Several films with critical political content opened during the 1992 Ramadan season in Egypt. The most popular was al-Irhab wa al-Kabab (Terrorism and Kebab), directed by Sharif ‘Arafa and starring Egypt’s foremost comic actor, ‘Adil Imam. The protagonist repeatedly visits the hub of the central government bureaucracy — a massive, Stalinesque structure known as the Mugamma‘ — to arrange a school transfer for his son, but the responsible official is never at his desk. Frustrated, Imam clashes with a security officer and, accidentally finding a weapon in his hand, seizes the building and takes both government officials and citizens hostage. The hostages become his ambivalent allies against the senior government authorities when they endorse his demand for a meal of kebab and salad for everyone in the building. After the meal, Imam urges his hostages to make more substantive demands. They cannot conceive of anything that would improve their lives more than the government’s resignation. Realizing that this is impossible, the hero abandons the venture and leaves the building unapprehended, shielded by his erstwhile hostages in a demonstration of popular unity against the state security apparatus.
Terrorism and Kebab illuminates the social context of the current armed offensive by Islamist radicals, whose leading edge has been the assassination in June of secularist intellectual Farag Fawda, and the campaign to intimidate Copts in Asyout province, which has left some 50 people dead. The government is ineffective and lacks the capacity to perform routine tasks (school transfers) or ensure public security; it cannot satisfy the basic needs (food) of a large part of the population. While preoccupation with survival prevents many people from articulating programmatic political demands, there is much dissatisfaction. The film is also notable because it mercilessly ridicules the extravagant piety of a bearded bureaucrat who apparently does nothing but pray. His prayer is likened to the gossiping of his office colleague: Neither performs any socially useful work. This anti-Islamist point was made explicit when ‘Adil Imam endorsed a statement initiated by the Committee to Defend the National Culture condemning the Islamist radicals’ violence and calling for tolerance of diverse opinions.
While this and several other recent films express resistance to both the state and the radical Islamists in the domain of popular culture, intellectuals and activists have been experimenting with political forms that transcend the structure and discourse of existing opposition political parties. The most visible of these efforts is the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies, founded in 1991 by Saad Eddin Ibrahim. In January 1992, the Center began to issue a bilingual monthly newsletter, Civil Society/al-Mujtama‘ al-Madani, to promote its belief that the expansion of civil society — defined as voluntary social welfare, professional and business associations — is the key to strengthening democracy in the Arab world. Civil Society takes a consistent liberal stand: defending the Arab Democratic Nasserist Party’s right to exist; opposing legal restrictions on non-governmental organizations; opposing repression of the Islamist groups by the state (while criticizing Islamist plans to deny the civil rights of women and non-Muslims); and reporting on the activities of a wide range of political forces in Egypt and the Arab world.
Despite this record, some Egyptian leftists are wary of the Ibn Khaldun Center because its director, Saad Eddin Ibrahim, has associations with institutions and individuals off limits from the point of view of the Arab nationalist consensus. The publications of the pro-Israel Washington Institute for Near East Policy list Ibrahim as a 1992 Visiting Fellow (along with Itamar Rabinovich, head of Israel’s negotiating team with Syria) — problematic company for those concerned with Palestinian national rights. The Center is also promoting the Initiative for Peace and Cooperation in the Middle East — a citizen diplomacy effort of private Arabs and Israelis seeking to improve the atmosphere for the official negotiations by finding common ground among themselves. The campaign, organized by the Washington-based Search for Common Ground, is endorsed by several whose names do not inspire confidence in the Arab world: ‘Abd al-‘Aziz Sa‘id, Robert McNamara, Richard Murphy, Joyce Starr and Dov Zakheim. So far, there is no evidence that these connections have negatively affected the Ibn Khaldun Center’s work, and Saad Eddin Ibrahim’s willingness to break long-standing political taboos is probably a positive development. However, this American-style mix of liberal politics and intellectual entrepreneurship is new to the Arab world, and the suspicions it has aroused may make it more difficult for the Center to achieve its goals.
The New Women’s Studies Center, established in 1991, published issue number five of its bulletin, al-Mar’a al-Jadida (The New Woman), in June after a hiatus in its activity partly caused by an internal debate over whether to accept funding from foreign sources such as the Ford Foundation and the Population Council. Members of the group, which includes several red-diaper babies, oppose what they consider to be the strident anti-male attitude of Nawal El-Saadawi and the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association. But the theme of their latest bulletin, violence against women, is at the center of current international feminist concerns. The Center has developed cooperative relations with the Palestinian Society for Women’s Affairs, founded in Nablus by Sahar Khalifa and Rita Giacaman.
The Center for Trade Union and Worker Services was established following two months of collective protest actions by workers at the Helwan iron and steel mill in the summer of 1989. Intellectuals and veteran trade unionists with more-or-less traditional Marxist-Leninist politics provide support and encouragement, but the group is the product of one of the most important labor struggles of the 1980s and has a social base among rank-and-file worker-activists. It has published two booklets: Hawla istiqlaliyyat al-haraka al-‘ummaliyya: majmu‘at maqalat (On the Independence of the Workers’ Movement: A Collection of Articles) and Qanun sharikat qita‘ al-a‘mal al-‘amm (The Public-Sector Companies Law) by veteran labor lawyer Nabil al-Hilali, who subjects this IMF-inspired effort to “liberate” the public sector from non-market constraints to sharp critique.
All these projects confirm that the spirit of resistance is far from extinguished in Egypt. Nonetheless, they are unconnected, and perhaps they cannot be connected. Consequently, they do not yet indicate a way out of the ideological crisis that grips the traditional left opposition. By remaining committed to a social style and political outlook that was already problematic a generation ago, much of the left is transfixed in a predictable politics of rhetoric with little capacity for action. This is part of what makes the radical Islamist opposition so compelling.