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.