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
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…
Abstract: One of the long-standing fears of Alexandrian activism has been the eclipsing of its people’s local struggles by a Cairo-centric narrative – an issue that is further aggravated by limited bilingualism among the coastal city’s middle class revolutionaries, which makes connecting with international audiences more difficult. Apart from efforts to attract domestic attention to the city’s struggles, a peculiar form of Alexandrian activism evolved that employs the city’s namesake, history and popular culture to attract national and international attention to the issues affecting its urban terrain. This is evident in revolutionary graffiti that makes reference to Alexander the Great and Ancient Alexandria, and in the growth of civic groups that contrast their present problems with a by-gone era of utopian cosmopolitanism and indulge in various forms of nostalgia, symbolized by images such as the Pharos lighthouse or a mermaid.
This trend can be traced back to the 1990s struggle between the state and Alexandria over identity formation. The Egyptian state constructed a discourse of utopianism revolving around Alexandria’s ancient past and the city’s cosmopolitanism of the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century. This was motivated by a wish to brandish the regime’s ‘progressive’ and ‘democratic’ credentials for the benefit of international audiences, fight the Islamist utopian mode of thinking that was beginning to make serious inroads, symbolize a significant break with the Nasserist past, and employ a cultural mask of universalism to disguise the neoliberal policies spearheaded by the Alexandria governorate. Rarely did any of this address the city’s deep-seated problems, and centralization – a common Alexandrian grievance – took its toll over the decades, resulting in a disembowelled public sphere.
Activists appropriated a variety of narratives and symbols to ‘translate’ and communicate their specific concerns to a wider audience, escape the shadow of the heavyweight capital, and establish a common ground with diaspora and foreign audiences who spotlighted, and sometimes co-worked on, texts and videos with Alexandrians to amplify their story to the world. This produced creative methods of revolutionary activity, drew modest research and journalistic interest to the coastal city, and started a slow process of democratizing the activist field. A highly utopian language enabled activists to draw inspiration from and chart their own understanding of ‘The Revolution Continues’ vernacular maxim by devising daily strategies and tactics that can function as alternatives to protesting on the street, which now carried a high risk of imprisonment.
مثَّل حجب المقاومة الشعبية لأهالي الإسكندرية عن طريق الروايات التي تتمحور حول القاهرة أحد المخاوف المتواصلة للنشاط السياسي السكندري ,وقد تفاقمت هذه القضية في ظل محدودية ثنائية اللغة بين ثوار الطبقة الوسطى في المدينة الساحلية؛ مما زاد من صعوبة التواصل مع الجماهير العالمية، وبصرف النظر عن الجهود المبذولة لجذب الانتباه الشعبي إلى مقاومة المدينة، نشأ شكل غريب من أشكال النشاط السكندري الذي يوظف اسم المدينة، وتاريخها وثقافتها الشعبية لجذب الانتباه الوطني والدولي إلى القضايا التي تؤثر على طبيعتها الحضرية، ويتجلى هذا في رسومات الجرافيتي التي تُشير إلى الإسكندر الأكبر والإسكندرية القديمة، و تزايد الجماعات المدنية التي تعقد مقارنة بين مشاكلها الراهنة و عصر الكونية الطوباوية المنصرم التي تنغمس في أشكال مختلفة من الحنين إلى الماضي وترمز إليه بصور مثل منارة الإسكندرية، أو حورية البحر.
ويمكن عزو هذا الاتجاه إلى الصراع الواقع بين الدولة والإسكندرية حول تشكيل الهوية في فترة التسعينات. إذ أسست الدولة المصرية خطاباً يميل إلى تبني فكرة الطوباوية يتمحور حول تاريخ الإسكندرية القديم، وعالمية المدينة في القرن التاسع عشر والنصف الأول من القرن العشرين. ولقد كان الحافز وراء ذلك تصوير النظام الحاكم بأنه “تقدمي” و”ديمقراطي” أمام الجمهور العالمي، ومحاربة أسلوب تفكير الاسلاميين الطوباوي الذي بدأ في تحقيق نجاحات جدية ترمز إلى القطيعة مع الماضي الناصري، وتوظيف قناع ثقافي من العالمية لإخفاء السياسات الليبرالية الجديدة التي تقودها محافظة الإسكندرية. ونادراً ما كانت تساهم هذه التوجهات في معالجة مشاكل المدينة المتجذرة (ومن ضمنها المركزية – وهي شكوى شائعة في الإسكندرية) التي تفاقمت على مدى العقود، مما أدى إلى تقويض المجال العام.
خصص بعض النشطاء مجموعة متنوعة من الروايات والرموز لترجمة ونقل اهتماماتهم المحددة إلى جمهور أوسع، والهروب من شبح العاصمة المرعب، وتأسيس أرضية مشتركة مع المغتربين والجماهير الأجنبية التي سلطت الضوء وأحياناً شاركت في ترجمة النصوص والفيديوهات مع السكندريين لتوضيح قصتهم أمام العالم، وقد ساهم هذا في خلق أساليب إبداعية من النشاط الثوري، وإجراء بعض البحوث المتواضعة حول المدينة، كما وجه الاهتمام الصحفي نحو المدينة الساحلية، وبدأت عملية تدريجية لنشر الديمقراطية في مجال النشاط السياسي. واستطاعت اللغة الطوباوية الراقية أن تكون مصدر إلهام للنشطاء، وساهمت في تشكيل فهمهم الخاص للشعار المتداول “الثورة مستمرة” من خلال وضع الاستراتيجيات والتكتيكات اليومية التي يمكن أن تعمل كبدائل للمقاومة في الشارع، والتي يترتب عليها الآن مخاطر عالية مثل السج
Originally published on Mona Baker on 18 March 2015
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.
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.
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!”.
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.