The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts tagged egypt
Mediapart: Rafale jet crashed as Macron visited Egypt

The French website Mediapart has an interesting scoop by Arthur Herbert about the crash of a Rafale jet just as French President Emmanuel Macron was visiting Egypt. According to the report, the crash took place on 28 January, on the day that Macron met with Egyptian President Abdelfattah al-Sisi: they were discussing some €1.5bn’s worth of contracts being negotiated and Macron let Sisi know that he would bring up human rights concerns in a speech later that day, a rare mention of the topic ever since, under Macron and his predecessor François Hollande, France became one of Egypt’s top cheerleaders in the EU. A Rafale jet piloted by Major Mohtadi al-Shazli – one of the first Egyptian pilots trained to use the Rafale after their initial purchase in 2017 said to be involved in the May 2017 raid on Derna in eastern Libya – crashed for unknown reasons.

No one wants to discuss the crash, particularly as Egypt is negotiating the purchase additional Rafales, which at over €100m a piece (24 were bought in 2015, most probably with at least some UAE or Saudi co-funding or guarantee, more are scheduled despite the Egyptian Air Force already having a considerable fleet of other modern fighters, especially American F-16s) are the subject of controversy since the country has faced a major economic downturn in recent years and Sisi has massively increased spending both on defense procurement (especially with France and Germany) and prestige projects such as the widening of the Suez Canal. Until a few years ago France struggled to sell the Rafale, and Egypt’s purchase was a major coup – should a technical problem be at fault, it could cause problems for future contracts. Egypt appears to have tried to cover the story, and even spread rumors that the jet in question was a Chinese K-8E Karakorum rather than a Rafale, and most French officials are refusing to comment.

Mediapart (which is among the fiercest critic of Macron’s presidency from the left) is highlighting both the commercial fallout and Macron’s apparent discomfiture at a press event in Cairo, just after he learned about the crash:

Lundi 28 janvier 2019. Il est peu après 13 heures. Au Caire, Emmanuel Macron en visite d’État en Égypte, sort d’un entretien avec son homologue Abdel Fattah al-Sissi. C’est une visite compliquée : alors que l’Élysée avait annoncé la signature d’une avalanche de contrats pour près d’un milliard d’euros, plusieurs ne seront finalement pas signés ou contre toute attente transformés en simples protocoles d’accord.

Le chef d’État français a aussi prévenu : si un an et demi auparavant il avait donné un blanc-seing au président égyptien en affirmant ne « pas vouloir donner de leçons », cette fois à la conférence de presse qui est sur le point de se tenir, il évoquera ouvertement les violations des droits fondamentaux qui ont cours en Égypte.

L’ambiance est pénible. Dans la grande salle à dorures du palais présidentiel, une quarantaine de journalistes sont en train de s’installer. Derrière les grandes portes en bois marquetées, quelques secondes avant de se présenter devant la presse, une autre mauvaise nouvelle est glissée à l’oreille du président français : un Rafale vient d’être perdu.

Peu de temps avant, à 100 km au nord-ouest du Caire, sur la base aérienne militaire de Gabal al-Basur, le Rafale EM02-9352 des forces armées égyptiennes vient de s’écraser. Sous les yeux d’une équipe de formateurs et d’experts de Dassault Aviation, l’appareil flambant neuf, livré le 4 avril 2017 à l’Égypte a piqué du nez avant de se fracasser au sol.

À son bord, le major Mohtady al-Shazly, un pilote de l’armée de l’air égyptienne, connu sous le matricule « Cobra », était l’une des toutes premières recrues entraînées en France pour piloter les Rafale fraîchement acquis par les Égyptiens.

Originaire du village d’al-Atarsha, dans la localité d’al-Bagourg au nord du pays, l’homme de 32 ans, père de deux enfants, a été enterré le soir même en présence du gouverneur de Menoufyia. Lors des funérailles et sur les réseaux sociaux, l’homme est porté en « martyr ». On lui attribue notamment les bombardements égyptiens contre l’organisation de l’État islamique à Derna en Libye en mai 2017. Une opération menée après l’attaque qui avait tué vingt-huit fidèles coptes près d’al-Minya.

Contactés quelques heures après l’accident, les responsables de Dassault Aviation étaient injoignables. Au même moment, Éric Trappier, dirigeant de l’entreprise qui construit les Rafale, était dans la délégation qui accompagnait le président français au Caire. En dehors du petit cercle directement touché par la nouvelle, les officiels et les directeurs d’entreprise faisant partie du voyage n’ont pas été tenus informés, a confié l’un d’eux.

Devant un parterre de Français expatriés au Caire et d’Égyptiens francophones conviés à une réception tenue par le président français le soir même, à la tribune, lorsqu’il s’exprime devant le public, Emmanuel Macron tente de ne rien laisser percevoir. Dans l’assistance, on remarque néanmoins « un discours brouillon, comme s’il avait été mal préparé ». « On aurait dit qu’il venait juste de se prendre un gros scud dans la tête », ironise innocemment un invité.

Books in the mail

I just received a copy of No Exit, Yoav Di-Capua's new book on Sartre and Arab intellectuals (it is essentially an intellectual history of the post-colonial Arab world) and its cover is very, very cool. I very much enjoyed Di-Capua's last book, Gatekeepers of the Arab Past, a great historiography and was happy to meet him in Austin (where he teaches at the University of Texas) on the sidelines of South By Southwest a few years ago. It'll be some more rigorous reading than I'm doing now (I've been devouring Cixin Liu's The Three-Body Problem sci-fi series, see great reviews here and here) but looking forward to it.

Also recently received are two books on Morocco (and Jordan) – it's relatively rare that you get serious and in-depth English-language scholarship on Morocco, so good to see that – and a collected volume edited by Alfred Stepan including many A-listers and friends (Rached Ghannouchi, Carrie Wickham, Nathan Brown, Monica Marks, Radwan Masmoudi, etc.) that looks at the Egypt vs. Tunisia question post-Arab Spring. With chapter titles like "The roots of Egypt's constitutional catastrophe", it's pure Arabist geek-bait.

In Translation: Sisi's PR reboot

An avalanche of work and a hectic travel schedule in recent weeks prevented from updating the blog. Among the things that fell by the wayside was this important piece in al-Araby that sheds light on the communications strategy of the Sisi regime, in the context of growing anxiety in Egypt and abroad about its direction and of course the recent "Sisilection" that was a PR fiasco for the regime. The last few months have seen increased activity against the media by regime stalwarts, most notably the expulsion of London Times correspondent Bel Trew, the controversy over the New York Times' stories about security influence over television figures, and the debacle over the BBC's report on the human rights catastrophe that has taken place under Sisi.

It's a little less newsy now that the election has come and gone, but this story shows once again that, for all appearances of not caring about what outsiders say, the Sisi regime is deeply sensitive to bad press and intent on countering it. For all of Egypt's post-coup rehabilitation and the frequently warm welcome Sisi has received in Paris, Berlin, Washington or elsewhere, one is struck that even among Egypt's staunchest backers in the West (and even some in the Gulf) concern about the country's trajectory is frequently expressed. It's not so much the human rights situation -- at the end of the day, no one really cares that much about that beyond the PR issues associated with it -- but that the management of the election and the clear signs of popular and military dissent that the Ahmed Shafiq and especially Sami Anan suggested (as well the way they were handled) betrayed the regime's incompetence and a degree of uncertainty over Sisi's future.

In short, if the Egyptian regime understandably worked hard after the 2013 coup to make itself frequentable and drive the narrative that getting rid of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood was necessary (a narrative largely scooped up internationally), it might have expected that it could now rest on its laurels and enjoy the fruits of that rehabilitation. Yet, with this election, it has had to go back to square one and start its PR campaign anew. Now just wait until Sisi tried to remove term limits and run again...

This feature is made possible by the Arabic translation superheros at Industry Arabic -- some say they have memorized all four editions of Hans Wehr by heart. Check them out for your translation needs.


El-Sisi forms secret committee to polish the regime’s image abroad

al-Araby, 9 March 2018

Egyptian government sources revealed that President Abdelfattah al-Sisi recently formed a top-secret committee under the leadership of his office head, Abbas Kamel, who is currently the acting Director of General Intelligence. The committee is tasked with “improving Egypt’s image abroad and designing political and media communication policies with foreign countries, especially the United States and major European powers, as well as official and independent international organizations.”

Sources indicated that the committee includes Sisi’s security advisor and former Minister of Interior, Ahmed Gamaleddin, National Security Advisor and former Minister Faiza Aboulnaga, the head of the Egypt State Information Service, Dhia Rashwan, as well as representatives from the national security apparatus in the form of the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Interior, Defense, and Justice, and General Intelligence. Sisi granted this committee wide-reaching powers on several levels:

  1. It will determine which media/propaganda issues have priority that require a response from the Egyptian authorities through media outlets or official channels.
  2. It will determine the method for dealing with media or diplomatic criticisms directed at Egypt relating to its political or human-rights stances.
  3. It will guide diplomatic, legal, and media agencies in Egypt on how to deal with those criticisms.
  4. It will select and contract with foreign marketing companies and media outlets in the United States and Europe to improve Egypt’s image.
  5. It will communicate with foreign writers, intellectuals, decision-makers in foreign countries and international organizations, regardless of whether they have offices in Egypt or not.

Sources explained that one of the new committee’s first decisions was to establish a new department that reports to the office of the Minister of Foreign Affairs and will be responsible for dealing with foreign diplomats and journalists. Its members also received intensive courses on political and media communication, with the goal of improving Egypt’s image abroad and reassuring its European and American partners. The department was tasked with responding to different matters, especially questions from Western diplomats probing into the real causes for the recent security/military operation and whether it is actually aimed at eliminating ISIS in Sinai and the Western Sahara once and for all. The diplomats have also called into question whether this operation is somehow linked to Sisi’s re-election campaign (i.e., boosting Sisi’s popularity and increasing participation in the presidential elections scheduled for the end of this March), or if it is aimed at securing more European aid and facilities for obtaining weapons in an attempt to offset pressure from leftist groups in the European Parliament, who are pushing to prohibit military dealings with the Sisi regime on the basis that it is a repressive regime hostile to civil liberties.

The central committee also decided to select young foreign university graduates, or those with practical experience living abroad, to deal with embassies and international organizations’ offices in Egypt, after putting them through communication training courses. Additionally, the committee bears central responsibility for reviewing statements issued by the Egypt State Information Service, including the latest position on a BBC report about the phenomenon of enforced disappearance in Egypt. Sources explained that the formation of this secret committee came as a result of mounting international criticism of the regime’s political performance, specifically against the background of America’s decision issued last August to freeze and delay some military and economic aid to Egypt.

Cairo has received calls from the US and Europe to adhere to a “more transparent” approach in fighting terrorism in North Sinai in line with “human rights standards.” These concerns come in light of investigative reports accusing the regime of exacerbating conditions in Egypt generally, and Sinai specifically, where the government’s assault on civilian residents has resulted in the evacuation of vast tracts of land without any proof that they have been used in acts of violence. This is also in addition to the regime utilizing bands of civilians to kill wanted persons and suspects, which Washington considers a grave matter that may cause Sinai to become a rallying point for ISIS and other terrorists driven out from different regions of the Middle East.

Nasser at 100

Maged Atiya on Nasser's legacy:

If great theater is catharsis for the audience, then Nasser provided a partial version for all the Egyptians, regardless of how they felt about him. This giant shadow forces a question: Does today’s Egypt represent Nasser’s success or his failure? An answer is difficult to come forth because the relationship between the man and his nation is fundamentally that of betrayal. Nasser’s errors betrayed the unreserved trust Egyptians placed in him. Similarly, Egyptians failed to rise to Nasser’s exhortation of their innate greatness, most of all by failing to hold him to account and to limit his power and hence the consequent damage of his errors. Nasser longed to be a great hero and he needed a great people to lead, while the Egyptians hoped for national greatness and signed up with the man who promised it. This is hardly a unique arrangement in the history of nations, and on many occasions such arrangements either work well or fail disastrously and thus force a reckoning and subsequent improvements. In Egypt’s case neither happened. Nasser’s project of national greatness was too farcical to be a tragedy and too grim to be a comedy. The drama he put forth provided no resolution, only an abrupt end. Nasser’s catharsis was incomplete, failing the Emile Durkheim final stages of integration and renewal of self-confidence and internal strength.

Five decades after the actor left the stage the theater lights have come on. The audience members stare at their neighbors scarcely able to discern what relations they might have with each other and what might have brought them together in the first place. They stare blankly at the empty stage and try to decide if this is merely an intermission or if the performance is truly over, in which case they should rush the doors and explore the freedom and chaos of the world outside them.

Nasser is responsible for his (many) failures, but Egyptians bear a collective responsibility for the failure to get out from under his long shadow. That they have willingly surrendered to a wannabe Nasser like Sisi since 2013, almost grateful to be relieved of any responsibility (beyond wanting to be saved from uncertainty or the Muslim Brotherhood), is part of that failure. And that many have not is what gives one hope.

Sisi's "non-regime"

Already over a year ago Hisham Hellyer has described Sisi's Egypt as a "non-regime". Ashraf Sherif uses the same term in this POMED interview [PDF], describing an increasingly dire situation:

You have written that al-Sisi’s regime is a “non-regime.” What do you mean?

Under Mubarak, the state was corrupt and vastly inefficient, but it was more predictable. It had a coherent decision-making process and some degree of order to its public policies.

By contrast, the system over which al-Sisi presides is too chaotic to qualify as a modern authoritarian regime. It is a complicated structure of competing patrimonial, self-centered, and oligarchic Mafia-type institutions that act more like the gated fiefdoms of the Mamluk age than modern state bodies. Their incompetence and inefficiency is matched only by the viciousness of their conspiracy-mongering discourse.

Sherif doesn't hold back on other political actors, from Islamists to leftists and liberals, either. And the conclusion is bleak. Worth reading.

Conversations in Cairo

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

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

Here is Soueif on her children:

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

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

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

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

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

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

And on the political situation in Egypt: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Does Egypt Still Matter?

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

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

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

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

In Translation: A butterfly in Fayoum

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Fayoum Caliphate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Separation between You and Me

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

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

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

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

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

Gog and Magog

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

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

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

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

Shawki’s Judgment Day Arrives

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

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

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

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

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

What Happened Exactly?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Behind the Scenes of the Secret Kingdom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Revenge of the Remaining Shawkiyoun

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

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

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

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

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

The Friend of Hell’s Butterflies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Saudi Arabia and Egypt warm up again

Heba Saleh and Simeon Kerr, writing in the FT:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The last report from Egypt's El Nadeem Center

The El Nadeem Center is an extraordinary Egyptian NGO that documents police torture and counsels its victims. After a long period of groundless legal harassment, the center has now been forcibly closed by security forces. Just a few weeks ago it issued the following statement, alongside its annual report on torture -- which as its authors note is culled from media reports and statement on social media, and therefore under-estimates the phenomenon.   

"We release this Archive on the 6th anniversary of the 25th of January revolution, when the so called Police-Day turned into a day of revolution against that same police force and against all the atrocities it committed and continues to commit. We have no doubt that the news items we have managed to collect from the various media channels are but the tip of the iceberg.. below the surface or out of our reach and that of the media are many more crimes which we failed to access news about. For that we apologize for the people afflicted by them.

This archive begins with some official quotes made during 2016, beginning from the head of state to one of its main media spokespersons.. Most of which are quotes that deny and condemn those who oppose that denial.. According to those officials Egypt lives its best democratic eras, its prisons are akin to hotels to the extent that prisoners sometimes do not want to be released.. talk about forced disappearance is a lie that targets to defame Egypt's image in front of the work.. No torture is practiced in prisons or police stations.. and detainees are receiving the best medical care!!!

This media archive testifies to the opposite. The archive does not include testimonies taken by doctors working at El Nadim clinic, but includes only testimonies published on the various media channels, including social media. At the end of each testimony there is a link to the original publication for whoever would like to check.

We have classified statistics into killing (extrajudicial, although we oppose all killing even if ordained by law), death in detention, individual torture, collective maltreatment and torture, medical neglect in detention, forced disappearance, reappearance and finally acts of state violence outside places of detention.

Although we believe that every case of forced disappearance is most likely a victim of torture (for why else would security forces would deprive a detainee from every contact with the outside world if not to seize confessions under duress) the listed number of torture cases does not include those who have disappeared unless they have spoken about their torture after reappearing. In addition, we have also published the numbers of those who have reappeared according to the collected news. All of them reappeared in state institutions, none in Syria or with ISIS, as some claim.

The archive also has sections of letters sent from prisons, testimonies of former detainees as well as testimonies of their families during their time of detention. Those sections, we believe are the most valuable part of this archive. They testify to an era as well as to the resilience of individuals who, although deprived of their freedom, hold on to their humanity and belief in human values and solidarity.

2016 was a heavy year. At about this time in 2015 El Nadim released its 2015 archives of oppression, upon which the government made two attempts at its closure.. the only clinic - unfortunately - that provides psychological help to survivors of violence and torture. Some state institutions, in Egypt as well as some of our embassies abroad, claimed that the clinic is closed and that it no longer received clients. Despite the heaviness of the year and the challenges facing El Nadim and other civil society organizations and especially human rights organizations, we assure our constituency and supporters that the clinic has not closed, not for a single day. As long as there is a need for the service provided by the clinic it will continue providing it, even if it is forced to take other formulas and continue receiving survivors of violence and torture. Until then 3A Soliman el Halabi street, 2nd floor remains open.

This archive is not produced by the clinic. It is produced by an independent Egyptian NGO, El Nadim.

Let us hope that 2017 be more merciful to us all. "

PostsUrsula Lindseyegypt, torture
In Translation: Egyptian minister, the worst job in the world
This cartoon by Amro Selim in Al-Masry Al-Youm (22 January 2017) depicts a mother praying for her son: “My son, may you be not picked as a minister. May God blind them so they do not notice you. May you die in a train accident so they would not pick you as a minister,” as her son stands in the corner saying: “Keep praying please.” Source: Mada Masr Digest.

This cartoon by Amro Selim in Al-Masry Al-Youm (22 January 2017) depicts a mother praying for her son: “My son, may you be not picked as a minister. May God blind them so they do not notice you. May you die in a train accident so they would not pick you as a minister,” as her son stands in the corner saying: “Keep praying please.” Source: Mada Masr Digest.

Poor Egypt. Amidst all of the misery heaped on it in recent years — drastic curtailing of freedoms, terrorist attacks, military rule, unprecedented human rights abuses, a general descent into media vulgarity and irrelevance, grotesque injustices dished out daily, a hapless and disconnected elite, the list goes on and on –– it is in a mind-boggling economic mess. The Egyptian pound has broken all expectations after November’s devaluation and lingers at the LE18-20 to the USD level, compared to LE8.8 at the official rate a year ago and until recently never much more than LE15 on the black market. 2017 will be brutal for ordinary Egyptians of all classes, and the optimistic take that such painful austerity is a prelude to recovery leaves one wondering: where is this country headed? How will this end?

President Abdelfattah al-Sisi, when not coming up with innovative solutions to these economic challenges, faces a dilemma. Like Donald Trump, he knows he is the best man for the job of making his country great again — everyone says so on TV. But he is surrounded by incompetents and saboteurs. So yet again, for what seems like the umpteenth time since he took power in July 2013, a cabinet shuffle appears imminent. Except it’s so hard to find good help these days! For weeks, the Egyptian press has reported that prospective ministers are turning down offers to join the cabinet led by Prime Minister Ismail Sherif (whose job is reportedly safe, although probably just till the next shuffle in a few months). Amazingly in a country where it seems everyone seems to aspire to be a wazir, there are no takers. 

The columnist Ashraf al-Barbary, in the piece below, has a courageous and eloquent explanation why. A little background may be necessary: under Sisi, most if not all key decisions are made in the presidency. A kind of shadow government run by intelligence officers holds the real files. And the president – as seen in the long-postponed decision to devalue the currency – waits until the very last moment to make vital decisions, wasting time, public confidence and opportunity in the process. All of this is well-known. For a writer to express himself so forthrightly in today’s Egyptian press (al-Shorouk being an upscale daily broadsheet) would have been unthinkable a year or two ago, but things are changing fast and people are fed up. The various lobbies (big business, civil society groups, political parties etc.) that would normally influence policy under the Mubarak era have no way in. Decisions are made in mysterious ways. Ministers have little leeway to implement their own vision and see no coherent plan coming from the top. No wonder Sisi’s headhunters are having trouble.

This translation is brought to you by the industrious arabists at Industry Arabic, bespoke manufacturers of fine translations. Please give them your money. 


Blessed are those who turn down ministerial posts

Ashraf al-Barbary, al-Shorouk, 25 January 2017
If there is truth to the reports from government sources that many candidates have excused themselves from taking up ministerial positions, then we are right to ask the government to reveal the names of these people so that we can praise them. 
Someone who would give up a ministerial post — which so many hearts long for — must be one of two types of person: a straightforward person who does not believe that he would be able to tackle the disastrous situation the country has come to due to the irrational policies that we have been following for years, and who therefore chooses to forego rather than to accept a position where he is not qualified to succeed; or a person who is sufficiently qualified to succeed but respects himself and refuses to be made into a mere “presidential secretary” who carries out instructions from above in accordance with our ancient political legacy. 
Of course, the political and media militias loyal to the ruling regime will come out to heap charges of treason and of abandoning the country in a difficult time on these honorable people who have refused to take up these “high-level positions” in order to avoid certain failure, either because they do not have the qualifications and abilities to help them confront disasters they did not create, or because they know that their qualifications and abilities would not bring success amid failed policies they have no means of changing, because they have come from who-knows-where. 
The opposite is entirely true: A person who refuses to play the role of extra at the ministerial level — not knowing why they brought him to the ministry or for what reasons they would remove him — is a person who deserves to be praised in comparison with a person who accepts a ministerial role while knowing that many high-level posts in his ministry and its agencies have been transformed into end-of-service benefits, which some obtain after the end of their term of service, compulsory by law, without any consideration for standards of competence and training. 
The last three years have seen more than one cabinet shuffle. However, the situation has deteriorated at all levels, meaning that the problem may not be the minister or even the prime minister, but rather in the policies and ideas which are being imposed on those who accept these appointments. Accordingly, the insistence on carrying out cabinet reshuffles without any serious attempt to review the overarching policies and decisions that have led the country into economic and social catastrophe — indeed, the current policies — will not yield anything positive. 
Nothing underscores the absurdity and superficiality of the cabinet shuffle and the fact that everything is coming from above more so than the status of the parliament. In theory, the new constitution gives the parties and blocs in parliament the highest word in forming the government; however, we see them waiting for whatever ingenious cabinet lineup the executive authority is so kind as to bestow upon them, just to rubber stamp it even before the lawmakers know all the names of the new ministers — as occurred when they voted to appoint the current supply minister within a few minutes. 
If the authorities had the slightest degree of seriousness about reform or the desire to form a government that had the slightest degree of independence, the prime minister would have gone to the parties at the heads of large blocs in parliament for them to give him candidates from among their members for ministerial posts. This would contribute toward developing political and democratic experience on the whole, and also offer the benefit of ministers who do not owe their presence in the ministry solely to the satisfaction of a higher power, but rather to their parties, who may later seek to form an entire government, as occurs in any rational country. 

 

The Egyptian Muslim Brothers' media war

Mokhtar Awad, for POMEPS, on how the divisions inside the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood have played out onto their media outlets:

Both traditional and new media have been critical tools in this internal struggle. Different satellite channels compete to “set the tone” for the group’s struggle against the regime and the rhythm of the organization through their programming and guests they allow on air. Rival factions now operate two different websites and have two different spokesmen on social media. Each first and foremost concerned with securing the loyalty of the MB rank and file. Senior leaders post rival statements on websites and followers instantly react on their Facebook walls, sometimes arguing with each other. Other members have also set up independent Facebook pages to assert their demands or act as privateers on behalf of one faction to land blows against their rivals.

This fascinating new environment naturally allows forces outside the MB’s traditionally rigid structure to interfere in this internal struggle with either their financing or through media activism. This has significant consequences for the organization and the Egyptian Islamist movement overall as different Imams and ideologues—ranging from the “moderate” to the outright Takfiri—can compete for ratings and as a consequence possibly influence. The new diverse media environment also provides a useful tool to help analyze internal MB dynamics and help answer the fundamental question of who speaks for the Muslim Brotherhood and Egypt’s dissident Islamists.

In Translation: Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Muslim Brothers

Over the last two years much has been made of the splits within the Egyptian Muslim Brothers and prospects, or lack thereof, for reconciliation between the group and the military regime in Egypt. Many obstacles stand in the way of reconciliation: the regime’s official rejection of anything short of total surrender, an elite Egyptian opinion that can be more intransigeant than that of security leaders, splits within the Brotherhood including some radicalization, the often-voiced preference of some Brothers that Sisi’s departure should be a precondition for any deal, the legacy of the Rabaa Massacre and the brutal crackdown on the organization, and more.

The article below, from the Lebanese newspaper al-Akhbar (generally pro-Hizbullah, pro-Assad/Iran/Russia, anti-Saudi and vaguely “anti-imperialist left”, whatever that means) has a scoop that, through the auspices of Saudi intelligence, members of the Brotherhood’s “organizational” wing (an older generation of leaders who control the bureaucratic structures of the Brotherhood, have a history of accommodation with successive Egyptian regimes and care mostly about the long-term survival of the group) met with Egyptian intelligence to discuss reconciliation prospects. The news is surprising in the context of the current chill in Egyptian-Saudi relations, and of course predates the recent attack on Cairo’s St Mark’s Cathedral last week (after which the Brotherhood’s Istanbul-based “Crisis Office”, the more revolutionary trend opposed to the old leadership, put out an ill-worded statement essentially accusing the Sisi regime of having carried out a false-flag attack) which makes such reconciliation even more unlikely.

Nonetheless, the reconciliation story never quite dies down, and it is likely that channels of communication remain open, through proxies or directly, between the Sisi regime and some Brothers. The time may come when it will be needed, as both the military regime that has ruled Egypt in one form or another since 1952 and a Muslim Brotherhood that has reinvented itself several times since its founding in 1928 are nothing if skilled survivors. Watch this space.

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Brotherhood moving towards "painful" settlement with Sisi: Preserving what remains of the organization

Mahmoud Ali, al-Akhbar (Lebanon), 29 November 2016

At a time in which media discourse is in conflict with the Muslim Brotherhood, the group is seeking reconciliation or settlement with the Egyptian state and is having repeated meetings outside Egypt with Egyptian intelligence chiefs in order to look for a settlement satisfactory to both parties. Such activities may well cause surprise within Egyptian public opinion in the coming days.

The Muslim Brotherhood was forced to disclose a few details regarding the nature of the communications between it and the Egyptian authorities over the past few weeks, in light of the controversy that has arisen following statements last week from the Deputy Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, Ibrahim Munir. Munir, who lives in London, had stressed that "there shall be no reconciliation with the Sisi regime that has killed thousands of Muslim Brotherhood members and there shall be no concessions regarding Mohamed Morsi's return to power, not to mention the return of the Shura Council and the People's Assembly, which were dissolved following the decision of then Minister of Defense, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi."

However, two days ago the «Brotherhood» published a report that was more like a press statement on a site close the London office, in which they stated "communications have been received from figures close to the regime, and others from within it, in order to attempt to envisage an end to the crisis in some shape or form, or at the very least, to achieve de-escalation between the different parties." The group said in the message that these communications were conducted with prominent Brotherhood leaders inside Egypt and also with some of the major leaders outside the country, revealing that there have been communications undertaken by former and current military figures in relation to this.

The Deputy Supreme Guide of the Brotherhood and his delegate Mahmoud Ezzat have striven over the past few days to stamp out opposition movements led by the organization’s foreign office to take control of the organization. He has conducted elections through which he has been able to increase the power of all of those obedient to him and those who prefer a settlement with the regime in exchange for de-escalation, the release of prisoners and an end to the current zero-sum conflict.

More than one leader of the Brotherhood has revealed the "news" -- details of the meetings and communications that have taken place with them during the past few days inside and outside Egypt. According to a Brotherhood leader from the office of the Brotherhood in the Saudi city of Jeddah, it was an official from the Brotherhood office in Riyadh that met a delegation from the Egyptian General Intelligence Directorate in the past few days to discuss a political settlement.

Although Saudi Arabia did not publish any details of those meetings, the Brotherhood leader made it clear that the meeting was sponsored by Saudi intelligence services, while the Brotherhood delegation consisted of three members, headed by an official from the Riyadh office who was following directives from the Brotherhood office in London. At the forefront was Ibrahim Munir, a supporter of Mahmoud Ezzat's stance in Egypt.

At this time, Egyptian government sources have said that there is conflict between security factions within the regime regarding the settlement with the Brotherhood. Despite difficult political conditions and the shutdown of the general political climate in Egypt, security factions close to Sisi think that the Brotherhood will eventually submit to authority and that there is no need for attempts at reaching a settlement with them. In contrast, other security factions think that the Brotherhood issue needs to be resolved with a settlement in light of the domestic situation, as well as European and American pressure on Sisi to put the Brotherhood back on the political agenda, including an end to the execution of "Brotherhood" members. Mohamed Morsi was a product of American pressure, especially that of Secretary of State John Kerry to involve the Brotherhood in political life, as was the case in the days of Hosni Mubarak's regime.

Given the fierce reactions of the Brotherhood’s base regarding the meeting, which provoked insults and accusations of treason directed at the organization’s old guard, Saudi Arabia believed that the news leak was to its detriment, especially as it had included the Muslim Brotherhood on terrorism lists for more than a year. This is what prompted the Kingdom to threaten Brotherhood leaders in Saudi Arabia with deportation in the event of similar leaks regarding Saudi efforts to sponsor a Brotherhood settlement with the regime in Egypt, according to the leader of the Jeddah office.

Domestic supporters of the Brotherhood were not far from the scattered details regarding the crisis and the efforts of historical leaders to seek a political settlement with Sisi's regime. As news of the Brotherhood leaders' meeting with the Egyptian General Intelligence delegation in Riyadh came in, large sections of Brotherhood supporters in the Middle Delta, Greater Cairo and some Upper Egypt governorates such as El Minya, Qena and Sohag expressed their support, on the condition of prisoners being released and an end to the current state of suffering endured by those being pursued and the organization as a whole, according to an account given to al-Akhbar by a Brotherhood leader in a Middle Delta district in Northern Egypt.

A Brotherhood leader in Istanbul went even further than this, saying that Saudi media personality Jamal Khashoggi has met with Brotherhood leaders in Turkey in the past few months, commissioned by Riyadh to gauge the attitude of the Brotherhood regarding a settlement with the regime. This is in addition to Saudi Arabia's advice to the Brotherhood to disappear completely from the forefront of the political scene and allow liberal or even independent Islamic personalities to occupy this position in Egypt so that the Brotherhood can avoid provoking regional and international parties.

Although the efforts by historical organization leaders to clear up the current crisis could be considered a positive step, there are obstacles between the Brotherhood and the regime that will serve as sticking points, blocking any attempts at a settlement in the near future. That is, unless the Brotherhood is able to accept a large number of losses. Of course, chief of these is its withdrawal from the political landscape, as well as accepting Sisi in power, and remaining silent regarding the Rabaa massacre and the thorny issue of Mohamed Morsi's trial.

With regard to the precise timing of the Brotherhood leaders' meeting with the Egyptian intelligence delegation in Saudi Arabia, a Brotherhood leader from Menufiya in northern Egypt told al-Akhbar that the meeting took place at the condolences for Prince Turki bin Abdulaziz, the brother of the Saudi King Salman, who died on 12 November. This leader revealed that the Egyptian delegation asked the Brotherhood’s representatives to let the historical leadership know that the Egyptian security services would like to meet and discuss a solution satisfactory to all. This was welcomed by the Brotherhood delegation, which admitted that it had gone to the condolences on the orders of Ibrahim Munir after communicating with Saudi intelligence.

In this context, the Crisis Office abroad – which is more in touch with the youth current within the Brotherhood – is glaringly absent from the question of settlement with the Egyptian regime. As such, it seems that Ibrahim Munir is heading toward a settlement that is “painful” for the Brotherhood in order to preserve what remains of the organization within Egypt and guarantee the return of fugitive brothers to their homes without facing prosecution from the regime.