Egypt faces the naked truth

A nude blogger's protest highlights the challenges that face Egypt’s fledgling democracy.

Protesters in Tahrir Square 311 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh)
Protesters in Tahrir Square 311 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh)
A young Egyptian woman, Aliaa Magda Elmahdy, this week received what all bloggers and Internet self-publicists seek - national and international notoriety. She accomplished this feat by posting a naked picture of herself online, in an attempt to make a personal statement about free speech and sexual identity in modern Muslim societies.
What would be a notable, but not uncommon, act of protest on an American college campus has ripped across Egypt and the wider Islamic world with a fury and intensity that the 20-year-old former university student could not have envisioned. Both conservative religious groups and those parties staking out a more moderate and liberal middle ground have rapidly criticized her, turning her into a potent symbol for where Egypt is headed.
With Egypt going to the polls on Monday, Elmahdy has become an icon for political candidates and commentators. The outrage being voiced by the liberal campaigns, including the prominent April 6 Youth Movement, demonstrates how tenuous they perceive their electoral chances to be. As Islamist groups capitalize on the sense of scandal that has enveloped Elmahdy, moderate groups are struggling to prevent this photograph from dominating the news cycles and drowning out their campaign messages.
The image itself, in black and white, is suitably artistic enough to be removed from all but the most reflexive definitions of pornography. However, in Egypt, where most women wear the veil, the posting of this photograph has become the equivalent of tossing a Molotov cocktail of gender theory and feminist ideology at an unsuspecting crowd. Unlike many Western democracies, with traditions of individuals and minority groups pushing the boundaries of social and political conventions, Egypt and the Arab Spring countries remain societies in which dissent and protest are limited, fragile concepts.
Elmahdy’s attempt to subvert her country’s repressive culture may ultimately backfire. By claiming to be an atheist and living unmarried with her boyfriend, who has himself been convicted of unlawfully criticizing Islam, she risks being reduced to a simplistic caricature. If nervous Egyptian voters believe that so-called “freedom” will lead eventually towards an erosion of morality and decency, then they may tempted to back conservative Islamist candidates.
Some Egyptians have voiced their support for Elmahdy and, outside of her country, she has also received many massages of thanks and support. In Egypt’s erstwhile ally, Israel, a group of 40 female supporters have taken off their clothes for a group photograph, although it is worth noting that much of their immodesty was hidden behind a large banner!
As the Arab Spring protestors scramble to maintain some influence over the destiny of Egypt, some are concerned that the army, which stepped in after ousted Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak’s departure, has amassed too much power. Many Egyptians are now emboldened to voice their anger in a way that only a handful did when Mubarak was driven from office in February. Elmahdy may be part of this wider sense of empowerment. However, the military leadership has been working diligently to solidify their influence, regardless of whatever political configuration emerges to draft the new constitution.
In response to these machinations, Tahrir Square, the symbolic heart of the Arab Spring protests, again filled last weekend with over 100,000 angry protesters. What followed were tear gas and rubber bullets and reports of more than 30 people dead. The military made clear that, despite Mubarak’s exit, the cornerstones of his regime - the repressive Emergency Laws and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces that enforces them - remain in place.
In response to the brutality, the interim-civilian government submitted their resignations to the Supreme Council, calling into question the continued legitimacy of the military rulers. The Supreme Council quickly met with members of the Egyptian Brotherhood and similar Islamist groups to hasten a transition to a new civilian government. Despite the violence, elections are still scheduled for Monday and the target date for a new presidential election is now June 2012.
Although the generals have promised to ultimately hand over power to a freely-elected government, it remains unclear whether such a peaceful transition of power is actually possible. To the extent that the Egyptian Brotherhood, the largest opposition party, is successful at the polls and benefits from generalized feelings of discontent and insecurity, the generals may make a case that their continued role in government is necessary to provide stability and balance.
Public opinion in Egypt is now a significant force that cannot be written off out of hand, but Egypt is a country that is undergoing painful and extensive convulsions. To hope naively for “change” as the solution for all problems is short-sighted and dangerous.
Even within the most mature and accomplished democracies, reaching a political consensus is difficult - as graphically evidenced in the US this week by the Super-Committee's failures to reach a deal in the face of a staggering budget deficit.
Egypt has taken its first steps down a long road of debates, negotiations and agreements that will continue for some time. Elmahdy’s personal act of spirited protest is simply one voice amid the din of millions of Egyptians seeking to be heard. The difficult task of building a meaningful consensus from these disparate and contradictory voices still remains ahead of them.

The writer is a commentator who divides his time between the United Kingdom and Southern California. He has appeared on CNN, CNBC, BBC and Sky News, and has been featured in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, the Financial Times and the Economist.