I misremember Iraq

1369847707_4085_memoryEveryone misremembers something. We mostly draw our lives’ meaning from the private world, so we tend to misremember sex: doing it better than we did, with somebody sexier than they were. Many of my own mismemories involve the media. I’ve a vivid visual memory, for instance, of walking down a car-free Fifth Avenue around 10:15 on a Tuesday morning in September 2001, eyes numbly fixed on an billowing void at the tip of Manhattan where the south tower of the World Trade Center had been (somebody running past told me it had gone down, but I didn’t believe it); the north tower was burning alongside and then I watched it collapse, thundering down slowly while dust and smoke blossomed like a flower on fire. Except I didn’t watch that. Just before it crumbled, I turned onto 27th Street, to a hotel where some of my employees visiting town were staying; that’s why I was on the avenue — racing to make sure they were all right; and a girl rushed into the lobby and gasped that the south tower had fallen. The image of the collapse, replayed on TV for weeks, imposed itself on what I actually witnessed like a double exposure; something a camera saw for me, scrawled in a palimpsest over what I saw.

518-pjpegThings like this give me sympathy for Brian Williams. You all know: the newsman claimed repeatedly that, during the Iraq invasion in 2003, enemy fire downed his helicopter. “We landed very quickly and hard and we put down and we were stuck, four birds in the middle of the desert and we were north out ahead of the other Americans. … Our captain took a purple heart injury to his ear in the cockpit, but we were alone.” So vivid; such grunty language; not a word true. His helicopter wasn’t hit, one way ahead of him was. Williams was safe and sound.

 Williams tells his tale on the David Letterman Show. Italian subtitles included, in case he wants to seek Papal indulgence.

I feel for his confusion. If my own memories get mixed up with what the media tells me, then what about the media’s own memories? Those talking heads are conduits for all the stories the public knows. So don’t all the stories become theirs, part not just of their talk but of their heads too? Don’t American anchormen contain multitudes, like Walt Whitman — their lives absorbing by imperial osmosis all the unused experience around them, trivial and forgettable until filmed and told? I remember (I think) a story about Lyndon Johnson, Caesar of another of our imperial wars. Setting off to Camp David, striding the White House lawn toward a line of helicopters, he headed for the wrong one. A nervous Marine intercepted him: “Mr. President, that’s not your helicopter.” Johnson draped his arm around the soldier’s shoulder. “They’re all my helicopters, son.”

What I don’t get is why this is an issue. Williams made up a story. But he was in the middle of the most fantastic made-up story in American history. The Iraq war, written by Bush with a little help from Tony Blair and Micronesia and Poland, was a gigantic fiction, as beautifully told and expressive of the moment’s cultural mythology as The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, or A Million Little Pieces, or Three Cups of Tea. The reasons were fake, the goals were fake, the triumph was fake. Nothing was true except the dead people, who aren’t talking. The war countered imaginary threats and villainies with imaginary victories and valor. Williams added his embroidery in the spirit of invention. Why are the other tale-spinners turning on him now?

Authorized American history of the Iraq war

Authorized American history of the Iraq war

The story of Williams’ little story is all personal now, background blacked out: it’s not about the war or the news business, it’s about Brian Williams. This is consistent with Williams’ career, built on the purely personal trust you can repose in words escaping that imposing lower jaw. The New York Times says he 

long had been considered one of the most trusted people in not only in [sic] the news business but in the country as a whole. He was trusted by about three-quarters of consumers, making him the 23rd-most-trusted person in the country.

But where does that confidence come from? I remember (I think) reading a terrifying linguistic analysis of Iraq war TV coverage, terrifying because its prose made the analysis sound like a high-tech military campaign. (“Activating the partition, that parameter becomes the pivot from which further exploration can move, that is, we can make comparisons within the corpus on the basis of the selected parameter” …) One chapter was: “The news presenter as socio-cultural construct.” Here I brightened. My sexuality and gender are already social constructs; will Katie Couric join them? Alas, all this means is that “the news presenter creates a socially acceptable persona.” But buried in that bland description is the reality. Williams, like the modern news business, is a construct of his audience. He challenges nobody: he sensitively serves up fictions they long to see and hear.

Why is it a scandal when Williams admits misrepresenting himself, but not when NBC admits misrepresenting the world? Why isn’t the scandal that NBC’s Tim Russert said, before the Iraq war, ‘‘I’m a journalist, but first, I’m an American. Our country is at war with the terrorists, and as an American, I support the effort wholeheartedly’’?  Why isn’t the scandal that CBS’s Dan Rather promised, ‘‘George Bush is the president. As just one American, wherever he wants me to line up, just tell me where’’? The belief that war journalism was about fealty, not fact, came to infect every sentence said on air. The same linguistic study analyzed CBS broadcasts during the Iraq invasion, and here are snippets to set the mood:

They [US soldiers] gave the last full measure of devotion to their country. We honour their memories and send our condolences to their families … (March 21, 2003 CBS)

Just ahead on the CBS evening news, ties that bind: fathers and sons, duty, honour, country and war … (April 1, 2003)

When President Bush sent American servicemen and women to war, the entire nation went with them … (April 4, 2003)

We dedicate this broadcast to our fellow Americans who have died fighting in the war so far … (April 7, 2003)

The scandal is journalism’s complete submission, as the “war on terror” raged, to the fantasies of patriotic allegiance.

War boy: Dan Rather doing his duty

War boy: Dan Rather doing his duty

Some of us remember this capitulation (or think we do) and we’re likely to blame government pressure. And the Bush administration did lean hard on the press. Just a month after 9/11, they reprimanded TV networks that had dared to air videos from Al-Qaeda. David Dadge, in The War in Iraq and Why the Media Failed Us, writes that Condoleezza Rice

placed a conference call with the media executives of ABC News, CBS News, CNN, Fox News Channel, and NBC. Rice told the executives that security personnel were worried at the inflammatory language of the videotapes and feared that they might contain hidden codes with which to direct other attacks on American soil. … At that point, Rice withdrew from the conference call allowing the media executives to discuss the matter on their own.

In their discussion, the media executives agreed that, in future, the videotapes would be heavily edited and greater context would be provided. … The President of CBS News, Andrew Heyward, said, ‘‘This is a new situation, a new war, and a new kind of enemy. Given the historic events we are enmeshed in, it’s appropriate to explore new ways of fulfilling our responsibilities to the public.’’

Strategic insight. Tactical solutions. Useful lies: Website of the Rendon Group

Strategic insight. Tactical solutions. Useful lies: Website of the Rendon Group

New ways! … Meanwhile, the administration had its own propaganda machine, untraceably intricate. According to James Bamford’s book on Bush-era abuses of intelligence, “a shadowy American company, the Rendon Group” was “paid close to $200 million by the CIA and Pentagon to spread anti-Saddam propaganda worldwide.”

Soon after the attacks of September 11, the company received a $100,000-a-month contract from the Pentagon to offer media strategy advice. Among the agencies to whom it provided recommendations was the Orwellian-sounding Office of Strategic Influence … apparently intended to be a massive disinformation factory.

In the 1990s, Rendon had helped create the Iraqi National Congress, the front for con-man Ahmed Chalabi to promote himself as Saddam’s successor. Come 2001, Chalabi called on a former Rendon employee — Australian journalist Paul Moran — to generate bogus news stories about “bunkers for chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons research hidden throughout Iraq.” Chalabi wielded these stories to push any wavering Bush officials toward war. In other words, the administration was paying for propaganda to lobby itself.

Ahmed Chalabi, with completely inexplicable object

Ahmed Chalabi, with completely inexplicable object

Yet it’s a mistake to suppose state pressure was the main factor corrupting US media. The internal logic of news as business was what shut down their critical functions.

I remember (I think) a brief, brief window after 9/11 when some on-air independence was possible. I remember (I think) a broadcast on CBS, probably September 13 or 14, where an Afghan civilian displayed some of the devastation Clinton’s 1998 missile strikes caused. The message was that a history of violent action and reaction underlay the attacks; the implication, that Americans should also examine what their own government had done. I remember (I think) remarks on TV suggesting that the President’s September 11 speech, where he faced the camera panicked as a rabbit being fucked by a howitzer, displayed a lamentable default of leadership. These glimmers of critique shut down after Bush bestrode the ruins of Ground Zero with a bullhorn, hugging firefighters and walking tall. They shut down mainly because the proprietors of news saw, in that image of rejuvenated manhood, what sold.

Bullshit, with bullhorn: Bush in New York City, September 14, 2001

Bullshit, with bullhorn: Bush in New York City, September 14, 2001

They needed to sell. Broadcast media were besieged by the increasing popularity of cable news outlets, Fox first among them. Print media were beleaguered by the Internet and the near-impossibility of making web platforms pay. Competition didn’t cause better news-gathering. In keeping with the pattern of corporate restructuring in the neoliberal era, it prodded cost-cutting, not product improvement. Foreign news suffered most. Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber write, “The time devoted to foreign coverage on ABC, CBS and NBC fell from 4,032 minutes in 1989 to 1,382 in 2000, rebounding only slightly following the 9/11 attacks to 2,103 minutes in 2002.” Cable news was even worse.

CNN by 1995 had a news-gathering network worldwide of only 20 bureaus, with 35 correspondents outside the United States—“only half of what the BBC has had for a long time to cover world events on radio and television” and “only a fraction of what the three largest international newswire services maintain on a permanent basis.”

From Network (1976): Arthur Jensen explains to anchorman Howard Beale how the business works

But if behemoths like Fox News were one kind of competition, there was rivalry from below. I remember (I think) all the laudatory screeds proclaiming blogs the new frontier of Truth — faster, fresher, interactive, untrammelled by editorial control. For “citizen media,” the citizen media told us back in 2004,

News is a conversation, not just a lecture. The story doesn’t end when it’s published, but rather just gets started as the public begins to do its part — discussing the story, adding to it, and correcting it.

The participatory ideal meant, of course, the blogger didn’t have to do her own checking or correcting. Fake facts would flood the world.

Dodging more imaginary bullets: The Village Voice on the right-wing blogosphere, 2008

Dodging more imaginary bullets: The Village Voice on the right-wing blogosphere, 2008

Back then, blogs were novel. Michael Massing wrote with astonishment in 2005 about a “technological innovation that, along with the rise of talk radio and cable news, has made the conservative attack on the press particularly damaging …. Internet Web logs, which allow users to beam their innermost thoughts throughout the world, take no longer than a few minutes to set up.… many of them are by adolescent girls writing their diaries on-line.” But some were influential, and most were conservative. One pro-blog blog speculated:

Imagine, say, the coverage of Watergate being treated in part this way. Rather than Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward being the sole storytellers, blog-influenced journalism would have had them in part leading a conversation about the scandal … I suspect that a Watergate investigation in the blog era would have come to a conclusion faster.

I remember (I think) the Nixon administration in its conceit and power, and I doubt a “conversation” would have done the trick. Unpaid bloggers would have given up, discredited or ignored. Citizen journalism didn’t usually fight the status quo. More typical was Andrew Sullivan, who thanked God for giving us George W, and famously inveighed against “terrorist fellow-travellers” and “the decadent left in its enclaves on the coasts.” Blogs denigrated dissent with glib, factitious certainty, while forcing a cornered mainstream media to come up with low-cost, easy stories to tell.

“A disciplined and well-organized news and opinion campaign” brought the press to heel, Massing declared, “directed by conservatives and the Christian right.” Paul Krugman, in 2004, pointed to “the role of intimidation” in silencing criticism. “If you were thinking of saying anything negative about the president, you had to be prepared for an avalanche of hate mail. You had to expect right-wing pundits and publications to do all they could to ruin your reputation.”  I remember (I think) a short essay by Susan Sontag in late September 2001 that asserted simply:

This was not a “cowardly” attack on “civilization” or “liberty” or “humanity” or “the free world” but an attack on the world’s self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions … A few shreds of historical awareness might help us understand what has just happened.

Sullivan answered by calling her “contemptible” and a “pretentious buffoon”; others dubbed her “moral idiot” and “traitor.” The New Republic asked, “What do Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, and Susan Sontag have in common?” Historical awareness was an orphan in the new permanent now.

Terror threesome: Osama, Saddam, and Susan

Terror threesome: Osama, Saddam, and Susan

No one idealizes the hierarchical old media, but the faux-democracy of new media, where a thousand schools of thought supposedly contend, is in fact even more malleable to the market’s mandates. As war impended, the press ignored unpopular voices:

From Steve Rendall and Tara Broughel, "Amplifying Officials, Squelching Dissent," Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting, October 2003

From Steve Rendall and Tara Broughel, “Amplifying Officials, Squelching Dissent,” Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR), October 2003

While Williams dodged imaginary bullets in Iraq, his employers axed Phil Donahue’s talk show because, an internal network report warned, he presented a “difficult public face for NBC in a time of war. . . . He seems to delight in presenting guests who are anti-war, anti-Bush and skeptical of the administration’s motives.” The show risked becoming “a home for the liberal anti-war agenda at the same time that our competitors are waving the flag at every opportunity.” Meanwhile, the US dropped murderous cluster bombs, and laced munitions with poisonous depleted uranium. “These important stories,” writes Norman Solomon of the Institute for Public Accuracy, “became known to many news watchers on several continents. But not in the United States.”

When CBS obtained the infamous Abu Ghraib torture photos, the Pentagon asked them to spike or delay the story; the network complied for two weeks. A CBS executive later explained, “We are like every other American. We want to win this war. We believe in the country.’’ When the pictures finally aired, right-wing media bayed in fury. ‘‘CBS should be ashamed for running the photos,” National Review’s Jonah Goldberg wrote: “What was gained by releasing these images now? CBS could have reported the story without the pictures.’’ (A decade later, the identical Goldberg complained that news outlets were not publishing the offending Charlie Hebdo cartoons. “Running satirical pictures of Mohammed,” he intoned, “is now a requirement of news reporting — because those images are central to the story.”)

TV viewers got plenty of patriotic music, though.

MSNBC joined Fox in using the Pentagon’s own code name for the war—“Operation Iraqi Freedom.” The logos featured fluttering American flags or motifs involving red, white and blue. … Promos for MSNBC featured a photo montage of soldiers accompanied by a piano rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Then there was “embedding,” cementing friendly journalists in military units. Thrilling as Space Mountain, it kept reporters secure in the propaganda cocoon. Michael Massing devastatingly dissected the work of one embeddee, the Washington Post’s Pamela Constable. “I quickly became part of an all-American military microcosm” in Fallujah, Constable wrote, with the Iraqi enemy “invisible” and the residents “frustratingly beyond our reach.”

Local informant: Constable cradles Apache, a dog she rescued while embedded with Marines in Fallujah. Photo by Chris Borouncle

Local informant: Constable cradles Apache, a dog she rescued while embedded with Marines in Fallujah. Photo by Chris Borouncle

I strained to listen for signs of humanity in the darkened city. I imagined holocaust—city blocks in flames, families running and screaming. But the only sounds were the baying of frightened dogs and the indecipherable chanting of muezzins, filling the air with a soft cacophony of Koranic verse. … We knew people were running out of food, and we heard rumors of clinics flooded with the dead and wounded. But the few Fallujans we encountered were either prisoners with handcuffed wrists and hooded heads, or homeowners waiting sullenly for their houses to be searched, or refugees timidly approaching military checkpoints with white flags … Sometimes on patrols, people approached us reporters and pleaded for help in Arabic, but there was nothing we could do.

Massing commented:

Al-Jazeera, by contrast, had a correspondent and crew inside the city, and several times a day they were filing dramatic reports of the fighting. According to their accounts, the US bombing was causing hundreds of civilian casualties plus extensive physical destruction. As for what Constable took to be the Koranic chantings of the muezzin, Arabic speakers could tell that these were actually urgent appeals for ambulances and calls on the local population to rise up and fight the Americans. So while Arab viewers were getting independent (if somewhat sensationalized) reports from the field, Americans were getting their news filtered through the Marines.

Embedded, of course, is what Brian Williams was during his fantasy brush with death. This illumines the last key tool in the propagandization of US press: personal melodrama replaced analysis. If Al-Jazeera sensationalized the situation, US media sensationalized the individual story. There was no big picture. The war was a pointillistic canvas of feel-good or feel-frightened tales, politics and context painted over.

Still from video of special forces "rescuing" Private Jessica Lynch. Photo: AP

Still from video of special forces “rescuing” Private Jessica Lynch. Image: Associated Press

One story is still emblematic. In March 2003, Iraqi troops captured Private Jessica Lynch, a 19 year-old from Palestine, West Virginia. American officials claimed she was wounded in a heroic fight, firing her weapon down to the last bullet. US special forces rescued her eight days later from a hospital in Nasriyah; dramatic footage of the mission was broadcast worldwide.

Newsweek cover, April 14, 2003

Newsweek cover, April 14, 2003

Except, as David Dadge writes, “Lynch had not been wounded, she had not been tortured, and the raid by the Navy Seals was staged for the cameras. Indeed, her injuries were entirely consistent with a road traffic incident.” It took the BBC, not US media, to unravel the story: “one of the most stunning pieces of news management ever conceived.”

Witnesses told us that the special forces knew that the Iraqi military had fled a day before they swooped on the hospital. “We were surprised. Why do this? There was no military, there were no soldiers in the hospital,” said Dr Anmar Uday, who worked at the hospital. … “They cried ‘go, go, go’, with guns and blanks without bullets, blanks and the sound of explosions. They made a show for the American attack on the hospital — action movies like Sylvester Stallone or Jackie Chan.” …

The Pentagon had been influenced by Hollywood producers of reality TV and action movies, notably the man behind Black Hawk Down, Jerry Bruckheimer. Bruckheimer advised the Pentagon on the primetime television series “Profiles from the Front Line”, that followed US forces in Afghanistan in 2001. That approached [sic] was taken on and developed on the field of battle in Iraq.

Surreally, the movie that became news became another movie. Networks besieged Lynch to buy the rights to her story. CBS came in for especially harsh criticism for chasing a film deal while seeking a news interview — giving them a vested interest in not unearthing the truth. The onetime sacrosanct news division shrank to an extension of the entertainment arm. Even Lynch’s hometown newspaper objected: “The need for journalistic independence should be self-evident. Reporters have a hard enough time trying to get to the truth without having to worry about spoiling a book deal.” The military version, debunked, still became an NBC TV movie: Saving Jessica Lynch.

Based on the not-true story

Based on the not-true story

All the elements of  Brian Williams’ fable are there: danger, rescue, rhetoric. It’s as if Williams took Lynch as a pattern for his lie.

Williams himself has been central to transforming news into personal narrative. He’s expert at making himself the story, assiduously chasing celebrity. He’s vital to NBC’s brand, even the entertainment division – think his cameos on 30 Rock. The “ultra-viral supercuts of Williams’s newscasts” that his pal Jimmy Fallon sets to hip-hop tracks have “viewer metrics that rival Williams’s marquee hard news interview with Edward Snowden.” Walter Cronkite polled as the most trusted man in America (22 notches above Williams) back in the 1970s. But it’s hard to imagine him playing himself on Family Guy.

Then and now. L: Walter Cronkite reports on space exploration in the 1960s. R: Brian Williams  reports on Peter Griffin's accidental space shuttle launch.

Then and now. L: Walter Cronkite reports on space exploration in the 1960s. R: Brian Williams reports on Peter Griffin’s accidental space shuttle launch.

Williams is a Jay Gatsby for our condition, taking over a self and story nobody else was using, to compensate for the vacancy of his own. But precisely because of that you mustn’t make his fable his personal fault. What matters isn’t the man but the environment that made him, where news isn’t fact but a superior sort of fiction, a compound of inflated personalities and imagined stories, a mirror to reality TV. That should be the scandal.

The Iraq war was a turning point, when news dropped even the pretense of informing people. In fact, news about the war left them even less informed than before. In late 2003, for instance, a study found that 69% of the mainstream media audience believed Saddam Hussein was personally involved in 9/11; 57% believed Iraq was closely tied to Al-Qaeda; 22% percent believed weapons of mass destruction had been found in Iraq. And these delusions couldn’t just be blamed on liberals’ usual bogeymen. 71% of CBS viewers held one or more of these fictions as gospel — only slightly behind Fox News viewers, at 80%.

Writing this, I’ve immersed myself again in the non-events, the fake history, between 9/11 and the fall of Baghdad, and I find it horrible anew. The years were a delirium when hardly anything you heard was true. The war was like those lost seasons of Dallas or Roseanne; like Pam, we dreamed it all, and Williams’ dream was only a segment in the greater reverie. Yet while we were dreaming, others were dying. Why aren’t we scandalized by that? They died because we could not endure opening our eyes. Estimates of “excess deaths” among Iraqis in the war years range from 100,000 (for the war’s first 18 months) to 650,000 (by 2006). Those include deaths from disease and deprivation; one figure for those who died by violence alone is 150,000. That is thirty times the mortality of U.S. troops in our violent dreamtime. Our dreams had no responsibilities. Are we awake yet? “Was I sleeping, while the others suffered? Am I sleeping now? Tomorrow, when I wake, or think I do, what shall I say of today?”

US patrol in Fallujah, 2004. Photo by Anja Niedringhaus, AP

US patrol in Fallujah, 2004. Photo by Anja Niedringhaus, AP

I didn’t watch US news often during the 2003 war. During the months of buildup and the war itself, I remember (I think) being in Cairo, working for Human Rights Watch. I remember (I think) going to weekly demonstrations, at Sayyeda Zeinab or Cairo University, where a few hundred brave people protested the wars: students, leftists, Nasserists, Islamists. I remember (I think) cordons of Central Security police and intelligence officers around the demonstrations, helmeted, black-clad, armed, outnumbering the protesters ten to one. I remember (I think) the day the war broke out; I remember seeing Edward Said in the garden of the Marriott Hotel, gaunt and sick, amid an atmosphere too grim for me to dare approach. I remember (I think) the smell of tear gas drifting across the garden. I remember (I think) how forty thousand people gathered against the war in Midan Tahrir that afternoon, a presage of the revolution eight years later; I remember (I think) how Mubarak’s police beat them back, broke bodies, arrested thousands of leftists and tortured them. I remember (I think) spending the next week with lawyers day and night, going to police stations, collecting names and testimonies, documenting the brutality of America’s Egyptian proconsul. I remember (I think) the night that Baghdad fell. I was in the Greek Club, the ancient gathering place of Cairo’s intellectuals; a funereal somberness hung over the place, because the dictator had fled, and that should be an reason for rejoicing, but no one could see anything to come of the manner of his overthrow but violence, vengeance, division, death.

I remember they were right.

I remember something that did not happen. Late in 2002, while war talk crescendoed, I had a dream. I dreamed I was in a house somewhere on the American coast, I think in South Carolina (one of the most militarized states in the Union, fat with factories and military bases). There was a highway between the house and the grey ocean. In the dream, I heard a rumble as of something monstrous on the move; I looked out and the road was thick with a long convoy of tanks, of armored personnel carriers, of trucks loaded with anti-aircraft guns and missiles, with armaments I couldn’t even name; they thundered by endlessly, more and more and more. I asked what they were and a disembodied voice said, “They are going to Iraq.” They spent hours passing while I tried to sleep, an incessant cavalcade, as if all the destruction the world was capable of were amassing somewhere and could not be stopped. They drowned the surf under the grind of wheels. I huddled in bed, terrified. When I say that didn’t happen, I mean it was a dream; it wasn’t true. But it was more real than any of the news I saw over the long years since.

Remembering 9/11, by Pat Linse

Remembering 9/11, by Pat Linse

Egypt’s Atrocity Investments Fair (Part one: The British connection)

Malouka Aldlouah in court; photo from Al Youm Al Sabbah (Youm 7), January 31, 2015. I tried to blur the face; Youm 7 didn't.

Malouka Aldlouah in court; photo from Al Youm Al Sabbah (Youm7), January 31, 2015. I tried to blur her face; Youm7 didn’t.

Look at two photographs. Above is Malouka Aldlouah, a 25-year-old transgender woman, in a cold courtroom. On January 31, a judge sentenced her and a friend, Aida, to six years in prison. Their crime was “debauchery,” homosexual conduct; police entrapped them in an apartment they shared. Below is Shaimaa el-Sabbagh, a journalist, activist, and mother. On January 24, she tried to place flowers in Tahrir Square in memory of the Egyptian revolution’s martyrs. Police shot her. She died in a comrade’s arms.

Those photographs illuminate what it’s like in Egypt today, homes and streets patrolled equally ruthlessly, private and public life endangered. A police state shaped these women’s narratives, but the pictures tell very different stories: contempt and shame weigh unequally on them. I blurred one face and not the other, and that has to do with stigma, but also with the division between life and death. Sometimes I feel the only Egyptians who can show their faces without fear these days are the dead, who have already paid for it.

24open_cairo-master675On March 13-15, General Sisi’s regime will host an Egypt Economic Development Conference in Sharm el Sheikh. This is a massive event, Sisi’s bid to pump foreign money into an immiserated country. To the extent the government has an economic strategy, this is it. The state hypes it furiously, and its docile press slavishly whips up hope. The meeting “is a ‘once in a life time’ opportunity to rapidly enter the ’emerging’ Egyptian market” (why those air quotes?); the “success of the summit will lead to an economic boom for Egypt, as it aims to improve the standard of living for Egyptians.” They’ve invited 3500 investors, no, 6000, from 120 countries. 1000 Saudis alone are eagerly awaited. They’re begging Russia and Germany and France to send businessmen. “30 different investment projects” will be up for grabs at the meeting, worth $20 billion — no, $15 billion (that’s down suspiciously from 42 projects heralded a few weeks ago). The government’s even lowering the currency against the dollar; it will drop 12% by the time the summit opens, making Egypt an even more fabulous bargain basement, a louche low-rent laundry for loose cash.

Roughing it: Brave Western investors at the Grand Hotel, Sharm el-Sheikh, try to locate Egypt's economic future on the horizon

Neither out far nor in deep: Brave Western investors at the Grand Hotel in Sharm el-Sheikh try to locate Egypt’s economic future on the horizon

I want to know: Who among the businessmen, and bankers, and diplomats at the Sharm summit will demand answers about Egypt’s deteriorating human rights situation? 

Sisi’s government has had a hard time attracting attendees, postponing the gathering repeatedly to bushbeat for joiners; the problem is that Egypt looks less than stable as an investment opportunity. If the poolside potentates at Sharm el-Sheikh want to see instability firsthand, it’s near — too near. Two hundred miles north of Sinai’s Red Sea beaches, a vast rebellion rages. Attacks by the ISIS-affiliated “State of Sinai” (Wilayat Sina) killed 30 to 50 soldiers on January 29 alone. The rights crisis feeds the resistance. State torture and repression, Amr Khalifa argues, are “making a dark scenario an explosive one”:

an elevation of the language of guns, APC’s and unmanned drones over that of reasoned discourse with the local population. It is a problem central to the Al-Sisi regime: the world viewed in a dual prism, either black or white, and in his universe, Sinai residents are terrorists till proven otherwise.

But Sisi’s guests can look out on wider landscapes of atrocity.

  • Police have slaughtered over 1500 protesters since the 2013 coup. A draconian law passed last year criminalizes all peaceful demonstrations. Democracy activists like Yara Sallam and Sanaa Seif are serving long prison sentences merely for protesting the protest law.
  • Human rights activists can receive life in prison for taking funds from abroad.
  • More than 25,000 alleged Muslim Brotherhood supporters languish in concentration camps. Hundreds who have gone before courts face the death penalty.
  • Police hunt down other dissident identities, from accused atheists to alleged gay and transgender people. Well over 100 people convicted for the “habitual practice of debauchery” since October 2013 still sit in prison, targets for savage vilification in the pro-Sisi media. Police brutalize almost all those arrested on charges of homosexual conduct; most suffer anal tests at the hands of state forensic doctors, an invasive form of torture.
Mona Iraq (R) films naked victims of her raid on a bathhouse, December 7, 2014

Mona Iraq (R) films naked victims of her raid on a Cairo bathhouse, December 7, 2014

Why should companies care? Nobody really believes you can coax corporations into pious solicitude for human beings as such, above and beyond their status as workers, consumers, or raw materials for Soylent Green. There’s enlightened self-interest, though:

  • The corporate brand — symbol of “a company’s integrity, values and, most importantly, intentions” — looks less appealing if it’s dripping blood.
  • Torture and repression won’t create political stability. Mubarak spent thirty years savagely suppressing the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists; it only made them more popular, and his government less secure. How can Sisi’s persecutions succeed? He’s alienated large segments of youth and the educated; what happens when the anger at his depredations explodes?
  • International firms doing business in Egypt all have LGBT employees. Many are bound by anti-discrimination policies on sexual orientation or gender identity. How can they defend their workers’ basic safety if they don’t combat state persecution?
Minister of Investment Ashraf Salman is shocked, do you hear me, shocked that human rights violations happen

Minister of Investment Ashraf Salman is shocked, do you hear me, shocked that human rights violations happen

But foreign investment promotes political openness. Right? No. The summit has become a pretext for making Egypt even less transparent. For the crony capitalists surrounding Sisi, easing investment means eviscerating public oversight. Last April, in a move touted as creating a benign climate for foreign money, puppet interim president Adly Mansour revised the Investment Law. He barred anyone from mounting legal challenges to state contracts except for the government itself and the investor. Rejected bidders and civil society lost any legal recourse. And he made this retroactive, cancelling some 20 standing lawsuits against corrupt or dubious state deals, most filed during the brief democratic spring after Mubarak’s overthrow.

Third-party lawsuits, according to the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), were “one of the only avenues” for the public to learn about corruption. “The level of accountability that exists is being taken away, reducing what potential for oversight there is,” a researcher for the group said. The Egyptian Center for Social and Economic Rights condemned the new “unconstitutional law that revokes the right of a citizen to appeal and entrenches the corrupt contracts through retroactive application”:

This law allows for corrupt practices to negate the rulings of Egyptian courts which had originally uncovered corruption in a number of privatisation and land sale schemes … The law has shut the door on local courts entirely, which threatens increased corruption and criminal activity that will threaten the Egyptian economy.

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Lifestyles of the rich and shameless: Fortunes amassed by Mubarak-era figures. Only the numbers for Mubarak himself are in dollars, the rest in Egyptian pounds (roughly 7 LE = $1 US at the time). Based on 2011 estimates by the US-based group Global Financial Integrity (GFI).

Egypt’s energy industry — the government’s sale of oil and gas to foreign corporations — had long bred illegality. An EIPR report found that “poor negotiation and corruption cost Egypt US$10 billion in lost [energy] revenue between 2005 and 2011″ — more than twice the country’s annual health budget.

A culture of secrecy, and a lack of accountability and public debate created the conditions that allowed these contracts to be signed. Although state entities … were mandated to negotiate in the interests of the Egyptian people, secrecy created ample room for graft and kickbacks, and allowed well-connected businessmen to manipulate contracts for their own benefit.

Now secrecy is back, bigtime. Foreign investors rewarded Sisi for the new law by easing the country’s credit rating (a spurious move given that Egypt’s securities remained “among the least liquid in the Middle East”). But the law’s main beneficiary is Egypt’s government itself, which can carry on pocketing illegal spoils. Corporations exulting in the short-term pleasures of buying public goods without public scrutiny are now locked into the costs of kickbacks and corruption. Sisi pushed the law through by decree, without a shred of democratic process: Egypt’s democratically-elected parliament had long since been dissolved. By propping up a self-destructive system that flouts accountability and insults public opinion, corporations render their own investments unsafe.

Most Egyptian human rights activists, and most Egyptian LGBT people, want foreign investment in the economy. In that sense, they want the summit to succeed. But they want investment that will help workers, the public, the poor, not just incestuous covens of cronies. They want state resources fairly priced and sold, not handed out like gift bags of swag. They want investors to support a stable and democratic Egypt, not a dictatorship tottering like an upended pyramid. So let’s look at some of the attendees at the conference. What are they going to say about human rights?

Sir Martin Sorrell in WPP's London offices, with small brown people behind him

Sir Martin Sorrell in WPP’s London offices, with small brown people behind him. Photo: Martin Argles, Guardian

1) WPP. One prominent summit speaker will be Sir Martin Sorrell, founder and CEO of the UK-based WPP Group. WPP, a media and public relations giant, is the world’s largest advertising firm. The name stands for Wire and Plastic Products; they started out making shopping carts. That’s fitting; Sorrell’s main skill is shopping. A former Saatchi & Saatchi executive, he bought the small, Wernham-Hoggesque firm in the 80s purely as a platform for buying other things. He leveraged that to purchase J. Walter Thompson and Young & Rubicam and then everything else in the PR field. He is, as the Financial Times says, “advertising’s biggest dealmaker.”

Small and square-jawed, Sorrell looks as though Napoleon had stumbled onto the set of Mad Men. (He once sued a former employee for calling him the “mad dwarf.”) Like Napoleon, he has a history with Egypt.

On January 28, 2011, as the Egyptian revolution broke out, Vodafone Egypt joined the country’s other phone and Internet firms in shutting down service completely. Gagging the opposition’s voices failed, but drew thunderous international condemnation. On February 4, Sorrell published an op-ed defending Vodafone in The Times. Vodafone was only following orders, he wrote; it didn’t have the luxury of opening its communications pipelines to all opinions, the way international firms like Google and Twitter could. The latter offered too much freedom. By censoring more, they could help brother corporations. “They must understand that with incredible power comes incredible responsibility … You are responsible for the information that flows through” your networks. Sorrell didn’t disclose that Vodafone Egypt was a WPP client.

No signal: Cartoon by Carlos Latuff, February 2011

No signal: Cartoon by Carlos Latuff, February 2011

A few months later, a WPP subsidiary produced an ad for Vodafone Egypt that showed “Egyptians connecting with each other, feeling empowered, and joining the protests that led to the fall of the Hosni Mubarak regime. While the video makes no claims for [Vodafone] starting the revolution, it drops broad hints as it tries to ride on its coattails, that it played some role.” The ad caused outrage among Egyptians still furious at the shutdown. Vodafone was forced to pull it.

Making deals takes not just money but friends, powerful ones. (“WPP’s fastest growing client segment is still governmental,” Sorrell declared in a lecture on “nation branding,” where he praised China and Singapore as “so effective in managing their global brands.”) Friendly WPP’s Egypt business has thus been, though small, burgeoning — a “growth market,” it says. Naturally Sorrell hopes to foster his friendship with Sisi by supporting his summit.

This will hurt you more than it hurts me: Tony Blair offers his services to Sisi's government in performing forensic anal exams

This will hurt you more than it hurts me: Tony Blair offers his services to Sisi’s government in performing forensic anal examinations

Sorrell is also a friend to Tony Blair, who got him his knighthood, and that’s a further link to Egypt. Since July 2014, Blair has been advising Sisi on “economic reforms,” in a task force put together by the Egyptian regime’s main patrons, the United Arab Emirates. Drumming up support for the summit has been part of Blair’s mandate. Blair makes no money out of Egypt, his spokesperson claims, but that’s a technicality. The UAE are the paymasters in this intricate arrangement, and Blair already gets millions of pounds in consulting fees from that country’s sovereign wealth fund.

As one former close personal associate of Blair’s puts it, “a bargain has been struck” that “combines both an existential battle against Islamism and mouth-watering business opportunities in return for the kind of persuasive advocacy he provided George Bush over Iraq.”

Meanwhile, Blair’s onetime counsellor Peter Mandelson is also a friend of Martin Sorrell: WPP provided the starting money for Mandelson’s international consulting firm. “From WPP’s point of view the Mandelson connection gives it a degree of access to people in high places although some of Peter’s friends tend to be Russian oligarchs and financiers occupying the more exotic shores of capitalism.” Egypt is such a shore; Mandelson landed there long ago. He echoed Sorrell during the eighteen days of Egypt’s revolution, stepping up to defend Mubarak’s family kleptocracy. On February 1, 2011, Mandelson wrote to the Financial Times, claiming Gamal Mubarak “has been the leading voice in favour of change within the government and the ruling party,” and demanding a “peaceful transition” that would leave Gamal in place. Four years later Gamal is free, and his counterrevolutionary friends are back in charge. Mandelson’s powers of “access” can click in.

Blair and Mandelson in happier times: Peter primps himself while Tony plays hard-to-get

Blair and Mandelson in happier times: Peter primps himself while Tony plays hard-to-get

In other words, human rights don’t have much to do with WPP’s record in Egypt. But this sits uneasily with the firm’s Code of Business Conduct. That document declares, “We will consider the potential for clients or work to damage the Group’s reputation prior to taking them on. This includes reputational damage from association with clients that participate in activities that contribute to the abuse of human rights.” It has clauses dealing with LGBT people: not just protections against discrimination, but a promise to

give appropriate consideration to the impact of our work on minority segments of the population, whether that minority be by race, religion, national origin, colour, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, age or disability.

How will WPP defend its LGBT employees in Sisi’s Egypt from arrest? How do its promises fit with uncritical support for a regime that jails and tortures anyone accused of being gay or transgender?

Sorrell has a rep as a global thinker, possibly overblown. In mid-2008, as economies crumbled like damp sandcastles, he opined, “I am still not sure there will be a recession in the US and I definitely don’t think worldwide.” The next year WPP’s revenues fell 16%, and the firm took it out on the 14,000 employees it laid off. So much for prognostication. But if people look up to him for wisdom, let him put it to good use. Let him speak up about Sisi’s abuses against LGBT Egyptians and others. It’s his responsibility.

Can I help you? Martin Sorrell also displays his potential prowess at forensic anal exams

Can I help you? Martin Sorrell also displays his potential prowess at forensic anal exams

2) British Petroleum. Another featured summit speaker is Bob Dudley, chief executive of BP.  

Egypt is big business for BP. The corporation is the country’s largest oil and gas producer, in partnership with the state-run Egyptian General Petroleum Corporation; it’s responsible for 15% of the nation’s oil production. It gets there by having cordial relations with the state, which sells off oil and gas concessions to foreign corporations. In 2008 and 2010, for instance, BP bagged control of exploration in large blocks of the Mediterranean Sea.

BP concessions northwest of the Nile Delta as of 2010, from http://www.2b1stconsulting.com/

BP concessions northwest of the Nile Delta as of 2010, from http://www.2b1stconsulting.com/

It got two more blocks for onshore and offshore gas exploration (3 and 8 on the map) in a 2013 round of bidding:

Map from Littlegatepublishing.com

Map of exploration blocks up for bidding in 2013, from http://Littlegatepublishing.com/

With all these concessions, you might think BP could actually provide Egypt with energy. You’d be wrong. Shortages and blackouts have spread. Meanwhile, BP’s contracts favor the corporation heavily, at the expense of Egypt’s state and people. With one of its offshore blocks, for instance, “BP managed to negotiate a vast share of the concession profits, above the 50-50 ratio customary to most petroleum agreements, citing the complexities and depth of extraction in that particular patch of the Mediterranean Sea.”

“I’ve analyzed oil and gas contracts from Uganda, Kazakhstan and Congo, and I’ve never seen a country ripped off this badly,” said one researcher. “The Egyptian people are paying for elite corruption with blackouts, black-market fuel and a collapsing economy.” The new investment law will make it almost impossible for Egyptians to contest such concessions — giving BP one more reason for gratitude to Sisi.

There are other reasons. The activist group Platform London told this story in mid-2013:

We recently visited a small Egyptian town that fought off plans by giant BP to build a gas terminal on its land as part of an $11 billion project. Idku lies just east of Alexandria, where the Nile Delta meets the Mediterranean. We met a number of local activists, farmers and fisherfolk, who explained that Idku’s land and water has for years suffered from pollution by both nearby sewage canals and the existing BG/Rashpetco’s LNG [liquid natural gas] export plant. …

BP, having drilled for oil in the deep waters of the North Alexandria block, wanted to build yet another new gas plant on Idku’s beach. … But the community was tired of their sea being polluted by large corporations.

Empowered by the Egyptian revolution, Idku’s citizens rebelled. They launched months of street protests and social media campaigns, among them “a symbolic funeral procession and a sit-in occupation at BP’s proposed construction site in late 2011.” In 2013 BP gave in and suspended the project.

“Idku: An Egyptian town beat the odds and stopped BP.” Video produced by Egypt’s Mosireen Collective.

London Platform described all this only nine days before the coup that carried Sisi to power. Within months, the new regime passed a draconian new protest law making demonstrations impossible. By mid-2014, with the way cleared, BP announced expanded work at its existing gas plant in Idku. Bob Dudley visited Cairo to promise new investment in Egyptian gas production. Details stayed secret, but the state simultaneously agreed to pay higher prices for its own energy resources extracted by foreign concession-holders: “to fulfil a pledge to provide more attractive terms to foreign firms.” As for the investment money, Platform wrote, “the oil and gas industry is incredibly capital-intensive; the billions will go to foreign oil service companies and imported equipment and technology. Few jobs will be created, and most will be temporary – the benefits for the Egyptian people are debatable.”

This activity now prohibited by law: Protest march in Idku, with a banner reading, "No to BP. For Our Sakes." Photo by Platform.

This activity now prohibited by law: Protest march in Idku, with a banner reading, “No to BP. For Our Sakes.” Photo by Platform.

BP, then, has done pretty well off the Sisi government’s repressive measures. Yet the firm claims to attend to human rights issues. BP’s own Code of Conduct says: “We seek to conduct our business in a manner that respects the human rights and dignity of people. Each of us can play a role in the elimination of human rights abuses such as child labour, human trafficking and forced labour.” There’s even an action point: “Report any human rights abuse in our operations or in those of our business partners.” True, the document seems short of binding: “Our Code reflects a principles-based approach, where rules are not stated explicitly.” You may also notice that it is available in eight languages including Azerbaijani, but not in Arabic.

You can read our Code of Conduct whether you're from Porto Alegre or Oporto. But if you're from Cairo, خلاص .

You can read our Code of Conduct whether you’re from Porto Alegre or Oporto. But if you’re from Cairo, خلاص .

Sexual orientation is of high concern to BP, at least in some languages. There’s a history behind this. Its longtime chief, Lord John Browne, resigned under a cloud in 2007 after perjuring himself to deny a same-sex lover. Browne has since transformed himself into a gay-rights martyr. In fact, as was widely noted at the time, his exit owed at least as much to the safety and environmental disasters that plagued his tenure, all traceable to his merger-fueled mania for cost-cutting. One of his legacies, though — in addition to the despoiled Louisiana coast, a catastrophe for which his successor took the fall — is a non-discrimination policy protecting LGBT employees.

Screen shot 2015-02-03 at 3.52.25 AM“Our goal is to create an environment of inclusion and acceptance,” BP’s Code of Conduct says. (Their website illustrates that laudable ambition with this frightening picture, showing a brown woman with crazed eyes who has apparently fought her way in front of a sad white man.) “We seek to treat all employees equally, irrespective of gender, age, sexual orientation, ethnicity or disability.” Achieving this in Egypt might require speaking up to the government about something other than concessionary profits. Then there’s this gem:

BP encourages and supports a number of business resource groups (BRGs). BRGs are employee-networks, set up by employees for employees. The groups come together voluntarily with the goal of enhancing the success of BP’s D&I objectives by helping to foster, develop and retain diverse talent in BP.

Among these is a “BP Pride group for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) employees.” Creating such a group in Egypt would earn you nine years in prison, by my estimates (three for practicing “debauchery,” three for inciting others to “debauchery,” and three for publicizing an invitation to “debauchery”). Will BP complain?

Lord Browne, one critic says, nearly destroyed BP with “the conflict between how he actually managed the company and the public principles he claimed were the essence of BP’s corporate character.” The corporation can’t afford another conflict when Sisi starts arresting its staff. If BP cares about human rights and its LGBT employees, it should speak out at Sharm.

I don't need to use my finger: BP's Bob Dudley offers his own forensic services

I don’t need to use my finger: BP’s Bob Dudley offers Egypt his own forensic services

Both these core supporters of Sisi’s summit are British-based firms. Six weeks from now they’ll be center stage in Sharm el-Sheikh. They don’t need to flatter power to get their profits, which are secure; they do need to show whether their principles are just glossy print and verbiage. Get started.

Pumping is permissible. Humping isn't: Banner for the Economic Development Conference

Pumping is permissible. Humping isn’t: Banner for the Economic Development Conference

ISIS kills gays: A history of violence

Hands shove them forward, bound and blindfolded. Then comes the step when the stone beneath them stops and nothing is there. The photographs appall but they have the solidity of things you can see; they suggest but cannot summon the feel of one terrifying lurch in darkness when all that’s solid falls away. Death is what happens when you are there, alone, and the world disappears.

ISIS stands for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which now styles itself just the Islamic State. Many Arabs call it Da’ish, an acronym (for Ad-Dawlah al-Islamiyah fi al-‘Iraq wash-Sham) they prefer and the militants despise, partly because it echoes Arabic words for bearers of brutality and discord. Even in Iraq, where death dominates life, Da’ish’s violence is exceptionally uncompromising and public. An Egyptian leftist friend of mine calls it unprecedented. Plenty of political movements employ sadism (Stalin, Hitler). Some embrace it ecstatically (Romanian Iron Guardists smeared themselves with their victims’ blood and chanted, “Long live death”). But Da’ish treats absolute violence as propaganda, as entertainment. Displaying violence has become its essence, as if its ideology were a snuff film. Although it’s commonplace to say it wants to terrify (shock and awe!) the effect is to make unrestrained violence, which Hannah Arendt saw as the opposite of political life, the main feature of the public world. Da’ish’s broadcast deeds become as commonplace as campaign speeches. Western audiences, astonished at first, are now inured. The pictures keep coming, but only a few hit their target. Like these.

What do we know? According to Twitter these pictures first appeared on January 15, on the media-sharing site Justpaste.it (the post has since come down). They spread immediately. The left of each photo reads “Islamic State”; the right, “Ninawa” — Nineveh, Iraq’s northernmost province. Presumably they came from the Islamic State’s provincial media office.

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Caption: “Muslims gather to watch the application of the verdict”

Caption: "The shari'a verdict for banditry is stated in an introductory sign"

Caption: “The shari’a verdict for banditry is stated in an introductory sign”

The sign says: The Islamic State / The Caliphate in the Footsteps of the Prophet / Islamic Court – Nineveh State
Allah the Almighty said, “The penalty for those who fight God and his Prophet and spread corruption on earth is to be killed or crucified, or their hands or legs to be amputated, or to be exiled from earth. They deserve disgrace in mortal life and great torture in the afterlife.”
Verdict: Crucifixion or death
The reason: Kidnapping Muslims and stealing their money by force and in the name of the Islamic State.

Reading the statement of the shari'a law verdict issued by the shari'a court in the province of Ninevah against two persons who practiced sodomy [liwat]"

Caption: “Reading the statement of the shari’a verdict issued by the shari’a court in the province of Nineveh against two persons who practiced the deeds of the people of Lot.” [“People of Lot” derives from the Qu’ranic version of the Sodom story; “sodomite” might be an English translation.]

Then back to the tower’s top again. First a man in a red sweater is hauled forward:

Caption:" Applying the verdict on one who practiced sodomy by throwing him from a high place"

Caption:” Applying the verdict on one who practiced the deeds of the people of Lot, by throwing him from a high place”

Then a man in a black jacket:

Caption: "Applying the verdict on one who practiced sodomy"

Caption: “Applying the verdict on one who practiced the deeds of the people of Lot”

Screen shot 2015-01-24 at 9.03.59 PM

Caption: “Applying the shari’a verdict on the person who committed the greatest crime”

Caption: "This is the penalty for those who encroach upon the limits Allah the Almighty set"

Caption: “This is the penalty for those who encroach upon the limits Allah the Almighty set”

Back to the square. The frames on which men hang crucified were faintly visible in the first photo. Now:

Caption: "Reading the statement of the shari'a verdict issued by the shari'a court in the state of Nineveh who robbed Muslims using the force of weapons"

Caption: “Reading the statement of the shari’a verdict issued by the shari’a court in the province of Nineveh against those who robbed Muslims using the force of weapons”

Caption: "Applying the penalty for banditry on those who stole the money of Muslims and instilled terror in their hearts"

Caption: “Applying the penalty for banditry on those who stole the money of Muslims and instilled terror in their hearts”

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Caption: “Applying the penalty for banditry on those who stole the money of Muslims and instilled terror in their hearts”

The bandits are shot in the head.

Caption: "This is the punishment for what their hands did"

Caption: “This is the punishment for what their hands did”

Caption: "Let them be an example to those who feel tempted to assault Muslims in the Caliphate state"

Caption: “Let them be an example to those who feel tempted to assault Muslims in the Caliphate state”

The last two photographs are in a park.

Caption: "Reading the statement of the shari'a verdict issued by the shari'a court in the province of Nineveh against a woman who committed adultery"

Caption: “Reading the statement of the shari’a verdict issued by the shari’a court in the province of Nineveh against a woman who committed adultery”

The woman is stoned to death.

Caption: "Applying the penalty as an expiation of guilt"

Caption: “Applying the penalty as an expiation of guilt”

Beyond those bare descriptions, all’s speculation. The executions may have happened January 14, maybe earlier. The city’s probably Mosul, capital of Nineveh province, which Da’ish captured last June. The white-bearded man who lurks in several shots and supervises the stoning, looking like a vengeful garden gnome, is likely Abu Asaad al-Ansari, a well-known ISIS cleric. The death tower is tall, yellow, mostly windowless. It may be the Tameen (Insurance) Building, a 1960s relic turned at some point into government offices.

That’s it. The story went viral internationally because of the two “sodomites” thrown to their deaths — the bandits and the adulteress were inadequate to colonize attention. Yet those victims are, in the images, the most anonymous: merely bent backs, or faceless corpses. It’s worthwhile then to pause (there’s little you can do with a Da’ish atrocity but pause) and ask what we’ve seen. What do we recognize in the victims? And what do we understand about the perpetrators?

The first looks easy. Jamie Kirchick (an instant expert on Islam and other un-American things) wrote, “As a gay man, I thought, there but for the grace of Allah go I.” They’re gay; they’re like us. The facelessness actually facilitates emotion; in the absence of particular selves to see, a generalized identity sets in.

It’s good to feel that identification. Only extraterrestrials and lice embrace all humanity without exception; most of us look for specific commonalities to carry sympathy across the abstract gulfs of difference. Still, sympathy always simplifies, smoothing over alienating idiosyncrasies, bland as asphalt. It leaves things out.

Back in 2012, there was a surge of killings of “effeminate”-looking men in Baghdad. Western gay activists immediately called these “gay” killings. In fact, as I quickly found, that wasn’t true. Iraq’s Ministry of Interior and media had been inciting fears of “emos,” youth corrupted by Western styles and music and gender ambiguity. Militias, mostly Shi’ite, took up the cause, murdering dozens or hundreds of suspect young men. Certainly gay and trans* people were caught in the sweeps — the rhetoric was vague enough to vilify any men who didn’t look masculine enough, and some Iraqi queers had found an emo identity congenial. But “gay” on its own was the wrong rubric to explain what was going on.

Anti-Emo meme (in English) from Baghdad, 2012

Anti-Emo meme (in English) from Baghdad, 2012

When I said that publicly, one well-known American gay blogger wrote that I was “confusing”:

You can’t just write a blog post about violence in Iraq, especially on a gay blog, nobody cares about violence in Iraq in general — and if anything, they’ll probably shrug and say “90 deaths sounds like a typical day in Iraq, oh well.” Unless it’s violence against someone we care about — then we care. The gay angle works … I’m just not sure how we write a post saying lots of people are getting killed, stop it, with any authority, or in a way that moves people.

On one level, perhaps, he was saying I want blog hits, and I won’t get them if I can’t write about gay stuff. On a larger level, though, he was right, and even principled: You can’t make people care unless, well, there are people they care about. The gays are an organized constituency primed for caring. There’s no comparable global solidarity among bandits or adulterers. (There is, of course, an international women’s movement that combats stonings and other atrocities, but it’s stretched pretty thin.)  Yet this was an American blogger, writing for Americans, in the nation that destroyed Iraq. Surely that’s an angle; could you drum up a little compassion, or even penitence, for what your readers’ government did to another country? Maybe they can’t fix it, but they could stop their government from doing it again. The strange thing is that, even though his blog has a big American flag on the masthead, gay as a source of sympathy trumps American as a reminder of responsibility. Probably that’s because sympathy, unlike responsibility, doesn’t carry obligations.

An image that did not go viral: US patrol in Fallujah, 2004. Photo by Anja Niedringhaus, AP

An image that did not go viral: US patrol in Fallujah, 2004. Photo by Anja Niedringhaus, AP

Context gets erased on both sides. The American gays can wield “gay” to forget they’re also American, at least in any way that implies guilt. But calling the victims “gay” and stopping with that erases the wider fears about masculinity and cultural invasion that inform the violence — obliterates what links the dead to the politics of post-occupation Iraq, and to the countless other Iraqis exiled, or injured, or killed.

Moreover, what do we mean by “gay”? It’s not self-evident. The International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) at first stuck the “gay” label on the 2012 killings; they retracted it rapidly, to their credit. Now they’ve issued a warning about the latest Mosul murders. They caution

in the strongest possible terms against assuming that the men identified as ‘gay’ and against assuming the men engaged in homosexual acts. ….  If the men did not identify as gay, the allegation is inaccurate and obscures the Islamic State’s motivation for publicly labeling them as such. If the men indeed identified as gay … widespread publicity potentially exposes their families, loved ones and intimate partners to harm.

They’re right on the dangers, wrong on the rest. The Islamic State didn’t “publicly label” the men “gay.” It said they “practiced the deeds of the people of Lot.” The prophet Lot in the Qu’ran preached against the things the residents of Sodom did — deeds often called liwat in Arabic, from his name; “sodomy” is a partial English equivalent. Da’ish killed the men for committing an act, not for inheriting a description. The difference matters. The American sympathy the blogger invoked demands its beneficiaries be like us, not just behave like us in bed. But Da’ish doesn’t posit a fixed, communal form of selfhood derived from “liwat.” The category “gay” means nothing to it. Sex exists for Da’ish in religious and juridical terms, as deeds, not identities.

Not your average metrosexuals: Lot's people feel the fire and brimstone, in a scene from an Arabic cartoon version of the story

Not your average metrosexuals: Lot’s people feel the fire and brimstone, in a scene from an Arabic cartoon version of the story

The idea that, deep down, Da’ish must see sex as we do is put to political purpose. Polemicist Jamie Kirchick assimilates the Mosul killings conveniently to the Paris attacks:

A thread links these atrocities to this month’s murder of four Jews at a kosher supermarket in Paris, beyond the fact that the culprits in both cases are Islamist fanatics … The more salient commonality pertains to the victims, executed solely because of irrevocable traits: Jewishness and homosexuality…. In Iraq, no expression is necessary as cause for atrocity. Gay men are hunted down and killed like rats solely owing to the fact that they are gay.

Kirchick clearly knows little about Iraq and less about Da’ish. Da’ish pursues the practitioners of liwat not to eliminate a race, but to discourage what it imagines are preventable perversions. Gay men have been hunted down in Iraq not “solely owing to the fact that they are gay,” but because a general environment where masculinity is believed under threat, and cultural authenticity endangered, makes specific behaviors — the way you dress or walk, where you meet your friends, whether and how you’re penetrated — suspect or criminal. It’s exactly these “expressions,” not the identities we impute from thousands of miles away, that put victims at risk. Da’ish is deluded, the Iraqi moral panics are paranoiac, but ignoring the context and motives behind the violence makes it impossible to help stop it.

How they look or dress or walk: Video memorial for Saif Raad Asmar Abboudi, a 20 year-old beaten to death with concrete blocks in Sadr City, Baghdad on February 17, 2012

For Kirchick, though, the idea that Muslims see gays as one unchangeable collective opens the door to treating Muslims the same way. It’s us versus them. “Oppression and murder predicated solely upon their victims’ identities,” he writes, “provides [sic] ultimate clarity about the nature and intentions of radical Islam.” What this clarity is, he doesn’t say, but you get an idea from how he describes the scene: “A crowd below [the tower] gawks like spectators at a sporting event.” Check those photos; who’s gawking, or cheering the killers on? The audience looks tense, unwilling. Mosul is a religiously and ethnically diverse city which Da’ish conquered seven months ago. The militia may force the occupied population to attend executions, but it can’t compel enthusiasm. Yet Kirchick’s own prejudices steamroller Da’ish and those it oppresses into the same ersatz category: the enemies of gays. This is a clash of civilizations, in which the “irrevocable” identity of one side mirrors the monolithic irrevocability of the other. (And Kirchick’s insistence that killing gays is worse because they have “identities” — as opposed to robbers, adulterers, women — echoes Da’ish’s own deranged value system, where stealing “the money of Muslims” merits a higher penalty than simple theft.)

Killing “gays” evokes an intense response in our societies partly because there’s a prefab constituency that answers. Yet this intensity also helps obliterate our ability to perceive the actual context of Iraq, not just its multiplicity and complexity but its past. To see Iraq clearly is to see not us-versus-them but us-and-them, not just an opposition but an entanglement, the violence woven into a history with the barbarities that the US and its coalition caused. Instead, it’s versus that infuses the UK Daily Mail‘s blaring version of the murders: “While the world reacts with horror to terror in Europe, new ISIS executions show the medieval brutality jihadists would bring to the West.” You see? It’s just about us, after all, because they’re coming, they’re bringing their business here; all those page-one warnings about immigration were spot on. First ISIS takes Baghdad, then Bethnal Green. What happens on the Tigris doesn’t matter in itself. What counts is keeping a crazed Tower Hamlets mob from tossing Soho’s gentle denizens off the London Eye.

They're here: Peace, love, and understanding according to the Daily Mail

They’re here: Peace, love, and Western values according to the Daily Mail

Already this leads to the second question: How do we perceive the perpetrators? Violence based on sexuality has been a minor theme drumming through US and British reportage on Iraq ever since the 2003 invasion. (It’s tended to drown out violence based on gender, though the two are certainly related.) But how seriously it’s taken has depended, at every point, on the politics of the invading powers.

ACT ONE: Sporadic reports of LGBT people targeted for violence started emerging not long after the invasion. Ali Hili, an Iraqi exile in London, was a key source. Hili had a wide network inside Iraq; he was also corrupt and unreliable. He placed full blame for the killings on Grand Ayatollah al-Sayyid ‘Ali al-Husayni al-Sistani, the spiritual leader of many Iraqi Shi’ites — and on the Badr Brigade, a militia affiliated with Sistani.  Peter Tatchell and reporter Doug Ireland both promoted HIli’s checkered career and adopted his version. The “campaign of terror is sanctioned, some say orchestrated, by Iraq’s leading Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani,” Tatchell wrote.  “The Badr Corps,” Ireland intoned, “is committed to the ‘sexual cleansing’ of Iraq.”

Grand Ayatollah Sistani at his most scholarly

Grand Ayatollah Sistani at his most scholarly

There was little truth to these particular charges. When I researched inside Iraq for Human Rights Watch in 2009, I found no evidence that the Badr Brigade had been responsible for extensive attacks on LGBT people; other Shi’ite militias had taken the lead. (Sistani’s website, probably largely written by junior clerics, had once carried a fatwa calling for the death penalty for “sodomy,” but when it attracted attention he quickly took it down.) Politics, tinged with old grudges, propelled the claims. Hili was a former Ba’athist, who shared the party’s loathing of Sistani. Moreover, the Badr Brigade was also a longtime enemy to the cultlike Iranian Mujahedin e-Khalq guerrillas stationed in Iraq — and the Mujahedin had fed (false but headline-grabbing) stories to both Tatchell and Ireland in the past.

But Sistani was also the one Shi’ite cleric whom the US saw as potentially a force for “stability.” True or not, narratives that blamed him for the killings were unlikely to get much traction with a Western media that still took the coalition military forces as their main sources for Iraq events. Stories of “gay murders” stayed confined to the ghettos of the gay press.

ACT TWO: In early 2009, killings of LGBT people accelerated massively. What had once looked unsystematic became an organized campaign. I went to Iraq; it was obvious, there, that the forces of popular Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr bore main responsibility. Sadr City, the great Baghdad slum dominated by Moqtada’s movement, was the fulcrum of the violence; preachers there openly incited murder, and survivors blamed his Mahdi Army (Jaish al-Mahdi) for most of the carnage. Al-Sadr’s militia had gone underground at the beginning of the US-led counterinsurgency “surge” in 2007, and Moqtada himself fled to Iran. The killings seemed to be an bid to reassert his relevance and moral indispensability. One “executioner” claimed he was tackling “a serious illness in the community that has been spreading rapidly among the youth after it was brought in from the outside by American soldiers. These are not the habits of Iraq or our community and we must eliminate them.”

So easy to hate: Moqtada al-Sadr

So easy to hate: Moqtada al-Sadr

Moqtada was also the right criminal at the right time for an American audience. The US saw him as a prime enemy, driving Shi’ite resistance to the occupation. Blaming him was not just accurate but easy. His sinister dominance made sure the killing campaign got ample US and UK press. What helped stop the murders, by contrast, was the growing indignation of ordinary Iraqis. One Baghdad journalist wrote in Sawt al-Iraq that

In addition to death threats against any man who grows his hair a couple of centimeters longer than the Sadri standards that are measured exactly and applied harshly, there are threats against those wearing athletic shorts or tight pants … The slogan is to kill and kill, then kill again for the most trivial and simplest things.

ACT THREE: The “emo” killings in 2012 also swirled around Shi’ite-dominated eastern Baghdad, and the Mahdi Army was widely held responsible, along with a breakaway Shi’ite militia, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (League of the Righteous) — though Moqtada al-Sadr distanced himself from the campaign, saying emos should be dealt with only “in accordance with the law.” But this time, the Ministry of Interior, which had called for “eliminating” emos, was also involved up to the hilt.

"I" is for "Implicated": Flag of Iraq's Ministry of Interior

The Eye of Sauron relocates from Barad-Dur to Baghdad: Flag of Iraq’s Ministry of Interior

And this culpability was inconvenient for the US and its allies. Moqtada had now graduated to a force for “stability” himself. Meanwhile, the Interior Ministry’s repression held the country together. Demonizing the guilty was politically difficult from the American vantage. Dozens or hundreds died in Baghdad in a few weeks — a toll comparable to the hundreds probably killed in 2012 — but the murders never drew the same international outrage: not just because emos were a vaguer target, but because the killers weren’t our enemies.

I don’t mean US or UK forces deliberately manipulated coverage of the targeted killings. (They manipulated other stories; they didn’t have time for this one.) But Western reporters relied on coalition “experts” to analyze the jumbled politics of Iraq, acquiring their prejudices with their statistics. And even the gay press instinctively trusted that our side, however grave an error the invasion was, still had a righteousness that rubbed off on its allies. Politics shaped the coverage, and some of the accusations.

We perceive the perpetrators, like the victims, largely in relation to ourselves. When our enemies murdered gays, it was clear-cut evil. When our friends stood accused, the case was merely confused. It’s a discourse about us; its ability to affect Iraq is therefore limited.

Cover of the Arabic version of Human Rights Watch's 2009 report on Iraq

Cover of the Arabic version of Human Rights Watch’s 2009 report on Iraq

Here’s one instance. IGLHRC and MADRE, the international women’s rights group, released two briefing papers on violence against LGBT Iraqis last November. They were solid work, based on a small but significant number of harrowing stories. What was striking is that both appeared only in English, with no Arabic version or even summary. Thus, while the reports included recommendations to the Iraqi authorities — ranging from the feasible (“Amend the shelter law to allow NGOs to legally run private shelters for displaced persons”) to the fantastic (“Hold militias accountable”) — those had absolutely no chance of affecting Iraq’s government, press, or public. (By contrast, Human RIghts Watch’s 2009 report on death squads was released in Arabic, and headlined in Iraqi media.) The only audience the reports aimed at was an English-speaking one; and, of course, the US and UK no longer govern Iraq. Since the reports were meant for Americans but there was little for Americans to do, the advocacy seemed to acquire a slightly surreal quality. For example, the organizations told their followers (“Take action!”) to call on LGBT members of the US Congress to “stand with LGBT Iraqis.” This was less strategy than metaphor: a way of making Americans feel they were having impact when they were having none. I don’t wish to slight the groups’ excellent research, but the missed opportunity was painful. It’s pointless to imagine changing what Da’ish does: but there is a real opening to use Iraqis’ revulsion against its brutal murders — as well as violence targeting gender and sexuality elsewhere in the country — to affect public opinion and even a few policies in the rest of Iraq. As it was, from an Iraqi perspective, the reports were the former occupiers talking to themselves.

Da’ish, of course, has now seized a place in the West’s imagination as the ultimate enemy, the perfect storm. All evils meet there. (The Daily Mail warns that ISIS terrorists will “turn themselves into Ebola suicide ‘bombs.'”) Most of the earlier (probably more widespread) violence targeting sexuality in Iraq could be traced to Shi’ite militias or the US-supported state, but that’s forgotten. The Sunni soldiers of Da’ish define homophobia.  What Da’ish does is indefensible. Except when somebody else does it.

How different is Da’ish? It’s worth asking. This little graphic from the opposition Syrian Network for Human RIghts probably undercounts Da’ish’s murder toll, but its point is valid:

PrintIt charts the deep anger Syrian revolutionaries feel: how did a few viral photos of Islamist killings overwhelm the vaster, but mostly invisible, atrocities of a secular government the US has learned to live with? Then there’s that other Islamic state: the one due south.

Punishments_FINAL-01Middle East Eye published that after Da’ish released its own code of “Islamic punishments” last December. So how exactly is Saudi Arabia better, except we call it a nation and not a “terrorist organization”? (A language, they say, is a dialect with an army. What is a state but a militia with oil reserves?) This week, we learned the UK ministry of justice has set up a commercial arm with the Orwellian name of Just Solutions International, and is selling its expertise to Saudi prisons. Will David Cameron offer the shari’a courts of Da’ish a helping hand? This week, we learned the US defense department has launched “a research and essay competition” in honor of the late King Abdullah — “a fitting tribute to the life and leadership of the Saudi Arabian monarch,” to his “character and courage.” Will Obama also offer prizes for the best ISIS propaganda? Of course, Abdullah was a liberal and a progressive, the paid pundits say. Granted, he may have been the best of his venal, bloodstained clan: that’s like picking the most intellectual of the Kardashians. But give Da’ish a few years to sell oil to ExxonMobil. Then they’ll be “reformers.”

The real distinction between the two Islamic states’ degrees of violence isn’t severity but publicity. Da’ish, says Middle East Eye, “actively sought exposure for their brutal punishments, [while] Saudi Arabia has worked to keep evidence of their actions within the conservative kingdom.” 

Why is Da’ish so proud of its sadistic excesses? Why does it broadcast them? Because they mean success. Here, again, the history of Iraq both before and after the US invasion is a shaping fact. For at least thirty-five years, violence, unrestrained violence, has been the mark of power. Power — under Saddam, under the occupation, and under the sects and militias that fought to seize his mantle — meant inflicting violence without shame, fear, or limit. (In a different way this was also true of Assad’s placid Syria, where despite the surface calm the dictator could kill twenty thousand Islamists with complete impunity.) When Da’ish posts its snuff films on YouTube and its death porn on Twitter, they are saying: We have the power at last, we can do this without restraint, and we will have more power and kill more.

Photo of a mass killing of Shi'a captives after the fall of Mosul, posted on ISIS Twitter accounts, June 2014

Photo of a mass killing of Shi’a captives after the fall of Mosul, posted on ISIS Twitter accounts, June 2014

Da’ish’s flaunted success also declares the failure of two projects that dominated the Middle East for decades. It proclaims the bankruptcy of the dictators’ project of state secularism: regimes like Assad’s or Saddam’s that repressed popular politics and popular religion, to sustain a military elite’s privileges with all the violence at their command. And it puts paid to the US project of state-imposed capitalism: neoliberal immiseration of the masses, the kind Mubarak planned for Egypt or the coalition imported to Iraq, that could only be enforced by governments armed with maximum ruthlessness. Da’ish inherits their means while defying their ends. It bends their violence to its own agenda. The repressed have returned, with a vengeance.

The Egyptian leftist friend I mentioned at the oustet comes from a working-class family that supported the Muslim Brotherhood. Some of them stood at Rabaa during the protests after Morsi’s overthrow; some could have been killed. Now, he says, he’s frightened by how many of his relatives say Da’ish is the solution. They aren’t running off to join ISIS’s fighters (though the Da’ish franchise is increasingly an attractive banner for the insurgency in Sinai). But they no longer believe in a democratic outcome. They no longer grasp how a group like the Brotherhood could survive, let alone succeed, through the normal means of politics. Sisi is trying to follow in Assad’s and Mubarak’s footsteps, with a program whose legitimacy is the weaponry it can command. They see Da’ish as the only alternative. The known world is disappearing. There’s emptiness underfoot. Violence is the future.

A US Marine pushes corpses of Iraqi fighters, Fallujah,  Friday, November 12, 2004. Photo by Anja Niedringhaus / Associated Press

A US Marine pushes corpses of Iraqi fighters, Fallujah, Friday, November 12, 2004. Photo by Anja Niedringhaus, AP

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CORRECTION: The original version of this post described the acronym Da’ish (sometimes spelled Daesh) as “omit[ting] one of the ‘I’s, ‘Islam.'” This is, I’m persuaded, bad Arabic (mine), for which I very much apologize. There are two explanations floating round for why the name Da’ish offends the militants so much, and why it’s become popular among their Arab opponents. One is that it slights the Islamic character of the soi-disant state; the other is that it echoes words that mean “crushing underfoot” and “spreading discord.” The second is the important one. I’ve corrected the post, and thanks to the two readers who called me out.

Four years

Today is the fourth anniversary of the Egyptian revolution. General Sisi’s regime has cancelled (“delayed”) any commemorations of a date it is indisposed to celebrate. Instead it is “mourning over the death of Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdel Aziz”: the corrupt mafioso who bankrolled the ongoing counterrevolution. Four years ago, Abdullah described Egypt’s liberation struggle thus: “No Arab and Muslim human being can bear that some infiltrators, in the name of freedom of expression, have infiltrated into the brotherly people of Egypt to destabilize its security and stability, and they have been exploited to spew out their hatred in destruction, intimidation, burning, looting and inciting a malicious sedition.” Now his Cairo acolytes anoint the foreign intruder a national hero.

Midan Tahrir, January 25, 2015: Photo by @LELoveluck

Midan Tahrir, January 25, 2015: Photo by @LELoveluck

Today, Midan Tahrir is immune to infiltration, shut off with iron gates. The Ministry of Interior has deployed its forces everywhere. All Egypt is a crime scene.

Screen shot 2015-01-25 at 4.17.04 PMAt the end of my quiet residential street, two armored personnel carriers hunch like yellow toads, guns pointing at the traffic. Soldiers clutching automatic rifles flank them, their faces hidden behind sinister black balaclavas. They do not look like servants of a modern state. They look like fighters for ISIS.

Screen shot 2015-01-25 at 4.39.41 PM

The gangs and militias that run this gimcrack imitation of a state are going about their business. The generalissimo enjoys himself this afternoon with the billionaires in Davos, trying to raise money for himself and his cronies. Two days ago the last members of the Mubarak clan still facing charges — his kleptomaniac sons — were freed from jail: “part of an attempt by a new elite under Mr Sisi to reconcile with Mubarak-era business and political interests which count the Mubarak brothers as among their own.”

Screen shot 2015-01-25 at 5.13.31 PMDefeats spawn advice as birthdays do. Asef Bayat, the political theorist, tries to persuade the revolutionaries to remain in hope, here: “These are uncharted political moments loaded with indefinite possibilities, in which meaningful social engagement would demand a creative fusion of the old and new ways of doing politics.” And H. A. Hellyer writes about the longue durée, measured in decades, demanding “a real vision, underpinned by a genuine political philosophy, concerned about the next 10, 20 and 30 years.” There are still people on the streets today, standing and struggling, and I do not know whether they will read such exhortations. But some of them will not live that long.

So far this day, police have killed 14 protesters across the country, according to the Ministry of Interior’s official figures.

Clashes broke out in downtown Cairo between dozens of protesters and a group of civilian “thugs” in front of the Journalists Syndicate on Sunday afternoon. Police forces dispersed protesters and began to round them up and make a number of arrests. Eyewitness Shady Hussein said clashes started when supporters of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi intervened in the protest and raised posters of the president, throwing rocks at protesters.

The Ministry of Interior dispersed protests in October 6 City and Maadi using tear gas, according to several media reports.

And of course: “Small groups of pro-Sisi protesters were reportedly asked politely by police to move elsewhere.”

Yesterday, Shaimaa el-Sabagh, a 34-year-old mother, an Alexandria journalist and activist with the Socialist Popular Alliance Party, came to Cairo and went to Midan Tahrir on a small march to lay a wreath of roses. Demonstrations are illegal. As she held a placard calling for “bread, freedom, and social justice,” police shot her in the face. She died in the square, in a comrade’s arms.

shaimaa_al-sabbagh_l

Shaimaa el-Sabbagh, 1980-2015

In death, Shaimaa joins Sondos Reda, 17 years old and also from Alexandria, killed by police on Friday in a demonstration supporting the Muslim Brotherhood. And they join some 1500 protesters whom security forces have killed since the July 2013 coup.

Sondos Reda, 1997-2015

Sondos Reda, 1997-2015

Today someone called the photograph of Shaimaa “already iconic.” But what does that mean? Too many people have been petrified into icons, while the powerful survive to die in bed. Here is Shaimaa with her five-year old son:

Photo via @ORHamilton

Photo via @ORHamilton

I have nothing to say.

After Mona Iraqi: Some Egyptian voices

Lock your door if you like, but I'm still watching: Mona Iraqi as Big Sister, in an ad for her program El Mostakhbai ("The Hidden")

Lock your door if you like, but I’m still watching: Mona Iraqi as Big Sister, in an ad for her program El Mostakhbai (“The Hidden”)

How does it feel to be unsafe in ur own house, scared and your stomach hurts hearing ur elevators doors open, random foot steps outside thinking they might be coming to get you, becoming someone else but yourself just because they can’t accept you the way you are, afraid to love and be loved, not because ur heart might get broken. NO it is because u can’t be who you are even in ur own home with someone you love. Afraid you might get killed in front of everyone and they will be happy and supportive to your killer just because u r not one of them. Happy new year.

A gay Egyptian friend wrote that on Facebook on December 31. It reflects how many in Egypt feel — whatever their identities — after a year of fear, a year of intensifying police repression and political regression.

The collusion between supposedly independent media and the state has been key to consolidating Egypt’s new dictatorship. This week Buzzfeed reported the claim by Ibrahim Mansour, editor of Tahrir News, that “There are instructions from the state apparatus” to cover sex scandals and other “silly” issues. Mansour believes “the government wanted coverage of arrests for homosexuality and other ‘morality’ charges in order to distract from political stories that could expose how the government had betrayed the hopes of the revolution.”

IloveSisiIIoveSisiIloveSisiIIoveSisiIloveSisiIIoveSisiIloveSisiIIoveSisiIloveSisiIIoveSisi: Mahmoud Saad

IloveSisiIIoveSisiIloveSisiIIoveSisiIloveSisiI IoveSisiIloveSisiIIoveSisiIloveSisiIIoveSisi: Mahmoud Saad

But it goes deeper. The state knows how to bully or buy media to mouth its political line. Help in getting salacious sales-boosting stories is merely one reward for cooperation. This week a tape mysteriously leaked, apparently recorded during last year’s presidential campaign; in it, Abbas Kamel, head of Generalissimo Sisi’s office, gives the armed forces’ official spokesman detailed orders to exploit reporters. He instructs the PR flack to reach out to “our people in the media,” and command them to “create a situation” and “rile people up.” One snippet plumbs the depths of sycophancy to which journalists can sink:

Kamel also mentions media personality Mahmoud Saad, saying he had recently received a call from Saad asking what he did wrong, and that he heard he had upset “them.” “He told me that we had already agreed and that he loves and supports [Sisi],” he said, before dismissing Saad, saying “we can leave him for now.”

In Egypt, embarrassing tapes leak so often these days you could irrigate crops with them. They may suggest cracks in the military’s support for Sisi, or perhaps fractures between the military and the security services. They also point an ambience around Sisi reminiscent of Beckett’s Krapp or the noxious Nixon, a paranoiac multiplication of microphones where nobody knows who’s wiretapping whom. But the perverse copulation between journalists and generals remains a central fact in Egypt’s loss of freedom.

Sisi's last tape: The Generalissimo wonders whether he's hearing voices

Sisi’s last tape: The Generalissimo wonders whether he’s hearing voices

Two activist colleagues recently wrote essays on the implications of TV presenter Mona Iraqi’s disastrous escapade. With their permission, I’m publishing them here.

Ramy Youssef is an activist working on human rights and issues of harassment. He wrote (in English):

I was wondering: if I’d get the chance to talk to Mona Iraqi and have a discussion with her, what would I say? I tried hard to exclude any violent ideas that might be floating vigorously in my head, and focus on the verbal actions.

Not hidden for long: Mona Iraqi, played by Najla Fathy, listens to the shocking goings-on next door

Not hidden for long: Mona Iraqi, played by Naglaa Fathy, listens to the shocking goings-on next door

Mona Iraqi, who became one of the most famous and controversial persons in Egypt at the moment due to her heroic action in leading the extraordinarily smart morals police department to a demonic place where people bathe — God, isn’t she a real savior, intervening with unbelievable bravery to stop all these people from bathing and get them all into a police van wearing nothing but towels. Not only did she do this, but also she took the time to video record all these people being led into the police van semi-naked, and broadcast it on her TV show.

Last Monday, January 12, the court announced the verdict after the arrestees spent 35 days in prison. There were all found  innocent. While they were in jail, Mona Iraqi was on a different mission to spread awareness and deliver knowledge to our society. On her show, she declared a mere assumption about their sexuality based on zero evidence, and no right. She said that they are part of a male prostitution network, which participates actively in transmitting HIV to thousands and thousands of people. That’s what you get for having a bath, faggot!

On the second episode of the show, and after a two weeks campaign against her led by activists, journalists and movie makers that led to her expulsion from SHNIT – the International Short Film Festival – she decided to attack those who dared misunderstand her Nobel-Prizeworthy activities.

I talked on a TV channel after the bathhouse was raided, saying how I believe this is a setup to polish the image of the government. She played that interview, along with her comments that I’m just a phony who visits Europe twice a month with nothing on his mind about helping actual homosexuals. Pardonnez-moi, aren’t you just back from Paris? I will not go through explaining that everything she said is lies; that’s obvious.

Brave undercover reporters ready to investigate something awful in a bathhouse

Brave undercover reporters ready to investigate something awful in a bathhouse

Mona, you are not allowed by law to film anyone getting arrested, for any reason at all. You know that. You are not allowed to lead the police anywhere, even if it was Al Qaeda Central Offices, you do know that as well. You realize that what you did was shameful, terrible and incredibly immoral. You realize that what you did has nothing to do with “sex trafficking.” If you wanted to discuss “sex trafficking,” why go after people who pay 25 pounds to have a bath, instead of making a story about the state officials who are involved in sex trafficking on an international level? Oh, I forgot, that would cut off your financial support for a while.

The interesting part is she didn’t “out” anyone, for real —  she did something far worse: she made an assumption about 26 people’s identities, sexualities and practices, and then outed her presumptions, broadcasting the idea that this is truthful!

What Mona Iraqi did cannot be forgotten until she and whoever cooperated in this get the rightful punishment. People’s lives aren’t a tool for any media worker to achieve success. Mona Iraqi should be imprisoned for the sorrow she caused, in the same cell with the police officer who is bravely leading a campaign against LGBTs and presumed LGBTs.

Lt. Col. Ahmad Hashad, played by Fouad El Mohandes, prepares to put his expertise on immorality to use

Lt. Col. Ahmad Hashad, played by Fouad El Mohandes, prepares to put his expertise on immorality to use

Now what happens? That’s a good question. Three things: The first and most basic step is filing a complain against Mona Iraqi, Tamer Amin [a talk show host who has campaigned against “perverts” and dissenters of all kinds] – who seems to be the perfect match for her — and Ahmed Hashad (who is the head of the morals police and the officer responsible for the crackdown on homosexuals and transsexuals, according to his declarations).

Second: doing more extensive investigations on the lies behind all the homosexual and transsexual cases that Ahmed Hashad has presented to justice, and setting these victims of injustice free.

Last but not least, law needs to respect human rights, now not later. Police need to stop arresting people based on their sexualities or presumed sexualities, because that is just wrong and unjust. The law should be cleansed of all personal conservative beliefs about sexual activities.

It is about time for this country to start working according to law, and by law I mean a true law respectful of human rights that does not criminalize any consensual sexual activity by any means. Many people, LGBTs and non-LGBTs, wait for justice to take place. If you as a state do not apply justice, in time it will be applied to you.

Members of Egypt's morality police, on hearing that immorality is taking place somewhere, prepare to go to work

Members of Egypt’s morality police, on hearing that immorality is taking place somewhere, are ready to go to work

“Yara” — she asked not to use her real name — is a transgender rights activist working on sexual health and rights. She wrote in Arabic; the translation was edited slightly for clarity in English. The original Arabic is at the end of this post.

Amid the latest events that Egypt is undergoing, causing changes on various levels, the issue of homosexuality has grabbed the attention of pens, papers and cameras of yellow newspapers.

To begin with, I am an Egyptian trans person from Egyptian roots. I carry no other passports and I belong to no political party or religious currents. And I am still living in Egypt. My case is the case of every homosexual living in Egypt, facing oppression on all levels, “a second class citizen” according to the criteria the society imposes on people for how they look or act. That fact won’t stop me from showing how disgusted I am by the crackdown on LGBT individuals in Egypt.

Let’s get to the point.

This is how 2014 started for me: four homosexuals were arrested in Nasr City and accused of “debauchery.” Three were sentenced to three years in prison, the other one to eight years.

Al Youm Al Sab’aa [the popular tabloid Youm7] played a major role in this case and other cases that followed, smearing the victims’ images and shaming their names by stalking them in the police stations to videotape them or take pictures of them, mentioning their full names in the newspaper in the name of “professionalism.”

Typical headline and photo from Youm7, spring 2014: “Crackdown on a network of shemales in Nasr City. Ahmed says, ‘I changed my name to Jana after being raped by the grocer and my psychologist. We get our clients from Facebook and we act like females by wearing makeup and adopting feminine attitudes. Are they going to put us in a men’s or women’s prison?” Photo caption: “Ahmed, the accused.” I blurred the face: Youm7  didn’t.

Typical headline and photo from Youm7, spring 2014: “Crackdown on a network of shemales in Nasr City. Ahmed says, ‘I changed my name to Jana after being raped by the grocer and my psychologist. We get our clients from Facebook and we act like females by wearing makeup and adopting feminine attitudes. Are they going to put us in a men’s or women’s prison?” Photo caption: “Ahmed, the accused.” I blurred the face: Youm7 didn’t.

But obviously they didn’t figure in “the ethics of journalism.”

What are the ethics of journalism? Philosophies of media institutions might differ but they agree on the principles of following the truth, accuracy, subjectivity, neutrality, tolerance, and responsibility before the readers. To follow these ethics you start by collecting the information, understanding its importance, then delivering it to the audience.

The press is committed to the principle of “doing the least harm.” This means not publishing some details, such as the name of an injured person, or news irrelevant to the subject of the article that might harm the person mentioned. That definition of media ethics the journalists of Al Youm Al Sab’aa did not follow in any way, in any case they covered about homosexuality.

I will not talk for long about this newspaper that was so unethical in their news coverage.

Defendant in another "debauchery" case from 2014. Photo published in elhadasnews.com. Again, I blurred the features, not the newspaper.

Defendant in another “debauchery” case from 2014. Photo published in Elhadasnews.com. Again, I blurred the features, not the newspaper.

Along the same line: another disaster which was the first of its kind.

This was the campaign Mona Iraqi started against what she supposed, from her perspective, to be homosexuals. She started her campaign to know the reasons for the spread of AIDS in Egypt. Through her program she reported a number of people in a public place called “Bab Al Bahr” to the police, in order to protect them from the wrath of people living in that area — all according to the imagination of Mona Iraq.

Who am I and why am I speaking?

As I identified myself from the start as gay/trans, I also work in the field of health in Egypt and especially on HIV. I also work in human rights activism for LGBTs in Egypt.

Journalist Mona Iraqi, you talk about the acute criticism you faced from journalists in and outside Egypt, and human rights activists in and outside Egypt, in complete shock. You do not acknowledge the reasons behind this attack. So here are the reasons, based on your first and second episodes of the show “Al Mostakhbai” [Mona Iraqi’s television show]:

Why Mona Iraqi's ignorance on HIV/AIDS matters, I: Knowledge on AIDS among Egyptian women, 2008, from Children in Egypt 2014: A Statistical Digest, UNICEF, at

Why Mona Iraqi’s ignorance on HIV/AIDS matters, I: Knowledge on AIDS among Egyptian men, 2008, from Children in Egypt 2014: A Statistical Digest, UNICEF, at http://www.unicef.org/egypt/Ch10.HIV_and_AIDS.pdf

FIRST: The episode was supposed to be about AIDS and methods of transmission. But it was not. You did not discuss such questions as: What is HIV, and how is it different from AIDS; does it have symptoms or not; when do they show; what are the means of prevention; is there a cure or not?

The groups most at risk for the spread of HIV/AIDS are:

  1. Injecting drug users;
  2. Men having sex with men, and male and female sex workers;
  3. People who have unsafe sex with either sex.

If Mona Iraqi, as she claims, seeks the reasons for the spread of AIDS in Egypt, why didn’t she seek out all the groups most at risk of getting HIV?

What about those eight individuals whom she interviewed outside the bath [about their homosexuality]? How are their private lives related to the content of the episode? What about their own HIV status? If the goal behind the episode is to reveal the “dens of AIDS,” why weren’t the arrestees checked for HIV while they were examined anally?

Why Mona Iraqi's ignorance on HIV/AIDS matters, I: Knowledge about AIDS among Egyptian women, 2008, from Children in Egypt 2014: A Statistical Digest, UNICEF, at http://www.unicef.org/egypt/Ch10.HIV_and_AIDS.pdf

Why Mona Iraqi’s ignorance on HIV/AIDS matters, II: Knowledge about AIDS among Egyptian women, 2008, from Children in Egypt 2014: A Statistical Digest, UNICEF, at http://www.unicef.org/egypt/Ch10.HIV_and_AIDS.pdf

SECOND: In the first episode Mona Iraqi gave a speech about how it was impossible for her to enter this den full of naked men, as they were having group sex. But it is normal for her to record these men semi-naked on her phone! In her second episode she accused her critics of masculine bias, saying: “Are you attacking me because I’m a woman who did this?”

No activists objected to your being a woman among semi-naked men, but to your recording a video of them on your phone. However, if we look to the principles, values, traditions, and religious values that you and your supporters claim to apply in this case, then your being there and among these semi-naked men goes against all those values and traditions. It contradicts everything you previously said about those values.

THIRD: You demanded why activists and organizations in Egypt who are receiving funding don’t help this category of society.

The answer: this category is being prosecuted on all levels. We — activists — or anyone else cannot help directly. That doesn’t mean that we do not provide in one way or another — despite you.

CONCLUSION: Over one hundred persons were arrested and prosecuted in a few months, accused of debauchery, sentenced to between one year and twelve years in prison. The Egyptian yellow press and the likes of Mona Iraqi joined in smearing the image of the defendants and of homosexuals generally – in order to achieve fame, or sales.

The episodes of El Mostakhbai have nothing to do with HIV or AIDS or professionalism or press ethics.

Mona Iraqi referred to what is happening in European countries with arrests of male and female sex workers. But we do not see a picture of any journalist recording one of these arrests with his mobile phone. We didn’t hear about journalists reporting the places where they live.

What we can conclude from 2014 is that the issue of homosexuality in Egypt is a blown-up case pursued by those who want fame, or want to join in morally policing the lives and the privacy of many other people.

The December 7 bathhouse raid: Photo from Mona Iraqi's Facebook page. Iraqi is on the right.

The December 7 bathhouse raid: Photo from Mona Iraqi’s Facebook page. Iraqi is on the right. 

في ظل الاحداث الأخيرة التي تمر بها مصر  من تغيرات على جميع الأفق,

شغلت  قضية المثلية الجنسية أقلام وأوراق وكاميرات الصحف الصفراء في مصر.

بداية انا مصري مثلي الجنس ذو أصول مصرية ,لا أحمل أية جنسيات اخري ولا انتمي الي اي حزب سياسي أو توجه ديني صارم ولازلت مقيم في مصر.

قضيتي هي نفس قضية كل مثلي يعيش في مصر,يعاني من الاضطهاد علي جميع المستويات, بمعني اخرمواطن درجة تانية“, وذلك طبقا للمعايير والمواصفات التي فرضها المجتمع من هيئة الاشخاص و تصرفاتهم, ولكن هذا بشكل ما أو اخر لم يمنعني من اظهار مدى استيائي كشخص تجاه ما يحدث من غارة علي مثليين/ات الجنس في مصر.

إلى صلب الموضوع ….

هكذا بدأت  سنة 2014 معي تحديدا في شهر ابريل حيث تم القبض علي اربع مثلي الجنس في مدينة نصر بتهمة ممارسة الفجور,و قد حكم على ثلاثة منهم ب 3 سنوات و اخر ب 8 سنوات,

حيث لعبت جريدة اليوم السابع دورا هائلا في هذه القضية, و القضايا الاخرى التي تبعتها, من تشويه وتشهير صور المتهمين عن طريق ملاحقتهم في الاقسام و تصويرهمفيديووصور فوتوغرافيةو ذكر اسماءهم الكاملة في صحيفتهم وذلك تحت شعارالمهنية “.

ولكن لم يات في الحسبان  ما يدعي بـاخلاقيات الصحافة” !!

ما هي اخلاقيات الصحافة ؟؟

* قد تختلف فلسفات المؤسسات الصحفية إلا أنها تجمع على مبادئ اتباع: الحقيقة والدقة والموضوعية والحياد والتسامح والمسؤولية أمام القراء. ويبدأ اتباع تلك الأخلاقيات في الحصول على المعلومات ومراعاة أهميتها ثم توصيلها إلى الجمهور.

وكما هو الحال بالنسبة لأنظمة احترام الأخلاقيات فتلتزم الصحافة هي الأخرى بمبدأ «إلحاق أقل ضرر». وهذا يتعلق بعدم كشف بعض التفاصيل في النشر مثل اسم مصاب أو بأخبار لا تتعلق بموضوع المقال قد تسيء إلى سمعة الشخص المذكور.

هذا كان تعريف اخلاقيات الصحافة  و الذي لم يلتزم به صحفيو  جريدة اليوم السابع بشكل او باخر في اي قضية تم تداولها في ما يخص المثلية الجنسية.

لن أكثر الحديث عن هذه الجريدة لالتزامهم بتطبيق اللااخلاقية في اخبارهم.

و علي غرار ما حدث..

كارثةاخريهيالاوليمننوعها ……..

فقد كانت هذه هي الحملة التي شنتها مني عراقي على ما يفترض أنهم مثليي الجنس وذلك من وجهة نظرها  في سبيل معرفة اسباب انتشار الايدز في مصر,و قد ابلغت عن طريق برنامجها  علي عدد من الاشخاص يتواجدون في  مكان عام يسمى (باب البحر) خوفا من فتك اهالي المنطقة بهم و ذلك حسب ما جاء في مخيلة مني عراقي.

من انا و لماذا اتحدث ؟

كما عرفت عن نفسي  في البداية عن  كوني مثلي الجنس, انا ايضا  عملت في مجال الصحة في مصر و خاصة  فيروس نقص المناعة المكتسب“, و أعمل أيضا في مجال  النشاط الحقوقي للمثليين في مصر .

الاعلامية  مني عراقي:

تتحدثينعنالهجومالحادالذيوجهاليكمنخلالالصحفيينفيمصروخارجهاوالناشطينالحقوقيينفيمصروخار
جهامدعيةعدمفهماسبابهذاالهجوم ,لذلك ها هي الاسباب مستعينا بالحلقتين الاولي و الثانية من برنامجكالمستخبي” :-

ا/ كان من المفترض ان مضمون الحلقة عن الايدز وعن اسباب انتشاره .

كأي شخص مهني يطرح موضوع للنقاش يجب علية اولا ان يكون على دراية تامة   بموضوع الطرح,وأقصد هنا  في هذه الحاله (الايدز).

* فما هوفيروس نقص المناعة البشري“, و ما الفرق بينه و بين الايدز؟

و هل له اعراض ام لا, و متي تظهر اعراضة, و ما هي طرق الوقاية ؟

و هل يوجد علاج ام لا؟

*انتشار فيروس نقص المناعة المكتسبة :- (الفئات الاكثر عرضة)

1- المدمنيين بالحقن.

2- الرجال الذين يمارسون الجنس مع الرجال و بائعين/ات الجنس.

3- ممارسة الجنس الغير امن.

فاذا كانت مني عراقي كما تدعي انها تبحث عن اسباب انتشار الايدز في مصر لماذا لم تبحث عن الفئة الاكثر عرضة للاصابة بالفيروس؟

و ماذا عن الثمانية الذين قمت بتصويرهم خارج الحمام, وما علاقه حياتهم الخاصة بمحتوي الحلقة ,وماذا عن اصابتهم بالفيروس ؟

و اذا كان الغرض من الحلقة الكشف عن اوكار الايدز لماذا لم يتم فحص المتهمين باحتمال اصابتهم بفيروس نقص المناعة في حين ان تم فحصهم شرجيا؟

ب/ في الحلقة الاولي وجهت مني عراقي كلمة بانها لم يكن من المستحيل ان تدخل هذا الوكر المليء بالرجال العرايا, حبث يمارسون الجنس الجماعي, و لكن من الطبيعي بالنسبة لها ان تقوم بتصوير هولاء الرجال شبة عرايا بـ هاتفها المحمول .

ثم قامت منى  في الحلقة الثانية باتهام  مهاجمينها  بذكوريتهم قائلة

ولا علشان واحده ست هي اللي عملت كدا” !!!!

لم يعترض احد من النشطاء علي وجودك كامرأه وسط رجال شبة عرايا و لكن الانتقاد الذي وجه لك كان عن تصويرهم بهاتفك المحمول, و لكن اذا نظرنا الي القيم و المبادئ و العادات و التقاليد و الدين و العرف و الذي تدعي انت والكثير من انصارك في هذه القضية بتطبيقه.

فـوجودكفيهذاالمكانامامهذاالعددمنالرجالشبهالعراياينافيتماماكلالقيموالا
عرافوينافيايضاماسبقوقدقمتباعلانهفيحلقتكالاوليمتحدثةعناستحالةوجودكفيوسطهذاالمكان.

ج/ كنت قد ذكرت لماذا لا يقوم النشطاء والمنظمات في مصر الذي يتم تمويلهم بمساعدة هذه الفئة من المجتمع؟

الاجابة :-

فيظلوجودمايدينهذهالفئةعليجميعالمستوياتلايوجدفياستطاعتناأننقومبالمساعده  نحن النشطاء اوغيرنا بشكل مباشر , و لكن هذا لا يمنع اننا نقوم بمساعدة هذه الفئات بشكل او باخر.

و عليكي مني عراقي ان تتفهمي خطورة الموقف بالنسبة لثمانية شباب قمتي بتصويرهم في اماكن تواجدهم ,و قد اعترفوا بممارستهم علي شاشات التلفيزيون, فما بالك عن اهل المنطقة بـ هؤلاء ؟؟؟

الخلاصة :-

* تم القبض و الحكم علي اكثرمن مئه شخص خلال عدة اشهر بتهمة ممارسة الفجور وتم الحكم عليهم  باحكام تتراوح بين سنه واثنا عشر سنه .

* ساهمت الصحافة المصرية الصفراء وامثال مني عراقي في تشوية وتشهير صورة المتهمين و صورة المثليين بشكل عام علي حساب الشهرة ومين يبيع اكتر“.

*حلقات برنامجالمستخبيلا تمت بصلة  عن فيروس نقص المناعة البشري و الايدز كما انها لا تتصف بالمهنية واخلاقيات الصحافة .

*بالنسبة لما قمت باذاعته مني عراقي عن ما يحدث في بلاد اوربية او غيرها فيما يختص بالقبض علي العاملين والعاملات بالجنس. فنحن لم نري صورة اي صحفي قام بتصوير قبضية معينه علي فئة معينة بـهاتفه المحمول و لم نسمع عن صحفي قام بالابلاغ عن أماكن تواجدهم.

ما نستطيع استنتاجه من الفترة السابقة في عام 2014 ان قضية المثلية الجنسية في مصر هي قضية دسمة و لكن للاسف يشتهيها كل من يبحث عن الشهرة و كل من تخول له نفسه في تطبيق الفضيلة و الاخلاق و ذلك علي حساب حياة و خصوصيات ارواح اخري .

Victims of the bathhouse raid, in a screenshot from Mona Iraqi's television show: From Al Masry Al Youm

Victims of the bathhouse raid, in a screenshot from Mona Iraqi’s television show: From Al Masry Al Youm

Why the crackdown in Egypt isn’t over, and what to do about it

Covering their faces, shackled defendants are dragged into court, January 12: Photo by Reuters

Covering their faces, shackled defendants in the bathhouse case are dragged into court, January 12: Photo by Reuters

It’s like watching a whole ramshackle building totter when a single brick is pulled out. That’s how it felt, a week after the government’s case against the 26 victims of Mona Iraqi’s bathhouse raid collapsed. Practically every day since, the Egyptian media has carried some new, damaging revelation about how the criminal-injustice system works.

1) The press headlined the allegation, first reported in BuzzFeed last week, that at least one of the 26 men was raped in detention, with the encouragement of the Azbekeya police station guards. Mohammed Zaki, one of the defense lawyers, said the cops offered the men – hauled from the bathhouse naked except for underwear or towels – “as a gift to the prisoners,” with one officer pushing the victim into a cell and telling inmates, “Today’s your lucky day. Enjoy.” The man was “stripped of his towel, pushed to the floor, and raped, while police ignored his cries for help.”

2) The independent daily Al Masry Al Youm posted a filmed interview with one of the 26 victims: “The police treated us like animals,” he said.

 Interview with “Ahmed,” a victim of the bathhouse raid

The newspaper summarized his story:

Ahmed, a young man in his thirties, comes to Cairo from his city in the Delta once or twice every week for a day trip of a few hours, to buy clothes on Clot Bey Street and return to the workshop in his city. On December 7, in his last visit to Cairo, Ahmed thought of going to one of the public bathhouses in the only district he knows. “The door of the place was open for anyone who wanted to cleanse himself,” says Ahmed. …

“Suddenly, the police raided the bathhouse and ordered us not to move. Some policeman started removing the towels we were putting on, while the TV host filmed those there,” Ahmed added. “When the owner of the bathhouse said she couldn’t film and asked who she was, she said she was from the government.” …

[At the Azbekeya station], a police assistant named Khaled put handcuffs on Ahmed and chained him to the iron gate of the jail and kept hitting him with a baton, and then shoved it in his behind. … Ahmed says the suspects were treated badly at the prosecution, but much worse in detention. “Despite the humiliation, no one [at the prosecution] ordered us to pretend we were dogs and bark, or lie on our stomachs while police officers passed by. It was like that every day in the jail.”

3) Al Masry Al Youm also interviewed neighbors of the bathhouse who condemned the raid as an “attempt to tarnish the area’s reputation.” One shop owner said, “Those are very good people. We and our ancestors had our shops next to that bathhouse and we have never seen anything wrong from them.”

4) Finally: Mona Iraqi herself may lose her show. A source inside the Al Kahera Wal Nas (Cairo and the People) TV channel said she faces cancellation, because she’s put her employers in “an awkward position.” It’s not just the ethical monstrosity she committed. It’s that the defendants’ lawyers are threatening libel suits against the channel for 10 million LE ($1.4 million US) each.

"She said she works for the government": Mona Iraqi during her bathhouse broadcasts

“She said she was from the government”: Mona Iraqi during her bathhouse broadcasts

In this one case, the regime and its lackeys are red-faced and in full retreat. That doesn’t mean, however, that the crackdown against LGBT people in Egypt is over. Remember:

  • Well over 100 people convicted for the “habitual practice of debauchery” since October 2013 still sit in prison.
  • Egypt’s prosecutor general has appealed the acquittal in this case, with a first hearing scheduled for January 26. The move shows a government still bent on putting LGBT people in prison. New arrests can start at any time.
  • What happens to Egyptians accused of being gay, or transgender, or lesbian is part of the overall human rights situation; and that is appalling. As the Revolution’s fourth anniversary impends, the counterrevolution is in charge. The government menaces human rights activists with possible life sentences. More than 25,000 alleged Muslim Brotherhood supporters languish in concentration camps without trial. My friend Yara Sallam and 23 others are serving two years behind bars for a peaceful protest march. Security forces persecute everyone from alleged “atheists” to street merchants. Until real rule of law restrains police power in Egypt, anybody different will be under threat.

Domestic and international pressure helped bring justice in the bathhouse case, but the work must continue — not just for LGBT Egyptians, but for all victims of human rights abuse. There are two important pressure points in coming months.

FIRST: The US gives over $1.5 billion in aid to Egypt annually. Nearly all is military assistance: economic aid makes up only around 15% of that total, and has been shrinking for more than a decade. No one in Egypt wants the remaining economic aid slashed – there’s no reason the rulers’ malfeasance should rob the poor of their last scraps and crumbs. But the military aid keeps the military dictatorship going. Cut it.

From "Egypt: Background and U.S. Relations," by Jeremy M. Sharp for the Congressional Research Service, June 5, 2014, at https://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/mideast/RL33003.pdf

From “Egypt: Background and U.S. Relations,” by Jeremy M. Sharp for the Congressional Research Service, June 5, 2014, at https://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/mideast/RL33003.pdf. IMET = International Military Education and Training Program.

Since 2012, Senator Patrick Leahy has kept up the good fight to condition military aid on Egypt’s progress toward democracy. When the US Congress passed an appropriations bill last month, it included a long list of conditions: “holding free and fair elections, allowing peaceful assembly, due process for detainees.” But the law also “includes a waiver allowing Secretary of State John Kerry to ignore the preconditions for national security reasons.”

Leahy: Liberty for thee, as well as me

Leahy: Liberty for thee, as well as me

Will Kerry invoke the waiver, and keep the aid spigot on? The State Department is likely to start the internal debate next month. Powerful constituencies support Egypt. Foreign Military Financing (FMF) money must, by US law, be spent on US-made armaments. Egypt’s aid bonanza thus funnels back to the US defense industry, which slavers to keep the money flowing. Yet even if the US lacks political will to end its gifts to the generals completely, it could still show displeasure. It could stop offering Egypt two forms of undeserved special treatment: early disbursement and cash-flow financing.

“Early disbursement” of military aid is a privilege the US State Department gives only to Israel and Egypt. “At the beginning of the year, U.S. funding is deposited in an account at the New York Federal Reserve, and Cairo is allowed to use the interest accrued on these deposits to purchase additional equipment.” The interest gives it tens of millions extra to spend.

“Cash flow financing” is also a special privilege Egypt shares with Israel. It allows Cairo to purchase weapons even beyond its yearly aid allotment, using the promise of the money the US is due to give it in future years. Essentially, Egypt can buy on credit – and the US government is liable for any payments it fails to make. (Clearly, a special favor to the American weapons industry as well.) This accounting trick radically ramps up the Egyptian military’s purchasing power. In most years, Egypt contracts to buy over $2 billion in American arms. That’s about 50% more than what its actual American-aid budget should allow. Cash flow financing makes the difference.

The crackdown on LGBT Egyptians is only one human rights issue that should weigh against full military aid to a deeply dictatorial regime. But it should be weighed. Kerry should cut the gun-filled gift baskets — or, at the minimum, end the accounting legerdemain that augments Egypt’s largesse. And if he refuses, Leahy and Congress should make plenty of noise. The time to start pressing the State Department is now.

From Barack with love: American-bought F-16 jet over the pyramids. Photo from US Department of Defense, Defense Audiovisual Agency.

From Barack with love: American-bought F-16 jet over the pyramids. Photo from US Department of Defense, Defense Audiovisual Agency.

SECOND: On March 13-15, the regime will host an “Egypt Economic Development Conference” in the posh resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. President Sisi himself will launch the gathering. The meeting is central to Sisi’s strategy to resuscitate the  economy. The idea is to get a group of powerful private investors together, and woo or cajol them to sink their money into Egypt. An array of infrastructure projects will be on offer; infrastructure is the core of Sisi’s revitalization plans. After all, the regime’s rich supporters – mostly the same well-connected crony capitalists who propped up Mubarak’s sclerotic rule – cluster in industries like cement, construction, and communications. “Economic growth” by and large means fattening their portfolios with pointless projects, not feeding the poor.

Sisi’s government has been promoting this summit for months. The figures keep flowing from the Ministry of Investment: 120 countries and 3,500 companies invited, 42 big investment projects up for grabs. Yet they’ve postponed the conference repeatedly, reflecting a lack of international enthusiasm over Egypt’s limp prospects. So they’ve hired not just global banking maven Lazard to rope in participants, but also the International Man of Mystery, Tony Blair.

President Sisi discusses Gaza, Israel, and business with Tony Blair on July 12, 2014, two days afterhyyyy

President Sisi discusses Gaza, Israel, and business with Tony Blair, representative of the Quartet, on July 12, 2014. Just days earlier, news of Blair’s sinecure to “advise Sisi on economic reform” was leaked to the UK press. Photo by Reuters.

All that suggests the significance Sisi’s government hangs on the summit. The conference website is here; some speakers already are signed up — the chairs of GE and BP, and the head of the WPP Group, Britain’s mammoth advertising and media agency. I’ll be posting more about the meeting soon. All the participants should face one question back home: How will they use their leverage to improve Egypt’s dismal human rights record? And they might also be asked: How do they think their gay or lesbian or transgender employees in Egypt will fare? The time to pose these questions is now.

FINALLY: You want to know why all this is important? Don’t listen to me; listen to some of those whose lives the continuing crackdown wrecked.

I’ve interviewed two people arrested in two separate cases, when police raided private apartments in the spring of 2014. They were convicted, but appeals courts overturned their sentences – mainly because the original judges handed down verdicts even before sending the victims to the Forensic Medical Authority for anal tests.

A Beirut protester at a demonstration against forensic anal examinations in Lebanon, 2012: "End the tests of shame"

A Beirut protester at a demonstration against forensic anal examinations in Lebanon, 2012: “Together against the tests of shame”

The anal tests are usually inflicted on all prisoners accused of homosexual conduct. They’re bogus, and an invasive form of torture – but at least they provide the spurious semblance of evidence. Yet in these cases the lower court judge didn’t need “proof”; one look at the defendants, who were mostly transgender, and he found them guilty. When they filed appeals, though, they endured the tests; and doctors declared them “unused.” (I think I know why. To find the victims “used” so long after the fact, the medics would need either to claim the exams can detect homosexual sex months later – which makes the test look even more absurd; or to admit sex takes place in Egyptian prisons, where the men had been kept since arrest.) Unlike most of the crackdown’s victims, they can tell their stories.

These are accounts of torture and sexual abuse; of judges who sentence people based on their looks alone; of transgender convicts trucked from prison to prison because the keepers wouldn’t take their “pervert” bodies. You’ll find Ahmed Hashad — who was also the arresting officer in the bathhouse case — watching while his victims are tortured. I’ve changed all names and left out identifying details.

1) “You don’t need a warrant for this type of people”

Nadia is a transgender woman in her early twenties. She’s had silicone implants in her breasts, and hopes someday to leave Egypt to have full gender reassignment surgery. She and three friends – two other trans-identified women and a cisgender man – moved into a new Cairo apartment. That very day, police raided it. They believe they weren’t targeted specifically: “The cops seemed to be doing a general search of apartments on that street. But as soon as they saw us they knew they had hit gold.”

It happened at noon. All four of us were in the apartment, two of us asleep, two of us awake. There was a knock on the door and when we opened it, four police broke into the apartment, with three informers. [By “informers,” she meant plainclothes as opposed to uniformed police.]

The head policeman asked: “Do you have girls, weed, weapons in the apartment?” We said no. He said, “I am going to search this place.” He found girls’ dresses and one wig. We asked why he didn’t have a warrant, and he said, “None of your business. Shut the fuck up, bitches.” An informer said to the officer: “See how they look, they are all khawalat” [faggots]. The officer said: “You don’t need a warrant for this type of people.”

Egypt's finest: Central Security forces march along Mohamed Mahmoud Street in central cairo, under graffiti reading "Glory to the Unknown," November 19, 2014. Photo by Amr Abdallah Dalsh for Reuters

Egypt’s finest: Central Security forces march along Mohamed Mahmoud Street in central cairo, under graffiti reading “Glory to the Unknown,” November 19, 2014. Photo by Amr Abdallah Dalsh for Reuters

They took us to the police station … They started hitting us in the face and kicking our legs, and touching us all over. The informers kept trying to pull my hair out. “Are these prostitutes?” the officer in charge said, and the other police said, “No, they are khawalat.”  He said, “In more than 24 years I have never seen khawalat so effeminate. Take off your clothes. “

They took the phone of Laila [one of the roommates] and showed us photos of trans people on it. “Do you know these?” they demanded. I said all the pics were of people outside Egypt. They asked, “Do you get fucked? Are there many people like you?” …

Another officer, when he was told we were khawalat, starting beating us violently. Laila infuriated them by not saying anything, so they hit her especially. A “nice” clerk came and said, “They are sick people and you shouldn’t hit them.” Then he started taking a video of us.

They started to write up a report. We denied being khawalat. I said, “Is every person who has long hair a khawal? You can’t judge us by labels. If we are khawalat, you would have caught us in the act.” But they said, “It’s already in the report that you were caught in the act.” I claimed that we were sexually frigid and we could not have sex. But the officers and the informers all said, “If you look like this, you are doing that.”

They put us in a small cell away from the regular detention area. The officers began sexually abusing us, grabbing our breasts. One of the informers said, “If you don’t sleep with me, I’ll put you in detention with the other prisoners.” …

Learning the ropes, and chains: Students at Egypt's police academy. Photo from AlRaiPress.com.

Learning the ropes, and chains: Students at Egypt’s police academy. Photo from AlRaiPress.com.

The next day we went to the niyaba [prosecutor]. We got four days’ detention, and went back to the police station, and then they took us back to the niyaba again. At the niyaba a lawyer told us the police claimed they had been watching us for a week. But we had just taken the contract for the apartment the day we were arrested! The wakil niyaba [deputy prosecutor] told us, “Call the Perverts’ Human Rights Association and they will get you out.” And there was a journalist taking pictures of us at the niyaba. One of the informers took the woman and took the phone and downloaded things from it, and told her to get the fuck out: he said the wakil niyaba prohibited taking photographs. But the guard there didn’t care, he said, “Fuck you and your wakil niyaba.”

Defendant in another "debauchery" case from 2014. Photo published in elhadasnews.com. I blurred the features, not the newspaper.

Defendant in another “debauchery” case from 2014. Photo published in Elhadasnews.com. I blurred the features; the newspaper didn’t.

Just six days after we were arrested, they took us before a judge. A journalist took our pictures again at the court. The judge called us names and didn’t even look at us. Three of us got three years in prison, and the one whose name was on the rental contract got eight.

On the second day after that we were sent to prison.

In the van to the prison, the officers kept telling us we would be beaten and raped. … At the prison entrance, the guards shouted, “Where the hell do these come from? They can’t be in this place. You can’t put such cases in this institution!”

The father of one of the victims “was an officer in the police. And the prison guy became more polite when he learned this. We asked to be put away from the other people in prison, and he said he would. He was the prison commandant.”

The guards went past all the cells saying, “Now you have women in the prison.” But we were put in an isolation cell for highly dangerous people.

Then because there was an appeal being made for us, we were taken to the Estinaf [appeals] prison … We were all four put together in one cell there, though one guard went to the straight-looking guy among us and said, “You are not a khawal, what are you doing here?”

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No pinkwashing these walls: Wadi Natroun prison in the Delta, from ElSaba7.com

After a few months they sent us to another prison. It rejected us. When we entered, guards beat us and told us to take off our clothes. “Open up your ass! What’s in there?” They got us naked and made the whole prison watch us. … The guard took off my T-shirt and looked at my breasts and said, “What is this? I am responsible for this prison!” He said to the commandant, “They sent us monkeys!”

There, we were separated, one to a cell. “Because they are sick,” the commandant explained, “And I don’t know how to treat them, I can’t have them in this prison.” He tried to transfer us to Tora Hospital [at the main military prison complex outside Cairo]. …

There was a lot of sexual harassment. People taking off our clothes. There was only soft sex, though. No one penetrated us. In prison, they had cameras everywhere – but no one cared.

They were sent back to the appeals prison.

A doctor in the prison kept asking us, “Are you a pervert? Do you sleep with men?” We said no. “Do you have erections?” No. He wrote a false report and said we asked for sex reassignment surgery. He told us, “If we give you the surgery we can put you in a women’s prison.” I said, “Are you crazy? I will not do this in prison!”

We were sent to the Forensic Medical Authority. They had forgotten to do this at the first trial because they were in such a hurry to convict us! The trial judge should have asked for the Forensic Medical Authority result, but he didn’t want to because there was press there, and he wanted to give the sentence quickly.

We went three times to the Forensic Medical Authority in Ramsis [the Cairo neighborhood near the main train station]. But each time, the police didn’t bring an order from the niyaba to do the test, so they wouldn’t do it. So the appeals judge kept postponing the decision – for one month, then another month, then for three months. Basically, he and the niyaba and the police wanted to keep us in prison, not let us out. It was 40 days after the niyaba asked for it that they finally did it. Even the doctor was astonished. …

And the anal test happened five months after our arrest. The doctor said: “You are fucking each other,” even before the test started. We said no, and told him the whole thing. Then: ”Take off your clothes: kneel over the chair and hug it.” He pushed our butt cheeks aside and looked. The report found us all unused.

Am I the first one here? Diagram of (non-forensic) anal examination, from http://www.arab-hams.com/home.php?page=3&lang=ar&id=2465

Am I the first one here? Diagram of (non-forensic) anal examination, from http://www.arab-hams.com/home.php?page=3&lang=ar&id=2465

The Forensic Medical Authority also did a report on our breasts, because the niyaba wanted it! They didn’t know I had silicone boobs; they asked me if I had taken an XY [chromosome] test. I lied, I said “Yes, these breasts are normal.“ They didn’t know the difference.

Whenever we went back to the niyaba, the wakil niyaba kept interrogating us about many different subjects. He tried to accuse us of having sex in the prison, and when we denied it, he told us, “That’s what they are saying about you. I don’t care about your case, I just care about you having sex in the prison.”

He demanded, “Why are you being rejected by every prison? Do you have vaginas? And he told us a story that really upset him: “One month ago, we caught some khawalat from Italy, she-males [in English] on a boat in the Nile. And public opinion approved of that, but Italy interfered, and they got them out.”

Finally, the appeals court acquitted them, after more than six months in prison. They’ve moved to a different city, but they still fear that police may find them and jail them on some new pretext. “I want to get out of this country,” Nadia told me. “I can’t go through that hell ever again.”

Victims of the bathhouse raid, in a screenshot from Mona Iraqi's television show: From Al Masry Al Youm

Victims of the bathhouse raid, in a screenshot from Mona Iraqi’s television show: From Al Masry Al Youm

2) “Look at the faggots in the cage”

Mazen is also in his early twenties. He is a top, and straight-acting. A couple of years ago, he says, “I met some guys from downtown, and one thing led to another, and I admitted to myself that I am gay. Some of these friends told me I should do it in business.” He became a part-time sex worker, and he teamed up with some “she-males and ladyboys” (words he uses in English). “In their case, they simply couldn’t find any other kind of work.”

“We were in our apartment. I lived there with Manar and Hala” –who identify as transgender, though Mazen mostly uses male pronouns for them. Two male friends were visiting that evening, one more “effeminate” than the other, Mazen says. “One of them was not in business, the other one does business from time to time.”

There’s a website for she-males specifically; and Hala had her picture on there with her mobile number. So this man called Hala on her phone and asked for a meeting. But she didn’t accept; she was afraid he was an officer. She was sticking to regular customers because of the arrests—she was afraid the new person would be an informer or an officer or something.

Then after she refused, he called Manar, my lover. Manar showed Hala the number, and talked her into trusting him. And so he came over. And it turned out that man actually was an undercover officer.

When I came in, the man was already in the apartment. I went upstairs to the balcony and sat there watching if anyone else was coming – any police – while the man sat inside with the others. He said he some alcohol in the car and he went downstairs to get it. But we watched and noticed he was calling someone while the car was still running, and he stayed talking about then minutes. Then he came back up, but he said he was going to the bathroom, while holding his mobile phone, and there he talked over the phone some more.

I was on the balcony, checking the area, and the two guys came up and asked, “Is there anything going on?” And then suddenly, two cars came in fast and stopped directly in front of the building.

We knew immediately it was police. Manar went to the bedroom and changed out of women’s clothes. Hala was just frozen. I went to the door to run … The policemen were on the stairs – two officers and a bunch of plainclothes. … Hala went down the stairs and tried to get past them. I went up the stairs. There was a window in the staircase and from it I shimmied down the pipes to the street.

But the officers caught them all.

Policemen kick and beat a suspect. Photo from the blog Tortureinegypt.net/

Policemen kick and beat a suspect. Photo from the blog TortureInEgypt.net

It was a big operation. Ahmed Hashad, the intelligence director of the Adab [Morals] police, was there, and he was telling the neighbors, “Don’t worry, we are just arresting the she-males of Egypt.” They had two private cars, plus a car like a box for the transport, and a microbus. … Hala was the only one of us wearing women’s clothes, baby doll clothes [Egyptians often use the English expression “baby doll” for skimpy women’s outfits] ….

One of the policemen beat me, and took all my money and two mobiles. There were four laptops in the apartment, two new and two older. The two new ones and my mobiles, the officers took them and shared them out for their own. In the police report they only mentioned the older laptops. In the bag that the officer had used to bring the alcohol, they put some of the baby doll clothes, as evidence.

They took us to the Mugamma el-Tahrir [the huge government building in central Cairo], to the department of Adab. There, three officers beat us, while Ahmed Hashad watched them … They were hitting us on the back of the head, and beating me and kicking me on my legs, and they stomped on my foot and injured it.

The massive Mugamma adminstration building in Midan Tahrir: Photo from Wikipedia

The massive Mugamma adminstration building in Midan Tahrir: Photo from Wikipedia

They tried to recruit Hala to help them: Was there any meeting place for she-males? They said if she told them they’d let her out. She said she didn’t know. Manar was wearing men’s clothes; they told him to take them off, and he refused, so they started to light cigarettes and burn his body with them. They got a baby doll dress and made him wear it.

They wrote a report but none of us was talking while they did it – the police wrote the report themselves. They took a photo of all five of us, and they made us sit in a part of the office where there’s no roof, and it was freezing – the weather was cold. They called us names, shouting “khawal” and asking, “What is wrong with you?” …

At 9 or 9:30 AM, they took us out of the Mugamma to go to the niyaba. The square was crowded and while we were walking, an officer hit Hala and she screamed. And everyone was pointing and looking at us and gossiping.

When we entered the office of the wakil niyaba, he started shouting, “You are the khawalat! Why are you doing this?” and so on, with foul language. He wasn’t questioning us, just cursing. ….

Another wakil niyaba interrogated me and the other guy. He started calling the other guy a khawal. The guy denied it, trying to defend himself. But the wakil kept insisting, “Yes, you are a khawal, because you look like one.” And he checked his mobile for messages that could convict him, and checked the pictures on my laptop. ….

The scandal site Youm7 published a photo of Hala in women’s clothes, showing her face clearly. Police or prosecutors had leaked it to the paper. Meanwhile, the prosecutor charged them with “debauchery.” Though they were engaged in sex work, that was legally irrelevant: the provision punishes men who have sex with men regardless of whether money was exchanged.

They brought men’s clothes for Hala and Manar and then they took us to the police station in [our neighborhood], which had jurisdiction over the apartment. … At the police station they put me and the other guy in cells with other prisoners. His had maybe 85 prisoners, and mine only 75. But Hala and Manar and the other one of us were put in a cage “for observation,” next to the visitors’ entrance. And they put them there partly because if they were in a cell with other prisoners, they would be raped or tortured. But also, the cage was directly by the front door: so whenever someone was entering or going out, the police would point and say, “Look at the khawalat in the cage.” They were zoo animals on display.

A defendant in another "debauchery" case from 2014: Photo from alamatonline.net

A defendant in another “debauchery” case from 2014: Photo from Alamatonline.net

The parents of the guy in the crowded cell paid bribes to get him moved to another cell, for people convicted of stealing public money. It was for 23 people only and was stylish [in English]. My mother pulled some connections and got me moved there too. We told the prisoners we were there because of hash dealing and a fight, so no one bothered us. …

We saw a judge four days after the arrest. We had six lawyers and they were good lawyers but they hadn’t even been shown the court papers. After a week’s delay the court met again … The police reports were all lies. They said that four of us were having sex in pairs when the police came in, two in each room, and I was the one who opened the door. They said we were caught in the act. They didn’t mention the undercover officer at all. The lawyer argued this was ridiculous: “Even if they were having sex, they would have gotten scared and stopped when the police knocked on the door.” The judge took a break for a bit to read the statements. Then he returned and said the verdict. Manar got 12 years; Hala and the more effeminate of the guys got I think 7 years; I got 4 years.

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Eight men convicted in the “gay wedding” video trial leave the courtroom cage, November 1, 2014.

In the reasons for the verdict, the judge mentioned some stuff from the Qur’an about men who resemble women. The lawyers and our parents were shocked; no one expected this. They took us to the waiting room. Manar wasn’t able to move or speak, Hala was crying … For 15 minutes I was thanking God that no more than this had happened; then I turned hysterical. I started screaming and shouting, I don’t even remember …

We went back to the police station. The officers were saying, “You deserve it.”

The appeals process started. They hadn’t given us the forensic medical examination before the first trial … So this time we were sent to the Forensic Medical Authority.

They were found “unused.”

After that, the only evidence left was three guys wearing feminine clothes, and the pictures they got from the Internet or from our mobiles. The lawyer blamed them on photoshop – he said, “You can manufacture whatever you want.” By the time of the hearing, my beard was fully grown. The judge asked the wakil niyaba, “How can you present a girl’s picture and claim it is this guy?”

At the final hearing, the judge “wrote on the case that we were innocent. And he closed the case file and threw it at us, and told us, ‘You are innocent, you khawalat.’”

We spent seven months in prison, total. We were so happy when we walked out. But Manar and Hala are in terrible shape still. They can’t work in any normal job because of the way they look. And they can’t work in business because they are so afraid.

Courtroom chaos after the verdict in the bathhouse case is announced, January 12: Photo from yaablady.com.

Courtroom chaos when the verdict in the bathhouse case is announced, January 12, 2015: Photo from Yaablady.com.

Victory

UPDATE: The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights tells me (and the newspaper Al Wafd reports tonight) that the prosecution has formally appealed the not-guilty verdict against the 26 men. The prosecution has the right to appeal twice, under Egyptian law — once to an appeals court, and after that to the Court of Cassation. We don’t know whether the appeal will be accepted and a new trial held. Our understanding is that the law requires the existing verdict to be implemented pending the appeal — that is, the men should be freed. But the police will very likely try to find some pretext to keep them detained. What this shows is that the state is still hellbent on persecuting these men to the limits of its power.

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Families and friends celebrate the acquittal of 26 men in the Cairo bathhouse raid trial, January 12, 2015. Photo: Louisa Loveluck on Twitter, @leloveluck

“This court finds the defendants innocent ….” That, or more or less that, was all anybody heard the judge say. The courtroom exploded. Lawyers cheered; journalists stood on the benches and joined the cheering; and the families, manhandled outside by the bailiffs before the hearing began, forced their way in through the doors and shoved the policemen aside in return: brothers and fathers shouting to the cameras that their kids were vindicated, black-clad women trilling the zaghrata — the triumphal ululation heard at weddings. It spilled into the halls outside. At one point the families and a few friends stood fists pumping in a circle, chanting “Our sons are men!” And there were cries of “Put Mona Iraqi on trial!” I’ve never seen anything quite like this in attending countless Egyptian trials over the years. We’d never felt anything like this. No one expected it. No one was prepared.

I didn’t bring a camera. Louisa Loveluck, of the Daily Telegraph, has posted a few seconds’ footage of the jubilation:

You have to understand: acquittals happen rarely in Egypt; when they do it’s generally because of an appeals judge who cares about the rule of evidence, certainly not at the first instance. This is the only high-profile human rights case since the 2013 coup that ended with such a success. Egyptian activists who worked on this case, documented it, and helped mobilize journalists and intellectuals and other activists to express their horror at what Mona Iraqi did — they deserve credit for this. I don’t know exactly what motivated the judge to look at the facts and not the headlines: whether he cared about the public pressure or about his own reputation (at the last session, he called the journalists to the bench to ask why they were so interested in this case) or whether he got a message from above that the state was ready to back down. But it wouldn’t have happened without ordinary people, gay and straight, from the families themselves to bloggers to tens of thousands of folks on Facebook and other social media, in Egypt and abroad, who had the courage and energy to speak out.

Alf mabrouk.

Families of defendants rejoice in the courtroom. Photo: Associated Press.

Families of defendants rejoice in the courtroom. Photo: Associated Press.

There’s more to be done. The crackdown must end. I hope this sends a message to the police that judges will no longer rubber-stamp their concocted cases, but the pressure on them needs to keep up. Other journalists need a reminder that the opprobrium Mona Iraqi met can extend to them if they continue their collusion with the surveillance state. Some lawyers are talking about pressing a case against Ahmed Heshad, the arresting officer from the morals police; for faking his testimony in the police report, and for his illegal leaking of information to Mona Iraqi. (Lester Feder of BuzzFeed, who was there with us today, covers the police misconduct in his excellent account of the trial, written with Maged Atef.) Others want to sue Mona Iraqi herself. (Mona is reportedly in Paris this week, having taken a convenient vacation while the consequences of her acts play out.) I’ll write more later today about why this story isn’t over.

Meanwhile, though: the joy left me dazed. I was full of memories. I first came to Egypt in November 2001, for the last session of the Queen Boat trial. When that chaotic, overwhelming hearing ended, a few of us — including Maher Sabry and Hossam Bahgat, both of whom had worked hard to spread the story of the arrests to the world — went to the old Horeya cafe in downtown Cairo. The place was founded in 1937; its name means “Freedom”; every revolution the city has seen was, in some measure, planned there. We drank Stella beer in the slanted late-afternoon light, and felt unsure of how to feel; half the defendants had been convicted, half acquitted. Another colleague frantically worked her phone, trying to find someone to buy her earrings. She needed the money because, though her friend in the case had been found innocent, he faced several days of being trucked from police station to police station in Cairo, while the cops checked whether he had any other charges pending. She wanted cash to pay enough bribes to spare him the ordeal. We didn’t know then that this was only the beginning of a crackdown that, over the next three hellish years, would see hundreds more jailed.

Egyptian justice hasn’t changed — it’s still unjust. The courts are still chaos, these men’s lives are still wrecked. Yet there’s a bit of hope. Today we went to the Nadwa cafe, around the corner from Horreya, and sat in the canted winter light and tried to collect our thoughts, which were scattered around like dreck and cracked sunflower seeds. I don’t like selfies much, but here’s one we took, with me and Dalia Abd El Hameed of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, and Ramy Youssef, a law student and human rights activist, both of whom have been fighting this crackdown from the start.

10420080_10152604675592876_8045764159042164423_nThey’re only two of the many people who labored to see this victory, without expecting it. We look really happy. I hope lots of others today are feeling happy too.

In the courthouse, a family member gives thanks for the acquittal. Photo: J. Lester Feder, BuzzFeed, at http://www.buzzfeed.com/lesterfeder/men-charged-with-debauchery-in-egypt-were-raped-in-custody-l#.suDVwMew2

In the courthouse, a family member gives thanks for the acquittal. Photo: J. Lester Feder, BuzzFeed, at http://www.buzzfeed.com/lesterfeder/men-charged-with-debauchery-in-egypt-were-raped-in-custody-l#.suDVwMew2

Why I am not Charlie

imagesThere is no “but” about what happened at Charlie Hebdo yesterday. Some people published some cartoons, and some other people killed them for it.  Words and pictures can be beautiful or vile, pleasing or enraging, inspiring or offensive; but they exist on a different plane from physical violence, whether you want to call that plane spirit or imagination or culture, and to meet them with violence is an offense against the spirit and imagination and culture that distinguish humans. Nothing mitigates this monstrosity. There will be time to analyze why the killers did it, time to parse their backgrounds, their ideologies, their beliefs, time for sociologists and psychologists to add to understanding. There will be explanations, and the explanations will be important, but explanations aren’t the same as excuses. Words don’t kill, they must not be met by killing, and they will not make the killers’ culpability go away.

To abhor what was done to the victims, though, is not the same as to become them. This is true on the simplest level: I cannot occupy someone else’s selfhood, share someone else’s death. This is also true on a moral level: I cannot appropriate the dangers they faced or the suffering they underwent, I cannot colonize their experience, and it is arrogant to make out that I can. It wouldn’t be necessary to say this, except the flood of hashtags and avatars and social-media posturing proclaiming #JeSuisCharlie overwhelms distinctions and elides the point. “We must all try to be Charlie, not just today but every day,” the New Yorker pontificates. What the hell does that mean? In real life, solidarity takes many forms, almost all of them hard. This kind of low-cost, risk-free, E-Z solidarity is only possible in a social-media age, where you can strike a pose and somebody sees it on their timeline for 15 seconds and then they move on and it’s forgotten except for the feeling of accomplishment it gave you. Solidarity is hard because it isn’t about imaginary identifications, it’s about struggling across the canyon of not being someone else: it’s about recognizing, for instance, that somebody died because they were different from you, in what they did or believed or were or wore, not because they were the same. If people who are feeling concrete loss or abstract shock or indignation take comfort in proclaiming a oneness that seems to fill the void, then it serves an emotional end. But these Cartesian credos on Facebook and Twitter — I am Charlie, therefore I am — shouldn’t be mistaken for political acts.

Among the dead at Charlie Hebdo:  Deputy chief editor Bernard Maris and cartoonists Georges Wolinski, Jean Cabut (aka Cabu), Stephane Charbonnier, who was also editor-in-chief, and Bernard Verlhac (aka Tignous)

Among the dead at Charlie Hebdo: Deputy chief editor Bernard Maris and cartoonists Georges Wolinski, Jean Cabut (aka Cabu), Stephane Charbonnier, who was also editor-in-chief, and Bernard Verlhac (aka Tignous)

Erasing differences that actually exist seems to be the purpose here: and it’s perhaps appropriate to the Charlie cartoons, which drew their force from a considered contempt for people with the temerity to be different. For the last 36 hours, everybody’s been quoting Voltaire. The same line is all over my several timelines:

From the twitter feed of @thereaIbanksy, January 7

From the twitter feed of @thereaIbanksy, January 7

“Those 21 words circling the globe speak louder than gunfire and represent every pen being wielded by an outstretched arm,” an Australian news site says. (Never mind that Voltaire never wrote them; one of his biographers did.) But most people who mouth them don’t mean them. Instead, they’re subtly altering the Voltairean clarion cry: the message today is, I have to agree with what you say, in order to defend it. Why else the insistence that condemning the killings isn’t enough? No: we all have to endorse the cartoons, and not just that, but republish them ourselves. Thus Index on Censorship, a journal that used to oppose censorship but now is in the business of telling people what they can and cannot say, called for all newspapers to reprint the drawings: “We believe that only through solidarity – in showing that we truly defend all those who exercise their right to speak freely – can we defeat those who would use violence to silence free speech.” But is repeating you the same as defending you? And is it really “solidarity” when, instead of engaging across our differences, I just mindlessly parrot what you say?

But no, if you don’t copy the cartoons, you’re colluding with the killers, you’re a coward. Thus the right-wing Daily Caller posted a list of craven media minions of jihad who oppose free speech by not doing as they’re ordered. Punish these censors, till they say what we tell them to!

Screen shot 2015-01-09 at 12.34.32 AMIf you don’t agree with what Charlie Hebdo said, the terrorists win.

Screen shot 2015-01-09 at 12.22.15 AMYou’re not just kowtowing to terrorists with your silence. According to Tarek Fatah, a Canadian columnist with an evident fascist streak, silence is terrorism.

Screen shot 2015-01-08 at 11.46.59 PMOf course, any Muslim in the West would know that being called “our enemy” is a direct threat; you’ve drawn the go-to-GItmo card. But consider: This idiot thinks he is defending free speech. How? By telling people exactly what they have to say, and menacing the holdouts with treason. The Ministry of Truth has a new office in Toronto.

There’s a perfectly good reason not to republish the cartoons that has nothing to do with cowardice or caution. I refuse to post them because I think they’re racist and offensive. I can support your right to publish something, and still condemn what you publish. I can defend what you say, and still say it’s wrong — isn’t that the point of the quote (that wasn’t) from Voltaire? I can hold that governments shouldn’t imprison Holocaust deniers, but that doesn’t oblige me to deny the Holocaust myself.

It’s true, as Salman Rushdie says, that “Nobody has the right to not be offended.” You should not get to invoke the law to censor or shut down speech just because it insults you or strikes at your pet convictions. You certainly don’t get to kill because you heard something you don’t like. Yet, manhandled by these moments of mass outrage, this truism also morphs into a different kind of claim: That nobody has the right to be offended at all.

I am offended when those already oppressed in a society are deliberately insulted. I don’t want to participate. This crime in Paris does not suspend my political or ethical judgment, or persuade me that scatologically smearing a marginal minority’s identity and beliefs is a reasonable thing to do. Yet this means rejecting the only authorized reaction to the atrocity. Oddly, this peer pressure seems to gear up exclusively where Islam’s involved. When a racist bombed a chapter of a US civil rights organization this week, the media didn’t insist I give to the NAACP in solidarity. When a rabid Islamophobic rightist killed 77 Norwegians in 2011, most of them at a political party’s youth camp, I didn’t notice many #IAmNorway hashtags, or impassioned calls to join the Norwegian Labor Party. But Islam is there for us, it unites us against Islam. Only cowards or traitors turn down membership in the Charlie club.The demand to join, endorse, agree is all about crowding us into a herd where no one is permitted to cavil or condemn: an indifferent mob, where differing from one another is Thoughtcrime, while indifference to the pain of others beyond the pale is compulsory.

We’ve heard a lot about satire in the last couple of days. We’ve heard that satire shouldn’t cause offense because it’s a weapon of the weak: “Satire-writers always point out the foibles and fables of those higher up the food chain.” And we’ve heard that if the satire aims at everybody, those forays into racism, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism can be excused away. Charlie Hebdo “has been a continual celebration of the freedom to make fun of everyone and everything….it practiced a freewheeling, dyspeptic satire without clear ideological lines.” Of course, satire that attacks any and all targets is by definition not just targeting the top of the food chain. “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges,” Anatole France wrote; satire that wounds both the powerful and the weak does so with different effect. Saying the President of the Republic is a randy satyr is not the same as accusing nameless Muslim immigrants of bestiality. What merely annoys the one may deepen the other’s systematic oppression. To defend satire because it’s indiscriminate is to admit that it discriminates against the defenseless.

Funny little man: Contemporary caricature of Kierkegaard

Funny little man: Contemporary Danish cartoon of Kierkegaard

Kierkegaard, the greatest satirist of his century, famously recounted his dream: “I was rapt into the Seventh Heaven. There sat all the gods assembled.” They granted him one wish: “Most honorable contemporaries, I choose one thing — that I may always have the laughter on my side.” Kierkegaard knew what he meant: Children used to laugh and throw stones at him on Copenhagen streets, for his gangling gait and monkey torso. His table-turning fantasy is the truth about satire. It’s an exercise in power. It claims superiority, it aspires to win, and hence it always looms over the weak, in judgment. If it attacks the powerful, that’s because there is appetite underneath its asperity: it wants what they have. As Adorno wrote: “He who has laughter on his side has no need of proof. Historically, therefore, satire has for thousands of years, up to Voltaire’s age, preferred to side with the stronger party which could be relied on: with authority.” Irony, he added, “never entirely divested itself of its authoritarian inheritance, its unrebellious malice.”

Satire allies with the self-evident, the Idées reçues, the armory of the strong. It puts itself on the team of the juggernaut future against the endangered past, the successful opinion over the superseded one. Satire has always fed on distaste for minorities, marginal peoples, traditional or fading ways of life. Adorno said: “All satire is blind to the forces liberated by decay.”

Funny little man: Voltaire writing

Funny little man: Voltaire writing

Charlie Hebdo, the New Yorker now claims, “followed in the tradition of Voltaire.” Voltaire stands as the god of satire; any godless Frenchman with a bon mot is measured against him. Everyone remembers his diatribes against the power of the Catholic Church: Écrasez l’InfâmeBut what’s often conveniently omitted amid the adulation of his wit is how Voltaire loathed a powerless religion, the outsiders of his own era, the “medieval,” “barbaric” immigrant minority that afflicted Europe: the Jews.

Voltaire’s anti-Semitism was comprehensive. In its contempt for the putatively “primitive,” it anticipates much that is said about Muslims in Europe and the US today. “The Jews never were natural philosophers, nor geometricians, nor astronomers,” Voltaire declared. That would do head Islamophobe Richard Dawkins proud:

Screen shot 2015-01-09 at 3.01.25 AM

The Jews, Voltaire wrote, are “only an ignorant and barbarous people, who have long united the most sordid avarice with the most detestable superstition and the most invincible hatred for every people by whom they are tolerated and enriched.” When some American right-wing yahoo calls Muslims “goatfuckers,” you might think he’s reciting old Appalachian invective. In fact, he’s repeating Voltaire’s jokes about the Jews. “You assert that your mothers had no commerce with he-goats, nor your fathers with she-goats,” Voltaire demanded of them. “But pray, gentlemen, why are you the only people upon earth whose laws have forbidden such commerce? Would any legislator ever have thought of promulgating this extraordinary law if the offence had not been common?”

You are an infamous impostor, Father, but at least you're circumcised: Voltaire lectures to a priest

You are an infamous impostor, Father, but at least you’re circumcised: Voltaire lectures to a priest

Nobody wishes Voltaire had been killed for his slanders. If some indignant Jew or Muslim (he didn’t care for the “Mohammedans” much either) had murdered him mid-career, the whole world would lament the abomination. In his most Judeophobic passages, I can take pleasure in his scalpel phrasing — though even 250 years after, some might find this hard. Still, liking the style doesn’t mean I swallow the message. #JeSuisPasVoltaire. Most of the man’s admirers avoid or veil his anti-Semitism. They know that while his contempt amuses when directed at the potent and impervious Pope, it turns dark and sour when defaming a weak and despised community. Satire can sometimes liberate us, but it is not immune from our prejudices or untainted by our hatreds. It shouldn’t douse our critical capacities; calling something “satire” doesn’t exempt it from judgment. The superiority the satirist claims over the helpless can be both smug and sinister. Last year a former Charlie Hebdo writer, accusing the editors of indulging racism, warned that “The conviction of being a superior being, empowered to look down on ordinary mortals from on high, is the surest way to sabotage your own intellectual defenses.”

Of course, Voltaire didn’t realize that his Jewish victims were weak or powerless. Already, in the 18th century, he saw them as tentacles of a financial conspiracy; his propensity for overspending and getting hopelessly in debt to Jewish moneylenders did a great deal to shape his anti-Semitism. In the same way, Charlie Hebdo and its like never treated Muslim immigrants as individuals, but as agents of some larger force. They weren’t strivers doing the best they could in an unfriendly country, but shorthand for mass religious ignorance, or tribal terrorist fanaticism, or obscene oil wealth. Satire subsumes the human person in an inhuman generalization. The Muslim isn’t just a Muslim, but a symbol of Islam.

Cartoon by Sudanese artist Khalid Albaih, from Aljazeera.com

Cartoon by Sudanese artist Khalid Albaih, from Aljazeera.com

This is where political Islamists and Islamophobes unite. They cling to agglutinative ideologies; they melt people into a mass; they erase individuals’ attributes and aspirations under a totalizing vision of what identity means. A Muslim is his religion. You can hold every Muslim responsible for what any Muslim does. (And one Danish cartoonist makes all Danes guilty.) So all Muslims have to post #JeSuisCharlie obsessively as penance, or apologize for what all the other billion are up to. Yesterday Aamer Rahman, an Australian comic and social critic, tweeted:

Screen shot 2015-01-09 at 12.08.33 AM

A few hours later he had to add:

Screen shot 2015-01-09 at 12.07.58 AM

This insistence on contagious responsibility, collective guilt, is the flip side of #JeSuisCharlie. It’s #VousÊtesISIS; #VousÊtesAlQaeda. Our solidarity, our ability to melt into a warm mindless oneness and feel we’re doing something, is contingent on your involuntary solidarity, your losing who you claim to be in a menacing mass. We can’t stand together here unless we imagine you together over there in enmity. The antagonists are fake but they’re entangled, inevitable. The language hardens. Geert Wilders, the racist right-wing leader in the Netherlands, said the shootings mean it’s time to “de-Islamize our country.” Nigel Farage, his counterpart in the UK, called Muslims a “fifth column, holding our passports, that hate us.” Juan Cole writes that the Charlie Hebdo attack was “a strategic strike, aiming at polarizing the French and European public” — at “sharpening the contradictions.” The knives are sharpening too, on both sides.

We lose our ability to imagine political solutions when we stop thinking critically, when we let emotional identifications sweep us into factitious substitutes for solidarity and action. We lose our ability to respond to atrocity when we start seeing people not as individuals, but as symbols. Changing avatars on social media is a pathetic distraction from changing realities in society. To combat violence you must look unflinchingly at the concrete inequities and practices that breed it. You won’t stop it with acts of self-styled courage on your computer screen that neither risk nor alter anything. To protect expression that’s endangered you have to engage with the substance of what was said, not deny it. That means attempting dialogue with those who peacefully condemn or disagree, not trying to shame them into silence. Nothing is quick, nothing is easy. No solidarity is secure. I support free speech. I oppose all censors. I abhor the killingsI mourn the dead. I am not Charlie.

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Update: Film festival fires Mona Iraqi

Not in our sandbox: Logo for Shnit's "Cairo Playground"

Not in our sandbox: Logo for Shnit’s “Cairo Playground”

Shnit, the Swiss-based international short film festival, posted this on its website today:

As of its annual Council meeting on December 22th in Bern, the Board of Trustees of the shnit FOUNDATION, in accordance with Festival Director, has decided to exclute Mona Iraqi from the shnit International Shortfilmfestival immediately. shnit International Shortfilmfestival completely distance from and condemn the practices – professional and ethical – employed by Mona Iraqi as a TV reporter in the events of December 7th in Cairo. These practices are at utter odds with the principles of the shnit International Shortfilmfestival.

The Board of Trustees believes it is of great importance, however, to continue the shnit PLAYGROUND in Cairo, under new management and in line with the values of respect, tolerance and artistic expression without prejudice for which shnit has always stood. Commitment to these principles is a foundation of each and every PLAYGROUND and shnit’s management team around the world.

We thank again those who brought the issue to our attention, and to those who allowed us the due process to make an informed and considered decision.

Kudos to Shnit for doing the right thing, and rejecting Iraqi’s excuses and lies. Thanks also to all the people, in Egypt and beyond, who wrote to Shnit to complain about Iraqi’s unethical and immoral participation in gross human rights abuses.

Meanwhile, her victims are still in jail. It’s imperative to keep up the pressure on Iraqi. She has no place on the international cultural or journalistic scenes until the men she imprisoned are freed; until she apologizes for her role in this disaster and for her misrepresentations; and until the mass arrests targeting gay and transgender people in Egypt, which she’s done so much to further, stop.