A Journey Through the New Egypt

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 postThe 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.

Closing Thoughts

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.

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ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

I couldn’t ask for a more motivational and helpful thesis sponsor and instructor than Prof. Andrew Revkinthank 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.

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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:

Revolution
The Egyptian Revolution: January 25, 2011 (video)
Egypt Burning
Egypt’s revolution: Interactive map
Egypt One Year On – Interactive

News and Developments
Egypt’s rival protests show divided opinions
Salafis seen as rising power in Egypt (video)
EgyptSource – Atlantic Council
BBC News – Egypt

Women
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

Media
The Battle for Egypt’s Media: Report on Press Freedom After the Revolution (video)
Under Military Rule, Egypt Falls in Press Freedom Rankings

Youth
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

Christians
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)

Revolution Art
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)
El Seed
 

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Egypt: MPs, Writers’ Union Demand Consensus Constitution

Citing a lack of representation–for women, youth, religious groups, political movements, geographic regions–fourteen MPs (Members of Parliament) and other secular elements of Egypt’s constitution-writing assembly had withdrawn their participation by Monday afternoon, according to Egypt Independent. The 100-member assembly tasked with drafting the country’s new constitution is dominated by Parliament members from the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) and the Salafi Nour Party.

Egypt's Parliament (AP Image. Accessed at Ahram Online.)

Some resigning members went beyond issues of representation and the urgency of a consensus-based constitution to decry the parliamentary majority’s takeover of the drafting assembly. While recognizing the Islamists’ majority right to broader representation, the independent MP Amr Hamzawy argued that nominations to the committee were influenced by political affiliation over competence and relevant expertise. On Sunday, Hamzawy polled his constituents on facebook on whether he should remain as a representative on the drafting panel–eventually siding with the minority and his conscience. His statement to the assembly specifically rejected “the marginalization of women, youth, Copts and the exclusion of several of Egypt’s competent legal and economic experts.”

Monday’s committee resignations were preceded on Sunday by the Union of Egyptian Writers’ (UEW) strong condemnation of the election process to the constituent committee. According to Ahram Online, 50 percent of members were chosen from the Islamist-dominated People’s Assembly and Shura Council, and 50 percent from outside parliament.  The UEW contended that—as per the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces’ (SCAF) Constitutional Declaration, approved by referendum in a March 2011–MPs should choose from representatives nominated by civil society organizations, such as unions.  The MP’s job is to elect, not nominate representatives. The UEW had thus submitted 10 names to the committee, including honored Egyptian intellectuals, but the list was ignored.

Ironically enough, the  UEW’s list of nominees was itself controversial. Union member Fares Khedr said the list was not compiled through public discussion, and was based more on the writers fame than real expertise.

Among writers’ predictions of troubled times for the ongoing revolution, novelist Gamal El-Ghitany told Ahram Online that the Muslim Brotherhood dominated parliament “stands against writers and literature.” He also expressed surprise for the lack of reaction by liberal factions—that was Sunday. Monday, the reaction was growing.

While acknowledging divisions in the intellectual movement against the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and a dim future ahead, El-Ghitany still believes that “Egypt will not become an Islamic country.”

Novelist Mekkawi Said saw the exclusion of academics as more extreme that than the former regime’s appeasing pretenses, and predicted an impoverishment of the people’s political consciousness as a result.

But lawyer and writer Ahmed Zaghloul El-Shaity expressed a different view to  Ahram Online saying the constitutional battle has been fought and settled: by an “unofficial coalition of the ruling military council, Islamists and ex-members of the Mubarak administration.” And if Kehdr is right—“We have idiots for politicians that do not read daily newspapers”—the revolution is stalling.

UPDATE–March 28, 2012
Some insightful analysis at “The Arabist“:

If there is a sizeable number of people who think the constitution is illegitimate and the consensus around is weak, there is a risk down the line that this would make a coup (soft or hard) easier. Egypt will be naturally coup-prone in the next few years, and while the Brothers say they want consensus, the Salafists have a more winner-takes-all approach and want to nominate figures such as Sheikh Mohammed Hassan, a popular preacher, who will push for a very strict interpretation of Sharia

UPDATE–March 29, 2012
Egypt Independent reported that following today’s withdrawal of Al-Ahzar‘s sole representative from the constituent assembly, the FJP yielded 10 of its own seats to liberal appointees. Speaking to Egypt Independent, Moety Bayoumy, a member of the university’s Islamic Research Academy, had admonishing words for the Muslim Brotherhood:

It should not be at all that one trend dominates the constituent assembly as it violates the principles of Islam. […] I have said from the beginning that the constituent assembly is invalid for so many reasons […] I say to these Islamists, you represent certain people, because the true Islamists who understand Islam, and its position on the civil state, seek directly by virtue of their culture and their knowledge of Islam to include all the effective elements in the Muslim community to develop a new constitution. This is the true Islamic society.

Egypt: Compromise or a Second Wave of Revolution?

RT.com (Russian Today, TV Network in English) devoted some airtime to Egypt today under the title, “Permanent Revolution: Resistance lives among disillusioned Egyptians.”

Among the disillusioned interviewed by the network was Khaled Telema, an activist with the Coalition of the Youth Revolution:

We weren’t against Mubarak as a person; we were against the whole system, against oppression and injustice. Although the SCAF [the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces] said they were pro-revolution, their actions show they’re applying the same techniques used by him [Mubarak].

As reported by Human Rights Watch in September of 2011, in roughly 8 months of military rule, over 12,000 Egyptians had already faced military tribunals, a distant record against Mubarak’s 30-year ruling. Speaking to RT, journalist and blogger Hossam el-Hamalawy said that more than 13,000 Egyptians have been processed through military courts in the last year, including labor strikers–formerly tried in ordinary courts–and the rubber bullets that dispersed demonstrators in the past have been replaced by live ammunition.

Questioned on the controversy surrounding the mostly-Islamist composition of the panel charged with drafting Egypt’s constitution, Dr. Jamal Sultan of the Al-Ahram Center of Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, warned that this lack of representation of other views would intensify political struggle and instability. However, when pressed about the West’s expectations for Egypt’s transition to democracy versus the prospect of an Islamic state ruled by Sharia law, Dr. Sultan defined the “name of the game” as being about “governance and stability”–not about human rights:

I believe that if the Islamist government in Egypt will be able to provide governance and stability and won’t be a cause for instability at the regional level […] perhaps the West will at least remain silent if there are things that they might not like, in terms of civil liberties or human rights in the country.

Clearly the West has remained silent before, for decades at a time. But Dr. Sultan goes further:

The problem with the Mubarak regime was that it wasn’t effective in providing for this stability, and I think that if an Islamist government would do it, I think the West would live with that.

Put this way, Dr. Sultan himself appears ready to “live with that,” which would ring contrary to his warnings about a one-world-view constitution.

But while some might hope for stability at any cost, others, such political activist Nahla Salem (also interviewed by RT), see the growing compromises as fuel for a “second wave of the revolution”:

The economic situation is really getting worse, and I believe [the] people who are suffering nowadays, because they can’t afford to feed their families they are going to lead […] a second wave of the revolution, but it’s going to be really, really aggressive, and really, really violent and bloody.”

Unfortunately for Egypt’s poor, revolutions don’t have an history of improving economic conditions for everyday citizens.

Gangsters Terrorize Egyptian Village Near Luxor

“Security was everywhere…” ended my last post on Egypt. Everywhere, in tourism hot-spots perhaps, but not effectively where it’s most needed—in the village of Naga al-Gisr, near Luxor, where 5,000 residents are living under the threat and terror of being blown up by a gangster and his army, as reported by Egypt Independent.  Not surprisingly, the article links this entrenched and empowered criminal activity to unemployment among youth:

Ahmed Hamza and his gang have been engaging in hit-and-run battles with local police on a daily basis. Hamza has strung butane gas canisters on village lamp posts and placed others on the roofs of neighboring houses, connecting them with an electricity cable apparently capable of blowing up the village.

[…]

The village, which has turned into a nest for fugitive criminals and drug and arms dealers, has never been in such a state, said 80-year-old resident Mohamed Hassan.

Haitham Ahmed Mahmoud, 19, said some residents are informing Hamza of police patrol movements to protect him.

Hamza’s gang commits armed robbery on the Western Desert Highway, takes unemployed youths into his gang and sells arms at very low prices, said Abdel Hamid Mahmoud, 50.

[…]

Major General Ahmed Saqr, a senior security official, said Hamza and two others are the only remnants of Hambouly’s gang [Hamza is related to Yasser al-Hambouly, a renowned gangster arrested in January]. He warned the media of exaggerated stories that could turn criminals into heroes.

He said security forces are doing their best to arrest the rest of the gang, which is taking shelter in the mountains and sugar cane fields.

Come Back to Egypt

As Egypt observed the one-year anniversary of its revolution, one inventory item  weighed heavily: Egypt’s tourism rates dropped by 28.5 percent in January, the country’s tourism officials told Al-Masry Al-Youm/Egypt Independent on Friday. According to the same source, the decline in Egypt’s second largest industry began during the first week of the January 25th uprising, when 1 million tourists fled the country—at an estimated loss of $1 billion.

Since then, tourism authorities and industry have worked to reverse the trend with creative campaigns. Inspired by awakened sentiments of patriotism, concerned Egyptians turned to Facebook and called on fellow citizens to sponsor and boost local tourism. And attempts have also been made to use the revolution as a tourist attraction.

In “Sightseeing During the Egyptian Revolution” travel writer David McKay Wilson chronicles his September 2011 tour of Egypt’s classic routes. Squired by Academic Travel Abroad, an agency specializing in cultural travel, Wilson and journalist friends dined on the Nile at the invitation of the Egypt Tourist Authority. The official host told Wilson’s group that tourist visits were down by 46 percent since the January uprising. In the wake of an attack on Israeli’s Cairo embassy on September 10, the official was questioned about matters of safety: “How can I say that it’s safe when something like that happens?” he questioned back.

However, as Wilson also noted, the shortage of visitors improves the chance of securing free escorts by armed tourism police—as offered to his group—and he is reassuring about his own sense of safety throughout the trip, from the streets of Giza after dark, to the crowded streets of downtown Cairo.

Giza at dusk.

Still, the threat of anarchy is a present and discussed danger, and the Egyptian government has acknowledged the impact of recurrent outbreaks of violence on tourism rates. Other concurrent factors haven’t helped: the NGO crisis, growing instability in the region—Syria, Iran-Israel tensions—as well as changes in relations with Mubarak’s old friends—Saudi Arabia, Israel. In fact, the decline in tourism rates originated primarily from Israel, Saudi Arabia, Russia and Kuwait. Topping the toll on an industry that employs over 2.5 million people (1-in-8 Egyptians workers), the climate of instability also promotes the exodus of capital from the country and slows the flow of foreign currency to the nation’s treasury.

The concerns of tourism authorities and industry are echoed by Egypt’s citizens. Shortly after Wilson’s sightseeing tour, a poll by the Charney Research for the International Peace Institute asked Egyptians whether they saw necessity or disruption in continued protests, “’ at time when Egypt needs stability and economic recovery”; 53 percent to 35 percent of respondents wanted to focus on economic recovery.

With an estimated 15 million Egyptians depending on the tourism sector, it is no surprise that many begin to weigh the cost of the revolution. “For the Egyptian tourism industry, freedom’s just another word for no one’s here to sight see,” wrote Wilson. Or, as a camel-tour businessman from Iza told the The New York Times, “The revolution was beautiful, but no one imagined the consequences.” The sharp decline of visitors and his loss of income had forced him to sell three-of-five animals to the butcher, and his horse buggies sat idling by, for days at a time.

While other sources of income held steady—Suez Canal, gas and oil, remittances from Egyptians working abroad—according to the same NYT article, and the Central Bank, tourism went from a record 15 million visitors in 2010 to a 42 percent drop and loss of $3 billion through September of 2011. And though authorities have also attempted to tap the allure of “sightseeing during the revolution,” Amr Elezabi, the chairman of the Egyptian Tourism Authority, told the New York Times, “You cannot sell Egypt throughTahrir Square.” At any rate,Tahrir Square alone could not make up for such staggering losses, and the ongoing instability and potential for violence detours the way to more marketable and profitable sites.

Revolutions, “they are processes, not events,” as Wael Ghonim, another voice of the Egypt’s awakening, told NPR earlier this year. And elections don’t settle differences and tensions–not in emerging democracies or established ones. As revolutionary dust begins to settle, even the right price of freedom is subject to debate, as expressed by these statements quoted in the NYT article, “Euphoria Turns to Discontent as Egypt’s Revolution Stalls”: “We are ready to live on dates and water for our freedom!” said a young protester. “If you want water and dates, fine, eat that yourself,” replied a business man. “Most of those who took part in the revolution were satisfied with the fall of Mubarak,” said a Coptic female pediatrician. The “wavering of public opinion” in the wake of the revolution is well documented in a February 2011 report by the International Crisis Group, and so is the evidence that such diverging sentiments will live on.

Where tourism is concerned, the ruling Freedom and Justice Party has sought to quell public and industry fears (Egypt Independent). Meeting with the Union for Tourism in January, party leader Mohamed Morsy said that the FJC’s vision for developing the sector would require security, and political and economic support. As reassurance, he named God-given advantages that make the country an inevitable tourist destination: history, culture, weather, etc. But he also stressed that tourism is one of three main areas of concern, along with politics and the economy, and that Islamic law would inform all legislation, namely the writing of the nation’s constitution. As the article points out, secular Egypt fears that the infusion of Sharia in the constitution will impact minorities and impose religion-based changes to economic activities like tourism. “Tourism does not mean nudity and drunkenness. We Egyptians are the greatest religious people, and we don’t need that. We’ll prohibit alcohol,” a Muslim Brotherhood leader said at a December rally.

While the constitution is being drafted, in February the Ministry of Tourism announced a series of new incentives aimed at recovering 12-13 million visitors this year, and an estimated $11 billion in revenues (Egypt Independent, via Reuters). The campaign is heavily targeted at Emirati visitors and hopes to attract 1,500,000 tourists from the Gulf region. On the subject of safety, Samy Mahmoud, a ministry official said that 75 percent of tourist arrivals in Egypt head for sites outside Cairo—S-harm el-Sheikh, Hurghada and Marsa Alam—which he termed “very safe.” “By the end of June we’ll have a president and a strong government. This will boost tourism inEgypt,” Mahmoud added.

Hurghada Coral Reef.

But not all potential for violence and safety issues are, or can be, clearly tied to the revolution: a woman gunned down in rich Cairo neighborhood, a wave of car-jackings, soccer game turned deadly, armed gangs, etc.  And so it is that in the second half of February there was an intense police campaign to address the country’s greatest security challenges: escaped prisoners (during the ousting of Mubarak), former convicts and unregistered criminals. According to the Interior Ministry, the escalation of security forces resulted in a 60 percent improvement, and increased police presence will continue in the short-term.

With that reassuring news, we return to sightseeing with Mr. Wilson:

The Egyptian tourism destinations, meanwhile, were refreshingly uncrowded, as we traveled to the tombs at Saqqara, the Great Pyramid in Giza, and to Al-Azhar Park out by the university, where lovers strolled hand-in-hand as the mournful call to prayer echoed from nearby mosques. Here there wasn’t a hint of danger. Security was everywhere…

Al Azhar Park

Egypt: The Revolution’s Sense of Humor

In reading about the heroes of the Egyptian revolution this past week, I came across the word “fatalist” several times, in the writing of Western commentators [example]. I was surprised by the qualifier and wish to offer some counter-evidence with an example of Egyptian sense of humor. I am in the process of reading “THE INVISIBLE ARAB: The Promise and Peril of the Arab Revolution,” by Marwan Bishara, Al Jazeera English Senior Political Director, published by Nation Books, 2012 (I will review it shortly). In it Mr. Bishara shares some revolution jokes passed around Tahrir Square. Here’s a short sample:

The interior minister asks Hosni Mubarak to write a farewell letter to the Egyptian people. Mubarak replies: “Why? Where are they going?”

Never far from Tahrir Square?

Egypt’s Elections: Owning the Revolution

Egyptians young and old, educated or illiterate—and unprecedented numbers of women—were early to rise and quick to line outside polling stations to participate in the first free elections in 30 years, nine months after the ousting of Hosni Mubarak.

Women voters outside a polling station in Alexandria. Photo by Evan Hill/AlJazeera

News and analysis of Egypt’s elections have been largely about looming dangers and uncertainties facing the country, the violence and divisions of recent weeks, and the worries and skepticism of the International Community.

But for Egyptians, Tunisians, and anyone who has ever experienced life under a dictatorship, the site of people lining up to vote is cause for jubilation and the most reassuring sign that the revolution is working.

Some Egyptian activists chose to boycott the election, partly because they feel the same old guard is in charge of the process—“a circus,” one Egyptian blogger and activist called it (Al Jazeera). A complicated and staggered election system (Reuters), hundreds of parliamentary seats to fill, thousands of unknown candidates, and even the predictability of results (CFR), are all less than ideal circumstances. But Egyptian voters deserve their day of pride and jubilation. Considering voter turnout, and the remarkable engagement of youth and women voters, they also deserve to be hopeful and be trusted with their future.

The New Arab Revolt, an e-book published by the Council of Foreign Relations in May of this year, begins with a reference toPortugal’s 1974 “carnation revolution,” a bloodless military coup that ended 48 years of fascist ruling. I remember walking to the market after school that day in April and wondering about the cheers in the distance. Soldiers stood on armored cars circling the market, while vendors and shoppers clapped, cheered, and threw flowers. In those days, the country had but two state-run TV channels which aired only in the afternoon and evening. It was mostly word-of-mouth that spread news of the revolution, and with such limited means of speech, it’s hard to imagine how the people, instead of the military, could have overthrown the regime. Tumultuous years of political and social upheaval would follow, but the democratic process was nonetheless established.

Nearly a year ago, one young Tunisian man—Mohamed Bouazizi—could not have imagined the revolutions his tragic protest would spark across the Middle East(see this interactive timeline at The Guardian). The human cost of these movements must be present to individual countries and the International Community, as they choose their place in this new world order. But youth, their aspirations and demands, have been at heart and helm of these bold revolutions. Media and technology have played a powerful role in mobilizing protesters and exposing authoritarian rulers and regimes. Political consciousness and solidarity have given shape and strength to civil societies, making it increasingly difficult for recalcitrant establishments to go unchallenged.

And that’s enough to feel hopeful for Egyptians as they go to the polls.

[Note: This post appeared in the Huffington Post]