Not good. I won’t beat around the bush. I moved here from Nepal, a country dear to me, and one that I left disheartened by its stagnant political economy. But I have to admit that I will leave Egypt even more disheartened. I’ve been here way too short to pontificate, what do I know, especially in terms of longer-term changes/trends. But it certainly feels not like a stagnant political reality, rather one on a downhill slide. I know that people’s power upheavals can take decades to finally realize their potential, that the ride is normally very rocky, with plenty of harsh setbacks; but also, that some genies are difficult to get fully back into the bottle, and that those remain beacons of hope and seeds of change. A genie who is here to stay:
But such genies have been around for ever (I guess) and I doubt they’ll manage to change the seeming course of events in the short-term. My post is triggered by The Arabist who just published a short reflection on jailed activist-blogger Alaa Abdelfattah‘s latest prison missive, which I re-blog in full here:
“I wish that rather than “everyone knows”, the title and refrain of Alaa Abdelfattah’s latest, most explosive, prison missive had been translated as “everybody knows”. Because then it would have fit perfectly with the Leonard Cohen song. An excerpt from its end is below, but read the whole thing:
Everyone knows that the current regime offers nothing to most of the young people of the country, and everyone knows that most of those in jail are young, and that oppression is targeting an entire generation to subjugate it to a regime that understands how separate it is from them and that does not want, and cannot in any case, accommodate or include them.
Everyone knows that there is no hope for us who have gone ahead into prison except through you who will surely follow. So what are you going to do?”
To illustrate the oppression, a couple of references to the massive political arrests (estimated at 20,000 since July 2013), the terrible treatment these prisoners receive, press freedom, and other obvious indicators of the times, would suffice. For those who want to pursue that human rights perspective: it’s easily and quickly available through obvious sources like Human Rights Watch, or Amnesty International.
But I am more interested in the international relations/political analysis angle, and while any choice of sources is by definition partial, the International Crisis Group is often a reasonable stating point. This particular ICG analysis resonates with my own anecdotal impressions. It attributes the Brotherhood’s failure not to what it did but to what it is:
Although it presents itself and is perceived as a blend between religious movement and political party, it is mostly something else: a “secret society” and a vehicle for social mobility. By secret society we allude not to a scheming cabal but to a closed community. One does not simply join the Brotherhood, but fuses with it, marries into it, comes of age within it, and belongs to it profoundly…It is a hierarchical organization where respect for (read complete obedience to) more senior leaders is a welcome sign of piety and dedication.
Sounds much like an army, isn’t it, and the army which returned to power July last year, hadn’t been very successful in governing the country in the previous decades. That’s what 2011 was all about in the first place:
The social contract that bound Egyptians, since Nasser, is one where the state guarantees education, healthcare, food, energy and even jobs to all citizens, in exchange for their unconditional retreat from politics and matters of governance. It has been unraveling for decades, and is now utterly frayed. Egyptians, more than others around the region, are right to panic at the thought of persistent instability occurring as a result.
The army and the Brotherhood represent different elites – similar to the longer-going more gradualist, but now heating up version of a similar elite contest in Turkey – but both play the same political game: exclusionary, rudderless, confrontational and highly stressful, given the uncertainty, the violence, and the economic pressure to which it has given rise. And both have fail[ed] to deliver on the minimal levels of governance and redistribution required to do so.
As this is a sad posting, mentioning that one of the greats of the Low countries has just decided to stop performing (yes, to claim him as mine, I’m willing to be very inclusive) seems befitting, and offers a door to some consoling sounds:
Let me conclude with two emblematic anecdotes to further illustrate my outlook on Egypt’s immediate future.
The first is nicely summarized in another Arabist post, called Kofta-Gate. The introductory paragraph gives the gist (like any good piece of journalism will): At the end of last month, the Egyptian armed forces announced the “latest Egyptian scientific and research breakthrough for the sake of humanity.” They unveiled two devices, in fact. One (which resembles a staple gun with an antenna attached to it) they said can detect Hepatitis C and AIDS in patients, at a distance of up to 500 meters — the rod jerks in the direction of an infected person. The other device can purify a patient’s blood of the diseases. The technology for both has something to do with electromagnetic waves. Scientists and journalists immediately called into question the science on which these devices are based. What makes it emblematic for me is that I share author Ursula Lindsey‘s sentiment (which I near always do) that it is truly terrifying to think that this is the level of scientific knowledge, critical thinking and political judgement in those running the country.
The other is based on a piece in today’s ahramonline on the eviction notice that the Cairo Governate administration handed to a local NGO, the Nebny Foundation, that is serving thousands of children and families in one of Cairo’s most impoverished and forgotten areas, Manshiyat Nasser, and that was established by a group of 25 January revolutionaries who chose the route of humanitarian development…instead of political work, focusing on empowering the people, especially the poor and children in areas like Manshiyat Nasser. One really has to read the full article to fully understand the baseless accusations, falsehoods and short-sightedness of it all, so I won’t elaborate further. But the eviction notice is so clearly politically motivated, expressing incumbent power’s opinion that anything even indirectly associated with (what is seen as) adversaries must be crushed. Same conclusion as voiced in the context of Kofta-Gate applies here: frightening, and one can make a pretty safe bet that this attitude is going to result in disaster, it’s only a question of unpredictable time when the shit will hit the fan.
But whatever happens, it won’t affect the Egypt of orientalist magic and fantasy, so irrespective of spring turning out to be spring, or just a whift of freak weather, before a new winter, the outside world will continue to turn out rubbish like this:
And, just in case you thought that this must have been a one-of-its-kind aberration, there is plenty more out there. Some innocuous and funny, like the one I included in an earlier post, some equally silly as Kate Perry’s recent product above (which nevertheless managed to stir emotions of the righteous).