SCAF decrees that it can rule by decree (2am prelim wrapup)

As I sat with friends today in the chic, laid-back and very upscale Cafe Cabana in Maadi, a woman sat down with her laptop at a well-located table in the shade, near the bar. “That’s her table,” my friends told me. “She comes every day, sits there for hours. But if someone else takes her table, she raises hell, or just stands there glaring until they leave. They always do.”  Apparently she’s a good enough customer to make it worth the management’s while.  And indeed — how does one remove a power figure who simply (unlike my two-year-old) lacks the manners to know what sharing is?

Tonight it is becoming clear [update 3am at least it seems?] that SCAF has decided not to rig the presidential elections: preliminary tallies, from manual vote-counting being shown live on TV, show the Brotherhood’s Morsi with a strong early lead. (Live tallies here; have not seen tallies of spoiled ballots anywhere.) Instead, SCAF has decided to string up the whole presidency on puppet strings: a supplementary Constitutional Declaration, revealed tonight (Arabic here), takes away virtually all of the future president’s powers, including the power to act as commander-in-chief, name the defense minister, oversee the military budget, or declare war.  It seems constitutions are being lowered from the sky here article by article, as the need arises; new articles abrogate the old ones; sound familiar maybe?

And there’s this bizarre status of forces declaration:

Article 53/2: If the country faces internal unrest which requires the intervention of the armed forces [ya'ni ey, dah?], the president can issue a decision to commission the armed forces – with the approval of the SCAF – to maintain security and defend public properties. Current Egyptian law [i.e., the martial law declaration revealed last week?] stipulates the powers of the armed forces and its authorities in cases where the military can use force, arrest or detain.

Also SCAF has revealed that it plans to push through a new constitution and install a new parliament in the next two months, i.e. force elections (yay! another pointless referendum! more pointless elections! and during the heat of Ramadan, why not?):

Article 60 B: If the constituent assembly [i.e, constitutional convention] is not completely formed within a week’s time, the SCAF will form a new constituent assembly – representative of all factions of society – to author a new constitution within three months from the day of the new assembly’s formation. The newly drafted constitution will be put forward after 15 days of the day it is completed, for approval by the people through a national referendum. [What if they reject it?] The parliamentary elections will take place one month from the day the new constitution is approved by the national referendum.

All of which gives SCAF at least two and a half branches of the government – three if Cairo goes for Shafik. Then what? Some revolutionaries and fellow-travelers are proclaiming that the revolution must continue. But the grisly news from Syria is an effective cautionary example (just as the example of US-led “maqrata” in Iraq probably delayed by several years any Syrian efforts to pursue democracy).

As I came into my hotel a couple of hours ago, the two men at the desk (the older one had voted for Shafik holding his nose and fearing theocracy, the younger for Morsi holding his nose and hating military dictatorship) were watching returns on TV and eager to vent. We went back and forth for a while: could the Brotherhood be trusted to relinquish power four years from now (but what power?), having broken every promise they’ve made in the past year and a half?  But then it was the Shafik supporter who said, commenting on the Constitutional Declaration and the figurehead presidency it creates: “We’ll be like England now. He’ll be like the Queen.”  I said maybe we could celebrate his birthday every year. We all laughed ruefully and said good night.

We know who represents Egypt. But who constitutes it?

Neither the Brotherhood nor SCAF wants a system of checks and balances. Might that be exactly why they eventually produce one?

As before November 18, when the MB and Salafi parties very successfully challenged SCAF’s attempt to impose “supra-constitutional principles” ahead of the first-round parliamentary elections, the MB is standing up to SCAF on matters of legitimacy and power. Specifically, who gets to write the constitution? Will it be people named by the democratically elected parliament? If not, why?
SCAF held a ridiculous (foreigners-only) press conference Wednesday claiming that the to-be-elected parliament does not “represent Egyptian society” and therefore asserting control over the process of naming the constitution-drafting committee. In response, the MB withdrew from SCAF’s “advisory council” — another ridiculous initiative aimed at legitimizing the military junta’s arbitrary rule and spreading the blame for its failures. (The Arabist has a good wrapup of various coverage; but I think his own view that this is the last gasp of military rule is way too optimistic.)  The whole thing should backfire against SCAF: as though Egyptian liberals or their bilingual Facebook friends didn’t read The Guardian! But it might not.

Nicholas Kristof just wrote an amazingly dumb dinner story. Here is mine.

We had dinner today with my lovely friends whom I’ve known for a decade: they are both journalists, with two kids, an apartment full of books, and very liberal views (Arab liberal = favoring liberal democracy, i.e. elected civilian rule with constitutional protection for minorities; they’re also lefty and pointedly secular). Their younger child was born seven days before January 25 but, to the extent possible given two working parents and a newborn, they have been quite active in the revolution. The mom and kids had to go away to her parents’ house in another city during the week their street was flooded with noxious tear gas. In short, they loathe SCAF with every fiber of their being.Ditto for the Brotherhood: when two polite MB canvassers visited their apartment building in October giving out Eid gifts and leaflets and asking where people would pray the Eid prayer, my equally polite friend not only refused their gift but told them he was not planning to pray.
Imagine yourself now in these people’s position. The specter of illiberal democracy is stalking the region.  From all sides one hears the words “Turkish model”: for Brotherhood supporters it still means (despite the disenchantment with Erdogan that Piotr Zalewski analyzes here) “moderate, non-corrupt Islamists boost economy and enhance global stature”; but for liberals it now means “the military as guarantor of democracy.”  The problem is the transitional process SCAF has designed. But the ironic result is that some liberals may be tacitly turning to the junta for help.

Me: So [the SCAF general] claimed the elections didn’t represent the population? That’s ridiculous.

My friend: No it isn’t.

Me: But they’re free elections.  Isn’t that SCAF’s claim too?

Him: But a constitution is not for one five-year electoral cycle; it’s supposed to be forever.  It’s the fundamental law that constitutes the political system and decides how the other laws are made. For one parliament elected at one point in time to be allowed to write the constitution would not be fair.

Me: Why not?  Aren’t you doing the classic liberal thing, calling for elections and then rejecting the results?

Him: Not really.

Me: You are. If the parliament accurately represents the current views of Egyptian society, which I think we agree it (unfortunately) will, why shouldn’t it be allowed to decide what the political system looks like?

Him: What about protection of minorities?

Me: Hmm.

Him: What if the Islamist parliament appoints a constitution-drafting committee that throws out established principles of human rights? Or backs away from international rights accords that Egypt has signed? What if they only recognize three possible religions — Islam, Christianity, and Judaism — without making room for people who are Bahai or something else or atheist?

Me: Hmm.  So just like in the Mubarak days, secular liberals are tolerating the military dictatorship as a bulwark against organized popular Islamism.

Him: No.

Me: You are running to SCAF for help.

Him: No, this is SCAF’s fault in the first place. They put in an absurd set of procedures for the transition: an elected parliament first (before we even know whether Egypt will be a presidential or parliamentary republic or what), then a constitution afterwards. How can you have a parliament before the division of powers? Whereas the Constitution should be the fundamental thing, coming straight from a transitional civilian government, as ElBaradei had initially suggested. If they had really been interested in transferring power…

Me: I know, it’s messed up. But constitutions aren’t forever. They can be amended; they contain procedures for amendment. When the US Constitution was adopted, women couldn’t vote and a black person was only 3/5 of a person. 

Him: You can’t have parliament changing the constitution every five years. If people like me managed to elect a Socialist parliament one time, I wouldn’t want them to be able to rewrite the constitution either.

Me: No, you’re right. Plus, constitutional amendments aren’t easy.  I just kind of glossed over the whole Civil War thing that those U.S. amendments required.

Him: You see what I mean?

I do. How the hell to have a democracy where 60 years of misrule (or should we count the British and make it 130?) has fried the demos? It’s hard enough everywhere else.

Me: So who would you say should represent Egyptian society for the purpose of writing the constitution?

Him: There are other groups. Syndicates, for instance.  The syndicate of doctors, lawyers, engineers. The writers’ union, the syndicate of journalists. (Ah, the journalists.) Give each of those groups a representative.  And then give the parties in parliament representatives proportional to their seats, comprising maybe half or two-thirds of the constitutional committee.

I see the appeal of having some intellectuals involved. But — writers and artists appointed by generals, really? Plus, isn’t that pretty much what the SCAF guy said?

So we come back to the scenario of SCAF-MB checks and balances. If the MB can actually win the power to see the military’s budget, and SCAF in turn can help the MB tame rather than appease the probable crazy social-conservative agenda of its Salafi co-parliamentarians (whether they end up being coalition partners or yappy opposition), then the country certainly will not move forward; checks and balances are designed for gridlock. But at least it may get a bit of breathing room and stable-cleaning. That is the only remotely optimistic medium-term outcome I can see.

SCAF’s puppet show

Al-Masry al-Youm, whose English edition was recently pulled off newsstands for running expert Robert Springborg’s column apparently suggesting that SCAF members might pull a coup-within-a-coup and dump Tantawy [UPDATE: you can now read the editors' candid and serious editorial laying out the whole story here; the post-self-censorship version of Springborg's column is here], yesterday tried in vain to keep a straight face while describing the Cabinet that Kamal Ganzoury finially swore in:

Major General Ahmed Anis, former head of the Morale Affairs Department of the armed forces was sworn in as the new minister of information. News reports criticized the choice, saying it was another move by the SCAF to maintain control of the media.

In announcing the new cabinet, government officials referred to it as a “national salvation government,” a term originally used to describe the transitional civilian government proposed by pro-democracy activists and political figures seeking to bring an end to military rule. The idea of a civilian transitional government was put forward during the violent clashes in and around Tahrir Square in late November, and would most likely have been headed by Mohamed ElBaradei and included former Muslim Brotherhood figure Abdel Moneim Abouel Fotouh. Had it been formed, the national salvation government would have taken on the executive powers currently held by the military council.
However, the military rejected the proposal, instead accepting the resignation of Prime Minister Essam Sharaf, and the replacing him with Ganzouri. In forming his new cabinet, Ganzouri has adopted the term “national salvation government,” while ElBaradei and many pro-democracy figure continue to demand the end of military rule.

And best of all:

After being sworn in, the new cabinet was instructed by Tantawi to push for democracy in order to achieve a free society, according to official government sources.

Some clever Youtuber is already on the case:

It’s like a kind of torture/ to have to watch this show.

What went wrong?

Last February, SCAF held all the cards. The military was the only state institution to survive the “revolution” with its credibility intact, even enhanced. The people and the army were one hand. SCAF’s actual powers, freed from the pretense of a civilian government to answer to, grew and multiplied.

What the hell happened? The fight that the police and then the military picked with a handful of wounded Jan-Feb protesters asking for compensation last Saturday Nov 19th, on the eve of overhyped but important-for-show elections, showed an oddly weak and defensive SCAF. The scenes of the past week — flying rocks and heroic motorbike ambulances in front of the American University gate, clouds of poison gas all over downtown (and blowing into Garden City and as far as Mohandiseen), the army and the police acting as “one hand” against a diverse and incredibly brave group of protesters — all these things were eminently avoidable.  Everything about the Revolution’s second wave (link=Ahdaf Soueif’s eyewitness account) showed how much credibility SCAF had lost; every wave of gas lost it some more.

Was the military (SCAF) unable to control/restrain the police (Ministry of Interior)?  Or did it order the brutality? Either way, the response looks reptilian: not calculated violence but the last stand of a cornered lizard. Even the people going about their lives elsewhere in the city who say they don’t want an immediate end to military rule (“This time I am not with the square”) can find nothing good to say about SCAF, except that they really can’t imagine an alternative, they want “stability,” or they want elections to go forward on schedule. When pushed on what kind of stability they’ve actually seen in the past nine months of SCAF rule or what how much power (the word on everyone’s lips is صلاحيات) the elected parliament would actually have, nearly everyone I’ve talked to immediately folds.

Yet despite the sarcasm of commentators on yesterday’s pro-SCAF counter-demo in the neighborhood of Abassiya  (my friend Mohamed Shoair, hilariously, on Facebook: “Breaking News: Abassiyya Leaders Relocate Their Million-Man Demonstration to a Friend’s Apartment”) these were citizens, not rent-a-crowds.  Such remnants of support just underline how many Egyptian people wanted to trust and believe SCAF after Feb 11.  Had the generals played their cards right over the spring and summer, they could have negotiated everything they wanted: a peaceful wealthy retirement, immunity from prosecution, probably continuing behind-the-scenes control over the economy (at least through the ends of their own lifetimes), and of course the people’s lasting gratitude as the saviors of the Egyptian Revolution.  Instead there was a series of weird policy leaps (into bed with the Brotherhood, then briefly out, then apparently in again with the run-up to the elections that only the Brotherhood has persisted in supporting) and various high-handed edicts and “constitutional” or “meta-constitutional” declarations. And then Maspero. And then the poison gas. Okay, SCAF has 30-plus members and God knows how many advisors and I’m sure they’re not unanimous (why haven’t we seen any resignations??) but… no matter what their internal dynamics, the net idiocy is impossible to comprehend.

Yesterday, as we were headed out for a nearly-all-Egyptian dinner party to celebrate Thanksgiving (!), Al-Jazeera Mubasher was showing an estimated 1.5 million people in Tahrir, shouting الشعب يريد إسقاط المشير – the people/ want/ the downfall of the field marshal.  A few mins earlier it was showing prime-minister-appoint Kamal Ganzouri’s press conference, declaring that he would have “full powers” (under SCAF) to form his government (on which he offered no details) and pursue his policies (ditto).  Images of Tahrir alternated and interwove with the ongoing full-scale massacre in Syria: no longer so distinct.

On Friday my son’s swimming instructor at the Shooting Club showed me (from inside the pool) his scars from flying rocks and a rubber bullet; the lifeguards all left immediately after work to head to Tahrir; so, for that matter, did some of the professors hosting my lectures and some of the dinner guests at Thanksgiving.

This morning’s newspapers took various spins on the two demonstrations yesterday (photos soon). Al-Masry Al-Youm claimed the nation was “torn.” Al-Gumhuriyya showed scenes of both demos framed to look as though they were of similar size, under the misleading headline “One prayer, one nation.”  Brotherhood’s new daily Hurriyya Wa 3adala (Freedom and Justice, same as their political party) led with the rather disingenuous headline “48 Hours Until the Start of Transfer of Power to the People” (because Elections Are the Answer) and declared on Page 1 that the health ministry had found the first two Tahrir casualties to have died from “homemade firearms” (i.e., thugs killing each other, not the army or police).

And now? Even refreshing Twitter and all the newspaper sites every second (my husband and kids would like Mommy back – sorry dears!), it’s impossible to keep up with the news. Protesters in Tahrir have declared an alternative government headed by El Baradei and two other respected presidential candidates. The Salafi Nour party apparently refuses to accept this government. Other revolutionary parties do too. But most groups (including a splinter group of young Muslim Brothers, very promising) also seem to be refusing to accept Ganzouri.  Will these groups boycott elections (this would be unwise and is unlikely)? Or, more interestingly, try to get them postponed?  Or (one rumor I’ve heard) personally man the polling stations to assure voters’ safety?  This morning the activists sat in outside the Cabinet building to prevent Ganzouri from taking his seat; Central Security Forces ran over one protester with a military vehicle; he died of a broken pelvis.  Another martyr’s mother led a march and sang a highly resonant song about (check out the layers of self-reference) a martyred protester who tells his own mother not to be upset, because he gave his life for Egypt…

The protesters pick up their rocks, the mothers embrace their roles.  The martyrology comes around full circle and eats its own tail. The art to commemorate the revolution feeds smoothly into feeding its next wave.  How many waves will it take, people?

More on the tear gas

Alex Tylecote kindly shared this surreal bit of research on the Cairo Scholars (CS) listserv.

There has been a lot of discussion about the use of tear gas against the protesters and on its legality according to international treaties and further, the signing of a petition against its use.
I looked carefully at the Paris Convention and at previous conventions. The 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC) banned CR gas for use in military operations, but the use of the gas in internal matters is not prohibited.

On the issue of CS gas, the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention (which Egypt was not actually a signatory to) prohibited the use of the gas for use during military operations, but again not for domestic use, and thus whether Egypt was a signatory to the treaty is irrelevant in this case.

I hope this clears up a few issues for everybody.

So apparently it is not prohibited for use on unarmed civilians, though it is illegal for use on enemies in combat?! That will make for an interesting war crimes trial if it ever happens.

As you can imagine this sparked much discussion on the listserv, with various human rights conventions being cited etc.  It seems a matter of simple logic though.  Plus, the stuff is being used in inhuman amounts. You can get a mouthful of it – enough to make your eyes and throat burn – just driving slowly on the 6 Oct bridge behind the Egyptian Museum, like a kilometer from Mohamed Mahmoud Street.  (Unbelievable to see people going about their daily business under the flyover: filling microbuses with passengers! Selling vegetables!!)  People in Garden City (where I haven’t been) have reported gas reaching their apartments. Here in Dokki, miles from everything, there is a weird heavy haze that could be normal pollution… or not… at this distance it is hard to separate sensation from apprehension.

For details on the gas and more you can read Amnesty International’s report on the SCAF and Ministry of Interior abuses.  The Arabist’s summary of the gas issue, which says basically what I said but with more details and personal experience, is here.

This is Not a Play

Last Friday night we went with my friend Maha, whom I’ve told you about, to see a performance called “Tahrir Monologues” at the Rawabet Theatre downtown. (Strong review here, less admiring review here.)  “This is not a play,” declared the program notes: it was documentary theatre, a pretty moving series of monologues based on interviews with participants in the Eighteen Days that toppled Mubarak. It started hesitant and built to triumphant: the boy who put on four layers of clothes so he could “withstand police beatings and keep going,” the girl who felt mildly guilty because she went home to sleep each night instead of camping out in the square, the young people who saw something within themselves change as they gained courage by confronting the regime’s brutality.

Rawabet was packed, and some of the energy probably came from the fact that many in the audience had been to that day’s unified and celebratory (though Islamist-dominated) demonstration in Tahrir. Audience members who had lived the Jan-Feb events nodded, laughed, and quietly commented: yes, it was exactly like that. But their feeling of nostalgia competed with an odd sense of unfinished business. There they were, back in Tahrir.  The show’s voice-over intro had stressed the psychological achievements of the 18 days, the sense of dignity and fearlessness that Egyptians would carry “regardless of whatever happens after this.”  For the moment, having successfully mustered a huge number of protesters to demand SCAF hand over power to a civilian government, they felt engaged again.

Then on Saturday the violence started. Yesterday (Tues) I texted Maha to check in. She texted back:

Thank u Marg. I go to work in the morning and Tahrir in the evening. Talk to the media if u can, Arabic or English, public or private. Tell them the people in Tahrir r butchered savagely. Tell them we r not thugs. No thug will carry on with the fight for so long.

The Rawabet Theatre collected dropped-off blankets and medical supplies.

Today we texted again.

It’s a war zone there Marg. U can’t imagine.

 

Pray for those on the front line and those on motorcycles carrying them outside when they r injured. They r so brave Marg. No masks, but they whiz in to the front line and come back.

 

I have seen more bravery in 2 days than I saw in my entire life.

What was this business about needing to tell people the protesters are not thugs?   (“Thugs” here, baltagiya, often means not just troublemakers, but people paid to be violent.) That’s certainly not how the media in my country are covering it (look, Anthony Shadid is finally here!). British papers either, I think.

But tonight I talked with my downstairs neighbor, a respectable woman in her 70s. She had the TV going, an independent channel but on mute, so just huge images of chaos in Tahrir. She shook her head. “It’s just wrong,” she said. I thought she meant the tear gas and live ammunition.  Instead: “These people have lost their minds. Isn’t there someone reasonable to tell them that this is wrong, that they should go home and stop ruining the country?”  And that is the charitable view, basically the one advanced by Tantawi in his speech last night.  Those poor misguided children.  I’ve heard versions of it even from people sympathetic to the protesters (but concerned that the elections go ahead on time, or worried that the economy is at a standstill and the country almost bankrupt, etc.).  A short hop from there to thinking these naive or too-stubborn protesters are open to being manipulated or paid.

As long as I’m reporting vicariously through Maha, let me tell you what she once told me about the eighteen days. The hardest part, she said, was after Mubarak’s Feb 2 speech where he offered all the apparent concessions, offering to resign in September and promising Gamal would not run to replace him. That’s when people started calling the protesters terrible names, blaming them for being stubborn and unreasonable, unwilling to compromise, for destroying the country. The same words some people are saying now.  “But he gave you everything you were demanding! What else do you want?” Then came the camel battle; Mubarak resigned 9 days later.

Normal Travel II: On not going to Tahrir

Actually, it is true that “normal travel can continue.” We are in Zamalek today – met with our teacher in the Supreme Council of Culture at the Opera complex, one metro stop and less than a kilometer from our usual classroom in Tahrir, and it was all coffee as usual. Later, at the Beano’s coffee shop in Zamalek, we saw people in business clothes sitting and typing away on their laptops just under big flat TV screens showing a footage loop of protesters in Mohamed Mahmoud Street throwing stones at police (and, since this was state TV, not showing the police firing at protesters, aiming — to judge by the reported injuries – for their eyes).  As though it were happening in some other country.  I wanted a photo of the juxtaposition but was afraid it would make people self-conscious.  In the rest of the city, too, all the action is on TV (except maybe you hear some gunshots at night?  and sirens?).

Although I really want to, I’m not going to Tahrir today.  Because 1) this is not my country, and 2) I’m not a journalist or a doctor, just a literature professor, so I think it would just be voyeurism, not even useful solidarity.  I don’t need to smell the tear gas; I might even be in the way.  You can find the real news on Twitter and Facebook today or look for a live stream of ONTV Egypt or read any of the many wonderful English-language newspapers and blogs. The story is being told so well, by so many articulate voices and talented photographers, in English and Arabic. The situation is not at all like when I started studying Arabic in 1997.

Will post photos from Friday’s demo (the happy peaceful part I attended) when I get a chance. The best chant was addressed by the protesters to each other, not to the regime (which was anyway not listening): “Say it say it, don’t be scared, the Military Council has to go” (قول، قول، ما تخافش، المجلس العسكري لازم يمشي).  It sounded aspirational 48 hours ago, perhaps more imaginable now. Things are evolving fast. (On Qasr El-Nil bridge on Friday, the demand was for SCAF’s long-ago-promised transfer of power to a civilian government by April 2012; the guy trying to push for earlier, starting a chant of “سلم السلطة يا عميل، مش هنستنى حتى ابريل” got shouted down.)

Basically I see two forces in play.  Both involve (well-founded) suspicion and distrust.  The first is the distrust felt by the political groupings for each other: secular vs. Islamist, or organized groups like MB vs. come-latelies like the Salafis.  The second is the distrust felt by all the civilian groups toward SCAF and its tendency to hold onto power.  How will these two types of distrust balance each other over time?  Which will be stronger?

SCAF’s strategic (?) failure to make law

The banners keep multiplying and the party alliances shifting, but I find it hard to get too excited about the parliamentary elections next week. Not because of any possible rigging, but because there’s some chance the results will simply be disregarded. For instance it is easy to imagine the parliament being sidelined in the drafting of the new constitution… or the constitution itself being sidelined… like the draft “constitutional principles” document that has provoked a big fight even though no one knows whether it will be binding or not.

Remember all fuss about the constitutional amendments referendum back in the spring? Amendments were proposed to five articles of the 1971 Constitution, and the referendum kept civil society preoccupied for weeks. The “no” side objected, among other things, to the overly broad powers still granted to the presidency – they claimed the amendments were just a “tiny operation” (implication, according to this nasty ad subtitled by my friend Hazem Azmy: the amendments are like a hymen restoration surgery for a basically fallen system of government). The “yes” side spun the “no” vote as an effort to de-Islamize Egyptian law (since Article 2 said and would continue to say that shari`a is the basic reference of Egyptian law) and turned out in force to defend religion, spinning its resulting victory as “ghazwat al-sanadiq,” the holy conquest of the ballot boxes (as in this infamous video also subtitled by Hazem).
All that seems like ancient history now. SCAF just annulled the whole constitution, amendments and all, and issued a new Provisional Constitution. Unclear why. Did they belatedly discover (!) that if the amended 1971 Constitution were left standing then their own rule would have no constitutional legitimacy, since it stipulates the Speaker of Parliament should take over if the president resigns? Or did they have some other reason? Was it their plan all along? Since then they have been ruling by proclamation, trial balloon, and Facebook page decree. Everything they do (as my teacher Sayyed Ismail Dayfallah points out) looks like improvisation but somehow has the effect of increasing their power.

In the “Why Rule of Law?” seminar I taught in the Georgetown government department in 2005 and 2006, we read from a brilliant little book called The Morality of Law by Lon Fuller. Among other things, Fuller presents this list, which I assigned in tandem with an excerpt from Kafka’s The Trial:

Eight Ways to Fail to Make Law
From Lon Fuller, The Morality of Law (1964)

1) Make case-by-case decisions rather than general rules.
2) Make rules, but neglect to publicize them.
3) Make rules whose application is retroactive.
4) Make rules that are too obscure to be readily understood.
5) Make rules that contradict each other.
6) Make rules requiring conduct that is physically impossible.
7) Change the rules so frequently that behavior cannot be guided by them.
8) In your actual administration, disregard the rules.

Fuller’s prose is quaint, but his issues are relevant. The book grows from his deep concern with the legal system in post-Nazi Germany: how to move from a state of no law to a state of law? What to do with the remnants of the old regime (such as illegal laws)? How to create and enforce — and I think this is what the people of all stripes marching to Tahrir right now and tomorrow are demanding, and unfortunately they can do little more than demand it — a government bound by law?

Sketches of a new/old political stasis


Just went to see this show, “The Last Days of Umm Dina,” at the Rawabet Center with my friend Maha. It was fun: not the sexy bellydancing promised on the poster, and not in fact a history of prostitution in Egypt, but an amateur sketch show (is this the Egyptian genre known as political cabaret?) with some songs satirizing the next-oldest profession, politics. The performers looked a lot like the audience: 20-something, wearing jeans and t-shirts, three women (of whom one muhaggaba) in a troupe of about 10 performers. There were funny numbers on the elections (ElBaradei made a brief appearance, spoke a few words, and beat a hasty retreat promising “the rest on Twitter”… Amre Moussa pretended to be the inevitable candidate doing various gymnastics to distance himself from the old regime… various old-regime leftovers and Islamists stumbled around dispensing violence or bribes and promising a “transitional period of 30 or 40 years or so,” as the three girls sang exaggerated backup to each candidate:
كلام جمييييل، كلام معقووووووول، ما اقدرش اقووووووووووووول حاجة فيه) and related phenomena. One young man deadpanned that after the revolution he decided not to be part of the old regime anymore, but to be part of the new regime (with a military salute showing exactly who Egypt’s “new” rulers were).
Lots of pointed jokes at state-run TV and SCAF and the ongoing military regime, lots of playful saluting, some slapping around of dissidents and would-be-independent journalists and such.
On the poster the show was labeled “a comedy, to a certain extent” – and that’s about right. Some things are hard to laugh about right now – the wounds are too fresh. (At the end the director came out and dedicated the show to Alaa Abdel Fattah.) There were definite moments of collective depression among the audience as well as applause and general hilarity at the SCAF send-ups. Regardless of the quality, it was good to see the downtown theatre crowd out in force, basking for an hour or so anyway in the warmth of shared political disillusion.
If even cardboard-man Tantawi is being readied for a personality cult (witness the celebrations of his birthday yesterday, appropriately coinciding with All Hallows’ Eve and marked by SCAF’s sticking the World’s Tallest Flagpole into the soil of Egypt), then the time will soon be ripe for satire again.

Does dividing and ruling Egypt need an outside conspiracy?

Descending into Cairo International Airport at 4am you enter the diaphanous layer of orange smog over the city: disgusting, weirdly exciting. Then coming out of the metro tunnel (still not having slept in like 3 days) you pass the sidewalk newsstand and are greeted by this somewhat offputting picture:

Welcome home.
The bleeding xenophobic nastiness is the cover of this month’s October magazine, announcing the cover story on “The Maspero Fitna [sectarian strife] and the Plot to Divide Egypt.” I bought for the issue to see what it was all about, then had trouble figuring out where in the house to place it so it wouldn’t catch me by surprise and gross me out to see the Nile flowing out of Uncle Sam’s shirt cuff; this isn’t something you want on your coffee table.  The whole issue seems to be about justifying and glorifying Egypt’s armed forces in the wake of the Maspero massacre: not only the cover story, on which more in a minute, but also some smaller pieces. One columnist lamented that 6 October was simply treated as a convenient day off, whereas it should be held sacred as the commemoration of “the greatest Arab military victory in modern times” (pretty sad).  Another columnist suggested that in the atmosphere of insecurity and uncertainty now gripping Egypt, it is necessary for the people and the army to “renew their faith in one another” (!) and become closer than ever.

Now to the cover story. I noticed ten years ago – and it is still largely true though maybe a bit less so – that in Cairo there is always one meme per day making the rounds, the same phrase repeated by everyone from the doorman to the college president; then the next day the whole country gets a secret memo with the new meme of the day. After Maspero it was “foreign hands” inciting sectarian violence because they “don’t want the country to be stable.”

So riding around in various taxis ten days ago, I had heard fragments of this “foreign hands” theory. One man believed it was chiefly Israel planting provocateurs among the Christian demonstrators in order to destroy the country and take it over, because “I know Copts – some of my best friends are Copts – and Copts are basically cowards – they wouldn’t want violence.”  Another man thought the Maspero massacre was done by Salafis paid by Gulf powers like Saudi Arabia, “to reduce the country to chaos to show their own people that a revolution doesn’t lead to anything good.” (That’s actually a pretty good one.)  Whatever the particular agent, I wondered where people got the idea of blaming someone else for what clearly seemed to be a state-perpetrated massacre of civilians and an episode of sectarian street violence incited by the state-run media (see Bassam Youssef’s scalpel-sharp Jon Stewart-style piece on the incitement).

Now, reading the magazine, I discovered where they got it: from the state-run media!  October is a state-run magazine that costs less than 40 cents.  Even if you don’t buy it, you see the headline on the sidewalk.

The cover story is by retired general Hossam Sowilam, whose complex theory proposes a variety of conspirators.  Of course Israel and the United States, but also Iran, Qatar (it hosts al-Jazeera), and perhaps some Palestinian groups, among others, who knows.  Why would these diverse enemies want to create a chaos-paralyzed or divided Egypt? Each has its reason, but the basic idea is to take it over, or destabilize/disempower it in order to “pursue the Broader Middle East Strategy outlined by George W. Bush.”  Colonial grand strategy is unproblematically applied to the contemporary United States, disregarding the very great price (in money and credibility) that the U.S. has paid precisely not to split up Egypt but to maintain stability and the appearance of unity in its government.  Egypt’s armed forces are the only positive character in the piece.  My favorite part is where he invokes the Crusades to ask who liberated Jerusalem and answers himself (anachronism, what anachronism?): the Egyptian Army!  Led of course by Saladin, or Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi. You can read the whole incoherent rambling theory (in Arabic), or look at Thanassis Cambanis’ recent Atlantic post on his interview with the same guy.

Sense-making is not the point here; the buckshot approach allows a reader or viewer to choose one strand of the theory; the whole need not cohere.  Sense-making was also not the point of SCAF’s fuck-you press conference one week ago, in which the generals deployed the abusive-spouse defense (“I didn’t hit her, and anyway she started it”) not so much to clear the cloud of fear Maspero created as to exploit it. As if to say, hey, we hold the monopoly on legitimate and illegitimate force, so we don’t actually need to make sense.  We are in power; we can kill demonstrators on Sunday and brazenly lie about it on Wednesday.  For a lot of people outside the Twittersphere, this strategy actually worked; many ordinary people sided with the army and against the demonstrators.  (“What were the Copts raising so much trouble about, anyway? We have never had a problem with them here. We’ve always treated them very nicely.”)

I almost thought that press conference was the end of it, the door slamming shut for good, but fortunately the reaction to Maspero continues. On TV right now,  journalists Mona Shazly and Ibrahim Eissa are grilling two SCAF generals, not only about Maspero but about basic questions of Egypt’s government, in a special three-hour (so far) talk show co-hosted by two independent TV stations.  The generals are patronizing and again make no sense, oscillating between hectoring and damage control (“They did not respect the proper rules and procedures of demonstrations. The soldiers were scared, they wanted to avoid becoming casualties like their comrades. Any country’s military in our position would have reacted the way we did”); the journalists are being polite (Mona, the same TV host who interviewed Wael Ghonim in the midst of the revolution last Feb, has this affect as though it made her really, really sad to tell SCAF to their faces they are doing a terrible job running the country). But at least the conversation (or missed opportunity for conversation, since they are pretty much talking past each other) is happening publicly.  They are even taking questions from the public via Facebook and Twitter etc.

There have been some good ones from the journalists: does SCAF really plan to hand over power? Does it want Egypt’s cabinet to be weak and dependent? Doesn’t SCAF realize that it is a political power now with a political role, so it needs to think like a politician and not just react like an army? Aren’t they wrong to pretend “all’s for the best in the best of all possible worlds” (ليس بالامكان ابدع مما كان) in Egypt’s security apparatus?  Who knows if this interview will really lead anyone to recommit to the revolution project.  But in a state where the military apparatus has appropriated the voice of God (in a few different ways) in the past 60 years and especially the past 9 months, at least people are still making the gestures of trying to see past the generals’ cynical theodicy.