The Arab Winter

Egyptian journalist and USFSP visiting speaker Ashraf Khalil is raising questions about his troubled country.

click to enlarge “PEOPLE DON’T SEE A WAY OUT”: Journalist Ashraf Khalil in Cairo. - Courtesy of American University in Cairo Press
Courtesy of American University in Cairo Press
“PEOPLE DON’T SEE A WAY OUT”: Journalist Ashraf Khalil in Cairo.

Last week marked the second anniversary of a unifying moment in Egypt: the day that Hosni Mubarak — who had ruled the North African nation with an iron hand for nearly three decades — was swept from power in a wave of mass protests.

Euphoria spread through Cairo, Alexandria and other Egyptian cities, and around the world. The anti-Mubarak movement found voice as far away as Tampa, where on a Saturday in late January of 2011 approximately 100 Bay area residents of Egyptian or Middle Eastern descent stood at the corner of Dale Mabry and Kennedy calling for the aging dictator to step down. They held signs outside the CVS drugstore reading “Oust Hosni,” “Goodbye U.S. supported dictators,” and “Democracy in Egypt Now” — echoing the sentiments being expressed in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

Egypt is now ruled by Mohamed Morsi, the 61-year-old Muslim Brotherhood member who defeated Ahmed Shafik, the last prime minister chosen by Mubarak, 52-48 percent last June.

But last week, instead of celebrating the anniversary of Mubarak’s ouster, protesters in Cairo clashed with riot police outside the presidential palace. Opposition groups accused President Morsi of betraying the goals of revolution, chanting the same cries they shouted when Mubarak resided there.

On Feb. 28, journalist Ashraf Khalil comes to USF-St. Pete to discuss the conflicting state of affairs in Egypt post-Arab Spring. A Cairo-based correspondent for Time, the Times of London and Foreign Policy, he is the author of the 2012 book Liberation Square: Inside the Egyptian Revolution and the Rebirth of a Nation.

CL spoke with Khalil last week on the phone from Cairo. He calls the general mood in the country one of fatigue and uncertainty.

“People don’t see a way out,” he began. Just the night before, more violence had broken out. “There’s a lot of people who aren’t fans of the Muslim Brotherhood and they aren’t fans of Morsi, but they’re desperate for some kind of normality and are tired of these ongoing clashes. They think the economy is tanking, and they think these protests are just making things worse.”

Hosni Mubarak was a career officer in the Egyptian Air Force before being appointed vice president in 1975. He assumed complete control of the country in October of 1981 following the assassination of President Anwar Sadat and kept it for 29 years.

Khalil says that although Mubarak was mostly loathed, pockets of sympathy remained for him during the revolution. Even among those wanted him removed from power, there was a certain level of sympathy for how he went out. Ordered by a prosecutor to stand trial (along with his sons) on charges of negligence for not giving orders to stop the killing of peaceful protesters, the ailing 82-year-old was wheeled into a Cairo courtroom in a cage.

“People were saying, ‘Come on, why do we have to humiliate him?’”

In fact, Khalil says that many Egyptians “sat on the fence until they saw which side was winning, and then they joined up in Tahrir Square,” adding that there was a “period halfway through the revolution where you could feel the fence sitters finally decide” which way to go.

Local residents who have seen the changes in Egypt first-hand describe a country still in turmoil.

Carmel Dashad, the North Carolina-born daughter of an Egyptian mother and Palestinian father, spent some of her childhood in Egypt before moving back to the States. A 2010 USF graduate with a degree in journalism, she began an internship with NPR in the summer of 2011. She tells CL that at the time everyone was “ecstatic” about the revolution, but things had already changed for the worse when she returned to Egypt in January of 2012 for the one-year celebration of Mubarak’s demise. She said at that time it felt “dark and depressing,” and that there was little tourism.

Among those leading the rallies in Tampa two years ago was Ahmed Bedier, an Egyptian native who is the founder of United Voices for America and host of a weekly radio show on WMNF.

He’s also been back and forth to his homeland several times since the revolution, and says one of the challenges there is the power vacuum. “Egyptians are struggling to learn to dialogue to work out their differences through the political process, so while some are trying to evolve into political activity, others are still in a revolutionary mode.”

Bedier can vouch personally for the chaotic conditions that still break out. In December, during protests outside the presidential palace, a lack of police protection led some volunteers to help out those who were hurt.

One of those volunteers was Bedier’s brother Amir. While dragging away a wounded man, Amir himself was shot in the head. He survived, but the bullet remains embedded in the back of his neck.

Brooksville cardiologist Adel Eldin was born in Alexandria, and is a big fan of President Morsi. He was also active in the Tampa protests. He attributes much of the recent violence to “paid thugs” out to discredit the revolution.

There’s concern in Western circles about the fact that Morsi is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. But Ashraf Khalil says the radical element in Egypt are the Salifists, an ultra-conservative branch of fundamental Islam that had never been particularly political in Egypt until after the revolution. That’s when they formed political parties and ended up winning over 20 percent of the votes in last year’s election, pushing for Sharia law to be the main source of legislation.

Khalil says the Salafists are not at all moderate.

“You can’t even talk to them,” he says. “They come straight out of the 14th century. If you don’t agree with them, you’re going to hell.”

As far as the Brotherhood is concerned, he says they don’t act like crazy fundamentalists, but like traditional politicians — which isn’t a compliment.

“I don’t think they’re going to tear up the Camp David treaty, I don’t think they’re going to make wearing the Hijab mandatory,” but adds that like all political parties, “they shouldn’t be trusted.”

Financially, things aren’t looking very bright either.

Last week Moody’s Investors Services cut Egypt’s rating to B3, six levels below investment grade, citing civil unrest and January’s biggest drop in foreign reserves in a year. That unrest “complicates” the country’s ability to secure and implement a badly needed $4.8 billion International Monetary Fund loan deal.

In Washington, the U.S. Senate beat back a proposal by Kentucky’s Rand Paul that would have ended all military aid to the country, but Egypt’s issues are prompting members of the Senate to restructure the $1.3 billion in aid, the largest that America gives out besides Israel.

And speaking in Cairo last week, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights, Democracy and Labor Michael Posner declined to respond to a question about whether human rights were better or worse now in Egypt than under Mubarak. He did say that young people’s expectations were higher.

Some analysts have speculated that Egypt might be ripe for a second revolution.

Journalist Ashraf Khalil says that a lot of people think such a revolution is under way right now, but asks, “What does that mean?”

“People are not on the same page … people are demanding the fall of [this regime], but what exactly to you want to do? The guy was elected, so what comes after him?”

Ashraf Khalil speaks on Thurs., Feb. 28 at 2 p.m. at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg Campus. University Student Center, 1000 Third St. S. His appearance is part of the university’s International Week, Feb. 25-March 1, a series of public events addressing global affairs.

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