December 16, 2005

“This Probably Looks Stalinist to You”

CAIRO - I met “Praktike” in the lobby of the Hotel President on Cairo’s Zamalek island. He is an American student studying Arabic at the American University of Cairo and the founder of the group blog American Footprints, formerly know as Liberals Against Terrorism.

“Let’s go somewhere off Zamalek, shall we?” I said. “This city is huge and I need to see as much of it as I can.”

“What would you like to do? Have lunch? Coffee? Smoke shisha?” A shisha is an Arabic water pipe, like a bong for flavored tobacco, also knows as a hookah, a hubbly bubbly, and an argileh.

“How about all of the above?” I said.

“I know just the place then,” he said, “in a cool neighborhood where lots of young people like to hang out.”

He hailed us a cab and we hopped in the back. I had no idea where we were going, but a cool neighborhood where lots of young people like to hang out sounded perfect. Those kinds of neighborhoods in Beirut – Gemmayze and Monot in particular – are terrific.

Praktike had a long conversation with the driver in Arabic as we blasted our way through Cairo’s homicidal maniac traffic. Clearly his Arabic studies were coming along. I can easily give taxi drivers directions in Arabic, but I can’t hold down conversations. The problem, if that is the word, is that almost everyone speaks English in Beirut. Learning Arabic there not only isn’t unnecessary, it’s almost impossible. Locals won’t speak Arabic with foreigners unless the foreigner is already fluent or the local doesn’t speak English or French. A British expat friend of mine has lived in Beirut for almost ten years, is married to a Lebanese Druze woman, and has two half-Lebanese children - and he still can’t speak Arabic. A Lebanese-American friend of mine who studied Arabic in the U.S. says his Arabic gets worse the longer he stays in Beirut.

“Here we are,” Praktike said as he paid the driver. The total fare wasn’t even a dollar.

The neighborhood looked grim and depressing, not at all what I expected from a place that hip young people had colonized. But I didn’t say anything.

“You have to revise your expectations downward in Cairo,” Praktike said, as though he knew what I was thinking. “This probably looks Stalinist to you.”

“It isn’t that bad,” I said. “Libya is Stalinist, and this is better than that. But it’s not pretty.”

“No, it’s not pretty,” he said. “But you get used to it.”

He led me into what counts in Cairo as a nice restaurant. The floors were orange tile. The chairs were made of wicker. A mild feeling of gloom hung over the place like a cloudy day just before rain. It was not even remotely like what you can easily find in Beirut’s fashionable neighborhoods.

“Do you like living in Cairo?” I said as we sat down. A beaming waiter brought us two menus and bowed.

“Well, it’s a big sprawling mess,” he said. This was certainly true. “You either hate it or love it. I think I’m in the latter category. I was bored back home in the States, and I’m not bored here at all.”

I worried that I would be bored and alienated into depression if I lived in Cairo after I saw all the sights. Going from Beirut to Cairo was like descending into a poorly lit basement. Some Americans who would visit Cairo and expect to like it won’t go anywhere near Beirut. This is incredible to me. For one thing, far more people have been killed by terrorists in Egypt than in Lebanon over the past fifteen years. Forget its reputation: Beirut is culturally, intellectually, economically, and politically more advanced by an order of magnitude. It’s unfair when Lebanon is described as Third World. Egypt, though, without question is Third World.

How far the mighty do fall. Fifty years ago Cairo was a relatively wealthy, liberal, cosmopolitan jewel of North Africa and the Middle East. Don’t even think of blaming Islam for its present wretched condition. Gamal Abdel Nasser and his secular Free Officer regime demolished this place with intellectual, political, and economic bulldozers. Hosni Mubarak’s ridiculously named National Democratic Party, which is really just a euphemism for the calcified military regime from the 1950s, has done absolutely nothing to improve things in the meantime. Wall Street Journal reporter Stephen Glain aptly described Egypt as a “towering dwarf.” I don’t think the description can be improved on.

Praktike and I ordered sandwiches, soft drinks, and a shisha to share. I asked him for a rundown of the current state of Egypt’s politics as he saw it.

“There are 21 political parties,” he said. “But 16 don’t really exist. They are newspapers, not parties. Their reporters aren’t really reporters. They have no handle on policy or ideas whatsoever. Some of them even sell access. If someone wants to smear a businessman, for instance, space can be bought for that in their pages.”

The main opposition to Mubarak’s National Democratic Party is the Muslim Brotherhood. They have been active in Egypt for 77 years, and they have built a formidable political machine through the mosques even while banned.

The two main liberal opposition parties, the Wafd and Al-Ghad, are tiny, disorganized, and woefully unprofessional. They are more like fringe parties than broad-based popular movements. It’s not that the Muslim Brotherhood truly represents everyone else – they don’t. It’s mostly because the liberal parties have not been around for as long and they have not been free to operate normally or build themselves up. They have no idea how to build grassroots support for their positions in a country where a one-party dictatorship controls or co-opts just about everything. The Muslim Brotherhood is Mubarak’s most powerful opponent by mere default.

We passed the shisha pipe between us. The tobacco flavor was apple, which is widely considered the best.

“You have to realize, too,” he said, “that a lot of the so-called independent candidates are really just NDP guys who didn’t get selected to run in their district. Some races are NDP versus NDP, even though they don’t look that way on the surface.”

What did he think of the Muslim Brotherhood?

“The MB is going to win around 100 seats in parliament,” Praktike said. (As it turned out they won 88.) “That’s 100 out of 444 seats, plus another ten appointed by Mubarak directly. That’s a lot of seats considering that they only ran 120 out of fear of being smacked down by the state if they posed too much of a threat.”

It is a big deal that the Muslim Brotherhood won more than half the seats they contested, especially since the NDP still cheated and even opened fire with live ammunition on voters.

“All the ministers are members of parliament,” Praktike said. “So the Minister of Energy,” for example, “has to face an election. In all the races where these big guys are running we are seeing vote-rigging, vote-buying, intimidation, and cheating.”

During one of the early rounds of elections in Alexandria a street battle erupted between NDP guys wielding swords and Muslim Brotherhood members who came at them with chairs. The army fired tear gas at groups of voters in Brotherhood strongholds to keep them from reaching the polls.

How extreme is the Muslim Brotherhood, really? That’s the argument that never ends in Egypt right now. That’s precisely what the Brothers want. They cleverly don’t reveal their thoughts and positions on political lightning rods. Would they actually ban alcohol if they came to power? Who knows? They won’t say. Will they force women, even foreign women and Christian Egyptians, to wear the veil? Your guess is as good as mine.

Islam is the solution is their rallying cry. But they say they want to build an Islamist state democratically.

They also claim, at least sometimes, that they are not sectarian – a rather difficult thing to believe considering that they want an Islamist state. “I went to a Muslim Brotherhood rally,” Praktike said. They chanted “Muslims and Christians, we are all Egyptians.”

That’s nice to hear. The problem Christian Egyptians have (and they make up between 10 and 15 percent of the population) isn’t that the Muslim Brotherhood won’t recognize their right to live in Egypt and be Egyptians. They worry about losing some of their already-diminished rights and being forced to live by the code of another religion.

Right now the regime is secular. And yet Christians are blatantly discriminated against when it comes to government jobs. In a country where huge swaths of the economy are controlled by the government, that’s a serious problem. There also is the matter of constructing churches. If you want to build a mosque, go right ahead. If you want to build or even repair a church, expect years of bureaucracy and being told repeatedly “no” from regime apparatchiks. If the Muslim Brotherhood ever ascends to power, Egypt’s Coptic Christians have every reason to believe the already-existing discrimination against them from the secular state will only increase under the rule of an Islamist state. Christians don’t have the numbers, the political clout, or the organization, to fend off Islamist oppression if it ever arrives. Only liberal and moderate Muslims can do that.

The Muslim Brotherhood is not armed. They are not a wing of Al Qaeda. They are a right-wing religious conservative party. And it’s hard to say how far they would go if given the chance.

“The Muslim Brotherhood is run mostly by old people,” Praktike said. “The Old Guard is definitely less moderate and less democratic. But they are also more willing to make concessions to the regime. They really don’t believe in democracy. The younger members, though, are more democratic. At least they seem to be. They talk a good game, but the way this will all play out if they ever come into power ultimately is unknowable.”

Surely it depends on how they come into power, he explained, if it ever happens. If they violently seize control, as the Ayatollah Khomeini did in Iran, the odds that Egypt’s future will be democratic are probably miniscule. If, on the other hand, the Muslim Brotherhood is ever elected to power under a constitutional system and the rule of law, they will be all but forced to make compromises with liberal and moderate Egyptians who will field their own successful candidates at the same time.

It looks to me like the Muslim Brotherhood will have a powerful impact on Egyptian politics one way or another. They already are the most popular movement opposed to the hated regime. Mubarak has three options. He can do nothing but maintain the status-quo, which is his quarter century-long specialty. He can slowly cede parliament to the Muslim Brotherhood while empowering, rather than attempting to destroy, the liberal democratic opposition in order to soften the Islamist slide. Or he can damn the consequences to his country and his soul and turn Egypt into a full-blown Stalinist state to buy himself just a little more time.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at December 16, 2005 8:19 AM
Winner, The 2007 Weblog Awards, Best Middle East or Africa Blog

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