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.

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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.”

 

 

 

Egypt: Interrogating the terrorist Scott Long

"Source of inspiration," cartoon by Andeel, Mada Masr, November 2016. Sisi: "A true pasha, by God."

“Source of Inspiration”: cartoon by Andeel, Mada Masr, November 2016. Sisi says: “A true pasha, by God.”

I hadn’t meant to write about this. It’s small compared to what many Egyptians face, or fear. But a few Egyptian friends have urged me to record it, partly because accounts of recent State Security interrogations are somewhat rare (people used to say that to meet the secret police was to go “behind the sun,” to disappear); partly because it illuminates what is on whatever passes for the dictatorial regime’s mind. Recent events, too, make me believe there’s a need, in the United States and elsewhere, to remember some things. I’ll get to that. Let me begin at the beginning.

The beginning is an ending. I left Egypt in March. Most likely, I will never be permitted to return. I had lived there for three and a half years, and for the last three of those I did not cross the borders at all. After the military coup in July 2013, it became increasingly clear to me that when I left, I would be denied re-entry; and that meant I delayed my departure until – when? I told myself: until I had finished everything I came for, or until there was nothing more to do.

For a long time – since 2005 – I’d been stopped at Cairo passport control every time I came into the country; taken aside, held for an hour or two, detained once in a locked room in the airport that had the forlorn graffiti of Palestinian refugees scrawled across the walls: then finally admitted. No questions asked, no explanation given. It was obvious I had been on some sort of list for years, that the state did not quite know what to do with me when I applied for entry. (US citizens do not need to buy visas in advance to enter Egypt; as a result, each of my arrivals took officialdom by surprise.) That was all back in the comparatively louche eras of Mubarak and Morsi. After the coup and Sisi’s seizure of power, the fact of being on a list seemed much more serious. In Cairo, I went underground — though it hardly felt so dramatic. I avoided contact with officialdom; I did not renew my entry visa. When necessary I blustered my way through ubiquitous checkpoints, never showing my passport. I bribed my building’s doorman not to register my presence with the police. And, toward the end, I moved to parts of Cairo where foreigners rarely went; I was far from inconspicuous there – some days, probably the only blond person within a kilometer or two — but in terms of what the police might expect I was off the edge of the world, off the books. For the last eight months I lived in Faisal, a vast warrenlike semi-slum stretching westward, and ultimately I settled in an “informal area” there: Cairo’s equivalent of a favela, streets not paved or named or usually shown on maps. The buildings, six or seven stories tall, were erected by the residents who migrated there, brick by brick and floor by floor; the first and generally last sign that you were in an informal area was that you never had to pay an electric bill, since all the power was siphoned from the official grid. I felt oddly safe there, as if I were curled in one of Kafka’s burrows, a dead end.

The Embaba quarter of Cairo, looking very much like the Faisal neighborhood where I lived

The Embaba quarter of Cairo, looking very much like the Faisal neighborhood where I lived

It’s difficult to describe my last six months in Egypt. Depression settled over everything in the country; no change seemed possible any longer, and you felt your imagination being buried in cement. Many people I cared about simply stopped leaving their homes. At last, I was invited to a conference in the US in March – organized by friends who, I think, had constructed a giant hook to haul me out of there. I knew if I went, it would be my final departure.

Leaving Egypt, the hard way

Leaving Egypt, the hard way

I talked to human rights lawyers after my ticket was booked. Overstaying a visa is a crime usually incurring only a minor fine at the airport, the equivalent of $30-40 US (at the time). The work and the writing I’d been doing put me in a different position, though. The lawyers told me I would be interrogated; the passenger manifest would ensure State Security was alert to my departure. I should get there early, keep their numbers on my phone, be prepared for possible arrest.

I spent my last night ever in Egypt crying, encrypting my hard drive, and uploading sensitive files to the cloud. A dear Egyptian friend drove me to the airport in the clean air of dawn, almost six hours before my flight. At passport control, they sent me down a hallway to pay the visa fine. I shelled out money to a civilian in a little office (one lesson: in Egypt, the government makes sure you settle your outstanding debts before they arrest you). “Wait a moment.” A man in a leather overcoat came in and told me to follow.

There is vertical power and horizontal power. I suppose in the US we are used to power revealed in perpendicular terms: skyscrapers, helicopters, bombers, drones. In Egypt, as in many other countries where I’ve worked, power is horizontal, shown not through height but through ambit, remoteness, segregation. I was led down an even longer corridor, so long that it seemed I was going to another terminal, or to some other place outside Cairo altogether, a hell not subterranean but suburban. Generalissimo Sisi plans to build Egypt a new capital city, far from protesters and ordinary people, distant in the desert; I imagine it linked to Cairo by a single interminable hallway.

Then: a small office, two wooden desks, two men: one in mustache and leather jacket, seated; one standing – an assistant, in short-sleeved shirt and tie. On Mustache’s desk was a stack of paper: perhaps 300 printed-out pages from this blog. A smaller stack was a printout of my Facebook page; another seemed to be news articles that had quoted me. A computer on the second desk was unplugged; hence, I guess, the hard copy. I sat down, asked their names, was told those were not “relevant.” No further explanation. The questions started.

Mustache did the asking, in English, while Necktie, now sitting at the other desk, took Arabic notes. There was no Good Cop/Bad Cop, only Talking Cop/Writing Cop, the two tasks apparently too complex for a single cop to master. We started oddly. Atop the pile of blog posts was one I wrote in 2013, comparing Sisi the dictator to the late Empress Elizabeth of Austria-Hungary – known as “Sissi,” and commemorated in many blearily romantic Romy Schneider movies. It was labored and unfunny, but it had annoyed somebody. Mustache: “What are you saying here about our President? Are you saying that our President is a woman?”

This is not the President of Egypt.

This is not the President of Egypt

I really don’t remember what I answered, except that President Sisi’s rampant masculinity would surely only be underscored by a judicious comparison with Romy Schneider. It was fitting that the interrogation began with gender, since I’d stressed the he-male obsessions of the Egyptian state in much of what I wrote. Beneath that post in the pile, though, was one on life in death-racked Cairo in the days after the August 2013 Rabaa massacre; and then the politics peered through. Mustache: You write that you were walking around the city in that period. Were you not aware there was a curfew? Who allowed you to violate the curfew? Did you violate the curfew in order to meet with criminals?

First notable fact: They knew my online life thoroughly, at least its non-password-protected part: any writer would want such a devoted audience. One or two questions suggested they might possibly have intercepted e-mail (though I’d tried to use Tor) or phone calls. But they seemed to have no idea where I’d been living physically for the last year. They asked me repeatedly, and I gave fictional addresses (I truly hope they were fictional, that no actual 233 Mohamed Moussa Street in Faisal gave its inhabitants a disagreeable surprise). Necktie noted down the invented domiciles with stoic docility. The attraction of online surveillance for indolent secret police is that it’s a desk job.

Second: They never asked me explicitly about homosexuality, mine or anybody else’s. Mustache leafed through my posts on the subject (You feel a great freedom to criticize the culture and the values of the Egyptian people. Who gives you that freedom?) but avoided touching the topic directly as if it were contagious. (What Egyptian laws have you violated? he did demand repeatedly. Please name the Egyptian laws you have violated while in Egypt.) The closest he came was asking me, while gingerly fingering blog pages, whether I had a “website” on Grindr — pronounced to rhyme with “slender.” (Truly, I did not.) Mustache also inquired, upon Necktie’s prompting, Have you downloaded pornographic information over the Internet? One thing chilled me when I recollected it in tranquillity: Mustache asked, Have you ever assisted a person with mental health problems? Have you provided psychological advice to troubled persons? I said no, and only afterward did I remember that, the previous summer, I got repeated emails from an anonymous gay Egyptian who said he was depressed and wanted help finding a psychologist. I offered him contacts; but he kept insisting on seeing me face-to-face, proposing meeting places too close to my local police station for my comfort. (Police at that station, in Doqqi, were entrapping victims almost weekly over the Internet. Lazy as always, the cops steer their prey to meet at points in walking distance of the jail.) He made me very uneasy, and I finally stopped answering him. I felt ashamed of succumbing to suspicion. And who knows?

Third: What they did care about was politics, and a particular kind of politics. The real question – never exactly framed, but implicit in most everything – was whether I would say something to tag myself as a terrorist.

Sex interested them mainly as a division of, or gateway to, larger fields of violent subversion. Particularly telling was when they got round to a legal advice manual for Egyptian LGBT people, in Arabic, which I had agreed to host on my blog. For whom was this written? Mustache demanded, holding up the pages. I stared back blankly. The post said, in clear Arabic, that it was meant for LGBT people. “It was written by Egyptians for other Egyptians,” I said. Mustache replied, as Necktie’s pen scrawled softly: So it was written to benefit people who are planning violent acts against the state?

Our back-and-forth lasted four hours. Almost every question came up again and again – to trip me up, obviously. It was like being shipwrecked in a whirlpool, and watching flotsam from other wrecks whirl by, and circle, and then swirl by again, and realizing this can only end when you drown. A week later, I jotted down some of the questions I remembered. I didn’t record my answers, so if you’re looking for hints on how to fence verbally with secret police officers, you won’t get them here. But the basic rule, as always with repressive power, is to say “no” to everything. Perhaps, in the age of iron to come, that monotonous “no” is the only mark of selfhood that will survive us.

Illustration by Arthur Rackham for Edgar Allan Poe's "A Descent Into the Maelstrom"

Illustration by Arthur Rackham for Edgar Allan Poe’s “A Descent Into the Maelstrom”

  • Why did you overstay your visa? (I pulled out all the medical documents from my two stints in hospital in Egypt; I had been too sick, I said, to violate any Egyptian laws or download porn, much less board an airplane or get my visa renewed.)
  • How have you spent your time while living illegally in Egypt? (Writing.) Writing what? (What you have in your hand.) Who pays for your writing? Do you write libellous statements about the leaders of other countries, or just about Egypt? (I do recall my answer: “I’ve written about many countries. The only person who ever accused me of libel was a very vain Englishman.” They didn’t ask who.)
  • Mustache paused at two other blog posts near the top of the stack. Have you ever been imprisoned in Jamaica? Have you ever been imprisoned in Tunisia? For what crime were you arrested in Tunisia? (I have never been in Tunisia.) Who do you cooperate with in Tunisia? Why do you insult the Tunisian state? Who were you arrested with in Tunisia? 
  • Inevitably: Have you visited Israel? Then: Have you visited Iran? Why do you write about Iran? Who do you cooperate with in Iran? Have you visited Syria? Have you visited Libya? Have you visited Qatar? Who do you know in Qatar? Who do you cooperate with in Qatar? When did you visit Qatar? Who visits you from Qatar? What money have you received from Qatar? (I’ve never been near Qatar, though I’ve been quoted often by Al Jazeera — I believe Mustache had printed out samples. But the Doha regime, which supported the Muslim Brotherhood, is Sisi’s special bête noire.)
  • Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International are effectively banned in Egypt.  My onetime tenure at HRW weighed on their minds. What is your current function with Human Rights Watch? What information do you transmit to Human Rights Watch? And: How do you receive your salary from Human Rights Watch? (Courier pigeon.)
  • Where did you receive information on how to hide things on the Internet? (Mustache was fascinated by posts I’d done on Internet security, several of them in Arabic.) Do private companies make these things, or foreign governments? Are you paid by these private companies? You are in contact with which criminal groups who use these en-cryp-ti-on (carefully pronounced) methods? Also on technology: Which firearms do you own? (Gun ownership is legally restricted in Egypt. I have never even held a gun.) We know Americans love firearms, where have you purchased firearms in Egypt? Who in Egypt gave you firearms? Where do you keep your firearms? 
  • They asked me about my “connections” with three individuals. First was Hossam Bahgat, the activist and journalist who is now banned from travel in an investigation into “illegal” NGOs. (I said, accurately, that we were were busy people who hadn’t spoken much in years.) Next was Alaa Abd El Fattah, the revolutionary activist. (I said, accurately, he’d been imprisoned on false charges for most of the time I was in Egypt.) The third was an Italian who’d been entrapped over the Internet and deported in 2015. (I said, accurately, we barely knew each other.) Mustache seemed about to produce more names when a phone call interrupted him, and after that the interrogation moved to other things.
  • But they did care about organizations. Which unregistered organizations do you belong to? Have you used your home for meetings of illegal organizations? Which illegal organizations have you given money? Do you have an Egyptian bank account? Which Egyptians use your foreign bank account?  When did you last receive money from abroad? Have you received money for Egyptians? For what Egyptians have you received foreign money? What Egyptians have you given money? No, no, none, no, none, never, no, none, none; then half an hour later, Are you a member of ….
  • But the most sinister questions were about places. Have you ever lived in Heliopolis? Have you ever worked in Heliopolis? — a district in eastern Cairo. Then: Have you ever visited Sinai? I said truthfully I never had, but Sinai kept coming up over and over at intervals, like a brightly painted barrel in the maelstrom. When was the last time you visited Sinai? Where did you go in Sinai? Have you ever been to Sharm el-Sheikh? To Dahab? When were you in El Arish? Who has travelled to Sinai with you? Who did you meet in Sinai? Later Heliopolis bobbed up again. Who are your connections in Heliopolis? Do you belong to organizations in Heliopolis? How often did you visit Heliopolis during the summer of 2015? And: Which days were you in Heliopolis in June 2015?

North Sinai harbors the largest, ISIS-affiliated insurgency against Sisi’s rule. Heliopolis, though, is mainly for shoppers. I rarely went there, and not till later did I speculate on why they cared. Possibly they wanted to connect me to some illicit gay ring in the suburb. Memorably, though, a bomb blew apart Hisham Barakat — Egypt’s prosecutor general — in Heliopolis on June 29, 2015. The insistent dates made me wonder if they were looking to build some insane link to his murder. (I had said extremely harsh things about Barakat in e-mails to non-Egyptians after his killing — if death can be deserved, he deserved it.) The final fact, though, was: for them, perverted sex cases and security fears were becoming the same.

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Aya Hegazy

Possibly all this was meant just to scare the hell out of me; if so the ludicrousness interfered with the lesson. But the narrative weaving through the interrogation was no more ludicrous than most of the terror trials Sisi’s security state has put together. It’s a state that holds more than 40,000 political prisoners. Famously, in 2013 three Al Jazeera journalists were arrested, then sentenced to years in prison on “terrorism” charges. for reporting on Muslim Brotherhood protests in Cairo. Their camera tripods and studio lights were held up on TV as terrorist equipment. From Mustache’s manner and intensity, I’m fairly sure State Security was ready to concoct some such case against me, if I’d answered enough questions wrong. Being a foreigner is no longer a mark of safety in Egypt: the Al Jazeera case sucked an Egyptian, a Canadian, and an Australian citizen into the desert gulag, clearly meant as a message that passports are no protection. A US citizen, Aya Hegazy, has been held in pre-trial detention, along with seven Egyptian colleagues, for two and a half years. She had founded a Cairo NGO housing and rehabilitating street children; she’s facing highly dubious charges of sexual abuse — and of luring susceptible kids to enlist in the Muslim Brotherhood as “terrorists.” It’s widely seen as another brutal warning to civil society (and a way of punishing homeless youth, who I can testify were among the bravest and fiercest demonstrators against police repression, under Morsi as well as Sisi, from 2011 on). I don’t mean for a second that imprisoning foreigners is somehow worse than imprisoning Egyptians. But it marks a regime that no longer feels any restraint, whose fears and fantasies drive it to ever more sweeping and unstoppable measures of control. The US has done almost nothing to protest Aya Hegazy’s persecution. (Hillary Clinton asked for her release during a September meeting with Sisi, according to Clinton’s campaign.) On January 25, about six weeks before I left the country, security forces in Cairo kidnapped a young Italian student named Giulio Regeni. He disappeared from a street near where I often stayed at night. His savagely mutilated corpse turned up in a ditch a week later. That did arouse international anger — because of the horrible mercilessness of his torture, because his family demanded justice. Possibly the blowback from Regeni’s slaughter contributed to a decision not to arrest me. State Security may have felt it wasn’t worthwhile to risk extra chiding from abroad. I bear the spectral guilt of having profited from another person’s death.

Street children in Midan Tahrir, Cairo, early 2013. Photo by Reuters

Street children in Midan Tahrir, Cairo, early 2013. Photo by Reuters

The interrogation in the airport office droned on and on. About 45 minutes before my plane was due to leave, I said, more or less: “If you make me miss my flight, I assume you are arresting me. In that case, I want to call a lawyer now.” (The idea of “calling a lawyer” is lunacy in that context; at best you send a text from a cellphone hidden in your sock.) Mustache and Necktie whispered for five minutes. Mustache left the room. I was sweating.

Ten minutes later he came back. “Go,” he said. They physically shoved me out the door.

Since I left — escaped? — Egypt, I’ve often been asked why I stayed so long. It is difficult to explain. One way to say it is: something not just disorienting but morally vitating inhabits the way “international” human rights work is done; the rhythm of parachuting in, polevaulting out of “troubled places,” absconding with information from one country, processing it into useable fact in another, perpetually at multiple removes from the people whose stories you record or the actual workers who help you record them. In this realm, too, power is remoteness, distance. I stayed in Egypt after the arrests began because I wanted not to distance myself. I wanted to stay and work with my friends. At least we would share some of the burdens together.

If I had a clear function in our informal division of labor, it was to get the word out to the foreign world about what was happening in Egypt’s crackdown, to mobilize movements to answer. I failed. Undoubtedly there were many reasons I failed, personal inadequacies to start. One reason, though, was the way Sisi’s regime has taken up “security” as its identity and purpose. Despite the self-destructiveness and ineptitude of nearly all his anti-terror measures, Sisi has sold himself to the West — as well as to Saudi Arabia and Russia — as a bulwark against the numinous, universal threat. As a result, no ally will criticize him seriously and no leader will spurn his embrace. Newspapers and even human rights groups prefer to focus on abuses elsewhere, more congruent with the unwritten battle-plans of the endless war on terror. This isn’t just for foreign consumption. In Egypt, the language of security is all-pervading. It infects everything, and as a result everything becomes a security threat, even a blog or a Facebook page, even a few people having sex in a decrepit flat. The anti-terror machinery terrorizes itself.  Fear is everywhere. It just induced the United States to elect a maniacal thug as President, and Sisi’s government proudly announced that Sisi was the first foreign leader whose call Trump took. I wanted to tell this story partly as a reminder that the fear is absurd but the fear has consequences. But of course this will fail too, because we already know.

Donald Trump meets with President Sisi at the Plaze Hotel during the UN General Assembly session in New York, September 19, 2016. Photo by Dominick Reuter/AFP

Donald Trump meets with President Sisi at the Plaza Hotel during the UN General Assembly session in New York, September 19, 2016. Photo by Dominick Reuter/AFP

As I say, there was nothing exceptional in my experience, except that I walked away. Thousands around the world face the machinery of security every day, the manifold terrors of counter-terror, and I have nothing to offer but one small piece of advice. Remember: The police are stupid. In the end, that’s the main hope for our own iron age. The cops are studded with guns and sealed in Kevlar, but they have no minds.

The he-men in the airport office knew barely more about language, technology, life in its intricacy than a dog knows about a train. And their stupidity is only a distilled version of the larger stupidity of the state. (A victim entrapped over the Web whom I interviewed in 2003 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 talk around with men?’ They knew nothing about how the things I was charged with actually worked.”) The state is an empty skull. The parasites in it spy and pry, but they cannot turn mere facts into knowledge. Their stupidity intimidates and oppresses, but it is also our strength. I learned a joke 25 years ago in Romania, and I still tell it, because it gives me comfort:

Q: Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, the intelligent policeman, and the stupid policeman are eating Chinese food together. Who eats the most?
A: The stupid policeman eats it all. The other three are imaginary.

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Cartoon by Andeel, Mada Masr: Get in / إركب

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Four years

Today is the fourth anniversary of the Egyptian revolution. General Sisi’s regime has cancelled (“delayed”) any commemorations of a date it is indisposed to celebrate. Instead it is “mourning over the death of Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdel Aziz”: the corrupt mafioso who bankrolled the ongoing counterrevolution. Four years ago, Abdullah described Egypt’s liberation struggle thus: “No Arab and Muslim human being can bear that some infiltrators, in the name of freedom of expression, have infiltrated into the brotherly people of Egypt to destabilize its security and stability, and they have been exploited to spew out their hatred in destruction, intimidation, burning, looting and inciting a malicious sedition.” Now his Cairo acolytes anoint the foreign intruder a national hero.

Midan Tahrir, January 25, 2015: Photo by @LELoveluck

Midan Tahrir, January 25, 2015: Photo by @LELoveluck

Today, Midan Tahrir is immune to infiltration, shut off with iron gates. The Ministry of Interior has deployed its forces everywhere. All Egypt is a crime scene.

Screen shot 2015-01-25 at 4.17.04 PMAt the end of my quiet residential street, two armored personnel carriers hunch like yellow toads, guns pointing at the traffic. Soldiers clutching automatic rifles flank them, their faces hidden behind sinister black balaclavas. They do not look like servants of a modern state. They look like fighters for ISIS.

Screen shot 2015-01-25 at 4.39.41 PM

The gangs and militias that run this gimcrack imitation of a state are going about their business. The generalissimo enjoys himself this afternoon with the billionaires in Davos, trying to raise money for himself and his cronies. Two days ago the last members of the Mubarak clan still facing charges — his kleptomaniac sons — were freed from jail: “part of an attempt by a new elite under Mr Sisi to reconcile with Mubarak-era business and political interests which count the Mubarak brothers as among their own.”

Screen shot 2015-01-25 at 5.13.31 PMDefeats spawn advice as birthdays do. Asef Bayat, the political theorist, tries to persuade the revolutionaries to remain in hope, here: “These are uncharted political moments loaded with indefinite possibilities, in which meaningful social engagement would demand a creative fusion of the old and new ways of doing politics.” And H. A. Hellyer writes about the longue durée, measured in decades, demanding “a real vision, underpinned by a genuine political philosophy, concerned about the next 10, 20 and 30 years.” There are still people on the streets today, standing and struggling, and I do not know whether they will read such exhortations. But some of them will not live that long.

So far this day, police have killed 14 protesters across the country, according to the Ministry of Interior’s official figures.

Clashes broke out in downtown Cairo between dozens of protesters and a group of civilian “thugs” in front of the Journalists Syndicate on Sunday afternoon. Police forces dispersed protesters and began to round them up and make a number of arrests. Eyewitness Shady Hussein said clashes started when supporters of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi intervened in the protest and raised posters of the president, throwing rocks at protesters.

The Ministry of Interior dispersed protests in October 6 City and Maadi using tear gas, according to several media reports.

And of course: “Small groups of pro-Sisi protesters were reportedly asked politely by police to move elsewhere.”

Yesterday, Shaimaa el-Sabagh, a 34-year-old mother, an Alexandria journalist and activist with the Socialist Popular Alliance Party, came to Cairo and went to Midan Tahrir on a small march to lay a wreath of roses. Demonstrations are illegal. As she held a placard calling for “bread, freedom, and social justice,” police shot her in the face. She died in the square, in a comrade’s arms.

shaimaa_al-sabbagh_l

Shaimaa el-Sabbagh, 1980-2015

In death, Shaimaa joins Sondos Reda, 17 years old and also from Alexandria, killed by police on Friday in a demonstration supporting the Muslim Brotherhood. And they join some 1500 protesters whom security forces have killed since the July 2013 coup.

Sondos Reda, 1997-2015

Sondos Reda, 1997-2015

Today someone called the photograph of Shaimaa “already iconic.” But what does that mean? Too many people have been petrified into icons, while the powerful survive to die in bed. Here is Shaimaa with her five-year old son:

Photo via @ORHamilton

Photo via @ORHamilton

I have nothing to say.

ElBaradei steps aside

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 12, Defend the Revolution: A letter from Cairo to Occupy / Decolonize movements

From Egypt’s Campaign to End Military Trials of Civilians, this is worth reproducing in full:

Call-Out for Solidarity with Egypt: Defend the Revolution

© Adam Dot 2011

A letter from Cairo to the Occupy/Decolonize movements & other solidarity movements.

After three decades of living under a dictatorship, Egyptians started a revolution demanding bread, freedom and social justice. After a nearly utopian occupation of Tahrir Square lasting 18 days, we rid ourselves of Mubarak and began the second, harder, task of removing his apparatuses of power. Mubarak is gone, but the military regime lives on. So the revolution continues – building pressure, taking to the streets and claiming the right to control our lives and livelihoods against systems of repression that abused us for years. But now, seemingly so soon after its beginnings, the revolution is under attack. We write this letter to tell you about what we are seeing, how we mean to stand against this crackdown, and to call for your solidarity with us.

  • The 25th and 28th of January, the 11th of February: you saw these days, lived these days with us on television. But we have battled through the 25th of February, the 9th of March, the 9th of April, the 15th of May, the 28th of June, the 23rd of July, the 1st of August, the 9th of September, the 9th of October. Again and again the army and the police have attacked us, beaten us, arrested us, killed us. And we have resisted, we have continued; some of these days we lost, others we won, but never without cost. Over a thousand gave their lives to remove Mubarak. Many more have joined them in death since. We go on so that their deaths will not be in vain. Names like Ali Maher (a 15 year old demonstrator killed by the army in Tahrir, 9th of April), Atef Yehia (shot in the head by security forces in a protest in solidarity with Palestine, 15th of May), Mina Danial (shot by the Army in a protest in front of Masepro, 9th of October). Mina Daniel, in death, suffers the perverse indignity of being on the military prosecutor’s list of the accused.
  • Moreover, since the military junta took power, at least 12,000 of us have been tried by military courts, unable to call witnesses and with limited access to lawyers. Minors are serving in adult prisons, death sentences have been handed down, torture runs rampant. Women demonstrators have been subjected to sexual assault in the form of “virginity tests” by the Army.
  • On October 9th, the Army massacred 28 of us at Maspero; they ran us over with tanks andshot us down in the street while manipulating state media to try and incite sectarian violence. The story has been censored. The military is investigating itself. They are systematically targeting those of us who speak out. This Sunday, our comrade and blogger Alaa Abd El Fattah was imprisoned on trumped-up charges. He spends another night in an unlit cell tonight.
  • All this from the military that supposedly will ensure a transition to democracy, that claimed to defend the revolution, and seemingly convinced many within Egypt and internationally that it was doing so. The official line has been one of ensuring “stability”, with empty assurances that the Army is only creating a proper environment for the upcoming elections. But even once a new parliament is elected, we will still live under a junta that holds legislative, executive, and judicial authority, with no guarantee that this will end. Those who challenge this scheme are harassed, arrested, and tortured; military trials of civilians are the primary tool of this repression. The prisons are full of casualties of this “transition”.
We now refuse to co-operate with military trials and prosecutions. We will not hand ourselves in, we will not submit ourselves to questioning. If they want us, they can take us from our homes and workplaces.

Nine months into our new military repression, we are still fighting for our revolution. We are marching, occupying, striking, shutting things down. And you, too, are marching, occupying, striking, shutting things down. We know from the outpouring of support we received in January that the world was watching us closely and even inspired by our revolution. We felt closer to you than ever before. And now, it’s your turn to inspire us as we watch the struggles of your movements. We marched to the US Embassy in Cairo to protest the violent eviction of the occupation in Oscar Grant Plaza in Oakland. Our strength is in our shared struggle. If they stifle our resistance, the 1% will win – in Cairo, New York, London, Rome – everywhere. But while the revolution lives our imaginations knows no bounds. We can still create a world worth living.
You can help us defend our revolution.
The G8, IMF and Gulf states are promising the regime loans of $35 billion. The US gives the Egyptian military $1.3 billion in aid every year. Governments the world over continue their long-term support and alliance with the military rulers of Egypt. The bullets they kill us with are made in America. The tear gas that burns from Oakland to Palestine is made in Wyoming. David Cameron’s first visit to post-revolutionary Egypt was to close a weapons deal. These are only a few examples. People’s lives, freedoms and futures must stop being trafficked for strategic assets. We must unite against governments who do not share their people’s interests.
We are calling on you to undertake solidarity actions to help us oppose this crackdown. We are suggesting an International Day to Defend the Egyptian Revolution on Nov 12th under the slogan “Defend the Egyptian Revolution – End Military Trials for Civilians.” Events could include:
  • Actions targeting Egyptian Embassies or Consulates demanding the release of civilians sentenced in military tribunals. If Alaa is released, demand the release of the thousands of others.
  • Actions targeting your government to end support for the Egyptian junta.
  • Demand the release of civilians sentenced to military tribunals. If Alaa is released, the thousands of others must follow.
  • Project videos about the repression we face (military trials, Maspero massacre) and our continued resistance. Email us for links.
  • Videoconferencing with activists in Egypt
  • Any creative way to show your support, and to show the Egyptian people that they have allies abroad.
If you’re organising anything or wish to, email us at  defendtherevolution@gmail.com.  We would also love to see photos and videos from any events you organize.
The Campaign to End Military Trials of Civilians
The Free Alaa Campaign
Mosireen
Comrades from Cairo