Category Archives: Egypt

“Drink the sea”

In an editorial today in Al-Masry Al-Youm, the editor-in-chief put forth his opinion about the recent controversy surrounding his censorship of the newspaper where I work, which is (confusingly) the English-language sister (cousin? resentful stepson?) of his newspaper. I’m posting an English translation for people who are unfortunately like me and require many hours with a dictionary in order to sort of understand a long opinion article in Arabic. (The translation was done by an excellent translator. I can put you in touch if you want.)

For background on the whole situation, you can read our own editorial on the whole fracas here or an article by the author of the censored article here. The original article is here. You can read a parody of the editorial below here. I’ll add my own thoughts at some point, but wanted to make sure that the English translation was available in all its glory. Also, I want to add that this is far and away not at all the most important thing in Egypt right now or even of interest to many people.

Put that in your pipe and smoke it!

By Magdi el-Gallad

I thank God for his several blessings, one of which is that I am thick-skinned: I only contemplate objective criticism. Another of God’s blessings on me is that I do not fear but my Creator, for no harm can befall me unless God has written it.

Yet another of the blessings God has bestowed on me is that, like you all, I was born of Egyptian land and have learned to cherish my Egyptian nationality and to act in the belief that my country is a major power.

The fact that we have survived decades of degeneration should not make us think of ourselves as standing in an inferior position with regards to the West. Half a century of events will eventually be written in three lines in history books and Egypt will rise, because we will not abandon it, no matter what crises we face.

Neither American writer Robert Springborg, nor British Independent’s correspondent Alistair Beach are able to grasp this culture, belief or that kind of loyalty to a nation that has taught its people to die for its defense.

Both of them, as well as others who live among us but are bedazzled by the lights of the West, are not aware that a genuine Egyptian cannot be blackmailed, pressured or threatened. They heaped pressure on Al-Masry al-Youm to publish an article for Springborg in the pilot English supplement inciting Egyptian army officers and Sami Anan, the chief of Staff of the Armed Forces, to mount a coup and seize power, particularly following the results of the first phase of elections, claiming Field Marshal Tantawi is allied to the Islamic wave.

Believing the English supplement staff were well-intentioned, I assumed they lacked sufficient experience or did not recognize who the American writer was. But because I know who he is quite well, I stopped at the article, read it over and over and decided not to run it.

I did not take into account the writer, the country he belongs to, or to its bloody practices across the world. Nor did I fear his ensuing bellowing in the Independent or Foreign Policy.

I could not care less for the broken record about freedom of speech, employed by the West to achieve its nefarious ends against us, when it suppresses those freedoms to protect its interests and national security.

Springborg and those backing him are unfortunately faced with a man who cannot be blackmailed, who is not West-struck or ultra-impressed by Western press. I think of myself as equal to them, even superior, most of the time.

For those who do not know, Springborg is the Program Manager for the Middle East for the Center for Civil-Military Relations, a government center affiliated to the US naval forces and a branch of the Pentagon. So, do you now know who the writer is and who is inciting Egyptian officers and the Chief of Staff to launch a coup?

He believes that the attack he and some people in Egypt are launching against me will push me to change mind on a choice I have made based on national interest. But for me, one black strand of hair from an Egyptian child in the heart of Upper Egypt is of greater value than his country or the entire West.

He works for the US Pentagon, whereas I work for the simple Egyptian citizen. He derives his arrogant power from the American arsenal, while I find protection in satisfying a poor man in some impoverished Egyptian neighborhood.

He and those allied to him are using the internet to arouse people against, while I seek refuge in the soil of may land which they want to occupy through creating chaos and inciting military coups, squishing Egypt back to square one.

He thought that our occasional disagreement with the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and the Islamic wave were going to pave the way for him to realise his evil schemes. But to him I say, “Our beliefs and civilisation teach us that disagreement is a mercy but the army, Islamists, liberals and all 87 million Egyptians are citizens are breastfed to love this homeland which the West wants to hijack.”

To that Springborg and those behind him I say that we insist on refusing to run his article. Al-Masry Al-Youm’s opinion writers, of whom I am one, criticise the SCAF extensively–but they are free Egyptian citizens who do not work for the US Pentagon.

Those in the US and its servant Britain who are not happy with what I have written might as well put that in their pipe and smoke it!

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Thoughts from Tahrir

I walked around Tahrir and the surrounding streets for a few hours tonight. I’ve visited a couple of times before in the past few days but haven’t been able to spend much time there, mostly because we’ve been finishing up the first edition of our new weekly print newspaper. I hadn’t really gone close to the front lines of the fighting, but that’s been okay with me. War reporting isn’t the kind of journalism that interests me. But after seeing the square again and getting close to Mohamed Mahmoud Street, which has been the epicenter of the running battle between Ministry of Interior paramilitary forces and the protesters, I’m left feeling a little haunted.

Being there overwhelms the senses. The acrid stench of teargas hovers over everything, mixing with the smoke from bonfires made of garbage and the smoke from the sweet potato vendors who burn treated wood to heat their ovens and the piss that the fighters (understandably) discharge against the walls. The endless stream of ambulances assaults your ears, as do the incessant honking of the informal motorcycle ambulances that go all the way up to the battlefront, and the chants of “Down with the field marshal!” and, closer to Mohamed Mahmoud, the bangcrash/whistle of teargas cartridges. Inside the square, you are jostled by the crowds of people, pushed aside to make room for fighters on their way back to the front line or wounded on their way to the hospitals. The eyes take in everything under the tungsten street lamps: The crying faces of teargas victims and the alien-like visages of men and women in gas mask wearers, the swirling blue ambulance lights. Perhaps this kind of scene is pedestrian for people who are in conflict zones regularly. For me, they are new.

Some people say that the square right now reminds them of the 18 days in January and February. I have to disagree. When I was here in February the feeling in the square was angry and determined, but it was also somehow celebratory. The energy seemed clearly directed at Mubarak and his regime and was fairly well articulated. Tahrir does not feel celebratory right now. The constant presence of injured and the number of field hospitals (I counted about five, but that could be wrong) keep the atmosphere from getting too carnival-like. And while there are definitely some families around, the crowd is overwhelmingly young men. I was in the square with some female colleagues and people repeatedly warned them to leave. During the January 25 uprising, the mood was angry, but this seems like a darker, nastier anger.

I don’t want to say too much about the politics of all this, but we’ve been talking a lot in the office recently about this question of “state failure” and what that could mean for Egypt. I won’t get into it in too much detail, but I generally believe that real state failure is unlikely here because most Egyptians (or maybe I should just say Cairenes, since that’s what I know best) seem to have a pretty strong sense of nationalism and commitment to the state. But when I looked around the side streets near Tahrir tonight – at the post-apocalyptic scene of toxic fumes and burning garbage and decimated sidewalks – I caught a glimpse of what I imagine state failure to look like.

If the state is failing, the blame rests on the military junta’s shoulders. The violence downtown wouldn’t exist if not for their complete refusal to meet the revolution’s demands and their complete and utter mismanagement of the transition. And as the generals have positioned themselves as the guarantors against chaos and collapse, every new instance of street violence justifies their presence. For now, I’ll stay away from conspiracy theories.

I don’t know how this will end. I believe that if the generals are going to maintain the social contract, they have to give way to the protesters demands. It’s not just Cairo where these clashes are occurring. In Alexandria and Upper Egypt and the Suez Canal cities, revolutionaries are sucking up the teargas. It has to end soon before too much of the country looks like Mohamed Mahmoud Street.

Photo courtesy of Bora S. Kamel via Creative Commons.

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What Americans should learn from Egypt

I have a new piece up on GOOD magazine about what Americans can learn about democracy from Egypt, namely that protests are a useful tool to push for change. You can read it here.

I initially wrote this a while ago, while the both the Tahrir sit-in and the US debate over the debt ceiling were going on. (Also before the London riots, which I think is a tangentially related issue.) The essay was also (very understandably) cut down to a more manageable size for publication, but I’m posting the whole thing here because I think it deals with a lot of other interesting issues about how democracy is practiced in the United States that I couldn’t get to in the GOOD piece. Also, you can do stuff like that when you have a blog. Read it after the jump.

And with that, I make yet another attempt to revive this blog. Hope I’ll be back soon. Bizarre to think that the last time I posted was on January 26

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#Jan25

I wasn’t in Egypt yesterday because I’m in Turkey, but I have been glued to Twitter, Facebook, my Gmail contacts list, and the media reports, trying to get a grasp on the situation and getting inspired by everything I’ve seen and read.

The most exciting aspect of yesterday’s demonstrations is the sheer scale. Accurate crowd estimates are difficult to ascertain, but even the Ministry of the Interior put the number of protesters in Cairo at 10,000, which makes me suspect that the real number is much higher. Some activists suggested that there were over 100,000 people there, which seems a bit dubious. No matter what, though, the number is clearly the biggest in a long while, perhaps since the bread riots of 1977, though maybe comparable to the demonstrations against the invasion of Iraq in 2003. But there are important differences between the 2003 protests and yesterday’s: First, in 2003, Egyptians were demonstrating against an external issue, even if it is one tangentially related to their US-backed dictator. Second, those protests were almost exclusively in Cairo, whereas yesterday demonstrations took place throughout the country.

Related to the size and geographic diversity of the protests is that they were a decentralized movement. Much of the organization and mobilization may have taken place on Facebook via the We Are All Khaled Said group (through which 90,000 people said they planned to attend demonstrations), but the turnout seems like it was much more diverse than the usual web-savvy crowd. I’ve been to a number of pro-democracy demonstrations in Cairo and it’s typical to see the same handful of activists at each. Yesterday seemed to attract a different crowd.

A friend in Cairo who was in Tahrir Square yesterday, the site of the main protest, put it this way in a Gchat conversation: “you can find cooperation between youth with beard and girls wearing foreign clothes.” Check out the video below from Al Jazeera English at around 2:05, where a older, middle-class-looking woman goes on a rant about the government. She’s not the typical Cairo protestor.

The question now is what will happen next. Can Egyptians, inspired by Tunisia, sustain a month-long rebellion and bring down their dictator? Everyone I have talked to is taking a very wait-and-see approach. An activist friend in Cairo wrote to me:

I think this is a ripe moment to call for a nation-wide strike so that no one goes to work and more people empty into the streets – but I somehow doubt that will happen. It is much easier for people to go to a mass protest/rally than to miss a day of work – a nation-wide strike really assumes certain privileges that most people (including most of the people that were out yesterday!) do not have. That’s why 6th April and 5th May and all those movements never really got anywhere.

It is still early in the day in Egypt as I write this. Demonstrations may pick up again after school and work get out. On the other hand, I’ve heard people say they fear that Egyptians will now sit back, satisfied that they made their point yesterday and unwilling to continue. Moreover, I think that after yesterday the regime will want to clamp down quickly. Mubarak, I fear, has learned from Ben Ali’s mistakes. (Good thing the New York Times was willing to give him advice!)

Yesterday’s protests were, without a doubt, violent. See this video of the police evacuating Tahrir Square with tear gas and rubber bullets for evidence. But they weren’t nearly as violent as they could have been or, for that matter, as violent as I would have expected. But the Ministry of the Interior has already stated that they will not allow more protests and if the day of anger turns into a week of anger or a month of anger, I think the government will be more heavy handed as they try to prevent a Tunisia situation. I’m afraid the future could hold lot more beatings, arrests and maybe even live fire than we saw yesterday, when three people died.

For now we have to wait and see. I’ll be sitting at my perch in Istanbul, aching to be in downtown Cairo as I watch videos of the much-hated Central Security Forces firing tear gas and rubber bullets at crowds that include my friends.

Photo by Sarah Carr from Flickr

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Happy Police Day, Egypt!

Today Egyptians observe the national holiday Police Day. A year ago I was in Cairo and the day was marked by a day off from work and plenty of snide comments. I wrote about it for The Faster Times. This year the day will be marked by a protest organized on Facebook. Some are hoping for a “day of revolution.” I have a busy day in Istanbul, but today my solidarity and best wishes go out to the people of Egypt, a country overripe for revolution.

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A view of the Nile NASA’s International Space Station. I feel like you can almost see Cairo’s traffic.

(Via Grinding.)

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Egypt’s Elections: The View From Washington

The best line of the afternoon came from Mahmoud Ali Mohamed of the Egyptian Association for Supporting Democratic Development. “When we look at Egyptian political theater,” Mohamed said, riffing off an earlier statement by one of his co-panelists, “there is only one director. There is only one person who opens and closes the curtain.” Unfortunately, that important premise, which was essentially embraced by all three participants, got lost in the shuffle of talk about election monitors and voting — props in Hosni Mubarak’s farcical democratic theatrics.

I went to see a panel discussion at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on Tuesday about Egypt’s upcoming parliamentary elections: “boycott, campaigns, and monitors.” The participants were Wael Nawara, a leading member of the prominent-but-small opposition party el-Ghad; the aforementioned Mohamed of the Egyptian Association for Supporting Democratic Development (a group I’ve never heard of before despite a pretty decent knowledge of Egypt’s pro-democracy movement); and Andrew Albertson, the requisite American from a DC-based think tank, in this case the Project on Middle East Democracy.

The Egyptian parliamentary elections are scheduled for November 29 and they are being watched closely by observers inside Egypt and around the world, in large part because of what they could portend for the next year’s presidential election. The fate of that election remains up in the air and many are concerned that President Hosni Mubarak will use the opportunity to install his son in power. But the panel’s focus on elections glosses over the other important challenges that Egypt faces, from a fractured opposition to a mismanaged economy to a brutally repressive police state.

Nawara asserted at the beginning of his talk that it was the first time the Egyptian opposition had an opportunity to address Washington. I doubt that considering Saad Eddin Ibrahim’s repeated (and much celebrated) visits to DC, but that’s besides the point. It’s important that the Egyptian opposition gets its voice heard by people who make, or at least influence, decisions in Washington. But if this is a rare opportunity for the anti-Mubarak voice to be heard here, it’s too bad that it had to be focused on elections, when that is the tip of the iceberg in terms of Egypt’s lack of democracy.

When Egyptians don’t have freedom of speech, class mobility, or a viable opposition, why should anyone worry about filling out ballots for parliamentarians? Nawara commented on this, saying that the “emphasis on election technicalities may be counterproductive.” But then the matter was dropped.

But even if there were systems in place to facilitate electoral democracy in Egypt, the opposition political parties don’t seem ready for it. The panelists at the Carnegie Endowment’s series are a case in point. Nawara comes from el-Ghad Party, the group best known for its media-loving head Ayman Nour who has been resistant to standing with Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency who has been, at least to a certain extent, shaking up elections in Egypt. Ghad ended up deciding to join ElBaradei’s call to boycott the election, but the front that the groups presented was far from a united one. Mohamed, the other Egyptian participant, represented the Wafd Party, a state-sanctioned opposition group that is widely considered co-opted by the ruling regime. The Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s best-organized and most-visible opposition movement declared less than two weeks ago its intention to contest 30 percent of seats in parliament, going against the opposition’s election boycott. In return, more than 150 Brotherhood members have been arrested.

With or without political parties or international election monitors, Egypt is a brutal police state, the kind of place where cops can beat a 28 year old to death in an Internet cafe in the second biggest city in the country in broad daylight; the kind of place where torture is par for the course in police stations and prisons; the kind of place where migrants (and yes, I know, they wouldn’t be voting anyway) are shot to death for trying to cross borders. Protests in Cairo are regularly met with vicious violence on the part of the state security apparatus.

And while the Egyptian economy may be “liberal,” it is far from democratic. Since the Mubarak government signed on to an IMF structural adjustment program in the early 1990s, the majority of Egyptians have continued to get poorer. The widespread privatization of state-owned factories and businesses have benefited only a small business class, one that operates hand-in-hand with the ruling party. As the Egyptian economist Galal Amin has said, “Those who continue to preach the trickle-down theory are likely to be the ones who do not really care whether anything trickles down at all.” A system as top-heavy as Egypt’s capitalism does not lay the foundation for a democratic society.

Of course, it’s possible that free and fair elections for the parliament would turn around the injustice governing contemporary Egypt. Indeed, the problems that plague Egypt are cyclical: Civil society is constricted by the police state, which is in power to protect the elite’s economic interests. Democracy is complicated and Albertson, in his brief remarks yesterday, pointed out that democratic elections are about creating accountable governments. Perhaps local and international election monitors could help change that. But when the majority of the opposition is boycotting the election anyway, that seems like a pointless course.

If I sound critical of the Carnegie Endowment for putting the panel together I don’t mean to. It’s great to see a room full of people in Washington thinking about the lack of democracy in Egypt. I just hope that in the future they can see beyond elections to the deeper problems that afflict the country.

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