The Revolution Continues

It is very difficult to figure out how to articulate my thoughts and feelings regarding the events in Egypt over the past few days. Every time I try, the same roadblocks seem to present themselves….

Where do I start: January 25th? June 30th? July 3rd? July 26th?

What actors do I include: Activists? The interim government? Just the Muslim Brotherhood and the Military?

What’s my frame of analysis: The ailing motherland? The demise of democracy? The many faces of fascism?

But after receiving some shocking pictures of my cousins’ street in Alexandria and engaging in a quality discussion with another cousin who was one of the January 25th revolutionaries…I decided on a much less organized and more impulsive approach…

On what’s happening at this very moment

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Cousins’ street in Alexandria

First of all, I am deeply saddened by what’s going on right now.  I do not endorse violence of any kind to anyone in Egypt and am particularly disgusted by the Muslim Brotherhood’s destruction and violence towards innocent parties and institutions such as universities and churches.

The interim government’s decision to employ violence to break up Muslim Brotherhood protests and sit-ins at Rabia Al-Adawiyya and Al Nahda was a huge mistake. This is a group of people who have been forced out of power which they attained by democratic means; many of its members and leadership have also vowed to use violence to defend themselves and further their agenda. When you use violence to force the dissolution of these protests at Rabia and Al Nahda, the group will of course feel that much more justified to employ violence in response.  What do you think a party that more than once said they’d light the country ablaze if they didn’t get their way would do if their demonstrations were violently shaken to the ground? They’re going to burn churches, they’re going to attack police officers, they’re going to rip apart tram tracks, and they’re going to storm schools. Why use violence against a group whose very essence you say is violent?

Certainly, many of the Muslim Brotherhood’s members have actually been linked to terrorism and terrorist groups in the past, but we can not forget that the Freedom and Justice Party was elected by the people and was running the country (albeit poorly) a matter of months ago. We can not expect to simply pull the rug out from under their feet and have them disappear as we inflame them by calling them terrorists. You have to exhaust all political and diplomatic means before resorting to violence. Using violence to simply wipe them out is not only wrong in and of itself, but it is also impractical when looking towards Egypt’s future. If these guys really have been known to employ terror tactics, do you think they’re going to forget about the massacre that occurred in August 2013 when the supposedly civilian government employed violence to abruptly terminate their demonstrations? Demonstrations which, mind you, exist for the sake of protesting their forced removal from democratic power? They will never forget this. They will never forget all the ‘martyrs’ who died for their cause at the hands of the military/police and they will continue to respond with what we’ve seen over the past few days. In turn, the military and police will respond by clamping down even harder, by pushing a violent and forceful agenda even further and by suspending basic rights on an even larger scale in order to protect citizens from what may actually morph into a terrorist threat. It is at this stage that the Muslim Brotherhood may actually seek terrorism as a method of pushing its agenda. This, mind you, is the very same terrorism the army used to justify its decision to use force in the first place. The result is a political party being forced out of government and possibly morphing into a terrorist threat.

In summary, the Muslim Brotherhood are an irrational and violent group, the military/police/interim government painted an inaccurate picture of them as far as current events in Egypt are concerned, proceeded to use violence to combat this inaccurate picture, and subsequently inflamed and agitated an irrational and violent group to behave much like this inaccurate picture.

What was the alternative?

Burned police truck on cousins' street in Alexandria

Burned police truck on cousins’ street in Alexandria

I’ve always had a pet peeve for people who justify their actions by asking this question. Why does there always have to be a presence of a multitude of inferior options for me to express the point of view that the one you elected is poor ? There is a difference between a good decision and the best decision, and for the record this one is neither. That being said…I do not have an explicit alternative for someone who poses this question. I do firmly believe however that all peaceable, diplomatic, and political options were not exhausted prior to the decision to clear these people out of their sit-ins by force. Yeah, they tried some negotiations, yeah, there are horror stories about people dying inside of these protests and storing all kinds of weapons, and yeah, they were causing quite a bit of grief for civilians living nearby who wanted nothing to do with any of this. However, none of this legitimates the violence and innocent Egyptians slain to address these concerns. Negotiations failed? Try again. Then…try again…and again…and again. There are people in there who you have leveled charges against? Find a way to go in there and apprehend them. They are causing innocent civilians living nearby to live in fear of leaving their homes and preventing children from starting school? Find a way to contain them. I’m not just sitting here on my laptop idealistically typing away naive ideas to the army/police/government. The problem isn’t so much about them finding a way, its more so about the fact that they did not even try.

What does this mean for the events of June 30th and July 3rd?

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Ever since I arrived in Egypt on July 5th, the one shred of truth I’ve clung to amid this complex and ever changing situation is that  June 30th was good and that I am glad it happened. Mursi confused democracy with ballotocracy; viewing his democratic election as a free pass to enforce an authoritative style of government which had denied its people basic human rights, supervised an increase in terrorism and sectarian violence, and prioritized a regional Islamist agenda over the basic needs of the Egyptian people. His removal was demanded by the very people he had been responsible to serve, and he had failed in serving them. However, during a heated conversation with a cousin who was heavily involved with the January 25th revolution and chose to stay out of the June 30th one, my satisfaction with the events of June 30th has nearly vanished.

There is no doubt that the people who hit the streets on June 30th had every right to take action.  However; I now question whether it was a smart idea. Opting for a ‘populist-military coup’ or whatever you want to call it before trying to work within the existing political infrastructure puts these people at the mercy of the army which as many Egyptians seem to have forgotten, doesn’t exactly have the best track record. If, as many claim, 30 million people hit the streets on June 30th demanding that President Mursi step down, couldn’t these people have thrown up a few viable alternative at the next parliamentary elections coming up in less than a year? If opposition was that high, couldn’t they have cycled the majority of the Brotherhood out in one election? One may respond (as I once did) that no such political infrastructure existed to begin with; that if these people tried to do this, the irrational and violent Brotherhood would have sacrificed itself and the country before relinquishing power. Well then, why not let them prove their own irrationality and violence to the rest of the country and the world before forcing their removal with a ‘populist-coup’ and giving them every reason to employ such irrationality and violence? Don’t you think 30M people in the streets demanding that an autocratic ruler step down after his parliament refused to respect the results of an election holds a lot more credibility then just going out and demanding his removal before even proving that the system is flawed to begin with? Don’t you think it makes a lot more sense for the army to intervene on behalf of the people at this juncture? Furthermore, don’t you think that this would force the army to be held accountable to the will of the people to operate within at least a semblance of a democratic political infrastructure?

The people didn’t wait to prove the government’s failure and so they skipped a step. Because of this, they had no legitimacy…no proof that the democratic system was severely flawed. As a result of this absence of this legitimacy, the army was basically the sole actor in dissolving the constitution and removing former president Mursi. This allowed the army and police to expand their power in the name of protecting the people which needed its help so desperately. Add in the fact that much of Egypt is viewing this as a binary…’good guys vs. bad guys’ type situation and you lose all the people who disagree with both sides. You lose the true revolutionaries like my cousin who want a truly civilian government, who’d rather try to fix a flawed democratic system before using force to wipe it out. These people are still around but it’s going to be much more difficult for them to make their voices heard when the army employs authoritarianism to re-usher in the military state. Had they just tried to use the political process first it would have at least established credibility across all factions of Egyptian society. It would have proved that Egyptians want to solve things politically before using force and that intention would have been respected for years to come.

As the military and police continue to strengthen their grip and the threat of terrorism continues to become a reality…I worry for the future of the country. It seems that it’s headed back to the way things were (and possibly worse) before the beautiful revolution of January 25th. A revolution that has been hijacked and tossed back and forth between the hands of giants with greater power. However, I place all of my hope for the future on the shoulders of these true revolutionaries. I count on them to continue pursuing the true goals of January 25th and to find a way to see that these goals are realized.

The revolutions continues.

What did we learn? Questions for the Egyptian Masses

Sidi Gaber

A few days ago, an Egyptian military leader asked his people to authorize him to fight terrorism.  I attended these demonstrations and now have two questions for the Egyptian people. Both of these questions are sub-items of a larger concern:  What did we learn?

Wait so…terrorists?

Terrorists? I’m not saying I know one way or the other and I’m definitely not saying that the Muslim Brotherhood hasn’t employed some terrorist tactics since the ousting of Mursi. What I am saying, is that I think it is a dangerous idea to label the entirety of the organization as terrorist. Believe it or not, some these people are rational human beings who feel they were wrongfully removed from power and deserve their chance at democracy. While I vehemently disagree, this does not mean they are terrorists, and they have every right to protest. In fact, when rational people like this who simply want to peacefully protest find themselves labeled as terrorist criminals, they may in fact later be motivated to employ terrorist tactics. Isn’t this a textbook cause of terrorism?  Labeling them as ‘the other.’ Inspiring the masses to oppose them in order to legitimate the state’s ability to forcefully suppress them completely? What did we learn?

Someone may respond and tell me, bombs have been found. Attacks have been carried out. Weapons have been funneled from outside of Egypt and martyrs have been called upon to fight with their own blood.  My response: Yes, this is true.  Some of these people are violent and have no qualms with turning Egypt into a warzone in order to get Mursi back in power. Terrorism is happening but we simply need to bring these people to justice the same way we would any other criminal. Then we allow the rest of the group to be integrated within a pluralistic society participating in a democracy. Isn’t a democratic system the type in which a group like the brotherhood should feel most protected? Isn’t it the type of government that protects everyone’s rights to express themselves? Isn’t it supposed to be the system of government which best seeks to give anyone who desires a chance to take part in government? If so, then why blindly label the entirety of the group as terrorists?  What did we learn?

Why are we becoming blindly obsessed with yet another military leader?

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m of the opinion that June 30th could not have happened without El Sisi and the military. Mursi’s administration seemed to misunderstand democracy as a system which is solely based on elections. If you’re elected, you officially have the right to rule the country however you please (more on my support for June 30th here). I am still of the opinion that he needed to leave and I’m still very happy that he did.

BUT. What has happened since has not only worried me but also come to cast a shadow on the pure joy and elation I experienced on June 30th.  At yesterday’s demonstrations I saw an absurd number of posters praising El Sisi, people chanting his name, children wearing masks of his face, and more. Really?! We are going to emerge from the June 30th revolution by singing the praises of one man? And a military man to boot!  Why is everyone so ready to accept the absolute leadership of ANOTHER military leader? Isn’t that a large part of why the  January 25th revolution happened to begin with? Are we going backwards or forwards here? You’re walking around holding up signs of El Sisi next to Abdel Nasser? I know Abdel Nasser did some great things for Egypt and the region at large but isn’t he the father of the Egyptian military state? Isn’t he the one who arbitrarily threw people in jail? Ran a one party system which allowed for zero dissent? Didn’t he oversee some of the first instances of police brutality? If we flood the streets singing the praises of one military man as the savior of this nation, don’t we run the risk of setting the clock back to pre-January 25th Egypt? What did we learn?

From yesterday's demonstrations, note the posters of Sisi and Abdel Nasser.

From yesterday’s demonstrations, note the posters of Sisi and Abdel Nasser.

Furthermore, why is El Sisi asking for people to demonstrate in the streets in order to authorize him to deal with terrorists? I thought we had set up an interim civilian government and he was simply backing it. You shouldn’t need to make such a request. It should come from another place. Where was Adly Mansour, the current president? Or Mohamed El Baradei, the Vice President? Shouldn’t they be calling the shots right now? Didn’t we just say we wanted a civilian government in place? One that would create a just constitution, one that would serve the interests of those who returned to the streets on June 30th, who proclaimed that ‘the January 25th revolution continues?’  Why are we allowing ourselves to rely so heavily on the military again? What did we learn?

I understand that these are dangerous times. Much of the country isn’t safe and its citizens need protection. But I question these methods. I question the absence of political process and diplomacy in decision making  and I question the way the millions of citizens who flooded squares and plazas all over Egypt yesterday seemed blind to this absence. It worries me for the future and just makes me wonder….

What did we learn?

Suhur

The other night I had the privilege of meeting up with some people to grab ‘Suhur.’ Suhur is when we eat a butt(ocks)ton of food before dawn in order to survive the long day of fasting ahead . When I’d fast back in the USofA, suhur was lame. No one was fasting with me so I’d just stay up a little bit past 2, guzzle 12-200 glasses of water, pound some vitamins, eat a piece of bread, and go back to sleep…only to spend the rest of the night going to the bathroom every 5 seconds for fear of peeing my pants…

ANYWAY. I’ve purposely tried to take advantage of my first Egyptian Ramadan by going out for suhur. The other night my friend invited me to this cool place in an area called ‘Syeda Zeinab.’ It’s in an old part of town, home to a mosque built in honor of Prophet Mohamed’s granddaughter………(wait for it)……Zeinab (surprise!). Alica Keys was wrong when she called NYC the ‘concrete jungle where dreams are made of’ because Syeda Zeinab is pure madness…although I’m not sure there is consensus on whether or not dreams are produced there, but I’d definitely say that it’s a concrete/asphalt jungle where something is something’d for the purposes of somethinging. Picture mass numbers of interwoven, narrow streets teeming with people who are casually walking in front of cars, motorcycles (which are typically being ridden by 3-7 people, perhaps a family of 3-7 people), and these weird car things that look like overgrown toys or a ride at Kings Dominion.

Hey man, what are you up to tonight? Wanna drive around Syeda Zeinab and go bowling for people? Come over!

Hey man, what are you up to tonight? Wanna drive around Syeda Zeinab and go bowling for people? Come over!

Now picture a few tables in the middle of all of that. I sat at one of these tables outside a restaurant called ‘El Gahsh’ or..’Little Donkey.’ Within seconds of taking my seat, a stack of pita bread is haphazardly thrown in the middle of the table and it is soon joined by several metal bowls of Egyptian awesomeness. In the background, stray cats casually stroll around the table, beggers approach selling packages of tissues, and employees attract potential customers by yelling “EL GAHSH” a millimeter or so from the face of anyone with legs who happens to pass by. There are no plates, there are no napkins. Just the bowls and the bread. It was incredible (the cool kind).

It's not gross man; I promise.

It’s not gross man; I promise.

Although suhur here is way more fun, it isn’t exactly effective. Everyday I wake up with a mouth that is practically sewn together with dryness, a yearning for pepto bismol, and about 7 hours of fasting ahead of me but my plans to grab shawerma at 230 tonight tell me that it’s all worth it.

The more you know, the more you dont.

I came to Egypt thinking that June 30th was a popular uprising, spearheaded by many of the young liberals who lead the January 25th revolution in 2011. Their revolution had been high-jacked and their vision for Egypt distorted by a man who had mistaken his election by popular vote as the ‘freedom’ to rule as a dictator. So on June 30th, they took to the streets once again, announcing that the revolution was still going, and that they had returned to take it back. This time they were joined by an unprecedented number of Egyptians from almost all factions of society and within a short period of time, the military (backed by a coalition of a wide variety of representatives) intervened on their behalf, turning everything over to an interim, civilian, government.

Since arriving in Egypt, I have set out to see if there’s more to the story.  Over the past few weeks I have had distinct pleasure of meeting with a wide range of politically inclined Egyptians. Some are activists, some hold leadership positions within political parties, some work for local NGOs, and others simply choose to identify themselves as politically inclined citizens. Each of these conversations has pointed to a bigger picture that I admittedly knew very little of.

I sat on bean bags and drank cookies and cream milkshakes with my revolutionary socialist/Leninist friend in his modern, hip, office enclosed by walls coated in contemporary Arab and Western art. Here I heard that the military is by far the most powerful player in the political landscape and that it was working in concert with members of the old Mubarak regime to find a reason to rid the country of Mursi ever since his election. The young people who returned to the streets in accordance with the Tamarod movement simply gave them the opportunity they needed to take action. Interests converged and voila…no more Mursi. While Tamarod’s intentions are pure, it has very little power and no one to effectively lead its supporters. As such, its alliance with the military and members of the Mubarak regime, while effective in removing Mursi, is dangerous for the future as they have welcomed much more powerful players which no longer share their mutual interests. As my Leninist friend bitterly mused, the country has effectively experienced a counterrevolution which could very well set it back to the way it was before the January 25th revolution.

But I also had kabab and kofta while seated next to a Muslim Brotherhood supporter at a nice sports club downtown. In between mouthfuls of food, this man angrily lectured me, aggressively posing rhetorical questions. He bitterly stated that people should have waited until parliamentary and presidential elections to remove Mursi. That Mursi never really had control over anything to begin with and that the military had been running the show a certain way the whole time in order to secure his removal. He also went on to tell me that I should be happy with the democratic system in Egypt, since I (an American) was the one who had imported it there.

I spoke with a few cynical NGO workers. I sat on the couch with them in an apartment in El Ma’adi, watching them smoke cigarette after cigarette and lament over their resignation to the fact that Egypt was and always will be a military state. Even if young people start a grassroots movement like Tamarod, they are basically powerless when compared to the military. So long as people railed against the military, true change would never happen; everyone’s better off just accepting their power for now so that we can move forward and try to make changes later. The only group the military can’t take on is the people, and the people’s love for them is so deeply woven into the fabric of the Egyptian identity that it will be a long time before they collectively oppose them. Even during the period of their interim rule following the January 25th revolution where they saw mass protests, their approval rating was still at a shocking 85% and that’s the lowest its ever been.

But still I returned to Ma’adi on another night and grabbed a seat at a nice outdoor cafe to chat with a member of Mohamed El Baradei‘s Dostour or ‘Constitution’ party who spoke to my own predispositions. As we sipped on our frozen mint lemonades, I felt reassured. The military was simply intervening on behalf of people who had lost their revolution. Those who had come to their aid and support on June 30th did so solely based on their mutual desire for basic freedoms and human rights. Wait until the next election?! Why? There’s no sense in waiting for the next round of elections when Democracy never existed to begin with. Democracy is not equivalent to voting and to act on this notion is disastrous. He continued to justify the events of June 30th by citing a laundry list of grievances which included a constitution that paid little attention to the rights of Christians and women, the Brotherhood’s alliance with Hamas and an increase in terrorism in the Sinai Peninsula, violence towards Christians, favoritism towards members of the Brotherhood (health care, food, propane), Egypt having to import fruits, vegetables, and cotton (goods it typically exports…think there’s a fancy economics term for that), electricity frequently cutting out, a gas crisis, and an overall authoritative style of government which had denied its people basic human rights, supervised an increase in terrorism and sectarian violence, and prioritized a regional Islamist agenda over the basic needs of the Egyptian people.

But just when I felt reassured, I thought back to something the Brotherhood supporter said. “Did you ever stop to wonder why the gas crisis was only a day long? Or why the electricity problem just happened to end right after Mursi was removed from power?”

So now what do I think about June 30th? I still think that Tamarod got things moving with all the right intentions, and that many others who joined them did so in order to further the goals of the January 25th revolution. However, I also believe that there was a certain convergence of interests going on. Certainly there are higher powers involved with their own interests in mind and I am apprehensive about what those higher powers will do moving forward. This is admittedly, a two-dimensional opinion, but it is only through continued discussion and research that I can confidently expand upon it.

“Wait so…where are you going right now?”

The title of this post is the question posed by my cab driver on our way to JFK after I told him I was on my way to Egypt to work in a position that had been suspended, on behalf of a school which had just informed me it could not sanction a trip to a country whose president had been removed only 48 hours ago.

The man had a point. I mean what in God’s name was I doing? A revolution had just occurred, my school wasn’t sanctioning my trip, my internship had been (what I hope is temporarily) suspended, and my parents had all but begged me not to go. Why was I doing this?

I’ve been trying to get to Egypt and do something valuable for nearly 5 years now. I’ve always thought it would be fun to go and spend some time here on my own, but I was hell-bent on making sure that I would also do something valuable during that time. So I’ve spent the past few years getting rejected from a Fulbright project, never hearing back from job opportunities, coming very close to accepting the opportunity to do grad school at the American University in Cairo, and more. Every time I’ve tried to make the trip here though, something has stopped me. Whether it be flat out rejection, or the realization that the value I had initially sought out was no longer present.

So here I was on the day of travel, presented with yet another reason not to go to Egypt. Except that this time, I was way too close to even think about turning around.

So I’ve decided to do an independent study on “Democracy in Revolutionary Egypt.” I want to understand exactly who is vying for democracy, what their vision for democracy in Egypt is, and how different groups differ from one another within this vision.

At the same time I’m also here for personal reasons. Sure I’m Egyptian, sure I speak Arabic, sure I’ve been to Egypt many times since birth, and sure I have plenty of family here. But I’ve never actually lived here.

Ultimately I hope not only to understand Egypt’s current political environment, but also to understand a place I have admired and been proud of my entire life but never actually lived in.

And if youre interested, I hope to keep you posted along the way.