Go see "Rags and Tatters" (if you're in Cairo)

Rags-&-Tatters.jpg

Ahmad Abdalla’s third feature film, “Rags and Tatters,” follows an unnamed convict who escapes from prison sometime during the uprising against Hosni Mubarak -- or rather is allowed to escape from prison: Some jails were allegedly opened at that time by the Ministry of Interior itself, in an attempt to foment chaos. 

The man, played by Asser Yassin, is a sympathetic everyman, with dark and feeling eyes. He needs to be someone we like to look at, because his quiet, registering face is the focus of the film. As if tired of all the talk of the last two and half years -- of all the words that have been worn thin -- Abdalla has written a film with almost no dialogue. Actors’ conversations are often inaudible, no higher then a mumble. What exchanges we do hear are the most basic everyday stuff: “Cup of tea,” “God bless you.” When a young would-be revolutionary harangues his friends in the neighborhood about the need to go to Tahrir, a nearby motorcycle engine drowns out his words. The only music are some beautiful Sufi songs: unaccompanied male voices singing of holy love and yearning. 

The movie is also unusual for what it shows and what it doesn’t show. It never portrays the protests in Tahrir. Instead, it is set in the streets and homes of Cairo’s poor neighborhoods. It does something radical simply by focusing closely on these environments of extreme deprivation, on their crumbling staircases and bare rooms, broken windows and peeling paint. A man’s whole life here fits in a duffle bag: a few old ID cards, some tools, a windbreaker. 

Abdalla’s “Heliopolis” was a study of stasis, a day in the life of characters who go nowhere: a police conscript stranded in his guard post; and engaged couple stuck in traffic; a young man who dreams idly of emigrating. His follow-up, “Microphone,” which focused on the underground music scene in Alexandria, was seemingly quite different, full of kinetic energy. But all the eager young voices in the film still faced the stagnation and repression of Mubarak’s Egypt, and couldn't figure out how to make themselves heard. 

This movie is Abdalla’s darkest and most powerful. It shares with his previous work a penchant for naturalistic acting; an under-stated social and political engagement; and an ambitious, creatively uncompromising vision. 

This movie is like an inoculation against official propaganda and romanticization of the January 25 uprising. In the Q&A after the film Abdalla corrected someone who introduced “Rags and Tatters” as a “revolutionary” film.  “This film isn’t about the revolution,” he said. “It’s about the conditions we lived under, and still live under.” It will only be showing in Cairo for one week, starting today.

Qatar's ambitions and American universities

I just published an investigation into American universities in Qatar in the Chronicle of Higher Education. The piece is behind a subscription wall, but here is the intro: 

Sixty years ago, Doha was little more than a trading post along a barren coast. Today the capital of Qatar is a giant construction site, its building frenzy a testament to the tiny Persian Gulf emirate's outsized ambitions and resources.

Under the emir, Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa al-Thani—and now his son Tamim, who took over in June—Qatar has become a regional power broker and a deep-pocketed patron of culture, science, and education. Doha's curving seaside promenade boasts an Islamic-art museum designed by I.M. Pei. The city is building a new airport, an elevated train line, and air-conditioned stadiums to play host to the 2022 World Cup in the simmering summer heat.

As another part of its bid to make Qatar a global player, the al-Thani family has recruited an important ally: American higher education. On 2,500 acres on the edge of the desert here, the ruling family has built Education City, a collection of modern buildings, each home to a branch of a well-known university, including Carnegie Mellon, Georgetown, and Northwestern. Those institutions are crucial to the emirate's goal of becoming "a modern society with a world-class education system at its heart," writes Sheikh Abdulla bin Ali al-Thani, who directs several of the higher-education ventures, in an email.

Yet some observers wonder if Education City, like many other attention-grabbing ventures here, is intended to do little more than bolster Qatar's international "brand." While professors say they are free to discuss sensitive topics in the classroom, outside the luxurious walls of the campus, speech is censored and political activities largely banned. Sometimes overzealous customs agents hold up shipments of books to the campus. Security authorities have even detained a foreign researcher who asked discomfiting questions.

Allen Fromherz, a historian who taught at Qatar University, which is not part of Education City, believes that the emirate's welcoming of foreign universities is intended to introduce only limited change. In his bookQatar: A Modern History, he says the emirate cultivates an image of modernity and openness but that Qatari society is still largely tribal, with power concentrated in the hands of a very few.

"How do you transform into a nation without also transforming the traditional, monarchical, patriarchal system?" he asks.

As the small but natural-gas-rich country emerges onto the world's stage, this and other questions are unavoidable: Are the American universities actors in the country's future or merely props? Can they teach students to think critically about the contradictions and changes in Qatar while under the patronage of its ruling family?

The Life and Death of Juliano Mer-Khamis: A Death in Jenin

Juliano was the founder of the Freedom Theatre. He was an Israeli citizen, the son of a Jewish mother and therefore a Jew in the eyes of the Jewish state. But his father was a Palestinian from Nazareth, and Juliano was a passionate believer in the Palestinian cause. He would often say he was ‘100 per cent Palestinian and 100 per cent Jewish’, but in Israel he was seldom allowed to forget he was the son of an Arab, and in Jenin he was seen as an Israeli, a Jew, no matter how much he did for the camp. Among the artists and intellectuals of Ramallah, however, he was admired for having left Israel to work in one of the toughest parts of the West Bank, and was accepted as an ally. Since its founding in 2006, the Freedom Theatre had been under constant fire: local conservatives saw it as a corrupting influence, even a Zionist conspiracy; the Palestinian Authority resented what Juliano said about its ‘co-operation’ with Israel; and Israel saw him as a troublemaker, if not a traitor. 

In a must-read piece in the London Review of Books, Adam Shatz portrays a complicated, compelling man and artist, and delves into the mystery of his murder. 

Ranking Arab Women

Last week, Thomson-Reuters put out an annual poll ranking women's rights in various Middle Eastern countries. The surprise this year: Egypt was ranked the worst country in the region (followed by Iraq and Saudia Arabia) and the Comoros Islands were ranked the best (followed by Oman and Kuwait).  

The methodology of this poll is very odd. It consists in asking anonymous gender experts from the region to "respond to statements and rate the importance of factors affecting women's rights across the six categories." (The categories are: violence against women, reproductive rights, treatment of women within the family, their integration into society and attitudes towards a woman’s role in politics and the economy.) The experts' responses "were converted into scores, which were averaged to create a ranking." So the poll isn't based on any analysis of data or legislation; it measures how 336 unidentified gender experts feel about women's rights. In which case, I'm not surprised Egypt came out on top this year: it's a reflection of the extreme disappointment and indignation over women's exclusion from the political process, their lack of security, their targeting for terrible sexual violence in the middle of street protests. It also probably reflects the preoccupation of women-right's advocates over the rise of Islamist political groups that clearly did not believe in gender equality. 

What facts the report then quotes to contextualize or bolster its ranking are often wrong. Women in Tunisia were shocked to be told, incorrectly, that poligamy is legal and abortion is prohibited in their country (it's the exact opposite). With regards to Egypt, the report mentions "a rollback of legal rights since the 2011 revolution." Which rights would those be? Islamists may have wanted to revoke khula' divorce or lower the age of marriage, but they fact is they didn't. The only thing I am aware of is the language of the Islamist constitution, which enjoined the state to help women balance between work and their family obligations (a balance men were not tasked with finding). 

No laughing matter

My latest for the NYTimes' Latitude blog is about the ongoing suspension of Bassem Youssef's hit satirical show El Barnameg ("The Show"). 

The first episode of the new season (in Arabic).

When the Egyptian comedian Bassem Youssef came back on the air late last month, everyone wondered whether he would have the courage to mock the army and its leader, Gen. Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi, as he once did the Islamists and former President Mohamed Morsi — and whether he’d get away with it.

Youssef’s satirical news show, “Al Bernameg” (“The Show”), was off during Egypt’s bloody, turbulent summer. Youssef’s return performance, on Oct. 25, poked fun at the over-the-top jingoism that has followed the army’s ouster of Morsi. It featured a skit in which a baker selling Sisi-themed pastries pressures the presenter into buying more than he wants (“You don’t like Sisi or what?”). In another skit, Egypt, portrayed as a silly housewife, calls in to a TV show to talk about the end of her disastrous marriage to an Islamist and her new crush on a military officer.

That was it for Youssef’s show: It was suspended. On top of that, the public prosecutor announced that he was investigating 30 different complaints filed against the comedian for insulting the army.

You can read the rest here

Things that haven't changed in Egypt

1. The abysmal treatment of detainees (and their remarkable resilience) as yet another foreign journalist's account of being arrested shows: 

During this time I studied the back of the man kneeling in front of me. The different rips and blood stains, the open wound on his upper right shoulder, where the blood began to coagulate. I could feel the man behind me resting his head on my back. As the sun set, the call for prayer was heard, and incredibly, after asking a guard’s permission, everyone somehow pivoted towards Mecca and began to pray, still crouched.

As time passed, the men started talking to one another. Speaking in whispers, some of the men near me said they were part of the march, while others swore that it was just a case of wrong place, wrong time. All but one were experiencing arrest for the first time. I couldn’t believe how well everyone was dealing with it, some even risking a smile.

“Don’t worry, your embassy will help” one said to me. “Yeah, but only if they know he’s here,” replied the man behind him. “Just stay… what’s the word? Optimistic,” said the man behind me, his head still resting on my back. The man in front suddenly gave that old trope that every visitor to Egypt would have heard a thousand times.  “Welcam to Eegipt,” he said. Everyone burst into laughter. “Shut up!” the guard shouted.

2. The solid relationship between American and Egyptian intelligence services: 

Gen. Mohammed Farid el-Tohamy, the director of Egypt’s General Intelligence Service, said had been “no change” in his organization’s relationship with U.S. spy agencies, despite delay of some U.S. weapons deliveries to the Egyptian military and talk of new Egyptian military contacts with Russia. “Cooperation between friendly services is in a completely different channel than the political channel,” Tohamy said. “I’m in constant contact with [Director] John Brennan at the CIA and the local station chief, more than with any other service worldwide.”

Assets of the Ayatollah

Fantastic investigative piece by Reuters describing a secret fund entirely under Ayatollah Khamenei's control. Originally created to temporarily administer seized properties and redistribute the wealth through charity, Setad has grown over the years, continuing to seize real estate and accumulating into a secret slush fund entirely at Khamenei's disposal.   

All told, Reuters was able to identify about $95 billion in property and corporate assets controlled by Setad. That amount is roughly 40 percent bigger than the country's total oil exports last year. It also surpasses independent historians' estimates of the late shah's wealth.

And:  

A complete picture of Setad's spending and income isn't possible. Its books are off limits even to Iran's legislative branch. In 2008, the Iranian Parliament voted to prohibit itself from monitoring organizations that the supreme leader controls, except with his permission.

 

 

The dangers of politics for women

It’s dangerous to be the first”  is the title of a report just published by the NGO Safer World, based on interviews with hundreds of women who are trying to participate in public life in Egypt, Libya and Yemen. According to press release, the report finds that:

..women are seriously worried that states are not responding to their growing security concerns and, in many instances, state security providers are part of the problem. Consultations with over 400 women from a variety of social groups across the three countries found that rising crime, the widespread availability of weapons, and violent conflict between armed groups are major security threats. In addition, women face targeted violence against them, including harassment, sexual assault, threats of violence, and slander. Many perceive the police to be ineffectual and even part of the problem. Threats associated with honour and reputation present a particular challenge for politically active women and are being used by established power-holders as a political tool to side-line women from public life and restrict their opportunities to feed into policy and decision-making.
There are signs that a vicious cycle is in operation where insecurity reduces women’s political participation and low participation in turn means continued insecurity for women as their safety concerns are not taken into consideration by formal and informal authorities.

One of the reasons that Egypt's cultural and political elite advanced for declaring the Muslim Brotherhood beyond the pale was their bigoted views on women's place in society and public life. But the truth is that "liberal" parties and the state marginalize women as well. 

No woman, no drive

Late last month a handful of Saudi women took to their cars to protest the kingdom's ridiculous ban on women driving. As I argue in a column for the New York Times' Latitude blog, the ban is a cornerstone of the country's gender segregation system (in a country that has been built around the automobile, it reduces women's mobility to nil), which in turn is a foundation of the religious establishment's authority -- over both women and men. That's also why Saudi men's support for this challenge is necessary and promising. 

I fantasize of a campaign to pressure US automakers to boycott the Saudi market (the industry's second-largest foreign market) until women there are allowed out of the back seat. 

Police brutality (part 2)

Also published in El Shorouk this week is this horrifying, familiar account of torture by a journalist working for the satellite channel MBC, Islam Fathi, whose ordeal began -- as they often seem to -- when he got into an argument with an officer while trying to approach the site of an explosion in Minya. The piece is too long for me to translate entirely, but here is a sample. After he has been beaten and subjected to a torture called "the bag" that involves tying together and suspending the prisoner from his handcuffed hands and feet:   

As I was hanging there all night I saw the legs of soldiers and officers coming in and out to beat me. I even saw a woman dressed in black, she must have worked in the station, because she made them tea -- she also joined them in beating me, and said to them: ‘Beat him some more, he’s not getting out of here alive.’
Then soldiers took Islam to a cell and ordered him to face the wall. After two hours the door opened and another high-up officer who said: ‘So you’re the one acting like a big man?’and he was taken back to the room for another torture session.
The officer was hitting me himself and said to me: ‘Say: I’m this…I’m that.’

After all this, the officer he had an argument with asks Islam: "Have you learned your lesson now?" He is charged with attacking the authorities (the charges are dropped when he says he will not contest them in any way) and a nearby hospital refuses to document his torture. Eventually he goes to another hospital; files charges; and goes to the press. He tells Shorouk: "If they did this to me for no reason, knowing I'm a journalist, what might happen to poor, simple people?" 

Police brutality (part 1)

 

This week as part of our In Translation series -- as usually assisted by the excellent folks at Industry Arabic -- we have an op-ed by Salafi spokesman Nader Bakkar in the pages of the privately-owned, secular El Shorouk newspaper, condemning police brutality against female pro-Morsi demonstrators (22 women between 15 and 25 were arrested while protesting in Alexandria. You can see a short video -- in which a police officer is trying to kick the women, and they are yelling "dogs!" -- here). I am slightly surprised that El Shorouk has opened its pages to Bakkar to criticize the police, and that Islamists would focus their indignation on the mistreatment of female protesters when hundreds of people have been killed during demonstrations since the summer (unless the explanation is that the clearing of Rabaa is still off-limits to editorialists). And just as Bakkar asks: Why don’t secularists care about the treatment of Islamist protesters? Others will ask: Why haven’t Islamists spoken out about state brutality – against Copts, young revolutionaries, etc. -- during so many of the demonstrations since 2011? He mentions Magliz El Wuzara -- or the infamous case of the girl in the blue bra -- but the Islamist silence on that violence (which they feared would derail their imminent parliamentary victories) was shameful. 

Young Women of Alexandria
Nader Bakkar
I believe that everyone – regardless of their political affiliation – who has held onto a shred of their humanity was dumbfounded by the arrest of 21 young women in Alexandria, the most recent insult we have witnessed. And not just dumbfounded but horrified that these Zahrawat were not charged with participating in anti-authority demonstrations or even violating the Protest Law, in its current, distorted incarnation – all they were charged with was protesting. 
Although the current security situation is indeed volatile, even if it deteriorates to a level far worse than it is now, the situation would still not justify treating young Egyptian women with such moral depravity and inhumanity. Those of weak faith: if you wanted to arrest one of these women for an infraction or on suspicion, you could have used female policemen to do so; you could ensure they preserved the female detainees’ dignity. Moreover, your religion requires you to act honorably, and governed by a sense of humanity. Unless you have no regard for religion, honor, or humanity? Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. There are universal laws that are stricter in application than your personal sadistic rules – among them: “Act as you wish; for as you judge, so will you be judged.”
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Another ex-president on trial

Mohammed Morsi stood trial today in the same venue where Hosni Mubarak did in 2011. As I note here, there were other similarities between the cases: a heavy police presence; angry supporters outside who let off some steam journalist-beating and rock-throwing; lawyers who nearly came to blows; and journalists who very professionally called for the death penalty for the defendants.   

The defendants themselves reportedly (the trial is not being televised) chanted against the military and told journalists they have been tortured and denied access to family and lawyers. Morsi refused to wear prison whites and insisted he is still president. The judge suspended the session a couple times because of the disorder; the next court date is January 8.  

Morsi and 14 others are on trial for inciting violence that led to the death of 7 people last December, during protests against him. Incitement is a hard charge to prove. They couldn't manage to hold Hosny Mubarak responsible for anything more than failing to prevent the killing of over 800 demonstrators (who did the killing was never addressed). But I better not get started on transitional justice in Egypt or rather the scandalous lack thereof. 

Karl reMarks answers commonly asked questions about the trial: 

What charges does Morsi face?
‘Being in office while elected’, which is a severe offense against Egyptian laws and conventions. As this is not actually a criminal offence, the prosecution team has helpfully come with a professionally-typed list of trumped-up charges. 
What is the maximum penalty Morsi faces? 
This depends on the imagination of the judges. The Egyptian judicial system likes to encourage creativity and innovation. The military junta will also have a say, although this will be relayed to the judges in secret because the military are shy and withdrawing. 

 

 

In Translation: Egypt heading outside history

Courtesy Industry Arabic, the latest in our In Translation series, in which Fahmy Howeidy -- a writer with moderate Islamist leanings and a big following --  critiques the drift towards a "militarized" political landscape. 

Egypt Heading into the Unknown and Outside of History

Shorouq Newspaper, 22 October, 2013

Egypt’s current problem is that it is moving along a path leading outside of history, and one fears that Egypt will drag the Arab world along with it in the end.

Reading Egyptian newspapers these days and following the statements of politicians -- who have begun to compete with each other to court the military  and outdo one another in praising its role -- it might not occur to you that the newspaper headlines, the comments of the editors, and the statements of the politicians could almost be an exact copy of the discourse in Turkey around half a century ago. However, anyone who has read the history of the militarization of Turkish society notes that the voices calling for the armed forces to intervene to save the country from chaos and collapse reverberated loudly during every political crisis. Given the fragility and weakness of the political situation, everyone considered the military the savior and rescuer. The military had credit with the public that permitted it to play this role, since it saved the country from occupation after the First World War, established the republic and led the process of modernizing the state. This is the background that was repeatedly invoked in order to militarize society from the establishment of the republic in the 1920’s and for 80 years afterwards.
 
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The new Arab capitals

The new Arab capitals

Earlier this month, Sultan Sooud El Qassemi wrote an op-ed in Al-Monitor that has stirred considerable controversy. El Qassemi, a writer, active Twitter presence, businessman, art patron, member of Sharjah's ruling family and friend, argued that the capitals of Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have become

..the nerve center of the contemporary Arab world’s culture, commerce, design, architecture, art and academia, attracting hundreds of thousands of Arab immigrants, including academics, businessmen, journalists, athletes, artists, entrepreneurs and medical professionals. While these Gulf cities may be unable to compete with their Arab peers in terms of political dynamism, in almost every other sense they have far outstripped their sister cities in North Africa and the Levant. 

Needless to say, the claim that Doha, Dubai and Abu Dhabi have become what Baghdad, Damascus and Cairo once were to the Arab world raised many hackles. The Angry Arab replied: 

What contribution to Arab culture have those cities made, unless you are talking about sleaze, worship of the European, denigration of the Asians, promotion of singers purely based on breast sizes and lip thickness, prostitution mentality (literally and figuratively), gender segregation and repression, the culture of measuring humans by the size of their bank accounts, etc.  Culture, what culture? Cairo and Beirut were known for hosting a culture that allowed (often despite desires of the ruling governments) various political and cultural trends to co-exist and to clash, and for the expression of divergent political viewpoints.  Cairo and Beirut were cities that allowed artists and writers to seek refuge and to express themselves artistically and creatively, and there is none of that in the Gulf.  Yes, academics and journalists are flocking to the Gulf but what have they produced there? What ideas? They go there and they work as assistants and propagandists in the entourage for this prince or that prince.  If anything, the impact of that Gulf oil and gas culture has been quite corrosive on the entire Arab world and its culture.  In that sense alone, yes, Gulf cities do play a role. 

 

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Who was James Henry Lunn?

The blog War in Context has unearthed the most information I've seen anywhere about the middle-aged American man who allegedly killed himself in Egyptian police custody. It's a strange, sad story.  According to someone who says he knew him in Malaysia:

Jim Lund was a retired truck driver from San Diego, living in Malaysia. Some years ago Jim was in a bad car wreck and suffered organic brain damage. For years he has pretended that he is an ‘undercover’ US Army general and had written his name in his passport as ‘Gen. James Lunn’. For some years he has had delusions that he would save the world. Two years ago Jim ‘invented’ a hundred-mile-long seagoing device that could transport water to dry climates. In August he left for Egypt with a small model of the device to ‘give to the Palestinians’. That was the ‘unknown electronic device’ he was carrying. A harmless nut but one who loved to be thought of as a secret agent.

 

In Translation: Sisi for president

 

This editorial by Ahmed Samir appeared in Al Masry Al Youm on October 12. It is translated, as usual, by the excellent team at Industry Arabic.  

Sisi for President: The Turn, the Turn, the Turn, the Turn

(1)

The Place: The Republican Guard headquarters

The Time: Days after the overthrow of Mohamed Morsi

The Event: The Brotherhood’s sit-in, followed by clashes in which dozens of Morsi supporters are killed.

And those who joined the Brotherhood are astounded.

For an entire year, the organization prepared to crush those whom Mohamed Abdel-Maqsud described as “atheists and hypocrites.” The Brotherhood did not understand why the “Get angry, Morsi!” campaign did not succeed, while the “Grind them to pieces, Sisi” campaign did… when the smartest one of them is a grocer in Zad supermarket. [1]

They didn't understand a simple truth: the security state is loyal only to the security state.

The Guidance Bureau's use of the organization's police dogs to break up the sit-in by Morsi's opponents at the presidential palace was proof that Morsi's continued hypocrisy towards the police and the many changes that he made in the Ministry of Defense, the intelligence apparatus, the Ministry of Interior, and the Republic Guard were not enough – and the organization had to do its own suppressing.

Afterwards, the Brotherhood chose a minister who suited them, and suited what they wanted to do in the country.

After this minister was appointed, the police killed dozens of people in front of Port Said Prison because they were armed (doesn't that accusation remind you of something?) before opening fire on their funeral the following day -- to the cheers of our brothers in God.

Ibrahim is Morsi's choice… but they brought him on for a reason. He did not carry his mission out in full for them, but did so for someone else. The question is, why?

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Podcast #43: Minority Report

A manly president, a bride like the moon -- this is Egypt,  Americans!

A manly president, a bride like the moon -- this is Egypt,  Americans!

The Arabist podcast is back after a long summer break, hosted by regulars Ursula Lindsey and Ashraf Khalil and featuring Lina Attalah, editor of Mada Masr. We discuss terrorism and military operations in the Sinai peninsula; the Egyptian media's cheering of the army; and the shortcomings of Egypt's new constitution. 

Podcast #43  (MP3, 30.1 MB) - or subscribe on iTunes.

Show notes:

Farewell to Syria, for a while

Syrian writer and dissident Yassin Al Haj Saleh, who after two years in hiding in Damascus fled to his hometown of Raqqa only to find it under the control of the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham group. He has now left the country. 

In Raqqa, I spent two months and a half in hiding without succeeding in getting one piece of information about my brother Firas. Nothing could be worse than this. Therefore, instead of celebrating my arrival at Raqqa, I had to keep in hiding in my own liberated city, watching strangers oppress it and rule the fates of its people, confiscating public property, destroying a statue of Haroun Al-Rasheed or desecrating a church; taking people into custody where they disappeared in their prisons. All the prisoners were rebel political activists while none of them was chosen from the regime’s previous loyalists or shabiha. With the exception of this flagrant oppression of the people, their property and symbols, the new rulers have shown no sign of the spirit of public responsibility which is supposed to be the duty of those who are in power.

 

A run-down of terrorism in Egypt

 

Nour Youssef has been trying to compile a comprehensive list of terrorist attacks reported in the Egyptian press. The problem, as she notes, is that "they keep publishing the same story under different titles, sometimes lumping a couple incidents together, throwing in an update (without saying it is an update), picking up a detail and sensationalizing it -- or all of the above. The result is a flood of bad news that overwhelms readers." After the jump, our list of reported attacks, in rough chronological order -- and some jihadist videos set to really annoying music. 

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