The New Yorker: The Battle of the Archives

In which Egyptian "intellectuals" conjure a non-existent threat to possibly non-existent documents to justify the crack-down on the Brotherhood. Ridiculous. 

“This is one of the ones I was most worried about,” she said, as we approached a colorful Persian astrology book. It was open to a page depicting the Zodiac goddess Virgo, dressed in a bright, purple flowing robe. “They don’t believe in this, so who knows what they would do.” We moved on to some hand-drawn history books with knights riding on gold-painted horses, and a book of early fables that had been translated from Sanskrit. One told the story of a group of white rabbits who teamed up to “seek revenge on a herd of elephants who had thoughtlessly trampled upon them.” In another room, there was a giant, Mamluk-era edition of the Koran, from the fourteenth century. “I wasn’t really worried about this one,” Ezzeldin said with a wink. Then she added, “Although, I didn’t want them to give it away to their friends in Qatar.”
Neither Ezzeldin or any of the other people I spoke to were able to cite any specific evidence that the Brotherhood had plans to dismantle or interfere with Egypt’s historical artifacts—just vague warning signs, and a personal sense of certainty. “If you are traveling to an area that you know is full of thieves, you have to take precautions,” Ezzeldin said when I asked. “You don’t have to wait until you are robbed.”

 

Egypt: The Misunderstood Agony

In a long piece on the New York Review of Books's site, Yasmine El Rashidi gives a painstaking account of the escalating intransigence and violence that led to Rabaa and concludes: 

Although I have heard well-informed people insist that Egyptians will no longer accept a state that monopolizes power or abuses them, at this moment, the primitive calculation is one of relative safety—which is far from being assured. Faced with the choice between armed militants and armed men in uniform, Egyptians, by a large margin, are choosing the latter. And yet it was these same forces of state that were responsible for the discontent that led to the uprising against Mubarak; many of those forces have remained intact since his reign. The real coup in Egypt was the one of February 11, 2011, when Mubarak left office, and one wonders when the real revolution might come.

 

"Sometimes the people want ugly things"

A column by Reem Saad (reposted by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights) on the recent killing of  37 prisoners in police custody. According to the testimony of the survivors, an officer threw tear gas into the transport truck and waited alongside it as all but 7 of them chocked to death inside, begging to be let out.  

My rough translation:

"These citizens were killed in this ugly way not just under the eyes of the state but by its very hand. This was not the first nor will it be the last incident of this kind, as long as this brutal police force remains unreformed and unaccountable. What is particularly regrettable in this sad story is that the responsibility belongs not only to those who committed this crime but to a large segment of society, which the current circumstances and the continuous media incitement have perhaps put into a state of psychological imbalance, to the point that it dreams of a quick and final way of putting an end to the violence of the Brotherhood and to the brutal behavior of the organization and of others who belong to the Islamist movement. 
The slaughter at Abu Zabal prison is the literal execution of the expressions that have become commonly repeated among ordinary Egyptians, offered as a solution to the problem, such as: "Why not just gather them all up in one place and set them on fire and get rid of them?"

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.

 

Dennis Ross' tortuous logic

Dennis Ross writes on the Room for Debate blog of the NYT, on the question Saudi support for Egypt:

For the Saudis, there are two strategic threats in the region: Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood. The Saudis back certain opposition forces in Syria to weaken Iran and they support the Egyptian military to undermine the Brotherhood. We will not persuade the Saudis by arguing that the military is overplaying its hand.
If we want to move the Saudis on Egypt, we must address their strategic concerns; meaning, for example, that we must convince them that we are prepared either to change the balance of power in Syria or that we will, in fact, prevent the Iranians from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability.

That sounds more like what Dennis Ross wants the US to do (i.e. more hawkish positions on Iran and Syria) than something that the Saudis would genuinely take into consideration. For if they are concerned about the MB, why would they adjust that concern based on the Iran question? And why should the US decide to shift its positions on Iran simply because of the Egypt question?

In Syria, America Loses if Either Side Wins

You know those nightmarish images of chemical attack victims in Syria you saw (or if you are like me, glimpsed and then avoided looking at) last week? It should be our goal to keep that shit coming, says some Washington think tank jerk in the New York Times Op-ed pages:

... a decisive outcome for either side would be unacceptable for the United States. An Iranian-backed restoration of the Assad regime would increase Iran’s power and status across the entire Middle East, while a victory by the extremist-dominated rebels would inaugurate another wave of Al Qaeda terrorism.

There is only one outcome that the United States can possibly favor: an indefinite draw.

By tying down Mr. Assad’s army and its Iranian and Hezbollah allies in a war against Al Qaeda-aligned extremist fighters, four of Washington’s enemies will be engaged in war among themselves and prevented from attacking Americans or America’s allies.

That this is now the best option is unfortunate, indeed tragic, but favoring it is not a cruel imposition on the people of Syria, because a great majority of them are facing exactly the same predicament.

[...]

Maintaining a stalemate should be America’s objective. And the only possible method for achieving this is to arm the rebels when it seems that Mr. Assad’s forces are ascendant and to stop supplying the rebels if they actually seem to be winning.

This view has been circulating in US policy circles for months. This guy just comes out and says it. 

We have always been at war with Eastasia, Egypt version

From Bradley Hope's account of the increasingly widespread belief that Morsi and friends were broken out of prison by Hamas and Hizbullah, and other re-writings of the 2011 uprising: 

This view is now being taken further by some Egyptians as they seek to explain their country's zigzag course back to a state of emergency, one of the most reviled pillars of Mubarak's rule. The role of foreign influences, including United States funding for civil society groups in Egypt, looms ever larger in their attempts to explain and justify it.

To many former members of Mubarak's National Democratic Party such as Ali El Dean Hilal Dessouki, it seems increasingly plausible to suggest that foreign Islamists, with the aid of the Brotherhood, infiltrated the protests and hijacked the revolution, setting Egypt on a path that culminated with the military's intervention on July 3.

This "second revolution", as the coup against Mr Morsi is sometimes referred to, is more meaningful and legitimate than the first, he said.

It is, Mr Dessouki said, the first "exclusively internal Egyptian uprising."

Asked why the Mubarak regime collapsed so quickly, he said it was too soon to know for certain. But he pointed to many signs of foreign intervention, including the prison break and foreign funding of non-government organisations.

"The situation was much more complicated then," he said.

The headline does not do the story justice; read it as a documentation of how the idea that Morsi – in late January a freshly arrested political prisoner – has been recast as the center of international jailbreak conspiracy. This is just one of the mind-f**ks that the battle to define what reality is in Egypt has created. He who controls the past...

Mrs. Lincoln’s Egyptian Constitution

Nathan Brown, in FP, asks: 

Can a constitution written in 2012 largely by people now decried as terrorists really be amended to serve Egypt in 2013? Isn't the new regime's "road map" to restore constitutional rule and elections superseded by recent events? 

No it is not. The process is likely to continue and the political logic behind the road map remains quite robust. The reason is that it offers a way to concretize and institutionalize the current political arrangements. Worrisome as they might be, those arrangements remain ones that the dominant military, security, and civilian actors have every interest in entrenching. Egypt will have a constitution again, to be sure -- but it is one that will be a codification of the will of the current regime, like all of Egypt's past constitutions. And Egypt's international partners are therefore likely to be confronted soon with a regime that looks very much like the present one but can present a formal democratic face.

We translated some of the measures proposed for the new constitution recently, here and here. Some of what has been announced largely reverses Islamist provisions in the 2012 constitution, but some surprising elements have also been introduced, such as a return to the Mubarak-era individual seat electoral system.

Meanwhile in Tunisia

Allegations of a deal between the country's two top political leaders: 

Not much reliable information about the meeting in Paris between former Tunisian Prime Minister Beji Caid Essebsi and Ennahda leader Rachid Ghannouchi has been leaked. However, it is known that the two have reached an agreement in principle, which foreign partners — namely the Europeans, the Americans and the Germans — have imposed. The two enemy brothers need to agree in order to achieve a democratic transition in Tunisia and to avoid an Egyptian-style bloody scenario, even if that would anger the popular bases of the two camps.
The deal includes keeping Ali Laarayedh at the head of the government and Mustapha Ben Jaafar at the head of the National Constituent Assembly (ANC), while replacing Moncef Marzouki with Essebsi as president of the republic. As for the government, it will consist of technocrats and politicians with the addition of two new posts of deputy prime minister; one for security affairs and the other for economic affairs. These two posts will be “offered” to the democratic opposition.

If true, it's exactly the kind of elite back-room dealing that appears to be the key to fragile political transitions. 

From Citizen To Problem: The New Coptic Tokenism

Paul Sedra, in Jadaliyya: 

The Egyptian Foreign Ministry released a statement this past Thursday that was entirely without precedent, and yet it received practically no media attention amidst the political turmoil the country is currently experiencing. According to the statement, “Beyond overlooking the violent and dangerous reality of the Rabea and Nahda sit-ins, a number of foreign governments and international media outlets have also chosen to overlook the recent increase in killings and attacks that are once again targeting Egypt’s Christian community.”

Observers of Egypt’s Coptic community could be forgiven for rubbing their eyes in disbelief upon reading this pronouncement by the Egyptian government. What is so remarkable and, indeed, bewildering about the statement, is that the Egyptian government has repeatedly and forcefully denied the existence of sectarianism on Egyptian soil for decades. For an arm of the government to reference Copts as a target of violence—much less reference the Copts as a distinct community at all—is a stark departure from a long-standing policy of refusing the acknowledgment of sectarian divisions within Egyptian society.

Worth reading.

With or against us

Sarah Carr on the new regime's vision of the media.  

It looks like we are heading towards media oppression that will be worse than under 2011. There is a public appetite for it and the security bodies have apparently been given a green light to do as they please. Wars on terrorism rely on crude binaries: you are either with us or against us, and this is the constant message being relayed to us (Hegazy even said during the presser yesterday that Egypt is "taking note of who is with it and who is against it"). Attempting to steer through the choppy mess that is Egypt at the moment with such a simplistic approach is disastrous and is intended to reinforce the fiction that there are only two camps in Egypt. This is about bolstering the military regime's strength, and its strength is dependent on the creation of an equal and opposing force against which it must pit itself. The Brotherhood has become its raison d'etre: There is no other reason to justify its current position and current actions.

 

The war on Egypt's churches

Hamza Hamdawi, for AP: 

CAIRO (AP) - After torching a Franciscan school, Islamists paraded three nuns on the streets like "prisoners of war" before a Muslim woman offered them refuge. Two other women working at the school were sexually harassed and abused as they fought their way through a mob.

In the four days since security forces cleared two sit-in camps by supporters of Egypt's ousted president, Islamists have attacked dozens of Coptic churches along with homes and businesses owned by the Christian minority. The campaign of intimidation appears to be a warning to Christians outside Cairo to stand down from political activism.

This is on the hands of all of those who opted for escalation in the last few weeks, Islamist and non-Islamist. (And how about providing some protection to these obvious targets, while we're at it?)

Hulsman on attacks on police stations and churches

From the Arab West Report's newsletter, by its editor Cornelis Hulsman, a veteran advocate of better Muslim-Christian relations in Egypt who has extensive contacts on both sides:

The Kerdassa police station (Giza) has been attacked using an RPG after elsewhere in the city sit-ins of demonstrators were broken up. This resulted in the death of the local police chief and several police officers whose bodies have then be mutilated. Twenty other police stations were attacked, often with weapons that they were not prepared for. Demonstrators who claimed to be with the Muslim Brotherhood threw a police car with 5 policemen from a bridge killing all of them. Those images are spread all over and have created a shock-wave. It is thus no wonder that policemen seek safer locations to operate from. It also makes the mutual hate between police and Muslim Brothers and militant groups much deeper. The mutual hate is many decades old. Between 1992 and 1997 militant Muslims engaged in attacks on police and civilians. Militant Muslims and political Islamists were targeted by police, many of them ended up for years in prison, also if they had no involvement with any violence. The police did not have a good reputation. Officers were often accused of torture. It is thus no wonder that the police are most hated by Islamists and now, just as on January 28, 2011 and following weeks, are targeted.
The patterns of systematic attack on Egyptian security resemble those of January 28, 2011. People have again come from villages and popular areas to massively destroy government property. But unlike 2011, people now also targeted churches and Christian shops. AWR called priests, friends of ours, in Beni Suef, Fayoum, Maghagha, and Minya. The police have disappeared from all these cities and other cities because they became targets themselves and fled. That is no wonder if one sees on videos how policemen have been brutally slaughtered in Cairo and other parts of Egypt. The consequence is that the police are withdrawing to centers where they feel safe and can defend themselves better. The consequence, however, is that thugs have had more opportunities to engage in violence and destruction. The police in Assiut disappeared on the 14th from the street, but returned again on the 15th.
Violence is widespread, but AWR has also spoken with priests who told us that there had been no violence in their village or town. Much of this also, but not only, depends on local relations. Fear is widespread in all parts of Egypt. If particular areas have not yet been targeted they later may or may not become targets.
It all appears that General al-Sisi has made a miscalculation when he, in cooperation with other authorities, decided to end the demonstrations around the Rābaʽah al-‘Adawīyyah mosque and al-Nahda square. Protesters spread and throughout the country militant groups are seen. It is obvious that these groups are organized. It is not possible to explain how otherwise they suddenly appear all over Egypt. AWR has asked friends in various cities to explain why they believe that these were Muslim Brothers. Some friends said that the people marching with weapons in the streets scream, “Islamiya, Islamiya.” Many of them are young. They were surprised to see also small children among them. Priests we spoke to said they believed them to be a mix of Brothers joined by many thugs, people seeing an opportunity to loot.
Emad Aouni lives in Assiut and has seen Muslim Brothers he knows from the sit-in in Assiut participating in attacking churches. They were, however, not alone but in the company of members of the Jamā’ah al-Islāmīyah, Salafīs, and thugs. “They usually would not do this alone but in a group with other Islamists they would go along.”

AWR's website has been hacked, so the full piece is not up there. I am pasting it here for those who are curious – it also includes a full list of churches that have come under attack. 

Shatz: Egypt’s Counter Revolution

Adam Shatz in the LRB: 

So this is how it ends: with the army killing more than 600 protesters, and injuring thousands of others, in the name of restoring order and defeating ‘terrorism’. The victims are Muslim Brothers and other supporters of the deposed president Mohammed Morsi, but the ultimate target of the massacres of 14 August is civilian rule. Cairo, the capital of revolutionary hope two years ago, is now its burial ground.

Particularly harsh words for the revolutionary camp:

The triumph of the counter-revolution has been obvious for a while, but most of Egypt’s revolutionaries preferred to deny it, and some actively colluded in the process, telling themselves that they were allying themselves with the army only in order to defend the revolution. Al-Sisi was only too happy to flatter them in this self-perception, as he prepared to make his move. He, too, styles himself a defender of the revolution

 

Egypt Crosses the Line

Peter Hessler in the New Yorker, with -- as usual -- a nuanced and original reading of the MB's and the army's interpretations of democracy:

In Egypt, the current conflict reflects the vastly different responses that groups can have to a fledgling democracy after decades of dictatorship. For the Brotherhood, this means stubbornly following what it believes to be the correct and legitimate political path, even if it alienates others and leads to disaster; for the military, it’s a matter of implementing the worst instincts of the majority. In each case, one can recognize a seed of democratic instinct, but it’s grown in twisted ways, because the political and social environment was damaged by the regimes of the past half-century.