Parliamentary candidates come out to play

Monday’s field trip was to Manshiet Nasser, an ashwaeya (poor residential neighborhood) bordering the northern cemetery, between the autostrade and the Muqattam. Nothing too dramatic happened, but I thought I’d write down my notes, because I saw an unusual number of banners for the November 2011 parliamentary candidates. Even though candidate registration technically doesn’t start until September, I think a lot of people are taking advantage of Ramadan to start publicizing themselves and the “services” which the can offer to the constituency.
I went initially because there’s a large Coptic community of zabbaleen (trash collectors) living up against the cliffs. There had been sectarian clashes in March, and I wanted to follow up on cases of sectarian violence to see if there had been any noticeable aftermath, be it either reconciliation efforts or lingering tensions with the neighbors. In this case, residents said that there hadn’t been, as the clashes had involved Salafis/baltagiya from outside the area. I was struck, however, by the amount of electoral banners that had been put up alongside the autostrate, so I figured that this looks like a good potential case study area for 2011 electioneering. In addition to Manshiet Nasser and the zabbaleen area (aka, the Zarayeb, or pig-pens) this district also includes the northern cemetary, the cliff-straddling slum of Dweiqa, and the Jamaliya part of old Cairo.
Manshiet Nasser is fairly accessible to an outsider ecause it runs along an old railway embankment overlooking the autostrade and the cemetary. Thus, it’s easy to scan and see who all the candidates are, and also most of them seemed to have some sort of “service” office — a charity, I presume — on the main embankment street or in an adjoining alley.
The banners included one self-declared “revolutionary youth”, Hasan Salah, who unlike some “youth” politicians, did indeed look young. His banner also pointed out that he had the endorsement of the Zaghbali clan. Others included Hany Margan (who had a small charitable center with shiny new ambulance on the embankment), Shehat Ahmed Husseiny, Mohammed al-Maliky and Daker Abd al-Lah. One banner explicitly invited the citizenry to call upon him for “services”. None bore a party affiliation, and a couple of youths to whom I spoke said that there was a prejudice against parties in general. There were leftover posters for the two successful NDP candidates from 2010, Ayman Salah Muqled and Haydar al-Baghdadi (whose base is in the cemetary across the street — more on that in a bit). I was told that most of these candidates were businessmen, although I will need to verify that at a later point. I did not come across any candidates associated either with the Brothers or with a Salafi movement, although one might emerge later.
In the Christian quarter, I spoke at length to Shahat al-Muqadas, the “naqib” of the zabbaleen, who had nominated himself as a candidate in 2010. He was holding court outside the “National Unity” coffeeshop on the main road running through the zabbaleen house up to the Samaan cliffside church. He said that he had taken 5000 votes, but would have received many more had it not been for fraud. He did not intend to run in the 2011 elections because of poor security. The country “broke his leg and is still on crutches.” Neither he nor anyone else mentioned any specific threats or incidents in the region since March, but they felt intimidated because of their small numbers and the high profile of the Salafis/Ikhwan. Also, he said, “we don’t have any political wish” — as I took it, no particular need to have a candidate of their own in parliament. (The zabbaleen do have a lot of NGO contacts, and thus probably do not need a parliamentary intermediary with the governor, as do a lot of more obscure areas).
I walked back through the cemetaries, and in the shadow of the Barquq mosque complex I came across a group of supporters of one of the NDP incumbents, Haydar al-Baghdadi. The banner over their cafe read, “Aswan has the High Dam, Giza has the Pyramids, Eilat Seif (which could mean either the predominant local clan, or the neighborhood, or both) has Haydar al-Baghdadi.” After verifying from my passport that I was not an Israeli agent, we had a brief chat. They said that Baghdadi was from the “opposition” wing of the NDP, and that he may well indeed run again in 2011. They also wanted to emphasize that they did not hate Mubarak and did not think that he deserved to be tried — although the corrupt ministers and others around him, they were fine with trying them.

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Don ‘t expect too much clarity from Mubarak’s trial

I’ve written a piece providing some background on Mubarak’s trial for Foreign Affairs, and another piece for the Economist on the impact of the trial.

One other article in Foreign Policy which I strongly recommend deals with the format of the trial: it will not be viewer-friendly.

Egyptian courtroom procedure is nothing like an American jury trial, where all the relevant evidence is read into the courtroom record. Rather, much of the evidence is submitted in written form, and then discussed in court. This makes it very hard for an observer without access to the dossier of evidence and other key documents to follow what is going on. As I understand it, the judges must write down in detail their reasons for the verdict, but that document can be difficult to obtain.

This is a bit of a problem, particularly in high-profile cases like Mubarak’s. Courts need legitimacy, and one way to obtain legitimacy is for observers to be able to watch the trial and agree that yes, the verdict was based on a reasonable interpretation of the evidence.

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No One Owns Tahrir

I’ve posted a piece on Arabist on my impressions of the Tahrir demo — a big and aggressive, but in some ways understandable, show of Salafi strength.

A lot of the left- or liberal-leaning youth groups feel that, as they were the ones who made the revolution, that they now own it. IMHO, revolutions shouldn’t work that way. Just because you topple an autocracy, you don’t get to dictate what follows. I realize that a lot of people perceive the Salafis to be opportunists who sat out the dangerous struggle to topple against Mubarak, but in a democratic system, you don’t get to disenfranchise people just because you believe that they’re opportunists. This reasoning is the first step on the path that drives revolutionaries to form vanguard parties and create a new dictatorship to replace the one that fell. I don’t think that the Tahrir revolutionaries will go very far down this road, but I also think that they have to realize that they don’t own Tahrir — neither the square itself, nor the revolution.

By saying this, I don’t mean at all to defend the message of the demo — not the pro-Osama chants, nor the insistence on the implementation of sharia, nor the indifference to Christian fears. Other Egyptian political trends should confront them on these points. But, if Salafis act like Salafis in the middle of Tahrir, it shouldn’t be seen as hijacking the revolution.

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The Friday of Pragmatic Fudging to Reach Consensus

Actually, the official name of tomorrow’s demo in Tahrir is the Friday of People’s Will and United Front. Linguistically awkwardness aside, I’m glad that the Islamists and non-Islamists have managed to combine the two competitive demosĀ  that were going to be in the square today. The Ikhwan and Salafis had been planning to organize a massive demonstration aimed at swamping the current Tahrir occupation by force of numbers, a plan that easily could have led to violence. I’m a pretty staunch secularist but I can see where the Islamists were coming from: by dint of their physical occupation of Tahrir, some leftists and liberal were acting as though they were in a position to set the agenda for the rest of the country, notably by calling “principles above the constitution” that would presumably have restricted the Islamists’ ability to shape the constitution, assuming they do well in upcoming elections. The Islamists’ response was, well, if you think you can dictate terms simply by putting people in Tahrir, we can do that too.

But now, at least, the factions seem to agreed that competitive marches are maybe not the best way to go about this. I’m sure that both sides will try a few stunts to one-up each other tomorrow, but the general idea seems to be to go with a set of demands that everyone can agree upon: in particular, stopping the military trials of civilians, speedier trials of Mubarak-era officials, “justice for the martyrs” of January, and a minimum wage.

I’m glad that there’s finally a good solid front against military trials. I understand why people want swifter trials, but I think it’s a bit silly to stage a mass protest calling for them. Do they want acquittals? Judges have been coming forward in the past few weeks saying look, investigators aren’t actually giving us the evidence we need to convict. Do you want us to convict without evidence? That message doesn’t seem to have completely sunk in, but then the Casey Anthony shows that a fair number of Americans have trouble wrapping their heads around the idea of “burden of proof” as well.

I went down to the square earlier tonight, and it was filling up pretty briskly — in part, no doubt, because there was a nice breeze tonight. I’m not sure how many people were aware of the finer points of the unification agreement. A couple of shebab said that they had come down “for the sake of the martyrs”, which is on the list, but a pair of Salafi-looking lads said that they were there to object to super-constitutional principles, a more divisive point which was left off. As often happens, my quick vox pop drew in a few bystanders and then quickly expanded into a wide-ranging debate. Among other points, the two Islamists wanted to emphasize that Christian/Muslim violence could only be the work of foreign agents. This prompted a bystander to intervene: foreign agents — did they really believe that? They asked him — was he a Copt? Don’t ask that question, he said, just answer mine. (I paraphrase somewhat).

I got pulled out of that end of the conversation to deal with another Islamist-looking fellow’s questions on US Middle East policy, but it was a reminder of how Tahrir is one of those rare places where people with radically different viewpoints on Egypt’s recent history are forced to confront each other’s narratives. The Mubarak regime went out of its way to avoid having people tread on each other’s sensitivities, particularly when it came to Coptic/Muslim relations, but what they got was not tranquility but hypersensitivity. The oldly way to build a functioning pluralist society is to allow each other to hash out their differences in public.

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Optimism about the Egyptian revolution

Rami Khouri sings the praises of Egypt’s transitional period. It’s not the most clearly-written piece, but it does make an oft-missed point: there’s a real give-and-take to Egyptian politics today that bodes well for a future in which political forces compromise, rather than simply try to shout down or discredit their opponents.

SCAF has been arrogant, incompetent, and brutal — but inconsistently so. You have flashes of Mubarak-style finger-waving followed by flashes of very un-Mubaraky compromise. Mubarak would do virtually anything to avoid showing weakness, to avoid giving the impression that he was led by the street, to give himself a sense of permanence. SCAF seems to want to give the opposite impression. They hate strikes and protests, and are incredibly thin-skinned about criticism, but they also seem to want to squelch any speculation that they have any agenda other than keeping order until they can hand over power. (And retaining the military as their own private fief, of course).

My colleague Issandr makes another, longer case for optimism here. (There are several arguments on this page, but Issandr’s is the one with which I most agree.) There seems to to be an unrealistically high bar for many people in terms of considering the January 25 revolution, or uprising, or whatever you want to call it a success. Is Egypt going to be the countries that the revolutionaries dream about? No. But it’s more likely to be a more pluralistic country where political parties and NGOs are better positioned to work towards real change where it matters — controlling corruption, reducing police brutality — as opposed to having the same old faces beat you and cheat you again and again, year after year, because Mubarak has determine that they are useful to his retention of power.



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Back in Egypt

I’m now back in Egypt, hopefully for some time, so I’ll try to post more. Here’s a link to a post on about a trip I made to the south:

No silawa sightings, but I did however get a long look at a beautiful long-eared desert fox that appeared to be chasing a dove, flushed out of the cornfields at night by our headlights. The main focus of my trip was politics, however, as opposed to crypto-canids.

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Sectarian violence in Imbaba

Sarah Carr does some of the best reporting I’ve read on sectarian violence in Egypt.

I don’t want to dismiss the problem of majoritarian chauvinism among Egyptian Muslims, but Carr makes clear here that poor, socially conservative communities can often be very violent and split along all kinds of lines, not just sectarian ones.

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