I'm just wrapping up an intense week in Cairo, where I've interviewed about two dozen people including Egyptian and Arab journalists, political writers, activists, Muslim Brotherhood leaders, American diplomats (along with chats with some wonderful and well-informed friends - thanks to all of you, especially for the Stella and caffeine and phone numbers, but I won't embarrass you by naming names). While a lot of those conversations aren't really bloggable, I did want to throw out some impressions from the trip.
First, I'm far from the first to note that the Kefaya movement seems to have run out of steam. While George Ishaq, the movement's coordinator, tried to be optimistic and described the current period as a time for reflection and mapping out a new strategy, few other people shared that optimism. While their views vary on what Kefaya accomplished, they all seem to agree that it has lost relevance to the Egyptian political scene - whether because of internal conflicts, or a lack of a clear positive agenda, or failure to reach out past an intellectual elite, or whatever. (I was supposed to go to a demonstration today to see if they could get their mojo back, but an interview ran over and I missed it). Personally, I think that they accomplished a lot by helping to open up the space for criticism of Mubarak, and broke some important psychological barriers against protest. And maybe that's all that could have reasonably been expected. Perhaps one way to present this would be to compare them to al-Qaeda (even if they would hate this comparison): a relatively small group of people who used dramatic public actions to spread a set of ideas, which still exists but is relatively unimportant now in and of itself - because those ideas and modes of action have now taken on a life of their own. Hence the judges, and the labor strikes, and the proliferation of a dizzying array of critical reporting of scandals and vigorous political debate in the independent media.
Second, everyone here seems keenly aware that the United States has backed off of democracy promotion. When Condi Rice came through the country without meeting any civil society leaders or mentioning democracy at all, really, it capped off an already widespread perception that the US no longer cares to promote democracy in Egypt: "the government knows it, the people know it, and the activists know it," as one person put it to me, and everybody is adjusting their behavior accordingly. People are rather passively watching the charade of Constitutional
'reforms' which seem to entrench rather than alleviate authoritarian
structures and 'emergency' laws. What with the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and the rough treatment for protestors over the last year, along with the absence of any clear political goal right now, I just get a sense of political frustration and fatigue - not from everybody, some people still seem energetic and determined, but that's the overall sense I got. It's kind of ironic - many Egyptian activists might not have had much confidence in American democracy rhetoric when it was out there a few years ago, but now that it has vanished they can feel its absence.
Third, even if democracy and reform are on the outs, at least there's a lively political press now, and some good political talk shows on the Dream channel and Orbit. Scanning the news-stands now is pretty exciting - hard-hitting reports on corruptio and political scandals, open debates over Mubarak's failings and what to do about the Muslim Brotherhood. The official media like al-Ahram, from what I'm told, is hemmoraghing readers and influence, losing them to the new independent press. A lot of people credit al-Jazeera for inspiring and making possible this profusion of independent media - now the domestic media are creating some really interesting domestic political space, even if it rests on shaky legal and institutional foundations. Still, it's definitely the kind of domestic media growth which warms my Habermasian heart. You can really see the lines of political influence for new media here. The independent press, like al-Masri al-Youm and al-Dustour, routinely cites blogs for its stories about police abuse and the like. Half a dozen different people showed me police abuse videos on their mobile phones, and a lot of people described a TV program which featured one of the abuse victims featured in a video which initially appeared on a blog and got picked up by the press.
Fourth, the government's crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood is exceptionally intense, with unprecedented pressure on individual members (or suspected members). Not just people going to jail, but businesses closed and merchandise seized, students prevented from sitting exams, and other escalating repression. There's a huge amount of anti-MB material flooding the press, including in the leading independent paper al-Masri al-Youm. I also heard some pretty intense anti-MB talk from some people from whom I wouldn't have expected it. The "al-Azhar militia" story, which purported to show Muslim Brotherhood members doing military exercises, seems to have been a real political fiasco for the Brotherhood. While MB sympathizers angrily dispute the story and deny the existence of any such militia - and the MB itself issued a statement denouncing it - it seems to have resonated with public opinion and scared a lot of people. Oh, one other thing about the MB: this week, al-Masri al-Youm broke a story about the Muslim Brotherhood planning to form a political party. Some people saw it as an escalation against the government (as a salvo against the draft controversial constitutional amendment banning parties based on religion), some as a retreat in the face of pressure (demonstrating moderation and willingness to work within the system), and most doubt that it will ever really happen. I'm not sure what I think about it yet, but it's an interesting debate.
Fifth, anti-Shia stuff is really spreading rapidly, and seems to have the Egyptian government's approval (at a minimum). Sensational-looking books about the Shia are all over the bookstands, along with stories in the tabloids and scare-mongering editorials. Even in al-Masri al-Yom, op-eds in recent days have (for instance) attacked Bush's plan for Iraq because it would empower the Shia, who would abolish all forms of Arab identity and seek to unify with Iran. The tabloids are worse, and even Egyptian TV has been hosting some pretty nasty anti-Shia rhetoric. Fahmy Howeydi, a (if not the) leading Egyptian public intellectual, told me that because of Iran's role in Iraq he no longer felt able to publicly defend Iran or the Shia the way that he often has in the past. Why all this anti-Shia discourse now? One popular theory is that the Egyptian government, backed by the US, wants to prepare the ground for confrontation with Iran. By this theory, the government is stoking hatred of the Shia as a pre-emptive move to shape the political space in such a way as to make it hard for Iran to appeal to Egyptian (and Arab) public opinion in the event of a war - and to prevent a repeat of anything like the outpouring of popular support for Hassan Nasrullah last summer. One problem with this theory is that mobilizing anti-Shia anger against Iran simultaneously complicates attempts by the government to support American goals of strengthening a Shia government in Iraq - an irony of which at least some officials seem painfully aware. Another school of thought points to the Iraq war, and especially the Saddam execution video, as fueling anger against the Shia, independently of anything the government is doing. Whatever the case, I've seen a lot more anti-Shia discourse than I expected or have ever seen before, and it alarms me.
Sixth, the niqab. As soon as I got here, I was pretty surprised to see so many women wearing niqab - the full face covering - rather than the normal hijab. Egyptians I asked about it attributed it to everything from the Muslim Brotherhood, to the TV lite-Islamist Amr Khaled, to Gulf influence, to a 'fashion arms race' in which the proliferation of expensive hijab-wear has forced women who want to appear 'really' pious into the niqab. Whatever the case, the niqab has been an issue in the press too - with the Minister of Awqaf stirring controversy by refusing to let women waring it to act as counselers. Everyone I talked to was angered by Farouq Hosni's clumsy denunciations of the hijab and the ensuring political frenzy (terms like 'a circus' and 'an embarrassment' were common) - though many were quick to point out that NDP figures took the lead in that local StupidStorm (although many Muslim Brothers couldn't help themselves either).
Last thing - one of the main bookstores in central Cairo is prominently featuring posters for an instant book declaring that "Saddam was not executed" - it was all an American hoax. The guy who hanged was actually one of Saddam's doubles - the author compares a bunch of pictures of Saddam in power with pictures from the trial and execution, and declares that they are obviously not the same man. It's a nutty book in every sense of the word... I don't know how many people (besides me) have bought it, but I saw the poster in a few places.
I feel like I should offer some kind of personal travelogue instead of these analytical notes... you know, hard life on the mean streets of Zamalek, my struggles on the Misr Gedida tram, that sort of thing. Nah. But here's one anecdote- I ran into Arab League Secretary General Amr Musa. Literally - not in a car, but I bumped into him outside the Arab League. He didn't seem to recognize me even though I've interviewed him before (no suprise there) and seems a lot older than the last time I saw him. I had to resist breaking into a Shaboula "Bahibak ya Amr Musa" rap, because he didn't seem to be in much of a joking mood - can't think why.
Anyway, that's it - now all of my Egypt-based readers should feel free to chime in on any of these points....