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

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Traitors and the Exercise in Futility

The 29th of December marks Jika’s birthday. Gaber Salah, or “Jika” would have turned 19 in late 2013 had he not been killed by the Ministry of Interior under the then president Morsi. His birthday was celebrated by a few valiant friends and protesters who defied the new Protest Law by marching from his house in Abdeen to where he was shot over a year earlier. They were under a hundred. Such numbers symbolise what’s left of what was once a revolution.

There is a small section of society referred to as secular revolutionaries, who remain in opposition to the false choices of military and Muslim Brotherhood rule. As part of an ongoing campaign to silence them, the state has approached several activists and offered them governmental positions. For those who have turned it down, the security apparatus has threatened and harassed them, but the greatest weapon the state is using is the defamation campaign, which has already been set in motion.

As part of the defamation campaign, accusations of treason have been greatly damaging, sold to a public bent on believing outrageous allegations in order to justify the current reality. Almost every day, a television presenter with strong security ties broadcasts illegally recorded calls of prominent activists or media personnel known to support the 25 January Revolutionary ideals. The calls do nothing to prove treason but are aimed at character assassination of 25 January figures. When rights groups requested an investigation into citizen conversations that have been illegally leaked and the mobile provider, Vodafone, the state has brushed that aside and opted instead to investigate the same company for a puppet advertisement.

The defamation campaign comes as part of a systematic crackdown on secular opposition, rather than as a result of investigations. Why else would the regime first start by offering activists positions in the government? Why else would state security approach several of these activists explaining clearly how they knew that their accusations of espionage were not true, but that they would still use them to defame them?

One of the most revealing accounts of meetings with the state security was written by former MP Mostafa AlNagar, whose call with poet Abdel Rahman Youssef was leaked. The conversations, AlNagar reports, ensure that state security want activists to rid themselves of “illusions of democracy” and to stop talking about human rights and accountability. AlNagar is also left with promises to defame 25 January and ElBaradei supporters. But perhaps more compelling than the testimony itself is the corroboration of such messages from other activists hounded by state security.

It may be time for the secular revolutionaries to stop fighting and realise that they’ve always been traitors; traitors to the Egyptian government’s way of life and their propaganda, traitors to their injustice and traitors to their methods. These activists dare to denounce unjust laws and protest them not because they root for a person like Mohamed Morsi or Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, but because they support an idea, seemingly unfathomable to the myriad of Egyptians supporting their own personal saviours. That notion of holding on to an idea instead of a person is also treason to the Egyptian way of politics.

On 22 December, following the sentencing of three prominent activists, Mohamed ElBaradei tweeted, “Egypt: renunciation of violence, transitional justice and national reconciliation based on inclusiveness. Anything short: exercise in futility.”

ElBaradei’s words seem far removed from what’s happening, but they directly address what is happening in Egypt, an exercise in futility. While the connotation is that the state will not achieve stability due to its failure to address the basic needs of society, exercises in futility had a heavy toll, from the brutal illegal crackdowns and detentions of Morsi supporters to the defamation, harassment and imprisonment of secular activists and rights defenders.

The truth is that Egypt has been undergoing an exercise in futility for some time. The same Mubarak era tactics were used by all regimes, from the time of SCAF to the absent Adly Mansour, and all the more forcefully now to regain control. Defamation was a tactic employed under both SCAF and Morsi. Whether it is the farcical NGO trials attempting to undermine human rights and their defenders or moral accusations aimed at portraying activists in an immoral light, whether as traitors or infidels, the tactic hasn’t changed, but the ferociousness and efficiency of the attacks have been improved.

Activists are already tracked down, defamed, accused of malicious foreign funding, assaulted and imprisoned, much like the old ways. Protests are dealt with violently much like the old ways. Oppressive laws to counter any threat to the state are established much like the old ways.

Egyptians decided to give the new faces of the regime a chance, which means that the injustices counter, reset by the removal of Morsi, will have to accumulate once again until injustices seep into the everyday lives of ordinary Egyptians. Justice remains absent and the term reconciliation would mean an end to the current plan of complete annihilation of any form of opposition (although actual reconciliation with old regime figures is ongoing anyway).  So the regime continues every day in its exercise in futility to give the current order a lifeline.

Perhaps even activists have been undergoing that same exercise themselves. They have been trying to convince Egyptians that they’re not traitors, that they believe in a different way of life with fewer injustices and more freedoms and more loyalty to values rather than individuals.

It is difficult to know whether it really is an exercise in futility on their part, but I cannot help but draw a parallel with the story in the movie, The Battle of Algiers. The movie talks about resistance between the years 1954 and 1957 when guerrilla fighters were prepared to fight for the independence of Algeria. They were crushed by French paratroopers, yet a few years later, people rose up and fought the occupation without a direct intellectual link between the movement and the uprising that ensued.

Will people reject the crackdown on humanity and activists before complete eradication? Will people wait and then take matters into their hands again when oppression once again permeates their everyday lives?

Perhaps the rejection of the regime’s old oppressive ways can be seen as treason. Maybe that’s why people are supportive of the treason rhetoric pushed by the regime’s intelligence agencies. This too may change by time. However, until it does, there will be no room for those who want to challenge the current accepted norms of repression and injustice. There will be no room for these types of traitors who want to challenge the status quo, not until Egyptians themselves turn into traitors of this sort, traitors to injustice.

First published in Daily News Egypt on 4 Jan, 2014.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Tell yourself

Tell yourself you’re better off not knowing. Tell yourself everything will be okay. Tell yourself there’s no need to make a fuss about things that go wrong with the world. Tell yourself that those in charge are responsible and know what they’re doing. Tell yourself that those who robbed your country now have your best interest at heart. Tell yourself that the police that violated all laws will bring about justice. Tell yourself that the judges who have politicized most of their verdicts will now be impartial. Tell yourself that the corrupt businessmen who have manipulated politics for so long will now serve their districts. 

Tell yourself that those who called for bread, freedom and justice were all financed from abroad. Tell yourself that it was their responsibility to fix everything that has gone wrong. Tell yourself that the country is better off without them. Tell yourself that they’re naïve and lack the wisdom that you see. Tell yourself that they belong in jail. Tell yourself that the calls they leak are deserved. Tell yourself they’re in prison because they broke the law.

Tell yourself that it’s not acceptable that people protest using bad language even if who they’re protesting against are thieves, killers and thugs. Tell yourself that you’re better because you support the government politely and they oppose the government with impolite curses. Tell yourself that bad language is worse than murder, shouting worse than torture, that anyone with a uniform is better than someone without.

Tell yourself that your morals are intact when you preach them in the mosques, in the churches and in your work place, but that they don’t apply to political life. Tell yourself that you haven’t violated your own moral code when you cheer on every violation of human rights, every torture, every arbitrary arrest and every murder. Tell yourself that these things happen everywhere and that things will get better by themselves. 

Tell yourself everything you need to put your conscience at ease, so that you can sleep better at night.

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Staring into Darkness: A Chance Encounter with State Security

A chance encounter got me to look into the faces of state security officers and informants as they were stalking one of the activists. I’m not at liberty to describe what brought this about, but I can certainly remember their behaviour and I remember their faces. With that look, as we both stared at one another, I got a glimpse of what state security is really like.

The one I looked at seemed to be a young officer in charge of the case. He was dressed casually, but in his face there was a look of death. There was darkness underneath his eyes and a look of defiance to the entire world. If he had not been a state security officer, that same look would have been in hardened criminal, familiar with the underworld and excelling at it by mercilessly eradicating his opponents. That was the look on his face, as though humanity and mercy had been robbed of him. It was as if his soul had already been condemned to the darkness of hell, if there really was a soul in there. There was no redemption in that face. 

I came to think about whether I was making this up in my head or if it was true. I have a thing for reading people’s faces though, they tell me so much about them, and my sense of what they tell is seldom every wrong. Still there’s no way to find out whether all of this was true, and so I figured I’d reason through it.

As a state security officer, I can imagine the kind of life he may have had. When he was young he was probably impoverished, picked on for his poverty and in his attempt to escape such judgement, he must have taken the only possible route that would earn him some respect, a path of servitude to the powerful so that he can be powerful and respected for his position rather than his money. Such a path must have lead him to blind servitude to powerful men and in exchange for respect from others, he accepted to serve those with power. What was new about this? He was always looked down upon anyway. One of these days he’d grow powerful and show all these little people that he was better than them. One of these days he’d show them that it was only their money that earned them respect. But he, he is a survivor who has gone through darkness and ended up triumphant.

He had to serve a series of powerful people in the police, and in gratitude to his obedience, they made him one of them, with the power to get away with anything they chose. He could break the law, but not only that, he would be doing it in the name of serving his country, personified in his power masters. What more could he want, the dark underworld he was accustomed to, but with a position of ruling over it. No one would question anything he does and he can always justify any crime he chose to do through patriotism. This was a strong network of the most powerful people in the country, they can force any judge to acquit him, any government body to succumb to his will. They did that for one another, and in return demanded loyalty, whether they’re right or wrong.

They were charged with the security of the state, but they themselves  were the state, and they were charged, using the most vile means available to safeguard themselves. Those police officers from lowly origins need to be seen as masters, and so they act like it. They are charged with the politics of the country, they knew best.

This officer finds that he was given the chance to do anything he wants, with no one to answer to but his corrupt masters. He can torture, he can kill, he can interrogate and he can sexually abuse any woman or man. He’s seen it all and done it all and no one could ever bring him to account. All the humanity inside him has been killed. He feels like a god on the streets. Who could ever question him or bring him to account if he chooses to commit a crime in the name of the state? If two ordinary policeman can beat a young man to death in plain view and get away with it, is it not easier for a state security officer to do the same?

For a time, people have rejected these sinister practices, understanding fully well that this group of people never cared for national security, never cared for the state. They only cared to preserve the current order of power. But now, people have given them a license to be gods once again, they can pillage and plunder, they can torture and kill, they can harass and intimidate and no one would bring them into account. No one can claim that what they do is a crime, there is an assumption they’re working for a greater good. They themselves feel their crimes can be justified through nationalism and elitism. 

And so as I look at him, he looks back at me with complete disdain and arrogance. Looking at him is like staring into the abyss. There’s no one to turn to, it’s just you and the beasts. No police can help you, no judiciary, no army personnel, no politician, no foreign power and even the people you trusted for solidarity have forsaken you. You’re staring darkness in the eye. 

But as I look into this darkness, I remember one thing. That I’m not as filthy, not as criminal, not as corrupt. I’m not as soulless as the person I’m staring into. Perhaps that doesn’t mean much to him, but it means the world to me.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

On Advice to Revolutionaries

A lot of advice is given day and night over all the television channels as to how we must ally ourselves with the military and move forward because of the Muslim Brotherhood threat. I’ve read a lot of it that sounds great from a literary perspective, talking about deals to be made and compromises that we should do. Most of the advice is given to everyone other than the police, the military  and the government.

I think such advice really patronizes those fighting for our cause. The problem is that the words sound good, but they mean nothing to those on the ground. It addresses none of our real concerns, it provides no way out. If advice is talking about building a real democracy then we all agree to it, but such advice ends up addressing the wrong party. The revolutionaries aren't running the country, they're just monitoring its progress. 

While we all agree we want to build a democracy, some of us on the ground are worried about 'How'. How can you deal with a regime that offers revolutionaries positions in government and then offers them rape and death threats if they don't accept? How do you ally yourself with a military that is overreaching for more power and does not want to compromise any of its interests for the sake of the country? How do you address unjust laws passed that give police the power to select your next parliament and to keep you in jail? How do you address a protest law combined with a constitution that can get you tried in a military court for protesting.  (Yes, you can get tried in a military court for protesting because CSF troops are not police, they're military conscripts and the police usually fabricates charges against protesters).

These are just a few simple examples, the rabbit hole goes deeper. So until there is solid advice that answers the real concerns and the how of the matter, I would advise the advisors not to give us advice that doesn't really give us much to do. If only it were that simple, if only it were that possible. In case they write away, they put out a disclaimer that this is just literature. 

On the other hand and to be fair, there is a problem with revolutionaries too. They do have valid reasons for opposing the roadmap, the constitution and the protest law. They do have valid reasons for going out to protest and rejecting the unsound advice. But they do not articulate their ideas and their reasoning well enough. A few go out in protest and say ‘Down with military rule’, with this chant not being representative because the military now rules through proxy, and the chant alienates more than charges. To counteract this, some say ‘Down with MB guide’s rule’, another nonsensical chant because he isn’t ruling. 

In a sense, both Rabaa and June 30 are the flip side of the same coin that undermines January 25. The trouble is that revolutionaries aren’t working on patiently counteracting the silly flawed arguments put forward by Rabaa and June 30 supporters turning as populist as their counterparts. In order to move forward, we must address the nonsensical notions of our advisors and our opponents by patiently coagulating our rhetoric so that it’s more cohesive and comprehensible and irrevocable. Until then we must, side-by-side, call the oppressors out on their oppression, call the liars out on their lies.