To Wake the People: Egypt’s Interminable Haul to Democracy

“The People are asleep my darling”
So she’d tell him;
He, too,
Was careful not to wake the People,
To endure its dreams
Like a kid’s kicks,
To ape its slack tongue like a fool,
To crawl before it on all fours
That he might tell it the story of creation…

— Mohab Nasr (translated by Robin Moger)

Two and a half years after the January 25, 2011 uprising, I’m with my friend Aboulliel in the room I still have at my parents’ house. We’re slurping Turkish coffee and dragging on Marlboros, absorbed in conversation, when suddenly it feels as if we’ve been on the same topic since we sat here for the first time in 1998 or 1999: what should Egypt’s army-dominated government do about the Islamists’ sit-ins?

There are two of them, each thousands-strong, in Rabaa Al-Adawiya Mosque and Al-Nahda squares (east and west Cairo), the latter within walking distance of Dokky, where this apartment is located. They are crippling Cairo’s hobbling traffic and, as a security hazard, blocking the inflow of much needed tourist cash. They include all kinds of adherent of political Islam: Salafist, Jihadist, Jihadist-Salafist, Muslim Brother, renegade Muslim Brother and independently operating Islamist. And they’ve been going on for nearly 40 days, immobilizing the middle-class residential community of Rabaa and taunting the Cairo University students and faculty shuffling about campus near Al-Nahda. Their “defense committees” function like checkpoints, with club-wielding men searching baggage and reviewing IDs. Amnesty International has corroborated reports by independent local news channels like OnTV and CBC that “spies” caught inside them were secretly buried after having their fingers chopped off, among other atrocities. The media claims that each garrison harbors hardcore weaponry, and machine guns have been sighted in use against pro-army citizens who picked fights with protesters marching through their neighborhoods…

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The menace of resistance


Youssef Rakha, Islamophobe


Youssef Rakha thinks about the Brotherhood, the military and the modern state

A long time ago — it must have been 2000 — I was briefly in trouble at work for apparently belittling the achievement of Hezbollah against Israel in an article I had written.
The censure came from a left-wing, thoroughly secular editor; and I wasn’t particularly distressed to have to redraft the paragraphs in question. Perhaps, I thought, I had let my Islamophobia get the better of me. (I should point out that, though steadfastly agnostic, I am still Muslim, as eclectically proud of my heritage as any post-Enlightenment individual can reasonably be; so my self-acknowledged Islamophobia refers neither to the religion nor the historical identity but specifically to the far more recent phenomenon — perhaps I may be allowed to say “catastrophe” — of political Islam.) I was to realise that much of the Arab left’s respect for Hezbollah centred on the concept of resistance and, especially, its perceived triumph over a materially superior power, independently of a quasi-commonwealth of incompletely constructed modern states whose majority’s compromised position had rendered it an ineffective rival to “the Zionist entity”.
In the same context though perhaps not from the same time, I remember having mixed feelings about a Moroccan activist in a demonstration on Al Jazeera crying out repeatedly, “I am secular, but I support the Islamic resistance in Lebanon.”
Admittedly, when I wrote that article, what bothered me the most about Hezbollah was its underlying (theocratic) totalitarianism, not its armed struggle per se. But since then, over many years in which I have been exposed to much more historical-political material as well as experiencing regional and local developments first hand — and without losing any of my contempt for Israel or the postcolonial order that sustains it, for which my being an Arab or a Muslim is by no means necessary — I have come to see very major issues with the concept of resistance itself: so much so that, like Jihadism, it sometimes seems to me one of the postcolonial world powers’ less visible instruments.
Notwithstanding how Hezbollah has renounced the moral high ground by supporting Bashar Al Assad’s regime in Syria — one of the few supposedly uncompromised states whose “resistance” status has allowed it to practice genocide against its own citizens with impunity since the 1980s while in no way improving its situation vis-a-vis Israel — it is of course less about the Arab-Israeli conflict that I am thinking than the confluence of the left (socialist, Arab nationalist or “Nasserist”) and political Islam in the aftermath of January-February 2011 in Egypt: the Arab Spring. I am thinking about how that confluence, perhaps more than any other factor, has emptied “revolution” of any possible import. To what extent did the theory and practice of resistance in what has probably been the most important of the compromised Arab states lead to the perpetuation of both military hegemony and systematic deprivation of basic rights and freedoms, including freedom of belief?
The current “transfer of power” to the Muslim Brotherhood is not happening as a result of the protests and sacrifices that made regime change possible over 18 months ago. It is not happening against the will of the postcolonial world order. It is happening as a result of West-blessed, SCAF-mediated “democratic” politicising — facilitated precisely by standing in ideological and practical opposition to the former status quo (an advantage the more or less liberal, as opposed to Islamist, protesters who staged “the revolution” never had).
Unlike agents of the modern state but like Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, Islamists led by the Muslim Brotherhood have helped to provide citizens with services, garnered their tribal loyalty by encouraging their conservatism and fed them an identity-based discourse of heroism, piety or renaissance. Preying on their raw emotions, they have also given them material rewards in return for their votes.
Now, contrary to what the left has been preaching since the start of the presidential elections, the “transfer of power” at hand will keep all the military’s unlawful privileges intact: the enormous military economy will continue to operate unscathed; crimes against humanity committed in the last 18 months will go unpunished; “revolutionaries” who have been subject to military trial will neither be re-tried nor released without high-profile intervention, etc. At the same time, while other beneficiaries of institutionalised corruption may change, the security and judicial apparatus that sustains it will not.
Thus resistance: somewhere in the collective imagination, irrespective of historical fact, the Muslim Brotherhood is not the capitalist, scheming, dictatorial, corrupt and abusive entity that the Mubarak regime was. It is a force of resistance. Never mind that it is sectarian, misogynistic, totalitarian, irrational and just as postcolonially compromised (hence just as capitalist, scheming etc.): as the de facto custodian of a religion and a culture it has only actually acted to humiliate, the Brotherhood is seen as an alternative, in exactly the same way as Hezbollah was seen as an alternative, to the failed state. What is either not seen or purposely overlooked is that the alternative’s existence depends on the failure of the state and modernity, which to one degree or another political Islam has always encouraged or helped to perpetuate.
So, while Islamophobia in the West is fear of the physically violent monster secretly created to combat communism during the Cold War, my own Islamphobia is fear of the morally violent monster covertly spawned by the failure of the postcolonial nation state and increasingly integrated into the world order at the expense not of Western (or communist) lives but of Muslim minds and souls. My Islamophobia is in fact a profoundly Muslim response to “revolution”.
Yet it is resistance as a concept that seems to hold the key. Not that the Muslim Brotherhood has used the term recently, but it is written into the proposed political formulation of a collective and supposedly efficacious identity that that identity should be against something.
What is required for this is not that the orientation in question should actually be against anything in practice, whether that thing is the world order, Israel or institutionalised corruption in the Egyptian state. It is interesting to note that, while their raison d’être is to be a distinct moral improvement on the corrupt, compromised political status quo, the Muslim Brothers, whether in parliament or beyond, have so far replicated the Mubarak regime’s conduct and mores, from pledging alliance to Washington and guaranteeing Israel’s security to monopolising and abusing power (the Freedom and Justice Party being, in effect, the “Islamic” variation on the now dissolved National Democratic Party).
What is required, rather, is that the resisting entity should espouse a certain degree of (moral if not physical) violence, drawing on both a totalitarian sense of identity and a paranoid conviction of victimhood. This is not to deny that the Muslim Brotherhood had been subject to persecution since its foundation in 1928; it is to say that, in the absence of any holistic vision even for the future of Islam (one that would crucially include ways to eliminate rather than perpetuate those anachronistic and obstructive aspects of the faith that alienate Muslims from the modern world and prevent them from contributing to human civilisation), the victimisation of the Muslim Brotherhood can only mean a justification for getting their own back — not actually changing anything for the majority of Egyptians.
Without any aspiration to reform, let alone revolution, and while they continue to provide cover for less sophisticated Islamists, the Brothers can only remain aspiring Mubaraks.
Even more fascinating, however, is the way in which the apparent triumph of the opposition embodied by the Muslim Brotherhood has automatically resulted in the opposition embodied by the left giving up all that it supposedly stands for in order to be in the seemingly right camp— an ideological paradox resolved with relative ease once what the left actually has in common with political Islam is identified: totalitarian identity, contempt for the modern state, paranoid victimhood, bias for the (class) underdog and, most importantly of all, the resistance imperative.
Egypt’s recent variation on the confluence of the left with political Islam is particularly ludicrous in that, while what the left supported the Muslim Brotherhood in order to resist was SCAF, it was arguably SCAF that brought the Muslim Brotherhood to power. It occurs to me now that, taking this into account, Islamophobia should really also be understood as opposition to the military — a fight on which the left was willing to give up when it allied itself with the Islamists.

(c) Youssef Rakha

Three Short Pieces from last October © Youssef Rakha


“We never used to have sectarian tension”
Posted on October 20, 2011        
That being, of course, a lie. And lies, however well meaning, just may be the crux of the problem.
Had a truly secular state ever emerged in Egypt, perhaps it would have made sense to blame Copts for their sectarianism. As it is, surely Coptic sectarianism is part of the struggle for an effective concept of citizenship? As I wondered whether the Maspero protest of 9 Oct might be the “third revolution” promised but not forthcoming since March, I tweeted, “They are shooting at the Copts.” I remember this because coworkers who immediately saw the tweet – they presumably do not follow the same people – berated me lightheartedly for spreading unconfirmed (mis)information. What their notebooks and iPhones as well as security personnel in the building were telling them was that it was a mob of Copts who were wreaking chaos and, inexplicably armed, firing at the Central Security and Military Police personnel who were attempting to control them. Lying through their teeth, pro-Supreme Council of the Armed Forces news personnel from this building and elsewhere reported Armed Forces casualties.
As a Muslim-born Cairo-dweller, I feel this is an occasion to say how I grew up in an atmosphere of sectarianism partly justified by its being – understandably, since they were the minority – even more intense among Christians. It was normal to be told by a quasi-religious acquaintance about a third party, for example, “True, he’s Christian – but he’s actually a good man!” Unlike the average Copt, who will just be careful who they are speaking to, saying little if anything on the topic to an interlocutor they deem unsympathetic, an educated urban Muslim will reflexively, categorically deny the existence of a sectarian problem in Egypt, citing religious, patriotic or pragmatic arguments to say that, in effect, the position of the Copts in Egyptian society could not possibly be better than it already is.
With the rise of Islamism since the Nineties this has taken on variously sinister motifs: identifying salib (Arabic for “cross”) with salibi (Crusader), for example, an adherent of fanatical dogma may suggest that, simply by virtue of who they are, Egyptian Christians are in fact the enemy. In this way the historically pro-Muslim Conquest Copts – and Copt simply means “Egyptian”, as opposed to the equally Christian Greek rulers of the land – are turned into allies of “the Jews and the Americans” (as in those responsible for the existence of Israel and their Roman-like, Muslim-hating patrons). But even among “moderate” Muslims, arguments for “national unity” – a concept which, though an essential part of its rhetoric, the regime established by coup d’etat in July 1952 has systematically rendered meaningless by excluding and discriminating against Copts, encouraging both Coptic deference and Muslim complacency – fail to take into account centuries of inequality including occasional persecution.

Of homogeneity and bakshish
Posted on October 15, 2011        
Long before a “revolution” could have been anticipated, people – especially urban Arabs – noticed something about Cairo. In a roundabout way, the title of a book of poems by the Lebanese globe-trotter Suzanne Alaywan, All Roads Lead to Salah Salem (a reference to one major road linking northern and southern ends of the megalopolis) accurately expresses that sentiment: Of all the world’s cities, Cairo seems to have the capacity to absorb people into its folds, to make them – in appearance and attitude if not in thinking or values – like other people already established inside it; it has the capacity, brutishly but somehow peaceably, to iron out difference.
The poet was not at cross purpose with the fact. I tend to think she, like others within and without, saw it as inevitable but positive, a possible answer to otherwise intractable inter-issue dilemmas which liberalism, with its emphasis on individual rights, could only solve with the help of economic and institutional hardware not available to the Arab or the third world. The more or less forced homogeneity of course has its roots in a culture of compromise and hypocrisy, in people’s willingness to lie about how they feel in order to benefit from other people, whose difference – in looks, tongue, dress code, income level – offers further justification for practically robbing them.
Yet, as the aftermath of events has demonstrated, there is more to that proverbial Rome of the mind than simple untruth. Decades of corruption were also decades of voluntary repression, in which excessive panhandling just might have been a sublimation of mugging, and pay-for-your-difference an ameliorated form of the marauding mob. The difference-eliminating software is after all as evident in Arab nationalism as it is in political Islam, and perhaps even Mubarak’s client government sought to accommodate the interests of global liberalism only insofar as the world order, up to and including Saudi Arabia (which as far as I am concerned is a greater threat to Egypt than Israel) could provide that government with the required alms.
That is over now, despite the military and its supporters, backed by said world order, doing all they can – hitting below as well as above the belt, even idiotically risking sectarian war in the process – to reinstate the beggar-mentality status quo. Egyptians should be thankful for the “revolution” not because it proved successful or achieved its goal, but because it will make elimination of difference by begging increasingly impossible. People can no longer pretend to be safe from their compatriots, the myth of “national unity” is no longer viable, not all those who are different can pay.
Whether they like it or not, the Other will assert themselves at last, bringing forth even through catastrophe all the many beautiful Egypts that have been squeaking for dear life.

Side effects of Revolution
Posted on October 6, 2011        
I have developed an addiction since February:
Laptop in lap, voluntarily bedridden, I watch old episodes of al Ittijah al Mu’akiss (or, as translated by the relevant talk show’s self-possessed impresario, my fellow Hull University alumnus Faisal Al Qassim: Opposite Direction).
Dozens of them from before the Arab Spring are freely available on YouTube – the Nakba, Hezbollah, torture, hijab, George W, Iraq, Iran, Sudan – many as relevant to Tahrir Square as anything. Sidling into bed of an evening, high on Revolution, I would select a topic that suited my mood, listen with mounting suspense to Faisal’s retro rhetorical intro, and lick my lips over the promised discursive violence, not to say deranged bawling. That, at least, is how it started.
All very civilised and edifying. Each head-butting match has a compelling topic, a thought-out script and, seemingly, the right pair of contestants ready to express two sides of an issue. Ah, objectivity! Yet as with so much else on Al Jazeera, something somehow remains askew.
I do not mean the channel’s populist bias, the systematic and directionless manner in which it incites viewers (often to embrace political Islam), nor the unspeakable hypocrisy it sustains by doing so while it remains an organ of the Qatar government.
I do not mean Faisal’s brand of impartiality, which is to argue each case with vehemence irrespective of whether he might actually be spreading misinformation, never taking into account the implications of a given argument for the larger picture. It is okay, for example, to present Saddam Hussein as the wronged hero of Arab glory and call him the Martyr, so long as you are pointing up dependency, corruption and sectarianism in the current Iraqi regime; you only get to describe Saddam as he was if you happen to be bestowing blessings upon Iraq’s US Army-controlled experiment with democracy…
Yet what I mean is something, slightly, else: the obscene polarisation, the rhetorical opportunism, the insolent lies; the ultimate vapidity of a good 40 out of each 45 minutes, which forms the substance of my addiction. If al Ittijah al Mu’akiss is what it means to be politically engaged, I must say that political engagement is not a good thing. Just below the surface, it is very uncivilised and profoundly delusional. And it is a condition of which I have not been cured since I went out to chant slogans and endure tear gas.
It wrings my heart to think that, in six months, Tahrir Square has turned into something not all that different from al Ittijah al Mu’akiss.

Side effects of Revolution


I have developed an addiction since February:
Laptop in lap, voluntarily bedridden, I watch old episodes of al Ittijah al Mu’akiss (or, as translated by the relevant talk show’s self-possessed impresario, my fellow Hull University alumnus Faisal Al Qassim: Opposite Direction).
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Missed Call: June, 2007

Pondering inter-Arab bloodshed, Youssef Rakha scratches his nose

Click to view caption

Something wakes me at midnight on Saturday. Another sleepless night of Al-Jazeera, and I’ve been unconscious since my return from the office. With an empty stomach and a groggy head, I reach instinctively for my mobile phone. Among the three missed calls listed on the screen, I catch the name of Michel Elefteriades.

It’s been a while since I heard from this most famous of all my friends, the many-facetted Lebanese Civil War veteran-turned-music producer, otherwise known as Emperor Michel I of Nowherestan, and I’m wondering whether or not he might be following up his invitation for me to visit him in Beirut (in recent weeks I’ve had a strong reason to go, so the thought is exciting even despite last night’s overdose of adversity). But since getting this month’s bill, I’ve cancelled the roaming facility on my phone, my only way to call back Michel’s Lebanon number. So I text a brief apology instead, reviewing the next day’s tasks while I stretch, yawn and head for the kitchen. I don’t think he will call back.

Nor does it occur to me that talking to the Emperor might help with the most pressing of said tasks: the writing of a “culturally aware response” to ongoing violence in Lebanon and the Occupied Territories — something I’m sure readers of these pages will appreciate, though I have no idea what, when click comes to save, it might actually entail. Once again I wonder whether to make a bulk e-mail request for reactions, seek out a locally available “source”, or simply scour online news sites afresh.

Bread, cheese and, more essentially, Turkish coffee to the rescue — and I’m sifting through the notes I made in the morning. Before the hour is up, hallelujah, I have a general outline for what I want to say. Ditto: That the Fateh-Hamas conflict need not have devolved into inter-Palestinian war; That armed Palestinian presence in the northern refugee camp of Nahr Al-Bared need not be casting the shadow of 1975 on Lebanon all over again; That both conflicts raise the old niggling suspicion of some more benevolently inspired interventions on the part of the global powers that be; And that, at their allegedly secular-Islamist root, there lies, still, that suffocating sense of America versus the Arab-Muslim world.

Suffocating being the operative word, largely because absurd: Neither the Arab genetic constitution nor Islam is inherently at variance with what President Bush has called “the way of life enjoyed by free nations” (Saudi Arabia presumably being one such?) Which is how America is defined, in opposition to the “terrorists” to whose line of thinking — boasting nothing greater than Mohammad Abdel-Wahhab or Sayed Qutb — the entire history of Arab-Muslim civilisation has been reduced.

Up to and including, that is, at least six whole centuries in which, while it occupied a position very like that of the West’s in our times, said civilisation drew in not only Christians, Jews and “Franks” but every facet of its geographic and human extent. For as long as anyone remembers, in fact, among Arab governments, (relative) alliance with Washington has resulted in political oppression, sectarian strife and — indeed I’m very sorry, yes — militant Islam far more than it has reforms.

Finally I read through what I’ve scribbled. Phew! A small triumph. And my tiny new computer on my lap, fingers hovering above the keyboard, a blank document beckoning, I’m poised for ingenuity when the phone rings…It has taken another three days for the present piece to materialise.

Not much has changed in either Gaza or le Liban — except that by now Michel, if all has gone to plan, will have safely left Beirut. I have done much copy editing in the interim, continued reading Orhan Pamuk’s latest novel, used Microsoft MSN to chat with Lebanese friends at unworldly hours and thought a lot more about those masked figures bearing big guns in the office of Mahmoud Abbas. I have thankfully avoided Al-Jazeera.

Now, his (proletariat) Highness Emperor Michel I being the exemplar of “a way of life” I am eager to promote in these unfree nations of ours, I’ve decided to take stock of the effect of the violence on his person, rather than develop the argument outlined above — an exercise which, while readily drawing accusations of the conspiracy mentality and generating no end of futile factual arguments, would not come to anything very culturally aware, I decided.

His Highness, by contrast, is all culture: He is the founder of the Music Hall, owner of, among much else, Elefteriades Productions-Elefrecords, holder of the Warner Bros label, and author of some of fusion’s most exciting pairings (Hanin and the Cubans, Wadie El-Safie and Jose Fernandez, Tony Hanna and the Balkan Gypsies, Demis Roussos and the Oriental Takht); He has opened restaurants, designed lines of clothing, produced art, and appeared on satellite television; More recently, with Nowherestan, he drew up an alternative (new) world order that abolishes both national frontiers and democracy, divides the world into two hemispheres and employs scholar-senators in place of politicians; A Greek by blood, Frenchman by education, quasi- Muslim by sociopolitical sympathy, Lebanese nationalist by affiliation with Michel Aoun, Roma Gypsy by musical association, he embodies the possibility of a pluralistic Arabness — one that speaks not of minorities and their rights but of whole, integrated societies that share a language, a sense of the world in its entirety and a productive energy. It is he, of all people, who has had to leave Beirut…

I didn’t get a chance to say much during the 15 minutes I spent on the phone with Michel, a little before two in the morning on Saturday night. I didn’t have much to say on the topic, but I wouldn’t have minded if I had: His Highness is the kind of interlocutor I prefer to listen to. Sounding a little rattled if no less articulate than usual, he started with the declaration that he had was leaving Lebanon — for Belgrade where, as he explained with subdued pride, music has provided him with good friends. He was leaving in much the same way as he had done long ago, towards the end of the war — not to settle down in Beirut again until 2005, when a general amnesty was granted — and he sounded frustrated even as he expressed resignation.

It was pointless, he kept saying, pointless and potentially fatal to stay. When last I saw him, the Emperor had complained of an atmosphere in which, as a businessman, he did not feel secure enough to make a sustained effort. He had spoken of the authorities unaccountably making life difficult, saying it was because of his Aounist sympathies. He had looked thinner and more preoccupied than I remembered him. Now it is easy not to take Elefteriades seriously, given the things he tends to talk about: multinational secret-intelligence schemes; billion-dollar budgets; how PhD holders who arrive in Hummer vehicles can change your life forever by murmuring a few words into a satellite phone.

But the more you find out about him, the more convincing it all becomes — and you have to stop thinking about it before it drives you insane. Whatever the general case, this was clearly no joke. Michel didn’t make it clear until the end of the conversation, but he had received death threats from people who have made attempts on his life in the past. They had called him and promised to kill his children, rape his wife, draw blood from his eyes. And though he knows they were Aoun’s traditional war rivals, the ruthless Lebanese Forces — perpetrators of the Sabra and Chatila massacre, among other, often inter- Christian atrocities — as he also explained, with more exasperation than fear, it is not the Forces that matter. It had been decided that there should be war in Lebanon; within months, he said, there would be war in Lebanon. None of the little players have much to do with it; they are pawns, not chess masters; and, well, it is too late to be optimistic now.

But who on earth decided it?

The Emperor just ranted on about Neocons: how their principal ideologue had been a Jew who contributed to the theory of Nazism; how the Neocon attitude is now openly adopted in France — an unprecedented development; how American gurus were explaining to the public that to be a good Muslim is to be a terrorist, and that believers are therefore faced with a dilemma for as long as they live.

It was clear to him, he said, that even as a Christian in this part of the world, you were bundled together with Muslims. You were more like a Muslim than Westerner, after all. Getting rid of the one, they might as well get rid of the other. A war of civilisations indeed. At this point I remembered something Michel had told me about the divide-and-conquer strategy deployed in the postcolonial world: “Had Americans existed in the time of Saladin, they would have told him, ‘You are a Kurd, those Arabs are out to get you!’ And he wouldn’t have managed to liberate Jerusalem from the Crusaders.” Better let those people kill each other off — he was saying now — so they won’t stand in the way of Empire.

And calming down again, gradually, the Emperor told me he would eventually move to Egypt, where he already has had business deals in the making. “But you understand this is about the entire region,” he added. “In Lebanon it’s going to happen in a couple of months. In Egypt, give it five, six years. Till Mubarak dies. It is still happening…”

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