The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts in Dispatches
“Seriously though, where are the African refugees’ organs?”

“Seriously though, where are the African refugees’ organs?” asked Nivine, a 36-year-old with chronic kidney disease – non-rhetorically. Ever since she has heard about the bustling human trafficking and organ trade in Sinai back in 2011, Nivine wondered where she could get her hands on a kidney, should she need one later. And later she did and was forced to resort to post a Facebook note with her blood type and cell number to find a donor. (Donor here means someone who will “donate” their kidney to her, if she donates 30-50,000 Egyptian pounds to their bank account.) 

Nivine’s question, though horribly misdirected and intentioned, is a pertinent one. After all, there are only 35 hospitals licensed and (in some cases barely) qualified to perform organ transplants nationwide and those 35 only transplant kidneys, livers and corneas (which happen to match the organs stolen from the refugees); and there is presumably a limited number of surgeons with the know-how to remove organs without damaging them and access to ambulances with refrigeration units to preserve them; how difficult could it possibly be to track down the doctors involved?

The police, however, seem to have done nothing to ascertain the level difficulty. According to the coordinator of the liver transplant surgical teams of Kasr Al-Aini and Dar Al-Fouad, two of the biggest hospitals in Egypt, Mohamed Negm, the  police never so much as paid them a visit. Except for the times they needed to arrest and track down injured protesters after clashes, of course.  Apart from that and allowing the self-righteous TV host, Reham Saeed, yell at an alleged organs’ broker in their presence, the police continue the same hands-off, indifference-dripping policy the newspapers who run the “donation” ads and the hospitals inside which they take place follow. 

Most of the organs used in transplants, in Cairo at least, seem to come from Egyptians. About 60% of those organs are supplied by generous strangers the same way McDonald’s gives away Happy Meals in exchange for banknotes and the rest are donated, in the conventional sense of the word, by relatives, according to Negm. Anything better than educated estimations is impossible to find given the general aversion to counting and archiving that seems to permeate some sectors of government. These donations cost anywhere between 20-50,000 pounds (if it is a kidney and the patient is not obviously wealthy and  believed to be capable of paying more) and 30-70,000 (if it is a liver lobe and the patient is not obviously wealthy and believed to be capable of paying more), but it can vary considerably depending on how desperate both the patient and the donor are, explains Omar Safwat, another Kasr al-Aini surgeon. “Sometimes (the donor) would wait until last minute, when he is in the surgical gown and (then threaten to) back out unless he gets more money,” he said, going on to note that people can be very greedy.

That being said, a dismissive Negm maintains that the new law regulating organ transplantations has kept the practice clean and claims to the contrary are more or less “tabloid talk,” despite the fact that according to him the majority of them are still bought and that having that knowledge and operating anyway should, theoretically, earn him up to 25 years in prison and debarment, according to article 5 of the very law he is praising. “The donor signs a consent form saying they are donating, not selling, in the presence of a witness! Who also signs [a statement corroborating that]!” Negm continues, shrugging confidently as if the idea of someone lying is unfathomable. “The surgeon is there to work, where you get the organ from is not his problem,” he concluded.

“It doesn’t matter what the law says,” said Salma, the wife of a liver patient, with a hand wave. Chewing gum like it crossed her, Salma went on to paraphrase Negm, saying that doctors don’t care where you get the liver from so long as they can pretend to not know and charge you 230,000 pounds for it. Sitting next to Salma in the corner-turned-waiting-room for liver patients in Kasr Al-Aini, was an old woman who didn’t know how much the operation her husband needs costs until Salma disclosed the price. The woman asked Salma to repeat the figure slowly, but slapped herself before she did. Meanwhile, her yellow husband sat next to her with childlike stillness only moving his arm to insert biscuits into his mouth and his head to follow the behinds of every female that walked in front of him with curious disinterest. Sometime before the woman slapped herself, another patient came very close to doing the same after his organ broker informed him that the 70,000 he was paying him was not enough – in hallway full of doctors and nurses.

As time crawled by, more and more patients got up, switched seats and tried to find out who had it worst. Salma’s husband lost mobility six months ago and the donor she got after posting an advertising in a national newspaper turned out to have too fat a liver. Rania’s father shut his eyes and faked sleep every time he was addressed. Mariam knew her family would ask for money to donate a lobe and was scandalized by my neckline. The old man with the distended belly looked like he was about to pitch his story when a woman with round cheeks squeezed red by a purple scarf demanded to know who I am and if I was there to make it look like Egyptians are selling their organs and that the government is incompetent and the hospital is mistreating them. Because, for my information, they haven’t been waiting here for long. In fact, they came four hours early on purpose. “There is a trend in the media trying to defame Egypt out there [in the West, presumably],” she told her friend and a passing doctor who tried to explain that I was not a spy, before turning back to me to inquire about the nationalities of my readers. 

“For the last time [it wasn't], who sent you?” She fired one question after the other ignoring the person who mumbled something about my not needing to make Egypt look bad, because it is bad, and denying her supporters the chance to echo her questions and me the chance to answer them. After a few forceful denials, the woman eventually settled down to being a glaring, rather than a shouting, cylinder of anger. 

Something that might facilitate matters for the Paranoid Cylindrical Lady and other patients, Safwat suggested over shisha earlier, would be resorting to the organs of beating heart cadavers (brain dead patients) without needing a written permission from said patient prior to their death, which the government will never agree to because they know that doctors would be declaring patients brain-dead left and right, he says.

There was a similar arrangement in the early nineties that involved death row inmates. They would be asked for permission to resuscitate them after their execution to remove their organs and it worked for a short while before al-Azhar pulled the plug on it, arguing that the inmates are in no condition to give consent. 

This, of course, is not the only bone al-Azhar had to pick with transplants. The most popular arguments they made, which still exist now even among doctors are: “Your organs are Allah’s gifts, they are not yours to give away,” “sanctity of the dead > saving lives” and “brain death is a lie doctors tell to kill patients they don’t like and save the ones they like and get rich.” However, these arguments are largely ignored after Al-Azhar officially approved it, much like the stray cats that run wild and feed on placentas in the maternity ward.

48 hours of bliss, fear and anger – in that order

Nour The Intern writes in with some personal thoughts... 

Following the military's earlier-than-expected ultimatum, protesters in Tahrir and elsewhere, and their supporters at home, let out a collective sigh of relief and smiled contentedly. The military had just promised to get rid of Morsi, they just have to stay put for two short days. No one has to die or sleep on the asphalt. All they have to do is wait.

The ultimatum, which people are treating as if it were employment termination letter, gave the channel Al-Kahera Wa Alnas, who already shared Mahmoud Saad's views on the importance of a neutral media - which he summarized last night in two words and a sound: "Huh? What neutrality?" - the courage to rid themselves of the last pretense of it. The channel now has a 4-split screen coverage of protests: three anti-Morsi protests by "the Egyptian people" and one by mere, probably foreign,"regime supporters," topped with a timer counting down the hours to Morsi's ouster.

While many, like the editors staff of al-Destour newspaper, for instance, have been praying for a military intervention for months now, not everyone greeted the news with open arms. 

Shortly after the ultimatum was delivered, pictures of the "blue bra girl" resurfaced on Facebook with the caption: "Remember this?" 

"The SCAF conducted virginity tests, they dragged, beat up and killed people, this (meaning the intervention) should not be cause for celebration," according to my brother. His objection to toppling an elected president aside, he believes, along with the presumed majority of people, that no one other than the SCAF can run the country, given the continued lack of alternative leadership. "(The SCAF) is a necessary evil," he concluded, after cursing out the people for being deserving better, the president and the SCAF for not being better.

Regardless of their repeated claims to the contrary, many worry that the SCAF will overstay its welcome.

Meanwhile, the salafis are believed to be scared and purposefully vague. On one hand, some of the Nour Salafi Party members have joined the Rabaa Adawiya protest to support what is, at the end of the day, a fellow islamist. Others have signed Tamarod. Also, the party itself refused to join the official MB pro-legitimacy protest two Fridays ago. The fact that they have not sided with anyone yet after the military's ultimatum is adding to the general confusion. 

Naturally, anger was palpable at the islamists' counter-protest at Rabaa al-Adawiya, where they all seemed ready, if not eager, to "sacrifice their money, women and lives for Allah," who apparently would be hurt if Morsi left office.

"I won't accept the military, not even for one second of my life," said the nearly-famous and fervent Gofran Salah, a Brother who helped dismantle the tents of protesters at the Etihadia sit-in and lost it when he found a box of cheese.

What Salah, and the Brothers altogether, plan to do to put an end to a military rule that hasn't begun yet, remains unclear.

PS: it seems the MOI has been offered a golden opportunity to redeem itself. Having stuck up for the anti-MB protesters and even joined a few marches, it seems everything they have done has been forgotten, if only temporary, and they're one step away from being pronounced the protectors of the revolution. 

You know what they say: "I against my brother, my brothers and I against my cousins, then my cousins and I against strangers".

Oh, and here's Nader Bakkar's uninspired statement: Don't kill each other. The people have legitimate needs, even if some of them resort to violence, which they should really cut out. We don't mind helping out, you just gotta ask Morsi (and say please). Something something Allah, something something Egypt. 

If Bakkar wants to regain the 25% of parliamentary seats they had last year in the next elections, he should turn against MB. Public opinion > alliance with a fickle partner that has done nothing but disappoint you. Just sayin'  


OK, last email. Hey, don't sigh at me. Sigh at the revolution.

The islamists who are standing by Morsi are the islamist coalition, as it turns out. Al-Nour and the Salafi Da'waa are distancing themselves from him a bit. These are their suggestions/shy-demands:

1) Despite supporting legitimacy, we think early elections are in the best interest of Egypt to prevent bloodshed and civil war. 

2) We want a neutral, technocratic government to solve problems and supervise the parliamentary elections. 

3) Form a committee to amend the constitution, but not come near articles relating to the (religious) identity of Egypt.


The mood in Cairo

We asked Nour The Intern to send us a ground-level view of the mood in Cairo ahead of #June30mageddon. This is her response. 

Well, the atmosphere in Cairo is relatively calm, as opposed to other governorates, like Sharqia, Alexandria, Assiut, Suez, where unrest arrived a few days early. Whether it’s the kind of calm that comes before the storm or one that could last beyond June 30, no one knows.

The weather has officially lost its spot as the number one topic for small talk to June 30. Asking someone about their views of, or plans for, June 30 is the new "Very humid today, worse than yesterday, right?" and saying "God save us on June 30," or things to that effect, has all but replaced goodbyes.

For days now, people  have been worriedly reminding each other to park in their garage on the 30th and take the day off from work for safety. Conversely, a few Morsi supporters have been advising people to do the opposite, hoping that if society as a whole goes about its day, then the protesters may mistake it for an ordinary day and forget to protest.

Essential to survival

Essential to survival

Personally, I was unfazed by June 30, until my usually aloof brother announced that he was going buy emergency food supplies. Last time he did that was on the night of Jan 28, 2011, the Friday of Wrath, and he came back, two hours and a half later, with the exact same purchase he got two years ago: two boxes of strawberry Swiss Rolls and a roll of aluminum foil.

The first box of the Swiss Rolls is for everyone to eat "at a reasonable pace" due to the dire circumstances, and the foil is for him to use its cardboard tube, his preferred choice of weaponry in case the neighborhood forms popular committees and he finds himself forced to join them again. And to protect the second box of Swiss Rolls from us.

But while my family bickers about whether or not Swiss Rolls shares should be directly proportional to height and degree of likability is fair (it is not, I get very little), the rest of the population is busy preparing for it.

"I'll be staying up all night on the 29th to sleep through the 30th," planned a depressed Mohamed Youness, a former Brother and revolutionary, who thinks that the country will suffer, regardless of whoever wins the standoff.

Revolutionaries and anti-MB activists, on the other hand, are making more active plans.

"We are going to teach them a lesson, I promise you that, and unlike Morsi; we fulfill our promises," said a very serious self-described member of the Black Bloc, who refused to be named. He is, however, happy to report that he has saved two weeks' worth of empty soda bottles to make Molotov cocktails.

"You can't judge us. The MB fights dirty, are we supposed to lie down and take it?" he added, somewhat aggressively. His attitude is shared by a lot young men these days.

Although many have not given up on peaceful demonstration, the very popular belief that June 30 is going to be far from it is leading them, especially women, to exercise more caution.

Take stay-at-home mom, Nadia Magdy, for example. She intends to wear the veil to avoid hair pulling, a mask, three layers of clothing - namely tight Carina undershirts that are difficult to put on, let alone take off - a sturdy belt and running shoes to make it harder for anyone to strip her naked. She also prepared enough food for a week for her family, in case she ends up joining her friend, Mahmoud. He's been missing since Jan 25.

Meanwhile in the other camp, the atmosphere is as characteristically upbeat and paranoid as ever. The presidential palace's gates have been reinforced, same goes for the MB's HQs. And according to el-Watan, they will station Brothers around the palace and the HQs, while Hazem Abu Ismail calls for a new siege of the Media Production City.

So far, the MB's official reading of the June 30 protests is that it's an Anglo-zionist-Egyptian-Judiciary conspiracy and/or a crusade waged by Coptic extremists with the help of atheists to stop Morsi from building state institutions by cutting of the power supply and hoarding all the gas. The saboteurs, who are a huge small group of people, are controlled by the power-hungry, hateful opposition, despite it being pathetically weak and lacking a support base, to end Islam.

"I know for a fact that liberals are growing beards now," Hany, my islamist backup driver, spoke confidently. "Some of them will dress like islamists, and others as the police to attack the liberal-looking liberals and make it seems like the MB and the MOI are killing protesters," he theorized. "That's why (the islamists) have to be there!"

"Ah, to physically stop the bearded liberals, who are pretending to be islamists, from beating up their beardless friends to make you, the islamists who are only there to beat up the actually liberal fake-islamists, appear to be violent?" I asked, feigning shock.

"Yes, yes, that's exactly it," he seemed proud. "That and because they must shut up and give Morsi a chance to work--" [got cut off by a bearded man, who was texting and driving] "Ya Kharouf (sheep, the derogatory reference to Brothers). May Allah take you all!"

He then went on to explain how the word “sheep” is not bad in and of itself and how that was not a freudian slip of the tongue for the rest of the ride back home, where I found my near-immobile mother downstairs for the first time in months. Apparently, some Tamarod campaigner said that if you can’t protest for whatever reason, go downstairs and sit in front of your building in solidarity with them.

“You’re a few days early, ya madam,” the doorman informed her with a sarcastic smile.

“We’re a year late, Mahrous,” she said, before taking a seat next to him.  

A day at the gun market

Nour the intrepid intern writes in:

Lately, I have been taking a lot of taxis. Naturally, that means hearing unsolicited political opinions, life lessons, and impromptu stories about women who match my exact physical description and share my sense of style (and, sometimes, my name) getting mugged, raped or murdered, in the hope of scaring me into begging them to my full-time driver and shield of protection. 

Last week, one managed to convince me. Instead of suggesting I promptly take his phone number and call him whenever I need to venture out into the jungle that is Cairo, Reda, my new driver, casually offered me a shotgun for a reasonable LE600.

Being the picky shopper that I am, I refused to simply buy the first gun I hear of and asked for options. Obligingly, Reda decided to call a guy, who knows a guy, to get me a beginner's collection. "Something small for a small lady," he told him.

I had two options, Reda told me: *Fard Kartoush* (a birdshot gun) for LE700, plus an additional LE70 for 10 bullets, or a 9mm for LE2000 (the gun is actually worth LE15,000, but since it stolen from a police department during the revolution, Awad, Reda's friend and dealer, is not too keen on keeping it) or settle for the lowly sound-gun-turned-real-gun for LE1000. 

The latter is known for breaking itself after the third shot, because its transformation into a killing machine was conducted by a underemployed carpenter, looking to make a quick LE200 by changing the gun's barrel.

My second option was to go to Suk al-Salaah (the weapons market), which is part of Suk al-Imam al-Shafa'i in Sayeda Ayesha.

I was given simple directions: "Go to the stolen bedrooms market and ask them to point you to the weapons market."

Realizing that I don't know where the stolen bedrooms market (which, as the name suggests, is a market where stolen bedrooms are sold for prices so low, they are technically being stolen all over again — although some of the beds and dressers were just the natural result of divorce), so I asked Reda to tag along with me, partly out of self-preservation. 

Since it was a Tuesday, and the market is officially held on Fridays, not many people were there, quite unlike Fridays, when the market is so full of people no car, no matter how small, can get in. 

There was a group of idle shoppers chatting rather than discussing prices with dealers selling all kinds of things from old Nokia phones to curtains. There was an argument about an overpriced *matwa mafaragha*, a Swiss knife whose blade is serated and pointy, literally giving it an edge over  all other *matwas*. The young man, who didn't want to pay LE20 for it, was quickly pulled back by another buyer.

Reda said that the oddly peaceful end of the heated argument was very normal in the market, where quarrels are uncommon.

"Both the buyer and the seller come here knowing it's against the law, no point in hassling over prices and making a fuss," Reda explained. "Not that we are scared of the police, they know where we are and what we do, and they do nothing... the point is everyone here is armed (or in the process of getting armed), if someone is provoked enough to shoot; everyone will start shooting," he continued.

However, the buyers are not just shady young men; they are shop owners, worried fathers, car owners, etc. Just people who have lost all faith in law enforcement and don't want to be the defenseless victims of thugs, particularly now that weapons are readily available courtesy of Libyan and Sinai smugglers, and more importantly, the famous January 28 2011 police station raids.

Ironically enough, many of those much-feared thugs also shop in Suk al-Salaah too. So the future victim and criminal rub shoulders while calmly arming themselves against each other.

"Is your girl buying or not?" an exasperated Awad asked Reda, purposefully ignoring my presence and interrupting our conversation. "I am not his girl," I corrected him. Awad already knew that, but was presumably trying to get to buy something, anything.

Having had no real intentions of buying weapons, I simply pretended to be unimpressed by all of them. At one point, I half-jokingly complained about the lack of color variety.

I felt somewhat safe in doing so, because both my gender and looking the way I do (i.e. not looking poor), gave the few people I spoke to, the impression that I am easily fooled bag of money that would cough up double the desired amount. So long as I paid Reda his promised LE200 for his time and implied that I was going to be back later to buy; I was safe.

Meanwhile, the gun market for the upper class is booming too. The only difference is that the gun you would get for LE3000 in Suk al-Salaah is sold for continously-increasing prices, which can easily reach up to LE20,000, in an air-conditioned store in Heliopolis or in the vaulted corner of a fancy gas station, like the one in the beginning of the Ismailia road. Also, they have color variety.

Other than getting a chic shade of gold, the only advantage to buying these guns is that one would be forced to first get a license. However, Reda argues, that the ubiquity of weapons and indifference/incompetence of the police force makes getting a license, which is a hassle in and of itself that drives many to Suk al-Salaah, is hardly a necessity, yet alone an advantage.

While knowledge of the growing illegal, and legal, markets of weapons is as common as the weapons themselves, the market continues to fly under the radar of both the police and the media.

That being said, here is one of the few reports about illegal weapons. It's an interview with a smuggler and a weapons dealer, who is preparing for his Masters in International Law, and sometimes buys weapons by entering the name of the gun he wants into Google to look for someone who has it. Once found, he would add that person on Facebook to discuss the details of their transactions (those who send late replies or ask for too money are mercilessly poked to deactivation, I imagine). He likes to have a three-year-old kid fire the guns.

ولقاء مع بعض تجار السلاح الغير مرخصين

Tuareg-Islamist alliance collapses in northern Mali

DSC_1514 Kidal, Mali.

Above, houses from the Kidal region of northern Mali, where as you might tell good governance has not been part of the picture for a while. Paul Mutter sends in the latest on what's happening in the Sahel as international involvement increases.

Le Monde estimates that over 200,000 Malians have fled to neighboring countries in the wake of the ongoing "Tuareg rebellion," while at least 150,000 more have become international displaced persons. It is by now though, a misnomer to call this conflict a "Tuareg rebellion," as the MNLA, the Tuareg organization originally fighting to establish an autonomous homeland in northern Mali, has been driven from the cities it captured from the government. The government was driven from the north months before, and so the initiative is now in hands of the militias proclaiming Islamist goals.

Despite their superior armaments, MNLA fighters have now been driven from Gao which they had declared to be the capital of their autonomous state of "Azawad." Reporter Peter Tinti interviewed residents of Gao following the MNLA's departure from the city, offering insight into the Islamists' success:

The Islamists' "acceptance" seems to be less a matter of sincerity on the part of the "liberated" residents of Gao for "Les Mujadadin" than it is a hope that the past weeks of looting and arbitrary violence against civilians will subside. Neither the MNLA nor the Malian Army found themselves to be very popular as occupiers in the past few months because of their actions.

Indeed, success in Gao for the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA) - an organization involved in bombings, smuggling and kidnappings in Algeria - and Ansar al-Dine, founded by the Tuareg Islamist and former MNLA commander Iyad Ag Ghali, did not just come militarily. It also came through through the fact that the Islamists accurately read street protests over the murder of a local official and their escalation against the MNLA occupation and Tuareg separatism in general. France24 reports that MUJWA and Ansar al-Dine quickly took up places alongside the demonstrators A spokesman for Ansar al-Dine claims that the Islamists, who do count Tuaregs among their numbers, "only" moved against the MNLA in order to prevent them from further brutalizing the city's residents.

Tuaregs are now reportedly vacating northern Mali in fear of further reprisals from all parties, while MUJWA is apparently trying to win over Mali's Songhai minority. At the same, all of the Islamist militias have reportedly begun imposing their versions of Sharia law in the towns they hold: a family interviewed by Phil Paoletta reports public floggings and other harsh measures have been instituted in Timbuktu, while throughout the north, armed gangs are descending upon Sufi shrines to tear them down.

Unpopular as these actions are proving to be, an even greater dearth of popular support bedeviled the MNLA since the onset of the fighting that saw Mali's US-trained armed forces retreating before separatist Tuaregs kitted out with stolen Libyan weaponry. It was no coincidence that these columns bore the arms of the Jamahiriya - the late Colonel was a patron of Tuareg separatism in Mali in the 1980s and 1990s, when severe droughts and resentment towards Bamako's policies sparked revolts. Representatives of Tuareg tribes eventually reached a ceasefire with the government in 1998, though clashes continued to occur on and off since then and disappointment with the central government - in both the north and among the military - has festered through that time. The returning mercenaries from Libya provided the means for the conflict to be reignited.

But as the shock of its assault wore out over Mali's geographic space and ethnic divisions, the Tuareg's position deteriorated (they account for no more than a fifth of Mali's total population, and many have since moved to the cities). The MNLA has been hurting for manpower and finances. Additionally, the several-thousand strong MNLA did not represent all Tuaregs. Splits within the movement among participating Tuareg tribes, such as the Kel Adagh, had weakened the separatists before the falling out with Ansar al-Dine occurred in Timbuktu.

The conflict's regional implications are still being calculated. Mauritania and Algeria are deploying more border units, and Mali's West African neighbors have proposed direct military intervention. Parliamentarians and protestors in Bamako are demanding that the army - still chastened from its losses and self-defeating coup against President Touré in the spring - take more proactive measures to regain government control over the north.

Finally, there is the matter of assessing how possible next steps in this conflict - further Islamist offensives, outside military intervention from ECOWAS, refugee movements, a government offensive - might affect a Sahelian food insecurity crisis warned of by aid organizations for this year. Oxfam warned in June that "[l]ow rainfall and water levels, poor harvests and lack of pasture, high food prices and a drop in remittances from migrants are all causing serious problems .... National food reserves are dangerously low, while prices of some key cereals have dramatically increased: prices of corn in the Sahel are 60-85% higher than last five year average prices." Water access issues in the north are being exacerbated by conflict-related disruptions. And between 70,000 and 100,000 refugees have gone to [Mauritania], where "700,000 people (over one-quarter of the population) in Mauritania are [already] estimated to be vulnerable to food insecurity." The World Food Program and other NGOs remain optimistic that international donors and the region's governments can remediate most of these problems, including in Mali, where Oxfam plans to provide food aid to around 350,000 people.

Update: For more information on Ansar al-Dine's Iyag Ag Ghaly, AFP's Serge Daniel has a profile of the Tuareg Islamist leader up at