Egyptian History X

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Al-Ahram Weekly: Mohamed Mahmoud Street, Youssef Rakha and Egypt’s new culture of violence

As of 28 January, 2011, the protests in and around Tahrir Square were never quite as peaceful as people would in later months reflexively claim they were. But no one thought that what had started on 25 January as a call for rights and freedoms, and on 11 February forced Hosny Mubarak (Egypt’s president for 31 years) to step down, would turn into a kind of hopeless vendetta against the police and, later, albeit to a mitigated extent, also against the army—to a point where people could no longer credibly make that claim.

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Lost in affirmation: artists, Islamists and politicians

Against “the threat of Islamisation”, culture is said to be Egypt’s last line of defence. But what on earth do we mean when we talk about Egyptian culture?
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The night before the ridiculously so called 24 August revolution—the first, abortive attempt to “overthrow the Muslim Brotherhood”—Intellectuals gathered in Talaat Harb Square to express discontent with the new political status quo. Much of what they had to say centred on the draft constitution making no provisions for freedom of expression, but the resulting discourse was, as ever, an amorphous combo of statements: “We cannot stand idly by while our national symbols of thought and creativity are subject to attack,” for example. Here as elsewhere in the so called civil sphere, resistance to political Islam has readily reduced to generalised statements of individual positions rallying to the abstract title of Intellectual, which in Arabic is more literally translated as “cultured person”. Cultured people—actors, for example, are eager to protect culture—the films and television serials in which they appear; and in so being they have the support of artists, writers, “minorities” and “thinkers”.
Never mind the fact that most Egyptian actors have never read a book in their lives, whether or not they admit to such “lack of culture”; it is their social standing as visible producers of something falling under that name that places them in a position to defend an equally, historically compromised value system: enlightenment, secularism, citizenship; imagination, inventiveness, choice…
To a pro-Islamist majority of the constituency—and it is irrelevant whether or to what extent that majority confuses political Islam with the Rightful Creed—the Talaat Harb rally would have been anathema. Comparatively tiny in numbers though they remain, Intellectuals promote practices and ideas that Islam in its present-day formulations will tend to reject. So, for example, where an actress who already subscribes to the pre-Islamist censorial strictures of a seemingly forever “conservative society” may talk about a slightly skimpy outfit being necessary for the role, the post-Islamist TV viewer vindicated by the rise to power of the Muslim Brotherhood or the Ikhwan—so much so that, clean-shaven all through the almost two year long transitional period and before, he now has the moustache-less beard prescribed by stricter schools of orthodoxy—will talk about nudity, depravity, iniquity and hellfire.
And it was exactly such discourse, taken to insolent extremes, that prompted a series of more specifically “artistic sphere” (as in actors’ and singers’) protests in the last few weeks. On a programme he presents, a supposedly respectable Salafi “Islamic scholar” named Abdalla Badr attacked the film star Ilham Shahine for her stand against the rise of political Islam on the religious satellite channel Al-Hafidh, on 20 August. He went so far as to say, addressing the actress, “How many men have mounted you?” prompting outrage in many (including Al-Azhar) circles. Events have centred variously on Shahine being subjected to such audiovisual libel (she has since taken Badr to court), on similar incidents with actresses Nabila Ebeid and Hala Fakhir, and on the legal battle being waged on comedy superstar Adel Imam for several months now. The last seminar, in solidarity with Shahine, took place at the Actors’ Syndicate on 4 September.
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So far, so clear: civil society and its Intellectual vanguard, however conservative or uncultured in their own right—however ineffectively, too, all things considered—are facing up to “the Islamist threat”. The civil-Islamist (or, less euphemistically, the secular-Islamist) fight is no longer avoidable; and its media facet remains important even though it plays out more effectively in the long run in academic and literary circles. (Remember such incidents as the court case that forced the late scholar Nasr Hamid Abu-Zeid to leave the country, the attack on Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz’s life, and the several legal “crises” over Ministry of Culture publications, all of which were eventually taken out of circulation. Remember that such incidents—together with the unprecedented spread of hijab and other overtly sectarian phenomena—all happened under Mubarak, at a time when Islamists were not only not in power but also subject to persecution.) Now that the political underdog of yesteryear has far more leverage to attack this year’s underdog-in-the-making, the battle lines would seem to be clearly marked; someone like Shahine looks like a victim of misguided religious extremism.
Yet to a wider pro-25 January (2011) majority—one that definitely includes some of those protesting against “the Ikhwanisation of the state” on the evening of 23 August—by now much “civil” politicising is, rightly or wrongly but perhaps more rightly than wrongly, identified with the pre-25 January political status quo. Whether because liberal and leftist forces are incompetent or because the religiosity of the constituency prevents them from building support bases, as was so painfully evident on 24 August, the only political players willing to oppose political Islam are those “remnants of the fallen regime” who had directly or indirectly benefited from the Mubarak system. (That Islamists too are “remnants”, perhaps the worst kind, is not a widely accepted idea however true.)
With a few notable exceptions, the “artistic sphere” in particular was largely against the revolution whose “legitimacy” the Ikhwan have practically inherited, aided by those “revolutionary” forces who had no support among “the people”. Adel Imam was seen insulting the Tahrir protesters on TV before Mubarak stepped down. Ilham Shahine repeatedly called for the brutal suppression of protests even as protesters were being murdered under SCAF; she openly lamented the age of freedom that the revolution put an end to. But more generally, the Intellectual fails to see the connection between the religiosity and conservatism of society at large and political Islam’s hold on that society. Such deference to the sect embraces not only the Intellectual vanguard (the phenomenon of the female film star who retires after taking hijab, or the Nasserist activist who supports “the resistance”) but also the revolution itself.
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It is this issue—the Intellectual failing to represent a society susceptible to “extremism” and consequently being implicated with corrupt and autocratic (but, until Mursi was elected president, still nominally “civil”) power—that summarises the conundrum of the role of culture in Egypt. The futility of culture as a line of defence against anything at all was further illustrated on 6 August, when “a delegation” of mainstream arts figures including Imam met with Mursi at the presidential palace to discuss recent tensions with Islamists. Typically of any Egyptian official before or after the revolution, Mursi provided the requisite “reassurances”, speaking against the “satellite sheikhs” who insult artists and affirming the role of culture in “the civilisation of nations”. There is no reason on earth to believe that a president whose rise to power has entirely depended on Islamists will actually do anything to support “art” against “extremism”; and it is easy to conclude that what the delegation was doing was to actually offer a pledge of allegiance to the new powers, the better to be under their protection in the same way “artists” were under Mubarak’s.
What the delegation said to Mursi, even as it included complaints about the attacks to which female actresses in particular have been subject, would seem to support this thesis. Imam, for example, pointed up the role of “art” in dealing with “social issues”, not only denying past statements of his own but also no doubt alluding to the totally meaningless dose of moralistic preaching often included in otherwise profoundly immoral mainstream films, plays and TV serials. The actor best known for presenting the most searing attacks on Islamists under Mubarak thus implicitly offers to use what popularity he has left to polish the image of Egypt’s Islamist rulers. So much for the Intellectual…
Culture that negotiates a marginal space with power—like culture that speaks for “the people” as an undifferentiated mass, without genuine representative authority—will not promote enlightenment or choice. It will promote an increasingly repressive status quo. Defending so called freedom of creativity, for example, makes little sense in the acknowledged absence of freedom of belief. The kind of art that builds civilisation, whose audience is admittedly very small in Egypt, requires not a presidential decree but a vision of reality where slogans like “Islam is the answer” can only take up the peripheral role they deserve. But perhaps culture is less about commercial films and patriotism—less about experimental theatre, prose poetry and contemporary art—than about a perspective on reality that gradually, slowly and (in the Egyptian context) inevitably through non-official channels, reaches enough private lives to shape the public.
Perhaps the mistake we make about culture is ignoring its original meaning of a way of life and a system of values, values that—all things considered, at this historical juncture—political Islam must be seen to undermine.

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Anticipating 8 July

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And its discontents
Anticipating 8 July, Youssef Rakha discusses revolution
Tomorrow is “the second revolution”. I am no longer enthusiastic about the term. Not that I have the least ambivalence towards what is happening, what has and has not yet happened: if meaningful change is to occur, if justice is to be done, there is no escaping more and more sustained protest; I shudder to think there is no escaping more violence too, though in the light of Central Security (the Egyptian riot police) striking back, violence seems inevitable. An effective as opposed to puppet interim government and an end to both police and military abuses are the very least starting point for the promised new Egypt; naturally, as it now seems, neither has been forthcoming. Despite the appearance of relative stability, sooner or later something must explode; I say this analytically, not emotionally: whatever the powers that be are thinking, however much the quasi-official media continue to churn out misinformation, the current situation is not tenable. As far as we support the 25 Jan-11 Feb protests, perhaps we should be grateful that stability remains a brittle veneer. In some ways, of course – for 30 years prior to 2011 – stability was a veneer anyway. Yet protests have been repeatedly decried as a threat to stability and as such identified with disturbance of the peace (in much the same way as protesters have been identified with baltagiyya or thugs and subjected to military trials). There is a sense in which the discourse of revolution has been co-opted by some and marginalised by others, in which the uprooting of corrupt dictatorship has reduced to hollow patriotism, “bringing down the regime” to “loving Egypt”. In just over four months, dependency on the army has facilitated both a rise in reactionary (as in positively counterrevolutionary) Islamism and (coupled by a string of minimal, essentially cosmetic interventions) business as usual for all the elements constituting the former social-political order, media, security and Muslim Brothers not excluded. My gripe with “revolution” is that, all things considered, it seems to have struck an unprogressive chord with the silent majority; and the Historic Achievement of the Egyptian People – so far little more than a symbolic gesture – has reduced to a term. Even in daily discourse, the events of those 18 days have become synonymous with a period of time, the martyrs to a social group: people say “at the revolution” as if they are saying “last Ramadan” or “during the holiday”; and references to “the families of the martyrs”, stripped of any ethical prerogative, are juxtaposed with references to other social strata with a direct interest in the political future.
Tomorrow is “the second revolution”. One assumes the majority of the intellectual community will, at some point in the day, make their way to Tahrir Square and, with characteristic timidity, join in the chanting of slogans probably created by the “ultras”, as the organised, often uniformed football supporters-cum-male cheer leaders who have made up the bulk of Tahrir Square protesters in the last two months are now called. They will dissolve in the multitude, if multitude there is. They will be theorising about developments as developments occur. A very potent question is whether they will be there as protesters or in the presupposed capacity of “the conscience of the nation”. In just over four months, it has been fascinating to watch the intellectuals take part and, especially, comment on events while at the same time seeing how they might pragmatically benefit from the incumbent developments – assuming positions in the ministry of culture, for example, or allying themselves with people who have. It is not so much that they are on the wrong side of the moral divide. The important thing is to realise how, in much the same way as the ideological grand narratives, hero worship and tutelage that characterised the emergence of postcolonial national states in the Arab world have come to an impasse, so too have the discourses of an intellectual “margin” which, positing itself as the enlightened, progressive and selfless counterweight to an ineffectual, vacuous and often criminal mainstream, when the time came for it to make sacrifices, to turn itself into a self-respecting page, ended up producing little more than bystanders’ remarks. Should revolution pick up where it left off, now, what would be the intellectuals’ role in it? And other than prematurely exaggerating the significance of what happened through rhetoric and/or making sagely, often idiotic or patently counterrevolutionary statements about where to go from here, what was the intellectuals’ contribution to “the first” revolution? If enough people show up tomorrow, if the situation sufficiently escalates, one assumes there will be, around intellectuals and ultras alike, huge numbers of Central Security armed with freshly imported tear gas and a vengefulness for protesters, plainclothes operatives directing anti-riot operations as well as baltagiyya to aid and justify them, perhaps also snipers stationed on rooftops or elsewhere, perhaps arrests. A small core of committed activists – peaceful to the last – will be calling for an indefinite sit-in and, if the situation develops, eventually sealing off the square. If all this happens, if there are enough people to make it happen, “the revolution” will have happened again; in rhetorical tones, the intellectuals will express joy and concern, they will espouse ideological grand narratives and tutelage, but it is clear by now that they will not have answers to the only relevant, nearly intractable question of how to actually implement the demands of the revolution.
Tomorrow is “the second revolution”. The demands of the first revolution, which were more or less willingly left for the army to respond to and have therefore not been met, will be made more forcefully, once again. It is as if the revolutionaries are suddenly discovering that the army had been part of the regime all along, and shared more or less the same interests. The stepping down of Mubarak is, as if for the first time since 11 Feb , seen for what it actually was: a significant enough concession to the social-political transformation posited by some eight million taking to the streets to remonstrate with the political status quo, more than 800 of whom were killed and nearly 2,700 seriously injured, but one that could not in itself lead to democracy. In the absence of guiding principles, planning or leadership, there remains one very significant question about an essentially liberal and middle-class revolution that started out as a protest against police abuses and ended up bringing down the president: for what, precisely, would such a revolution have an army that was technically under the authority of said president try him and the pillars of his regime? Crimes that would seem to be side-effects rather than substantial ailments of Mubarak’s dictatorship – financial corruption, lack of respect for the right to live, let alone the right to true and free political representation – continue to conceal the much greater crime of a once purposefully ideological political order rooted in the coup d’etat of July 1952 but now with absolutely no moral substance to it. I am not arguing with the culpability of Mubarak and his many cronies, a number of whom, including the former minister of information Anas El-Fiqi, were acquitted of some charges on Tuesday, generating greater outrage in the buildup to 8 July. I am personally against capital punishment, but I am not arguing with the right of the martyrs’ families to see the killers of their loved ones from Mubarak down receiving the harshest possible punishment. What I am arguing against is the idea that the extent and/or nature of the crimes committed by the Mubarak regime could be legally demarcated at all. Too many people were (are?) directly or indirectly involved with the former order, too much legal evidence has been destroyed since Feb, too many private interests would be done too many disservices should justice truly prevail. If 25 Jan is to remain both a white and a decentralised, non-ideological revolution, how can we expect adequate retribution? Perhaps the only true slogan of the revolution is Down with July, but neither intellectuals nor ultras nor even allegedly politicised Islamists have had the vision or the courage to chant it. Down with July, anyway.
Tomorrow is “the second revolution”: another step on the way to “the second independence”, which it has been persuasively argued is what the Arab Spring – an anti-police state, anti-theocratic and by extension anti-military dictatorship movement, if nothing else – is truly all about. But independence implies economic and military self-dependence, which thanks to the trajectory of July is far more than Egypt can say for itself. To have a revolution in any meaningful sense is to admit that this is where six decades of military dictatorship has brought us, all things considered: mobs burning up police stations while the government or agents of the government briskly go about the business of killing the people, and notwithstanding more or less retarded versions of Islamic theocracy, not the faintest horizon of an alternative way forward. To have a revolution is to say that, rather than a Zionist conspiracy or an extension of imperialism per se, what we have had for six decades is shades of rhetoric, and that insofar as we survive at all, we survive thanks to a global order that subsidises our existence in return for some human, mostly natural resources including our geographic location. Without aid, without tourism, indeed without peace with Israel – considering our standards of education and our performance in fields like agriculture, technology or trade – were on earth would we be now? It is not clear to what extent the first revolution has been successful in revealing just what a horrendous mess the military-led nationalist state founded by Nasser has ended up becoming. Perhaps the second revolution will bring home the even more significant and naturally more devastating fact that it was not Mubarak’s policy of conciliation with an unjust unipolar global order that was wrong with Mubarak, it was not Mubarak’s failure to “support the cause”, whatever that might me, that brought Mubarak down. It was Mubarak’s incompetence. And there is absolutely no hope in any revolution contributing to any better future until we are prepared to admit exactly how much we share that.