Symptoms of Imperial Soldiers

Didn't think I'd find such pointed socio-economic critique and truly inspired comedy at Cairoscene: 

But the true slap in the face was the witnessing of the whole “convince the West that this is not a coup” social media campaign. Who cares what they think, honestly? Do they care that I think that their 2000 election was rigged and that George Bush is funnier than 90% of their sitcoms? No. And why weren’t these people also trying to convince the president of China that this allegedly wasn’t a coup? Is he not in their field of vision? Personally, I wasn’t seeking validation from the West regarding June 30th but I must admit that I did write a letter to Tommy Remengesau, the President of Palau, claiming that June 30th was caused by four middle aged women masturbating simultaneously to Mohannad from Nour. I explained that the electricity cut (Yes, fuck Morsi) prior to climax, and when it returned, MBC4 became state TV Channel Two and Mohannad became El Sisi. The dark shades conducted the activity to its orgasmic conclusions and 20 million people poured into the streets to celebrate the first genuine Egyptian female orgasm by parading posters of the suave general and his nipple-erecting gaze. Suffice to say, President Remengseau was skeptical. He simply wrote back “Tawfik Okasha, is this you?”

And check out the author's previous post about the secession of the island state of Zamalek, too. 

Bassem Youssef on the Egyptian media's "Great Writers"

Another entry in our In Translation series, courtesy of the excellent team Industry Arabic. Comedian Bassem Youssef had his hit satirical news show pulled -- after just one episode -- last Fall. While he looks for new options, he has been one of the few voices of reason and conscience and humor in Egyptian op-ed pages. This column appeared a few weeks back, but what it has to say about local media's free use of anonymous sources, rumors and conspiracy theories is stll (and unfortunately will probably remain for a long time ) relevant.

Your Dear Old Professionalism is Dead, Shorouk newspaper, 24 December

by Bassem Youssef

What I read was not the typical sort of Facebook nonsense. And it wasn't a "prank" on one of those fake forums; it was a respectable article penned by the Great Writer.

There are a few names that just need to appear on any article for it to receive the "stamp of authority." For the Great Writer and Journalist cannot just flush his history down the drain and publish "any old drivel and that's it."

But between the "stamp of authority" and what I read I'm at a loss about what to believe.

Here the Writer is narrating true and accurate details about what happened between the US Secretary of State and the Gulf State Ruler.

And oh my what details!!!

The Secretary of State conveys to the king serious information about Qatar and their relations with Israel and the article goes on to relate how the Secretary of State fidgeted and how the Ruler cleared his throat. The article narrates with great precision what the US Secretary of State told him, from the opening "Allow me, Your Highness, to tell you a critical secret," to secret phone calls between Obama, the emir of Qatar and Erdogan, to how a Syrian minister snuck into Jordan dressed as a woman, to details about the latest episode of "Sponge Bob."

The article did everything short of following the minister into the bathroom!!!

The article was not a general account of what happened between the two parties – you know, the big picture. It was a word-by-word script with choice lines from a screenplay by Osama Anwar Okasha.

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Egyptian intellectuals, revolution, and the state

One of the most surprising and troubling developments of the last six months, for those of us interested in cultural as well as political life in Egypt, has been the alignment of the overwhelming majority of prominent artists and writers here with the military-backed authorities against the Brotherhood, with the endorsement of state violence and the abandonment of pluralism and human rights that that has entailed. A few recent pieces have focused on this troubled intersection between between art and politics, nationalism and liberalism. 

At Jadaliyya, Elliot Colla writes about Sonallah Ibrahim's novel al-Jalid ("The Ice") which came out January 25, 2011.

Like these other novels, al-Jalid is concerned with Left revolution—its defeats, its disappointments, its erasure—in Egypt and across the globe. And of all Ibrahim’s novels, al-Jalid is his saddest. Lacking the laughter of his other works, it offers little more than a laconic lament, a shrug, about the passing of so many revolutions. More than once, as characters walk through the Moscow winter, Shukri says, “And we walked across the ice…” The protagonist plods on silently, surrounded by “comrades” but also alone, the only sound being that of feet scuffling cautiously over cracking ice. The image is an apt one for describing the increasingly slippery and cold ground on which the Egyptian Left began to tread from 1970 onwards. With these unsure steps, al-Jalid ruminates on the failure of most every revolution the Egyptian Left ever believed in, and with that, it seems to mourn the passing of the possibility of revolution itself.

[…]

What does it mean to read Ibrahim’s latest novel as a satire in this sense? For one thing, it allows us to begin to recognize the author's deep skepticism toward the revolutionaries' proposition that another world is possible. Al-Jalid elaborates a form of Left pessimism, a Marxist, anti-imperialist critique of injustice and oppression, but without the utopian promise of justice or emancipation.

This is how Ibrahim, presumably, viewed things in the late Mubarak years. Recently, it is the great writer's lack of skepticism -- his belief that the Egyptian army is "standing up to the West" and to a US-Brotherhood conspiracy -- and his willingness to overlook, even condone, police brutality, that has shocked some of us

Meanwhile, on the New Yorker's site, Negar Azimi writes of Alaa Al Aswany's embrace of June 30 and describes a recent literary salon in Cairo:

When it finally came time for questions, a young man in a hoodie got up and, with prepared notes in hand, made a series of statements about the crimes of the Army, ending with the massacre that took place in Rabaa al-Adawiyah. At one point, he said to Aswany, “Ask yourself, do they have the right to kill innocent protestors?”

Aswany—probably thinking, “This again?”—seemed taken aback. “I didn’t kill anyone,” he said, defensively, “but anyone who kills a member of the Army is a traitor … The Muslim Brotherhood has blood on its hands.” He reiterated a point he had made earlier in the evening: even though many of Egypt’s Communists had spent years in Gamal Abdel Nasser’s prisons in the nineteen-fifties and sixties, their party never turned to violence. “They didn’t touch a mosquito,” Aswany concluded. The Brotherhood, he seemed to suggest, had violence in its DNA.

At that point, a well-dressed woman, with elaborately pomaded hair and a tight-fitting top, turned to her friend and said, loudly, of the boy in the hoodie and his female friends, who were veiled: “They are with the Brotherhood!”

One of the veiled women took issue, and soon, everyone seemed to be standing, pointing, and shouting. I saw a few elderly people in the room slip out, probably anticipating a fistfight.

Both Al Aswany -- a star public intellectual and writer of blockbusters -- and Ibrahim -- a revered experimental writer with great political and moral cachet -- exemplify the position of most of Egypt's muthaqafeen, who have gone from cheering the Janurary 25 revolution to cheering General Abdel Fattah El-Sisi. Their positions shows not only the deep animosity that (for some justifiable reasons) exists between the cultural class and Islamists; it also shows how most intellectuals here continue to see themselves as guardians and spokesmen for an idealized strong state which they may criticize and oppose but which they cannot imagine life without and which they will rally to if persuaded that it is under threat. A point that is well-made in a recent article in Le Monde Diplomatique, entitled "Fractures among Egyptian Writers," which begins: 

As repression grows in Egypt in the name of the "war on terrorism," eminent intellectual figures, nostalgic for Nasserism and often of the Left, have proclaimed their support for the army. This generation of elders is opposed by writers and artists who reject the return of the "deep state" and the betrayal of revolutionary ideals. 

 

 

Syria: The unraveling

Here  are some articles to get a handle on the various Islamist militias now operating in Syria. Sarah Birke has an excellent piece in the New York Review of Books explaining the origins of el Nasra and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham. 

But ISIS’s real power comes from the fear it seeks and manages to inspire. The group has shown zero tolerance for political dissent. Many Syrians I met along the border mentioned with horror ISIS’s execution of two young boys in Aleppo due to alleged heresy. The kidnappings of local activists and journalists has deterred dissent while also whipping up anti-ISIS sentiment. The group has blown up Shiite shrines, but has also shown few qualms about Sunni civilians getting killed in the process. Beheadings have become common. Father Paolo dall’Oglio, an Italian Jesuit priest who has lived in Syria for thirty years, and who campaigns for inter-religious tolerance, is missing, abducted by ISIS during a visit to the city of Raqqa in late July. As with dozens of others who remain in captivity, ISIS has not demanded ransom or announced his execution; rather it appears to be holding hostages as an insurance against attacks.

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Messages from security services to Egyptian activists

Here, according to a post he recently shared on Facebook, are some of the things "messengers" from Egypt's security and intelligence services has said to activist and former parliamentarian Mostafa El Negar: 

“Dr. Mustafa, enough talk about human rights and torture and all that, let’s set the country right and enough of these delusions of democracy…

If you’re a patriot you need to shut up and let us do our job, and clean up the mess you made with your revolution…

You think because you’re famous and you were a deputy [in the people’s assembly], no one can touch you? If you keep on talking like this and don’t change your views, you’ll pay a high price…

Watch, you’ll be called a Brother and a supporter of terrorism -- raise your kids and take care of yourself and those around you…

That’s it, you’ve overstepped all the lines, you’re on the black list now, we warned you and you refused, bear what will happen to you and protect yourself from ‘honorable citizens’ when we till them you’re a traitor and an agent and we break you down completely and we make people hate you…

We won’t spare any of Baradei’s kids or the January 25 kids.”

 

May every new year find you free

An open letter from columnist Bilal Fadl to Alaa Abdel Fattah:

I would have liked to lie to you, to tell you that you’re getting a lot of support from the media, from the television channels which so recently made a theme of decrying the Muslim Brotherhood regime’s attempts to jail you, the channels that played and replayed “The Prisoners’ Laugh” — the poem Abnoudi dedicated to you when you were jailed after the Maspero massacre.

But your worst crime was that you would not stop reminding everyone that the police and the army had committed crimes, would not stop demanding that they be held accountable for their crimes as the Brotherhood leaders were being made to account for theirs. The bitter truth is that you are no longer remembered or mentioned now by many of the defenders of freedoms. You committed a serious crime when you were angered by the blood that flowed in the Rabea massacre, despite your differences with its owners. And another crime when you wouldn’t give a blank check to the oppressive authority — a renunciation of your right as a citizen to question and criticize and object.But your worst crime was that you would not stop reminding everyone that the police and the army had committed crimes, would not stop demanding that they be held accountable for their crimes as the Brotherhood leaders were being made to account for theirs.

Let's not forget other prominent activists who have already been handed jail sentences with whip-lash speed: April 6's Ahmad Maher, Ahmad Douma, Mohamed Adel and Mahienour El Masry, who is interviewed in the video below recounting the beginnings of her activism (she was just given a two-year jail sentence for demonstrating outside the Khaled Said trial). 


Egypt's government fails to end civil strife, terrorism

Sarah el-Sirgany, with her usual clarity, calls out Egypt's war on terrorism. 
Yet, any failure is explained as inability to fully deploy repressive measures. There is a widely held belief that Defense Minister Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who called for and received a popular and vaguely defined mandate to fight terrorism in July, is yet to unleash the magic that he has allegedly been holding back for some reason. The government had it all: three months of emergency laws, a military curfew and free reign, but it failed to put an end to terrorism. On the contrary, its reach and intensity seem to be on the rise.

 

Puppet regime: A few more notes on Egypt and paranoia

Scott Long, excellent as always on the latest risible/deeply demoralizing media controversy in Egypt, in which a rapper/conspiracy theorist/useful fool Ahmad Spider has accused puppets in a mobile telephone company ad of carrying encoded terrorist messages (and the public prosecutor has actually decided to investigate). 
Another channel hosted Abla Fahita herself to refute the allegations. Ahmed Spider called in to the show. A newspaper article reports that he ”refused to directly address the puppet, saying, ‘This is an imaginary character and nobody knows who is behind it.’” Abla Fahita asked him, “Would it be fair to say that Ahmed Spider is a spy because there is the word ‘spy’ in ‘spider’?” But the state takes Spider seriously.

As a friend commented on Facebook: "This is what the death of politics look like." 

Universities on fire in Egypt

Another Al Azhar student has reportedly died in clashes with police. I just wrote something for The Chronicle of Higher Education about the unrest on Egyptian campuses (it is behind a paywall).

El Watan video of police firing tear gas and bird shot into Al Azhar university

The Islamic university of al-Azhar, which has its main campus in Cairo, has close to half a million students. The university is a historic center of learning in the Arab world and is where most preachers in the country are trained. Various Islamist groups are active on the campus and in the student union; they blame the university's leadership for supporting the military coup. In late October the administration asked the police enter the campus to quell protests, which has resulted in a running battle.

Police forces have surrounded the university and fired tear gas inside; they have raided dormitories and classrooms. In clashes between students and the police, students threw rocks and Molotov cocktails; the police fired bird shot at them. A dozen students were given 17-year sentences on charges of rioting and trying to break into administration buildings.

At Cairo University, a freshman engineering student named Mohamed Reda was shot and killed on November 28 in a clash with the police at the university gates. Mohamed Ibrahim, the Egyptian minister of the interior, defended the conduct of the police, saying that the students had blocked traffic and thrown stones at policemen. He also claimed that Mr. Reda had been killed by fellow students.

Gaber Nassar, the university's president, issued a statement condemning the security forces' "direct attack" on the university and the College of Engineering. The college's student union called the interior minister's statement a "fabrication." Clashes between students and the police have escalated since Mr. Reda's death.

Last week the engineering dean and three of his deputies resigned in protest. Sherif Mourad, the dean, told The Chronicle he had done so because he could not "secure the safety of my students." He said that when the police fire tear gas onto the campus, "this is not a learning environment."

The Middle East Studies Association has written an open letter to Prime Minister Beblaway calling on him to halt the violations of academic freedom at Egyptian universities. The Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, and NGO that follows academic freedom, has documented clashes and abuses at universities across the country since the beginning of the Fall semester. 

An all-out brawl between female Azhar students and security guards armed with sticks.

Two movies from Egypt

I've written a little piece on the LRB blog about Jehane Noujaim's documentary The Square -- which still hasn't been screened anywhere in Egypt, unfortunately -- and Ahmad Abdalla's Rags and Tatters, which I've already written about on this blog

The first hour of Noujaim’s film is full of familiar faces and jolting violence. The courage of the film-makers, who time and again barely dodged police onslaughts, results in some extraordinary footage. It is hard to watch this reminder of the yearning and suffering that followed Mubarak’s ouster. But it’s important to have this record. I imagined it being played on a continuous loop on all of Egypt’s TV channels, instead of the screeds against ‘terrorism’ and pop music video clips featuring military deployments. 

Human rights NGO raided in Egypt

From the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies: 

EGYPT SECURITY FORCES RAID LEADING HUMAN RIGHT ORGANIZATION, HUMAN RIGHTS DEFENDERS ARRESTED AND HELD INCOMMUNICADO

More than 60 security and police officers stormed the office of the Egyptian Centre for Economic and Social Rights (ECESR) at approximately midnight on 18 December, 2013. According to eye witnesses some of the officers belonged to Azbakeya and Abdin police stations and some belonged to the Homeland Security Agency (formerly known as the National Security Agency).

The officers were heavily armed and held non-armed human rights defenders working at the ECESR at gunpoint using automatic machine guns. When the ECESR’s lawyer asked the police officers to provide them with a search/arrest warrant one of the officers, believed to belong to homeland security slapped him.  Another police officer tried to stop the homeland security officer from beating the ECESR employee at which point the homeland security officer also beat the police officer and tore his clothes.

The police confiscated three laptops and a computer monitor within the office.  They then arrested and blindfolded the ECESR lawyer, another ECESR employee and four volunteers.  They were then put into a car and taken to an unidentified location. They were forced to stay blindfolded for the duration of their detention. While being dragged to the car all six defenders were beaten and slapped despite not resisting. 

[...]

Lawyers from Egyptian human rights NGOs requested information on the whereabouts of the six defenders throughout the night, including at the Azbakeya and Abdin police stations, as well as at the Cairo Security Directorate. The whereabouts of the detainees were not revealed. Informal channels of information confirmed that the arrested human rights defenders were detained in an unknown Homeland Security detention facility.

The next morning (19 December) at approximately 10am, five of the six detainees were driven blindfolded again to the Abdeen police station.  The police returned the laptops and the monitor back to the arrested defenders and they were released at approximately 11 am.

Mohamed Adel, a well known member of the April 6th youth movement and a volunteer with the ESCER,  remains detained in an unknown location.

When the five other detainees were released they were told that they were arrested by mistake and that the main purpose of the raid was the arrest of Mohamed Adel.  Adel is standing trial along with Ahmed Maher, another prominent leader of the April 6thmovement and well-known activist Ahmed Douma.

However, CIHRS believes that the intent of the government was to intimidate independent rights groups in Egypt.   Moreover, the ECESR also believes the attack may be in response to the recent engagement of the ECESR on the review of Egypt at the United Nations (UN) treaty body on economic, social and cultural rights, as well as its ongoing engagement on the upcoming Universal Periodic Review of Egypt, and as such constitutes a reprisal for engagement with the UN. 

It is important to note that Adel surrendered himself to the court on the day that Maher and Douma’s detention was being renewed, and the court at this time ordered his release on grounds that he did not have a standing in the case.

The last time I saw Mohamed Adel he was depositing a request with the Kasr El Nil police station to stage a protest against the new protest law . He and his colleagues at ECESR were about to release a documentary about the ongoing Iron and Steel Workers strike in Helwan. 

Learning from Cairo | Mada Masr

Mada Masr has just published my review of two new books about Cairo that focus on the relationship between political upheaval and the urban environment. CLUSTER's book Archiving The City in Flux is an excellent, eloquent introduction to informality -- the many ways that Cairenes use public spaces despite, or outside, government regulation -- in the city. 
Nagati and Stryker argue that what happened in January 2011 was the result of “decades of the urbanization of injustice.” What happened after the uprising was the temporary breakdown of the state’s heavy-handed presence, for better and for worse. One informal neighborhood took the unprecedented step of connecting itself to Cairo’s ring road by building its own access ramp. Others have taken advantage of the chaos to engage in less civic behavior, from petty crime to riding motorcycles on sidewalks. 

The proliferation of street vendors in downtown Cairo — where they occupy growing swaths of the sidewalk and the street, poach business from shops and blast music from speakers — is one of the case studies included in “Archiving the City in Flux.” It is a hugely contentious issue and a litmus test for people’s political attitudes and their class prejudices. For some, street vendors represent a much-dreaded lower-class chaos (interestingly, they attract a level of disapprobation that triple-parked Mercedes don’t seem to). For others, they are “the people,” struggling to make a living and challenging the authority of the state.

The CLUSTER team’s work exposes the unfair stigmatization of lower-class informality while not romanticizing every example of people laying claim to a bit of this crowded, competitive city as an act of admirable political subversion. Their approach is empathetic yet empirical. They measured what percentage of sidewalk in downtown Cairo is occupied by street vendors (64 percent). They created a map showing where marches to Tahrir originated from, and they catalogued the changing products sold there (from cotton candy to gas masks to, during extended sit-ins, pillows). They used time-lapse photography to document how sidewalk stalls evolve throughout the day. They drove along the ring road charting where microbus stops, tea stalls, mechanics and staircases have been created by the local communities that were originally encircled but not served by the freeway.

You can see the full text of both Archiving the City in Flux and Learning from Cairo online here

 

Saudi expulsions crisis by Brian Whitaker

Briant Whitaker has been doing an extraordinary job covering the story of hundreds of thousands of expatriate workers expelled from Saudi Arabia due to a change in labour laws there. You can check out all his posts here. Recently he explained why he thinks this is such an important story:
For the last month or so, as regular readers will know, I have been following the story of Saudi Arabia's crackdown on migrants. I have spent hours gathering information from open sources in an effort to get a clear picture of what is happening – and this is my fourteenth blog post on the subject in the space of four weeks.

To some this might seem excessive or even obsessive but it's an important story that international media – and especially western media – have largely failed to notice.

It's a story that deeply affects the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, mostly from the world's poorer countries, who have been living and working in the kingdom – as well as countless relatives back home who have been depending on their remittances.

It's a story that heralds fundamental social and economic changes in Saudi Arabia itself, possibly leading to political changes too.

It's a story that also affects other Arab Gulf states, since they have all become heavily dependent on foreign labour – basically relying on those they regard as inferior beings to do dirty, menial or dangerous tasks from constructing their buildings, driving their cars, cooking their meals, cleaning up their mess and preparing their dead for burial. Many of these people work in conditions that amount to modern-day slavery.

 

In case you're wondering how things are in Egypt: not good

The highlights of the last week include:

1. A new law "regulating" protests that has been energetically put into effect by the Ministry of Interior.

The break-up of a protest outside the Shura Council. Uploaded by Mosireen on 2013-11-30.

2. The arrest of two of the country's most renowned digital activists and youth grassroots organizers, Alaa Abdel Fattah and Ahmad Maher. That these two young men are being targeted (again!) is a worrying sign of how emboldened the Ministry of Interior feels to go after its non-Islamist enemies now. This is accompanied by the usual media campaign. We linked to a piece last week smearing activists as sexual deviants and immoral hooligans; here's another recent example of writing in a similar vein (it's in Arabic): "Human rights? What human?" 

3. The murder of Cairo University Engineering student Mohamed Reda, who was shot by police in yet another clash on campus. This has led to further protests and student ferment

Al Masry Al Youm video

4. Last but not least, the handing down of 11-year sentences to female teenage supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood who held a protest. While Mubarak is out on appeal and police officers charged with shooting demonstrators have been cleared. 

7am.jpg

Egypt's Jon Stewart on Comedy and Politics

Our old friend Liam Stack has a great interview with comedian Bassem Youssef on the New York Times' Lede blog: 
Q. The last three years have been very turbulent for Egypt, since the revolution that overthrew Mubarak. Looking back, what do you think have been the most important lessons from that time?

A. The most important lessons? That Egypt is totally unpredictable, and if you think you’ve got it figured out you’re wrong. And we are doing a very, very good job being the soap opera of the world. It’s too dramatic. We’re drama queens of the news right now. We’re always in the news.

 

How to recognize an Egyptian activist

A taste of the kind of venomous, scurrilous attacks being launched all over the Egyptian media against the young people who made January 25, 2011 happen. This latest installment of our In Translation series is brought to you as always by the excellent translation service Industry Arabic. 

Characteristics of an Egyptian Activist, by Dandrawy Elhawary, November 23, El Youm El Sabaa

Political activists in Egypt vary according to gender. The male activist is unemployed, soft and effeminate, with long hair that is either braided or disheveled,  and he wears a bracelet and a Palestinian keffiyeh. He has a Twitter account, a Facebok page, likes to curse and use disgusting obscene expressions. He repeats slogans calling for a non-religious state, attacking heavenly religions and accusing them of being backwards and reactionary, and he defends the rights of sexual deviants.

On the other hand, the female activist takes on the male role -- she "mans up." She listens to the songs of Sheikh Imam and the lewd poetry of Fouad Haggag and Naguib Sorour. She "likes" all the pages that use foul language and puts pictures of the great revolutionary Che Guevara on her Facebook and Twitter profiles.

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That never-ending path to democracy

That never-ending path to democracy

Yesterday, as a who's-who of Egyptian activists and human rights workers was harassed and detained for peacefully protesting, I thought back to US Secretary of State John Kerry's remarks when he visited Egypt earlier this month. Kerry glibly subscribed to the version of events of a government that -- on the official state information service web site no less -- compares Morsi to Hitler and claims Egypt has "saved the world from terrorism," and spoke of progress and challenges and Egypt's oh-so-promising roadmap. I couldn't help annotating part of his joint statement with Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy:

Nothing will help bring the people of Egypt together more or provide more economic stability or provide more confidence in the future than an Egypt that is participating in a democratically elected government that is brought about through inclusive, free, and fair elections [There is a very strong chance the Muslim Brotherhood will be excluded from the upcoming elections and from political life generally. April 6, one of the country’s most respected grassroots youth groups, has been denied permission to monitor the elections]. And we will support the interim government and the Egyptian people in that end.

Minister Fahmy and I agreed on the need to ensure that Egyptians are afforded due process with fair and transparent trials, civilians tried in a civilian court [The constitutional assembly has approved an article in the new Egyptian constitution that allows military trials for civilians]. And we discussed the need for all violence to end. All acts of terror in Egypt must come to an end – all acts – for Egyptians to be able to exercise restraint and the need for accountability for those acts of violence.

I mentioned to the Minister that, obviously, part of the roadmap and part of the process of strengthening Egypt’s linkages to the rest of the world will be measured in the way in which the people of Egypt are sustained in their ability to have the right to assemble, the right to express themselves [a new law aggressively restricting the right to protest was issued Monday]. But even as they do that, we also agreed no one should be allowed to practice violence with impunity [Does that include police violence for which no one has been held accountable yet?].

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On Mohamed Mahmoud Street

From a piece just published on the LRB blog

The authorities cleaned up Tahrir Square ahead of yesterday’s anniversary. They white-washed the layers of graffiti on government buildings, erasing the accusations against generals that they are traitors and murderers. They put in new turf, flowers, flags, a review stand, and a small marble podium, with a plaque that – under the names of two interim government officials and a general – promised the imminent arrival of a memorial statue. It did not specify what was being remembered.

On television a few nights before, Ahmad Harara, a young dentist blinded in both eyes in separate clashes, shamed a TV presenter into reading out the names and ages of all the Mohamed Mahmoud dead. ‘All this?’ the presenter blurted out, before going through the list, which he said was ‘heart-breaking’. Harara pointed out that General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was part of the army leadership that oversaw the killings. ‘Are those men, who are still arresting and torturing people now,’ he asked, ‘going to hold the memorial service for the people they killed?’

On Monday, the square was surrounded with tanks and barbed wire. Officials scuttled in and out for a rapid ceremony with no audience.

Later that morning, people milled around the refurbished square. On the grass in the middle, TV crews conducted interviews. A group of men were talking. ‘It’s all their fault,’ said a man in a nice shirt with a bluetooth earpiece. He meant the Muslim Brotherhood. ‘They stole the revolution.’ One young man told another: ‘I should be able to say that something’s wrong without being called a terrorist and a Brother.’ There was disagreement over how bad Mubarak actually was. A self-identified leftist talked about the need for transitional justice. ‘I didn’t go down into the street for Islam,’ he said. ‘I went down against oppression.’ I stood on the edge, wondering how many in the crowd were informers. 

Go see "Rags and Tatters" (if you're in Cairo)

Rags-&-Tatters.jpg

Ahmad Abdalla’s third feature film, “Rags and Tatters,” follows an unnamed convict who escapes from prison sometime during the uprising against Hosni Mubarak -- or rather is allowed to escape from prison: Some jails were allegedly opened at that time by the Ministry of Interior itself, in an attempt to foment chaos. 

The man, played by Asser Yassin, is a sympathetic everyman, with dark and feeling eyes. He needs to be someone we like to look at, because his quiet, registering face is the focus of the film. As if tired of all the talk of the last two and half years -- of all the words that have been worn thin -- Abdalla has written a film with almost no dialogue. Actors’ conversations are often inaudible, no higher then a mumble. What exchanges we do hear are the most basic everyday stuff: “Cup of tea,” “God bless you.” When a young would-be revolutionary harangues his friends in the neighborhood about the need to go to Tahrir, a nearby motorcycle engine drowns out his words. The only music are some beautiful Sufi songs: unaccompanied male voices singing of holy love and yearning. 

The movie is also unusual for what it shows and what it doesn’t show. It never portrays the protests in Tahrir. Instead, it is set in the streets and homes of Cairo’s poor neighborhoods. It does something radical simply by focusing closely on these environments of extreme deprivation, on their crumbling staircases and bare rooms, broken windows and peeling paint. A man’s whole life here fits in a duffle bag: a few old ID cards, some tools, a windbreaker. 

Abdalla’s “Heliopolis” was a study of stasis, a day in the life of characters who go nowhere: a police conscript stranded in his guard post; and engaged couple stuck in traffic; a young man who dreams idly of emigrating. His follow-up, “Microphone,” which focused on the underground music scene in Alexandria, was seemingly quite different, full of kinetic energy. But all the eager young voices in the film still faced the stagnation and repression of Mubarak’s Egypt, and couldn't figure out how to make themselves heard. 

This movie is Abdalla’s darkest and most powerful. It shares with his previous work a penchant for naturalistic acting; an under-stated social and political engagement; and an ambitious, creatively uncompromising vision. 

This movie is like an inoculation against official propaganda and romanticization of the January 25 uprising. In the Q&A after the film Abdalla corrected someone who introduced “Rags and Tatters” as a “revolutionary” film.  “This film isn’t about the revolution,” he said. “It’s about the conditions we lived under, and still live under.” It will only be showing in Cairo for one week, starting today.