Friday, December 7, 2012

Constitutional Crisis

The main reason for the gap between these last couple of posts and the previous one is that daily life simply has become too normal for me to make aspects of it particularly interesting to anyone else. You may have noticed on the news over the past couple of weeks that this is no longer the case; we have returned to the kind of unpredictable excitement that greeted me when I first arrived here about fifteen months ago. Though I will talk about it, I must direct you to better equipped and more directly involved news agencies for any detailed analysis. The caveat to all I say is that this isn't sound or trustworthy analysis, just my opinions based on the limited observations I make living here.

This latest trouble all started a couple of weeks ago with President Mursi's decree that was meant to deal with the challenges of the judiciary to his government. There are two things to note here. The first is that I'm pretty sure that this had nothing to do with his role in the Gaza ceasefire. Mursi is fairly calculating, and won't have done something like this off the cuff just because he was on a diplomatic high - especially as the Gaza ceasefire really didn't make much difference to the way he was viewed at home. Those who liked him previously continued to like him, and those who didn't, didn't. Secondly, one of the key parts of the decree - removing the public prosecutor - is something that he has been trying to do for months, and in which he has been blocked by the judiciary. Both the senior judges and the public prosecutor are hangovers from the old regime; getting rid of them, or curbing their powers, had been something that a lot of people had wanted for a long time.

What really brought people out on to the streets is the way in which he brought about this little victory. He destroyed the judges' power to block his removal of the public prosecutor by removing their power to overturn any of his decrees (someone he can do as, under the interim constitution, in the absence of the parliament, his decrees are legislative). Of course, that removed the only check that had been acting on his powers, making him a dictator, albeit, so he says, a temporary one.

Making matters worse was the publication of a draft constitution. There had already been trouble in the constituent assembly. Judges were preparing to rule on its legality (it is viewed by many liberals as unrepresentative, due to the way in which it was formed). Being dominated by Islamists, it was making no attempt to write a particularly balanced constitution anyway, and this had prompted almost all its liberal and Christian members to boycott it, though they weren't enough to prevent it from reaching quorum. After Mursi's decree, it reportedly engaged in a mammoth sixteen hour session, and produced a draft. This has come under predictable, though not entirely unjustified attack from those who boycotted the assembly for its provision of rights and equalities (or rather, lack of provision). In my view, that isn't the key problem. The bigger problem is that it mined previous constitutions heavily, and so produced one that is a gift to authoritarian rule. It is excessively long (236 articles), and in crucial parts vague and contradictory (for example, insults are forbidden, but freedom of thought and expression are guaranteed). As far as I can see, it is more important that it makes sure that the government can't force the courts into interpreting vague articles in their favour (what's to stop them from interpreting a political attack from a rival presidential candidate as an insult?), than to make sure that all western rights and freedoms are included. I also fear that the opposition will lose the referendum in a couple of weeks’ time, because they will be focussing on the fact that it is illiberal, when a pretty conservative country will probably be more concerned with the threat of a new dictatorship.

Whatever the result of the constitutional referendum, it is now clear that Egypt has become a very divided country. It has been moving in this direction for a while. Various (liberal and/or Christian) friends have been engaging in foolish talk of the need for another revolution. (One is compelled to ask: if the previous revolution, started by people like you with a united populace behind you, didn't produce a result that left you confident in the future of your country, why do think that another revolution, with a divided populace, will produce a better outcome?) It remains to be seen whether, should the constitution pass in a demonstrably free and fair referendum, things will settle down again. My entirely uneducated hunch is that it will pass (I'd guess 60-40); however, it is perfectly possible that protests will continue on the basis that the process that led to it illegitimises the outcome. Some friends speculate, perhaps hopefully, that if it doesn't pass the embarrassment will force Mursi out. I don't see that happening: if it doesn't pass, he keeps the powers that he granted himself in this decree. Without a parliament, there is no obstacle to his legislative will. And unless he is forced from power by protests of the scale that toppled Mubarak, there is no reason for him and his supporters, members of an organisation that has sought power for eighty years, to surrender it.

Whether Mursi departs or not, and whether the constitution passes or not, there seems to be a high possibility of some violence. My dentist, having kindly performed root canal, followed up by a suggestion that I leave the country. At this stage, and on this information, I think that would be premature. But it goes some way to showing just how nervous people are.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Winter Weather

I should perhaps start by saying that I have no particular love for the Egyptian summer: it is hot, humid and dusty; the lack of any particular air movement causes the pollution to hang around like an unwanted guest who keeps bringing friends. And then, of course, Ramadan currently falls in the summer, causing some minor inconvenience to any non-Muslim who happens to be resident. The weather of the winter is by and large preferable. On some days, especially in the autumn and the spring (which, given their length here, might better be described as the beginning and the end of winter), one gets balmy blue-skied days in which (assuming one is not working) one can sit in one of the cafes along the corniche and pretend one is anywhere other than Egypt. This does require some skill in the suspension of disbelief, given the ever present sulphury haze, the rubbish that mysteriously never finds its way into a bin, the mangy cats, and the roar of traffic (and blare of car horns) immediately behind. However, as cheap opportunities for escape in Alex go, it's one of the best on offer. Even on days less ideal than these, it's much easier to wrap up warm than to try to escape the blistering heat of the summer.

There is, however, one huge inconvenience of the winter. I was reminded of it by my journeys to and from school yesterday. It's the rain. This may seem petty. After all, I'm English. I should welcome the rain as a taste of home. Anyway, given most of the year it's dry as a bone, I should be grateful that it rains at all: I'm sure the people of Jordan or Yemen would welcome the volume and regularity of the yearly rain that comes here. Well it isn't the rain as such that's the problem - in fact, so long as I can stay at home, I quite enjoy the occasional hour-long thunderstorms that presage the closure of the autumn - it's what happens when it rains.

The core problem is that the infrastructure can't cope with it. To a certain extent this is inevitable: when the ground is so dry, it isn't going to absorb terribly much, and so the water runs off everywhere. Fair enough. But I'm certain that if the drains were not absolutely clogged with rubbish (where does it come from...?) then the water would have somewhere to go. A minor second problem is the volume of the stuff. The rain here doesn't have English nuance. Don't bother trying to explain drizzle... Here we generally have heavy, dollopy rain, or no rain. And the heavy stuff isn't usually a short sharp shower - one can expect it to continue for hours.

The rain day starts perfectly pleasantly. One wakes up to the sound of the pitter-patter that is always quite calming (and of course car horns, but they form the background music to every form of Egyptian life). Then one realises that the all-pervasive smell of old cars with inefficient engines is still there, like a prominent food stain on a shirt that one has now washed three times in a row, but stubbornly refuses to budge. The morning routine is the same as ever, except that one makes oneself late for school by sitting looking out of the window in the hope, which you know to be false, that the rain will miraculously stop and it will be a lovely day. Having resigned oneself to the fact that this isn't going to happen, one makes ones way outside, having managed to persuade oneself that a raincoat isn't necessary - it isn't going to be that wet. One decides one is going to get a taxi, as one is late already, and anyway one doesn't want to walk all the way from the bus stop in the rain - unfortunately everyone has had this idea, so one waits for a while, getting increasingly damp, but too stubborn to go back into the house and get that rain coat. Finally a taxi pulls up, but around a metre away from the curb; that is, on the other side of a small, but as it turns out surprisingly deep lake. (It's important to remember, for later, that taxis here are not the personalised transport of the west. Where one gets out is the result of a negotiation between the driver, the first passenger, and any other passengers who get in subsequently. The driver has the upper hand. And one is expected to pay pretty much wherever he drops you, so long as one is closer to the destination than one was at the start.) As the journey progresses, one observes one's surroundings. The road is now a shallow, scummy river, though that hasn't deterred any of the drivers. Potholes become something of a surprise - especially as many are new thanks to the water combined with the state of the tarmac. Not that this encourages the drivers to be more careful. Stopping distances? What are they? That question could equally be applied to tire tread, wing mirrors, lights, and even windscreen wipers. It is not unusual to see a driver with his hand out of the window, holding a rag and wiping the rain away. Even where they do exist, they are used sparingly. One's taxi journey ends somewhere short of the intended destination; the driver wants to turn down to the corniche, as that is where the second passenger is headed. But he's disappointed only to be given the usual fare. It's raining, he indicates. Precisely, one replies, and proceeds to run through what may now be better described as a waterfall than 'weather' towards school. It's only five minutes away, but when one arrives one is greeted with gales of laughter from the receptionist. Fortunately, there is also a towel... Alas, one knows that this scenario is to be repeated many times over the next few months.