Thursday, October 29, 2009

Niqab and the Boundaries of Debate

The worst thing about the current debate over niqab (face veil) is that it gives the impression of a "healthy" and "free" society that openly discusses all contending views of its most pressing problems.

This is an illusion. Neither is Niqab a pressing problem in today's poverty-stricken, underdeveloped Egypt, nor is the arena of debate open to all issues. Mental coercion has narrowed down the list of acceptable discussions.

Setting the boundaries of legitimate thought and expression is crucial for the wellbeing of any society. The wider the margins accepted, the more the liberty the society enjoys. These margins are not necessarily dictated by overt state control, as in the case of Third World dictatorships; sometimes, subtle mechanisms and indirect propaganda techniques delineate the framework of permissible thought.

That’s the case in established democracies, allegedly the beacons of freedom in today's world. In the United States, for example, ideas that are taken for granted, such as that capitalism is the superior arrangement of economic activity and that democracy is the best form of governance, are rarely disputed.

The mass media play a crucial role in this "thought control" process. Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman describe the effect of the mass media in the US as "brainwashing under freedom." Their function is to "train the minds of the people to a virtuous attachment" to their government and to the prevailing economic and social order. As such, the so-called "free market of ideas" is in essence guided; ideas that could jeopardize the privileges of the rich and powerful in a highly unequal society are abandoned.

Only in such an illiberal milieu could infamous ideas such as Fukuyama's "end of history" be entertained and cherished. Fukuyama's theory vowed that the triumph of capitalism and liberal democracy is irreversible. In his conception, both constituted the "end point of mankind's ideological evolution" and "the final form of human government." A weak and flawed argument, an insightful scholar like Fukuyama took only a few years to repent for. Clearly, the strict - albeit invisible and implicit - intellectual boundaries that delineate permissible thought produce ideas that perpetuate the status quo; thinking outside the box is discouraged, and possibly chastised.

In Egypt, the space for thought and expression has been tightening at alarming rates, with the mind of Egyptian society tilting towards the right. The heated discussion over whether Niqab is religiously obligatory or not makes any contentions that the Hijab (headscarf) is not obligatory (a debatable issue among theologians) seem awkward and intolerable, and thus excludes it from public debate. Under this suffocating censorship, no one would dare - like Ismael Adham did in the 1930s - write a book entitled Why Am I Atheist?

Censorship went hand in hand with the scarification of unsacred parties and issues. For instance, any explicit or implicit critique of the military establishment (or, say, its performance in the 1973 War against Israel) is today inadmissible. The number of sacred cows has been increasing.

Prolonged practice is the most effective means of indoctrination. After long periods of time of exposure to the same ideas, censorship of other ideas becomes voluntary. In Egypt, Islamists are not currently in power, but they need not worry much. That introspection is inhibited by intimidation and dissent is discouraged denotes that the doctrine of rigid Islamists has already been under way. History tells us that the control of power is often preceded by the control of ideas.

Already under a secular regime, novels have been banned by a "liberal" minister on the grounds they are blasphemous, various intellectuals were convicted by courts of being apostates and citizens were arrested for eating during the fasting hours of Ramadan.

Creativity and imagination recede when the mind is constrained by so many restrictions. Scrutiny and inquiry are substituted by stereotypic answers to all questions of life and destiny.

The withering away of the critical evaluation of ideas, thoughts and beliefs is giving way for the triviality and fundamentality of extremist minds. So at a time when the advanced world has been exploring the applications of Nanotechnology, investigating the secrets of the big bang and decoding the map of the human genome, our minds have been preoccupied with discussing the possibility of marriage between man and jinn, figuring out the mandatory length and width of the piece of cloth covering women's bodies and preaching about the benefits of drinking Prophet Mohamed's urine.

Pity the nation that was once the hub of thought and knowledge in the region.

Nael M. Shama

* This article was published in Daily News (Egypt) on October 29, 2009.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

In Search of a Political Abu-Treika

The current weakness and fragmentation of opposition parties and the nonchalance of public opinion suggest that perhaps nothing can disrupt the plan to groom Gamal Mubarak to the presidency in Egypt but a charismatic figure whose exemplary character can awaken people and mobilize them in defiance of the state.

Egypt, one can argue, is in need of a political Mohamed Abu Treika. The 30-year old football player has turned in the last few years into a real legend. This is not only due to Abu Treika's exceptional skills on the pitch, which helped his team (Al-Ahly) win 18 titles and Egypt's national team win two African Cups. It has more to do with his rare personality that combines exceptional kindness, decency, and modesty, qualities that bestowed on him unprecedented popularity among nearly all Egyptians.

A character with such undoubted recognition is badly needed in the political sphere if Gamal Mubarak's ascendance to the presidency is to be thwarted. However, there is a stark scarcity of charismatic leaders in political opposition parties. For example, the power base of Mahdi Akef, the octogenarian leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, is confined to the members of the MB. Liberals, leftists, Copts, and wide segments of women will not elect the leader of a movement that invites religion into politics, and relegates women to a secondary position in society.

Likewise, the chances of Ayman Nour, who came next to Hosni Mubarak in the 2005 presidential elections, are minimal. Nour was portrayed by some Western commentators as Egypt's Nelson Mandela, but he is seen in Egypt as a replica of Lebanon's vocal Walid Junblat. He is powerful enough to be a trouble-maker, but he is personally weak and politically fragile to contest the prevailing balance of forces. Divisions within the ranks of his party (and his family) further weakened his position.

This scarcity of popular figures could be partially explained by the fact that incapacitating charismatic figures, who could have jeopardized Mubarak's hold on power, has been a longstanding strategy of Mubarak's regime. The sidelining of Field Marshall Mohamed Abu Ghazalla (Egypt's strong Defense Minister in the 1980s), Amr Moussa (Egypt's Foreign Minister from 1991 to 2001) and Kamal Al-Ganzoury (Egypt's Prime Minister from 1996 to 1999) are three cases in point.

The need of popular leaders could not be more imperative today. Presidential elections are scheduled for 2011, and the regime is adamant about pushing Gamal Mubarak to the seat of the presidency. To be able to overcome the alliance of the formidable state, the ruling party and the business class, Egypt needs a popular leader, whose competence is not questionable, and who is free from any aura of corruption, and likely to receive the support of diverse, and conflicting, political forces and social groups.

To many observers, Mohamed El-Baradei, Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, and the 2005 Noble Prize laureate, meets all these criterions. Being an astute diplomat with a long experience in international affairs will secure him external support if he gets elected. In addition, and because El-Baradei is independent from the petty rivalries of Egyptian political forces, and free from any ideological affiliation, he will likely be supported by these forces, at least for one term that could herald Egypt's transition to democratic rule. Such an approval will be easier to obtain if Gamal Mubarak's bid in the upcoming presidential elections is unchallenged.

It could be rightly argued that El-Baradei, and many other suitable candidates, do not meet the rigid conditions spelled out in Article 76 of the constitution, which was notoriously amended in 2007 to facilitate Gamal's takeover of power, and exclude potential rivals. In heated moments, however, constitutional constraints count less than overwhelming popular support, particularly if this support is channeled through an administrative body, such as a coalition of all opposition parties from right to left.

If Gamal makes it to the presidential palace, he will not owe his seat to popular support or admiration, but to people's apathy and the absence of real contesters. Therefore, the duty of all Egyptians at this critical juncture is to find apt and honorable candidates and back them up in the quest for hampering a disgraceful father-to-son transmission of power in the sixty-year old Egyptian republic.

Otherwise, Egyptians will live to see the proud nation of Egypt slip into a hereditary republic, or a mere real estate whose ownership is smoothly transferred from father to son whenever he wishes.

Nael M. Shama

* This article was published in Daily News (Egypt) on September 10, 2009.