The Revolution stripped bare

By taking off her clothes, did a young Cairo blogger prove that the Egyptian revolution was also nak

About a month ago Alia Magda Elmahdy, a 20 year old student from Cairo, posted a photo of herself online. In the full-length black and white image she appears naked apart from a pair of stockings. Her shoes and a bow in her hair are highlighted in red. In the context of the internet, a medium notoriously replete with naked female flesh, there's nothing especially remarkable about the image, even allowing for her nationality. But Elmahdy chose to display her body as an avowedly political gesture. She has described her action as a protest against sexism in Egyptian society and a demand for artistic and sexual freedom. Here's what she wrote on the blog:

Put on trial the artists' models who posed nude for art schools until the early 70s, 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 hangups before you direct your humiliation and chauvinism and dare to try to deny me my freedom of expression.

According to the New York Times, "it is hard to overstate the shock at an Egyptian woman's posting nude photographs of herself on the Internet in a conservative religious country where a vast majority of Muslim women are veiled and even men seldom bare their knees in public."

That may be an exaggeration. But certainly everything about Aliaa Magda Elmahdy seems calculated to annoy Egypt's increasingly powerful Islamists -- and embarrass moderate secularists. Not only is she unafraid to break taboos by posing naked, she describes herself as an atheist and lives openly with a boyfriend who himself was imprisoned for writing things critical of both Islam and the former president, Hosni Mubarak. In an interview with CNN this weekend she defended gay rights, spoke openly about her sex life and called for a "social revolution", declaring that "women under Islam will always be objects to use at home."

If provocation was her aim then she has succeeded, though at considerable personal cost. Her blog post -- which also displays several other images, including a full-frontal shot of a naked man -- has received well over three million hits. While many comments have been supportive, others accused her of confusing freedom with "degradation and prostitution". A group of Islamic law graduates have launched a legal action against Elmahdy and her boyfriend, accusing the pair of "violating morals, inciting indecency and insulting Islam."

She hasn't had much support from liberals, either, many of whom fear that actions like hers play into the hands of Islamist social conservatives who favour the imposition of Saudi-style restrictions on women in the country. A spokesman for the April 6 Youth Movement denied reports that she a member by asserting that "We are conservative youths, and we always encourage our members to be role models as far as ethics are concerned . . . How can we have accepted the membership of a girl who behaves like this?"

"Where is the democracy and liberalism they preach to the world?" was Elmahdy's response to that remark. "They only feed what the public wants to hear for their political ambitions."

By exposing herself, Aliaa Elmahy may also have exposed the shortcomings of a political revolution that is certainly unfinished and may turn out to be stillborn. In the CNN interview she described sexism in Egypt as "unreal" and suggested that many women wore the veil "just to escape the harassment and be able to walk the streets." There's little evidence that events since January have improved that situation. The alliance of convenience between secular liberals and Islamists seen in both Egypt and Tunisia has temporarily masked deeper tensions about the nature of society. And it is on the bodies of women that these debates so often seem to play out.

Her gesture also poses a challenge to Western liberals. Her very existence as a young, sexually-active, atheist feminist questions widely-held assumptions about the fundamentally conservative nature of Islamic societies. Perhaps, for that very reason, she is likely to provoke more embarrassed shuffling of feet than open support. And some may consider her methods questionable, not merely because she thereby puts herself in danger.

For there's something curiously old-fashioned about Elmahy's action. It seems like a harking back to that brief moment (approximately between the Lady Chatterley and the Oz trials in the UK) when sexual liberation and nudity were part and parcel of revolutionary politics. We've moved on from that. Today, displays of naked (especially female) flesh no longer look politically radical. Instead they tend to be deplored on the Left as sexualising and objectifying, symptoms on the one hand of crass commercialism and, on the other, as merely the exploitation of vulnerable women for male delectation. It's a view that (for different reasons) our own religious conservatives are happy to endorse.

Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
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What's happened to the German left?

For a fourth successive election, the left seems to be failing to challenge the status quo.

When Germany goes to the polls this weekend, Angela Merkel is expected to win a fourth term in office. Merkel has maintained her commanding lead in the polls on 37 per cent, while her closest competitor, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) has been relegated to, at best, a possible coalition partner. 

The expectation that the status quo will continue has left commentators and politicians of all stripes asking: what has happened to the German left?

Lagging behind in the polls, with just 20 per cent of the country's voting intention, Martin Schulz’s SPD has slumped to its lowest level this year only days before the vote, according to the latest poll by Infratest dimap for ARD television.  

Even the prospect of a left-wing alternative to a Merkel-led coalition appears to have become unpalatable to the electorate. An alliance between the SPD, die Grünen (the Greens) and the socialist party die Linke (the Left) would not reach the threshold needed to form a government.

One explanation for the German left's lack of impact is the success Merkel has had in stifling her opposition by moving closer to the centre ground. Over the last four years, she has ruled a grand coalition known as GroKo (Große Koalition) with the centre-left SPD, leaving many of its voters believing their party was no longer any different to the chancellor's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

Rolf Henning, 34, has been a member of the SPD since 2004. Campaigning in Pankow, a diverse area of eastern Berlin which has traditionally voted on the left, he told the New Statesman that although the coalition had enabled the SPD to push its social agenda, the party did not receive any credit for it.  

“It is now hard to motivate people to vote for the SPD because people think it will not make any difference. If we were to enter a coalition again with Merkel and the CDU then our support base will drain even further,” he said.  

Another grand coalition between the CDU and the SPD is very much on the cards, as Merkel is unlikely to win an outright majority. But while the arrangement has seemingly worked out well for the chancellor, its benefits for the SPD seem rather less certain.

“The political strength of the left is an illusion," says Gero Neugebauer, a political analyst and a former senior researcher at the Freie Universität Berlin, "The SPD did a good job in the coalition to push issues of social policy and family policies, but Ms Merkel took the credit for a lot of it. People saw the car and the chauffer rather than paying attention to the engine."

In 2015, under pressure from the SPD, the Merkel administration introduced a minimum wage in Germany, a benchmark for many in the party which yet did little to gloss over the SPD’s image. On the contrary, Merkel’s election campaign sought to win over disillusioned SPD voters.

According to Neugebauer, the left-wing parties have failed to work together to form a real alternative coalition to the Merkel administration. He warns that Germany’s left-wing camp has become “an illusion” with “virtual power”.

For a short-lived moment the election of Martin Schulz, the former president of the EU Parliament, to head the SPD, brought hope to the idea of a left-wing coalition. 

Stefan Liebich, a member of parliament for die Linke representing the Pankow district, says the SPD initially rose in the polls because people thought there could be an alternative coalition to Merkel. "But then the SPD made a lot of mistakes and they were wrongly told they would lose support if they worked with us," he adds.

"Now nobody believes a left-wing coalition could ever happen because the SPD is so low in the polls.” 

Before Schulz took over the SPD, few believed that after four years in the coalition government the party had a good chance in the upcoming election. “But Schulz arrived and said ‘I will be chancellor’ and it was like a phoenix rising from the ashes,” says Neugebauer.

Schulz revived the social-democratic tradition and spoke about social justice, but the delay of his election programme left many wondering whether he would be able to walk the walk – and his popularity started to fall.

“Compared to Merkel, he became less credible and less trustworthy,” says Neugebauer.  

The SPD are, of course, not the only left-wing party running. Back in Pankow, Caroline, a lawyer and a long-time SPD voter said she was considering voting for the more left-wing die Linke because she did not want to give her ballot to Schulz.

“There is something about him, he is not straightforward and he is too much like the CDU," she continues. "As the head of the EU Parliament, Schulz was good but I don’t think he has what it takes to tackle issues in Germany."

For Ulrike Queissner, also a Pankow resident, the SPD’s lurch to the centre convinced her to vote for die Linke: “The SPD has become mainstream and part of the establishment. It has become too close to the CDU and has no strong position anymore.”

Stable at about 8 per cent in the polls, die Linke is still trailing the extreme-right Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD), which is anticipated to win between 8 and 11 per cent of votes. This means it would enter the German parliament, the Bundestag, for the first time, becoming its third biggest party.

At the core of die Linke’s manifesto is the redistribution of wealth, a peaceful foreign policy and measures to stamp out the remaining social rift between east and west Germany.  

The party strives to challenge Merkel’s feel-good slogans by putting the spotlight on the discrepancies between rich and poor, and east and west.

 “When we look around to Portugal, Spain, Italy, and maybe even to the UK, we seem happy," says Liebich. "We don’t have an exit [from the EU] debate or a high unemployment rate. And yet, there is a part of Germany that sees that things are not going so well."

And for some of die Linke’s eastern electorate, immigration is at the top of the list of grievances, putting pressure on a party which has always defended an open door-policy – something Liebich acknowledges.

“In Berlin a majority of voters say they are open to people who need help, but in the eastern states, where we have a high unemployment rate and a lot of people who are not used to living with people of other cultures, there is a lot of anger."

That will add to concerns that large numbers of silent AfD supporters could create a surprise in the traditionally left-wing area of east Germany, where the far-right party is capitalising on the anti-immigration sentiment. The left seems to be squeezed between Merkel’s move to the centre ground and the AfD’s growing populist threat.

For Neugebauer the prospect of AfD members in parliament should force left-wing parties to sharpen their political lines, and form a consensus bloc against the rising extreme-right. The silver lining lies in the hope that all three left-wing parties – die Linke, die Grünen and die SPD – find themselves together in the opposition.

“Then, there would be an opportunity to start a conversation about what the parties have in common and start working together," he says. "It would be a chance for the German left to find itself again and create a vision for co-operation.” 

And yet, commentators still anticipate that at least some part of the left will end up working with Merkel, either through a grand coalition with the SPD or a three-way “Jamaica coalition”, with the pro-business FDP and the Greens. For the German left the time for cooperation, and a shot at taking charge of Germany's future, may still be some years away.