In Translation: Why don't activists have armed forces?

Last month, as the hit documentary film The Square hit silver screens, there were several reviews that used its heart-wrenching footage of Egypt’s revolutionaries to address the failings of the mostly young protest movement. Some American commentators like Eric Trager (in the New Republic) and Max Fischer in the Washington Post argued that the protestors were “incoherent”, that they “practically never leave Tahrir Square”, naively “too principled for politics”, that they “so alienated their fellow Egyptians as to actually engender sympathy for security forces” to take The Square’s director, Jehane Noujaim, to task for “never really addressing the many errors of the liberal protest movement.” Similar sentiment was echoed elsewhere, most recently (and prominently) by the influential New York Times foreign affairs columnist Roger Cohen, who wrote in a piece generally despairing of the state of Egypt,

There is plenty of blame to go around — for Obama, for the hapless Morsi, for the paranoid power-grabbing Muslim Brotherhood, for the controlling military. But above all I blame the squabbling Egyptian liberals who fought for Mubarak’s ouster but did not give democracy a chance.

In our view, these observers of the situation in Egypt compound mistake after mistake, in both their analysis and their taxonomy. Reducing the protest movement of 2011 to an ineffectual, middle class, left-wing group people detached from more profound realities of a poor country is not just unfair, it is simply inaccurate. Like so many observers of the “Arab Spring”, they confuse the media depiction of the protestors with their complex, at times surprising, reality. They also repeatedly make the mistake of labeling those people were neither members of Mubaraks’ regime nor Islamists as “liberals”, rendering the word meaningless in a country where that group actually includes many illiberal leftists, nationalists, progressives, and, yes, conservatives. But much more fundamentally, their decision to appropriate blame at the weakest component of Egypt’s polity (rather than the two strongest actors on the scene, the Muslim Brotherhood and the military and its backers in the business elite) appears not just misguided, but grotesque. This is not to say that these “liberals” did not make mistakes – no one has escaped unscathed from Egypt’s tragedy. But these are arguments are so specious (yet so widely propagated, most often by Western liberals – a category of people that itself hasn’t exactly shone in the last decade or two) it as if these commentators come from another reality.

This why the text below, by noted Egyptian activist and writer Amr Ezzat, packs such a punch. His indignation is fully understandable (even if he is somewhat unfair towards Trager, whose article does contain some worthy insights) and it amounts to a powerful rebuttal of the simply bizarre current trend of assigning blame on a generation of Egyptians that, tentatively but bravely, dared to imagine that their country could be different.

Many thanks to Industry Arabic for translating the article below (please use their services to make it possible for them to continue providing us with content only available in Arabic!), and KK for suggesting it to us.

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Podcast #45: Underdogs

Note: The original posting of this podcast linked to an older episode. This has been corrected – we apologize for the mistake.

Arabist podcast hosts Ursula Lindsey and Ashraf Khalil talk to Khaled Dawoud, a prominent Egyptian reporter and activist. Dawoud campaigned to remove the Muslim Brotherhood from power in 2013 but resigned as spokesman for the National Salvation Front, a secular political coalition, in protest over the killing of Islamist demonstrators on August 14. Dawoud has been attacked from all sides of the political spectrum as he continues to argue for a poliitically negotiated solution rather than the ongoing cycle of violence and repression. He looks back on his last three years of activism; the role of the revolutionary; the secular movement and whether, in ousting the Brotherhood, it became the pawn of the former regime and the military.

  • Mohamed Morsi's November 2012 constitutional declaration - link
  • Family of Al-Hosseini Abu Deif alleges he was assassinated - link
  • National Salvation Front Statement on August 14, 2013: "Today Egypt holds its head high..." - link
  • Constitution Party's Khaled Dawoud Stabbed by Pro-Morsi Supporters - link

Pharaohs, Caliphs and Field Marshals

Eminent human rights activist Bahay eldine Hassan in the pages of the New York Times: 

Egypt has never ceased being a police state. Hazem el-Beblawi, the interim prime minister, says it “is run by the security bodies,” which control the presidency, cabinet, media and judiciary. Interrogations and court sessions take place in prisons, security directorates or police compounds. Eyewitnesses are no longer required to identify defendants. Warrants are issued by prosecutors after arrests. Brotherhood members are arrested based on their ranks in the organization rather than their involvement in crimes. When detainees ask to see a warrant, they may be hit over the head with the butt of a gun, as in the case of a leftist blogger, Alaa Abd El Fattah, and his wife, Manal. When a prominent international judge reviewed Manal’s account of the arrest, he described it as reminiscent of the days of apartheid in South Africa.

 

In the midst of its clampdown on the Brotherhood, the security apparatus shifted its focus and began targeting non-Islamist youth activists, under the same pretext of “fighting terrorism.” At the end of January, the Justice Ministry established special courts to accelerate trials for “suspected terrorists”; peaceful demonstrators, too, are referred to these courts.

Tarek Hussain, 20, was convicted last year of attacking the Brotherhood’s headquarters. Last month he was among dozens of young non-Islamist activists arrested as they demonstrated on the anniversary of the revolution. All were prosecuted as members of the Brotherhood.

Sayed Weza, 18, a member of the liberal April 6 movement, also took part in these demonstrations and was killed. His last Facebook post said, “Please tell the coming generation that we loved our country!”

 

On the Cairo Book Fair

Carriers can help avid book-buyers at the fair

Carriers can help avid book-buyers at the fair

I wrote something for BookForum on the recently held Cairo International Book Fair -- on what books were selling well (crime thrillers and an Arabic translation of Gustave Le Bon's 1895 Psychology of Crowds among others) and what kind of talks were being given by the country's cultural establishment (I missed one entitled "The Deep State and How It Protected Egypt's Identity Under Brotherhood Rule"). 

 

The book signing of rapper Zap Tharwat

The book signing of rapper Zap Tharwat

On our way to the area housing publishers from other Arab countries, a crowd of young people flows past us, emitting a collective high-pitched fluttering sigh of excitement. A girl in a hot pink hijab and matching lipstick tells me that there’s a book signing by rapper Zap Tharwat. Later, I find some of his songs online, a mixture of the genre’s required bragging with the social awareness that many of the new “revolutionary” artists exhibit—he describes himself as “king of the oppressed.”

Saudi Arabia has its own hangar, a huge expanse of beige carpeting and identical stalls put up by the kingdom’s Ministry of Islamic Affairs. The vast majority of the books on offer are on religious topics, and they all look similar, thick tomes with titles in intricate gilded calligraphy. Young men in sandals, socks, short pants, and long beards—the outfit of the fundamentalist—earnestly peruse the books. Giggling teenage girls take group photos in front of large pictures of the Kaaba.

Across the way, at the stall of the Lebanese publisher Dar El Saqi, Issam Abu Hamden is promoting Solo, by the Saudi novelist Nour Abdul Majid, which is set in Cairo and chronicles the affair between a doorman and the wife of one of the residents of his building. He also has an Arabic edition of a book by the Lebanese feminist and poet Joumana Haddad, Superman is an Arab, a critique of Middle East machismo. Haddad likes to provoke, and just for good measure there is a special introduction of the Arabic addition entitled, “Why I’m an Atheist.”

 

A visit to prison

The testimony of the wife of Khaled ElSayed, a political activist who helped plan the protests on January 25, 2011 and was arrested on January 25, 2014. Read the whole thing. 

And I was searched again – the same humiliating search. Then I saw Khaled, and I wish I hadn’t. He looked tired and could not talk. He did not utter a single word.

I asked him, “Did they do anything to you? Do you want to complain of something?”

He did not reply.

I asked him. “Do you need anything? Do you want me to bring you anything?”

Again he did not reply.

The look in his eyes made me feel that he had been through a terrible ordeal in the past 48 hours. I could not see any signs of beatings or obvious injuries in his face, but his condition made me feel sure he had been subjected to pressure and violations.

The officer said, “That is enough. Goodbye.”

I had hardly been there for two minutes. I looked into the bag where I had put his food. Everything was open and torn apart and could not be eaten.On my way out I heard a wife of one of the criminal detainees say, “I have never seen such a crowded day. It is like three quarters of Egypt are in prison!”

The Crooks Return to Cairo

Bel Trew and Osama Diab, writing for FP on the potential exoneration of former spook, Sinai magnate and Mubarak moneyman Hussein Salem:

But for the first time since Mubarak was toppled, Salem's fortunes -- and that of other Mubarak-era businessmen -- may be shifting for the better. Since Egypt's generals ousted Islamist President Mohamed Morsi last July, Salem said he has been ecstatic and is planning his return to Cairo, his lawyer Tarek Abdel-Aziz told FP. The billionaire Mubarak confidant phoned in to a popular television program in January to offer a deal to the new military-backed government: Cancel my convictions and I'll give Egypt millions.
Egyptian officials publicly welcomed the offer.
"Mr. Hussein Salem and other noble businessmen ... your initiative is really appreciated," said Hany Salah, a cabinet spokesman, during the phone-in on local channel CBC. "Anyone who proposes a noble and good offer, then the least we can do is listen to him for the best of our beloved country."

Tourab Amsheer | The Windy Month

At the blog Not Quite Moi, alibey writes a poignant portrait of an aging Egyptian writer:

to get to Tahrir he has to pass through a hole in a concrete wall erected by the army to stem the tides of demonstrations but the scribe must get to Tahrir Square, as the world knows it, but to him it is still and will always be Midan Ismail, not that monstrosity with the red granite monolith, thankfully now long removed, yes Midan Ismail, ever so elegant it was, Ismail the rightful name of Midan el Tahrir before it was taken over and renamed by a fraud if ever there was one

sad but the scribe has spent that last few decades since his one glorious moment, which he no longer remembers except vaguely, something to do with a reworked version of the story of Keiss and Laila, but he has forgotten writing it, he has even forgotten where it is in his library, his own book, and so wanders about his large mother’s apartment in Garden City looking for something but does not realize it’s the book he once wrote

and so he goes on, sleeping in the very bed his mother died in, looking out the same balcony window (which she referred to as the balkone, in that charmingly old-fashioned Ottoman way of hers), where she saw him carted off to prison in ’67 by Nasser’s goons, because he dared to say that something which he can’t remember now in his favorite beer parlor and the Secret Police overheard it

but all that was long ago and now he mostly wakes up at 4am and shuffles between his various fridges, obsessed with moving unneeded kilos of once fresh spinach, still with dirty roots, and wrapped securely in plastic bags, from one fridge to the another, not to mention all his other foods, which he boils regularly late at night, and which have been so long in the fridges that they are quite difficult to identify

and now a soldier lets him through the hole in the wall and now he is walking to Tahrir in order to get to Bab el Louk and sit down in Café El Horreya as he has always done yes this is his custom

he tried recently, always trying, helpless, to make sense of the animated mural of aegyptianess before him, the roving bands of thugs, the prostitution and drug selling in tahrir, the boys who attacked him in front of the same French Lyçée where he studied long ago

The life of a Muslim sister

The life of a Muslim sister

Nadia is a former Muslim Sister with a gummy smile. She has run out of reasons to show it after the dispersal of the Rabaa al-Adaweya sit-in, which took the lives of 63 of her friends and acquaintances and a part of her that she can only describe by grabbing the air, her head or her chest.

Although she often finds herself in a depressive trance – remembering the overly-friendly girl she befriended during the sit-in who gave her a necklace as she had requested a few days before the dispersal, and how Asmaa el-Beltagy had promised to tell her an exciting secret upon her return to Rabaa – Nadia tries and likes to think that she derives strength from the bloodshed. “The sound of gunshots doesn’t frighten me,” she said, more to herself. This enables her to join the regular student protesters clashes with security forces at Al Azhar University, something many of her friends and relatives can’t do. “They would freak out at the sound of fireworks or any loud noise... and drive around all of Nasr City just to avoid Rabaa,” she added, before admitting that she too has only been there twice since the dispersal and had failed not to sob in front of the Central Security Forces (CSF, the riot-control police) leaning against their black vans outside the mosque on both occasions. But, to be fair, one of the outbursts was aided by a CSF van that followed her home (which is right down the street), matching her pace and discussing her mother on the way, to the great amusement of onlookers.  

Although she frequently gets labelled a Muslim Sister (and suffers for it), Nadia was among those mostly young men and women who left/were kicked out of the Brotherhood shortly after the 2011 uprising for objecting to what they saw as the leadership's deafness to criticism, political opportunism and betrayal of revolutionary goals in alliance with the SCAF. 

That batch, she says, is now divided into two camps. The first camp, to which she belongs, that has seemingly and temporarily returned to the MB out of solidarity and sense of obligation. Others remain resolutely separate. Those who have returned are not always fully accepted and often face accusations of betrayal and abuse, especially if they voice any old or new criticism of the leadership’s actions and how they lead to the state the Brotherhood is currently in.

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The pro-Mubarak belly dancer's talk show and other internet detritus

Nour Youssef writes to us regularly with a mix of legitimate, useful information and things I wish I'd never seen. I thought I'd put her latest missive up as a taste of the current ambient Egyptian insanity:

Reasons to at least limit ability to upload videos on Youtube:

Things that maybe interesting:

  • Bassem Youssef is coming back. On MBC.
  • The transcript of the absolutely ridiculous interrogation of Ahmed Abdelaty, head of the presidential office under Morsi, and one of the defendants in the espionage case. What's funnier than the fact that their "evidence" of the "crime" that is talking to people out of Egypt -- or worse, not even Egyptian people in Egypt, or even worse out of it -- comes from hacking his email is that they a) don't care/understand that that is a crime and so don't react to his emphasis on that and b) el-Watan picked this up and ran with it like it proved that Mohamed Badie surprised the smuggling of weapons from Libya to Egyptian MB youth in 2012, completely indifferent to or unaware of the fact that the word Libya was not mentioned in the interrogation, that the man denied all charges and that the investigative bodies are a).  

When will The Square be shown in Egypt?

Jehane Noujaim's documentary The Square has been short-listed for the Oscar, is now available on Netflix, and recently won her an Directors' Guild Award. But it has still not been released or even screened at a festival here. 

There have been a number of recent reviews, which in one way or another have raised the question of the film's viewpoint and its portrayal of a deeply divided, deeply confusing reality. 

At the New Republic, Eric Trager argues that Egypt's protesters also "bear responsibility for the mess that followed." 

But one year later—and only 15 minutes after Morsi’s victory in the 100-minute film’s run-time—the activists are suddenly willing to accept the military’s return to power. Morsi’s dictatorial maneuvers and theocratic ambitions, combined with his use of Muslim Brotherhood thugs to torture and kill protesters, has incited a mass movement against him, and the film’s protagonists eagerly take to the streets. “Do you think the Army will act in the same way it did?” Ahmed asks rhetorically. He clearly doesn’t think so, because he is once again caught up in the enthusiasm of yet another mass protest, and thus convinced that “Now the power is in the hands of the people.” It’s as if the film’s first hour and ten minutes never happened. It’s as if the previous military regime hadn’t shot Ahmed in the head.

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Al-Sisi, the presidency, and the officers

Hesham Sallam, writing in Mada Masr, hits on the central point of yesterday's announcement by SCAF endorsing Sisi as president:

If the purpose behind the general’s quest for the presidency is to afford the political status quo and the military’s dominant position the façade of democratic legitimacy, then yesterday’s announcement makes little sense. Notwithstanding the burdens Sisi has taken on and imposed on the military by entering into the presidential race, kicking off his bid with a formal mandate from the military proves and underscores the very realities that the general is supposed to conceal. Specifically, this development leaves no doubt in the minds of observers that political outcomes in Egypt are dictated by the military and not by a supposedly unpredictable, free-for-all democratic process that is responsive to popular will. By failing to unilaterally resign from his position and announce a presidential candidacy from a place of institutional independence, Sisi missed a perfect opportunity to dispel the claim that he is running as the military’s nominee. Instead, he chose to present his nomination as a direct response to the call of his own peers.
It is tempting to blame these missteps on sheer political incompetence. Yet more compellingly, this move seems to be highlighting Sisi’s insecurities about potential chatter among the officers’ rank and file that he is taking the military into risky political adventures for the sole purpose of personal gain. In such a context, yesterday’s statement signifies the publicized approval that Sisi needed from the officers in order to protect against possible backlash from within the military. By obtaining such a public endorsement, moreover, Sisi in effect made the whole military, as an institution, complicit in his personal bid for power. Such a measure makes it challenging for the officers to distance themselves from Sisi’s candidacy in the future. It makes it difficult for them to wait on the sidelines conveniently and strike a pact with whoever wins, as they had done in the 2012 presidential elections when former Air Force General Ahmed Shafiq and Muslim Brother Mohamed Morsi competed in the runoff vote.

What Killed Egyptian Democracy?

Continuing today's reflection on the failure of Egypt's revolutionaries, do not miss the sequence of essays in the Boston Review on this issue, starting off with Mohammed Fadel who argues revolutionary purity was the enemy of pragmatic progress:

The January 25 Revolution was also a striking failure of political theory. More precisely, it was a failure of the theories embraced by the most idealistic revolutionaries. Their demands were too pure; they refused to accord any legitimacy to a flawed transition—and what transition is not flawed?—that could only yield a flawed democracy. They made strategic mistakes because they did not pay enough attention to Egypt’s institutional, economic, political, and social circumstances. These idealists generally were politically liberal. But the problem does not lie in liberalism itself. The problem lies in a faulty understanding of the implications of political liberalism in the Egyptian context—an insufficient appreciation of factors that limited what could reasonably be achieved in the short term. A more sophisticated liberalism would have accounted for these realities.

P.S. Fadel has more grim reflections on the state of Egyptian society on his blog, where he doubts the very existence of Egyptian liberals or revolutionaries. 

"Our sin was pride"

From a long essay by imprisoned revolutionary activists Alaa Abdel Fattah and Ahmed Douma, in which they reflect on what went wrong:

Our sin was pride not treachery. We said, “We’re not like those who came before us, and so the young of the Brotherhood are different and the young Nasserites are different and the leftist young are different and the young liberals are different.” The weakness of our myth was exposed when we came up against the young officers.

To read alongside Steve's post on the revolutionary's need for self-examination – can't really say it's not happening, just that it's happening too late.

The revolution in winter


The third anniversary of Egypt's 2011 uprising was a dismal day for the revolutionary activists that organized it. Its birthplace in Tahrir Square was filled by pro-army demonstrators calling on military chief Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sissi to lead the country. Small anti-military rallies in the streets around were quickly dispersed by security forces and chased through the streets by army partisans. Deadlier clashes in the city's outskirts left scores dead. Over 1,000 people have been arrested, joining many prominent activists already in jail. The mood in the movement echoes a poignant letter released several days before the anniversary from one of those imprisoned revolutionaries, Alaa Abdel Fatah: "What is adding to the oppression that I feel, is that I find imprisonment is serving no purpose, it is not resistance and there is no revolution."

This day has naturally triggered despondency in a movement that has long used anniversary protests to rebound from despair. Only a few months ago, activists were telling themselves that having toppled two presidents, Hosni Mubarak in 2011 and Mohammed Morsi in 2013, it could easily topple a third. But now they see both their key symbol - Tahrir - and their favorite tactic - street protest - appropriated by their opponents. If al-Sissi nominates himself for president, as seems increasingly likely, he will face the long-term challenge of presiding over a state and an economy that are far more delicate than they were under Mubarak. However, unlike Mubarak, el-Sissi has a confident and committed mass following that believes Egypt needs a strong Nasser- or de Gaulle-style leader. Unlike Morsi, he has the full loyalty of the security forces and the bureaucracy.

But while the activists are sober, few are self-critical. 

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New book: The struggle for Iraq's future

Our friend Zaid al-Ali, constitution-watcher extraordinaire (see the podcast we did with him last year) has a new book out the disastrous path Iraq has taken since the 2003 US invasion. From the publishers's blurb:

Many Westerners have offered interpretations of Iraq’s nation-building progress in the wake of the 2003 war and the eventual withdrawal of American troops from the country, but little has been written by Iraqis themselves. This forthright book fills in the gap. Zaid al-Ali, an Iraqi lawyer with direct ties to the people of his homeland, to government circles, and to the international community, provides a uniquely insightful and up-to-date view of Iraq’s people, their government, and the extent of their nation’s worsening problems.   The true picture is discouraging: murderous bombings, ever-increasing sectarianism, and pervasive government corruption have combined to prevent progress on such crucial issues as security, healthcare, and power availability. Al-Ali contends that the ill-planned U.S. intervention destroyed the Iraqi state, creating a black hole which corrupt and incompetent members of the elite have made their own. And yet, despite all efforts to divide them, Iraqis retain a strong sense of national identity, al-Ali maintains. He reevaluates Iraq’s relationship with itself, discusses the inspiration provided by the events of the Arab Spring, and redefines Iraq’s most important struggle to regain its viability as a nation.

The Franchising of al-Qaeda

New York Times' map of al-Qaeda network

New York Times' map of al-Qaeda network

NYT's Ben Hubbard, on al-Qaeda's second wind:

What links these groups, experts say, is no longer a centralized organization but a loose ideology that any group can appropriate and apply as it sees fit while gaining the mystique of a recognized brand name. In short, Al Qaeda today is less a corporation than a vision driving a diverse spread of militant groups.

“Al Qaeda is kind of a ready-made kit now,” said William McCants, a scholar of militant Islam at the Brookings Institution. “It is a portable ideology that is entirely fleshed out, with its own symbols and ways of mobilizing people and money to the cause. In many ways, you don’t have to join the actual organization anymore to get those benefits.”

Egypt's Hobbesian moment

Thomas Hobbes. From Shutterstock.

Noted Egyptian rights activist Karim Ennarah, writing on Facebook:

January 25th might be defeated, but January 28th--I mean that Hobbesian moment that characterises everything in Egypt today--is not, and I doubt that anyone could put an end to this Hobbesian moment and turn this into a governable country. This revolution has changed things fundamentally, in a way that is irreversible (and I don't necessarily mean positively nor am I talking about democracy or rule of law) and the social crisis that remains of it is bigger than anything or anyone, despite those who think it's intellectually fashionable to use the term "uprising" instead of revolution in their headlines. As for us, those who are defeated, bruised and humiliated (for the time being, at least); I don't have the faintest hint of regret. If this nation does not progress in the future--if that social process cannot be geared towards a better life, then at least I, almost every one in this country, has changed forever. I used to have one existential crisis, no I have multiple, now this society is questioning everything--things we used to take for granted like democracy, rule of law, legitimacy, "the people", religion, and the concept of progress itself. Something's going to give, and at the very least, I know that my generation that is defined by this revolution will prevail some day, even if it takes twenty years..

The question now is, what will be the cost of all this?

There are multiple ways to use the phrase "Hobbesian moment" – one in terms of the use of brutal politics, in the usual sense of "Hobbesian" as that borrowed from Leviathan and meaning the absolute power of the sovereign, and its ruthless use, to subdue selfish or unruly citizens. It can apply to state repression or even revolutionary terror. Another, though, comes Hobbes' Elements of Law. It is about a fight to define, or frame, the future:

No man can have in his mind a conception of the future, for the future is not yet. But of our conceptions of the past, we make a future; or rather, call past, future relatively. Thus after a man hath been accustomed to see like antecedents followed by like consequents, whensoever he seeth the like come to pass to any thing he hath seen before, he looks there should follow it the same that followed then. As for example: because a man hath often seen offenses followed by punishment, when he seeth an offense in present, he thinketh a punishment to be consequent thereto. But consequent unto that which is present, men call future. And thus we make remembrance to be prevision, or conjecture of things to come, or expectation or presumption of the future.

For the last three years, the future of Egypt has looked hopeful at times and bleak at others (and of course looked different to different people). But it has always looked very uncertain, and that has not changed. This fight to define the future is likely to be long and bloody.