Ahmed Seif al-Islam: In dark times

Ahmed Seif el-Islam, photographed by Platon for Human RIghts Watch, 2011

Ahmed Seif el-Islam, photographed by Platon for Human Rights Watch, 2011

Ahmed Seif al-Islam died one year ago today. I had meant to write something then, but I didn’t have the heart. No one had much heart in those weeks. I went to his wake at the Omar Makram Mosque three days later. Evening, like fusty crape, had settled on Midan Tahrir, five minutes’ walk away. It felt evident that this was also a funeral for the revolution, which had started there and dragged itself this short distance in four years, to die: a valediction not just to a person but to a history of dreams. Thousands of people filed through the small mosque; all of Egypt’s Left was there, but also students and graffiti artists and football fans and people who had only heard, but knew the significance of, his name. His daughter Mona received them, exhausted, by the door. His son Alaa had been released from prison to participate; he was beside her, wearing his prison whites, a garment which in Egypt always makes me think of pilgrimage. Inside, people looked down and said little, to the ebb and swell of the recited Qur’an. Hamdeen Sabbahi — the twice-failed presidential candidate whom Sisi had crushed in a rigged vote two months before — stood against the wall, with a tiny remaining entourage. His chin jutted; he was posing for invisible cameras; he reminded me how, even under dictatorships, politicians acquire the kinds of ego cultivated in our celebrity-sated media democracies, a self-regard that failure cannot shatter. (I’d learned this before in Egypt: in 2003 I met with Ayman Nour, a daring opposition MP who had the privilege two years of later of being similarly crushed by Mubarak in another gimcrack ballot. We were supposed to talk about some arrested demonstrators — he was their lawyer; instead he spent two hours talking about himself.) But no one paid attention to Sabbahi; the flashbulbs had flown like swallows. He’s a tall mountain of a man, but he seemed like hollow papier-mâché compared to Seif’s missing figure, friable and insignificant against the absent corpse.

11070278_981885211844003_7553989013040307034_nYou would have thought then, with the new dictator rigidly ensconced, that things couldn’t get any worse. But they did, as the autumn darkened. By October several of the most famous human rights activists in Egypt had to leave the country. Others were being jailed on pretexts, or banned from travel. I remember the months from then through January as a kind of delirium, when everybody I know — rights workers, journalists, café owners, gay men — believed we were all going to be arrested at any time. Things alleviated a little in the spring: perhaps because the state felt it had intimidated everyone enough, perhaps because the fear had simply become second nature; in any case, those are more or less the same thing.  In fact, the methods of repression only shifted. People were vanishing. Security forces disappeared more than 150 between April and June, pulling them off the streets or from their homes and dropping them (without trial, without hearing, without lawyers, without law) into the country’s immense Gulag. Sometimes they reappear, months later, in a security court; sometimes what surfaces are the corpses. There are death squads now. Torture used to happen behind bolted shutters in police stations; these days security forces will torture and kill you in your own house. Death does home delivery. The government wages a widening war against burgeoning insurgencies, and the insurgencies bomb and kidnap with spectacular impunity in the heart of Cairo. I remember lines by Edwin Muir:

                                                       We have seen
Good men made evil wrangling with the evil,
Straight minds grown crooked fighting crooked minds.
Our peace betrayed us; we betrayed our peace.
Look at it well. This was the good town once.

That is Egypt in the summer of 2015.

All this makes thinking about Seif the more painful, if the more necessary, a year on. I need to remember him, to make sense of everything since. The obituaries and memorials back then recited the key facts. As a young Communist activist, he faced the first of many arrests in 1972 (at the age of 21). In 1983, the Mubarak dictatorship jailed him for five years. They tortured him: “I was turned into a wreck of a human being,” he told Human Rights Watch. “A small example: each time I had a meal of torture, there was the sound of a bell. Since then, whenever I hear the sound of a bell my body shakes.” Finally freed, he made the hard choice to change the methods of his dissent. He became a lawyer, defending everyone from labor activists to accused apostates. In 1999, he helped found the Hisham Mubarak Law Center, the main human-rights legal defense group in Egypt. He practiced an activism that transcended the usual insularity of the left. He worked with religious fundamentalists, with accused “terrorists,” with religious minorities, with liberals of all stripes, with LGBT people, with feminists. He constantly looked for common ground between disparate but cognate ways of resisting state control, digging for a deep politics where joint action could begin: in similar visions of social transformation, in congruent loathing of arbitrary power, in shared experiences of torture.

Alaa Abd el Fattah, Sanaa Seif, and Leila Soueif (L -R_ at Ahmed Seif al-Islam's wake at Omar Makram Mosque, August 30, 2014. Photo by Hazem Abdul Hamid for Al Masry Al Youm

Alaa Abd el Fattah, Sanaa Seif, and Leila Soueif (L -R) at Ahmed Seif al-Islam’s wake at Omar Makram Mosque, August 30, 2014. Photo by Hazem Abdul Hamid for Al Masry Al Youm

And then there is his family: his wife Laila Soueif, a mathematician and relentless political activist; his daughter Mona Seif, who has spent almost five years fighting military persecution of civilians; his son Alaa Abd el Fattah and his daughter Sanaa Seif, both now serving prison terms for protesting “illegally” — jailed, they could not join him at his deathbed. And his sister-in-law Ahdaf Soueif, a novelist and activist (who chronicled some of the family history in her early fiction, In the Eye of the Sun); and her son Omar Robert Hamilton, who writes about the revolution, in Cairo and London. There’s something almost theatrical about a family life lived so intensely in public action; acting and activism are akin, after all, except the second comes without a script. At times they remind me, not exactly of the Barrymores, but of Ferber and Kaufman’s play about the Barrymores, The Royal Family — if it were somehow transported to the world of 1984. One striking thing (and one level, I suppose, of defying the surveillance state) is that, while they live in public, their private lives and loyalties are intensely rich and full. If you raise your kids to be rebels, almost always they eventually rebel against you. I’m sure Seif’s children had their moments of rebellion, but the other striking thing is that their father’s legacy is in their bones and they are unceasingly faithful to it. This is what happens when the political is also personal: a turn on a feminist adage that bears remembering.

I didn’t know him as well as many others. The best tribute I can pay now is to remember some things I learned from him.

The first dates to the first time I met him, in November 2001. Most Western obituaries of Seif stressed how, staring down political and social risk, he provided lawyers for men arrested for homosexuality in the famous Queen Boat case and the years after. Seif himself never made much of this: certainly not because he was embarrassed, nor because he thought it unimportant (he knew how important it was to the victims) but because it did not strike him as extraordinary. At the time, I was program director of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC). I came to Egypt that month for the verdict in the Queen Boat trial; Hossam Bahgat (then a 22-year-old university student) and I went to meet Seif in his office. I’d e-mailed and phoned him often from the US, but I wanted to thank him personally. (This was, it strikes me, one of the first times that Hossam had sat down face-to-face with Seif as well; they later became firm allies.)

I launched a little speech of gratitude for a difficult and dangerous decision. Seif listened, sucking his teeth ruminatively. This he often did. The mannerism seemed to have a deeper meaning, a way of coming to terms with an unpleasantness buried in life’s innards: as though the world had just given him something bitter to eat, a cosmic rotten quince or a transcendental grapefruit soaked in alum, and rather than spit it out, he was trying to decide what this implied about the universe. After I’d rambled on a while, he cut me off. “Does your organization have a position on Palestine?”

I was startled. I stammered, we didn’t exactly, we were an LGBT group, but we understood the (fill in some words).

“No, no,” he said. “Really, I just want to know simply. Does your organization take a position on the freedom of Palestine?”

Well, not quite, it was not entirely within our mandate, but

Seif’s lips set. “I want you to know that we have taken a position on this case because we believe in universal human rights, however much others may despise us for it. I don’t expect anything less from other groups. Therefore please tell me. Does your organization have a position on Palestine?”

Seif, in his office at the HIsham Mubarak Law Centre

Seif, in his office at the Hisham Mubarak Law Centre

The next time I saw Seif, I was working for Human RIghts Watch — which did have a position on Palestine and Israel, though not one he respected. But he wasn’t looking for a final answer. He wanted me to understand that I was a political actor whether I wanted to be or not, and he was going to treat me as one.  He wanted me to understand that “universality” is a choice and practice, not a generalization. Principles weren’t the opposite of the quid-pro-quo he posited; it was principle that demanded we both widen our horizons. For Seif human rights weren’t Platonic ideas glassed in some abstract realm; they took meaning in the concrete world through politics. They are absolute values we work out in real life. Their reach becomes universal through the labor of arguing out alliances to make them so. Seif’s turn to the law hadn’t changed his basic beliefs at all. He worked for human rights, but he was a revolutionary, and he thought only radical change could make them real. And only through the give-and-take of politics would change begin.

This political precision also affected his attitude toward lawyering. Seif was one of the finest constitutional lawyers in Egypt. This meant he was expert at finding cracks in a document crafted for repression. He had little of the craven fetishism with which American lawyers approach their own constitution, hammered out in slavery times. He knew legal argument was a means to an end, and the end was change, not the reification of a text. “Do you believe in this constitution?” I asked him when we were talking about Egypt’s emergency laws. He smiled. “I believe in the tools we have.”

Seif

Seif at a seminar on “contempt of religion” laws, 2012

A second memory. I saw Seif in Cairo in the summer of 2011, when the military government — the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces — was deepening its grip on the country. I sat in on a meeting Amnesty International organized for human rights activists. There were some 25 people at the table, and we went through a round of introductions and saying what our “core concerns” were. Seif looked half-asleep. When his turn came, he mumbled something almost inaudible. Then suddenly, as if someone had stuck an electric wire in his spine, he jolted to life. “I will NOT,” he shouted thunderously —  slap of palm on table — “accept that the American government, or Amnesty, or anyone will tell me that I need to tolerate military dictatorship in order to avoid a takeover by Islamist people. I will not accept such false choices. Anyone who wants to dictate that should leave this country alone.” I don’t remember the rest of what he said, but I don’t remember a word of what anyone else said either.

And that was a second lesson about politics. You may compromise on strategies or goals. You don’t have to compromise on saying what you believe. Seif would sit with almost anybody on a panel if it advanced a just, joint cause — Salafi preachers or American human rights organizations; but not if he had to mince his words, or lose his capacity to be critical.  He would sign an open letter sponsored by Human Rights Watch one day, and start an open letter blasting Human Rights Watch (usually about Palestine) the next. Coalitions don’t mean abandoning all confrontation.

A third lesson. While I lived in Cairo for a few months in 2003, demonstrations against the US invasion of Iraq wracked the city. The Mubarak government arrested over a thousand students and activists when the war broke out, torturing most of them. My work for Human Rights Watch was to document this; and so for hours every day I camped at Seif’s chaotic desk in the Hisham Mubarak Law Centre, where, as I’ve written before, “He spent more than a week without leaving his office for home, barely sleeping, barefoot and unshaven: collecting information, coordinating responses, making sure that lawyers stayed at every jail and every hearing, that every act of brutality was recorded. All the while, he kept a small bag packed behind the desk in anticipation of his own arrest.”

Seif and daughter Mona outside a military court in Cairo, October 30, 2011; Seif was defense attorney in one of his son Alaa's trials. Photo by Sherif Kouddous

Seif and daughter Mona outside a military court in Cairo, October 30, 2011; Seif was defending his son Alaa in one of his trials. Photo by Sherif Kouddous

Everybody who had been demonstrating, and their families, knew Seif. This was true of Salafis, of the Muslim Brotherhood, of Nasserists, of every political complexion. The Hisham Mubarak Centre was on the sixth floor of a leprous Belle Époque building in Souq el-Tawfiqiyya downtown; the offices branched off from a common room with blue chipped-plaster walls, once a pasha’s airy and erudite salon, and that vaulted space was always available for any group to meet, anybody to hold a press conference or a debate, any agitators to plan their agitation. Seif had turned his headquarters into the crossroads of dissent in Cairo. I remember, during those desperate days, interviewing a hijabi woman of about twenty, a college student who’d been active in the demonstrations. One night at her parents’ home, she’d received a phone call from Amn el-Dawla, from State Security cloaked in all its terror, demanding she come in the next day for interrogation. I asked her what she did. She said, “I called Seif, of course.”

But my point, the lesson, is: never did Seif make himself central. He had no interest in advertising himself or “leading.” His work was about others, not himself. (One detail is telling. Seif taught his lawyers what he called the “bag rule,” which sounds like a Mafia custom but was quite simple. He ordered them never to neglect to look at the bags of documents that poor and working-class Egyptians carry around with them when they have a dispute with the government: scraps of forms and records that often they can’t even read. I’ve seen these bags so often. They don’t just matter because they might contain overlooked evidence of malfeasance. They matter because they matter to the people. To immerse yourself in their experience of their wrongs is to show them the respect they demand.)

The idea of having his role publicized would have appalled Seif. True, he lived a public life; he was always on a stage, in some sense, but he was never any kind of star. The picture at top is almost the only posed photograph of him I’ve ever seen. It’s from a photo shoot that Human Rights Watch hired Platon to do in Cairo in 2011, a rather silly series of images of key figures from Egypt’s revolution. You can see the handlers couldn’t talk Seif into changing the moth-eaten sweater he usually wore, which is why the picture is in such close-up. You can also see he looks — well, not uncomfortable, just resigned, as if he’s finally realized this is the firing squad, and you’ve got to face it. When the ordeal was over, he must have felt like Dostoevsky getting his unexpected reprieve from execution: Now, I have time to write. 

Seif -- I believe at one of his summer parties for friends, extended families, and especially kids. Photo by Marwa Seoudi

Seif — I believe at one of his summer parties for friends, extended families, and especially kids. Photo by Marwa Seoudi

The danger in dictatorship is not only its technology of repression. It’s the dictatorial personality it imbues — not just in its servants, but in those who fight it. Human rights activists, because so hard to criticize, are if anything especially vulnerable to this warping of ego and moral sense. Seif had none of it. Our strange postmodern confusion of celebrity and power, so insidiously tempting to so many activists, was alien to him. It is impossible to imagine him talking about himself to strangers; he repelled flashbulbs as if he’d sprayed himself against them. It’s impossible to imagine him on the cover of a magazine, or on a red carpet with Brad and Angelina, or Menna Shalabi or Khaled Abol Naga or anybody. It’s just as impossible to imagine him participating in the games of power, holding a press conference with a UN ambassador or a foreign minister, or basking in the shared, pale light of some ambitious politician. Even the pictures wouldn’t have come out. The power of his presence would have exposed those beings as incorporeal fictions — vampires, creatures who don’t show up on photographic film.

Alaa, Seif’s son, is serving a five-year sentence, for joining a protest in November 2013. Recently his mother interviewed him during a visit to Tora prison; she memorized his answers and passed them to a reporter when she emerged. You can read the exchange in Arabic and English. Because Alaa seems almost forgotten in the West now, I will quote at length. He said:

Prisons in our country are the embodiment of “violation.” For me personally I’ll quote my father when, shortly before he died, he said that my conditions were “a lot better than others’ and, on the whole, bearable in comparison with what the political prisoners from the Islamist movement suffer.”

The authorities are being totally intransigent, though, in forbidding me books. Not just political books — any books from outside prison, including books published by the Egyptian Ministry of Culture. … They’re trying to isolate me, intellectually as well as physically, from the community. …

I was in court recently [for an “insulting the judiciary” case, another charge he still faces] and they brought in Magdi Qurqur [from the Brotherhood-sympathizing National Alliance Supporting Legitimacy] by mistake. He was in really bad shape. He told me that the day the prosecutor general was assassinated, prison officers went into the cells in Tora’s maximum security prison and stripped them of everything — prisoners’ clothes and bathroom stuff, but also medicines, even medicines which are really dangerous to stop suddenly, like for chronic heart problems, for example.

He added:

There’s no hope at all in reforming the Egyptian state or any of its institutions, including the presidency. These institutions and their heads deserve a revolution….[But] there is no longer one revolution that would let us to talk about “its forces.” Now we have multiple revolutions, and we need to think carefully about what this means.

Seif was Alaa’s defense attorney, until he became too sick to go on. At a press conference about his son’s trial eight months before he died, he said: “I wanted you to inherit a democratic society that guards your rights, my son. But instead I passed on the prison cell that held me, and now holds you.”

Ahmed Seif al-Islam speaking about his son’s trial at a January 2014 press conference

But that, of course, isn’t all. His legacy rests in a myriad small lessons — about politics, consistency, personal integrity, and more. These bear the seeds of multiple revolutions: some infinitesimally small at first, happening only in the circle of a few friends who decide on freedom, but with the capacity to grow. Egypt now is divided starkly into light and darkness. And these are dark times. “If it is the function of the public realm is to throw light on the affairs of men,” Hannah Arendt declared,

by providing a space of appearances in which they can show in deed and word, for better and worse, who they are and what they can do, then darkness has come when this light is extinguished by “credibility gaps” and “invisible govenrment,” by speech that does not disclose what is but sweeps it under the carpet, by exhortations, moral and otherwise, that, under the pretext of upholding old truths, degrade all truth to meaningless triviality.

Against this stands the illumination that “may well come less from theories and concepts than from the uncertain, flickering, and often weak light that some men and women, in their lives and in their works, will kindle under almost all circumstances and shed over the time span that was given them on this earth.”

These days I sit at home; I struggle against the heat; I think of past and future; and I read Brecht. Brecht wrote:

Truly I live in dark times!
Frank speech is naïve. A smooth forehead
Suggests insensitivity. The man who laughs
Has simply not yet heard
The terrible news.

What kind of times are these, when
To talk about trees is almost a crime
Because it implies silence about so many horrors?

An die Nachgeborenen (To Those Born Later), 194o

And he also wrote:

In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing
About the dark times.

Motto to the Svendborger Gedichte (Svendborg Poems), 1940

Hundreds of marchers attend Ahmed Seif el-Islam's burial in Tonsy cemetery in Basateen, Cairo, August 27, 2014. Photo by Amira Salah-Ahmed for Mada Masr

Hundreds of marchers attend Ahmed Seif el-Islam’s burial in Tonsy cemetery in Basateen, Cairo, August 27, 2014. Photo by Amira Salah-Ahmed for Mada Masr

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.