The flight into Egypt

Joseph Tissot, The Flight into Egypt, ca. 1886-1894

Joseph Tissot, The Flight into Egypt, ca. 1886-1894

None of this will make sense.

You can’t make things make sense in Cairo these days. The curfew and the stir-craziness prevent it. If you speak Arabic, search for #اكتشافات_الحظر on Twitter; that’s “Curfew discoveries,” a new hashtag, for people to post all the things they’re learning from being housebound twelve-plus hours a day. Some discoveries indicate an observant, experimental mind: “The refrigerator shelf can fit up to 78 lemons, or 65 cucumbers stacked vertically, or 75 cucumbers stacked horizontally.” Or: “It takes six minutes and 40 seconds for the toilet tank to refill with water.” Other folk count the ceramic tiles on their kitchen floor, Tweet it, then re-count them. “Nobody can tickle himself” suggests, perhaps, a need to learn more about masturbation. But what can you make of “#CurfewDiscoveries: There are other people living in my house”?

A sort of Sartrean madness has possessed the citizens, a nausea born of nerves and boredom. Tonight I went downtown for the first time in almost two weeks. The curfew has been moved from 7PM till 9 PM; still, at 6:45 half the shops on Talaat Harb were shuttered, the streets dully dark, and only a fraction of the usual throngs scudded along the sidewalks. Yet it didn’t feel quiet; panic pressed on the crowd — not just in me — like a held breath. People’s eyes kept flicking back over their shoulders, to see who might be after them. The strictures are devastating the economy. Even doctors report they’re losing money: “their patients are too scared to be out on the streets.” But the military seems unworried by fiscal consequences. One man-in-the-street told the AP that “The curfew is not for security reasons. It is purely to make people feel that the army is in charge, for psychological reasons.” And a website developer had his own analysis: General Sisi, the new Jefe Máximo, is “imposing the curfew to make us all sit at home and watch TV propaganda aimed to make us all love him and hate terrorists.”

Protocols of the Elders of Ikhwan: Al-Ahram, August 27, warns of a new US-Brotherhood-media-business-politician plot

Protocols of the Elders of Ikhwan: Al-Ahram, August 27, warns of a new US-Brotherhood-media-business-politician plot

The love is made of fear. Arrests continue, slowed to a dribble now that few real Ikhwan leaders remain at large. But the press keeps whipping up sectarian paranoia. Islamists horrifically burned churches ten days ago. Yet even tangible atrocities see the circle of guilt expanding. Yesterday’s headline in Al Ahram blared that the US Ambassador and the Muslim Brotherhood had joined “politicians, journalists, and businessmen” in a “new plot” to destabilize the State. The story pointed to “some liberal parties” as conspirators. Plainly the military doubts the lasting loyalty of its erstwhile liberal allies. Time to send a warning: they could be next.


Video by a group of fresh-faced young Egyptians trying to expose media lies and challenge public gullibility: the refrain, Khaleek Mesadaq, also the group’s name, means “Go ahead! Believe!” H/t Arabist.net

Stories proliferate of attacks on Western journalists, no doubt because Western journalists write about them. These are terrible: two reporters shot and killed, two Canadian filmmakers imprisoned for nearly a fortnight now. Meanwhile, TV propaganda spews out endless stories about how CNN is in the paws of al-Qaeda. No one has bothered me even once, but I feel beleaguered just from everybody’s warnings.The other night, having overstayed the curfew, I had to walk across one of the bridges to get home, and on its empty asphalt expanse, with no way out except the Nile, I felt utterly exposed and doomed: caught between wall and barbed wire, like Richard Burton at the end of The Spy Who Came In From the ColdFor me the city is cheap melodrama. For others, it’s turned tragic. So much of the hate targets the least protected strangers in the land, the refugees.

Between 250,000 and 300,000 Syrians have fled to Egypt since the civil war broke out. The myth now is that these refugees are all diehard militants for the Muslim Brotherhood. Morsi’s support for the Syrian opposition had been one sticking point, perhaps fatal, in his relations with the generals. Barely two weeks before his ouster, he spoke to an Islamist anti-Assad rally, and seemed to urge Egyptians to build a private army and join the Syrian struggle if their own military would not take part. The idea of privatizing their preserve of violence enraged the officers. Some later told the press that Morsi was beyond rescue from that moment on. Revenge came almost immediately after he fell. The military government tightened visa terms for Syrians, barred them from attending schools, and made “security checks” compulsory. The media stoked fears — not just State airwaves but even the private ONTV network, once known as a citadel of liberalism. Tawfiq Okasha, a TV host and owner of the lunatic Fara’een channel (he’s sometimes called the Egyptian Glenn Beck), turned crazed marbled eyeballs on the camera and told Syrians, “We know where you live.” He gave them 48 hours to stop “backing the Ikhwan,” or their homes would burn.

The junta started arresting refugees, almost at random. They picked them out of microbuses at the checkpoints that have sprouted around Cairo. They seized them on the streets. They knocked on doors in the night:

On July 25, the night before Egyptians took to the streets to support military chief Abdul Fattah al-Sisi’s “war on terror,” Qasim, who fled from Dara’a in southern Syria in early March of this year, [was] detained by Egypt’s Homeland Security forces. Along with his elderly father, he was taken from their home in [the Cairo quarter of ] Mesekeen Uthman by a security officer wearing civilian clothes. Qasim’s yellow card, which guarantees protection by the U.N. Refugee Agency, did nothing to help him. Waiting for them below their dilapidated apartment tower were five security cars and a troop of Homeland Security officers.

No one knows how many Syrians are detained without charge. The UN High Commission on Refugees says 160, but this reflects only those about whom police have deigned to tell them. Since hardly more than a third of Syrians in Cairo are registered with the UNHCR (the office’s snail-like lassitude means there’s little advantage in formalizing one’s status), this is probably a fraction of a figure rising to the hundreds or thousands. They face deportation back to a murderous war.

Revenge: Sandro Botticelli, Moses Punishes the Rebels Korah, Dathan and Abiram, 1481-2

Revenge on the resistance: Sandro Botticelli, Moses Punishes the Rebels Korah, Dathan and Abiram, 1481-2

Then there are the Palestinians. Immediately after Morsi’s overthrow, the junta issued an order: to prevent people with Palestinian identity papers from boarding planes to Egypt. In most cases, these were Gazans trying to return to their besieged enclave, which can only be entered from the Egyptian side. In some cases, they were residents of Egypt. Probably thousands were stranded abroad.

The media hawked the notion that Palestinians were “terrorist” adherents of the Muslim Brotherhood. Electronic Intifada has collected moments from the fearfest. Three days after the coup, a well-travelled host on Al-Youm TV told about watching as an airline offloaded a stunned Palestinian passenger trying to get to Egypt. She felt warm, she said, because “the army and the police forces are wide awake and acting properly.” FIve days after the coup, a speaker on another channel claimed repeatedly that President Morsi was “of Palestinian origin.” Nine days after that, the “liberal” ONTV reported that Hamas had sent 3,000 fighters from Gaza into Egypt, to restore their man Morsi to power. Many Palestinians fear to leave their homes. Two days into the curfew, the Palestinian roommate of a friend of mine was thrown out by their landlord. The neighbors had complained at having a “terrorist” in the building.

There aren’t figures for how many Palestinian nationals now live in Egypt: hundreds of thousands, probably. They encapsulate much of the country’s modern history. When they came, in 1948 and then in waves over ensuing years, they first were hoisted onto the triumphal vehicle of Nasser’s Arab nationalism, promised a common identity as the culmination of a common struggle. Later, under Sadat and Mubarak, a narrower and US-funded Egyptian national identity excluded them — though it still exploited their cause whenever it needed the illusion of a larger, more invigorating purpose.

Palestinian mother and children in Gezirat Fadel: © Mosa'ab Elshamy, 2013

Palestinian mother and children in Gezirat Fadel: © Mosa’ab Elshamy, 2013

An hour or so north of Cairo, in the reedy dust of the Delta, is a settlement called Gezirat Fadel, or Fadel Island. It’s not a real island, just an enclave circled by a mud wall that secludes it imperfectly from history’s flow. Almost four thousand people live in poverty there, mostly descendants of one clan of Beersheba (Bir al-Saba’) Bedouins, Palestinian families who fled to Egypt in 1948. They had life easier before Sadat’s peace treaty with Israel in 1978. Before then, they shared the benefits of Nasser’s socialism equally with Egyptian citizens. After that, the President’s breach with the PLO meant they were relegated to foreigner status, and their rights to education, health care and other benefits similarly shrank. They have no amenities such as sewage systems. They settled in the village because it reminded them of the sprawling desert back at home; they’ve stayed because there is nowhere else to go. Theirs is the largest single community of Palestinians in rural Egypt. One official estimates, though, that 40,000 Palestinian nationals live scattered across that governorate alone.

Sandro Botticelli, The Flight into Egypt, ca. 1495-1500

Sandro Botticelli, The Flight into Egypt, ca. 1495-1500

I visited Gezirat Fadel briefly about ten years ago. I remember goats and garbage — scavenging plastic for recycling moors the residents loosely to the cash economy. I thought of it today because it reminded me of the history of Egypt as refuge, a place for strangers. That history has never been easy, but now xenophobia and lies make the refuge dangerous. Nobody in her right mind would flee to Egypt. I wonder what’s happening to the people on Fadel Island now. Has anybody noticed them?

I thought today also of Zeitoun, which is maybe halfway between Gezirat Fadel and the center of Cairo. I passed through Zeitoun one bored day this past spring. Once a village, it’s been sucked up, like a bird into a jet engine, by the metropolis. It’s a very Egyptian neighborhood, nothing distinctive except the Coptic church, a larger shrine than the shabby suburban mediocrity would seem to merit. In Christian legend, the Virgin Mary sheltered on its site, when the Holy Family fled to the Nile to escape Herod’s persecution. The flight into Egypt: one waystation in a history of refuge.

In 1968, though, Egypt turned its eyes toward Zeitoun. It was a year after the huge defeat of the Six Day War. FIghting and massive Israeli retaliation continued along the Suez Canal. Sectarian violence sprang up — Muslims burned a church in Luxor. Strange, then, that it was a Muslim garage mechanic in Zeitoun who first saw the apparition, a wavering band of light atop St. Mary’s Church, which he mistook for a woman about to jump to her death. A crowd gathered, and though the police tried to displace the suicide rumor with the story that it was a reflection from the streetlights, a certainty grew: the Virgin Mary had appeared above her shrine.

April 2, 1968: Photo of the apparition above the church in Zeitoun

April 2, 1968: Photo of the apparition above the church in Zeitoun

Mary is almost as important in Islam as in the several Christianities. (The Qur’an mentions her more often than the New Testament.) Over the next three years tens of thousands of people flocked to Zeitoun to see the apparition; Nasser himself showed up. And while the Coptic and later the Roman Catholic churches certified it as an official miracle, the glimmering light’s popularity crossed confessional divides. More Muslims than Christians made the pilgrimage. Even among Copts, the national scope of the celebration was transformative. One worshipper told Cynthia Nelson, an anthropologist:

The most beautiful thing to do is to go to Zeitoun and watch the people of all religions participating in Coptic prayers. Imagine, this is the first time in history the Copts could sing their hymns in the streets of Egypt among all the Muslims and shout aloud, “Umm el Mokhalass (Mother of the Savior).”

In 1973, Nelson wrote:

The Virgin was seen as a collective symbol for all Egyptians. … [she] symbolizes for the Egyptians  — both Christian and Muslim alike — a succoring, protective mother, who has the power to banish chaos and restore the benign shape of the world. … [Thus] the apparition of the Virgin also symbolizes the conditions of modem pluralism in Egyptian society. By pluralism I mean a situation in which there is more than one worldview available to the members of society, a situation in which there is competition between worldviews.

Something lovely lingers about the Virgin’s appearance as unity in diversity. It reveals a deep capacity in society for finding ways to transcend difference, deeper than the daily violence. Still, it took a myth and miracle to do it. Turning that ecstasy back into reality is a harder matter.

If the Virgin really existed, though, she was no heavenly light. She was an ordinary woman, a Palestinian, one who herself migrated and became a stranger in Egypt. Could she have looked like this girl, the child of Palestinians from Gezirat Fadel?

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Young Palestinian woman in Gezirat Fadel: © Mosa’ab Elshamy, 2013

There’s a minor tradition in English literature of imagining the Madonna as a very normal woman burdened, and repelled, by the unwanted responsibility God gave her of tending to the world’s salvation. The Victorian Walter Pater saw this in Botticelli’s Madonnas. The painter, Pater says, shows us not extraordinary beings, but ordinary persons, “saddened perpetually by the shadow upon them of the great things from which they shrink.” Pater grows eloquent in projecting how those women feel, forced by history into an inhuman greatness from which their human self recoils. How can we bear the demands of others’ dreams? I want to quote him at length, because it is one of the most beautiful passages in English prose.

It is this which gives to his Madonnas their unique expression and charm. He has worked out in them a distinct and peculiar type, definite enough in his own mind, for he has painted it over and over again … Hardly any collection of note is without one of these circular pictures, into which the attendant angels depress their heads so naively. Perhaps you have sometimes wondered why those peevish-looking Madonnas, conformed to no acknowledged or obvious type of beauty, attract you more and more, and often come back to you when the Sistine Madonna and the Virgins of Fra Angelico are forgotten.

Sandro Botticelli, Madonna of the Magnificat, ca. 1481

Sandro Botticelli, Madonna of the Magnificat, ca. 1481

At first, contrasting them with those, you may have thought that there was something in them mean or abject even, for the abstract lines of the face have little nobleness, and the colour is wan. For with Botticelli she too, though she holds in her hands the “Desire of all nations,” is one of those who are neither for Jehovah nor for His enemies; and her choice is on her face. The white light on it is cast up hard and cheerless from below, as when snow lies upon the ground, and the children look up with surprise at the strange whiteness of the ceiling. Her trouble is in the very caress of the mysterious child, whose gaze is always far from her, and who has already that sweet look of devotion which men have never been able altogether to love, and which still makes the born saint an object almost of suspicion to his earthly brethren. Once, indeed, he guides her hand to transcribe in a book the words of her exaltation, the Ave, and the Magnificat, and the Gaude Maria, and the young angels, glad to rouse her for a moment from her dejection, are eager to hold the inkhorn and to support the book. But the pen almost drops from her hand, and the high cold words have no meaning for her, and her true children are those others, among whom, in her rude home, the intolerable honour came to her, with that look of wistful inquiry on their irregular faces which you see in startled animals – gipsy children, such as those who, in Apennine villages, still hold out their long brown arms to beg of you, but on Sundays become enfants du choeur, with their thick black hair nicely combed, and fair white linen on their sunburnt throats.

Sandro Botticelli, Madonna of the Pomegranate, ca. 1487, detail

Sandro Botticelli, Madonna of the Pomegranate, ca. 1487, detail

William Butler Yeats read Pater, and wrote a poem, “The Mother of God,” about the fear the Virgin feels, as history and responsibility irradiate her body.

The threefold terror of love; a fallen flare
Through the hollow of an ear;
Wings beating about the room;
The terror of all terrors that I bore
The Heavens in my womb.

Had I not found content among the shows
Every common woman knows,
Chimney corner, garden walk,
Or rocky cistern where we tread the clothes
And gather all the talk?

What is this flesh I purchased with my pains,
This fallen star my milk sustains,
This love that makes my heart’s blood stop
Or strikes a sudden chill into my bones
And bids my hair stand up?

Maybe we can barely bear the stranger, and can hardly survive the moment when his presence is real to us, when it enters into our blood and bones and makes the heart halt in recognition. Maybe we have to imagine a saint or virgin, someone better than we could ever be, who can live the generosity we would like to feel but cannot stand to know.

But all of us are ordinary people. There is no saint to save us. There is no heavenly light to absolve us. And this is no myth. The strangers are Syrians and Palestinians, Christians and Muslims. While the propaganda blares, the truth happens. They are here, and now.

Meister von Mondsee (the Mondsee Master), The Flight into Egypt, ca. 1487

Meister von Mondsee (the Mondsee Master), The Flight into Egypt, ca. 1487

“It is against army doctrine for armored vehicles to run over human beings”

MERIP (the MIddle East Research and Information Project) has a characteristically excellent article on last week’s horrific army violence against demonstrators in Egypt. The army’s line since the attacks has grown more, not less, muddled. Initially, for instance, they claimed that soldiers had been among those killed, martyrs to a rampaging Christianity. but they’ve been unable to produce corroboration. “Many analysts therefore doubt that the army suffered any losses at all. At [their] press conference, the generals displayed fuzzy footage of a military policeman being stabbed.”

The official reaction, the author concludes, “has been consistent with state responses to attacks on non-Muslim citizens in the Mubarak era. It can be summed up in three D-words: denial, demonization of protesters and (specious) distribution of blame equally among all the parties involved.”

But some parts of the state response add an extra frisson of horror:

Before the denials, however, there were two immediate actions by the authorities as events unfolded that fateful Sunday night. The first was that the army stormed the offices of the two television stations whose personnel had managed to tape soldiers firing on the protesters, the Egyptian January 25 channel, set up by revolutionary activists, and the US-sponsored Arabic-language satellite network al-Hurra. The goal was to intimidate the stations into going off the air. …

The second action was to announce on state-run television that “Copts” had put the army itself in peril. Subtitles at the bottom of the screen read: “Urgent: The Army Is Under Attack by Copts.” The presenter called upon all “honorable citizens” to go to Maspero to help defend the soldiers. Around this time, a report was also circulated that that two officers had been martyred at Coptic hands. Viewers at home were not unmoved. Indeed, that evening, many residents of Bulaq and other nearby working-class districts armed themselves with clubs and other weapons, before heading off to Maspero to assist the army in beating up and even killing protesters. One corpse had its head split in two, clearly by a sword or another sharp instrument, not an army-issue weapon.

The NY Times today states the extremely obvious: the military junta ruling Egypt shows less and less inclination to surrender power soon.   It’s unlikely they harbor any dreams of installing a lasting, openly military dictatorship. But they want a permanent veto over civilian politics, and they want a guarantee that no future government will mess with their fantastically lucrative networks of businesses and property. (Nobody knows how much of Egypt the army owns, but $2 billion a year in “military aid” from the US, over thirty years, adds up.) They are not particularly content with the array of potential successors on hand now. They can’t stand Mohamed El Baradei — too democratic; they are not terribly fond of Amr Moussa — too diplomatic. The various factions of the Muslim Brotherhood, opportunistically putting price tags on their grandmothers in a bid to be granted a bit of power, might be their best bet, but the generals find the idea of a religious government hard to stomach. So they are playing a dangerous waiting game: holding on to authority for as long as they can, in the hopes that occasional controlled bursts of mayhem and disorder will increase the population’s longing for a strong hand.

Omar Suleiman's disappearing act: pay no attention to that man behind me

In the meantime, they’ll try to figure out whose that hand might be. When I was in Cairo in June, a friend told me of rumors that the military had been keeping Omar Suleiman in suspended animation, hoping to resurrect his moribund career and present him as an acceptable presidential candidate. Suleiman was Mubarak’s longtime intelligence head and torturer-in-chief; in the last chaotic days of the ancien regime, the desperate president named Suleiman his successor. But he was sidelined by the military takeover, forced to announce Mubarak’s resignation and then disappear into retirement. Apparently the idea of selling Suleiman was quashed; somebody persuaded the junta that his reputation was too, well, tainted to make a plausible presidentiable. But the very possibility that they considered it suggests how incapable of democratic adaptation the generals are.

Bullseye on the troops

Doctor, it hurts here

By way of Amr Bassiouny: the military regime in Egypt has trotted out a bunch of soldiers to show how they were injured by unarmed, furiously rampaging civilians Sunday.   Unfortunately, they all seem to have almost the same injury in the same place, the same arm in the same sling. Obviously those Copts have great aim!

Shock troops of the counter-revolution

“Revolutions revolutionize counter-revolutions,” Régis Debray wrote. We’re seeing this, surely, in the weird and desperate maneuvers that Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF, which sounds remarkably like a fungal disease) is making to sustain its bloody, counter-revolutionary  power.

Hosni Mubarak, back in his day, never actually used the militant political Islamists much. He would toss them the occasional concessions when troubled by other opposition (most notably, letting the Muslim Brotherhood contest and, where they contested, win the 2005 parliamentary elections).  But at no point did he call on their manpower, allow them to become a public prop for the regime, or use them as shock troops against opponents. This diffidence persisted even though the Brotherhood — of course, the most moderate of the lot, and famous for its opportunism,  as if the malleable Mitt Romney had turned in his Mormon underwear for a galabeya — regularly offered itself up for sale in the most shameless way, showing a well-turned thigh to the government’s cruising eye with the urgency of a starving streetwalker on a freezing night.  They wanted to be exploited. But no. The Mubarakites understandably could not relinquish the bad example of Sadat, who tried to win over the burgeoning Islamist groups by massive pandering in the mid-Seventies. Uncooperative and unco-optable, they killed him for his pains.

The bones Mubarak threw to the Islamists were cast over electrified barbed wire. He arrested them by the tens of thousands, tortured them, buried them in concentration camps for years. The brutality was appalling. It endeared him to the United States, but from a religious radical’s perspective, it rather stymied any prospects for a rapprochement.

Ahmed Seif el-IslamSCAF, in a far less secure position, has tried to play a double game—badly. There’s a widespread suspicion in Egypt that SCAF has tried to sell Western governments on extended army rule, and repression, as the last bulwark keeping the state secular, and the Islamists out of power. Ahmed Seif el-Islam, one of the great heroes of Egypt’s human rights movement, thundered at a meeting I attended in June: “The military want to present themselves as the guardians of security, saving us again from the Salafists, so that they can hold onto power. Such security has nothing to do with democracy.”

At the same time, for internal consumption, SCAF has struck an unmistakeable if informal alliance with the Brotherhood, which makes occasional gestures of demurral but generally is extraordinarily obedient to the military line.  This makes a certain sense: as an institution the military is enormously rich, but it has no political constituency except itself.  If a potential friendship is up for sale, why not buy? But it sits uneasily with what the army is telling the United States.

Last night’s massacre in Cairo was an act of exceptional brutality–against Copts, who have been increasingly unequivocal in voicing dissatisfaction, but by extension and example against dissent in general. The NY Times reported today:

Witnesses, victims and doctors said Monday that demonstrators were killed when military-led security forces drove armored vehicles over as many as six people and fired live ammunition into the crowds. Doctors at a Coptic hospital showed journalists 17 bodies, including one with a crushed skull and others with mangled limbs.

“Cairo yesterday was a part of Syria,” said Shady el-Ghazaly Harb, a liberal activist who helped set off the revolution, invoking the violent crackdown against that country’s uprising. “This is a threat not just to the Copts, but to all of the people. We saw what would happen if we rose up against the army.”

But one of the most ominous aspects was how the army apparently used and incited crowds of Islamists, to provoke anger and set off violence and and attack the demonstrators.   Has the army enlisted Salafists as counter-revolutionary shock troops?  An unknown number –hardly all — of political prisoners jailed under Mubarak have been released: mostly political Islamists, because those were the ones Mubarak most abused.  Freed into a confusing and unfamiliar world, traumatized by torture, given no assistance to salve re-entry, are they now easy prey for a regime that can exploit them when it needs a little frisson of violence?  Plenty of Western commentators (including a significant number of gay activists) have bought into the notion that post-revolutionary Egypt is newly prone to “extremism,” and that a strong hand is needed to keep undesireable elements suppressed. But the hand is evidently using the “extremists” to slap down others. So much for secularism; so much for the bulwark.

Attacking Copts is both monstrous and stupid on the army’s part. An influential body of US opinion, including evangelical Christians, will be outraged. Already, Nick Kristof has tweeted that the US should pull its massive military aid to Egypt.

Since the US’s energies in Egypt for the last forty years were all turned to shoring up the repression, I’ve been very reluctant to suppose it should claim a sudden progressive role for itself now.   Even Obama’s final turn against the dictator in February — which democrats in the region derided as too little, too late — struck me as too much, from another perspective.  Let the revolutionaries finish the revolution themselves; they were doing fine without him. After four decades of torture, the US was in no position to claim last-minute street cred for freedom.

But there’s that military aid — $2 billion is the usual estimate, but it’s funnelled through so many channels nobody knows.  With the military now in charge of murdering Egyptians, the aid looks increasingly obnoxious.

This is, as the Times says in Timespeak, “a turning point for the Revolution”: only no one knows where it will turn.  Right now, in the next days and weeks, the US needs to push the generals hard. Not to get them to stop siding with the Salafists and the Brotherhood — that’s not the issue. The US must insist that they hold fair elections speedily for parliament and civilian President, surrender power, step aside: so that the question of who they side with ceases to matter at all.

Deaths on the Nile: A protester’s story

Corpses from the Cairo violence: from @alaa, http://twitpic.com/6y12bc: خلص الكلام

A Coptic protester offers his story of the army inciting violence at Maspero today. Read it all. Some key parts:

I began to walk back towards Hilton Ramsis, and suddenly 5 vehicles full of CSF soldiers [Central Security Forces or Amn el-Merkazi, a paramilitary police force] showed up. People began to pelt them with rocks, destroying the wind shields, and the causing the drivers of the vehicles to panic, thereby hitting into each other and the sides of the road. I and some other people were trying to calm people down into not attacking the vehicles but the people were angry.

At that point, I was alone, and so I began to walk back to Tahrir.  … Someone saw me tweeting and came to me. He asked my name and so I said Hani Sobhi, he then grabbed my wrists to see if I had a cross tattoo, and when he did not find it, he asked for my full name. I said Hani Sobhi Bushra. He asked if I was a Muslim or a Christian, and I said that I was a Christian.

At that point he began to scream for others that he caught a Christian, and people began to gather. … At that point there was about 30 people around me, with some of them punching me on my head.  I began to walk quickly to the cordon of the police that I had just came from. …

We reached the officer (rank of general), and the first thing that I did was to show him my U.S. passport and told him that I am now under his protection. I told him that I was attacked because I was a Christian. One of the men who is a policeman but wearing civilian clothing began to talk to the general that I was a Christian and that I institigated [sic] the mob to attack me and that I am carrying weapons in my bag. … This policeman in the civilian clothing seemed to be the coordinator between the mob and the police. …

As I was talking to the general, a group of policemen were around me, one of them was behind me poking my butthole with his stick. I turned around and said that if you want to fuck me in the ass, you should be man enough to fuck me in public. At that point the policeman in civilian clothing who had earlier clashed with me called me a liar, and the general once again told him to shut up. …

I mentioned that I was a Christian being attacked by a mob, and the officers told me that I should not mention that I am a Christian because they may not be able to protect me. This was in the midst of at least 400 members of the police! At that point, I was assigned two handlers to stay with me at all times.

I stayed with the CSF units and observed the following:

1) Four bodies in the lobby of an apartment building that the Egyptian ambulances could not carry because the blood was everywhere and because some of the bodies were in pieces. When I asked my CSF companions (we had became friends) about the bodies, they told me it was three Christians and one Muslim shot by the army and driven over using a humvee (yep, my tax dollars in action, btw, the U.S. gives two billion dollars a year as aid to the Egyptian military).

2) The members of the CSF were armed with live ammunition, and the order was given in front of me.

3) One of the CSF companions told me that he beat senseless a Christian man he arrested because it was said that this man was carrying a gun and shooting the people.

4) The army and not the police were the ones attacking the protestors. In fact, the police was not doing anything.

I was there for about two hours, and then suddenly a mob came to the police saying “Christians where are you, Islam is here”. They were not stopped by anyone but cheered by army units that were parked by the CSF cordon.

I used the confusion with this mob arriving and walked away from my handlers, towards Tahrir. I reached the Kasr El Dobra church, and there I saw another Muslim mob chanting “Christians where are you, Islam is here”. What shocked me is that an army officer with a rank of Lieutenant Colonel was organizing these mobs telling them that they should be the first line of defense and they will stand behind them.

والمجلس العسكرى هو نيرون – And the junta is Nero

That’s an Egyptian friend’s lament on the killings in Cairo today. To start with, here is graphic video from Al Masry al Youm, of victims at the Coptic Hospital. (The AFP says its reporter saw 16 corpses carried there tonight.)

Sectarian tensions have been mounting in the country since a mob burned a Christian church in the southern city of Edfu on September 30.  Mostafa al-Sayyed, governor of Aswan province, known as an idiot, had ignited the disaster by claiming, in classic Egyptian bureaucratic style, that the church lacked the proper papers to get built. This effectively stamped his approval on its destruction. In the following days, he dithered and fiddled while protests spread and anger grew.

Today, Copts in Cairo organized a peaceful march from the religiously diverse neighborhood of Shobra to Maspero, the state broadcasting building, a focus for discontent with the military regime. Something happened. Foreign news reports have so far given primacy to the regime’s own account, which is what happens when you have a vast surviving propaganda apparatus facing down an only loosely organized protest movement. Thus Al Jazeera reports: “The demonstrators, who were protesting the destruction of a church in southern Egypt, torched two armoured vehicles, six private cars and a public bus, security sources said” — while also admitting, “The Copts say they were marching peacefully when thugs attacked them, drawing in the military police who used what activists described as unnecessary force.”

Anybody who has seen how Mubarak and the military both use agents provocateurs can figure this one out.

The demonstrators quickly turned to enraged calls for Marshal Tantawi to step down. Bystanders saw military vehicles crushing protesters under their wheels. Twitter is awash in stories; @Waelabbas reports that four eyewitnesses saw soldiers dumping bodies in the Nile.  Another video shows a mob attacking the Coptic Hospital itself:

At least 24 are dead, 200 or more injured. The regime increasingly reveals its willingness to discard the trappings of legitimacy and govern by brute force. Parliamentary elections have been repeatedly postponed; the junta talks vaguely about handing over the presidency in 2012 or 2013. Meanwhile, it has embraced the old, dictatorial emergency law; and today it took an invigorating bath of blood.

To me, the most ominous comment came from the puppet prime minister Essam Sharaf, in an interview with state TV:

What’s happening is not sectarian tension. It is an escalating plan for the fall and fragmentation of the state. There’s a feeling of a conspiracy theory to keep Egypt from having the elections that will lead it to democracy. … There are hidden hands involved and we will not leave them.

A government that needs conspiracy theories is incapable of governing democratically.   The junta has already shown a crude skill at inventing enemies. Now it can conjure up a few more.

There is some dispute about what limb or digit Sharaf actually identified as the hidden agent.   @Wedaddy writes on Twitter, “For the record Essam Sharaf has a very poor command of Arabic grammar.” He also added, “Sharaf spoke about foreign fingers… he can have my foreign middle finger him and his tinpot marshal.” Yeah.