Last week in Egypt in TV

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

It is now generally inadvisable to involve religion in politics in Egypt, unless you limit it to condemning involving religion in politics. This is especially true if you are just looking for a hadith that recommends the murder of your political opponents.

But ONtv presenter Youssef el-Husseiny has too much testosterone to care. Earlier this week, in an effort to see how much the Brothers like Sharia now, Husseiny told us a story about the Prophet and the Jews of Banu Nadir and Banu Qaynuqa, which he argued gives the authorities the religious right to kill all Brothers that hit puberty.

Those Jews, Husseiny tells us, used to gloat over the misfortunes of the Muslims (just like the MB celebrated their fellow Egyptian Muslims' embarrassing football defeat) and broke the medina charter by collaborating with Quraysh, if only in spirit, against the Muslims in their unsuccessful siege of el-Medina during the Battle of the Trench. After the Muslims won, the Prophet, he says, asked his wounded companion Sa’d ibn Mo’ez what to do with the treacherous Jews, and Sa’d suggested the mass murder of all the post-pubescent males of the said tribes, or at least everyone capable of fighting. Given that it was a time of war, the Prophet followed Sa’d’s advice.

Moral of the story is: The Brothers are like the Jews of Nadir, we are in a time of war and they want Sharia, right? [Smile] They do realize Sharia would see them killed? Perhaps they want to disagree with Sharia and -- God forbid -- claim to know better than Sa’d, the Prophet [pause and smile some more] and Allah!

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In case you're wondering how things are in Egypt: not good

The highlights of the last week include:

1. A new law "regulating" protests that has been energetically put into effect by the Ministry of Interior.

The break-up of a protest outside the Shura Council. Uploaded by Mosireen on 2013-11-30.

2. The arrest of two of the country's most renowned digital activists and youth grassroots organizers, Alaa Abdel Fattah and Ahmad Maher. That these two young men are being targeted (again!) is a worrying sign of how emboldened the Ministry of Interior feels to go after its non-Islamist enemies now. This is accompanied by the usual media campaign. We linked to a piece last week smearing activists as sexual deviants and immoral hooligans; here's another recent example of writing in a similar vein (it's in Arabic): "Human rights? What human?" 

3. The murder of Cairo University Engineering student Mohamed Reda, who was shot by police in yet another clash on campus. This has led to further protests and student ferment

Al Masry Al Youm video

4. Last but not least, the handing down of 11-year sentences to female teenage supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood who held a protest. While Mubarak is out on appeal and police officers charged with shooting demonstrators have been cleared. 

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Egypt's Jon Stewart on Comedy and Politics

Our old friend Liam Stack has a great interview with comedian Bassem Youssef on the New York Times' Lede blog: 
Q. The last three years have been very turbulent for Egypt, since the revolution that overthrew Mubarak. Looking back, what do you think have been the most important lessons from that time?

A. The most important lessons? That Egypt is totally unpredictable, and if you think you’ve got it figured out you’re wrong. And we are doing a very, very good job being the soap opera of the world. It’s too dramatic. We’re drama queens of the news right now. We’re always in the news.

 

How to recognize an Egyptian activist

A taste of the kind of venomous, scurrilous attacks being launched all over the Egyptian media against the young people who made January 25, 2011 happen. This latest installment of our In Translation series is brought to you as always by the excellent translation service Industry Arabic. 

Characteristics of an Egyptian Activist, by Dandrawy Elhawary, November 23, El Youm El Sabaa

Political activists in Egypt vary according to gender. The male activist is unemployed, soft and effeminate, with long hair that is either braided or disheveled,  and he wears a bracelet and a Palestinian keffiyeh. He has a Twitter account, a Facebok page, likes to curse and use disgusting obscene expressions. He repeats slogans calling for a non-religious state, attacking heavenly religions and accusing them of being backwards and reactionary, and he defends the rights of sexual deviants.

On the other hand, the female activist takes on the male role -- she "mans up." She listens to the songs of Sheikh Imam and the lewd poetry of Fouad Haggag and Naguib Sorour. She "likes" all the pages that use foul language and puts pictures of the great revolutionary Che Guevara on her Facebook and Twitter profiles.

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That never-ending path to democracy

That never-ending path to democracy

Yesterday, as a who's-who of Egyptian activists and human rights workers was harassed and detained for peacefully protesting, I thought back to US Secretary of State John Kerry's remarks when he visited Egypt earlier this month. Kerry glibly subscribed to the version of events of a government that -- on the official state information service web site no less -- compares Morsi to Hitler and claims Egypt has "saved the world from terrorism," and spoke of progress and challenges and Egypt's oh-so-promising roadmap. I couldn't help annotating part of his joint statement with Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy:

Nothing will help bring the people of Egypt together more or provide more economic stability or provide more confidence in the future than an Egypt that is participating in a democratically elected government that is brought about through inclusive, free, and fair elections [There is a very strong chance the Muslim Brotherhood will be excluded from the upcoming elections and from political life generally. April 6, one of the country’s most respected grassroots youth groups, has been denied permission to monitor the elections]. And we will support the interim government and the Egyptian people in that end.

Minister Fahmy and I agreed on the need to ensure that Egyptians are afforded due process with fair and transparent trials, civilians tried in a civilian court [The constitutional assembly has approved an article in the new Egyptian constitution that allows military trials for civilians]. And we discussed the need for all violence to end. All acts of terror in Egypt must come to an end – all acts – for Egyptians to be able to exercise restraint and the need for accountability for those acts of violence.

I mentioned to the Minister that, obviously, part of the roadmap and part of the process of strengthening Egypt’s linkages to the rest of the world will be measured in the way in which the people of Egypt are sustained in their ability to have the right to assemble, the right to express themselves [a new law aggressively restricting the right to protest was issued Monday]. But even as they do that, we also agreed no one should be allowed to practice violence with impunity [Does that include police violence for which no one has been held accountable yet?].

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Zogby says Egypt "split down the middle" on coup [PDF]

From a Zogby poll of public opinion in Egypt, from this September:

A plurality (46%) of all Egyptians believe that the situation in their country has become worse, not better, since the Morsi government was deposed. Eighty percent (80%) of FJP supporters express this view. But only about one-half of the rest of the country feels that Egypt is better off, with nearly one in five saying that the situation is the same as it was before the military intervened.

The military remains the institution in which Egyptians have the greatest confidence, but their positive rating has declined to 70%, owing to a sharp drop in support from those who identify with the Muslim Brotherhood’s FJP and a slight decline in support among liberals and those Egyptians who associate with none of the country’s parties.

The country is split down the middle in its view of the military’s July 3rd deposing of the Morsi government. The FJP, of course, is unanimous in finding the military’s action incorrect, while almost two-thirds of the rest of Egyptians support the deposing of Morsi.

With the caveat that polls in Egypt can be unreliable, this suggests that coup-skeptics are more numerous than imagined – but perhaps too intimidated by pro-coup propaganda and the ongoing crackdown to go out and demonstrate about it. And it's not about being pro-MB, either, or anti-military. 

On Mohamed Mahmoud Street

From a piece just published on the LRB blog

The authorities cleaned up Tahrir Square ahead of yesterday’s anniversary. They white-washed the layers of graffiti on government buildings, erasing the accusations against generals that they are traitors and murderers. They put in new turf, flowers, flags, a review stand, and a small marble podium, with a plaque that – under the names of two interim government officials and a general – promised the imminent arrival of a memorial statue. It did not specify what was being remembered.

On television a few nights before, Ahmad Harara, a young dentist blinded in both eyes in separate clashes, shamed a TV presenter into reading out the names and ages of all the Mohamed Mahmoud dead. ‘All this?’ the presenter blurted out, before going through the list, which he said was ‘heart-breaking’. Harara pointed out that General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was part of the army leadership that oversaw the killings. ‘Are those men, who are still arresting and torturing people now,’ he asked, ‘going to hold the memorial service for the people they killed?’

On Monday, the square was surrounded with tanks and barbed wire. Officials scuttled in and out for a rapid ceremony with no audience.

Later that morning, people milled around the refurbished square. On the grass in the middle, TV crews conducted interviews. A group of men were talking. ‘It’s all their fault,’ said a man in a nice shirt with a bluetooth earpiece. He meant the Muslim Brotherhood. ‘They stole the revolution.’ One young man told another: ‘I should be able to say that something’s wrong without being called a terrorist and a Brother.’ There was disagreement over how bad Mubarak actually was. A self-identified leftist talked about the need for transitional justice. ‘I didn’t go down into the street for Islam,’ he said. ‘I went down against oppression.’ I stood on the edge, wondering how many in the crowd were informers. 

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.

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

Egyptian constitutions galore

Courtesy of the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA), a handy chart of Egypt's recent experiments with constitutions, including a partial draft of the current work-in-progress. Thanks to Zaid al-Ali for compiling.


 

English

Arabic

Commentary

Draft Constitution by the 50 member committee (C50)

 10 November 2013

Link

Link
Link

 

The 50 member committee (C50)'s rules of procedure
 
12 September 2013

Link

Link

 

The presidential decree establishing a 50 member committee (C50) to prepare a final version of the draft constitution
  
1 September 2013

Link

Link

 

The proposed changes to the 2012 Constitution by the 10 member expert committee (C10)
  
20 August 2013

Link

Link

Link

The Constitutional Declaration suspending the 2012 constitution and establishing a new road map for the country
 
8 July 2013

Link

Link

Link

The 2012 Constitution 

  25 December 2012

Link

Link

Link

The March 2011 Constitutional Declaration
  
30 March 2011

Link

Link

Link

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.”

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. 

 

 

Traffic, the antidote to propaganda

Traffic, the antidote to propaganda

The army and the people are one hand. Egypt is above everyone. And everything. It is also more important than everyone. And everything. We would sacrifice everything for it. We make promises and fulfill them. We will build with honesty and something related to sincerity that I would have read if the car wasn’t traveling so fast.

These short poetic sentence can be found in blue-on-white signs hanging under street lights, so you can learn the value of the homeland even at night - if you squint. They are on the new and improved Misr-ismailia Road, courtesy of interim president Adly Mansour (in the presence of General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi) and the armed forces.

As if having learned nothing from Titanic, I have, on one more than one occasion, bragged about how cars unfailingly maintained constant motion on this "unstoppable" road. Five lanes, I would boast -- it can comfortably take six cars and a motorcycle.

That was the case until the generals blocked it to tell us about how smooth traffic is on it and will continue to be now that they have fixed and peered over a map of it. (The very same map deposed president Morsi stood in front when he, too, was inaugurating the armed forces’ developments on the very same road with el-Sisi a few months ago.)

Sadly, the road improvements had been used too often for anyone to put another red ribbon on them now. So Mansour had to settle for inaugurating a never-before-used right turn.


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Trouble on campus

 

According to the minister of education, if you knew what is going on in Egyptian universities, you would faint. As a frequent university goer, I can assure you that you wouldn't. In all likelihood, you would just lose body moisture and tolerance of others.

His remark was addressed to the “trembling hand” that is the government that is Prime Minister Hazem el-Beblawi, whom talk shows have been taking aim at for not trying hard enough to stop everything from getting worse. (Presumably they are doing this to salvage some pretense of objectivity and because it is probably fun to heroically yell at “them,” the unnamed people who really are in charge, for not removing the people you disapprove of from their posts.)

One of el-Beblawi’s greatest weakness, many think, is his inability to get universities under control. Since most of the Muslim Brothers lucky enough not to be in prison are in universities, so are most of their protests. (The rest materialize in villages and poor neighborhoods that are easier to ignore and tend to disperse as quickly as they have gathered.) Cairo University Brothers, for instance, protest on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, according to MB youth leader Ahmed Badawi (who recently joined his superiors in prison).

The MB protests usually lead to small counter-protests by smirking pro-Sisi students, which culminates in the protrusion of veins, the stretching of many collars, and occasional injuries sustained while scores of unfazed students shuffle by, hugging books or filming videos that manage to show nothing and explain less.

If one were to graph the number of students protests against apathy towards them, one would have a straight line shooting up to the corner of the page and beyond. And it is more or less the same story everywhere. Some angry students protest. Others disagree. Violence erupts. Security doesn’t intervene due to a committed policy of non-participation in real or potential danger. Flushed, a dean strides in somewhere followed by glaring subordinates. He orders an investigation (a synonym for suspending students, a decision that may or may not be renewed at will, and withdrawing their IDs, denying them entry to campus). Some time later comes an announcement of cameras being installed to record spreaders of chaos in the act.


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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.

 

Egypt and the f-word

Egypt and the f-word

 

This guest post is written by Bilal Ahmed, a writer and activists who is preparing for graduate research that compares the tribal laws and central governance of the tribal areas of Pakistan, and Yemen.

During their brief tenure in power, the Muslim Brotherhood and Mohammad Morsi were increasingly accused of fascism. Now, as Egypt’s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood continues, the accusations of fascism have begun again. Much of this is because popular discourse has a knee-jerk tendency to link any form of authoritarianism with Nazi Germany. It becomes easier to do that in a national context in which we see fierce nationalism, growing xenophobia, assault against domestic minorities, and the gleeful celebration of state violence.

Let us be clear: Egypt hasn’t gone fascist. And saying that constrains how we should think about its politics in the coming years.

When we compare trends in Egyptian politics to something as complicated as the rise of Continental European fascism, we are as much probing the idea of Egypt going fascist as we are the nature of fascism itself. The rise of fascism in Europe was the result of specific political factors that, although currently present in Egypt, have not been rallied in the service of mass politics in a way that invites the word.


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