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Egypt’s Modern Pharaoh

Let’s quote the Qur’an, Surat al-Qasas, 28:39–40:

    He was arrogant in the land without reason, he and his men; they thought they would never be returned to Us. So We seized him and his men, and cast them into the sea: see what was the end of the wrongdoers!

For those of you who’ve slept through the last 30 years and think Jimmy Carter is still president, know that the man above, whose thuggish features perfectly reflect his character, really is still president. Not only that, but at the age of 78, President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt doesn’t want to die gracefully and let his countrymen take it from there. He’s preparing to hand power to his son. Just last week a compliant parliament rigged the Constitution to expand his dictatorial powers and eliminate any possibility of democratic opposition. Today there is a referendum to approve the changes—”no” votes aren’t welcome—and in the runup to that, there was a messy protest last night which sounds, from the description of those at the scene, to have been a police riot. (The link shows a scene from the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, where the term “police riot” was invented.)

Sandmonkey was at the demonstration where numerous bloggers and activists were arrested, and returned to write a long, emotional account of the scene he’d just witnessed.

    There was two women demonstrators who, escaping arrest and beatings, ran into the building and tried to hide inside the greek club. The Police followed them both up there and dragged them out. The Ghad Party people tried to intervene so the police started beating them up as well. They then took the two women and started assaulting them (some reports claim sexually) inside the Ghad Party. […] The people inside of the greek club were not allowed to leave it or leave the building, and the Police crowded the entrance of the building to stop anybody from going in or out. The people inside the greek club had to endure hearing the sound of the police beating up innocent people, the shrieks and screams of the men and women that the police assaulted, with no recourse or escape. And as far as I know, this is still happening while I am writing those words. And the worst part? There is nothing any of us could do to help. Who do you go to when it’s your police that’s assaulting, kidnapping and raping? What can you do to stop them, when they are the law?

Later he adds:

    Do I tell you how depressed I am at the moment? How this signals the end of the dream of a democratic Egypt? […] The truth of the matter is, I am really mad, really really fuckin mad, at the egyptian people, whom we risk our lives for. I am mad at them for not caring, for accepting the roles of sheep, for not fighting for their rights and not doing anything while they see what we go through in order to fight for those same rights that they know they need and lack. I am mad at them for just standing there while they could hear the screams of women getting beat up in front of them, and not even voice an objection. I am mad at them for the looks of fear in their eyes while we passed by…. Maybe the government is right: Maybe we don’t deserve Democracy. Maybe we don’t deserve our rights. Maybe we deserve everything that happens to us.

Egypt is a nation where police brutality is so common that there is a whole subgenre of videos on YouTube—and the worst of it is, many of these videos are made by the police themselves, so they must be proud of what they are doing.

The best source I know in English for tracking the ebb and flow of oppression and resistance in Egypt, is the blog of Hossam el-Hamalawy called 3arabawy. That’s where I found the red button in my left sidebar that reads “I blog for the revolution.” (It is linked to his blog.) Here is his report from the scene of the demonstrations last night, with many photos, and here is his recap this morning, including an official version of events from Reuters. During the demonstration, numerous activists were chased by police and forced into vans, but apparently all are now free, after spending the night locked up in the desert, then being dropped in remote places to find their own way back to Cairo.

A few days ago, Global Voices had a couple of articles on the unusual phenomenon of Egyptian blogging—unusual because it is so closely tied to the movement for democratic reform. In most countries, bloggers are content to observe political events from a distance. When they do take a stand, they consider blogging to be their form of involvement. Egypt is different, because bloggers regularly take to the streets. They don’t just report on the democracy movement, they are putting themselves personally at risk. So when their friends are arrested as happened last night, there is a special feeling of solidarity.

Sadly, the bloggers themselves admit that for now, they are fighting a losing battle. A political turning point has been reached with today’s referendum, and not for the better. The cause of democratic reform has been all but abandoned by the West as priorities in the region harden, leaving Mubarak “free to go medieval on the Egyptian Constitution” as Abu Aardvark put it. Although she is visiting the Middle East this week and met with Mubarak, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had only the tamest of criticisms for the Egyptian dictator, like tickling a statue with a feather. A couple of years ago, activists from the Kifaya (Enough!) movement thought the regime was ready to fall if they could just put a few hundred activsts on the street. Today they are exhausted and demoralized as this two-part Washington Post series shows.

How do these events resonate in Morocco, at the extreme western edge of the Arab world? I discussed it with a couple of my Moroccan blogger friends, who share some of the same spirit as the Egyptian bloggers.

eatbees: I wonder, why do Egyptian police love to record their brutality on mobile phones?
netdur: Because it’s fun to share with mates?
eatbees: What a depressing social life. Police are criminals in uniform.
netdur: They’re cowards, why can’t they make a revolution? There are 70 million of them.
eatbees: Maybe it’s psychology. The abused person learns to blame him/herself. Abuse isn’t just physical. —They organized demonstrations, thinking that if 100 or 500 came, the government would fall because no one had confidence in it. But people didn’t care, and nothing happened.
netdur: Adel Imam made fun of Mubarak, and I’m surprised of two things: 1) Adel Imam and his team had the courage; 2) he’s still alive.
eatbees: Adel Imam is a national treasure! How did he make fun of Mubarak?
netdur: His play “Al Zaeem.”
eatbees: Maybe Mubarak’s punishment to him is, he will die of old age.
netdur: How that is a punishment?
eatbees: It shows Mubarak is God, and generous like God….

eatbees: [I show him Sandmonkey’s description of last night’s events.] “And the worst part? Who do you go to when it’s your police that’s assaulting, kidnapping and raping? What can you do to stop them, when they are the law?” —This is about bloggers at a demonstration getting arrested, because of the constitutional “reforms” Mubarak put through.
distant: One should never think that the police are the law.
eatbees: Good point!
distant: What did Mubarak put through?
eatbees: You don’t know the story? He changed the constitution to make it impossible for anyone to challenge his power, or his son’s power.
distant: AAAAAAAA!!! WTF!
eatbees: Police state.
distant: Damn, you can imagine the expression on my face!
eatbees: I’ve been reading about this fucked up stuff in Egypt for a while. There are videos of police beating citizens all over the web, so this is nothing new. I’m surprised there aren’t more people in Morocco who know about this. Netdur sometimes sends me links. He said there are 70 million people in Egypt, so why do they allow it?
distant: Allow what? Demonstrations?
eatbees: Police repression! Abusive interrogations, beating women at demonstrations, the heavy hand of authority. Why do they agree to live under a pharaoh? Why don’t they just get rid of this rotten authority, is what he’s asking.
distant: I see….
eatbees: In some ways, Egypt is ahead of Morocco in challenging the power. In other ways, Egypt is behind Morocco because of all the repression. We could say the conflict there is heightened on both sides.
distant: Maybe because they have something to challenge.
eatbees: Certainly Morocco has corrupt officials!
distant: Without a doubt.
eatbees: And an autocratic system. Certainly there’s a lot of social injustice, in terms of who controls the nation’s resources.
distant: With all the projects the king starts, I tend to think that Morocco is advancing, and doing a better job of using the people’s money. But it’s not optimism. There’s a lot of core stuff that just isn’t right, and I don’t think money will change that.
eatbees: How can you even begin to reform unless you have a clear picture? The king, his family, and a few other families control most of Morocco’s resources, but you won’t see the details in the newspaper! We’re supposed to believe that the king’s intentions are good, and he’s a good person. I think he is, but he’s part of a system that’s been built up over 50 years or more. It’s possible that global competition will force that system to modernize, become more transparent and efficient. One way is to try to build new sources of wealth through technology and open markets. If the government can be effective at helping people get out of poverty, that’s a good thing. But if growth is just another way for the same families to keep their monopoly, that’s not a good thing.
distant: Poverty is only part of the problem. We need to help people who are underpaid, or who don’t have jobs.
eatbees: I know a computer technician in Tangier who makes $280 a month and has no work papers, no chance to get credit, no health insurance. He’s actually losing money because it costs more to live in Tangier than he is earning.
distant: That’s what I mean. —It just came to me. I can summarize the situation in Morocco. Morocco has the intention to be better, but it doesn’t have the required morality for that. What do you think?
eatbees: I think you’re starting a philosophical discussion. What you mean by “morality” is a kind of discipline.
distant: They don’t really want to change. They’re stuck in short-term thinking.
eatbees: Morality implies sacrifice. To get something of value, you have to give something of value. So you’re right, it’s short-term thinking. Something for nothing. In Morocco, people have learned that’s how it works at every level of society, especially close to the top. Actually, I think the poorest are the most honest. They think stealing is shameful, but the rich are almost proud of it. For them, it would be shameful not to profit from their position. We can’t expect the poor to set the example, because they have nothing to refuse! I don’t know how to expose, and shame, officials who abuse their position. It could be dangerous to do that, but that’s what needs to happen. When Gandhi led India to independence through shared sacrifice, he used the word “swaraj” which really means “self-reliance.” It went deeper than independence. It went to the moral level, like you say.
distant: Yeah.
eatbees: Maybe Morocco is still suffering today from a form of colonialism—in this case, colonization from within—and should try to build self-reliance in the face of that.

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