Shatz on Egypt seen from Alexandria

Adam Shatz, writing in the London Review of Books, after a recent reporting trip during the presidential elections:

In Cairo, the old, narrow politics of self-interest – or self-defence – seemed to be crowding out Tahrir Square’s expansive visions of a democratic future. I wondered whether Alexandria, a port city with a rich history of political independence, would be any different. It had dazzled Cairene intellectuals by voting for a charismatic socialist politician, Hamdeen Sabahi, in the first round of the presidential elections, while the rest of the country went for either Morsi or Shafiq, as if people couldn’t see beyond the old regime and the old opposition. Alexandria, they said in Cairo, was a city that made up its own mind, a city where the revolutionary spirit lived on. Alexandrians basked in the admiration. ‘The sea makes us braver,’ one activist told me. True or not, it certainly makes the place feel more open than Cairo, where you can hardly see the sky. The cafés have charming names that ‘read like a Levantine requiem’, as David Holden wrote of old Alexandrian phonebooks. From the terrace of the fish restaurant where I had lunch, I watched children playing on the beach; a few women were in bikinis, a rare sight in a city where more and more women wear full niqabs, including black gloves. Alexandria, once known as the queen of the Mediterranean, may no longer be the city of ‘unsurpassable sensuality’ described by Cavafy, but it seems more serene than Cairo. Maybe that was an illusion: the only difference between Alexandria and Cairo, someone said, was the weather.

The story has some great vignettes on Alex (an Islamist's reaction to novelist Youssef Ziedan's classist map of the country is priceless, for instance) and I agree with the conclusion, in that things are not sealed at all in Egyptian politics:

This reconfiguration, however, is far from stable, and may be a prelude to yet another shake-up in the Brotherhood's favour, rather than a consolidation of the military's authority. Though Morsi is a cautious man, a party bureaucrat rather than a popular leader, he has begun to adopt a more confrontational posture vis-à-vis the military. Not only has he vowed to challenge the constitutional amendments that limit his power, but he has reconvened parliament in defiance of the Supreme Constitutional Court and the SCAF; at a brief session held on 10 July, lawmakers approved a proposal to refer parliament's dissolution to a higher appeals court. The military and the court are digging their heels in, but Morsi is raising the stakes as an elected president, with considerable popular support – and in the knowledge that the Americans will not allow the SCAF to exercise the ‘Syrian option’ of massacring its opponents. Any attempt by the army to reverse Morsi’s victory, or prevent him from governing, could ignite another uprising. The SCAF may not have the upper hand for long.

Column: Out of tragedy, opportunity

My latest column at al-Masri al-Youm, on the opportunities arising of the Alexandria church bombing, is up. An excerpt:

If there is a silver living to this horrible act, it is that we’ve seen a genuine outpouring of grief and indignation about the bombing, and a real willingness to break with taboos and platitudes from many ordinary Egyptians. There appears to be a growing realization that even if there is often little to be done against terrorists’ determination to carry out acts of murders, there is much to be done to defuse the tension of an environment in which many Copts consider the bombing the latest indignity they must endure.

Out of this terrible tragedy, therefore, is an opportunity for political and civil society actors. It is no coincidence that many of the Muslims who joined with Copts in the last few days’ protests were doing so not merely in solidarity, but also against a generalized failure of the state to build a positive vision for what it means to be an Egyptian citizen in the twenty-first century.

Note that a coalition of Egyptian NGOs has called for the state to act now to correct its own contributions to sectarian tensions.

The Alexandria Church Bombing

I just returned this afternoon from a few days in the Egyptian countryside, with no phone and internet. News of the Alexandria bombing had reached us, but it didn't quite hit home until I caught up with news reports, all the activity on Twitter and today's various protests (confusingly both about the church bombings and in solidarity with Tunisia's Sidi Bouzid protests). The protests are ongoing, with a novelty being the police cordon and heightened security around the TV building in central Cairo. This story will unfold over the next few days, with so far little confirmed about the perpetrators.

I will thus reserve my take, for now, to the main issues:

1. The attacks could indicate a new al-Qaeda inspired group is operating in Egypt. It's unlikely that such a group is foreign, as the authorities were very quick to say (because somehow no Egyptian would do this?), although this could be a first manifestation of the "returnees from Iraq" phenomenon experienced elsewhere. It is unlikely that it's the revival of an Egyptian Islamic Jihad sleeper cell either, so we are probably talking about a "freelance jihadi" cell of some kind, the radicalization of a Salafi group (with Alexandria being a major center of Salafi activity) or, less likely, a more serious attempt at destabilizing Egypt by al-Qaeda in Iraq, which had issued threats against Egypt a few months ago (again the "returnees from Iraq" scenario would point to that). Whoever the perpetrators are, this goes to show how interconnected the world of jihadi Salafism is, and the porous borders it has with "Scientific" or non-violent Salafism.

2. It's yet another very worrying indication of rising sectarian tensions in Egypt. It's not so much the attack itself, but the recriminations it has engendered and the rioting that followed it. At that same time, it's also heart-warming to see so much indignation and solidarity on Twitter and elsewhere. Hopefully something good can come out of this drama and seeing Muslims call out for genuine, total equality between themselves and Copts is a good sign. Let's hope it's not all wasted by security interference, irresponsible clergymen and imams, and the other usual spoilers.

3. There is also something specifically Alexandrian about this. Yes, sectarian attacks have taken place elsewhere, but usually sparked by some clash over conversion or church-building, or in the case of the Naga Hammadi murders most probably local politics. This is of a completely different order, and more similar to the 2006 church murders I wrote about here. Something is rotten in Alexandria, not for the first time.

Here's a collection of links, articles and more about the church bombing.

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Links for 10.13.09

Essay - The Collider, the Particle and a Theory About Fate - NYTimes.com | Speaking of the Large Hadron Collider, this is pretty cool. ✪ BBC NEWS | Europe | 'Al-Qaeda-link' Cern worker held | Terrorist attack of potentially cosmic proportions: "The suspect had been working on the LHC Beauty (LHCb) experiment, which is investigating the slight differences between matter and anti-matter by studying a type of particle called the "beauty quark"." ✪ Kurdistan Halts Oil Exports - NYTimes.com | Over payment dispute with central government. ✪ AFP: Hamas claims member tortured to death in Egypt jail | In other words, a Hamas member is treated like an Egyptian. ✪ Erotic Poet Cavafy’s Trace Fades in Egypt’s Mythic Alexandria - Bloomberg.com | The usual nostalgia for cosmopolitan Alexandria. Do visit the Cavafy museum when in Alex, though. ✪ Loonwatch.com - "The Mooslims, they're heeere!" | A newish website that tracks Islamophobia, with a particular lookout for the kind of people who write for Middle East Forum and other reflexively anti-Muslim, anti-Arab sites. ✪ Middle East: a Belgian solution? | Khaled Diab | Comment is free | guardian.co.uk | This is a funny, surreal headline but Khaled Diab is very misinformed about Belgian politics: the Belgian model is not pragmatic compromise, but rather wasteful deadlock. ✪ Ben Barka: Le dossier secret de la gendarmerie - affaire ben barka - leJDD.fr | Ben Barka's body said to have been incinerated outside of Paris. ✪ Tariq Ali: Ahmed Rashid's War | Nasty attack on Ahmed Rashid by Tariq Ali. Don't know if any of this is true, but Ali alleged Rashid operates on behalf of Hamid Karzai. ✪ Middle East News | Egypt detains 24 Muslim Brotherhood members | More zero-tolerance in Egypt towards people protesting in solidarity with Palestinians. ✪ Algerian Islamists in the Era of Reconciliation « The Moor Next Door | On the Algerian branch of the Muslim Brothers, and their relationship with the regime. ✪ New Statesman - Textbook injustice in Gaza | Gazan children go back to school with few textbooks, and anything else for that matter. ✪ FT.com / UK - Airline flies on natural gas | Qatar experiments with natural gas-derived kerosene, which makes sense for the country with the world's biggest gas fields. ✪ Netanyahu: No war crimes trials for Israelis - Yahoo! News | One day there will be many trials ya Bibi... and until then Israeli officials will be less and less able to travel abroad. ✪ Palestinian Memo says Hopes in Obama 'Evaporated' Asharq Alawsat Newspaper (English) | "JERUSALEM, (AP) – An internal document circulated among members of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' political party says all hopes placed in the Obama administration "have evaporated" because of alleged White House backtracking on key issues to the Palestinians."
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