Apology for the temporary break in posting my weekly Egypt’s compilation, due to the passing of my mother. Here is a summery of news and reports from the first few days of 2021; full compilation to follow next Sunday.
Wish you all a happier and healthier New Year.
Egypt and Algeria agree to intensity joint coordination to restore Libya’s security, stability
Egypt confirms participation in GERD talks with Ethiopia, Sudan
Egypt summons Ethiopian diplomat over Nile dam remarks
Egypt denies plans to join states opening Western Sahara consulates
Egypt’s former top diplomat Amr Moussa tests positive for coronavirus
“It ‘s the only way of life I’ve known. I was raised by a single mum.”
Today, being a single mother is not uncommon in the West, but decades ago, in a conservative Muslim majority society, raising a child alone was,to put it mildly, unorthodox.
My mother, or Madam Esmat as her neighbors and colleagues called her, was an Egyptian lady like no other. As a middle class lady from Egypt’s bygone era of elegance and grace, she lived a very humble life. She was pious but liberal, feminist but traditional, soft but determined, reserved but warm and welcoming. Such an eclectic mix of qualities undoubtedly helped her survive Egypt’s turbulent social changes after the collapse of the monarchy until today.
Unlike most Egyptians, my mother’s family was pure Cairene (natives of Cairo) with Turkish blood. They adopted an incredibly multicultural outlook, which eventually affected the way she raised me. She sent me to an Italian school, occasionally treated me to desert at her favourite Greek café (Charinos), and only bought beef sausage, salami, and cheese from a trusted Armenian deli.
In her parental home, she enjoyed a way of life that was much less hurried. She grew up among beautiful surroundings full of herbs and vegetable gardens as well as rare trees such as the Bambozia (Syzygium cumin) and the Zapota. Bambozia fruits are dark sweet, olive-sized berries that are incredibly delicious. Picking bambozia was my favourite mission, much to the dismay of Mum, who dreaded seeing her daughter climbing the huge trees like a little monkey. Meanwhile, Zapota was my Mum’s favourite because it was ideal for making exquisite jam. Sadly, both trees have practically vanished from Egypt today.
My mother endured two phases of relative financial constraint following the death of her father and then later the sudden death of my dad. Unlike her peers, she did not seek a wealthy husband to overcome these financial challenges. Instead, she became determined to finish her education while working extra hours to earn the necessary income. She, a Muslim, used her piano skills to teach music in a private Christian school. During this time, she also developed a special interest in Buddhism, the life of Buddha, and his passage into Nirvana, a name she became so fond of that she eventually chose it as the name of her only daughter (although my father misspelled it on the birth certificate). She eventually graduated from University and had a law degree.
My father’s sudden death left my mother with a young baby to raise on her own, dramatically changing her life. Despite the discouraging attitudes of her family and in-laws, she stood firm and took decisions that shaped her life and mine. She decided not to remarry and declined offers to work in the Gulf to earn a comfortable income. She chose to raise her daughter alone, despite the sharp decline of her income. She would eat just one meal a day to ensure that she could feed me three. She wore black for seven years following Dad’s passing, saying, “It is much cheaper and elegant.” It didn’t take long for me to understand that it not only saved money, but also enabled her to repel marriage proposals.
During childhood, I had more than my fair share of health issues. The worst was when I temporarily lost my vision after a failed eye surgery. During those “dark” days, my mother did not despair; she diligently read many storybooks to me and made me focus on the day when I would read them with my own eyes. She reassured me that I would remember those days as “happy days.” She was absolutely right.
Moreover, she created a cultural refuge for me at home, in the once leafy suburb of Cairo, Heliopolis. An in-home summer camp, taught me piano, introduced me to opera and classic music, and got me a membership in the almost deserted culture centre and public library. She introduced me to the world of Charles Dickens, Jane Austin, Jean-Paul Sartre, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, the Bronte sisters, Naguib Mahfouz, and a long, long list of others.
Both my mother and I were feminists by necessity. With her hard work and creative improvisations, while also embracing endless DIY jobs to save money, we eventually overcame numerous hardships and challenges. However, her quest to survive single-motherhood while maintaining her beliefs and way of life had its hidden costs. She could not afford to mingle with the rich and decadent elite; she could also not integrate with the increasingly conservative middle and working class.
Yet she remained undeterred, as always. She embraced unorthodoxy and resisted any attempt to mould herself or her daughter into the traditional Egyptian life. At the same time, however, she built and maintained strong relationships with colleagues and neighbours, who admired her discipline, hard work, straight talk, and impeccable time management.
I used to think the tenacious lady who raised me against all the odds would defy death as well. After all, she had witnessed most of Egypt’s modern turbulent events, from the collapse of the monarchy to the ousting of the Muslim Brotherhood’s president Morsi, and adapted to all of them with astounding resilience. Not even Alzheimer’s could take away her determination. Her tears were precious; she shed few tears following the dismantling of Heliopolis tram.
However, in the end, it was Covid that brought her remarkable life to an end. Such an exceptional woman would never have left this life in an ordinary year.
Shadi Hamid and Mustafa Akyol are two smart pundits with slightly different agendas. Shadi Hamid is an avid defender of political Islam, which he considers a legitimate conservative expression of the Islamic faith. Mustafa Akyol, on the other hand, believes in what he describes as “the flourishing of liberalism in the nineteenth-century Ottoman Empire” and “the unique Islamo-liberal synthesis,” as an answer to challenges facing Muslims in the modern world.
The two pundits’ stances on Islam and Islamism are not identical. Recently, however, Shadi Hamid and Mustafa Akyol decided to put their differences aside and unite in criticising France, the French version of secularism“Laïcité” and the latestnew law tackling Islamist extremism – the Anti-Separatism Bill, which the French Government unveiled a few days ago.
Shadi Hamid, who has passionately defended Muslim majoritarianism and illiberalism, is now critical of France’s alleged illiberalism and secularism, despite his own admission that the vast majority of the French public supports secularism. Hamid insists that Islam is inherently political, and then accuses French secularism of being anti-Islam; not political Islam. I previously wrote explaining how Hamid’s “Islamic exceptionalism” is a flawed concept. In the past, Hamid has repeatedly argued against the West’s attempts to advocate change or reforms in the Muslim world, but now he sees no problem in demanding that the French people change their form of secularism and accept regressive Muslim behaviours.
Mustafa Akyol, on the other hand, has taken a different stance, labelling the French approach “unhelpful.” Akyol claims he understands laïcité because his country, Turkey, in his view, has imitated the French model for almost a century, referring to Kemalism imposed by the Turkish leader Ataturk.
Indeed, secular Turkey was illiberal and authoritarian, which backfired and ultimately contributed to the rise of the current authoritarian one-man rule in Turkey. However, to pile the Turkish and French experiences into one basket is a big error of judgment; it demonstrates that the writer either does not understand laïcité or deliberately tries to distort it.
Unlike Ataturk, the French leaders did not impose secularism on their subjects, which is precisely why both countries have had different religious and social discourses. Moreover, modern France has no record of coups or dictatorship that sabotaged the democratic process in Turkey on various occasions.
As French diplomat Charles Thepaut aptly explained, Mustafa Akyol confuses policies and legal rules, for which a government is responsible, with social trends and behaviours. “Laïcité,” is a principle framing a policy, while bigotry and racism are behaviours found in all societies.
It is deeply disappointing to see that both pundits have resorted to demonising French secularism, bewailing the “oppression” of Muslims in France, instead of standing by France when it needed Muslim intellectuality to fight terrorism, emotionalism and hate campaigns, Two non-French Muslims felt entitled to reject “laïcité” – a very sovereign French concept supported by the vast majority of French people, regardless of political affiliation. Both writers fully understand that most of the Muslims who opted to immigrate to France were fully aware of France’s secular lifestyle and culture, but decided to go ahead and settle in the country. One could argue that any application for residency in France is a tacit consent to the country’s “assertive secularism”.
Moreover, both pundits didn’t retract their criticism of the new French law, despite publication of its draft, and it has become clear that most of the allegations against it, as Liam Duffy rightly explained, have been unfounded. This Twitter thread by Mujtaba Rahman is also insightful.
Reading Shadi Hamid’s and Mustafa Akyol’s conceited views was as painful as watching the Netflix series “Emily in Paris.” The main protagonist, Emily, feels she has the right to lament the “illogical” European approach to numbering the floors of a building; she boastfully insists she can bring an “American perspective” to French management, despite failing to speak French. Emily means well though, and ends up adapting to the French way, while maintaining her personality and beliefs; sadly, that is not what Shadi Hamid and Mustafa Akyol are enticing Muslims to do.
Postscript Twitter thread
To add more perspective to the above piece, I herewith include a few tweets, by various commentators, which can shed broader light on France’s secularism and its new anti-separatism bill.
This top headline dominated Western media coverage of the Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s visit to France. Regional observers took that headline as a proof of the complicity of European countries, particularly France, in oppression against human rights and democracy activists in Egypt. The reality, however, is far more complex.
I watched the joint press conference of Presidents Sisi and Macron, in which the mention of arm deals was one line, and the rest of the French president’s speech and comments to journalists were about democracy and human rights. He particularly mentioned one activist’s name and highlighted how civil society protects and empowers the state; he also passionately defended the superiority of human values above others, including religious values.
It is baffling how his words have been interpreted as a betrayal of democratic values in the Anglo-American sphere. Judging by how he openly mentioned the case of Egyptian-Palestinian BDS activist Rami Shaath, whom the Egyptian government has consistently accused of terrorist links, it is clear that Macron is unwilling to abandon human rights issues, despite his desire to forge a strong alliance with Egypt’s Sisi.
There are two approaches to addressing human rights issues in autocratic states: Either an orchestrated international campaign with threats of boycott, or with a more behind-closed-doors approach.
Human rights activists may prefer the first approach, attributing the latest release of three EIPR NGO activists in Egypt to their global international campaign. The most plausible explanation, however, is the Egyptian president’s visit to France, as Egyptian leadership would be keen to avert a diplomatic embarrassment. It is worth highlighting how similar global campaigns have failed to produce any effective results—for example, the global outrage after the brutal murder of Italian activist Regeni in Egypt. The case is formally closed in Egypt, despite conflicting statements on his death offered by Italy.
Moreover, it is disingenuous to link the French stance solely to an arms deal. According to the same Reuters report, Egypt’s arms deal with France was struck before 2017. It is highly unlikely that Egypt can afford to buy more arms from France in the foreseeable future, not only because of financial constraints, but also due to the Egyptian president’s long-term policy of diversifying military resources and not solely depending on one country for arms imports.
France and Egypt need each other for wide variety of reasons other than arms import. They both see Turkey as a destabilizing force that undermines their mutual national interests, they both see political Islamist groups as a threat to their national security, and both are keen to stop the tsunami of failed states that have plagued the region over the last decade.
The notion that Western pressure will solve human rights issues in Egypt is rather naïve, even disingenuous. Many strong advocates of harsher treatment of Sisi’s regime in Cairo are reluctant to impose sanctions on other countries with poor human right records like Turkey, the top jailer of journalists in the world, and Ethiopia, despite the brutal campaign in Tigarey that displaced hundreds of thousands of civilians. Other Western observers are keen to reach a deal with the ruthless Mullah regime in Tehran while busily bashing the human rights record in Egypt. Highlighting those appalling records of other regimes is not “whataboutism”, but rather legitimate highlighting of how cherry-picking human rights is part of the problem and not the solution. Hard-core regime supporters use it as evidence of Western bias against Egypt.
Nevertheless, if we decided to focus solely on the Egyptian case, then anyone with a basic understanding of Egyptian society would note the marked discrepancy between the loud outcries on Western platforms and the noticeable indifference among ordinary Egyptians to the plight of human right activists imprisoned in Egypt. The case of the three EIPR activists is a stark example of such an alarming gap in responses. In fact, the campaign of Scarlet Johansson has generated nothing but resentment among many ordinary Egyptians, not just regime supporters.
The systemic crackdown on human right organizations in Egypt doesn’t just stem from the oppressive regime, but also from a cocktail of toxic beliefs and confused priorities. Egyptian society has serious problem in terms of confusing human rights, religious rights, personal freedoms, and counter-terrorism. Western pressure will not improve human rights unless Egyptian society starts to care about civil rights more than the dress of a woman posing in front of the Pyramids or by a cartoon published by an irrelevant privately owned French magazine.
Until Egyptians can successfully address those issues, only families and friends of human rights activists will continue to care about human rights issues. That does not mean Western pressure is not welcomed; on the contrary, President Macron has perhaps unintentionally triggered a debate inside Egypt regarding human rights, more so than the flood of articles from Western journalists and think tanks. His closed-door approach combined with tenacious calm addressing the Egyptian public should be welcomed, not discouraged.