Wednesday 29 August 2012

Regarding The Guide To Egypt's Challenges

A few weeks back I had planned to write a small piece on the problems facing Egypt, given that now it had its first democratically elected president. After one day of thinking and researching, I finally set out to write the piece when I come across a fantastic post by Juan Cole that resembled largely what I had in mind, and took it a step or two further. My first impulse was: "oh, okay. That's it then."

Then, a few hours later I think: what if I develop something that could become a long term reference? Something that pretty much aggregates and analyses information on where does Egypt stand now, hopefully breaking down some of the problems into components that could be separately addressed. A couple of weeks later of on and off work, and the guide was born.

I plan to continue working on the guide. New sections might be added, information might be updated based on progress, and some are suggesting revisiting after one year to see where things stand in comparison.

For now, I would like to thank a few people.

First, the incredible Fouad Mansour of Ahram Online who has helped me tremendously throughout this project. It's just every writer's dream to work with an editor like that. I would also like to thank Dina Samak, Ahmed Feteha and Zeinab Mohammed, among others, from the Ahram Online team.

I also want to thank some of the people who checked our and critiqued my earlier drafts and have been generally helpful with all of my writing. In no particular order: Dalia Ezzat, Carina Kamel, Abeer Allam, Sara Labib, Hany Rasma, Islam Hussein, Tamer Fouad, Koert DeBeuf and others! Thank you so much.

Here's a link to the guide.

About The August 24 "Revolution"

Abu-Hamed On August 24

“Is this all the remaining opposition to the Brotherhood?!”

While going through the twitter timeline on August 24, I have come across such a statement in one form or another, one tone or another, one intended meaning or another. After much prolonged hype, only several thousand protesters in Cairo, and lesser numbers in a few governorates, marched while canting with fervent passion “down with the rule of the Morshid!” - the “Morshid” being the Arabic word for the Supreme Guide of the MB. Eventually, their numbers declined into several hundred, then dwindled to tens as they staged a sit-in by the presidential palace to voice their demands, led by former MP Mohammed Abu-Hamed. While some appeared to suggest that the images demonstrate that opposition to the Brotherhood was effectively negligible, and some did indeed echo that sentiment across the social media sphere (not just non-Egyptians) the statement was rather quite far from the truth, despite all the problems facing Egypt’s liberal opposition. In fact, a quick glance at the same social media on August 24th and beyond revealed what appeared to be a significant  (albeit questionable) satirical derision of the protests and the protesters, almost equally from many Islamists and Secularists observers and commentators alike. As of late Sunday evening, Abu-Hamed announced he had ended the sit in, while few protesters remained on their own. Then, a couple of days later he called for new protests on the 6th of October against the "hegemony of the ikhwan," intentionally coinciding with the anniversary of the October War.

The reality is that much of the more mainstream opposition forces to the Brotherhood itself decidedly boycotted the “August Revolution,” never did any rallying for them, some even used harsh rhetoric against them, and they did so for several reasons.

The first was the identity of those spearheading the call for protests themselves. On one hand was the infamous Tawfiq Okasha, the owner and chief host of the Nationalist Al-Faraeen TV Channel. Okasha and his channel have been the subject of criticism by a wide spectrum of Egypt’s political forces and even the media community for what has been consensually deemed to be unprofessional conduct, a continuous espousal of conspiracy theories that would make Glenn Beck appear to be a Renaissance man, and non-stop slander of activists and politicians.

The second - and principle - leader of the “revolution” has been the increasingly controversial former MP Mohammed Abu-Hamed. A financial consultant who first gained limited fame as a teacher of the Quran, Abu-Hamed was catapulted to the forefront of the post-revolutionary Egyptian scene as a leading member of the liberal Free Egyptians Party, as well as being the party’s star candidate for the parliament. Abu-Hamed was heavily presented as someone who could reconcile Islamic religious tradition and liberalism, while his youth, his sharpness, his initial well-spoken manner as well as some of his earlier actions excited many on Egypt’s pro-revolution and liberal fronts. However, almost as fast as he skyrocketed, Abu-Hamed commenced a sharp decline.

His increasingly angry rhetoric and form in the media began to alienate some of his base (though it gained him the support of a few others as well.) Then, in a startling move, the former MP gave a speech in Lebanon addressing Samir Geagea, a former Lebanese Forces leader who was convicted for crimes during the Lebanese Civil war. According to heavily-circulated news reports (I have not watched the speech in full), Abu-Hamed referred to Geagea as an inspiration, a “symbol of revolution and standing-one’s-ground in the entire Arab world,” a “Christian Muslim” who is “a symbol of the Islamic-Christian partnership in the land of Lebanon,” only to end his speech by “Thank you, our sir. You have inspired us.” (Quotes via AMAY) The speech, as well as his attempted clarification of his words, both created an avalanche of criticism from which the former MP’s image could not effectively rebound. Abu-Hamed also resigned the Free Egyptians Party amid speculations of internal discomfort with his conduct as well as a growing ambition (at 39, he had announced he would run for President if the laws governing the elections were amended to allow candidates younger than 40), and began founding his own “The Life Of Egyptians” Party, whose name was likened to the title of a dubbed telenovela. Moreover, after previously espousing anti-SCAF rhetoric and calling for trial of its members, Abu-Hamed came out vociferously in support of the Military Council as well as of Ahmed Shafiq in the Presidential Elections, a secular candidate with some association with the previous regime. The latest in a line of controversial statements was when Abu-Hamed recently suggested that the pyramids were "more sacred" than Al-Aqsa mosque in a video taken of him speaking in a church about the discourse on identity in the Egyptian state.

And with both Abu-Hamed and Okasha previously coming out in strong support of Shafiq in the elections as well as Okasha’s general staunch support of Omar Soleiman and SCAF, the protests were  substantially dubbed as felool protests - with “felool” being the word for a remnant of the former regime.

Then there were the demands of the “revolution” itself. In the earlier build up to the protests there seemed to be a general understanding that these protests were calling for downfall of Mohamed Morsy, the dissolution of the Brotherhood and even seemed to be welcoming a military coup. With Morsy being an (just-) elected president however, there was no sense in liberal movements roaming the streets calling for his downfall. Moreover, with Morsy managing to neutralise former intelligence head Murad Mowafi as well as SCAF’s Tantawi, Sami Anan and much of the military council in his historic reshuffles, and with the earlier passing away of Omar Soleiman, the organisers of the “August” revolution knew they had lost their potential trump cards. Demands were “lowered” to primarily include the official registration and legal oversight of the Brotherhood’s funding and activities, enacting laws against politicised appointments to state institutions to prevent the “Ikhwanisation” of the state, investigation of prison breaks and police station-burnings during the revolution and any potential role of the MB therein, dissolving the current “sectarian” constituent assembly, calling for a new coalition government to replace the government of PM Hisham Qandil, and others. And according to El-Badil newspaper, Abu-Hamed had also stated that if enough people joined the protests, he would call for a 5-man presidential council which would include Morsy as well as military and other figures to run the country while a new constitution was set. The Sunday following the protests, Abu-Hamed was referred to investigation over accusations of plotting to overthrow the elected president and his government following a complaint by a citizen who claimed, according to Ahram Online, that he had evidence of the former MP receiving aid while in Lebanon with the goal of inciting sectarian strife.

Then there was the eventual public perception. Other than those who did participate or sympathised with the protests, by the end of the countdown public opinion seemed to be  largely divided between those who felt these protests were objectionable, those who felt they would amount to nothing and those who were being affected by claims that violence and destruction allegedly set to happen on the 24th. The FJP's site, as a part of what seemed to be a wider propaganda anti-campaign, even published a macabre claim on the eve of the protests that a "source" told them that Ahmed Shafiq was setting 5 million dollars to hire 22,000 thugs, was coordinating with "leftists and liberals" who supported his campaign as well as fired SS officers and former NDP men, was planning to attack vital state institutions and prison stations, and mentioned incredible prices for the thugs and hired fake protesters among a list of other claims that appeared to be taken from the former regime's propaganda playbook.

Of course, this entire affair raised many questions and comments. Setting aside the August 24 protests themselves, some lamented the overall form of the anti-Ikhwan opposition and its landscape in general, the fragmentation of the opposition, questioned who can speak in its name, and some of course wondered whether such an opposition theoretically has capability of rallying massive amounts of people into the streets if ever desired to do so.

One other question remained on how the more mainstream and post-revolutionary opposition groups could handle the expected return of Ahmed Shafiq to Egyptian politics and his allegedly soon-to-be-announced new political party. Shafiq, who only lost the elections by a relatively narrow margin, is a self-styled liberal and a staunch anti-Brotherhood opponent who still theoretically commands considerable support, but bears the label of “folool.” Some, of course, wondered if the word felool would ever have an expiration date, and questioned definitions of it.

The return of Ahmed Shafiq or an anointed successor to the helm of a political party or movement could “theoretically” either lead to the creation of a wider liberal alliance that would, however, be more easily publicly defamed as aligning itself with the former regime, or create an even more fragmented and competitive liberal/secular front. Both options would be painful in the course of fast approaching parliamentary elections wherein the liberal front is desperate for a united concerted effort. 

Monday 20 August 2012

On The Freedom Of Media, And Article 179

I was having a conversation regarding the question of media freedom in Egypt and the recent crackdowns and/or investigations against certain media figures, and I was asked to put down the thoughts I had stated into an article or a post. Well, here they are.

There is virtually no doubt that Tawfiq Okasha's Al-Faraeen TV channel represents an unflattering spot in the history of, not just Egyptian or Arab but even, world media. The channel has been the subject of condemnation of figures from across the political spectrum as well as various media professionals. But the problem with Al-Faraeen, however, is that it was suspended by an administrative order rather than a court decision, setting an alarming post-revolution precedent. This is even more regrettable given the fact that there are countless valid legal arguments for shutting down the channel or suspending it using legal due process, and that there has already been one or more existing verdicts to such an effect that have not been enforced.

Similarly, Al-Dostour newspaper appeared (through my limited intermittent contact with it) to be not quite shy about recounting grand tales of macabre conspiracies by the Muslim Brotherhood without appearing to have provided any substantial evidence for such claims, again - valid legal grounds for investigation. Some observers even accuse it of calling for a military coup against a sitting democratically-elected president in a recent front page (a reading of that page's seemingly intentionally vague final paragraph seems to support this accusation). But the problem here was the (yes, court ordered) confiscation of new issues of the paper, its potential shutting down. We thought confiscations were a thing of the past.

Then, a few overriding concerns.

1- A wide majority of the journalistic community has long demanded an end to prison sentences for crimes pertaining publishing, and to have imprisonment be replaced with financial punishment through varying fines. Both Okasha and Al-Dostour's Islam Afifi (in addition to recently summoned editors-in-chief Abdel-Haleem Qandeel and Adel Hammouda) now face the possibility of prison sentences.

2- While the falsification of news or the incitement to inflict harm against any citizen and - by extension - any state official should be a punishable crime, these media figures also face accusations under the Orwellian article 179 of the penal code that makes it a crime to "Insult The President." As I understand, that article was also used against (former Al-Dostour, and current Al-Tahrir, editor in chief) Ibrahim Eissa by the Mubarak regime to put him behind bars, and also used in parliament against former MP Ziad El-Eleimy to justify punishment against him for the alleged insult of then-acting president Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi. While I find insults and non-constructive criticism in media against state officials to be regrettable and unnecessary, I believe that they should not be criminalised, especially in a nascent democracy like ours with a recurring historic precedent of turning leaders into untouchable figures.

3- The legal code itself is full of archaic and incredulous articles. The code (I am being told this is up-to-date, and excerpts of the pertinent articles have been used as of late in the media) includes articles such as 98bis which punishes any person or entity forming a group that would threaten the "foundational principles upon which the nation's socialist system" is founded, which is both darkly humourous and dumbfounding given how the reference to socialism has been dropped from the constitution in 2007, and given how it is moronic article to begin with. Section one of article 174, as I understand it, punishes those who call for the "hatred or contempt" of the system of government using any media. Article 180 punishes by imprisonment anyone who insults a foreign head of state in the media as well. Article 185 also punishes anyone who similarly insults pretty much any state official or judge. Article 178 appears to be punish those who display "improper facets" of the state, among other things. Article 183, as I understand it, punishes (again by imprisonment and/or fine) anyone who insults pretty much any state institution, including parliament. The criticisms go on and on, both of the intention of the articles themselves, their phrasing, and the designated punishments. And the reason I keep using the expressions "as I understand it" and "as it appears" is due to the often too rubbery and vague phrasing of the articles, which both can be a blessing or a curse for a defendant, a tool for mercy or oppression by the judge.

4- This all is happening at a time where other alarming media trends are occurring. The parliament's upper house, dominated by the MB, continued the former regime's tradition of appointing the heads  of state newspapers and print-media organisations (which also were the subject of many calls of reform themselves), with the appointments garnering wide criticism both for taking place to begin with (rather than using other means that grant independence to these publications) as well as for the actual choices of editors-in chief which have largely been controversially described as either Islamist-leaning or easily-controllable.

Already there have been reports of articles criticising the MB being censored in such papers, while Al-Akhbar (the second leading state-owned Egyptian daily) cancelled one of its op-ed pages that  prominently featured writers not belonging to the organisation, with journalist Youssef Al-Qaeed describing the rationale behind the move as silencing a page that essentially featured critiques of the MB and Islamists (the paper argued the move was to cut costs and to give a chance to the institution's own writers.) 

5- And while the abolishment of the Ministry Of Information has long been a popular consensual demand of all revolutionary forces (it was briefly abolished after the revolution only to be returned by a SCAF-supervised government), president Mohamed Morsy and his cabinet did not axe the ministry either, and instead appointed a Brotherhood figure to the post. While there have been reports that this minister claimed he would be the last such minister, it would have significantly been better to take immediate moves to ensure seriousness regarding the abolishment of the ministry and transforming it and its dependent media into a BBC-like independent organisation, at least appoint a non-partisan choice for the post or even a multi-person committee charged with managing the transition. Further, the MB has been criticising the media as being unfairly biased against them, and protesters who were described as belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood were reported to have attempted to block the Media Production City while protesting and there were reports of "attacks" on media figures there, though they appear to have been somewhat exaggerated in detail. This has all been feeding the fuels of suspicion for some that there are moves by the Brotherhood to control the media.

The point is that there needs to be a serious conversation on, and immediate attention to, what is taking place in Egyptian media; regarding both the transformations already occurring as well as the ethics and proper conduct of the profession. There also needs to be an immediate project on the reform of media and the articles of the penal code pertaining to it (in addition to an overhaul of the code itself in its totality). But most immediately: archaic and Stalinist articles pertaining to the insult of state officials and institutions need to be abolished, and charges based on them need to be dropped, a clear timeline and concrete steps towards the abolishment of the "Information" Ministry must come forth, and criticisms of the recent appointments of state media heads needs to be addressed. Otherwise, suspicions may not have entirely been hyperbolic.

Thursday 16 August 2012

The Slow Defence Of Freedom

The inexplicably banned book.

A few days ago a Mid-East history textbook was inexplicably banned, a book that had reportedly already been in use by the American University in Cairo for 10 years. There are varying claims of journalists/writers in state-owned newspapers and media being censored. The information ministry was not abolished, which was a unanimous revolutionary demand, and the parliament's upper house continued the tradition of appointing editors of state owned print media, this time choose controversial picks who are said to at least be likely to attempt to appease the new regime. 

And while Al-Dostour and Al-Faraeen are both, for me, tabloid media at best, their content is questionable and both could indeed deserve some legal investigation, there have been complaints that the recent moves against them and their figureheads were not done in the manner that would set the best possible modus operandi for such future pursuits.

Even debates on the potential restriction of freedom of worship in the next constitution, the continued detention of militarily-tried prisoners (until recent laudable moves by Mohamed Morsy to free them and/or reconsider their cases), the questionable trial of Egyptian actor over his body of work, and other questions of concern; there are more of these cases popping up each day. These questions reveal two problems:

1- Organised Power: despite a year and a half after the revolution, electoral alliances, a myriad of new political parties and civil rights initiatives, progressive forces have yet to organise an effective and strong front that can respond immediately to such challenges. The case of the banned book is just being addressed by "waiting," Adel Imam's case was just "harshly criticised" by many figures, and... you get the idea. A lot of anger, condemnation, waiting, and largely just that.

The lack of large, organised and ready groups that can be sufficiently co-ordinated to create real pressures on authorities and other political forces on such issues is direly being felt. For example, there should be a substantial stock of trained lawyers ready to be launched pro bono for such cases; a mechanism to peacefully use the street in expression of political demands; a coordination mechanism for the launch of new political development initiatives and - most importantly - the ability to sustain internal efforts and external interests on such cases.

Currently, most of these efforts appear to be undertaken by passionate smaller groups and individuals who usually do not have the resources or the capacity to mount large sustained efforts, nor succeed in effectively keeping the media's attention to their causes.

2- Organised Framework: the second, and inextricable, problem is that the continued lack of a formulation of a coherent progressive ideology has left such forces unable to properly and fully formulate their arguments against certain forms of censorship or challenges in a manner that might better gain the support of a wider segment of a society, one with a clear moderate-conservative leaning.

The point is: the more the precedents of such cases that are set without proper response mechanisms put in place and effectively used, the harder it will be to go back on such precedents, and the harder it will be to argue against repetitions of such cases. The time for all of this was yesterday. Today is still good though.