On Being Human

“Fuck you, asshole!” I yelled.

Easily three times my size, “hey, pretty thing” was helping someone carry a table down Fredrick Douglass in Harlem. My words bounced off his back.

His friend, who was facing me, and carrying the opposite end of the table from my  “admirer,” looked up, surprised.

Seeing only a cloud of red instead of the Dunkin Donuts pumpkin munchkins I had been fantasizing about and on my way to get, the words furiously kept pouring out.

“If you want to say something, why don’t you say it to my face, instead of just walking past like a coward.”

A few weeks earlier, the same explosion of fury against “hey, gorgeous,” who had sidled past me, muttering, while turning into the corner store, had at least elicited a silent apology of upraised, “I surrender” hands when I stopped and loudly vented.

I think people turned and stared. I’m not sure. I lost sight of everything else around me.

I’ve done my time in Cairo, where I lived before moving to New York. An April UN report said that 99.3 percent of women in Egypt have experienced sexual harassment.

New York was supposed to be a respite.

I am not an angry person. Ever. Ok, almost ever. How quickly the rage engulfs me, transforms me, is astonishing.

In Cairo, I tried to knock over the motorcycle of two “pssssst, pssssssssst, ya asl” as they slowly drove past me in rush hour traffic.

Through the city’s winding, ritzy neighborhood of Zamalek, I chased the “ass-grabber,” no older then fifteen, down ten blocks yelling, “I hope God brings destruction to your home.” (It doesn’t sound as bad in Arabic.)

From a movie camera perspective, the two Cairo incidents and my reaction were probably comical.

But what would I have done had I actually caught the ass-grabber?

Or if “hey, pretty thing” had actually turned around and yelled back at me?

In Cairo, I honestly have no idea. I might have tried to chastise or have a conversation, but every time I’ve attempted that it has been taken as a flirtation or met with mocking laughter. I think the trick is to be calm and distant, instead of livid.

Except the problem is that I’m so fucking angry.

In New York, I might have engaged.

Maybe.

Photographer Hannah Price did a series called City of Brotherly Love, taking portraits of men in Philadelphia who had harassed her minutes earlier.

They are compelling, evocative pictures.

The Philadelphia neighborhood is clearly low-income. Most of the men are black. Their faces show the wear of a hard life.

This is all somewhat true of where I live in Harlem. It’s “gentrifying” – i.e. kicking out the long-time residents for yuppies and students, most of whom come from privilege – like me.

Similarly, in Cairo, Julia Simon, a young American radio journalist, spontaneously stopped and had a conversation with the guy who harassed her as she walked by  – probably a young kid on the side of the street, peddling or loitering, with not much else to do.

The unemployment rate among young men in Egypt is 32 percent. Underemployment is just as bad, if not worse.

Both of these women have sympathy, or at least curiosity, about their harassers, whereas in that moment of being harassed, I have none.

I know that there are justifications and histories and contexts and sociologies and pathologies that explain why this happens. There are compelling reasons to engage these men with understanding and not hostility.

But in that moment, when you stop believing I’m human, I also stop believing you’re human.

The Need for a Plan

“[We] reject the lying SCAF / They speak nothing but lies / And our protest gets us killed or thrown in prison / Nothing has changed … Rise up, Egyptians!”

“[Oh SCAF], what can you to do to people who are used to suffering? / [You can] keep lying from now until tomorrow / Turn the revolution into a memory / Kill us one by one, but I dare you to kill the idea!”

After a tumultuous five months since the military coup in Egypt removed democratically elected President Mohammed Morsi from power, the revolutionaries are slowly returning to the streets. They are few in number. Under the guise of the April 6 Youth Movement, “The Way of the Revolution Front” and “No to Military Trials,” most are young activists who have protested against the oppression of every government that has graced the halls of power since 2011: President Hosni Mubarak in his last days; Gen. Mohamed Hussein Tantawi’s military government; Morsi’s Islamist government; and now, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s appointed transitional government.

Most Egyptians view the activists with suspicion. With the country so vengefully polarized between the supporters of the military and the Islamists and with the onset of revolution fatigue, most just long for stability.

At the commemoration of the 2011 Mohamed Mahmoud clashes on Nov. 19, banners around Tahrir Square read, “The Brothers, the army and the old regime not wanted.” In its attempt to claim the symbolic space around the square, the government painted over the memorial of graffiti to the revolution’s martyrs on Mohamed Mahmoud Street in a grotesque pink and red military camouflage pattern and erected a monument to the martyrs in the middle of Tahrir Square. The monument was destroyed and covered in graffiti within hours. The wall running along Mohamed Mahmoud has been covered again with images depicting the military’s brutality — notably, a soldier in full gear with a bloodied mouth surrounded by skulls oozing blood. A sign lies at the base of the pile with the slogan of the revolution, “Bread, freedom and social justice.”

The song I have quoted, “Liars,” released at the end of 2011 during the rule of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) in 2011, could as easily have been released today. After the dethroning of Mubarak in 2011, Mubarak Minister of Defense Tantawi was calling the shots. Now, “First Deputy Prime Minister” and Minister of Defense Sisi, who ran military intelligence for Tantawi, is the kingmaker. Under him, the laws and ways of Mubarak are being resurrected.

For a country that has become infamous for its street politics, the new law on public assembly passed on Nov. 24 is the latest source of contention. Egyptian rights groups, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon have all condemned the law. Under the new framework, organizers of public gatherers of more than 10 people must notify the Interior Ministry three days in advance of the event. The Ministry of Interior can ban protests or public meetings on the vague basis of “serious information or evidence that there will be a threat to peace and security.”

Of even more concern is the margin of violence with which security forces are allowed to respond: Water cannons, batons, tear gas, rubber bullets and metal pellets are all acceptable. As “Sisi fever” still runs high, the message to activists across the spectrum is clear: The government will not tolerate dissent against its rule.

Already in a frantic rush to close the political space, the government has started arresting prominent activists for violating the anti-protest law. Ahmed Maher, one of the co-founders of the April 6 Youth Movement which was pivotal in the January 25 Revolution, and prominent blogger and activist Alaa Abd El Fattah were arrested in the last week of November while demonstrating against the detention of 24 other activists. Maher and Fattah, along with Mohamed Adel — also a co-founder of the April 6 Youth Movement who has not yet been arrested but faces charges — are all expected to go on trial on Dec. 22, after the initial trial set for Dec. 7 was delayed.

Unpopular among the unchecked outpouring of support for the military since the July 3 coup, these activists have been a voice of conscience, crying out against the military’s massacre of pro-Muslim Brotherhood demonstrators at Rabia and Nahda squares in August. Even though the Brotherhood regime targeted the April 6 Youth Movement during its rule as well, these pro-democracy activists have pleaded with the country: Egyptian blood is Egyptian blood, Brotherhood or not.

Moreover, as one of the groups who organized discreetly under the last years of the Mubarak regime, these activists know the playbook of repression well: silence in the face of arrests of others is acquiescence to the inevitability of their own arrest.

In the April 6 Youth Movement’s latest statement on Nov. 30, they make a plea to those who still have a conscience to remember the struggle for a country based on democracy, civilian rule and equality. While much of Egypt may be willing to look the other way this time — exhausted from revolution and appeased by the thought, if not reality, of a military committed to Egypt — it has always been the young who have shed their blood for the rights of the silent majority and the antics of old men — military men, religious men and political men alike.

As they begin their gradual descent into the streets again and the hackles of the government are raised, the youth, the revolutionaries, need a strategy to organize for their vision of the future. Their battle will be difficult with the government co-opting the language of revolution and democracy and deepening the insidious stranglehold of the security state. This time, they need a plan, not the least of which convinces the public of this regime’s brutal nature. Their aspirations for a better future have been foiled too often, and yet, they may be the only voice with any integrity left in Egypt’s political landscape. While protest is absolutely necessary, especially as Egypt is back to the beginning in many ways, it is also not enough.

This article was originally written for and published by Al-Monitor on December 9, 2013. 

Sudan’s Lost Generation

Over greasy McDonald’s French fries and soda, a meal we could never have shared in his native Sudan due to international sanctions, I sit down with Nabeel Mohamed to hear the story of his descent into fanaticism, and his escape out of it. “See, I was tolerant, then I became fanatic, and now I’m tolerant again,” he says in measured tones as we eat lunch at the Voice of America office where he works. His story is not an action-packed thriller of terrorist networks and grandiose plots to change the world order, but a story of insidious forms of extremism that emerge from intellectual repression and social restriction.

Gentle-mannered and quick to laugh, Mohamed, 23, always has a book tucked under his arm as he moves through his temporary home of Washington, DC. Currently, he is reading a history of Eastern Europe, simply because he realized that he knew nothing about that part of the world. Mohamed carries on Sudan’s history of a vibrant intellectual life with his love of books. At a reading in Sudan in the 1960s, the late Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani paid homage to this tradition with the saying: “Cairo writes, Beirut publishes, and Khartoum reads.”

However, the generations who have come of age under the 24-year-long rule of autocratic President Omar al-Bashir, like Mohamed, are the “lost generations.” Their exposure to the outside world has been limited due to conscious self-restriction and circumstances resulting from growing up amid censorship; an onslaught of government propaganda; religious and social close-mindedness; and sanctions by the international community. Those who have struggled to find and keep Sudan’s intellectual tradition alive have done so out of sheer determination in the face of social and political obstacles.

“My father and his generation used to read all sorts of books – foreign ideologies, stories, all sorts of things. I don’t know if it’s from the government, but the west has been characterized in our minds as bad and evil – that they want us to abandon our culture, our religion, so we’re not even open to reading their books. Even the ones translated into Arabic, we put labels on that author – he’s a communist, he doesn’t believe in God, or he’s an agent, so why would we read that,” Mohamed says.

While much of Sudan, including Mohamed’s own family, follows a more mystical form of Islam, Sufism, Mohamed grew to follow an ultraorthodox version of Islam thorough the Salafist group, Ansar as-Sunnah, or “followers of the Prophet Mohammad,” during his teenage years in Khartoum. The group is known for its commitment to preserving the “authentic” ways of the Prophet, relying only on the religion’s doctrinal foundations: the Quran and hadith, or teachings of the Prophet.

Mohamed’s involvement with Ansar as-Sunnah was a drastic departure from his childhood life. He was born in the border town of Wau, a major trading post between northern and southern Sudan, where his extended family was made up of both Christians and Muslims. While he attended a Quranic school from the age of three onwards, he also sometimes attended church with his relatives.

In 1998, the civil war, which had been raging since 1982 between southern rebels and the northern government, came to Wau displacing the imaginary creatures of Mohamed’s childhood stories with dead bodies. The onset of government and rebel fighting in Wau sparked a campaign of indiscriminate violence by the government against the southerner population, many of whom had sided with the rebels.

Growing up, Mohamed avidly watched the ruling regime’s television shows of the epic heroism of northerner martyrs against the unruly, rebellious southerners, but the northern-southern divisions were more ambiguous in Mohamed’s own life. His father is a northerner, and his mother a southerner from Wau. While his paternal uncle left Wau to join the war on the government side, his father helped save a southern schoolteacher from possible death at the hands of the army. As the onslaught on Wau worsened, the family eventually fled to Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, which remained untouched by the fighting.

Early within the regime’s grasp, Khartoum had willingly caved to the Islamization and Arabization policies of the ruling National Congress Party (NCP), which was intent on building an Islamic state. Unlike the NCP, which fused religion and politics, Ansar as-Sunnah often shied away from politics. Instead, they were committed to gradual systemic reform through education and proselytizing. Entering his teenage years, Mohamed attended the Ansar as-Sunnah mosque at the invitation of a neighbor. The more he started paying attention to the preachers there, the more fanatic he became.

He started to view his father’s Sufi religious beliefs as wrong; he refused to greet female relatives with a handshake; speaking to women outside of the family was unthinkable; and Christians became categorized as “non-believers,” instead of family. Drawn to their fierce devotion and tradition of religious knowledge, Mohamed came to refuse everything outside of Ansar as-Sunnah’s narrow paradigm. His mentor at the mosque often spoke about the vitality of educating the people to eventually build a nation, and Mohamed became determined to fortify himself with the knowledge to defend his beliefs.

Insatiably curious, he mastered formal and Quranic Arabic, which differs significantly from spoken Arabic dialects. Mohamed learned that even speaking English, which was haphazardly taught as a second language in schools, was against Islam, since it was believed that knowing a foreign language might taint the purity of one’s Arabic.

However, as he entered his late teen years, a childhood best friend and competitor had started to study English and was excelling beyond Mohamed’s rudimentary grammar school knowledge. Egged on by his best friend, Mohamed, too, began attending English classes.

When pushed about why he pursued English, he simply responds, “I felt the need.”

At the mosque, Mohamed’s best friend, who loved to practice, would push him to converse in English. “We caused a big scene the first time, people were very curious, people would come around and keep staring. But he didn’t care, and with time I learned not to care,” Mohamed recalls.

Starting to learn English unleashed a torrent of irreconcilable confusions for Mohamed. Contrary to the idea that learning English caused demise, he realized, “It’s just a language. People communicate ideas with it, what’s wrong with that?” On the one hand, Mohamed felt plagued that he was doing something wrong by learning English, especially as it was starting to undercut his religious beliefs. On the other hand, he could not understand how he could be dismissive of something he knew nothing about.

Initially, Mohamed was condescending when he read through his English-language coursework, which focused significantly on the western lifestyle. “At first I would think I know for sure that our lifestyle is better, that they don’t know what they’re doing. But I started to be challenged when I would be struck by a statement or have an epiphany, and something would make sense, but it’s not supposed to make sense, but it does.”

Reflectively he adds, “It was thought provoking for me. I started thinking and thinking. People are free, they travel, they do this and that. We’re not free. We’re not even free to express ourselves. Intellectually we weren’t free. Socially we weren’t free. Growing up, I had always wondered about the existence of God, and I always feared that deep down inside, I was a nonbeliever. But shaitan, the devil, was always to be blamed for sowing the seeds of doubt.”

Pursuing his study of English, Mohamed became involved in an English language book club and open microphone nights at the German Goethe Institute. There were few places for Mohamed to feel he could discuss and think freely without a filter for social and political reasons. Khartoum’s youth have almost no cultural gathering places, and those that do exist are on the National Intelligence’s radar as possible hubs of political dissent.

All of these gatherings and discussions challenged Mohamed’s thinking far beyond what his religious books had taught him. He describes the transformation from “fanatic to tolerant again” as gradual. An event he would react to in real time could provoke weeks of contemplation. “When I thought about my life, I realized how unfulfilled I was, how closed off, and how there was an entire world that I pretended I didn’t care about, and without being conscious of it, I started slipping out of it,” he adds.

Mohamed now finds himself in the bureaucratic center of the Western world where is he is on a fellowship dedicated to a year of building non-profit leadership skills. Although the freedoms and opportunities of D.C. are coveted, Mohamed finds it difficult to not be preoccupied with recent events in Sudan.

On September 22, President Bashir mandated the removal of fuel subsidies, a measure supported by the International Monetary Fund as part of its austerity plan for Sudan. The cutting of subsidies has caused the prices of fuel and food to almost double, and an already beleaguered population from the worsening economic hardship has taken to the streets in the latest round of anti-government demonstrations.

Far from Khartoum’s dusty, broad avenues, Mohamed works to verify the death tolls in the anti-government protests rocking the streets in Khartoum. Amnesty International has reported more than 200 killed and 800 arrested since the protests started on September 23, but the actual numbers are believed to be higher.

The protests are a continuation of previous demonstrations, which erupted in January 2011 as the Arab Spring swept through the region, and then later during the “Sudanese Summer” of 2012. The root frustration for many, including Mohamed, is with the ruling Islamist regime of the NCP, which took power in 1989 after overthrowing a democratically elected transitional government. Marginalization, war, growing inequality, and a sophisticated brutality have marked the regime’s decades-long rule.

“It’s weird,” Mohamed says, “to be covering the protests. I struggle to stay professional and not get carried away. It’s one thing to watch on the news, Egypt or Syria, but when it’s happening to your people, and you’re making sure that your younger brother wasn’t out, you feel the weight of it.”

When asked if he will go back to Sudan, Mohamed, goes quiet for a minute, “I might not be able to live comfortably in Sudan, or with the mentality in Sudan. It’s just the way people are. Having to repress yourself, your thoughts, your views, is just not something I can live with.” His family, who he speaks with regularly, still does not know fully about his reformed views out of his desire to maintain a harmonious relationship. While they are relatively open in their religious views, Mohamed’s growing distance, if not altogether departure, from religion, may not be taken well.

As we click through pictures of bloodied-bodied protestors on Flickr, Mohamed expresses hope, if not belief, that just maybe, these protests might lead to something different. “After these protests, I want to be part of rebuilding Sudan, regardless of whether or not they’re successful. If Bashir goes, then it’s more important. If he doesn’t, then we’ll keep doing what we’ve always been doing.”

Due in part to his frustration with Sudan’s politicians, and in part to his training under Ansar as-Sunnah, he prefers an unassuming, subversive form of rebellion.

“For me that means becoming a teacher, to have a chance to give students what I didn’t have in many ways. Through education, you’re giving them the tools to see for themselves.”

A shorter version of this article was originally published by Al-Monitor on October 24, 2013. 

Egypt’s Justice System on Trial

After being released from pretrial detention on Aug. 22 and transferred to a military hospital, ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak returned to court on Aug. 25 to continue his ongoing trial for the killing of more than 800 protesters during the Jan. 25 Revolution, which deposed him. The case, which has been delayed again until Sept. 14, remains unresolved after judges granted an appeal from Mubarak’s representation against the June 2012 decision sentencing Mubarak and his former interior minister, Habib al-Adly, to life sentences.

In a particularly despondent few weeks for any hope of justice against the prerevolution state, Mubarak was also acquitted of corruption charges last week.

Sahar Aziz, a professor at Texas A&M University School of Law and president of the Egyptian-American Rule of Law Association, said in an interview with Al-Monitor that many lawyers were not surprised by the acquittal. Aziz said the problem is rooted in both law and politics. An underlying structural problem of the legal system is that the prosecutor general’s office is both responsible for prosecuting as well as gathering evidence. Common in alternative legal systems, the tasks are divided as the government investigative agency is responsible for evidence gathering, whereas the public prosecutor is charged with arguing the case.

The prosecutor general responsible for the Mubarak case was Abdel Meguid Mahmoud, a leftover from the Mubarak regime notorious for corruption and doing the regime’s political “dirty work.”

Aziz added, “While there was likely a deliberate effort by a hard-core Mubarak loyalist to conduct a poor investigation to ensure that there wasn’t going to be enough evidence for a conviction to be upheld. But, at the end of the day, the judge is bound by the terms of the law and if there’s not enough evidence, there’s not enough evidence.”

For Mina Khalil, assistant law professor at the American University of Cairo, Mubarak’s acquittal is another sign of the failure of the rule of law in Egypt, not only because of evidentiary problems with the case but “because the charges that were brought against Mubarak were insufficient.”

The legal and political obstacles to proving a case against Mubarak are why many Jan. 25 revolutionaries demanded a revolutionary trial early on. Convicting Mubarak in a civilian court may just not be possible.

Khalil explained in an interview with Al-Monitor that the type of case brought against Mubarak for the killing of protesters is considered a “crime of omission, which are generally harder to prove because you have to show that he had a legal duty to do something that he didn’t do.”

The weightiest case brought against Mubarak — the deaths of protesters during the revolution — was only from the 18 days of the revolution. Apart from the corruption cases, he has yet to be charged with any other crimes during his three decades in power. The Egyptian Organization for Human Rights sent a communique to the prosecutor-general on Aug. 22, after his acquittal in the corruption case, demanding Mubarak’s investigation for “cases of torture, mistreatment and abuses to life.”

As Mubarak’s retrial for the protesters’ deaths continues to drag out, many Egyptians have lost faith in ever seeing Mubarak brought to justice. Mahmoud Hamad, assistant professor at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, predicted in an interview with Al-Monitor that the case will never be resolved nor will Mubarak ever be held accountable.

Anything leading to a guilty verdict for Mubarak will also implicate many of the top leaders of the old political and military establishment, as many of them are not only complicit in Mubarak’s violations but also guilty of their own crimes. Speaking with Al-Monitor, Aziz pointed out that Mubarak has threatened to air everyone’s dirty laundry from the old regime. For many decision-makers over the last 2 1/2 years that has been sufficient deterrent from diligently pursuing the case.

After Mubarak’s release from pretrial detention, interim Prime Minister Hazem el-Biblawi ordered him under house arrest as a measure to placate the public. However, Biblawi only has the authority to do this under emergency law, and once it ends, Mubarak is free to move around the country.

Although there is a travel ban for Mubarak to prevent him from leaving the country, were he to do so, the royal families of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates will welcome him with open arms, said Hamad.

Aziz argued that if the interim government was keen to keep Mubarak in jail, under emergency law they have “carte blanche to arrest and detain, so they could have arrested him and put him in jail.” That they did not do this indicates the slim possibility of Mubarak ever returning to prison.

Aug. 25 also marked the start of the trial of Mohammed Badie, the spiritual guide of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, and deputies Khairat al-Shater and Rashad Bayoumy, all of whom were absent for security reasons according to officials. However, the trial was adjourned until Oct. 29, so that they can be present.

As opposed to the Mubarak trial, it is anticipated that if the trial is pursued, the security apparatus will be much more cooperative in bringing forth incriminating evidence against the Muslim Brotherhood’s leaders. Mubarak’s lawyer has also previously blamed the deaths of protesters on the Muslim Brotherhood and “foreign fingers.” While difficult to prove, there may be enough state interest and public animosity against the Muslim Brotherhood to get away with it.

Foreign pressure against the prosecution of the Muslim Brotherhood’s leaders and leveraging their imprisonment as a negotiation tactic may mean that the trials will never happen. However, Aziz said the more aggressive the trials against the Muslim Brotherhood’s leaders and how far back the accusations go will reflect the insecurity of the military regime.

“I think they’re using the criminal justice system to keep the Brotherhood out of the electoral process,” Aziz added, because the Brotherhood might not win the presidency or gain a majority in the next round of elections, but they will likely still get a strong turnout.

“The only political opposition is the Brotherhood and the military regime is trying to eliminate them or set them as far back as possible so it will take them decades to recover. In the meantime, the combination of the military and the security apparatus can fully entrench itself.”

This article was originally written for and published by Al-Monitor on August 27, 2013. 

The Price of Egypt’s Integrity

These days of chaotic, bloody brutality are a time for mourning, as the toll continues to rise for those killed by the Egyptian security force’s operation to break up pro–Mohammed Morsi sit-ins as well as from retaliatory attacks. There have been too many gruesome days in Egypt since the 2011 revolution, but never have the prospects for recovering from the damage seemed so bleak. At the moment, it is not unreasonable to fear Egypt backsliding to a state worse than that of Hosni Mubarak’s.

In the past two and a half years, an unleashed Egypt has chanted, “The people demand the downfall of the regime,” … and then the military … and then the Muslim Brotherhood. Today, graffiti on a grimy wall in Cairo simply reads, “Down with the whole world.”

It is almost impossible to describe the sheer intensity and scale of the Aug. 14 security force crackdown on the Nahda and Rabia al-Adawiya camps, where supporters of the deposed president had gathered for 41 days following the July 3 military coup. Bulldozers, snipers, assault weapons, tear gas, pellets and helicopters overhead were all reported at the scene.

Aerial images from that evening on Egyptian state television showed much of Rabia, sometimes described as a small city, up in flames. A number of journalists compared the scene to a war zone. What occurred there is far from the “gradual dispersal” of protesters designed to minimize carnage that the interim government had promised in the preceding days. Rather, the “dispersal” was an all-out attack. Egyptian human rights groups condemned the violence in a statement titled to aptly summarize the situation: “Non-peaceful assembly does not justify collective punishment.”

While talk of breaking up the protests had been building for days, marches by Brotherhood supporters to government ministries the day before the crackdown may have spurred the military to action. Reuters reported that outside the Interior Ministry, residents had thrown stones and bottles at the pro-Morsi marchers and called them “terrorists” as police warded the demonstrators off with tear gas.

Cairo and 13 other cities across the country are now under emergency law and curfew. Police have threatened to arrest anyone out after 7:00 pm, leaving Cairo, a city that normally settles after 3:00 am, eerily quiet.

There is no independently verified death toll. For now, Egyptian authorities report 638 dead and more than 4,000 injured, while the Brotherhood tallies their dead at some 2,200. Decaying bodies fill makeshift hospitals and morgues where grieving families struggle to identify their dead.  Many of the bodies have been burned under unclear circumstances still being pieced together.

Churches across the country are under retaliatory attack by reportedly pro-Morsi supporters. The Interior Ministry said that at least seven churches had been vandalized or torched by suspected Islamists on Aug. 14, while unofficial reports cite more than fifty churches and related institutions attacked. Two deaths have been reported related to sectarian violence.

Mohamed ElBaradei, the vice-president for foreign affairs and liberal veneer on the interim government, resigned the day of the crackdowns, declaring that he could “not bear the responsibility of a single drop of blood … especially with my faith that we could have avoided it.”

Neither the Brotherhood’s leadership, which called on its supporters to join the sit-in as the onslaught began, nor the military leadership supported by the supposedly liberal National Salvation Front and Tamarrod, the youth movement that sparked the June 30 protests that led to Morsi’s overthrow, share ElBaradei’s sense of guilt. Bloodthirsty, they are calling on their supporters to “resist” each other. The Brotherhood declared Friday, Aug. 16, “A Day of Rage” against the military’s violence across the country.

The National Salvation Front released a statement on Aug. 15 “saluting the police and military forces … imposing their will of complete victory.” Appearing as the military’s puppet, Tamarrod called for its supporters to take to the streets on Aug. 16 and stand up to the Brotherhood by forming “neighborhood watch committees,” a senseless call that if heeded will likely provoke some of the bloodiest street battles Cairo has ever seen.

Egyptians’ deep-rooted, insidious hatreds and prejudices have been released in a fury as the institutions of the deep state and the Brotherhood, both cheered on by popular support, play a deadly zero-sum game. After the violence of the crackdown, the military has made clear that only one side will emerge intact from this struggle, which is unlikely to end soon. A severely wounded beast now clearly fighting for its survival, the Brotherhood will in the coming days put up staunch resistance. On the day of the crackdown, Brotherhood supporters attacked state institutions and churches in Upper Egypt and the Delta.

In cries that have become heartbreakingly familiar, a woman at the Rabia al-Adawiya sit-in wailed, as fighting raged around her, “Are we not Muslim! Are we not Egyptian!” That is what demonstrators gathered against Morsi’s November 2012 constitutional decree pleaded to their Brotherhood attackers in front of the Ittihadiya presidential palace.

With ordinary political contests transformed into existential battles, the cycle of demonizing those with differing political views has ripped Egypt apart. “Thug,” “terrorist,” “kafir” (non-believer) are loosely thrown around by the Brotherhood and their opponents in the sludge of hatred. The inherently competitive nature of electoral politics, which at its basest thrives on exploiting divisive fissures, has helped entrench such hyped-up prejudices against the “other” in Egypt.

During the December 2012 constitutional referendum, Islamists equated saying “yes to the constitution” as saying “yes to Islam,” asserting the dominance of their religious interpretation. This, along with the Brotherhood’s majoritarian politics at a time when social and political trust in a shaken Egypt was weak, fueled the fears that it was seeking to build an Islamic state. While its history, ideology and belligerence to compromise worked against the organization, the mistakes made by its members in government were not far beyond the usual trials and errors of emerging democracies.

In the more hopeful yet still repressive days of the 2011 parliamentary elections, when the ruling Supreme Council of Armed Forces crushed anti-military protests, many non-Islamists voted for the Muslim Brotherhood with cautious optimism. Confident in Egypt’s ability to define its own path on its own terms as a nascent democracy, they asserted that Egyptians must make their own choice in the country’s first free and fair elections.

As the world warily watched, a middle-aged man in a worn brown galabiya, waiting to vote, declared, “If we make the wrong choice, we’ll fix it.”

The price for “fixing” the Brotherhood’s election may prove perilous and regressive for Egypt. While many Egyptians see this as a struggle between the “integrity of the state” and the Brotherhood, it is worth remembering that the state they are now seeking to preserve is the same one that the 2011 revolution sought to bring down in favor of democratic, civilian rule based on the rights, freedoms and dignity of all of Egypt’s citizens.

This article was originally written for and published by Al-Monitor on August 16, 2013. It was revised for style on September 19, 2013.

Photo credit: Marcia Qualey

Egypt’s Military Shows No Restraint

Fireworks booming, military helicopters circling overhead and posters of “lion-hearted” Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi at every turn continue to mark the celebratory mood in Tahrir Square. The irony weighs heavily when remembering the ardent anti-military protests camped out in the square less than two years ago under the rule of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and the brutality with which security forces repeatedly crushed them.

Days before Egypt’s first democratic parliamentary elections in November 2011, the Muslim Brotherhood, which anticipated a strong performance, refused to support demonstrations against the SCAF after initially being anti-SCAF, not wanting to upset the military establishment.

How the tables have turned, again, with the Brotherhood finding itself at the mercy of the ruthless military hand it once uncomfortably backed to achieve its own ends. Complacent in the military’s vicious crackdowns against peaceful demonstrators — one of its biggest betrayals of the post-revolutionary period — the Brotherhood is condemned to a similar fate.

Since deposed president Mohammed Morsi’s overthrow, the two large-scale killings of Brotherhood demonstrators, seen as violent extremists by many, have evoked little sympathy from the public. A more thorough eviction of pro-Morsi demonstrators from Rabia and Nahda Squares is expected in the coming days.

There is a truth to be learned from the last two years: Whenever the military has felt threatened, it has exercised no restraint, violently subduing dissent. Every side in Egypt knows and has experienced this. The masses of people who have filled the streets, many of whom have traversed labels since the 2011 revolution — the revolutionaries, the pro-democracy demonstrators, the SCAF protesters, the Brotherhood protesters, the Islamists — have all had their blood shed on military orders.

Yet, in spite of having witnessed each other’s downfalls, Egypt’s political factions still continue to deal with the devil, even though they, too, will likely suffer from the military’s heavy-handedness in the near future.

The massive outpouring July 26 for demonstrations “against terrorism” cemented the bond between Sisi and the streets. At his behest, the street will roar, and at his word they will be quiet. He is a military general who orchestrates demonstrations with one hand and crushes them with the other. The street, with its penchant for army heroes à la former president Gamal Abdel Nasser, is ensuring the military’s entrenchment in the new order. The street has made the military a kingmaker.

While Sisi reassures the country that he has no interest in ruling, the reality is that he is currently the most powerful man in Egypt. For the moment he is beloved, but the problems that he will eventually have to face remain, and will worsen — a plummeting economy, high unemployment, fuel and food shortages and a deeply polarized country.

The civilian government that was so crucial to Tamarod’s defense that Morsi’s overthrow was not a military coup is becoming less relevant as it bows to the general’s demands. The interim president and chairman of the Supreme Constitutional Court, Adly Mansour, granted Prime Minister Hazem Al Beblawi the power to authorize the army to arrest civilians following violent clashes on July 27.

Deemed “clashes” by most media outlets out of journalistic caution, the disproportionate response by the security services is clear. As a Human Rights Watch report affirms, “Many of the at least 74 pro-Morsi protesters killed were shot in the head or chest.” There are numerous unverified reports of snipers firing upon the protesters, a tactic used against demonstrators in the past. In a news conference conducted that afternoon, Interior Minister General Mohammed Ibrahim denied the accusations.

As more reporting has emerged about the events surrounding Morsi’s overthrow, the story of the military’s long-held frustration is coming to light. While the coup may yet be proven to be premeditated, it does seem the military was waiting for a chance to become more involved in the country’s governance.

In his most popular move as president, Morsi forced the retirement of Field Marshall Mohamed Tantawi, the head of SCAF and his defense minister, as well as his anticipated successor, Sami Hafez Anan. He also removed the chiefs of the air force, air defense and navy. Viewed as a bold stand against the “deep state,” Morsi’s short-lived gutsiness inspired hope of more reforms to come.

Instead, Morsi only moved to cushion his power. He appointed Sisi, reputed to be a devout Muslim and someone Morsi, along with many Egyptians, believed was sympathetic to the Islamist agenda. Murmurings in the street of a coup started in January, but few believed that it would come from Sisi. However, Sisi and the army were only biding their time as their and the country’s discontent mounted.

In an interview with the Daily News Egypt, Brotherhood spokesman Gehad el-Hadad warned that the “’deep state’ is back.” The problem, though, is that it never went anywhere. As the first civilian leader after a period of ugly military rule, Morsi had a unique, but ephemeral, chance to reform the Ministries of Defense and Interior. There was enough popular support around the retirement of the generals and momentum from the anti-military activists that he could have pushed forward with further reforms. It would have been a risky move, with serious potential backlash, but it may have been one of the few opportunities Egypt had. Instead, Morsi treaded carefully around the vilified Interior Ministry and believed he had tamed the military beast by cutting off its head.

While public opinion is overwhelmingly in favor of the military, there are a handful of dissenting voices against military rule and violence. The “Third Square,” a small group against both the pro-army and the pro-Morsi factions, is staked out in Giza’s Sphinx Square. Struggling to be heard over the vitriolic fervor on both sides, this is one hodgepodge group which has not been sidetracked from the goals of the revolution.

The April 6 Movement, which played a crucial role in the 2011 revolution and supported the June 30 protests, and the Revolutionary Socialists can both be found there. Both groups released statements condemning the violence by all sides, but the Revolutionary Socialist statement released July 25 was vehemently anti-army, saying, “The Muslim Brotherhood was overthrown to deepen the revolution, not to support the regime. Whatever crimes the Brotherhood has committed against the people, … we do not give army chief Al-Sisi our authority.”

Catapulted back into its role as the repressed victim of the state, the Brotherhood’s incendiary religious rhetoric,  and allegations of torturing individuals from rival political camps,  is further alienating it from the people. By self-righteously framing itself as fighting for a higher moral cause that surpasses politics, the Brotherhood is fueling the fear that it had always had an agenda greater than Egypt. There is little doubt that Brotherhood protesters are armed, but neither is there doubt the demonstrators in Tahrir are armed.

On Aug. 1, the Interior Ministry promised protesters who leave pro-Morsi sit-ins in Cairo and Giza “quickly” a safe exit. The civilian leadership has ordered the end of protests. The July 26 mass “anti-terrorism” rallies gave the security establishment a popular mandate, and the Interior Ministry is holding meetings to decide its strategy. The police and army continue to make public assurances that they will use force as a last resort, but never has an eviction of demonstrators after the 2011 revolution happened peacefully.

If July’s killings, which have left more than 100 dead, are any indication, blood will run freely in the days to come, and almost every side in Egypt will be complicit in the additional lives that are lost under military rule.

From the Brotherhood’s complacency to military violence against pro-democracy protesters in 2011, everything is coming full circle with the military’s anticipated violent expulsion of the Brotherhood from the public space, largely supported by public sentiment.

The state security apparatus will be the only winner in the ongoing political battle, and it is only a matter of time before we find ourselves asking who will be crushed under its heel next.

This article was originally written for and published by Al-Monitor on August 2, 2013.

Muslim Brotherhood Missing From Egypt’s Road Map

CAIRO — Against a background of entrenched resistance from Muslim Brotherhood supporters and disagreement within the opposition, the military is implementing its “road map.” Meanwhile, pro and anti-“coupvolution” demonstrators are holding their ground. Crowds continue to flock to Rabaa El Adaweya mosque and Cairo University, where protesters call for the deposed President Mohammed Morsi’s reinstatement on the basis that he is the constitutionally legitimate president of Egypt. In the Brotherhood’s preferred framing of political fights, Morsi’s removal is being described as an attack on Islam.

There is anticipation that the beginning of Ramadan on July 10 will only embolden Brotherhood supporters. While the mood at the Brotherhood’s protests is one of preparedness for battle, Tahrir continues to celebrate with nightly displays of fireworks and military airplanes overhead.

Cairo’s streets in the past few days have vacillated between a return to normalcy and unusual quiet. While both sides still use the streets as a standoff to determine which side is louder and bigger, the military has appointed the prime minister and vice president, laid out a constitutional declaration and set a timetable for presidential and parliamentary elections.

After the Salafist Nour Party — which backed the downfall of Morsi — refused two earlier propositions for the prime minister, including Mohamed ElBaradei, the June 30 coalition spokesman and head of the Dostour Party, they finally agreed to former finance minister and liberal economist Hazem el-Biblawi as prime minister, who was appointed on July 9.

ElBaradei will now be the “vice-president of foreign affairs.” The current foreign minister, as well as the ministers of interior and defense, will all retain their positions. A divisive political figure, it is apparent that ElBaradei’s appointment is targeted at the West. His experience as director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, as well as his established position as a secular liberal, will give the West — still edgy with Morsi’s removal — a familiar face and ideology to deal with in the interim government. Moreover, as US aid to Egypt remains uncertain in the face of whether or not the military’s intervention was a coup, ElBaradei as the icon of Egyptian liberalism and the declared election timetable may help convince the US government of Egypt’s commitment to liberal, democratic values moving forward.

In Egypt, while many liberal progressives are enthusiastic about ElBaradei’s appointment, many moderate Egyptians see him as a weak personality who showed up at the last minute to take power. Among the Islamists, he is detested for his secular stance on religion, and he has done little to convince the general public that secularism does not mean the removal of Islam from the Egyptian identity.

For Mustapha Kamel al-Sayyid, adjunct professor of political science at the American University in Cairo, who spoke on the phone to Al-Monitor on July 7, ElBaradei’s participation in the interim government is crucial in facilitating the division between religion and politics, a combination he views as dangerous.

Ironically, in appeasing the Salafists, the military’s constitutional declaration, issued around midnight on July 9, keeps the reference to the principles of Islamic Sharia as the basis of the state and main sources of legislation — one of the main articles the liberal opposition vehemently opposed during the 2012 drafting process. Furthermore, freedom of worship stays limited to the three monotheistic religions as in the 2012 constitution, whereas the 1971 constitution protected freedom of belief.

A once fickle ally of the Muslim Brotherhood in competition over a similar base, the Nour Party — which has been straddling the fence over Morsi’s removal — is now reaping its rewards. Acknowledging the popular, peaceful nature of the June 30 protests and critical of the Brotherhood’s political domination, it also expressed support for the constitution and legitimacy of Morsi’s presidency. However, it ensured the party’s role in the post-June 30 order by agreeing to participate in Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s meeting prior to the expiration of Morsi’s 48-hour ultimatum. Playing both sides, they also assured their Islamist constituency that they had nothing to do with Morsi’s overthrow.

As the now dominant Islamist group willing to engage in the political process, the Nour Party — whose beliefs are more hard-line than the Brotherhood — have played a prominent role in the shaping of the interim government and constitutional declaration. While their engagement is important to prevent the complete alienation of the country’s Islamists, they will prove an obstacle to the liberal vision for the new state.

However, navigating the transition and maintaining that they did not betray their brothers in Islam is proving increasingly difficult with their followers. After the July 8 clashes between the army and Brotherhood supporters, which left 51 dead and 400 injured, the Nour Party announced that it was suspending cooperation with the interim government. Worried about its members who were joining the Brotherhood’s protests, it also proposed an alternative road map on the grounds the military’s road map had increased violence and suppression.

Newly appointed Biblawi stated that he will include the Brotherhood and the Nour Party in the formation of a cabinet, but the Brotherhood unsurprisingly rejected the offer to join the “revolution cabinet.” For them, any solution begins with the reinstatement of Morsi, as they do not even acknowledge the legitimacy of the new interim government.

Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center — speaking to Al-Monitor via Skype on July 6 — said, “The Brotherhood is not going to pre-emptively give up their legitimacy claim because in some ways that is the best bargaining chip they have with the new government.”

In the long run, Hamid believes that if the Muslim Brotherhood leadership decides to cut its losses in a couple of weeks and get back into the system, they will need clear guarantees about their participation, including whether they could appoint a prime minister should they win a plurality in the elections.

Sayyid, however, thinks that the interim government will need to deal with the all-encompassing nature of the Muslim Brotherhood organization before deciding on their return to politics. “The Brotherhood as an association should be subject to the rule of law as a nongovernmental organization, but Egyptian law forbids NGOs from being involved in politics.”

How the interim government will handle the Brotherhood’s reintegration into the political process is one of many questions that remains to be answered, but meanwhile, the military continues to plow ahead with its road map amid increasing political influence by the Salafists.

This piece was originally written for and published by Al-Monitor on July 10, 2013. 

Who Will Stand With Egyptian Democracy?

CAIRO — It may be a stretch, but after the removal of President Mohammed Morsi by a popularly instigated coup, there was a small window of time where the army and the opposition could have adopted a genuinely reconciliatory tone, since they had the upper hand in how events were going to play out. While the nature, history and general interests of the army can be blamed for preventing the army from doing so, the opposition — or at the least the “revolutionary core” of pro-democracy youth activists — could have struggled harder to push the new military and civilian leadership to begin shaping the new order on democratic values.

This is not to say that anything can appease the Muslim Brotherhood at this point and push it to reintegrate into the political system, nor to ignore the fractures in the loosely strung-together opposition.

If this is truthfully a continuation of the revolution, and not just an attack on the vilified Brotherhood, where are the continued cries demanding protection of human rights, rule of law, political freedom and political pluralism?

The military is arresting Muslim Brotherhood figures, the army is firing on Brotherhood protesters, Islamist media is prevented from airing and the Constitution remains suspended. The spokesman for the June 30 front, Mohamed ElBaradei, who is expected to take a key role in the interim government, justified these actions in a July 4 New York Times interview indicative of the exclusionary, hypocritical and complacent attitude that is so far defining this transition.

ElBaradei defended the widespread arrests of Brotherhood members as precautionary measures to ensure the security situation. They were ordered by Prosecutor General Abdel-Meguid Mahmoud, a remnant of deposed President Hosni Mubarak’s regime notorious for arresting Brotherhood members reinstated this week; Mahmoud then submitted his resignation on July 5.

ElBaradei boasted of his efforts to convince Western powers of the need to forcibly remove Morsi on the grounds that the former president did not work to make an inclusive democratic transition. While he justified the military’s moves against the Islamists, citing the security situation and clinging to guarantees of due process for them, it looks as though many of the Brotherhood’s key leaders will inevitably be excluded from the future political scene because they face arrest or detention, again perpetuating the cycle of an exclusionary political environment. There is no sign from the army that those arrested will be released any time soon, and there is concern that some of the charges against the Brotherhood leadership will date back as far as the early 2000s, when some were still in jail.

Senior Brotherhood leaders have all been rounded up on charges of incitement to kill, including the order to defend the group’s headquarters on June 30 with lethal force. While not absolving the Muslim Brotherhood of its incendiary rhetoric of the past days — repeatedly invoking martyrdom or provoking violence by marching to Tahrir Square yesterday, where opposition supporters have been camped out — it is worth noting that the army and police did not protect the Brotherhood’s supporters or offices, and police were accused of participating in some of the attacks. Having taken control of the country and deposed Morsi, neither the army nor police have played an even somewhat neutral role of protecting the safety of all Egyptians, only validating the Brotherhood’s perception that it is under attack.

As Rachel Shabi wrote in the Guardian, after vehemently condemning the Morsi government’s arrest of opposition members on trumped-up charges, it seems that the opposition’s senior members are giving the military a free pass to do the same with Brotherhood members. Morsi is charged with “insulting the judiciary,” with whom he repeatedly clashed during his presidency.

Although ElBaradei insists that the opposition is sending a message of reconciliation and inclusion to the pro-Morsi camp, few actions back up the claim.  ElBaradei’s stance is unsurprising, as the National Salvation Front hinted for months that Morsi’s days were limited and that the military might have to step in. The military responded with subtly threatening statements that it would protect Egypt, but had no interest in politics. It was a savvy move cementing the popular perception that the military was the only neutral, nationalist broker left, but a wiser one that had learned from the Supreme Council of Armed Forces’ mistakes when it ruled from February-June 2011.

What is most surprising is how quickly Tamarod embraced the army as savior, and claimed allegiance to them with few caveats, preventing any anti-military criticism on June 30. Even now, as Tamarod supporters remain in Tahrir Square, they are there to defend the action of the army, not democratic rights, nor to condemn the attacks on the Brotherhood. Evident from July 5’s clashes leaving 30 dead and 1,138 injured, the Brotherhood members are not showing any restraint to ingratiate themselves or encourage reconciliation. At the same time, after being overthrown, the onus also does not fall on them.

Listening to Mohamed Salah, an activist with Tamarod, the prevailing perspective one gets is that the army is saving Egypt. He said Tamarod is “carefully monitoring the situation,” but “feels no exceptional action for the military is necessary because it is not participating directly in political life after passing control to the head of the Supreme Constitutional Court.”

What Tamarod is not out demonstrating for — nor has its leadership shown any inclination for, leaving it all in the hands of the political elite — is to start defining and defending a democratic vision for the transition. The military accepted the movement’s broad roadmap, but how the actual execution of it occurs is not of enough interest to June 30 participants to force civic engagement — a grave mistake.

The “coupvolution” that took place on July 3 should be treated as exactly what it was: a temporary marriage of convenience between two groups that both found it in their interest to bring down Morsi. The people and the army are not one hand. It is in the distinct nature of the army to repress the people, and it has repeatedly proven that it has no allegiance to anyone but itself.

Sara Salem, a Dutch-Egyptian doctoral student, laments the strong feeling of helplessness that follows the protests. “We go and protest, but to what extent is it meaningful? Won’t it always be co-opted by one elite or another, last time the Muslim Brotherhood, this time the military?” she wrote on July 5.

If democratic values come first, and there is truly concern, the opposition needs to take back to the streets, moving beyond statements condemning the army’s actions against the Brotherhood. The opposition, especially youth who make up the “revolutionary core,” know better than anyone else the power of the streets. They have used it to topple two regimes, but now they need to use it to shape a transition, to build a democratic state.

Undeniably much of the work that needs to be done is at the level of high politics with negotiations between elites. Also, undeniable, is that many Egyptians are quite happy with the military at the moment and feel it is handling the situation. While their numbers will be far fewer than June 30, the people are not beyond pressuring their elites, for elites only have legitimacy as long as they have followers.

In April interviews, co-founders of the April 6 movement spoke about their lack of desire to hold power, but instead of their desire for Egypt to be a civilian state with equality, social justice, freedom and tolerance. April 6, which played a crucial role in the 2011 revolution and participated in June 30, pushed for the downfall of Morsi’s regime for months before Tamarod’s campaign. Opting against forming its own political party, although supporting ElBaradei’s Dostour Party, the April 6 movement aspires to form a lobby group capable of working in the street and the government, giving it the freedom to be for or against the government, for or against the law.

Now is the time to begin carrying out this vision. But co-founder Mohamed Adel, speaking to Al-Monitor via phone July 5, instead just echoed Salah’s claims of “just monitoring the situation” while discouraging the use of violence against Brotherhood supporters.

Opposition leaders need to move beyond calling on its supporters to protect the revolution. They need to push their elite toward meaningful reconciliation and protecting democratic values in this transition, partially to protect their own integrity. By letting the military take the unchecked lead, or deferring to it and not engaging in civic action against all violence and human rights violations, they are sacrificing the possibility of creating a new political culture for political expedience and the military’s agenda.

While overthrowing Morsi was the first priority, it was a means to an end, to build an Egypt that fulfills the demands of the first revolution: bread, freedom and social justice. Thus far, any signs of building that Egypt seem to only be for the winners of June 30, not the losers. That said, to believe that Egypt will stay on a set trajectory, for better or worse, has been disproven too many times.

This article was originally published for Al-Monitor on July 6, 2013. 

Egypt’s Brotherhood Must Be Assured Part in Politics

In a re-revolution of the revolution, General Abdul Fatah Khalil el-Sisi has announced that Islamist President Mohammed Morsi is no longer president. Opposition demonstrators erupted in roaring cheers, fireworks lit the sky and celebratory gunfire and honking could be heard through the night as people drove through the streets proudly waving Egyptian flags.

It is a proud, moving day for many Egyptians, yet again having accomplished what was unimaginable a few months prior. As he made the announcement, General Sisi was surrounded by opposition leader and spokesperson of the June 30 front Mohamed El Baradei, Coptic Pope Tawadros II and Al-Azhar Grand Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayyeb, all expressing their support for the will of the people.

As promised, General Sisi laid out of a four-part roadmap for the country: suspension of the current constitution, selecting a committee to amend the constitution, holding an early presidential election under the Supreme Constitional Court’s oversight and forming an interim technocratic national-consensus government.

For a group that was outlawed under then-president Gamal Abdel Nasser until the 2011 revolution, the past year has been a tumultuous rags-to-riches-to-rags story. The underground group, illegal for decades, skyrocketed to dominate the legislature and take the presidency in a six-month period in 2012, and then met its end in a military coup instigated by popular will in the course of a year.

The power of the Muslim Brotherhood’s well-established grassroots network providing social services unquestionably won it many votes in the last elections, as did its experience in being the only group to contest elections under the regime of deposed president Hosni Mubarak. But apart from these reasons, for many middle-class Egyptians — religiously adherent, but moderate — the Brotherhood was the obvious choice when the country went to vote in Egypt’s 2011-2012 parliamentary elections.

Although it was a rose-tinted view, many took the Brotherhood’s deep religiosity and discipline to mean respectability, honesty and effectiveness. After the notorious corruption of Mubarak and his cronies, the Brotherhood seemed its antithesis. Its vast network of social services in underserved neighborhoods was taken as a sign of capability, awareness of the country’s needs and dedication to Egypt. And unlike the liberal, secular opposition, the Brotherhood would protect the Islamic identity and values of Egyptian society without the Salafis’ rigid interpretation of religion. Taking a leap of faith, but also seeing few or no moderate alternatives, thousands of voters flocked to the polls and marked the names of the Brotherhood’s candidates.

Others, including seculars, liberals and revolutionaries, unconvinced of the Brotherhood’s genuineness and in ideological disagreement, voted for an assortment of other nascent opposition parties, all struggling to muddle their way through electoral campaigning and mobilizing. This same group, though, backed into a corner during the presidential runoff between Ahmed Shafiq, a leftover of Mubarak’s regime, and the Brotherhood’s Morsi, held its breath and voted for the recently removed president. There was a hesitant optimism from even the skeptics that maybe, just maybe, this would not go all terribly wrong.

By November 2012, furious protesters were out in full force against a series of authoritarian constitutional decrees from Morsi placing him and the Shura Council beyond judicial review as the Islamist-dominated Constituent Assembly worked to finish drafting the constitution. The following days saw vicious and bloody battles between those supporting and opposed to Morsi. From there the situation continued to deteriorate as Morsi pushed through the referendum on a draft constitution written primarily by Islamists.

Polarization, tension and frustration only worsened in the following months as the executive, legislative and judiciary offices battled, especially as the anniversary of the January 25 revolution and the ruling on the Port Said soccer massacre saw the country descend into chaotic bloodshed with too little, too late action from the country’s leadership to steer out of the mess.

Furthermore, the Islamist-written constitution and legislation put forth by the Islamist legislature came to be seen by many as an attack on Egyptian identity. Chants of “We’re not Islamist, we’re not Salafi, we’re Azhari” could be heard at gatherings protesting against Morsi. Now, many not only blame the Brotherhood for the demise of the country, but also blame the group for sullying the good name of Islam, an Islam that is not Egypt’s Islam.

Now the tables have turned, as the democratically elected president from the Brotherhood finds himself ousted by a military coup instigated by popular will — a contradictory phenomenon, possibly the first such incidence in history — as millions have gathered in Tahrir Square and the Ittihadiya and Qubba presidential palaces in the past few days to demand Morsi’s exit.

In response to the army’s statement, Morsi delivered a recorded speech over speakers to a Brotherhood sit-in at Raba’a Al Adawiya Square, where they have been camped out since Sunday. He claimed to still be president in the speech, but is currently under house arrest. Similar to yesterday’s speech, he urged civilians and the military to uphold the law and not accept the coup, which he said would turn Egypt backward.

The Ministry of Interior took Islamist television networks, including Muslim Brotherhood-owned Misr 25, and the controversial Hafez and Al-Nas channels off the air. Al-Ahram reported that the crew of Misr 25 were arrested, with staff at other channels allegedly evacuated from their offices. With limited access to outlets for inciting violence, the move may help prevent bloodshed on this crucial night, but it also poses an ominous sign for the Brotherhood in days to come.

On Tuesday, July 2, battles at a Brotherhood rally at Cairo University left 18 dead and 367 injured when fighting broke out between rally participants and unidentified assailants reportedly against Morsi. Earlier in the week the Brotherhood’s Moqattam headquarters were attacked and raided with almost no police protection, and dozens have been killed and hundreds wounded in clashes between opposing sides throughout the country.

An important first step, the Tamarod movement issued a statement inviting youth from the Brotherhood to rejoin the people, and not be driven by calls for violence or terrorism. The June 30 front comprised of the secular opposition National Salvation Front bloc and the Tamarod campaign has also issued statements condemning the violence and calling on the army to protect all citizens from attack.

Having accepted the democratic process as the legitimate path to power, and then successfully played the democratic game, many Brotherhood supporters are angered and disillusioned by what is essentially the overthrow of a democratically elected president. They have made electoral legitimacy the most pertinent form of democratic legitimacy while the opposition vehemently disagrees, arguing that elections do not equal democracy.

There are two particularly valid fears regarding the Brotherhood at the moment, and it is the opposition’s responsibility and in its interests to make an aggressive, concerted effort to quell those suspicions. First, there is the concern that removal from power after gaining it through a relatively legitimate electoral process will radicalize the Brotherhood and even discourage it from engaging in the system. Second, the memory of Nasser’s brutal 1954 retaliation against the movement for an alleged coup attempt resulting in its ban, massive imprisonment and torture of its members and members fleeing the country, lives on.

As much of the country is celebrating tonight, there is also fear of an army crackdown on the Brotherhood. The onus is also on the June 30 Front to help steer through the politics of this crisis. They must stand firm in denouncing any sort of Brotherhood witch hunt and make clear from the beginning that it will not be accepted. Feeling robbed of what they view as a legitimate hold on power, the opposition needs to clearly, vocally and repeatedly reassure the Brotherhood that Morsi’s removal is due to his political and economic failures, and that this is not an attack on the movement. Even if untrue, how the current crises is framed by the opposition and the language it uses will be crucial in setting Egypt’s future course.

The opposition must make clear that the Muslim Brotherhood will be a welcome part of political life in the future — free to contest elections, to protest, to organize, to exercise freedom of speech — and that it will not be persecuted. State institutions must fulfill their obligation to protect all citizens of Egypt from any violence directed against them, and anything less must be vigilantly condemned. Although currently vilified, the Brotherhood is still a significant part of Egyptian political life that will not simply go away after whatever happened today.

From its own political exclusion in the past year and where that has brought Egypt currently, the opposition must be aware that trying to exclude the Islamists — Muslim Brotherhood or Salafist — from any new transitional government implemented by the military is not an option for rebuilding the desired, pluralist Egypt. It will only create strife and bitterness and fuel discord.  Like them or not, the Islamists are a part of the Egyptian political fabric. Their voice must be respected, and they must be assured of this.

While the army will define the course of action over the next few days, it is up to the opposition to define its tone. The opposition must be willing to forgive past transgressions and remind the Islamists and the military that even if the Brotherhood put the Islamist project first, the opposition will honor the democratic values of pluralistic inclusion, and most important, put Egypt — all of Egypt — first.

This article was originally written for and published by Al-Monitor on July 3, 2013. 

Egyptian Police on Fence In Confrontation With Morsi

CAIRO — Only a day after the June 30 protests, the army gave President Mohammed Morsi a 48-hour ultimatum to “listen to the will of the people,” after which the army will take it upon itself to announce a road map to a solution. For many Egyptians, the July 1 statement was a sign that Morsi’s house of cards is falling as the army reasserts its role as Egypt’s safeguarder. However, in a followup statement a few hours later, allegedly after a meeting with Morsi, the army rejected media claims of a military coup, denying any interest in ruling the country or overstepping its bounds.

In a curious twist to previous protests, police in uniform and civilian clothing were seen participating in and supporting anti-Morsi demonstrators throughout the country on June 30 and yesterday, July 1. The Ministry of Interior had announced on June 10 that police forces would not be present in the protest areas. True to their word, police presence was minimal in key anti-Morsi demonstration gatherings as well as at pro-Morsi Rabea al-Adaweya Mosque. The bottom line for Morsi is that the security forces do not stand with him, leaving him in quite a predicament. Set to address the country yesterday from the Qobba presidential palace, the destination of Tamarod protesters in today’s demonstrations, he instead cancelled. Without the enforcing mechanisms of the state behind it, Morsi’s regime has little left to stand on.

Morsi made a last attempt at both flattering and warning the security forces of who they answer to, but dissent against Morsi is too potent, too widespread and too irrepressible for also disgruntled security forces to look the other way. In his June 27 speech, Morsi showered the army with praise and appreciation for their role in protecting the country and the revolution. He also reminded them that he, the president, is supreme commander of the armed forces, while blaming invisible forces intent on causing discord between the two. Though less lavish, the police received sympathetic and encouraging words promising the government would do its part to build state institutions so they could do their jobs. The speech was a futile effort to placate security forces as well as remind them of their constitutional obligation to the executive office.

The army’s declaration has prompted a widespread show of support with the streets of Cairo filled with honking cars proudly waving flags from their windows and a hopeful, roaring crowd in Tahrir on July 1. In a public-relations stunt that started on June 30, army helicopters continue to pass over Tahrir and Ittihadiya presidential palace, dropping flags to cheering crowds as well as displaying dangling flags.

Nevertheless, some Egyptians are skeptical of the military’s announcement repeatedly reminding their compatriots that a military coup is not revolutionary, but the public remains jubilant — an unsurprising sentiment after a year of economic mismanagement and political incompetence throwing the country into turmoil.

Some of the skeptics reluctantly hope that if the military does take over, army rule under the control of General Abdel Fatah Khalil al-Sisi will prove significantly different from that of General Mohamed Husein Tantawi, the head of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces. Witnessing the army’s unceremonious stepping down from power by a country fed up with them, General Sisi has been much more cautious to get involved in politics, repeatedly calling on political factions to come to an agreement. Regardless, the next force to rule Egypt will face a huge uphill battle in dealing with Egypt’s economic and political crises, although the hope is that whoever is to come will be able to handle it with transparency and competence.

In a statement following the army’s, the Ministry of Interior affirmed that they will ensure the safety of protesters and supported the army’s earlier statement. The ministry went on to express its political neutrality, maintaining its distance from all political sides.

Speaking from Cairo, Khalil al-Anani, a scholar of Middle East politics at Durham University focusing on the Muslim Brotherhood, believes that the police learned from the 2011 revolution and are now “trying to improve their image and get the support of the people.” He thinks that they are also concerned about how they will fare in the post-June 30 scenario, possibly facing a serious backlash.

The police support of protesters has proven hard to swallow for some Egyptians. While they are glad that the police do not pose an obstacle to do battle with during these demonstrations, it is difficult to forget the plethora of abuses by one of Egypt’s most vilified institutions that defended deposed president Hosni Mubarak until the bitter end. This time, however, the police have not attacked protesters.

Instead, police officers throughout the country have joined protesters and cheered them on. Daily News Egypt reported that several plainclothes and uniformed police officers marched with protesters from Giza’s Istiqama mosque, while other officers at the Giza police station cheered on passing protesters from the roof. In Alexandria, an officer’s funeral turned into a protest against the current regime, with police officers participating.

Eyewitnesses also reported that police were nowhere in sight to protect the Muslim Brotherhood’s headquarters in the Cairo suburb of Moqattam from an attack that began on the night of June 30. Al-Ahram reported that hundreds of Brotherhood opponents threw rocks and gasoline bombs into the headquarters, while Brotherhood members responded with gunfire. The Health Ministry reported eight dead by live ammunition. Brotherhood spokesman Ahmed Aref condemned the police’s failure to protect the organization’s headquarters and offices around the country.

The police and the Brotherhood have had an uncomfortable relationship since the latter came to power. The police are responsible for the arrest, brutal torture,and repression of the Muslim Brotherhood over decades, and have always viewed their new masters with a combination of suspicion and dislike. Morsi tried to appease the Ministry of Interior by avoiding the revolution’s demands for police reform, but this has not been enough to quell tensions.

In March, policemen across the country protested against Egypt’s interior minister, who is viewed as a Brotherhood supporter, demanding better equipment to protect them at protests. Since the violence around the Jan. 25 anniversary of the revolution and ruling on the Port Said soccer match, police, with increasingly low morale, have resented being used to defend against aggressive protesters.

While the police force’s current disengagement from the ruling regime may be a positive turn, preventing bloodshed between security forces and the people, there is fear that the violence between pro- and anti-Morsi protesters may be even worse, as there will be no one to act as a buffer between the two sides unless the military descends to the streets.

According to Al-Anani, who spoke to Al-Monitor via telephone, “The police will not defend the Muslim Brotherhood, which knows the police is colluding against them. If the Brotherhood are wise, they will find an exit for themselves.” He added that if security were to break down and retaliation against the Brotherhood were to ensue, they know that they could not count on the police to protect them.

While the idea of Brotherhood militias organizing might be a stretch, Al-Anani does think that there are young Muslim Brothers who are ideologically committed enough to the organization and the Islamist project that they will lay down their lives to defend it.

Previously, the police attacked the people instead of protecting them. Now, even though the police are not fighting the people, depending on how political and security forces handle themselves today with Islamists and anti-Morsi protesters calling for huge rallies, the next few days in Egypt may turn from peaceful to bloody, with violence targeting the Brotherhood. The Brotherhood’s supporters, who have manned their rallies with crude homemade weapons, are not likely to back down without a fight.

This piece was originally written for and published by Al-Monitor on July 2, 2013.

In Egypt, Elections Still Matter

CAIRO — Following the violence around the anniversary of the Jan. 25 revolution, and President Mohammed Morsi’s apparent inability to deliver on its aspirations in his year of rule, there has been a mix of hopeful, resigned, and wary speculation about the possibility of a new intervention by the military into government.

Minister of Defense Gen. Abdul Fatah Khalil al-Sisi deflected such conjecture by repeatedly calling on the country’s political factions to come to accords and find mutually agreeable solutions to problems facing the country. He has simultaneous warned the ruling regime against their inaction and reassured the citizenry that the military will not allow for the collapse of Egypt.

Still, a Zogby poll conducted between April 4-May 12 showed that 44% of Egyptians surveyed support temporary military rule, while only 26% believe the Muslim Brotherhood is capable of governing the state. Many anticipate a scenario where conflict between the anti-government and pro-government protesters will escalate to the point where the military is forced to step-in. Whether the military is a desirable option or not is a different debate, but many Egyptians view the military as the only institution capable of leading the country through its current crises. According to the Zogby poll, 92% have confidence in the military — the only institution to receive the support of more than two-thirds of those surveyed.

In less than a year since the end of SCAF rule, short memories and heightened desperation cause people to overlook the military’s numerous violations against the citizenry — brutal crackdowns on protesters, activists arrests, virginity tests, the blue bra incidents, and the mishandling of the economy — as strikes against their current capability to govern. Political commentators on Twitter have said, “Morsi will be remembered as the man who ended military rule in 2012 and brought back the military in 2013.”

By no means is the scenario of military involvement inevitable, and it is unclear exactly what shape it will take — a direct military rule like the Supreme Council of Armed Forces which ruled after the ousting of Mubarak, or the military taking control to appoint a temporary civilian-led transitional government, or another form. However, Egyptians increasingly fatalistic view of military involvement as impending reflects the population’s despondency and the massive failure of the country’s political figures.

Tamarod, an anti-Morsi movement behind June 30’s protests, is also ambiguous in clearly defining its long-term goals, instead focusing on its most-pressing goal of Morsi’s removal and early presidential elections supervised by the head of the Supreme Constitutional Court.

While the immediate appeal of their demand has likely helped garner more support as the majority of Egyptians are simply fed up with the current regime, it also shows the repeated short-sightedness of activists in playing politics with a long-term vision and strategy.  While Tamarod may claim not to care who wins in a future election due to an abstract respect for process and the will of the people, the reality is that its leaders do care if they are seeking to change the status quo via early elections. Hence, they need to be prepared to do the legwork to achieve the post-June 30 scenario they desire.

One potential tactic for an effective alliance between Tamarod and the major political opposition of the National Salvation Front, both intent on the removal of the current regime, would be the activist-driven campaign of Tamarod mobilizing the streets with participation from the NSF, and the NSF stepping up to take charge on mutually agreed-upon goals in the political arena after June 30. However, scattered, directionless, and also viewed as inept by most Egyptians, the NSF joined the Tamarod bandwagon once it was clearly taking off, and NSF leaders have been accused of being political opportunists in their support for the movement.

Further underlying the crisis is the failure of both sides to acknowledge the valid claims of electoral legitimacy by the Islamists and the government’s failures by the opposition. The Islamists defend the current regime stating that their electoral victory grants them political legitimacy as custodians of the state. However, Tamarod is also right to launch protests against the current regime over legitimate grievances. While Tamarod may not have legal standing, a petition that is capable of collecting 15 million signatures demanding the stepping down of the president is at minimum a powerful indication to any sentient leader that the government needs to change directions to better fulfill the demands of the people: bread, freedom, and social justice.

Regardless of what the immediate post-June 30 scenarios are — even in the possibility that the protests fail to gain significant momentum — the near or distant reality is that elections will happen — parliamentary, presidential, or both. As long as the opposition fails to play the electoral game well and gain political ground to shape the political process, it will continue to fail to have the opportunities to shape the Egypt that it, and many Egyptians, believe in. Otherwise, it will continue to be in the narrow interest of the Islamists to marginalize the opposition from the political process. The opposition is relevant in so far as it is an actual political threat to the Islamists for which the people will vote and take to the streets.

Even as the Brotherhood loses ground, the opposition fails to capitalize on this by not building a strong network to gain popular support. According to the Zogby poll, 40% of the population, while of the same political mind as the opposition, has no confidence in either the government or the opposition parties. The opposition has done little to earn the favor of this “disaffected plurality” as Zogby calls them. The opposition is viewed as too detached from the mainstream and ineffective in pushing its agenda.

The Tamarod campaign, especially, has given the opposition potentially unique access to much of the basic information to run successful campaigns. Through each petition form it has collected the name, national ID, government, district, and email address of signatories as well as built-up a network of volunteer campaigners.

By campaigning throughout the country, it has developed knowledge of area-specific strategies that are effective and local knowledge. Tamarod and the opposition parties should work together to organize and utilize this information to build an effective campaign strategy. Prior to the last parliamentary elections, the opposition complained of insufficient time to prepare, but this time, with the indefinite delay of elections and the demonstrated popularity and organizational strength of the Tamarod campaign, those who seek change in the government have the opportunity for true democratic mobilization of the people.

Now, they need to show the political sophistication and far-sightedness to look at how to successfully achieve their goals in the post-June 30 political reality.

This article was originally written for and published by Al-Monitor on June 28, 2013.

Egypt’s Gas Shortage Fuels June 30 Protests

CAIRO — By Wednesday afternoon, June 26, traffic in Cairo went from a gridlock of cars jammed around gas stations to eerily empty as the gas shortage discouraged drivers from going out. By Thursday, traffic jams were again at their worst, with people complaining of commutes taking hours. Worried about escalating tensions with the gas shortage hitting the country before protests planned for June 30, many offices have been letting their employees stay home in preceding days.

Despite the long lines and Tarek el-Barkatawy, head of the Egyptian Gas and Petroleum Company, acknowledging a gas shortage at a press conference earlier in the week, Minister of Petroleum and Mineral Resources Sherif Hadarra denied any shortage on June 26. While Hadarra blamed the long lines at gas stations on false rumors that the government intends to halt the supply of gas products, el-Barkatawy reported that the current rate of gas consumption is exceeding normal levels by 20 to 30%.

Saad Abdel Magid, a Cairo taxi driver, also pointed to Egypt’s diminishing foreign reserves, which are a major factor underlying many of the nation’s problems. “The country doesn’t have money, so the country doesn’t have gas,” he said while staring in frustration at a downtown traffic jam of cars haphazardly lined up near a gas station.

In a report issued June 25, the office of the president blamed the lack of fuel on the lack of foreign currency, but also cited smuggling and the black market for the shortage.

Oil-rich Iraq and Libya agreed to deals in March 2013 to supply oil to help ease Egypt’s fuel shortages, but they both fell through in June. Indicative of a lack of confidence in Egypt’s economy, the talks ended when Iraq rejected a guarantee by the Egyptian Central Bank for the $1.2 billion value of the oil.

For Manar el-Barrawy, a private language instructor who depends on her car to reach her students, the lack of financial reserves, smuggling, hoarding all seem like plausible reasons for the gas shortage. She also thinks that the government’s ineptitude in monitoring fuel supplies and acting accordingly has a lot to do with the current problem. She told Al-Monitor, “Nothing is really clear.”

Of concern to her is that the current shortage represents the government’s continued failure to find a solution to the gas shortages. In the two years since the revolution, Egypt has faced repeated fuel crises as the economy has deteriorated.

Regardless of the reasons, the consequences are the same: People line up for hours in front of gas stations and tensions run high. Amira Erfan, who works at an educational non-profit, joked to Al-Monitor, “People bring their water and sandwiches and charge their phones and laptops before coming to the gas station.”

Speaking by phone as she waited in line to get gas, Erfan said that her average wait time is two hours. The car behind her, already out of gas, was pushed forward as the line painstakingly progressed. It’s “everyone’s worst nightmare,” she commented.

Long lines, high temperatures and edginess about what the next few days will bring are exacerbating Egyptians’ frustrations. Ahram Gate reported that a student waiting at a gas station in Cairo was killed by a stray bullet fired during a dispute between two drivers over whose turn it was at the pump.

The latest gas crisis falls prior to the highly anticipated June 30 protests called by the Tamarrud movement demanding that Morsi step down for his failure to achieve any of the revolution’s goals. The demonstrators plan to march to the presidential palace to present their demands to Morsi on the one-year anniversary of his inauguration. Pro-Morsi groups have called for counterdemonstrations on June 28 and held a similar rally on June 21.

While some believe that the gas shortage may encourage more people to go into the streets, others fear that people will instead blame the shortage on the protests. According to Erfan, the gas crisis is “effective in making people angry.” She believes that the turnout on June 30 will be higher than expected because the gas crisis will incline previously reticent citizens toward protesting. While Erfan does not plan to participate in the protests, she acknowledged, “If we suffer this crisis for a few days, and then get rid of Morsi, I’m happy with this.”

El-Shaarawy, who supports the June 30 protests, also had concerns about them. “It’s possible that people will blame the June 30 protests for the current crisis. Always people change their minds and accuse the protests.”

This particularly concerns her because, she said, “Finally, the people who are of Islamist leanings are beginning to change their minds and see that Morsi isn’t the best option for the country, but now, because of the gas crisis, they might go back.”

In a major speech lasting more than two hours on June 26, Morsi again failed to offer satisfactory solutions to the economic and political crises currently facing the country. Addressing the fuel crisis, he began by telling Egyptians that he has seen the gas lines himself and would like to wait with them. He also personally apologized for the shortage and expounded on a new smart card system to help prevent smuggling by suppliers and threatened to withdraw the licenses of gas stations found to be hoarding.

Regarding the political crisis, he promised a national reconciliation committee comprised of political parties, religious institutions and revolutionary forces tasked with overseeing a national dialogue. While he has proposed the same approach many times in the past, it has yet to achieve success and resolve the differences between the political factions.

Morsi repeatedly warned Egyptians to beware of foloul, remnants of ousted president Hosni Mubarak’s regime, and of political opportunists capitalizing on the revolution for their own benefit.

For many Egyptians, their hopes and worries are now pinned on June 30. For Mohamed Mostafa, a Cairo taxi driver, the dwindling supply of basic commodities and soaring prices is enough to catalyze change. He told Al-Monitor, “All people will descend on the streets on June 30 against Morsi — I’m one of the them — and we will find a solution.”

The most obvious solution to many Egyptians is another takeover by the military, which governed the country after the revolution from February 2011 until June 2012. While not everyone is enthusiastic about that option, a skeptical Efran observed, “There is nobody else to take the lead.”

This article was originally written for and published by Al-Monitor on June 27, 2013.

Reclaiming the Space

Cocky, self-assured, smug. They whiz by on motorcycles taunting with words, leers, and jeers as they speed by.

For the last two months it has been my goal to knock over a motorcycle with guys who are harassing me. The temporary satisfaction of immediate revenge.

The actual execution of my fantasy was a complete failure. Out of a subconscious awareness of my plan rather than premeditated determination, I kicked the motorcycle zooming by while two young men harassed me. Motorcycles are heavier than they look. I didn’t even make the motorcycle veer a fraction from its path, and they sped away in a triumphant, amused burst of laughter.

For just one moment, I want them to know the feeling that nothing I can do to my harassers will violate them in the same way they violate me, to drown in the same raw vulnerability of always knowing the imbalance of my retaliation.

Culture Ministry Sit-In a Warm Up for June 30 Protests in Egypt?

CAIRO — June 12 marks the one-week anniversary of an ongoing sit-in by prominent Egyptian writers, filmmakers, performers and intellectuals seeking the removal of Minister of Culture Alaa Abdel-Aziz. They broke into the ministry building on June 5 to protest what they see as efforts to “Ikhwanize” the arts.

While the sit-in and accompanying protests in front of the ministry have been peaceful, with artistic performances every evening, the arrival of pro-Islamist counterdemonstrators in the late afternoon of June 11 led to minor skirmishes. Al-Ahram Online reported that the pro-Islamists, some from the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party and Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya’s Building and Development Party, chanted, “Clean up [the ministry], clean up, minister.”

Eyewitness accounts by protestors and residents in buildings overlooking the ministry reported that protestors chased the small group of Islamists away from the building, where there were incidents of rock throwing and beatings of some of the Islamists, including Ahmed al-Mogheer, a Muslim Brotherhood media organizer notorious for smear campaigns, a reputation for instigating violence and targeting outspoken anti-Islamists.

Mohamed Radwan, a media committee member for the sit-in, explained to Al-Monitor on June 11 that the artists and their supporters had received threats the day before from supporters of Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, the populist, hardline preacher and disqualified presidential candidate. The pro-Islamists intended to break up the artists’ protest. In turn, the artists called on support from the Ultras Ahlawy, the club of hardcore soccer fans who have protected anti-government protestors at demonstrations and caused disruptions around Cairo with their political dissent.

Riot police arrived earlier in the day on June 11 to separate the protestors and counterdemonstrators, forming what Radwan described as a “human shield” around the artists and intellectuals. Radwan said that he is not fearful that police will act to remove the demonstrators from the ministry. “It is normal procedure that the police should have taken action against us from the beginning, but instead the police came and made sure that we are safe, it’s a good sign,” he asserted.

Although the protest continued peacefully into the late night, with musical performances and poetry, there was some fear that pro-Islamists are mobilizing and will return stronger in the coming days.

According to Radwan, the artists’ sit-in is being viewed as a “small scenario of what will happen on the 30th,” the one-year anniversary of Mohammed Morsi’s presidency and the day the Tamarod (Rebel) campaign is calling for a million-man march to the Ithadiya presidential palace to announce that the president has lost his legitimacy. Tamarod members are working to collect 15 million signatures — almost 2 million more than the number of votes by which Morsi won the presidential runoff — to demand early presidential elections. At a news conference on June 9, Tamarod announced that it had already collected 13 million signatures from across the country.

Tamarod, which is supporting the artists’ protest, has also been campaigning at the Ministry of Culture, asking the crowd to sign the petition while participants wave Tamarod petition sheets on stage and in the crowd.

Indicative of the country’s frustration with the National Salvation Front, the mainstream liberal opposition coalition, its leading members were accused of opportunism by protestors and commentators on social media for attending the protests. Hamdeen Sabahi, chairman of the Egyptian Popular Current, was met with jeers and demands for justice for those killed during the revolution when he spoke at the protests on June 10.

Since Abdel-Aziz’s appointment in early May during a cabinet shake-up, he has fired the heads of the General Egyptian Book Organization, the Fine Arts Sector, the Cairo Opera House, and the National Library and Archives. The removal of Opera House Director Ines Abdel Dayem, in particular, catalyzed the artistic community to action. On May 27, the opening night of Aida, the Opera House curtains lifted on performers and staff in full costume dress holding anti-Brotherhood signs and chanting calls for the downfall of the regime.

Abdel-Aziz has defended the dismissals as a campaign against corruption. In a June 5 press release he said, “We will fight the wastage of public money in the name of culture and art. No group of individuals will force us to live and labor just to serve their private interests.”

Khaled Fahmy, chair of the history department at the American University in Cairo, clarified in a June 8 Al-Ahram op-ed, “The interest of the Brotherhood in the Ministry of Culture is based on an old and long engraved belief they have; namely, that Egypt’s identity has been hijacked by a handful of Westernized intellectuals, and that the time has come for Egypt to regain its original, pristine Islamic identity.”

Comments made on June 1 by Shura Council and Salafist Nour Party member Gamal Hamed against ballet are emblematic of why the artistic community is actively on the offensive. Hamed sparked controversy and concern when he described ballet as “the art of nudity” and called for banning ballet because he believes Islam forbids it.

Radwan told Al-Monitor that the office of the presidency had sent an open message to the protestors acknowledging the artists’ demands, but the artists’ refused to reciprocate the gesture or to engage in dialogue. They have made clear that they will continue their sit-in until Abdel-Aziz is removed.

The Freedom of Creativity Front, a coalition of artists supporting the sit-in, clarified in a June 6 statement that their rejection of the Abdel-Aziz is not personal, but in response to government policies that view the “country as spoils to be divided among its supporters and followers.”

Asma’a Shater, 24, a computer programmer, attended the protest on June 11 “to support innovation and creation in our society.” According to her, there is no freedom of speech, opinion, or culture under the ruling government.

Amed Mohamed Ibrahim, 75, a retired military officer and self-described Nasserite, told Al-Monitor that he had come to support the artists and intellectuals of the sit-in against the “facist rule” of the Muslim Brotherhood.

“This is the second stage of the revolution. The number of people against Morsi are increasing. Of course he will be removed from power,” Ibrahim said with confidence.

 This article was originally written for and published by Al-Monitor on June 12, 2013.

NGO Workers Sentenced By Egyptian Court

CAIRO — The Cairo Criminal Court slammed 43 NGO workers — including 19 Americans, 16 Egyptians, along with Germans, Serbs, Norwegians, Palestinians, and Jordanians — with prison sentences ranging from one to five years and 1,000 Egyptian pound fines in convictions on June 4 in the so-called foreign funding case. The case, which dragged on for a year and a half, followed indictments in February 2012 accusing staff of international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) of working for unlicensed institutions and receiving illegal funding.

One of the most severe crackdowns on Egyptian civil society in recent memory, the case is a microcosm of larger failures. For Egypt, it is a continuation of Mubarak-era paranoid thinking and sham justice within the Egyptian state apparatus. Both are now used actively by the Mohammed Morsi regime or given a pass as they serve the regime’s purposes in tightening its control over the state. The case furthermore exemplifies the duality of Egypt’s simultaneous resentment and dependency on Western powers.

From another perspective, the case points to the repeated timidity of US President Barack Obama’s administration to engage on the failures of Egypt’s democratic transition. The verdict also highlights the failure of the respective NGOs to deal with the case proactively, which would have involved vociferously reiterating their innocence throughout and protecting their staff members.

Of the 43 defendants, none are expected to actually go to jail. Those in imminent threat of imprisonment have all fled the country. The 11 Egyptians, who received one-year suspended sentences, only stand to be imprisoned if they are found to engage in “similar activities” within the next three years. All of the defendants are expected to appeal the case.

In December 2011, with the Supreme Council of Armed Forces holding power, Egyptian security forces raided the Cairo offices of the US-based pro-democracy and human rights National Democratic Institute (NDI), International Republican Institute, Freedom House and International Center for Journalists. They also descended upon the Germany-based Konrad Adenauer Stiftung. They seized documents and equipment from each office and froze the organizations’ funds. The NGOs were accused of violating Egyptian state sovereignty by illicitly supporting the political opposition and promoting protests.

From the beginning, the case was seen as a political action rather than the resolution of a legal issue over the distribution of international donor funding. In April 2011, two months after the ousting of President Hosni Mubarak, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) had distributed $65 million to civil society groups in Egypt. Angry that the funds had not been channeled through the government, Minister of International Cooperation Fayza Abu el-Naga spearheaded a “fact-finding mission” with the Ministry of Justice to investigate unlicensed, foreign-funded civil society organizations in August 2011. They warned that groups found guilty could be charged with treason.

While the organizations and governments were initially outraged by the raids and issued censorious statements, their outspoken condemnation and involvement with the case greatly decreased after all of the foreigners, except Robert Becker, a political party trainer with NDI, fled the country in March 2012 on an American plane after the judge dropped the travel ban on the accused for two days due to US pressure.

Although it was the work of the organizations being scrutinized by the Egyptian government, it was individual staff members who faced felony charges. The NDI staff has been the most outspoken about the lack of organizational support, raising serious concerns about the labor practices of international NGOs in regard to the treatment of their local staffs. It was made clear from the beginning that the safe departure of international staff was NDI’s priority, and once that happened, communication with national staff significantly diminished. Apart from paying for the salaries and legal representation of all of their staff, NDI provided little other support or guidance to the Egyptian staff members. In an October 2012 interview with Al-Ahram Online, Becker charged, “How dare we come to Egypt, operate and hire Egyptian staff, convince them it is a good organization to work for and then abandon them?”

The NGO case initially strained US-Egyptian relations, but in the end, it marked yet another episode in Egypt’s regressive post-revolution transition in which the Obama administration failed to hold the Egyptian government accountable for repressive actions. Egypt annually receives more than $1.3 billion in military aid and $250 million in economic assistance. In March 2012, one month after the formal charges, former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton cited US national security interests in waiving part of the legislative conditions on foreign aid to Egypt relating to the democratic transition. She also certified to Congress that Egypt had met its obligations under the 1979 Camp David peace treaty with Israel.

On May 10, Clinton’s successor, John Kerry also waived the democracy conditionality on US military aid to Egypt. This year, however, there was no public notification of the waiver, and the Daily Beast reported on June 6 that most of Congress had been unaware of the decision. In a statement on the day of the verdict, Kerry expressed tepid concern over the “politically motivated trial.” He did not threaten any consequences as a result of the verdict or address a draconian draft NGO law supported by Morsi.

The case represents the bipolarity of Egypt’s simultaneous dependency on foreign financial support, especially from the United States, and its deep-rooted paranoia about meddlesome “foreign fingers.” Egypt’s strategic location astride the Suez Canal, and its shared border with Israel, has made it the interest of foreign powers for years, and Egyptian politicians have long scapegoated the failures of the Egyptian state on foreign subversion. The SCAF and Morsi’s regime have both eagerly embraced this strategy, as had Mubarak.

Presiding Judge Makram Awad’s preamble to the verdict, shared in a post by Tarek Radwan of the Atlantic Council, exemplifies the politicized paranoia behind the case. “Under the former regime that … prostrated before America’s will to normalize relations between Egypt and Israel, foreign funding for civil society organizations emerged as a manifestation of this normalization policy. They aimed to undermine and dismantle state institutions … to serve American and Israeli interests which surpassed those of the Egyptian people.”

The legal handling of the case speaks to a legacy of kangaroo justice and a judiciary in which political agendas, not legal arguments, drive rulings. Most telling, Becker, was found guilty of starting his NGO six years before he even arrived in Egypt. In a similar vein, the International Center for Journalists claims that it had not even started the journalist training program for which its staff was indicted. Furthermore, as highlighted in a February 2012 statement issued by 31 Egyptian civil society organizations, “Even before the trial has begun, the Ministry of Justice, other government parties, and the two investigating judges have been conducting a one-sided trial in the media … with the goal of smearing civil society.”

The statement also noted that both judges investigating the case had served as chief prosecutors in the Supreme State Security Prosecution, which became infamous for fabricating charges against opponents of the Mubarak regime and covering up torture by security services.

Many observers argue that this verdict paves the way for further crackdowns on Egyptian civil society. The battle over civil society rages on as the Shura Council began debating the president’s draft NGO law on the same day the foreign-funding verdict was issued.

While international pressure and resistance by local civil society organizations have kept the heavy-handed draft law in debate for many months, the June 4 verdict is a sign that if civil society is to have a fruitful, engaged future in Egypt, all international and local efforts need to rally to prevent the passing of the current bill. The foreign-funding case was not the doing of Morsi’s regime, but its proposed NGO law and acquiescence to the verdict reflects a continuation of Mubarak’s repressive and controlling approach toward civil society. Under Mubarak, many such restrictions were implemented indirectly, but the draft NGO law proposes they become the legal standard.

The May 29 version of the draft law quashes civil society’s independence. It grants the government the authority to block internal decisions and activities of groups as well as forces NGOs to submit copies of all internal decisions, report on annual activities and produce an annual financial statement for the government. It also creates a coordination committee responsible for authorizing the acceptance of all foreign funds by groups.

As Hafsa Halawa, one of the 43 defendants, aptly articulated on June 4 on Twitter after the verdict was announced, “There isn’t much anyone can do for the NGO trial. We are prisoners of a corrupt legal system. But we can help civil society. Fix it.”

This article was originally written for and published by Al-Monitor on June 9, 2013.

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