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

Hand in hand: Detail from the famous video

Hand in hand: Detail from the famous video

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

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

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

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

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Mohamed Sobhi attempts to keep gay marriage from spreading to him

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

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

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

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

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

Prosecutor General Hisham Barakat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arrested August 26 in Giza: Victim of moral panic

Arrested August 26 in Giza: Victim of moral panic

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

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

Homosexuality causes Islamism: Mokhtar Gomaa, Minister of Religious Endowments

Homosexuality causes Islamism: Mokhtar Gumaa, Minister of Religious Endowments

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

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

 

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:

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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. 

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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.

Orwell on the Nile: Citizens and lepers

Sout al-Umma, August 17: "Egypt is all Sisi"

Sawt el-Umma, August 18: “Egypt is all Sisi”

Cairo lurched to life Sunday, looking ghastly, like Dick Cheney rising up cadaverous and pale each time the Secret Service shocks his heart back into beating. Shop shutters creaked up, taxis raced rabbity and skittish on the underpopulated streets, clouds of auto exhaust mushroomed skyward in the heat.

The Muslim Brotherhood called for two demonstrations against the military regime, but cancelled them at the last minute. We went to Maadi, past the planned destination of one march. An armored personnel carrier, gun rampant, blocked the gates of the Supreme Constitutional Court building, a stone monstrosity patterned vaguely on Abu Simbel. They guarded what everybody knows is empty as a raided tomb: There’s no constitution inside.

In front of the Constitutional Court: From El-Youm El-Saaba

In front of the Constitutional Court: From El-Youm El-Saaba

Early in the morning, troops raided hundreds of homes across the country, arresting Brotherhood members. So one aspect of the Mubarak years is back: the knock on the door.  By evening, the government affirmed that its security forces killed at least 36 prisoners in its custody. The official line was that “terrorists” attacked a detainee convoy near Abu Zaabal, north of Cairo, and the victims died in the shoot-out. Anonymous authorities told the press, though, that one truckful of prisoners had managed to capture a guard. The victims suffocated when other guards fired massive rounds of tear gas into the crammed, barred van.

The corpses are collected in a makeshift morgue at Abu Zaabal. For an insight into the country now, Google “Egypt” and “makeshift morgue”: over 80,000 results. Can’t this be turned to account? Perhaps it’s an opportunity for the architectural profession, always both servant and reflection of Egypt’s national ideologies.  Hundreds of unemployed architects drift wistfully round disused construction sites as the economy erodes, and like the rest of the proverbial Arab Street, they could easily defect to Extremism and Terror. Rather than just shooting them, which is tempting, why not set them to work building prefab makeshift morgues, for transport to massacre sites as needed? A variety of styles could be drawn upon to suit the victims (neo-Pharaonic for Nasserists, the International Style for secular liberals, Moorish revival for Islamists). Who would want to repose like this –

Bodies piled in Al-Fateh Mosque, Midan Ramsis, Cairo, August 16: From @ossamaelmahdy

The chaos of murder: Bodies piled in Al-Fateh Mosque, Midan Ramsis, Cairo, August 16. From @ossamaelmahdy

– when this could be the placid scene of their forensic dissection, a quiet haven for the State to decide and then dissemble the responsibility for their death?

Postmodern charnel house; Leon City Morgue, by Jorge Badi

Postmodern charnel house: Leon City Morgue, by Jorge Badi

But that’s for the future. Today the Cabinet contemplates a ban on the Muslim Brotherhood. General Sisi (who remarked that “We are cautious about every drop of Egyptian blood”) told the Brotherhood in a press conference yesterday that “There is room for all.” Apparently the morgues are not yet full.

Generalissimo-worship goes on. Sawt el-Umma, one of the most reliable anti-Brotherhood papers, published the photo at top on its cover yesterday: “Egypt is all Sisi.”

Voice of the Nation: Sisi speaks

Voice of the Nation: Sisi speaks

That picture illuminates on so many levels. First about Sisi, who sells himself as an Egyptian Everyman. Something about him allows everybody to read exactly what they want into that round bland visage, so average in every way except the sinister Ray-Bans. When Morsi made him Minister of Defense, rumor fingered him (so, probably, did Morsi) as the Muslim Brotherhood’s man in the military. Now, those ties betrayed, he stresses his US education, his Western connections. But mostly his odd counter-charisma (he’s been known to reduce audiences to tears with vapid patriotic arias) consists in being Chance the Gardener, sublimely like everybody else and a repository of what they want to hear. We will fight terrorists, but there is room for everybody. Calm will come, we just need to kill your enemies first. At an hour of division, when people are being written (or shot) out of the body politic like lepers, here he is with a new, comforting definition of citizenship. You’re a true Egyptian, everybody can be Egyptian, as long as you are simply me.

And it illuminates citizenship. Cairo is not a city of citizens. Citizenship is intimately tied to anomie, the loss or gradual eschewal of traditional ties – village, tribe, family – – that leaves one isolated yet free, lonely but autonomous, one’s identity up for one’s own shaping in collaboration with an abstract polis, an imagined community that sets the borders to your dreams. You derive meaning from the nation when other meanings wither; you become a member of the State when there is not much else to be a member of.  We are not governed by our parents but the City, Pericles told Athenians: “Fear is our chief safeguard, teaching us to obey the magistrates and the laws.” This has never been Cairo, where nobody fears the laws and magistrates – prevailing attitudes go from active contempt to anarchic disregard – but many feel devout reliance on old hierarchies and loyalties, habits and genealogies, traditional patterns of life.  

Each neighborhood is its own world, composed not of abstract Egyptians but of daughters, cousins, fathers, clients, patrons, protectors. In shaabi (popular) Cairo, Asef Bayat writes, people turn to “local leaders (kibar, shaykhs, Friday prayer leaders), problem solvers, and even local bullies” when facing life’s dilemmas, rather than to the recourses of modernity, the law and the NGOs. This is the charm and terror of Third World cities, by which I mean contemporary cities from Lagos and Jakarta to large parts of London and New York. They are not “modern.” They are in-between. The rapid changes of migration and uprooting don’t transform residents into citizens, but mean they carry their traditional worlds with them into exile, on their backs. The beauty of this urban life comes from the tension between the microcosms it encompasses. You live in a village in a city of 18 million. Each day you leave it for a time, to pass into a modernity that is sometimes promiscuously fascinating, sometimes fearful, sometimes arid and unbreathable, sometimes just confusing. Those are the times when you go downtown, to visit the Mugamma or meet the Man. Then you return to your quarters, which make up the rest of the city, where nobody is a citizen and certainly nobody is Sisi, where a different and entangled definition of the self prevails.

Armed civilians patrol the upscale Zamalek area of Cairo last week: © Manoocher Deghati

Armed civilians patrol the upscale Zamalek area of Cairo last week: © Manoocher Deghati

In violence or crisis, the city breaks up. Whatever reliance on the State most people felt slips away, like a frail undergarment irrelevant when armor is needed.  Each neighborhood starts sealing itself off. Patrols guard the perimeters; alleys become borders. Modernity starts shriveling up like a dying spider. Its rites and pleasures, the evenings in the downtown café, the casual conversations, the days of consorting with strangers, wither. The pretense of equalities, the promise of a wider belonging, is inaccessible now.

It’s nice enough for the regime for a while – they want people terrified. In the end, though, the military are always modernizers. They want a state full of citizens, visible and submissive, regimented in orderly lines – just like the picture says.  Come out of hiding; come out, wherever you are! (Already yesterday, Sisi banned the “popular security committees,” struggling to bring the neighborhoods back under police control.) The cafes and conversations of course will have to go. But something even bigger will replace them. Bathed in the warm and public light of State surveillance, a shared and happy fate awaits you: You can be Sisi!

Discipline and bakshish: A face in the crowd

Discipline and publish:  John Malkovich? Or Foucault?

The thing is, and it’s not widely recognized: The Muslim Brotherhood were modernizers too. They also had no use for traditional loyalties, local hierarchies, closed ways of life. They wanted people out in the open, detached from their older ties, only ranged and regimented not by State power but under the august aegis of Islam. Their diehard supporters were and are middle-class professionals trained in secular expertise — doctors, lawyers, teachers, engineers — who felt ill-used and under-salaried by a government indifferent to their skills. They hoped that religion’s promise of equality would bring more material fruits than the blandishments of socialism and structural adjustment. The Ikhwan was impatient with the lifeways of Cairo’s poorer neighborhoods and shaabi quarters, except as recipients of charity, expected to drag their denizens out to vote in return. Those places lacked the streamlined purity the Islamists demanded of a reformed and purpose-driven life. The Brothers are Puritan modernists and architects, building a kind of Bauhaus of the soul.  The junta and its Western apologists try to present the battle as between modern, secular rationalists with heavy weaponry, and sinister Islamist adherents of superannuated tradition trying to “turn back the clock.” But it’s not. It’s a battle between two modernities to seize State power. The local and particular, the diverse and unexpected, will all get crowded out.

Sawt el-Umma is not very smart. They stole the template for their cover from an American TV show, pasting Sisi’s pictures on. Twitter quickly caught on:

Sisism and narSisiism: Egypt is all George Costanza

Sisism and narSisism: Egypt is all George Costanza

So many ironies, I lose count. Of course, the more Sisi imagines an Egypt where everyone is the same, the more he produces a multiplication of neuroses: not nearly as nice as those of Larry David ensconced in Beverly Hills, though. They’ll be paranoid fears, malevolent and murderous. Those who don’t want to be Sisi will be (just like the people who didn’t want to be the Brotherhood’s ideal Muslims) un-Egyptian, non-citizens, lepers. The regime sounds more and more Big Brother-like in identifying its enemies. The “Egypt Fights Terrorism” banner that permanently glimmers in the corner of State TV’s screens insinuates itself in people’s dreams.

Are you Sisi? If not, why?

Are you Sisi? If not, why?

Crowds fed on State propaganda have attacked both Egyptian and foreign correspondents in recent days. An Egyptian-American reporter Tweeted yesterday that, at Ramsis Square, a “cop urged men around me to beat me up. ‘She is an American!'” And so the State Information Service issued a bizarre set of guidelines to foreign journalists on covering the unrest in approved fashion. “Egypt is feeling severe bitterness towards some Western media coverage that is biased to the Muslim Brotherhood,” it complained. “Some media sources are still falling short of describing the events of June 30 as an expression of a popular will.” And “Several media sources are seeking to focus on Western political stances that are adopting an approach different from the Egyptian one.” Thus, in the new Orwellian environment, Minitrue sets the message of the day. Even non-Egyptians need to be Sisi.

Sheikh Sayed, 88, blind and a Hansen's disease patient, a resident of Abu Zaabal for 63 years: © Claudia Wiens, 2009

Sheikh Sayed, 88, blind and a Hansen’s disease patient, a resident of Abu Zaabal for 63 years: © Claudia Wiens, 2009

In a village up near Abu Zaabal, where security forces slaughtered their prisoners yesterday, there is a secret place hardly any Egyptian knows about: a leper colony. Claudia Wiens photographed it beautifully back in 2009, when about 750 patients were still confined there, with several thousand cured lepers, unable or unwilling to return home, in surrounding areas. There is, as she shows, a loveliness to their life and their community so far from public knowledge, even if the medieval fear that kept them segregated there is hideous. I was thinking of them yesterday as the news of the prison convoy deaths came in: after I’d watched Sisi, and the foreign minister Nabil Fahmy, oleaginously defend all the bloodshed on TV. “Egypt Fights Terrorism” stayed unmoving over the talking heads. Egypt is making more lepers. In Abu Zaabal, they are counting the corpses from yesterday’s killings, and disputes over the numbers already drown out the question of how, and why, they died.

Corpse of a prisoner in a makeshift morgue at Abu Zaabal, August 17: From @ossamaelmahdy

Corpse of a prisoner in a makeshift morgue at Abu Zaabal, August 17: From @ossamaelmahdy


 

The killing days

August 16: Old woman wounded by birdshot at Rabaa El-Adawiya collapses on hospital floor. From @SharifKaddous

August 16: Old woman, wounded by birdshot at Rabaa El-Adawiya, collapsed on hospital floor. From @SharifKaddous

We took a walk after the first massacre. This was August 14, Wednesday, and they had clamped a curfew down on the stunned city. It was midnight, when the streets are usually still teeming, but they were deserted in Agouza, where I live; we were the only people walking along the Nile corniche, and only two or three cars rushed past us, speeding off on urgent and incomprehensible errands. We plodded up Shari’a Wezarat el Zeraa, trying to get to the Mostafa Mahmoud mosque, where Twitter said that clashes were still going on. The shops were all shuttered, but there was smashed glass everywhere. By the dark entrance of every building a couple of men sat dourly, delegated by the residents to protect the place. They had no resources but their unprepossessing presence. At almost every block an impromptu barricade, half-hearted as a semicolon, interrupted the street: cinderblocks scattered to stop cars, steel bars from a construction site. Suddenly there came a rush of thirty or more men running toward us. FIve or six were brandishing revolvers, and one had a Kalashnikov. They passed and ignored us as if they or we were ghosts. A small crowd was pillaging an On the Run (an upscale food shop attached to a gas station), and they wanted to join in. It was impossible to say which side they were on; politics was suspended; one of them shouted “Morsi is President!” but that might have been a feint to blame the looting on the Brotherhood. A kid went by clutching a computer monitor with both arms. We picked up a copy of a glossy business magazine (for investors in Egypt: Dear Guest) in the dust. The men in front of the buildings didn’t move.

Further up the street, young men drifted along in cloudlike bands, bantering stridently but nervously. They wielded boards, sticks, broomhandles. The air almost smelled of testosterone, and you felt a lit match could start an explosion. At Arab League Boulevard, the great wide slash cut through the city, there were more barricades; somebody’d ripped up the steel benches that tried to make the desiccated median strip a park, and strewn them across the asphalt. The tattoo of gunshots recurred not far off to the left, where the mosque was, like somebody drumming his fingers on a sheet of steel. We didn’t go there. Two armored personnel carriers stood at the eastern end of the avenue, ceremonial like the lions on the Qasr el-Nil bridge, guarding nothing. When we got home I bolted the door and only then I heard my heart pounding, louder than the gunfire. The city felt dead, deader than I’d ever seen it, but not dead enough to satisfy itself. It seemed to me its own inhabitants had decided to murder it, and would beat it to death if it moved.

For six weeks I couldn’t write about Egypt, and now I still can’t. I felt that, being here, I ought to express something. More and more happens and there is less and less to say. The latest round of “revolution” started, on June 30, with a great explosion of undifferentiated joy. I filmed Midan Tahrir, filled by ecstatic millions, as if it were a carnival.


There was a people’s party but none of what revolutions are supposed to bring, people’s power. The middle-class revolutionaries of Tamarod who’d started the uprising were happy to hand power to the killers. They gave it to the army like waiters passing a dish: they couldn’t have been more pliant servants. What do you expect the men with guns to do, but kill?

August 14: Protesters Rabaa El-Adawiya after the first army assault. From Mosa'ab Elshamy  at http://www.acus.org/egyptsource/photo-essay-eyewitness-account-rabaa-al-adaweya

August 14: Protesters at Rabaa El-Adawiya after the first army assault. From Mosa’ab Elshamy at http://www.acus.org/egyptsource/photo-essay-eyewitness-account-rabaa-al-adaweya

They started promptly, and it’s still going on. Wednesday, more than 600 died. On Friday the toll was more than 170. The numbers finally became an embarrassment; yesterday the Health Ministry, which had been adding up the totals, announced the figures will now be vetted by the Cabinet itself, to ensure conformity with the prevailing lies. But if the government doesn’t like the tabulations, it wants the murders themselves seen widely, pour encourager les autres. 

 August 16: The army fires on protesters in Ismailia

It kills in broad daylight, in public squares. It lets the Brotherhood practice violence in public too, burning churches with no interference. Killing is a spectacle. It educates as well as entertains. You can barely move around the city now — Friday, fighting closed most of the Nile crossings – but it doesn’t matter, you can get your fill of death, there’s home delivery. Yesterday I stood on the Nile corniche in the midday heat, and watched people being shot on the May 15 bridge, 500 meters from my house. They looked small and jerky, like puppets. Bridges used to connect; now they lead nowhere, you can corner people there, there’s no way out. Downtown, on the October 6 overpass, they jumped 10 meters to the concrete below, to escape the bullets. No exit.

August 16: Victims jumping from downtown bridge to escape gunfire. From @Spikecullen

August 16: Victims leaping from downtown bridge to escape gunfire. From @Spikecullen

Someone said on Twitter — I can’t find the exact words – that the army’s learning that when you shoot on a crowd it doesn’t go away. It breaks into smaller crowds. It flees into side streets and alleys, it keeps resisting. That’s what happened Wednesday and has been happening since. The Brotherhood has not gone, will not go away; its support only disperses like mercury as the survivors do, to reform in smaller fascicles. It’s also what’s happening to Egypt, though fewer notice. The country is fragmenting, segmented by barricades, each neighborhood shrivelling into itself, patrolled by feral kids with cudgels. Cairo is breaking up. You can’t look at a street now without calculating how it would do as a defensive perimeter.

The humour, the cuisine, the rites, the taste,
The pattern of the City, are erased.

Reports come in from Upper Egypt; tale-bearers carry stories from villages like fruits to market: stories of violence spread.

August 16: Woman trapped by gunfire on a bridge tries to hide. From @amragamawi.

August 16: Woman trapped by gunfire on a bridge tries to hide. From @amragamawi.

There aren’t any innocents. The Muslim Brotherhood dispatched gangs of strongmen to beat and abuse peaceful anti-Morsi demonstrators outside the Presidential Palace last November. At the protest camp at Rabaa, there was evidence that some Brotherhood opponents who strayed in were tortured brutally — Amnesty reported that “eight bodies have arrived at the morgue in Cairo bearing signs of torture. At least five of these were found near areas where pro-Morsi sit-ins were being held.”

August 16: Church burned  in Mallawy, Minya governorate. From @CoptyAfandy

August 16: Church burning, in Mallawy, Minya governorate. From @CoptyAfandy

And yesterday, Morsi supporters burned at least a dozen churches across Egypt. At least as many more have been set to the torch since June 30.  But these represent neither entirely spontaneous retaliation against Christians, nor a sinister Muslim Brotherhood master plan. For the most part, they reflect sectarian tensions festering for a long time, worsened by the alternating neglect and provocations of successive governments: Mubarak, the previous military junta, Morsi. In the climate of the army’s assaults, these were almost destined to be unleashed. They were entirely predictable, in other words. If the military (whose hands still drip blood from the 2011 Maspero massacre of Copts) had wanted to protect Christians, they could have deployed to defend churches in advance of their own onslaught on the Brotherhood in Cairo. Sisi’s regime relaxed in indifferent inaction, and now mourns in hypocrisy; they did nothing to protect places of worship. They wanted the violence to swell.

August 14: Protester shot at Rabaa El-Adawiya. From Mosa'ab Elshamy at http://www.flickr.com/photos/mosaaberising/sets/72157635071774090/

August 14: Protester shot at Rabaa El-Adawiya. From Mosa’ab Elshamy at http://www.flickr.com/photos/mosaaberising/sets/72157635071774090/

The army has unbolted the cage and violence is loose. To the extent they plan, that’s their plan. The excess of force in the incursion on the Brotherhood sit-ins in Cairo was neither error nor overreaction; it was deliberate. (One sickly amusing thing has been to watch US neoconservatives and Likudnik flacks applaud the Egyptian indifference to “proportionality,” which they rightly see as modeled on Israel’s policy of murderously massive retaliation. Egypt’s nationalists have won the ally they least like.) It’s not so much that Sisi hopes to send a message that resistance is futile. He wants the Brotherhood to resist. The military knows that each murder makes a martyr; each burned Church gouges a new rift in communal relations; a descent into the mindless war of all against all is just their desire. The more the country divides, the more he destabilizes it, the more Sisi will be enthroned as an icon of fraudulent unity. He’s no narcissist; he doesn’t need to delude himself he’s loved. He wants citizens turning to him not in adulation but in desperation. Fear is the best propaganda.

There are no innocents, but there are the guilty. It’s not just those who planned the assault, but those who excused repression, encouraged it, exalted it, continue to applaud it. For weeks after June 30, my Facebook and Twitter feed were full of “liberals” mouthing the government line that the Brotherhood were “terrorists” and deserved what they got. If demonstrators died, the blame lay with them or the Ikhwan leaders who “sacrificed” them — because after all they should have expected the army to massacre them.  It ran from the famous (whose names are worth preserving) –

bassemy copy

–to the obscure  (I conceal them; they may already be ashamed):

From the Facebook feed of Mr. Kurtz

From the Facebook feed of Mr. Kurtz

Yesterday, when over a hundred Brotherhood supporters died, an Ikhwan announcement of a “Week of Departure” to demand Sisi’s resignation led to secular stand-up comedy:

Muslim brotherhood departure copy

Rhetoric of eradication has permeated “liberal” discussions of the Brotherhood for weeks now. Liberals suggest, in one version or another: Exterminate all the brutes. The State feeds this with the overblown language of “terrorism,” stolen from the worst excesses of the Bush administration. Not just official media but the progressive channel ONTV demonize Islamists and repeat that “terrorists” are amok, offering open-ended excuses for government terror.

Mohamed El Baradei, the “liberal” hero, finally resigned from the puppet government to protest the Wednesday killings. But he’d called for a coup for months before the generals took over, and after it happened, he justified it to the West with his peculiar brand of counter-prescience: “The military intervention was necessary, precisely so as to avoid a bloody confrontation.”  On Wednesday, the National Salvation Front he helped found — supposedly the coalition of “liberal” forces in the country — issued a repellent statement while men and women were dying in Rabaa.

Today, Egypt lifted her head high, announcing to the world her victory  … [T]he firm leadership of the armed forces and the collective will of the people demanded the dispersal of the sit-in at the hands of the security forces. The leaders of this group that exploits the innocent – women and children! – for their own protection are now fleeing from the fortifications that they built over the past six weeks and trying to conceal their escape from what they call “sit-ins” at the squares. The Egyptian people will disperse these gatherings themselves before the security forces. … The NSF salutes the police and military forces, and bows its head in tribute and respect for the great people.

Those liberals’ spittle shines the junta’s boots.

August 14: Corpses of Morsi supporters in a field hospital at Rabaa El-Adawiya. © Amr Abdallah Dalsh for Reuters.

August 14: Corpses of Morsi supporters in a field hospital at Rabaa El-Adawiya. © Amr Abdallah Dalsh for Reuters.

I love Egypt, in my outsider’s way; I love Cairo, its sarcasm, its busyness, its laziness, the crowds hurrying past ahawi where people smoke and sip coffee for hours undisturbed. Even these days, traces of that survive. In Agouza, if you weave at 2 AM through neighborhoods where all the lights are down, past barricades of fallen branches, you’ll stumble on a street of cafes resolutely open despite the curfew, shisha-smokers playing backgammon, watching the shootings on TV. But these are phantasmagoric, fragments of a broken city. They’re little shards, glinting after you shatter a globe of glass. The iridescence has nothing to do with what used to be. 

What do I do these days? I sit at home. My house is a refuge of sorts for six or seven Egyptian friends. We shop before the curfew, we cook elaborate meals. Yesterday I watched a butcher cut a chicken’s neck for our dinner; “A clean death,” I thought. Yeats runs idly through my head.

Now days are dragon-ridden, the nightmare
Rides upon sleep: a drunken soldiery
Can leave the mother, murdered at her door,
To crawl in her own blood, and go scot-free;
The night can sweat with terror as before
We pieced our thoughts into philosophy,
And planned to bring the world under a rule,
Who are but weasels fighting in a hole.

But is there any comfort to be found?
Man is in love and loves what vanishes,
What more is there to say? That country round
None dared admit, if such a thought were his,
Incendiary or bigot could be found
To burn that stump on the Acropolis,
Or break in bits the famous ivories
Or traffic in the grasshoppers or bees.

And in the last few days I tried to write on Russia. There were crimes there, but they were far away, unlike the gunfire you could occasionally hear. The subject seemed so almost-calm that I felt like the narrator at the end of Borges’ “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”: sitting in a quiet hotel as his world dissolved, revising for his own imperfect pleasure a translation of Sir Thomas Browne’s Urn Burial, in the style of Quevedo. 

August 14: In the morgue at Rabaa El-Adawiya: from Mosa'ab Elshamy, at http://www.flickr.com/photos/mosaaberising/sets/72157635071774090/page2/

August 14: In the morgue at Rabaa El-Adawiya: from Mosa’ab Elshamy, at http://www.flickr.com/photos/mosaaberising/sets/72157635071774090/page2/


					

Cairo diary, December 2012: Walls, women, rape, fear

Tenting tonight in the old campground: In Midan Tahrir, November 27

Tenting tonight in the old campground: In Midan Tahrir, November 27 © Scott Long

I was detained at the airport coming into Cairo this time. When the woman at the control desk swiped my passport through the computer, a startled look filled her face below the hijab. She waved me down to the far, last lane: a place where Palestinians and stateless people congregate, in that limbo between borders where one is at the government’s mercy without having any claim on it. I lingered there an hour or so, generally ignored, and then an officer led me off to a remote room, somewhere past the lost-luggage desk. He locked the door behind me.

This was a dispiriting chamber, flat under faint fluorescent light, with empty chairs and graffiti on the walls: “Gaza” recurred over and over, with different dates, expressive as a scream. Another man sat there, Egyptian. He worked in Africa, had lost his passport there, and was trying to enter on a consular document. “Did they turn the key?” he said.

“Yes.”

“Shit on these shitholes. I hope their shit eats shit and dies of it,” he said, matter-of-factly. “They should die in the shit that they shovel onto others. How are you?”

It took three hours, and it mostly consisted of waiting. If I’ve learned anything from dealing with state officials, as investigator or victim, it’s that it’s pointless to ask questions. Silence elicits information as well as anything does; it makes them do the asking, and that tells you what they don’t know. In my case, they didn’t know why they wanted me. “You are on a security list,” an officer finally told me.

“Why?” I ventured.

“We’re not sure, but we have to check you for security.”

I’m not certain either what “checking me” entailed — Googling me? calling my parents? In any case, they finally released me into mother Egypt, not long after my sans-papiers colleague. (“Goodbye,” he said, “enjoy the shit.”) The whole episode explained why I had been similarly stopped (minus the cell and the locked door) the last three times I entered the country — previously, I’d supposed the controllers simply appalled by my ragged and decaying passport, relic of too many sweaty days and back pockets. But apparently some bureaucrat actually has put my name down with a permanent interrogatory beside it: What is he doing here? I feel flattered: not so much at being imputed a fake importance, but because the State and I are finally asking the same question.

Borders leave scars here. Nine years ago, in Cairo, I interviewed an Egyptian who’d lived for years in the US — he’d claimed asylum there as a former member of Hizb ut-Tahrir, an Islamist group that Mubarak’s government suppressed savagely. 9/11 happened, and Hizb ut-Tahrir lost its credit with the US authorities. A few days after, police in his Connecticut suburb took him into custody. Never mind his pending asylum case; never mind the American woman he’d married. After a year in jail, they deported him to Egypt. As he came into the Cairo airport in chains, a US immigration officer handed his case file to the passport police. It was the same as saying, “Torture him, please.” State Security held him for several weeks, and they went through the standard repertory: cold water, beatings, electroshock to the genitals. When I met him he still had memory lapses, lacunae that themselves bore witness to an interrupted life.

That happened because he crossed the invisible line of an imperial power. I represent the imperial power (“Permit the citizen/national of the United States to pass without delay or hindrance,” my brand-new passport says). And so I’m used to crossing borders free of fear. That said, the first thing you notice, coming back to Cairo after a year, is the sheer proliferation of borders. The boundary has decamped from the country’s edge, and now divides its center.  I’m staying near the much-feared Ministry of Interior, and morning and night I walk through two barbed-wire barricades on either side of it, past milling and listless Central Security troops, and a soldier manning a rifle atop an armored personnel carrier.

Walls have risen all around the government quarter, to keep the people from reaching it. Take any side street, and you’ll run into a rampart. Here’s one across Qasr el-Aini street, one of the main entries to Midan Tahrir:

The smile was added later

The smile was added later:  © Scott Long

Here is a barrier protecting the security forces’ headquarters — you can see the Interior Ministry’s sinister radio tower looming in the rear:

Don't walk this way: © Tyler Huffman

Don’t walk this way: © Tyler Huffman

The graffiti is a Quranic verse, and it’s aimed at the State: “They will not fight you, except in fortified townships, or from behind walls. Their belligerence is strong among themselves. You would think they were united, but their hearts are divided: That is because they are a people without wisdom.”

The walls don’t dice up the city in any coherent way.  They’re just meant to prevent protesters from accessing the State’s most sensitive points. But they stake out a symbolic division between the Revolution and the government: still at odds after two years and two elections. And, like most borders, they mark where people died.

47 people died a year ago along Mohamed Mahmoud Street, a green avenue leading from Tahrir. That’s a long story, like most in Cairo. In November 2011, the government decided to clear out the ongoing opposition sit-in from the main square, and Central Security Forces [Amn el-Merkazi] tried to use Mohamed Mahmoud as their route of attack. Protesters set up a defense line there. Security retaliated by building a wall. Five days of battle followed. Security gunfire blinded many demonstrators — the marksmen aimed straight at their eyes. Hundreds were injured: there’s no exact count. No one has been punished for the blindings or the deaths.

DSC00570

Ruins of Lycee Horreya, Mohamed Mahmoud Street, November 27: © Scott Long

Mohamed Mahmoud also figured in the chaos of the last three weeks, which I hardly have the ability to summarize, though I’ll try. On November 19 protesters gathered on the street, to commemorate the previous year’s deaths. The Interior Ministry used tear gas to disperse them; in the ensuing days, clashes spread to the other margins of Tahrir Square. At least one young man was killed. Central Security holed up in a lycee on Mohamed Mahmoud — the Lycee Horreya, Freedom School (Cairo is beyond irony) — firing on the protesters from above and throwing rocks at them.  Soon the school was almost completely torched.

Amid all this, on November 22 Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood leader narrowly elected President five months ago, issued a decree. Morsi has been ruling by decree ever since he was inaugurated. There’s nobody else to make laws; days before the presidential vote in June, the Constitutional Court disbanded the Parliament elected last year. (Since the Muslim Brotherhood were the dominant force in Parliament, many saw that move as Mubarak-era judges striving to deprive political Islamists of power. If so, though, it backfired, since the election promptly handed sole authority to an Islamist President.) Morsi’s new decree cemented his own decreeing power. He made his decisions immune to judicial review, until a new Parliament sits in some unspecified future. He also exempted the Constituent Assembly from judicial oversight. In effect, he decreed himself dictator.

Mubarak used to pick judges specifically for their willingness to jail Brotherhood members. Morsi and his party therefore loathe the only-supposedly-independent judiciary, something that seems both reasonable and requited. The Constituent Assembly, though, is what’s at the center of this mess. The now-dissolved Parliament had chosen the Assembly to write a new constitution for Egypt. Predictably, since the Brotherhood ran Parliament, they picked a Constituent Assembly that they ran too. Nearly all secular and liberal representatives had already withdrawn from it in protest. Most people expected the Constitutional Court to decide, in a pending case, that the Assembly itself was illegitimate. Morsi’s decree forestalled that, giving the Assembly (and hence the Brotherhood) fiat over Egypt’s future.

Crowds off Mohamed Mahmoud Street, November 27: © Scott Long

Crowds off Mohamed Mahmoud Street, November 27: © Scott Long

When I arrived on November 23, the lemony tang of tear gas constantly drifted south from central Cairo, and the thud of bursting cannisters punctuated night and day. Protests had broken out in cities across the country. There was  impotence in the anger, a rage at everything going wrong. I went to Mohamed Mahmoud the next night, just under the lycee where Central Security had their bastion. Teenagers with rocks and Molotov cocktails were tearing apart a parked car, for no apparent reason except they couldn’t get at the killers four stories up. A few days later the cindered car still sat there, beneath a scraggle of graffiti that said “Happy Birthday.”

Youssef el Guindy Street, off Mohamed Mahmoud, November 27. Among the graffiti: "Long live the prisoners'   intifada"; "Glory to the workers of Egypt": © Scott Long

Youssef el Guindy Street, off Mohamed Mahmoud, November 27. Among the graffiti: “Long live the prisoners’ intifada”; “Glory to the workers of Egypt”: © Scott Long

After Morsi’s decree, the Assembly scurried to submit a proposed Constitution, and Morsi scheduled a rush referendum for December 15. The protests have continued: here’s a scene from a massive opposition march on November 27, as the crowd stops to jeer in front of the headquarters of Morsi’s party downtown.

It’s not that the draft Constitution is unspeakably worse than the existing one; it’s not even that it offers some instant blueprint for Islamist rule. Neither, despite the melodrama opponents indulge, is true. (A comparison of the two Constitutions is here; an analysis of the more controversial new provisions, here.) The rage is rather that the Revolution was thwarted from producing something better: and that Morsi is forcing down this ploddingly inept document by the old means of extralegal rigging. It’s also anger at two years in which the State has consistently brutalized its own people rather than answer their demands. Whether under Mubarak, the military, or Morsi, the government chose to build barricades against its citizens — and shoot them, to kill.

As an outsider, the anger concerns me more than the Constitution; I can feel the first, while the second is an abstraction. I don’t even know how to write about the rapes, except you have to, because they’re everywhere. My first day here, the office where I’m working asked me for information about rape kits; two women had come to them after they were raped near Tahrir. That night, I went to a friend’s flat; her neighbor had been gang-raped along with another woman, dragged into a dark side street in the vicinity of the Square.

Sexual harassment, the show of men’s physical power over women in public space, has been a political issue in Egypt for several years. Yet no one was prepared for sexual violence on this scale. Some activists have claimed the Muslim Brotherhood has gathered roving mobs to rape protesting women; in the UK, the Daily Mail has blazoned this rumor eagerly. No one actually knows, because no actual people have been accused or caught. Central Security only comes near Tahrir to taunt or shoot protesters, not to protect them. For anybody else, there’s virtual impunity in much of downtown.

DSC00665

Anti-police graffiti near the Ministry of Interior: “He learned his job by bribery.” Two images of Revolutionary martyrs are on the right. © Scott Long

A vigilante spirit roams Egypt. The police largely disappeared after the Revolution. There are just enough traffic cops at intersections to maintain the show of somebody being in charge. But for nearly all Egyptians, the police were the government’s most corrupt, intrusive and abusive visage: everybody had to deal with them, everybody despised them, and they were the one part of the State that, in the chaos of regime change, had the self-preserving sense to melt away. In many neighborhoods now, officers wouldn’t dare show their faces on patrol if you tripled their pay. Central Security Forces are supposed to fill the gap. These are ill-trained army recruits, mostly from the provinces, deputed to urban policing tasks that they have no clue how to fulfill. One reason so many demonstrators have been slaughtered since the Revolution is simply that Central Security has no experience in crowd control. State Security [Amn el-Dawla], Mubarak’s dreaded secret police, at least knew how to contain a dissident gathering, up to a certain size; but they’re officially defunct (meaning they’ve gone underground). The raw boys of Central Security carry only the fears fed them by their superiors, and their guns.

In this environment, communities themselves — the neighborhood, the extended family — take up the responsibility for “security.” Communal cooperation is part of the Egyptian genius. Yet the immediate result is to make outsiders suspect by definition. I’ve seen this first-hand: last year, trying to get to a demonstration near the Defense Ministry in the Abbasiyya quarter, I found myself amid a mob of local residents running to attack the intruders, armed with large knives, all convinced that their streets and homes themselves were under attack from people who didn’t belong. (Since I fell in that category, I count myself lucky that I don’t have more pieces of myself to count.) I can easily imagine the rapes as product of a nightmarish moral vigilantism: the work of men convinced these women aren’t proper Egyptian women, that if not controlled they will invade our streets and our places, that they must be punished.

Even beyond the stories of rape, something ominous is afoot. It’s hard not to feel that the Revolution has actually reinforced patriarchal control of women: not the way you might think, by reinstating religion, but rather by making men identify more deeply with an ethos of protection. I talked in recent days with Egyptian researchers doing ethnography in two working-class and conservative neighborhoods in Cairo. The men and women they’ve interviewed alike have stressed their fears about safety. Everyone’s heard rumors about the rapes. Moreover, everybody subsists in terror of a crime wave, even if they haven’t actually seen crimes. And men have locked stricter controls on “their” women, their wives and daughters, in response: restrictions on going out unaccompanied, walking alone, staying out at night. Women lose not only mobility but social cohesion if they can’t meet one another freely, and economic independence if they can’t make it to market or work (as many do) as street vendors. Men, meanwhile, gain power in reclaiming a traditional role as guardians. (It’s at least some compensation for the lost jobs of a collapsed economy.) There are political implications to these shifts, although they’re hard to read. As a guardian State slowly reasserts its legitimacy, incarnate in a patriarchal figure like Morsi, will men identify with it, or resent its encroachment? Or both at once?

Stand by your man: Male protesters form a ring around women marchers, Talaat Harb Street, November 27

Stand by your man: Male protesters form a ring around women marchers, Talaat Harb Street, November 27 © Scott Long

Vigilantes patrol on both sides now, in fact: the bad vigilantes cut hair and enforce modesty, and the good vigilantes protect their women from all that. You can see the guardian role in all manner of places — among the middle class, for instance, in last Tuesday’s mass opposition march, where men formed a cordon around women protesters to safeguard them. (There’s even a Twitter account for this now, @Tahrirbodyguard, “A collective effort to ensure safety in Tahrir, especially for women” –oddly, it’s all in English.) The thing is, it’s a little hard to be caught between all these protectors. If you want to see the dilemmas this poses for feminism, consider this anti-sexual harassment graffiti, from Mohamed Mahmoud Street:

Up against the wall, motherharassers

Up against the wall, motherharassers: © Scott Long

The central two panels are about women empowered. The top one says (roughly) “If he calls you a hot slut, use a weapon”; the bottom, “No matter how much of my body shows or doesn’t show, it’s free and can never be humiliated.” But the bottom left carries a different message, and it’s not for women at all: “Be a man! Protect her!”

This call to be a man is heard quite a bit in Cairo. Masculinity itself seems to be at stake, in the brutal clashes where the walls stand. ¿Quien es mas machoWhich side holds the monopoly on manhood? What does being a man mean, anyway? Here’s graffiti I saw a year ago, from the Association of Detainees of the Revolution, calling for a sit-in:

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“Man up! Take to the streets with us, your Revolution has been stolen!” And the chant rang out at rallies against the army — a reminder that our side is more manly than the soldiers, even: “Man up and shout! The military’s time is ending soon!”

But manhood is at stake because manhood is in question. It’s a wounded, brutalized manhood, aware of its vulnerability. Two years of incessant violence have both mutilated it and shaped it. It’s in pain, and it lashes out.

That’s the thing I apprehend most of all, this time in Cairo: the exhaustion, the hurt, the pain. I don’t think one can underestimate how these years of killing have brutalized a society. The grinding gradualness of it all has been part of the effect (as well as the break with the enforced placidity of the Mubarak years before). Of course, one doesn’t speak of the whole society ground down. Most of Egypt is still the Party of the Couch, with windows closed against the tear gas. Two of the culture’s naked extremities, though, seem to have been most exposed, and left most clotted with rage: the poorest and the not-quite privileged-yet, the underclass who feel they’ve nothing left to lose and the young intellectuals and students; the utterly dispossessed, and those who possess nothing but their promise. I have no inclination to sentimentalize either, and I usually resist both organic metaphors and those vertical ones that claim to arrange social classes in their natural elevations. Still and all, it feels like killing a society at the root and at the leaf.

A street child sifts through rubble on Mohamed Mahmoud Street:  © Scott Long

A street child sifts through rubble on Mohamed Mahmoud Street: © Scott Long

A friend who works with street children reminds me that they’ve been in the front lines of the clashes for months: kids as young as eight or nine making Molotov cocktails and pitching them at Security forces along Mohamed Mahmoud.   There are tens of thousands of homeless children in Cairo. They’re enraged; and many of them have already lost friends to the government’s bullets. These martyrs of the Revolution mostly aren’t counted, and they tend to end up in unmarked graves. Their despair, though, replicates that of traumatized middle-class kids in a different key. A 21 year-old student told Al-Ahram earlier this year that “Since the revolution began, with the exception of the month of August, I’ve lost at least one friend every month.”

Some of the consequences of this brutalization show through the powerful street art that has been painted on the walls along Mohamed Mahmoud Street. These pictures are secular icons, a record of the Revolution’s martyrs, but also a symptomography of the body under the State’s pressure. It’s a kind of political lexicon of pain.

Some portraits of the martyrs are deliberately benign, unphysical, the dead as spiritualized angel. This one says only, “Mostafa Metwally: 1994 – 2012.” (Metwally died at 17 in February’s “football massacre” in Port Said.)

 © Scott Long

© Scott Long

The angel here is flecked with blood: “The Martyr Mohamed Seri. By Kamal Abdel Mobdy.”

© Scott Long

The accompanying poem tries to tie him to earth by weighting him with national history:

The first country and first people we are
Seven thousand years old we are
Night comes to our country and turns to light through us
The greatness of pyramids tells who we are
The rooted ancient people we are …

But other figures seem too dense with their own particularity, and the terrible fact of their loss, to need the ballast. On the left: “Karim Khozam: An icon of moral commitment: 2-12-1992″ (he also died in the Port Said massacre). On the right: “Alaa Abdelhady: One of the martyrs of the Cabinet clashes” (a medical student, he was shot near the central government building almost a year ago).

 © Scott Long

© Scott Long

Some images emphasize mutilation. This shows Ahmed Harara, who lost one eye during the January Revolution, and the other while fighting on Mohamed Mahmoud Street:

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© Scott Long

And some images bloat with pain till they terrify. These could be by Francis Bacon:

 © Scott Long

© Scott Long

A line above them reads: “And to the State, it’s God’s will. Meaning, they owe nothing for your death.”

 © Scott Long

© Scott Long

The figure at left below is a version of the tortured body of Khaled Said, killed by police in Alexandria in 2011. Here, its deformation pushes back at the formalities of perspective.

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© Scott Long

The figure at right seems haloed unbearably in its own exploding head.

 © Scott Long

© Scott Long

The line above the images reads, “If the picture is not clear enough, believe me: The reality is uglier.” The pictures, though, are part of the reality, of a body politic at extremity. If they are hard to look at, imagine living with –or in — them.

Tarek Mustafa, Maysara Omar, Ramy Youssef, and Nada Zatouna helped me think through aspects of this post.

Then there were elections, and the fun started: Egypt’s vote

Beard vs. bullets: the Brotherhood’s Morsi and the army’s Shafiq

There’s no such thing as “freedom.” There are only freedoms of various sorts, and nearly all of them are freedoms to.  Freedom to speak; freedom to be silent. Freedom to put a placard in the window; freedom to refrain. Freedom to worship; freedom to say “There is no god.”  There is also a neglected one, but extremely important: the freedom to be stupid. This is indispensable, basic, if only because the second and most frequent excuse that police, politicians, philosopher kings and priests will come up with to prohibit any act (after the first and only valid one, “you’ll hurt somebody with that”) is: “That’s a really stupid thing to do.”  Power always wants to think for you, and the general way is to brand your own untrammeled thoughts as stupid. But you have a right to be stupid. Cherish that!  The freedom to be stupid is so fundamental to the autonomous self, so intrinsic to our independence, that when practiced by the individual we don’t even have a name for it. When practiced by a group, it’s called “democracy.”

This is a refreshing reflection after the Egyptian elections. The results were certified today, and, from a liberal or leftist intellectual’s perspective, 48.44% of the ballots displayed people being stupid. This is the combined result for the two top votegetters, and while it’s not quite a majority, it was enough to put Mohammed Morsi (the candidate of the Freedom and Justice Party, or the Muslim Brotherhood) and Ahmed Shafiq (former general, Mubarak’s last prime minister, the candidate of the military and the old regime) into a runoff for President. It’s Armageddon, the Islamists versus the army, the two establishments battling head-to-head, with the values that animated most vocal revolutionaries squeezed out from the middle without a smidgen left behind. Boy, is everybody else pissed.

Midan Tahrir, May 28, from @OccupiedCairo: “This time we’re serious”

There was a demo in Midan Tahrir tonight, thousands of people shouting in fury, mainly at Shafiq’s presence in the runoff, the discredited relic of dictatorship. Me, I’m following all this on Twitter, the stay-at-home revolutionary’s best friend. @JamalalJazeera quotes one protester:  “The generation that ruined us with their silence for 30 years has now ruined us with their votes for Shafiq.”

Meanwhile, across the river in Dokki, somebody attacked and ransacked and set fire to Shafiq’s campaign headquarters. One report on Twitter suggested that as many as eight of Shafiq’s HQs around the country were attacked at the same time; but I haven’t heard more about that. Is this revolutionaries’ rage, or provocateurs? My friend Liam Stack of the New York Times reports people in the burned building “say they ‘got a warning’ to leave Shafiq campaign HQ an hour before the fire started at 10 pm.” From whom? @Khufo lends a note of caution: “don’t you think it’s common sense since ppl have been calling to march towards the hq this afternoon?”  But there’s something fishy, if only in the Shafiqists’ attempt to pin blame. At first, according to @Sherifkouddous, people on the scene were inclined to curse the Muslim Brotherhood for the attacks. But pretty soon they seemed to get different instructions: Youm TV had a Shafiq spokesman saying Alaa Abd el-Fattah was responsible. Alaa, hero of the Revolution, is the military junta’s favorite bogeyman; they blame him for everything, murders at Maspero, dust storms, 30 Rock being cancelled. The account of his incendiary acts is ridiculous, but in less than an hour it took on the dignity of mention in al-Ahram. The state-run paper proclaimed a little while ago that Egypt’s prosecutor general himself had dispatched a team of aides to investigate the incident, and that

a number of witnesses in their testimony to detectives charged political activist Alaa Abd el-Fattah and his sister [Mona Seif, founder of the No Military Trials campaign and hence particularly unpopular with the generals] with involvement in the attack on the headquarters of the Ahmed Shafiq campaign; witnesses said they saw Alaa and his sister asleep in a car near the office minutes before the storming and burning of the headquarters.

Alaa says: “Thinking of installing a GPS tracker and live update my location publicly. Maybe this would stop the false accusations.”

Here’s film of the fire:

Shafiq has run as the law-and-order candidate, the man to restore security and the halcyon quiet of Mubarak times. The violence, whoever caused it, seems predestined to prove his point. Lauren Bohn, a journalist on the scene, says:  “Shafiq campaigners are reading raiding the HQ … as [handing him] his presidency on a silver platter.”

Even now, Shafiq’s candidacy is under a pall of doubt for a number of reasons. One is that the Brotherhood-dominated Parliament in April passed a law barring any senior Mubarak official from running. Shafiq, senior Mubarak official par excellence, challenged this before the Electoral Commission, which is staffed by Mubarak holdovers; they ruled he could run after all, pending a decision by the Constitutional Court. Rumors today suggested the court will hand down a ruling on June 11, five days before the runoff. Kicking Shafiq off the ballot at the last minute would be regular business in this highly irregular election. Neither of the two apparent finalists was the first choice for their respective sides. The Electoral Commission earlier disqualified the Brotherhood’s favored candidate, Khairat el-Shater, for a previous court conviction. It also booted the military’s number-one flack, Omar Suleiman, because too many of his signatures were forged. (Suleiman was Mubarak’s top spy, chief torturer, and chosen successor; I noted here eight months ago that the junta was keeping him in reserve as a possible Presidential candidate.) The two sides fell back on the uncharismatic Morsi and the dully bureaucratic Shafiq with some resignation. In the process, the Commission also kicked out Hazem Abu Ismail, candidate of the far-right Salafists, because his late mother had acquired an American passport. The era when any Egyptian can grow up to run for President is still not here.

El-Shater, Abu Ismail, and Suleiman: See no evil, hear no evil, and I will attach electric wires to your genitals if you do not tell me everything you know that’s evil right now

There are some signs of irregularities in the first-round voting, though Jimmy Carter found it generally fair. A reformist judge today demanded an explanation for the appearance of 5 million new voters on the registration rolls in the last year. Despite a ban on security personnel voting, an officer has filed a complaint saying that 900,000 were issued IDs to cast ballots for Shafiq. (Wael Eskandar has a rundown on these allegations here.) That’s more than the 700,000 votes that separated Shafiq from the third-place runner up, the Nasserite Hamdeen Sabahi.

But back off a moment. Even if the military illegally manipulated Shafiq’s showing, the fact is that the old reprobate got a lot of votes nonetheless. The three top finalists (Morsi, Shafiq, and the edged-out Sabahi) won close to 70% of the ballots between them in a packed field. Perhaps, while the ashes settle in Cairo, one can consider, in that pundity way, what this means: what are the Lessons of it all.

Money and organization. Morsi and (however doubtfully he used it) Shafiq had it. The Brotherhood, in addition to its alleged funding from Qatar (possibly supplemented by Saudi cash after Riyadh’s favored Salafists were disqualified), has its core constituency among the professional classes; these too help keep it in the black. Both cash and commitment have aided it in building the most formidable grass-roots machine in Egyptian politics. True, its vote fell off substantially since last year’s Parliamentary elections — from  more than 40% to less than 25%, reflecting wide anger at the legislature’s ineptitude. But it still mobilized the votes it had. Shafiq, meanwhile, certainly enjoyed the military’s money behind him, if not those 900,000 ID cards. It’s interesting that he didn’t start taking off in the polls until Obama, after some hestitations, renewed the $1 billion-plus in military aid the US ladles on Cairo; perhaps the prudent junta was holding off until it knew for certain the piggy bank (a haram receptacle, but a hefty one) was full.

Ideological certainty. The two candidates whom pundits and polls had earlier anointed both failed miserably. Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, the liberal former Brotherhood member who tried to built a rainbow movement stretching from secularists to Salafists, got 17% of the votes. Amr Moussa, charismatic former Foreign Minister and Arab League head, got 11%. Most voters, I would guess, disdained their vagueness — the elisions of coalition politics in Aboul Foutouh’s case, and of slippery sloganeering in Moussa’s. They voted for clarity instead. Sabahi, the Nasserist, ran as an unreconstructed leftist, talking of social and economic justice. Even without much cash on hand, a clear populist message propelled him nearly to the top. And even if  Morsi and Shafiq hedged about exact plans and programs, the Brotherhood and the Mubarakites are so familiar that you’d have to be a fool not to know what you’re getting. After the confusions of a revolutionary year, a lot of people wanted straightforward beliefs.

Sabahi: The nation needs my chest hair

Nostagia and nationalism. The siren singing of the successful candidates had, to an outsider’s ear, something of a retro tonality, like a bad cover of a previous year’s hit. The Nasserites, since the Great Gamal died, have had little appeal but memory: recollections of a day when Egypt was independent of the US, adored by the Arab masses, feared by the Arab kings, and at perpetual war with Israel and others.( It’s to Sabbahi’s credit that he broadened this by talking about present-day economics.) Shafiq, meanwhile, based his campaign on an end to the current crime wave and a return to enforced national unity and omnipresent police. And the Brotherhood, while not exactly nationalist in their blandishments — Islam of course is transnational — invoked a solidarity transcending temporary political divisions, the ummah, irrefragable except for those pesky Copts. If you worry about society’s friability in the face of democratic disagreement, or about a loss of national dignity with the retreat of economy and state, these are the guys for you.

What the left revolutionaries didn’t do. If I’m right about the above, then the votes for Morsi and Shafiq seem not stupid, but the pursuit of a rationality different from the leftist and liberal intellectuals’. But a vote for the unequivocal was made easier by the left revolutionaries’ own equivocations about a program. Beyond overthrowing the dictator and establishing democracy, they never developed one. Even on those two points, of course, much is undone — the junta still rules, civilians suffer in military courts, torture continues; but the negatives amount to a call for dismantling the existing system, not guidelines for what a new one will be, or do. I am reluctant to speak of “failure,” but two aspects seem like failures to me. First, the middle-class revolutionaries never engaged much with the workers or peasants who also manned, and womaned, the revolution. They had enormous trouble, indeed, integrating economic justice into their own demands: over the summer, negotiations on a revolutionary program never got much farther into economics than an anodyne provision on the minimum wage. Second —  growing from the first — they failed to follow their own left principles consistently. Almost all the youth activists had some touch of anarchism, for instance. But they did little work on micropolitics, to build local structures of decision-making and alliance within the larger society, structures that might have given the ecstatic but ephemeral experience of Tahrir some permanence. Still less did they follow their syndicalist ancestors in working with the trade unions (for instance) to imagine different models of self-government. These are missed opportunities.

As a result, most of the young revolutionaries wound up politically homeless. In the first Presidential round, most of their votes probably went to  Sabahi, the secular leftist — deserting Khaled Ali, a human rights activist just barely old enough to run, who incarnated many of their values and had no chance and wound up with .5% of the votes. But before that, many had a weird flirtation with Naguib Sawiris, a fantastically rich mobile-phone entrepreneur who founded the Free Egyptians Party, and was one of the more inept politicians among the many incompetents to whom the Revolution opened public life. A Revolution that marries a billionaire is making a bad match.

But certainly this doesn’t mean the Revolution failed. For better or for worse, the Revolution was always a postmodernish one, limited in its objectives, rejecting the Leninist model of seizing state power. The chance to seize state power was there; on the last day before Mubarak fell, as protesters surrounded the government broadcasting center, they seemed for a moment to be following a script as old as the First International. But they rejected it. Historians will probably debate the wisdom of this for decades, but the fact is: the lack of a positive program was built into the way the revolutionaries behaved. They scrupulously abjured either arrogating government authority to themselves, or replicating it by building a new model. That wasn’t the idea. Their highest goal was to open society up and create the space for democracy, and it was part of their dignity and modesty that they didn’t claim some preempting nsight into what that democracy should do.

And now? The leaderless liberals have launched a “united front,” predictably disunited, to demand that whoever becomes president set up an inclusive constitution-drafting process. Shafiq and Morsi will go ahead and campaign, though Shafiq might be disqualified at the last minute. Each will spend the time trying to scare the hell out of everybody about the other. After that, whoever wins will have a thoroughly divided country on his hands. That might not be a bad thing, give the regressive politics either one would represent: neither exactly deserves carte blanche to govern. And if Shafiq is shucked off the ballot? Does Sabahi enter the runoff with five days to go? Is there a new election? The whole thing has been so bungled so far that nobody can guess.

Issandr el-Amrani calls, basically, for a new Revolution aiming at a new transition:

The question is not really anymore whether there was massive fraud, or only minor violations as the PEC [the Electoral Commission] stated today. Its ruling is not appealable, it has a past record of dubious decisions, and it behaved suspiciously by distributing last minute supplementary voter lists and blocking access to observers to counting rooms. The PEC had no credibility even before the vote was cast for many people who are unhappy with the results.

The real question is to what extent will the political leaders that supposedly represent the protestors will push the delegitimization of the elections, and how the Muslim Brotherhood (which has alleged fraud but not filed any complaints, perhaps afraid to lose its spot on the runoff) will position itself between the protest movement and the state.

The revolutionaries were right that no constitution should be written, and no election held, under the rule of generals who served Hosni Mubarak. They didn’t care about the current interim constitution because it itself has little legitimacy, and the transition has been so mangled as to barely make sense anymore. … The politicians were afraid to alienate the good part of the population that doesn’t want to take that risk of confronting the state head on, as well as jeopardize their own position in the emerging order. I don’t know whether they’ll change their minds now, but one would think the moment is ripe  — even if this leads to no concrete gain and probably much pain, the seeds of delegitimization of the future regime will have been laid. …

[S]omeone needs to rise to the occasion here and reject this electoral process outright (Aboul Fotouh and Khaled Ali have). If you’re going to lose, you might as well drag others down with you — in this case, the PEC, the SCAF [Supreme Council of the Armed Forces], and the (officially) winning candidates. It’s just good politics.

I’m not sure. SCAF needs to be dragged down, but can that be done from the streets anymore? Shafiq won’t do it, but could Morsi? These are things people will be asking. Giving either side command of the state closes off certain possibilities. But it potentially opens a different project: building society, something the revolutionaries (as opposed to the Brotherhood) have neglected so far. Yet that the society is already open enough for people to be, by the revolutionaries’ lights, collectively stupid without fearing the apocalypse — that’s a kind of victory. A country presented with a couple of unacceptably stupid choices is exercising the giddy freedom of idiocy, where other freedoms begin. That’s society, starting to flex itself and act. It’s worked. How much more can the revolutionaries ask?

Zillions of scorched and scattered Shafiq flyers carpeted the ground outside his smoldering headquarters tonight, sodden from the runoff from the fire hoses. Sarah Carr writes, “The wind is making all the Shafiq pictures on the ground fly up in the air like a lovely American Beauty moment felool style.” There’s nothing so creepy it can’t be beautiful from the right angle. Now back to business.

Litter and liberty: from @Sarahcarr

The Republic of Heliopolis

the anti-Salafis

On the last day of the Egyptian revolution proper in February, hours before the announcement that Mubarak was stepping down, some revolutionaries from Midan Tahrir marched on the Presidential palace, located in the far-off, tony Cairo district of Heliopolis. Some Heliopolitans were already in front of the compound trying to protest, and I, who was following this minute-by-minute on Twitter, remember lots of pissy tweets from the hardened dissident arrivals about what bad demonstrators the bourgeoisie made. They didn’t know how to wave a banner; they didn’t know how to chant; they basically milled around waiting for their servants to do it for them. Fortunately the dictator had already decided to leave; otherwise, the neighborhood opposition might in the end have invited him out for tea. As Mao said, a revolution is not a dinner party, not least because you have to serve yourself.

In keeping with US supporters of John Kerry, who after the 2004 disaster proposed joining Canada, liberals in Heliopolis now want to secede from Egypt altogether. ” If you’re not a resident of Republic of Heliopolis, you will need a visa. Residents of Zamalek, Maadi (the posh part of Maadi), Katamiyah and Garden City are exempted.”

Naturally, although it’s not strictly within their borders, they are laying claim to City Stars, Cairo’s biggest shopping mall. (Visit the mall’s website, and check that music.) The Salafis wouldn’t want it, but the Muslim Brotherhood, to whom consumerism is not entirely alien, might put up a fight. The mall could become the Mosul or the Vukovar of Egypt’s civil war.

remember Jesusland?

From Egypt: The class impasse

So this is what violence in Cairo is like now: the city has grown inured to it. You can stroll down a sidewalk in perfect serenity, and ignore the fact that a few blocks away lies what the foreign journalists call a “war zone.”  Tuesday night — the end of the first round of the parliamentary elections — I was wandering Mahmoud Bassiouny Street downtown. I reached street’s end and a tangle of highways by the Egyptian Museum, and suddenly there were people rushing across the pavement and screaming, and bright crashing flashes that I recognized as Molotov cocktails. Behind me, abruptly, aggressive young guys in leather jackets had built a makeshift barricade across the street and were diverting traffic, and waving large knives. Among their shouts, I could distinguish “Eid wahda” — “One hand.”  A few shopkeepers motioned me to get the hell away. For months crowds have targeted foreigners amid gathering xenophobia, reviling them as spies. There was, however, no obvious place to run. I walked as calmly as I could back past the barricade and the multiplying mob, and it was only at Talaat Harb Street, as the usual bustle of the city settled in, that I checked Twitter and called my friends and realized I’d been in the middle of the latest installment of the Battle of Tahrir. By night’s end, around sixty people, democratic protestors attacked by their opponents, were in the hospital. At midnight, I watched demonstrators carrying their comrades, swathed in bandages, across the square.

I’ll say more later about exactly what was going on.  First, though, the elections.

The returns have been dribbling in for two days. This was the first round of three: a third of Egypt’s governorates, including Cairo and Alexandria, cast ballots. The sweep of the Islamic parties’ victory surprised everyone, including some wings of the Islamists themselves.

Salafist campaign workers in Cairo's Shobra district: from @mmbilal on Twitter

Freedom and Justice (FJP), dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, carried about 40% of the vote. More shockingly, el-Nour, the main Salafist party — representing literal, puritan, right-wing Islamists — won about a quarter of the ballots to come in second overall. The Egyptian Bloc, a coalition of liberal and largely secular parties, placed third, slightly behind it.  The next election rounds will largely be held in more conservative parts of the country. Unless the Coptic vote in Upper Egypt shows unexpected strength, Freedom and Justice will hold close to a majority of seats; with el-Nour, they could control the new parliament completely.

Most people expected the Brotherhood to win, though by a lesser margin. At a polling place downtown I visited on Monday, Freedom and Justice organizers swarmed everywhere, flush with leaflets and paraphernalia, while the other parties were pretty much invisible. Several observers heard the same comment over and over from FJP activists: “We’re confident because we’ve been organizing for this moment for 80 years.”  Certainly, for at least two decades the Brotherhood have been the only opposition force with a real grassroots presence. This time, they had the chance to try it out in a fair election. On the other hand, the Salafists’ success seems to have shocked even the Freedom and Justice Party. Mubarak jailed and tortured the ultraconservative Islamists with still more fervor than he devoted to repressing the Brotherhood; driven underground, they had few of the Brothers’ opportunities to organize in cities or villages. Their ability to pull millions of votes out of a hat this time shocked many across Egypt.

In the US, naturally, neoconservatives bray that Egypt is the new Iran, making up in population for what it lacks in plutonium: “Egypt’s turn toward Islamic revolution would be catastrophic. As the largest country in the Arab world, it has influence that Iran could never hope to achieve.”

I spent most of the last week talking to “liberals” in Egypt — a catch-all term defined quite differently than in the West. It includes Communists of various sorts, socialists, social democrats, anarchists, and free-market liberals, most but not all secular, united by a commitment to democracy, divided by disparate beliefs in what it means — some wedded to the parliamentary process, some dreaming of direct self-governance. Few, though, had an apocalyptic sense about the Islamists’ victory. They talk about three key things. First, as democrats they can’t reject out of hand the outcome of a democratic election. Second, the parliament will have little power in a government still run by a military junta. And third, the junta remains the real enemy.

One bloody hand: Junta head Tantawi

The generals are killing people. I spoke last night to two gay friends who have been committed revolutionaries since January. Both were in Midan Tahrir the week of November 20, and their rage against SCAF (the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces) was palpable. That week, the junta reacted to a renewed sit-in in the square with brute force. They sent Central Security police down Mohamed Mahmoud Street, leading from the Ministry of the Interior, to beat and abuse protesters. The protesters fought back, blocking the street and throwing stones at the police. The police in turn soaked the street in tear gas, till mushroom clouds of it loomed above the city; they fired at the demonstrators with rubber bullets and birdshots — aiming, it’s clear, at the eyes to blind them. The square these days is full of people with bandaged sockets, bandaged faces; friends of my friends lost their eyes. One police marksman, Sobhi Mahmoud Shenawy, became known as “the eye sniper.” Forty-three dissidents died. “This was a deeply personal fight,” Ahmad told me. “You could see they would kill you in a minute.”  And Khaled added, “You felt that such people, who would fire to blind you, didn’t deserve to rule a city block, much less a country.”

Wounded protesters, Nov. 20: from @NadimX on Twitter

As gay men, my friends don’t much fear the Brotherhood or the Salafis. They remember that the worst persecution of gays in Egypt’s history, probably the worst anywhere in the Arab or Muslim world, happened under the secular Mubarak regime, from 2001-2004.  The FJP could hardly augur anything worse.

To be sure, the Brotherhood, always opportunists, sold out in the last weeks, giving their support to SCAF.   But the new Prime Minister whom SCAF plans to puppeteer, Kamal el-Ganzouri, is a Mubarak veteran who presided over mass torture of Islamists during his last term as premier in the 1990s. The Islamists have long memories; they will not forgive him. Already, the FJP has announced it expects a government responsible to the parliament. SCAF quickly warned them the new cabinet will answer to the generals alone. “The Brotherhood can mobilize a million people in the street if they want,” my friends told me. “If it comes to a face-off with SCAF, they’re almost the only political force with a chance to win.”

Still, liberals — and feminists, and gays, and Egypt’s large Coptic minority, and many others — hardly trust the Brotherhood. And the Islamists’ triumph raises serious questions about where the revolution is going.

Back to last Tuesday night’s violence — because it illuminates those questions. How did the fighting start? On Tuesday morning, the revolutionaries in Tahrir decided to expel some of the vendors who populated the place. The square has become a market; in addition to tea, juice, food, and fruit, hawkers pitch T-shirts, flags, and souvenirs. The vendors have a bad reputation; they’ve been accused of peddling drugs; the dissidents thought they might besmirch the image of the revolution. Out with them!

This has happened before, once over the summer; back then the vendors got violent, and they did this time as well. In the evening, they counterattacked, assaulting the square with stones and Molotov cocktails. Or somebody counterattacked. The men I saw blocking traffic didn’t look like vendors; it’s possible SCAF took advantage of the situation to send in its own provocateurs. (Their battle cry, “One hand,” was SCAF’s own slogan: “The army and the people are one hand.”) What matters, though, is that the revolutionaries decided to turn on Egyptians who were using the revolution to scrape by. A protester I met in Tahrir two nights ago said plaintively: “We fought the revolution for the poor. And why should we throw them out of here so shamelessly? Just so we would look more clean?”

Khaled, one of my gay friends, last night told me, “On the front lines at Mohamed Mahmoud, it was mostly poor people. They were fighting bare-handed, bare-chested; they couldn’t even afford gas masks on their faces.” And Ahmad added,

“They’re the ones exposed to daily insults from police officers more than anybody else. And I don’t think they take values as relative, they way we usually do as part of the middle class. Sacrificing your life — we calculate about it: is this the time, today? Maybe this battle isn’t worth a life. But they have more absolute values of sacrifice and courage. For them, being on the front lines was a matter of human dignity.”

But the revolution has failed to do full justice to their dignity. The poor may be at the forefront of the battles, but the revolution’s leaders are overwhelmingly middle-class. The front lines of democracy and the front lines of class are not the same. And the bourgeois leaders have failed to reach across Egypt’s yawning class divide.

Some of the failure has been programmatic. Over the summer, as revolutionary groups struggled to agree on a list of demands, they found consensus on democracy and civil liberties easy — but their concession to addressing economic issues dwindled to an anodyne promise to raise the minimum wage. Strikers from factories to public services who had put their bodies and jobs on the line for Mubarak’s overthrow felt ignored.

But some of the failure was more physical. The revolutionaries failed to leave Tahrir, failed to go into the neighborhoods and towns and villages, to talk to workers and peasants, to organize. The Salafists, despite years underground, didn’t make that mistake. They spent the summer recruiting a third of a million active members for el-Nour. The revolutionaries waited for the masses to come to them. The result is written in the election returns. Even Zamalek, the liberal island of the haute-bourgeoisie in mid-Nile, went for the Brotherhood. The doormen and maids and porters who slave for the wealthy live in Zamalek too,  shunted to cellars and rooftop shacks — but they emerged, and they voted for the FJP.

The encampment in Tahrir is an ideal and almost a fetish for many leftist Egyptians. You can see why if you’ve been there: it’s an Arab Woodstock and Brook Farm, an alternative space to a corrupt society and state, a place where diverse identities can meet and share, where unities grow out of differences and one can imagine a new way of life, a new world. It’s beautiful. But too much time, many feel, was wasted this summer and fall defending Tahrir against the military, and too little speaking to the rest of society. An alternative community may represent the dream of comprehensive change, but does little to realize it. The hard work of talking across class boundaries and building solidarities to encompass the rest of Egypt fell by the wayside.

There’s still time to recuperate the revolution. But it will take time and sweat. It will take dialogue. It will take renewed respect for the multiple meanings of dignity.

Over the summer, revolutionaries tried to stage a march on the Ministry of Defense in Cairo’s Abbasiyya district. Together with an Egyptian friend, I got there late; the marchers had been stopped several blocks short of the ministry, surrounded on three sides by massed troops and tanks. We tried to go through the surrounding neighborhood, and get into the demonstration from the fourth side. The rundown, impoverished streets teemed with tense, angry citizens — enraged at the marchers, whom they regarded as invaders. And at one point we found ourselves suddenly in the midst of a river of running people, men and women pouring out of buildings, armed with big knives that glinted in the light of Ramadan lanterns strung above. They were shouting: “They’re attacking us!  Strike back! Defend yourselves!”  They could easily have turned on us, but somehow they raced past us unseeing. They engulfed the protest, and beat and brutalized many demonstrators. We couldn’t break through to join our friends; shaken, we limped home.

It was a fine example of false consciousness, you could say: the poor enlisted to defend an arrogant and indifferent regime. But the protesters too had their arrogance. When they first met the residents of the neighborhood, who blocked the way and demanded why these outsiders were marching through, some called back, “It’s a public street! We have the right to pass here.” That claim of possession is not what you say to Cairo’s poor, whose back streets and close communities are all they have. The revolutionaries are learning about dignity the hard way.

From Egypt: Blindness and balloting

I got off the plane in Cairo late Saturday night, and the second person I spoke to was my friend Nada, who came to pick me up.   She told me how she was arrested on Mohamed Mahmoud Street, near Midan Tahrir, last Sunday, November 20. Central Security forces held her in detention for just over eighteen hours; 30 officers joined in torturing her, including with electroshock. I’ll be doing a fuller interview with her on Tuesday. For Arabic readers, her story, as taken down by the Nadeem Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, is here.

Nada's right arm after torture: @Nadeem Center

Monday, November 28, is the first round of parliamentary elections organized by the military regime. The junta has announced they will go forward. despite protesters’ insistence that a civilian government conduct them; despite the puppet cabinet’s resignation last week; and despite a call from the Supreme Electoral Commission (every government body in Egypt is called “Supreme” that possibly can be) to postpone them.  Google (one of whose local executives, Wael Ghonim, became the face of the January revolution) has greeted the occasion with an encouraging doodle:

These elections are brought to you, apparently, by the letter “e.” For what? Euphoria? Elation? Endlessness? Whatever it stands for, it’s not “easy.”

The voting system the military set up is designed to mystify. Three stages of balloting will happen before mid-January, each covering nine governorates: actually, six stages, since each will be followed a week later by a run-off. Two-thirds of the seats will be filled by proportional representation, with winners chosen from party lists; for the rest, you vote for individual “independent” candidates (they may, of course, have party affiliations, but don’t run under them). Each voter must choose one party list and two independent candidates; ballots with fewer marks are invalid.  The individual candidates are classified as “professionals” or “workers-farmers”  – although anyone can vote for either — a bizarre practice dating to the Nasser regime.

Confused? If you’re Egyptian, you’re meant to be. 8,627 individual candidates are running for 266 seats in both houses of Parliament.  590 separate parties compete for 332 seats in the lower house. I recall monitoring elections in Romania in 1992, with a welter of parties blotching the ballot, each represented by its own symbol — one rose, two roses, a tractor wheel, a plow … An illiterate woman approached me at the polling place weeping: “I see the pictures,” she said, “but what am I supposed to do?”

I'm the cool candidate: from @azelhakim on Twitter

For some candidates, commodities suggest success. This one’s’s horcrux is an air conditioner; and Ben Wedeman (@bencnn) reports one whose symbol is a blender.

The big debate today is whether one should participate at all. Sceptics include the distinguished human rights activist, my friend Aida Seif el-Dawla; you can hear her here (in Arabic) arguing that elections overseen by murderous generals lack all legitimacy, and that a powerless Parliament unable to act against the junta only complicates Egypt’s politics, when clarity and real democracy are needed. @Nellyali reminds everyone how the army treats dissent: “12,000 Egyptians will not be voting tomorrow. They’re on military trials.”

It’s hard not to disagree with political scientist Andrew Reynold’s analysis in the New York Times last week: In the individual-constituency voting,

name recognition gives established power brokers — local strongmen who held sway before the revolution — the upper hand. Even if most of the elected candidates are not high-ranking apparatchiks of the old regime — or “remnants,” as Egyptians call them — many are likely to have been cogs in the corrupt machine that ruled Egypt for decades.

And the list-voting system favors parties with tested organizations — mainly the Freedom and Justice Party, the Muslim Brotherhood’s political wing — and may “marginalize new progressive, secular and liberal groups that lack grass-roots networks across the country.”

There are plenty of reports of corruption. Photos circulate on Twitter of what purport to be boxes of unmarked, or pre-marked, ballots left suspiciously on streetcorners and other places.  The voter lists are chaotic, and many people don’t know where their ballot station is.   One Egyptian (@TheMiinz) tweeted, “A friend entered his deceased grandpa’s ID number and his name is among the vote[r]s.”

By contrast, @Dima_Khatib writes, “Use every thing at hand to fight dictatorship, including ballot boxes when they are there!” Blogger and activist Amr el Beleidy makes the case for voting:

What we have seen during the last 10 months is that things change every day. Each actor wants their own self interest, and they’re playing the game to get as much of it as possible. SCAF [the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces] wants to retain as much power to protect its members and keep as much of the status quo as possible, the MB [Muslim Brotherhood] want as much political control as possible, the liberals want… and so on. .. There is nothing that’s set in stone. And once parliament is formed there is no saying what its powers will be and what it will do, although this will be largely affected by its make-up.

Tomorrow you have a chance to change the future by helping decide what the make up of this new player will be. And this will change the whole game afterwards. What I can tell you is that the more people you are in favour of get into parliament, the more likely things will go your way. So go out there and vote for the people you want.

After parliament is set, the game continues, and we’ll have to use all other tools of political leverage, like protest, sit-ins, the media, etc.. to move the country towards the path we see best fit. The elections are but a small part of the chess board, and we shouldn’t leave it for others to use it against us.

I spent this evening with a couple of friends arguing out the options, and I still have no opinion. What do you do when an authoritarian regime offers a dribble of democracy? Reject it as the polluted fake it is, or take it and try to turn the taps for more?  If the elections proceed without truly massive evidence of fraud, and particularly if the Muslim Brotherhood (now the junta’s best friends) win, the generals will claim vindication. It will be that much more difficult for democratic activists to contest the voting’s legitimacy, but it may be that much more necessary as the army cements control. Egypt is going blind into these elections, with most voters sure neither of what their choices mean, of what the regime is actually offering, or of what kind of future is possible or likely.

The one certain thing is that, however the results tally, the generals will meet dissent with brutality. Already on Sunday, Field Marshal Tantawi, the military ruler, proclaimed: ”We will not allow troublemakers to meddle in these elections.”

Ahmed Harara before losing his left eye

Where Wael Ghonim, the clean-cut, earnest, middle-class Google professional, became the symbol of the January revolution, the activist icon of these clouded days is Ahmad Harara. Harara lost his right eye to security forces’ fire ten months ago. On November 19, he returned to Tahrir to protest: police shot out his other one. “I would rather be blind, but live with dignity and with my head held up high,” he was quoted as saying. Graffiti of him multiplies round Cairo. A new analysis by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights suggests that this time round, “security forces deliberately fired birdshot pellets and rubber bullets in the direction of demonstrators’ bodies. This use of force was intended to injure demonstrators rather than to disperse them.” The military ordered its enforcers to aim for the eyes:

Kasr el-Aini hospital alone received 60 cases of eye injuries between the 19th November and the morning of the 27th November … eye injuries varied between burst corneas, burst eye sockets and foreign bodies in different parts of the eye.

The generals want a docile or, failing that, disabled public. Protesters in Tahrir, who already knew this, yesterday hoisted a banner over Mohamed Mahmoud Street, scene of the worst violence, renaming it: “The Street of Freedom Eyes.”

"Street of Freedom Eyes": from @mmbilal on Twitter