Friday, 13 July 2012

Beers and Burqas under the Brotherhood in Cairo

(Stella Bar in Downtown Cairo on a quiet afternoon)

Late last month I wrote a piece for The Sunday Business Post (and reported for Morning Ireland) focusing on the major foreign and domestic challenges facing the new President of Egypt- Mohamed Morsi. I addressed topics such as the economy, Palestine, tourism, the constitutional crisis etc.

But it’s unlikely that these are the issues that most dominate many Western minds, when they contemplate an Islamist coming to power. The "big issues" that people often mention first are- Beer and Burqas.

Well of course, these are not really the "big issues"- but sure I will throw a few words at them anyway.

Alcohol is brewed and drunk in Egypt as a minority pursuit. In Cairo outside of hotels, there are not many bars catering for a city of 20 million.

The downtown bar scene is wonderfully counter culture, bars do not advertise their existence much, and although legal, drinking in them has an almost Chicago prohibition-era feel to it. Places like Stella Bar on Talat Harb, are difficult to find- but have an authentic local (baladi) atmosphere.

My favourite haunt is Hureya, where drinking on a Thursday has to be one of the most interesting experiences in Egypt’s capital. There is a decent guide to the baladi bar scene  here on line, but even with the map sometimes it can be difficult to locate the bars. But the searching adds to the fun of an evening and oddly makes the beer taste better as well.


(Walking into Hureya, in Downtown Cairo, on a busy Thursday evening)

I personally think Morsi is unlikely to severely restrict the sale of alcohol, especially when attempting to attract tourists back to Egypt. However it is understandable that bar owners, and their patrons might be a little worried.

But headscarves and the issue of women’s rights is more complex.

When I wrote my book about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and occupation a few years back, I had one chapter entitled “More than one Wall” that focused on women in the region. My own observations of my time in the region were combined with wider reading on the subject. It was by far the most difficult chapter to write- partly because we all carry prejudice into this topic. I might consider myself “progressive” etc- but I am still a product of a patriarchal western society (albeit much more equal than a few decades back), and up until relatively recently a very conservative, religious one at that (Ireland). This might affect my own viewpoint, perhaps on a subconscious level, I don't know. Also the "west" (whatever that is) obviously does not have all the answers when it comes to sexual politics.

However the chapter got the most active (mostly positive) reaction from readers- maybe it’s because I had no very clear conclusions in it  rather falling back on the easier position of saying “it’s complex”. (Maybe readers also liked it because I come across a little foolish in parts!)

(Scarfs- the first thing many people think of when they conjure up the image of an Arab woman in their mind. This is a picture from the local market where I lived in Dokki. Really Egyptian women have probably more to be worried about with SCAF than scarfs)

Egypt remains predominantly a traditional and patriarchal society.  Undoubtedly the Brotherhood is a socially conservative organisation, and women rights activists will carefully observe every action taken by the new Morsi led government in this area.

Some of the issues women face in Egypt are somewhat specific, like chronic street harassment and female genital mutilation, others would be familiar in Ireland, like embarrassingly low representation in parliament and access to abortion facilities.

Morsi has promised that  he will not enforce the wearing of headscarves for instance- but some still worry that if he cannot fulfil  his commitment to improve the economic situation he may fall back on implementing “conservative social measures” to please his most religious of supporters.

But if in the context of sexual equality Egypt is not western Europe, it is far from Saudi Arabia either. The vast majority of Muslim women wear hijabs (a much smaller minority wear burqas), however among the young (and more middle class), the brightly coloured headscarves and the accompanying tight fitting clothes certainly do not disguise their womanhood.

For all the problems facing them, Egyptian women participate in media, business, education and many sectors of society.

Any major move to severely restrict women rights further would provoke the revolutionary and women’s movement, something that Morsi could do without considering the mountain of problems which already face him.

Sunday, 1 July 2012

The weekend of the long speeches

(The Pyramids have seen it all before...well maybe not a "freely" elected President of Egypt, but that changed this weekend)

If you like a good speech, or at least a long one, then Cairo was the place to be over the last few days.

New Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, swore his oath of office in three different places, controversially in front of the  Supreme Constitutional Court (the body that recently dissolved the democratically elected parliament), in Cairo University- and most symbolically in front of a massive, delirious crowd in Tahrir Square.

The intricate political significance of all this is somewhat complicated- and I deal with much of it in my article in today’s ‘Sunday Business Post’.

Morsi’s speech in Tahrir was dramatic and vaguely ‘rock and roll’ as the 60 year old rotund Muslim Brother worked the crowd. At one stage he swung his jacket open to reveal he had no bullet proof vest on. Saying he feared only God, and not the people of Egypt (apparently Mubarak went nowhere without donning his bullet proof attire).

Then, with his panicking bodyguards following, he went to the front of the stage and pointed at the crowd saying that they gave him power. His journey from prison to Presidential palace was complete.

It was passionate, chaotic, mesmerizing, sweaty, sentimental and historic. In truth I think it was a very Egyptian event. 

As I write in today’s Sunday Business Post “President Morsi faces a massive task trying to oversee this unfinished revolution; a showdown between the Brotherhood and the military over the extent of his powers seems inevitable and the revolutionary movement remains on the streets.

“But while we contemplate all the difficulties facing the elected President, it is important to remember that it’s the very fact that he is freely elected, which is one of the great achievements of the Egyptian revolution.”

The Brotherhood are a contradictory phenomena and will not be able to fulfil the goals of the revolution. There is an excellent analysis by Egyptian socialist Hossam el-Hamalawy on the Brotherhood's victory  here, which is well worth reading and to which I broadly concur.

But this week could have all been very different.

If last week’s election had been “rigged” the other way, and former Mubarak PM Ahmed Shafiq had come to power, then this would not have been a week of speeches and symbolism.

It would have been a week of anger, fear, loathing, clashes and most probably bloodshed.

It can be easy to be cynical about much of the symbolism of the last few days- but surely it is much better than what the alternative was.

The revolutionary movement under Morsi, can continue to organise, oppose and build. If Shafiq had won, it would have meant imprisonment, martyrdom and considering the political balance of forces here- most probably a massive blow to the revolution. But for now the revolution continues, haltingly maybe, but continue it can.

Saturday, 23 June 2012

Thomas Kinsella and the Egyptian Revolution...yeah you read that correct.

‘Time = Hope + Disappointment’- from the Notebooks of Thomas Kinsella

I have never lived through a revolutionary period before, so I have nothing to compare this to. But it’s certainly more draining then I expected.

On a professional level I have tried to remain coolly detached in recent weeks- with reports for RTE Radio and 'The Sunday Business Post' and others. But in reality, although I am just an observer here, the mounting fears of counter revolution have sucked much of my energy out, and I am watching it evaporate in the unforgiving Cairo heat.

This is a period of deep concern for the “revolutionary movement”. Just in the last week a Supreme Court decision ruled that candidate of the old regime, Ahmed Shafiq, could stand in the Presidential election, and it also dissolved the freely elected parliament. The military gave itself sweeping new powers, thus rendering the newly elected President, in the eyes of some- little more than a figurehead. In the election itself the Muslim Brotherhood candidate appeared to win according to all tallies- however no official announcement has yet been made, and there are many rumours. Many, many rumours. There is heightened security across the country, and dropped into the mix is news that former dictator Hosni Mubarak is swinging between “clinically dead” and “technically alive” according to a confused state media.

Many supporters of the revolution feel squeezed between the military leadership and the Muslim Brotherhood.

In my report for today’s ‘The Sunday Business Post’ (23.06.2012) I write “While the daily details of constitutional crisis, parliamentary debates, street protests and election disputes can become overwhelming here (for Egyptians and foreign correspondents alike), the complexity tends to obscure an essential narrative.

“The revolution of January 2011 gained much, including the ousting of the dictator. However the revolutionaries did not come to power, therefore their agenda of equality and democracy was never fully implemented. Forces connected with the old regime remained in powerful positions, intent on defending their privilege.

“Thus the Egyptian revolution remains systemically unfinished. The coming days and weeks will do much to reveal which side, revolutionary or counter revolutionary, will have the most impact on how this will end.”

There are many cold, factual pieces about the revolution/ counter revolution battle in Egypt, and I have also written many. But in recent days, I have been contemplating the less obvious, and more abstract nature of this. Often observations about the Egyptian revolution written from outside the country can lack one essential aspect- the sense of heightened emotion people feel.

How passionate the participants (and us close observers) and general citizenry feel. How fears, hopes and disappointment moves people and organisations in great sweeping ways, during this revolution.

Thomas Kinsella is Ireland’s greatest living poet. His poetry is not really politically radical, indeed not very optimistic in many ways. My personal beliefs certainly do not chime fully with his poetic vision. But his body of work amounts to one of the greatest sustained engagements between an Irish writer and the questions surrounding our existence.

He may seem an odd place to retreat to, when contemplating the Egyptian revolution. But anyway that’s where my mind, melting in the Cairo heat, has staggered to in recent days. My thoughts are not systematic or fully formed- they are just a muddle- a bit like Egypt at the moment.

Because at this very moment, when the prospects of the revolution seem so perilous, when the spectre of counter revolution hangs heavy over Egypt- it may be worth remembering, that life is one of contrast. An existential dance between Hope and Disappointment. These dark days will surely pass, the revolution has won much and its inspirational hope will mean it will emerge again.

Kinsella sees reality as one of contested opposition. In his early notebooks he extols the equation, ‘Time = Hope + Disappointment’. Life is doomed by inevitable disappointment in this Kinsellian universe, it can be but endured. Poetry, love and other “urges” (sometimes political) are admirable hopeful strategies of adjustment to this doomed fate. The hope side of his dialectic is intrinsic to human experience, but in the end futile. Disappointment subsumes its opposite, synthesising it into infinite dehumanised time.    

In his sprawling, muscular elegy, ‘The Messeger’ Kinsella charts his late father’s (a labour activist and trade unionist) lifetime in reverse. By inverting time’s arrow, Kinsella allows the inherent disappointment of the later life to be uplifted by the end of the poem, by the hopefulness of his father’s early idealism. It is a case of technical form triumphing over living inevitability.

In a series of scenes, his father John’s life is imagined, reading Marx as a young worker in the 1920s. John’s hopeful mind lingers upon the vision of tragic inspiration forever burnt into the collective consciousness of the Irish left. ‘Connolly strapped in a chair/regarding the guns/that shall pronounce his name for ever’. Later a faithful follower of James Larkin and his proletarian proselytising, John was instrumental in the formation of the first trade union in Guinness Brewery. Kinsella recalls his father at an election rally outside the Black Lion in Inchicore- fiery and heroic. “He is good looking and dark/He has a raincoat belted tight/and his hair is brushed back, like what actor/He is shouting about the Blueshirts, but his voice is hoarse/His arm pointing upwards.” Later Kinsella, a semi aware child, is led by his father’s hand out of mass, as Father Collier roars from the pulpit. ‘thick white hair, a red face/a black mouth shouting/Godless Russia after us’.

His father’s struggles are recalled, but the tone of respect is substantially qualified. The socialist hope in equality and democracy, personified in the “half fierce force” of his father, is flawed.

“For there is really nothing to be done/There is an urge, and it is valuable/but it is of no avail”

Of no avail not so much because of some inherent political or economic faults, rather because such a revolutionary project is rendered almost meaningless when set beside life’s constants - disappointment and death. To the action ready Leninist who yearns to know what is to be done? Kinsella replies with the sobering ‘really nothing’. 

One reaction to these lines could be to denigrate them as product of weary bourgeois adulthood. But with each reading my mind moved from reflexive political scorn. Kinsella’s reflections are subtle. For even though he believes his father’s struggle “of no avail”, there is an urge to do good, “and it is valuable”.

Surely Kinsella is correct on at least one essential point, disappointment is a constant in life, and it cannot be decreed away. Every revolution is destined to disappoint, every hard won reform later to be damned as paltry by radicals or condescended as inevitable by lying conservatives. Every personal hope and dream unfulfilled as we originally hoped. Unquestionably our personal and public lives are rendered objectively meaningless by gorging time. Yet this is not enough reason to retreat from involvement in the progressive cause. There remains “an urge”, maybe just as much a constant as death and disappointment. This urge cannot overcome mortality, but it can achieve less insurmountable goals- for instance maybe the extension of democratic accountability into the market, with the replacement of private profiteering with conscious public planning?  Maybe?

Alas, the cause of social justice can never compete with the religious promise of eternal life under the warm glow of God’s love- in so doing overcoming both death and disappointment. Democracy, socialism, or social justice may be good, but they are not that good.

Visualising his father making a fiery speech on a Labour Party platform, Kinsella remains sceptical, yet believes it is in such moments where something precious is found.

‘Goodness is where you find it/Abnormal/A pearl’

A world shaped predominantly by people like his father, would see disappointment continue to darken our lives and death destroy everything, but where temporal society would be decent. This is the hope.

The Egyptian revolution has sparkled brightly with all the young pearls that have supported, fought, and died for it. Even in a time of dark disappointment, like now, they still light the way of hope.

(I love this scene from an 'Arts Lives' documentary about Kinsella. It's so tender and funny. His lifelong muse Eleanor, the inspiration for much of his wonderful early love poetry, is both praising and gently chiding Thomas in an amusing, and dare I say, distinctively  Irish woman's way...I think this is basically like having a video of an interview between Keats and Fanny Brawne.   

Saturday, 16 June 2012

How deep is your state?

After three weeks of a bitter Presidential election campaign Egyptians go to the polls today, only days after what some are calling a "soft coup" here in Cairo.

The place seems jaded and anxious on this historic weekend.

However last week’s dissolution of the elected parliament has yet to bring many protesters onto the streets. The Muslim Brotherhood (who have most to lose from this dissolution) has not called for protests yet, maybe wisely considering their man Mohamed Mursi goes head to head with the candidate of the old regime Ahmed Shafiq in the election this weekend.

However as a corrective to the “soft coup” hypothesis, it might be worth checking out a perspective from the left  here, which makes the reasonable argument that the military has actually been in charge since the day Mubarak was ousted in February 2011.

The "deep state" of vested interests connected to the old regime, is well...very deep indeed.

I will be reporting in detail this weekend for the Sunday Business Post, next week for Liberty and on radio on 'Today with Pat Kenny', from a country rife with talk of an imminent military coup (despite the fact the military are already in charge), where people are electing a president (despite the fact there is no constitution) and where a parliament has been dissolved (despite the fact it was elected just over 7 months ago). It’s isn’t easy making sense of Egypt.

Almost every single Egyptian I have spoken to over the past fortnight say they think that Mubarak’s former PM  Ahmed Shafiq (essentially the candidate of the deep state) will win. They seem surprised that I bother asking the question.

If he wins, he has promised “security” back on the streets within days. This will be cheered by many, who feel that Egypt has become more dangerous since the revolution. However the police forces that will be redeployed- have not been substantial reformed since the revolution. A revolution, it must be remembered, which was against the police state. Not only that, this police force, had to live with the ignominy of being on the back foot over the past 16 months. Their pride has most probably been hurt. 

But those in the revolutionary movement- a Shafiq victory would represent "counter revolution", a betrayal of the martyrs of the revolution and their families (see some Downtown Cairo graffiti above and below), and plunge the movement into some very dark and dangerous waters indeed.

Someone said on Twitter the other day that trying to make predictions about politics in Egypt is ridiculous, considering how difficult it is just to keep up to date with what is actually happening every day.

So no predictions here- we will most likely know in less than 48 hours the name of the new President, and in days it will become clear if his victory is accepted by his opponents, or whether it sparks more instability.
(A relaxed looking Ahmed Shafiq. The face of sensible stability to some, the visage of counter revolutionary nightmare to others)

Monday, 4 June 2012

Reasons to be cheerful...

Lenin once said “There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.” Well that’s the way things feel in Egypt at the moment.

In the past fortnight there has been an election- where the “pro revolution” candidates did well, but their vote was split. Thus the runoff is between the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood and Mubarak’s old mate Ahmed Shafiq. I have written extensively about the election for The Sunday Business Post over the past two weeks.

It is not very professional to say this, but I was very depressed writing those articles. Although I am not Egyptian I find it hard not to empathise heavily with the pro revolutionary forces who find themselves with a not so great choice in the second round. There is an excellent discussion on the election in the most recent The Arabist podcast- and the contributors also share my gloomy mood.
Then there was the Mubarak trial verdict - the initial euphoria and then the resulting anger among the revolutionaries.

I will shake of this gloom and will be reporting and blogging extensively in the coming two weeks in the run up to the historic vote on the 16/17 June.

As of now- nobody can say for certain what will be the result in the runoff.

But with so much depression about there are still reasons to be cheerful , beautiful trees across Cairo (see above), catching a perfect fresh breeze down the Nile, Maggie Gyllenhaal, the music of Umm Kulthum, ice-cream, an ice cold Stella, Maggie Gyllenhaal, reading the novels of Naguib Mahfouz on a Cairo balcony, hearing the beautiful call to prayer from my local Dokki mosque, ice cream, smoking a sheesha in a local ahwa, enjoying a perfect Tameya...and eh Maggie Gyllenhaal and ice cream (sorry it’s got very hot in Cairo and its affecting my thought process).

Even this huge abandoned teddy bear on Dokki Street on the west bank of the River Nile, looks suitably depressed as he contemplates his choice in the 2nd round of the Presidential election. (He told me he voted Aboul Fotouh first round, but now he kind of wishes he voted Hamdeen Sabahi)

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Today we should remember the martyrs

Today millions of Egyptians, for the first time, will get to decide who will be their President.

Yes there is some cynicism and concern about the election. (Which I wrote about in 'The Agenda' magazine last weekend and talked about it on radio on 'Today with Pat Kenny' earlier this week ). However I think the overall feeling here is pride and excitement.

And the Egyptians should be proud. They have toppled a dictatorship that was supported by some of the leading powers in the world, and they are attempting, against great odds, to replace it with democracy.

But it is important today to remember how this was won.

It was won by millions of people mobilising on the streets and in their workplaces, by the thousands who got injured in protests- and by those who sacrificed the most, the hundreds upon hundreds of mainly young martyrs, who gave their lives in January last year and since. For instance the people who were injured and died when I was in Tahrir last November (I blogged about this here and here.)

I come from a country where martyrs (from centuries of national and social struggle) are sung about, have buildings named after them, where their legacy is actively debated, contested, celebrated and libelled. My first book was about a famous Irish socialist and nationalist martyr James Connolly, and in that book I looked at how the memory of such a figure can mean very different things to different people.

However today in Cairo one thing can be said for certain.This election today, would not be happening if it was not for their sacrifice.

Even the people who will cast their votes for candidates who served the old regime, only have that right because of the bravery of the revolutionaries (one may wonder if these people will feel a tinge of shame after they cast their vote and walk past a mural of one of the young martyrs on the walls of Cairo and the other cities in Egypt).

So putting to one side debates over how much power the new President will have, we have to conclude that this is an historic, wonderful day for Egypt and an important moment in the living history of a revolution that many feel is still unfinished.

And today we should remember the martyrs.


So what the hell is going to happen?

(Graffiti in memory of  the Revolution's martyrs)

This is the question I have been asking anyone and everyone in Cairo in recent days.

“So who is going to win?” I blurted out to an Egyptian friend at a party last Thursday night.

“I think Ahmed Shafiq will” he answered back quickly.

I laughed...but then I could see that he was not joking.

The polls back up this insight, Mubarak’s final Prime Minister, and the candidate closest to the old regime is apparently gaining ground.

I was on radio on the  "Today with Pat Kenny"  show on Monday, and I tried desperately not to make any prediction, because basically I do not know what is going to happen in the upcoming elections- and to look stupid on national radio is one of those things you normally like to avoid.

However I ventured two guesses on the show.

1. The next President will not be a woman (brave that one don’t you think?)  

2. Former Foreign Minister and ex leader of The Arab League, Amr Moussa,  will make the second round runoff.

However even the Amr Moussa prediction is called into question by Sandmonkey on his latest blog. So maybe I should have just gone on air and said nothing, or just talked about the Pyramids, or the downtown Cairo bar scene. Things I am more expert in.

Now back to Shafiq. If somehow he did win, then I think, despite his followers hoping he will bring stability, it will actually be destabilising.

A section of the revolutionary movement (and the Islamists) will regard him as not legitimate- because he represents the counter revolution.

Now you could say that his victory would be legitimate at the polls, but this is still a post revolutionary moment and there is a lingering feeling of “revolutionary legitimacy” or “Tahrir legitimacy” that still means something to some people here. A sort of legitimacy that may even trump the polling box, in the eyes of some (not the majority of people here by any means).

This is not the 2000 US election for instance, when the Supreme Court “stole” (sorry that is a strong word, I mean “robbed”) the election for Bush. The Democratic opposition was not going to take on the institutions of state no matter how angry it was with the verdict.

(Although it is fun trying to visualise Al Gore leading a ragged army of insurgents in the fields outside Washington DC, with Joe Lieberman becoming a sort of “Beltway Che” a poster boy of a guerrilla movement against illegitimate Bush rule.).

The institutions of state here may not be sufficiently bedded in or stable enough just yet, to withstand significant opposition to a certain election outcome.

However, as I have said many times here, it’s hard to know.

And anyway, I don’t think Shafiq will win. (Oops there’s a prediction!)

(The beautiful purple trees I mentioned to you before, have died away. But across Cairo as the summer begins to get very hot indeed, there are these stunning riotous Orange trees)