As If: On Alaa Abd el Fattah

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Bread, freedom, dignity: Street art in downtown Cairo, 2015, photo by ChrisJ for TrekEarth

In a quarter-century of visiting prisons or sitting in courtrooms and prosecutors’ offices, I’ve never really learned why states single out some people as special targets of retribution. Harmless groups (ranging from gays, emos, heavy-metal fans, to the peaceful Baha’i or the Rohingya) or lone individuals become symbols of everything the government loathes and wants to extirpate, the Jungian beasts that haunt its midnight dreams. Despite their innocence or weakness, they find themselves hemmed by all the instruments of power, the police with their guns, the torture machines, the prison walls. Sometimes there’s popular panic behind the repression, but sometimes the state seems random in picking out its demons. There’s a logic, but the logic of nightmare: a reminder that politics is, as Max Weber wrote, the realm not only of means and ends but of irrational beings, and that to engage in it is to traffic with “the diabolical powers that lurk in all force.”

I do speculate, though.  I’ve come over the years to think that what power fears most of all is one phrase: “as if.”

In English (the next few lines are meant to appease linguists and other nerds) “as if” introduces the subjunctive mood, a verb form that describes unreal events. These can be fantasies of the present (“she looks as if she were Laila Elwi“), the future (“she looks as if she were going to the Prince’s ball”), or even the past (“she looks as if she were dead since Thursday”). “As if” announces a state of affairs that is not; it’s a portal though which fear and desire overtly enter the apparently hushed and sober halls of language. And once “as if” has been said — once the desire is voiced, the fear made legible — you can act on the longing or transcend the fear. It pushes beyond the passport controls at fantasy’s borders; its premise can move people’s bodies and minds, make them speak or stand as if that unreal world actually were theirs.

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Vaclav Havel, arrested for protesting in defense of the Charter 77 principles in Czechoslovakia, 1970s

I first saw this in Eastern Europe. To be a “dissident” in the old-time Soviet bloc could mean many things, but it encompassed a shared style of action. To be a dissident was to act as if one were living in a free country. It was to write things, to speak, to hold a placard, to demonstrate, as if it were permitted rather than punishable by law. And this meant forcing the state to reveal itself: to show what it really was. Governments that put fraudulent charters of rights in their pseudo-socialist constitutions, that signed treaties, that pretended to be “people’s democracies,” could not bear people who acted as if democracy were real. That was the core of dissent, of the small cadres of people whose small, individual acts in time overthrew a massive, inhuman system. They changed the actual world by acting on the subjunctive. (“Really-existing socialism,” which never really existed, had a considerable tolerance for fantasy, as long as it remained fantasy. I was reminded recently that, in the Soviet Union in the desolate and stagnant Brezhnev years, when dictatorship lost even the pretense of purpose or charisma and lay on the people like a smothering, infected blanket, there was a large renaissance of science fiction. It was tolerated on the principle that the less real the other worlds where people took consolation, the more surreal and unachievable, the safer. Dream as you like. But do not act on it.)

I recognized this subjunctive faith again in the early years when I visited Cairo, between 2001 and 2003. Egypt had dissidents who put themselves on the line just as the legendary figures of eastern European dissent had. Their organizational loyalties were complex and sometimes conflicting (they tended to cluster round the Popular Committee to Support the Palestinian People’s Intifada, and later Kefaya — the two groups that arguably spearheaded anti-Mubarak actions on the democratic Left) but they had one strategy: to act as if the promises in the politicians’ rhetoric, and the Egyptian Constitution, were real; as if theirs were a free society, and not a dictatorship in thrift-shop democratic drag. Thus you demonstrated even though a thousand cops in riot gear kettled you in; you wrote what you wanted, even if State Security paid you a midnight call; you raised your voices, even if truncheons came down on your head.  If you were jailed or tortured, that meant the regime had been forced to cast off its disguise, to reveal its real nature. And if you succeeded — if the demonstration went ahead, the article were published, the poster stayed on the wall — you had pushed the envelope slightly, you’d made the regime back off, you’d expanded by a millimetre or two the available space for freedom. Either outcome was a victory, whatever the personal cost.

The Egyptian regime was terrified, and arguably in the end was overthrown, by a few people acting on a hypothetical; by the weight of bodies and a grammatical construction. It’s in this light that I think of the life of Alaa Abd El Fattah.

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Alaa Abdel-Fattah on trial in 2013 (Photo: Al-Ahram)

Alaa will turn 36 in a month, almost certainly still in prison. That’s half a lifetime, and for somewhat more than half of that he’s been an activist and dissident. Four successive Egyptian regimes — Mubarak’s, the military junta that succeeded him, the Muslim Brotherhood in its brief interval of power, and the military dictatorship of General Sisi — have treated him both as their favorite scapegoat and their most feared enemy.  There has been, in past years, almost no excuse they won’t use to arrest him; there’s been no charge they won’t fling at him, and no act of popular anger for which they won’t assign him blame. During Egypt’s only free presidential election in 2012, the headquarters of the military-backed (and ultimately losing) candidate caught fire. The army’s lackeys could find no likelier arsonist to libel than Alaa. (“Witnesses said they saw Alaa and his sister asleep in a car near the office minutes before,” they solemnly declared.) There was no evidence; there was nothing at all; yet a bogus “investigation” continued till another military regime, almost two years later, could hand a one-year suspended sentence to Alaa and his sister. Alaa exists less as a person than as a djinn or poltergeist or figure in a fairy tale, travelling on a magic laptop to wreak havoc on State Security’s plans, the omnipotent goblin in the fever dreams of delirious generals. “Thinking of installing a GPS tracker and live update my location publicly. Maybe this would stop the false accusations,” Alaa wrote during this particular fiasco.

I mention this because, despite the court ordeal, this was one of many points where the state’s obsession with Alaa achieved an almost comic incongruity with reality. (I once watched the actual, non-omnipotent, arson-incompetent Alaa spend five minutes trying, and failing, to light a match.) But of course it’s not a comedy in the end. Nothing in Egypt is. Alaa would furiously reject the idea that he is unique, or more important than the other thousands — 60,000, by human rights activists’ count — enduring Egypt’s immense gulag. But he is uniquely important to innumerable Egyptians. Street artists stealthily stenciled his rounded, bearded face on walls around the country during his many jail terms. The images fade (graffiti is another subversive act for which the Sisi regime has imposed hefty penalties) but his presence, even in prison, refuses to evanesce. He remains a symbol of Egypt’s Revolution, and not just of that: of the long and seemingly hopeless struggle that led up to it, as well as the slow, losing battle to hold onto its gains. “He’s history,” we say in English, to dismiss someone as over, done. Alaa is the history that still contains futurity, pulsing under its surface like a thrumming engine, visible as a vein. The regimes’ fear is that history is the future: that this buried embodied energy, the blood and the anger, will not go away.

It took some time, and long back-and-forths with his marvellous sister Mona Seif, for me to straighten out even the bare outline of how many times he’s been arrested. I’m not sure anyone, even State Security, keeps an exact count. Twelve years ago, as a blogger — at a time when the Internet opened new public spheres for uncensored information — he started writing about human rights, and reporting on demonstrations. In 2005, the day of a referendum to allow contested Presidential elections for the first time ever, pro-regime thugs assaulted anti-Mubarak protesters with fists and clubs. They attacked Alaa’s mother in the crowd, and beat him when he intervened to defend her. The next year, he spent  45 days in jail for demonstrating for greater judicial independence. His prestige came partly from the combination of what he wrote and what he did. His words led to his actions; the as if became real.

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Stencil of Alaa Abd El Fattah with the martyr Mina Daniel (R), killed during the millitary assault on demonstrators at the Maspero Building, October 9-10, 2011: photo, Mashallah News

Abroad when the 2011 revolution broke out, he returned and stood in Tahrir Square during the uprising’s last days. After a short recessional, state violence returned, and by the summer of 2011, the military were extending their control over both government and public life. In October, soldiers killed 27 mostly Christian marchers near the state broadcasting building in Maspero. Alaa had supported their demands for equality; a military court charged him with “inciting” the peaceful protesters, who in turn incited their murderers to kill them. He refused to recognize the army’s legal jurisdiction over civilians; in that stalemate, his son, Khaled, was born while he languished in jail. He was freed, and eventually cleared, but soon after, the alleged arson case had risen in its place. His life increasingly seemed a series of accusations springing up like undead vampires from jack-in-the-box graves, a legal horror parade of interrogations and cells.

After Sisi’s 2013 military coup, the environment grew darker. In November 2013, he was slapped with new charges for allegedly organizing a demonstration in front of Egypt’s rubber-stamp parliament, to protest constitutional changes.that would have installed military trials like a permanent tumor in the justice system. Security forces seized and questioned the so-called “Shura Council” demonstrators one by one: two dozen of them, all asked about their relations with the dreaded Alaa. Alaa himself waited outside the prosecutor’s office for hours, inviting interrogation. But State Security preferred to burst into his flat on November 28, a 20-man assault team with masks and flak jackets and machine guns. They abducted him and they beat his wife, Manal. “‘I’d like to see the warrant,'” she said: “It was as if the word ‘warrant’ was the filthiest name you could call their mothers.” She remembered:

And suddenly it was as if I was outside the scene and it turned into a surrealist spectacle from which I remember shots like in a comic strip: close-up on an unshaved face and yellow teeth while he’s hitting me and insulting me. Or the boss in the suit hitting me and calling me names … Anyone who’s worried about me: please don’t be. I didn’t feel violated or broken. No. I was strong. You know, my worst nightmare is being abused and trying to scream but my voice does’t come out – and that didn’t happen. Actually, for a moment, I pitied them: the Ministry and the officers and their thugs and Sisi and SCAF. I felt they were so tiny – I’m not sure how to describe this, but I kind of thought “wow – Alaa’s really driving you this mad?”

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Alaa Abd El Fattah and his wife Manal in 2011; photo by Nasser Nasser/AP

Alaa and his twenty-four co-defendants were jailed for three months, released, then re-arrested. He went on hunger strike late that summer, when his father lay in critical condition in the hospital.  The last time I saw him was at the wake after his father died, in August 2014. He’d been released briefly, under guard, for the funeral; he stood swaying in the receiving line outside the venerable Omar Makram mosque in central Cairo, as thousands of Egypt’s weeping revolutionaries filed past, mourning not just the aged, brave dissident but the faded promise of democracy. Alaa wore his prison whites, which always suggest pilgrimage to me. He looked dazed by the light, by the fragility of freedom. We exchanged brief words. In February 2015, Alaa received five years in prison for illegally demonstrating. (Under Egyptian law, it will be followed by five years’ “probation,” meaning sleeping every night in a police cell from dusk to dawn.)

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

Alaa’s ailing father, a distinguished rights defender who was also his defense attorney, had said at a press conference in 2014: “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.” The cell still confines Alaa. All other defendants but one in the Shura Council case have received presidential pardons. His own case lingers. Moreover, on September 30 this year, he faced a hearing in yet another trial, with two dozen more defendants: this time, for “insulting the judiciary.” (In a 2013 tweet criticizing a paranoid case mounted against civil society workers, Alaa suggested the judges were “taking orders from the military.”) This time the court postponed the hearing till December. A conviction could add a year or more to his sentence, in a maximum security prison. An appeal before Egypt’s Cassation Court against his five-year Shura Council sentence was also postponed on October 19; a judge recused himself without giving reasons, and adjourned the case till November. Egyptian justice is a mill that grinds hope to sand and ashes.

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Ahmed Seif al-Islam in the offices of the Hisham Mubarak Law Centre, Cairo, Egypt

I’ve said little about his extraordinary family. His father, Ahmed Seif al-Islam, was himself jailed for five years and tortured under Hosni Mubarak’s regime. One of Egypt’s first and best human rights lawyers, he defended arrested Islamists and accused gay men with equal passion. Alaa’s mother, Laila Soueif, has protested dictatorships for thirty years. His two younger sisters are activists as well. After the 2011 revolution, Mona Seif launched an unprecedented campaign to end military trials for civilians. Sanaa Seif spent a year in prison starting in 2014 — for demonstrating against draconian laws barring the right to demonstrate. His aunt, Ahdaf Soueif, and his cousin, Omar Robert Hamilton, are activists and writers in two languages, but always drawn back to the capillaries of Cairo where the pulse of action drums. It would be no wonder if such ancestral burdens intimidated him; certainly the wealth they’ve written about him leaves outsiders with precious little more to say. Through Mona, I asked their mother why she thinks he has been such a bête noire to government after government. “I always find it difficult to answer questions that reflect on the motivation of those in power,” she wrote,  “but I will try.”

Authorities in Egypt are and have always been very suspicious of any attempt by groups of young people to organize themselves autonomously. In the years leading up to the revolution, with the spread of the use of the internet and later social media it became virtually impossible to try and control the growing trend of young people connecting with each other outside the influence of the authorities. This caused a kind of panic in different state organs …  Alaa was and remains a very central figure in this trend, personally I believe this is the core cause behind the hatred with which authoritarian politicians regard Alaa and why they are so vindictive towards him.

The motives of power are always opaque. But its panics are lucid, exact in their illogic. It’s connection the generals and bureaucrats fear: the promiscuous, unregulated interactions of the young. Here, too, Alaa was a central symbol. You see him, pudgy and dishevelled, and he looks a bit like a rotund potato; but like a tuber, he transcends himself when the state’s dirt and darkness silt and bury everything. It takes a mother to recognize the terrible tendrils a son’s self can extend underground; it takes love to envision the connections he can contain.

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Manal Hassan, Alaa, and their son Khaled in 2012: photo by Paola Caridi at https://www.invisiblearabs.com

You have to read him to understand what this means. My friend Jillian York, herself an expert in digital security and the needs of fragile social movement in the region, said to me a few weeks ago: “Alaa gave me my political education.” And she wrote:

Despite the fact the he is only (and exactly) six months my senior, the friend has also been one of my most important teachers, reminding me to take risks and not being afraid to tell me when I’m not going far enough, not doing enough. ….I’ve said it to reporters so many times that it’s almost lost its meaning, but I’ll say it again: Alaa is in prison not because he committed a crime, not because he said too much, but because his very existence poses a threat to the state.

The revolutionary editor Lina Attalah captured some of Alaa’s talk, between trials, back in 2011:

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Alaa Abd El Fattah hugs his newly born son Khaled and his mother, Laila Soueif, after his release from prison in December 2011

“The marginalized are always the core,” he said. From Christians, to tuk tuk drivers, to gay people, Alaa glorified how they challenge the status quo by denying its existence. “Now if you count the marginalized in all their forms, we are the majority, because it includes women, the poor, those who live in slums, in rural areas … That makes the mainstream a minority.” …

He sees the alliance in post-Mubarak Tahrir, where the mainstream men and women – both Christians and Muslims – of the “gentrified square” retreated, ceding the place to street sellers, gangs and what-not. Along with the remaining activists of the square, this alliance stayed on, claiming post-uprising demands at a time when many others went back home seeking “stability.” Those who slammed Alaa and his fellow activists for continuing the revolution after February were jealous, he says, because the fluidity of its identity allowed for cross-class solidarity. This keeps the revolution alive.

When Alaa recalls criticism from counter-revolutionaries, the key words are “long hair, defends thugs and gangs, gay.” He is jubilant to know that the markers of marginalization have come to define the defamation campaign against him. If this does anything, it proves him right.

Not long after, he wrote similarly in one of many letters smuggled out of prison cells:

This time, I’m alone, in a cell with eight men who shouldn’t be here; poor, helpless, unjustly held – the guilty among them and the innocent.

As soon as they learned I was one of the “young people of the revolution” they started to curse out the revolution and how it had failed to clean up the ministry of the interior. I spend my first two days listening to stories of torture at the hands of a police force that insists on not being reformed; that takes out its defeat on the bodies of the poor and the helpless. …

In the few hours that sunlight enters the dark cell we read what a past cellmate has inscribed on the walls in an elegant Arabic calligraphy.  Four walls covered from floor to ceiling in Qur’anic verses and prayers and invocations and reflections. And what reads like a powerful desire to repent.

Next day we discover, in a low corner, the date of execution of our cellmate of the past. Our tears conquer us.  The guilty make plans for repentance. What can the innocent do?

My thoughts wander as I listen to the radio. …  [Fellow prisoner] Abu Malek interrupts my thoughts: “I swear by God if this revolution doesn’t do something radical about injustice it will sink without a trace.”

He wrote that in the first year after the Eighteen Days that overthrew Mubarak, when the possibility of popular movements taking a radical, anti-capitalist, and anti-militaristic turn was still very much alive. This was an as if the state particularly feared: as if the hardened deadweight of class power and military repression could be shaken off the people’s backs. To imagine it required an especially intense vision of connections, what they might be and, more importantly, how they could be forged. This was work into which Alaa plunged: all the strains in his own family – a feminist faith in the personal, an ecumenical fervor for human rights, a strategic belief in nonviolence, a dream of democracy – came together in him, at one juncture in time, in concentrated form.

When I talked in 2011-2012 to some veterans of Midan Tahrir, they often clung hard to a radically utopian and politically very unreal version of what had happened there: that it was a perfect moment when all divisions of class, gender, race, and power simply melted away and everyone was “just Egyptian,” or “Egyptian together.” The remaining role of politics was to get back to this garden, as if Marx or Gramsci had given way to a Joni Mitchell song. This vision of the warm, dissolving, comforting adhesiveness of Rousseau’s volonté générale was a fiction and a dangerous one, because it implied there was no more work to do, just waiting for the unity to re-arrive. Alaa knew better; unity was a hope not a given, it had to be won, and the powerful had to lose power in the process. As they failed to do so, the unhealed rifts of politics and history set back in. In early 2016, from prison, he looked back, and acknowledged a counterrevolution so destructive that preserving anyone’s “innocence” against others’ “guilt” was impossible. What remained was a different struggle, a different return: to the apparently hopeless hypotheticals of ten years before.

In 2013, we started to lose the battle for narrative to a poisonous polarization between a rabidly militarized pseudo-secular statism and a viciously sectarian-paranoid form of Islamism. All I remember about 2013 is how shrill I sounded screaming “A plague on both your houses,” how whiny and melodramatic it felt to complain about the curse of Cassandra warning of an all-consuming fire when no one would listen. As the streets were taken over by rallies that raised the photos of policemen instead of their victims, sit-ins were filled with chants against the Shia, and Coptic conspiracies flourished, my words lost any power and yet they continued to pour out of me. I still had a voice, even if only a handful would listen.

But then the state decided to end the conflict by committing the first crime against humanity in the history of the republic. The barriers of fear and despair would return after the Rabea al-Adaweya massacre. Another battle of narrative would start: getting non-Islamists to accept that a massacre had happened at all, to reject the violence committed in their name.

Three months after the massacre I was back in prison, and my prose took on a strange new role: to call on revolutionaries to admit defeat. To give up the optimism that had become dangerous in its encouragement to choose sides: a military triumphalism or an unpopular and impractical insistence on complete regime change.

I narrated defeat because the very language of revolution was lost to us, replaced by a dangerous cocktail of nationalist, nativist, collectivist and post-colonialist language, appropriated by both sides of the conflict and used to spin convoluted conspiracy theories and spread paranoia. … What we needed was all the strength we could muster to maintain some basic defence of human rights.

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Graffiti of Alaa Abd El Fattah on a Cairo street while he was jailed in 2011; photo from https://lonelygirltravels.com/category/subculture/street-art-art-culture-and-rock-n-roll/

In prison now, security forces randomly deny Alaa access to books — for him, the food of hope. His sister wrote me, “Alaa often refers to his emotional status as el talaga, ‘the fridge,’ and when he describes it he says he tries to maintain a strict hold on all his emotions, expectations tightly locked so that he doesn’t get too emotionally invested in anything or excited about anything and then get brutally disappointed.” The dwindling letters he writes have a dedicated readership in National Security; they only sporadically reach their intended recipients. “At one point it became too emotionally consuming for him to share personal reflections that will end up forgotten in some officer’s desk drawers.” He keeps writing, though, in any way he can. The best I can do here is to keep quoting — from, for instance, a short essay he managed to get through the walls in April:

Personally, I’ve come out of a decade of anger with a few simple lessons. I’ve realized that every step on the path of struggle or debate within society is an opportunity for understanding, connecting, dreaming and planning. Even when things seem simple or decided, even when we’re clear about which side of an argument we’re on, or about the need to abandon a particular argument altogether, seizing opportunities to pursue and produce meaning remains a necessity; without it we will never get beyond defeat. …

Finally, siding with power is generally unproductive. The powerful need nothing from you but to parrot their propaganda. The powerless, on the other hand, often cause as much trouble as they suffer. Their arguments and discourses are often as brittle as their positions in society and their diminishing chances of safety and survival. Taking their side, therefore, even as an experiment, is a catalyst for deeper reflection, deeper investigation, deeper analysis and imagination.

Once we were present, then we were defeated, and meaning was defeated with us. But we have not perished yet, and meaning too lives on. Perhaps our defeat was inevitable, but the chaos that is sweeping the world will sooner or later give birth to a new world, a world that will — of course — be run by the victors. But nothing will constrain the strong, nor shape the margins of freedom and justice, nor define spaces of beauty and possibilities for a common life except the weak, who insist that meaning should prevail — even after defeat.

And he has a message, finally, for those not in Egypt, for whom the politics of Cairo have become so alienating and confusing, who can’t conceive of what to do, who lapse back into old Orientalist fantasies about an ungovernable country that deserves what it gets. This confusion hardens to indifference; it paralyzes. (In the last few weeks, I tried to get a piece about Alaa published in the international press, and found it terribly difficult. LGBT Egyptians, who were suffering their own horrors during those weeks, were the topic of the month. Repression claims so many victims in Egypt that Sisi can easily distract critics just by vomiting up a different kind, like Apple announcing a new IPhone.) Yet the synoptic view linking the local to the global is what Alaa stresses again and again. “I have learned that ruling regimes are mere obstacles. The real challenges are international in nature,” he wrote, “which is why debate is so important.” He urged, in a statement to international internet activists around the same time:

  1. Fix your own democracy: This has always been my answer to the question “how can we help?” I still believe it is the only possible answer. Not only is where you live, work, vote, pay tax and organize the place where you have more influence, but a setback for human rights in a place where democracy has deep roots is certain to be used as an excuse for even worse violations in societies where rights are more fragile. I trust recent events made it evident that there is much that needs fixing. I look forward to being inspired by how you go about fixing it.

  2. Don’t play the game of nations: We lose much when you allow your work to be used as an instrument of foreign policy no matter how benign your current ruling coalition is. We risk much when human rights advocacy becomes a weapon in a cold war (just as the Arab revolutions were lost when revolutionaries found themselves unwitting and unwilling recruits in proxy wars between regional powers). We reach out to you not in search of powerful allies but because we confront the same global problems, and share universal values, and with a firm belief in the power of solidarity.

  3. Defend complexity and diversity: No change to the structure of or organization of the internet can make my life safer. My online speech is often used against me in the courts and in smear campaigns, but it isn’t the reason why I am prosecuted; my offline activity is. My late father served a similar term for his activism before there was a web. What the internet has truly changed is not political dissent but rather social dissent. We must protect it as a safe space where people can experiment with gender and sexual identities, explore what it means to be gay or a single mom or an atheist or a christian in the Middle East, but also what it means to be black and angry in the U.S., to be Muslim and ostracized in Europe, or to be a coal miner in a world that must cut back on greenhouse gases. The internet is the only space where all different modes of being Palestinian can meet. If I express this precariousness in symbolic violence, will you hear me out? Will you protect me from both prosecution by the establishment and exploitation by the well-funded fringe extremists?

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Protester at an October 2011 Cairo march against military abuses carries a poster on his back: “Free Alaa Abdel Fattah. No military tribunals, no more emergency law, down with military rule.” Photo from http://she2i2.blogspot.com/2011/10/

I derive several things from that, for my international colleagues. Power — the friendly power of your own governments that say they have the world’s best interests in mind — won’t save you. It won’t change things, not for the  better. Power must be battled, not befriended, wherever you face it. So, yes, you can fight at home, against the international system that contrives to extinguish hope, that keeps Alaa Abd El Fattah and 60,000 others in Egypt jailed. The system is huge. Egypt is only one small part, and the US and Europe prop up its indistiguishable dictators because of still larger goals against which 100 million Egyptians shrivel to paltriness: the priorities of Israeli occupation, or Saudi oil. Yet things can change. On the one hand, global arms sales to Egypt actually increased fourfold in the two years after Sisi’s coup and the attendant massacres. On the other: a few activists in Berlin, protesting last week against German complicity in the Egyptian crackdown on LGBT people, forced their government to cancel a planned security training for Egyptian police, meant to teach how to monitor web “extremism” (and repress any political activity they fear). The machinery of state terror, that produces terror and uses it to justify more, can be rolled back, even in small ways. That’s an immense victory.

Somewhile back, a Moroccan friend who studied linguistics wrote me, magisterially: “In Arabic as contrasted to English, the subjunctive mode is much more closely coordinated with desire.” I have no idea whether this is true (or, indeed, exactly what it means). But “coordinated with desire” is a marvellous phrase, and seems indeed to describe something recognizable about Oum Kulthoum songs or Mahfouz’s novels, permeated not just with an “as if” but with a tangible, urgent “I want” beating in every pause for breath. That transformation of impossibility into desire is the essential predicate of revolution.

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More Cairo graffiti of Alaa Abd El Fattah from 2011; the script to the left calls for a sit-in, while the words inside the TV screen read, “Go down to the streets.” Photo from https://lonelygirltravels.files.wordpress.com/2011/11/img_2494.jpg

I’ll just close with a story, one I often tell. I came back to Egypt for a few days in late 2005, for its first-ever contested Presidential election in history (Alaa had demonstrated six months earlier for the constitutional change that permitted the contest). The election itself was a sham staged for the Bush administration’s benefit. Mubarak jailed his main opponent, Ayman Nour, both before and after the brief campaign, and gave himself 89% of the votes. (Nour was later forced to leave Egypt after Sisi’s coup, and now lives in exile.) However, on voting day, September 7, a few dozen of the usual suspects — young activists from Kefaya, mostly — gathered at noon on the green roundabout in Midan Tahrir for what they expected to be the usual tiny, police-ringed protest. I came too and we walked in circles, chanting, till suddenly it hit everyone at once: the police weren’t there. The ranks of black- clad, armored Central Security conscripts who invariably came to kettle in and confine even the tiniest protest were miraculously, inexplicably, absent. Conscious that diplomats and the international press corps were all over Cairo that day, Mubarak had decided to stage a little simulacrum of democratic rights.

The next flash came quickly: We could do what we wanted. Limbs stretched like sleepers waking. Almost instantly the little demonstration moved off the greensward and started marching, up Talaat Harb street into downtown Cairo. It grew as we walked, to maybe a thousand or more. People sang, they danced. The sense of physical liberation, freedom from the huge constricting weight of the state’s riot gear and weapons, was incredible. It was if a hundred bodies had been unstrung from straitjackets at once. Along the street, shoppers and shopkeepers stared as if we’d gone insane; a few, envying the joy of the uncalendared moulid, peeled off to join us.  The ecstatic procession wound through central Cairo, turning near Ramsis Station to approach the old presidential palace at Abdin; and there, where the streets widened and the shoulder-to-shoulder solidarity softened (and after the foreign reporters, losing interest, had decamped to grab a beer) Mubarak’s paid thugs emerged from the alleyways, to club and batter those along the edges. The march broke up in fear and confusion, as friends raced to protect one another.  Yet the memory is so vivid for me, I can almost taste the sweat and the exhaust fumes in the air. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen people so purely happy. I missed the Eighteen Days in Midan Tahrir, but that one day gave me a feeling for what it must have been like. It was the hour of as if, when lives mummified in fear and custom break free. I don’t recall any faces from the procession, strangely, just bodies dancing, arms raised high; I’m not sure if Alaa or his family were there, or were at some other demonstration in Cairo, or were arguing elsewhere with the police. I abase myself for my own forgetting. The failure of memory to hold steadfastly enough to the past corrupts history; its weakness puts the future itself in danger. Yet when I think of Alaa I remember enough of that afternoon to know: a day like that is what I want for him, as if he were free.

4402bf7f353f3d0629e06ff13243cb92--accusations-graffiti

Street art depicting Alaa Abd El Fattah by Keizer, Cairo, 2016-2017. The placard around his neck reads “Innocent”; the words below: “Don’t forget me.”

 

 

 

Entrapped! How to use a phone app to destroy a life

Love in the age of Grindr. From http://media.giphy.com/

Love in the age of Grindr and Tinder. From http://media.giphy.com/

NOTE: For advice on how to avoid police entrapment and protect yourself on the Internet, see here (in Arabic) or here (in English and Arabic). For important information (in Arabic) on your legal rights if you’re arrested in Egypt for being gay or trans, see here. 

Here’s news from Cairo. On September 8, El Watan reported that the morals police, “under the direction of Major General Ahmed el Shafie,” caught a “bodybuilding trainer” who also served as bodyguard to famous actors and singers. He was “practicing sexual perversion [shuzooz] with a rich Arab man in an apartment in Doqqi” (a tony neighborhood where many Arabs from the Gulf live). Investigations showed “that the accused Salah A. , a bodyguard, set up a page for himself on a social media website, to offer himself for sexual perversion with men who want to practice debauchery [fugur] for prices as high as LE 2000″ – about US $250.

Major General Amgad el-Shafie, from a 2014 TV interview

Major General Amgad el-Shafie, from a 2014 TV interview

The same day, Al Youm al-Sabbah (or Youm7), a scandal site that runs stories leaked by cops, announced that the morals division of the Tourism and Antiquities Police – which patrols hotels and tourist sites — “has captured two sexual perverts while they practiced debauchery with two men from the Gulf inside two famous hotels in Zamalek and downtown Cairo.” Major General Ahmed Mustafa Shaheen, Tourist Police head, took credit for the case; one of the arresting officers was Colonel Ahmed Kishk — remember that name. In a posh Zamalek caravanserai they stopped “Fathy A., 24,” leaving “the room of a guest from the Gulf area.” On his IPhone they found a “conversation program which allows him to identify those close to him,” and evidence that he had sex for 1000 LE a shot. He is in jail, and was subjected to a forensic anal examination. The second miscreant, “Mahmoud A., 23,” was “found practicing debauchery with a person from the Gulf in exchange for 800 LE, in another hotel in downtown Cairo.” He too is in the police lockup.  A transgender friend of mine knows one of the hotel arrestees, and says he identifies as a “ladyboy,” a slang term in Cairo for men who play against gender roles.

of the Tourism and Antiquities Police meets with officers at a meeting this month about protecting archeological sites; photo from Youm7

Major General Ahmed Mustafa Shaheen of the Tourism and Antiquities Police meets his minions, at a confab this month about protecting archeological sites; photo from Youm7

It doesn’t make sense. Youm7’s explanation for the arrests beggars belief; “secret sources” pointed police to “two men who look suspicious and are unstable in their behavior and the way they talk,” headed for “two rooms of two different customers from the Gulf area,” in two hotels in two different neighborhoods. Quelle coïncidence! And why were the young Egyptians jailed while the Gulf Arabs went scot-free, in a country that’s declared its intention to crack down on gay foreigners? Under Egyptian law, both parties should be culpable. (See the note at the end for a summary of Egypt’s law on sex work and homosexual conduct.)

I know why the Gulfies weren’t jailed. The Gulfies didn’t exist. The IPhones, the evanescing clients, suggest the real story: the police impersonated rich Gulf Arabs online, to lure victims to a meeting and arrest them.

Between 2001 and 2004, police entrapped hundreds, probably thousands, of gay Egyptian men over the Internet, in a massive crackdown. Since 2013, arrests of suspected LGBT people burgeoned again in Egypt; most victims were seized at home or on the streets, yet rumors circulated that cops had returned to the Web for entrapment. But there was no proof — till this summer. On June 8, police arrested a Syrian refugee in Messaha Square in Doqqi; they’d arranged to meet him over Growlr. An appeals court overturned his one-year sentence, but, flouting legal protections for refugees, the Ministry of Interior deported him anyway. A month later, seemingly under similar circumstances, Doqqi police arrested an Italian national who had lived in Egypt for six years. A court eventually dismissed the charges, but, under pressure, he left the country. The latest cases show not just foreigners but Egyptians are targets of the snares.

Internet entrapment is cruel — and successful — because it feeds on solitude. The police arrest you not because you’re dancing at a party or cruising on the street, but because, on the apparent privacy of a flickering screen, you express a need. Your crime isn’t hurting someone but being vulnerable to hurt. I know a great deal about Internet entrapment; more, I think, than almost anybody except the police who do it. I don’t have the victims’ permission to detail this summer’s cases; but I’ve interviewed dozens of men arrested in the 2001-2004 crackdown, and studied dozens of police files from the same period. I’ve documented entrapment cases in Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and several countries in sub-Saharan Africa. You want to learn how to do it? Here’s what I know.

Cartoon by Peter Steiner, from the New Yorker, July 5, 1993; this is reportedly the New Yorker's most-reproduced cartoon ever

Cartoon by Peter Steiner, from the New Yorker, July 5, 1993: reportedly, the New Yorker’s most-reproduced cartoon ever

I. Truth and consequences. In the huge crackdown from 2001-2004, massively publicized arrests in gathering places — like the Queen Boat raid — made gay men avoid the sites where they could meet face-to-face. They turned to the Internet; and there, in their isolation, police could pick them off one by one. The current crackdown follows the same script. Last year, police harassment devastated the downtown café scene, shuttering spots where LGBT people had been welcome. (After padlocking one coffee bar popular among gays, police announced to the press that they had quashed an “atheists’ café,” a “place for Satan worship, rituals and dances.”) Nobody goes out anymore; they stay home and log in. Any time I’m with a group of gays in Cairo, the peculiar cooing sound of Grindr alerts, like pigeons masturbating, semicolons the hushed conversations.

Egyptians want the same range of things from dating apps as people anywhere: talk, touch, raunch, rapport, money, undying love. Where threats pervade the world outside, though, people want safety, as much a sexual as an emotional need. Dating apps give a dangerous simulacrum of security. You believe you’re safe, because you can hide who you are. You’re not safe, because others can do the same.

From Girl Comics #1,

From Girl Comics #1, “A Brief Rendezvous”

Dating apps are games of truth. They’re full of people seeking truth with desperate sincerity while trying to avoid telling it. The first rule is: Everybody lies. You lie as much as you can to make a better self for yourself — but not so much that, if a meeting happens, the other will be let down. (Don’t say you’re 25 and look like Channing Tatum if you’re 55 and look like Chris Christie.) The second rule is: Winning means not being lied to. It means meeting someone who tells you the truth; it means sustaining your invented self which staying the one less deceived. The game’s unstable, off-center, because these rules are irreconcilable.

But there’s one catch, one secret: If the police are playing, the policeman always wins. His avidity to listen, meet, and love trumps the diffidence other, lukewarm suitors show. The cop can lie as much as he likes, without fear of a rendezvous exploding his persona; you’re not going to storm away saying, “But you’re not 25,” because you’ll be in handcuffs. And he doesn’t care how many lies you tell; all that matters is getting the one fact from you, a confession that you’re gay — the evidence that makes you criminal. For ordinary players, you’d need the intricate algorithms of game theory to calculate the winning balance of truth and fiction. But streamlined rules govern the policeman’s game; only one truth counts. Once he has that, he’s won; your loss is final.

In a game of needs, the simplest, most economical need conquers. Most gay men believe the online world is liberating. But the game is rigged for the police. The ersatzness of that world, its imitation freedom, collapses like cardboard when a policeman commences play. After that, only he can win.

2. Trust and betrayal. Before you entrap someone, they have to trust you enough to talk to you and meet you. Most people online in Egypt want to believe there’s someone real out there, someone less prone to fiction than they are; naive desire renders entrapment easy. Still, the policeman needs skills: some English (required to navigate many apps and websites — plus, much chat is partly anglicized); some knowledge of gay slang and the gay world. It’s not a combination many cops have.

The Mugamma looms over Midan Tahrir

The Mugamma looms over Midan Tahrir

There are certainly officers who prowl the LGBT Internet. They’re in the morals division of the Cairo police, headquartered atop the Mugamma, the vast Stalinist bureaucrats’ sarcophagus on Midan Tahrir. (In 2001-2004, cops entrapped gay men from elsewhere in the country — but always by asking them to come to Cairo, for convenient arrest.) I’m convinced, though, they employ civilian gay informers as well.

Morals police in Egypt, like elsewhere, have always cultivated informers. The gay ones were mostly working-class guys, doing it for a little money and immunity from arrest. Sometimes, in seasons when the cops hungered for baksheesh, police would take an informer in a microbus round the cruising areas; he’d point to the known khawalat, or faggots, on the streets and they’d be loaded in the van, beaten, jailed. The gays even gave some famous informers nicknames; “Mohammed Laila Elwi,” dubbed for a movie actress, probably got hundreds arrested. In 2003, with an Egyptian colleague, I went to talk to Taha Embaby, then the dreaded head of the Cairo morals division, in his office in Abdin police station. On a sofa in his anteroom sat two fey young men, obviously there to give reports. As we stood quivering with trepidation, one cocked his wrist flirtatiously at me. “Welcome to Egypt,” he said.

But in 2001-2004, for Internet entrapment, police developed a new cadre of informers, with cyber-skills, not street smarts. Sometimes these exhibited frightening cunning. In one case, police entrapped a man who worked at the Cairo Opera House. His Internet chats with his nemesis,  preserved in the police file I read, chilled me: they showed an agent, calling himself “Raoul,” with deep musical knowledge and dark humor — as if the cops, like a dating site, had matched the informer to the victim. They asked each other their favorite operas. Tosca, said the victim-to-be, but the agent named “Die Fledermaus”: Johann Strauss’ story of deception and entrapment, its last scene set in a jail. He added that he loved Dialogues des Carmélitesan opera by the (gay) composer Francis Poulenc: a work almost unknown in Egypt, one that also ends, grimly, in a prison cell. As they set up the meeting that led to the arrest, their dialogues grew double-edged:

Raoul: and I promise u 2 things
Incubus: which r?
Raoul: first I will make u so happy
Raoul: second u will never forget me

Isabel Leonard (R) and Elizabeth Bishop in the Metropolitan Opera's production of Dialogues des Carmélites. Photo: Hiroyuki Ito for The New York Times

Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence: Isabel Leonard (R) and Elizabeth Bishop in a Metropolitan Opera production of Dialogues des Carmélites. Photo: Hiroyuki Ito for The New York Times

The informers often used the name “Raoul” in 2001-2004. Raoul frequently said he was French or Spanish — police grasped that many Egyptian gays trusted foreigners more than fellow countrymen. In some incarnations, he clearly wasn’t what he claimed. (One court file showed “Raoul” chatting with two young gay men. When he explained he was from Spain, one of the men excitedly announced he studied Spanish. Es usted de Madrid? ¿Qué estás haciendo en Egipto? Raoul retreated: No, no, better English for now. They went to meet him anyway.) But some playing the “Raoul” role were perhaps more truthful. I suspected police were blackmailing a gay foreigner living in Cairo, possibly one they’d gotten on drug charges or some other grave offense. It evinced the trouble they were willing to take to entrap a few hundred gay men.

The cops themselves were like cops everywhere: eager to make arrests, but lazy. They met their victims as close to police stations as possible, to minimize the walk. Often the rendezvous was in front of the Hardee’s in Midan Tahrir, across the street from the Mugamma. These days, police in Doqqi seem to specialize in entrapment; they like to meet victims in Midan Messaha, three easy blocks from the Doqqi police station.

 Friendly Doqqi police doing their patriotic propaganda duty: Cops hand candy to passersby in front of the Doqqi police station, to celebrate Sisi’s Suez Canal opening on August 5

3. Innocence and evidence. The one thing police want is proof of their victims’ guilt: which means getting them to confess to at least one sexual experience they’ve already had. Tender, attentive, and inquisitive, the informers pry this information out like gold fillings from teeth.

In early 2002, “Wael Samy” (another name informers often used) answered a personals ad placed by Zaki, a lonely 23-year-old from a provincial city. They started exchanging emails, often in English, and Wael lured Zaki into describing the one time he’d had sex:

Dearest Wael, It is always so fulfilling to hear from you ‘cause your e-mails are full of sincere emotions and feelings although they are always too short. I am also so happy to know that my emails give you such pleasure. …

Well, this time, as you’ve requested, I’ll try to give you an account of what happened during my first and only sex experience which happened about six years ago, hoping you can e-mail me with yours next time.

Zaki fell in love with Wael at a distance, and went to Cairo to meet him. The e-mail was the key item of evidence at his trial. He spent three years in prison.

Spies in our midst: Graphic from El-Watan, 2014

Spies among us: Graphic from El-Watan, 2014

But police also try to extract confessions after arrest. In the past, they’ve used a sadistic trick. If the informer had claimed to be a foreigner (“Dennis” or “Sevensen,” like “Raoul,” were common aliases), police at the Mugamma`would tell the terrified prisoner he’d been arrested because he’d spoken with a spy. Menaced with an espionage charge, the innocent captive would protest that they’d only talked about sex. Fine, the cops would say. Just tell us all about your gay life in writing and we’ll let you go. One victim told me:

The officer who interrogated me claimed [he was] a State Security officer. He said that all he wanted was for me to confess that I was gay. He said this is “personal freedom” and that if I confessed they would inform State Security and let me go immediately.

“Amgad,” a young doctor from upper Egypt whom I interviewed after his release from prison in 2003, told me the police

asked me how long I had known [the man I chatted with] … They told me this guy was an Israeli spy. They said he would have sex with me, then take photographs of me and then threaten me and make me work for Israel. … I told them all about my gay life, such as it was—the friendships I had made over the Internet and why they were important to me. Then they looked at each other and said something like, “We will make this only a personal relationship case.” Now I realize how funny they thought it was to lead me on this way.

The thing is, they didn’t blink. They didn’t feel that doing this would destroy a whole life. They caught me because I am gay, but they didn’t even think that my future could be destroyed. I am not rich, I cannot leave the country or start my life over. … And they didn’t feel anything. Anything. Can you understand what they were thinking? I cannot.

b86cefbf-3753-4937-95dc-62696d57cd8f4. Motives. It’s the cops’ motives I mean. Today as much as in 2001-2004, the Egyptian criminal justice system’s ignorance about the Internet is stunning. Back in 2003, one defendant told how at his trial, the judge

wasn’t sure what a website was, or what “chat” was, and he was puzzled by the difference between chatting with someone over the phone and over the Internet.

Another told me, “All of them—the judges, the lawyers, even the niyaba [prosecutor]—knew nothing about the Internet. The deputy prosecutor even said, ‘I know nothing about the Internet and I don’t have time to learn about it. What is it? What do you do on it? Do people just sit around and talk with men?'”

Things haven’t changed much. Most judges know how to send e-mail by now, and some cops even have Facebook pages. But the technical side of cyberspace mostly leaves them baffled. And this makes the Internet a source of fear. It terrifies the state itself. Police pursue “perversion” on the Internet not because they’re scared of perversion, but because they’re scared of the Internet and its capacity to spread it.

The Internet arrived in Egypt in 1993; by the early 2000s, it had nearly half a million users. In 2002, the government introduced “free” dial-up access (costing ordinary phone rates), opening the Web to anyone with a landline. With the advent of wireless, sold through Egypt’s giant telecommunications companies, technology leapt ahead of the state’s capacity for control. Faced with a Facebook- and Twitter-powered revolution in January 2011, the government proved unable to monitor or block individual websites; its only recourse was to shut down the whole Internet for days — and even then, intrepid activists circumvented the wall. Successive regimes absorbed the lesson. Information flow could be an mortal foe; survival could hinge on subduing it.

From InternetSociety.org, based on World Bank data

From InternetSociety.org, based on World Bank data

The Arab Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) estimates that internet users in Egypt more than tripled from 15 million in 2009 to 48 million in early 2015. Smartphones — required for using most apps — have spread more slowly. In 2012, smartphone penetration was lower than almost anywhere else in the Middle East. This is changing, though. Sony reportedly expects smartphones to make up 32% of mobile sales in Egypt by next year — still low (worldwide, they account for more than 2/3 of sales) but rising swiftly.

High price and exclusivity make smartphones even more potent status symbols in Egypt than elsewhere. They’re a tool of communication, but also a tool for the upper-class and upwardly mobile to convey their insulation from the world. To be sure, plenty of poor people save for months to buy a Samsung, but that’s because possession conveys membership in a virtual gated community, like the real walled wealth reserves that mushroom in exurban Cairo. This adds to the false feeling of safety enshrouding the promised anonymity of the Internet.

But the government attacks anonymity on every front. Most obviously it fears the Internet’s political uses. ANHRI notes that “the role the internet played in the political changes over the past years … drove more and more users to social media.” Twitter users, for instance, multiplied tenfold between 2012 and 2015. And lots of Egyptians talk politics on the Internet — about twice the percentage that do in the rest of the world. Moreover, with Sisi’s draconian censorship of print media, Facebook and Twitter and a few doggedly independent websites are where Egyptians turn for accurate rather than airbrushed news.

The state responds by suppressing, scaring, spying. A brutal draft “cyber-crime” law provides life imprisonment for “harming public order; endangering safety and security or society; endangering the life and security of citizens; preventing authorities from undertaking their duties,” as well as “harming national unity or societal peace” and “defaming a heavenly religion.” The pretext is “terrorism”; the target is any dissent. Already the government has imposed harsh prison terms for unwanted — in particular, atheist — Facebook posts or pages. (Last month a court rejected a Sisi supporter’s lawsuit demanding a complete ban on Facebook. It urged “self-censorship” instead.) Meanwhile Sisi’s regime has sought, and bought, technology from sinister corporate suppliers to enable surveillance of virtually every keystroke on the Internet. No one knows just how deep the state’s current invasions of cyber-privacy go.

on-the-internet-nobody-knows-youre-a-dog-except-the-NSA

Egypt has aimed very little of this high-tech surveillance machinery at sex or dating apps — so far. In truth, most dating apps are extremely vulnerable to surveillance. Last year, analysts found flaws in Grindr’s geolocation service, the one that lets you know which cruisees are near you; anybody adept at exploiting the errors could pinpoint a user’s exact location down to a meter or two. Some (but seemingly not all) of the problems were patched, and Grindr disabled geolocation for some worst-case countries, including Egypt. But other problems persist. For one thing, most dating apps don’t offer users an SSL (Secure Socket Layer, or https://) connection — one that encrypts communication between your device and their servers. Moreover (I’m quoting the security mavens at Tactical Tech), with most dating apps,

  • Downloading the apps from the Appstore or Google Play will link them directly to your Apple ID or Google account;
  • Your mobile operator will also collect this information, linking it directly to your identity;
  • Other social networking apps installed on your mobile device such as Facebook or Twitter may also collect this information about you.
Geolocation and its discontents: From cartoon.called.life on Instagram

Geolocation and its discontents: From cartoon.called.life on Instagram

Yet Egypt’s police haven’t taken full advantage of this porousness; so far as I know, they’ve relied on crude flesh-and-blood informers to entrap Grindr’s and Growlr’s users. I suspect there’s a knife-fight among Egypt’s police branches to access the technology and training — and money — for Internet surveillance. And the sex cops haven’t been a priority so far; the thugs surrounding Sisi care far more about sites dealiing in expressly political dissent than they do about dates or hookups.

This too may be changing. The more arrests the morals police make, the more they can argue that Internet sex is a security issue. Persecution of gay foreigners can only bolster that contention — and as that expands, State Security officers seem to be upping their involvement in the cases. Think Rentboy. Last month, US Homeland Security dropped its hot pursuit of mad bombers and terror cells to bust an innocuous website for male sex workers, ostensibly because it aided “trafficking.” The anxieties in play were indistinguishable from those in Egypt: fears of money, bodies, identities, and information flowing over the Web and across borders, out of control. Similarly, when Cairo journalist Mona Iraqi led a ludicrous, brutal raid on an alleged gay bathhouse in December, she justified the inhumanity as a war against “human trafficking.” The online world is already a danger zone for LGBT Egyptians, but there may be worse to come.

5. In conclusion. Gay men’s cruising is intimately interwoven with urban history, with the power to spin new narratives out of opportunities for lingering, loitering, delay. Cruising is connected to the figure of the flaneur pausing at shopwindows and interrogating glances, to existence in the city as a story full of forking paths, to the streets as sites of mystery and concealment amid displays and crowds.

Yum. This is a much more attractive label than the old ones.

Yum. This is a much more attractive label than the old ones.

I remember walking once through Bucharest with a gay Romanian friend in 1993. Only a few years after the Revolution, Romanian cities were still drab, vacant. Clothing stores all sold the same clothes, state food shops held aisle on aisle of canned carp in oil — crap în ulei, self-descriptive. Suddenly, on gray Bulevardul Bălcescu, we realized a young man with sculpted hair was staring at us. We followed him, tentatively. Then we lost him — then realized he was following us. We carried on a hunt or dance for an hour or so, as he paused at store windows, stared furtively into the grimed glass, flicked an eyelid our way, flurried on. My friend, expert enough at cruising dark public parks, had never experienced anything like this in downtown Bucharest. I understood that day the advent of something new in the disused city, an ambulatory eroticism that would transfigure seeing and the sidewalks, something reflected in a few scrubbed panes, flowering in the first buds of consumer culture; new desires and new ways for them to occupy the streets. (I thank George Iacobescu, who became my friend that day, for offering the lesson.)

All I can say is, Grindr’s different. Playing on dating apps is interesting and erotic, but it isn’t ambulatory or open. A call-and-response rhythm drives the dating app. It starts the moment you sign up, when you clarify yourself in detail, on a form, not only for your peers but for the corporation’s benefit. Once your identity’s set, interrogations continue. Conversations are quick arousing inquisitions, the question-and-answer form unvarying as a coxswain or a tragic chorus. This isn’t cruising; it’s a catechism. Like religious catechisms, it’s a mechanism by which power forces you to state your faith, define your self as one declines a noun. The apps police us; they force us to confess, even though temptation constrains us, not a clumsy truncheon. No wonder it’s a perfect playing ground for the police — the police are already there. They come built in. Intensifying this is the effect of speed. Ten years ago, on static personals sites, you could write long answers, even switch to the horse-and-buggy hebetude of e-mail. Now everything goes triple-time; urgent antiphonies rush you on, no time to dally, every decision’s instant. The race erodes judgment, and it’s that much easier for the cops to get what they want from you — the name, the sex story, the date for the meeting.

No wonder everybody lies so much on apps; it’s their way of resisting the drumbeat demand that you define yourself. It preserves space for secrecy and invention — only a space too fragile to withstand the police. Every time I fill out a form on one of these things I recall Foucault. “Do not ask who I am and do not ask me to remain the same: leave it to our bureaucrats and our police to see that our papers are in order. At least spare us their morality when we write.” And fuck.

Cartoon by Kaamran Hafeez, from the New Yorker, February 23, 2015

Cartoon by Kaamran Hafeez, from the New Yorker, February 23, 2015

At the beginning, I mentioned Colonel Ahmed Kishk, who helped arrest the hapless victims in hotels. As soon as I read that, I recognized the name; it took a few days to remember everything. Twelve years ago, Colonel Kishk presided over the arrests of thirteen gay men who used a flat in Giza for occasional sex. There was no Internet entrapment in the case; Kishk collected evidence by the old-school method of tapping the apartment’s phone.

One of the men tried to slit his wrists when Colonel Kishk seized him. I remember standing outside the Giza police station one February night in 2003, trying to get in to see them; I was turned away. I spoke to several of them much later (they were convicted, then acquitted on appeal, freed after six months in prison). Guards tortured them viciously in the police lockup. Possibly they were being tortured while I stood on the cold street.

This summer, by coincidence, I met a man who had been one of them. He’s almost forty now; he fled the country after he was freed, and has lived in the Gulf ever since, only returning to Egypt to see his family. When he told me his story and I realized who he was, he started crying. “You know,” he said, “in many ways I live well now. I have a good job in another country. And yet they ruined my life, utterly. I know that I am safe now. And yet I know I will never recover.”

One other thing I know about these cases: when the police invest their time and talents in training their own to entrap and deceive, or in blackmailing and manipulating gay informers, they’ll use those valuable human resources again and again and again, till they are shamed or commanded to stop. Why lose the investment? These stories are only the augury of more ordeals. Colonel Kishk is still on the job.

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Guy 1: “Those gay people are funny, bro…” Guy 2: “Yeah man…” Cartoon by Andeel, Mada Masr, August 20, 2014

تحديث: الشرطة المصرية تقوم بالقبض على من يُشتَبه في كونهم من المثليين و متحولي النوع /الجنس من خلال الإنترنت. إِحموا أنفُسكم!

grindr-egypt

الشرطة تستخدم هويات مزيفة على شبكة الإنترنت للقبض على المُشتبه في كونِهم مثليين أو من متحولي النوع الإجتماعي. قامت الشرطة مؤخراً بالقبض على أربعة أفراد آخرين. يبدو إن تم القبض عليهم من خلال إستخدامهم لأحد تطبيقات الهواتف – جرايندر، هورنيت، جراولر – أو من خلال موقع التواصل الإجتماعي “الفيسبوك”. من الوارد أن يكون أفراد الشرطة تظاهروا بكونهم سائحين من الخليج مُقيمين بفندق في منطقة الزمالك. الإحتمال الآخر أن يكونوا تظاهروا بكونهم رجل مثلي ثري و مُسن يقطن بمنطقة الدُقي.

إحموا أنفُسكم! الإجراء الأكثر أماناً هو إزالة كافة حساباتكم/ن من هذه التطبيقات و المواقع الشخصية. إن لم ترغبوا/ن ف إتخاذ مثل هذا الإجراء، رجاءاً إلجأوا/ن للإحتياطات التالية:

NEWSprivacyWEB١-لا تنسق مقابلات مع غرباء تعرفت عليهم من خلال شبكة الإنترنت فقط. التطبيقات مثل جريندر و الإعلانات الشخصية على الإنترنت غير آمنة. حتى و إن قضيت محادثات طويلة مع أشخاص تعرفت عليهم من خلال “جرايندر” أو تطبيقات أخرى، و إن بَدوا حقيقيين، ربما يستخدمون حيل لخداعك. قد يتم القبض عليك في اللحظة التي تصل فيها لمكان المقابلة.

 ٢-الشرطة تستخدم الأشياء التي ينشرها الأشخاص على شبكة الإنترنت — بما فيها الإعلانات الشخصية — كأدلة ضد الأشخاص في حال القبض عليهم. لا تنشر أي صور لوجهك أو لنفسك، لا تنشر إسمك الحقيقي أو أيّة معلومات قد يتم إستخدامها للتعرف عليك. إن كنت تستخدم إسماً مستعار، حاول أن تتأكد إن لا أحد يستطيع تتبعه للوصول إلى هويتك الحقيقية.

 ٣-لا تنشر رقم هاتفك على الإنترنت بما فيها الإعلانات الشخصية لإمكانية تتبعه للوصول إليك. إن كنت تحتاج لرقم لمقابلة الأشخاص من خلال هذه الإعلانات، استخدم رقم غير مسجل بدون عقد.

 ٤-قم بإزالة أي شئ يدينك — بما فيها صور عارية لنفسك أو مقاطع فيديو محرجة — من حاسوبك أو هاتفك في حال تحفظ الشرطة عليهم.

 ٥-حاول تحميل برامج الحماية لوضع كل محتويات هاتفك تحت كلمة سر حتى لا يستطيع الغرباء قراءتها. هذه البرامج قد تضع كود سري للمحادثات، و الرسائل، و المكالمات، حتى لا يستطيع الغرباء الوصول إليها. يمكنك تحميل برامج الحماية مجاناً:

 :إن كان هاتفك آي فون، قم بتحميل “سيجنال” من هنا-

 :إن كان هاتفك “آندرويد”، قم بتحميل “بوكس كريبتور” من هنا-

 :هذا التطبيق متوفر أيضاً لنظام ويندوز على الحاسوب-

 :إن كان هاتفك “آندرويد” يمكنك أيضاً تحميل “تيكست سيكيور” لحماية رسائلك-

 :يمكن أيضاً تحميل “ريد فون” لحماية إتصالاتك-

كريبتوكات” هو برنامج مجاني يُمكنك تحميله على الآي-فون و مُعظم الحواسيب.”

إضغط على هذا الرابط لقراءة معلومات شديدة الأهمية عن حقوقك القانونية.

:تذكر، إن تم القبض عليك

. لا تعترف بأي شئ أو توقع إعتراف، لا توقع أي شئ الشرطة تطلب منك توقيعه-

. كن دائماً مصّر على التحدث مع محامي-

– لا تتحدث أبداً عن أي شخص مثلي أو متحول الجنس/النوع الإجتماعي بغض النظر عن مدى ضغط الشرطة عليك – حتى و إن عرضوا عليك صور أشخاص.

:(تستطيع أن تجد معلومات على الأمان الرقمي في الرابط بأسفل (بالإنجليزية

بالعربية في الرابط بأسفل:

رجاءاً قوموا بنشر هذه الرسالة لجميع أصدقائك. تذكر أيضاً: في ظل الهجمة المستمرة على مدار سنتين، الجيران قاموا بتبليغ الشرطة عن أشخاص مثليين أو متحولي الجنس/النوع الإجتماعي أو “ليدي بوي”. أينما كنت تعيش كن هادئاً في منزلك و متحفظاً على قدر الإمكان في الأماكن العامة.

كونوا/كن آمنين/ات.

privacy1تمت الترجمة بواسطة رامي يوسف / Translated by Ramy Youssef

الشرطة المصرية تلاحق المجتمع المثلي / Internet entrapment in Egypt: Protect yourself!

euro_internet_privacy_custom-480x344

الخصوصية ترقد في سلام / R.I.P. privacy

(English version below)

نحن نعلم الآن أن الشرطة في مصر تستخدم تطبيقات الهواتف في القبض على من يشتبه في كونهم مثليين أو متحولي/ات النوع الإجتماعي. مؤخراً تم القبض على رجل في طريقه لمقابلة شخص تواصل معه على تطبيق “جراولر” – و إتضح إن صديقه شرطي متخفي.

إحم نفسك! الطريق الأكثر أماناً هو أن تقوم بحذف حسابك تماماً من كل التطبيقات و المواقع الشخصية. إن لم ترغب في :فعل ذلك، الرجاء إتباع التعليمات التالي

١-لا تنسق مقابلات مع غرباء تعرفت عليهم من خلال شبكة الإنترنت فقط. التطبيقات مثل جريندر و الإعلانات الشخصية على الإنترنت غير آمنة. حتى و إن قضيت محادثات طويلة مع أشخاص تعرفت عليهم من خلال “جرايندر” أو تطبيقات أخرى، و إن بَدوا حقيقيين، ربما يستخدمون حيل لخداعك. قد يتم القبض عليك في اللحظة التي تصل فيها لمكان المقابلة.

 ٢-الشرطة تستخدم الأشياء التي ينشرها الأشخاص على شبكة الإنترنت — بما فيها الإعلانات الشخصية — كأدلة ضد الأشخاص في حال القبض عليهم. لا تنشر أي صور لوجهك أو لنفسك، لا تنشر إسمك الحقيقي أو أيّة معلومات قد يتم إستخدامها للتعرف عليك. إن كنت تستخدم إسماً مستعار، حاول أن تتأكد إن لا أحد يستطيع تتبعه للوصول إلى هويتك الحقيقية.

 ٣-لا تنشر رقم هاتفك على الإنترنت بما فيها الإعلانات الشخصية لإمكانية تتبعه للوصول إليك. إن كنت تحتاج لرقم لمقابلة الأشخاص من خلال هذه الإعلانات، استخدم رقم غير مسجل بدون عقد.

 ٤-قم بإزالة أي شئ يدينك — بما فيها صور عارية لنفسك أو مقاطع فيديو محرجة — من حاسوبك أو هاتفك في حال تحفظ الشرطة عليهم.

 ٥-حاول تحميل برامج الحماية لوضع كل محتويات هاتفك تحت كلمة سر حتى لا يستطيع الغرباء قراءتها. هذه البرامج قد تضع كود سري للمحادثات، و الرسائل، و المكالمات، حتى لا يستطيع الغرباء الوصول إليها. يمكنك تحميل برامج الحماية مجاناً:

 :إن كان هاتفك آي فون، قم بتحميل “سيجنال” من هنا-

 :إن كان هاتفك “آندرويد”، قم بتحميل “بوكس كريبتور” من هنا-

 :هذا التطبيق متوفر أيضاً لنظام ويندوز على الحاسوب-

 :إن كان هاتفك “آندرويد” يمكنك أيضاً تحميل “تيكست سيكيور” لحماية رسائلك-

 :يمكن أيضاً تحميل “ريد فون” لحماية إتصالاتك-

إضغط على هذا الرابط لقراءة معلومات شديدة الأهمية عن حقوقك القانونية.

:تذكر، إن تم القبض عليك

. لا تعترف بأي شئ أو توقع إعتراف، لا توقع أي شئ الشرطة تطلب منك توقيعه-

. كن دائماً مصّر على التحدث مع محامي-

– لا تتحدث أبداً عن أي شخص مثلي أو متحول الجنس/النوع الإجتماعي بغض النظر عن مدى ضغط الشرطة عليك – حتى و إن عرضوا عليك صور أشخاص.

:(تستطيع أن تجد معلومات على الأمان الرقمي في الرابط بأسفل (بالإنجليزية
بالعربية في الرابط بأسفل:

 

رجاءاً قوموا بنشر هذه الرسالة لجميع أصدقائك. تذكر أيضاً: في ظل الهجمة المستمرة على مدار سنتين، الجيران قاموا بتبليغ الشرطة عن أشخاص مثليين أو متحولي الجنس/النوع الإجتماعي أو “ليدي بوي”. أينما كنت تعيش كن هادئاً في منزلك و متحفظاً على قدر الإمكان في الأماكن العامة.

كونوا/كن آمنين/ات.

"If at any moment you feel your human rights are being violated, just say the word." Andeel for Mada Masr, September 25, 2014

“If at any point you feel your human rights are being violated, just say the word.” Andeel for Mada Masr, September 25, 2014

We now know that police in Egypt are definitely using phone apps to entrap people they suspect of being gay or transgender. Recently a man was arrested when he went to meet someone who had contacted him on the Growlr app; his “friend” turned out to be an undercover policeman.

Protect yourself! The safest thing you can do is to delete your profile completely from personals sites and apps. If you don’t want to do this, follow these precautions:

1)    Do NOT arrange meetings with strangers you only know through the Internet. Apps like Grindr, or Internet personals ads, are not safe. Even if you have long chats with people you know through Grindr or other apps, and they seem real, they may be using tricks to fool you. You could be arrested as soon as you arrive at the meeting place.

2)   Police are using the things people post on the Internet — including their personals ads — as evidence against them if they are arrested. NEVER post any face pictures of yourself. Do NOT post your real name, or any information that could be used to identify who you are. If you use a nickname, make sure nobody could trace it back to your real identity.

internet_censorship_in_india3)   Don’t post your phone number online, including in personals ads, because it can be used to track you. If you need a phone number to meet people through these ads, get a separate, unregistered number without a contract.

4)   Remove anything that could be incriminating – including revealing pictures of yourself, or embarrassing videos – from your computer or your phone, in case the police seize them.

5)    Please download an encryption program, to put everything on your phone in in a secret code so that no stranger can read it.  These programs can also encode your chat, texts, and voice calls, so that outsiders can’t intercept them. You can get these encryption programs for free:

Click here to read extremely important information on your legal rights. Remember, if you are ever arrested:

  • Don’t admit to anything, or sign a confession or anything else.
  • Always insist on talking to a lawyer.
  • Don’t talk about anybody else who is gay or trans, no matter how much pressure the police put on you – even if the police show you pictures of people!

You can find lots more information on digital security here (in English) and here (in Arabic).

Please spread this message to your friends. Also remember: in the crackdown that has been going on for almost two years, neighbors have been reporting people who are “ladyboys,” or gay, or trans, to the police. Wherever you live, be quiet in your home and be as discreet as you can in public places.

Be safe!

eye_in_computer_2
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Iran bans online chats between men and women: True? Or false?

I'm gonna wash that man right offa your screen. Or not.

I’m gonna wash that man right off of your screen. Or not.

This started four days ago, cropping up all over Twitter in that mushroomy fashion, as if it had rained. The Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khameini, had used “his own website” to issue a fatwa barring men and women from chatting together online, “given the immorality that often applies to this.” The story got retweeted by real human rights activists, like Suzanne Nossel, head of the PEN American Center:
nossel fatwa copyAnd by fake ones, like Ben Weinthal, paid to propagandize for an Iran war by the so-called Foundation for Defense of Democracies:
weinthal fatwa copy Robert Spencer, the highly profit-making one-man Islamophobic road show, seized on it:
spencer fatwa copy And for some reason, the story seems to have been a big hit in Indonesia, where perhaps it allowed believers in a notoriously syncretic Islam to laugh at those crazy Iranians:
indonesia chatting iran copyHere’s my question, though: Is this true? Because there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that it is.

First off, some definitions are in order. For many Americans and Europeans, “fatwa” carries implications of draconian bloodthirstiness, largely because the only one they’ve heard of was the Ayatollah Khomeini’s death decree against Salman Rushdie in 1988. In fact, a fatwa can be about anything. It means any interpretation of Islamic jurisprudence issued by a qualified scholar, usually in response to a believer’s question. Twelver Shi’ism — the branch of Shi’ism that derives legitimacy from a line of twelve imams who succeeded the Prophet, and is the prevailing faith in Iran — has a much more defined and rigorous clerical hierarchy than almost any other strain of Islam. Even the highest clerics are kept on their toes answering regular questions from their lay followers, in part because just this busywork vindicates their scholarly relevance. You can compare this to Roman Catholicism, which similarly has survived for centuries owing to its intense pastoral involvement in its believers’ lives, and the authoritarian structure underpinning that engagement. The Internet age only encourages all this. Almost any major cleric has a website with a Q & A section, a running Dear Abby column advising the faithful on the do-and-don’t minutiae of their daily lives. The subjects run from Banking, holidays for, and Inheritance, cognatic cousins and, to Secretions, bodily, disposal of, and Weddings, music at. And everything in between.

Ayatollah Khameini has two websites: one in his capacity as Supreme Leader (www.leader.ir) and another (farsi.khamenei.ir), which I hesitate to call “personal” — it carries no suggestion of a private life — centering rather more on his religious and cultural activities; it might resemble a campaign website, if the man ever had to run for anything. Each contains its own section of fatawa. I spent two nights online with an Iranian friend, going over these websites in some detail, concentrating on the main, Farsi pages but with some attention to the English sections as well. We found nothing resembling the fatwa against men and women chatting. An Iran expert who had searched for it as well confirmed her inability to find it. As several people have observed, there is no legal ban on men and women conversing face-to-face in Iran; long-distance chats seem comparatively antiseptic.

I’m not saying for a certainty the fatwa isn’t there — the websites are ill-organized, and we didn’t visit absolutely every crevice. But if anyone has seen the fatwa with their own eyes, I’d like to hear about it, because I don’t see any trace that it ever existed. So far, it sounds like a fraud.

(That Khameini or his subordinates posted it, then took it down in embarrassment after it hit the news, is unlikely. The Islamic Republic is resistant to embarrassment. If the second-highest execution rate in the world — probably the highest per capita — doesn’t bring a tinge of shame to its cheeks, nothing would.)

Where did this story come from?

Its origins should have been enough to raise scepticism from the start — at least, to make journalists turn to Khameini’s actual websites to try to find the text, as I did. So far as I can see, it comes from two sources, each with a reputation for misrepresentation and bias. The first, apparently, was the website of the National Council of Resistance of Iran. The NCRI is a political mouthpiece for the Mojahedin e-Khalq (MeK, the People’s Mojahedin), an exile organization with the attributes of a cult that demands absolute loyalty from its members, enforces allegiance to its semi-deified leaders, and stands accused of extensive human rights abuses. The MeK and NCRI have long specialized in disseminating sensational fictions about Iran that capture public attention and create a propaganda storm. In 2005, the NCRI played a major role in spreading unsubstantiated rumors of “gay executions” in Iran to a gullible Peter Tatchell and others. They’ve been a recurrent source of alarmist rumor about Iran’s nuclear program, serving sometimes as a proxy and puppet for both the US and Israel to get their own versions out — but, as Patrick Cockburn writes about the “strange, highly disciplined, cult-like organisation,”

The problem with the US-Iranian proxy war is that neither side quite controls their own proxies to the degree the other side imagines. It is all very well working through surrogates to retain deniability, but these have their own interests and may, in addition, be incompetent, corrupt or simply crazed.

Please keep laughing until I pay you to stop: Handsomely reimbursed Rudy Giuliani engages in horseplay with MeK cult leader Maryam Rajavi (see http://www.ibtimes.com/mek-only-way-stop-iran-giuliani-214368)

Please keep laughing until I pay you to stop: Handsomely reimbursed shill Rudy Giuliani engages in crazed horseplay with MeK cult leader Maryam Rajavi (see http://www.ibtimes.com/mek-only-way-stop-iran-giuliani-214368)

The NCRI published an article about the alleged fatwa on its website on January 7 — the posted time is 13:45. (The NCRI’s website is apparently hosted in Michigan, in the US, but its clock seems to be set to the time of the NCRI’s Paris headquarters.)

Next to come, it seems, was Al Arabiya, the giant Saudi news channel, which posted a story about the alleged fatwa on its English site at an unlisted time on January 7, and on its Arabic site at 21:02 GMT (that would be about eight hours and fifteen minutes after the NCRI story, if all the times are correct). It doesn’t mention the NCRI version, but my guess is that’s its source.

Creeping shari'a, on all fours: "Sex Jihad," from Frontpagemag.com

Creeping shari’a, on all fours: “Sex Jihad,” from Frontpagemag.com

Al Arabiya has its own reliability problems. Members of the Saudi royal family launched jt in 2004 to compete with Qatari-owned Al Jazeera for the hearts and minds of the Arab audience. Despite all the petro-funding it’s had only limited success — it comes in second to Al Jazeera even among Saudi viewers — but it’s becoming to the American right wing what the earnest Jimmy Olsens of Qatar are to certain US lefties: a convenient confirmer of prejudices. The insecure Saudi regime is deeply nervous about both the Muslim Brotherhood and Iran; their fears reinforce the US neocons’ own. Al Arabiya, for instance, bore partial responsibility for a trumped-up story in 2012 that Egypt’s Brotherhood planned to legalize necrophilia. It also helped spread viral tales this summer that the Brotherhood was sponsoring “sexual jihad” in both Tunisia and Egypt: recruiting young women to provide erotic encouragement to warriors in Syria or even in the streets of Cairo. These stories were almost wholly imaginary. But they still circulate on extremist American websites like Frontpagemag.com.

In other words, you’ve got two culprits with a record of making things up. By the evening of January 7, the right-wing Jerusalem Post carried the story, in a short piece by Ariel Ben Solomon, citing Al Arabiya. This outlet is one of the loudest drummers, in Israel or outside, for war against Iran. Ben Solomon serves as “Middle East Correspondent for the Jerusalem Post, covering regional developments and Israeli Arab issues” —  at the PostIsraeli Arab issues a) can’t be covered by Israeli Arabs b) because they’re “Middle East,” that is foreign, issues.  Thank you, Avigdor Liberman. This past autumn, snooping down those “regional developments,” Ben Solomon bought into mistranslated initial reports that Kuwait’s proposed gender-identity screening was a “ban on homosexuals”; that suggests the limits of his Arabic research capacity. The Jerusalem Post was probably the story’s conduit to US and UK media.

Later on January 7, the story made Fox News (without attribution to other media sources), which means hitting the big time: “The latest religious edict from Iran’s supreme leader takes aim at the Islamic Republic’s lonely hearts.” By the next day it was on Breitbart.comthat guardian of truth and the American way: “This latest fatwa from Khamenei makes clear that Rouhani is merely the smiling theater mask of a stern, forever frowning dictatorship guided exclusively by Khamenei’s hand.” Breitbart at least suggested they had checked somewhere and failed to find the fatwa: 

The Supreme Leader often answers questions from the public on his website, Khamenei.ir, though the English-language side of the site currently has no new announcements.

Thus we learn that Breitbart a) has no access to any Farsi speakers anywhere in the world; b) won’t be deterred from publishing by the total lack of evidence. What a surprise. 

Only Time ever expressed some doubts about the invisible fatwa, asking “Did Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, just ban online chatting between unrelated men and women?”

Both the Jerusalem Post and the exiled opposition group People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran website — not exactly unbiased sources on Iranian affairs — say he has.  …  But a religious ruling does not an official ban make. Fatwas, or religious opinions disseminated by clerics, are not binding. So while Khamenei might discourage his followers from online chatting, for fear that it might lead to flirtation, or worse, he is not likely to order Iran’s religious police to start patrolling chat rooms and looking over texter’s [sic] shoulders.

Stop looking at me that way: Khameini speaking in front of predecessor's picture

Stop looking at me that way: Khameini speaking in front of predecessor’s picture

Three points stand out about all of this.

1) Prove it. As I say: maybe there is a Khameini anti-chat fatwa lurking out there. I can’t be positive there isn’t, and indeed I’d be happy to know this isn’t all a viral fantasy. But the burden is on the people who wrote and Tweeted about it, to prove it. Nobody except Time seems even to have tried seriously checking on the fatwa‘s existence before clicking “publish.” Surely it’s time for them to start looking.

2) If the fatwa exists, there are more important things. Really. Time raises the interesting question whether such a mandate would even be enforceable. The answer is perhaps a little more complicated than they suggest. When the Islamic Republic of Iran decided thirty years ago to embody its law in a criminal code, it took a step radically at odds with the history of Islamic jurisprudence, which is cumulative, common-law-like, and ill-disposed to codification. A settled, finalized corpus of law is a different beast to the traditional compilation of interpretations; it can no longer be altered simply by the opinions of a scholar. The parliamentary decision and the court ruling displaced the fatwa as the fount of legislation. (Asghar Shirazi has addressed these dilemmas brilliantly in his superb work on Iran’s constitution.)

Offsetting this, Ayatollah Khomeini carried enormous prestige both as a recognized scholar and a revolutionary politician. Khomeini’s personal fatwas had a charisma that could to some extent supersede the criminal code. However, Ayatollah Khameini, plucked from the middle ranks of the clerisy to serve as Supreme Leader, has no such mojo, and his fatwas are correspondingly less final. This is not to say Iran is a rule-of-law government these days, a Rechtsstaat; it’s not. Anything Khameini writes carries some weight. That doesn’t mean it’s legally enforceable, though, as opposed to just advice to the perplexed.

Khameini also issues fatawa on masturbation (in case you were wondering, it’s bad, but pardonable if done with medical approval), but even the feared basij have not made a priority of hunting down wankers. If he did put out a fatwa about chat, it would matter whether it appeared on his Supreme Leader website, or his less official oneIt would matter whether instructions to the religious police accompanied it — and there’s absolutely no indication of any such thing. Even if the fatwa exists, absent something turning it into a legal order, it’s simply moral exhortation. And how broad can its public impact be if it’s so hard to track down?

The real problem: Iran's proposed "National Internet." ©  Kavehadel

The real problem: Iran’s proposed “National Internet.” © Kavehadel

I don’t think the fatwa’s real, in which case you have to ask: why invent imaginary offenses for a government that’s committed ample real ones? Why spin fantasies about hijabi women dragged from Internet cafes when the execution rate keeps rising? It seems just a convenient propaganda gesture for the moment, to keep up pressure on Iran while other news stories are in abeyance. But even if the fatwa‘s real, why focus on it? There are plenty of other things as repressive on Khameini’s websites: for instance, his opinions on what might constitute pornography (look out for, but don’t look at, photos of Western women in fashion magazines), or the rules for satellite dishes.

Instead of decrying a purely notional ban on intersex chatting, why not talk about the irregular but intrusive restrictions Iran actually imposes on Internet users? Why not criticize how messaging and information-sharing services like WeChat, Viber, and Instagram have all been blocked by hardliners in recent weeks — apparently against the objections of Hassan Rouhani’s ministry of culture? And if you want to hone in on sexual privacy, how about the police raid on a party organized by “Satanic” homosexuals in Kermanshah last October, when the basij arrested and prosecuted some 80 men? In the West, there’s been at least as much Twitter and mainstream media attention to this chat-centered non-story as to that documented, brutally abusive incident.

3) We like victims, don’t we? Here’s the thing. If you want to talk about the truth, as opposed to easy news stories, it’s complicated. Complicated because you have to recognize that people — the people you want to imagine as helpless victims waiting breathless on your intervention — have capacity and street smarts, and are more than victims, and fight back.

Graffiti in Tehran by street-art group Geo, from https://www.facebook.com/IranGraffiti

Graffiti in Tehran by street-art group Geo, from https://www.facebook.com/IranGraffiti

If you want to deal with Iran’s Internet restrictions, you have to come to terms with the fact that Iranians still use the Internet, including the banned websites, and find all kinds of creative ways to get information in and out. We wouldn’t even know about the scope of the Internet filtering if folks weren’t poking and prodding out ways around it. If you want to address the Kermanshah case and the abuses against LGBT people, you have to face the fact not just that there was a crackdown, but that there was and is a community, which exists in a complicated dialectic between visibility and concealment, and felt sufficiently sure of itself  to hold a party. Life isn’t just the unremitting pressure of repression; it’s myriad daily acts of solidarity and resistance. People carve out spaces where, against the odds, they try to feel safe and celebrate their safety; sometimes these turn profoundly unsafe; that doesn’t mean their solidarities dissipate or their connections shatter, but rather that they’ll keep looking for new places to connect and struggle. The community of “gay” and “trans” people wasn’t broken in Kermanshah. In fact, it did a remarkably effective job of documenting the arrests and getting news to the outside world, ensuring that the accused had help, and staying linked and alert after the disaster. There are other parties going on, elsewhere in Iran.

This is not a popular tale to tell, particularly among the right-wing pseudo-press — Fox and Breitbart, the Daily Mail and the Foundation for Defusing Democracies — who picked up the chat narrative. Which is why they won’t tell it. They’d rather see Iranians as either uranium-grubbing monsters bent on global domination, or helpless victims of totalitarian power too incapacitated even to get their hands on a pair of jeans. Hearing about others’ agency annoys us, because it deflates our own dreams of sovereign, saving, all-encompassing power.

But that imagined power, our power, is repressive too. What counts is how resistance confronts repressive authority; and you can’t arbitrarily lop off either side of that story. Underneath the fatwas, the facts — and people’s everyday dreams and acts — persist. Underneath the paving stones, the beach.

Situationist graffiti, Paris, 1968

Situationist graffiti, Paris, 1968

UPDATE: On the existing, labyrinthine filtering-and-banning Internet policies in Iran, as well as how Iranians get around them, here is a fascinating piece by Ali Reza Eshraghi.

Jeddah Prison, Cell 18: Entrapped in Saudi Arabia

Baiman Prison, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia: from a video leaked to international media in 2012 to expose overcrowding (see http://observers.france24.com/content/20120201-leaked-images-overcrowding-saudi-arabian-prisons-mobile-phone-video-jail-jeddah-khoudar-hygiene-crowded-health)

Braiman Prison, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia: from a video leaked to international media in 2012 to expose overcrowding (see http://observers.france24.com/content/20120201-leaked-images-overcrowding-saudi-arabian-prisons-mobile-phone-video-jail-jeddah-khoudar-hygiene-crowded-health)

“Ahmed” is not his real name, and I’m afraid it’s not a very inventive substitute. As we sat trying to brainstorm a proper pseudonym for him, he told me he’s always wanted to be called “Ginger.” But he doesn’t look like a Ginger: he’s a dark and slightly stolid-looking figure in his 30s, conveying a composed center of gravity that probably stood him in good stead through everything he had to endure.

I talked to him the day after he’d been forcibly deported back to his native Egypt from Saudi Arabia.  He spent more than two years imprisoned in Jeddah, for visiting a gay chatroom.

Here is his story.

I was working as a pharmacist in Saudi, in Jeddah.  I worked in one hospital for four years, but then I transferred to another hospital because of a disagreement about the salary. When I changed to the second hospital there was a problem about the accommodation. In my first hospital I was living alone, I had my freedom. When I was transferred to the second hospital I was living with two other foreign guys who were straight, and they knew I was gay. They refused to have a gay with them, they forced me to leave the apartment. I handed in my resignation, came back to Egypt, stayed maybe three months, found a new contract for another hospital in Jeddah. I returned, and I enjoyed working in the third hospital.

In that place I think they realized that I was a gay, but they accepted me because I was doing my work, I wasn’t doing anything bad.  There was another guy at the hospital, a doctor from East Asia, and everyone knew that he was a gay—he’d flirt very openly with guys he liked, saying “We can hang out together if you can teach me Arabic.”

There’s a lot of life, everything is available in Saudi. For gays there are parties. Makeup, men in dresses… everything you can imagine or you cannot imagine. But for sure it’s hidden. There were foreigners in the scene, but it was mostly Saudis. So many Saudis like gays. If they know that you are gay, they will like you. Not everyone is hating! Some of them are enjoying having sex!

So one night in 2011 – I was working night duty – I finished and came home to my flat. I had something to drink – I knew some guys who could get it for me. Then I got onto a public chatroom, and I started to search for people. A guy said, Can I know you? How old are you, how do you look?

I told him my A/S/L [age, sex, location] and my e-mail. I offered to show myself on the cam. At that time, I was wearing my hair up, wearing some lingerie and my makeup and stuff like that.  I was looking cute.

He said, Can I come to you? You have a place. So he came to my home. He sat around with me, talking and joking.  But we didn’t do anything. He said, We can meet again this evening. I have my own flat, and I don’t feel comfortable here. I knew some guys didn’t feel right in a stranger’s place, and I respected that.

The evening came, around 7 PM or so – I still remember it vividly. He called and told me, I gave you my word, and I’m not lying, I’m coming to you. He said, I have a gift for you.

Then he told me also to bring my things, lingerie and makeup and stuff like that. I trusted him.

I went down to the front of the building to meet him. Just after I got in his car, maybe after a few minutes, I found the government, the guys in the religious police [Gama’t al-Amr be al-Ma’arouf], opening the door of the car, putting the cuffs on me. Of course he knew my home, so they came back there and took everything, the lingerie, condoms, my laptop, which contains porno movies and some pictures of myself

Then I found myself in the police station.

Preventing vice, encouraging virtue: Saudi religious police

Preventing vice, encouraging virtue: Saudi religious police

I was in a horrible state, crying — I think I had a nervous breakdown. They accused me of being a shazz jenseyyan [sexual pervert]. Everything they asked, I told them yes. Was I taking a contraceptive pill for females [for hormones]? Yes. The lingerie is for you? Yes. You’re a shazz, you’re getting fucked, you feel deeply inside yourself that you are a girl. Yes. But I said, Even if I do feel something like that, it’s not hurting anyone.

I knew the law, because it’s a religious country — not just religious but it’s a country where you must be straight. I know what happened before in Egypt [the Cairo 52 case and the subsequent crackdown] and that was in Egypt – what about a country like Saudi Arabia? Each time I went out on a date, I had a fear that I would be arrested. I expected it. But I did not expect that I would stay in prison so long.

The police didn’t use any violence against me. It’s not a matter of violence, it’s a matter of the whole process being unfair. I wish they had treated me with violence, instead of leaving me in jail for two years.

The manager in the hospital visited me in the jail. He told me that because I’d confessed, I would be deported.  To me this was something good: at least I would be free.

Instead, after a week, they summoned me from jail to the court. The judge was an awful judge, the worst. He told me, You are a sexual pervert.  I didn’t know how to answer. I answered I have dressed and made myself up like that but I’m not having sex — I’m just showing off. He did not tell me or ask me anything after that.

That day, I was handcuffed to another guy from the same cell. He was also in a gay case, but his hearing was before another judge, so we were led together to my judge, then together to his judge. His judge was reading the case file, asking him about the details, what happened, what they were saying – telling him, If you want I will call the witnesses, but if they say it’s all true, the sentence will be double. If you want to confess now, I can help you. I was astonished. Why was no one investigating my case that way? Why didn’t I even have the right to make a defense?

Two or three weeks later, they told me the judge wanted to transfer my case to the higher court [al-Mahkama al-A’ama] and he was asking that court to give me the death sentence.

The higher court, which can impose the death sentence, only can do that in cases where two people are arrested together and they each say, yes, he did that with me. Or if you have previous convictions. Or if you are married – it’s much worse to be accused of homosexual acts if you are married. None of that was true of me.

I waited in jail for four months or five months, and nothing happened. After that I was summoned to interrogation again.

The person who questioned me is called an interrogator (al-mohaqqek), but he’s the same rank as a wakil niyaba (deputy prosecutor) here in Egypt. The question he asked over and over was whether I was married, or had ever been married. Finally he wrote on a paper that I had not, and I put my fingerprint, and he said, Your case belongs in the jurisdiction of the lower court.

I was so happy that day.

But I waited for another four months. My birthday passed. Another summons came from that interrogator again. I had a lawyer by now. (It had been really hard to find one; nobody my friends approached in Saudi would take the case, because it was so dirty. Finally I asked my father in Egypt to look for a lawyer there who could pull strings with Saudi colleagues to get them to represent me.) I got in touch with my lawyer and told him my case was back with the lower court.

But in two weeks he called me to say, no, it was still in the hands of the higher court. Then he told me that instead it had been referred back to the interrogator. And the interrogator summoned me again, and he went over every point in the case. The new point that they asked me about – it was only the second time it had come up —was about the pictures on the laptop. There was a photo of two guys having intercourse, but the photo was only of their bodies, no faces. One of them was actually me; but there was no way of proving that. In the police station they’d asked me about it, and I’d claimed it was photoshopped or something, that it wasn’t me.  Now the interrogator asked about it again and I told him I had no idea who the men were — but he said, You already confessed to the police that it is you. I protested, I never said that! Where is my confession? But on that basis he transferred the case to the higher court again.

After maybe six weeks, they summoned me to the higher court. The lawyer was with me now, and the judge was very correct, asking me lots of questions.  The only point I admitted was that I had some feminine clothes and I like sometimes to look like a girl, but only inside my home. But they kept insisting that I had sex.  The only proof of this was that I had condoms. I admitted that I owned the condoms, and when I did that, they convicted me, saying it proved I was having sex in Saudi Arabia.

If you buy now, comes with a free three-year prison sentence: Vintage Orientalist condom packet from the US

If you buy now, comes with a free three-year prison sentence: Vintage Orientalist condom packet from the US

At least the request for the death penalty was refused. They sentenced me to three years and 300 lashes, to be delivered over six sessions, 50 lashes each.

In the end I spent two years in Braiman Prison in Jeddah, and I only went through three sessions of the lashes, 50 lashes each time. Finally I was released by a pardon of the king, a general amnesty.  The homosexuality cases are included under these and the amnesties happen regularly, so that most people convicted in a homosexuality case don’t spend too long in the jail. There was a guy with us whose sentence was seven years and he got out after one year. I was unusual, I stayed more than two years.  And after I was released, they deported me.

In prison, I understood that the purpose of the judge in the lower court, when he sent the case to the higher court, was just to keep me in jail for a long time waiting for the court decision, since I couldn’t be amnestied till I was convicted. He just wanted to prolong my jail time.

I spent those two years in Cell 18 in Braiman Prison. It is the special cell for people convicted for homosexual acts. There are a lot of men there. The day I arrived, there were maybe 50, 55, or 58 in the cell. But when I left there were 75.  Most of them feel like girls – we call each other by feminine names. We were sleeping on mattresses on the floor.

A lot of them had been arrested on the Internet, I can’t count now how many. The chief of the cell was arrested over the Internet, through chat on Palringo.  Some had been arrested on Hornet, someone on U4Bear, some on WhosHere — the religious police know all the apps and chatrooms. Some of them had got a phone call asking to meet, from someone they’d talked to before on WhatsApp, and that guy turned out to be police.

That handsome, bearded man wants YOU to prevent some vice and encourage some virtue

That handsome, bearded man wants YOU to prevent some vice and encourage some virtue

I actually enjoyed getting to know these guys in the prison. Some were Saudis but most were from [a nearby country].  From there they go to Saudi legally, some for regular work, some for prostitution. And those are making so much money. Maybe for fucking just one time they can rake in 300-500 Saudi riyals [$75-125 US].  The religious police were more concerned with targeting foreigners than Saudis. The foreigners don’t have complete rights in Saudi. It’s a kind of racism.

No one knew of anyone who had been executed [for homosexual conduct]. People would talk about one case that had happened a long time ago. One guy, an Egyptian in our cell, gave me some details; but I don’t know if he was telling the truth. He said these guys were arrested at a party. They stayed in in jail for maybe two or three years without even getting a sentence, and they could tell they would stay more and more. That guy told me that they were having sex in front of everybody in the cell, prisoners and officers, and they were even singing at the time of prayer. [The authorities] told them it’s not right to do that, you have to stop. And you are in jail, so there must be some kind of repentance.

They refused to stop. So their case was transferred to the higher court. And the guy heard they were executed. This, he said, was maybe two decades ago. He told me he had been arrested once in Saudi maybe ten years back, and heard about this from other prisoners as something that had happened five or ten years before that.  But I don’t believe everything he said.

Since then, though, because executions were getting bad publicity in the media, they stopped the death penalty for most cases of homosexuality – only for rape of a child, a boy, a man, something like that. In cases like mine, they just hold the sentence over you as a threat, to scare you; but it’s not actually going to happen.

But it’s not easy to look at a paper in jail and read that the judge is demanding that you be put to death.  It’s difficult. It scares you. It still scares me.

Still from leaked footage: A cell in Braiman Prison, Jeddah, 2012

Still from leaked footage: A cell in Braiman Prison, Jeddah, 2012