This is an open mic night—the ninth of its kind—in Minya, a city on the Nile some two hundred kilometers south of Cairo. The performances range from the comic and the poignant to the explicitly political, but all have the same purpose in mind: to reclaim Egypt’s public space after the fall of the dictator. “When someone decides to speak their mind in public, even to tell a joke,” explains organizer Shady Khalil as he watches from the sidelines, “that’s political participation.”
I was in the United States 16 months ago when an Egyptian national popular uprising forced Hosni Mubarak to quit his presidency, and I was in the United States again this week when Mohammed Morsi was elected as the new Egyptian president. Then and now, Americans remain unsure about how to react to the popular revolutions that felled their long-time autocratic Arab allies, who in most cases were replaced by more legitimate, Islamist-led governments.
When Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi declared it his “duty” to free Omar Abdel Rahman—the man behind the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center that killed six and injured one thousand—it was not a very auspicious beginning for relations between the United States and the ‘new’ Egypt. The U.S. Congress, particularly the delegation from the New York City area, expressed outrage.
How a nation in transition accounts for past injustices is a telling indicator of the overall health of transition. Egypt has changed in tangible and consequential ways. Yet, the initial promise and the sense of transformational possibility that marked the fall of Mubarak is now something of a distant memory. The Mubarak trial encapsulates many of the flaws that have undermined the prospects for fundamental change in Egypt.
Over the last few decades, Copts—and most other Egyptians—have experienced various forms of political, social, and religious repression. But the Copts’ particular victimization as Christians became clearly highlighted just a few weeks before the outbreak of the January 25 revolution.
Women have played a prominent role, under very different circumstances, in all of the countries embroiled in the Arab Awakening, including Egypt. This is the promising side of the coin. But, a negative dimension also appears to be emerging. Gains made previously by women in societies in the Middle East and North Africa are being challenged. There are reports that women who played decisive roles in democracy movements are being excluded from negotiations on future systems of governments.
Like many, I had great hopes for change in Egypt after the revolution. I was excited to move back to Cairo as the new country director for Freedom House, an NGO that supports democratic change, monitors freedom, and advocates for democracy and human rights across the globe. In August 2011, I packed up my life and my two-year-old twins and left England, where I had been living while working on my PhD, to return to my homeland. I was not naïve enough to believe that it would be an easy job. But I never imagined that just a few months later I would be in a cage.
Refugees are among the most vulnerable, marginalized, and disadvantaged people in any society. They endure traumatic experiences including arduous journeys that often affect their mental health and physical wellbeing. They live with the insecurity that comes with being a refugee in a foreign land. They lack the legal protection afforded by citizenship and the traditional support structures and channels for recourse in cases of abuse or exploitation. And these woes become compounded many times over in periods of crisis—such as the upheaval that Egypt has undergone since the January 25 revolution.
Merna Thomas is the co-founder of a feminist group called Noon El-Neswa, or Her, which aims to harness the bourgeoning use of street art as a protest tool to challenge gender stereotypes and generally ignite debate about the place of women in Egypt. One of the most striking images produced by Noon El-Neswa activists is a stenciled triptych of three women wearing no veil, a hijab, and a face veil, respectively, with the admonition: “Don’t label me.” Sometimes a few words of text cry out against misogyny, such as the scrawl declaring “Nothing is for men only” seen around Cairo lately.
On a weeknight in May, Tamer Qenawy, a thirty-year-old revolutionary, is pacing in El-Hosary Square in 6th October City, a satellite of Cairo. He and friends are setting up a film screening. They have tied a white screen to a fence right by a minibus stop. The projector and laptop are here but Qenawy is waiting for some other guys to bring the sound system. A crowd gathers and then the program begins: a screening of homemade videos depicting violent attacks on protesters during a demonstration outside the Ministry of Defense three weeks earlier.
Most Egyptians hailed Egypt’s first democratic elections after decades of authoritarian rule. Yet, many artists, filmmakers, actors, writers, and musicians are not pleased that the vote tallies gave Islamists a majority in parliament (its lower house since dissolved by a Supreme Constitutional Court verdict based on a technicality), and more recently the presidency.
In a Q&A, Marina Ottaway analyzes the elections and Egypt’s fragile transition and says that the latest outbreak of violence makes the elections both imperative and difficult. The most challenging part of the change to civilian government in Egypt lies ahead—the road to democracy is far from guaranteed.
In an unexpected move, Lebanon’s Prime Minister Najib Mikati has committed $33 million (Lebanon’s total contribution) for the United Nations’ Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) established to investigate the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Following prolonged stalemate over funding that threatened to bring down his government, Mikati’s decision comes as a harbinger to the turning political tide in Lebanon.
If any foreign power asked about the legitimacy, the efficacy, and the consequences of its military involvement in other countries before actually launching such militarism, it might be possible to minimize the negative consequences that we have experienced in the Middle East in recent decades.