Egypt in TV: Mubarak was a nice guy, Rabaa was inevitable

Egypt in TV: Mubarak was a nice guy, Rabaa was inevitable

Another entry in our Egypt in TV series from our correspondent Nour Youssef

Recently, a college-educated friend asked me to explain how 9/11 could not be a Zionist conspiracy when all the Jewish employees of the World Trade Center were told to take the day of the attack off. This was a sincere question. And a sad reminder of how easily a ludicrous lie can be instilled in a mind (with IQ points and access to the Internet) when repeated enough times. 

Following the broadcasting of the Mubarak trial, there has been a perceptible increase in the frequency and temerity of such lies in the Egyptian media. It is not enough to believe Mubarak is innocent and that the Muslims Brothers and the West are the source of all evil. One must wish to kiss the sand beneath his hospital bed because under his leadership, Egypt was the best it could have possibly been -- considering that he was busy battling The Source this whole time without telling us, so as not to worry us. The same way he opted for selflessly falling and breaking a leg in the bathroom instead of waking up his nurse to help him limp to it, according to Al-Faraeen’s Tawfik Okasha, who wonders how we don't feel shame allowing the trial of this gentle soul to go on -- a dangerous rhetorical question since it implies the judiciary is conducting a farcical trial that could be stopped if enough people wanted it to.

"But why air the trial now?" CBC's Khairy Ramadan asked. Are they trying to elicit sympathy for Mubarak or agitate people? Are they going to air MB trials too? Ramadan continued to skirt the obvious reason, which is that people were angrier before and would have made a fuss seeing the judge go out of his way to accommodate the Mubaraks and offer to move the trial to anywhere they like to allow their father to defend himself outside the usual defendant’s cage, and profess his personal desire "to give them back their freedom” if only for a few moments.

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HRW: Deadly protest dispersals in Egypt a crime against humanity

Human Rights Watch -- whose senior members were prevented from entering the country yesterday -- has just released a report arguing that the dispersals of pro-Morsi protests in Egypt last summer (the most deadly of which, in the Rabaa El Adawiya Square, may have killed over 1,000 people) amount to crimes against humanity. This because they involved the premeditated (government officials openly discussed how many thousands of protesters they expected to be killed)  use of widescale violence against civilians. You can read the full report -- which calls for the indictment of the Minister of Interior and of President Sisi -- here

Israel/Palestine: Equality or ethnic cleansing

The following piece is by Omar Robert Hamilton, a film-maker and a founder of the Palestine Festival of Literature. A version of it was also published on the Egyptian news site Mada Masr. 

August 4th 2014

What has become clear during the latest assault on Gaza is that cycles of violence are perpetuated and reinforced by cycles of rhetoric. The Israeli PR machine works by constantly shifting the parameters of the discourse. Arguments are made and forgotten. Inquiries are held and dismissed. First principles are ignored and histories are erased by carefully trained spokespeople who excel in double-speak and a logic of empathetic violence audience-tested for optimum American palatability. Their mantra: it’s not what you say that counts. It’s what people hear.

The facts are all there to make, together, a damning case against Israel. The statistics, the photographs, the captured anguish do not lie - and yet it is the spin that gathers quickly around them that dominates the agenda. Since the beginning of this assault, the raison d’etre of the Israeli campaign has changed three times - each time centering around a buzz word that is repeated until there is no room for any other concept. The words have been: “kidnapped” (June 12th to July 2nd), “rockets” (July 7th onwards) and now “tunnels” (July 17th onwards), a word and concept which only seriously entered the discourse alongside the announcement of the ground invasion. The following day the death toll spiked, with 60 people killed in 24 hours, and a fourth buzz term entered the discourse: “human shield.” Now that the tunnels are all allegedly destroyed, if another word is needed it will be “disarm.”

KIDNAPPED: the Israeli government has now admitted that Hamas did not kidnap the three boys. They even knew they were dead after only a few hours but trumpeted the manhunt to enrage the public and instigate the pre-prepared operation “Brother’s Keeper” to dismantle Hamas in the West Bank. Why? Because eight days earlier, after eight years of schism, a unity government between rival groups Hamas and Fatah had been signed.

ROCKETS: Israel boasts of its Iron Dome defence system, claiming it is a prime specimen of Israeli engineering that keeps its civilians safe. Yet Israelis also claim they live in a state of terror because rockets "rain down" on them. This contradiction cuts to the heart of the constructed national psyche of Israelis as a fearsome warrior people who live in constant terror. Ben Ehrenreich describes the rockets as “more like the ones you might have learned to build in high school shop class than any sort of 21st-century artillery: thick metal pipes with fins welded on, an engine at the base, a few pounds of explosive at the head, the latter usually insufficient for much by way of destruction. What little damage they do is caused mainly by the momentum of their impact.”  To date, two Israelis and one Thai civilian have been killed by these rockets, giving them a kill rate of 0.1%. The Palestinian death toll has, today, passed one thousand eight hundred.

HUMAN SHIELDS: From the hardest hawks to the softest of Israeli doves, the same justification is being proffered for the massive numbers of Palestinian fatalities: Hamas uses human shields. Even Amos Oz, the great conscience of liberal Zionists, could only muster this simplistic scenario

Amoz Oz: I would like to begin the interview in a very unusual way: by presenting one or two questions to your readers and listeners. May I do that?

Deutsche Welle: Go ahead!

Question 1: What would you do if your neighbor across the street sits down on the balcony, puts his little boy on his lap and starts shooting machine gun fire into your nursery?

If this is the thinking of a great intellectual heavyweight of the Israeli left, then a truly toxic atmosphere has been successfully engendered, one in which regular soldiers need not think twice before pulling the trigger. The fact is that the UN’s Goldstone Report into Operation Cast Lead found Israel had killed civilians "while they were trying to leave their homes to walk to a safer place, waving white flags" and documented multiple instances of Israeli soldiers using Palestinians as human shields. But the Goldstone Report, so thoroughly damning in its findings of multiple and wide-ranging war crimes, has been all but forgotten. 

TUNNELS: The BBC, ever mindful of the approved Israeli lexicon, refers to a series of "attack tunnels." So who are these tunnels attacking? They are, we are told, designed to penetrate Israel and kidnap Israelis. In 2006 Gilad Shalit, a soldier, was captured and held as a prisoner of war. He was released in exchange for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners - many of whom were rounded up again during Operation “Brother’s Keeper”. No civilian has ever been abducted through the tunnels. Clearly, their primary purpose is an economic one, born of the crippling, medieval siege that Israel maintains against Gaza. Along the Egyptian border it is not Hamas that builds the tunnels; They merely tax the goods being moved through by the entrepreneurs that dig and own them. Israel talks of a “terrorist organization [that] deliberately embeds its terrorist infrastructure inside civilians neighborhoods” when actually a system of loosely regulated capitalism is what governs the tunnel industry. If you own a house near the border you are very likely to get into the tunneling business because there’s nothing else you can do. Furthermore, if Israel’s operation is about destroying these tunnels, why has it cost 1,800 lives? There were thought to be over 1,000 tunnels between Egypt and Gaza which the Egyptian regime - not widely known for its ability to carry out security operations without slaughtering its citizens - destroyed with no loss of life.

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Rape in Egypt

Hend is not a Brotherhood member or supporter. But in the run-up to June 30 and Morsi’s removal by the military following mass protests, she said publicly that Egypt was in store for a coup, and that she feared Brotherhood rule would be replaced by what she described as Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s brand of  “military religious fascism.”

She publicly denounced the clearing of the Rabea al-Adaweya sit-in in August 2013 as a massacre. At this point, she says, the telephone threats started again. On social media, she was called a “Brotherhood whore." Someone tweeted her telephone number and described her as a Brotherhood supporter. Surveillance by plainclothes men, which had started under SCAF but stopped under Morsi, intensified.

Three men on rotating four or five-hour shifts stationed themselves outside her home, she says. They followed her. On one occasion one of the men followed her to a café, sat at the table next to her and ordered coffee.

“Then he looked me in the face and photographed me,” Hend says.

“The monitoring isn’t about keeping tabs, it’s a threat to tell me that they’re watching me,” she adds.

Matters worsened at the end of 2013. She has long known that her phone was tapped, but then printouts of her emails and private online chats with her partner were slipped under her door. At the beginning of December 2013, she was asked to go to the headquarters of the National Security Agency.

“They played good cop, bad cop with me. An officer said, ‘You’re educated, you can travel. Why don’t you leave the country?’ Then they told me that they had recordings of me speaking about the military during the SCAF era and that they would hand them over to the media and claim that they were made recently. ‘The people will eat you alive,’ he told me.”

Hend says she then received threats of violence ahead of a march to parliament the same month. She was told by security personnel that she would be arrested under the newly passed Protest Law which made protests held without permission from the Interior Ministry illegal.

On December 26, Hend was alone late at night in a secluded, non-residential, street of central Cairo. She remembers that it was icy cold. As she was putting things in a car she had borrowed from a friend, three men appeared from behind and grabbed her.

This story by Sarah Carr in Mada Masr is a very hard and very important read. It shows the lengths to which Egypt's new regime is willing to go -- the kind of unchecked brutality it's allowing if not encouraging. Reports of sexual violence against men and women -- always a feature of repression and detention here -- have been increasing in recent months, despite official denials. (There are also unverified reports on social media of Islamists taking revenge on officers who have committed sexual attacks).

This story reminded me of the plain-clothes creeps who threatened a female Egyptian colleague during the 2011 uprising, in an eerily similar way -- using a knife, very foul language, and threats of sexual assault. Except back then they didn't follow through with it. 

 

 

In Translation: Think it over, judges!

There have been several examples in the Egyptian press lately of extremely belated hand-wringing. Now Lamis Elhadidy -- a former media advisor to Hosni Mubarak, fierce supporter of President El Sisi and talk show who host who has featured many times in our Egypt in TV columns -- comes out and says it: Some of the recent judicial rulings are not very beneficial to the country. She asks judges, with all due respect, to "reflect" a little more. Given how much Elhadidy has acted as a mouthpiece for the post-June 30 regime, it's fair to assume that this is a message. We bring you this latest entry in our In Translation series as always courtesy of Industry Arabic, a great professional translation service. 

The Judges

Lamis Elhadidy, El Masry El Youm, June 30

I choose my words carefully before talking about the judiciary. It is an emotional topic, and any unconsidered approach may be understood incorrectly or expose one to accusations of insulting the judiciary, wanting to politicize the institution, or “lacking patriotism," alongside other prefabricated charges.

But honesty requires that we do not shy away from speaking the truth, nor fear blame. I hold great respect for the judiciary and its officials; I am certain of the lofty position that it has occupied throughout Egypt’s political history, and that it is one of the few institutions that stood steadfastly against attempts at encroachment from various political regimes. However, those within the judiciary themselves may need to pause in order to frankly and honestly analyze the results of recent rulings and their influence on the path of the nation as a whole.

An independent judiciary, whose independence we all defend, does not imply that the institution is separate from the nation, or that it operates on an island with no connection to what is going on around it, in terms of international repercussions, challenges, or ambushes. An independent judiciary means that the institution does not experience any form of pressure from other branches of the government, especially the executive branch, and that the judge rules from his stand justly and according to the law -- the law that was promulgated in order to administer justice, set the scales, and reform society, not handicap it.

With this in mind, the judiciary's wise and senior figures must pause and evaluate some of the most recent rulings and their influence on the nation’s path. Egypt is facing ambushes both domestically and internationally, and they must consider how—unfortunately—some of these rulings have obstructed our path, to the extent that these rulings have even been employed by enemies to fuel denunciation and intensify international hostility toward the June 30th Revolution and the new Egyptian regime. All of this comes in addition to the heavy financial losses that we have suffered.

The rulings to renationalize companies that were privatized decades ago and the resulting legal cases cost billions of dollars in international arbitration. The death sentence rulings [of hundreds of alleged Muslim Brotherhood members, tried en masse] were immediately appealed by the public prosecutor, but their impact remains ineradicable as they formed the largest concurrent batch of death sentence rulings in human history. And -- despite my absolute disapproval of Al-Jazeera’s approach and the poisonous lies that it broadcasted -- the case of the Al-Jazeera journalists is also one of the rulings that have created disastrous international consequences for Egypt. Every bit of progress that we make on the diplomatic and popular front takes place through great pains; every constitutional and electoral mandate proves that the path of June 30 is our goal. And then these rulings come along and drag us two steps backward. Then we begin the series of justifications and explanations, affirming that the judiciary is not politicized, that there are other stages of litigation, and that there is no intention to suppress opponents, silence them, or otherwise.

We have failed – and I mean that we have all failed -- to explain the grounds of these rulings or the reasons behind them sufficiently to convince the world of their logic. It appeared to the world as though we have a unique judicial system with no relation to the global system, which is no longer acceptable internationally. Egypt cannot live divorced from international law.

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A Ramadan poem: Mobile Mosque

Mada Masr is publishing a series of three poems by Sherif S. Elmusa on Ramadan. They are lovely. Here is the first. Ramadan Kareem. 

The metro in Ramadan is a mobile mosque.
The dry lips recite verses
from plastic-covered Qurans.
They say prayers,
like the prayers of the Ancients,
“easy on the tongue, vital for the scale.” 
Their eyes are kept ajar, as if to shield
the mystery from too much light.

In this blessed month our pleas pass,
without inspection,
through the wide open gates of heaven,
and the angels fly, on high alert,
grandmother would say, then turn
to me and ask why I didn’t fast.

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Killing Israeli and Palestinian children

After the bodies of three abducted Israeli teenage settlers were discovered on June 28, Palestinians have been targeted indiscriminately by "extreme rightist" Israeli mobs and now there is news that a 16-year-old Palestinian boy was killed, almost surely in retaliation. 

Before that latest piece of news had broken, Israel had already launched "retaliatory strikes" on Gaza and "sweeps" in the West bank, bombing over 30 locations, arresting hundreds and killing at least 8, including a 14-year-old boy. Hamas had denied involvement in the attack, although Israeli officials say it is responsible and "will pay."  

And Palestinian writer Susan Abulhawa had this to say:

No mother should have endure the murder of her child. No mother or father. That does not only apply to Jewish parents. The lives of our children are no less precious and their loss are no less shattering and spiritually unhinging. But there is a terrible disparity in the value of life here in the eyes of the state and the world, where Palestinian life is cheap and disposable, but Jewish life is sacrosanct.

This exceptionalism and supremacy of Jewish life is a fundamental underpinning of the state of Israel. It pervades their every law and protocol, and is matched only by their apparent contempt and disregard for Palestinian life. Whether through laws that favor Jews for employment and educational opportunities, or laws that allow the exclusion of non-Jews from buying or renting among Jews, or endless military orders that limit the movement, water consumption, food access, education, marriage possibilities, and economic independence, or these periodic upending of Palestinian civil society, life for non-Jews ultimately conforms to the religious edict issued by Dov Lior, Chief Rabbi of Hebron and Kiryat Arba, saying "a thousand non-Jewish lives are not worth a Jew's fingernail."

Israeli violence of the past few weeks is generally accepted and expected. And the terror we know they will unleash on our people will be, as it always is, cloaked in the legitimacy of uniforms and technological death machines. Israeli violence, no matter how vulgar, is inevitably couched as a heroic, ironic violence that western media frames as “response,” as if Palestinian resistance itself were not a response to Israeli oppression. When the ICRC was asked to issue a similar call for the immediate and unconditional release of the hundreds of Palestinian children held in Israeli jails (which is also in contravention of international humanitarian law), the ICRC refused, indicating there’s a difference between the isolated abduction of Israeli teens and the routine abduction, torture, isolation, and imprisonment of Palestinian children.

Here is the whole piece. 

Shame on Al Masry Al Youm

The degradation of public discourse in Egypt continuous its spectacular course, a spiral of falsities, smears, and calls for vigilantism from supposed "intellectuals."

Here -- thank to our friends at Industry Arabic, a great professional translation service -- are excerpts from two op-eds published recently in the privately owned Al Masry Al Youm (a newspaper that back when it was launched in 2005 was celebrated as "opposition" and "independent" and that broke some genuine scoops regarding voter fraud). In the first, playwright Ali Salem -- invoking the antecedent of a mysterious splinter group in 1970s France that called itself "L'Honneur de la Police" and claimed several assassinations -- calls for the police in Egypt to form extra-judicial death squads. In the second column, which was taken down after an outcry (and a strongly worded protests from the Brazilian ambassador in Cairo), a certain Dr. Nassar Abdallah argues that Egypt should learn from Brazil's example, claiming that country's decision to hunt and kill street children was part of its economic miracle. Neither column is in the least bit satirical. 

The Honor of the Police Group, Ali Salem, Al Masry Al Youm, May 30

An "Honneur de la Police" organization working in complete secrecy would have greater ability to obtain the required information. Human beings have a natural inclination to help the strong, provided that they guarantee their safety. Ultimately, the important thing is that anyone who sets fire to a police APC finds will find his house set on fire the same night by unknown actors. If you monitor a police officer's movements in order to kill him, you and your family should know that you will be killed the very same night.

Am I inciting the police to imitate their peers in France to protect themselves and defend their personal honor? Yes, I am inciting them to do that. I am inciting the men of the Egyptian police to kill any vile murderer who thinks that no one will pursue him and exact punishment.

Is what I am calling for an infringement of the law? Yes, by all means. "Raise your voice a little so I can hear you." Yes, what am I calling for is not legal, but it is just by every standard. The greatest and most sacred human right is the right to self-defense. What I am asking is to allow police officers – of which my father was one – to defend their lives and honor as members of the most honorable profession, and let conventional legal forms have their due afterwards.

Street Children: The Brazilian Solution, Al Masry Al Youm, Nassar Abdallah, June 20

Due to these considerations, the Brazilian security apparatus at the time resorted to an extremely cruel and outrageous solution to deal with the street children phenomenon. It consisted of widespread hunting and cleansing campaigns in which thousands of them were executed like stray dogs in order to prevent the harm and risks they presented! The other forces in Brazilian society realized that what the police were doing was a crime in every sense of the word, that these children were in reality victims, not criminals, and that it is horrendous to execute people for crimes that they did not commit. Everybody realized that, but almost all of them turned a blind eye to what the police were doing because they all stood to benefit from it. The political leadership did not officially announce that they backed the police's actions, but they did not try to put any security official on trial because they knew that the alternative to executing street children was to rehabilitate them. The problem with that was that it would require a huge budget that would necessarily come at the expense of providing job opportunities for citizens who had lost their jobs, and this would put their economic reform plan at risk of failure.

Average citizens – even those who openly denounce the execution campaigns, deep down appreciate the seriousness of the government's reform program and feel relieved that the street children are disappearing from the streets of the main cities, where they can now go out with their sons and daughters without fear. Although some media outlets denounce the campaigns, they still keep reminding citizens of the street children's aggressive nature and the crimes that they will no doubt commit in increasing number if they are left to their own devices. Meanwhile, the human rights organizations that have heroically defended street children's right to life have been attacked for applying a double standard in that they do not take into account the right of average citizens to safety.

In this way, the Brazilian solution succeeded in clearing the main streets of major cities from street children and driving the ones who remained into the slums. However, this success should not be attributed to the cruelty involved, but first and foremost to the fact that the will to reform existed among Brazil's political leadership, which fought corruption and provided millions of job opportunities to Brazilians, and then was able to transform an economy on the brink of bankruptcy to one of the most important global economies. This is the lesson that should be heeded by anyone trying to learn from the Brazilian experience.

Palfest, part two

The second installment of my diary of the Palestine Festival of Literature went up at Bookforum over the weekend:

The daily life of Palestinians is constrained by an intricate complex of physical and bureaucratic barriers. Nowhere are the divisions and inequalities more dramatic than in Hebron. In 1994, after a far-right Israeli named Baruch Goldstein opened fire in the Ibrahimi Mosque that surrounds the patriarch Abraham’s tomb and killed twenty-nine Palestinians, the holy site was divided into a mosque and a synagogue. Muslims and Jews look at the same tomb from separate barred windows, bullet-proof partitions between them. Four hundred ultra-Orthodox settlers live in the city proper, alongside nearly 200,000 Palestinians. To accommodate and protect them, the government has shut down the main commercial thoroughfare, putting thousands of people out of work. Billboards explain that the street was closed due to the violence of the Second Intifada. Fifteen years on, settlers harass Palestinians, throwing bleach on the wares of shops and attacking children on their way to school. While we holders of foreign passports make our way past checkpoints down the ghostly street, Palestinians must take a much longer and more circuitous route to get from one side of the city to the other.

In a place this segregated, one is forced take sides. (The Jewish or the Muslim entrance? The settler road or the one open to Palestinians?) By the end of the week everyone at Palfest is overwhelmed, not just by the touring schedule and the flow of dispiriting details, but by the constant effort of positioning oneself—one’s work, one’s words—in relation to this terrible, lopsided fight.

The first installment is here. I also wrote something on all the lines that criss-cross Israel-Palestine (segregating Israelis and Palestinians, but also dividing Palestinians from each other, and from their Arab neighbors) for Mada Masr. 

Below is a performance by the very talented British-Egyptian playwright and poet Sabrina Mahfouz, who composed this after a visit to Hebron and performed it two days later in Ramallah:



A diary of the Palestine Festival of Literature

All last week I was traveling through the West Bank with PalFest. It was an exhausting, moving, enlightening experience. I was introduced to many great writers, poets and performers and to half a dozen cities: Ramallah, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Hebron, Haifa, Akka and Nablus. I've written a diary of the trip for Bookforum; the first of two installments is here

Graffiti on the wall of a community center in Hebron

Graffiti on the wall of a community center in Hebron

 

June 1

We’re on the move again. Because so many Palestinians can’t travel, Palfest brings writers from around the world to them. And because Palestinians can’t even move freely from one West Bank city to another, the festival travels every day, to reach as many people as possible.

We take the Qalandia Crossing from Ramallah to Jerusalem. After passing through the checkpoint’s narrow metal chutes and heavy turnstiles, we emerge on the other side of the giant cement wall that Israel began building twelve years ago, and that zig-zags across the West Bank. The Iraqi writer Haifa Zangana is reminded of checkpoints in Baghdad, and marvels at how easy it is to “make things familiar that are unacceptable.”

Jerusalem’s Old City is beautiful and bitter. Little by little, day by day, its Muslim residents are stripped of land and homes and residency permits. Israeli settlers have occupied about eighty buildings in the Muslim and Christian quarters, covering them in flags and barbed wire.

In the evening, on the esplanade of the Burj Al-Luqluq Social Center, the local poet Najwan Darwish reads from his collection Nothing More to Lose, recently published by NYRB Classics. His poem “Jerusalem (I)” opens:

“We stood on the Mount

to raise a sacrifice for you

and when we saw our hand rise

empty

we knew

that we were your sacrifice”

The reading is nearly drowned out by the sound of nearby fireworks, set off to celebrate a neighborhood resident’s release from prison.

To learn more about the festival, see here and here

Tunis: "Things are bad, but that's normal"

Last month I was in Tunis for a conference on Arab intellectuals and historical transformations in the region.  I wrote up something about it for the LRB blog:

On Avenue Bourguiba, a young man with a swollen mouth and a bandaged arm had been lying all morning almost unconscious on the ground, a dirty Tunisian flag across his chest. A few men in the circle of onlookers finally decided to pick him up and walk him away. ‘He’s been there ten days,’ a middle-aged waiter from a nearby cafe explained. He was on a hunger strike. I asked why. The waiter shrugged. ‘He’s from outside the capital. He hasn’t got his rights yet.’ The waiter segued into his own grievances: he works 15 hours a day, has four children, makes 400 dinars a month. They never eat meat.

I was in Tunis last month for a conference entitled Intellectuals and the Historic Transformations in the Arab World. The first speaker was the historian Hichem Djait. He gave a brief history of Arab intellectuals and their persecution by authoritarian regimes, before concluding that they have lost influence across the region. ‘The Arab world took a step towards democracy, but one has the painful impression that it is not ready,’ he said. Instead, the uprisings have ‘exacerbated very strong and very violent tensions’. In countries that are tearing themselves apart, what role is there for intellectuals?

In Palestine

I'm a very honored guest of the Palestine Literary Festival this year. The festival brings writers from around the world for a week of readings and events in Palestine. Here is the festival's program and here is its Flickr account. And below are some pics. 

Ramallah

Ramallah

Approaching the Qalandiya Crossing into Jerusalem (the only entrance for Palestinians on foot), graffiti of Yasser Arafat and jailed leader Marwan Barghouti

Approaching the Qalandiya Crossing into Jerusalem (the only entrance for Palestinians on foot), graffiti of Yasser Arafat and jailed leader Marwan Barghouti

The crossing

The crossing

Author Teju Cole photographs the wall

Author Teju Cole photographs the wall

Jerusalem.  A beautiful but sad city, in which every inch is being bitterly fought for. Many individual houses in the Old City's historically Muslim or Christian quarters have been "settled," occupied by Israelis who drape them in flags and barbed wire. 

Jerusalem.  A beautiful but sad city, in which every inch is being bitterly fought for. Many individual houses in the Old City's historically Muslim or Christian quarters have been "settled," occupied by Israelis who drape them in flags and barbed wire. 

Election Day

And so Egypt's decidedly anti-climactic presidential election  -- the sixth vote in 3 years, and the first contest since Mubarak's time in which the result is such a foregone conclusion -- is underway. 

For excellent coverage, check out Mada Masr site, where Sarah Carr has her take on the Sabbahi campaign:

Sabbahi's campaign has been far more plebeian, and if he earned points for miles covered he would have earned enough by now to claim a small yacht. So vigorously has he rubbed shoulders with the common man it is a wonder that he has any shoulders left. His campaign caravan has traveled the length and breadth of the country and wheeled out Sabbahi in rural backwaters so that he can bellow about justice and the revolution and freeing unjustly detained prisoners. He did this on the last day of official campaigning in Abdeen, Cairo, mostly preaching to a small crowd of the converted, a bunch of excitable teenagers who lit flares and chanted and banged drums next to more sedate Dostour Party members and non-aligned citizens. The mood felt very 2011, what with all the talk about the martyrs and the revolution and social justice.

Dalia Rabie reports on Abdel-Fattah El Sis's disturbing rapport with the Egyptian female public

“I will take a picture with each of you, it is my honor,” Sisi told the cheering attendees. As the women continued to relentlessly chant, “We love you Sisi,” he responded jokingly that they would “create problems with the men at home.”

Sisi’s speeches and interviews address women as housewives, mothers and sisters. Rarely does he allude to them as more than catalysts, and he generally refuses to acknowledge that they are political players in society.

After around six minutes of Sisi pleading with the women to settle down, asking them to allow him to talk to them because he “needs their help,” and after one of the organizers instructed the audience that “when the leader speaks, everyone should be quiet,” the candidate continued.

And Jano Charbel has a very interesting piece about the Sisi posters that have blanketed the country, and the individuals and businesses behind them:

According to Sheikh Abdel Rahman Hassan of the Islamic Jurisprudence Center, “We are campaigning for Field Marshal Sisi’s presidency because he is a pious and religious man. Moreover, we trust that he will be able to root out terrorist groups like Ansar Beit al-Maqdes, Ajnad Misr, the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, and other armed extremists.” 

Sheikh Hassan’s center has a number of posters around Tahrir Square with the image of Sisi and the words, “May I kiss your head please?” The center’s phone number is on these posters identifying them.

Similarly the private ETAF advertising company has hung-up Sisi banners around the Abdeen neighborhood, with the name of their company, and their phone numbers on them. 

The company’s spokesman did not comment as to how much his eight-foot-long banners cost or why they have the company’s contact information on them. 

Mohamed Lotfy, owner of a bookshop in downtown Cairo commented, “These [private] banners hanging outside our shop are not ours. They belong to other businesses and political parties in the area.” 

“Nobody forces these businesses to put up campaign banners. They put them up out of their own freewill. It’s their way of showing their support for their candidate, and their love for their country.” 

A novel about political exile, and the brutal passage of time

I've just reviewed a beautifully written, beautifully translated novel, by the Jordanian poet Amjad Nasser, Land of No Rain. The story, which seems to be quite autobiographical but has none of the self-indulgence that can mar that genre, concerns a middle-aged writer returning to the fictional Arab dictatorship he fled as a young poet and revolutionary. The protagonist, Adham, has lost the sharp convictions of his youth. 

Adham's irrelevance is further proven by how innocuous he now seems to the regime he once tried to overthrow. Upon his return to Hamiya, his interrogation by the National Security Agency (its star-shaped headquarters "like a spaceship just landed from another planet," where once "even birds dared not fly overhead") is pro-forma, just a matter, as the polite and diligent officers tell him, of completing his dossier. But where in his file, wonders the narrator, "are the pavements, the cold, life when it became just a lucky coincidence, the skies as low as a wall of grey, the long sleepless nights, the cough, the stubborn hopes, the dancing lights of return?"

Do the mixed emotions of homecoming ever live up to its tense anticipation? Adham finds his homeland almost unrecognizable. It is still un-free, but in new and different ways. His parents have died in his absence. His old flame married and had children. He can only confront his own ghostly younger self, who never left, changed, or aged. This Jolly Corner-like conceit works well, although the proliferation of doubles (multiple characters bear the same name), and the use of the second person singular, in which the narrator addresses himself, can be a bit precious. But then there are disorienting scenes such as this, in which the narrator dematerializes into his former self:

"The man who looked like your teacher at the Upright Generation Secondary School disappeared and was replaced by a solidly built man with an enormous mustache of the kind worn by truck drivers. Your son Badr disappeared. The gold ring disappeared from the ring finger of your left hand. You heard a voice repeating, insistently and annoyingly, a name that had an unsettling resonance: Younis, Younis. You turned to where the voice came from."

The Mubarak mansions

Mubarak and his sons were just handed three- and four-year sentences on embezzlement charges. To understand the case, and get a detailed example of how the ruling family routinely stole from the public coffers, read this excellent piece of investigative journalism by Hossam Bahgat. Sifting through the court documents and talking to a whistle-blowing investigator, Bahgat reconstructs a decades-old scam that also involves the ubiquitous Arab Contractors company and the current prime minister, Ibrahim Mehleb.  

Egyptian citizens have unknowingly paid millions of pounds for refurbishments, furnishings, appliances, utilities bills and maintenance of the two offices that Gamal and Alaa Mubarak used to conduct their profitable investment business on al-Saada Street in Roxy, Heliopolis. Alaa’s wife Heidi charged the state for every last expense in the renovation of a new villa in the posh Golf Area on Qattamiya Heights in New Cairo. When Gamal and his wife Khadiga had their first daughter in 2010, the Arab Contractors company paid the bill to design, build and furnish a separate wing for the newborn in the Uruba Palace in Heliopolis. 

At some point, first lady Suzanne Mubarak wanted to have a private office in the new, glamorous City Stars Intercontinental hotel and mall – Egyptian citizens paid for its interior design and every piece of furniture. When Mubarak’s 12-year-old grandson Mohamed died in a tragic playground accident in 2009, Arab Contractors used the telecom towers budget to fraudulently cover the costs of building a new private mausoleum. Many of the receipts describe expenses on the five villas that Mubarak and his sons privately owned in the el-Sheikh Red Sea resort and on a 25-feddan farm jointly owned by Gamal and Alaa on the road from Cairo to Ismailia.  

Other expenses covered by the state budget include an elevator to the roof of Alaa and Heidi’s Qattamya villa “to be able to adjust and maintain the satellite dishes on the roof,” a Jacuzzi pool in the Heliopolis residence, and a giant tent and candles for a party in one of the Sharm el-Sheikh villas. 

Egypt's next president

Now that campaigning for Egypt’s presidential election is well underway and Field Marshal Abdel Fattah El Sisi has made several media appearances, some observations can be made about the man who is expected to be Egypt’s next president. 

The former military commander is running a very controlled campaign, one in which he does not open himself up to any impertinent back-and-forth. In his media coming-out a few weeks back, he immediately bristled when would-be interviewers Ibrahim Eissa and Lamees Hadidi even gently pushed him, warning Eissa “I won’t allow you to use that word again,” about the apparently derogatory terms “askar” for the army, and admonishing them: “Are you going to talk or you going to listen?” The interview was pre-recorded, and glaringly failed to include what might have seemed like obvious questions (such as, given El-Sisi now oft-professed love of Egyptian women, how he defended forced virginity tests for female protesters two years ago). 

The field marshals’ electoral program remains shrouded in mystery. In an unorthodox move, his campaign has simply decided not to burden themselves with explaining how his vision might actually be implemented. His own campaign manager has told the press that presenting a program at this point “would provoke a discussion and debate that we don’t have the time to react to.”  His few policy proposals (giving young men refrigerated trucks to deliver vegetables to market; encouraging the use of LED lightbulbs to face the electricity shortage) seem risibly modest, and when pressed on how he would actually implement them, the mushir simply says that the state will “make” people adopt them. 

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Frankenstein in Baghdad

I recently wrote something for the New Yorker's site about the last winner of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, a pretty riveting Iraqi novel.

In the opening pages of Ahmed Saadawi’s novel “Frankenstein in Baghdad,” a suicide bombing shakes a neighborhood in the Iraqi capital:

They all turned towards the explosion at the moment a mass of flame and smoke ate up the cars and human bodies surrounding them, cut several electricity lines and perhaps killed a number of birds—with the shattering of glass, the caving in of doors, the cracking of nearby walls, the sinking of some old roofs in the Bataween neighborhood, and other unforeseen damages that all burst forth at once, in the same instant.

Eruptions of violence, as unavoidable and mysterious as storms, are part of the atmosphere of the book, which just won the 2014 International Prize for Arabic Fiction. Matter-of-factly, Saadawi sets out a reality—Baghdad in 2005—so gothic in its details (a man is troubled after seeing “a blood stain and bits of hair from a scalp”; after another explosion, a man dies alongside his donkey, “their flesh mixed”) that, when the novel makes a turn to the supernatural, it barely shocks.

In the explosion’s aftermath, a man named Hadi al-Attag, a middle-aged, hard-drinking scavenger and antiquities seller, loiters at the scene, smoking a cigarette. As firemen hose away the last human remains, he reaches down and picks up a nose, the last thing he needs to complete a body, made up entirely of discarded parts of bombing victims, that he has been assembling in secret. A storm hits the city and the body disappears. Following a strange chain of events, the creature comes to life and starts taking revenge on its killers. It learns that its body parts belong to criminals as well as innocents; its vigilantism is complicated by a need to continue killing simply to replenish itself.