Curfew Chronicles

A passionate and beautifully written defense of the choice to live in Cairo (addressed to all the worried relatives and acquaintances who want the author to "come on home" now.)

I translate this paragraph below:

En dépit des difficultés connues de la capitale égyptienne (poussière, pollution, chaleur, harcèlement, instabilité politique), vivre au Caire n'est pas une lubie. Surtout si ce choix s'inscrit dans la durée. Les étés au Caire sont chauds mais ses hivers sont doux comme les printemps dans le sud de la France. Ses journées sont bruyantes et peuplées, mais ses nuits sont de loin les plus fabuleuses de la région. Paris se couche à 2 heures les soirs de week-end quand Le Caire veille jusqu'à l'aube tous les soirs, indifférente aux débuts, aux milieux et aux fins de semaine. Là où Paris se tasse dans des 2 pièces de 25 mètres carré, Le Caire se repait d'espace, d'appartements aux plafonds hauts, aux terrasses ensoleillées. Quand on a la chance d'y gagner sa vie en euros, on n'a pas à penser à l'argent au Caire, on n'est pas obligé de compter pour dépenser, et en plus, on se retrouve avec du temps sur les bras, pour écrire, lire, nager, repeindre le salon. Et puis il y a des gens au Caire, des gens que précisément on ne risque de croiser ni à Paris ni à New York, des gens qui ont à la fois quelque chose en plus et une case en moins, des gens qui ne se sentent à leur place nulle part, qui n'ont ni de certitude, ni d'aptitude au confort, ni peur d'être d'éternels débutants.

Despite the well-known difficulties of the Egyptian capital (dust, pollution, heat, harassment, political instability), living in Cairo isn't a whim. Especially if it's a long-term choice. Summers in Cairo are hot but winters are as mild as springs in the south of France. Its days are noisy and crowded, but its nights are by far the most fabulous in the region. Paris goes to bed at 2am on weekends while Cairo stays up till dawn every night, at the beginning, middle and end of the week. While Paris stuffs itself into two 25-square-meter rooms, Cairo revels in space, in high-ceilinged apartments with sunny terraces. If you are lucky enough to earn your living in euros, you don't need to worry about money in Cairo, and what's more you find yourself with time on your hands, to write, read, swim, repaint the living-room. And then there are people in Cairo, precisely the kind of people who you won't come across in Paris or New York, people who have a little something extra and a little something off, people who don't feel at home anywhere, who have no certainties, no aptitude for comfort, no fear of being eternal beginners. 

 

The question regarding Syria

A recent statement on the situation in Syria from the International Crisis Group:

Ultimately, the principal question regarding a possible military strike is whether diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict can be reenergized in its aftermath.  Smart money says they will not: in the wake of an attack they condemn as illegal and illegitimate, the regime and its allies arguably will not be in a mood to negotiate with the U.S. Carefully calibrating the strike to hurt enough to change their calculations but not enough to prompt retaliation or impede diplomacy is appealing in theory. In practice, it almost certainly is not feasible. 

 

In my Cairo neighborhood, new violence but the same old troubles

In the Washington Post, Mokhtar Awad puts the Rabaa sit-in and massacre in context, telling the story of Nasser City, the neighborhood where it took place. In Awad's telling it is one of Cairo's many unsuccessful attempts to "start over" with a new planned city in the desert, and it epitomizes both the aspirations of the military and Islamist middle-class and the shortcomings of the state. 

Housing was first provided for army officers to settle with their families, but the area remained largely unpopulated until the 1980s. Back then, Egyptians from all walks of life were returning flush with cash from jobs in the gulf and started buying and building in Nasr City. The once-planned districts turned into a hodgepodge of apartments surrounded by military facilities, as contractors raced to erect buildings before anyone could look into how they were acquiring the land. The main benefactor of this construction rush was the military, which owned nearly half the land and was selling what was meant to be a public resource for profit.
[...] 

Some of the same Nasr City residents who had given up on the corrupt state their fathers left them — by turning to the private sector, emigrating or pushing their sons to do the same — cheered on that very state this summer as it spilled Egyptian blood on the streets. They sought solace in a fascist national mythology that seems to only distract from the incompetence and corruption of the government and its security apparatus. Their neighbors who supported the Rabaa sit-in came from similar roots but believed a different myth: that the Islamic state would be the cure for their country. Instead, a bankrupt group of charlatans and delusional leaders ultimately led many of its innocent followers to their demise at Rabaa.

 

The people, the church and the state | Mada Masr

Another good account of the sectarian tensions in Upper Egypt, and their interplay with national politics. 

It all started when a group of Christians in the village built a speed bump near their home to decrease car accidents. When a Muslim man hit it, not knowing it was there, he started swearing at them and insulting their mothers and fathers. On August 10, a Muslim man known to be radical came in person to threaten the village church. The following day, as Christians went to Sunday mass, Muslims were already sending calls via mosques to attack them, Nasrallah recounts.

 

Damascus hotel a home for Syrians displaced by war

Lee Keath of AP manages, miraculously, to tell a story from Damascus that doesn't make you hate everything.   

Once total strangers hailing from far-flung parts of the countryside around Damascus, they have created a sort of communal family in the hotel's cramped quarters. They all live on the third floor, and the wives cook together in the kitchen of the restaurant on the top floor, to which the owner has given them free rein. Their kids play together, dashing around the hallways and up and down the narrow staircase. The husbands — those who still have jobs — come back in the evening and play backgammon together in the restaurant, where the TV is.

In a gesture of support, the owner has cut room rates in half for them, to around $5 a day.

 

The voice of the opposition

A quite beautiful song by the مسموع ("heard/audible") campaign, which calls of Egyptians to make clear their opposition to both the Brotherhood and the return of the security state  (or as they put it, to both "religious fascism and the Egyptian state's route to civil war")  by banging on pots and pans every evening. The refrain is "Freedom is coming." Unfortunately, at least in my neighborhood, all I've heard every evening so far is a resounding silence. 

 

Conspiring against the truth

My latest post for the Latitude blog of the New York Times takes a look at the truly mind-boggling conspiracy theories being woven by the security services and an eager-to-please press in Egypt today. 

On Tuesday, a front-page story of the state-owned newspaper Al Ahram was titled: “A New Conspiracy to Shake Stability Involving Politicians, Journalists and Businessmen.” Citing anonymous “security sources” the article purported to reveal the details of an agreement to “divide Egypt” allegedly struck between Khairat el-Shater, the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, and U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson, which involved helping 300 armed fighters enter the country from Gaza. It also claimed that the police foiled a plan to take over government buildings and declare an independent state in southern Egypt (“with the previous promise of recognition from the United States and some European countries”). The piece concluded by promising that charges would soon be brought against the unnamed conspirators.
As I argue in the piece, the point here is to create a black-is-white, up-is-down alternate reality in which the military is fighting a US/Muslim Brotherhood alliance and in which the police and state security are national heroes rather than reviled criminals. In crafting this narrative, Fox News has played a surprising supporting role: segments on Obama's supposed support for the Muslim Brotherhood have been subtitled into Arabic and broadcast here. 

 

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Et Tu Sonallah?

On the New Yorker's blog, Robyn Creswell lauds Sonallah Ibrahim (whose first novel That Smell he recently translated, to glowing reviews) as Egypt's "oracular novelist," arguing that his skepticism over the January 25 revolution's impact (he has preferred to call it an intifada, an uprising, rather than a thawra, a revolution) marks him as a "soothsayer." Creswell argues that Ibrahim's doubts echo his early skepticism of the Nasser regime, which "was seen as a harbinger of its collapse."

I am a great admirer of Ibrahim's sharp, troubling, original work -- and I was charmed by the man himself. But I think the argument above is more pertinent to his straight-forward opposition to the Sadat and the Mubarak regimes, whose shortcomings he satirized in his tour-de-force novel Zaat  and denounced publicly. Ibrahim has had a much more complicated and contradictory relationship to Nasser, like many Egyptian Communists (who voluntarily dissolved themselves in the 1960s to support the national cause) -- one in which anti-imperialism trumps anti-authorianism, and ideology overrides self-interest and otherwise excellent analytical powers. 

I say this in light of a recent interview in which Ibrahim, commenting on the current situation, says that "the military power is working on behalf of the people," and describes Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi as "a gain for political life in Egypt," a "patriotic personality" and someone who "for the first time since Gamal Abdel Nasser challenged America and the West." 

 (He also argues that "In the first place we have to understand that there is a plan, developed in research centers in Germany and the US after studying our political and social situation, to maintain their control over us. And this plan is executed by spreading a number of public figures among us to work in its interest, and one of these figures in Mohamed ElBaradei.")

I don't know when this interview was done and I don't know how reliable it is (El Youm El Sabaa isn't always a pinnacle of professionalism). Ibrahim is hardly alone among Egyptian  writers to be celebrating and defending the army after Morsi's ouster. 

But it suggests much less comforting thoughts, not about a lifetime of skepticism and prescience, but about the recurrence of a certain gullibility or delusion. 

In That Smell Ibrahim portrays a country that has turned into a prison, a place where people can't connect or tell the truth. Yet in the interview he describes Nasser as a "great leader." As Creswell himself notes in his introduction to That Smell, when Ibrahim and other Communists were jailed by Nasser in 1959, "The consistent support his faction had given Nasser ended up counting for nothing."  

 

Back to Basics

Our latest translation courtesy of the team at Industry Arabic is a column from former National Salvation Front spokesman Khaled Dawoud (he quit over his inability to continue dismissing the Rabaa massacre), which originally appeared here

Back to Basics

When the Tamarrod movement launched in early May and quickly moved to unseat President Mohamed Morsi, the goal was clear and simple: to call for early presidential elections -- once the man that many described as the Muslim Brotherhood Guidance Bureau's representative in the Presidential Palace had proved a failure at managing the country's affairs, with a similar incompetence shown by the rest of his organization as well. This constituted a threat to the future of Egypt itself and the cohesion of Egyptian society, and even brought us to the brink of civil war. Furthermore, those in the movement really did believe the Road Map, the whole July 3 production, and the pledge to swiftly return to the polls for free and fair elections that would grant popular legitimacy to the new regime.

Despite their belief that the Muslim Brotherhood had completely deviated from the revolution's goals, the stated aim of the parties and movements that rose up to defend the goals of the January 25 Revolution was never to crush the Muslim Brotherhood, imprison its entire leadership and ban them from political activity – and of course not to kill them and mow them down in the hundreds. The actors who are now moving in this direction belonged to a different current that is completely unrelated to the January 25 Revolution; they are the ones who have considered the revolution from the start to be a conspiracy to put an end to their power, influence and corruption, a conspiracy launched by the Muslim Brotherhood with support from Hamas, Iran, America and the whole familiar list. The current trend toward exclusion is backed by those who belong to intellectual currents that have always considered the Brotherhood's ideology to be an obscurantist project at odds with the principles of the Nahda and Egypt's progress toward joining the ranks of the European democracies. In my view, these people do not represent the majority in Egypt's secular parties of any orientation, whether liberal, leftist or nationalist, since to put it simply, Egypt isn't France.

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Back to Cairo

The man across the aisle was reading an article headlined: “No Turning Back and No Surrender Before the Forces of Darkness.” As our plane descended over night-time Cairo, the streets were blurry in the weak city lights, and eerily empty because of a military curfew.

The Arabist household just returned, with some trepidation, to Cairo. Here is something I wrote about my own feelings on re-enty for the NYT Latitudes blog. 

 

The Way Out

I prefer to see what happened as a great fire, which many shared in starting, some out of negligence and stupidity, some out of revenge, some of out greed and some out of inattention. Everyone thought his own actions explained the fire’s outbreak, but the truth, God knows, is they all joined in starting it… And what matters is that they started it, and the army came to power claiming to put it out.

This is a passage from Ezzedine Choukri Fischere's Bab El Khoroug ("The Way Out") which I took with me this summer while traveling outside Egypt. I just wrote about in for the LRB blog.   

 

August 14 in Egypt in numbers

Dead (according to Ministry of Health, and still counting): 525

Wounded: 3,500

Churches, monasteries, Christians schools and libraries attacked (Source) : 56

Days that Mohamed ElBaradei lasted as a civilian figure-head of the army-run "second revolution" before resigning in protest: 28

Other resignations: 0 

Justifications presented by Egypt's non-Islamist media and political parties for the gratuitous murder of hundreds of their fellow citizens, and commendations of the security forces for their "steadfastness" and "restraint": too many to count

A Moroccan scandal

My latest for the Latitudes blog of the New York Times looks at a strange controversy that broke out here last week, shaking up the usually very staid (not to saw cowed) political and media scene and pushing the King to the exceptional step of revoking a royal pardon.

Soon after news of Galván Viña’s release appeared on the independent news site Lakome, it spread across social media. Pardons in other countries can be controversial, too, but this one had everything to shock and anger: Here was a Spanish criminal getting away with abusing Moroccan victims, and a royal prerogative trumping the justice system.

Last weekend the colonnaded Avenue Mohammed V in central Rabat echoed with the chants of young protesters (“Long Live the People!” “Down with Perverts!”) and their running footsteps, as they dashed away from police squadrons. Other small demonstrations have since taken place in other Moroccan cities.

 

ElBaradei and his detractors

Mohammed ElBaradei -- now Egypt's vice-president for foreign affairs -- has taken to the Western and Arab media lately to defend the July 3 coup but also to make the case for negotiating with the Brotherhood and taking their fears and grievances at least partly into consideration. Here he is in the Washington Post: 

People are very angry. People are very angry with me because I am saying, “Let’s take time, let’s talk to them” [The Brotherhood]. The mood right now is, “Let’s crush them, let’s not talk to them.” That would last for one week, and then they would come back. It would be a disaster everywhere, inside Egypt and outside Egypt. We need to get a long-range view based on restoring order and based on national consensus and reconciliation. I hope the Brotherhood understands that time is not on their side. I’m holding the fort, but I can’t hold it for very long.

ElBaradei clearly does not have the support of the deep state (which would apparently like nothing better than an endless cycle of violence/repression) or of a considerable portion of the political and media elite, which sees this as its chance to keep Islamists out of politics for the foreseeable future. Witness the fresh onslaught of attacks on him. Here is a presenter on Tahrir TV (once a "revolutionary" channel, now apparently a mouthpiece for the intelligence and police) tearing up ElBaradei WPost interview on the air and berating him for "submitting to terrorism."

 

Egyptians' Views of Government Crashed Before Overthrow

No surprise to those of us who have been living through Egypt's exhausting mood swings, but Gallup's polling in Egypt shows some incredibly dramatic shifts in public opinion over the last few years. Whether the loss of faith in Morsi, the Brotherhood, and the political process generally can all be laid at the Islamists' feet is a matter of opinion. 

A few weeks before massive protests and a government decree ended Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi's presidency, 29% of Egyptians expressed confidence in their national government -- the lowest level Gallup has measured since Egypt's revolution began in 2011. 

 

Pity Egypt, It Has No Liberals

Even back in the 1920s, during Egypt's so-called Liberal Age, there were no true liberals, argues Samuel Tadros. 

Egyptian liberalism was flawed from the start. Egyptian liberals were born, not from an independent bourgeoisie, and from the tension of the individual and the state, but from the very bosom of that state and its bureaucracy. Obsessed with modernization, they always allied themselves with the ruler, hoping that he would turn out to be an autocratic modernizer.

 

Egypt’s popular sovereignty: not an alternative

Seems like everybody in Egypt these days is acting/talking in the name of the "people." In the New Left Project, Egyptian photographer Ahmad Hosni parses the pitfalls of the concept of popular sovereignty.  

Elections give us precise percentages of the popularity of different political parties, along with that of those who decide not participate. The sum of all these percentages is totality of the people. Under the rubric of popular sovereignty, on the other hand, “people” is always a totality that has no partitions. It is not a subject of numbers but is a totalizing signifier, an approximation of the population that is less than the sum of all parts.

 

The Syrian crisis in Jordan

This is a belated link to an article by dear friend of the blog Matthew Hall, a beautifully written and sharply observed piece that maps the geographical, social and economic dimension of the Syrian refugee crisis in Jordan in the excellent publication MERIP  -- which you should all subscribe to.

(In addition to writing about the MIddle East, Matt is also a scholar of musical esoterica).

Not in our name!

Egypt's Revolutionary Socialists -- a small, influential and, in the Egyptian political scene today, remarkably coherent and clear-eyed group -- has issued a statement that explains why giving General Al-Sisi a "mandate" to "fight terrorism" is a bad, and illogical, idea. Egypt's April 6 movement -- the activist group that began youth protests against Mubarak -- has also come out against heeding Al-Sisi's call for mass demonstrations today. 

Whatever crimes the Brotherhood has committed against the people and against the Copts in defence of its power in the name of religion, we do not give army chief Al-Sisi our authority. We will not go into the streets on Friday offering a blank cheque to commit massacres.
If Al-Sisi has the legal means to do what he wants, why is he calling people into the streets? What he wants is a popular referendum on assuming the role of Caesar and the law will not deter him.