Thursday, June 22, 2006

The Coming of the Prisoners of Opinion

I won't forget in a hurry the sound of Manal Bahie al-Din's voice just after she heard the decision to free her husband, blogger and political activist Alaa Seif al-Islam. Alaa has been held at the State Security Prosecutor's pleasure since May 7, on the Kafka-esque charges of insulting the President, obstructing traffic and endangering public order. Manal's voice was pure joy, flowing uncontrollably after six weeks of being separated from her husband.

Part of the reason I shan't forget this is that I was able to hear it in the first place. Alaa, his mother Layla Soueif, his father Ahmad Seif, his wife Manal are all charming, accessible and, of course, fluent in English. Their story, over the past six weeks, has made it around the world, into newspapers, magazines and websites. They are a highly internationalised face of the Egyptian pro-reform movement - and in the eyes of the western media, a much more saleable story than the countless cases of Muslim Brotherhood activists carried away from their families in the night. Only the heaviest of crackdowns directed at Brotherhood members ever make it to any but the most dedicated foreign outlets. But this should not surprise us. The Brotherhood have always presented a very distinct 'other' that external diplomats and journalists find difficult to penetrate, and a great many do not try.

So now, we have a new situation. Alaa has become something of an international figure. He may or may not be comfortable with it. I do not know him personally, but knowing that he only recently left the comfort of cyberspace for the hot brutality of downtown demonstrations, I suspect that he will not. But regardless of whether or not he is ready to take it, the mantle of web-hero for the Egyptian reform movement (and identifiably westernised hero for the foreign media) is already being lowered onto him. In short, within six weeks he has become the perfect 'prisoner of opinion'.

Now, we don't necessarily know what those opinions are. We can make a fairly safe bet that they are at root anti-authoritarian. We know for a fact that they form a strong dislike for the government of Hosni Mubarak, Ahmad Nazif, et al. But aside from that, it's all a bit vague – or at least, it is reported as such because the restrictions of conventional media will reduce this and any other story to an essentially heroes and villains piece. In this case, that's probably accurate enough.

But regardless of what Alaa - or Youth for Change, or Kifaya, or Artists and Writers for Change or whatever – actually stand for, here we have a hero. The fact that he is a blogger - an identity boosted to popular comprehension by the likes of Salam Pax in Baghdad - is perfect. It's the ultimate representation of intellectual freedom (i.e. the internet) versus the ultimate representation of morally bankrupt, intellectually perverted semi-competent bureaucracy - The Egyptian government.

So, here is a real opportunity. An opportunity to use the political capital that six weeks in prison brings. An opportunity to use an education and a global perspective that so many who have tried to take on the Egyptian state have not had. An opportunity to lay bare the abuses and brutality of the security state. An opportunity to succinctly publicise the corruption and perfidy that is the so-called process of 'economic reform' - where imported neo-liberal ideologies are lining the pockets of the privileged few. An opportunity to tell the world from a first hand perspective what it is like to be a 'prisoner of opinion' in this country. And an opportunity to prove that the secular opposition in Egypt has more to offer than banners on the steps of syndicates and tales of cameraderie from the insides of dirty jails.

I look forward to his first, post-prison, blog.

Sunday, June 18, 2006


Last night, I happened to be sitting at the qahwa in Nabrawy street, behind the Champollion palace, when, like an apparation from another age, a fire-eater appeared from no-where and began his show. The gentlemen at the cafe seemed less than interested, never mind impressed, at this unusual entrant.

The man intoned a bismillah, drank the paraffin, and began breathing plumes of fire and smoke along the length of the street, perilously close to the ancient trees that rest against the wall of the palace. He extinguished a number of burning torches in his mouth with little ceremony, and began a short spiel about how, really, fire was not for eating, and paraffin was not for drinking and that we should be mindful of our Gods, whatever they might be. He collected a few piastres donated by the customers, and promptly left. I didn't have my camera, much to my shame, so there are no photographs. But, to be honest, I'm not altogether convinced he was real, so short and ethereal was his visit.

My companion watched the brief performance with narrowed eyes, and afterwards pointed out that the appearance of such a character was, in itself, socially significant. The presence of roaming performers, marabouts, shamens, street magicians, and indeed fire-eaters indicates a wider malaise in the land, it seems. And hardly anything, if one looks at it reasonably, would suggest hardship more obviously than a man swallowing paraffin for a living.

The fire-eater, whatever his name was, was some kind of living anecdotal evidence about what is happening in this country that is almost impossible to grasp. It's not impossible to grasp because it is conceptually difficult – poverty is never that. It is difficult to grasp because the dominant discourse in this nation does not allow 'it' to exist. And by 'it' I mean deepening, widening poverty, the kind which makes those who live on five pounds a day (50p) feel fortunate because they are not one of those living on two. It doesn't exist because those who live like that are becoming, statistically, unwelcome. Every major aid NGO paints a picture of growth and progress, sometimes only moderate, sometimes mitigated, but progress nonetheless. Linear, empirical growth towards that happy place known as development. And as for the state, forget about it. So for anyone trying to tell a story which they so often, anecodotally, hear – that the poor are becoming, quite literally, immeasurably poorer –it's no use looking for reports and facts and figures to back up the hunch. There aren't any.

Every week someone tells me that Egypt is reaching boiling point, that the poor can't take any more, that it is ripe for revolution. And every week at least five people tell me that Egypt is going places, that it is a confident, able, 'emerging market' (That phrase has always made my flesh crawl. 'Emerging' from what, 'Emerging' for whom?) that will be a regional and world player this century. Well, they're probably right. The statistics are there to back them up. I have a pile of them on my desk. They make dizzying reading: Real GDP Growth Rate, 2005, 5.1%. Investments as % of GDP, 2005, 17.2%. Net International Reserves, 2005 US$ 19.3 bn. Net Foreign Direct Investments, 2005 US$3.9 bn. Looking good. There's no shortage of this stuff.

Start asking different questions, the stats dry up. How many people living on under $2 a day? We don't really know. Maybe 40%. How many people living in informal housing in Cairo? We don't know. How many people in Cairo not eating a minimally nutritious diet? We don't know. True, these kind of things are a lot harder to measure than the value of exports per quarter. And they are also harder to fix than to turn around a trade deficit. The question is whether or not, with the trumpeted quarterly growth figures, and the lauded economic reform, and the crowed-about FDI numbers, the condition of those way, way below the 'poverty line' are seeing any improvement whatsover. The anecdotal evidence is that they are not. The anecdotal evidence says that they are resorting to strategies that damage the body and demean the spirit. They are drinking petrol and breathing fire in alleyways to stay alive.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Brothers of the South

I have been noticing recently increasing coverage of Egyptian affairs by the Chinese news agency Xinhua. Xinhua is perhaps one of the few rivals to the Egyptian state newspapers for greatest use of that risible phrase, so beloved of non-news agencies, "bilateral ties". Trade between the two countries is increasing, and both are important emerging markets. What is interesting is contained in the thrust of this recent People's Daily article: What President Hu calls "South-South" co-operation. China of course has been for decades a block for the ambitions of Europe and the US on the security council, and is now beginning to flex its economic muscles by building, yes, bilateral ties, in places like Egypt - not traditionally anywhere near its sphere of influence. I expect that, if the Mubarak government was amenable to learning from the Chinese on more than just how to turn around an ailing socialist economy, they'd pick up a thing or two about state repression. China has, since the 1980s, been writing the textbook on how to regenerate economically whilst keeping the same old heads in power, regardless of the democratic impulses of its population. I guess these two are made for each other.

Goodies and Baddies

After a long delay, (allegations have been made of an incident involving our ADSL router and the Nile) we are back in business. First item of interest today is this by Elijah Zarwan, which is an excellent indication that despite the battle-lines having been pretty clearly drawn in Egypt over the past couple of years, reality is always more complex. Elijah reports on testimonies from detainees, who are saying that the security services are not always the monolithic monster that they may seem.