Time has come to reflect on my 4-month online exploration through the new Egypt.
When America and the world grew captivated by the unforeseen Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, I followed for the same reasons, plus some.
As I shared in the post, The Fragrance of Revolutions: From Carnation to Jasmine, I lived through the experience of a revolution at an early age in Portugal. But I also lived most of my childhood in Mozambique where I had friends from around the globe, including Muslim children, and slept in a bedroom with a balcony overlooking the arched courtyard of a mosque.
That early exposure to a variety of cultures and countries began to shape my worldview and imprinted a particular interest in Arab culture. Later in my teens, as a history student at a Portuguese university, I became fascinated by the profound Arab influences in Portugal, left behind by five centuries of occupation, from the 8th to the mid-13th century.
My interest in the Arab Awakening deepened from the surprising observation that average Americans and the American media were suddenly spellbound by events that qualified as world news but were not natural or man-made disasters. As a European in the U.S., one of my first realizations about American culture was a certain degree of isolationism and a lack of interest in the world beyond borders.
Americans’ fascination with the political and social events of the Arab movements first led me to question the role of social media and the growing user-driven news culture during a Pace University course in Communications Research. My resulting research paper— “The Arab Spring and American’s Interest in Foreign Affairs: The Social Media Factor” — would lead to peripheral readings and excite further interest in the evolution of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions. As my graduate work neared thesis time, my topic began to shape itself.
Writing was the focus of my graduate work, and I developed a taste for blogging through the course “Blogging a Better Planet,” taught by Andrew Revkin of The New York Times. Pace’s Media and Communication Arts program offered me the opportunity to replace a conventional thesis with a blogged thesis project. Prof. Revkin would become my thesis sponsor and instructor, and this blog is the result.
I was particularly interested in following the voices of the under-represented: from the youth who used social media to mobilize the uprisings to the women who had long been engaged in revolution-precursor labor movements to Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority.
There were some roadblocks and detours on this journey, as I expected, starting with the language barrier that made it impossible to follow related tweets and Facebook posts by everyday Arabs—rather than media and established blog outlets–as I had hoped. But with every new turn there was something else to be learned, new questions and complexities were added, and every loss returned a gain.
Here, I review the insights, experiences and occasional epiphanies I had along this journey.
Tahrir Square: Whose Revolution?
My first post (January 28) reviewed the mood and the media-talk—in the U.S.and in Egypt–around the first-year anniversary of Egypt’s January 25th revolution. It surprised me that the anniversary became mostly about deep feelings of uncertainty and growing party rivalries. At Tahrir Square, different groups gathered separately to observe the anniversary, and there were disagreements as to what mood was appropriate, and what groups had a right to be there. But the unforeseen, monumental accomplishment of the revolution itself was not only overshadowed, it was beginning to be questioned by many–from foreign policy experts abroad, to average Egyptians.
Reflecting on the years of turmoil that followed Portugal’s Carnation Revolution in April of 1974, I decided to stick with the words of Wael Ghonim, the young Internet activist who led the Facebook mobilization of the January 25th protests: “revolutions, they are processes, not events, and it will take time.”
An edited version of this post was also published at The Huffington Post.
Egypt: The Revolution’s Sense of Humor
While I read through a newly released book about the “invisible” yet persistent activism that preceded the Arab revolutions, I shared some revolution humor from the same book.
Humor, graffiti and song are some of the first creative forms to emerge from revolutions. I have long forgotten Portugal’s revolution jokes, but I still recall graffiti images, and I can sing revolution songs from memory–including one played on national radio the morning of the military coup to signal certain army units that operations were going according to plan.
“The Invisible Arab”: As Not Seen on TV
This was more than a blog post. It was my first book review (published at the Huff Post as well), facilitated by Prof. Revkin who directed a review-request by Nation Books my way. “The Invisible Arab: The Promise and Peril of the Arab Revolutions” makes the case for the “invisible” forerunners of the revolution, those who never gave up the idea of a free Egypt: from labor activists, including women, to intellectuals and community organizers. The book was particularly helpful to understanding the commonalities as well as the tense differences between countries across the Arab World—and how those dynamics are played upon by Western interests.
On a personal level, Bishara’s book gave me the opportunity to see the Arab World–and the Arab World’s view of the Western World–from the perspective of an Egyptian journalist, with very strong political insights, as well as bold opinions. The misunderstandings between the two worlds run deep–and both ways.
This was perhaps the greatest realization of my exploration: it is so easy to form opinions, but based on what? How much knowledge and information–what kind of information?—prepare us to understand another people, another culture? Having lived in three different continents for significant periods of time, including 27 years in the US, I can honestly say I often feel out of touch, whether in the US or in Portugal. In the US, because I arrived here an adult, and missed out on the cultural molding that takes place in the formative years. In Portugal, because I broke my links with the culture and now live in the past. As my own closest family lets me know every summer when I visit, I am like an echo from a lost world: with idiomatic expressions no one has heard in almost three decades; with long-dead assumptions about common values, etc.
Not least of all, it was exciting to see Marwan Bishara tweet my review of his book. I took that as a nod of approval.
Tunisia’s Media: Under Attack and Fighting Back
It truly pained me to acknowledge and write about violence against journalists and intellectuals in Tunisia. The violence was perpetrated not only by religious sects, but also by police. Perhaps this too is a Western assumption, but freedom of expression and freedom of the press seem like a natural first opening after a revolution. These events proved otherwise.
It was a very different time in Portugal, in 1974, but the radio, TV (two part-time channels only), and print media completely unleashed their voices and there was no stopping them! That was then, but just three years ago, a European-style socialist government engaged in tactics of propaganda and intimidation against the media, including wiretapping; blackmailed business leaders; sought to control elements of the justice system; and made veiled attempts to buy a major TV network, forcing out program directors and show hosts in the process. However, because of democratic mechanisms set in place, a parliament inquiry brought all to light. Implicated in this scandal, and others, and without the confidence of the parliament, the prime minister and his government would eventually resign and elections were scheduled before time.
Come Back to Egypt
While I set out to follow events in Egypt and in Tunisia—the two countries that had held elections following their revolution movements—at this point in the project I realized the folly of such ambition. Having written mostly about Egypt to date, I decided to narrow my focus.
The anniversary of the revolution was also time to take economic inventory of the wave of changes. The decline of the tourism industry—the country’s second largest—began in the early days of the revolution, and a year later the losses were at 28.5 percent. This too gave rise to divisions among the people, with youth activists ready for a diet of dates in exchange for their freedom, on one end, and families out of an income questioning the price of the revolution, on the other. But the same crisis has also inspired citizen ownership of national challenges; some Egyptians have turned to social media to promote international and national tourism. Revolutionary spirit?
Gangsters Terrorize Egyptian Village Near Luxor
Just as I finished writing about the positives of visiting Egypt during a time of political and social turmoil, there was this news of a village under siege by renowned criminals, near one of Egypt’s hottest tourist stops.
Egypt: Where are the women?
This post turned into an essay on a variety of women’s issues in Egypt. Considering the dominance of the subject across the project, I should explain that I have been close to issues of violence against women through my 9-year employment with a domestic violence agency.
The essay was prompted by the acquittal of the army doctor accused of performing “virginity-tests” on women activists arrested during a demonstration. This outcome highlights that Egypt’s widespread culture of sexual harassment will be a tough cancer to control. Men feel entitled to the behavior and blame women for it; even secular women will blame themselves for it; moreover, it is a government practice.
I come from a country where, in my teens, sexual harassment was widespread and a common social practice—even more so, after the revolution. And in my line of work, it is clear that violence against women comes in many forms, some more hidden than others. In recent months, some pretty awful things have been said about women in the U.S., by people seen as leaders in their fields. Like freedom of expression, women’s rights are not to be taken for granted.
The article also discusses hard-earned divorce and custody laws that protect the rights of women but are now under attack—at times by women, such as a female Member of Parliament with the Muslim Brotherhood who has decried such laws as Western-based and a violation of Sharia law.
There are many dissonant voices when it comes to women’s issues in Egypt, and much is at stake as the country begins to draw a new constitution. My favorite section of this essay has to do with the meaning of the Arab word for woman, “horma,” versus the Arab word for man, “dakar.” Basically, horma implies subordination; dakar inspires superiority. One Egyptian activist brings up these subtle meanings to question how women are to be defined in the new constitution. I couldn’t help but to make a connection with American history, namely, Susan B. Anthony’s defense before the courts of a woman’s right to vote, using the language of our constitution to make her case: “Are women not persons? […] Being persons, then, women are citizens.”
Egypt: Compromise or a Second Wave of Revolution
More dissonant voices…disappointed youth activists are a predicted second wave of revolution. A respected Egyptian scholar and political analyst makes contradictory and questionable statements. He appears to say that civil liberties and human rights are a small compromise in exchange for stability and governance. He ends up blaming Mubarak for little more than his inability to provide for that stability. Never mind Western expectations versus those of Egyptians. Within Egypt alone, expectations couldn’t be more disparate.
The Fragrance of Revolutions: From Carnation to Jasmine
This post came to replace my original “About” page and explains the inspiration and trajectory that brought me to the project, as well as the research questions I planned to pursue.
Egypt: MPs, Writer’s Union Demand Consensus Constitution
Fourteen individuals—MP’s and other secular elements—resigned from the constitutional assembly to protest lack of representation for certain groups—including intellectuals–and demand a consensus-based constitution. I thought this was sort of spectacular— naive of me, as some politicians and analysts were quick to point out. Some worried that a constitution without wide support would make for a coup-prone Egypt in the future. But in the end, when Al-Ahzar University– the revered center of Islamist thought–withdrew their sole representative, urging an inclusive constitution assembly according to the true principles of Islam, the Muslim Brotherhood yielded 10 of their seats at the table to more liberal appointees.
Here we see the determination of some to continue to uphold, not only revolution and secular values, but a more moderate and inclusive kind of Islam.
“Women Making Democracy”: Tahrir Comes to Harvard Square
I came to know about this conference through a friend working at the Aga Kahn Program of the Harvard School of Architecture and Design. The program was a sponsor of the event. My friend, and some of her student-friends, took the pictures of the exhibit included in the post.
From the feedback I received from Prof. Revkin, this was one rare, truly blog-like post. Others tended to turn into columns or essays.
“Raise your head, Samira” And Other “Women Making Democracy”
The conference, made public via live-cast, was an absolute thrill, with one inspiring and bold panelist after another. Contrary to rumor, video of the conference is yet to be posted, so I relied heavily on tweets (#RadCon) and some notes to put this piece together.
The panelists made many revealing connections between women’s movements across the globe. Yet, and again, for all the common threads, in each country women are up against very different dynamics of power, and what is making progress in Bangladesh, will not work in Egypt, for instance. Perhaps most striking—more deconstruction of Western assumptions—were the Islamist panelists, all prominent female intellectuals, who do not see women’s rights as excluded by religion.
One Islamist panelist added that progress in men’s views of women is not tied to the secularization of society but around human development. Considering the resilience of certain, patriarchal views of women in Western societies, we may have to agree with her.
Questions for Egypt’s Christian Community
Throughout the project, I attempted to establish contact with Egyptians via Twitter, Facebook, and even email. For instance, I sent two of the Egyptian panelists at “Women Making Democracy” a few questions after the conference, encouraged by one direct tweet and a few re-tweets—all to no result.
There was one more under-represented minority group I kept an eye on through a couple of blogs and small publications: Coptic Christians. I always found it fascinating that the Copts dominated Egypt for centuries, even after the Arabs took control. What does that mean in terms of retaining an identity as a minority that is often under attack? I had followed the blog of Jayson Casper, an American writer and reporter living in Egypt, who is also a professed Christian and writes often about the concerns of the Christian community. I contacted him about a Q&A, and he was most generous and insightful.
Again, even among a relatively small group—10 percent of Egypt’s population—there are marked differences in aspirations and in vision for the future of Egypt and the Copts.
In recent weeks, news headlines in Egypt have been dominated by the presidential race—with scores of candidates disqualified by the election commission, and accusations of military interference in these decisions. According to Egypt Daily News, there are now 13 presidential candidates. With only a month before elections, a headline in the same publication asks, “Is Egypt headed for Islamist rule?” As it turns out, the article was written for CNN by Isobel Coleman, a senior fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations. Coleman calls the race “a political roller coaster,” and goes on to point out that the greatest difference between candidates is in their visions for the role of Islam in the new Egypt.
Which leads me to think the bigger question might be, what will Islamist rule look like in Egypt?
The current presidential frontrunner Amr Moussa— whose advantage is helped by ongoing disqualifications of other candidates—is lenient toward and favored by the military, with an openly secularist agenda. The Muslim Brotherhood’s new candidate is a strong proponent of strict Islam and should appeal to Salafists as well. A third, leading candidate, Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, is a former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, thrown out of the party for rejecting provisions that excluded non-Muslims and women from the presidency. His campaign focuses on justice and economic issues and his support appeared strongest among younger Islamists. But Saturday, to the puzzlement of many—and a slight to the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate—the Salafi Nour Party threw its support around this moderate candidate.
While the Muslim Brotherhood’s sweep of parliamentary elections has been attributed partly to their superior organization, the presidential election could yet strengthen the political gains of Islamist parties. However, as two Egyptian panelists at “Women Making Democracy” pointed out, there are other strong currents in the country: conservatism is larger and more deeply rooted than Islam (Heba Raouf), and Egyptians are not ultra-religious; they are moderate by nature (Shahira Amin). Therefore, a rejection of secularism doesn’t necessarily mean the embrace of strict Islamist rule. In fact, all through this exploration, I came across more moderate and conciliatory voices than radical ones, and the revolution still seems to inspire nationalist sentiments.
Still, the picture remains confusing, and as Coleman defends, the consolidation of Islamist rule could result in a constitution less concerned with the rights of women and minorities. But the battle lines are everywhere, even for ascending Islamists, and conflicting visions divide even the smallest groups.
According to Egypt Independent, on Friday, April 27, for the second consecutive week, a number of groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood, called for protests at Tahrir Square to demand the handover of power from the armed forces and the exclusion of former regime leaders from future political roles. The theme of this return to Tahrir was “saving the revolution.” But on week two, the Muslim Brotherhood never made it to the square. Present were a modest crowd of Salafists demonstrating for the implementation of Sharia law and a variety of groups and movements with creative names—“revolutionaries without direction” and “elections are a trap”—staking their stages around the square.
According to the same article, an Egyptian man visiting Tahrir for the first time had this impression of Friday’s events:
“Everything is muddled up, it’s very difficult for a clear vision to come from this. I can’t really form an opinion based on today.”
Based on a few months of virtual exploration—nowhere near Tahrir Square—I would not presume to form an opinion either. But confusion, uncertainty, instability—none are strangers to the aftermath of revolutions. And election results notwithstanding, Egyptians cannot dodge monumental economic and social challenges ahead.
The promise amidst the peril is that everyday Egyptians are invested in seeking a new vision for their nation; that, confused, they unite to resist the weight of the past; and that a handful of watchful, newly-elected political leaders are ready to stand their ground on behalf of under-represented Egyptians.
Opinions can wait, but a vote of confidence is now due.
I couldn’t ask for a more motivational and helpful thesis sponsor and instructor than Prof. Andrew Revkin–thank you, Prof. A.! Sincere thanks to these additional contributors and collaborators: Jayson Casper, Ed Webb, Edna Van Saun, David McKay Wilson, and Carlos Filipe Roque.
A special thanks to the leadership of the Media & Communication Arts program–Prof. Robert Klaeger, Chair, and Dr. Maria T. Luskay, Program Director–for their openness to this “thesis-as-blog” experiment, reflecting Pace University‘s commitment to innovation in education and communication.
ADDITIONAL READING AND SOURCES
In addition to the the blog roll and links on my sidebar, here I list some favorite and recommended links and sources, by subject:
Women Come Out in Force for Egypt’s Elections (video)
Egypt’s defiant women fear being cast aside
Activist: Verdict has shamed military (video)
TEDxWomen — Shahira Amin (video)
The Sex Issue
Let’s Talk About Sex
Egypt’s women urge MPs not to pass early marriage, sex-after-death laws: report
After the revolution, Egypt’s youth are still wandering lost
What After Egypt’s Youth Revolution?
The Unfinished Revolution: Youth Mark Anniversary, Call for More Changes
Egypt’s Youth Revolution: Building a New Future
Beyond the Walls of the Church
Is the Government-Church Alliance a “Coptic Marriage”?
The Heroic Struggle for Muslim-Christian Unity in Egypt (documentary preview)
Satirist revolutionizes comedy in Egypt
An Emerging Memorial Space? In Praise of Mohammed Mahumd Street,
TEDxUNC – Poetic Portraits of a Revolution – Egypt and Tunisia in Stanza, Still Shot, and Stories (Video)