One of Mona Iraqi’s victims tries to burn himself to death

Shameless I: Lt. Col. Ahmed Hashad of Cairo's morals police -- responsible for numerous arrests in the crackdown -- appears on Mona Iraqi's program, February 4

Shameless I: Lt. Col. Ahmed Hashad of Cairo’s morals police — responsible for numerous arrests in Egypt’s brutal crackdown — appears on Mona Iraqi’s program, February 4

One of the 26 men arrested, tortured, and ultimately acquitted in the December 7 raid on a Cairo bathhouse has reportedly tried to burn himself to death. El-Watan newspaper claims to have spoken to him yesterday in hospital. “I work in a restaurant in the Shobra district,” he told them. “I’m harassed constantly in my workplace by the words of the people and the looks in their eyes.” He said that since his acquittal his fearful family controlled his movements and tried to keep from leaving the house, that one of his brothers insisted on accompanying him everywhere he went, and that he had “no freedom.” Eight days ago, he set himself on fire.

“I am very tired,” he said. He has been confined in one of Cairo’s largest public hospitals since his suicide attempt, and he complained of neglect and mistreatment. Tarek el-Awady, one of the defense lawyers who is now pressing a lawsuit against journalist Mona Iraqi, said the man’s sufferings were due to “the narrowness of the society’s point of view.”

Shameless II: Mona Iraqi’s self-justificatory fourth broadcast about her bathhouse raid, February 4

Mona Iraqi, who led and filmed the bathhouse raid and spent weeks vilifying the “den of perversion” on her popular TV program El Mostakhbai (“The Hidden”) will not be repentant. After the acquittal, there were reports she’d be fired. Instead, on February 4, she returned to the attack on air, blasting her critics, insinuating they were foreign agents. She reiterated nonsensically that her raid was all about “sex trafficking,” or preventing AIDS; at the same time, with serene inconsistency, she pointed to “evidence” — from Google searches — that the bathhouse was a gay hangout, undercutting her repeated claim that homosexuality had not been at issue. Lt. Col. Ahmed Hashad, the vice squad officer who planned the raid with her, also appeared on-air, talking about his “secret, extended investigation” of the bathhouse. The acquittal should have humiliated Hashad — the court clearly accepted the defense contention that he fabricated evidence. But he’s not disgraced, he’s an official talking head on morals. Egypt’s police stand by their woman and their man.

The episode aired only two or three days before Iraqi’s and Hashad’s victim tried to kill himself.

In Egypt today as in the region, self-immolation summons ghosts. Even with the country now clouded in official amnesia (last month the government cancelled any commemoration of the fourth anniversary of Egypt’s democratic revolution) no one can expunge the memory of how the Arab Spring began. On December 17, 2010, a Tunisian street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi set fire to himself, in a desperate protest against bureaucrats who had confiscated his wares and his livelihood. He died three weeks later. By then his solitary act had ignited the Tunisian revolution. Four days after his death, the dictator Ben Ali fled.

In Egypt, in January 2011, in the eleven days between the downfall of Tunisia’s regime and the outbreak of mass protests against Mubarak, at least five men set their bodies on fire in despairing homage to Bouazizi: two did so near the Parliament building. All these were acts of faith. The beacons of agony illumined the anguish of a people. They were also last-ditch expressions of a physical, personal and individual resistance, the lone body defying the state and its repressive engines. The fragile flesh recovered power in annihilation, in its refusal to obey; death was its freedom, and made it incandescent. Skin and bone were the last refuges of integrity against the system. Their consummation was its negation.

"Hommage a Mohamed Bouazizi," installation, 2012. Photo: www.efferlecebe.fr

Effer Lecébé, Hommage à Mohamed Bouazizi, installation, Centre d’art contemporain, Paris, 2011. Photo: http://www.efferlecebe.fr

The old regime in Egypt is back, and it has put a sanbenito of surveillance over everybody’s body. The small act of this man whose full name I don’t even know was not just despair. It affirms the survival and the continuity of resistance. He wasn’t weak, he was courageous, and I’m too weak to comprehend it. This morning I read some lines by the Palestinian national poet Mahmoud Darwish. They’re all I can say: trying, and failing, to translate a material bravery that abjures expression into the spectral inadequacy of words.

One day, I will be what I want to be.
One day, I will be a bird, and will snatch my being out of my nothingness.

The more my wings burn, the more I near my truth and arise from the ashes.
I am the dreamer’s speech, having forsaken body and soul
to continue my first journey to what set me on fire and vanished:
The meaning.

— Mahmoud Darwish, “Mural,” trans. Munir Akash and Carolyn Forché’

Photograph of the bathhouse raid, December 7, 2014, posted by Mona Iraqi on her Facebook page that night. She stands at the right, filming.

Photograph of the bathhouse raid, December 7, 2014, posted by Mona Iraqi on her Facebook page that night. She stands at the right, filming.

 

Death, with toupee

“About Hitler,” the great Viennese writer Karl Kraus wrote as his life neared its end in  the 1930s, “I have nothing to say.”  It’s hard to feel there’s much to say about Mu’ammar al-Qaddafi’s death either, though that will not stop anybody.  A regime that lived by violence and died by violence immured itself in an element that, as Hannah Arendt repeatedly maintained, is absolutely inimical to words.   Few outside Libya would disagree that it would be preferable if legality had prevailed, if he had been taken alive, if his crimes could be analyzed and proven in the verbal extravaganza of a trial.   Still, when he was seized by angry and loosely-organized men with guns, hundreds of whose comrades he had killed in a nine-month war, it is hard to imagine how any adjective could apply to the remainder of his life but “short.”  The transitional council, if it wanted him tried (as is not clear), could perhaps have sent more orders — more words — to its military to keep him living.  It’s clear from the shouting men in the existing videos of his capture that they knew there were such commands. But it was as almost-inevitable as in Chekhovian dramaturgy that someone in the scene who had a gun would use it. 

I am still not quite sure what I think about the Western intervention. I want to know — a figure still undetermined — how many Libyans died in what was supposed to be a surgical incursion, and turned into a prolonged civil war. Still, while it is easy to identify virtually any industrialized-world action in the Middle East as motivated by oil, in fact this one seems more disinterested.  Ever since the West decided Qaddafi was a decent fellow to deal with, oil had flowed from Libya quite placidly; the cheapest and surest way to ensure its unabated egress would have been to ignore the rebellion tacitly, and let Qaddafi win. And — despite the hilarity of Qaddafi’s claims that bin Laden was feeding hallucinogens to the rebels — it was true that al-Qaeda affiliates had for more than a decade been among the opposition to Qaddafi, making unseating him something of a risk from the perspective of US obsessions. Foreign policy, particularly US foreign policy, is never altruistic. But this looks like a decision in which some kind of moral calculus competed with political calculation.

Back when: the dictator, billboard-sized

Meanwhile, everyone is struck in an Aristotelian way by the depth and disorder of his fall: the figure who loomed as a giant in his own propaganda for forty years shunken to a dusty figure, clown-puffs of dishevelled Bozo-hair ballooning from his temples, dragged from a drain. The sense of tragedy is tempered by how silly he looks waddling into the face of death, the absolute deprivation of dignity as the last humiliation. They almost always seem this way at the end; people whose lives are made up of power find they have nothing left when stripped of it. (Among the fallen autocrats, or servants of autocracy, in this century, the only ones I can recall who regained some independent if ersatz dignity in the end were Göring and Milosevic. The former was detoxed by his generous captors after they jailed him, allowing him to stand up at Nuremberg as something more articulate than a morphine-addled wreck. The bureaucratic pettiness and endlessness of the latter’s trial in the Hague made anyone who spoke with passion come off better for the cameras — and Milosevic did, although his essays in mass murder had been paradoxically passionless, a bloody form of paperwork.)

Khaled Said before and after: iconic images from the Egyptian revolution

I gave a paper last week on, among other things, body politics in the Arab Spring.  Mohamed Bouazizi, who set fire to himself to protest Tunisia’s dictatorship, and Khaled Said, tortured brutally to death by Mubarak’s police in 2010, became vital figures animating the respective oppositions. Their bodies, burned and mutilated, themselves turned into symbols of resistance to the state’s power.

Down he comes: the poseur deposed

And the palpability of their deaths stood in contrast to the vast, metastasized images of themselves that the dictators pasted everywhere. On every corner were gargantuan posters of Mubarak, Ben Ali, Qaddafi looking Botoxed to an unbelievably embryonic youth, stylized idols more airbrushed than a L’Oreal ad. Those were phantasmagoric bodies, suddenly confronted by the tangible bodies of tangible people that rose to depose them. Ghost faces against real faces; the unreal and duplicitous against the living and the dead; a ghost corporeality against human demands and needs. Fake existence faded before the weight and strength of actual lives, whose final mark of actuality was their vulnerability to death. Of all the surrounding newsbits that came with Qaddafi’s killing, my favorite was the announcement that when the transitional council tried to determine for certain this was his corpse, by DNA-testing hair samples, it didn’t work. Even in the last extremity, huddling in degradation in a drain, Qaddafi couldn’t be wholly real. He wore a wig.