What to do about Syria

Syrian government forces patrol the Khalidiyah neighbourhood of Homs, mid-2013. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Syrian government forces patrol the Khalidiyah neighbourhood of Homs, mid-2013. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

You would think that, having stayed in Cairo for much of the last year, I would feel closer than in New York or Boston to the Syrian catastrophe taking place only a few borders away. But it doesn’t work that way. Egypt has enough of its own problems: massacres, mass arrests, one dictator on trial, another one running for president; these aren’t as replete with murder but they fill the mind as blood fills the brain after a hemorrhage, and expunge thought. You imagine Aleppo for a second and flinch: There’s enough not to think about without not thinking about that. 

To be sure, Syria is here, in the form of thousands of refugees who have fled the killing. (The UN says there are almost 150,000 in Egypt; some estimates run double; in any case, Lebanon hosts many times that, more than a million.) But neighbors harass them, police persecute them, they stay out of sight. Many Egyptians are conscious of the influx mainly because of the Syrian restaurants that have sprung up here and there, succulent roast chicken splayed on the plate, mehshi and manakish that scarcely taste of dispossession. The food’s good; why isn’t everybody happy?

When I visited Cairo in 2011 I met and became friends with Razan Ghazzawi, the fierce feminist and Pasionaria of the resistance, who in a short time taught me a great deal about the revolution’s dreams. The war had been going on for just four months then, and already it had worn down everybody’s psyches; she’d come to Cairo for six weeks to meet Egypt’s own revolutionaries and replenish her energies, at a time when events on the Nile still seemed in the vanguard of change. Now my closest Syrian friend here is a gentle refugee who shares my house; I’ll call him Youssef. He supports Assad, not militantly but with the vague erasing nostalgia traditional to exiles, threadbare asperities who fled France with the Bourbons, beggared bourgeois on the run from Bolsheviks. He interviewed Bashar once for a Syrian paper, while Assad Senior still lived, and can go on at length about his unassuming manners. We don’t talk politics much, since I disagree with most everything he says. Still his affection for the regime — which isn’t ancien yet, rather quondam et futurusis barely political; rather it’s a memory of stability, secularism, and calm, and an amnesia about their foundations in blood. He and Razan wouldn’t abide each other if they ever met, but they have some things in common. Razan’s vision of what freedom meant was clear as if it were etched in fire, and very much a product of Syria’s splintered map: a place where people could realize their differences without shame or fear. Stability and calm were preconditions for that. Youssef’s gauzed vision of the placid days of old includes the notion that you were at liberty to be yourself then — with the unspoken caveats of privilege and discretion; but making sure everybody, not just the lucky, could live free of surveillance and enjoy the sweet seclusions of security and privacy also preoccupied the original revolutionary dream. The overwhelming violence has made their imaginations definitively incompatible. Violence breaks bodies, but it also murders dreaming.

The violence also stamps out efforts to imagine a solution. Increasingly the Syrian state’s violence is matched by the violence of political Islamists who oppose almost all the original revolutionaries’ democratic ideals. Syria has become “a magnet for jihadist recruits,” writes Peter Neumann. Like many, he blames Assad for fostering these movements, then allowing them to slip from his control. But it’s also clear that this burgeoning radicalism owes plenty to American policy, and American allies. For one thing, the United States’ left hand keeps unravelling what its right hand does. As Adam Shatz notes,”the American government is fighting Sunni extremists in Iraq, while its allies, notably Qatar and Saudi Arabia, are arming the same Sunni extremists in Syria.”

Fighter for Jabhat al-Nusra ((Support Front for the People of Levant) kills captured Syrian government soldiers, 2013

Fighter for Jabhat al-Nusra (Support Front for the People of Levant) kills captured Syrian government soldiers, 2013

More broadly, though, every successive American intervention in the region has backfired, creating more of the violence it was supposed to stop.  And this makes it even harder for well-meaning Americans facing the Syrian horrors to figure out what to do.

The swashbuckling American military adventure in Afghanistan in the 1980s, to counter the Russian invasion, helped create both the Taliban and al-Qaeda, and the former now controls large swatches of the country once again. The American incursion in Saudi Arabia in 1991, to roll back Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, helped refocus the embryonic al-Qaeda’s attention on the US, while turning it from a regional annoyance to a global franchise. The American invasion of Iraq in 2003, justified in part by lies that Saddam Hussein supported al-Qaeda, aimed to extirpate radicalism of all kinds from the Middle East; instead, eleven years later, a significant part of Iraq’s Sunni population has been thoroughly radicalized and supports al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda is now fighting in Syria, in its new incarnation as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS). On top of that, the American campaign in Libya failed to build a functional state; but, like the long American involvement in Afghanistan, it stirred up a spillover of arms and fighters that destabilizes surrounding countries, from Mali to Lebanon. (Seymour Hersh maintains that the US has been sending Libya’s spare weaponry to Syria’s rebels through Turkey.) Patrick Cockburn summarizes much of this grim history of incompetence:

The four wars fought in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria over the past 12 years have all involved overt or covert foreign intervention in deeply divided countries. In each case the involvement of the West exacerbated existing differences and pushed hostile parties towards civil war. In each country, all or part of the opposition have been hardcore jihadi fighters. Whatever the real issues at stake, the interventions have been presented as primarily humanitarian, in support of popular forces against dictators and police states. Despite apparent military successes, in none of these cases have the local opposition and their backers succeeded in consolidating power and establishing stable states.

Western interventions in the broader Middle East – from the Maghreb to Pakistan – have done nothing to stop extremism. Instead, they’ve created and spread it.

There are principled and abstract reasons for Western leftists to resist the cult of liberal interventionism. But this history furnishes a pragmatic and specific argument for opposing it in Syria. A moral consciousness, however — one not content to concentrate on the restaurant menus while ignoring the dead and refugees — still gropes for some kind of answer. It’s natural for leftists facing the naked reality of mass murder to want some scope for action, some space where the Enlightenment ideal of thought informing practice can recover its aptitude.

Hmm. Banner from the  sixth annual Marx Conference,  “Left Perspectives on the International Crisis of Capitalism," Tel Aviv, 2012

Hmm. Banner from the sixth annual Marx Conference, “Left Perspectives on the International Crisis of Capitalism,” Tel Aviv, 2012

It’s in this light that I read a new piece by Danny Postel, which is all over Twitter these days.  Its title promises “Alternative Left Perspectives on Syria.”

Postel contends that “The responses of most leftists to the Syrian uprising” have been “deeply disappointing.” The Left’s inadequacies “fall into three main categories:”

1. explicit support for the Assad regime
2. monochrome opposition to Western intervention, end of discussion (with either implicit or explicit neutrality on the conflict itself)
3. general silence caused by deep confusion

But wait: there’s hope.

There is a fourth camp, however: a small but growing group of progressives who embrace the goals of the Syrian revolution. There are several shades within this camp – it includes Marxists, pacifists, feminists, Third Worldists and leftists of various sorts. Some support the armed struggle in Syria, others do not, standing instead with the nonviolence activists in Syria. But what unites this camp is its solidarity with the Syrian struggle for dignity, justice and self-determination.

The writings of this vanguard “directly challenge the dominant narratives on the Left about Syria and offer a critical alternative to it.” And Postel gives us a ladder of links: “collected in one place, some of the key texts of this dissident left camp.”

To call these leftists “dissidents” is self-congratulatory. Certainly there are some on the left who support Assad, but they’re hardly hegemonic; they strike me as marginal and devoid of influence.

Just as certainly there’s a larger body of leftists who are uncertain, after military intervention seems to have proven its uselessness but no other form of action presents itself. So when an “alternative” steps loudly to the fore, a Fourth Way, one plausibly expects that it will proffer a guide to the perplexed: that it will tell the hesitant what they can do to help.

What’s notable about the “body of writings and arguments” Postel presents is that it does nothing of the kind.

I’ve read almost all the texts he links to. Few of the writers outline strategies, or offer innovative ways to assist the revolution. For the most part they just describe how they feel, a repertory of emotion that runs the limited gamut from sympathy and solidarity to moral agonizing to self-congratulation. These are legitimate sensations, but more existential than political. It would be hard to call them constructive. Is this the new pathway for the left? In fact, I think the writings Postel posts do point out something about the left, but nothing as bold or hopeful as he imagines.

solidarity-of-labour

Walter Crane, “International Solidarity of Labour,” 1897

Postel links to almost no proposals that are both concrete and in any way practical. I count three exceptions. The admirable Gilbert Achcar opposes intervention but urges arming the (liberal) rebels (it seems, though, that the US has been doing this covertly for some time).  Mary Kaldor invokes international law: “The first step,” also the only one she mentions, “would be to refer Syria to the International Criminal Court.” She notes that, since Syria never signed on to the ICC, this requires a vote by the UN Security Council. Russia has repeatedly voted no, but “the current context might change things.” Might. It’s also possible that Vladimir Putin might hand Crimea back to the Ukrainians and retire. It’s not very responsible, however, to make this kind of outcome seem easy.

Finally, the always-brilliant Richard Falk, after painstakingly dissecting the inadequacy of existing options, calls (but not optimistically) for a renewed commitment to negotiation.

Just as doing nothing is unacceptable, mounting a military intervention is unrealistic, and perhaps undesirable, and for now politically impossible.

What is left to fill the gap between the unacceptable and the unrealistic is diplomacy, which has proved to be futile up to this point, but hanging on to the slim possibility that it might yet somehow produce positive results, is the only conceivable way forward with respect to the Syrian situation. It is easy to deride Kofi Annan and the frustrations arising from the repeated failures of Damascus to comply with the agreed framework, but it remains impossible to  find preferable alternatives.

This is glum, but realistic.

But that’s it.  Nobody else has much to propose. The 2011 open letter from the Campaign for Peace and Democracy has a lot of well-known signatories (Ed Asner, Noam Chomsky) but I don’t know why Postel thinks it “challenges a dominant narrative.”

The Campaign for Peace and Democracy expresses its deep admiration for the amazing courage shown by the people of Syria, struggling for democratic reforms in the face of horrific repression. … We stand with the people of Syria in their remarkable struggle for democracy.

The open letter, often published in the New York Review of Books, used to be a distinct literary genre among the New York intellectuals; it’s no one’s fault if it seems dated as a Baroque eclogue. “Standing with” the oppressed and slaughtered is still a noble gesture. It’s churlish, but perhaps nonetheless important, to point out that while Syrians die, the standers remain standing.

But is there a plan beyond the posture? Two years later, Thomas Harrison and Joanne Landy – the CPD’s co-directors, both peace activists with long and distinguished records – produced a personal statement, of which Postel also approves. I have huge admiration for the authors, but this text leaves more questions than answers.

The fate of Syria must not be decided by foreign powers or forces … Equally, we condemn the attempts by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the other Gulf states to manipulate the Syrian revolution by promoting reactionary Islamist forces within its ranks … Consistent with our strong opposition to any kind of military intervention in Syria by the U.S., or other foreign powers, we also oppose providing air cover or establishing no fly zones.

All right, but what are you for?

We stand for full democracy, an independent labor movement, and complete equality for women, sexual minorities, religions and ethnic groups everywhere.

And:

We will do everything we can to support Syrian groups and individuals who share this democratic vision, and we call on people throughout the world to do the same.

But what is “everything you can”? What are you going to do?

Are you sure?

Are you sure?

In some cases, the writers wrestle tangibly with their inability to find answers, and the result can be moving. Mohammed al-Attar, an exiled Syrian playwright, confesses:

During an open debate organized by London’s Royal Court Theatre at the end of August 2011, I was asked: “How can we support the Syrian people in their revolution without inevitably serving the interests of political agendas?” I was silent for a few seconds, unsure of what to say, before tentatively replying: “I’ve no doubt that it is still possible to separate the fundamental justice of the protestors’ cause from the distortions of politicians and the media.”

Much has changed since then but the same question continues to be put forward, and I have no clearer answer than that my brief and improvised one which I provided at the Royal Court Theatre.

Al-Attar’s piece is well worth reading, but it is not clear why Postel regards it not as an analysis of the trauma of political commitment in a divided world, but as a clear prescription for action.

But more often the pieces Postel praises just read like leftists exalting their own superiority to other leftists, because they have deeper moral feelings. Thus Bill Weinberg accuses the left in general of

treason against our natural allies in Syria—the secular, progressive forces in the opposition to the Assad regime, now besieged by ruthless armed actors on all sides. … Our natural allies in Syria are in this democratic resistance (not in the dictatorship!), and they will need solidarity whether the US intervenes or not.

But what are we going to do for them? We don’t know.

Heeding these voices does not mean we have to support Obama’s intervention. But it does mean (at least) that we have to find ways to oppose it that do not betray and alienate Syrians who have for over two years been fighting for freedom and are now fighting for their very lives.

What ways? Apparently we’ll start writing a lot about our intense moral commitment, a strategy that probably won’t alienate anybody, except perhaps the few people who pay attention — but won’t help anybody either.

Then there’s Postel himself. He calls for a “New Internationalism.” This entails lots of rhetoric:

But for progressives, especially ones who profess the values of solidarity and internationalism, the story surely can’t end at America’s shores. Struggles around the world for justice and dignity matter to us. We believe that we have a stake in them and their outcomes. We take sides.

How do we take sides? By “supporting and sympathizing with popular struggles against authoritarianism and for human dignity.” Well, sympathizing, at least. We good leftists are not afraid to restate the tough questions; we’re just afraid to answer them.

Where does [the peace movement] stand on the struggle to topple Assad’s murderous dictatorship? How does it propose the bloodshed be brought to an end? What is to be done?

There are no obvious, clear-cut answers to these questions … These are vexing problems. … But only having a position on what shouldn’t be done, while avoiding the question of what should be done, is a copout – and a betrayal of the tradition of internationalism. The question of what should be done is much thornier, to be sure — it requires more thinking, analysis, reflection, even soul-searching.

Feuerbach, Schmeuerbach: I'll change the world later

Feuerbach, Schmeuerbach: I’ll change the world later

Postel never tells us what is to be done, but searching our souls is, in fact, an end in itself. Marx stands inverted: we may not be able to change the world, but we can think about it. “The point is to place the plight of the Syrian people front and center on the agenda and to think seriously about how to resolve it.” Postel concludes:

What if progressives devoted just a fraction of the energy and effort that went into mobilizing against a US military strike to the cause of bringing Syria’s nightmare to an end? It might not make a concrete difference – all the efforts to resolve the conflict thus far, including those of Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi, have come to naught … But the effort would at least be an expression of solidarity and internationalism. Factoring the Syrian people – who have been largely absent from the progressive discussion – prominently into the equation would represent a welcome departure from the solipsistic, US-centric tendencies of the American peace movement.

We will not “make a concrete difference”; but we will express ourselves, and thus feel like the heroic internationalists of olden times. Postel seems unaware that this is not an alternative to solipsism, but an example of it. He gives no clue what you could do to end the “nightmare,” no suggestion how the “energy and effort” should be directed, just faith that we’ll be morally better if we expend it. Absent some proposal for a concrete solidarity more substantive than a warm, mushlike emotion, Postel hasn’t factored “the Syrian people” into an equation here at all, except as spectators of our own catharsis.

It’s easy to make fun of this Fourth Way, this brave alternative, which enters with a flourish of trumpets and exits with something between apology and sigh. But I don’t want to make fun. These writers are honest, and a lot of them are very smart, Postel included. Their failure to deliver what Postel promised is instructive.

The lesson they teach is that we on the left aren’t exempt from the diseases of the imperial ego. Leftists may opposite liberal interventionism, but its animating fantasies are ones to which they’re not immune. The basic idea that we in our powerful we-ness ought to be able to change the world; that our good intentions have the authority to make reality malleable; that injustice is friable before the force of our desires — that basic idea is pretty much the same, regardless of whether it’s armed with drones and aircraft carriers, or open letters and petitions. The brand of internationalism for which Postel feels such acute nostalgia was always predicated on a naive faith in morality combined with power. It’s painful for leftists to come to terms with a case where “solidarity” is difficult, where there aren’t easily intelligible solutions, and where any action risks making the unbearable worse. The proposition that there are limits to what you can do is intolerable to Westerners. The more this is brought home to you, the more you fall back on believing that “expressing solidarity” is action, that there is a magical power in the very intensity of one’s moral agonizing that must, inevitably, find a pliant answer in reality, must bend politics to its will.

You're sounding multipolar. Take your medicine. Leaders of the BRICS blog (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa), 2010,

You’re sounding multipolar. Take your medicine. Leaders of the BRICS blog (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa), 2010.

The spirit of disenchantment is more and more characteristic of our world. Geopolitics used to be so comfortably bi- or unipolar. Human RIghts Watch, where I worked, was founded in the confidence that there were few things you couldn’t fix by getting the United States government to act. Washington was the fulcrum of their advocacy for decades; this peculiar dispensation where Beijing, Moscow, and even Brasilia and Pretoria are independent actors has brought about a grating and harsh adjustment. Even for more uncompromising leftists, it was reassuring to think that opposing America could put you on the right side of most of the world’s wrongs. These days, responsibility is strewn too promiscuously around. And after Iraq, after Rumsfeld and his known unknowns, awareness of power’s limitations has become too general for comfort. Twenty years ago we were taught to say “never again” to Rwanda. But how can you cope with somebody like Alan Kuperman, whose detailed study of the Rwandan genocide found that, with utmost political will and celerity of action, the West could not have prevented more than a quarter of the deaths? The idea that our solidarity is not a cure for everything comes hard.

I hate to see moral solemnity go to waste, though. There are practical things that an earnest leftist could do about Syria, if she wants to, rather than sitting around expressing solidarity to the void.

Here are some suggestions.

1) Go to war. I’m serious. Everybody wants to be George Orwell these days, a fearless deflater of hypocrisies. Christopher Hitchens thought he was Orwell. Paul Berman thinks he is Orwell. Even young Jamie Kirchick dons the Orwell drag, though he ends up looking more like a cross between Enoch Powell and Evelyn Waugh. But if you ask these ersatz Orwells what they’ve done for their causes, they’ll sound more like Flaubert: “I stayed at home and wrote.”

Orwell didn’t. Is Syria the Spanish Civil War of our generation, a crossroads of profound moral choice? Then choose. Orwell went to Spain. So did Arthur Koestler, Ernest Hemingway, Willy Brandt. So did Auden:

The stars are dead. The animals will not look.
We are left alone with our day, and the time is short, and
History to the defeated
May say Alas but cannot help or pardon.

Wounded British volunteers in Republican Spain return to the front following convalescence at Benicàssim

Wounded British volunteers in Republican Spain return to the front following convalescence at Benicàssim, 1937

That war is memorialized in poetry, more perhaps than any other of the twentieth century’s wars. Why? Because the Thirties really was a moment when individual choice took on a communal meaning – stopped being existential and became political.

The Anschluss, Guernica — all the names
At which those poets thrilled, or were afraid

– they still resonate, because history turned personal in them. That’s the burden of Edgell Rickword‘s lines, which every lefty schoolboy used to rattle off:

From small beginnings mighty ends:
From calling rebel generals friends,
From being taught in public schools
To think the common people fools,
Spain bleeds, and Britain wildly gambles
To bribe the butcher in the shambles.

Or there’s John Cornford, poet and Communist, killed on the Madrid front in 1936, at the age of 21. He wrote to his distant lover before he died:

The wind rises in the evening,
Reminds that autumn’s near.
I am afraid to lose you,
I am afraid of my fear.

On the last mile to Huesca,
The last fence for our pride,
Think so kindly, dear, that I
Sense you at my side.

And if bad luck should lay my strength
Into the shallow grave,
Remember all the good you can;
Don’t forget my love.

How different people were then! There are parts of that poem that an agonizing moralist or a muscular liberal, a fan of Hitchens or a signatory of the Euston Manifesto, might sympathize with. But they could never write the line “I am afraid of my fear” — because they’d feel it, too deeply.

I’m indulging in an excuse to quote poetry here: sentimental of me. But the poems say better than I can what I’m trying to say. Nobody on the left wants to put his own life on the line anymore. If “internationalism” requires a sacrifice, we expect the State to do the sacrificing for us. If comes to intervention, or policing, or punishing the guilty or protecting the good, the State will furnish the bodies, and they won’t be ours. When did we become so dependent on the powers we once wanted to overturn?

Member of the International Brigades at Montblanch, near Barcelona, October 25, 1938: photo by Robert Capa

Member of the International Brigades at Montblanch, near Barcelona, October 25, 1938: photo by Robert Capa

Those damn fool romantics in the Thirties took things personally, instead. If their governments wouldn’t stand up and say no, if their polities or parties were run by those “Whose suave compliance sealed the fate / Of thousands left to Franco’s hate,” they stepped up themselves; they went to Spain. They took up a weapon like Orwell or drove an ambulance like Auden, they acted. “They floated over the oceans; / They walked the passes. All presented their lives.” More than 40,000 people joined the International Brigades in some capacity, combat or no.

What’s your proposal? To build the just city? I will.
I agree. Or is it the suicide pact, the romantic
Death? Very well, I accept, for
I am your choice, your decision. Yes, I am Spain.

The only ones who shoulder this kind of responsibility today are the jihadists, people still used perforce to thinking of principles outside the State’s compass. The secular leftists sit at home and express their solidarity from the sofa’s safety.

Of course, even setting aside the serious and principled pacifists, there are perfectly decent reasons not to go to Syria. For one thing, governments have cracked down harshly on the jihadists who travel there and on their allies who recruit; they call it terrorism. Moazzam Begg, for instance, the heroic survivor of Guantanamo, is now in jail in the UK, charged with trying to train people for Syria. The same officials might start confusing foreign leftists with foreign jihadists, a terrible mistake since the jihadists actually do something, or might apply the same provisions for consistency’s sake. For another thing, there’s no reason on earth to think the Free Syrian Army has any use for a bunch of volunteers who don’t speak Arabic, know nothing about modern weapons, and get their medical knowledge from studying Foucault.

So maybe I should expand my point a bit. Though violence in Syria has metastasized like a cancer, the struggle in Syria is not waged just through violence. And there’s work you could support or even participate in from outside Syria’s borders. I can name just a few Syrian organizations carrying on the fight on the front of human rights: the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the Violation Documentation Center (VDC), the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression, the Local Coordinating Committees (LCCSyria), Syrian Women for the Syrian Intifada (SANAD); there are more. (Please add others in the comments if you like.) There are companion projects outside Syria which try to use the documentation such groups collect to raise humanitarian resources, like the #100000Names Oral Memorial for Syria. It is arduous to determine whether you can actually help any such efforts rather than getting in the way; it’s a terrible thing, the risk of realizing one’s own superfluity. That’s a danger you don’t encounter on the couch. But an individual commitment is better than an abstract solidarity.

Spanish Republican poster, 1937

Spanish Republican poster, 1937

2. Remember the refugee. A leftist who wants to cast off the shackles of the quotidian and go engage in meaningful action need not look for Syrians in Syria; that is one consequence of the war. The UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) counts 2,700,000 Syrian refugees in surrounding countries. They calculate more than half of these are under 17 years old; 38% are younger than 11.

Those figures reflect only Syrians who have gone to the UN for assistance; hundreds of thousands more are unregistered and underground. Estimates for the total in flight go as high as 9 million, out of a total Syrian population of less than 23 million.

There is plenty to be done. A dedicated leftist might settle herself in Beirut, or in Cairo, or in Turkey near the southern border, and attach herself to one of the organizations working with refugees, whether in cities or in camps. In Egypt, Syrians face xenophobia and violence from a population propagandized into thinking they are allies of the Muslim Brotherhood. Police pick them up on pretexts; some are deported. In Lebanon, Syrian refugees now number 30% of the country’s population. They suffer arbitrary curfews, police harassment, physical assault.

Syrian refugee in a tent compound in Boynuyogun, Turkey, near the Syrian border. Photo: Vadim Ghirda/AP

Syrian refugee in a tent compound in Boynuyogun, Turkey, near the Syrian border. Photo: Vadim Ghirda/AP

And if the exhausting labor of daily humanitarian work seems overwhelming, there’s advocacy needed as well, to change the hearts, minds, and laws of wealthy nations that don’t want to let refugees in. European and American migration policy — the politics of the closed door — means there is nowhere to resettle most of these people; they will remain in unsafe countries and conditions, in semi-permanent limbo. The West would much rather pay money to keep Syrians in tents than offer them a final destination in Detroit or Turin. Sweden, the most generous European state, has taken in just over 14,000 Syrian refugees, and given them permanent residency. France has accepted under five thousand. That’s still better than the United States. In August 2013, the US agreed to resettle 2000 Syrian refugees, though later in the year the Washington Post reported that “nobody’s actually been admitted yet, since they have to go through an extensive screening process for possible terrorist ties.” Already prejudice is at play. A right-wing US website warned, “Sure most people just see refugees, but Democrats see voters …  If the Muslim Brotherhood Jihadists lose in Syria, their leaders will flee to Europe and America where they will suborn, undermine and plan acts of terror. … Obama isn’t all that interested in Christian refugees.”

All these numbers are trivial against the appalling figures of three million people externally displaced. Even the UNHCR, confronting the recalcitrance of countries unwilling to accept supplicants, has set its sights absurdly small.

UNHCR is proposing that countries admit up to 30,000 Syrian refugees on resettlement, humanitarian admission, or other programmes by the end of 2014, with a focus on protecting the most vulnerable. However, in light of the growing needs of the Syrian refugee population, this goal represents only the first benchmark in securing solutions for this group. … UNHCR has called upon States to make multi-annual commitments towards a goal of providing resettlement and other forms of admission for an additional 100,000 Syrian refugees in 2015 and 2016. [emphasis added]

That makes just 130,000 refugees the UNHCR hopes — with little likelihood of success — to resettle in the next three years, out of at least three million. Less than five percent.

Serious leftists are prone to dismissing humanitarian work as merely palliative. They imagine it’s a bandage not a cure, an evasion of the “real” issues within Syria itself. It’s not. Work with refugees gets to the heart of how states define citizens, how they value lives, how they decide who belongs and who is cast out. Leil-Zahra Mortada, an Arab activist living in Spain, writes:

There is so much to be done. And it is not charity we are talking about, nor the corrupting relief mentality. It is radical and revolutionary work that is needed. It is stepping out of the narrow Eurocentric vision of semantics into political action. It is not only Assad and the Islamists who are killing the Syrian people, it is international systems like the EU border regime and the international relief mafias to name but a few. This is not about Syria, and this is not “just a faraway civil war”. They are dying right here, on EU borders, and they are in EU immigrant detention camps. If it is not for Syria, and out of belief in the Syrian revolution, or even in the right for every people, wether they meet our shades of color or not, to rebel, it should be out of coherence with our political beliefs. Our fight on the EU front is needed. This is a people who has risen against a brutal dictatorship, only to see that they have a whole world to overcome. A world of international meddling, whether in the form of Islamist militias, or international relief, or leftist patronization. A world of closed borders and complicit governments that once again put their profit over life. A world of apathy. This is what the Syrians and the Palestinians in Syria are facing. Questions that are not only related to Syria, but related to international and intertwined local struggles.

3. FIght for diplomacy. Finally, if, for understandable reasons, you don’t want to lobby your government for military action, you need to fight to make a diplomatic solution possible.

If you don’t believe in war, diplomacy is the only way out left. And diplomacy these days is as messy as war, though less bloody. It’s messy because that unipolar world we used to live in, convenient as it was, is gone. It’s messy because Syria has become a vast playground of the polarities, a prone place where different countries pursue and divvy up their divergent interests. Obama funnels a few arms to the Free Syrian Army; Russia and China and Iran vocally and materially support Assad; the Gulf monarchies shower largesse on the jihadists.

A place at the table: Sign from Kaffranbel, Syria, 2013

A place at the table: Sign from Kafranbel, Syria, 2013

It’s not enough, then, to push the American administration or the EU to do this or that. Pressure needs to fall as well on the oil-soaked leaders of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, on Putin and Rouhani.

It’s hard to say what, for a Western leftist, this might mean. Effective advocacy for peace would be internationalist, but not in the easy sense of announcing prefab solidarities. It would mean listening across a lot of borders. It would mean trying to acquaint yourself with what’s left of the left in Russia or Iran, or with civil societies that aren’t of the left at all, and seeing if they have any practical concern with ending violence in Syria, or even ways to speak about it. It would mean reacquainting yourself with negotiation and compromise, which are always painful. It might mean recognizing your powerlessness, which is even more so.

That path lies beyond the scope of what I’m writing here. Our left critiques power, and is abstemious about engaging with it. That’s part of its genius, and its virtue. But something more is needed now, if you’re serious about Syria, than proclaiming sympathy or oneness. A more rigorous engagement requires putting something at risk — if not your life then your self-image at least, your private drama, your unquestioned faith in your purity and your efficacy. Action is dangerous. Hannah Arendt wrote:

Action … always establishes relationships and therefore has an inherent tendency to force open all limitations and cut across all boundaries … To act, in its most general sense, means to take an initiative, to begin.  It is in the nature of beginning that something new is started which cannot be expected from whatever may have happened before.

This is different to but not incommensurate with what the poet said:

Tomorrow for the young the poets exploding like bombs,
The walks by the lake, the weeks of perfect communion;
To-morrow the bicycle races
Through the suburbs on summer evenings. But today the struggle.

"Syrian women, revolt against all authority!" Poster by the Syrian People Know Their Way collective, from http://www.opendemocracy.net/arab-awakening/razan-ghazzawi/seeing-women-in-revolutionary-syria

“Syrian women, revolt against all authority!” Poster by the Syrian People Know Their Way collective, from http://www.opendemocracy.net/arab-awakening/razan-ghazzawi/seeing-women-in-revolutionary-syria

 

General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi as you have never seen him before

The General is a man of destiny: Sisi (R, played by Romy Schneider) comforts the nation in its hour of distress

The General is a man of destiny: Sisi (R, played by Romy Schneider) comforts the nation in its hour of distress

Moving to Hungary not long after the revolutions of 1989, I spent my first few days in Budapest (hampered by my total incomprehension of the language) looking for evidence of gay life. Late one night, on a scarred and ill-lit street near Oktogon Square, I saw a lavender sign over a doorway: Sissi Panzió. I was stunned: Sissies? Pansies? Surely a slur ironically recuperated, the way my compadres back in the States were busily reclaiming queer. The formidable door was bolted. I resolved to come back and investigate this outpost of gender dissidence at a more amicable hour. Only on checking a dictionary did I find, first, that Panzió meant pension, and, second, that Sissi, far from an insult to Magyar masculinity, was the nickname of Empress Elizabeth, wife of Franz Josef, the penultimate monarch of the House of Habsburg.

The General is remembered: Statue of Sisi in Slovakia

The General will be remembered: Statue of Sisi in Slovakia

Even under Communism, Hungarians revered the memory of Sissi — also spelt Sisi. Unlike the other resolutely German Habsburgs, she’d learned Hungarian during her reign, endearing herself to her subjects. She also had an appealingly awful life: horrible mother-in-law, indifferent husband, suicidal son, an eventual death at the hands of a murderous anarchist on the lakefront in Geneva. Estranged from ordinary affection, she adored public adulation as she adored her own beauty; she ordered her ambassadors to report on whether any women in other countries rivalled her own charms. Her posthumous cult took the tinge of narcissism in her personality, and ran with it. Sisi’s glamorous tale, frozen in statues and reproduced in film, is ubiquitous in Hungary. 

The General in uniform: "The Sisi Cult," an exhibit in Hungary

The General in uniform: “The Sisi Cult,” an exhibit in Hungary

But I never quite understood her. Not till I came to Egypt! Not, in fact, till I read this article in Al-Ahram, the flagship of the State press. It’s a fascinating description of the military ruler, General Sisi — also spelt Sissi.

It’s clear now that in his magnanimous modesty, his self-effacing love of being loved, his mysterious bond with the people, and his romantic rise, Sisi is no ordinary dictator. Surely his name (which in Modern Standard Arabic, I’m told, means “pony” or “young rat”) is not a coincidence. Great souls stretch across boundaries of time and culture. I’m convinced this Sisi is the other one reincarnated.

A hero, big and small: SIsi poster (L), Sisi sweets (R)

A hero, big and small: Sisi poster (L), Sisi sweets (R)

You run into Sisi (the male version) everywhere these days in Cairo — portraits of him are de rigeur in shopwindows, stare down on avenues from banners, and even deck little chocolates like Hershey’s Propaganda Kisses. This too resembles Hungary and Austria, where titles like “Sisi’s Dream of Love” or “The Tragedy of Sisi” jam the bookshelves; three films in which she’s played by the equally tragic Romy Schneider (dead of an overdose at 43) spool endlessly on late-night TV.

L: The General (on the right, played by Romy Schneider) embraces the nation; R: Lubna Abdel Aziz, in I am Free, evinces fear of freedom

Sisi on film: L: The General (with hair down, played by Romy Schneider) embraces the nation; R: Lubna Abdel Aziz, in I am Free, demonstrates fear of freedom

I don’t know who wrote the op-ed below. The alleged author, “Lubna Abdel Aziz,” bears the name of an actress in her 70s, who most recently appeared in the TV adaption of the Yacoubian Building (unlike the feature film, that version demurely dropped the gay sub-story). She’s also famous for starring in several Nasser-era films where women struggle against patriarchal values, one with the very un-Sisi-esque title Ana Horra: “I am free.” How uncool! Could it be she wants to make amends for that old deviation, by showing the General how very unfree she — like the rest of Egypt — can be? Or could she have a higher ambition? Maybe she dreams of imitating Romy Schneider, by playing General Sisi herself in the inevitable movie?

Here goes: from Al-Ahram, September 17. It’s hard to believe, but yes, it’s real.

Catch the Al-Sisi mania by Lubna Abdel Aziz

The General is a looker: "Sisi, the Secret Beauty Formula of an Empress"

The General is a looker: “Sisi, the Secret Beauty Formula of an Empress”

He stands straight and tall, impeccably attired and starched from head to toe. His freshly washed countenance and youthful zeal shield a Herculean strength and nerves of steel. He wears the feathers of a dove but has the piercing eyes of a hawk. During our thousand days of darkness, dozens of potential leaders pranced and boasted, to no avail. The leader of the people should combine a love of country, a deep faith in God and the desire to serve the nation’s will.

Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s name lit up the darkness. He was called upon at a supreme moment in history; a kind of mysterious rendezvous with destiny. He was a hero like no other! He aroused attention without exhausting it. Nothing that touched the common run of mortals made any impression on him. All in all, he is but a common man, with an almost aristocratic aura of a nobleman. Composed and cool, Al-Sisi is everyman’s man, with a sort of serene majesty on his brow. He is the chosen leader of the people because he is willing to be their servant.

Let the deaf, dumb and blind media and governments of the West say what they will, Al-Sisi submitted to the will of 33 million Egyptians in the street and 50 million in their homes, crying for salvation. The people led — Al-Sisi followed.

The General's moment of truth: "SIsi: Year of Destiny for an Empress"

The General’s moment of truth: “Sisi: Year of Destiny for an Empress”

What the West cannot comprehend is the warm affinity between people and army in Egypt, which has endured for centuries. Gamal Abdel-Nasser is a recent example, even when he ruled with the firm grip of a military dictator.

Whatever else is going on in the rest of this vast universe, this much is certain — Al-Sisi has captured the imagination of all Egyptians, if not all the world.

He popped out of nowhere — almost — and his secret ingredient was hope. Napoleon Bonaparte once said “a leader deals with hope”, and the brand of hope that Al-Sisi deals, breathed new life into our withering, perishing dreams.

Sharing our dreams: The General (played by Romy Schneider) settles into sleep by counting murdered members of the Muslim Brotherhood

Sharing our dreams: The General (played by Romy Schneider) settles into sleep by counting dead members of the Muslim Brotherhood

Are heroes born, made or chosen? Perhaps, all of the above. William Shakespeare believed, “some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them.” Our hero may be the latter, for he sought nothing, yet emerged unexpectedly, admired and beloved, and in full army regalia, smoothly assumed the role he was born for.

The General takes what's thrust upon him: Sisi (played by Romy Schneider) accepts power from a grateful people

What was thrust upon him: The General (played by Romy Schneider) accepts power from a grateful people

In the full vigour of his prime, he exudes a magic charm, afforded to a select few.  His physical appearance — and appearance counts — is flawless. He wears the emblems of his rank on his shoulders as he does the legends of his ancient land, with gushing pride. But it is the swelling reservoir of love for his Egypt and his God that sealed the deal. We responded to this love a million times over. Therefore, for those who raise an eyebrow at the portraits, flags, pins, pictures, chocolates, cups and other forms of Al-Sisi mania that fill the streets of Egypt, it is only a fraction of the love and appreciation we feel for this strong yet modest, soft-spoken, sincere and compassionate leader. It is Kismet.

The General's got charisma: L, German book cover ( "Unique, Beloved, Unforgotten"); R, Hungarian fashion show (with Princess Di)

The General’s got charisma: L, German book cover ( “Unique, Beloved, Unforgotten”); R, Hungarian fashion show ad (with Princess Di)

Shy and reserved, Al-Sisi is a man of few words and much action. We know little about the private life of Colonel General Abdel-Fattah Saad Hussein Al-Sisi, except that he is married with three sons and one daughter and he believes that is all we need to know.

The General is cultured: "Sisi, the Modern Woman"

The General is cultured: “Sisi, the Modern Woman”

He was born on 19 November 1954, to the right kind of father, in the right kind of district — Al-Gammaliya — right in the heart of the bustling city of middle-class Cairo. This is what gives him that sharp perspective into the hearts of his people, their pains, their aims, their wishes, their dreams. His father Hassan, an amiable accomplished artisan owns a shop in Cairo’s legendary Bazaar, Khan Al-Khalili, where he displays his craftsmanship of intricate inlay of mother-of-pearl and rosewood. Cultured and well-read, he owns a huge library filled with history books, and socialised with famous writers, poets, musicians, and theologians. Al-Sisi is one of seven children, four boys — a judge, a doctor, a businessman and an army general. All three daughters are married.

According to his brothers, Al-Sisi developed a love of books from their father. He was the one who saw the most and said the least. Even as a boy, they called him “the General”. There was little doubt he would join the army and make it his career, and what a distinguished career it has been. He studied in the UK in the General Command in 1977, and attended their Staff course in 1992. He spent a year in the US at the War College in Pennsylvania and became the youngest member of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.

The General from girl to grownup: Volumes from Sisi's life story

The General from girl to grownup: Volumes from Sisi’s life story, suitable for children

He took over as defence minister in 2012, but by 30 June 2013, there was no doubt in his mind that he would do what is right. He responded to the 33 million voices clamouring in the streets. Yes, the Eagle had landed.

His bronzed, gold skin, as gold as the sun’s rays, hides a keen, analytical fire within. He challenges the world not with bellows and bravura but with a soft, sombre reproach, with an audible timbre of compassion.

The General's inner life: L, "Sisi's Dream of Love"; R, "Sisi's Secret Love"

The General’s inner life: L, “Sisi’s Dream of Love”; R, “Sisi’s Secret Love”

There is almost poetry in his leadership, but the ardour of the sun is in his veins. He will lead us to victory and never renounce the struggle, and we will be right there at his side.

The General is ready for his closeup: Sisi, with enigmatic expression, faces the future

The General is ready for his closeup: Sisi, an enigma as always, faces the future

(Thanks for Liam Stack of the New York Times for pointing out the article, and hunting down that young rat or pony.)

New arrests for “homosexuality” in Egypt

Down these mean streets: El Marg district in northeast Cairo

Down these mean streets: El Marg district in northeastern Cairo

I wish some Egyptian Joan Didion could visit El-Marg. She might turn this dry outcropping of Cairo into a fear-saturated landscape like the dismal suburbs of Los Angeles: “an alien place,” as the writer sketched those badlands in one essay,

a harsher California, haunted by the Mohave just beyond the mountains, devastated by the hot dry Santa Ana wind that comes down through the passes at 100 miles an hour and whines through the eucalyptus windbreaks and works on the nerves.  October is the bad month for the wind, the month when breathing is difficult and the hills blaze up spontaneously. There has been no rain since April.  Every voice seems a scream.  It is the season of suicide and divorce and prickly dread, wherever the wind blows.

Street in El-Marg

Street in El-Marg

I’ve been to El-Marg once or twice, out on the far northeast edges of the megacity, and I remember dust everywhere, enough to outdo Didion’s sallow, itchy ambience. The neighborhood is too close to the desert, and nothing keeps out the onslaught of sand that grinds itself fine against window and wall and skin. But there are no mountains and there’s little wind; none of Didion’s rattlesnakes crepitate in the drives – there are no rattlers in Egypt, just impudent mongeese that hurry hunchbacked along the streets like donked-up rats; and you come away impressed not by sullen, repressed California housewives dreaming of adultery and insurance money, but by the prevalence of men, particularly young ones, slouching and strutting and parading down the unswept streets. It’s a shaabi neighborhood, a word sometimes translated “popular” and sometimes “working class,” but carrying other, deeper connotations: down-to-earth, salt-of-the-earth, the country transported to the city on migrants’ backs. The place has the resentful pride of poverty, but none of the thwarted aspirations that fester in Didion’s bourgeoises. Nobody aspires. The local dreams seem leaden, not golden. The main hope is simply to survive in an economy and country where that gets harder all the time. Fourteen or more men are in jail there tonight, for something connected, somehow, to this hurt and troubled manhood.

The story appeared on October 12 in Akhbar el-Youm, a state newspaper, describing arrests that probably happened the day before.

The niyaba [prosecutor] ordered the [continued] detention of the manager and specialists and workers at a health center that was open for perverts [shawazz] only, in El-Marg. He also ordered the detention of 14 men who were caught practicing immorality [fahesha] inside it, and the closure of the establishment.

Information had been received about the center’s illegal activity, and that it welcomed perverted men and boys to practice immorality in its rooms.  The investigation has proved the information correct; the center was raided, and 14 men were caught, in positions that are against religious precepts.

Also, the management staff were caught along with a large quantity of pills and sexual stimulants. It emerged that the center only engages in this illegal activity in return for payments of between 50 and 200 pounds [$7-$28 US] for one encounter.

The defendants confessed in front of Mohammed Sayed Ahmed, the chief El-Marg prosecutor, that they had been frequenting the center to practice immorality [fahesha]. The niyaba ordered their detention and referral to the forensic medical authority, and ordered the center closed and the evidence preserved.

The “health center” turned into a “medical center” by the time this reached the English-language Egyptian press. It has remained so now that the story has started to enter the international LGBT media.

Actually, the establishment is — was — neither. I have at least one friend who has visited. It was a small gym and sauna, converted from a private apartment and operating as a business for years. It’s well known in the surrounding streets; when my friend went there about three years ago – before the Revolution – and asked directions, the neighbors said “Oh, the hammam!”, or baths, and pointed the way. The entry fee was 25 pounds back then. It’s unlikely the price has gone up eightfold in the interim, so the figures the police gave (with the strong suggestion of prostitution) are probably nonsense. There is a good chance that the “pills and sexual stimulants” the police found are vitamins, or even steroids.

Working out is easy! Fun! And Pharaonic!

Working out is easy! Fun! And Pharaonic!

The gym sounds, and perhaps was, a little upscale for a district like El-Marg: so poor and so insulated from so much of Western consumerism, with the exception of universal values like Marlboros and Pepsi. The arrests certainly call into question the celebrated thesis of Joseph Massad: that the “visible” people experiencing, indeed mischievously inciting, persecution for “homosexuality” in Egypt are “Westernized upper- and middle-class Egyptian men who identify as gay and consort with European and American tourists.” There aren’t too many people like that around El-Marg. On the other hand, a different kind of consumerized identity, built not around sexuality but around masculinity, has been creeping into places like El-Marg for well over a decade now. It comes from movies and magazine ads and it consists in a cult of the sculpted body, perfected from nature’s raw materials, designed to elicit admiration quite apart from anything it does, any useful work or wonders it performs. A longstanding fetish of health and exercise in Egypt dates from the colonial period – periodic pushups helped show that “natives” could be as strong and self-sufficient as their masters. Yet it was largely confined to the upwardly-pushing middle classes, as Wilson Chacko Jacob has demonstrated in an intriguing study. Only more recently has working out, and a fullblown Chelsea version of it at that, become a defining feature of shaabi manhood.

Something of the change can be sensed just with a glance at two Egyptian movie stars and their physiques.  Farid Shawki (1920-1998), nicknamed the “King of the Cheap Seats,” was an idol to working-class audiences for decades, playing poor heroes who fought against injustices imposed by a rogues’ gallery of rich villains. He was an unwieldy lug with a rectangular body that made him resemble a walking refrigerator (a luxury item his characters certainly couldn’t afford). Mohammad Ramadan, a 20-something kid from Upper Egypt and now a major sex symbol, also plays noble prole roles, but by contrast has the kind of torso that – well, in every movie he misses no opportunity to take his shirt off: “Lunch, habibi?” “Yes, but it’s so hot in here …”

Farid Shawki (L), Mohammad Ramadan (R):

Farid Shawki (L), Mohammad Ramadan (R)

It’s like the transition between John Wayne and Channing Tatum: between a laconic masculinity that held its energies in reserve, lest they be harnessed or exploited, versus one that shows itself off compulsively and indeed exists to be seen. The way the poor devour this new image in Egypt may have something to do with how the shaabi classes are increasingly invisible to the privileged and powerful. The rich and even the middle class retreat into guarded shopping malls, gated towers, and remote desert developments with the poor safely locked out. The conspicuous development of delts and abs is also a defiant way to say, I’m here, if only as an object of desire. It also perhaps reflects the economy of underdevelopment: a feeling that muscles are no longer for labor – there are fewer and fewer jobs as the economy spirals downward – but for show. Maybe there’s an element of resistance to it (look at Mohammad Ramadan’s menacing weaponry, above), but mostly it seems to be resignation to a different kind of exploitation. It’s a grim admission that your existence is really only useful as a spectacle. This kind of masculinity-for-display inevitably carries homoeroticism with it, but a particularly unsettling kind: the pumped-up muscles make one an object, not an agent, and imply vulnerability along with the visibility, the paralyzed passivity of a pin-up photo. Mohammad Ramadan is not an action hero. He seems quite credible, in fact, playing a victim.

The consumerized body, its class implications, its cross-cultural incursions – have any of these drawn Joseph Massad’s indignant attention? I think not. I don’t know whether any of the arrested men in El-Marg are “gay” or not, or what they were doing when caught “in positions against religious precepts” (a remarkably inclusive phrase).  I am inclined to guess, though, that the visibility of this suspect masculinity finally roused the antagonism of the neighborhood; and that is why the police were called, and how they ended up in jail.

Friends of friends of mine know some of the men. (Although “14” is the figure that’s made it into Western press reports, this is only the number of the clients arrested – it doesn’t seem to include the “manager, specialists, and workers.”) The prosecutor ordered them held for four days, but that may be renewed. They’ve been sent off for forensic anal examinations, which are intrusive, abusive, and inhuman treatment. They don’t yet have lawyers. Human rights organizations are overburdened with the arrested, the tortured, the disappeared since the military takeover. Some informal networks are trying to see what we can do.

Bodies indisciplined: Anti-Morsi protesters fill Midan Tahrir, June 30

Bodies indisciplined: Anti-Morsi protesters fill Midan Tahrir, June 30

Back in June, when three days of massive demonstrations gave the military the go-ahead to overthrow President Morsi, most of my gay friends in Cairo flocked to the streets, first in protest, then in celebration. But nothing had gotten worse for LGBT people under Muslim Brotherhood rule; nothing has got better since it ended. Same old, same old. It’s still true that the worst persecution LGBT people have faced in Egypt, possibly in the whole region – the three-year, continuous crackdown from 2001-2004, when police probably arrested and tortured thousands – was inflicted under Mubarak’s secular dictatorship. It had virtually nothing to do with religion. Indeed, the aged caudillo was arresting and torturing tens of thousands of Islamists at the same time.

What has been consistent since the Revolution, despite the several changes of government – military, Islamist, military again – is that the police want desperately to win their reputations back.  Under Mubarak, the vast majority of Egyptians passionately loathed the police: they were the contact point where ordinary citizens faced, and felt, the corruption and arbitrary power and abusiveness of a regime that had lost its sense of limit. And after February 2011, the cops finally had to give a damn that they were hated. In fact they largely disappeared, fearing for their safety and even lives if they offended an empowered populace. Since then, they’ve looked for ways to recuperate credibility – mainly, by showily harassing anybody the man in the street might despise even more than a man in uniform. Since the coup, the police go after Syrians, Palestinians, and other foreigners, because the wave of State-fostered xenophobia makes them applause-inducing targets. But it never hurts to announce that you’ve picked up a few suspected homosexuals. What better paints you, corrupt and immoral though you may be, as a defender of the nation’s morals?

Tell us who to torture and we will: Police in el-Marg escort deputy Minister of Interior on an inspection tour, April 2013

Tell us who to torture, and we will: Police in El-Marg escort deputy Minister of Interior on an inspection tour, April 2013

One night last February, I got a call at 4:30 AM. A small gaggle of gay men had been standing just after midnight in a square, in the tony Heliopolis neighborhood, that’s known as a cruising area. A police car pulled up to harass them; two of them, feeling their post-Revolutionary oats, argued with the officers.  They got arrested, while the others ran. One other guy who bravely went to the police station an hour later to ask about their well-being also found himself arrested, though the cops quickly let him go. Before that, though, the badges threatened him that he’d join his shawazz pals in prison. The word spread fast, by phone and text message, across Cairo’s gay communities. There were fears the prosecutor would slap charges of “debauchery,” or homosexual conduct, on the two men; fears, too, that they’d be sent off for the dreaded anal examinations. By 6 AM Ramy Youssef, a young Egyptian human rights activist, was standing with me in the shivery egg-blue dawn in front of the police station. Under various pretexts, we argued our way in, and persuaded the commander to let us see the men. One had been severely beaten. They were set free a few hours later – largely, I think, because we let the abusers know somebody was watching; but before I left, I asked the commander, in my most oozily ingratiating manner, whether the police found it increasingly difficult to work since the Revolution. “Definitely,” he said, spreading his hands imploringly. “And I hope you will tell the world that, as these cases show, we are still trying to do our job.”

Abandon hope, all ye that think otherwise: Portraits of General Sisi at a toll booth on the Sokhna road, October 2013, from http://instagram.com/p/faSnnEGD-t/  (h/t @Seldeeb)

Abandon hope, all ye that think otherwise: Portraits of General Sisi at a toll booth on the Sokhna road, October 2013, from http://instagram.com/p/faSnnEGD-t/ (hat tip: @Seldeeb)

Will this change? Not until the police are changed – until Egypt’s security sector is reformed; and neither military nor civilian governments have shown the slightest interest in that. The current junta, led by Generalissmo Sisi, has even less incentive to embark on any reforms than Morsi, who should have mistrusted the police (after all, they persecuted the Muslim Brothers for decades) but imagined he could employ them against his enemies. And military rule is never friendly to alternate ideas of manhood (or womanhood, for that matter). It exalts its own proprietary version of gender: a thoroughly traditional one, the old Everyman style of patriarchal authority, impatient of any perversion or extravagance. “We’re all Sisi,” the propaganda tells the public, and anybody who doesn’t look safely, nondescriptly, heterosexually Sisiesque enough will be in trouble. The fourteen or more men now in jail are victims because they seemed, in some fashion, different. They’re among many victims of the pressure to both believe (in the secular cult of Sisi) and conform.

It is the eve of Eid el-Adha, the Feast of Sacrifice in Islam. The holiday commemorates the faithful Ibrahim’s willingness to sacrifice his son Ismail – a story that ended, as Jews and Christians know from their own versions, with God’s merciful forbearance, permitting the prophet to spare the boy’s life. Tonight as I walked in downtown Cairo, all the alleys felt festive almost till the curfew impended. In a run-down street near the High Court, small kids played on the sidewalk around a prostrate and unhappy-looking goat, which in a few hours would play its part as the substitute sacrifice. Ibrahim offered up an animal in grateful exchange for the divine indulgence, the value God placed on human life. There are no substitutes in Cairo these days. It’s human life that’s sacrificed. The whole country looks more than ever like a scapegoat.

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We are all Sisi: Junta propaganda on an August 2013 cover of Sowt el-Umma

Resources about Syria

An image distributed by the opposition Shaam News Network, August 23, 2013, shows a relative mourning a family member killed during an alleged chemical attack in the eastern Ghouta area on the outskirts of Damascus

An image distributed by the opposition Shaam News Network, August 23, 2013, shows a relative mourning a family member killed during an alleged chemical attack in the eastern Ghouta area on the outskirts of Damascus

Bombings killed 80 people yesterday in Iraq, the country the US and UK saved ten years ago. The night before that war started, President Bush spoke on TV and turned his ferrety eyes toward the Iraqi people.

We will deliver the food and medicine you need. We will tear down the apparatus of terror. And we will help you build a new Iraq that is prosperous and free. In a free Iraq there will be no more wars of aggression against your neighbors, no more poison factories, no more executions of dissidents, no more torture chambers and rape rooms. … We will not relent until your country is free.

That worked out so well. Iraq, where the news is mostly bad, doesn’t get much press anymore. The UN says violence killed 1,057 in the country last month. Putting all that in separate news stories — 20 dead Monday, 40 Tuesday, and so on — would only confuse readers, leave them wondering what day it was and why the headlines never seem to change, just the ads. Better not to bother them. Anyway, the old imperialists knew the truth about these things. To colonize is to forget, because after that anything that happens on the soil reflects your own crimes. And while it is permitted to know others, it is dangerous to know yourself.

In that spirit, the US and the UK are now lurching toward intervening in Syria. It’s so reassuringly changeless, how these things happen: the long delays, the agonizing reappraisals, the moral quandaries, the TV debates, and then the red line crossed and suddenly the bombs are falling. It’s like the line from Hemingway: “”How did you go bankrupt?” “Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.”

Syria confuses me and leaves me in despair. I don’t know what to do; I’m not even sure what to feel anymore. Perhaps others are in the same darkness and uncertainty, particularly at this eleventh hour while the cruise missiles are being made ready. I don’t claim to know anything. But I can share some readings that left a few things less confused for me, in the hope that somebody else may make a sense of them that I’m denied. I don’t agree with everything here. And if you have other readings that taught you something and that you’d like to share, please do so in the comments.

Free Syrian army soldiers help a fighter wounded by a Syrian army sniper, Aleppo, 2012: AP

Free Syrian army soldiers help a fighter wounded by a Syrian army sniper, Aleppo, 2012: AP

General resources

Syria Deeply, a news aggregation site for all things related to the conflict, is “an independent digital media project led by journalists and technologists, exploring a new model of storytelling around a global crisis.” On Twitter at @syriadeeply.

The opposition: Under the acronyms

Some overviews of the factions:

Economist,Who are the Syrian opposition?” (June 2013)

BBC, “Guide to the Syrian opposition” (transcript of a broadcast, March 2012)

Elizabeth O’Bagy, “Syrian opposition fragmented by choice,” Gulf News  (July 2012; O’Bagy is an analyst at the ominously named Institute for the Study of War)

Who are the Syrian opposition?Global Post (November 2011) 

A more detailed account: “The Syrian File: The Role of the Opposition in a Multi-Layered Conflict,” a report by Cinzia Bianco for the Istituto Affari Internazionali (June 2013)

Chemical attack and intervention

What happened in the last few days? What happens next?

Julian Borger, “Syria Intervention: Key Questions Answered,” Guardian UK (August 28)

Frank Ledwidge, “Syria intervention: The 5 questions MPs should ask,” Guardian UK (August 28)

Omar Dahi, “Chemical attacks and military interventions,” Jadaliyya (August 2013). “It is hard to avoid the hopeless feeling that Syrians have lost almost all agency over their collective future….Whatever actions take place, continuing to claim them in the interests of the Syrian people is simply an exercise in public relations and deception.”

Musa al-Gharbi, “Toxic discourse on chemical weapons,” Your Middle East (August 27; from SyriaReport.net, a pro-Assad website).  It is disquieting that these chemical weapons incidents seem to occur at these critical moments of progress for the regime, when the rebels find themselves in desperate need for more assistance.”

Juan Cole, “At Hussein’s Hearings, U.S. May Be on Trial,” TruthDig (2005). Cole recently drew attention again to this article on how the US both abetted and alibi’ed Saddam’s chemical slaughter in Iraq, back when his regime was an ally. It’s particularly relevant today.

Citizen journalism image from the Media Office Of Douma City: a man mourns over a dead body following an alleged chemical attack in Douma, August 21, 2013

An image distributed by the Media Office Of Douma City shows a man mourning over a dead body following an alleged chemical attack in Douma, August 21, 2013

Blogs

Razan Ghazzawi is a friend, feminist, and sterling human rights activist, arrested repeatedly for her brave part in the anti-Assad struggle. Her blog is worth reading in its entirety. For a sample, a recent post, “Back,” lyrically describes her return to the beleaguered country after months of absence.  

Maysaloon is a well-known Syrian blogger who writes mostly in English. For recent posts, see “Airstrikes on Syria” and “A rant for Syria” (“That’s how it always is in Syria, we never hear of good news until it’s too late”). Also read “How to Square a Circle“: “One can oppose Assad and still support the Palestinian cause, not because of a contradiction but because the issue is one and the same. It is a sense for justice which makes the death of all innocent people equally outrageous, and whether it is Gaza or Homs that is being bombed, the condemnation of those doing so should not be subject to geopolitical convenience.”

Syria Freedom Forever is a blog, partly in English and partly in Arabic, run by Joseph Daher of the Syrian Revolutionary Left Current. See an interview with him on the site, “Imperialism, Sectarianism, and Syria’s Revolution.”

A man carries a wounded girl, after an explosion targeting a military bus in the Qudssaya neighborhood of Damascus, June 2012: AFP

A man carries a wounded girl, after an explosion targeting a military bus in the Qudssaya neighborhood of Damascus, June 2012: AFP

Other articles

Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, “How to Start a Battalion (in Five Easy Lessons),” London Review of Books (February 2013). “Last November, under pressure from the Americans, and with promises of better funding and more weapons from the Gulf nations, all the opposition factions met in Doha. A new council was created, called the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces. … But the promised flow of weapons never materialised: there were small amounts of ammunition, but no major shipments.” 

Aslı Ü. Bâli and Aziz Rana, “Why There Is No Military Solution to the Syrian Conflict,” Jadaliyya (May 2013).  “But the failure to take diplomacy seriously underscores a profound moral hazard generated by the international community’s prevailing framework. While basic international commitments to provide humanitarian assistance … have been honored in the breach, external actors fulfill and exceed their pledges of military support.”

David Bromwich, “Stay out of Syria!” New York Review of Books  (June 2013). “The untold story of Syria concerns something beyond the atrocities on both sides. It has also to do with the sinews of war—the financial motive and muscle that keeps it going.” 

Patrick Cockburn, “Is it the End of Sykes-Picot?London Review of Books (May 2013). “By savagely repressing demonstrations two years ago Bashar al-Assad helped turn mass protests into an insurrection which has torn Syria apart. … The quagmire is turning out to be even deeper and more dangerous than it was in Iraq.”    

Bassam Haddad, “The Growing Challenge to the Syrian Regime and the Syrian Uprising,” Jadaliyya (June 2013). “Divisions within the Revolution: It was bound to happen. And we are simply witnessing its tip: growing opposition to the militant opposition, on similar ethical grounds used to critique the regime.”

Bassam Haddad,  “Perpetual Recalculation: Getting Syria Wrong Two Years On,” Jadaliyya (March 2013).  “If I had a dollar for every time someone wrote about the “End Game” in Syria during the past eighteen months . . . .”

Bassam Haddad, “The Idiot’s Guide to Fighting Dictatorship in Syria While Opposing Military Intervention,” Jadaliyya (January 2012).  “It is one thing for analysts living outside Syria to oppose and condemn foreign intervention (which this author does unequivocally). It is another to assume that all those calling for it in Syria under current conditions are part of a conspiracy.  … Imperialism is not always the issue for everyone. To not recognize this is to lose the fight against imperialism.”

Syrian men carry a wounded protester who was shot during an anti-regime rally in Dael on the outskirts of Daraa, October 2011: AFP

Syrian men carry a wounded protester who was shot during an anti-regime rally in Dael on the outskirts of Daraa, October 2011: AFP

Amal Hanano, “The real me and the hypothetical Syrian revolution,” Jadaliyya, Part 1 (February 2012) and Part 2 (March 2012). “Our real names have been swallowed by our pseudonyms; our real faces have disappeared from our profile pictures — replaced with flags, historical figures, or composites. We erased the key components of our identity to use our voices in a way they have never been used before. We encoded ourselves so we would stop speaking in codes. To call things by their real names, things like murder, torture, rape, repression and humiliation. And to call for what we never thought we would dare to in our lifetimes: freedom, justice, and dignity.”

Peter Harling and Sarah Birke,The Syrian Heartbreak,” MERIP (April 2013). “There was a distinctive sense of national pride in Syria. … Syrian pride, too, fostered a strong national identity and a calm self-assurance, even among Palestinian refugees, chased from what is now Israel.”

Yusef Khalil, “Why the left must support Syria’s revolution,” Socialist Worker (April 2013), and “Understanding Syria’s revolution,” Socialist Worker (July 2013).  “The vital question facing the Syrian opposition is how to get aid from sources that can provide what the revolution needs, including weapons, while maintaining independent Syrian decision-making. This is a tough question to answer, but not impossible. But those who support the regime because they claim the uprising is being manipulated by the West are dishonest.”

Ghayath Naisse, “Prospects for Syria’s Revolution,” Socialist Worker (March 2013). “The traditional left in Syria, as well as regionally and internationally, has a miserable and opportunistic position towards revolutions … During the last three years of revolutions in our region, there has been a realignment of the left … This mirrors to some extent — without exaggeration — the realignment of the international left after the First World War.”

Yassin al-Haj Saleh, “Open Letter,” Syrian Observer (July 2013). “Every now and then we hear from American and Western politicians that there will be no military solution for the Syrian conflict, but where is the political solution?”

Citizen journalist image, provided by Lens Young Homsi, shows buildings destroyed by Syrian government bombing and shelling, in the Jouret al-Chiyah neighborhood of Homs, July 2013.

Citizen journalist image, provided by Lens Young Homsi, shows buildings destroyed by Syrian government bombing and shelling, in the Jouret al-Chiyah neighborhood of Homs, July 2013.

Finally

A friend showed me a poem by Mahmoud Darwish a few months ago: “Iraq’s Night Is Long,” published in 2008, the year he died. There is not enough poetry to confront the prevalence of catastrophe in this world. What he wrote for Iraq will have to do for Syria, for now. The wreckage is so hard to distinguish, and I doubt that he would mind.

Iraq, Iraq is blood the sun cannot dry
The sun is God’s widow above Iraq
The murdered Iraqi says to those standing at the bridge:
Good morning, I am still alive.
They say: You are still a dead man searching for his grave …

Who is killing whom in Iraq now?
Victims are shards on the roads and in words
Their names, like their bodies, are bits of disfigured letters
Here prophets stand together unable to utter
The sky’s name and the name of the murdered

Iraq, Iraq. So who are you in the presence of suicide?
I am not I in Iraq. Nor are you you
He is none but another
God has abandoned the perplexed, so who are we?
Who are we? We are nothing but a predicate in the poem:
Iraq’s night is long
Long!

Translated by Sinan Antoon, from Athar al-Farasha (Beirut: Riyad El-Rayyes, 2008)

Mahmoud Darwish, drawn by Ismail Shammout, 1971

Mahmoud Darwish, drawn by Ismail Shammout, 1971

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.

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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.

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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:

DSC00379 ش

“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.

Poem of the day

Painting on the junta's Qasr al-Aini wall, Cairo, via @GSquare86

Auden wrote this in 1945 after serving in occupied Germany. It’s a useful reminder for wall-builders and wall-destroyers alike.

From Memorial for the City (by W. H. Auden, 1907-1973)

Across the square,
Between the burnt-out Law Courts and Police Headquarters,
Past the Cathedral far too damaged to repair,
Around the Grand Hotel patched up to hold reporters,
Near huts of some Emergency Committee,
The barbed wire runs through the abolished City.

Across the plains,
Between two hills, two villages, two trees, two friends,
The barbed wire runs which neither argues nor explains
But where it likes a place, a path, a railroad ends,
The humour, the cuisine, the rites, the taste,
The pattern of the City, are erased.

Across our sleep
The barbed wire also runs: It trips us so we fall
And white ships sail without us though the others weep,
It makes our sorry fig-leaf at the Sneerers’ Ball,
It ties the smiler to the double bed,
It keeps on growing from the witch’s head.

Behind the wire
Which is behind the mirror, our Image is the same,
Awake or dreaming: It has no image to admire,
No age, no sex, no memory, no creed, no name,
It can be counted, multiplied, destroyed
In any place, at any time destroyed.

Is it our friend?
No: that is our hope; that we weep and It does not grieve;
That for it the wire and the ruins are not the end;
This is the flesh we are but never would believe,
The flesh we die but it is death to pity;
This is Adam waiting for his city.

Marshal Tantawi, tear down that wall!

Back in December, as a move to stop insistent demonstrations around Midan Tahrir, the ruling Egyptian junta tried to wall off access points to the square. Above, you can see them building a wall across Qasr al-Aini Street.

Shades of Berlin. Today, demonstrators are tearing down the wall. Here, from @GSquare86, are some pictures:

I love Egyptians when they get organized.

Dying young: The trauma of revolution

Corpse at the Coptic Hospital Morgue after the Maspero massacre, Cairo, October 10, 2011: © Scott Nelson

The official media cliche on Egypt’s revolution is now that it’s “unfinished.”  What this means is that revolutionary struggle has now gone on for a year, with an enormous cost not just in bloodshed and death but in psychological horror. A whole generation of previously sheltered, middle-class youth has witnessed murder and suffering up close, in a way that no cadre of young Egyptians has since the 1973 War. Indeed, they’ve seen it closer than their military predecessors: this is no orderly war, with a defined front line that keeps death to itself, the hardened soldiers guarding it like a secret gift. At Maspero, at Mohamed Mahmoud Street, in Port Said, death erupts suddenly, geysering out of nowhere with treacherous, chthonic force. Whatever you can say (and I’ve said it) about the isolated upper- and middle-class backgrounds of many revolutionaries and rights activists, over the last year they’ve lost their cocoons, watched the beaten and the blinded, seen pain in proximity. Mahmoud Salem (aka @Sandmonkey), a well-known liberal campaigner, tweeted as a grim 2012 dawned: “Years from now, when all of this quiets down, I am not sure there is a situation anywhere in the world that we will not be able to handle.”  I too hope.

Al-Ahram interviewed some young activists about “post-revolution trauma,” in an article they called simply “Dying Young.” 21-year-old Mahmoud Hany, the reporter writes,

has a young bearded face and the haunted eyes of someone who has seen too much. “Since the revolution began, with the exception of the month of August, I’ve lost at least one friend every month,” Hany says.

Even before the revolution, Hany was politically active. He used to attend numerous anti-Mubarak protests, when the notorious state security forces would frequently treat protesters violently. But nothing prepared him for what he was about to experience when the uprising began in January 2011.

He smelled tear gas for the first time on 25 January of last year, saw the first person die in front of him on 28 January, and visited a morgue to identify a friend for the first time in April.

After a year of being on the receiving end of assaults by security forces against protesters, Hany has acquired an uncanny knowledge of the different kinds of weapons being used against him and his friends.

There are three kinds of tear gas used on protesters, Hany explains. The one with the red label is manufactured in the US; the one with the blue label is British-made. He also knows that there are two different kinds of rubber bullet: the copper, which comes in six sizes, and the rubber, which only has one size. He knows that a live bullet is 9 mm long, and that a sniper-rifle beams a green light before it hits its target.

As time went on, and clashes escalated, Hany and his friends invented new ways to deal with these weapons. At first, they used vinegar and Pepsi to counteract the burning effects of tear gas on their eyes and faces. Later, however, they learned that yeast and medical drips work better.

“We learned these things from trial and error. Now, we’re so experienced that we can help the injured more than the medics,” he says. “Some people have also started using face masks to stop themselves from inhaling the gas. But I like doing things old school – I just use my Kuffayah,” he smiles.

And after one year of on-again, off-again post-revolutionary violence, Hany has also learned what no one his young age should: what the face of a dying person looks like. “Usually their mouth is open, they look pale, their eyes are unfocused and their breathing is unstable,” he says.

Even more horrifying is how well acquainted Hany is with the interior of Cairo’s notorious Zeinhom Morgue. The things that he witnessed in there, he says, will haunt him for the rest of his life.

“The stench was horrifying,” he remembers. “The drawers meant to hold the bodies are all broken, so bodies are often piled on top of each other haphazardly. In order to identify one body, you have to see all of them.”

Many of the corpses Hany saw in the morgue bore traces of the as-yet-unidentified gas they were subject to. “Some of them had weird skin eruptions and colours all over their bodies; others had completely lost their facial features,” he recalls.

Read the whole article here. 

Al-sha’b yurid isquat al-nizam

“The people demand the fall of the regime.”  Yesterday was the first anniversary of the Egyptian Revolution’s beginning. Mass protests, meant not only to commemorate but to voice anger at the continuing rule of the generals, happened across the country. Here is a shot of Tahrir square, yesterday at about 4 PM:

And here, just in case anybody thinks you need asphalt and Stalinist architecture to create a revolutionary mood, is the corniche in Alexandria:

Everyone, the army included, knows the revolution is unfinished.  For all that remains to be accomplished, though, it is still the most important blow struck for human freedom in this century so far. That’s not to slight the struggles and sacrifices of the Burmese, the Nepalis, the Syrians, and many more: it’s just that everyone’s battle needs an example, and the Egyptian, in these years, remains the biggest one around.

At the same time, these images of undifferentiated masses also suggest to me some of the revolution’s own problems. Everyone who was there and to whom I’ve talked has described the intoxicating exhilaration of unity, of differences dissolved as groups and interests melted together, of the weight of numbers producing the single will voiced in the famous slogan — the ecstasy of the volonté générale.  Yet this has made it harder to negotiate between, or even recognize, diverse interests including class and gender as they assert themselves in the politics of the post-revolution society.   The nostalgic fetish for unity makes it easier for the military to divide and conquer. The volonté générale may mark the inception of real politics, but held on to for too long, it asphyxiates it.

In that light, I remember the news I got on the second day of the Revolution: while scanning the web frantically for newer news from Egypt, I got an email from a friend telling me of the murder of David Kato. The Ugandan gay activist was bludgeoned to death in his Kampala home on January 26. Uganda’s government, which had presided over the politically manipulated circus of homophobia that led to his killing, continued to vilify him in death.

I’m not going to recapitulate the many memorials to David that you can read around the web today; enough has been said, and eloquently, by others. My own memories of him are of a slight figure trembling, visibly, like a reed, with anger at the injustice he saw around him. His rage, though, didn’t keep him from copiously giving his time, his help, and even his home to people poorer than he was, or suffering worse from injustice than he. It was probably that generosity that got his killer through the door.

“The people” is an abstraction. It is made of up of countless individuals, their anger, their loving-kindness, their acts and their pain. Its will — that the regime should fall — is composed of a million separate wills, each with its own care, its own caution, its own indignation, its own compassion.

To forget the separateness, and the particular faces, is to mimic the regime’s strategy of forgetting. What drove David, in Uganda, was mirrored in some way by what propelled every demonstrator in Egypt to Tahrir or to their local streets. At the same time, they were all different in some way, and their difference was also a particle of their power.  Remembering David, like remembering the martyrs from Cairo to Aswan, is to remember the concrete and sensuous possibility that revolution will continue, till all the regimes in their high places fall.

Egyptians raise an obelisk with the names of revolutionary martyrs, January 25, 2012


ElBaradei steps aside

Ten days before the first anniversary of the Egyptian revolution, Mohamed ElBaradei’s announced yesterday he will drop out of the still-unscheduled (“end of June,” the generals say now) presidential race. “My conscience does not allow me to run for the presidency or any other official position unless there is real democracy,” he said in a statement.

There seems to be a consensus in Egypt that this could — could – galvanize anger at the military regime before the anniversary.  It deeply undermines the generals’ pretentions to presiding over an open election. Al Masry al Youm offers a more sceptical account of ElBaradei’s role:

Looking back on his now failed campaign, ElBaradei never really was able to understand his role, or galvanize people in the country toward what he claims is the democratic future of Egypt. … Activists didn’t forget his slow manner of joining the ranks of the protests. One activist, who has been on the frontlines of clashes in the country for the past year, told Bikyamasr.com that “ElBaradei was so concerned with his image abroad that he forgot about his image here in Egypt.”

This seems to me jaundiced and unfair. Once he joined the protests, on the Revolution’s third day, I was impressed by how he let the young revolutionaries, kids a third of his age, dictate what this internationally lauded diplomat would do.  Whatever his shortcomings, he subordinated his ego to a movement (and to political reality) in a way few Egyptian politicians could ever manage.

On the other hand, his divorce from the realities of most Egyptians’ lives only reflects the country’s class divides, which SCAF has grown increasingly adept at manipulating.  Now that the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Nour will dominate the newly elected, however powerless, Parliament, their prospective policies are increasingly keeping cosmopolitan liberals focused on personal, rather than political freedoms — problematic if only because the latter are the sole guarantee of the former. “We respect beach tourism, says Brotherhood,” reads a headline in Bikya Masr, heralding the Ikhwan’s promise not to tamper with bikinis and booze.

The universe of Egypt’s revolutionary twitter users (a year ago, would I ever have written such a phrase?) is small: perhaps 50,000 people, judging from the followers of the major accounts. In this light, it’s ominous that Mosa’ab Elshamy (@mosaaberizing) wrote yesterday:

I’ve spent all day on the street and didn’t hear a single conversation about Baradei. Checked twitter, and it’s the only topic. Says a lot.