A murky battle

My latest Latitude column is on the difficult position of human rights activists in Egypt today -- and of that minority that is equally critical of the Brotherhood and of the military-police state.  

Democracy and human rights activists in Egypt are exhausted and worried. Many of them have spent the two and a half years since the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak working nonstop — monitoring elections, submitting reform plans to ministers who have ignored them, counting bodies at the morgue — only to find themselves back at square one. The situation is “the worst it’s been since the 1990s,” a veteran human rights defender told me recently.

At Mada Masr, human right activist Sherif Azer discusses the issue as well. 

In an unprecedented moment, we are currently witnessing public support for human rights violations. The stereotypical idea that only governments are against human rights has been proven wrong, as the majority of Egyptians reveal their open rejection of the concept of human rights. We have seen people calling for sacrificing their own rights and freedoms, just to see their opposition removed. We, the human rights advocacy community, have been called traitors by friends and family members. People began openly calling for abandoning human rights altogether in the name of fighting "terrorism.”

I'm not sure I agree with Azer that the most effective argument for human rights, domestically, is an appeal to international law and treaties. It seems to me that highlighting an issue like torture here is more relevant. But of course when people offer to suspend or sacrifices their rights, they almost always do so in the belief that 1) it is temporary and limited and 2) they're not at risk because they aren't one of the criminals/terrorists/bad guys being targeted.

I've had several people compare the current moment in Egypt to the United States right after 9/11 -- a moment to which we can trace the seemingly irreversible erosion of some key protections and principles. 

 

What Happened to Egypt’s Liberals After the Coup?

Very nice, nuanced analysis of the different and shifting positions towards the Brotherhood, the army and civil liberties of Egypt's various non-Islamist groups and parties by Sharif Abdel Kouddous in The Nation: 

Opposition to Morsi grew throughout his time in office, eventually stretching across nearly every sector of Egyptian society. It also had grassroots support, manifested in more than 9,000 protests and strikes during his year-long rule that culminated in calls for early presidential elections and the unprecedented June 30 mobilization.

His opponents included a broad swath of political and social movements, often characterized by conflicting ideologies and grievances. It included revolutionary activists, labor unions, human rights advocates, the Coptic Church, intransigent state institutions, former Mubarak regime members and sidelined business elites as well as the formal opposition—the flock of non-Islamist political parties and figures routinely lumped together as “liberals,” despite the fact that many of them have rejected any notion of political pluralism, a defining characteristic of liberalism.

The result has been a confusing, and increasingly atomized, political landscape. Of the disparate groups opposed to Morsi, some actively sought military intervention, fewer opposed any military role, while others—like Dawoud—stood by the military as it ousted the president, but eventually broke away in the face of mounting state violence and mass arrests of Islamists under the guise of a “war on terror.”

The military—which formed a coalition of convenience with the Brotherhood for much of 2011 to manage the post-Mubarak landscape and hold revolutionary aspirations and unfettered popular mobilizations in check—successfully co-opted the movement against Morsi and, along with the security establishment, emerged as the clearest winner from his overthrow.

The biggest surprise for me was to read this account of what rabidly pro-military Tamarrod leader Mahmoud Badr said five weeks before Morsi's ouster:  

In his opening remarks, one of Tamarod’s founders, Mahmoud Badr (previously a coordinator in Kefaya), chose to focus on the role of the army. He recounted various incidents of popular mobilization and resistance against the Supreme Council of Armed Forces—which directly ruled the country following Mubarak’s ouster in 2011—in which the Brotherhood did not take part. He concluded by ruling out a military role in political life. “We insist that the army cannot be involved in politics,” he said emphatically. 

Badr supports a Sisi presidency now (and generally giving the army whatever it wants). One of the most frustrating things about following and analyzing politics in Egypt is how utterly irresponsible and inconsistent political actors are, how often they go back on previous positions and statements and break their commitments. 

 

Historical perspective on Egypt's army

From Bernard Lewis' autobiography, Notes on a century , a vignette about Nasser requesting Pakistan's help to restructure the Egyptian military in 1960: 

The government of Pakistan was willing, but on condition that it be permitted to send a small feasibility mission to examine the situation and then advise on what, if anything, Pakistan could do. It told Nasser that the mission must be allowed to go wherever it wanted, and its questions must be answered truthfully and honestly. Nasser agreed, saying that there would be no point otherwise.
A small group of Pakistan officers was then sent to Egypt. they toured the country, spoke to many people and reported that they were not told the truth. The reason that they were not told the truth is that nobody knew the truth. In the Egyptian armed forces, they said, "The corporal lies to the sergeant, the sergeant lies to the lieutenant, the lieutenant lies to the captain, the captain lies to the major and so on all the way up the chain of command. By the time it reaches the high command or the Ministry of Defense, they haven't a clue what is going on." The Pakistan general heading the mission concluded that the high command in Cairo was sitting on top of a pyramid of lies. The Pakistan government therefore declined and said it was sorry but could not help.  

 

Egypt and the Gaza tunnels

Jared Malsin, reporting for Mada Masr: 

“On the Palestinian side, they’re just watching the destruction on the Egyptian side,” says Mohammed Omer, a Palestinian journalist, describing the scene in Palestinian Rafah. “There is quite tight control. The Egyptian military are controlling across the borderline, which means they [the smugglers] cannot really operate, even if they can operate freely from the Gaza side,” he says.

On the Palestinian side, they’re just watching the destruction on the Egyptian side By all accounts, the Egyptian military’s current operation has paralyzed the vast majority of the tunnel system. Of an estimated 300 tunnels operating before June 2013, approximately 10 were operating on September 21, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian affairs. The quantity of goods moving through the tunnels is 15 percent of what it was in June.

Under Morsi, Red Lines Gone Gray

Jonathan Guyer, in Jadaliyya, looks at political cartooning under Mubarak, Morsi and the military. His very interesting article (based on a year's worth of Fulbright research) confirms my sense that there was more freedom of expression under Morsi than before or after -- not because the Brother's weren't authoritarian, but because they weren't able to impose their control. All those cases brought against journalists and others for insulting the presidency were also the result of the fact that the presidency was getting mocked and criticized as never before. 

The most significant change in Egyptian caricature since 2011 is the implicit permissibility of satirizing the president. Nevertheless, during President Mohamed Morsi’s year in office, the same penal code article maintained that “whoever insults the president… shall be imprisoned.” Yet, according to Judge Yussef Auf, it does not clearly stipulate what insulting the president means or what the precise penalty should be.[3] Additionally, nearly seventy other articles limit freedom of expression. These range from prohibitions against “insults” to the parliament, army, courts, and other public authorities, to injunctions against the reporting of false news. Nonetheless, mocking these institutions became a core part of cartooning even in government-run newspapers, in spite of—or because of—these regulations.  

 

A controversial magazine cover criticizing Morsi and the political/religious establishment that was never distributed on news stands, but went viral online. 

A controversial magazine cover criticizing Morsi and the political/religious establishment that was never distributed on news stands, but went viral online. 

Bye Bye Brothers?

Last week a Cairo court issued an injunction that seems to pave the way for a new ban on all the Muslim Brotherhood's activities. Meanwhile, the new constituent assembly is discussing banning all political parties based on religion. 

In my latest contribution to the NYTimes' Latitude blog, I argue that banning the Brothers -- rather than really addressing the question of the relationship of politics and religion in Egypt, and of the appeal and contradictions of political Islam -- is hypocritical and short-sighted.  

The Brotherhood — and other Islamist parties — should have been required to open their activities to outside scrutiny and to commit to basic democratic principles over two years ago, just after Mubarak was brought down. But back then, the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces was afraid of how far the revolutionary fervor might go and turned to the Islamists to help it stabilize the country.
The current legal cases against the Brothers are selective and politically motivated. Serious violence has taken place at the hands of Islamists in recent months — police officers and military conscripts have been killed, churches attacked — but the direct responsibility of the Brotherhood’s leadership for that violence has yet to be proved in court. And while the organization is being tried for inciting violence, in case after case police officers are being acquitted of shooting protesters.
Why is the judiciary only examining the organization’s legal status now? What of other Islamist groups, some of which have more violent pasts than the Brotherhood and hold more odious positions on women or Christians?
The Islamist organization needs to be held accountable, but as part of a broader process of transitional justice. Instead, the goal of Egypt’s interim authorities now seems to be to punish the Brotherhood for getting into power and ensure it never does again. Egypt’s non-Islamist political parties have uniformly welcomed the idea of banning the group, even though that would in effect disenfranchise its hundreds of thousands of members and its millions of supporters.

 

A dictionary of the revolution

Artist Amira Hanafy -- whose work I've written about here before -- is doing a kickstarter campaign to raise money for her next project, a dictionary of the revolution. She will travel around the country soliciting people's definition of various terms that have come into heavy use in the last years. 

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From a press release about the project: 

“I’m not interested in creating one uncomplicated narrative for the revolution,” says Hanafi. “You could say, I’m not interested in “the Truth”. Instead, I’m interested in the truths that people believe. Egypt’s population is around 85 million. That means 85 million unique perspectives, 85 million truths. For one unique and incredible moment, it seemed that a great majority of those people were in agreement on what the country needed. But what’s happening in Egypt today is a clash of many truths. I’m interested in documenting the complexity of this moment.”

 

The Lost Land of Egypt

An important article by Maria Golia on land in Egypt, covering the loss of agricultural land to real estate speculation; the dearth of affordable housing; and the looting of heritage sites.  

In Egypt, land is power. The military is the largest landowner, and the Mubarak regime’s undoing was partly owed to sweetheart deals for choice locations, particularly on Egypt’s coasts. Large tracts of land that might have been developed as new towns or institutions serving the public instead enriched a handful of real estate investors interested primarily in upscale tourism or residential compounds. The Egyptian Centre for Housing Rights (ESCR), an NGO, reports that a minority elite, around 250,000 families, typically owns several residences including a seaside villa or two, while 18 percent of Egypt’s lesser privileged families share a single room.[4]

 

Why I quit my job as an editor in Egypt

Very interesting interview by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists with Hisham Allam, a former editor at El Watan newspaper.  

The situation in Egypt is very complicated, and the Western media sees the scene as a military coup against a democratically elected president who did not complete his presidential term. Meanwhile, the view within Egypt is completely different. The citizens do not care about the process of democracy as much as they care about how it will be implemented.

The president they voted for a year ago had committed numerous errors which created feuds between him and most of the state institutions. Consequently, both state owned and private local media volunteered to defend the new regime against the former.

In such a complicated situation, most of the local media have become unprofessional. They are biased against the ousted president and his supporters. They are deliberately avoiding the publication of any reports or news which condemn the ministries of interior and defense who led the coup.

It has become compulsory that events get covered from one angle, which condemns the ousted president's supporters and make them appear criminals, while local media ignore completely all the brutal killings and arbitrary arrests committed against the former regime supporters.Most respected journalists have decided to leave their media institutions temporarily for the fear of being exposed to pressure or being obligated to deceive the readers and audiences.

I quit my job as an investigation editor for this reason.

Apparently Allam is one of the reporters who covered Hamas' role in the prison break-outs (including of Mohammed Morsi) during the uprising against Mubarak. I always thought that story wasn't serious. But Allam also reported on other important stories, like the fatalities in a terrible train crash under Mubarak (and apparently faced harassment for it). He has good advice for young journalists in Egypt:

What do you consider some of the most important lessons you have learned over the years?
Don’t follow the mainstream. It is safe to follow, but it takes courage to lead.
What advice would you give young, emerging, investigative reporters?
Doubt what you hear, analyze and respect the intelligence of your opponents. Last advice: don’t trust anybody.

 

Constitutional Disorder

In my latest column for the New York Times' Latitude blog I look at the writing of Egypt's new new constitution -- a process that despite offering some promise of improvement, is rather dispiritingly familiar.   

The last assembly was drawn overwhelmingly from Islamist parties that had just performed well at the polls. Non-Islamists didn’t have the numbers to exercise veto power and complained about their marginalization; eventually almost all of them withdrew. The new drafting committee looks like a photo negative of the old one: It contains a single delegate from an Islamist party, and he has already walked out in protest over being ignored.

The Islamist assembly pointedly excluded prominent feminist, activist and secularist voices. It’s unclear to whom the current committee — appointed by an interim president, backed by the army, packed with the heads of official institutions — is accountable to beside the state itself. Organizations such as the Journalists’ Syndicate have already complained that their recommendations on press law and freedoms of speech have been overlooked.

 

What this terrible article in the Atlantic Monthly means: nothing

I don't generally have the time or inclination to go after bad writing on the middle east, but this absurd "analysis" on the Atlantic Monthly's site is just too much, starting with the first paragraph, which states: 

Astute observers of recent pro-Morsi protests in Egypt will note a new symbol cropping up in photos of the protesting crowds: Demonstrators are now holding four fingers in the air. Many carry yellow posters emblazoned with the same gesture.

How "astute" do you have to be to notice a hand gesture that is directed at every camera in the vicinity, and as the author says "emblazoned" on bright yellow posters? 

The gesture that is here referred to as "the Rabaa" apparently "signals both a conscious shift in the Muslim Brotherhood’s focus from a global audience to an Arabic one and a rejection of the ideals of the Arab Spring." Unlike, the author argues, the V for victory that was used by earlier demonstrators and that "allowed protestors to communicate a set of shared ideals embodied in the initial self-immolation of a Tunisian fruit seller: half economic freedom, half national self-determination."

Where to begin? The hundreds of thousands of demonstrators that bid Ben Ali, Mubarak and Gaddafi an un-fond adieu used a panoply of slogans and symbols. The most common, meaningful and trans-national chant associated with the Arab Spring has to have been the Arabic chant "The People Want the Fall of the Regime." Not only is the argument that the V sign epitomized the Arab Spring extremely debatable; the comparison between the huge heterogenous masses in Tahrir and elsewhere almost three years ago and the mostly Brotherhood supporters protesting today doesn't make sense. They're different groups of people, in different circumstances, saying different things. 

 

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The cruel optimist

A lovely portrait of labour activist Haytham Mohamedeen (whose recent detention caused a stir) by Sarah Carr at Mada Masr. Like many other activists of his generation, his life story is also an account of every major protest movement of the last decade. 

The factors that ignited the January 25 revolution — “social injustice, the narrowing of political freedoms, Interior Ministry repression” — still exist, and Mohamadeen thinks this will create a “new anger.” But the danger to the revolution now comes from groups that have allowed themselves to be fooled by the “smokescreen of war on terrorism,” he cautions.

“All the leftist forces that have been fooled by this slogan are, in my opinion, involved in a disaster and stupidity of historical proportions. [The Revolutionary Socialists] have as much enmity as other groups towards the Brotherhood, but we are not allowing ourselves to be fooled by a smokescreen called the war on terrorism, behind which Mubarak’s state is reinstating itself and revolutionary gains swept away,” he argues.

“Today, Brotherhood members are being locked up arbitrarily; sooner or later, that will spread to other political forces.”

At the end of the interview, I ask him to clarify whether he was in a microbus when he was arrested in Suez, or in a private car as had been reported — a very un-Haytham-like mode of transport.

“Of course I was in a microbus,” he responds with a wink. “Do you think I would be doing this job if I could afford to buy a car?”

 

Mubarak's last chuckle

Private newspaper Alyoum7 has been publishing a series of audio recordings on its website of Mubarak and some unknown voices (reportedly recorded by one of his doctors) in which the erstwhile president comments on events throughout the summer. The sound clips are crudely edited, creating a lot of awkward pauses where there probably were none. 

That being said, the voices sound over-rehearsed and sometimes border on hostages trying to keep calm and entertain a mad gunman.

Clip 1:

Mubarak and friends express admiration of el-Sisi. His unknown interlocutors tell lame jokes about the Brotherhood, eliciting gruff chuckles from the former president. 

Clip 2:

Mubarak and friends say the MB is stupid and crazy for going head to head (more like knee to head) against the military, the police and the people. One voice likens them to a mindless CSF soldier who just follows orders and can’t think for himself. They predict that things will calm down and fondly reminisce about Habib el-Adly’s good ol days when the Brothers were “collected.”

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On the Coptic diaspora

Michael Wahid Hanna has a long essay on American copts and their political influence in MERIP, in which he examines the sometimes radical (or outright fanficul) positions the diaspora has taken, its interplay with the government and others in the "old country." He concludes:

In the end, diaspora activism must be judged by how it affects the lives of those the activists claim to champion. Demagoguery might find an audience in the West, but will undoubtedly erode the credibility and position of Copts in Egypt. Diaspora activists must also come to grips with the internal divisions of the Coptic community and the variety of experiences for Christians in Egypt, who face differing treatment depending on a number of variables, including socio-economic status and geography. Egypt is the site of genuine sectarian discord, and it would be perverse if the efforts of Coptic diaspora activists were a further cause of strife and a rallying cry for Islamists who seek to implement a vision of religious supremacy.

A good piece to read along this post by Magdi Atiya on the always worth reading blog Salama Moussa.

 

The cult of Sisi

In my latest column for the New York Times Latitude blog, I try to explain Egypt's current love affair with its armed forces, and their leader, Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi

The public had soured on the military after the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, under the disastrous rule of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. But then it soured on the Muslim Brotherhood even more, and when following the June protests the military removed Morsi from power, the moment was treated like the end of a foreign occupation. Protesters waved flags — some had been helpfully airdropped by army helicopters — and army pilots drew hearts of smoke in the sky above Tahrir Square. Months later, children still stop to have their picture taken next to the tanks stationed on my street.

The Egyptian Army hasn’t fought a war since 1973, and the U.S. Embassy judges that its capabilities have “degraded.” But that’s not the point. People don’t love their army because of how powerful it is, but because of how much they want to overcome their own feelings of powerlessness. To the great majority of Egyptians, the army is synonymous with the country, and supporting it is a way of wishing that Egypt will become all the things it currently isn’t: strong, independent and prosperous.

The Squid

The Squid

Meet Adel Mohamed Ibrahim aka Adel Habara (meaning Squid - a reference to his resourcefulness and ability to reach anyone he wants) aka the al-Qaeda Chief in Sinai. The police says he is responsible for the second Rafaah attack that left 25 soldiers dead. They also think he is involved in the first attack that left 16 dead.

Habara reportedly confessed his involvement and reenacted the crime for them after he was arrested on September 1. This is a video of Habara  that was posted to YouTube on Sept. 2 (by a certain Emad El Ramadi, who appears to reside in the UAE) and circulated on talk shows, in which Habara tells his side of the story with state security before the revolution up until his escape from Wadi al-Natrun prison in January 2011. It's not clear where or when this was recorded, and Habara does not refer directly to the Rafaah attacks in it.

Dressed in white, with a blanket covering one leg, Habara explains that he has been a committed, religious man for ten years, minding his own business and with no connection to islamist groups, which is why state security informers showed no interest in him. Except for a strangely candid one agent.

“Give me your ID, so I can make a file about you in SS,” he says officer Ali Ameen asked him. Ameen, Habara says, has long harbored a grudge against him and was the source of all his troubles with the police.

 

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Sexual harassment and super-heroines

The online comic Qahera shows an avenging munaqaba fighting  sexual harassment in Cairo. It is a very powerful work, which captures perfectly the social dynamics surrounding harassment (the police officer who tells the victim: "Honestly, you have to look at what you're wearing, too," and that if she files a charge against her harasser, "you'll ruin his future.") 

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Although I tend to think that vigilante fantasies (and I have many) -- and real vigilantism, like that of some anti-harassment groups, who catch and beat and spray-paint offenders -- far from being empowering are actually the expression of despair and rage. Sexual harassment is so pervasive that we can only counter it in extreme, even fantastical, ways. 

Understanding Cairo

Lovely piece by Nael Shama in Le Monde Diplomatique on how Morsi and other Egyptian presidents did not understand Cairo, unlike Nasser who made it the centerpiece of his modernist societal project: 

Only Nasser — who clipped the wings of the aristocracy and uplifted the poor, creating a viable middle class — bonded with Cairo. The expansion in education and health services and the establishment of an industry-oriented public sector gave rise to, and consolidated, Egypt’s middle class in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1956, he vowed steadfastness against the tripartite aggression (Suez) from the rostrum of the widely revered Al-Azhar mosque, in the heart of Cairo’s old Islamic city. “I am here in Cairo with you and my children are also here in Cairo. I did not send them away [for protection from air raids],” he said, to affirm his loyalty to the city.

Nasser did not travel much during his reign. He was not a big fan of the tourist retreats of Egypt’s pre-revolution aristocracy. He stayed in Cairo, and there he died. In the autumn of 1970, Nasser resided for a few days in Cairo’s posh Nile Hilton during the emergency Arab summit convened to put an end to the bloody Palestinian-Jordanian conflict — Black September. On the night of September 27th, on the balcony of his hotel room that overlooked River Nile, Kasr El-Nil Bridge and the lights of the city that never sleeps, he told his friend Mohamed Heikal: “This is the best view in the world.” On the following day, he died.

Islamists Seize Town in Southern Egypt and Attack Christians

An account from Dalga, in Upper Egypt, where things seem to be totally out of control.  

“The fire in the monastery burned intermittently for three days,” Father Yoannis said. “The looting continued for a week. At the end, not a wire or an electric switch is left.”

The monastery’s 1,600-year-old underground chapel was stripped of ancient icons, and the ground was dug up in the belief that a treasure was buried there. “Even the remains of ancient and revered saints were disturbed and thrown around,” Father Yoannis said.