As If: On Alaa Abd el Fattah

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Bread, freedom, dignity: Street art in downtown Cairo, 2015, photo by ChrisJ for TrekEarth

In a quarter-century of visiting prisons or sitting in courtrooms and prosecutors’ offices, I’ve never really learned why states single out some people as special targets of retribution. Harmless groups (ranging from gays, emos, heavy-metal fans, to the peaceful Baha’i or the Rohingya) or lone individuals become symbols of everything the government loathes and wants to extirpate, the Jungian beasts that haunt its midnight dreams. Despite their innocence or weakness, they find themselves hemmed by all the instruments of power, the police with their guns, the torture machines, the prison walls. Sometimes there’s popular panic behind the repression, but sometimes the state seems random in picking out its demons. There’s a logic, but the logic of nightmare: a reminder that politics is, as Max Weber wrote, the realm not only of means and ends but of irrational beings, and that to engage in it is to traffic with “the diabolical powers that lurk in all force.”

I do speculate, though.  I’ve come over the years to think that what power fears most of all is one phrase: “as if.”

In English (the next few lines are meant to appease linguists and other nerds) “as if” introduces the subjunctive mood, a verb form that describes unreal events. These can be fantasies of the present (“she looks as if she were Laila Elwi“), the future (“she looks as if she were going to the Prince’s ball”), or even the past (“she looks as if she were dead since Thursday”). “As if” announces a state of affairs that is not; it’s a portal though which fear and desire overtly enter the apparently hushed and sober halls of language. And once “as if” has been said — once the desire is voiced, the fear made legible — you can act on the longing or transcend the fear. It pushes beyond the passport controls at fantasy’s borders; its premise can move people’s bodies and minds, make them speak or stand as if that unreal world actually were theirs.

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Vaclav Havel, arrested for protesting in defense of the Charter 77 principles in Czechoslovakia, 1970s

I first saw this in Eastern Europe. To be a “dissident” in the old-time Soviet bloc could mean many things, but it encompassed a shared style of action. To be a dissident was to act as if one were living in a free country. It was to write things, to speak, to hold a placard, to demonstrate, as if it were permitted rather than punishable by law. And this meant forcing the state to reveal itself: to show what it really was. Governments that put fraudulent charters of rights in their pseudo-socialist constitutions, that signed treaties, that pretended to be “people’s democracies,” could not bear people who acted as if democracy were real. That was the core of dissent, of the small cadres of people whose small, individual acts in time overthrew a massive, inhuman system. They changed the actual world by acting on the subjunctive. (“Really-existing socialism,” which never really existed, had a considerable tolerance for fantasy, as long as it remained fantasy. I was reminded recently that, in the Soviet Union in the desolate and stagnant Brezhnev years, when dictatorship lost even the pretense of purpose or charisma and lay on the people like a smothering, infected blanket, there was a large renaissance of science fiction. It was tolerated on the principle that the less real the other worlds where people took consolation, the more surreal and unachievable, the safer. Dream as you like. But do not act on it.)

I recognized this subjunctive faith again in the early years when I visited Cairo, between 2001 and 2003. Egypt had dissidents who put themselves on the line just as the legendary figures of eastern European dissent had. Their organizational loyalties were complex and sometimes conflicting (they tended to cluster round the Popular Committee to Support the Palestinian People’s Intifada, and later Kefaya — the two groups that arguably spearheaded anti-Mubarak actions on the democratic Left) but they had one strategy: to act as if the promises in the politicians’ rhetoric, and the Egyptian Constitution, were real; as if theirs were a free society, and not a dictatorship in thrift-shop democratic drag. Thus you demonstrated even though a thousand cops in riot gear kettled you in; you wrote what you wanted, even if State Security paid you a midnight call; you raised your voices, even if truncheons came down on your head.  If you were jailed or tortured, that meant the regime had been forced to cast off its disguise, to reveal its real nature. And if you succeeded — if the demonstration went ahead, the article were published, the poster stayed on the wall — you had pushed the envelope slightly, you’d made the regime back off, you’d expanded by a millimetre or two the available space for freedom. Either outcome was a victory, whatever the personal cost.

The Egyptian regime was terrified, and arguably in the end was overthrown, by a few people acting on a hypothetical; by the weight of bodies and a grammatical construction. It’s in this light that I think of the life of Alaa Abd El Fattah.

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Alaa Abdel-Fattah on trial in 2013 (Photo: Al-Ahram)

Alaa will turn 36 in a month, almost certainly still in prison. That’s half a lifetime, and for somewhat more than half of that he’s been an activist and dissident. Four successive Egyptian regimes — Mubarak’s, the military junta that succeeded him, the Muslim Brotherhood in its brief interval of power, and the military dictatorship of General Sisi — have treated him both as their favorite scapegoat and their most feared enemy.  There has been, in past years, almost no excuse they won’t use to arrest him; there’s been no charge they won’t fling at him, and no act of popular anger for which they won’t assign him blame. During Egypt’s only free presidential election in 2012, the headquarters of the military-backed (and ultimately losing) candidate caught fire. The army’s lackeys could find no likelier arsonist to libel than Alaa. (“Witnesses said they saw Alaa and his sister asleep in a car near the office minutes before,” they solemnly declared.) There was no evidence; there was nothing at all; yet a bogus “investigation” continued till another military regime, almost two years later, could hand a one-year suspended sentence to Alaa and his sister. Alaa exists less as a person than as a djinn or poltergeist or figure in a fairy tale, travelling on a magic laptop to wreak havoc on State Security’s plans, the omnipotent goblin in the fever dreams of delirious generals. “Thinking of installing a GPS tracker and live update my location publicly. Maybe this would stop the false accusations,” Alaa wrote during this particular fiasco.

I mention this because, despite the court ordeal, this was one of many points where the state’s obsession with Alaa achieved an almost comic incongruity with reality. (I once watched the actual, non-omnipotent, arson-incompetent Alaa spend five minutes trying, and failing, to light a match.) But of course it’s not a comedy in the end. Nothing in Egypt is. Alaa would furiously reject the idea that he is unique, or more important than the other thousands — 60,000, by human rights activists’ count — enduring Egypt’s immense gulag. But he is uniquely important to innumerable Egyptians. Street artists stealthily stenciled his rounded, bearded face on walls around the country during his many jail terms. The images fade (graffiti is another subversive act for which the Sisi regime has imposed hefty penalties) but his presence, even in prison, refuses to evanesce. He remains a symbol of Egypt’s Revolution, and not just of that: of the long and seemingly hopeless struggle that led up to it, as well as the slow, losing battle to hold onto its gains. “He’s history,” we say in English, to dismiss someone as over, done. Alaa is the history that still contains futurity, pulsing under its surface like a thrumming engine, visible as a vein. The regimes’ fear is that history is the future: that this buried embodied energy, the blood and the anger, will not go away.

It took some time, and long back-and-forths with his marvellous sister Mona Seif, for me to straighten out even the bare outline of how many times he’s been arrested. I’m not sure anyone, even State Security, keeps an exact count. Twelve years ago, as a blogger — at a time when the Internet opened new public spheres for uncensored information — he started writing about human rights, and reporting on demonstrations. In 2005, the day of a referendum to allow contested Presidential elections for the first time ever, pro-regime thugs assaulted anti-Mubarak protesters with fists and clubs. They attacked Alaa’s mother in the crowd, and beat him when he intervened to defend her. The next year, he spent  45 days in jail for demonstrating for greater judicial independence. His prestige came partly from the combination of what he wrote and what he did. His words led to his actions; the as if became real.

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Stencil of Alaa Abd El Fattah with the martyr Mina Daniel (R), killed during the millitary assault on demonstrators at the Maspero Building, October 9-10, 2011: photo, Mashallah News

Abroad when the 2011 revolution broke out, he returned and stood in Tahrir Square during the uprising’s last days. After a short recessional, state violence returned, and by the summer of 2011, the military were extending their control over both government and public life. In October, soldiers killed 27 mostly Christian marchers near the state broadcasting building in Maspero. Alaa had supported their demands for equality; a military court charged him with “inciting” the peaceful protesters, who in turn incited their murderers to kill them. He refused to recognize the army’s legal jurisdiction over civilians; in that stalemate, his son, Khaled, was born while he languished in jail. He was freed, and eventually cleared, but soon after, the alleged arson case had risen in its place. His life increasingly seemed a series of accusations springing up like undead vampires from jack-in-the-box graves, a legal horror parade of interrogations and cells.

After Sisi’s 2013 military coup, the environment grew darker. In November 2013, he was slapped with new charges for allegedly organizing a demonstration in front of Egypt’s rubber-stamp parliament, to protest constitutional changes.that would have installed military trials like a permanent tumor in the justice system. Security forces seized and questioned the so-called “Shura Council” demonstrators one by one: two dozen of them, all asked about their relations with the dreaded Alaa. Alaa himself waited outside the prosecutor’s office for hours, inviting interrogation. But State Security preferred to burst into his flat on November 28, a 20-man assault team with masks and flak jackets and machine guns. They abducted him and they beat his wife, Manal. “‘I’d like to see the warrant,'” she said: “It was as if the word ‘warrant’ was the filthiest name you could call their mothers.” She remembered:

And suddenly it was as if I was outside the scene and it turned into a surrealist spectacle from which I remember shots like in a comic strip: close-up on an unshaved face and yellow teeth while he’s hitting me and insulting me. Or the boss in the suit hitting me and calling me names … Anyone who’s worried about me: please don’t be. I didn’t feel violated or broken. No. I was strong. You know, my worst nightmare is being abused and trying to scream but my voice does’t come out – and that didn’t happen. Actually, for a moment, I pitied them: the Ministry and the officers and their thugs and Sisi and SCAF. I felt they were so tiny – I’m not sure how to describe this, but I kind of thought “wow – Alaa’s really driving you this mad?”

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Alaa Abd El Fattah and his wife Manal in 2011; photo by Nasser Nasser/AP

Alaa and his twenty-four co-defendants were jailed for three months, released, then re-arrested. He went on hunger strike late that summer, when his father lay in critical condition in the hospital.  The last time I saw him was at the wake after his father died, in August 2014. He’d been released briefly, under guard, for the funeral; he stood swaying in the receiving line outside the venerable Omar Makram mosque in central Cairo, as thousands of Egypt’s weeping revolutionaries filed past, mourning not just the aged, brave dissident but the faded promise of democracy. Alaa wore his prison whites, which always suggest pilgrimage to me. He looked dazed by the light, by the fragility of freedom. We exchanged brief words. In February 2015, Alaa received five years in prison for illegally demonstrating. (Under Egyptian law, it will be followed by five years’ “probation,” meaning sleeping every night in a police cell from dusk to dawn.)

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

Alaa’s ailing father, a distinguished rights defender who was also his defense attorney, had said at a press conference in 2014: “I wanted you to inherit a democratic society that guards your rights, my son. But instead I passed on the prison cell that held me, and now holds you.” The cell still confines Alaa. All other defendants but one in the Shura Council case have received presidential pardons. His own case lingers. Moreover, on September 30 this year, he faced a hearing in yet another trial, with two dozen more defendants: this time, for “insulting the judiciary.” (In a 2013 tweet criticizing a paranoid case mounted against civil society workers, Alaa suggested the judges were “taking orders from the military.”) This time the court postponed the hearing till December. A conviction could add a year or more to his sentence, in a maximum security prison. An appeal before Egypt’s Cassation Court against his five-year Shura Council sentence was also postponed on October 19; a judge recused himself without giving reasons, and adjourned the case till November. Egyptian justice is a mill that grinds hope to sand and ashes.

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Ahmed Seif al-Islam in the offices of the Hisham Mubarak Law Centre, Cairo, Egypt

I’ve said little about his extraordinary family. His father, Ahmed Seif al-Islam, was himself jailed for five years and tortured under Hosni Mubarak’s regime. One of Egypt’s first and best human rights lawyers, he defended arrested Islamists and accused gay men with equal passion. Alaa’s mother, Laila Soueif, has protested dictatorships for thirty years. His two younger sisters are activists as well. After the 2011 revolution, Mona Seif launched an unprecedented campaign to end military trials for civilians. Sanaa Seif spent a year in prison starting in 2014 — for demonstrating against draconian laws barring the right to demonstrate. His aunt, Ahdaf Soueif, and his cousin, Omar Robert Hamilton, are activists and writers in two languages, but always drawn back to the capillaries of Cairo where the pulse of action drums. It would be no wonder if such ancestral burdens intimidated him; certainly the wealth they’ve written about him leaves outsiders with precious little more to say. Through Mona, I asked their mother why she thinks he has been such a bête noire to government after government. “I always find it difficult to answer questions that reflect on the motivation of those in power,” she wrote,  “but I will try.”

Authorities in Egypt are and have always been very suspicious of any attempt by groups of young people to organize themselves autonomously. In the years leading up to the revolution, with the spread of the use of the internet and later social media it became virtually impossible to try and control the growing trend of young people connecting with each other outside the influence of the authorities. This caused a kind of panic in different state organs …  Alaa was and remains a very central figure in this trend, personally I believe this is the core cause behind the hatred with which authoritarian politicians regard Alaa and why they are so vindictive towards him.

The motives of power are always opaque. But its panics are lucid, exact in their illogic. It’s connection the generals and bureaucrats fear: the promiscuous, unregulated interactions of the young. Here, too, Alaa was a central symbol. You see him, pudgy and dishevelled, and he looks a bit like a rotund potato; but like a tuber, he transcends himself when the state’s dirt and darkness silt and bury everything. It takes a mother to recognize the terrible tendrils a son’s self can extend underground; it takes love to envision the connections he can contain.

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Manal Hassan, Alaa, and their son Khaled in 2012: photo by Paola Caridi at https://www.invisiblearabs.com

You have to read him to understand what this means. My friend Jillian York, herself an expert in digital security and the needs of fragile social movement in the region, said to me a few weeks ago: “Alaa gave me my political education.” And she wrote:

Despite the fact the he is only (and exactly) six months my senior, the friend has also been one of my most important teachers, reminding me to take risks and not being afraid to tell me when I’m not going far enough, not doing enough. ….I’ve said it to reporters so many times that it’s almost lost its meaning, but I’ll say it again: Alaa is in prison not because he committed a crime, not because he said too much, but because his very existence poses a threat to the state.

The revolutionary editor Lina Attalah captured some of Alaa’s talk, between trials, back in 2011:

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Alaa Abd El Fattah hugs his newly born son Khaled and his mother, Laila Soueif, after his release from prison in December 2011

“The marginalized are always the core,” he said. From Christians, to tuk tuk drivers, to gay people, Alaa glorified how they challenge the status quo by denying its existence. “Now if you count the marginalized in all their forms, we are the majority, because it includes women, the poor, those who live in slums, in rural areas … That makes the mainstream a minority.” …

He sees the alliance in post-Mubarak Tahrir, where the mainstream men and women – both Christians and Muslims – of the “gentrified square” retreated, ceding the place to street sellers, gangs and what-not. Along with the remaining activists of the square, this alliance stayed on, claiming post-uprising demands at a time when many others went back home seeking “stability.” Those who slammed Alaa and his fellow activists for continuing the revolution after February were jealous, he says, because the fluidity of its identity allowed for cross-class solidarity. This keeps the revolution alive.

When Alaa recalls criticism from counter-revolutionaries, the key words are “long hair, defends thugs and gangs, gay.” He is jubilant to know that the markers of marginalization have come to define the defamation campaign against him. If this does anything, it proves him right.

Not long after, he wrote similarly in one of many letters smuggled out of prison cells:

This time, I’m alone, in a cell with eight men who shouldn’t be here; poor, helpless, unjustly held – the guilty among them and the innocent.

As soon as they learned I was one of the “young people of the revolution” they started to curse out the revolution and how it had failed to clean up the ministry of the interior. I spend my first two days listening to stories of torture at the hands of a police force that insists on not being reformed; that takes out its defeat on the bodies of the poor and the helpless. …

In the few hours that sunlight enters the dark cell we read what a past cellmate has inscribed on the walls in an elegant Arabic calligraphy.  Four walls covered from floor to ceiling in Qur’anic verses and prayers and invocations and reflections. And what reads like a powerful desire to repent.

Next day we discover, in a low corner, the date of execution of our cellmate of the past. Our tears conquer us.  The guilty make plans for repentance. What can the innocent do?

My thoughts wander as I listen to the radio. …  [Fellow prisoner] Abu Malek interrupts my thoughts: “I swear by God if this revolution doesn’t do something radical about injustice it will sink without a trace.”

He wrote that in the first year after the Eighteen Days that overthrew Mubarak, when the possibility of popular movements taking a radical, anti-capitalist, and anti-militaristic turn was still very much alive. This was an as if the state particularly feared: as if the hardened deadweight of class power and military repression could be shaken off the people’s backs. To imagine it required an especially intense vision of connections, what they might be and, more importantly, how they could be forged. This was work into which Alaa plunged: all the strains in his own family – a feminist faith in the personal, an ecumenical fervor for human rights, a strategic belief in nonviolence, a dream of democracy – came together in him, at one juncture in time, in concentrated form.

When I talked in 2011-2012 to some veterans of Midan Tahrir, they often clung hard to a radically utopian and politically very unreal version of what had happened there: that it was a perfect moment when all divisions of class, gender, race, and power simply melted away and everyone was “just Egyptian,” or “Egyptian together.” The remaining role of politics was to get back to this garden, as if Marx or Gramsci had given way to a Joni Mitchell song. This vision of the warm, dissolving, comforting adhesiveness of Rousseau’s volonté générale was a fiction and a dangerous one, because it implied there was no more work to do, just waiting for the unity to re-arrive. Alaa knew better; unity was a hope not a given, it had to be won, and the powerful had to lose power in the process. As they failed to do so, the unhealed rifts of politics and history set back in. In early 2016, from prison, he looked back, and acknowledged a counterrevolution so destructive that preserving anyone’s “innocence” against others’ “guilt” was impossible. What remained was a different struggle, a different return: to the apparently hopeless hypotheticals of ten years before.

In 2013, we started to lose the battle for narrative to a poisonous polarization between a rabidly militarized pseudo-secular statism and a viciously sectarian-paranoid form of Islamism. All I remember about 2013 is how shrill I sounded screaming “A plague on both your houses,” how whiny and melodramatic it felt to complain about the curse of Cassandra warning of an all-consuming fire when no one would listen. As the streets were taken over by rallies that raised the photos of policemen instead of their victims, sit-ins were filled with chants against the Shia, and Coptic conspiracies flourished, my words lost any power and yet they continued to pour out of me. I still had a voice, even if only a handful would listen.

But then the state decided to end the conflict by committing the first crime against humanity in the history of the republic. The barriers of fear and despair would return after the Rabea al-Adaweya massacre. Another battle of narrative would start: getting non-Islamists to accept that a massacre had happened at all, to reject the violence committed in their name.

Three months after the massacre I was back in prison, and my prose took on a strange new role: to call on revolutionaries to admit defeat. To give up the optimism that had become dangerous in its encouragement to choose sides: a military triumphalism or an unpopular and impractical insistence on complete regime change.

I narrated defeat because the very language of revolution was lost to us, replaced by a dangerous cocktail of nationalist, nativist, collectivist and post-colonialist language, appropriated by both sides of the conflict and used to spin convoluted conspiracy theories and spread paranoia. … What we needed was all the strength we could muster to maintain some basic defence of human rights.

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Graffiti of Alaa Abd El Fattah on a Cairo street while he was jailed in 2011; photo from https://lonelygirltravels.com/category/subculture/street-art-art-culture-and-rock-n-roll/

In prison now, security forces randomly deny Alaa access to books — for him, the food of hope. His sister wrote me, “Alaa often refers to his emotional status as el talaga, ‘the fridge,’ and when he describes it he says he tries to maintain a strict hold on all his emotions, expectations tightly locked so that he doesn’t get too emotionally invested in anything or excited about anything and then get brutally disappointed.” The dwindling letters he writes have a dedicated readership in National Security; they only sporadically reach their intended recipients. “At one point it became too emotionally consuming for him to share personal reflections that will end up forgotten in some officer’s desk drawers.” He keeps writing, though, in any way he can. The best I can do here is to keep quoting — from, for instance, a short essay he managed to get through the walls in April:

Personally, I’ve come out of a decade of anger with a few simple lessons. I’ve realized that every step on the path of struggle or debate within society is an opportunity for understanding, connecting, dreaming and planning. Even when things seem simple or decided, even when we’re clear about which side of an argument we’re on, or about the need to abandon a particular argument altogether, seizing opportunities to pursue and produce meaning remains a necessity; without it we will never get beyond defeat. …

Finally, siding with power is generally unproductive. The powerful need nothing from you but to parrot their propaganda. The powerless, on the other hand, often cause as much trouble as they suffer. Their arguments and discourses are often as brittle as their positions in society and their diminishing chances of safety and survival. Taking their side, therefore, even as an experiment, is a catalyst for deeper reflection, deeper investigation, deeper analysis and imagination.

Once we were present, then we were defeated, and meaning was defeated with us. But we have not perished yet, and meaning too lives on. Perhaps our defeat was inevitable, but the chaos that is sweeping the world will sooner or later give birth to a new world, a world that will — of course — be run by the victors. But nothing will constrain the strong, nor shape the margins of freedom and justice, nor define spaces of beauty and possibilities for a common life except the weak, who insist that meaning should prevail — even after defeat.

And he has a message, finally, for those not in Egypt, for whom the politics of Cairo have become so alienating and confusing, who can’t conceive of what to do, who lapse back into old Orientalist fantasies about an ungovernable country that deserves what it gets. This confusion hardens to indifference; it paralyzes. (In the last few weeks, I tried to get a piece about Alaa published in the international press, and found it terribly difficult. LGBT Egyptians, who were suffering their own horrors during those weeks, were the topic of the month. Repression claims so many victims in Egypt that Sisi can easily distract critics just by vomiting up a different kind, like Apple announcing a new IPhone.) Yet the synoptic view linking the local to the global is what Alaa stresses again and again. “I have learned that ruling regimes are mere obstacles. The real challenges are international in nature,” he wrote, “which is why debate is so important.” He urged, in a statement to international internet activists around the same time:

  1. Fix your own democracy: This has always been my answer to the question “how can we help?” I still believe it is the only possible answer. Not only is where you live, work, vote, pay tax and organize the place where you have more influence, but a setback for human rights in a place where democracy has deep roots is certain to be used as an excuse for even worse violations in societies where rights are more fragile. I trust recent events made it evident that there is much that needs fixing. I look forward to being inspired by how you go about fixing it.

  2. Don’t play the game of nations: We lose much when you allow your work to be used as an instrument of foreign policy no matter how benign your current ruling coalition is. We risk much when human rights advocacy becomes a weapon in a cold war (just as the Arab revolutions were lost when revolutionaries found themselves unwitting and unwilling recruits in proxy wars between regional powers). We reach out to you not in search of powerful allies but because we confront the same global problems, and share universal values, and with a firm belief in the power of solidarity.

  3. Defend complexity and diversity: No change to the structure of or organization of the internet can make my life safer. My online speech is often used against me in the courts and in smear campaigns, but it isn’t the reason why I am prosecuted; my offline activity is. My late father served a similar term for his activism before there was a web. What the internet has truly changed is not political dissent but rather social dissent. We must protect it as a safe space where people can experiment with gender and sexual identities, explore what it means to be gay or a single mom or an atheist or a christian in the Middle East, but also what it means to be black and angry in the U.S., to be Muslim and ostracized in Europe, or to be a coal miner in a world that must cut back on greenhouse gases. The internet is the only space where all different modes of being Palestinian can meet. If I express this precariousness in symbolic violence, will you hear me out? Will you protect me from both prosecution by the establishment and exploitation by the well-funded fringe extremists?

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Protester at an October 2011 Cairo march against military abuses carries a poster on his back: “Free Alaa Abdel Fattah. No military tribunals, no more emergency law, down with military rule.” Photo from http://she2i2.blogspot.com/2011/10/

I derive several things from that, for my international colleagues. Power — the friendly power of your own governments that say they have the world’s best interests in mind — won’t save you. It won’t change things, not for the  better. Power must be battled, not befriended, wherever you face it. So, yes, you can fight at home, against the international system that contrives to extinguish hope, that keeps Alaa Abd El Fattah and 60,000 others in Egypt jailed. The system is huge. Egypt is only one small part, and the US and Europe prop up its indistiguishable dictators because of still larger goals against which 100 million Egyptians shrivel to paltriness: the priorities of Israeli occupation, or Saudi oil. Yet things can change. On the one hand, global arms sales to Egypt actually increased fourfold in the two years after Sisi’s coup and the attendant massacres. On the other: a few activists in Berlin, protesting last week against German complicity in the Egyptian crackdown on LGBT people, forced their government to cancel a planned security training for Egyptian police, meant to teach how to monitor web “extremism” (and repress any political activity they fear). The machinery of state terror, that produces terror and uses it to justify more, can be rolled back, even in small ways. That’s an immense victory.

Somewhile back, a Moroccan friend who studied linguistics wrote me, magisterially: “In Arabic as contrasted to English, the subjunctive mode is much more closely coordinated with desire.” I have no idea whether this is true (or, indeed, exactly what it means). But “coordinated with desire” is a marvellous phrase, and seems indeed to describe something recognizable about Oum Kulthoum songs or Mahfouz’s novels, permeated not just with an “as if” but with a tangible, urgent “I want” beating in every pause for breath. That transformation of impossibility into desire is the essential predicate of revolution.

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More Cairo graffiti of Alaa Abd El Fattah from 2011; the script to the left calls for a sit-in, while the words inside the TV screen read, “Go down to the streets.” Photo from https://lonelygirltravels.files.wordpress.com/2011/11/img_2494.jpg

I’ll just close with a story, one I often tell. I came back to Egypt for a few days in late 2005, for its first-ever contested Presidential election in history (Alaa had demonstrated six months earlier for the constitutional change that permitted the contest). The election itself was a sham staged for the Bush administration’s benefit. Mubarak jailed his main opponent, Ayman Nour, both before and after the brief campaign, and gave himself 89% of the votes. (Nour was later forced to leave Egypt after Sisi’s coup, and now lives in exile.) However, on voting day, September 7, a few dozen of the usual suspects — young activists from Kefaya, mostly — gathered at noon on the green roundabout in Midan Tahrir for what they expected to be the usual tiny, police-ringed protest. I came too and we walked in circles, chanting, till suddenly it hit everyone at once: the police weren’t there. The ranks of black- clad, armored Central Security conscripts who invariably came to kettle in and confine even the tiniest protest were miraculously, inexplicably, absent. Conscious that diplomats and the international press corps were all over Cairo that day, Mubarak had decided to stage a little simulacrum of democratic rights.

The next flash came quickly: We could do what we wanted. Limbs stretched like sleepers waking. Almost instantly the little demonstration moved off the greensward and started marching, up Talaat Harb street into downtown Cairo. It grew as we walked, to maybe a thousand or more. People sang, they danced. The sense of physical liberation, freedom from the huge constricting weight of the state’s riot gear and weapons, was incredible. It was if a hundred bodies had been unstrung from straitjackets at once. Along the street, shoppers and shopkeepers stared as if we’d gone insane; a few, envying the joy of the uncalendared moulid, peeled off to join us.  The ecstatic procession wound through central Cairo, turning near Ramsis Station to approach the old presidential palace at Abdin; and there, where the streets widened and the shoulder-to-shoulder solidarity softened (and after the foreign reporters, losing interest, had decamped to grab a beer) Mubarak’s paid thugs emerged from the alleyways, to club and batter those along the edges. The march broke up in fear and confusion, as friends raced to protect one another.  Yet the memory is so vivid for me, I can almost taste the sweat and the exhaust fumes in the air. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen people so purely happy. I missed the Eighteen Days in Midan Tahrir, but that one day gave me a feeling for what it must have been like. It was the hour of as if, when lives mummified in fear and custom break free. I don’t recall any faces from the procession, strangely, just bodies dancing, arms raised high; I’m not sure if Alaa or his family were there, or were at some other demonstration in Cairo, or were arguing elsewhere with the police. I abase myself for my own forgetting. The failure of memory to hold steadfastly enough to the past corrupts history; its weakness puts the future itself in danger. Yet when I think of Alaa I remember enough of that afternoon to know: a day like that is what I want for him, as if he were free.

4402bf7f353f3d0629e06ff13243cb92--accusations-graffiti

Street art depicting Alaa Abd El Fattah by Keizer, Cairo, 2016-2017. The placard around his neck reads “Innocent”; the words below: “Don’t forget me.”

 

 

 

Brutal gender crackdown in Egypt: The tomorrows that never came

An epitaph for Egypt's revolution: "Remember the tomorrows that never came?" Graffiti in Cairo by street artist Keizer (https://www.facebook.com/KeizerStreetArt)

Heartbreaking epitaph for Egypt’s revolution: “Remember the tomorrows that never came?” Graffiti in Cairo by street artist Keizer (https://www.facebook.com/KeizerStreetArt)

You go home, you lock your door. If you live in a place like Cairo where everybody talks about crime, maybe you bolt it two times, three times. The door is centimeters thick but it marks an almost geological division: between your life, your self, and all those other lives that have no place in yours. Yet one knock, one blow of a fist, can tear through that integument like tissue paper. The flaccid walls melt, the architecture of a dream; they fold like cardboard stage-sets in a hurricane.

Arrest is an instantaneous, shattering thrust, expulsion, somersault from one state into another…. Need it be said that it is a breaking point in your  life, a bolt of lightning which has scored a direct hit on you? … The Universe has as many different centers as there are living beings in it. Each of us is a center of the Universe, and that Universe is shattered when they hiss at you: “You are under arrest.” …

Everyone living in the apartment is thrown into a state of terror by the first knock at the door.

That’s Solzhenitsyn. But in each repressive society, among every persecuted people I’ve ever known, from old Bucharest to Bedford-Stuyvesant, the knock on the door takes on an almost metaphysical meaning: the barriers around your personhood dissolving. It’s a signal of intimacy, now transmuted into dread.

There is a crackdown, now, in Egypt. Activists calculate that, since last October, 77 people have been arrested, but the real figures are surely higher. The prison sentences are draconian; one victim got twelve years. It is one of many crackdowns. You could compile an honor roll of endangered people in Egypt: atheists, journalists, revolutionary protesters, Islamist supporters — of whom the army slaughtered more than 1000 last summer alone. What’s distinctive about this particular pattern of arrests isn’t so much its breadth as the peculiar intensity of its assault on intimacy and privacy. The police burst into people’s homes and apartments; they’re seizing those whose main offense is that their clothes and hair are different. Didn’t we hear a year ago — from everybody including the well-paid Tony Blair — that the Muslim Brotherhood had to be overthrown and its members murdered because they wanted to trample personal freedoms, impose compulsory hijab, to turn Egypt into a new Iran? So why are its successors, Sisi’s military dictatorship and its supposedly secular henchmen, the ones enforcing a dress code with truncheons and guns?

"Alignment of the Hearts (Morning Shot)." Graffiti in Cairo by street artist Keizer

“Alignment of the Hearts (Morning Shot).” Graffiti in Cairo by street artist Keizer

The current wave of arrests started last autumn, as far as anyone can make out; back then I wrote on this blog about the first two cases. On October 11, police in El Marg, a working-class neighborhood in eastern Cairo, raided a bathhouse and gym and arrested fourteen men. Residents of the quarter had seemingly complained about the comings and goings in the place — they sacked it in rage after the raid. Beaten and abused in detention, the men were charged with fugur or “debauchery,” the term of art by which male homosexual conduct is criminalized in Egyptian law. The arrests got good press; Al-Akhbar Al-Youm, a semi-official newspaper, picked up the story immediately; and that must have provided encouragement. On the night of November 4, in the western suburb of 6 October City, police raided a private party in a detached villa. Among dozens in attendance, they picked up ten people (including a woman working as bartender). Here, the pattern began to set, like an obscene drawing scrawled in wet cement:

  • The invasion of a private dwelling.
  • The focus on gender nonconformity — after the proprietor of the house, police singled out the most “effeminate” guests, including a male bellydancer. (The link to the military regime’s exacting standards of manhood was very clear. The immediate motive for the raid was apparently that visitors to the house who passed a nearby, post-coup checkpoint had offended the soldiers’ sensibilities; the troops called the police in the nearby village of Kerdasa to come do something.)
  • The draconian sentences handed down. Eight defendants got the maximum permitted by the law on fugur — three years in prison; the host had a battery of related charges thrown at him, including “corrupting” others and managing a house for purposes of “debauchery,” and got nine years. (The woman was acquitted.)

Since then, the arrests have come in an accelerating rush, till now a new raid happens virtually every week. Some incidents:

  • In the Red Sea resort of Hurghada,on December 14, police arrested two men (according to their IDs) who were wearing “women’s clothing and wigs” in a nightclub; they found “lipstick and condoms,” “makeup and creams” on them, according to the media.  The press also reported that the morals (adab) police perceived a pattern of “young people aged 16 to 20 from the Western provinces and Cairo” coming to Hurghada to “wear women’s clothing, carrying handbags with makeup tools and accessories and sexual creams and condoms.” In April, a court sentenced one of the two victims to three years in prison; the other was sent to a juvenile facility.
  • In February, the same Hurghada vice squad announced the arrest of three more “deviants,” aged 19, 20, and 23: “dressed as ladies and carrying handbags, in which an inspection found cosmetics and women’s clothing.” They confessed they wanted to “turn into women.” The police reassured the public that a “security crackdown” on deviance was in progress. There have probably been more Red Sea arrests of which we know nothing.

    Major General Hamdy el-Gazar, of the Red Sea Security Directorate, who took credit for the Hurghada "security crackdown" on trans people: from El- Dostour

    Major General Hamdy el-Gazar, of the Red Sea Security Directorate, who took credit for the Hurghada “security crackdown” on gender-nonconforming people: from El- Dostour

  • On March 11, the newspaper Youm7 headlined a court conviction for a “prostitution ring” in the Mohandiseen district, in Cairo west of the Nile: “a mixed network of girls and ‘third sex.'” Among the five defendants they mentioned, two were women and three were (biological) men; two of the latter apparently had women’s nicknames. The defendants’ ages ranged from 17 to 23, and the paper cheerfully printed their pictures. They had apparently been arrested, after “the receipt of information” and “investigations,” in a vice squad raid on an apartment they shared. They received one-year prison sentences.
  • On the very same day, March 11, Youm7 also reported the vice squad in Alexandria had arrested nine university students for “practicing sexual deviance,” in a raid on an apartment in the Montazah district. The newspaper said they had been caught “in flagrante delicto.” Egyptian LGBT activists later reported they had been released without charge, but it has been impossible to confirm this for certain.
  • On April 21, the vice squad in the Suez Canal city of Ismaïlia arrested a 22 year-old with male identity papers, who was wearing women’s clothing in a public park. The victim faces trial this month; the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights has sent a lawyer. Youm7 reported the case and printed two photographs of the defendant, face fully exposed, seemingly seized from her house or phone.
  • On April 1, vice police in Nasr City — a district of eastern Cairo — arrested four people in an apartment. Their ages ranged from 18 to 31; according to their friends, two of them identified as male-to-female transgender. They had only moved into the flat the day before; it seemed that neighbors or their new landlord reported them. Prosecutors charged them with fugur. A lawyer who went to the jail to help them heard police calling them the “four faggots [khawalat].” The case moved extremely quickly; on April 7, a Nasr City court convicted them all for”debauchery.” The oldest also was found guilty of “facilitating debauchery” and maintaining “premises for the purposes of debauchery,” under provisions of the same law. He received eight years in prison, while the other three took three-year sentences.
Anti-security forces, anti-police graffiti in Alexandria: From http://suzeeinthecity.wordpress.com/

Anti-security forces, anti-police graffiti in Alexandria: From http://suzeeinthecity.wordpress.com/

  • Also in Nasr City, during the first week of May, the vice squad arrested five more people in another apartment raid. Marsad Amny (“Security Observer”) printed their full names. It also reported that they were “clients” of those arrested in the earlier raid; activists believe the cops found them through the phones or friends’ lists of the previous victims. According to police, they confessed that they “hold private parties and drink  alcohol and liquor, and then they imitate women and [practice] vice with men.” The press also pruriently reported they had acknowledged “abusing pills” (presumably hormones) for breast enlargement and to “soften the voice and remove unwanted hair from their bodies. … They said that taking the pills helped them to acquire the shape, parameters, and characteristics of the female body.” And they owned “industrial tools for the practice of sexual deviance,” which is anybody’s guess. Today — May 19 — the Egyptian Initiative for Personal rights told me that one of the accused has been given a four-year prison sentence; three received eight years; and the court sentenced the flat’s main tenant to twelve years.
  •  On May 4, police arrested six people in a flat in the Cairo district of Heliopolis. Youm7, which carried a report the next day, called them “effeminates” (mokhanatheen, مخنثين, sometimes translated “shemales” or “sissies,” sometimes more respectably as “intersex” or “androgynes”) and claimed they were part of an “international sex network,” apparently because one had a Moroccan passport. The paper carried three successive, sensational stories based on information the police leaked, including pictures of the defendants and even two videos filmed in the lockup. Another paper said they confessed to “suffering from excess female hormones in the body and having sex hundreds of times.” The media also quickly announced that two of the accused “had AIDS,” suggesting an HIV test had been carried out in detention. Charged with “debauchery,” they are facing trial.
Major General Hisham el-Sawy of the Minisry of Interior, who claimed credit for the Heliopolis arrests, from El-Dostour

Major General Hisham el-Sawy , director of the general administration of the morals police, who claimed credit for the Heliopolis arrests, from El-Dostour

The news accounts and police statements actually suggest a still wider crackdown coming. The stories stress again and again that the “deviants” “advertise themselves through social networking sites,” or “through the pages of Facebook.” I interviewed a man arrested a year ago who recounted how the cops told him, “We know the cafes where you people gather, and we know the websites you use too.” Some of the recent court decisions adduce defendants’ personals ads, on sites like “Worldwide Transsexual Dating,” as evidence against them. Plenty of LGBT Egyptians use apps like Grindr, or have ads on multiple sites, or have posted indiscreet things on their own Facebook pages or in supposedly secret groups. A few strategically placed informers, and these people — thousands of them — could wind up in prison.

All that has happened before. From 2001-2004 Egyptian police arrested thousands of men for “debauchery,” entrapping many over the Internet. I can say with pride that this crackdown ended because we at Human Rights Watch, together with Cairo activists, documented it in clear detail, including the sleazy methods undercover cops used to delude and capture people. (“It is the end of the gay cases in Egypt,” a high Ministry of Interior official told a well-placed lawyer in 2004, “because of the activities of certain human rights organizations.”) For the next eight years, excepting an abortive spate of arrests of gay men suspected of being HIV-positive in 2008, no one went to prison for fugur in Egypt.

"A salute to our martyrs:" A Hitler figure representing military and police delivers a hypocritical salute to the revolutionary dead. Graffiti in Sidi Gaber, Alexandria, from http://suzeeinthecity.wordpress.com/

“A salute to our martyrs:” A Hitler figure representing military and police delivers a hypocritical salute to the revolutionary dead whom military and police killed. Graffiti in Sidi Gaber, Alexandria, from http://suzeeinthecity.wordpress.com/

Years of relative calm, then this. What underlies these new horrors?

First, media sensationalism feeds the arrests. Each juicy story gives police more incentives to pursue publicity. Youm7 (Seventh Day“), a privately owned paper, is the worst offender. They’ve blared out each new arrest with hungry glee, publishing names and faces, marching into jails with police collusion to capture the miscreants on videocamera.  Founded six years ago under Mubarak, Youm7 has parlayed its official connections to become one of the most popular papers, and websites, in Egypt. Since the Revolution, it’s become unofficial mouthpiece for the military and the security state. During the Morsi presidency, it whipped up hysteria against the Muslim Brotherhood (most famously, it claimed that the Brotherhood had dispatched roving medical vans to perform female genital mutilation door-to-door in rural Egypt, a story that spread widely before people noticed there was no evidence). More recently, its editor-in-chief was one of the elect anointed to tell a waiting world that Generalissimo Sisi planned to run for President.

A typical headline from Youm7: “Crackdown on a network of shemales in Nasr City. Ahmed says, ‘I changed my name to Jana after being raped by the grocer and my psychologist. We get our clients from Facebook and we act like females by wearing makeup and adopting feminine attitudes. Are they going to put us in a men’s or women’s prison?” Photo caption: “Ahmed, the accused.” The face was not blurred in the original.

A typical headline from Youm7: “Crackdown on a network of shemales in Nasr City. Ahmed says, ‘I changed my name to Jana after being raped by the grocer and my psychologist. We get our clients from Facebook and we act like females by wearing makeup and adopting feminine attitudes. Are they going to put us in a men’s or women’s prison?” Photo caption: “Ahmed, the accused.” I blurred the face: Youm7  didn’t.

Youm7 and its imitators dehumanize the arrested “deviants,” portraying them as both pathological and irrefragably criminal. Each article offers new images and verbiage of degradation.

But here’s the second point: of course, the government is feeding these stories to Youm7. And spreading stigma is a defining mark of the post-coup military regime. The whole strategy of Sisi’s government has been to divide and conquer Egypt, with a thoroughness earlier rulers never achieved in living memory: by creating instability, conjuring up threats and then assigning faces to them, it gins up the impression of necessity around its palsied grip on power. It started last summer, portraying the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters (at least a quarter of the country) as not just terrorists but rabid animals whom only death could discipline, indifferent to life, including their own. Stripping humans of their humanity, however, unleashes an energy that brooks no confinement to particular targets. The circles of lives unworthy of living, of those expelled brutally from both the society and the species, keep expanding. Egypt is now devouring itself in an infuriated quest to define who is no longer Egyptian. The “perverts” are just the latest victims.

Police and media together have generated a full-fledged, classic moral panic. Just ten days ago, walking downtown during Friday prayers, I heard a sermon piped over loudspeakers in the very heart of Cairo: “Why do we now see men practice abominable vices?” the imam demanded. “Why do they put on makeup, lipstick, and behave in the way of women?” I forget the answer. The question was the point. These forms of “deviance” are now the common topic in corner mosques as well as national news. All the typical tropes come up. Youm7 interviewed pundits about the “problem” — a psychologist, a professor of Islamic history, and a “security expert,” who compared queerness to drug addition.

Recently a serious phenomenon has surfaced in our society, with devastating  effects on individuals, society and the nation. This phenomenon is the crime of homosexuality [“الشذوذالجنسى,” sexual deviance].

Advocating personal freedom, which our society could not apply correctly, does not mean that the individual is free in his actions regarding his personal and physical requirements. Affronts to legitimacy and legality should be disciplined, so that they do not conflict with the laws of nature or violate human dignity. But “homosexuality” is an affront to all humanity.

“Homosexuality” is filed as a taboo — but we must open it up whatever the reaction. It is a phenomenon that has swept Egypt following the revolution. Although it existed before it has now risen to the surface. …  It has even appeared in the recent involvement of some Arab princes in the practice of “homosexuality.”

As that suggests, you can subsume plenty of other enemies under this sweeping rubric. Revolutionaries, dissidents, and even Gulf magnates who may have given money to the Brotherhood are all tarred. In a violently xenophobic atmosphere, Western criticism of the arrests only proves there’s a foreign conspiracy against Egypt’s morals and manhood.

And, third: manhood is basic here. The crackdown mainly targets the people in Egypt’s diffuse and fragile LGBT communities who are most vulnerable and visible, those who defy gender norms. This is despite the fact that, while Egyptian law does criminalize male homosexual conduct, it says nothing about “crossdressing” or “effeminacy.”  Still, in many of these cases people were convicted of homosexual acts with no evidence but their looks (or the clothes or makeup in their handbags) alone.

Evidence survives that Egyptian cultures before the advent of British and French colonialism had specific niches for the gender non-conforming. Khawal is now an insult for men who engage in homosexual conduct, regarded as a terrible term of opprobrium. In the 19th century, however, it meant male dancers who dressed as women, who enjoyed (like some South Asian hijras) a recognized role as celebrants at events such as weddings.

Postcard in French and Arabic from the first decade of the 20th century: "Egypt - haywal [khawal]: Eccentric male dancer dressed as a female dancer."

Postcard in French and Arabic from the first decade of the 20th century: “Egypt – haywal [khawal]: Eccentric male dancer dressed as a female dancer.”

Whatever those niches were, though, in the 20th century they closed. Khawal came to mean not a gendered role but a sexual practice. Despite a few well-publicized cases of Egyptians seeking sex reassignment surgery, there was little social space for most people – particularly men – to cross gender lines for anything like a significant section of their lives. Only in recent years has there been a growing awareness of “transgender” identity, and an expanding willingness by a brave, determined few to live in at least a liminal space where gender blurs. Many of these folks don’t define themselves as “trans,” nor are they bound to particular gendered pronouns.

“The Revolution continues: the Brotherhood brings shame.” 2013 anti-Morsi graffiti showing a suspiciously homoerotic kiss between Egypt’s embattled President and the Brotherhood’s Supreme Guide, Mohammed Badie.

“The Revolution continues: the Brotherhood brings shame.” 2013 anti-Morsi graffiti showing a suspiciously homoerotic kiss between Egypt’s embattled President and the Brotherhood’s Supreme Guide, Mohammed Badie.

One way to put this is that “gender identity,” if it means anything in Egypt, often exists in a continuum with “sexuality” rather than as a disaggregated axis for identity. But the development of downtown Cairo and a few other urban zones as places where all kinds of self-consciously “alternative” styles tacitly tolerate each other; the burgeoning availability of Internet information; and the discursive and personal freedoms the Revolution pried open, all encouraged a lot of people to experiment with new ways of appearing and even living, with being “ladyboys” (a term often heard in LGBT people’s Arabic), or fem, or trans. It hasn’t gone unnoticed.

The attention also meshes with other potent anxieties. I’ve written here before how the Revolution raised a nervous question about what Egyptian manhood meant. The generals who seized control of the country after Mubarak fell began at once to disparage dissenting youth as effeminate: long-haired, culturally miscegenated, and incapable of masculine virtues like loyalty and patriotism. As if in reaction, revolutionaries adopted a language of attacking others’ manhood: “Man up,” a call to courage and defiance suggesting that opponents were wusses, became a running cliché of revolutionary speech.

Grafitti on Mohamed Mahmoud Street, Cairo, 2013. On the left, the original version disparages the police as "gay." Activists painted over the insult and turned it into a statement on homophobia.

Grafitti on Mohamed Mahmoud Street, Cairo, 2013. On the left, the original version calls the police “gays.” Other activists painted over the insult and made a different statement: “Homophobia is not revolutionary.”

What resulted? An environment where all sides constantly debated masculinity and leveled accusations at its absence. Coupled with a fear of national vulnerability and diplomatic irrelevance (which the military governments carefully cultivated) this created ideal conditions for defaming transgressors against gender as traitors to culture and country. A stridently soldierly, macho dictatorship could hardly look for a more useful bogeyman than the mokhanatheen, who embody like a freeze-dried concentrate all the vices it attributed to its enemies.

Anti-police graffiti, Cairo. At bottom: "The names change, the crime remains the same." The left panel lists the sites of police massacres, the right panel lists Ministry of Interior officials.

Anti-police graffiti, Cairo. At bottom: “The names change, the crime remains the same.” The left panel lists the sites of police massacres, the right panel lists Ministry of Interior officials.

Fourth: the crackdown is convenient for the reputation of the police. In the Revolution’s wake, Egypt’s police forces stood discredited and despised. The cop represented the point where most citizens met and suffered from the power of a regime beyond the law. Almost everybody had a personal story of police extortion, or arbitrary harassment, or torture. After February 2011, the police almost disappeared from most Egyptian streets – loathed and cowed figures, fearing for their lives.

With Sisi’s ascendancy the cops are back with a vengeance. You see them at every traffic circle, big-bellied, smug, hitting up taxi drivers for their daily bribes. The regime’s purchased politicians praise the gendarmerie whose lucre-fueled alertness saves the nation from Islamist terror. Their presence hasn’t necessarily made them popular; memories of their abuses die hard. But going after still more despised enemies of virtue gives their image a lift. The news stories hammer home the moral: when it comes to “deviance,” our security forces are on guard.

Anti-police graffiti in Cairo. At top: "Those who appoint a successor never die." a parody of a proverb. At bottom: "O system! You're afraid of a pen and brush. ... You long to fight with walls, to have power over lines and colors." ACAB: "All cops are bastards."

Anti-police graffiti in Cairo, 2012. At top, Mubarak’s face emerges under that of General Tantawi, his Minister of Defense who overthrew him: “Those who appoint a successor never die,” a parody of a proverb (“Whoever has a child never dies”). At bottom: “O system! You’re afraid of a pen and brush. … You long to fight against walls, to have power over lines and colors.”At upper right, a policeman is beating a graffiti artist. ACAB: “All cops are bastards.”

Finally, you have to notice that this crackdown so far doesn’t proceed by policing public spaces like cruising areas or cafes, or by sneaking into pseudo-public spaces like Internet pages or chatrooms. It may go there, but not yet. It’s private homes the police invade. With each news story, they tout their X-ray ability to peer through the walls like cellophane.

And this is the grimmest message, though at first it may not seem so. If Egypt’s Revolution had one collective goal, it was to roll back state power. State surveillance of personal life, of people’s rooms and bodies, was the precondition for the state’s other abuses: especially torture, the crime that all the Arab Spring revolts most focused on, the ultimate assertion of government authority over people’s physical existence down to their bones and nerves and skin. The Revolution rebelled against the policeman’s eyes at the window, his ears in the walls, his clawed hand on the shoulder.

That’s over. There is no privacy. The hand is a fist, and it is knocking at the door. The knock is a reminder that the state is still there, that it can control whatever you do, what you wear, what your bodies desire. The knock insinuates itself into your dreams. It’s trans or gay or lesbian people, or effeminate guys or mokhanatheen, who hear and fear it now; the message reaches them first, in the early stages. Accustomed to dread, they’re an attentive audience. (A gay man with nothing exceptional about his appearance told me three nights ago that he is afraid to answer the door these days, afraid to go out of doors lest his neighbors see him and suspect something and report him to the police.) But it’s a message for everyone, and eventually everyone will listen. The Revolution promised “personal freedoms,” but forget it; “our society” couldn’t “apply them correctly”; they’re a corrupt aspiration, an evasion of the necessity of control. Remember all those dreams of tomorrow? Tomorrow went away.

"Shut up! because your freedom doesn't help me": Graffiti in Cairo by street artist Keizer, 2012

“Shut up! because your freedom doesn’t help me”: Graffiti in Cairo by street artist Keizer, 2012

 

 

General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi as you have never seen him before

The General is a man of destiny: Sisi (R, played by Romy Schneider) comforts the nation in its hour of distress

The General is a man of destiny: Sisi (R, played by Romy Schneider) comforts the nation in its hour of distress

Moving to Hungary not long after the revolutions of 1989, I spent my first few days in Budapest (hampered by my total incomprehension of the language) looking for evidence of gay life. Late one night, on a scarred and ill-lit street near Oktogon Square, I saw a lavender sign over a doorway: Sissi Panzió. I was stunned: Sissies? Pansies? Surely a slur ironically recuperated, the way my compadres back in the States were busily reclaiming queer. The formidable door was bolted. I resolved to come back and investigate this outpost of gender dissidence at a more amicable hour. Only on checking a dictionary did I find, first, that Panzió meant pension, and, second, that Sissi, far from an insult to Magyar masculinity, was the nickname of Empress Elizabeth, wife of Franz Josef, the penultimate monarch of the House of Habsburg.

The General is remembered: Statue of Sisi in Slovakia

The General will be remembered: Statue of Sisi in Slovakia

Even under Communism, Hungarians revered the memory of Sissi — also spelt Sisi. Unlike the other resolutely German Habsburgs, she’d learned Hungarian during her reign, endearing herself to her subjects. She also had an appealingly awful life: horrible mother-in-law, indifferent husband, suicidal son, an eventual death at the hands of a murderous anarchist on the lakefront in Geneva. Estranged from ordinary affection, she adored public adulation as she adored her own beauty; she ordered her ambassadors to report on whether any women in other countries rivalled her own charms. Her posthumous cult took the tinge of narcissism in her personality, and ran with it. Sisi’s glamorous tale, frozen in statues and reproduced in film, is ubiquitous in Hungary. 

The General in uniform: "The Sisi Cult," an exhibit in Hungary

The General in uniform: “The Sisi Cult,” an exhibit in Hungary

But I never quite understood her. Not till I came to Egypt! Not, in fact, till I read this article in Al-Ahram, the flagship of the State press. It’s a fascinating description of the military ruler, General Sisi — also spelt Sissi.

It’s clear now that in his magnanimous modesty, his self-effacing love of being loved, his mysterious bond with the people, and his romantic rise, Sisi is no ordinary dictator. Surely his name (which in Modern Standard Arabic, I’m told, means “pony” or “young rat”) is not a coincidence. Great souls stretch across boundaries of time and culture. I’m convinced this Sisi is the other one reincarnated.

A hero, big and small: SIsi poster (L), Sisi sweets (R)

A hero, big and small: Sisi poster (L), Sisi sweets (R)

You run into Sisi (the male version) everywhere these days in Cairo — portraits of him are de rigeur in shopwindows, stare down on avenues from banners, and even deck little chocolates like Hershey’s Propaganda Kisses. This too resembles Hungary and Austria, where titles like “Sisi’s Dream of Love” or “The Tragedy of Sisi” jam the bookshelves; three films in which she’s played by the equally tragic Romy Schneider (dead of an overdose at 43) spool endlessly on late-night TV.

L: The General (on the right, played by Romy Schneider) embraces the nation; R: Lubna Abdel Aziz, in I am Free, evinces fear of freedom

Sisi on film: L: The General (with hair down, played by Romy Schneider) embraces the nation; R: Lubna Abdel Aziz, in I am Free, demonstrates fear of freedom

I don’t know who wrote the op-ed below. The alleged author, “Lubna Abdel Aziz,” bears the name of an actress in her 70s, who most recently appeared in the TV adaption of the Yacoubian Building (unlike the feature film, that version demurely dropped the gay sub-story). She’s also famous for starring in several Nasser-era films where women struggle against patriarchal values, one with the very un-Sisi-esque title Ana Horra: “I am free.” How uncool! Could it be she wants to make amends for that old deviation, by showing the General how very unfree she — like the rest of Egypt — can be? Or could she have a higher ambition? Maybe she dreams of imitating Romy Schneider, by playing General Sisi herself in the inevitable movie?

Here goes: from Al-Ahram, September 17. It’s hard to believe, but yes, it’s real.

Catch the Al-Sisi mania by Lubna Abdel Aziz

The General is a looker: "Sisi, the Secret Beauty Formula of an Empress"

The General is a looker: “Sisi, the Secret Beauty Formula of an Empress”

He stands straight and tall, impeccably attired and starched from head to toe. His freshly washed countenance and youthful zeal shield a Herculean strength and nerves of steel. He wears the feathers of a dove but has the piercing eyes of a hawk. During our thousand days of darkness, dozens of potential leaders pranced and boasted, to no avail. The leader of the people should combine a love of country, a deep faith in God and the desire to serve the nation’s will.

Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s name lit up the darkness. He was called upon at a supreme moment in history; a kind of mysterious rendezvous with destiny. He was a hero like no other! He aroused attention without exhausting it. Nothing that touched the common run of mortals made any impression on him. All in all, he is but a common man, with an almost aristocratic aura of a nobleman. Composed and cool, Al-Sisi is everyman’s man, with a sort of serene majesty on his brow. He is the chosen leader of the people because he is willing to be their servant.

Let the deaf, dumb and blind media and governments of the West say what they will, Al-Sisi submitted to the will of 33 million Egyptians in the street and 50 million in their homes, crying for salvation. The people led — Al-Sisi followed.

The General's moment of truth: "SIsi: Year of Destiny for an Empress"

The General’s moment of truth: “Sisi: Year of Destiny for an Empress”

What the West cannot comprehend is the warm affinity between people and army in Egypt, which has endured for centuries. Gamal Abdel-Nasser is a recent example, even when he ruled with the firm grip of a military dictator.

Whatever else is going on in the rest of this vast universe, this much is certain — Al-Sisi has captured the imagination of all Egyptians, if not all the world.

He popped out of nowhere — almost — and his secret ingredient was hope. Napoleon Bonaparte once said “a leader deals with hope”, and the brand of hope that Al-Sisi deals, breathed new life into our withering, perishing dreams.

Sharing our dreams: The General (played by Romy Schneider) settles into sleep by counting murdered members of the Muslim Brotherhood

Sharing our dreams: The General (played by Romy Schneider) settles into sleep by counting dead members of the Muslim Brotherhood

Are heroes born, made or chosen? Perhaps, all of the above. William Shakespeare believed, “some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them.” Our hero may be the latter, for he sought nothing, yet emerged unexpectedly, admired and beloved, and in full army regalia, smoothly assumed the role he was born for.

The General takes what's thrust upon him: Sisi (played by Romy Schneider) accepts power from a grateful people

What was thrust upon him: The General (played by Romy Schneider) accepts power from a grateful people

In the full vigour of his prime, he exudes a magic charm, afforded to a select few.  His physical appearance — and appearance counts — is flawless. He wears the emblems of his rank on his shoulders as he does the legends of his ancient land, with gushing pride. But it is the swelling reservoir of love for his Egypt and his God that sealed the deal. We responded to this love a million times over. Therefore, for those who raise an eyebrow at the portraits, flags, pins, pictures, chocolates, cups and other forms of Al-Sisi mania that fill the streets of Egypt, it is only a fraction of the love and appreciation we feel for this strong yet modest, soft-spoken, sincere and compassionate leader. It is Kismet.

The General's got charisma: L, German book cover ( "Unique, Beloved, Unforgotten"); R, Hungarian fashion show (with Princess Di)

The General’s got charisma: L, German book cover ( “Unique, Beloved, Unforgotten”); R, Hungarian fashion show ad (with Princess Di)

Shy and reserved, Al-Sisi is a man of few words and much action. We know little about the private life of Colonel General Abdel-Fattah Saad Hussein Al-Sisi, except that he is married with three sons and one daughter and he believes that is all we need to know.

The General is cultured: "Sisi, the Modern Woman"

The General is cultured: “Sisi, the Modern Woman”

He was born on 19 November 1954, to the right kind of father, in the right kind of district — Al-Gammaliya — right in the heart of the bustling city of middle-class Cairo. This is what gives him that sharp perspective into the hearts of his people, their pains, their aims, their wishes, their dreams. His father Hassan, an amiable accomplished artisan owns a shop in Cairo’s legendary Bazaar, Khan Al-Khalili, where he displays his craftsmanship of intricate inlay of mother-of-pearl and rosewood. Cultured and well-read, he owns a huge library filled with history books, and socialised with famous writers, poets, musicians, and theologians. Al-Sisi is one of seven children, four boys — a judge, a doctor, a businessman and an army general. All three daughters are married.

According to his brothers, Al-Sisi developed a love of books from their father. He was the one who saw the most and said the least. Even as a boy, they called him “the General”. There was little doubt he would join the army and make it his career, and what a distinguished career it has been. He studied in the UK in the General Command in 1977, and attended their Staff course in 1992. He spent a year in the US at the War College in Pennsylvania and became the youngest member of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.

The General from girl to grownup: Volumes from Sisi's life story

The General from girl to grownup: Volumes from Sisi’s life story, suitable for children

He took over as defence minister in 2012, but by 30 June 2013, there was no doubt in his mind that he would do what is right. He responded to the 33 million voices clamouring in the streets. Yes, the Eagle had landed.

His bronzed, gold skin, as gold as the sun’s rays, hides a keen, analytical fire within. He challenges the world not with bellows and bravura but with a soft, sombre reproach, with an audible timbre of compassion.

The General's inner life: L, "Sisi's Dream of Love"; R, "Sisi's Secret Love"

The General’s inner life: L, “Sisi’s Dream of Love”; R, “Sisi’s Secret Love”

There is almost poetry in his leadership, but the ardour of the sun is in his veins. He will lead us to victory and never renounce the struggle, and we will be right there at his side.

The General is ready for his closeup: Sisi, with enigmatic expression, faces the future

The General is ready for his closeup: Sisi, an enigma as always, faces the future

(Thanks for Liam Stack of the New York Times for pointing out the article, and hunting down that young rat or pony.)

The Russian issue(s)

Right-wing demonstrators attack participant (center) in a "Day of Kisses" protest against anti-propaganda bill, in front of  the Russian State Duma in January: © Anton Belitsky / Ridus.ru

Right-wing demonstrators attack participant (center) in a “Day of Kisses” protest against anti-propaganda bill, in front of the Russian State Duma in January: © Anton Belitsky / Ridus.ru

A few good sources of information about Russia crossed my screen in the last week or so.

§ Just over two years ago, LGBT activists in Russia set up an e-mail list, Queerussia, to help to help Western activists and journalists understand their perspectives on the LGBT rights struggle. Now it’s gone online, as a news aggregator for lots of information about Russian events — mostly in English, with valuable material specially translated for the site. Check it out.

§ Open Democracy published an opinion piece by activist Igor Iasine on what Russian LGBT communities need right now: movements strong enough to carry the fight forward on Russian ground.

It won’t be Stonewall; it’ll be our own revolt. ..We  need to create a systematic and solid movement for LGBT rights if we are to avoid a new backlash … We can take inspiration from other people’s successes. Not everything in that experience is universal and equally relevant everywhere, but its importance should not be underestimated.

In the 60s and 70s the American LGBT community couldn’t ask Brezhnev or Mao to lean on the USA government on their behalf, to introduce sanctions or refuse visas to American officials. But now some Russian activists are looking for ways to enlist help in putting pressure on the Kremlin from abroad, as they doubt their own strength and don’t believe they will find enough support among other Russians. But … the best way to fight homophobic laws and prejudice is to forget about Obama and develop our own grassroots protest campaign. … [T]he LGBT community shouldn’t be pawns in a new Cold War, but part of an international movement for real democracy and equal rights for all.

The best way for people abroad to help us is through empathy and genuine solidarity, and not isolation or a boycott. Lukashenka’s Belarus has been the object of sanctions for years, but ordinary people’s lives are none the better for it.

§ Spectrum Human RIghts Alliance also interviewed Iasine here. And Open Democracy also carried an interesting piece by writer Sergey Khazov:

I’m certain that it is the new homophobic law itself that … has in fact worked both ways. On the one hand it has triggered a public witch hunt: a steep rise in cases of discrimination; people losing their jobs; attacks on LGBT activists; regional LGBT organizations being harassed and prosecuted under the law that bans NGOs from engaging in ‘political activity’. But on the other hand, this is happening precisely because people have suddenly started leaving their closets in a way that they never did before – a wave of ‘coming- outs’ is sweeping the country. LGBT activists have emerged in just about every city, and some of them have set up organizations that are making a real difference to people’s lives.

Foucault speaks at a labor union demonstration supporting Solidarity in Poland, April 1981

Foucault speaks at a labor union demonstration supporting Poland’s Solidarity movement, Paris, April 1981

§ Sean Guillory’s article in The Nation is one of the few recent English-language pieces to recognize the large, loud, and vibrant LGBT movement that’s still agitating in Russia — and to point up the diversity of opinion it contains. He concludes with a paradox worth stressing:

Six months ago, few in Russia, let alone abroad, knew about Russia’s LGBT movement. Now it seems that gay rights in Russia are on everyone’s lips. The sudden incessant talk about homosexuality is the dialectical result of recent attempts to repress it. In his History of Sexuality, the French philosopher Michel Foucault wrote that … the more a society seeks to repress sex, the more it has to talk about, identify and categorize it. Prohibition, he wrote, ensures “the proliferation of specific pleasures and the multiplication of disparate sexualities.” Russia is currently experiencing what Foucault called the repressive hypothesis. … The worst thing that could happen is that Russia’s current LGBT explosion is silenced. Or as Andrianova says, “It is very important to keep this pressure on because here in Russia the LGBT community is very mobilized and very much more open than before.”

§ Finally, in Counterpunch, Alexander Reid Ross places the anarchist artists of Pussy Riot in the heroic tradition of Soviet-era dissent. Check at the bottom of his article: he offers to translate and forward letters of support to Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alekhina, the sacrificial leaders of the group who are imprisoned in Putin’s Gulag, if you’ll send them to him at a.reid.ross@gmail.com. Tolokonnikova started a hunger strike last month to protest conditions in the Mordovian labor camp where she’s being held. Her open letter has been widely circulated; it can be read here. I would also like to call attention to a moving statement Tolokonnikova wrote (but was not allowed to deliver) at a hearing this April, when a judge denied parole because she refused to admit her “guilt.”

I am absolutely convinced that the only correct road is one on which a person is honest with others and with herself. I have stayed on this road and will not stray from it wherever life takes me. I insisted on this road while I was still on the outside, and I didn’t retreat from it in the Moscow pretrial detention facility. Nothing, not even the camps of Mordovia, where the Soviet-era authorities liked to send political prisoners, can teach me to betray the principle of honesty. …

Recently, I got a letter containing a parable that has become important to me. What happens to things different in nature when they are placed in boiling water? Brittle things, like eggs, become hard. Hard things, like carrots, become soft. Coffee dissolves and permeates everything. The point of the parable was this: be like coffee. In prison, I am like that coffee.

I want the people who have put me and dozens of other political activists behind bars to understand one simple thing: there are no insurmountable obstacles for a person whose values consist, first, of her principles and, second, of work and creativity based on these principles. If you strongly believe in something, this faith will help you survive and remain a human being anywhere.

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova behind barbed wire in Prison Colony no. 14, Mordovia: from http://izvestia.ru/news/539656

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova (L) behind barbed wire in Prison Colony no. 14, Mordovia, November 2012: from http://izvestia.ru/news/539656

And then there’s other stuff. Notably, New York’s Gay City News headlines its current edition “The Russia Issue,” which is nothing if not a belated effort to clamber onto the news cycle. As issues go, it’s thin. There’s one article on the Queer Nation’s anti-Russia protest at the Metropolitan Opera, which happened two weeks ago. And, inevitably, there’s something by ace reporter Doug Ireland.

Ireland’s contribution is an interview, all done by e-mail, with Nikolai Baev — Nikolai Alekseev’s onetime deputy at (indeed, almost the only other member of) Moscow Pride. Baev is a brave man, and he’s been a leader in at least one important action: he and Irina Fet were arrested in Ryazan in 2009 for demonstrating against the local anti-gay-propaganda law, a precursor to the later Federal iteration. Fet took her case to the UN Human Rights Committee, which found against Russia; Baev appealed his conviction to the European Court of Human RIghts, where it’s still pending.

But there are a couple of issues with Doug’s mis-take on the “Russian issue.” First off, Baev broke with Alekseev back in late 2011 — partly because Baev wanted Moscow Pride to join in anti-Putin demonstrations, and Alekseev refused; but partly too because Alekseev briefly resigned as Generalissimo, putting Baev in charge, then rudely retracted it (not the only time this happened). Baev hasn’t had an organization since then. Singling him out as the sole voice of Russian activism shows Doug’s old identification with heroic Lone Rangers, and his distaste for people who build movements. It’s the same frustrated passion that led him to idealize Alekseev over seven years of hype. Indeed, maybe the most telling passage comes when Baev tells Doug that Nikolai Alekseev’s

reputation among Russian LGBT community was always very bad. He has been supported by a few number of radical activists, including me, who thought about him better than he indeed was. … In any case, it always has been a minority of activists, and originally he understood this himself, saying that he represented no one but himself and his supporters.

If that’s true, why didn’t ace reporter Ireland know it? If Doug knew it, why did he keep lauding Alekseev as “the internationally recognized symbol of the nascent new generation of liberated Russian queers” — and so on?

I have an issue with that: Gay City News cover

I have an issue with that: Gay City News cover

More than that, though, it shows how little Doug has learned about Russia and its movements over the years. Presumably he was under some pressure from his usually pliant editors to show that he could interview somebody, anybody, other than Alekseev about Russian issues. But who does Doug find? Alekseev’s former right-hand man. Either Doug didn’t have any other Russian numbers in his Rolodex; or other activists, many of them angry over his years-long denial of their existence, refused to talk to him. Either way, it’s sad that Gay City News thinks this lazy, one-note, one-source writing actually gives a general picture of “the Russia issue.”  One need only compare Sean Guillory’s analysis of the diversity of Russian LGBT activism with Ireland’s easy puff pieces to see the difference between reporting and typing.

Defendants in the Queen Boat case during their 2001 trial

Defendants in the Queen Boat case during their 2001 trial

Let me tell a story. During the Egyptian Revolution in 2011, Doug decided he wanted to write up the gay angle. He “found” a gay Egyptian blogger — actually, the discredited website Gay Middle East served up someone they knew — and asked him questions by e-mail. When Doug published the story in Gay City News, it contained major factual errors, mostly about the 2001-2004 crackdown on men suspected of same-sex sex. Doug misidentified and misunderstood the laws under which they were arrested. He misunderstood Egypt’s Emergency Law and the kinds of special Security Courts the country operated. He got the details of the famous Queen Boat raid wrong. And he utterly garbled the fact that police arrested hundreds, probably thousands, of men by entrapping them through gay personals and Internet chatrooms. In his version, this came out as “During the same crackdown, all gay websites were closed down, either by Internet censorship of the Internet or by the arrest of those who ran them.” Fact: there simply were no “gay websites” operating in Egypt in the pre-blog, pre-Facebook era. (People used Gaydar.com, Gay.com, and other sites hosted well outside the borders. None of those websites was “censored,” since the police needed them to entrap people). And no one was ever arrested for running one.

I pointed these errors out to Doug, and he exploded in shrill banshee wails of fury at my temerity. “Distortions”!  “Meritricious [sic] semantic quibbles”!  His words were TRUE, he thundered back, because

Information on the use of the Emergency Law and the law on blasphemy to arrest and persecute gays came from Ice Queer, the gay Egyptian blogger I interviewed, as did the information on censorship and arrests relating to web sites which published gay-related content.

Now, I know “IceQueer,” who was Doug’s one and only source for the story, personally. He’s a nice guy. He blogs in English; this identifies him (or might if Doug knew anything about Egypt) as someone who stands at a slight angle to the mainstream of Egyptian life, gay or straight. He doesn’t write about politics at all. His blog is full of frank talk about sex; its main appeal is to an upscale Zamalek and Maadi crowd whose English is often better than their Arabic, who want to read about erotic lives like their own, but don’t give a damn about politics either. This is a very needed niche in Egypt, but it might have made Doug question whether the guy’s legal analysis didn’t need just a little fact-checking. Moreover, IceQueer was born in October 1988. When the Queen Boat case happened, he was twelve years old.

In other words, Doug Ireland relied on the memories of a single source who wasn’t even a teenager at the time to give him all the information about Egyptian law and history he needed. Having jotted down a mishmash of mistakes and turned facts to wet falafel, Doug rushed to print. Gay City News never printed a correction — they never do. Out of the mouths of babes comes wisdom. Out of Doug Ireland, gibberish.

Two women at the "Day of Kisses" demonstration in front of the Russian State Duma in January; one sports the remains of an egg thrown by right-wing protesters.

Two women at the “Day of Kisses” demonstration in front of the Russian State Duma in January; one sports the remains of an egg thrown by right-wing protesters. © Anton Belitsky / Ridus.ru

Cairo diary, December 2012: Walls, women, rape, fear

Tenting tonight in the old campground: In Midan Tahrir, November 27

Tenting tonight in the old campground: In Midan Tahrir, November 27 © Scott Long

I was detained at the airport coming into Cairo this time. When the woman at the control desk swiped my passport through the computer, a startled look filled her face below the hijab. She waved me down to the far, last lane: a place where Palestinians and stateless people congregate, in that limbo between borders where one is at the government’s mercy without having any claim on it. I lingered there an hour or so, generally ignored, and then an officer led me off to a remote room, somewhere past the lost-luggage desk. He locked the door behind me.

This was a dispiriting chamber, flat under faint fluorescent light, with empty chairs and graffiti on the walls: “Gaza” recurred over and over, with different dates, expressive as a scream. Another man sat there, Egyptian. He worked in Africa, had lost his passport there, and was trying to enter on a consular document. “Did they turn the key?” he said.

“Yes.”

“Shit on these shitholes. I hope their shit eats shit and dies of it,” he said, matter-of-factly. “They should die in the shit that they shovel onto others. How are you?”

It took three hours, and it mostly consisted of waiting. If I’ve learned anything from dealing with state officials, as investigator or victim, it’s that it’s pointless to ask questions. Silence elicits information as well as anything does; it makes them do the asking, and that tells you what they don’t know. In my case, they didn’t know why they wanted me. “You are on a security list,” an officer finally told me.

“Why?” I ventured.

“We’re not sure, but we have to check you for security.”

I’m not certain either what “checking me” entailed — Googling me? calling my parents? In any case, they finally released me into mother Egypt, not long after my sans-papiers colleague. (“Goodbye,” he said, “enjoy the shit.”) The whole episode explained why I had been similarly stopped (minus the cell and the locked door) the last three times I entered the country — previously, I’d supposed the controllers simply appalled by my ragged and decaying passport, relic of too many sweaty days and back pockets. But apparently some bureaucrat actually has put my name down with a permanent interrogatory beside it: What is he doing here? I feel flattered: not so much at being imputed a fake importance, but because the State and I are finally asking the same question.

Borders leave scars here. Nine years ago, in Cairo, I interviewed an Egyptian who’d lived for years in the US — he’d claimed asylum there as a former member of Hizb ut-Tahrir, an Islamist group that Mubarak’s government suppressed savagely. 9/11 happened, and Hizb ut-Tahrir lost its credit with the US authorities. A few days after, police in his Connecticut suburb took him into custody. Never mind his pending asylum case; never mind the American woman he’d married. After a year in jail, they deported him to Egypt. As he came into the Cairo airport in chains, a US immigration officer handed his case file to the passport police. It was the same as saying, “Torture him, please.” State Security held him for several weeks, and they went through the standard repertory: cold water, beatings, electroshock to the genitals. When I met him he still had memory lapses, lacunae that themselves bore witness to an interrupted life.

That happened because he crossed the invisible line of an imperial power. I represent the imperial power (“Permit the citizen/national of the United States to pass without delay or hindrance,” my brand-new passport says). And so I’m used to crossing borders free of fear. That said, the first thing you notice, coming back to Cairo after a year, is the sheer proliferation of borders. The boundary has decamped from the country’s edge, and now divides its center.  I’m staying near the much-feared Ministry of Interior, and morning and night I walk through two barbed-wire barricades on either side of it, past milling and listless Central Security troops, and a soldier manning a rifle atop an armored personnel carrier.

Walls have risen all around the government quarter, to keep the people from reaching it. Take any side street, and you’ll run into a rampart. Here’s one across Qasr el-Aini street, one of the main entries to Midan Tahrir:

The smile was added later

The smile was added later:  © Scott Long

Here is a barrier protecting the security forces’ headquarters — you can see the Interior Ministry’s sinister radio tower looming in the rear:

Don't walk this way: © Tyler Huffman

Don’t walk this way: © Tyler Huffman

The graffiti is a Quranic verse, and it’s aimed at the State: “They will not fight you, except in fortified townships, or from behind walls. Their belligerence is strong among themselves. You would think they were united, but their hearts are divided: That is because they are a people without wisdom.”

The walls don’t dice up the city in any coherent way.  They’re just meant to prevent protesters from accessing the State’s most sensitive points. But they stake out a symbolic division between the Revolution and the government: still at odds after two years and two elections. And, like most borders, they mark where people died.

47 people died a year ago along Mohamed Mahmoud Street, a green avenue leading from Tahrir. That’s a long story, like most in Cairo. In November 2011, the government decided to clear out the ongoing opposition sit-in from the main square, and Central Security Forces [Amn el-Merkazi] tried to use Mohamed Mahmoud as their route of attack. Protesters set up a defense line there. Security retaliated by building a wall. Five days of battle followed. Security gunfire blinded many demonstrators — the marksmen aimed straight at their eyes. Hundreds were injured: there’s no exact count. No one has been punished for the blindings or the deaths.

DSC00570

Ruins of Lycee Horreya, Mohamed Mahmoud Street, November 27: © Scott Long

Mohamed Mahmoud also figured in the chaos of the last three weeks, which I hardly have the ability to summarize, though I’ll try. On November 19 protesters gathered on the street, to commemorate the previous year’s deaths. The Interior Ministry used tear gas to disperse them; in the ensuing days, clashes spread to the other margins of Tahrir Square. At least one young man was killed. Central Security holed up in a lycee on Mohamed Mahmoud — the Lycee Horreya, Freedom School (Cairo is beyond irony) — firing on the protesters from above and throwing rocks at them.  Soon the school was almost completely torched.

Amid all this, on November 22 Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood leader narrowly elected President five months ago, issued a decree. Morsi has been ruling by decree ever since he was inaugurated. There’s nobody else to make laws; days before the presidential vote in June, the Constitutional Court disbanded the Parliament elected last year. (Since the Muslim Brotherhood were the dominant force in Parliament, many saw that move as Mubarak-era judges striving to deprive political Islamists of power. If so, though, it backfired, since the election promptly handed sole authority to an Islamist President.) Morsi’s new decree cemented his own decreeing power. He made his decisions immune to judicial review, until a new Parliament sits in some unspecified future. He also exempted the Constituent Assembly from judicial oversight. In effect, he decreed himself dictator.

Mubarak used to pick judges specifically for their willingness to jail Brotherhood members. Morsi and his party therefore loathe the only-supposedly-independent judiciary, something that seems both reasonable and requited. The Constituent Assembly, though, is what’s at the center of this mess. The now-dissolved Parliament had chosen the Assembly to write a new constitution for Egypt. Predictably, since the Brotherhood ran Parliament, they picked a Constituent Assembly that they ran too. Nearly all secular and liberal representatives had already withdrawn from it in protest. Most people expected the Constitutional Court to decide, in a pending case, that the Assembly itself was illegitimate. Morsi’s decree forestalled that, giving the Assembly (and hence the Brotherhood) fiat over Egypt’s future.

Crowds off Mohamed Mahmoud Street, November 27: © Scott Long

Crowds off Mohamed Mahmoud Street, November 27: © Scott Long

When I arrived on November 23, the lemony tang of tear gas constantly drifted south from central Cairo, and the thud of bursting cannisters punctuated night and day. Protests had broken out in cities across the country. There was  impotence in the anger, a rage at everything going wrong. I went to Mohamed Mahmoud the next night, just under the lycee where Central Security had their bastion. Teenagers with rocks and Molotov cocktails were tearing apart a parked car, for no apparent reason except they couldn’t get at the killers four stories up. A few days later the cindered car still sat there, beneath a scraggle of graffiti that said “Happy Birthday.”

Youssef el Guindy Street, off Mohamed Mahmoud, November 27. Among the graffiti: "Long live the prisoners'   intifada"; "Glory to the workers of Egypt": © Scott Long

Youssef el Guindy Street, off Mohamed Mahmoud, November 27. Among the graffiti: “Long live the prisoners’ intifada”; “Glory to the workers of Egypt”: © Scott Long

After Morsi’s decree, the Assembly scurried to submit a proposed Constitution, and Morsi scheduled a rush referendum for December 15. The protests have continued: here’s a scene from a massive opposition march on November 27, as the crowd stops to jeer in front of the headquarters of Morsi’s party downtown.

It’s not that the draft Constitution is unspeakably worse than the existing one; it’s not even that it offers some instant blueprint for Islamist rule. Neither, despite the melodrama opponents indulge, is true. (A comparison of the two Constitutions is here; an analysis of the more controversial new provisions, here.) The rage is rather that the Revolution was thwarted from producing something better: and that Morsi is forcing down this ploddingly inept document by the old means of extralegal rigging. It’s also anger at two years in which the State has consistently brutalized its own people rather than answer their demands. Whether under Mubarak, the military, or Morsi, the government chose to build barricades against its citizens — and shoot them, to kill.

As an outsider, the anger concerns me more than the Constitution; I can feel the first, while the second is an abstraction. I don’t even know how to write about the rapes, except you have to, because they’re everywhere. My first day here, the office where I’m working asked me for information about rape kits; two women had come to them after they were raped near Tahrir. That night, I went to a friend’s flat; her neighbor had been gang-raped along with another woman, dragged into a dark side street in the vicinity of the Square.

Sexual harassment, the show of men’s physical power over women in public space, has been a political issue in Egypt for several years. Yet no one was prepared for sexual violence on this scale. Some activists have claimed the Muslim Brotherhood has gathered roving mobs to rape protesting women; in the UK, the Daily Mail has blazoned this rumor eagerly. No one actually knows, because no actual people have been accused or caught. Central Security only comes near Tahrir to taunt or shoot protesters, not to protect them. For anybody else, there’s virtual impunity in much of downtown.

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Anti-police graffiti near the Ministry of Interior: “He learned his job by bribery.” Two images of Revolutionary martyrs are on the right. © Scott Long

A vigilante spirit roams Egypt. The police largely disappeared after the Revolution. There are just enough traffic cops at intersections to maintain the show of somebody being in charge. But for nearly all Egyptians, the police were the government’s most corrupt, intrusive and abusive visage: everybody had to deal with them, everybody despised them, and they were the one part of the State that, in the chaos of regime change, had the self-preserving sense to melt away. In many neighborhoods now, officers wouldn’t dare show their faces on patrol if you tripled their pay. Central Security Forces are supposed to fill the gap. These are ill-trained army recruits, mostly from the provinces, deputed to urban policing tasks that they have no clue how to fulfill. One reason so many demonstrators have been slaughtered since the Revolution is simply that Central Security has no experience in crowd control. State Security [Amn el-Dawla], Mubarak’s dreaded secret police, at least knew how to contain a dissident gathering, up to a certain size; but they’re officially defunct (meaning they’ve gone underground). The raw boys of Central Security carry only the fears fed them by their superiors, and their guns.

In this environment, communities themselves — the neighborhood, the extended family — take up the responsibility for “security.” Communal cooperation is part of the Egyptian genius. Yet the immediate result is to make outsiders suspect by definition. I’ve seen this first-hand: last year, trying to get to a demonstration near the Defense Ministry in the Abbasiyya quarter, I found myself amid a mob of local residents running to attack the intruders, armed with large knives, all convinced that their streets and homes themselves were under attack from people who didn’t belong. (Since I fell in that category, I count myself lucky that I don’t have more pieces of myself to count.) I can easily imagine the rapes as product of a nightmarish moral vigilantism: the work of men convinced these women aren’t proper Egyptian women, that if not controlled they will invade our streets and our places, that they must be punished.

Even beyond the stories of rape, something ominous is afoot. It’s hard not to feel that the Revolution has actually reinforced patriarchal control of women: not the way you might think, by reinstating religion, but rather by making men identify more deeply with an ethos of protection. I talked in recent days with Egyptian researchers doing ethnography in two working-class and conservative neighborhoods in Cairo. The men and women they’ve interviewed alike have stressed their fears about safety. Everyone’s heard rumors about the rapes. Moreover, everybody subsists in terror of a crime wave, even if they haven’t actually seen crimes. And men have locked stricter controls on “their” women, their wives and daughters, in response: restrictions on going out unaccompanied, walking alone, staying out at night. Women lose not only mobility but social cohesion if they can’t meet one another freely, and economic independence if they can’t make it to market or work (as many do) as street vendors. Men, meanwhile, gain power in reclaiming a traditional role as guardians. (It’s at least some compensation for the lost jobs of a collapsed economy.) There are political implications to these shifts, although they’re hard to read. As a guardian State slowly reasserts its legitimacy, incarnate in a patriarchal figure like Morsi, will men identify with it, or resent its encroachment? Or both at once?

Stand by your man: Male protesters form a ring around women marchers, Talaat Harb Street, November 27

Stand by your man: Male protesters form a ring around women marchers, Talaat Harb Street, November 27 © Scott Long

Vigilantes patrol on both sides now, in fact: the bad vigilantes cut hair and enforce modesty, and the good vigilantes protect their women from all that. You can see the guardian role in all manner of places — among the middle class, for instance, in last Tuesday’s mass opposition march, where men formed a cordon around women protesters to safeguard them. (There’s even a Twitter account for this now, @Tahrirbodyguard, “A collective effort to ensure safety in Tahrir, especially for women” –oddly, it’s all in English.) The thing is, it’s a little hard to be caught between all these protectors. If you want to see the dilemmas this poses for feminism, consider this anti-sexual harassment graffiti, from Mohamed Mahmoud Street:

Up against the wall, motherharassers

Up against the wall, motherharassers: © Scott Long

The central two panels are about women empowered. The top one says (roughly) “If he calls you a hot slut, use a weapon”; the bottom, “No matter how much of my body shows or doesn’t show, it’s free and can never be humiliated.” But the bottom left carries a different message, and it’s not for women at all: “Be a man! Protect her!”

This call to be a man is heard quite a bit in Cairo. Masculinity itself seems to be at stake, in the brutal clashes where the walls stand. ¿Quien es mas machoWhich side holds the monopoly on manhood? What does being a man mean, anyway? Here’s graffiti I saw a year ago, from the Association of Detainees of the Revolution, calling for a sit-in:

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“Man up! Take to the streets with us, your Revolution has been stolen!” And the chant rang out at rallies against the army — a reminder that our side is more manly than the soldiers, even: “Man up and shout! The military’s time is ending soon!”

But manhood is at stake because manhood is in question. It’s a wounded, brutalized manhood, aware of its vulnerability. Two years of incessant violence have both mutilated it and shaped it. It’s in pain, and it lashes out.

That’s the thing I apprehend most of all, this time in Cairo: the exhaustion, the hurt, the pain. I don’t think one can underestimate how these years of killing have brutalized a society. The grinding gradualness of it all has been part of the effect (as well as the break with the enforced placidity of the Mubarak years before). Of course, one doesn’t speak of the whole society ground down. Most of Egypt is still the Party of the Couch, with windows closed against the tear gas. Two of the culture’s naked extremities, though, seem to have been most exposed, and left most clotted with rage: the poorest and the not-quite privileged-yet, the underclass who feel they’ve nothing left to lose and the young intellectuals and students; the utterly dispossessed, and those who possess nothing but their promise. I have no inclination to sentimentalize either, and I usually resist both organic metaphors and those vertical ones that claim to arrange social classes in their natural elevations. Still and all, it feels like killing a society at the root and at the leaf.

A street child sifts through rubble on Mohamed Mahmoud Street:  © Scott Long

A street child sifts through rubble on Mohamed Mahmoud Street: © Scott Long

A friend who works with street children reminds me that they’ve been in the front lines of the clashes for months: kids as young as eight or nine making Molotov cocktails and pitching them at Security forces along Mohamed Mahmoud.   There are tens of thousands of homeless children in Cairo. They’re enraged; and many of them have already lost friends to the government’s bullets. These martyrs of the Revolution mostly aren’t counted, and they tend to end up in unmarked graves. Their despair, though, replicates that of traumatized middle-class kids in a different key. A 21 year-old student told Al-Ahram earlier this year that “Since the revolution began, with the exception of the month of August, I’ve lost at least one friend every month.”

Some of the consequences of this brutalization show through the powerful street art that has been painted on the walls along Mohamed Mahmoud Street. These pictures are secular icons, a record of the Revolution’s martyrs, but also a symptomography of the body under the State’s pressure. It’s a kind of political lexicon of pain.

Some portraits of the martyrs are deliberately benign, unphysical, the dead as spiritualized angel. This one says only, “Mostafa Metwally: 1994 – 2012.” (Metwally died at 17 in February’s “football massacre” in Port Said.)

 © Scott Long

© Scott Long

The angel here is flecked with blood: “The Martyr Mohamed Seri. By Kamal Abdel Mobdy.”

© Scott Long

The accompanying poem tries to tie him to earth by weighting him with national history:

The first country and first people we are
Seven thousand years old we are
Night comes to our country and turns to light through us
The greatness of pyramids tells who we are
The rooted ancient people we are …

But other figures seem too dense with their own particularity, and the terrible fact of their loss, to need the ballast. On the left: “Karim Khozam: An icon of moral commitment: 2-12-1992” (he also died in the Port Said massacre). On the right: “Alaa Abdelhady: One of the martyrs of the Cabinet clashes” (a medical student, he was shot near the central government building almost a year ago).

 © Scott Long

© Scott Long

Some images emphasize mutilation. This shows Ahmed Harara, who lost one eye during the January Revolution, and the other while fighting on Mohamed Mahmoud Street:

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© Scott Long

And some images bloat with pain till they terrify. These could be by Francis Bacon:

 © Scott Long

© Scott Long

A line above them reads: “And to the State, it’s God’s will. Meaning, they owe nothing for your death.”

 © Scott Long

© Scott Long

The figure at left below is a version of the tortured body of Khaled Said, killed by police in Alexandria in 2011. Here, its deformation pushes back at the formalities of perspective.

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© Scott Long

The figure at right seems haloed unbearably in its own exploding head.

 © Scott Long

© Scott Long

The line above the images reads, “If the picture is not clear enough, believe me: The reality is uglier.” The pictures, though, are part of the reality, of a body politic at extremity. If they are hard to look at, imagine living with –or in — them.

Tarek Mustafa, Maysara Omar, Ramy Youssef, and Nada Zatouna helped me think through aspects of this post.

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.

The generals torture: Nada Zatouna’s story

Nada Zatouna is 23 and an independent filmmaker. Originally from Aswan in upper Egypt, she lives in Cairo. She’s been an activist since the Revolution began in January, “involved with Tahrir from the start,” she says, “as an Egyptian citizen, and as an Egyptian woman.”

I have my work, and my tools as a filmmaker, and I wanted to use them for my country. For my Revolution, to document what was going on –on our side, the victories, and also the things they did against us.

Police arrested Nada on Sunday, November 20, early in a week of steady fighting in downtown Cairo. The battles began when the military junta’s security forces raided a sit-in occupying Midan Tahrir. After that, police kept raiding Tahrir and seizing activists, using nearby Mohamed Mahmoud Street (which leads from Lazoghly Square and the Ministry of Interio) as a point of entry. Protesters started confronting them along the street. Days of fighting ensued. Tear gas filled the city. Police snipers fired directly in demonstrators’ faces, and many lost their eyes permanently. More than 40 protesters died.

Nada herself was held for over a day, and tortured. Here is her story.

In the middle of the week, Thursday and Friday and Saturday [November 17-19], I was in a camp near Alexandria — we go there and take a rest from life. After that, I returned to Cairo, and was I shocked by what was happening in Tahrir Square and Mohamed Mahmoud. I called one of my friends, and he said, “Don’t go, Nada, it’s very dangerous.” But I decided to go, and take a camera, any camera, to document what was going on.

When I got there, I began to go deeper and deeper down Mohamed Mahmoud Street to where the worst of the fighting was. I found a lot of people from different classes, different sects, different identities — anything, everything. But they were falling down right and left from tear gas and from rubber bullets. Everyone was extremely tense. They were shouting: “No SCAF [Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the ruling junta], no police! We want to see the military go!”

I reached the front lines. Between me and the police and the CSF [Central Security Forces, Amn el-Merkazi, a division of the national police]  there were only about twenty meters.  There were maybe forty people there. I saw two or three other women there. But there was no talking in the chaos.

Once we got there, I noticed that when guys stopped throwing stones at the CSF and police, the CSF would come forward with police cars and grab them. Or they would fire tear gas directly at them. So I felt we all had to take defensive measures. But at the same time, I was trying to document things with my small camera. And in the middle of that, I found at least six or seven CSF soldiers came on me — in just two seconds, they were very fast; people beside me ran quickly, and I couldn’t run quickly.

And they beat me on the head, grabbed me by the hair — I was shocked, I didn’t know what to do — they broke my camera, they were kicking me, beating me with sticks, everything. One of them, wearing civilian  clothes, grabbed me by the shirt and dragged me down the street. I was dizzy, I was a bit unconscious from the beating on my head. He began to ask me: “How much do they pay you to do this?” And things like that.

They marched me to the Ministry of Interior [nearby at Lazoghly Square] on foot. I was alone – they caught each one alone. They put me in a sort of kiosk, a small office in front of the Ministry of Interior, inside the gate. There were officers beating me once we arrived. One of the officers was high rank – there were three stars on his epaulets. He used an electric stick on my arm, and he kept doing this again and again. I was saying “Stop!” – I was trying to get him away.

Then they shoved me in the kiosk. In a while one of the officers [inside], who was a little bit nice, told me to come behind him – to stand behind his back and he wouldn’t let anyone reach in and beat me from outside.

They began to go through my bag and throw everything on the floor. And they began to push other people in the kiosk. Within two or three minutes this space was full of guys – a lot of them teenagers, maximum fourteen years old, just kids. They were all beaten – there was blood everywhere. My head was also bleeding from the injuries, and my lips and mouth too.

They took our mobile phones, and our sim cards and everything. They took my ID. And they kept calling us names. The [CSF] soldiers outside the kiosk acted as if they wanted to grab me and drag me outside again to beat me again. They were saying to the officers, “Let her outside and we’re going to fuck her! We’ll screw her whole life!”

After a while a van came, to deliver us to the police station. The officer who had told me to stay behind him, came to me to prevent anybody from beating me – to prevent the soldiers outside. As I walked out, he  was holding me between his arms, to guard me. Then I went inside the car. [The CSF outside] kept on trying to get me, to pull me out. But one of the officers pushed them away: “Enough, she’s a girl and she’s young, stop!”

After this, we went to Abdeen police station [in central Cairo]. The prisoners in the van were something like forty men, and I was the only woman.

I was the first one who got down. I told one of the CSF officers there, “Please don’t let anybody beat me again.” But inside the station, an officer who was standing on the stairs kept looking at me, up at down, and calling me names and threatening me – very bad. He’d say, “Get her upstairs.  We’re going to fuck her, we’ll screw her life, do a lot of bad things to her.”

We all had to go upstairs, into an office. And there, they threatened me again: “We are going to hang you on the wall. And we’ll bring a woman in to beat you.” There was blood everywhere on the walls – we kept asking, “What is this?” It’s like psychological war.

We stayed upstairs for something like seven hours. We wanted to go to the bathroom: they told us it’s forbidden. It’s funny, almost – no; it was horrible, really. At 2 A.M. they got all of us downstairs to go to the truck again, and go to the niyaba [the public prosecutor].

We went to a civilian, not a military niyaba – that at least was a relief. But it was 5 A.M. by the time we got there. They put us in a cage, maybe three meters by three meters. And when it was my turn I went in to meet the niyaba. He acted very civil; he told me, “Don’t worry, sit down, how did they arrest you? You are young, you’re a girl, you look peaceful. I have been in Tahrir Square myself; I was calling for change. Don’t worry, I am going to release you.” And so on.

He kept writing, questions. And he was giving the answers instead of me: “No,” “I don’t know,” “It didn’t happen.” As if he were going to help me. I didn’t tell him about the torture. [Prosecutors are required by Egyptian law to include accounts of torture in their reports if prisoners give them, or if they see evidence of torture.] But he could see – I was bruised and bleeding. He didn’t ask me about it. And of course he already knew that the police do this.

I went out. We were all waiting for six hours to know what was going to happen to us. They kept telling us, “After five minutes there will be a decision from the general prosecutor.”

At first we were all in one cell, but after a while another group came, and there were something like 100 of us, or 150—I was still the only woman. They then took me out of the cage, and let me sit on the floor between two cages in the same area. By two or three in the afternoon, we were all starving. This was now Monday. All the guys were screaming, “We’re hungry, we’re human!”

There was a lower-ranking guy who kept harassing me all that day. I was completely terrified of him. While I was waiting between the two cages, I was alone, and he entered the area, and was trying to touch me, stroke me, touch my shoulder, and I was trying to push him away. Another officer entered and scared him, and he went away from me

At 6 P.M., they told me, “We’ll release you — you just have to go back to Abdeen station to process the release.” But the lower-ranking officer came along in the van. And in the van he kept telling me, “I want you.”  All this in front of other soldiers, and officers – until finally one of them told him,  “Stop, Osama. It’s enough, yanni.

The car kept taking turns and detours—going in circles. We realized we weren’t going to Abdeen. People were singing at first, but then they started asking, “Where are we going? What’s happening?” Suddenly we saw through the cracks he’d entered a road to the desert. And we reached a military camp, and stopped. We were all so depressed and discouraged — really shocked. They’d tricked us.

We entered this camp. I saw from the little window more soldiers from CSF surround the car, with sticks and everything. The officers inside the car were laughing: they told us “These people will screw your life, motherfuckers, they will beat you to the edge of your life.” They were very happy! I was so down. I told one of the officers, “Please don’t let anyone beat me again.”

And we go down. I told myself, “OK, it’s my destiny, I will stay here forever.” They beat all of them, but this time, not me.  The police took off their belts, and used them to beat them, and punched them on their backs, and kicked them.

There were two cages, each about four meters square, with a little distance between them. Ad there were sixty or so men from the van, and me. The officer at the camp asked, “Where are we going to put this girl?” I was so down. I thought, “OK, do whatever you want with me.”

They put me in one cell, alone, with everyone else in another, and they let an army soldier stay with me. I asked him, “Please get me a blanket, it’s too cold for me” — I was sleeping on the floor. I spent two hours asking for a cover, and he finally consented to get me one, this way: He told the other soldier outside to get a cover for him. That soldier asked, “Is it for you or her?” He said, “For me, don’t worry.” So after one or two hours, the other soldier brought the blanket, and this one let me have it. Then I slept. I was telling myself, “Nada, you are going to live here for days. You don’t know what will happen to you. There’s nothing you can do.”

Suddenly at 10 P.M. they open the door, and they tell me they will release us. But seven us will stay with them. Among those who stayed were people with very serious injuries. Among us was a young guy both of whose arms had been completely broken. They didn’t release him – they didn’t want the injuries to be public. They also kept others from the April 6 Movement [the April 6 Youth Movement is one of the main revolutionary coalitions].  I didn’t want to believe them again. But they took our fingerprints, and then they really released us in front of the camp.

We were outside eastern Cairo, and we had to make our own way back.

Talking and talking is useful for me. Saying what happened, it’s very useful for me. Just now, before we met to talk, when I was in the street after finishing my work, I decided to pass by in front of the Ministry of Interior where I was beaten. I was scared at first, it was heavy: it was not easy, psychologically, for me. But I told myself, “You have to do this, to feel OK.”  And I passed in front of cars, and soldiers, and I wasn’t … Well, I thought they might identify me, and I didn’t have an ID on me [Egyptians are legally obliged to carry identity papers].  The street was closed to cars, but they let pedestrians pass, and I walked by. But I wasn’t afraid in the end.

And after this, I felt so proud of myself, and I was so happy that I could do this.

I’ve changed as a person since the Revolution,  and because of the Revolution. I feel stronger than before. I can say loudly, “I want this and this and this.” I can be myself more and more, in my personal life,  in society. That’s what the Revolution means to me, that strength. Before the Revolution, what they did to me might have broken me. But not now. Not now.

From Egypt: Manhood on the front lines

Ahmed Spider, before and after

So Ahmed Spider’s website was hacked tonight. Where you used to find gauzy, Vaseline-blurred images of a willowy figure with a pruned beardlet, now there’s a glowering fuck-you troll in diapers, a message that the site’s been pwn3d, and some mocking posts from the hackers, who have monikers like “Turbo_Power” and “Black_Moon”:

“Susan” is cute, and now she’s talking about politics  — how hilarious! And moreover she’s singing … The best young men have participated in this revolution, while you sit at home playing at your keyboard.

Now, it’s not as though I have any sympathy for the guy. Ahmed Spider, whoever he really is — nobody seems to know exactly — is one of the odder side-effects of the revolution, one of those strange beings who crop up in the crevices where paranoia, social change, new forms of media, and the loonier outliers of celebrity culture all conjoin. For years, he used his website mainly to promote his not-very-well-sung songs. After February, though, he discovered a new career opening, as conspiracy theorist. He started up a YouTube channel, featuring musical monologues by himself, about suffering Egypt, the virtues of Mubarak, the iniquities of revolutionaries, the real reasons for 9/11, American and Zionist plots, and more. These videos never quite went viral; they were more like a lingering cold. He named Wael Ghonim, one of the revolution’s icons, as a Masonic subversive; after the Maspero massacre in October, he accused activist Alaa Abd el Fattah of inciting it (and Alaa now languishes in jail facing the same charges). He vehemently supports the ruling junta (SCAF, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces). Some pro-regime TV channels give him inordinate airtime.

Most revolutionaries thoroughly loathe him. His attack on Alaa Abd el Fattah they regard as especially unforgivable. Some call him things like “SCAF’s main tool.” That seems unlikely; he’s too eccentric, too pathetic a product of the dream of fame, to be a useful tool for anybody. But what’s interesting is the way his eccentricity is used against him. He’s undeniably a bit fey, he has a lispy accent, and his suspiciously plucked-looking eyebrows and gelled hair don’t quite fit either the respectable contours of traditional Egyptian manhood or the scruffy, Che-in-a-keffiyeh look favored in Midan Tahrir. So he becomes “she,” “Susan,” a faux artiste glued to the piano while the “best young men” go out and fight for what they believe. Or take this nasty cartoon that circulated on Twitter:

from @ahmad_nady on Twitter

Ahmed Spider (on the right, if you didn’t guess): “If you still love Zbider, googoo, you should throw in prison everybody people consider a MAN.” The general: “As you wish!” And the bicycle spinning in his thought-balloon — agaala — is common slang for a male who gets penetrated.

From @ahmad_nady on Twitter

Compare this to the same artist’s depiction of Alaa, his wife Manal, and their child — “for the best revolutionary couple ever.” It’s the Holy Family versus the fags. You get the idea.

The revolution is certainly not averse (or at least some revolutionaries aren’t) to manipulating homophobia. However, the truth is that Alaa — who’s certainly the “MAN” that Zbyder means above — with his long hair and rather unathletic figure, not to mention his feminist wife, is not exactly the traditional model of Egyptian manhood. And in fact, he’s notorious for saying friendly things about gay rights, and even endorsing the idea of same-sex marriage in his voluminous tweets. (His father, the revered Ahmed Seif el-Islam, was the first human rights activist to provide legal defense to the men arrested on the Queen Boat in 2001.) There are, in other words, some paradoxes here.

The other night, I asked a friend here who’s sensitive to these matters whether there’d been a change in the way Egyptians, or at least some Egyptians, imagine manhood since the Revolution. Alaa Abd el Fattah’s story was the first thing he mentioned. Specifically: After the military jailed Alaa in the wake of Maspero, Nawara Negm, a well-known revolutionary, published a piece in which she praised him as a dakar, a real, manly man: he faced SCAF and its overweening power boldly, went off to prison bravely, never flinched.

In one of his letters smuggled from his cell, Alaa responded to her:

I am writing this note with a deep sense of shame. I have just been moved from the appeals prison, at my request and insistence, because I simply couldn’t withstand the difficult conditions there: because of the darkness, the filth, the roaming cockroaches, crawling over my body night and day; because there was no courtyard, no sunshine and, again, the darkness….

I found Nawara’s celebrating my “manliness” confusing … I couldn’t “man up” and bear it, even though I knew only too well that thousands were bravely and stoically enduring far worse conditions, even though I never had to suffer the untold horrors of military prisons, nor was I ever subjected to the torture meted out to those comrades of mine who had been sent down to the military courts. …

Even my decision to refuse questioning by a miltary court, which so many of you have celebrated and praised, that too came with a grain of cowardice. The day we had met to take the decision, I was not brave enough to seek my wife Manal’s opinion on the matter, even though I knew full-well I would be leaving her on her own, through the final days of her pregnancy; even though I knew I would be leaving her to face, on her own, the trials and tribulations of running our life …

The only slightly theatrical modesty goes far toward explaining why Alaa is so loved among his comrades. The confession of a certain cowardice, and, most especially, the apology to his wife — the admission that they should have been equal partners in his decision, an idea few Egyptian men of whatever profession would entertain — seemed to my friend to adumbrate a different kind of masculinity, detached a bit from the traditional anxieties about courage and control. It’s also obvious, though, that while declaring himself less than a dakar, Alaa leaves the value of manliness itself unquestioned. He shifts the semantics around the dakar, but neither rejects the term nor redefines it completely. “It is true that I am not the ‘real man’ Nawara believes me to be,” he says, “but I am no coward either.” That self-description seems to me to capture some of the dilemmas here of revolutionary manhood.

among the martyrs

The revolution is a macho thing. Perhaps most revolutions are. All around Cairo, in the progressive hangouts, you can see the guys strutting round, cocksure in their rock-star status as heroes of the ongoing fight for freedom, their egos ablaze with the fires lit by the glimmers in awed girls’ eyes. If they’ve been on the barricades recently, some of them wear their battle scars like love bites. Beyond and behind them, ghostlike, there are, of course, the martyrs, those killed by Mubarak or the counter-revolution: women and men, unforgettably dead, their visages ubiquitous on posters or banners whenever the revolutionaries gather. Sometimes they appear smiling, natural, with faces in which only now one can read a shadow of surprise — images pulled, as if by an emergency or an unexpected message, from their ordinary lives in which dying seemed a distant thing, called to carry out a errand on which they hadn’t planned. Sometimes they’re shown with skulls crushed or chests bullet-ridden or limbs neatly folded over a docile corpse. Sometimes you see them split-screen as Before and After, as if one made the transit from beautiful life to glorious and terrifying death in the quick flick of a camera shutter. Always, though, they’re presented more as victims than as heroes. You don’t see them doing, though you may see footage of them dying; they are mute emblems of pure suffering, which extinguished them that the rest of us may go on struggling. Aluta continua. It’s as though, by being passive in their extinction, they clear the space for the living heroes to be heroes. The more the martyrs underwent, and the higher the hecatombs grow, the more their agency and power come to inhabit the guys (of course, particularly the guys) who survived.

But these guys in turn — because they’re like Alaa, maybe long-haired, certainly radical, definitely non-traditional in one way or another — have to defend their power from the accusation that they’re passive or perverted. They need to assert the idea of their manhood against the conservatives, against the saurian relics of the ancien regime, against the slurs that they’re sissy-boys or Westernized sexual freaks. They too have to say, over and over: I may not be a “real man” by your definition, but I’m a man, I’m not a coward. This is the irony: the same things the revolutionaries say about Ahmed Spider, the counter-revolutionaries have already said about them. 

It’s a vicious cycle of insecurities, then. Some examples:

Amr Gharbeia

There’s Amr Gharbeia, a very courageous blogger and human rights activist. When a dissident march on the Ministry of Defense in July ended in a brutal attack on the demonstrators and a tear-gas-smeared melee (a description from my side is here), three people kidnapped Amr in the confusion, dragging him off, threatening him, and accusing him of being a spy. He was freed later, but the publicity around his disappearance led to a bizarre backlash, in which the mere fact that he had a ponytail seemed to play an exacerbating part. One Facebook page put up by vestigial pro-Mubarakites accused him of being gay. That one’s gone now, but this one conveys the same spirit. It’s titled “I Call on the Military Council to Subject Amr Gharbeia to a Virginity Test“:

This country is full of sissy guys, either from the 6 April Coalition [the April 6 Youth Movement, one of the leading revolutionary Facebook groups] … or any other shitty coalitions which continue disgusting us. But truly, these are some guys who’ve been drinking beers in the university and smoking hash till they were wasted; then they mingle with the harem, or even get inspired by the roles of women, like our courageous hero Amr Gharbeia. And now they are chanting for democracy, and that they are revolutionary young men who can bring the president down, and even Tantawi.

We’ve gone from “the country of the million belly-dancers,” the page says, to  “the country of the million revolutionaries.” And clearly, they’re pretty much the same thing.

This is, moreover, fairly typical of the insults that many male demonstrators face, sometimes from unfriendly onlookers, sometimes from the oppressors themselves. It’s worse, arguably, on the very infrequent occasions that women’s or gender issues actually appear on the protesters’ programs. Last march, when feminist groups and allies tried to stage a march on International Women’s Day, angry crowds disrupted and broke up the effort. The women took the full brunt of the brutality, of course. Yet even one male participant wrote how “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 mankind.”

But any protest attracts a shower of insults, and worse. I can’t count the number of demonstrators inside Tahrir and out, men and women too, who have told me about being called khawal by police — a terrible insult in Egypt, similar to “faggot” but with a connotation of extreme effeminacy. And police sexually abuse men as well as women. It’s impossible to say how often, because few men will talk about it. Maged Butter, a revolutionary from Alexandria arrested in the battles of Mohamed Mahmoud Street in Cairo last week — a bright, brave, but slight, breakable-looking young man who could easily arouse all the cops’ fears and resentments about class as well as gender — wrote after his torture and release that

5 soldiers surrounded me, beat me with batons all over my body w/ extra dose for my head, and dragged me along M.Mahmoud st, 2 beating me with batons, 1 kicking me, 1 fingering my ass, 1 checking my pockets, till the end of the st., also kicking my balls.

The telltale finger in the ass is probably not the worst that many detainees have undergone.

So there’s reason to think that, out of the revolutionary cauldron, out of the moil of changes and ideas, novel ways of thinking about manhood as well as womanhood will emerge. But the thinkers and the ideas themselves are under pressure: both the internal pressure to show a traditional strength, and the external pressure to prove one’s not a khawal or a coward, a bicycle or a bitch. One positive fact, I think, is that the revolutionaries are now at a pass where they cannot endure the military — which, with universal conscription for men, has always provided what is virtually an institutional definition of masculinity in the country.  After SCAF’s repeated, murderous rampages, no one on the left has any patience left with its values. The dissidents reject the army’s temptations and seductions, all its pomps and works and promises. And this is quite a change from the spring, when many revolutionaries turned on the blogger Maikel Nabil Sanad (still imprisoned by the junta as I write) for criticizing compulsory military service — which they saw as an unpatriotic gesture. To cast aside the adulation of the military means that one structuring and constraining power over gender is, for at least one individual, out the window.

The other positive force is simply the presence of courageous and militant women everywhere in the Revolution, including the barricades and front lines. And there is more to write about this than I can possibly say, now or in future. But one place to start is simply by letting the voices of women speak for themselves — and I’ll begin that in the next post.

N.B. Particular thanks to Ahmed of the fine blog Rebel with a Cause for thinking through some of the issues with me.

Everything is political

A couple of signs seen round Cairo.

Revolutionary dentistry: “Elections are corrupt: 2005, 2010, and 2011.”

in your teeth, SCAF

Revolutionary laundry: “A civilian Presidential council is what we want, and this elected council should form the government, as any government while SCAF exists will never work.”

my clothes are cleaner than this election

From Egypt: The class impasse

So this is what violence in Cairo is like now: the city has grown inured to it. You can stroll down a sidewalk in perfect serenity, and ignore the fact that a few blocks away lies what the foreign journalists call a “war zone.”  Tuesday night — the end of the first round of the parliamentary elections — I was wandering Mahmoud Bassiouny Street downtown. I reached street’s end and a tangle of highways by the Egyptian Museum, and suddenly there were people rushing across the pavement and screaming, and bright crashing flashes that I recognized as Molotov cocktails. Behind me, abruptly, aggressive young guys in leather jackets had built a makeshift barricade across the street and were diverting traffic, and waving large knives. Among their shouts, I could distinguish “Eid wahda” — “One hand.”  A few shopkeepers motioned me to get the hell away. For months crowds have targeted foreigners amid gathering xenophobia, reviling them as spies. There was, however, no obvious place to run. I walked as calmly as I could back past the barricade and the multiplying mob, and it was only at Talaat Harb Street, as the usual bustle of the city settled in, that I checked Twitter and called my friends and realized I’d been in the middle of the latest installment of the Battle of Tahrir. By night’s end, around sixty people, democratic protestors attacked by their opponents, were in the hospital. At midnight, I watched demonstrators carrying their comrades, swathed in bandages, across the square.

I’ll say more later about exactly what was going on.  First, though, the elections.

The returns have been dribbling in for two days. This was the first round of three: a third of Egypt’s governorates, including Cairo and Alexandria, cast ballots. The sweep of the Islamic parties’ victory surprised everyone, including some wings of the Islamists themselves.

Salafist campaign workers in Cairo's Shobra district: from @mmbilal on Twitter

Freedom and Justice (FJP), dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, carried about 40% of the vote. More shockingly, el-Nour, the main Salafist party — representing literal, puritan, right-wing Islamists — won about a quarter of the ballots to come in second overall. The Egyptian Bloc, a coalition of liberal and largely secular parties, placed third, slightly behind it.  The next election rounds will largely be held in more conservative parts of the country. Unless the Coptic vote in Upper Egypt shows unexpected strength, Freedom and Justice will hold close to a majority of seats; with el-Nour, they could control the new parliament completely.

Most people expected the Brotherhood to win, though by a lesser margin. At a polling place downtown I visited on Monday, Freedom and Justice organizers swarmed everywhere, flush with leaflets and paraphernalia, while the other parties were pretty much invisible. Several observers heard the same comment over and over from FJP activists: “We’re confident because we’ve been organizing for this moment for 80 years.”  Certainly, for at least two decades the Brotherhood have been the only opposition force with a real grassroots presence. This time, they had the chance to try it out in a fair election. On the other hand, the Salafists’ success seems to have shocked even the Freedom and Justice Party. Mubarak jailed and tortured the ultraconservative Islamists with still more fervor than he devoted to repressing the Brotherhood; driven underground, they had few of the Brothers’ opportunities to organize in cities or villages. Their ability to pull millions of votes out of a hat this time shocked many across Egypt.

In the US, naturally, neoconservatives bray that Egypt is the new Iran, making up in population for what it lacks in plutonium: “Egypt’s turn toward Islamic revolution would be catastrophic. As the largest country in the Arab world, it has influence that Iran could never hope to achieve.”

I spent most of the last week talking to “liberals” in Egypt — a catch-all term defined quite differently than in the West. It includes Communists of various sorts, socialists, social democrats, anarchists, and free-market liberals, most but not all secular, united by a commitment to democracy, divided by disparate beliefs in what it means — some wedded to the parliamentary process, some dreaming of direct self-governance. Few, though, had an apocalyptic sense about the Islamists’ victory. They talk about three key things. First, as democrats they can’t reject out of hand the outcome of a democratic election. Second, the parliament will have little power in a government still run by a military junta. And third, the junta remains the real enemy.

One bloody hand: Junta head Tantawi

The generals are killing people. I spoke last night to two gay friends who have been committed revolutionaries since January. Both were in Midan Tahrir the week of November 20, and their rage against SCAF (the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces) was palpable. That week, the junta reacted to a renewed sit-in in the square with brute force. They sent Central Security police down Mohamed Mahmoud Street, leading from the Ministry of the Interior, to beat and abuse protesters. The protesters fought back, blocking the street and throwing stones at the police. The police in turn soaked the street in tear gas, till mushroom clouds of it loomed above the city; they fired at the demonstrators with rubber bullets and birdshots — aiming, it’s clear, at the eyes to blind them. The square these days is full of people with bandaged sockets, bandaged faces; friends of my friends lost their eyes. One police marksman, Sobhi Mahmoud Shenawy, became known as “the eye sniper.” Forty-three dissidents died. “This was a deeply personal fight,” Ahmad told me. “You could see they would kill you in a minute.”  And Khaled added, “You felt that such people, who would fire to blind you, didn’t deserve to rule a city block, much less a country.”

Wounded protesters, Nov. 20: from @NadimX on Twitter

As gay men, my friends don’t much fear the Brotherhood or the Salafis. They remember that the worst persecution of gays in Egypt’s history, probably the worst anywhere in the Arab or Muslim world, happened under the secular Mubarak regime, from 2001-2004.  The FJP could hardly augur anything worse.

To be sure, the Brotherhood, always opportunists, sold out in the last weeks, giving their support to SCAF.   But the new Prime Minister whom SCAF plans to puppeteer, Kamal el-Ganzouri, is a Mubarak veteran who presided over mass torture of Islamists during his last term as premier in the 1990s. The Islamists have long memories; they will not forgive him. Already, the FJP has announced it expects a government responsible to the parliament. SCAF quickly warned them the new cabinet will answer to the generals alone. “The Brotherhood can mobilize a million people in the street if they want,” my friends told me. “If it comes to a face-off with SCAF, they’re almost the only political force with a chance to win.”

Still, liberals — and feminists, and gays, and Egypt’s large Coptic minority, and many others — hardly trust the Brotherhood. And the Islamists’ triumph raises serious questions about where the revolution is going.

Back to last Tuesday night’s violence — because it illuminates those questions. How did the fighting start? On Tuesday morning, the revolutionaries in Tahrir decided to expel some of the vendors who populated the place. The square has become a market; in addition to tea, juice, food, and fruit, hawkers pitch T-shirts, flags, and souvenirs. The vendors have a bad reputation; they’ve been accused of peddling drugs; the dissidents thought they might besmirch the image of the revolution. Out with them!

This has happened before, once over the summer; back then the vendors got violent, and they did this time as well. In the evening, they counterattacked, assaulting the square with stones and Molotov cocktails. Or somebody counterattacked. The men I saw blocking traffic didn’t look like vendors; it’s possible SCAF took advantage of the situation to send in its own provocateurs. (Their battle cry, “One hand,” was SCAF’s own slogan: “The army and the people are one hand.”) What matters, though, is that the revolutionaries decided to turn on Egyptians who were using the revolution to scrape by. A protester I met in Tahrir two nights ago said plaintively: “We fought the revolution for the poor. And why should we throw them out of here so shamelessly? Just so we would look more clean?”

Khaled, one of my gay friends, last night told me, “On the front lines at Mohamed Mahmoud, it was mostly poor people. They were fighting bare-handed, bare-chested; they couldn’t even afford gas masks on their faces.” And Ahmad added,

“They’re the ones exposed to daily insults from police officers more than anybody else. And I don’t think they take values as relative, they way we usually do as part of the middle class. Sacrificing your life — we calculate about it: is this the time, today? Maybe this battle isn’t worth a life. But they have more absolute values of sacrifice and courage. For them, being on the front lines was a matter of human dignity.”

But the revolution has failed to do full justice to their dignity. The poor may be at the forefront of the battles, but the revolution’s leaders are overwhelmingly middle-class. The front lines of democracy and the front lines of class are not the same. And the bourgeois leaders have failed to reach across Egypt’s yawning class divide.

Some of the failure has been programmatic. Over the summer, as revolutionary groups struggled to agree on a list of demands, they found consensus on democracy and civil liberties easy — but their concession to addressing economic issues dwindled to an anodyne promise to raise the minimum wage. Strikers from factories to public services who had put their bodies and jobs on the line for Mubarak’s overthrow felt ignored.

But some of the failure was more physical. The revolutionaries failed to leave Tahrir, failed to go into the neighborhoods and towns and villages, to talk to workers and peasants, to organize. The Salafists, despite years underground, didn’t make that mistake. They spent the summer recruiting a third of a million active members for el-Nour. The revolutionaries waited for the masses to come to them. The result is written in the election returns. Even Zamalek, the liberal island of the haute-bourgeoisie in mid-Nile, went for the Brotherhood. The doormen and maids and porters who slave for the wealthy live in Zamalek too,  shunted to cellars and rooftop shacks — but they emerged, and they voted for the FJP.

The encampment in Tahrir is an ideal and almost a fetish for many leftist Egyptians. You can see why if you’ve been there: it’s an Arab Woodstock and Brook Farm, an alternative space to a corrupt society and state, a place where diverse identities can meet and share, where unities grow out of differences and one can imagine a new way of life, a new world. It’s beautiful. But too much time, many feel, was wasted this summer and fall defending Tahrir against the military, and too little speaking to the rest of society. An alternative community may represent the dream of comprehensive change, but does little to realize it. The hard work of talking across class boundaries and building solidarities to encompass the rest of Egypt fell by the wayside.

There’s still time to recuperate the revolution. But it will take time and sweat. It will take dialogue. It will take renewed respect for the multiple meanings of dignity.

Over the summer, revolutionaries tried to stage a march on the Ministry of Defense in Cairo’s Abbasiyya district. Together with an Egyptian friend, I got there late; the marchers had been stopped several blocks short of the ministry, surrounded on three sides by massed troops and tanks. We tried to go through the surrounding neighborhood, and get into the demonstration from the fourth side. The rundown, impoverished streets teemed with tense, angry citizens — enraged at the marchers, whom they regarded as invaders. And at one point we found ourselves suddenly in the midst of a river of running people, men and women pouring out of buildings, armed with big knives that glinted in the light of Ramadan lanterns strung above. They were shouting: “They’re attacking us!  Strike back! Defend yourselves!”  They could easily have turned on us, but somehow they raced past us unseeing. They engulfed the protest, and beat and brutalized many demonstrators. We couldn’t break through to join our friends; shaken, we limped home.

It was a fine example of false consciousness, you could say: the poor enlisted to defend an arrogant and indifferent regime. But the protesters too had their arrogance. When they first met the residents of the neighborhood, who blocked the way and demanded why these outsiders were marching through, some called back, “It’s a public street! We have the right to pass here.” That claim of possession is not what you say to Cairo’s poor, whose back streets and close communities are all they have. The revolutionaries are learning about dignity the hard way.