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.

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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?

“Show me what democracy looks like”

Is Cairo boiling today? I’m not there. People there must feel that this is a last chance to drag the revolution out from under the wheels of the Egyptian Army’s tanks; today is probably the day that will decide whether or not the army’s massacre of civilians at Maspero last Sunday, with the associated state-media-incited sectarian violence, is or isn’t forever considered an inexorable turning point in Egypt’s post-Mubarak history, a turn into something slimier and darker than the nice “transition period” people had been talking about.  (Remember the Eastern-bloc “transitions to democracy”? Like pre-Putin Russia?)  A line in last Tuesday’s front-page Al-Masry al-Youm editorial put it succinctly:

الفطرة الانتقالية لم تبدأ بعد  The transitional period has not yet begun.

The paper also called on Prime Minister Essam Sharaf (the name means “honor”) to “have the sharaf to resign.”  He hasn’t. Instead, an unabashed cover-up press conference by SCAF, some dithering by the main political parties.  The intelligentsia immediately started doing its thing, sometimes with great wit.  This is a mock film poster for a feature called “The Ministry of Interior is Still in My Pocket,” starring Hosni Mubarak:


The artist known as Sad Panda proposes cutting off the tower of the State Radio and TV building rather than cutting the bells and domes off of churches in Upper Egypt (More from Sad Panda here):

And another artist, Abdallah, highlights the contrast between 1973 and 2011 in a cartoon titled The Maspero Slaughter. “I sacrificed my life on 6 October on top of a tank,” says the skeleton on the right. “And I sacrificed my life on 9 October, under a tank!!” responds his friend on the left.

Where am I as all this unfolds? In Boston, home of the original Tea Party and still showing traces of its founding by a band of salafist reformers called the Puritans.  Having a great time hanging out with a hyper-talented theatre director and his company, but also homesick for Cairo. Since I can’t be at Tahrir or Azhar Square, maybe I’ll go visit the sleep-in near South Station this morning – this is the Boston chapter of the Occupy Wall Street folks, showing us all what democracy sounds like.

And maybe I won’t. Here’s an excerpt from the FAQ posted on the official Occupy Boston web site – doesn’t really suggest a vibrant and unified opposition to capitalist hegemony, does it?:

“Where can I park my car?

There are plenty of parking lots in the area. Daily parking lot rates can be as high as $30/day on weekdays.  Rates of $9-$12 are more common for weekends. Street parking is available all around the financial district, Chinatown and the waterfront. Meters cost a quarter for 12 minutes and you can only get up to 2 hours at a time. Meters are shut off at 8:00 pm and are off all day on Sundays.

I went to Dewey Square but I didn’t see an occupation there.  Where are you?

We are tucked away behind some small trees. Look harder, we are definitely there.  We are directly across Atlantic Avenue from the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, which is this large silvery building.  …

I don’t like the food at Occupy Boston, or I don’t need free food.  Where else can I buy food nearby?

South Station has a small food court.  Quincy Market / Faneuil Hall is an 8-10 minute walk north on Atlantic Ave, and there is a wide variety of restaurants there.  Chinatown is a 2-3 minute walk south on Surface Road, and there are a lot of inexpensive restaurants and delis there.  Really, it’s downtown Boston; you can walk in any direction and find a lot of places to eat.”

Okay, in fairness, these are the FAQs intended for visitors and clueless fellow-travelers.  The protests are gaining momentum, spreading to different cities, and will probably get more interesting. But you know what I mean. These Bostonians can sound a bit whiny.  The physical courage of the Egyptian protesters, standing their ground in the face of unimaginable state violence, is just somehow (and thank God no one runs us over with APCs here) of a different moral stature.

The clothes’ new emperor?

He changed his clothes.

Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, a well-preserved 75, appeared downtown on Monday wearing a civilian suit rather than his military uniform. State TV gave him the glowing coverage you might expect for, say, a presidential incumbent seeking re-election. You can read in on the whole “incident” here and view a video here.
So for the last two days the Photoshoppers have been having a field (marshal) day; my Facebook feed has been buzzing with hilarious caricatures like these, which I reproduce for the convenience of those of you not on Facebook.  This one has him saying, essentially, “Don’t like the civil/ian? Let’s make it Islamic!”:

(from indefatigable Brazilian cartoonist Carlos Latuff)

and best of all, this, which shows Egyptians all their electoral options (#s 7 and 8 allude to the “workers” and “farmers” who play a big role in politics, since by SCAF decree members of these groups must make up half of all party lists):

Not everything is about costume politics here, but sometimes you wouldn’t know it.  Today’s newspapers also ran a photo of the U.S. Ambassador to Egypt, Anne Patterson, wearing a huge scarf wrapped around her head as she endured a prickly meeting with the Grand Shaykh of Al-Azhar, Ahmed El-Tayeb.

You will find quite a few photos from this series with a a Google image search for  “آن باترسون الأزهر حجاب ”  But curiously, searching for any English variant I can think of, like “anne patterson egypt azhar hijab [or higab],” turns up nothing. Why – is the English-language press more focused on the substance of the meeting?  (But the costumes were the substance.) Or just shy about showing their ambassador in a position that could be construed as disempowering?  Donning the headscarf had been El-Tayeb’s precondition for the meeting.