19 August 2013
Egypt - Lost Cause or Beacon of Hope?
Last Wednesday I spent the day out walking in the Dales with friends. A more peaceful time you could not imagine. We went for miles without seeing a soul or hearing a thing other than nature itself and returned tired but happy. We also managed to see a few birds, Little Owl and Redstart for instance, a fine achievement in a month not known for its birding potential.
Meanwhile, a country dear to my heart was once more tearing itself to pieces. Egypt had erupted again and had dissolved into bloodshed and violence. Whilst I was out in the countryside without a care in the world, the Egyptian Army had wreaked havoc on a Muslim Brotherhood camp and hundreds were dead.
I had no idea that this had happened until I returned home where a telephone message was waiting for me to ask if I could come in for yet another radio interview on the subject. I naturally agreed but it was with a heavy heart. These things are a double-edged sword. They give me the opportunity to publicise my book but I feel guilty at benefitting from someone else’s pain. Rather that it were good news I was being asked to comment on, although this seems ever more unlikely.
Not so very long ago we rejoiced in Egypt’s new-found freedom. Now we fear for its future. This latest incident could yet prove to be the turning point in the country’s fortunes as the Army once more takes centre stage. Up until now it has been trusted by the people but one detects an undercurrent of resentment against its heavy-handed invention. A little while ago I doubted whether there would be a civil war but now I’m forced to think again.
The Brotherhood seem equally as determined to stand their ground and are prepared to martyr themselves for their cause. I don’t believe they can win without external help and this is a worry as it may further internationalise the conflict, especially as one hears reports that the region is awash with arms held by insurgents in Sinai and also released from the recent conflict in Libya.
The Army is strong, having benefitted from western aid which although now ceased, has had its effect. Despite this, the West seems powerless to influence the situation. The USA dare not take sides (in public) and is currently engaged in promoting negotiations between Israel and The Palestinians and so it appears its hand are tied. The statement by Secretary of State John Kerry was so bland as to be meaningless, as were the reactions of other, European, nations. My fear here is that if the West does not support the military in Egypt then some other power will and the prospect of Russia, or even China, holding sway in such a pivotal position is frightening.
What one would like is a period of peace and stability followed by ‘free and fair’ elections which produce a moderate, secular administration which can take the country forward. What we will get, I suspect, is more bloody Wednesdays. The next time I go out walking, I don’t think I shall feel so relaxed.
29 July 2013
Egypt – Who Cries While the Country Bleeds?
What on earth is happening in Egypt? I’m sure I’m not the only person who’d like to know the answer to that question. The governments of most Western countries must be scratching their heads – and tearing their hair out as their big hope of installing democracy in North Africa and The Middle East goes up in smoke. Literally in some places, as the fires of revolution and dissent continue to burn.
There are some things we can be sure of. Hundreds of people are dying, thousands injured - mostly the innocent, one suspects. They are usually the ones who suffer when tyrants, dictators and those who wish to interfere make their presence felt in the name of the people. Doubtless there are millions of Egyptians who feel passionately about their country and their cause, be they pro-Morsi or otherwise. I find it hard to believe that the strength of feeling and commitment we’ve seen expressed on our TV screens can be faked. And yet I also find it hard to believe that some other (foreign?) agency does not have a hand in affairs and is intent on stirring things up. Alright, so perhaps we do know what’s happening – the country is tearing itself apart. But what we don’t know is who is causing it and why?
There are plenty of potential candidates. Internally, the Army will want to assert its power and will use any excuse to come down hard on its old enemy, the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood itself has a definite political agenda and is determined not to be cowed. The news this week that ex-President Morsi had links with Hamas either widens Egypt’s internal dispute beyond its borders or is an invention by the Army to justify its actions – who knows? Either way it will be of concern to Israel whose recent peaceful relations with Egypt have meant one less distraction in its fight with the Palestinians. Syria too has an interest where the anti-government forces have enjoyed MB support. It’s a tangled web of intrigue. And that’s not to mention the British or the Americans who see their strategic interests as being threatened.
I’ve never been a conspiracy theorist (life is too difficult to manage on a small scale, never mind globally) but there’s too much at stake here for those in power to resist involvement. And if you think I’m suffering in the heat and have a febrile imagination, who ever would have thought that the Libyans had a hand in Northern Ireland?
You can tell that the level of hysteria and paranoia in the region has risen to new levels when the authorities in Turkey detain a bird on suspicion of spying for Israel (I am reminded here of Hartlepool and the case of the French monkey). This, all because it carried an Israeli ID tag. The Telegraph reports that ‘so great was the level of concern that medical personnel at Elazig’s Firat University initially identified the kestrel as “Israeli Spy” in their registration documents’. I’m pleased to say that after extensive medical examinations, the bird was cleared of all charges and allowed to fly off.
Meanwhile, in this country we have different preoccupations. I‘ll take a bet that more of us know the name of our new and future King than know the name of Egypt’s only ‘democratically’ elected leader. And yet what happens there is of far more significance, both to us and the world in general. A potential civil war is brewing, if one is not in progress already.
On the same page of my newspaper as I read of these momentous things is an advertisement for an exhibition of Islamic and Indian Art. I have said elsewhere that I think a country’s art often expresses the state of a nation and the feelings of its people. Here, our art is of unmade beds, cows sawn in half and preserved in formaldehyde, diamond-encrusted skulls and other disparate inventions designed to elevate the status of the artist and promote celebrity. The picture I see in my newspaper is of a contorted figure whose face is racked with pain. Such is the state of Egypt. Who cries while it bleeds? Evidently not us.
12 July 2013
Egypt and the Cultural Power of Islam
Almost a fortnight has passed since the tumultuous events of 30 June – time to reflect on the cause and effect of Egypt’s second ‘revolution’ in as many years. The other day I was asked during the course of a radio interview as to whether I was surprised by what had happened. My answer was ‘no’ but what I should have pointed out was my surprise at the election result of 2012. I didn’t see that coming and given the present outcome, I’m now forced to ask myself why on earth did Egypt vote Muslim Brotherhood in the first place?
I wasn’t alone in my mis-reading of the situation. While researching the background to my novel, BIRDS OF THE NILE, I remember reading an article in April 2011 entitled ‘Egyptians Want Freedom, Not An Islamic Republic’ (Marvin G. Weinbaum and James Farwell for MEI). I’ve looked it out and reread it to make sure I wasn’t mistaken. History teaches that the real question isn’t who starts revolution, it says, but who wins it. There was concern as to the future but the commentators were confident that the courageous demonstrators who took over Tahrir Square would fight any effort to replace the old tyranny of Mubarak with a new one. The next President seems likely to be both secularist and pro-democracy, they went on. The Muslim Brotherhood has said it will not run a candidate for President and its goal is to win no more than 30% of the seats in a new parliament. Hmm … No wonder we don’t trust politicians.
And yet an Islamic Republic was exactly what they got. Don’t forget that it was Sayyid Qutb, a leading theologian of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, who advocated the formation of a revolutionary vanguard that could fight by any means necessary to establish a State governed by his interpretation of the Qur’an (Weinbaum and Farwell again). So when they went to the polls in 2012 and voted MB the Egyptians must have known what they could expect. Why the disconnection?
The answer lies firstly in organisation. Under Mubarak, many political parties were banned and there was no effective opposition. Just as it takes many years to establish a truly democratic process, it takes years to form the political infrastructure that goes with it. In the little time that was available between revolution and election, not enough could be done to combat the hegemony of the Brotherhood. Besides the Army, since its inception in 1928 the MB has been, and still is, the best organised force in Egypt. We might see a million people gathered in Tahrir Square who for the most part are the pro-democracy forces of younger, well-educated secularists. We are tempted to think this representative of the population at large but the electorate comprises in excess of 50 million not all of whom can read or write and who for decades have received only the attentions of the MB.
Secondly, we are told that the Egyptians want freedom. Part of this is economic freedom, the same kind of freedom we enjoy in the West. Remember that one of the catalysts for change was the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia. It was not political freedom that he was complaining about but the simple right to be able to earn a living after his stock of fruit and set of electronic scales were confiscated by the police. Many in the Middle East envy our prosperity and would dearly love to release themselves from the poverty they find themselves trapped in by the corrupt system that surrounds them. But they do not want to be subsumed by Western materialism and risk the potential loss of cultural identity that goes with it. And the one big thing that differentiates them from the West and its materialistic ways is Islam. Vote for change –yes. But vote to keep your culture, too. Which helps explain why the Brotherhood prevailed. As for economic prosperity – well, two out of three isn’t bad.
We think we know what the Egyptians want. We’re very fond of telling them that they should elect a secular, pro-democracy government which practices religious tolerance and liberal economic policies. That’s a lot to ask of a country which has been deprived of the ability to decide things for itself since time immemorial. Perhaps it is what they want - but perhaps they just haven’t learned the right way of getting it yet. Let’s see what the next round of elections brings.
10 July 2013
Left, Right, Left, Right - Egypt Marches to the Army’s Tune
In this country, we tend to categorise our governments by their political persuasion - left, right and in more recent years as they have coalesced toward the middle ground, centrist. In Egypt, the political map is totally different (and possibly incomplete) but this should not blind us to the one fundamental truth underlying recent events – that irrespective of their beliefs, aims or objectives, no-one governs Egypt without the consent of the military.
For the vast majority of Egyptians this has been the case within living memory. The revolution of 1952 (2011 was not the first, remember) was a military-inspired coup against King Farouk which ultimately brought Gamal Abdel Nasser to power. We know him as a great leader who significantly raised the status and profile of his nation but he was, of course, originally a colonel in the Army. Under his umbrella the Army grew in power and influence, a position it maintained under subsequent leaders such as Sadat and ultimately, Mubarak. In fact, it was only when Mubarak’s dictatorship no longer proved sustainable that the Army was forced to dump him and move on.
In both this and the ousting of President Morsi, the Army has claimed to be acting on behalf of the people. This is a posture it likes to cultivate. It trades on the respect Egyptians held for Nasser (he was akin to a God) and seeks to perpetuate their love with such symbolic gestures as the heart we saw drawn in the sky over Cairo. But this overtly public courtship hides a far more practical purpose. The Army has huge vested interests in the country. It owns, amongst other things, cement works and many of the Red Sea resorts we are so fond of visiting. When these become threatened, as they do when the economy starts to fail, they will naturally seek to protect them. And it will not allow the fact that the ‘democracy’ it lauds has brought to power a government it dislikes to stand in its way.
So make no mistake, no matter what they may claim on behalf of the people, this coup would not have taken place if it were not in the Army’s interest. To appear populist lends an air of legitimacy to its actions but it has doubtless chosen its moment to pursue what is an old vendetta.
The Army and the Muslim Brotherhood are sworn enemies and the group has been subject to oppression under successive military rulers since the 1950s. This continued for the decades under Mubarak. He retained his popularity and support in the West by being able to point to the fact that he kept the Islamists in Egypt under control. He was often portrayed as the lapdog who licked the hand of the Americans but barked at the religious extremists. No wonder that the Army kept him in power for so long. The elections of 2012 must have been as much a shock to them as it was to the rest of us but the recent upsurge in public opinion has given them the opportunity to act.
The spate of killings and violence we saw a couple of days ago is further evidence of this campaign of repression. Taken together with the numerous arrests of Muslim Brotherhood leaders and its supporters today, we have to ask whether this is a deliberate move to inflict a fatal blow to the movement. Acting President Adly Mansour (an Army appointee, naturally) has announced suspension of the Islamist constitution and parliamentary elections in early 2014, a timetable which is already being labeled as unrealistic. With the Brotherhood being systematically neutralised, is there any hope of them reorganizing themselves in time? Or has the Army sidelined them for good?
7 July 2013
Egypt – The Death of Democracy?
We in the West find ourselves taken by surprise by recent events in Egypt. Just as we were settling down to the second week of Wimbledon, the prospect of Andy Murray reaching another Grand Slam final and the promise of strawberries and cream, we are disturbed by images of death, destruction and political upheaval in what is supposed to be a ‘democratic’ country.
Wait a moment, we say, I thought that was all that done and dusted. Didn’t Egypt get what it wanted after the revolution of 2011? Weren’t the ‘free and fair’ elections of 2012 a sign that it had at last achieved the democracy it had fought so hard for? What on earth has gone wrong?
I think there are two key issues here. Firstly I have to question whether the elections of 2012 were, and could ever have been, ‘free and fair’. It is in the interest of the West to portray them as such, playing as it does to their agenda and ideology. But if what we hear and read in such books as Alaa Al-Aswany’s ‘The Yacoubian Building’ is true, then much of Egyptian politics, like much of Egyptian life, is corrupt. In the Egypt Al-Aswany portrays, the right to stand in elections in the past was bought with payments to influential officials. If true, then I have to ask whether these practices, so long ingrained in the Egyptian people, can simply disappear overnight. We call this corruption and deplore it but for many people in the world, it’s simply a part of everyday life.
Which brings me on to my second, and far more important point. These are matters of culture. Democracy itself is a culture and not merely a question of free and fair elections. True democracy also requires the establishment of the institutions that support it eg. the rule of law, an independent judiciary, freedom of speech etc. and until these things exist, no country can call itself truly democratic. In fact, given the imperfections of such institutions one wonders whether there can ever be a ‘true’ democracy. The problems we are currently experiencing in Falkirk are surely testimony to that.
The people of Egypt have yet to discover what democracy truly means. At present, they believe that the best way of ousting an administration they voted for but have grown to dislike is by means of mass demonstration in Tahrir Square. In this country we have a coalition that nobody voted for and many people have grown to dislike but we have the patience to sit it out and wait for the next time round. We will need to show the same level of patience with Egypt and it is unrealistic to expect them to get it right at the first time of asking.
Sat in the comfort of our own front rooms, watching the tennis, we forget the struggles we had to endure to achieve the democracy that we enjoy today. In our own country, we deposed a King in the middle of the 17th century by means of an Army coup headed by Oliver Cromwell but it was another 250 years before we gave women the vote. In the US, an equally violent Civil War ‘emancipated’ the African American in the middle of the 19th century but it was another 100 years before the Voting Rights Act of 1965 effectively enfranchised them.
It has taken us many years to establish our democracy – it will take many years for Egypt to do the same.