"Sometimes the people want ugly things"

A column by Reem Saad (reposted by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights) on the recent killing of  37 prisoners in police custody. According to the testimony of the survivors, an officer threw tear gas into the transport truck and waited alongside it as all but 7 of them chocked to death inside, begging to be let out.  

My rough translation:

"These citizens were killed in this ugly way not just under the eyes of the state but by its very hand. This was not the first nor will it be the last incident of this kind, as long as this brutal police force remains unreformed and unaccountable. What is particularly regrettable in this sad story is that the responsibility belongs not only to those who committed this crime but to a large segment of society, which the current circumstances and the continuous media incitement have perhaps put into a state of psychological imbalance, to the point that it dreams of a quick and final way of putting an end to the violence of the Brotherhood and to the brutal behavior of the organization and of others who belong to the Islamist movement. 
The slaughter at Abu Zabal prison is the literal execution of the expressions that have become commonly repeated among ordinary Egyptians, offered as a solution to the problem, such as: "Why not just gather them all up in one place and set them on fire and get rid of them?"

Curfew Chronicles

A passionate and beautifully written defense of the choice to live in Cairo (addressed to all the worried relatives and acquaintances who want the author to "come on home" now.)

I translate this paragraph below:

En dépit des difficultés connues de la capitale égyptienne (poussière, pollution, chaleur, harcèlement, instabilité politique), vivre au Caire n'est pas une lubie. Surtout si ce choix s'inscrit dans la durée. Les étés au Caire sont chauds mais ses hivers sont doux comme les printemps dans le sud de la France. Ses journées sont bruyantes et peuplées, mais ses nuits sont de loin les plus fabuleuses de la région. Paris se couche à 2 heures les soirs de week-end quand Le Caire veille jusqu'à l'aube tous les soirs, indifférente aux débuts, aux milieux et aux fins de semaine. Là où Paris se tasse dans des 2 pièces de 25 mètres carré, Le Caire se repait d'espace, d'appartements aux plafonds hauts, aux terrasses ensoleillées. Quand on a la chance d'y gagner sa vie en euros, on n'a pas à penser à l'argent au Caire, on n'est pas obligé de compter pour dépenser, et en plus, on se retrouve avec du temps sur les bras, pour écrire, lire, nager, repeindre le salon. Et puis il y a des gens au Caire, des gens que précisément on ne risque de croiser ni à Paris ni à New York, des gens qui ont à la fois quelque chose en plus et une case en moins, des gens qui ne se sentent à leur place nulle part, qui n'ont ni de certitude, ni d'aptitude au confort, ni peur d'être d'éternels débutants.

Despite the well-known difficulties of the Egyptian capital (dust, pollution, heat, harassment, political instability), living in Cairo isn't a whim. Especially if it's a long-term choice. Summers in Cairo are hot but winters are as mild as springs in the south of France. Its days are noisy and crowded, but its nights are by far the most fabulous in the region. Paris goes to bed at 2am on weekends while Cairo stays up till dawn every night, at the beginning, middle and end of the week. While Paris stuffs itself into two 25-square-meter rooms, Cairo revels in space, in high-ceilinged apartments with sunny terraces. If you are lucky enough to earn your living in euros, you don't need to worry about money in Cairo, and what's more you find yourself with time on your hands, to write, read, swim, repaint the living-room. And then there are people in Cairo, precisely the kind of people who you won't come across in Paris or New York, people who have a little something extra and a little something off, people who don't feel at home anywhere, who have no certainties, no aptitude for comfort, no fear of being eternal beginners. 

 

The question regarding Syria

A recent statement on the situation in Syria from the International Crisis Group:

Ultimately, the principal question regarding a possible military strike is whether diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict can be reenergized in its aftermath.  Smart money says they will not: in the wake of an attack they condemn as illegal and illegitimate, the regime and its allies arguably will not be in a mood to negotiate with the U.S. Carefully calibrating the strike to hurt enough to change their calculations but not enough to prompt retaliation or impede diplomacy is appealing in theory. In practice, it almost certainly is not feasible. 

 

In my Cairo neighborhood, new violence but the same old troubles

In the Washington Post, Mokhtar Awad puts the Rabaa sit-in and massacre in context, telling the story of Nasser City, the neighborhood where it took place. In Awad's telling it is one of Cairo's many unsuccessful attempts to "start over" with a new planned city in the desert, and it epitomizes both the aspirations of the military and Islamist middle-class and the shortcomings of the state. 

Housing was first provided for army officers to settle with their families, but the area remained largely unpopulated until the 1980s. Back then, Egyptians from all walks of life were returning flush with cash from jobs in the gulf and started buying and building in Nasr City. The once-planned districts turned into a hodgepodge of apartments surrounded by military facilities, as contractors raced to erect buildings before anyone could look into how they were acquiring the land. The main benefactor of this construction rush was the military, which owned nearly half the land and was selling what was meant to be a public resource for profit.
[...] 

Some of the same Nasr City residents who had given up on the corrupt state their fathers left them — by turning to the private sector, emigrating or pushing their sons to do the same — cheered on that very state this summer as it spilled Egyptian blood on the streets. They sought solace in a fascist national mythology that seems to only distract from the incompetence and corruption of the government and its security apparatus. Their neighbors who supported the Rabaa sit-in came from similar roots but believed a different myth: that the Islamic state would be the cure for their country. Instead, a bankrupt group of charlatans and delusional leaders ultimately led many of its innocent followers to their demise at Rabaa.

 

The people, the church and the state | Mada Masr

Another good account of the sectarian tensions in Upper Egypt, and their interplay with national politics. 

It all started when a group of Christians in the village built a speed bump near their home to decrease car accidents. When a Muslim man hit it, not knowing it was there, he started swearing at them and insulting their mothers and fathers. On August 10, a Muslim man known to be radical came in person to threaten the village church. The following day, as Christians went to Sunday mass, Muslims were already sending calls via mosques to attack them, Nasrallah recounts.

 

Damascus hotel a home for Syrians displaced by war

Lee Keath of AP manages, miraculously, to tell a story from Damascus that doesn't make you hate everything.   

Once total strangers hailing from far-flung parts of the countryside around Damascus, they have created a sort of communal family in the hotel's cramped quarters. They all live on the third floor, and the wives cook together in the kitchen of the restaurant on the top floor, to which the owner has given them free rein. Their kids play together, dashing around the hallways and up and down the narrow staircase. The husbands — those who still have jobs — come back in the evening and play backgammon together in the restaurant, where the TV is.

In a gesture of support, the owner has cut room rates in half for them, to around $5 a day.

 

The voice of the opposition

A quite beautiful song by the مسموع ("heard/audible") campaign, which calls of Egyptians to make clear their opposition to both the Brotherhood and the return of the security state  (or as they put it, to both "religious fascism and the Egyptian state's route to civil war")  by banging on pots and pans every evening. The refrain is "Freedom is coming." Unfortunately, at least in my neighborhood, all I've heard every evening so far is a resounding silence. 

 

Brotherhood protests

The Muslim Brotherhood is calling for further protests tomorrow, and a campaign of civil disobedience. But the organization hasn't been able to mobilize successfully so far, and faces public resentment, as Nour the Intern, who attended some Islamist protests earlier this week, reports. 

The man in the blue galabeya was at loss. In one hand, he held a large poster of deposed president Mohamed Morsi and in the other an icy cold bottle of water. He stood in the baking heat torn between setting down the poster to uncap his bottle for some much-needed hydration, or awkwardly holding it between his knees. He scanned his environment a clean surface to place the delicate poster. When he found none, he prayed for patience and put it between his knees. Behind him, the bearded men were growing restless.

The protesters' squabbles were interrupted by a sudden bang from above. An adolescent was beating a pot with a spatula in her balcony, proclaiming el-Sisi to be her president, drawing laughs and claps from the loitering passersby, and frowns and prayers for retribution from the protesters. An old woman excitedly poked her head out of her window, opposite to the balcony, to praise the girl and suggest she boil some water in that pot to clean the street.

As they stood there squinting their eyes at the balcony, frozen in anger and anticipation, waiting for the rain to fall so they could bring the building down, four men  shoved a middle-aged protester and his son for giving them a headache and ruining the country. With impressive speed and coordination, four large buckets of water were emptied from different buildings. The water was accompanied by insults, saliva and three slippers.

Shoppers came out of shops, mechanics out from under cars, and women out of their windows; teenage boys let their female counterparts walk without receiving a detailed description of their bodies, to join the fight, or sigh at it. Facepalms outnumbered kicks three to one.

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Conspiring against the truth

My latest post for the Latitude blog of the New York Times takes a look at the truly mind-boggling conspiracy theories being woven by the security services and an eager-to-please press in Egypt today. 

On Tuesday, a front-page story of the state-owned newspaper Al Ahram was titled: “A New Conspiracy to Shake Stability Involving Politicians, Journalists and Businessmen.” Citing anonymous “security sources” the article purported to reveal the details of an agreement to “divide Egypt” allegedly struck between Khairat el-Shater, the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, and U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson, which involved helping 300 armed fighters enter the country from Gaza. It also claimed that the police foiled a plan to take over government buildings and declare an independent state in southern Egypt (“with the previous promise of recognition from the United States and some European countries”). The piece concluded by promising that charges would soon be brought against the unnamed conspirators.
As I argue in the piece, the point here is to create a black-is-white, up-is-down alternate reality in which the military is fighting a US/Muslim Brotherhood alliance and in which the police and state security are national heroes rather than reviled criminals. In crafting this narrative, Fox News has played a surprising supporting role: segments on Obama's supposed support for the Muslim Brotherhood have been subtitled into Arabic and broadcast here. 

 

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Dennis Ross' tortuous logic

Dennis Ross writes on the Room for Debate blog of the NYT, on the question Saudi support for Egypt:

For the Saudis, there are two strategic threats in the region: Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood. The Saudis back certain opposition forces in Syria to weaken Iran and they support the Egyptian military to undermine the Brotherhood. We will not persuade the Saudis by arguing that the military is overplaying its hand.
If we want to move the Saudis on Egypt, we must address their strategic concerns; meaning, for example, that we must convince them that we are prepared either to change the balance of power in Syria or that we will, in fact, prevent the Iranians from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability.

That sounds more like what Dennis Ross wants the US to do (i.e. more hawkish positions on Iran and Syria) than something that the Saudis would genuinely take into consideration. For if they are concerned about the MB, why would they adjust that concern based on the Iran question? And why should the US decide to shift its positions on Iran simply because of the Egypt question?

Saudi thinking on Egypt

Saudi Arabia has taken a very strong stance in support of the Egyptian military's overthrow of Morsi and the Muslim Brothers. The piece below, published in Saudi's al-Watan, has some glimpses on the al-Saud regime's thinking on this, and especially the role of the US. An experienced Saudi-watcher tell us that the interview, ostensibly with an analyst, actually conveys the views of very high-level officials, most notably their tiff with Washington over the handling of Egyptian crisis.

(I'm not sure who did the translation, though.)  

Saudi Expert Reveals to Elwatannews: King Abdullah to Obama: If Providing Aid to Egypt Burdens You, We Will Provide Double Your Aid”

Ahmed Al Ibrahim: Obama demands suspending aid to Egypt and the King refuses

By Mohamed Hassan Amer

“Obama dealt with the demands of Egypt as if they were demands of his hometown Chicago. He disregarded the interests of Egypt. It would be the Kingdom’s turn next should Egypt fall”. In these words, Ahmad Al Ibrahim, Saudi expert in Saudi-US relations described the Kingdom’s position on the events in Egypt and the pressure exercised by the US Administration following the dispersal of Rabaa al-Adawiya and al-Nahda sit-ins.

According to Al Ibrahim, KSA and General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi recognised that the “US fierce defence of the Brotherhood confirmed that they had made outrageous promises to the US against the interests of the region. It is therefore urgent to put an end to thisconspiracy.” Al Ibrahim reiterated that the Obama administration proved to be a failure and unworthy of the Kingdom’s trust. But having a wise man like al-Sisi in Egypt ushers in a huge, Arab political cooperation.

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Go ahead and believe..

A good video by a new group working on exposing lies in the media. The coverage of the last 2 weeks has been mind-boggling, but as this reminds us, there has been an alternate reality created alongside every single major clash and massacre (and the uprising itself). Khalik Misadaq roughly translates as "Go ahead and believe.." or "Make yourself believe.." 

In Syria, America Loses if Either Side Wins

You know those nightmarish images of chemical attack victims in Syria you saw (or if you are like me, glimpsed and then avoided looking at) last week? It should be our goal to keep that shit coming, says some Washington think tank jerk in the New York Times Op-ed pages:

... a decisive outcome for either side would be unacceptable for the United States. An Iranian-backed restoration of the Assad regime would increase Iran’s power and status across the entire Middle East, while a victory by the extremist-dominated rebels would inaugurate another wave of Al Qaeda terrorism.

There is only one outcome that the United States can possibly favor: an indefinite draw.

By tying down Mr. Assad’s army and its Iranian and Hezbollah allies in a war against Al Qaeda-aligned extremist fighters, four of Washington’s enemies will be engaged in war among themselves and prevented from attacking Americans or America’s allies.

That this is now the best option is unfortunate, indeed tragic, but favoring it is not a cruel imposition on the people of Syria, because a great majority of them are facing exactly the same predicament.

[...]

Maintaining a stalemate should be America’s objective. And the only possible method for achieving this is to arm the rebels when it seems that Mr. Assad’s forces are ascendant and to stop supplying the rebels if they actually seem to be winning.

This view has been circulating in US policy circles for months. This guy just comes out and says it. 

Egypt linkdump 23-25 August 2013

Changes coming to this site

When I created this blog 10 years ago, shortly after the invasion of Iraq, I had no idea it would become so well-trafficked or that it would last so long. It was an experiment, one that had its up and downs, a range of contributors, the occasional hiatus and periods of prolific production. It has never been a major (or frankly even minor) source of income for me, but having been self-employed for most of that decade, I had complete freedom to put as little or as much work into the blog as I wanted.

For me, the current version of The Arabist is 4.0 — it is a mature product, with many idiosyncrasies built up over time and a personality its readers have come to expect. Some of that is going to change in the year ahead as we move towards a 5.0 iteration of the website. Some recent changes were behind the scene, in terms of the engine that drives the site and making it more mobile-accessible. The coming changes will be more editorial.

First of all, my own role in the blog will be reduced for a while at least. The editor role is passing on to Ursula Lindsey, and she is likely to become the most frequent poster. I will post occasionally but, at least initially, much less frequently.

The main reason is that I am starting a new job as the North Africa Project Director at International Crisis Group, the conflict prevention organization. My new job requires me to publicly represent them, and I want to avoid confusion with the range of views and contributors on this site. For this reason the Twitter handle I have been using, @arabist, will now mostly be used to publicize site content and links. I will be moving to @boumilo – please follow!

The Egyptian crisis, Libya's increasing chaos, and the transition in Tunisia are going to be my main focus for the next few months. This will all require a lot of my attention, and I want to dedicate myself entirely to this task, which will mean a hiatus in blogging. I'm sure that Ursula, Steve Negus, Nour Youssef, Paul Mutter and other regular contributors to the site will do a great job. Things readers have indicated they like, such as links lists, will remain – although we want to find a better way to present them and attract your attention to great articles about the Middle East, which is one of this site's main missions. And we want to act some more static content alongside the blog. So stay tuned and thanks for reading.

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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, www.arabist.net.

Et Tu Sonallah?

On the New Yorker's blog, Robyn Creswell lauds Sonallah Ibrahim (whose first novel That Smell he recently translated, to glowing reviews) as Egypt's "oracular novelist," arguing that his skepticism over the January 25 revolution's impact (he has preferred to call it an intifada, an uprising, rather than a thawra, a revolution) marks him as a "soothsayer." Creswell argues that Ibrahim's doubts echo his early skepticism of the Nasser regime, which "was seen as a harbinger of its collapse."

I am a great admirer of Ibrahim's sharp, troubling, original work -- and I was charmed by the man himself. But I think the argument above is more pertinent to his straight-forward opposition to the Sadat and the Mubarak regimes, whose shortcomings he satirized in his tour-de-force novel Zaat  and denounced publicly. Ibrahim has had a much more complicated and contradictory relationship to Nasser, like many Egyptian Communists (who voluntarily dissolved themselves in the 1960s to support the national cause) -- one in which anti-imperialism trumps anti-authorianism, and ideology overrides self-interest and otherwise excellent analytical powers. 

I say this in light of a recent interview in which Ibrahim, commenting on the current situation, says that "the military power is working on behalf of the people," and describes Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi as "a gain for political life in Egypt," a "patriotic personality" and someone who "for the first time since Gamal Abdel Nasser challenged America and the West." 

 (He also argues that "In the first place we have to understand that there is a plan, developed in research centers in Germany and the US after studying our political and social situation, to maintain their control over us. And this plan is executed by spreading a number of public figures among us to work in its interest, and one of these figures in Mohamed ElBaradei.")

I don't know when this interview was done and I don't know how reliable it is (El Youm El Sabaa isn't always a pinnacle of professionalism). Ibrahim is hardly alone among Egyptian  writers to be celebrating and defending the army after Morsi's ouster. 

But it suggests much less comforting thoughts, not about a lifetime of skepticism and prescience, but about the recurrence of a certain gullibility or delusion. 

In That Smell Ibrahim portrays a country that has turned into a prison, a place where people can't connect or tell the truth. Yet in the interview he describes Nasser as a "great leader." As Creswell himself notes in his introduction to That Smell, when Ibrahim and other Communists were jailed by Nasser in 1959, "The consistent support his faction had given Nasser ended up counting for nothing."  

 

Back to Basics

Our latest translation courtesy of the team at Industry Arabic is a column from former National Salvation Front spokesman Khaled Dawoud (he quit over his inability to continue dismissing the Rabaa massacre), which originally appeared here

Back to Basics

When the Tamarrod movement launched in early May and quickly moved to unseat President Mohamed Morsi, the goal was clear and simple: to call for early presidential elections -- once the man that many described as the Muslim Brotherhood Guidance Bureau's representative in the Presidential Palace had proved a failure at managing the country's affairs, with a similar incompetence shown by the rest of his organization as well. This constituted a threat to the future of Egypt itself and the cohesion of Egyptian society, and even brought us to the brink of civil war. Furthermore, those in the movement really did believe the Road Map, the whole July 3 production, and the pledge to swiftly return to the polls for free and fair elections that would grant popular legitimacy to the new regime.

Despite their belief that the Muslim Brotherhood had completely deviated from the revolution's goals, the stated aim of the parties and movements that rose up to defend the goals of the January 25 Revolution was never to crush the Muslim Brotherhood, imprison its entire leadership and ban them from political activity – and of course not to kill them and mow them down in the hundreds. The actors who are now moving in this direction belonged to a different current that is completely unrelated to the January 25 Revolution; they are the ones who have considered the revolution from the start to be a conspiracy to put an end to their power, influence and corruption, a conspiracy launched by the Muslim Brotherhood with support from Hamas, Iran, America and the whole familiar list. The current trend toward exclusion is backed by those who belong to intellectual currents that have always considered the Brotherhood's ideology to be an obscurantist project at odds with the principles of the Nahda and Egypt's progress toward joining the ranks of the European democracies. In my view, these people do not represent the majority in Egypt's secular parties of any orientation, whether liberal, leftist or nationalist, since to put it simply, Egypt isn't France.

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We have always been at war with Eastasia, Egypt version

From Bradley Hope's account of the increasingly widespread belief that Morsi and friends were broken out of prison by Hamas and Hizbullah, and other re-writings of the 2011 uprising: 

This view is now being taken further by some Egyptians as they seek to explain their country's zigzag course back to a state of emergency, one of the most reviled pillars of Mubarak's rule. The role of foreign influences, including United States funding for civil society groups in Egypt, looms ever larger in their attempts to explain and justify it.

To many former members of Mubarak's National Democratic Party such as Ali El Dean Hilal Dessouki, it seems increasingly plausible to suggest that foreign Islamists, with the aid of the Brotherhood, infiltrated the protests and hijacked the revolution, setting Egypt on a path that culminated with the military's intervention on July 3.

This "second revolution", as the coup against Mr Morsi is sometimes referred to, is more meaningful and legitimate than the first, he said.

It is, Mr Dessouki said, the first "exclusively internal Egyptian uprising."

Asked why the Mubarak regime collapsed so quickly, he said it was too soon to know for certain. But he pointed to many signs of foreign intervention, including the prison break and foreign funding of non-government organisations.

"The situation was much more complicated then," he said.

The headline does not do the story justice; read it as a documentation of how the idea that Morsi – in late January a freshly arrested political prisoner – has been recast as the center of international jailbreak conspiracy. This is just one of the mind-f**ks that the battle to define what reality is in Egypt has created. He who controls the past...

Back to Cairo

The man across the aisle was reading an article headlined: “No Turning Back and No Surrender Before the Forces of Darkness.” As our plane descended over night-time Cairo, the streets were blurry in the weak city lights, and eerily empty because of a military curfew.

The Arabist household just returned, with some trepidation, to Cairo. Here is something I wrote about my own feelings on re-enty for the NYT Latitudes blog.