Humor and the Egyptian revolution

I am quoted in this NYT piece on the role humor played in the Egyptian revolution. (But why is my name misspelt in two different ways, ya Michael ya Slackman? Come on NYT editors, it's not like I don't have a website.) The piece argues humor has been dampened, which I don't quite agree with (saw plenty of it in last Friday's demo) but makes the more important point that it was a crucial tool during the occupation of Tahrir Square:

That is quite a comedown from the heady days when there was a renewed sense of national purpose, of unity regardless of religion or class among those massing in the square. In those 18 days, humor and sarcasm played a crucial role in coping and conquering.

“Mubarak’s people threw rocks,” said Fahmy Howeidy, a well-known columnist and social commentator, referring to thugs who threw stones at demonstrators. “The people charged Mubarak with jokes and comedy.”

At least some of that was planned. “There was a lot of spontaneous humor — it is the Egyptian character — but there also was a desire to show that the demonstrators weren’t just angry young men, that they weren’t just seen as Islamists,” said Mr. Amrani, the blogger.

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Sufis vs. Salafists

Love the last line in this story on the emerging feud between Salafists and Sufis in Egypt after a bunch of Salafist neanderthals burned several shrines revered by Sufis (Salafists hate any version of Islam that incorporates mysticism and esoteric beliefs): 

Sufi sheikh warns of sectarian war with Salafis | Al-Masry Al-Youm:

A leading figure from the Azeemia Sufi order has warned of a sectarian war between Sufis and Salafis over the destruction of several shrines connected with revered religious figures.

Sheikh Mohamed Alaa Abul Azayem labeled as “thugs” Salafis who carried out the attacks, and accused them of trying to erase important symbols of Islamic Egypt.

On Tuesday, the Azeemia order held a symposium in which it announced its intention of forming a political party named the Egyptian Liberation Party, which aims to protect Sufis in the event that either the Muslim Brotherhood or Salafis come to power.

Abul Azayem also said he had proposed a meeting with Salafis at Al-Azhar in 2006, but they rejected the proposed venue, and even refused to hold a meeting on their own premises.

However, on Monday, Sufi leaders finally managed to meet with their Salafi counterparts in Alexandria, where Salafis denied responsibility for the demolition of shrines.

For his part, Al-Azhar University Professor Ahmed al-Sayeh said he had asked his relatives in Upper Egypt to send him a machine gun with which to kill those who have demolished shrines.

Bring it on!

Links 4-5 April 2011

  • The Praxis of the Egyptian Revolution | MERIP
    Mona El-Ghobashy on the how & why Egypt revolted, with her typical brio:
    Egypt’s momentous uprising did not happen because Egyptians willed it into being. It happened because there was a sudden change in the balance of resources between rulers and ruled. Mubarak’s structures of dominion were thought to be foolproof, and for 30 years they were. What shifted the balance away from the regime were four continuous days of street fighting, January 25–28, that pitted the people against police all over the country. That battle converted a familiar, predictable episode into a revolutionary situation. Decades ago, Charles Tilly observed that one of the ways revolutions happen is that the efficiency of government coercion deteriorates. That decline occurs “when the character, organization and daily routines of the population to be controlled change rapidly.” The organization and daily routines of the Egyptian population had undergone significant changes in the years preceding the revolt. By January 25, 2011, a strong regime faced a strong society versed in the politics of the street. In hindsight, it is simple to pick out the vulnerabilities of the Mubarak regime and arrange them in a neat list as the ingredients of breakdown. But that retrospective temptation misses the essential point: Egyptians overthrew a strong regime.
  • Top State Department official Steinberg leaves, replaced by Middle East expert
    WaPo says Bill Burns next no. 2 at State.
  • Bahrain: Between the United States and Saudi Arabia - Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
    Conflict between US and Saudi? Could have fooled me.
  • Maikel Nabil Sanad مايكل نبيل سند
    #MaikelNabil's blog which is now being investigated by the army, pretty strong stuff
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    Is Obama a realist?

    "On the one hand, but on the other..."An interesting take on Obama's foreign policy at Duck of Minerva:

    Obama is a realist in style but not in substance. His realism is evident in how he approaches decisions, not in the decisions that he makes. This type of realist has what psychologists call “cognitive complexity” – they weigh the pros and cons of a multitude of different considerations before settling on the proper course. This was evident in the recent speech on Libya that has been proclaimed the new Obama doctrine. America will consider both humanitarianism and strategic considerations when it judges whether to use force, just like Wilson did. It will consider whether there are allies to shoulder the burden and how the international community feels, but will act unilaterally if there is a compelling interest. It is cognitive complexity that drives Obama’s favorite rhetorical “tic”, that of the ‘false choice.’ It is not one or another; it is both, when it comes to race relations, abortion, or diplomatically engaging Tehran. Others have called it being an “intellectual.”

    If you've been reading this blog, you know I'm not the biggest Obama fan. But one thing I very much like about him is that he seems to ponder consequences seriously. His shift of the burden onto the EU in Libya is a great example of a correct policy carried out even though it goes against the American instinct, as developed in the last 30 years. His decision to implement in NFZ in Libya but reluctance to turn it into something else (let's hope that last) is another example of caution and willingness to implement limited goals.

    It should be said, as Obama launches his 2012 campaign, that he should be held to account. There's no great sense of progress in Iraq (the US is still there?!?) and Afghanistan. One of the first thing he promised when he became president was to close Guantanamo, and he hasn't. He made grand statements on Israel/Palestine but then backtracked or was unwilling to push further. So perhaps he's learned to be more cautious. On these issues, he inherited a criminal presidency's problems — and his biggest failure was not holding his predecessoraccountable for his crimes. But if, come election day, US troops are in Libya and progress hasn't been made on the other issues, I don't think I would vote for him. 

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    Issandr El Amrani

    Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region,

    Footnoting Elliott Abrams

    Elliot Abrams forgot to include the footnotes in his latest piece for the Weekly Standard. I started adding them for the first two sentences, then realized doing the whole thing would be too much work:
    With the Great Revolt of 2011 shaking Arab capitals, Israel briefly seemed a Middle Eastern Switzerland1 when March began. There were no demonstrations,2 there was no dictator to protest,3 and there had been three years without terror.4 
    1: If Switzerland was an apartheid state that still hasn't defined its borders.
    2: If you don't include the demonstrations by Arab-Israelis and Palestinians under Israeli occupation.
    3: Unless you mean the dictator who is the miliary governor of the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
    4: If you don't include the terror of the January 2009 Operation Cast Lead and its doctrine of collective punishment.

    Links 2-3 April 2011

    The dome of Cairo University after heavy rains, 2011-04-03.I've made some changes to the links. First, I am now using Pinboard as my bookmarking service — a complete history of my links is available here. Secondly, these links lists will now also include some Twitter links (favorite tweets, basically) since part of my linking has shifted over to my Twitter account.

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    8 million dogs mummified in Saqqara

    The Daily Mail has this rather gruesome Egyptology story:

    A labyrinth of sacred tunnels packed with the mummified remains of millions of dogs has been excavated under the Egyptian desert.

    The catacombs are estimated to contain the remains up to eight million dogs, many of which would have been offered to the gods when they were just hours old.

    Others would have been treated as living representatives of the dog or jackal-headed god Anubis and would have lived out their lives in the nearby temple before being preserved and laid to rest in the network of tunnels.

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    State media clean-up?

    Well, the heads of all the state newspapers as well as of the Egyptian Radio and TV Union were replaced last week. The extent of the commitment to change is unclear, however, given that most of them have been replaced by men (and they are all men, no change there...) who were also high-ranking figures within these institutions under the former regime. 

    (I don't know enough about these people and their relationship to the Mubarak regime, if any of you readers have information, please do share!) 

    At flagship daily newspaper Al Ahram, the new CEO is -- according to a source of mine there -- a disappointment in that he is "one student of the corrupted Ibrahim Nafie," (the infamous former CEO who destroyed the paper over his long reign and was replaced in 2008). But the new editor was actually the choice of reporters, who held a straw poll for the position earlier this month. 

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    Pics from Tahrir anti-corruption march

    I don't have time to write up the details, save to say I was impressed at both the turnout and the readiness with which people were criticizing the army. Here's the NYT's take and Jano Charbel's more militant account.

    CAIRO — Thousands of demonstrators filled Tahrir Square on Friday for the largest protest in weeks, demanding that the ruling military council move faster to dismantle lingering aspects of the old regime.

    Disenchantment with the military was the focus of many speeches and chants, and participants milling about were all too ready to grumble about the generals.

    And Jano:

    Thousands of protesters chanted for the immediate resignation of Field Marshall Hussein Tantawi, chief of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces. Serving as Mubarak's defense minister for the past 20 years, Tantawi is currently shielding the dictator and his henchmen from justice, while ordering the trials of countless civilians before military tribunals. 

    I heard some of this but it was not the dominant demand. I struck by a poster asking Tantawi to be more like Mandela and carry out a real transition. Jano has nice pics too.

    Finally, here's a short movie clip that shows the mood:

    1 Comment

    Issandr El Amrani

    Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region,

    Links 1 April 2011

    What is Missing or Exaggerated in News of the Uprising? – Heydemann, Lawson, Lesch, Seale
    a good read

    Libya's challenge: democracy under the gun | openDemocracy
    Move to diplomacy fast or risk public-demobilisation, this argues.

    In Egypt’s Democracy, Room for Islam - NYT
    The Mufti: "Islamists must understand that, in a country with such diverse movements as the Muslim Brotherhood; the Wasat party, which offers a progressive interpretation of Islam; and the conservative Salafi movements, no one group speaks for Islam."

    Learning to love change - The Boston Globe
    Thanassis Cambanis on "Why America needs to end its obsession with stability", feat. me: " If America can shift its framework for thinking about the region, as Issandr El Amrani, an expert on Arab politics who blogs at The Arabist (, puts it, the Middle East will no longer be populated by two teams: rogue states and American clients."
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    Obama and R2P

    Via POMED, the conservative Heritage Foundation raises the alarm that Obama may be committing the US to the Responsability to Protect doctrine after the Libya intervention:

    Therefore it would appear that the Obama Administration has adopted both the basic philosophy and the operational characteristics of R2P. This should come as no surprise when the key decision makers regarding Libya included Samantha Power, who authored a Pulitzer Prize-winning book on genocide, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who promised during her presidential campaign to “operationalize” the R2P doctrine and “adopt a policy that recognizes the prevention of mass atrocities as an important national security interest of the United States, not just a humanitarian goal” and “develop a government-wide strategy to support this policy, including a strategy for working with other leading democracies, the United Nations, and regional organizations.”[5]

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