The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Springborg on Sisi
“He’s going to give them ‘Islamism light,’” said Robert Springborg, a Middle East expert from the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. “That’s what they want, and that’s what they are going to get.”
— "Army chief said to be focused on Egypt’s problems", AP
Links 23 December 2013 - 17 January 2014

Happy new year, I guess.

LinksThe Editors
US aid and Egypt: back to business as usual

Josh Rogin, reporting for Daily Beast, says the path is now clear to restore US aid to Egypt to its full level. Here's a quote from Michele Dunne that pretty much sums it up:

“I think there’s a sense of giving up on Egypt [inside of the Obama administration], on the Hill as well,” said Dunne. “There’s a sense that ‘Oh well they tried a democratic transition, it didn’t work, but we don’t want to cut ourselves off from Egypt as a security ally, so let’s just forget about the whole democracy and human rights thing except for giving it some lip service from time to time.’”

Also see this report from Ali Gharib on the crucial role Israel and its US lobby played in mustering Congressional support for this.

Last summer, the language on draft bills from the House and Senate on Egypt suggested a substantial reduction in aid and/or the linking of the aid to various requirements, and also threatened to drop the usual waiver the administration could exercise. Now, the administration is only required to certify that Egypt is maintaining good relations with Israel. The path is clear to restore the aid, and the bilateral relationship, to its Mubarak-era level.

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

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

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

by Bassem Youssef

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

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

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

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

And oh my what details!!!

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

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

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

I'm not casting doubts on the credibility of the Great Writer, and I'm not accusing him of lying. However, the Great Writer and his comrades from among the legends of Arab journalism are the first ones who told us that if a writer writes something for his readers, he has to have sources for it. I read the article from start to finish and didn't find a single source….at all.

All that's written is that "someone trustworthy" told him these things.

Who's the layabout source that would spin these yarns?

So why were we upset with the Islamists?

Weren’t their show nothing but a steady 24-hour stream of "I was told" and "He told me and I told him”?

So why are we upset? It's enough that thousands of people read the article and really believed this friendly dialogue between the US Secretary of State and the Gulf State Ruler, and that they exchange the Arabian Nights stories that this article is chock-full of.

The problem is that, unfortunately,  this type of writing, which was invented by a Great Writer in the Sixties, has become acceptable in Arab journalism, and since then "bullshitting" has become a lifestyle for many who were at the forefront of the Egyptian newspaper scene.

There's an entire generation that grew up hearing urban legends about how Sadat put poison in Nasser's cup of coffeee. And for you to be able to know this story, either Sadat told you or Nasser came back from the dead and told you, or you yourself were hiding in the coffee pot.

This Writer who confounds us every two months with a new book about the secrets of the intelligence services, the presidency and the army and who by sheer dumb luck just happens to be present at the right time and place to hear what Mubarak, Tantawy, Anan and Morsi all said. This is in addition to his uncanny ability to get in the good graces of Mubarak, Morsi and anyone else he ends up with. And let's not forget that "the Minister of Defense will force himself to run against his will;” Congratulations!

Then you have the other Writer who every now and then will inform us about the plots that American intelligence is hatching and divulge to us what spy agencies around the world are telling us. I recall that at the time of the trial of the human rights NGOs when the Americans fled, the Great Journalist told viewers that he had verified information that the US army was going to land helicopters on the roof of the American embassy to evacuate the people working in these NGOs. As a result, those in power were forced to give in and allow them to be smuggled out so such a scandal would not take place. Of course the Great Writer thought that he was thereby serving the Military Council by relating this ridiculous scenario so that people would say: "This is God's grace and wisdom.  Thank God America didn't get the better of us."

Do you get it? A helicopter penetrates Egyptian airspace like it's nothing, crosses the Delta and gets past the air defense systems -- again no big deal -- then the welcome mat is rolled out for these aircraft to reach downtown. Finally, these helicopters land – nothing to see here – on the roof of the embassy and get these people out of Egypt. All while we – pardon the expression – sit around like a sack of potatoes.

But why? The Military Council at that time – how awful! – was forced into this shameful solution so that Egypt wouldn't be put to shame by a landing operation. Although this boot-licking scenario is actually more shameful to the country and its rulers. But it seems that the Great Writer "didn't think it through." But no matter, is there anyone who's paying attention or remembering these stories?

I don't mind that there are these people who know the inside story of all these matters – I wish you nothing but the best, good fellow! But I have a question about all these nice stories that these people are circulating about America, Obama and intelligence agencies: how did these stories escape the notice of American newspapers, American media outlets and American oversight bodies to end up in our newspapers and books, out of all of God's good creation?

Do you remember the story of Khairat El-Shater, who sold Sinai for 80 million dollars? Do you remember the documented information that Obama's brother is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood? Do you remember the documented information that came from a German base where a meeting took place between the great powers, and newspapers published details of the foul conspiracy that these countries were plotting against Egypt? How is it that the "respectable" newspapers and "respectable" talk shows were able to dedicate large amounts of space to discuss this villainous conspiracy -- then days later, we forgot the villainous conspiracy and Egypt's leaders sat with representatives of these countries that had plotted against us, as if it was nothing?

Doesn't it get you riled up or make you proud if you believe that neither the New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN or any American media outlets were able to obtain this information, yet the bold, heroic journalists of Egyptian newspapers were able to get a hold of it so the "super" professional broadcasters could circulate it on Egyptian TV?

Do you remember the Egyptian talk show stars who reported statements about the Brotherhood, Morsi, Morsi's wife and Ezzat al-Garf -- but they were reporting statements from fake Twitter accounts?

Have you followed the transcripts of the calls attributed to Morsi and the rest of the Brotherhood leadership?

Have any of us heard them? If these calls describe their treason in detail, why are the Egyptian people not allowed to hear them? If journalists are allowed to publish transcripts of these recordings, then what objection is there to releasing the recording themselves?

I remember now the famous program that was broadcasting the events of 30 June moment by moment; The presenters in the studio were determined to read funny tweets from an account attributed to Mohamed Morsi, while the journalist sitting in their midst was trying to explain that this Twitter account was satirical. But the veteran presenter insisted on reading this fluff as if it were real.

Now the ground is ripe for such beings known as strategic experts to emerge, and for journalists who were educated at the same "Great Writer School" of the poisoned coffee cup. And nobody gives a thought to consulting sources or asking for proof of the bullshit that they spew.

My dear reader, I'm asking you to review all the information that you've read on Facebook or on websites that you think are news websites, or from presenters that read their news from these sites. How may pieces of news turned out to be true? How many pieces of news were confirmed by global news sources?

To be frank, the answer to this question is: "It doesn't matter." This news sooths your nerves because it is against those you hate. So there is no need for us to check it or verify its sources.

This is the same sin that the Islamists were guilty of before. They did not hesitate to use rumours and fabrications no matter the source, as long as it served their aims.

Now the Islamists are gone and the rumors remain, but going in the opposite direction.

Egyptian intellectuals, revolution, and the state

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Khaled Dawoud: Point of no return

Another entry in our In Translation series, courtesy of the great team over at Industry Arabic.Khaled Dawoud was the spokesman for the National Salvation Front, a coalition of Egyptian political forces created in 2012 in opposition to Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi. Dawoud supported the June 30, 2013 protests against Morsi but resigned from his position after the police attack on Islamist protesters in Rabaa El Adawiya Square on August 14, 2013 that left hundreds dead. In October Dawoud was recognized by pro-Muslim Brotherhood protesters, dragged out of his car and stabbed in the hand and chest. He is a critic of the Islamist group, but nonetheless continues to argue against its violent repression. 

Point of No Return

Khaled Dawoud, El Tahrir newspaper, December 28

On a daily basis and sometimes several times a day I receive the following question: "How can you defend the Muslim Brotherhood when they tried to kill you? Do they have to chop off your head for you to realize they're terrorists?" This is in response to my remaining committed to the belief that we must strive toward a broad national consensus and not just rely on security solutions. I consider consensus to be the sole means to bring about true stability in Egypt and to start achieving the real goals of the January 25 Revolution – most significantly fighting poverty, promoting education and health, achieving real development and building a democratic system where Egyptians enjoy rights and freedoms.

The most aggravating part of this charge that I'm defending the Brotherhood is that I have always been a stern opponent of them. I am opposed to their intellectual foundations and their medieval way of governing the organization. In particular, I am opposed to how they treat the Supreme Guide as the Shadow of God on Earth and swear loyalty and obedience to him, to the extent that violating his commands is akin to going against religion itself. I also disapprove of their views on women, of the way they bar them from leadership posts just for being women, and of their sectarian discourse that they can never seem to leave behind. To start with, in 1997 the previous Supreme Guide Mustafa Mashhur made a statement to me in my capacity as a journalist to the effect that if the Islamic state that he desired were established, the jizya tax would be imposed on the Copts and they would be barred from joining the army. Then there was the statement made by Khairat al-Shater in the aftermath of the Presidential Palace protests on 5 December 2012, that "70% of those protesting against the Brotherhood were Christians." Finally, there is the latest statement by the Brotherhood that came out after the decision to shut down hundreds of their charitable associations, with the claim that "The door has been flung wide open for Christian missionary organizations to turn poor Muslims away from their religion."

The people who pose this question to me also ignore the fact that the Brotherhood supporters who attacked me and stabbed me with knives at a protest of theirs about three months ago certainly did not consider me to be one of their "defenders." Nothing occurred to them except that I was someone who "called for the coup" on June 30 after I had been working for nine whole months as spokesman for the National Salvation Front. This is the NSF that unified the opposition against former president Mohammed Morsi, after he broke all his promises to achieve national consensus, and just strove to empower his clan and his organization, thereby threatening to plunge the nation into civil war and real sectarianism.

However, my appeal for national consensus was based on my absolute faith that violence only begets more violence, and that handling the protests of the Brotherhood – who in their statements are claiming that they are fighting a war for Islam and not for their wealthy organization with affiliates worldwide – only from a security angle would increase the influence of more radical, militant organizations like al-Qaeda, as well as other groups who have unprecendented expertise in explosives and terrorism from recent wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Yemen and most lately Syria. They are able to claim that they are "taking revenge" for their Brothers who died in confrontations with the police and the army. My main concern is not to shed crocodile tears over the brutal attack they faced, but to consider how we can prevent such attacks and bloodshed in the future – by protecting all Egyptians: civilians, police officers and soldiers alike.

The current struggle between those who cling to the "Islamic identity" of Egypt and those who believe that Egypt has one of the most ancient identities in the world, while striving to build a modern state, has been going on for more than two hundred years and will not die out anytime soon. I was one of those who said that the Brotherhood's arrival in power was a chance to prove that their abuse of religion does not mean that they have preternatural abilities to solve Egypt's accumulated and intractable problems. Egyptians discovered this quickly and hit the streets in the millions on June 30 to call for an end to Morsi's failed rule. I had hoped that the integration of the Muslim Brotherhood into the political process would help put an end to their insularity and their claims that they are a "Godly organization" that does not err because God is helping them, and that they would acknowledge that they are a political organization that can co-exist with others if they would only give up their claim to possess absolute truth.

Now, after the government's announcement that the Muslim Brotherhood is a "terrorist organization" and the Brotherhood's reciprocal escalation by threatening to "string up" the "coup-plotters," it seems that any talk about national consensus has become a sort of delusion and the upper hand belongs to whichever of the two sides escalates and doesn't blink. The Brotherhood has the chance to reconsider its position and start on the path of reconciliation with the Egyptian people, if it recognizes that what happened on June 30 was an expression of real popular outrage and not just "Photoshop" and that the end of Morsi's presidency – even though he was elected – is not the end of the world. It certainly does not mean that the alternative is to destroy Egypt and burn it to the ground. This is taking into account that we are still making our first steps toward trying to build a democratic system after sixty continuous years of one-man and one-party rule.

We have fallen into a cycle where the Brotherhood keeps repeating specious claims that the terrorist bombing in Mansoura was in fact an inside job perpetrated by the "leaders of the coup" to justify more oppression. They have also crossed red lines by issuing a statement titled "Message to the Noble Soldiers of the Egyptian Army" where they blatantly call for disobedience and mutiny within the ranks of the armed forces, and threaten them with painful vengeance from God Almighty because they are the ones who hold the mandate in this matter. On the other hand, the government issued a statement that accused the Brotherhood of being responsible for the Mansoura bombing -- despite the fact that investigations have not yet concluded and that the Ansar Beit al-Maqdis organisation issued a statement claiming responsibility for the attack -- and for all the terrorist attacks that Egypt has suffered since the 1940s, including the 1977 killing of Sheikh al-Zahabi by the Takfir wal-Hijra organization. This is a point of no return, and the price will be a lengthy period of violence, instability and moving further away from the goals of the January 25 Revolution.

Digging for antiquities in a basement in Egypt

Digging for antiquities is a millennial traditional in Egypt. And there may have been quite an uptick in illegal digging in the last few years, as scavengers took advantage of the political upheaval and chaos. Our contributor Nour Youssef joined a risky, amateur dig and sent us this dispatch

Blowing his last lungful of shisha smoke at the check he just paid, a smiling Bondok turned to inform his company that women will never be allowed pay for anything in his presence and that efforts to break that law are considered attempts on his manhood. The young Cairo University graduate from Nazlet el-Samman -- a neighborhood next door to the Giza pyramids -- issued this law the day he grew the imperceptible strip of hair on his upper lip and is proud to enforce it more zealously when the female is foreign “to give (her) a good impression about Egypt.” In order to honor this law and his dance career, Bondok trades in antiquities -- or rather digs them up for others to trade.

Ancient Egyptian cat statuette courtesy of Shutterstock

Ancient Egyptian cat statuette courtesy of Shutterstock

“There is nothing wrong with it,” Bondok reminded me again on our way to his workplace, that is the hole under his aunt's house. “Nothing at all. We asked three sheikhs, one of them was from Al-Azhar,” his friend, Hossam, another CU graduate, added enthusiastically. Although one of those sheikhs is a fellow dealer, whose only Islamic credential is spending the 12th grade in Saudi Arabia, and another asked for a cut of the profit after his fatwa; the young men believe trading in antiquities is halaal. “If you say otherwise, everyone [in Nazelt el-Samman] will laugh at you,” Bondok’s cousin, Youssef, warned me with his hand against his belly to simulate mock laughter.

According to Islam, the Azhar sheikh told him, everything above and below your land is yours to do with as you please -- technically. Islam, they conceded, also says to respect the rules of the country you’re in and Egypt’s laws incriminate their business.

“But if your country doesn’t respect you,” the young men spoke in rehearsed unison like they were about to break into song, “then you don’t have to respect it!” Guffaws and brotherly shoulder punches ensued. “It is not like [the artifacts] leave the country without the government’s knowledge; everyone gets a cut,” Bondok further justified himself after the laughter subsided. .

Unfortunately, the jolly atmosphere quickly disappeared when we arrived at his aunt's house, who didn’t understand that when Bondok said he was bringing a stranger over that night he meant that he was bringing a stranger over that night. Sitting awkwardly on a plastic chair between an LCD and an old used-to-be-white refrigerator, I pretended to be too consumed with the Islamic woodwork on the wall to hear the mumbled argument taking place in the doorless kitchen in front of me, about me. A few minutes and a heavy sigh later, we were exchanging curt pleasantries without eye contact as we descended to the dank basement illuminated by a lonely neon lamp. Digging tools lay around the meter-deep hole in the ground, next to forgotten tea cups and an empty bag of Chipsy.

A scrawny barefoot boy coughed to draw attention to himself at the top of the stairs, as the trio took their jackets off, rolled their pants past their calves and their shirts past their elbows. He threw me a pack of cigarettes, asked why my hair is short, giggled and scurried off before I could answer. They young men assumed their positions and resumed digging in the name of God pausing every now and then to joke, recollect and give advice.

According to Bondok, if you want to excavate for treasure under your house and don’t want it to fall on your head; there are things you should do first. “Most people get a sheikh to read Quran in the place and find out if there is something worth digging for and how far below is it,” he said seriously -- unaware that his cousin, Youssef, a pharmacist “who [was] only doing this because [he] wanted to touch something old,” had his lip raised in contempt of such unscientific thinking. “After that, if you still have money, you can get an engineer to check the soil and tell you how to dig without disturbing the sand under the building’s foundation,” Youssef said, before Bondok cut in to add that you can hire professional diggers if you lack the manpower; just remember that these people can steal the kohl out of a woman’s eyes and will probably ask for a 10% cut of whatever they find.”

“Or you could  just dig and tell your mother to pray the roof doesn’t fall and trap you under, like we’re doing,” Hossam added with amusement and went on to tell comforting stories of excavations gone wrong. One time before the revolution, his neighbors found a cemetery under their house. They had gotten out everything except for the mummy and the sarcophagus. Blinded with greed, the diggers removed the wood boards they used to keeps the walls from caving in thinking they could widen their hole in search for the must-be-nearby mummy faster than the walls would react. They couldn’t. Four died under the rubble before the police managed to unearth them some five hours later. The diggers’ fortune was then driven away in the ambulances. Another friend once dug for three months, found the granite gate of a cemetery and sent for an electric drill. Having got sick of waiting, he pounded the granite with a chisel until it rained sand on his head. He was almost buried alive. “Greed is bad,” Youssef said needlessly, scratching his black widow’s peak.

Amateur diggers don't need to find anything as dramatic as this ancient Egyptian mummy (courtesy of Shutterstock). A few scarabs or statuettes will do. 

Amateur diggers don't need to find anything as dramatic as this ancient Egyptian mummy (courtesy of Shutterstock). A few scarabs or statuettes will do. 

Leaning on his spade, Bondok chastised his friend for his morbidity and began recalling his own stories. On the night of the police’s withdrawal, Jan 28, 2001, he remembers sneaking into an already-opened cemetery near the pyramids to film its layout for future excavation purposes with a friend. They were trying to adjust the camera’s flash when the sky lit up in green and a booming voice said to leave or get shot. Bondok broke out in a cold sweat and froze thinking it was the curse of the pharaohs, until his friend nudged him and told him that all of Nazelt el-Samman, apparently, has come out with shovels and drain trays in pursuit of ancestral wealth behind the pyramids, forcing the army to deploy a tank and soldiers to fire warning rounds and fireworks in the air. Those were the days, he said fondly, before striking the ground with his spade again. “This is harder than it looks,” he said looking up at me from the now-four meters deep hole. After all, people not only risk their homes -- unless they are digging near major archaeological sites or the relatively untouched ones left aside for future excavations by the government -- they also risk wasting a lot of time, effort and money on something that might not be there. And even if they get lucky, they still must evaluate the artifacts' worth, which is generally directly proportional to its age and the amount of gold in it. To determine these, digging residents may be forced to enlist the help of an unscrupulous expert, whose services they will have to substantially compensate him for too. Following that is the problem of finding a cooperative, trustworthy buyer, who won’t, for instance, buy nothing but the gold pieces and then send a friend to buy the rest of the cemetery for a reduced price, since it has no gold. It’s a classic scam.

“Digging is hard; selling is hard; buying is--” Youssef stopped mid-conclusion after Bondok swore to hit him over the head with a shoe if he doesn’t spare us his astute observations. Somewhere between the thuds, Bondok advising me to always sell antiquities in bulk -- a small scarab that would be priced at LE10,000 (almost $1,500) in wholesale to a rich buyer could be priced at as little as a thousand or two, if sold alone -- and Hossam assuring me that the government outlawed the antiquities market to monopolize it rather than end it; the boy who inquired about my hair length earlier joined us, carrying bottles of water. He put them down next to his callused feet on the floor and then asked if they were shaking. After a long moment of stupefied silence, everyone scrambled out of the hole.  

The building was not falling, but one of the walls looked like it was considering it. Having heard the commotion, my unwelcoming host all but tumbled downstairs, nostrils flaring, and demanded to know what had gone wrong. Claims that it wasn’t because of the digging, something they have been doing for three years without (much) trouble, hit her angry exterior and bounced off with little effect. Bondok tried to explain that while he may not have a degree in engineering, it is expected and normal for non-essential-to-stability walls to fall or tilt sometimes. “People dig up to 150 meters under their homes and no one would have any idea,” he said, arms wide open as if to contain her hostility. Still scowling, she turned to Hossam and asked him to remove the jinx (that's me) from her field of view. Outside in the cold, he nervously tried to snap his lighter back to life while I kicked around a Coca-cola cap and half-jokingly suggested leaving the maybe-eaten-by-now others behind.

Eventually, Bondok managed to contain his aunt's hostility with the promise of a profit share from a black granite status of "some Pharaoh" he had found a buyer for, in case he found nothing under her property, which, luckily for him, was not the case. A little over a week of constant digging later, they found a cartouche and decided to widen their search to satisfy his aunt. "If anything happens, we can say we were making a water pump," he said with a weary smile.

Oh greed is bad. 


Syria: The unraveling

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

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

This has caused many Syrians to despise ISIS. Since June, there have been anti-ISIS protests in Raqqa—something which requires courage given ISIS’s ruthlessness. More recently, even Islamist activists such as Hadi al-Abdullah, a prominent Syrian from Homs, have criticized the group, describing them as “Dawlet al-Baghdadi,” or Baghdadi’s state, echoing “Suria al-Assad”, Assad’s Syria, the way regime supporters refer to the country. And yet ISIS continues to recruit Syrian fighters. Some say that Syrians joined because the group offers better money and protection than other rebel outfits. In an interview posted to YouTube, Saddam al-Jamal, a former leader of Ahfad al-Rasoul, explains that he defected to ISIS, because moderate fighters are subject to too much foreign interference and are pressured to fight Islamists as well as the regime.

Michael Weiss, in POLITICO, analyzes the rise of the Saudi-backed Islamist front -- an only slightly less extremist Islamist militia than ISIS and al-Nusra. 

According to a newly published anatomy of U.S. policymaking in the Wall Street Journal, which cites Obama administration officials, Washington’s objective in arming and training rebels “wasn’t so much to help [them] win as to assuage allies who thought the U.S. wasn’t engaged.” Yet this limited approach failed on two levels: Not only did it destroy the West’s nominal proxy in Syria, but it also compelled Riyadh to “step outside the umbrella” of U.S. oversight altogether and plot the construction of an overshadowing Islamist counterpart army.

Josh Landis has a detailed account of recent fighting and an analysis of the real difference between the militias (which are more strategic than ideological). 

Aboud [of the Islamic Front] makes clear that he views ISIS as a potential partner. He is careful to pave the way for its return to the fold. He explains that ISIS’s goal of an Islamic state is not substantially different than that of the Islamic Front or the many other militias fighting in Syria. Where it does differ is that it sees itself as the unique heir to the state and has begun setting up mini-states wherever it rules, pushing aside fellow militias and refusing to submit to the common Sharia court system that the Islamic Front militias and Nusra have constructed and administer together. He points out how Nusra has agreed to cooperate and defer questions of permanent state-building and ultimate governance until after Assad is defeated. This is a way of putting aside what may be fairly substantial ideological differences between militias despite their common goal of an Islamic state and perhaps more importantly, it defers any contest over ultimate executive power. The Emir of ISIS, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, hopes to assert himself as the Caliph and force the others to give him bay`a or allegiance.  He has also imposed rather draconian sharia punishments and forbidden smoking, music, and other simple pleasures that many find intolerable. This underlines the great problems that remain for the militias in determining what form and style an eventual Islamic state will take, not to mention who among the militia leaders will ultimately rule.

Islamic Front leaders have been very skilful about finessing questions on governance. The standard answer they give to those who ask what kind of government they intend is that they will call on an assembly of Ulema to decide on the correct form of Islamic government when the time comes.



Messages from security services to Egyptian activists

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


May every new year find you free

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Egypt in TV

A semi-regular column from our contributor Nour Youssef, who watches a lot of TV. 

Placated by the official decree calling the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist group, talk show hosts finally got to stop pestering the government and move on to more pressing issues. Like the dispute that ensued in a classroom in Tanta. The conflict began, Wael el-Ibrashy tells us, when an MB teacher scandalized his students by resolutely mispronouncing the caption of the poster of General Abdel Fattah El-Sisi they had used to decorate a wall, even though it clearly read: “Sisi, Heart of a Lion.”(The Arabic word for ‘heart’ is dangerously close the word ‘dog’.) But the teacher denied insulting the army chief, faulting four students’ hearing for the controversy. 

Mahmoud Saad on Ennahar TV channel

Meanwhile in the adult world, Mahmoud Saad focused on how this “belated” label -- which gives the government the right to punish members of the MB, people who finance it and/or support it verbally or by writing; return security forces back to universities; ban members from traveling; search and close organizations related to the Brotherhood and sentence those who lead their protests to death and those who follow them to five years in prison -- was primarily issued to appease people. According to die-hard army supporter and regular Al-Qahera Al-Youm co-host, lawyer Khalid Abu Bakr, the move was made to counter the devastating effects of Prime Minister Hazem el-Beblawi’s tactless acknowledgment of the absence of a legal text defining what a terrorist group is on the public.  

Abu Bakr’s colleague, Amr Adeeb, took time to explain his Follow The Protest Theory to the "stupid organization" whose supporters wonder why his predictions are spot on. The trick is to wait until they protest in anti-MB neighborhoods and governorates like Dakahlia (where Mansoura is), Cairo, Giza, or Sharqiya, and then immediately assume they are going there to slip a bomb into a government building using the protest for cover. This theory is self-evident and undebatable -- provided you don’t wonder how one could sneak into a government building with reportedly sleepless people in it and place a bomb on a top floor during one the MB’s supposedly violent protests without getting caught; or why the directorate was deaf to Adeeb’s warnings (just like the Military Intelligence’s HQ in Sharqiya was a few days later before it, too, was attacked). You should also ignore the testimony of injured police recruits who said they didn’t search cars passing by that night, which is oddly lazy since far less important police buildings have been fortified and have the streets they are on blocked or closely monitored.  

Gaber el-Qarmouti on OnTV

Gaber el-Qarmouti claimed the attack was an inside job planned by MB elements in the ministry and facilitated by infuriating police incompetence; he started screaming “penetration!” at the camera. What annoyed el-Qarmouti more than police incompetence, however, was journalist Ahmed Hassan Shawky who went on Al Jazeera and unveiled a relatively new conspiracy theory, according to which el-Sisi was assassinated on Oct. 17 and the person displaying affection in sunglasses all this time is a look-alike -- driving el-Qarmouti mad with the desire to know if Shawky ever saw Egyptian sand. 

Out-pitching Qarmouti this week was Ahmed Moussa, who stood in front the partly ripped facade of the Mansoura directorate and asked God to curse the outside world and those who fear it, since they are undoubtedly and wholly responsible for all that is wrong.

Speaking of the outside world, el-Mehwar’s Reham el-Sahly has finally discovered who has been killing protesters for the past three years: foreign photographers. Turns out they have been literally shooting protests. Their cameras, el-Sahly found out, had guns inside of them. They also had GPS devices that fired nine millimeter bullets; guns that were so long they passed for walking sticks and could fire tear gas grenade; laser-pen guns (hence, the laser); and dope rings that shoot bullets “that can blow up an elephant,” according to Sahly’s guest, the political writer and researcher Amr Amar. He also took the opportunity of being on her show to vindicate the repentant traveler to Serbia and revolutionary Nagat Abdelrahman’s confession on el-Mehwar back in 2011 in which she dropped the“Freedam House gave every current revolutionary leader 50 USD to train people to burn shops” bombshell. That interview was widely cited as an ignominious example of staged propaganda -- but according to Amar it was all true. In case you're wondering why these random unnamed countries are conspiring with a privately-owned security services company, Academi (previously known as Blackwater) against Egypt, remember they have done this in Moscow, Iran, Romania, Kurdistan, Tunisia, Libya, Syria and Yemen at various unspecified points in history. 

What was worse than hearing the sound of Reham el-Sahly’s gasp and Lamis el-Hadidi saying el-Sisi makes her “feel safe as a woman” this week was hearing Ibrahim Eissa coax “the polite people of Qatar” into revolting against their emir like a parent would a child into eating bamia. After all, how can they sleep at night or drive their air-conditioned jeeps when their dishdashas, galabeyas and kaftans are figuratively soaked in Syrian, Egyptian and Libyan blood? 

Also depending too heavily on his persuasion skills this week was the self-titled “Defender of the Oppressed,” Youssef el-Husseiny, who leaned in close to remind us of how much we’ve gone through together and how long we've let his image sit in our living rooms before asking us to forget how admittedly lame he was giving the interior minister a 24 hour ultimatum to have a list of the officers who mistreated a friend and a colleague on his desk or he’d pull (someone else’s) rank. An unfulfilled threat he ate to save face after learning that testosterone and knocking on your desk doesn't always work.

Meanwhile, the coverage of the ongoing clashes between students and security forces in  continues its obsession with how atrociously mannered the female students are. For example, Wael el-Ibrashywondered how one of the female students who called a security man a woman could have possibly acquired that knowledge innocently, while veteran Azhar faculty members mourned the days when the girls dared not turn their heads in their presence and cited a Hadith that said not to educate the offsprings of the morally deficient -- if you catch their drift…

To end on a positive note, Ahmed Sbider, a rapper-turned-terrorist-messages-decoder and Tawfik Okasha's protege, gave his analysis of Vodafone's recent commercial featuring puppets. The commercial, he told the sniggering Director of Vodafone's External Affairs on TV, has five words that worry him: Dog, garage, guard, nearby and mall. Because when taken out of context and rearranged, these words could mean that a big mall security guard will be bribed to let a car bomb that the security dog sniffed into the garage, where it will explode on Christmas. Sbider's host, Ahmed Moussa, then yelled at the Vodafone Director for seeming to find the report Sbider filed against Vodafone -- and which the public prosecutor is actually investigating --  funny.

Vodafone's terrorist agent puppets

PostsNour Youssefegypt, TV