Ahmed Seif al-Islam: In dark times

Ahmed Seif el-Islam, photographed by Platon for Human RIghts Watch, 2011

Ahmed Seif el-Islam, photographed by Platon for Human Rights Watch, 2011

Ahmed Seif al-Islam died one year ago today. I had meant to write something then, but I didn’t have the heart. No one had much heart in those weeks. I went to his wake at the Omar Makram Mosque three days later. Evening, like fusty crape, had settled on Midan Tahrir, five minutes’ walk away. It felt evident that this was also a funeral for the revolution, which had started there and dragged itself this short distance in four years, to die: a valediction not just to a person but to a history of dreams. Thousands of people filed through the small mosque; all of Egypt’s Left was there, but also students and graffiti artists and football fans and people who had only heard, but knew the significance of, his name. His daughter Mona received them, exhausted, by the door. His son Alaa had been released from prison to participate; he was beside her, wearing his prison whites, a garment which in Egypt always makes me think of pilgrimage. Inside, people looked down and said little, to the ebb and swell of the recited Qur’an. Hamdeen Sabbahi — the twice-failed presidential candidate whom Sisi had crushed in a rigged vote two months before — stood against the wall, with a tiny remaining entourage. His chin jutted; he was posing for invisible cameras; he reminded me how, even under dictatorships, politicians acquire the kinds of ego cultivated in our celebrity-sated media democracies, a self-regard that failure cannot shatter. (I’d learned this before in Egypt: in 2003 I met with Ayman Nour, a daring opposition MP who had the privilege two years of later of being similarly crushed by Mubarak in another gimcrack ballot. We were supposed to talk about some arrested demonstrators — he was their lawyer; instead he spent two hours talking about himself.) But no one paid attention to Sabbahi; the flashbulbs had flown like swallows. He’s a tall mountain of a man, but he seemed like hollow papier-mâché compared to Seif’s missing figure, friable and insignificant against the absent corpse.

11070278_981885211844003_7553989013040307034_nYou would have thought then, with the new dictator rigidly ensconced, that things couldn’t get any worse. But they did, as the autumn darkened. By October several of the most famous human rights activists in Egypt had to leave the country. Others were being jailed on pretexts, or banned from travel. I remember the months from then through January as a kind of delirium, when everybody I know — rights workers, journalists, café owners, gay men — believed we were all going to be arrested at any time. Things alleviated a little in the spring: perhaps because the state felt it had intimidated everyone enough, perhaps because the fear had simply become second nature; in any case, those are more or less the same thing.  In fact, the methods of repression only shifted. People were vanishing. Security forces disappeared more than 150 between April and June, pulling them off the streets or from their homes and dropping them (without trial, without hearing, without lawyers, without law) into the country’s immense Gulag. Sometimes they reappear, months later, in a security court; sometimes what surfaces are the corpses. There are death squads now. Torture used to happen behind bolted shutters in police stations; these days security forces will torture and kill you in your own house. Death does home delivery. The government wages a widening war against burgeoning insurgencies, and the insurgencies bomb and kidnap with spectacular impunity in the heart of Cairo. I remember lines by Edwin Muir:

                                                       We have seen
Good men made evil wrangling with the evil,
Straight minds grown crooked fighting crooked minds.
Our peace betrayed us; we betrayed our peace.
Look at it well. This was the good town once.

That is Egypt in the summer of 2015.

All this makes thinking about Seif the more painful, if the more necessary, a year on. I need to remember him, to make sense of everything since. The obituaries and memorials back then recited the key facts. As a young Communist activist, he faced the first of many arrests in 1972 (at the age of 21). In 1983, the Mubarak dictatorship jailed him for five years. They tortured him: “I was turned into a wreck of a human being,” he told Human Rights Watch. “A small example: each time I had a meal of torture, there was the sound of a bell. Since then, whenever I hear the sound of a bell my body shakes.” Finally freed, he made the hard choice to change the methods of his dissent. He became a lawyer, defending everyone from labor activists to accused apostates. In 1999, he helped found the Hisham Mubarak Law Center, the main human-rights legal defense group in Egypt. He practiced an activism that transcended the usual insularity of the left. He worked with religious fundamentalists, with accused “terrorists,” with religious minorities, with liberals of all stripes, with LGBT people, with feminists. He constantly looked for common ground between disparate but cognate ways of resisting state control, digging for a deep politics where joint action could begin: in similar visions of social transformation, in congruent loathing of arbitrary power, in shared experiences of torture.

Alaa Abd el Fattah, Sanaa Seif, and Leila Soueif (L -R_ at Ahmed Seif al-Islam's wake at Omar Makram Mosque, August 30, 2014. Photo by Hazem Abdul Hamid for Al Masry Al Youm

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

And then there is his family: his wife Laila Soueif, a mathematician and relentless political activist; his daughter Mona Seif, who has spent almost five years fighting military persecution of civilians; his son Alaa Abd el Fattah and his daughter Sanaa Seif, both now serving prison terms for protesting “illegally” — jailed, they could not join him at his deathbed. And his sister-in-law Ahdaf Soueif, a novelist and activist (who chronicled some of the family history in her early fiction, In the Eye of the Sun); and her son Omar Robert Hamilton, who writes about the revolution, in Cairo and London. There’s something almost theatrical about a family life lived so intensely in public action; acting and activism are akin, after all, except the second comes without a script. At times they remind me, not exactly of the Barrymores, but of Ferber and Kaufman’s play about the Barrymores, The Royal Family — if it were somehow transported to the world of 1984. One striking thing (and one level, I suppose, of defying the surveillance state) is that, while they live in public, their private lives and loyalties are intensely rich and full. If you raise your kids to be rebels, almost always they eventually rebel against you. I’m sure Seif’s children had their moments of rebellion, but the other striking thing is that their father’s legacy is in their bones and they are unceasingly faithful to it. This is what happens when the political is also personal: a turn on a feminist adage that bears remembering.

I didn’t know him as well as many others. The best tribute I can pay now is to remember some things I learned from him.

The first dates to the first time I met him, in November 2001. Most Western obituaries of Seif stressed how, staring down political and social risk, he provided lawyers for men arrested for homosexuality in the famous Queen Boat case and the years after. Seif himself never made much of this: certainly not because he was embarrassed, nor because he thought it unimportant (he knew how important it was to the victims) but because it did not strike him as extraordinary. At the time, I was program director of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC). I came to Egypt that month for the verdict in the Queen Boat trial; Hossam Bahgat (then a 22-year-old university student) and I went to meet Seif in his office. I’d e-mailed and phoned him often from the US, but I wanted to thank him personally. (This was, it strikes me, one of the first times that Hossam had sat down face-to-face with Seif as well; they later became firm allies.)

I launched a little speech of gratitude for a difficult and dangerous decision. Seif listened, sucking his teeth ruminatively. This he often did. The mannerism seemed to have a deeper meaning, a way of coming to terms with an unpleasantness buried in life’s innards: as though the world had just given him something bitter to eat, a cosmic rotten quince or a transcendental grapefruit soaked in alum, and rather than spit it out, he was trying to decide what this implied about the universe. After I’d rambled on a while, he cut me off. “Does your organization have a position on Palestine?”

I was startled. I stammered, we didn’t exactly, we were an LGBT group, but we understood the (fill in some words).

“No, no,” he said. “Really, I just want to know simply. Does your organization take a position on the freedom of Palestine?”

Well, not quite, it was not entirely within our mandate, but

Seif’s lips set. “I want you to know that we have taken a position on this case because we believe in universal human rights, however much others may despise us for it. I don’t expect anything less from other groups. Therefore please tell me. Does your organization have a position on Palestine?”

Seif, in his office at the HIsham Mubarak Law Centre

Seif, in his office at the Hisham Mubarak Law Centre

The next time I saw Seif, I was working for Human RIghts Watch — which did have a position on Palestine and Israel, though not one he respected. But he wasn’t looking for a final answer. He wanted me to understand that I was a political actor whether I wanted to be or not, and he was going to treat me as one.  He wanted me to understand that “universality” is a choice and practice, not a generalization. Principles weren’t the opposite of the quid-pro-quo he posited; it was principle that demanded we both widen our horizons. For Seif human rights weren’t Platonic ideas glassed in some abstract realm; they took meaning in the concrete world through politics. They are absolute values we work out in real life. Their reach becomes universal through the labor of arguing out alliances to make them so. Seif’s turn to the law hadn’t changed his basic beliefs at all. He worked for human rights, but he was a revolutionary, and he thought only radical change could make them real. And only through the give-and-take of politics would change begin.

This political precision also affected his attitude toward lawyering. Seif was one of the finest constitutional lawyers in Egypt. This meant he was expert at finding cracks in a document crafted for repression. He had little of the craven fetishism with which American lawyers approach their own constitution, hammered out in slavery times. He knew legal argument was a means to an end, and the end was change, not the reification of a text. “Do you believe in this constitution?” I asked him when we were talking about Egypt’s emergency laws. He smiled. “I believe in the tools we have.”

Seif

Seif at a seminar on “contempt of religion” laws, 2012

A second memory. I saw Seif in Cairo in the summer of 2011, when the military government — the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces — was deepening its grip on the country. I sat in on a meeting Amnesty International organized for human rights activists. There were some 25 people at the table, and we went through a round of introductions and saying what our “core concerns” were. Seif looked half-asleep. When his turn came, he mumbled something almost inaudible. Then suddenly, as if someone had stuck an electric wire in his spine, he jolted to life. “I will NOT,” he shouted thunderously —  slap of palm on table — “accept that the American government, or Amnesty, or anyone will tell me that I need to tolerate military dictatorship in order to avoid a takeover by Islamist people. I will not accept such false choices. Anyone who wants to dictate that should leave this country alone.” I don’t remember the rest of what he said, but I don’t remember a word of what anyone else said either.

And that was a second lesson about politics. You may compromise on strategies or goals. You don’t have to compromise on saying what you believe. Seif would sit with almost anybody on a panel if it advanced a just, joint cause — Salafi preachers or American human rights organizations; but not if he had to mince his words, or lose his capacity to be critical.  He would sign an open letter sponsored by Human Rights Watch one day, and start an open letter blasting Human Rights Watch (usually about Palestine) the next. Coalitions don’t mean abandoning all confrontation.

A third lesson. While I lived in Cairo for a few months in 2003, demonstrations against the US invasion of Iraq wracked the city. The Mubarak government arrested over a thousand students and activists when the war broke out, torturing most of them. My work for Human Rights Watch was to document this; and so for hours every day I camped at Seif’s chaotic desk in the Hisham Mubarak Law Centre, where, as I’ve written before, “He spent more than a week without leaving his office for home, barely sleeping, barefoot and unshaven: collecting information, coordinating responses, making sure that lawyers stayed at every jail and every hearing, that every act of brutality was recorded. All the while, he kept a small bag packed behind the desk in anticipation of his own arrest.”

Seif and daughter Mona outside a military court in Cairo, October 30, 2011; Seif was defense attorney in one of his son Alaa's trials. Photo by Sherif Kouddous

Seif and daughter Mona outside a military court in Cairo, October 30, 2011; Seif was defending his son Alaa in one of his trials. Photo by Sherif Kouddous

Everybody who had been demonstrating, and their families, knew Seif. This was true of Salafis, of the Muslim Brotherhood, of Nasserists, of every political complexion. The Hisham Mubarak Centre was on the sixth floor of a leprous Belle Époque building in Souq el-Tawfiqiyya downtown; the offices branched off from a common room with blue chipped-plaster walls, once a pasha’s airy and erudite salon, and that vaulted space was always available for any group to meet, anybody to hold a press conference or a debate, any agitators to plan their agitation. Seif had turned his headquarters into the crossroads of dissent in Cairo. I remember, during those desperate days, interviewing a hijabi woman of about twenty, a college student who’d been active in the demonstrations. One night at her parents’ home, she’d received a phone call from Amn el-Dawla, from State Security cloaked in all its terror, demanding she come in the next day for interrogation. I asked her what she did. She said, “I called Seif, of course.”

But my point, the lesson, is: never did Seif make himself central. He had no interest in advertising himself or “leading.” His work was about others, not himself. (One detail is telling. Seif taught his lawyers what he called the “bag rule,” which sounds like a Mafia custom but was quite simple. He ordered them never to neglect to look at the bags of documents that poor and working-class Egyptians carry around with them when they have a dispute with the government: scraps of forms and records that often they can’t even read. I’ve seen these bags so often. They don’t just matter because they might contain overlooked evidence of malfeasance. They matter because they matter to the people. To immerse yourself in their experience of their wrongs is to show them the respect they demand.)

The idea of having his role publicized would have appalled Seif. True, he lived a public life; he was always on a stage, in some sense, but he was never any kind of star. The picture at top is almost the only posed photograph of him I’ve ever seen. It’s from a photo shoot that Human Rights Watch hired Platon to do in Cairo in 2011, a rather silly series of images of key figures from Egypt’s revolution. You can see the handlers couldn’t talk Seif into changing the moth-eaten sweater he usually wore, which is why the picture is in such close-up. You can also see he looks — well, not uncomfortable, just resigned, as if he’s finally realized this is the firing squad, and you’ve got to face it. When the ordeal was over, he must have felt like Dostoevsky getting his unexpected reprieve from execution: Now, I have time to write. 

Seif -- I believe at one of his summer parties for friends, extended families, and especially kids. Photo by Marwa Seoudi

Seif — I believe at one of his summer parties for friends, extended families, and especially kids. Photo by Marwa Seoudi

The danger in dictatorship is not only its technology of repression. It’s the dictatorial personality it imbues — not just in its servants, but in those who fight it. Human rights activists, because so hard to criticize, are if anything especially vulnerable to this warping of ego and moral sense. Seif had none of it. Our strange postmodern confusion of celebrity and power, so insidiously tempting to so many activists, was alien to him. It is impossible to imagine him talking about himself to strangers; he repelled flashbulbs as if he’d sprayed himself against them. It’s impossible to imagine him on the cover of a magazine, or on a red carpet with Brad and Angelina, or Menna Shalabi or Khaled Abol Naga or anybody. It’s just as impossible to imagine him participating in the games of power, holding a press conference with a UN ambassador or a foreign minister, or basking in the shared, pale light of some ambitious politician. Even the pictures wouldn’t have come out. The power of his presence would have exposed those beings as incorporeal fictions — vampires, creatures who don’t show up on photographic film.

Alaa, Seif’s son, is serving a five-year sentence, for joining a protest in November 2013. Recently his mother interviewed him during a visit to Tora prison; she memorized his answers and passed them to a reporter when she emerged. You can read the exchange in Arabic and English. Because Alaa seems almost forgotten in the West now, I will quote at length. He said:

Prisons in our country are the embodiment of “violation.” For me personally I’ll quote my father when, shortly before he died, he said that my conditions were “a lot better than others’ and, on the whole, bearable in comparison with what the political prisoners from the Islamist movement suffer.”

The authorities are being totally intransigent, though, in forbidding me books. Not just political books — any books from outside prison, including books published by the Egyptian Ministry of Culture. … They’re trying to isolate me, intellectually as well as physically, from the community. …

I was in court recently [for an “insulting the judiciary” case, another charge he still faces] and they brought in Magdi Qurqur [from the Brotherhood-sympathizing National Alliance Supporting Legitimacy] by mistake. He was in really bad shape. He told me that the day the prosecutor general was assassinated, prison officers went into the cells in Tora’s maximum security prison and stripped them of everything — prisoners’ clothes and bathroom stuff, but also medicines, even medicines which are really dangerous to stop suddenly, like for chronic heart problems, for example.

He added:

There’s no hope at all in reforming the Egyptian state or any of its institutions, including the presidency. These institutions and their heads deserve a revolution….[But] there is no longer one revolution that would let us to talk about “its forces.” Now we have multiple revolutions, and we need to think carefully about what this means.

Seif was Alaa’s defense attorney, until he became too sick to go on. At a press conference about his son’s trial eight months before he died, he said: “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.”

Ahmed Seif al-Islam speaking about his son’s trial at a January 2014 press conference

But that, of course, isn’t all. His legacy rests in a myriad small lessons — about politics, consistency, personal integrity, and more. These bear the seeds of multiple revolutions: some infinitesimally small at first, happening only in the circle of a few friends who decide on freedom, but with the capacity to grow. Egypt now is divided starkly into light and darkness. And these are dark times. “If it is the function of the public realm is to throw light on the affairs of men,” Hannah Arendt declared,

by providing a space of appearances in which they can show in deed and word, for better and worse, who they are and what they can do, then darkness has come when this light is extinguished by “credibility gaps” and “invisible govenrment,” by speech that does not disclose what is but sweeps it under the carpet, by exhortations, moral and otherwise, that, under the pretext of upholding old truths, degrade all truth to meaningless triviality.

Against this stands the illumination that “may well come less from theories and concepts than from the uncertain, flickering, and often weak light that some men and women, in their lives and in their works, will kindle under almost all circumstances and shed over the time span that was given them on this earth.”

These days I sit at home; I struggle against the heat; I think of past and future; and I read Brecht. Brecht wrote:

Truly I live in dark times!
Frank speech is naïve. A smooth forehead
Suggests insensitivity. The man who laughs
Has simply not yet heard
The terrible news.

What kind of times are these, when
To talk about trees is almost a crime
Because it implies silence about so many horrors?

An die Nachgeborenen (To Those Born Later), 194o

And he also wrote:

In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing
About the dark times.

Motto to the Svendborger Gedichte (Svendborg Poems), 1940

Hundreds of marchers attend Ahmed Seif el-Islam's burial in Tonsy cemetery in Basateen, Cairo, August 27, 2014. Photo by Amira Salah-Ahmed for Mada Masr

Hundreds of marchers attend Ahmed Seif el-Islam’s burial in Tonsy cemetery in Basateen, Cairo, August 27, 2014. Photo by Amira Salah-Ahmed for Mada Masr

Two trials, two travesties

Convicted men in the wedding video trial cover the faces as police lead them from the courtroom cage, Cairo, November 1, 2014: Photo © Independent (UK)

Convicted men in the wedding video trial cover their faces as police lead them from the courtroom cage, Cairo, November 1, 2014: Photo © Independent (UK)

Eight men were sent to prison today in Cairo, because their faces flickered through a video that prosecutors said showed a “gay wedding.” They got three years; after that, they’ll serve another three years’ “probation,” sleeping every night from dusk to dawn in a police station. Their lives are ruined.

It’s not even clear yet what charges they were convicted of. The heavy book thrown at them seems to have included “incitement to debauchery” (fujur, the term of art for male homosexual conduct in Egyptian law); that’s article 14 of Law 10/1961, in itself worth up to three years in prison. There were also articles 178 or 179 of the criminal code, anti-pornography provisions that punish “manufacturing or possessing materials that violate public morals,” or “inciting passersby to commit indecency on a public road.” The charges were ridiculous. The defendants didn’t spread the video or incite anyone to anything — when the film went viral on YouTube, those who were in it tried desperately to get it taken down. The film clip wasn’t remotely pornographic. YouTube is not a public road. There was no proof the men were gay. A representative of the country’s Forensic Medical Authority — who inflicted abusive and intrusive anal examinations on them all, and found even by those bogus standards they were “unused” — said, “The entire case is made up and lacks basis. The police did not arrest them red-handed and the video does not prove anything.” In Egypt, though, trials no longer proceed through proof, just prejudice and fear. Rampant political opportunism trampling the remains of rule of law: that’s General Sisi’s Egypt.

Full leather drag: Central Security (Amn El-Merkezi) forces on the march in Cairo

Full leather drag: Central Security (Amn El-Merkezi) forces on the march in Cairo

On October 26, in a court in a sun-baked Cairo military compound, 23 defendants also got three years in prison, and three years of further dusk-to-dawn confinement. They included my friend Yara Sallam, a feminist and human rights activist, and six other women, and sixteen men. Among them also were Sanaa Seif, a young democracy activist, the daughter of the late, heroic human rights lawyer Ahmed Seif el-Islam, who died in August while working on her defense; a well-known photographer, Rania El-Sheikh; Mohammed Anwar or “Anno,” a revolutionary veteran who was a gifted member of a modern dance company as well; and more. Their crime was being on the scene of a peaceful June 21 demonstration near the Presidential Palace. The protest was against Egypt’s new, repressive protest law, which the military government imposed by decree last year. The law lets the state imprison anyone who voices opposition in the streets without permission. It’s meant to put any and all dissent in its proper place: a penitentiary.

If I can't dance, I don't want your revolution: Mohammed Anwar

If I can’t dance, I don’t want your revolution: Mohammed Anwar

“This is a politicized sentence. There isn’t any evidence against the defendants,” one of the defense attorneys told the media after the verdict came down. Who the hell cares? The day after the verdict Sisi excreted a new decree. It gives military courts jurisdiction over crimes committed in almost any public spaces. The security establishment saw its powers expand exponentially at a penstroke, like a black mushroom cloud ballooning out to darken the country. More and more civilians will appear before military prosecutors and military judges, to face military sentences, their civil rights shrunken to scraps and rags. Meanwhile, Sanaa Seif’s sister Mona Seif (who has campaigned for years against military trials for civilians) and her mother Laila Soueif are on a hunger strike to protest the increasingly total reach of state repression. Before last week, they refused food; since the verdict, they have refused liquids as well. No one doubts: the government would like to see them die.

Laila Soueif (L) and Mona Seif (R) on hunger strike earlier this month, in a corridor of the Supreme Court building in Cairo

Laila Soueif (L) and Mona Seif (R) on hunger strike earlier this month, in a corridor of the Supreme Court building in Cairo

Three years for peaceful protest; three years for exchanging rings. Every trial in Egypt these days is a travesty. “Travesty” has many meanings, among them a joyous play with gender; in Latin America, in Turkey, travesti refers to trans people, whose communities subvert some of the most rigid social norms. And trans people have been among the victims of Egypt’s regime, rounded up in bars and on streets and in private apartments for defying the military definition of conformist, nationalist, ideal manhood. Self-expression looks like dangerous deception to the Sisi state.

That’s the state’s inward irony, its private joke. By the draconian terms of Egyptian law these travesties of trials themselves should be jailed: for assuming false identities; for conspiring to deceive; for defrauding the public they claim to defend; for cross-dressing as justice.

Yara Sallam (top L), Sanaa Seif (bottom L), and three other defendants in prison garb at a September 13 hearing

Yara Sallam (top L), Sanaa Seif (bottom L), and three other defendants in prison garb at a September 13 hearing

Peter Tatchell begs Hillel Neuer to sue me

Catherine Brennan with iconic refutation of gender theory. Don't worry: There are dicks everywhere.

Catherine Brennan with iconic refutation of gender theory. Don’t worry: There are dicks everywhere.

About six weeks ago, Samantha Allen, a trans* activist and scholar in the US, published an incisive piece at Jacobin — a site I always find thought-provoking.

I’m an endangered species. Nearly half of people like me attempt suicide. Hundreds of us are murdered annually and, worldwide, that rate is only increasing. Those of us who have a job and a place to live often lose them both; too many of us can’t acquire either in the first place. What I am is a transgender woman, one of the lucky ones.

I’m lucky because I’m white, and because I have employment, housing and health insurance. I can’t get too comfortable, though, because every few days, a tragic headline reminds me of how fragile we are as a group: “Anti-Transgender Bathroom Bill Passes,” “Transgender Inmates At Risk,” “Transgender Woman Shot.”

What she runs up against is that it’s perfectly easy to be a victim in the US media, but once you start defending your life instead of letting it be described, all hell breaks loose.

While the article deals with many threats to trans* existence, her focus is not physical violence but political erasure. There’s still a strong phalanx of Western feminists who hate the idea of “gender.” They believe in woman as biological essence: they reject the notion that sexual roles are produced by social forces, and instead trace social repression back to women’s genital-given ability to make babies (which patriarchy needs to harness to keep going). This is at least a defensible idea, but one of its adherents’ traits is a deep loathing of transgender people, who embody, if that’s the right word, all the gendery blurriness they abjure and abhor. To them, trans* women are deluded men who want to weasel into women’s spaces, at best as spies, at worst as rapists.

Ideas exist not in an ideal but in the real world, and one way to judge them is not by their consistency with other ideas but by whether they have victims. By that standard, an idea that breeds hatred — in this case, against an already vulnerable group of people — has its problems.

Allen points to Catherine Brennan, a Maryland attorney, as an example among many. Brennan is fairly notorious. In 2011, she famously co-wrote a letter to the UN Commission on the Status of Women, opposing legal protections for gender identity, and asking the UN to condemn such anti-discrimination laws in the US. The appeal came at a particularly crucial time in the UN’s negotiations over sexual orientation and gender identity. As Allen says, Brennan “effectively allied herself with those on the Right who viciously deter trans* folks’ attempts to secure employment, housing and safe public spaces.” Brennan also descends to more individual forms of opposition. Recently, for instance, she posted online the court docket information of a trans* woman who was petitioning to change her legal gender, and encouraged others to ask the judge to quash the petition. Last year, she sent a trans* activist a weird but instructive picture:

Cathy Brennan tweet
Allen’s essay was mainly a positive call for the left to take trans* issues seriously. But Brennan, a litigious soul, particularly disliked the paragraph about her. She didn’t try to refute any of the points. She threatened to sue the publisher.

Brennan’s action was in obvious imitation of Peter Tatchell, who has threatened various people in the past — publishers both small and large, and, on at least two separate occasions, employers — with lawsuits in response to criticism of his work and tactics. (Some accounts of Tatchell’s attempts at censorship can be found here, and here, and here, and here.) Until it was partially reformed this year (after a number of researchers and scholars had been hauled into court, accused of defamation for disagreeing with others), England’s libel law was among the worst threats to free speech in any soi-disant democracy. As the UK’s Libel Reform Campaign (a joint project of Index on Censorship, PEN, and Sense about Science) said, the law was “chilling global freedom of expression, by silencing writers, journalists, bloggers and human rights activists in the UK and around the world.” It was Peter’s favorite weapon. Unsurprisingly, libel reform is perhaps the one widely popular campaign in Great Britain, short of the EDL, that Tatchell never endorsed.

Some activists oppose power instinctively. Some activists instinctively love power. There’s a long history, for example, of feminists who honorably oppose patriarchy turning to the patriarchal State, not just for protection but to silence their opponents. Real activism does not succeed through seizing power, though, but by transforming it. Its progress is impossible without critique and disagreement. When you shut down criticism by other activists and movements, and police your way into a specious authority beyond argument, you lose your claims to credibility. You also poison the atmosphere of diversity and debate, the only air that true thought and politics can possibly breathe.

I thought of this recently, after I wrote my own criticism of Hillel Neuer and his baltageya at “UN Watch.” Neuer’s group is not, in any proper sense, a human rights organization. Instead, they spend their time attacking human rights activists, mostly for insufficient adulation of Israel. In this case, Neuer had launched an assault on the reputation of Mona Seif, a heroic campaigner against military rule and military trials in Egypt. I pointed out the indefensibility and falsehood of Neuer’s allegations, and his obvious political motivations.

I got a number of poison-pen letters, but at the bottom of one threat there was … Peter Tatchell. Literally. The following e-mail, from one S. Brodsky, offered the usual rhetoric:

Brodsky email May 20
Fine. (It’s the Southern Poverty Law Center, by the way.) This came at the top of a chain of forwarded emails urging people to “do something” about me, which the sender apparently forgot to delete. But when I scrolled to the bottom, through archaeological layers of abuse, I discovered that the originating email came from Peter Tatchell, imploring Hillel Neuer to sue me.

hillel neuer tatchell 1Hmm.

It may be true that I’m “impervious to criticism,” at least in comparison to Peter, who takes note of every mild demurral for future retaliation. I don’t think it’s possible to do human rights activism unless you have a thicker skin than that. On the “appeals to conscience,” though, I am in doubt. I have checked with my conscience, which is in session 24/7 with special judges on hand for night court, and it has no record of such a case being referred to its jurisdiction by a lower tribunal. I’d encourage Peter to pursue this recourse, and submit his documents as soon as possible. My conscience can’t wait to see what the appeal would look like.

Night court of conscience: Tell it to the judge

Night court of conscience: Tell it to the judge

This all serves as a reminder that the full documentation of Peter’s attempts to go after me deserves to be online, and I really should post it for the connoisseurs.

For the rest: it’s amusing to find Peter as the fairy, or toad, at the bottom of this particular e-mail garden. Yet it’s also sad. Peter’s been harassing me in his obsessed fashion — on occasion directly, more often through various minions — for years. Some weeks ago I found he turns up in my followers’ list on Facebook, as does the beautifully named “Patrick Lyster-Todd, Lieutenant Commander Royal Navy,” who is or was the “Acting General Manager” of the “Peter Tatchell Foundation.” My Facebook page is open to the world, you can check it any time, but Peter and his employees want to make sure they don’t miss anything I might post that could be employed against me. Lyster-Todd, whom I am afraid I can only envision as an evil twin of Captain Crunch, wrote a long email two years ago to Harvard Law School to complain that I worked there:

Lieutenant Commander Patrick Lyster-Todd, Royal Navy

Lieutenant Commander Patrick Lyster-Todd, Royal Navy

Dear Dean,

I am the acting General Manager for the Peter Tatchell Foundation, a small human rights non profit organisation in London, United Kingdom. …

May I ask – openly, honestly and without any hidden agenda – whether Mr Long is entitled to sign himself as a Visiting Fellow of the School and, if so, whether it can therefore be inferred that he [speaks]  with the tacit or other support or authority of the Harvard Law School? I cannot believe that you would wish this. …

Sincerely,

Patrick Lyster-Todd
Lietenant Commander Royal Navy
General Manager
Peter Tatchell Foundation (PTF)
Tel: 020 3397 2190 Email: patrick@petertatchellfoundation.org
Web: www.petertatchellfoundation.org

Harvard told him to climb back in his yellow submarine. Nonetheless, the whole thing suggests a degree of drivenness in Peter’s pursuit of me that pushes at the pale of sense.

When Peter reaches out to UN Watch, though, it’s not funny. For him to embrace that band of Likudnik thugs puts the lie, at a minimum, to his intermittent professions of support for Palestine. As I said above: bad ideas have victims. Tatchell allies himself with a State-sponsored enemy of the United Nations’s rights work, of Israeli civil society, of Palestinian aspirations for freedom, and of genuine human rights heroes like Mona Seif in Egypt; and what can you say? He reveals that his carefully cultivated idea of himself doesn’t care about the consequences. No rights activist should prefer Hillel Neuer to Mona Seif and the Egyptian revolutionaries. But Peter’s amour-propre is prepared to inflict collateral damage on anybody who gets in its way.

Peter obviously would like to scare me himself, and I doubt that his lack of funds is a deterrent; surely the “Peter Tatchell Foundation” could contribute its resources to a rights-advancing lawsuit. The reasons, rather, are twofold: my lack of funds, and the fact that he’d rather move furtively and through figureheads than in the open. But if he’s willing to come out, I can certainly help. I don’t take Peter seriously; most human rights activists don’t. He is primarily concerned with self-promotion. His advertisements for himself exploit the work of serious grassroots activists in the global South while disregarding their agency — and sometimes callously endangering their safety. For the most part, he puts out a stream of press releases with endless quotations from himself. These do little to dislodge injustice, but they do qualify him as what the French call, expressively, a pisseur de copie. Finally, like many so absorbed with themselves, he is deeply insecure; he tends the delicate flower of his minor celebrity with an intemperate rage at those who question or critique him. He’ll take down real activists like Mona Seif and others if they are in the line of fire.

Now, Peter: Please sue. I look forward to hearing from you. Hillel Neuer (and Catherine Brennan) will have to wait in line.

Meanwhile, there are constructive lessons. It remains important to defang these people who are too absorbed by the vicissitudes of reputation to address criticism or participate in discourse. You can learn about the UK Libel Reform Campaign (which still has work to do) here. To support Jacobin Magazine, and the principles of independent journalism, please donate to their legal defense fund here.

A clarification: What international human rights activists really do

Image

International human rights activists as they see themselves

In my first post on Mona Seif, I objected to an e-mail that Ken Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, sent to the New York Times. Specifically, he explained to the newspaper that “HRW staff nominated two human rights defenders” for the Martin Ennals award, “and one made it through as a finalist (not Mona).”

Now, I want to be clear about what my objection was, because it is bruited that various people both outside HRW and in have misunderstood it.  It’s not that HRW didn’t nominate Mona; that’s fine; there are other worthy candidates; it’s nobody’s business but the participating groups. Nor did I mean that HRW staff in general failed to do right by Mona — the HRW office in Egypt quite rightly regards her as one of their most valuable allies; they rely on her in their own work, and they support her and No to Military Trials if and whenever they can. The issue is that pesky little parenthesis. Ken is an admirably smart and thorough person for whom no punctuation lacks a purpose. He went out of his way to reveal that HRW didn’t nominate Mona, in a way that could only damage her case at a moment when she’s under unjustified attack, while preserving (or at least trying to preserve) Human Rights Watch from criticism. In my book, this is called selling your friends down the river.

I have a dim memory of the procedures for the Martin Ennals award — HRW directors were periodically solicited to suggest nominees. And my understanding is that the 10 groups participating are supposed to keep who-nominated-whom confidential, just as the ultimate balloting is secret. That’s certainly how it should be. So that Ken in letting this slip seems to violate the process, in spirit if not in letter.

More importantly, though, international human rights organizations have an obligation to defend their allied organizations and activists on the ground when they face such vicious attack: not just on principle, but because it’s those activists who make their work possible. There’s a macho movie-style illusion that international groups much too willingly promote: the heroic myth that their agents all put on combat boots and stride boldly solo into depopulated war zones, to extract Stories from Victims and be their Voices without help or mediation. This is هراء, which is one way of saying bullshit. I did research for Human RIghts Watch for years in Egypt as well as many other countries — I was HRW’s sole Egypt reseacher during several tense months in 2003 — and I know perfectly well that the organization couldn’t get one tweet’s worth of information about human rights violations anywhere between Alexandria and Aswan (or anywhere between the Arctic and Antarctic) unless activists like Mona, Aida Seif el-Dawla, Hossam Bahgat, and countless less-paid others were on their side, made the contacts, did the outreach and often all the work, and frequently provided the documentation for them. International organizations would wither up and die, or become (as they often threaten to become) completely useless, without this support.

Grassroots and domestic defenders enable Human Rights Watch to perform its vital and reputable services. But one serious problem HRW has — we in the LGBT Rights Program fought against this for years — is a belief at the highest levels that it’s the other way around: that HRW makes the work of other human rights defenders possible.

That’s wrong. Until it gets this straight, HRW will continue to embarrass itself, in ways like the New York Times article.

Image

International human rights activists as they are

Some more terrorists for Hillel Neuer to hand over to the authorities: Myself included

I’ll start with this tweet.

Maikel Nabil #FuckSCAF jpgThis was one of the first things Maikel Nabil Sanad tweeted after release from almost a year in military jails. Maikel Nabil is a heroic campaigner against the Egyptian military. He’s also, unfortunately, one of the (only) two local informants that Hillel Neuer and UN Watch have tried to enlist to lend fake credibility for their smears against human rights activist Mona Seif.

Mona Seif using mobile phone to trigger bomb: © Matthew Cassel, justimage.org

Mona Seif, probably using mobile phone to trigger bomb: © Matthew Cassel, justimage.org

One of Hillel Neuer’s points is that the Twitter hashtag #FuckIsrael, used on occasion by Seif and many other Egyptian twitterati, is an incitement to hate and terror. “Tweets for terror,” they call these. Or as one of Neuer’s media mouthpieces writes, “Seif’s Twitter account reveals a propensity to express the most vulgar kind of hatred towards Israel …. in terms of how she expresses herself: #F[expletive deleted]Israel is a popular choice.” The “anti-Israel, pro-terror woman”‘s messages “advocate terrorism against the Jewish State.”

Applying the F-word to institutions, then, is — like the use of “insh’allah” and other clever code — a mark of terrorist sympathies. So it’s hard to account for Maikel Nabil’s tweet above, which urges fucking the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF): the military junta that guarded order against the forces of Islam, darkness, and democracy during the post-Mubarak interregnum. Is Maikel Nabil a vulgar anti-government terrorist? Moreover, the tweet reads: “Stand in solidarity with Samira Ibrahim, tomorrow 11am. You’re needed so that crimes won’t be repeated.” Samira Ibrahim had the courage to press a case against the military for subjecting her and other women to virginity tests. She’s also, however, distinctly on Hillel Neuer’s bad side.

Maybe Neuer shouldn’t have been so quick to exploit Maikel. I wrote to Hillel Neuer and others tonight, asking just this question:

Neuer 1 copy

So far, no reply.

Unquestionably the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces would think that tweet was terrorism. They jailed Maikel Nabil and almost killed him for “insulting the military,” after all. And this tweet is perfectly consistent with Maikel’s record of standing up to military rule. But — although I admire Maikel Nabil as a hero for his struggle against forced conscription, and loathe the idea of him returning to prison — it does seem as though Hillel should realize the magnitude of his crimes. As Neuer would undoubtedly remind us, SCAF kept the peace treaty with Israel going. Therefore this kind of obscene opposition only flouts peace and encourages terrorist violence. Maikel is outside Egypt now, but probably Hillel Neuer, that supporter of the powers that be, will arrange with European authorities for his extradition.

I do not want to single out Maikel Nabil. Alas, I have to tell Hillel that there was a lot of #FuckSCAF terror-tweeting going around, among Maikel Nabil’s supporters. Mona Seif called for some SCAF-fucking in Maikel’s defense, as you’d expect from a pro-terror woman:

FUCK SCAF MONA SEIF copy

But so did other activists like Mona Eltahawy and Gigi Ibrahim:

FREE MAIKEL FUCK SCAF copy

Was everybody around Maikel promoting vulgar anti-government violence? The question becomes: Why is Hillel Neuer palling around with terrorists?

People in Egypt terror-tweet against the government for all kinds of reasons. Sometimes they’re upset because the government is shooting at them.

FuckSCAF 1 copy

Sometimes they’re irrationally irritated because they’ve seen other protesters murdered.

FuckSCAF2 copy

Sometimes they take their friends’ problems far too personally.

FuckSCAF 3 copyEven Palestinians terror-tweet across the border, in sympathy.

FUCKSCAF 4 copyMany things can lead people into terror-tweeting. The point isn’t to waste time examining causes, though. The point is to respond to terror-tweeting firmly, with unequivocal force. Hillel Neuer can surely persuade SCAF to deal with these people (except for the last one: he may be Israel’s problem).

The crisis we face is bigger, though.

Hillel Neuer’s main work as a human rights activist is trawling through his enemies’ tweets and public and private statements, looking for criticisms of Israel. But in his singleminded search, he’s missing a lot of other terrorist obscenities. How would Hillel Neuer respond to things like this — people so offended by “human rights abuses” that their blind anger draws them into terror-tweeting?

Fucksaudi copy

Of course, Saudi Arabia isn’t Israel. But if Mona Seif exposed herself as a terrorist by objecting to gas sales to Israel, then what can you say about somebody who wants to fuck the oil supplier for the entire world? Gitmo is too good for these people. They deserve some sophisticated form of torture, like interning at the UN Watch offices.

Then there are the anti-Putin tweeters, who are probably Chechen terrorists.

FuckPutin copy

In truth, though, there’s a moral dilemma in all this for Hillel Neuer (or there would be if the word “moral” didn’t get the willies being five words away from his name). The fact is, terror-tweeters don’t just call for fucking good guys. Sometimes they encourage fucking things that Hillel Neuer also dislikes. 

Think of what mixed feelings Hillel must have on reading this:

FuckGAddafi copy 2

On the one hand, Gaddafi was not Hillel Neuer’s kind of guy. On the other hand, undoubtedly this is terror-tweeting, and deserves the maximum penalty. (Not to mention that Gaddafi was actually menaced by fucking with a rebel’s baton in the moments before his death. That preceded this tweet by five months, but the terror-tweeter still bears moral responsibility.)

And there are all the #FuckAssad tweets that follow Syrian atrocities. Sometimes these even boast a #KillAssad hashtag. But I haven’t seen Hillel Neuer raise a single faint twitch or twoot in objection to these calls for violence!  Probably he’s too busy.

Fuck Assad 2 copy

Or could it be — I’m just speculating — that Hillel allows people to get angry about rights abuses when caused by Israel’s enemies, but not when they’re perpetrated by Israel itself? That would be awfully inconsistent for a “human rights activist.” But I wonder.

Then, of course, there’s el-Ikhwan el-Muslimun, the Muslim Brotherhood. Hillel hates them, of course, not least because they contain some real anti-Semites, unlike the anti-Semitism Hillel’s job requires him to invent. How hard it must be, then, for him to wrap his head round the fact that so many Egyptian activists who tweet #FuckIsrael also tweet #FuckMorsi, or #FuckIkhwan! How can Hillel manage to condemn the first as terror-tweeting, but not the second? Really, I’m afraid they all should go to jail, if Hillel wants to be true to his principles (an open question). The miscreants range from really angry people —

Fuck Morsi 1 copy

to those unreasonably offended by the Ikhwan’s mimicry of Mubarak —

Fuck Morsi 2 copy

to those who sound almost idealistic in their embrace of vulgar terrorism.

FuckMorsi Nora Younis copy

Sometimes I don’t know how Hillel does his job, it involves squaring so many contradictions; it’s like Machiavelli mated with non-Euclidean geometry. But I’m sure if you spend enough time in the UN Watch offices at Minitrue, it all makes sense.

And here it’s time for a confession. I realize I’ve outed some of the most prominent figures in Egyptian activism as terrorist supporters. Sorry! But I am guilty also, just like Maikel Nabil and the rest. I have used #FuckSCAF too — not only on Twitter, but in my own blog, here. I am ashamed by my flirtation with fundamentalist terrorism; I feel I should get a cushy job at the Quilliam Foundation and do penance by consorting with idiots like Shiraz Maher; but that isn’t punishment enough. If Hillel Neuer can find somebody who speaks Arabic, I suggest he phone the military prosecutor here in Egypt, and turn me in. I have plenty of free time to go over to their sinister compound, called C28, in Nasr City and (as the prosecutors tend to put it) “sit down for a cup of coffee.”

L: Big Brother. R: Mommie Dearest.

L: Big Brother. R: Mommie Dearest.

In fact: I know the place. I snapped these photos of C28 in December 2011, while I was demonstrating for Maikel Nabil; I took them surreptitiously since I was under the scrutiny of a number of guards. Photographing army installations is illegal. You might give away where power’s nerve centers hide; and if Israel (or Lesotho, or Liechtenstein) ever attacks Egypt, the first place they’d want to bomb is the military prosecutor’s, since without it the whole country would collapse into the state of nature, uncensored, brutish, and short.

The image on the right is a close-up of the figure of Justice on the building, wearing a long robe and carrying two empty scales that look more like coat-hangers. The message is apparently that military justice either is an avenging Joan Crawford (“No wire hangers!“) or will deliver your dry-cleaning for a small fee.  Either role is preferable to what the military prosecutor actually does. And cleaner.

Mohamed el-Gendy, tortured to death by Egyptian security forces, 2013

Mohamed el-Gendy, activist, tortured to death by Egyptian security forces, 2013

Does Hillel Neuer know anything about the filth that the people he defames are giving their lives to clean up — filth he only adds to with his smarmy lies? Does it occur to him that his fake charges of “supporting terror” lend comfort to their enemies: that he echoes the same smears they hear at home (and sometimes face in court) for their rights work? Does he ever try to understand the brutality that Egyptian democracy activists have confronted: under Mubarak, under the military, under Morsi? Does he have an inkling, could he endure even a glimpse, of the criminality and killing they’ve faced on the streets and in torture chambers alike?  Is he capable of comprehending what drives them to anger — and why they instinctively grasp the abuses in Cairo and the abuses in the Occupied Territories as similar, continuous, connected? I didn’t notice him among the handful of demonstrators outside C28; anything Neuer has garnered about that kind of thing, even the misery that Maikel Nabil underwent, he’s picked up from a distance. Indeed, I doubt he’d ever have the nerve to come to Egypt.  If Neuer did show up at C28, he’d probably be among the informers.

One Twitterer wrote a while ago:

Fuck as a word copy 2All the more so if you’re living what folks have lived through in Cairo, or Damascus, or Gaza. Hillel Neuer, though, doesn’t know directly what it’s like either to suffer or witness human rights abuses. He’s above all that.

Hillel Neuer: Liar. Mona Seif: Hero.

Mona Seif, Tahrir Square

Mona Seif, Tahrir Square: © Matthew Cassel,  justimage.org

I know Mona Seif only slightly. She’s one of the few human rights activists in Egypt (or anywhere) whom almost everybody likes. She’s utterly unpretentious. As I wrote a year ago, “Her complete immunity from the vagaries of ego is like a genetic quirk, so uncommon is it in the profession; it’s like meeting someone who never caught the common cold.” This year she’s one of three finalists for the Martin Ennals Award, a signal honor in the human rights field, usually given to those who have much to be pretentious about. She’s also facing a smear campaign by Hillel Neuer of so-called “UN Watch,” a former corporate lawyer and lobbyist for Israel, who has mobilized cohorts of the libellous and ignorant to grind down her reputation.

First, about Mona. Shortly after Mubarak fell, presciently, she started fighting the ruling military junta’s practice of trying detained civilians in military kangaroo courts. She was one of the first democracy activists to perceive the malign persistence of the Mubarak-era security state. Over the next 18 months, as the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces tightened its grip on the country, some 12,000 people faced these tribunals. The group Mona helped found, No to Military Trials for Civilians, was the pre-eminent organization in Egypt opposing these abuses. She’s also helped to document police torture and a range of violations by security forces. Police arrested and tortured Mona herself at a demonstration in December 2011, so she knows what they do first-hand.  No to Military Trials is also one of the few decentralized, grassroots human rights movements, as opposed to NGOs, in Egypt today. It brings human rights back to its roots, in the passions of ordinary people making demands unmediated by boards of directors. It’s changed the landscape of rights advocacy in post-Revolutionary Egypt.

Big bupkes is watching you: Hillel Neuer

Big bupkes is watching you: Hillel Neuer

In the other corner: the appalling Neuer and his organization. “UN Watch” can be said to watch the UN (which certainly bears watching) only if I could be said to read the New York Times by doing the crossword puzzles obsessively and throwing the other 100+ pages away. Founded by the American Jewish Committee, and still largely funded by them, the posh Geneva-based outfit’s mission is to discredit anything the UN does or says that’s critical of Israel. The rest of the UN’s work interests it only insofar as it can be used against some rapporteur or resolution that questions Israel. This ambition has grown with time: now UN Watch prosecutes Thoughtcrime even if lurking in other institutions. Mona is caught in the crossfire. She’s a very big figure in Egypt; but Neuer, whose knowledge of Cairo is limited, could care less, except he can tar Human Rights Watch, or Amnesty International, for having laid laurels upon an evil Arab and thus encouraged perfidy and terror. And there are certain relevant grudges he holds relating to Israel’s economic interests in the adjoining country. More on these later.

10 international human rights organizations jointly award the Ennals prize: Amnesty, HRW, the International Federation for Human Rights, the International Commission of Jurists, and others. Suddenly, Tuesday, Hillel Neuer struck. UN Watch had spent hundreds of man-hours going over Mona’s 93,000 tweets. (That’s Neuer’s version of human rights work, folks!) Neuer found three. I am reluctant to quote the man, but let’s turn to his press release:

On July 6, 2011, Ms. Seif advocated the blowing up of pipelines exporting Egyptian gas to Israel. She praised those who commit such crimes as “heroes” and wrote “Fuck Israel”. Many have been killed and injured in violence connected to these attacks.

On November 6, 2012, Ms. Seif endorsed Al Qassam Brigades attacks on civilians. On that day, Amnesty International—another jury member—tweeted a“Demand that @netanyahu & @AlqassamBrigade stop attacks on civilians.”Ms. Seif rejected the call, writing:“you don’t ask an occupied nation to stop their “Resistance” to end violence!!! SHAME ON YOU!”

On November 20, 2012, Ms. Seif endorsed the arming of Gaza terrorist groups. On that day, Amnesty International tweeted: “Stop the madness! Share this image if you want an arms embargo on all sides #Israel #Hamas #Gaza.” The image showed innocent civilians in Israel and Gaza. Seif responded: “@amnesty & @hrw r leading a shameful campaign asking Palestinians under occupation & non stop air strikes 2 stop their resistance!”

Naturally this went viral among the Jeffrey Goldbergs and likeminded bigots, who saw a chance to attack their least favorite organizations:

goldberg tweet  copy

By this morning, the professional liars at Breitbart.com were declaring Mona an “avowed anti-Semite.” And by afternoon the Washington Free Beacon was dubbing her a “radical Egyptian Islamist” — sickly hilarious, in that Mona is secular, comes from a family of atheistic leftists, and has been one of the Muslim Brotherhood’s most militant opponents. But the pure racism beneath all this is palpable, barely buried. You know the Arabs, terrorists all, and there is only one motive for terrorism: Islam.

Three tweets: and on that basis Neuer has launched a repellent war of defamation against a heroic opponent of dictatorship and torture. Let’s go through Neuer’s “proofs” twit by twit.

Tweet I:  The pipeline. Hillel Neuer likes corruption.

Exhibit A for Neuer is this:

blow up pipelines tweet copy

To start with, Hillel claims that Mona has blood on her hands: “Many have been killed and injured in violence connected to these attacks.”

Neuer is blatantly lying. There’ve been at least 16 assaults on the Sinai pipeline(s) since the Egyptian Revolution, mostly minor. No one was killed, though this January saw seven policemen wounded — more than 18 months after Mona’s tweet. The army and Interior Ministry regularly blame these on “Islamic terrorism,” mainly because that’s a sure way of bolstering their international image as guardians of order against chaos.

"Restoring security and stability to Sinai": Egyptian police doing what they do best ( © Egypt Independent)

“Restoring security and stability to Sinai”: Egyptian police doing what they do best ( © Egypt Independent)

Facts are a good antidote to these stories. What underlies the attacks is complex and manifold. Most of Sinai’s population loathes the central government, which represses them politically and exploits them economically. Sinai’s Bedouin were in virtually open revolt even before the Revolution (facilitated by the terms of the peace treaty with Israel, which partly demilitarized the peninsula and left the task of fighting a near-insurrection to the incompetent and viciously brutal police). The instability has only grown since, as Nicolas Pelham has documented. (See an excellent article by the researcher here, and a longer report here.)

Meanwhile, Egyptians all over the country despise the pipeline because for years it shipped the national wealth to Israel, also the result of a peace treaty that an unelected dictatorship imposed. (The fact that Israel got to siphon off resources while their own government colludes in keeping Gaza’s borders closed to desperately needed aid also rankles severely.) Egypt has the 16th largest known natural-gas reserves in the world –1.6 % of the global total. Some good that does. Last year, the Petroleum Ministry announced that Egypt would now be a net gas-importing country.

A way in to a walled-off country: Gas enters Israel, Gazans and Egyptians can't

A way in to a walled-off country: Gas enters Israel, Gazans and Egyptians can’t

The industry’s lobbyists blame the usual suspects for this disaster: political uncertainty, “labor costs,” and so on. But you can do the math. Egypt produced about 2.2 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in 2009. It consumed almost 1.6 trillion — about 70% of Egypt’s electricity is gas-generated, and gas is the main (highly subsidized) source of cooking and heating fuel. (Consumption has surely gone up since). The country exported about 650 billion cubic feet in 2009– which, if you add it all up, leaves zero room for either reserve stocks or error. For years, over 250 billion cubic feet of that went to Israel, through the pipeline, at bargain prices: probably way more, since government statistics have every incentive to undercount.

Finally, in 2012, thanks in part to attacks on the pipeline, pressure from an enraged public, and campaigning by people like Mona, Egypt cancelled the Israel gas sales and the seven-year-old contract behind them.  The sales were sweetheart deals that had impoverished the Egyptian economy as a whole while enriching a Mubarak-era elite. Issandr el-Amrani explained this in detail in 2011, not long after Mona’s tweet:

Egypt was selling the gas to Eastern Mediterranean Gas (EMG) — the private firm that then sold the gas to the Israeli National Electricity Company — at around $3 per mbtu (that’s million British thermal units — the standard measurement for these things). EMG then sold it to the Israelis for around $4.5 per mbtu, pocketing a 50% profit margin for no more than the transaction costs and some of the [taxpayer-built] infrastructure between the two countries. The market price for gas … is currently around $4.40 for futures in North America, but spot markets in recent years passed the $10 per mbtu mark. Either way, there is no doubt that the price of the gas sold by Egypt to EMG was well below market prices, and that the company made an easy profit without investment of its own.

Other analysts put the prices even lower — “as low as between $0.70 and $1.50” per mbtu for Israel, with even less paid by EMG to the Egyptian government.  (Naturally, the government has never revealed the price.) What’s certain is that the magnates of EMG made a killing. The deal fed corruption in both countries. Where did that 50% profit go? El-Amrani writes:

EMG is owned in large part by an Egyptian business[man], Hussein Salem, who has long been known to be a frontman for the Mubarak family (and is a former security official), and Yossi Meiman, an Israeli businessman close to the Sharon clan in Israeli politics (he owns the Israeli energy company Merhav), as well as some additional minority investors from South East Asia.

There was a snake in Eden: The Sinai pipeline

There was a snake in Eden: The Sinai pipeline

The corruption behind the Israel sales resulted in one of the major post-Mubarak trials: Hussein Salem and the former oil minister were sentenced to 15 years for stealing over $700 million through the unequal contract. (Salem is hiding in Spain. Last month, the Cassation Court ordered a retrial.)

Plenty of things came together in the pipeline: the security state, the cliques that profit from it, the “special relationship” with Israel that the dictatorship constructed in exchange for US largesse, the way elites in two countries ally for lucre and offer their middle fingers to democratic oversight.  “Fuck Israel” is, from an Egyptian perspective, the mildest thing you can say in return. The contract may be history, but few people believe the government — under US pressure — won’t renew sales at some point in the future. Electricity blackouts are now routine in Egypt. Yet John Kerry and Binyamin Netanyahu are both pushing the country to sacrifice the prospect of energy self-sufficiency to the politics of “stability.” Sensible Egyptians who want economic independence and justice dream fondly of seeing the pipeline bombed.

The people of Sinai bear an extra grudge — because that serpentine eyesore symbolizes a government that ignores them except to brutalize them. Of course, any serious revolutionary in Egypt wants to understand and share the struggle of folks who have been resisting the government for years; but they don’t steer the rebels. Nobody in Sinai needed a tweet from Mona to instigate a raid on the pipeline (I doubt the attackers are on Twitter, Hillel). By now it comes as second nature.

Hossam Bahgat, an Egyptian rights activist, pointed out to Neuer that he lied about the nonexistent deaths in Sinai. But the man cannot be deterred; he corrects his lies not, neither does he explain. He promptly tweeted:

I lied about you, Mona. Now will you please apologize for it?

I lied about you, Mona. Now will you please apologize for it?

Consider that: it’s astonishingly disgusting. A former corporate lawyer, defender of Raytheon and other innocent victims of injustice, a cushioned and blinkered fool who neither has a clue nor cares about conditions in Egypt, sits in his comfortable office with a view of the Swiss Alps and dares to lecture one of the foremost campaigners against abuses by the Egyptian police that she should apologize … to the Egyptian police. Hillel Neuer claims to be a human rights activist. He’s just a contemptible, destructive little thug.

The truth, of course, is that if the pipeline carried energy to Chad, Neuer would never even notice the attacks. If Sudan or some other malevolent Muslim state were the destination, he’d applaud them. The only reason he gives a flying falafel is that the gas once went to Israel. Indeed, Neuer even vilifies Mona Seif for urging a peaceful boycott of Egyptian gas companies that sold to Israel! Till 2011, Egypt supplied 43% of Israel’s natural gas needs. What Neuer is doing is taking his revenge on Mona Seif for Egypt’s scrapping of the gas deal. That, not “terrorism,” is Neuer’s worry.

Tweets II and III.  The right to resist. For Hillel Neuer, violence is … well, irresistible.

Neuer’s Exhibits B and C are this –

Mona Gaza tweet 1 copy

and this –

Mona Gaza tweet 2 copy

In November 2012, of course, a war was going on in Gaza. Seif was defending the right of Palestinians to fight back against a massive Israeli attack. The violence of Operation Pillar of Defense provides the specific context here. There’s a broader one as well.

Neuer knows nothing about the history of rights activism in Egypt, but these 280+ words summarize an old argument with Amnesty and HRW in which most of the human rights community in the country shared. (The deprecation in the middle of Tweet III is from my friend Aida Seif el-Dawla, the founder of the Nadeem Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, and a Human RIghts Watch honoree in 2004.)  There is profound frustration at both organizations’ insistence on moral and political equivalence between resistance movements armed, in many cases, only with stones, and a massive military machine capable of obliterating opposition. There is profound frustration at what activists see as the organizations’ determination to depoliticize the conflict, to focus only on how it is fought while treating its origins as irrelevant and the demands on either side as beyond the reach of rights affirmation or critique. There is profound frustration at what they regard as a refusal to wrestle with the fact and the consequences of a 46-year occupation. There is discontent with what they interpret as a false, specious, and factitious objectivity.

Aida Seif el-Dawla meets with families of detained Islamists, 2005 (@ Nora Younis)

Aida Seif el-Dawla talks with families of detained Islamists, 2005 (@ Nora Younis)

Human Rights Watch, where I worked for many years, strains all its muscles to be completely objective on Israel/Palestine — an effort that has never gotten it a scintilla of credit from the militant pro-Israel side. Its releases on Israel and Palestine are the only ones in the entire organization that are routinely edited by the executive director himself. An informal arithmetic dictates that every presser or report criticizing Israel has to be accompanied by another criticizing the Palestine Authority or Hamas — or, if that isn’t possible (the PA barely retains enough authority to violate anybody’s rights) at least one of the surrounding Arab states. A mathematical approach to balance may help accountants detect embezzlement or captains keep ships afloat, but that kind of objectivity looks ridiculous in the political world, where the incessant fluidity of action disrupts the illusions of double-entry bookkeeping. (The call for an “embargo on arms” to “all sides” is an excellent example of “objectivity” that benefits one side much more than the other. As often noted during the Yugoslav civil war — when extremely well-meaning people urged that unarmed Bosnians and the Serbian army both go cold turkey on acquiring arms — a cutoff will matter much more to those who have only scant resources than to those flush with weaponry. If you want to stop that kind of fighting, an embargo alone won’t do it.  It’s like the majestic equality of the law as Anatole France described it, forbidding both rich and poor to sleep under bridges.)

Whatever you think of the neighboring conflict, Egyptian activists are undoubtedly reasonable when they ask what a similar “objectivity” would have looked like in their 20-year struggle with Mubarak. Should each documented act of torture by State Security have been followed by a search for some malfeasance by human rights organizations?  Do the immense power of a state and the vulnerability of a people’s movement carry the same responsibilities? At what point do you acknowledge (as Human RIghts Watch did in Egypt) that, though both sides may do wrong, one side’s core demand is right and the other’s is wrong?

Naturally, I‘m only paraphrasing ineptly here. But I can directly quote Aida Seif el-Dawla, who if anything is even more iconic among democrats in the region than Mona:

HRW is a human rights group and, by definition, human rights groups have limits. The human rights perspective might sometimes be what they call ‘objective’ but it’s not from the victim’s point of view.

That goes for the victims of torture whom Aida has served for 20 years: their wounds cry out for advocates, not impartial referees. And Aida adds: “Take, for example, martyrdom operations. Regardless of my opinion, it needs serious awareness-raising so that people understand the language of martyrdom as a last weapon people use to tell the world about what’s happening to them.”

Demonstrators hold an image of Mohamed el-Gendy, a young activist tortured to death by police, 2013

Demonstrators hold an image of Mohamed el-Gendy, a young activist tortured to death by police, 2013

This is absolutely different from “advocating terrorism.”  It means — I take Aida to mean — understanding that those with their backs against the wall act by definition under more constraint and desperation than the wall-builders. If you want to condemn “martyrdom operations,” or stop them, you need at least to comprehend what conditions create them and what they are trying to tell. Meanwhile, Egyptian activists, who have had to resist three ruthless regimes (Mubarak, the military, and the army-supported Muslim Brotherhood) in three years, insist that human rights are empty unless supported by the concrete right of resistance to oppression. That’s a right articulated by figures as diverse as St. Thomas Aquinas and Amira Hass. You can’t have the right to the “self-determination of peoples” (expressly stated in the UN Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the major UN treaties) without recognizing that, in the 20th century and continuing into the 21st, it’s been achieved by resistance fighters rather more often than by diplomats; and even the diplomats usually needed the resistance fighters to give their arguments some heft.

Mona Seif said as much in a brief statement yesterday on her Facebook page:

I have never called for nor celebrated attacks on civilians. My position is very clear: I support people’s right to resist occupation and I resist all attempts at portraying the siege of a predominantly civilian population by the world’s 4th most powerful Army as one of ‘equivalence.’

Of course, Hillel Neuer is in a self-contradictory place here. On the one hand, he believes that Arabs don’t have the right to resist much of anything, least of all Operation Pillar of Defense. On the other hand, he sees violence as a constant temptation for the Israeli side, one so enticing that the state can hardly be expected to resist it. Violence is irresistible for both parties, but in rather different senses.

Aida Seif el-Dawla and Mona Seif

Aida Seif el-Dawla and Mona Seif

Neuer, for instance, was assiduous in defending Israel’s attack on the Mavi Marmara: on the grounds that Israel has a right to resist anybody anywhere, armed or no, and that killing such people is something the state apparatus must do, irresistibly. What good is a monopoly of force if the state doesn’t use it?  What good is a gun if you don’t shoot somebody? Ali Abunimah summarizes Neuer’s rants far better than I can:

On 2 June 2010, three days after Israeli commandos murdered nine unarmed civilians aboard the Mavi Marmara in international waters, UN Watch Executive Director Hillel Neuer justified the lethal attack on what his organization termed the “terror flotilla” based on chants some passengers aboard the flotilla had allegedly been heard making. …

Neuer has never revised nor apologized for his justifications for Israeli violence against the flotilla even after the UN Secretary General’s Panel of Inquiry … found that many of the unarmed victims had been executed by the Israeli soldiers. …

The official report also concluded that “No evidence has been provided to establish that any of the deceased were armed with lethal weapons.”

“Forensic evidence showing that most of the deceased were shot multiple times, including in the back, or at close range has not been adequately accounted for in the material presented by Israel,” the report found. And so on. The truth is that Hillel Neuer likes violence, with the armchair enthusiasm of someone who knows his friends will wield it and he’ll never have to suffer it first-hand. He loves it because it sorts the powerful from the powerless, the valued from the unwanted, the wheat from the chaff. He’s exactly the opposite of Mona Seif, who has confronted state violence here in Egypt as Neuer would never dare, and wants to see people empowered to end it. These two — the guy who holds the gun and the dissenter who wants to take it away — will never have anything in common. Only one of them has anything to do with human rights.

Finally

Neuer knows that, although he can mobilize the usual suspects to support his libels against Mona, he has few facts to back him up. So he scrounges for some Egyptian allies to give him a more — well, objective look. Unfortunately, he has only two. One, “Amr Bakly, who heads the Cairo Liberal Forum, tweeted: ‘The Martin Ennals Award is not for terrorist supporters.'” The Cairo Liberal Forum is a small circle of “free market” advocates in Egypt whose irrelevance to the Egyptian revolutionary scene can be seen in their Facebook page: it’s almost wholly in English and for foreign consumption. Bakly has neither constituency nor credibility.

Alaa Abd el Fattah

Alaa Abd el Fattah

Neuer’s other enlistee, Maikel Nabil, is a more complicated story. Nabil, an advocate for conscientious objection and against military conscription, suffered a hellish year in jail for “insulting” the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces in 2011. I’ve written about him before, and I travelled to the military prosecutor’s office to show support at one of his hearings last December. Nabil rightly felt angry that his case drew less attention than the jailing of other activists, including Alaa Abd el Fattah, Mona Seif’s celebrated brother. Only a handful of people stood outside the grim army building when I went there for him, as opposed to hundreds who regularly turned out for Alaa. But Nabil has let anger and jealousy corrupt his judgment. His condemnation of Mona Seif is more about his resentment of Alaa than over anything she tweeted; it’s particularly sad because Mona spoke out strongly for him while he languished in prison. It’s reprehensible of Neuer to exploit Nabil’s rage in this divisive way. Since his release, Nabil has left Egypt, his reputation more and more marginalized there. (UN Watch organized an ill-advised junket to Israel for him last year.) Like Bakly, he has little constituency in Egypt, and it’s mendacious of Neuer to pretend otherwise.

I don’t expect Hillel Neuer to know the difference between real human rights activists and ersatz ones: he’s so emphatically the latter. Neuer — despite grandly inflating himself into a rights defender and UN Watch into a rights organization — has simply never done human rights work. He sits in his office and peruses the tweets of his enemies. Mona Seif, meanwhile, has worked for the imprisoned, spoken to their families, documented their cases, confronted the oppressors face to face. Three successive repressive regimes have found common ground in hating her. There’s hardly a catastrophe in Cairo they don’t  blame her for. A fire at pro-military candidate Ahmed Shafiq’s offices? Mona was lighting matches in a car nearby!  A crowd attacks the HQ of the Muslim Brotherhood, Shafiq’s opponents? Mona planned it all!

The odd thing is that, accusing her absurdly of “terrorism,” Hillel Neuer mimics the rhetoric and paranoia of the Egyptian powers that be. I doubt he’d be happy to hear he imitates the Muslim Brotherhood. But apologists for injustice and flacks for authority are always alike, no matter their disparate beliefs.

Ahmed Seif al-Islam

Ahmed Seif el-Islam

In thinking of Mona, I always remember her father. Ahmed Seif el-Islam is one of the most respected rights activists and constitutional lawyers in Egypt. He has inspired me. He also taught me a valuable lesson.

I saw the intensity of Seif’s dedication back in 2003, when I was researching for Human Rights Watch. Demonstrations against the US invasion of Iraq convulsed Cairo, and the Mubarak government lashed back by arresting and torturing over a thousand students and leftist activists. Seif was then the head of the Hisham Mubarak Law Centre, the country’s premier human rights litigation group. He spent more than a week without leaving his office for home, barely sleeping, barefoot and unshaven: collecting information, coordinating responses, making sure that lawyers stayed at every jail and every hearing, that every act of brutality was recorded. All the while, he kept a small bag packed behind the desk in anticipation of his own arrest. Seif, a veteran of Egypt’s political prisons and concentration camps, lived on a shoestring — I don’t think he paid himself more than a few hundred pounds a month as director — and never stopped working.

I had first met Seif in 2001, when I was on the staff of a different organization — IGLHRC, the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission — and came to Egypt for the trial of 52 men arrested for homosexuality in a massive police raid. The Hisham Mubarak Centre had been one of the first groups to offer the men legal help, despite the case’s unpopularity. I wanted to thank Seif for his courage. He brushed away my compliments and asked, politely: “Does your organization have a position on Palestine?”

I hesitated; IGLHRC had nothing of the kind. “I want you to know,” Seif said, “that we have taken a position on this case because we believe in universal human rights, however much others may despise us for it. I don’t expect anything less from other groups. Therefore please tell me. Does your organization have a position on Palestine?”

That was the lesson.

Ahmed Seif al-Islam and Mona Seif

Ahmed Seif el-Islam and Mona Seif

There are ample reasons to dislike human rights as a profession. As a set of principles, though, it has one great virtue: it forces you to think beyond the walls of self, and face the frightening differences and similarity of others. The premise of universality (much misunderstood) is that what others do and suffer cannot be entirely divorced from you. If you ask an Egyptian to talk about your concern, they can ask you to remember theirs; and, with that moral sophistication I find characteristic of Egyptian thinking, they may require you to consider not Egypt, but Palestine, and the suffering next door. (It’s typical that the great mobilizing issue for Egypt’s anti-government activists from 2001-2005 was not just the Mubarak regime’s domestic criminality, but its callousness about the Palestinian crisis across the border.) IGLHRC never did develop a position on Palestine; but in a discussion about it, years later, one board member plaintively wailed: “Why do we have to be a human rights organization? Why can’t we just be a gay organization, and ignore this stuff?” He had it right, actually. Once you start speaking the language of rights, an inexorable logic compels you to connect, connect.

Mona, like her father, knows this. In her defiant statement, she wrote:

One of the rights that we, the young people of Egypt, have succeeded in seizing is the right to insult our own government and to insult anyone whose policies are bad for our people. We insist on this right.

It’s about freedom to offend, but also freedom to choose your solidarities. People who don’t want Egyptians feeling an affinity with Palestinians should just ask for the Revolution to be rolled back, to a point where all politics can be state-dictated and all opinions served prefab. Hillel would like that. Mona, no.

Protesters confront Central Security Forces, Mohamed Mahmoud Street, Cairo, November 2011

Protesters confront Central Security Forces, Mohamed Mahmoud Street, Cairo, November 2011

I hope the 10 human rights organizations that decide the Ennals award have Mona’s consistency and courage. I hope they understand universality enough not to cower away from the connections. No issue awakens the pusillanimity of rights groups like Israel and Palestine; no other subject can turn self-vaunted Voltaires quite so quickly into quaking cowards. Ken Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, sent an ominous signal last night in an email to the New York Times. 

HRW staff nominated two human rights defenders, and one made it through as a finalist (not Mona). Voting on the finalists will take place in October in a secret ballot by the 10 human rights groups on the jury, including HRW. … HRW never takes a position on whether a country or rebel group should go to war or engage in “resistance.” Our focus is on how wars are fought, and we oppose any deliberate or indiscriminate attacks on civilians. I haven’t seen anything indicating that by “resistance” Mona means attacking civilians.

That’s all quite objective and proper, but note the parenthesis. We didn’t nominate Mona Seif (though she’s worked closely with and assisted Human Rights Watch in Egypt); it’s not HRW’s fault!  This is how human rights organizations sell someone down the river.

Ken should stiffen his spine. Some Egyptian spirit would be a good tonic for the groups that will make this decision. Shame on them if they let the liars sway them.

Razan Ghazzawi receives award; Egyptian women attacked in Tahrir Square

Video on Razan’s work, from Front Line Defenders

Razan Ghazzawi, whom I’m proud to call my friend, received the Front Line Defenders 2012 award Thursday, from the Irish group dedicated to the security of human rights activists at risk. Naturally, she didn’t go to Dublin to receive the prize. She’s too busy on the front lines in Syria.

I adore and admire Razan for a number of reasons. Three good ones are that she is fiercely feminist, anarchist, and queer. Another is that she studied English literature at the University of Damascus, offering evidence that lit majors are not fated to permanent irrelevance in the universe. More encompassingly, she’s been a beacon of bravery to her fellow Syrian activists, in her uncompromising resistance to a regime that is determined to murder as many of its own people as it can — not even pour encourager les autres anymore, but with a kind of perverse and pointless aesthetic pleasure: murder for its own sake.

Razan is one of the few Syrian dissident bloggers to write under her own name. She also works for the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression, supporting other bloggers and activists fighting for free speech and basic rights against the dictatorship. She has been arrested twice. In December 2011, she spent two weeks in prison after authorities detained her on her way to a conference in Amman on media freedom. On February 16, the security branch of the Syrian Air Force raided the SCM office and seized her and several colleagues. They released Razan and five other women three days later; “those three nights,” she wrote on her blog, “were the longest of my life.” Mahmoud Darwish, head of the Centre, is still jailed incommunicado along with eight other activists; Razan and others fear that all are being tortured. Razan herself faces trial before a military court on charges of  “possessing prohibited materials with the intent to disseminate them.”

Among the SCM employees still detained: (L-R) Mazen Darwish, Bassam al-Ahmad, Hussein Ghrer, Abdel Rahman Hmada

I got to know Razan last summer in Cairo, where she spent a few weeks in solidarity with the revolutionaries in Tahrir. Not for a second did she lose touch with what was happening on the ground back in Syria; I would see her almost every evening in some cafe, hunched over her laptop as though it were a campfire on a freezing night, e-mailing or blogging away. One day, she and a friend cooked an immense Syrian meal (no country with so good a cuisine deserves so bad a government) for me and an Egyptian sexuality activist. Somewhere between the courses she began offering a critique of the nascent Cairo attempts at organizing around sexual rights, one so cogent that I simply got out my own computer and took notes. Here are some of them — reproduced without her permission:

There is a problem with people socializing and connecting only around sexual orientation and sexuality.   You have a gay community that only talks about gay issues, not any other issues. …

I am not trying to tell gay people they should be active politically. That is a very patronizing position coming from above. The question is: how do we ask gay people to come to Tahrir, to oppose SCAF, to push for change in the current system? Since gay people experience oppression and repression, they should understand other forms of repression, but they don’t …

In a strange sort of way here in Egypt I am much more comfortable with people who are straight, who know what is going on in the wide world. It is their privilege—as heterosexuals, their thinking doesn’t have to be limited by their own oppression. That is power. I recognize that. But I want us, as gays, to think politically as well. So that after the revolution people will recognize that they, that we were here.

Razan thinks constantly about the connections, meaning that her concept of the Syrian revolution embraces and tests itself against the Egyptian revolution, the Occupy movements, the Palestinian cause, women’s rights, Sunni Islamists, secularists, lesbians and gays. In addition to boundless courage and energy, she has something every revolutionary needs, but that often gets left out of the package: a restless mind, too busy with reality to let itself ossify into ideology. In the months since I’ve come back from Cairo, I’ve often found myself thinking how much I miss her.

Mona Seif, Tahrir Square

Another finalist for the Front Line award was Mona Seif, the Egyptian activist and founder of the No Military Trials for Civilians movement. I equally admire Mona; scion of a family of leftist militants, she’s done more than anyone in Egypt to call attention to the 12,000 or more victims of military detention since the Revolution, along with the tortures the generals have retained in the State’s punitive repertory. In addition to being a courageous and strategic organizer, she’s one of the least pretentious rights activists I’ve met. Her complete immunity from the vagaries of ego is like a genetic quirk, so uncommon is it in the profession; it’s like meeting someone who never caught the common cold. Now, I immediately have to stop myself, and wonder: Would I be saying that about her if she were a man? I don’t think I’ve fallen prey to some insidious essentialism about femininity. But there used to be an idea about feminist practice — that it was going to open the way to a different kind of politics: in blunt terms, one where not everybody had to be a jerk. Historically, revolutions have been heavily testosterone-inducing affairs. The cult of radical heroism is like Rogaine for the chest hair; “It’s natural the Boys should whoop it up for so huge a phallic triumph,” as W. H. Auden wrote about another venture in history-making.  It’s true, you’ve got your odd Olympe de Gouges or two partly redeeming revolutionary history, but for every one of them there’s a dozen Robespierres or Stalins or Hazem Abu Ismails grunting and showing off their balls.  Mona Seif and Razan Ghazzawi are, among other things, both reminders of how central women have been to the shifting seasons of the Arab Spring. They signal how the Spring proffered a different kind of revolutionary potential, still unfulfilled, but still there.

HarassMap: a web initiative to collect reports of sexual harassment from around Egypt. (For more information in Arabic, see harassmap.org)

It’s good to remember this, today of all days. This evening in Cairo, a few dozen women tried to hold a rally against sexual harassment, as part of a larger protest in Midan Tahrir over the Presidential candidacy of neo-Mubarakite Ahmed Shafiq.  The day before, a coalition of rights groups had condemned what they called a calculated and growing campaign of sexual assaults on women protesters. Earlier in the week, for instance, a crowd of almost 200 men had assaulted a women in Tahrir, harassing and abusing her till she lost consciousness. The groups claimed

that the amount of sexual harassment and violence against female demonstrators in Tahrir Square and the surrounding streets has been “worryingly” increasing since the outbreak of the recent wave of protests following the verdict issued against former President Hosni Mubarak and senior Interior Ministry officials on 2 June. …

The organizations stressed that the attacks suffered by female demonstrators, which violate the sanctity of their bodies and their physical safety, represent a barrier limiting the participation of women in the public sphere and disabling them from shaping the present and future of the country.

Nice try. The Associated Press describes what happened today:

A mob of hundreds of men assaulted women holding a march demanding an end to sexual harassment Friday, with the attackers overwhelming the male guardians and groping and molesting several of the female marchers in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. …

Friday’s march was called to demand an end to sexual assaults. Around 50 women participated, surrounded by a larger group of male supporters who joined to hands to form a protective ring around them. The protesters carried posters saying, “The people want to cut the hand of the sexual harasser,” and chanted, “The Egyptian girl says it loudly, harassment is barbaric.”

After the marchers entered a crowded corner of the square, a group of men waded into the women, heckling them and groping them. The male supporters tried to fend them off, and it turned into a melee involving a mob of hundreds.

The marchers tried to flee while the attackers chased them and male supporters tried to protect them. But the attackers persisted, cornering several women against a metal sidewalk railing, including an Associated Press reporter, shoving their hands down their clothes and trying to grab their bags. The male supporters fought back, swinging belts and fists and throwing water.

Eventually, the women were able to reach refuge in a nearby building with the mob still outside until they finally got out to safety.

Here’s video from Al Masry Al Youm, featuring interviews with women marchers (I recognize and salute some of my friends), and, at the end, scenes of the attacks:

The male supporters were there because this wasn’t the first time this happened. In 2011, less than a month after Mubarak’s fall, men assaulted a march celebrating International Women’s Day, March 8. Those attacks were more spontaneous: they seemed to be an instinctive way of drawing a line around the Revolution, saying “This far and no farther.”  Dalia Abd Elhameed, an activist who was there, told me, “The men said, ‘We are not ready to hear about women’s rights: You can take your demands to the street, but not as women.'”

We started to march from the press syndicate to Tahrir, and the moment we reached Tahrir, people started to humiliate us: “Women’s rights, what are you talking about?  You want to be  president,” and so on. “Women can’t be president, because the man is the ruler of the house.”

After a while the hostility began to increase. They started shouting at us.  They chose a women in niqab, pointed at her, and said, “This is the mother of the martyrs, this is the example of the Egyptian woman, not you, you are prostitutes, you have to go home, no one wants you in the streets.”  I left by 5 pm. I know that half an hour later they began the sexual harassment, physical harassment, running after protesters, grabbing them by their clothes, describing the men who took part in the protest as khalawalat [faggots], not real men because you are supporting women’s rights.

Two male colleagues of mine also in that march blogged about it, here and here:

They were dealing with us like we are a group of prostitutes and pimps that want to deprive them of their religion … They accused us of working for the former first lady’s interests. Others accused us of being westernized or working for some foreign agendas. What was really provoking for them is that men were holding the banners too. Some of them pointed at me and described me as a fag who should wear a scarf over his head like women because he is a disgrace to the man kind .

And a film about the 2011 violence, with interviews with activists and attackers, is here.

Manifold anxieties and antinomies converged in the assaults. These fights are always mythic for the fighters: poverty pitted against privilege, the indigenous against the foreign, the virtuous against the corrupted. Today’s violence undoubtedly draws on the same fears, but seems dominated by a simple SCAF strategy to halve protests by scaring women away.

It’s horrifying. One’s mind turns inevitably to Mona Eltahawy’s controversial (to put it mildly) article for Foreign Policy‘s “Sex Issue” this spring: “Why Do They Hate Us?” “The real war on women is in the Middle East,” Eltahawy warned. And Mona herself, one should note, was sexually assaulted by security forces when arrested near Midan Tahrir last November.

Versions of Foreign Policy’s cover photo: Paint it black

Now, that piece produced an uproar. Friends and colleagues of mine roundly denounced it as a superficial blandishment to imperialism (you can read some of the disputations herehere, and here, and there are many more). To a large degree, the outrage was inseparable from the article’s visuals and venue. Foreign Policy, which markets itself to the younger and cooler breed of US diplomats and wonks, packaged Eltahawy’s contribution under a cover showing an otherwise-divested woman in black painted-on niqab. (When you download the photo from their website, you find its title, tellingly if inadvertently, is “120418_Sex_Centerfold_193.jpeg”.)  “Cover” — and its opposite — are the operative words. If the “Sex Issue” in general –focusing heavily on Iran and the Arab world and presenting them as chock full of erotic peculiarities — sent the message that sex means the Middle East, the shot itself conveyed Get your Middle Eastern women, here, uncovered! You couldn’t miss the imperial implication that a US magazine had the power to display the Middle Eastern woman and her secrets, all stripped and splayed for perusal. The “Sex Issue” sold itself neither as fact nor fiction, but as pure fetish.

The Blue Bra: Photo accompanying Eltahawy’s article

Eltahawy’s article tried to argue about abuses rooted in power relations in the region, but inevitably the mind kept swinging back to the cover image, seemingly telling you where power really lay: saying that gender in the Middle East had been rendered a tool for US policy, as incarnate in Foreign Policy. Inside, the article came decorated with one of the more celebrated and frightening Egyptian images of the last year — a female protester in the hands of Cairene riot police, her black jilbab ripped open to show her blue bra.  But even that iconic photograph couldn’t override the shock-value strip-tease on the cover. The violent denuding had already been done. Woman with a capital “W” had already been stripped by the American gaze, even before you got to Eltahawy’s page.

I stayed out of the arguments Eltahawy’s article provoked, partly because I am not, as a general rule, a Middle Eastern woman. But the symbolic issue on which many of the attacks centered — who is being revealed or unveiled, for whose eye? — seemed less significant to me than a different issue of representation that other commentators took up. Eltahawy’s piece revolved around two categories, two pronouns, which seemed monolithic, unmodulated and uninflected. “They” hate “us.”

I thought about that in reading about the Cairo assaults today. i thought about it because those are the terms in which the oppressed are prone to think. Oppression elides fine distinctions. You don’t look for the delicate shades of difference among the oppressors, number the stripes on the truncheon that is beating you. Oppression presents itself as a huge and unanimous weight, crushing the breath out of you. Its exhaustive solidity prohibits breaking it down into agents, acts, and motives. From the vantage of those being crushed, it is a bulk that extinguishes tactility and a shadow that exterminates vision.

Oppression: The left sand knoweth not what the right sand doeth

And similarly, oppression makes the oppressed lose their sense of distinction from one another. Individuality, privacy, identity are the first things to go when freedom does. You experience an involuntary solidarity with the anonymous rest of the unfree, without alternative or option, the common interest of those who have no interests left. The massive burden of power pressing down grinds everybody into the mass. Who oppresses you? “Them.” Who are the oppressed? “Us.”

I’m pretty sure the women and men reeling from the attacks in Midan Tahrir felt like that today, as night set in. The problem is that you can’t act, you can’t resist, that way, trapped in the apprehension of monolithic forces. You can only fight back if you can analyze power, think your way past its apparent invincibility, see though its bland carapace into its separate interests and components. There is no single “them” hating women, in the Middle East or elsewhere. Patriarchy does many things, but it has never succeeded in uniting men (or societies) into a single undivided phalanx. There are different motives, different classes, different constituencies with different investments in different forms of women’s oppression. It’s not as though you can always play divide and conquer with them, but you have to know them and name them and recognize their partialities before you can resist.

Moreover, the solidarity that oppression imposes on the oppressed is ultimately a fake one. It won’t last. Real solidarities start with recognizing that you’re free to differ, not feeling the raw force that reduces you to the same. If you keep imagining there’s a solid “us” united permanently by the experience of somebody hating you, you’ll never get around to the hard work of politics: figuring out what else you share and what understandings can ally you.

Razan, I think, is particularly good at all this work, which is why her contributions to the revolutions of the Arab Spring will likely be lasting ones. The same is true of Mona Seif, who has engaged with a range of intersecting and cross-fertilizing issues as an activist. Moving the imagination a little beyond the vivid but paralyzing world of “them” and “us” is incremental and painful. But only that movement moves forward.