The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts tagged protests
On the politics behind Tunisia's protests

I wrote the piece below with my colleague Michael Ayari, to touch on the politics behind the scenes of the ongoing protests in Tunisia, which are examined at length in a new Crisis Group report, Stemming Tunisia’s Authoritarian Drift. (Update: Michael and I also have a different piece in Le Monde: En Tunisie, « le risque d’une dérive autoritaire ».)

The protests and rioting that have raged in parts of Tunisia since last week are sometimes branded, both inside the country and abroad, as signs of a new revolutionary moment similar to the 2010-2011 uprising that launched the Arab Spring. The images circulating, after all, give a sense of déjà-vu: young men burning tires at impromptu barricades, throwing stones at police; the army deploying to secure public institutions and banks, etc. This is indeed familiar: it has taken place at regular intervals, especially in winter months, for the last few years. As before, it will most likely die down: protestors are largely driven by specific socio-economic grievances, not a desire to overthrow the regime. Even if there is some continuity -- frustration with social injustice and corruption -- today’s Tunisia is not ruled by a dictator.

The immediate trigger for the current protests was the new state budget for 2018, whose implementation began on 1 January. It introduces tax hikes on a number of consumer goods (especially imports) and services, as well as a one-percent increase in value-added tax, contributing to a pre-existing rise in the cost of living that, in a gloomy economic context for most Tunisians, is understandably unpopular. The government says it needs to raise income to balance its finances, and especially to pay for public sector salaries (which account for over half of expenditures). This budget, passed in December 2017, received the support of the Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail (UGTT), the main trade union federation. In most respects it is more protectionist than liberal, and was opposed by business lobbies.

The government has not been deft in selling its policies: claims that the increases won’t affect the poor have fallen on deaf ears (perceptions of cost-of-living increases are much higher than the 6-percent official inflation rate), and the minister of finance sounded rather Marie-Antoinette-ish when he impatiently suggested in a recent interview that mobile-phone recharge cards, whose prices have increased, were not a basic necessity.

At its core, anger against the government’s austerity policies is driven by an overwhelmingly young population with few prospects, especially in the long-neglected interior part of the country. Successive governments have had little success in changing this since 2011, and the current one must reconcile pressure from the street with that coming from its international partners, including the IMF, which has called for accelerated reforms and greater fiscal responsibility.

The protests are mostly non-violent -- the large protests during the day have been well-organized and peaceful, expressing the general frustration of the population about the meager returns of the 2011 revolution when it comes to living standards. At night, however, a different crowd comes out, often engaging in looting and attacks on public buildings, stealing from stores or taking advantage of localised chaos for criminal purposes. The rage against the system that periodically erupts in the most deprived areas of the country -- and has done so before, during and since the 2011 uprising (indeed there have been similar protests every January for the last three years) -- often targets security forces, as the arson of police stations attests.

The police, which must address the rioting, is showing signs of panic and over-reach: among the over 700 persons arrested since the unrest began are left-wing bloggers and activists who have conducted no illegal acts. This reversion to bad old habits of the era of dictatorship is dangerous, as it may encourage further escalation and shift the framing of current unrest in a more anti-state direction. It is also yet another sign of the lack of reform and capacity-building that has plagued the ministry of interior.

There are subtler political dimensions to the unrest. The protest movement is, unsurprisingly, being encouraged by the opposition, especially the far-left, some of whose activists have been arrested. Tunisia is entering a two-year electoral cycle (local in May 2018, parliamentary and presidential by the end of 2019) and the opposition has an interest in positioning itself against the current governing coalition, led by the secular nationalist Nida Tounes and Islamist An-Nahda parties. It is also supported by elements of civil society and activist groups such as the “Fech Nestannew?” (”What are we waiting for?”) campaign, which is expressing a widely-felt resentment against austerity policies.

Somewhat paradoxically, the anti-government protests are convenient for Nida Tounes and An-Nahda, perennial rivals who nonetheless share a common foe: Youssef Chahed, the prime minister appointed in August 2016 who must now deal with the unrest. Originally seen as subservient to Béji Caid Essebsi, the Nida Tounes leader who was elected as Tunisia’s president in 2014, Chahed has grown in stature and popularity, especially after he launched an anti-corruption campaign in summer 2017. In recent weeks, Chahed is said to have threatened to arrest senior members of both parties and their allies in the public administration -- but has been blocked from doing so. More generally, he has begun to build political alliances in anticipation of 2019’s presidential election, especially with the powerful UGTT. His relationship with Essebsi and An-Nahda leader Rached Ghannouchi has now significantly soured, and they may hope to use the unrest as a pretext to justify his removal or at least dent his appeal.

Previous protests died down after political leaders mobilized to calm the situation or the government granted concessions; this may yet still happen. If not, they carry a risk of amplifying the increasingly prevalent idea that Tunisia’s democratic transition is failing, particularly if security forces over-react and political bickering allows the situation to fester, providing an opening for a wider crackdown in the name of public order. The diffuse sense that the freedoms gained since 2011 are weakening the state and an authoritarian restoration of some sort is necessary is spreading. As Crisis Group argues in its latest report, the danger is that this will encourage political adventurism by would-be saviours on horseback; the resistance any such attempt would engender would likely create far greater unrest, violence and economic misery than the ongoing, often plodding and frustrating, democratic transition.

Tunisia’s leaders, in other words, has little choice but to move forward and work harder to strike a compromise on the social contract -- and especially address the historic neglect of parts of the population -- as they did on their political transition. Nostalgia for the era of dictatorship or the revolutionary fervor of early 2011 will bring only problems, not solutions.

Issandr El Amrani and Michael Ayari are respectively North Africa Project Director and Senior Tunisia Analyst at International Crisis Group.

In case you're wondering how things are in Egypt: not good

The highlights of the last week include:

1. A new law "regulating" protests that has been energetically put into effect by the Ministry of Interior.

The break-up of a protest outside the Shura Council. Uploaded by Mosireen on 2013-11-30.

2. The arrest of two of the country's most renowned digital activists and youth grassroots organizers, Alaa Abdel Fattah and Ahmad Maher. That these two young men are being targeted (again!) is a worrying sign of how emboldened the Ministry of Interior feels to go after its non-Islamist enemies now. This is accompanied by the usual media campaign. We linked to a piece last week smearing activists as sexual deviants and immoral hooligans; here's another recent example of writing in a similar vein (it's in Arabic): "Human rights? What human?" 

3. The murder of Cairo University Engineering student Mohamed Reda, who was shot by police in yet another clash on campus. This has led to further protests and student ferment

Al Masry Al Youm video

4. Last but not least, the handing down of 11-year sentences to female teenage supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood who held a protest. While Mubarak is out on appeal and police officers charged with shooting demonstrators have been cleared. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


PostsPaul Muttersudan, protests
The voice of the opposition

A quite beautiful song by the مسموع ("heard/audible") campaign, which calls of Egyptians to make clear their opposition to both the Brotherhood and the return of the security state  (or as they put it, to both "religious fascism and the Egyptian state's route to civil war")  by banging on pots and pans every evening. The refrain is "Freedom is coming." Unfortunately, at least in my neighborhood, all I've heard every evening so far is a resounding silence. 


Brotherhood protests

The Muslim Brotherhood is calling for further protests tomorrow, and a campaign of civil disobedience. But the organization hasn't been able to mobilize successfully so far, and faces public resentment, as Nour the Intern, who attended some Islamist protests earlier this week, reports. 

The man in the blue galabeya was at loss. In one hand, he held a large poster of deposed president Mohamed Morsi and in the other an icy cold bottle of water. He stood in the baking heat torn between setting down the poster to uncap his bottle for some much-needed hydration, or awkwardly holding it between his knees. He scanned his environment a clean surface to place the delicate poster. When he found none, he prayed for patience and put it between his knees. Behind him, the bearded men were growing restless.

The protesters' squabbles were interrupted by a sudden bang from above. An adolescent was beating a pot with a spatula in her balcony, proclaiming el-Sisi to be her president, drawing laughs and claps from the loitering passersby, and frowns and prayers for retribution from the protesters. An old woman excitedly poked her head out of her window, opposite to the balcony, to praise the girl and suggest she boil some water in that pot to clean the street.

As they stood there squinting their eyes at the balcony, frozen in anger and anticipation, waiting for the rain to fall so they could bring the building down, four men  shoved a middle-aged protester and his son for giving them a headache and ruining the country. With impressive speed and coordination, four large buckets of water were emptied from different buildings. The water was accompanied by insults, saliva and three slippers.

Shoppers came out of shops, mechanics out from under cars, and women out of their windows; teenage boys let their female counterparts walk without receiving a detailed description of their bodies, to join the fight, or sigh at it. Facepalms outnumbered kicks three to one.

Staring at his surroundings with undisguised disgust, the blue-galabeya man stalked off hugging his poster, leaving his followers to disentangle themselves from the grips of the residents and split up in disagreement. Half went left, half went right.

“That was the dumbest protest in the world,” the blue-galabeya man, el-Hag Ahmed, told his feet. He was resting his forehead on the no-longer-sacred, rolled-up poster at a nearby coffee shop. As someone whose neighborhood only protested once in March 2011 to support Gamal Mubarak and demand that their 15-men-and-one-an-amateur-bellydancer march be covered by Al Jazeera, I bit my tongue.

Earlier this week, an almost identical protest took place in Zamzam Street, Mohandeseen, where the complete lack of organization and leadership; hostile bystanders and residents forced the 90 men who marched in unison (incessantly arguing about whether to forward or backward more than chanting) to march away from each other 15 minutes later, some to Sudan St., others to Mohy Eldeen St.

These mini-rallies, which usually avoid major squares and where participation is limited to area Islamists, says Hag Ahmed (the blue-galabaya man), are all that can be done for now. Some are reluctant to venture out of their neighborhoods, he says, and so they content themselves with these symbolic short-lived protests to keep the fight going and retain self-respect.

The reasons for the complete disarray Brothers are in are many and obvious: the arrests or absence of their leadership (and their sons for can’t-be-good-reasons) and the possibility of violent dispersal and detention looming over any attempted protest have weakened their will to protest with fear and confusion. That and the news of Safwat Hegazi’s claim that he’s always had the political activity of a 9-year-old, while Mohammed Badie pointed his finger at Beltagy, which was met with silent shock and disbelief, was salt to their wounds. It’s not hard to imagine why the battered MB didn’t deliver the large marches they promised last Friday.

This understandably humbled the Brothers and lowered their expectations for this Friday, August 30th, the day of choice to reverse the consequences of June 30.

“Let’s not brag too much. If (the Brothers who brag) know something we don’t, then they should keep it that way, save the element surprise...let God decide if it’s going to be decisive or not,” el-Hag Ahmed advised, trying to mask perceptible dread with cool practicality. Even gutsy young Brothers like Ghofran Salah, who like to share pictures of clenched fists with fiery captions, have echoed strangely similar, if not identical, advice, asking his friends to stop building a hype for the 30th.

What’s far likelier than detention, and is now a genuine concern that many islamists calm by the use of Gillette, is street harassment at the hands of fellow Egyptians, two thirds of whom want them excluded from politics, according to Baseera. Not because of the list of valid reasons to oppose the Brotherhood, but to the new-found belief that all the Brothers -- including, if not especially, everyone that was at the Raba’a al-Adweya sit-in -- are terrorists, even though the official MOI report said that the 1118 Brothers they arrested in Raba’a had a whopping total of 20 weapons. (Kindly forget the fact that prime minister Beblawi offered those same terrorists posts in the new cabinet and that triumphant policemen showed us well over twenty guns that they found by the box loads of in their tents and in nearby buildings in pro-military videos that left one waiting for the bloopers.)

On the other hand, the Islamist media people seem to have skipped town and left a repetitive friend behind to act as anchor and keep the same footage spinning in a tireless loop, showing protests in some obscure little street in an obscure little town breaking the curfew that are often aired under the enlightening title: "The Governorates." This is either followed or preceded by pictures of Gen. AbdelFatah el-Sisi dripping blood from his mouth and a post-Jan 25 documentary about the importance, and lack, of media integrity and of course, the graphic pictures of the Raba'a victims, whose death interestingly didn't warrant the official promise to open an investigation and form a fact-finding committee, to be characteristically ignored along with whatever report they manage to hand in or leak to the press.


The mood in Cairo

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

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

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

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

Essential to survival

Essential to survival

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Culture protests

We have a guest post from occasional (and valued) contributor Parastou Hassouri on the protests by artists and intellectuals that have been going on for some time now at the Ministry of Culture in Cairo.  



Over the past week, I have been attending, with some regularity, the protests that are being staged in front of the Culture Ministry in Zamalek. 

The protests/sit-in have been taking place on a daily basis since June 5th, when the demonstrators, many of them members of the artistic community, broke into and occupied the Culture Ministry building to demand the removal of the newly-appointed Minister of Culture, Alaa Abdel Aziz, whom they see as trying to “Ikhwanize” the arts.  Alaa Abdel Aziz, who was appointed by President Morsi during a cabinet shake-up in early May, promptly alienated the artistic community (often referred to as the muthaqafeen, literally “the cultured”) by firing the heads of the General Egyptian Book Organization, the Fine Arts Sector, the Cairo Opera House, and the National Library and Archives.  His firing of the Opera House Director Ines Abdel Dayem, in particular, aggrieved the artistic community and catalyzed them into action.  On May 27, the opening night of Aida, the Opera House curtains lifted on performers and staff in full costume holding anti-brotherhood signs and chanting for the downfall of the regime. 

The protests, which are part sit-in and part street festival, feature different performances each night, with interludes of anti-regime chanting.  The performances take place on a make-shift stage in front of the ministry, though with each passing day, the set-up and light and sound system gets more sophisticated. 

There have been a wide range of performances, with figures like singer Ramy Essam, who catapulted to fame during the original 18 days of protest in Tahrir Square, performing with some regularity.  The largest audiences have gathered to see members of the Cairo ballet troop perform to the music of Zorba.  The ballet performance was prompted by statements made by Islamist Shura Council member Gamal Hamed, who referred to ballet as indecent and proposed that it should be banned.  Before their first ballet performance, Hani Hassan, principal dancer of the Cairo ballet, made an impassioned speech in favor of the arts, and stated that he is an Egyptian citizen, like any other, who should have the right to make a living and express himself.  At the end of the performance, someone took the microphone and stated:  “if this is apostasy, then I am an apostate.” (لو دا كفر، انا كافر) His statement drew wild cheers from the audience. 

There have also been readings of satiric poetry, mocking the Ikhwan and denouncing their efforts to dictate morality for all.  Also, different performing artists and actors make appearances and sign the petition for early presidential elections being circulated by the Tamarrod (“Rebel”) campaign.  Some prominent authors have attended the protests and made speeches, including Bahaa Taher. Even politicians have made appearances, including former People’s Assembly member Ziyad al-Uleimi, as well as presidential candidates Hamdeen Sabahi and Khaled Ali. (Interestingly, Hamdeen Sabahi was jeered and heckled some by the spectators, who expressed frustration with the National Salvation Front, called him an opportunist, and asked him about justice for martyrs of the revolution and since the revolution). 

In interludes between performances, there is quite a bit of chanting against the Ikhwan and many invoke the Tamarrod campaign and the 30th of June as the day of reckoning with the Ikhwan. 

One day when I went to the protest, I noticed author Ahdaf Soueif in the audience and spoke to her for some time about the importance of keeping a space for such expression open and the fact that by and large, the sit-in has been proceeding peacefully and without disruption (there have been two incidents in which FJP supporters have come to counter-demonstrate and disrupt the protests, but in both instances they were pushed back by the demonstrators and now security is present at the scene). 

When I told Soueif that I was originally from Iran, she raised her eyebrows knowingly, in that way many activists I have met, whether in Egypt or in Tunisia, do when they learn I am from Iran.  To them, Iran is the nightmare scenario they do not want to see develop in their own countries. 

I am always amused by these thoughts/expressions because the reactions often reveal to me how much of a disconnect there is between the manner in which Iran is portrayed in media and the reality on the ground.  Also, in the context of discussing cultural expression, I find worries about turning into Iran ironic, since some would argue that the cultural scene in Iran has actually flourished since the revolution. 

In the immediate aftermath of 1979, much that would be considered entertainment was deemed unacceptable by the Islamic Republic and most popular singers, dancers, actors, fled Iran and went into exile (and from exile they continue to produce their art).  However, the art that was then produced in Iran, due specifically to the restrictions of censorship, became more refined, more subtle, more sophisticated.  Cinema has been the prime example of this.  But also, since pop music was initially deemed unacceptable, Western, and decadent, more and more artists began to focus on traditional Persian music.  Many Iranians began to embrace traditional arts, be it calligraphy or painting, or learning to play traditional instruments. 

This is not to say that there have not been problems. Artists of all stripes are always trying to second-guess the censors, and everyone knows that there are lines and if they are crossed, they will be punished (as filmmaker Jafar Panahi has been). 

What I mean to say is that the revolution didn’t lead to the death of cultural production in Iran and most obviously it will not in Egypt either.

This is also not to say that the artists expressing concerns about the stifling of artistic freedom and the “Ikhwanization” of culture are not right to stand their ground. 

The vehemence with which the sit-in participants object to Abdel Aziz and decry the Brotherhood are interesting, given that I do not recall, during my time in Egypt, any protest of similar length and intensity against the Mubarak-era culture minister, Farouk Hosny.  Hosny was the subject of much international controversy when his name was put forth as a candidate to head UNESCO, and his detractors revealed anti-Semitic statements he had allegedly made in reference to the collections at the library in Alexandria.  However, even prior to that, many artists had grievances against Hosny, whose friendship with Suzanne Mubarak ensured his tenure (most notably when his offer of resignation was rejected by Mubarak after a fire at the Beni Soueif Cultural Center which resulted in dozens of deaths and injuries) and protected him from allegations of  corruption. 

It was inevitable that after Mubarak’s resignation, Hosny would have to step down.  And since his departure, there have been four Culture ministers. As far as I can tell, Abdel Aziz’s predecessor, Professor Emad Abu Ghazi, was respected by the artistic community.  And perhaps this is why the appointment of Abdel Aziz has caused such anger. 

Though it is clear that in any post-revolution environment, there will be shake-ups and transfers of power, it seems that what is aggrieving the artists is the fact that Abdel Aziz’s selections are political and will not necessarily advance and promote culture. 

However, the protests have gone beyond culture.  The chants are increasingly against the regime as a whole, and chants from 2011 and 2012 are being revived and adjusted, calling for a downfall of the regime.  One common chant is “Wake up Morsy, the 30th of June will be your last day.” 

The protests are increasing looking like a dress rehearsal for the 30th of June, past which date, no one knows what exactly will happen.

In the meanwhile, though, everyone’s singing, dancing, and occasionally crying, but in general reviving the spirit and camraderie of Tahrir’s 18 days, for which there is already a great deal of nostalgia. 

Note: For a different, critical take on the protests, see this post by Egyptian novelist Youssef Rakha 

Egypt: To the barricades, again

Egypt: To the barricades, again | The Economist

From the conclusion of a long briefing on Egypt:

Mass defiance of the president’s curfew order in the canal cities, along with persistent protests elsewhere, have deeply dented Mr Morsi’s prestige. Few elsewhere in Egypt fully share the fury of Port Said; many despise the destructive antics of, as they have been called on Twitter, “spoiled brats living out Che Guevara fantasies”. Yet the frustrations of rising unemployment and soaring prices are keenly felt, and exacerbate the political discontent.

Mr Morsi is trying harder to coax the NSF into his hitherto vacuous dialogue. He speaks with new seriousness of being open to revising the constitution. He is working on securing backing from the International Monetary Fund for economic reform. Without broad support, though, enacting such reform will be impossible, and so far he has rejected demands to form a broader-based government of national unity, an idea endorsed by leading Salafists as well as the NSF. If he could summon to such a task of reconciliation the boldness he has previously displayed in his own interest, his country might move forward. If he does not, Egypt’s divided narratives will split further asunder. Radical Islamists could seek to settle scores with those they see as challenging “their” revolution. If so their opponents will fight back, and the world’s willingness to help would fade. Miserably, his people might just decide that things were better in the old days.

Morsi got into this mess. He's got to get out of it by paying a price and making a significant concession — everything else besides the point.

The meaning of Hamada Saber

The ordeal undergone through by Hamada Saber — the man whose beating by police was caught on video and who, under police pressure, blamed protestors — has a meaning, says Nervana Mahmoud in her excellent weekly news review:

 Hamada’s case is another ugly reminder that no one has changed; the police haven’t changed, the leadership hasn’t changed, and many ordinary Egyptians haven’t changed. We will never know what really happened to Hamada, even if he later appeared on TV to tell a different story. Egypt is now a country in which truth is as elusive as its newly born democracy. Hamada is a symbol of what went wrong; in other words, we as a society haven’t changed. I don’t blame him as some do − he is not a celebrity that citizens and foreign embassies will rush to save. He is just a human being who thinks humiliation is his only method of survival.

Saber has once again returned to accusing police of beating him, by the way:

His son Ahmed told Al-Masry Al-Youm Sunday that his father telephoned him Sunday, cried and told him that he was under pressure and terrorized. Then he asked him to get him out of the Police Hospital and take him home or to any other hospital.

“The police forced my father to lie,” he told Al-Masry Al-Youm. “He did not know the incident was filmed.”

The story of Hamada Saber

Hamada Saber went to the presidential palace at Ettihadia on Friday night with his family to protest against President Morsi. At some point in the evening, he ended up stripped naked and beaten by police. The beating was caught by a satellite television channel and broadcast live, instantly turning into an iconic moment of police brutality like that of the video of the girl with the blue bra in December 2011.

Here's the video if you haven't seen it.

The authorities immediately reacted to the footage, with presidency and interior ministry pledging to investigate the matter and condemning the violence. [Update: here's the NYT coverage of their contrition.] Prosecutors began an investigation into the security forces in the footage. But Hamada Saber was still held overnight on Friday by police, and by the time he was hospitalized he began to give a different version of events, as al-Ahram reports:

However, in a shocking turnaround of events on Saturday, Saber and his wife, speaking from the same police hospital the CSF transferred Saber to in the wake of their assault on him, seemed to blame the protesters for the bulk of the suffering he was subjected to on the previous night.

"I was standing at Roxy Square [near the palace] drinking a soda, when a large number of protesters who mistook me for a CSF officer because of my black attire attacked me and stripped me of my clothes," said Saber.

"The protesters were angered by the fact that I tried to dissuade them from firing bird shots at the police," claimed Saber.

Fathya, the assaulted man's wife who was by his bedside at the police hospital, sent a message of gratitude to the ministry of interior.

"The police are very respectful and are standing by our side, and the minister's assistant for human rights has passed by and will come again tomorrow [Saturday]," Fathya told ONTV.

Moreover, on Saturday night, Saber, told state TV that he was caught in the fight between protesters and the police.

"The protesters fired an unknown bullet at me and robbed me. When I saw the CSF soldiers coming at the crowd, I was scared and I ran. The soldiers chased after me yelling they wanted to help me. When I fell, they caught me and said: 'you gave us a hard time, man.'"

The public prosecutor then began to change tack and began to blame protestors for beating the man — even though the video evidence clearly showed that whatever protestors did, the police clearly hit Saber. Saber is effusively thanking the interior ministry. Everything points to him having been coerced into not pressing charges at the ministry and being cooperative. From al-Ahram, again:

News reports leaked from "investigators" and "authorities" to media outlets throughout the day on Saturday threw doubts in some people's minds on what actually Saber did, what the police did, and what the police wanted the world to think had happened on Friday night.
One report, for example, picked up by a number of online papers said that investigators who were questioning Saber could charge the assault victim with possession of 18 Molotov cocktail bombs and two buckets of gasoline intended for making fire bombs.
Later in the day, the minister of interior reportedly called the victim to apologise on behalf of the ministry and promised to offer Saber, who said he is a day labourer who is constantly short on gigs, a job.
In the early hours of Saturday night, Saber, who seemed to be recovering well at the police hospital, made the rounds on Satellite TV.
In one such interview, Saber told Al-Hayat TV that the police had a good reason to treat him the way they did because he was resisting arrest.
"I understand what they did because the protesters were near and I was giving them a hard time."
As the Al-Hayat reporter pressed Saber to explain how he was being saved by his attackers, the man insisted: I know what is in my best self-interest. Do not instigate serious problems for me."

He does not want problems. One can understand. But it does appear that he is being threatened into shutting up so that the police and the government don't see this turning into the same iconic moment as previous instances of beatings and abuse. Human rights lawyers and his own family (which was on the scene) have kept on saying that he was beaten by police.

In the most surreal part of this sad episode, Hamada Saber and his daughter Randa ended up arguing about what happened to him on a major satellite TV talk show, with Hamada accusing Randa of having taken money from satellite channels to lie about him. Here's the footage:

Whatever happened to Hamada, the police did what it did, and he appears to have been intimidated against blaming the interior ministry as the government worked overtime to carry out damage limitation. Such practice is actually quite typical of what has happened in Egypt for decades, including since the 2011 uprising. If you look at the court cases into police murders during the 18 days of the uprising, you often have officers leaning on the families of the victims to settle out of court or withdraw charges. Not that many have been actually convicted thus far, or that there has been any attempt at creating either a transitional justice process or carry out serious security sector reform thus far — under SCAF or under Morsi.

[Thanks to Ashraf Khalil and Samer Atrush for some of the links used here. Update: here's Ashraf's piece on the incident.]

Update: More surrealism:

And an eye-witness account of the beating.

Egypt mulls new anti-protest law

Nour Youssef writes in about a new law being drafted by the Egyptian Ministry of Justice in response to the recent protests, as highlighted in this article [Ar]:

The ministry of justice drafts a law to regulate the right to protest and die as a direct result of it.

    Translated the dumbest points in it:

  1.  Police officers have the right to use more force and “not just shot cartouche in the air,” citing attacks on police stations as applicable examples. What’s odd is that they're just paraphrasing the same old “They are thugs attacking institutions, we are allowed to fire at them in defense” argument that's not only worn out, but already based on a law, making this one redundant. Of course, this could just be a pretense for officers to shoot whomever they want, claim they were committing a crime, and escape legal prosecution, but officers don't require assistance in that domain.  
  2.  Protesters must give a five-days’ notice to the MOI before demonstrating, as if protests just spontaneously pop into existence in Egypt. Not only does everyone with ears know about every protest, about a week or so in advance, they also know where it is going to take place, its name, its agenda, how many people are expected to show, and most importantly, that the MOI knows about it and is prepared for it. Human brains are supposedly hardwired to detect patterns, surely by now MOI should have noticed a correlation between angry people, Fridays and Tahrir Square.
  3.  A minimum distance of 500 meters must be maintained at all times between every protest and vital places, like presidential palaces, legislative bodies, police departments, etc. While it may not be a bad idea, it's probably unrealistic and will only serve as a reason to take advantage of point 1, which is a bad idea. Also, it introduces the question of whether or not the officers can even aim at eyes from such a long distance? 
  4. No protesting after 11 pm, those who protest anyway will be fined a minimum of 20,000 pounds. But rest assured it explicitly states that it will never exceed 50,000 pounds to express one's views at such an inconvenient hour, not in this free country.
  5. In the unlikely event that the interior minister doesn’t welcome a protest, he can ask a judge to review the case  and– if MOI has "good grounds," which means everything from quicksand to hot air – the judge will accordingly decide to cancel, postpone or relocate the protest in question. Obviously, there is no conceivable way to abuse this law. None whatsoever. 
Of flags in protests

Brothers in the Hood: Egypt’s Soft Powers and the Arab World

This is an interesting piece in Jadaliyya but I have a problem with this:

When Egyptian liberals complain of Islamist protesters waving Saudi flags in Tahrir Square, it needs to be pointed out that this is not so different from when liberals wave Tunisian and revolutionary Syrian flags. One has a conservative pan-Islamist agenda, the other a revolutionary pan-Arab one – both with an Egypt at the head.

Not really — on the rare occasions Egyptian protestors had Tunisian or Syrian flags, it was to express solidarity for those revolutions. Since Saudi Arabia was not having a revolution, one can assume it was either an indication of allegiance to the Saudi monarchy or the regime's religious viewpoints. There's a big difference there. 

Morsi isolates himself

As Egypt’s Crisis Deepens, Morsi Turns to Muslim Brotherhood -

As tens of thousands chanted for his downfall or even imprisonment in a fourth day of protests outside the presidential palace, Mr. Morsi’s advisers and Brotherhood leaders acknowledged Friday that outside his core base of Islamist supporters he feels increasingly isolated in the political arena and even within his own government. The Brotherhood “is who he can depend on,” said one person close to Mr. Morsi, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

Mr. Morsi appears to believe that he and the Brotherhood can deliver a strong vote for the draft constitution in next Saturday’s referendum — strong enough to discredit the opposition, allow him a fresh start and restore some of his authority.

And this:

“He called on the Muslim Brotherhood to become a human shield and protect the presidency because he can’t trust the state,” said the Brotherhood leader. “He is isolated.”

Some leaders might have concluded that this is because they simply don't have a broad mandate to do what they would like to do. Morsi  overreached by implementing a decree that resulted in a much stronger pushback than he expected, and then compounded his mistake and doubled down on rushing the constitution. He has pushed himself increasingly to rely solely on Islamists, and if this referendum takes places he will have only them to rely on for the rest of his administration. Moreover, he and his party last Wednesday incited people to go out into the street and "defend the presidency" — an unjustifiable action with predictable consequences (and an unnecessary one, after all he has the Republican Guards even if interior ministry forces are not to be trusted). Muslim Brothers went out there and held (and allegedly tortured) protestors for 12 hours, on presidency grounds, to extract confessions of a conspiracy. Morsi referred to these as "evidence" of a conspiracy in his speech the following day, but his own public prosecutor released these people. I am struck that this has been missing from much of the coverage of the situation in US media.

Morsi has pushed himself to rely on Islamists and appears to be accepting their resorting to violence on the grounds that violence has been used against the MB. On this trajectory, one can easily see him rely on such "muscle" for the foreseeable future because these protests will not stop once the referendum is held.

Egypt activists call for general strike on #feb11

click for full size

This is the poster designed by graphic artist Ganzeer (whom we interviewed in this podcast) for the upcoming "general strike" announced by revolutionary movements on February 11, the anniversary of Mubarak's overthrow. As al-Ahram reports, the revolutionaries –regrouped under a new umbrella organization – have the following demands:

The Egypt Revolutionaries’ Alliance – which brings under its umbrella over 50 political groups including the country’s six most prominent revolutionary movements – listed seven demands to be met in order for its anticipated campaign of civil disobedience to end.

A host of political groups, university students and workers in various fields have been increasingly calling for a campaign of civil disobedience to begin on 11 February, the one-year anniversary of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak’s ouster.

The group’s chief demand is the immediate handover of power from the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) to a civilian administration in the People’s Assembly (the lower house of Egypt’s parliament). The six additional demands are:

  1. The immediate dismantlement of the incumbent interim government, led by SCAF-appointed premier Kamal El-Ganzouri, and the appointment of a bona fide government of national salvation members of which shall be selected by the People’s Assembly.
  2. The immediate holding of presidential elections.
  3. The formation of an investigative committee mandated with the judicial and executive authority to investigate all crimes and massacres committed by the ruling authorities since 25 January 2011.
  4. The establishment of “revolutionary tribunals” to try all former regime figures found guilty of involvement in crimes committed after the January uprising.
  5. The immediate dismissal of Egypt’s prosecutor general.
  6. The purge and overhaul of Egypt’s Ministry of Interior, especially the National Security apparatus, which continues to be seen largely as a continuation of the notorious, now-defunct State Security apparatus.