The Conscience of Egypt, Silenced but not Lost

Ahmed Maher could have filled an auditorium. He could have given an hour-long speech about the importance of democracy and the rule of law, answered a handful of inane questions from whichever audience members lined up at the microphones fastest. Or he could have skipped us altogether, spent his whole short early-November trip to America talking to officials or NGOs or supporters from the Egyptian diaspora.

But instead he spoke for ten minutes, then opened up to questions from the 20 or so people in the audience—he came on only a weekend’s notice, and I was lucky to be on the right mailing list. It was a degree of closeness I’d hoped for, but never really expected, in the three years since spending January 2011 glued to the limited window of al-Jazeera.

He told us why he’d come, that a discussion with students was more important than a discussion with officials because his movement (April 6) was a student movement, and in any case he’d had enough of official duplicity and broken promises—Egyptian, yes, but also American.

He gave us the basic narrative of April 6: protests beginning in 2005 (two arrests) which became explicitly anti-Mubarak in 2007 and 2008 (another arrest, this time with torture). Helping plan the first protests in January 2011; being called “heroes of the revolution” at first by the post-Mubarak military government but then criticizing them, too, when they began to restrict media and protect the old, corrupt business establishment. (“At the time, the Islamists supported the military against us,” he recalls with a touch of irony.) Pivoting from an independent stance in the first round of presidential elections to an endorsement of Mohammed Morsi in the runoff, because Ahmed Shafiq was unacceptable and a boycott was the wrong choice for a first stab at democracy. Turning against Morsi when he overstepped his mandate (another arrest, in May 2013). Joining the call for Morsi’s ouster in the June 30 Tamarrod protests, then again criticizing the overreaches of the resulting interim government.

“Again the government has started to control the media, and we’re in square number zero.”

“We want to be the third alternative—besides Islamists and the military—but we know it will be hard.”

Will [current military head Gen. Abdel Fattah] al-Sisi win the next presidential election? “I don’t think he’ll even run, because he doesn’t need to hold the presidency in order to run Egypt.”

What mistakes did the revolutionary forces make? “Our two  big mistakes: We trusted the military and left Tahrir Square after Mubarak fell, and we didn’t form an alternative: we said we wanted to build a new regime but we didn’t answer the question of how.”

How can Egypt move away from a military-dominated economy? “I don’t think any political faction will be able to transform the economy away from the military model for at least 5 years, but the first steps are to increase foreign investment and improve education.”

How did you balance activism with your family and your job as a civil engineer? “Before the revolution, it was difficult. After the revolution, very very difficult. During the revolution, completely impossible.”

He told us that, maybe, a third revolution would be all it takes, and expressed optimism that one would be forthcoming—but after the meeting he talked to a techie friend of mine about developing a private communication tool for the movement, now that (for the first time since he started using it to organize in 2007) Facebook was too risky.

Indeed he was so focused on the future of his movement and his country that those of us who were listening could easily forget that his own future was less certain than ever, that his record of personal triumph which seemed to exist in a myth-world had to fall to earth.

It’s unclear how much he knew then. But these are the facts: he never mentioned it to us at the meeting, but just before leaving Egypt he had turned the reins of April 6 over to a young activist named Amr Ali. A few days after he returned, he was indicted after defying the draconian new protest law, then turned himself in to Cairo police—wearing sunglasses, surrounded by a crowd of hundreds, chanting “Down, down with military rule! I’ll write on the prison wall that army rule is shameful and a betrayal!” (It rhymes in Arabic.) He was released after a few hours, but then arrested again on another charge of inciting protest—the protest that gathered when he turned himself in the first time. While in custody awaiting trial, he was refused paper but managed to sneak out a snark-filled statement on toilet paper disparaging a government-run “Human Rights Council” that is anything but.

On December 22, he was sentenced to three years in prison, along with both other co-founders of April 6. These are the first convictions handed down under the new protest law, and are unlikely to be the last.

Ahmed Maher knows the contours of three years—how much can happen, and how little can change. The next three years will probably bear that out yet again. But if we are ever led by the setbacks of the hour to despair that the light of the revolution has gone out; that not even a candle is left burning in Egypt—there is still a torch in Tora Prison.

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Morsi Takes Charge

An attack on a border post in the Sinai shakes Egypt and its government (diagrammed here in July) from political and social deadlock.  The Muslim Brotherhood’s website blames the attack on Israel, but President Mohamed Morsi–who otherwise hews pretty closely to the positions of Brotherhood leadership–hasn’t made that claim, instead directing his ire at the Egyptian military and their poor control of security in the Sinai.  As for Israel, whose territory the terrorists were trying to enter when they attacked the border post, its government appears to have known about the attack and warned Egyptian intelligence.  The Economist has a good overview of what the incident means for relations between the three local actors of Israel, Egypt, and Hamas, while an op-ed translated from al-Masry al-Youm gives an alternate (rather anti-Israel) view, according to which security in the Sinai is important but isn’t enough.

Morsi took a series of bold steps in response to the attack, starting with the dismissal of the chief of intelligence and continuing last weekend with a dramatic maneuver that shocked the political class and surprised the United States.   He dismissed Mohamed Hussein Tantawi and other top generals while taking back the powers the SCAF had kept for itself after the election–making Morsi now effectively a democratically elected dictator–in a decree that Issandr el-Amrani called “a pre-emptive coup against a coup within a coup.”

The new military leadership has as its head the former director of Military Intelligence, known among revolutionaries for his staunch defense of the vile and indefensible forced “virginity tests” carried out on Tahrir Square protesters.  He is said to have good relations with the United States, and his newly appointed second-in-command clearly understands American views and interests, though at the same time expressing support for complete American withdrawal from the Middle East.

So: Morsi will actually rule Egypt now although the constitutional legitimacy of his new powers is almost nil; American relations with the Egyptian military-intelligence complex, which I think are probably pretty important, are shaken but not substantially weakened; the Sinai is no closer to being secure and relations with both Israel and Hamas are no stronger and possibly slightly weaker; the revolutionaries have their most pressing demand satisfied in the dismissal of Tantawi but are unlikely to see many practical effects of his absence; and the political scene as a whole must now reset for new parliamentary elections and the selection of the constitution-writing committee.

It’s been a long week.

Links for Sunday

Since a July 25 op-ed in the New York Times, Danny Dayan, the public face of the Israeli settlement movement, has been more in the news than usual.  He’s a particularly interesting character because, like Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, his Zionism is of the staunchly secular variety even though he leads a group often thought of, more or less correctly, as fundamentalist or even messianic.  Reading an excellent interview with Dayan gave me, really for the first time, a good idea of what a secular defense of the settlement movement might look like, and what the differences might be between the movement’s assumptions and those of the two-state “mainstream.” The first thing that sticks out is that Dayan believes his approach is more, not less, pragmatic than the two-state approach: that the settlers recognize the facts on the ground and the diplomats are the ones with their heads in the clouds.  And to a certain extent that’s true–but it’s sneakily true.  The settlers recognize the facts on the ground–but, more than that, they create them.  They understand a lot better than most American supporters of the Israeli government–perhaps better than Netanyahu himself–that the settlements really are the biggest barrier to peace.  But unlike the Palestinians and their advocates, who believe the same thing at least as strongly, they embrace this: Dayan says the settlers settle in order that the two-state solution might die, because they believe the two-state solution would make Israel and the region less peaceful, less safe, and less prosperous.

Where do I stand?  I share the Israeli right’s belief that an independent Palestine will not result in a marked improvement in Israeli security, the Israeli left’s belief that a wall of separation has no place in an ostensibly free and democratic society, and the Palestinians’ belief that an equitable settlement must include a right of Palestinian return to the homeland they were forced out of.  If it comes down to a demographic question–if the State of Israel becomes majority-Palestinian–I would prefer the preservation of democracy over the preservation of Jewish control, and renewed aliyah (Jewish immigration) over both.  I also don’t believe that those statements and preferences constitute any sort of solution–but they’re consistent with a future for Israel that I think is possible, if at the moment unlikely, and a future for Israel that I might even want to live in.

On Amtrak trains, passengers are a captive audience: Amtrak has a monopoly on, among other things, selling them food.   But somehow they’ve still managed to lose hundreds of millions of dollars selling food on their trains–in violation of a 30-year-old law.  Republicans are attacking them over this, with one representative using a particularly creative press conference.  To me, though, the outrageous part isn’t the money–it’s the fact that Democrats are now defending the loss, and attacking the Republicans’ plans for privatizing Amtrak concessions, by viewing food service on Amtrak as a jobs program, and efficiency improvements as job losses.  It’s true that the more inefficiently a government program provides a given service, the more jobs that program will support.  But the money to support the unnecessary workers is not free, and would if left in the private economy or spent by a different government agency support a similar number of jobs elsewhere–leaving the overall economy better off because more useful services get performed or more products get made.

In Egypt, the new interior minister announces a hard-line policy on protests and demonstrations.  Optimistic reformists note that the relative lack of diversity in Morsi/Qandil’s cabinet–a mixture of Ikhwan (Muslim Brotherhood) and felool (old regime) is not diversity!–is the result of revolutionaries’ refusal to accept appointments at least as much as Qandil’s refusal to issue them.  In other news, President Morsi continues to tread a very fine line in his foreign policy by, first, either sending or not sending a letter to Israeli president Shimon Peres and, second, maybe possibly staying away from a controversial Non-Aligned Movement summit in Iran that Israel would very much like him not to attend.

If the Free Syrian Army can secure complete control of Halaab (Aleppo), the civil war there will finally fit into the comfortable western paradigm of city-hopping (the way Libya did), rather than the much scarier (to western officials) asymmetric insurgency conflict which it remains at present, and military aid might be considerably more forthcoming.

The Democratic candidate for Tennessee’s Senate seat is a terrible person and they should probably have tried harder to enable non-terrible people to win even if it won’t matter in November.  Less astoundingly, a Republican candidate for Montana state representative is a similarly terrible person.

Speaking of terrible people, Larry Craig

Ever wonder how political polls have dealt with the rather drastic decline of people who pick up phones and answer political polls?  Now you know

So there was a jobs report on Friday.  This is what Romney has to say about it.  This is what Obama’s team has to say.  Note the use of four significant figures…

In Somalia, there are so many drones in the skies that they are becoming dangerous for ordinary aircraft…

In Greece, the Golden Dawn party continues to disgust all reasonable people…

James Hansen continues to be right

Henry Kissinger continues to be wrong

Links for Friday

Mohamed Morsi’s newly appointed Prime Minister, Hesham Qandil, nominates the new Egyptian republic’s first cabinet.  The surprising thing is just how little changed: the “new” appointee as defense minister is Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, the de facto head of state during the period of military rule and Mubarak’s defense minister since 1991.  Qandil also kept Momtaz al-Saeed as finance minister and Mohamed Kamel Amr as foreign minister, though neither has a history of high-level service for Mubarak.  Western governments likely breathed a sigh of relief–al-Saeed has won praise for his willingness to call on the IMF for financial support and advice and Amr gets along well with Secretary Clinton, in addition to espousing relatively moderate views on Israel.  To the revolutionaries, though, Tantawi is more or less unacceptable.  Watch this space.

Brookings releases an analysis reaching the rather obvious conclusion that “a revenue-neutral individual income tax change that incorporates the features Governor Romney has proposed…would provide large tax cuts to high-income households, and increase the tax burdens on middle- and/or lower-income taxpayers.”  There just isn’t enough money available in ending deductions on rich taxpayers to make up for the rate cuts on the same.  I can’t emphasize it enough: if a politician says they want a tax reform that will “broaden the base,” they mean that they want to flatten the distribution of taxation, increasing effective rates on the poor and lowering them on the rich.  Incidentally, the response from the Romney campaign is to state not that the study is wrong but that its authors are Obama supporters.

From the ground in Tehran comes an interesting view (note: the Basij are the government’s plainclothes militia) on the prospect of war and the future of the government.  The piece doesn’t represent the whole of the Iranian people, or the whole of the opposition, but it’s important to keep in mind that Iran is much more than a belligerent president and an autocratic supreme leader–that the Iranian people are suffering under our sanctions and debating the same war we are.

The blogger Alexey Navalny (English here, albeit delayed by a few days), one of the most prominent figures in the “unofficial” Russian opposition (i.e., the part excluded from government, as opposed to the token opposition parties Putin allows to nominate presidential or parliamentary candidates) is arrested for, in theory, embezzling half a million dollars worth of timber.  You just can’t make this stuff up.

Three recent articles on qat, the drug which takes 30 percent of Yemen’s water supply and 17 percent of its families’ income…

This is how the U.S. military plans for things like the long-term development of the situation in Syria…

Dick Lugar, long-time Indiana senator defeated in a May primary by tea partier Richard Mourdock, on partisanship and his opponent

A somewhat parochial view on the Bo Xilai purge (maybe China seems like a total “black box” to you because you only talk to dissidents?)…

A forceful piece on Romney’s Israel remarks–also see Diamond, Zakaria, and Acemoglu but keep in mind that it doesn’t matter any more whether politicians understand social science…