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.