Free and fearless in Cairo

Published: February 8, 2011

The writer is associate professor of anthropology, Middle East Studies and Asian Studies at the University of Texas, Austin and is currently a fellow at the Institute of Advanced Study at Berlin

In December 1992, Egyptian security forces raided Cairo’s poor neighbourhood of Imababa, in order to curb the growing influence of Islamist groups that were becoming a major threat to the Egyptian regime. This police action led to an unprecedented level of violence on the people of this area. Many, including women and children, were tortured during the subsequent detentions and some did not survive the ordeal. I was conducting research in Cairo during the early 1990s and, as news of police brutality filtered out, I asked my liberal Egyptian friends about the serious human rights implications of such actions. The most common reply I got was that the state was finally acting to protect the people from the threat of an Islamist takeover. The irony of such assertions, which defended the use of torture by the state to guarantee liberal freedoms, was not lost on me. Through my own previous experience as a human rights monitor in El Salvador, I knew that once torture techniques are introduced into a society, these systems do not discriminate between the body of an Islamist radical, a leftist activist or a liberal democrat. This came to pass soon enough in Egypt — once the regime had militarily annihilated the Islamist threat, it turned towards those who were agitating for human rights, democratic reforms and social justice.

I lived in Egypt for two years after this incident. During that time, the entire society was under surveillance and the dreaded Mukhabarat and Mubahis (the intelligence services) created an atmosphere of intimidation and fear. One example of this fear became evident to me when I visited a friend in another poor neighbourhood; he quickly asked me to leave as my presence could be dangerous for both me and his family. Later, I was informed that two preachers from the local mosque had been picked up by the security services on charges of being allied with the Islamists. Their disappearance had an ominous air to it. In a community where people spent most of their time greeting neighbours, visiting each other and participating in joyous and sad occasions, no one had gone to console the families of the preachers for fear of being harassed and questioned by the security police.

With rising unemployment and poverty, these neighbourhoods were considered politically volatile by the state, which feared that urban oppositional movements connected to Islamist groups would rise from these locations. While the imagery of these popular neighbourhoods as breeding ground for Islamist groups permeated the state media during my stay in Cairo, seldom was there an analysis of the social and economic violence of poverty and the lack of amenities suffered by the Egyptian rural and urban poor. The government’s solution to people’s economic demands was focused on security and order, rather than on distribution of resources or on social justice.

Once the regime had managed to crush the Islamists by the mid 1990s, they went after secular opposition members and activists, perpetrating the same violence on these bodies as they had done on the earlier ones. Fear, intimidation and political corruption remained the order of the day. In a seemingly stable Egypt, the gap between the rich and the poor increased with every passing year and every six years the farce of the president’s re-election would be carried out. All this was backed by the full force of the security apparatus and guaranteed by one of the largest armies in the region, sustained primarily by billions in military aid by the United States.

Finally, Egyptians have shaken off their fear and are forcing the ruling elite to notice them. This is a tectonic shift in the political landscape of the country and whatever the outcome, Egypt will never be the same. It is not that the proud and generous people of this ancient culture have not tried to challenge the regime before. One recent example is the Kefaya (Enough) movement of 2005-06, which called upon Mubarak not to run in the 2005 presidential elections; not to groom his son, Gamal, to succeed him; to limit the powers of the executive branch of the government; and to end the state of emergency. All these demands were rejected as Mubarak ran again, kept on grooming his son, expanded the power of the executive branch and extended the emergency.

It was hence a hypocritical Mubarak who, in his speech of February 1, agreed to step down in September, change the constitution to limit presidential terms and hold free elections. However, the regime’s real face was evident when, the very next day, it unleashed its thugs on the protesters in Tahrir Square, while the army looked the other way. The government machinery, ever sophisticated, on the one hand is calling for a dialogue while, on the other, retains its hold on power. State media generates fear of social chaos and of an Islamist takeover; it accuses ‘foreign hands’ of creating turmoil in the country, while arrests and disappearances of political activists continue with impunity.

The regime may still feel that it can marginalise the current movement or violently crush it. The most ominous sign in this regard is the role of the military itself. It has, with masterful ease, put the blame of all past oppression on the civilian security forces and is seeking to play the role of an arbitrator. This, of course, obscures the fact that Mubarak and his close allies all belong to the armed forces (including Vice-President Omar Suleiman, ex-director of the national intelligence agency). The army, after ruling the country for almost 60 years and denying the people their democratic freedoms, now wants people to believe that it can guarantee a transition to democracy.

What will happen in the coming days will depend on how the struggle sustains itself and pressurises this cynical, manipulative and oppressive regime to give up its hold on power. Here in Pakistan, despite formal democracy, the ruling elite should learn from Egypt and pay attention to the concerns of its own populace before the disenfranchised and the marginal take to the streets. For now, let us salute the brave people of Egypt and join them in their struggle for social justice and dignity. Let’s echo their slogan of ‘Yusqut Mubarak’ (‘Down with Mubarak’) and hope that we can all witness a future where Egypt is free and fearless.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 9th, 2011.

Reader Comments (13)

  • Karim Hunzai
    Feb 9, 2011 - 1:09AM

    so unique article sir,,,,in depth study of smoldering conditions imbued since 1950,s popular national government which at later stage turn into despotism ,,,, Recommend

  • Arifq
    Feb 9, 2011 - 1:12AM

    “Here in Pakistan, despite formal democracy, the ruling elite should learn from Egypt and pay attention to the concerns of its own populace before the disenfranchised and the marginal take to the streets.”

    Dear writer, Pakistan has a rich history of political movements starting from pre-partition days and witnessed against every tin pot dictator imposed on this country may it be Ayub, Yahya, Zia or Musharraf, fact is people of Pakistan have stood up against these dictators and succeeded. Sir, our democracy may not be perfect, it has its share of incompetence, corruption and poor standards but its much better than the Thirty Year dictatorship seen in Egypt. Yes, those who are protesting for their civil rights in Egypt deserve all praise but we have yet to see the fruits of freedom in Cairo. Recommend

  • Tahir Rauf
    Feb 9, 2011 - 2:43AM

    Nice article. Unfortunately all the Muslim countries are ruled by dictators mostly selected in the name of elected. Elections are meaningless and have no representation; even in a country like Pakistan government call it a democratically elected government. Egypt under Mubarak is no different than Kings of Saudi Arabia. Leaders are so rich, hold entire assets of the country. Poor will remain poor everywhere. Thanks Recommend

  • Feb 9, 2011 - 5:26AM

    You covered it totally well kamran!Recommend

  • Alsahdiq
    Feb 9, 2011 - 3:54PM

    Have we ever pondered as to why do such things happen as they are happening everywhere and more in those places where the envy of democracy would not allow any Despot to srop up, ever?
    Here is.an eamaan afroze (faith enhancing) saying, that of a Quacker called William Penn. His religious belief is reflected in what he said. He said and very rightly so ” Tyrants govern those who do not want to be governed by God”. Are we not seeing this to be true?
    When the new Muslims, true Muslims had come together to establish the first Islamic state, there was no Tyrant, no king, no Ruler, no Despot. Why? Simply because those true Muslims had got the message right and as such had come together to put up an authority of no man, but that of Lord Almighty. How did they do it ? Through a just system. The system of the people, by the people, for the people. For the well being of the whole mankind. Could it be any other way? No. No other way This is the only way. Take it or leave it.
    So we all can see. For as long as we will continue to disobey the Lord Creator and keep on refusing to come to rally round no man but the Him, and Him alone we shall always endure the rule of tyrants, despots, gangsters etc. etc. etc.
    We all want leaders.. For what? Has the world not produced enough leaders. The leader of Muslims came and went. When those early Muslims took up that leadership they won and won and won. We today are losers. Why? We reject the leadership that those winners followed. The leadership is there in the book of Wisdom for all to take. Everything is there. The takers are not there. We all need to be proactive. Active to come together in our localities to join hands with each other to become responsible citizens and to look after each other. This is what the winners did. So if we do not follow the winners we shall remain losers. For ever, for ever, for ever.Recommend

  • ahmed
    Feb 9, 2011 - 7:04PM

    @Arifq:
    Yes, Sir, a 30 year ruthless dictatorship can not be compared with Pakistan’s political
    system, however imperfect.Recommend

  • Adam Frank
    Feb 9, 2011 - 10:47PM

    A wonderful analysis, Kamran! I hope it gets reprinted in US newspapers and you get some broadcast media interview invitations, too. I’ve been truly shocked at the Glenn Beck-ish critique against the demonstrations based on an argument for “stability.” Haven’t we heard this argument from tyrants for a thousand years?Recommend

  • Feb 10, 2011 - 12:53AM

    Awesome piece. This should also serve as a warning to all the war-mongering, drone-loving liberatti of Mamlikat Allahbakhsh Pakwatan. Violence is NOT the answer; and the same techniques that are used — justly or unjustly — against the ‘other’ can, and [going by the State's past record of opposition to progressive movements and even thoughts, will] be used against ‘you’ tomorrow.Recommend

  • smar
    Feb 10, 2011 - 8:44AM

    A Great Article, it sums up the situation perfectly and provides comparative lessons for us in Pakistan as well. I keep going back to the early days of the movement to restore democracy in 2007 when President Musharaf went berserk and imposed martial law. He tried to use the same ruse of stability and security to justify his dictatorship and he trolled out the bogey man of terrorism. There was great hope when the people resisted and the dictator failed to get the people to abide by the martial law, we know about the lawyers movement but I remember seeing students who felt empowered for the first time. Yes it wasn’t for everyone but there was hope for something better greater and more empowering, when young folks felt that they could do something for broader society. Alas, our state managers were more adept in creating chaos, our exiled discredited politicians were only to eager to cut deals, and our military too adept in handling superficial transitions of power. Now we are where we are with little sense of direction. One thing for sure, those who have been protesting in Tahrir square have started something that will reverberate all over the Muslim world where we have been given the false choice of authoritarianism versus Islamic radicalism, when what people really want is a better more open, hopeful and just future. Recommend

  • a ercelan
    Feb 10, 2011 - 11:20AM

    well put.Recommend

  • Umer
    Feb 10, 2011 - 11:25AM

    @ “once the regime had militarily annihilated the Islamist threat, it turned towards those who were agitating for human rights, democratic reforms and social justice.”…

    clever use of language…

    As though the “Islamist threat” too wasn’t clamoring for “human rights, democratic reforms and social justice.”

    The Islamists may have different articulations of all three mentioned above, but they too, generally, affirm all three… and rally for these… actually, no one has given more sacrifices for these than the so-called “Islamist threat”…Recommend

  • Jeddy
    Feb 10, 2011 - 1:05PM

    Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority the freedom it has taken away can be taken by the people by force. Freedom is not a privilege it is a right.Recommend

  • Anwar Hasan
    Feb 12, 2011 - 10:10PM

    Excellent article Kamran. I remember you used to tell us about Egypt and its government. I hope all goes well for Egypt.Recommend

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