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Egypt’s Long Walk to Despotism
How the Egyptian regime strengthens the student opposition it is trying to eliminate
Message to Mahienour El-Massry
Run, Mahienour, Run (Why Mahienour El-Massry matters)
The Program is Over, but the Show has Just Begun
(Lecture) Alexandria in the Egyptian State: What happened after cosmopolitanism?
The Disorient Express: Egypt and the Language of Darkness
Wired Citizenship: Youth Learning and Activism in the Middle East
Depending on the season: Unlike Noah film ban, Ten Commandments was banned in Egypt for different reasons
- Egypt’s Long Walk to Despotism
Most Viewed Posts
Category Archives: Extended Egyptian Revolution
Published in the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy
There is a menacing wind sweeping through Egypt engulfing bureaucrats, journalists, judges, celebrities, and the average “patriotic citizen” in its path, remolding them into carriers of despotic ideas. This system is not a clear-cut case of top-down power relations in which an established power asserts itself over its supporters and against its opponents, real and imagined. Rather, in this system, the citizen is brought center-stage in the political arena. Egypt is currently witnessing an age-old political phenomenon of citizens’ “voluntary servitude” to a repressive order – specifically, despotism. Through their collective complicity, citizens hand a carte blanche to the state for violence, nepotism, and corruption.
While despotic regimes rely on violence for control, this violence is rarely targeted toward the average citizen. Rather, one of the paradoxes of despotism is that it relies on citizens’ “passions” and psychological isolation, making them anxious to gain the meager favors of the regime.1 Mutual suspicion forms the cornerstone of despotism and prevents the “communication necessary for any organized political opposition.”2
In Egypt, the citizen plays a role in reinforcing the repressive status quo – from a middle-aged woman reporting innocent journalists to the police to a sycophantic lawyer suing an actor who deviated from the state line. The fertile ground of suspicion enables the creation of legislation on a community police that would allow citizens the power to arrest each other and is also manifest in the many citizen’s names and photos posted on Facebook, who are tarnished with labels like “terrorist” and “foreign agent.” An old Egyptian proverb says, “Oh Pharaoh, who turned you into a tyrant?” “No one stopped me,” he replied.
Published in Al-Fanar on Arab Higher Education
In the midst of the protest violence and security crackdowns that gripped Egyptian universities this fall, Hazem Hosny, a political science professor at Cairo University, spoke about what could turn out to be an ominous sign for the regime: “I believe that at present a new opposition is being formed, even if it has perhaps not yet fully crystallized…This opposition stands mostly outside the traditional parties, and is made up of educated and avant-garde young people who understand what is happening around them.”
His view correlates with the political and social indicators that are pointing in the direction of an inevitable amassing blowback. As the regime clamps down on the universities that seem to be the last visible site of opposition to the regime, it is not in fact, destroying student politics, but dispersing them.
“Description: ABC radio Interview with Amro Ali on the latest situation on Egypt, discussing protests, human rights, state violence, and Peter Greste’s case, and if this spells the end of the revolution or if it is just a temporary derailment.”
Today, marks 100 days of activist Mahienour El-Massry’s imprisonment. Recently, Mahienour’s sister, Miral El-Massry, asked me to assist in collecting messages to send to Mahienour in order to lift her spirits up. So this blog post form was made with the aim for you to send your message of support to Mahienour. She has plenty of time to read these messages in her jail cell, and she would be more than happy to receive them. Your message will be printed, along with others, and passed onto Mahieniour through Miral. Please write in Arabic only (English letters will only be given to her after her release). I advise that you write in a separate text file/word document then paste it into the message box in case something happens and it’s lost when you click submit. Defamatory and not so kind messages will be removed. All messages need to be sent by Tuesday 16 September. Thank you.
UPDATE 19/9/14: The submit form feature has now been disabled, thank you to everyone who sent messages to Mahienour via my blog form post. They were absolutely beautiful and uplifting. Some were just mind-shuddering. I hope Mahie (Mahienour) someday allows them to be published, as they were that good and reaffirmed the noble qualities of people and their determination for a better future. The messages have now been given to her sister Miral. The English messages will be translated into Arabic so they can quickly be vetted by the prison authorities and passed onto Mahie, which would otherwise take months for it to be vetted in any other language but Arabic. Thank you again.
The distant shouts of a female voice rang louder and louder in my ear: “A complete revolution or nothing at all!” I turned around and caught my first glimpse of a young woman of average height, who was outsized by her vocal powers. I was taken aback, impressed, and snapped an image there and then of Mahienour el-Massry — or Mahie, as she is known amongst her circles.
That day was Friday 27 May 2011, in a protest march through Alexandria’s Port Said Street on the Second Friday of Rage. The January 25 Revolution had opened up a world of endless possibilities, and people took to the streets to demand them. Many protests, vigils and revolutionary exhibitions later, I would gradually become more acquainted with a remarkable human being that I have come to consider a friend, inspiration and the conscience of Alexandria.
In a city where you can count the key activists on your fingers, Mahienour (an activist and a lawyer) had immense influence on revolutionary Alexandria. As human rights lawyer Marianne Sedhom remarks, “Mahienour’s loud voice in a small city allowed her to have a greater impact, shape the debate, and inspire many.”
Mahienour, along with seven other activists, is currently serving a two-year sentence for defying the Protest Law, which they were protesting on the day of the retrial of the Khaled Saeed case. Saeed, as you may well know, was killed by the police on June 6, 2010. Public anger against his death by torture initiated the rapid countdown to the 2011 uprising.
Ironically, it was this month four years ago, during the first Khaled Saeed protest, when Mahienour pulled off one of the most daring feats of bravery seen yet. Central security forces at the Cleopatra Hamamat tram station (the site of the protest) were gradually fencing in Mahienour, along with twenty protestors. She was increasingly worried about the safety of protestors arriving from the Corniche and Port Said Street, who were bound to get trapped and arrested.
In a “Run Lola Run” moment, Mahienour took the initiative and ran shouting a slogan in reference to Saeed’s death, and protestors who had arrived late, were lost, or trapped by the security forces, just joined her, running after her through the street, as she called on residents and workers in the area to join in. Many did. As friend Kholoud Said Amer recalls, “We just ran behind her and chanted what she was chanting, and in two minutes, after we were 20, we ended up being a force of 300. The biggest protest until then.”
The security forces were knocked off guard and, rather than arrests, all they could do was prevent the protesters from entering Medhat Seif al-Yazal Khalifa Street — where Saeed had died earlier that month. Mahienour, who was brutalized two years earlier (July 2008) at a police station (as a result of her support for the April 6 Youth Movement’s activities) was clearly on track, and back with a vengeance. She would play a key role in the succession of protest events leading up to the January 25, 2011 Revolution, and beyond.
A co-authored piece with Nesreen Salem in TIMEP
Some 2,000 years ago, under Roman occupation, Egyptians were banned from practicing law, and this was not simply due to imperial discrimination. The Romans excluded them because Egyptians made too many jokes and sarcastic quips while in court, thus undermining the significance and procedures of the trials. Egyptian humor is, and has always been, a thorn in the side of every dynasty, invader, and regime through the ages.
Now the government has taken the dramatic, although unsurprising, step of banning Bassem Youssef’s show Al-Bernamag. While disappointing to say the least, focusing only on the banning of this particular show causes one to miss the bigger picture. Youssef’s work is the product of Egypt’s hyperactive and humor-driven society. The regime may have grounded the F-16 of humor, but it still must deal with the decentralized, guerilla-style humor that permeates society, circulating through round-the-clock, web-based jokes, memes and video parodies. This was made evident by the recent election-cum-Sisi-coronation—the jokes were in abundance even while Sisi was not yet president. In fact, the regime may have inadvertently shot itself in the foot, as one can quite easily forget how humor operated in the pre-al-Bernamag days.
Bassem Youssef’s rise occasioned a sort of centralization of humor across the entertainment landscape, with many of the post-2011 uprising jesters being eclipsed by, or choosing to concede ground to, Youssef. Many were not opposed to this arrangement because Youssef helped to spotlight Egypt’s fault lines and therefore provided a limitless repository for much of Egypt’s humor.
Had the regime accepted this arrangement, it would have taken on the lesser of two headaches, considering that Youssef was less harsh towards the regime than he was towards Morsi. Youssef’s removal will inevitably raise the profile of the piranhas of humor present in social media. While they were always there, they were arguably less noticed in the shadow of al-Bernamag.
Youssef leaves an important legacy of framing serious discussions within a satirical framework. When a military representative announced that the armed forces had found a cure for Hepatitis C and AIDS, Youssef (a physician by training) made it his mission to hold the military accountable for their claims, creating an online counter to mark the day that the cure had been promised to patients (which has been kept alive on social media). When the Egyptian government announced that they would use coal to mitigate the country’s fuel shortage, he dedicated a show to exposing the dangers that lurked behind that decision. Before going on air, a visibly angry Youssef said, “They’ve taken everything, and now they want to take the air we breathe.”
Youssef empowered the underdog, helping his audience to deal with their turbulent political reality and giving them hope for change, all based on the underlying notion that we could, as one person put it, “laugh all folly out of existence.”
The possibility of satire stealing the show from traditional politics is not a new consideration. When Jacques Chirac won the French Presidency in 1995, French media debated whether the satirical puppet show Les Guignols de l’Info, (which showed him favorably in contrast to Socialist candidate Lionel Jospin) had influenced the outcome of the elections. Youssef’s show stopped airing during the critical period around the election, citing the desire to avoid any such accusation. Moreover, the announcement came one day after news leaked that the Interior Ministry was seeking bids for a system to monitor and censor Egyptians’ use of social media outlets, foreshadowing the fate that many suspected was in store for Youssef’s show. While al-Bernameg has ceased, satire is practically writing itself in this mad climate. How could it not be so, when storks and Muppets are targeted as secret agents?
To lose a talent like Bassem Youssef is a tragedy. But the comedy has yet to stop. Satire will survive with or without al-Bernameg, and it will outlive every government. As eleventh-century Andalusian scholar Abu al-Salt put it, the Egyptian character is dominated by a humor mixed with sarcasm and cynicism to a level more pronounced than any group he had ever encountered.1 Thus, the current regime is fighting a cultural DNA that has passed on this effective and timeless weapon. Al-Bernameg was the latest incarnation in a long, evolutionary process of satire-generation—latest, but not last.
Even when Youssef announced his decision to permanently stop producing his show, he did not miss the opportunity to quip about the circumstances that forced him to do so—“I want to give you, but I can’t.” This self-imposed censorship—a sort of creativity-suicide—should raise questions about our perception of the role of satire as well as our understanding of politics: where there is politics, there will always be satire; one cannot exist without the other. Cancelling the show will only put an end to the show; it will not affect the other satirical powers that be, of which Egypt has an abundance in various forms. However, many in Egypt have come to view satire as they view the opposition: an uncomfortable siren amidst nationalistic euphoria. They now exhibit a preference for silence that largely did not exist when Muhammad Morsi was in power (except among supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood). Pinning al-Bernameg as a tool of the opposition has warped the public’s understanding of what satire is, but it has also exposed the government’s fascistic tendency to silence all hints of opposition.
Youssef, a product of the revolution, was devoured by the counter-revolution. However, just as it was not Youssef that brought down Mubarak, it will be the harsh realities of Egyptian life that threaten the new regime—humor will only grease the wheels of opposition.
In any case, Youssef leaves a dangerous legacy with which all successive regimes will have to deal—al-Bernameg opened up a media space that will not go away so easily. Youssef showed what is possible in a better Egypt, the gulf between accuracy and intentional misrepresentation, and the necessity of critical thinking. The fact that the show recorded an Egyptian viewership of 8.3 million—one-tenth of the total population—and had many more viewers across the region is a testament to the existence of an enormous constituency that is eager for something to fill this cultural space.
Youssef noted that “maybe the disappearance of al-Bernameg will force [people] to think about new, more creative means of [opposition].” The problem for the regime is that Pandora’s box was opened in early 2011, and “creative means” is all that Egyptians have to work with now in an environment of rising authoritarianism. The punchline is yet to come.
“Inevitably, our opinions cover a bigger space, a longer reach of time, a greater number of things, than we can directly observe. They have, therefore, to be pieced together out of what others have reported and what we can imagine.” – Public intellectual Walter Lippman, 1922.
With emotions running high on the eve of the 1952 coup, one of Nasser’s colleagues panicked and was close to tears. Nasser said firmly: “Tonight there is no room for sentiment. We must be ready for the unexpected.” The colleague soon regained his composure and asked Nasser, “Why did you address me in English?” Nasser laughed and replied, “Because Arabic is hardly a suitable language in which to express the need for calm.”
Whether or not this is truly the case—and I am not convinced that it is—the Arabic language today is certainly living up to Nasser’s perceptions, as it is being used to intentionally bring about anything but calm. A schizophrenia increasingly pervades Egyptian colloquial speech, empowering people to express wildly irresponsible and impulsive views and actions and yet expect positive outcomes—sadly, one frequently encounters such behavior these days.
It is easy to see the extent to which media discourse has affected public conversation, even to the level of hearing a news anchor’s sentence be unconsciously mimicked word-for-word the next day by members of the public, such as, “Egypt is not ready for democracy and needs a strongman from the military to rule it” and “Why does Sisi even need a policy platform?” That is not to mention the media-inspired accusations and conspiracies that infiltrate next-day conversations. This might not be unusual in many parts of the world, but in Egypt, it can have severe or even fatal consequences—opinions are shaped and inflamed here by an inexhaustible imagination that can leap from suspecting every tourist of being a spy to nodding at (if not cheering for) a mass death sentence.
Mahienour El Massry, along with seven other activists, have been imprisoned. More info here:
The Agony of Alexandria lecture examines the political, economic and socio-cultural tensions running through the Egyptian city of Alexandria. The talk provides an analysis on how the state has politically branded the city for ideological goals, from Nasser’s reprimanding and marginalisation of Alexandria for its long association with royal decadence to Mubarak’s manipulation of the city’s public spaces for reconciliation steps with the West. This, among other factors, undermined the Alexandrians’ sense of civic ownership. Moreover, the post-2011 events are further fracturing the coastal city as decades of centralisation have come to a head resulting in the disruption of the urban fabric, brain drain to the capital, hampering of civil society’s growth, the rise of the real estate mafia and the gradual disintegration of the cultural imaginary. The session will conclude with comprehensive ways in which these trends can arguably be reversed. The working language for this lecture will be in English.