Category Archives: Middle East

Gandhi in Egypt

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Gandhi is still alive

Photo by Mariam Abuhaideri

An Egyptian youth reads “Gandhi” at a local cafe in Downtown Cairo. There seems to be some hope for the youth of a country whose adults seem to have lost track of self restraint and non-violence.

Gandhi once said, “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.” Egypt is on its way to permanent blindness, if the youth are ignored and if the violence doesn’t cease. The youth are the future of Egypt, the adults will soon perish leaving behind nothing but dust.

He also went on to say, “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. We need not wait to see what others do.”

These sayings are so befitting for the current developments in Egypt, and hope that every youth reads a copy of Gandhi and applies some of his teachings into the future of what will hopefully become an independent and prosperous Egypt.

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A Game of Many Players

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Bearded men are not only construed as enemies in the West.

A Doctor’s Denial

I started my day yesterday at Cairo’s Anglo American hospital where a doctor was seeing me for an ankle injury. I asked my orthopedic surgeon if there were any injured from the catastrophe housed here at the hospital and his colleague from the other side of the emergency room immediately interrupted our conversation, asking me if I thought what had happened in Rabaa Al-Adaweya and Ramsis Square was a catastrophe. I began by clarifying that I am not an Egyptian, and then I boldly stated, yes, it was a catastrophe. He felt that I was siding with the protestors. We all know that it was nothing short of it.

“How come? They are killing their own people. The bloody bearded Ikhwaan are creating instability and then they blame the security forces who are trying to save Egypt.”

It seemed like he had no heart, and truly believed that the protestors were killing their fellow men to gain pity. For a health care provider to utter these words is discouraging. There is no hope for reconciliation if those who are supposed to be in charge of saving lives are fostering so much hatred.

Black and White

For many like him, there are only two sides and the truth is well defined; it is them against us. But for most of us, the truth is far from clear. I have friends who belong to both camps and it is hard to convince them to reason with each other. I almost got into a verbal brawl with the doctor, but I held back. I have to remind myself every moment that as a foreigner it is not my place to interfere.

In order to find out who is responsible for the violence and brutal killings, we must ask who is benefiting from an unstable Egypt? Let’s play a game of Clue: Who is responsible for violence in Egypt?

First I would eliminate foreign powers for I believe that the true culprit lies within the borders of the country.

The candidates are Sisi and the police, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), and thugs or Baltageya. According to Sisi supporters thugs and the MB are the same player. And the conspiracy theories do not stop there. The interim government, which functions as the military’s puppet, refers to the MB as a terrorist group. As a result, their beards and conservative veiling makes them targets of state-enforced violence.

Ramsis Square and Baltageyas

The word “thug” or “baltageya” has been thrown around loosely in the Egyptian media. But no one really knows for sure whom they represent. There is no shortage of unanswered questions:

Have they been equipped by the security forces, are they from the pro-Morsi camp, or do they have their own identity? And why would they allegedly kill fellow Egyptians?

It goes without saying that most liberal Egyptians believe they are part of the Ikhwaan because they were seen marching alongside them. Their opponents believe the contrary. I decided to visit Ramsis Square to attempt to uncover the truth. Of course I didn’t think it was possible to strike a conversation with any of the “allegedly” armed thugs or terrorist groups, but I wanted to try to get as close as possible to the area.

I wasn’t permitted in the mosque and I couldn’t take my camera inside the square. Yet, I managed to get as close to the mosque as possible. Since I didn’t have a press pass, I could have been arrested as I was defying the emergency law. I tried to calm myself down by thinking, I have been arrested once, and a second time is no big deal. I must admit my heart started to beat faster, but I kept ignoring the accelerated heart rate.

I had a quick look around and didn’t see any weapons except those with uniformed security forces. Made me wonder where these thugs or members of the terrorist groups were. I didn’t see any indication that I was in danger. Of course I wasn’t permitted to go inside the mosque, and perhaps the armed thugs were inside.

I was then escorted out and I boarded a taxi and asked the driver to take me as close to the mosque so I can take some pictures. I saw some men at checkpoints and my driver identified them as baltageya. But again, they had no weapons except loud voices and wooden sticks.

The general understanding is far from the truth. The thugs are neither members of the Muslim Brotherhood nor are they members of the pro-Army camp. They are a bunch of hyper masculine men who are against the militarization of Egypt. Those men stationed at checkpoints are protecting their neighborhood and are often mistaken for thugs as they have wooden sticks and loud voices. The thugs just as them are Egyptians, unlike most theories that state they are Yeminis, Syrians and Pakistanis. They tend to be from lower socio-economic class and most of them are not bearded, but young men in their mid-twenties or early thirties. They may be Coptic Christian or Muslim.

The army could have funded or armed them to create instability. They could be escapees from the prison and been armed by local police forces. They may have been responsible for executing orders to burn and vandalize churches and private property. On the other hand, the Muslim Brotherhood could have armed them. But would staunch Islamists defy Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayeb? I don’t think so. And if it was as many believe, that the terrorist groups are killing the protesters to gain attention to their plight, why would there be no killings considering the armed thugs were trapped inside Fatah mosque with protesters.

Egypt seems to be engulfed in a civil war with multiple parties with no end in sight. The day was eventful because the many people that lost loved ones during the dispersals of Rabaa were seeking justice, and will not rest until it is achieved.

A Taxi Driver speaks out

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Waleed Abdel Rehman who took me on a safe ride around Ramsis Square in Faghalla speaks about who he believes is responsible for the killings.

“Don’t worry” he kept assuring me. He could sense I was a bit afraid of being stuck in some of the smaller alley ways just in case a Baltageya happened to chase us. I used this opportunity to ask him a few questions.

Do you like the Army?
After the killings, I don’t.

He then points in the direction of Fattah Mosque and says he will take me to the bridge so I can take pictures from above. Unfortunately, that end of the bridge was blocked too and we couldn’t.

Who killed all those people?
The Army.

Why?
Because they want power (authority).

Who are the Baltageya (thugs)?
They are from the Police and Army. The army and police are afraid of many people in street so police and army shot people.

Do you happen to know a Baltagaya (thug)?
No, but I can know them from their look and style. You saw how he (the baltageya) was screaming?

Waleed is just one of many who I have spoken to, and have negative views of the army. It is believed that many of the protesters from yesterday and Rabaa were not supportive of the Ikhwaan, but rather anti-military.

Egypt- It could have been different

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While international envoys failed to broker an end to the political deadlock between Egypt’s Armed Forces and the Muslim Brotherhood, there was still room for diplomatic solutions to the turmoil, as Vice President El Baradei was quoted as saying before he resigned from his post yesterday following the brutal clean-up operation of two of the Bortherhood’s biggest sit-in protests.

Why did mediation fail?

Anyone who has done the rounds of Tahrir and has subscribed to various social networks in Egypt would know- it is not rocket science- Egyptians are against Obama and everything the US stands for. They see the US as a cause of much of this divide in Egyptian society and anti-US rhetoric is omnipresent. Funny thing is that the US would send Republican senators who are so opposed to internationals even within their own country. Some may argue that it was a wise step, as Congress would not accept the analysis of democrat senators. Yet, I knew it wouldn’t work even before it actually failed. The same could be said in varying capacities about the envoys from EU, UAE, and Qatar. They all had stakes or supported one side over the other.

Even a day following the deadliest crack down since the revolution that ousted Hosni Mubarak in 2011, many countries have only gone as far as condemning the killings. No one, including the US that is ordinarily quick in issuing sanctions and withdrawing aid (as it has done in Iran and other countries) has done much more. No one is offering any other solutions. It makes me a bit jealous that the US would employ the path of sanctions and isolation with Iran despite its peaceful nuclear program, but would be cautious in doing so with its key ally in the region despite the violence, doubt and instability engulfing Egypt. But this is a discussion for another day.

Anyone see the missing link? There was a lack of neutrality, a lack of cultural diplomacy, and an absence of engaging the youth on both sides.

The Missed Opportunity

The Indian Embassy in Cairo hosted a flag hoisting on the occasion of India’s 67th Independence Day and a minute of silence was observed for the victims from Raba, and Nahda- two venues of the Pro-Morsi sit-ins. But what I failed to understand is why India had stayed out of this equation despite being so favored by the public at large. India has so much to offer the world with its culture. Yet, it chooses to remain silent. And this is not the first time it has chosen this route. Have Sisi, Egypt’s Interim leaders and India ever heard or employed cultural diplomacy? While it wouldn’t work in every stalemate, it should have been endorsed and embraced in this case because fortunately for India and Egypt, Egyptians revere India’s culture. The Maulana Azad Center for Indian Culture in Cairo, should be the venue for such a cultural dialogue. India has an inspiring story of freedom to share and perhaps this could be just one of the many ways in which to enlighten both sides on a peaceful solution. Perhaps if Mohamed Selim al-Awa’s plan of temporarily reinstating Morsi and handing powers to an interim cabinet had been backed by cultural diplomacy headed by India, the army may have accepted it. Regrettably, India chose to sit back and watch, as it usually does. The minute of silence for the victims sadly was just an extension of the silence on behalf of the Indian government.

Egypt’s biggest strength, its youth, have been left out of the equation. What I fail to understand is why they have been ignored despite having a bigger stake in their country’s stability? There are youth on either side of the fence, and engaging them in dialogue should have been proposed and initiated.

India is celebrating 67 years of freedom from British oppression, only because its entire population felt that it was time for to bid farewell to the colonists. They adopted mostly non-violent means to achieve their single united goal and while it did have undesirable effects of separation of India into 3 states, it also succeeded in overthrowing the British Raj. Egypt on the other hand, has major challenges and what Egyptians need to realize is that there will be no sustainable independence and democracy without reconciliation because the numbers on either sides are too large to be ignored. The older generation has little to loose, the youth however, have much to gain from a peaceful united Egypt. They should be engaged.

However, now, following the deadly crackdown, hope for such an engagement seems bleak. There are far too many scars for those who lost loved ones and now the polarity may never bond. There is fear that the violence will only escalate and inconvenience of a curfew and emergency law will become a sad truth to live by for a long time to come, unless other measures are proposed and adopted, hopefully by Egyptians themselves or by India and other neutral states.

Egypt- The Third Way

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So there is a third camp that has emerged in Egypt;  just as there is one  in every conflict, and particularly when the options on the forefront are not desirable. The members are Egyptians who neither want religious fascism nor the army.

A good place to start is Facebook where a search surfaced Ahrar Movement, the Third Direction and El Midan El Talet- the 3rd Square. They all believe in a third option; they all disagree on what that third option is. The groups are still in infancy; the “third camp” is still an idea, in my own opinion, that hasn’t formed into a strong trend or force of power. Until this happens, we are going to see a couple of different names and descriptions.

I connected with members and the founder of the Facebook group, the Third Direction  to learn why they believe that the current tumult in the most populous and strategic Middle East country mandates other solutions.

THE TEAMS

The current political canvas has three general segments:
1) Pro-military rule
2) Pro-Morsy
3) Revolutionary Block

Camp 3 includes the founders of Tamarod (not the signatories), and socialist and anarcho-communist groups (leftist anarchists/leftist liberals). Upper class Egyptians are scattered between segments 1 and 3. Lower class mostly belongs to Group 1. Today a good part of Camp 3 are sympathizing with the MB on humanitarian grounds and out of fear of a Nasser-like move by Sisi. These are the third way people.

THE SITUATION ON GROUND

June 30th saw everyone unite against the Islamists. With the latest wave of violence by the security forces, the June 30th movement has become fragmented, with some staying loyal to the army, and some others withdrawing their loyalty to the murderers.

The Muslim Brotherhood (MB) is  trying to win over the revolutionary block by reminding them of what happened under SCAF in 2011 (the events that the MB themselves used to publicly support). Many here believe that the  rhetoric adopted by the Brotherhood is more emotionally geared where they play victims of abuse (in contrast to their very violent rhetoric till date).

The military, on the other hand, is trying to cast away any fears that the revolutionary block might have about having a repeat of 2011 or Gamal Abdel Nasser’s military state. The military are avoiding confrontations since that could stir sympathy within the revolutionary block and disrupt the unity. The Brotherhood seem to be looking for such confrontations and are making sure the violence against them gets recorded.

“The Third way” is part of the revolutionary block segment that is sympathizing with the MB on humanitarian grounds but is against the MB as a political entity. No one seems to want Morsi back. Even the Ikhwaan, realizes that he won’t be coming back. So why has it been protesting and causing such confrontations, one may ask? This mystery remains unsolved.

NO SCAF

The fear is that if Egyptians permit the army and the police to go beyond humane treatment today, then one-day Egypt will be in the MB’s shoes, especially if the military decides to cancel or postpone the elections.

The groups believe that the best thing the military can do is re-affirm the temporary status of this government by continuously reminding people that elections are coming and that they’ll soon be back on the road of a democratic process. As long as this is not the primary focus of the military’s rhetoric, Egyptians will always be worried that Abdel Fattah Saeed Hussein Khalil el- Sisi, the commander of Egypt’s armed forces, might make a Nasser move and will resort to the same violent methods being used against the MB today in controlling the Egyptian public.

Hisham Kahil belongs to this third generation of ideas. He tries to explain, “I think the third camp are also divided on whether the Rab3a people (Pro-Morsi Supporter camped in at Rab3a el 3adaweya square) are a real threat to security or not. I personally believe they are.”

Hisham believes that there are subtle differences between the youth group Tamarod and the revolutionary block.

“They certainly belong to that same age group but they seem not as naive as the other young revolutionary movements (leftists) which makes me think they share the rest of the block’s enthusiasm but are the better ones at practicing politics.”

The latter have learned from past mistakes; the former (leftist and anarchist groups) are too naive in his view.

Now, it is important to note that not each segment is completely homogeneous but they do share the same basic goals despite the variations. They all want Egypt to be a liberal social democracy akin to Scandinavian countries.

NO MORSI

At first they had accepted Morsi’s 4-year term as a fact. The third way never expected Tamarod to be THAT successful in getting people to hit the streets but of course once they saw the numbers that supported them on the streets, they got a boost.

“It saves us the pain of waiting for a full term,” explained Kahil.

THE STATUS QUO

So as long as elections are made without postponements and dubious games the third camp are pretty much content with how things have been unfolding. So while elections are not until next year, Egyptians, save for the Morsi camp, are quite convinced with the delay. There is wide spread agreement that Sisi has a formidable task ahead of him- he has to stabilize the security situation, amend the constitution, and hold parliamentary elections- all of which must be done before the Presidential elections.

Kahil goes on to explain, “Installing a temporary president and adding politicians that the block considers as “Idols” like El Barad3y (and getting them to stand next to him as he announced Morsy’s kicking out) also helped us swallow the road map. Its as if the military went out of its way to re-assure us that they wont screw us over. “

The status quo has another advantage; with the Military and the MB head to head against each other will decrease the popularity of both. This is the perfect opportunity for the revolutionaries to restore image after SCAF and the MB destroyed it since the revolution in 2011.

If anything, this is the time the young movements should  become  better organized, be united and establish good rapport with all Egyptians so that when it’s election time, they can actually have a go at the ballot. The question that begs to be answered is whether the various segments of the third camp are able to do just this and emerge into something more concrete than a group on Facebook.

Listen to a commentary by Mohammed Wafaa Rizkallah, the 27-year old founder of the Third Direction. 

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Answering Sisi’s Call-Tahrir July 26

I waited almost 2 hours before I saw some sign of support for Sisi’s call. Tahrir was pretty empty compared to June 30 and July 3rd. I began to wonder if people would even show. But the sun got unbearable and I decided to return home and watch the news and I was shocked to see my TV screen filled with people less than 10 mins after I had left an almost empty Tahrir. What would you call this Sisi propoganda or Media magic? For one thing it did bring to light the power of media and those who don’t visit Tahrir, who else do they have to trust?

Please click on the link above to view the Photo album.

Egypt in a Soup

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My apologies for the brief break in writing. I was, one contemplating what to write about as there have been no major developments in Egypt; and two, I was recovering from a very bad food allergy. The third, but equally influential reason is that I am tired of all the negative media stories. It is, as though, the media has left no stone unturned in telling the world how unsafe the country is; and they are the torch bearers in demonizing the Morsi camp. Now, I am not Egyptian, but I have lived here long enough to not be just a mere observer. So I find myself getting dragged into, or rather I drag myself into every conversation about how great the army is or how barbarian the Ikhwaan is. It is hard to stay neutral when I have witnessed how, just at a blink of an eye, and without an official election Egypt’s first democratically elected president was overthrown. I never imagined I would live to see a coup.

But before I move on, I would like to make my position clear. I am neither a firm believer in democracy for countries where there is little to zero understanding of what it means and when the public is not ready for it, neither am I a proponent of mixing religion and politics. I speak from experience- I have lived both situations- and seen how hypocritical and ignorant the former system can be and how oppressive and ignorant the latter. And so what Egypt has been suffering from and continues to suffer from can be best described as a lack of understanding of the democratic system, just as the ousted regime was accused of Islamizing the state. But there is no middle ground. Everyone I have talked to is quite convinced that the other is the devil. So in this highly polarized state, what is the most feasible solution? Pondering over puffs of my shisha in a sparsely crowded cafe in Zamalek, I wonder if there is even hope for reconciliation? Will there dawn a day when liberals, army, and conservatives can live in peace amid each other? And more importantly is there a role for the international community to play? I will first present the  views of those around me and then provide my own analysis as a foreigner being affected by the schism.

On Friday July 19, I had planned on attending an anti-coup demonstration. I wished to confirm the locations of the planned march, so I posted my question on a popular Facebook portal.  One would expect that the response would be a list of locations. Instead what followed were a range of angry and some concerned comments the likes of which you can see below.

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And then I was sitting a café with friends in an upper class neighborhood and one of them was so worked up about all the raod blocks and he didn’t blame the army who was blocking off roads, but the “bloody Ikhwaan”. He said, and I quote, “I would like to see them all die and burn in hell. They should be shot dead!” Yes, word for word. I didn’t respond but my brain was thinking back to when I visited Iran in 2010, where the 20-somethings youth were speaking ill about Islam, the brunt of which they had been forced to bear because of their parents’ doing in 1979. So what the mullah’s fail to understand in Iran and what the liberals here fail to understand is that too much of anything is not such a good thing! And right now it feels like there is too much of injustice, division and hatred in Egypt!

So back to my plan to join the anti-coup protest- I went- and I am glad I did for I witnessed unprecedented participation by modern women and men.

“I voted for Morsi because anyone is better than Shafiq. And I plan to stand by my vote. The army has no right to come and speak on behalf of the people. And were they only counting the voice of the people in Tahrir? What about those in other cities? And what did he do? Did he kill someone-no. Did he order the killing of someone-I think not. Even Bush was given two terms. And I feel weary about the future of my country if the army stays in control much longer. Let’s go to the ballot again.” says an unveiled Asmaa Haittham, Account Manager at a Cairo firm.

So while there are divisions, both sides are in agreement that they should have early elections. And both camps are convinced they will sweep majority of the ballots. But let us not get into this; instead let us latch on to the point of agreement- Elections! The only question here is: Will the army respect their word and can they be trusted? I am a bit skeptical after they killed 52 Morsi supporters  and injured hundreds at a sit in outside an an Army club. As for my friend who said that the Ikhwaan should all be killed because he has to go through road blocks and checkpoints, I can only hope he finds peace. His comment and those from many others who like him hate the Ikhwaan, prompts me to believe that while Egypt is not in a civil war, the country should brace itself for the “R” of Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration because with this level of hatred for each other, the winning side will need to learn to reintegrate the opposition.

Just to give you a further sense of the situation, a young coworker said she would accept the candidate who wins the election, even if he is from the Ikhwaan, but not Morsi himself of course.

“Morsi was so dumb. He could not speak English and spoke dully. We can’t have someone like him represent Egypt.” She says. I remind her that not all Presidents speak English. So was it really about Morsi not having been able to achieve the demands of the revolution or about his lack of charisma? It is hard to tell.

Yet another colleague, a Coptic Christian Nancy disagrees with the coup. She was not amongst the people who went to Tahrir. Nancy asserts, “If Morsi was smart and strategized better he would call for early elections and then I am sure he would have won again by popular support. But now it’s too late to talk about what he should have done.”

The international community is being fairly cautious. Most have issued travel warnings for Cairo and evacuated their citizens. Yet, many choose to stay put in Egypt because of work, marriage, or for the sheer fact that they are not unsafe. Indians and Europeans particularly are the bravest of the lot. Americans have at best vanished; this when their government continues to fund the military. Something is amiss because if their government is so tight with the Sisi, their security should be guaranteed. But of course not, because their dirty politics has now come to surface. Both sides don’t favor America and a handful of its allies. They first issued orders against a coup and threatened to withdraw aid to Egypt in the advent of a coup. And now they have been caught doing the contrary. What do we call this? Dirty American politics? A metaphor comes to mind: As adaptive as a chameleon. America and Britain best keep away, but that this happen is only an illusion. Because Israel is too weak and cowardly to stand for itself. There are rumours that a stable Egypt would be threatening to Israel and they have a hand to play in this mess. Perhaps, but Egyptians need to outsmart the Israelis and stablize their country for themselves.

“America should stand by their principles and not support bloodshed and instability and if they cannot do that, stay out of our business,” explained Asnaa Alanajar, another modernly dressed female Morsi supporter. Asnaa is an interior designer in an upper class neighborhood of Cairo and attended the anti-coup protest last Friday.

Now, all of this is a big mess and I am not very optimistic for Egypt’s future. In Iran, I would have suggested the return of the monarchy, but with Egypt, can the same be suggested? And who then, if not a monarch, can unite the people of Egypt? Perhaps there are people like Nancy who are independent and can take on this responsibility of pulling Egypt out of the soup it is in now?