Thursday, May 25, 2006

Status Symbols

[Pillars of Justice - The Judges Club outside the High Court]

This afternoon, two demonstrations of discontent took place within a hundred metres of each other. The first was a vocal and unusually well attended Kifaya! protest on the steps of the Journalists' Syndicate. The second was ten minutes of a silent photo-op on the steps of the High Court from members of the pro-reform Judges' Club.

The first was of a style that has become familiar to activists, journalists and state security over the past couple of years. Slogans, energy, an atmosphere of latent confrontation with the state. Down with Hosni Mubarak, Down with Habib al-Adli. A symbol of ordinary people moved to action by the conditions of injustice in which they find themselves.

The second was of a less familiar style, and was a political statement of a different order of magnitude from the first. This is not to belittle the efforts of Kifaya! and the various organisations who have so bravely and for so long stared down the barrell of state security, but to point out that the nature of the authoritarian state defines even the method of protest against it.

In common with other protest groups, the pro-reform judges led by Zakariya Abdel Aziz do a little symbolic appropriation for effect. Everyone claims ownership of the Egyptian flag - the difference in the judges' case is that they can afford one thirty metres long. And, as is their right as an integral part of the machinery of state, they display proudly the badges of their institution - green sashes, lapel pins and the like. The last symbol is somewhat more elusive, but is evident in the silken handkerchiefs adorning well-tailored suits, dark sunglasses, and the air of well-fed upper-class confidence. They are the symbols of an elite - just not, as it happens, the ruling one.

[A long, long flag of Egypt winds its way up the steps of the High Court]

[Members of the Egyptian Judges' Club assemble to quietly make their point]

[Club President Zakariya Abdel Aziz solemnly leads his colleagues]

[Judges prefer silent protest]

The several hundred of these individuals who stood on the steps of the High Court were an imposing and impressive sight. They were aware of the value of the photo-op, aware of the weight of their station, and aware of the effect of their thus deployed symbols. They are an element of the state unwilling to accede to the notion that the executive is the state.

So whether this dignified battallion represents a coming fight for a meaningful system of justice in this country, or whether such thing has already been lost, time will tell. But today made so very obvious the fact that if the opposition movements are ever to achieve anything against the control of the Mubarak regime, they need symbols like these.

Friday, May 19, 2006

End of an Affair?

It seems like the dust is settling on yet another political 'crisis', and the saga of Judges versus the State is, for now, over. Mahmoud Mekki was acquitted yesterday of the absurd charge of 'disparaging the Supreme Judicial Council'. His partner-in-crime Hisham Bastawissi was merely reprimanded for the same misdemeanour. The verdicts were contrary to what, officially at least, the two pro-reformers expected. Bastawissi, before being struck down by a heart attack on Wednesday, said on Tuesday that he was expecting to be dismissed, and that no negotiations had been undertaken with the SJC.

Last week, I attempted to predict how the regime would steer its way out of this situation, and presented a smart option and a dumb option. The smart option involved making concessions to the judges, acquitting them, and then losing the judicial independence issue within the slothful machinery of state. The dumb option involved making no concessions, and just toughing their way out of it with the help of the security services.

Turns out they did both.

Here's an account of what I witnessed downtown yesterday:

[A security cordon around the high-court prevented protestors getting close enough to be beaten up in front of it]

Having learned from last week’s events that it isn't good for appearances to be beating up protestors in front of the emblem of state justice, the area around the High Court was yesterday totally sealed off. Even High Court staff had difficulty getting to work, and there was little chance that Kifaya! or the Brotherhood were going to be able to show up there. At around 9am an incident had ocurred in Abassiya, and apparently Brotherhood and Kifaya! members had been beaten. Abassiya is a good place for the Central Security Forces (CSF) to kick-off the day’s activities, as the likelihood of journalists being there is slim.

The demonstrators' tactic, in the face of massive police cordons, was to be fluid and pop-up in unexpected places. I met a number of Kifaya! activists who had just returned from a Brotherhood gathering in Galaa street. They then reappeared, about 100-150 of them, where Talaat Harb street runs into the crowded Midan Orabi. As the demo began, with the Islamist slogans and the holding aloft of Qurans (a tactic not favoured by the mid-ranking MB leadership, as it apparently makes them look like fundamentalists) traders hurriedly shut-up-shop, knowing rightly what was coming next. The slogan session lasted about five minutes, and then the baton-charge arrived. A uniformed phalanx pushed the demonstrators back into the square, and then the Biltagiyya were deployed in a pincer movement to beat and drag-off those who hadn't made an escape.

[A Brotherhood member leads demonstrators near Midan Orabi]

[Baton charge]

[Youth employment initiatives in action – Biltagiyya give chase]

The Biltagiyya were relatively few in number, but were wielding truncheons. The protest group rapidly dispersed through the surrounding streets towards Ezbekiyya. Stragglers were dragged off, beaten, kicked and introduced to the back of one of the green meat-wagons. At this point, apparently the police tactic is to remove your mobile phone and ensure that you cannot be seen from the outside. The most vicious beatings reportedly occur inside the trucks used to transport troops to and from downtown.

I followed a small group of mostly Brotherhood members as they attempted to evade the Biltagiyya, and there unfolded a bizarre pursuit through the tiny backstreets of Ezbekiyya. At one point the protestors thought they had gotten away, only to have a surprise attack sprung on them. I saw one feckless individual being dragged away to some unpleasant fate. Over 250 were reportedly arrested during the day.

[Strange pursuit - through the backstreets with Brotherhood fugitives]

Back downtown (the escapees requested that journalists leave them, as they were something of a liability back there) a very stately gathering had been organised by about 20 or so of the Brotherhood's MPs. Making use of their parliamentary immunity, these gentlemen and a small group of sticker-waving Kifaya! activists began to block traffic on Talaat Harb street. The MPs were wearing black sashes that read MPs Are With The Egyptian Judges. The sashes are something of a relatively common feature in political life now, and usually represent some mournful political reality that the wearers are effectively powerless to prevent, such as the extension of Emergency Law last month.

[Brotherhood MPs and Kifaya! members cooperate to block traffic]

It seems as if the heavy artillery of the Brotherhood was wheeled out in support of the Judges just in the nick of time. Essam al-Eryan even made sure that he got himself arrested just to make the point. The Brotherhood make good capital out of this sort of thing, and had the Judges not been acquitted yesterday perhaps the MB would, as was being threatened, have mobilised across the country in response. But perhaps fortunately it doesn't look like it's going to come to that. Because if one thing would make Washington turn a blind eye, and allow the Security thugs to direct brutality with impunity, it would be the large-scale involvement of the Brotherhood.

As the morning turned into early afternoon and tempers began to get shorter on Talaat Harb, I moved down to near the al-Ghad party HQ. In a separate case in the High Court yesterday, their leader Ayman Nour was having his appeal of his fraud conviction rejected. Five years in Jail. Nour came a distant second in last year's Presidential election. Being the dynamo at the centre of a junior party that was of his own making, I wonder if his definite imprisonment now means the end of al-Ghad. Probably.

[The fate of Dr Ayman Nour has, it seems, been sealed]

It is difficult to gauge the ramifications of yesterday's events so soon. The acquittal of the two judges, whose case had become the nexus of all pro-reform and opposition forces, seems to take the wind out of their sails somewhat. It is a limited victory which removes the momentum for real change. That much seems clear. What will happen in terms of legislation to address the concerns of the Judges' Club is anyone's guess. It depends on the mood of the regime and the appetite of Judges for more confrontation. It has to be said that all pro-reform entities have been outplayed. The government has taken a total-war type approach. The physical force element was obvious, and remains a central part of their strategy regardless of EU and US criticism, which is ineffectual bleating at best anyway. The Psy-Ops element has worked well also, intimidating and confusing opponents with alternating silence and threats. And finally the small scraps that the State threw the opposition yesterday in the form of an acquittal and mild punishment might just mean that for the time being, the troublesome protestors will go home, and we go back to business as usual.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Fukuyama, Islam and Democracy

The excellent has recently been hosting a kind of symposium on the new afterword to The End of History and The Last Man by Francis Fukuyama. A couple of the articles have dealt with the interface between political Islam and the universalising experience of modernity. The upshot, it seems, is that the meeting of political Islam and modernity leads, surprisingly, to democracy.

First this piece, a rather hopeful paean to the democratic urge by Saad Eddin Ibrahim. Secondly, a sharper analysis by Olivier Roy. Saad deals directly with Egypt, and, I think, misses the point. Roy avoids mention of Egypt specifically, but the logic of his argument meshes very finely with the Brotherhood-State dynamic that has been unfolding here.

In his piece, Dr Ibrahim posits modernity VERSUS theocracy and autocracy. In his, Roy conflates modernity and democracy.

Well, both neo-fundamentalists and authoritarian regimes are products of modernity, not intrinsically prior to it, so the suggestion that the true application of modernity (in the form of neo-liberal democracy) will see them off is misguided. And the idea that modernity brings automatically democracy is contrary to one of Roy's keenest theses.

The first view is congruent with a whole set of imaginative constructions, which basically transform complex reality a digestible, manageable entity. There is the modern world, which is industrialised, liberal, democratic. It is geographically specific, usually meaning, say, Europe and North America. Then there is the world to which modernity is being brought, and which exists in a transition stage between pre-modern and modern reality - as if there is a line that can be crossed or a whistle that can be blown when it is reached.

So, according to a view like Dr Ibrahim's, Egypt's problem is that society is not modern enough, and that it has not progressed far enough along a line that departs from pre-modern social norms and arrives somewhere marked 'democracy'. The problems of society, associated with and caused by the authoritarian state, are teething troubles along a developmental curve.

This might be persuasive if you could plot Dr Ibrahim's two points of theocratic jihadists and autocratic rulers on axes that ignored the reality of Egypt's complex and ongoing relationship with external political actors. It might be persuasive if you thought that the regimes of Mubarak/Sadat and Nasser were purely Egyptian inventions and had nothing to do with the geo-political mess that Egypt has so frequently been in.

But jihadists, and authoritarian government are a product of Egypt's interaction with external actors (or, if you like, with its interaction with modernity), not things that lie passively waiting to be changed by it.

First, government. The modern Egyptian technocratic state owes much in both design and practice to external actors of many kinds. In its design, it draws on French and British legal codes, Soviet style bureucractic structure, and neo-liberal (and specifically American) theory when it comes to planning for economic development. For sure, authoritarianism was honed in Egypt during the alignments of the Cold War, but now they are buttressed by a technocratic ability that comes as much from USAID as anywhere. In practice, it is allowed to be authoritarian, and in some cases required to be so, by the main actors in the geopolitical theatre of the Middle East. Egypt's perceived tension between say, political Islam and democratisiation is managed by the application of authoritarian government. The State Department would have it no other way.

Secondly, Jihadists, or shall we say 'violent political Islam' derives its millenial force from a perception of a power mismatch between the controllers of modernity and its recipients. But in their geographical dislocation, in their dismantling of societal links, in their empowerment of the individual as agent of change, and in their appropriation of technology as agents of destruction, organisations like Jamma Islamiyya (from which grew many other such groups) were/are thoroughly modern in themselves. Again, they are not passive actors waiting for the forces of modernity to change them.

Olivier Roy has been one of the first to realise that political Islam is not external to modernity, but actively involved in it. Here, however, he conflates modernity and democracy. The very arguments he makes here to suggest the "slow but genuine internalisation of liberal and democratic values" he has used before to argue the internalisation of modernity. We see the assumption that modernity IS democracy, despite the acute realisation that modernity has produced other, quite antagonistic philosophies.

Of course, one must make the narrative arc. The practitioners of geopolitics would cease to function if the complexity of reality were allowed to confuse action. Indeed, 'conflate' and 'confuse' are etymologically related.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Two Scenarios for the Week Ahead

The events in Cairo today speak for themselves. They represent the advanced stages of an authoritarian government's utter loss of moral legitimacy. All agents of opposition to the state are now being violently confronted. Many commentators speak of a 'crisis point' being reached. In that case, how to calculate, or speculate, as to what will happen next?

Let's imagine two scenarios:

Scenario One:
Anxious to ameliorate a political situation that is rapidly becoming uncontrollable, even with the assistance of the massive security apparatus, the state attempts a compromise with the two actors who now hold the hopes of almost the entire opposition - Hisham Bastawissi and Mahmoud Mekki. In the days until the date set for the next hearing of the Supreme Judicial Council (18th May) negotiations take place which aim to placate the judges by acceding to their preliminary demands (allowing their own staff in court, toning down the security presence, and letting all the Kifaya demonstrators who have faced riot police on their behalf for the past two weeks out of jail) and dangling the carrot of judicial reform. The hearing then acquits the judges of bringing the judiciary into disrepute, and some kind of vague promises are made about investigating the 2005 election. Both the promises of investigating the conduct of the elections and instigating judicial reform take for ever to even begin, and the whole opposition movement loses momentum and, for the time being, shuts up. The regime lives to fight another day, and very little changes, although cosmetically it seems as if reforms are being made. The State Department is happy, and things return to relative normality.

Scenario Two:
In the days until the next hearing, the government displays an inability to think strategically because it is so spooked by being challenged so brazenly in the first place. After all, the judges are in themselves an arm of the regime. It just so happens that some of them no longer see it that way. So no practical concessions are made by either the Ministry of Justice, or the Presidency, or the Ministry of the Interior. The judges increase their media campaign, and become increasingly famous and write more op-eds in western newspapers. The hearing goes ahead on 18th May, even though Mekki and Bastawissi refuse to attend, and it passes a guilty verdict on them in absentia. They are dismissed from their posts and join the ranks of disenfranchised activists holding posters on the street. Security continues to arrest, beat, harass and intimidate anyone that so much as dares to pass in front of their tea-stands in Talaat Harb. The remaining troublesome judges are fingered by the SJC, and are either dismissed or they back down, fearful for their livelihoods and pensions. With no rallying-point left, Kifaya et al go home. The State Department makes noises, but because Egypt is such a strategic ally in the war on terror (that policy is distinguished by its effectiveness, no?) no real action is taken. Things return to relative normality.

So, which scenario wins? Is there a third way? Will things NOT return to normal after all?

Monday, May 01, 2006

The Full Force of the Law

On Thursday last week, in the wake of the Dahab bombings, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak announced that he would fight terrorism with the "full force of the law." Early yesterday morning, Egyptian security troops reportedly shot dead three men in North Sinai during a counter-terrorism operation. Yesterday afternoon, Prime Minister Ahmad Nazif announced that the government would 'ask' the People's Parliament to extend the operation of Emergency Law by two years. Emergency Law, which denies Egyptian citizens basic rights, has been in force solidly for twenty five years. In the last week dozens of demonstrators - who have been protesting against the state's prosecution of two Cassation Court judges – have been arrested by the security services, and many have just been beaten by the plain-clothes rent-a-thugs who are becoming all too familiar in downtown Cairo.

[The sartorial sign of impending trouble - the biltagi boys line up]

Today, a demonstration was scheduled for 5pm outside the Talaat Harb St branch of the Omar Effendi department store. The venue was intended to be symbolic of the state's corrupt sell-off of public companies. No such demonstration materialised, although there were a handful of Central Security trucks parked at the end of the street just in case. It soon became evident that a 'demo' was taking place on the balcony of the Nasserist Party offices slightly further up Talaat Harb St. Cue for the assembled ranks of CSF troops and biltagiyya to jog lazily up the street and barricade the half-dozen or so noisy Nasserists into their building.

[An afternoon jaunt for State Insecurity]

At this point the Central Security hierarchy, hardmen and hired help began to usher journalists, cameramen and passers-by up toward the end of the street in the usual semi-threatening manner. When the middle-aged men in white uniforms and gold brocade start to clumsily urge foreign journalists away from any particular spot, it is reasonable to assume that something grim is in the pipeline. But today it was hard to see exactly who the hardmen would actually be picking on. A lot of standing around was happening, a lot of self-important posturing from over-muscled and under-brained goons with pistol belts. Perhaps there was a hardened core of trouble-makers just round the corner, waiting to pitch the Egyptian state into turmoil.

[The charm offensive begins - in a black ribbed tank-top]

Or perhaps there was a ragtag gang from the Nasserist party, offering the usual fayre of noisy nostalgia for a man (and an Egypt) that has been dead for nearly thirty-six years. Just in case they should explode forth from their HQ with hitherto undemonstrated vigour, the entrance was surrounded by troops for over an hour. It's hard to imagine the Nasserist party posing much of a threat to public order, but it was May Day after all, and things can easily get out of hand, so perhaps it was best to pen them in for a while.

[Nasserists going nowhere]

About a fifty metres away, above the panelled environs of Groppi's cafe, the Ghad party's efforts were in full swing. But the interior of the Ghad party's HQ was plush, and dusty, and empty. Is this really the party that produced the runner-up in last year's Presidential election? Or is it that Ayman Nour produced the party, and now that he is languishing in prison, his creation is rapidly falling apart? I met with a Nasserist party sympathiser who was just standing on the Ghad balcony for the view, making up the numbers. Those that were present (about a dozen, by no means all party members) were making an effort to arouse the interest of passers-by below, and to rile the bemused inhabitants of the State Security wagons parked on the square. They were marginally more successful with the latter than the former.

[The lonely beat of a Ghad flag-waver]

On the street below, the police chiefs and security managers were conducting affairs with a fairly calm, workaday attitude. The management of small-scale public discontent has become business as usual over the past couple of years for these individuals. And a small service industry has sprung up to cater to their needs. Tables and chairs appear on the street, and cold drinks and tea are served to police and CSF staff without much fuss. A waistcoated waiter was even seen ferrying chilled water and other assorted beverages to the walkie-talkie men as the evening wore on. Despite the large numbers of troops, and the reports of beatings, and the arrests, public dissent in Egypt is not even close to the point where the authorities are really rattled. They can just sit back, have some tea, and wait for it all to go away.

[A Central Security control centre, today]

So in the light of terrorist attacks, mass arrests, and the very real and visible retrenchment of the state into the old dictatorial patterns, it has to be said that the secular opposition in Egypt is in a very parlous state, if this is the best they can muster. The official channels of protest (i.e. the parliament) are still as ham-strung as they have ever been. Protest in those chambers at the actions of government are even more symbolic than banners on the streets. But now, in 2006, it seems that not even those banners can be assembled in any great number, and that apathy, defeatism and the long arm of the Police State has pummeled the secular opposition into near-submission. The Emergency Law has been remarkably effective at keeping Mubarak in government. And judging by today's non-event, the opposition parties are hardly able to raise a whimper in response.