Thursday, December 11, 2008

The sheikh's handshake

The Grand Imam of Cairo caused uproar by embracing Israel's president. But there's more behind the fuss than antisemitism.

-Taken from the Guardian's 'Comment is Free'
-Cairo - December 2008

"I said shake, rattle and roll," sang rock legend
Bill Haley in 1954, "well, you never do nothin' to save your doggone soul." Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi was a young theology student in 1950s Cairo and so probably wasn't well-versed in Haley's back catalogue; still, had he paid closer attention to the song's lyrics he might have found them alarmingly prophetic. Last month Sheikh Tantawi, now Egypt's top cleric and arguably the highest authority in Sunni Islam, shook the wrong hand, rattled the Muslim world, and is now facing increasingly-belligerent calls for his head to roll.

The ill-fated clasp took place at an interfaith conference in New York and the recipient was Israeli president Shimon Peres. Sheikh Tantawi, who as the Grand Imam of Cairo's al-Azhar mosque and university occupies the highest seat of learning in the Sunni world, claims the embrace was purely accidental. "I shook his hand like I did the others: at random, without even knowing him," Tantawi told the incredulous Egyptian press. Israeli reporters tell a different story, suggesting that it was Tantawi who approached Peres and that the two men had a warm and serious conversation throughout dinner.

Regardless of who is right, the handshake stirred up a storm of controversy that has dominated front pages for days in Egypt and beyond. The problem is that, intended or not, a friendly gesture between the Supreme Islamic Guide for the Muslim world on the one side and the president of a Zionist state on the other is seen by many in the Middle East as a painful propaganda gift to the Israelis, just as hundreds and thousands of Gazan Muslims remain trapped under brutal siege by the Israeli army. The pan-Arab newspaper al-Quds al-Arabi called Tantawi "absurd"; the Egyptian opposition daily, al-Dostour, is now running a high-profile campaign for his dismissal.

Despite taking on the appearance of a catty squabble, this affair is deeply serious. Egypt's fragile peace with Israel since the two countries agreed to recognise each other in 1979 has always been more fragile than peaceful, and the Egyptian government's overtures to its Israeli neighbours have never been popular in the "Arab street". Regionally, the Iran-Syria-Hamas-Hizbullah bloc has consistently criticised Egypt for "selling out" their Palestinian brothers during the current round of negotiations; domestically the Egyptian regime has been subject to angry protests over its effort to supply subsidised gas to Israel and its perceived acquiescence to Gaza's transformation into the world's largest prison cell. Cairo politics is therefore hyper-sensitive to allegations of Zionist sympathies, and most public figures go out of their way to avoid being labelled traitors to the Palestinian cause.

Some regard the furore as a fresh example of latent antisemitism pervading Arab society, even among the educated elite. The Wall Street Journal recently documented a series of articles in the liberal Egyptian press which apparently laid blame for the world economic crisis at the feet of "speculating Jews".

Tantawi himself has dismissed his critics as "lunatics", arguing: "And if I had known who it was, would the handshake amount to heresy? ... Isn't he from a country that we recognise?" The sheikh went on to fan the flames by insisting that if any Israeli officials wanted to visit al-Azhar, the bastion of Sunni Islam, he would welcome them.

But explaining the media hysteria over Tantawi through the lens of antisemitism or lunacy misses the point entirely. Since taking office at al-Azhar 12 years ago the sheikh himself has never scored high in the popularity stakes. Many of his previous positions have proved divisive at home, such as his sanctioning of the French ban on schoolgirls wearing the hijab and his condemnation of Palestinian suicide bombers, and he recently pursued a vindictive case against two well-respected newspaper editors.

More significantly, Tantawi has a reputation for being aloof and unapproachable, a personal symbol of the alienation many Egyptian Muslims feel from al-Azhar itself. One young Egyptian reporter described his disappointment at travelling to the ancient university to interview Tantawi and discovering a distinct lack of religiosity within it: "For many Muslims of my generation," he wrote, "this would seem to corroborate an increasingly current notion that al-Azhar no longer caters to the broad base of (disinherited, or else discontented) Muslim people, but rather to the educational, official and institutional sides of Islam."

The detachment many Muslims feel from the formal centre of Sunni Islam stems at least partly from its transformation into a government mouthpiece. Like many of his predecessors, Tantawi was appointed by Egypt's wildly unpopular President Mubarak, and — in contrast to the Coptic Christian Pope Shenouda, spiritual leader of Egypt's other major religious community — the sheikh has placidly toed the government line. Al-Quds al-Arabi has labelled him a mouthpiece of Egypt's authoritarian regime and the popular cynicism this has engendered among the general public has led many Muslims to seek new sources of religious guidance away from Al-Azhar.

Today the institution most Egyptians turn to for Islamic counsel is satellite television, and the man giving it is more likely to be a blockbuster preacher like Amr Khaled than an old cleric like Tantawi. Khaled draws millions of viewers to his pan-Arab shows and has been named by Time magazine as one of the world's 100 most influential people — part of a new generation of preachers who are sidestepping the religious infrastructures built up by their conservative leaders.

Out of touch and tainted by his association with the corrupt ruling elite, Tantawi has been vulnerable figure for many years — which is why his latest "slip-up" has sent the vultures into a feeding frenzy. Far from exposing antisemitism or lunacy amongst his critics, the handshake controversy has really laid bare the growing distance between Egypt's state-sponsored religious bureaucracy and popular Islam from below. Tantawi has learned the hard way what it really means to shake, rattle and roll.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Band of outsiders

Excluded from the rapid development of Sinai’s tourist coast and subject to a prolonged police crackdown, the Bedouins who have made the Peninsula their home for centuries now teeter on the brink of social implosion. Jack Shenker reports.

-Taken from 'The National' (view the PDF here)
-Sinai Peninsula - November 2008

- Original photography by Jason Larkin

On the night of April 24, 1982, Khalil Jaber Sawarka did something exceptional. Tanks were trundling through the local villages and the whirr of army helicopters filled the skies, but Khalil was oblivious to the pandemonium. He had a job to do. With his last few piastres he bought a single piece of cardboard and a cheap packet of crayons and sat up overnight painstakingly drawing the Egyptian flag. Early the next morning he and his friends took their home-made banners and lined the streets to welcome Sinai’s liberators. “At that moment,” remembers Khalil, “I saw the first Egyptian soldier I had ever seen in my life. I took out a pack of Israeli cigarettes and eagerly handed them over to him. And in return, he gave me a packet of Egyptian Cleopatras.” Israel’s occupation of the Peninsula was over and Khalil, a Bedouin native of North Sinai, was about to be ruled by his own countrymen for the first time in living memory. He was 18 years old.

Twenty five years later Khalil watched his fellow Bedouins rampage through those same streets, throwing stones and dodging tear gas fired by Egyptian riot police. The protesters destroyed the police station and the council building before reaching the local offices of the ruling National Democratic Party. They tore down a picture of President Hosni Mubarak and hoisted a new banner in it place. “Sinai has not been liberated yet,” it read.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Comprising more than 60,000 square km of rugged desert, rolling mountains and breathtaking beaches at the junction of Africa and Asia, the Peninsula has played host to some of history’s most dramatic events. It was here on Mount Sinai that God is said to have delivered his 10 commandments to Moses, in a landscape later depicted in the Bible as the “great and terrible wilderness” that the Israelites trekked across to reach their promised land. Across the centuries, the harsh environment of this frontier province has been home to few beyond armies and pilgrims. In Arabic it is called a “muftah” – a “key space” where the laws, rhythms and customs of distant lands to the East and West seem not to apply.

Sinai has played the part of rest stop for so many over the centuries that it is easy to overlook the only significant population ever to make the Peninsula a permanent home. Today that population is fighting for survival: their traditional way of life is being eroded while they are consigned to the margins of the economic development transforming their land. The Bedouin tribes are buffeted between the two poles of modern Sinai, fear and riches: they face a wave of brutal repression from the Egyptian state just as international tourists flock by the millions each year to South Sinai’s coastal resort towns, stirring unimaginable wealth into the Peninsula’s volatile mix.

Somewhere in between lie the Bedouins, existing in a world where, as Jonathan Raban once said of another stretch of Arabian desert, “even the [locals] had been turned into guests, en route from a nomadic past to a sketchy future.”

No longer seen only as a strategic buffer between the Nile Valley and Egypt’s vexing neighbours to the East, parts of the Peninsula are now being marketed by the government as a holiday paradise of white-sand beaches, five-star restaurants and pounding nightlife. Here Sinai’s complex and often tragic history is airbrushed away: there is no sign of “the souls of more than 100,000 martyrs, whose precious blood watered every inch of this land,” in the words of Hosni Mubarak.

But without the Bedouins, the story of Sinai’s miraculous transformation from bitter battleground to pleasure nirvana is dangerously incomplete. The Egyptian forces who retook control of the Peninsula in 1982 were welcomed as heroes. Today, Sawarka tells me, “Bedouins look upon the Egyptian state as a stranger” – and the state eyes the Bedouins with suspicion, sceptical of their tribal allegiances and unsure of their loyalty to Egypt. Sinai’s tribespeople stand accused of insulting the state, rising up against it – and committing terrorist acts against the people they once embraced as brothers.

In North Sinai, the Bedouin are concentrated in some of the poorest areas in the entire country, while in the South they have been locked out of a tourist boom fuelled by international and Egyptian investment and staffed by workers imported from the Nile Valley. The 200,000 Bedouins native to Sinai – mythologised by travellers and tour brochures alike – are on the brink of a social implosion. Hailing from as far afield as Macedonia, Saudi Arabia and Sudan, national identity has always been a fluid concept for the Bedouins, and it is this ambiguity that has stoked the suspicions of the Egyptian state regarding the Bedouin presence in this strategically crucial land. It is a simmering conflict that threatens – in the words of one Bedouin – to unleash “a full-on human disaster, like nothing Egypt has ever seen before.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Not far from the checkpoint where Khalil stood patiently with his piece of cardboard all those years ago lies the North Sinai village of Beir Shabana, one of many small conurbations scattered within a few kilometres of the Israeli border. The village was founded as a sort of socialist utopia, built by a benevolent patriarch who wanted to see his extended family reunited and catered for in one place. Today his son, Sayeed Atiyid, is trying to continue his work, digging wells and laying electricity cables in an attempt to bring some prosperity to this painfully poor corner of the country.

Atiyid’s father died in 1985, just a few years after the end of the Israeli occupation that began in 1967. “They had so many dreams,” smiles Sayeed as he shows me round the village, referring to his parents’ excitement at the Israeli withdrawal. “They weren’t expecting reforms and development from the Israelis,” explains the 26-year-old, “this was never Israel’s land. But they expected a future from the Egyptians – tourism, agriculture, industry, the utilisation of the land for the many, not the few. They expected wrong.”

Despite the promises, Beir Shabana has, like countless other Bedouin communities in Northern Sinai, been all but abandoned by the Cairo government. Mubarak frequently refers to the “splendid and massive battle of reconstruction to complement the battle of liberation,” but such rhetorical flourishes do little to hide the reality of life here. Sayeed points to a nearby school to which small children hike up to 7km a day from surrounding villages to attend classes. The sandy plain that lies directly across from the school’s entrance is full of unexploded land mines, yet no attempt has been made to mark or clear them. Last year an eight-year-old girl lost both her hands after stepping on the wrong patch of ground. Today she needs physiotherapy for her disabilities, but there is no hospital for miles around that can offer it. The other children still walk across the same mined land every day.

Most of them have little to look forward to when they leave school, and the only opportunity open to many is helping their families work the increasingly dry land. I meet Khalid Mohammed Hassan, a lanky 16-year-old who screws up his face in annoyance when I ask about his future, tending to his donkey in the early evening sun. “If there was something else, anything else...” he trails off, before gesturing dismissively in the direction of Sheikh Zwayd, the nearest town. “But the factories get all their workers from Cairo, they’re closed to me. Everyone my age is bored, sick of the government and sick of sitting at home. There’s nothing to do.”

Sheikh Zwayd is a breeze-block jumble of 25,000 people on the Mediterranean coast. Long queues stretch out of every petrol station as motorists fight for the last drops of fuel; most of the area’s petrol is smuggled into Gaza by local mafia gangs who are making a killing off the Israeli siege there. Despite the presence of major olive oil, gas and cement plants on its fringes, the town’s Bedouin natives suffer a staggering 90 per cent unemployment rate. There is no lack of jobs at these industrial facilities, but they go to the legions of Nile Valley workers who have been aggressively resettled in Sinai by the government.

This engineered influx of “Egyptians” to Sinai marks an attempt by the authorities to control the peninsula and integrate it with the rest of the country. But as an independent report by the International Crisis Group in 2007 documented, the state has “systematically favoured” the Nile Valley migrants while “discriminating against the local populations in jobs and housing”. For evidence one need look no farther than Fayrouz, a much-hyped regeneration project on Sheikh Zwayd’s beachfront initiated after the Israeli withdrawal, designed to provide business opportunities to local Bedouins and still cited in Egyptian education manuals as a symbol of Sinai’s enlightened development. The problem is that it doesn’t exist: the sweeping seaside promenade that was supposed to be a magnet for new hotels and restaurants is blocked off to the public and guarded by an armed policeman; the only cafe in the area sits empty for most of the day. “There’s nothing here for the locals,” shrugged the owner as he cast his eyes over the deserted establishment.

Boredom and poverty are a toxic combination. When Atiyid carried out a study of local drug use in the area, he found heroin addicts in every single village. Around Sheikh Zwayd itself, the lack of opportunity and growing resentment at “Egyptian” dominance has produced even darker consequences. It was from this area that the terror cell Tawhid wa Jihad emerged – the group accused of having murdered more than 150 Egyptians and foreigners in a series of high-profile car bombings in the tourist towns of Taba, Dahab and Sharm in the South. Many Bedouins deny the conclusions of the government’s subsequent investigation, which puts the blame on the Bedouins and Palestinian residents of Sinai. One way or the other, the emergence of a violent terrorist movement in Sinai – which has taken the glittering tourist oases of the south as its target – is the most dramatic symptom of the tensions rending the Peninsula.

But the government did not follow the bombings with an inquiry into the social breakdown among Bedouins or their economic marginalisation: instead it launched a security crackdown so brutal that human rights groups around the world queued up to denounce it. “We can’t accept,” an unnamed government official told Al-Ahram, “the notion that the presence of the state should be any weaker in Sinai just because it is inhabited by Bedouins.”

In the days after the Taba bombing over 3,000 Bedouins were rounded up and imprisoned without charge; according to Human Rights Watch several were tortured and had family members kidnapped by the police in an effort to extract confessions. Among the detainees were war heroes once feted for their resistance to the Israelis in the 1960s and 1970s.

“We were astounded,” Atiyid says. “People were saying the Israeli occupation was back, only with a different face.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Turn down past the fish market in al Arish, North Sinai’s dreary administrative capital, and you find yourself in a narrow alley stuffed with dusty apartment blocks, looming over each other in the gloom. Swinging from the second floor of one of these buildings is a tattered red sign fluttering in the wind. It is emblazoned with the word “Kefaya”, quietly announcing the local headquarters of Egypt’s largest secular opposition movement. Upstairs piles of yellowing papers and old campaign posters are stacked up against the walls, and cigarette smoke hangs heavy in the air. Here Ashraf Hefny, the regional coordinator for Kefaya and Tagammu (a leftist political party), told me that the crackdown has not relented. Though most of the detainees rounded up after Taba have been released, fifteen remain in jail, three of them awaiting death sentences.

In the meantime, new police measures have further eradicated the nomadic existence that defined the Bedouin way of life. Traditionally herdsmen would move their flocks and families from one patch of land to another within delineated tribal regions, the only way to live in Sinai’s largely barren and infertile environment. Today, climate change and government regulations have consigned such a lifestyle to the history books. Northern Sinai is now a bewildering patchwork of military zones, armoured checkpoints and restricted roads – thanks to the provisions of the Camp David Accords and other peace treaties. The ongoing police repression and the unwanted attentions of the security services have further restricted Bedouin freedom of movement. Glossy tourism material produced by the state may feature smiling tribespeople sharing food under goatskin tents, but in 2008 one is more likely to find Bedouin families in the rows of soulless concrete prefabs that monopolise the North Sinai urban landscape.

It is when this slow-burning decimation of Bedouin existence meets stark injustices that the smouldering resentment boils over. Last April two young Bedouins on a motorbike had the temerity to overtake a security vehicle on a motorway, an act that left them both dead in a hail of police bullets. Neither were suspects in any crime and no warning shots were fired. The prosecutor’s office investigated the case but opted to bring no charges against the policemen responsible. “This is a Pharaonic regime, and we are still waiting for divine justice” grimaces Fatih Ismail Salah, the lawyer for the victims’ families. The shooting sparked an eruption of street demonstrations and attacks on symbols of the state, including the one witnessed by Khalil Sawarka.

The Egyptian government claims that it needs an extensive security apparatus in the area to combat high levels of illegal activity among the Bedouins, including the trafficking of goods in and out of Israel and Gaza. The smuggling problem is real: sex workers, commodities and weapons move one way, and drugs and money flow in the opposite direction. But it’s doubtful the Egyptian security forces have stemmed the tide; if anything, it seems that local police tacitly facilitate some parts of the trade in exchange for information that tightens their grip on local dissidents.

Customary law, which the Bedouin tribes have long used to settle their differences, is being exploited by officials who offer select deals to tribal sheikhs, elders or other prominent community leaders – many of whom are now appointed by the government – and in return secure the obedience of the entire tribe. “Customary laws now have a purely political use,” explains Hefny. “The agreement struck between the police and prominent Bedouin leaders is that the latter are given carte blanche to do whatever they want, legitimate or not, and in return those leaders maintain political security and shut down any protests among their people.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

The next morning I travelled a few kilometres up the coast from Al Arish to inspect the front line of another battlefield. Here, on the fringes of the city, stands the brand new Sinai Heritage Museum, a slab of marble and glass that symbolises the energetic struggle being waged over Bedouin identity. Almost $10m was spent creating this cultural centre and funding excavations in the area – a worthy investment, to be sure, but the museum is focused almost entirely on Pharaonic history, a past of vital importance to the Nile Valley that nevertheless holds little relevance to Sinai. Beneath five floors of well-lit displays, the museum’s Bedouin heritage collection is consigned to a single basement room where the items on show – despite being impressive in beauty and range – lack any captions, in Arabic or English.

Nearby, in a small green and white shack next to the city zoo, is another heritage museum, this one dedicated to Bedouin culture. Created by a group of locals and supported by international donors, the museum has promoted and protected Bedouin heritage through innovative projects, from selling authentic Bedouin crafts abroad to funding a research and documentation centre, the only one of its kind on the Peninsula. Walking through the eccentric little structure today, guests can absorb themselves in Bedouin culture to their heart’s content, from admiring scale models of mud brick huts to reading about traditional medical remedies like egg-whites and berries for fractured bones. But I am the only visitor and the flickering light bulbs and flaking wallpaper speak of an institution in terminal decline. The government’s project to “Egyptianise” the region extends to the neglect of local cultural identity: a programme manager at Cultnat, the Egyptian government’s centre for heritage preservation, told me that there was currently not a single state-sponsored project anywhere that involved Bedouin culture. “There’s no interest whatsoever,” he said. “I don’t know why.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Head south through the tiny desert outpost of al Nakhl, and you cross from one Egypt’s poorest governorates to one of its richest. With lucrative oil wells in the Gulf of Suez to the west, a string of popular tourist resorts to the east and the pulsating hedonism of Sharm to the south, Southern Sinai is awash in money: from tourists, government, the private sector and NGOs. It is harder here to find those who have slipped through the cracks – but they exist, and just as in the North, the pressure is building inside.

Sheikh Jomaa has made that same journey southward, and his story offers a window onto the battle between competing visions of South Sinai’s future. Born in Gaza, where his father worked on an orange plantation, he relocated to Sheikh Zwayd with his family when the PLO forced them from their orchard. An insurgency against Israeli troops in Sinai was already underway, and one fateful morning soldiers came to the family home, seeking to arrest Jomaa’s uncle for his participation. When Jomaa, then six, opened the door, he was shot in the throat; as he lay on the ground in a pool of his own blood, his mother begged the Israelis to take him to hospital. They refused and told his mother, “we don’t want your son growing up into another Nasser or Sadat.”

Jomaa talks slowly and carefully today, after decades spent learning to speak again. After the end of the occupation, he came south and worked at a Bedouin campsite north of Nuweibah. Although Jomaa was from the Sawarka tribe he was accepted by the local Tarabin community and quickly became a popular and respected figure in the area for his good management skills and fluent grasp of Hebrew – a crucial skill during the Oslo-era boom in Israeli tourism.

Before the signing of the Oslo Accords there had been some tourism in the south, but it was a scattered affair. Major international players like the Hilton hotel group dominated resort towns like Taba and Sharm el Sheikh while individual Bedouins or local collectives held much of the land in between. The Egyptian government created an official Tourism Development Authority (TDA) to manage the area, and the powerful new agency lost no time in implementing its vision of an “Egyptian Riviera” that would run along the coast of the Gulf of Aqaba, taking in Nuweibah and the string of Bedouin run tourist camps that lined its northern beaches. Up to that point land here was regulated by customary law; now the TDA offered it up for sale at a negligible $1 per square metre to lure investors. The rush was on: a Gulf buyer snapped up the camp where Jomaa worked, and he moved further up the coast to find some unspoilt beaches and start out on his own.

After buying a small plot from some fellow Bedouins he went to register it with the authorities, only to be told it already belonged to Americana, a vast restaurant and retailing multinational. “They said they would pay me a small salary to live on the land as a guard,” remembers Jomaa. “I told them I had paid for this land myself and would do what I wanted with it, but they told me no, we only give this land to companies, not individuals.” Jomaa’s dream – of a simple campsite on the beach – had no place in the bold corporate makeover of the coastline. Jomaa managed to register himself as a company to get around the TDA rules, but, he says, “the authorities looked at my proposals and said no, this is bad. The people in Cairo won’t like this at all. Where is the air-conditioning?” Jomaa went ahead and built his eco-friendly huts and solar-powered cooker anyway. Now the Ministry of Investment is demanding $10,000 for a lease, which he cannot produce. “So I am silent, and, for now, they are silent. But the day they come to take this land, to make it into another Marriott or Hilton, that will be the last day of my life. It will destroy me.”

As we sit under stars sipping Bedouin tea in this peaceful slice of Sinai coastline, it becomes clear that the resistance of Jomaa and other Bedouins along this stretch of coastline – their desire both to participate meaningfully in Sinai’s tourist boom and do it in a way that embraces their cultural divergence from the rest of Egypt – is greatly discomforting for an Egyptian regime in thrall, above all, to big business. “If you have money, all of Egypt is your friend,” sighed Jomaa. The brand of tourism he is offering – ecologically sound, culturally authentic – should be able to sit alongside the large commercial enterprises and be a success in its own right, drawing on an expanding niche market of independent travellers from the West who are less keen on 24-hour partying and a McDonald’s on every corner.

Jomaa’s fears for his camp are well-founded; in the past decade army bulldozers have razed a number of camps to his south. Driving inland I see a huge mosaic of Mubarak on the roadside, hastily plastered over after being defaced by vandals. As I slow down to inspect it I recall Jomaa’s words: “In the minds of Egyptians we are just stereotypes: drug dealers, criminals, agents of Israel. I think us and the Egyptian state... we are just two entities that don’t understand each other.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

And that brings us, finally, to Sharm – throbbing with fun, playground of the president and a gaudy mirror revealing to the rest of the Peninsula what it could become if the hotel chains and the TDA have their way. With the partial construction of a concrete wall around the city to keep locals out, and the legal prohibition on Bedouins offering camel rides to tourists, international visitors can bask in the warm corporate glow of 91 high-end resorts, safely insulated from anything resembling traditional Bedouin life in the region. The dollars that pour into Sharm flow straight out of the Peninsula – at one five-star hotel every single one of the 250 employees comes from the Nile Valley and the only people now allowed to offer native-style “soirées” into the surrounding desert are official tour operators – a Bedouin experience, minus the Bedouin.

By geographical accident, this wild Peninsula has become home to a veritable smorgasbord of cultures: traditional Bedouin migrants from Arabia, a unique group of Bosnians in al Arish, or the Romanian and Macedonian ancestry of the Jibaliyya tribe, descendants of Islamic converts who were sent to Sinai in Ottoman times as security agents. What ties them together is merely that they share a different heritage from the one which dominates the country now ruling them, a heritage that is slowly being undermined by naked repression in the north and corporate marginalisation in the south. Authoritarian and politically unstable, the Egyptian government is busy consigning one of its most vibrant minorities to the shadows, fearful that their different way of life and complex patterns of identity could undermine loyalty to the state. The Bedouins are at once too localised – with allegiance to clans and tribes before all else – and too transnational, sharing family members with fellow tribespeople across the Egyptian border with Israel and the rest of the Arab world.

The government’s approach to the Bedouins of Sinai has not only bypassed a genuinely appealing cultural attraction for foreign visitors, but has also created a powder-keg that threatens to plunge the Peninsula into turmoil. And yet the state’s fears of disloyalty are misplaced. They have certainly succeeded in turning the native population against the government but, despite the full-frontal assault on their livelihoods and heritage, every single Bedouin I spoke with declared their pride at being an Egyptian. “The state wants to assimilate the sons of tribes into mainstream ‘Egyptian culture’, and I don’t even know what that is,” says Khalil Sawarka. “But our problem is not with Egyptian society.” Sayeed Atiyid, from Beir Shabana, agrees. “Yes, we face poverty and discrimination,” he tells me. “But people here feel 200% Egyptian. That’s all there is to it.” As Sinai’s remarkable story of growth and change continues to play out, it remains to be seen whether these proud Egyptians can secure any place for themselves in the Peninsula’s uncertain future.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Obamania: The view from Egypt

-Taken from the Guardian's 'Comment is Free'
-Cairo - November 2008

Hyperbole travels lightly these days, and watching the results and reactions pour in last night through a haze of shisha smoke and sweet Arabic coffee, one could easily be convinced that the whole world was trembling with Obamania. Yet as the sun rose on another warm winter's day in downtown Cairo, it was hard to detect much truth in the stratospheric verdicts of some pundits who claimed that ever corner of the world had just changed forever. "On this morning, we all want to be American so we can take a bite of this dream unfolding before our eyes," said one giddy French minister. Here, beyond the drunken American expats stumbling home from an embassy election party, most of the people walking around at dawn looked like they would rather have a bite to eat.

Analysis of the "global response" to Barack Obama's stunning victory last night tends to oscillate erratically between the elite and the street, interspersing the thoughts of diplomatic officialdom with quotes from random taxi drivers encountered by the reporter on the way to the airport. Neither approach offers a particularly satisfying insight into the significance of Obama's victory beyond America's borders, and it's easy to question the veracity of sweeping generalisations regarding any country's "popular" stance on the elections.

Egypt was a prime example of this in the run-up to the poll: an opinion-editorial by Thomas Friedman in the New York Times suggesting that the Egyptian masses were overwhelmingly pro-Obama was rubbished by others, with one respected blogger arguing that most people outside the political classes here don't even recognise Obama's name. "Friedman wouldn't understand that because these types of people don't hang out at the five-star hotels he stays in when on the road," remarked the analyst pointedly.

So how do Egyptians feel now about the victory of a man so often derided in the US – incorrectly – as an Arab and a Muslim? It's fair to say that most are relieved and even cautiously optimistic about the result; the Economist's global electoral college showed 92% support for Obama in the Arab world's largest country and although those voting online tended to be middle-class educated citizens with internet access, there's no doubt that among those who knew and cared about this contest Obama was the clear favourite.

There is a palpable sense of satisfaction that Americans themselves have passed such a damning verdict on the Bush era, an era which brought so much carnage to this region. This satisfaction has two distinct strands to it, and in order to understand why images of a mixed-race family waving to the crowds in Grant Park meant anything to an Egyptian, it is important to separate them out.

The first concerns the impact an Obama presidency will have on Egypt and its Middle Eastern neighbours. Despite disappointment at Obama's decision not to include Cairo on his whistle-stop tour of Middle Eastern hotspots earlier this year – credited to the senator's unwillingness to be seen "palling around" with dictators like Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak – his new administration will have to take Egypt seriously. "The anchor that Egypt has been in the region to many US policies will carry us forward to the next 30 years and beyond," says Margaret Scobey, the US ambassador to Cairo. Often rocky and sometimes downright hostile, it's clear that the "Catholic marriage" between the two nations, as one state newspaper refers to it, will need to be patched up if America's alliance of "friendly" geopolitical players like Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt is to hold. Viewed universally as a less bombastic and more thoughtful leader than Bush, there is hope amongst many diplomats that Obama will help facilitate such a patching up, especially as his win appears to push the prospect of a military confrontation with Iran further off the table.

Yet high-level diplomacy holds little relevance for most Egyptians, struggling with rising levels of unemployment and inflation and a yawning chasm between rich and poor. In terms of Obama's foreign policy, it is scepticism and not jubilation that rules the roost, and that scepticism cuts across the social spectrum. As many have observed, Obama's advisers are hardly a "neo-conservative free zone" and regardless, there is a widespread belief here that any American president of any colour or stripe will act solely in the interests of the US, including its new one. Hopes that the Democrat incumbent will use his position to push for a just and lasting peace in Palestine, curtail the "war on terror", or take on the Arab autocrats long propped up by American aid are all thin on the ground. "Bush's call for democracy was not ideologically motivated, as many seem to think, (rather) it was his way to promote US interests," said Essam El-Erian, leader of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood opposition group. Secular anti-government activists are also doubtful that Egypt's authoritarian regime will face a tougher ride with Obama in the White House.

Why should Obama's victory mean anything to "ordinary" Egyptians? The reason is the second, emotional strand. Far removed from the vagaries of potential foreign policy formulations, there is a visceral response to last night which cannot be underestimated. It's that a black man in the White House feels, in the words of one blogger, like a "little victory" in the face of "cultural invasion, globalisation and defeat". The "soft" penetration of America into Egyptian society in the form of TV, music and crass commercialism has been welcomed by many, particularly well-off youths who seek to aggressively embody American values through their clothes, gadgets and lifestyle choices. But, just as when (untrue) rumours of actor Will Smith and footballer Thierry Henry converting to Islam spread round the Arab world like wildfire, the ascendancy of Obama – shorthand, rightly or wrongly, for the marginalised, the dispossessed, those who fall under the radar of "mainstream" globalised stereotypes about what power and success should look like – proves for many that, just for once, supremacy can flow the other way as well.

And, without falling victim to saccharine rhetoric, that feeling can inspire hope beyond American shores. Egypt's masses are disenfranchised from their political system; they too must stand aside and watch as those with power and money shape their country's destiny and commandeer its riches, just as black Americans have been forced to for generations. Last weekend the country's ruling NDP held its annual conference where, once again, all discussion of the successor to 80-year-old Mubarak was ruthlessly dismissed by his son, widely tipped to take up that exact role himself in the future. This morning's result hasn't led every Egyptian to wish they were an American, but it has shown that status quos can be overcome, even in the unlikeliest of settings. An Obama-esque triumph, said Freidman, "couldn't happen anywhere in this region. Could a Copt become president of Egypt? Not a chance. Could a Shiite become the leader of Saudi Arabia? Not in 100 years. A Bahai president of Iran? In your dreams. Here, the past always buries the future, not the other way around." If Egyptians are taking a bite of any dream today, it's the dream that Friedman might just be wrong.

A double-edged sword: The Brotherhood Bloggers

-Taken from the Arab Press Network
-Cairo - November 2008

The blogosphere has long played a key role in transforming Egypt's political landscape, with new media formats being exploited by those seeking to challenge the regime of President Hosni Mubarak. Now though, some of Mubarak's adversaries are discovering that internet activism can be a double-edged sword, as a new generation of bloggers have begun critiquing the opposition movements themselves. The leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood (or 'Ikhwan'), Egypt's largest opposition group, is currently facing a powerful internal challenge from a young cadre of dissenting members who are finding their voice on the web.

The first wave of Muslim Brotherhood bloggers emerged in 2006, taking their cue from the secular civil society activists who, locked out of mainstream political discourse, had turned to the web - using blogs, Facebook and tools like Twitter not just to publish their grievances with government but also to carve out a new political space where like-minded people could debate, plan and co-ordinate activities. Early Ikhwan figures in cyberspace used the medium to publicise the repressive tactics used by police against their organisation. As a means of highlighting the human rights abuses suffered by group members at the hands of the state, the bloggers initially served a useful purpose for the Brotherhood leadership.

Yet although they started merely as another format through which to spread news about the Ikhwan, the Brotherhood bloggers soon grew into something far more dynamic as they began broadcasting their opinions regarding the internal state of their movement. According to Khalil Al-Anani, an expert on Political Islam at the Al-Ahram Foundation, the bloggers "have gone beyond their role as a media tool" for the group, emerging instead as "rebels, freed from ideological and organizational constraints." Chief amongst the bloggers' complaints have been criticism of the Ikhwan's 'old guard' for resisting the emergence of new blood in the upper echelons of the party's hierarchy, anger at the stance taken by the leadership over two attempted general strikes earlier this year, and an all-out critique of the organisation's forthcoming political program, the details of which are still shrouded in secrecy (although some bloggers claim it will not remove a prohibition on women or Copts becoming President of the nation, which has helped fuel their frustration at the leadership).

For an organisation so ruthlessly committed to internal discipline - founder Hassan El-Banna famously declared "We cooperate in what we have agreed on and excuse each other for what we have disagreed on" - the airing of dirty laundry in public is a jarring development. Interestingly, despite the bloggers generally identifying strongly with the liberal wing of the organisation's internal ideological divisions, reformist leaders within the party have been slow to offer them much support, fearing too much internal dialogue will threaten the cohesion of the movement. Some bloggers have faced naked hostility from the party elite (such as Abdel-Moneim Mahmoud, who claims he was ordered to leave the Ikhwan after questioning the group's slogan 'Islam is the Solution' on his blog, 'ana ikhwan'); others have simply been ignored. Mahmoud Ezzat, the conservative secretary-general of the Brotherhood, said younger members shouldn't be "scared to voice their beliefs" but warned, "There should be moral regulations to blogging, otherwise, we won't be able to benefit from this new technology."

Yet as Al-Anani points out, this policy of 'constructive disregard' for the bloggers on the part of the party's leaders has failed. The Brotherhood is attempting to sell itself to the Egyptian people partly as a tolerant antidote to the authoritarianism of Mubarak's regime; it cannot now crack down on its own members without appearing unwilling or incapable of accommodating conflicting opinions. The only alternative is to listen to the bloggers and take their opinions seriously, and that means being ready to make political concessions to the web warriors and allow them to help shape the party's programme. And that could have a significant impact on the trajectory of Egyptian politics, as the Muslim Brotherhood seeks to position itself as the main alternative to Mubarak in a time of unprecedented political volatility.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Sex and the civil servant

Egyptians have got themselves into a lather over revelations about middle-class swinger parties

-Cairo - October 2008
-Taken from the Guardian's 'Comment is Free'

Shell-shocked would be something of an understatement to describe the Egyptian reaction this week to news that a married couple have been hosting swinger sex parties in their painfully middle-class Cairo home. The "wife-swap scandal", as dubbed by an incandescent media, is dominating front pages, blog posts and streetside chatter and has sent the country's moral guardians into a lather of self-righteous piety.

While anyone seeking a thoughtful, balanced debate on the pros and cons of wife-swapping should probably look elsewhere (the practice having been almost uniformly labelled by the press as "disgraceful", "degrading" and "a horror"), the feeding frenzy has brought to the surface a vibrant undercurrent of debate over sexual mores in this profoundly conservative society, forcing Egyptians to confront usually unspeakable taboos.

First, the facts. Magdy, a 48-year-old senior civil servant and Samira, his much-younger schoolteacher wife (who wears a veil – no small detail when it comes to the evaluation of a woman's integrity in the public eye) allegedly set up a website to arrange swinger sessions with other partners and promoted it through various Arabic porn sites. It proved successful – no fewer than 44 couples expressed an interest in holding a rendezvous with Magdy and Samira, all of whom were carefully interviewed in downtown Cairo coffee shops to weed out the dull, unattractive and unmarried (Magdy believed married couples would be less likely to spill the beans to the police). Out of all those interviewed, at least four passed the test.

Many commentators have declared dramatically that this is the first time such a thing has occurred in Egypt – a claim regularly trotted out with regard to all manner of sexual perversions here, and one which is always highly doubtful considering this is a nation of more than 80 million citizens. It is certainly, however, the first time anyone has been caught in the act, and Magdy and Samira (the couple's internet aliases, not their real names) are currently languishing in police cells, charged with inciting debauchery, prostitution and immoral advertising. The pair, who have three children, could face up to three years in jail if convicted. Others suspected of partaking in the "debauchery" are still being rounded up.

The response has been one of almost universal revulsion. Message boards on mainstream media sites have been flooded with comments expressing dismay at the "degradation" of Islamic society, anger at the apparent lack of shame on the part of the couple themselves, and even pleas to newspapers not to give any more coverage to the story lest it inspire similarly morally-vacuous people. The strength of feeling Magdy and Samira have provoked is a useful reminder to those of us, including myself, who spend most of our time analysing Egypt's political divisions that the country's social and cultural boundaries are far more blurry; even politically-liberal, anti-regime bloggers like Zeinobia have called the wife-swappers "sick perverts" and condemned the human rights groups who have come to the couple's defence.

What lies behind the fury? Of course the most obvious answer is simply that Egyptian society is socially conservative – dynamic, certainly, and in a state of constant flux, but fundamentally rooted around the importance of Islamic values, at the heart of which stands the sanctity of family and marriage. Naturally many in the west might also find the idea of swinger orgies distasteful; the difference is that most would argue the actions of consenting adults in the privacy of their own home is their own business, a viewpoint that has remained largely absent from debate here. But I think there is another reason for the intensity of emotion on display, and it derives specifically from the twin economic and demographic crises that have engulfed Egypt in recent years.

Marriage is social oxygen in Egypt: an absolutely essential prerequisite for any long-term romantic union or child-rearing, and officially the only legitimate means of having sex at all. Yet spiralling unemployment and crippling price rises have made the cost of wedlock prohibitively expensive for most young people; whereas in 1976 almost a quarter of women were married by the age of 19, today that figure is less than 10% and there are more than nine million unmarried Egyptians of both sexes over the age of 30. Despite the credit crunch, tradition holds fast when it comes to marriage and the bill (especially for the groom) is exorbitant: an apartment must be found, furniture and appliances acquired (these are expected to be brand new, regardless of the economic situation of the families involved) and the Shabka must be purchased – a symbolic gift (usually of jewellery) for the bride that represents the "tying" of the couple. The price of the average Shabka alone starts at £2,000, in a country where a teacher earns about £30 a month.

Combine that with a demographic explosion that has seen the proportion of the population under the age of 30 climb to 60%, and you've got an awful lot of frustrated individuals in Egypt, most of whom are dreaming of marriage. And perhaps it is this reverence for an institution that appears so unattainable for so many that has really fuelled the outrage at Magdy and Samira's free-wheeling bedroom antics. After all, the Egyptian press is never short of other sex scandals to be feasted upon: in the last few months we have seen controversy erupt over "explicit" teen movie scenes, the whirlwind surrounding a new book depicting a licentious divorcee, and a furore over leading Islamic scholar Gamal el-Banna's call to stop condemning youths who kiss while dating. But none of these rows has inflamed passions quite as sharply as this one, despite being equally anathematic to conservative norms – possibly because all of them involve the sin of sex outside marriage, an activity still severely frowned upon but one which garners at least a smidgen of sympathy among those for whom a wedding remains a distant fantasy.

In contrast, wife-swapping entails those who have already been lucky enough to achieve that fantasy rubbing it in everybody's faces. It's one thing to bend the rules when the opportunity for legitimate sexual relations seems like it may never come knocking; it's quite another to debase the purity of that opportunity once you've taken it. And despite all the rhetoric about declining ethics and bad examples, I suspect the resentment many feel towards Magdy and Samira really stems from their heartfelt belief that marriage is unique, desirable and precious, and not something to be cheapened once you've been fortunate enough to obtain it – a belief reinforced daily by the poverty and lack of opportunity standing between many young people and matrimony.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

New brushstrokes on Egypt's canvas

The internet, ham-fisted censorship and an outspoken young generation are combining to redraw the media landscape

-Cairo - October 2008
-Taken from the Guardian's 'Comment is Free'

Modern Egypt has been compared to a surrealist painting: difficult to decipher and comprehend, dominated by dark, abrasive lines at the centre yet giving way to softer, more hopeful brush strokes at the periphery. Tarek Osman, the excellent writer who conceived the metaphor, used it to describe the politics, society and culture of the nation as a whole. But it also works when applied to the country's complex media landscape, the shifting contours of which – in print, on television and through the web – have been thrown into sharp relief in recent days.

The big news has been the presidential pardon of the controversial editor and outspoken regime critic Ibrahim Eissa, who sits at the helm of al-Dostour newspaper. This phenomenally popular daily has been a constant thorn in the government's side since it reopened in 2005 – seven years after being shut down for publishing an Islamist statement. In August last year, as whispers regarding Hosni Mubarak's health swirled through the streets, Eissa had the mendacity to write:

The president in Egypt is a god and gods don't get sick. Thus, President Mubarak, those surrounding him, and the hypocrites hide his illness and leave the country prey to rumours. It is not a serious illness. It's just old age. But the Egyptian people are entitled to know if the president is down with something as minor as the flu.

In an Orwellian doublespeak world where the president declares his belief in press freedom to be "unshakeable" and promises that no journalist will go to jail for doing their job, that paragraph was enough to land Eissa in court, where he was accused of single-handedly undermining international confidence in Egypt's stability and wiping $350m off the stock market.

The protracted legal drama that followed finally came to an end this week, when Mubarak used the occasion of Armed Forces Day to publicly revoke Eissa's two-month prison sentence, a sentence which Eissa had warned would "open the gates of hell for the Egyptian press." The blogosphere was underwhelmed by the president's generosity. "Mubarak is most misericordious and most merciful, is He not?" commented a particularly earnest fan.

On the face of it, Eissa's pardon does little to change the reality of press censorship in Egypt. As the Cairo-based journalist Will Ward has pointed out, the case against Eissa was more about "touching up" the invisible red line prohibiting reports on the health of Mubarak, who turned 80 this year, than putting any individuals behind bars, and in this respect the state has got what it wanted. It's clear that any genuine commitment to freedom of expression can't be dependent on the arbitrary whims of a corrupt autocrat – hence the continued presence of those dark, abrasive lines at the centre of the painting, where control over information seems to flow in one direction only.

But look closer and you'll see the picture become more complex. As the political analyst Khalil al-Anani has observed while exploring the efforts of the Egyptian state to protect itself by silencing civil opposition, "the dilemma of authoritarian regimes is that they are stupid". I've written here before about how the ruling elite's ham-fisted attempts to handle the independent media sector have backfired; in a globalised media environment it's simply impossible for the regime to "get the cat back in the bag" when it comes to the broadcasting of opposition voices in public.

Moreover, legal attacks on prominent figures like Eissa are a source of keen embarrassment to the younger generation of party high-fliers clustered around the president's son Gamal, who preaches the rhetoric of openness and transparency (while climbing into bed with some of the country's most dishonest businessmen). This younger cadre is expected to make its voice heard at the ruling NDP's annual conference next month.

The result is that such intermittent media crackdowns, the repainting of those thick dark lines on the picture, actually serve to blur the lineation of power in Egypt, creating new opportunities for other political actors to stake a claim.

And the really interesting thing about the media landscape in Egypt is the way in which those other political actors are also being emboldened, checked and divided by the opening up of the country's media scene. The spread of internet access, while still largely restricted to the urban middle class and increasingly monitored by the government, is funnelling a plurality of voices into the political mix, and the NDP aren't the only organisation to be shaken up by the ensuing turmoil.

The Muslim Brotherhood, technically Egypt's largest opposition group despite being legally outlawed, is facing a tsunami of dissent from within its own ranks as young Islamist bloggers attack the conservative leadership for their stance on religious freedom and women's rights. The bloggers "have gone beyond their role as a media tool" for the brotherhood, according to a recent edition of Arab Insight, and have emerged instead as "rebels, freed from ideological and organisational constraints." The dynamism of Egypt's new media has proved a double-edged sword for the Brotherhood's old guard, who have discovered, perhaps too late, that your enemy's enemy isn't always your friend.

Despite the bitter setbacks faced by journalists across different formats trying to expose injustice and improbity at the heart of the Arab world's largest country, the government's suffocating grip on the media here is slowly weakening. There is nothing linear about this process: writers and activists whose work is channelled through the net are routinely rounded up; the explosion of foreign satellite channels in recent years has been accompanied by police raids on programme-makers; the rise of independent ownership within the Egyptian newspaper industry is undermined by court cases against non-compliant editors.

But the critical feature of this media environment is that these shocks to the system, the heavy-handed application of black lines on the canvas, are constantly creating new opportunities for colourful and unexpected brush strokes on the margins – and those margins are encroaching upon the centre day by day.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Coptic-Muslim tensions: Egypt's fragile sectarian peace hangs in the balance

-Cairo - September 2008
-Taken from The Scotsman (in two parts)

In the shadows of the Moqattam cliffs that tower over Cairo’s eastern fringes, Safwat Nazeem is picking his way through tens of thousands of empty plastic bottles. They arrive on donkey-drawn carts from every corner of the city and beyond, and – after being deftly sorted and shredded by Safwat and his colleagues – will be sold on as raw material to one of the giant Chinese factories dotted across the nearby desert. Safwat, like his father before him, is one of the Zabaleen, Egypt’s invisible army of refuse collectors who gather the urban waste around them and welcome it into their homes. Their neighbourhood, known as Garbage City, overflows with rubbish – piled up in doorways, sprawling over courtyards, balanced precariously on roofs – all waiting to be sifted and recycled. And after a recent spate of national violence and media intrigue, the Zabaleen have become a community on the defensive.

Like the vast majority of Garbage City’s residents, Safwat is a Coptic Christian – part of an eight million-strong religious minority in Egypt that predates the presence of Islam in the country by over 500 years. The degree of social cohesion between the two religions has risen and fallen through the centuries, from the forced conversions visited upon Copts during the Mamluk period to the ‘golden age’ of social harmony in the early 20th century, when Christians and Muslims united behind the nationalist cause. In the past few months, however, the country’s fragile sectarian balance has been rocked by a series of violent clashes, fierce accusations of discrimination on both sides and rumours of murky special interests spreading disruption from abroad. International media outlets have warned of the impending ‘Lebanonisation’ of the Arab World’s biggest country, whilst sceptics insist the upturn in religious fighting is merely a media invention, though one which is fast spiralling into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The story begins in late May, when four Christians were gunned down in a Cairene jewellery shop. The government dismissed the incident as a common robbery, neglecting to explain why nothing was taken from the store. Pope Shenouda, the ageing patriarch of the Coptic Church, opted to stay quiet following the incident, and maintained his silence even when a similar attack took place on a Coptic jeweller in Alexandria a few days later. But he was finally forced to speak out on May 31st when a serene Coptic outpost, the 1,700 year old monastery of Abo Fana, was besieged by dozens of Muslims following a land dispute with local farmers. “The attacks began 150 metres away from the monastery, and they got closer and closer until they were next to the monastery, where three monks were kidnapped and tortured,” announced the Pope. “They were pressured to renounce their religion and spit on the cross. When they refused they were whipped. The monks were tied to trees and blindfolded during the whipping and one monk had his leg broken.”

Although the Abo Fana controversy occurred 300 miles south of the Egyptian capital, its impact was felt throughout the country, bringing long-simmering resentments to the fore of the public debate. Copts have consistently complained that archaic building regulations hamper the repair or expansion of their churches, strangling the ancient faith with bureaucracy. They also claim they are denied access to key positions in government because of their religion. Muslim commentators have argued that most Copts are better off than their Muslim counterparts, and that the Christian faithful are being manipulated by external forces using the guise of ‘minority rights’ to interfere with Egypt’s internal affairs. Critics on both sides of the divide agree that the potential for sectarian violence is growing as the economic hardship faced by all Egyptians intensifies.

Having finished work for the day, Safwat sits sipping tea in his neatly furnished apartment above the rubbish mound. Although the 31-year-old is not particularly observant – he only attends the nearby St Samaans Church, a huge cave cathedral carved out of the Moqattam hillside, about once a year – he shares the fears of many Christians that the changing political landscape in Egypt is threatening his way of life. “I don’t feel insecure personally,” he says, glancing up at a figurine of the Virgin Mary, “but the government doesn’t do enough to protect our rights.” He bemoans the strength of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s biggest political opposition force. “‘Islam is the solution’ is their slogan,” he sighs, “but there is no place for Christians in that, no place for anyone else.” Safwat is one of the few inhabitants of Garbage City that are willing to speak out on this subject; life here is tightly controlled, both by the ecclesiastical establishment and the rich businessmen who make a fortune from the semi-official waste management process, and residents are consequently afraid of talking publicly. The poverty they live in is often overlooked by the wider Muslim community, who characterise the Copts as a rich, privileged elite, citing individuals like prominent Copt businessman Naguib Sawiris – one of the world’s 100 richest men – as examples.

Yet despite the mud-slinging, there is a growing backlash against the intense media focus on Copt-Muslim relations at home and abroad. “What is happening is that people are now turning normal day-to-day clashes into religious disputes,” argues Sameh Fawzy, a political analyst. He believes that marginalised social groups are increasingly using the mask of sectarian tension as a means of getting the authorities to meet their demands. In a political system riddled with corruption and nepotism, colouring local grievances with a religious hue is proving to be a sure-fire way of ensuring national attention. “The government decided a long time ago to put the law on hold when a sectarian problem takes place, trying to solve it instead by reconciliation between both groups,” says Fawzy. “The result is that people use sectarianism to try and circumvent the law.”

The tensions are multiplied by the actions of émigré Copts, especially in the United States where Coptic groups recently held large protests outside the Egyptian embassy. The US Copts Association lists on its website 19 ‘undeniable and documented acts of aggression and practices of discrimination. These acts are the products of intentional and/or neglectful practices of both the Egyptian government and various groups of misguided and misinformed Muslims.’ Some believe expatriate criticisms of the Egyptian regime are fuelling domestic charges of disloyalty against Copts such as Safwat, who sees himself as a ‘Christian first and an Egyptian second’. “I am not on the side of those Copts marching outside Egypt, because they are not here, we are,” he says. “These disputes have always been present, but now because of satellite television and the media they are being made more of.” Fawzy agrees: “I don’t think the demonstrations abroad will help our problems. My concern is that this kind of behaviour makes ordinary Muslims on the street more suspicious, more sceptical and will create more difficulties between the communities at a grass-roots level.”

And it is not just Copts who are wary of the way in which sectarian disputes have been hyped up by the press, particularly Western media outlets documenting the growing isolation of Copts from mainstream Egyptian society. “Foreign influences will always try to attack the weakest point in a country to poison it, and one of our weakest points is the religious divide,” claims Sanaa Khalil, a 41-year-old Muslim rent broker who lives in the mixed Muslim-Christian neighbourhood of Shubra in Cairo. “Weakening Egypt is part of a wider agenda that the West has for the Middle East. There is nothing new about clashes between Muslims and Christians here, so why so much attention now?”

After myriad protests and a 1,000 strong monastic sit-in following events at Abo Fana, the violence has, for now, receded. An uneasy calm prevails, much to the relief of Christians like Safwat. Like countless others, he recently headed into town to see the new film ‘Hassan and Morcos’, a box-office smash which makes comic mileage out of social strains between Egypt’s Christian and Muslim communities. Some groups have accused one of the stars, veteran Muslim actor Adel Imam, of apostasy following his decision to portray a Christian on the big screen. Yet despite the controversies, Sameh Fawzy views the film’s success is a positive development. “People now realise that to keep society harmonious and integrated, we must address such problems, instead of denying their existence,” he says.

He is also optimistic that, as they have done in the past, the two religions can overcome their differences by focusing on a shared battle, inextricably linking the Coptic issue with the national agenda of political reform in this volatile state. “When Egyptians speak about democracy and political reform they forget sectarian incidents because they find a common project, without excluding anybody,” he insists. “But when Egyptians forget or put aside the common project, they start thinking about religious division. That’s what we have to avoid.”

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The crunch hits Cairo

In Egypt, the economic shocks rippling out from Wall Street will shake an already fragile political landscape.

-Cairo - September 2008
-Taken from the Guardian's 'Comment is Free'

The world is just emerging from a week of financial turmoil which has dissolved old certainties about the economic system structuring our lives. Yet despite the fact that commentators regularly assure us that we have just witnessed a meltdown of truly global proportions, we've been treated to more pictures of bedraggled London bankers clutching cardboard boxes than we have to any concrete analysis of how the events of past few days are perceived beyond the west.

On Wednesday last week, the Guardian featured a selection of quotes from prominent leftwingers on whether capitalism has had its day, a worthy contribution to the debate at a time when the Telegraph is heralding the end of the world as we know it and Times readers are quoting Marx on the newspaper's online message-boards. But although the demise of the free market may appear a somewhat jarring prospect over cornflakes in Kent, in many parts of the world the ideological spectrum of mainstream political and economic thinking extends far beyond blind faith in the markets – leaving those governments who have staked their credibility on IMF and World Bank-led neoliberal reforms vulnerable to social unrest.

One such country is Egypt, where the long process of reversing Nasser's socialist economic policies of the 1950s and 1960s that was begun under President Sadat and intensified by the current regime, has produced strong growth rates in recent years. However, these percentage points have come at the cost of destroying social welfare institutions and have fuelled spiralling inflation and unemployment. Despite the presence of an ostentatious middle-class enjoying the fruits of economic liberalisation, capitalism is not accepted as an inevitability by many on the ground facing bloodshed in the subsidised bread queues that have lengthened as the government's free-market programmes begin to bite. In this context, the latest round of financial chaos threatens to tip an already volatile political situation over the edge.

So how will chaos on Wall Street shape political and economic developments in the Arab world's largest country? I spoke to figures from across the political divide and asked them how they thought the financial meltdown would impact upon them and their country.


Rania al-Malky, editor of the independent newspaper Daily News Egypt. The state-controlled press is being increasingly challenged by a new wave of independent media outlets which have been vociferous in their criticism of the government's economic policies:

The impact of the meltdown on Egypt may not be felt by the average Egyptian right now, but it will certainly take its toll within months, especially if the Egyptian pound continues its devaluation against the dollar. A lopsided foreign exchange rate is detrimental to an economy like Egypt, which is service-oriented rather than industry and production-based. Although our exports have increased significantly over the past two years, we still rely almost entirely on imports to support our industries and for agricultural staples like wheat. So with a weakening Egyptian pound, both prices and inflation are bound to keep shooting up, ultimately to the detriment of the struggling Egyptian masses.

Inflamed social sentiment against the ruling regime will naturally ensue, especially at a time when news of the corruption of businessmen and politicians is exposed daily in the media and displays of negligence and the utter lack of competence of bodies like the civil defence authority have revealed beyond a shadow of a doubt that the current administration is incapable of dealing with emergencies.

As for the effect of an economic recession on the opposition, we must distinguish between the generally impotent official opposition parties and the increasingly effective and powerful civil-society based movements that have been able to kick up a lot of dust to lobby for workers' rights and against rising prices. Any serious economic downturn in Egypt will boost the appeal of such grassroots movements and banned Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood.

Hossam el-Hamalawy, a dissident blogger and member of the Egyptian Revolutionary Socialists. The web has become a vibrant outlet for many in Egypt for criticising government's policies and exposing economic corruption:

Neoliberal theorists and apologists have never been on the defensive as they are today. Economic crises have already hit several countries marked as distinguished 'reformers' by international financial institutions like the IMF and World Bank, whose victims were generally workers and the urban poor. Here in Egypt, our economy on paper is booming, with a 7.1% GDP growth rate, yet inflation has already hit 25% and basic commodities have either disappeared from the local market or increased over 50% in price. Two popular uprisings have already taken place this year and this is happening on the back of the biggest strike wave in the country since the end of the second world war. We know panic travels at the speed of light through stock markets, and of course Egypt will not be immune from an economic collapse in the west, because our economy is integrated into the global market and is subject to its fluctuations. I think we can also expect a significant drop in Egypt's tourism revenues, with less people in the US and elsewhere affording vacations.

Professor Abdelaziz EzzelArab, director of the Economic and Business History Research Centre at the American University in Cairo:

Capitalism has proven resilient and adaptable in its history of dealing with crises, and although it will not collapse overnight, it will gradually evolve into an increasingly regulated market and ultimately some form of market socialism. How will this be perceived by Egyptians? Probably with a shrug of the shoulder, if not with a sense of content. Two broad factors contributed in recent years to a dramatic reversal in the public mood towards capitalism, which followed the initial excitement surrounding the hesitant steps towards a free market taken from the late 1970s to the mid 1990s. One factor comes from abroad: the attitude, policies, and actions of the US which have earned it the popular image of an "evil empire". The other is domestic: the bitter record of the market in the past 17 years since the adoption of free market mechanisms through 'economic reform and structural adjustment policies'.

The outcome of the reforms was an unholy alliance of political and business magnates, to the benefit of a tiny clique that controls both domains to the detriment of the masses. The scandals, crimes, and failures in 2008 alone are too numerous to recount and have become common talk even among ruling party columnists. The nation's experience with the system is that it lacks compassion, a basic trait in Egypt's social fabric, and it thus becomes perceived negatively. When the system is severely shaken in its global centres, as is happening now, it will likely be seen as a deserved end for capitalism, in a way not dissimilar to the attitude towards the collapse of the USSR – perceived by the public as the expected end of a tyrannical model.

Recurrent scandals eradicated much of the regime's moral foundation in recent months. The current crisis of capitalism is untimely for the regime, inasmuch as it deprives it from the ideological underpinning of its present economic policies. The theoretical soundness of the adopted model is itself doubted and its dilemma is therefore deepened. It may be a ripe moment for the regime to realise the necessity of embracing recent calls for a new constituent assembly that would lay the grounds for an alternative order and a new constitution. But this presumes a sense of political far-sightedness that the regime has not so far displayed.

Dr Abdul Hamid al-Ghazali, consul to the supreme guide of the Muslim Brotherhood and professor of economics at Cairo University. Despite being officially outlawed, the Brotherhood is the strongest parliamentary opposition group to the ruling NDP and the most tightly-organised Islamist political force in Egypt. It has been criticised by other opposition movements for being supportive of free-market capitalism:

We are in a chaotic situation in Egypt by our own making. We are witnessing corruption scandals every day, all of which are symptoms of shocking economic management. Over and above, we now have this international economic chaos which is being reflected in our own financial markets. I don't think foreign investors will be deterred from putting money into our economy, but the foreign and domestic factors together do make the situation very dramatic at a time when the government is already very weak. It has no popular support, no strength, and for the regime this financial crisis is the beginning of the end.

The Muslim Brotherhood has been supportive of the free market and against monopolistic practices, and we continue to maintain that stance. The difference between our economic programme and that of the current regime is that we oppose the corruption and monopolising that has led to key strategic industries like oil and steel being destabilised. But free-market reforms, with strong government safeguards to prevent these kind of practices, remain Egypt's best hope for progress.

Although we have suffered a lot from this government's economic reforms I don't think the Egyptian people have lost faith in the free market altogether. A managed free market that serves the public and provides for fairness and security, instead of capitalism which serves the interests of the regime alone, this is what people want. The crisis gives the whole country an opportunity, a chance for a new constitution and a new choice of government through the ballot box.


Monday, September 8, 2008

Hundreds feared dead in Cairo as rockslide hits slums

-Cairo - September 2008
-Taken from the Scotsman

AT LEAST 31 people have died and hundreds more are missing after a massive rockslide hit one of Cairo's poorest neighbourhoods on Saturday.

Duwayqa, a shanty town to the east of the Egyptian capital, was hit by eight boulders weighing up to 70 tonnes each.

Local residents have clashed with troops at the scene, accusing the authorities of ignoring numerous warnings that a landslide might be imminent, and claiming that the rescue operation to save those trapped under the rubble has been slow and inefficient.

Witnesses described desperate relatives scrabbling at the rocks with their bare hands to free those buried. Emergency services were hampered by delays in getting cranes and heavy lifting equipment to the site, and rescue workers observing the Muslim holy month of Ramadan are working in hot, dusty conditions without food or water.

Duwayqa is a densely populated slum area in the shadows of the limestone Moqattam Hills, which have long been identified by experts as vulnerable to erosion from running sewage waste and badly planned construction projects.

Local media reports suggest that a contractor was doing building work on the plateau above Duwayqa when the rocks were dislodged, crushing the shanties below.

Government officials have ordered a full evacuation of the area.

It has emerged that residents told the authorities more than a year ago that large cracks had formed in the mountainside. A new housing project intended for some of the slum-dwellers was inaugurated by Suzanne Mubarak, the Egyptian first lady, in 2003.

Yet despite this apparent acknowledgement by the government that Duwayqa and surrounding shanties were at risk, the transfer of residents to the new houses had still not taken place when tragedy struck. Critics of the government blame corruption for the delay.

Ahmed Salah, a pro-democracy activist, said: "Everyone expected this collapse, and it was a matter of when it would occur, not if. Alternative houses were constructed at the Suzanne Mubarak project but, because of corruption, the people they were built for did not get to move in.

"The authorities want to make more money instead by selling the units on privately."

Egyptian media reported that some people refused to move because the new houses were too far away. Some residents said that they did not believe the houses existed or thought they had to pay a bribe to get one.

Nimah Abdel Tawab, an elderly woman, asked: "We only saw these homes on television. Where are they?"

Mohamed Hassan, another resident, said: "The people with money took these homes. Everything in our country is for money."

Egypt has been criticised for unsafe construction practices, which contribute to the problem of collapsing homes. According to a 2002 report, nearly 60 per cent of Cairo's residents live in under-serviced, illegal dwellings and a quarter of all habitations are in imminent danger of caving in.

Described by a United Nations habitat survey as "the largest squatter, informal area in Cairo", Manshiyet Nasr, the urban district which includes Duwayqa – is particularly exposed to this problem.

It has more than 400 residents per acre, and according to the report,suffers from "poor living qualities, inadequate services, lack of infrastructure, and deteriorated environmental conditions".


THIS disaster is the latest in a string of scandals that has provoked widespread anger and scorn at the government of 80-year-old president Hosni Mubarak, one of the Arab world's longest-serving rulers and a key Washington ally.

In 2006, the sinking of a ferry in the Red Sea led to the deaths of more than 1,000 Egyptians, but despite evidence that there had been "serious defects" in the vessel, the ferry's owner – who was a prominent politician and high-ranking member of the ruling NDP party – was this summer acquitted of any responsibility, causing outrage in court.

Earlier this year, a bus crashed into the Nile, killing 19 people, and an accident at a train crossing left a further 40 Egyptians dead.