Iran bans online chats between men and women: True? Or false?

I'm gonna wash that man right offa your screen. Or not.

I’m gonna wash that man right off of your screen. Or not.

This started four days ago, cropping up all over Twitter in that mushroomy fashion, as if it had rained. The Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khameini, had used “his own website” to issue a fatwa barring men and women from chatting together online, “given the immorality that often applies to this.” The story got retweeted by real human rights activists, like Suzanne Nossel, head of the PEN American Center:
nossel fatwa copyAnd by fake ones, like Ben Weinthal, paid to propagandize for an Iran war by the so-called Foundation for Defense of Democracies:
weinthal fatwa copy Robert Spencer, the highly profit-making one-man Islamophobic road show, seized on it:
spencer fatwa copy And for some reason, the story seems to have been a big hit in Indonesia, where perhaps it allowed believers in a notoriously syncretic Islam to laugh at those crazy Iranians:
indonesia chatting iran copyHere’s my question, though: Is this true? Because there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that it is.

First off, some definitions are in order. For many Americans and Europeans, “fatwa” carries implications of draconian bloodthirstiness, largely because the only one they’ve heard of was the Ayatollah Khomeini’s death decree against Salman Rushdie in 1988. In fact, a fatwa can be about anything. It means any interpretation of Islamic jurisprudence issued by a qualified scholar, usually in response to a believer’s question. Twelver Shi’ism — the branch of Shi’ism that derives legitimacy from a line of twelve imams who succeeded the Prophet, and is the prevailing faith in Iran — has a much more defined and rigorous clerical hierarchy than almost any other strain of Islam. Even the highest clerics are kept on their toes answering regular questions from their lay followers, in part because just this busywork vindicates their scholarly relevance. You can compare this to Roman Catholicism, which similarly has survived for centuries owing to its intense pastoral involvement in its believers’ lives, and the authoritarian structure underpinning that engagement. The Internet age only encourages all this. Almost any major cleric has a website with a Q & A section, a running Dear Abby column advising the faithful on the do-and-don’t minutiae of their daily lives. The subjects run from Banking, holidays for, and Inheritance, cognatic cousins and, to Secretions, bodily, disposal of, and Weddings, music at. And everything in between.

Ayatollah Khameini has two websites: one in his capacity as Supreme Leader (www.leader.ir) and another (farsi.khamenei.ir), which I hesitate to call “personal” — it carries no suggestion of a private life — centering rather more on his religious and cultural activities; it might resemble a campaign website, if the man ever had to run for anything. Each contains its own section of fatawa. I spent two nights online with an Iranian friend, going over these websites in some detail, concentrating on the main, Farsi pages but with some attention to the English sections as well. We found nothing resembling the fatwa against men and women chatting. An Iran expert who had searched for it as well confirmed her inability to find it. As several people have observed, there is no legal ban on men and women conversing face-to-face in Iran; long-distance chats seem comparatively antiseptic.

I’m not saying for a certainty the fatwa isn’t there — the websites are ill-organized, and we didn’t visit absolutely every crevice. But if anyone has seen the fatwa with their own eyes, I’d like to hear about it, because I don’t see any trace that it ever existed. So far, it sounds like a fraud.

(That Khameini or his subordinates posted it, then took it down in embarrassment after it hit the news, is unlikely. The Islamic Republic is resistant to embarrassment. If the second-highest execution rate in the world — probably the highest per capita — doesn’t bring a tinge of shame to its cheeks, nothing would.)

Where did this story come from?

Its origins should have been enough to raise scepticism from the start — at least, to make journalists turn to Khameini’s actual websites to try to find the text, as I did. So far as I can see, it comes from two sources, each with a reputation for misrepresentation and bias. The first, apparently, was the website of the National Council of Resistance of Iran. The NCRI is a political mouthpiece for the Mojahedin e-Khalq (MeK, the People’s Mojahedin), an exile organization with the attributes of a cult that demands absolute loyalty from its members, enforces allegiance to its semi-deified leaders, and stands accused of extensive human rights abuses. The MeK and NCRI have long specialized in disseminating sensational fictions about Iran that capture public attention and create a propaganda storm. In 2005, the NCRI played a major role in spreading unsubstantiated rumors of “gay executions” in Iran to a gullible Peter Tatchell and others. They’ve been a recurrent source of alarmist rumor about Iran’s nuclear program, serving sometimes as a proxy and puppet for both the US and Israel to get their own versions out — but, as Patrick Cockburn writes about the “strange, highly disciplined, cult-like organisation,”

The problem with the US-Iranian proxy war is that neither side quite controls their own proxies to the degree the other side imagines. It is all very well working through surrogates to retain deniability, but these have their own interests and may, in addition, be incompetent, corrupt or simply crazed.

Please keep laughing until I pay you to stop: Handsomely reimbursed Rudy Giuliani engages in horseplay with MeK cult leader Maryam Rajavi (see http://www.ibtimes.com/mek-only-way-stop-iran-giuliani-214368)

Please keep laughing until I pay you to stop: Handsomely reimbursed shill Rudy Giuliani engages in crazed horseplay with MeK cult leader Maryam Rajavi (see http://www.ibtimes.com/mek-only-way-stop-iran-giuliani-214368)

The NCRI published an article about the alleged fatwa on its website on January 7 — the posted time is 13:45. (The NCRI’s website is apparently hosted in Michigan, in the US, but its clock seems to be set to the time of the NCRI’s Paris headquarters.)

Next to come, it seems, was Al Arabiya, the giant Saudi news channel, which posted a story about the alleged fatwa on its English site at an unlisted time on January 7, and on its Arabic site at 21:02 GMT (that would be about eight hours and fifteen minutes after the NCRI story, if all the times are correct). It doesn’t mention the NCRI version, but my guess is that’s its source.

Creeping shari'a, on all fours: "Sex Jihad," from Frontpagemag.com

Creeping shari’a, on all fours: “Sex Jihad,” from Frontpagemag.com

Al Arabiya has its own reliability problems. Members of the Saudi royal family launched jt in 2004 to compete with Qatari-owned Al Jazeera for the hearts and minds of the Arab audience. Despite all the petro-funding it’s had only limited success — it comes in second to Al Jazeera even among Saudi viewers — but it’s becoming to the American right wing what the earnest Jimmy Olsens of Qatar are to certain US lefties: a convenient confirmer of prejudices. The insecure Saudi regime is deeply nervous about both the Muslim Brotherhood and Iran; their fears reinforce the US neocons’ own. Al Arabiya, for instance, bore partial responsibility for a trumped-up story in 2012 that Egypt’s Brotherhood planned to legalize necrophilia. It also helped spread viral tales this summer that the Brotherhood was sponsoring “sexual jihad” in both Tunisia and Egypt: recruiting young women to provide erotic encouragement to warriors in Syria or even in the streets of Cairo. These stories were almost wholly imaginary. But they still circulate on extremist American websites like Frontpagemag.com.

In other words, you’ve got two culprits with a record of making things up. By the evening of January 7, the right-wing Jerusalem Post carried the story, in a short piece by Ariel Ben Solomon, citing Al Arabiya. This outlet is one of the loudest drummers, in Israel or outside, for war against Iran. Ben Solomon serves as “Middle East Correspondent for the Jerusalem Post, covering regional developments and Israeli Arab issues” —  at the PostIsraeli Arab issues a) can’t be covered by Israeli Arabs b) because they’re “Middle East,” that is foreign, issues.  Thank you, Avigdor Liberman. This past autumn, snooping down those “regional developments,” Ben Solomon bought into mistranslated initial reports that Kuwait’s proposed gender-identity screening was a “ban on homosexuals”; that suggests the limits of his Arabic research capacity. The Jerusalem Post was probably the story’s conduit to US and UK media.

Later on January 7, the story made Fox News (without attribution to other media sources), which means hitting the big time: “The latest religious edict from Iran’s supreme leader takes aim at the Islamic Republic’s lonely hearts.” By the next day it was on Breitbart.comthat guardian of truth and the American way: “This latest fatwa from Khamenei makes clear that Rouhani is merely the smiling theater mask of a stern, forever frowning dictatorship guided exclusively by Khamenei’s hand.” Breitbart at least suggested they had checked somewhere and failed to find the fatwa: 

The Supreme Leader often answers questions from the public on his website, Khamenei.ir, though the English-language side of the site currently has no new announcements.

Thus we learn that Breitbart a) has no access to any Farsi speakers anywhere in the world; b) won’t be deterred from publishing by the total lack of evidence. What a surprise. 

Only Time ever expressed some doubts about the invisible fatwa, asking “Did Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, just ban online chatting between unrelated men and women?”

Both the Jerusalem Post and the exiled opposition group People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran website — not exactly unbiased sources on Iranian affairs — say he has.  …  But a religious ruling does not an official ban make. Fatwas, or religious opinions disseminated by clerics, are not binding. So while Khamenei might discourage his followers from online chatting, for fear that it might lead to flirtation, or worse, he is not likely to order Iran’s religious police to start patrolling chat rooms and looking over texter’s [sic] shoulders.

Stop looking at me that way: Khameini speaking in front of predecessor's picture

Stop looking at me that way: Khameini speaking in front of predecessor’s picture

Three points stand out about all of this.

1) Prove it. As I say: maybe there is a Khameini anti-chat fatwa lurking out there. I can’t be positive there isn’t, and indeed I’d be happy to know this isn’t all a viral fantasy. But the burden is on the people who wrote and Tweeted about it, to prove it. Nobody except Time seems even to have tried seriously checking on the fatwa‘s existence before clicking “publish.” Surely it’s time for them to start looking.

2) If the fatwa exists, there are more important things. Really. Time raises the interesting question whether such a mandate would even be enforceable. The answer is perhaps a little more complicated than they suggest. When the Islamic Republic of Iran decided thirty years ago to embody its law in a criminal code, it took a step radically at odds with the history of Islamic jurisprudence, which is cumulative, common-law-like, and ill-disposed to codification. A settled, finalized corpus of law is a different beast to the traditional compilation of interpretations; it can no longer be altered simply by the opinions of a scholar. The parliamentary decision and the court ruling displaced the fatwa as the fount of legislation. (Asghar Shirazi has addressed these dilemmas brilliantly in his superb work on Iran’s constitution.)

Offsetting this, Ayatollah Khomeini carried enormous prestige both as a recognized scholar and a revolutionary politician. Khomeini’s personal fatwas had a charisma that could to some extent supersede the criminal code. However, Ayatollah Khameini, plucked from the middle ranks of the clerisy to serve as Supreme Leader, has no such mojo, and his fatwas are correspondingly less final. This is not to say Iran is a rule-of-law government these days, a Rechtsstaat; it’s not. Anything Khameini writes carries some weight. That doesn’t mean it’s legally enforceable, though, as opposed to just advice to the perplexed.

Khameini also issues fatawa on masturbation (in case you were wondering, it’s bad, but pardonable if done with medical approval), but even the feared basij have not made a priority of hunting down wankers. If he did put out a fatwa about chat, it would matter whether it appeared on his Supreme Leader website, or his less official oneIt would matter whether instructions to the religious police accompanied it — and there’s absolutely no indication of any such thing. Even if the fatwa exists, absent something turning it into a legal order, it’s simply moral exhortation. And how broad can its public impact be if it’s so hard to track down?

The real problem: Iran's proposed "National Internet." ©  Kavehadel

The real problem: Iran’s proposed “National Internet.” © Kavehadel

I don’t think the fatwa’s real, in which case you have to ask: why invent imaginary offenses for a government that’s committed ample real ones? Why spin fantasies about hijabi women dragged from Internet cafes when the execution rate keeps rising? It seems just a convenient propaganda gesture for the moment, to keep up pressure on Iran while other news stories are in abeyance. But even if the fatwa‘s real, why focus on it? There are plenty of other things as repressive on Khameini’s websites: for instance, his opinions on what might constitute pornography (look out for, but don’t look at, photos of Western women in fashion magazines), or the rules for satellite dishes.

Instead of decrying a purely notional ban on intersex chatting, why not talk about the irregular but intrusive restrictions Iran actually imposes on Internet users? Why not criticize how messaging and information-sharing services like WeChat, Viber, and Instagram have all been blocked by hardliners in recent weeks — apparently against the objections of Hassan Rouhani’s ministry of culture? And if you want to hone in on sexual privacy, how about the police raid on a party organized by “Satanic” homosexuals in Kermanshah last October, when the basij arrested and prosecuted some 80 men? In the West, there’s been at least as much Twitter and mainstream media attention to this chat-centered non-story as to that documented, brutally abusive incident.

3) We like victims, don’t we? Here’s the thing. If you want to talk about the truth, as opposed to easy news stories, it’s complicated. Complicated because you have to recognize that people — the people you want to imagine as helpless victims waiting breathless on your intervention — have capacity and street smarts, and are more than victims, and fight back.

Graffiti in Tehran by street-art group Geo, from https://www.facebook.com/IranGraffiti

Graffiti in Tehran by street-art group Geo, from https://www.facebook.com/IranGraffiti

If you want to deal with Iran’s Internet restrictions, you have to come to terms with the fact that Iranians still use the Internet, including the banned websites, and find all kinds of creative ways to get information in and out. We wouldn’t even know about the scope of the Internet filtering if folks weren’t poking and prodding out ways around it. If you want to address the Kermanshah case and the abuses against LGBT people, you have to face the fact not just that there was a crackdown, but that there was and is a community, which exists in a complicated dialectic between visibility and concealment, and felt sufficiently sure of itself  to hold a party. Life isn’t just the unremitting pressure of repression; it’s myriad daily acts of solidarity and resistance. People carve out spaces where, against the odds, they try to feel safe and celebrate their safety; sometimes these turn profoundly unsafe; that doesn’t mean their solidarities dissipate or their connections shatter, but rather that they’ll keep looking for new places to connect and struggle. The community of “gay” and “trans” people wasn’t broken in Kermanshah. In fact, it did a remarkably effective job of documenting the arrests and getting news to the outside world, ensuring that the accused had help, and staying linked and alert after the disaster. There are other parties going on, elsewhere in Iran.

This is not a popular tale to tell, particularly among the right-wing pseudo-press — Fox and Breitbart, the Daily Mail and the Foundation for Defusing Democracies — who picked up the chat narrative. Which is why they won’t tell it. They’d rather see Iranians as either uranium-grubbing monsters bent on global domination, or helpless victims of totalitarian power too incapacitated even to get their hands on a pair of jeans. Hearing about others’ agency annoys us, because it deflates our own dreams of sovereign, saving, all-encompassing power.

But that imagined power, our power, is repressive too. What counts is how resistance confronts repressive authority; and you can’t arbitrarily lop off either side of that story. Underneath the fatwas, the facts — and people’s everyday dreams and acts — persist. Underneath the paving stones, the beach.

Situationist graffiti, Paris, 1968

Situationist graffiti, Paris, 1968

UPDATE: On the existing, labyrinthine filtering-and-banning Internet policies in Iran, as well as how Iranians get around them, here is a fascinating piece by Ali Reza Eshraghi.

Puppet regime: A few more notes on Egypt and paranoia

No more yarns from you, lady: State Security arrest Abla Fahita

No more yarns from you, lady: State Security arrest Abla Fahita

The Jews are everywhere; start with that. In fact, the fewer Jews there actually are in your vicinity, the more you have to deal with invisible Jews, who multiply in secret according to the quantity of people you dislike. (Adam Michnik put this very well in explaining how anti-Semitism sustains itself in Poland, absent Jews: “In other countries, they say, ‘That man is a Jew; he must be a scoundrel.’ Here they say, “That man is a scoundrel; he must be a Jew.’”) They particularly appreciate the modern airwaves, since it’s an ethereal medium where they can remain unseen, incorporeal as radiation; and there they carry on their characteristic Jewish activities, reading things and writing things and killing children. Then there are the Masons. On this subject I have no objectivity, since my great-grandfather was a Mason and I have the taint of Masonic blood. Sometimes in the middle of the night I wake up giving secret handshakes to various parts of my body. (Proof of corruption: it feels good.) The Jews and the Masons, I’m pretty sure, invented Islam, which combines two of their great devil passions, the Jewish lust for reading things and the Masonic lust for erecting pointless buildings. (The Swiss had the right idea: Take the Jews’ gold so they can no longer build minarets.) Out of the Muslims came monstrosities like the Shi’ites and the Baha’i, but the climax and ultimate tool of evil is the Muslim Brotherhood. They control the media, the Queen of England, and the President of the United States, and they are sexual perverts to boot. Their latest version of perversion is to stick their Jewish Masonic terrorist fingers up the anuses of cloth puppets, which, given that our brains are in our assholes these days, is a highly effective form of mind control.

It’s all true, even though different parts of it are true to different people. (In Egypt they probably won’t tell you the conspiracy invented all Islam – just the Muslim Brotherhood section. Oh, and the Shi’ites.) But the bit about the puppets? Gospel truth. To coin a phrase.

There are these two Egyptian dolls, which went viral on Youtube in recent years. Abla Fahita, a widow, spends all her time gossiping on the phone with her friends. (Loose lips sink ships!) She has a daughter, Karkoura, who’s always trying to make sense of the old lady’s babble. (Interpreter of the terrorists’ code!) Nobody quite knows who came up with them, they are pure fun, but they got so popular that this festive season Vodafone, the largest mobile company in Egypt, decided to use them in an online ad.

 I’m ready for my closeup, Mr. DeMuslim: Abla Fahita’s star turn

Then all hell broke loose, starting with Ahmed Spider. Even the most arcane conspiracy theory seems inadequate to explain Ahmed Spider. I wrote about him once,  a long time ago; he’s a willowy, rather fey figure who materialized even before the Revolution, also foisted on the wider world by YouTube and Facebook, where he posted his own videos full of hapless attempts at music-making as inept as Florence Foster Jenkins. After Mubarak fell, he started interspersing the songs with talk: talk about secret plots, the evil revolutionaries, the Masons, the enemies of Egypt. He wouldn’t have been imaginable in Cairo or anywhere else twenty years ago. It’s not just that proliferating new media render him possible; they transform his dreams. They’ve set atop the pathetic longing for fame the sudden feeling that you can make your own mini-stage and be, among your fellow dreamers, famous.

Be my valentine: Ahmed Spider

Be my valentine: Ahmed Spider

He might have stopped there. But the previous military junta (the one that ruled from the Revolution till the June 2012 elections) and the felool the relicts of the old regime — took him up. He was convenient. He attacked the revolutionaries they feared. Spider was soon a fixture on the  Al-Fara’een channel run by talking head Tawfik Okasha, a purveyor of paranoia often called Egypt’s own Glenn Beck. He became that distinctive disease of our time, a Media Personality, as potent and pointless as a local votive spirit, endlessly quotable to the exact degree that he has nothing to say.

A commercial with two puppets should really expect to incite his analysis; particularly when it intrudes on YouTube, his jealously personalized preserve. No sooner had Vodafone released the video than Ahmed Spider sprang up on Tahrir TV (the security services’ chosen channel) to engage in a withering exegesis. It’s like The DaVinci Code. No symbol escapes him:

  • At the beginning of the commercial you see a cactus plant with Christmas decorations. That is a terrorist threat.
  • There is a Christmas ball on the cactus. That is a bomb.
  • The cactus has four arms, count them, clearly a form of the four-finger salute that’s been used by the Muslim Brotherhood since the July crackdown against them. (The military killed hundreds of Brotherhood supporters staging a sit-in at Rabaa al-Adawiya square; Rabaa means “fourth” in Arabic. You see the cunning of the Brotherhood. They even corrupt cardinal numbers.)
  • There’s talk of using a sniffer dog to find an old, lost SIM card, and also something about cooking a Christmas turkey. This is all about terrorist attacks.
  • Abla Fahita has a friend named “Mama Tutu.” Obviously that means the Muslim Brotherhood. She even says that Mama Tutu’s false teeth are freezing from the cold. Just like the government froze the Muslim Brotherhood’s assets.

It’s amazing the Brotherhood used such a flimsy code in the attempt to conceal its schemings. It was instantly evident even to somebody like Spider, who has no brain.

 Ahmed Spider takes on the Puppet Plot

So many questions remain; for instance, who was the Brotherhood trying to address this way? Will the ad itself brainwash all Vodafone subscribers into suicide bombers? Or, if it’s a more recondite message meant to trigger participants in a specific plot, isn’t Spider actually helping the Brotherhood by publicizing it? The story just rolls on, though. Another channel hosted Abla Fahita herself to refute the allegations. Ahmed Spider called in to the show. A newspaper article reports that he “refused to directly address the puppet, saying, ‘This is an imaginary character and nobody knows who is behind it.’” Abla Fahita asked him, “Would it be fair to say that Ahmed Spider is a spy because there is the word ‘spy’ in ‘spider’?” But the state takes Spider seriously. Prosecutors summoned Vodafone representatives for an interrogation over the ad.

On Twitter and Facebook, a lot of Egyptians have been laughing themselves crazy over this. But there’s a grim hardness under the hilarity, a reminder of how little has changed in Egypt in three years. Only the fact that Abla Fahita is cloth and yarn makes it risible to think of her in official custody.

torture abla fahita copy

Yeah. Or:

Bc-NPbTIQAAFcr2

More seriously, Sarah Carr points out the basic horror of a state where puppets can be criminals while police have complete impunity:

Every country has its Glenn Beck type public figures, the difference in Egypt is that they are taken seriously where it suits the political ambitions of those at the reins and serves a useful purpose. Thus we have the Public Prosecutor accepting a complaint about a finger puppet while nobody has been charged for the deaths of nearly 1,000 people at Rab3a, because the current mood is almost fascistic in its reverence for the state and for state hegemony and for state opponents to be eliminated.

I have three small points to add.

a) Creeping conspiracies. Of course, paranoia — even about puppets — isn’t uniquely Egyptian; think Jerry Falwell accusing Tinky Winky. And while Sarah’s right that the Public Prosecutor’s eagerness to pursue this “crime” makes the whole mess distinctively awful, Cairo is not the only jurisdiction where conspiracy theories drive statecraft. In the US since 2009, more than two dozen states have considered legislation to ban “creeping shari’a” (why does only shari’a creep? Does canon law lope, or Halakha boldly ambulate?), on the theory that Islamic jurisprudence is on a quest for total global domination. Shari’a is a “threat to America,” says the Center for Security Policy, a wholly unmedicated neoconservative thinktank, in a report it calls “an exercise in competitive [sic] analysis.” These are rank fantasies bred of prejudice, delirium tremens, and a propensity for belief in burqa-wearing banshees that lurk under the bed; but in places like Oklahoma, where Holy Scripture and hangovers are both interpreted literally, such hallucinations become the stuff of law.

Apparently tyrannical shari'a law actually encourages women judges.

Apparently, tyrannical shari’a law actually encourages women judges.

Actually, as I wrote last week, a little-reported side of all this is that many of Egypt’s presently prevalent conspiracy theories come from the United States. Much as US evangelicals have exported their homophobia to places like Uganda, the Tea Party and its ilk have packaged their prejudices for the Egyptian market.

The President is the offspring of an American citizen and a loosely-woven cotton fabric of inferior quality: courtesy of Wonkette.com

The President is the offspring of an American citizen and a loosely-woven cotton fabric of inferior quality: courtesy of Wonkette.com

For instance, after July’s coup, pro-military media replayed over and over claims by the absurd Texas Congressman Louie Gohmert that the Obama Administration had been giving financial aid to the Muslim Brotherhood.  Gohmert accompanied fellow delusionist Michele Bachmann on a junket to Egypt in September, to disseminate their myths about the Brotherhood among the leadership directly. It’s not for nothing that Tawfik Okasha, a key local vehicle for these fantasies, is nicknamed the Egyptian Glenn Beck. The explosive mix of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia — the belief that all-powerful Jews promote Islamism — seems to ooze from the preverbal id of the Tea Party, free to express in Egypt some of the inarticulate hatreds that respectability in the US forbids. It’s interesting, then, that a pseudo-expert like Jeffrey Goldberg points repeatedly to anti-Semitism in Egypt, though it’s unlikely to claim any direct victims now (there’s only a infinitesimal minority of Jews in the country, and the prospect of conflict with Israel is extremely remote) but stays mum about its links to Islamophobic paranoia (which has already helped kill more than a thousand people since the coup). But what happens to Muslims doesn’t interest Goldberg. Neither does context.

b) Neoliberal narratives. For myself, I can spin conspiracies with the best of them, and I don’t think it accidental that the regime is dredging up this ludicrousness on Vodafone now.  Vodafone is the giant among the country’s three mobile providers (ahead of Mobinil and Etisalat). The military government, however, is finalizing a long-disputed license for Telecom Egypt to enter the field as a fourth provider. No one really can comprehend why, since the market is saturated — almost anybody who can afford a mobile phone has one. Telecom Egypt, though, is the powerful, monopoly fixed-line telephone company. It’s 80% state-owned; presumably the government wants a cut of the profitable mobile business, which has been one of the few growth areas in an economy dominated by remittances and real-estate speculation. The other 20% of Telecom Egypt was privatized back in 2005, in the first major sell-off carried out by neoliberals under the direction of Mubarak’s son and would-be successor Gamal. It was the biggest IPO in the whole Middle East up to that time. Most of the shares almost certainly went to rich regime cronies, the felool who are now back full force under General Sisi. So both its own interests and those of its friends motivate the government to look with tender concern on Telecom Egypt’s success.

All together now, and you on the left, PUT DOWN THAT CACTUS NOW: Ramadan ad frm Telecom Egypt, 2013

All together now, and you on the left, PUT DOWN THAT CACTUS NOW: Ramadan ad from Telecom Egypt, 2013

Vodafone can hardly be happy about this. (Telecom Egypt also owns 44% of Vodafone, making the competition extra intricate; presumably they want either to expand that share, or sell it back to their competitor at a hefty profit.) Could the whole contretemps be a small way for the state to remind Vodafone that there is no limit to the petty harassment they can inflict if the company causes problems?

c) Information overload. Back when blogs started multiplying like mushrooms, and even more when Facebook and Twitter first reared their heads, you heard a lot about “citizen journalism” and communications activism, about how this stuff was going to democratize the media and put information in everybody’s hands for free. Didn’t Twitter almost bring Ahmadinejad down? Wasn’t Facebook Mubarak’s fatal bane?

Sign from Midan Tahrir, Cairo, January 2011

Sign from Midan Tahrir, Cairo, January 2011

Well, no. Twitter and Facebook actually did nothing of the kind. And the new media haven’t quite worked as planned. Mainly they’ve just succeeded in driving the old media, particularly newspapers, out of business. Of course, media giants under the sway of capital aren’t going to investigate or expose all things impartially; but you need some capital — which blogs don’t have — to hire reporters and do any investigative journalism at all. Investigative reporting, drained of resources, is going the way of the Brontosaurus, the typewriter, and the LP. Meanwhile, any blog or new-style news source that does show a capacity to make some money gets bought up by the powers that be: like Egypt’s Tahrir TV, which started as a vehicle for scraggly revolutionaries and, purchased and repurchased, morphed into a megaphone for regime propaganda. So we know less and less about what goes on beneath the surface of things, while we know more and more about cats from Buzzfeed, 26 amazing celebrity nosejobs from Gawker, who Chris Brown beat up from Twitter, and photoshopped porn pics of your neighbor from Tumblr. Information proliferates, illumination fades.

Where the ether and the clouds are full of messages, life becomes largely a matter of decoding them, however meaningless they may seem. This is a ripe atmosphere for breeding paranoias. But it’s also an environment where one spends much more time worrying about images than realities, representations than facts. The media erase the message, the vessel is the only content you’ve got.

The Abla Fahita brouhaha reminded me unpleasantly of the end-of-year US tempest over Phil Robertson: the Biblically bearded patriarch of a clan on a redneck reality show, who offended millions by mouthing what he thought were Scriptural strictures about homosexuality in an interview. Of course, there was no possibility of hidden meanings in Robertson’s diatribe, and he didn’t need Ahmed Spider to decode him; he said what he said. Still, an ocean away, what struck me about his comments was their sheer unimportance: the misguided ramblings of a flash-in-the-frying-pan TV star were trivial compared to harsh new anti-LGBT laws readying in Nigeria or Uganda. (His patronizing plantation-style comments on race – “they were happy; no one was singing the blues” before that civil rights stuff started — caused much less outrage. There are probably many reasons, but this Tweet may at least suggest one:

robertson kids copyYou know, priorities.)

The standard reason given for the excess furor against Robertson, when anybody felt the need to provide one, was the children, the children. LGBT youth in the US face acute levels of depression and suicide. But is that fact caused by Robertson’s representations? “I’m terrified for young, powerless gay people growing up in less enlightened places than New York City”– a little patronizing there yourself, Knickerbocker. “In these places, when people calling themselves Christians use fear and loathing of gays as an anti-sin tool, gays and lesbians become collateral damage. Sometimes they’re driven to suicide.” Or:

robertson kids 1 copyCan you? Really? I’d like to see that line before signing on. In my own experience, when kids leave their homes or their lives, it’s because of what’s happening in their homes or their lives: concrete brutality or lovelessness or abuse, not abstract comments on TV.  And if an LGBT child has a parent who thinks like Phil Robertson, she has a bigger problem than can be solved simply by worrying about Phil Robertson.

The rage over the redneck is mostly in the realm of metaphor; he stands in for a host of tangible injustices and harms — family violence, ingrained prejudice, fundamentalism, patriarchal power — that he didn’t cause and can’t do much to alleviate, but tackling him provides a convenient alternative to thinking about those crises, which are fucking hard. It’s much easier to object to symbols than to realities, much easier to argue against a flat-screen representation than an intractable and material fact. This is not wholly different from Ahmed Spider’s almost innocent faith that the murderous unravelling of a country can somehow be understood and answered by deciphering a TV commercial. Both fight the wrong fight — too simple in the Robertson case, too stupid in Spider’s. Both put medium before message, the world we watch before the world we live in. The appeal of this is very much a disorder of our days, so saturated with chattery things said and seen that we can’t remember the actualities we were talking about. I’m not sorry for Phil Robertson, who probably does deserve the anger, even if it could be turned to better use. I’m sorry for Abla Fahita. But it seems a symptom of the syndrome that I’m sorrier for the one who isn’t real.

A husband for Abla Fahita at last: Phil Robertson finger puppet, from www.thistledownpuppets.com

A husband for Abla Fahita at last: Phil Robertson finger puppet, from http://www.thistledownpuppets.com

Thanks to Tarek Mostafa and Ahmad Awadalla for illuminating discussions of Ahmed Spider in days past.

The warped reality therapy of Jeffrey Goldberg

Clay relief by Egyptian artist Adam Dott, representing the current political situation in Egypt

Boots, and sandals, on the ground: Clay relief by Egyptian artist Adam Dott, representing the current political situation in Egypt

Jeffrey Goldberg is one of those Beltway experts whose main area of expertise is his audience. For a while he was actually The Atlantic’s advice columnist. However brusque his manner (“What’s your problem?”, his column was called) he grasped the essence of Dear Abbyism: people want to be told to do what they already want to do. On the geopolitical scale, his famously arcane influence with high reaches of the American and Israeli governments (New York magazine described him as the “official therapist” of that fraught relationship, half Oedipal, half Albee) stems, similarly, from a talent for feeding each exactly what it longs to hear. He’s also an expert on the greater Middle East, meaning on what other people think about it. When so ostentatious a quest for insight comes back only with the carcass of a cliché or two, it feels a bit as though the Royal Hunt set off to shoot down chickens in a barnyard. But who wouldn’t prefer a safe Kentucky-fried dinner to a confrontation in a mapless thicket with the uncategorized, the indeterminate, the unknown?

This week, Goldberg is teaching us about Egypt. His column for Bloomberg analyses an interview on Egyptian TV:

And the winner of the annual “Most Convoluted Conspiracy Theory to Emerge from the Egyptian Fever Swamp” prize is the writer Amr Ammar, who alleged earlier this month on Tahrir TV that talk-show host Jon Stewart, working in tandem with former U.S. National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, is asserting dominion over Egypt on behalf of the Jews. …

The gist is that, earlier this year, Stewart appeared as a gesture of support on the TV show of now-censored satirist Bassem Youssef, and made a joke about being a homeless Jew wandering the sands.  Goldberg goes on:

Look into my eyes. I am now controlling your mind with my secret Jewish powers: Brzezinski

Look in my eyes. I am now controlling your mind with my secret Jewish powers: Brzezinski

Ammar … in the course of arguing that Youssef is undermining Egypt (a common charge among revanchists), alleged that Youssef has learned theories of mass social control from Brzezinski, who is the source of Jon Stewart’s “ideology.”

Never much on the rails to begin with, Ammar then goes decisively off: “If you recall, when Jon Stewart visited here in Egypt, he was a guest on Bassem Youssef’s show. Note what Jon Stewart said as a joke. He said: ‘I am sorry I am late. I wandered in the desert, but now I’ve found my homeland.’ That’s what he said word for word — a Jew who wandered in the desert, but, thank God, found his homeland. This man says, in the heart of Egypt and on an Egyptian media outlet, that Egypt belongs to them, that it is his homeland.”

It requires no surplus of reason to agree that this is disgustingly looney. But Goldberg has an Important Point to make, not about a particular exemplar of lunacy but about the whole land of Egypt:

The proclivity of so many Egyptians to embrace conspiracy theories — anti-Semitic or otherwise — suggests an inability to grapple with the world as it actually is. An inability to grapple with the world as it actually is an obvious impediment to economic growth and political development.

So now we know why Egypt is poor and miserable: they’re uniquely out of touch with reality. Let’s unpack this.

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We open our arms to welcome the conquering Israeli army to Cairo: Bassem Youssef (L) and Jon Stewart on the former’s show

1) You might think from Goldberg’s piece that Amr Ammar is some kind of important writer, and that like the greats – Dickens, Mahfouz, Dan Brown – he gives voice to dreams that well upward from the collective imagination. The truth is, no. No one I know had ever heard of him. It turns out he’s a retired army colonel, whose just-published book (Civilian Occupation: Secrets of January 25 and the American Marines) is a whole compendium of craziness, arguing that the 2011 revolution was a “complex international conspiracy against our country” by the Zionists and the CIA and everybody else. A review in the state newspaper al-Ahram lists some of the “thousands of agents and spies who tried to rape the honor of our country”:

We have been through that story with the names of its stars and its proceedings: Freedom House and Otpor [the Serbian resistance movement] and CANVAS [the Center for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies] and the National Association for Change [a liberal group headed by Mohamed El Baradei] and April 6 [one of the main youth revolutionary groups] and Bernard Levy and Jared Cohen, and Wael Ghoneim and Ahmed Salah [prominent revolutionary spokespeople] and Mohamed El Baradei, Hamas and Pepsi and Esraa Abdel Fattah [an April 6 co-founder] and Huma Abedin [Hillary Clinton's aide, accused by Michele Bachmann of being a Muslim Brotherhood operative, and through her marriage to Anthony Wiener obviously serving as the main link between Zionists and radical Islam] and Brzezinski and George Soros and Amr Khaled [influential television preacher] and Hisham Kassem [newspaper publisher]

Don’t fuck with me, farbrekhers: In secret footage taken at a Pepsi board meeting, Joan Crawford addresses the Elders of Zion.

And so on. Pepsi is the crowning touch. Goldberg barely scratched the surface of the madness. In fact (and typically) Goldberg’s whole column lazily relies on a “transcript” of Amr Ammar’s interview by the US-based Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), which always translates the worst stuff coming out of the region for Western consumption. But it’s not actually a transcript. As you can see by clicking the link, MEMRI offers up only five short passages from Ammar’s interview — basically, five Arabic sentences, about thirty seconds’ worth. The whole program, available on YouTube in two parcels, took an hour. I’d hate to inflict more of this stuff on anyone; but a real reporter, unlike Goldberg, might have wanted to go to the source and hear what else Ammar raved about, before devoting a whole column to it.

Amr Ammar interview, al-Tahrir TV, December 10, 2013, part 1

2) However little Goldberg listened to the interview, he’s right: it’s anti-Semitic and loathsome. But Goldberg has repeatedly reiterated his own theory of Egyptian anti-Semitism: that it’s a popular phenomenon deep-rooted in the country’s life and “deeply damaged culture.” “Egypt has never been notably philo-Semitic (just ask Moses),” he wrote in 2012. In the past, at least, he was intent on distinguishing this from Iran, where “the Iranian leadership is wildly anti-Semitic, but … I’ve never personally felt the hatred of Jews on the popular level.” In Egypt, though, “the virus has spread widely.”

Today it’s entirely acceptable among the educated and creative classes there to demonize Jews and voice the most despicable anti- Semitic conspiracy theories. Careerists know that even fleeting associations with Jews and Israelis could spell professional trouble. 

(Note the elision of any difference between Jews and Israeli citizens.) Goldberg has always been reluctant to saddle the Egyptian state, as opposed to Egyptian “culture,” with responsibility for anti-Semitism. It’s because he generally likes the Egyptian state, at least in its military-run incarnations. Even under the Muslim Brotherhood, in fact, the state was pliable from his perspective — keeping its cold peace with Israel, and cooperating to police the fractious Sinai. As far back as 2001, he preferred blaming Egypt’s “press and the imams” for prejudice, to blaming friends.

Gleefully citing Amr Ammar, however, doesn’t actually back this up. An ex-officer, the guy comes out of the military establishment. His book’s been praised in al-Ahram, the state’s flagship paper and now a forum for junta propaganda. His interview was on Tahrir TV, founded in 2011 as a voice for revolutionaries but now, after several changes of ownership, “a mouthpiece for the intelligence and police” (in Ursula Lindsey’s words). The el-Sisi regime has been busily spinning horrifically inventive conspiracy theories almost from the moment it seized power, stories in which Zionists, Americans, Islamists, and Masons link up with human rights organizations and long-haired demonstrators to bring the state down. It might seem far-fetched to posit that Netanyahu and Hamas, Brzezinski and the Muslim Brotherhood, would join hands to demolish Egypt; but you’d be surprised. In fact, Huma Abedin and Anthony Weiner married specifically in order to conquer Cairo for Mossad and al-Qaeda after the honeymoon. And vilifying Bassem Youssef as a tool of national enemies is not a hobby for “revanchists,” as Goldberg suggests. It’s Egyptian state policy.

Huma Abedin and Anthony Weiner with terrifying Saracen-Jewish Satanic superchild, Ramadan's Bubeleh, destined to take over the world

Huma Abedin and Anthony Weiner with terrifying Saracen-Jewish Satanic superchild, Ramadan’s Bubeleh, destined to take over the world

Versions of this stuff have been going on for a long time. State-promoted anti-Semitism became a loud note of the Mubarak era’s waning years. I sat speechless in an Egyptian friend’s living room in November 2002 watching Horseman Without a Horse, a lavishly produced Ramadan soap opera that dramatized the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. A few months before that, the state-owned al-Akhbar, in an editorial, called the Holocaust a fraud; al-Ahram, which despite its propaganda uses still retained a claim to respectability, had repeated the blood libel (Christian children as ingredients in the matzah) two years earlier. These are only a few examples. Of course, Goldberg’s imams often spoke the language of anti-Semitism as well. But an individual preacher might reach only a few thousand souls; whereas a state production like Horseman infused tens of millions’ dreams. 

Egypt is fertile ground for lots of conspiracy theories, not just anti-Semitic ones. Last night 15 died in a bombing of the Security Directorate — secret police headquarters — in the Delta city of Mansoura; and plenty of my friends believe the state itself did it. The thing is, they might be right. Official paranoia breeds ersatz versions; and who’s to say that a secret state might not sacrifice its own secret-keepers to keep the panic brewing? These are feelings familiar to anyone who’s lived under authoritarianism; survivors of Communist Eastern Europe or apartheid South Africa will recognize them. There really is a “deep state” in Egypt, a military-security establishment with vast economic and political power. The ostensible public sphere stands severed from the occult locations where decisions are made. The more constraints encircle knowledge of what’s going on, the fewer limits there are to speculation. 

Where the more hateful and virulent versions of conspiracy theory, like anti-Semitism, are concerned, one standard diagnosis finds them nebulously linked to “social change”; economic or cultural transition, if too accelerated, feeds irrational explanations. A more complex account might be: conspiracy theories breed amid uneven social change, where some structures freeze in rigidity while others shift and bend. In Imperial Germany the economy was swiftly transformed, but the political system remained fixed, dominated by an ossified and indifferent landed class. Turkey’s entrepreneurial makeover in the last three decades was slow to shake the authority of the old secular and military elites. Western investment, Western aid, satellite dishes and the Internet have rendered Egypt unrecognizable since Sadat; but the same ruling powers that were, still are. New classes — whether salaried clerks in Cologne or Islamist small businessmen in Cairo — look for reasons why their influence is less than their numbers or resources demand. If power and its persistence are neither accountable nor explicable, it’s tempting to seek not just causes, but cabalistic agents: scapegoats.

Raise your hand if you've tortured anyone lately: Omar Suleiman

Raise your hand if you’ve tortured anyone lately: Omar Suleiman

Egypt’s political immobility under Mubarak, then, helped make a conspiratorial mindset attractive. The Parkinsonian rigidity of the regime despite three years of revolution can only deepen its heuristic appeal. But the monumental resilience of the military-security complex doesn’t just draw on its own inner resources. It’s due to forty years of unstinting support from the US; and that support has been a payback for the regime’s détente with Israel. Even Egyptians who never switched on Horseman Without a Horse know that. Egypt’s politics have gone through plenty of vicissitudes, but the treaty with Israel has stayed intensely unpopular throughout. It’s hated not because of anti-Semitism, and not just for itself, but because it’s both symbol and (financial and military) enabler of a government that can ram through pretty much any policy without even a curtsey to democratic consent. (That the semi-peace coincided with Sadat’s equally despised, equally authoritarian pursuit of poverty-producing neoliberal economic policies only confirmed its unpopularity.) Some of the most important moments in democratic dissent in Egypt have focused on opposition to Israel, and to the government’s ties to it. Many activists who led the 2011 revolution got their start a decade earlier protesting Mubarak’s acquiescence in Operation Defensive Shield and his failure to support the Palestinians, as well as his tacit endorsement of the US invasion of Iraq. Even more infuriating to the dissidents, WikiLeaks revealed that Omar Suleiman, Mubarak’s sinister security consigliere and chief torturer, was also his liaison to Tel Aviv. The old monster consulted on a hotline with the Israelis daily. Contemplating “Egyptian succession scenarios,” an Israeli diplomat said, “there is no question that Israel is most comfortable with the prospect of Omar Soliman.”

Intelligent Egyptians were eminently capable of concluding that Israel’s vested interest in Cairo’s “stability” meant complicity in repression. There was a conspiratorial element to this belief, but it wasn’t fantasy; it wasn’t Holocaust denial or the blood libel. It was perfectly consistent with the facts. The Egyptian regime’s ignition of anti-Semitism (which hit full throttle around the time Sharon took office) must be comprehended in this light. It was fantasy, but it distracted attention from the raw truth that the regime’s strength depended on its Israeli ties. It was a way of screaming, “Don’t look here: look over there!” The state knew how to cultivate conspiratorial thinking, and divert it to its own ends. The elaborate paranoias the generals promote today — the Jew-led US in league with the Masons and Qatar — serve the same purpose. The US isn’t about to give up on the Egyptian military; John Kerry has made it clear that he approves the coup, just not the methods. But a dash of rabid anti-Americanism spicing up the anti-Semitism keeps the Obamans on their toes. And it makes el-Sisi seem independent to his citizenry when, like his predecessors, he’s not.

I talk to chairs too, when I'm lonely: General el-Sisi (played by Bob Hoskins) talks to Clint Eastwood (played by John Kerry) in Cairo

I talk to chairs too, when I’m lonely: General el-Sisi (played by Bob Hoskins) talks to Clint Eastwood (played by John Kerry) in Cairo

Goldberg points anxiously to the “culture” of Egyptian anti-Semitism. He doesn’t want to talk about the politics of it. Talking politics would mean admitting that the regime spreads anti-Semitism, not just the “culture,” and it does so because it’s embarrassed by its own dependencies. Full democracy — including state transparency, accountability for past crimes, and smashing the military apparatus’ power — would be the remedy for Egypt’s inculcated political paranoias. A fully democratic state would almost certainly push for a different regional power structure. For that reason alone, Goldberg and the other “therapists” are unenthusiastic.

3) Goldberg is a reality therapist, all about pragmatism and responsibility and paying your doctor bills on time. His diagnosis of the Egyptian disease is “an inability to grapple with the world as it actually is,” this being “an obvious impediment to economic growth and political development.” He elaborated in 2012:

The revolution that overthrew the country’s dictator, Hosni Mubarak, held great promise, but it also exposed the enormous challenges facing Egyptian politics and culture. … As Walter Russell Mead [a Bard College professor] has written on his blog, countries “where vicious anti-Semitism is rife are almost always backward and poor.” They aren’t backward and poor because the Elders of Zion conspire against them. They’re backward and poor because, Mead argues, they lack the ability to “see the world clearly and discern cause and effect relations in complex social settings.” 

That anti-Semitism was the property of poor and backward countries would have surprised Jews in rich France during the Dreyfus affair, or in technologically advanced Germany in the 1930s; or even in thriving, skinhead-infested Russia today. Certainly anti-Semitism — conspiracy addiction in general — is a cognitive failure. But is the inability to “see the world clearly and discern cause and effect” distinctive to fetid Egypt and its “damaged culture”?

Goldberg lives in the US now, and as a commentator with political pretensions, maybe he should check the polls. It isn’t just that surveys repeatedly show nearly 80% of Americans believe in angels. It isn’t even that 4% of citizens affirm that “shape-shifting reptilian people control our world by taking on human form and gaining political power to manipulate our societies,” with another 7% “not sure.” Absent a militant movement to throw the reptiles out, those credos won’t do much. Probably.

Some people say I look like Zbigniew Brzezinski: Obama lookalike plays Satan on History Channel miniseries "The Bible," 2012

Some people say I look like Zbigniew Brzezinski: Obama lookalike plays Satan on History Channel miniseries “The Bible,” 2012

But what can you say when 20% of Republicans say Obama is the Antichrist? (18% of Americans overall, of course, think he’s a Muslim.) What about the 34% of Republicans and 35% of independents who believe in a global conspiracy to install a totalitarian superstate called the New World Order? These aren’t innocent illusions; they’re predicates for how folks vote and agitate. And what intervening angel will prevent the 37% of Americans who think global warming is a hoax from incinerating the rest of us with their delusions?

Plenty of analysts have held paranoia to be a deep-rooted characteristic of America’s political “culture”: see Richard Hofstadter. Rich and forward the US may be, but that doesn’t keep it from being fearful. More cogently, from the anti-immigrant frenzies of the 1920s through McCarthyism to the anti-Obamism of the present, conspiracy theories seem connected to uneven social change, to classes and identities terrified of being left out by economic or political transformation. But like anti-Semitism in Egypt, they’re easily manipulated and bought up by entrenched, existing power. The Koch Brothers, after all, paid for the Tea Party: the former’s method used the latter’s madness. And there’s plenty of media to promote these stories. Pat Robertson has a whole TV network to spread his ideas about how Satan, the Illuminati, the Freemasons, and the Council on Foreign Relations plot a one-world government through central banks. Broadcaster Glenn Beck, the Kanye of paranoia, beloved of the Tea Party, maps all kinds of conspiracies on his trademark chalkboard: University of Chicago law professor Cass Sunstein is planning genocide; Obama is an ally of Egypt’s blind Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman. Egypt, in fact, is something of a Glenn Beck fetish. One of his more intricate narratives had Obama, George Soros, and international Communism working together to launch the Egyptian revolution, in order to build a “Muslim caliphate” that for some reason would make them all happy.

 Egypt, your caliphate is coming: Glenn Beck connects the dots, which look suspiciously like small brain lesions.

It comes full circle. Egypt’s popular, insane TV presenter Tawfik Okasha plagiarizes the Tea Party, raging about how Obama brought the Muslim Brotherhood to power, helped by Zionists and Masons. Not for nothing is he known as the Egyptian Glenn Beck. (If you don’t know Okasha, this brilliant parody Twitter account in English gives something of his mad flavor.)

In fact, there’s one key point Goldberg left out in his account of Amr Ammar, so hampered was he by MEMRI’s selective editing, so fixed on Egypt’s “damaged culture.” Many of Ammar’s conspiratorial fantasies didn’t spring from the “Egyptian fever swamp.” They come from the US. 

bachmann copy

Look in my eyes and, trust me, you will never get out alive: Michele Bachmann editorializes in Daily News Egypt, December 2013

The “fever swamp” is in DC, as much as the Nile Delta. It’s doubtful Ammar or anyone else in Sisi’s circles would even have heard of Huma Abedin if Michele Bachmann hadn’t been smearing her for years as a Muslim Brotherhood mole in the US government. The Islam-loathing Bachmann has become a serious and baleful influence on Egyptian politics, visiting the country twice since the coup to share her “witless ramblings” with the junta leaders; in Cairo, she even accused the Muslim Brotherhood of involvement in the September 11 attacks. George Soros as bête noire and fulcrum of the global conspiracy is an idea borrowed, of course, from plenty of Tea Party polemicists, Glenn Beck high among them. Ammar would hardly have thought to mention Zbigniew Brzezinski’s name — as hard to pronounce in Arabic as in English — but for the work of right-wing US paranoiacs, who have long fingered the dour Pole as an Illuminatus and inventor of the New World Order.

Sign in Mansoura after the December 24 bombing reads, "Extermination of the Muslim Brotherhood, sons of Zionists and Egypt's Jews, is an obligation": via @ablasalma

Sign in Mansoura after the December 24 bombing reads, “Extermination of the Muslim Brotherhood, sons of Zionists and Egypt’s Jews, is an obligation”: via @ablasalma

Indeed, much as right-wing evangelicals arguably exported their homophobia to Uganda, conspiratorial neocons and other conmen are shipping their Islamophobia to Egypt. What’s arising in Cairo is a peculiar blend of Islam(ist)-hatred and anti-Semitism, a weird worldview in which the Elders of Zion breach protocol to lend a hand to the Ikhwan. The key ideas come from outside. And the melding seems liberating for many Tea Party types like Bachmann. Egypt is a place where the latent anti-Semitism bred by Becks and Robertsons, by Christmas warriors and Confederate nostalgists — a sentiment confined to coded dog-whistles in the corseted US — can emerge and stretch its limbs and find its voice.

Goldberg is spot on that some people can’t “see the world clearly and discern cause and effect relations in complex social settings.” But they’re not all Egyptians. Some of them live right in his own town, and promote their paranoias in his neighborhood. One person, in fact, who has some trouble with cause and effect relations seems to be Goldberg. Therapy begins at home.

Jeddah Prison, Cell 18: Entrapped in Saudi Arabia

Baiman Prison, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia: from a video leaked to international media in 2012 to expose overcrowding (see http://observers.france24.com/content/20120201-leaked-images-overcrowding-saudi-arabian-prisons-mobile-phone-video-jail-jeddah-khoudar-hygiene-crowded-health)

Braiman Prison, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia: from a video leaked to international media in 2012 to expose overcrowding (see http://observers.france24.com/content/20120201-leaked-images-overcrowding-saudi-arabian-prisons-mobile-phone-video-jail-jeddah-khoudar-hygiene-crowded-health)

“Ahmed” is not his real name, and I’m afraid it’s not a very inventive substitute. As we sat trying to brainstorm a proper pseudonym for him, he told me he’s always wanted to be called “Ginger.” But he doesn’t look like a Ginger: he’s a dark and slightly stolid-looking figure in his 30s, conveying a composed center of gravity that probably stood him in good stead through everything he had to endure.

I talked to him the day after he’d been forcibly deported back to his native Egypt from Saudi Arabia.  He spent more than two years imprisoned in Jeddah, for visiting a gay chatroom.

Here is his story.

I was working as a pharmacist in Saudi, in Jeddah.  I worked in one hospital for four years, but then I transferred to another hospital because of a disagreement about the salary. When I changed to the second hospital there was a problem about the accommodation. In my first hospital I was living alone, I had my freedom. When I was transferred to the second hospital I was living with two other foreign guys who were straight, and they knew I was gay. They refused to have a gay with them, they forced me to leave the apartment. I handed in my resignation, came back to Egypt, stayed maybe three months, found a new contract for another hospital in Jeddah. I returned, and I enjoyed working in the third hospital.

In that place I think they realized that I was a gay, but they accepted me because I was doing my work, I wasn’t doing anything bad.  There was another guy at the hospital, a doctor from East Asia, and everyone knew that he was a gay—he’d flirt very openly with guys he liked, saying “We can hang out together if you can teach me Arabic.”

There’s a lot of life, everything is available in Saudi. For gays there are parties. Makeup, men in dresses… everything you can imagine or you cannot imagine. But for sure it’s hidden. There were foreigners in the scene, but it was mostly Saudis. So many Saudis like gays. If they know that you are gay, they will like you. Not everyone is hating! Some of them are enjoying having sex!

So one night in 2011 – I was working night duty – I finished and came home to my flat. I had something to drink – I knew some guys who could get it for me. Then I got onto a public chatroom, and I started to search for people. A guy said, Can I know you? How old are you, how do you look?

I told him my A/S/L [age, sex, location] and my e-mail. I offered to show myself on the cam. At that time, I was wearing my hair up, wearing some lingerie and my makeup and stuff like that.  I was looking cute.

He said, Can I come to you? You have a place. So he came to my home. He sat around with me, talking and joking.  But we didn’t do anything. He said, We can meet again this evening. I have my own flat, and I don’t feel comfortable here. I knew some guys didn’t feel right in a stranger’s place, and I respected that.

The evening came, around 7 PM or so – I still remember it vividly. He called and told me, I gave you my word, and I’m not lying, I’m coming to you. He said, I have a gift for you.

Then he told me also to bring my things, lingerie and makeup and stuff like that. I trusted him.

I went down to the front of the building to meet him. Just after I got in his car, maybe after a few minutes, I found the government, the guys in the religious police [Gama’t al-Amr be al-Ma’arouf], opening the door of the car, putting the cuffs on me. Of course he knew my home, so they came back there and took everything, the lingerie, condoms, my laptop, which contains porno movies and some pictures of myself

Then I found myself in the police station.

Preventing vice, encouraging virtue: Saudi religious police

Preventing vice, encouraging virtue: Saudi religious police

I was in a horrible state, crying — I think I had a nervous breakdown. They accused me of being a shazz jenseyyan [sexual pervert]. Everything they asked, I told them yes. Was I taking a contraceptive pill for females [for hormones]? Yes. The lingerie is for you? Yes. You’re a shazz, you’re getting fucked, you feel deeply inside yourself that you are a girl. Yes. But I said, Even if I do feel something like that, it’s not hurting anyone.

I knew the law, because it’s a religious country — not just religious but it’s a country where you must be straight. I know what happened before in Egypt [the Cairo 52 case and the subsequent crackdown] and that was in Egypt – what about a country like Saudi Arabia? Each time I went out on a date, I had a fear that I would be arrested. I expected it. But I did not expect that I would stay in prison so long.

The police didn’t use any violence against me. It’s not a matter of violence, it’s a matter of the whole process being unfair. I wish they had treated me with violence, instead of leaving me in jail for two years.

The manager in the hospital visited me in the jail. He told me that because I’d confessed, I would be deported.  To me this was something good: at least I would be free.

Instead, after a week, they summoned me from jail to the court. The judge was an awful judge, the worst. He told me, You are a sexual pervert.  I didn’t know how to answer. I answered I have dressed and made myself up like that but I’m not having sex — I’m just showing off. He did not tell me or ask me anything after that.

That day, I was handcuffed to another guy from the same cell. He was also in a gay case, but his hearing was before another judge, so we were led together to my judge, then together to his judge. His judge was reading the case file, asking him about the details, what happened, what they were saying – telling him, If you want I will call the witnesses, but if they say it’s all true, the sentence will be double. If you want to confess now, I can help you. I was astonished. Why was no one investigating my case that way? Why didn’t I even have the right to make a defense?

Two or three weeks later, they told me the judge wanted to transfer my case to the higher court [al-Mahkama al-A’ama] and he was asking that court to give me the death sentence.

The higher court, which can impose the death sentence, only can do that in cases where two people are arrested together and they each say, yes, he did that with me. Or if you have previous convictions. Or if you are married – it’s much worse to be accused of homosexual acts if you are married. None of that was true of me.

I waited in jail for four months or five months, and nothing happened. After that I was summoned to interrogation again.

The person who questioned me is called an interrogator (al-mohaqqek), but he’s the same rank as a wakil niyaba (deputy prosecutor) here in Egypt. The question he asked over and over was whether I was married, or had ever been married. Finally he wrote on a paper that I had not, and I put my fingerprint, and he said, Your case belongs in the jurisdiction of the lower court.

I was so happy that day.

But I waited for another four months. My birthday passed. Another summons came from that interrogator again. I had a lawyer by now. (It had been really hard to find one; nobody my friends approached in Saudi would take the case, because it was so dirty. Finally I asked my father in Egypt to look for a lawyer there who could pull strings with Saudi colleagues to get them to represent me.) I got in touch with my lawyer and told him my case was back with the lower court.

But in two weeks he called me to say, no, it was still in the hands of the higher court. Then he told me that instead it had been referred back to the interrogator. And the interrogator summoned me again, and he went over every point in the case. The new point that they asked me about – it was only the second time it had come up —was about the pictures on the laptop. There was a photo of two guys having intercourse, but the photo was only of their bodies, no faces. One of them was actually me; but there was no way of proving that. In the police station they’d asked me about it, and I’d claimed it was photoshopped or something, that it wasn’t me.  Now the interrogator asked about it again and I told him I had no idea who the men were — but he said, You already confessed to the police that it is you. I protested, I never said that! Where is my confession? But on that basis he transferred the case to the higher court again.

After maybe six weeks, they summoned me to the higher court. The lawyer was with me now, and the judge was very correct, asking me lots of questions.  The only point I admitted was that I had some feminine clothes and I like sometimes to look like a girl, but only inside my home. But they kept insisting that I had sex.  The only proof of this was that I had condoms. I admitted that I owned the condoms, and when I did that, they convicted me, saying it proved I was having sex in Saudi Arabia.

If you buy now, comes with a free three-year prison sentence: Vintage Orientalist condom packet from the US

If you buy now, comes with a free three-year prison sentence: Vintage Orientalist condom packet from the US

At least the request for the death penalty was refused. They sentenced me to three years and 300 lashes, to be delivered over six sessions, 50 lashes each.

In the end I spent two years in Braiman Prison in Jeddah, and I only went through three sessions of the lashes, 50 lashes each time. Finally I was released by a pardon of the king, a general amnesty.  The homosexuality cases are included under these and the amnesties happen regularly, so that most people convicted in a homosexuality case don’t spend too long in the jail. There was a guy with us whose sentence was seven years and he got out after one year. I was unusual, I stayed more than two years.  And after I was released, they deported me.

In prison, I understood that the purpose of the judge in the lower court, when he sent the case to the higher court, was just to keep me in jail for a long time waiting for the court decision, since I couldn’t be amnestied till I was convicted. He just wanted to prolong my jail time.

I spent those two years in Cell 18 in Braiman Prison. It is the special cell for people convicted for homosexual acts. There are a lot of men there. The day I arrived, there were maybe 50, 55, or 58 in the cell. But when I left there were 75.  Most of them feel like girls – we call each other by feminine names. We were sleeping on mattresses on the floor.

A lot of them had been arrested on the Internet, I can’t count now how many. The chief of the cell was arrested over the Internet, through chat on Palringo.  Some had been arrested on Hornet, someone on U4Bear, some on WhosHere — the religious police know all the apps and chatrooms. Some of them had got a phone call asking to meet, from someone they’d talked to before on WhatsApp, and that guy turned out to be police.

That handsome, bearded man wants YOU to prevent some vice and encourage some virtue

That handsome, bearded man wants YOU to prevent some vice and encourage some virtue

I actually enjoyed getting to know these guys in the prison. Some were Saudis but most were from [a nearby country].  From there they go to Saudi legally, some for regular work, some for prostitution. And those are making so much money. Maybe for fucking just one time they can rake in 300-500 Saudi riyals [$75-125 US].  The religious police were more concerned with targeting foreigners than Saudis. The foreigners don’t have complete rights in Saudi. It’s a kind of racism.

No one knew of anyone who had been executed [for homosexual conduct]. People would talk about one case that had happened a long time ago. One guy, an Egyptian in our cell, gave me some details; but I don’t know if he was telling the truth. He said these guys were arrested at a party. They stayed in in jail for maybe two or three years without even getting a sentence, and they could tell they would stay more and more. That guy told me that they were having sex in front of everybody in the cell, prisoners and officers, and they were even singing at the time of prayer. [The authorities] told them it’s not right to do that, you have to stop. And you are in jail, so there must be some kind of repentance.

They refused to stop. So their case was transferred to the higher court. And the guy heard they were executed. This, he said, was maybe two decades ago. He told me he had been arrested once in Saudi maybe ten years back, and heard about this from other prisoners as something that had happened five or ten years before that.  But I don’t believe everything he said.

Since then, though, because executions were getting bad publicity in the media, they stopped the death penalty for most cases of homosexuality – only for rape of a child, a boy, a man, something like that. In cases like mine, they just hold the sentence over you as a threat, to scare you; but it’s not actually going to happen.

But it’s not easy to look at a paper in jail and read that the judge is demanding that you be put to death.  It’s difficult. It scares you. It still scares me.

Still from leaked footage: A cell in Braiman Prison, Jeddah, 2012

Still from leaked footage: A cell in Braiman Prison, Jeddah, 2012

Privacy tips for sex subversives: Ways to protect your information and yourself

Privacy is necessary for an open society in the electronic age. Privacy is not secrecy. A private matter is something one doesn’t want the whole world to know, but a secret matter is something one doesn’t want anybody to know. Privacy is the power to selectively reveal oneself to the world.

– Eric Hughes, “A Cypherpunk’s Manifesto,” 1993

urlVladimir Putin’s not-so-secret police wiretapped a strategy meeting between Russian LGBT activists and Western NGOs in St. Petersburg last month — then played the tapes on TV, as proof of a conspiracy. That’s no surprise. What’s surprising is that the Western NGOs didn’t expect it. “Soviet-like surveillance” (to quote the indignant condemnations) is nothing new in Russia. The Soviet security establishment didn’t ever curl up and die. The only innovation is that recently, instead of using the recordings for blackmail or prosecution, the regime hands them over to pet media for a public smear campaign. But everyone knows that tactic already; during the 2011 anti-Putin protests, “grainy videos and audio recordings” were “leaked to Kremlin-friendly tabloids by security and law-enforcement agencies,” in “a concerted Kremlin effort to discredit and divide their opponents.” The organizers really should have seen this coming.

The truth is, those of us who work on sexual rights internationally don’t always take our own issues seriously. We assume evil politicians don’t truly fear us — that they’re merely manipulative or opportunistic, using homophobia, whorephobia, or misogyny as trumped-up distractions from “real” concerns. We don’t grasp our own power, or get that governments may see these issues as the real ones: that states could spend massive resources on repressing sexual dissidence with the same anxious fervor they devote to crushing separatism or stifling political dissent. Persuaded of our unimportance, we deprecate the actual dangers. But if that ever was justified, it isn’t today. The Obama administration’s broad and occasionally unhelpful ardor in playing tribune for LGBT groups worldwide, for instance, feeds fears that these minuscule movements are actually agents of alien geopolitics, hives of foreign subversion. And the US government’s own success in violating anybody’s and everybody’s privacy only encourages imitation, and revenge.

Everyone should worry about privacy. And you especially need to worry if either your work or your life contradicts society or law. You may run an NGO, or you may be an individual activist in a small town. You may be a queer checking Grindr in a country where gay sex is illegal; you may be a sex worker using Gmail to hook up with clients. You need to think about how you can protect your communications from prying ears and eyes — whether parents, roommates, or police.

Uninformed about information: Data from 2012 Pew survey on American's search engine use, www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2012/Search-Engine-Use-2012.aspx

Uninformed about information: Data from 2012 Pew survey on Americans’ search engine use, http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2012/Search-Engine-Use-2012.aspx

Technologies are available. Yet most people don’t use them. There are three broad reasons for reluctance:

a) They’re slow. Secure browsers like Tor are a little lumbering; encrypting e-mails is a hassle. All I can say is, it’s less of a hassle than getting your group closed down, or winding up in jail.

b) Come on, why would they come after me? See above. They may already be after you. But even if the cops haven’t noticed you yet, there are plenty of accidental ways to attract attention. Suppose, earnest HIV activist, that your laptop’s stolen — and when the police recover it, they discover that illegal porn video you downloaded. Suppose, mild-mannered sex worker, that one of the clients you’ve been e-mailing works for Human Rights Watch — and is constantly watched and spied on in your country. There’s no lack of ways you can fall afoul of surveillance.

c) Transparency is a virtue. On principle, a lot of human rights activists don’t try to hide from state surveillance, because, they say, they have nothing to hide. This is noble, but not workable. You may not have secrets, but people who trust you do. Members of your organization, people who come to you for help, may expect confidentiality — and may feel betrayed if you don’t safeguard what they share. The landlord who rents to you, the guy who sleeps with you, the cleaning lady who scrubs the kitchen, could all get swept up in any scandal — smeared, shamed, or hauled into court. You have a responsibility to protect those around you and those who depend on you.

What follows are some steps to protect your electronic privacy, arranged roughly from the simplest to the most complex. I don’t claim to be an expert  – the resources are gleaned from my own reading and use. If you have suggestions, or if you see something that won’t work, tell me in the comments or through email.  Privacy is like safer sex. There’s no absolute safety, only relative protection. Everybody has to gauge their own levels of acceptable risk. Keeping abreast of changing technologies for both surveillance and safeguarding is vital. The best way to protect your information is to be informed.

Things you can do:

calmclearcache1.  Clear your browser’s history. Browsers store copies of the web pages you visit in an area called the cache. Moreover, many pages automatically deposit a little turd of information called a cookie on your computer, which lets them recognize you when you return. Both these allow anybody with access to your computer to reconstruct what you’ve been viewing. I know dozens of people whose families or bosses have uncovered their sexual orientation simply by checking the browser history.

If you use a computer that anybody else might share, whether at home, at work, or in an internet cafe, you should clear the browser history regularly, preferably after each use. It’s not perfect — ultra-skilled geeks could still figure out what you’re been doing — but it frustrates most intruders. Good guides to how to do this, for the most common browsers, can be found here, and here, and here. 

2.  Realize that Facebook is not your friend.  Facebook causes too many headaches to count. But this one is really serious.

Go to the search bar and just type in: “Gays in [your country]” — you know, as if you were looking for a group, or a page describing the local scene. What you’ll get will be quite different:

Philippines copy

It’s raining men interested in men, and women also

There’s a parable here about identity construction in the digital age. Facebook automatically takes the button that asks you what gender you’re interested in — one that a lot of people click in fun, or assume to refer to friendship rather than sex — and translates it into being “gay” or not. More ominously, though: The results you’ll get won’t be limited to friends, or friends of friends. You’ll get a list of every man who’s “interested in men” in [your country] and who didn’t bother to make that particular part of their profile private. It’s convenient if you’re gay, and looking for an alternative to Grindr. It’s also convenient if you’re a policeman, and homosexual sex is illegal in [your country], and you’re looking for a way to track down or entrap the guilty and throw them in jail.

This is all the upshot of Facebook’s new “Graph Search,” a terrifying new feature that puts security on a bonfire and lights a match. It allows you to mine the deep structure of the site — to pluck information out of profiles that, as profiles, are invisible to you. It’s a “semantic search” (unlike old-style Google); it doesn’t just take the words you enter literally, it tries to infer what you mean — hence the leap between “interested in men” and “gay.” It’s nasty and clever and it doesn’t give a fuck about your safety.

It’s called “Graph Search” because semantic search builds “a graph of information for the user that pulls insights from different formats to create an over-arching viewpoint related to the original query” … blah, blah. More simply: Facebook employs the little bits of data — “likes” and “interested ins” — from all those profiles to map out commonalities between its customers. But this isn’t really done “for the user,” though it’s sold to you as a way to share lovingly with your loved ones and learn lovely things about everyone. It’s done for Facebook and its advertiser-clients, to divvy up users by their desires and assemble a picture of diversified markets open for advertising and exploitation.

Apt pupil: I know what you did last summer, and with whom. © Dominic Lipinski/PA

Apt pupil: I know what you did last summer, and with whom. © Dominic Lipinski/PA

There’s a whole Tumblr blog highlighting the information, from eccentric to creepy, that Graph Search can turn up. You can look for “Employers of people who like racism”; you can root out “Mothers of Catholics from Italy who like Durex condoms.” But folks whose private lives put them in danger won’t laugh. “Graph Search” makes state repression easy. Human rights advocates ought to give Facebook hell. The search unearths, for instance, 258,285 results for “Men who are interested in men in Iran.” Somehow this has failed to elicit any objections from the usual obsessives over the Islamic Republic (they’re all on Facebook right now, busy searching for “Men in London who like men and like to read press releases”). But if an enterprising religious policeman in Tehran figures out how Graph Search can further the torture business, Facebook will have blood on its hands.

What can you do? The only way to remove yourself from Graph Search is to make sure that each item of information on your profile is marked “private.” To repeat: the universal privacy setting that could sequester your whole profile is gone now. You’ve got to do this step by step:

a) Go to each item in the “About” section of your profile, and if there’s anything you don’t want strangers to see, either delete or change it, or make sure the privacy setting is limited to “Friends.”

b) Check on every photo you’re tagged in. If you didn’t post the picture, its visibility depends solely on the privacy settings of the person it belongs to. If you don’t want it seen or searched, ever, you’ll have to remove the tag.

c) You can review all the comments you’ve made on Facebook by going to your Activity Log — sort it by Comments (look on the left side).  If you’ve commented on somebody else’s photos or timelines, you can’t change the privacy settings — but if you don’t want the comment seen, you can delete it.

d) You can still change the privacy settings globally for all the old posts on your timeline. Click the gear icon at the upper right of your screen; select Privacy Settings. Under “Who can see my stuff?” you’ll find the option to “Limit the audience for posts you’ve shared with friends of friends or Public.” That’ll let you make them private at one fell swoop. Another option there allows you to review all your past posts if you want to decide on them one-by-one. 

There’s a good overview of these methods here.

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3. Use Tor. Tor is a downloadable bundle of software that includes its own browser. When you use the browser to access the Internet, the information you receive or send bounces through a global network of thousands of relays — thousands of other computers — and is encrypted over and over. All the encryption makes it very hard to intercept the data in transit; the rerouting makes it almost impossible to find its origin. All this means that unfriendly eyes can’t detect your location, or trace your posts or visits or messages back to you.

The chart shows how. Ordinarily, if Alice up there sends someone an email or accesses a web page, those on the other end can find out the Internet address she’s using. However, if she uses Tor, the recipient (“Bob” down below, or any watchers on Bob’s end) can only see the address of that last relay, or proxy, in the extended network: not Alice’s own.

Edward Snowden in exile, with sticker on his computer supporting the Tor Project: from nyti.ms/18oyv9Y

Edward Snowden in exile, with sticker on his computer supporting the Tor Project: from nyti.ms/18oyv9Y

Tor (the name stands for The Onion Router, representing the layers of protection that an intruder would have to peel away) was developed by the US military, and the State Department still funds its nonprofit promoters as a way of supporting what America otherwise opposes, Internet freedom. But it’s so independent and impenetrable that (according to national security documents Edward Snowden leaked) even the US government is intimidated; they call it “the king of high-secure,” anonymous Internet access. It’s open-source, meaning a team of elves is always at work to fix any vulnerabilities. Like most open-source projects, it has a cooperative and collective spirit. In fact, you can volunteer your own computer to serve as one of the relay points — though I don’t recommend this, because if the system ever is cracked, you could conceivably be held liable for anything illegal other users might send through your terminal.

There are three main limitations:

a) Tor is not fast. All those relays slow things down. Moreover, Tor blocks plugins like Flash, Quicktime, and RealPlayer, because they can bug up the browser and reveal your real address. You need a special fix to get it to play YouTube videos.

b) Obviously, it won’t conceal your identity if you log into e-mail or any other service. It’ll just hide what Internet address you’re writing from.

c) If your government knows where you are to begin with, it could still find ways to get at your computer and any information you’re sending from it. Similarly, Tor can’t protect what’s on the computer or server at the other end, the one you’re communicating with. Only the transmissions in between are encrypted and secure. Look at that chart again: Tor doesn’t encrypt the last stage of traffic, between the “exit node” (the last relay point)  and the target server. If you want to be more secure, you need to use so-called “end to end” encryption such as PGP (below), which encodes your messages from the point you create them until the intended receiver reads them.

Nonetheless, Tor remains a crucial tool if you want to browse the Internet anonymously. Download it free here. 

4. Encrypt your hard drive.  You should protect yourself on your own end by keeping all or part of your computer encrypted. Anybody unauthorized who tries to open it — a hacker, a policeman, a thief — won’t be able to read the information you store in encrypted files. The data can only be made readable with a “key” — that is, by entering a code that activates decryption. So the main thing is; never give away (or forget) your key.

Laptop locktup: Data in chains

Laptop lockup: Data in chains

No encryption system is perfect. Governments — particularly the resourced and intrusive ones, like the US, China, or Israel — are always looking for ways around the codes. The US National Security Agency spent billions on what it called “an aggressive, multipronged effort to break widely used Internet encryption technologies.” This included $250 million a year bribing corporations — sorry; I mean “actively engag[ing] the U.S. and foreign IT industries to covertly influence and/or overtly leverage their commercial products’ designs” to make them “exploitable.” Paying them, that is, to put holes in the stuff they sell. A quarter of a billion buys a lot of cooperation. Microsoft, for one, now has a policy of providing “intelligence agencies with information about bugs in its popular software before it publicly releases a fix.”

The lesson: Don’t waste money buying “proprietary,” corporate encryption systems. You have no way of knowing whether they’ve obligingly built a back door into their ramparts for US spies to pry. (And you don’t know whether the US has shared those Trojan portals with your government, if it’s an American ally. Or, if it’s not, perhaps your local spies have managed to copy US anti-cryptography shortcuts: Americans seem better at stealing others’ secrets than concealing their own.) Paradoxically, open-source software is safer precisely because its code is out there on the net for anyone to see. If a government tried to insert malware or sneak in a weakness, somebody probably would notice. And it “is in a constant state of development by experts all over the world” — meaning that a lot of beautiful minds are fixing and fine-tuning it all the time.

Here is a helpful list of five trusted file encryption tools. Many experts recommend TrueCrypt, which works with Windows, Mac, and Linux, and is free. (Reportedly, Edward Snowden used it to smuggle information on his hard drive.) It can encrypt files, folders, or whole drives. It can hide encrypted volumes for additional security. It does “real-time encryption,” meaning it decrypts and encrypts material as you work. This simplifies things for you; true, it can slow your computer’s speed somewhat, but not much — “the performance penalty is quite acceptable,” one independent review found. You can download TrueCrypt here. 

5. Encrypt your emails. Email encryption is like riding a bicycle. It’s difficult to explain it to those who haven’t tried it, without making the doer sound either superhumanly agile or insane. (“Mounted upon the high saddle, commence revolving your legs in circular and rhythmic motion, an agitation that simultaneously ensures the balance of the inch-wide wheels and propels the mechanism forward ….”)  Describing it is way harder than doing it. Bear with me, and try not to be too terrified, while I try.

Two keys needed: PGP

Two keys needed: PGP

First, background and basics. The standard form of email encryption is named “Pretty Good Privacy,” or PGP.  Phil Zimmermann invented it in the 1990s. Cryptography, he wrote, is “about the power relationship between a government and its people. It is about the right to privacy, freedom of speech, freedom of political association, freedom of the press, freedom from unreasonable search and seizure, freedom to be left alone.” The anti-war and anti-nuke movements were his particular passion, and he intended the tools for them. “PGP” has since been trademarked by a company selling a proprietary variant, but there’s a range of free, open-source versions; one, called GnuPG or GPG, is available here, and others are at the International PGP home page.

E-mail encryption relies on a sender and receiver sharing tools that let them both encrypt messages and decode them.

These tools are called “keys.” When you install the program, you’ll be asked to set up two keys — strings of characters that perform certain tasks. You will have a public key, and a secret key. Anybody can use the former, but the latter will carry a password so that only you can activate it. You must share the public key with your interlocutors — anyone who wants to send you an encrypted message needs to have your public key first, because that’s what will encrypt it for them. And you’ll need that person’s public key to write her in return. People who have PGP on their computers can communicate easily as long as they have each other’s public keys.

So let’s say Faisal wants to send you a note. Faisal will use your public key, which you’ve given him, to encrypt the message in a code that’s readable to you alone. Though your “public key” performed the coding, the message is far from public: that key is cyber-twinned with your secret key, so that only your secret key can decode what it says. You’ll reply using Faisal’s public key, in a message he can only decode with his secret key. You can also apply your secret key to “sign” that message digitally, so Faisal will know it’s authentically from you; it’s like a seal on an old-fashioned letter, showing that nothing’s been tampered with in transit.

Sealed letters: by Cornelis Norbertus Gysbrechts, 1665.

Sealed letters: by Cornelis Norbertus Gysbrechts, 1665.

Several things make all this extra cumbersome.

a) You can only communicate with people who have both the software and your public key. So you’re obviously not going to encrypt all your e-mail communications — just the sensitive ones with folks who share your line of work. Some commercial “key authorities” compile online directories of users’ public keys, like phone books.  Rather than relying on those, though, you’ll probably form circles of colleagues and co-conspirators who share each other’s public keys — “web of trust” is one term for this, a phrase that manages to combine Zen touchy-feeliness with faint paranoia.

b) You can only use PGP on the computers where you have it installed. If you get an encrypted message on your phone, you won’t be able to read it till you’re sitting at the computer that has your secret key. If you’re travelling and left your laptop behind, you’re screwed.

c) PGP encryption doesn’t function well with web-based mail services like Gmail or Yahoo. (Recently developers have come up with a JavaScript version of encryption that theoretically fits with your web browser, but it’s clunky at best.) Instead, you’ll want to use an e-mail client à la Outlook. The most popular one specifically designed for encryption users is called Thunderbird; it’s free, it works with Windows, Mac, or Linux, and you can set it up to receive your Gmail. A basic introduction to Thunderbird is here. 

Email encryption is complicated, though once you and your correspondents get used to it, things will seem more natural and routine. Its advantage is that it safeguards information through the whole process of transmission — end to end, unlike the partial protection Tor offers.  You can find more detailed descriptions of how to use it here and here.

6. Go off the record. Millions of people worldwide used to entrust Skype with their long-distance intimacies and secrets. We now know, though, that the corporation has routinely handed over recorded conversations to the US and Chinese governments.

Off the Record (OTR) is a safer alternative. It’s a system, somewhat similar to PGP, for encrypting instant messaging over most of the major chat networks. Yet it’s much less cumbersome than PGP, and lets you communicate quickly in real time. Do not confuse OTR with the “off the record” feature in Google’s own instant messaging service, which is only as secure as Google itself — that is, not very; US state security, after all, has figured out how to trawl data from the giant corporation’s communications links. OTR encryption is really off the record, and offers you important protections.

The revolution will not be recorded: LP confidential

The revolution will not be recorded: LP confidential

To use OTR, you’ll need to download and install an instant-messaging client: either Pidgin or Adium. Pidgin is a free program that lets you chat with friends over the Google, MSN, Yahoo!, Jabber, and AIM networks.  Adium is very similar, but specifically made for Mac. Adium has OTR built in. For Pidgin, you just have to add a special OTR encryption plugin.

From there on, it’s quite simple. All that’s required is that the person you want to chat with also have Pidgin or Adium, with OTR activated. OTR does two things for you: It encrypts the conversation, and it also lets you verify your messaging partner’s identity. (This verification formerly required exchanging a “fingerprint,” a trimmed-down version of PGP’s public keys, but recent versions of OTR simply let you use a previously-agreed-on secret word.) OTR encrypts your messages almost automatically: the two sets of software swap the necessary codes and mumbo-jumbo pretty much without either of you humans noticing.

Good luck, unless you have the software

Good luck, unless you have the software

OTR has one additional advantage that PGP e-mail doesn’t. For each chat session, the software creates a unique encryption key, then “forgets” it once the chat is over. This means that if your OTR account is compromised — if, for instance, somebody steals your computer with your chat program on it — nobody can recover and decrypt any past conversation. Effectively, those fleeting words are gone forever. This is called “forward secrecy,” and it bestows the peace of mind that forgetfulness fosters. (In PGP, by contrast, someone who obtains your private key could decode every single encrypted e-mail you’ve saved.)

OTR’s main drawback is that it’s only one-on-one, and still doesn’t allow group chat. For a basic overview, see the OTR website; more detail on the program can be found here and here.

In conclusion

We must defend our own privacy if we expect to have any. We must come together and create systems which allow anonymous transactions to take place. People have been defending their own privacy for centuries with whispers, darkness, envelopes, closed doors, secret handshakes, and couriers. The technologies of the past did not allow for strong privacy, but electronic technologies do.

– Eric Hughes, “A Cypherpunk’s Manifesto,” 1993

Big brothers doing their dance: Nicolae Ceaușescu and Kim Il-Sung

Big brothers doing their special dance: Nicolae Ceaușescu and Kim Il-Sung

In the early 1990s, I taught for two years in Romania. The apartment I lived in had been the American lecturer’s residence since the mid-1960s; microphones riddled it, so many that at night I thought I could hear the wiretaps faintly clicking like sickly crickets, and I got an electric shock when I touched one particularly wired stretch of wall. The last Fulbright professor who’d served before the Revolution told me how he and his wife decided, in the cold November of 1989, to host a Thanksgiving dinner for their Romanian colleagues. It took them days to find a starved excuse for a turkey; then they faced the dilemma of making stuffing, when no vegetables graced the market at all. They’d spent a day in the kitchen debating the difficulty, till someone knocked at the door. A little man hunched outside, bundled against the wind. Springing into speech, he hinted that some colleagues — well, cousins, who intimately attended to matters about the flat, had phoned him regarding a problem here that, perhaps for a fee, needed fixing. He gestured vaguely at a tall-antennaed car parked (as it was always parked) down the road. “I understand,” he said, “that you are discussing how to stuff a bird. I can help. I am a licensed taxidermist …”

It was funny, and not funny. When I lived there the city still roiled with ethnic hate and nationalist hysteria. As a gay man and a human rights activist, who visited prisons on most off days, I was an object of exceptional interest. The secret police called in a friend of mine, and interrogated him about every syllable of our conversation the night before in my living room. They warned him I would recruit him into “a spy ring of Hungarians, Jews, and homosexuals undermining the Romanian nation.” I went to the United States for a couple of months that summer. Showering in the cramped bathroom in my father’s house, I started talking idly to myself, then stopped in terror: Had I repeated a secret? What if they were listening? The surge of relief when I realized there were no ears around was as if a dam burst behind my tensed muscles. I realized the constant and intolerable pressure I’d lived under for a year, always watched, always overheard.

In the age of paper: Pre-revolution surveillance files at the National Center Studying the Securitate Archives, Bucharest, Romania (© Bogdan Cristel/Reuters).

In the age of paper: Pre-revolution surveillance files preserved at the National Center for Studying the Securitate Archives, Bucharest, Romania (© Bogdan Cristel/Reuters).

The same year I settled in Romania, 1992, a few radical computer geeks in San Francisco started a mailing list that eventually grew into the Cypherpunk movement. Loathing of state surveillance drew them together, and a belief that technology could forge tools to resist. Their ideology was a remarkable faith that code should be public and knowledge shared so that people could stay private and intimacy stay intact:

Cypherpunks write code. We know that someone has to write software to defend privacy, and since we can’t get privacy unless we all do, we’re going to write it. We publish our code so that our fellow Cypherpunks may practice and play with it. Our code is free for all to use, worldwide.  … We know that software can’t be destroyed and that a widely dispersed system can’t be shut down.

Cypherpunks deplore regulations on cryptography, for encryption is fundamentally a private act. The act of encryption, in fact, removes information from the public realm. Even laws against cryptography reach only so far as a nation’s border and the arm of its violence. Cryptography will ineluctably spread over the whole globe, and with it the anonymous transactions systems that it makes possible.

There’s a lot of our world in that manifesto.

Electronic technologies “allow for strong privacy.” But they also destroy it, at least when states and corporations wield them. I used to feel innocently sure in the US that the listening ears weren’t there; I wouldn’t feel it now. That watchfulness, inculcated in the bone, is the condition we inhabit; that no-man’s land is where we live.

The struggle between computer and computer, to see and not to be seen, is the new arms race and Cold War. Unless you want to drop out, turn Unabomber and settle in a cabin with the wires all cut, paranoiacally interrogating and torturing your carrier pigeons, you have to take a side. Choosing the technologies of privacy is about as close as you can come to choosing freedom. Yet it means living walled in by technology’s protections. The tension won’t go away.

I hear you: Gene Hackman in Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation (1974)

I hear you: Gene Hackman listening, in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974)

Military manhood: More arrests for homosexual conduct in Egypt

Houses made of ticky-tacky: 6 October City scene

Houses made of ticky-tacky: 6 October City scene

It would be hard to say why you’d bother to put a checkpoint in 6 October City. Stranded in the rock and sand a dozen or so kilometers west of Cairo like a very dull mirage, with only four or five roads leading out of it to anywhere else, it’s an unlikely source of trouble. As with Las Vegas – which it resembles only in that it was drawn improbably from the desert by sheer will, not however by dreamy scoundrels like Moe Green or Bugsy Siegel but by a drably determined military state – what happens there stays there. Not that anything happens. It’s one of a slew of satellite “new towns” coaxed out of lunar landscapes from the 1980s on, artificial developments to relieve the capital’s choke and congestion. Originally meant as a worker’s city, it stalled when the industries failed to congregate. Private developers bribed their way to ownership of the unoccupied tracts, then sold them cheap to members of Cairo’s middle class desperate to escape: mostly not the rich middle class who live on speculation and connections, but the sad and salaried — government clerks, mid-level NGO minions, doctors and lawyers just starting underpaid careers. The place smells of expectations that started small and still shrank. Thirty years ago its planners envisioned a city of half a million. Maybe a third of that live there, house after house gapes empty, and streets give way abruptly to shimmering desert like a slide being changed.

Nonetheless, in these months of curfew and military rule, the armored personnel carriers stand guard athwart streetcorners in 6 October, like everywhere else. The soldiers sit on the steel humps and sweat and look prickly as porcupines in the sun.

Soldier and armed personnel carrier at Cairo checkpoint

Soldier and armed personnel carrier at Cairo checkpoint

It’s unusual when any news escapes the boredom vortex that is 6 October, but it started seeping out early in the morning of November 5. I heard from a friend at around 2 AM: 46 people had been arrested at a raid on a private party, or 80, or 70, no one was sure. The numbers swung round wildly in the next 24 hours. All anybody knew was, there’d been a gathering in a “villa” — a detached house — celebrating “Love Day,” an unofficial holiday that’s a kind of Egyptian Valentine’s Day. The police came in.

Since then one friend of mine has spoken to several people who were at the party but escaped. Anther friend and colleague went with a lawyer to the niyaba – the prosecutor’s office – in Giza for the victims’ hearing on the night of November 5. He interviewed some of those arrested. Here, so far as we know, is the story.

It was a large party, perhaps more than 200 people. At 1:00 or 1:30 AM a first group of police knocked on the door – wearing civilian clothes, but carrying handguns.  They demanded to know if the party was “for money” or not; the party organizer told them it was for free. Many guests panicked and fled.

Another phalanx of police charged in, demanding to see IDs. They focused on young people and so-called “ladyboys” (my friend who spoke to guests used the term in English; it has filtered into Egyptian slang), men who look “effeminate.” They zeroed in particularly on men wearing belly-dancing dress. Three police vans waited on the street outside – indicating both that the cops planned arrests even before “investigating,” and that they looked forward to a large haul. In the end, however, they only arrested 10 people. They seized the host, a female bartender, and a man who works as a belly-dancing teacher (his wife, also at the party, was taken in as a witness). Along with them went four other men who seemed unmanly in dress or manner, and three kids under 18.  Police slapped and beat all of them, and kicked and fingered some in the ass. At the same time, the officers seemed uncertain what the guests were guilty of; the presence of women at the party especially flustered them. They called the men “khawalat” and accused them of fujur (“debauchery,” the legal term for consensual sexual relations between men) but also threatened them with charges for adultery. (Consensual adultery is not a crime in Egyptian law,)

The vans took them all to a police station in 6 October City. More beatings followed. The officers forced the “effeminate” men to clean the station toilets as punishment. .

In the early evening of November 5, all were transferred to a police station in Giza (the vast district of Cairo proper west of the Nile) and brought before the niyaba. The scene was chaos, with relatives of the accused screaming and weeping. My colleague and the lawyer he brought monitored the interrogations as best they could. Two things were obvious:

a)     The police had absolutely no evidence anything illegal happened in the villa. The only allegedly incriminating items they confiscated were belly-dancing clothes and, they claimed, women’s makeup.

b)    Nor was there evidence any of the men had committed illegal acts — especially the homosexual acts on which the investigation concentrated – in the past.

After nearly six hours, the lawyers there expected all the arrestees to be freed for lack of cause. Reportedly, the wakil niyaba (deputy prosecutor) in charge of the case was ready to order their release. However, after a phone call, the chief prosecutor of the district overruled him.

Night passage: Cairo checkpoint

Night passage: Cairo checkpoint

The complaint against the party had come from the military itself. The villa stood near a checkpoint, and the soldiers there didn’t like the noise, or the way the guests looked and acted when they passed. Military police had phoned the 6 October cops to shut the party down. The soldiers wanted the egregious villa closed permanently; for this, a legal case would be necessary. To please the military, the Giza prosecutor ordered the case kept active, and sent the victims off for forensic anal exams.

Performed without consent, these tests are abusive and torturous, devoid of any medical value. Reportedly the results “cleared” the men. (A medical finding in favor of arrestees is never final. In my experience, most reports on anal exams contain an “escape clause” saying the defendants might still be guilty: for instance, “It is scientifically known in the case of adults that sexual contact from behind in sodomy with penetration can happen  –through full consent, taking the right position, and the use of lubricants – without leaving a sign.” If so, what is the tests’ point?)  It’s not yet certain whether or how the woman in the case was tested, or indeed what her place in any potential charges might be. But meanwhile, the prosecution has ordered them all detained for an additional 15 days.

Armored personnel carriers sealing off a  Cairo road

Armored personnel carriers sealing off a Cairo road

The story has already made it to the Egyptian press, most notably in a longish article in Al- Watan al-Arabi on Sunday: “Homosexuals [mithliyeen] arrested in Egypt during the celebration of the ‘Feast of Love.’” Oddly, it alternates between using the PC, recently-invented term al-mithliyeen (derived from mithliyyu al-jins, “same sex,” constructed by analogy to “homosexual”) and an older language of “sexual perversion.” But it conflates both with sex work:

Security services received information that  a number of homosexuals [mithliyeen] organized ceremonies in a villa on the Cairo-Alexandria desert road, to practice sexual perversion on Valentine’s Day. Police raided the villa where they found, according to the official record, young people dancing with each other near the pool, and others, including minors and a dance teacher, putting makeup on their faces and their skins, with women’s underwear and wigs for dancing in their possession. …

The public prosecutor ordered the detention of suspects for 15 days pending investigation on charges of “organizing the collective exercise of acts contrary to morality [adab], and practicing sexual perversion, and  [forming] the headquarters of a business contrary to morality” …

Egyptian law criminalizes the practice of sexual perversion, and society rejects those habits and treats them with disdain, but there are places, including cafes and nightclubs in Cairo, known to be frequented by sexual perverts.

There is a “homosexuals in Egypt” page on the social networking site Facebook titled [in English] “Gays in Egypt” that has won likes from more than 11,000 people. Page members are known to be “youth of tender age, many of them still minors, roaming some streets and parks and major cities to offer sexual services to adults and the elderly for a fee. Some of the dating sites are a way to find clients.”

The article warns about mithliyeen “using social media sites to network and promote their ideas rejected by society.” It relays a question:

What drives these young people to this behavior you may deem perverted? Is it poverty? Is it a desire to earn money the easy way? Or is it more complex, associated with a sense of inferiority and the desire to get paid as a kind of compensation for a homosexual role considered insulting?

L: Good Facebook (placard from Midan Tahrir during the 2011 Revolution); R: Bad Facebook ("Facebook, Friend or Foe," book by Dr. Gamal Mokhtar on the danger of social media to Arab and Egyptian youth)

L: Good Facebook (placard from Midan Tahrir during the 2011 Revolution); R: Bad Facebook (“Facebook, Friend or Foe,” book by Dr. Gamal Mokhtar on the danger of foreign social media to Arab and Egyptian youth)

So what is happening? In El-Marg, on Cairo’s eastern verges, 14 men still languish in jail, facing charges of fujur, arrested in early October in a raid on a local gym. Do these cases presage a new crackdown, a return of horrors ten years gone, when police slunk into chatrooms and raided private homes, arresting and torturing hundreds or thousands of men to root out “sexual perversion”?

Nobody can say yet. But the talk of perverted social media, of foreign influence creeping in, of technology mating with immorality, of hangouts and watering holes that are “known” and watched, is ominous. It suggests that the relative visibility of a small LGBT community, mostly in Cairo’s downtown, is wakening anxieties.

Yet this case, like the El-Marg one, also suggests how much of this is about manhood: a complex of fears and fantasies that military rule, with its overt adulation of power and muscle, only intensifies. Why hone in on “ladyboys”? Why the prurient questions about perverts who dare to “act like men?” The same friend who went to the Giza niyaba also managed, bravely, to make his way into the El-Marg police station last month, trying to find out more about the victims detained there. It was harrowing. The El-Marg officers praised themselves for striving, during the feast of Eid el-Adha when the arrests happened, “to protect moralities of the State.” But some slight default of ideal masculinity in my friend set their alarms off — and they started menacing him:

Before answering my questions the uncertain police officer looked at me and said “Do you know that I am the one who received the complaint of the neighbors, the one that guided us to arrest the group of 14 men? …. They said the place had drug addicts and immoral acts, so we sent a task force and surprisingly they didn’t take much time till they arrested the 14 men” …

I asked the police officer to describe the club for me, so he said “It’s an ordinary health club with gymnastics equipment, steam rooms and closed massage room.” He looked at me and asked in a humiliating and sarcastic tone “Come on  … you’ve never been in one of those rooms with any one before?” …

[H]e insisted on harassing and insulting me once more by saying “You know that those who were fucked in that place used to pay, while those who used to fuck wouldn’t pay a penny, so would you like to pay or go for free?”…

I understood he didn’t want me to know if they forced the arrested men to go through anal examinations or not … “Well this whole medical test comes later after a permission from the prosecution office, but we don’t wait, we have our own vision.” The comment made me ask “What do you mean by your own vision?”, so he answered saying in a very confident tone “Like when you find someone, and sorry for my language, who only has two balls but no penis, do you think he was fucking or getting fucked? Aren’t you a man? You definitely understand.”

Being a man: Egyptian police assault protester, May 2006

Being a man: Egyptian police assault protester, May 2006

He adds, “the police officers were mocking the families of the 14 men, especially that some of the old[er] men among the 14 arrested men are married and have sons or daughters who would go to ask about them.” When they did, they were “made fun of by the police officers.” During his foray into the beast’s belly, he watched one cop take a call from another police station: the brother of one of the men had gone there, unsure where to turn, asking desperately about his arrested relative. “Fuck, so his brother is being fucked and he shows up there acting like a man … I’ll fuck him up.”

The tone’s consistent with what Khaled el-Haitamy, the El-Marg police chief, told the Egypt Independent about the gym: “The owner of the place is a son of bitch and a khawal … He fled the scene. These gays are sick!”

Black and white: Egyptian police officers joke, with Central Security anti-riot forces in the background: Reuters, 2012

Black and white: Egyptian police officers joke, with Central Security anti-riot forces in the background: Reuters, 2012

This morning, Alaa al-Aswany, Egypt’s bestselling novelist, has his debut column in the New York Times. It’s a barely-qualified defense of military rule, with all the usual cliches: in a showdown with the evil Morsi, “the army sided with the will of the Egyptian people.” (No mention of how the army massacred Egyptian people at Mohamed Mahmoud, or Rabaa). Al-Aswany’s magnum opus, The Yacoubian Building, famously called State-sponsored masculinity into public question: not only through a sympathetic gay character, but through another protagonist, Taha el-Shazli, a desperately poor boy who joins an Islamist rebel group in shame and rage, after policemen brutally rape him in a station cell. These days, Al-Aswany sides with the police.

It’s to be expected, maybe. That official, militarized manhood is inescapable. 6 October City, with its stunted mediocrity, still bears its imprint. It’s named (like other sites around the country) for the one great triumph of Egypt’s armed forces, the stunning crossing of the Suez Canal on the first day of the 1973 war. It was wrested from the desert by the the military-ruled State: indeed, its 1981 foundation — and the decision to push Cairo’s margins into the encircling sand — came along with new laws on the ownership of desert land. These formalized government control over empty spaces, and ensured that developing any of the patrimony would require buying influence with the security bureaucracy. The laws helped set in literal concrete many of the crony networks that rule the State today. The powers that be built the artificial city; no coincidence, then, that their values insinuate themselves into its interstices. They’re enforced at its checkpoints, just as they were forced onto Taha el-Shazli’s body.

The idea of November 4 as “Love Day,” by the way, comes from the late Egyptian journalist Mustafa Amin – who also promoted Mother’s Day in the country. Once, some forty years ago, he watched a desolate funeral trundle down the street with no one attending or walking behind. He wondered about the silence of loveless lives, and the moldlike spread of solitude, and suddenly he had the notion of a day to celebrate human connection. The problem with official masculinity is how many people it shuts out: the inadequate, superfluous, unloved. The more the checkpoints multiply, the more unwanted there are.

Soldiers set up barbed wire at a Cairo checkpoint

Soldiers set up barbed wire at a Cairo checkpoint

HRC and the vulture fund: Making Third World poverty pay for LGBT rights

marriage-equality-red blood copyThe Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the largest US gay organization, is going international. It’s just been given at least $3 million to spread the word of marriage equality to benighted countries that treat gays badly. Unfortunately, there’s a catch. Its chief partner and donor in this project wants the people in those countries, LGBT folk included, to starve – their economies wrecked, their incomes shipped abroad, their resources squeezed and stolen to pay off odious debt. HRC is receiving its money for gay rights in the Third World from the man who “virtually invented vulture funds”: a form of speculation that’s one of the worst contributors to Third World poverty ever.

But if you’re poor and getting poorer, look on the bright side (as long as river blindness hasn’t got you, that is). You can still have a nice white wedding; and you’ll save on the food bill if your nation has no food.

HRC is understandably happy about the sunny prospects opening up. It says,

The need to support LGBT advocates and call out U.S.-based anti-equality organizations abroad has never been greater. … At the same time, opportunities exist for a global equality movement as a growing number of countries are passing pro-equality legislation and recognizing marriage equality.  Seventeen countries around the world afford, or will soon afford, committed and loving gay and lesbian couples the legal right to marry.

One of the two big donors to this project is a little more explicit about how the enterprise relates to the projection of US power:

“Every day around the world, LGBT individuals face arrest, imprisonment, torture and even execution just for being who they are,” said Paul Singer. “Some of the worst offenders in this area also happen to be the same regimes that have dedicated themselves to harming the United States and its democratic allies across the globe. [Emphasis added] As an organization that has been at the forefront of the equality movement for over three decades, the Human Rights Campaign is uniquely positioned to work in tandem with NGOs to empower LGBT and human rights advocates abroad and help stop these abuses.”

Well, yes, except … this doesn’t quite sound like “human rights” envisioned from the high vantage of universality and internationalism. It sounds like LGBT rights uneasily painted into a picture of US interests.

Paul Singer (Jacob Kepler/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

Paul Singer (Jacob Kepler/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

On the other hand, it’s natural to couch the project in terms of what the US will get out of it. After all, its two deep-pocketed benefactors are Singer, who runs a hedge fund called Elliott Management, and Daniel S. Loeb, who runs another called Third Point LLC. They’re both conservatives and huge donors to the Republican Party. Singer underwrote last year’s GOP National Convention with $1 million of largesse. One operative called himthe big power broker in the Republican financial world.” The Wall Street Journal wrote that 

He has given more to the GOP and its candidates—$2.3 million this election season—than anyone else on Wall Street, helping make his hedge fund … one of the nation’s biggest sources of political donations, the vast majority to the GOP.

My little man: Singer, with full-sized Mitt in front of him, for Fortune magazine

My little man: Singer, with full-sized Mitt in front of him, for Fortune magazine

The New York Times writes that Singer “believes in the doctrine of American exceptionalism and is wary about United States involvement in ‘international organizations and alliances.’” (Apparently HRC won’t be supporting the hundreds of LGBT activists and groups who fight for their rights at the vile, collectivist UN.) Singer is a nexus of con and neocon ties and tendrils; he chairs the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank, and has served on the board of Commentary magazine, the national journal of Podhoretzstan. He’s ladled at least $3.6 million to the self-styled Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a hawksh outfit which Glenn Greenwald called “basically a Who’s Who of every unhinged neocon extremist in the country.” Dan Senor — the glib apologist who served as authorized liar and TV personality for the Coalition Provisional Authority while the Bush Administration devastated Iraq — is one of Singer’s foreign policy advisors.

Na na, na na, na na, come on, come on, sticks and stones may break my bones: Loeb

Na na, na na, na na, come on, come on, sticks and stones may break my bones: Rihanna Loeb

Loeb, meanwhile, supported Barack Obama in 2008, but turned on him when the President ungratefully demanded that Wall Street let itself be regulated a little. In a celebrated email announcing his desertion he cast the President as abusive husband, with a bunch of submissive bankers as his bruised brides: “When he beats us, he doesn’t mean it … he usually doesn’t hit me in the face [so] it doesn’t show except for that one time … he’s not that bad really, unless he gets drunk (from power) …” Probably this was irony; I mean, a sheltered guy worth billions wouldn’t seriously compare himself to a poor woman living in a shelter, would he? By April 2011, Loeb had given almost $500,000 to the GOP, and he kept giving. In mid-2012, he co-hosted a $25,000-a-plate fundraiser for Mitt Romney in the Hamptons. Mocked for extravagance, the proceedings seem to have furnished Romney with the intellectual foundations for his later comments about the wrongly franchised 47%. A guest lumbering up in a Range Rover told the media that

“I don’t think the common person is getting it. … We’ve got the message,” she added. “But my college kid, the baby sitters, the nails ladies — everybody who’s got the right to vote — they don’t understand what’s going on. I just think if you’re lower income — one, you’re not as educated, two, they don’t understand how it works, they don’t understand how the systems work, they don’t understand the impact.”

But all this GOP-ness isn’t the most interesting part. What matters isn’t where these guys give their money. It’s where they get it.

Curious how no one asks this. In gratitude for their generosity, HRC arranged for the two donors to feature in a puff piece yesterday by Frank Bruni, the New York Times’ designated homosexual.  “Elliott Management’s lofty offices in Midtown Manhattan look north, south, east and west across the borough’s thicket of skyscrapers …” The view was terribly distracting for Bruni, who probably lives, like most Times writers, in a windowless Bronx tenement where he makes matchsticks to pay the bills.

I sat in a 30th-floor library with the hedge fund’s founder and chief executive, Paul Singer, a billionaire who was one of the most important donors to Mitt Romney in 2012 … He’s wary of speaking with journalists, so much so that I’ve seen the adjective “reclusive” attached to his name.

The piece is all about Singer’s lavish giving for gay marriage, and it exhibits, if beneath the surface, the historical function of philanthropy: to silence annoying questions about where you got your fortune. “The battlefield” for gay rights “isn’t what it used to be,” Bruni wrote gauzily. “From the 30th floor, I could see that most clearly of all.” But there are other battlefields Bruni chose not to see.

Paul Singer runs a vulture fund. He makes his profits from the debt incurred by Third World countries — I won’t use the PC term “developing” countries, because the point of the debt is to prevent them from developing — and from the misery it causes their citizens. Of all the parasites in the global economy, of all the profiteers of poverty, vulture funds may be the worst.

Vulture funds operate by buying up a country’s distressed debt just as the original lenders are about to write it off  – usually, as the Guardian describes it, when the country “is in a state of chaos. When the country has stabilised, vulture funds return to demand millions of dollars in interest repayments and fees on the original debt.” In other words, you purchase the right to be a hardassed debt collector, and to harass and impoverish whole populations till you get your cash. Singer, says the BBC, “virtually invented vulture funds.”   A University of Pennsylvania expert on emerging-market debt told Bloomberg that Singer’s “actions are amoral,” adding that he puts the squeeze on “without worrying about the potential consequences for the country involved.”

That’s an understatement. Three examples of Singer’s work:

Peru. In 1996, just as Peru embarked on restructuring its massive debts, Singer’s hedge fund bought $20.7 million worth of old loans to the country — paying only $11.4 million, a huge discount. They immediately rejected the restructuring and sued Peru in a New York court, for the original value of the loans plus interest.  As the USA Jubilee Network explains, they “won a $58 million settlement and made a $47 million profit — a 400% return.”

Peru, however, couldn’t pay the sum. Instead, it put priority on paying back its other debtors, who had participated in the restructuring. Singer actually took out an injunction to keep Peru from repaying anyone else, thus shoving the entire country back toward default in the name of his own profits. Jubilee writes that “Elliott pioneered this litigate-into-submission strategy that allows these vultures to collect astronomical profits on countries in economic stress.”

Investigative journalist Greg Palast claims that Singer finally got his money when authoritarian President Alberto Fujimori had to flee the country in 2000.  Singer and his repo men, he says, put a lien on the Presidential plane before Fujimori could reach it — then demanded the full sum from the desperate dictator before giving it back. Singer piously defends his work as promoting “transparency” among foreign governments. Getting a corrupt leader to ransom away his country’s resources to save his skin hardly fits that description.

Vulture funds in Africa

Vulture funds in Africa

Congo-Brazzaville.  In the late 1990s, Singer’s Elliott Associates used a Cayman Islands-based subsidiary called Kensington International to buy, at a discount, over $30 million worth of defaulted debt issued by the Republic of Congo (Congo-Brazzaville) — by some reports, paying only $1.8 million. It then sued the government for almost $120 million in repayments plus interest. That’s a 10,000% profit.

A UK court handed Singer victory in a succession of judgements in 2002 and 2003. The Congolese government couldn’t pay up, though: interest continued to accrue at a rate of $22,008.23 per day. Congo-Brazzaville’s GDP per person at the time averaged around $800. More than a quarter of deaths of children under 5 were from malnutrition. The country had, according to the Financial Times, “one of the highest foreign debts per capita of any developing country, estimated at $9 billion for a population of fewer than 4 million people” — and, following Singer’s model, private vulture funds hurriedly bought up about a tenth of that.

Singer and Kensington relentlessly chased Congolese assets in courts around the world. In 2005, another UK judge gave them partial satisfaction. He let Singer intercept and expropriate $39 million in Congolese oil sales to a Swiss firm. That’s still more than a 2000% profit, not bad when your only productive work is pushing paper. Other firms that have speculated in Congolese debts, though, continue hounding the impoverished country’s resources from court to court.

December 2001: Riot police and tear gas used against protesters in Buenos Aires

December 2001: Riot police and tear gas unleashed against protesters in Buenos Aires

Argentina. In 2001, Argentina had a revolution: citizens banging pots and pans in the public squares threw out a neoliberal regime that had driven the country into depression and stolen almost everybody’s savings. A new government of economic nationalists defied the Washington Consensus by defaulting on more than $80 billion in foreign debt and devaluing the currency. It worked: reasserting domestic control gradually revived the moribund economy.

That was the good news. Meanwhile, though, one of Singer’s companies called NML Capital Ltd. sniffed future profit. It bought over $180 million of the defaulted debt at between 15 and 30 cents on the dollar.

Impounded: Argentine warship Libertad, seized by Singer in Ghana, 2012 (Leo La Valle/EPA)

Unenduring freedom: Argentine flagship Libertad, seized by Singer in Ghana, 2012 (Leo La Valle/EPA)

In 2005, Argentina’s President, Nestor Kirchner, offered lenders 30 cents on the dollar to forgive its debts. The vast majority of bondholders accepted the offer; Singer rejected it and demanded full repayment. Argentina’s legislature passed a law that barred the government from raising the offer — a sign, if one were needed, that Singer’s demands flouted the democratic will of a nation of 40 million. Singer refused to budge. He took Argentina to court in the US and elsewhere. In 2012, he actually managed to impound an Argentinian naval vessel while it rested in an African port, demanding an extortionary sum to release it until the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea ordered it freed.

European judges have found against Singer, but in 2006 he won a judgment for $284 million in the U.S. (That would be at least a 500% profit.) The case is still in court. Singer’s pursued the same strategy he did with Peru, demanding that Argentina be barred from paying any creditors who joined the restructuring unless he‘s repaid in full. Either Argentina will be semi-bankrupted by his greed, or it will suspend its obligations indefinitely; in either case, that’s too much uncertainty for most lenders. Singer has pretty much singlehandedly kept Argentina an unsafe investment. The US judiciary’s willingness to buy his arguments has shaken Latin American financial markets, doubled the cost of Argentina’s borrowing, and pushed the country toward a new, disastrous default. Paul Singer is like honey badger. He don’t care.

Protestor outside the London offices of Elliott Management, Febuary 2013

Protestor at a Jubilee Debt Campaign demo outside the London offices of Elliott Management, February 2013

The World Bank has called on developed countries to put an end to profiteering like SInger’s. “Vulture funds are a threat to debt relief efforts,” its Vice-President for Poverty Reduction said.  “Their increasing litigation against countries receiving debt relief will penalize some of the world’s poorest countries.” George W. Bush’s Treasury Secretary told Congress in 2007 that “I deplore what the vulture funds are doing.” Gordon Brown, the UK Prime Minister, accused them of “perversity” and called them “morally outrageous.” I could go on and on — but so do Singer and his proteges. They don’t stop. The World Bank estimates that vulture funds have sued a third of countries receiving debt relief. Jubilee USA notes that

As of late 2011, 16 of 40 Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) surveyed by the International Monetary Fund were facing litigation in 78 individual cases brought by commercial creditors. Of these, 36 cases have resulted in court judgments against HIPCs amounting to approximately $1 billion on original claims worth roughly $500 million.

Red sky at morning

Red sky at morning

And no wonder Singer buys up political influence so assiduously. Hector Timerman, Argentina’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, wrote in 2012:

Vulture funds abuse the system, acquiring distressed debt in secondary markets to multiply profits at the expense of the poor and weak. As these activities are ethically repellent, well-prepared propaganda machinery keeps their lucrative business alive.

It’s not just propaganda. Singer needs his paid politicians to fend off scrutiny and guard the “lucrative business” from disruption. A bill to curtail vulture funds’ profiteering was introduced in the US Congress in 2009. The next year, Singer told his heavily funded Manhattan Institute they had to combat “indiscriminate attacks by political leaders against anything that moves in the world of finance.” Will HRC flex its legislative muscle to fight the Stop Vulture Funds Act as well?

It’s a sick irony that the money HRC takes to fund its new work in the Third World is made off the backs of Third World suffering. It’s even worse when HRC’s PR machine colludes with the New York Times to whitewash — pinkwash — Singer’s record of destruction. It’s politically disastrous for an LGBT group to operate this way. They’re sending a message to governments in the developing world that the US really does see LGBT people as a privileged class, and is willing to promote their rights while condoning the immiseration of whole populations. But it’s self-defeating also. LGBT people don’t want this kind of “help.” LGBT people are citizens, workers, children, parents too. HRC should know that they are as affected as anybody when a parasite like Singer enforces endless debt service on states, devastates the necessary services that governments provide, litigates countries into permanent submission.  What does HRC think it can give the victims, after Singer has stripped their assets and sold off their national resources? Is same-sex marriage supposed to be a consolation? I’m afraid HRC is acting like old honey badger, too. It just don’t care.

Alejandra Sardá-Chandiramani

Alejandra Sardá-Chandiramani

Since Argentina has been one of Singer’s targets, I went to an old colleague of mine, the great Argentinian feminist and sexual rights activist Alejandra Sardá-Chandiramani. Alejandra has fought for the rights of LGBT people throughout Latin America for more than 20 years. She was sad but not shocked at the assembled ironies. She told me:

“International work” done “for” LGBTs (or women, development, girls, you name it) from the USA is, first of all, a great industry giving jobs to a vast majority [within the organizations] of USA citizens and also to a few privileged ones from the Global South (I was once among the latter, so I know what I am talking about). There are always a few good souls thrown in the mix, who normally can’t resist too many years. For too long our misfortunes (patriarchal social norms, authoritarian governments, condoned forms of violence, subordinated economies) have made the North rich, sometimes through jobs “saving us” and other times more directly, like in the case of the profits made by the vulture funds or the arms dealers. And they also serve to hide the existence of quite similar phenomena in the Global North itself and to keep the fragile national pride and self-esteem of our “saviours” intact.

“Another thing that does not surprise me,” she writes,

is that a USA based “LGBT” organization accepts money from such a source … [P]articularly in the USA many/most LGBT activists have a hard time linking their issues to broader social, economic and political realities, as they are too self-absorbed in all their identity politics. I hope that not many people in the Global South will agree to do work funded with this extremely dirty money — if they know where it is coming from. But sometimes, people are facing such difficult circumstances that they can’t afford to be so principled.

She adds that “in some Global South countries, activists belong to social and economic elites (this happens particularly in the early stages of movements, as these are the ones that can afford to be out) and they are as ignorant or unconcerned about broader social issues as their USA colleagues, so anything can happen.”

Vultures and their masters: Argentinian cartoon

Vultures and their masters: Argentinian cartoon

Maybe she’s right, but here I’m inclined to differ. Most LGBT movements in the larger world aren’t in their early stages any more. They’re mature and politically sophisticated. They don’t need HRC; try telling someone in South Africa (where LGBT rights are in the Constitution) that they should “learn” from the US. Far more valuable to them are their connections with local civil societies and social movements that fight for people’s real rights and freedoms. They ally with groups that combat maternal mortality, defend the rights to health care and education, press the State to keep the social welfare system functioning, ensure that votes count and that people can decide their collective economic as well as civic future. That’s not what Singer stands for, and outsiders paid from his dirty money may get an unexpectedly cold welcome.

I forgot about Daniel Loeb. He too has a history of bold international interventions, it turns out. If you want to read about him, Vanity Fair has a long piece coming out in its December issue, less puffy than Frank Bruni’s by far. There’s a nugget about how, on a 2002 vacation in Cuba with the heir to the von Furstenberg money, Loeb ran down a child with his car. Cuban authorities held him in the country until — well, whatever. Perhaps he made some investments. A friend recalled,

“I truly felt so sorry for him when he told me he had found himself unable to leave the country, curled up in a ball on the floor of his room crying, promising God that he’d do anything if the Almighty got him out of his predicament. It wasn’t as if Dan had done it on purpose, and who really knows what ended up happening to the kid?”

A benighted country that’s not the United States, a rich guy, a poor child with tire marks on his back, and — who knows. Isn’t that what the new landscape of LGBT organizing is all about?

Forward to freedom, and fresh meat

Forward to freedom, and fresh meat

Doug Ireland, R.I.P.

At the SDS National Convention, June 1965, Elk Rapids, Michigan: Doug Ireland is at the center, in dark glasses, vest, and tie. ©Bill XCiX Philiips (from Facebook)

At the SDS National Convention, June 1965, Elk Rapids, Michigan: Doug Ireland is at the center, in dark glasses, vest, and tie. © Bill Xcix Philiips (from Facebook)

Doug Ireland was found dead today in his New York apartment, at 67. A short obituary can be found at Gay City News, with more certainly to come.

It is no secret that I thought little of Doug’s recent international reporting, and no secret that, after a period of friendship, he turned on me nastily seven years ago as a result. I would prefer to remember him, though, by his remarkable history as an activist. He joined Students for a Democratic Society (the SDS) in 1962, when he was 15 and a Boston-area high-school student — in all probability, its youngest member. He got arrested for the first time, I think, a year later when he was 16, helping to lead an protest against a speech by Madame Nhu (sister-in-law to South Vietnam’s dictator) at the Washington Press Club. (An SDS policy piece that Doug co-authored with Steve Max, predicting an emerging New Left coalition, can be found here. He was 18 when he wrote it.) From the intellectual-revolutionary environs of the SDS, he turned to electoral politics, as the assembled energies of the rebellious young fought their way toward power. He was at the center of some of the epic political combats that defined the 1960s and 1970s — from Allard Lowenstein‘s runs for Congress to Bella Abzug‘s campaign for the US Senate in 1976, a kind of last gasp of the New Left, which Doug managed and which she lost by the narrowest of margins.

Sometimes success is measured in different ways than we could imagine at the outset. The SDS didn’t overthrow the Establishment or end the Vietnam War, much less curtail US imperial power; but it did transform the political horizons of a whole generation of American youth, indeed the whole concept of a “generation” in American life. Its echoes were heard in the voices of ’68ers from Rio to Prague, and they resonated under the chants of 1989 and of the Arab Spring. Bella Abzug never became a US Senator, but feminism in the US today would be unthinkable without her. So would the lives of thousands of women inside politics and out.

I feel much the same way about Doug, who was integral to those battles. He helped transform American life in the struggles in which he probably felt he failed. I wish, in his last years, he hadn’t wasted time on ignorant stuff about Iran or Russia, and had spent the days writing his own story. I knew him somewhat well (at least in many long phone conversations) for a while in 2001-2004 when he was going through hard times, losing his berth at The Nation and looking desperately for a new one; I felt he praised himself jealously and defensively for the wrong things, looked for heroes in all the wrong places, and ignored the true heroism in his own history. He loved telling stories but never seemed to believe they added up to the narrative of a life well lived. Sometimes the victories worth remembering are as much in oneself as in the outer world.

We’ll never have the autobiography, which would have been far more valuable than the things he wrote for Gay City News. But the biography is now lived and completed, set in stone. I hope somebody will write it down.

Like many street-fighting activists, Doug was essentially an autodidact. He loved quoting foreign languages, sometimes accurately. I don’t know whether he liked these lines — too religious, too resigned, maybe; but he might have enjoyed being compared to Brunetto Latini, that old friend whom Dante meets, to his initial pity, among the sodomites in Hell. (If Doug is there now, he is already trying to form an action committee.)

Poi si rivolse e parve di coloro
che corrono a Verona il drappo verde
per la campagna; e parve di costoro
quelli che vince, non colui che perde.

And he turned away; to me he seemed like one
who races for the green cloth on the field
beyond Verona. And he seemed more
like the winner, than like the ones who lose.