Detail from a lovely map of Africa if European colonialism had not occurred, as imagined by Nikolaj Con, via WaPo. Some other interesting Middle Eastern maps there too. Click on the excerpted crop for the full map.
A balanced and well-informed BBC interview of historian Khaled Fahmy.
Our friends Peter Harling and Sarah Birke contributed the following piece, a reflection on the state of the Arab world after a confounding 2013 that saw, for many, the dissipation of the enthusiasm of 2011. Harling is Senior MENA advisor at the International Crisis Group; Birke is a Middle East Correspondent for The Economist.
Two and a half years ago, Arab countries were abuzz with interesting conversations. Rich and poor, old and young, villager and urbanite, Islamist and secular all had their own take on the bewildering turmoil of the uprisings they were caught up in. They tended to be aware of the risks, hopeful that change was both inevitable and ultimately beneficial, and proud that the region could awaken and, after centuries of foreign interference, set its own agenda. Opinions were also invariably sophisticated, with people speaking profoundly about societies they thought they knew and had started to reassess.
This was a refreshing change from the pre-2011 tune of impotence. The region at that point, as its inhabitants saw it, was hostage to ossified regimes, intractable conflicts, worn-out narratives, and crumbling economies – not to mention Western hypocrisy, and schizophrenia, about urging client regimes to reform. Sterile agitation on the regional or international front, notably around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, distracted from thorough stagnation in domestic politics. Commentary was a cyclical run through the latest episode of violence, round of sanctions, realignment of alliances, or half-hearted diplomatic ventures. Uninspiring solutions to lingering problems left citizens reluctant to choose, among players in this game, the lesser of evils. Standing up to the US (like firebrand Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) or surviving an Israeli assault (as Hezbollah did in 2006 and Hamas in 2009) could certainly make you popular beyond your traditional base, but not for long.
Less than three years after popular protests streaked across the Arab world, conversations appear to have come full circle. Optimism that societies in the region could no longer be ignored and would bring about change has reverted to doom and gloom. Outside observers have jumped from one label to the next: Arab spring to Islamist autumn to reactionary winter. All-too often, local residents view protests as a conspiracy, a naïve illusion or an ill-fated hope at best. Many see a stark choice between a failing old order and hegemonic Islamist rule—or war, as in Syria. Opinions are generally crude, aggressively intolerant and more rigid than ever. Interlocutors sport surprisingly definite conclusions about their home-region, no matter how fluid and contradictory the current trends actually are.Read More
Another entry in our In Translation series, courtesy of the excellent team Industry Arabic. Comedian Bassem Youssef had his hit satirical news show pulled -- after just one episode -- last Fall. While he looks for new options, he has been one of the few voices of reason and conscience and humor in Egyptian op-ed pages. This column appeared a few weeks back, but what it has to say about local media's free use of anonymous sources, rumors and conspiracy theories is stll (and unfortunately will probably remain for a long time ) relevant.
Your Dear Old Professionalism is Dead, Shorouk newspaper, 24 December
by Bassem Youssef
What I read was not the typical sort of Facebook nonsense. And it wasn't a "prank" on one of those fake forums; it was a respectable article penned by the Great Writer.
There are a few names that just need to appear on any article for it to receive the "stamp of authority." For the Great Writer and Journalist cannot just flush his history down the drain and publish "any old drivel and that's it."
But between the "stamp of authority" and what I read I'm at a loss about what to believe.
Here the Writer is narrating true and accurate details about what happened between the US Secretary of State and the Gulf State Ruler.
And oh my what details!!!
The Secretary of State conveys to the king serious information about Qatar and their relations with Israel and the article goes on to relate how the Secretary of State fidgeted and how the Ruler cleared his throat. The article narrates with great precision what the US Secretary of State told him, from the opening "Allow me, Your Highness, to tell you a critical secret," to secret phone calls between Obama, the emir of Qatar and Erdogan, to how a Syrian minister snuck into Jordan dressed as a woman, to details about the latest episode of "Sponge Bob."
The article did everything short of following the minister into the bathroom!!!
The article was not a general account of what happened between the two parties – you know, the big picture. It was a word-by-word script with choice lines from a screenplay by Osama Anwar Okasha.Read More
One of the most surprising and troubling developments of the last six months, for those of us interested in cultural as well as political life in Egypt, has been the alignment of the overwhelming majority of prominent artists and writers here with the military-backed authorities against the Brotherhood, with the endorsement of state violence and the abandonment of pluralism and human rights that that has entailed. A few recent pieces have focused on this troubled intersection between between art and politics, nationalism and liberalism.
At Jadaliyya, Elliot Colla writes about Sonallah Ibrahim's novel al-Jalid ("The Ice") which came out January 25, 2011.
Like these other novels, al-Jalid is concerned with Left revolution—its defeats, its disappointments, its erasure—in Egypt and across the globe. And of all Ibrahim’s novels, al-Jalid is his saddest. Lacking the laughter of his other works, it offers little more than a laconic lament, a shrug, about the passing of so many revolutions. More than once, as characters walk through the Moscow winter, Shukri says, “And we walked across the ice…” The protagonist plods on silently, surrounded by “comrades” but also alone, the only sound being that of feet scuffling cautiously over cracking ice. The image is an apt one for describing the increasingly slippery and cold ground on which the Egyptian Left began to tread from 1970 onwards. With these unsure steps, al-Jalid ruminates on the failure of most every revolution the Egyptian Left ever believed in, and with that, it seems to mourn the passing of the possibility of revolution itself.
What does it mean to read Ibrahim’s latest novel as a satire in this sense? For one thing, it allows us to begin to recognize the author's deep skepticism toward the revolutionaries' proposition that another world is possible. Al-Jalid elaborates a form of Left pessimism, a Marxist, anti-imperialist critique of injustice and oppression, but without the utopian promise of justice or emancipation.
This is how Ibrahim, presumably, viewed things in the late Mubarak years. Recently, it is the great writer's lack of skepticism -- his belief that the Egyptian army is "standing up to the West" and to a US-Brotherhood conspiracy -- and his willingness to overlook, even condone, police brutality, that has shocked some of us.
Meanwhile, on the New Yorker's site, Negar Azimi writes of Alaa Al Aswany's embrace of June 30 and describes a recent literary salon in Cairo:
When it finally came time for questions, a young man in a hoodie got up and, with prepared notes in hand, made a series of statements about the crimes of the Army, ending with the massacre that took place in Rabaa al-Adawiyah. At one point, he said to Aswany, “Ask yourself, do they have the right to kill innocent protestors?”
Aswany—probably thinking, “This again?”—seemed taken aback. “I didn’t kill anyone,” he said, defensively, “but anyone who kills a member of the Army is a traitor … The Muslim Brotherhood has blood on its hands.” He reiterated a point he had made earlier in the evening: even though many of Egypt’s Communists had spent years in Gamal Abdel Nasser’s prisons in the nineteen-fifties and sixties, their party never turned to violence. “They didn’t touch a mosquito,” Aswany concluded. The Brotherhood, he seemed to suggest, had violence in its DNA.
At that point, a well-dressed woman, with elaborately pomaded hair and a tight-fitting top, turned to her friend and said, loudly, of the boy in the hoodie and his female friends, who were veiled: “They are with the Brotherhood!”
One of the veiled women took issue, and soon, everyone seemed to be standing, pointing, and shouting. I saw a few elderly people in the room slip out, probably anticipating a fistfight.
Both Al Aswany -- a star public intellectual and writer of blockbusters -- and Ibrahim -- a revered experimental writer with great political and moral cachet -- exemplify the position of most of Egypt's muthaqafeen, who have gone from cheering the Janurary 25 revolution to cheering General Abdel Fattah El-Sisi. Their positions shows not only the deep animosity that (for some justifiable reasons) exists between the cultural class and Islamists; it also shows how most intellectuals here continue to see themselves as guardians and spokesmen for an idealized strong state which they may criticize and oppose but which they cannot imagine life without and which they will rally to if persuaded that it is under threat. A point that is well-made in a recent article in Le Monde Diplomatique, entitled "Fractures among Egyptian Writers," which begins:
As repression grows in Egypt in the name of the "war on terrorism," eminent intellectual figures, nostalgic for Nasserism and often of the Left, have proclaimed their support for the army. This generation of elders is opposed by writers and artists who reject the return of the "deep state" and the betrayal of revolutionary ideals.
Another entry in our In Translation series, courtesy of the great team over at Industry Arabic.Khaled Dawoud was the spokesman for the National Salvation Front, a coalition of Egyptian political forces created in 2012 in opposition to Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi. Dawoud supported the June 30, 2013 protests against Morsi but resigned from his position after the police attack on Islamist protesters in Rabaa El Adawiya Square on August 14, 2013 that left hundreds dead. In October Dawoud was recognized by pro-Muslim Brotherhood protesters, dragged out of his car and stabbed in the hand and chest. He is a critic of the Islamist group, but nonetheless continues to argue against its violent repression.
Point of No Return
Khaled Dawoud, El Tahrir newspaper, December 28
On a daily basis and sometimes several times a day I receive the following question: "How can you defend the Muslim Brotherhood when they tried to kill you? Do they have to chop off your head for you to realize they're terrorists?" This is in response to my remaining committed to the belief that we must strive toward a broad national consensus and not just rely on security solutions. I consider consensus to be the sole means to bring about true stability in Egypt and to start achieving the real goals of the January 25 Revolution – most significantly fighting poverty, promoting education and health, achieving real development and building a democratic system where Egyptians enjoy rights and freedoms.
Digging for antiquities is a millennial traditional in Egypt. And there may have been quite an uptick in illegal digging in the last few years, as scavengers took advantage of the political upheaval and chaos. Our contributor Nour Youssef joined a risky, amateur dig and sent us this dispatch
Blowing his last lungful of shisha smoke at the check he just paid, a smiling Bondok turned to inform his company that women will never be allowed pay for anything in his presence and that efforts to break that law are considered attempts on his manhood. The young Cairo University graduate from Nazlet el-Samman -- a neighborhood next door to the Giza pyramids -- issued this law the day he grew the imperceptible strip of hair on his upper lip and is proud to enforce it more zealously when the female is foreign “to give (her) a good impression about Egypt.” In order to honor this law and his dance career, Bondok trades in antiquities -- or rather digs them up for others to trade.
“There is nothing wrong with it,” Bondok reminded me again on our way to his workplace, that is the hole under his aunt's house. “Nothing at all. We asked three sheikhs, one of them was from Al-Azhar,” his friend, Hossam, another CU graduate, added enthusiastically. Although one of those sheikhs is a fellow dealer, whose only Islamic credential is spending the 12th grade in Saudi Arabia, and another asked for a cut of the profit after his fatwa; the young men believe trading in antiquities is halaal. “If you say otherwise, everyone [in Nazelt el-Samman] will laugh at you,” Bondok’s cousin, Youssef, warned me with his hand against his belly to simulate mock laughter.Read More
Here are some articles to get a handle on the various Islamist militias now operating in Syria. Sarah Birke has an excellent piece in the New York Review of Books explaining the origins of el Nasra and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham.
But ISIS’s real power comes from the fear it seeks and manages to inspire. The group has shown zero tolerance for political dissent. Many Syrians I met along the border mentioned with horror ISIS’s execution of two young boys in Aleppo due to alleged heresy. The kidnappings of local activists and journalists has deterred dissent while also whipping up anti-ISIS sentiment. The group has blown up Shiite shrines, but has also shown few qualms about Sunni civilians getting killed in the process. Beheadings have become common. Father Paolo dall’Oglio, an Italian Jesuit priest who has lived in Syria for thirty years, and who campaigns for inter-religious tolerance, is missing, abducted by ISIS during a visit to the city of Raqqa in late July. As with dozens of others who remain in captivity, ISIS has not demanded ransom or announced his execution; rather it appears to be holding hostages as an insurance against attacks.
Here, according to a post he recently shared on Facebook, are some of the things "messengers" from Egypt's security and intelligence services has said to activist and former parliamentarian Mostafa El Negar:
“Dr. Mustafa, enough talk about human rights and torture and all that, let’s set the country right and enough of these delusions of democracy…
If you’re a patriot you need to shut up and let us do our job, and clean up the mess you made with your revolution…
You think because you’re famous and you were a deputy [in the people’s assembly], no one can touch you? If you keep on talking like this and don’t change your views, you’ll pay a high price…
Watch, you’ll be called a Brother and a supporter of terrorism -- raise your kids and take care of yourself and those around you…
That’s it, you’ve overstepped all the lines, you’re on the black list now, we warned you and you refused, bear what will happen to you and protect yourself from ‘honorable citizens’ when we till them you’re a traitor and an agent and we break you down completely and we make people hate you…
We won’t spare any of Baradei’s kids or the January 25 kids.”
An open letter from columnist Bilal Fadl to Alaa Abdel Fattah:
I would have liked to lie to you, to tell you that you’re getting a lot of support from the media, from the television channels which so recently made a theme of decrying the Muslim Brotherhood regime’s attempts to jail you, the channels that played and replayed “The Prisoners’ Laugh” — the poem Abnoudi dedicated to you when you were jailed after the Maspero massacre.
But your worst crime was that you would not stop reminding everyone that the police and the army had committed crimes, would not stop demanding that they be held accountable for their crimes as the Brotherhood leaders were being made to account for theirs. The bitter truth is that you are no longer remembered or mentioned now by many of the defenders of freedoms. You committed a serious crime when you were angered by the blood that flowed in the Rabea massacre, despite your differences with its owners. And another crime when you wouldn’t give a blank check to the oppressive authority — a renunciation of your right as a citizen to question and criticize and object.But your worst crime was that you would not stop reminding everyone that the police and the army had committed crimes, would not stop demanding that they be held accountable for their crimes as the Brotherhood leaders were being made to account for theirs.
Let's not forget other prominent activists who have already been handed jail sentences with whip-lash speed: April 6's Ahmad Maher, Ahmad Douma, Mohamed Adel and Mahienour El Masry, who is interviewed in the video below recounting the beginnings of her activism (she was just given a two-year jail sentence for demonstrating outside the Khaled Said trial).
A semi-regular column from our contributor Nour Youssef, who watches a lot of TV.
Placated by the official decree calling the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist group, talk show hosts finally got to stop pestering the government and move on to more pressing issues. Like the dispute that ensued in a classroom in Tanta. The conflict began, Wael el-Ibrashy tells us, when an MB teacher scandalized his students by resolutely mispronouncing the caption of the poster of General Abdel Fattah El-Sisi they had used to decorate a wall, even though it clearly read: “Sisi, Heart of a Lion.”(The Arabic word for ‘heart’ is dangerously close the word ‘dog’.) But the teacher denied insulting the army chief, faulting four students’ hearing for the controversy.
Meanwhile in the adult world, Mahmoud Saad focused on how this “belated” label -- which gives the government the right to punish members of the MB, people who finance it and/or support it verbally or by writing; return security forces back to universities; ban members from traveling; search and close organizations related to the Brotherhood and sentence those who lead their protests to death and those who follow them to five years in prison -- was primarily issued to appease people. According to die-hard army supporter and regular Al-Qahera Al-Youm co-host, lawyer Khalid Abu Bakr, the move was made to counter the devastating effects of Prime Minister Hazem el-Beblawi’s tactless acknowledgment of the absence of a legal text defining what a terrorist group is on the public.
Abu Bakr’s colleague, Amr Adeeb, took time to explain his Follow The Protest Theory to the "stupid organization" whose supporters wonder why his predictions are spot on. The trick is to wait until they protest in anti-MB neighborhoods and governorates like Dakahlia (where Mansoura is), Cairo, Giza, or Sharqiya, and then immediately assume they are going there to slip a bomb into a government building using the protest for cover. This theory is self-evident and undebatable -- provided you don’t wonder how one could sneak into a government building with reportedly sleepless people in it and place a bomb on a top floor during one the MB’s supposedly violent protests without getting caught; or why the directorate was deaf to Adeeb’s warnings (just like the Military Intelligence’s HQ in Sharqiya was a few days later before it, too, was attacked). You should also ignore the testimony of injured police recruits who said they didn’t search cars passing by that night, which is oddly lazy since far less important police buildings have been fortified and have the streets they are on blocked or closely monitored.
Gaber el-Qarmouti claimed the attack was an inside job planned by MB elements in the ministry and facilitated by infuriating police incompetence; he started screaming “penetration!” at the camera. What annoyed el-Qarmouti more than police incompetence, however, was journalist Ahmed Hassan Shawky who went on Al Jazeera and unveiled a relatively new conspiracy theory, according to which el-Sisi was assassinated on Oct. 17 and the person displaying affection in sunglasses all this time is a look-alike -- driving el-Qarmouti mad with the desire to know if Shawky ever saw Egyptian sand.
Out-pitching Qarmouti this week was Ahmed Moussa, who stood in front the partly ripped facade of the Mansoura directorate and asked God to curse the outside world and those who fear it, since they are undoubtedly and wholly responsible for all that is wrong.
Speaking of the outside world, el-Mehwar’s Reham el-Sahly has finally discovered who has been killing protesters for the past three years: foreign photographers. Turns out they have been literally shooting protests. Their cameras, el-Sahly found out, had guns inside of them. They also had GPS devices that fired nine millimeter bullets; guns that were so long they passed for walking sticks and could fire tear gas grenade; laser-pen guns (hence, the laser); and dope rings that shoot bullets “that can blow up an elephant,” according to Sahly’s guest, the political writer and researcher Amr Amar. He also took the opportunity of being on her show to vindicate the repentant traveler to Serbia and revolutionary Nagat Abdelrahman’s confession on el-Mehwar back in 2011 in which she dropped the“Freedam House gave every current revolutionary leader 50 USD to train people to burn shops” bombshell. That interview was widely cited as an ignominious example of staged propaganda -- but according to Amar it was all true. In case you're wondering why these random unnamed countries are conspiring with a privately-owned security services company, Academi (previously known as Blackwater) against Egypt, remember they have done this in Moscow, Iran, Romania, Kurdistan, Tunisia, Libya, Syria and Yemen at various unspecified points in history.
What was worse than hearing the sound of Reham el-Sahly’s gasp and Lamis el-Hadidi saying el-Sisi makes her “feel safe as a woman” this week was hearing Ibrahim Eissa coax “the polite people of Qatar” into revolting against their emir like a parent would a child into eating bamia. After all, how can they sleep at night or drive their air-conditioned jeeps when their dishdashas, galabeyas and kaftans are figuratively soaked in Syrian, Egyptian and Libyan blood?
Also depending too heavily on his persuasion skills this week was the self-titled “Defender of the Oppressed,” Youssef el-Husseiny, who leaned in close to remind us of how much we’ve gone through together and how long we've let his image sit in our living rooms before asking us to forget how admittedly lame he was giving the interior minister a 24 hour ultimatum to have a list of the officers who mistreated a friend and a colleague on his desk or he’d pull (someone else’s) rank. An unfulfilled threat he ate to save face after learning that testosterone and knocking on your desk doesn't always work.
Meanwhile, the coverage of the ongoing clashes between students and security forces in continues its obsession with how atrociously mannered the female students are. For example, Wael el-Ibrashywondered how one of the female students who called a security man a woman could have possibly acquired that knowledge innocently, while veteran Azhar faculty members mourned the days when the girls dared not turn their heads in their presence and cited a Hadith that said not to educate the offsprings of the morally deficient -- if you catch their drift…
To end on a positive note, Ahmed Sbider, a rapper-turned-terrorist-messages-decoder and Tawfik Okasha's protege, gave his analysis of Vodafone's recent commercial featuring puppets. The commercial, he told the sniggering Director of Vodafone's External Affairs on TV, has five words that worry him: Dog, garage, guard, nearby and mall. Because when taken out of context and rearranged, these words could mean that a big mall security guard will be bribed to let a car bomb that the security dog sniffed into the garage, where it will explode on Christmas. Sbider's host, Ahmed Moussa, then yelled at the Vodafone Director for seeming to find the report Sbider filed against Vodafone -- and which the public prosecutor is actually investigating -- funny.
There is plenty of vile propaganda going around Egypt these days, but this takes the prize for most vomit-inducing. Be sure to stick around till 2:20, when the Sisi voice-over kicks in, and the lead child singer ends the song with (in English) "I love you Sisi."
The parents of these kids should be ashamed of themselves.
Last link dump of the year...
The Islamic university of al-Azhar, which has its main campus in Cairo, has close to half a million students. The university is a historic center of learning in the Arab world and is where most preachers in the country are trained. Various Islamist groups are active on the campus and in the student union; they blame the university's leadership for supporting the military coup. In late October the administration asked the police enter the campus to quell protests, which has resulted in a running battle.
Police forces have surrounded the university and fired tear gas inside; they have raided dormitories and classrooms. In clashes between students and the police, students threw rocks and Molotov cocktails; the police fired bird shot at them. A dozen students were given 17-year sentences on charges of rioting and trying to break into administration buildings.
At Cairo University, a freshman engineering student named Mohamed Reda was shot and killed on November 28 in a clash with the police at the university gates. Mohamed Ibrahim, the Egyptian minister of the interior, defended the conduct of the police, saying that the students had blocked traffic and thrown stones at policemen. He also claimed that Mr. Reda had been killed by fellow students.
Gaber Nassar, the university's president, issued a statement condemning the security forces' "direct attack" on the university and the College of Engineering. The college's student union called the interior minister's statement a "fabrication." Clashes between students and the police have escalated since Mr. Reda's death.
Last week the engineering dean and three of his deputies resigned in protest. Sherif Mourad, the dean, told The Chronicle he had done so because he could not "secure the safety of my students." He said that when the police fire tear gas onto the campus, "this is not a learning environment."
The Middle East Studies Association has written an open letter to Prime Minister Beblaway calling on him to halt the violations of academic freedom at Egyptian universities. The Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, and NGO that follows academic freedom, has documented clashes and abuses at universities across the country since the beginning of the Fall semester.
I've written a little piece on the LRB blog about Jehane Noujaim's documentary The Square -- which still hasn't been screened anywhere in Egypt, unfortunately -- and Ahmad Abdalla's Rags and Tatters, which I've already written about on this blog.
The first hour of Noujaim’s film is full of familiar faces and jolting violence. The courage of the film-makers, who time and again barely dodged police onslaughts, results in some extraordinary footage. It is hard to watch this reminder of the yearning and suffering that followed Mubarak’s ouster. But it’s important to have this record. I imagined it being played on a continuous loop on all of Egypt’s TV channels, instead of the screeds against ‘terrorism’ and pop music video clips featuring military deployments.
The Arabist is published and edited by Issandr El Amrani, a writer and analyst based in Cairo, with contributions by friends.
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