MADA MASR
Mada Masr is an independent Egyptian online newspaper, founded in June 2013, with content in Arabic and English.
Society
Dalilah

Online Anonymity: Between Fear And Political Power

CAIRO — I've been thinking lately about my relationship with anonymity, and the way my understanding of it — which used to be somewhat one-sided — has been evolving, both in personal writing and in political work. In a polarized environment, we become trapped in a reactive position, especially as some of the approaches adopted recently by feminist organizations have come under heavy attack. Our energy is consumed by creating a discourse to counter our attackers, preventing us from reflecting more deeply on our tools and approaches. It seems that anonymity will be part of our arsenal for some time, so I believe it's important to understand it as a wide-ranging approach in which we can occupy different positions. Examining it in this way may help us arrive at a better understanding of its potential as well as its limitations.

Some years ago, I wrote a personal piece about a very private experience that caused me an immense sense of pain and frustration. I felt defeated by all the institutions of the regime. The experience made me realize that my body is not my own, no matter how much I try to take possession of it. I realized that the obstacles that stood in my way were institutional and structural, and that it was beyond my individual ability to change them. I published the piece under a pseudonym, but I also said how much I wished I could publicly declare the experience as mine, to own my anger and pain in front of everybody.

This personal experience expanded my awareness. Anonymity gave me the space to reveal it, a space free of judgments and debates. By foregoing public ownership of my experience, I avoided coming under violent attack. But what anonymity gave me is exactly what it took away. Herein lies the price.

I didn't fully understand this then; I only felt a sense of unease. But then, I've never felt completely at ease. Being a woman from an underprivileged background, paying a price has always been a fundamental part of my existence. I learned from a young age that I will never have everything I want.

Sacrificing something for another, more essential thing was always the frame that determined my choices. These limitations began, with time, to shape my aspirations and desires: I began, unconsciously, to not want what I could not have. I didn't complain or stop to think about it; I was so used to this feeling that it became invisible.

My understanding of this gradually began to evolve when I started being active, anonymously, in feminist political work. I would participate in a discussion, critiquing something that I was a part of. My critique would be heard, but my position as an insider would not be seen. I felt that some of what I said was lost because my position was invisible. A position is a kind of filter, allowing someone's words to be heard in a certain way. Anonymity placed me in a grey zone between absence and presence. Sometimes my words were present but my position was absent; at other times, my position was apparent, but other aspects of me were missing. Anonymity confronted me with the fact that I would never be fully present — that, in every context, I would need to forego some part of me in order to present another, more essential part.

Anonymity has been the subject of considerable discussion in feminist political circles in Egypt recently, in particular, the anonymity of published accounts of sexual violence. These discussions are often polarized. Those skeptical of anonymity argue that it cannot be used as a reliable tool for change, because the credibility of anonymous accounts, published through anonymous channels, cannot be verified. Credibility comes from knowing the identity of people, but declaring one's identity comes at a price. Credibility becomes a kind of commodity: I will believe you in exchange for the social price you will have to pay. On the other hand, those in favor of anonymity argue that it relieves women from part of the social and psychological burden of sharing their testimonies publicly. Keeping the intermediary anonymous, they say, is also a way of protecting them from the violence of society and the security apparatus.

The problem is that the focus of these arguments is on the burden that anonymity relieves from the women involved — those who share testimonies or those active in the field. The two sides only differ in their assessment of whether or not that price should be paid. But neither side is delving into the fact that anonymity itself comes at a cost.

Credibility comes from knowing the identity of people, but declaring one's identity comes at a price.

It has begun to scare me a little, the lack of attention given to this. Being unaware of the manifestations of oppression in the tools we've created for our liberation might limit our political ambitions to what our oppressive reality permits. Concealment is one of the manifestations of the oppression of women in a patriarchal society. The patriarchal order instills the idea that our natural place is within the bounds of the home, and so our public presence becomes a space for negotiation. Concealment is the price we pay in this equation. Sometimes we choose to conceal certain parts of ourselves in our daily life in order to avoid exhausting confrontations. In Egyptian society, this concealment takes material and immaterial forms. We hide our bodies in layers of clothes in order to avoid the reactions of people in the street. I personally hide in my house for days, because I know that simply being outside might expose me to something I have no energy for (and this is a luxury many other women do not have). We often hide aspects of who we are and the choices we've made from family, friends and people in our social circles to avoid the rejection, conflict and violence we might face if we reveal who we are. This, in part, is what anonymity does: it conceals certain aspects of ourselves while revealing others. It makes our thoughts and experiences apparent, but deprives us of public ownership of them. It helps us collectively reveal the truth of what we are thinking and going through, but prevents us from being entirely present as individuals.

These words are not a call to abandon anonymity as an approach. It's naive to assume that the tools we produce will not contain elements of our oppression: These tools, just like ourselves, are products of this reality. The absence of a cost would necessitate the absence of oppression, which is not our reality at the moment. What I am calling for, instead, is to constantly examine our tools and to point out the ways in which oppression is embedded within them. To know that we are always in negotiation with the systems of our oppression, that a tool is simply a political strategy that we can choose in one moment, and move beyond in the next; to expand our imagination and political aspirations between what these tools, derived from an oppressive reality, can offer us.

Anonymity can be both a form of selfless activism and a tool of repression — Photo: Chloe Sharrock//Le Pictorium Agency/ZUMA

I recently had a conversation with two feminist comrades about the behavior of some other feminists in our sphere, which we concluded was motivated by a desire for personal achievement. We traced this back to the "professional" values that have plagued the feminist movement in Egypt. The movement has become a kind of career market, where personal accomplishment and competition are valued. This undermines our strategies, as they might be based on the visions of more influential feminists, visions which are not created in isolation from their professional interests. This is one aspect of the balance of power within the movement — the more professional and academic credentials someone has, the more her voice is heard. The movement itself has become a way for some people to enrich their resumes. I said to my two companions that anonymity represents a threat to the type of people who can't bear not to receive credit for their work, even at the cost of carrying out the task itself — a conclusion full of harsh judgments, but unfortunately also of truth.

After the discussion, this thought lingered in my mind and I began to reflect on my own experience. When I'm an anonymous participant in a successful political action, I feel a desire to publicly associate myself with it. When I write an anonymous text, and I find people reading, sharing and republishing it, I sometimes wish to hear words of praise and encouragement. I won't deny that I sometimes feel this way, as difficult and uncomfortable as it is to admit it. But I don't believe I'm the only one. I think the roots of this feeling can be easily traced back to the capitalist system that governs our lives and frames our definitions of success. Our sense of accomplishment comes from our individual achievements, and our sense of self-worth comes from other people's praise. Capitalism has given us certain definitions of achievement that highlight the value of individualism and differentiating ourselves from others.

During another discussion with a group of comrades about accountability, one of them pointed out various kinds of corruption that we might fall into. The discussion was not just about administrative or financial corruption, but also about corruption on the level of daily behavior in the network of complex relationships within the movement. These relationships intersect in many ways: political activity, friendships, romantic involvements, work relationships, etc. One of those present in the discussion said that her choice of anonymity was not just based on fear of the security apparatus in Egypt, but because she saw it as a way to reduce the possibility of corruption.

Our sense of accomplishment comes from our individual achievements.

I remembered the desire that creeps up on me from time to time, and it hit me that anonymity can be a way of working on ourselves and maintaining our integrity. I mean that not in a religious or moral sense, but in a political sense. Resisting the impulse for individualism, and the set of values that comes along with it, becomes a political act. The dominant desire for personal success is one of the biggest challenges in our attempts to create a movement based on solidarity and collective action. How can we build a movement based on individualism that is, in turn, fighting a system based on individualism?

I'm not posing this question from an ethical standpoint — I don't see a collective approach as morally superior — but I do see that the tendency for individualism leads to oppression and alienation. The system of production, which has shaped so much of our way of being, works to divide and separate us. The interests of the individual trump everything else, and individual achievement is the only guaranteed way to avoid a harsh life. The only possibility of salvation produced by this system is an individual one, which does not threaten its existence, but in fact perpetuates it. This emphasis on personal salvation drives people to work harder and produce more. Failure is attributed to an individual's lack of effort, rather than to the systemic inequality that determines our chances in life. Adopting the same approach as the system would spell failure for us, or at best, a limited degree of influence. We can never use the tools and approaches of the system as well as the system itself does, because it created them.

This is why I believe that anonymity can be part of my political training. It helps me rid myself of an individualist impulse so deeply ingrained that I sometimes no longer see it. It puts me in constant confrontation with the origins of my motivations. It allows me to see the inner workings of a system that I want to dismantle, to understand that I am a part of it, and that fighting it necessitates constantly questioning myself. To be aware that, in this battle, anonymity becomes a political choice, not just to protect myself on a personal level, but also to create a movement that is not based on individualism. That sees itself as fighting not only the patriarchy, but multiple, intersecting systems that perpetuate one another. We cannot dismantle one without dismantling the others.

How can we build a movement based on individualism that is, in turn, fighting a system based on individualism?

I don't mean to romanticize anonymity. During a conversation with another friend, she pointed out the fact that anonymity can also be used to help destructive people escape the consequences of their actions. This brought to mind the Killjoys* blog, which published testimonies of sexual violence and the misuse of power in civil society organizations without the consent of the women concerned. Anonymity became a cover through which the creators of this blog could claim to be working for the good of these women, while ignoring the price paid by these same women as a result of their actions.

While discussing some of these issues, one of my comrades pointed out that anonymity can also obscure the role of feminists who occupy less powerful positions within the movement. As mentioned previously, we don't all have equal positions in the balance of power. Anonymous work might mean that fewer women are included in certain spaces, especially in the creation and discussion of strategies, or even in general discussions and collective learning, because if they continue to work anonymously, we will never know who they are.

This brought something to my attention: The reason I'm now present in several platforms of discussion within the feminist movement in Egypt is that I've made — and continue to make — certain contributions without being anonymous. People became aware of my political stances, and some began to invite me to join them. This also helped me find and get to know other feminists with whom I feel a sense of comfort and familiarity, with whom I can exist in a shared space without any of us feeling the need to hide certain aspects of ourselves. This begs the question: Is it possible to work anonymously while remaining present and valued in our feminist groups? Seen from this perspective, anonymity comes at another cost. The celebration of feminist work gives some people social and political capital. They are heard, appreciated, invited and granted more opportunities. This means that those of us who don't get credit for their work are foregoing part of their social and political capital, which might help them grow stronger in the movement, present their views and be taken seriously, and negotiate with others from a position of greater power.

This calls into question a point I made earlier in this article. In an environment rife with the violence of society and the security apparatus, we don't all have the privilege of choosing anonymity as part of our political education. Some people need to thoroughly calculate the consequences of their actions if they think of revealing themselves to the world. This does not mean that the feeling of being safe is always based on actual safety — especially in this context, where the responses to the issues we raise do not seem to follow a consistent logic. (The contradictory reactions to the cases of Ahmad Bassam Zaki and the Fairmont rape are one example of this.) Our level of vulnerability when confronting the world also changes from one situation to another, depending as well on the position we take in each situation. What this means is that anonymity is not always a choice we freely and willingly make. In most cases, it's a decision made because we're aware of the vulnerability of our situation, or the oppressiveness of our environment — or because our life experience has taught us that we always have to give up something in exchange for another thing that we deem more crucial. And, as another colleague pointed out, some women (such as Menna Abdel Aziz and Bassant, the "Mit Ghamrgirl") decide not to opt for anonymity despite their vulnerable position in an environment of oppression.

And although anonymity can play a role in resisting individualism, it is also not a guarantee of collective work — as proven by the example of the Killjoys blog. Despite its anonymity, the blog's approach was both individualistic and substitutionary (by which I mean a person or a group of people who replace the parties affected by a situation with themselves). This arises out of a feeling of superiority — superiority of knowledge or politics or even moral superiority. This substitutionary group believes its path is the right one, that it alone has the ability to "implement," "transform" and "purify," unlike the women concerned, who are timid and powerless. They follow the logic of individualism in political work, thinking that change can happen through individuals or groups who work, at best, in isolation from the women affected, or, at worst, by ignoring their needs, wishes and priorities.

Anonymity can play a role in resisting individualism; it is also not a guarantee of collective work.

Anonymity can thus be an obstacle in the collective path of the movement, in the way we communicate as human beings and comrades and as narrators of testimonies and life experiences, and in the process of holding each other accountable. It can also be a hindrance to future interpretations of this present moment. When I conceal my identity in any of my contributions — whether in a written text or in political work — I'm not just concealing my name, I'm also concealing the many components that make up my identity, which would give a reader of history a deeper understanding of who I am and the aspects of my privilege. This means that I prevent a picture being formed that is different from the one I present about myself and my place in the world. I stand in the way of historical interpretations of myself and the role I played in my context, which I don't and won't fully understand because I'm inside it. Anonymity here comes at the cost of knowledge — knowledge about the creation of this movement, about its components and positions in life as well as in politics, which might be crucial to building upon these past and present experiences in the future.

Concealment is an essential mechanism of anonymity — although, as mentioned above, it is not intrinsically negative or positive. Sometimes it is a manifestation of oppression, in others a mode of resistance. Sometimes it is a way to practice self-vigilance and avoid corruption, in others a way to escape responsibility for our actions.

For me, our position is key to determining the implications of anonymity in any given moment. For example, if I am sharing a testimony of sexual violence or another personal experience that I can't reveal publicly for fear of violent reprisals, my use of anonymity here is a manifestation of oppression. The system forces us to conceal ourselves in order to negotiate with it. Anonymity becomes a decision and a political strategy based on negotiation — an exchange of what is revealed and what is concealed — which necessarily comes at a cost. We choose not to suppress our (already suppressed) voices and experiences, in exchange for suppressing our identities. But we have to be mindful of the price that we pay for anonymity here. On the other hand, if I am engaged in political work that attracts praise and a feeling of distinction and superiority, choosing anonymity would be a way of resisting the tendencies that the system has instilled in me. These might be a hindrance to the movement if I'm not aware of them and working on curtailing them. We also have to remain vigilant about the destructive behavior and escape from accountability that anonymity might enable.

These ideas arose through personal experiences with anonymity from different positions. Developing this piece would not have been possible without the help of friends and comrades who always motivate me to think and reflect. I wrote this article at different points in time, and I decided to keep the contradictions inherent within it, because I see them all as relevant. Contradiction is a part of our existence, and it's always present in political work. This piece does not claim to offer a comprehensive view, but it might be an invitation to begin reflecting on an approach we've often taken without fully realizing its implications. Because of the attacks on us, we've been cornered, most of the time, into defending anonymity. I hope this piece might serve as a call not to romanticize anonymity, and to keep exploring its many layers.

*This is a reference to the قاتلات البهجة blog that is separate from Sara Ahmed's blog, feministkilljoys

Economy
Osman El Sharnoubi

Grocery Shopping In Egypt: Local Ingredients Meet Global Trends

A new high-end food retailer, Gourmet, is helping reshape Egypt's supermarket industry.

CAIRO — A few months ago, I decided to challenge Gourmet.

Egypt's most prominent high-end grocery chain had earned a reputation for stocking ingredients that were hard to find anywhere else. For foodies, Gourmet had opened the door to previously inaccessible recipes. I'm not a foodie, but I do have access to The New York Times" cooking app after one of my colleagues generously gifted me a subscription. Standing outside Gourmet's branch in Maadi, I scrolled through the app looking for a dish that was — in orientalist parlance — "exotic." I eventually landed on a recipe requiring several ingredients unlikely to be found in any Cairo supermarket: Thai red curry paste, Fresno or serrano red chile, unsweetened coconut flakes and baby spinach. The dish? Red curry lentils with sweet potatoes and spinach.

This was my first visit to the large Maadi branch, which dwarfs its counterpart in Zamalek. It was mostly empty — just me and a few other shoppers wandering the aisles. It didn't take long to find what I was looking for.

The baby spinach was displayed prominently among other fresh local greens, while the Thai curry paste was nestled in a rack featuring a wide assortment of curries, sauces and other flavorings. I also found locally grown red chilies that resemble serrano peppers — a good substitute. The coconut flakes, however, were nowhere to be seen. Since they were just a garnish, I was about to write them off but decided to ask one of the many employees roaming the shop for help. He quickly led me to a shelf I had browsed twice before but somehow failed to notice had the coconut flakes, stacked between other dried fruits and nuts.

You win, Gourmet — and not just in this challenge. As I searched for my ingredients, I inevitably caught sight of the plethora of the store's signature ready-to-cook dishes. A week later, I ordered Gourmet's margarita pizza and three chicken breasts à la provençale, both pre-prepared and needing only to be popped in the oven. Not always having the time to cook, and squeamish at the prospect of having to order out again, I found their ready-to-cook meals the perfect middle ground. I would clearly become a regular customer.

Gourmet supermarket pioneered ready-to-eat meals with local ingredients in Egypt — Photo: Gourmet Egypt via Facebook

This experience summarizes much about the evolution of high-end food retailers in Egypt over the last decade. Increasingly, supermarkets are offering a wide selection of imported foods, organic local produce, their own lines of prepared meals and ready-to-cook items, all packaged and marketed using novel techniques. Regarded as the apex of Egyptian grocery shopping, Gourmet has played an important role in this transformation. Its emergence has helped to shift trends in the supermarket sector that have grown to represent new realities in the consumption and production of food in Egypt.

Before he founded Gourmet, Jalal Abu Ghazaleh owned and ran AM Foods, a wholesale food supplier to several clients in the fine dining business, including the Four Seasons Hotel. Founded in 1996, AM Foods was small, with a handful of employees, and specialized in providing high-quality imported meats and seafood that weren't available on the local market.

At the time, Abu Ghazaleh hosted dinner parties and treated his friends to some of his premium steaks, he told Mada Masr. It wasn't long before they were asking him where they could buy their own choice cuts of meat, and the idea to cater to individual customers first took shape.

In 2006, Abu Ghazaleh brought in a desk for a new employee and gave him a mobile phone to take orders. Home deliveries were carried out by a part-time delivery person who also worked at Mo'men, a popular fast food restaurant. Two years later, Abu Ghazaleh opened his first brick-and-mortar shop off Ring Road on the outskirts of Maadi and named it Gourmet.

Back then, Gourmet's only means of publicity was word of mouth — and word spread quickly. Gourmet expanded rapidly, and just over a decade later it has established itself as Egypt's premier high-end food retailer with 15 stores and an enviable level of brand recognition. Yet, Gourmet's path to success was anything but straightforward. Just three years after opening its first retail outlet, the company's revenues were severely impacted by the 2011 revolution, with disruptions in supply and new duties imposed on luxury goods.

An even bigger setback came in November 2016, when the government devalued the currency as part of an economic reform program put in place to secure a loan from the International Monetary Fund. The cost of imported goods doubled overnight and the subsequent lack of liquidity — with the Egyptian pound losing half its value — disrupted the supply of many imports.

The devaluation prompted Gourmet to rethink its strategy — one that would come to redefine the company and propel it into a new and lucrative market.

In order to deal with the import crisis, Gourmet pivoted to begin offering a new type of product: locally produced ready-to-cook and ready-to-eat meals, or "food solutions," in corporate speak. The move proved remarkably successful and Gourmet's own food products have become one of the main lures for customers and a major source of revenue. This new business approach was bolstered by a major investment in 2018 by the private equity firm B Investments, which purchased a majority stake in the company for LE125 million.

Gourmet was now competing for a larger "share-of-stomach" — looking to entice customers not only for their grocery shopping needs but for prepared or semi-prepared meals to replace restaurant delivery food.

80% of retail foods are sold in smaller, traditional grocery stores.

As a leading retailer in both specialized groceries and prepared foods, Gourmet represents Egypt's latest stage in a decades-long, worldwide trend toward the increased centralization of food shopping, the globalized availability of ingredients and food products, and of the trading of home cooking for so-called convenience.

Prior to the advent of the modern supermarket, shopping for groceries in Egypt, as in much of the world, was a multi-faceted endeavor.

Vana Celic, an 88-year-old Alexandria resident, recalls how in the 1940s, grocers displayed goods like sugar, white cheese and salted fish in large wooden barrels while portions of halawa (sesame candy) would be cut from huge slabs. Everything would be weighed and placed into paper bags. Packaging and branding were uncommon.

The same could be said of Britain in the postwar period, when a single visit to a present-day supermarket replaced trips to multiple shops: a grocery store for basic items like sugar, butter and canned fish; a greengrocer for fruits and vegetables; a butcher for meat; a baker for bread, and the milkman for milk, as documented in the book The Grocers: The Rise and Rise of the Supermarket Chain by Andrew Seth and Geoffrey Randall.

During this same period, upper and middle-income families living in downtown Cairo, like Vana's, would often go to Al-Souq al-Faransawi (the French market) near Al-Azhar, where food vendors lined the streets displaying their fruits and vegetables in woven circular baskets and sold live poultry from rickety wooden crates stacked high atop one another. Vana remembers how cooks from wealthy households would be chauffeured to the market, where they and other household staff would sit at a nearby cafe, while the vendors would take orders of what was needed and then promptly load it into the car as they sipped their coffees. While these markets still operate widely in Cairo, they are no longer frequented by the city's more affluent residents.

In the 1970s, policies of economic liberalization first began to remove long-standing restrictions on imports, prompting the emergence of a new breed of small grocers that straddled the line between traditional grocery and supermarket, offering foreign products ranging from Dr. Pepper to anchovies to various cheeses. While these new grocery stores were limited in number, they came to be well-known within Cairo's wealthier neighborhoods.

I vaguely remember supermarkets as a child in the early 1990s. They weren't as numerous as they are now. But even then, my mother assures me, our food was usually bought separately from the grocer, the greengrocer, the fruit vendor (separate from the greengrocer in Egypt until recently) and the butcher. And the range of products on sale was rather limited.

"Workers in supermarkets don't care because they're not the owners."

The customers' relationships with the local grocery store, butcher and poultry shop is still prevalent in Egypt: 80% of retail foods are sold in smaller, traditional grocery stores. But the remaining 20% — which mostly encompasses wealthier customers — slowly shifted over the years and by the late 1990s, modern supermarkets had become a staple of affluent neighborhoods in Cairo, Alexandria and coastal resorts. At the turn of the millennium, supermarkets continued to proliferate more widely and they began using their bulk purchasing power to offer products at discounted rates compared to their more traditional counterparts.

Supermarket chains are now a major player in the food retail market. Although they comprise just four percent of the total number of food outlets, modern retail channels — such as supermarkets and convenience stores — nevertheless account for around 20% of total sales in the US $17.5 billion food retail sector, and have a projected growth of 15 to 20% over the next few years, according to a 2019 report by the US Department of Agriculture's Foreign Agricultural Service.

Yet there are concerns about the continued spread of modern supermarkets, which centralize, corporatize and homogenize food shopping, leading some target customers to eschew outlets like Gourmet in favor of more traditional food sources.

Mostafa, an old classmate who lives in Maadi (a supermarket haven like Zamalek) dislikes supermarkets and describes outlets like Carrefour as "monstrous." Mostafa's concerns about supermarkets are centered around his experience as a consumer and the impersonal nature of supermarket chains, as well as the tendency for supermarkets to elbow out small businesses that he considers more trustworthy and whose products he deems of a higher quality.

"I still shop from small vendors —the butcher, the grocer, the corner shop. You know who owns them," Mostafa says. "Workers in supermarkets don't care because they're not the owners. You don't get the freshest products, which are often stacked in the back to sell the older ones. I prefer vendors that aren't corporate-owned." Mostafa prefers to shop for food at small outlets, both from local vendors as well as from independent sellers of higher-end artisanal products.

However, consumers like Mostafa appear to be the exception. Agricultural researcher Saqr El-Nour found that growing culinary trends, such as healthy eating, have largely resulted in consumers purchasing organic foods from city-based vendors who, more often than not, are connected to large businesses that have capitalized on the emerging demand for these products. Organic produce is generally not available in traditional souks (open-air marketplaces) and smaller vendors who offer healthy food options find it hard to compete with large corporate players like Seoudi or Gourmet.

Supermarkets and food outlets like Gourmet still only represent a fraction of the market. Whether their share will grow in the future is difficult to predict, but what is clear is that the supermarket landscape has flourished over the past decade, and Gourmet — that expensive little store that started out with one branch offering Canadian lobster tail and certified Angus beef — has been at the center of this transformation.

Geopolitics
Budour Hassan *

Palestinian Liberation v. Israelization: A Moment Of Truth

In the latest Palestinian uprising, the greatest accomplishment has been to demonstrate the actuality of liberation.

-Essay-

JERUSALEMMay 14, 2018: Donald Trump keeps his promise to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and recognizes a united Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. The Palestinian Authority's call to action results in nothing but a few performative protests and anemic marches in the streets of Ramallah. There's a small demonstration outside the new embassy building where Zionist leftists beat their drums and call for the end of the occupation.

For them, the occupation refers solely to the territory their state grabbed in 1967. You can almost see tears of nostalgia welling up as they remember the state before June 1967 — a youthful state epitomizing socialist and democratic values, a refuge for the world's Jews (never mind the institutional racism against Arab Jews). The memory is too beautiful to be tarnished by the 18 years of military rule over those Palestinians whom Zionist militias were unable to expel. A state of kibbutzim and trade unions, the Sabra, and the declaration of independence, one whose image is too pure to be sullied by a few massacres (the massacre of Kafr Qasim was simply a technical error), or the plunder of Palestinian lands sanctioned by the Supreme Court of Israel — the same court whose independence was lauded by Hannah Arendt in her book about Adolf Eichmann's trial.

Like the Palestinian Authority, these Zionist leftists fear the death of the two-state dream. But can something die if it never lived? Their Palestine and that of the Palestinian Authority (PA) does not have space for refugees and their right of return.

Workers use tools to break parts of a building, damaged by last month's Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip — Photo: Majdi Fathi/NurPhoto/ZUMA Press

May 14, 2018: Refugees in Gaza approach the fence that separates them from the forbidden part of Palestine, between it and them the distance of a stone's throw and the sniper's bullet. Their chants are an attempt to remind the land of its owners before their bodies are pierced by lead. Their Palestine extends from the river to the sea. They turned out and gave their lives for the right of return, not because the US embassy was moved from one city in occupied Palestine to another. It's the same sky over Sheikh Muwannis, Manshiya, and Jerusalem; the sea in Gaza and Yafa is the same sea.

June 2020: Benjamin Netanyahu is on the verge of formally annexing the Jewish settlements in the Jordan Valley. Palestinian and international human rights organizations appeal to the European Union to stop what they call an unprecedented development. The PA raises the alarm and Israeli intelligence agencies warn of possible unrest. But it is only the officials hunkered down in the PA headquarters in the statelet of Ramallah who are troubled. They, along with liberal Zionists, worried about Israel's reputation, while the Europeans clung to the two-state myth and the directors of NGOs scrambled to meet in their digital conference halls of Zoom. Netanyahu suspends the formal annexation. But the de facto annexation marches on, implemented through mass home demolitions, daily army and settler attacks on Palestinian farmers, military orders, and plans to build new bypass roads. All of this is routine. No cause for undue concern, it doesn't merit newspaper headlines and doesn't change the rules of the game. It allows the fiction of "Israel proper" to persist.

Why didn't Palestinians rise up against formal annexation or the relocation of the embassy? Some people attributed it to a deep despair among Palestinians, their sense of powerlessness and futility after decades of losing battles and hijacked intifadas. Others said it was because the Palestinian cause is dead, forsaken by its champions. This explanation is appealing to the proponents of normalization. How can they be asked to care about a cause that has been abandoned by its own people?

But Palestinians' refusal to respond to the PA's appeals tells us more about that authority's failure to mobilize the public. Palestinians are not automatons that turn on with the press of a button and fall silent with a kick.

At the time, some people spoke of the mounting anger and daily acts of silent resistance as leading to a possible explosion. Talk about everyday resistance that precedes an uprising may seem like a form of consolation or a grasp at hope, but recent years have given us two examples of activism in Jerusalem that show the city has not yet lost its capacity to stand up. We recall that Jerusalem rose up after settlers set young Mohammed Abu Khdeir on fire in Shuafat in 2014, when neighborhoods and towns in Jerusalem slipped the occupation's leash. We remember the popular resistance during the 2014 war, which reached its peak on Laylat al-Qadr at Al-Aqsa Mosque, when demonstrators and worshippers turned it into a night of clashes with police occupation forces, taking revenge for the blood spilled in Gaza.

We remember the battle of the metal detectors in July 2017, when after a two-week sit-in at Lions' Gate, Jerusalemites forced the occupation authorities to remove the detectors and open Huta Gate to worshippers. These brief uprisings came without warning; no one forecast them and the PA didn't raise any alarm. In fact, the PA's lack of influence in Jerusalem might explain its people's ability to take action and fight the occupation.

The occupation authority did not deal with these two sudden eruptions as exceptional events, understanding that the murder of Abu Khdeir and the installment of metal detectors had lit the fuse but not created the fire. Accordingly, its response combined naked repression with policies of containment, "Israelization," and the erasure of young Jerusalemites' Palestinian identity. While intelligence and police agencies surveil, arrest, punish, and summarily execute, the occupation municipality — its community centers and schools, and the national insurance institute — pump money and resources into the city to forge a generation shorn of its identity, preoccupied with individual salvation and assimilation into the Israeli labor market.

It's a delicate balance. In the interstices between displacement and Israelization, between slow strangulation and containment, contradictions emerge, reflecting the colonial apparatus's confused approach to a people it considers a surplus of an unwanted demographic — or as the former Israeli Ambassador to the United States Abba Eban put it, "arsenic," which can only be absorbed by the human body in very limited quantities.

Jerusalem has taught us many lessons.

The occupation authorities confiscate Jerusalemites' land to build Jewish settlements, settler roads, the annexation wall and national parks. They deny them building permits then demolish their homes for building illegally, or force them to demolish their homes themselves. They keep a tight grip on Palestinian neighborhoods, targeting recalcitrant ones with arrests and raids. They mobilize their bureaucracy to strip Palestinian Jerusalemites of their residency and apply their laws to expel Palestinians from their homes and replace them with settlers. They isolate Jerusalemites from their natural ties to the outskirts of the city and the West Bank and levy back-breaking taxes. They take action to suppress any Palestinian political, cultural or social initiatives outside of the occupation's control.

But none of these policies have eradicated the "Palestinian arsenic" from Jerusalem, where they comprise some 40% of the population. Hence the intense focus on the policies of Israelization and containment — a recent prominent manifestation being the decision by the Israeli Interior Ministry to facilitate the acquisition of Israeli citizenship for some 20,000 Palestinian Jerusalemites between the ages of 18 and 21. (This is the same Interior Ministry that has stripped thousands of Jerusalemites of their permanent residency in the city because their "center of life" lies outside Jerusalem, the same ministry that threatens Jerusalemite activists and their families with the loss of residency as a punitive measure.)

Palestinians at Gaza city organize a Palestinian flags march in solidarity with the city of Jerusalem —Photo: Mahmoud Khattab/Quds Net News/ZUMA

But Jerusalem has taught us many lessons. One of these is that a small stone thrown in still water is enough to create a wave, and this wave has been rippling out since the first days of Ramadan. Those who threw the first stone were young people targeted by Israelization, a process designed to divorce them from their emancipatory and national causes, to persuade them that politics is just a headache, and to teach them — in schools and community centers run by the Jerusalem municipality — to be upstanding citizens so they can live in prosperity.

All of these ideas appear to have come crashing down when the occupation authorities closed the gate to their city — Damascus Gate — with barriers and barricades on the first day of Ramadan. Young Palestinians stood up to occupation forces with stones, their faces bared, forcing the police to withdraw, and then set about dismantling the barriers themselves.

This sudden eruption could have died down the day the barriers were removed or when the occupation municipality sent some munshids (Islamic chanters) to try and restore "calm" and "the Ramadan atmosphere" to Damascus Gate. The influential local elite might have protested that these were nothing more than skirmishes led by apolitical hoodlums not motivated by any nationalist scruples, but simply looking to make trouble and pass the time. But what began at Damascus Gate spread to Sheikh Jarrah, fuelling and fusing with the struggle of families there threatened with displacement, turning Sheikh Jarrah into the focal point for Jerusalemites and Palestinians generally.

A new form of protest began to grow in Sheikh Jarrah, entirely different from the usual scene in the neighborhood over the last decade. Protestors directly engaged with occupation police and settlers, first by chanting and raising the Palestinian flag and then by defying brutal police attacks and attempts to disperse demonstrations with stones and more chants. We will stay right here khawa, as Jerusalemites say, which means "in your face" or "despite your best efforts." And in Jerusalem, khawa is a way of life.

Palestinians continued their evening demonstrations in Jerusalem khawa, undeterred by the machinery of oppression or the closure of the entrances to Sheikh Jarrah. They spoiled the Zionist celebration of Jerusalem Day, which marks the "reunification" of the city, and khawa they forced the cancellation of the march in the Old City. They barricaded themselves inside Al-Aqsa Mosque and stood up to bullets and tear gas khawa. Khawa, too, they chanted the name of Mohammed Deif in Sheikh Jarrah and the Al-Aqsa courtyard, and they cheered after the warning sirens sounded and the rockets of the resistance fell on Jerusalem. Khawa they fight to reclaim their city, and this act of reclamation is a slap in the face of everyone who imagined that the process of containment and Israelization had succeeded in breaking this generation.

This does not mean that the projects of Israelization and pacification led by occupation authorities are not a danger or are destined to fail. The occupation knows this is a long process and is betting on a lack of staying power and selective memory, as well as on local leaders who will try to hijack or circumvent the movement. Whatever the outcome of this new uprising, there can be no doubt that the occupation will launch a campaign of arrests and overt and covert intimidation of Palestinian Jerusalemites.

We used to imagine the moment of liberation, but this uprising has shown us that we ourselves may experience it.

More dangerous than repression, however, will be the expanding scope of Israeli community centers and the growing reach of Israeli institutions into our lives. The current uprising and the social networks it is giving rise to, and the mutual support and solidarity generated by demonstrations can constitute a defensive line against future attempts at Israelization. But this line can be broken unless it is supported by organized grassroots action that builds on the gains that have been and will be made during this current uprising.

Perhaps the greatest accomplishment thus far has been to demonstrate the actuality of liberation. In contrast to just a few months ago, the question of liberation is no longer one for our grandchildren, but for us, for our generation. We used to imagine the moment of liberation, but this uprising has shown us that we ourselves may experience it; it could be us who come face to face with it, hear it, and breathe it.

The moment young people removed the barriers at Damascus Gate and thousands burst out in chants and cries of "God is great" was a moment of liberation. The day Jerusalemites prevented thousands of settlers from storming Al-Aqsa Mosque to celebrate Jerusalem Day was a day of liberation. The day Palestinians staged a general strike from the river to the sea was a day of liberation. This uprising, which began at Damascus Gate and then moved to Sheikh Jarrah, Jerusalem, Haifa, Lydd, Gaza and Bira, announces a severance with despair and shows that liberation is closer than we had thought.

*Budour Hassan is a Palestinian writer living in Jerusalem who writes about politics, the environment, feminism and disability.

Geopolitics
Yasmin El-Rifae

Honor Killings, #MeToo And The Future For Egyptian Women

Women in Egypt have definitively broken the silence around sexual violence — but what comes next?

CAIRO — About two weeks ago, Dalia's doorman, landlord, and neighbors — at least three men in total — suspecting her of having sex or some kind of sexual interaction with a guest, forced their way into her apartment in the Cairo neighborhood of Salam, beat her and either threw her out of the window or terrified her so much that she jumped. The National Council for Women, missing the point, said in its press release that Dalia's body was found "fully clothed." Newspapers reported that the prosecution had ordered a vaginal examination of her corpse.

Two weeks earlier, a draft of a long-awaited personal status law was shown to the public. The draft does nothing that women hoped it might to advance their legal standing — it in fact regresses it in several areas. The bill further diminishes women's already embattled legal and financial guardianship rights over themselves and their children: Being of legal age is not enough to legally consent to marriage — a woman's male relatives can object to the marriage within a year. Being the mother of a child is not enough for a woman to issue their birth certificate, open a bank account for him/her, or consent to their surgery — a power of attorney granted by the child's father or court document is necessary.

The draft law was met with a firestorm from women's rights organizations and a campaign called #guardianshipismyright, which included thousands of stories of women struggling for control as females, as wives and as parents.

The state and society dealt women two blows at the same time.

Public mourning of Dalia, who died in what could be described as an honor killing, has combined with the campaign against the proposed personal status law, with women insisting that the two injustices are inherently connected. In an ugly accident, the state and society dealt women two blows at the same time, and in response, they are braiding them together and identifying them as a package of injustices that make one another possible: secondary citizenship rights, lack of bodily and sexual control, violence, oppressive and gendered social policing, family values.

Screenshot from campaign, March 18th. "Mourning Dalia, martyr of Salam, for complete citizenship for women." — Photo: Mada Masr.

The connections have always been there. The TikTok women were arrested and tried both for making money in ways the state didn't understand, and for being outside of the class that's allowed to flirt, dance, or be sexual online. One of them said she was pressured to submit to a virginity test while in custody (she refused). In an openly patriarchal society, presided over by authorities so accustomed to unchecked transgression, few of the codes and binaries that govern our bodies and lives are hidden.

The challenge is to confront these different problems, these recurring violations and unfairnesses, without losing sight of the larger matrix they are a part of. The linking of Dalia's violent murder to the personal status laws builds on the last few years' public — and very online — momentum around sexual harassment, but it is also a topical shift, or expansion, away from it.

Sexual violence is a symptom of social, political and economic orders which favor the needs and views of men over women. It provokes strong feelings and responses, from empathy to outrage to a need to do something. Perversely, it is also a crime that patriarchal systems are able to publicly decry, and be seen to act against: men must defend their women, the law must defend the mothers and daughters of the nation, the police are given individual culprits to catch and display, prosecutors open investigations that easily lead away from the corridors of power. Taboos, importantly, may be broken, but in the theatricalized social and legal punishment of an individualized crime, we are all unified in flaying the bad guy and upholding the status quo.

It's costly to talk about sexual violence. It's costly for the victim speaking out. It's costly for other women who feel called on to show solidarity, especially on the policed and trolled terrain of social media. It's costly for the collective audience, so many of whom feel traumatized again. More than this, sexual violence becomes overwhelming, it becomes another spectacle: the fact that women are talking about rape becomes the story itself.

The thousands of testimonies published and shared since last summer, while often followed by regressive and exhausting debates, have been powerful and cathartic for many, and inspired demands for better accountability in universities and workspaces. Many have willfully, and wishfully, called it a women's revolution. But we haven't yet addressed the larger problems that make sexual violence so prevalent in the first place. By focusing on it as an isolated problem, we become stuck, and it starts to seem like the root of women's oppression, rather than a symptom. It becomes easier, also, to treat it as a problem of individuals — bad men and better men, strong survivors and weak ones.

Women marching against Egypt's sexual harassment, in Cairo, in February 2013. — Photo: Amanda Mustard/ZUMA

We've seen this happen throughout different iterations of the #MeToo movement, and in older mobilizations around harassment as well. This is partly because working on sexual violence takes so much energy and attention itself, but also because, again, it is such a unifying battle — at least on the surface. Agreeing that rape happens and that it's bad is not a large enough common ground from which to address the systemic problems that perpetuate rape in the first place. To do this, we have to break from the idea that there is one kind of feminism.

The state, mainstream media and often also NGOs and women's movements themselves tend to perpetuate a singular image, tone and agenda of women's rights. Social media gives us each our individually framed view on what women are talking about; the people who sell us things and shape our identities as consumers have always been ready to select and monetize feminine, and feminist, ideals. Certain voices are heard over others, a certain vocabulary becomes the only one acceptable. Some of this — ditching harmful expressions, for example — can be seen as a step forward, but a hardening of discourse and language not only becomes exclusionary, it has a limiting effect on our thinking, imagination, and, eventually, our communication itself.

In confronting patriarchy, we start looking for ways to act unified.

There's a fear that if women start paying attention to our different views on religion, family, the economy, or the political order then we will be faced with irreconcilable gulfs, exemplified in some of our perceived binaries of the secular feminist focused on social freedoms versus the Islamist feminist's reverse views on what those freedoms should be, or a feminism that wants to "lean in", versus one that sees capitalism itself as the root of our problems.

A colleague points out that in confronting patriarchy, we start looking for ways to act unified, because unity is seen as strength and gives us a certain ability to negotiate. For example, we deal with victims in one particular way, expect them to react to aggression in one particular way, and hold up one particular path of survival and recovery as the best, strongest one. Sometimes we ignore or reject victims if their reaction doesn't fit our perceived ideal. Salma El Tarzi, for example, wrote about her rape and was attacked by readers who dismissed her as having Stockholm Syndrome. This becomes the position from which we think we're able to negotiate with the larger system, and it keeps us in a reactive framework — we move not based on our own needs and visions, but on how the system sees us and what it permits. And so we replicate its hierarchies and exclusions.

Women have definitively broken the silence around sexual violence — but what is the next step? What is it that we want, beyond an end to rape? Sexual liberation? Legal equality? Socialism? Better capitalism? Anarchism? Discussions that allow for these differences won't necessarily lead to sisterhood and unified agendas, but they might activate an engagement with the wider political and social issues that keep us secondary. If we believe that confronting sexual violence can be a path to broader liberation, we have to ask: beyond a belief that rape is bad, what unites us?

Coronavirus

Long Lines, Mixed Message As Egypt's Vaccine Rollout Sputters

Only about 150,000 of the country's 100 million people have been vaccinated so far against COVID-19, and in some crowded health centers, people wait hours only to be turned away.

CAIRO — Vaccine centers across Egypt have witnessed long wait times, insufficient supply and bureaucratic procedures that have made it difficult for many to secure shots to boost their immunity against COVID-19.

At one Cairo hospital, a Mada Masr correspondent witnessed the long lines first-hand, and Doctors Syndicate council member Ibrahim al-Zayat said that the alarming overcrowding situation is worst in the more densely populated areas of Upper Egypt and Cairo.

Vaccine rollout began to wider populations, including the elderly, in early March, and more than 600,000 of Egypt's roughly 100 million people have registered to get COVID-19 vaccines. As of Sunday, 148,987 people, including medical staff, have been vaccinated.

Health Ministry sources have previously told Mada Masr that its officials identified 200,000 medical workers and 23 million citizens with chronic diseases as the first segment of people to receive the vaccine. But many people considered less vulnerable have gotten the vaccine faster than the designated at-risk groups, and the ministry is preparing plans to vaccinate tourism sector workers ahead of a hoped-for robust summer travel season.

The focus on the eligibility criteria was part of the problem at the Matareya Universal Health Insurance Clinic in Cairo, where about 200 people eligible for the vaccine due to their age or due to having chronic diseases waited four to six hours on Thursday to receive COVID-19 vaccines, a Mada Masr correspondent observed.

Tensions rose as those set to receive the vaccine complained to the center's employees about the long waiting and last-minute demands for proof of diagnosis. Some of those waiting outside the hospital told Mada Masr that they were sent home after being asked to bring medical records proving diagnosis with chronic diseases and to set another date for receiving the vaccine.

"Are we supposed to get vaccinated against coronavirus or to catch it?" one person waiting in line asked, after they submitted their IDs and waited outside the clinic for their name to be called.

At one point, Dr. Rania Saeed, the director of elder care at the clinic, apologized to the crowd and said that the clinic has been working from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day to administer vaccines. Saeed then tasked another employee with taking down the names of 265 people waiting to submit their medical histories in order to receive the vaccine, a process that took two and a half hours.

One of the citizens interviewed by Mada Masr, Ibrahim Abdel Hameed, 62, arrived at the Matareya clinic to find it overcrowded. When Abdel Hameed asked what to do after handing over his ID, the clinic employee told him to leave and come back at night or the next day or to wait with the crowd. When he asked what steps he needed to take before receiving the vaccine, the employee asked everyone to go outside and wait their turn.

For Zayat, allowing a large number of people, especially the elderly, to wait in the small medical centers creates a suitable environment for further spreading COVID-19 instead of preventing it.

After waiting for six hours, Abdel Hameed, who was number 73 on the list, was denied a shot. The doctor tore up Hameed's vaccine application and told him that his health insurance ID is not proof that he has chronic high blood pressure, as the vaccination system requires a medical report from a doctor. Saeed intervened, and told the doctor to accept the private doctor's prescription the man had brought with him as evidence.

Two women who followed Abdel Hameed, however, were denied shots because they had not brought reports proving that one woman has diabetes and the other has an autoimmune disease.

Health workers prepare an elderly woman to receive a dose of AstraZeneca — Photo: Mohamed Shokry/dpa via ZUMA Press

For Cabinet coronavirus committee member Hamdy Ibrahim, the crowding at clinics is evidence that there are shortcomings in the organization of the vaccination process in a number of centers, especially those designated for the elderly. But he also said that raising people's awareness, following precautionary measures and avoiding crowding inside vaccination centers, may be the solution to vaccinate the largest number of citizens in the least possible time, at least until the matter is better organized by Health Ministry officials.

In a statement issued Friday, the Health Ministry placed the blame for the crowding on citizens, saying that people had failed to show up to receive their shots on the dates specified for them.

But the Ministry also took steps on Sunday to alter its vaccination plan, announcing that it designated an additional 200 new clinics to administer the shot, doubled the number of medical teams working at vaccination centers nationwide, increased the clinic operating hours and capped the number of citizens who can be vaccinated at one clinic at 100 per day.

The ramp-up in administration capacities also comes after Egypt received 854,400 doses last week of AstraZeneca's COVID-19 vaccine as part of the global COVAX agreement. There are also reports that more Sinopharm vaccines could be on their way in the coming weeks.

Braving crowds has only been half the battle for at-risk groups. Many have also struggled to secure appointments at all.

In late March, many young people who are not classified as vulnerable to the coronavirus had begun to get the vaccine as early as one day after they had registered online, while those who had registered well in advance, including the elderly and people with chronic conditions, had yet to be scheduled for their first dose.

Attributing the issue to the fact that earlier applicants only had 40 vaccination centers to choose from while those who signed up later could choose from 138 centers, the Health Ministry told Mada Masr at the time that it planned to amend the registration system to enable those who registered earlier to change their choice of vaccination center.

Health Ministry Spokesperson Khaled Megahed said on television Friday that the Ministry can increase administration clinics to 5,000 if need be, providing assurances that 12.5 million citizens can be vaccinated within five weeks.

The provision of free vaccines has been a matter of concern for the government in recent months. Without the requisite funds to ensure widespread vaccination, the government has turned to public messaging that presents vaccination as optional. Alaa Ghannam, the director of the Right to Health program at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, previously told Mada Masr that the approach is "an attempt to manufacture a loophole that would allow the vaccine not to be offered free of charge for everyone."

An independent medical source previously told Mada Masr that the Health Ministry has a parallel track to government-procured vaccines that would provide shots at a modest price through partnership agreements with the private sector.

"It is understandable that the government does not want to be subject to criticisms for not shouldering the entire burden of vaccination, which is what all other countries have done," the source said. "And generally speaking, vaccinations fall within the purview of the government."

Society
Mohamed Elshahed*

Cairo Is Urban Trauma, Postcard From A City Planner

This dearth of urban planning in the Egyptian capital dates back half a century. But it reached a new peak starting in 2019, when one of its last livable districts saw its old ways demolished.

CAIRO — Inhabiting a city is an emotional and a psychological experience. For the past decade, I have lived in Cairo, a city I found to be exciting and full of potential from the perspective of an urbanist who studies cities, architecture and is concerned with heritage. I lived in Heliopolis, which I thought was one of the last sections of the Egyptian capital that, despite poor urban management for the past several decades, retained qualities that made it a livable place. It had trees, ample sidewalks, interesting architecture, and a neighborhood feel within its many subsections. It was a district with a relatively high quality of life compared to other parts of the city. There were also the remains of an extensive public transport system — the tram — which despite being dysfunctional, at least allowed residents to dream of its restoration one day under the right leadership.

Urban governance has been nonexistent since the military coup of 1952, when the Free Officers received support from the CIA through a covert program known as Project Fat Fucker to oust King Farouk, seen as uncooperative in the post-World War II era. It was an era shaped by postcolonial politics or, to be more precise, when formal colonialism was morphing into a new system that maintained colonial control, with access to assets, markets, raw material and labor under the guise of independence — a distracting form of political theater built on the emotions and desires of the masses in former colonies.

This dearth of urban planning was strikingly manifest in the summer of 2019, when over the course of several months, all the features that made Heliopolis among Cairo's more livable districts were swiftly removed. The residents had no say in the matter. Century-old trees were uprooted, public transport infrastructure was removed, and sidewalks were made smaller. Such actions are not only counter-intuitive to standard urban management logic but also have a severe impact on the value of private property in the area and, more importantly, on the psychology of residents. This is urban trauma.

Cairo today, and for much of the past decade, is an unstable city. When protests erupted in 2011 in the capital and across the country, occupying urban space was central to dissent. Conversely, urban infrastructure, particularly road systems, proved essential tools for authorities to assert urban control, such as the rapid deployment of security vehicles to the streets in an effort to impose curfews. Other examples include the cutting of electricity and the internet. In addition, there were many insidious forms of control that worked to destabilize the urban environment and make it less hospitable to potential protesters as well as to create a constant state of anxiety, even inside the home.

Over the past decade, Cairo has transformed immensely, with slogans such as "development" and "progress' operating as smoke screens for a violent remaking of the city for other ends. Counterrevolutionary forces argued that stability was more important than political change, but on the neighborhood level across the country there has been no stability whatsoever. Space is disfigured on a daily basis, trees are removed, buildings are demolished and heritage collapses. Within a matter of days, weeks or months, residents have lost their orientation around neighborhoods in which they have lived their entire lives. What kind of stability is this? And for whom?

Urban planners understand the psychological potential of cities.

Since the 1950s, urban planners, mostly in the United States and Europe, have understood the psychological potential of cities. Town planning can engender a sense of belonging, strengthen local communities, and bolster neighborhood ties. Conversely, it can also enforce a sense of individualism, manipulate residents into becoming consumers and intensify feelings of loneliness, alienation, anxiety and fear.

When the United States began its "shock and awe" campaign in Baghdad in 2003, the intention, as the name suggests, was to induce psychological shock, to overwhelm and control the population of an entire capital in a mere instant. In today's urban environment, psychology is always at work: in the hyper-surveillance of Dubai or Beijing, in the advertising-saturated Times Square in New York or London's Piccadilly Circus; or in the presence of military camps within Egyptian cities, with conscripts placed in watchtowers, their rifles pointed outward at the city around them. In all these examples, and many more, urban environments impact human psychology, intentionally or not, where technologies, spaces and tactics are weaponized by those in power to control populations.

Despite the apparent availability of funds to build an entirely new capital or attract investments for superfluous additions to the city — such as mimicking the London Eye on the Nile — Egypt's more mundane, yet crucial, urban needs have not been met. In a political environment orchestrated around the notion of megaprojects touted by those in power as evidence of their rule, fixing sidewalks, planting trees and improving public transport do not add up to iconic achievements. Instead, Egyptians have been increasingly gaslit since the 1990s into believing that their cities are irreparable and nothing more than reflections of the Egyptian psyche: chaotic and unordered.

Through psychological manipulation that serves undemocratic rule and uncontrolled capital, it has become common to hear that something is fundamentally wrong with Egyptians themselves and that only money can buy them a ticket out of their urban misery. Promotions abound for privately-built gated developments, with names meant to evoke life in Marseille or other far afield spaces such as "Dreamland" or even "Future City," which feels all too much like the dreary present.

Over the last several years, Cairo has been the laboratory for some of the most aggressive urban interventions in its entire history. From highways that negate the existence of residential buildings within arm's reach, to the demolition of hundreds of mausolea containing the remains of the city's dead, including many of its most important public figures, these projects seem to negate the very existence of the city's inhabitants.

In the current political climate, where any form of opposition is immediately branded as a threat to the nation and its security, such projects bulldoze through the urban fabric under a plethora of flags and nationalistic slogans such as "we build for you." At the crux of the matter is a form of state paternalism that echoes statements made by officials during the legendary eighteen days of the revolution: "Egyptians are not ready for democracy" — which in urban affairs translates into "Egyptians don't know what is good for their city."

Cairo has been transformed into a place without memory.

For many inhabitants of the city there is a sense of being held hostage, of feeling helpless and having no control over the environment they occupy and inhabit. The numerous interventions happening at once are disorienting, they create chaos and disperse any effort to record what is happening. Alongside these processes, and in the absence of robust institutions that maintain the memory and history of modern and contemporary society, Cairo has been transformed into a place without memory, perpetually stuck in a disorienting present. These are tactics of psychological control and many Cairenes may be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, caused not only by the instability of the city, but by the increasing sense of anxiety that comes with pervasive insecurity and predatory surveillance.

In the aftermath of 2011 Cairo saw an immense increase in surveillance cameras mounted in public spaces. This was followed by a law that forced private businesses to install cameras outside their premises. Trees may provide shade and clean the air, but in a security state they also hinder surveillance. So trees must be removed. Occasionally, to counter criticism of tree removal, imported palm trees are planted as decorative replacements whilst lining the pockets of importers. The imported palms do not survive well in Cairo's harsh environment and often die shortly after planting. This seems counterintuitive: Why import palm trees from vast distances to a country rich in its own local varieties of palms? Such questions can best be answered by adjusting the expectations or refocusing the purposes of the urban interventions taking place.

Cairo street scene in 2005. Not much has changed since. — Photo: JJ Jester

Such interventions are driven by multiple interests; not the interests of the masses, but rather those of the security apparatus looking to open up spaces for observation and control and for those who receive direct, no-bid contracts and are only looking to maximize profit. Regardless of the form they take, these interventions are in fact fulfilling exactly what they are designed for; the public does not figure into the state's considerations.

In 1948, in the aftermath of World War II, and following the exit of British troops from Egyptian cities, architect Sayed Karim consulted Al-Musawwar magazine on producing a series of spreads that illustrate key urban challenges facing Cairo in order to get the public on board for the necessary changes. One of the spreads titled "Cairo is suffocating, let her breathe!" was centered on the issue of green space. The spread was mainly visual accompanied by a short text. It included an aerial view of the capital with a graph below visualizing the amount of green space in various parts of the city as measured by the ratio of population density to public parks. It presented both a bleak picture and a call to arms, arguing that the city was dangerously lacking in green space which correlates directly with higher rates of infant mortality, disease and social ills.

At the time, only one percent of the city's total area was dedicated to parks, while it needed about ten percent for healthy levels. Six districts, such as Bulaq, Shubra and historic Cairo, which were collectively populated by over 1.1 million residents, did not have access to any green space. The text concludes with a call to establish a municipality to govern Cairo and manage its affairs, including the lack of green space. "Enough of the politics of improvisation which have cost the state and the people immense losses," the architect concluded.

Karim was an ambitious and vocal architect and urbanist and his daring message reflected the widespread revolutionary fervor and public criticism sweeping Egypt after 1948. Others joined his calls for a municipality and the demand began to materialize in 1949. However, the heavy-handed policies of the new military regime which co-opted the revolution in 1952 led to the cancellation of the short-lived municipality. The building erected for the municipality was then used as the headquarters of Nasser's Arab Socialist Union and subsequently the National Democratic Party.

In this new era, Egypt's heads of state did what they saw fit with the city and its people, there was no room for a politics of participation such as a democratic municipality. Ever since, the city has been a site for projects decreed from above and designed to improve the image of leaders rather than provide its residents with needed services. As for voices such as Sayed Karim, who looked to galvanize public opinion with urban critique, his career was cut short, his offices were shut by the state and he was placed under house arrest in 1965. Cairo today continues to live in the shadow of this traumatic moment.

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Geopolitics
Ehsan Salah and Sharif Abdel Kouddous

After Waltzing With Trump, Egypt Must Get In Step With Biden

With Joe Biden, Cairo's relations with Washington are undergoing an uncomfortable reboot.

-Analysis-

CAIRO — In the weeks leading up to and through Joe Biden's victory in the U.S. presidential elections in November, officials in Egypt's Foreign Ministry scrambled to prepare for one of the most consequential leadership changes in decades for Cairo's most important ally.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi struck a particularly close relationship with President Donald Trump over his four-year term, with the Trump administration offering vocal support for Sisi despite widespread documentation of human rights abuses and limited Egyptian foreign policy influence. Biden, on the other hand, has been critical of the cozy relationship and has vowed to end "blank checks' for Trump's "favorite dictator."

According to several current and former officials who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity, as Trump's election defeat became clear, officials at the Foreign Ministry prepared a series of memos outlining a number of proposals intended to maintain Cairo's relationship with Washington under a Biden administration and reassert Egypt's standing as a key ally, as its historical influence and relevance in the region have steadily waned over the preceding decade.

The memos, which were circulated to the foreign minister and to the president, suggest several domestic policy changes intended to ease criticism of Cairo's crackdown on political opposition and civil liberties. The memos also propose a number of foreign policy measures concerning Israel-Palestine, Libya and elsewhere, aimed at reestablishing Egypt's value as a regional partner to the United States.

Along with the Egyptian government's hiring of a powerful new lobbying firm in Washington to promote U.S. relations with Cairo, the moves paint a picture of a government deeply concerned about its increasingly precarious relationship with the United States as the Democrats take control of Congress and the White House, and as the geopolitical landscape in the region undergoes tectonic shifts.

"Senior people within the Sisi regime know they are not in good standing with the U.S. They made mistakes over the last four years. They made themselves a much more partisan issue," says Michael Wahid Hanna, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a New York City-based think tank. "The mere fact that these discussions are happening is a reflection that they are aware of just how badly out of step they are with this administration and that they might need to mend fences this time around."

A whole new scenario

After Biden was declared the winner, Sisi promptly issued a statement congratulating him, saying he was "looking forward to working and cooperating with the new president-elect to boost the strategic bilateral relations between Egypt and the United States." The two leaders have yet to speak directly, however, and Egypt was not among the first 31 calls that new U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken made to his counterparts abroad.

"With Trump, Sisi had a friend in the White House who did special favors for him and prevented any significant repercussions for Egypt's human rights abuses," says Michele Dunne, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former State Department official who follows Egypt. "With Biden, Sisi no longer has that, which changes the whole dynamic."

According to a number of current and former officials, among the Foreign Ministry's recommendations is that Egyptian authorities ease up on the arrest of dissidents and release some opposition figures in a systematic way in order to curry favor with the Biden administration.

"The new U.S. administration needs to know that Egypt is a serious and relevant partner," an informed Egyptian official tells Mada Masr. "On the home front, we are bluntly saying that there has to be a way to address the human rights situation in a substantial way."

Any potential releases are unlikely, however, to include high-profile members of the Muslim Brotherhood or their Islamist allies, who have long been subject to harsher repressive measures since the ouster of President Mohamed Morsi in 2013 and are viewed by authorities as being in a separate threat category altogether.

"Releasing a few people once in a while will not suffice to convince the Biden administration that we are really trying. We need to have a strategy," the official says. "But obviously this strategy will exclude the Islamists."

Three Egyptian diplomats tell Mada Masr that Cairo needs to demonstrate to the Biden administration that the political situation in Egypt is improving by, for example, allowing political parties and opposition figures to have more of a voice in the media.

The majority of Egypt's newspapers and television channels are owned by the General Intelligence Service (GIS), which has tightly controlled the media narrative over the last several years, allowing few, if any, critical voices to be heard. A 2017 Mada Masr investigation found that the GIS owns a governing stake in Eagle Capital, a private equity firm that owns the Egyptian Media Group, the biggest media conglomerate in Egypt.

However, the officials note that proposals by the Foreign Ministry only carry so much weight. It is the country's powerful security and intelligence agencies that often have final say on crucial domestic and foreign policy issues. And thus far, there has been no definitive agreement on a strategy to increase civil liberties or release political prisoners held in pretrial detention, sources say.

"The question is not whether or not we can engage the Biden administration, because we do have the tools. The question is whether the executive authority wants to do so and whether it is willing to reroute on some issues, like human rights. This is not something that the Foreign Ministry decides," the official says. "The Foreign Ministry sent its ideas, but there are other views that have been put out by several other bodies, including the GIS and others. At the end of the day these ideas or proposals are not necessarily all synchronized."

This lack of synchronicity was glaringly apparent in November, when Egyptian authorities arrested three staff members at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), one of the country's most prominent human rights organizations.

Multiple security and government officials previously told Mada Masr that a single security official was behind the decision to arrest the three staffers and that he believed that keeping them locked up for as long as possible would quash any hopes among local civil society of capitalizing on Biden's election.

Cairo needs to show Biden administration that the political situation in Egypt is improving.

But the EIPR detentions appear to have had the opposite effect, thrusting Egypt's human rights record into the global spotlight and triggering an 18-day saga of international condemnation and diplomatic intervention that ended with the detained staff walking free.

After the first two staffers were detained, the Foreign Ministry — which was completely taken aback by the arrests — recommended a halt to the detentions and advised against the arrest of the organization's executive director, according to several official sources. Nevertheless, the security official overseeing the crackdown ignored their pleas. In the meantime, as international condemnation grew, Egyptian embassies, particularly those in Paris and Washington, sent cables to the president's office, the Foreign Ministry and security agencies, urging them to find a resolution.

The arrests prompted 56 U.S. congressional Democrats to sign on to a letter addressed to Sisi condemning the crackdown. Blinken also criticized the arrests in a tweet. Meanwhile, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry received a letter signed by 19 ambassadors in Egypt — including the U.S. ambassador, who had not taken part in a visit to the headquarters of the EIPR by over a dozen European diplomats that allegedly prompted the crackdown — urging the Egyptian government to act promptly to resolve the crisis.

Biden entered office having to contend with a number of significant domestic challenges, including the coronavirus pandemic, which has hit the United States with particular severity, bitter political polarization, and the aftermath of some of the largest protests against racism and police abuse in a generation. It was therefore assumed that the human rights situation in Egypt would be a relatively low priority at the start of Biden's term.

But the EIPR case may have altered that calculus.

"Egypt was not a priority for the U.S., not when it came to the situation of human rights," an Egyptian government source tells Mada Masr. "However, by starting the EIPR issue, Egypt sort of chose to put its human rights situation higher up on Biden's to-do list for 2021."

Exerting influence

A lobbying firm Egypt hired to promote its interests in Washington also cautioned at the time that if the EIPR crisis continued, Egypt's image in Washington would be tarnished just as the presidential transition was underway.

Less than a week before the first EIPR arrest, on Nov. 9, the Egyptian embassy in Washington closed a deal with Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, a lobbying group and law firm, to provide "government relations services and strategic consultation in matters before the U.S. government" pertinent to Egypt for $65,000 per month.

Although Egypt had been in talks with the firm for months, the contract was signed by Egyptian Ambassador to the U.S. Motaz Zahran — who had arrived in Washington in November — just two days after Biden became the president-elect.

Egypt chose to put its human rights situation higher up on Biden's to-do list for 2021.

The bipartisan lobbying team is led by Nadeam Elshami, a Democrat who was chief of staff to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and Ed Royce, a Republican who was the former chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Mada Masr submitted interview requests with Elshami, Royce and several other lobbyists at Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck handling the Egypt account but did not receive any response.

"The lobbying firm will not just be working on Congress but also on the think tanks and groups that have a particular interest in the situation in Egypt, like the Egypt Working Group," a former official tells Mada Masr, referring to the Working Group on Egypt, a bipartisan group of foreign affairs experts formed in 2010 to, as they describe it, "seek more constructive U.S. policies towards Egypt."

In June, the group sent a letter to Trump's Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, calling on him to press the Egyptian president "to cease his escalating crackdown on peaceful opponents."

One of the first moves the new lobbying firm made after Biden's inauguration was to work to gain support in Congress for Egypt in the stalled negotiations with Ethiopia and Sudan over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, according to Foreign Lobby, a news outlet that tracks foreign political lobbying in Washington.

On Jan. 28, Royce sent an email to lawmakers calling their attention to possible environmental risks posed by the dam and encouraging them to send their staffers to a virtual meeting on the issue held by the Egyptian embassy in Washington on Feb. 1.

"As you may know, the negotiations surrounding the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam have stalled. Without an enforceable agreement, the operations of the dam will have significant environmental ramifications, for both the populations of Egypt and Sudan as well as for the Nile's regional ecosystems," Royce wrote.

According to a number of Egyptian officials, Cairo also hopes to use the lobbying firm to push back against efforts by U.S.-based human rights groups that are pressuring Washington to hold Egypt accountable for human rights abuses.

"Egyptian-American groups opposed to the regime are trying to lobby Congressmen with negative views on Egypt," a second former Egyptian official tells Mada Masr. "While trying to win Biden over, we should be working on a parallel track to win over some influential senators like Republican Lindsey Graham and Democrat Patrick Leahy."

Trump and al Sisi in 2017 — Photo: Shealah Craighead/White House/Planet Pix via ZUMA Wire

Both Graham, the outgoing chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Leahy, the chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, have vocally criticized Sisi's government over a number of issues, including human rights abuses and the controversial NGO law.

Leahy is also the principal sponsor of legislation known as the Leahy Laws, which withholds foreign U.S. military aid unless the secretary of state certifies the country is taking various steps to support democracy and human rights. The bulk of U.S. funding to Egypt comes in the form of an annual $1.3 billion military assistance package.

Even though the State Department's own assessments of Egypt have acknowledged widespread abuses — such as unlawful killings, torture, forced disappearance and arbitrary detention — successive Democratic and Republican secretaries of state have regularly issued national security waivers over the years to override these concerns and continue the funding.

But in December, Congress for the first time made the disbursement of military aid to Egypt conditional on the release of political prisoners without providing the State Department the option to waive the conditions in the interests of national security.

The condition, which comes as part of Washington's 2021 budget allocation legislature, concerns $75 million in military aid out of the total $1.3 billion. The legislation marked the first time U.S. military aid to Egypt has been conditioned on human rights benchmarks without a national security waiver, according to Seth Binder, an advocacy officer at the Washington DC-based Project on Middle East Democracy.

"This sends an important message to the Egyptian government that Congress is deeply concerned with its continued unjust detention of human rights defenders," Binder previously told Mada Masr.

Cairo now has even more cause for concern over increased attention being directed toward Egypt's record on human rights within the Democratic-controlled Congress. On Jan. 25, Democratic members of Congress Don Beyer of Virginia and Tom Malinowski of New Jersey announced the formation of the Egypt Human Rights Caucus to mark the 10th anniversary of the 2011 Egyptian revolution. The caucus will work to leverage Washington's relationship with Cairo, including its vast military aid package, in order to pressure Egypt to improve its human rights record, Beyer tells Mada Masr.

Congress is deeply concerned with its continued unjust detention of human rights defenders.

The formation of the Egypt Human Rights Caucus sparked sharp criticism by Egyptian parliamentarians. Tarek Radwan, the head of the Human Rights Committee in Parliament, singled out Malinowski in particular in a statement on Feb. 6.

"Malinowski wants to use the Egypt Human Rights Caucus to allow members of the Muslim Brotherhood to hold hearing sessions and conferences inside the U.S. Congress on the human rights situation in Egypt," Radwan said. "Malinowski should know that this is a dangerous game because when you open the door of the Congress for a group with an Islamist Jihadist and violent ideology you will cause harm to America's national security itself."

Last month, Malinowski was elected to be vice chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, an influential post with regard to relations with Egypt. Meanwhile, Beyer has long been critical of human rights abuses in Egypt, particularly during his vocal advocacy for his constituent, Aya Hegazy, the dual Egyptian-American citizen who was imprisoned in Cairo for three years before her release in 2017 after Trump and his aides intervened in the case.

The Beblawi case

While U.S. military aid is a cornerstone of Cairo's relationship with Washington, Egypt has been diversifying its sources of arms procurement over the past several years, striking massive weapons deals with countries like France, Germany and Italy, as well as Russia and China, to become the third-largest arms importer in the world. Still, the U.S. remains a key ally, and the "human rights headache," as some Egyptian officials describe it, is a source of major concern for the Egyptian government, which is continuing efforts to alter the perception of Cairo's human rights record absent any real reform.

During a recent video conference meeting with a group of Egyptian-Americans on the eve of Biden's inauguration, Egyptian ambassador Zahran urged the group to "exert maximum effort" to convince their congressional representatives that the human rights situation in Egypt had improved under Sisi. He pointed specifically to the Coptic Christian minority and women's rights, stressing that socioeconomic issues are a bigger priority for the majority of Egyptians, according to an Egyptian-American who was on the call. Zahran called on the group to tell their representatives that tolerating Islamists could unleash a new wave of "terror" in Egypt and that it could negatively influence the public perception in Egypt of the Biden administration.

Another potential setback Cairo is facing is an ongoing lawsuit filed in June by dual Egyptian-American national Mohamed Soltan in a federal district court in Washington DC, accusing former Egyptian Prime Minister Hazem al-Beblawi of targeting him for attempted extrajudicial killing and for the "direction of and oversight" of acts of torture against him in 2013.

Beblawi, who served as Egypt's prime minister from 2013 to 2014, lived in DC, where he worked as an executive director of the International Monetary Fund when the lawsuit was filed last year. After the suit was filed, he repeatedly demanded that the Egyptian embassy act to block the case, according to sources at the Egyptian embassy in Washington. Beblawi was replaced in his IMF post in October and has left Washington.

Both the Trump administration and the Egyptian government intervened to try to have the case dismissed on the grounds that Beblawi is immune from suit, given his position as a diplomat and an executive director at the IMF. The U.S. court has yet to rule on whether the high-profile lawsuit will move forward.

Although it is unclear still how the Biden administration will approach the case, Biden himself in July denounced the arrest of Soltan's relatives by Egyptian authorities in apparent retaliation for his filing of the suit. On Jan. 22, two days after Biden took office, the Department of Justice requested the court hold off on its request for a statement of interest from the government to take a formal position on the immunity issue until Feb. 26, in order for new State Department officials to familiarize themselves with the case.

The issue is not Egypt's relevance, but rather its usefulness.

Egyptian officials appear confident the lawsuit will not have a significant impact on the bilateral relationship. "We will always manage these types of cases," says the informed official. "It was not very difficult to tell the outgoing U.S. administration that Hazem al-Beblawi is in his mid-80s and in very poor health and that they should find a fast exit for him. I don't think that any U.S. administration will want to lose Egypt over a particular case here or there."

Regional relations

In addition to tackling the increased scrutiny of Egypt's human rights record under a Democratic-controlled White House and Congress, the series of memos regarding U.S.-Egypt relations also addressed Egypt's foreign policies in the region and how Cairo could position itself as an important strategic ally.

At the top of the agenda was reasserting Cairo's role in any future negotiations on Israel-Palestine. Egypt has historically been the main interlocutor with Israel over the past 40 years, since it became the first Arab country to establish formal diplomatic ties by signing the 1979 Camp David Accords, a treaty that has anchored Cairo's relationship with Washington. But over the last decade, Egypt's influence in the region has waned, with the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia emerging as top regional power brokers.

The UAE's decision to normalize relations with Israel in August, and its role in pushing Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan to follow suit — with the blessing of Saudi Arabia — has further marginalized Cairo's influence in the region. U.S. Secretary of State Blinken has vocally supported the normalization deals and says he will work to further them.

"On the foreign affairs front, we need to do a lot of repositioning. We have to accelerate our engagement with managing the Palestinian situation vis-a-vis Israel," says the informed Egyptian official. "We can't be sitting and watching while the UAE is offering itself as the leading Arab mediator with Israel. We need to be making proposals on how to manage a regional order that accommodates Israel somehow but at the same time makes Israel responsible to address some key Palestinian issues."

For the past several weeks, Egypt has been negotiating an official visit to Cairo by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to discuss the so-called peace process. Sisi has reportedly conditioned the visit on Netanyahu making a positive statement on the Palestinian issue, such as recommitting to the two-state solution, according to Axios, as a way to reinvigorate Egypt's role and send a positive message to the White House.

"Egypt's geographic location and history means it will always have a role on some issues, particularly concerning neighboring countries," Dunne says. "The issue is not Egypt's relevance, but rather its usefulness — does it make a positive and meaningful contribution to resolving regional issues or not? Egypt's role regarding Palestinian reconciliation has not been, and perhaps cannot be, decisive; and the role Egypt has played in Libya and Sudan seems more negative than positive. Regarding Israel, it now has many new partners in the region."

Libya is another area where Foreign Ministry officials believe Egypt can work to better align itself with the Biden administration. Egypt, along with the UAE, Jordan and Russia, backed Libyan National Army leader Khalifa Haftar's ill-fated military campaign to take the capital that began in 2019 and prompted the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord to seek military support and intervention from Turkey.

"We can work with the U.S. to manage the situation in Libya, where we have been quite far from the militia alliances with Turkey. This makes us a possible strong U.S. ally in Libya, along with France, that is already opposed to the Turkish presence in Libya," the informed official says, even while acknowledging that Egypt has increasingly and quietly been cooperating with Turkey on the ground in western Libya.

Egypt sent a high-ranking delegation to western Libya at the close of December in an attempt to shore up Egypt's ability to make itself a primary player in the settlement of the Libyan conflict, an Egyptian official previously told Mada Masr. But many of those power brokers in the west were dealt a setback on Friday with the surprise election of Abdul Hamid Dbaiba, a businessman from the powerful western city of Misrata whose Libyan Investment and Development Corporation is one of the largest construction firms in Libya that worked closely with Turkish business partners during the rule of ousted leader Muammar Qadhafi.

Three Egyptian diplomats tell Mada Masr separately that along with Palestine and Libya, Egypt needs to position itself as a regional ally to the United States in other areas as well, including Iraq and Syria. The diplomats and other officials also say Cairo should maintain a softer stance towards Iran than Saudi Arabia and the UAE, as the Biden administration looks to restore the nuclear deal with Tehran.

"Egypt's profile has diminished and there is no reason to think it has a way to reassert itself in the near term. It's not that Egypt is totally unimportant but they are not an essential player," says the Century Foundation's Michael Wahid Hanna.

"At the level of rhetoric, things are going to change and the atmospherics of the U.S. relationship are going to change. It's not possible that Sisi's coming to Washington for example," he adds. "That's kind of the minimum, but symbolism matters and it's real change. That is reflecting on how Egypt is acting — they're scrambling."

Society
Nada Gamal

How The Sexist Politics Of Hair Plays Out In Egypt's Schools

“I’m not against hijab in principle; I myself wear it,' says one mother. 'But I refuse to have my daughter wear it against her will.”

CAIRO — The 2020 school year began with a few headlines about schools accused of forcing students to wear headscarves:

"Public row over Egypt school forcing child to wear hijab, Education Ministry investigates' or "Plea to education minister: Principal threatens child with suspension over rasta braids'

The news stories show that some teachers and school administrators pressure students to wear headscarves, although the veil is not mandated in school bylaws or any Education Ministry decree. In several recent incidents, the staff was motivated by a desire to cultivate a uniform appearance among students, using the veil as a way to try to bring in line teenage girls whose hairstyles or general appearance don't fit their prescribed views on what is "decent." With different schools applying different degrees of strictness, and administrators enforcing their own views of what is school appropriate, headscarves have come to be seen by some schools as a tool to solve a problem. In these stories, the girls, with the support of their families, pushed back.

Mada Masr spoke to Mai, a middle school student in Alexandria who did not want to name her school for fear of expulsion. Mai received her kindergarten and elementary education at a convent school. While girls at the old school had varying hairstyles, skin tones, and religions and spoke in different accents, the school codes were strictly adhered to — girls were required to observe good hygiene and respect teachers, support workers and other students. By the time Mai was ready to move on to the next stage of her education, her family had fallen into financial trouble and so she was transferred to a public school for gifted children. This is where her problems began, although she says they are not academic.

Most of the girls at Mai's current school wear headscarves, and those who don't are mostly Christian. The unveiled girls usually come to school with their hair in a bun. In that environment, Mai stands out with her short, curly hair which she wears loose most of the time. At first, Mai said, she didn't understand why the students and teachers at her new school looked at her funny, or why the other girls seemed to avoid her. When she started to prove herself academically and engage more in class, things started to change. Mai says her Arabic language teacher was surprised at her high score on a test, and, the following day, she asked her why doesn't wear a headscarf. "I don't want to at the moment," Mai answered, after which the teacher asked her if her father lived at home.

The teacher told her she and her father would both be held to account for her exposed hair on Judgement Day, Mai said. "If I loved my father, she said, I should start covering my hair for my own sake as well as to honor him and to please God. She added that the fact that my hair is curly should be even more reason to wear a headscarf, as it would hide that ugly hair that looks like a man's and make me prettier."

One day at morning assembly, Mai was called out by another teacher. "Put that mad hair of yours in a bun, Mai." She could not talk back to the teacher, so she just laughed along with her classmates. But the incident made it clear to her just how damaging the situation was, so she decided to start wearing a headscarf to avoid more harassment. Her family intervened, saying she was too young to wear a hijab.

"People at school tolerate me, but nobody thinks much of me," says Mai. "Three years and I haven't made any real friends. Three years of bullying because my hair is curly and I don't want to cover it." Mai says her teachers constantly contrast her academic achievements with what they describe as her lapsed religious duties, attributing the latter to her having gone to a convent school.

I don't hate my hair. But I do hate my school, including the people who work there.

Mai says the discrimination extends to formal events, such as participation in the morning assembly program. "The reason given was that ‘discipline" is required of any girl if she wants to take part — and to be honest, I don't know how they define discipline. I go to school in my clean uniform, with white socks and black shoes on. I don't accessorize or wear any makeup because what they view as my ugly curly hair is all I need to look beautiful."

Mai hopes the worst of it is over, and that next year, when she moves onto high school, she will find herself in a more accepting situation.

"Despite all of this," she says, "I don't hate my hair. But I do hate my school, including the people who work there."

In the Sharqiya city of Belbis, a similar case led to a public confrontation between a student's parents and school administrators, ultimately requiring the Education Ministry to intervene.

Lamia Lotfy says her daughter Reem, a middle school student at Sharqiya's Belbis Public Language School, was threatened and bullied for refusing to wear a headscarf. Lotfy, a gender consultant and program coordinator at the New Woman Foundation, a rights group, told Mada Masr that the issue started a year earlier, when Reem was still in sixth grade at the same school. The girls received hints that, once they entered middle school, they would no longer be allowed to come to school without headscarves because they would be "all grown up," and were warned that refusal to adhere would result in disciplinary action.

Lotfy didn't want to act preemptively. But on Reem's very first day of middle school, the 13-year-old was instructed by teachers to wear a headscarf as part of her uniform. Lotfy was adamant in her refusal to make her daughter abide by the new requirement, and when the pressure on Reem continued, she decided to escalate.

In a public Facebook post she wrote about the issue in December, Lotfy quoted statements made to her daughter by three different teachers:

"Wear it to school and take it off when you leave."

"You simply won't be allowed onto the school premises without a headscarf."

"It's not our problem that your mom won't let you wear it. Work it out with her."

The Education Ministry put out a statement that hijab is not part of the school uniform — Photo: Elena Pleskevich

Reem's father lodged a complaint with the school administration. While he was assured that hijab was not a compulsory part of the official uniform, the school pushed back, this time targeting the mother. "Yes, we did tell the mother that a headcover was part of the uniform, but we never said hijab was. This is meant to protect the girls because this is a co-ed school," Vice Principal Manal Aboul Naga posted on Facebook. "What kind of mother reports someone for trying to protect their daughter," she added. In other posts by Aboul Naga, reviewed by Mada Masr, the vice principal claimed Lotfy was seeking fame through the controversy, and made other disparaging remarks about the parent.

Even before her own daughter's experience, Lotfy had been familiar with the practice of imposing headscarves on schoolgirls through her work at the New Woman Foundation. Lotfy "The model, decent girl is expected to dress modestly and wear a hijab to signal her pride in her religious identity, since hijab is what distinguishes her from a Christian girl." Most of the conflicts are resolved amicably once a legal guardian meets with the principal, Lotfy adds. In her particular case, the vice principal's attacks on Lotfy on social media prevented an easy resolution.

Does that include a girl's right to choose her own hairstyle?

Responding to the press and social media attention, the Education Ministry put out a statement that hijab is not part of the school uniform, that girls are free to choose whether or not to wear a headscarf and that school administrators and teachers have no say in the matter. Education Minister Tarek Shawky dismissed Reem's story as an "isolated incident."

The school district launched an investigation into the case. The New Woman Foundation released a letter titled "Citizenship for all in schools — no to imposing hijab" and invited signatories. The government's National Council for Women filed an official complaint, urging the Education Ministry to take the necessary steps to safeguard the rights of all Egyptian girls.

The question remains, does that include a girl's right to choose her own hairstyle?

Malak was just starting her first year of high school at the Wagih Baghdadi School in Giza. She went to school one day with pink highlights rasta-braided into her black hair. The principal of the school, where most girls are veiled, banned her from attending classes and made her stand in the hall as punishment instead, instructed her to wear hijab, and threatened to ban her from the premises if she came to school with the same hairstyle again.

Nagla Siddiq, Malak's mother, who sometimes works as a substitute teacher at the school, said there were early warning signs but she didn't think the issue would get that bad. Siddiq told Mada Masr that when she took Malak to pick up her uniform from school ahead of the start of the school year, some of the teachers told her to mind her daughter's appearance, and that although her daughter was wearing loose-fitting clothes, she would need to cover her hair.

"The code does stipulate that hair may not be dyed or accessorized in bright colors or obscure vision, but it was only sent to me by colleagues after Malak was bullied, humiliated, victimized and psychologically scarred," Siddiq told Mada Masr.

Siddiq says that after Malak's problem began, other unveiled girls at the school confided in her about the bullying they received from staff. Siddiq and the school principal both filed complaints with the school district.

Multiple hearings were held for 16-year-old Malak, both on her own and in the presence of her mother. Malak was told during one hearing: "Either cut it, dye it or cover it during school hours. We're not interested in forcing you to wear hijab."

"The way I see it, all three choices are effectively the same: hijab by force," Siddiq says. "I'm not against hijab in principle; I myself wear it. But I refuse to have my daughter wear it against her will."

The school district concluded that Malak was never forced to wear hijab. The school was only concerned with the inappropriate color of her hair, the district says. The student was asked to dye her hair back to its natural color. She told them that the dye job had cost LE500 and that she could not afford to change the color again, so the administration asked her to wear a headscarf just until her hair reverts back to its natural black color, according to the statement issued by the district. Malak goes to school with her hair in a bun, a compromise that has so far been tolerated by the administration.

Commenting on the issue of hairstyles, Rabab Abdel Salam Abaza, principal of Alexandria's Al-Shahida Om Sabir Girls' Middle School, told Mada Masr "Every girl should check herself in the mirror before heading out for school and make sure that her appearance is appropriate for the educational setting. And it falls to parents to guide their daughters in that regard." Dyed hair falls outside what's appropriate for Abaza, as do shoes that are not black in color. But "setting a code," Abaza adds, "and laying out what is appropriate for school does not amount to forcing non-hijabi girls to wear headscarves."

The veil is of course a non-issue for boys, but it is unclear whether school administrations practice similar patterns of enforcing a uniform appearance among male students. Mada Masr inquired at two Alexandrian all-boys school administrations and found that neither one has ever recorded a complaint, suspension or other disciplinary action against any boy for not wearing his uniform or for what teachers may have viewed as an inappropriate appearance or a violation of the dress code. "Boys have a different reaction from girls when their appearance is commented on," says a boys' high school teacher who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity. "Of course there are boys who come to school with a completely inappropriate appearance, with unusual hairstyles or even in t-shirts and jeans like they're on a casual outing. But if a teacher comments on something like that, he could bring upon himself all kinds of insults. This is what happens at so many public schools, teachers get humiliated. So we don't speak out."

Geopolitics
Lina Attalah

Opening Closed Rooms Of History: The Arab Spring 10 Years On

The editor of Mada Masr writes about what how to remember the revolution in Egypt.

-Analysis-

It is the 10th anniversary of the Arab Spring, and we can't quite escape that substance called remembrance. Yet, eschewing facile modes of nostalgic remembrance and/or tragic lamentation, we opt for asking questions: How the passing of time changes our understanding of the revolutionary event? What does this event, and what came after, tell of an Arab revolutionary tradition? And what sites of micro-politics emerged in the last 10 years, informing our conception of the broader polity of the region? In a dual invocation of the dead and the living, we aim to confront anew classical political questions on history and reckoning with the past, mobilization, organization, ideology and national identity. We also aim to explore specific areas of contestation that continue to radically redefine post-2011 politics and potentially point us to imagining certain possible futures.

Pregnant as it was of exuberant hope, revolutionary politics was also pregnant with boundless brutality, stirring a tired discursive loop of success and failure. In this series of short essays that followed a number of conversations organized by two media collectives — Mada Masr and Al-Jumhuriya — among the authors, we try to engage with the above questions. We also challenge well-rehearsed and oft-repeated revolutionary or post-revolutionary narratives, eluding factional and/or national silos and foregrounding hitherto unnoticed dynamics, themes and voices. As platforms produced in great part by the 2011 moment, we are particularly aware and wary of the fatigue and repetitiveness that Arab Spring discussions and mentions elicit among our communities of writers and journalists. This too is part of the brutal everyday that we experience as we attempt to reflect with the angel of history.

There is something exhausting in how the Arab Spring is being remembered. There is something exhausting about the very act of remembrance. I am asked identical questions by different journalists on assignment to produce content on the occasion of the 10-year anniversary. I don't feel my answers matter. The story is somewhat pre-written; the revolution is over and I should somehow confirm it in my answers.

But my answers about the end and the defeat do not arrive, not out of blind hope or political naivete, but out of a certain conceptual blindness cast upon the entire conversation. One time, in an attempt to express candidly how I feel, I try to take my interviewee to a metaphysical area, whereby I speak to her about a spell that accompanies us without us really knowing it, and the redemption we experience when we become conscious of it. I told her this is how a relic of the revolution feels to me. I do not feel she gets me and I even sense she thinks I am troubled.

There is something exhausting in how the Arab Spring is being remembered.

At the beginning of last year, our friend Salma Shamel generously initiated a reading group on the works of Walter Benjamin, not just to study them, but to also approach them as epistemological method. The invitation spoke right to my constant need for spaces of praxis in order to keep doing what I am doing with a gist of meaning. Shortly after we started reading together, our weekly evening encounters became an embodiment of what Benjamin is perhaps calling us for: How to redeem a fragment of history in order to respond to the needs of the present?

Calling on what Benjamin writes becomes an attempt to respond to a certain current and urgent need, a need to understand anew, or to understand differently, or to smuggle understanding from predominant processes and forms of knowledge, with what they include in terms of the act of remembering. There are points where I take on my habit to contemplate the very condition in which a process is unfolding; we are a group of scholars, writers, artists and journalists, mentally wrestling to understand some cryptic writings that arrived to us from the 1940s translated from their original language while most of us are reading them in their second language. At times, we'd feel the victory of arrival and settlement of a certain meaning and at others we'd keep lingering in our speculations, while reading the same line over and over, hoping for another arrival. I find the energy of this condition quite fitting for the moment, and the crisis it bears: How can we be today? And how can our politics emanate from the intricate act of unearthing and understanding the complex and multilayered reality and away from what we take for granted, theoretically and practically? And where does history fit in this cartography?

Benjamin wrote his text on the concept of history in 1940, made of 20 fragments. We stop at each of them throughout several sessions. He wrote the text before fleeing France as Jewish citizens were being handed over to the Nazi Gestapo and committing suicide shortly after, and sent it to his friend Hannah Arendt, albeit not for the purpose of publishing. Arendt will cross the French border and will reach the Spanish side of the Mediterranean where her friend is buried; she would visit him and give a copy of the text to his fellow friends, and of them, Theodor Adorno will take on the task of publishing.

"On the Concept of History" might be a text that responds to the need to raise two questions among others: How can we adapt the concepts of time and temporality, to our present realities and our political commitments? And how can we deal with the past from a political, rather than historical, standpoint?

What does this event, and what came after, tell of an Arab revolutionary tradition? — Photo: Xinhua via ZUMA Wire

The fundamentals in Benjamin's concept of history consist of liberating ourselves from committing to the linearity of history, and the view of time as empty and homogenous. Instead, the call is for capturing fragments that intersect with our present. These fragments appear to us in moments of need, moments of crisis, and this is when the intersection between past and present becomes an intensified moment in time, a political moment.

I am re-reading "On the Concept of History" when a friend recalls being part of the Maadi Popular Committee to Safeguard the Gains of the Revolution in 2011. I stop at this act of memory and wonder: How did the hegemony of a centralized linear narrative of the revolution affect these margins, these fragments that we didn't stop at for too long? There is something both poetic and triumphant in the very name of this committee, let alone something deeply political. I wonder if the Maadi Popular Committee to Safeguard the Gains of the Revolution was perhaps the invisible micro politics through which we could have re-ordered our understanding of the bigger revolutionary spectacle. Name aside, what was this committee doing back then? Who were its members? How were they organizing and working? What were their goals? And what was their relation to the Maadi neighborhood in a revolution where Tahrir Square dominated its geographic (and political) imaginary? What does this committee tell us of the relation of the local to the political? What could have happened if we allocated more space for it in the historical narrative of the revolution?

The Maadi Popular Committee to Safeguard the Gains of the Revolution seems to be a deviation from the 2011 epic as we know it. Benjamin speaks to us about deviations and roads we didn't take, and makes us wonder what possibilities are inhumed in there. There is another type of popular committee that resurfaces to memory from the beginning of the 18 days of protests, when police retreated from the streets. They are self-tasked with keeping order and security in different neighborhoods. Geographic, demographic, gendered and class differences among others animate the bodies of these committees that together form an index of political reality. Power surfaces as these committees take over internalized state power as they defend their neighborhoods from looters and the general state of chaos; those of the affluent Zamalek neighborhood use rafts and pistols and those of the low-income Imbaba hood stand with their expansive masculine bodies and batons. These committees become a margin that we don't look at often on our way in and to Tahrir, perhaps because it is a confusing detail, one that ousts us from the seeming harmony of the square. The seeming harmony of the square extends to encompass clear fault lines of comradery and enmity.

Has the revolution ended?

Something in this condition makes me think of Benjamin's long time comrades, Adorno and Gershom Scholem, who reportedly absented from his correspondences some letters he wrote to the conservative figure Carl Schmitt. Benjamin has had a curiosity toward Schmitt and the correspondence between them shows a mutual interest in an exchange of readings. Some attribute this intellectual interest to Benjamin's theological penchants, which is commonly but not accurately pitted against his views on historical materialism. Away from Scholem and Adorno's mediation for a progressive Benjamin to arrive to us in writing, what does his rapprochement with Schmitt tell us? Is this a sensibility elastic enough to extend to the revolution-counter revolution binary that seeks to invent comfort in some imaginary frontiers? What if there are no frontiers?

There is an act of opening closed rooms of history in recalling the popular committees in their different configurations. Benjamin tells us of these rooms that they might be the containers of a future we should redeem. It takes ceasing to look at the past as an eternal image but as an ongoing set of experiences.

I am sitting on the other side of the call waiting for the inevitable question for this interview to end: Has the revolution ended? I could just say yes and be done. And I fear of uttering a no and sounding naive. But there is a certain intellectual exactitude, but also an intellectual liberation in withdrawing from a version of history that's complete and closed. I try to find words to describe the continuation of the past through this act of capturing its fragments in the present, in the apogee of crisis, in the utmost sentiment of blockage. I try to say that the political sits somewhere here in that act. I don't know if she will use my words in the end. After all, it's the one-decade anniversary and a decade feels like a monument and a monument indexes something dead.

Maybe we need to surpass this anniversary and all other anniversaries.

Economy
Omaima Ismail

How Egypt Fell In And Out Of Love With Uber

Uber launched with an excited bang in Egypt in 2014, promising work and new income for a country struggling with unemployment. But the castle of sand has disintegrated, leaving a trail of debt and frustration.

CAIRO — One of Uber's earlier television ads in Egypt starts with a young woman getting into a car. Looking at the man in the driver's seat, she recognizes him — he is the famous footballer Hazem Emam. She is thrilled to see her favorite player. They strike up a conversation and talk for the whole ride, which they both seem to enjoy. The ad encouraged young men to join Uber as "partners."

Uber launched its operations in Egypt in 2014, with only 12 drivers. By 2020, approximately 200,000 people from varying socioeconomic backgrounds and levels of education, attracted by the flexible hours and the apparent autonomy, were driving for Uber. But, in the past two years, workers say they've seen their income slashed through company policies and an increased number of arbitrary terminations.

Ahmed Ali, who is now 34, saw the ad featuring Hazem Emam and decided to move from Sharqiya to Cairo to give working with Uber a try.

"I graduated with a diploma in commerce when I was 19 years old," Ali says. "I took up several jobs: at a mobile shop, for a contractor, I did all sorts of things as a day laborer. When I turned 22, my family thought it was time to marry me off. To get married, I had to find a stable job and earn a steady salary. After a long search, and through some connections, I landed a temporary contract job at the local council for LE950 (50 euros) per month. My role was to log incoming and outgoing documents: a tedious job with no prospect of promotion. My mental health suffered because of it, but I stuck with it for years."

Then, in 2016, he joined Uber through an agency. "Uber had a good reputation, which I thought would help me earn money," he says.

Ali didn't have a car so he rented one for LE150 (7.85 euros) per eight-hour shift. On top of that, he paid another LE50 (2.60 euros) per week to the agency, and 20% of all fares to Uber itself. But, he says, "I still made good money. So I moved my family to Cairo and started saving to buy my own car, which I eventually did, paying for it in installments."

Ali's income from Uber largely consisted of incentive payments. According to Belal Ezzat, a former Uber driver, incentive programs were a primary attraction for potential contractors. Drivers who made more than 20 trips per week would get an extra LE400 (21 euros). Those who worked during peak traffic hours could charge higher fares. They were also provided health insurance and accident insurance programs (applicable during rides only).

Three years into driving for Uber, things started to change for Ali.

Uber has slashed and canceled incentive programs for drivers as well as offers to customers.

"In mid-2019, the company raised its share of fares from 20 to 26%," he says. "It gradually slashed incentives until they were taken away altogether eight months ago. Partial health insurance was restricted to "top drivers' who make more trips than most of their peers." Coverage for accidents during trips became less comprehensive and less dependable as well, according to Uber driver Islam Ibrahim not his real name.

"We have temporarily suspended bonus rewards," Ahmed Khalil, Uber's general manager in Egypt, told Mada Masr via email. "But we will continue to work on innovating new solutions to support drivers, including our efforts to boost demand for the service in order to help maintain their income, especially during these tough times. We also have Uber Pro, which is a reward program that offers drivers various perks and discounts."

When Uber first launched, drivers and customers were both scarce, and the company needed to increase its appeal to both, a source who formerly worked at the UAE-based car hire company Careem — which was acquired by Uber in March 2019 — told Mada Masr on condition of anonymity. The company ran promotional campaigns offering lucrative incentives to drivers and giving customers discounted and free trips, without concern for profit margins mind.

The approach did succeed in expanding the company's base of drivers and customers, according to the source, but it caused it to post losses in Egypt and abroad. Now seeking to minimize those losses, Uber has slashed and canceled incentive programs for drivers as well as offers to customers.

In addition to the stripping of income and benefits, arbitrary suspensions are another factor contributing to worker dissatisfaction.

Uber drivers sit in an Uber's service and training center in Cairo — Photo: Gehad Hamdy/DPA via ZUMA Press

"Uber gave us a dream that turned into a nightmare," Ali says. "As the company canceled incentives, my income dropped substantially. I stuck with it for a while, hoping for things to start looking up soon. But one morning, I woke up to a message from the company saying, "Your account has been suspended." It was a shock."

Ali reached out to the company to find out what was behind the suspension. A week later, he received a dryly worded message: "Customers have complained that the position of the driver's seat made their legs uncomfortable." Despite persistent attempts, Ali was never able to reinstate his account. He found himself unemployed, in debt because of the car he bought, and overwhelmed with his family's expenses. He soon learned he was not the only one.

The arbitrary suspensions, Uber's Egypt GM Khalil claims, "happened due to a minor technical issue that affected some drivers. The company is working to resolve it. We appreciate all drivers and work to support all users for a smooth, convenient experience with Uber."

But the former Careem executive believes that the real reason for the sudden terminations of so many drivers is the lack of competition. Since Uber acquired Careem, it no longer has a motive to overlook some of the violations drivers used to get away with.

"I just don't understand why this is happening," Ali says. "Why did Uber flip on us like this? They used to call us "partners.""

For Amr Adly, a political economy professor at the American University in Cairo, the Uber model was met with such optimism because, with limited capital, it carved out a market that had not existed before, and one that engaged a large number of previously unemployed individuals by bringing advanced technology to unskilled labor. But "that optimism was premature," he says.

"Uber gave us a dream that turned into a nightmare."

Uber's financial framework, Adly explains, shows that the model cannot handle competition. It allows for only a very thin profit margin, and so the existence of multiple competitors leads to financial crises. This is what happened with Uber in China, where the company was driven out of the market by competitors. Uber compensates for this by monopolizing entire markets where it can, which is what happened in Egypt. With less competition, the company is able to pressure drivers to accept less favorable terms.

Ezzat hints at an ongoing effort by a number of former Uber drivers who were arbitrarily terminated to organize and bring a lawsuit against the company.

Can drivers sue the company if they never had a contract? Yasser Saad, a lawyer at the Legal Collective to Promote Labor Awareness, says the Labor Law deems any task performed by a worker for an institution or company as a work relationship, even without a written contract. If the relationship is terminated before the task is complete, compensation is due. This means that Uber is in a professional relationship with drivers, which cannot be legally terminated without the involvement of the Labor Bureau and the Labor Court. Since neither was consulted, the dismissal would be considered arbitrary and the worker should be entitled to compensation.

The random and sudden account suspensions by Uber were condemned in a statement by the Land Center for Human Rights, a non-governmental organization focusing on the rights of small-scale farmers and other labor issues. Its director, Karam Saber, says the relationship between Uber and similar ridesharing companies and their drivers is defined by forced acquiescence. The company states its conditions and the driver's only option is to tap accept on the app, Saber explains.

The attorney Saad points out that in California, a lawsuit against Uber led to a Superior Court ordering the company to consider its drivers employees rather than independent contractors, and therefore as people entitled to the same benefits as the company's other employees, such as compensation for dismissal. This ruling has been overridden in California by Proposition 22, a law passed by ballot in November which exempts ride-sharing companies like Uber and Lyft from classifying their drivers as employees. Uber and other ride-sharing and delivery apps spent around $200 million dollars backing Proposition 22.

A characteristic feature of the gig economy, Adly says, is that value can be created from nothing in no time, and also vanish in no time. "This makes for largely volatile work relationships. It does not allow for stable relationships like those which are established in industrial economies, for example."

Society
Hadeer El-Mahdawy

The Limits Of #MeToo Even In Egypt's Most Progressive Circles

Public denouncements have pressured some Egyptian institutions to establish anti-harassment policies. But without 'collective responsibility,' policies alone can only go so far.

CAIRO — In June 2019, Eman was a senior engineering student at Ain Shams University, in Cairo. While working on her senior project with a teaching assistant, the TA standing in front of her took out his penis.


Her journey from that moment to the conclusion of the university's investigation into the incident this past summer — more than a year later — sheds light on several problematic aspects of anti-harassment policies in educational institutions.

"It was the first time I experienced this, and I didn't know what to do," Eman told Mada Masr. "I talked to a professor I trusted, and she told me that I must file a complaint. My professor went and talked to the department chair whose response was that it'll be my word against his."

Eman asked around to see if other students had suffered similar transgressions, and found a colleague who had the same experience with the same TA. The two students filed a complaint in July 2019.

Her department heard the details of her complaint once, and Legal Affairs heard her a second time. But, according to Eman, it was only after she posted about the incident on her Facebook page in November 2019 that everyone called her to sit down with them and began to take it seriously. The day after the post was published, she and the other student who had filed a complaint sat down for a prolonged inquiry the presence of the university's vice president and the head of the anti-harassment and violence against women unit.

"This swiftness wasn't for our sake, nor the sake of the other students, but because of the scandal," Eman said.

The following day, the Engineering Faculty issued a statement saying that the department and Legal Affairs had heard the complaint, and that the university's anti-harassment and violence against women unit had opened a separate investigation. It also said that the accused staff member had been suspended pending the conclusion of the investigation.

I was treated horribly during the inquiry.

Anti-harassment units such as the one tasked to lead the inquiry into Eman's complaint have been rolled out by the National Council for Women at Ain Shams and 24 other universities around the country over the past five years. And yet, no one contacted Eman about the investigation until May 2020 — nearly six months after the statement and almost a year after the incident allegedly took place — when she and the other student who filed a complaint were called in for an inquiry on campus.

The investigating committee was composed of a law school professor, the university's vice president, and a third person who did not identify himself. As far as Eman could tell, the committee did not seem to include a representative of the anti-harassment unit.

"I was treated horribly during the inquiry," she said. "They asked me about exactly what had happened, and I told them that it's all written in the complaint. I told them that this violates a girl's modesty and they said it was me who was bringing shame upon them all. I was so embarrassed that I cried, and they kept on saying things like: "What you're saying is illogical. I'm a man and I wouldn't be thinking of you-know-what while I'm focusing on work.""

In July 2020, Eman found out by chance that the investigation had found the TA innocent and that he had been allowed to remain in his job as normal without her being informed. Outraged, Eman sent a digital complaint to the National Council for Women, but she says that "they didn't see the message."

"The shame mechanism"

Recent campaigns around sexual violence raise questions about how these incidents are dealt with inside institutions, especially those professing to hold progressive stances toward the issue, such as certain universities, civil society institutions and political parties.

For Hind Ahmed Zaki, an academic specializing in political science and women's rights, the main driver behind many investigations into sexual violence complaints is what she calls "the shame mechanism," which creates a state of disarray, thereby compelling us to look for justice mechanisms. Zaki adds that the act of testifying to having suffered an assault isn't just about securing justice, but can sometimes be about aiding recovery, establishing a sense of dignity, sending a message that these incidents must stop, or that there's a need for cultural and social change must occur in relations between the two genders.

In July, human rights researcher Esraa Serag Eldin published a testimony on her personal Facebook page recounting a sexual assault perpetrated by Mohamed Nagy, former research director at the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE). Serag Eldin said that he had physically assaulted her five years earlier, and had threatened and intimidated her afterward to remain silent.

On July 5, she began collecting testimonies from other women that Nagy had assaulted. Having got wind of the fact that Serag Eldin had collected several testimonies and was preparing to publish them and preempting his exposure, Nagy published what he called an "apology" on his Facebook page before deleting his account, according to Serag Eldin's post. In that apology, Nagy confessed to having sexually assaulted some women.

The act of testifying to having suffered an assault isn't just about securing justice, but can sometimes be about aiding recovery.

On July 9, AFTE announced that Nagy had been dismissed after confessing on Facebook to having committed violations and several sexual crimes against various women. The organization also promised to conduct an investigation into "the extent to which Nagy used his work at ATFE to commit the sexual violations and crimes."

AFTE then announced it would form a fact-finding committee for any accusations of sexual violations or administrative transgressions within AFTE or by its current and former employees. The organization has adopted a temporary policy to combat sexual harassment and discrimination borrowed from the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, another civil society organization, until it finalizes its own policies.

Denying that AFTE's plans to put a sexual harassment policy in place were in response to the pressure created by the public testimonies, AFTE Executive Director Mohamed Abdel Salam, who took office at the beginning of this year, said the organization had formed a committee to draft a policy before Serag Eldin published her testimony.

While it builds its own policy, which is still subject to internal discussion and is being carried out with the help of an expert on gender issues, any complaints raised will be dealt with by the policy created by EIPR. The committee is currently looking into previous and current complaints, and its recommendations will be binding to management and will inform the policy drafting, according to Abdel Salam.

Abdel Salam admits there is a problem in ATFE's working environment that goes back to a prevailing culture of strong personal relationships within the association. This led to a false belief that there was no need to set governing rules and policies for work relations.

Students at Ain Shams University — Photo: Media Center of Ain Shams University

One of the older complaints the committee looked into involved Laila (not her real name), who started working at AFTE in late 2017 and has since resigned. In early 2018 during an annual gathering for the ATFE team outside of Cairo, she witnessed a female colleague being harassed by the colleague's direct supervisor. She and the colleague filed a complaint with management soon after the incident, Laila told Mada Masr. The association did not appear to have any internal regulations to guide the process.

"They told me that they have regulations, but that they didn't know where they were," Laila said.

A slap on the wrist

Following the complaint, other incidents involving the same supervisor as well as other AFTE employees were raised with the executive director at the time. The executive director summoned and facilitated a meeting between Laila, her colleague who was harassed, and the person who had harassed Laila's colleague. The supervisor "didn't say anything other than "I have kids and I'm married,"" Laila said. ""What you're doing will ruin my future.""

Afterward, the director said that punitive measures were taken against the accused, but Laila told Mada Masr that the result was unsatisfactory. "We asked for the findings of the investigation, since he had turned out to be guilty, and we were told only that we had butchered him and his reputation. We asked for an anti-harassment policy, and nothing has happened so far. He is still at the association until now. The punishment was a deduction from his salary."

On top of this, Laila adds that the executive director was abusive towards the complainant both during and after the investigation. He made a threatening statement like, "I can make it impossible for you to work anywhere. I can make it so you won't be able to sleep."

We asked for an anti-harassment policy, and nothing has happened so far.

During investigations, the then executive director told a witness, "It's not the security agencies that are going to shut down the association, but the feminists," Laila told Mada Masr.

The complainant resigned in the end, after being accused of "screaming" at the executive director. She made recourse to members of the association's board of trustees and its advisory committee regarding her mistreatment. They suggested that the executive director apologize to her and took no further measures. The executive director did not apologize.

Laila was called in for inquiry in August by the new investigations committee regarding the complaint she'd filed in 2018. Even though Laila has no reservations about the composition of the committee that was formed, she did not feel that the association was serious about this step, and believes that it only came about when they felt they were in freefall because of public opinion and pressure from social media.

"Turning a blind eye"

The same year that Laila and her colleague lodged their initial complaint, public accusations of sexual assault were made against prominent members of another leftist entity without a harassment policy. A woman accused lawyer Mahmoud Belal, a member of Bread and Freedom Party, of sexual assault. An accusation of harassment was also made against another founding member of the party, lawyer and former presidential candidate Khaled Ali. Both members resigned from the party and Ali made a public apology to the complainant.

Still under establishment, the party is ostensibly based on a platform of the values of the Egyptian revolution, democracy, social justice and the eradication of discrimination. Party Deputy Elham Eidarous tells Mada Masr that this case was a real earthquake within the democratic movement, and it forced everyone to sit together to define sexual violence and mechanisms for justice.

The party was not asked by the accusers to intervene in the complaints, but once members learned of it, they felt they had a responsibility to intervene, according to Eidarous. They brought in "people from the feminist field to set the standards for the investigation (an independent committee of experts)." But the committee and the party did not involve the complainant in the investigation.

Eidarous holds the party responsible for being slow to confront the problem, and believes that because the party were extremely private about what they were thinking and planning to do, there was an impression that "that we were turning a blind eye."

"By the time we talked, the victim's allies had lost our trust," she says. "People treated us like we only conducted an investigation when we were cornered. We also had an issue with the statement issued by the party because it sent mixed messages and did not explain the issue with the investigation or its findings, because it did not reach unequivocal results."

We live under a regime that is not serious about the rule of law.

Eidarous adds: "During and after the investigation, many people resigned from the party. Some thought the party had succumbed to political blackmail, while others did not find the investigation impartial."

The investigation found Ali innocent, and that Belal had committed sexual misconduct. The party announced its anti-harassment policy in March 2020. Prior to that, an anti-harassment policy had been proposed in 2014 following a mass harassment incident at Cairo University but had not materialized.

Workplaces, the media, civil society, educational institutions and political parties do not exist in a vacuum, Zaki says. They are subject to the state's regulations and laws even if the state restricts them.

Lawyer Azza Soliman says: "Anyone who says they're putting together a policy, I'll support them, and I'll assume good faith until proven otherwise. A practical application would still be the test." She explains that the absence of anti-harassment and non-discrimination policies in human rights organizations is tied to the state of rule of law in general. We live under a regime that is not serious about the rule of law, and this is reflected in private institutions, she says.

"If you have laws and a constitution that support women and are against discrimination or a policy without preparing people to combat the issue on the ground, nothing will be implemented," she says. "There is a societal culture that leads to discrimination and glorifies the absence of justice and the rule of law."

Pressure and blackmail

But how can there be justice in contexts where structural problems in understanding violence against women, even within the groups who identify as progressive, intersect with problems of state repression against those same groups?

According to Eidarous, victims in political parties and human rights organizations are pressured not to resort to the state because it is not neutral toward those entities. "She could feel as though she is confessing to something, or as though she's reporting her group. The state could use this against the victim because they'll treat those victims as "not our girls.""

The American University in Cairo — Photo: The American University in Cairo

Aside from the state's extreme pressure and blackmail, there's also pressure from her colleagues not to report under the pretense of comradery, opposition and not destroying the human rights community. The girls also fear moral and political judgment against them, or being labeled as security agents."

"As a result of the issue, and, without blaming the girl who complained as it's not her fault, there's a case to dissolve and ban the Bread and Freedom Party that was filed two years ago, even though the incident did not happen at the party office and the accused has resigned," Eidarous adds. "Wouldn't that scare other colleagues off from resorting to the state? The solution isn't for the girls to remain quiet, but for workplaces to be safer and more resolved in providing justice to women within institutions."

Zaki asserts that, given state repression, anything can be politicized. "Can we guarantee that cases against opposition figures would not be politicized? No. Can this be used to persecute them? Yes. But do we stop accusing them? No."

Eidarous says that accusations against "survivors of hurting the Egyptian left have now led to a conviction among younger generations that the question of women is not important on the left, and that it's a hotbed for harassment. This has hurt the reputation of the progressive movement, and it will take a lot to fix this."

The solution isn't for the girls to remain quiet, but for workplaces to be safer.

The online campaign that sought to expose repeated counts of assault perpetrated by Ahmed Bassam Zaki, who is currently on trial for sexually assaulting three minors, as well as attempted coercion to perform sexual acts against all three as well as another woman, as well as harassment and several other charges, triggered months-long discussions and testimonials about sexual violence around the country.

Many of the accusations against Zaki came from fellow students while he was enrolled at the American University of Cairo. Supporters of the campaign have called out AUC for never having taken action against Zaki, despite its adoption of an anti-harassment policy and reports that complaints against Zaki had been brought to the administration's attention while he was still enrolled at the university.

After the social media outcry raised by Assault Police, an Instagram account that initially focused on gathering evidence and testimonies of sexual violence against Zaki, AUC issued a brief statement on July 2: "Ahmed Bassam Zaki is not a current student at The American University in Cairo. He left the University in 2018. AUC has a zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment and is committed to upholding a safe environment for all members of the community."

The statement does not deny nor confirm whether the university had received complaints about Zaki, and links to the university's anti-harassment and non-discrimination policy.

In response to questions from Mada Masr, AUC's Assistant Director of Media Relations Dena Rashed said that the university has always had an anti-harassment and non-discrimination policy and that the current policy, adopted in 2019, is stricter than previous ones.

In response to a question about what the university did about the testimonies against Ahmed Bassam Zaki, Rashed said the university has a confidential electronic system for filing complaints and that she cannot disclose anything about previous investigations. She added that all AUC employees took training to combat harassment, and the university hosted several discussions with guests such as the National Council for Women President Maya Morsy to raise awareness.

Complaints against Zaki had been made to the administrations of at least two of the universities he had attended. According to Assault Police, his crimes took place while he was enrolled in the American International School (2015–2016), the American University in Cairo (2016–2018), and most recently the EU Business School in Barcelona, Spain (2018), until his expulsion on July 3.

In a post, the account's admin explained that she learned of the accusations against Zaki from a student at the American University of Cairo, who had posted on the university's professor evaluation platform to say that Zaki had harassed her and a friend. More than 50 complaints followed, but Zaki, after threatening suicide because of them, transferred to a university in Spain and no investigation was initiated.

Sham policies

In Hind Ahmed Zaki's view, institutions — whether they're in the state's favor or not — must have regulations for violence against women, but they are not a substitute for state policies. "If a murder was to happen, the institution would be subject to the Criminal Procedure Code," she says, explaining that in spite of amendments to the Penal Code, which can come about under public pressure, Egypt is still in need of a comprehensive law to combat sexual violence that could serve as a benchmark for all institutions.

EIPR's current gender and human rights officer Lobna Darwish says that there is no such thing as a correct or incorrect policy. It is a process of slow, collective learning and revision that is subject to experimentation. It requires a consensus among employees, not just celebrating the fact that it exists.

The danger lies in sham policies. "If we have the best policy in the world, but men are dominant and there's no diversity, what would be the point? Our ability to confront discrimination and sexual violence will not only be actualized by policies, but on a wider scale that includes work relations and equality. How are these places fair for women? Are they diverse? Do they have women in various positions? Do women have equal pay?"

Egypt is still in need of a comprehensive law to combat sexual violence.

Without pinpointing a specific institution, Darwish adds that all institutions who revert only to "crisis management" fail. Real change can only come when there is a real commitment to guaranteeing that mistakes are not repeated, and when the process is fair and satisfying to the complainant and earns their trust.

There is a collective responsibility to provide all options to women who have been subjected to sexual violence, Darwish says. These options could be state, institutional or internet tools by way of exposing whether anonymously or not.

"If I have a policy, it's still not my right to tell women not to resort to another path," says Darwish. "We've seen the price women pay when they decide to talk – not only the shaming, but the psychological effect. Writing and exposing is not a temporary solution until we form policies, but rather one option among several. And they have the right to use all options available."

Geopolitics
Nasr Eddin al-Tayib

War In Ethiopia's Tigray Region Casts Long Shadow Over Sudan

With a humanitarian crisis looming along the Sudan border, Ethiopian refugees pine for news of those they were forced to leave behind.

SUDAN-ETHIOPIA BORDER — After seizing the capital of the northern state of Tigray last weekend, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed declared the military incursion his forces launched at the beginning of November against the rebellious region a victory.

However, it has been anything but a victory for the civilian population of Tigray that has borne the heavy brunt of the fighting and been forced into displacement en masse. Tigray is home to an estimated six million people and is the seat of the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), which has consistently challenged the rule of Abiy since he ascended to office in 2018.

The November 4 order from Abiy, who won the Nobel Peace Prize last year for embarking on a peace process with neighboring Eritrea after a decades long war fought while Ethiopia was under the TPLF's rule, to "free the region from the control of the Tigray People's Liberation Front," it followed months of tension between the two sides. After Abiy postponed elections due to the COVID-19 epidemic and refused to step aside at the end of his term to allow a transitional government rule Ethiopia until public health conditions improved, the TPLF openly defied the prime minister's authority by holding general elections in Tigray.

The fighting that ensued between the two sides has continued over the course of the last month despite the Ethiopian military's capture of Mekelle, which continues to be underreported due to the communication blackout imposed by the Abiy government. Reports of potential war crimes in the ethnically charged fighting and indiscriminate artillery barrages on civilian areas looting by armed men in the fighting to take Mekelle have surfaced, while Abiy has purged his own government of any Tigray figures and mobilized a crackdown on Tigrayians living in other parts of the country, who are now under intensified scrutiny. Abiy has also denied humanitarian groups access to the war-torn area, despite constant pleading.

Many of those that fled the fighting have made their way across the border into Sudan, whose fragile transitional government must now coordinate a burgeoning humanitarian crisis along its southern border. Mada Masr visited the camps along the Sudanese-Ethiopian border to speak with those whose lives and families have been torn apart by the month-long violence.

In the Hashaba region of Sudan, Mada Masr spoke with Tesfai Bjika, 75, and his family, who have fled to Sudan twice from their hometown of Mai Khadra in Ethiopia.

"My wife and I were displaced to Sudanese territories during the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea in 1998, and I spent about four years in the city of Gadaref, where my two sons were born," Tesfai says. "I returned to Mai Khadra after the peace agreement between the two countries was signed. And here I am, once again, displaced."

"We did not expect this level of violence."

In this Sudanese shelter, the UNHCR has allocated a small, windowless room for Tesfai, his wife, his two daughters-in-law, and his five grandchildren. The fate of Tesfai's sons, who are still in Mai Khadra, remains unknown.

Tesfai and his wife share details of their long, arduous walk to the safe zone, before the conversation steers back to their sons still in Ethiopia. "All the news we receive from there says that the young Tigrayans of my sons' age are being targeted," he says.

Even though families were prepared for the worst, Tesfai's family was still surprised by how quickly things developed on their last night in their home. "The political situation between the central government and the regional government was incredibly tense, but we did not expect this level of violence. The local TV was mobilizing people and the government in Addis Ababa was also threatening regional leaders," says Tesfai.

Tesfai added that residents started making plans to exit their villages as soon as possible, but the clashes had already begun, so people were forced out of their homes amid the sound of gunshots and a complete cut in communications, electricity and transportation lines.

"Along with my neighbor, I managed to get a trailer and a tractor that we use for agriculture, and we decided to flee with our families, but my sons did not come," Tesfai says.

The refugee camp that Tesfai's family is currently staying at was originally built for Sudanese residents who were displaced after the construction of the Setit Dam on Atbara River. Now, the camp is receiving hundreds of Ethiopian refugees from Mai Khadra, Birkuta, and other border towns everyday. The camp is guarded by a joint force from the Sudanese police and army.

By the entrance of a makeshift shelter, Qatinet Dibrazon is pushing a horse-drawn cart. He and his wife managed to make it to the safe zone with a few of their belongings and kitchen utensils. Qatinet, who looks incredibly exhausted, tells Mada Masr that he has been walking for two full nights on unfamiliar roads alongside dozens of other refugees.

"We escaped from the town of Birkuta after its streets turned into a battlefield. We witnessed a series of systematic murders and lootings of shops and houses. I arrived here, but I don't know how long I will stay. I heard about this camp so we wanted to come and catch a breath. Maybe we'll be able to go back to harvest our crops, which is what keeps me and my family alive," he says.

In the city of Hamdayit, Kassala, which sits on the Sudanese side of the border with Ethiopia, Mada Masr followed the displacement of hundreds of Ethiopians across the Setit River on their way to Sudanese land. Among them is Qadi Iksam, 39, who points to the tip of the river separating Sudan and Ethiopia and says, "I came from Wag Hamra. I left my mother and father behind. They insisted that I go out with my children and leave them, so that we had a greater chance to survive."

46,400 people, almost half of them children, have arrived in Sudan since the beginning of November.

The refugees come across the river either on foot or in small boats that carry some of their belongings. From the banks of the river, they walk to a large square in the city, where the humanitarian organizations greet them and the UNHCR tallies them to keep track of the scale of the displacement. There, they sleep under the shade of the trees with worn-out blankets. They use firewood for cooking and heating when the camp authorities give them the permission to do so.

Ahmed Omran, the UNHCR official at the temporary refugee camp in Hamdayit, tells Mada Masr that he is concerned about the organization's ability to cope with the huge influx of Ethiopian refugees. "We record about 1,000 to 1,500 refugees daily, all of whom all want to be transferred to the Um Rakuba camp in the state of Gedaref," he says from the tent that was set up by UNHCR to tally and register arriving refugees.

"The numbers we are registering do not correspond to all the refugees who enter Sudan via the Hamdiyat border crossing," he says. "We register those who arrive here. This is the capacity that the UNHCR has, and its employees are under tremendous pressure. We register the personal information of those who arrive here and then transfer them to the permanent shelter. But many do not even come here."

Nour al-Dhao, another UNHCR official in Kassala, says he is concerned about the dire conditions of the temporary camp in Hashba, as there is no comprehensive provision of food, drinking water or shelter. He tells Mada Masr that he expects the refugees fleeing from Tigray to soon reach 50,000, a steep figure for humanitarian organizations with meager capacities.

According to the most recent briefing issued by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 46,400 people, almost half of them children, have arrived in Sudan since the beginning of November.

The UNHCR and partners said that they are increasing the capacity of the Um Rakuba camp in Gedaref, where more than 10,000 refugees from Ethiopia are already hosted, according to the briefing.

However, while those who have made it to Sudan must navigate the already overburdened humanitarian network, for many, their thoughts remain with those they left behind. "Seven days have passed now since I parted with my sons," Tesfai says from the camp in Hashaba. "They have not come to the camp, nor has anyone given us any news about them. All the people we talk to say is that the streets of our neighborhood are filled with bodies of dead men."