In Translation: "The army's job is to protect us from foreign enemies, not each other"

Once again, the team at Industry Arabic brings us a new installment in our In Translation series. Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh is a Brotherhood leader who left the organization to run as a moderate Islamist candidate in the 2012 presidential election. He is the leader of the Strong Egypt party. His party campaigned both against the Brotherhood's constitution, and against the one that recently passed (a few of its members were just given 3-year sentences for handing out flyers encouraging a No vote). We include the original headline and introduction, although it is rather inaccurate and tendentious -- Aboul Fotouh spends most of the interview criticizing the army's intervention and does not actually suggest that the Brotherhood is supporting potential presidential candidate General Sami Anan, just that they would sooner vote for him than for Aboul Fotouh himself. 

Aboul Fotouh in a conversation with Al-Ahram: “I reject the participation of the religious current in the political process…Morsi is a failure…what happened at the Presidential Palace was a crime”

Interview – Zeinab Abdel Razzak and Karima Abdel Ghani

Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, the chairman of the Strong Egypt Party, has announced that he will not be running for presidential elections. [He stated] along with this announcement what he felt were strong justifications, while others feel they were a cover for the decline in popularity of the Islamist current on the Egyptian street. Others still went so far as to say it was part of a prior agreement to clear the field for Sami Anan to be the Muslim Brotherhood candidate.

However, in his conversation with Al-Ahram, Aboul Fotouh asserted that his popularity in the Egyptian street had doubled, and that if he were to run in the upcoming elections, he would receive many times more votes than he had in the previous election. He stated that he rejects the Islamist current’s support for him and outright opposes the presence of Islamists in political life. Concerning the Brotherhood, Aboul Fotouh confirmed that the organization is “prepared to stand behind Sami Anan and not behind me.” As for reconciliation, he indicated he had made efforts in this regard, but was met with intransigence from both sides, though he is continuing his efforts.

The heated discussion with Aboul Fotouh revolved around these and other thorny issues, rubbing him the wrong way at times. In any case, however, frankness is the overarching quality of this interview.

Why are you not running in the upcoming presidential elections?

I made this decision early on, more specifically when I called for early presidential elections. At that time I made it known that I would not be running, as the Muslim Brotherhood had harshly attacked me because I called for the early elections. They accused me of seeking to run myself. However, my call was prompted by President Mohammed Morsi’s weak performance and failure to keep his promises. I felt it necessary to save our country and our nation from chaos. This is what I had been calling for throughout the three months leading up to June 30. We were rushed and I was personally shocked on July 3, thus I differentiate between June 30 and July 3.

Don’t you think that the army's intervention at the request of the masses protected the country from a civil war and all-out massacres?

Claiming that what happened on July 3 transpired in order to face down the prospect of a civil war is untrue. I reject such claims, since we don’t have Sunnis and Shiites or Christians and Muslims that are going to kill each other.

We do not deny that the people had rejected Morsi. I shared this opinion with them; however, there are democratic mechanisms through which to express this rejection.

There is a difference between political and judicial accountability. This does not mean that every time we get a failure of a president we call on the army to come in and remove him.

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On Being A Journalist in Egypt

I wrote something last weekend for the LRB blog, about journalism in Egypt these days.  We had to cut some passages, for length, that I'm adding back here on the blog. 

I stumbled into journalism twelve years ago, at the dingy and convivial offices of the Cairo Times, a now defunct independent English language weekly whose Egyptian and foreign interns and journalists have gone on to report across the Middle East. I’ve worked as a reporter in Cairo ever since – as an editor at other local independent publications and as a correspondent for foreign media – and I’ve never known a worse time for journalists in Egypt than the present.

The trial began yesterday of three al-Jazeera journalists. On 2 February, the private satellite channel Tahrir TV broadcast a video filmed by the Egyptian security services of their arrest. Set to the soundtrack of the movie Thor: The Dark World, the video pans past the frightened face of the Canadian-Egyptian journalist Mohamed Fahmy, and then over laptops, tripods and cameras in a room at the Marriot Hotel (the arrested men are known as the ‘Marriot Cell’ in the press here). To an ominous crescendo, it zooms in on cell phones, power cords, recording devices and notes on night stands. The off-camera policemen make Fahmy count out the $700 dollars in his wallet. Then they interrogate him and the Australian correspondent Peter Greste, badgering them for the names of colleagues and interviewees.

The al-Jazeera English crew was working in Egypt without official permits, after the authorities had shut down their offices. But the prosecutor filed much more serious charges against them: He claims they and 17 other journalists were part of a terrorist cell, intent on ruining Egypt’s image by broadcasting fabricated news. Al-Jazeera is reviled here, considered a mouthpiece of Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood (to whom the Arabic channel is, indeed, overly sympathetic). There are no al-Jazeera journalists left at liberty in Egypt, yet again and again someone in a crowds points and yells ‘Jazeera!’ at a reporter whose look or questions they don’t like, leading to a mass beating and citizen’s arrest. At the end of January, someone on an Egyptian TV crew posted cell phone footage to YouTube in which, as they attempt to approach clashes between protesters an police, an officer can be heard saying: ‘Get out of here. Get out of here or I’ll say you’re Jazeera.’

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Female party head doubts Egypt path

Hala Shukrallah, the new leader of the Destour Party (and the first Coptic woman to head a political party in Egypt) gave AP a great quote on the path of the current regime:

"It is not only pulling us back to before Jan 25, (referring to the anti-Mubarak uprising) it also brings us back to Morsi's rule, when critics were described as infidels."

Update: she also gave an interview to Mada Masr, saying on the presidency: "We won't support someone representing a state institution and making use of its resources for his candidacy."

The police and the people: one hand, for now

The police and the people: one hand, for now

One of the main reasons many Egyptians are nostalgic about the Hosni Mubarak era is the absence of security. Or rather the false sense of it.

"The Interior Ministry never provided general security, just political security (i.e. crushing dissent and bullying the Muslim Brothers)," says a former member of Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party, who spoke on condition of anonymity and confessed to never quite understanding what gave the public the wrong impression. It was this sense of security that was overturned by the events following January 25, driven, the former NDP official sniffed, by “emboldened thugs” and the collective realization that one can drive in any direction one pleases on almost every road after the 2011 uprising.

Now, three years after the January 25 outburst of public fury they partly caused – which consumed much of their dignity, stations and vehicles, breached their prisons and relieved them of  their weapons – Egypt’s Interior Ministry is still struggling to get back on its own two feet and restore some of that longed-for political security with excessive force and arbitrary arrests, as always disregarding the risk of galvanizing more opposition. A practice justified by pointing at the recent bomb attacks on police installations.

There is, however, something new about the general attitude towards security forces. After all, they went from having to withdraw from the streets after failing to quell protests against Mubarak in 2011 to receiving shoulder rides and kisses for handing out water to anti-Morsi protesters rather than spraying them with it in 2013. The change in police activity and popularity here – as videos and reports of continued police abuses suggest – is not the fruit of quick and radical police reforms, but rather the result of the popular reconciliation with them and the military in the wake of their overthrow of the unpopular but elected president Mohamed Morsi. This would not have been possible if it weren’t for the incredibly effective “[image] polishing [media] campaign,” according to a grateful police general, who also asked to remain anonymous because he is not authorized to speak to the press.

It was hard trying not to stare at the 15 bullet holes in the wall behind the general’s head, while he was talking about how life has improved for police officers after June 30.

He caught me looking and laughed.

“These things [he looked over his shoulder to wave off the plaster-oozing evidence of attacks on the police station] happen in the best of countries,” he said. What matters is that policemen can, once again, sport their white uniforms everywhere without fear of verbal or physical abuse and they can arrest people without need for reinforcements to overcome the families and neighbors of the arrested, who used to body-block their vans to help a loved one or an acquaintance in cuffs. This is progress, he announced contentedly.

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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).