Farewell Ms. Weinstein

"You must be Esti's grandson," said one lady as she pinched my cheek. "Leave him be. He's a guest," responded Carmen Weinstein as she moved a tray of sandwiches under the sukkah.

The first time I spoke to Weinstein, who presided over the Jewish Community Council of Cairo until her passing last week, was when I called her out of the blue to ask if I could attend the celebration of Sukkot in Cairo. I had read about the week long holiday (and watched iconic film Ushpizin), so I thought I'd give it a try. After all, one of the main traditions is to give shelter to a visitor. "I am Muslim, I must point out." But her only question was, "are you a journalist?" At the time, in 2008, I had never written for the press, and so she replied "you're very welcome." It was amusing to see that the only ones who objected to my attendance were the police guards posted by the entrance of the synagogue.

In the synagogue's yard however, it was a much more relaxed ambience. There were mostly elderly ladies, some people with their children, and a few expatriates in need of a sukkah for the holidays. And yes, the cheek-pinching (is it a Jewish grandma quintessential thing to do?) did occur. There's a reason for this -- only a few dozen remain in the Egyptian Jewish community, which once numbered 80,000, and many of those are married to Muslims or Christians. So this Mohamed could very well have been Esti's grandson.

When I interviewed Ms. Weinstein much later, she called to thank me, because I "had written what she had said, no more and no less." Her experience with the media hadn't always been positive -- journalists almost regularly mangled her quotes, and at times completely made up stories. As such, she was reasonably wary of the press and maintained a low profile.

As the president of the Cairo Jewish Community Council (JCC), Carmen fought for the recognition of the Egyptian Jewish community. Tasked with ensuring the continued existence of Judaism's past, present, and future in the land of Moses, she had the incredibly difficult task of representing (primarily vis-à-vis her co-citizens and government) Egyptian citizens regularly accused of foreign agency without falling in the trap of engaging her detractors and accusers. She knew well enough that the only way to win this game was not to play it; thereby shielding her community from local and external attacks.

As such, beside caring for her community and guests, she regularly had to juggle the omnipresent Egyptian State Security concerns, overzealous foreign guests bent on showing support when she didn't need it, the fanfare of U.S. ambassadors who regularly attended the religious celebrations, Israeli embassy staff (who even when they are there on a personal capacity are still a potential source of public tension), foreign organizations keen on robbing away what's left of the Egyptian Jewish heritage for "safekeeping" in Brooklyn or elsewhere, and various unscrupulous lawyers attempting to put their hands on buildings and temples belonging to the JCC. She did it all with an unflinching grace that would come to be her trademark. 

Weinstein's lobbying allowed for the registration of several Jewish temples as national antiquities, thereby preventing their sale, but also getting the Ministry of State for Antiquities to include them in its plan for the restoration of national monuments. One of her key accomplishments was overseeing the restoration of the Mosheh Ben Maimon (Maimonides) synagogue in Cairo, which ended in 2010. On that occasion, Ms. Weinstein and the Jewish Community Council put together an opportunity for Egyptian Jews who had left the country over the previous decades to visit the Maimonides synagogue as well as many other temples normally sealed to the public. She saved me an invitation, again in personal capacity. As I toured the Bassatine cemetery -- the second oldest Jewish cemetery still in use worldwide -- alongside people visiting their parents' and grandparents' tombstones for the first time in half a century, I listened to stories of their childhood best friends in the streets of Cairo and Alexandria. I was privileged to gain a glimpse into the lives of a nearly-invisible Egyptian community, which whether at home or abroad, still exists. Apart from the romanticism of a "happy together" past, it was and remains an important part of our history.

I've read many obituaries over the past few days which described Carmen as the Iron Lady. Perhaps she was in many respects; I always saw this as a necessary trait for her duties. Her trust was not easily earned, but she was always honest and open, very friendly when at ease, and always willing to share a laugh.

So what next for the Cairene Jewish community? As I attended Carmen's funeral this week in Cairo, I saw the cemetery in worse shape than I had last in 2010. Sewage had crawled over a larger section of the cemetery -- so much that Weinstein's family section was inaccessible, and she had to be buried on the other side of the cemetery. Brick buildings were encroaching on the tombs, and stray dogs roamed unimpeded.

New leadership for the Jewish Community Council has been elected, in the face of Magda S. Haroun, who will be shouldered by her sister Nadia -- both daughters of iconic Egyptian socialist and humanist figure Shehata Haroun. Two decades younger than her predecessor, Magda gave a speech at Ms. Weinstein's funeral that seemed to set the path for more openness with the rest of the Egyptian society, while maintaining the necessary emphasis on safeguarding Egyptian Jewish history.

There is some renewed interest in the history of Egyptian Jews, as signified by the popular interest in a documentary currently playing in Egyptian cinemas (in my book it gets an A for effort and a D for research and cinematography, but might be worth watching anyway).

In the midst of the political mess Egypt is going through, this is one transition I am actually looking forward to observing.

Goodbye, Carmen Weinstein. You will be greatly missed.

Mohamed El Dahshan is the Egypt blogger for Transitions. Read the rest of his posts here.      



The showdown in Caracas

Events in Venezuela are rapidly coming to a head. Following a flurry of recriminations, a showdown is looming between President Nicolás Maduro, the erratic heir to Hugo Chávez, and Henrique Capriles, the leader of the united opposition and a man facing some very difficult decisions. 

This current crisis stems from a dispute over the outcome of a special presidential election held Sunday to pick a successor to the late President Chávez. Following a process characterized by numerous oddities, Maduro was declared to have just narrowly eked out a win by less than 235,000 votes (or 1.5 percent of the electorate.) And that was before some 150,000 votes cast by Venezuelan expatriates were counted -- a group of people who have, in the past, voted against Chávez at a rate of over 90 percent in recent years. 

In the wake of the official announcement, Vicente Diaz, himself a member of the five-person Central Electoral Commission (CNE), publicly requested that his colleagues allow for a full manual recount. Capriles himself soon echoed the recount request, stating that he would not concede the election until each vote has been accounted for. At first, Maduro used a rambling victory speech to assure Capriles that he would be happy to allow a recount, since it would only prove a greater margin of victory for the government. Yet by the next morning the revolutionary dauphin had changed his mind. Since then the "Madurista" regime has rejected the possibility of any additional scrutiny of the vote. 

Meanwhile, undeterred, Capriles and his allies have been attempting to exert pressure on the government from every angle to get them to agree to a public recount. Actively cultivating international support, Capriles has given press conferences to foreign journalists, including an appearance Tuesday night on CNN Español. Somewhat surprisingly, Capriles' strategy actually seems to be getting some traction. International pressure for a recount is rising. Capriles has received strong support from the U.S. State Department, the Organization of American States, the Spanish Government, the European Union, and even the Socialist International

By late Sunday night, demonstrations were taking place across the country, and outbreaks of violence between government and opposition supporters soon followed. According to state media, there have already been seven deaths and many scores of injured. The government places the blame for this squarely upon Capriles, whom Maduro has compared to Hitler and "his fascists," who, he claims, are fomenting a coup d'état with the backing of the United States. Meanwhile, Capriles continues to accuse Maduro of electoral fraud and numerous other constitutional violations. In a part of the world long plagued by political violence, there is considerable concern that all this could easily spiral out of control. 

The morning after the election, Capriles called for a large public demonstration. The plan was for him and his supporters to walk across Caracas to the seat of the Central Election Commission, where they were to issue a formal demand for a recount. While article 68 of the Venezuelan constitution guarantees the right to peaceful, unarmed demonstrations, Maduro was quick to forbid the move: "Now they're planning to march to the center of Caracas tomorrow," he declared. "That is not going to be allowed, you are not going to go there to fill it with your death and blood: I will not allow it, do as you will. I will wield an iron fist against fascism and intolerance." 

This in turn left Capriles in something of a quandary. A march in open defiance of the ban would likely have triggered a crackdown by government security forces or pro-government militias that could have ended with many supporters injured or killed. Yet a climb-down was almost sure to demoralize opposition supporters. In the end Capriles ended up giving a major press conference on Tuesday evening in which he detailed his allegations of widespread electoral fraud. He also used the occasion to announce that he was suspending the protest, claiming that armed government agents disguised as opposition supporters had planned to infiltrate the demo. The risk of violence, he said, was too great. 

Capriles asked instead that his supporters continue expressing themselves by way of cacerolazo, a traditional form of Latin American popular protest in which dispersed people bang pots and pans together at the same time. In this case it's a much safer attention-gathering mechanism than conventional street demonstrations. Maduro countered Capriles' request by requesting that his supporters send off "Bolivarian fireworks" to drown out the opposition clamor. As can be seen in this clip, the resulting din was somewhat unworldly. 

Meanwhile, beyond the fireworks, Maduro has likewise fought back by utilizing his party's near complete control of national institutions to undermine Capriles and his allies. The acting president has stated that he will shut off the flow of government funds to Capriles' home state of Miranda: "If they won't recognize us, I will not recognize them." On Tuesday, opposition representatives in the National Assembly were told that they would no longer be able to address the chamber unless they recognize Maduro. Two members of the assembly, Julio Borges and William Davilla, were attacked within its walls by angry pro-government colleagues so violently that Davilla had to be hospitalized. (Chavistas won't say what motivated the attack and Davilla and his friends say it was unprovoked.) 

The people on the island of Curacao, where both Maduro and Capriles have family roots, use a cryptic old saying: "If a rock hits an egg, it's bad luck for the egg; if an egg hits a rock, it's bad luck for the egg." With all the powers of the state and armed forces at his command, Maduro clearly enjoys rock status. Why then is he so nervous? 

"If you want to overthrow me, come and get me," Maduro declared at one point. Fighting words, to be sure, and yet Maduro's actions betray a certain sense of weakness. On Tuesday alone, Maduro used his office to seize the airwaves on five separate occasions, often seemingly just to interrupt Capriles press conferences, or to drown out moments in which the former candidate was addressing his own supporters or the international media. Venezuelan government authorities have already opened formal investigations of Capriles and other opposition leaders (including Vicente Diaz of the CNE) on charges of "inciting violence." This morning arrest warrants were issued, and then suspended, in a rather ominous (or disorganized) fashion. 

A less visible crackdown is also well under way. According to Alfredo Romero, an acclaimed human rights attorney and a member of the Capriles campaign, over three hundred student protesters (many of them underage) have been arrested nationwide. Some are being held incommunicado. 

"There are protests around the country," he told me earlier today. "Venezuela is in the grip of a polarization that has been actively created by the national government." Yet now, for the first time in over a decade, the socialist supporters are no longer numerically dominant, and the other half, after years of perceived repression at the hands of revolutionary institutions, retains very little faith in them. 

According to Romero, this is why he doesn't think that opposition leaders like Henrique Capriles or Leopoldo Lopez will actually go to jail. "In this country, such prosecutions are political, not judicial, and everyone knows it. Strategically it would be a bad move." To Romero, Capriles has now established himself as a necessary bulwark against the pent-up frustrations of around half the Venezuelan population -- sentiments that, without him, could bubble over at any time. "Just as Capriles called off his protest yesterday to avoid bloodshed, he has remained a responsible leader," says Romero. "Remove him and other [opposition] leaders from the equation and you are left with something that the government cannot so easily control." 

Romero stresses that these opinions are his own, and not necessarily representative of the opposition's plans. He says that he doesn't envy the difficult decisions Capriles now faces. "We're a tropical country -- a passionate country where emotions rule, not cool reason. Right now there is excitement and enthusiasm. Capriles cannot risk losing it and he will if he isn't firm in his positions. Yet go too far and..." He trails off. 

That's the tightrope that the opposition now has to walk. Will noisemaking and appeals for international support really be sufficiently powerful tools to sway the regime into opening up its electoral books? Should Capriles call for massive protests or civil disobedience, almost certainly leading to his own arrest and increased bloodshed? When does the need for political justice override the need for societal peace? Venezuelans are about to confront these questions head-on.

Daniel Lansberg-Rodríguez is a fellow at the Comparative Constitutions Project and is a regular columnist for the Venezuelan daily newspaper El Universal. His Twitter handle is @Dlansberg.