Dismal times in Cairo

Dismal times in Cairo

by Abdallah Schleifer


Anyone who has followed my column over the past nine months would sense that I have little, if any, sympathy for the Muslim Brotherhood. As my readers would also have sensed, as early as last March, I was taking sympathetic note that ordinary, non-activist, Egyptians craved an end to instability and were disgusted with the lack of any serious effort by then President Mursi to deal dramatically, if even at all, with mass unemployment and rising poverty. They wanted the Army to intervene, depose Mursi and run the country.

It was not necessarily at all out of concern about Mursi’s (or his MB handlers’) obvious authoritarian ambitions, but because the mass of Cairo’s populace were fed up with the instability and lack of strong, positive, initiatives to generate jobs.

Any number of writers, myself included noted over the months that followed that the Army was (and still is) a genuinely popular institution – viewed as a manifestation of national pride. This is held up by some, aside, of course, from the core of Tahrir militants who suffered in clashes with both Security forces and Military Police in the months that followed the fall of Mubarak.

As the weeks rolled on and we approached the critical days leading to the incredible turn out of many millions, mobilized so-to-speak by the Tamarod campaign, even some among the Tahrir core activists, and in particular Tamarod, would come to support the army intervention.

Again, to readers of this column, my sympathy with that rising sentiment among Egyptians for a military intervention was obvious (I am forced by weird political conformities that Egypt inflicts upon the mind not to use the “C” word, even though I would use the word with approval and not as the Muslim Brotherhood and their friends do, as a pejorative). That is because the Army is the only public or state institution that really works, that really does it job. It did intervene, it did depose Mursi. But, while it influences the state, it does not, contrary to what the people wished, run the country.

Liberty and license

But, dismal is how the political theatre appears these days. On one hand, the young activists never grasped the distinction between liberty and license. Over the past two-and-half-years nearly every day somebody was, and to a lesser degree still is, –be they liberal or left secularist or Muslim Brotherhood – cutting roads and blocking traffic. Also, periodically over these years somebody was always setting cars on fire and throwing Molotov cocktails at either security forces, public buildings including presidential palaces, or at each other.

That sort of behavior is not tolerated in any functioning democracy – and it is theoretically a functioning democracy the Tahrir activists are supposed to be striving for. As a young American radical, I was part of a contingent of a few hundred protestors in New York who assembled in a park , not as central as Tahrir , but near City Hall (the offices of the Mayor) and refused to take shelter when the sirens went off in what was probably the last air raid drill in American history .This was some 60 years ago and at the height of the Cold War.

We were arrested. Not all us, but at random and if one moved away from the center of the demonstration one could avoid arrest. The police were chivalrous. They did not arrest the old or even the middle aged and they ignored the women demonstrators. Since the organizers of the demonstration were pacifists, we did not resist, and the police did not hit us. We were held overnight and then released. But the point of this is that we expected to be arrested – we were defying the law - however bizarre, as were air raid drills in the age of nuclear weapons. We were quite correctly arrested for that.

On the other hand, one can try to turn masses of one’s fellow countrymen into an insurrectionary force but one must know the price is the reasonable possibility of injury or even death. And when real revolutions, or for that matter real counter-revolutions occur, the first thing that follows is a rough re-imposition of law and order by those who have taken power: Whether those who have taken power are on the Left or the Right, whether they are Republicans (either 18th century Americans and Frenchmen, or 20th century Spaniards), Communists, Nationalists or Fascists.

On the other hand the sentencing of 21 girls and young women aged 15 to 22 years to 11 years in prison for demonstrating along the Alexandria corniche in support of Mursi is shocking. The arrests appear to have been at random.

An eyewitness testified at the trial, according to the English online edition of Masry al-Youm - which has never been sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood - that the traffic on the corniche was stopped for ten minutes because the demonstrators - consisting of 400 young women - were crossing the corniche, not manning a barricade or staging a sit in on the roadway.

But just about every Egyptian I know who is educated; who supported the military intervention and are not activists, believe that if the young women were actually trying to cut traffic as well as defying the new Protest Law, they should have been arrested - all 400 of them - and given a symbolic sentence of days or a week, as first offenders, which would in itself be more than exemplary. Not 11 years. This is, as one of my Egyptian friends put it, not law and order. It is, instead, an example of very vindictive repression.

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Cross published on Al Arabiya and reprinted on TAM with permission of the author.  Prof. Schleifer’s Alarabiya column will now be posted regularly on The American Muslim (TAM), and on Arab Media and Society, an electronic journal as well as the links twitted on a weekly basis to Arab Media and Society subscribers.

Abdallah Schleifer is Professor Emeritus of Journalism at the American University in Cairo, where he founded and served as first director of the Kamal Adham Center for Television Journalism. He also founded and served as Senior Editor of the journal Transnational Broadcasting Studies, now known as Arab Media & Society. Before joining the AUC faculty Schleifer served for nine years as NBC News Cairo bureau chief and Middle East producer- reporter; as Middle East corrrespondent for Jeune Afrique based in Beirut and as a special correspndent for the New York Times based in Amman. After retiring from teaching at AUC Schleifer served for little more than a year as Al Arabiya’s Washington D.C. bureau chief. He is associated with the Middle East Institute in Washington D.C. as an Adjunct Scholar. He was executive producer of the award winning documentary “Control Room” and the 100 episode Reality- TV documentary “Sleepless in Gaza…and Jerusalem.”


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