A visit to prison

The testimony of the wife of Khaled ElSayed, a political activist who helped plan the protests on January 25, 2011 and was arrested on January 25, 2014. Read the whole thing. 

And I was searched again – the same humiliating search. Then I saw Khaled, and I wish I hadn’t. He looked tired and could not talk. He did not utter a single word.

I asked him, “Did they do anything to you? Do you want to complain of something?”

He did not reply.

I asked him. “Do you need anything? Do you want me to bring you anything?”

Again he did not reply.

The look in his eyes made me feel that he had been through a terrible ordeal in the past 48 hours. I could not see any signs of beatings or obvious injuries in his face, but his condition made me feel sure he had been subjected to pressure and violations.

The officer said, “That is enough. Goodbye.”

I had hardly been there for two minutes. I looked into the bag where I had put his food. Everything was open and torn apart and could not be eaten.On my way out I heard a wife of one of the criminal detainees say, “I have never seen such a crowded day. It is like three quarters of Egypt are in prison!”

The Crooks Return to Cairo

Bel Trew and Osama Diab, writing for FP on the potential exoneration of former spook, Sinai magnate and Mubarak moneyman Hussein Salem:

But for the first time since Mubarak was toppled, Salem's fortunes -- and that of other Mubarak-era businessmen -- may be shifting for the better. Since Egypt's generals ousted Islamist President Mohamed Morsi last July, Salem said he has been ecstatic and is planning his return to Cairo, his lawyer Tarek Abdel-Aziz told FP. The billionaire Mubarak confidant phoned in to a popular television program in January to offer a deal to the new military-backed government: Cancel my convictions and I'll give Egypt millions.
Egyptian officials publicly welcomed the offer.
"Mr. Hussein Salem and other noble businessmen ... your initiative is really appreciated," said Hany Salah, a cabinet spokesman, during the phone-in on local channel CBC. "Anyone who proposes a noble and good offer, then the least we can do is listen to him for the best of our beloved country."

Tourab Amsheer | The Windy Month

At the blog Not Quite Moi, alibey writes a poignant portrait of an aging Egyptian writer:

to get to Tahrir he has to pass through a hole in a concrete wall erected by the army to stem the tides of demonstrations but the scribe must get to Tahrir Square, as the world knows it, but to him it is still and will always be Midan Ismail, not that monstrosity with the red granite monolith, thankfully now long removed, yes Midan Ismail, ever so elegant it was, Ismail the rightful name of Midan el Tahrir before it was taken over and renamed by a fraud if ever there was one

sad but the scribe has spent that last few decades since his one glorious moment, which he no longer remembers except vaguely, something to do with a reworked version of the story of Keiss and Laila, but he has forgotten writing it, he has even forgotten where it is in his library, his own book, and so wanders about his large mother’s apartment in Garden City looking for something but does not realize it’s the book he once wrote

and so he goes on, sleeping in the very bed his mother died in, looking out the same balcony window (which she referred to as the balkone, in that charmingly old-fashioned Ottoman way of hers), where she saw him carted off to prison in ’67 by Nasser’s goons, because he dared to say that something which he can’t remember now in his favorite beer parlor and the Secret Police overheard it

but all that was long ago and now he mostly wakes up at 4am and shuffles between his various fridges, obsessed with moving unneeded kilos of once fresh spinach, still with dirty roots, and wrapped securely in plastic bags, from one fridge to the another, not to mention all his other foods, which he boils regularly late at night, and which have been so long in the fridges that they are quite difficult to identify

and now a soldier lets him through the hole in the wall and now he is walking to Tahrir in order to get to Bab el Louk and sit down in Café El Horreya as he has always done yes this is his custom

he tried recently, always trying, helpless, to make sense of the animated mural of aegyptianess before him, the roving bands of thugs, the prostitution and drug selling in tahrir, the boys who attacked him in front of the same French Lyçée where he studied long ago

The life of a Muslim sister

The life of a Muslim sister

Nadia is a former Muslim Sister with a gummy smile. She has run out of reasons to show it after the dispersal of the Rabaa al-Adaweya sit-in, which took the lives of 63 of her friends and acquaintances and a part of her that she can only describe by grabbing the air, her head or her chest.

Although she often finds herself in a depressive trance – remembering the overly-friendly girl she befriended during the sit-in who gave her a necklace as she had requested a few days before the dispersal, and how Asmaa el-Beltagy had promised to tell her an exciting secret upon her return to Rabaa – Nadia tries and likes to think that she derives strength from the bloodshed. “The sound of gunshots doesn’t frighten me,” she said, more to herself. This enables her to join the regular student protesters clashes with security forces at Al Azhar University, something many of her friends and relatives can’t do. “They would freak out at the sound of fireworks or any loud noise... and drive around all of Nasr City just to avoid Rabaa,” she added, before admitting that she too has only been there twice since the dispersal and had failed not to sob in front of the Central Security Forces (CSF, the riot-control police) leaning against their black vans outside the mosque on both occasions. But, to be fair, one of the outbursts was aided by a CSF van that followed her home (which is right down the street), matching her pace and discussing her mother on the way, to the great amusement of onlookers.  

Although she frequently gets labelled a Muslim Sister (and suffers for it), Nadia was among those mostly young men and women who left/were kicked out of the Brotherhood shortly after the 2011 uprising for objecting to what they saw as the leadership's deafness to criticism, political opportunism and betrayal of revolutionary goals in alliance with the SCAF. 

That batch, she says, is now divided into two camps. The first camp, to which she belongs, that has seemingly and temporarily returned to the MB out of solidarity and sense of obligation. Others remain resolutely separate. Those who have returned are not always fully accepted and often face accusations of betrayal and abuse, especially if they voice any old or new criticism of the leadership’s actions and how they lead to the state the Brotherhood is currently in.

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The pro-Mubarak belly dancer's talk show and other internet detritus

Nour Youssef writes to us regularly with a mix of legitimate, useful information and things I wish I'd never seen. I thought I'd put her latest missive up as a taste of the current ambient Egyptian insanity:

Reasons to at least limit ability to upload videos on Youtube:

Things that maybe interesting:

  • Bassem Youssef is coming back. On MBC.
  • The transcript of the absolutely ridiculous interrogation of Ahmed Abdelaty, head of the presidential office under Morsi, and one of the defendants in the espionage case. What's funnier than the fact that their "evidence" of the "crime" that is talking to people out of Egypt -- or worse, not even Egyptian people in Egypt, or even worse out of it -- comes from hacking his email is that they a) don't care/understand that that is a crime and so don't react to his emphasis on that and b) el-Watan picked this up and ran with it like it proved that Mohamed Badie surprised the smuggling of weapons from Libya to Egyptian MB youth in 2012, completely indifferent to or unaware of the fact that the word Libya was not mentioned in the interrogation, that the man denied all charges and that the investigative bodies are a).  

When will The Square be shown in Egypt?

Jehane Noujaim's documentary The Square has been short-listed for the Oscar, is now available on Netflix, and recently won her an Directors' Guild Award. But it has still not been released or even screened at a festival here. 

There have been a number of recent reviews, which in one way or another have raised the question of the film's viewpoint and its portrayal of a deeply divided, deeply confusing reality. 

At the New Republic, Eric Trager argues that Egypt's protesters also "bear responsibility for the mess that followed." 

But one year later—and only 15 minutes after Morsi’s victory in the 100-minute film’s run-time—the activists are suddenly willing to accept the military’s return to power. Morsi’s dictatorial maneuvers and theocratic ambitions, combined with his use of Muslim Brotherhood thugs to torture and kill protesters, has incited a mass movement against him, and the film’s protagonists eagerly take to the streets. “Do you think the Army will act in the same way it did?” Ahmed asks rhetorically. He clearly doesn’t think so, because he is once again caught up in the enthusiasm of yet another mass protest, and thus convinced that “Now the power is in the hands of the people.” It’s as if the film’s first hour and ten minutes never happened. It’s as if the previous military regime hadn’t shot Ahmed in the head.

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Al-Sisi, the presidency, and the officers

Hesham Sallam, writing in Mada Masr, hits on the central point of yesterday's announcement by SCAF endorsing Sisi as president:

If the purpose behind the general’s quest for the presidency is to afford the political status quo and the military’s dominant position the façade of democratic legitimacy, then yesterday’s announcement makes little sense. Notwithstanding the burdens Sisi has taken on and imposed on the military by entering into the presidential race, kicking off his bid with a formal mandate from the military proves and underscores the very realities that the general is supposed to conceal. Specifically, this development leaves no doubt in the minds of observers that political outcomes in Egypt are dictated by the military and not by a supposedly unpredictable, free-for-all democratic process that is responsive to popular will. By failing to unilaterally resign from his position and announce a presidential candidacy from a place of institutional independence, Sisi missed a perfect opportunity to dispel the claim that he is running as the military’s nominee. Instead, he chose to present his nomination as a direct response to the call of his own peers.
It is tempting to blame these missteps on sheer political incompetence. Yet more compellingly, this move seems to be highlighting Sisi’s insecurities about potential chatter among the officers’ rank and file that he is taking the military into risky political adventures for the sole purpose of personal gain. In such a context, yesterday’s statement signifies the publicized approval that Sisi needed from the officers in order to protect against possible backlash from within the military. By obtaining such a public endorsement, moreover, Sisi in effect made the whole military, as an institution, complicit in his personal bid for power. Such a measure makes it challenging for the officers to distance themselves from Sisi’s candidacy in the future. It makes it difficult for them to wait on the sidelines conveniently and strike a pact with whoever wins, as they had done in the 2012 presidential elections when former Air Force General Ahmed Shafiq and Muslim Brother Mohamed Morsi competed in the runoff vote.

What Killed Egyptian Democracy?

Continuing today's reflection on the failure of Egypt's revolutionaries, do not miss the sequence of essays in the Boston Review on this issue, starting off with Mohammed Fadel who argues revolutionary purity was the enemy of pragmatic progress:

The January 25 Revolution was also a striking failure of political theory. More precisely, it was a failure of the theories embraced by the most idealistic revolutionaries. Their demands were too pure; they refused to accord any legitimacy to a flawed transition—and what transition is not flawed?—that could only yield a flawed democracy. They made strategic mistakes because they did not pay enough attention to Egypt’s institutional, economic, political, and social circumstances. These idealists generally were politically liberal. But the problem does not lie in liberalism itself. The problem lies in a faulty understanding of the implications of political liberalism in the Egyptian context—an insufficient appreciation of factors that limited what could reasonably be achieved in the short term. A more sophisticated liberalism would have accounted for these realities.

P.S. Fadel has more grim reflections on the state of Egyptian society on his blog, where he doubts the very existence of Egyptian liberals or revolutionaries. 

"Our sin was pride"

From a long essay by imprisoned revolutionary activists Alaa Abdel Fattah and Ahmed Douma, in which they reflect on what went wrong:

Our sin was pride not treachery. We said, “We’re not like those who came before us, and so the young of the Brotherhood are different and the young Nasserites are different and the leftist young are different and the young liberals are different.” The weakness of our myth was exposed when we came up against the young officers.

To read alongside Steve's post on the revolutionary's need for self-examination – can't really say it's not happening, just that it's happening too late.

The revolution in winter


The third anniversary of Egypt's 2011 uprising was a dismal day for the revolutionary activists that organized it. Its birthplace in Tahrir Square was filled by pro-army demonstrators calling on military chief Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sissi to lead the country. Small anti-military rallies in the streets around were quickly dispersed by security forces and chased through the streets by army partisans. Deadlier clashes in the city's outskirts left scores dead. Over 1,000 people have been arrested, joining many prominent activists already in jail. The mood in the movement echoes a poignant letter released several days before the anniversary from one of those imprisoned revolutionaries, Alaa Abdel Fatah: "What is adding to the oppression that I feel, is that I find imprisonment is serving no purpose, it is not resistance and there is no revolution."

This day has naturally triggered despondency in a movement that has long used anniversary protests to rebound from despair. Only a few months ago, activists were telling themselves that having toppled two presidents, Hosni Mubarak in 2011 and Mohammed Morsi in 2013, it could easily topple a third. But now they see both their key symbol - Tahrir - and their favorite tactic - street protest - appropriated by their opponents. If al-Sissi nominates himself for president, as seems increasingly likely, he will face the long-term challenge of presiding over a state and an economy that are far more delicate than they were under Mubarak. However, unlike Mubarak, el-Sissi has a confident and committed mass following that believes Egypt needs a strong Nasser- or de Gaulle-style leader. Unlike Morsi, he has the full loyalty of the security forces and the bureaucracy.

But while the activists are sober, few are self-critical. 

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New book: The struggle for Iraq's future

Our friend Zaid al-Ali, constitution-watcher extraordinaire (see the podcast we did with him last year) has a new book out the disastrous path Iraq has taken since the 2003 US invasion. From the publishers's blurb:

Many Westerners have offered interpretations of Iraq’s nation-building progress in the wake of the 2003 war and the eventual withdrawal of American troops from the country, but little has been written by Iraqis themselves. This forthright book fills in the gap. Zaid al-Ali, an Iraqi lawyer with direct ties to the people of his homeland, to government circles, and to the international community, provides a uniquely insightful and up-to-date view of Iraq’s people, their government, and the extent of their nation’s worsening problems.   The true picture is discouraging: murderous bombings, ever-increasing sectarianism, and pervasive government corruption have combined to prevent progress on such crucial issues as security, healthcare, and power availability. Al-Ali contends that the ill-planned U.S. intervention destroyed the Iraqi state, creating a black hole which corrupt and incompetent members of the elite have made their own. And yet, despite all efforts to divide them, Iraqis retain a strong sense of national identity, al-Ali maintains. He reevaluates Iraq’s relationship with itself, discusses the inspiration provided by the events of the Arab Spring, and redefines Iraq’s most important struggle to regain its viability as a nation.

The Franchising of al-Qaeda

New York Times' map of al-Qaeda network

New York Times' map of al-Qaeda network

NYT's Ben Hubbard, on al-Qaeda's second wind:

What links these groups, experts say, is no longer a centralized organization but a loose ideology that any group can appropriate and apply as it sees fit while gaining the mystique of a recognized brand name. In short, Al Qaeda today is less a corporation than a vision driving a diverse spread of militant groups.

“Al Qaeda is kind of a ready-made kit now,” said William McCants, a scholar of militant Islam at the Brookings Institution. “It is a portable ideology that is entirely fleshed out, with its own symbols and ways of mobilizing people and money to the cause. In many ways, you don’t have to join the actual organization anymore to get those benefits.”

Egypt's Hobbesian moment

Thomas Hobbes. From Shutterstock.

Noted Egyptian rights activist Karim Ennarah, writing on Facebook:

January 25th might be defeated, but January 28th--I mean that Hobbesian moment that characterises everything in Egypt today--is not, and I doubt that anyone could put an end to this Hobbesian moment and turn this into a governable country. This revolution has changed things fundamentally, in a way that is irreversible (and I don't necessarily mean positively nor am I talking about democracy or rule of law) and the social crisis that remains of it is bigger than anything or anyone, despite those who think it's intellectually fashionable to use the term "uprising" instead of revolution in their headlines. As for us, those who are defeated, bruised and humiliated (for the time being, at least); I don't have the faintest hint of regret. If this nation does not progress in the future--if that social process cannot be geared towards a better life, then at least I, almost every one in this country, has changed forever. I used to have one existential crisis, no I have multiple, now this society is questioning everything--things we used to take for granted like democracy, rule of law, legitimacy, "the people", religion, and the concept of progress itself. Something's going to give, and at the very least, I know that my generation that is defined by this revolution will prevail some day, even if it takes twenty years..

The question now is, what will be the cost of all this?

There are multiple ways to use the phrase "Hobbesian moment" – one in terms of the use of brutal politics, in the usual sense of "Hobbesian" as that borrowed from Leviathan and meaning the absolute power of the sovereign, and its ruthless use, to subdue selfish or unruly citizens. It can apply to state repression or even revolutionary terror. Another, though, comes Hobbes' Elements of Law. It is about a fight to define, or frame, the future:

No man can have in his mind a conception of the future, for the future is not yet. But of our conceptions of the past, we make a future; or rather, call past, future relatively. Thus after a man hath been accustomed to see like antecedents followed by like consequents, whensoever he seeth the like come to pass to any thing he hath seen before, he looks there should follow it the same that followed then. As for example: because a man hath often seen offenses followed by punishment, when he seeth an offense in present, he thinketh a punishment to be consequent thereto. But consequent unto that which is present, men call future. And thus we make remembrance to be prevision, or conjecture of things to come, or expectation or presumption of the future.

For the last three years, the future of Egypt has looked hopeful at times and bleak at others (and of course looked different to different people). But it has always looked very uncertain, and that has not changed. This fight to define the future is likely to be long and bloody.

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. 

Alaa's letter to his sisters

The day that they broke into my house and arrested me, Khaled was sick and unable to sleep. I took him in my arms for an hour until he slept. And what is adding to the oppression that I feel is that I find that this imprisonment is serving no purpose, it is not resistance and there is no revolution. The people that are in ongoing negotiations despite the fact that they are not in jail aren’t worth the reality that I am deprived from spending even one hour with my son. The previous imprisonments had meaning because I felt that I was in jail by choice and it was for a positive gain. Right now, I feel that I can’t bear people or this country and there is no meaning for my imprisonment other than freeing me from the guilt I would feel being unable to combat the immense oppression and injustice that is ongoing.

It is true that I am still powerless, but at least I have become oppressed among the many oppressed and I no longer owe a duty or feel guilt. To be honest, one hour with Khaled is more beneficial. I don’t even understand how I can live without him and I don’t understand how I can live without Manal. When I got the order to appear before the Prosecutor, Manal began to pragmatically prepare so that our work would not be delayed and I became so unsettled at her and a visit I had with Maysara to delegate some of my work and determine who will take on the rest of the responsibilities. I knew that I would be imprisoned, but I didn’t want to think about how our lives would go on while we are no longer together. At the end, life goes on. Just because my willpower and control on time has stopped, does not mean that time itself has stopped.

The thought is scary, I am facing two felonies and it is clear that they have decided that we must be handed down sentences. It is clear that the revolution is in poor shape. We may be handed down sentences, in which case time stops for me and continues to go on for you for years, which means that Khaled grows up without me. This means that he will undergo many colds and will sleep away from my hugs for long.
— Letter dated 24 December 2013 by political prisoner Alaa Abdel Fattah

Note: Khaled is Alaa's two-year old son, Manal his wife. He is in prison and facing charges of inciting protests. Thousands of Egyptians – almost all Islamist activists – have been arrested since July 2013. Alaa, a prominent leftwing activist, has been investigated and/or arrested by every regime since Mubarak.

If Sisi runs...

From Andrew Hammond's valuable blog, a short post reproduced below in full before commenting on it:

If Sisi gives in to temptation and runs for president, the July 3 regime may not last. If he does not, he gives it a chance. If he runs, the July 3 regime continues to define itself as a new beginning, undermining the transformative power of January 25, and in the process dooms itself to failure, but if he does not run it will have a chance to become another chapter in the long process of reconstituting Egyptian politics and society begun on Jan 25.

If he runs, Sisi will see opposition to the military’s blatant interference in the public sphere increase and opinion slowly change on the Muslim Brotherhood, which hopes he will make this mistake in order to regain the sympathy it lost because of its disastrous year in power. If he does not run, the group will find itself forced to review its mistakes and consider serious reforms. If he runs, the Brotherhood will remain a powerful anti-modern political force some factions of which could succumb to resistance politics and obsession with injustice.

If logic prevails, the July 3 ouster has the chance to be viewed by posterity as just one of a series of post-Jan 25 army interventions, some big, some small. If he and the army remain in the wings, the ‘roadmap’ launched in July last year may survive as an integral element in Egypt’s post-Jan 25 political architecture. But if Sisi steps up to take the reins of power, his argument that he was responding to the call of the people against an unpopular government will drown in the tide of voices, domestic and foreign, who denounce and will increasingly denounce his July 3 manoeuvre as a military coup.

If he runs, Egypt is doomed to long-term instability. If he does not, Sisi may realize his wish to be seen one day as the saviour his sycophantic, opportunistic admirers claim he is today. Egypt may have a chance.

Quite aside from whether Egypt's future can be reduced to the question of whether Sisi will run (and even though I broadly agree with the calculations Andrew outlines) – if we have reached the point where is so central, won't he remain central no matter what, and the outcome (with a very weak president if he doesn't run) the same? Sisi has already put Egypt on the path of an outdated model of charismatic rule, the return of the worse tendencies of the security state, and chronic instability due to both inner regime tensions and the conflict between the state and a sizable part of the population. And there is nothing to indicate that he has a vision for facing Egypt's socio-economic challenges or the tolerance to allow other strong personalities to run the government should he choose to remain at the helm of the armed forces only. Whether Sisi is president or not, won't Sisi still be the only game in town?