Lately I've found myself thinking back to those horrible American soap operas (the "Bold and the Beautiful," etc.) that my late grandmother used to watch. She managed to find interest in what seemed to me like a sickeningly repetitive story (love, betrayal, and borderline incestuous relationships). Each season introduced new protagonists and guest stars who frolicked alongside the core cast. This ensured, for lack of a new storyline, some diversity of faces and names to keep the audience entertained (or at least mildly interested).
I don't know much about the code of conduct of U.N. Peacekeepers, such as those deployed in the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO). But I'm going to assume that it's probably OK for peacekeepers to post photos of people that they meet on their Facebook group even if they are politically sensitive.
MINURSO Facebook Page
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Mocking rulers is a tradition almost as old as rule itself. At times mockery is subtle and allegorical; at others it is blunt, sometimes gauche, but always funny. Some wonderful examples are the fables of Nasreldin Goha, a folkloric character rumored to have lived in thirteenth century Turkey. One of his jokes comes to mind:
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What has changed in Tunisia since opposition leader Chokri Belaid was assassinated? I've asked many Tunisian friends that question. Most remained silent for a few seconds, smiled sadly, and whispered, "not much." One, a well-known activist, noted bitterly that what was clear was that Belaid didn't die "for that incompetent man (Laarayadh) to become prime minister".
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RABAT, Morocco – Yegor Talikov, a street musician, was playing his saxophone on the Hotel Balima plaza in Rabat. Some passersby slowed down without stopping, but a few did gather around, occasionally making song requests that the musician was happy to oblige.
Photo by Mohamed El Dahshan
There is one tradition that Muslims and Jews in the West agree on: They both like to eat Chinese food on Christmas Eve. It's a way of marking a day that both acknowledge to be special and joyful, but without the big family dinner and all the attendant hoopla. It's a gesture that contains just the right hint of detachment: "I'm happy, but it's not really my day to celebrate."
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What happens when you are the head of a poor household -- so poor that there is only a single room for you, your spouse, and your three children, ages 15 to 20 -- and suddenly, as you protest near the presidential palace, you become the victim of an abhorrent injustice that thrusts you into the national limelight? Or, to be precise, your naked body is being kicked by the police, hit with batons, and dragged from the limbs across the cold asphalt, all caught by a television camera and broadcast live to millions of homes.
"I called people up so they would join the revolution. And they died. I let (Ahmed) Harara walk onto Mohamed Mahmoud Street, and he was blinded. My friends, who weren't into politics but whom I talked into coming to the streets, died... All so you would block porn sites, you sons of bitches?"
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An Egyptian expatriate friend asked me recently about the state of the Egyptian military back home.
It's a difficult question. The military has always been mysterious, and that's just as true in respect to its business interests as its military capabilities. The former, however, appears to be more jealously guarded than the latter.
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My father recently bought a new copy of an old book. We couldn't buy it earlier because it was virtually impossible to get one when Hosni Mubarak was president. You'll understand why when you hear the title: Dictatorship for Beginners: Bahgatos, President of Greater Bahgatia. (You can see a copy here -- in Arabic, but you don't have to understand the text to enjoy it).
"The most certain test by which we judge whether a country is really free is the amount of security enjoyed by minorities," John Dalberg-Acton wrote in 1877. Egypt now seems to be reveling in its failure to pass that test. (Though I should add that a certain degree of caution is advisable here.)
This week I attended two events in Cairo devoted to Egypt's economic situation, but the setting could easily have been any point in the decade prior to the January 2011 revolution -- for better or for worse.
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With her white hijab and the slight gap between her teeth, Fatma Nabil looks like my cousin. She probably looks like everybody's cousin.
Yet after presenting the afternoon news last week, Fatma became the most recognizable face on Egyptian television: She is, after all, Egypt's first veiled TV news anchor. Ever.
Their budgets may be a tad tighter and their delegations smaller, but developing countries are no less excited about the Olympics than their northern counterparts. There are, in fact, a number of transition countries with Olympic stories that are making big waves in their home nations and around the world. (And the clumsy responses of the International Olympic Committee almost always help to make the waves even bigger.) Here's a brief roundup of the Nations in Transition Olympic News (let's call this our NiTON review):
1. The South Sudanese athlete with no flag
The rigid IOC rigid rulebook stipulates that a new country's application to join the organization must take two years. South Sudan, which has declared independence in July 2011, falls short of this criterion. The IOC, with its usual brilliance, suggested that the South Sudanese athletes compete under the Sudanese flag -- not the most sensitive suggestion for the various parties involved, considering that South Sudan recently celebrated the first anniversary of secession from its northern neighbor.
What a waste of ink and pixels. On Monday, with much brouhaha, Egypt commemorated 60 years since the deposing of King Farouk by a military movement that called itself "The Free Officers." That movement went on to dominate the country both politically and economically for the following six decades. As the leading figures in the movement died off, they propped up new protégés (such as Hosni Mubarak) to take over from them.
Since the presidential elections in Egypt a few weeks ago, the new first lady's choice of headdress has been a constant topic of debate. Naglaa Ali Mahmoud, the wife of president-elect Mohamed Morsi, wears a long, conservative hijab that covers her head and torso. This has opened the door to endless commentary. Some have taken this as inspiration to discuss what her official function should be. Others relentlessly mock her dress (seen as conservative and low-class). Still others indulge in purely islamophobic ruminations about whether a hijabi woman is fit to represent Egypt at international affairs.
That most Egyptian women wear hijab doesn't seem to factor into those comments. The mockery flared again last week, as charming photos of Mexico's new young presidential couple, Enrique Peña Nieto and his wife, telenovela star Angélica Rivera, were juxtaposed with those of Egypt's new first family -- and not in favor of the latter.
There were presidential elections. Both candidates declared victory. The Higher Electoral Commission ruled to delay the official announcement of the results "indefinitely." Mubarak was declared brain-dead, then in a coma, then neither.
So it's great news for everyone. Both camps are celebrating: Mubarak's detractors are glad to see him die, while his fans celebrate his recovery from the brink!
Joking aside, "indecision" is the word of the week in Egypt, and none of the above seems to matter.
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This week, the Egyptian military made its boldest attempt yet to regain control over a country that has been slipping from its grip.
The two Thursday rulings from Egypt's Constitutional Court -- which effectively disbanded parliament while allowing Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak's last prime minister, to run for president (his image trampelled on, above) -- have thrown the whole political situation into chaos. But there's an even more ominous part of the story that everyone seems to be overlooking.
The first is denial. And that's what we're experiencing in Egypt right now -- for we've ended up with the worst possible outcome from the first round of our presidential elections. The winners are Ahmed Shafiq, a Mubarak loyalist whose spent most of his last post as prime minister during the 2011 revolution trying to smother the revolution and kill its children, and who now threatens violence and an "iron fist" at every opportunity; and Mohammed Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood leader who wasn't even his own party's first choice, and whose lack of charisma and imagination threaten to bore us to death over the next four years while curtailing our social and personal freedoms in accordance to the Muslim Brotherhood's conservative agenda.
Three days after the preliminary results were announced, the High Electoral Commission confirmed them with minor changes. The Commission claimed that it had used this interval to investigate fraud allegations and appeals, all of which it dismissed. Voters used the time to digest the news and find ways to deal with their disappointment.
I ticked the ballot, dropped it in the box, and promptly left. I wanted to get it over with as quickly as possible. I'm glad there was no finger inking. My heart wasn't in it.
Never would I have thought that casting a vote in our first presidential elections, more than a year after the revolution, would feel so uninspiring -- bitter, even.
As I've said repeatedly, Egyptians are in damage control mode, attempting to salvage the country from the vagaries of Mubarak's goons -- the political or the street variety -- and the sectarian Islamist parties, who are all putting their own interests ahead of the nation's.
In the absence of a favored candidate, the methodology of damage control suggests that we proceed by elimination: The least bad candidate wins.
Egypt's presidential elections will take place less than four weeks from now and we still don't know who's running. As I've said before in this column (this sentence is fast becoming a fixture of my assessment of Egyptian politics): if it sounds ridiculous, that's because it is.
So far the list of candidates being served up by the Electoral Commission seems as changeable as the menu du jour of a capricious chef. The Commission's website, with no irony whatsoever, is displaying a blank candidate list on its homepage with the date "26 April 2012" in small characters below it, the date the final list is to be announced.
Over the weekend, the electoral commission disqualified 10 of 23 presidential candidates for not fulfilling the conditions to run for election. The commission gave them two days to submit appeals. By law, the decisions of the commission are final.
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Attention all dictators! Are any of you looking to pass a constitution tailored to keep you in power while maintaining a semblance of democracy and representation? If so, look no further: just heed the example of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood (represented by its political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party), and their close ally, the Salafi Al-Nour party. The following suggestions should provide you with everything you need in order to turn your back on your nation's revolution -- indeed, on the nation itself -- and torpedo the dreams of the generation that, at the price of their very lives, created the conditions that allowed you to come to power.
Taking a note from the Brotherhood playbook, the following steps are a foolproof recipe to sideline opposing opinions and, along with them, the vast silent majority of the population:
- Whenever possible, state that the process of drafting the constitution will be an inclusive process that represents all strands of the population, as drafting a constitution must be a consensual effort.
Walls. The Egyptian army's answer to protests has, for the past six months, been to build walls. The construction of these walls at a few key points in downtown Cairo, blocking major streets in one of the world's already hardest-to-navigate capitals, is severely damaging the neighborhood, both economically and socially. But that was the least of their concerns. (How very Israeli of them!).
The aesthetics of these walls is, naturally, horrendous. They're little more than cubes of stone piled up across the streets, sometimes several meters high.
Anwar El Balkimy, a Member of Parliament for the Nour Party, underwent a nose job on Feb. 29 in the private Salma Hospital in the posh Cairene district of El Agouza. He insisted on leaving the clinic, according to its manager, on the same evening the procedure was performed. In so doing he defied their advice that he remain under supervision for another day.
By itself this story would offer little cause for headlines. But Nour just happens to be the party of those ultraconservative Islamists, the salafis, and they explicitly deem plastic surgery as forbidden by religion. This was probably why he refused to remain bedridden: He was afraid of getting caught. But how could he conceal his new nose from his fellow MPs once the bandages were off?
That's when it gets really entertaining.
Here's what Nikolai Gogol writes about the leading character in his short story The Nose: "...[A]s though visited with a heavenly inspiration, he resolved to go directly to an advertisement office, and to advertise the loss of his nose."
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I've been waiting for this story to die away but it doesn't appear to want to. I'm observing its escalation with amused horror. Amused, because it looks like the Egyptian military government is effectively bullying the U.S. in a crisis neither really controls. Horror, because when all is said and done the losers will be the Egyptian people.
A brief recap: In December, the Egyptian authorities raided the offices of 17 humanitarian organizations. The police confiscated documents, money, computers. The government, basing its actions on a shameful and draconian Mubarak-era law, accused the groups of receiving illegal funding from overseas and operating in Egypt without proper registration.
Four of the 17 are U.S.-based organizations: the International Republican Institute (IRI), the National Democratic Institute (NDI), the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ), and Freedom House. One is German, the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung. Several of the groups' staffers, including such notable figures as Nasser Amin, director of the Arab Center for the Independence of the Judiciary and Legal Profession, were detained and questioned for hours on end.
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Transitions is the group blog of the Democracy Lab channel, a collaboration between Foreign Policy and the Legatum Institute.