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The insecurity of a security state: What can Hannah Arendt tell us about Egypt?
What Would People Say? The Obsession with Public Image in Egypt
Save Alexandria, and free Sherif Farag
Legitimate charges, illegitimate trial: Morsi in the dock
Not My Brotherhood’s Keeper: The Fallacy of Crushing Egypt’s Chief Islamist Group
Sidi Gaber, Ovvero Fare Rivoluzione Ad Alessandria (Journal article in Italian)
Redefining Alexandria: The Liberal, Salafi, and Muslim Brotherhood Struggle Over the Public Space (conference abstract)
Marching to Sidi Gaber: Alexandria’s Epicenter of Upheaval
Was Morsi’s overthrow a military coup? Don’t ask Wikipedia
Interview (Tripple J, The Hack)
- The insecurity of a security state: What can Hannah Arendt tell us about Egypt?
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- The insecurity of a security state: What can Hannah Arendt tell us about Egypt? (45)
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- Amro Ali on the third anniversary of the Egyptian Revolution (63)
- If the 1977 Egyptian Bread Riots started in Alexandria, then why are there few accounts of it? (325)
- Save Alexandria, and free Sherif Farag (145)
Category Archives: Extended Egyptian Revolution
My latest article on understanding the Egyptian political situation through the works of Hannah Arendt. Published in Politics in Spires
Published in the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy
“Would you allow your unmarried daughters to live alone in their own apartments in Cairo?” This was the question asked by American journalist Milton Viorst to the late Naguib Mahfouz in the 1990s. The legendary Arab novelist replied that such a circumstance would not be acceptable, as it simply would not look right.
Mahfouz did not invoke a financial, safety, or even religious motive to underpin his reasoning—in effect, he made the “what would people say?” argument, which permeates Egyptian society and holds hostage any and all statements and actions to the court of public opinion, consequently warping people’s reasoning.
(scroll to bottom for NYT article)
This week marks the infamous bread riots that rocked Egypt in 1977, and was arguably a precursor to the 2011 Egyptian Revolution. The New York Times ran the story on the riots with this peculiar paragraph:
“The riots started Tuesday in Alexandria, which has a reputation for left-wing militance, when thousands took to the streets to protest a Government announcement increasing the price of many staple foods and other basic consumer goods by 50 to 100 percent while giving an across-the-board wage increase of 22 percent. The riots spread to Cairo and its suburb of Helwan”
What’s unusual about the NYT piece is that it’s one of the few then contemporary accounts, though brief, to accurately name the geographical spark of the riot and label its perceived political profile.
It’s often baffling as to why a city that sparked off the riots and known for its “left-wing militance” could not garner any interest from then reporters – Egyptian or foreign – to investigate further, but basically recycle from their Cairo hotels and stations the same news coming out of Alexandria, such as the burning of the historical Alexandria Stock Exchange. There is a scarcity of interviews or even later research on what made Alexandria a tinderbox on a local level in January 1977. Unfortunately, all of Egypt’s problems, like today, are grouped into a national narrative, rather than seeking out what unique factors existed in each area.
This information vacuum has been one of the casualties of centralisation. The problem of Centralisation is not just about power and resources shifting to the capital, but it also undermines the media presence and research interest in the cities and towns affected. It gutters a large city like Alexandria in reducing the incentive for foreign correspondents to have been present in Alexandria at the time of the riots. As a researcher on Alexandria myself, this forces one to rely on oral interviews, which is a credible approach no doubt, but one would expect that a large event such as this to leave better accounts than what is available today.
Furthermore, 1977 also signposts that not much has changed today, besides the obvious political and socio-economic dimension; For a city of over four million, Alexandria is yet to acquire locally robust media organisations and a publishing industry. There is Egypt, and then there is “Egypts”, all fighting their unique yet complementary battles.
Sherif Farag is “one of the greatest persons you can meet” tweeted prominent Alexandrian activist Mahienour al-Masry. Sherif is a Master’s student and assistant lecturer at Alexandria University’s Faculty of Fine Arts. He is also one of the most underrated activists you will ever meet in the coastal city. Following his vocal opposition to the protest law, his life took a turn for the worse when the infamous late-night police raid occurred.
At 2.30 am on Sunday, November 24, a large security force of over 20 heavily armed men entered Sherif’s family apartment in Sidi Bishr, Alexandria. Masked security forces occupied the staircase of the building. Security convoys blocked the street. And all this deployment was to arrest a rising academic and advocate for the rights of teaching assistants, for architectural standards and heritage preservation.
The travesty did not end there, however. Taken to the security directorate in Smouha, in the presence of his lawyers, the charges leveled at Sherif were “joining a banned group” — presumably the Muslim Brotherhood, which Sherif is not a member of, nor affiliated with in any way.
Realizing that such a charge could prove difficult to stick on Sherif, still more trumped-up charges were thrown at him. At 10 pm that same night he was charged with campaigning to promote chaos, mobilizing crowds, and using violence.
The next day he was charged with planning and killing peaceful demonstrators, breaking cars and — just to make sure that the ludicrousness of the whole case was sealed — robbing a bank.
Since November 28, Sherif has been in Hadara Prison pending investigations. On December 8 his incarceration was renewed for another 15 days, despite the fact that there is no evidence or witnesses to incriminate him. Throughout this period, there have been daily protests and petitions demanding his release.
Sherif’s academic activism was in many ways a success story of the January 25 revolution. As his friend Ahmed Hassan noted: “Sherif’s positive attitude, motivation and inspirational effect on people guaranteed him a fixed place in the emerging academic and cultural groups in Alexandria. His campaigning for the rights of teaching assistants was integral to the collective effort that helped champion the cause of teaching assistants throughout Egyptian universities. This was also followed by his rise to sit on the advisory committee of the Ministry of Higher Education in order to deliver our demands to the decision makers.”
But it was Sherif’s presence on the street that made him familiar to the public, and Alexandrians in particular. He led peaceful demonstrations to protest against Alexandria’s real-estate mafia and its destruction of the city’s heritage. He spoke against the dangerous proliferation of tens of thousands of buildings that violate basic safety standards and consequently lead to the frequent tragedy of the city’s collapsing buildings.
Sherif was part of a growing swathe of Alexandrian activists who increasingly shared the view that Cairo’s centralized decision-making was the main source of Alexandria’s problems — a situation that must be rectified.
It was tacitly understood among Alexandria’s civil society scene that heritage and building issues were critical concerns shared by all groups. Facebook groups and pages such as Alexandria Scholars, Alex Agenda and Radio Tram united behind the Save Alexandria initiative. This initiative, co-founded by Sherif, was primarily aimed at the preservation of the city’s architectural heritage. But it has become a political platform for activism in Alexandria.
The initiative presents itself as a pressure group that works at ensuring Alexandrians’ “right to their city” — often through organizing protests. “Save Alexandria’s” Facebook page has been used to publicize protests and mobilize people to take part. Naturally, the prominence of this initiative, along with Sherif’s university activism, put him on state security’s radar.
Sherif took a sophisticated and multi-faceted approach to his activism that ranged from protest vigils, media interviews, to sitting down with officials to try to work out a solution to the city’s problems.
When Sherif spoke of the city’s problems, it was articulated with such eloquence and succinctness that it was bound to disturb those in power. I recall one scene last year in which Sherif, myself, and his friend Ahmed were invited to speak with the governor at a roundtable meeting at the engineers’ club overlooking the Mediterranean. We were the youngest ones in a room full of sycophantic public officials and aging, self-obsessed “call-me-doctor” academics. They seemed to have trouble accepting our presence at such a high profile meeting. Nevertheless, Sherif spoke loudly and eloquently of the city and the people’s problems.
“You are standing on Fouad Street, one of the oldest [continually used] streets in history,” Sheirf told me once during a protest. Passionate about saving Alexandria’s heritage, he laments today’s building culture, and how nobody teaches or learns architecture properly: “Every building that rises looks like the other,” he told me.
Noha Mansour, who got engaged to Sherif in August, told me, “Sherif is the type of person who values freedom of speech and action deeply. He never feels ashamed to speak his mind and express his opinions. I feel it was his outspoken opposition to the recent protest law that finally made the authorities arrest him.”
Sherif is due to submit his Master’s thesis this month. He sent this note from prison to be added to the opening page of his dissertation:
This letter was written from my cell, where injustice and aggression abounds, I write these points in the hope that higher education in Egypt will someday be in a better position — though it never will be as long as universities are not liberated from the security [regime’s] iron fist and power. I have worked over two years and a half in an attempt to improve the situation of Egyptian universities after the great 25 January 2011 Revolution. I have played a part in contributing to the increase of salaries of faculty members and have been at the forefront as a member of the Advisory Committee of the Ministry of Higher Education to focus on reforming how universities are regulated. Yet people so retarded [in the security sector] have continued to hamper our progress [in the cause of higher education]. If my imprisonment is a result of my suffering to better education, then no fault can be found with that. God Alone is sufficient for me, as He is the best disposer of affairs for me.
Sherif, locked up in a prison cell, has come to represent the “two Egypts” in conflict. One is bland, unimaginative, archaic, and brutal. And then there is Sherif Farag, along with many others now under arrest, who epitomize a passion, fearlessness, and hope to build a better tomorrow.
Imprisoning Sherif Farag is akin to imprisoning the dream of a better Egypt. His freedom is a necessity.
Published in ABC’s The Drum
It is an irony that former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi’s trial – which highlighted the deep divisions in Egyptian society – was held on the country’s Valentine’s Day.
The only thing Morsi and his 14 co-defendants from the Muslim Brotherhood had in common with the military-backed interim government was the desire by both sides to use the trial as a theatre to address the Egyptian public by pushing their own agendas and accusations.
Morsi and the Brotherhood wasted no time in seeking to embolden their domestic base and tell the rest of the nation that the Brotherhood was not going away.
To undercut Morsi’s predictable grandstanding, state TV muted the sound. “I am here by force and against my will. The coup is a crime and treason” shouted Morsi, who set the tone for the non-cooperative atmosphere.
For the prosecutors, the goal was to send a signal to the wider Egyptian public about who is in control and to parade Morsi and his colleagues before the court as a form of political emasculation.
The charges against Morsi are in fact legitimate – they were filed on 5 December 2012 by human rights activists after the Brotherhood stormed a sit-in outside the presidential palace.
The actions of the Brotherhood sparked clashes that resulted in the deaths of ten protestors.
Even the case on its own skews the course of justice when there is a lack of enquiry into the security debacle and the Brotherhood chain of command on that day.
But legitimate charges do not necessarily lead to a legitimate trial.
Nor has the state all of a sudden developed a desire to see justice take its place for Egypt’s innumerable victims.
As the veteran blogger The Big Pharaoh tweeted “Irony = Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood cadets tortured people at the presidential palace gates. Police regularly torture people yet they’re securing Morsi’s Trial today!”.
Published in the Atlantic Council
By the time philosopher Hannah Arendt penned the words in her 1970 work On Violence: “The means used to achieve political goals are more often than not of greater relevance to the future world than the intended goals,” a generation of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood transitioning into the Anwar Sadat era were reeling from the “means” of imprisonment and torture. For sixteen years, under the regime of Gamal Abdel Nasser, the ideological foundations of radical Islamism were largely nurtured in Egypt’s prison system, and exported to the rest of the world. It became painfully clear with time, the Brotherhood and Islamists had to be co-opted into the political process, rather than rewind the clock back to 1954.
Over the past three months, security services have arrested key Brotherhood figures, in effect decapitating the organization’s first and second tier leadership, shutting down media outlets, seizing its assets, demonizing the group, arresting and killing countless supporters. Now the latest court ruling to ban the eighty-five year old organization is on the table. It is becoming obvious that Egypt’s political and security elites envision an Egyptian future in which the Brotherhood and its support networks are completely destroyed or incapacitated. Such a short-sighted move overlooks the group’s proven survival mechanisms.
In the tightly-controlled public sphere and information space of Egypt in the 1950s and 1960s, Brotherhood inmates, intentionally dispersed across the country’s prisons in order to cripple the apparatus, were largely survived by the (little-known) Muslim Sisterhood. The latter acted as an informal prison support network, carrying ideas and messages from prison to prison to sustain the Brotherhood, and were vital to their rebirth.
Today, there is no need for prison support networks when that network now has a stronger international reach. No longer limited to the Gulf and London, the Brotherhood is opening offices as far flung as Australia. These groups are geared towards revising the Brotherhood strategy and wait for another political opening in Egypt. They are also making efforts to disturb diplomatic relations, skewing the Muslim world view of Egypt, splintering an already splintered diaspora, and pushing a clear-cut anti-coup narrative as opposed to the pro-army’s ill-defined ‘war on terrorism’ battle cry that has come to encompass Sinai’s violent extremism and Pro-Brotherhood protestors throughout Egypt
Recent events have enabled the Brotherhood to take the high moral ground, when addressing both their domestic constituencies and foreign audiences, depicting an Egypt engaged in a secular or religious sacred drama, nicely divided into digestible binaries. To the West, the Brotherhood argues that they are the torchbearers of democracy that are fighting the return of an authoritarian state that overthrew Morsi. To the Muslim world, the Brotherhood has effectively portrayed itself as the defender of Islam, battling godless secularism in the heart of the Sunni intellectual nerve centre.
It does not seem to matter that Morsi and the Brotherhood took a destructive course while in power, that a majority of Egyptians, including Al-Azhar and religious Muslims, have a highly unfavourable view of the Brotherhood or that the organization’s polarizing discourse of incitement and victimhood provides the cover for the killing and destruction of property. A sophisticated and nuanced reading into why Morsi and the Brotherhood collapsed and are largely unpopular is lost in translation.
And why should it not be? The rise in strains of liberal tyranny to rival the strains in religious tyranny gutted the moral clout of anti-Brotherhood arguments, let alone the argument to shut them down. Egypt has been transformed into a bear pit that is locked in an existential battle for survival, with each side going as far as targeting the perceived allied minorities of the other camp: non-Islamists target Syrian and Palestinian refugees, and more violently, the Islamists target Christians and their churches.
Given that the power cards are heavily stacked in favor of the military and security forces, and by extension, the interim government; they need to seriously address the imagination crisis that deal with security issues. It should be noted, no matter how ‘well-intentioned,’ the sight of a military machine carrying out killings in Cairo’s squares for the benefit of ‘your side’ does not score points with the rest of the world. More so when state media is fanning the flames of xenophobia and the arrest of foreign nationals occur in a country in dire need of tourists.
Yet no questions are being asked, how the child who lost his pro-Brotherhood parents in the Raba’a massacre will grow up in a society that largely cheered on the violent dispersals. Or how Islamists will ever trust the democratic process when they are continually being marginalized. Or the Coptic child who lost a father because the security forces did not turn up – some would argue strategically delayed to tarnish the Brotherhood – to protect Christian communities and churches when the threat of an Islamist mob was imminent in the usual rural flashpoints. These are the seeds of bitterness that will matter more to the future Egypt than the current intended myopic goals.
There is little doubt that laws need to be passed to prevent the misuse of mosques for political campaigning and sectarian incitement. The Brotherhood needs to be legally obliged to become transparent with its activities, and importantly, pushed into a state of self-reflection. Banning the organization pushes its members further back into their traditional comfort zone in which they thrive – victimhood and opposition.
As highly problematic as the organization is, the Brotherhood is not the by-product of a foreign plot, rather it is a by-product of Egypt’s social forces and needs to be reintegrated into a system of transitional justice and national reconciliation. Targeting the Brotherhood’s social support networks – healthcare, education, and welfare services – will have a crippling effect on the rural poor. The state is too incompetent to fill the void. Former regime loyalists and revolutionary forces struggle to run an effective political campaign in these areas, let alone service their basic needs.
The late poet Mahmoud Darwish sounded a warning: “Those who spend an era breastfeeding from the milk of cruel despotism can only perceive destruction and evil in freedom.” In this lays the grim inheritance bestowed upon Egypt following decades of authoritarian rule, the public not only perceives destruction and evil in its own freedom, but in the freedom of others and, consequently, any notion of political co-existence. A third route is needed to save it. Instead of crushing the Brotherhood, there needs to be a national inclusive dialogue on the role of religion and politics, a focus on strengthening institutional checks and balances, and the enforcement of rule of law to protect Egypt from political and security violations and excesses, whether by Islamists or otherwise.
Egypt deserves better.
If you are in Sydney, then please feel free to come to a talk this Friday 27 Sept 2013 that me and Macquarie University lecturer Noah Bassil will be presenting on the topic: “Whither Democracy in Egypt?” Noah will be discussing the role and relationships between the Brotherhood, the Egyptian state and the US. My talk will discuss the political trajectory of Egypt’s hindered democratic development and the challenges of reforming the brutal security forces.
Time: 6pm to 7.45pm
Date: 27th September 2013
Location: The Gaelic Club, 64 Devonshire Street, Surry Hills
La città mediterranea è il termometro della crisi egiziana.
La grande diversità sociopolitica e alcuni fattori geografici
e urbani la rendono perfetta per la ‘politica della strada’.
I crocevia delle proteste.
Redefining Alexandria: The Liberal, Salafi, and Muslim Brotherhood Struggle Over the Public Space (conference abstract)
Conference title: Competing Visions in the Muslim World: Rebuilding States and Reinvigorating Civil Societies
Venue: University of Sydney
Date: 14-16 August 2013
My presentation is at 10.30am, 15/Aug/2013, at the Professorial Board Room, The Quadrangle.
Redefining Alexandria: The Liberal, Salafi, and Muslim Brotherhood Struggle Over the Public Space (conference abstract)
This study seeks to understand the primacy of politics in the public space and the rise of a revolutionary space in Egypt’s second largest city of Alexandria. The city has experienced a long history of political struggles to brand the city in which the state led the destruction of the political by manipulating people and places and injecting external meaning rather than allowing a self-creation by Alexandrian society. The 2011 Revolution was in part an unintended consequence of that branding. The dramatic birth of public space and politics in Alexandria was crystallised during the tumultuous but electrifying 18 days of the 2011 uprising – the net result was the birth of an invigorated political public. Individuals of differing ideological persuasions in the coastal city mustered the courage to interrupt their routine activities and break out of their private lives to assemble and produce a public space where freedom and plurality could materialise. However, this human togetherness would be temporal and would make way for Alexandria’s liberals, Salafists and Brotherhood supporters to battle for “control” of the public space and attempt to marginalise the other.
Alexandria is a paradox given that it has swung from a cosmopolitan city in the first half of the twentieth century to the so-called Islamist bastion in the last few decades, to the extent of acting as the base for a resurgence of modern Salafist movements. The past two years have shown each political actor struggling to define the narratives, myths, and vision of the city. Moreover, the past two months in Egypt’s political trajectory have illustrated the unpredictability factor – the decisive character of human affairs – in polarising society and now further entrenching Islamist actors as they perceive an existential threat in the public space as well as further emboldening liberal actors due to the military coming down on their side.
Alexandria is chosen in large part because it is a political laboratory in how a city deals with a fraught process in which a series of contradictory events have happened, far from over, that have only served to illustrate the fragile space of appearance that is dependent and recreated when citizens are together. Yet just as disappointment, sense of injustice, nostalgia, disenchantment, power struggles, are the poisonous fruits of the birth of public space; there comes with it also disintegrative tendencies that can set in with the birth of public space and the events of June and July, Egypt’s people-driven coup, can also have a renewal of another possible beginning.