Friday, December 26, 2008

Beyond Al-Nada Murder

The recent murder of two college girls at Al-Nada Compound, Sheikh Zeyed City could be seen as an ordinary killing that only merits sorrow and sympathy, but, from a social perspective, it highlighted so vividly three basic aspects of the Egyptian society and its present mindset.

First, it was a reminder of the distressing reality that women in Egypt are besieged dead and alive. The tabloids that counterfeited stories about the misdemeanor of the victims most probably did so because their editors well knew that their readers would unconsciously want to buy these fake stories. Associating women with all sorts of evils is somehow satisfying to the mentality of male-dominated societies, which are inclined to believe that the sole function of women is to satisfy men's sexual needs and provide means to reproduction.

Equality of men and women in Egypt is a mirage.

Secondly, Cairo is torn, physically and psychologically, between two diverse, nearly hostile branches that are destined to share the same metropolis. Thus, it is not unrealistic to speak of two Cairos: the first is composed of the overpopulated, underdeveloped slum areas strongly reminiscent of overcrowded Asian cities and the second is made up of the new residence compounds that endeavored to reenact the spirit of stylish European cities. Unlike the neighborhoods of old Cairo which 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, new Cairo imposes segregation, limited interaction and shallow mutual knowledge ― something that inspired poet Ahmed Fouad Negm to say: "long live my countrymen; there is no acquaintance amongst them that makes the alliance lives on."

Asia does not see eye to eye with Europe.

It is interesting to observe that the life of the arrested suspect, Mahmoud Essawy, did not physically cross the boundaries of the underprivileged neighborhoods of Rod El-Farag (where he lives) and Sabtiya (where he works). These areas comprised the boundaries of his mind and soul as well. In the same vein, residents of the other Cairo have no or little contact with the slum areas and shanty towns that have mushroomed in the second half of the twentieth century.

Essawy had worked as a blacksmith in the classy compound five years ago and it must have been a very powerful experience for a young teenager. It was perhaps his sole interaction with a social and economic milieu that is entirely different from his own. This explains why it has resonated in his memory for so long that it became his first choice when he decided, just three weeks ago, to "steal the rich."

Thirdly, conspiracy theory has become a national hobby. To many skeptical Egyptians, indubitable forensic evidence and the comprehensive confession of Essawy did not matter much; the power of hidden desires and preconceived perceptions have apparently overpowered rational calculations of reality. Surely, the state has often conspired against its people and Essawy's nonchalant reacting of the heinous butchery at the crime scene nurtured the suspicion that he was forced to admit it (forget not that torture is the prime leisure activity of many Egyptian policemen). But that does not justify the belief that the all the deeds of all state agencies reflect nothing but conspiracies and tricks.

The hypothesis that the case against Essawy was fabricated – as baseless as it as – misses a crucial point. The several generations that have grown up over the past three or four decades in the impoverished areas of the Egyptian capital have been prone to developing a type of personality that seems awkward since it is antithetical to the soul of the Egyptian character as known and recorded by numerous historians and anthropologists over the past few centuries.

Harsh social and financial conditions could be a breeding ground for human beings that tend to be stolid, aggressive, psychologically disturbed, prone to drug addiction, prone to having a criminal record of petty offenses, mistrustful of the haves and indignant at life's injustices. These areas provided the major recruiting pool for the violent Islamic groups that brutally harnessed thousands of innocent lives in their 'quest for purity and salvation'.

New social realities produce new attitudes, new types of crimes.

To sociologists and anthropologists, the crime section in newspapers provides priceless treasures of information. The recent murder may not uncover new realities but it confirms that women are maltreated dead and alive, the fabric of the society is disintegrating at an alarming rate, and conspiracy theory is the standard mode of thinking in Egypt.

Nael M. Shama

* This article was published in Daily News (Egypt) on December 18, 2008.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Future: When?

So overwhelming and enduring have been the hardships of life in Egypt that many Egyptians endorsed the notion that their country is destined to live in misery and agony forever.

That’s not true, however. History is entertaining because of its volatility and dynamism. Some empires wither away, others rise and the theatre of history is constantly in a state of flux. "All is flux, nothing is stationary," vows the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, implying that change is invincible and binding.

This basic law of nature could provide momentary relief to the sufferers of today, but waiting is nevertheless tiring. Because the rate of change is too slow, Egyptians increasingly feel that they live in a bottleneck; they do not really drown but they do not set afloat either. They are waiting, and wondering about the additional time they would have to wait before the bright future appears at the end of the dark, dreary tunnel.

The inevitability of change notwithstanding, only meaningful change is recorded in the book of history. In The Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, renowned British historian Eric Hobsbawm argues that the 20th century was a short one, extending from the start of WWI in 1914 to the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991. The period between these two dates witnessed momentous, life-changing events such as the two world wars, the Russian Revolution and the rise of socialism, the Great Depression, decolonization and the rise of dictatorships, and the start and end of the Cold War. The twentieth century was short because time, in Hobsbawm's conception, is shaped by events that make history and is not an abstract entity delineated by soulless calendars.

Following on the rationale of Hobsbawm, one can argue that the twenty-first century is defined by the spread of democracy in developing countries, increased awareness of -- and commitment to -- human rights and freedoms, and the introduction of great technological leaps in science, medicine, and communication. Since these developments are mostly alien to life in Egypt, it is not an exaggeration to say that Egypt is still deeply entangled in the malaises of the past century.

Desperately longing for change, Egyptians have become masters of waiting. President Sadat had promised that the year 1980 would be the "year of prosperity"; the dividends of peace would be reaped by state and society, he confidently said. But Sadat was assassinated the following year on his day of glory and prosperity has been running late ever since.

Hollow promises of higher wages, lower prices and a better economic outlook have insolently filled the front pages of official Egyptian papers over the past three decades. These same years witnessed the rise of grinding poverty, the advent of double-digit inflation rates, the mushrooming of slum areas, the metamorphosis of corruption into a gigantic, merciless octopus and the excessive decay of public services. Additionally, whereas financial crises in the advanced world interrupt the regular flow of economies; chronic economic crises in Egypt in these years have been interrupted by short periods of prosperity and tranquility.

In tandem with these setbacks, countries that lagged behind Egypt according to various indicators of development (such as Japan in the nineteenth century, South Korea in the 1960s, and Malaysia in 1980) have surpassed Egypt and turned into enormous economic and technological tigers.

Over the past few decades, change – in fact, progress -- has been massive and unanticipated worldwide. The hanging of Saddam Hussein in the capital of his ruthless state and the holding of free democratic elections in various Third World dictatorships are two cases in point.

Likewise, Germans in the 1960's thought that the formidable Berlin Wall was there to stay, but the whole Cold War came to an end: The Soviet Union disintegrated, Germany reunited and European countries created a common European currency. Today, the capitalist fortress of the Cold War's major beneficiary is collapsing, paving the way for a multipolar international system. In other words, the structure of world politics has gone through the phases of bipolarity, unipolarity and multipolarity while the dominance of the notorious National Democratic Party in Egypt has amazingly defied the logic of change.

This semi-universal progress has evaded Egypt. So motionless are days and nights on the banks of the Nile and so uninterrupted is its strict life cycle makes it possibly the worst example to test Heraclitus's hypothesis. What is, after all, the value of time in a country whose pace -- to borrow the expression of Mohamed Hassanein Heikal -- resembles a cartoon movie clip that has been frozen for a quarter of a century?

Great nations do not die; they are bound to rebound, albeit sometimes after a great deal of waiting.

Nael M. Shama

* Photo: Heraclitus
* This article was published in Daily News (Egypt) on November 7, 2008.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Why Do They Hate Businessmen?

"Why do they hate us?" is not only George W. Bush's favorite question. Apparently, many Egyptian businessmen ask the same question, lamenting about the lack of appreciation of the 'constructive' role they play in the Egyptian economy and the ' valuable ' services they provide to their fellow countrymen.

Their bewilderment invites equal bewilderment because the conduct and roles of businessmen in the public space give more room for mistrust and resentment (even loathing) than they allow for gratitude and appreciation, let alone admiration and praise.

Indeed, if one studies the history, alliances and doings of Egypt's business class over the past 150 years, many unpleasant facts become apparent. Their service to authoritarianism probably comes at the top of their national sins. This class, one should not forget, grew out of the womb of the state and remained fervently faithful to it. It owes its existence to Mohamed Ali and his successors who, in the period from 1847 to 1889, decided to distribute Egypt's scarce agricultural land in order to create a stable business class that would circumvent the repercussions of the London Treaty of 1840 which opened Egypt's nascent economy to foreign investors.

Since then, the relationship between business and political authority has remained, in essence, reciprocal; business unequivocally backs the tyrants in power in exchange for benefits that enhance their parochial economic interests. According to these dynamics, the unholy alliance perpetuates authoritarianism and the concentration of wealth in the hands of the few, not exactly an accomplishment that merits the gratitude of masses.

Needless to say, their closeness to policymakers and participation in the political process frequently put them on a collision course with the rest of society, since, at many times, the package of social and economic policies they had advocated was not geared towards the socioeconomic development of the country as a whole or the wellbeing of the classes below. For example, after their economic and political sidelining under Nasser's regime, the business class reemerged under Sadat, vigorously supporting – even encouraging – his disposition towards the United States and peace with Israel, and the total breakup with Nasserism and the Soviet Union.

That Egypt's dependence on the U.S. curtails its autonomy, that Israel is jeopardizing Egypt's national interest, that the cut of subsidies drags millions of Egyptians beneath the poverty line seems not to be particularly disturbing so long as their swollen balance sheets remain safeguarded. It is no paradox, therefore, that the business class has lost the quest for Egypt's 'heart and mind.'

In addition, unlike their counterparts in other countries, Egyptian businessmen have been lured by short-term opportunities rather than long-term investments, something that made the stock market and the real estate sector their favorite playgrounds and that deterred them from investing in mass-production, industrial ventures. As such, to speak of Egypt's so-called businessmen is to speak of gamblers, or middlemen, hence the common description: "the parasitic class," that thrives on the labor of others without producing anything valuable, unless we subscribe to the illusion that producing soft drinks, potato chips, and chewing gums would elevate Egypt's economy into a first-class economy. They are, therefore, very different in nature and function from the entrepreneurs and capitalists that contributed to the ascent of Western economies post-World War II.

Furthermore, the comeback of businessmen in the 1970s, and their subsequent rise, has depended to a large extent on the formidable ties they have extended with outside parties, much more than it was a reaction to local economic developments. In effect, these intermediaries constitute an "agent class," playing the role of middlemen between outside parties and their own society. Tied to Western markets and partners and hooked to the ebbs and flows of the international capitalist market, Egypt's new compradors, obviously, serve themselves and their patrons abroad, irrespective of the effects of that alliance on the national level.

Their social isolation and the dearth of their social obligations are pretty disturbing as well. They live in fortified communities, clubs and resorts, strive to achieve ends that serve their own vested interests, and are oblivious of -- even indifferent to -- the hardships of other Egyptians. It is not a blatant exaggeration, thus, to say that this class has turned – as sociologist Saad Eddin Ibrahim pointed out – into 'a class in itself' as well as 'a class for itself.'

To be truly grateful for Egypt's brand of businessmen, decent humans have to ignore all these facts, plus the recent metamorphosis of some of their foremost representatives into gangsters and thugs. They need not frown, however; they are already role models to countless criminals, opportunists and fortune hunters.

Nael M. Shama

* This article was published in Daily News (Egypt) on September 25, 2008.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

The Beauty of Garbage!

For the past few months, the eyes of TV viewers in Egypt and the Arab World have been glued to the dubbed-into-Arabic Turkish soap opera 'Noor.' The series, premised on the legendary love story between Noor and Mohannad (the drama's central couple), has taken the Arab World by storm. "I sell more than 500 photos of the stars of 'Noor' each day," a street vendor in Damascus told the Agence France-Presse. In Beirut, it was reported that 'Noor' attracted more viewers than the Olympic Games. In the same vein, sales of t-shirts bearing pictures of Noor and Mohannad are skyrocketing from Morocco to Bahrain, and Turkey is expecting more than 100,000 Saudi tourists this year (up from 40,000 last year).

Symptoms of Noor-mania are also pervasive in Egypt. In the North Coast posh resort of Marina, beachgoers wearing t-shirts of Noor's lovebirds demonstrated against the local preacher who had condemned the 'banal' series, asking youth to spend their free time doing something valuable.

Quite surprisingly, Egyptian viewers were not deterred by the Syrian dialect of the voice-overs, the full-of-clichés dialogue and the rickety plot, which are enclosed by the excessive melodrama of old Egyptian movies and the fatal flaws of contemporary commercial ones. It could be fairly argued that there is nothing fascinating about the series, except, of course, for the striking looks of the actors and the breath-taking natural scenery ―quite the same winning recipe that induces many Egyptian producers to shoot their low-budget movies in Sharm El-Sheikh and make certain they include a cheesy love story, fancy cars and many sexy women in bikinis.

There is a blatant, albeit often overlooked, distinction between 'aesthetic judgments,' which refer to appreciation of the crude beauty found in the natural world and in the harmony and symmetry of the human body, and 'artistic judgments' which judge art works, taking into consideration, among others, technical competence, creativity and intellectual content. Hence, despite the sensory-level aesthetic appreciation of 'Noor', there is -- artistically speaking -- hardly anything beautiful about it.

To grasp the difference between the two notions in an Egyptian context, there is probably no better example than the wave of "New Realism" that renewed Egyptian cinema in the 1980s. The movies directed by the likes of Atef Al-Tayyeb, Mohamed Khan, and Khairy Bishara aspired to present a fair portrait of real Egyptian life, highlighting mounting social tensions, economic hardships, political repression and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism that surfaced following the introduction of the open-door policy in the mid-1970s.

Ambitious, innovative and politically-oriented, these filmmakers deserted the romance fairytales that dominated Egyptian cinema in the 1950s and 1960s in favor of real contemporary issues and flesh-and-blood characters. The penchant for realism was behind their bold decision to abandon the studios and shoot in the streets, capturing, in the background of their tales, street violence, crime, and police corruption-- in short, how life looks like in the poverty-stricken areas of Cairo.

The protagonists of "New Realism" came frequently under attack; their movies were accused of 'tarnishing the image of Egypt' and were depicted as 'ugly,' obviously by critics who used the aesthetic lenses to appraise a work of art. Indeed, in Atef Al-Tayeb's films, it was not uncommon to see piles of garbage or the pouring of raw sewage into the streets of Cairo's shantytowns, but the creative plot, superb acting, and outstanding directing which all emanated from reality and endeavored to serve a noble cause made them nonetheless masterpieces deeply ingrained in the memory of Egyptian cinema.

"Trash Army," the magnum opus of the German artist HA Schult, is another case in point. It is an art installation made up of fifty life-sized trash people, sculpted of trash that was gathered from a dumb in Cologne. Schult wanted to portray massive human consumption in modern times and warn of its dire consequences. As he pointed out, “we live in a trash time. We produce trash, and we become trash.”

The installation is situated in the National Geographic Museum, Washington D.C., and has travelled for over a decade now to some of the world's most eminent landmarks, such as the Pyramids of Giza, the Red Square in Moscow and China's Great Wall to raise awareness of the huge volume of trash produced by humans and the disastrous ecological imbalance it creates.

Because 'beauty is in the eyes of the beholder,' the audience that went wild about 'Noor' will most probably find Al-Tayeb and Schult's artworks extremely ugly and repulsive. So is 'Noor', they would find out, if they just discarded the superficial image and dug deep beneath.

Nael M. Shama

* This article was published in Daily News (Egypt) on September 11, 2008.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Chinese Syndrome

Along with the straitened heat and humidity of the month of August, watching the Olympic Games added a sense of disgrace and bitterness to summer in Egypt, for the disparity between Egypt and the advanced world was all too vivid in Beijing.

Egyptians apprehended how weak their nation was compared to other nations two centuries ago. The French invasion in 1798 was Egypt’s first encounter with modern civilization after centuries of isolation that threw the country into a black hole of feebleness and backwardness. The French fleet, led by Napoleon Bonaparte, included a large number of scientists whose mission was to survey Egypt’s geography, culture, anthropology, and history in a way that has never been done before, a huge effort that culminated in the 24-volume “Description de l’Egypte.”

Exposed to modern weaponry and scientific inventions that they never saw or dealt with, Egyptians were forced into comparing themselves with “the other,” their ignorance and littleness with the knowledge and strength of Westerners. They realized that something serious had gone wrong with their country. Two visions vowed to repair it: the first maintained that Islam had to be reformed (the solution promulgated by Al-Afghany, Mohamed Abdou, and Mohamed Rashid Reda); the second affirmed that the return to the Meccan brand of Islam is the only panacea to the triumph of the West.

The telecommunication revolution of the 21st century, however, guaranteed Egyptians’ continuous exposure to the superiority of “others.” The 24-hour coverage of the Olympic Games in Beijing, for example, was a painful reminder that in sports they favored the cozy seats of spectators to fierce competition in sports pitches.

The “Chinese Syndrome” started with the impressive opening ceremony, which was depicted by The Guardian as the ceremony that “outdid all of its predecessors in numbers, color, noise and expense.” The Daily Mail predicted that Hollywood will “study the DVD (of the ceremony) for years to come and plunder Beijing’s visual tricks.” The Daily Telegraph summed it up with the front page headline: “Beijing wows the world.” Unfortunately, what impresses the First World sometimes overwhelms the Third World with a feeling of lowliness and sourness; just like the encounter with the French invasion, seeing the signs of others’ advance imposes the discomforting, 200-year-old comparison between “us” and “them.”

Then came the ever-fresh disappointment of the routine breakdown of the Egyptian squad, the laments of which recur after every sports breakdown. Egypt’s ranking in the all-time Olympics record sheet is equivalent to its pitiful position in the global hierarchy of power and advancement. The United States, today’s sole superpower, won more than 2,000 Olympic medals since the inception of the modern Olympic Games in 1896. Egypt won two dozen in the same period. What kind of feelings are Egyptians left with upon knowing that another nation earned more medals in one week than they did in over a century?

Part of the popular blame for the drastic failure in Beijing was laid upon the “irresponsibility” of Egyptian athletes and the “incompetence” of their federations. That is unfair and not particularly accurate too. Winning athletes are not made in a vacuum; they blossom alongside science, technology and material power, and wither in their absence.

Suffice it to know that the swimwear of legendary American swimmer Michael Phelps (who won eight gold medals this year and six in Athens four years ago) and the American swimming team was developed with the aid of US space agency NASA. Made from water-repellant material, the seamless suit helps swimmers keep the best body position in water and lessen drag. Swimmers wearing this new invention set 33 new world records since its introduction last February.

Beijing’s debacle should not have been a surprise, for how could one expect roses to grow in a field of mines? The real grief is, thus, not about the loss of Karam Gaber’s much anticipated wrestling medal, but instead is generated by the glaring evidence of the defeat of the whole nation, its littleness and weakness vis-à-vis advanced nations, and, more importantly, the self-pity that follows from the almost fatalistic belief that one’s nation is destined to remain forever in the backseat of civilization and progress.

The allegation that Egypt was last defeated in 1967 is a big lie. The truth is: it has been defeated ever since. After all, defeats in battlefields, markets and sports arenas are just the tip of the floating iceberg; beneath lies longstanding defeats in laboratories, universities and factories.

Nael M. Shama

* This article was published in Daily News (Egypt) on August 28, 2008.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Inside Tyrants' Minds

During his recent visit to South Africa, President Hosni Mubarak was asked about Egypt's stance toward the International Criminal Court's indictment against Sudanese President Omar Al-bashir for war crimes. Mubarak affirmed his country's support of Sudan and solemnly added that "it is not appropriate to take a President to court."

What can one, in the sincerest quest for fairness and objectivity, learn from the statement other than Mubarak's belief that, unlike ordinary people, presidents are above law, even if they are charged with atrocious war crimes?

Power corrupts souls, and minds too. To justify imperialism and enjoy complete impunity for its wrongdoings, the imperialist discourse has gone to great lengths to paint a distorted portrait of the indigenous populations of colonized lands. It alleges that the 'subject races' belong to inferior species, are less sophisticated, incapable of functioning independently, and innately inimical to reason and knowledge, hence entitled to less rights and privileges.

Whether used consciously or not, many tyrants – loosely defined as unjust or oppressive rules -- resort to the same justification to perpetuate their rules and abort means of accountability. To them, people are irrational, ignorant, prone to emotional fluctuations, and they beseech domination.

Mubarak's statement, therefore, stems less out of casual sympathy for a fellow member of the 'Club of Despots' than out of a powerful belief that Presidents are indeed elevated in status and should remain unassailable.

The psychological impact of the practice of absolute power for a long period of time is mostly overwhelming. Noam Chomsky argues that it is easy for most people to construct patterns of justifications for almost anything they choose to do; even murderers and rapists instinctively believe that they are doing the right thing. If this is generally true, then it is surely a much easier job for leaders of undemocratic societies, who are usually surrounded with, and influenced by, scores of hypocrite and fake sycophants. As a result, most tyrants become partially enclosed in a bubble of self-delusion, where they ardently engage in a process of self-promotion and adamantly obstruct the access of unfavorable information.

The longevity of authoritarian regimes and their feverish attempts to survive often lead to their exclusion as well. The exclusive reliance on trusted individuals, the corrupt networks that grow in the regime's secluded womb and the fortifications erected to protect the regime pave the way for a hazy sense of reality and addiction to illusions. Over time, thus, narcissistic dictators fall prey to a single-minded mode of thinking, which substantially depends on futile optimism, an exaggerated self-confidence and suicidal wishful thinking. As one scholar pointed out, the "narcissistic leader prefers the sparkle and glamour of well-orchestrated illusions to the tedium and method of real accomplishments."

One particular symptom of that self-centered mental process is the deep-seated belief of many tyrants that they embody the state. According to this view, the discussion of the private interests of the leader is, in essence, relevant to the national interest. When, in 1944, the 24-year-old King Farouk heard the phrase “the will of the people” from the Wafdist politician Abdel-Salam Fahmy Gomaa, he retorted: “My good Pasha, the will of the people emanates from my will,” a naïve conviction he dearly paid for eight years later.

The personification of the nation endured the demise of royalty. Sadat's delusions of grandeur were behind his repeated usage of the possessive pronoun “my” in reference to the Egyptian people, army, constitution, etc. This personalization reveals an inner-conviction of being the king who is God’s shadow on earth, the feudalist who owns the land and people, the Pharaoh who is equated with God. The structure of Egyptian politics did not change much after Sadat; hence there is good reason to believe that Mubarak, after 27 years at the helm of the state, follows the same calculation.

A typical consequence of such a distorted mindset is the equation between personal criticism and disloyalty. The exalted self-perception leads tyrants to believe that their actions merit praise and appreciation only; critique reflects either ignorance or treachery. Saddam Hussein was notorious for liquidating aides who had criticized his policies or suggested alternative approaches; other less-paranoid leaders find imprisonment or exile a reasonable punishment.

There are certainly exceptions among tyrants, the type of exceptions however that consolidate the rule, not refute it. A quick look at the psychological profiles of Third World leaders – Egypt included -- provides sufficient evidence.

Nael M. Shama

* This article was published in Daily News (Egypt) on August 14, 2008.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Challenges of Tomorrow's Egypt

A close look at the writings of Egyptian intellectuals shows that most of them are so immensely consumed by contemporary problems that they lose sight of the challenges of tomorrow's Egypt. The current transgressions of Mubarak's authoritarian regime are, indeed, onerous and hard to escape. However, Mubarak's phase in Egyptian politics is approaching its end, and the future of the political system is pregnant with uncertainty.

The nature of the 'new leadership' notwithstanding, it would have to deal with a number of underlying problems that have several aspects in common: 1) if not properly addressed, these problems will exacerbate in the future, turning into fully-fledged crises; 2) they would have dire effects on the nation's wellbeing; and 3) their solution would require creative unorthodox approaches.

On top of these challenges is the specter of sectarian discord. Muslim-Christian clashes are now daily news, reflecting deep-rooted ill feelings and a disposition toward xenophobia. Therefore, the frequency and intensity of these confrontations are expected to rise in the future.

Certainly, Egypt's social homogeneity --hence its national security-- will be plagued if the crisis is not addressed competently. The task is not easy though. Whereas progress on the economic front depends on increasing machinery and updating technology, the alleviation of social tensions deals with hearts and minds, thus requiring time, perseverance and a great deal of patience.

The symbiotic relationship between money and power requires attention too. Egyptians used to think that "whoever did not make money under Sadat, will never be able to do so." But that expectation turned out to be erroneous. Wealth accumulated in the 1970s looks like petty cash compared to the vast riches amassed over the past two decades. Along with capital came economic clout and political power, in unprecedented levels since the revolution of 1952.

An intrinsic feature of the structure of the Egyptian bureaucracy and economy is that the lines separating political and economic powers are becoming ever more blurred, thus corrupting politics and undermining competition. If this process is unimpeded, dismantling the edifice that merges the interests of numerous political and economic circles and provides impunity to their corrupt activities will be tantamount to swimming against an indomitable current.

Furthermore, the future is loaded with a number of economic nuisances. For example, food security is greatly at stake. The previous months were marked by severe bread shortages and soaring food inflation, and experts contend that food prices would continue to rise for some years. Certainly, the least well-off consumers will be hardest hit by that rise – i.e. no less than 40% of Egypt's population. Nobel economics laureate Gary Becker points out that a 30% raise in food prices instantly leads to a 20% decline in living standards in poor countries.

In addition, the increase of global prices will continue to haunt Egypt's balance of trade. At present, Egypt imports most of its basic food necessities. The population boom and scarcity of agricultural land ensure a continuation of food dependency, thus further straining Egypt's import bill.

The same dynamics seem to dominate the future of energy resources. Egypt's reserves of oil are almost depleted and the heaven-sent natural gas resources are expected to follow suit in a few decades.

The era of cheap oil has come to an end, experts agree. Olivier Appert, President of the French Petroleum Institute, said that by 2015, the price of an oil barrel could well reach $300, a nightmarish scenario for oil importing nations, Egypt possibly included.

Finally, the detrimental effects of global warming constitute the bleakest prospects, but they receive the least attention of Egyptian intellectuals. The World Bank thinks that Egypt is "vulnerable" to the consequences of global warming, saying that it would possibly face a "catastrophic" fate. Scientists predict that the rise of the Mediterranean by the end of the century will flood the coastal areas along the Nile's Delta, forcing millions of Egyptians out of their homes and causing the worst human catastrophe in Egypt's modern history.

The Mediterranean has been sneaking upward around 0.8 inches yearly for the past decade, deluging parts of Egypt's seashore. "The situation is serious and requires immediate attention. Any delay would mean extra losses," an environmental scientist told The Associated Press last summer.

The future of post-Mubarak Egypt is 'uncertain', a term that many readily equate with negative consequences. That is not true; 'uncertainty' implies both negative and positive outcomes. Still, even the most promising leadership would have to deal with these social, political, economic and ecological challenges, both quickly and effectively. Otherwise, today's Egypt will look like a life of bliss compared to tomorrow's Egypt.

Nael M. Shama

* This article was published in Daily News (Egypt) on July 3, 2008.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Hosni Mubarak: CEO of Egypt

Because the current Egyptian government is composed predominantly of technocrats who have no — or little — previous political experience, its members have been frequently charged with political incompetence. A number of political blunders provided the assailants with further fuel for indictment. That President Hosni Mubarak, however, is himself a technocrat has received little attention.

The current Egyptian president is, essentially, an army officer who spent his entire life in the armed forces. Contrary to Gamal Abdel-Nasser and Anwar Sadat, he never exhibited any interest in politics or any inclination to political activism. Even though he was 24 in 1952, he was not a member of the some 250 ‘Free Officers’ who overthrew the monarchy and set up a republic.

Under Nasser, he was not affiliated with the officers who constituted the clientele of Field Marshal Abdel-Hakim Amer, Nasser’s Defense Minister and the regime’s strong man. Instead, he was, as one scholar pointed out, “principally a military officer accustomed to routine imposed by bureaucracy and chain of command.”

After becoming president in 1981, Mubarak did not exhibit any clear or comprehensible vision of the way out of Egypt’s economic and political malaise, thus providing impetus to the notion that he is still groping for a plan. Also, in foreign policy, Mubarak did not demonstrate over more than 25 years in power, that he has any grand vision of how to effectively — and creatively — run Egypt’s foreign relations in a rapidly changing regional and international environment. So by the beginning of the 21st century, a political analyst convincingly concluded that “Egypt is not likely to develop either a grand, encompassing strategy or a regional blueprint for action…Rather, Egypt will develop policies to deal with specific issues and problems as they arise.”

By virtue of six years spent as Vice-President, Mubarak’s experience was primarily bureaucratic, not political. He learnt the rules of the Egyptian state, knowing how to balance between the different groups of the Egyptian bureaucracy, how to win the loyalty of people and allegiance of institutions and, most importantly, how to survive.

Needless to say, this does not require unrivaled wisdom or political farsightedness; it needs a manager. Comparing the three post-revolution presidents of Egypt, Al-Arabi newspaper depicted him as an ‘administrator”, in contrast to “al-za’im” (the leader) and the "man of maneuvers" (i.e. Nasser and Sadat). In fact, one of Mubarak’s own ministers described him as the CEO of Egypt. Along the same lines, Mohamed Al-Sayed Saeed, prominent scholar and Chief Editor of Al-Badeel, argues that the Egyptian president does not really take politics into consideration. He maintains that the focus on administration and the absence of politics are very much reminiscent of how the Soviet Union was notoriously run under the leadership of Leonid Brezhnev (1964-1982).

Mubarak’s acquaintance with the basic rules of economics is not much better than his modest political background. In an illuminating article titled “The Economic Philosophy in the President’s Speeches”, the distinguished economist Galal Amin sheds light on the inherent economic logic in Mubarak’s public speeches. Amin explains that Mubarak blindly reiterates what his economic advisors tell him without noticing the intrinsic deficiencies in their logic. He also makes funny comparisons between the economic situation in Egypt and other countries and overlooks some of the basic social realities in Egypt, such as the reason why poorer segments boycott campaigns for birth control.

Mubarak’s limited scope of perspective could be explained by shedding light on his professional career. He graduated from the Military Academy in Heliopolis and spent much of his career at the main Cairo air base, located nearby. His whole life was spent in the womb of the military, particularly in the Heliopolis and Nasr City area, a middle-class neighborhood. With the exception of one year in the Soviet Union, therefore, about 30 years of Mubarak’s life was spent in relative comfort.

In contrast, Nasser and Sadat moved about Egypt at length in their early years and had a long history of contacting, and sometimes even enrolling in the ranks of pre-revolution political forces. Sadat even pursued a career in acting. In contrast, Mubarak’s life has been "unlikely to produce a deep and complex personality fired by a sense of historical destiny,” explains Robert Springborg in a renowned book on Mubarak's Egypt.

To a ruler, the significance of understanding the country and bonding with the people he is about to lead should not be underestimated. This was well-realized by the legendary Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948).

Upon his return from his prolonged exile in South Africa, some of his aides called on him to become the political leader of the Indian nation. But the prudent and modest Gandhi professed that he could not be a leader of a country he did not know. Gandhi surely did the wise thing when he moved about India extensively before guiding his people to independence and emancipation.

Mubarak roamed his country like Gandhi, albeit from the air, in his capacity as a military pilot. That’s fundamentally different. In one of his famed movies, legendary star Adel Imam (playing the role of a humble lawyer from the countryside) was touched by the captivating view of Cairo from the window of a 5-star hotel. It compelled him to say: this city looks fascinating from the air, but down there it is crowded, hot, and rife with pollution. To be sure, Mubarak is familiar only with the 'air-conditioned Egypt'.

In Heliopolis Club, situated near the Presidential Palace, many veteran military officers spend their long days playing backgammon, reading newspapers and mulling their war memories. They are professional officers worthy of respect. Just like Mubarak, most of them were never politicized, and have a modest understanding of complex political and economic issues.

Then again, they never set foot in the presidential palace.

Nael M. Shama

* This article was published in Daily news (Egypt) on June 25, 2008.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Egypt's 'Smart' Government: Language vs. Rhetoric

Throughout history, even the most dishonorable deeds have been supplemented with assertions of noble intent and devotion to humanity and freedom. Hitler. Pol Pot and George W. Bush propagated the nobility of their 'sacred missions' and 'services to civilization', against the backdrop of mass killings, misery and devastation.

In Egypt, state propaganda is pervasive. Beautifying ugly realities, distorting truths and fabricating lies of all sorts is the routine job of state officials and the gigantic media apparatus they control. For example, last month, the National Democratic Party's Secretary-General, Safwat Al-Sharif, proudly declared "a big and honorable win" by the candidates of the party in the municipal elections.

That the elections were rigged, regime critics detained and thousands of independent candidates blocked from running in the contest is not really relevant to Al-Sharif and his cohorts, and does not make the elections any less "honorable". To decipher the official discourse, clearly, the golden rule is: "war is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength," as George Orwell shrewdly depicted the propaganda machine of totalitarian states in his masterpiece Nineteen Eighty-Four. Terms like 'democracy', 'reform' and 'freedom' are likewise prevalent, indicating however - or maybe therefore - their sheer absence.

Amidst such manipulations, which aim, in the final analysis, at dulling peoples' mental faculties, revisiting the dictionary remains an advisable trip. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, four meanings are assigned to the adjective 'stupid': 1) slow to learn or understand; 2) tending to make poor decisions; 3) marked by a lack of intelligence; 4) dazed, or stunned.

Having this definition in mind, one can turn to the heated controversy of the government's handling of exporting natural gas to Israel. According to the $2.5 billion deal signed in April 2005, Egypt would supply Israel with 1.7 million cubic meters of liquefied natural gas over a period of 15 years, at a fixed price of $1.5/million British Thermal Unit (BTU). The massive supply would generate one fifth of Israel's electricity in the coming decade.

To start with, conflating a long-term deal with a fixed price was not the brightest strategy. The Egyptian government failed to notice that "once you sign a long-term contract, the producer is in a losing position," as the Algerian Energy & Mines Minister told the Wall Street Journal last month. Moreover, Egypt is incurring pure loses since the actual cost of production, experts contend, ranges from $2.6-3/BTU. As one commentator lamented, "instead of subsidizing bread for the needy, the government decided to use its natural resources to subsidize Israeli citizens".

In a meeting with the Industry and Energy Committee at the Shura Council, Minister of Petroleum, Sameh Fahmy, regretted, indeed, the "poor decision" of expansively exporting Egyptian gas in the last years when international prices were considerably low. To the credit of the government's 'smart' negotiators, the Israeli deal is luckily a minor mistake that, according to some estimates, would deprive the national budget of just 10 billion pounds, a scant figure in light of the vast wealth of Egypt, whose public debts amount to LE591 billion, external debts estimated at $30 billion, and who suffers from a chronic - and growing - imbalance of trade that exceeded $15 billion in the fiscal year 2006/2007, the largest ever. The provisions of the gas deal were, to say the least, "marked by a lack of intelligence".

In addition, the Egyptian government was "slow to learn" that the rapid rise of crude oil prices led to a similar upsurge in the prices of gas in international markets, which more than doubled in the last three years. Current demand/supply imbalances are likely to exacerbate the problem. For instance, the price of recent Russian exports to Ukraine has exceeded $9/million BTU.

Questions raised in the print press about the favorable treatment of Israel fell on deaf ears; the government and the Ministry of Petroleum offered no explanations. In the People's Assembly, an independent MP made a similar inquiry in the presence of Fahmy, who - not incidentally, one can assume - was "stunned," and failed to come up with any answer. After minutes of quiet deliberation with Minister of Parliamentary Affairs, Mufid Shehab, the allegedly number one expert on Egypt's natural resources who approved the multi-billion dollar deal requested a respite to come up with "the right statistics" on the issue at hand, eliciting a sarcastic applause on the part of independent and Muslim Brotherhood members.

The following day, Shehab - the 'devil's faithful advocate' in the eyes of many columnists - came up with a couple of genius answers that proved the waiting of people's representatives worthwhile. The first was that prices are "confidential" and "could only be revealed by the approval of both parties". And the second was that the Egyptian government provides gas to Israel via a third party (an Egyptian-Israeli consortium), which means, technically speaking, that it is not the exporting party, something that renders it immune from the nosey scrutiny of parliamentarians.

A wave of sarcasm ensued. An MP thought the poor pretexts would not be articulated in slapdash coffee shop chitchats; "nor in a ghurza (place where drug-addicts meet and smoke)", the head of Parliament, Fathy Soroor, jokingly consented. Doubtless, the farcical performance guaranteed the audience lots of fun, diluted however by fury and bitterness.

The current Egyptian government has repeatedly associated itself with smartness; its chief resides in the 'smart village', it boasts about the smart e-government schemes it introduced, advocates the issuance of 'intelligent' social solidarity cards, inaugurates what it calls 'smart schools', and promises smart scientific approaches to current problems that will take Egypt swiftly into the twenty-first century. That’s another reason for Safwat Al-Sharif to feel proud.

Orwell must be giggling in his grave.

Nael M. Shama

* This article was published in Daily news (Egypt) on May 19, 2008.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

أمن العرب بين فكي إسرائيل وإيران

خصص الكاتب الكبير فهمي هويدي في الآونة الأخيرة عدداً من مقالاته للتعبير عن دهشته من مواقف بعض الدول العربية المتباينة تجاه كلٍّ من إيران وإسرائيل. فقد استرعى انتباه هويدي كيف أن بعض الدول العربية تنظر إلى إيران باعتبارها خطراً حقيقياً يهدد أمنها القومي، في ذات الوقت الذي تمد فيه جسور التعاون والصداقة مع إسرائيل. كما يعتقد هويدي أن التساؤل المطروح بين النخب الثقافية وفي وسائل الإعلام عن الخطر الأكبر الذي يهدد أمن الوطن العربي، هل هو إسرائيل أم إيران، هو سؤال "غريب وشاذ"، و"يعبر عن درجة عالية من الخلل في الرؤية"، إذ أنه من "البديهيات والمسلمات" أن إسرائيل هي مصدر التهديد الحقيقي لكلٍّ من العرب والإيرانيين. أما إيران فليست - في أسوأ الفروض - سوى خطرٍ محتملٍ على منطقة الخليج العربي فحسب.

المفارقة التي أقلقت هويدي مشروعة ومنطقية. فقد ظل الصراع نمط تفاعل العالم العربي الرئيسي مع إسرائيل منذ فيامها في عام 1948م. واتخذ هذا الصراع الشكل العسكري لستة مرات على الأقل (48، 56، 67، 73، 82، 2006). وأعوام المواجهات توضح أنه منذ الأربعينات شهدت كل العقود تقريباً حربأ تقليدية بين الجيش الإسرائيلي وإحدى الدول العربية على الأقل. وإذا أُضيفت إلى تلك الحروب الانتفاضات الفلسطينية المتكررة منذ العام 1987م لتبين حجم واستدامة الصراع المسلح بين إسرائيل وجيرانها العرب، والذي استحق بجدارة وصف "الصراع العربي-الإسرائيلي". كما أن استمرار إسرائيل في احتلال الأراضي العربية المحتلة، وتلكؤها في تنفيذ استحقاقات عملية السلام يضيف مزيداً من الشكوك حول جديتها في التخلي عن أحلامها التوسعية، والعيش في سلام مع جيرانها.

وحتى إذا نحي العرب إرث الماضي المتخم بالشكوك وعدم الثقة جانباً، فلن يكون من السهل عليهم التغاضي عن حقيقة أن إسرائيل هي في الحاضر أقوى دول المنطقة عسكرياً وتكنولوجياً، وأنها تعمل جاهدة - بمساعدة الولايات المتحدة - على أن يبقى جيشها باستمرار متفوقاً على الدول العربية مجتمعة. وهي فوق ذلك مدججة بمئات الرؤوس النووية في منطقة جغرافية شاسعة تخلو من الأسلحة النووية.

والحق أن نظرية توازن القوى – وهي من أشهر نظريات العلاقات الدولية – تشير إلى أنه في أي نظام إقليمي تتحالف الدول الأضعف مع بعضها البعض في مواجهة الدول الأقوى. والدافع وراء ذلك السلوك يعود إلى يقينها من أن مصالحها (وربما بقائها ذاته) سيكونان مهددين إن لم تتصدى – وفي الوقت المناسب – للقوى الأقوى قبل أن تحكم سيطرتها على مقاليد الأمور، وتنتزع التنازلات في محيط نفوذها. ولذلك قال رئيس الوزراء البريطاني الأسبق ونستون تشرشل: إن الاستراتيجية البريطانية اعتمدت لأربعمائة عام على مواجهة القوى الأكبر في القارة الأوروبية.

ولذلك يبدو طبيعياً أن تتكتل الدول العربية ضد إسرائيل التي تفوقت عسكرياً لعقود، والتي يرى الكثيرون أنها ستسعى في زمن السلام إلى مواصلة السيطرة بوسائل اقتصادية. وفي هذا السياق تبرز مقولة شيمون بيريز الشهيرة أثناء انعقاد المؤتمر الشرق أوسطي بالدار البيضاء: إن مصر قادت العرب أربعين سنة فأوصلتهم إلى هذه الهاوية. ستتحسن أوضاع الإقليم الاقتصادية عندما تتولى إسرائيل قيادة الشرق الأوسط.

من هذا المنطلق تبدو وجاهة تساؤلات فهمي هويدي. والإجابة تكمن فيما طرحه ستيفن والت أستاذ العلاقات الدولية بجامعة هارفارد من تعديل على نظرية توازن القوى التي سيطرت على تفكير علماء السياسة الدولية لعشرات السنين. ففي كتابه الصادر عام 1987م "جذور التحالف"، خلص والت إلى أن الدول تسعى لمجابهة الدول الأكثر تهديداً لها في نطاقها الإقليمي عوضاً عن تلك التي تمتلك مصادر القوة الأكبر. وعلى الرغم من أن ضراوة تهديد طرف ما تعتمد جزئياً على ما يمتلكه هذا الطرف من قوة، إلا أنها تتضمن أيضاً حساب النوايا العدوانية. وفي كثير من الأحيان لا تكون الدول الأكثر تهديداً هي الأقوى مادياً. وبالتالي فإن مفهوم "توازن القوى" (Balance of Power) يجب أن يُستبدل بمفهوم أكثر دقة وهو "توازن التهديد" (Balance of Threat). المفهوم الجديد يأخذ في الاعتبار العناصر المادية (كالقوة الهجومية والقرب الجغرافي) ويزيد عليها بإدراج العناصر النفسية (وبالتحديد النوايا العدوانية للآخرين).

لقد واجهت ألمانيا - وحلفاؤها - في الحربين العالميتين الأولى والثانية تحالفاً واسعاً من الدول ليس لأنها الأقوى من الناحية العسكرية والاقتصادية، وإنما بسبب شراستها وسياستها العدوانية التي أقنعت جيرانها بأنهم إزاء خطر داهم يجب احتواؤه سريعاً. وبالمثل واجه النظام البعثي في سوريا الستينات عزلة واسعة في العالم العربي، بسبب السياسات الراديكالية التي اتبعها قادته، وليس بسبب إمكانياته المادية، والتي كانت شديدة التواضع وقتها، ولا تدعو إلى القلق.

نفس المنطق يمكن أن يفسر نمط تفاعل بعض الدول العربية حالياً مع كلاً من إيران وإسرائيل. فدول الخليج العربي مثلاً لا تري في إسرائيل - رغم تفوقها العسكري الكاسح - خطراً مباشراً يهدد أمنها، ببساطة لأن الأخيرة لم يثبت أنها هددت وحدة أراضيها. وإن كان للسياسة الإسرائيلية من أهداف في هذا الإقليم فهي اقتصادية بحتة، مثل تأمين إمدادات البترول، وجذب فوائض عائدات البترول، وإقامة مشروعات مشتركة...الخ. وكل هذه الأهداف لا تصب بالضرورة في صالح الطرف الإسرائيلي فقط، بل يمكن - نظرياً على الأقل - أن تكون مفيدة لمصالح الطرفين.

في نفس الوقت تتسم نظرة دول الخليج إلى إيران بالريبة والشك. فلقد سبق وأن طالبت إيران بضم دولة خليجية بأكملها - وليس إقليماً أو مدينة - وهي البحرين. وهي تحتل منذ أوائل السبعينات ثلاث جزر تطالب بها دولة الإمارات العربية المتحدة. كما أن مفهوم "تصدير الثورة" الذي ظهر وراج في أعقاب الثورة الإسلامية كان موجهاً بالأساس إلى الدول الإسلامية المجاورة. وفي هذا الإطار يدور حديث طويل في وسائل الإعلام حول الخلايا الإيرانية النائمة التي زرعها الحرس الثوري الإيراني في المدن الخليجية لاستخدامها حين تستدعي الضرورة. ومن حين لآخر تخرج تصريحات بعض المسئولين الإيرانيين لتزيد من إحساس القادة الخليجيين بالقلق، مثل تصريح علي شمخاني كبير المستشارين العسكريين للمرشد الأعلى للثورة الإسلامية لصحيفة "الصنداي التايمز" البريطانية (10 يونيو 2007م) بأن إيران ستقصف محطات الطاقة ومضخات النفط في الخليج في حال أقدمت واشنطن على توجيه ضربة عسكرية ضد طهران. وإذا أخذنا في الاعتبار عامل القرب الجغرافي، والتفاوت الكبير في حجم السكان، وفي القدرات العسكرية للطرفين، خصوصاً مع سعي إيران في السنوات الأخيرة لامتلاك التكنولوجيا النووية، لأمكن فهم دواعي القلق الخليجية.

لعل إحدى مكامن الضعف في رؤية هويدي أنه لا يمكن من الناحية التحليلية وضع كل الدول العربية في سلة واحدة من زاوية تحديد الأهداف الاستراتيجية العليا وإدراك مصادر التهديد، فالموقف من إسرائيل يتباين تبعاً لاختلاف الموقع الجغرافي، إذ لا تري دول الخليج العربي والمغرب العربي في إسرائيل خطراً داهماً، كما هو الحال مع دول المواجهة، كسوريا مثلاً. كما أن وجود مصادر أخرى للتهديد أكثر ضغطاً وإلحاحاً (بشقيها المادي والمعنوي) يحجب الخطر الإسرائيلي، ويبعده عن مصاف الأولويات. على سبيل المثال، أيهما أكثر تهديداً لأمن السودان ووحدة أراضيه، تشاد أم إسرائيل؟ أما مفهوم القومية العربية ومشاعر التضامن الإسلامي، فقد اضمحل دورهما في تشكيل سياسات الدول العربية، للدرجة التي جعلت بعضها يُحمل حزب الله مسثولية اندلاع حرب صيف 2006م.

لكل تلك الأسباب لا تثير مواقف تلك الدول العربية الدهشة، أو تعبر عن خلل في الرؤية، ولا يعتبر الاعتقاد بأن الخطر الإسرائيلي هو الأكبر لكل الدول العربية من "البديهيات والمسلمات".

د. نايل محمد شامة

* نُشرت هذه المقالة في جريدة العربي (بتاريخ 30 مارس 2008م).

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Gamal Abdel Nasser vs. Gamal Mubarak

Two chapters in the chronicles of modern Egyptian leaders narrate the story of two men and the sea of change separating the nature of the country's political leadership in fifty years. Generations apart, both men are influential politicians with wide aspirations, a penchant for change and the spirit of youth. The first is Gamal Abdel-Nasser (ruled 1954-1970) and the second is Gamal Mubarak, Egypt's current quasi-president and, most probably, the next resident of the presidential palace.

While Gamal Abdel-Nasser's ascendancy to the presidency was based on his own merits, political authority was handed over to Gamal Mubarak on a silver plate. In the late 1940s, Nasser formed - and led - the clandestine 'Free Officers' movement that overthrew the monarchy smoothly in 1952. The group expanded to include more than 250 officers, kept its secrecy for years and seized power without firing a shot, quite an exception by the standards of conventional Third World coups. Hence, Nasser's rise to the presidency came as a result of hard work, minute planning, a sense of initiative and a great deal of risk-taking, and the whole venture was motivated by the 'noble' cause of purging foreign troops and eliminating the rotten regime. Even though the revolution has, in the eyes of many, deviated from its initial goals, quite nobody denounces the necessity of ending the rule of Mohamed Ali's family whose last monarch had saved no chance to prove his incompetence and ignorance.

Gamal Mubarak's tedious tale includes none of this. His hard work was, instead, limited to the arena of 'wasta', the magical solution utilized mostly by the incompetent to transcend the law in their quest for benefits. Furthermore, in contrast to Nasser's snail's pace, the impatient Gamal Mubarak was carried by a spaceship to the higher echelons of the National Democratic Party (NDP). He joined the party in the year 2000 straight into the General Secretariat, a position senior members have strived for decades to get hold of in total vain. Just two years later, a new secretariat was designed and set up specifically for him. Gamal commanded the 'Policies Secretariat' that was, then, portrayed by the NDP's Secretary-General Safwat Al-Sherif as the party's "heart and brain". A few days after his 42nd birthday, the whiz kid was further elevated to the position of Deputy Secretary-General, just two steps away from the man at the helm. To profess that the rise in the chain of command of Egypt's clogged political system was an accomplishment born of the golden boy's genius and talent reflects either a fatalistic type of naivety or a callous attempt at deception.

Furthermore, Gamal Abdel-Nasser's early and profound interest in politics is all too known. He was arrested during an anti-British demonstration at the age of sixteen, prowled around the underground world of revolutionary movements and moved about Egypt at length in his early years. In the Palestine war, Nasser's battalion survived a ten-week siege in Al-Faluja and got a hero's reception back home. Afterwards, Nasser indulged himself with creating and reinforcing the 'Free Officers' movement that, in due course, changed the face of Egypt and the whole Middle East. In brief, Nasser's life was, at all accounts, rich, dynamic and adventuresome.

Gamal Mubarak's life journey took on a different course, one that is staid, banal and unlikely to produce a deep understanding of the country's complex realities. Living behind the gates of presidential palaces under heavy security measures (ever since Hosni Mubarak was appointed Vice President thirty-two years ago) inhibited his social activity and provided him with little inspiration. In addition, it was not before his late thirties that he showed any serious interest in politics. By that phase in life, Nasser had already nationalized the Suez Canal Company and emerged as the mythical hero of the Arab world, a second 'Saladin' who would restore 'Arab dignity' and bring about independence from the great powers.

The absence of democratic practice notwithstanding, the popularity of Gamal Abdel-Nasser's political and ideological choices in the early years of the revolution gave him a mandate to proceed with the line of policy he had articulated and effectuated. His authority in Egypt - and beyond - closely corresponded to the 'charismatic' type of authority elucidated in detail by the German sociologist Max Weber in his masterpiece 'The Theory of Social and Economic organization'. In fact, if Weber's theory needed an ideal case study in the Arab world, then Nasser would be its best candidate.

In contrast, Gamal Mubarak is the paragon of toying with politics with no cover of legitimacy. His wide prerogatives are, indeed, unconstitutional and had stirred relentless public condemnation. To compensate for that deficiency, the wunderkind was introduced by his bird-brained entourage as the architect of future political reform, the only savior of Egypt's democracy against the heavy odds of tyranny and repression. But, ironically, the aspirant to injecting democracy into the congealed blood of the authoritarian state has never been elected by the people. Instead, he was parachuted into Egyptian politics by mere virtue of kinship. Even to the blind, five years in power have visibly shown that the lame 'reform from within' rationale was just a smokescreen shrewdly used by Gamal's henchmen to buy more time while authoritarianism endures and a hereditary republic approaches.

Apparently, no substantial change followed the sidelining of the party's 'old guard' from positions of authority. Gamal Mubarak and Kamal El-Shazly essentially represent - despite the visible difference in façade - the two sides of the same coin. The 'new thought' slogan propagated by Gamal's team scores high on the scale of political slogans, promising progress and emancipation of the chains of despotism. But, in reality, it is a cheap replica of the old days' defunct slogans; it hypnotizes masses while authoritarianism reproduces itself in a new dazzling outfit with excessive make-up and lots of accessories. Mournfully, some booby-traps in Egypt are disguised as 'heaven-sent gifts'.

On the personal level, Gamal Mubarak is a decent and well-educated man who has probably loads of good intentions, qualifications that make him an impressive groom for many brides― other than Egypt. Whether the President is grooming his son as successor (as the hawkish opposition papers assert) or the son hardly convinced his father to join the party (as the President once claimed), the discussion of Gamal's political career was confined to the domain of the small family, a painful reminder of the ways national issues are resolved in royal families.

One certain aspect of royal families is that they are glued to power like flies to fluorescent. Boutros-Ghali acknowledged that power is like alcohol, both are tragically prone to addiction. In this context, it is worthwhile to remember that Gamal Abdel-Nasser resigned after the humiliating defeat of 1967. He believed that a successor who was on good terms with the Americans would be in a better position to regain the occupied territories. On the other hand, Gamal Mubarak's thirst for political power will, if the current trend continues, lead to a father-to-son transmission of power.

In other words, Gamal Abdel-Nasser divested himself of the presidency to set his country free, while Gamal Mubarak will, by climbing to the presidential seat, enslave the country to a notorious hereditary republic precedent. The former resigned despite his glaring accomplishments in economy, development and foreign policy. And the latter is adamant about satisfying his political ambitions, in spite of the drastic failures of previous NDP governments in quite everything they undertook.

The American novelist Herman Melville argued that the meaning of anything is deserved by contrast, for 'nothing exists in itself'. The Arabic saying also goes that 'things are differentiated by contrast'. The power of contrast is, indeed, mind-boggling. Digging into the chronicles of Egyptian politics does provide some good evidence.

Nael M. Shama

* This article was published in Daily News (Egypt) on March 6, 2008.

Monday, February 11, 2008

السياسة المصرية تجاه إيران: إسهامات المدرسة النفسية

إذا كان تحليل السياسة الخارجية لأي دولة يتطلب إخضاع عناصر عديدة للبحث والتحقيق، مثل الموقع الجغرافي لهذه الدولة، وقوتها العسكرية، وقدراتها الاقتصادية، ونوع النظام السياسي والاقتصادي السائد بها، والتجانس الاجتماعي والإثني لقاطنيها، فإن تحليل السياسة الخارجية لدول العالم الثالث قد ركز لعقود طويلة على دراسة قائد هذا البلد، رئيساً كان أو ملكاً أو أميراً، باعتباره العنصر الأهم - وفي بعض الأحيان الوحيد - الذي يتوجب الالتفات إليه، من أجل فهم السياسة الخارجية، وآلياتها، ودوافعها، وأهدافها.

تعتمد تلك الدراسة على تحليل شخصية القائد، وذلك بالنظر إلى سماته الشخصية، ونشأته الاجتماعية، وأفكاره، ومعتقداته، وتكوينه المعرفي، والعاطفي، والسلوكي، إضافة إلى رؤيته للنظام الدولي، وللأسلوب الأمثل لإدارة العلاقات الخارجية لبلاده، في ظل القيود والفرص التي يفرضها هذا النظام.

والواقع أن هذا العنصر يستمد أهميته الخاصة في دراسات العالم الثالث (بما فيها الدول العربية بالطبع) من طبيعة الأنظمة المركزية المنتشرة في السواد الأعظم من دول هذا الإقليم، وميلها إلى اختزال العملية السياسية برمتها في شخصية القائد. فهو الذي يملك كل الصلاحيات، وتتركز في يده كل السلطات. كما أن صياغة الاستراتيجيات، ورسم السياسات، واتخاذ القرارات امتياز يظل في الأغلب في يد القائد، فيما يقتصر دور رؤساء الوزراء، والوزراء، والمستشارين، على تقديم الاستشارة والنصح، وهي في جميع الأحوال غير ملزمة أو مقيدة.

ولهذا السبب جاءت السياسات الخارجية للدول العربية في جزء كبير منها انعكاساً واضحاً لشخصيات وتوجهات قادتها. فمصر الخمسينات والستينات حملت أحلام عبد الناصر في الاستقلال السياسي، والنهضة الاقتصادية، والوحدة العربية. وانطبع على سياساتها تطلعات عبد الناصر للزعامة، وتعاطفه مع الفقراء، إضافة لما غرسه فيه الاحتلال البريطاني المهين من مقت للتدخل الخارجي، واحترام وتبجيل لقيمة الكرامة الوطنية في حياة الشعوب. كما ظهرت بصمة صدام حسين واضحة في كثير من تحركات السياسة الخارجية العراقية في الثمانينات والتسعينات، وبالأخص قراري غزو إيران والكويت، والمناطحة الدائمة للولايات المتحدة. فلقد كان صدام منذ الصبا مغامراً، وعنيداً، يعتمد على القوة لحل خلافاته، ولا يعبأ كثيراً في سبيل تحقيق أهدافه بقواعد اللعبة السياسية، أو القيود الأخلاقية.

تلك كانت مقدمة ضرورية للولوج إلى موضوع القطيعة بين مصر وإيران، المستمرة منذ أكثر من ربع قرن، ولا يبدو أن لها نهاية منظورة. والواقع أن الدعوة التي أطلقها الرئيس الإيراني أحمدي نجاد مؤخراً لعودة العلاقات مع مصر ليست جديدة، فقد أثارها كل الساسة الإيرانيون من قبل، علناً، وفي مقابلاتهم الخاصة مع نظرائهم المصريين. كما أن الرد المصري ليس جديداً أيضاً، فقد اتسم إما بالتجاهل التام، أو على أقصى تقدير بالفتور واللامبالاة.

والسبب الرئيسي في غياب الرغبة المصرية لعودة العلاقات مع الجمهورية الإسلامية يعود إلى الرئيس المصري حسني مبارك، فأغلب المؤسسات المصرية – بما فيها وزارة الخارجية – ترحب منذ عشر سنوات ونيف بإنهاء القطيعة مع طهران، لما في ذلك من مكاسب استراتيجية واقتصادية واسعة، ولما أظهرته الأخيرة من انفتاح على العالم كله، خاصة في عهد الرئيس محمد خاتمي. وقد حاولت المؤسسة الدبلوماسية بالفعل غير مرة إقناع الرئيس مبارك بإعادة العلاقات الدبلوماسية الكاملة مع طهران، غير أن موقفه المتصلب لم يتزحزح قيد أنملة. والمفارقة تتمثل في أن يكون لمصر علاقات دبلوماسية كاملة مع كل دول العالم، بإستثناء إيران، وألا يثير هذا الوضع الشاذ حفيظة القيادة السياسية المصرية، بل وأن يحظى برضاها ومباركتها.

تقدم المدرسة النفسية تفسيراً لموقف مبارك هذا، فالرئيس المصري - كما أظهرت تجربته الممتدة في السلطة - يتسم على عكس سلفيه بالحذر الشديد، ولا يجنح أبداً إلى المغامرة، مهما كانت الإغراءات والضغوط. وانعكست تلك الخصلة بجلاء على السياسة المصرية في الخمس وعشرين سنة الماضية. فالميل إلى تجنب المواجهات المحفوفة بأي قدر من المخاطر، والتدريج في تطبيق السياسات التي لا تحظى بالتأييد الشعبي ظهرا كأهم سمات صنع القرار السياسي في مصر مبارك.

أدى ذلك النهج بطبيعة الحال إلى جمود السياسة في مصر، وإستبدال منطقها الرحب بمنطق الأمن الضيق. فالتعامل مع قوى التغيير مثلاً يعتمد على هراوات الأمن أكثر من قنوات الحوار. والموقف من حركة حماس يرتهن بعلاقات الأخيرة الوثيقة بجماعة الإخوان المسلمين المناوئة للنظام. وبرنامج الإصلاح الاقتصادي يتم تطبيقه "بالتدريج" لئلا يؤثر على "النظام العام واستقرار المجتمع". كما أن كلمة "الاستقرار" هي الأكثر تردداً في خطابات الرئيس المصري، سواء في سياق الحديث عن البحث عن حل للقضية الفلسطينية، أو عن مستقبل الديمقراطية في مصر، أو عن آليات الإصلاح الاقتصادي.

وبالمثل يمكن القول بأن الموقف المصري من إيران أسير لمخاوف الرئيس من محاولات الأخيرة تصدير الثورة إلى مصر، عن طريق تطوير علاقات سياسية ومالية مع جماعات الإسلام السياسي المصرية، التي كانت ولا تزال مصدر التهديد الأمني والسياسي الرئيسي لسلطة مبارك في الداخل. وإذا كانت العمليات الإرهابية ونجاحات الإخوان المسلمين الانتخابية ليستا بحاجة إلى تذكير، فإن تأثيرهما على نفسية الرئيس مبارك بحاجة إلى توضيح.

لقد كان مبارك إلى جوار سلفه حين اغتيل على أيدي الجماعات المسلحة في بداية الثمانينات، ثم أفلت هو شخصياً من عدة محاولات للاغتيال، كانت أخطرها في أديس أبابا في 1995م. وتزامن ذلك مع العمليات الإرهابية التي حصدت الآلاف في الثمانينات والتسعينات، ومثلت أكبر تهديد لشرعية واستقرار حكمه. أما جماعة الإخوان - أكبر فصيل معارض في السياسة المصرية - فتمثل صداعاً مزمناً في رأس النظام لمصري، بسبب شعبيتها، وقدراتها التنظيمية العالية، ونجاحها المستمر في إحراج الحكومة. والمؤكد أن كل ذلك ترك في نفس مبارك أثراً عميقاً، دفعه إلى زيادة الاعتماد على الأجهزة الأمنية، وفقدان الثقة تماماً بنوايا جماعات الإسلام السياسي، بل وحتى الدول التي تنتهج نهجاً إسلامياً، أياً كانت صيغته وأهدافه. ولذلك ليس غريباً أن تتوتر العلاقات المصرية مع كل تلك الأنظمة، مثل إيران، والسودان (إبان تحالف البشير مع الترابي)، وحركة حماس. وأن تقوم الدبلوماسية المصرية بالعمل على إسقاط حكومة حماس، وإدانة عمليات حزب الله ضد إسرائيل، وتحذير الولايات المتحدة ودول الخليج من النوايا الإيرانية.

والملاحظ أن للجمهورية الإسلامية علاقات دبلوماسية كاملة مع كل دول الخليج، ووروابط تجارية وثيقة مع الإمارات العربية المتحدة، إضافة إلى العديد من الاتفاقات الأمنية الموقعة مع السعودية والكويت وقطر. تم كل هذا التعاون مع دول مجلس التعاون بالرغم من قربها الجغرافي من إيران، وارتفاع نسبة الشيعة في صفوف مواطنيها، الأمر الذي يعرضها - إن صحت مخاوف مصر من تصدير الثورة - لتأثير إيراني طاغٍ. أما مصر البعيدة جغرافياً، والتي لا يمثل شيعتها نسبة تذكر من سكانها، فلا تزال الشكوك والهواجس تكبل حركتها، وتعيق تقاربها مع إيران.

تعد المدرسة النفسية دليلاً مهماً إلى فهم السياسات الخارجية للدول العربية. فدونها قد لا نرى سبباً وجيهاً يدفع السادات لزيارة القدس، أو يحفز صدام حسين على غزو الكويت، أو يمنع حسني مبارك من إعادة العلاقات المصرية-الإيرانية عبر خمس وعشرين عاماً.

نايل محمد شامة