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Worrisome Indications of Egypt’s Future

Most people I have interacted with since our return to Cairo are very positive about the nation’s future. They are glad to see Morsi go, the Brotherhood discredited, and though they anticipate a few hiccups from disgruntled Islamists, they expect a return to stability and normalcy within a few months.

Here are two voices which suggest otherwise.

The first is from the Daily News, from Mahmoud Salem, aka Sandmonkey, a liberal blogger who does not have rosy glasses, though he once did. Quite the opposite, in fact:

The “returning” police state is an illusion; the police can’t even protect their own stations. Anyone can see that there is no state, only people who believe they have power, enforceable by guns, against a population that is hungry, armed, and has grown desensitised from violence amidst an economic situation that borders on catastrophic. Throw Islamists in the mix, a military curfew that just got extended for two more months, vanishing tourism for the third year running, and the financial and economic repercussions of the “war on terror,” and anyone can tell you that this won’t end well economically. On a separate but related note, locally manufactured cigarettes are already disappearing and reappearing in the black market.
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Every activist I know fears the return of the police state. Every non-activist I know is wondering where the police are.
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The other illusion is the return of Mubarak’s “feloul” to power, which won’t happen. You see, the businessmen feloul, the face of the NDP for years, will not be able to take over this time, because at the end of the day they are not “true feloul,” but rather, the elites who utilised the NDP for power and  were used by the NDP political leadership as a front. They were in power because the NDP leadership forced them upon local leaders, had them run for office in areas where they could never win on their own; if you followed the parliamentary elections of 2005 and 2010, it already wasn’t working, with the NDP sometimes fielding four candidates against each other in every district. This used to happen when the NDP was in full operation, with a politburo and a state behind it. Now, there is no politburo, no party, no leadership or symbols, with every man for himself, and the “true feloul,” the drug dealers, arms traders and big family criminals who have armed gangs, are about to become the true rulers of the country,  since they will be the only force capable of ruling the streets that are void of state control. Only the most brutal of them will end up winning a parliamentary seat in a full individual seat election.

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The disintegration of the state will lead to the rise of “local leadership” as a street stabilising force, which means that our streets will be gang-controlled. The state’s ability to provide security in such conditions will become rather limited or, to be more accurate, impossible. The bad security will lead to a worse economy, which means that the corrupt government officials will become more vicious with their bribe demands, which would serve as their source of income, as their actual one begins drying up. Infighting will ensue amongst different branches of the government over patronage, because a contracting economy will equal less stealing, and consequently, more ruthless infighting.

His article is lengthy and worth reading, and actually gets to some, gulp, good news. The above state of affairs will continue for three years or so, and then the exhausted powers that be will eventually run out of partners with whom to divide up the pie that is Egypt.

On the brink of becoming another Somalia, they will finally yield to the principles and goals of the January 25 revolution. It’s advocates may be the only ones to desire reforming the mess that Egypt will be by then.

Speaking of Somalia, here is a more journalistic account of this process set in motion, by Foreign Policy:

In the Sinai Peninsula, where government buildings and checkpoints have been bombarded by rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) and car bombs on a near-daily basis in recent weeks, the Egyptian state is losing ground to ultraconservative Islamists with an alternative vision for rule of law. The growing influence of self-taught sharia judges who uphold the Quran over Egyptian law reflects an alarming erosion of state sovereignty in the Sinai Peninsula. In late August, state courts in North Sinai were forced to transfer all of their cases to the comparatively stable jurisdiction of Ismailiya, in the face of escalating attacks by armed extremists targeting government buildings and security personnel. This week, two prominent sharia judges were among 15 hard-line Salafis arrested on charges of inciting terrorist attacks, as the Egyptian government struggles to contain rising extremism. But despite the current crackdown, it is clear that the deeply entrenched sharia courts of North Sinai are here to stay.

Since the removal of former President Mohamed Morsi on July 3, the already fragile government in Sinai has been further crippled by a wave of armed attacks, ambushes, and car bombings by militants equipped with increasingly sophisticated weaponry stolen from police stations or smuggled across Egypt’s borders with Libya and Sudan. The escalation of violence has forced the closure of a critical police station in Arish and the evacuation of other government buildings, creating an institutional vacuum that sharia courts are opportunistically exploiting.

The outsourcing of traditional law enforcement functions to non-state actors is reminiscent of a pattern seen in failed states like Somalia, where powerful Islamic courts with their own private militias and ties to al Qaeda seized control over vast swaths of the country in 2006. While the sharia courts of Sinai are nowhere near as institutionalized as those in Somalia, they similarly aspire to absorb the functions of state institutions that are failing to govern.

These courts are not run by radical extremists, as the author makes clear, but some might not find much shade of difference in their end game:

Sharia judges, eager to disassociate themselves from more radical Islamists, are quick to enumerate their moderate credentials and tolerance of religious minorities. Beik insisted that the courts operate on a purely voluntary basis and would never forcibly impose Islamic law on non-Muslims without their consent. To illustrate this point, he proudly informed me that the House of Sharia Judgment has heard three cases involving claims by Christian litigants against Muslim adversaries since the revolution, and in all three cases, the Christian party prevailed — a fact he cited as evidence of the courts’ neutrality.

But although the sharia judges of North Sinai pay lip service to liberal democratic principles of inclusion and equality, they ultimately aspire to establish a parallel state governed not by Egypt’s constitution, but by a retrograde interpretation of sharia that relegates women and religious minorities to second-class citizenship. For now, their rulings are purely advisory and non-binding. But Abu Faisal predicts that his court’s decisions will one day carry the force of law in the Islamic emirate he hopes to see established in the Sinai. “Sharia is already the law of the land here,” he said. “God willing, someday it will be the law of the state.”

I maintain optimism for Egypt’s future. Prognosis, however, is currently beyond my confidence to assert.

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Personal

The Political Education of a Sandmonkey

Mahmoud Salem, the Sandmonkey

As a result of the Arab Spring and the fall of Mubarak, Egypt is witnessing a surge in political participation as young revolutionaries enroll in the political process. One such figure is Mahmoud Salem, otherwise known from his blog as ‘Sandmonkey’. Salem was an early activist against Mubarak, using social media such as Facebook and Twitter, in which he tongue-in-cheek labeled himself a ‘micro-celebrity’. Since then his fame has grown electronically, having over 50,000 followers. By contrast, NBA superstar Deron Williams of the New Jersey Nets has only 33,000.

As the democratic transition has stuttered in Egypt, Salem realized the necessary commitment now was not activism alone but political and civil society participation. Though discouraged by current post-revolutionary conditions, he decided to run for office in the People’s Assembly, from his home district of Heliopolis, seeking to do something good for his son for the future of Egypt. This remark came from a political stump speech delivered in Heliopolis on November 3. The invitation was issued to the Sandmonkey, fittingly, through Twitter.

Disappointingly, nowhere near the 50,000 followers of Salem attended. By my count there were only twenty-six Egyptians, joined by fifteen foreigners. Salem spoke for about twenty minutes, answered questions for another twenty, and then left quickly at 9pm to get to another meeting.

Perhaps it served as a dry run. It is not an easy thing to run for office, or to become a politician. Until learning of the reasons for his quick exit, I figured he was either disappointed by the turnout or else reticent to ‘press the flesh’ and interact with potential voters, however few. At least he had one more notch on his belt in making campaign speeches, imagined to be much more difficult than writing an engaging blog post.

During his presentation Salem spoke of his hopes for Egypt as well as his focus on the local district of Heliopolis. The chief problem the country faces, on both the national and local level, is poor administration of work. This is seen currently in three areas: security, economy, and transparency.

In terms of security, Salem spoke of his efforts to interact with local policemen, though as a unit the police force is widely despised. They told him there has not been a great increase in crime, as popularly believed, but that the police feel impotent after the revolution to police as before. They requested, and Salem supports, an effort to equip them with cameras so that their interactions with the people are recorded. Such evidence would keep police from abusing their position, as well as protect from the abuse of false accusation. Salem also spoke of the popular committees which defended their neighborhoods during the revolution. These must continue and expand their work, representing positive community participation upon which the new Egypt should be built.

In terms of economy, Salem concentrated on the local needs of Heliopolis. Though the district is comparatively well off, it suffers as the money to pay government services throughout Egypt is collected almost entirely from the tax base of Cairo and Alexandria. More money must be retained locally, as garbage collection and hospital care in Heliopolis stands in need of improvement.

In terms of transparency, Salem spoke of the problems of bureaucracy, in which he like many hates going to government offices. The people are underpaid, and thus seek bribes, as the labyrinth-like process scuttles confused applicants from one line to the next. Instead, a simple 1-2-3-4 order should be established everywhere, to streamline movement and pay only at the end.

The question and answer period was dominated with concerns about the sectarian tensions in Egypt. Salem spoke of the role of the state, especially in the 70s when President Sadat gave a religious veneer to government that continued, to a lesser degree, under Mubarak. But he also spoke of the role of society, lamenting the poor integration of Muslims and Christians, as well as the poor understanding Muslims have of Christianity – a problem generally not reciprocated, he believed. His general advice was to encourage Copts to participate in society and politics, stating they would achieve their rights if only they properly mobilized. There are an estimated 400,000 to 600,000 Muslim Brothers in Egypt, he stated, if their extended family members are counted. By contrast, he counts twelve million Copts.

I attended this event curious to see what an activist looked like. Young, middle class, social media friendly Egyptians are credited with driving the revolution, but are increasingly marginalized and accused of serving foreign agendas. What is the reality with Sandmonkey? I have read his blog in the past and been impressed by his analysis; it was hoped a face to face encounter would be more telling.

I was surprised by his appearance. I had assumed an ‘activist’ would be a grizzled combatant. Instead, he appeared more akin to a teddy bear. His normalcy was appreciated, as was his speaking demeanor. Salem was comfortable addressing the room, but not polished, and certainly not charismatic. While admitting the difficulty in addressing a handful of people, there was little that was magnetic in his presentation. Void of rhetoric, he simply spoke what he believed, and of what he was doing to study and improve the lot of his country. He was very much a non-politician.

Conversation after the event mirrored my appreciation for his style and person, but added a resignation that he was likely to fail. I was more hopeful, if only from faith. It is true that he does not speak the language of the street and would be hard pressed to win over large crowds. Yet if he met the person on the street, could he not win him over through sincerity of heart? Can he do so sufficiently to win Heliopolis? That is the art of politics.

It is an art that surely Salem is learning on the fly. Sandmonkey has 50,000 votes won in Egypt and abroad, but the tens of thousands of Heliopolis residents need much more than a Twitter account. Salem knows this, and has thrown his hat in the ring to pursue the transformation. He, and many activists like him will soon discover if they have what it takes – experiencing now what may only pay off in the future. Win or lose, it is a necessary process for Egypt, but also a test for the revolutionary generation. They overcame their apathy and political restraints in January 2011; can they mobilize and strengthen civil society in November, in 2012, and beyond? Mahmoud Salem is among those leading the charge.

Also see: Optimism from an Egyptian Sandmonkey, written following one of his blog posts from June 2011.