Virginity tests, vile bodies: Stories from Sisi’s Egypt

Protest against forced virginity examinations, Cairo, 2011

Protest against forced virginity examinations, Cairo, 2011

What is this furniture
That speaks of departure?
People take up their folding chairs
And emigrate.

Günter Grass, “Folding Chairs”

Three stories about Egypt today:

ONE.  Women’s vaginas belong to the State. Memorably, in March 2011, Egypt’s army forced 17 women demonstrators arrested at Tahrir Square to undergo virginity tests. One general defended the exams to CNN under cover of anonymity, saying, “These were girls who had camped out in tents with male protesters … We didn’t want them to say we had sexually assaulted or raped them, so we wanted to prove that they weren’t virgins in the first place… None of them were.” A suspiciously similar justification for the appalling abuse was offered on the record by the head of military intelligence, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

Sisi promised the military would stop inflicting the exams, but said nothing about other authorities. Sisi is president now. The police enjoy unrestrained power. Last night I spoke to a woman in her early 20s, a university student, who was forced to submit to a virginity test this week. She had accompanied a male friend to a Cairo police station to support him when he was summoned under suspicion of a crime. There, officers searched her bag and found condoms. They threatened to charge her as well — with prostitution.

They didn’t ask my consent or explain what was going to happen, just told me that a woman would search me. Then they brought in a woman who worked in [a nearby business] and all the officers left the room. I knew then this was not an ordinary search, because there would be no need to bring in a woman for that — they could have searched my clothes themselves, I was wearing ordinary pants and my blouse had no pockets.

The woman asked me to take all my clothes off. Then, when I was naked, she told me I had to bend over, over a chair. I did it and she checked my vagina. The woman herself was kind: she kept asking if I was OK and trying to reassure me.  She went out, and I put my clothes on, and the officers came back in.

One of the officers said: “Are you a virgin or not?” That was the first question they asked me when they returned. I said, “I am not. I am sure the woman said that to you.” But he said: “No, she told us you were still a virgin.” Then I understood that the woman had lied to try to protect me. I asked him not to blame her. The officer said: “We can make you a lot of trouble. No one is going to doubt you are a prostitute, because you are 20 and for sure you are not a virgin.”

At the end of her interrogation, which lasted all night, police told her she would be released. But first,

They made me sign a paper with the questions and answers they had asked me. Then I asked them to write another paper and attach it,  certifying that they had inspected my vagina.

The officer smiled. “After we do all these investigations, and we set you free, you are trying to put the blame on us! Very well, I can write it. But if I do, it will put the guilt on you, rather than us, and we will send your case to the prosecutor [niyaba]. The shame and the guilt are yours. And the address we have from your ID is your family’s, and if we take you to the niyaba your family will find out everything about your immorality. Is that what you want?”

I felt I had no choice. I agreed not to ask for the paper in order not to be charged with prostitution.

How often do such stories happen in police stations all over Egypt?

"Fear Me, Government": Street art by Keizer, from . Obviously they do.

“Fear Me, Government”: Street art by Keizer, from http://suzeeinthecity.wordpress.com. Obviously they do.

TWO. The State decides which bodies are legal or illegal. On November 2, the press reported that in El Waily, a district in the northeast of Cairo, Judge Yasser Abu Ghanima ordered a “sissy” [mokhanath] jailed for alleged fraud after trying to undergo a breast augmentation procedure. Hospital officials, detecting a physical anomaly, had handed the deviant male immediately to the police. Arrests of transgender or gender-dissident people in Egypt are commonplace now. But this one was special. The victim’s state ID and birth certificate actually said she was female. On inspection, though, her body wasn’t good enough for the government.

El-Watan interviewed the woman in jail, and published a story on November 3 which was sensational and sympathetic in equal measure.

She doesn’t know how to live and how to deal with the tragedy. On her official documents it says she is a 26-year-old female and her family treats her as female, but the government, represented by El-Zahra Hospital and El-Waily police station, has charged her with fraud in official documents and impersonating a female.

"A Girl is just like a Boy," stencil graffiti by Nooneswa, from http://suzeeinthecity.wordpress.com/

“A girl is just like a boy,” stencil graffiti by Nooneswa, from http://suzeeinthecity.wordpress.com/

The woman’s story, if El-Watan is to be trusted, is indeed terrible. She grew up in a poor family of five children in a village just north of Cairo. Her parents didn’t send her to school. At ten years old, she discovered that what she had “in my lower half” looked like a penis.

“So I told my mother and my sister, and they said that it is a birth defect and can be removed by surgery. I lived with it until I reached the age of 18. Then a neighbor called on me and proposed to me. I was surprised that my mother and my brothers told him I am engaged. I asked my mother about the reason for refusal. She told me that the reason is a congenital defect, I am half male and half female.”

Though they raised her as a girl, her family seems to have tried to rein in her gender presentation after she reached adulthood, rebuking her severely when she bought a ring and a woman’s necklace from a jewelry shop. “I attempted suicide more than once after the treatment that I got from my relatives.” Finally, more than a year ago, she cut off relations with all her family except her mother. “I rented a room by myself; I left the house without anyone knowing the reason, except I told my mother and she understood.” She got a job as a cleaner in a plastic factory near her village.

”I support myself after my parents and relatives abandoned me, trying to save money so that I can have surgery. The doctors told me that the congenital defect can lead to diseases such as cancer. My colleagues at work didn’t notice any difference. I avoided appearing in girls’ clothes that are too revealing. …

“For a year and a half I’ve been living on my own. I visited more than five doctors in government hospitals …. The surgery in a private clinic costs more than 10,000 pounds {$1400 US], and my salary isn’t more than 700 pounds [$100 US] per month. … I refused to have any romantic relationships or marriage. … No one knows the tragedy that’s inside me.”

The arrest victim, face obscured by El-Watan

The arrest victim, face obscured by El-Watan

Finally, she went to El-Zahra University Hospital, in the Abbasiya neighborhood of Cairo, dressing herself in full niqab, and asking for surgery to enlarge her breasts.

“The physician examined my upper part. When I asked the doctor, ‘Will it work, doctor?’ she answered by saying: ‘Don’t worry, dear.’ Then they asked me for a urine sample for analysis. It was rejected. It caused a stir of doubts, and the doctor summoned colleagues, and I had to show the lower part of my body revealing I was ‘a girl with a penis.’”

The hospital personnel “ran to report the ‘girl with the penis’ to the police,” according to El-Watan. She was immediately taken to the El-Waily police station. “Prosecutor Wael El Shamy ordered a forensic investigation to determine her gender,” and “assigned detectives to find her family members and call them in for questioning. The prosecution decided to hold her in the waiting room of the police station and not to place her in a men’s or women’s cell for fear of assault.” There, given the publicity, she will probably be shown off as entertainment to guests.

She was “scared and crying” when El-Watan interviewed her in custody. She pleaded for a doctor “with the heart and conscience to cure me.”

“I ask everyone to help me. I am not just a deformity or birth defect. The upper part of my body is a girl’s, with nipples and long hair, and and there are no other abnormalities. I beg the Minister of Health and the National Council for Human Rights to help me to live a normal life.”

Probably, from this account, the girl was born with an intersex condition. Probably she’s never spoken to a doctor who gave her a chromosome test or a clear account of what is happening to her body. What’s striking is that the doctors immediately saw her genitals as a criminal, not a medical issue. With no questions and no sympathy, they sent her straight from examining room to jail.

Sally Mursi

Sally Mursi

Gender variance and gender ambiguity have a varying and ambiguous status in Egyptian law. The famous case of Sally Mursi, dating back 25 years, has become a — the —  lens through which these issues are seen. While a medical student at Al-Azhar University in 1988, Mursi (born Sayed Mursi) made huge headlines by undergoing gender reassignment surgery. Sheikh Mohammed Sayyed Tantawi, a mufti who later became Grand Imam of Al-Azhar (the highest position in Egyptian Islam) issued a fatwa approving the operation on health grounds; so far as is known, this is the first ruling on transgender issues from a Sunni scholar. The state grudgingly changed her ID papers. But despite the fatwa, the men’s wing of Al-Azhar Medical School expelled her and the women’s school refused to take her; the university defied a series of court orders to readmit her. Mursi could only find work as a nightclub dancer. Other segments of state bureaucracy persecuted her despite her new ID. The Ministry of Culture denied her a dancing permit, the morals police raided her shows, and the government accused her of evading military service, compulsory for men. The Doctor’s Syndicate even expelled her surgeon, Dr. Ezzat Ashmallah, for performing the operation — though he was reinstated later.

So gender reassignment surgery is technically allowed in Egypt, but it doesn’t give the patient a path to a secure legal status. It’s as if the state prefers people in a legal limbo where it can harass them when it likes. The operations are forbiddingly hard to obtain: applicants confront “a long and complicated list of procedures that always end up with the [Doctor's] Syndicate’s refusal to allow gender transformation surgeries,” according to my friend Dalia Abdel Hameed of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. Sympathetic doctors still face professional opprobrium, even arrest. In 2010, prosecutors questioned a physician in Assyut, in Upper Egypt, after the Doctor’s Syndicate turned him in for conducting male-to-female surgeries. The Ministry of Health complained that the operations did not produce “real,” biological women: the patient “is still physically a male without vagina, uterus or female ovaries,” a bureaucrat there said.

The state is still at odds with itself over what makes a “real” man or woman. Unsurprisingly, then, transgender issues in Egypt are conceptually, medically, and legally tangled up with intersex issues. Both raise the same questions: what (and where in the body) is the truth of gender?

Lie back and think of Egypt: A doctor at work

Lie back and think of Egypt: A doctor at work

Some Egyptian doctors have staked out their territory where transgender people are concerned, claiming they can produce the truth, that medicine can resolve the “problem” — though their own professional syndicate punishes them for saying so. Similarly, some doctors are struggling to establish their expertise and control over intersex people’s bodies. Surgeries to mutilate and reshape the genitals of intersex infants, widespread in many other countries, seem mercifully less common in Egypt. One reason: female genital mutilation pre-empts them. One surgeon said in 2004:

“Circumcision is an informal law in Upper Egyptian families. In most villages, they circumcise the girl 40 days after her birth. So in intersexed cases, they simply cut off the penis, putting us and the patient in a more difficult situation,” he says. “We then have to start from scratch, constructing a new penis. Female circumcision is a crime that should be banned by all means. As you can see, it doesn’t only damage a girl’s life, it can also destroy the future of a male.”

Yet news reports suggest that in recent years an increasing number of adults like the woman in El-Waily are seeking doctors’ help because their bodies don’t make sense to them.

Here’s the thing, though: The state wants hegemony over physical existence. And it isn’t about to surrender its power over ambiguous bodies to busybodies in white coats. Despite doctors’ efforts to brand gender identity as a medical issue, which at least takes it out of the law’s ambit, trans* people are still criminals in Egypt. In the last year a massive campaign of arrest and abuse brutalized trans* people and mokhanatheen (“effeminate” men). It conveys a clear message. In Sisi’s reborn Egypt, men must be men, not long-haired revolutionaries, not insidious sissies. The state will decide what’s deviant, and punish it.

Arrest of alleged mokhanatheen in Heliopolis, Cairo, on May 4, 2014, from Akhbar El-Hawadeth

Arrest of alleged mokhanatheen in Heliopolis, Cairo, on May 4, 2014, from Akhbar El-Hawadeth

Intersex bodies are caught in the repression. Your ID isn’t enough to make you safe. You may have lived a life conforming to your legal papers, but if your body doesn’t fit your birth certificate point for point, it’s not a “condition,” it’s a crime. Doctors’ duty is to surrender confusing cases to the police.

Sally Mursi told a reporter how, when her gender reassignment surgery ignited scandal in 1988, she and her surgeon “were summoned by the State Prosecutor’s Office,”

“which was investigating charges against us, claiming I conspired with Dr. Ezzat Ashamallah to cause myself a permanent deformity that stirred up ‘social instability and public disorder.’ Don’t you dare underestimate me … I’m as dangerous as any terrorist!”

Egypt is now suffering another state-sponsored frenzy over fears of terrorism, and bodies that stir up “social instability” are demonized all over again. The story of the woman in El-Waily isn’t just a personal tragedy. It’s a paradigm of a regime that founds its legitimacy on masculinity, mass panic, surveillance, and control.

"Don’t label me," stencil graffiti by Nooneswa, from http://suzeeinthecity.wordpress.com/

“Don’t label me,” stencil graffiti by Nooneswa, from http://suzeeinthecity.wordpress.com/

THREE. One thing the press stories on Egypt won’t tell you about is the departures. Not loud enough to furnish headlines, the withdrawing footsteps drum in an undertone these days, a slow diminuendo of closing doors. Several well-known rights activists left the country in recent weeks, shadowed by warnings of imminent arrest. Yesterday, November 10, was the deadline for NGOs to submit to the supervision of the “Ministry of Social Solidarity” (Miniluv); recalcitrants may be shut down, their staff arrested. Some groups are already shuttering, some employees discreetly looking for visas. The melancholy and menace of endings suffuse casual encounters. You go to a goodbye party for a friend who’s off for a three-day conference abroad, and find he has no definite plans to return. All my gay friends are talking about leaving, all, without exception; to walk the street with one is to trek haltingly between the windows of travel agents’ offices, plate glass shimmering with flights priced out of reach. And these are the lucky, still free to dream of exits. Prisons and camps are crammed with tens of thousands of political prisoners, most though not all Islamists, who will stay till the regime is done with them.

Annibale Gatti (1828-1909) Dante in Exile, Palazzo Pitti, Florence, Italy

Annibale Gatti (1828-1909) Dante in Exile, Palazzo Pitti, Florence, Italy

No such exodus ever blighted the Mubarak years. I always felt most Egyptians would never abandon Egypt until the last extremity: even the most endangered used to try to stick it out back then, staying put despite the direst warnings. Yet settling over Egypt’s remaining liberals now is a fear some barely bring themselves to whisper. Nobody ever thought things could be worse than under the old dictator. They can.

I see you: Sisi in full regalia

I see you: Sisi in full regalia

A decade ago, liberals and activists and democrats led almost charmed lives – seen from the darkness of today. They might be harassed at the airport or threatened by State Security in late-night calls, but they were rarely arrested. If they were detained, the thugs would hold them a few days, even torture them a bit pour encourager les autres, then set them loosethey almost never went to prison. Mubarak didn’t take the liberals seriously. A few kids staging tiny protests, a few offices emitting press releases: this was not where he divined a threat. The most horrific extremes — the electroshock and ice-water tortures, the years or decades in stinking cells with no hope of trial, the disappearance into nameless places where no spouse or lawyer could find you — he reserved for his most feared enemies, the Islamists: the Muslim Brotherhood and those to the right of it.

Sisi’s regime doesn’t just jail and torture the Brotherhood. It kills them. The penalty for guilty liberals has also ratcheted upwards. The main tenet of this dictatorship is that Mubarak failed because he was weak. Leniency seduced him; he relaxed the reins to let human rights groups yammer, reporters report, bloggers blog, students demonstrate. No more. When human rights researcher Yara Sallam is sent to prison for three years, it’s a signal to NGOs that cells are ready for them. When journalists from Al-Jazeera get 7-to-15-year sentences, it’s a sign for foreigners and journalists: neither passports nor press cards protect them. No one is safe.

So much of Sisi’s regime is about dominating people’s bodies. The draconian protest law passed last year criminalizes the physical solidarity and togetherness that produced the Revolution in Midan Tahrir. Sexual harassment controls women on the street. The metastasizing police presence treats almost every gesture as a subversive act. The government doesn’t just want to regulate opinion or suppress dissent; its invasions have a grittily material aim, getting under the skin and in the bones, as if Sisi wants to subject the whole population to a military drill.

"No to sexual harassment," street art by Mira Shihadeh, from

This picture does not represent reality: “No to sexual harassment,” street art by Mira Shihadeh, from http://suzeeinthecity.wordpress.com

They control you. They can throw your body in jail at any time; or they can use you to find out what other bodies are up to. Last week police compelled a young man — I’ll call him Walid — to admit he was gay after detaining him for a different offense. I interviewed another person held briefly in the same case, who said:

They told Walid that he had the chance to go free. But the officer who was playing “good cop” added: “If you want to get this case cancelled, here is a pen and paper. Write down all the men you have had sex with: name, and age, and address. We promise we won’t hurt them — it’s just a favor to us.”

Walid hesitated and the policeman said: “While we were questioning you, you must have realized that we know everything. We know the [Internet] accounts of you people, we know your numbers. We don’t even need this. But I am trying to help you. You need to show us you are grateful.”

Walid wrote down a bunch of  names, some foreigners and some Egyptians. When he was finished, the policeman said: “All right. Now tell me which ones are tops and which are bottoms.”

A friend of mine asked me the other day if it was true he could get Ugandan citizenship and resettle there. He’s gay, and he knows all about Uganda and the gays. That tells you how bad things are in Egypt.

The dissidents, the revolutionaries, the activists, the long-hairs, the ones with weird or unwanted bodies, the gays and the mokhanatheen: They all look the same to the government, grimy deviants. Probably they are, but they are also prophets. Nobody likes prophets, because they are unmoored from the real. They dream of freedom – political, bodily, sexual — when it does not exist and is an insult to the unfree. Mubarak’s dictatorship bred prophets, who turned the crawlspaces and margins where they were ignored into cribs of liberty where they could dream. The prophets saw the light coming, and many saw the darkness that would follow it too. And what is the fate of prophets?

When the locusts occupied our town,
no milk came to the door, the dailies suffocated,
our jails were opened to release
all prophets.
They streamed through the streets,
3800 prophets,
talking and teaching without restriction,
and eating their fill of that gray
and jumpy mess
we called the plague.

So everything was fine and up to expectations.

Soon our milk came again; our papers reappeared;
And prophets filled our jails.

Günter Grass, “Food for Prophets”

Street art supporting  the digital platform "The Uprising of Women in the Arab World’

Street art supporting the digital platform “The Uprising of Women in the Arab World’

Tim Cook’s coming out: Leaning in, trickling down

Poster - Coming Out Party_04I’ve lost interest in being gay. Not the sex; the slogans. This has been gathering over time – whose identity wouldn’t shudder under the dark suspicion it was shared with John Travolta?  – but something changed when coming out stopped being a matter of self-affirmation, with its secret thrill of hedonism, and became a moral obligation. What’s the fun of being yourself if you have to?

Everyone must be out now; and it’s not enough to be out, you have to be out enough to affirm the community, uplift the race. Thus Guy Branum (“writer and comedian”) has reprimanded Nate Silver, the numbers man, who announced he was gay a couple of years ago. Silver topped off his moment of candor, however, with a demurral: “I don’t want to be Nate Silver, gay statistician.” Wrong.

Silver’s refusal to fully participate in gay identity is the real problem … We can’t behave like Nate Silver’s choice to distance himself from gay culture is just another choice. … We need to make it safe for a statistician to be gay and have it affect their work, because some people are gay, some people are black, some people are women and all of those perspectives can enrich all fields. Nate Silver being a gay statistician will help that. [emphasis added]

Just as Philip Roth had to be a Jewish novelist, and Toni Morrison had to be a black writer, constrained in the gated communities of identity, so “yes, Nate Silver, you have to be a gay statistician.” Coming out isn’t just a public act because it’s addressed to a public, but because it’s owned by one.

Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, came out this week, and oh the humanity. People didn’t just congratulate him; they hailed him as Moses or Martin Luther King, as if he hadn’t just written an op-ed in Bloomberg Businessweek but had revised the Bible.

“Tim Cook’s announcement today will save countless lives. He has always been a role model, but today millions across the globe will draw inspiration from a different aspect of his life”

so said Chad Griffin of the Human RIghts Campaign. Apple is “a sponsor of the Human Rights Campaign” (“The work we do with these groups is meaningful and inspiring,” the company says). While it’s impossible to decipher how much money they ladle out, they give enough to make them an HRC “Platinum Partner.” HRC thus slobbers on the hand that feeds it. But some praise for Cook is unpaid. The unbribeable New York Times quoted the unbribeable Lloyd Blankfein, of Goldman Sachs:  “He’s chief executive of the Fortune One. Something has consequences because of who does it, and this is Tim Cook and Apple. This will resonate powerfully.”

A light in the darkness: Cook, with logo

A light in the darkness: Cook, with logo

I love my Apple swag, and God forbid I should be cynical. Yet for days fulsome praise of Cook filled my Mac’s screen, and I resisted just enough to wonder where the enthusiasm came from. How will a rich executive’s painless revelation, offered at the apex of his career, change lives, even save them? What do you mean, it will “resonate” — where, with whom? What does it say about our ritual public confessionals? What does it say about us?

Start with this. The New York Times quotes “Richard L. Zweigenhaft, co-author of Diversity in the Power Elite: How It Happened, Why it Matters … who has closely tracked the progress of minorities in business.” For Zweigenhaft, Cook’s announcement inspired “the same feeling that I had back in 1998, when many were speculating about when the first African-American would be appointed a Fortune-level chief executive.”

It’s odd Zweigenhaft was speculating about that in 1998. The first African-American head of a Fortune firm dates back to 1987. (At least by some counts.) So much for “closely monitoring.” The man was Clifton Wharton, and he was CEO and chairman of the pension behemoth TIAA-CREF.*

Jet Magazine, May 21, 1970, covers Clifton White's elevation to university president. Note that a nun gets higher billing.

Jet magazine, May 21, 1970, covers Clifton White’s elevation to university president. Note that a nun gets higher billing.

Yet questions start. One is: How earthshaking is it for a minority to run an enormous corporation if you don’t even notice when it happens? Another is: Why didn’t African-Americans explode with joy? Thirteen black men and one black woman have headed Fortune 500 companies since then. The “African-American community” seems different from the “gay community” (and not just because the “gay community,” whenever you hear the term, seems to mean a klatsch of people who are exclusively Clorox white). African-Americans didn’t hold a vast potlatch of rejoicing back when Wharton got his job, nor when Franklin Raines took charge of Fannie Mae and Lloyd Ward took over Maytag in 1999. Nor are those successes lodged in some collective memory today. Wharton crops up, for instance, in a book called African American Firsts: Famous Little-Known and Unsung Triumphs of Blacks. Perhaps that’s a warning to Tim Cook: you can go from resonator, life-saver to little-known, unsung in the time it takes to get a gold watch. Fame is a by-the-hour motel.

It’s not that those people’s strivings and stories aren’t important. But they haven’t fed the same hyperbole that Cook has among the gays. It’s’s presumptuous to generalize — yet African-Americans seem to have different priorities for celebration. Conservatives have, of course, a long history of condemning “black cultural pathology”: they cherish what Michael Eric Dyson calls “an updated version of beliefs about black moral deficiency as ancient as the black presence in the New World.” For the Right, this refusal to deify the capitalists in your community would be a prime case study. If ghetto kids only read Ayn Rand and Horatio Alger, as infant gays do, then we wouldn’t have to gun them down! Lamenting the lack of a black John Galt is wrong in many ways. It neglects the obvious fact that capitalism has appeared in African-American history more as pathology than cure. John Galt himself, copper-haired and green-eyed, might have had a complicated relationship to private properties if his color made him one. There’s plenty of room for asking: How, if a system’s past is entwined with enslavement and exploitation, can it suddenly start strewing opportunity? Where’s the catch? 

Loves of the blondes: Dagny Taggart and John Galt fret over the law of the tendency of the falling rate of profit, in recent film of Atlas Shrugged

Loves of the blondes: Dagny Taggart and John Galt fret over the law of the tendency of the falling rate of profit, in recent film of Atlas Shrugged

Cornel West has written how the “nihilism” he excoriates in black communities stems from “the saturation of market forces and market moralities in black life.” Yet Lloyd Hogan, the African-American economist and theorist of black empowerment, had a slightly different take. That negativity wasn’t just what the market left behind after scouring out all other values; “nihilism” abjured superficial hope, but could nourish a sustaining culture of resistance.

“Legally stolen African-American labor, transformed into non-Black material wealth,” long spelled “the physical death of the African-American population,” Hogan wrote. But there is also an “African-American internal labor to overcome the ravages of death.”

A significant component of that internal labor is indeed the development of a consciousness within the Black community to eradicate the social source of its exploitation.

Inherent in the internal labor of the African-American population is the  … creation of a surplus African-American population above and beyond the exploitative needs of capital. This is reflected in the growing absolute magnitude of unemployed African-Americans, who represent the “freeing-up” of African-Americans from the binding forces of the capitalist market mechanism. Unemployment among members of the African-American population could be part of a process that portends growing liberation of these people from direct capitalist exploitative mechanisms.

There’s a touch of the smugness of the Marxist longue durée here. The not-so-Marxist point is, though, that a liberatory consciousness doesn’t just arise through labor within the system. The working classes aren’t the only potential rebels. Being shut out from the system can emancipate you from its terms. The “internal labor” of developing that freed consciousness is a work of culture. A disparate range of cultural phenomena, seen in this context, start to make sense together. You can recognize the gangsta celebration of gain unredeemed by even the faintest hint of productive purpose, which reveals money for what Brecht and Proudhon said it was – a glint of bling decking the fact of theft; you can recall an exaltation of bodies driven by defiant needs, in dance or sport, no longer drilled and regimented by the factory ethic. These sensibilities deny the nostrums of triumphant capitalism; they form an ungoverned undercurrent in American culture, otherwise bound to the wheel of Work and Progress. To see them as freedom takes only a slight shift in vantage – though something enormous is required to shake white folks away from the heritage of Horatio Alger. Resistance isn’t just rejection; it’s the creation of visions of life alternative to what the prevailing economy has on offer. African-American experience has been rich enough in the legacy of these not to wallow abjectly in the rubbed-off pride of a few singular success stories.

Sublimate this drive: Cover of 1972 edition of Eros and Civilization

Sublimate this drive: Cover of 1972 edition of Eros and Civilization

Didn’t homosexuality stand for something like that once? To claim the flesh is designed for desire and fun, not just assembly lines and breeding, was more subversion than self-indulgence. It formed a dissent and an alternative to the work-and-win compulsiveness of American life. It rebelled against the body’s subordination to morality and economy alike, its subjection to an imperative of production. Back in the Sixties, before Grindr or Lady Gaga, a lonely homo might spend a Saturday night reading Paul Goodman or Herbert Marcuse. For Marcuse, homosexuality “protests against the repressive order of procreative sexuality.” The “repressive organization of sexuality” by culture parallels the repressive organization of creativity by capital:

The sex instincts bear the brunt of the reality principle. Their organization culminates in the subjection of the partial sex instincts to the primacy of genitality, and in their subjugation under the function of procreation. … This organization results in a quantitative and qualitative restriction of sexuality…. it is turned into a specialized temporary function, into a means for an end.

Homosexuality portends a polymorphous sexuality liberating physical existence from the factory floor, fantasy unshackled from the demands of realism. Our future hinges “on the opportunity to activate repressed or arrested organic, biological needs: to make the human body an instrument of pleasure rather than labor. … The emergence of new, qualitatively different needs and faculties seemed to be the prerequisite, the content of liberation.” The great mythic figures who embodied that perversity, Orpheus and Narcissus, “reveal a new reality, with an order of its own, governed by different principles.”

Innocent in the garden: Marcuse

Innocent in the garden: Herbert Marcuse in the Sixties

Those were heady days, when through the thickets of even the densest prose flickered glimpses of an erotic Eden; naked in the undergrowth, Marx and Freud copulated under a fringe of green leaves. The gays were tutelary spirits of this verdant wood, dissidents by definition.

And now, no more. The gay movement put on its pants and wandered in a different direction. Nobody’s interested in liberation anymore; least of all those who praise placidly zipped-up, buttoned-down Tim Cook. Brittney Cooper wrote a few days ago about the gulf between black and white feminisms in the United States: “White women’s feminisms still center around equality …  Black women’s feminisms demand justice. There is a difference.  One kind of feminism focuses on the policies that will help women integrate fully into the existing American system. The other recognizes the fundamental flaws in the system and seeks its complete and total transformation.” It’s tempting to say that here’s the distinction between the gay politics we practice now– the pursuit of belonging — and other movements that retained a tingle of radical aspiration, of transformational edge.

But does the gay movement even believe in “equality”? This is what the Tim Cook carnival makes me wonder. How can you praise equality when your poster boy is worth $400 million?

That’s an undercount. In 2011, Apple paid Cook $378 million, and his price has surely gone up. Business Insider notes that, although “compensated handsomely,” Cook

chooses to live a modest lifestyle. Cook lives in a modest, 2,400-square-foot condo in Palo Alto, which he bought for $1.9 million in 2010. He’s quoted as saying in the book Inside Apple: “I like to be reminded of where I came from, and putting myself in modest surroundings helps me do that. Money is not a motivator for me.”

The threefold refrain of “modest” is sweet. It’s true that most Americans spend much more than 1/200th of their annual income on a house. It’s also true that most don’t spend two million dollars. Cook is too poor to show up on Forbes’ list of the country’s very richest. But that’s OK; he’s Number 25 in its rankings of the most powerful people on the planet, “our annual lineup of the politicians and financiers, entrepreneurs and CEOs, and billionaire philanthropists who rule the world.” That’s an interesting list. It’s not about opportunity; it’s certainly not about democracy. Among the first 25 only five — Barack Obama, Angela Merkel, David Cameron, Narendra Modi, François Hollande — are political leaders elevated in reasonably fair elections (unless you count the Pope). The rest are dictators or businessmen. It’s their world. We just die in it.

Equal affection, trickling down

Equal affection, trickling down

The gay movement talks about equality all the time. LGBT groups across the country sport it in their names; you could play a lethal drinking game with it cropping up in speeches; and then there are those damn equality signs, and the profile pictures. But how equal is it when your role model — “trailblazer,” “hero,” “an American Dream story” — has power and money to which no American can aspire?  It means your idea of equality has gone off the rails. “He serves as a shining example that you can be who you are, you can be gay, and become the CEO of the most valuable company in the world.” No, he doesn’t. In this century of spreading poverty, in this country of oligarchy, in this economy of injusticeno sane gay kid can or should grow up with the delusion that the path to infinite acquisition lies open.

Shave off every hair you can find, son, and after that we'll practice cutting your throat to drive out Satan: Father as role model, from right-wing group Focus on the Family's website

Shave off every hair you can find, son, and after that we’ll practice cutting your throat to drive out Satan: Father as role model, in a photo from right-wing group Focus on the Family’s website

What underpins this is the American gay movement’s firm, longstanding belief in a trickle-down theory of culture. We’re not trying to change realities, just opinions. A few well-placed examples at the top of things, a few powerful promoters of tolerance, and enlightenment will leak and dribble down to the mind-starved masses. We don’t need to tinker with the system, we don’t need to ask what keeps patriarchy going, we never need to think about money, we don’t need to wonder how poverty shapes masculinity or limits women or deforms childhood, and remember: race and militarism and the Gulag of mass incarceration have zero to do with sex or gender. All it takes are role models. The obsession with role models makes gay politics seem like a nonstop casting call. Celebrities — LGBT and out, or non-LGBT and approving — are the movement’s moral leaders; it’s as if Sidney Poitier and Spencer Tracy were the whole March on Washington. It’s all justified by the children — the kids who don’t need child care, or recourses from domestic violence, or protective laws, or better schools and textbooks, or homes for that matter, and who are never black or Latino or poor or anything except gay; they just need a wealthy gay man or occasional lesbian to look up to, otherwise they will commit suicide. In fact, children don’t kill themselves because of the absence of Tim Cook (unless, of course, they are Tim Cook’s children). They kill themselves because their families or communities fuck them over, and it takes more than a Silicon Valley executive to fix that. Cook may be a decent man, but Chad Griffin only calls him a “lifesaver” because Chad Griffin is unable or unwilling to think about the structural changes that might actually save children’s lives.

Trickle-down culture is a retreat from both “equality” and “justice.” It lures the gay movement into a never-never land where images fix facts miraculously, and a magic charisma conveyed by gods through their chosen paparazzi withers all wrongs like blighted figs. Trickle-down politics is a politics of pure recognition, where persuading the powerful to acknowledge your existence with a gesture or a sign calls for an abased, degrading gratitude, and substitutes for getting anything that counts. Trickle-down culture is the perfect entryway to trickle-down economics, the belief that the rich, like the famous, bless us by their mere existence. Contagious success is a lie. “Leaning in” doesn’t help those whose backs are against the wall. But while we beatify Cook as gay gazillionaire, that old Horatio Alger horseshit becomes part of America’s new gay ideology.

Trickle-down politics: Did I ever tell you you're my hero?

Trickle-down politics: Did I ever tell you you’re my hero?

We are ruled less by ourselves than by the rich, and everybody knows this, and the organized gay movement isn’t fighting that, just trying to get the rich on our side. This isn’t a job for activists, but for courtiers. Most other social movements in the US have figured out this won’t work, and why. They know by heart what Brecht said: “When everyone’s pursuing happiness, happiness comes in last.” If any African-Americans ever needed a lesson in the failure to trickle down, they got it in Franklin Raines, who became the first black CEO of Fannie Mae. What kind of role model was he? Raines enthusiastically drew the lending giant into the subprime mortgage business. His motives aren’t clear; perhaps, like many others at the time, he genuinely wanted to get the very poor invested in the economic system by making them homeowners. Or perhaps he wanted to raise his corporation’s short-term earnings, because his pay was based on them. (His creative accounting ended up overstating the earnings by more than $6 billion anyway, possibly in a conspiracy to inflate his bonuses.) Plenty of African-Americans took out mortgages and invested in the system, and when the system collapsed in 2008 it left them destitute. The money went to Raines and the banks. It trickled up.

I’m reasonably sure Tim Cook is a good man, personally. I fear the possibility he’ll be the gay community’s Franklin Raines. Apple makes beautiful things that gays love; but amid the euphoria, isn’t it reasonable to ask just what else the corporation does for us? Cook has tried to lever up Apple’s philanthropy, including to the Human RIghts Campaign. (“Unlike cofounder Steve Jobs who thought his company should focus on maximizing shareholders’ value so they can donate their own wealth, the new boss is adamant that Apple must do more.”)  In 2011, the corporation gave away $150 million, against $100 billion it had in the bank. This generosity takes on a paltry cast when you realize that, though now valued at more than $118 billion, Apple pays only a pittance in taxes. Anywhere. It’s one of Earth’s biggest tax cheats. For instance, Apple may seem to you like a Silicon Valley firm; on paper, though, it’s settled itself in Ireland, a notorious tax haven. It routs its international sales — 60% of its profits — through dummy companies in Dublin. From 2009 to 2012 it attributed net income of $30 billion to another offshore subsidiary which “declined to declare any tax residence, filed no corporate income tax return and paid no corporate income taxes to any national government for five years.” It’s as though Apple were a spaceship. A Congressional report estimates Apple evaded $9 billion in 2012 US taxes. Forbes, not usually a a Marxist rag, blasted the “vanity and contempt for government … amply displayed in Apple’s tax figures.”

Not giving at the office: Apple's profits vs. Apple's taxes, 2007-2011

Not giving at the office: Apple’s profits vs. Apple’s taxes, 2007-2011

Apple’s philanthropy redistributes to private causes what it robs from public coffers – a tiny mite of what it robs, anyway. Instead of paying its dues to democratic governments, where disposing the proceeds would be a shared decision (you vote on what to with tax money), Apple gives what and when it wants to whomever it chooses. That’s neoliberalism in action. Here it’s the gays who profit at the public’s expense. I don’t grudge them. But LGBT groups could get other donors to support their battle against bullying in education; whereas dwindling tax dollars are the only thing that supports the education. End school bullying. Don’t end the schools.

This meme was made on a Mac: From Americans for Tax Fairness

This meme was made on a Mac: From Americans for Tax Fairness

One area where Apple did something nice for the gays at last, after a string of mistakes, was privacy. True, it took long enough: years of bad publicity and stonewalling before the corporation showed it was truly serious about information safety. Data protection is vital to LGBT people for obvious reasons; not everyone is out, and cops and blackmailers in many jurisdictions would love to learn who isn’t. When Apple issued a new, sweeping privacy statement last month, promising not to share information with either marketers or governments, it was especially important to those customers. For sure, it’s part of the corporation’s branding:

Apple has always tried to build an emotional connection between its devices and customers. With its increasing focus on privacy, it’s clear that Apple not only sees privacy as important to maintaining this bond, but as a means of differentiating itself from the competition.

It’s also imperfect – cops can seize information even if it’s not handed over — and Apple needs to answer many more questions. (Why does the Mac operating system still send Apple keystroke-by-keystroke data on what you do?) Yet the protections will let vulnerable users rest a bit more easy.

EyePhone: BIg brother thinks different

EyePhone: Big brother thinks different

“Privacy” is an interesting idea, though. It was a key theme in Tim Cook’s coming-out op-ed, a month after Apple’s your-data’s-safe-with-us campaign started — suggesting he saw his honesty through the same lens, perhaps as part of the same PR. “Throughout my professional life, I’ve tried to maintain a basic level of privacy,” he intoned, but “my desire for personal privacy has been holding me back from doing something more important.” Could this be a way of saying, Listen, geeks, there are bigger things than your selfish insecurity about your silly secrets? What’s certain is: Cook is willing to forgo his personal obscurity and become a news story and symbol; but Apple, by contrast, protects its corporate privacy to the death. Literally.

On July 16, 2009, Sun Danyong, 25 a Chinese factory worker for Apple’s manufacturing supplier Foxconn Technology, killed himself by jumping from the window of his 12th-floor apartment. Three days earlier, he’d told the company he’d lost a prototype model for the next-generation IPhone. Foxconn security forces searched his home, interrogated him, and beat him. Two hours before he died, Sun texted his girlfriend:

“My dear, I’m sorry, go back home tomorrow, something has happened to me, please don’t tell my family, don’t contact me, this is the first time that I have ever begged you, please agree to that! I am so sorry!”

And he wrote to a friend: “Even at a police station, the law says force must never be used, much less in a corporate office. … Thinking that I won’t be bullied tomorrow, won’t have to be the scapegoat, I feel much better.”

Sun Dan YongSun’s death drew attention to the human consequences of Apple’s obsessive concern with secrecy. It also pulled back the veil on working conditions for those who make your IPhones and IPads. In 2010 alone, 18 Foxconn workers attempted suicide, and 14 died. Mic.com describes Tian Yu, a17-year-old migrant from rural China:

Her managers made her work over 12 hours a day, often without a day off for up to two weeks, and attend unpaid work meetings on top of that. Tian Yu’s demanding work schedule in Foxconn’s sweatshop-like conditions forced her to skip meals and accept the manufacturer’s restricted toilet break policy.

The company finally sent her on a bureaucratic run-around to get the meager monthly wages of just over $200 it owed her. She bussed from office to office in a futile quest: “Why was it so hard to get what I’d earned? Why must they torture me like this?” she asked a reporter later. That day, she jumped from her dormitory window, and barely survived.

A Hong Kong-based watchdog investigated working conditions at Foxconn, and found its factories were more like military labor camps. A Hong Kong professor, Jack Qiu, made a powerful short film on Foxconn’s sweatshops:

A former Foxconn manager told the New York Times that “Apple never cared about anything other than increasing product quality and decreasing production cost. Workers’ welfare has nothing to do with their interests.”

Apple promised audits and produced its own figures, but showed angry indignation that anyone dared impugn its motives or inspect its claims. Tim Cook said in a company-wide email that he was “outraged”: but by the abuses, or the reporting?

Unfortunately some people are questioning Apple’s values today … We care about every worker in our worldwide supply chain. …. Any suggestion that we don’t care is patently false and offensive to us. As you know better than anyone, accusations like these are contrary to our values. … For the many hundreds of you who are based at our suppliers’ manufacturing sites around the world, or spend long stretches working there away from your families, I know you are as outraged by this as I am.

What stands out is Apple’s fierce concern not just for its customers’ privacy, but for its own. Corporations are people too, and they have their intimacies. If they enjoy the full rights of free speech, surely they’re entitled to keep the state out of their bedrooms. Would you fuck somebody – the workers, in this case — with a whistleblower watching?

Apple’s philanthropy is a good investment. By buying up shares in US civil society, they ensure noisy activists will side with them, and ignore the nameless foreign workers. Apple donates to HRC in part to give itself a, well, righteous gloss. How could a bigtime patron of the Human RIghts Campaign flout human rights?

Hello down there, little man: Tim Cook tours a Foxconn factory in Zhengzhou, China, in 2012

Hello down there, little man: Tim Cook tours a Foxconn factory in Zhengzhou, China, in 2012

But all this exposes still another scandal: The complicity of US social movements with corporate abuse.

There’s nothing new here, and it’s not unique to Apple. In 2012, Bil Browning revealed how “One day after several leaders from LGBT orgs met to talk about American Airlines’ anti-union activities and how it’s been affecting their LGBT employees, the Human Rights Campaign sent out an email urging their supporters to purchase airline tickets from the company.” American Airlines is another big donor to HRC; just like Apple, it’s a “Platinum Partner.” Effectively, these companies pay the gays to pinkwash them, to do their PR work. Purchasing social movements through philanthropy is remunerative traffic for the Fortune 500, and the gays come cheap. All I can say is: when onetime activists for liberated desire become hired flacks for the profiteers of sweatshop abuses, we’ve come a long, long way from Marcuse.

It's my party: Movie poster from 1934

It’s my party: Movie poster from 1934

Coming out is so complicated! I began by citing somebody’s demand that Nate Silver come out as a “gay statistician.” What is a “gay statistician?” Presumably it means you deal in gay statistics. And what are those? If you’re gay, or black, or Jewish and a novelist, I get how you may write gay, or black, or Jewish novels – a novel tells stories, and the teller’s identity is free to enter. But how professional is it to pass pure numbers through the sieve of self? Or maybe it’s all about the subjects you research. Should gay Nate Silver serve us up statistics about the gay community, then? Yet that might include statistics the gay community’s leaders wouldn’t like us to hear. You know — figures like:

  • How much does Apple pay the Human Rights Campaign to advertise for it?
  • How many praise-filled Tim Cook-related press releases were funded by Tim Cook-related money?
  • How much money do groups that rate corporations’ “gay-friendliness” take from corporations?
  • What percentage of the US LGBT movement’s funding comes from corporate donors, or donors high-placed in corporations? And on what terms?
  • What percentage of LGBT groups taking cash from corporations have ever criticized the human rights record of those corporations?

No, that won’t do. I’m sure the Human Rights Campaign prefers fewer, not more, gay statisticians.

I have nothing against Tim Cook. I wish him well. We spend too much time looking for individuals to blame for the horrors we dimly discern in the world; it diverts us from thinking about the system that dictates individuals’ acts, and constrains their desires. Cook’s coming out, I think, is an attempt to be a personality in a career that provided few chances for it: to claim a little corner of real, old-time personhood, not the corporate kind, inside a structure where selves subordinate themselves to shareholder value. (Even Steve Jobs, as quirky a figure as any leader in US life, tried with Zen obsessiveness to erase and efface himself down to desireless degree zero.) But if being gay can be bought and sold, it’s not a realm of self-expression anymore. Rebellious soul and body dwindle to a market niche. Cook at least has a distinctive prose style: “We pave the sunlit path toward justice together, brick by brick,” he wrote in his op-ed. “This is my brick.” But where is that stone cemented? Is it the yellow brick road? Or another brick in the wall?

* NOTE: TIAA-CREF has always been enormous, but it doesn’t seem to have appeared on the Fortune 500 list until 1998, I suspect because the magazine tweaked its rules then to include non-profit corporations. It’s been on there steadily ever since. So does Wharton’s 1987 accomplishment count? Was TIAA-CREF technically a Fortune company in 1987, since it was later? In any case, Wharton lists himself as the first African-American Fortune 500 CEO: here, for instance, and here. Either the Times didn’t acknowledge him as it should, or Wharton shows how CEOs — perhaps including Cook as well — are not to be trusted to measure their own importance.

Booya

Booya

Two trials, two travesties

Convicted men in the wedding video trial cover the faces as police lead them from the courtroom cage, Cairo, November 1, 2014: Photo © Independent (UK)

Convicted men in the wedding video trial cover their faces as police lead them from the courtroom cage, Cairo, November 1, 2014: Photo © Independent (UK)

Eight men were sent to prison today in Cairo, because their faces flickered through a video that prosecutors said showed a “gay wedding.” They got three years; after that, they’ll serve another three years’ “probation,” sleeping every night from dusk to dawn in a police station. Their lives are ruined.

It’s not even clear yet what charges they were convicted of. The heavy book thrown at them seems to have included “incitement to debauchery” (fujur, the term of art for male homosexual conduct in Egyptian law); that’s article 14 of Law 10/1961, in itself worth up to three years in prison. There were also articles 178 or 179 of the criminal code, anti-pornography provisions that punish “manufacturing or possessing materials that violate public morals,” or “inciting passersby to commit indecency on a public road.” The charges were ridiculous. The defendants didn’t spread the video or incite anyone to anything — when the film went viral on YouTube, those who were in it tried desperately to get it taken down. The film clip wasn’t remotely pornographic. YouTube is not a public road. There was no proof the men were gay. A representative of the country’s Forensic Medical Authority — who inflicted abusive and intrusive anal examinations on them all, and found even by those bogus standards they were “unused” – said, “The entire case is made up and lacks basis. The police did not arrest them red-handed and the video does not prove anything.” In Egypt, though, trials no longer proceed through proof, just prejudice and fear. Rampant political opportunism trampling the remains of rule of law: that’s General Sisi’s Egypt.

Full leather drag: Central Security (Amn El-Merkezi) forces on the march in Cairo

Full leather drag: Central Security (Amn El-Merkezi) forces on the march in Cairo

On October 26, in a court in a sun-baked Cairo military compound, 23 defendants also got three years in prison, and three years of further dusk-to-dawn confinement. They included my friend Yara Sallam, a feminist and human rights activist, and six other women, and sixteen men. Among them also were Sanaa Seif, a young democracy activist, the daughter of the late, heroic human rights lawyer Ahmed Seif el-Islam, who died in August while working on her defense; a well-known photographer, Rania El-Sheikh; Mohammed Anwar or “Anno,” a revolutionary veteran who was a gifted member of a modern dance company as well; and more. Their crime was being on the scene of a peaceful June 21 demonstration near the Presidential Palace. The protest was against Egypt’s new, repressive protest law, which the military government imposed by decree last year. The law lets the state imprison anyone who voices opposition in the streets without permission. It’s meant to put any and all dissent in its proper place: a penitentiary.

If I can't dance, I don't want your revolution: Mohammed Anwar

If I can’t dance, I don’t want your revolution: Mohammed Anwar

“This is a politicized sentence. There isn’t any evidence against the defendants,” one of the defense attorneys told the media after the verdict came down. Who the hell cares? The day after the verdict Sisi excreted a new decree. It gives military courts jurisdiction over crimes committed in almost any public spaces. The security establishment saw its powers expand exponentially at a penstroke, like a black mushroom cloud ballooning out to darken the country. More and more civilians will appear before military prosecutors and military judges, to face military sentences, their civil rights shrunken to scraps and rags. Meanwhile, Sanaa Seif’s sister Mona Seif (who has campaigned for years against military trials for civilians) and her mother Laila Soueif are on a hunger strike to protest the increasingly total reach of state repression. Before last week, they refused food; since the verdict, they have refused liquids as well. No one doubts: the government would like to see them die.

Laila Soueif (L) and Mona Seif (R) on hunger strike earlier this month, in a corridor of the Supreme Court building in Cairo

Laila Soueif (L) and Mona Seif (R) on hunger strike earlier this month, in a corridor of the Supreme Court building in Cairo

Three years for peaceful protest; three years for exchanging rings. Every trial in Egypt these days is a travesty. “Travesty” has many meanings, among them a joyous play with gender; in Latin America, in Turkey, travesti refers to trans people, whose communities subvert some of the most rigid social norms. And trans people have been among the victims of Egypt’s regime, rounded up in bars and on streets and in private apartments for defying the military definition of conformist, nationalist, ideal manhood. Self-expression looks like dangerous deception to the Sisi state.

That’s the state’s inward irony, its private joke. By the draconian terms of Egyptian law these travesties of trials themselves should be jailed: for assuming false identities; for conspiring to deceive; for defrauding the public they claim to defend; for cross-dressing as justice.

Yara Sallam (top L), Sanaa Seif (bottom L), and three other defendants in prison garb at a September 13 hearing

Yara Sallam (top L), Sanaa Seif (bottom L), and three other defendants in prison garb at a September 13 hearing

اسئلة قانونية بخصوص المثلية في مصر

بعد أن صار المثليون ومتحولو النوع الاجتماعي والجنس في مصر هدفاً لاعتداءات الشرطة كصورة من صور الحماية الزائفة للأخلاق، فقد قمنا بجمع اسئلة من المجتمع المثلي والاجابة عنها بواسطة متخصصون قانونيون بهدف حماية المجتمع المثلي من هذه الاعتداءات قبل وفي حال وقوعها. برجاء مشاركة هذا المنشور مع جميع الصفحات المتعلقة بالمثلية الجنسية والمتحولين/ات جنسياً حتى يتاح لأكبر عدد من الاشخاص الاستفادة بها

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Meet the Businessmen Who Want Egypt’s Internet Users Jailed, Tortured, and Killed

هي هذه المادة متاحة باللغة العربية هنا
This article is available in Arabic here

0,,1162637_4,00If you are a nerd, you’ll like this post, because it’s about computers. But wait! — it’s also about sex, and stuff like that. (You practically can’t have sex these days unless you own at least a smartphone.) It’s about combating the corporations that send the most vulnerable of us to jail. So if you’re not a nerd, read on; the good stuff is coming.

Start with this spring. One fine day, Egypt’s Ministry of Interior announced that companies could bid to sell the country new technologies, for monitoring both posts and private conversations on the Internet. Of course, they only announced this to the companies, not the Egyptian public. (Would you send the rabbit a press release about the hunt?) However, the newspaper El-Watan managed to publish a leaked copy of the tender. It’s an anthology of a repressive government’s fantastic fears about cyberspace:

Unfortunately, increasing numbers of users of social networks spread destructive ideas …  They threaten the security of society and prejudice its stability, with the growing influence of the “Internet” network and social networking sites, representing the beginning of the era of news transmitted without borders, and the consolidation of the concepts of democracy [apparently a bad thing] ….

Bureaucrats fear the Internet: Cartoon from China by the Kunming-based studio Yuan Jiao Man’s Space (圆觉漫时空)

Bureaucrats fear the Internet: Cartoon from China by the Kunming-based studio Yuan Jiao Man’s Space (圆觉漫时空)

Among the “destructive ideas” were:

Defamation and questioning of religion; regional, religious, ethnic or ideological incitement; publishing malicious rumors and intentionally misrepresenting facts; fabrication of charges; defamation and abuse of reputation; ridicule; sarcasm; slander; profanity; the call to escape community constraints; encouraging extremism, violence and rebellion; calling for demonstrations, sit-ins and illegal strikes; pornography, decadence, and lack of morality; teaching methods of making explosives and assault, chaos and riot tactics; calling for normalizing relations with enemies and circumventing the state’s strategy in this regard; fishing for honest mistakes … taking statements out of context; and spreading hoaxes and claims of miracles. [Presumably the government’s own recent claim to have cured AIDS didn’t fall in the last category.]

The State wanted systems that could search for keywords in both Arabic and English “and the flexibility to add any other language in the future,” across networks including “Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Google,” and phone apps such as Viber. They wanted to trawl for “terminology and vocabulary that are contrary to law and public morality or beyond the scope of custom and community ties” — guess what that might include.

You see how it is in Egypt. For most of us the Internet is 99% cat pictures and listicles. But the generals decode terrorist messages beneath the fur and fluff. (They also see those messages in cloth puppets. It’s a dangerous world.)

Ali Miniesy, CEO of See Egypt. Picture taken, without the use of Deep Packet Inspection, from his Facebook account. Change your privacy settings, Ali.

Ali Miniesy, CEO of See Egypt. Picture taken, without the use of Deep Packet Inspection, from his Facebook account. Change your privacy settings, Ali.

Ten Egyptian human rights groups condemned this move: “Privacy in the public sphere is necessary for a free and stable political life. Assaulting it is a sign of totalitarianism.” It takes more than that to stop the State. On September 17, BuzzFeed reported that an Egyptian company called See Egypt had won the contract. It would sell the government technology from its “sister company” Blue Coat, an Internet security firm based in Sunnyvale, California. This included Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) technology, which “enables geolocation, tracking, and extensive monitoring of internet traffic.” Ali Miniesy, the CEO of See Egypt, told BuzzFeed that “Our job as a company is to give them the system. I train the government how to run it and we give them the program. … [It] can also be used to penetrate WhatsApp, Viber, Skype, or other programs if needed.”

For those who aren’t nerds: Information you send over the Internet is usually bundled into what are called “packets.” It’s more efficient for Internet service providers to send these bundles than to transmit each keystroke separately. Some programs, though, can open these packets and inspect their contents. As Wired magazine says, “when a network provider engages in deep packet inspection, it does the equivalent of opening up letters in a postal depot, and reading the contents.” Repressive governments love this; it tells them exactly who to torture. DPI technology is big business. And Blue Coat is a major profiteer.

Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim: Photo from Al-Ahram

Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim: Photo from Al-Ahram

Denials launched at once, as if these guys were scared of something. Off in California, Blue Coat blasted out a statement: “See Egypt is a Blue Coat reseller, but is not otherwise affiliated with Blue Coat. See Egypt has assured us that they have not bid or resold Blue Coat products to the Egyptian government for any social network monitoring operation.”  In Cairo, the Interior Ministry cried: “This piece of news is completely false,” a farrago aimed at “spreading mistrust, stirring public opinion and dismissing the Interior Ministry’s efforts and its sons’ sacrifices.” All these people claiming they didn’t even know each other, in such a coordinated way! The strangest response came from See Egypt. They posted a denial on their website:

The company has neither applied, installed, participated in tender for the supply of a system to MoI [Ministry of Interior] not trained or participated in training of MoI staff … The company is not a sister or affiliated company of “Blue Coat” The company is one among few resellers of “Blue Coat” products in Egypt and the region, The company is totally owned by Egyptian investors and operated and managed by Egyptian staff.

That screed stayed up for a few hours, maybe. Then they took the entire website down.

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See Egypt’s informative and consumer-friendly website, 24 hours after the story broke

Really. This is 2014. Taking a website down is pointless; even cavedwellers like me know about Google Cache. I found the cached copies of the old website; I’ve saved all the pages as PDFs, and you can read them here. What a weird company! Notice several things. First, the entire website was in English, which is pretty remarkable in Egypt. Plenty of companies show off English sections of their sites, to look international and glossy; but the whole thing?  (When a foreign reporter tried to call See Egypt the day after BuzzFeed‘s article appeared, the receptionist told him no one in the office could speak English. When I tried calling, I got no answer.)

Seeing Egypt I: The Lidless Eye

Seeing Egypt I: The Lidless Eye.

But there are other fascinating facts. See Egypt says, for instance, that its name doesn’t stand for the Eye of Sauron at all. It means “Systems Engineering of Egypt,” which has the synthetic ring of a folk etymology, recently invented. The company says it’s 30 years old. It says it is a 250 million LE business (about $35 million US).  It has an “Airports Division” — they sell “a complete line of airfield lighting and control, airport counters, waiting area furniture,” and oh, lots of “Computer Data Network” stuff. There’s a “Banking Systems Division.” Then there’s the Data Communication Division (“Since 1984 SEE is the Pioneer in the Egyptian Market in the design, implementation and support of Data Communication Infrastructure solutions”), and buried way down there, Internet “Security Services,” including some “milestones”:

  • First Implementation of end-to-end Security solution in Banking Sector
  • First Implementation of end-to-end Security solution in Public Sector
  • First implementation of end-to-end Security solution in the Oil& Gas Sector

That sounds impressive. But why hide this light under a bushel?

I am the President of See Egypt, and I can see you.

Seeing Egypt II: The Nameless President.

More oddities. There’s a list of customers, which includes sixteen government ministries (MoI included), plus the Cabinet itself, the upper house of Parliament, and the Military Police. There’s a list of partners, which, yes, features Blue Coat Systems. There’s a letter from the company president (“See has been participating in building almost every large and sensitive application data network in this country”), which has his picture, but not his name. (His name is Abdel H. El-Sawy. And his Facebook page is here.) 

What is this place, blandly opaque even by Egyptian standards? Let’s go back to Blue Coat Systems for a moment.

Blue Coat says it’s all about helping businesses keep vital info under wraps: “Blue Coat has a long history of protecting organizations, their data and their employees.” Bullshit. Blue Coat also sells technology to governments to let them crack data protection and hunt down dissent. Reporters Without Borders named it one of the worldwide Enemies of Internet, and said it “is best known for its Internet censorship equipment.” RSF writes that with Blue Coat’s DPI tech,

it is possible to look into every single Internet Protocol packet and subject it to special treatment based on content (censored or banned words) or type (email, VoIP or BitTorrent Protocol). DPI … makes single users identifiable and, in countries that flout the rule of law and violate human rights, often exposes them to arbitrary imprisonment, violence or even torture.

Blue Coat describes PacketShaper, one of their products as follows: “It’s your network. Own it …  PacketShaper analyzes and positively identifies traffic generated by hundreds of business and recreational applications.”

Blue Coat Planet: Map of Blue Coat's surveillance spoor, from Citizen Lab

Blue Coat Planet: Map of Blue Coat’s surveillance spoor, from Citizen Lab

Blue Coat’s spoor turns up wherever an overweening government represses rights. Citizen Lab, a University of Toronto project on human rights and the Internet, searched for its traces almost two years ago. Their detailed report found:

Blue Coat devices capable of filtering, censorship, and surveillance are being used around the world. During several weeks of scanning and validation that ended in January 2013, we uncovered 61 Blue Coat ProxySG devices and 316 Blue Coat PacketShaper appliances, devices with specific functionality permitting filtering, censorship, and surveillance.
61 of these Blue Coat appliances are on public or government networks in countries with a history of concerns over human rights, surveillance, and censorship … We found these appliances in the following locations:
Blue Coat ProxySG: Egypt, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates.
PacketShaper: Afghanistan, Bahrain, China, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Kenya, Kuwait, Lebanon, Malaysia, Nigeria, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Singapore, Thailand, Turkey, and Venezuela.

Only through third parties: Nidal Taha, Blue Coat's Middle East Regional Director (from http://www.tcf-me.com/client_portal/blue-coat-systems/biographies/927866167 )

Only through third parties: Nidal Taha, Blue Coat’s Middle East Regional Director (from http://www.tcf-me.com/client_portal/blue-coat-systems/biographies/927866167 )

And Blue Coat has a long history in the Middle East. Before Ben Ali’s dictatorship in Tunisia was overthrown in 2011, his government used DPI technology to track dissidents — “provided by the American companies Blue Coat System and Netapp and by the German company Ultimaco.” In 2011, according to Citizen Lab, Blue Coat admitted under pressure that 13 of its DPI devices were in Syria, in defiance of a US embargo; it claimed they were “initially shipped through a distributor from Dubai and [intended] for the Iraqi Ministry of Communications.” (Similarly, Blue Coat devices have been detected in Iran and Sudan, both also under US embargo.) In 2013, the hacktivist group Telecomix found that the Assad regime had installed 34 Blue Coat servers. These used DPI to “analyse and control the activities of Syrian Internet users – censuring [sic] websites, intercepting emails, obtaining details of sites visited and so on.”

In 2013, Blue Coat replied to the painstaking inquiries of RSF and its allies, insisting that “its products were sold in accordance with the laws governing the sale of its technology. It said all of its sales were channelled through third parties and it expected the same compliance of them.” But think about that strange business model. Why do everything through middlemen who skim the profits?

Blue Coat's Minister of Love: CEO Greg Clark will protect your data, except against his own technology

Blue Coat’s Minister of Love: CEO Greg Clark will protect your data, except against his own technology

There’s only one reason all Blue Coat’s sales are “channelled through third parties”: it allows the company to deal with despicable governments, and keep its hands — and rap sheet — clean.

All signs are that Blue Coat has had a productive relationship with Egypt for years. In the Mubarak era in 2009, the company’s CEO, Greg Clark, was already being quoted in Egypt’s Daily News: “Security has traditionally been steeped in fear – of the unknown, of new technology, of loss of control – and that fear has driven a rigidity that stymies growth in the business.” (That’s got to change. Bread, freedom, dignity!) Back in those days, the Cairo dictatorship was busily learning Internet surveillance. They were acquiring DPI — mainly, it seems, from Narus, an Israeli military-security firm that Boeing bought in 2010 and relocated to the US. ( Mubarak’s sinister intelligence chief Omar Suleiman was known for his close ties to Israel.) But either they didn’t have good equipment, or they didn’t know how to use it. Mubarak’s response to Internet dissent remained hammerlike and ham-handed. It’s telling that, faced with a Facebook- and Twitter-fueled revolution in 2011, he responded not by arresting Tweeters or disrupting particular programs, but — famously — by shutting the entire Internet down.

EGYPT INTERNET 5395027368_7d97b74c0b_b

Into that darkness: The despot shuts down the Internet, January 27, 2011

Since the Arab Spring, the generals in Cairo have sought a targeted, sophisticated response. Clearly this is where Blue Coat comes in. But what’s the story behind its mysterious Egyptian partner firm?

Here’s another odd thing. On See Egypt’s cached website, there was a downloadable brochure (also in English) that described the organization as “wholly owned and founded by Egyptian Technical group investing basically their long and deep experience in the areas of computer and Communication.” Meanwhile, I located another Egyptian computer firm, with the Orwellian name of MindWare. It has its own brochure, which says: “Mindware was founded by an Egyptian technical group that investing their long, deep professional and academic experience in the areas of computer, security and communication technologies.” Such similar blurbs, down to the bad English — almost as if the same people wrote them. Why does See Egypt have this peculiar twin?

Mindware is a known name in the region. The Egyptian firm seems to be a branch of a multinational based in the United Arab Emirates. That Mindware was founded in 1991. “Today, the business has risen to $200 million a year, and the company has 130 employees, with offices in Dubai, Riyadh, Cairo, Jeddah and Beirut.” Eventually Mindware UAE was bought by the Midis Group, a Lebanese computer products firm with strategic investments into the Middle East, Eastern Europe and Africa. For technology leaders interested in these destinations, the Midis Group … can be an ideal partner.” Of course, those three regions have a history of repressive governments, censorship, and surveillance.

Mindware sells security, though it doesn’t advertise the fact much. Mindware crops up, for instance, as a “partnership” on the website of a UAE-based security firm, EMW. Among other things, EMW is a consultant to NATO in defending America’s Middle Eastern empire (“From Oman to Afghanistan, EMW has been supporting the communication needs of those who serve”). And EMW is another reseller of Blue Coat’s security technology. Blue Coat signed a deal with EMW in 2009 as it “beefed up its Middle East channel.”

Back to the BatCave, Batman: Mindware Egypt company logo

Back to the BatCave, Batman: Mindware Egypt company logo

But Mindware Egypt, founded in 2009, is a different thing. It doesn’t feel like a branch of a slick $200 million multinational, judging from its vacuous website — also all in English. For one thing, it’s not based in Cairo, it’s in provincial Alexandria. For another, the partial list of customers buried on the site is unimpressive: mostly Egyptian schools and hospitals, not places with money to burn. The enterprise seems far more low-key than See Egypt; it’s hard even to make out what its specialties are (its website says ” Data Communication & security systems”; its Facebook page says “Home Security” and “Automation Services”). Indeed, it’s difficult to see how they turn a profit. The firm seems just to be parked there, waiting for something to happen.

I’ll tell you what I think is going on.

See Egypt and Mindware Egypt are both fronts set up by associates of the security establishment and the Ministry of the Interior. Ministry officers or other bigwigs rig up such spurious firms using family members, for instance, or retired colleagues. They’re not exactly dummy companies: they do some real marketing, exploiting their government connections. (Think of all See Egypt’s cabinet clients, or the schools and hospitals that are victims of Mindware’s sales.) Mindware headquarters in the UAE is happy to adopt these Egyptians as a token “branch,” because they can open doors in the Ministries.

But their real usefulness kicks in when a multimillion-dollar security deal, like the Ministry’s surveillance tender, comes along. Then these firms have a twofold value.

  • For a company like Blue Coat, they give deniability: Blue Coat can claim it isn’t selling tools to the torturing State, just to an Egyptian business.
  • For the Egyptian side, they grease kickbacks. These firms make a profit in reselling the technology to the Ministry. They can then share these proceeds with the Ministry officials who helped set them up in the first place.
Don't be corrupt, let us do it for you: Official anti-corruption poster from Egypt's Ministry  for Administrative Development, 2010

Don’t be corrupt, let us do it for you: Official anti-corruption poster from Egypt’s Ministry for Administrative Development, 2010

Based on the two companies’ suspiciously  twinned descriptions, I’d bet the same people who run See Egypt also established the Egypt “branch” of Mindware. I also suspect See Egypt’s days as Blue Coat’s reseller are numbered, now that it’s been exposed. Its usefulness is over; you can almost feel the stage sets folding. The Blue Coat account, the technology and the training staff will all be shifted to another front firm: Such as Mindware.

Can I prove this? No. I’m just a semi-retired professorial type. But there are investigative reporters in Egypt and beyond who should be looking at these incestuous connections.

All I know for sure is, Egypt’s regime is desperate for what Blue Coat has to offer.  And I know who’ll suffer when they get it. There will be the usual suspects, revolutionaries and Islamists — but also labor activists, atheists, feminists, Shi’ites, kids with foreign friends, sarcastic people. In fact, almost anybody.

LGBT Egyptians will suffer too. Already a Ministry of Interior official told BuzzFeed that the technology would hunt down people engaged in “homosexual acts,” “for the protection of Egypt.”

No gay allowed: The results of Blue Coat blocking software

No gay allowed: The results of Blue Coat blocking software

In the US, Blue Coat Systems has a checkered record with LGBT people. In 2013, under pressure, they finally stopped selling the US military filtering software that blocked LGBT websites. They still help governments censor anything “porngraphic,” though — and their definition is elastic as an old jockstrap. Earlier this year, Citizen Lab found:

As of this writing, the websites of the New Braunfels Republican Women, the Kiddie Kollege Nursery School, the Freemasons’ District Grand Lodge of East Africa, the Weston Community Children’s Association, and the Rotary Club of Midland, Ontario are all categorized as “pornography” by Blue Coat Internet blocking software.

But in Egypt, Blue Coat goes beyond the call of duty, ready to help LGBT people rot in jail. Police are arresting suspected gay and trans people all the time. Just this Tuesday they seized another, in Western Cairo: Youm7, the cops’ favorite tabloid, announced that she had a “female body and male genitals,” and that “the accused put a picture and phone number on the networks of pornographic sites on the Internet with an announcement to get ready for the practice of debauchery and fornication.” Fears of sex and of cyberspace feed each other. Imagine how it will be when a policeman can sit in his office following victims’ flirtations on Viber, or perusing their “private” pics on Facebook.

No privacy where the press is concerned: Humiliating “interview” with apparent victim of Tuesday’s arrest, published by Vetogate.com

Blue Coat is evil, and they work with corrupt and evil people: veterans of the military-security complex who have the blood of the tortured under their fingernails. If LGBT activists in the US can put the fear of gay into a corporate gorilla like Mozilla, they should be protesting the hell out of Blue Coat Systems — because Blue Coat sells the tools that send LGBT people to prison. Activists, hit the smartphones and the streets, stop the sales to Egypt!

Otherwise, the tortures will intensify. People will die. (Egypt’s regime loves death. It shoots down “terrorists” and plaits the noose for dissidents; Sisi decrees new capital crimes as if he’s signing birthday cards.) Technology has its own momentum, indifferent to human bodies and lives. Sadists everywhere, prick up your ears. The good stuff is coming.Internet-privacy

Egypt: Tweet and blog against homophobic brutality, September 24 and 25

Prisoners in the courtroom cage during the Queen Boat trial wear masks to protect themselves from sensation-seeking photographers: Cairo, 2001

Prisoners in the courtroom cage during the Queen Boat trial wear masks to protect themselves from sensation-seeking photographers: Cairo, 2001

URGENT! This Wednesday and Thursday, September 24 and 25, Egyptian activists want a worldwide storm of tweeting and blogging to protest the recent, massive wave of brutal repression of LGBT people.

Here’s the call to action in English, followed by Arabic. (You can learn more and join the event on Facebook — and while you’re at it, check out the Solidarity with Egypt LGBT page as well.) The Arabic version below includes sample Arabic tweets (in red) but please write your own in English! Paste the hashtag
#ضد_حبس_المثليين
in Arabic, or use it in English –  #stopjailinggays. Please share widely and join in!

TWO DAYS OF TWEETING AND BLOGGING: #STOPJAILINGGAYS

Because the Egyptian government has recently focused its efforts on monitoring people’s private lives, whether in the bedroom or on their facebook accounts …
Because the police have paused in chasing “terrorists” and are going after people for their sexual orientation and gender identity …
Because since October 2013, police have arrested more than 80 people for the “crime” of being gay or transgender …
Because some of these people receive humiliating treatment including physical violence and rape threats in detention …
Because the Forensic Medical Authority conducts anal examinations on these people, considered sexual assault and a violation of human rights and medical ethics …
Because they are sentenced for up to 10 years on charges of debauchery — a vague word …
Because the media has been waging a sensational campaign against LGBT people in Egypt, violating people’s privacy by publishing names and photos …
Because of all of this, on September 24 and 25 we will be tweeting and blogging using the hashtag
#ضد_حبس_المثليين
which means “Against the Jailing of Gays.”
Join us. Invite your friends. Raise your voices.

يومين للزقزقة والتدوين #ضد_حبس_المثليين

بمناسبة إن الدولة متفرغة في الفترة الأخيرة لمراقبة الناس في أوض نومهم وعلى صفحاتهم الخاصة، وبدل ما الشرطة تقبض على الإرهابيين مخصصة وقتها كله لملاحقة المثليين من أول أكتوبر السنة اللي فاتت الدولة قبضت على أكتر من 80 واحد بتهمة المثلية، بعضهم بيتعرض لمعاملة مهينة جوة السجن من ضرب وذل وشتيمة، وتهديد بالاغتصاب، غير إن الطب الشرعي بيطبق عليهم كشوفات غير آدمية وبيكشف على فتحات الشرج بتاعتهم عشان يثبت هما مثليين ولا ﻷ، بعضهم أخد أحكام بالسجن بتهمة الفجور، اللي هي تهمة مطاطة ومش واضحة، ولإن الإعلام قاعد يخلق أساطير حوالين المثلية الجنسية زي إنها مرض نفسي والقنوات والجرايد بينتهكوا خصوصية الناس وينشروا أساميهم وتفاصيل حياتهم

فاحنا يوم 24 و25 سبتمبر هنزقزق وندون باستخدام هاشتاج #ضد_حبس_المثليين

المثلية الجنسية مش جريمة والدولة المفروض عندها حاجات أهم تعملها من مراقبة مين بينام مع مين،

شاركونا بالتدوين والكتابة خلال اليومين دول ودي نماذج من التويتات اللي ممكن تستخدموها:

المثلية هي ميول عاطفية أو جنسية ناحية انسان من نفس الجنس. #ضد_حبس_المثليين

المثلية مش جريمة. إزاي حبس المثليين في السجون هيحل المشكلة؟ #ضد_حبس_المثليين

المثلية مش اختيار. محدش بيختار يكون جزء من فئة مهمشة ومرفوضة من المجتمع. #ضد_حبس_المثليين

أكبر مؤسسات الطب النفسي بطلت تعتبر المثلية الجنسية مرض نفسي من السبعينات. مفيش علاج نفسي معترف بيه عالميا للمثلية الجنسية. #ضد_حبس_المثليين

المثليين جنسيا بيتعرضوا لعنف مستمر، سواء من الدولة اللي بتجرمهم، أو من الأهل أو في الشارع. المثلية مش مقبولة بس العنف مقبول؟ #ضد_حبس_المثليين

المثلية مش تقليعة ولا موضة ولا بدعة من الغرب. المثليين موجودين في كل العصور وكل الحضارات. #ضد_حبس_المثليين

جسمي أنا حر فيه. عاوز تتحكم في جسمي ليه؟ تقبل حد يقولك تعمل ايه وماتعملش ايه في جسمك؟ #ضد_حبس_المثليين

من حق كل شخص بالغ انه يختار يدخل في علاقة ولا لأ ويختار مين الشخص المناسب ليه من غير تدخل من أي جهة. #ضد_حبس_المثليين

المثلية مش مرض نفسي ولا بتسبب أمراض نفسية ولا جسدية. #ضد_حبس_المثليين

شهد العام الأخير تصاعد في عدد المثليين والمتحولين جنسيا الذي تم القبض عليهم فيما يزيد على 80 شخص. #ضد_حبس_المثليين

المثلية غير مجرمة بالنص في القانون المصري ولكن يستخدم مصطلحات فضفاضة مثل الفجور لملاحقة المثليين جنسيا #ضد_حبس_المثليين

عقوبة الفجور المستخدمة للقبض على المثليين تصل ل 3 سنوات ويضاف أحيانا اتهامات أخرى ليصل الحكم ل 10 سنوات #ضد_حبس_المثليين

الشرطة لم تستهدف فقط المثليين جنسيا ولكن استهدفت أيضا المتحولين والمتحولات جنسيا #ضد_حبس_المثليين

النيابة بتحول المتهمين للطب الشرعي والذي يقوم بعمل فحص شرجي ضد إرادتهم بمخالفة حقوق الإنسان ويعتبر انتهاك لكرامتهم وخصوصيتهم

التغطية الإعلامية لعبت دور كبير في التحريض على المثليين والمتحولين جنسيا واستخدمت ألفاظ سلبية مثل الجنس الثالث أو الشواذ #ضد_حبس_المثليين

الإعلام انتهك خصوصية وسرية المتهمين عن طريق ذكر أسماء المتهمين أو نشر صور وفيديوهات لهم مخالفة للمهنية ولأخلاقيات الإعلام #ضد_حبس_المثليين

Egypt’s “gay wedding” furor: A ship of fools

Hand in hand: Detail from the famous video

Hand in hand: Detail from the famous video

In Egypt any man can harass, brutalize, and rape a woman. It happens all the time. The State will ignore it for as long as possible; the media will say she asked for it. Just try a harmless expression of mutual, consensual desire, though. They’ll hound you to within an inch of your life.

Let’s start with the video. It came out of nowhere, but by Saturday morning it was everywhere. That day — it was August 30 — I spent with some young, impeccably liberal Egyptians. They kept staring with stunned fixation at their smartphones, repeatedly hitting “play,” watching it go viral, wondering what was going to happen to the men.  The YouTube comments could have told you what was coming: “They’re outside of prisons; they should worship God within them,” one outraged viewer wrote. That night I met with some of the men in the clip. One of them kept breaking uncontrollably into tears. They were trying to report the invasion of privacy, get YouTube to take it down. No use: By next day, it was on the website of Youm7 — the tabloid that’s been carrying on a homophobic campaign for months — and on TV. You think you are just a private person, contained in the fences of your skin; then suddenly you find you’ve escaped yourself, become a common spectacle and possession, a fetish cupped in the palms of everybody’s hands. No doubt this is why politicians and movie stars are so vacuous, stripped of self; but imagine sitting in ordinary obscurity and abruptly discovering you’re now an infinitely duplicable, circulating flash of light. “Mirrors and copulation are both abominable,” Borges wrote — it was one of the aphorisms of his invented world of Tlon — “because they multiply mankind.” But that was before the Internet.

Yesterday, some of those accused of being in the video went on trial. They face years in prison. The whole fiasco reminds many Egyptians of another moral panic that crushed innumerable lives: the Queen Boat show trial of 52 men, back in 2001.

I won’t link to the video here; the men have been exposed enough. It lasts little more than a minute; it shows some kind of party on one of the boats that cruise the Cairo Nile. (You can buy a ride individually or rent the felucca for a group.) The cameraphone tilts and pans past some celebrating people; there’s a cake, and two seem to exchange rings. When it went viral, it was instantly dubbed “Egypt’s First Gay Wedding.”

4549887301409591956-الفنان محمد صبحي

Mohamed Sobhi attempts to keep gay marriage from spreading to him

Some of the men I talked to asserted the whole thing was a joke. One of the alleged grooms called the popular talk-show of Tamer Amin to say as much — that he had a girlfriend and was just “playing around with rings.” If it was a marriage between men, then in a sense it was intrinsically unserious, since the law doesn’t recognize that. Nor does the law punish playing at marriage. The furor kept mounting though. Amin, on his show, called for retribution. (Tamer Amin is eager to anathematize people he thinks are gay, but equally happy to excuse rape. When a Cairo University student was sexually assaulted earlier this year, Amin told viewers that “She was dressed like a prostitute … The sexually repressed boys couldn’t control themselves … I blame her for dressing like this, and her parents for letting her leave the house in that dress.”)  Mohamed Sobhi, an actor notorious for his paranoid rants against Jews, demanded the State “respond’ to the “the spread of the phenomenon of gay marriage.”

And the banned Muslim Brotherhood, the dictator’s most feared opposition, berated the regime that overthrew it, for going soft on perversion. A former MP for the Brotherhood’s own Freedom and Justice Party warned that “For the first time in Egypt, we hear of gay marriage. The coup leaders embrace the Western agenda of demolition and decay of religion, and Egypt is converted into a brothel.” She added that the “authority of the coup” lay behind the wedding.

We will find you: Major General Magdy Moussa (from Vetogate.com)

We will find you: Major General Magdy Moussa (from Vetogate.com)

The supposed ceremony thus became a political crime. The State took up the challenge: it started arresting people. Last Wednesday, September 3, police picked up at least 13 people in the streets around Ramsis Station, and interrogated them about the video. The next night, they seized an unknown number as they were leaving a club downtown — I’ve heard figures as high as 26. Most were released, but somebody pointed an incriminating finger. On Saturday, the media announced that men from the film had been arrested, by police directed by Major General Magdy Moussa. (The exact number is still not clear. Most news reports say seven people were arrested; Al-Mogaz says two more are being sought; Youm7 claims ten are involved, and even after a confused hearing Tuesday, where the lawyers were denied access to court papers, it’s impossible to verify a figure.) [NOTE: The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights has now confirmed eight defendants have been arrested.] Youm7 showed grainy video of people being hauled to jail. The full names of nine victims, some presumably still at large, appeared in the press.

Prosecutor General Hisham Barakat

We will hurt you when we find you: Prosecutor General Hisham Barakat

The charges against the men aren’t clear, but they reportedly included incitement to “debuachery” (fugur, the legal term in Egyptian law for homosexual acts), and “publication of indecent photographs.” The images showed “the purpose was the celebration of attachment to one another, in scenes deemed shameful to the maximum degree.” Egypt’s Prosecutor General, Hisham Barakat, personally intervened in the case to show its seriousness, ordering quick action. Egypt’s Forensic Medical Authority conducted anal examinations on the arrested men — an intrusive, abusive, torturous and medically worthless procedure. They found no evidence of homosexual conduct. That didn’t stop a court, on September 9, from ordering the men jailed for another 15 days so the furor can continue.

Dr Hisham Abdel-Hamid of the Forensic Medica Authority, who said the "bride" had turned out "normal"

Dr Hisham Abdel-Hamid of the Forensic Medical Authority, who said the “bride” had turned out “normal”

I spoke to one of the men trawled up in the police nets last Wednesday night: picked up at 3:30 AM on a street near Ramsis Station. This is his story:

I was standing with a friend — he had tight jeans, that was probably why they thought we were gay. Suddenly a policeman came out of nowhere and grabbed us. We were thrown into a microbus nearby. I tried to scream and the policemen told us to shut up. There were about 13 of us crammed in there, all picked up in various places.

In the past, Cairo police often looked for gays by riding in a microbus with an informer, who pointed out victims passing in the street. Almost a third of the Queen Boat defendants were arrested that way (not on the boat!) This time, the microbus took them to the Mugamma, the huge Stalinist building in Tahrir Square, a symbol of State bureaucracy. There police broke the men into groups for interrogation. One man “scampered off by a different door” — possibly he was the informer.

Soldiers in front of the Mugamma in Midan Tahrir, January 2011, by Joseph Hill

The Mugamma looms above Tahrir Square, guarded by soldiers, during the Egyptian revolution, January 2011: by Joseph Hill

My group was me, my friend, and another man I didn’t know. We were taken up to the 12th floor, the “Adab” [morals] division.
At first the police were very aggressive with us. They beat us with sticks, and called us many names. Then the boss came in to question us.

The boss was very civil. He said for months they had been arresting gays as a way of stopping the spread of AIDS, because these men were having sex without condoms.

This is false. So far as we know, no evidence that anyone transmitted HIV through barebacking has been presented in any cases so far. The manipulation of public-health rhetoric is a bit strange coming from a government that claims it can cure AIDS by turning it into sausages.

But now, he said, there is this video. He said we have a new president, and Sisi is determined not to let this kind of thing happen, and will not let the Muslim Brotherhood get any benefit from it. I told him I didn’t know anything about the people in the video. All the same, they took our phones and made backups of all the information on them.

We were kept there for six hours, till after 10 AM. After the boss left the other policemen came back and made fun of us, calling us female names and asking if we were carrying condoms. My friend and I were set free; they held on to the third guy who was with us, because they said there was a theft charge against him. I don’t know what happened to the others.

The information on the phones — particularly if passwords were stored on them — could help the police open the victims’ Facebook and other social-media accounts. Plenty more could be rounded up that way.

Don't blame Sisi: Cairenes light candles during a blackout. Photo by Islam Farouk for Al-Masry al-Youm.

Don’t blame Sisi: Cairenes light candles during a blackout. Photo by Islam Farouk for Al-Masry al-Youm.

This whole uproar raises several issues. First: why now? The men I spoke to told me the video was made last October. One theory, seized on by the press, is that someone released it now to get revenge on a participant. It’s not implausible, though, that the authorities somehow obtained it earlier, and have been waiting for the moment when it might prove useful. There is plenty to distract people from in Egypt these days. Rolling power outages afflict the country; September 4 was promptly dubbed “Black Thursday” because the blackouts were so severe. Meanwhile, no sooner did Sisi win his rigged Presidential election than he announced massive cuts to fuel subsidies, pushing up prices for many basic goods. In such straitened circumstances, the spectre of “gay marriage” has long-proven value as a distraction. In Morocco in 2007, a YouTube video allegedly showing such a ceremony provoked riots — and jail terms for participants — in the town of Ksar el Kbir. In Kenya in 2010, similar stories stirred up vigilante violence in Mombasa. In Egypt itself, the first, sensational press reports in the famous Queen Boat case said a same-sex wedding was taking place on the raided vessel; some months before that, the press had pounced on unproven rumors of a marriage in the Delta town of Zagazig. “Gay marriage” has become a perfect encapsulation of cultural powerlessness before the imperial West.

Second, of course, the video leaked amid a months-long campaign of arrests and vilification of people accused of homosexual conduct or of dissident gender expression. Transgender people in particular have been rounded up in clubs and on the streets, and seized in private homes. These arrests continue. In early August, police arrested a woman and two men in Rehab City, a gated community on Cairo’s outskirts, and charged the latter with homosexual conduct. I’m reliably told the cops stopped one of the men at a checkpoint, on his motorcycle; finding him suspicious, they went to his home, and found the conclusive evidence — condoms. (So much for the officers’ concern for public health.) Later that month, “security forces” arrested ten people in what they called a “prostitution ring” in Giza, in western Cairo. They included, it seems, a trans woman, whose photo was singled out to appear in El-Watan. (Only the eyes were imperfectly blacked out; obscuring the face was done by me.)

Arrested August 26 in Giza: Victim of moral panic

Arrested August 26 in Giza: Victim of moral panic

But it’s not just alleged gays and trans people who are victims of the atmosphere of repression. The police presence in downtown Cairo is formidable now. Just under three weeks ago ago, cops raided a host of sidewalk cafes, forcing them to shutter because they had tables on, well, the sidewalk. (I recall when Recep Tayyip Erdogan moved similarly against street life in Istanbul’s bustling Beyoglu district, Western conservatives condemned it as creeping Islamic totalitarianism. When Sisi does it, nobody bothers.) The next day, they cracked down on street vendors. Grim, barred trucks from Central Security palisaded the avenues, filling up with hapless men whose crime was hawking scarves and jeans in the passageways off Qasr el-Nil. There is a general campaign of social control going on, and a general rehabilitation of the reputation — and power — of the police. Homosexuality is simply another convenient bogeyman. Its particular convenience, though, is that it unites several things Sisi despises: “Western” influence (as in those marriages), abnormal gender roles, and the youth culture and revolutionary decadence symbolized by the downtown world. Attacking “debauchery” allows him to set the State firmly against all those debilitating forces.

Third: the fact that the latest arrests came after criticism by the Muslim Brotherhood shows where Sisi senses his greatest vulnerabilities. Having overthrown the conservatives, he needs to prove his moral credentials. It’s significant that no comparable wave of repression happened under the Brotherhood itself: they had no credentials to prove. (It’s also significant that this panic has burgeoned during the week the government sentenced several Brotherhood leaders to decades in prison.) Sisi’s Minister of Religious Endowments — who more or less controls all the country’s official mosques — explained the official line elegantly to the media last week. Every Egyptian should reject “all anomalies” such as homosexuality, “because in the end they only serve the forces of extremism and terrorism, which claim to be the protectors of religion and morality.”

Homosexuality causes Islamism: Mokhtar Gomaa, Minister of Religious Endowments

Homosexuality causes Islamism: Mokhtar Gumaa, Minister of Religious Endowments

Finally, what all this produces is fear, comprehensive and immobilizing. No one can guess what will come next, how far the crackdown will go. There are vague stories the State has planned a massive trial of alleged homosexuals for later this month, or next month; no one knows whether this mini-Queen-Boat is enough for them. Cairo Scene, a English webzine for the privileged party set, has claimed the police are already arresting gay men over Grindr; no one has been able to confirm a single case, but the rumor only adds to the terror. My sensible colleagues are pruning their phone lists, taking down photos from Facebook, and waiting — waiting for what, nobody can tell. Even I have drawn up a list, for friends, of things to do if I’m arrested; when insouciant I behave that way, you know something is wrong. A full-fledged moral panic is spreading in Egypt. It even has a song — by an Egyptian band, proclaiming that something must be done to stop the she-men with skinny jeans:

The panic infects political discourse, turning everything to triviality. The contrast between the indifference accorded real and terrible stories of violence against women, and the seriousness with which a mock wedding is reviled, remains ominous. The men on the boat may have been careless or presumptuous, but the whole country increasingly resembles a ship of fools. The absurdity isn’t innocuous, though. The point of moral panics is that they can always find new victims.

 

When genocide is permissible

Palestinian mourners gather around the bodies of three siblings of the Abu Musallam family -- Ahmed, 11; Walaa, 14; and Mohammed, 16 – killed by an Israeli shell in Beit Lahiya, northern Gaza Strip, July 18, 2014. Photo: Lefteris Pitarakis/Associated Press.

Palestinian mourners gather around the bodies of three siblings of the Abu Musallam family — Ahmed, 11; Walaa, 14; and Mohammed, 16 – killed by an Israeli shell in Beit Lahiya, northern Gaza Strip, July 18, 2014. Photo: Lefteris Pitarakis/Associated Press.

Today a blog post under that title appeared on the Times of Israel’s website. Not long after, it came down, replaced by this dour tombstone:

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But the Internet lives by “Never Forget.” You can find the entire post, mummfied, here; and here is the text:

When Genocide is Permissible
YOCHANAN GORDON
AUGUST 1, 2014, 5:36 PM

Judging by the numbers of casualties on both sides in this almost one-month old war one would be led to the conclusion that Israel has resorted to disproportionate means in fighting a far less- capable enemy. That is as far as what meets the eye. But, it’s now obvious that the US and the UN are completely out of touch with the nature of this foe and are therefore not qualified to dictate or enforce the rules of this war – because when it comes to terror there is much more than meets the eye.

I wasn’t aware of this, but it seems that the nature of warfare has undergone a major shift over the years. Where wars were usually waged to defeat the opposing side, today it seems – and judging by the number of foul calls it would indicate – that today’s wars are fought to a draw. I mean, whoever heard of a timeout in war? An NBA Basketball game allows six timeouts for each team during the course of a game, but last I checked this is a war! We are at war with an enemy whose charter calls for the annihilation of our people. Nothing, then, can be considered disproportionate when we are fighting for our very right to live.

The sad reality is that Israel gets it, but its hands are being tied by world leaders who over the past six years have insisted they are such good friends with the Jewish state, that they know more regarding its interests than even they do. But there’s going to have to come a time where Israel feels threatened enough where it has no other choice but to defy international warnings – because this is life or death.

Most of the reports coming from Gazan officials and leaders since the start of this operation have been either largely exaggerated or patently false. The truth is, it’s not their fault, falsehood and deceit is part of the very fabric of who they are and that will never change. Still however, despite their propensity to lie, when your enemy tells you that they are bent on your destruction you believe them. Similarly, when Khaled Meshal declares that no physical damage to Gaza will dampen their morale or weaken their resolve – they have to be believed.

Palestinians inspect a car destroyed in an Israeli air strike in central Gaza City, July 8, 2014. Photo: Ali Jadallah / APA images.

Palestinians inspect a car destroyed in an Israeli air strike in central Gaza City, July 8, 2014. Photo: Ali Jadallah / APA images.

Our sage Gedalia the son of Achikam was given intelligence that Yishmael Ben Nesanyah was plotting to kill him. However, in his piety or rather naiveté Gedalia dismissed the report as a random act of gossip and paid no attention to it. To this day, the day following Rosh Hashana is commemorated as a fast day in the memory of Gedalia who was killed in cold blood on the second day of Rosh Hashana during the meal. They say the definition of insanity is repeating the same mistakes over and over. History is there to teach us lessons and the lesson here is that when your enemy swears to destroy you – you take him seriously.

Hamas has stated forthrightly that it idealizes death as much as Israel celebrates life. What other way then is there to deal with an enemy of this nature other than obliterate them completely?

News anchors such as those from CNN, BBC and Al-Jazeera have not missed an opportunity to point out the majority of innocent civilians who have lost their lives as a result of this war. But anyone who lives with rocket launchers installed or terror tunnels burrowed in or around the vicinity of their home cannot be considered an innocent civilian. If you’ll counter, that Hamas has been seen abusing civilians who have attempted to leave their homes in response to Israeli warnings to leave – well then, your beginning to come to terms with the nature of this enemy which should automatically cause the rules of standard warfare to be suspended.

Everyone agrees that Israel has the right to defend itself as well as the right to exercise that right. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon has declared it, Obama and Kerry have clearly stated that no one could be expected to sit idle as thousands of rockets rain down on the heads of its citizens, placing them in clear and present danger. It seems then that the only point of contention is regarding the measure of punishment meted out in this situation.

I will conclude with a question for all the humanitarians out there. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu clearly stated at the outset of this incursion that his objective is to restore a sustainable quiet for the citizens of Israel. We have already established that it is the responsibility of every government to ensure the safety and security of its people. If political leaders and military experts determine that the only way to achieve its goal of sustaining quiet is through genocide is it then permissible to achieve those responsible goals?

This is all over the Internet today; the Times of Israel might as well never have bothered to hide it. The ToI hasn’t actually ventured to explain why it posted the thing. Its Twitter feed is phlegmatically full of the usual stuff, praise of the Israel Defense Forces, excoriations of the UN, but it did add at end of day:

toi copy

No doubt we’ll hear, in time, that there was a mistake, someone pressed the wrong button, an intern will be fired. There’s always an intern.

Except that the Times of Israel also featured today a bloodthirsty op-ed by Irwin E. Blank, formerly of New York City, and “Formation Committee Chairman of the NY Salute to Israel Parade from 1978-1982″:

G-d had demanded that Saul (or the “prime minister”)  enter into battle with the Amalekites (Hamas and its savage partners) and destroy them utterly even if that means to the last child, cow and goat. As cruel as this appears, it is a lesson that teaches a nation in terrible danger that it has a legitimate obligation to put a definite end to a substantial threat.   The end of such a conflict must make it impossible for that enemy to rebuild and continue to vex one’s nation forever.

And another piece by one Zev Berger, “PhD candidate in Political Science at the University of Michigan,” which meanders through various ways of deciding how much killing is enough, and decides that indifference justifies everything: “What’s a reasonable death toll? I imagine people don’t really care.”

One thing you notice about all these opinions is: They come, ultimately, from the United States. (Yochanan Gordan is a certified public accountant in New York City, and part of the Lubavitcher community.) As imports, they parallel the Times of Israel itself. The ToI‘s founder and chief investor is Seth Klarman, a Boston billionaire hedge-fund manager. Klarman’s “political giving favors Republicans,” according to the Jewish Daily Forward, though – in a telling sign of how social liberalism and international neanderthalism can cohabit – he has partnered with vulture capitalist Paul Singer on a super-PAC meant to push the GOP toward accepting same-sex marriage. But the bulk of his philanthropy promotes right-wing and settler interests in Israel:

Klarman gives money to settler groups: the Central Fund of Israel,which pays for settlers’ “security needs” in the occupied West Bank, and Ir David, which is digging up East Jerusalem and displacing Palestinians. He gives $1 million in a year to Birthright, the program to send young American Jews to Israel to fall in love with the Jewish state. He supports the rightwing propaganda organization, the Israel Project (he’s on their board), gives big money to the Friends of the Israeli Defense Forces, and to top it off, Klarman is chairman of the board of the David Project, the group that has targeted Arab and Muslim intellectuals on college campuses.

But not for Gaza: Seth Klarman's investment advice

But not for Gaza: Seth Klarman’s investment advice

In other words, Klarman exemplifies the increasing confluence between the Israeli right wing and militaristic American neoconservatism, increasingly obsessed by the same Arab and Muslim enemies, increasingly promoting the same extreme solutions: colonization, killing. Klarman told the Forward:

My own interest in Israel has become even stronger post-9/11, when the threat of terrorism and the danger of radical Islam collided with a global campaign on many fronts to delegitimize the Jewish State.

With all the Times of Israel‘s professions of political neutrality (belied by its ruling passion for the IDF), Klarman as media mogul seems to represent a respectable ego as against the rampant id of Sheldon Adelson, the American casino owner whose ferociously Likudnik rag Israel HaYom is the most popular newspaper in the country. (Adelson, whose cash kept Newt Gingrich‘s abortive presidential campaign going long beyond its expiration date, has trafficked in the ids of several countries.) But the id keeps peeping through in Klarman’s publication too, as witness Gordon’s short-lived screed, or Blank’s, or Berger’s. It’s as if all these Americans project onto Israel their own fantasies of a country freed from the restraints of normal politics or morals, indifferent to scrutiny, infinitely willing to kill, pseudo-democratic but with all its parties united around a common lust for death: Israel as the United States of Id.

Israeli missiles strike Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, on July 9, 2014. Photo: AP.

Israeli missiles strike Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, on July 9, 2014. Photo: AP.

As Lady Bracknell said: “To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.” To publish one op-ed approving genocide in a day may be an intern’s mistake; to publish three looks like you mean it. The three pieces run a strange but comprehensive gamut of justifications for mass killing. Blank offers familiar fundamentalist ravings, only meaningful if you know and care who the Amalekites were (but many do, many do). Berger gives us a woozy bureaucratic relativism, precise figures making precise judgments impossible, ethics suffocated by an avalanche of statistics. Gordon alone takes genocide fully seriously, understands that it is a moral choice. It means giving absolute moral priority to your own people, recognizing that this is a death sentence upon other peoples who get in the way. Or as Gordon seems to have tweeted today (if this is him):

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In another blog post for the Times of Israel, back in May, Gordon wrote about the tension “we experience regularly as Jews in a modern world. We are faced with the perpetual question of are we meant to bend and conform to the morals of suburbia or fight and remain steadfast on the age-old values as our grandparents did in Siberia?” Plenty of Jews have felt such tensions, and plenty of others as well, without wanting to kill people. But you can see where the kid is coming from: growing up amid the split-levels of Nassau County, where no sublime calling ever vindicates the daily void, he longs for some higher morality of struggle to transcend mere neighborliness. Some other child might play video games, or shoot up the local middle school; but for him, there’s Gaza. Of course, he can disguise his personal dilemma in a bastardization of Hasidic language, but it meanwhile finds its imaginary fulfilment in a frontier Israel where the battle, he believes, is real. This voice is familiar. It’s the voice of that suburban nonentity, the nebbish Himmler, dressed up in an imposing uniform and speaking to the Gauleiter in Poznan in 1943. It’s stripped of authority and the drag, but the timbre is there. About the extermination of the Jews: “To have seen this through, and — with the exception of human weaknesses — to have remained decent, has made us hard and is a page of glory never mentioned and never to be mentioned.” Decency and morality inhere in those with courage to kill for us. The dealers in death stand vindicated because they stood up against their natural, debilitating qualms. Virtue lies in resistance to the blandishments of morality as it is commonly, suburbanly, merely understood. As Hannah Arendt wrote, “Although the organizers of the massacres knew full well that murder is against the normal desires and inclinations of most people,”

Evil in the Third Reich had lost the quality by which most people recognize it – the quality of temptation. Many Germans and many Nazis, probably an overwhelming majority of them, must have been tempted not to murder, not to rob, not to let their neighbors go off to their doom (for that the Jews were transported to their doom  they knew, of course, even though many of them may not have known the gruesome details), and not to become accomplices in all these crimes by benefiting from them. But, God knows, they had learned how to resist temptation.

To resist temptation is a … well, a tempting stance, luring us to emulation, to imitate the Lone Ranger, the stoic hero. No wonder, of these three pieces, it was Gordon’s that the Times of Israel deemed dangerous enough to take down.

I don’t believe these editorials represent the majority of Israeli opinion, or even a substantial minority. If anything, as I say, they are a sort of palimpsest: American fantasies of power, innocence, and freedom projected onto an abject territory, another episode in Israel’s strange colonial history.

Nor am I one of those who believes that genocide is taking place in Gaza now. The legal definition of genocide (enshrined in the UN’s 1948 Genocide Convention, and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, and indeed in Israel’s “Crime of Genocide Acf” of 1950, which carried the Convention’s terms into national law) requires the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such.” I don’t think that comprehensively destructive intent lies behind the crimes against humanity being committed in Gaza. But reading Gordon compels me to add: Yet. The two-state solution is dead; everybody sees that, on right and left. What remains, in the immediate future, is one state on Israel’s terms, from the river to the sea. A state in which much of the population is stateless, deprived of the basic rights of citizenship, subjected to continuous surveillance and control, condemned to bare existence as subalterns, even the freedom of movement suppressed, cannot sustain itself without a steadily expanding machinery of violence. Such a state will give up any shred or semblance of the rule of law, of the distinction between young and old, civilian and combatant, guilty or innocent; the only difference that will matter is them and us. A state like that is a killer state, pure, untrammeled. It’s good that Gordon’s words haven’t entirely disappeared. They carry, as he undoubtedly intended, the undertone of prophecy.

Note: In an “apology” posted today on the website of his father’s suburban New York newspaper, Yochanan Gordon writes: “I never intended to call to harm any people although my words may have conveyed that message.” You decide.

Meeting of signatories  to the UN Genocide Convention, 1950. Seated, L-R: representatives of Korea; Haiti; Iran; France; Costa Rica. Standing, L-R:  Assistant Secretary General for Legal Affairs; Secretary General Trygve Lie; representative from Costa Rica; and Raphael Lemkin, the Convention's chief proponent.

Meeting of signatories to the UN Genocide Convention, 1950. Seated, L-R: representatives of Korea; Haiti; Iran; France; Costa Rica. Standing, L-R: Assistant Secretary General for Legal Affairs; Secretary General Trygve Lie; representative from Costa Rica; and Raphael Lemkin, the Convention’s chief proponent.

Government by moral panic

A separatist militiaman looks at  the wreckage of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17. Photo: Dominique Faget/AFP

A separatist militiaman looks at the wreckage of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17. Photo: Dominique Faget/AFP

I met Pim de Kuijer once or twice, perhaps, and Martine de Schutter once, I think. He lobbied in the Dutch parliament on behalf of Stop AIDS Now; she fought for universal access to HIV prevention at Bridging the Gaps. They were both smart and young and full of enthusiasm, and they are both now dead somewhere in a field in eastern Ukraine. The enthusiasm is what I will remember. You can rebuild expertise, reconstruct lost formulae of scientific knowledge, but whatever you do you can’t recapture that intangible spirit which wants more than anything for the world to change. It seems to me that the loss of that spirit alone has set AIDS activism, which has never had much time to lose, back years.

Martine de Schutter

Martine de Schutter

Still, the mourning for them and other colleagues who were on the way to the 20th International Aids Conference in Australia was disserved and distracted by a numbers game. Less than 24 hours after Malaysian Air Flight 17 crashed, a Murdoch paper reported:

More than 100 AIDS activists, researchers and health workers bound for a major conference in Melbourne were on the Malaysia Airlines flight downed in the Ukraine.

It is believed that delegates to the 20th International AIDS Conference, due to begin on Sunday, will be informed today that 108 of their colleagues and family members died on MH17.

International media have been tossing this figure around for days, The airline has released the flight manifest, and there’s no sign that anywhere near a third of those aboard were actually bound for the Melbourne conference. The figure may have come from an interview with a single person, in shock but with no direct knowledge of who was on the plane:

images cIn a slower era, journalists might have checked what he actually knew before reporting, but this is the age of short attention spans. In fact, the International AIDS Society (IAS) has identified six passengers as traveling to the conference. More may be named in time, but those deaths will certainly be “an order of magnitude smaller than what has been reported,” as Chris Beyer, the IAS’s incoming president, said. This is one of many confusions in the speculative fog. (Fox News, for instance, reported that 23 US citizens died; in fact there was one holder of dual US and Dutch passports.)  It’s minor; except it means that some chronicler of AIDS activism, looking at the real toll of six dead against the initial reports of eighteen times that, will say, “It wasn’t so bad.” An ersatz relief, impossible without the initial extravagance of error, will blur the real gravity of the loss: a small affront to the dead, to what they did, to their incendiary enthusiasm to do more.

Nearly everybody believes that Russian separatists using Russian weapons shot down the plane: everybody, it seems, except for the Russian media, its readership, and regular viewers of Russia Today. Unanimity is itself cause to preserve a sliver of skepticism. We still don’t have absolute proof, and the forensic investigations haven’t even begun. (This is largely thanks to the separatists: they’ve moved the bodies, tampered with the wreckage, seemingly looted the site, and held investigators at bay.) Nearly all the evidence points that way. But David Remnick, in the New Yorker, keeps the focus on what we do know:

What’s far more certain is that Vladimir Putin, acting out of resentment and fury toward the West and the leaders in Kiev, has fanned a kind of prolonged political frenzy, both in Russia and among his confederates in Ukraine, that serves his immediate political needs but that he can no longer easily calibrate and control.

Is that a microphone in the ceiling? Pavlovsky speaks

Is that a microphone in the ceiling? Pavlovsky speaks

Remnick interviewed Gleb Pavlovsky, a former Putin adviser who broke with the boss in 2011. If a parasite could guide you through the guts of its host, it couldn’t speak with more exactitude than Pavlovsky does of the Russian security state and its intestinal windings. He knows Putin’s interests in Ukraine well. Remnick delicately omits this, but back in 2005 leaked tapes (possibly doctored, possibly released as part of a Kremlin power struggle) implicated Pavlovsky in the poisoning of Ukrainian presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko, dosed with lethal dioxin midway through a campaign in which he condemned Russian interference. But let Pavlovsky speak:

Pavlovsky said … Putin has “created an artificial situation in which a ‘pathological minority’—the protesters on Bolotnaya Square [two years ago], then Pussy Riot, then the liberal ‘pedophiles’—is held up in contrast to a ‘healthy majority.’ Every time this happens, his ratings go up.” The nightly television broadcasts from Ukraine, so full of wild exaggeration about Ukrainian “fascists” and mass carnage, are a Kremlin-produced “spectacle,” he said, expertly crafted by the heads of the main state networks.

“Now this has become a problem for Putin, because this system cannot be wholly managed,” Pavlovsky said. The news programs have “overheated” public opinion and the collective political imagination.

“How can Putin really manage this?” Pavlovsky went on. “You’d need to be an amazing conductor. Stalin was an amazing conductor in this way. Putin can’t quite pull off this trick. The audience is warmed up and ready to go; it is wound up and waiting for more and more conflict. You can’t just say, ‘Calm down.’”

Putin has been running a historically unusual sort of government: government by moral panic. He promotes pandemics of fear, viral outbreaks of outrage at imagined enemies. And he doesn’t conjure threats to security or values just to boost popularity, but as a basic tool of governance.

You could say that dictators and demagogues do this a lot, but Putin’s different. Hitler kept up an unceasing propaganda war against the Jews. Stalin’s ferocious demonology exorcised enemy after enemy – Social Revolutionaries, engineers, Trotskyites, German spies, eventually the Jews too, always with some overlap between them. But totalitarian ambition subordinated public outrage to state power. The occasional “spontaneous” pogrom in Germany, like Kristallnacht – carefully stage-managed, in fact — quickly gave way to the action of the police, the Gestapo, the forces of order. The anger enabled but never displaced the task of expulsion and the ultimate end of genocide, which only a dispassionate bureaucracy could efficiently commit. Meanwhile, under Stalin, in 1930s Moscow, anybody holding a spontaneous, unauthorized protest against enemies of the State would have been declaring himself an enemy of the State too: here I am, a Kautskyite deviationist, Kolyma here I come. It wasn’t just that Stalin was an “amazing conductor.” He shot the orchestra members one by one, while the audience stayed frozen in their seats, hands on the armrests, humming patriotic songs in unison, no sudden movements allowed.

Neo-Nazis abuse a kidnapped, alleged gay Uzbek, July 2013, from a social-media page

Russian Neo-Nazis abuse a kidnapped, allegedly gay “Uzbek,” July 2013, from a social-media page

Putin’s panics, on the other hand. whether about evil Ukrainaians or subversive homosexuals, aren’t meant to efface other movements and players, to erase other institutions in a coordinated exercise of power. They enlist the Church, the neo-Nazis, school administrations, nationalist intellectuals, diasporic allies in the near abroad — but without subordinating them. It’s all chaotic. The government’s bloodthirsty rhetoric charts a general direction, but everybody is set loose to follow it as best they can. This is in the best tradition of moral panics, which offer wide scope for what the sociologists call “moral entrepreneurs,” opportunists of anxiety, to stake out arenas for action and go after enemies in their own way. The anti-homosexual legislation may be the best example. Draconian though it is, almost nobody has been prosecuted since its passage. The State hasn’t actually done much. Rather, the law encourages everybody from priests to foreign “pro-family” ideologues to right-wing gangs to launch their own campaigns. It asks them, in fact, to support the State, which desperately needs their help in rooting out perversion. In its weird way, it’s thus an instrument of that most stereotypically American of political practices – coalition-building, uniting disparate interests into a party of shared goals. The dictatorial law seems almost democratic in the way it works.

Or consider Putin’s strategy in Ukraine. Pundits and politicians compare it to Hitler’s seizure of the Sudetenland and its ethnic Germans. Yet what’s missing in Russia is the triumphal confidence that State power can always prevail. Look back at Nazi propaganda during the Sudeten crisis; it showed German might irresistibly smashing the country cousins’ chains:

Poster for a “yes” vote on annexation to the Reich, in a referendum held in the Sudetenland on December 4, 1938

Poster for a “yes” vote on annexation to the Reich, in a referendum held in the Sudetenland on December 4, 1938

Or it depicted Hitler as savior to little blond Sudeteners dreaming of deliverance:

Propaganda postcard sent to Sudetenlanders during the 1938 crisis

Propaganda postcard sent to Sudetenlanders during the 1938 crisis

By contrast, Russian propaganda on Ukraine has a pathetic stress on victimhood. There’s a genocide going on in the potato fields, Russians are being exterminated, but Russia seems powerless on its own to prevent it. (The #SaveDonbass hashtag campaign, which started on Twitter a couple of months ago and showed ostensible ethnic Russian victims, almost exclusively exploited images of sheer wide-eyed helplessness.)

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Hence the reliance on militias, generously armed but semi-independent rebel groups, uncoordinated actions compensating for what the State can’t do. Neither Stalin or Hitler would ever have tolerated this wild welter of assistance. The Gestapo would have rounded up the anti-gay thugs with their vigilante delusions, and the insurgents would have been handed not missile launchers but tickets to the Gulag. Something’s changed.

Ethnic Russian self-defense forces stand in front of a government building, Simferopol, Crimea, March 2014. Photo: AFP

Ethnic Russian self-defense forces stand in front of a government building, Simferopol, Crimea, March 2014. Photo: AFP

You could point to many things, but one is overriding. Russia is a nuclear power and a near-dictatorship, but it’s a weak state. This is paradoxical given the overweening authority Putin manages to project, but it’s true. Putin has full authority over the security establishment, but that is no longer enough to endow unquestioned solidity upon the state he built. For one thing, Russia is no longer an isolated command economy. It’s been integrated into the capitalist world. While Putin has bullied the unruly Yeltsin-era oligarchs into submission, that still doesn’t help him control the country’s livelihood, dependent instead on international vicissitudes of supply and demand. This is particularly true since a single commodity sector — energy — dominates everything, and prosperity rides on fluctuations of markets out of the government’s hands. You can police dissidents, but you can’t police the price of natural gas abroad. If the old Soviet economy has been “privatized” — more precisely, in neoliberal fashion, parcelled out to a bunch of ill-coordinated players — so, too, have other parts of Soviet power. Corporate conglomerates, a military-industrial complex, rich and insecure churches, noisy social movements (more of them on the Right than the Left), local governments carving out their own extortion zones, and many more mini- and mega-oligarchies multiply. As happens when a once coherent power is privatized, each tries to establish its own small dictatorship over whoever it can influence. This Russia, one scholar says, is ” a highly corrupt state that still cannot fully control its borders, monopolize the legal means of violence, or clearly articulate its role in the contemporary world.” For all his shirtless preening, Putin is no muscle-man able to wield top-down control. Instead he must exhort, scare, cajol, and distract the rest of society till he gets his way.

Government by moral panic is a way of governing when the government fears impotence, as in a morning nightmare where your legs won’t move: its power shaling into paralysis, its strength sloughing off like sand.

We’re going to see more of this. We live in an era of weak states. The most authoritarian among them can’t muster half the authority its ancestors did. The neoliberal state has big biceps to flex, but it hobbles along on crutches. How can a leader feel secure in his position when foreign bankers who price your bonds can make or break your popularity, your ministers, your country?

Vote if you want to, it won't make a difference: Thatcher's mantra of neoliberalism

Vote if you want to, it won’t make a difference: Thatcher’s mantra of neoliberalism

More and more, continent after continent, governments are promoting moral panics as ways to govern. These conflagrations of fear can convulse society, but they convince people they need the state again, for all its frailty and fecklessness. Look at Egypt, where a military regime reestablished control over a fractious country through a year-long campaign of demonizing (arresting, shooting) Islamists,and journalists, and refugees, and Palestinians. Or Israel, where Netanyahu’s administration hid and lied about the deaths of three Jewish teenagers to aggravate a fever of popular panic and rage, and stoke pressure for a saving intervention by the state’s favorite instrument: its troops. Or, for that matter, the United Kingdom, where a weak coalition government (the first of its kind in almost a century) keeps looking for bogeymen to justify its existence. It’s tried Muslims and Romanians so far, with limited success, but there are more to come.

Or the United States. America is always different – exceptional, they say; it’s the home of private enterprise, after all. And the panics are privatized too. Occasionally, true, you get governments whipping up people’s anxieties. (Remember those color-coded terror alerts of the vigilant Bush years? Today my Fear is Orange, Mr. Ashcroft!) But just as often you see entrepreneurs drumming up the fear and loathing for their own ends.

Increasingly the US is a classic weak state, a casualty of neoliberalism in its several forms. Years of right-wing amputations whittled its government down, and now conservatives committed to a big-business version of Russian Nihilism refuse to allow the legislative process to exist. Its politicians still praise it as the “indispensable nation,” but it governs itself like Somalia. Like any weak state, it falls prey to warlords, though they have offshore accounts and paid talk-radio pundits rather than weapons caches. Usually they stir up panics to pressure the government into deploying its dwindling powers on one of their pet causes. It’s a competition: to get what’s left of the state on your side. Immigration is a wonderful source of panics, all in this entrepreneurial spirit. The goal almost always is to get the government to abandon its remaining responsibilities to people inside the border (food, jobs, health care, those vague things called civil rights) and devote all its energies to policing the border itself. Imagine you have a plot of land, and a limited number of bricks. You could waste the bricks building a house to live in, or you could put up a nice thick wall around the whole vacant lot. The answer – Who needs a roof, anyway? – becomes more obvious as the panicked voices keep shrieking, Do something! They’re walking on the lawn! 

I told you to build that wall: Anti-immigration cartoon from 1891

I told you to build that wall: Anti-immigration cartoon from 1891

Moral panics come in many kinds, but one feature is consistent. They always have victims. Scapegoating is intrinsic to the package. Governing by moral panic means governing by exclusion.

Immigrants, minorities, the irresponsible and perverted, sex workers and trans women, the sick and susceptible, wayward young or useless old: somebody’s going to suffer. As our states get weaker, those marked for marginality multiply. In a kinder, gentler, more condescending era, states justified themselves by providing for people’s welfare. In the neoliberal age, states will justify themselves increasingly by their capacity to exclude. Legitimacy will derive from the quantity of victims.

i started with the fog of speculation shrouding a terrible disaster, uncertainty created by the compulsory celerity and fake urgency of the Internet. These days, rumors have wings while facts slog in leaky galoshes. This, too, makes government by moral panic possible. Strong states survived on facts. How large was the grain harvest? How many gallons of water in the reservoir? What is the average height of army conscripts from the southern province? Only that kind of exactitude made their interventions, whether for welfare or security, work. In the world of moral panic, facts disappear. What’s left are speculations; and governments that want to rule, politicians who want to keep their power, learn to surf the waves of supposition, like a traveller in a dream who realizes the road has become a river.

Everything that’s solid melts. Those floating numbers of the dead– six? eight? 100? 108? — are a symptom of our fluid and oblivious condition. They speak of a world of nameless panics and unattributable terrors, inaccessible to the consolations of proof, where the one thing certain is that there will always be more victims.

Ethnic Russian self-defense units stand guard at of  local government headquarters in Simferopol, Crimea, March 2014. Photo: Thomas Peter/Reuters

Ethnic Russian self-defense units at local government headquarters in Simferopol, Crimea, March 2014. Photo: Thomas Peter/Reuters

Send your support to Yara Sallam and other human rights defenders imprisoned in Egypt

Yara Sallam (R) in the courtroom cage in Tora, June 23

Yara Sallam (R) in the courtroom cage in Tora, June 23

On June 29 a court met in the Police Institute at Tora on the margins of Cairo– “a security fortress, managed by the Ministry of Interior,” next to Tora prison where tens or hundreds of thousands of dissidents have been held and tortured over the years. It heard the case of 23 people arrested in a peaceful protest against Egypt’s draconian protest law on June 21. (More on the case, and the detainees, here.) After a long, hot day of delays while the prisoners waited in the courtroom cage, the judge left for home without even announcing the disposition of the case. It took hours for lawyers to find out that he’d scheduled the next hearing for September 13, meaning the prisoners will swelter all this blazing summer in crowded cells.

In an ominous sign, before departing, the judge sentenced defendants in another protest-law case to five years. Even the courtroom guards were stunned: “Five years for a one-hour march?” one policeman said.

Yara Sallam in different days

Yara Sallam in different days

Colleagues of mine have been able to visit my friend Yara Sallam and some of the six other women’s human rights defenders in al-Qanater prison. They are in good spirits but they have asked for letters. Fortunately, there’s a way to get letters to the women prisoners. You can send them in e-mails, and colleagues will print them out and try to deliver them. You can also write separately to the men who have been jailed in the same case, and efforts will be made to deliver those. You can write to individual prisoners, or to groups. They would all appreciate contact with and support from the outside world.

Take a minute to write a few lines thanking them for their struggle for democracy in Egypt. For now, you can send the letters to them to me at scottlong1980@gmail.com and I’ll forward them to the people who will try to deliver them. The names of the detainees are below. An action alert from FIDH here includes addresses to write to the Egyptian authorities in protest against their detention.

Women:
Yara Sallam
Sanaa Seif
Salwa Mehrez
Nahed Sherif (known as Nahed Bebo)
Hanan Mostafa
Samar Ibrahim
Fekreya Mohamed (known as Rania El-Sheikh)

Men:
Ibrahim al-Saeed
Ahmad Samir
Mohamed Miza
Islam Givara
Ahmad Oraby
Islam Oraby
Moataz Mansour
Karam Mostafa
Mohamed al-Beyali
Mostafa Ibrahim
Yasser al-Qott
Mohamed Moftah
Mohamed al-Araby
Mahmoud Hesham
Moamen Radwan
Islam Abdel Hamid

Sanaa-Seif

Sanaa Seif