Nukhba? Who the fuck is Nukhba? – Egyptian intellectuals and the revolution

Eat your words

Youssef Rakha discusses the culture of revolution

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Egypt has had Islamists and “revolutionaries”. So who are the nukhba or elite routinely denigrated as a “minority” that “looks down on the People”? Educated individuals, non-Islamist political leaders, the catalysts of the revolution itself… But, in the political context, this group is to all intents synonymous with the cultural community. As per the tradition, which long predates the Arab Spring, writers, artists, scholars and critics often double as political activists/analysts and vice versa; and in this sense much of “the civil current” (anything from far-right conservative to radical anarchist) is made up of “the elite”—of intellectuals.

Construed as a political player, the cultural community in Egypt has been the principal challenge to the Islamists since January-February 2011, when the revolution took place—an understandably weak rival among the uneducated, materialistic and sectarian masses. Yet how has the cultural community dealt with the revolution regardless of this fact, assuming that what took place really was a revolution?

Considering that the speaker belongs in that community, however reluctantly, the answer will be a kind of testimony. It is up to the disentangled listener to make up their mind about imagination, politics, identity and the Role of the Intellectual: an unduly popular theme since long before the revolution. In the last two years, the meaning of each has changed repeatedly; and, as guardians of such values, intellectuals were forced to reinvent themselves in new, unstable contexts—something that has tested their creativity, integrity, sense of belonging and worth.

It would be easy to regurgitate platitudes to the effect that, as Conscious Agents, “we” were defeated yet again in the fight to spread enlightenment—which is good, and eliminate backwardness—which is bad, aiming towards Social Consciousness in the underdeveloped society-cum-postcolonial state in which we live. As activists, theorists, historians and politicians, however, how can we be sure that our enlightenment isn’t a symptom of the very backwardness we think we’re fighting? Since the dawn of modern Egypt under Muhammad Ali Pasha, after all, the very existence of a cultural community has been subsidised/tolerated, and the range of its action delimited, by the (military, anyway non-intellectual) powers that be.

What took place in January-February 2011 was a revolution insofar as it achieved regime change, however unlike its champions are the beneficiaries. In practise, of course, the nukhba—where it did not actively seek alliances with political Islam or otherwise condone its undemocratic practises—failed to show enough belief in the possibility of a viable alternative distinct from “the first republic”. This is not to say that, as the “ruler” at the helm of “the second republic”, the MB is not in most ways an extension of the Mubarak regime. But, unlike the nukhba, political Islam had established itself as the well-meaning underdog—a ploy even the nukhba itself seemed to fall for.

But the underdog ploy could not in itself explain why, when we had the opportunity to help establish a functional democratic state in place of the dysfunctional quasi-military dictatorship we’ve had since the early 1950s, what we did, consciously or unconsciously, was to help establish the even more dysfunctional quasi-theocratic dictatorship now emerging. In the same way as political Islam has continued to play the role of Opposition even after it came to power, intellectuals seem to thrive on the absence of the Social Consciousness they purport to work for. It’s this absence that makes them look useful, after all, saving them the trouble of asking how, without either killing themselves/emigrating or openly giving up all pretensions of a Role/all socially “committed” activity, they might remain relevant to society.

The failure of the cultural community to make use of young people’s sacrifices—to take social-political initiative, adopt a clear moral stance or seriously revise half a century’s worth of historical “givens”—should illustrate how. In the course of regime change, “enlightenment” has cast the intellectual in one or more of their accepted roles: as Conscience of the Nation, as Voice of the People or as Prophet of Better Times. In each case the intellectual not only failed at their role but also actively compromised it, partly because the rhetoric attached to the process of engagement, which the intellectual as a rule will prioritise over the process itself, tends to be irrational, self-contradictory or absurd.

Too often that rhetoric is at once progressive and conservative, idealistic and pragmatic, moral and insincere—”poetic” in the worst (Arab) sense. What is presented as a cause—Palestine, for example—is in fact a festering status quo. Commitment to the Palestinian question was for decades on end a pretext for the worst forms of repression in much of the Arab world; and how exactly has that benefited Palestinians?

As in all discourses that apologise for totalitarian measures or tendencies, euphemism abounds. Social unity through wasati or moderate as opposed to ussouli or fundamentalist Islam, for example, has helped shift the emphasis away from universal rights and freedoms to a normative, sect-based (and, as it turns out, completely fantastical) status quo. As the catchword of that faction of formerly/nominally left-wing intellectuals who have supported the ex-Muslim Brotherhood leader, presidential candidate Abdelmoneim Abulfetouh and/or his subsequently established Strong Egypt Party, wasati has in effect extended the space in which fundamentalist dictatorship is to be taken for granted.

Likewise, instead of appeasing the Salafis—its avowed reason—the decision to replace ‘almani or “secular” with madani or “civil” in early campaigns helped to confirm the idea that the former word is in fact a synonym for “atheist” or, as a Salafi would put it, “apostate”, ceding the Salafis even more ground without granting “us” any more popularity or credibility among the Islamist-sympathetic grass roots.

For its part the discourse of “social justice” championed by (among others) the Nasserist presidential candidate Hamdin Sabahi, while reflecting an age-old obsession with class, fails to improve on Nasser’s more or less catastrophic legacy of state control; it does not address the issue of where wealth will come from, let alone the effectual means to its redistribution…

As Conscience of the Nation, the nukhba betrayed its role early on. Starting with the referendum on constitutional amendments that practically gave the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces absolute power in March 2011—and whose “yes” result Islamist forces were instrumental in obtaining—the cultural community condoned, participated in and often promoted the kind of “democratic” process undertaken with totalitarian intent. As a result, both the parliamentary and presidential elections were held in the absence of a constitution, and the vote-based process whereby political Islam aims to eliminate democracy is already underway.

Serving SCAF and MB interests and alliances, these “democratic weddings” took place under bloody circumstances, if not actually (as in the case of the parliamentary elections) directly at the expense of young protesters’ blood. Considering the MB’s underdog appeal and its tribal (increasingly ruling party-style) hold on much of the countryside, not to mention the Gulf’s Wahhabi influence on the culture, with vast numbers of susceptible Egyptians importing backward practices from their place of work on the Arabian peninsula—the pro-Islamist results of ballot-only democracy are a forgone conclusion. (I believe this holds for the constitutional referendum, whose results are to be announced.)

Instead of exposing such travesties of democratic process for what they are—by, at least, refusing to be part of them—each time the cultural community, including not only politically aware “revolutionaries” but, most recently, the openly anti-MB National Rescue Front—reverted to proactive and community-aware attitudes which, dictating a game whose rules “we” already knew to be unfair, was bound to serve Islamist interests. In so doing the nukhba also gave credence to the increasingly untenable assumption that what has been happening is political participation. Had the protesters of 25 January-11 February played by the rules set by the Mubarak regime and SCAF—as their “oppositional” predecessors had been doing for decades—no revolution would have occurred at all.

Undertaken on the scale of “the revolution”, a rigorous boycott of all such events—which would be the correct stance from the moral and “revolutionary” standpoint while not necessarily undermining the social status quo or being any less pragmatic as a course of action—might have stopped the forward march of the Dark Ages in its tracks, or at least presented it with a significant obstacle. If nothing else, it would have given meaning to a string of million-man demonstrations whose demands, while sometimes just as bloody and authoritarian in their way as the policies of the powers that be, were always muddled and unclear. If it isn’t the job of the Conscience of the Nation embodied in the icons of the revolution to give the lie to the ballot box as a means to dictatorship, I don’t know what is.

Yet, having agreed to enter the presidential race in the absence of a constitution determining their powers—and this is but one example of the nukhba failing to be consistent enough to act as its own conscience, let alone that of any nation—both Aboulfetouh and Sabahi were happy to lead a million-man demonstration protesting the results of the first round, which narrowed down the choice to the representative of the former regime, Ahmed Shafik, and the MB’s second choice, Mohamed Morsi. Neither Aboulfetouh nor Sabahi showed the least respect for the democratic process of which they had agreed to be part, nor the least concern about the rise to power of the MB through Morsi; apart from bolstering up the chances of the latter and helping identify the anti-nukhba MB with a revolution instigated by the nukhba, that million-man demonstration served no purpose whatsoever.

Now that the MB has virtually declared civil war on its opponents, who might be the People in whose name the nukhba prophesied better times after SCAF? Surely they are the ones who, while protesting Morsi’s singularly autocratic, blast-the-judiciary constitutional declaration of 22 November 2012 (a typically MB maneuvre to speed up the completion of and pass the Islamist-dominated draft constitution), were attacked/murdered, arrested and tortured by MB members and Salafis in no way officially affiliated with government institutions—and if not for the courage of individual prosecutors would have been framed for thuggery as well. Guided if not by their nukhba then by “revolutionary” ideas in which the nukhba had trafficked, many of these protesters had actually voted for Morsi.

When the People were able to force Hosny Mubarak to step down after 30 years in power, the People were a unified entity, unequivocally synonymous not only with “the revolutionaries” in Tahrir Square but also, very significantly, with the nukhba that had blessed their being there, the cultural community. Since that moment we have come a long way, especially in the light of the by now absurd statement that (as the slogan has it) “the revolution continues”: athawra musstamirra.

Now the most we can do, whether as revolutionaries or intellectuals, is to vote no in the referendum on a constitution that compromises some of the most basic rights and promises to turn Egypt into both a worse presidential dictatorship than it was under Mubarak and a Sunni-style “Islamic republic”—its drafting, thanks in part to our failure to boycott parliamentary elections, having been monopolised by Islamists—a referendum whose ultimate result, due as much to our dithering and lack of imagination as to Islamist power, influence and politicking, will almost certainly be a “yes” vote.

Being the champions who have not managed to become beneficiaries even in the most noble sense, indeed in some cases being the very (presumably involuntary) instruments of political Islam, how are we to see ourselves two years after the fact? Not in the kind of light that obscures the possibility that the pose we adopt, our Role, might be simply that: an affectation that helps us with upward mobility and individual self-esteem, but whose social-cultural function—like political Islam, identity-driven, with a chip on its shoulder vis-a-vis the former coloniser—is ultimately to legitimise systematic incompetence, economic dependence and sectarian tribalism.

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Watermelon republic

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Watermelon republic
Ensconced online, Youssef Rakha plays sportscaster
In the last few weeks cyber politicising has of course centred on the presidential elections. Apart from a few smallish boycott campaigns on Facebook, few have discussed the significance of what—were it not for the Washington-blessed military-and-Islamist pincers holding political reality in place—would have been the most significant event in Egyptian history since 1953. No one has brought up such issues as the absurdity of running in the absence of a constitution (i.e., on a programme that may prove impracticable once the constitution is drafted), the fact that democratic process is untenable under the hegemony of a military junta, or the lack of any difference between rigging and obtaining votes by distributing sacs of rice or bottles of cooking oil or indeed gas cylinders a la Muslim Brotherhood campaign strategy. The politicising has centred, rather, on who to vote for—and activists as much as analysts, both professional and amateur, have displayed disturbing levels of hysteria in championing the cause of their candidate of choice, fuelled either by supposed loyalty to the revolution and its martyrs or by concern for the future of security and economic stability—with the result that the scene looks like a football match in which the players are substandard and the two teams on the field (the Islamists and the Fuloul or “Remnants of the Fallen Regime”) are vying for supporters of a third (the Revolutionaries) that has been disqualified from competing.
Of the 13 candidates, four (2, 3, 7 and 11) remain more or less completely unknown. Three (the Islamist intellectual Mohammed Selim El Awwa-8, the oppositional judge Hisham El Bastawisi-6 and the leftist MP Abul Ezz El Hariri-1) are generally believed to have little or no chance. And one would seem to be running more to demonstrate that he can than to actually win: the young lawyer and activist Khalid Ali (12), perceived by the writers-and-artists ghetto as the revolution’s candidate—”the romantic dreamers’ choice,” as it has been put—comes across as an unintelligent parody of the populist orator, barely adequate for the presidency of the Youth Centre at the working-class neighbourhood-cum-shanty town of Habbaneyya. Five candidates remain, only one of whom—the well-known Nasserist politician Hamdin Sabbahi (10)—remains outside the Islamist-Fuloul polarity. Despite Arab nationalist and centralist hangovers, reported affinities with Saddam and Gaddafi, and occasional statements in support of Al Qaeda, Sabbahi’s programme would seem to be the pragmatic-progressive path of least resistance under the circumstances; and those relatively sensible tweeps and Facebookers who are cured of spasticity have switched to his side. But it is regarding the four polar candidates that most of the cockfights have taken place: the conservative Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed (Spare Tyre) Morsi-13, who ran in place of Khairat El Shater when the latter was legally blocked from running; the reformist Muslim Brotherhood’s Abdel Moneim (Retired Terrorist) Abul Fetouh-5, who had to resign from the Muslim Brotherhood in order to run; the former air force commander, civil aviation minister and last prime minister under Mubarak Ahmad (George W.) Shafik-9; and the former foreign minister and Arab League secretary Amr (Cigar Bey) Moussa-4.
Not to suggest that they are any less likely to win than the other three, Spare Tyre and George W. have elicited more mockery than critique, as they are patently empty dummies of what they stand for: respectively, corrupt quasi-theocracy whose principal achievement thus far has been organising mass female-genital-mutilation bonanzas in the provinces, and the pre-25 Jan status quo. Apart from the latter’s often hilarious verbal blunders (“Unfortunately the revolution succeeded”, or “I fought for my country: I killed and I was killed”), they have done nothing to induce any strong feelings—or change anyone’s mind about anything. So it is to (especially liberal) supporters of Retired Terrorist and their cigar-lighting detractors that much of the frenzied pecking has fallen; who will draw blood first remains to be seen. As it has been repeatedly pointed out, however, the pro-revolution, conscientious and “enlightened” face of the Brotherhood is as fanatical as the best of them: suffice to say that, on air, he broke down in tears over his differences with his comrades in arms more often than over anything else; he expressed respect for the assassins of president Sadat, and never repented being a founding member of the Jamaa Islamiya (who are responsible for the bulk of tourist bombings and assassinations of secular figures during the 1990s), so even if he has renounced violence, Abul Fetouh’s loyalties are clear. Drinkers, unmarried couples, creative people and other believers in personal freedom can look forward to various forms of elimination or refugee status abroad. Amr Bey, on the other hand—though infinitely more sophisticated and articulate than Shafik—is a self-acknowledged pillar of the post-9/11 world order; he tries to curry favour by pretending to have championed the Palestinian cause when in fact he is among the architects of the defunct peace process; he is old and arrogant and unlikely to shy away from heavy-handed suppression of the opposition, probably by now more interested in his cigars and other pleasures than anything else indeed.
Still, when all is said and done, the action is only just beginning. Now that it is watermelon season, watching while we make obscene squishy noises and drip red liquid everywhere should be fun. Needless to say, this writer is boycotting the presidential elections.

Twittotalitarian

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At about five am this morning (2 May), I woke up to news of people being murdered in and around the site of the Abbassiya (Ministry of Defence) sit-in (#MOF on Twitter, ongoing since late Friday, 27 April). I began following the news online, relying on tweeps who were either already in Abbassiya or on their way there. For the first time since the start of the sit-in, I also paid attention to what the star activists (Alaa Abdel Fattah and Nawara Negm, in this case) had to say about developments—in the vague hope of finding out why, beyond their continued and, to my mind, increasingly irresponsible enthusiasm for “peaceful protests” regardless of the purpose or tenability of the event in question, such cyber-driven “revolutionaries” had sided with the fanatical Salafi supporters of former presidential candidate Hazem Salah Abu Ismail.
Following a prolonged sit-in in Tahrir to protest Abu Ismail being disqualified from entering the race for the presidency because his late mother held a US passport, supporters of the lawyer-cum-TV proselytiser, demanding the dissolution of the Higher Committee for Presidential Elections and the instant handover of power to civilians by SCAF, had decided to escalate by moving the sit-in to the ministry headquarters in Abbassiya. (Remarkably, Abu Ismail himself at no point either called on his supporters to stop protesting on his behalf or bothered to join them in person; the Sheikh, as many of them called him in fervent tones, complained of a sprained ankle that kept preventing him from being among his warriors of Islam. Only after people started dying at the hands of thugs widely thought to be deployed by SCAF did Abu Ismail declare that he had nothing to do with the protest in the first place.) Since Friday, however, Salafis had been joined by all manner of protesters including politicised football Ultras rallying around the slogan “Down with military rule”.
The sit in had been subject to periodic attacks by thugs aiming to disband it, but nothing as systematic or as garish as what had been unfolding when I started looking at my Twitter timeline this morning; whether due to a decision by those commanding the thugs to end the sit-in once and for all or because the protesters had managed to irk the local residents sufficiently for the latter to join in the fight against them, the conflict was reaching new and disturbing heights; Negm said she could smell blood everywhere around her on reaching Abbassiya around eight am.
With the majority of tweets discussing an earlier (probably true) report by Abdel Fattah that protesters chasing thugs through the backstreets of a residential area far removed from the sit-in itself had fired live ammunition of their own—it was later reported that, by accidentally killing an unaffiliated young man, either protesters or thugs posing as protesters had incited the whole neighbourhood to declare war on the sit-in—there was not much scope for working out what the self-declared leaders of Egypt’s popular revolution were thinking. Here, translated from Arabic as literally as possible, is the tweet that threw me into a silent rage, however (it was by Abdel Fattah’s sister Mona Seif, addressing fellow Twitter-activists): “Whoever truly wants to help will either join the march that’s gathering in half an hour at Al-Fath Mosque or go to Demerdash [Hospital] and donate blood to the injured. Otherwise no one has the time for you, seriously.”
***
To explain my rage—first to myself—and to try and answer my initial questions about why the “Sons of Abu Ismail” protest was perceived as an episode of “the ongoing revolution” and how the star activists can fail to see that what “the immediate handover of power to civilians” means at the present moment is the immediate transformation of Egypt into an Islamist dictatorship not likely to be any less murderous to dissidents than SCAF (and let me state, again, in no uncertain terms, that I do not condone SCAF remaining in power any more than I ever condoned SCAF taking control of the country in the first place), I want to say a few things about that tweet.
The first thing I want to say is purely factual. Neither did the 9.30 am march to which the tweet referred make it to the sit-in—thugs and/or military forces blocked the way—nor were there any injured protesters at Demerdash Hospital at that time (the latter was soon confirmed by Negm from there). It was subsequent, purely “peaceful” marches—for which read “mired in the crimes of actual and potential wielders of political power, and ones that included deep-in-the-political-process players like the Islamist presidential candidate Abdel Moneim Abul Fetouh—that prompted executive power on the ground to take control, eventually, patchily cutting short the fighting. (Abbassiya has since turned into a hub of purely Islamist “peaceful” demonstrations.) Such, of course, are the pitfalls not only of hearsay but also of Twitter-based (and apparently also politically suicidal) revolutionary command strategy. Following Seif’s instructions could not actually have resulted in anyone “helping” anyone or anything at all, whether truly or in any other way. Perhaps her tone actively discouraged a good few people from WANTING to help.
I am also forced to ask—a little more philosophically, if I may in these “revolutionary” (for which read chaotically populist) times—what it is precisely that activists thought they were doing when they headed over to the sit-in last night or this morning, launching their usual bombardments of haphazard, confusing instructions and cryptically brief comments in the usual arrogant and peremptory tone. In what capacity? For nearly 18 months it has been demonstrated time and again that, helpless against thugs, local residents and/or organised security forces both visible and in plain clothes, unarmed protesters end up being killed for nothing even when demonstrations have a clear-cut purpose or cause (the Port Said massacre prompting Ultras and other protesters to rise up against the Ministry of Interior, for example). I am forced to ask whether this self-righteous zeal for protests is actually as moral as it seems considering that it results in innocent people dying. Who do the activists actually represent apart from themselves and their fans? Morally speaking—and there is nothing but a supposedly idealistic moral stance that justifies their attitude—aren’t the activists to blame for the deaths incurred in this endless travesty of regime change?
The third thing I want to say is that, as it seems to me as much from Twitter as from first-hand experience and basic understanding of such mental conditions as temporary collective psychosis and obsessive compulsive disorder, for these people “activism”—which as often as not reduces to calling for and/or attending ultimately murderously suppressed protests—is more of a way of life than a political statement. The constant sense of urgency eliminating any rational questions about what’s going on and how we might best relate to it combines with celebrity status and the often downright stupidity of a black-and-white perspective on events to maintain this lifestyle and generate a “revolutionary” reality not only different from—indeed opposed to—the reality of the people but different even from the substance of the revolution itself. I seem to recall Negm tweeting something to the effect of, “Let’s make sure the Muslims Brotherhood takes the reigns of power as soon as possible so we can protest against them while we’re ready”! Does one ask oneself, when one tweets something like that, about what will happen when it is the Muslim Brotherhood who are responsible for the loss of life and there is still no efficient alternative to the Muslim Brotherhood? Does it occur to one that maybe one is simply ENJOYING protests and the rhetoric that goes with them—the bloodier, the more epic—more than making any statement about or contribution to history?