Ahram Online was kind enough to ask me to write a 2016 postcard to whomever I wished. I wrote this – which was four times the limit number of words. I guess I wanted to write a letter…
So here is the full version. An abridged version should be published soon on the Ahram Online website.
Happy new year, friends.
Dear little refugee girl,
I know you didn’t choose that. You were happy in your home, going to school in the morning, playing with your cousins in the afternoon. And then this war happened, and all the laughter disappeared, replaced with the sounds of explosions and of your father crying in his room. He tried to pretend he wasn’t, but you heard him, I know. You told me.
And one night, you had to leave your home. Your mama told you you were going to a nicer house, but you doubt it – since you’ve left, you’ve walked so many roads, your feet still hurt. You’ve crossed countries, sometimes on foot, sometimes on the back of a truck. You’ve had to sleep in small beds with all your family. Some nights you even slept in the forest, under the rain. Then one night, this horrible man, we call him the smuggler, put all of you with ten other families in a teeny tiny boat. He threw away your brother’s wheelchair, your mother’s insulin, and even your little pink backpack with your favourite doll. You wanted to cry but your mother squeezed your hand so hard to make you not. The bad man pointed a gun at your dad and made him pilot the boat across the water, as he jumped out of the boat and sent you into the dark sea.
The waves were so scary, weren’t they. And the water entering the boat made your clothes wet and cold. And all those people on the boat were shouting and crying. It seemed like this night would never end. And then you arrived to the other side, and that’s when I met you. You jumped from your boat into my arms, you crazy little one, even though we told you to wait! And you hugged me and I hugged you and you smiled. And I made funny noises and you laughed at me. And, after my friends helped you wear some dry clothes, we blew soap bubbles. And you knew you were safe. Your mama and daddy were smiling, too. For a brief moment I like to think you were happy.
I wish I could tell you it would all be fine from here on. But it probably won’t. Not for a while at least. You’ve got many roads to walk. You’ll share massive, smelly tents in refugee camps. Some angry uniformed men with guns will yell at you. You won’t know why they’re yelling. I don’t know either. I think it’s because you scare them. I know, I know, I think it’s silly too, that you would scare a big man with a gun. But grown-ups are silly. But there will be nice people too along the way. The world is like that. There are mean people and there are good people. It’s not a lesson you should have had to learn at such a young age, but you did. One of many such things you did along the way.
Things will get better. Eventually. Remember that. The absurdity of hope is what keeps us going. Be nice to your mama and daddy, because, like you, they miss their house and their bed and their friend and the view from their window. But more than all of this, they want you to be safe, and to have a future, even if it means that they might not have one.
I love you very much and I’m proud of you, you’ve been so brave. Hug your parents and your brother for me.
Your friend with the funny hat,
“Today is not the time for criticizing. Today is the time for cheerleading. Tomorrow, we criticize,” said my venture capitalist friend, responding to my skeptical comments after we attended the presentation for the Capital Cairo project the government wishes to build, at a cost of $45 billion. The desperate need for optimism took away their critical capacities, as many attendees at the Egypt Economic Development Conference left no room whatsoever for even a healthy skepticism. One speaker took the cheerleading very much to heart, shouting “Go Egypt!” repeatedly from the stage, his fist pumped, asking the audience to follow.
But after the conference excitement calmed down, sending everyone back to real life after three days in a secluded conference room by the Red Sea basking in the spring sun, taking a step back and evaluating the conference with a clear mind is in order.
It is difficult to define what success would be for an event that has had difficulties defining what it is. The conference could not settle on a name, and the “Egypt Economic Development Conference” (or EEDC) had a different name in Arabic: the “Egyptian Economy Support and Development Conference”. While the support element is certainly accurate—the conference was originally set to be a donor conference by “friends of Egypt,” and the opening ceremony was a series of speeches by foreign royal heirs, princes, and dignitaries pledging multi-billion-dollar donations and announcing their support for Egypt and its president—the rest of the conference was a government policy forum, where the state expanded on its macroeconomic and sectorial plans for the years ahead.
Although the news coverage focused on photo ops, signings of memoranda of understanding, and the rising tally of investment deals announced every day of the conference (though they had been negotiated days or weeks prior), these were secondary. People meeting in corridors argued about the minister of energy’s plan or the technical merits of the Suez Canal Zone project, networked, learned about each other’s work across sectors, and many attendees found this to be a key success of the conference.
At the end, numbers dominated the headlines. Investment Minister Ashraf Salman put the conference’s financial outcome at $38.2 billion in signed deals, in addition to $12.5 billion pledged by Gulf countries. The minister also floated the figure of $92 billion in memoranda of understanding for future deals. As President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi put the figure of funding needed to “rebuild the economy” at $200 to 300 billion a year, one may wonder if the triumphant euphoria was justified, or whether all would be better served if the conference was seen as the success that it was, without being sacralized as it was in the local media.
Ultimately, the EEDC should be perceived as an excellent kick-start to the Egyptian economy, without obfuscating the hard work that needs to follow, and with no pretenses that the international goodwill will be repeated every year, along with new editions of the EEDC. The yearly EEDC gathering—Sisi promised it would become an annual event—should gather the various parts of the investment ecosystem, lower the barriers between economic operators and the government, and shift the discussion to a real development conversation, involving all segments of society and, more importantly, relying on local resources.
To offer a more detailed assessment of the conference’s successes, below is a scorecard for what went well and what did not at the EEDC.
1. Offer a vision and sustain optimism
The president’s opening speech, which outlined the government’s economic strategy and its sustainable development strategy 2030, had a single message: “We have a vision.” This vision was summarized, in one document distributed at the conference, as:
The government is committed to continue supporting a market, comprehensive, diversified, knowledge-based, and private-sector led economy, characterized by a stable macroeconomic environment, sustainable inclusive growth, maximizing value-added, and generating adequate and productive job opportunities. By 2030, the Egyptian economy will be an active player in the world economy, capable of adjusting to international developments and well positioned to join the ranks of the world’s medium-income countries.
But aside from the statement, the document (and Sisi’s speech) included a novelty: actual targets and key performance indicators. For most of the audience, this was a refreshing change. Coupled with the message that this government is here to stay, many economic actors felt confident that this was a government with an action-oriented plan, with difficult but achievable targets if the proper conditions are met. This plan was summarized in a “five-year macroeconomic framework and strategy”, published in English under the title “Strat_EGY”. The strategy lists a plan for restoring macroeconomic stability and supporting growth, through fiscal consolidation, tax reform, public spending prioritization, managing the public debt, a deflationary monetary policy, an export promotion strategy, and other means. Interestingly, attendees were more impressed by the mere existence of this strategy than by its content (which is very reasonable in itself).
“The economy is a self-fulfilling prophecy,” one investor reminded me. “If we feel optimistic, we will put our money in, and the economy will engage in a virtuous cycle; conversely, if we feel down on the prospects of the economy, we will not, and the economy will suffer.”
As it stands, the EEDC has engaged investors on the first step toward an upward spiral. The onus on it remains to sustain this optimism. It takes more than a three-day conference to reboot an economy, but this was an excellent first step.
Score: A on creating a positive economic environment.
2. Build an investment ecosystem
A second and equally successful outcome of the conference has been the creation of an “investment ecosystem gathering” where policymakers and economic agents could meet, discuss, and learn about the work of other sectors. There was an obvious hunger for such dialogue, and hopefully this ecosystem will outlive the conference.
However, this investment ecosystem was limited to the larger economic players, chiefly the government’s economic authorities, large companies and investors, some banks, a few international companies operating in Egypt, and has excluded representatives of small and medium enterprises, most independent policy think-tanks, other financing institutions such as microfinance institutions, as well as actors in connected sectors, such as labor or education. Nevertheless, this was an excellent first step.
Score: B+, with hopes that this process will be sustained and widened in the future to include more economic actors.
3. Allow participation in policymaking
Egypt has been ruled by its executive for nearly two years, and more than 200 laws have been passed by the government without a minute of public debate. While this may seem appropriate to proponents of a strong government, it certainly is not for an aspiring democracy. Much of the legislation passed is expected to have an adverse effect on the poorest; the absence of dissenting opinions from the legislation process has meant that no sufficient social mitigation measures were put in place.
The government did rely on economic experts, from within and outside Egypt, to develop its economic strategy, perhaps a minor saving grace. The prime minister also claims the strategy involved the input of the private and the nonprofit sector, but a closed consultations process may be as good as moot if it does not involve a diversity of perspectives.
Score for participatory policy-making formulation: C+, the low score for lack of participation partially offset by the quality of the end product.
4. Do not overpromise and underdeliver
“In the private sector, we try to underpromise and overdeliver. This government seems to be doing the opposite,” one businessman told me, shaking his head as he heard of the severely curtailed deadlines that the president has made a habit of imposing on contractors and service providers. While absolutely understandable that the state would wish to unveil its projects in the shortest timeframes, it can be risky to make promises that would only be kept in the unlikely event of a flawless implementation.
Recent examples under this very government should serve as a reminder. In March 2014, for instance, the Egyptian army announced a partnership with UAE construction firm Arabtec, aiming at the construction of one million affordable housing units at a cost of $40 billion. The project stalled, however, and a little over a year later, the project is struggling to survive.
Even the highly touted “New Suez Canal” has encountered difficulties. The day after the conference, Mada Masr, an online newspaper, reported that the Suez Canal Authority took out $450 million in short-term loans from local banks. The Authority had to contract with two foreign dredging consortia after ambitious deadlines set by the government made it impossible to rely solely on Egyptian companies.
The government’s goals and reputation would be better served if it loosened the pressure and accounted for eventual delays or failures. Otherwise, it will only hurt its reputation, and squander the goodwill it has accumulated.
Score: C, based on past performance and repeated mistakes.
5. Heed the fine line between the inspiring and the unrealistic
Egypt’s plans for past national projects have alternately inspired its citizens (see the Aswan High Dam) and fallen flat (the Toshka project). The announced plans for a new capital city for Egypt (project title: The Capital Cairo) which would cost $45 billion USD and would be the size of 12 Manhattans (or the entirety of Singapore) squarely belongs in the latter category. At the very least, its feasibility, social value, adherence to budget, and return on investment are seriously dubious. The new capital’s business and government downtown area (not the entirety of the city, as is sometimes reported) is supposedly due to be completed within seven years. Other grand promises—such as plans to host the soccer World Cup in Egypt in 2028, as announced in one plenary session on the last day of the conference— also fall on the wrong side of the inspiring-unrealistic divide. These megaprojects bear some resemblance to the overpromising and underdelivering discussion above. The deadlines and promised benefits for some of the proposed projects are significantly more remote, perhaps even past the mandate of the leading government officials today, and almost certainly beyond the active memory of the population.
Score: D-. There is an infinitesimal chance those projects would pan out, but the projects rely on more unknowns than a Drake equation.
6. Pay proper attention to social justice
While speakers at the conference mentioned social inclusion—not the social justice that has been called for in revolutionary slogans of the past four years—the plan presented tended to be devoid of detail, making just vague, medium-term promises. The government’s macroeconomic strategy, and other official statements, did commit to “increased spending on health, education and Research and Development (up to at least 10% of GDP) as mandated by the constitution” (sic).
The conference did include a panel on social inclusion, which, as testimony to the topic’s importance, was held on the morning of the third day of the conference in parallel to four—yes, four—a workshops on various technical aspects of the Suez Canal Zone, arguably the only realistic megaproject in the government’s plans. Despite hosting such heavyweights as Aramex founder Fadi Ghandour who has for years championed bottom-up approaches to growth with the support of the private sector, or Oxford’s Paul Collier, one of the world’s most prominent development economists who specializes in post-conflict and transition economies, the session lasted a grand total of forty minutes, was dominated by a defensive minister of social solidarity, leaving the other panelists precious little time.
The government’s “Strat_EGY” included a paragraph on Egypt’s economic performance between 2004 and 2008, noting that growth in that period “did not alleviate rising social and political pressures primarily due to the lack of tailored programs to protect the people’s quality of life.” Nevertheless, the government’s current plan is headed precisely down the same path.
Score: A disappointing D for failing to consider the needs of the large segments of its population unrepresented in Sharm el-Sheikh, and forgetting that bread, freedom, and social justice do not merely comprise a slogan that can be swept under the rug, but are necessities and rights.
7. Continuing transparency with the business community and beyond
The main reason why so many Egyptian investors and economic agents were present in Sharm el-Sheikh was to hear from the government, and they were not disappointed. Ministers in charge of various portfolios were candid, giving detailed PowerPoint presentations to rooms too full to accommodate overflow audiences, taking unmoderated questions from the floor—a genuinely unfamiliar sight in Egypt. However, the density and importance of such information could not be absorbed on the spot and should not be confined to those participants. The government needs to make speeches, documents, and other materials from the conference available to the public.
While the level of transparency we saw in Sharm el-Sheikh will be difficult to replicate, various ministries must begin publishing more information about their work and exposing themselves to inquiries from the public. A good start would be for the documents distributed and presentations used during the EEDC to be made public. So far, only a few documents can be found on the conference website.
Score: B+. I am staying positive about this.
8. The quality of organization
The level of organization was really near world-class. While a number of inexcusable faux pas occurred—accredited media were not allowed inside the conference hall for a day and a half, nor were they offered meals—denting the perfect score that the organizers were going for, the quality of speakers made up for it. The organizers succeeded in gathering a veritable who’s who of the Egyptian business community, along with some quality guests from overseas. The government had also heavily invested in the use of multimedia—the infographics, video presentations and animations were surprisingly good—and this helped it pass along its message seamlessly.
Score: B+, on account of a few organizational errors as well as the unavailability of large parts of the material in Arabic.
Originally published by the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy (TIMEP).
Egypt’s Economic Development Conference (EEDC), launches this weekend in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. Its stakes, in Egypt at least, seem to be getting higher by the minute. The conference has become an event of national interest, and expectations rising as the public and media discourse has been touting the conference, in no ambiguous words, as the make-or-break event of Egypt’s recovery.
A poll conducted by a private polling institution claims that 84% of Egyptians have heard about the conference, a staggering figure in a country with an official adult illiteracy rate of one in four (and some put the figure twice that high). It is important to recognize though that the campaign runs intensely through all media. Print and television run countdowns to the conference. Newspapers offer “exclusive” headlines with leaked agendas, lists of projects, or names of participants to the conference—this national state of infatuation with what is really a specialized conference has never been seen before.
But this infatuation with the EEDC seems increasingly disconnected from reality and may run the risk to simply disappoint, even if it is deemed successful by any reasonable standards.
To put the EEDC in better context, it is important to remember the genesis of this event. In June 2014, late King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia called for a donor conference to aid Egypt, saying that friends of Egypt should pledge financial support to the country. The goal was unequivocal: Egypt’s battered economy, like any country in a post-crisis situation, required urgent financial support to keep its economy afloat, its deficit in check, its currency from tumbling and the government from defaulting on its international engagements.
But the Egyptian state, more acquainted with hostingdonor conferences than being the subject of one, chose to present the event differently, and put Egypt in the driver’s seat rather than merely along for the ride. Buoyed by positive economic results in the short term—most notably a growth rate of more than 5% in the second half of 2014—the donors meeting thus became an investment conference, then a development one, and the key public message skillfully morphed from a fundraising drive into “Egypt the Future,” as goes the conference’s shorthand slogan, and so very much to the government’s credit.
The risk, however, is that this glitzy presentation might obfuscate the realities of the economy, as well as make implicit promises about the conference that are simply not in the government’s hands to keep. While the public may fall for the charm and well-designed YouTube advertisements for the conference, investors are well aware of Egypt’s current challenges and its hardly stable economy.
Politically, as long as the government fails to take steps toward long-term resolution of the existing political stalemate, the low-intensity conflict is expected to remain, as exemplified by the regular bombings occurring nearly daily in the capital and increasing in the run-up to the conference. Economically, while the fundamentals are improving on the short term, improvements are slow – and most observers keep their optimism in check. This is reflected in Egypt’s international credit, which had seen a slight improvement in 2014 but with ratings agencies remaining cautious about the medium and long term. Only last month, Standard & Poor’s reviewed and maintained its rating for Egyptat B- with a stable outlook, hailing the government’s fiscal reforms but recognizing high public spending, which would limit the government’s ability to rein in the public deficit—and the deficit would have been worse if it had not been for the influx of foreign assistance.
In the end, official development assistance packages and budget support will be announced; investment deals, some of which will be worth billions of dollars and likely agreed ahead of the conference, will be launched with great fanfare; several of the key investors, including state-owned enterprises of allied countries, hailed and their governments as true friends of Egypt and visionaries making the right bet. The sectors that will emerge with financing will overwhelmingly be those in the sectors that have systematically attracted investment in post-crisis countries: oil and gas, real estate, hard and soft infrastructure, and telecoms. Investments in industry and productive sectors are traditionally dwarfed in comparison, and this conference will likely be no different, perhaps to the disappointment of many of the hopeful Egyptian business owners and entrepreneurs earnestly taking part in the conference and seeking investment.
And while the government should be content with those pledges, it remains to be seen whether they are deemed satisfactory by the larger public and commensurate with their immense expectations. As donor pledges help replenish the State’s coffers and buoy the megaprojects that have become a key component of its economic policy, whether Egyptians’ development aspirations are met will be a longer-term affair, be it as a result of the conference’s investments and job creation, or as the fallout of the multitude ofinvestment-friendly reforms passed ahead of the conference. The government would do well to temper expectations; declarations, such as Minister of Investment Ashraf Salman’s earlier this month that the conference “would form the backbone” of the state’s growth policy in the upcoming period do the opposite. The government should also adopt and maintain a policy of full transparency, and be clear that while the conference could represent an important stepping-stone to regaining investor confidence, the road to prosperity is still long.
Originally published by the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy (TIMEP).
Originally Published in Foreign Policy Magazine – Transitions.
Originally published on Foreign Policy Magazine: Transitions.
When a government attempts to quell dissent on the street, when distributing leafletson the street advocating a perfectly legal political position is met with arrest and jail sentences, when democratic protests are being met with police and mob violence, there is only one place where the political debate will be able to move: back online.
And the state does not like it one bit.
To understand the situation we currently stand in, some background is necessary.
Following the removal of former president Hosni Mubarak in 2011 by the power of protests, Egypt witnessed an explosion in the number of social media users. Twitter, once the privileged domain of techies, activists, and journalists became a primary discussion forum for all. Following activist movements, political parties and government agencies, including the army, started Facebook pages and began publishing their communiqués there before anywhere else. As dissent and protest movement endured on the street throughout 2011 and into 2012, the online realm was an extension of real life debates: there was no dichotomy between what happened online and away-from-keyboard, an important distinction to notice.
After a year and a half of direct military rule, June 2012 brought about the election of a civilian yet sectarian president, Mohamed Morsi. On the first anniversary of his rule, on June 30th 2013, massive protests demanding his resignation and early elections gave the minister of defense, Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, an excuse to stage a coup and remove Morsi on July 3rd. Al-Sisi has been the effective ruler ever since, despite the appointment of a nominal interim president.
Throughout all three post-revolution phases—military, then Islamic, then military rule again—the government has attempted to police or at least monitor cyberspace, with a hostility that seemed to have increased with time. In doing so, it has deployed all arrows in its quiver—police, army, prosecution, courts, media—in a feeble attempt to extend its online reach. In so doing, the state has adopted a multi-pronged tactic that we can analyze and break down.
1. Legal persecution
Prominent bloggers have been attacked and arrested for alleged crimes committed online—though these are but flimsy excuses. Alaa Abdel Fattah, for instance, was arrested in March 2013 on charges of “provoking violence”, with the evidence submitted being tweets from a pseudonymous user mentioning Abdel Fattah. He was acquitted, only to be arrested again in November 2013 on charges of organizing a protest on Twitter. He was arrested for nearly four months before being released on bail in March 2014. Though perhaps the most prominent, he is far from being the only one. To mention but a few of the most recent examples, blogger Ahmed Anwar found himself the target of a lawsuit over a YouTube video mocking the police – the prosecutor general, a man with little understanding of both humor and free speech, charged Anwar with “Insulting the Ministry of Interior”, “Abusing the internet”, and “harassment”. Sentenced to three months in jail, Anwar was able to commute his sentence after paying 10,000 EGP (1,500 USD). On February 15 2014, police arrested the administrator of a Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Facebook page, charging him with “spreading false news, inciting violence against security forces” as well as “spreading personal information of security officers”. During the same week, a Cairo University junior staff was suspended from his work on accusations of “insulting the university teaching staff” on his personal Facebook page.
This does not apply only to political dissent, but religious freedom and freedom of expression as well. Atheist blogger Alber Saber found himself guilty of “contempt of religion” for opinions expressed online, and sentenced to three years in prison in December 2012. Nearly lynched by an angry mob and facing prison, Saber left the country. And just last March, a senior police officer announced the formation of aspecial police taskforce to track down the members of an online atheist discussion group.
The modus operandi is simple: extend the reach of draconian laws (themselves of dubious constitutionality) to the online realm, and utilize politicized courts to crackdown on internet activists.
2. Online surveillance and hacking
The Mubarak government had contracted various international surveillance companies to access private data on activists and online dissenters. Egypt used FinFisher to monitor social media activity and VoIP communications, as well as software supplied by the UK’s Gamma to eavesdrop on Skype calls and by American company Narus to monitor emails, text messages, chats. And this practice did not end with Mubarak. In February 2014, researchers from the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab identified the current Egyptian government (and quite possibly the previous) as a client of a new computer spyware, called “Remote Control System” (RCS). RCS, produced by Milan-based company “Hacking Team”, is sold exclusively to governments as a “the hacking suite for governmental interception” that can capture data on the target’s computer, without it being sent over the internet; monitor encrypted internet communications, record Skype calls, emails, IMs, and passwords typed into a browser; and remotely turn on a device’s webcam and microphone.
3. Online Censorship
On January 28th 2011, a very nervous Mubarak decided to pull the plug on the internet, hoping that this would discourage protests and prevent activists from organizing; as we now know this plan failed miserably, but it also attracted massiveinternational attention to Egypt. Successive governments have since been very weary of outright censorship; but in some instances, their sentiment of panic overtakes good judgment and the government decides to block access to particular websites.
The latest instance of this occurred on March 29th 2014, days after Marshall Al-Sisi announced his intention to run for president; many independent activists, as well as Muslim Brotherhood supporters and other detractors of Al-Sisi took to Twitter, then subsequently to Facebook, with an insulting hashtag in Arabic that read “vote for the pimp”. Statistics on the use of the hashtag were widely shared by its supporters as proof of the generalized dislike of Al-Sisi, which prompted the authorities to block access to Twitter analytics website Keyhole.
Attempts to censor online speech have also, at times, been the work of proxy groups to the security apparatus rather than direct government intervention. Those “electronic committees”, coordinated groups of users, have been regularly deployed to spread pre-written positions (copied down to the last typo, in a beautiful testimony of collective idiocy) on discussion fora and Facebook pages, or to derail conversations by posting inflammatory comments. In several documented instances, for example, supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood would conduct coordinated “reporting” campaigns to flag opposing Facebook pages and have them suspended, on supposed violations of terms of conducts.
In the face of this onslaught on the internet, what is the future of online dissent? Well, it’s still very bright. Egyptians are rapidly taking control of their cyberspace despite the pressures, and have been mounting successful campaigns, ranging from politics towomen’s rights. In the face of censorship, they have proven to be quick to adoptcircumvention tools—and more importantly, sharing the love. And perhaps most importantly, the rapid democratization of internet access and its increased use by people from all walks of life and across age categories as a discussion forum will make it increasingly difficult for any government to threaten internet use. And this is perhaps the most interesting development of social media over the past years: Egypt has reached a critical mass whereby numbers are strength.
Of course the battle is an uphill one, with the imbalance of resources between governments and activists; but neither is it settled. Far from it.
Originally published on Swedish Pen’s “The Dissident Blog”.
On April 29, analyst, writer, and an essential voice covering Egypt since the 2011 uprising, Bassem Sabry, passed away. He was 31. His death has seen an outpouring of condolences and remembrances on Twitter. A regular contributor to Al Monitor, as well as being published in The Atlantic, Foreign Policy, Al Masry Al Youm, and more, he was a prolific writer, whose work at once gave invaluable insight into the ongoing Egyptian crisis, and was proof of his love for his country. Below is a eulogy written by his friend and colleague, Mohamed El Dahshan.
I’d like this to be played in my funeral, hopefully after a happy long life. A sublime piece of music http://t.co/7vDZ46QfOd
— Bassem Sabry باسم (@Bassem_Sabry) April 5, 2014
Hit the link above. The music will go well with the text, I think.
Here’s is what I have to tell you about Bassem Sabry:
Bassem was a fundamentally, deeply honest man.
This is perhaps not the first epithet used to describe someone in a eulogy; perhaps it will seem to you as a let-down, if you were expecting flowery superlatives and complex adverbs. And I will use those adverbs and superlatives, too, for Bassem was truly all of them. But all those who read him, whether on his blog or in the local and international press he regularly contributed to, can tell you that he’s an extremely astute writer, a gifted analyst, an indefatigable storyteller, and even through the darkness, optimistic to a fault. He was also an excellent bilingual chronicler of the Egyptian revolution, regularly keeping the world informed. Those who knew him personally – and perhaps those who followed him on twitter for he was consistent online and away-from-keyboard – will add that he was ridiculously kind; he was a hopeless romantic; and an ever-reliable friend. He also had a predilection for self-deprecating humour, and a maintained a running joke about actually being Batman (since, as he rightfully pointed out, him and Batman had never been seen in the same place together).
But few will tell you that he was, too, extremely truthful to himself and others. His fundamentals never changed. He abhorred labels, and as such never advertised his political affiliations. He demanded rights for all a decade ago, as he did yesterday. He stood for the oppressed, never condoned injustice, and never censored himself for an unpopular position. He was always able to reach out, even to those who seemed the most distant.
I’ve known him for 13, 14 years – with a few years of lost contact in between – and I am struggling to remember him an iota different from what he is today. Besides gaining a few kilograms and experimenting with facial hair, he has remained the naturally charming and effortlessly cool guy he always was. Cool not as in trendy – though he was quite the dresser – but cool as in, chill. Or at least that was his façade. He was difficult to faze, and he never let anger get the best of his reasoning, a rare skills in today’s angry, over-caffeinated, over-nicotined Egypt. (And Bassem ran on coffee.) Inside though, he was a boiling mass, and mess, of emotions. He was deeply humanly fallible, and analytically mentally very strong at the same time.
He was also disarmingly sincere. Perhaps never so much as in an article he wrote and published when he turned 30, which was less than two years ago. He posted an English translation , too, which reads like his manifesto for life. It is what I extracted those blockquotes in the article from. Perhaps the best description I can offer you of him, is that he consistently stood by his own words.
And he was a terrible politician – he was too principled for the job. In his tenure as head of the Political Planning Committee of Al-Dostour party, a glistening position he was always extremely low-key about, he attempted to do his work as best as possible amidst of political machinations and personal politics; as his methodical approach to his job – which involved, well, actual planning and consultations – seemed to be inconsistent with the egos at the top, he chose to bow out from his leadership position.
But he had an incredible facility to move across society and circles. Co-owning a film production company with his siblings (another fact he never advertised), he was equally at ease – and more importantly, equally happy I think – on a film set overseeing a Bollywood-style choreography, as he was brainstorming in a smoky living room with some of the country’s most respected political free-thinkers. More importantly though, he always brought something new to the table. A fresh idea. A different perspective. An astute critique. His added-value was unmistakable, whether you asked him for his thoughts about the upcoming elections , a romantic conundrum, or which car you wanted to buy. (I’ve had all those conversations with him, actually.)
In the few hours since Bassem’s passing, I have spoken to numerous friends on four continents. We all cried on the phone, and hung up. The number of people who loved Bassem – whose name, incidentally, means “Smiling” – is surprising. Well, hardly surprising given the person he is, but the deluge of love and the outpour of grief is unlike anything I’ve seen. Friends of his have driven to his house and are just standing there, in the dark of the night, as I type. The Egyptian social media sphere is, literally and across linguistic boundaries, a collective Bassem memorial, or a giant therapy group. Much has been written about the dynamics of grief and the internet, but it always was from an individual perspective, or a collective experience within groups sharing links. What we’re witnessing is deep sadness, like that you would experience at the death of a cousin of a close school friend, but at the scale of a celebrity passing. Those conversations are the online equivalent of hugging strangers at a loved one’s funeral. And many, many have comforted one another tonight.
Beyond mourning a dear friend who left far too soon, I also grieve losing what could have been. Many will say that Bassem could have had a brilliant political career – perhaps so. But he undoubtedly had so much to give. I am sad for a country that he loved deeply, for a future that needed him, and for all those who will never get the chance to meet him. The loss is personal and collective. And it’s infinitely difficult to process.
Do one act of kindness today. And also: send a random nice message to someone, brighten up her or his day.
— Bassem Sabry باسم (@Bassem_Sabry) April 5, 2014
I think I’ll do just that. Here’s my random message to you all, and it’s a prayer: may you be as as kind, as smart, and as loved, as Bassem Sabry. There’s nothing better.
Farewell, Batman. The world is a darker place tonight.
Originally published by the Atlantic Council’s Egypt Source.