Saturday, July 30, 2005
Thursday, July 28, 2005
Don’t stop the presses. Carry on dealing those cards. At a staged, faux-populist event yesterday, Hosni Mubarak made the earth-shattering announcement that he’s running for a fifth six-year term this September. He also hinted at replacing emergency rule with an anti-terrorism law. This last could well have been a newsworthy item, but unfortunately the damage has already been done. All of emergency law’s repressive provisions designed to stifle freedom of assembly and association have already been transferred to the country’s corpus of ordinary laws. So as with so much else in our public life, abolishing emergency law would be a pyrrhic victory at best. What matters now is not regime stratagems dressed up as “historic” announcements. What matters is how the society-based momentum for reform will fare in the coming months, looking past the presidential elections ahead to the much more consequential parliamentary poll in November. I like to think that Egypt’s motley opposition, by which I mean the congeries of democracy-seekers not the officially recognised opposition parties, will surmount the obstacles posed by the Sharm el-Sheikh attacks and Mubarak’s latest manoeuvre and maintain their momentum. If their behaviour after Mubarak’s February 26 announcement is anything to go by, then we might be on the cusp of a heated second round of rambunctious struggle. But democrats might also lose focus, wither, or succumb to ill-considered compromises. Come what may, I’m not prepared yet to herald the demise of Egypt’s pro-democracy ferment.
Here’s what the “free and fair” presidential elections will look like. Mubarak will dwarf a bevy of unknown extras along with perhaps Ayman Nour. After the chairmen of two main opposition parties (Tagammu’ and Nasserist) pledged to boycott the show (al-Wafd is still mulling it over), Mubarak is left with a gallery of the following eminent competitors: Ahrar party chief and Sadat nephew Tala’t al-Sadat, someone named Aladdin Elaasar residing in Chicago in the United States, and as Tuesday’s al-Ahram reported, the chairmen of eight cardboard opposition parties, including the fantastic Sheikh Ahmad al-Sabbahi. Surely you recall Sheikh Sabbahi? The chairman of the obscure Hizb al-Umma is best known for his defence of burning social issues such as the return of the tarboush (fez). On the personal level, Sheikh Sabbahi has distinguished himself by cultivating the arts of dream interpretation. I ask you: is this not a man worthy of contesting the Egyptian presidency?
The point: the elections are already an unserious farce before they’ve even started. They had the potential to be an improvement on Tunisia’s "contest" last November, but with the opposition boycotting and the jokers partaking, no Egyptian outside of Gamal Mubarak’s “Policies Secretariat” will give them a second thought. Pity the exertions of the president’s dim-witted advisers.
Too Little, Too Late
There are two points worth deciphering in Mubarak’s speech: the bit about emergency rule, and the bit about further constitutional reforms. On the second point, Mubarak said (my verbatim translation): “I will seek constitutional reform that allows freely choosing the state’s economic direction.” Effective translation: we will change Article 4 of the 1971 constitution about the state’s economic foundation. Article 4 states in part, “The economic foundation of the Arab Republic of Egypt is the socialist democratic system based on sufficiency and justice that prevents exploitation and leads to the narrowing of income gaps.” The presumed change will of course insert all of Gamal Mubarak’s pro-free market jargon and ditch any commitment to justice or the prevention of exploitation. Mubarak also said, “I will initiate constitutional reforms that impose further regulations on the president’s exercise of the prerogatives accorded to him when confronting dangers threatening the peace of the homeland or obstructing the state’s institutions.” What could this tangled bit of legalese possibly mean? The only meaning I can glean is a tiny trimming of the president’s emergency powers, leaving his extraordinary sundry powers intact. As all who know the 1971 constitution are aware, the problem is not just the president’s emergency powers but the codification of overwhelming presidential prerogatives in normal times. Trimming the edges will not dent the core. This is exactly like the list of promises at the 2003 NDP convention, where Mubarak promised to repeal several military decrees that ended up concerning marginalia or protecting encroachment on agricultural land (thus paving the way for erecting even more high-rises and luxury hotels on public land).
As for the sure to be intensely advertised item on emergency rule, let’s see what Mubarak actually says. First, he misleads the public and disdains critics of emergency rule: “we have an emergency law in force since 1914 just so you know…there’s no need to hang everything onto emergency law, we protect the people and at any rate if this is the crutch then we’ll find a solution while protecting security of the homeland and citizen.” Emergency law has indeed been around since 1914, but not continuously as Mubarak suggests here. However, it has been applied continuously since 4 pm on October 6, 1981. Second, Mubarak gives no indication of actually lifting emergency rule but does say this: “Whereas using emergency law has to a large extent achieved the limiting, combating and aborting of terrorist acts, and whereas many states have recently put in place comprehensive anti-terrorism laws, so the time has come for us in turn to implement a decisive and firm law that encircles terrorism, uproots it, and dries up its wellsprings.” The reference is surely to the U.S.A. “Patriot Act” and Britain’s Anti-Terror Act. But what Mubarak didn’t mention is that Egypt already has its own anti-terrorism legal package, predating the British and U.S. laws.
Egypt’s omnibus Law 97/1992 was introduced in July 1992 and formed the legal foundation for the state’s 6-month siege of Imbaba starting in December of the same year, to purge al-Gam’a al-Islamiyya members from the neighborhood. The law packed the Penal Code (Qanun al-Uqubat) with harsher punitive measures (hard labour for life and death penalty for many more crimes) and grants the authorities vastly expanded powers of seizure and arrest. Its capacious clauses are of course vaguely worded to nab everyone from violent Islamists to non-violent Ikhwan activists. The notoriously imprecise Article 86(bis) of the law was the basis of the charges against peaceful Ikhwan activists tried before military tribunals in 1995, 1999, and 2002.
Egyptian legal experts will tell you that since 1992, nearly all the provisions of Emergency Law 162/1958 have been quietly and methodically transferred into the Penal Code and assorted other ordinary laws. So Law 162/1958 is no longer needed, since its draconian provisions have been safely smuggled into the country’s legal corpus. To see for yourself, just pick up a copy of an annotated Penal Code (vintage 1937) at your nearest legal bookshop and feast your eyes. The number of subsequent amendments is staggering, including the notorious Law 95/1996 imposing a two-year prison sentence and prohibitive fines for “press offences” (read muckraking articles on regime figures and their friends).
No one in the opposition is taking Mubarak’s latest ploys seriously. The Ikhwan’s deputy General Guide Muhammad Habib said, “We are faced with statements and words upon which we do not hang much hope. We hang our hopes on actions. We see that there is an insistence on working with emergency laws.” And Ayman Nour made an eminently logical point, “It’s sad that President Mubarak is now talking about reforming in six years all that he has destroyed in the past 24 years.” Protests against Mubarak’s candidacy are already planned. An impressive coalition of Egypt’s activist groups is organising a protest on Saturday at 6 pm in Tahrir Square. The participants are the Tagammu’, Ghad, and Labour parties, the Karama would-be party, the communists and revolutionary socialists, the popular campaign for change (freedom now), Kifaya, Youth for Change, Writers and Artists for Change, Lawyers for Change, and the women’s group The Street is Ours.
After postponing it for one week in honour of the Sharm victims and their families, Kifaya is staging its anti-corruption protest next Wednesday, August 3 at 6 pm in Opera Square. The movement is also calling on citizens to gather at Magles al-Dawla (the administrative courts) on Saturday at 10 am, where its suit against the government for rigging the results of the May 25th referendum will be adjudicated (or perhaps postponed).
The big question now is whether the fallout from the Sharm el-Sheikh bombings will dampen the democracy momentum, or at least cramp the opposition’s room for manoeuvre. It’s a serious concern, but I don’t see the latest terrorist attacks giving the regime any new lease on life, or even much sympathy. Instead, everyone I know is talking about the security forces’ basic incompetence, about a disreputable Interior Minister who’s apparently immune from accountability, and about the suppressed grievances of Sinai’s Bedouin. It’s no secret that Egypt’s Interior Ministry has a horrible reputation, one it had the chance to salvage by showing some professionalism in the Sharm investigations. Instead, we got conflicting statements, imprecise and later retracted assignations of culpability to Pakistani nationals, and more concern with ferrying the president about the crime scenes than sealing them off for forensic investigators. People are drawing the inevitable comparisons between British police detaining only a handful of people in the wake of the London bombings while Egypt’s round up dozens. As I listened to the premature babblings of Interior Minister Habib al-Adli and Sinai governor Mustafa Afifi, and heard about the expected scapegoating of Sinai police chiefs, I saw in microcosm the basic problem of a dysfunctional regime. Intent on maintaining its own survival, it has long ceased to live up to the most basic of performance criteria.
In the midst of all this, I was delighted to see the inimitable Anthony Shadid reporting from Cairo again. Talk about professionalism, insight, and grace. Unlike commentators like yours truly who pontificate from the comfort of their armchairs, or those who pass off local scuttlebutt as reportage, Anthony Shadid is a superior model of an intrepid journalist. In his latest piece, he ends in the history-soaked alleys of Darb al-Ahmar (where I spent many a long lost childhood afternoon), “a gritty neighbourhood tangled amid the grandeur of Cairo’s medieval glory.” Who else but Anthony Shadid can pen a sentence like that, and who else can give voice to Cairo's (and now Baghdad’s) kind denizens with such respect and honesty?
Monday, July 25, 2005
A makeshift memorial of flowers, candles, artwork, extracts of poetry or scripture, and any other forms of expressing sadness at the human toll of the Sharm el-Sheikh bombings will take place starting on Thursday, July 28 at noon at the Sawi Cultural Centre garden. The gesture is silent, non-political, and continuous. Those who can't be there at noon are free to go anytime after.
Thanks to Alaa:
An invitation to all Egyptians of all political persuasions to gather for a one-hour silent vigil on Saturday, July 30 at 6 pm in front of Cairo University's martyrs' memorial. Children and their artwork are welcome, as are candles, flowers, and all other expressions of sadness. Don't forget to wear black to mourn the victims and stand by their families and loved ones.
Sunday, July 24, 2005
Tuesday, July 19, 2005
This luminous masterpiece is a zany barrel of laughs, with beautiful cinematography and an exceptionally talented cast. Even the extras are perfect, thanks to the one and only Henry Barakat’s masterful direction. It’s 1949, and talented but down-at-the-heels singer Asfour (Farid l’Atrache) is madly in love with cabaret dancer Aliyya Nawnaw (Loula Sidqi), but her shrewd father and teatro owner Fadel Eshta (the inimitable Stéfan Rosti) has no patience for anyone without cash. Naturally, Eshta favours the loaded and impeccably dressed suitor Mimi bey, played by the great Abdel Salam al-Nabulsi uttering his staccato and exuberant “Buono! Buono!”
Unlike the chic Mimi and his swanky chauffeured mobile, Asfour lives in a humble pension run by the kind and quirky Sitt Warda (Zeinat Sidqi). His roommate, confidant, and best friend is fellow performer Boqo (Ismail Yasin), who helps Asfour put on his best and go ask Eshta for Aliyya’s hand. One of my all-time favourite scenes in Egyptian film is when Boqo, Asfour and a couple of other quirks go to get Asfour’s shoes shined, and a fight erupts between two shoeshiners who make off with Asfour’s shoes, leaving him with nothing but his holey socks. Even though I’ve long memorised this scene, I always crack up when one of Asfour’s friends helpfully points out (after the fact), “Ya khabar eswed, da saraq al-gazma!!”
Dejected and saddened by Eshta’s curt rejection, Asfour goes for a solitary walk (during which he just happens to break into song). Then out of thin air, a mysterious elderly sage appears and directs him to the location of a genie lamp. Asfour drags the terrified Boqo to the designated cave where they find the lamp and are scared out of their wits by what happens next. Out of the lamp emerges the beautiful genie Kahramana (Samia Gamal), visible only to Asfour, while the plastic-faced Boqo whimpers and cries and begs his crazy friend to let them go home. The mischievous Kahramana bears an uncanny resemblance to the lead dancer Semsema in Asfour’s teatro. The moral of the story (of course it has to have a moral, it’s a 1940s Egyptian film) is that we shouldn’t dwell on fantasies and dreams and miss out on all the good things right in front of us.
I love this movie’s hilarious dialogue and the artistry in every scene, thanks to the cinematography of Julio de Luca. I love the vintage 1940s elegance, complete with the severely set women’s hairdos and men’s high-waisted pants (I’m always shocked at exactly how far up his waist Farid l’Atrache’s pants are). I love the gratuitous musical scenes, especially Farid’s lyrical performance of the song al-Rabi’ (The Spring) with women throwing down rose petals from their balconies and dancing around him in their incongruous white gowns and bonnets. And even though it’s a totally Orientalist fantasy, I love the scene where Kahramana tries to seduce Asfour in the Moorish palace. It’s a beautiful cinematic symphony of textures, subtle lighting, and Samia Gamal’s graceful undulations. I couldn’t care less what the scene is supposed to subliminally signify or what its intertextual references are bla bla bla. I’m perfectly happy to enjoy it at face value.
The opening scene in this movie is one of the greatest instances of film language that I have ever seen, performed without a single word and therefore more expressive than a thousand words. The entire film is a cinematic and aesthetic masterpiece (save for that horrible melodramatic ending), which I appreciated only when I saw it on the big screen.
Shukri Sarhan plays an upstanding, religious rural migrant who moves to Cairo to train to become a teacher and eventually return to his village and to his kind, sacrificing mother (Ferdous Muhammad). He boards with a tough, street-smart businesswoman in the teeming Qalaa’ district, mu’allima Shafa’at (Tahia Carioca). Shafa’at is the complete antithesis to Sarhan’s polite, God-fearing student; she’s loud, brash, worldly, and self-regarding. He wakes up at dawn to pray and study, she’s irked that his prayers disturb her delicious sleep. He’s circumspect and serious, she’s brazen and playful. Predictably, however, the righteous student succumbs to the dazzling siren, losing everything in the process.
Carioca created and forever embodies the quintessential earthy Egyptian femme fatale, the sort of character that the likes of Nadia al-Guindi and Fifi Abdou try so painfully to replicate (please God make them stop). They’ll never succeed because Carioca is not just a far more skillful dancer than they’ll ever be, but she could actually act and convey complex emotions. Call it what you will, but whatever Guindi and Abdou do on screen has nothing to do with acting and everything to do with vacuous self-promotion.
Shabab Imra’a stays with me because of its ambiguous message. When I first saw it, I read it as a straightforward misogynistic screed. Its overbearing, melodramatic didacticism vilifies Shafa’at as a beautiful, wily, immoral vixen, and we have the defeated older tenant ably played by Abdel Wareth ‘Asar as proof of her perfidy. But director Salah Abu Seif doesn’t leave it there. There are countervailing hints in the film that look down lovingly and pityingly upon Shafa’at as a victim of a hypocritical society and a contrived bourgeois moral code (typified by the prim mademoiselle played by Shadia). In this light, Shafa’at is a courageous non-conformist who is brave enough to live as she chooses, without hurting anyone, as she tells Shukri Sarhan in the film’s most moving scene. Like so much of Abu Seif’s work, Shabab Imra’a is a blistering critique of societal hypocrisy, in the guise of an aesthetically superior film.
Perhaps it’s because it’s a literary adaptation that Du’a al-Karawan is such an extraordinary film. Based on the novel of the same name by Taha Hussein and directed by the magnificent and prolific Henry Barakat (1912-1997), the plot revolves around the tragic trio of Amna, her beloved older sister Hanadi (Zahrat al-‘Ula), and their suffering mother Zohra (Amina Rizq). Barakat of course also directed Hamama in another literary adaptation rich in feeling and ambiguity, al-Haram (The Sin, 1965), based on Yusuf Idris’s novel. Both films are exemplars of the use of cinematic form and texture to heighten the drama. I’m always struck by the evocation of loss and tragedy in the rich black garbs donned by the protagonists in both films, the skillful manipulation of shadow and perspective to echo the characters’ inner states, and the haunting portrayal of the vistas of the Egyptian countryside. Each scene is painting-perfect, especially the high, windswept palm trees in Du’a al-Karawan. Seems to me contemporary Egyptian films don’t speak the language of cinema anymore, preferring to be driven by maudlin and derivative storylines.
The film opens with Amna brooding alone at night in a quiet house with only the sound of the ticking clock. Her life story unfolds through a long flashback punctuated by her quiet voice-over narration. Amna and her sister Hanadi are carefree young girls until tragedy strikes: their adulterous father is killed by vengeful local cuckolds. The grieving Zohra and her two daughters are forced to leave their tradition-bound Upper Egyptian village and to earn a living elsewhere, egged on by her ruthless brother Gaber (Abdel Alim Khattab). In a breathtaking scene of the fall, the three women roam the countryside on foot carrying nothing but their humble belongings and their sense of loss and fear. They settle in a small town, and the comely Amna and Hanadi are lucky to find jobs as live-in maids at the houses of the town’s police chief and engineer. Levity returns for a brief spell and the girls are delighted by the townspeople’s modern ways. The guileless Amna is kindly treated by her employers as a sister to their pampered only child Khadiga (Raga’ al-Geddawi), but Hanadi falls for her employer the dashing bachelor, and is soon burdened with an unmentionable secret. Zohra decides to leave town quickly to escape the shame, and the blighted threesome roams the countryside again, carrying the terrible secret between them. Zohra is bitter and angry at Hanadi, but Amna is full of compassion and love for her older sister.
The death of Hanadi at the hands of her cruel uncle Gaber spurs Amna’s first transformation into a withdrawn, grieving creature “living with ghosts” and hell bent on revenge. She escapes from Zohra’s side, returns to her welcoming employers, and begins to plot her revenge against the nonchalant engineer. In one of Egyptian cinema’s most powerful scenes, Zohra loses her proud and taciturn demeanour and roams the countryside, barefoot and distraught, imploring pitying passersby if they’ve seen her two beautiful daughters. Great thespian that she was, Amina Rizq endowed Zohra’s predicament with the depth of irreconcilable grief.
Meanwhile, Amna secures a job as the maid in the engineer’s house, with the help of the brash but kindhearted Zanouba (Mimi Shakib), who instructs her in the arts of guile and ensnarement. The story’s subsequent twists and turns are full of sophisticated psychological drama and amazing dialogue, where you can literally see the internal conflict and creeping transformations on the two great actors’ faces. Amna experiences several more metamorphoses until the film’s melodramatic and tragic denouement, and even the cad engineer embodied so perfectly by Mazhar becomes a sympathetic and pitiable real person. The film’s original trailer had it right: Du’a al-Karawan is “a gem, pulsing with life.”
Hubb (Rumour of Love, 1961)
If this film is on TV, I will always drop whatever I’m doing and sit down and laugh until my stomach muscles hurt. This is definitely my absolute favourite Egyptian feel good film. I don’t know what makes it so great, but it’s probably the amazing cast assembled by Egypt’s premier director of comedy, Fatin Abdel Wahab (1913-1972).
The story is set in beautiful Port Said, where Abdel Qader al-Nashashqi (Yusuf Wahbi) is a wealthy importer-exporter who spends his time bickering with his shrewish, aristocratic wife Bahiga Saltah Baba and wooing girls at the beachside club. Running the family business is left up to Abdel Qader’s dry and ultra-serious nephew Hussein (Omar al-Sherif). Hussein is an inveterate square who spurns all social conventions; he sports ill-fitting suits and unbecoming coke bottle glasses and can’t tell a white lie to save his life. Port Saidi debutantes want nothing to do with him and he returns the favour. Abdel Qader’s other nephew Mahrous (the hilarious Abdel Moneim Ibrahim) is the complete opposite of Hussein, lighthearted and always willing to lie and scheme to cover for his uncle’s dalliances.
One summer, Abdel Qader’s household is set in a flurry of excitement when his only daughter Samiha (Soad Hosni) comes home from Cairo, her chic male cousin Lucy in tow. Lucy is an operetta-singing dandy who speaks perfect, Hollywood English (“pleased to meet you, baby”) but has actually just returned from Europe with a “Master’s degree in dancing,” as Samiha proudly informs her father. Abdel Qader replies, “Mash’allah, mash’allah, afarem alayk ya si Lucy!” But he can’t stand the man (“looking at you gives me indigestion!”) and wants to thwart his wife’s plan to marry him off to Samiha. The entire movie is Abdel Qader’s hilarious plotting to make Samiha fall in love with Hussein, who’s secretly in love with her but doesn’t want to admit it. The scene where Abdel Qader instructs Hussein how to flirt, with Mahrous acting as the girl, will always put me in stitches. Playing notable supporting roles are Raga’ al-Giddawi as Samiha’s fluffy best friend and the vivacious Widad Hamdi as the family maid Folla. I don’t know the name of the actor who plays Lucy “ibn tante Fakiha,” but he’s superb.
Yusuf Wahbi is amazing to watch in this film. For some reason, I always thought he was ponderous and melodramatic given his stage background (he’s one of the pioneers of Arab theater), but in this film he is simply delightful, providing much of its comic energy. Especially entertaining are his ridiculous attempts to make Hussein “Port Said’s Valentino,” his sly send-ups of his own rousing theater performances, his mangling of Khawaga Vlavlavlakis’s name, and his insincere compliments about Bahiga Hanem’s atrocious crêpes! Surprisingly, Omar al-Sherif is also genuinely funny, a testament to Fatin Abdel Wahab’s considerable directorial gifts. The cameos by Hind Rostom and football player Adel Haykal (playing themselves) carry the film to its side-splittingly funny denouement, with a warm tribute to the theatre at the very end.
This social realist gem is a literary adaptation of Naguib Mahfouz’s al-Qahira al-Jadida (1943), rendered by eminent director Salah Abu Seif (1915-1996). The late leftist intellectual Lutfi al-Kholi wrote the screenplay; artistic collaborations don’t get much better than that. Both the novel and the movie are saturated with class, politics, and contests between rival visions, making it one of the few successful movies of ideas. It’s no coincidence the film was made in the 1960s. The Nasser years were a paradoxical fertile ground for engaged art and daring criticism. High-quality artistic collaborations were the rule and not the exception, and politics were ubiquitous and never shunned. Art, theater, film, and literature all thrived. I can scarcely imagine anything even remotely similar in our own day.
The year is 1933, and the country is in upheaval against the repeal of the 1923 constitution by the repressive Ismail Sidqi government. Cotton prices are falling, class inequalities are glaring, street demonstrations are legion, and government bureaucracy is rotting with corruption. Students and roommates Ahmed Bedeir (Abdel Moneim Ibrahim), Ali Taha, and Mahgoub Abdel Dayem (a novice Hamdi Ahmed) are about to graduate from Fuad I University (later Cairo University) and make their way into the class and status obsessed society of Cairo. They live in a boarding house with fellow students where they discuss the burning political issues of the day, under the watchful portraits of Ahmad Urabi and Mustafa Kamel (one of Abu Seif’s less subtle allusions!) Abu Seif seamlessly twines the political, personal, and comical, all in one perfect bundle. I love the hilarious Abdel Moneim Ibrahim as he tries to bum a tie off any of his roommates, warbling “brothers, can anyone lend me a tie for the sake of the constitution?!”
The three principals are a study in contrasts: the journalist Ahmed is comical and freewheeling, adept at hobnobbing with the rich and powerful to extract sensationalistic stories for his paper. The cerebral and intense Ali is a brooding intellectual who’s convinced that only socialism (of the Comtian and Saint-Simonian variety) can solve Egypt’s crippling problems. And then there’s Mahgoub, the embittered, impoverished layman who cares not a whit for grand ideas but is consumed by resentment at his poverty and hard luck; his motto is “Toz”. To survive in the dog-eat-dog world, Mahgoub quickly learns the arts of sniveling and finagles a Grade 6 government job out of the unctuous bureaucrat Salem al-Ikhshidi, an actor whose face I know well but whose name I’ve forgotten. He does a wonderful job of embodying all the trademark qualities of the proverbial Egyptian bureaucrat, the kind of man we all love to hate!
Ali is in love with high school student and coveted neighborhood beauty Ihsan Shehata (Soad Hosni), who loves him back but tires of his constant carping about the ills of “society” and his unusual, progressive socialist ideas. There’s a wonderful scene of both of them walking the streets and discussing the play they’ve just seen, Alexandre Dumas’ drama Camille, a story of the evanescence of love under the pressures of life (featuring cameo performances by the great thespians Yusuf Wahbi and Suheir al-Murshidi). As the camera follows their heated conversation as they stroll past loaded billboards featuring the latest (unattainable) consumer commodities, we watch riveted at the disintegration of their idealistic union under the pressures of life and their irreconcilable worldviews, echoing Camille’s tragic storyline. When I saw this scene again recently, I was amazed at the depth and careful aesthetic construction of this one frame, and the entire film is full of them. I couldn’t help but rue the loss of such perfectionism in contemporary Egyptian cinema (such as it is).
Ihsan is driven to despair by her grinding poverty and ravishing beauty, a typical Mahfouzian conundrum that Abu Seif brilliantly amplifies. As the oldest daughter of a dirt-poor couple, she feels pressured to help her family and finally succumbs to one of the many moneyed suitors who approach her father, masterfully played by veteran Tawfiq al-Diqqin in one of his most delightful roles. Ihsan’s successful suitor is Qassem bey Fahmi, also played to perfection by Ahmad Mazhar, complete with grizzled sideburns and hair parted down the middle, 1930s style. In the pictured scene (above), the charming, honey-tongued Fahmi plies Ihsan with rum-filled chocolates, beautiful dresses, and a fur coat. Despite the tragedy of the situation, Abu Seif never fails to pack it with genuine humour and whimsy.
The plot’s shocking twists and turns bring together Ihsan, Mahgoub effendi, and Qassem bey in an utterly unholy alliance, a microcosm of societal exploitation and political corruption. al-Qahira ‘30 embodies Egyptian realism’s outrage at the blight of poverty, class exploitation, and the destruction of all that is beautiful and noble under the forces of poverty and despotism. It’s a highly satisfying if didactic morality tale, the standard-setter for many subsequent themes in neorealist film and fiction. Yet the characters’ conversations are never wooden, staged, nor preachy. I was completely moved by the scene where the valiant Ali and his committed comrades discuss their new socialist magazine, al-Nur al-Jadid (the New Light). As the camera hones in on Ali’s intense face (played by an unknown but great actor), he intones, “The masses need new ideas, and they always respond to those who honestly engage with their problems.” The film’s final scene is a paean to human emancipation, evincing the same exuberant spirit as the ending of Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers (1965). Ali Taha is being chased by the political police; he hides by mingling with the crowds. As he runs, he flings up in the air his political pamphlets, and they cascade down to the hands of curious passersby. The camera pans out over the minaret-dotted Cairo skyline, leaflets descending from the sky, rousing music heralding a new era.
I wish more Egyptian art would return to Cairo 30’s spirit of superior aesthetics, thoughtful politics, and careful reflection on decisive moments in Egyptian history. Anyone can craft a socially realist film, but not anyone can imbue it with the highest-quality production values of Abu Seif and Henry Barakat and Kamal al-Shaykh and the early Yusef Chahine and the rest of the gallery of Egypt’s cinematic greats. There’s so much rich social material out of which to make a compelling movie, why is it that contemporary directors prefer derivative storylines and substandard acting? And why do capable realists like Magdi Ahmed Ali have so little cinematic art in their films? When it comes to the current status of Egyptian cinema, it seems to me nostalgia is wholly (if sadly) justified.
Monday, July 18, 2005
There was a wily climber,
ardent and ambitious was he.
Obsessed with fame and power,
he craved nothing but power's propinquity.
He used to be a leftist,
a 'communist', whispered he.
But when he got a beating,
he sought refuge in the PhD.
No one knows what he wrote on,
who cares about such particulars?
What matters is to coax and flatter,
and pen the ruler's circulars.
In the 1980s he became a nationalist,
in the 1990s a "liberal" free marketeer.
Whatever could secure him,
the coveted title of press vizier.
When the dauphin happened on the scene,
with his modern "scientific" plans,
our good doktor covetous
led the pack of ardent and obliging fans.
He traveled with the troupe,
to nations far and wide.
Singing the praises of the dauphin,
and refining his stale bromides.
He mouthed and he scribbled
utter palaver with amazing alacrity.
Ambiguous words and vague notions,
to preserve a halo of deniability.
His favourite concept of political culture,
he wrapped in layers of mystification.
Then he touted it like a talisman,
an all-purpose totem of divination.
But troublous winds stirred,
the ship of state was set a-rockin'.
The dauphin's project teetered and swayed,
as democracy's gales came a-knockin'.
Our good doktor analyst,
surmised carefully and weighed the matter.
Jumping ship would be an apt move,
before the bow or stern shattered.
So a new story was spun,
complete with props and new raiment.
And our good doktor strategist,
morphed miraculously into a dissident.
A courageous insider stung by his honesty,
a scrupulous democratic theorist.
A critic all along, you see,
of political power gone personalist.
I sit on the edge of my seat, gentle readers,
consumed by anticipation.
Awaiting the next sauve qui peut defection,
dressed up as thoughtful dissension.
Friday, July 15, 2005
Domestic and international pressure on the regime ratcheted up this week, as opposition groups and high-ranking foreign dignitaries repeated and elaborated their specific demands. On Wednesday at the bar association, Aziz Sidqi’s National Coalition for Democratic Transformation held their first conference, joined by Kifaya and the Ikhwan in a show of support. While it would be too early to herald airtight opposition coordination (nothing is airtight or enduring in the world of politics), the effort to herd Egypt’s many pro-democracy initiatives under some sort of common platform is noteworthy.
Law professor Yehya al-Gamal called on the opposition to boycott the September presidential poll, not an unprecedented act. Almost all opposition parties, including the Ikhwan, succeeded in coordinating a unified boycott of the 1990 parliamentary poll in protest at the government’s brazen electoral engineering. It’ll be fascinating to watch who will climb on and who will defect from the burgeoning boycott trend.
Not to be missed: families of the Islamist detainees (above) staging a weeks long sit-in and hunger strike at the bar association also attended the conference to call attention to their plight. Their presence lends a fresh, popular aspect to these strictly elite affairs. Let’s hope the merging of ‘elite’ and ‘popular’ concerns continues apace.
“I want to work, big man” says the sign. Kifaya did well to tether its protest to an issue every Egyptian instinctively understands. The right to work is codified in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 23), but tell that to the millions who lack a decent job and a dignified life. The National Democratic Party’s “New Thought” is full of all sorts of prescriptions, but I’ve never once heard their recipe for ameliorating Egypt’s 15-20% unemployment. Is unemployment also a part of “international best practices”?
While the noble Kamal Khalil (left) and Youth for Change were out in full force exposing “24 years of poverty and repression” (slogan on sign), U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick met with Hosni Mubarak to persuade him to accept international election observers. I don’t doubt that the regime will come up with some face-saving argument to let observers attend, after it had gotten all chest-pounding and huffy about sovereignty and all that. While Zoellick was lecturing and “persuading”, USAID official Andrew Natsios had announced a shift in US foreign aid policy. No longer will the money be vetted by Arab governments, but will go directly to non-governmental organisations. What a spectacle, Arab regimes desperate for survival heartily giving up chunks of state sovereignty for coveted U.S. blessings and decreased pressure. Must be hard to be an Egyptian regime official, these days. Or is it? Mubarak’s envoy to Washington, D.C. and Gamal Mubarak toady had this to say recently: “We’re 7,000 years old as a people, but we’ve only been a republic for the last 50 years. We’ve been occupied for many years before that. We have a very low literacy rate. We have not had a democratic process for many years. What we are concerned with is, in the absence of, if you want, the level of evolution, the maturity in the society that is required for a serious democratic debate.” Well I do declare, the right honourable ambassador is even more pathetic and incoherent than his friend Ahmed Nazif.
*All photos from the AP
Wednesday, July 06, 2005
The palpable social ferment sweeping Egyptian society since December 2004 continues to develop and cascade, unhindered by the scorching summer heat. June was an event-filled month and July gives every indication of being the same. So much for Egypt’s allegedly humdrum summers. The past week alone has seen significant developments in both society and state, with big doses of rumour, speculation, and misinformation to grease things along. But let me step back for a brief minute and pinch myself. Who could have guessed even a few short months ago that Egyptian politics would look like they do today, with new political projects springing forth nearly every week like wildflowers on a rocky hillside? At the very least, current events are overturning all the crusty old models and familiar interpretive frames with which Egyptian politics have been conventionally understood. But that’s a story for another day. Let’s focus on some of the major developments of the past week.
Clearly, Egyptian judges mean business. With this report, they offer a powerful and highly credible challenge to the Interior Ministry’s chronic doctoring of election facts and practices. Even more damningly, with their fourth finding and several explicit testimonials in the body of the report, judges for the first time are publicly drawing definitive lines in the sand between good and bad judges. The latter are pliant magistrates more than willing to go along with the regime’s whims and interests, while the former value their professional autonomy and reputation more than pocketing hefty bonuses or staying in the good graces of this or that official. The battle to watch over the next two months will be who gains the upper hand. Now that parliament has adjourned for the summer recess with the judges’ law still pending (since 1991!!), my guess is that feelings of being slighted and disrespected will only increase among the majority of judges, promising a truly exceptional and historic meeting on September 2, regardless of its outcome. Between May 13 and the Judges Club report, tensions have already been extremely high between different factions and institutions within Egypt’s labyrinthine judiciary: court general assemblies and chief justices, factions within Judges Clubs in the provinces, and of course the government’s Supreme Judicial Council and everyone else. The tensions are only bound to become more complicated in the next two months (aside: astoundingly, while it has been a heretofore faithful chronicler of judicial news, al-Wafd hasn’t covered the Judges Club report! Has the unctuous No’man Gom’a struck yet another deal with the government?)
Without a doubt, the judges’ very public maneuvers are the single most important prop to the Egyptian pro-democracy movement. They inspire and encourage others while lending a very valuable patina of respectability to the still fearsome act of true dissent, to be distinguished from Egypt’s overnight celebrity dissidents. An exemplar of a true dissident is honorary Judges Club president Yahya al-Refai, interviewed by al-Araby this week.
While elite guardians of the law capitalise on and spur the pro-reform movement, a much humbler constituency also weighs in. Families of Egypt’s Islamist prisoners detained for years without trial first started a hunger strike at the bar association some weeks ago. Last week, they also took to the street for a brief protest. Being an unsexy, unphotogenic protest, it did not receive the copious media coverage it should have, despite the heartbreaking sight of young children who had never seen their fathers holding aloft signs and posters. Luckily, the indefatigable Wael Abbas captured some shots with a mobile phone and posted them on his e-zine, as did al-Misri al-Yawm. On Tuesday, families of detained Muslim Brothers also protested briefly outside the office of the Public Prosecutor. These mothers and wives and grandmothers and sisters and aunts are as ordinary and unpolitical as one can be. Their tragedies are recounted with painstaking precision in the reports of the Human Rights Center for the Assistance of Prisoners. These are precisely the kinds of invisible people whom the reform movement should be engaging and assisting, and I hope they receive the attention, sympathy, and support that they deserve. Thanks to Mohammed over at Digressing, their plight is not forgotten. The current Egyptian intifada is just as much if not more about their rights and needs as it is about constitutional reform and political democracy.
Pro-democracy members of the fourth estate (specifically “Journalists for Change”) have been registering their professional and public concerns at a syndicate sit-in since Sunday, once again Wael Abbas captures the struggle here. So what do they want? First and foremost the scrapping of the notorious Article 48 of the political rights law blithely passed by parliament before it adjourned. The Article stipulates a prison term of six months to three years and a fine of £E1,000-5,000 for anyone who publishes “false news or claims about elections or the behaviour and morals of any candidate with the intent to influence the election outcome.” As veteran journalist Salah Eissa points out in his Saturday column in al-Wafd, however, Articles 302-306 of the Penal Code already clearly lay out penalties for libel and slander at a maximum of two years’ imprisonment. While Jordan scraps imprisonment altogether as punishment for press offences, Egypt adds on an additional year on the occasion of elections which the regime has been trumpeting up and down as historic and unprecedented and more competitive and bla bla bla! Can Gamal Mubarak please stand up and explain how muzzling the press contributes to the more competitive political life he’s so fond of lecturing us about?
Journalists are just as fed up as every other social group, and then some. The Sunday sit-in which ended on Wednesday was a last-ditch attempt to at least register opposition to the regime’s fait accompli, but the real frustration will now turn on Press Syndicate chair Galal Aref. Syndicate insiders say that since his defeat of Ibrahim Nafie in 2003, Aref has been too compromising with the regime and an ineffective negotiator for press freedoms and journalists’ rights. Granted, he’s had only two years to prove himself, but Aref has neither improved material services nor adequately defended journalists’ collective interests. The Syndicate chair elections at the very end of this month will be the true test of the depth of journalistic disaffection with Aref. Thickening the plot is maverick journalist and Destour editor Ibrahim Eissa’s stated intention to put himself forward as a candidate. With his no-nonsense irreverence and absolute refusal to even hint at remonstrating with the government, Eissa might just capture a healthy chunk of the youth vote but is unlikely to win the support of stalwarts and business-as-usual types. Ibrahim Hegazy of al-Ahram is the government’s strongest contender; he’s an old Syndicate hand and a shrewd politico and electioneer, with a solid base electoral base in al-Ahram. Given the pro-democracy ferment, the additional imprisonment penalties, and the combustible conditions within many of the state-owned press houses, the elections at the end of the month promise to be even more bitterly fought than those of summer 2003.
After a ten-year struggle in the courts to throw off government receivership of their union, engineers got some good news yesterday. Today’s al-Wafd reports that an administrative court threw out a government counter-suit and cleared the way for engineers to summon their general assembly and hold board elections, delayed for 10 years while a government-appointed “judicial custodian” managed the affairs of the frozen union. The saga of engineers trying to take back their association is part of the larger story of government intervention in these bodies to reverse the electoral successes of the Muslim Brothers. Lawyers succeeded in 2001 in holding their first elections since 1992 but engineers have had a harder time. Yesterday’s court ruling couldn’t have come at a better time. If elections are conducted, they will be bitterly fought and add one more valuable and hefty middle class institution to the generalised social ferment.
al-Wafd of July 6 reports on an important all-university faculty conference last Monday at the Cairo University faculty club on the Nile. Like all professionals, professors twined public affairs with their own longstanding workplace grievances. Members of nine university teachers’ clubs (nawadi a’da’ hay’at al-tadris) called for an end to emergency rule, clean, judicially-monitored elections, and an intriguing new proposal for a pan-university teachers’ union for professors and teaching assistants at all Egyptian universities. Currently, each university has its own teaching staff union but there is no national-level federation. The proposal will be voted on by the general assemblies of the separate teachers’ clubs. If it comes to fruition, it will constitute a significant challenge to the security-centered management of Egyptian universities and a huge boost for the rising demands for faculty self-governance. Similar to the judges, university professors’ own mini-Intifada offers a huge boost to the pro-democracy bandwagon, lending it credibility and respectability in the eyes of undecided Egyptians leery of the unknown.
The wild speculations and rumours about internal dissension and all manner of machination and intrigue within the organisation are totally stale and predictable. The truth of the matter is, all significant political groups in Egypt are in the throes of self-transformation, why should the Ikhwan be any different? Ikhwan members say the biggest node of contention is the terms of the group’s transformation into a political party, which is no surprise since this issue has bedeviled the group for at least the past five years. The pro-democracy zeitgeist and the regime’s pathetic performance are merely catalysts foregrounding as never before this central dilemma. Ikhwan members are ranged in two broad camps: those who favour remaining a Jamaa (Association) and maintaining the same essential modus operandi, led by General Guide and Ikhwan old-timer Mohamed Mahdi Akef, and those pushing for the normalisation (my characterisation) of the group into a modern political party. The boldest and most articulate defender of the second position is Abdel Moneim Abul Fotouh; the fervent whispers about his being booted out of the Guidance Bureau (the Ikhwan’s politburo) are pure flights of fancy but there are disagreements between him and other members. Abul Fotouh hinted at his frustration in an article in last week’s al-Dustour, where he worried that his own and other groups are not up to the momentous tasks he said face the nation.
Ironically, neither Akef nor Abul Fotouh is likely to carry the day within the organisation. Akef’s stance is clearly no longer viable while Abul Fotouh’s is still too controversial for Ikhwan members, much as he is well liked and respected by outsiders (myself included). Enter Muhammed Habib, the deputy guide who’s been very visible of late, and who presided over the Ikhwan’s “National Alliance for Reform” inaugural meeting and press conference last Thursday. Habib is a consensus figure, neither ‘radical’ like Abul Fotouh nor rigid like Akef. His take is simple: act like a political party quietly and without fanfare so as not to alienate or antagonise any of the Ikhwan’s contending factions while also capitalising on enticing political opportunities offered by current events. Habib is keenly aware of the dangers of being mired in internal disputes and risking being sidelined by rapid developments, so he and his people pounced and created the Alliance. Invitees who attended from all across the political spectrum (including Kifaya members and a gallery of other prominent figures) want to encourage the Ikhwan’s amalgamation with others on terms of parity and not haughty superiority as is the Ikhwan’s longstanding wont.
If the Alliance means that the Ikhwan will abandon their intensely annoying and destructive habit of defecting from broad pro-democracy alliances every time the government dangles its carrot, then it will have done a huge service to the cause of opposition coordination. We have to wait and observe closely; the next big test is the elections. If the Ikhwan get with the program and boycott the presidential poll like everyone else, resisting their all-too-familiar 11th hour deals with the government, then the regime will lose an important fig leaf.
I’m glad Shepheard’s hotel reneged on its earlier acceptance to host Kifaya’s first general conference (under State Security pressures, of course), originally scheduled for today. I and many other members don’t think Kifaya should be holed up in fancy hotel conference rooms talking about democracy, but I also understand the predicament since no professional syndicate has agreed to host the conference due to security pressures, not even the Press Syndicate, oddly. What to do? Continue the search for a meaningful and symbolic venue that does not fly in the face of all the movement stands for and aspires to achieve. In the meantime, read the two important position papers Kifaya has put forward for discussion. The first is a four-page proposal for a “transitional phase” of one or two years during which emergency law is lifted and a national coalition caretaker government is formed to devise the rules of the post-transition political game. The second is a more elaborate ten-page “strategic vision for change” entitled “The Egypt that We Want: Towards a New Social-Political Contract.”
This second document pivots on four central ideas: (1) retooling the institution of the presidency and effecting the transformation from the one-man state, (2) adjusting the legal and judicial situation in Egypt by repealing emergency law and all other exceptional laws and irregular courts, (3) ensuring the separation of powers, and (4) unleashing public liberties and basic rights for individuals and groups.
With these detailed proposals for what their authors call “the good society,” Kifaya is clearly attempting to answer critics who’ve been harping on its lack of an alternative sociopolitical project. As such, they are valuable documents with many eminently sensible and provocative ideas, most of them inspired by the mountain of pro-democracy ephemera building up in this country since at least 1992. I don’t agree with everything in them, and that’s as it should be. The important point now is how they will be developed and modified in the process of public deliberation with more ideologically diverse interlocutors. I think of this as the critical groundwork for the drafting of Egypt’s new constitution, whenever that will be, and I hope the debate is loud and noisy and very very public. Anything to avoid our previous constitutions, midwifed behind closed doors in rarefied discussions whose transcripts are carefully stashed away in ‘secret’ libraries.
I haven’t been following this too closely but there’s also this business of the self-importantly named “National Rally for Democratic Transformation” (al-Tajammu’ al-Watani li-l Tahawwul al-Dimuqrati) formed on June 4 by a bevy of former ministers and ambassadors and other public figures. It’s headed by former Nasser-era technocrat Aziz Sidqi, who for some unfathomable reason is being dubbed “the father of Egyptian industry.” Anyway, as an observer my instinct is to say let a thousand pro-democracy projects bloom and I hope more are in the offing. But I do not choose to politically support this group in particular, because I do not appreciate its strong whiff of a council of elders sagely leading the way to some blessed democratic transformation. They somehow think that because they are former government apparatchiks, they are uniquely qualified to front the scene. In my very cynical moments, I also think it’s a self-serving attempt by has-beens and third-rate establishment types to ride the pro-democracy wave, nothwithstanding the presence of a handful of folks whose careers and reputations are beyond reproach.
Above all, I am intensely suspicious of the remonstrating noises they are making vis-à-vis the regime, which I fail to understand. Consider their choice of Mustafa Bakri as not just member but ‘official spokesman’. Now, I’ve made clear my views on Bakri before, but I note: he has been playing an even baser game lately. Look no further than the most recent of his execrable editorials, where he turns his guns on none other than Hosni Mubarak himself. Being a congenital scribe-for-hire and a rank opportunist with close ties to the Interior Minister in particular, Bakri’s and his equally inferior brother Mahmoud’s new line can only mean one thing: he has latched on to a new patron within the regime, a faction that is perhaps anti-Mubarak or attempting to save its skin by jumping the sinking ship. There is no other explanation for his latest antics. Any grouping that chooses to have the irremediably tainted Bakri as spokesman (for God’s sake) raises all sorts of questions for me about exactly what it stands for and what message it is trying to send.
Where shall I start? The Israeli gas deal, or the journalistic reshuffle, or the parliamentary recess with all crucial bills postponed, or the rumours about an Abu Ghazala presidential candidacy, or the hints at an impending crackdown? What a choice comedy of errors. Let’s start with the Mubarak regime’s latest warm embrace of the Ariel Sharon government. Last Thursday, Egypt and Israel signed a 15-year, $2.5 billion deal to sell Egyptian natural gas to Israel, to be finalised in August and with the option to extend it another five years. Of course, not one of the state-owned newspapers covered the event. Earlier, according to the Jerusalem Post, Hosni Mubarak expressed enthusiasm for visiting Ariel Sharon’s Negev ranch after the September elections. “He has very good lambs getting fatter and fatter, so we are looking forward to that,” Mubarak enthused.
Parliament recessed last month, but not before ramming through amendments to the laws that the government needs. Of course, there was not even a nod to some crucial bills such as the amendments to the 1972 law governing the judiciary, consumer protection and real estate asset protection bills, and a long awaited bill to restructure apartment owner-tenant relations. As widely and gleefully reported by the opposition, the Supreme Constitutional Court had sent back the presidential election law because of some serious flaws. It was already irregular and not within the SCC’s mandate to review legislation before it was issued, imagine the double embarrassment for the government to have the Court send back the bill with specific corrections to be made. Hence al-Ahram’s pusillanimous cover-up of the issue on its front page last Thursday (30 June).
I don’t understand all the brouhaha over the editorial reshuffle, and I nearly fell off my chair laughing at the New York Times’ headline: “Egypt’s Press Acquiring Young Blood in Top Posts.” Good to know that the newspaper of record slavishly parrots Safwat El-Sherif’s claims as news, I thought it did that only with the American government’s arguments. If ages 53 and 50 qualify as “young blood”, then clearly I am mistaken. The reshuffle is merely that, a reshuffle, to edge out the embarrassing mummies who drove the state-owned press into unprecedented professional lows and financial insolvency. Almost all of the “new blood” are cookie cutter successors handpicked by Nafie, Se’da, Ragab, and all the author dinosaurs, and so of course they are unknown, mediocre, and lend new depth to the term “sniveler.” One theory I heard is that they’re only “transitional” appointees who can be counted on to get the government through the coming critical electoral months.
But all that doesn’t matter. I would like to take this opportunity to send my condolences to Mr. Osama al-Ghazali Harb, who got passed over for the post of Ahram editor-in-chief, which went to veteran government collaborator Osama Saraya (he’s been a toady since his student days in the early 1970s). For the last three years, Harb has been strutting around in public proclaiming that he’s next in line for the position. It must hurt so bad to be beaten by a fifth-rate scribbler, ouch. But I wonder, could this explain Harb’s latest self-presentation as a dissident insider? (hiccup! excuse me). You see, for the past several weeks, Mr. Harb has been whipping up this smashing little story that he’s been sidelined because of his “no” vote on amending Article 76 in the Shura Council. Now, I don’t believe Mr. Harb’s story or anything else that flows out of his mouth or crappy pen, so I’m still trying to decipher his latest little ruse.
Bereft of any actual projects, proposals, or even wily schemes, the regime is resorting to none-too-subtle “signals” that it’s thinking of cracking down soon, and hard. See Muhammad Abdel Hakam Diyab’s Saturday column in al-Quds al-Araby last week, and Abdalla Sennawi’s surprisingly good take on this in al-Araby. Mohammed at Digressing reproduces Adel Hammouda’s column; Hammouda is the new regime emissary of choice after Makram Mohamed Ahmed has been summarily retired.
What Sort of Change?
That Egypt is changing is obvious, it’s the content of the change and its direction that has everyone wondering. I find it silly to proclaim things like: “Egyptian politics awaken from their half-century slumber” as the otherwise sharp Rami Khouri opined on June 18. Anyone who knows anything about Egyptian history knows that the past half century has witnessed tremendous changes; but who knows, maybe Khouri was merely going for dramatic effect. The question remains: what kind of change are we witnessing? It’s obviously not a change in basic social institutions, nor rapid economic change, nor a change in the structures of government. It seems to me the change is behavioural and ideological, and almost imperceptible. As the ligaments of government-citizen relations are worn down to the bone and frayed beyond repair, and articulate elites such as judges and university professors and journalists are forcefully criticising corruption and nepotism and repression and the president himself, there’s no doubt that most ordinary Egyptians are now wondering why they should support a government that has long ago ceased to provide for their basic needs. The question is whether the anger will morph into something larger and more focused. Do current events portend a paradigm shift in how Egyptians view political authority?
This is the big mystery, whether ordinary Egyptians, not simply articulate elites, will link their desire for a decent life to the basic idea that it’s their right to choose their rulers and hold them to account. The Youth for Change movement’s demos in Sayyida Zeinab, Shubra, Zeitoun, and Imbaba seem to me a wonderfully creative attempt to do just that, to drive home the necessary link between the right to a decent life and the right to choose public representatives. I don’t believe for a minute in the old canard that ordinary Egyptians care only about making a living. That was the bankrupt claim made by Gamal Abdel Nasser and others, and it’s utterly false. The task ahead of the pro-democracy movement is nothing less than weaving democracy into the fabric of everyday life, goading Egyptians to make the link between their lousy standard of living and the man in the presidential palaces with his corrupt retinue and wretched urban gendarmerie. Massive propaganda machines are devoted to severing just this link, but democrats are harping on it day and night. Bread and votes, employment and fair elections, affordable prices and freedom of assembly, good schools and press freedom, quality health care and a disciplined police force, decent public transport and no emergency law, good public services and clean parliamentary representatives. Who says we have to choose? And more importantly, why?
Egyptian history is full of instances where the worlds of high politics and ordinary citizens collided and fused. In June 1930, King Fuad dismissed Mustafa al-Nahhas and appointed Ismail Sidqi as Prime Minister. Sidqi promulgated a repressive new constitution that overturned the liberal 1923 document and strengthened the role of the King. Empowered by the new constitution, the hated Sidqi then proceeded to alienate nearly every sector of Egyptian society. One of his sillier moves was a snarky note to Safiyya Zaghlul demanding that she keep Beit al-Umma private “as is the case with other people’s abodes” rather than let it be frequented by persons who organise “manifestations.” As the Egyptian economy weathered the worldwide recession, Sidqi sparred with feisty and satirical newspapers, contentious students, uppity lawyers, debt-strapped and overtaxed fellaheen, and opposition politicians, seeking to pack the Penal Code with all manner of amendments to shut everyone up. His reign sparked a vibrant social movement demanding the return of the old constitution; the word “dustour” became the all-purpose catchword embodying the desire for a decent life and a democratic political process. See Salah Abu Seif’s great film al-Qahira 30 (1966) for the constitution-drenched discourse of the time. The King dismissed Sidqi in September 1933. Two years later, under mounting popular pressure, the notorious 1930 constitution was scrapped and the 1923 document restored.
Reflecting on the Sidqi years, British High Commissioner to Egypt Sir Percy Loraine wrote to London on December 2, 1933, “The palace thus now overshadows the administrative stage, and fear and dislike of this state of affairs have become general among Egyptians. It is no longer an academic question of different brands of constitutions, but it is a general realisation that, unless some means are found of checking King Fuad, Egyptians official and unofficial, must remain exposed to continual personal insecurity.” Loraine was spot-on in diagnosing the situation, but dead wrong in serving up this dangerous and utterly self-serving remedy. “There is little doubt that nearly all Egyptians now expect and would welcome a British intervention to put an end to this palace direction of affairs.” We still don’t know whether ordinary Egyptians today are linking their growing personal insecurity with unchecked presidential powers. But it's one drama worth watching.