“Their father devoured his food quickly and in great quantities as though his jaws were a mechanical shredding device working non-stop at full speed. . . . His sons ate with deliberation and care, no matter what it cost them and how incompatible it was with their fiery temperaments. They were painfully aware of the severe remark or harsh look they would receive should one of them be remiss or weak and forget himself and thus neglect the obligatory patience and manners.”
—Naguib Mahfouz , The Cairo Trilogy (AUC Press, 2001)
“Egyptians know the deck is stacked but that doesn’t keep them from dealing with a smile, at least so far.”
—Maria Golia Cairo, City of Sand (AUC Press, 2004)
I’ve heard Egyptians say that the character of A-Sayyid Ahmad the severe father in the Cairo Trilogy who rules his house with an iron hand, eating his full in front of his sons but rebuking them for doing the same is a gross caricature, a kind of man that doesn’t exist in Egypt nowadays. But one of my own Arabic teachers has a father who has only allowed her to leave the house to visit friends three times in her life, and who cried with rage the first time his college-aged son broke curfew. My teacher disagreed with her father’s way of bringing her up entirely, yet never felt capable of challenging it.
This same deep patience an almost tender understanding for the foibles of the father has been extended to many of Egypt’s leaders. When Egypt lost the Sinai and much of its dignity to Israel in 1967 after days of being lied to by official media, after discovering the utter incompetence of its military leadership the country still poured out into the streets to prevent President Gamal Abdel Nasser from resigning.
They say the personal is political, but the opposite also holds true: Middle Eastern leaders benefit from a patriarchal understanding of them as protectors, guarantors, and upholders of the country’s “honor.” But there is a thin line between respect for authority and authoritarianism.
In Egypt and other Arab countries, young people are still pressured to choose a career or a spouse that suits their parents. Within religion, entrenched religious authorities are loath to open the field to newer, more progressive interpretations. Within the atrophied educational system, the focus is on rote memorization rather than on debate, inquiry, or critical analysis. In every field, advancement comes less through merit than through seniority and connections. Individuals with innovative ideas and leadership potential are contained and sometimes actively sabotaged, driven out of the country. Public debate and artistic expression are censored, and the state or religious authorities present themselves as the only qualified arbiters of what it is appropriate and “safe” to discuss. Egypt’s lack of political vision is directly related to the quashing of all potential leaders; the worst crime you can commit is to develop a following.
Egypt has had three presidents in the last 50 years, each of them from the military, and each ascending to power in sudden and un-transparent circumstances. Nasser came to power through a coup, and Anwar al-Sadat and Hosni Mubarak were both vice-presidents who replaced their superiors at their death. Democracy activists are particularly concerned nowadays about the possibility of Gamal Mubarak, the president’s son, being groomed to succeed his father. The question is at the center of attention nowadays because presidential elections are scheduled to take place in 2005. According to the Egyptian constitution, parliament (which is 85 percent controlled by the President’s own ruling National Democratic party) will select a candidate in the spring, and then Egyptians will vote for or against him in a national referendum in the fall. In the last four elections of this type, President Mubarak has always gained a “yes” vote of over 95 percent, and it is widely expected that he will re-present himself for a fifth six-year term.
But this year, there are those who would like to change the rules. Calls for an end to the Mubarak presidency and for a constitutional amendment that would allow for multi-candidate elections are multiplying. Human rights activists, leftists and opposition groups have banded together to form the Kiffaya (“Enough”) movement, and held demonstrations in which members wore their slogan as gag over their mouths.
On the first of the year, Masri Al Youm, a new independent newspaper, had a two-page spread dedicated to the presidential elections, with a first-of-its-kind survey of Egyptians saying whether they were for or against a fifth Mubarak candidature. It is hard to find an average Egyptian who doesn’t tell you that they are “tired” of the current regime, that change would be good, and that the candidature of the president or of his son, Gamal Mubarak, is inappropriate. And at least three opposition figures have expressed their desire to run for president: feminist writer Nawal el-Saadawy, sociologist Saad Eddin Ibrahim, and former MP Farid Hassanein. Hassanein recently presented an official request, with a description of his platform, to parliament. And Egypt is under a lot of pressure what with the elections in the Occupied Territories and Iraq, and all the talk of bringing democracy to the Middle East to show some signs of political reform.
The regime has responded to these pressures with a combination of broad-minded reform talk (much of it for foreign consumption) and swift local smack-downs. Recently, the head of a newly formed opposition party, parliamentarian Ayman Nour, was stripped of his parliamentary immunity and detained on charges of forgery. Nour’s fall from grace took place in an extraordinarily brief 24 hours, with Egypt’s usually slow-moving ministries exchanging a flurry of directives over a Friday, normally a day off. In the days before his arrest, he had crossed a variety of lines: meeting with foreign delegations and speaking to satellite TV channels of the upcoming presidential referendum, calling for the President himself to represent his party in a scheduled dialogue with the opposition.
Nothing happens this fast in Egypt unless it is coming straight from the top, and Nour’s arrest had the swiftness of true anger, an element of personal urgency. As did the banning of Mohamed Sayyid Sayyid, the deputy director of an important government research center, from attending or speaking at Cairo’s recent Book Fair, because he reportedly asked the president an importunate question about political reform. These errant young men were disrespectful and presumptuous, and were accordingly put back in their place.
The president himself hasn’t announced his candidature officially yet, and has said of other candidates: “Let them run” (without explaining how they could, under current law). But he has described calls for constitutional reform as “futile”, and other government officials have called the aspiring candidates “unknowns” and “vagabonds” and called their candidatures “a joke”.
The president has also emphasized the difficulties of his position; governing Egypt “is no picnic” he told reporters recently. “Whoever sits in the chair of the president of Egypt, his health, time and nerves are ruined and he has no private life at all,” he said. “If I want to go to one place or another, it’s impossible, or walk in the street, it’s impossible . . . I stay surrounded by walls. The president of Egypt is a detainee.” Coming from the head of an extraordinarily powerful executive branch, in a country in which hundreds are routinely imprisoned and tortured under repressive emergency laws, these claims are literally soaked in irony. Those of us who live in Egypt understand this kind of rhetoric as a veiled provocation, a flaunting rather than denying of power.
Starting in the 1920s, Egyptians of all social classes took bravely to the streets to end the British occupation of their country. But under the tutelage of their own, they often seem resigned to bearing endless mismanagement. One of their most longstanding means of defense and release has been humor. In the Trilogy, the youngest son, Kamal, who is often referred to by his father as “that son of a bitch” and is the most harshly punished, has only one way of shaking off Al-Sayyid Ahmad’s heavy shadow from the house. When his father leaves in the morning, Kamal imitates his severe stance in front of the mirror, ordering his mother to hand him soaps and towels, making her laugh.
Similarly, all the heavily satirical cartoons and fiery editorials in Arab newspapers may be a sign of thinning patience or just an endlessly adjustable safety valve. Unfortunately, most people here are not educated or trained to engage actively in the public sphere, or to think of the government as something in which they have a stake. Legal means of political participation have been so curtailed as to leave violence and extremism as one of the only means of expressing opposition: a strategy that then allows the government to portray all opposition to it as violent and extremist. In surveys in the Arab world, economic and educational reforms remain the most widespread demands, with political participation and human rights ranking significantly lower.
Leadership in Egypt is a question of trust as much as of accountability. People are willing to accord their government great power, in exchange for a minimum of justice. But that justice is sadly lacking in a country whose resources are so inequitably divided and catastrophically mismanaged. It’s hard for me, and perhaps for everyone, to know how seriously tired Egyptians are, what force their may be behind their complaints and jokes. But when the house is falling down all around you, somebody has to stand up to father.
* * *
Since this column was written, President Mubarak unexpectedly announced on 26 February that he has requested Egyptian parliament to amend the constitution to allow more than one candidate to run in presidential elections. The President’s move was greeted with enthusiasm by the Egyptian press and political establishment, although opposition parties remain concerned about its implementation (as of right now, it looks like many opposition activists and Islamists would be ineligible to run) and also call on the President to make several other key reforms, such as setting presidential term limits and lifting the state of emergency. Some have also pointed out that reform should be part of a constructive political dialogue rather than taking place in the form of sudden, unheralded decrees that are handed down as “gifts” or concessions by the President and that other candidates have no chance of winning against Mr. Mubarak unless more systemic changes to the political system take place.
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