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“This week’s events suggest that Egypt’s new democracy has not quite shaken off its old regime habits. Louisa Lovelock at Chatham House notes that “each case is ambiguous, but it is not the individual decisions, but the body of decisions which points towards an ideological trend”. This trend suggests a clear shape of military power, which the procedures of court rulings and Constitutional Declarations only thinly veil.”

For the full article see Think Africa Press.

Republished by Amandla NewsallAfrica and European Partnership for Democracy.

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“After the official results were announced on May 28, revolutionary groups protested in Tahrir Square, contesting the results and particularly calling into question the success Shafik, who was nominated prime minister by Mubarak’s during the 2011 revolution. It is still early days for democracy in Egypt and for the grassroots revolutionary movements – credited as the catalysts for the revolution – just the start of a process to convert street activism into the political leverage needed to lay the foundations for a democratic culture.”

Read my full article on The Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East’s Egypt Source Blog.

A break from Egyptian elections to visit the Monastery of St Bishoy (Pishoy), where the late Coptic Pope Shenouda was buried in March 2012. Egyptian Christians were arriving in coach loads to see the body.

This place has not escaped attack in the past. Following the revolution last year, the army attacked this monastery, causing injuries to some and arresting others. Post-revolution Egypt is an uncertain place for Copts, who make up around 5 to 10% of the population. Their religious freedoms and rights are being side-lined, by an Islamic majority in Parliament and the possibility of an incoming Muslim Brotherhood President.

Yet, this reminder of discrimination is not present during out visit. The atmosphere is one of a family day out with children running everywhere and queues forming to see where the coffin lies. These photos show something of the monastery where visitors were relaxed, friendly and welcoming.

A full article and photo essay was developed from this post for The Arab Review.

Resting place of Pope Shenouda

Ceiling decorations

A father carries his child from the dark burial room out to the main church.

A man pauses beside signs directing visitors around the Monastery.

A friendly family approach us to speak and take photos.

Two beautiful little girls ask to be friends.

A boy watches us from afar.

Crosses on towers and gates.

Egypt: The Fight for the Right to Shout

Freedom of expression and assembly are becoming much debated rights in Egypt. With the Presidential elections looming, the issue is even more critical. The military violence against protesters such as that seen in Abbaseya at the beginning of May highlights the different actors involved in this discussion. Rights groups claim that it is a constant struggle to keep freedom of expression and assembly alive in Egypt, highlighting the multi-institutional and multi-armed attack on these rights from courts, parliament and military alike.

As Noor Ayman Nour, No Military Trials states: “from January 2011, we were under the impression that things would forever be different. But by February of the same year freedom of assembly was already being attacked and protests dispersed…It is getting much worse.”

Follow the above link to Think Africa Press for my full article discussing the situation of freedom of expression and assembly in Egypt.

It is the eve of the Presidential elections in Egypt. In some ways everything seems so quiet. There is not the flurry of campaigning which I expected. Indeed, campaigning is not very present across  Cairo. It seems to be concentrated in specific areas of the city. Many of the main candidates seem to also be focusing on towns and rural areas outside of the city, where they think there campaign will more easily be able to influence voters and have a bigger impact.

The campaigns make themselves felt in bursts throughout Cairo, a flyer thrust into hands outside of metro stations, a heated debate on a midnight metro between strangers, a group of youths tearing down posters in downtown, passing by coffee shops shouting: “No to Shafik!”

This seems to be a feature of the campaigns. They focus on ‘No’ to certain candidates rather than rally support around one. The 6th April Movement, made a concentrated effort to support boycotting candidates linked to the previous regime. (See Egypt Independent).

This brand new President will have a strong influence over Egypt’s future. Not just in the traditional way, will his political preferences determine national programme and law-making. In Egypt’s current context any President elected will incite reaction from civil society. His religious sway will decide relations with a predominately Islamist Parliament; his political sway will provoke the reactions of determined and strong groups of activists, and his support of the previous regime will assure (or not) willingness of the army to withdraw from power.

With this in mind, it seems that campaigning is not the place where activists and Egyptians are really fighting for their future. It seems this new democracy will be asserted in post-election activism, not pre-election campaigning. For now, Egypt is waiting.

Democracy is the word of the moment in the MENA (Middle East and North Africa). In the past three months elections took place in Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco and calls for democracy were heard from Libya, Syria, Bahrain, Yemen. The EU Development Days also recently delved into the use of democracy in development. This article intends to continue this discussion of democracy in the context of these recent events. Indeed, as development professionals we often advocate for democracy without fully considering its consequences and implications.

To go back to source, democracy is an ancient term, first coined in Ancient Greece. However, it has no specific definition (even its essential terms are disputed), various different facets (elections, freedom and rule of law) and also takes various forms (ex: representative, direct and liberal). Indeed, democracy is not one concept; it is a complex notion. Seen through the eyes of the media democracy is elections. In development terms it is financing elections, rule of law projects and political participation. Yet, the broader issues it encompasses go much wider and much deeper into social fabric.

The recent events in the MENA highlight some of the concerning aspects of democracy as a developmental process. Democracy has been expressed in the MENA in the past month, in terms which can be described as violent. While Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco citizens have proudly shown up to stand in queues, crossed ballot papers and painstakingly counted votes, other incidents have been less peaceful. Some uglier aspects are also clear in unprincipled and unregulated campaigning strategies; propaganda which warned of a fast ticket to hell for supporting other parties; selling votes and smear campaigns against other candidates.

Where previous dictatorships controlled society, emerging from such a regime has required challenging its power and breaking down old structures. In Libya, Syria and Bahrain democracy has been represented as guns fired; attacks on regime buildings; occupations of public spaces and numbers shot down. A frightening side of democracy, this is felt as instability, injury, disintegration and death. Yet this does not mean that this disorder is all negative. While it has some undesirable effects, it also produces some very positive ones. As the old state structures crumble, as the Presidents fall, their ashes create a fertile landscape. On this landscape new ideas, values and movements quickly take root in a disordered, tangled yet healthy growth of something new.

This can be remarked across the region. In the Egyptian and Tunisian elections vast numbers of parties and candidates were on offer to voters. The celebration of individual activists and other individual voices highlights this trend. Movements and regimes disintegrated and once the debris was brushed away, faces and voices took their place. Where there were only a few figureheads, now there are many people, citizens, humans. As Wael Ghonim, Egyptian activist and computer engineer, stated about the Egyptian Revolution: ‘no one was a hero, because everyone was a hero’.

As the different phases of elections and protests continue, the Arab Spring demonstrates a sustained and determined approach to democracy which challenges social and institutional barriers. The Egyptian protests against military governance are one such example; the continued pressure against Al-Assad in Syria is another; the questioning of the Islamist strategies and aims in elections another; the discussions online, in academic and other fora yet another. Indeed, the MENA revolutions remind us that democracy is not a guarantee but a daily practice which must be tended like a garden.

The buds of the Arab Spring have started to appear and as they do they reveal a social situation which both reflects and differs from the old monolithic structures of tyranny and control. Old trends are seen in repression of Egyptian activists or the familiarity of Islam, albeit given a new political form. New trends also emerge in representation, expression, discussion and participation. Indeed, public participation through protest, on and off line debate and social movements has remained a key feature of life in the MENA across the past year.

Democracy in the MENA concerns the actions and decisions of citizens. This is a reminder that the Arab countries gives to development practitioners. The citizens of the MENA demonstrate that democracy is not a vote, neither does it start and end with elections, parliaments, political parties, courts or other state institutions. It demonstrates that power is not granted during elections or renounced in a new term. The democracies being built in the MENA are not an end result, but a constant and sustained social and institutional discussion and renegotiation.

Democracy currently concerns our whole lives as citizens and we have a daily choice to give or deny it the light it requires to grow. The buds of the Arab Spring show promise of societies composed of multi-coloured movements and peoples whose roots are firmly entwined in their demands for freedom. Those gardens must be carefully tended so that these buds may flower. In developmental terms, democracy or elections are an end goal, yet, in the MENA suggests this is not the case. Indeed, democracy, elections and other associated formalities are not an end product for the Arab Spring movements; rather they form only one part of a much bigger project of social growth.

This article was first published in Global South Development Magazine in January 2012. http://www.silcreation.org/globalsouthdevelopmentmag.htm

Women were largely excluded from the first post-revolution constitution drafting process. Many arguments have been made regarding women’s rights, but I attempt to make a case for why women including women makes sense in terms of economic and social development. The full article is available here at: Egypt Independent.

I have recently published a piece which I wanted to share on the growing trend of rooftop gardening in Cairo. The article was published by Think Africa Press and focuses on the ideas of grassroots groups to create food security and stronger communities through small neighbourhood gardens. The interviewees were all interesting people, with insightful ideas to share and strong initiatives which made for a very interesting article. The full article can be read at Think Africa Press. Republished by Green Africa Directory.

Planting seeds for a different future in Cairo.

I am just back from a very rich event by the American University in Cairo about the Tahrir graffiti. Artists involved in the mural design discussed the meaning behind the murals as well the nature of public art. They offered some very interesting insights into identity in art and the role art plays in informing the public.

One point which struck me was the issue of freedom of expression. The artists were largely critical of the media and interested in using art to display a truth about the Egyptian Revolution. In this sense they sought to develop their art to respond to issues evolving within the country. They felt that the media distorted events and that their graffiti offered also the chance to interact with citizens and tell the truth in a way which newspapers did not. Their stories of their experiences painting in the streets reflect how citizens changed their response to events following visiting the murals and speaking to artists. Their expression is a conversation, whereas print media largely stops with the reader, offering no place to dispute or discuss the ideas and information which it provides.

The murals are also a continuation of the revolution and demonstrate freedom of expression through the claiming of public space for citizens. One artist told the story of a controversial work which he produced over a number of days. Each morning he said he would come back and there would be paint splashed over it. He would begin the day touching up his work, re-shaping and continuing the work. This is a strong allegory which speaks both of discussion between different revolutionary voices and the creative process.

I attended a film called Sex Talk screened at the NVIC in Cairo last week. This film offered insight into Egyptian attitudes to sex through interviews with individuals and specialists. It offered a basic overview of the subject but was interesting in especially because it encouraged discussion about a taboo subject in Egypt. Scenes with impromptu interviews in the street showed that people were so surprised and embarrassed by a question about the subject they didn’t know what to reply.

Interviewees who told more intimate stories were anonymous. Yet somehow the film felt limited, as if there was much more to say that what it expressed. It is difficult to say whether the film suffered however from this embarrassment as it limited the scope and depth of interviews, or whether that embarrassment was a comment in  itself.  Audience comments confirmed this, with people commenting that this was only the middle class view on sex. Yet, what the film did portray clearly were many of the contradictions which exist around the subject in Egypt, including the strange outcomes which result from those contradictory beliefs.

What was perhaps most surprising was the reaction of the mainly European audience to many of the comments made during the film. They roared with laughter at some of the intimate secrets that the interviewees revealed. They didn’t laugh maliciously or to make fun of the other person. The opinion for them was so strange that it became funny. In that light the film perhaps best revealed the differences between Egyptian and Western attitudes to sex and the strangeness of each opinion to the other.

It also made me think that we cannot judge or label too quickly the Egyptian attitude as unhealthy or wrong as there is equally much which unhealthy about European attitudes. In some senses they are extreme positions one offering extreme liberalisation and the other offering extreme protectionism. Both have their problems and a balanced portrayal of the good and bad of the Egyptian position would perhaps produce a more rounded discussion.

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