Reading the senior journalist Hisham Melhem’s recent obituary of Arab civilization, one is compelled to ask when it was ever alive. Al-Ahram Weekly, 25 September
The Nowhere, Cairo 2014. By Youssef Rakha
“No one paradigm or one theory can explain” the jihadi barbarians, not at, but within the Arabs’ gates. So says Hisham Melhem, an older writer, in Politico magazine this week, summing up the failure of modern “Arab civilization” with admirable level-headedness. His point would be too obvious if it wasn’t so uniformly lost on neoliberal analysts and apologists for religious identity: the Islamic State did not fall from the sky. It grew out of the “rotting, empty hulk” of societies routed no less by the “stagnant, repressive and patriarchal” authoritarianism of military regimes than the politicized religiosity seeking to replace them. Like its ideological archenemy, namely political Islam, Arab nationalism too expresses “atavistic impulses and a regressive outlook on life that is grounded in a mostly mythologized past”.
But who’s to say these two ideologies do not accurately reflect all that the Arab masses hold dear, i.e., what world community leaders would call “the Arab peoples’ legitimate aspirations”? As a younger observer, I cannot help seeing that, since the end of Ottoman times, only a negative sense of collective identity has mobilized a given Arab people at a given point in history. Embodied in revolutionary leaders like Nasser or resistance movements like Hezbollah, such rallying cries rarely pointed to a positive or constructive cause that did not turn out to be part of a propaganda campaign (Hamas’s August “victory” over Israel is a case in point). What Melhem does not say is that, in as much as it exists at all, post-Ottoman Arabic-speaking civilization has only ever operated against others, if not the occupier then non-Muslim or non-Sunni citizens of its own states, if not “Zionists and imperial Crusaders” then infidels at large.
It kind of grows out of traffic. The staccato hiss of an exhaust pipe begins to sound like record scratching. Skidding and braking, the vehicles resume their car horn concerto. Braying, bawling, crashing, farting, fortissimo hustling cut in. Then comes the imperious vroom of a makana – the Arabic corruption of the Italian word for ‘machine’ – as a motorcycle is called on the streets of Cairo…
@Sultans_Seal wallows in his lack of democratic mettle
Time and again, since 30 June last year, I’ve come up against the commitment to democracy that I’m supposed to have betrayed by appearing to endorse the army’s intervention in the outcome of Egypt’s second revolution.
Time and again I’ve had to explain what on earth makes Egyptians think that Washington and Tel Aviv are secretly in league with the Muslim Brotherhood to decimate the Arab world along sectarian lines and bring death and destruction upon innocent Egyptians as much as Syrians and Libyans in the name of human rights—presumably to the benefit of that impeccably democratic and profoundly civilized neighbor state where racist, genocidal, militarized sectarianism does not present the world community with a human-rights problem.
For the Western media and Western policy makers, it seems the story of what’s been happening in Egypt is a simple one. Having deposed and taken into custody a democratically elected president on July 3, the army went ahead and forcibly disbanded two large sit-ins staged in protest of the coup, killing over 500 civilians on August 14, then hunting down the remaining leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood and allied groups, whence both president and protesters hail.
Jim Morrison died on 3 July, as young as most of the casualties of the Egyptian revolution of 2011-13 (let’s assume it’s been one string of events for simplicity’s sake). Play a few Doors songs to honour him while you think of bloodied corpses and try as you might not to, at some point you will begin to picture the killers. And going through who they have been — police, military, thugs, honourable citizens, Islamists — you will soon end up blaming everyone and everything. Not without reason. While comforting at first, the discourse of martyrdom (and it has already been sullied in many ways and on various occasions) does not detract from the absolutely unforgivable horror of unnecessary loss of life. And while death of protest may not be exactly murder, it is.
The reason I’ve been thinking of Jim Morrison is that death of protest has been happening again recently, this time at the hands of Islamist militias or quasi-militias: totalitarian theocrats defending democratic legitimacy against Egypt’s second coupvolution in three years. Such Kafkaesque insanity is perfectly normal in Egypt. But second indeed: considering the army’s role in 25 January, there is no sane reason to set 30 June apart from that initial, equally military-facilitated uprising. Death’s made angels of some more young (and old) people — notably in the Cairo neighbourhood of Al Manyal and the Alexandria neighbourhood of Sidi Bishr – but this time it’s made murderous demons of a new and thus far “revolutionary” sect.
25 January, 30 June — and, very personally, Youssef Rakha
I had almost reprimanded myself for anticipating civil conflict in the wake of major protests against the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) President Mohamed Morsi remaining in office.
After what apparently was the largest demonstration in the history of humankind on Sunday (30 June, 2013), the army’s statement in support of “the people’s demands” this afternoon prompted wild festivity on the streets. But at the time of writing (the evening of Monday, 1 July), “clashes” — some of which had begun yesterday evening — are raging, on and off, in Alexandria, Mahalla, Suez, Assyout and Qena as well as the Cairo suburb of 6 October and the Muqattam Hills, where the Guidance Office of the MB is located in Cairo.
What I talk about when I talk about 30 June
Nearly a week ago, some little known Kuwaiti newspaper reported that President Mohamed Morsi had negotiated, it wasn’t clear with whom, “a safe exit deal” for himself and 50 leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) — in anticipation of 30 June.
It was obvious misinformation but it was tempting to believe, partly because it suggested the very implausible prospect of the MB leaving power peacefully, lending credence to the idea that 30 June will be “the end of the MB” anyhow.
Yesterday evening, while I sat at this desk dreaming up cultural content for the pages I am in charge of, Twitter began turning up news of protesters being fired at and pelted with stones – but not run over by armored vehicles, not beaten repeatedly after they were dead, nor thrown into the Nile as bloodied corpses. Not yet. The location was outside the Radio and Television Union Building, along a stretch of the Nile known as Maspero.
This fact (of protesters being fired upon) along with some of the slogans suggested that the march under attack was Coptic. I in fact knew that most of those tweeting from the location of the shootings were Muslim, but every Coptic protest since 11 February had included Muslims. Ironically, no Arabic term has been coined that might translate CNN’s far more civil “pro-Coptic,” which is also the more accurate by far.
Egyptian intellectuals and the revolution
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?
The (un)culture of (in)difference: a family reunion
At a recent family gathering, someone happened to mention the case of Albert Saber: the 25-year-old proponent of atheism who had been tried and convicted for online “defamation of religion”.
Albert’s case had begun as an instance of Muslim zealotry “coming to the defence of Allah and His messenger” against “offending” statements from (so far, mostly, foreign or Christian) unbelievers—before being taken into custody, the young man was brutishly mobbed at his house; his mother was later physically assaulted—a tendency that long predates “the second republic” ushered in by the revolution of 25 January, 2011 but enjoys unprecedented official and legal cover under the present (pro-)Islamist regime.
Despite its sectarian roots, such populist persecution of the irreligious has the blessing of the Coptic Orthodox Church, which is both extremely conservative and non-confrontational. Evidently it is no longer safe to be secular in Egypt regardless of official religious affiliation or actual degree of secularism.
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?
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…
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”.
So like a bit of stone I lie
Under a broken tree.
I could recover if I shrieked
My heart’s agony
To passing bird, but I am dumb
From human dignity. – William Butler Yeats
After the first round of presidential elections, the bleak prospects facing Egyptian society since the revolution have become apparent – with the incumbent, largely fake polarisation between the former NDP and the Islamic-style NDP (aka, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party) consuming far more energy than it is really worth, all things considered. This is due, as much as anything, to the failure of “the civil forces” representing “the revolutionaries” to coalesce into an effective political front – if not to compete with the two blocs, one of which, that supporting the SCAF-cum-former regime candidate Ahmad Shafik, is detracted far more consistently than the other: the Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Mursi – then to provide the revolution with adequate representation in society at large. Aside from the fact that culture has been relegated to a secondary and less visible part of the stage, it is hard to see how or why the cultural and social renaissance promised by 25 January might happen in the foreseeable future. Yet the vapid polarisation has transferred itself into cultural circles too, and much intense argument has taken place therein.
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.
In an unprecedented development, writes Youssef Rakha, comedy superstar Adel Imam is facing a possible three-month prison sentence for alleged “contempt of religion” in several of his films. This week the sentence was temporarily revoked awaiting the outcome of a second appeal, but the writers and directors whose names were included in the suit were declared not guilty. The evidence suggests that a group of Islamists in the legal profession might be settling old scores with Imam, but the incident sounds an alarm for freedom of creativity in the new, post-25 January Egypt.
Imam is arguably the most famous Arab actor alive, and had for decades enjoyed nearly head-of-state status. Early in the revolution last year, he alienated protesters by declaring his support for Mubarak, of whose regime he had become, in effect, an honorary official. Many otherwise pro-freedom of expression younger revolutionaries are therefore unsympathetic with the septuagenarian’s predicament. They forget that it was after a similar kind of suit that the late Islamic scholar Nassr Hamed Abu Zaid was very nearly separated from his wife; though not undertaken through legal channels, the assassination of the anti-Islamist writer Farag Fouda and the attempted assassination of Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz followed the same line of thought.
My father did not live to see 9/11. I don’t know what he would have thought of the so called war on terror, let alone the equally so called Arab Spring. Though not particularly old, he was frail and muddled by the time he died—flattened out by decades of depression, isolation and inactivity.
I think of him now because the trajectory of his views seems relevant to 25 Jan. From a Marxist intellectual in the fifties and sixties—a member of a group that could transcend its class function to effect change, he became a liberal democrat in the eighties and nineties—an individual who had a common-sense opinion on current affairs regardless of his beliefs. In retrospect I think the reason for this change of heart had to do with a certain kind of honesty or transparency: at some point he must have realized that to be proactive was to be caught in a lie (the lie of independent nation building, of the dictatorship of the fellahin, of Islamic renaissance…), a lie for which not even an unhappy life was worth risking.