21 June 2012

Not Dead Yet

Cairo Dispatch

I returned from the Cairo Jazz Club Tuesday night (a friend had dragged me to see a small but enthusiastic rich-kid audience bopping to a Cyndi Lauper–wigged Egyptian pop band) to find Al Jazeera reliving the ’80s too. The news showed highlights of Hosni Mubarak “legacy” footage, and was quoting Reuters saying the former president was “clinically dead.” His heart had stopped beating, apparently after a stroke; electric shocks and other efforts had failed to revive him.

If the Egyptian revolution were a person, I could say that its case is just the opposite. Despite the thousand (unnatural) shocks she has received in the past eighteen months, despite the generals’ efforts to stifle and strangle and shock and drown her (thawra—revolution—is feminine in Arabic), her heart continues to beat. 

But the metaphor quickly collapses. Any real revolution is not a single organism. Perhaps it’s more like water, a raging current replacing old debris with new, becoming soiled in the process. Or as Tocqueville put it, as though speaking to Egypt’s would-be revolutionaries and old regime remnants alike:

The first duty which is at this time imposed upon those who direct our affairs is to educate the democracy; to warm its faith, if that be possible; to purify its morals; to direct its energies; to substitute a knowledge of business for its inexperience, and an acquaintance with its true interests for its blind propensities; to adapt its government to time and place, and to modify it in compliance with the occurrences and the actors of the age. A new science of politics is indispensable to a new world. This, however, is what we think of least; launched in the middle of a rapid stream, we obstinately fix our eyes on the ruins which may still be described upon the shore we have left, whilst the current sweeps us along, and drives us backwards towards the gulf.

Obituaries for the revolution have multiplied in recent weeks, as have revolutionaries’ mea culpas, but there are some new and stubborn statements of optimism. My friend Mohamed Shoair, a leftist literary critic, told me on Monday: “The political arena has become open for everyone now. At least we can discuss the military budget. We know who the members of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces are—who knew that before? And at least the new president, as odious as he’ll be no matter who wins, will win by 51 percent, rather than 96 percent as in the Mubarak days.” But his wife Rasha Abd Elwahabb, a journalist, could find no reason for optimism. “I’m already getting more harassment for not wearing hijab,” she said. “Colleagues at the newspaper are making jokes about how all the women will have to stay home soon—they’re kidding, but it’s not funny.” 

The optimists’ long view relies on the belief that once certain gates are opened, they cannot be closed—that the flood of democracy in Tocqueville’s sense (defined as a society’s self-understanding, not a set of institutions or governing practices) is irreversible. But who is going to “direct its energies,” assuming those energies persist in the absence of the gradual economic and social equalization that Tocqueville noted in pre-revolutionary France? The presidential runoff has pitted the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi against retired Air Force general and the former prime minister Ahmed Shafik—neither of whom seems likely to be a Vaclav Havel figure. To rescue Egypt even a little, leaders outside the executive branch, probably outside the political system altogether, will have to provide uncharacteristically cogent and selfless leadership in the next few years.

In any case, the news of Mubarak’s death turned out to be premature. Conflicting reports ensued—was he conscious or not? Some suspected a plot behind the death announcement: it briefly thinned the crowds of Brotherhood supporters in Tahrir Square, who were already celebrating Morsi’s victory and protesting last week’s dissolution of Parliament. Egypt had hoped to get a president this week, as one Tweeter remarked, but it ended up with three.

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The polls closed at 10 PM Sunday night; the Brotherhood’s victory celebrations started about twelve hours later. They have continued ever since. Official results were not expected until Thursday; now they have been postponed at least until Sunday.

No one in Egypt wears little cotton print sundresses, so the images you’re seeing on TV and online give no clue of the heat. At 3 PM Monday, according to the Weather Channel, Cairo spiked a fever of 99 degrees. 

I went to Heliopolis on Monday to meet the novelist Sonallah Ibrahim, who tactfully refrained from talking politics. (The theory he has expressed elsewhere, whose strong form is considered old-fashioned here, involves a US–Israeli master plan to empower the generals and subvert Egyptian democracy. Perhaps people’s patience for “hidden hand” theories is ebbing.) As I took the metro back downtown, the open windows providing a hairdryer breeze, vendors walked through the women’s car offering the usual Chinese-made impulse bargains: costume jewelry, plastic tablecloths, chewing gum. The best-selling items were charm bracelets, family-size packages of tissues (for blotting the sweat on one’s forehead), and plastic fans. 

In the tunnel leading to the Tahrir exit, the vendors were of another kind: young men in jeans and T-shirts, hawking pictures of Morsi, who claimed victory almost immediately, even though Shafik’s campaign was still contesting the results and the central election committee was calling for patience. A one-pound coin (about sixteen cents) would buy you an “ID”: a lanyard with a laminated miniature Morsi campaign poster. One young man implausibly told me he had sold “like 100” of them. The proliferation of Morsi swag, by the way, in no way contradicts the Brotherhood’s economic policies, which are solidly capitalist, pro-privatization and globalization.

Upstairs in the baking hot square, the day’s celebration was beginning. Morsi’s confused but smiling headshot (How did I get here, again?) was everywhere. One young man stood in the sun with a sign: “I’m not Brotherhood and I voted Morsi for the revolution.” The flag and souvenir vendors were stocked up on neon yellow Morsi soccer jerseys with the slogan, “Our Strength is in Our Unity” (20 pounds, a little over $3). “Our supplier had Shafik T-shirts ready too, in case he won,” one vendor said. Had they been smuggled in from Saudi Arabia, like the Omar Suleiman T-shirts confiscated at the airport when that other ancient regime insider was still in the race?

Like everything else in Egypt’s post-Mubarak “transition” process—with the exception of actual political progress—cultural detritus sprouts at an unbelievable speed. This was true even when I lived here in 2001 and 2002, before Twitter and Facebook. Every day brought a new cliché or tune, which everyone somehow knew to parrot. Now it’s jokes, slogans, graffiti, and street art, posters of martyrs, late-night constitutional declarations from the ruling junta, chattering class consensuses. 

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Sunday’s consensus: Shafik would win. He was SCAF’s candidate, and the elaection was rigged. But that night’s constitutional addendum, depriving the president of the office of commander-in-chief and other powers, undermined the presidency to the point that it was possible to imagine that the junta might let it go to Morsi. Monday’s consensus: whichever man won, he would be a powerless figurehead. “The president won’t be able to go to the restroom without first obtaining the permission of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces,” Al Jazeera quoted a protester as saying, translating his pithy comment into comically elevated standard Arabic.

Tuesday’s consensus: if a Shafik victory is declared, Brotherhood supporters may react badly. The word typically used, with evident class connotations, was “riot.” Some state institutions had new rolls of concertina wire and more guards than usual in front of them. One privileged lady went so far as to text-message her acquaintances on Tuesday afternoon, urging them to make sure they had “enough cash on hand, a lot of food at home, and benzene for the car.” 

Tuesday night was the milyoniya (million-person demonstration) downtown, which was called to protest the Supreme Court’s decision invalidating the Brotherhood-dominated parliament. To me it looked more like a victory celebration: there were families with children, groups of young women, fireworks, and a handful of Revolutionary Socialists who have allied with the Brotherhood. Then came the news of Mubarak’s health crisis.

Wednesday: Elements of the opposition are desperately trying to re-unify to reverse the soft coup. The generals have now gutted all the elected institutions, as Nathan Brown points out.

Thursday afternoon. Mohamed El Baradei warns (on Twitter, as usual) of an impending “explosion” that can only be averted by “mediation” between the Brotherhood and SCAF.

Today’s phrase of the day, as far as I can tell, is tarhib al-dawla, “terrorizing the state.” This describes the continuing Brotherhood demonstrations downtown, according to those who don’t support them. One hears the phrase from literature professors, store clerks, and taxi drivers. (The demonstrations consistently look more intimidating on TV, especially on Al Jazeera, than they do in person.) It seems the announcement of the election results may be postponed indefinitely.

My friend Nehad Selaiha calls, with a theater critic’s perspective on the week’s events and non-events. “Do you know that Mubarak is clinically dead, but they are keeping him on life support just because they don’t know how to bury him?” she says. “He got so many medals in his life for military achievements, but how can you have a military funeral when somebody’s in prison? Anything they decide will cause an uproar.”

Nehad and I agree the moment is ripe for national allegory. Someone should write a comedy set in Mubarak’s hospital room, with beeping machines in the background and scared military factotums running in and out. There could be Shafik people inside, Brotherhood people at the door, and press secretaries babbling incoherently. “It would make a great farce,” Nehad says. “A black, black farce.”

Image: From EPA

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