From Egypt: Manhood on the front lines

Ahmed Spider, before and after

So Ahmed Spider’s website was hacked tonight. Where you used to find gauzy, Vaseline-blurred images of a willowy figure with a pruned beardlet, now there’s a glowering fuck-you troll in diapers, a message that the site’s been pwn3d, and some mocking posts from the hackers, who have monikers like “Turbo_Power” and “Black_Moon”:

“Susan” is cute, and now she’s talking about politics  — how hilarious! And moreover she’s singing … The best young men have participated in this revolution, while you sit at home playing at your keyboard.

Now, it’s not as though I have any sympathy for the guy. Ahmed Spider, whoever he really is — nobody seems to know exactly — is one of the odder side-effects of the revolution, one of those strange beings who crop up in the crevices where paranoia, social change, new forms of media, and the loonier outliers of celebrity culture all conjoin. For years, he used his website mainly to promote his not-very-well-sung songs. After February, though, he discovered a new career opening, as conspiracy theorist. He started up a YouTube channel, featuring musical monologues by himself, about suffering Egypt, the virtues of Mubarak, the iniquities of revolutionaries, the real reasons for 9/11, American and Zionist plots, and more. These videos never quite went viral; they were more like a lingering cold. He named Wael Ghonim, one of the revolution’s icons, as a Masonic subversive; after the Maspero massacre in October, he accused activist Alaa Abd el Fattah of inciting it (and Alaa now languishes in jail facing the same charges). He vehemently supports the ruling junta (SCAF, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces). Some pro-regime TV channels give him inordinate airtime.

Most revolutionaries thoroughly loathe him. His attack on Alaa Abd el Fattah they regard as especially unforgivable. Some call him things like “SCAF’s main tool.” That seems unlikely; he’s too eccentric, too pathetic a product of the dream of fame, to be a useful tool for anybody. But what’s interesting is the way his eccentricity is used against him. He’s undeniably a bit fey, he has a lispy accent, and his suspiciously plucked-looking eyebrows and gelled hair don’t quite fit either the respectable contours of traditional Egyptian manhood or the scruffy, Che-in-a-keffiyeh look favored in Midan Tahrir. So he becomes “she,” “Susan,” a faux artiste glued to the piano while the “best young men” go out and fight for what they believe. Or take this nasty cartoon that circulated on Twitter:

from @ahmad_nady on Twitter

Ahmed Spider (on the right, if you didn’t guess): “If you still love Zbider, googoo, you should throw in prison everybody people consider a MAN.” The general: “As you wish!” And the bicycle spinning in his thought-balloon — agaala — is common slang for a male who gets penetrated.

From @ahmad_nady on Twitter

Compare this to the same artist’s depiction of Alaa, his wife Manal, and their child — “for the best revolutionary couple ever.” It’s the Holy Family versus the fags. You get the idea.

The revolution is certainly not averse (or at least some revolutionaries aren’t) to manipulating homophobia. However, the truth is that Alaa — who’s certainly the “MAN” that Zbyder means above — with his long hair and rather unathletic figure, not to mention his feminist wife, is not exactly the traditional model of Egyptian manhood. And in fact, he’s notorious for saying friendly things about gay rights, and even endorsing the idea of same-sex marriage in his voluminous tweets. (His father, the revered Ahmed Seif el-Islam, was the first human rights activist to provide legal defense to the men arrested on the Queen Boat in 2001.) There are, in other words, some paradoxes here.

The other night, I asked a friend here who’s sensitive to these matters whether there’d been a change in the way Egyptians, or at least some Egyptians, imagine manhood since the Revolution. Alaa Abd el Fattah’s story was the first thing he mentioned. Specifically: After the military jailed Alaa in the wake of Maspero, Nawara Negm, a well-known revolutionary, published a piece in which she praised him as a dakar, a real, manly man: he faced SCAF and its overweening power boldly, went off to prison bravely, never flinched.

In one of his letters smuggled from his cell, Alaa responded to her:

I am writing this note with a deep sense of shame. I have just been moved from the appeals prison, at my request and insistence, because I simply couldn’t withstand the difficult conditions there: because of the darkness, the filth, the roaming cockroaches, crawling over my body night and day; because there was no courtyard, no sunshine and, again, the darkness….

I found Nawara’s celebrating my “manliness” confusing … I couldn’t “man up” and bear it, even though I knew only too well that thousands were bravely and stoically enduring far worse conditions, even though I never had to suffer the untold horrors of military prisons, nor was I ever subjected to the torture meted out to those comrades of mine who had been sent down to the military courts. …

Even my decision to refuse questioning by a miltary court, which so many of you have celebrated and praised, that too came with a grain of cowardice. The day we had met to take the decision, I was not brave enough to seek my wife Manal’s opinion on the matter, even though I knew full-well I would be leaving her on her own, through the final days of her pregnancy; even though I knew I would be leaving her to face, on her own, the trials and tribulations of running our life …

The only slightly theatrical modesty goes far toward explaining why Alaa is so loved among his comrades. The confession of a certain cowardice, and, most especially, the apology to his wife — the admission that they should have been equal partners in his decision, an idea few Egyptian men of whatever profession would entertain — seemed to my friend to adumbrate a different kind of masculinity, detached a bit from the traditional anxieties about courage and control. It’s also obvious, though, that while declaring himself less than a dakar, Alaa leaves the value of manliness itself unquestioned. He shifts the semantics around the dakar, but neither rejects the term nor redefines it completely. “It is true that I am not the ‘real man’ Nawara believes me to be,” he says, “but I am no coward either.” That self-description seems to me to capture some of the dilemmas here of revolutionary manhood.

among the martyrs

The revolution is a macho thing. Perhaps most revolutions are. All around Cairo, in the progressive hangouts, you can see the guys strutting round, cocksure in their rock-star status as heroes of the ongoing fight for freedom, their egos ablaze with the fires lit by the glimmers in awed girls’ eyes. If they’ve been on the barricades recently, some of them wear their battle scars like love bites. Beyond and behind them, ghostlike, there are, of course, the martyrs, those killed by Mubarak or the counter-revolution: women and men, unforgettably dead, their visages ubiquitous on posters or banners whenever the revolutionaries gather. Sometimes they appear smiling, natural, with faces in which only now one can read a shadow of surprise — images pulled, as if by an emergency or an unexpected message, from their ordinary lives in which dying seemed a distant thing, called to carry out a errand on which they hadn’t planned. Sometimes they’re shown with skulls crushed or chests bullet-ridden or limbs neatly folded over a docile corpse. Sometimes you see them split-screen as Before and After, as if one made the transit from beautiful life to glorious and terrifying death in the quick flick of a camera shutter. Always, though, they’re presented more as victims than as heroes. You don’t see them doing, though you may see footage of them dying; they are mute emblems of pure suffering, which extinguished them that the rest of us may go on struggling. Aluta continua. It’s as though, by being passive in their extinction, they clear the space for the living heroes to be heroes. The more the martyrs underwent, and the higher the hecatombs grow, the more their agency and power come to inhabit the guys (of course, particularly the guys) who survived.

But these guys in turn — because they’re like Alaa, maybe long-haired, certainly radical, definitely non-traditional in one way or another — have to defend their power from the accusation that they’re passive or perverted. They need to assert the idea of their manhood against the conservatives, against the saurian relics of the ancien regime, against the slurs that they’re sissy-boys or Westernized sexual freaks. They too have to say, over and over: I may not be a “real man” by your definition, but I’m a man, I’m not a coward. This is the irony: the same things the revolutionaries say about Ahmed Spider, the counter-revolutionaries have already said about them. 

It’s a vicious cycle of insecurities, then. Some examples:

Amr Gharbeia

There’s Amr Gharbeia, a very courageous blogger and human rights activist. When a dissident march on the Ministry of Defense in July ended in a brutal attack on the demonstrators and a tear-gas-smeared melee (a description from my side is here), three people kidnapped Amr in the confusion, dragging him off, threatening him, and accusing him of being a spy. He was freed later, but the publicity around his disappearance led to a bizarre backlash, in which the mere fact that he had a ponytail seemed to play an exacerbating part. One Facebook page put up by vestigial pro-Mubarakites accused him of being gay. That one’s gone now, but this one conveys the same spirit. It’s titled “I Call on the Military Council to Subject Amr Gharbeia to a Virginity Test“:

This country is full of sissy guys, either from the 6 April Coalition [the April 6 Youth Movement, one of the leading revolutionary Facebook groups] … or any other shitty coalitions which continue disgusting us. But truly, these are some guys who’ve been drinking beers in the university and smoking hash till they were wasted; then they mingle with the harem, or even get inspired by the roles of women, like our courageous hero Amr Gharbeia. And now they are chanting for democracy, and that they are revolutionary young men who can bring the president down, and even Tantawi.

We’ve gone from “the country of the million belly-dancers,” the page says, to  “the country of the million revolutionaries.” And clearly, they’re pretty much the same thing.

This is, moreover, fairly typical of the insults that many male demonstrators face, sometimes from unfriendly onlookers, sometimes from the oppressors themselves. It’s worse, arguably, on the very infrequent occasions that women’s or gender issues actually appear on the protesters’ programs. Last march, when feminist groups and allies tried to stage a march on International Women’s Day, angry crowds disrupted and broke up the effort. The women took the full brunt of the brutality, of course. Yet even one male participant wrote how “some of them pointed at me and described me as a fag who should wear a scarf over his head like women because he is a disgrace to the mankind.”

But any protest attracts a shower of insults, and worse. I can’t count the number of demonstrators inside Tahrir and out, men and women too, who have told me about being called khawal by police — a terrible insult in Egypt, similar to “faggot” but with a connotation of extreme effeminacy. And police sexually abuse men as well as women. It’s impossible to say how often, because few men will talk about it. Maged Butter, a revolutionary from Alexandria arrested in the battles of Mohamed Mahmoud Street in Cairo last week — a bright, brave, but slight, breakable-looking young man who could easily arouse all the cops’ fears and resentments about class as well as gender — wrote after his torture and release that

5 soldiers surrounded me, beat me with batons all over my body w/ extra dose for my head, and dragged me along M.Mahmoud st, 2 beating me with batons, 1 kicking me, 1 fingering my ass, 1 checking my pockets, till the end of the st., also kicking my balls.

The telltale finger in the ass is probably not the worst that many detainees have undergone.

So there’s reason to think that, out of the revolutionary cauldron, out of the moil of changes and ideas, novel ways of thinking about manhood as well as womanhood will emerge. But the thinkers and the ideas themselves are under pressure: both the internal pressure to show a traditional strength, and the external pressure to prove one’s not a khawal or a coward, a bicycle or a bitch. One positive fact, I think, is that the revolutionaries are now at a pass where they cannot endure the military — which, with universal conscription for men, has always provided what is virtually an institutional definition of masculinity in the country.  After SCAF’s repeated, murderous rampages, no one on the left has any patience left with its values. The dissidents reject the army’s temptations and seductions, all its pomps and works and promises. And this is quite a change from the spring, when many revolutionaries turned on the blogger Maikel Nabil Sanad (still imprisoned by the junta as I write) for criticizing compulsory military service — which they saw as an unpatriotic gesture. To cast aside the adulation of the military means that one structuring and constraining power over gender is, for at least one individual, out the window.

The other positive force is simply the presence of courageous and militant women everywhere in the Revolution, including the barricades and front lines. And there is more to write about this than I can possibly say, now or in future. But one place to start is simply by letting the voices of women speak for themselves — and I’ll begin that in the next post.

N.B. Particular thanks to Ahmed of the fine blog Rebel with a Cause for thinking through some of the issues with me.

9 thoughts on “From Egypt: Manhood on the front lines

  1. Pingback: SPW – Sexuality Policy Watch » Blog Archive » AROUND THE WEB

  2. Pingback: Interessante aktuelle links zum Leben in Kairo « akihart

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  4. The Islamists are coming, thats all I am going to say. If you think it is awful now, wait until the Salafists and the Brotherhood fight over who is “most righteous” in the peoples assembly.

  5. Pingback: Puppet regime: A few more notes on Egypt and paranoia | a paper bird

  6. Pingback: Brutal gender crackdown in Egypt: The tomorrows that never came | a paper bird

  7. Pingback: Cairo, and our comprador gay movements: A talk | a paper bird

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