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,

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

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:


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


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.

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

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.

Then there were elections, and the fun started: Egypt’s vote

Beard vs. bullets: the Brotherhood’s Morsi and the army’s Shafiq

There’s no such thing as “freedom.” There are only freedoms of various sorts, and nearly all of them are freedoms to.  Freedom to speak; freedom to be silent. Freedom to put a placard in the window; freedom to refrain. Freedom to worship; freedom to say “There is no god.”  There is also a neglected one, but extremely important: the freedom to be stupid. This is indispensable, basic, if only because the second and most frequent excuse that police, politicians, philosopher kings and priests will come up with to prohibit any act (after the first and only valid one, “you’ll hurt somebody with that”) is: “That’s a really stupid thing to do.”  Power always wants to think for you, and the general way is to brand your own untrammeled thoughts as stupid. But you have a right to be stupid. Cherish that!  The freedom to be stupid is so fundamental to the autonomous self, so intrinsic to our independence, that when practiced by the individual we don’t even have a name for it. When practiced by a group, it’s called “democracy.”

This is a refreshing reflection after the Egyptian elections. The results were certified today, and, from a liberal or leftist intellectual’s perspective, 48.44% of the ballots displayed people being stupid. This is the combined result for the two top votegetters, and while it’s not quite a majority, it was enough to put Mohammed Morsi (the candidate of the Freedom and Justice Party, or the Muslim Brotherhood) and Ahmed Shafiq (former general, Mubarak’s last prime minister, the candidate of the military and the old regime) into a runoff for President. It’s Armageddon, the Islamists versus the army, the two establishments battling head-to-head, with the values that animated most vocal revolutionaries squeezed out from the middle without a smidgen left behind. Boy, is everybody else pissed.

Midan Tahrir, May 28, from @OccupiedCairo: “This time we’re serious”

There was a demo in Midan Tahrir tonight, thousands of people shouting in fury, mainly at Shafiq’s presence in the runoff, the discredited relic of dictatorship. Me, I’m following all this on Twitter, the stay-at-home revolutionary’s best friend. @JamalalJazeera quotes one protester:  “The generation that ruined us with their silence for 30 years has now ruined us with their votes for Shafiq.”

Meanwhile, across the river in Dokki, somebody attacked and ransacked and set fire to Shafiq’s campaign headquarters. One report on Twitter suggested that as many as eight of Shafiq’s HQs around the country were attacked at the same time; but I haven’t heard more about that. Is this revolutionaries’ rage, or provocateurs? My friend Liam Stack of the New York Times reports people in the burned building “say they ‘got a warning’ to leave Shafiq campaign HQ an hour before the fire started at 10 pm.” From whom? @Khufo lends a note of caution: “don’t you think it’s common sense since ppl have been calling to march towards the hq this afternoon?”  But there’s something fishy, if only in the Shafiqists’ attempt to pin blame. At first, according to @Sherifkouddous, people on the scene were inclined to curse the Muslim Brotherhood for the attacks. But pretty soon they seemed to get different instructions: Youm TV had a Shafiq spokesman saying Alaa Abd el-Fattah was responsible. Alaa, hero of the Revolution, is the military junta’s favorite bogeyman; they blame him for everything, murders at Maspero, dust storms, 30 Rock being cancelled. The account of his incendiary acts is ridiculous, but in less than an hour it took on the dignity of mention in al-Ahram. The state-run paper proclaimed a little while ago that Egypt’s prosecutor general himself had dispatched a team of aides to investigate the incident, and that

a number of witnesses in their testimony to detectives charged political activist Alaa Abd el-Fattah and his sister [Mona Seif, founder of the No Military Trials campaign and hence particularly unpopular with the generals] with involvement in the attack on the headquarters of the Ahmed Shafiq campaign; witnesses said they saw Alaa and his sister asleep in a car near the office minutes before the storming and burning of the headquarters.

Alaa says: “Thinking of installing a GPS tracker and live update my location publicly. Maybe this would stop the false accusations.”

Here’s film of the fire:

Shafiq has run as the law-and-order candidate, the man to restore security and the halcyon quiet of Mubarak times. The violence, whoever caused it, seems predestined to prove his point. Lauren Bohn, a journalist on the scene, says:  “Shafiq campaigners are reading raiding the HQ … as [handing him] his presidency on a silver platter.”

Even now, Shafiq’s candidacy is under a pall of doubt for a number of reasons. One is that the Brotherhood-dominated Parliament in April passed a law barring any senior Mubarak official from running. Shafiq, senior Mubarak official par excellence, challenged this before the Electoral Commission, which is staffed by Mubarak holdovers; they ruled he could run after all, pending a decision by the Constitutional Court. Rumors today suggested the court will hand down a ruling on June 11, five days before the runoff. Kicking Shafiq off the ballot at the last minute would be regular business in this highly irregular election. Neither of the two apparent finalists was the first choice for their respective sides. The Electoral Commission earlier disqualified the Brotherhood’s favored candidate, Khairat el-Shater, for a previous court conviction. It also booted the military’s number-one flack, Omar Suleiman, because too many of his signatures were forged. (Suleiman was Mubarak’s top spy, chief torturer, and chosen successor; I noted here eight months ago that the junta was keeping him in reserve as a possible Presidential candidate.) The two sides fell back on the uncharismatic Morsi and the dully bureaucratic Shafiq with some resignation. In the process, the Commission also kicked out Hazem Abu Ismail, candidate of the far-right Salafists, because his late mother had acquired an American passport. The era when any Egyptian can grow up to run for President is still not here.

El-Shater, Abu Ismail, and Suleiman: See no evil, hear no evil, and I will attach electric wires to your genitals if you do not tell me everything you know that’s evil right now

There are some signs of irregularities in the first-round voting, though Jimmy Carter found it generally fair. A reformist judge today demanded an explanation for the appearance of 5 million new voters on the registration rolls in the last year. Despite a ban on security personnel voting, an officer has filed a complaint saying that 900,000 were issued IDs to cast ballots for Shafiq. (Wael Eskandar has a rundown on these allegations here.) That’s more than the 700,000 votes that separated Shafiq from the third-place runner up, the Nasserite Hamdeen Sabahi.

But back off a moment. Even if the military illegally manipulated Shafiq’s showing, the fact is that the old reprobate got a lot of votes nonetheless. The three top finalists (Morsi, Shafiq, and the edged-out Sabahi) won close to 70% of the ballots between them in a packed field. Perhaps, while the ashes settle in Cairo, one can consider, in that pundity way, what this means: what are the Lessons of it all.

Money and organization. Morsi and (however doubtfully he used it) Shafiq had it. The Brotherhood, in addition to its alleged funding from Qatar (possibly supplemented by Saudi cash after Riyadh’s favored Salafists were disqualified), has its core constituency among the professional classes; these too help keep it in the black. Both cash and commitment have aided it in building the most formidable grass-roots machine in Egyptian politics. True, its vote fell off substantially since last year’s Parliamentary elections — from  more than 40% to less than 25%, reflecting wide anger at the legislature’s ineptitude. But it still mobilized the votes it had. Shafiq, meanwhile, certainly enjoyed the military’s money behind him, if not those 900,000 ID cards. It’s interesting that he didn’t start taking off in the polls until Obama, after some hestitations, renewed the $1 billion-plus in military aid the US ladles on Cairo; perhaps the prudent junta was holding off until it knew for certain the piggy bank (a haram receptacle, but a hefty one) was full.

Ideological certainty. The two candidates whom pundits and polls had earlier anointed both failed miserably. Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, the liberal former Brotherhood member who tried to built a rainbow movement stretching from secularists to Salafists, got 17% of the votes. Amr Moussa, charismatic former Foreign Minister and Arab League head, got 11%. Most voters, I would guess, disdained their vagueness — the elisions of coalition politics in Aboul Foutouh’s case, and of slippery sloganeering in Moussa’s. They voted for clarity instead. Sabahi, the Nasserist, ran as an unreconstructed leftist, talking of social and economic justice. Even without much cash on hand, a clear populist message propelled him nearly to the top. And even if  Morsi and Shafiq hedged about exact plans and programs, the Brotherhood and the Mubarakites are so familiar that you’d have to be a fool not to know what you’re getting. After the confusions of a revolutionary year, a lot of people wanted straightforward beliefs.

Sabahi: The nation needs my chest hair

Nostagia and nationalism. The siren singing of the successful candidates had, to an outsider’s ear, something of a retro tonality, like a bad cover of a previous year’s hit. The Nasserites, since the Great Gamal died, have had little appeal but memory: recollections of a day when Egypt was independent of the US, adored by the Arab masses, feared by the Arab kings, and at perpetual war with Israel and others.( It’s to Sabbahi’s credit that he broadened this by talking about present-day economics.) Shafiq, meanwhile, based his campaign on an end to the current crime wave and a return to enforced national unity and omnipresent police. And the Brotherhood, while not exactly nationalist in their blandishments — Islam of course is transnational — invoked a solidarity transcending temporary political divisions, the ummah, irrefragable except for those pesky Copts. If you worry about society’s friability in the face of democratic disagreement, or about a loss of national dignity with the retreat of economy and state, these are the guys for you.

What the left revolutionaries didn’t do. If I’m right about the above, then the votes for Morsi and Shafiq seem not stupid, but the pursuit of a rationality different from the leftist and liberal intellectuals’. But a vote for the unequivocal was made easier by the left revolutionaries’ own equivocations about a program. Beyond overthrowing the dictator and establishing democracy, they never developed one. Even on those two points, of course, much is undone — the junta still rules, civilians suffer in military courts, torture continues; but the negatives amount to a call for dismantling the existing system, not guidelines for what a new one will be, or do. I am reluctant to speak of “failure,” but two aspects seem like failures to me. First, the middle-class revolutionaries never engaged much with the workers or peasants who also manned, and womaned, the revolution. They had enormous trouble, indeed, integrating economic justice into their own demands: over the summer, negotiations on a revolutionary program never got much farther into economics than an anodyne provision on the minimum wage. Second —  growing from the first — they failed to follow their own left principles consistently. Almost all the youth activists had some touch of anarchism, for instance. But they did little work on micropolitics, to build local structures of decision-making and alliance within the larger society, structures that might have given the ecstatic but ephemeral experience of Tahrir some permanence. Still less did they follow their syndicalist ancestors in working with the trade unions (for instance) to imagine different models of self-government. These are missed opportunities.

As a result, most of the young revolutionaries wound up politically homeless. In the first Presidential round, most of their votes probably went to  Sabahi, the secular leftist — deserting Khaled Ali, a human rights activist just barely old enough to run, who incarnated many of their values and had no chance and wound up with .5% of the votes. But before that, many had a weird flirtation with Naguib Sawiris, a fantastically rich mobile-phone entrepreneur who founded the Free Egyptians Party, and was one of the more inept politicians among the many incompetents to whom the Revolution opened public life. A Revolution that marries a billionaire is making a bad match.

But certainly this doesn’t mean the Revolution failed. For better or for worse, the Revolution was always a postmodernish one, limited in its objectives, rejecting the Leninist model of seizing state power. The chance to seize state power was there; on the last day before Mubarak fell, as protesters surrounded the government broadcasting center, they seemed for a moment to be following a script as old as the First International. But they rejected it. Historians will probably debate the wisdom of this for decades, but the fact is: the lack of a positive program was built into the way the revolutionaries behaved. They scrupulously abjured either arrogating government authority to themselves, or replicating it by building a new model. That wasn’t the idea. Their highest goal was to open society up and create the space for democracy, and it was part of their dignity and modesty that they didn’t claim some preempting nsight into what that democracy should do.

And now? The leaderless liberals have launched a “united front,” predictably disunited, to demand that whoever becomes president set up an inclusive constitution-drafting process. Shafiq and Morsi will go ahead and campaign, though Shafiq might be disqualified at the last minute. Each will spend the time trying to scare the hell out of everybody about the other. After that, whoever wins will have a thoroughly divided country on his hands. That might not be a bad thing, give the regressive politics either one would represent: neither exactly deserves carte blanche to govern. And if Shafiq is shucked off the ballot? Does Sabahi enter the runoff with five days to go? Is there a new election? The whole thing has been so bungled so far that nobody can guess.

Issandr el-Amrani calls, basically, for a new Revolution aiming at a new transition:

The question is not really anymore whether there was massive fraud, or only minor violations as the PEC [the Electoral Commission] stated today. Its ruling is not appealable, it has a past record of dubious decisions, and it behaved suspiciously by distributing last minute supplementary voter lists and blocking access to observers to counting rooms. The PEC had no credibility even before the vote was cast for many people who are unhappy with the results.

The real question is to what extent will the political leaders that supposedly represent the protestors will push the delegitimization of the elections, and how the Muslim Brotherhood (which has alleged fraud but not filed any complaints, perhaps afraid to lose its spot on the runoff) will position itself between the protest movement and the state.

The revolutionaries were right that no constitution should be written, and no election held, under the rule of generals who served Hosni Mubarak. They didn’t care about the current interim constitution because it itself has little legitimacy, and the transition has been so mangled as to barely make sense anymore. … The politicians were afraid to alienate the good part of the population that doesn’t want to take that risk of confronting the state head on, as well as jeopardize their own position in the emerging order. I don’t know whether they’ll change their minds now, but one would think the moment is ripe  — even if this leads to no concrete gain and probably much pain, the seeds of delegitimization of the future regime will have been laid. …

[S]omeone needs to rise to the occasion here and reject this electoral process outright (Aboul Fotouh and Khaled Ali have). If you’re going to lose, you might as well drag others down with you — in this case, the PEC, the SCAF [Supreme Council of the Armed Forces], and the (officially) winning candidates. It’s just good politics.

I’m not sure. SCAF needs to be dragged down, but can that be done from the streets anymore? Shafiq won’t do it, but could Morsi? These are things people will be asking. Giving either side command of the state closes off certain possibilities. But it potentially opens a different project: building society, something the revolutionaries (as opposed to the Brotherhood) have neglected so far. Yet that the society is already open enough for people to be, by the revolutionaries’ lights, collectively stupid without fearing the apocalypse — that’s a kind of victory. A country presented with a couple of unacceptably stupid choices is exercising the giddy freedom of idiocy, where other freedoms begin. That’s society, starting to flex itself and act. It’s worked. How much more can the revolutionaries ask?

Zillions of scorched and scattered Shafiq flyers carpeted the ground outside his smoldering headquarters tonight, sodden from the runoff from the fire hoses. Sarah Carr writes, “The wind is making all the Shafiq pictures on the ground fly up in the air like a lovely American Beauty moment felool style.” There’s nothing so creepy it can’t be beautiful from the right angle. Now back to business.

Litter and liberty: from @Sarahcarr

Poem of the day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marshal Tantawi, tear down that wall!

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

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

I love Egyptians when they get organized.

Dying young: The trauma of revolution

Corpse at the Coptic Hospital Morgue after the Maspero massacre, Cairo, October 10, 2011: © Scott Nelson

The official media cliche on Egypt’s revolution is now that it’s “unfinished.”  What this means is that revolutionary struggle has now gone on for a year, with an enormous cost not just in bloodshed and death but in psychological horror. A whole generation of previously sheltered, middle-class youth has witnessed murder and suffering up close, in a way that no cadre of young Egyptians has since the 1973 War. Indeed, they’ve seen it closer than their military predecessors: this is no orderly war, with a defined front line that keeps death to itself, the hardened soldiers guarding it like a secret gift. At Maspero, at Mohamed Mahmoud Street, in Port Said, death erupts suddenly, geysering out of nowhere with treacherous, chthonic force. Whatever you can say (and I’ve said it) about the isolated upper- and middle-class backgrounds of many revolutionaries and rights activists, over the last year they’ve lost their cocoons, watched the beaten and the blinded, seen pain in proximity. Mahmoud Salem (aka @Sandmonkey), a well-known liberal campaigner, tweeted as a grim 2012 dawned: “Years from now, when all of this quiets down, I am not sure there is a situation anywhere in the world that we will not be able to handle.”  I too hope.

Al-Ahram interviewed some young activists about “post-revolution trauma,” in an article they called simply “Dying Young.” 21-year-old Mahmoud Hany, the reporter writes,

has a young bearded face and the haunted eyes of someone who has seen too much. “Since the revolution began, with the exception of the month of August, I’ve lost at least one friend every month,” Hany says.

Even before the revolution, Hany was politically active. He used to attend numerous anti-Mubarak protests, when the notorious state security forces would frequently treat protesters violently. But nothing prepared him for what he was about to experience when the uprising began in January 2011.

He smelled tear gas for the first time on 25 January of last year, saw the first person die in front of him on 28 January, and visited a morgue to identify a friend for the first time in April.

After a year of being on the receiving end of assaults by security forces against protesters, Hany has acquired an uncanny knowledge of the different kinds of weapons being used against him and his friends.

There are three kinds of tear gas used on protesters, Hany explains. The one with the red label is manufactured in the US; the one with the blue label is British-made. He also knows that there are two different kinds of rubber bullet: the copper, which comes in six sizes, and the rubber, which only has one size. He knows that a live bullet is 9 mm long, and that a sniper-rifle beams a green light before it hits its target.

As time went on, and clashes escalated, Hany and his friends invented new ways to deal with these weapons. At first, they used vinegar and Pepsi to counteract the burning effects of tear gas on their eyes and faces. Later, however, they learned that yeast and medical drips work better.

“We learned these things from trial and error. Now, we’re so experienced that we can help the injured more than the medics,” he says. “Some people have also started using face masks to stop themselves from inhaling the gas. But I like doing things old school – I just use my Kuffayah,” he smiles.

And after one year of on-again, off-again post-revolutionary violence, Hany has also learned what no one his young age should: what the face of a dying person looks like. “Usually their mouth is open, they look pale, their eyes are unfocused and their breathing is unstable,” he says.

Even more horrifying is how well acquainted Hany is with the interior of Cairo’s notorious Zeinhom Morgue. The things that he witnessed in there, he says, will haunt him for the rest of his life.

“The stench was horrifying,” he remembers. “The drawers meant to hold the bodies are all broken, so bodies are often piled on top of each other haphazardly. In order to identify one body, you have to see all of them.”

Many of the corpses Hany saw in the morgue bore traces of the as-yet-unidentified gas they were subject to. “Some of them had weird skin eruptions and colours all over their bodies; others had completely lost their facial features,” he recalls.

Read the whole article here. 

Egypt and the aid backlash: Lessons for the rest of the world

"Really, our aggression is just aid we offer poor countries that are always complaining about overpopulation!" 1970s cartoon by Ahmed Hegazi

Here at Harvard Law School, eleven out of ten students will wind up in corporate practice, meaning they may never even see the inside of a courthouse. They’ll drift from office to conference room for the rest of their working lives, sucking down money like baleen whales. A few young things will end up dabbling in criminal law — mostly to defend the corporate lawyers’ clients who skimmed a bit too much krill from the till. They’ll stand before the blind, full-breasted figure of Justice in rituals as precise, time-honored, and orderly as a French bedroom farce. I envy their innocence. But you can’t comprehend Justice in its full majesty and power from the statues; you need to see it dancing half-naked on a table like a Nevada stripper bitten by a tarantula. I’d love to take those kids by the hand and lead them into an Egyptian courtroom.

lady, come to Cairo and get down and jive

The first time I stepped into one, more than ten years ago, the contrast with my procedural expectations was considerable. The court of my imaginings was a sort of competitive petting zoo. This was a fight ring full of honey badgers with rabies. Everyone was screaming. Women ululated the zaghrata till the blood froze. The defendants stood in a cage to one side; the judge’s demeanor seemed modelled on Commodus at the Coliseum.   Was that sweat darkening the dust underfoot, or someone’s blood? I was not at all surprised when a friend of mine hurled himself at a reporter and tackled him to the floor. An hour more, and I’d have done the same myself.

It seems to have been pretty much like that Sunday, when the Case of the NGO Workers went to trial in Cairo.  43 defendants, employees of five foreign nonprofits — 16 Americans, 16 Egyptians, along with Germans, Palestinians, and others — faced charges of undermining Egypt’s sovereignty: operating organizations without a license, bringing in money from abroad, and sending information to foreign countries.  Oh, yes, and a plot to dismember the country, since police found a map in one office that daringly showed Egypt divided into four zones. (It came off Wikipedia.)  Spectators and reporters mobbed the court. Fifteen lawyers showed up — out of that chaotic nowhere that usually means some prosecutor’s pocket — to claim they represented Egyptian citizens harmed by whatever the nonprofits had done. Half the audience chanted against the military regime. The other half, Salafists, demanded the foreigners be held as hostages till the blind Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman is freed from his American dungeon. The judge postponed the whole show and shebang for two months, till April 26. Nobody left happy.

all Egypt will be divided into four parts: the traitors' map, courtesy of

This case has been captivating everybody since the police raided 10 NGOs at the end of December, carting off computers, financial records, phones, and cash.   It captivates the US media because Americans were on trial. Unthinkable: Americans. While nine of the 16 accused US citizens got out of the country, seven –including an Obama Cabinet secretary’s son — huddled for refuge inside the American Embassy.  The resultant rage in Washington threatened the US’s massive aid package for Egypt, and the two countries’ longstanding alliance. Today, Egypt backed down, releasing the seven to a chartered flight at the airport, while pocketing as much as $300,000 each in bail. (The judges trying the case recused themselves in response, claiming improper political pressure.) This pretty much placates the United States, and the aid spigot is likely to turn on again; never mind the Egyptians still facing prison terms, or the Egyptian organizations raided and intimidated.

Some years back, when a Red Sea vessel sank and 1200 people drowned, the Colonel Blimpish right-wing writer John Derbyshire thought at first it might be a cruise ship packed with tourists. Then, “I learned that the ship was in fact a ferry, the victims all Egyptians. I lost interest at once, and stopped reading. I don’t care about Egyptians.” While it’s natural to take an interest in your own, few things are more contemptible than how Americans (and cranky Brits) notice history only when it’s happening to them.  Since a lot of history goes on elsewhere, this means that tourists and other travelers are its main protagonists, in the American view.  The Big Events are like dinner-theater performances where you come to watch and then get to join the show.

What happened to Lara Logan –raped near Tahrir more than a year ago — was terrible, but the fate of an assaulted American didn’t reveal some inner truth of Egypt’s revolution. And the US press reported the assault not to illuminate the sexual violence Egyptian women face, but to erase it. I feel sorry for the Cabinet secretary’s son, but Egyptian NGO workers have stared down state harassment for two decades. The 14 defendants who actually showed up for the trial are all Egyptian; but the US coverage is all about the absentees. (Meanwhile, by the way, John Derbyshire’s Stateside reputation easily bobbed back up despite his ballast of callousness. Last year, Ross Douthat, the New York Times’ most boring and conservative columnist, cited him as an authority … on Egypt.)

Abul Naga: Personally, I only want this much aid, no more

But Egyptianstoo, find the Americans’ plight captivating. It feeds the favorite cafe pastime: conspiracy theories. What the hell was the government thinking? The case was cooked up by Fayza Abul Naga, Minister of Planning and International Cooperation, one of the few holdovers the military junta kept in place directly from Mubarak’s last government.  A neatly coiffed figure vaguely resembling Meryl Streep’s latest Oscar-winning role, Abul Naga harassed NGOs under the previous regime, and is delighted to carry on under the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF).  The current campaign has lent her a frenzied popularity as  a militant for Egypt’s sovereignty. She and the prosecutors have jabbed at all the xenophobic buttons, accusing the NGOs of “pandering to the U.S. Congress, Jewish lobbyists and American public opinion.” The malleable Muslim Brotherhood, the dominant party in the newly elected Parliament and an occasional SCAF antagonist, endorsed what it calls her “nationalist position” (despite the fact that it’s never opened the books on its own election funding, allegedly ponied up by Qatar).

Few Egyptians, though, see the logic to SCAF’s apparent support of the anti-US campaign. It endangered the aid trough at which the military has been feeding for more than thirty years.

Adapted from Jeremy M. Sharp, "Egypt in Transition," Congressional Research Service, 2011, at

The graph shows the disproportion between US economic aid, which has been shrinking for more than a decade (with a short spike in 2003, to reward Mubarak for his effective support of the Iraq War), and military aid, which has stayed constant. The military assistance, since the late 1970s, has been a massive bribe to Egypt not to use its military — particularly against the obvious object, Israel.  Since only so much money can be spent on unusable weapons, much of the aid greased the internal security apparatus — or lined the generals’ pockets, not just through direct embezzlement but by investment in a vast network of businesses under uniformed control.

Researchers estimate that the Egyptian military controls 25 to 40 percent of Egypt’s economy. Military firms dominate key sectors, including food (olive oil, water, pasta), cement and gasoline, vehicle production (joint ventures with Jeep to produce Cherokees and Wranglers), and construction.

The money oiling this empire would disappear if US aid dried up. Some speculate that Abul Naga has gone rogue, Sarah Palin-style, persecuting without SCAF’s permission. “This is a country of separate islands now,” one lawmaker said.  “The Foreign Ministry, the Justice Ministry, the Parliament, the generals of the military council — everyone is his own island.” Yet the Cabinet serves at the military’s pleasure; it’s hard to suppose a minister could attack their wallets without retaliation. Others, therefore, see a darker, Byzantine design on SCAF’s part.

The venerable Richard Falk sheds some light. Employees of five organizations were charged in Egypt: the US-based National Democratic Institute, International Republican Institute, Freedom House, and International Center for Journalists; and the German Konrad Adenauer Foundation. All the Americans work for the first three.  Falk points out that the NDI and NRI get all their money from the US government; Freedom House takes 80% of its funding there.

Sometimes these entities are even referred to by the media as “civil society institutions”, which reflects, at best, a woeful state of unknowing, or worse, deliberate deception. Whatever one thinks of the activities of these actors, it is simply false to conceive of them as “nongovernmental”, or as emanations of civil society. It would be more responsive to their nature if such entities were described as “informal governmental organisations”. (IGOs)

Perhaps this is in fact the key to what’s happening. From one perspective, the fact that it’s effectively US government cash that SCAF is criminalizing– a little frosting on the big $1.5 billion birthday cake they get handed every year — makes their actions seem even stranger. But SCAF probably has a different fear: that the IGOs’ activities mean more and more US assistance will go to civil society, and less and less directly to Egypt’s rulers. Fayza started her campaign last March, when the US announced $65 million in aid to pro-democracy groups in Egypt. You can easily see SCAF wondering, not just: will that largesse be used against us? — but: is that coming out of our budget? (The minister reportedly told US officials that support for the civil society sector shouldn’t exceed $20 million.) The trial is a way of warning the US: We want things the old way. The money comes to us.

No, it's not. Stay home. We'll monitor YOU.

Falk calls attention to the Cold War roots of all three organizations, and warns of “disguised intrusions by a foreign government in the internal politics of a foreign country with fragile domestic institutions of government.” A concurs: “How would we react if a foreign country came here to teach us how to conduct elections?” Living in eastern Europe from 1990 to 1996, I saw IRI’s and NDI’s work at first hand. Together with the big German party foundations (Adenauer for the Christian Democrats, Friedrich Ebert for the Social Democrats, and Friedrich Naumann for the liberals — the Greens’ foundation was not yet hyperactive), they normalized politics in the countries where they operated. I don’t mean this in a good sense. Funding and training forces ideologically in line with their own preferences, they helped impose a Western-style left-right divide on societies that, in the wake of revolution, had been open to less stereotyped possibilities: anarchist parties, youth politics, environmental and feminist movements. (They didn’t succeed in stifling far-right extremists, given how far “normal” conservatism in the region had traditionally tended in a fascist direction.)  Undoubtedly they’ve tried to do the same in Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood’s election triumph, though, has the paradoxical effect of ensuring Egyptian politics won’t be a simple left-right affair for some while. Free-market and socialist tendencies flourish on both sides of the secular-religious divide. This tends to muddy the economic arguments most urgent to a poor country; but it also makes the alleged foreign interference seem not sinister, merely ineffective.

Falk also recognizes the ominious implications to the Cairo case: that

the Egyptian government, although admittedly long concerned about these spurious NGOs operating within its territory even during the period of Mubarak rule, is itself seemingly disingenuous, using the licensing and funding technicalities as a pretext for a wholesale crackdown on dissent and human rights, so as to discipline and intimidate a resurgent civil society and a radical opposition movement that remains committed to realising the democratic promise of the Arab Spring.

This is the explanation favored by the bien-pensant liberal in Egypt. Khaled Fahmy, professor at the American University of Cairo, writes:

The real target of Abouelnaga’s crusade is not foreign NGOs receiving foreign funding. Her real targets are human rights organizations that have been campaigning to defend basic freedoms before and after the 25 January revolution. The reason is simple: it is human rights organizations, more than official political parties or even the press, which have uncovered cases of police brutality under Mubarak’s dictatorial rule, which have defended helpless victims in numerous cases of outright injustice, and which have raised public awareness of basic and constitutional rights. … it is they who have sued the SCAF for allegedly conducting the notorious virginity tests on protesters; it is they who have been pressing the SCAF to restructure the security sector; and it is they who have highlighted and documented the SCAF’s bloody practices in Maspero, Mohamed Mahmoud Street, Cabinet Street, and Port Said.

This is true as far as it goes, yet flawed on two grounds.

First: I speak as a human rights activist: human rights groups’ work shouldn’t be exaggerated.  They document; they don’t mobilize.  The  abuses that brought Mubarak down, such as the killing of Khaled Said, were atrocities that exceeded the ambit of human rights documentation altogether, and became the iconic objects of popular campaigns.  Those campaigns did the hardest work. And without masses struggling and dying in Mohamed Mahmoud Street and Suez, there would have been nothing for the groups to document. Masses made the revolution. Documentation was a tool toward revolutionary ends, but not more than a tool — just as the middle-class methods of Facebook and Twitter didn’t cause the revolution, any more than Angry Birds.

There’s been a tendency (particularly fostered by foreign non-participants in the Arab Spring, such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty) to expropriate last year’s revolts as “human rights revolutions,” suggesting neither “impure” political motivations nor insistent economic demands played their part. This is absurd.  If “civil society” as Fahmy describes it here had been tasked alone with overthrowing the former regime, Mubarak would be preparing for immortality in an official pyramid, and his son would be readying his coronation as the old man’s steward on Earth. Civil society — a concept argued and idealized from Hegel to Havel — is a vital force. But it’s not revolutionary, it’s regulative.  It guards the transparency and flexibility of an open political system; it criticizes the occlusions of a closed one. It lacks the strength, though, to turn a system upside down. Only social movements can do that. It’s understandable for academics, who spend most of their time in offices, to delude themselves that other people who possess offices are the unmoved movers of the world.  (Human Rights Watch, my old employer, subscribed to similar illusions; its leaders would no more have understood a social movement that they would have invited the cleaning ladies to dinner.)  But power is in the streets; a revolution is a moment when the disenfranchised and the wretched of the earth can seize authority, however ephemeral, from those cosseted by educations and air conditioners.

Second, pointing to the undoubted virtues of rights organizations doesn’t help explain why — as Abul Naga’s sudden popularity reveals — so many people hate them in Egypt.  Rights activists themselves seem startled by the fact. After all, they defend the poor and vulnerable; why, when the cash is down and the police are knocking at their doors, does much of the population treat them as alien interlopers? But what is left out of Fahmy’s analysis is the dirty little secret of Egyptian liberalism: class. Unspeakable yet irresistible as a nasty French postcard, it’s everywhere present but nowhere discussed.

One has to weed out myth from reality. Human rights activists in Egypt, as in most places, are overworked and underpaid. Some organizations, such as the Hisham Mubarak Law Center (offering legal support to victims of violations) and the Nadeem Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence (offering help to torture survivors) transcend both their express mandates and the old victim/savior dichotomy, are explicit in their political commitments, and see part of their labor as mobilizing people to act and struggle. Aida Seif el-Dawla of the latter said to me once, more or less, “Sometimes the best rehabilitation from torture is to fight back.”

1% on one side, 99% keep to the other

Still, most Egyptians regard “civil society” as a place of privilege and inanition, far from the burdens and terrors of daily life. And from the poor’s perspective, they’re right. How many workers sit in a comfortable chair in an office paid for by the US? Moreover, civil society itself — overwhelmingly staffed by the middle and upper-middle classes — reinforces the image. Many of its leaders have no idea how to speak to the lower orders, except to order them to clean something. The condescension of authority and the inflection of command come naturally. And each large desk or air conditioner produces its own pasha, sure of his superiority to those who sweat.

The two failures are connected, and are not just a matter of attitude or tone. Salaried civil society activists in Egypt don’t know how to relate to other classes; and this reinforces their difficulty in dealing with social movements, with people mobilizing for change. For most of them (there are, of course, treasured exceptions) the language of mobilization is a tongue Rosetta Stone doesn’t teach. This tongue-tiedness extends to many of the young, middle-class activists who populated Midan Tahrir. It was telling that this past summer, when it became clear that SCAF threatened all the Revolution’s achievements, their main answer was to return to the square and try to reinvigorate, on their own, the dream of classless commonality there. The effort was beautiful — I was there, in July and August, and the idealism of it was both exasperating and deeply moving– but it was remote from the rest of the country’s reality. At the same time, Muslim Brothers and Salafists were busy organizing among workers and peasants, doling out food and identifying voters. The voting showed the inevitable result.

What lessons can derive from all this?

One is: human rights are not enough. They can set the procedural norms for a changed society; but neither rights claims nor the activists who press them will, in themselves, achieve the changes that most need to happen — changes in the deep structure of societies and states, changes in how wealth is allotted and who allots it, who holds power and how. The spirit –no, not the spirit; the muscle and the nerve — of social movements is needed to accomplish that, and to amplify what rights activists do. Human rights groups have to learn to speak the languages of movements: not later, but now.

A second lesson is about aid and the dynamics of power it represents. It’s striking (and not a little self-defeating) how popular an anti-aid rhetoric is among Egyptians. Far from treating assistance as a just claim against a history of economic and political exploitation, they’re almost eager to forego it for a vaguer acquisition: dignity.

Al Azhar, the leading Sunni Islamic institute in Egypt, and a fundamentalist Salafist sheik, Mohammad Hassan, formed a group with the goal of raising up to $2 billion to replace any lost American aid. [No indication of how much would go to economic relief, and how much into the generals’ pockets.] Three days ago, the military-appointed Egyptian cabinet voted to support the effort, the Fund for Dignity and Pride, and many prominent Egyptians have pledged support. The fund has so far raised $10 million.

Some of this is the military’s vain gesturing, but some obviously strums a populist nerve. And the nerve twinges elsewhere too. The obvious analogue is the rhetoric roaring out of Africa, after the fiasco of David Cameron’s threat to tie aid to LGBT people’s human rights. The fiasco was disastrous. Loud promises to give up aid echoed from Tanzania to Zimbabwe. Legislators brought forward new and old bills against homosexuality in Uganda, Nigeria, Liberia. Cameron’s words backfired in a massive backlash — and worsened the hatred screaming against queers across the continent. The Egypt quandary further suggests that the link between aid and rights protection is complicated, requiring  tact and strategy. Aid can discredit rights movements as much as it can assist them.

We just wants the Precious for a little while. Just to make the nasty peoples stop!

As for “aid conditionality”: well, the nagging hypocrisy beneath human rights activists’ claim that they’re above practical politics is that, in fact, they love power.  They want it and dream of it in secret. Like Boromir lusting for the Ring, they know it can cause them the occasional inconvenience, but they’re convinced they’ll put it to good use. The fact they can’t acknowledge this love in public only makes the longing fester more. The fantasy of using aid leverage cleanly and simply, despite all the colonial implications and the economic impact, to make rights violations stop is one version of the festering. Instead of building and mobilizing a domestic constituency against the abuses, instead of struggling to create an international movement, the fantasy tells them that a few key governments on their side will put the squeeze on the abusers, and — like a pimple bursting — the evil will end. The extreme form of this is to invoke not money, but military might. Human Rights Watch campaigned hard for intervention in Libya last year, not so much because it seemed incontrovertible that otherwise a genocide would happen, but as a test case. If, for once, governments would bomb another state purely on the strength of  rights arguments, wouldn’t that show — for the first time and for all — that human rights had teeth? Wouldn’t it confirm that they and their exponents were a power to be reckoned with? A moral power, of course. Power almost always starts off announcing itself as moral. Then things change.

Human Rights Watch never much cared for achieving things by movement building. Its vision was always to get the right governments lined up on the right side, and go from there. That may work in certain places and for certain causes.  But in most of our lives and world, things happen through politics, and politics mean mobilization, and mobilization means cobbling together movements that voice and meet people’s needs in the concrete, not just the abstract. It’s a lesson a great many human rights groups still need to learn.

Why gay Middle Easterners can’t stand

In June 2011, 15 Arab sexual rights and human rights organizations, and more than a dozen individual activists, signed a statement condemning the website for lying about itself, its origins, and its politics. It’s unusual to see so many groups and activists getting together on anything in a fractured region, so this unanimity was something of an event. It’s been six months since the statement, which “Gay Middle East” never answered.  But the website has started creeping back to life. It’s time, I think, to remind ourselves exactly what its lies were, and why they were and are so dangerous.

This statement wasn’t the first time the activists had to tried to ask “Gay Middle East” to clarify basic facts, including where it was founded and based.  The website’s editor, Dan Littauer, earlier responded to criticisms (in a press release written for him by British activist Peter Tatchell) simply by dismissing the questions as “smears.” “Gay Middle East” had denied that it had any links to Israel. The activists responded that GME “presents lies so blatant that a simple Google search is enough uncover the truth.” And they offered the evidence and the truth they had uncovered.

In summary, they found:

  • GME’s claim that it was “not owned or run by an Israeli” was completely untrue: the site had been founded in Israel, registered to an Israeli, and owned by an Israeli.
  • As late as 2009, in fact, it was still registered to an Israeli address.
  • Littauer, its “executive editor,” who when confronted in 2011 claimed he was “a German citizen (with only a German passport),” had in fact repeatedly identified himself as an Israeli in the past.
You can read their research in detail in their statement. What a lot of people outside the region don’t quite grasp, though, is exactly why this is so important.

The activist statement raises a range of political issues.   Those involve, at a basic level, Arab queers’ and Arab activists’ need to reclaim their own voices, rather than submitting to the ventriloquism of others — others who may or may not share their values, may or may not sympathize with their work, but should not in either case be arrogating the right to interpret their struggles to the world.   I’m not going to recapitulate all their concerns here, although I agree with many: they’re already laid out articulately and clearly.  I’m going to address the one that resonates most with me: safety, the safety of activists and ordinary queers. Littauer and “Gay Middle East” have been putting people across the region who work with them in danger.

To be clear: There’s absolutely nothing wrong with Israelis working on LGBT issues elsewhere in the Middle East. Plenty of Israeli researchers have produced important academic information on the region. (Among things I’ve read in recent years, Ze’ev Maghen’s work on the concept of purity in Islamic jurisprudence struck me as important, despite the fact that I can’t stand most of what I gather are his politics; and Ofra Bengio‘s study of Ba’ath Party rhetoric, Saddam’s Word, seems to me much better than Kanan Makiya.) But they didn’t do it by denying being Israelis.

Even in Egypt, formally at peace with its neighbor for three decades, Israel remains an enemy in both the state’s rhetoric and the population’s opinions.  Giving sensitive information — and human rights information is clearly “sensitive” to any government — to an Israeli-based group or an Israeli citizen would easily be seen as practicing espionage, almost anywhere in the region.

The khawal as traitor: From state media, 2001

This isn’t a light or abstract threat. It is particularly dangerous for members of groups that are already despised. When the lead defendant in Egypt’s famous Queen Boat case was put on trial, prosecutors claimed he had learned all about homosexuality in Israel. The press carried, and people believed, ludicrously doctored photos of him sitting before an Israeli flag, wearing an Israeli army helmet. In 2007, a Cairo court sentenced Mohammed al-Attar to fifteen years, for recruiting gay Arabs in Canada to spy for Israel.  Prosecutors alleged he was “a gay Zionist, who turned his back on Islam and worked to undermine the security of his homeland.”  He later said that police electroshocked him to extract a confession, and forced him to drink his own urine. There are plenty of other stories.

Israel is proud of its espionage, if that isn’t a contradiction in terms. Not only has it long kept up spy networks around and beyond the Middle East, it publicizes the fact just enough to keep governments off-balance. Objectively, in the Great Game, this is sensible. It’d be dumb to do otherwise. The prevalence of espionage makes a general paranoia on its neighbors’ parts perhaps excusable. Targeting gays is not excusable. But when the general rhetoric already sees them as subject to outside influence, treating them as traitors is simply a next step.
If “Gay Middle East” is hiding its real origins, it’s putting the people in Arab countries who choose to work with it and give it information at grave risk. Does it want to keep them at risk of arrest and torture? Does it simply not care? Its duplicity shows contempt for their safety and well-being. It owes them honest answers, which it so far has refused to give.

Networking: Michael Lucas pictures Israel

Many odd things about GME were already on the public record before the Arab activists’ statement. Ben Doherty used the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine to survey content produced by GME from 2003 through 2008. He found it started as a tourism site for non-Middle Easterners, with a seeming emphasis on sex tourism:

Some of the people currently or previously associated with the site – namely Dan Littauer, Avi Ozeri, and Scott Piro [the latter two also Israelis], –have a background in the tourism industry and public relations, and until 2009, GME tried to be a tourism resource. Before 2009, their site had a section about tourism to Arab countries with cruising tips. The site offered up coming out stories that were both implausible and prurient. They noted sodomy law and age of consent information for each country.

Beyond this, there was Littauer’s obvious political bias against reporting negative information about Israel; his refusal to talk to some of the most respected activists in the region; and his odd association with Tatchell in the UK, a figure known for his Islamophobia.

A key moment came in April 2011, when “Gay Middle East” boasted of how Britain’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office had invited Littauer to contribute information on LGBT issues in the region, for its regular human rights reports.  Littauer was setting himself up to speak for Arab LGBT activism –without speaking to the activists. He seemed indifferent to their opinions on whether, or what, they wanted to contribute to the rights representations of an former imperial (and currently invading) power. The activists’ statement observes:

GBT organizations and activists in the Arab region have always approached requesting foreign intervention very carefully, and it has been the topic of much debate both within activist communities and between them and international organizations that have come to understand the complexities involved and possible backlash that such action would entail.

Meanwhile, seems to have an open door with the UK Foreign Office and do not think twice about asking them to intervene at any given opportunity. These issues were raised with by several people, but they refused to engage.

When I visited the region in June 2011, several people voiced increasing fear of “Gay Middle East.” Some were afraid of being blackmailed: Littauer had extracted information about their groups or movements, including names of activists working undercover. They were uncertain how he would use the information, or where it might go.  As these issues were raised with GME, its answer was to turn to Tatchell; the response Tatchell wrote for Littauer’s website contains his signature move of interpreting any criticism as a “smear.” As the activists’ statement says,’s disingenuous response to what it sees as a “smear campaign” against it …. obfuscates the legitimate reasons many queer Arab activists take issue with its work.

“We invite Gay Middle East to respond,” the activists wrote. An answer never came. Neither Tatchell nor “Gay Middle East” have ever understood that there are criticisms that demand response and dialogue, not just “smears” that deserve dismissal and rejection.   That inability to answer, to be accountable, to speak to rather than for, leaves them in the end without any credible claim to being activists: just self-promoters, gardeners of their reputations, driven by the passion for publicity.

So six months later, the question still stands: Has “Gay Middle East” got anything to say for itself?

Littauer, at least, has been busily tweeting about those who “smeared” him. His tweets reveal a bit more about GME’s vision. He recently wrote that my old colleague Rasha Moumneh, of Human Rights Watch, is “well known for her loony left militancy – she has a good mentor one shamed ex-HRW…”

The last bit of gibberish I think may refer to me; and, as a Virginia boy, I didn’t know that the German-British-Israeli Littauer, so presumptuously protean, also spoke Southern. But to adopt his demotic Alabaman, I’d just note that I’m ‘shamed, deeply ‘shamed, to be thought Moumneh’s mentor. I’m still young enough to be learning from other people, not mentoring them.

The more interesting point, though, is what Littauer thinks is “loony left militancy.”  He’s referring to a quote Moumneh gave to an article in IPS News. It reads, in its entirety:

“Repression of Arab LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual) individuals under previous regimes no doubt existed. Having a non-Islamist government is no guarantee against the persecution of individuals for sexual and gender non-conformity,” Middle East and North Africa researcher for the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) Rasha Moumneh tells IPS. “However, the fear over what is being called an Islamist ‘takeover’ completely ignores what is actually happening on the ground. The Tunisians had free and fair elections for the first time in decades. In Egypt, the primary concern is the abhorrent behaviour of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, and not the Islamists.”

Now, both these points are true. The crackdown on homosexual conduct in Egypt from 2001-2004 — when hundreds, probably thousands, were arrested, almost certainly the worst such campaign in the region in modern times — took place under a secular government, enforcing a secular law that was a product of a secular-nationalist revolution. You don’t need the Muslim Brotherhood or the Salafists to start a moral panic and target despised groups. All you need is a vulnerable government looking for a distraction.

SCAF, with bloody hands

On the second point: the new Tunisian government is democratically elected (which should make it less vulnerable, rather than more).  If Tunisia is to become a normal democracy, its citizens and its self-appointed friends have to stop being paranoid about the passage of power. The election of a party may anger or disappoint its opponents, but it shouldn’t create fear for the system itself, any more than a Tory victory in Littauer’s adopted homeland entitles Labour to claim democratic process is collapsing.  When Littauer indicates that, he’s expressing his contempt for the revolution, and his fear of democracy. Meanwhile, in Egypt, it’s the armed forces and not the Islamists who are busily violating the population’s human rights, subjecting 12,000 people to miltary trial, and shooting unarmed civilians on the streets. To pretend that they are not the most urgent threat to freedom (as well as life) is wilfully to disregard the reality.

So what defines the “loony left,” for “Gay Middle East”? They tell the truth, and they respect democracy and democratic process.

And what defines the “reasonable right,” for “Gay Middle East”? I shudder to imagine.

That seems to say it all.

The state and your sex life

One of the first signs that Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) was of an authoritarian temper indistinguishable from the Mubarak regime came last March, when the military took seven women it had arrested during a sit-in in Midan Tahrir and subjected them to virginity tests. One, Samira Ibrahim, filed an official complaint after her release. The military first denied the act; then defamed the women, saying they were

“not like your daughter or mine … These were girls who had camped out in tents with male protesters in Tahrir Square, and we found Molotov cocktails and (drugs) in the tents.”

The army ultimately explained,

“We didn’t want them to say we had sexually assaulted or raped them, so we wanted to prove that they weren’t virgins in the first place … None of them were.”

Samira Ibrahim pressed forward heroically with the case despite public stigma and anonymous threats. In this video (now subtitled) she describes the experience.

On December 17, thanks to her courage, a state administrative court banned the practice of virginity tests in military detention. In a concession to protesters, the military also pressed charges of sexual assault against the lowest-ranking figure it could find responsible, the conscripted doctor who actually performed the exams. (Shades of Abu Ghraib — a few rogue soldiers!)  His trial starts next week, but the charges have already been downgraded to “performing an act that violates modesty.”

For me, the tests, with their brutal assertion of state power over the suspect body, recall the practice of forcing men accused of homosexual sex to undergo forensic anal examinations — carried out on hundreds or thousands of victims during Egypt’s 2001- 2003 crackdown. An article on those exams is here.

Tahrir 360

Check this out; it’s extremely neat.

It’s based on photographs taken on November 22, the third day of the massive state violence that beset Cairo for a week, and left more than forty dead and dozens more injured, many blind. It captures something of the giddiness of being in a huge crowd, and — with its vertiginously swooping perspectives — something of the suppressed terror of being under siege.

It’s about seeing. And its multiple viewpoints, so swiftly merging and changing, can’t help reminding one of those who left the week with an eye sacrificed to the State. I don’t imagine the artist was thinking of that when he created a synoptic view. But it’s almost a manifesto of revenge. We keep seeing, we keep imagining against all odds. It’s the state that’s blind.

Odin rode to the well to ask the old witch: How can I fight the dragon and win? The witch told him: I’ll give you the secret, but first you have to pluck one eye out and toss it down the well. Odin hesitated, but in a swift gesture he clawed his eye from his socket. It made a small plash at the bottom of the well. Now: what is the secret? he demanded of the witch. Her grating voice whispered: Watch with both eyes.