Saturday 2 February 2013

To the Memory of Gamal al-Banna (1920-2013)


Gamal al-Banna at his office 14 June 2012

When I walked out of the office at Sharia al-Geish on 14 June 2012, something had changed. It felt as if a door that seemed eternally open, lost in time and space, irrevocably closed behind my back.

Since our first meeting on 21 August 2007, Gamal al-Banna was one of the personalities who most impressed me and marked my thoughts and life. His office, library and home were situated in the middle of a busy and popular area where taxi drivers usually told me off for not exactly knowing the location and forcing them into the hassle of the overcrowded one-way streets. “Mʿalish, I can walk from here,” I would say and give the driver an extra pound. I found refuge from the honking cars and the burning sun as soon as I entered the old building and tried to control my breath while walking up the stairs. From the door I was guided through a small corridor to the heart of the apartment: Gamal al-Banna’s office.

Very modestly, dressed in what looked like a worker's overall, surrounded by thousands of books sat a man who had dedicated his whole life to thought and only thought. He welcomed me and sat next to me on the green coach. He looked at me with small lively eyes and excused himself for his English. However, his thoughts mastered all kinds of language barriers, the philosopher did not talk in vain, all his words were duly selected, thought through and eloquently referenced by religious or secular sources. He finished by dictating me out of his mind a complete article which did not need further editing.

When talking about his brother Hassan, he referred to him as “Hassan al-Banna” and never as “my brother” and explained to me that the Muslim Brotherhood had been founded mainly for the conduct of religiously based educational and social activities but not for politics. Gamal al-Banna explained to me: “the idea to enter politics, was a new idea and not in accordance with the original goal of the organization. Nevertheless some accident pushed Hassan al-Banna to participate in the elections of 1945. An-Nahhas Pasha, the Prime Minister, explained to the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood that the British refused to have him in Parliament. However, Hassan al-Banna made an agreement with the Prime Minister who granted him the opportunity to organize the Muslim Brotherhood freely. This was a victory for Hassan al-Banna because he was able to spread his ideas all-over the world.”

Gamal al-Banna looked straight into my eyes and added: “I mentioned that to make you understand that politics were not the main interest of the Muslim Brotherhood even though they wanted a Muslim government or at least a government that applied the broad lines in the Quran about politics. These are very similar to the basic concepts of democracy and encompass the refusal of dictatorship, the election of the rulers and the establishment of a decision making process via consultation. The Muslim Brotherhood wanted to apply these not in order to reach power, or to establish the government, no! They wanted these rules to be applied by others, whom they might assist. Why did they not want to govern by themselves? Because it is very dangerous to establish an Islamic State! Because power corrupts religion!”

Intrigued to learn more from this man who had done his utmost in order to remain an independent thinker –even establishing his own publishing house and Islamic cultural foundation– I used each opportunity to meet him for another interview. Gamal al-Banna’s door was always open and he usually told me to come at 10 o’clock in the morning. The last time I met the founder of the International Islamic Confederation of Labour who was at the same time the author of over fifty books about Islamic topics, he looked very tired. Long had he pleaded for reason over blind faith and a re-introduction of Islamic ethics into modern Egyptian society…

Already in 1972, in his book “The Spirit of Islam” (روح الإسلام), Gamal al-Banna argued that the contradiction between social and cultural development and Muslim conservatism arose from the fact that his contemporaries lacked comprehensive knowledge of their religion and therefore attributed an erroneous role to it. After extensively working on questions of labor, he had reached the conclusion that in Islam the true concept of justice can be found. Gamal al-Banna saw Egypt torn between two extremes: superficial Westernism imported by the bourgeoisie and popular conservatism hosted by the Azhar institutions. However the majority of the Egyptians felt represented by neither of them. The modern liberal Egyptian thinker therefore faces, according to Gamal al-Banna, the challenge and the responsibility to unite the faith and ethics of Islam with the modern achievements such as fundamental rights, democracy and contemporary art. Gamal al-Banna added that this union would fairly be difficult if people felt the need to acquire extensive knowledge of their cultural tradition and religion.

During our last meeting I talked with Gamal al-Banna in Arabic, I sensed that I had grown closer to his society, culture and religion over the years. However, I felt him more distant. He was not able to join me on the sofa any longer and his assistant arranged a chair for me next to him behind the table. His words dropped heavily from his old lips and he fell asleep twice. In order not to tire him I decided to leave early. As I walked out my heart did not dare wish to see him again.

Tuesday 5 June 2012

Balances and Ladders

Very view observers of the presidential elections outside of Egypt may have noticed the little circles which enclose symbols on the propaganda posters of the candidates. These are not mere adornments or amulets for political prosperity but they do have a very pragmatic function: they are meant to facilitate the participation of the around 25% of citizens who can neither write nor read.

Each candidate was therefore free to choose a symbol to represent his name on the lists at the polling stations. The ones that remain for the second round are the ladder for Ahmad Shafiq and the balance for Muhammad Mursi.  Whereas the former seems to promise an accelerated advance of the country straight up to the sky, the latter claims his capacity to balance the different interest down on earth. However, both options seem to convince neither the Facebook-community nor the graffiti activists who keep expressing their discontent about the election results on diverse levels of artistic accomplishment. Fearless they are attacking the two presidential candidates while sarcastically stating that it will be the last time for a long period...

"The Ladder": Ahmed Shafiq

Were the elections really clean? May they be labeled truly democratic? Is it normal that after a popular revolution, which had been able to overthrow a 30 years old regime, less than 50% of the same angry and now self-confident citizens proceed to the polling stations? Is it fair to force people living in disperse locations of the country back to their place of origin in order to fulfill their duty as citizens of a democratic state? Is it not very likely that the poor employee who is working in Luxor cannot travel all the way back to Cairo (more than 12 hours) in order to deposit his vote? What about the analphabets? Did they truly understand where to sign and were they left to proceed without any outer assistance?

"The Balance": Muhammad Mursi

When the High Council of Armed Forces lifted the state of emergency it seemed to push the country up the ladder and into the democratic heaven. A few days later however, the same ruling institution took hold of the legislative power which un-balanced the classic repartition… Nevertheless, the demonstrators do not want to play this kind of “balances and ladders” which seems to be a loosing game for the revolutionaries. This is the reason why they called for another “milliuniyya” (massive demonstrations) on the Tharir Square tomorrow.

Saturday 31 March 2012

Visual Propaganda in Egypt: the Army and Hazim Abu Ismaʿil

After Mubarak’s demission which marked an end to the first phase of the Egyptian revolution, the army celebrated victory together with the people. Egyptians of all generations took photographs in front of the tanks that had surrounded the Tahrir square allegedly in order to protect the demonstrators. Nevertheless against what exactly the army had come to protect them remains to be freely imagined…

The initially so euphoric glorification of the soldiers as the guardians of the revolution came to an end after multiple scandals. As early as on 9 March 2011, “virginity tests” were perpetrated on the allegedly “protected” female protesters in order to “protect” them even more; namely against the accusation of prostitution. Then certain claims for civil trials of the demonstrators who had been sent to prison at the beginning of the revolution with rapidly improvised military sentences (most probably to “protect” these young people against themselves?!) could be heard in the public sphere. Later on, the events in the Stadium of Port Said and the ferociously suppressed demonstrations in Mohammed Mahmud Street in Down Town (next to the Tahrir Square), made people doubt about the honesty of the army and more and more “NO SCAF”-graffitis appeared on the walls all over the Egyptian capital. 

-->"The People and the Army, Hand in Hand!"

Finally, as the artists stopped to eternalize the image of the kind soldiers who distribute flowers to little girls with grinning faces, the army took over the lead in reminding the people that they had “protected” them during the revolution. All the tanks (where one year ago demonstrators had written: “the people want the fall of the system”) now carry the following caption, yellow on purple: “the people and the army, hand in hand!” For the ones who are not able to read –and this is still a big portion of the people who are roaming night and day the Egyptian streets– big posters were produced with a gentle soldier who is cradling a baby in his arms. The spectator, made prisoners of his emotions while looking at this symbol of tenderness, remains unaware of the Kalashnikov which is hanging from the soldier’s left shoulder.

However not only the army started to use visual propaganda posters on the streets in order to attract the attention of the people who are not using Facebook. Although these millions of people might easily be forgotten from an economical point of view, in democratic elections the voice of the most disadvantaged analphabet in the country will also count. Two parties understood this fact very fast: the army and the self-nominated presidential candidate Hazim Abu Ismaʿil.

While Egyptian graffiti-artists are honoring their martyrs on the wall of the old AUC main-building, the grinning face of the presidential candidate Hazim Abu Ismaʿil, stuck to the rear-window of the car in the foreground, is promoting “a decent state and modest people.”

About three weeks ago, the happily smiling face of a man, who for European children looks like dear Father Christmas with his long white beard, started to appear on buses and cars all over Cairo. Far from a religious garment, in his modern suit with a blue tie, this wolf in sheep’s clothing promotes “a decent state (dawla muhtarama) and modest people (shaʿb massun)”. Both attributes are directly related in the Arabic language with this strange kind of honor which in patriarchal societies seems to depend solely on “their” women’s –and here I would like to stress the possessive quality of the pronoun– behavior. In other words: the dominant, religiously immaculate male, Abu Ismaʿil is paradoxically planning to penetrate the state in order to make it become decent. From this point of view his attempts seem somewhat cynically in accordance with the Moroccan penal code that allows the rapist to wed his victim if she is a minor… 

Well anyway, if he wins the elections, dogs and women might start to apply for political asylum somewhere in the “indecent” states which are populated with “heretic” and “immodest” people stereotypically called “the West”.

Monday 26 March 2012

Demonstrations on the International Day of Drama in Tunis

On 25 Mars 2012, the salafists challenged the liberals in front of the Théâtre Municipal in Tunis. The theatre-workers gathered under the banner: “the people want theatre!” while the salafists assembled in the middle of the street in front of them and chanted: “the people want an Islamic state!”
Meanwhile in the Café l’Univers people were having coffee and watching bearded teenagers passing by who shouted at them: “you heretics!” However, the former turned around calmly, laughed at them and answered back: “yes and you guys are very good Muslims!”

Saturday 24 September 2011

From Egyptian to Egyptian: Work Is Our Only Solution!

In the past eight months since the revolution already 220 political parties were prematurely delivered out of the void. The revolutionary slogans were partially erased from the walls of the Egyptian cities and replaced by the candidates’ names for the approaching elections.
In Abu Kabir (Sharqiyya) the Muslim Brothers -for the first time in history- proudly marked the balcony of their headquarters with their religiously tinted slogans and logos. They now form the political “Party of Freedom and Justice” (Hizb al-Hurriya wa-l-‘Adala).
Yet they are not the only ones making publicity for their candidates. It is as if a hurricane of political activism had passed through the cities and driven away the Ramadan decoration, which was then immediately replaced with all kinds of painted and printed banderoles and posters with names and faces of people who are sharing the new experience of democracy.
Not all of the gatherings are peaceful. Some days ago, when I drove by the children’s hospital in Old Cairo, I saw a group of men who were decidedly and proudly marching into the opposite direction, armed with two Kalashnikovs in full daylight. Later on, when I mentioned this incident to an Egyptian friend, he laughed and told me that this was completely normal, that everybody had always born arms in that quarter, but that only now “after the revolution” they could display them openly.
In the shadow of the emergency law (which was immediately re-introduced after the destruction of the Israelian embassy) states-employees are struggling for “clean” elections. The struggle is difficult and abstruse, as the newcomers have to fight against a Kafkaesque, stagnant bureaucratic apparatus full of people who in some way or the other were collaborating with the regime and are not planning to step down just because their patriarch had done so. As a matter of fact, today even the latter was rehabilitated at the moment when General Tantawi proclaimed Mubarak as not guilty…
There is one curious political group, which started to anonymously monopolize the beginning of the desert road from Cairo to Alexandria with their huge publicity posters. They read: “From Egyptian to Egyptian: Work Is Our Only Solution!” Standing in the middle of the desert, written in English, white and red on black, the whole of it awkwardly reminded me of the Nazi propaganda “Arbeit macht Frei!” (Work will set you free) placed on the top of a gate which knowingly led to death; the one of the concentration camp of Auschwitz.
Which is the audience that the slogan “Work Is Our Only Solution” triggers? Who is it coming from? From an English speaking Egyptian to an English speaking Egyptian who both have cars and use the Alexandria desert road? Yes, those might be the ones who should start to work in order to change the country! But will they remember and want to share with the 90% of their countrymen who do not talk English, the 80% who do not have cars and the 60% who do not have work? Will they be willing to let them partake in power? And if they are, will the Supreme Council of Armed Forces let them do so? If they are not, this is no social revolution and there will be no democracy!

Saturday 10 September 2011

Destruction of the Israelian Embassy in the Egyptian Capital

Demonstrators on the Tahrir Square, 9th September 2011

When I met my friend Ahmed (name changed) who was carrying a big hammer on his shoulder while making his way to the Tahrir Square, I first thought he might want to visually express his adherence to the communist ideology. As a matter of fact, I had never discussed party politics with him before and did not really know which part of the political landscape he was actually belonging too. I greeted him with a surprised and joyful “Ezzaiyyak” (how are you), as we had not met for a long time and immediately started to push his leg about his new membership in the workers’ movement. He smiled in the warm light of the setting sun and made me understand that I was very much mistaken. Happily he declared that he wanted to go and destroy the Israelian Embassy. I laughed, weighed the hammer in my hand and did not believe a word of what he said.
In this moment, when the heavy iron lay on my fingers, I was completely unaware of the fact that this instrument might be among the ones which were to force the initial stroke to the outbreak of a major war in human history. Ahmed disappeared among the crowd of demonstrators on the Tahrir Square. 

The (more ore less) weekly gatherings on the famous place of liberation have now turned into a special kind of folk festival where popcorn and jus-sellers make their living. Also salesmen of handy little sowing and shaving equipment gather for the feast and spread out their towels on the floor among the ones who are trading with nationalistic icons. Black and white pictures of Osama Bin Landen are sold next to Nasser’s multiple photographs. People gather in small groups among artists or party-leaders and charismatically scream their message at each other without forgetting to put it into rhyme-prose or to formulate it as a joke (nokta). 

However, later on last night the panorama changed completely and the ones who were following the news on the Al-Jazeera Channel were turned into witnesses of a major transgression of international law. An emotionally overloaded crowd driven by an exaggerated nationalist enthusiasm started to attack the Israeli Embassy in Giza. First the flag fell down from the 40th floor of the high building and suddenly it illuminated the sky in flames. The armed forces, which were “protecting” the building, seemed to have suddenly lost all their powers with which they had threatened the population on television the day before. The youth managed to sack the embassy without major obstacles. Papers were falling from the sky like snow while the flat looked like the open mouth of a fire-spitting, dark dragon. The crowd celebrated and held their stolen trophies to the cameras, completely unaware that they were not the glorious actors but the mere tool of a cruel game of power-policy. One only remains with the Christian task to ask the powerful to forgive these children, as they were innocent and did not know what they were doing…

Friday 25 March 2011

Pro Mubarak Demonstration

In front of the old main building of the American University in Cairo, a very uncommon demonstration took place this morning. About fifty people displaying big posters of a handsome, radiant Mubarak gathered for a pro Mubarak walk. Even though they were heavily insulted by the people on the streets, they held their heads up high and answered back that in a democracy all opinions had a perfect right to be publicly shown…