Faith in protest
Tarek El-Bishri may paint a grim picture of domestic and foreign policy over the last year but, he tells Amira Howeidy
, there is still hope in dissent
Tarek El-Bishri, 73, a prominent judge, scholar, historian and intellectual, has been a major inspiration to Egypt’s movements for change and dissent. In a general assembly this summer, pro- reform judges hailed El-Bishri as the “godfather of the Egyptian judiciary”.
In October 2004 El-Bishri published a daring commentary under the title A Call for Civil Disobedience . Its basic premise and tactics were adopted by the anti-Mubarak opposition movement Kifaya (Enough), formed a month after the article appeared. His reputation as an independent and fearless judge impeded his promotion to president of the State Council while his nationalist views made him Kifaya’s choice as presidential candidate, a proposal he turned down in 2005.
El-Bishri is from a prominent Egyptian family originating in the Al-Beheira Governorate. His grandfather, Sheikh Selim El-Bishri, was a Sheikh of Al-Azhar and his father, Abdel-Fatah El-Bishri, head of the Court of Cassation in the 1950s.
He is the author of 20 books on Islam and Arabism, nationalism, Copts, democracy and Nasserism, Egyptian politics under the British mandate, secularism and Egypt’s judiciary. In 2006 he published Masr bayna al ‘osian wal tafakuk (Egypt between dissent and disintegration), a scathing critique of what he characterises as the collapse of the Egyptian state.
Following are excerpts from an interview conducted at his Mohandessin house on 9 December.
Mohamed Hassenein Heikal dubbed 2006 as the year in which tawreeth (Gamal Mubarak’s succession of his father) would be resolved. Not much has been resolved on that front…
I never really thought 2006 would be a year in which anything would be decided. The chances of anything happening were no greater than the chances of nothing happening.
In 2004 the [Kifaya] protest movement was created and it continued throughout 2005… it attracted a wide range of groups and intellectuals from various political backgrounds but lacked the organisational structure that might have enabled it to grow.
I didn’t really think it was going to go anywhere, not given the circumstances prevailing in Egypt… It’s not possible for a [movement] to continue at the same pace day after day. Things don’t happen that way in politics, it’s not that simple. One wave recedes and another wave follows… There is no such thing as mechanical, accumulative continuity.
[But] dissent is growing and more people are protesting… Entities are being formed, some of them fail, others succeed… Then there are the efforts from the other side [the government] to thwart these entities by repression. They also try to divert the attention of the public from important issues to insignificant ones. Yet despite everything these new movements invite a degree of hope, not least because they have helped spread the inclination to dissent across a wider social strata.
Like the Mahalla textile factory workers three-day sit in?
Yes, workers, students etc. And their expression of dissent is becoming more brazen.
This was more evident, perhaps, in 2005, when the government wanted the people to become more involved politically for the sake of presidential and parliamentary elections, and of course to serve the government’s interests. But it couldn’t control the outcome, not fully. This is how the judges’ movement began; it didn’t start with their demands, for they date from 1990; they were provoked by government and police intervention in the electoral process which they had been assigned to supervise. The opposition embraced the judges’ movement, became active as a result and built on their activism. This found an echo inside universities with the formation of the 9 March movement. The judges’ movement still has lots of potential…though the government has been successful in diverting the opposition from its original demands to superficial ones like changing the constitution. The intelligentsia dominates the political movement [in Egypt] and they fell in the trap because their intellectual abilities are stronger than their mobilising capacity. Faced with an intellectual debate the machine start working for the sake of working. Play them the flute and they’ll dance. It’s tragic.
There are trade union and student elections and Egypt’s intellectuals remain absorbed in constitutional amendments – hardly a pressing issue since they won’t alter the balance of power in the country. And even if the constitution is modified the way the opposition wants we won’t see any results before five years. In other words we would be delaying reform for five years. It remains a major problem that the political movement remains in dominated by intellectuals and not activists.
But the few activists that agitate are prosecuted, arrested, beaten up, harassed…
There will always be friction… The government is against mobilisation and that renders activism difficult and costly. But we cannot really see the whole picture when we don’t know how activism will develop.
But the Muslim Brotherhood has been active this year and has been subject to a number of security clampdowns.
The Brotherhood has the ability to mobilise , hence the government’s caution and security blows. The Muslim Brotherhood feels that it is the only group capable of taking action, and that other groups will refuse to support or join forces with them. So the Brotherhood, too, is extremely calculating, and moves with great caution. Yet they remain subject to attacks by security which seem out of proportion with the activities they actually undertake.
Do you think the clampdowns of 2006 have weakened the Brotherhood?
I can’t really measure the effect of these blows on the group or their activism because I’m not an insider. But the Supreme Guide’s discourse [this year] is very similar in tone to 2005, if not more [challenging]. I also think the Brothers ability to mobilise is unlikely to have been impaired but their activism remains dependent on political calculations with which I am not familiar.
And where do you place Kifaya in all this? The movement seemed to be losing ground as it marked its second anniversary.
The government has recently managed to divert people from major issues to trivial ones. But it hasn’t been able to do so completely. We’ve seen attention being diverted towards the veil debate, the Torbini gang [which molested and killed children] and the sexual harassment of women in downtown Cairo on the first day of Eid to name just a few. Yes, people have been distracted by these issues but not completely, not like in the 1970s, 80s and 90s. Back then we all but forgot there was a nationalist movement, that there was national security and economic and political fortunes to defend. This was unforgivable, a sin committed by the political elite, and we are all to blame. We became oblivious to our reality and what was happening around us and instead engaged in theoretical debates on [controversial Muslims like] Nasr Hamed Abu Zeid, Taslima Nesreen and Salman Rushdie.
We are witnessing something similar today — just look at what we read in the press. Every two days something comes up and [is blown out of proportion]. The government also provokes or inspires rifts and divisions in political parties, even the unlicensed ones.
Having said that, I don’t think the authorities have been, or will be, successful in containing dissent because Egypt’s problems have become so exacerbated they cannot be ignored. Back in the 1980s many Egyptians went to the Gulf and made some money which helped ease their problems. The public sector was relatively functional. The country’s economic problems hadn’t reached the critical level we see today. Corruption wasn’t as glaring, people weren’t exposed to so much information about it back then. So instead we spent 20 years talking about meaningless issues and it really depresses me.
Maybe that was necessary to reach the stage of dissent you suggest is now happening?
The public sector was falling apart, machines were getting rusty, and we were talking about Taslima Nesreen? How was that possible?
You say the government has not been completely successful in containing dissent. What evidence is there for this? Or do we have to wait for something to provoke the dissent movements to assess their strength?
I cannot predict the future. But the elements of [dissent] exist. The dissenting energy and the entities that were formed as a result still exist despite the pressures they have faced. And even if two-year old movements like Kifaya are falling apart other groups could emerge in the future.
Did Kifaya die this year?
[Kifaya] is an incomplete project. It may or may not be completed. If it is, good and well, if it isn’t, another group might take its place. We’re not talking about an organisation like the old Wafd tanzeem which was formed over 20 or 30 years and whose collapse would have been a major crisis.
But Kifaya raised banners and slogans which might have contributed to its demise. “No to extension, no to hereditary succession” was met with constitutional amendments which made the Kifaya slogans meaningless, at least technically.
The constitution was amended in a way that still allows for continuation [of the current regime] and the possibility of hereditary succession still stands.
You could argue that Kifaya was the expression of a mood. Is that a strong enough foundation for a political movement?
A movement can start, and continue, like that and go on to achieve its goals later on… This didn’t happen. [Kifaya] was the initiative of individuals and groups that had no affiliation with licensed political parties. It’s a movement that protested against the government, its policies and the regime in ways that licensed political parties never have… The divisions in Kifaya don’t worry me, there could be alternatives [to the movement]. The need for protest movements that transcend licensed parties remains. Kifaya provides an example for others.
And tawreeth ? Despite repeated official denials, what is your view of the succession?
The official denials of tawreeth do not mean there is no possibility of the son (Gamal Mubarak) replacing his father (Hosni Mubarak) in staged elections. All the constitutional amendments introduced, and to be introduced, do not mean this is less possible. When they say there won’t be tawreeth, it’s true in the sense that their will be no inheritance as such. But how many times have official statements been made to deny or dismiss something when the opposite was true? Before article 76 was modified [Mubarak] said the constitution would not be amended. Then when article 76 was changed they said they would not introduce anymore amendments.
In 2006 the government stood its ground and though dissent is still alive, it has failed to achieve any of its objectives…
It established itself, and its popularity among the people.
But it gave rise to expectations and these have been dashed. Now it seems that even the kind of disasters we see in Palestine and Iraq, which would once have triggered outrage, no longer stir activists…
You can’t evaluate things in that way. You cannot predict the course of history or politics with precision. And in the case of Egypt nobody, not even the government, is in complete control of the dynamics [of dissent]. Events happen and when people sense a wave forming in a specific direction they can strengthen and support it or they can resist it. But you can’t predict with precision how things are going to work.
In 2006 you wrote and lectured at length about the disintegration of the Egyptian state. What made it so pressing?
There are functions of sovereignty, like national defence, law and order, fiscal policy. Then there are other role, related to industry, agriculture etc. And there is the provision of basic services, like education and health. Yet in Egypt the duties of a sovereign state have either been abandoned or separated.
Security is limited almost exclusively to protecting the regime, while the safety and security of ordinary citizens is ignored. This makes the future worrying, inasmuch as there will come a time when the state is faced with a certain situation [and it won't be able to act.]
A couple of years ago a cargo train left Alexandria without functioning brakes. The driver reported the problem but was told only to drive slowly. Of course he couldn’t control the train and when he reached Kafr El-Dawar station the train derailed, destroying near-by shops. There were no ambulances to take the injured to hospital so they were placed in a truck. When they got to the hospital there were no doctors. When doctors finally arrived there was no blood. You see how many sectors were put to test and failed?
What sort of constitutional changes do you expect in 2007, especially given that in municipal council elections are scheduled for the following year?
There will be constitutional amendments that seek to guarantee [the regime's] security and protect the status quo. Because the regime doesn’t trust the judiciary to supervise elections that would guarantee government [tailored] results article 88 of the constitution [related to judicial supervision of elections] will be amended. Elections are also becoming a problem, not because of the licensed political parties but political forces that aren’t officially recognised but which are influential. This makes rigging elections in favour of the government more difficult, which is why I expect the authorities to switch to a slate candidacy system which only recognises official political parties.
The Emergency Law will be replaced with a permanent anti-terror law though this violates parts of the constitution. And because the government cannot be sure that the Constitutional Court will rule in favour of these amendments it will introduce other changes to the constitution to prevent the court from ruling on the constitutionality of its amendments.
What will be the outcome of the amendments?
It will make the government more stable and will help ensure the continuation of its policies. This could provoke the protest movement but then again, these movements started by demanding constitutional change without bracing themselves for the kind of changes we are witnessing now. They did not have the ability to control the way the constitution was going to be amended.
At the peak of the dissent movement’s demonstrations in 2004-2005 you issued a call for civil disobedience. It never happened. Do you feel you misjudged the strength of dissent?
[Civil disobedience] still remains an option and a way forward.
Did Egypt’s foreign policy fare any better?
Our foreign policy is completely detached from our national interests. It is designed so Egypt performs in the Arab and international arenas in the way Washington wants.
Isn’t the decision to generate nuclear energy a national project that serves Egypt’s interests?
Not if we will be importing fuel rather than enriching uranium [to provide the needed fuel to run a nuclear reactor] here. And we are exporting natural gas and oil instead of exploiting them for our own development. [The nuclear energy project] will rely on importing the technology and the fuel to generate energy which compromises its usefulness.
But why underestimate a project that will provide an alternative energy source?
What’s the point of [a nuclear reactor] if you have to import its vital components and thus rely on others to ensure it functions? If you’re going to import then you might as well import oil for energy. Independence is achieved when strategic commodities are locally made or provided. We are exporting oil and natural gas, though we know perfectly well these reserves will start to be depleted within a decade.
In 2006 Egypt, a state that takes pride in its “secularism”, was placed in a Sunni context — together with Saudi Arabia and Jordan – to counter the rise of Hizbullah and Iran’s regional influence. Is Egypt lending itself to a deepening sectarian schism?
That’s what is happening. We are being driven into a Sunni-Shiite rift. It is a role Egypt has never sponsored.
Does this mark a genuine shift on Egypt’s part or is it convenient for the US administration to have a Sunni bloc in the Arab world?
There is absolutely no desire or shift within the Egyptian administration to adopt a Sunni stand. Religion was never an issue in Egyptian foreign policy, nor is it an issue now. It is simply [being used] to counter Shiite Iran and Hizbullah in Lebanon. It is Saudi Arabia –rather than Egypt – that is spearheading this and the Americans rely on them for that. Egypt is simply Saudi Arabia’s cheerleader here.
Is it harmful for Egypt?
It is a very harmful policy. The US wants Egypt’s role and influence to diminish until it completely disappears.
In your book Egypt between dissent and disintegration you wrote that our future is inextricably linked to Palestine and Iraq, and I now assume Lebanon. How will the explosive situation in the three countries impact on Egypt?
Egypt is expected to contribute to inciting a Sunni-Shiite strife so that neither [sect] can co- exist… We will be affected by the sectarian war in Iraq. I would expect Muslim-Coptic [tension]. Did we suffer from a national Nubian problem in Egypt before? Now there is talk about this… The disintegration of Iraq is casting its shadow on Sudan and Lebanon and sectarianism is a growing cultural trend across the region.