• Reports
  • July 13, 2006
  • 31 minutes read

Egypt’s phantom messiah

More than 4,000 people gathered around Cleopatra Hospital in Heliopolis, Cairo in the second week of May 2006; many thousands more sent encouraging telegrams and made phone calls. All was in the cause of displaying solidarity with and admiration for … a judge. His sudden ascendancy in popular esteem is symptomatic both of the convulsive energy and the strategic crisis of Egypt’s political and civil-society opposition today.

Judge Hisham al-Bastawisi is (along with Mahmoud al-Mekki) one of two key judicial figures who have pioneered a moral revolt of the Egyptian judiciary against Hosni Mubarak’s regime. He gave a public demonstration of courage and resolve in detailing the irregularities and abuses in Egypt’s parliamentary election of November-December 2005 – and the Egyptian people loved him for it. The stern face of the outspoken judge adorned the front pages of almost all opposition papers; a four-metre-wide portrait of him as he lay stricken in the hospital’s intensive-care ward (after suffering a heart-attack) appeared on a banner in a central Cairo square. In only two months, Hisham al-Bastawisi had shot from obscurity to renown and respect across Egyptian society.

But the judge is not alone in this meteoric rise. Amr Khaled, the most prominent Islamic preacher in Egypt, rose rapidly to the social surface through his soft-spoken Islamic preaching to the sons and daughters of Egypt’s upper social crust. Cairo may be the home of the world’s oldest university – al-Azhar, the epicentre of the Sunni Muslim world – and a city where thousands of Islamic writers, thinkers, and preachers (many of them government-sponsored) congregate; but Amr Khaled came to media and public prominence as if Egypt was severely lacking in religious discourse.

There are other examples. A few outspoken journalists, such as Ibrahim Eissa of al-Dostour and Wael al-Ibrashi of Sout al-Umma, have also become celebrities in their own right as a result of their harsh – at times openly challenging – articles criticising Mubarak’s regime, and often the president himself.

A different technique, yet one carrying the same message, has propelled the legendary colloquial Arabic poet Ahmed Fouad Negm to mass popular recognition; his latest poems, full of scurrilous, even obscene ridicule of the regime, are being sent to electronic mail-boxes of millions of young Egyptians.

An equally interesting phenomenon is the massive popularity of the television commentaries of Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, the doyen of doyens of political commentary in the Arab world, whose Maa-Haikal series (shown in the Thursday evening primetime slot on al-Jazeera) dissects the history – and present – of Arab politics. For decades, Mohamed Haikal enjoyed unrivalled popularity among Arab nationalists – a generation who now in almost all cases are in their sixth decade and upwards. Yet the programmes have proved vastly popular with younger Egyptians.

Egypt’s most popular TV programme, Al-Ashera Massaaen, has also achieved enormous acclaim. It appears on the private, yet free-to-air DreamTV, and voices (albeit in a refined way) the frustrations and angst of millions of Egyptians.

The messiah complex

A common thread connects these disparate figures. All of them – in different ways, in different domains, and from different frames of reference – preach different ways of thinking than the one championed by the ruling regime; and in so doing all of them, explicitly or implicitly, attack the regime and expose its various faults.

This panorama of Egyptian dissent is rich indeed:

  • Judge Hisham al-Bastawisi stands up to the regime and bluntly asserts that it rigged the elections. (It may help that his attitude and bearing – even his facial features – are reminiscent of the centuries-old lone, courageous Arab knights that folktales and legends speak of)
  • Amr Khaled speaks to young Egyptians (especially the wealthy ones) more subtly, saying that the lifestyle they enjoy under the umbrella of the socio-political system promoted by the regime is morally corrupt and religiously flawed
  • Ahmad Fouad Negm, in his rogue poetry, screams provocation and insult against the regime, in a way that voices the anger of millions
  • Mohamed Heikal is on the opposite side of the intellectual and sartorial spectrum to Negm; in English-aristocratic style and with knife-sharp rational assessments, he exposes the sloppy thinking and incompetence of the Arab world’s ruling classes
  • Ibrahim Eissa, Wael al-Ibrashi and other outspoken journalists expose the dirty laundry of the regime – extracting both laughter and gasps of outrage from their readers.

The attacks of these figures on Hosni Mubarak and his regime have gained them fame and popularity. It is a stunning achievement in light of the fact that that in the twenty-five years of his rule, and despite his unrivalled media power – not a single pro-regime political, economic, or social leader has managed to seize the people’s imagination and win its enthusiastic support.

In fact, the position is even worse. The disastrous failures of Mubarak’s regime on almost all fronts have made it inconceivable that any of its advocates can win any hearing from the people – those who, after all, pay the price of those failures on a daily basis. By the same principle, these failures guarantee that any vocal dissident can find himself or herself becoming a representative of a certain segment of the people, and able to secure a fair hearing.

Michael Howard, the famous Oxford historian and theorist of war, once argued that an analysis of the history of the first Roman slave rebellion revealed Spartacus to be far from the brightest. Rather, he was simply the most vocal among an intensely disenchanted group. This, to some extent, is what is happening in Egypt today. Young people are living the disappearance of their future’s promise while the heavy arm of the regime’s security system suppresses their every attempt to protest. As a result, they look with admiration on any vocal dissident. The potential energy for social transformation is there; what is lacking is the catalyst. Egyptian young people are in need of a messiah.

However, the messiahs listed above have no chance of effecting real change – both because of the regime’s capacity for efficient counter-attack and suppression, and their own lack of any solid political base, which renders them incapable of building serious momentum to support their brave talk.

Judge Bastawisi remains a toothless government employee with nothing but courage. Amr Khaled’s popularity did not prevent him being forced out of Egypt and marginalised to a few satellite channels with limited coverage and appeal (and in any case the Islamic nature of his message only antagonises Egypt’s sizeable Christian [Coptic] community). Mohamed Haikal’s age makes him a figure of the past with no claim on the future. The various outspoken journalists may play the role of the whistleblower, exposing scandals that boost their papers’ sales, but cannot be expected to lead any serious challenge to the regime.

Three forces of change

But not all contenders for the role of Egypt’s messiah are men of words and letters alone; three are heavily action-oriented.

The first is Gamal Mubarak. The president’s son has a range of qualities: he is in his prime at 39 years-old, is equipped with fluent English and an air of authority, wields unrivalled influence over the media, the government and the ruling party, and has championed the new economic reform programme that Egypt’s government is actively implementing.

Yet despite the reforms’ potential and the government’s plaudits from international observers, Gamal Mubarak remains a shadowy figure. He has been unable to connect with the ordinary Egyptian citizen; the people view him as the unpopular son of an unpopular president who is groomed to inherit the country – with all the justified angst associated with such nepotism. Gamal Mubarak’s wager is on his ability to inherit and control the country from the top, without being upset by the frustrated base. The jury is still out on the viability of that strategy.

The second contender is the liberal current, perhaps most prominently represented by the likes of Ayman Nour (the former presidential candidate, currently jailed), Saad Eddin Ibrahim (the political sociologist, formerly jailed), and the Kifaya (Enough) movement, whose key members were brutally beaten at the door of the Judges’ Club in central Cairo at the end of May 2006.

The ability of the state to perpetrate this jailing and beating with impunity is significant. The liberal movement is hapless and doomed to failure. Ayman Noor is in prison, and shows no potential for political resurrection. Saad Eddin Ibrahim is a disenchanted professor, inspired and funded by the west, who lacks any connection with the Egyptian street; he represents the elite intellectual in a country whose illiteracy rate is still around 40%. Kifaya gained fame and respect in the election-related protests of 2005, but is wanting in resources and popular support. It is destined to remain, like its many predecessors in Egypt, a group of intellectuals screaming and shouting in political forums and magazines – not in the country’s core rural and urban communities.

The third is the Muslim Brotherhood. This group is the only empowered potential messiah, for a variety of reasons:

  • the brotherhood gained eighty-eight seats out of 440 in September 2005’s parliamentary election
  • it represents the sole serious political challenge to Mubarak’s regime
  • it is the only political organisation in Egypt that has ground-level political influence in thousands of the country’s towns and villages
  • it is an unrivalled power in a society where adulation of religious figures, values and traditions is common
  • its strict, centralised control-and-command structure gives it an edge relative to all other political activist groups in Egypt.

Yet the future is not all rosy for the Muslim Brotherhood, for four reasons:

  • the years its leading figures spent in the political wilderness (in Saudi Arabia and Europe) have left scars on its ability to connect with the new norms of Egyptian society
  • the brotherhood’s ageing leadership is vastly out of touch with an extremely young Egyptian society
  • its Islamic pedigree is a valuable asset with the vast majority of middle- and working-class Muslim Egyptians; it is also a heavy liability with Christian and liberal Egyptians, two groups with weighty economic powers
  • the brotherhood’s presence in the parliament is a double-edged sword: it is one thing to expose the regime’s failures in newspapers and on TV screens, quite another to be examined by your track-record in legislation – especially when most of the brotherhood’s members of parliament are wealthy merchants and businessmen whose economic interests are not necessarily aligned with those of the people who have elected them.

Egypt thus contains a range of potential messiahs: some are word-spinners, some are active on the ground, but none seems equipped to lead the herd. The stage is crowded with many players; yet at the same time appears vacant, awaiting a fresh leader. The men of letters and law are marginalised; the current regime and its heirs are doomed to political oblivion; the liberals are singing in the land of the deaf; and the Islamists are hungry, equipped and powerful, yet perhaps – like the mythic Greek hero Achilles – destined for the long journey, but not the prize.

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