Links February 8 - 13 2015

At least 19 died outside a soccer stadium in Cairo in February 8 after a stampede and clashes with police

At least 19 died outside a soccer stadium in Cairo in February 8 after a stampede and clashes with police

imprisoned and on trial activist Alaa Abdel Fattah reached 100 days on hunger strike 

imprisoned and on trial activist Alaa Abdel Fattah reached 100 days on hunger strike 

The Chapel Hill murders

From The New Yorker:

“Isolated incident” was the preferred verbiage of Ripley Rand, the local U.S. attorney. Rand said that he saw no reason to treat the targeting and assassination of these three Muslims as “part of a targeted campaign against Muslims”—as if a broader conspiracy were needed for Hicks’s crime to have broader significance.
So there you have it. Some people are sensitive about parking. One such person stood his ground. Now three young innocents are dead, and he’s being held without bond in the county jail. A lamentable affair, but, told like that, shorn of all context, it’s not unlike a song on the radio, folkloric. Our imaginations are primed to grasp it.
What’s hard to get one’s mind around is that everyone who’s singing this tune—the police, the wife, the prosecutor—seems to think that it’s reassuring. Getting blown away by a neighbor just because he’s pissed off at you for some ridiculous reason has become the equivalent of a natural disaster in our country, with our gun culture. It’s got nothing to do with the killer’s ideology, or with the victim’s identity. That’s the thinking. And, with this “parking” alibi, we’re being asked to imagine that these killings are a private tragedy, not some big public deal—not terrorism, not even like terrorism. We’re being told to believe that the vigilante killing of three young Americans is socially and politically meaningless.
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Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

Life in Mosul

Really interesting essay in The American Interest by a former Mosul resident (who says  Da'esh first appeared in the city in 2006). 

Eight months of ISIS so far, as I sit to write, have taken their toll on every aspect of the city. Electricity and running water are available for two to four hours a week, but no one knows which hours in any given week. Umm Saja, an employee at a city office, said that she is not surprised by the lack of services: “Providing clean water and energy to people is not child’s play. It takes regular, trained employees and experts. How are a bunch of brainwashed young people who have not finished grade school going to maintain such functions?” People approach the militants to complain only to be answered, “You Moslawis are too spoiled. Think about the early days of Islam. Did the Prophet own an air-conditioner?”
In these complaints one hears not only the voiced Islamist cant, but also the rural accents beneath it that identify most ISIS cadres as poorer, less well-educated Iraqis who have resented Mosul urbanites all their lives. This is a central sociological dimension to what has been going on that the Western press has missed almost entirely, as far as I can tell. More on this theme anon.
...
Scores of Mosul residents have abandoned going to mosques altogether and choose to pray at home to avoid ISIS. Hasan added: “There is a young man who lives around this area; an absolutely immoral perverted person so that I do not have enough bad words to describe with. He has joined ISIS and grown a long beard. Now he roams the market place fully armed. I see him and think, ‘if this lowlife represents Islam, then I no longer need this religion’—and then I quickly ask Allah for forgiveness.”
Ruaa, 35, told me she misses her “Christian neighbors as Christmas approaches. We used to visit them during their holidays. They were family and we were not able to offer them any help. I am ashamed of myself and my religion. I do not blame them if they hate Islam.” The most extreme statement came from Saad, a 29-year-old physician: “Our problem is with Allah. Every murderer, rapist, and thief speaks in His name and He does nothing. Do not tell me Allah exists. If He does, then He is content with what is happening. Either way I want nothing to do with Him.”
While atheism exists everywhere, what is rising in Mosul, and probably in Raqqa too, is a trend worth noting. When young people, once devoted Muslims, decide to stray from the Creator in anger, the future will bear the consequences. A young doctor told me he has become a heavy smoker and laughs about the extreme lengths he goes to just to get his hands on smoke after ISIS added cigarettes to its extended “taboo list.” He wrapped his amusing story with blasphemy: “If not only ISIS, but if Allah Himself comes down here to Mosul and tells me stop, I will still find a way to smoke.” This is a far cry from the man I used to know, who backed the Islamic Party in all national and local elections. ISIS is driving him crazy.
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Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

Syria and the Western left

From an interview with Yassin Al-Haq Saleh, a prominent Syrian dissident who fled the country after participating in the uprising and living in hiding for several years:

I am afraid that it is too late for the leftists in the West to express any solidarity with the Syrians in their extremely hard struggle. What I always found astonishing in this regard is that mainstream Western leftists know almost nothing about Syria, its society, its regime, its people, its political economy, its contemporary history. Rarely have I found a useful piece of information or a genuinely creative idea in their analyses. My impression about this curious situation is that they simply do not see us; it is not about us at all. Syria is only an additional occasion for their old anti-imperialist tirades, never the living subject of the debate. So they do not really need to know about us. For them the country is only a black box about which you do not have to learn its internal structure and dynamics; actually it has no internal structure and dynamics according to their approach, one that is at the same time Western-centered and high-politics centered.
...
In the last two months the Americans have openly appended our cause to their war-on-terrorism agenda. Their war on ISIS is saying that the regime that killed or caused the killing of more than 200 thousand people is only a detail; the thuggish entity of ISIS is the real danger. And of course American military training will follow the American political priorities, using Syrians as tools in their (the Americans’) war, not for concluding our struggle for change in Syria. 
In short, I think that the outcome of the American program of training Syrians will be to completely destroy the weakened FSA, converting it into cheap local mercenaries without a cause, confronting the fascists of ISIS for years for the Americans’ sake, and giving their backs to the fascists of Assad.
In sum, I am among those who adamantly oppose the American military training of Syrians. 
...
I do not have any essentialist grudge towards the United States, but the superpower was extremely inhumane towards my country, and its present war is extremely selfish. It is quite feasible in my opinion to conclude from American policy in Syria that Washington is radically antagonistic to democracy and the rights of the underprivileged. I suppose this means that its war in Syria is reactionary, and that it will make everything worse for the majority in the country and the region. 
2 Comments /Source

Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

Sisi: "This love of the people is a new experience for me"

This interview of Sisi in Der Spiegel is worth reading in full.

SPIEGEL: You landed in this office because of a coup. That's what we call it when a democratically elected president -- even a lousy one -- is toppled with force.
Sisi: Your characterization of the situation is not clear and hence your understanding is inaccurate. You judge our experiences from your own cultural, civilizational and developmental vantage point and you cannot remove yourselves from this context. You need to understand what happened in Egypt in light of the circumstances, challenges and threats faced by Egypt.
SPIEGEL: You mean the country's increasing Islamization through the Muslim Brotherhood and former President Morsi?
Sisi: What you refer to as a coup was our second revolution. What if half of the population of Germany, France or Great Britain took to the streets to demand the overthrow of the government? If these governments were to plan the use of force and there was then no intervention …
SPIEGEL: … you mean through the military …
Sisi: … then even these countries would slide into civil war. If we had not intervened, we would not have fulfilled our historical and moral responsibility.
SPIEGEL: You felt summoned by the people?
Sisi: Even if only a million people demonstrate in the streets against a ruler, he should step down. But in our region, that hasn't yet registered in the consciousness of rulers.
SPIEGEL: Instead of preventing a civil war through Morsi's dismissal, you provoked it. Hundreds died and many more were arrested.
Sisi: No. And no, hundreds of people did not have to die. I am saddened by even the loss of a single life. However, let me put this in a different context. Just look at the magnitude of the loss of life over the past 10 years in Iraq, in Syria, Libya and Yemen. Egypt's population is almost equal to that of all of these countries combined. If you look at the number of people who died, you will realize the army protected the Egyptian people.

Sisi's jails

Excellent reporting by Tom Stevenson in the LRB on Egypt's disgusting, semi-clandestine prison system, and the tens of thousands of people being abused in it. 

It’s no secret that Hosni Mubarak’s regime was repressive. Yet although in its treatment of prisoners and many other ways besides, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s is worse, statesmen around the world praise its role in Egypt’s ‘democratic transition’. When John Kerry visited Cairo last year he reported that Sisi had given him ‘a very strong sense of his commitment to human rights’. These issues, he said, were ‘very much’ on Sisi’s mind. For more than thirty years it was US policy to support autocratic government in Egypt as a route to ‘regional security’. The US backed Mubarak’s regime until its very last days; even during the mass protests of January 2011, the US hoped Mubarak could survive if he made political concessions. Mubarak is gone, but the US Defense Department’s links with the Egyptian military – long-standing and solid – have remained. Officials are steadily restoring the flow of aid and equipment that was temporarily suspended in the wake of the coup: there is no serious ‘human rights’ issue for Washington.
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Amn al-Markezi is almost entirely free from public scrutiny. But the Egyptian army is even less accountable, and it is from military facilities such as Azouly prison in Ismailia, Agroot prison in Suez and the headquarters of Battalion 101 in Arish that the worst testimonies come. One man detained at Azouly claimed in a letter dated 24 March 2014 that access to the toilet was permitted once a day, before dawn, that inmates were tortured with boiling water and even boiling oil, and that he frequently heard women screaming somewhere inside the facility. Letters and survivors’ accounts describe three distinct layers inside these army camps. The first floor is for military prisoners who are lawfully detained. The second is known as the ‘prosecutions floor’ and holds civilians who have been given a military trial. The third floor – the ‘investigations floor’ – houses people who have been ‘disappeared’.
Third-floor detainees are known to have been held for up to six months, and are sometimes blindfolded throughout their incarceration. They are later sent to an official prison – often with serious injuries – wearing the same clothes they had on when they were arrested, and bearing papers with forged arrest dates. Holding civilian detainees inside a military prison is illegal, but proceedings would in any case be difficult given that the very existence of Azouly and Agroot is not officially acknowledged. Unknown numbers of prisoners are being held. They are subject to punitive sexual assault; suspension from ceilings, doors and windows; waterboarding; and being burned with cigarettes. Research by Human Rights Watch shows that between the beginning of November and the end of December last year, 820 new civilian cases were referred to military prosecutors.
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Men, women and even children who find themselves under arrest – whether they’re Muslim Brothers, students, labour activists, socialists, or just unemployed people protesting about their situation – are regarded as an army would regard captured combatants in a world without Geneva protocols. This is the essence of military dictatorship: a vision of the state and the population it rules as two opposing armies, the first better equipped but smaller than the second, which makes brutality an indispensable tactic.

"We dream of drones" says Yemeni boy, who is then killed by drone

A 13-year-old boy killed in Yemen last month by a CIA drone strike had told the Guardian just months earlier that he lived in constant fear of the “death machines” in the sky that had already killed his father and brother.
“I see them every day and we are scared of them,” said Mohammed Tuaiman, speaking from al-Zur village in Marib province, where he died two weeks ago.
[...]
Much of Mohammed’s life was spent living in fear of drone strikes. In 2011 an unmanned combat drone killed his father and teenage brother as they were out herding the family’s camels.
The drone that would kill Mohammed struck on 26 January in Hareeb, about an hour from his home. The drone hit the car carrying the teenager, his brother-in-law Abdullah Khalid al-Zindani and a third man.
“[...]
Several anonymous US government officials told Reuters that the strike had been carried out by the CIA and had killed “three men believed to be al-Qaida militants”. Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) claimed responsibility for the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris last month.
[...]
Maqdad said the family had been wrongly associated with al-Qaida, and family members strongly deny that Mohammed was involved in any al-Qaida or anti-Houthi fighting. “He wasn’t a member of al-Qaida. He was a kid.”
[...]
When the Guardian interviewed Mohammed last September, he spoke of his anger towards the US government for killing his father. “They tell us that these drones come from bases in Saudi Arabia and also from bases in the Yemeni seas and America sends them to kill terrorists, but they always kill innocent people. But we don’t know why they are killing us. In their eyes, we don’t deserve to live like people in the rest of the world and we don’t have feelings or emotions or cry or feel pain like all the other humans around the world.”
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Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

The Tasreebat

Baheyya, in her first post in a long time, commenting on the latest of the extraordinary leaks from the inner sanctum Egyptian military laste year, before Sisi became president:

The recent leaks, however, take things to a new level. The generals don’t just rubbish their Gulf backers; scorn Egyptians as a starving, miserable mass; and generally ooze contempt for anyone outside their ranks. The recordings reveal how, in private, Egypt’s peak military officers see themselves. In frank, relaxed banter, they discuss how to milk the Gulf monarchs for more billions; rue the Nasser military’s non-profiteering mindset; and generally come off as money-grubbing hirelings ready to deploy military force anywhere in exchange for cash.

Thus in a five-minute conversation, the generals unmask their own elaborate self-mythologizing as nationalist, selfless public servants who have rescued Egypt and the region from an Islamist cabal. They reinforce critics’ longstanding claims that the Mubarakist Egyptian military defends not the national interest but its own sectional concerns.

. . .

Shortly before announcing his presidential bid, Sisi dictates to Kamel how to approach the Saudis for more money, making a clear distinction between the military’s own funds and the public treasury. “Look, you tell him we need 10 [billion] to be deposited in the military’s account. You tell him, that when God willing I win [the election], that 10 will then work for the state. And we want another 10 from the Emirates and another 10 from Kuwait. That’s in addition to a handful to be put in the Central Bank to balance the 2014 budget.”

When Kamel chuckles heartily and says that the Saudi head of the royal court Khalid al-Tuwaijri will faint on hearing of such huge sums, Sisi says, “Man, their money is like rice, man! Come on, ya Abbas ya Kamel!”

Wow. Just wow.

"The Republican Senator From Israel"

House Speaker John Boehner has invited Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address the US Congress (and presumably make the case against the White Houses's policy of engagement with Iran) two weeks before elections are held in Israel. The decision by the Republican-controlled US Congress and the Israeli Likud party to pursue their own joint foreign policy -- independent of their respective nations -- has angered the White House. It's also apparently not well viewed by much of Israel's political establishment and public.  From Forbes: 

According to Hatnuah leader, Tzipi Livni, Netanyahu is sabotaging israel’s critical relationship with Washington. [Ed. Note: Hatnuah is another political party in Israel running in a coalition with Labour.]
“A responsible prime minister who first thinks of the good of his country’s citizens does not do such a thing,” Livni said, adding, “A responsible prime minister would know to work with the president of the United States — with any president — and protect our most important interests.”
If the polls are to be believed, there are quite a few Israelis who share Livni’s take on the subject.
So, how did all this happen?
It turns out, the plan to have the Israeli Prime Minister speak to Congress, without first discussing with the White House, was the brainchild of Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer who has, for weeks now, been endorsing the re-election of Bibi Netanyahu on American television programs despite explicit Israeli Civil Service regulations prohibiting him from doing so.

He also didn't mention what he was about to do to John Kerry, who he met the day before announcing the invitation. The White House has said it will not meet with Netanyahu when he comes. Reuters reports that the Israelis are saying they were "misled" by Republicans into thinking it was a bipartisan invitation. 

Isis has reached new depths of depravity. But there is a brutal logic behind it

Hassan Hassan, one of the best analyst of the Syrian and Iraqi scenes, writing on ISIS’ doctrine of savagery for The Guardian:

Savagery is at the core of Isis ideology. But it is crucial not to play down that brutal acts have to be justified through sharia texts. Islamic fundamentalism is Isis’s ideology, so to speak, and every act has to be grounded in religious traditions. Muslim clerics who issue a “letter to al-Baghdadi” or a lengthy fatwa to delegitimise Isis miss the mark unless they understand the invigorating nature of this violent ideology. While Isis uses manuals such as Naji’s book, it references religious texts and stories. Muslim clerics should recognise that theoretical fatwas cannot sufficiently counter what I call “kinetic” sharia, consisting of stories and actions carried out by authoritative Muslim figures in early Islam, on which Isis relies heavily to justify its ideology. Statements such as “this hadith is weak” or “it is not permissible to kill prisoners of war” can be backed by religious texts, but how early Muslim leaders acted is similarly powerful, if not more persuasive.

The dilemma is that mainstream clerics sometimes steer clear of engaging in such stories because that has cross-sectarian implications. For example, critiquing immolation, killing captives and throwing people off high buildings risks arguing against Islamic figures at the core of the Sunni-Shia divide. Isis members claim these three acts were either carried out, or approved, by the first Muslim caliph, Abu Bakr, whom Shia consider an illegitimate leader – although many Sunni clerics dispute the references to immolation. Ahmed al-Tayeb, the sheikh of al-Azhar, the centre of Sunni learning, issued a generic statement addressing Islamic teachings about the treatment of captives and then called for “crucifying and chopping the hands and feet” of Isis members.

Adonis at the Cairo Book Fair

The poet Adonis at the Cairo Book Fair:

"The extremists represented in ISIS or Jabhat Al-Nusra didn't fall from the sky, they are the extension and the result of a long Islamic history. Arab-Arab wars have never ceased during the past 14 centuries, since the establishment of the first state in Islam, which was built on violence and the exclusion of others, contemporary terrorism today is just a part of the long history of terrorism that we have."
"We lack critical thinking and we are very self righteous, the Arab man is always right, he exists, grows up and dies infallible, innocent of every wrong, the other is always the one at fault, the real revolution has to be against ourselves first, and then we will know how to rebel against the world and against others."
"I hate giving speeches, instructions and guidelines because the greatest teacher of every man is himself, but I say that mainstream Arab culture teaches nothing but lying, hypocrisy and insincerity, censorship is an organic component of Arab culture, not only the one imposed by authority. It is just part of the wider social and political censorship, I can't say all that I'm thinking, even to myself."

This would be more impressive if it included a condemnation of state terrorism as well as Islamist terrorism, and wasn't being delivered at a festival sponsored by a repressive military regime. For my take on last year's book festival in Cairo, see here

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Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

My people, under the bombs

From a blog by Abd Doumany, a Syrian AP photographer:

I see it as my duty to document people’s suffering. I also think it hurts much more, every detail, every story, because this is my home and these are my people. There are also a lot of scenes that you don’t document out of respect.

1 Comment /Source

Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

Moussaoui Calls Saudi Princes Patrons of Al Qaeda

Ahem:

WASHINGTON — In highly unusual testimony inside the federal supermax prison, a former operative for Al Qaeda has described prominent members of Saudi Arabia’s royal family as major donors to the terrorist network in the late 1990s and claimed that he discussed a plan to shoot down Air Force One with a Stinger missile with a staff member at the Saudi Embassy in Washington.

. . .

He said in the prison deposition that he was directed in 1998 or 1999 by Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan to create a digital database of donors to the group. Among those he said he recalled listing in the database were Prince Turki al-Faisal, then the Saudi intelligence chief; Prince Bandar Bin Sultan, the longtime Saudi ambassador to the United States; Prince al-Waleed bin Talal, a prominent billionaire investor; and many of the country’s leading clerics.

“Sheikh Osama wanted to keep a record who give money,” he said in imperfect English — “who is to be listened to or who contributed to the jihad.”

Mr. Moussaoui said he acted as a courier for Bin Laden, carrying personal messages to prominent Saudi princes and clerics. And he described his training in Qaeda camps in Afghanistan.

. . .

In addition, Mr. Moussaoui said, “We talk about the feasibility of shooting Air Force One.”

Specifically, he said, he had met an official of the Islamic Affairs Department of the Saudi Embassy in Washington when the Saudi official visited Kandahar. “I was supposed to go to Washington and go with him” to “find a location where it may be suitable to launch a Stinger attack and then, after, be able to escape,” he said.

Entirely plausible.

Writing and reading about Qatar

In the Chronicle of Higher Education, I profiled a young literature professor, writing instructor and novelist, Mohanalakshmi Rajakumar, who works in Qatar and finds the emirate a great setting for fiction -- even though her own last book was banned. The article is behind our paywall but here is an excerpt:

A daughter of Indian academics who emigrated to the United States, Ms. Rajakumar, 36, arrived in Doha in 2005, to serve as assistant dean of student affairs at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar. A few years later, while working at Bloomsbury Qatar, a branch of the British publisher, she decided to try her hand at writing. "I thought: Wait a minute, I’m as good as some of these authors," she says.
While pursuing her literary goals, she also encouraged others to do the same. She started teaching writing and founded the Doha Writers’ Workshop, the first group of its kind in the country. Its meetings made her aware of the many stories Qataris were interested in telling.
With support from the U.S. State Department and from Qatar University, she established the Qatar Narrative Series, with an open call for essays by female residents of Qatar. At the time, says Ms. Rajakumar, "People said, ‘It’s such a private culture, they value anonymity, they don’t want to lose face. You’ll never get them to sign their name.’" But the series was a success. From 2008 to 2011, Ms. Rajakumar co-edited four anthologies of Qatari writing.
She uses the collections in the writing classes she teaches. It helps to show students "a book of published essays by people they can relate to," says Ms. Rajakumar, who has also taught at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Qatar campus.
Ms. Rajakumar herself has written half a dozen books, published on Amazon. In the spring of 2014, she released Love Comes Later, the novel about young Qataris trying to find the right partner.
"All of my books are built around a question," explains Ms. Rajakumar. A major one for the young Qatari would-be writers she’d spent time with was: "Who are we going to marry? Is there any chance for love?" With Love Comes Later she imagined an answer.
When her distributor’s agent let her know the book was banned in Qatar, Ms. Rajakumar was surprised. She had anticipated being asked to make some changes for the Qatari edition (a common requirement for local publication and distribution), and was prepared to do so. "As a writer," she says, "if you don’t have readers, you might as well not be writing."
Neither Virginia Commonwealth, where Ms. Rajakumar was working at the time, nor any of the other Western universities publicly questioned the ban. Responses from faculty colleagues varied, she says, with some giving her "high fives" and others asking, "How are you still here?"
Read More

Revolution and Despair

I have great respect for Asef Bayat's work and there are insights in this essay published on Mada Masr, but I find it hard reading on a day when people are being chased and killed in Cairo for celebrating the anniversary of the January 25 uprising:

Truth be told, there is a limit as to how much states, even authoritarian ones, can control societies without turning totalitarian, such as the likes of Communist East Germany where the secret police Stasi kept files on one third of the total population. There are ironically more favorable spaces to pursue this strategy, ["active citizenship"] in such settings as Egypt, than under the liberal democratic states like the US, where the apparatuses of surveillance, legal or technical, seem to be much more pervasive and detailed than our repressive but soft states. In our region, there remain vast informal sociascapes, the free zones within which alternative norms counter to state logic may be instituted. Eric Garner, the black American who was apprehended and choked to death by a police officer, was selling cigarettes illegally on the streets of New York City. Millions of Eric Garners work on the streets of Middle Eastern cities informally and illegally without states being able to do much about them.   
Informal life, the relations and institutions that lie at the margin of state control, make up a vast swath of social existence, where some of the most creative (as well as anti-social) endeavors take shape, as shown in the circles of family, kin members, friends, or among those who operate in the localities, communities, and informal worksites. Spaces from among the art world, intellectual circles, book publishing, cultural production, new social media, independent journalism, legal and architecture profession, or social work may produce alternative speech and unorthodox ways of being and doing things. Even the state-regulated institutions such as schools, colleges, municipalities, neighborhood associations, city councils, student clubs, workers’ unions, and professional syndicates often turn, by critical and creative users, into spaces where some of the core social and political values are contested.
Active citizenry of this sort, in the meantime, is bound to subvert the ability of the authoritarian state to govern, because the state usually rules not from above or outside the society, but from within, by weaving its logic — through norms, relations, and institutions — into the social fabric. Challenging those norms, relations, and institutions would by definition diminish the state’s legitimacy and impair its ability to govern. In fact, active citizenry could go even further to possibly impel and even acclimatize the state to behave in line with the values that subaltern citizens may cultivate in society. No wonder the prohibition law in the US looked absurd when by the early 1930s so many citizens were unlawfully consuming alcohol; the law had to change. The absurdity of preventing women from driving should be clear even to the Saudi rulers who cannot help  but see women as capable of doing more or less what men can. An authoritarian state cannot govern with peace and for long a democratic citizenry.

But who says the state has or will govern "with peace"? And disturbed as one may be by surveillance and policing in the United States, isn't it ridiculous to argue that there is more space to oppose and organize in Egypt?

I appreciate the desire to offer some encouragement to Egyptian citizens who supported January 25, and I agree that it is important to keep thinking of how to be active, even under these terrible circumstances (the site Mada Masr itself is a great example of this). I also agree that we are not just back to the old days -- there was a huge rupture, and even if the hopes it raised were defeated, the repressive techniques employed to achieve this (media propaganda; Saudi subsidies; massive repression; a shameful politicization of the judiciary) are destabilizing and seemingly untenable in the long-term. But I take a much darker view of the kind of days we're in. People used to say that the revolution had brought down the wall of fear and it could never be back up; I think the army and police have done a great reconstruction job. Virtually every institution in Egypt is worse off than it was four years ago; a big segment of society has been complicit -- out of fear, ignorance, self-interest -- with the falsification of its own history and with granting impunity for state injustice and violence. 

One also cannot assume -- as a certain school of academic writing does -- that every bit of economic informality is an act of political subversion or active citizenship. Is there any evidence that informal vendors in Cairo are challenging the norms of society (rather than replicating them by, say, harassing women and taking the state's side against protesters?). Let's not romanticize the margins and the people who live there. The fact that they are resourceful and determined to scrape together a living or navigate a corrupt, repressive state is not a victory -- it's normal human behavior, and it's a waste (think what they could accomplish if given better, fairer chances). Keeping big swaths of the population on the margins -- invisible and illegal -- is an effective strategy of social and political control. The avenues for active citizenship are violently barred. 

I was moved by this reflection by Yasmine El Rifae on memory and violence in Egypt these days:

The gunmen and their bosses have made it clear that unauthorized memory will not be tolerated. Neither will grief. Public language, thought, and opinion is either legal or illegal, patriotism or treason.
What we have been authorized to do is to spend a week mourning the death of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, whose Wahabi tradition teaches those in grief not to demonstrate it in public. Perhaps the regime would prefer this of us.
We have been authorized to mention the word “martyr” in the context of January 25 as long as we agree that what they died for is what lies in front of us. We can speak of Egypt’s youth in the context of political participation, meaning participation in parliamentary elections. We have not yet been authorized to speak about the dead of June 30 and its bloody summer in any tone other than gratitude.

Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

King Abdullah's mourners

It's been quite something to watch governments across the middle east -- and beyond -- pay tribute to Saudi Arabia's late King Abdullah. Egypt cancelled the January 25 anniversary celebrations (the symbolism here is heavy as lead) and the UK flew flags at half-mast. Most Arab countries declared several days (or even weeks) of national mourning -- something they generally don't do when dozens of their own citizens are killed in tragic accidents or terrorist attacks. I guess Saudi military acquisitions (for the West) and investments and subsidies (for Arab neighbors) are worth that much. 

Western media has largely parroted the claim that the king was -- in the Saudi context -- some sort of moderate and reformer. This is really a stretch. While Abdullah did not seem to be as repressive and hidebound as other members of the royal family, he never put that family's power-sharing deal with the kingdom's fundamentalist religious clergy in question.

The idea that the house of Saud is being held hostage by religious extremists...they empower and fund those extremists, whether we're talking about the kingdom's own religious establishment or jihadist groups abroad. Yes there are tensions with the clergy sometimes -- tensions within an established alliance.

Not to mention Saudi Arabia's foreign policy, on which the late king presumably had some input: the kingdom has bankrolled and led a regional counter-revolution, going to great lengths to roll back the Arab uprisings, and to bury both mass social movements and political Islam. 

Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

Michel Houellebecq’s Francophobia

In the latest issue of the New Yorker, Adam Gopnik writes about Michel Houellebecq's latest, in which he imagines France electing a Muslim president and its intellectual classes cravenly converting to Islam and adopting Sharia. This gives an idea of the current French zeitgeist.

I haven't read this book, but I've read most of Houellebecq's previous works. I don't agree with Gopnik that he is not a provocateur. And I find Gopnik's definition of satire bizarre. He writes that "Houellebecq is, simply, a satirist. He likes to take what's happening now and imagine what would happen if it kept on happening." But that assumes that "what's happening right" now is the ascendancy of French Muslims to power. On the contrary, French citizens of Arab origin remain a small minority, economically marginalized, targeted by rising right-wing parties, and not at all homogenous -- hence the problem of discussing France's "Muslim community" (many of them are not practicing Muslims) or using the even more condescending category of Frenchmen and women "issus de l'immigration" ("offsprings of immigrants") -- for how many generations must French citizens with Arab names be categorized this way? I would argue that satire is a way of revealing a truth -- about an argument, a point of view, the world we live in -- through its gross exaggeration. 

Houellebecq is an interesting writer; he can be funny and thought-provoking. But he's not a satirist. He's a reactionary -- his seeming cynicism is masked, depressed romanticism. What Gopnik gets right is how much the hysterical discourse on identity in France is based on personal nostalgia, the inability of a certain class of French intellectuals to accept that France is a different country now. Here he is on Eric Zemmour (another writer whose fixed preoccupation with the cultural, sexual, political threat posed by Muslim men is just ridiculous). 

"In the back of Zemmour’s mind, it seems, is an oddly singular and specific place to long for—the Gaullist France of the booming sixties, when Zemmour was a kid. Society held together, authority was firm and essentially benevolent, each man had a role, each woman could choose to stay home if she wanted, and Catherine Deneuve was in every other movie. This is a nostalgia that Houellebecq, who was also a kid then, shares."

I'll never forget reading a column by another French writer in which he lamented the sight of halal butchers and Arab internet cafes in Paris, as if it were the end of the world. It was the end of his world, I guess, since he had too little imagination to make room in it for historical and social change, for anyone different. Or to reflect for one moment on how much more drastically the French colonial presence once altered and alienated the reality of other peoples. 

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Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

Links 14 January 2015

First link dump of the year, some dating from December 2014 – all Charlie-free, see recent posts and link roundups for that.

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