The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Conversations in Cairo

Bidoun is back! And it has published a series of interviews with folks in Cairo. I know most of the people in these conversations, at least a bit, and I found them all well worth reading.

But my favorite is Lina Attalah -- editor of the independent news site Mada Masr, which has just been blocked -- interviewing Laila Soueif, professor, activist and mother of an extraordinary clan that includes Alaa Abdel-Fattah, Mona Seif and Sanaa Seif. Some of the other exchanges are clouded by a pained ambivalence over the uprising, its aftermath and its meaning. Whether you agree with Soueif's analysis or not, these two women talking to each other both have a hard-won, warm-hearted lucidity. 

Here is Soueif on her children:

LS: I don’t think children eat up your career. Your free time, but not your career. But I didn’t mind. When Alaa was born, he became my primary source of entertainment and relaxation. I would only go to social events if I could take him along. Otherwise, I just didn’t go. You lose some freedom, of course, but it’s worth it. If Alaa hadn’t been with me in France, I would have gone mad.

For me, children are a source of emotional satisfaction in the face of distress. I knew of that at the time — once it was clear that Seif would be going to prison again, during that year that I was away from my PhD, I made sure to get pregnant. I knew I wanted to have another child to keep me busy, emotionally.

LA: Alaa always talked about his unique relationship with you, something far deeper than the traditional mother-and-son relationship. 

LS: The fact that Seif was in prison when Alaa was very young created a very special relationship between us. Alaa came with me to France when I did my PhD. I had to explain things that you should never have to explain to a child — why his father was in prison, that there are bad police and good police — the good ones, who catch thieves and organize traffic, and the bad ones, who arrest people who oppose the government. You don’t usually need to know these things when you’re four or five.

But Alaa was always sensitive to things. When we were in France, there was a wave of discrimination associated with Jean-Marie Le Pen and the National Front. There were anti-immigrant ads with nooses, and it touched Alaa. He knew that the ad was addressing him somehow. Later, anytime someone said something negative about Christians, I told him that people who say bad things about Christians are like the ones who posted those ads. He became aware.

I think our relationship is also a function of Alaa’s character, though. I’ll never forget — one day, when Mona was a baby in France, I overslept. I’d had a cold. When I woke up I was frantic. It turned out that Alaa had taken Mona from her bed and made her breakfast. He just did this automatically. When Sanaa came along, it was the same. He took care of her, too. Of course Sanaa was extremely headstrong from the beginning. She still is. But when we fought with her, Alaa would take her aside and deal with her.

And on the political situation in Egypt: 

LS: Well, some things have changed. What happened in 2011 has changed the country. Where we will go is a different story. Sometimes, I think my life has had three stages. There’s everything before 2000, everything between 2000 and 2011, and then the period after 2011. Before 2000, you were always part of a small group. It might have had a certain significance, but you were always aware that you were in the minority — not only in relation to the authorities, but in relation to the people, too. Those were the years of the Islamists’ ascent. Then from 2000 to 2011, we began to see a movement in the streets that was not Islamist. Of course, the Islamist movement was bigger and stronger, but there was a non-Islamist movement as well.

LA: The era of Kifaya, March 9, and the April 6 Youth Movement.

LS: Yes. And then 2011 expanded that into a real popular movement, which succeeded in bringing down Mubarak and then suffered major defeats. But it was a real popular movement. There’s a big difference between being part of a defeated movement and being part of a defeated popular movement.

LA: What does that difference mean for you? For us?

LS: While our movement is defeated, it has an audience of sympathizers in the hundreds of thousands, if not in millions. It is scattered and confused; it doesn’t know where it wants to go, it’s leaderless, it has every problem in the universe… but it exists. We’ve never lived anything like this before. As someone who lived what feels like an entire lifetime in which there was no movement at all, I wouldn’t call this a desperate place. I wouldn’t call this situation we’re in, where we’re discussing real issues of human rights, a desperate situation. It’s a very developed situation. We’re fighting for the equality of women, against torture, against homophobia. It is a problem that these are tools that were developed in the last stage, when we were a minority dealing with a more careful regime, as opposed to the current one that beats everyone with abandon. But the situation has changed, and it changed because we became dangerous. That’s the significance of being a popular movement, even in defeat. The regime is lashing out because the regime itself is desperate. So the fact that we haven’t been able to develop new tools for the new situation doesn’t mean we haven’t progressed. 

LA: What would you point to as evidence of progress?

LS: I find it odd when I hear people say that conditions for women were better in the past. Maybe things looked nicer on the surface, but the situation of women on the ground today is deeply different from the 1960s and 1970s. Try to make women stay at home today. No way! 

Or people are always saying that the youth are apolitical — they’re disrespectful, they won’t listen to grown-ups, they just do what they want. When you get on a toktok in Boulaq al-Dakrour [a low-income area], you will hear rebellious, political songs. And then there are the informal settlements, the so-called ashwa’iyat where so much of the population lives. People have been forced to deal with their own matters, by themselves. They’re effectively outside the authority of the state. It’s not ideal, but this is the better-case scenario.

LA: So people’s relationship to authority is changing?

LS: I would say that the authorities are losing their grip on power. We’ve witnessed the collapse of the legend of the glorious national army; that can’t be reversed. We have more possibilities today than ever. But also more opportunities for a complete breakdown.

LA: You say that the problem is that we need new conceptualizations, new tools. But tools to do what, exactly? What does it mean to be politically engaged? What’s the purpose? Is it to create autonomous institutions, outside the system? To take power? To build power? To cause discomfort to those in power? 

LS: It depends on when we are talking about, but I think the least we can do is give the bad guys a hard time. If you have any kind of public profile, this is the very least you can do. I get so angry at people who have audiences who choose to remain silent. They tell you it’s pointless, but that’s just not true. If your words can have an echo for people, how can you be silent? I like to think that we are sitting like Banquo’s ghost for them. Even when we fail… like in the case of Tiran and Sanafir, the islands the government gave to Saudi Arabia last year — we mobilized, organized protests, filed lawsuits. And okay, so we may not have been able to screw the marriage, but we definitely screwed the wedding. It was not a political win for the authorities.

But real politics is not about this. It’s about giving people more control over their own lives, making people’s lives better. It’s about development — making it so that people aren’t dying from curable diseases. Of course, at that level, what can be done in power is much more significant than what can be done from the outside.

I used to think that our worst nightmare would be for our revolution to end up like the Iranian revolution, but I think it turned out even worse for us. In Iran, the Islamists were part of the fight that ended the old regime, and then they turned against their allies on the Left and took power. And of course, there is oppression, and it is a terrible regime that we have to keep fighting. But there was development, too. Iran today has less poverty, more and better universities, greater industrialization. In Egypt’s case, I honestly thought there was going to be a period of reform when the Brotherhood came to power. But they didn’t have any sort of plan for development. It just wasn’t a priority. So we experienced the worst.

A letter from Marseille: politics and identity in France

In March I spent a little time in (and fell in love with) Marseille, France's poorest, most diverse major city, trying to figure out the election that would eventually witness the implosion of the country's Socialist party and the election of the 39-year-old, party-less candidate Emmanuel Macron. I was particularly interested in the debate over identity, immigration and Islam that has dominated French politics in recent years, in part due to terrorist attacks and in greater part due to the fear-mongering of the far-right Front Nationale. I think the election of Macron is the best outcome one could have hoped for in this particular election, but the FN isn't going anywhere and we'll have to see what the new president can accomplish to address the economic issues, mistrust of the political system and identitarian divides the country is struggling with. 

Housing projects on the outskirts of the city. 

Housing projects on the outskirts of the city. 

I wrote this for The Point, an excellent Chicago-based magazine on politics and culture I strongly suggest you subscribe to. It will be included in the next print issue. 

I stayed with an old friend, M., who lives at the top of the Canebière, an artery that descends in a straight line to the old port, where sailboats bobbing in the water are watched over by the gleaming statue of Mary atop the Basilica of Notre Dame de la Garde—which everyone refers to as “la Bonne Mere.” The historic center of Marseille, unlike that of Paris, has not gentrified. I heard Arabic everywhere, and the busy central market of Noailles—where downtown residents buy their produce—was full of halal butchers, veiled female shoppers, men sitting in cafés, and shops selling olives, spices and pastries from North Africa.

This kind of bustling neighborhood seems to be the worst nightmare of many in France, who lament that in such areas, which they may never set foot in, their country has turned into “a foreign land.” The election was taking place in the wake of several terrorist attacks (beginning with the bloody assault of the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in January 2015), carried out in great part by French citizens of immigrant origins. One of the front-runners in the election, Marine le Pen, was the candidate for the Front National (FN), an isolationist, populist far-right party that has campaigned on anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment. Le Pen is adept at mixing concerns about terrorism with fears of other “threats” to the Republic, such as burkinis, veils, halal meat and Arab rappers. But wringing one’s hands over the imminent imposition of Sharia law has become a political gambit, an intellectual industry and a literary genre common across France’s political spectrum.

“France’s obsession with identity is symptomatic of a crisis of the political system, of France’s place in the world,” Thierry Fabre, a prominent Marseille intellectual, told me. Fabre is a specialist in Mediterranean studies and a champion of cultural exchange between Europe and the Arab world. Twenty-three years ago he founded Les Rencontres de Averroes, a prominent annual series of public talks with scholars, artists and writers from both sides of the Mediterranean. “From the point of view of living together,” he said, Marseille, despite its divides, flaws, and contradictions, “is an emblematic city of the 21st century,” an example to be followed. Yet he admitted that France’s “machinery for integration has broken down. We are witnessing the exhaustion of the Fifth Republic.”

Indeed, a feeling of hopelessness, indignation and restlessness hung in the air in Marseille: the sense, which seems common to so many countries these days, that things can’t go on as they are. To some extent, this has to do with the economy. Growth has been stagnant for years in France, public services are strained, and unemployment hovers at around 10 percent. Yet a concern with shrinking opportunities and unfairness has morphed into a much larger malaise. France suffers from a debilitating obsession with identity, and has nothing but disgust for the country’s politicians, who are viewed as corrupt, out of touch and out of ideas. From people on the left I heard the word “catastrophe” more than once. “The point you have to make in your article,” M. told me, “is that we don’t know who to vote for.”

Anti-police brutality demonstration in Marseille. 

Anti-police brutality demonstration in Marseille. 

Links 1-15 May 2017
Photographer Philippe Dudouit has some great work from the Sahel

Photographer Philippe Dudouit has some great work from the Sahel

Another fallow month...

LinksThe Editors
Links 1-30 April 2017

A lot of travel and work this month, so not many posts or links. Sorry!

Posts:

Links:

In Translation: al-Qaeda goes glocal

My friend Mohammed Si’ali, a veteran reporter for the Spanish news agency EFE and other outlets in Cairo and elsewhere in the region, has written an interesting piece on the evolution of al-Qaeda’s strategy in response to the Arab uprisings since 2011. Piecing together its reaction to the 2011 protests, the secession of the Islamic State from its ranks in 2013, the rebranding of the Nusra Front in 2016 and the emergence of a new united front of Sahelian jihadist groups in 2017 – among other things – he sets out a vision whereby al-Qaeda is trying to mainstream, win the support of Islamists disappointed by the Arab Spring, and combine a global strategic vision oriented against the West with pragmatism at the local level. To borrow from the HSBC ad from a few years ago, al-Qaeda appears to be trying to be glocal organisation. As ISIS faces military setbacks across the region, this has important consequences for the future of jihadism.

This In Translation feature is made possible with the support of our friends at Industry Arabic, a “Katiba Hans Wehr” of Arabic-English translation. Please give them your business!


Evolving with the Arab Spring: Is al-Qaeda Striving to Transform into a “National Liberation Movement”?

Mohammed Si’ali, Center for Kurdish Studies, 5 April 2017

Abstract: The new alliance announced last month between three jihadist organizations in Mali under the banner of al-Qaeda and local jihadist leadership, as well the contents of its founding declaration, have raised questions about its rapid efforts in this region to evolve ideologically and organizationally with the new reality that has characterized the popular uprisings in the MENA region since 2011. With the goal of improving its survival, development, and practical abilities in light of these new conditions, al-Qaeda is accomplishing this by reducing armed, violent acts and participating in peaceful political action and soft influence. Consequently, what has appeared is something that resembles an “Islamic national liberation movement,” whether in the MENA region or other places where this organization exists, such as the Greater African Sahara.

§§§

At the outset of the “Arab Spring,” al-Qaeda dreamt that it would finally obtain a popular ally and become the equivalent of the military wing of the popular Islamist movement. Its goal of establishing a caliphate in the Islamic world and liberating it from external influence seemed an imminent reality. The Arab uprisings coincided with the killing of Osama bin Laden on 2 May 2011 in an operation by American special forces in Pakistan and Ayman al-Zawahiri’s emergence as al-Qaeda’s leader. After the Arab uprisings, which overthrew dictatorial secular governments in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Yemen, al-Zawahiri issued a political manifesto in August 2012 to specify Islamic jihad’s role in this stage. He emphasized the necessity of “aiding Muslim people in their revolutions against corrupt tyrants, and enlightening them of the necessity of Sharia rule.” He also broadly called for “working towards the establishment of a Caliphate that does not recognize nation-states, links to nationalism, nor the borders imposed by the occupiers.” In September of the same year, he broadcast a military manifesto placing limits on armed action that member groups practiced under the banner of al-Qaeda. It focused the fighting on the United States and aimed to reduce military operations inside Islamic countries, thereby preventing those societies from eschewing jihad. Additionally, he showed many film clips that described the course and direction of the revolutions to steer their uprisings toward Sharia law, ending with the establishment of a caliphate state.

Al-Zawahiri’s interest in the direction of the Arab Spring shows that he, along with others in al-Qaeda’s leadership, sees these revolutions as complementary to the jihad carried out by the different arms of the organization and as a result of the 11 September 2001 attacks on America. As such, these attacks had pushed Washington to breathe life into popular pressure in Muslim countries, which “blew up in the faces of its clients,” i.e. the local governments. Additionally, Adam Yahiye Gadahn – the American citizen who worked as a senior spokesperson for al-Qaeda and was killed in an American drone strike in Pakistan in early 2015 – saw that the jihadist attacks against American interests and its allies had “eliminated many of the material, moral, and psychological obstacles that used to prevent the Ummah (Islamic community) from liberating itself from the corrupt and despotic governments subordinate to the West.” He added that youthful opposition in countries with popular uprisings had learned from the jihadists’ experience in their call for toppling tyrannical regimes on the internet, as well as the fatwas from jihadist scholars to remove despotic governments for their lack of Sharia law, which had a prominent role in liberating the hearts and minds of Muslim youths.

On this basis, al-Zawahiri considered the success of the revolutions as a victory for al-Qaeda over the West, since the revolting peoples “want Islam and Islamic rule, while America and West fight it.” Similarly, in one of his lectures he showed bearded demonstrators in Egypt carrying al-Qaeda flags and shouting slogans in defense of the religious state against the secular state. In another of Gadhan’s tapes, a group of demonstrators was shown praying at one of the sit-in sites, with women wearing niqabs taking care of an injured person and a man pointing to the Quran. Al-Zawahiri added in a 2011 recording:

 “The pro-American media claims that al-Qaeda’s method of clashing with regimes has failed. This same media pretends to ignore that al-Qaeda and most jihadist currents have struggled for more than a decade and a half mostly by abandoning the clash with regimes and focusing on striking the head of the global criminals (the United States). Thus, this method, especially after the September 11 attacks, has led, through orders from America, to the regimes’ loosening their grip over their people and opponents, which helped the movement and culminated into an eruption of massive public anger. This confirms what Osama bin Laden, may God have mercy on him, used to emphasize, that we increased pressure on the idiots of the modern era, America, which will lead to its weakening and the weakening of its clients. So, who are the real winners and losers of this policy?”

Al-Qaeda did not only attribute to itself the outbreak of the Arab Spring, but also considered the leadership of various jihadist currents, such as in Egypt, as precursors to the massive uprisings against the current regimes and those that have existed since the late 1970s. In this regard, al-Zawahiri said in one of his messages to the Egyptian people after the revolution of January 25, 2011:

“God knows that I always hoped to be in the front line of the Ummah’s uprising against injustice and oppressors. Before my emigration from Egypt, I had been eager to participate in the popular protests of 1968 against the setback represented by Gamal Abdel Nasser’s government. Then, I participated in several demonstrations and protests against Sadat and his administration. I was with the protesters in Tahrir Square in 1971, whom I considered dear brothers. It was for them that the great events of the latest Egyptian revolution against Hosni Mubarak and his corrupt government occurred. If not for fear of what danger would befall them, then I would mention them by name and praise their brave deeds. Likewise, I have repeatedly called, in my words to the Arab people and the Egyptian people specifically, to rise up against the regimes of corruption and tyranny that have dominated us.”

Despite al-Qaeda’s new, strengthened approach after 2011, in 2008 al-Zawahiri had called for action in addition to the struggle and propaganda. He called for demonstrations to change the “corrupt reality” and establishing an Islamic state, while modifying the pursuit of these goals through the tactic of “fixed elections.” Thus, after the workers’ demonstrations on 6 April of the same year in Mahalla el Kubra near Cairo, he said:

“The workers and students must move their anger into the streets. They must turn the mosques, factories, universities, institutes, and high schools into centers of jihad and resistance. Everyone must mobilize, because it is not just one group or organization’s battle, but the entire Ummah’s battle. The Ummah must stand shoulder to shoulder with its fighters, its men, its women, and its masses to expel the crusading invaders and Jews from the lands of Islam and to establish an Islamic state.”

Since the outset of the Arab Spring, al-Qaeda began employing concepts that were unfamiliar in the jihadist lexicon, such as “revolutionaries,” “revolution,” and “resistance,” alongside religious concepts. This turning point in the direction of al-Zawahiri’s propaganda was reinforced in one of his recordings to businessmen. In it, he said that they should “benefit from the recent opening in Tunisia and Egypt” and establish new media outlets to call for “the true creed of Islam, which is liberated from its dependence on the arrogant and rejects the injustice of corrupting rulers.” He added, “The noble free people who care about Islam in Tunisia must wage a propagandistic, provocative, and popular campaign to gather the Ummah. They must not stop until Sharia is the source of law and order in Tunisia.” These ambitions did not appear out of thin air. During the Arab revolutions, it was the young and old of the jihadist currents, despite their small numbers, who took their place among the poplar demonstrations, wearing Afghani garb and raising the black flags of al-Qaeda. In Tahrir Square, Egypt during the period following the 25 January Revolution, pictures of Osama bin Laden were sold alongside pictures of deceased Egyptian leaders Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat.

It was clear after the revolutions of the Arab Spring that al-Qaeda strove to profit from a popular ally in those countries and to participate in peaceful movements, but without slackening its violent activities. In the document “The Victory of Islam,” al-Zawahiri called on the Islamic currents to “aid Muslim people in their revolutions against tyrants and to enlighten them of the necessity of Sharia rule.” In the document “General Directives for Jihad,” the leader of al-Qaeda required that military action be focused against the United States. More importantly, they demanded that the jihad avoid harming Muslims and religious/ethnic minorities during acts of violence so that they are not roused against the jihadists. He also called for peace with local regimes to proselytize, recruit, and gather funds. As for the places that fell under jihadist control, he demanded that “wisdom prevail,” meaning to prioritize propaganda and education to avoid the jihadists’ expulsion from those regions due to civil discord or revolt by those opposed to their occupation.

According to al-Qaeda, the conflict between the people and regimes is the local manifestation of an original conflict between the former and the West. In its view, the regimes in Muslim countries are a façade or tool that the West has used to rule the region remotely since the beginning of what Adam Yahiya Gadhan called the “age of neo-colonialism.” But in spite of the outset of the confrontation between al-Qaeda, supported by its allies, and the Syrian and Iraqi governments, as well as its continuing operations in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Algeria, Mali, Yemen, etc., the original tactic of this organization has been to avoid conflict with regimes in Muslim countries, except where confrontation is necessary.

One Moroccan member of the “Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham” (formerly the al-Nusra Front, considered the formal arm of al-Qaeda in Syria) says that al-Qaeda “is trying to exploit the situation that emerged from the Arab Spring to penetrate Islamic society. It also strives, if possible, to avoid direct clashes by instead working tactically, except in places where there is fighting already.” It is confirmed that al-Zawahiri’s intensive speeches during and after the Arab revolutions were directed at revolutionaries and moderate Islamic currents. The organization itself is managed internally by secret decisions issued by Shura councils, the general leadership council, and orders from the general commander, not through open statements.

Despite the new direction of al-Qaeda’s leader and all its affiliated factions, the “Islamic State” opposed it and unleashed its own military actions against Shiite citizens, especially in Iraq and Syria, where it carries out daily car bombings in restaurants, public markets, hussainiyas (Shia congregation halls), and pilgrimage caravans. This lack of obedience pushed the general leadership of al-Qaeda to wash its hands of the Islamic State through a formal statement on 22 January 2014. It stated its eagerness for the different jihadist organizations “to be part of the Ummah, and to not take guardianship over its rights, nor dominate it, nor deprive it of its right to choose who rules it from among those who fulfill the conditions of legitimacy.”  In addition to its defiance of the directives of al-Qaeda’s leadership, the Islamic State carries out attacks against other jihadist organizations that had publicly or implicitly adopted al-Qaeda’s new direction, such as the Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham in Syria.

The point of departure in the dispute between al-Qaeda and the Islamic State was the latter’s refusal to comply with al-Zawahiri’s request to restrict its military operations in Iraq and to leave the jihad in Syria to the former al-Nusra Front (before it changed its name and joined with al-Qaeda). The Islamic State did so because it considered the Levant to be a separate geopolitical province wherein it leads most of the Syrian jihadists; as such, the Islamic State believes that it better understands their society.

The Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham’s experience was repeated in Mali, where branches of Ansar Dine, which include the Macina Liberation Front, al-Mourabitoun, and the Saharan leadership al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, announced at the beginning of this month (April 2017) an alliance under one organization calling itself the Jama'a Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin. After renewing their allegiance to al-Zawahiri, they specified their main goal as “standing as the first line of defense against the occupying crusading enemy.” Just as in the founding statement of the new organization, led by the Malian al-Qaeda-affiliated jihadist Iyad Ag Ghaly, it cited the foundations of al-Qaeda’s jihad, which include “good will towards people, becoming familiar with them, engaging their hearts and minds, and not burdening them with anything they cannot bear.”

Conclusion: While the Islamic State aims to apply its international, truly extremist vision, a vision in which some leaders of al-Qaeda used to believe, the strategy changed completely when the latter began to decentralize its global organizational structure and establish regional movement branches in Muslim countries. According to this strategy, local jihadi leaders direct its operation while enjoying tribal, religious and ethnic legitimacy. In this way, it can make broad social alliances and separately adapt its operations according to local circumstances in each country. The issues that matter include people participating in government, supporting Muslim minorities, and fighting against external influence. Thus, al-Qaeda has added a temporary tactical dimension that loosely joins the organization’s general leadership and its strategic goals on one hand with the local issues of Islamic societies and its short/long-term goals on the other hand. The point of this new direction is to eliminate the barriers between moderate and radical Islam and to make the organization appear like a “national Islamic liberation movement.” It could also become alluring to youth groups inside Islamic political movements, if they are exposed to unexpected tyrannical treatment typical of the political rat race, continual economic injustice, repressive governmental practices of in Islamic countries, or if some of them continue to depend on the world’s superpowers. This may prove to be the case, especially given the rarity and weakness of modern opposition fronts and the growing attempts by the superpowers’ client states at brutal, vertical control.

As a Moroccan journalist and researcher based in Rabat, Si’ali worked as a correspondent for a global news agency as part of its bureau for the Middle East and Gulf regions between 2011 and 2016. Subsequently, he has reported on the development of Islamic extremists in the region and throughout the world. He earned a BA in Public Law and Political Science from the University of Tangier, Morocco.

Islamophobia in France

In the run-up to the incredibly unpredictable French presidential election, I took a look at some of the books being written by prominent (and not-so-prominent) French scholars, and wrote about the vitriolic debate over Islamophobia, Islamic radicalism and the alleged creeping Islamization of France. It is hard to over-state both how complicated, personal and over-the-top this debate can get. 

$20.44

I found Gilles Kepel's book Terror in France interesting as an overview of jihadism in France and of major political developments for France's Muslim minority since 2005 (including some analysis of political participation and of the question of a Muslim vote). Kepel is very critical of the idea of Islamophobia – not because he denies that there is discrimination against Muslims in France but because he says that Islamophobia has been politically instrumentalized to forbid criticism of Islam (Kepel is, not coincidentally, at loggerheads with the Comité Contre L'Islamophobie en France). Yet while I am sure that there are Islamists who use the victimization of Muslims as a means to set themselves up as leaders and spokesmen (always men) and to accrue political influence, there is plenty of criticism of Islam in France these days -- it's practically an intellectual and media industry. 

Which brings us to one of the other books I discuss, which is representative of the genre. Below is an excerpt:

$8.80

"That is one of the arguments of a book published this year for which Bensoussan was the lead editor: Une France Soumise, Les Voix du Refus (A Vanquished France, the Voices of Refusal). A collection of essays and interviews with public employees and officials, the book paints a dire picture of France turning into "a foreign land," its culture, identity, and rule of law threatened by the advance of Islamism. France faces a choice, a passage in the books warns, between civil war or "Houellebecquian" submission to Islam (a reference to the best-selling 2015 satire by Michel Houellebecq, Submission, in which the country elects a Muslim president and adopts Shariah law).

As evidence of creeping Islamization, the book cites demands for prayer rooms and halal meals; husbands who will not allow their wives to receive medical care from male doctors; reports of Muslim high-school students’ refusing to observe the moment of silence after terrorist attacks or expounding conspiracy theories. Many of the interviews are anonymous or do not specify when and where particular incidents took place. Bensoussan admits that it "is not an exhaustive investigation and does not have scientific pretensions." Yet he insists that it exposes a reality that France’s elites refuse to acknowledge."

Another book, now out in English, I strongly recommend is Olivier Roy's Jihad and Death, a beautifully written analysis of the narcissism and nihilism of jihadis and a critique of the paranoid view of Islam as an imminent threat to France. Also, although I don't write about it in this piece, French journalist David Thomson's book Les Revenants ("The Returnees"), a collection of interviews with young French jihadis (and their female supporters/partners) who have returned from Syrian, is also a riveting work of reportage. 

Links 23-31 March 2017

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LinksIssandr El Amrani
Does Egypt Still Matter?

Samuel Tadros, of the Hudson Institute, says that while the conventional wisdom is that Egypt is a central player in MENA politics, it is not and its importance is as a playing field:

Is it time then for the United States to abandon Egypt? The answer is a resounding no. It is precisely because of Egypt’s movement towards the regional abyss that the United States needs to reinvest in the American-Egyptian relationship. Egypt is no longer a regional player but rather a playing field where local, regional and international powers are in competition over the country’s future. The country may no longer be a contestant for regional hegemony, but it is today the primary contested prize in a struggle over the region’s future. If the Westphalian order is to be defended in the Middle East amidst state collapse and the rise of Caliphate revivalist movements, this defense has to start with the most natural of the Arabic speaking states. With ninety two million people, a state collapse in Egypt would lead to a refugee crisis of historical proportions. No one wants a Somalia on the Nile, a Libya on Israel’s borders, or a Syria in control of the Suez Canal, the United States least of all.

But if this scenario is to be averted, the United States needs to adjust its policies accordingly. The United States should no longer base its policy on an Egypt that no longer exists. U.S. interests in Egypt are no longer maintaining the peace treaty or passage in the Suez Canal, but rather strengthening state institutions to make sure a regime collapse does not lead to a state collapse. Instead of focusing on military cooperation, the United States needs to develop a new partnership with Egypt that addresses the growing terrorist threat in the country, the collapse of the rule of law, the failed economic policies, the educational vacuum, and the growing sectarian hatreds that threatens the fate of the Middle East’s largest Christian community.

The argument merits developing – what policies, who is competing for Egypt, and if the US should reinvest in Egypt, does it really have a partner in its current leadership, or a source of the above-mentioned problems?

In Translation: A butterfly in Fayoum

Every now and then, I like to switch from the usual short news and commentary pieces we usually cover in this In Translation series and dive deep into a topic. The piece below, at over 6000 words, is long, complicated, and at times the prose gets a little purple. But it is worth reading: a mixture of social history of terrorism in Egypt, classic tale of Upper Egyptian banditry, ghoulish look at the practices of a depraved religious cult, and treatise on the unintended consequences of the actions of governments and their opponents. I will not delve into an explanation here, save to say that this story draws the links between a now-forgotten extremist group operating in Fayoum in the early 1990s and the ideology and some key figures in the Islamic State.

The piece has been edited a little bit for flow, although I have tried to retain the unusual style of its author, Ahmed Elderiny, who tells this story as if he was telling a ghost tale around a campfire. Rather than provide information upfront, I have provided links to further information (the piece assumes a lot of knowledge about 1990s Egypt and other issues) and a few footnotes where necessary (in some cases to correct minor factual errors). Hover over most links to get a little info, which avoids you clicking through. 

Many thanks to our partners at Industry Arabic who did an outstanding job with this translation. Please check them out for your company's translation needs.


The Shawkiyoun: A Dress Rehearsal for ISIS in Fayoum in 1990

Ahmed Elderiny, al-Masri al-Youm, 25 February 2017

A woman wearing a niqab runs, panicked, until she reaches her husband. She slaps his chest with her hands, and then punches his face as best as she can. She takes off her shoe and hits him over the head with it, yelling hysterically, “They killed Sheikh Shawki! They killed Sheikh Shawki!”

Why does she blame her husband for Shawki’s killing? It is as if she expected him to lay down his life for Shawki, whether by taking a bullet for him or doing absolutely anything to save him from death. What is clear though is that she loved Shawki in some way that we are still not fully able to understand.

The place: the village of Kahk, in the governorate of Fayoum, approximately 100 kilometers south of Cairo. The time: an unknown day in April 1990. The atmosphere was clouded with confusion.

Before this woman ran towards her husband lamenting Shawki, several of his followers in the village of Kahk, in the Ibshway administrative district, were readying themselves for a fateful battle. The choice was either life with Shawki or death without him; there was no middle ground.

The “Shawkiyoun” – named for their leader – knew that men in black uniforms with stars and brass eagles on their shoulders were advancing toward Kahk with their weapons and armored vehicles. Shawki’s supporters rushed to the roofs of houses, the trunks of palms, and the branches of trees, each of them gripping his weapon and preparing to shoot, keeping a lookout in all directions.

The internal security forces had been tasked with bringing Shawki back with them, dead or alive. The Minister of Interior himself, Major General Abdul Halim Moussa, was waiting for a call regarding the results of the operation.

The village resisted them, defending Shawki al-Sheikh, who, in the popular memory of some in Fayoum, would become “Sheikh Shawki” in a purposeful transposition of his first and last names. This was not due to the weakness of their memory, but more likely was an expression of what they felt in their souls. For who was a sheikh like Shawki? And who was more deserving of being called sheikh?

Before the Egyptian internal security forces sprayed their bullets into Shawki’s body and into around 20 of his followers, and before the specific preparations were made for this decisive military operation, a great deal of blood was shed – on all sides. The day of the confrontation, which had been chosen by the Egyptian government, was like a final reckoning. It was Judgment Day for Shawki, when the bullets would hold him accountable for everything that had happened.

Hiding out of sight was Omar Abdel-Rahman, who along with his group, al-Gamaa al-Islamiya, waiting for any news of Shawki’s liquidation. To them, Shawki was the ungrateful estranged son who had rebelled against his spiritual fathers, devising his own approach and disregarding the words of al-Gamaa al-Islamiya’s leaders. Furthermore, he was in competition with them in word and action.

But do Shawki and those like him die easily, like sheep being slaughtered?

You are dreaming, if you thought that. There must be a curse hidden somewhere in the undertaking.

That is what the rules of drama dictate. There must be traces left to resume the story again or, from the point of view of those in the present, every story has a root in the past that forms it.

The theory of the “butterfly effect,” used as an example in what is called “chaos theory,” says that the flutter of a butterfly’s wing in Beijing could cause a storm in New York two weeks later. Similarly, Sheikh Shawki, or Shawki al-Sheikh (whichever you prefer, dear reader, at this stage of the story), left his butterflies flapping their wings around his corpse, a vibration that, after a quarter century, would open the gates of hell onto the whole planet.

So, why are we telling this story in a manner that could appear enigmatic?

On that day in 1990, Shawki’s butterflies were flapping their wings for what would later become ISIS.

Is that a satisfactory reason for us to resume? I think so.

The Fayoum Caliphate

The man had carried out a dress rehearsal for the most reviled terrorist group that humanity has ever seen, at a time in which there was no camera to witness it, and no journalist, and when social media was not at 1% of its current strength.

The stories indicate that ISIS was in its pilot launch phase at that time, in the form of a takfiri group that called itself “al-Shawkiyoun,” after its founder, the engineer Shawki al-Sheikh. He had been arrested in the early 1980s and accused of being a member of al-Gamaa al-Islamiya group. There, in the heart of prison and consumed with the “jihadist” ideas that were brewing within him, he met the man who would be the secret to his destiny, Naguib Abdel Fattah Ismail. He was the son of the Muslim Brotherhood leader Abdel Fattah Ismail, who was executed in 1965 with Sayyid Qutb.[1]

Naguib’s father’s ideas provoked Hassan al-Hudaybi, the second General Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, to respond to his theses in his famous book Preachers, Not Judges. This book, at that time, cast off from the Brotherhood the takfiri spirit that had characterized the ideas of Abdel Fattah Ismail.

When the young engineer Shawki al-Sheikh met Naguib the son, the latter, inspired by his father, was a member of the group al-Tawaquf wa al-Tabayun, which was one branch off the takfiri tree that has so many divergent guidelines and judicial opinions on the grounds for declaring someone an apostate.

Researcher on Islamist groups Maher Farghaly sees this meeting as the defining moment of Shawki al-Sheikh’s life. Looking at what happened, Farghali believes that the seed of takfir would have found a very fertile ground in Shawki’s mind during his discussions with Naguib. This seed would develop over the course of less than ten years, to become more extreme than the ideas of the founding fathers of takfir, and perhaps more extreme than they could have imagined.

However, Dr. Kamal Habib, who is an expert on Islamist movements, believes that Shawki al-Sheikh’s beliefs are similar to that of Magdi al-Safti’s group, which faced off with the security forces in al-Haraneya, in Menoufiya governorate. This group had tried to kill former Interior Minister Hassan Abu Basha, and to attack then head of the Journalists’ Syndicate Makram Mohammed Ahmed. Habib believes that Shawki was influenced by Shukri Mustafa’s group, Takfir wal-Hijra, even more than by Qutbists in the prisons.

Shawki al-Sheikh would become a bright star in the ranks of al-Gamaa al-Islamiya. It was said that the members of the group likened him to Omar Ibn al-Khattab, and to Abu Dujana, a companion of the prophet. Abu Dujana was a fearless man who wore a red turban on his head on the day of the Battle of Uhud in a sign of daring and courage that the Arabs could not mistake when they saw it.

Despite this dazzling celebrity status and his distinguished university studies, and given the fact that Shawki came from a notable family, with a soul eager for glory and a heart with the courage for confrontation… Shawki could not continue like this for long. He would soon reach his breaking point.

The distinguished Omar Abdel-Rahman was no longer a symbol in the eyes of the young engineer, and the doctrines of the group as a whole were no longer convincing to him. He had completed the development of his own vision, and the time had come to break away. So, he made his decision and broke from the group, never regretting it and never even stopping to look back.

Why did he break away so easily from the legendary Omar Abdel-Rahman?

Kamal Habib believes that, on the margins of the main groups of the Islamist trends there are always smaller groups with their own marginal ideas, like takfir, isolation, and confrontation with the state and society. In Habib’s view, this is what happened in Shawki’s case. He did not subscribe to the core of al-Gamaa al-Islamiya’s ideology. Rather, this group was naturally a temporary and passing phase for him.

Shawki had chosen Fayoum as the spot for his promised kingdom.

Mohammad Massad (a pseudonym), 36 years old, is from Shawki’s governorate and remembers those long ago years as though they were yesterday. He says:

“Shawki was never an unknown quantity. His family is very large, and his uncles worked throughout the Ibshway administrative district, as mayor, officer, and government official, etc. Among the people, he was known as a “knight” of al-Gamaa al-Islamiya, working under its orders, carrying out its plans, and defending it to the death as the “community of Muslims” in the original jurisprudential sense. Everyone knew that he had strong relationships with Abbud al-Zumar, Omar Abdel-Rahman, and others who, in the minds of the people of Fayoum, were also “knights,” like Zayd al-Hilali or Khalifa al-Zinati.”[2]

Massad continues, “The man – a graduate of engineering school – said that the Arabic language is the vessel that God chose to broadcast his light, represented in the Quran, to the world. The rules of Arabic grammar state that there are two words that cannot be used in the superlative form. They are ‘died’ and ‘perished’, because the language does not permit someone to be ‘more dead’ or ‘more perished’ than someone else. Therefore, wealthy people should not hold large funeral services and erect grand canopies or tents for funerals. Whenever they would put up a large tent for a funeral, Sheikh Shawki’s group would burn it down immediately.

At first, people did not believe that the Shawkiyoun would really be able to impose their ideas. But this skepticism was quickly challenged when the funeral of engineer Ahmed Makhlouf (the elder in the Makhlouf family at that time) went up in a ball of fire, after members of the Shawkiyoun scaled rooftops and set fire to the funeral tent while people were sitting inside of it.

This incident repeated itself with the Muharram, Mahgoub, and al-Dawidiya families, and even with members of ancient Bedouin tribes, which had many weapons and men to protect themselves. From the burning of the funeral tent of the al-Basil family in Etsa, to the pseudo-street war that took place to prevent the building of a tent belonging to the Arabs of al-Marmah tribes in Tamiya, to the Awlad Ali family in Ibshway, who were shocked to find a message written in blood on the tent warning them “before it’s too late.”

Only the poor people were happy with what Shawki al-Sheikh was doing, and they are the overwhelming, and oppressed, majority in Fayoum. When people finally saw that they could bury their dead in the same way that the rich buried theirs, they grew closer to their “venerable popular hero.” The news traveled quickly through the towns, and al-Gamaa al-Islamiyya (the dominant power in Fayoum at that time) became irritated by the popularity of this unique, charismatic rebel.

This is perhaps the way that Mohammad Hussein (55 years old), from Fayoum, understands the reasons for Shawki’s popularity. Hussein was arrested after he embraced extremist religious ideas. He met members of the Shawkiyoun in the early 2000s in the harsh prisons of Natrun, where he lived with them closely.

Hussein says, in an environment of extreme poverty like Fayoum, those who can confront the security forces, the state, or the authorities occupy a special place in peoples’ hearts. Shawki was closest to the needs of the people’s imagination. The people needed a hero to do battle on their behalf against oppression and poverty, and against the state – which, in their eyes, was the cause for their suffering.

During these bygone days at the end of the 1980s, the people talked about how Shawki al-Sheikh stood up to the governorate’s security director, rebuking and threatening him for something related to the people’s interests, with a steady heart and with a power whose source was unknown. As a result, Shawki was more of a popular hero before he became known as a religious figure. In the minds of simple people in a poor, remote village in 1990, matters appeared differently than they would to you in Cairo in 2017, says this 55 year old man.

This Separation between You and Me

We return to Mohammad Massad, who prefers to focus on the structure of the conflict between Shawki and his first teachers and former friends in al-Gamaa al-Islamiya:

The clash between the two groups played out on a number of different levels, but the Shawkiyoun became prominent because they preferred to focus on the economy and people’s needs. When Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman issued a fatwa forbidding force-feeding birds, considering the process of force-feeding to be an example of people interfering with God’s will for the bird that it should only eat as much as it needed, the women in the villages revolted. Raising birds and force-feeding them, then selling them, was the main source of these women’s income. After al-Gamaa al-Islamiya had asserted its control over the public space, and forbade the women from working in the fields, women had nothing else they could do for work other than force-feeding. As a result, the women chased away the proselytizing caravans that came to the villages to warn women not to engage in force-feeding.

In response, Shawki stood in the al-Rahma mosque in Ibshway and said, “Those who forbid what God has given to his creation in his generosity, they are the same as the unbelieving ruler. Oh people, those who have made problems for you in your livelihood, and forbidden to you what God has permitted to you, and championed the rights of birds over the rights of human beings, fight them, chase them, and wait for them at every lookout.” The people spread this speech amongst themselves, and al-Gamaa al-Islamiya felt that it was in danger.

The rumblings among Shawki’s followers and Abdel-Rahman’s followers quickly began to spread, until Shawki reached the point of no return in the rivalry. Ahmed Ragab, a journalist from Fayoum governorate recalls, “Shawki asked his followers, who will bring me the head of Omar Abdel-Rahman and enter heaven?”

Concerning this point, the researcher Maher Farghaly points us to the theory circulated by some people that the Minister of Interior supported Shawki in the beginning to create a sort of balance in the face of the many-sided beast that was called al-Gamaa al-Islamiya. The situation bore a strong symbolism, since the fact that one of Omar Abdel-Rahman’s followers broke off from him in the Fayoum governorate itself, where his power was centered, and with all of this charisma, was something that could cause a shockwave through the ranks of al-Gamaa al-Islamiya. This is in fact what occurred, but at what cost?

Gog and Magog

The pillars of Shawki’s power solidified, and he gained many followers. They believed in him in a way that was somewhere between religious belief and belief in a hero, to the point that Shawki began to ask people to come to him so that he could pass judgment in their disputes, and to pay him zakat and other taxes, according to Maher Farghaly.

Popular memory holds that Shawki was able to manage the affairs of Kahk completely. He was sure of his followers’ willingness to sacrifice themselves for him, and of his popularity among the people. He then committed his great folly, when he sent President Hosni Mubarak a telegram, which said “From the ruler of Kahk to the ruler of Egypt,” and called on the now ousted president to embrace Islam, to face him in battle, or to pay jizya!

Before we reach this dramatic point, and what follows from it, we return to the journalist Ahmed Ragab, from Fayoum, who remembers these days. He grew up hearing stories about them in a village neighboring Kahk, the capital of Shawki’s caliphate. He says, “The Shawkiyoun in those days plundered everything, once they were sure of the people’s loyalty. They stole the geese, ducks, and goats that were being raised in the streets, relying on a fatwa by Shawki himself that split the people into two groups – peaceful unbelievers and combatant unbelievers. He made everyone an unbeliever, except those who belonged to his group!”

The situation reached a point that no one would have imagined. The Shawkiyoun began to help themselves to all the edible animals at hand – as if they were Gog and Magog that lay waste to everything in their path. As Ragab narrates, “Even if you lost one goat that was grazing in front of your house, a few hours later you might find its hide hung up on your door, with a note from Shawki’s followers saying that they had eaten it, so don’t take any pains to go look for it.

Shawki’s Judgment Day Arrives

Anger began to creep into the hearts of many people, as Shawki’s followers increased their thefts of motorbikes, ducks, and geese, and their general aggressions towards the people. Additionally, worry was spreading due to the extortion of important Coptic figures in Fayoum, especially since this extortion was centered in an area close to the hometown of Youssef Wali, the Minister of Agriculture at the time and the deputy chairman of the ruling party. The time had come for revenge.

The Minister of Interior wanted to eliminate Shawki, as a penalty and punishment for all of his and his followers’ crimes.

Al-Gamaa al-Islamiya would have given anything to end the nightmare that was Shawki and his group. This was especially true after Shawki called for the head of their leader Omar Abdel-Rahman in front of his followers, who were fanatics and would obey him in anything with blind fearlessness.

The poor people who had celebrated Shawki in the beginning were then shocked when he ate their ducks and geese, and interfered in questions of marriage and divorce, issuing fatwas on the rules regarding marital relations between members of his group and those who did not belong to it.

This is the defining moment, when the camera moves to capture everyone waiting to ambush Shawki, while the young engineer grabs his weapon and orders his followers to defy death and face the security forces creeping towards Kahk.

What Happened Exactly?

Of course, popular memory will be inclined to make many changes to the original story. Exaggeration mixes with imagination, what occurred merges with what could have occurred, and what happened blends with what some had hoped would happen. In the end, this results in a final story that is a mix of hybrid chromosomes from the different accepted popular narratives.

The first story: Mubarak ordered the mobilization of the air force, so it headed to the village and crushed Shawki and his followers, raining fire down upon them after the telegram.

The second story: The military’s armored vehicles and tanks surrounded the village of Kahk, and razed it. Then, the soldiers walked among the wreckage of homes, the smoke of fires, and the groans of bodies as they lay dying.

The third story: The police, with broad formations from the Central Security Forces, came in and attacked the village for several nights and days while everyone defied death to defend Shawki.

However, the story about the motivations for the security forces taking action that is closest to the truth comes from within the Interior itself, of course.

At that time, a very specialized security cadre was chosen for the Shawki mission. It would be led by an officer, strong and solid of build, hard-handed, sharp-eyed, and with a calm demeanor, holding the rank of Brigadier General in the Central Security Forces (Special Forces), who had been trained in the El-Sa’ka Academy in the military. On top of all that, he had fought in a real war before, when he joined the ranks of the Egyptian Army in what was known as Operation Gazelle in the October War in 1973 against Israel. [3]He had also recently entered into a violent confrontation in a closed-off village in the Beni Suef governorate that was controlled by extremists.

This officer was Brigadier General Khairy Talaat, the leader of the Central Security Forces in northern Upper Egypt. His base, with his strongest soldiers and his officers from the elite levels of the internal security forces, was in the Minya governorate (240 kilometers south of Cairo), around 140 kilometers from Fayoum, the site of Shawki’s kingdom.

A strange and fortunate coincidence led me to Brigadier General Khairy, who is now a professor of modern political history in Minya University. He took up academic work as soon as he completed his service in the Special Forces. The man’s memory appeared to be fresh, as though he had just stormed Kakh yesterday. It was like the smell of gunpowder was still in his nose as he spoke, and the blood was still warm and sticky around us.

Talaat says, “We moved towards Kahk with 20 to 30 fighting groups. Each group consisted of 10 individuals. However, the only way to reach Kahk was through a single agricultural corridor. At first light, we moved to storm the village, but we were surprised by a hail of bullets coming at us from all sides.

At that time, we could only move forward using the armored vehicles, but the armored vehicles did not permit anyone to raise their head or aim their weapon without being hit by a sniper. Therefore, at a certain point, my men and I decided to enter the village on foot. We moved among the thick vegetation until the battle began.

As a military man, I immediately realized that we were facing a well-trained militia. Their shooting was professional, and the way the battle was handled on their side suggested a tactical understanding of the principles of engagement. They had gathered behind barriers, and hidden in fortified spots. They had also constructed towers above the houses, and occupied centralized positions high off the ground. They had talented snipers, and showered us with grenades.

On top of all of this, they were spurred on by strong religious conviction, and by an inspiring leader named Shawki al-Sheikh, who stood among them, fighting alongside them and encouraging them.

Talaat added: I immediately requested additional forces from the Ministry of Interior, which was following the operation closely. They sent 500 soldiers from the Central Security Forces in Giza (approximately 90 kilometers north of Fayoum).

We began moving forward meter by meter, until we were able to hide among the village’s homes. Then, we could climb to the roofs of some of the houses. After this, we were able to tighten the siege, and slowly get closer to Shawki’s home.

Shawki’s home was the most protected area. A man with a Russian machine gun loaded with an ammunition belt holding 200 bullets was stationed on the roof, while we had only rifles. As for the rest of our weapons, we had left them in the armored vehicles that were not able to advance in the muddy fields under the hail of bullets.

We had no other option but to communicate by looks and hand motions, until we were able to penetrate the last fortified spot, where Shawki was standing among his followers. Directly above them were towers, upon which stood snipers with plentiful weapons and bullets.

It was summer, and the weather was exhausting for everyone. At sunset, Shawki and around 14 of his followers fell dead. Afterwards, some of his followers surrendered, and some escaped to the fields.

A group of us stood looking at Shawki’s corpse, with our rifles in our hands and sweat on our brows, and some of us bleeding, while the lower-level officers and the soldiers were tasked with hunting down the fugitives.

Behind the Scenes of the Secret Kingdom

While Shawki’s corpse was still warm, and the blood still flowed around him, his female followers and the wives of his followers went mad, screaming and wailing, until we reached the scene with which we began this story.

A woman wearing a niqab runs, panicked, until she reaches her husband. She slaps his chest with her hands, and then she punches his face as best as she can. She takes off her shoe and hits him over the head with it, yelling hysterically, “They killed Sheikh Shawki! They killed Sheikh Shawki!” Thus Ahmed Ragab tells the story.

While the women shrieked, the village people stood stunned, and the security forces gathered their rifles, some of the people in Fayoum would feel that the story showed treachery on the part of al-Gamaa al-Islamiya. The group delivered Shawki (or information about him) to the Ministry of Interior on a silver platter, so the security forces could fill him with bullets. Many would feel – even those who rejected Shawki’s behavior – that the man died betrayed by the treachery of his old friends with long beards and trimmed mustaches.

But let us return now to Brigadier General Khairy Talaat, the central eyewitness. He was shocked by the secret world that Shawki had created in the village of Kahk. He must first try to fathom why so many people were saddened by Shawki’s death before we can understand it.

Talaat says, “The homes of his supporters were filled with luxury items. Shawki had cared for them, and distributed among them his spoils and the cash that he had collected through his extortion of Christian doctors, pharmacists, and gold dealers.”

He had also established a health clinic in the village, and brought doctors for it – by force or by their own will – from the heart of Fayoum governorate to care for the people of Kahk, and provide them with medical examinations and treatment. He appointed a number of his followers as nurses. He also forbade women from being examined by a doctor unless men from their family accompanied them. The woman would tell the man what her pain was, and then the man would relay this to the doctor!

“While I was in one of the village’s homes,” recounts Talaat, “I was surprised to find young girls of primary school age with their bellies swollen. I thought that there was a sickness in the house, so I asked the mother. I was shocked to hear that her daughters were pregnant, and that she herself was also pregnant, after Shawki forced them to marry his followers following the death of her husband!”

The journalist Ahmed Ragab says, “The people in the villages neighboring Kahk (Sinro, Ghaidan, and al-Hamuli) say that Shawki forbade people from cooking molokhiya, saying that it increased sexual desire! He also concocted fatwas that permitted a woman to be divorced from her husband if he was absent from her for more than three nights.”

The accounts that are available to us from several sources indicate that Shawki interfered to a great extent in the details of sexual relationships, marriage, and divorce. He was concerned with these issues to the point of obsession.

When he had forbidden the genders from mixing, and began to enforce his own interpretations of sharia, he did not permit women to sit with men. However, he would sit with women himself, and gather them together at appointed times, with the excuse that he was teaching them the foundations of the religion.

This is a story that must be looked at from a psychological angle, considering this man was concerned with women’s issues (even if it is was only concern isolated from its context and results) to such a great degree. He married his followers’ family members, and had a strong interest in everything concerning women, from the fatwa regarding force-feeding ducks, to structuring the sex life of all the women who lived within his territory. Perhaps this – as might be expected – is what made women such an active element in his short-lived state, whether they were the wives of his followers or simply his subjects.

Brigadier General Khairy is surprised when he remembers the reactions of the villagers after he and his men killed Shawki. He says, “Some of them were deeply saddened, and told us that Shawki reminded them of the caliphate of Omar bin al-Khattab, because he was just, and was concerned with the affairs of his subjects.”

Khairy adds, “What I learned of Shawki was that he was a cultured man, well-spoken, captivating, and convincing. He had memorized Ibn Taymiyyah and Abul A’la Maududi well. He had training for practically everything. He was a man with presence, and self-confidence.”

The Revenge of the Remaining Shawkiyoun

For several months after Shawki’s death, his remaining followers carried out robberies of Christian-owned gold stores. Then, two of his group’s members were involved in killing two agricultural engineers to steal their belongings. They buried them in one of the agricultural ditches.

When the criminal investigation team found the accused, and realized that they were followers of Shawki Al-Sheikh, State Security took over the investigation. Then, on a memorable day in 1991, the officer “A. O.” headed to the home of the two young men.

Here, the stories concerning what happened differ. Some say that the officer hit the mother of the two men, while others say that the officer ordered her to walk naked in the street. Still others say that he raped the wife of one of the men. Everyone that I met has a different story about what “A. O.” did. However, what is common among all of the stories is that the popular narrative accuses the State Security officer of doing something immoral or illegal involving one of the women in the young men’s home.

The young men were furious, and ambushed the officer, brutally and flagrantly killing him in a storm of bullets and in the view of everyone. It was a challenge to everyone in Fayoum.

Mohammad Hussein says, “ Sometimes, the two of them would ride a motorcycle together. One of them would drive, and the other would sit backwards, shooting their targets, which had been selected by the group, with a machine gun. I also heard that they would sometimes bury police officers alive.”

The Friend of Hell’s Butterflies

While the Shawkiyoun were being led to the prisons and jails in handcuffs, it appeared that the curtain had nearly drawn on the end of this brief story. No one noticed that Shawki had left his curse to continue its course after his death, until it consumed everything in its path.

A former police officer named Helmi Hashim would succeed Shawki in ruling the emirate. He would be greatly inspired by Shawki’s actions, would study them well, then preserve them within himself until he became the mufti of ISIS.

Yes, you read correctly, that is not a typo. The mufti of ISIS is Shawki’s disciple to the core, and an exceptional spiritual disciple of the engineer Shawki al-Sheikh’s curriculum.

One might ask, how can we logically say that the officer Helmi Hashim, who never met Shawki, is Shawki’s obedient son and outstanding pupil? He studied Shawki’s teachings, researched his ideas, and met his students (many of whom were illiterate). He studied Shawki’s ideas and turned them over in his mind until he came to two decisions.

The first was to expand his study of Islamic criminal law, according to those who lived with him, to add to his knowledge as a police officer who had studied law in college and had absorbed the concept of deciding which law applies in a given case against criminals.

The second was to quit police work in the last position that he held, which was in the prisons. He sympathized and joined with those whose jailer he had once been.

He was arrested more than once with different takfiri groups. He was determined to move forward with the path he had chosen, completed convinced of his role as a prisoner, perhaps more so than of what he had done as a jailer.

As a student of law, he expanded his understanding of the roots of the ideas of his spiritual father, Shawki al-Sheikh, in old Islamic jurisprudence. As a former officer, he had begun his service in the ranks of the Central Security Forces, which first taught him how to fight with weapons, and how to engage in battle amid the sound of gunfire and onslaughts of bullets. Ultimately, Hashim came to his most monstrous judicial creation – beheading.

Hashim is credited with finding a judicial basis for beheading, and encouraging members of ISIS to carry out rulings against their prisoners by beheading them in front of the whole world. In the lines of the face of this former officer, in the folds of his words, and in the depths of his soul, lies another man who is influencing his movements from the grave. His name is Shawki al-Sheikh (or Sheikh Shawki).

To what degree can a coincidence change the face of history? To a great degree, if you want the truth.

In 2004, after the explosions in Taba (in the Sinai) around 3000 suspects from the Sinai would be arrested. One of them would be the shy, introverted young man, Tawfiq Farig Zeyada.

The veteran officers in the state security forces would soon realize that the shy young man could not possibly have done any evil, so they let him go.

But things are not always so easy. Before they let him go, what had taken place?

Maher Farghaly says, “In jail, Tawfiq met the Shawkiyoun and takfiris, and became convinced of their ideas. He entered the prison, and when he left it, something of Shawki’s words had crept into him, and would stay with him forever.”

This is not the coincidence. The coincidence does not lie in the fact that a quiet, introverted young man with a simple education (technical diploma) turned into a violent takfiri follower of Shawki, embracing the ideas of a man he had never met in his life. However, on a day during the 25 January revolution, Tawfiq Farig was walking among the revolutionaries and the protestors. Without meaning to, he bumped into two young men. Tawfiq turned to them to apologize, and realized that they were his two friends from prison, Mohammad Afifi and Mohammad Haroun.

Whether through much talk or little, the encounter ended with Tawfiq convincing the other two men to join the group al-Tawhid wal-Jihad, which had been active for years. The quiet, shy Tawfiq was able to build a strong organizational structure that would later stun the security apparatus.

He would distribute tasks according to geographical locations, and specializations that ranged from religious, motivational, organizational, and logistical. He would make his new friends into terrifying cadres within an organization made up of Salafi jihadists and the remains of the followers of Rifai Suroor, as well as a motley gathering of Islamists who had emerged from their hiding places following the January revolution.

This organization was active for a time after Tawfiq Farig brought it to life, until, in the end, it came to be called “Ansar Bait al-Maqdis,” which would follow ISIS and become ISIS in Egypt.

Did Tawfiq Farig realize that his proclivity for ISIS’s ideology can be easily accounted for? We do not now know.

But we do know well that the ideas that formed in Tawfiq’s mind after he sat down with the Shawkiyoun and lived among them are joined by a hidden, secret link, which sits at Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s right hand. Its name is Helmi Hashim.

Khairy Talaat says, “When I see ISIS and I follow the news about Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, I feel this strange similarity between what I see now and what I saw with my own eyes when I stormed Kahk 27 years ago.

Despite the tens who died defending Shawki, or were imprisoned for embracing his ideas, none of them were his true obedient son, who would bear the legacy and the ideas of the founding father.

Helmi and Tawfiq, two men who had never met Shawki, nevertheless brought him back from the grave, just as magicians summon spirits and genies from their bottles.

It is as though Shawki al-Sheikh speaks to us from beyond the grave. His ideas reached Tawfiq Farig Zeyada and became ISIS-Egypt, while Helmi Hashim has taken over as mufti – using Shawki’s ideas – for al-Baghdadi’s ISIS as a whole.

As for you, the woman who was running and slapping her face, and hitting her husband because “Shawki died,” I think that if you read the story above, you would feel a kind of solace if you still love him, since he did not completely die, as you see.


  1. Ismail and Qutb were in fact hanged in August 1966.  ↩

  2. Zayd al-Hilali and Khalifa al-Zinati are rivals in the Sirat Banu Hilal, the epic tale of the Banu Hilal Arabian tribal confederation, which invaded the Maghreb. Al-Hilali was a leader of the Banu Hilal and al-Zinati was a leader of the Zenata Berbers.  ↩

  3. Operation Gazelle was actually an Israeli operation in the 1973 war to retake control of the Suez Canal from the Egyptians. Egypt sought to counter and failed, pushing Sadat to seek a ceasefire.  ↩

Links 15-22 March 2017

Recently on the blog:

And this week's links:

LinksThe Editors
Saudi Arabia and Egypt warm up again

Heba Saleh and Simeon Kerr, writing in the FT:

Analysts said the election of Donald Trump in the US, who considers Egypt and Saudi Arabia as important allies in his anti-Isis strategy, had focused minds on a rapprochement. Saudi Arabia is also keen to rally Sunni Arab support in its efforts to counter Iran’s influence across the Middle East, and believes it can benefit from reasserting a strong axis with Cairo, analysts said.
“Because of the Trump factor and the new Saudi strategy to counter Iran, we are back into a ‘forgive and forget policy,’” said Abdullah Alshammri, a former Saudi diplomat. “Riyadh’s policy towards Egypt can be described as emergency diplomacy — it is time to work only against Iran, and we need Cairo.”

This is an interesting take and always one of the major reasons that any chill in Saudi-Egyptian relations was going to be temporary. However, this likely does not mean it's all hunky dory from here on. There are limits to how anti-Iran Egypt will want to be, especially in light of its improved relations with Hamas, which is once again warming to Tehran. Like it or not Tehran has leverage with Hamas, which has leverage on the situation in Sinai. This is one of the ways in which the emergent MENA geopolitics are tangled and complicated. The Trump administration could arguably get on board with an anti-Iran policy that would please most (but not all) GCC countries and that would structure a major aspect of power politics in the region. And some are calling for this (surprise: it involved members of the Kagan family of neocon grandees) – specifically a Middle East strategy focused around Iran rather than Sunni radicals, including empowering a Sunni ally against Iran and (if you read between the lines) embracing anti-Shia sectarianism. Ironically, they are doing so when Saudi Arabia may to be shifting emphasis from a sectarian to a more ethnic framework for containing Iran.

Yet a country like Egypt has far more complicated interests: anti-Islamism (which brings it closer to the Assad regime and hence Russia and Iran), maintaining its strong relations with the GCC (solidarity on Yemen etc.) and the Nile water issue with Ethiopia and the Sudans (which is a theater where you have a strong local actor in Ethiopia but also much external influence from Western countries, Iran, Saudi Arabia and China). So I would not fall for an "all is fine" narrative: as in the past, the Egyptian-Saudi relationship is likely to have its ups and downs because of regional developments that are hard to predict and where their interests diverge. 

Sloppy scholarship and the Arab uprisings

Bassam Haddad, in Jadaliyya:

Much of the writing on the Arab uprisings continues to suffer from the new think-tank-ish, self-important, semi-casual, sloppy-analysis syndromes. It is as if having a platform and a mandate are sufficient to produce sound knowledge. For the most part, the proof is in the pudding. Follow platforms and individuals across time and space and this becomes clear: zigzagging and pendulum-swing judgments and analysis, driven more by events and politics than by historical and analytical depth. Worse still, this sloppiness has extended to scholars who frequently opine on social media and electronic publication platforms that seek content quantity over quality in a mutually beneficial exercise. Rigorous analysis that stands the test of time suffers.

Extending beyond quick platforms, the deluge of books on the uprisings is staggering and qualitatively inconsistent across publications, with some coming out within the first year of these protracted events, yet they do not consciously address their own temporal (premature?) shortcomings. Other books are published within months of the emergence of new phenomena (e.g., ISIS) and extrapolate from that particular phenomenon to all cases that experienced an uprising. Finally, as I already shared, a continuing trend of erroneously addressing the uprisings, or the odd title “Arab Spring," as one event lingers, with insufficient attention to the vast variance across cases. For the most part, the best work on the uprisings has not been written yet, and for good reason.

I suspect we will see really good literature about the uprisings before we see really good non-fiction. I don't think anyone has really put their finger on the real story here yet.

The Anti-Cairo
The planned government sector of the new city, featuring a People's Gateway, People's Piazza, decorative obelisk, Parliament and Presidential Palace [5+ UDC]

The planned government sector of the new city, featuring a People's Gateway, People's Piazza, decorative obelisk, Parliament and Presidential Palace [5+ UDC]

Like many who have lived in Cairo, I remain obsessed with the city -- its squandered potential, its exhausting dysfunction, its liveliness and its charm. I've written something for the excellent Places Journal about the Egyptian government's proposal to move the country's capital to a new administrative city in the desert 45 Kilometers outside Cairo. I'm still not sure how seriously to take the fantastical announcements and graphic renderings of this future city (the authorities in Egypt are not exactly reliable, and the project seems preposterous) but something is already definitely being built. I analyzed the plans for the city as a key to understanding how the Sisi regime views the real, existing capital and public space. I also took a look back at Cairo's history and at the few years after Mubarak's ouster when activists, urbanists and citizens shared so many initiatives and proposals to make Cairo the city it should be. 

One of the densest cities in the world. Informal housing in Cairo and protesters praying in Tahrir. Photo courtesy of Fady El Sadek.

One of the densest cities in the world. Informal housing in Cairo and protesters praying in Tahrir. Photo courtesy of Fady El Sadek.