democratic legitimate post Morsi state, and unannounced, such as better livelihoods. Otherwise, people, disappointed in how their vote is turned into something that it’s not, will eventually rise up against those who fooled them.

As history looks back at this referendum, the climate in which it is remembered may look like that of an authoritarian rule backed by popular support (depending on how we move forward). A crackdown without due process of political opponents to the regime, arrest of activists who dared to campaign for a No vote, no party that supported a No vote in the referendum, a rhetoric that accused those in disagreement of treason, a climate that terrorised political opponents, both Muslim Brotherhood members and secular opposition, an environment where protesting against the state was practically prohibited through a protest law controlled by a police force diligently proving its corruption, a complacent judiciary and the absence of accountability for any state crime.

First published in Daily News Egypt on 18 January, 2014