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 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.

Virginity tests, vile bodies: Stories from Sisi’s Egypt

Protest against forced virginity examinations, Cairo, 2011

Protest against forced virginity examinations, Cairo, 2011

What is this furniture
That speaks of departure?
People take up their folding chairs
And emigrate.

Günter Grass, “Folding Chairs”

Three stories about Egypt today:

ONE.  Women’s vaginas belong to the State. Memorably, in March 2011, Egypt’s army forced 17 women demonstrators arrested at Tahrir Square to undergo virginity tests. One general defended the exams to CNN under cover of anonymity, saying, “These were girls who had camped out in tents with male protesters … We didn’t want them to say we had sexually assaulted or raped them, so we wanted to prove that they weren’t virgins in the first place… None of them were.” A suspiciously similar justification for the appalling abuse was offered on the record by the head of military intelligence, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

Sisi promised the military would stop inflicting the exams, but said nothing about other authorities. Sisi is president now. The police enjoy unrestrained power. Last night I spoke to a woman in her early 20s, a university student, who was forced to submit to a virginity test this week. She had accompanied a male friend to a Cairo police station to support him when he was summoned under suspicion of a crime. There, officers searched her bag and found condoms. They threatened to charge her as well — with prostitution.

They didn’t ask my consent or explain what was going to happen, just told me that a woman would search me. Then they brought in a woman who worked in [a nearby business] and all the officers left the room. I knew then this was not an ordinary search, because there would be no need to bring in a woman for that — they could have searched my clothes themselves, I was wearing ordinary pants and my blouse had no pockets.

The woman asked me to take all my clothes off. Then, when I was naked, she told me I had to bend over, over a chair. I did it and she checked my vagina. The woman herself was kind: she kept asking if I was OK and trying to reassure me.  She went out, and I put my clothes on, and the officers came back in.

One of the officers said: “Are you a virgin or not?” That was the first question they asked me when they returned. I said, “I am not. I am sure the woman said that to you.” But he said: “No, she told us you were still a virgin.” Then I understood that the woman had lied to try to protect me. I asked him not to blame her. The officer said: “We can make you a lot of trouble. No one is going to doubt you are a prostitute, because you are 20 and for sure you are not a virgin.”

At the end of her interrogation, which lasted all night, police told her she would be released. But first,

They made me sign a paper with the questions and answers they had asked me. Then I asked them to write another paper and attach it,  certifying that they had inspected my vagina.

The officer smiled. “After we do all these investigations, and we set you free, you are trying to put the blame on us! Very well, I can write it. But if I do, it will put the guilt on you, rather than us, and we will send your case to the prosecutor [niyaba]. The shame and the guilt are yours. And the address we have from your ID is your family’s, and if we take you to the niyaba your family will find out everything about your immorality. Is that what you want?”

I felt I had no choice. I agreed not to ask for the paper in order not to be charged with prostitution.

How often do such stories happen in police stations all over Egypt?

"Fear Me, Government": Street art by Keizer, from . Obviously they do.

“Fear Me, Government”: Street art by Keizer, from Obviously they do.

TWO. The State decides which bodies are legal or illegal. On November 2, the press reported that in El Waily, a district in the northeast of Cairo, Judge Yasser Abu Ghanima ordered a “sissy” [mokhanath] jailed for alleged fraud after trying to undergo a breast augmentation procedure. Hospital officials, detecting a physical anomaly, had handed the deviant male immediately to the police. Arrests of transgender or gender-dissident people in Egypt are commonplace now. But this one was special. The victim’s state ID and birth certificate actually said she was female. On inspection, though, her body wasn’t good enough for the government.

El-Watan interviewed the woman in jail, and published a story on November 3 which was sensational and sympathetic in equal measure.

She doesn’t know how to live and how to deal with the tragedy. On her official documents it says she is a 26-year-old female and her family treats her as female, but the government, represented by El-Zahra Hospital and El-Waily police station, has charged her with fraud in official documents and impersonating a female.

"A Girl is just like a Boy," stencil graffiti by Nooneswa, from

“A girl is just like a boy,” stencil graffiti by Nooneswa, from

The woman’s story, if El-Watan is to be trusted, is indeed terrible. She grew up in a poor family of five children in a village just north of Cairo. Her parents didn’t send her to school. At ten years old, she discovered that what she had “in my lower half” looked like a penis.

“So I told my mother and my sister, and they said that it is a birth defect and can be removed by surgery. I lived with it until I reached the age of 18. Then a neighbor called on me and proposed to me. I was surprised that my mother and my brothers told him I am engaged. I asked my mother about the reason for refusal. She told me that the reason is a congenital defect, I am half male and half female.”

Though they raised her as a girl, her family seems to have tried to rein in her gender presentation after she reached adulthood, rebuking her severely when she bought a ring and a woman’s necklace from a jewelry shop. “I attempted suicide more than once after the treatment that I got from my relatives.” Finally, more than a year ago, she cut off relations with all her family except her mother. “I rented a room by myself; I left the house without anyone knowing the reason, except I told my mother and she understood.” She got a job as a cleaner in a plastic factory near her village.

”I support myself after my parents and relatives abandoned me, trying to save money so that I can have surgery. The doctors told me that the congenital defect can lead to diseases such as cancer. My colleagues at work didn’t notice any difference. I avoided appearing in girls’ clothes that are too revealing. …

“For a year and a half I’ve been living on my own. I visited more than five doctors in government hospitals …. The surgery in a private clinic costs more than 10,000 pounds {$1400 US], and my salary isn’t more than 700 pounds [$100 US] per month. … I refused to have any romantic relationships or marriage. … No one knows the tragedy that’s inside me.”

The arrest victim, face obscured by El-Watan

The arrest victim, face obscured by El-Watan

Finally, she went to El-Zahra University Hospital, in the Abbasiya neighborhood of Cairo, dressing herself in full niqab, and asking for surgery to enlarge her breasts.

“The physician examined my upper part. When I asked the doctor, ‘Will it work, doctor?’ she answered by saying: ‘Don’t worry, dear.’ Then they asked me for a urine sample for analysis. It was rejected. It caused a stir of doubts, and the doctor summoned colleagues, and I had to show the lower part of my body revealing I was ‘a girl with a penis.'”

The hospital personnel “ran to report the ‘girl with the penis’ to the police,” according to El-Watan. She was immediately taken to the El-Waily police station. “Prosecutor Wael El Shamy ordered a forensic investigation to determine her gender,” and “assigned detectives to find her family members and call them in for questioning. The prosecution decided to hold her in the waiting room of the police station and not to place her in a men’s or women’s cell for fear of assault.” There, given the publicity, she will probably be shown off as entertainment to guests.

She was “scared and crying” when El-Watan interviewed her in custody. She pleaded for a doctor “with the heart and conscience to cure me.”

“I ask everyone to help me. I am not just a deformity or birth defect. The upper part of my body is a girl’s, with nipples and long hair, and and there are no other abnormalities. I beg the Minister of Health and the National Council for Human Rights to help me to live a normal life.”

Probably, from this account, the girl was born with an intersex condition. Probably she’s never spoken to a doctor who gave her a chromosome test or a clear account of what is happening to her body. What’s striking is that the doctors immediately saw her genitals as a criminal, not a medical issue. With no questions and no sympathy, they sent her straight from examining room to jail.

Sally Mursi

Sally Mursi

Gender variance and gender ambiguity have a varying and ambiguous status in Egyptian law. The famous case of Sally Mursi, dating back 25 years, has become a — the —  lens through which these issues are seen. While a medical student at Al-Azhar University in 1988, Mursi (born Sayed Mursi) made huge headlines by undergoing gender reassignment surgery. Sheikh Mohammed Sayyed Tantawi, a mufti who later became Grand Imam of Al-Azhar (the highest position in Egyptian Islam) issued a fatwa approving the operation on health grounds; so far as is known, this is the first ruling on transgender issues from a Sunni scholar. The state grudgingly changed her ID papers. But despite the fatwa, the men’s wing of Al-Azhar Medical School expelled her and the women’s school refused to take her; the university defied a series of court orders to readmit her. Mursi could only find work as a nightclub dancer. Other segments of state bureaucracy persecuted her despite her new ID. The Ministry of Culture denied her a dancing permit, the morals police raided her shows, and the government accused her of evading military service, compulsory for men. The Doctor’s Syndicate even expelled her surgeon, Dr. Ezzat Ashmallah, for performing the operation — though he was reinstated later.

So gender reassignment surgery is technically allowed in Egypt, but it doesn’t give the patient a path to a secure legal status. It’s as if the state prefers people in a legal limbo where it can harass them when it likes. The operations are forbiddingly hard to obtain: applicants confront “a long and complicated list of procedures that always end up with the [Doctor’s] Syndicate’s refusal to allow gender transformation surgeries,” according to my friend Dalia Abdel Hameed of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. Sympathetic doctors still face professional opprobrium, even arrest. In 2010, prosecutors questioned a physician in Assyut, in Upper Egypt, after the Doctor’s Syndicate turned him in for conducting male-to-female surgeries. The Ministry of Health complained that the operations did not produce “real,” biological women: the patient “is still physically a male without vagina, uterus or female ovaries,” a bureaucrat there said.

The state is still at odds with itself over what makes a “real” man or woman. Unsurprisingly, then, transgender issues in Egypt are conceptually, medically, and legally tangled up with intersex issues. Both raise the same questions: what (and where in the body) is the truth of gender?

Lie back and think of Egypt: A doctor at work

Lie back and think of Egypt: A doctor at work

Some Egyptian doctors have staked out their territory where transgender people are concerned, claiming they can produce the truth, that medicine can resolve the “problem” — though their own professional syndicate punishes them for saying so. Similarly, some doctors are struggling to establish their expertise and control over intersex people’s bodies. Surgeries to mutilate and reshape the genitals of intersex infants, widespread in many other countries, seem mercifully less common in Egypt. One reason: female genital mutilation pre-empts them. One surgeon said in 2004:

“Circumcision is an informal law in Upper Egyptian families. In most villages, they circumcise the girl 40 days after her birth. So in intersexed cases, they simply cut off the penis, putting us and the patient in a more difficult situation,” he says. “We then have to start from scratch, constructing a new penis. Female circumcision is a crime that should be banned by all means. As you can see, it doesn’t only damage a girl’s life, it can also destroy the future of a male.”

Yet news reports suggest that in recent years an increasing number of adults like the woman in El-Waily are seeking doctors’ help because their bodies don’t make sense to them.

Here’s the thing, though: The state wants hegemony over physical existence. And it isn’t about to surrender its power over ambiguous bodies to busybodies in white coats. Despite doctors’ efforts to brand gender identity as a medical issue, which at least takes it out of the law’s ambit, trans* people are still criminals in Egypt. In the last year a massive campaign of arrest and abuse brutalized trans* people and mokhanatheen (“effeminate” men). It conveys a clear message. In Sisi’s reborn Egypt, men must be men, not long-haired revolutionaries, not insidious sissies. The state will decide what’s deviant, and punish it.

Arrest of alleged mokhanatheen in Heliopolis, Cairo, on May 4, 2014, from Akhbar El-Hawadeth

Arrest of alleged mokhanatheen in Heliopolis, Cairo, on May 4, 2014, from Akhbar El-Hawadeth

Intersex bodies are caught in the repression. Your ID isn’t enough to make you safe. You may have lived a life conforming to your legal papers, but if your body doesn’t fit your birth certificate point for point, it’s not a “condition,” it’s a crime. Doctors’ duty is to surrender confusing cases to the police.

Sally Mursi told a reporter how, when her gender reassignment surgery ignited scandal in 1988, she and her surgeon “were summoned by the State Prosecutor’s Office,”

“which was investigating charges against us, claiming I conspired with Dr. Ezzat Ashamallah to cause myself a permanent deformity that stirred up ‘social instability and public disorder.’ Don’t you dare underestimate me … I’m as dangerous as any terrorist!”

Egypt is now suffering another state-sponsored frenzy over fears of terrorism, and bodies that stir up “social instability” are demonized all over again. The story of the woman in El-Waily isn’t just a personal tragedy. It’s a paradigm of a regime that founds its legitimacy on masculinity, mass panic, surveillance, and control.

"Don’t label me," stencil graffiti by Nooneswa, from

“Don’t label me,” stencil graffiti by Nooneswa, from

THREE. One thing the press stories on Egypt won’t tell you about is the departures. Not loud enough to furnish headlines, the withdrawing footsteps drum in an undertone these days, a slow diminuendo of closing doors. Several well-known rights activists left the country in recent weeks, shadowed by warnings of imminent arrest. Yesterday, November 10, was the deadline for NGOs to submit to the supervision of the “Ministry of Social Solidarity” (Miniluv); recalcitrants may be shut down, their staff arrested. Some groups are already shuttering, some employees discreetly looking for visas. The melancholy and menace of endings suffuse casual encounters. You go to a goodbye party for a friend who’s off for a three-day conference abroad, and find he has no definite plans to return. All my gay friends are talking about leaving, all, without exception; to walk the street with one is to trek haltingly between the windows of travel agents’ offices, plate glass shimmering with flights priced out of reach. And these are the lucky, still free to dream of exits. Prisons and camps are crammed with tens of thousands of political prisoners, most though not all Islamists, who will stay till the regime is done with them.

Annibale Gatti (1828-1909) Dante in Exile, Palazzo Pitti, Florence, Italy

Annibale Gatti (1828-1909) Dante in Exile, Palazzo Pitti, Florence, Italy

No such exodus ever blighted the Mubarak years. I always felt most Egyptians would never abandon Egypt until the last extremity: even the most endangered used to try to stick it out back then, staying put despite the direst warnings. Yet settling over Egypt’s remaining liberals now is a fear some barely bring themselves to whisper. Nobody ever thought things could be worse than under the old dictator. They can.

I see you: Sisi in full regalia

I see you: Sisi in full regalia

A decade ago, liberals and activists and democrats led almost charmed lives — seen from the darkness of today. They might be harassed at the airport or threatened by State Security in late-night calls, but they were rarely arrested. If they were detained, the thugs would hold them a few days, even torture them a bit pour encourager les autres, then set them loosethey almost never went to prison. Mubarak didn’t take the liberals seriously. A few kids staging tiny protests, a few offices emitting press releases: this was not where he divined a threat. The most horrific extremes — the electroshock and ice-water tortures, the years or decades in stinking cells with no hope of trial, the disappearance into nameless places where no spouse or lawyer could find you — he reserved for his most feared enemies, the Islamists: the Muslim Brotherhood and those to the right of it.

Sisi’s regime doesn’t just jail and torture the Brotherhood. It kills them. The penalty for guilty liberals has also ratcheted upwards. The main tenet of this dictatorship is that Mubarak failed because he was weak. Leniency seduced him; he relaxed the reins to let human rights groups yammer, reporters report, bloggers blog, students demonstrate. No more. When human rights researcher Yara Sallam is sent to prison for three years, it’s a signal to NGOs that cells are ready for them. When journalists from Al-Jazeera get 7-to-15-year sentences, it’s a sign for foreigners and journalists: neither passports nor press cards protect them. No one is safe.

So much of Sisi’s regime is about dominating people’s bodies. The draconian protest law passed last year criminalizes the physical solidarity and togetherness that produced the Revolution in Midan Tahrir. Sexual harassment controls women on the street. The metastasizing police presence treats almost every gesture as a subversive act. The government doesn’t just want to regulate opinion or suppress dissent; its invasions have a grittily material aim, getting under the skin and in the bones, as if Sisi wants to subject the whole population to a military drill.

"No to sexual harassment," street art by Mira Shihadeh, from

This picture does not represent reality: “No to sexual harassment,” street art by Mira Shihadeh, from

They control you. They can throw your body in jail at any time; or they can use you to find out what other bodies are up to. Last week police compelled a young man — I’ll call him Walid — to admit he was gay after detaining him for a different offense. I interviewed another person held briefly in the same case, who said:

They told Walid that he had the chance to go free. But the officer who was playing “good cop” added: “If you want to get this case cancelled, here is a pen and paper. Write down all the men you have had sex with: name, and age, and address. We promise we won’t hurt them — it’s just a favor to us.”

Walid hesitated and the policeman said: “While we were questioning you, you must have realized that we know everything. We know the [Internet] accounts of you people, we know your numbers. We don’t even need this. But I am trying to help you. You need to show us you are grateful.”

Walid wrote down a bunch of  names, some foreigners and some Egyptians. When he was finished, the policeman said: “All right. Now tell me which ones are tops and which are bottoms.”

A friend of mine asked me the other day if it was true he could get Ugandan citizenship and resettle there. He’s gay, and he knows all about Uganda and the gays. That tells you how bad things are in Egypt.

The dissidents, the revolutionaries, the activists, the long-hairs, the ones with weird or unwanted bodies, the gays and the mokhanatheen: They all look the same to the government, grimy deviants. Probably they are, but they are also prophets. Nobody likes prophets, because they are unmoored from the real. They dream of freedom — political, bodily, sexual — when it does not exist and is an insult to the unfree. Mubarak’s dictatorship bred prophets, who turned the crawlspaces and margins where they were ignored into cribs of liberty where they could dream. The prophets saw the light coming, and many saw the darkness that would follow it too. And what is the fate of prophets?

When the locusts occupied our town,
no milk came to the door, the dailies suffocated,
our jails were opened to release
all prophets.
They streamed through the streets,
3800 prophets,
talking and teaching without restriction,
and eating their fill of that gray
and jumpy mess
we called the plague.

So everything was fine and up to expectations.

Soon our milk came again; our papers reappeared;
And prophets filled our jails.

Günter Grass, “Food for Prophets”

Street art supporting  the digital platform "The Uprising of Women in the Arab World’

Street art supporting the digital platform “The Uprising of Women in the Arab World’

Poem of the day

Painting on the junta's Qasr al-Aini wall, Cairo, via @GSquare86

Auden wrote this in 1945 after serving in occupied Germany. It’s a useful reminder for wall-builders and wall-destroyers alike.

From Memorial for the City (by W. H. Auden, 1907-1973)

Across the square,
Between the burnt-out Law Courts and Police Headquarters,
Past the Cathedral far too damaged to repair,
Around the Grand Hotel patched up to hold reporters,
Near huts of some Emergency Committee,
The barbed wire runs through the abolished City.

Across the plains,
Between two hills, two villages, two trees, two friends,
The barbed wire runs which neither argues nor explains
But where it likes a place, a path, a railroad ends,
The humour, the cuisine, the rites, the taste,
The pattern of the City, are erased.

Across our sleep
The barbed wire also runs: It trips us so we fall
And white ships sail without us though the others weep,
It makes our sorry fig-leaf at the Sneerers’ Ball,
It ties the smiler to the double bed,
It keeps on growing from the witch’s head.

Behind the wire
Which is behind the mirror, our Image is the same,
Awake or dreaming: It has no image to admire,
No age, no sex, no memory, no creed, no name,
It can be counted, multiplied, destroyed
In any place, at any time destroyed.

Is it our friend?
No: that is our hope; that we weep and It does not grieve;
That for it the wire and the ruins are not the end;
This is the flesh we are but never would believe,
The flesh we die but it is death to pity;
This is Adam waiting for his city.

Marshal Tantawi, tear down that wall!

Back in December, as a move to stop insistent demonstrations around Midan Tahrir, the ruling Egyptian junta tried to wall off access points to the square. Above, you can see them building a wall across Qasr al-Aini Street.

Shades of Berlin. Today, demonstrators are tearing down the wall. Here, from @GSquare86, are some pictures:

I love Egyptians when they get organized.

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 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.

From Egypt: Blindness and balloting

I got off the plane in Cairo late Saturday night, and the second person I spoke to was my friend Nada, who came to pick me up.   She told me how she was arrested on Mohamed Mahmoud Street, near Midan Tahrir, last Sunday, November 20. Central Security forces held her in detention for just over eighteen hours; 30 officers joined in torturing her, including with electroshock. I’ll be doing a fuller interview with her on Tuesday. For Arabic readers, her story, as taken down by the Nadeem Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, is here.

Nada's right arm after torture: @Nadeem Center

Monday, November 28, is the first round of parliamentary elections organized by the military regime. The junta has announced they will go forward. despite protesters’ insistence that a civilian government conduct them; despite the puppet cabinet’s resignation last week; and despite a call from the Supreme Electoral Commission (every government body in Egypt is called “Supreme” that possibly can be) to postpone them.  Google (one of whose local executives, Wael Ghonim, became the face of the January revolution) has greeted the occasion with an encouraging doodle:

These elections are brought to you, apparently, by the letter “e.” For what? Euphoria? Elation? Endlessness? Whatever it stands for, it’s not “easy.”

The voting system the military set up is designed to mystify. Three stages of balloting will happen before mid-January, each covering nine governorates: actually, six stages, since each will be followed a week later by a run-off. Two-thirds of the seats will be filled by proportional representation, with winners chosen from party lists; for the rest, you vote for individual “independent” candidates (they may, of course, have party affiliations, but don’t run under them). Each voter must choose one party list and two independent candidates; ballots with fewer marks are invalid.  The individual candidates are classified as “professionals” or “workers-farmers”  – although anyone can vote for either — a bizarre practice dating to the Nasser regime.

Confused? If you’re Egyptian, you’re meant to be. 8,627 individual candidates are running for 266 seats in both houses of Parliament.  590 separate parties compete for 332 seats in the lower house. I recall monitoring elections in Romania in 1992, with a welter of parties blotching the ballot, each represented by its own symbol — one rose, two roses, a tractor wheel, a plow … An illiterate woman approached me at the polling place weeping: “I see the pictures,” she said, “but what am I supposed to do?”

I'm the cool candidate: from @azelhakim on Twitter

For some candidates, commodities suggest success. This one’s’s horcrux is an air conditioner; and Ben Wedeman (@bencnn) reports one whose symbol is a blender.

The big debate today is whether one should participate at all. Sceptics include the distinguished human rights activist, my friend Aida Seif el-Dawla; you can hear her here (in Arabic) arguing that elections overseen by murderous generals lack all legitimacy, and that a powerless Parliament unable to act against the junta only complicates Egypt’s politics, when clarity and real democracy are needed. @Nellyali reminds everyone how the army treats dissent: “12,000 Egyptians will not be voting tomorrow. They’re on military trials.”

It’s hard not to disagree with political scientist Andrew Reynold’s analysis in the New York Times last week: In the individual-constituency voting,

name recognition gives established power brokers — local strongmen who held sway before the revolution — the upper hand. Even if most of the elected candidates are not high-ranking apparatchiks of the old regime — or “remnants,” as Egyptians call them — many are likely to have been cogs in the corrupt machine that ruled Egypt for decades.

And the list-voting system favors parties with tested organizations — mainly the Freedom and Justice Party, the Muslim Brotherhood’s political wing — and may “marginalize new progressive, secular and liberal groups that lack grass-roots networks across the country.”

There are plenty of reports of corruption. Photos circulate on Twitter of what purport to be boxes of unmarked, or pre-marked, ballots left suspiciously on streetcorners and other places.  The voter lists are chaotic, and many people don’t know where their ballot station is.   One Egyptian (@TheMiinz) tweeted, “A friend entered his deceased grandpa’s ID number and his name is among the vote[r]s.”

By contrast, @Dima_Khatib writes, “Use every thing at hand to fight dictatorship, including ballot boxes when they are there!” Blogger and activist Amr el Beleidy makes the case for voting:

What we have seen during the last 10 months is that things change every day. Each actor wants their own self interest, and they’re playing the game to get as much of it as possible. SCAF [the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces] wants to retain as much power to protect its members and keep as much of the status quo as possible, the MB [Muslim Brotherhood] want as much political control as possible, the liberals want… and so on. .. There is nothing that’s set in stone. And once parliament is formed there is no saying what its powers will be and what it will do, although this will be largely affected by its make-up.

Tomorrow you have a chance to change the future by helping decide what the make up of this new player will be. And this will change the whole game afterwards. What I can tell you is that the more people you are in favour of get into parliament, the more likely things will go your way. So go out there and vote for the people you want.

After parliament is set, the game continues, and we’ll have to use all other tools of political leverage, like protest, sit-ins, the media, etc.. to move the country towards the path we see best fit. The elections are but a small part of the chess board, and we shouldn’t leave it for others to use it against us.

I spent this evening with a couple of friends arguing out the options, and I still have no opinion. What do you do when an authoritarian regime offers a dribble of democracy? Reject it as the polluted fake it is, or take it and try to turn the taps for more?  If the elections proceed without truly massive evidence of fraud, and particularly if the Muslim Brotherhood (now the junta’s best friends) win, the generals will claim vindication. It will be that much more difficult for democratic activists to contest the voting’s legitimacy, but it may be that much more necessary as the army cements control. Egypt is going blind into these elections, with most voters sure neither of what their choices mean, of what the regime is actually offering, or of what kind of future is possible or likely.

The one certain thing is that, however the results tally, the generals will meet dissent with brutality. Already on Sunday, Field Marshal Tantawi, the military ruler, proclaimed: ”We will not allow troublemakers to meddle in these elections.”

Ahmed Harara before losing his left eye

Where Wael Ghonim, the clean-cut, earnest, middle-class Google professional, became the symbol of the January revolution, the activist icon of these clouded days is Ahmad Harara. Harara lost his right eye to security forces’ fire ten months ago. On November 19, he returned to Tahrir to protest: police shot out his other one. “I would rather be blind, but live with dignity and with my head held up high,” he was quoted as saying. Graffiti of him multiplies round Cairo. A new analysis by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights suggests that this time round, “security forces deliberately fired birdshot pellets and rubber bullets in the direction of demonstrators’ bodies. This use of force was intended to injure demonstrators rather than to disperse them.” The military ordered its enforcers to aim for the eyes:

Kasr el-Aini hospital alone received 60 cases of eye injuries between the 19th November and the morning of the 27th November … eye injuries varied between burst corneas, burst eye sockets and foreign bodies in different parts of the eye.

The generals want a docile or, failing that, disabled public. Protesters in Tahrir, who already knew this, yesterday hoisted a banner over Mohamed Mahmoud Street, scene of the worst violence, renaming it: “The Street of Freedom Eyes.”

"Street of Freedom Eyes": from @mmbilal on Twitter

Livestream of clashes: Video from Mohamed Mahmoud St. in Cairo

© Hossam el-Hamalawy

This livestream just started. Mohamed Mahmoud, just east of Midan Tahrir, is the street that has seen some of the most intense clashes between demonstrators and police today, and some of the worst violence. also has a post with video from the street — “the front line.”  @NoraYounis just tweeted, “Mohamed Mahmoud must be renamed to #martyrstreet,” adding: “And rebels should install metal barriers like they used to during #Jan25.”

Other news from Twitter: my friend @LiamStack says, “morgue officials &doctors at biggest hospital said monday #egypt used live ammo on protesters. at least 23 dead btwn sunday&monday, more now.”

There have been violent battles in Alexandria and requests for medical supplies to be sent there. Even after Tantawi’s speech, the troops are still attacking protesters. AJE has riveting video of the clashes in Alex:

@Salma_Tweets says, chillingly: “Sherif Samy AbdelHamid (38 yrs) just died in #Alex in front of #MOI {Ministry of Interior} after being shot directly in the head #RIP #Egypt.”

According to @ASE, who works for Al Jazeera, Mohamed El Baradei has claimed that troops may have used nerve gas  in Tahrir. Whether or not El Baradei said this, I’d be fairly sure this is a false rumor born out of the panic of the moment.  There are a lot of nervous questions circulating on Twitter about exactly what kind of tear gas is being used, and what kind of treatment is necessary, and everyone seems on edge. It does seem clear, though, that some of the tear gas fired on the protesters comes from the US — probably directly from the US military.

It’s pretty clear also what led to Tantawi’s proposals of a referendum and a “National Salvation” government in his mummy-speech this afternoon. Just before that, the generals met for five hours or so with various political parties and figures associated with the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood and satellites, opportunistic as ever, struck a deal.   The outlines are probably this: in exchanging for supporting Tantawi’s compromise, the Brotherhood would get the lion’s share of seats in the “Salvation” government, regardless of how they fare in the parliamentary elections (due to start on Monday).  The Brotherhood will also support the military in the proposed referendum on whether they should go back to their barracks. If the military win, they can continue to rule de facto past the date they’ve now offered for a Presidential election in mid-2012.

If that’ s all true, the demonstrators are right to reject the referendum, and there seems to be growing rage at the Brotherhood in Midan Tahrir. Whether the rest of the population is angry enough at SCAF to see through a proffered withdrawal that actually means their continued power, nobody knows.

The junta re-invades Tahrir

Protesters taking down a Central Security Forces vehicle in Tahrir (from @JonathanRashad)

Days before parliamentary elections, a pitched battle is going on in and around Midan Tahrir in Cairo right now, with police using tear gas and violence to drive out protesters trying to stage a sit-in against the miitary junta. From the AP report:

Earlier in the day, riot police beat protesters and dismantled a small tent city set up to commemorate revolutionary martyrs.

The clashes occurred after activists camped in the central square overnight following a massive Friday rally. The military tolerates daytime demonstrations in the central square, a symbol of the country’s Jan. 25-Feb. 11 uprising, but claims that long-term occupation paralyzes the city.

Friday’s rally was dominated by Islamists, but the sit-in appeared to be staged mostly by members of left- and liberal-leaning revolutionary youth groups.

The number of protesters swelled to nearly 600 people as news of the scuffles spread in the city, and thousands more riot police streamed into Tahrir Square blocking off the entrances and clashing with protesters.

Police were seen beating activists who challenged them and an Associated Press cameraman saw police arrest three people who refused to leave.

As they say in Egypt: Fuck SCAF.

Hired guns, generals, and billionaires: policing in New York and Cairo


Scrooge McDuck's Money Bin

Juan Cole compares how Egypt’s ruling military, and America’s ruling oligarchy, respond to demonstrations demanding change.

In two protests thousands of miles away from one another on Saturday, a similar spirit of demand for government responsiveness to the people was made. In both cases there was a police crackdown and some clashes broke out. But in one case, the government showed flexibility and attempted to take steps to calm the anger of the people. In the other, the government was silent and no changes were envisioned.

While the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) cleared Midan Tahrir of protesters Saturday, they also offered some tentative concessions on the upcoming elections and the transfer of power. Meanwhile,  New York’s Mayor Bloomberg, safe in City Hall, instructed his police to lure hundreds of demonstrators into a trap and arrest them. 

 Cole says:

American government is often a kind of elective dictatorship, where politicians and bureaucrats feel that once they cast their ballots, the people should sit down and shut up and let those elected run everything and make all the decisions (even if those decisions clearly run counter to what the electorate was signalling it wanted). … When will American government show the flexibility and willingness to compromise on issues with an engaged democratic public that the generals in Cairo are showing?

Cole goes way too easy on the bemedalled mafiosi who now rule Cairo. #FuckSCAF is a popular hashtag on Egyptians’ twitter. And rightly. Until SCAF takes the crucial step of scrapping the emergency law — the century-old provisions that enable a regime of arbitrary arrest and torture — the generals will continue to fuck the country over in royal fashion.  No cosmetic changes can substitute for the army’s pulling out on this one.

Meanwhile, neither Bloomberg nor Obama has exclusive power to remedy the Wall Street Occupation’s grievances, which strike close to the heart of the economic and political system. But surely Bloomberg sees his job as something larger than safeguarding his fellow billionaires. Right?  Surely Hizzoner could, at a minimum, refrain from siccing his cops on peaceful demonstrators just because they point threatening middle fingers at his tax bracket.

Or could he? The New York Police Department is almost — not quite — as notorious for torture as its counterparts in Cairo.  There’s nothing aberrant about this. As Mike Davis started arguing a decade ago: in the next century, cities will stop being centers of production, and turn into guarded, gated havens where the monied enjoy culture, surrounded by teeming slums of migrants without jobs or future. Policing, in this divided world, will become a matter of protecting the transnational rich  — those plugged into global capital flows — against the encircling urban chaos of the dispossessed and hopeless poor. Brutality will be increasingly essential to keep the enclaves of money safe from those outside.

It’s Bed-Stuy against the Trump Tower, Embaba against Zamalek, and the forces of public order will morph more and more openly into a hired security squad defending the latter. That’s a dystopic vision. But Bloomberg may have just offered us a preview glimpse.