The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Trouble on campus

According to the minister of education, if you knew what is going on in Egyptian universities, you would faint. As a frequent university goer, I can assure you that you wouldn't. In all likelihood, you would just lose body moisture and tolerance of others.

His remark was addressed to the “trembling hand” that is the government that is Prime Minister Hazem el-Beblawi, whom talk shows have been taking aim at for not trying hard enough to stop everything from getting worse. (Presumably they are doing this to salvage some pretense of objectivity and because it is probably fun to heroically yell at “them,” the unnamed people who really are in charge, for not removing the people you disapprove of from their posts.)

One of el-Beblawi’s greatest weakness, many think, is his inability to get universities under control. Since most of the Muslim Brothers lucky enough not to be in prison are in universities, so are most of their protests. (The rest materialize in villages and poor neighborhoods that are easier to ignore and tend to disperse as quickly as they have gathered.) Cairo University Brothers, for instance, protest on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, according to MB youth leader Ahmed Badawi (who recently joined his superiors in prison).

The MB protests usually lead to small counter-protests by smirking pro-Sisi students, which culminates in the protrusion of veins, the stretching of many collars, and occasional injuries sustained while scores of unfazed students shuffle by, hugging books or filming videos that manage to show nothing and explain less.

If one were to graph the number of students protests against apathy towards them, one would have a straight line shooting up to the corner of the page and beyond. And it is more or less the same story everywhere. Some angry students protest. Others disagree. Violence erupts. Security doesn’t intervene due to a committed policy of non-participation in real or potential danger. Flushed, a dean strides in somewhere followed by glaring subordinates. He orders an investigation (a synonym for suspending students, a decision that may or may not be renewed at will, and withdrawing their IDs, denying them entry to campus). Some time later comes an announcement of cameras being installed to record spreaders of chaos in the act.

And then before you know it, there is new security personnel looking into, brushing, waving and nodding at every single student’s bag at forever-decreasing-in-size gates (because if you trickle students into campus, they will be too happy to have finally made it in to wield the weapons security missed when they smiled at their bag) and the administration has destined a number of metal detectors to a state of constant hysteria caused by heavily-accessorized female students. This happened in more or less the same sequence in Ain Shams, Mansoura, Monofeya, Kafr el-Sheikh and Misr International University.

That being said, the university making headlines now is Al Azhar. Earlier this week, around 1400 students peacefully marched out of the university to block and pray on al-Nasr road, where they clashed with the police, which was waiting for them outside. The students were pushed back to campus. Once inside, they lit dumpsters on fire to block the security forces’ vision, then threw rocks at them, broke a few windows and drew some offensive graffiti on the walls, which Gen. Magdy Abbas, the head of security at the university, in a fatherly manner described as a “transgression” not befitting an Azhari student.

After Gen. Abbas hung up with TV presenter Youssef el-Husseiny he was dubbed “Little Beblawi” and wished discharge. Meanwhile, others like Tamer Ameen were reporting the confessions of three female Azhari students to putting on makeup and “red solutions” to make it look they have been attacked by the security forces. This is not the first time Al Azhar’s MB students lied or hurt themselves. Earlier this year in April, after two incidents of mass food poisoning, it was reported that three sheb-sheb-wearing students smuggled the very specific amount of 105 bad tuna cans into the kitchen to make it appear as if the pro-old regime Grand Imam of Al-Azhar is incompetently running a public institution that neglects cleanliness and health.

It is worth noting that Al Azhar is one of the few places were the words “MB stronghold” are accurate. They won essentially every student election in every faculty and according to a 2009 report by Amr Ezzat about how many actually Azhari (i.e. subscribing to Al-Azhar’s standards of Islamic moderation) there are in Al Azhar, it anecdotally ranges between two to three percent of the total number of students.

Apart from demanding the fall of the military regime, the main purpose of these nationwide protests, according to the actual protests, is to free their fellow detained students. Ideally, putting pressure on the college community would pressure on the administration and by extension the government, which will then be forced to release the students to shut everyone up. This admittedly long process is made worse by student indifference and the believed-to-be deliberately inadequate non-MB-dominated student unions, who don’t feel the need to halt classes to embarrass administrations and the government or even make noises about it just for show.

Also, these protests are thought to be the only way to “stay in the picture” and derive satisfaction from being a thorn in the side of the coup lead and supporters.This brewing hostility manifested itself after Egypt lost 6-1 to Ghana, crushing the chances of qualifying for the pined-after World Cup. MB supporters engaged in celebrations and chants like “The story is not about the MB, the story is about the six goals” (it rhymes in Arabic), which embittered people against them more than their alleged Sinai attacks and the assassination attempt on the Interior Minister combined.

But prior to the unforgivable treason of not supporting the national soccer team, the MB’s persistent “resistance of reality” has only earned them exhausted disdain that later merged with incomprehension from fellow students, most faculty members and the general public. After all, where is the sanctity of a university campus? And what is the point of student unions anyway? They just get kids worked up. They should have lectures, not protests, indignant columnists reassured each other. These protests are not peaceful, they add - which is not always untrue. While protesters usually don't start out to physically harm others, they sometimes intentionally provoke confrontation to escalate the situation, out of a commonly held, but not well-articulated, belief that nothing happens unless someone gets hurt. Casualties can become the price of attention.

The wave of student protests has also raised the curious and confusing issue of granting security personnel in universities judicial seizure authority, which the deputy head of Cairo University roughly explains would mean transferring investigative authority from the police to campus security. So, now when a student goes to college with say a kitchen knife, instead of handing him over to the police, whose job it is to investigate and fight crime, the on-campus security can investigate the person, which would save his/her some trouble -- says the Cairo University official. First, they don’t have to deal with potential mistreatment in the police station -- it will be outsourced to universities -- and if the students break the law on some kind of police-only holiday, they won’t have to spend the night in jail until the prosecution gets back to work. It is not like this raises extra questions such as:  How long can you keep a student for investigation? Will there be a mini-jail in universities in case the investigation takes more than a day? What happens based on the result of the findings? Where in the world is the legal text of this not-law law? etc, etc. Not to mention that removing police from campus was the key pre-revolutionary demand of politicized students and faculty groups such as March 9.

If there is one thing we know about the judicial authority transfer, it is that the former allegedly MB-affiliated minister of education, under deposed president Morsi, merely requested it on June 4. Nothing indicates whether or not it was accepted and all the ministry of justice has done is deny granting it, while state-run Al-Ahram published reports bemoaning its absence in universities like Al-Azhar, where apparently it could have been used to investigate students into submission, demonstrating the importance of government coordination.

Recently, the current education minister admitted to not having any idea where this law that is not a law come from and added that while he personally thinks it’s useless, it is still up to the Supreme Council of Universities to decide what to do about it, although the ministry of justice has supposedly not given them an "it" to discuss in the first place. More importantly, since everyone is so keen to note that the not-law law was a fruit of Morsi and his unconscionable terrorists’ reign, why is there any controversy at all about whether or not it should exist, if it does? 

The new Arab capitals
The way of the future? The Burj Khalifa in Dubai

The way of the future? The Burj Khalifa in Dubai

Earlier this month, Sultan Sooud El Qassemi wrote an op-ed in Al-Monitor that has stirred considerable controversy. El Qassemi, a writer, active Twitter presence, businessman, art patron, member of Sharjah's ruling family and friend, argued that the capitals of Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have become

..the nerve center of the contemporary Arab world’s culture, commerce, design, architecture, art and academia, attracting hundreds of thousands of Arab immigrants, including academics, businessmen, journalists, athletes, artists, entrepreneurs and medical professionals. While these Gulf cities may be unable to compete with their Arab peers in terms of political dynamism, in almost every other sense they have far outstripped their sister cities in North Africa and the Levant. 

Needless to say, the claim that Doha, Dubai and Abu Dhabi have become what Baghdad, Damascus and Cairo once were to the Arab world raised many hackles. The Angry Arab replied: 

What contribution to Arab culture have those cities made, unless you are talking about sleaze, worship of the European, denigration of the Asians, promotion of singers purely based on breast sizes and lip thickness, prostitution mentality (literally and figuratively), gender segregation and repression, the culture of measuring humans by the size of their bank accounts, etc.  Culture, what culture? Cairo and Beirut were known for hosting a culture that allowed (often despite desires of the ruling governments) various political and cultural trends to co-exist and to clash, and for the expression of divergent political viewpoints.  Cairo and Beirut were cities that allowed artists and writers to seek refuge and to express themselves artistically and creatively, and there is none of that in the Gulf.  Yes, academics and journalists are flocking to the Gulf but what have they produced there? What ideas? They go there and they work as assistants and propagandists in the entourage for this prince or that prince.  If anything, the impact of that Gulf oil and gas culture has been quite corrosive on the entire Arab world and its culture.  In that sense alone, yes, Gulf cities do play a role. 

Al-Monitor also published a response by Abbas Al-Lawaty that rightly highlighted the single most distinctive feature of the Persian Gulf cities: their system of imported, caste labour: 

Millions of workers flocked to the Gulf. Everything from people, ideas, academic institutions, museums, athletes and even bottled water flown in from tens of thousands of kilometers away was imported. In an effort to develop at a breakneck speed and become competitive with Western hubs, they have become replicas of those cities with little more of their own to offer foreign visitors and tourists than the clichéd desert safaris packaged with belly-dance shows.
[...]
Today, in each of the cities that were cited as the new Arab centers, foreigners vastly outnumber citizens. Like the traditional Arab capitals, they have become hubs for migrants. The difference is that migrants in the Gulf have residency cards with expiration dates. It is therefore unrealistic to expect Gulf cities to grow to the level they wish if the majority of the population is transient and continuously reminded that it will one day have to leave. Someone who does not feel a sense of belonging will not invest his or her full potential in such a city.

I'm pretty sure that Sultan did not intend it this way, but it strikes me as in somewhat poor taste to celebrate the advent of Gulf cities when the capitals they are supposedly superseding are suffering from such damaging conflicts, losing lives and losing history. 

Our own occasional contributor Bilal Ahmad makes the interesting argument, at Souciant, that the chaos that besets cities like Cairo is not a symptom of their irrelevance but quite the contrary:

al-Qassemi forgets that cities are a convergence of human experience, and desire. They’re settings in which millions of people arrive at different times, for similar goals of self-betterment, and work. At times when the dreams of their residents, and society as a whole, are not being realized, they also become the main engine by which their residents can better conceptualize, and make manifest, their yearning for emancipation.
[...]
 The reason that Cairo is in shambles is because it’s a city that has been galvanized by attempts to envision the new. For me, that’s what a center of the Arab world is supposed to do: fight for the future. Cairo is still one of the centers of the Arab world, because its current difficulties are a result of the fact that the Cairo that will be hasn’t been born yet. It’s still lost in the fighting of the Arab Spring. That goes for many cities across the region.
The fact that the Khaleeji cities are not dealing with such unrest is not something of which to be proud. It means that they’re absent from critical discussions of what Arab cities will come to mean. How can they be leaders if they’re so conspicuously missing? It’s also worth noting, once again, that their relative tranquility came at a violent price.
The Gulf states only avoided the unrest of the Arab Spring because they’re controlled by morally-bankrupt monarchs, who are backed by investors armed by the West, and who successfully pressed for a peaceful democratic revolt in Bahrain to be crushed. This is because the idea of embracing the new, in any serious way, was too much for the leaders of these alleged centers to bear. As a result, we’re at a point where not only is the new still in the process of being born in cities like Cairo, but it has also been sterilized against in the Gulf, following an induced miscarriage in Bahrain.
Out with the old? A street in Damascus

Out with the old? A street in Damascus

I'm happy Sultan raised this debate, although I disagree with his general argument (or wish it had included many more nuances and caveats). The hydrocarbon-rich emirates of the Arabian peninsula are undoubtedly a force in the Arab world, and as such they need to be understood, not just reflexively bashed. They are a facet of the future, and important one -- centers of economic, political and yes cultural influence. But to claim that a city is "a cultural center" implies that it is engaged in a kind of sustained, unique cultural production that so far hardly takes place in the Gulf. It's not just that there are very few local artists, writers or scientists. It's that what is produced there, culturally, by locals or expats, has a very tenuous connection to or engagement with its context. When it is relevant, like the politically engaged poetry of the Qatari poet Mohamed Al-Ajami, it ends with 15-year jail sentences

Dubai has a booming art market, but it's just that, a market -- art is one of the many forms of capital that circulates there. The art exhibitions, international museums and publishing and translation ventures being generously hosted in the Gulf are a positive development, but this is largely culture for hire, for show, or as a form of international diplomacy. The foreign universities have an agenda to work on issues relevant to national development, but they cater to a minority of the population and are there under the patronage of individual rulers -- they have no solid existence in society, from which to act as independent centers of learning.

And these gleaming, air-conditioned cities remain ones in which the population is divided into precise professional-ethnic castes that are constantly recycled, so that the majority of foreign workers can't and won't develop a stake in the place. Physically and socially, they are cities with no public, shared spaces, because they are designed to keep their residents segregated, to prevent them from mingling, gathering, and participating in free and open debate. And how can cities without centers of their own become the centers of something bigger?  

 

 

 

 

Who was James Henry Lunn?

The blog War in Context has unearthed the most information I've seen anywhere about the middle-aged American man who allegedly killed himself in Egyptian police custody. It's a strange, sad story.  According to someone who says he knew him in Malaysia:

Jim Lund was a retired truck driver from San Diego, living in Malaysia. Some years ago Jim was in a bad car wreck and suffered organic brain damage. For years he has pretended that he is an ‘undercover’ US Army general and had written his name in his passport as ‘Gen. James Lunn’. For some years he has had delusions that he would save the world. Two years ago Jim ‘invented’ a hundred-mile-long seagoing device that could transport water to dry climates. In August he left for Egypt with a small model of the device to ‘give to the Palestinians’. That was the ‘unknown electronic device’ he was carrying. A harmless nut but one who loved to be thought of as a secret agent.

 

In Translation: Sisi for president

This editorial by Ahmed Samir appeared in Al Masry Al Youm on October 12. It is translated, as usual, by the excellent team at Industry Arabic.  

Sisi for President: The Turn, the Turn, the Turn, the Turn

(1)

The Place: The Republican Guard headquarters

The Time: Days after the overthrow of Mohamed Morsi

The Event: The Brotherhood’s sit-in, followed by clashes in which dozens of Morsi supporters are killed.

And those who joined the Brotherhood are astounded.

For an entire year, the organization prepared to crush those whom Mohamed Abdel-Maqsud described as “atheists and hypocrites.” The Brotherhood did not understand why the “Get angry, Morsi!” campaign did not succeed, while the “Grind them to pieces, Sisi” campaign did… when the smartest one of them is a grocer in Zad supermarket. [1]

They didn't understand a simple truth: the security state is loyal only to the security state.

The Guidance Bureau's use of the organization's police dogs to break up the sit-in by Morsi's opponents at the presidential palace was proof that Morsi's continued hypocrisy towards the police and the many changes that he made in the Ministry of Defense, the intelligence apparatus, the Ministry of Interior, and the Republic Guard were not enough – and the organization had to do its own suppressing.

Afterwards, the Brotherhood chose a minister who suited them, and suited what they wanted to do in the country.

After this minister was appointed, the police killed dozens of people in front of Port Said Prison because they were armed (doesn't that accusation remind you of something?) before opening fire on their funeral the following day -- to the cheers of our brothers in God.

Ibrahim is Morsi's choice… but they brought him on for a reason. He did not carry his mission out in full for them, but did so for someone else. The question is, why?

(2)

"He was afraid that he would be accused of using force."

This delicate phrase does not refer to the artist Nancy Ajram, but to General Mohamed Ibrahim, the Interior Minister.

According to Ahmed Mekki, the former Minister of Justice, Ibrahim refused more than once to "break up the Tahrir Square sit-in by force."

The brothers in God in Morsi's government, most of whom are now carrying the picture of a sit-in that was broken up by force, wanted to break up their enemies' sit-in by force, but the same minister refused.

It is clear – extremely clear – that Mohamed Ibrahim is now not afraid of being put on trial.

But what does this all have to do with Sisi?

To put it simply, if Sisi becomes president, Mohamed Ibrahim will stay, and no Mohamed Ibrahim will ever have to worry about being put on trial.

(3)

Sisi for president…

Optimism is treason. No tourism, no investment, no stable international relations, and therefore no social justice. How can social justice be achieved when there is not even production or growth?

For the sake of security, they want those who frighten us to rule. Did you know, my fellow citizen, that the largest share of bombings over the last decade has occurred during the past 100 days?

The country is headed towards ruin, and those who promised nothing but security have failed to achieve it. Still, they want their turn in the seat of power.

(4)

The turn, the turn, the turn, the turn.

You're lucky, it's your turn

Her destiny

This one it's her turn, this one it's her turn[2]

(5)

It's often said now in Egypt that the first person who chanted "This time for sure, we're not budging for anyone"[3] was General Sisi speaking to his chief of staff.

Once, we were told that we could not take away a citizen's right to run for president simply because he is the president's son, and now we are told that we can't take away a citizen's right simply because he is the defense minister in a country ruled by an emergency law and curfew.

They say that the people are looking for a leader… the same people told us in 2005 that the people are looking for a young man.

Since time immemorial, we've been living in a free country in which everyone in power has an equal opportunity to run for president.

Will you uphold the tradition?

(6)

He said, as he said as he said

Surround her with tambourines, clap for her

He said, as he said as he said

Who can appreciate this beauty, this beauty

Other than eyes that hope for her… perfume her with incense

(7)

The Director of Military Intelligence during Mubarak's time; a member of the military council in Tantawi's time; and Defense Minister during Morsi's time.

For some reason, a certain segment of society does not consider him their preferred candidate for president.

The Defense Minister is a candidate for president, which means that for many years to come, our slogan will be "Down with military rule."

They will say that the Defense Minister is not military rule. They will also say that the sun is not in the sky and we are imagining things.

Those who believe that the just state will last for an hour and the military state will last forever say that the people love him, don't dismiss the people. Good logic… but the Brotherhood won five elections – all overseen by Sisi and his military council – so why is their outcome being dismissed?

It is said that the definition of stupidity is doing the same thing twice and expecting a different outcome, so how should we describe those who have tried the same thing for 60 years, and now want a different outcome?

The soldiers of Islamic preaching are gone and the soldiers of the nation have arrived. We've gotten rid of the Islamist Salafis so that the Nasserite Salafis can rule us. Those who aren't able to bring us into the future are content to rule us and harp on about the past.

We do not need a military president. How many times have callers phoned into the program to say "Egypt is full of talent, Captain Shobier"?[4]

(8)

Her destiny has come to her, her destiny

Bringing something she never expected

This one it's her turn, this one it's her turn

(9)

Whoever wants to have everything, loses everything.

Those who want to control political life in the way that it has been for 60 years, may be taking the chance that we will discuss everything with the presidential candidate, starting with the armed forces' budget, and including lands controlled by the armed forces.

It is their right to call for Sisi to run for office, and it is our right to be against that.

Sisi promised that he would not run, and that the military institution would not support a candidate… didn't they see?

How many before them who broke their promise not to run for president has God destroyed?

Some say we can count on Sisi's intelligence – that he realizes the danger of running for office. Do not bet on anyone's intelligence, since it is well known that the only lesson one can learn from history is that no one learns from history.

They say that he is in the lead in any opinion poll. Did the lion of Islamic preaching, the young people's lost one, the king of Maryotia Hazem Abu Ismail do anything but lead the same polls for a year and a half?

We are not spoils to be had, and whoever wants to consider us as such, let him have his turn. History shows that those who insist on military trials for civilians end up in civilian trials for the military.

Ultimately, countries of the future are not going to be ruled by armies. Those who want to wage a war against the future will soon become the past.

 

The song The Turn the Turn… The Turn the Turn, a relevant link.

[1]A reference to Khairat al-Shater's son, Saad al-Shater, founder of the Zad supermarket chain, with a pun on the name "Shater," which means "smart, clever" in Arabic.

[2] These songs lyrics, which are quoted as a recurring motif throughout this article, are taken from a 1985 play about Egypt's most infamous serial killers, Raya and Sakina, who went on a grisly killing spree in Alexandria in the early 20th century. In the play, this song is sung by Raya and Sakina as they are preparing to kill their next victim.

[3] A common protest chant in Egypt over the past several years that is being ironically attributed to Sisi – with something of a different meaning.

[4] Captain Shobier is the popular host of a sports program called "Captain Shobier's News"

 

Egypt and the f-word
Photo of graffiti in Tahrir Square by Bilal Ahmed

Photo of graffiti in Tahrir Square by Bilal Ahmed

This guest post is written by Bilal Ahmed, a writer and activists who is preparing for graduate research that compares the tribal laws and central governance of the tribal areas of Pakistan, and Yemen.

During their brief tenure in power, the Muslim Brotherhood and Mohammad Morsi were increasingly accused of fascism. Now, as Egypt’s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood continues, the accusations of fascism have begun again. Much of this is because popular discourse has a knee-jerk tendency to link any form of authoritarianism with Nazi Germany. It becomes easier to do that in a national context in which we see fierce nationalism, growing xenophobia, assault against domestic minorities, and the gleeful celebration of state violence.

Let us be clear: Egypt hasn’t gone fascist. And saying that constrains how we should think about its politics in the coming years.

When we compare trends in Egyptian politics to something as complicated as the rise of Continental European fascism, we are as much probing the idea of Egypt going fascist as we are the nature of fascism itself. The rise of fascism in Europe was the result of specific political factors that, although currently present in Egypt, have not been rallied in the service of mass politics in a way that invites the word.

It is far more accurate to compare events in Egypt with the aftermath of the French Revolution of 1848 that established the Second Republic. That revolution came as the result of a wave of spontaneous revolts in 1848 that were very similar to the Arab spring. Similar to Egypt now, the initial overthrow of Louis-Philippe led to the decline of the parliamentary experiment that succeeded him, which was co-opted by a series of increasingly conservative leaders in favour of the status-quo. Eventually, the struggle ended with the rise of Napoleon III, who became both France’s first president and its last monarch (he styled himself as a Prince-President.)

Napoleon III had won the presidency in December 1848 and was hailed even initially as a candidate who, although not desirable, would be sufficient to end a variety of domestic issues. These included national unrest, economic instability, and prevent a revolutionary push by other forces, then mainly proto-communist factions. Sound familiar? He eventually came to be France’s absolute ruler as the result of a political stalemate over restrictions on universal suffrage which gave him the opportunity to present himself as the answer to an exhausted desire for national order. The National Assembly of the Second Republic had stagnated so greatly that it was reviled by the populace that established it only a few years earlier. Napoleon III then seized the opportunity to launch a coup d’état on 2 December 1851 that was approved in a later referendum, and which heralded a new era of strongman rule with democratic pretenses.

Of course, we should be wary about comparisons between Napoleon III and Egypt’s commander of the armed forces, Abdel–Fattah El-Sisi. Sisi’s rule has just begun, for one, and the complexities of both situations could have led to any number of leaders breaking through. (Including the unlikely possibility of Morsi himself). The point to focus on here is that of short-lived democratic experiments, which begin with popular dissent, and are then curtailed with widespread approval of a paradoxically equal scale (or greater as was the case with the tens of millions of Egyptians who marched against Morsi.) Their quick collapses are usually due to some political maneuvering, whether through Napoleon III’s well-timed defense of universal suffrage, or Sisi’s equally well-timed coup after mass demonstrations, followed by an insistence that a war on terrorism is taking place. It is not fascism. It is smart counterrevolution.

Once we accept that what we are seeing isn’t so much fascism as it is a pushback against democracy-minded upheaval, then we can begin to have honest discussions about fascism in an Egyptian context. Fascism hasn’t taken hold of Egypt’s state institutions, which are instead being held by cynical elites who are circulating whatever mythology will direct the public away from demanding structural change. Still, the seeds of fascism are everywhere.

Much of this is less “Egyptian” than it is a direct consequence of market-driven societies. There is a great deal of scholarship on how numerous features of consumerism, such as advertising, popular entertainment, and market surveillance, inadvertently helps foster conditions where the public more easily acquiesces to fascist authoritarianism. These phenomena have Egyptian manifestations in the same way as do the effects of economic scarcity in making politics more provincial. This is mainly because intense conditions of austerity tend to force a reliance on more ancestral ties of religion and ethnicity, especially when violence occurs.

The conditions of the Treaty of Versailles, and a general sense of powerlessness that followed World War I, drove the classical fascist movements. We mostly remember the racial aspects of these mobilizations, but fascists were diverse in the mythologies they used to create a cult of power, from homophobia to labor politics. They key is that the cult of power opposed itself on those designated as nationally “weak” and in need of being violent expunged. These drives allowed fascists to flee their own mortal vulnerabilities in a period of prolonged crisis and to embrace totalitarianism.

But elites didn’t so much subscribe to these philosophies as they did circulate them as an unwieldy attempt to preserve their own power. This was particularly true with anti-Semitism. Fascism happened in part because this circulation blew up in everyone’s face. The myths took on a life of their own and eventually drove a nihilistic revolutionary push. This crucial step isn’t observable in modern Egypt.

And yet, I think it is actually not unwarranted to see an intimation of fascism in people cheering for the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. The current worship of SCAF is directly related to a feeling of national weakness. The Egyptian military becomes poetically seen as everything that Egypt should be: strong, prosperous, and willing to defend national values (never mind its actual capabilities, and the fact that it has essentially degraded into an economic empire for its senior leaders.) We are certainly seeing the possible future of something terrifying.

But it remains that: a possibility. The main problem I have with calling Egypt fascist is its tinge of historically-blind pessimism. After all, revolutionaries quickly re-grouped in France, and seized an opportunity provided to them by the Franco-Prussian War to establish a number of communes, most notably in Paris itself. And there was another wave of revolutions that began in 1917 with the Russian Revolutions. The eventual, temporary victory of fascism in much of the continent took place after fierce combat with anti-fascists who had a very different idea of the world that would succeed the decaying European political order.

It is too soon to say how these possibilities, whether of a future revolution against the Egyptian military, or the eventual emergence of fascist authoritarianism by a nihilistic revolutionary faction, will play out. However, one thing seems clear: the coming months, and years, will be crucial in determining whether or not fascism is really coming to Egypt. For now, let’s all use caution in dropping the analytical f-bomb.

 

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Farewell to Syria, for a while

Syrian writer and dissident Yassin Al Haj Saleh, who after two years in hiding in Damascus fled to his hometown of Raqqa only to find it under the control of the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham group. He has now left the country. 

In Raqqa, I spent two months and a half in hiding without succeeding in getting one piece of information about my brother Firas. Nothing could be worse than this. Therefore, instead of celebrating my arrival at Raqqa, I had to keep in hiding in my own liberated city, watching strangers oppress it and rule the fates of its people, confiscating public property, destroying a statue of Haroun Al-Rasheed or desecrating a church; taking people into custody where they disappeared in their prisons. All the prisoners were rebel political activists while none of them was chosen from the regime’s previous loyalists or shabiha. With the exception of this flagrant oppression of the people, their property and symbols, the new rulers have shown no sign of the spirit of public responsibility which is supposed to be the duty of those who are in power.

 

AsidesUrsula Lindseysyria, raqqa
Sudan revolts (again)
%22Should we pack?%22 - by Khalid Albaih.png

"Should we pack?", asks President Omar al-Bashir wife's as protests in Sudan continue. The answer is no - his rule in Sudan is stable enough he doesn't need to keep a toothbrush on his person at all times and Saudia on speed dial. But Sudan's President, who claims he will not seek "re-election" in 2015, cannot exactly trust the men he pays to bug the country's phone lines these days, either. 

He cannot, apparently, even trust his own uncle: Al-Tayeb Mustafa, the paper's owner and a critic of the ruling party, has been ordered to stop publishing the leading Sudanese daily, al-Intibahafor the duration of the protests. The paper's editorial criticism of slashed subsidies and reporting on the country's insurgencies has proven too much for the President, who has ordered other papers to shut down as well.

Closing the daily down is just one of the steps the government is taking to diffuse coverage of the protests. Sky News and Al Arabiya were forced to close their offices, and access to the Internet was also temporarily cut off. It was restored, though: presumably because the security services need it to infiltrate protest circles online to false flag and blackmail people.  Sudan has gone down this route before - preventive detention, torture of detainees, closing down newspapers, and forcing foreign correspondents out  - when demonstrators held protests last June on the anniversary of the coup that bought al-Bashir to prominence in 1989. This time around, at least 70 people have been killed, and some 700 arrested (the numbers of dead and detained may be even higher). Once again, al-Bashir has dismissed the protestors (last year, he infamously described them as "elbow lickers"), but unlike past demonstrations where most of the participants were students, "those involved were … middle-class Sudanese from well-to-do areas, and those from the poorest districts of Khartoum and towns across the country," with significant female participation through silent solidarity and other actions.

As succession begins to be discussed, the ongoing protests will weigh heavily on the minds of the security services vying for advantage and favor - al-Bashir is likely to retain his office in spite of his pledge. In April, as term limits and constitutional changes were discussed, Sudanese daily "The Citizen" reported that the NCP (al-Bashir's ruling party) has effectively split: an old guard camp "consider[s] President Umar al-Bashir an asset, a guarantor of their influence unlikely to accept a political arrangement that would threaten the grip of the NCP over the state institutions, let alone expose the security establishment to closer security or drop the blanket immunities that protect its members," while a group of Young Turks from the clergy and paramilitary forces "have come to see [the President] as a liability and his continuation in office a threat to the power of the NCP in the short term and the political chances of the Islamic Movement in any future dispensation." It is the latter group which has been emboldened by the protests that began two years ago, yet it is hardly clear that they will move against the President and those closest to him so long as he lives, no matter how many lawyers, students, writers, and even well-to-do housewives come out against his rule.

But the camp followers of the NCP are presiding over a shrinking revenue pot. Peter Dörrie notes at Think Africa Press that the President's uncivil society is, like the rest of the economy, running on fumes: "Sudan spends almost a quarter of its GDP on its military and waging several internal wars. With its well of oil money running dry, a military caste unwilling to accept any cuts to its budgets, and few foreign allies willing to pick up the tab, the regime had to look for something to cut." That something - once again - is the welfare net, specifically gas subsidies people depend on for cooking and driving. That, and the much harsher response to this fall's protests than before, brought a much larger slice of society out into the streets.

Dörrie wonders if Khartoum's recent arms sale binge is at all aimed at a buildup against South Sudan - where 3/4 of Sudan's former oil fields now lie as a result of the region gaining independence. A referendum on the disputed region of Abeyi is to be held this month, and a recent visit to the region by Jérôme Tubiana shows that renewed fighting - or more nationalistic protests against Khartoum - would not require much of an impetus:

Both sides know that the area will never be demilitarized. Repeated commitments by Juba to stop harboring northern rebels are unlikely to satisfy Khartoum or end rebellions in Sudan. With South Sudanese authorities not fully willing or able to prevent SPLM-N and allied Darfur factions from going back and forth across the new border, Sudanese rebels are at home in the borderlands.
Another reason both Khartoum and Juba hesitate to make too many concessions on the border is that both are rightly worried about turning disgruntled people from the borderlands into rebels. As much as the Dinka from the border areas were the vanguard of the SPLM/A during the civil war, Arab tribes such as the Rizeigat formed the bulk of the paramilitary forces used by Khartoum to fight the rebels in South Sudan and later in Darfur. Increasingly feeling they were both manipulated and not adequately rewarded, Arab fighters joined the SPLM/A (several hundred are reportedly still in South Sudanese ranks). Some have now turned up among the northern rebel groups as well.

al-Bashir's only long-term hope if the referendum fails to go in his favor would be for the world to look the other way while he escalates the border conflict so that Sudan can bargain for transit fee terms from Juba. But South Sudan would certainly not accept such terms: a short conflict could even spectacularly backfire on Sudan if it were the aggressor. The military is in poor shape from fighting against ongoing insurgencies, and apparently must now be kept in reserve to deploy against protestors. It also cannot fully be trusted: last November, an internal power struggle resulted in the arrest of several alleged putschists linked to both the parliamentary opposition and the armed forces. Loyalty from these men - confidants of the President for decades - is not guaranteed, especially with his health problems (rumors persist that the 69-year old has throat cancer) and international arrest warrants.

While talk of the "Arab Spring" coming to Sudan is somewhat misplaced - the government has been beset by mass demonstrations since 2011 - the latest happenings appear to have had a much larger impact on the public consciousness there. The government retains control of the security services and sufficient dependents among the elite, yet each outburst of dissatisfaction further dents the edifice of the state structure the President and his fellow generals and clerics have spent the last 25 years setting up. What could replace it is anyone's guess.

 

PostsPaul Muttersudan, protests
Links 17 September - 11 October 2013
Yet another long overdue link dump.
LinksThe Editors
The Gulf's faulty gaydar

No, the Gulf states do not have gaydar detectors installed at their ports of entry. But if you are a guest worker -  one of the hundreds of thousands of South and Southeast Asians who enter the Gulf annually - you may be (or already are) subjected to an intrusive battery of tests to make sure your "gender" matches your anatomy. 

Critics refer to "tests of shame" because in many cases, police doctors conduct these bodily exams of individuals detained on the grounds that their attitude and clothing don't match their physical appearance. Kuwait's health minister announced a proposal this week to make the screening for a "third sex" mandatory in his country, and perhaps across the GCC economic zone - which has a notoriously hard time coordinating comprehensive migration policies. Kuwait already has a law in place that allows the authorities to detain and fine anyone "imitating the opposite sex."

The original reporting suggested that the tests would somehow try to determine sexual orientation, which would be impossible to do medically (not that this has stopped countries from listing HIV+ status as a medical reason to bar people entry, with homosexual individuals in mind). But as others then pointed out, the term "third sex" is a particular new Arabic term that refers to people whose behavior doesn't match their gender -- a broader category that includes transgender as well as gay people. 

As The Atlantic points out, it's not exactly like a lot of other governments can cast stones. At least 76 countries still have draconian anti-LGBT laws on the books, and even the US, which banned foreigners with HIV till 2009, still has some restrictions (though not so shameful as the 1965-1990 law that specifically targeted non-straight people by listing "sexual deviancy" as grounds for refusal or entry). 

The moral panic evident here is very much tied into Kuwait (and the rest of the GCC's) wider anxieties about migration - even expat naturalization is extremely controversial in these societies. Naturalization would put heavy pressure on race relations and the welfare net in the Gulf states, which is of particular concern given that in the smaller countries, immigrants now outnumber indigenous citizens.  As Human Rights Watch reported in 2012 (via Paper Bird):

The criminalization of “imitating the opposite sex” in Kuwait is one  element of a broader regime of gender regulation that began to take hold after 1992, when  tensions between “liberal” and “traditionalist” Kuwaitis after the Gulf War intensified as  each tried to establish their status as influential political entities. The battle over women’s rights and role in society constituted one of this conflict’s most  prominent arenas, and presented an opportunity for traditionalists and Islamists to join forces. … Given this long-running controversy within government and society over the appropriate  roles of men and women, it is not surprising that parliament would turn its attention towards those who visibly challenge these gender roles.

The health and hygiene of migrants seem to be a priority for the Kuwaiti health minister - which may be partly understandable, given the movement of people here, but is creepily paternalistic and also insulting because of the assumption that any immigrant  is likely to be a vector for some infectious disease.

The exams will almost certainly not be applied to white-collar Western workers. "The exams are meant to intimidate poor Nepalis or Sri Lankans or Pakistanis, to exclude those who are too recalcitrantly different," Paper Bird notes - their otherness inspiring a great deal of mistrust in their employers. It is about enforcing conformity - conformity in no small measures based on overly sexualized fears about miscegenation and loss of "manliness," and of being "tricked" by men who "aren't men" and women who "aren't women."

 

 

Look who's talking

Can Iran and the US reach a nuclear deal in the coming months, one that preserves Iran's enrichment program yet satisfies the US's sanctions regimen against the Islamic Republic? It is possible, but the pressure for the current negotiations between Secretary of State Kerry and Foreign Minister Zarif to fail is immense, and comes from multiple domestic actors in both countries, as well as from American allies in the Middle East.

Obama's biggest stumbling block domestically is Congress, and the myriad lobbying groups opposed to a negotiated solution with Iran as long it remans an Islamic Republic. There are some Iranian associations (like the former terrorist organization MEK), but most of the pressure comes from Israel advocacy organizations like AIPAC, along with neoconservative think tanks such as the FDD or AEI. These groups - except for AIPAC - cannot really push Obama, but they can and have been pushing Congress. Republicans, especially, want to claim credit for sanctions bringing the Iranians to the UN with all this talk of cooperation and hints of nuclear concessions - but then, the issue arises of who is willing to say: "the sanctions have worked, let's talk concessions" instead of "Iran is bleeding white financially, tighten the screws and go for broke." And procedurally, this spider's web - as the International Crisis Group calls it - of sanctions cannot just be overridden by the President. Already, the Senate is mulling whether or not to enact even more sanctions, and this is no bluff. This is a concerted effort to pull Obama away from diplomacy and send Rouhani back empty-handed.

There are also other competing interests on the US side: Israel and the Gulf states, especially Saudi Arabia. All are united by their fear and animus towards Iran's regional ambitions.  

 

Netanyahu warned the UN of the Iranian nuclear duck peril. 

Netanyahu warned the UN of the Iranian nuclear duck peril. 

It is hard to tell if PM Netanyahu is bluffing about war to extract maximum concessions from both the US and Iran, or if he will only accept Iran's unconditional surrender. In any event, Israel will not go it alone in Iran - there are too many dispersed, hardened targets over distance to strike, unlike in Iraq and Syria. If Israel really does want to set the program back, its leaders would not risk taking action without the US's participation - this is why these generals and former spymasters keep painting talk of a unilateral attack as madness, because the risk of retaliation and international censure is too great. Concerns about state-sponsored terrorism and support for Syria, Hamas, Hezbollah, or Islamic Jihad are also present in this debate. But the Nuclear Question is the overriding issue.

Even though he has been crying wolf for years, Netanyahu is not stupid enough to think he can go it alone on Iran. What he is now doing, partly, is hoping that he can regain the initiative in Israeli domestic politics over his Iran critics by castigating anything Obama and Rouhani do to bring down barriers between the two countries. There is a big difference between what the Prime Minister's Office and the Israeli military-intelligence community want on Iran, because the latter sees Netanyahu as a bull in a china shop making the case for military action harder than it needs to be. Israel does not want to lose its unique strategic deterrent in the region. And it needs the US to prevent that from happening. A deal that leaves Iran wiggle room for a nuclear weapons capability is unacceptable, because even that - in the Israeli view - balances the equation between the two countries, emboldening Iran. Netanyahu sees Syria as a test-run for Iran: will the US go all in - increasingly unlikely - or will it give "advantage" to Assad, Putin, and Khameini by supporting a difficult to enforce WMD search and seizure?

The Saudi royal family remains very apprehensive about any deals with Iran as well, in part because of a similar calculus. As with Israel, Iran is a country which a much larger land area and population than them. Iran's leaders have called for their deposal and been linked to terrorist attacks on them. Saudi Arabia worries about Iranian instigations in its Eastern Province and in Bahrain, specifically. Aside from these ideological differences, the Saudis do not want to see a nuclear-weapons capable Iran because that could negate the Kingdom's qualitative military advantage over Iran, given that Iran's military is running on aging American arms and some newer Russo-Chinese equipment while the Saudis have the run of General Dynamics, Dassault, and BAE's catalogs. Geopolitically, the Kingdom is playing for keeps in Syria - they are making unhappy noises about the CW deal that tabled an American air strike, which they had been lobbying very heavily for. Rapprochement with Iran that holds out the prospect of a negotiated solution for Assad would diminish Saudi influence in postwar Syria, and is not welcome because the Saudis have long sought to bring that country closer to Riyadh.

Returning to the US-Iranian dynamic, the language barrier is immense - in the sense that both powers talk past each other (supervised enrichment versus no enrichment), and both are afraid of giving something and gaining nothing. Yet not a decade ago, Iran was helpful on Afghanistan - the pre-Operation Enduring Freedom period saw the best cooperation among the two countries' officials in years. But the Bush Administration's 2002 "Axis of Evil" speech deeply embarrassed Iranian moderates urging reconciliation. More significantly, American mistakes in Iraq emboldened the Iranian military, which saw an opportunity to compete against the clerical establishment for postwar influence - remember that some of the returning Iraqi clerics and parliamentarians, including PM Nouri al-Maliki and the founder of the Badr Organization, the late Mohammad Baqir al-Hakim, spent years in exile in Iran - by arming militias. 

Surprisingly, one of the least-cited reasons by Western critics opposing detente with Iran is that Secretary Kerry should not be sitting across a table from people who green-lit the transfer of weapons used to kill American soldiers between 2003 and 2011. Of course, such critics would have a very weak leg to stand in the historical context: Nixon went to China and opened detente with the USSR while weapons supplied by these two countries had  been used to kill thousands of American servicemen in Vietnam and Korea. But US critics of talking to the Soviets simply could not beat the people who felt talk was necessary to avoid WWIII. Whereas, because of US actions against Iran, because the Islamic Republic is not so vital to US interests, because there is nothing so concrete to cooperate on as anti-fascism, and because the Iranian Hostage Crisis is within living memory (no such event defined the Chinese or Russian Revolutions for Americans), a working relationship has been much harder to sell in either nation. 

Iran sees itself as encircled by US bases and allies, has undergone two foreign-backed regime changes - during WWII, to remove the then pro-German Shah, and more famously in 1953. Westerners then trained SAVAK, the pre-Islamist secret police force, and were always the most visible supporters of the Shah from the 1950s to the 1980s. Iran's current leaders also do not forget what happened in the Iran-Iraq War when the US (with the USSR) sided with Saddam Hussein - even going so far as to give Iraq intelligence that the CIA knew would be used to help carry out chemical warfare. Since 2000, there have been cyber attacks, assassinations of nuclear scientists, and even more sanctions - all of which are either directly tied to the US, or ascribed to its Israeli allies. To shift course is difficult not simply because of public opinion, but because so much of the establishment cut its teeth on anti-Americanism and still sincerely feels the US wishes to strangle them by pursuing regime change. After all, dual containment of Iran and Iraq in the 1990s only came to an end with the invasion of Iraq. Though the current crisis in Iran is also the result of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's fiscal policies and economic authoritarianism, there is the expectation that Iran will be allowed back into the world energy and banking community in exchange for nuclear concessions.

In Iran, the domestic calculus for whether a deal should be reached or not is more opaque, but two very important groups of people constrain Rouhani's hand. Rouhani can count on the support of the reformist press - some of those "Green Movement" outlets not shuttered since 2008, and some past notables like former President KhatamiIran's international traders, and most of the Majles. Iranian social media has lit up in support of Rouhani's moves -- Netanyahu's clumsy, condescending attempt to speak directly to the Iranian public has backfired in these same forums. The hardliners, however, count players like the former nuclear negotiator and war hero Saeed Jalili, and the veteran diplomat Ali Velayati. If Rouhani is seen to be underperforming abroad, Khameini will want to have a back-up plan - in the form of pronounced skepticism about trusting the US's sincerity - to wash his hands of the president's work, and will use one of the president's rivals to lead the denunciation campaign. 

Khameini, who puts his own credibility on the line by advancing talks, wants to reserve the option to blame the new president and the US if the talks tank - he does not want to get caught out by the US by offering concessions for no concrete gains. So he states that he approves Rouhani's efforts but finds some aspects of them troublesome. When the Grand Ayatollah talked about flexibility, he might as well be referring to his own position within Iran's domestic scene. 

As for the IRGC, it remains the single most powerful institution in the country, because of its military reputation, forays into politics, and its revenue streams from the factories and trading companies it runs. Corrupt officials constitute the economic foil to sanctions-lifting. Rouhani received a relatively triumphant welcome back home - but not wholly triumphant, as the security services allowed hawkish protestors to jeer at and egg his motorcade. It has used sympathetic media to castigate Rouhani, and is making a big play rhetorically by opposing the idea of ending the regime's "Death to America" rallies. It sees itself as the guardian of a revolution - ossified as that revolutionary is in 2013 - and welcomes opportunities to confront the US and Israel in Iraq and the Levant, and to keep Assad in power despite exasperation with his military performance.

Press statements, editorials, and tweets are the tea leaves by which such factional scorekeeping can be discerned: which editorials are the most vituperative about conciliation, which reports offer praise of Obama, which date and place a speech praising or criticizing Rouhani was given at. Rouhani certainly has a strong position - perhaps stronger than Obama's, because no one has Obama's back while Rouhani has his powers conferred upon him in these talks by Khameini. The downside of that is that Rouhani has more to lose if he slips up, because without getting demonstrable relief from the sanctions, he risks having his mandate to negotiate revoked by Khameini. Obama is in a position to offer much, and has made major steps by allowing Secretary of State Kerry to negotiate directly with Foreign Minister Zarif, but will feel constrained by so many past failures in his and other administrations to take bigger risks.

 

A run-down of terrorism in Egypt

Nour Youssef has been trying to compile a comprehensive list of terrorist attacks reported in the Egyptian press. The problem, as she notes, is that "they keep publishing the same story under different titles, sometimes lumping a couple incidents together, throwing in an update (without saying it is an update), picking up a detail and sensationalizing it -- or all of the above. The result is a flood of bad news that overwhelms readers." After the jump, our list of reported attacks, in rough chronological order -- and some jihadist videos set to really annoying music. 

Sinai:

  • In Arish, masked men fired at the State Radio's building and a bomb caused serious damage to a mosque in al-Masoura Square. Aug. 22
  • On the 26th of August, there was 9 failed terrorist attacks in one day. They arrested suspects, half of them were by Palestinians.

Giza:

Ismailia:

Cairo:

CBC Television also reported today that a bomb was found in a billboard in Mohandiseen. With the exception of Sinai -- and that is a big exception -- and the car-bomb attack on the Minister of Interior, the terrorist attacks in Cairo and elsewhere have rarely been deadly. Most of the reports concern home-made bombs that are either defused or never go off. So far, a lot of the terrorists in Egypt seem to be kind of amateurs -- and the police seem to be kind of lucky. That said, the video below is the first Egyptian jihadist video I've seen. In it, a group calling itself Kataaib El Farqan (Battalions of the Koran) takes credit for the "liquidation" of an "apostate" army officer (whose car they strife in a drive-by shooting). They claim this is retaliation for the killings at Rabba, Nahda, Dalga, etc. 

The video below, from the same group (and found on Wael Abbas' blog) shows the attack on the satellite dishes in Maadi.  

حصري : فيديو لإستهداف القمر الصناعي بالمعادي وبيان مرفق من كتائب الفرقان تتبني العملية 

The Fallacy of Crushing The Brotherhood

Couldn't agree more with this analysis by Amro Ali: 

The late poet Mahmoud Darwish sounded a warning: “Those who spend an era breastfeeding from the milk of cruel despotism can only perceive destruction and evil in freedom.” In this lays the grim inheritance bestowed upon Egypt following decades of authoritarian rule: the public not only perceives destruction and evil in its own freedom, but in the freedom of others and, consequently, any notion of political co-existence. A third route is needed to save it. Instead of crushing the Brotherhood, there needs to be a national inclusive dialogue on the role of religion and politics, a focus on strengthening institutional checks and balances, and the enforcement of rule of law to protect Egypt from political and security violations and excesses, whether by Islamists or otherwise.

 

Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi’s Sinai campaign

No wonder the army wants to maintain a media black-out and its war on terrorism in Sinai:

Thirty-year-old Naeem, from the village of Muqataa, also appears to be a victim of these rising tensions. (Again, Naeem and his family asked that their surnames not be used.) Naeem and his mother, Hessa, said six army officers entered and ransacked their home on Sept. 22. They took his laptops, legal titles, television, two gas cylinders, his wife’s makeup, gold, and cash. They helped themselves to water in the fridge, and put pillowcases on the heads of Naeem’s 6-month-old twins when they cried. Then they burned his house to the ground. His home and his car repair shop were two of the buildings I saw blackening the sky with smoke the day before. The walls of his family’s home were still smoldering. Others villagers reported similar behavior.

 

Squabbling over religion
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Before Jan 25, mosques had been hunting grounds for the MB. In the post-Jan 25 days, mosques evolved to become a place where they can meet, organize, mobilize, campaign, and more recently, treat fallen followers, count bodies and hide leaders. They also become the scene of political squabbles. At the time of the controversial Islamist-backed constitution, there were dueling campaigns to 1) challenge imams who used their sermons to support Morsi/the constitution (نزله من المنبار, "Get him down off the minbar") or 2) physically restrain worshippers who challenged the imam (ربته في العمود, "Tie him to a column"). 

The last thing the Brothers needed, after the eventful summer they've had, was to have their comfort zone fall back under government control and, now, the perked ears of pro-military residents, who would report an imam faster than he could compare what soldiers did to Muslims protesters in Raba’a al-Adaweya to what they haven’t done to the Jewish soldiers in Israel.

With the Ministry of Awqaf (Religious Endowments) resolved to tighten its grip on mosques by passing a number of laws to substitute the much-criticized MB monopoly over religion with its own, many lips had been chewed and prayers for patience muttered.

Now there is a noticeable change in the khutbah (friday sermon). For the most part, it is  shorter, just like the minister wanted (because the men have other things to tend to) and no longer connected to politics, not even by way of metaphors or anecdotes. A considerable number of imams have been contacted by the ministry and told specifically to stay off politics or else they might be considered a national security threat, inciting violence and possessing illegal weapons. Many imams sense danger and have begun self-censoring in case a  housewife cooking in a nearby building hears the khutbah and doubts their patriotism, or in the not-unlikely-event that one of the new faces in the crowd turns out to be an informant.

Even though the great majority of MB imams have kept fiery sermons to a minimum and seem to have contented themselves with neighborhood night marches against the military in the meantime, some allow themselves a fit of rage and lead a protest out of mosques, three times a week, in areas too densely populated for police officers to be coaxed into visiting, like Ain Shams.

“You can tell (the MB supporters) are unhappy when they hear me preach about patience and generosity rather than comment about the situation,” said licensed Sheikh Emad, who is not Amr Moussa or something and should not be expected to talk politics. In the past month, Sheikh Emad was heckled out of his Ain Shams mosque when he tried to close it between prayers (another ministry rule).

But the fact remains that there are well over a 100 thousand mosques in Egypt and about half of them are manned by state-approved Azhar graduates. The rest are freelancers. The feared anti-military extremists can be either one of them. The new Awqaf minister has suspended the license-to-preach of all freelancers,  said the must re-apply, and that only Azharis -- as representatives of middle-of-the-road, official sanctioned Islam -- will get one. 

The ministry is also trying to limit the activities of zawiyas (unofficial very small neighborhood mosques). This may be why its list of four “conditions”  regarding zawiya operation are closer to requests than rules. Laughable requests, according to Sheikh Gamal, a zawiya imam, shopkeeper, and occasional gas cylinder seller.

The conditions are that there be no (big) nearby mosque, or if there is one that it be full full; one can pray in a zawiya so long as it has a written permission to hold prayers or a licensed imam, as if people are going to walk in and ask for ID and licenses like a traffic cop. Anyway, what happens if people don’t abide by these conditions? What kind of legal consequences, if any, could one face for praying in zawiya?

For all its worth, most people under 45 like to skip the khutbah, if not physically, then mentally, and just wait for the iqaamah (the beginning of the prayer), Sheikh Gamal said with a knowing smile. Youngsters like to loiter by a kiosk and appear the moment the prayer starts in the back rows and the old sit inside and ponder life and prices.

The only people really listening to the khutbah now, Sheikh Gamal suspects, are those who wish they could deliver it and those who are there to make sure they don’t.

Head-butt in Qatar

Qatar has installed a statue of French footballer Zinedine Zidan's infamous head-butt (after Italian player Marco Matterazzi allegedly said something rude about his mother) which may have cost France the World Cup in 2006. Zidan's outburst was criticized and defended at the time. Here is an impressionistic version of the statue (called "Coup de Tete," which in French means both header and whim, impulse) by contributor Paul Mutter, who also notes: "Now if only I could photo-shop something representing the Western left walking off the playing field.."  

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The statue has apparently rankled quite a few Qataris.