Egypt: it’s not finished yet

This shocking image reveals as starkly as any could that the struggle in Egypt is not yet over.  It was taken over the weekend and shows a young woman being dragged away from protests in Tahrir Square on the third day of clashes between the Egyptian military and protesters demanding that Egypt’s military rulers give up power – protests that have left 14 dead.  Tonight The UN’s human rights chief, Navi Pillay, has called for the arrest and prosecution of members of the Egyptian security forces involved in the crackdown on protesters.

Since the Egyptian uprising began back in the spring, the Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif has been reporting from Cairo as events unfold in a series of despatches to The Guardian. She and other members of her family have been active in the protests.  Today her report concerns this photograph.  She writes:

The woman is young, and slim, and fair. She lies on her back surrounded by four soldiers, two of whom are dragging her by the arms raised above her head. She’s unresisting – maybe she’s fainted; we can’t tell because we can’t see her face. She’s wearing blue jeans and trainers. But her top half is bare: we can see her torso, her tummy, her blue bra, her bare delicate arms. Surrounding this top half, forming a kind of black halo around it, is the abaya, the robe she was wearing that has been ripped off and that tells us that she was wearing a hijab.

She continues:

Now our revolution is in an endgame struggle with the old regime and the military. The young woman is part of this. Since Friday the military has openly engaged with civilian protesters in the heart of the capital. The protesters have been peacefully conducting a sit-in in Ministries’ Street to signal their rejection of the military’s appointment of Kamal Ganzouri as prime minister. […]

They dragged the unconscious young woman in the blue jeans – with her upper half stripped – through the streets.

The message is: everything you rose up against is here, is worse. Don’t put your hopes in the revolution or parliament. We are the regime and we’re back.

What they are not taking into account is that everybody’s grown up – the weapon of shame can no longer be used against women. When they subjected young women to virginity tests one of them got up and sued them. Every young woman they’ve brutalized recently has given video testimony and is totally committed to continuing the struggle against them.

The young woman in the blue jeans has chosen so far to retain her privacy. But her image has already become icon. As the tortured face of Khaled Said broke any credibility the ministry of the interior might have had, so the young woman in the blue jeans has destroyed the military’s reputation.

Ahdaf Soueif is the author of the bestselling The Map of Love which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize for Fiction in 1999.  She is also a political and cultural commentator: a collection of her essays, Mezzaterra: Fragments from the Common Ground, was published in 2004. She has a new book Cairo: My City, Our Revolution published in January 2012.

See also

The Yacoubian Building: Mubarak’s Egypt laid bare

It had been sitting on my bookshelf unread for some time, but with the stirring events in Egypt I decided to take down and read The Yacoubian Building by Egyptian author Alaa Al Aswany.

First published in Arabic in 2002, with an English translation in 2004, Al Aswany’s novel tells the stories of characters who either live or work in the titular apartment building (which does actually exist), located in Cairo’s old European-style quarter that, since the 1970s, has steadily become less salubrious. The Yacoubian building is located on Talaat Harb street (called Suleiman Pasha street in the book), which lies just off  Tahrir Square, the focus of the 2011 revolution – so reading the book now feels felicitous. It  is set in 1990 at the time of the first Gulf War and is a pretty scathing portrayal of life at different levels of Egyptian society in the Mubarak era.

The Yacoubian Building serves as a metaphor for contemporary Egyptian society, housing in its once plush apartments members of the old aristocratic class, the nouveau riche, and the army, and in the rented-out servant quarters on the roof a mass of workers and tradesmen who struggle to get by in the turmoil of the big city.

The novel describes the Yacoubian Building as being one of the most luxurious and prestigious apartment blocks in Cairo at the time of its construction in 1934 by Armenian businessman Hagop Yacoubian.  Government ministers, wealthy manufacturers, and foreigners moved in or established offices there. After the revolution in 1952, which overthrew King Farouk and gave power to Gamal Abdel Nasser, many of the rich foreigners, as well as native landowners and businessmen, who had lived at the Yacoubian fled the country. Each vacated apartment was then occupied by a military officer and his family, who were often from a more rural background and lower social strata than the previous residents.

On the roof are fifty small rooms (one for each apartment), no more than eight feet square, originally used as storage areas, but gradually taken over by poor migrants from the countryside, arriving in Cairo in the hopes of finding employment. The building therefore represents – in inverted form – the class divisions in a society in which the rich oppress the poor and money and influence determines access to education, health care and justice: where, in the bitter words of one character, ‘money begets money and poverty begets poverty’.

The Yacoubian Building was the best selling Arabic novel for 2002 and 2003, and was voted Best Novel for 2003 by listeners to Egypt’s Middle East Broadcasting Service. It has now been translated into 23 languages worldwide. Reading the novel in English is a pleasure, thanks to Humphrey Davies’s elegant, fluid translation.

It seems quite remarkable that Al Aswany’s novel not only escaped the censor to become an Arab bestseller, but was also turned into a successful film and an Egyptian TV series – because it is a scathing critique of Mubarak’s  Egypt, interweaving stories of  vote-rigging, corruption, police brutality, Islamic extremism, secret second marriages and homosexuality. Though there were protests in the People’s Assembly against the film for its depiction of a gay romance and this element was removed from the TV series, the book was unscathed.

The novel has a Dickensian feel, with its large cast of characters drawn from all sections of society, but, unlike Dickens, Al Aswany only has some of his characters cross paths, and his characterisation lacks Dickens’ richness and depth.  Like Dickens, though, he reveals his characters as all victims of a merciless society: a young woman accepts her employer’s daily groping in a storeroom because she has a family to support; another pretends to enjoy sex with her elderly husband because he can provide for her son from another marriage; a child dies in hospital where only money and influence will ensure urgent treatment; a young man dies after being drawn to Islamic fundamentalism following the crushing of his ambition to join the police force – although he has passed the entrance exams, he lacks the requisite bribe. ‘This country doesn’t belong to us’, his mother states. ‘It belongs to the people who have money’.

It would be difficult to overestimate the impact that Alaa Al Aswany’s novel has had in Egypt. The Yacoubian Building has topped the bestseller lists for over two years, been adapted for the screen by Marwan Hamid and inspired impassioned cultural debate. This addictively readable evocation of Cairo at a time of political and social ferment, during the first Gulf War, is both a damning critique and a love letter to a city and its inhabitants. It engages with corruption, homophobia, sexism, Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism; all sensitive and controversial issues in contemporary Egyptian society.
– Alev Adil’s review in the Independent

Barack Obama’s Cairo speech

There is so much fear, so much mistrust. But if we choose to be bound by the past, we will never move forward. And I want to particularly say this to young people of every faith, in every country – you, more than anyone, have the ability to remake this world.

Well, it seems impressive to me as a statement of principles and purpose, from a man of faith to all those of faith and none. The Guardian has the full text of Obama’s speech. Here are some passages that I particularly liked:

So long as our relationship is defined by our differences, we will empower those who sow hatred rather than peace, and who promote conflict rather than the co-operation that can help all of our people achieve justice and prosperity. This cycle of suspicion and discord must end.

I have come here to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world; one based upon mutual interest and mutual respect; and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive, and need not be in competition. Instead, they overlap, and share common principles – principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.

As the Holy Koran tells us: “Be conscious of God and speak always the truth.” That is what I will try to do – to speak the truth as best I can, humbled by the task before us, and firm in my belief that the interests we share as human beings are far more powerful than the forces that drive us apart…

Part of this conviction is rooted in my own experience. I am a Christian, but my father came from a Kenyan family that includes generations of Muslims. As a boy, I spent several years in Indonesia and heard the call of the azaan [the Muslim call to prayer] at the break of dawn and the fall of dusk. As a young man, I worked in Chicago communities where many found dignity and peace in their Muslim faith.

As a student of history, I also know civilization’s debt to Islam. It was Islam – at places like al-Azhar University – that carried the light of learning through so many centuries, paving the way for Europe’s Renaissance and Enlightenment. It was innovation in Muslim communities that developed the order of algebra; our magnetic compass and tools of navigation; our mastery of pens and printing; our understanding of how disease spreads and how it can be healed. Islamic culture has given us majestic arches and soaring spires; timeless poetry and cherished music; elegant calligraphy and places of peaceful contemplation. And throughout history, Islam has demonstrated through words and deeds the possibilities of religious tolerance and racial equality…

So I have known Islam on three continents before coming to the region where it was first revealed. That experience guides my conviction that partnership between America and Islam must be based on what Islam is, not what it isn’t. And I consider it part of my responsibility as president of the United States to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear…

Threatening Israel with destruction – or repeating vile stereotypes about Jews – is deeply wrong, and only serves to evoke in the minds of Israelis this most painful of memories while preventing the peace that the people of this region deserve.

On the other hand, it is also undeniable that the Palestinian people – Muslims and Christians – have suffered in pursuit of a homeland. For more than 60 years they have endured the pain of dislocation. Many wait in refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza, and neighbouring lands for a life of peace and security that they have never been able to lead. They endure the daily humiliations – large and small – that come with occupation. So let there be no doubt: the situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable. America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own…

Too many tears have flowed. Too much blood has been shed. All of us have a responsibility to work for the day when the mothers of Israelis and Palestinians can see their children grow up without fear; when the Holy Land of three great faiths is the place of peace that God intended it to be; when Jerusalem is a secure and lasting home for Jews and Christians and Muslims, and a place for all of the children of Abraham to mingle peacefully together as in the story of Isra, when Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed (peace be upon them) joined in prayer…

No matter where it takes hold, government of the people and by the people sets a single standard for all who hold power: you must maintain your power through consent, not coercion; you must respect the rights of minorities, and participate with a spirit of tolerance and compromise; you must place the interests of your people and the legitimate workings of the political process above your party. Without these ingredients, elections alone do not make true democracy…

Islam has a proud tradition of tolerance. We see it in the history of Andalusia and Cordoba during the Inquisition. I saw it first-hand as a child in Indonesia, where devout Christians worshipped freely in an overwhelmingly Muslim country. That is the spirit we need today. People in every country should be free to choose and live their faith based upon the persuasion of the mind, heart, and soul…

The sixth issue that I want to address is women’s rights. I know there is debate about this issue. I reject the view of some in the west that a woman who chooses to cover her hair is somehow less equal, but I do believe that a woman who is denied an education is denied equality. And it is no coincidence that countries where women are well-educated are far more likely to be prosperous.

Now let me be clear: issues of women’s equality are by no means simply an issue for Islam. In Turkey, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Indonesia, we have seen Muslim-majority countries elect a woman to lead. Meanwhile, the struggle for women’s equality continues in many aspects of American life, and in countries around the world.

Our daughters can contribute just as much to society as our sons, and our common prosperity will be advanced by allowing all humanity – men and women – to reach their full potential. I do not believe that women must make the same choices as men in order to be equal, and I respect those women who choose to live their lives in traditional roles. But it should be their choice. That is why the United States will partner with any Muslim-majority country to support expanded literacy for girls, and to help young women pursue employment through micro-financing that helps people live their dreams…

All of us share this world for but a brief moment in time. The question is whether we spend that time focused on what pushes us apart, or whether we commit ourselves to an effort – a sustained effort – to find common ground, to focus on the future we seek for our children, and to respect the dignity of all human beings.

It is easier to start wars than to end them. It is easier to blame others than to look inward; to see what is different about someone than to find the things we share. But we should choose the right path, not just the easy path. There is also one rule that lies at the heart of every religion – that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us. This truth transcends nations and peoples – a belief that isn’t new; that isn’t black or white or brown; that isn’t Christian, or Muslim or Jew. It’s a belief that pulsed in the cradle of civilisation, and that still beats in the heart of billions. It’s a faith in other people, and it’s what brought me here today.

We have the power to make the world we seek, but only if we have the courage to make a new beginning, keeping in mind what has been written.

The Holy Koran tells u: “O mankind! We have created you male and a female; and we have made you into nations and tribes so that you may know one another.”

The Talmud tells us: “The whole of the Torah is for the purpose of promoting peace.”

The Holy Bible tells us: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.”

The people of the world can live together in peace. We know that is God’s vision. Now, that must be our work here on Earth. Thank you. And may God’s peace be upon you.