Interfering in Egypt III

Today’s raid on various NGO and democracy promotion groups is notable for what it left out : any organization that receives money form Qatar or Saudi Arabia. These two rivals are actively funding the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis. Unlike the West, they do not believe in transparency, and their efforts are not channeled through any easily identifiable organizations.

The raid on the NGO offices, the selection of the specific organizations, and the manner in which the raid was conducted are all very disturbing. It indicates a twitchy and ham-fisted military.  It is part and parcel of the general incompetence displayed by SCAF since they were entrusted with executive power. It is tempting to see the raid as ominous and part of a larger plot. But it is useless in engage in any guessing about SCAF and its purposes.

It is perhaps more productive to identify why we are at this point. The funding of the MB & the Salafis is via channels provided by Egyptian expatriates, essentially doing an end-run around any charge that they are “foreign hands”. Xenophobia and paranoia still tinge much of Egyptian politics. Of course, expatriate Egyptians in the West can attempt similar feats to assist nascent democratic and liberal forces. Two factors stand in the way. First,  the West is far more attractive as a permanent home earning the loyalty of expatriates and therefore weakening the link to Egypt, especially since the general thugishness of various opposing forces extracts a high price for involvement. Second, most Western countries extend citizenship to emigrants and emigres, which is not the case in the Gulf countries. This further weakens the connection to Egypt, as the emigrant population is far more integrated into Western society and far more appreciative of the liberty accorded it.

These are the unvarnished facts.

In the Country of Women

The irreplaceable Salah Jahin had a stable of characters for his sharp cartoons. One biting pair was a husband and wife couple dubbed “Samsoon wa Zaleellah”, a play on the Biblical Samson and Delilah as well as on the colloquial Egyptian word for a beaten-down servant (Zaleel). The man is perpetually in a tank top covering his ample girth, his head balding with an unruly mop of hair. The woman is always disheveled in a house dress.  The man usually makes idiotic and pompous pronouncements and the woman always answers in a servile but clear and biting way.

The situation for women in Egypt has not improved since the death of Jahin a quarter century ago. One of the fables making the rounds lately is that Mubarak never really wanted his son to follow him, it was his wife Suzanne that pushed him into it. This is a convenient story for the Generals who served Mubarak for over 2 decades but turned against him when it seemed that Gamal was a shoe-in.  The great Baba they served was never that wrong, it is that witch of a wife that did it. To the potent brew of misogyny, the observation that Suzanne is “half-Egyptian” adds a strong after-kick of Xenophobia.  Almost identical charges were whispered against Sadat’s wife. Nasser’s wife (who was also “half-Egyptian”) was spared the wagging tongues. It is no wonder that one of the items that came up in the discussion about the new constitution was that the President’s wife needs to be “fully” Egyptian.

There is no Intrade for Egyptian politics and societal changes. If there were, I would bet massively on a change coming from the women’s direction. Egyptian will never be fully free, nor fully functional, till this tetchy patriarchy meets its end. It may take decades though.


The Egyptian Army needs to be rescued from the incompetence of its generals.

The year 2011 will be a seminal and clarifying date for the Egyptian Army. If 1952 marked the rise of the Army as a quasi-monarchical ultimate source of power and legitimacy, then 1967 is the year the Army was laid low by the incompetence of its leadership, chosen more for loyalty than capability. The summer of 1967 is when officers could not wear their uniforms in public. The Army purged its leadership of Nasser’s hacks and redeemed itself, in a limited way, in the 1973 war. 2011 is the year the Army will choose the fork in the road : rule Egypt openly or retreat from politics entirely. The possibility that the Army will have invisible power is made remote by incompetence of SCAF in managing the post-Mubarak transition. 2011 is 1967 replayed, not on the battlefield but on the streets.

It should be emphasized : the generals are not helping the Army as an institution nor the lower rank-and-file officers. To place the Army in the street with no clear objective or strategy beyond just showing up and engaging in a give-and-take with an unruly bunch of civilians is extraordinarily negligent. It is a level of negligence that recalls the strategy of Abdel Hakim Amer who packed most of Egypt’s Army along the border with Israel without so much as a half-baked plan.

The Egyptian Army needs to be rescued from the incompetence of its generals. It is up to the Egyptians to do that. It is time to stop going after the poor conscript in the street and target peacefully  his superior who left him there without adequate orders.

Interfering in Egypt II

Alaa Al-aswany recently said that overthrowing Mubarak was too easy to be true. Many have constantly batted away at the fears that the January revolution was not as pure as it seemed.

The recent events can not possibly make us calmer. The demonstrators in front of the cabinet building were anything but peaceful. They were clearly infiltrated by more than a few “bad elements”, hooligans looking for a bit of fun, youth at bay with nothing better to do. They stained the honor of the well-meaning protesters.  Even those who are “well meaning” have failed to articulate a clear agenda or proceed in a coherent fashion to build a country.

If the youth were at  fault, the adults were much worse. The Army commanders are inept and heavy handed. Their prevarications and transparent lies make one wonder how they would do in warfare where clarity and decisiveness are essential. The troops appeared at moments to be nothing more than an unruly mob, raining rocks and bodily fluids on the protesters. The political class is irrelevant. Some bleated their concern. Others kept silent, their snouts sniffing the wind for a clue. The biggest winners of the recent poll, the Muslim Brotherhood, are, as usual, looking out for their interests and are devoid of any moral backbone. They may be very religious, but they are hardly upright. At least the Salafis, to their credit, came out clearly against the boneheaded idea that clearing a public space of demonstrators is done by live ammo. So here we are at the edge of the cliff.

Yesterday’s news conference by General Emara made it very clear: the gloves are off. He posed a choice : heavy-handed tactics by the Army or chaos. The problem is that Egypt is likely to get both.

This will get worse unless people make it get better. Foreign interference is always a bad idea in Egypt. Egypt is a proud under-achiever. But the country is in disarray, brutalized by 60 years of inept military dominance and 30 years of government by a wily dullard.  The only possible salvation must come from the Egyptian Diaspora in the West. It is large (nearly two million in the US, Europe and Australia), possessed of relative wealth and education, ecumenical (both Muslim and Copt), and perhaps still carrying the memory of an older and gentler Egypt. The question is whether they can organize and  navigate the treacherous Western politics. Many Western politicians will try to use the predicament of Egypt to drive home crude ideological points. An even handed approach is both necessary and difficult. Some of the self-proclaimed leaders are suspect. The best people are often quiet, not wishing to be involved in the rough and tumble. One can take heart in the efforts of people like Ahmed Zwail to tackle the perennial problems of degraded education and poor infrastructure. These are worthwhile long term efforts, but can they survive the scorching of short term problems?

Purposeful leadership is awaited and hopefully it will emerge in time.


The burning of the Egyptian Scientific Institute Library is a sad event.  First and foremost we should recognize that many civilians rushed into the dangerous situation to save the irreplaceable books and manuscripts. These men and women should be the pride of Egypt. The library itself, with books dating back to the Napoleonic expedition, represents a critical chapter in Egypt’s modern history.

Conflagrations have a long history in Egypt. Often they mark the end of one era and the beginning of another. Like rapids in a river they rudely interrupt the placid flow of history to mark a boundary. As always, the causes are murky, the accounts conflicted, and there maybe more than one hand involved in the Arson

It would take too long to enumerate all such conflagrations.  The most famous, of course, is the burning of the Library of Alexandria. It is an event that marked the end of the era of pagan learning, and in effect made Egypt firmly Christian and detached it from the Mediterranean-European world for the next 15 centuries.

Other, more recent fires, include the Cairo fire of January 1952, which in hindsight marked the end of Egypt’s attempt to be a liberal constitutional monarchy, and inaugurated an era of military-backed strongmen in Egypt and elsewhere in the region. The burning of the Cairo Opera House in 1971 ended the era of Cosmopolitan Cairo that started a century earlier with the opening of the Suez canal. The construction of the Opera House was to mark the occasion (and perform Aida). From 1971 onward, the elegant Cairo of black-and-white photographs was rapidly fading.  The death of many men and women of letters in the subsequent few years did not help. Suspicions still center on the fire as an intentional arson in a real estate scheme. If so, it is then the opening volley in the Sadat-Mubarak era of corruption and cronyism.

Forty years hence, we have this fire. As with all the others, the causes and arsonists may never be known. If it is the demonstrators, then they are the youth we have never educated or cared for. If it is the Army or the Police, then it is the corrupt state that mismanaged such vital institutions. But no matter, a new era is dawning. What will it be, we do not yet know. It is in our power though to mold it.


The returns of the first round of election indicate that Fayoum went heavily for the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis. Some may recall the name of this province from the famous mummy portraits.

Egyptians, just prior to the age of Christianity, painted their faces in Hellenic style on their very Egyptian mummies. Today’s Salafis, with their bearded faces in the style of the narrow and retrograde sects of the Arabian Peninsula, seem to be a burlesque echo of that era. If Egyptians of the first century A.D. strove to imitate the Hellenic overlords as a gesture to “modernity”, the Salafis seek to imitate the Arab colonizers as a gesture to “authenticity”.