Monday, May 30, 2016

A Film and a Failed Revolution

So rarely does a work of art, whether painting, music, film or otherwise, epitomize the complex sociopolitical realities of its time. One such example from Egypt’s past does so, simply yet profoundly. That film, “al-Baree” (The Innocent, 1985), was indeed a tour de force, telling the tale of tyranny and elucidating its dynamics with skill. Starring the iconic Egyptian actor Ahmed Zaki - often seen as Egypt’s Al Pacino - and directed by Atef al-Tayeb, a leading pioneer of the “new realism” wave in Egyptian cinema, the Innocent says a lot about politics in Egypt, and the failure of its 2011 revolution.  
The Good, the Bad and the Ignorant
The Innocent poignantly pulls together drama, artistry and a subtle message of great significance. With impeccable talent and skill, Zaki took on the character of Ahmed Sabe’ al-Leil, a hapless, illiterate young man who spends his years in obligatory government service as a conscript working in a prison. Ringed by infinite desert sand, the prison looks from afar like an island. But far from being an oasis, it is instead an infernal place, where savage punishment is meted out upon political dissidents. There, in the middle of emptiness, there is nothing but an eerie silence, poisonous snakes, and a scorching sun that bakes the prisoners’ faces. And of course there are the dark practices of systematic torture and humiliation.
Sabe’ al-Leil is the quintessential naïve peasant. With a mind like a blank paper and a soul accustomed to servitude, he is as pliant as a reed. He is indoctrinated with ease, injected by the prison’s nefarious jailers with what usually works better and quicker: hate and pride. A war is going on, he’s told, and he must be honored to defend the nation against the evil guys. The inmates are “the enemies of the homeland,” his superiors keep telling him. Sabe’ al-Leil quickly buys their narrative and becomes one of them. He takes part in ‘reception parties,’ beating-up sessions which form the new inmates’ reception at the prison’s gates, to make them realize they are about to enter a very different world. In fact, Sabe’ al-Leil became so dedicated that when one of the detainees - a renowned writer called Rashad Oweis - attempts a reckless escape, Sabe’ al-Leil chases him in the open desert. He wrestles him, and then chokes him to death. The last words of Oweis were spoken with a mixture of indignation and sympathy. He gazes at Sabe’ al-Leil and says: You’re a donkey; you don’t understand anything.
The movie raises a compelling argument: the sad story of oppression involves not only the oppressor and the oppressed, but also – perhaps, more importantly – those who lend the oppressors a helping hand. Among the ranks of those who ‘know,’ there are those who come to the aid of injustice out of personal greed for spoils; those who toe the line out of fear; and those who resent injustice but avert their gaze out of despair. But the movie focuses on the largely uninformed, men of ignorance who support men of power with unreserved conviction and blind submission. They don’t know, and they don’t know they don’t know.  
Thirty years later, the movie’s message is still very relevant. The melodramatic contours of the 2011 Egyptian revolution - its peaks and troughs, moments of triumph and years of despondency - are all well-known. By now, it is not debatable that it has failed, especially since the rise of the military’s strongman Abdel-Fatah al-Sisi to the summit of politics in 2013 and his election as president in 2014. The Arab Spring in Egypt was but a brief interlude between two winter storms. Thousands of innocents lost their lives, were thrown behind bars or vanished behind the sun; politics and the media have turned into a state-controlled Muppet show; and dissidence is punishable without delay. The mood among the community of Egypt analysts is very gloomy; many fear that the worst is yet to come. What caused that retreat is still a matter of great controversy.
It strains truth to argue that the Egyptian revolution went awry because of the revolutionaries’ lack of courage or the old state’s lack of resolve. There has been a great deal of both over the past five years, but in a country of ninety million, both groups represent small minorities. Rather, it went wrong because of the silent majority-- the great mass of Egyptians reduced by their political unconsciousness into, at best, mere spectators in their homeland; at worst, accomplices in crime. Victims of their own ignorance, they took the shadow for the substance, favoring despotism, condoning state violence and detesting liberties. The revolution failed at the altar of their ignorance.
Dramatic and eye-opening as it was, the revolution of January-February 2011 was not disillusioning to this majority on any level. Insouciant about public affairs, many of them then asked with infantile curiosity: What do the protestors in Tahrir want? It was, to them, as though the events were taking place in some strange, distant land, not in their own city’s central square, a stone’s throw from where they live. Today, the majority of Egyptians echo the preposterous accusations hurled at the revolution no matter how little coherent or convincing they are. Parroting the clowns performing nightly on television in the guise of pundits, they condemn the revolution as a “conspiracy” orchestrated by the US, or Israel, or Iran, or Qatar, or Turkey -- or indeed all of them colluding together. In a display of foolish irony, they grant the murderers of the ancien regime both amnesty and amnesia, while describing the victims of the revolution - those who perished or lost an eye or a limb - as Khawanah, traitors. Some even pine for the days of Hosni Mubarak, the despot recently convicted for embezzling public funds, saying he is a hero deserving an apology. It is this critical mass that sealed the fate of the Egyptian revolution. Had they not so cheerfully accepted the return of the old authoritarian state, winked at - even celebrated - its most grave human rights abuses, and raised its new leaders to the status of unaccountable heroes, the unmaking of Egypt’s revolution would not have taken place, and certainly not with such ease. 
The Power of Ignorance
It is no exaggeration to say that education in Egypt is in shambles. The illiteracy rate stands at around 25% (more than 20 million people), and exceeds 30% among females. (1) But the poor quality of education and a school system that is based on rote memorization leaves many of the educated little better off. In the 2015-2016 World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report, Egypt was ranked next to last (139th out of 140 countries) for the quality of its schools and universities. (2) “Egyptian education is in the worst era in its history,” said a researcher at Egypt’s National Center for Educational Research and Development. (3) Many university graduates lack basic literacy skills, misspelling as simple words as “but,” “this” and “that.” Last September, it felt awfully surreal when it turned out that the Facebook page of Egypt’s newly-appointed Minister of Education was replete with many grammar and spelling mistakes. Ironically enough, prior to his appointment as minister, al-Helaly al-Sherbiny served as a university professor, vice president of Mansoura University and under-secretary of the Ministry of Higher Education. Online activists were quick to quip that the education minister needed to be educated, to enroll in an illiteracy-erasing program. In January 2016, sixty seconds of the opening statement delivered by the parliament’s new speaker (a former law professor) included at least ten catastrophic pronunciation mistakes as he struggled to speak in formal Arabic.
The prevalence of Illiteracy and poor education has taken a great toll on society. Unawareness of basic political facts is rampant, including among university graduates. According to a poll conducted by the Egyptian Center for Public Opinion Research (Baseera), only 23% of Egyptians knew the year of the Suez Crisis, (4) an event as significant to Egypt’s modern history as the battle of Normandy is to Britain’s. The awareness of many Egyptians does not extend past the parochial domains of their personal lives or the results of their favorite soccer teams. A culture of mental laziness has led to an inclination by many to readily embrace the ideas offered by others. This is arguably an understandable option. The pursuit of knowledge carries with it the burden of thought, the responsibility of choice and confronting discomforting truths. This is why benighted people - the “bewildered herd” using Walter Lippmann’s expression - view ignorance as a shelter from evil, a feeling of sheer bliss.
On the whole, Egypt is missing a lot of sobriety. The susceptibility to emotional populist rhetoric is widespread. As a result of the gravitation toward emotional rhetoric and the absence of critical thinking, basic instincts - anger, fear, hope and desire - have taken charge. Obviously, too scared to think, too angry to contemplate, and too complacent to change, this majority opted for conformity. Judging by the results, this is no less detrimental than evil.   
This begets the question: How can politics in a society with such a mental geography be reformed? How can history’s longtime subjects turn into its agents? The enlightened few can instigate a revolution (and they did, demanding freedom and social justice), but the realization of its goals on the long run needs more than the efforts of a small minority, however great its courage and devotion. More than two centuries ago, Maximilien Robespierre rightly opined that the “secret of freedom lies in educating people, whereas the secret of tyranny is in keeping them ignorant.” Indeed, when the simplest verities are lost, vulnerability to propaganda deepens. The perverted, state-sponsored propaganda of the counter-revolutionary forces in Egypt had, directly and indirectly, induced people to believe that revolution is sin, dictatorship benevolent, torture necessary and silence a virtue.
The Innocent had presented another veritable irony to contemplate. The majority of those incarcerated were intellectuals and writers, but all the brutal conscripts, just like Sabe’ al-Leil, were illiterate. In other words, lout men enslaved erudite men. By way of analogy, here’s a society where those afflicted with irrevocable ignorance wreak havoc on those blessed with knowledge. In 2011, this artistic representation was turned into a vivid reality in the breathtaking clashes that took place in Tahrir Square and the bridge of Qasr al-Nil. The street battles between the educated, full-of-vigor youth and the black-clad, black-eyed soldiers armed to the teeth with rifles, gas canisters and water cannons embodied the battle between enlightenment and the dark ages. Or as the New York Times put it at the time, “rarely have we seen such epic clashes between the forces of light and darkness.” In the heated action of those days, there was not one soldier like Sabe’ al-Leil; there were thousands, but they were outnumbered by the protestors, and taken over by their inimitable valiance. Mubarak was soon overthrown and a new dawn seemed imminent.
Now that the revolution has been defeated, and a return to the ways of the grim past institutionalized, the victors have opted for writing their own narrative. Indeed, for decades, Egypt’s victors - the formidable state and its allies in the security apparatus and business circles - have in search of survival relied on two instruments: guns to subdue the sober few and myths to intoxicate the rest.
Clowns as Mentors  
The problem in Egypt is not that the narratives which have no fidelity to truth are aplenty; it is that they always find a receptive ear and an open heart. In the literature on modern Egyptian politics, the brief encounter Ahmed Lutfi al-Sayed (1872-1963) had with competitive politics is oft-repeated. Al-Sayed was one of the most influential liberal Egyptian intellectuals in the first half of the 20th century, a man of true enlightenment. In the 1920s, he ran in parliamentary elections in his small village in the Daqahlia province on a platform of democracy and modernity. In response, his devious rival rumored among the constituency of villagers that democracy is tantamount to impiety and polyandry. Consequently, Al-Sayed, dubbed in Egypt’s cultural circles as “the educator of a generation,” got trounced in the election.  
This incident took place around 90 years ago, but the more things change, the more they stay the same. As it spread knowledge and raised awareness, the advent of globalization and the proliferation of information technology also gave a new tool to the ruling elite to tell its version of the story. A mutual need for an unwritten pact has in fact arisen. Power wants to survive, and the weary masses, which face the squalors of life from sunrise to sunset, cannot afford to lose hope. They need to be constantly assured that tomorrow will be a better day. It is a reasonable win-win, formula: survival for opium. But then, obviously, agreements need enforcers; stories need storytellers.
Much of the popular mood in today’s Egypt and the level of awareness in society can be gleaned by watching the theatrics of Tawfik Okasha and tracing the barometer of his popularity. Okasha is a controversial TV host who rose to prominence shortly after the 2011 uprising, appearing as host and full-time guest on the satellite channel he also owns: El-Faraeen. On air, he rambles on for hours, haranguing with inflated confidence about politics, economics, theology and even science and medicine.        
Okasha sells his style, which is a mishmash of zealous rhetoric, whimsical humor and a dose of self-praise, to the uneducated, the poorly-educated and the unconscious members of Egyptian society— together, making the vast majority. He once predicted that the freemasons would invade Egypt on 13/13/2013 (yes, the 13th month in the calendar). Indeed, sketching at length the mischievous masonic conspiracies against Egypt is among his favorite subjects (he recently published a book entitled God’s Country: The Freemasonry and the Happy Millennium). Despite, or because of, his hallucinations and hocus-pocus, Okasha is massively popular. Last November, he was elected to parliament, securing more votes than any other candidate in all constituencies across Egypt. But as outlandish as he is, Okasha is not alone. The most watched talk show in Egypt, according to the TV audience research firm Ipsos, is hosted by Ahmed Moussa, a man widely labelled as “the informer” (he once said that he takes pride in being an informer for ‘security agencies’). Moussa’s modus operandi is to defame state critics and promote state policies in the most blatant, often slanderous, and eccentric manner.
It has become familiar to hear Egyptian journalists and anchors sputtering flimsy arguments such as that the world is run by an underground secret organization, that earthquakes and tsunamis are the product of a sinister US plan, and that Egypt would - thanks to a miracle - turn overnight into a superpower. Others defend rotten values with unmistakable alacrity. Hypocrisy is virtuous, a leading journalist once said. Another argued that the country was in need of a “repressive police state.” Others advocated the formation of death squads to liquidate every source of irritation, be it dissidents, demonstrators or street children.  
There are a number of commonalities among Egypt’s clown-like influencers. First, they’re all middlebrow, even though they’re so popular and influential. Their massive popularity does not create Egypt’s malady of ignorance; it reflects it and then nourishes it. And so delirium has become the official language of Egypt’s public landscape. On the other hand, intellectuals who devoted themselves to a life of knowledge and rectitude, have been, sadly, pushed out of the public space. In exile, solitude, or a self-induced bubble of life’s inanities, they seek inner-peace, and forgetfulness of the fact that their country was once the beacon of enlightenment in the region. If they attempt to debunk the official narrative, they would get quickly witch hunted by those in power, their media puppets, and the dogmatic imbeciles who tend to believe both.
Second, all these agents of ignorance consider the “January revolution” to be a term of opprobrium. They dare not speak its name unless wedding it to some manufactured tale of conspiracy. To be sure, the revolution in 2011 did not just target an unjust authority, but also the entire culture of incompetence it had sponsored. At heart, these influencers are at variance with change, especially fundamental change, lest it deprives them of their prerogatives, and puts into place a system that judges them by their genuine skills, not their capacity for hypocrisy.
Third, they have totally aligned themselves to the regime. It is widely believed that the regime pulls their strings, unleashing them whenever needed to defend, attack, justify, sneer at opponents, and bay for more iron-fisted measures while it, simultaneously, makes sure they are always coyly silent about its own wrongdoings. In a sense, these icons of ignorance have become like a service class, the regime’s PR representatives. They are, to borrow the articulate expression attributed to Lenin, the “useful idiots” of Egypt’s new old regime.   
In the climax of The Innocent, Sabe’ al-Leil encounters his moment of disillusionment. Amidst the frenzy of a regular ‘reception party,’ he finds himself beating and whipping his childhood village friend, someone he well knows is not “an enemy of the homeland.” He is thrust into the painful revelation that he had been stupid and stubborn—a donkey. In response, he bristled with rage and revolted. He is finally conscious and liberated.   
Sadly, most Egyptians have not been as fortunate as Sabe’ al-Leil, despite the many moments of inspiration they have been offered. The lessons of the revolution, which came in 2011 like a lightning bolt, and the events of yesteryear, went unnoticed. Knowing that the lives of thousands of victims have gone up in smoke in Tahrir and on the streets of Cairo and other cities was not enough to make them see the glaring truth about what is really going on in their country. And still they fail to see the injustice, the suffering, and the role they inadvertently play in perpetuating both.  
The revolution erred because it clamored for freedom to a sleeping people. Before setting off on the pilgrimage to Tahrir, the revolutionaries had to wake them up first.

Nael M. Shama

* A shorter version of this essay appeared in Le Monde Diplomatique (English) on May 30, 2016 under the title "Egypt's Innocent Donkeys".

(!) “More than 25% of Egypt’s Population ‘Illiterate’,” Egyptian Streets, 9 September 2014,
(2) World Economic Forum, The Global Competitiveness Report (2015-2016), , p. 179.
(3) Quoted in Ahmed ElShamy, “Global Competitiveness Report Puts Egypt in the Dust,” Al-Fanar Media, 27 October 2015,

Friday, January 23, 2015

New Book: Egypt before Tahrir

Nael Shama’s newly-released book “Egypt before Tahrir: Reflections on Politics, Culture and Society” is now available in the bookstores of Cairo and Alexandria. Through a careful examination of Egypt's politics, culture and society in the period from 2005 to 2010, the book delves into the state of Egypt in the last five years of the leadership of Hosni Mubarak, the second longest-serving ruler in Egypt's modern history. It merges political analysis and social observation with historical insights, cultural critique and psychological inspection to provide insights into Mubarak's regime, what went wrong with it and why revolution erupted in 2011.

The book comes in a 250-page hardcover edition and is being sold for LE 100. You can currently find it in the bookstores of Alef and very soon in Al-Shorouk bookstores. If you live in Cairo, you can have it delivered free of charge to your residence or office through the service of Ingez (Call 19783 to place an order).  

Monday, December 8, 2014

In the Vortex of Power: Man and State in Arab Politics

A few days ago, the Cairo Criminal Court acquitted Egypt’s former President Hosni Mubarak and his top security aides on charges of killing hundreds of protesters during the January 2011 uprising. Yet four years ago, the revolutionary youth had focused in their quest for freedom on deposing the octogenarian leader who had ruled, and misruled, the country for 30 years. Soon after Mubarak’s ouster they started questioning whether the real stumbling block to freedom was a man, or a system. Now, as they lament the death of their stolen revolution, they realize they have been facing an entire regime all along, not a single man.
Emphasizing the wide-reaching influence leaders have over their institutions, Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote: "an institution is the lengthened shadow of a single man." This is a plausible argument. However, influence also moves in the opposite direction, from bottom to top, doesn’t it? Or to put it differently, who exerts more influence over whom: the man or the institution? In politics, for example, can a single man, in or out of office, change or restructure a deep-rooted regime that is heavily guarded by vested interests and an abundance of guns, resources and microphones? Or does the system inevitably prevail, forcing the men on top to conform to its ways and doctrine?
Arabs narrate their history in terms of men, not ideas. In their tales, anecdotes and myths, they tend to focus on people, searching for heroes—men of courage, nobility and charisma—or, if necessary, inventing and then glorifying them. But the complex, modern systems of rule are so powerful and overwhelming that in the corridors and vestibules of the state machinery, Arab officials melt into the structure of the state, losing their idiosyncrasies and taking special pride in becoming the system's most ardent guardians. They become toxified; they and the state become one and the same. Take Bashar-Al-Assad. A few months after the Western-educated oculist succeeded his father in 2000, the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs called him a "modern-day Ataturk" who was implementing a "cultural revolution" in Syria, and the New York Times depicted him as a "shy young doctor." A decade in power, and the 'shy' Al-Assad turned into a bellicose, brutish dictator of a rare kind.   
Indeed, in the land of Arabs, it was the system that subdued the man—all men, friends and foes alike. There has been no towering figure like Gorbachev or Mandela in the modern history of the Arab world. Even the petty reformers, insiders who at a certain moment in time believed in a limited, piecemeal approach to reform, were soon sidelined or swallowed by the vortex of the state machine. The Arab state has been like a revolving door; the faces at the apex of power changed frequently, but the entrenched systems beneath did not. Despite its drastic failures in economy and development, this Draconian state has stayed intact over the years, exhibiting its willingness and capability to travel any distance and to incur any cost in order to uphold its prerogatives and keep democracy at bay.
It’s understandable. For one thing, power in authoritarian states is both seductive and addictive. Writing about the effects of power, a former Egyptian politician, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, said: "To me, it [authority] became like drugs…It has a special taste; it resembles alcoholic drinks, with a 50 percent alcohol that scorches the throat." For another, the Arab state has put down the roots of a potent, gigantic patronage network that is sustained by an army of clients, beneficiaries, agents, intermediaries and dependants. These have been the soldiers of the system. With the top-down movement of resources, and the bottom-up submission of loyalty, the system endured against all odds.    
The extraordinary resilience of the Arab state has propelled scholars of democratic transformation to examine the region's "exceptional" character: its immunity to democratic governance, its long-lasting marriage to authoritarianism and banditry. There certainly came glimmering moments for reform, brought about by the interplay of powerful internal and external pressures. Yet, the Arab state shrewdly adapted to such incidents, offering a generous package of concessions and promises, only to quickly pounce on its rivals, thwart the offense, repair the rupture and return to where it had always been, dominant and unreformed. 

Egypt’s Tahrir Moment      
Among Arab states, the modern Egyptian state provides the best example of this resilience. Established after the 1952 coup of the Free Officers, this state seemed for decades both metaphysical and invincible. It is not only a "deep state" (a term originally used to describe the statist, anti-democracy forces in Turkey's political system), it is also wide and resilient. A huge edifice built over the years with arms stretching in all directions like a giant octopus, the state in Egypt presides over a vast network of entrenched interests and deep-rooted loyalties, and it owns a massive arsenal of guns. This state is made up of a bloated bureaucracy, a sizeable military that controls an economic empire, and in recent decades, it has been allied to the segments of the business class whose economic interests are closely tied to, and dependent on, state institutions. Yet this state had begotten poverty and injustice. And by the beginning of the 21st century, it seemed that its days are numbered.  
Without a doubt, the biggest opportunity to dismantle Egypt's authoritarian state and build another, more consonant with modern times, came in early 2011. During the momentous 18-day uprising, protestors not only clamored for Mubarak's removal, but also, with unbounded optimism, for the downfall of the entire regime. And Mubarak stepped down. But his state—represented by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF)—was given the mandate to oversee the transition period to democratic rule. It soon became clear that this was merely a leadership reshuffle. And in truth, the system jettisoned Mubarak not to uproot the regime but to protect it.
Mubarak's resignation put Field Marshall Hussein Tantawi, Mubarak's faithful defense minister, in the driver's seat. Like most Arab World autocrats, Mubarak had planted his loyalists in key institutions. And the more docile they were, the longer they stayed in their positions — Tantawi was defense minister for 20 whole years. This colorless, taciturn military bureaucrat, raised in the womb of the state, was faithful to his superiors to the point of self-effacement and fundamentally opposed to change. But the threat posed by the uprising was massive, and Tantawi floundered.
Tantawi was 76 when the revolution broke out in January 2011, too old to understand its underlying causes, too slow to respond to its rapid dynamics. To be sure, the cloistered general felt no affinity with the revolution. He eyed with suspicion, even hostility, the young revolutionaries who toppled his patron and changed his world, but unlike other elements within the state bureaucracy, he sensed that a new status quo had been born, and that there had to be a new approach to governance. Egypt's political landscape had changed dramatically after Mubarak's sudden ouster. Demonstrations took place every Friday in the iconic Tahrir Square, a cascade of labor strikes swept industrial plants across the country, and, perhaps more importantly, Mubarak, his sons and henchmen were put on trial. The internal security institutions were melting down, which allowed the revolutionaries, in a hitherto unthinkable move, to break into the headquarters of the notorious State Security Intelligence, grabbing classified documents as souvenirs and taking photographs of the personal belongings of Habib Al-Adly, Egypt's ruthless pre-revolution Interior Minister.    
Taken by surprise, and lacking skill and vision, Tantawi improvised. He had no strategy or blueprint, but he had a sharp sense of threat. Accordingly he felt the need to adapt to a perilously precarious period. Authoritarianism was giving way to an era of electoral politics and freedom of assembly and expression. Sitting astride internal and external pressure to reform, Tantawi promised free elections and a return to the barracks, but he sought to retain the privileges of the military in the new order. To the military, the revolution was a test—a junction to be crossed, not a change of lanes. Concessions had to be made, and they were.  
After months of tiresome pushing and pulling with political forces, the state grudgingly accepted that the moment of change had come. Tantawi believed Mubarak had erred by planning to groom his son as his successor, and that his brand of intransigence would not survive against the high tides of the Arab spring. So aside from securing the interests of the military, Tantawi did not choose his successor. The 2012 presidential election was free and fair, bringing to power the Islamist leader Mohamed Morsi. Not only did Tantawi endorse the election results, he also agreed to serve as defense minister to the new president—the newcomer to the system from the the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), the regime’s arch-enemy. 
In power, the MB failed drastically, playing into the hands of the state that was girding for battle. In the months from July 2012 to June 2013, as the mismanagement and opportunism of the MB became apparent, the state got what it sought, a casus belli, the justification of a war that only needed a catalyst. The mass demonstrations on June 30, 2013 emboldened the state to recover lost territory. While in 2011 the military had the patience of a saint, waiting for 18 turbulent days before eventually forcing Mubarak to leave, in 2013 it quickly ran out of patience. One day after the huge protests, the military issued an ultimatum, and two days later, Morsi was ousted and arrested.   
The coup put paid to the age of revolution and street politics, inviting back the pre-2011 practices and mentalities. So the period from 2011 to 2013 seems like a parenthesis between two remarkably similar eras. The system has prevailed over the biggest threat it has faced since 1952, capitalizing on popular anti-MB hysteria to retain its dominion and dodge reform, and cutting the tongues of critics in the name of restoring "the prestige of the state." The agents and allies of the state believe that it has to be fearsome once again. With the unprecedented levels of coercion it has employed since Morsi's ouster (killing thousands and arresting more than 40,000 in less than a year), the state now seem invincible, even metaphysical. And Egypt is back to square one.  

Algeria: From Reform to Civil War
What happened in Egypt last year bears a striking resemblance to what took place in Algeria two decades earlier. The road from revolution to state-building and then state consolidation in Algeria was marred by corruption and mismanagement. By the end of the 1980s, under the leadership of President Chadli Bendjedid (ruled 1979-1992), the country had reached the brink of a crisis, the worst since independence. Its youth, in despair about the country’s economic and social situation, and indignant at the regime's corrupt nomenklatura, were boiling with rage. They called the 1980s les années noires (the dark years). Then in October 1988, they revolted.
The revolt was in one crucial aspect tantamount to the 2011 uprising in Egypt—an unforeseen earthquake that throws the system off balance and persuades the men in charge (or, to be accurate, some of them) that a change of sorts is necessary to keep the system afloat. Bendjedid thought the state was ailing and reform was needed. After riots that left hundreds dead, he sacked his prime minister and promised "greater democratization of political action" and "political and institutional changes." In early 1989, a new constitution was drafted that introduced multiparty elections to Algeria's political system for the first time since independence. A window of reform was left slightly ajar, and dozens of newly-formed political parties passed through it.      
The junta saw these measures more as a survival strategy than a wholehearted approach to democratic rule. Naturally, generals profoundly accustomed to a strict, chain-of-command culture do not have a penchant for the diversity, competition and debate that democracy brings. When the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) won the municipal election in 1990, and the first round of the parliamentary election in December 1991, sending shock waves through the system, the army generals felt that the reforms were spinning out of control. The "deciders," who were ensconced behind the façade of a civilian leadership, intervened, cancelling the election, sacking Bendjedid and thrusting a new president, Mohamed Boudiaf, into office. But the new president was not as compliant as they thought. He vowed to combat corruption and target the "mafias" of banditry that had plundered the nation. A former politician, Abdel-Hamid Brahimi, admitted in a moment of frankness that "the equivalent of the country's foreign debt ($26 billion) was paid in bribes to government officials over a decade”, words which quickly became an adage in Algeria. Boudiaf's declarations, real or feigned, reassured Algerians that he would undermine the networks of patronage and enrichment that had become so enmeshed in the fabric of the state. A few months later, he was assassinated, allegedly by the military.  
Clearly, the state was unable to tolerate the reformers, even petty ones aspiring to modest change. With the elimination of two presidents inclined toward reform, the hardliners in the military took full control. The maximum scale of the state's violence was unleashed, no longer to be used only when necessary, but whenever possible. The reign of terror of the 1990s, les années rouges, harvested hundreds of thousands of lives. Algerians bitterly mocked that the struggle for independence had made Algeria "the land of one million shaheed (martyr)" but civil war turned it into "the land of one million zabeeh (slaughtered)." Reform was indefinitely postponed, even after the guns fell silent. Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who became president with the blessings of the army at the end of the civil war in 1999, still maintains a tight grip on power. Last April, the 77-year old, wheelchair-bound leader started a new term in office. The images of Bouteflika's pale face at the poll station epitomize where his country stands today: behind a veneer of democracy, it is sick and still unwilling to reform.   
The story of systems overcoming reformists is one that repeats itself tediously in other parts of the Arab world. In Sudan, for instance, there is the case of General Abdel-Rahman Swar Al-Dahab, the defense minister who in 1985 toppled Sudan's president Gaafar Nimeiry in the wake of a popular uprising. Nimeiry established a military dictatorship that lasted 16 years. Swar Al-Dahab promised to hand power to an elected civilian government after a one-year transition period, and kept his promise. In 1986, parliamentary elections were held for the first time since 1968, bringing to power the leader of the majority party. But once more this liberal experience was but a short interlude between two dictatorships. In 1989, a military coup led by Colonel Omar Al-Bashir again threw Sudan into the abyss of military rule. Déjà vu. And despite the genocide in Darfur, secession of South Sudan, and Al-Bashir's own indictment by the International Criminal Court for committing crimes against humanity, the Sudanese president is still holding onto power, becoming the 12th longest-ruling leader in the world.   
If we think of the Arab spring as a prolonged sociohistorical process carried out over multiple layers of time and space, then it is fair to say that its ultimate fate is still unknown. The regimes of Egypt, Syria, Bahrain and Yemen have obviously survived the Spring's first offenses. Other Arab states are still governed by an unbroken chain of autocrats. If anything, the Arab spring has told us that change does not come from above. The men of the system have no appetite for change no matter how awash in corruption and ineptitude the state is; and if they do, the system has the capacity to oust them at once. Egypt is therefore standing in the streets of continuity, not at the gates of change. Al-Sisi, after all, is the offspring of Mubarak; preserving the state is his leitmotiv. To expect him to reform is to ask him to betray the institution to which he belongs, and in which he spent 45 years of his life. In a speech he gave last June, Al-Sisi clearly said that "state institutions shouldn’t be touched, and nobody should comment on their performance."
The massive changes in Arab societies notwithstanding, the Arab state remains curiously unchanged: Egypt has smoothly reverted to the notorious ethos of the Mubarak years; the sheikhs of Gulf states use petrodollars to sustain the rule of their tribes-with-flags brand of states; and a tyrant like Al-Assad starts a new term in office as his torn country turns into a mass grave. Perhaps the ink spilled in the Arab world on the popular "great man theory" should instead have gone to write in length about the "great state theory"—the dominant institution deserves the most thorough scrutiny.  

Nael M. Shama

* This essay appeared first on the website of Le Monde Diplomatique (English) on December 4, 2014.

Monday, September 15, 2014

الشرعية في مصر: المأزق والمهرب

لماذا استوطنت حمى الهستيريا ضفاف نهر النيل في مصر؟ لماذا غمر غبار الحرب ومفرداتها وطقوسها وشعائرها حياة المصريين؟ لماذا طفقت سرديات نظرية المؤامرة تبسط وجودها على كافة النقاشات حتى غدت طقساً وطنياً بامتياز؟ لماذا جرى على نحو محموم (بل ومسموم) توظيف الشعارات والأغاني الوطنية سياسياً؟ إجابة كل تلك الأسئلة وثيقة الصلة بالشرعية السياسية ومصادرها. فالشاهد أنه ثمة إفلاس سياسي اليوم يشابه إفلاس جماعة الإخوان المسلمين حين كانت في السلطة، فاستدعت الدين لترميم السمعة وتثبيت الشرعية. بدوره استدعى مأزق الشرعية الراهن هرولة حتمية باتجاه خطاب الوطنية الزاعق، وذلك لانتفاء البدائل وغياب كل مصادر الشرعية الأخرى.
لا يمكن مثلاً للنظام السياسي في مصر أن يستمد مشروعيته من جدية الالتزام بمباديء الديمقراطية والشرعية الدستورية. فقد أطاح هذا النظام في لحظته الأولى برئيس منتخب ديمقراطياً، ولم يبادر بعدها بإجراء انتخابات رئاسية مبكرة كما طالب متظاهرو 30 يونيو. كما أن إصدار قانون التظاهر والتنكيل بالنشطاء واستمرار انتهاكات حقوق الإنسان لا يدع أي مجال للتباهي باحترام الديمقراطية، والواقع أنه حتى المسئولون يعلنون صراحة أن استعادة الأمن (وليس تعزيز الديمقراطية) تأتي على رأس أولوياتهم.
أيضاً لا يملك النظام الجديد جسارة رفع لافتات مناهضة إسرائيل، أو الادعاء بالانكباب على نصرة الشعب الفلسطيني، خاصة في ظل استمرار التنسيق الأمني مع إسرائيل ووصول الجفوة مع حركة حماس إلى حد انقطاع التواصل. لقد بدا واضحاً خلال الحرب الإسرائيلية الأخيرة على قطاع غزة أن قضايا التنمية والاقتصاد لا السياسة الخارجية هي شاغل الرئيس الجديد، وأن القضية الفلسطينية ليست على أجندة سياسته الخارجية على المدى القصير، وأن تعبيره الأثير "مسافة السكة" موجه أساساً لدول الخليج الغنية بالنفط والمساعدات.
كما لا يمكن الاستناد إلى شرعية الإنجاز في ملفي الاقتصاد والخدمات (حتى الآن على الأقل) مع استمرار تفاقم مشاكل نقص الوقود وانقطاع الكهرباء وارتفاع الأسعار. أما سياسياً فقد تصدع تحالف 30 يونيو الذي أقصى محمد مرسي في العام الماضي. عاد محمد البرادعي إلى منفاه الاختياري، وآثر حمدين صباحي السلامة، وعاد شباب الثورة إلى سيرتهم الأولى: غاضبون ومعارضون، ومن ثم مهمشون ومهشمون. ولأن الخواء السياسي ينبغي ملؤه، فلم يبق للنظام الجديد سوى أن يبني معمار شرعيته على الأعمدة الآتية:
أولاً، الشروع في إقامة شرعية جديدة، قوامها "ثورة" الشعب في 30 يونيو، والتحامه مع الجيش لتخليص الوطن من براثن الفاشية الدينية. التمكين للشرعية الجديدة يتطلب بداهة القضاء على شرعية 25 يناير وإهالة التراب على صناعها وأهدافها، أو على الأقل تنحيتها عن الوعي العام. من هنا بمكن فهم حملة التشويه التي تتعرض لها ثورة يناير بلا هوادة من جانب ساسة وإعلاميي النظام الجديد. على سبيل المثال، وُصف ثوار يناير من قبل وزير التموين في حكومة حازم الببلاوي ب "الخونة والإرهابيين"، دون أن يبادر أي مسئول إلى الاعتذار أو النفي أو التوضيح، ما يشير إلى رضا السلطة أو على الأقل عدم انزعاجها من مضمون هذه التصريحات.
ثانياً، تبني خطاب شعبوي عتيق يلتحف برداء الوطنية، ويشعل لهيب المشاعر بالإلحاح على أن أخطاراً محدقة تكاد أن تنال من وحدة الوطن وسلامته، حتى لو أدى ذلك الخطاب إلى تعزيز ثقافة الكراهية ضد الآخر في الداخل، وتلويث علاقات مصر مع الخارج. إن أردأ هوية تلك التي يقوم فيها تعريف الأنا أساساً على كراهية الآخر. ولقد أدى التعاطي الديماجوجي لوسائل الإعلام في الشهور الأخيرة بالفعل إلى تقسيم الوطن نفسياً إلى فسطاطين، وهو أمر لا يقل خطورة عن التقسيم الفعلي، وإلى نشوب أزمات دبلوماسية مع ثلاث دول على الأقل، ما استوجب اعتذاراً رسمياً من وزارة الخارجية المصرية في حالتين منها (مع الولايات المتحدة والمملكة المغربية).
وغني عن البيان أن الوطنية الحقة رباط فكري ووجداني يجمع أبناء الوطن جميعاً في مجتمع قادر على تحديد مرتكزاته الأساسية، وعلى إدارة تناقضاته الداخلية. أما الوطنية السائدة الآن فهي في جوهرها وطنية رثة، إذ أنها مجرد أداة لكسب النقاط السياسية وإقصاء المخالفين. فلأن الرموز تعكس بالضرورة واقعاً أو معنى ما، فلابد بداهة من وجود صلة عضوية بين الأصل والرمز المشير إليه، أما إذا انتفت تلك الصلة، تصير الرموز مجرد أوثان، تعبد لذاتها وبشكل تجريدي من دون الإله الأصلي. بعبارة أخرى، ما الفائدة من علم يرفرف عالياً في السماء أو نشيد يصدح في الأركان فيما أبناء الوطن يهيمون في تيه أرضه وغياهب سجونه؟  
ثالثاً، استدعاء تجارب تاريخية زاخرة بالمعاني وقادرة على إثارة الشعور بالنوستالجيا (مثل تجربة جمال عبد الناصر)، ثم الالحاح على أن الحاضر يستنسخ الماضي، رغم اختلاف السياق والرجل والتجربة.   
لقد كان جمال عبد الناصر منذ الصغر متمرداً على واقعه، عصياً على الانصهار في بوتقة نظام فاسد، ولذلك ثار عليه وهو لم يكمل بعد الخامسة والثلاثين من العمر. أما عبد الفتاح السيسي فاستمر يتدرج في المناصب في عهد حسني مبارك حتى صار مديراً للمخابرات الحربية، واصفاً إياه حينئذ في حفل رسمي ب "ابن مصر البار". كما أن انحيازات عبد الناصر الاجتماعية والاقتصادية وسياسته الخارجية تضعه حتماً على طرف نقيض مع ما هو ظاهر حتى الآن من توجهات السيسي. لكن في الالتحاق باسم عبد الناصر وسؤدد مجده وإنجازاته (لإضفاء المشروعية على الوضع الراهن) إغواء لا يقدر الكثيرون على كبح جماحه.  
لم يكن غريباً أن يجيء الشعار السياسي لحملة السيسي الانتخابية خالياً من أي رسائل أو توجهات سياسية محددة، ومكتفياً بالنداء المجرد "تحيا مصر". فمن معين الوطنية ينهل الرجل وقود شرعيته، وعلى سنام مشاعرها العنفوانية يوطد حكمه الوليد. لكن "خطاب" الوطنية لا يغني عن فعلها ومعناها ومرادها، وحين ينقشع الوهم وتتبدد السحب، سيجدر به أن يقدم لشعبه ما هو أكثر من حمل الراية، وغناء النشيد، والخطابة في مهرجانات الأمن القومي.        

د. نايل شامة
* نُشرت هذه المقالة بموقع الحوار المتمدن (بتاريخ 12 سبتمبر 2014).

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Cairo: City of Walls

Cities are very articulate. They talk, smile, frown, wail and jubilate, but their language can be only heard by those who care to listen. A city's architecture and art, planning and design, streets and traffic, houses and shacks, signs and billboards, advertisements and banners, all speak volumes about its identity, and its relationship with people and authority. A glimpse of a city's center is perhaps the quickest way to come face to face with this. The center of the city - nearly any city - is akin to the liver in the human body: it is a reflection of its overall health - or lack thereof.     
Whereas Old Cairo became Egypt's capital city in the 10th century, the current Downtown area of Cairo is relatively new. It was built by the overambitious Khedive Ismail in the 19th century to become the 'Paris on the Nile', an embodiment and symbol of his grand plan to align Egypt with Europe and Western civilization. But waves of demographic and socioeconomic changes over the past 150 years or so turned the 1,000-year-old city instead into the 'Bombay on the Nile,' a metropolis weighed down by a large population, limited space, crumbling services and a great deal of unease and frustration.  
Chaotic, overcrowded and frenzied, Downtown Cairo's effervescence verges on insanity. As if this was not enough, it has been compartmentalized in the past few years by various concrete, bereft-of-beauty security walls intended to keep protestors away from vital government buildings. The first of these walls was erected during the deadly 'Mohamed Mahmoud Street' clashes between protestors and security forces in November 2011. Some of them were later torn down; others remain intact, or have been replaced with metal gates that can be closed whenever social turmoil is anticipated. Ironically, the walls that were built under the rule of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces as a temporary measure have mostly remained in place through the leadership of the Islamist president Mohamed Morsi, the technocratic, military-backed administration that toppled him last summer and the current regime headed by President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi. This owes to the fact that, beneath the veneer of the army cap, the Islamic beard and the Western hat, all these seemingly diverse regimes have a lot in common: scarcity of legitimacy, political fragility and the exclusive reliance on security approaches to solve their political problems.  
Sheep Raids Speak to Revolution    
In its pure, physical sense, a wall is nothing more than an orderly amassment of bricks and concrete, designed and measured by the rules of physics and engineering. It is soulless, a dull construction with a specific function - that and nothing more. Yet, as anthropologist Clifford Geertz observed, "small facts speak to larger issues" - winks speak to epistemology, sheep raids to revolution. Indeed, walls have massive psychological implications. We know with confidence that human beings, by instinct, desire liberty and eschew blockades and enclosures. Our eyes long for wide horizons, panoramic views and open skies, and become strained in their absence. Walls, fences and all sorts of barriers highlight differences, deepen divisions, impose an aura of segregation and instill a sense of suffocation. The need for open space and unrestrained movement cannot be more felt than in an overpopulated, tightly-packed and anarchic place like Cairo. The downtown security walls have turned streets into cul-de-sacs, making traffic congestion even worse and inhibiting commute by foot. Moreover, the compartmentalization of life in Cairo reflects the prevalence of political tension and conveys a sense of rigidness. "Even paradise," an author convincingly argued, "could become a prison if one had enough time to take notice of the walls."
Historical precedents of walls intended and built for the purpose of security are replete with doomed fates and looked back upon with negative connotations. Lofty, fortified walls are reminiscent of barbarous, mediaeval wars, waged before the advent of civilization. In modern times, the Berlin Wall and Israel's Separation Wall symbolized misguided policies. Their fates attest to the fallacy of the logic from which they were born. The former failed to preclude the flow of ideas into the walled-in communities in Eastern Europe, or the eventual downfall of communist regimes; the latter does not protect the Jewish state from terrorist attacks. Likewise, the Bantustans in South Africa, enclosed areas designated for the indigenous population, collapsed with the end of apartheid in the 1990s. These examples reveal an interesting conclusion: walls erected to perpetuate notorious policies only exacerbate the problem they were initially intended to fix. In a sense, the building of walls mirrors the shortsighted inclination of regimes to procure vast amounts of weapons that are unlikely to be used. Both acts tend to create a sense of security rather than achieve security per se.          
Like so many others before it, the current Egyptian regime has failed to realize these subtle truths. Indeed, if contrasted with the walls of Berlin and the West Bank, the connotation of building walls in Downtown Cairo would be extremely embarrassing for the regime. The walls built by East Germany and Israel were erected in the heat of a conflict, in order to thwart these two country's arch enemies. In contrast, the Egyptian regime has built walls and established buffer zones in the heart of its capital city, in order to deter or obstruct its own people, causing economic harm and undermining Cairo's quality of life. The forced separation between people and vital state institutions (the Cabinet, the People's Assembly, the Ministry of Interior) is, on the symbolical level, epitomic of the wide chasm between the ruler and the ruled, and indicative that people's tense relationship with power has undergone little change since the 2011 uprising against then President Hosni Mubarak.
Since states are usually more powerful in the center than in the far-flung territories, indications of fear in the center can be seen as an official admission of weakness and vulnerability. During the time of Mubarak, there were no walls in Downtown Cairo. Fear among the people reigned for decades, thanks to the brutality of Mubarak's gigantic security machine, and there were only a few, small-scale and intermittent demonstrations. The 2011 revolution tore down the barriers of fear, unleashing a popular movement unseen in decades. With the people protesting and the government taking one defensive measure after another, one is tempted to ask: Who is now more afraid? The guards, or those at whom the guards point their weapons?         
Tahrir Square, the hub of Egypt's revolution, has been closed to anti-regime protestors since Morsi's ouster in 2013. That the area surrounding it is now zoned with barricades, roadblocks and barbed wire on days when protests are anticipated reveals what little remains of the hopes unleashed the day Mubarak was overthrown in February 2011. To be sure, any official talk about "democracy," "legitimacy" and the "will of people" becomes void when a military zone is created in Cairo's iconic 'square of liberation.' When thousands of protestors poured into Tahrir Square on January 25, 2011, after they had managed to break through the multiple security cordons imposed by the riot police, they considered setting their foot on the square an opening—the inauguration of a new era, the restoration of a right long subjugated by the state. They hugged each other in ecstasy and settled down, establishing over the 18-day revolution what was dubbed the 'Republic of Tahrir.' This has been reversed since last summer: Tahrir is closed, protests are outlawed and security fences consolidated. 
To add insult to injury, last February the authorities painted the gate of Qasr al-Aini Street - a major thoroughfare leading to Tahrir Square - in the colors of the Egyptian flag. We are faced here with a tragic irony, serving as a reminder that shameful deeds are often wrapped in the clothes of patriotism and nationalism. Without a doubt, renaming a thing does not alter its nature; a vulture remains a vulture even if it swears time and again that it is a peaceful dove. The truth is: nations accommodate, embrace and mend fences; dictatorships divide to rule, building barriers and then disguising them with a national flag and declarations of good intent.  
This situation - barring demonstrators from the square of demonstrations - gives birth to a major paradox: if the policies of the current regime are supported by the majority of Egyptians, and if this majority perceives its rising leader (the military's strong man, Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi) as "the savior of the nation," then why does the regime feel so insecure? Why is it so obsessed with closing the square and applying the strictest of security measures? The answer is simple: majority is different from unanimity. What the post-Morsi regime is apparently pursuing is the elimination of dissent, sowing the idea that there is only one voice; there is no opposition, no diversity. This is reminiscent of another country with many walls and no windows: North Korea.  
Repression and Defiance  
Cairo's walls are walls of mistrust and wariness. They reflect the absence of political consensus, and the failure of Egypt's transition to democracy. There are no divisive walls in inclusive systems. Security measures around the White House or London's Downing Street are perhaps less strict than those enforced around any local police station in Cairo. Legitimacy itself is surely the best wall of defense. Instead of building walls that will eventually be torn down, the focus of Egyptian policymakers should be on how to legitimize the regime, its institutions and the political process it espouses. In order to do that, the establishment of a true democratic system and the reform of decaying state institutions, particularly the security apparatus, are imperative steps.
The recent rise in terrorist attacks being carried out in Egypt does not validate the blind substitution of comprehensive political blueprints with marginal security plans. On the contrary, terrorist bombs are tantamount to alarm bells, raised to remind policymakers of just how much the old problems have been exacerbated, and old solutions have failed. Men do not go on killing sprees out of lust or boredom, but out of anger and frustration. But self-delusion can be comforting, especially for a regime searching for pretexts. It is tempting to divorce terrorism from its causes, to think that some people are innately evil. It is a convenient way to close any discussion about cause and responsibility. As Terry Eagleton explains, "we have thrown out a determinism of environment only to replace it with one of character. It is now your character, not your social conditions, which drives you to unspeakable deeds." Clearly, thinking it is faced with evil and psychopathic terrorists, the Egyptian regime has resorted to an all-out, life-or-death war with its nemeses.
This is a flawed logic. Men with arms might be defeated with arms, but if the underlying reasons that impelled them to use deadly violence against the state are not addressed, then more men will be prompted to take up arms, escalating the conflict and undermining efforts to contain it. The new generations of terrorists will, moreover, be fueled by an insatiable urge for vengeance and destruction. Seasons of migration to the battlefield will continue unabated, and the normalization of war will ensue. The ways of Egyptian politics, which dominated - and impaired - the country for decades, and which habitually looks at complex political problems through a narrow security prism, must therefore finally change. 
            Alas, autocrats think in terms of control and coercion, not partnership and engagement. They build more walls than bridges. They constantly ask themselves one question: why should I bother with the constraints of democracy when I can impose my will and get away with it? Although they are far from being perceptive, they can infer how little legitimacy they have, how much contempt they attract, and, accordingly, how mush force they need to use to stay the course. Living in a world of threats, real and perceived, the dynamics of panic guide their behavior. Their physical energy is consumed by defensive acts: erecting high walls, buying new weapons, hiring more guards, fastening extra chains, and building more prisons; their mental energy is mesmerized by the delusion that these measures would secure them. History tells us that those who rely on the stick for survival never know when to stop, never get out of their cocoons. Psychologists have a name for this mindset: "the fortress mentality," prisons of one's own making.     
There are, nevertheless, two shining facts about the story of repression. The first is that repression begets resistance; in fact, an extra dose of it usually invites extra spurts of defiance. The second is that the oppressed almost always outwit and outmaneuver their oppressors. It seems as though dictatorship is destined to marry stupidity, and then fall at its altar. In the Egyptian context, the undignified endings of Mubarak's and Morsi's journeys of power provide two vivid cases in point. Egyptians' response to the notorious walls came in the form of graffiti - marvelous, creative wall paintings that merge art and skill with intelligence and humor. The colorful murals expose the tyrants, commemorate the martyrs, and vow continued persistence. "The walls are the publishers of the poor," said the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano. The street of Mohamed Mahmoud turned during and after the 2011 monumental clashes into an open-air art gallery. The sense of contrast could not be more intense; the faces of oppression and recalcitrance, coercion and artistry, hideousness and beauty, juxtaposed in one spot, along the shores of one battle. It looked as if the brave protestors were shouting at their hunters: you shoot, we draw; you put to death, we bring to life.
Social Fragmentation      
If Cairo has not changed much on the political level since the early 1950s, its urban landscape has changed on a massive scale since then. Cairo used to attract immigrants from other Egyptian regions for many decades, but in recent times it has seen its own people (those with the financial means, of course) retreat from the city, escaping to its outskirts and the new urban communities that mushroomed around its borders. While the trend was partly driven by the desire to remain within the metropolis but break away from its plagues - the pollution, congestion and crowdedness - it was also triggered by multiple social values, such as the pursuit of isolation, yearning for distinction and suspicion of the social 'other.'  
Unlike the neighborhoods of old Cairo which in earlier centuries accommodated, in harmony and peace, the castles of Pashas, the houses of middle class merchants and state clerks and the ‘Takaya’ (hospices) of Sufi orders, the new Cairo imposes segregation, limited interaction and shallow mutual knowledge. This had inspired the late Egyptian vernacular poet Ahmed Fouad Negm (1929-2013) to write: “long live my countrymen; there is no acquaintance amongst them that makes the alliance lives on.” Ironically, while the walls and gates of the old Cairo (built by the Fatimid and Ayyubid dynasties from the 10th to the 12th century) were there to protect the whole city from outside aggressors, today's walls protect the elites from other social classes, the 'other' Egyptians.  
The new compounds and semi-resort housing projects that popped up around Cairo, in the suburbs of New Cairo and the 6th of October City and along the Cairo-Alexandria and Cairo-Suez roads, are mostly gated and heavily-protected, looking from afar like formidable strongholds scanning for intruders. These gated communities reinforce the boundaries between social classes in a highly unequal society that already suffers from a huge (and expanding) gap between the haves and the have-nots. A recent government report stated that poverty in Egypt has increased over the past few years: 26.3 percent for the year 2012/13 compared with 25.2 percent in 2010/11 and 21.6 percent in 2008/9. Meanwhile, five businessmen from two families dominated the 2014 Forbes list of Egypt's wealthiest people, with a combined total wealth of $17 billion (around 4.2 percent of Egypt's total wealth). In other words, Egypt's wealth is concentrated in a small social segment, and this segment's wealth is in turn concentrated in the pockets of a few individuals.     
Inadequacy is a powerful motivator. The mere sight of the walls and guards of Cairo's desert colonies could instill outsiders with a burning desire. As the old Arabic idiom goes, "what is forbidden is desired most." Walls by definition indicate that there is something precious beyond them that needs protection. There is a general feeling in Egypt that if an "uprising of the hungry" ever erupts in Cairo, then its first targets would be the living compounds of the rich. Indeed, various 5-star hotels and nightclubs were ransacked and set ablaze during the riots of the Central Security forces' conscripts in 1986. These were then the outlets and getaways of the rich; there were no social enclaves in the Cairo of the 1970s and 1980s.
Gated communities are one of the many manifestations of neoliberalism, whose whirlwinds have in recent times swept across Egypt's middle and lower classes. Egypt's political and economic power is quickly moving to the suburbs of Cairo, putting down the roots of a new center and leaving behind the wounded and lost city. Scores of politicians live in the suburb of New Cairo, including former President Mohamed Morsi and Ahmed Shafiq, the runner-up in the 2012 presidential election. The headquarters of the presidential campaign of Field Marshall Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi was also located there. It's interesting to note that a newly-opened commercial and corporate center in New Cairo carries the title "Downtown." The meanings conveyed by the names are clear: a "new" Cairo has emerged with a "downtown" of its own. Indeed, in the making are two Cairos, divided across social and financial frontiers; one is inhabited by the exuberant few who indulge in a joie de vivre attitude, the other by sullen crowds struggling to make ends meet. This is a reflection of social fragmentation, not urban development. The impoverished Egyptians are living on the margins of this new city - in the deprived belts of misery that surfaced since the 1970s - just as they have always been living on the margins of the country's non-egalitarian economy.       
Egypt's political walls will come down, stone by stone, when a new dawn breaks over Egypt and a new political order is born. But the problem with social walls is that they are more entrenched. The Germans use the expression Mauer im Kopf (the wall in the head) to indicate that the psychological divide between East and West Berlin is still alive despite the reunification of Germany in 1990. There's something similar to that in Egypt: overwhelming feelings of division, segregation, rupture and distrust - the set of poisonous ingredients that make nations falter.   

Undoubtedly, a city without political walls is more confident in itself, and a city without social walls is more at peace with itself. Cairo - the city 'victorious' in Arabic - is a weary city, fraught with tension, weighed down by the number of its inhabitants, suffering from decades of negligence and torn by social tension. Cairo is today more defeated than victorious, more fragmented than united and more exasperated than content. Its walls epitomize the massive political and social tensions that engulf Egypt as a whole. If only the walls could talk.   

Nael M. Shama

* A shorter version of this essay appeared first in the September 2014 issue of Le Monde Diplomatique (English).