Turmoil returns to Egypt
Egyptians will groan at what I’m about to say. However, one way of summing up many of the major factors behind the return of massive crowds to Tahrir Square – a week before Egyptians are supposed to go to the polls – is to relate the case of the Aliaa Elmahdy, the 20-year-old Egyptian blogger who, a month ago, posted nude photographs of herself as a political protest and who has since become a sensation.
Ms Elmahdy posted several photographs of herself, in various states of undress. With most of them, the shock element was not what was revealed – given what one can see on billboards in Cairo – but that the woman posing was young and middle-class, a former (media) student at the prestigious American University of Cairo.
Then there was the photograph that has gone viral, and which saw the hits on Ms Elmahdy’s blog shoot up into the stratosphere: a full, frontal nude photo, in which she wears nothing but stockings, flat red shoes and a red ribbon in her hair.
It’s not a pornographic image. There’s no pouting or flirting with the camera. Ms Elmahdy’s does not fit the sex industry’s canon and she did not try to enhance her looks. She just stands and stares at the camera with an almost blank, melancholic face with no make-up. The expression could belong in a passport or family photo.
The political uproar arose because of how Ms Elmahdy and others politicised the picture. She claimed she was striking a blow against Egypt’s machismo and misogyny. One of the most quoted extracts from her blog is the following:
“Put on trial the artists’ models who posed nude for art schools until the early 1970s, hide the art books and destroy the nude statues of antiquity, then undress and stand before a mirror and burn your bodies that you despise to forever rid yourselves of your sexual hang-ups before you direct your humiliation and chauvinism and dare to try to deny me my freedom of expression.”
She is in fact tracing a backward slide in cultural freedom that makes Egypt today compare unfavourably, on some grounds, with what freedom of expression was permitted in the country in the 1930s. Ms Elmahdy’s comments also resonated with many women – even those who did not agree with her action – given the degree of sexual harassment they face in Cairo’s streets and on public transport.
There was also a more burning point, directly connected with last January’s protests. During those sit-ins, many young men and women shared tents. For the January 26 movement, it was a point of pride – even a sign of real revolution in the making – that men and women were mixing with no issues of sexual harassment arising. Yet, when the army later arrested some of the protestors, the sexual humiliation of the women by interrogating officers was justified by the women’s sharing of tents. Women detainees were made to remove their Islamic scarf when they wore one. And they were subjected, two of them have said, to a “virginity test” – actually, a manual sexual assault by a male officer. According to one report, the army justified such procedures by saying that these women were not “my daughter or yours” – they had shared a tent with men. The shame heaped on the victims of these crimes has meant that only two, as far as I know, have gone on the record to denounce them.
Ms Elmahdy’s photo therefore claimed to denounce the morality that would make women victims twice over. The sensation she has created, which has led to coverage in the Western press and a CNN interview, has drawn attention to the accusations against Egypt’s army, which had gone virtually unreported.
However, the controversy has also been drawn into other key features of Egypt’s current political situation.
Before we get to those, let’s note that Egyptian humour has not been absent. For example a group of 40 Israeli women stripped for a photo in support of Ms Elmahdy, while taking care to cover their sexual areas – prompting one blogger to comment that this was a typical Israeli performance: overpromising and under-delivering.
But, in the main, the discussion has been deadly serious. Ms Elmahdy describes herself an atheist and cohabits with her boyfriend. The news spread that she was a member of the April 6 movement, which was an important actor in the January protests. She herself has denied she has ever said that. But not before April 6 denied it would ever have an atheist as a member and denounced Ms Elmahdy as part of an army plot to smear the democracy campaign.
And such accusations – attempting to counter others – bring us to the heart of the matter. The political movement pouring back into the streets is motivated by many things: a call for political accountability, justice, protest against military rule and brutality, economic failure (the stock market has plummeted and investment dried up since January)... But it is also driven by a common language of suspicion and fear of impending deep disorder, of political licence (symbolised by “atheism” and sexual transgression) that violates personal integrity.
The army intimates that this is what the liberal democrats would bring. The latter counter by distancing themselves from atheism and accuse the army of placing itself above any standard, political or moral.
In an electoral landscape where the secular parties are fragmented, the Islamist parties so far keep away from Tahrir Square and wait in the wings till the vote. There is a keen sense of impending revolution but not of what it will bring.