Tuesday 17 March 2015

Egypt needs more than investment, Egypt needs individualism.

I remember once, as a young child burning with nationalistic fervor ignited by anthems and dramatic war adaptions where sacrificing one's life for the country was portrayed as the highest good, I was chanting "May we die so Egypt may live". I also remember being somewhat disgruntled when a family friend looked at me disapprovingly and remarked that we should instead strive to live for Egypt, because without us there is no Egypt, we make up the building blocks of the country. Far from the common romanticised ideas of nationalistic self-sacrifice, this rare bit of reason stuck with me up until now. 

Before the revolution, and more so thereafter, Egyptians were fed the idea that the interest of the country requires for all to forsake their own personal interests and stand together behind the common good. This is a prevalent theme in a discourse completely lacking in respect for individualism and oblivious to its importance as a conditio sine qua non of progress in a country which has long been plagued by collectivist notions, whether on a societal, religious or political level. Both revolutionaries and those they opposed have this dangerous flaw in common. 

Until this very moment, many revolutionaries believe that the failure of the revolution is due to the fact that former participants in the January 25 protests, left the ranks in order to seek their own self-interest. While the establishment of a democratic system was the purported goal of the 2011 uprising, many who took part in it found the idea of political parties a negative divisive factor rather than a necessity for the functioning of a pluralistic democracy. Diverging political ideologies were considered a threat to the elusive unity so many spoke of, as if the slogan "bread, freedom and human dignity" alone could form the program of a political party and subsequently that of a government. Self-interest, instead of being considered as the natural goal of any faction or person, was branded as evil. This led to a complete failure in playing the game of compromise and balance which lies at the heart of any democracy. 

The unity they spoke of was one that negated the individual and put a vague idea of the revolutionary common good above the very real and diverging interests of the population of the country, among whom the revolutionary forces themselves. In such a climate, anyone who dared break the so-called revolutionary rank was considered a traitor, as if to echo the slogan I chanted as a child: we all must die as individuals so the revolution may live.

The same phenomenon appeared and continues to appear on a larger scale. Fired on by state propaganda, ignorant media and statist political forces, an atmosphere is created whereby anyone who adopts an opinion differing from or opposing the official stance, is considered a traitor. Political language is rife in mentions of the need to put aside personal interests and to stand together in face of a common enemy or in support of the government, purportedly the one authority which has the country's interests at heart, in fact, the one force which actually knows what the "country's interests" are. 

In such a climate, it is natural to read an article about the new capital which was announced during the "Egypt The Future" economic conference which took place mid March, stating the following: "In my opinion, what is needed for this capital is for everyone entering it to leave his own ideas at its doors. The capital's doors should not open to anyone who does not fully submit to its special laws and who comes to market his personal ideas in the city." (own translation) The author continues by arguing that even though his requirement of the abandonment of individualism may seem harsh, it is a necessary cost to pay in order to ensure the country's progress. 

This new capital, which symbolizes a new vision of Egypt, sounds like a totalitarian dystopia where all must submit and forsake any notion of personal interests, diverging ideas or individualist discourse. Unfortunately, the author's opinion expressed above is echoed by many. 

Ironically, this view is expressed against a background of Egypt marketing itself as the hub for investment and economic progress where self-interest is the driving force. Yet a country where the notion of capitalism is still treated as the plague by many and businessmen pursuing profit are considered evil can hardly be a hub for anything other than the failing economy it has been experiencing for a while. Of course, one must not confuse self-interest with corruption nor capitalism with crony capitalism, which is inevitable so long as the state plays a big economic role. A free market is a place for innovation which is driven by competition which, in turn, is the result of diverging interests. This, along with transparency and rule of law, is what attracts investment. 

It is time public discourse in Egypt changed, not just in an economic context, where the notion of a free market not inhibited by the government is yet to properly find a place, but also in general. There is no Egypt without the individual Egyptians which make up its population. Instead of sweeping diversity under the rug, Egyptians must enter the difficult stage of learning to face and deal with their differences and consequently enjoying the advantages of pluralism. This is what sustains stability and ensures growth based on innovation and technological advancement. No state can create such a climate, it is up to individual citizens pursuing their self-interest in the context of a true free market of goods and ideas to shape "Egypt The Future". This is the lesson the government should heed if it wants Egypt to have any future at all.

Thursday 1 May 2014

When I buried my friend.

I wanted to write this for those who cared deeply about Bassem Sabry and couldn't be there yesterday as he was taken to his final resting place; and there are many, Bassem's friends are everywhere in the world. It is also intended as part of  a small effort to honor him, to use just this little incidence which took place even after he died to tell people about him and to make the world realize the extent of the loss it suffered because of his passing.

Bassem's funeral was set to take place after Dhuhr prayer (just before noon) on Wednesday 30th of April, the day after he passed away. People gathered at the Mostafa Mahmoud mosque in Mohandesseen, where Bassem lived, in order to pay their last respects. They stood in the Cairo heat awaiting the body to arrive, but it didn't. Soon it was revealed that the burial permit wouldn't be given out until an autopsy was performed. We weren't sure about the extent of the delay, so we went to sit at a place nearby the mosque, each holding on to the phone and trying to find out more news. As the hours progressed, news was spread that the funeral wouldn't take place on that day after all, but would have to be postponed since the paperwork was still not in order. And so people waited and waited, with red eyes from the lack of sleep and the many tears shed over their dear friend. Eventually, it was revealed that the body would be taken straight to the outskirts of Cairo, in the 6th of October district, where the prayer would be held at a small mosque at the graveyard. This was in the afternoon, at around 4 p.m.

So people rushed into their cars and made the long journey out of Mohandesseen at rush hour in order to get to the funeral spot on time. We waited at a place nearby the cemetery for the car carrying Bassem to arrive in order to follow it to the mosque. As the ambulance carrying him came closer, the cars starting moving. In a spectacle I had never seen before, the cars which were part of the funeral procession, carrying Bassem's friends and loved ones, started moving, all with their flashers on. They took up the entire highway and formed long lines, all headed to the cemetery as the sun was setting. It needs to be noted that it is very exceptional for burials in Egypt to take place after sunset. Yet all these people, in droves of cars, who had originally planned for a funeral at noon in the central Mohandesseen district, ended up on the outskirts of Cairo at around 6 p.m., headed to the cemetery where they would lay their friend to rest.

After the funeral prayer was conducted, he was carried by his friends to the tomb. It was a solemn scene, his loved ones standing as he was being put to rest, some silently contemplating, deep in thought, while others mumbled prayers and goodbyes, all with tears running down their faces.

So many people stood there as the sky was getting darker and the stars started appearing and Bassem was placed in his final resting place. So many people loved him dearly and wanted to pay their respects, perhaps say their goodbyes, try to get a sense of what had just happened, to realize the loss that had befallen them. So many people who had experienced Bassem's goodness and kindness, so many people whose lives were touched by him in different ways. And these were only those who were able to attend, there are many more who were there in spirit and in thought.

To bury a friend who went so early and so suddenly is the hardest, most painful thing. But as I was standing there, watching him being put down, agonizing over the immeasurable loss, I remembered him telling me that it was worth it, love is worth it. It is worth risking having to feel such pain at some point. It was worth it, Bassem, knowing you and loving you was worth it. 

Thursday 20 February 2014

Between criticism and patriotism: Egypt, a proud and broken country.

One of the worst things the Mubarak regime did was to instill the notion that any public criticism of Egypt or shaming of its authorities is tantamount to expressing a hatred for the country, or worse, committing actual treason. Those who spoke out about institutional and societal problems in Egypt, were accused of “trying to ruin the country’s reputation”, an accusation that is commonly heard in countries without a democratic culture and with a record of abuses of individual rights. This problem was especially visible whenever a member of the Coptic community, a Christian minority making up about 10% of the country’s population, spoke about both state-encouraged and societally approved discrimination and sectarianism. The reaction consisted of two layers: one is the denial that such discrimination took place, the other was to claim that even if such discrimination took place, one shouldn’t highlight it or speak about it too loudly, certainly not in English. Egypt is made up of desert for the most part, so there is no shortage of sand for one to burry one’s head in and unlike other resources in the country, that one was used very efficiently.

After the revolution, this excessive concern with the “country’s reputation” skyrocketed as the can of worms, formerly hidden under years of Mubarakian dusty stability and security, was finally opened for all to see. However, one major difference was that the accusations of treason, condescension and hatred for the country didn’t just come from a fearful and fragile regime desperately trying to hold on to its image, but from many normal Egyptians who seem to have internalized that mode of thinking over the years.

Now, it must be said that many are indeed guilty of a rhetoric marred by an arrogant superiority complex and a condescending attitude toward Egyptians and their needs. Such a rhetoric was adopted equally by those who claimed revolutionary status and those who had hopes of holding on to the old order, by Islamists and secularists alike. Not only should this rhetoric be condemned for being distasteful and morally repugnant, it has also proven ineffective for, as it turns out, calling people “slaves” doesn’t usually get them to sympathize with your cause.

However, the harsh criticism I am talking about is of a completely different nature, it is not inspired by arrogance but by truthful self-reflection, not driven by contempt for the people, but an honest will to overcome the many challenges the country faces. If we believe true change comes from within society, we must be ready to face our demons. Empty slogans about love for and pride of a country with as many serious and deadly problems as Egypt are not only meaningless, but actually crippling to any progress.

When the host of the political-satire show Al Bernameg, Bassem Youssef, first started, he said Egyptians were known for their sense of humor, however, not when the joke was at their own expense. In fact, Egyptians do laugh at their own misery and make jokes at their own expense quite often, especially in those last years. It is only when that talk gets serious, when the people are confronted with the magnitude of the lies they have been fed since childhood by society and through state propaganda, when they realize the number of myths about greatness and superiority they have been told, that they take offence. The natural response then becomes denial and suppression of what has to be said. That reaction must change, for true good will for this country consists of placing its progress above its reputation, placing reason above myths and putting truth above all else. 

Wednesday 6 November 2013

هل فشل الإسلام السياسى؟

كثيراً ما يقولون أن الأشهر الماضية اظهرت ضعف الإسلام السياسى و فشله كفكر و سقوط الإسلاميين الى الأبد. فى هذه الرأى يكمن خطراً كبيراً حيث أنه لا يعتمد على رؤية واقعية للأحداث. حقيقة الأمر هى ان مرسى و الإخوان سقطوا لأنهم فشلوا فى إدارة البلاد بطريقة حكيمة و لم يدركوا التوازنات التى تقوم عليها الدولة المصرية و كيفية التعامل معها. مشكلة الكثيرين مع الإخوان كانت فى ان حياتهم لم تتحسن كما كانوا يتوقعون من اول حكم جاء بإنتخابات ديمقرايطة بعد الثورة. كان المواطن يعانى من نقص البنزين و إنقطاع المياة و الكهرباء بشكل شبه يومى و كان ايضاً يعانى من تخبط حكومة ضعيفة لم تستطع التعامل مع مشاكل البلد المترهلة. فى النهاية سقوط الإخوان فى أعين الشعب كان لعدم كفاءتهم و فشلهم فى تطبيق خطة ناجحة للنهوض بالوطن.

Photo via onaeg.com

اما الأيديولوجية، فكرة الإسلام السياسى الذى يقوم فى الأساس على إستخدام الدولة لتطبيق اليوتوبيا الدينية، فهذا لم يسقط. معارضة الإخوان لم تأت رافضة لهذا الفكر بل جاءت بعد إنتشارأفعال و أقوال مشينة للإدارة الإخوانية على النحو السياسى و القانونى و الإقتصادى مصحوبة بإشاعات و نظريات مؤامرة. كل هذا جعل جزءًا كبيراً من الشعب ينبذ الجماعة التى رآها غير قادرة على التمسك بزمام الأمور فى مصر. و الدليل هو أن الشعب لم يختر بديلاً سياسياً للإخوان بل كان إتكاله على الجيش ليخلصه.

قد يقول البعض ان الشعب لم ينبذ الإخوان لفشلهم السياسى و الإقتصادى فحسب بل رفض ايضاً فكرة خلط الدين بالسياسة. اما مسودة الدستور الحالية توحى بشئ آخر، السلفيوين الممثلون من خلال عضو واحد فقط إستطاعوا أن يضغطوا على الجمعية بأكملها فى شأن المادة 219. سوف يتم تغيير المادة فى الغالب و لكنها ستظل موجودة حتى إذا كانت هناك أغلبية ضدها. يستطيع هذا الحزب أن يؤثر هكذا لأنه يعرف أن له شعبية  اكثر من شعبية باقى أعضاء اللجنة و أعضاء اللجنة يدركون ذلك ايضاً و ليتهم يدركون أنهم لا يملكون بديلاً أيديولوجياً ليقدموه للشعب. لذلك يتفاوض حزب النور بتلك الطريقة، فهو يعرف أن رضاه على الدستور القادم سوف يكون له أهمية كبيرة. إذن الخلط بين الدين و القانون و بين الدين و تحركات الدولة سيظل كما هو و لكن فى رداء آخر.

و إن إفترضنا أن الشعب قد رفض الفكر الإسلامى، فهو لم يرفض أبداً الفكر الإقصائى الفاشى و لم يصبح متقبلاً للنقد او المنطق. بدلاً من نظريات المؤمرة التى تتحدث عن الكفار و الشيعة و المسيحيين و الدولة العميقة و محاولاتهم لإفشال المشروع الإسلامى، اصبحت الآن قوى أخرى هى أساس كل مشاكلنا. بدلاً من الإعتراف بضعف هذه الدولة و عدم قدرة حكومتها على التعامل مع المشاكل العصيبة، ننظر ألى من حولنا كسبب لمشاكلنا و لا ننظر لأنفسنا فنحن أبناء أم الدنيا، أذكى الأطفال فى الفصل. يبقى الفكر الطائفى و يبقى الكره الأعمى للآخر و التكبر عليه و يبقى عدم الإهتمام بحقوق الإنسان و كرماته. إستبدلنا خطابات حنجورية تتسم بالغباء بأغانى فارغة لا تترك المجال لنقد عقلانى و رؤية واقعية للأمور.

هل كانت أحداث 30 يونيو بمثابة تغيير حقيقى فى مصر يمكنه أن يخلق نظاماً سياسياً جديداً تنمو فى أحضانه الحرية و يتقدم من خلاله الشعب؟ أم اننا نجد أنفسنا فى دائرة مفرغة حيث القمع و الإقصاء دائماً طريقة معاملة المختلف؟ إذا كانت ثورة فهى لم تأت بتغيير جذرى. هذا التغيير للنظام يتطلب تغييراً فى الأيديولوجية، يتطلب رفضاً قاطعاً و واضحاً للدولة القمعية ذات الحلول الأمنية و الخمال الإقتصادى. التغيير يتطلب الإعتراف بأننا نفتقر لفكر جديد يمكن أن يكون بديلاً عن ما نحن فيه الآن. نلوم على الإخوان أنهم لم يدركوا أخطائهم و لم يراجعوا أنفسهم و هذا حقنا، فغرورهم اوصلنا و اوصلهم لهذه المرحلة. لكن يبدو اننا مصممون أن نقع فى نفس الحفرة حتى يقع الوطن فى نفس المأذق من جديد. 

Tuesday 22 October 2013

Coptic Questions

It is truly mind boggling when, after a drive-by attack on a church which left 4 dead and 17 injured, the first questions to come to the minds of many are "Why wasn't the church secured enough?" or "Where was the police?". Let me first clarify that it stands beyond a doubt that there is blatant lack of law enforcement in the country, whether in sectarian incidents or otherwise. However, it stands to reason that the question "Why do churches require special security in the first place?" should always remain on the foreground.

With the spread and popularity of conspiracy theories claiming sectarian attacks such as this one and, most famously, the 2010 Qedesseen church bombing on new year's eve in Alexandria, are committed by government forces, there is little room left for reasoned debate. Even though claims of state involvement in committing these acts have never been proven, they are often used to mask the very bleak reality of sectarianism in Egypt. This is not a defense of a state which has historically engaged in discriminatory practices and failed to fulfill its basic duty of protecting the life, freedom and property of its citizens. Even before the security situation deteriorated and chaos reigned, the government always cared more about denying the existence of sectarianism in Egypt than prosecuting and punishing the perpetrators of sectarian crimes.

The church of St. Mary in Giza where the shooting took place. Via elyaom.com

However, criticism of government incompetence and failure should never overshadow condemnation of those who threaten, incite and perpetrate such acts of violence. The people in government are but a part of a society ill with sectarianism and they tend to reflect trends shared by large proportions of the population. The latter basks in sectarian thought despite its continued insistence on the illusive "national unity". The Coptic problem is one where both state and society share in the responsibility and sectarianism has become much more widespread than many assume.

Copts needing extra protection has become the norm because the idea of citizenship in Egypt has become the exception. Instead of requiring the government to rectify a system through which Copts and other minorities are de jure and de facto second class citizens, many simply demand the amelioration of that inferior status. Copts are viewed by many citizens as the weaker, younger sibling who needs protection. In turn, many Copts view themselves not as individuals, equal to other Egyptians, but as a distinctly different nation which, as a collective, should have certain rights. Lost in between nationalism (Islamist or other), collectivism and tyrannical majorities are the concepts of individual rights and individual responsibility.

With the new constitution currently being prepared, Egyptians need to reconsider how they view each other and how they translate the concept of citizenship. Do Copts remain a marginalized minority, a collective which needs special protection? Or are they citizens whose lives and property are worth protecting simply because they are citizens of this country? When someone explicitly incites the usage of violence against Copts, will he be viewed as a criminal and treated as such or will it require a balancing act between religious feelings, tribal sentiments and justice? Will rights and freedoms remain things to be compromised on by different interest groups or will they be regarded as undeniable and inalienable to each individual citizen?

We know what the answer will be in the near future, but without a fundamental change in the relationship between Copts as part of society at large and the state, the problems will sadly persist. Egypt needs an understanding of individual rights which makes people attending their religious rites in peace and security the norm, instead of the exception. 

Sunday 20 October 2013

Reflections on Cairo

Walking through what used to be the most elegant and beautiful neighborhoods of the city, I try to imagine how they must have looked like in the 40's and 50's: expensive shops with the best fashion has to offer, gold stores, shoe shops with beautiful leather creations. Along the clean sidewalks, women in dresses would be walking along with men in suits and shined shoes. Instead of cat calls and obnoxiously disturbing, loud music thumping from stereo's and cellphones, you'd hear people's conversations in Arabic, Greek, French and Italian as you pass the occasional coffee shop playing Oum Kalthoum. Newly build villa's standing as proud tributes to the architects who built them, lush trees and flower gardens separating one from the other.

And I imagine the slow decay both in society and its outward manifestations, more and more ugly cement Nasser-era buildings. Shops and factories formerly owned by Egypt's large expatriate community nationalized as their owners left the country they had grown to love. One at a time, the beautiful villa's would be left to fall apart, until in the 80's and 90's their owners would demolish them to build high apartment blocks. Streets not designed for all the inhabitants of the newly built blocks of concrete would become overcrowded as street vendors would occupy the side walks.

As the country lost battle after battle, failing to reach modernity, the city would slowly suffocate from the inside. Millions would come from the country side, leaving behind their lands for dreams of a better life as government employees in the capital. Slums would become the burying ground for their hopes and some eventually moved into the city's cemeteries where they would share their life with the dead.

The weight of war, defeat and arrogance would take its toll on the people and society would soon reflect the decay the old villa's and luxurious department stores had faced. Extreme Islamism and terrorism would show its ugly face in the 90's and the sick ideas behind it would soon spread to all corners of the land.

Under the crushing weight of the state bureaucracy, the suffocating, ever present pollution in the streets and in the minds of the people and the corruption, Cairo breathes heavily. As you walk its streets, finally reaching the corniche where the ancient Nile runs through the city, you catch a glimpse of what used to be and what could be and you sigh, along with Cairo, under the burning sun.

Monday 24 June 2013

The Death of a Country

You hear the mob approaching, slogans against your religion are being shouted out as the masses wielding their sticks and daggers get closer and closer. You look out the window, you might get a chance to run, but it's too late, they've spotted you and their cheers get louder. They enter into your house and drag you out. You feel the first blow on your head, the rest of your body has been subjected to beatings from different directions since the very second they laid eyes on you. You try to speak "I didn't do anything, I'm innocent." But the chants of the crowd drown out your voice as you fall to the ground. You struggle to get up and your eyes meet the eyes of one of the aggressors. In that second, that moment of time, your eyes attempt to plead for mercy. 

The blows on your head and body keep coming and you look into his eyes. You see death, you see hopelessness and cruelty. You think to yourself "I'm Egyptian" but you have nothing in common with those Egyptians, they see you as an enemy, a threat to be exterminated. They have been hearing from politicians, sympathizers of the ruling party, that you are an agent for foreign powers. You think "I am a Muslim", but they've been told by the sheikh in the nearby mosque that you insult the Prophet and that you deserve to die, you're not one of them. The TV preacher told them that you'd burn in hell. Chants of "Allah Akbar" surround you as your teeth get smashed in by a large wooden stick. You taste your blood as you fall to the ground again. This time your eyes look up and meet the eyes of another assailant. You plead, thinking "I am a human being", but there is no humanity left in them. They have become like wild animals, their savagery fueled by the smell of your blood. 

You are on the ground now, choking on your blood, unable to breathe, pain has overtaken your entire body. You can no longer see, maybe it's for the best, you can no longer gaze in front of you to see yet another one of your killers reveling in cruelty, reveling in your pain.

Everything has gone dark, you can still feel the blows to your body, the cuts from the sharp knives, but it is as if you've left your body and are looking upon it from afar. You hear the chants, one woman was ululating in joy. And then silence comes over you, the only audible thing is your feeble heartbeat... it stopped. 

Hassan Shehata, the Shia cleric who was brutally murdered by a mob.

You are no longer. All that remains of you is a memory to those who loved you and a curse from the mouths of those who killed you, damning you to hell. Your countrymen - but is it even really your country? - have always known you were in danger. They too have been listening to the sheikhs proclaiming you as enemies of religion, a danger to society, a threat to all that is godly. They have done nothing. They haven't condemned them sufficiently, they never worried enough about you, they were never disturbed by the amount of hatred that was spreading in all corners of society. They haven't done anything to help you, to fight them. And they will not. Until one day they feel the first blow and fall to the ground and taste their blood as they gasp for air. They have lost their sight already...

Disclaimer: Egypt has been plagued with sectarianism for a long time. It has infiltrated all corners of society. Warnings are ignored and the danger is underestimated. This account was based on this (graphic) video documenting the lynching of 4 Shia men in Egypt.