Behind the iconic image of legendary jazz musician Louis Armstrong playing his trumpet at the Pyramids – stood an artist who was inadvertently dragged into the debate on the Middle East conflict.
Kakistocracy: A word we need to revive
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- Kakistocracy: A word we need to revive
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- Kakistocracy: A word we need to revive
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- Kakistocracy: A word we need to revive
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“Stupidity does not consist in being without ideas. Such stupidity would be the sweet, blissful stupidity of animals, molluscs and the gods. Human Stupidity consists in having lots of ideas, but stupid ones. Stupid ideas, with banners, hymns, loudspeakers and even tanks and flame-throwers as their instruments of persuasion, constitute the refined and the only really terrifying form of Stupidity.” – Henry de Montherlant, Notebooks, 1930-44
How and why did a word so relevant for our times be pushed almost to oblivion? In a world where stupidity penetrates multiple levels of government, policies and personalities; it is strange that the term coined to best describe it has actually ended up in the endangered and forgotten words books. Stupidity in governance needs to be treated as a political problem, and kakistocracy can best capture this problem.
Kakistocracy is the government of a state by its most stupid, ignorant, least qualified and unprincipled citizens in power. Kakistos means “worst” which is superlative of kakos “bad” (perhaps also related to “defecate”). Along with kratos (see -cracy) meaning “power, rule.”
The first documented example appeared in 1829 in a book called The Misfortunes of Elphin, written by the English novelist and poet Thomas Love Peacock.
They were utterly destitute of the blessings of those “schools for all,” the house of correction, and the treadmill, wherein the autochthonal justice of our agrestic kakistocracy now castigates the heinous sins which were then committed with impunity, of treading on old foot-paths, picking up dead wood, and moving on the face of the earth within sound of the whirr of a partridge.
By 1876, the American poet James Russell Lowell was clear regarding its political implications when he wrote in a letter:
What fills me with doubt and dismay is the degradation of the moral tone. Is it or is it not a result of democracy? Is ours a “government of the people, by the people, for the people,” or a Kakistocracy, rather for the benefit of knaves at the cost of fools?
Yet given the prevalence of the problem it describes, the word is strangely not appreciated and underused in the twentieth and twenty-first century. The University of Sydney library search shows, since 1917, a modest use of the term only to suddenly peak after 1981. Perhaps because it corellated with the rise of neoliberalism which has an intimate relationship with stupidity, or to put it more harshly in the words of Mexico’s Subcomandante Marcos: “Neoliberalism is the chaotic theory of economic chaos, the stupid exultation of social stupidity, and the catastrophic political management of catastrophe.” Kakistocracy as a term then tapers off only to make a modest rise around 2008, when eight years of Bush hinted the word might be of some significance. Yet by rise, I am speaking of less than a dozen texts. Overall, Google Scholar sees the word employed merely 204 times in the scholarly literature. A few reasons can explain this neglect.
First, the heavyweight dictionaries have not come to a consensus on the term – Merriam-Webster and Collins list kakistocracy, but Oxford and Cambridge do not. Also there is little sign the term has spread from the English language (apart from its Greek roots) and made inroads into other languages – This could have ensured its widespread use.
Second, according to Phrontistery, there is a staggering 169 forms of governments, including bizarelly enough, diabolocracy (government by the devil) and pornocracy (government by harlots). I guess it must have been an issue at some point in time for someone to invent such terms. But it means kakistocracy is in competition with other robust and not so robust terms – creating an etymological dystopia.
Third, kakistocracy can be abused. It is not difficult to fathom from historical texts that every generation seems to consider their government as being the worst ever kakistocracy. The term is invoked to tarnish any government one does not agree with – acting as nothing more than a sophisticated guise for unwarranted attacks. There is even a risk the term could become too “mainstream,” losing its meaning and impact similar to the fate of, for example, soft power.
Finally, it is my suspicion that analysts have preferred to use kleptocracy (rule by thieves) instead. But kleptocracy is not the same as kakistocracy: They do both capture the element of least qualified or the worst, but with different meanings. Taking a reductionist stance for the sake of making the point, Putin’s regime is more of a kleptocracy, a regime ruled by thieves and thugs but that does not mean Putin is politically incompetent or stupid. Sisi’s Egypt shows elements of kakistocracy where stupidity is clearly characteristic of the personalities and decision-making process. This I have examined in detail in last year’s piece Egypt’s long walk to despotism that attempts to make sense of the relationship between Egypt’s political order and the stream of abusurdies we have witnessed over the past few years. Yet both Egypt and Russia share elements of kakistocracy and kleptocracy. There is no mutual exclusivness and clear demarcation lines in this debate.
Yet the flipside of not enganging with kakistocracy has left the word to the mindless circulation of memes and right wing shrills like Glenn Beck who sporadically employ it (and mispronounce it) to attack the Obama administration. Love him or hate him, Obama and his administration is far from anything resembling a kakistocracy. Bad decisions are not always a sign of kakistocracy.
Some might argue kakistocracy is a form of tautology, that stupidity can be rife through established democracies and dictatorships without needing to resort to a special word, or that behaviour is not enough to explain governance. I would argue otherwise: words matter, as a more sophisticated approach in the use of kakistrocracy, even if endowed with new meanings, can bring in a sharper conceptual understanding of incompetence, help provoke thought and new approaches to the relations of power.
Therefore, kakistocracy will not only capture rule by the “stupid” and the “worst,” but how they push human relationships, that form the controlling governmental machinery, into a degenerative state. The term will be more receptive to seeing a movement of ideas from psychology and sociology into the political science and international relations field. It will provide an organising concept to converse with its established kinfolk in the form of anti-intellectualism, mediocracy and nepotism.
To my knowledge, we are not even at the stage of seeing conferences on the dynamics of political stupidity, nor understanding the accumulative processes over the years that have brought about a large number of kakistocracies and stupidity as the standard bearer across much of the world.
Either kakistocracy gets used and thoroughly examined or a Trump presidency will force us to do so.
Update: Two worthwhile comments regarding this post come from Marco Lauri (Facebook). The first better explains the term pornocracy and the other proposes one way of sharpening kakistocracy.
“‘Pornocracy’ is a term with a long and very respectable history – used, I think, first in the Renaissance to describe the role of concubines in the running of the affairs of the Papacy during the tenth century – of course it was derogatory and never actually intended to describe a form of government as such.”
“I think that “kakistocracy” should be reserved for systems that positively select for stupid people to be put in charge. This is historically irrespective of the actual form of government (the idiots may be either appointed by an idiot despot, or elected by a dumbed electorate, or forced through the ranks by a purposeful mob, etc.). However, I support the notion because there are arguably common factors worth studying that enable the selection of stupid people. Sycophants are probably the easiest element to see and explain, but not the only one. There must be a whole ecology of systemic political stupidity awaiting analysis.”
Tra il deserto immobile che “incessantemente si consuma” e il mare perpetuo che “manifesta furiosamente il rinnovamento” si è formata la “mia prima visione della realtà”.
Sono le parole di Giuseppe Ungaretti, poeta italiano nato ad Alessandria. Le scrisse nell’Egitto degli anni trenta. Oggi nel paese è presente una comunità transnazionale sempre più numerosa, emersa all’ombra delle rivolte arabe, soprattutto dopo la rivoluzione egiziana. Questa comunità si colloca tra un’Europa vuota di ideologie e in preda all’austerità e un Medio Oriente politicamente spietato e radicale. Ma chi sono, e qual è la loro “visione della realtà”?
Gli italiani transitati in Egitto negli ultimi anni illustrano bene le caratteristiche di questa comunità che con le sue idee supera le nazionalità e i rapporti geopolitici.
L’orribile morte di Giulio Regeni, il dottorando italiano torturato e assassinato mentre si trovava in Egitto per fare ricerca sul sindacato, ci impone di osservare più da vicino i saperi prodotti da queste persone sullo sfondo di rapporti storici, politici e sociali spesso tesi da un capo all’altro del Mediterraneo.
“La ribellione era necessaria nell’Europa delle politiche di austerità, e l’atto di ribellione stava accadendo in Egitto. L’Egitto ci stava ispirando a sfidare la nostra realtà”, mi ha detto Lucia Sorbera, una storica e femminista italiana di Pisa che per molti anni ha fatto ricerca in Egitto.
Prima delle rivolte arabe nel 2011, l’interesse degli attivisti italiani in Medio Oriente si è concentrato soprattutto sulla lotta palestinese. Dopo le rivolte però, dopo che piazza Tahrir ha esportato una forma di protesta spettacolare, tanti intellettuali italiani hanno cominciato a preoccuparsi dei paesi a sud del Mediterraneo, soprattutto l’Egitto. Nel giro di poco tempo i nomi di rivoluzionari egiziani come Alaa Abd El Fattah e Mina Daniel hanno cominciato a circolare nelle università italiane e tra le comunità di attivisti.
Un popolo meno minaccioso
Un bel cambiamento rispetto all’anno precedente. Nel 2010 lo stato egiziano aveva fatto una strana apparizione nelle vicende italiane, quando l’ex primo ministro Silvio Berlusconi aveva fatto rilasciare la sua amante minorenne marocchina, Karima al Mahroug, detta Ruby, dicendo alla polizia che si trattava della nipote dell’allora presidente Hosni Mubarak.
Agli occhi di molti egiziani, per un motivo o per un altro, gli italiani sono europei con qualcosa di familiare
Dopo la scomparsa per sette giorni di Regeni e il ritrovamento del suo cadavere torturato a morte, i mezzi d’informazione filogovernativi egiziani faticano a giustificare l’omicidio. Ci sono state delle mezze accuse di spionaggio, ma non hanno attecchito, mentre dichiarazioni relativamente più dure sono state pronunciate solo in risposta alla risoluzione di condanna espressa dal Parlamento europeo nei confronti dell’Egitto. Questo forse perché Regeni era italiano, e non c’era a portata di mano nessuna storia di interventismo che lo stato e i suoi accoliti potessero sfruttare per sostenere un’accusa di spionaggio o propagandare le loro consuete teorie complottiste. Si può dire che se Regeni fosse stato statunitense o britannico sarebbe stato più facile appellarsi alla storia di interventismo degli Stati Uniti o del Regno Unito in Egitto come implicita giustificazione della sua morte. Nel caso dell’Italia, invece, questa versione non regge.
In termini di percezione dell’opinione pubblica, l’Italia non evoca alcuna minaccia immediata in Egitto. L’apprezzamento di ciò che è italiano è abbastanza frequente – dagli scrittori d’élite che lodano i rapporti storici con Roma, risalenti all’antichità classica, ai venditori ambulanti che cercano di appiopparti una losca cintura di pelle “da Itali!”, fino al mio idraulico che mi spaccia per italiana una pompa idraulica evidentemente “made in China”. L’Italia è spesso percepita come simbolo di classe, eleganza e conseguente credibilità. Agli occhi di molti egiziani, per un motivo o per un altro, gli italiani sono europei con qualcosa di familiare.
E gli italiani ben si adattano alla paralizzante nostalgia egiziana per la “modernità di un tempo, ormai perduta”, come dice la storica Lucie Ryzova. A questo si riferiscono le attuali élite di governo quando dicono che il presidente “renderà di nuovo grande l’Egitto”. Ed è una nostalgia condivisa dall’opinione pubblica (che si manifesta soprattutto sui social media con le foto in bianco e nero di un immaginario egiziano “cosmopolita”) e che prende la forma di una condanna nei confronti del regime per la sua incapacità di prendersi cura del patrimonio e della cultura.
La versione del perduto cosmopolitismo è rafforzata dalla magnifica decadenza di edifici che conservano l’impronta dei loro architetti italiani. O dalle conversazioni di egiziani più anziani provenienti da un centro urbano che ricordano con affetto almeno un amico italiano con cui sono cresciuti, prima di sparire nelle trincee delle politiche di nazionalizzazione promosse da Nasser. In breve, c’è un latente sentimento filoitaliano evocato dalla presenza degli italiani in un passato che si immagina più glorioso.
“Ho sempre pensato che essere un italiano in Egitto fosse per me un enorme vantaggio”, dice Alessandro Accorsi, un giornalista di origini marchigiane. “Mi ha aiutato nei miei rapporti con la polizia, con il governo, con la gente per strada. Gli egiziani adorano gli italiani, c’è un senso di fratellanza tra i due paesi, e secondo me, dal punto di vista della politica e del potere, noi siamo percepiti come ‘meno minacciosi’ di cittadini provenienti da altri paesi”.
Tuttavia lo stato egiziano ha manipolato discorsi del genere ricorrendo a dichiarazioni come “noi amiamo gli italiani” nel debole tentativo di sottrarsi a qualsiasi responsabilità. L’omicidio di Regeni ha fatto vacillare la relativa sicurezza di cui gli italiani hanno goduto a lungo in Egitto. Nessuno è intoccabile in uno stato di sicurezza insicuro.
La mistificazione di stato
Lucia Sorbera ammette che l’idea di questo rapporto particolare è abbastanza diffusa. “Condividiamo tante esperienze dal punto di vista della cultura popolare, una struttura patriarcale della società e la storia della produzione culturale. Pensiamo per esempio al cinema”. Tuttavia, avverte, soprattutto alla luce della morte di Regeni, questa è sostanzialmente una mistificazione, perché “Italia ed Egitto occupano due posizioni diverse nel sistema geopolitico mediterraneo e globale, e l’Italia non è certo uno stato di polizia in cui scompaiono centinaia di persone”.
L’italiana Iveco esporta in Egitto le camionotte usate dalla polizia per reprime le proteste
Altri italiani la vedono diversamente, e rilanciano affermazioni condivise anche da alcuni francesi e greci. Uno di loro mi ha detto: “Mentre il controllo neoliberista autoritario si afferma in Egitto attraverso la violenza e la tortura, in Italia si afferma attraverso la privazione dei diritti di base”. La violenza e la mancanza dello stato di diritto in Egitto non possono essere paragonati a quel che succede in Italia. Tuttavia ci sono dei fattori che spingono gli italiani a trasferirsi, e a investire emotivamente, in Egitto.
La questione ha a che vedere in parte con l’esistenza di aziende italiane che operano senza scrupoli e hanno interessi poco chiari in Nordafrica, specialmente in Egitto. Basta ricordare l’inquietudine sollevata da un esponente di Confindustria diversi anni fa, quando paragonò il Mediterraneo meridionale all’equivalente della Cina per l’Italia, cioè al mercato principale nel quale trovare i partner più importanti.
Come ha scritto Omar Robert Hamilton, l’Italia è coinvolta nella violenza egiziana: dalla compagnia italiana Iveco, che esporta le camionette della polizia che hanno investito i manifestanti egiziani al produttore di armi Fiocchi, che ha fornito i proiettili che hanno ucciso tanti manifestanti pacifici. E questa è solo una piccola parte della storia delle aziende italiane che hanno investito nell’economia della violenza egiziana, lo stesso sistema che ha reso possibile la morte di Regeni.
Tuttavia, gli attivisti, i giornalisti e gli accademici italiani non rimangono in silenzio di fronte a questa situazione. Il loro appoggio alla lotta degli egiziani per la giustizia è la prosecuzione di una lotta politica contro la classe dirigente italiana.
“Per molti versi il presidente egiziano Al Sisi e il premier italiano Matteo Renzi non sono differenti”, afferma Azzurra Sarnataro, ricercatrice di Napoli che lavora sullo sviluppo delle comunità informali del Cairo. “Io mi oppongo ad Al Sisi come mi oppongo a Renzi e ai suoi provvedimenti politici ed economici”.
Ua lotta condivisa
Conoscendo questa linea di pensiero – espressa di solito con parole diverse – diventa chiaro come italiani ed egiziani stiano in parte proiettando sull’Egitto le loro critiche al neoliberismo.
“L’Egitto è sempre stato (ed è ancora) un eccellente laboratorio per osservare l’interazione di fattori endogeni ed esogeni e il loro impatto sulla politica e sulla società… il dispiegamento di giochi di potere su una base ideologica e religiosa, e lo smascheramento di conflitti di interesse e del sistema di corruzione”, commenta Chiara Diana, autrice dello studio Rivoluzione e infanzia: la socializzazione politica dei bambini egiziani durante la rivoluzione del 25 gennaio 2011.
Alessandro Accorsi sente che la lotta egiziana è anche la sua lotta: “L’Egitto mi ha dato uno spazio di riflessione ideologica che non sono riuscito a trovare in Italia, proprio perché la rivoluzione è arrivata proprio quando l’attivismo italiano stava attraversando una crisi globale e regnava un’apatia generalizzata”.
Sorbera è più moderata: “Stare lontani da casa offre sempre uno spazio diverso – e direi più produttivo – per articolare la consapevolezza su se stessi e gli altri”.
D’altro canto, sviluppando l’opinione di Accorsi, Diana sostiene: “Penso che ci sia in Italia un appiattimento ideologico e politico che monopolizza l’attenzione dei cittadini su questioni come la sicurezza, il terrorismo, la protezione del territorio nazionale e la cultura. Questo impedisce di occuparsi dei problemi legati alle difficoltà quotidiane come la crisi economica o i tagli di bilancio nello stato sociale e nell’istruzione. C’è dunque un possibile rischio che quelle lotte fondamentali subiscano una battuta d’arresto, lasciando campo libero a discriminazione, paura, ripiegamento su se stessi e nazionalismo”.
Ed è in questo, continua, che l’Egitto serve per superare questa situazione di stallo. “In Egitto la lotta per i diritti umani, per la giustizia sociale e la libertà consentono a persone come me di continuare a credere nella dignità degli esseri umani e nella lotta per i loro diritti”.
Anche se non è insolito riscontrare simili opinioni in cittadini di altri paesi occidentali, gli italiani spiccano per un approccio più strettamente storico, sociale e geografico nei confronti del Mediterraneo e dell’Egitto, sintetizzato da quello che un professore italiano dell’università di Bologna ha detto ai suoi studenti durante una lezione: “Non si tratta di stabilire se la Turchia o Israele debbano entrare nell’Unione europea, ma se l’Italia debba entrare nella Lega araba”.
In Italia inoltre si assiste a una crescente ostilità nei confronti degli arabi e dei musulmani, legata soprattutto alla crisi dei profughi. Ma non sono gli intolleranti a dirigersi verso sud: chi parte segue un ideale, e crede in questa affinità.
“Siamo in molti a credere nel Mediterraneo, inteso come spazio di legami storici e culturali e come luogo privilegiato per esprimere il dissenso”, commenta Enrico De Angelis, ricercatore di comunicazione di Napoli.
“Avverto una vicinanza umana con gli egiziani riguardo ad alcune lotte fondamentali, come quella per la dignità della vita, per la giustizia sociale e la garanzia dei diritti umani fondamentali. Perché? Non so, forse perché vengo dall’Italia meridionale, dove le condizioni sociali sono a volte difficili, come in Egitto”, dice Diana. Sarnataro è più diretta: “In quanto meridionali, anche quando non siamo politicizzati condividiamo con l’Egitto la comprensione delle difficoltà economiche”.
La socievolezza di Regeni, il lavoro e gli ideali – tutti interni a un ambiente ‘filoitaliano’ – possono averlo aiutato finché l’illusione dell’immunità non è andata in pezzi
De Angelis aggiunge una distinzione in questo discorso: “Può essere una visione parziale, dovuta al fatto che possiamo accedere solo ad alcune parti della società egiziana. C’è una grande differenza tra Italia ed Egitto dal punto di vista economico. Forse si può dire che le lotte contro le politiche neoliberiste sono le stesse, ma a partire da posizioni completamente diverse”.
Tuttavia, dalle loro parole emerge una precisa identità di persone del sud Italia impegnate nella costruzione di un ponte verso il Nordafrica. Un’attività ancora più necessaria quando si pensi ai sentimenti antimeridionali e al razzismo antiarabo diffusi nel nord dell’Italia che mi sono stati chiariti da Fabrizio Eva, docente all’università di Venezia Ca’ Foscari, con una battuta degli anni sessanta: la Sicilia è l’unico paese arabo pacifico perché non ha ancora dichiarato guerra a Israele.
I martiri della rivoluzione egiziana
Con ciò non si vuole suggerire che Regeni sia il prodotto di tutti i fattori elencati finora. In realtà, lui aveva lasciato l’Italia a 17 anni, dieci anni prima di essere ucciso. È stato tuttavia inserito nella sfera pubblica egiziana come un “italiano”, e come tale era considerato all’interno della matrice politica, culturale, sociale e storica dell’Egitto. La socievolezza di Regeni, il lavoro e gli ideali – tutti interni a un ambiente “filoitaliano” – possono averlo aiutato finché l’illusione dell’immunità non è stata fatta a pezzi. Ci ha “resi tutti uguali nel terrore”, dichiara Francesca Biancani di Bologna, una studiosa di storia mediorientale specializzata nell’Egitto di epoca coloniale.
Tenuto conto della loro lunga e ravvicinata consuetudine con gli attivisti e i socialisti italiani nel corso degli anni, non c’era da sorprendersi se tra i rivoluzionari egiziani sia circolato l’hashtag “Giulio era uno di noi ed è morto come uno di noi”. Come Rachel Corrie è stata adottata dalla causa palestinese, Regeni potrebbe essere il primo non egiziano a essere inserito tra i martiri della rivoluzione egiziana. È stato il primo tentativo di sfidare l’equazione tra cittadinanza e patriottismo. È significativo che un esponente di una comunità transnazionale possa vantare anche una lealtà pari, se non superiore, al benessere pubblico egiziano.
Da studente, nel tumultuoso Egitto, l’identità politica di Regeni era riuscita a fiorire nei modi che gli erano stati negati in Italia
La morte di Regeni, come fa notare Biancani, “potrebbe anche rappresentare un promettente nuovo inizio per una lotta più ampia che connetta realmente le giovani generazioni con le stesse sensibilità su entrambe le sponde del Mediterraneo. Mentre a quanto vedo, un po’ dappertutto, in gradi diversi, coloro che esercitano il potere stanno ripiegando sull’uso di forme estremamente coercitive di dominio, in modo peraltro anacronistico”.
Il romanzo autobiografico della scrittrice italiana Fausta Cialente, Le quattro ragazze Wieselberger, è forse indicativo dei sentimenti che provano oggi gli italiani che hanno a cuore le sorti dell’Egitto. Nel 1922 Cialente aveva assistito a una parata fascista da Milano a Roma. Aveva risposto esprimendo il desiderio di tornare a casa, ad Alessandria, in un “Medio Oriente aperto, in cui per noi europei la libertà era piena e piacevole”. In seguito si sarebbe trasferita al Cairo per diffondere messaggi contro Mussolini e antifascisti attraverso la radio.
Gli italiani che oggi sono preoccupati per l’Egitto possono forse intravedere dei punti in comune con il passato fascista dell’Italia nel mondo attuale del Cairo e di Alessandria. Le città che un tempo gli offrivano sicurezza politica e tolleranza oggi mostrano in modo sempre più evidente le tendenze fasciste raccontate dai loro nonni. La strada che collega le due città è diventata il cimitero transitorio per il cadavere di Regeni, scaricato proprio lungo l’autostrada tra il Cairo e Alessandria.
Mi pare che per Regeni non si sia mai trattato solo di scrivere una tesi. Il tumultuoso Egitto era il posto in cui, da studente, la sua identità politica era riuscita a fiorire nei modi creativi che gli erano stati negati in Italia. Era il luogo in cui la sua “visione della realtà” ha potuto arricchirsi e realizzarsi. Come molti giovani italiani che vedono la loro mobilità verso l’alto ostacolata dal nepotismo, Regeni ha potuto quantomeno sviluppare la sua idea di essere “un cittadino del mondo”, come scrive la giornalista italiana Paola Caridi nel suo blog InvisibleArabs.
Forse nessuno può esprimere la visione di Regeni in modo più profondo di sua madre, Paola Regeni: “Giulio era un cittadino italiano, un cittadino del mondo che avrebbe potuto aiutare molte persone in Egitto e in Medio Oriente. Aveva lungimiranza, per questo aveva imparato l’arabo ed era così interessato all’economia… [e] alla marginalizzazione… Giulio però non era andato in guerra. Non era un giornalista. Non era una spia. Era un ragazzo contemporaneo, del futuro, che stava studiando. Era andato a fare ricerca ed è morto sotto tortura”.
Una sirena d’allarme
Come reagire, sapendo che Regeni era venuto in Egitto pieno di idealismo e altruismo per capire i poveri e gli oppressi e ha finito per trovare tragicamente un destino a questi ultimi ben noto?
Non posso pensare a una frase migliore che racchiuda la monumentale crisi morale che l’Egitto sta affrontando di questa, pronunciata dalla madre di Regeni: “Sul suo volto si è riversato tutto il male del mondo”.
Paola Regeni ha parlato dall’altro lato del mare. Ha sollevato uno specchio davanti all’Egitto e ha detto: “Quello che sta succedendo adesso ci dovrebbe far riflettere tutti. Noi abbiamo perso Giulio, ma molti altri hanno fatto la sua stessa fine. Perciò potrà anche essere un ‘caso isolato’ rispetto alla storia italiana, ma non se guardiamo all’Egitto e ad altri paesi”.
La madre di Khaled Saeed – ucciso dalla polizia nel 2010 ad Alessandria a 28 anni la cui morte ha contribuito a far esplodere la rivoluzione egiziana – ha risposto con lo stesso tono. “Voglio ringraziarla per essersi schierata al nostro fianco, e per avere a cuore i casi di tortura in Egitto”, ha detto.
In un bar sulla Corniche di Alessandria un uomo mi ha chiesto come mai l’Italia stesse ancora facendo tanto rumore per Regeni. Un cliente abituale in un angolo si è alzato e ha urlato: “Perché è così che si fa quando un paese ha davvero a cuore i suoi cittadini”. È seguito un silenzio inquietante. Un ricordo suggestivo del motivo per cui, a una cinquantina di metri da quello stesso bar, Khaled Saeed era stato ucciso da due poliziotti più o meno sei anni fa, e di come la sua morte all’epoca fosse stata importante – importante al punto da innescare una rivoluzione. Nel quinto anniversario di quella stessa rivoluzione Regeni è sparito.
Nello stesso spirito antifascista di cui Cialente scriveva negli anni venti, Regeni era in un certo senso un testimone e una sirena d’allarme, un precursore dell’avvento di leader non tenuti a rispondere a nessuno e dell’erosione della libertà, dei diritti e della dignità umana. Per questo motivo, tra i tanti altri, la venuta di Regeni in Egitto non è stata vana, né lo è stata la sua fine.
(Traduzione di Giusy Muzzopappa)
Questo articolo è uscito sul giornale online Mada Masr.
These are the words of Alexandrian-born Italian poet Giuseppe Ungaretti. He wrote them in the Egypt of the 1930s. Today, a growing transnational community of thinkers has emerged in the shadow of the Arab uprisings, particularly the Egyptian revolution. This community exists between an ideologically devoid and austere Europe, and a politically merciless and radical Middle East. But who are they, and what is their “vision of reality”?
The Italians who traversed Egypt in recent years stand out, and are illustrative of this transnational community that exists today and whose ideas trump nationality and geopolitical relations.
The horrific death of Giulio Regeni, the Italian PhD student who was tortured and murdered while in Egypt doing academic research on trade unions, has perhaps mandated us to take a closer look at this intellectual community that produces knowledge against the backdrop of often tense historical, political and social relations across the Mediterranean.
“Rebellion was much needed in the Europe of austerity policies, and it [the act of rebellion] was happening in Egypt. Egypt was inspiring us to challenge [our reality],” Lucia Sorbera, an Italian feminist historian from Pisa who has researched Egypt for many years, told me.
Prior to the Arab uprisings in 2011, Italian activists’ interest in the Middle East was primarily focused on the Palestinian struggle. But after the uprisings, after Tahrir Square exported an invigorating theatrical protest that made many on the Italian peninsula turn their faces to the south, many Italian intellectuals became preoccupied with south Mediterranean countries, especially Egypt. Soon enough, the names of Egyptian revolutionaries, such as Alaa Abd El Fattah and Mina Daniel, were becoming known throughout Italian university campuses and activist communities.
This was quite a change from a year earlier. In 2010, the Egyptian state made a strange appearance in Italian affairs after former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi secured the release of his underage Moroccan mistress, “Ruby the Heart-stealer” (Karima al-Mahroug), by telling police she was then-President Hosni Mubarak’s niece.
After Regeni disappeared for seven days, only to be found tortured to death, the pro-state media struggled to justify the murder. There were half-hearted accusations of espionage, but they did not sell well — relatively harsher statements only came in response to the European Parliament resolutioncondemning Egypt. This might have been due to the fact that Regeni was Italian, and there was no handy history of interventionism that the state and its cronies could bank on to promote an espionage charge or propagandize their usual conspiracy theories. It is safe to say if Regeni were American or British, it would have been far easier to dig up that country’s history of interventionism in Egypt as implicit justification for his death. But for Italy, there was no strong case in this regard.
In terms of public perceptions, Italy does not invoke any immediate threat in the public imaginary. Pro-Italian sentiments are not uncommon — from elite writers who praise historic relations with Rome that date back to classic antiquity, to the street vendor who tries to sell you a dubious “da Itali!” (It’s Italian!) leather belt, to my plumber who markets me a clearly marked “Made in China” water pump as being originally from Italy. Italy is more often than not perceived as a trademark of class, elegance and relatable credibility. To many Egyptians, for one reason or another, Italians are familiar Europeans.
Italians fit well into Egypt’s current crippling nostalgia of our bygone neighbors — a cosmopolitan narrative of a “once-had-and-lost-modernity,” as social historian of modern Egypt Lucie Ryzova puts it. It is a narrative that the current pro-government elites use when they say that the president “will make Egypt great again.” It is also a narrative that is equally promoted by the nostalgic public (especially manifested in social media through sharing of black-and-white images of a “cosmopolitan” Egyptian imaginary) as condemnation of the regime for having failed to care for heritage and culture.
The narrative is reinforced daily by the faded grandeur of buildings that remind you of their Italian architects. Or the conversations of older-generation Egyptians from an urban center who would have at least warmly recollected one Italian friend growing up, before they disappeared in the trenches of Nasser’s nationalization policies. In short, there is a lurking pro-Italian sentiment that is invoked by their presence in a past imagined to be more glorious.
“I always felt that being Italian in Egypt gave me a huge advantage,” says Alessandro Accorsi, an Italian journalist from the Marche region. “It helped me deal with policemen, government, people in the street. Egyptians love Italians — there’s a sense of brotherhood between the two countries, and I think we are also perceived as ‘less threatening’ than other countries from a world politics/power perspective.”
While this is a sentiment expressed by Italians in Egypt, it was also subjected to manipulation by the state, which used statements like “but we love Italians” in a frail attempt to evade responsibility. Regeni’s murder undermined the relative safety Italians have long enjoyed in Egypt. No one is off-limits in an insecure security state.
Sorbera acknowledges that the distinct relationship is quite a popular notion. “We share many experiences in terms of popular culture, a patriarchal structure of society and the history of cultural production — let’s think about cinema, for example.” However, she cautions, especially in light of Regeni’s death, this is partly a mystification, as “Italy and Egypt occupy two different positions in the geopolitical Mediterranean and global system, and Italy is certainly not a police state in which hundreds of people are disappearing.”
Other Italians do not necessarily view the situation through this lens, and echo statements one also hears from some French and Greeks. One tells me, “While authoritarian neoliberal control through violence and torture takes place in Egypt, in Italy it happens through deprivation of basic rights.” Egypt’s unabashed violence and lax rule of law cannot be compared to Italy’s, but there is a unique experience Italians seem to undergo that can act as a powerful catalyst for them to move to and emotionally invest in Egypt.
The issue has, in part, to do with a number of faceless and predatory Italian corporations that have a stake in North Africa, especially Egypt. When the chief of Confindustria (Italy’s national chamber of commerce) stated a few years ago that the southern Mediterranean is our China and should be considered as our main market and commercial partners, his statements raised concerns and masked a darker narrative. As Omar Robert Hamilton has argued, Italy is implicated in Egypt’s violence: from Italian company Iveco, which exports police trucks that ran over Egyptian protestors, to weapons company Fiocchi, which contributed the bullets that ended the lives of countless peaceful protestors. This is just a small part of the story of Italian companies invested in Egypt’s economy of violence — the very system that enabled Regeni’s death.
However, Italian activists, journalists and academics are, in fact, extremely critical of this neoliberal global order. Their support for Egyptian struggles for justice is an extension of a deeply anti-Italian establishment position.
“In some ways, [Egyptian president] Sisi and [Italian Prime Minister] Matteo Renzi are not any different,” says Azzurra Sarnataro, a researcher from Naples who works on community development in Cairo’s informal areas. “I stand against Sisi in the same way I stand against Renzi and his political and economic policies.”
By understanding this line of thinking — commonly expressed in different words — it becomes clear that Italians in Egypt are partly projecting their anti-neoliberal grievances onto Egypt.
“Egypt has always been (and still is) an excellent laboratory where it was possible to observe the interplay of endogenous and exogenous factors, and their impact on politics and society … the setup of power games on an ideological and religious basis, and the exposure of conflict of interests and the corruption machine,” says Chiara Diana, a researcher from the Campania region who writes on the post-revolution’s political socialization of Egyptian children.
Accorsi notes that he felt the Egyptian struggle was his struggle: “Egypt gave me an ideological space that I couldn’t find in Italy, exactly because the [Egyptian] revolution happened at a time when Italian social movements were living a general crisis and political apathy was reigning sovereign.”
Sorbera offers a more tempered view, saying, “Being away from home always provides a different — and I would say productive — space to articulate a more nuanced awareness of oneself and others.”
On the other hand, expanding on Accorsi’s view, Diana argues, “I think there is currently an ideological and political flattening in Italy that monopolizes citizens’ attention on issues such as security, terrorism, protection of national territory and culture. This prevents them from addressing problems related to their daily struggles, like the economic crisis or budget cuts in social welfare and education. In this way, there is the potential risk that those fundamental struggles take a back seat, while discrimination, fear, self-sufficiency and nationalisms lead the field.”
This, she states, is where Egypt breaks the morbid status quo. “In Egypt, the subalterns’ demands for human rights, social justice and freedom allow people like me to continue to believe in the dignity of human beings and in the struggle for their rights.”
While it might not be unusual to find such views in other Western nationals, the Italians stand out due to the more historically, socially and geographically intimate approaches they take toward the Mediterranean and Egypt, which can be summed up by what an Italian professor at the University of Bologna told his class: “The issue is not whether Turkey or Israel should join the European Union, but whether Italy should join the Arab League.”
Italy is also witnessing growing anti-Arab and anti-Muslim xenophobia, tied especially to the refugee crisis. But it’s not the bigots who are choosing to head south — those who follow an idealized line of thought from the peninsula’s base are crossing the sea because of such a perceived affinity.
“Many of us believe in the Mediterranean Sea, both as a space of historical and cultural bonds and a privileged space to express dissent,” says Enrico De Angelis, a scholar on media studies from Naples. “Italians complete their collective identity with the southern coast of the Mediterranean, and look to the south as they look to the north.”
“I feel a human proximity with Egyptians concerning some fundamental struggles, such as dignity of life, social justice and guaranteeing of basic human rights. Why this proximity? I don’t know, maybe because I come from the south of Italy, where social conditions are sometimes hard, like in Egypt,” Diana says. Sarnataro is more adamant, saying, “We as southern Italian, even those among us who are not politicized, share with Egypt an understanding of economic difficulties.”
Yet De Angelis takes exception toward such a widely held view, and states, “This can be a distortion due to the fact that we have regular access to some parts of Egyptian society and not all of it. There is a big difference between Italy and Egypt economically. Maybe you can say that the struggles against neoliberal policies can be the same, but from different positions.”
Nonetheless, what emerges across the board is a distinct southern Italian identity harnessed to building a bridge to North Africa. This is further legitimized by the fusion of the North’s anti-southern discrimination and anti-Arab racism, which was conveyed to me by an Italian professor from the University of Cà Foscari Venice, through the use of a 1960s Italian joke: Sicily is the only peaceful Arab country, as it has not yet declared war on Israel.
This is not to suggest that Regeni is a product of all the aforementioned factors. In fact, he left Italy at the age of 17 — a decade before he was murdered. Nevertheless, he was plugged into the Egyptian public sphere as an “Italian,” which came with the semiotics and social signifiers understood by the political, cultural, social and historical Egyptian matrix. Regeni’s gregarious personality, dynamic work and humane ideals — all within a “pro-Italian” environment — may have helped him until the illusion of immunity was shattered. It has “made us all equal in fear,” says Francesca Biancani from Bologna, a scholar on Middle East history with a focus on colonial Egypt.
Given their long and intimate experience with Italian activists and socialists over the years, it was not surprising that Egyptian revolutionaries circulated the hashtag, “Giulio is one of us and died like one of us.” Just as Rachel Corrie was adopted by the Palestinian cause, Regeni is possibly the first non-Egyptian to be inducted into the Egyptian revolution’s narrative of martyrdom. This was the first attempt to challenge the equation of citizenship and loyalty. That a member of a transnational community can also exhibit an equal, if not stronger, loyalty to Egypt’s public welfare is telling.
Regeni’s death, as Biancani notes, “could also be a promising new start for a wider struggle, really linking young generations with the same sensibility on both shores, as it seems to me that the way those in power are going back to utilizing very coercive forms of domination — almost anachronistically — is happening everywhere with varying degrees.”
The autobiographical novel by Italian writer Fausta Cialente, Le quattro ragazze Wieselberger (The Four Wieselberger Girls), is perhaps telling of the vision of Italians preoccupied by Egypt today. In 1922, Cialente witnessed a fascist parade underway from Milan to Rome. She responded by wanting to go back home to Alexandria in a “Middle East, all open, where freedom for us Europeans was full and pleasant.” She would later move to Cairo to air anti-Mussolini and anti-fascist propaganda over the radio.
The Italians who are preoccupied with Egypt today possibly see elements of Italy’s fascist past in the present world of Cairo and Alexandria — the cities that once offered them political safety and tolerance are now increasingly exhibiting the fascist tendencies ominously narrated by their grandparents. The road linking the two cities became the transitional cemetery to Regeni’s body when it was found dumped on the Cairo-Alexandria highway.
For Regeni, it seems to me that it was never just about writing a dissertation — tumultuous Egypt was the place where, as a student, his political identity could flourish through imaginative ways it could not back in Italy. It is where his “vision of reality” could be enriched and fulfilled. Like many of Italy’s youth who see their upward mobility hampered by nepotism, Regeni could, at the very least, “develop his sense of being a global citizen,” as Italian journalist Paola Caridi writes on her Invisible Arabs blog.
Maybe no one could better express Regeni’s vision more profoundly than his mother, Paola Regeni: Giulio was “an Italian citizen, a citizen of the world who could have helped many people in Egypt and the Middle East. He had foresight, that’s why he learned Arabic and was so interested in economics … [and] marginalization … He did not go to war. He was not a journalist. He was not a spy. He was a contemporary young man of the future who was studying. He went for research, and he died under torture.”
What response can be given when Regeni came to Egypt full of idealism and selflessness to understand the poor and downtrodden, only to tragically meet a fate not unknown to them?
I cannot think of a sentence that captures the monumental moral crisis that Egypt is faced with like this one by Regeni’s mother: “On his face, I saw all the world’s evil poured on him.”
Paola Regeni spoke from the other side of the sea. She held up a mirror toward Egypt and said, “What is happening now should make us all think about it. We lost Giulio, but many others ended up the same way as Giulio. So he might be an ‘isolated case’ for Italian history, but not if we look at Egypt and other countries.”
The mother of Khaled Saeed — the 28-year-old Alexandrian whose death under police custody in 2010 helped incite the Egyptian revolution — responded in kind. “I want to thank you for standing with us, and that you care about torture cases in Egypt,” she said.
In a coffee shop across the Alexandrian Corniche, a man asked why Italy is still making a fuss about Regeni. A patron stood up in the corner and yelled, “Because that’s what it looks like when a country actually cares for its own citizens.” An eerie silence followed. An evocative reminder why, some 50 meters away from the same coffee shop, Khaled Saeed was killed by two police officers almost six years ago, and his death mattered then — surely mattered enough for a revolution to be sparked. The same revolution’s fifth anniversary that saw Regeni go missing.
In the same anti-fascist spirit that Cialente wrote about in the 1920s, Regeni was, in a sense, a witness and warning siren, a harbinger of the rise of unaccountable rulers and the erosion of freedom, rights and human dignity. For that reason, among many, Regeni’s coming to Egypt was never in vain, and neither was his final departure.
I will be giving a talk and holding a discussion that seeks to understand how historical and philosophical processes shape the Alexandrian citizen’s relationship to identity, spaces and history. The session will raise questions of how does one improve their relationship to the city in a climate of indifference and apathy? How is greater meaning attained, beyond food and work, when mediocrity is on the rise? How does one set a counter-example when things around – from architecture to basic aesthetics – appear to be getting worse and ugly. The talk is to initiate a conversation on what challenges prevent such questions being raised and enacted, and what dimensions of Alexandrian society hampers social and civic progress.
This talk will be in Arabic
Date: 5 April 2016
Venue: Bab Ashra, Alexandria
Facebook event page
Free admission and open to the public. As seating is limited, please register by sending a message with your name and mobile phone number to Bab Ashra Facebook Page
more info :
03/5754917 – 01220841384 – 01223541065 – 01211624006
Address : Janaklis ,abuoker .. mortada st. Elkhalig tower entrance G ..first floor
العودة إلى المدينة
عن فهم تاريخ الوعي بالمسئولية المدنية في الإسكندرية في إطار تاريخي
هذه المناقشة تسعى إلى فهم كيف شكلت العوامل التاريخية والفلسفية علاقة المواطن السكندري بالهوية والمساحات والتاريخ . كما انها تثير عدة أسئلة منها: كيف يمكن للمرء تحسين العلاقة بينه وبين المدينة في جو من اللامبالاة و الفتور ؟ كيف يمكن التوصل الى معان أسمى للحياة تتخطى الأكل والعمل في حين أن الاعتيادية في ازدياد ؟ كيف يصبح الانسان نموذجا للمقاومة عندما تكون الأمور في جميع النواح – من العمارة إلى الجماليات الأساسية – تزداد سوءا و قبحا .
المناقشة تأتي لبدء حديث عن التحديات التي تحول دون اثارة مثل هذه الأسئلة، كما انها تضم الأبعاد المختلفة في المجتمع السكندري التي تعوق التقدم الاجتماعي و المدني .
نأسف لمحدودية العدد نظراً لسعة المكان , لراغبي الحضور ارسال الأسم ورقم الموبايل علي :
03/5754917 – 01220841384 – 01223541065 – 01211624006
أو التوجه مباشرة الي مقر الأتيليه :
637 جناكليس شارع أبو قير ,شارع مرتضي , برج الخليج مدخل “ج” الدور الأرضي .
Republished in openDemocracy
To those who cast doubt on the success of the Egyptian revolution. Step back, look around you, and reflect for a moment.As a result of the revolution, your social relations have been dramatically reconfigured. You have made new friends of strangers. You speak a new political language never known before. Your relationship to the state and public has been redefined. You have been involved in an unprecedented archival culture that narrates everything that has been happening. For every document, photograph and video will aid the next generation in resuming where you have finished off. For you cannot move forward without defining your relationship to the past.
Your understanding of history has been permanently altered. The 2011 revolution ruptured the political and social timeline giving you a new source of historical legitimacy. It gave you a critical juncture that emits a wave of vivid memories of sacrifices, victories, and betrayals of your hopes.
The 2011 revolution gave you a new validity to hold onto, and to rival any previous validity. No longer do you live in vain waiting for a future democratic “paradise”, you now realise that such a paradise needs to be shifted from the future to the present, from a goal to a process, to be instigated in small doses to the best of your human capacity.
The revolution in effect destroyed the previous dominant situation and cannot consolidate the new dominant situation, which can easily be clouded by the smokescreen of arrests and crackdowns.
That is what the revolution achieved. It did not arrive to give you a choice of regimes. It arrived to initiate a new beginning, one that is already on its course. You, among many, have been given a shared fundamental worldview that you unconsciously implement every day, and will determine the course of events in the present and, more theatrically, when the climate is ripe in your favour.
In a marvellous transformation, you can no longer recognise your pre-2011 self.
Published in Mada Masr
“In Egypt, there is freedom of speech, but no freedom after speech” – went the running joke at a recent conference in Berlin that brought a number of prominent Egyptian media figures and scholars together. The aim was to discuss the deplorable state of the country’s lack of freedom of the press, amid a wide-scale assault on professional journalism. With minimal risk of security forces storming the event Cairo-style (or cancelling it), the space was wide open for a conversation on how journalists deal with the challenges of operating in a state of repression, and for crafting a way forward.
The event took place as journalists are being arrested and harassed in Egypt – a country which ranks 158 out in 180 countries in the 2015 World Press Freedom Index. Ismail Alexandrani is among the latest journalists to be detained (as a result of a tip-off from the Egyptian embassy in Berlin).
Figures and reports cannot, however, capture the human anxiety, courage and endurance that characterises the lives of Egyptian journalists when they decide to step out of line with the regime.
In her opening speech, Reem Maguid, a popular media anchor hounded by the regime, harkened back to an old Egyptian proverb, “Is there shame in [asking] a question?” This basic journalistic exercise of asking a question, Maguid added, often outrages authorities, which makes it clear that it is not the question that is the problem, but the mere act of asking and thinking.
The answer to Maguid’s question could perhaps be partly found in the ordeal of Hossam Bahgat’s incarceration. Bahgat, a journalist with Mada Masr, was taken into military detention for writing an article on the military. Bahgat was asked one question through the hours in detention by everyone, even those who were not involved in his prosecution case: “Why did you write about the military?” Incessantly repeated, it eventually dawned on Bahgat that the question was in fact genuine. The conflict between Egypt’s professional journalists and the regime, Bahgat noted, does not happen at the level of discourse or policies, but is more fundamental; it is a question of opposing worldviews; “Anything that deviates from the official line is seen as a weird phenomenon,” he explained.
Many independent-minded journalists are determined to hold onto the relative media freedoms they enjoyed in 2011–2012 following the uprising that toppled former President Hosni Mubarak. Nevertheless, researcher Mostafa Shaat points out how freedoms in that period were simply “political bargains forced on the political regime by the waves of mass protests.” Now the state, Shaat emphasizes, has returned to rewarding its loyal journalists with legal immunity from prosecution, while deliberately targeting independent journalists.
There is an overall feeling of arbitrariness in how decisions are made in today’s peculiar form of despotism. Different security agencies were apparently unaware that Bahgat had been summoned. This state of arbitrariness and unpredictability makes the situation even more frightening. “Never underestimate the stupidity of dictators,” Bahgat added. “These are not rational people; you should not look for a reason.”
Hitting a similar note, maverick media anchor Yosri Fouda pleaded for common sense to come back into high politics. “It’s important we move in the right direction. Don’t tell me the train is going to Aswan when it’s heading to Alexandria!” Fouda exclaimed.
The question of courage was naturally a topic journalists often grappled with. Maguid gave a moving account: “Being brave is great, but being professional is greater [long silence]. But we are weak. The price paid is getting higher. At some point, I was ready to be jailed or killed. But I’m not ready for harm to come to my family. I’m not ready for them to pay the price for me.”
For those walking the line of investigative journalism, Bahgat gave this warning: “There is a difference between being a brave journalist and a reckless one. Martyrdom does not feel good when you are locked up. Don’t try to be a martyr without at least calculating the consequences.”
Yet what drives journalism is a quest for the truth. “I am incapable of telling half the truth,” said Maguid. Bahgat noted that there is a “crisis when security forces kill people in an apartment and say it was an exchange of fire – that there can be no other narrative to this.”
Regarding his controversial article, Bahgat addressed the need to break boundaries and set precedents. “I feel insulted at the silent imaginary gag order in which journalists are not allowed to report that a trial even happened. What is worse and more dangerous than censorship, physical danger, or losing your job – is failing to report the story. I wanted to show you can run the story, that it can be done.”
But he warns that “it took many weeks before I decided the story was ready. Have all the evidence, introduce editorial concessions, make the story possible to defend… minimise the damage that can be done.”
However, he conceded that Mada Masr had underestimated the military’s attention to online media. “What’s depressing is that even when you follow journalistic ethics, you are [still] not safe,” he said.
These word echoed those of Abeer Saady, from Egypt’s journalism syndicate, who underscored self-responsibility among journalists: “If you don’t regulate yourself as a journalist. Then someone else will.”
Fouda reminded the audience what their profession is supposed to entail: “Our job as journalists is not to facilitate an easy life for the authorities.”
While the question of how to advance Egypt’s journalism saw a difference of opinions, what was certainly easier to acknowledge was the inability to return to the pre-2011 status quo. Conference organiser and scholar, Hanan Badr, aptly repeated Fouda’s memorable words in 2011: “Freedom is like death. You cannot experience death and return, and you cannot experience freedom and return.”
Fouda, among the more optimistic of the speakers, stressed how we should not lose sight of the goal that unfolded during the revolution’s 18 days. He reminded the audience how state-owned television channels were broadcasting a vivid scene of the Nile River – pristine and calm – while a few blocks away, Tahrir Square was rising up in its revolutionary glory. The contrasting scenes signified to him that the events of 2011 marked the fall of what the authoritarian state media had inherited from the 1950s and 1960s.
Fouda finally paraphrased John F. Kennedy’s words, “If you make professional journalism impossible, then you [the regime] deserve all the rubbish that is happening to you.” Here is the paradox of the regime’s repression: they realise their own media is losing credibility, and thus undermining the official narrative.
The journalists’ tireless efforts, coupled with the emerging cracks in the regime’s unsustainable endeavour, enables them to continue with their hazardous work, testing the boundaries, and, at times, breaking them. The future of Egyptian media freedom and professional journalism looked quite bright by the end of the discussion – but hopefully not only in Germany.
The late poet, writer and activist Shaimaa el-Sabbagh who was killed by security forces on 24 January 2015, as she was walking to lay flowers for those who have fallen in Tahrir, has, this month, been painted on the walls of her home and the surrounding vicinity in Moharem Bey, Alexandria. The moving words that accompany the images says it all:
“The one who fears the sun will have to imprison the day.”
“is there anyone guaranteed to walk in safety or not in safety – where can they walk?”
– Sheikh Imam
(This is a follow-up to my previous post on the drawings of Shaimaa)
In taking her life away, they inadvertently made her into a powerful living symbol. Rest in peace.
The full story of her tragedy can be read here.
It’s no easy feat to restore the seventh wonder of the ancient world, but then along came modern-day Egyptian exceptionalism with its mega projects to obscure political and economic ills. The Pharos of Alexandria is now slated for resurrection after its demise in a powerful earthquake more than 600 years ago.
Today, the lighthouse icon adorns everything from the Alexandria Governorate flag, to the crest of Alexandria University, to public service logos, to wall paintings on elementary schools. One might argue its symbolic force arises from its invisibility — Alexandria’s cultural strength lies in the imagination. Reconstructing it might skew that imaginary past. But that’s the least of its problems.
In fact, Alexandria is at risk of being subjected to a commercial and geographical disfigurement by a project with no public accountability — and the silence on the issue is deeply troubling.
The odyssey of an idea
The story starts in 1978, when Alexandria resident and diplomat Omar al-Hadidi suggested rebuilding the lighthouse to then-Governor Fouad Helmy. The idea was not only welcomed, but pushed in the international media, capitalizing on then-President Anwar al-Sadat’s sky-rocking international stature as a result of the Camp David talks. However, a parallel development was underway, with one set of Alexandria’s cultural elites pushing for the resurrection of the ancient library. After 1981, the newly instated President Hosni Mubarak took on the latter with enthusiasm, elevating it to a global project, while work on the lighthouse dragged on in its shadow.
The lighthouse concept was a form of decentralization and a subset of a culture war with Cairo’s elites. The idea started innocuously enough. But the project was transitioning into the neoliberal age, with academics and cultural workers receding into the background and the rise of new money coming in its place.
When Mohamed Mahgoub took over as governor in 1997, he rightfully gawked at the 32 companies competing over the project, some of whom were suggesting to make it into a glass and steel building that would house a shopping mall, with laser beams instead of the traditional lantern at the top. Fortunately, Mahgoub cancelled the entire project for the then-foreseeable future.
But the idea was taken up again in 2005 by the Alexandria and Mediterranean Research Center (AlexMed) as part of a series of projects toward a vision to develop the East Harbor. The vision was proposed in the Alexandria City Development Strategy (CDS) process (2004-2008) “to assist to Alexandria Governorate to complete its City Development Strategic Framework for sustainable development and prepare for its implementation technically and institutionally.”
The East Harbor Development spent the duration of the lead-up to the 2011 revolution seeking funding opportunities. Post-2011 events saw an Alexandria that was in flux, and the project was restored again, now described as “a new definition for the relationship with the waterfront in coastal cities … rebuilding the old lighthouse in the area facing the library of Alexandria, located in Chatby, as well as building a residency hotel for tourists.” Alexandria’s cultural activists were too busy trying to save historic villas from being destroyed by the real estate mafia to worry about a theoretical project that was proposed before they were born.
But a surprise came in May, when Supreme Council of Antiquities Secretary General Mostafa Amin told the privately owned newspaper Youm7 that “members of the Permanent Committee of Egyptian Antiquities have approved an old project, submitted previously by the Alexandria Governorate, aiming to revive the lighthouse. The comprehensive studies and a final plan have been submitted to Alexandria’s governor for final approval.” The unexpected certitude of his statement set off alarm bells.
The project was unusually absent from the Egypt Economic Development Conference (EEDC) that was launched with great fanfare in early March 2015, even though the website of the General Authority for Investment and Free Zones (GAFI) — an affiliate of the Ministry of Investment, and the principal government body regulating and facilitating investment in Egypt — briefly describes the “revival of the old Lighthouse of Alexandria (Pharos)” project as “establishing a science museum reflecting the heritage value of the old lighthouse and a hotel, conference center, restaurants, concert hall and a marine club.” To date, the lighthouse project is listed with no budget estimation.
Mohamed Nabeel, the executive manager of Save Alexandria, notes that “all information announced so far was just to propagandize the East Harbor Project under the name of reviving cosmopolitan Alexandria, and hence attract investments. However, no information has been made available for the public about what their government is doing, no public participation that promotes accountability. And, overall, no transparency.”
This raises the question of which company will take on the lighthouse project. The governorate is supposed to open a call for bids within a transparent framework that guarantees integrity and public participation. But Nabeel believes that a top-down approach will probably be taken, and allocation will be given to “one of the state’s institutions or business sectors, such as the Arab Contractors. If the property belongs to the military, then the Military Engineering Authority shall handle the project, or the allocation of subcontractors might be applied.” Western architectural firms, however, have been behind a series of outrageous proposals to mutilate the city.
Alexandria Lighthouse … Why?
Not only do the proposed designs show the lighthouse containing shopping malls and a hotel, but the lighthouse is also part of a larger project to revamp the entire area. The 2007 report exploits the city’s Achilles heel of nostalgia and recognition: “The renovation of the whole Eastern Harbor with special emphasis on conservation, bringing into perspective the unique feature of dialogue of cultures symbolized in Alexandria’s cosmopolitan architecture. Evoking the past is experienced in integrating past and present grids in the new development, the revival of the academia with a new research facility, reviving the ancient Soma axis round the development of Silselah (peninsula stretching out from the library location), recreating the Pharos while highlighting the importance of the underwater archaeology and developing the Fort Museum. The concept emphasizes creating pedestrian experiences and establishing a relationship with the water edge while promoting leisure activities such as bathing, yachting, fishing or visiting the royal yacht Al-Mahrousa.”
It sounds beautiful on paper, and how could one say no to such a development, let alone not be charmed by the visual rending model? That is, until you realize this is about the venerable Alexandria. We have been down this path before — no flowery text and diagrams ever actually factor into the world of Alexandria’s power structures, complex social relations, economic inequity, informal economy, the fate of fishermen, unearthed archeological treasures and so forth. Nabeel raises the concern that the implementation of Phase I & II (2004-2009) of the CDS process has shown that no proper monitoring or evaluation has been carried out, no positive implications and, most crucially, no public participation.
Figure Two shows a 2009 design by the Chicago-based architecture firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP that renders Alexandria in the year 2030. This is the same company that designed the Burj Khalifa, and it notes Egypt’s Culture Ministry as its client (they also report to be leading the planning of Egypt’s new capital city). There is not a single Alexandrian of any persuasion that I have shown these images to who hasn’t given me a look of horror in response.
Egyptian and foreign-based firms have an obsession with slick, futuristic, cutting-edge designs, forgetting that maintenance is not one of Alexandria’s assets. Alexandria could always veil its lack of maintenance and infrastructure behind its rustic, antiquated and historical image. But anything with a futuristic public planning streak would suffer from poor maintenance.
The politics are bigger than the lighthouse
Since the 1990s, Alexandria’s public spaces have been subjected to an ideology of revivalism. This involves resurrecting cosmopolitan-era fixtures like gas-light lamp posts, and placing statues like Alexander the Great and Cleopatra in public space. The crowning achievement of revivalism was the unveiling of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in 2002. While revivalism brought some benefits, it has more to do with political branding, in which the state imposes a narrative from above upon the public. Furthermore, these nostalgic motifs frequently act as a guise for neoliberalism. Historically, Alexandria is treated like the political laboratory for Egypt’s reckless economic experiments.
Had the governorate been sincere about revivalism and preserving the heritage of the city, it would have saved countless monarchical-era villas from destruction. Preserving what we already have counts far more than any lighthouse bells-and-whistles project. But the reality is not about amplifying Alexandria’s rich cultural history as much as it is about what aspects of its history can be vulgarly commercialized at the expense of the public good. There is not even a proposed lighthouse design that will stay faithful to its ancestor of antiquity, which was built out of limestone, granite and white marble. Rather, it will be something resembling a watered-down version of Burj Khalifa.
One investor proposed “relocating” the iconic Citadel of Qaitbay to build the lighthouse in its place. The thoughtless idea was quickly quashed. But it shows what the city is up against.
“Capitalism talks here,” says Islam Asem, director of the Tourist Guide Syndicate. “If these investors could destroy the pyramids and build something profitable in its place, they would not hesitate for a moment.” It is largely faceless investors that are sitting on boards making decisions, Asem laments, not academics, cultural workers and UNESCO.
Asem states that the proposed lighthouse location would further weaken the grounds holding up the fragile citadel, and destroy the Greco-Roman ruins under the seabed. This is not to mention the aesthetic disruption of the Alexandria skyline by having a modern building next to the citadel. Asem says it’s better for the project to be constructed far away, in Montazah or Aboukir.
Nabeel also supports this view.
“A metropolitan city cannot be reduced to its city center,” he says, warning that under this kind of development plan, Alexandria “will see more urban segregation and, hence, urban rebellion.”
That urban rebellion was a familiar trait of the city through the sporadic, pre-revolution upheavals of the 2000s that were spurred on by the privatization drive. This can only worsen if the city’s soul is further compromised.
The inability to develop a strategic vision for the city is reflective of the city’s high politics. Any new governor is usually initially met by Alexandria’s civil society with hesitation by default, due to a lack of an electoral mandate. This was the case when President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi appointed Hany al-Messiry governor in February 2015, especially because left-wing activists were concerned with his free-market economics philosophy. However, a number of them allowed him breathing room for a few reasons. He was from Alexandria, which fulfils the basic providential nationalism criteria. He was a civilian, and not from the military. He was perceived as refined, due to being educated abroad and international exposure. Most importantly, he took a favorable approach to working with civil society.
But such strengths were exploited by different groups and power factions. The media started attacking Messiry for bringing his wife with him to meetings. Then hyper-nationalists took issue with him because he was not from the military. Security entities were calling up civil society workers to “discourage” them from meeting with the governor.
This all came to a head when an anti-governor protest was held in late May to protest Messiry’s dual nationality (he holds American and Egyptian citizenship). Demonstrators chanted, “Go out Messiry, Alexandria is free” while burning the American flag. One source told me the protestors were hired by private contractors after the governor refused to issue new building contracts. It’s notable that the Protest Law was not implemented for this demonstration, and no one was arrested, raising questions of security complicity.
Marianne Sedhom, who co-runs Iskanderya mabatshee Mareya — an environmental initiative that roughly translates as “Alexandria is no longer pretty” — highlights the obstacles to governor faces. For example, when Messiry issues a decree to halt work on, or to destroy, an illegally constructed building, corrupt elements within a district board will issue building permits to allow more illegal buildings to go up, she claims.
Such is the toxic climate out of which the lighthouse, or any development for that matter, will emerge. This is not to write off the lighthouse as a bad idea. The lighthouse has the potential to be a powerful uniting public icon bridging the cultural imaginary between the past and the present, solidifying civic identity, attracting tourists, and more. But this is only if it is done appropriately, with transparency and broader public discussion on the matter. No lighthouse is better than a badly planned lighthouse that violates aesthetics and social, heritage, communal and environmental factors.
The historical magnitude of rebuilding the lighthouse requires it to be the result of a clear vision and coherent civic narrative. It should not be built to resolve or eclipse existing divisions. If modern Alexandrian history is any indicator, it will become not the symbol of a communal spirit, but the symbol of excess and a visible target of rage.
There is a lesson to be learned from the unveiling of the ancient lighthouse in 247 BC. After 12 years of construction, the architect Sostratus was under no illusion that he had to dedicate the new monument to Ptolemy and his wife — but he would not allow history to forget his hard work and the people it was intended to serve. So he engraved his words in the stone, then he placed a plaster plaque etched with a dedication to the Ptolemies over it. With time, wind and sea salt ate away at the plaster. Long after the monarch and the architect passed away, the plaster decayed and fell apart, revealing his words: “Sostratus, son of Dexiphanes the Cnidian, dedicated this to the Savior Gods, on behalf of all those who sail the seas.”
With time, the narrative that emerges out of this project might not be the one that the state had intended.
The following are most of my published articles
(including some blog posts and videos) that deal with Alexandria-related issues or employs Alexandria as an illustration, from 2010 to 2015. However, there is way more of my Alexandria-related notes, images and videos that can be viewed at the Alexandria Scholars Facebook group. Thank you for everyone’s support over the years. What a journey it has been. One that started with the tragic death of Khaled Said and yet, the Alexandria story still continues…
Egypt’s Collision course with History (9 July 2010)
The Revolution in Alexandria (Visual Timeline) (February 2011)
The shock therapy moment in Salafi politics (13 May 2012)
Voting for security in Alexandria (2 June 2012)
Revolution never sleeps (13 June 2012)
Egypt’s stake in the Syrian Revolution (23 July 2012)
The Alexandria mafia’s new adversary: civil society (6 August 2012)
Turning the tide on Egypt’s sinking book reading culture (17 September 2012)
Power, Rebirth, and Scandal: A Decade of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina (16 October 2012)
Silent Commander-in-Chief: From Khaled Saeed to Malala Yousafzai (30 October 2012)
Egypt’s (Alexandria) Constitutional Referendum results (25 December 2012)
Sons of Beaches: How Alexandria’s Ideological Battles Shape Egypt (29 December 2012)
Alexandria Re-Imagined: The Revolution through Art (25 January 2013)
Marching to Sidi Gaber: Alexandria’s Epicenter of Upheaval (22 July 2013)
Wired Citizenship: Youth Learning and Activism in the Middle East (Co-edited chapter: Distorting Digital Citizenship: Khaled Said, Facebook, and Egypt’s Streets) (March 2014)
Run Mahienour Run (23 June 2014)
Shimaa ElSabbagh in art (7 February 2014)
Alexandria and Activism – Translating Memory, Mythology and Utopianism (lecture in Cairo) (22 April 2015)
If there was one legacy, among many, of president Gamal Abdel Nasser that Egypt could have done without – it is the peculiar suspicion of foreigners, to the point of embarrassment, that rode the region’s pan-Arab nationalism wave in the 1950s and 1960s. A problem that still, in various manifestations, continues up until today through institutions, mass media and the public discourse.
Behind the iconic image of legendary jazz musician Louis Armstrong playing his trumpet at the Pyramids – stood an artist that, you would think, had no relation to Egypt’s politics and the Middle East conflict, and infact once stated “I don’t know nothin’ about politics”, was dragged into a mind-boggling controversy.
On his visit to Egypt in 1961, Armstrong was standing in a Cairo hotel lobby packed with over 20 news reporters who asked him if he supported Zionism. It must have been like asking Egyptian singer Abdel Halim Hafez visiting Russia as to what he thought of the imperialist forces in the emerging Vietnamese conflict.
An incredulous Armstrong replied “What is that Daddy?” The reporters were surprised that an artist, immersed in his own world, was ignorant of their regional issues, the reporters said: “You helped the Jews a lot.” Armstrong, replied “Yeah, I help them. I help anybody. I help you. You need help? I help anybody’. He continued “I’m going to tell you this. I got a trumpet, and I got a young wife, and I ain’t got time to fool with none of the stuff you guys talking about”
Armstrong just walked off and left them all in the lobby.
It was, however, the incessant suspicions of Armstrong in the lead-up to his visit that raised his ire. In 1959, Egyptian newspapers were circulating rumours that Armstrong was the leader of an Israeli spy network. Egypt’s Al-Ahram newspaper went as far as to report that Lebanese security authorities uncovered a spy ring that was reportedly working undercover with various artistic troupes. The report stated “Among the leading members of the gang was the famous American Nergro musician Louis Armstrong, who had recently visited Beirut.”
When this was brought to Armstrong’s attention, he responded “I’ve been called many things in my life but this is the first time I’ve ever been called a spy.” When asked to sum up his feelings about the report, he replied “bunk.”
For a while, Armstrong ignored the rumours, but he drew the line when Nasser himself added his weight to the senseless reports. In 1960, the Egyptian president went further and believed that one of Armstrong’s “Scat singing” record was used by the artist to pass secrets during his first 1959 tour of the Middle East. An outraged Armstrong, in Boston at the time, mailed Nasser a copy of the suspect record, with a note rebutting the accusations:
“It’s all Greek to me. They claimed all that junk because I played in Israel. I don’t have to be a spy to earn a living. I have enough money blowing the horn and I have a very happy life doing it. Why don’t you tell these people who are spreading all this stuff to come around. I’ll tell them a few good traveling salesman jokes.”
It is not known how Nasser reacted. However, he did not stop the musician’s visit to Egypt the following year.
The achievement of Arab unity was so close, until the below Skat song and its encrypted subversive message destroyed it all.
The 1959 Middle East tour, that Nasser referred to, saw a prophetic Armstrong when, in Beirut, sitting around with colleagues and reporters, all smoking hashish, was asked “Say, how come you going playing for them damn Jews down in Israel?” Armstrong replied “Let me tell you something. When I go down there, the first thing they going to tell me, how come you play for them damn Arabs over there? Let me tell you something, man. That horn”, pointing to his prized instrument, “you see that horn? That horn ain’t prejudiced. A note’s a note in any language.”
True enough, when Armstrong landed in Israel, the first question he was asked as to why he plays in Arab countries, a furious Armstrong responded “I told them that you guys were going to say the same damn thing. So ain’t none of you no better than the other side. You’s as bad as they are, man”
Poor Armstrong, no wonder why he suffered a heart attack that same year in which his health would only deteriorate from this point onwards.
Of course, this is not to overlook the fact the US State Department sent artists like Armstrong on public and cultural diplomacy initiatives around the world to counter the influence of the Soviet Union in the developing world. Yet this is not the same deal as a “leader of an Israeli spy network.” It was atrocious enough that he suffered from the scourge of racism back home, even at the height of his fame, that he stated to an American reporter in 1957: “It’s getting almost so bad a colored man hasn’t got any country.” He also told Ebony magazine in a 1964 interview: “I don’t socialize with the top dogs of society after a dance or concert. These same society people may go around the corner and lynch a Negro.”
Yet, he was not even spared, at least ideologically, on the international platform.
The impoverished thinking that unfairly and irresponsibly attacked Armstrong – raised a generation that rules Egypt today, if not the Arab world, and sets the tone for a destructive conspiratorial language that tarnishes, if not sentences, the innocent, disembowels the political public sphere and foments political and social tensions. Armstrong visited an Israel that has since become an increasingly racist, brutal and a militarised state that would make Apartheid South Africa look like a lightweight. Not helped by the same government that sponsored Armstrong’s visit.
Armstrong’s encounter with the Middle East was a microcosmic reflection of the wider cancerous socio-political tumour of denial and scapegoating in the region that just keeps on festering with time. More so, the “What is that Daddy?” responses of Armstrong were refreshingly simple, altruistic and empathetic, in a complex, murky and relentless region where the indiscriminate use of words and charges are prone to lose all meaning.
So a posthumous note to Armstrong, nothing has changed since you left the Middle East, just more of the same, and worse. Someday, the meaning of ‘What a wonderful world’ will be understood and sung. Someday.
Ricky Riccardi, What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong’s Later Years (New York City: Pantheon, 2011) pp.180-181.
“Egyptians call Satcmo Armstrong Israeli Spy,” Jet Magazine (26 Nov 1959) p. 60.
“Satch Mails Egypt’s Nasser ‘Spy’ Platter,” Jet Magazine (14 April 1960) p. 61.
Ben Schwartz, “What Louis Armstrong really thinks” The New Yorker (25 February 2014).