Last week in Egypt in TV

This is a sporadic column by Arabist contributor Nour Youssef. 

Lately, a rekindled hate for repetition has prevented me from watching television and not fighting with taxi drivers. Little has changed in the media scene since July 3. The West, led by the US, the Ottomans and the matchbox that is Qatar, is still intimidated by Egypt's potential for greatness and so it continues to plague it with corruption, poverty and injustice, giving the protesters it pays to paralyze traffic something to chant about. Only thing that has changed is that the narrative is no longer funny.

Even Tawfik Okasha is sick of repeating it. The owner of the Faraeen channel gave his viewers an ultimatum: if they don't join him on April 11 in al-Abbasiya Square to -- well, he hasn't really specified what, but he knows that if the population doesn't show up, the terrorists win, and he will quit the whole nationalism thing and punish them with BBC-like uncaring professionalism because it is not worth it anymore. It's worth noting that Okasha's good friend, lawyer Mortada Mansour -- the man who has cursed and slandered more people on air than Okasha himself -- is running for president.

It may come as a shock, but Okasha is not the only TV host in Egypt who is aware of the existence of professionalism and his deliberate failure to meet its standards. Others like Lamis el-Hadidi admit to it too, only passive-aggressively to silence critics. (After yelling on air at a former Egyptian colleague for “selling himself” and being a “traitor” for working for Jazeera, Hadidi grumbles sarcastically about those who would reign in her patriotic fervor by holding her to a journalistic code of ethics..) 

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Sisi vs. Sabbahi

Nasserist presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabbahi recently requested the chance to debate former defense minister Abdel Fattah El Sisi (whose propagandists have done quite a bit of Nasser-invoking themselves recently), prompting treasured local wit Sarah Carr to ask: "So will there be a public debate between Sisi and Sabahy. Will it just revolve around who loves Nasser harder?"

This sent contributor Paul Mutter down an imaginary wormhole from which -- courtesy this classic SNL sketch -- the following emerged: 

"I have a fever and only (more) Nasser can cure it."

"I have a fever and only (more) Nasser can cure it."

Excerpt: Zaid Al-Ali's "The Struggle for Iraq's Future"

Friend-of-the-blog and constitutional scholar Zaid Al-Ali (who has joined us on our podcast) shares an excerpt from his new book The Struggle for Iraq's Future: How Corruption, Incompetence and Sectarianism have Undermined Democracy. This may be of particular interest to Egypt-watchers and Arabist readers, as it discusses a bomb-detecting device based on the same fake science as the Egyptian army's recently unveiled Hepatitis C and AIDS cures. 

 In 2013, politics in Iraq reached a new low. Apart from the usual depressing failures in terms of services, corruption, security and the environment, a number of other developments finally revealed the full extent of the government’s incompetence.

For several years, the security services have used a small handheld device to detect explosives, known as the Advanced Detection Equipment (ADE) 651. These devices were purchased at a desperate time: car bombs had already claimed the lives of thousands of people, and there was an urgent need to improve security measures. Physical searches were effective but were far too time consuming and could cause traffic jams of epic proportions, bringing life to a grinding halt. 

ATSC Limited, a UK company that was founded by Jim McCormick, a former police officer with no previous experience in electronics, programming or engineering, claimed that the ADE 651 was ‘a revolutionary tool in the effective detection and location of Narcotics (drugs), Explosives, and specific substances at long- range distances’ and that it functioned according to a principle that the company referred to as ‘Electro- Magnetic Attraction’. The ADE 651 and similar devices had been used in other countries, including Afghanistan and Lebanon. The Iraqi government purchased an unknown (but large) number of the ADE 651 from ATSC for approximately US$85 million. It required so many government departments and institutions to use the device that there were not enough to go around. A market sprang up overnight, with government departments buying and selling the devices to each other at a profit. One department in the ministry of justice obtained one for $50,000 (even though each device cost just a few dollars to manufacture). The department’s staff was so terrified of losing or damaging it that they placed it in their building’s safe – out of harm’s way – and never put it to use. 

Even to the casual observer it is clear that the devices are useless. Yet for years they have been employed by security forces at checkpoints throughout the country and at the entrance to ministries and other institutions. The device consists of a small plastic handle with a horizontal antenna attached. When a vehicle approaches a checkpoint, the driver has to wait while a soldier holds the device so that the antenna is level horizontally. He then walks parallel to the car, bobbing from left to right. If, during the soldier’s dance, the antenna tilts towards the vehicle, the suggestion is that the car may contain explosives. 

Like anyone who has spent any time in Iraq outside the Green Zone, I have been through thousands of checkpoints where the ADE is employed. On occasion, during particularly long trips, I have been through more than a hundred checkpoints in a single day while travelling in the same car. Although the car’s contents were always the same (empty apart from passengers and some computers), the ADE would sometimes tilt towards the vehicle and sometimes not. There was no clear pattern; it was pure chance. Even when it did tilt, we were never searched anyway. The troops manning the checkpoint would always ask if we had any perfume with us. An answer in the affirmative guaranteed that we would be politely waved through with a smile.

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Kofta-Gate

At the end of last month, the Egyptian armed forces announced the “latest Egyptian scientific and research breakthrough for the sake of humanity.” They unveiled two devices, in fact. One (which resembles a staple gun with an antenna attached to it) they said can detect Hepatitis C and AIDS in patients, at a distance of up to 500 meters -- the rod jerks in the direction of an infected person. The other device can purify a patient’s blood of the diseases. The technology for both has something to do with electromagnetic waves. Scientists and journalists immediately called into question the science on which these devices are based. 

Egypt has quite low rates of AIDS but the highest incidence of Hepatitis C in the world (due to a botched bilharzia inoculation campaign in the 1980s, in which needles were not properly sterilized). The disease affects an estimated 15% of the population. There are hundreds of thousands of new cases every year. 

At the event announcing the invention -- with Minister of Defense General Abdel Fattah El Sisi and interim prime minister Adly Mansour sitting in the front row -- an army officer announced the country had “vanquished” the diseases and promised the new cure would be available in military hospitals starting June 30. In a 14-minute documentary broadcast on state TV, a doctor tells a patient: “You had AIDS, but now it’s gone.” 

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Book review: Baghdad Central

I recently finally found the time to read friend-of-the-blog and esteemed Arabic literature professor and translator Elliot Colla's debut novel, the occupation/detective story Baghdad Central

The novel features a former Iraqi policeman (and, it turns out, a former former intelligence services officer) named Muhsin el-Khafaji, whose is mistaken for a namesake, a high-ranking Baathist official, and taken in by the Americans and tortured. When they realize their mistake, they put him in charge of re-organizing the Iraqi police force. Meanwhile, he is investigating the disappearance of several young female Iraqi translators, one of whom is his niece. 

Khafaji is sympathetic, depressed, afflicted (he has lost a spouse and child) and guilty (that career in the intelligence services…) 

What makes Iraq a perfect setting for a noir is not just the deadly chaos there, but the extreme power imbalances.The genre requires the presence of a rich and oblivious upper-class, uncaring of the damage it leaves in its wake. In Raymond Chandler, they are ensconced in the Hollywood hills. In Colla's novel, they live in the Green Zone. Some of the best scenes in the book track the extraordinary disconnect between the Iraqi narrator -- whose daily decision are a matter of life and death -- and the Americans who blithely deliver lectures about the future of Iraq. At a typical pep talk, "Each time the interpreter comes to the work 'benchmark' he stumbles. At first he translates it as 'the sign of the bench,' then 'trace of the longseat,' then 'imprint of the worktable' and so on. Other words like 'synergy' and 'entrepreneurism' wreak even more havoc."  I actually wish Colla had mined his premise for more of its dark humor. 

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Portrait of an Iraqi Person

Last night I had the pleasure of hearing a lecture by Iraqi novelist and translator Sinan Antoon on his work translating the Iraqi poet Sangor Boulous, as part of the American University in Cairo’s ongoing In Translation series. Antoon, a professor at New York University who has translated Mahmoud Darwish, Saad Youssef and Boulous, talked about translation “as mourning.” He himself left Iraq in the early 90s and he shared poems by Boulous that engaged in the “mourning of individual and collective lives and of a lost homeland.” But he pointed out that Bolous resists easy nationalism and nostalgia even as he chronicles the staggering loss that Iraq has suffered. 

Here is Antoon's translation of "A Portrait of an Iraqi Person at the End of Time," originally published in Jadaliyya

I see him here, or there:

his eye wandering in the river of catastrophes

his nostrils rooted in the soil of massacres

his belly which grinded the wheat of madness

in Babylon’s mills

for ten thousand years

I see his portrait, which has lost its frame

in history’s repeated explosions

retrieving its features like a mirror

to surprise us every time

with its gratuitous ability to lavish

In his clear forehead you can see

as if on the pages of a book

a column of invaders passing through

just as in a black and white film:

give him any prison or graveyard!

give him any exile

any “here” or “there”

Despite that

we can see the catapults

pounding the walls

so that once again,

Uruk rises high

* Uruk: the ancient city of Sumer and then Babylonia, became an important cultural and political center. It is believed that the modern name of “Iraq” might have been derived from it.

* The poem was published in Boulus’ last collection, published posthumously: Azma ukhra li-kalb al-Qabilah (Another Bone for the Tribe’s Dog) (Beirut & Baghdad: Dar al-Jamal, 2008).

Here is Bolous himself reading, In Arabic, “I Came From There,” which Antoon said pays dues to “the dead who do not demand to be spoken for, but spoken to.” Here is the text side-by-side in Arabic and English.

Why Sisi hasn't announced yet

There has been a lot of speculation lately over what is holding up the seemingly impending announcement of Field Marshall Abdel Fattah El Sisi's presidential campaign. Commentators and analysts have been -- rather un-persuasively -- reading the tea leaves of the latest cabinet re-shuffle (which retained Sisi as Minister of Defense and Mohamed Ibrahim as the Minister of Interior while shedding most of the "liberal" ministers that had given the June 30th coalition some credibility) and of recent presidential decree making the minister of defense, rather than the president, head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. All that has been clear to me is that there is an awful lot of behind-the-scenes maneuvering and some trepidation before this big step. Thank goodness, though, Egyptian tabloid El Watan can reveal the real reasons behind the delay (the following is an abridged translation of the article): 

Intelligence sources have revealed to El Watan that Sisi will make the announcement around March 10-12, after the new law regulating presidential elections is issued. He will tell the public the reasons for his delay, which are: 1) the need to detect and foil plans by the Muslim Brotherhood, some Western countries, Turkey and Qatar, to commit terrorist attacks following Sisi's announcement 2) genuine fears that the Field Marshall will be personally targeted, after the detection of such plans on the part of the American intelligence services and those of some neighboring countries 3) putting the final touches on the international and regional alliance Sisi is shaping to face the American moves in the region, and which consists of Egypt, Russia, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, to face the Western alliance headed by America and including the United Kingdom, France, Turkey and Qatar. The sources revealed that Egypt is lobbying the Chinese dragon to join its alliance. 

On Being A Journalist in Egypt

I wrote something last weekend for the LRB blog, about journalism in Egypt these days.  We had to cut some passages, for length, that I'm adding back here on the blog. 

I stumbled into journalism twelve years ago, at the dingy and convivial offices of the Cairo Times, a now defunct independent English language weekly whose Egyptian and foreign interns and journalists have gone on to report across the Middle East. I’ve worked as a reporter in Cairo ever since – as an editor at other local independent publications and as a correspondent for foreign media – and I’ve never known a worse time for journalists in Egypt than the present.

The trial began yesterday of three al-Jazeera journalists. On 2 February, the private satellite channel Tahrir TV broadcast a video filmed by the Egyptian security services of their arrest. Set to the soundtrack of the movie Thor: The Dark World, the video pans past the frightened face of the Canadian-Egyptian journalist Mohamed Fahmy, and then over laptops, tripods and cameras in a room at the Marriot Hotel (the arrested men are known as the ‘Marriot Cell’ in the press here). To an ominous crescendo, it zooms in on cell phones, power cords, recording devices and notes on night stands. The off-camera policemen make Fahmy count out the $700 dollars in his wallet. Then they interrogate him and the Australian correspondent Peter Greste, badgering them for the names of colleagues and interviewees.

The al-Jazeera English crew was working in Egypt without official permits, after the authorities had shut down their offices. But the prosecutor filed much more serious charges against them: He claims they and 17 other journalists were part of a terrorist cell, intent on ruining Egypt’s image by broadcasting fabricated news. Al-Jazeera is reviled here, considered a mouthpiece of Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood (to whom the Arabic channel is, indeed, overly sympathetic). There are no al-Jazeera journalists left at liberty in Egypt, yet again and again someone in a crowds points and yells ‘Jazeera!’ at a reporter whose look or questions they don’t like, leading to a mass beating and citizen’s arrest. At the end of January, someone on an Egyptian TV crew posted cell phone footage to YouTube in which, as they attempt to approach clashes between protesters an police, an officer can be heard saying: ‘Get out of here. Get out of here or I’ll say you’re Jazeera.’

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The police and the people: one hand, for now

The police and the people: one hand, for now

One of the main reasons many Egyptians are nostalgic about the Hosni Mubarak era is the absence of security. Or rather the false sense of it.

"The Interior Ministry never provided general security, just political security (i.e. crushing dissent and bullying the Muslim Brothers)," says a former member of Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party, who spoke on condition of anonymity and confessed to never quite understanding what gave the public the wrong impression. It was this sense of security that was overturned by the events following January 25, driven, the former NDP official sniffed, by “emboldened thugs” and the collective realization that one can drive in any direction one pleases on almost every road after the 2011 uprising.

Now, three years after the January 25 outburst of public fury they partly caused – which consumed much of their dignity, stations and vehicles, breached their prisons and relieved them of  their weapons – Egypt’s Interior Ministry is still struggling to get back on its own two feet and restore some of that longed-for political security with excessive force and arbitrary arrests, as always disregarding the risk of galvanizing more opposition. A practice justified by pointing at the recent bomb attacks on police installations.

There is, however, something new about the general attitude towards security forces. After all, they went from having to withdraw from the streets after failing to quell protests against Mubarak in 2011 to receiving shoulder rides and kisses for handing out water to anti-Morsi protesters rather than spraying them with it in 2013. The change in police activity and popularity here – as videos and reports of continued police abuses suggest – is not the fruit of quick and radical police reforms, but rather the result of the popular reconciliation with them and the military in the wake of their overthrow of the unpopular but elected president Mohamed Morsi. This would not have been possible if it weren’t for the incredibly effective “[image] polishing [media] campaign,” according to a grateful police general, who also asked to remain anonymous because he is not authorized to speak to the press.

It was hard trying not to stare at the 15 bullet holes in the wall behind the general’s head, while he was talking about how life has improved for police officers after June 30.

He caught me looking and laughed.

“These things [he looked over his shoulder to wave off the plaster-oozing evidence of attacks on the police station] happen in the best of countries,” he said. What matters is that policemen can, once again, sport their white uniforms everywhere without fear of verbal or physical abuse and they can arrest people without need for reinforcements to overcome the families and neighbors of the arrested, who used to body-block their vans to help a loved one or an acquaintance in cuffs. This is progress, he announced contentedly.

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The life of a Muslim sister

The life of a Muslim sister

Nadia is a former Muslim Sister with a gummy smile. She has run out of reasons to show it after the dispersal of the Rabaa al-Adaweya sit-in, which took the lives of 63 of her friends and acquaintances and a part of her that she can only describe by grabbing the air, her head or her chest.

Although she often finds herself in a depressive trance – remembering the overly-friendly girl she befriended during the sit-in who gave her a necklace as she had requested a few days before the dispersal, and how Asmaa el-Beltagy had promised to tell her an exciting secret upon her return to Rabaa – Nadia tries and likes to think that she derives strength from the bloodshed. “The sound of gunshots doesn’t frighten me,” she said, more to herself. This enables her to join the regular student protesters clashes with security forces at Al Azhar University, something many of her friends and relatives can’t do. “They would freak out at the sound of fireworks or any loud noise... and drive around all of Nasr City just to avoid Rabaa,” she added, before admitting that she too has only been there twice since the dispersal and had failed not to sob in front of the Central Security Forces (CSF, the riot-control police) leaning against their black vans outside the mosque on both occasions. But, to be fair, one of the outbursts was aided by a CSF van that followed her home (which is right down the street), matching her pace and discussing her mother on the way, to the great amusement of onlookers.  

Although she frequently gets labelled a Muslim Sister (and suffers for it), Nadia was among those mostly young men and women who left/were kicked out of the Brotherhood shortly after the 2011 uprising for objecting to what they saw as the leadership's deafness to criticism, political opportunism and betrayal of revolutionary goals in alliance with the SCAF. 

That batch, she says, is now divided into two camps. The first camp, to which she belongs, that has seemingly and temporarily returned to the MB out of solidarity and sense of obligation. Others remain resolutely separate. Those who have returned are not always fully accepted and often face accusations of betrayal and abuse, especially if they voice any old or new criticism of the leadership’s actions and how they lead to the state the Brotherhood is currently in.

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When will The Square be shown in Egypt?

Jehane Noujaim's documentary The Square has been short-listed for the Oscar, is now available on Netflix, and recently won her an Directors' Guild Award. But it has still not been released or even screened at a festival here. 

There have been a number of recent reviews, which in one way or another have raised the question of the film's viewpoint and its portrayal of a deeply divided, deeply confusing reality. 

At the New Republic, Eric Trager argues that Egypt's protesters also "bear responsibility for the mess that followed." 

But one year later—and only 15 minutes after Morsi’s victory in the 100-minute film’s run-time—the activists are suddenly willing to accept the military’s return to power. Morsi’s dictatorial maneuvers and theocratic ambitions, combined with his use of Muslim Brotherhood thugs to torture and kill protesters, has incited a mass movement against him, and the film’s protagonists eagerly take to the streets. “Do you think the Army will act in the same way it did?” Ahmed asks rhetorically. He clearly doesn’t think so, because he is once again caught up in the enthusiasm of yet another mass protest, and thus convinced that “Now the power is in the hands of the people.” It’s as if the film’s first hour and ten minutes never happened. It’s as if the previous military regime hadn’t shot Ahmed in the head.

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The Arab world into the unknown

The Arab world into the unknown

Our friends Peter Harling and Sarah Birke contributed the following piece, a reflection on the state of the Arab world after a confounding 2013 that saw, for many, the dissipation of the enthusiasm of 2011. Harling is Senior MENA advisor at the International Crisis Group; Birke is a Middle East Correspondent for The Economist.

Two and a half years ago, Arab countries were abuzz with interesting conversations. Rich and poor, old and young, villager and urbanite, Islamist and secular all had their own take on the bewildering turmoil of the uprisings they were caught up in. They tended to be aware of the risks, hopeful that change was both inevitable and ultimately beneficial, and proud that the region could awaken and, after centuries of foreign interference, set its own agenda. Opinions were also invariably sophisticated, with people speaking profoundly about societies they thought they knew and had started to reassess. 

This was a refreshing change from the pre-2011 tune of impotence. The region at that point, as its inhabitants saw it, was hostage to ossified regimes, intractable conflicts, worn-out narratives, and crumbling economies – not to mention Western hypocrisy, and schizophrenia, about urging client regimes to reform. Sterile agitation on the regional or international front, notably around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, distracted from thorough stagnation in domestic politics. Commentary was a cyclical run through the latest episode of violence, round of sanctions, realignment of alliances, or half-hearted diplomatic ventures. Uninspiring solutions to lingering problems left citizens reluctant to choose, among players in this game, the lesser of evils. Standing up to the US (like firebrand Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) or surviving an Israeli assault (as Hezbollah did in 2006 and Hamas in 2009) could certainly make you popular beyond your traditional base, but not for long. 

Less than three years after popular protests streaked across the Arab world, conversations appear to have come full circle. Optimism that societies in the region could no longer be ignored and would bring about change has reverted to doom and gloom. Outside observers have jumped from one label to the next: Arab spring to Islamist autumn to reactionary winter. All-too often, local residents view protests as a conspiracy, a naïve illusion or an ill-fated hope at best. Many see a stark choice between a failing old order and hegemonic Islamist rule—or war, as in Syria. Opinions are generally crude, aggressively intolerant and more rigid than ever. Interlocutors sport surprisingly definite conclusions about their home-region, no matter how fluid and contradictory the current trends actually are. 

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Egyptian intellectuals, revolution, and the state

One of the most surprising and troubling developments of the last six months, for those of us interested in cultural as well as political life in Egypt, has been the alignment of the overwhelming majority of prominent artists and writers here with the military-backed authorities against the Brotherhood, with the endorsement of state violence and the abandonment of pluralism and human rights that that has entailed. A few recent pieces have focused on this troubled intersection between between art and politics, nationalism and liberalism. 

At Jadaliyya, Elliot Colla writes about Sonallah Ibrahim's novel al-Jalid ("The Ice") which came out January 25, 2011.

Like these other novels, al-Jalid is concerned with Left revolution—its defeats, its disappointments, its erasure—in Egypt and across the globe. And of all Ibrahim’s novels, al-Jalid is his saddest. Lacking the laughter of his other works, it offers little more than a laconic lament, a shrug, about the passing of so many revolutions. More than once, as characters walk through the Moscow winter, Shukri says, “And we walked across the ice…” The protagonist plods on silently, surrounded by “comrades” but also alone, the only sound being that of feet scuffling cautiously over cracking ice. The image is an apt one for describing the increasingly slippery and cold ground on which the Egyptian Left began to tread from 1970 onwards. With these unsure steps, al-Jalid ruminates on the failure of most every revolution the Egyptian Left ever believed in, and with that, it seems to mourn the passing of the possibility of revolution itself.

[…]

What does it mean to read Ibrahim’s latest novel as a satire in this sense? For one thing, it allows us to begin to recognize the author's deep skepticism toward the revolutionaries' proposition that another world is possible. Al-Jalid elaborates a form of Left pessimism, a Marxist, anti-imperialist critique of injustice and oppression, but without the utopian promise of justice or emancipation.

This is how Ibrahim, presumably, viewed things in the late Mubarak years. Recently, it is the great writer's lack of skepticism -- his belief that the Egyptian army is "standing up to the West" and to a US-Brotherhood conspiracy -- and his willingness to overlook, even condone, police brutality, that has shocked some of us

Meanwhile, on the New Yorker's site, Negar Azimi writes of Alaa Al Aswany's embrace of June 30 and describes a recent literary salon in Cairo:

When it finally came time for questions, a young man in a hoodie got up and, with prepared notes in hand, made a series of statements about the crimes of the Army, ending with the massacre that took place in Rabaa al-Adawiyah. At one point, he said to Aswany, “Ask yourself, do they have the right to kill innocent protestors?”

Aswany—probably thinking, “This again?”—seemed taken aback. “I didn’t kill anyone,” he said, defensively, “but anyone who kills a member of the Army is a traitor … The Muslim Brotherhood has blood on its hands.” He reiterated a point he had made earlier in the evening: even though many of Egypt’s Communists had spent years in Gamal Abdel Nasser’s prisons in the nineteen-fifties and sixties, their party never turned to violence. “They didn’t touch a mosquito,” Aswany concluded. The Brotherhood, he seemed to suggest, had violence in its DNA.

At that point, a well-dressed woman, with elaborately pomaded hair and a tight-fitting top, turned to her friend and said, loudly, of the boy in the hoodie and his female friends, who were veiled: “They are with the Brotherhood!”

One of the veiled women took issue, and soon, everyone seemed to be standing, pointing, and shouting. I saw a few elderly people in the room slip out, probably anticipating a fistfight.

Both Al Aswany -- a star public intellectual and writer of blockbusters -- and Ibrahim -- a revered experimental writer with great political and moral cachet -- exemplify the position of most of Egypt's muthaqafeen, who have gone from cheering the Janurary 25 revolution to cheering General Abdel Fattah El-Sisi. Their positions shows not only the deep animosity that (for some justifiable reasons) exists between the cultural class and Islamists; it also shows how most intellectuals here continue to see themselves as guardians and spokesmen for an idealized strong state which they may criticize and oppose but which they cannot imagine life without and which they will rally to if persuaded that it is under threat. A point that is well-made in a recent article in Le Monde Diplomatique, entitled "Fractures among Egyptian Writers," which begins: 

As repression grows in Egypt in the name of the "war on terrorism," eminent intellectual figures, nostalgic for Nasserism and often of the Left, have proclaimed their support for the army. This generation of elders is opposed by writers and artists who reject the return of the "deep state" and the betrayal of revolutionary ideals. 

 

 

Digging for antiquities in a basement in Egypt

Digging for antiquities in a basement in Egypt

Digging for antiquities is a millennial traditional in Egypt. And there may have been quite an uptick in illegal digging in the last few years, as scavengers took advantage of the political upheaval and chaos. Our contributor Nour Youssef joined a risky, amateur dig and sent us this dispatch

Blowing his last lungful of shisha smoke at the check he just paid, a smiling Bondok turned to inform his company that women will never be allowed pay for anything in his presence and that efforts to break that law are considered attempts on his manhood. The young Cairo University graduate from Nazlet el-Samman -- a neighborhood next door to the Giza pyramids -- issued this law the day he grew the imperceptible strip of hair on his upper lip and is proud to enforce it more zealously when the female is foreign “to give (her) a good impression about Egypt.” In order to honor this law and his dance career, Bondok trades in antiquities -- or rather digs them up for others to trade.

“There is nothing wrong with it,” Bondok reminded me again on our way to his workplace, that is the hole under his aunt's house. “Nothing at all. We asked three sheikhs, one of them was from Al-Azhar,” his friend, Hossam, another CU graduate, added enthusiastically. Although one of those sheikhs is a fellow dealer, whose only Islamic credential is spending the 12th grade in Saudi Arabia, and another asked for a cut of the profit after his fatwa; the young men believe trading in antiquities is halaal. “If you say otherwise, everyone [in Nazelt el-Samman] will laugh at you,” Bondok’s cousin, Youssef, warned me with his hand against his belly to simulate mock laughter.

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Syria: The unraveling

Here  are some articles to get a handle on the various Islamist militias now operating in Syria. Sarah Birke has an excellent piece in the New York Review of Books explaining the origins of el Nasra and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham. 

But ISIS’s real power comes from the fear it seeks and manages to inspire. The group has shown zero tolerance for political dissent. Many Syrians I met along the border mentioned with horror ISIS’s execution of two young boys in Aleppo due to alleged heresy. The kidnappings of local activists and journalists has deterred dissent while also whipping up anti-ISIS sentiment. The group has blown up Shiite shrines, but has also shown few qualms about Sunni civilians getting killed in the process. Beheadings have become common. Father Paolo dall’Oglio, an Italian Jesuit priest who has lived in Syria for thirty years, and who campaigns for inter-religious tolerance, is missing, abducted by ISIS during a visit to the city of Raqqa in late July. As with dozens of others who remain in captivity, ISIS has not demanded ransom or announced his execution; rather it appears to be holding hostages as an insurance against attacks.

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Messages from security services to Egyptian activists

Here, according to a post he recently shared on Facebook, are some of the things "messengers" from Egypt's security and intelligence services has said to activist and former parliamentarian Mostafa El Negar: 

“Dr. Mustafa, enough talk about human rights and torture and all that, let’s set the country right and enough of these delusions of democracy…

If you’re a patriot you need to shut up and let us do our job, and clean up the mess you made with your revolution…

You think because you’re famous and you were a deputy [in the people’s assembly], no one can touch you? If you keep on talking like this and don’t change your views, you’ll pay a high price…

Watch, you’ll be called a Brother and a supporter of terrorism -- raise your kids and take care of yourself and those around you…

That’s it, you’ve overstepped all the lines, you’re on the black list now, we warned you and you refused, bear what will happen to you and protect yourself from ‘honorable citizens’ when we till them you’re a traitor and an agent and we break you down completely and we make people hate you…

We won’t spare any of Baradei’s kids or the January 25 kids.”

 

May every new year find you free

An open letter from columnist Bilal Fadl to Alaa Abdel Fattah:

I would have liked to lie to you, to tell you that you’re getting a lot of support from the media, from the television channels which so recently made a theme of decrying the Muslim Brotherhood regime’s attempts to jail you, the channels that played and replayed “The Prisoners’ Laugh” — the poem Abnoudi dedicated to you when you were jailed after the Maspero massacre.

But your worst crime was that you would not stop reminding everyone that the police and the army had committed crimes, would not stop demanding that they be held accountable for their crimes as the Brotherhood leaders were being made to account for theirs. The bitter truth is that you are no longer remembered or mentioned now by many of the defenders of freedoms. You committed a serious crime when you were angered by the blood that flowed in the Rabea massacre, despite your differences with its owners. And another crime when you wouldn’t give a blank check to the oppressive authority — a renunciation of your right as a citizen to question and criticize and object.But your worst crime was that you would not stop reminding everyone that the police and the army had committed crimes, would not stop demanding that they be held accountable for their crimes as the Brotherhood leaders were being made to account for theirs.

Let's not forget other prominent activists who have already been handed jail sentences with whip-lash speed: April 6's Ahmad Maher, Ahmad Douma, Mohamed Adel and Mahienour El Masry, who is interviewed in the video below recounting the beginnings of her activism (she was just given a two-year jail sentence for demonstrating outside the Khaled Said trial). 


Egypt in TV

A semi-regular column from our contributor Nour Youssef, who watches a lot of TV. 

Placated by the official decree calling the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist group, talk show hosts finally got to stop pestering the government and move on to more pressing issues. Like the dispute that ensued in a classroom in Tanta. The conflict began, Wael el-Ibrashy tells us, when an MB teacher scandalized his students by resolutely mispronouncing the caption of the poster of General Abdel Fattah El-Sisi they had used to decorate a wall, even though it clearly read: “Sisi, Heart of a Lion.”(The Arabic word for ‘heart’ is dangerously close the word ‘dog’.) But the teacher denied insulting the army chief, faulting four students’ hearing for the controversy. 

Mahmoud Saad on Ennahar TV channel

Meanwhile in the adult world, Mahmoud Saad focused on how this “belated” label -- which gives the government the right to punish members of the MB, people who finance it and/or support it verbally or by writing; return security forces back to universities; ban members from traveling; search and close organizations related to the Brotherhood and sentence those who lead their protests to death and those who follow them to five years in prison -- was primarily issued to appease people. According to die-hard army supporter and regular Al-Qahera Al-Youm co-host, lawyer Khalid Abu Bakr, the move was made to counter the devastating effects of Prime Minister Hazem el-Beblawi’s tactless acknowledgment of the absence of a legal text defining what a terrorist group is on the public.  

Abu Bakr’s colleague, Amr Adeeb, took time to explain his Follow The Protest Theory to the "stupid organization" whose supporters wonder why his predictions are spot on. The trick is to wait until they protest in anti-MB neighborhoods and governorates like Dakahlia (where Mansoura is), Cairo, Giza, or Sharqiya, and then immediately assume they are going there to slip a bomb into a government building using the protest for cover. This theory is self-evident and undebatable -- provided you don’t wonder how one could sneak into a government building with reportedly sleepless people in it and place a bomb on a top floor during one the MB’s supposedly violent protests without getting caught; or why the directorate was deaf to Adeeb’s warnings (just like the Military Intelligence’s HQ in Sharqiya was a few days later before it, too, was attacked). You should also ignore the testimony of injured police recruits who said they didn’t search cars passing by that night, which is oddly lazy since far less important police buildings have been fortified and have the streets they are on blocked or closely monitored.  

Gaber el-Qarmouti on OnTV

Gaber el-Qarmouti claimed the attack was an inside job planned by MB elements in the ministry and facilitated by infuriating police incompetence; he started screaming “penetration!” at the camera. What annoyed el-Qarmouti more than police incompetence, however, was journalist Ahmed Hassan Shawky who went on Al Jazeera and unveiled a relatively new conspiracy theory, according to which el-Sisi was assassinated on Oct. 17 and the person displaying affection in sunglasses all this time is a look-alike -- driving el-Qarmouti mad with the desire to know if Shawky ever saw Egyptian sand. 

Out-pitching Qarmouti this week was Ahmed Moussa, who stood in front the partly ripped facade of the Mansoura directorate and asked God to curse the outside world and those who fear it, since they are undoubtedly and wholly responsible for all that is wrong.

Speaking of the outside world, el-Mehwar’s Reham el-Sahly has finally discovered who has been killing protesters for the past three years: foreign photographers. Turns out they have been literally shooting protests. Their cameras, el-Sahly found out, had guns inside of them. They also had GPS devices that fired nine millimeter bullets; guns that were so long they passed for walking sticks and could fire tear gas grenade; laser-pen guns (hence, the laser); and dope rings that shoot bullets “that can blow up an elephant,” according to Sahly’s guest, the political writer and researcher Amr Amar. He also took the opportunity of being on her show to vindicate the repentant traveler to Serbia and revolutionary Nagat Abdelrahman’s confession on el-Mehwar back in 2011 in which she dropped the“Freedam House gave every current revolutionary leader 50 USD to train people to burn shops” bombshell. That interview was widely cited as an ignominious example of staged propaganda -- but according to Amar it was all true. In case you're wondering why these random unnamed countries are conspiring with a privately-owned security services company, Academi (previously known as Blackwater) against Egypt, remember they have done this in Moscow, Iran, Romania, Kurdistan, Tunisia, Libya, Syria and Yemen at various unspecified points in history. 

What was worse than hearing the sound of Reham el-Sahly’s gasp and Lamis el-Hadidi saying el-Sisi makes her “feel safe as a woman” this week was hearing Ibrahim Eissa coax “the polite people of Qatar” into revolting against their emir like a parent would a child into eating bamia. After all, how can they sleep at night or drive their air-conditioned jeeps when their dishdashas, galabeyas and kaftans are figuratively soaked in Syrian, Egyptian and Libyan blood? 

Also depending too heavily on his persuasion skills this week was the self-titled “Defender of the Oppressed,” Youssef el-Husseiny, who leaned in close to remind us of how much we’ve gone through together and how long we've let his image sit in our living rooms before asking us to forget how admittedly lame he was giving the interior minister a 24 hour ultimatum to have a list of the officers who mistreated a friend and a colleague on his desk or he’d pull (someone else’s) rank. An unfulfilled threat he ate to save face after learning that testosterone and knocking on your desk doesn't always work.

Meanwhile, the coverage of the ongoing clashes between students and security forces in  continues its obsession with how atrociously mannered the female students are. For example, Wael el-Ibrashywondered how one of the female students who called a security man a woman could have possibly acquired that knowledge innocently, while veteran Azhar faculty members mourned the days when the girls dared not turn their heads in their presence and cited a Hadith that said not to educate the offsprings of the morally deficient -- if you catch their drift…

To end on a positive note, Ahmed Sbider, a rapper-turned-terrorist-messages-decoder and Tawfik Okasha's protege, gave his analysis of Vodafone's recent commercial featuring puppets. The commercial, he told the sniggering Director of Vodafone's External Affairs on TV, has five words that worry him: Dog, garage, guard, nearby and mall. Because when taken out of context and rearranged, these words could mean that a big mall security guard will be bribed to let a car bomb that the security dog sniffed into the garage, where it will explode on Christmas. Sbider's host, Ahmed Moussa, then yelled at the Vodafone Director for seeming to find the report Sbider filed against Vodafone -- and which the public prosecutor is actually investigating --  funny.

Vodafone's terrorist agent puppets


Universities on fire in Egypt

Another Al Azhar student has reportedly died in clashes with police. I just wrote something for The Chronicle of Higher Education about the unrest on Egyptian campuses (it is behind a paywall).

El Watan video of police firing tear gas and bird shot into Al Azhar university

The Islamic university of al-Azhar, which has its main campus in Cairo, has close to half a million students. The university is a historic center of learning in the Arab world and is where most preachers in the country are trained. Various Islamist groups are active on the campus and in the student union; they blame the university's leadership for supporting the military coup. In late October the administration asked the police enter the campus to quell protests, which has resulted in a running battle.

Police forces have surrounded the university and fired tear gas inside; they have raided dormitories and classrooms. In clashes between students and the police, students threw rocks and Molotov cocktails; the police fired bird shot at them. A dozen students were given 17-year sentences on charges of rioting and trying to break into administration buildings.

At Cairo University, a freshman engineering student named Mohamed Reda was shot and killed on November 28 in a clash with the police at the university gates. Mohamed Ibrahim, the Egyptian minister of the interior, defended the conduct of the police, saying that the students had blocked traffic and thrown stones at policemen. He also claimed that Mr. Reda had been killed by fellow students.

Gaber Nassar, the university's president, issued a statement condemning the security forces' "direct attack" on the university and the College of Engineering. The college's student union called the interior minister's statement a "fabrication." Clashes between students and the police have escalated since Mr. Reda's death.

Last week the engineering dean and three of his deputies resigned in protest. Sherif Mourad, the dean, told The Chronicle he had done so because he could not "secure the safety of my students." He said that when the police fire tear gas onto the campus, "this is not a learning environment."

The Middle East Studies Association has written an open letter to Prime Minister Beblaway calling on him to halt the violations of academic freedom at Egyptian universities. The Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, and NGO that follows academic freedom, has documented clashes and abuses at universities across the country since the beginning of the Fall semester. 

An all-out brawl between female Azhar students and security guards armed with sticks.