Saturday, 23 February 2013

Paul Sedra: "Egypt's State of Siege"

Originally published by Egypt Independent

Egypt’s foreign reserves have fallen to a startlingly low US$13.6 billion — the lowest level for reserves since 1997, and less than the sum necessary to finance the country’s imports for three months.

The black market rate of exchange for the pound is nearing LE7 to the US dollar. The official inflation rate in the cost of food stands at 8.2 percent per annum. Fuel shortages have become a fact of life in Egypt, with lengthy lines for diesel practically routine. Meanwhile, the supply minister is beginning to discuss the idea of bread rationing, proposing a limit of three loaves a day per person.

Amid these indications of social and economic crisis on a virtually unparalleled scale in the country’s modern history, Egypt’s formal political scene is being afflicted by an equally unparalleled paralysis. Since President Mohamed Morsy issued his 22 November constitutional declaration, two factions emerged in the formal political realm that are, for all intents and purposes, unwilling to negotiate. As if the divisions were not already clear enough, each faction is now represented by a “front” — the opposition’s National Salvation Front and presidential allies the National Conscience Front.

Making a mockery of the formal political realm’s paralysis is the intense activity of the informal political realm — the politics of the street. Indeed, ever since the president’s November declaration, not only has the pace of the marches and protests become unyielding, not only has the flashpoint of resistance shifted from Tahrir Square to the Ettehadiya and Qobba Presidential Palaces, and not only have previously unseen bands of protesters like the Black Bloc emerged, but the tally of injured, tortured, humiliated and killed has grown from Friday to Friday.

And yet again, much like the desperate economic situation, the country’s desperate streets appear to have no power to compel the formal political class to act. That class’ paralysis has remained largely unaffected by the starkly contrasting movement on the streets. There is a peculiar absurdity about a government that is reduced to berating rural mothers for their purportedly poor hygiene.

One could attribute such paralysis — and the absurd admonitions that seek to fill the void — to incompetence, inexperience or both. And without doubt, these factors are important to consider. Egypt is in entirely uncharted political territory, after all.

But the degree of paralysis — the refusal to act in the face of such monumental challenges — suggests a greater root than simply incompetence or inexperience. In this context, I cannot help but recall the ideas regarding “disaster capitalism” recently set forth by Naomi Klein, most notably in her book “The Shock Doctrine.”

According to Klein, in roughly the last 50 years, societies suffering from various forms of political, social and indeed environmental turmoil have become vulnerable, depending on political circumstances, to economic reengineering in a neo-liberal mold. Ideologues following in the footsteps of American economist Milton Friedman have taken advantage of disasters, ranging from Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans to the invasion and occupation of Iraq, to introduce stark departures in social and economic policy. These departures have promoted deregulation and privatization as difficult but necessary “shocks” to the system, which would purportedly lead the given society away from crisis and back to prosperity.

Given the statistics listed above, there is little doubt that Egypt is well on the way to a “disaster” situation, if it is not actually in one already. The inaction of the president and the government suggests, to my mind, not merely negligence, but a strategy to seize upon “disaster” as an opportunity — in political terms, to ensure the dominance of Islamists and particularly the Brotherhood for years to come, and in economic terms, to rid Egypt of the last vestiges of statism and redefine Egyptian neo-liberalism to the Brotherhood’s benefit.

Of course, none of this is to suggest that there is a blueprint to this effect in the Brotherhood supreme guide’s office. What I would insist upon, however, is that the failure of the president and his allies to take the smallest steps to avert disaster amounts to a state of siege upon all Egyptians.

While the president may bargain that the National Conscience Front will balance and hold off the National Salvation Front until parliamentary elections are held, one wonders whether he has bargained for the power of the street. After all, he and his Brothers were absent on 25 January 2011. Where will they find themselves as the next revolution begins?

Monday, 18 February 2013

Paul Sedra: "The Maspero Massacre: Adding Injustice to Insult and Injury"

Originally published at Jadaliyya

Amidst the marches, street battles, and political deadlock covered night after night by the Egyptian media, one recent story almost escaped notice. On 4 February Michael Farag and Michael Shaker were each sentenced to three years in prison for having stolen weapons from the armed forces. With noteworthy decisions handed down by Egyptian judges on an almost daily basis, these sentences might seem, at first glance, rather mundane. What makes the media inattention harder to comprehend, however, is the context in which the theft was said to have occurred – the evening of 9 October 2011, at the Egyptian State Radio and Television Union Building in Cairo, commonly known as Maspero.

Coptic and Muslim activists alike have long awaited action from the Egyptian judicial system for the crimes that were committed that evening – namely, the murder of nearly thirty people, almost all of them Coptic Christians protesting sectarian violence, in what has become known as the Maspero massacre. Yet, the defendants in the 4 February case were not the soldiers who drove their armored personnel carriers into the crowds, without regard for the bodies of the demonstrators they were crushing. Rather, Michael Farag and Michael Shaker were among the Coptic demonstrators who were arrested shortly after the massacre – demonstrators who then stood accused of the very sectarian violence they had come to Maspero to protest.

One could hardly find a clearer case of “blaming the victim.” And yet here, over fifteen months after the event, the armed forces were simply perpetuating the lies they had fabricated the evening of the massacre – lies that were then spread without the least verification by Egyptian state media. Indeed, on the evening of 9 October 2011, state television had falsely claimed that Copts were roaming the streets of downtown Cairo with weapons they had seized from the military.

In August 2012, when the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), Egypt’s ruling military junta, was apparently sidelined by the country’s first elected civilian president, Mohamed Morsi, there was a slim measure of hope that Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi and his peers on the junta might face justice for the crimes they had committed during their rule. Without question, the Maspero massacre was the greatest of such crimes. And yet only three soldiers have found themselves in court, charged with involuntary manslaughter. The sentences they received ranged from a meager two to three years.

To my mind, the whole sordid tale points to two principal conclusions about the state of Egyptian justice. First, the victims of the military junta’s violence and repression should expect no accountability for SCAF crimes in the near future, regardless of who is occupying the presidential palace. Emblematic of the impunity that the military continues to enjoy in Egypt is the vast discretion afforded to the armed forces in administering their internal affairs under the constitution recently rushed through an Islamist-dominated constituent assembly.

Second, there simply is no equal justice for Coptic Christians in today’s Egypt. And here again, the story of the constituent assembly is instructive. Copts were entirely unrepresented in the assembly that approved the constitution, due to mass resignations from the drafting body. Further, despite the powers afforded the Coptic Orthodox Church to govern the personal status affairs of the Coptic community under Article 3 of the constitution, the Church – an institution central to the everyday lives of the majority of Copts – has described the document as “discriminatory.”

Unfortunately, with the second anniversary of the revolution, Copts have had precious little to celebrate. One cannot escape a certain wistfulness as one recalls the human chains with which Copts protected Muslims and vice versa during their respective prayers in the eighteen-day Tahrir encampment. That so much hope and optimism has vanished so quickly is testament to the craven, narrow-minded political strategies pursued by both the military junta and the Muslim Brotherhood in power. But this collapse of the so-called Tahrir spirit is testament, too, to a broader failure on the part of Egyptians – a failure to come to terms with the sectarianism in their midst.

Friday, 8 February 2013

The Passing of Rushdy Said

I've just received the sad news that the great Egyptian scientist and thinker, Rushdy Said, has passed away. Here is a short biographical sketch, in Arabic (click on photo to enlarge):

Photos: Pope Tawadros's Visit to Dayr al-Muharraq

Thursday, 7 February 2013

Paul Sedra: "The Dignity of Hamada Saber"

Originally published by Jadaliyya

Depictions of bruised and battered bodies have had an enormous influence upon the waves of protest Egypt has witnessed since the initial stirrings of the January 25 Revolution – from the graphic post-mortem photograph of Khaled Said to images of what is widely known as the “blue bra incident.” However, I suspect few Egyptians would question the particular force of the brutality depicted in a video shot in front of the Ittihadiyya Palace on the evening of 1 February, even as compared to the infamous scenes just mentioned. In an incident that was broadcast live to Egyptians on Al-Hayat television, and then rebroadcast to an international audience on CNN, a man is beaten, stripped naked, and dragged through the street by Egyptian police.

Beyond the degree of brutality depicted in the video, what sets this latest scene apart is how much Egyptians have come to know not only about the background to the incident, but indeed, about the incident’s denouement – specifically, how the Egyptian police sought to contain the impact of the video, and how these measures ultimately caused still further violence to the victim and his family.

Through extensive coverage on the leading talk shows of the Egyptian private television networks – among them, Orbit’s “Al-Qahira al-Yawm” and Dream’s “Al-Ashira Masa’an” – viewers have come to learn that the victim of the attack was Hamada Saber Ali, a fifty-year-old resident of the Cairo neighborhood of Matariya. So great was the demand for information about the victim of the attack that the television channel ONTV managed to reach Hamada’s wife, Fathiya, by telephone only a matter of hours after the incident.

In the midst of the interview, broadcast live, suspicions immediately emerged that Fathiya was under pressure to repeat a police narrative of the assault. That Hamada found himself in the care of a police hospital only intensified concerns about whether Hamada or his family could speak without coercion about what had happened to him in front of the palace. Such concerns were substantiated when Hamada, plainly contrary to the video record of the incident, suggested that protesters rather than the police were responsible for assaulting him.

The disconnect between Hamada’s testimony and the facts of the assault became jarringly clear when one of the victim’s daughters, Randa, an eyewitness to the incident, contradicted her father’s testimony in a series of media interviews the day after the assault, insisting that the police were responsible. In doubtless one of the most bizarre encounters that has appeared on Egyptian television in recent memory, Hamada directly accused his daughter of misleading the public in the midst of Orbit’s talk show “Al-Qahira al-Yawm.”

Bizarre certainly, but heartbreaking too, because here was a family fracturing live before the eyes of the nation – fracturing as a direct result of police coercion. Not only had the police broken the body of Hamada Saber, but they were breaking his family apart as well.

Once Hamada was transferred from a police hospital to a government hospital, his testimony came to match that of his daughter Randa. Although there remain determined attempts to impugn Hamada’s character, with the front page of the Freedom and Justice Party newspaper accusing him of carrying eighteen fire bombs, what comes across most powerfully in the coverage of this man and his family is an extraordinary dignity.

Indeed, despite the dangers her father clearly faced in what amounted to police custody, Randa Hamada Saber insisted on the accountability of the police for her father’s assault. This confidence, this dignity derived not from material comfort – her family lives in a single room, and shares a bathroom and kitchen with two separate families – but from a profoundly held sense of what is just and what is not.

While Hamada doubtless still faces intimidation from the police, he faces ridicule from those who accuse him of cowardice. The former is of course repugnant, but the latter I find almost doubly so. The high and mighty who find fault with Hamada have not lived in his shoes. The January 25 Revolution, the “dignity revolution,” was for Hamada, after all. That he should have lied under police coercion, after suffering so brutal an attack, is testimony only to the revolution’s shortcomings – not Hamada’s.

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Article of the Day

Paul Sedra: "The Revolution and History"

Originally published by Jadaliyya

As a historian, I am often struck by a particular misconception about history, widely held both in Egypt and abroad. This is the sense that, once written, history is fixed or finished – that, once a historian has “covered” Asyut in the 1860s or Alexandria in the 1940s, there is nothing further one can say about those subsections of the wider story of modern Egypt.

In fact, history is written and rewritten by each successive generation of historians. What makes this writing and rewriting possible and, arguably, necessary, is not the discovery of once hidden documents or the refinement of the historian’s analytical frameworks. What makes this writing and rewriting necessary is the changing context in which the historian lives and works. At the end of the day, historians are interpreters of the past. Their role is to help people make sense of the past. And in order to accomplish this, they need to “translate” the past into a language people in the present can understand. They need to use today’s priorities and reference points as tools to liken the past to the present, and thus make the past relevant in the present.

For all these reasons, the January 25 Revolution has made rewriting the history of modern Egypt essential. Under the military dictatorship, the chief milestones of Egyptian history were 23 July 1952 and 6 October 1973 – the overthrow of the monarchy by the Free Officers and the breach of the Bar Lev Line, respectively. These were milestones made by the Egyptian military.

The revolution demands a history oriented not to the victories of the Egyptian military, but to the struggles of the Egyptian people for liberation. A revolution whose bywords were “silmiyya, silmiyya” (“peaceful, peaceful”), demands a history whose focus is not triumph by force of arms, but triumph by force of numbers, argument, and civil disobedience.

In much the way that the revolutions of 1968 inspired American historian Howard Zinn to write his People’s History of the United States – a history less concerned with statesmen than with slaves, soldiers, and suffragettes – the January 25 Revolution must yield a history of modern Egypt that examines the manifold ways in which Egyptians have defied the central authority that has, for centuries, sought to control them.

In a post-revolution Egypt where 1952 and 1973 no longer resonate as milestones, 1919 and 1968 may come to the fore. Indeed, in looking back at photographs of the demonstrations that convulsed Egypt throughout 1919, I am often stunned at the likeness they bear to the marches and sit-ins that have convulsed Egypt these past two years. And while rejection of colonial rule was integral to their movement, the revolutionaries of 1919 were as much concerned with “bread, freedom, and social justice” as the revolutionaries of 2011. Further, in witnessing the courage of the protesters who took to the streets these past two years, Egyptians dare not forget the arguably still greater courage of the students who, in February 1968, demanded an end to the Nasserist dictatorship. However, these are but two possibilities among a multitude of episodes of protest and resistance that may take on a novel resonance in the wake of the January 25 Revolution.

One of the most durable tropes of the January 25 Revolution is that the “barrier of fear” finally fell away that day, permitting the formerly quiescent Egyptians to rise up against the Mubarak regime. In shifting the focus away from the regime and to Egyptians themselves, the new history that I am proposing will reveal that this “barrier of fear,” this purported quiescence was always a myth perpetuated by a narrow elite in Cairo – a myth that sought to deny agency to Egyptians by declaring them unfit to rule themselves.

During the past two years, Egyptians have made history. The myth of the quiescent Egyptian masses has suffered repeated blows, as millions upon millions of Egyptians have flooded into the streets, at great personal risk, to stand up and protest injustice. All I am proposing here is that historians of modern Egypt follow their lead.

Guardian Video: Ahmadinejad becomes first Iranian head of state to visit Egypt since 1979

Monday, 4 February 2013

Paul Sedra: "The tragedy of the Brotherhood"

Originally published by Egypt Independent
Republished at Worldcrunch

As President Mohamed Morsy wagged his finger at Egyptians in his televised address to the nation on 27 January, my mind wandered back to the televised addresses former President Hosni Mubarak gave during his last 18 days in power.

Back then, too, there were pitched battles in the streets of Cairo, Suez and Port Said. Back then, too, the police sought to bludgeon Egyptians into submission as the government invoked the Emergency Law and granted the military arrest powers.

And back then, too, there appeared before the nation a president who sought to accuse rather than convince — whose paternalistic attitude toward Egyptians was matched only by his apparent disconnect from reality on the ground.

Of course, there are those who are celebrating the downfall of the Brotherhood — who are relishing the irony of the organization, resorting to the very legal instruments that were used to repress it. Nevertheless, I cannot escape a certain sense of tragedy as I observe how precipitously the president and his allies have fallen since their rise to power a mere seven months ago.

This is not to say, of course, that the president can shirk his responsibility for the morass in which Egypt currently finds itself. Had he adopted a different path — the path of magnanimity and collaboration that he promised when he took his symbolic oath of office in Tahrir Square — the situation would be altogether different. There would not exist the ever-widening chasm between the Islamists and their opponents that now characterizes the Egyptian political scene.

And there would exist a constituency of Egyptians willing to give the nation’s first civilian president the benefit of the doubt.

That constituency, which once numbered in the millions and included countless non-Islamists, has dwindled. The Freedom and Justice Party would have Egyptians believe that remnants of the old regime — the “feloul” — remain behind all of the country’s problems, and are bound and determined to sabotage whatever movement toward reform the president undertakes.

But this is, to my mind, Morsy’s Achilles’ heel: a tragic delusion that will rob Morsy and the Brotherhood of whatever political success they have achieved in post-revolutionary Egypt.

Egyptian politics is not a zero-sum game. Yet that is precisely the attitude Morsy has adopted in running the country, an attitude tinged by an almost paranoid fear of losing power. Where is the confidence the president displayed when he presented himself to the masses at Tahrir seven months ago?

One cannot but wonder whether the president, who resorts to Twitter in the wee hours of the morning to speak to Egyptians on the second anniversary of their revolution, is indeed the same man who refused a bulletproof vest when he spoke to Tahrir.

There is no question that the weight of expectation that Morsy faced on his rise to power was tremendous. But so too was the moral and, indeed, revolutionary legitimacy behind the president.

After all, he had emerged the victor from the first remotely democratic presidential elections in the country’s history. With such a victory, and certainly after successfully marginalizing the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, what would it have cost the president to reach out to his political opponents? What threat to his rule would a government of national unity posed?

Of course, that time of possibility is now in the distant past. Like the boy who cried wolf, Morsy now appeals for “dialogue” at every turn, apparently hoping that Egyptians will forget his intransigence in the constitutional debate, his reliance on a government seen as hopelessly incompetent, and his repeated efforts to clamp down on the media and circumvent the legal system.

That this is a time of tragedy for Egypt, there is, of course, no doubt. The nation mourns as lives are lost day in and day out — whether at the hands of the unreformed police, or as a consequence of an almost systematic neglect of state infrastructure.

But this is a tragedy, too, for the Brethren. Having spent over 80 years in the political wilderness, victims of violent repression for most of their existence, and finally entrusted with the power that had so long eluded them, the Muslim Brothers has wasted every modicum of good will they had before them. And now, I’m afraid, they’re finished.