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.)

In Dream Park: A day without Adorno

Spill Water ride at Dream Park: This was really fun

Spill Water ride at Dream Park: This was really fun (self not in picture)

Yesterday, with four good friends, I went to Dream Park.

Doesn’t that sound like the beginning of Pilgrim’s Progress? If you never read Pilgrim’s Progress when you were a lonely kid, then perhaps you should; it’s one of the great English novels — the lone believer sets out on foot from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City, plodding slowly through an allegorical landscape, through the Country of Coveting and the Slough of Despond, and of course Vanity Fair, which is probably near Dream Park. It entranced and frightened me as a child. The opening had the suddenness of pristine terror:

As I walked through the wilderness of this world, I lighted on a certain place where was a den, and laid me down in that place to sleep; and as I slept, I dreamed a dream. I dreamed, and behold, I saw a man clothed with rags, standing in a certain place, with his face from his own house, a book in his hand, and a great burden upon his back.

“What shall I do?” Christian cries, because the book tells him that everything around him will be burnt with a fire from heaven, and he, and his neighbors, and his wife and children are all doomed to annihilation. Isn’t that a good reason to leave home? Isn’t that why you go to Dream Park?

At Vanity Fair, be sure to ask about the student discounts: Map of Pilgrim's Progress, from City of Destruction to Celestial City

At Vanity Fair, be sure to ask about the student discounts: Map of Pilgrim’s Progress, from City of Destruction to Celestial City

My Egyptian friends invited me on condition that I promise not to open a book all day, because they thought that would be good for me, and you can see why. (Christian’s book tells him, “Flee From the Wrath to Come,” and mine aren’t much lighter.) Dream Park is Egypt’s biggest amusement park, kind of like the various Disney universes but minus the megalomaniacal style. It was a lovely day in the sun with lovely people, cracking jokes and doing the bumper cars and eating homemade kofta sandwiches. I only cheated once and cracked a book during  the Towboat Ride, when I was sitting in the back. Don’t tell.

Amusement parks always are a bit of an allegorical landscape for me. “Forget your cares,” they say, and of course if the day works out you do, but there’s no such thing as complete amnesia, and putting the present aside makes room for the past to overtake me. I spent my childhood summers in Noble County, Ohio, a poor and rural place. There were two big revels every season, the County Fair and the Fireman’s Festival (to raise money for the fire department), and for both, traveling carnival companies set up rides. My mother never liked the Fair much, and neither did I. It was mostly for farmers — there was a constant recruiting drive to get kids into 4-H, so intense in its ethical overtones (“Head, heart, hands, health!” “Make the best better!”) that I imagined a junior agricultural cult sacrificing virgins to the crops, although virgins were too rare to be killed lightly in Noble County, and weighing pigs and evaluating fertilizer were the more likely diversions. Also, the Fair rides sucked. Once I went in a “haunted house” which mainly consisted of rubbery things touching your cheeks in the dark. My mother threw a fit at what she almost saw as child abuse, complained to the sinister carnies who huddled in a tent behind, and got our admission back. She liked the Fireman’s Festival better, because your money went to a cause. The crowds were smaller, the steers and swine gone, the rides seemed cooler and the carnies less scary. Every time I go to an amusement park, though, I remember her anger at the ghost house, where I had been robbed of a promised good time. She frightened me sometimes with the intensity of her feeling; but I learned with age, long after her death, that love means going to battle even for others’ smallest joys.

Son, that is one fine prize steer: 4-H stand at Noble County Fair, Ohio

Son, that is one fine prize steer: 4-H stand at Noble County Fair, Ohio

There were things I really enjoyed at Dream Park; there was a boat going over a waterslide that was delightful. But there were things that were different — different, too, from the Disneyland my parents took me to when I was nine years old, where I loved It’s a Small World After All, and the Mad Tea Party. Those ride were intimate and individuated; you got in alone or with your “guardian,” and spun around in a way that left you feeling special — that your experience was your very own, so to speak. (All the more so if you puked in the whirling teacup, and so made your temporary mark.) There were a few like this at Dream Park: they had an imitation teacup ride, and something called Caesar’s Shaker which could have fit in back in Noble County. But all the emphasis was on mega-rides, where dozens of people get buckled into some giant, meat-grinder-like machine.

Is this a new fashion? I don’t remember these being around to envy when I was small. We all took the Top Spin, which looks like a cross between a combine and a trash compactor, except fifty feet high; it takes two rows of strapped-down victims, and hoists them and flips them upside down and throws them groundwards.


I forwent going on Discovery, which seems to be the biggest attraction in the park. Shackled in a circle on a huge gondola hung from metal beams, you sit and the thing spins while swinging back and forth like a bell’s tongue, higher and higher till it’s more than perpendicular to the earth. One of my friends dislocated his shoulder.


Peer pressure to show you can take this stuff pervades the air. Another friend really didn’t like these “violent” rides, he said, and felt so frustrated that he almost cried at his inability to enjoy what other people seemed to. But I knew where he was coming from. I liked the spinning teacups better, and I missed the singing dolls and tinkling cembalo music of It’s a Small World.

I didn’t put words to my dissatisfaction till the day’s end, when we sat in the waning sun while Selim nursed his shoulder, and watched Discovery from a distance. It didn’t look frightening in the right way, it looked degrading: people packaged up and manhandled by a vast machine. It was frightening in the way that air travel is to the inflexibly phobic (including me): not just because of the heights and the speed, but because you’re processed and immobilized, strapped down in an anonymous collective, and everything that goes on abolishes not just your volition but your personhood. It seemed an exercise not so much in excitement as in complete submission, like S&M without any of the erotics, where your master is made of metal and is sixty feet tall. This didn’t strike me as fun. It reminded me of bang-up special effects, from Transformers or War of the Worlds.

(L): SpinSpider, version of the Discovery ride, in a Norwegian theme park; (R) Very bad thing ("I don't think they come from around here), from Spielberg's War of the Worlds

(L): SpinSpider, version of the Discovery ride, in a Norwegian theme park; (R) Very bad thing (“I don’t think they come from around here”), from Spielberg’s War of the Worlds

Probably it’s good that I didn’t have a book. But being bookless didn’t stop me from wondering what’s the fun in these rides that seem more helplessness than thrills, pure abnegation to technology. Today I remembered Adorno, my old guide and companion Adorno; and I looked up a few passages from Minima Moralia, the book he wrote in exile during the Second World War.

Some years ago, the report circulated in American newspapers about the discovery of a well­-preserved dinosaur in the state of Utah. It was emphasized that the specimen in question had outlived its species and was a million years younger than any hitherto known. Such reports, like the repulsively humorous craze for the Loch Ness monster and the King Kong film, are collective projections of the monstrous total state. One prepares for its horrors by getting used to giant images. In the absurd willingness to accept these, a humanity mired in powerlessness makes the desperate attempt to grasp the experience of what makes a mockery of every experience. …Two years before World War II the German public saw a film of the downfall of their zeppelin in Lakehurst. Calm, poised, the ship went on its way, only to suddenly plummet straight down. If there remains no way out, then the destructive drive becomes completely indifferent as to what it never firmly established: as to whether it is directed against others or against its own subject. 

This is really not a style of thinking conductive to having fun. (I have read that Adorno greatly enjoyed practical jokes, and that his friends wondered how someone so humorous could write “that way.”) Having quoted it, I wonder if my friends will invite me to Dream Park, or anywhere, ever again.

But he’s on to something, isn’t he? — in our era, where the special effects have gotten even more destructive, where movies are basically a succession of bigger and bigger things getting blown to bits. In such an age, every park is Jurassic. This feeling that being manhandled and anonymous before some humongous power, helpless in a humiliated mass, is fun: does it arise, not from some deep eternal masochism in the human soul, but from this moment in our history, where everybody’s strapped down to something, where powerlessness is so much the way you are that being even more powerless is the only thrill you can imagine?

Houses made of ticky-tacky: Middle-class apartment blocks in 6 October City

Houses made of ticky-tacky: Middle-class apartment blocks in 6 October City

You go to the many Dream Parks to get away from the city. But the history of amusement parks is one of counter-urbanism, creating faux utopian spaces that nonetheless reflect as well as refute the realities left behind them. Disneyland is vacation from and mirror to L.A., Dream Park is oasis and supplement to Cairo. (FORREC, the Canadian firm that built it, cites “forty years of experience in theme, urban, architectural and interior design” that give “a singular ability to merge design creativity with fiscal practicality.”) It’s fourteen years old, but it’s part of a larger urban project that began in the late Sadat years (when capitalism and speculation came to once-socialist Egypt): to create “new cities” on the edges of Cairo, safety valves for the megalopolis’s congestion. The rage of masses trapped in crowded poverty and powerlessness demanded an outlet: not for them, but for the middle classes who wanted to leave that menacing anger and the sump and stagnation behind.

Dream Park was uncrowded, comparatively empty on our visit, another victim of Cairo’s tensions and the curfew. (The latter only moved back from 9 to 11 PM yesterday.) People don’t like to travel these days. Earlier, another friend even warned me about the microbuses you have to take to get there — “terrorists” will stop them to take sojourners hostage, he told me. Those who had trekked there wanted, like us, to enjoy a day with the streets far off, the stories of murder silenced. But it’s not that simple. October 6 City, of which the park is a peripheral part, is an excrescence in the desert; it still looks as though only enchantment sustains its cement and lawns, as though a brief lapse of will would make the mirage vanish. When it wavers into sight on the straight horizon, it reminds you of the power of the corporate djinns who coaxed it from a lunar landscape of sand and rock. Speculating in land is almost the only growth sector in Egypt’s economy, but it takes enormous money and influence to make the desert even pretend to bloom. A Mubarak crony bribed his way to get the permits to build 6 October City. He eventually married his daughter off to the then President’s son: a fairy tale about a captive princess that might make a decent theme park ride. After the Revolution, a court tried him for corruption, along with the former Minister of Housing, who enabled his castles in the sand; he got a prison sentence in absentia. But he’s fled somewhere to safety, his class of hangers-on is back in power again after the coup, and few expect him to suffer much or long.

The whole desert development is artificial, an enormous strain on the environment that seems to be cracking at the seams. The grass is desiccated, the sand can’t be kept out of doors. In Dream Park, the aquatic rides take an immense amount of water — more than anybody could justify allotting to the place when 18 million people are living in the vicinity; so they keep reusing it, and it stagnates, and in corners it smells, and bloated dragonflies circle hungrily above the guests.

Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Christian and Hopeful encounter terrorists and bad transportation infrastructure on the way to the Celestial City

Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Christian and Hopeful encounter terrorists and bad transportation infrastructure on the way to the Celestial City

I’m not a good person for amusement, I suppose. Yet I really enjoyed Dream Park; I loved being with my friends; I loved the innocence despite everything, and I loved — even as I swayed under — the unleashed flood of memories of childhood. Tonight I’m remembering still, and for some reason I’m thinking of Pilgrim’s Progress. I read it in my great-grandparents’ farmhouse in Noble County, on languid summer days when the bluebottle flies buzzed in the prisoning windowpanes. It stood in the dark bookcase with many other old books, but it was the most impressive; they had a stately edition from the Henry Altemus Company, ample with engravings, one that must have sat in the parlor of many a pious family at the last century’s turn. I remember looking at Christian casting off his burden, Christian tempted by Vanity Fair, Christian crossing the river at last to the Celestial City.

Atheist on the edge: A lesson for Richard Dawkins

Atheist on the edge: Watch out, Richard Dawkins

I remember also the book’s ending, which brought back the pure terror of the beginning, here at the resolution where it was least expected. Christian and Hopeful enter Heaven after fording the treacherous RIver of Something. But Ignorance — a bumbling character who’s been the earnest hero’s comic foil — sails over by boat, which is cheating, and then tries to charm his way in without his ticket of salvation. The sentinels turn stonefaced, the story darkens. “When they asked him for his certificate, so he fumbled in his bosom for one, and found none. Then said they, Have you none? but the man answered never a word.”

The King of Heaven is intolerant of intruders. He orders his servants, “the two shining ones,” to act: “to go out and take Ignorance, and bind him hand and foot, and have him away.” I never forgot these lines:

Then they took him up, and carried him through the air to the door that I saw in the side of the hill, and put him in there. Then I saw that there was a way to hell, even from the gate of heaven, as well as from the City of Destruction. So I awoke, and behold it was a dream.

PProg_60_p146_ThenTheyTookHim

The killing days

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

 August 16: The army fires on protesters in Ismailia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

bassemy copy

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

From the Facebook feed of Mr. Kurtz

From the Facebook feed of Mr. Kurtz

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

Muslim brotherhood departure copy

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

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

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

Those liberals’ spittle shines the junta’s boots.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


					

No more colonels

not your father's junta

According to everyone’s expert analysis, there will not be a coup in Greece.

The government’s sacking of the whole military Chiefs of Staff yesterday is just normal politics.

Even if the whole country goes back to the days of barter, the colonels will not march in.

That’s the good news!

The bad news — which points to how far the degradation of democracy, the economy, and the European project has gone — is that we are talking in fairly normal tones about a coup in Greece at all.