Egypt’s Atrocity Investments Fair (Part one: The British connection)

Malouka Aldlouah in court; photo from Al Youm Al Sabbah (Youm 7), January 31, 2015. I tried to blur the face; Youm 7 didn't.

Malouka Aldlouah in court; photo from Al Youm Al Sabbah (Youm7), January 31, 2015. I tried to blur her face; Youm7 didn’t.

Look at two photographs. Above is Malouka Aldlouah, a 25-year-old transgender woman, in a cold courtroom. On January 31, a judge sentenced her and a friend, Aida, to six years in prison. Their crime was “debauchery,” homosexual conduct; police entrapped them in an apartment they shared. Below is Shaimaa el-Sabbagh, a journalist, activist, and mother. On January 24, she tried to place flowers in Tahrir Square in memory of the Egyptian revolution’s martyrs. Police shot her. She died in a comrade’s arms.

Those photographs illuminate what it’s like in Egypt today, homes and streets patrolled equally ruthlessly, private and public life endangered. A police state shaped these women’s narratives, but the pictures tell very different stories: contempt and shame weigh unequally on them. I blurred one face and not the other, and that has to do with stigma, but also with the division between life and death. Sometimes I feel the only Egyptians who can show their faces without fear these days are the dead, who have already paid for it.

24open_cairo-master675On March 13-15, General Sisi’s regime will host an Egypt Economic Development Conference in Sharm el Sheikh. This is a massive event, Sisi’s bid to pump foreign money into an immiserated country. To the extent the government has an economic strategy, this is it. The state hypes it furiously, and its docile press slavishly whips up hope. The meeting “is a ‘once in a life time’ opportunity to rapidly enter the ’emerging’ Egyptian market” (why those air quotes?); the “success of the summit will lead to an economic boom for Egypt, as it aims to improve the standard of living for Egyptians.” They’ve invited 3500 investors, no, 6000, from 120 countries. 1000 Saudis alone are eagerly awaited. They’re begging Russia and Germany and France to send businessmen. “30 different investment projects” will be up for grabs at the meeting, worth $20 billion — no, $15 billion (that’s down suspiciously from 42 projects heralded a few weeks ago). The government’s even lowering the currency against the dollar; it will drop 12% by the time the summit opens, making Egypt an even more fabulous bargain basement, a louche low-rent laundry for loose cash.

Roughing it: Brave Western investors at the Grand Hotel, Sharm el-Sheikh, try to locate Egypt's economic future on the horizon

Neither out far nor in deep: Brave Western investors at the Grand Hotel in Sharm el-Sheikh try to locate Egypt’s economic future on the horizon

I want to know: Who among the businessmen, and bankers, and diplomats at the Sharm summit will demand answers about Egypt’s deteriorating human rights situation? 

Sisi’s government has had a hard time attracting attendees, postponing the gathering repeatedly to bushbeat for joiners; the problem is that Egypt looks less than stable as an investment opportunity. If the poolside potentates at Sharm el-Sheikh want to see instability firsthand, it’s near — too near. Two hundred miles north of Sinai’s Red Sea beaches, a vast rebellion rages. Attacks by the ISIS-affiliated “State of Sinai” (Wilayat Sina) killed 30 to 50 soldiers on January 29 alone. The rights crisis feeds the resistance. State torture and repression, Amr Khalifa argues, are “making a dark scenario an explosive one”:

an elevation of the language of guns, APC’s and unmanned drones over that of reasoned discourse with the local population. It is a problem central to the Al-Sisi regime: the world viewed in a dual prism, either black or white, and in his universe, Sinai residents are terrorists till proven otherwise.

But Sisi’s guests can look out on wider landscapes of atrocity.

  • Police have slaughtered over 1500 protesters since the 2013 coup. A draconian law passed last year criminalizes all peaceful demonstrations. Democracy activists like Yara Sallam and Sanaa Seif are serving long prison sentences merely for protesting the protest law.
  • Human rights activists can receive life in prison for taking funds from abroad.
  • More than 25,000 alleged Muslim Brotherhood supporters languish in concentration camps. Hundreds who have gone before courts face the death penalty.
  • Police hunt down other dissident identities, from accused atheists to alleged gay and transgender people. Well over 100 people convicted for the “habitual practice of debauchery” since October 2013 still sit in prison, targets for savage vilification in the pro-Sisi media. Police brutalize almost all those arrested on charges of homosexual conduct; most suffer anal tests at the hands of state forensic doctors, an invasive form of torture.
Mona Iraq (R) films naked victims of her raid on a bathhouse, December 7, 2014

Mona Iraq (R) films naked victims of her raid on a Cairo bathhouse, December 7, 2014

Why should companies care? Nobody really believes you can coax corporations into pious solicitude for human beings as such, above and beyond their status as workers, consumers, or raw materials for Soylent Green. There’s enlightened self-interest, though:

  • The corporate brand — symbol of “a company’s integrity, values and, most importantly, intentions” — looks less appealing if it’s dripping blood.
  • Torture and repression won’t create political stability. Mubarak spent thirty years savagely suppressing the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists; it only made them more popular, and his government less secure. How can Sisi’s persecutions succeed? He’s alienated large segments of youth and the educated; what happens when the anger at his depredations explodes?
  • International firms doing business in Egypt all have LGBT employees. Many are bound by anti-discrimination policies on sexual orientation or gender identity. How can they defend their workers’ basic safety if they don’t combat state persecution?
Minister of Investment Ashraf Salman is shocked, do you hear me, shocked that human rights violations happen

Minister of Investment Ashraf Salman is shocked, do you hear me, shocked that human rights violations happen

But foreign investment promotes political openness. Right? No. The summit has become a pretext for making Egypt even less transparent. For the crony capitalists surrounding Sisi, easing investment means eviscerating public oversight. Last April, in a move touted as creating a benign climate for foreign money, puppet interim president Adly Mansour revised the Investment Law. He barred anyone from mounting legal challenges to state contracts except for the government itself and the investor. Rejected bidders and civil society lost any legal recourse. And he made this retroactive, cancelling some 20 standing lawsuits against corrupt or dubious state deals, most filed during the brief democratic spring after Mubarak’s overthrow.

Third-party lawsuits, according to the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), were “one of the only avenues” for the public to learn about corruption. “The level of accountability that exists is being taken away, reducing what potential for oversight there is,” a researcher for the group said. The Egyptian Center for Social and Economic Rights condemned the new “unconstitutional law that revokes the right of a citizen to appeal and entrenches the corrupt contracts through retroactive application”:

This law allows for corrupt practices to negate the rulings of Egyptian courts which had originally uncovered corruption in a number of privatisation and land sale schemes … The law has shut the door on local courts entirely, which threatens increased corruption and criminal activity that will threaten the Egyptian economy.

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Lifestyles of the rich and shameless: Fortunes amassed by Mubarak-era figures. Only the numbers for Mubarak himself are in dollars, the rest in Egyptian pounds (roughly 7 LE = $1 US at the time). Based on 2011 estimates by the US-based group Global Financial Integrity (GFI).

Egypt’s energy industry — the government’s sale of oil and gas to foreign corporations — had long bred illegality. An EIPR report found that “poor negotiation and corruption cost Egypt US$10 billion in lost [energy] revenue between 2005 and 2011″ — more than twice the country’s annual health budget.

A culture of secrecy, and a lack of accountability and public debate created the conditions that allowed these contracts to be signed. Although state entities … were mandated to negotiate in the interests of the Egyptian people, secrecy created ample room for graft and kickbacks, and allowed well-connected businessmen to manipulate contracts for their own benefit.

Now secrecy is back, bigtime. Foreign investors rewarded Sisi for the new law by easing the country’s credit rating (a spurious move given that Egypt’s securities remained “among the least liquid in the Middle East”). But the law’s main beneficiary is Egypt’s government itself, which can carry on pocketing illegal spoils. Corporations exulting in the short-term pleasures of buying public goods without public scrutiny are now locked into the costs of kickbacks and corruption. Sisi pushed the law through by decree, without a shred of democratic process: Egypt’s democratically-elected parliament had long since been dissolved. By propping up a self-destructive system that flouts accountability and insults public opinion, corporations render their own investments unsafe.

Most Egyptian human rights activists, and most Egyptian LGBT people, want foreign investment in the economy. In that sense, they want the summit to succeed. But they want investment that will help workers, the public, the poor, not just incestuous covens of cronies. They want state resources fairly priced and sold, not handed out like gift bags of swag. They want investors to support a stable and democratic Egypt, not a dictatorship tottering like an upended pyramid. So let’s look at some of the attendees at the conference. What are they going to say about human rights?

Sir Martin Sorrell in WPP's London offices, with small brown people behind him

Sir Martin Sorrell in WPP’s London offices, with small brown people behind him. Photo: Martin Argles, Guardian

1) WPP. One prominent summit speaker will be Sir Martin Sorrell, founder and CEO of the UK-based WPP Group. WPP, a media and public relations giant, is the world’s largest advertising firm. The name stands for Wire and Plastic Products; they started out making shopping carts. That’s fitting; Sorrell’s main skill is shopping. A former Saatchi & Saatchi executive, he bought the small, Wernham-Hoggesque firm in the 80s purely as a platform for buying other things. He leveraged that to purchase J. Walter Thompson and Young & Rubicam and then everything else in the PR field. He is, as the Financial Times says, “advertising’s biggest dealmaker.”

Small and square-jawed, Sorrell looks as though Napoleon had stumbled onto the set of Mad Men. (He once sued a former employee for calling him the “mad dwarf.”) Like Napoleon, he has a history with Egypt.

On January 28, 2011, as the Egyptian revolution broke out, Vodafone Egypt joined the country’s other phone and Internet firms in shutting down service completely. Gagging the opposition’s voices failed, but drew thunderous international condemnation. On February 4, Sorrell published an op-ed defending Vodafone in The Times. Vodafone was only following orders, he wrote; it didn’t have the luxury of opening its communications pipelines to all opinions, the way international firms like Google and Twitter could. The latter offered too much freedom. By censoring more, they could help brother corporations. “They must understand that with incredible power comes incredible responsibility … You are responsible for the information that flows through” your networks. Sorrell didn’t disclose that Vodafone Egypt was a WPP client.

No signal: Cartoon by Carlos Latuff, February 2011

No signal: Cartoon by Carlos Latuff, February 2011

A few months later, a WPP subsidiary produced an ad for Vodafone Egypt that showed “Egyptians connecting with each other, feeling empowered, and joining the protests that led to the fall of the Hosni Mubarak regime. While the video makes no claims for [Vodafone] starting the revolution, it drops broad hints as it tries to ride on its coattails, that it played some role.” The ad caused outrage among Egyptians still furious at the shutdown. Vodafone was forced to pull it.

Making deals takes not just money but friends, powerful ones. (“WPP’s fastest growing client segment is still governmental,” Sorrell declared in a lecture on “nation branding,” where he praised China and Singapore as “so effective in managing their global brands.”) Friendly WPP’s Egypt business has thus been, though small, burgeoning — a “growth market,” it says. Naturally Sorrell hopes to foster his friendship with Sisi by supporting his summit.

This will hurt you more than it hurts me: Tony Blair offers his services to Sisi's government in performing forensic anal exams

This will hurt you more than it hurts me: Tony Blair offers his services to Sisi’s government in performing forensic anal examinations

Sorrell is also a friend to Tony Blair, who got him his knighthood, and that’s a further link to Egypt. Since July 2014, Blair has been advising Sisi on “economic reforms,” in a task force put together by the Egyptian regime’s main patrons, the United Arab Emirates. Drumming up support for the summit has been part of Blair’s mandate. Blair makes no money out of Egypt, his spokesperson claims, but that’s a technicality. The UAE are the paymasters in this intricate arrangement, and Blair already gets millions of pounds in consulting fees from that country’s sovereign wealth fund.

As one former close personal associate of Blair’s puts it, “a bargain has been struck” that “combines both an existential battle against Islamism and mouth-watering business opportunities in return for the kind of persuasive advocacy he provided George Bush over Iraq.”

Meanwhile, Blair’s onetime counsellor Peter Mandelson is also a friend of Martin Sorrell: WPP provided the starting money for Mandelson’s international consulting firm. “From WPP’s point of view the Mandelson connection gives it a degree of access to people in high places although some of Peter’s friends tend to be Russian oligarchs and financiers occupying the more exotic shores of capitalism.” Egypt is such a shore; Mandelson landed there long ago. He echoed Sorrell during the eighteen days of Egypt’s revolution, stepping up to defend Mubarak’s family kleptocracy. On February 1, 2011, Mandelson wrote to the Financial Times, claiming Gamal Mubarak “has been the leading voice in favour of change within the government and the ruling party,” and demanding a “peaceful transition” that would leave Gamal in place. Four years later Gamal is free, and his counterrevolutionary friends are back in charge. Mandelson’s powers of “access” can click in.

Blair and Mandelson in happier times: Peter primps himself while Tony plays hard-to-get

Blair and Mandelson in happier times: Peter primps himself while Tony plays hard-to-get

In other words, human rights don’t have much to do with WPP’s record in Egypt. But this sits uneasily with the firm’s Code of Business Conduct. That document declares, “We will consider the potential for clients or work to damage the Group’s reputation prior to taking them on. This includes reputational damage from association with clients that participate in activities that contribute to the abuse of human rights.” It has clauses dealing with LGBT people: not just protections against discrimination, but a promise to

give appropriate consideration to the impact of our work on minority segments of the population, whether that minority be by race, religion, national origin, colour, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, age or disability.

How will WPP defend its LGBT employees in Sisi’s Egypt from arrest? How do its promises fit with uncritical support for a regime that jails and tortures anyone accused of being gay or transgender?

Sorrell has a rep as a global thinker, possibly overblown. In mid-2008, as economies crumbled like damp sandcastles, he opined, “I am still not sure there will be a recession in the US and I definitely don’t think worldwide.” The next year WPP’s revenues fell 16%, and the firm took it out on the 14,000 employees it laid off. So much for prognostication. But if people look up to him for wisdom, let him put it to good use. Let him speak up about Sisi’s abuses against LGBT Egyptians and others. It’s his responsibility.

Can I help you? Martin Sorrell also displays his potential prowess at forensic anal exams

Can I help you? Martin Sorrell also displays his potential prowess at forensic anal exams

2) British Petroleum. Another featured summit speaker is Bob Dudley, chief executive of BP.  

Egypt is big business for BP. The corporation is the country’s largest oil and gas producer, in partnership with the state-run Egyptian General Petroleum Corporation; it’s responsible for 15% of the nation’s oil production. It gets there by having cordial relations with the state, which sells off oil and gas concessions to foreign corporations. In 2008 and 2010, for instance, BP bagged control of exploration in large blocks of the Mediterranean Sea.

BP concessions northwest of the Nile Delta as of 2010, from http://www.2b1stconsulting.com/

BP concessions northwest of the Nile Delta as of 2010, from http://www.2b1stconsulting.com/

It got two more blocks for onshore and offshore gas exploration (3 and 8 on the map) in a 2013 round of bidding:

Map from Littlegatepublishing.com

Map of exploration blocks up for bidding in 2013, from http://Littlegatepublishing.com/

With all these concessions, you might think BP could actually provide Egypt with energy. You’d be wrong. Shortages and blackouts have spread. Meanwhile, BP’s contracts favor the corporation heavily, at the expense of Egypt’s state and people. With one of its offshore blocks, for instance, “BP managed to negotiate a vast share of the concession profits, above the 50-50 ratio customary to most petroleum agreements, citing the complexities and depth of extraction in that particular patch of the Mediterranean Sea.”

“I’ve analyzed oil and gas contracts from Uganda, Kazakhstan and Congo, and I’ve never seen a country ripped off this badly,” said one researcher. “The Egyptian people are paying for elite corruption with blackouts, black-market fuel and a collapsing economy.” The new investment law will make it almost impossible for Egyptians to contest such concessions — giving BP one more reason for gratitude to Sisi.

There are other reasons. The activist group Platform London told this story in mid-2013:

We recently visited a small Egyptian town that fought off plans by giant BP to build a gas terminal on its land as part of an $11 billion project. Idku lies just east of Alexandria, where the Nile Delta meets the Mediterranean. We met a number of local activists, farmers and fisherfolk, who explained that Idku’s land and water has for years suffered from pollution by both nearby sewage canals and the existing BG/Rashpetco’s LNG [liquid natural gas] export plant. …

BP, having drilled for oil in the deep waters of the North Alexandria block, wanted to build yet another new gas plant on Idku’s beach. … But the community was tired of their sea being polluted by large corporations.

Empowered by the Egyptian revolution, Idku’s citizens rebelled. They launched months of street protests and social media campaigns, among them “a symbolic funeral procession and a sit-in occupation at BP’s proposed construction site in late 2011.” In 2013 BP gave in and suspended the project.

“Idku: An Egyptian town beat the odds and stopped BP.” Video produced by Egypt’s Mosireen Collective.

London Platform described all this only nine days before the coup that carried Sisi to power. Within months, the new regime passed a draconian new protest law making demonstrations impossible. By mid-2014, with the way cleared, BP announced expanded work at its existing gas plant in Idku. Bob Dudley visited Cairo to promise new investment in Egyptian gas production. Details stayed secret, but the state simultaneously agreed to pay higher prices for its own energy resources extracted by foreign concession-holders: “to fulfil a pledge to provide more attractive terms to foreign firms.” As for the investment money, Platform wrote, “the oil and gas industry is incredibly capital-intensive; the billions will go to foreign oil service companies and imported equipment and technology. Few jobs will be created, and most will be temporary – the benefits for the Egyptian people are debatable.”

This activity now prohibited by law: Protest march in Idku, with a banner reading, "No to BP. For Our Sakes." Photo by Platform.

This activity now prohibited by law: Protest march in Idku, with a banner reading, “No to BP. For Our Sakes.” Photo by Platform.

BP, then, has done pretty well off the Sisi government’s repressive measures. Yet the firm claims to attend to human rights issues. BP’s own Code of Conduct says: “We seek to conduct our business in a manner that respects the human rights and dignity of people. Each of us can play a role in the elimination of human rights abuses such as child labour, human trafficking and forced labour.” There’s even an action point: “Report any human rights abuse in our operations or in those of our business partners.” True, the document seems short of binding: “Our Code reflects a principles-based approach, where rules are not stated explicitly.” You may also notice that it is available in eight languages including Azerbaijani, but not in Arabic.

You can read our Code of Conduct whether you're from Porto Alegre or Oporto. But if you're from Cairo, خلاص .

You can read our Code of Conduct whether you’re from Porto Alegre or Oporto. But if you’re from Cairo, خلاص .

Sexual orientation is of high concern to BP, at least in some languages. There’s a history behind this. Its longtime chief, Lord John Browne, resigned under a cloud in 2007 after perjuring himself to deny a same-sex lover. Browne has since transformed himself into a gay-rights martyr. In fact, as was widely noted at the time, his exit owed at least as much to the safety and environmental disasters that plagued his tenure, all traceable to his merger-fueled mania for cost-cutting. One of his legacies, though — in addition to the despoiled Louisiana coast, a catastrophe for which his successor took the fall — is a non-discrimination policy protecting LGBT employees.

Screen shot 2015-02-03 at 3.52.25 AM“Our goal is to create an environment of inclusion and acceptance,” BP’s Code of Conduct says. (Their website illustrates that laudable ambition with this frightening picture, showing a brown woman with crazed eyes who has apparently fought her way in front of a sad white man.) “We seek to treat all employees equally, irrespective of gender, age, sexual orientation, ethnicity or disability.” Achieving this in Egypt might require speaking up to the government about something other than concessionary profits. Then there’s this gem:

BP encourages and supports a number of business resource groups (BRGs). BRGs are employee-networks, set up by employees for employees. The groups come together voluntarily with the goal of enhancing the success of BP’s D&I objectives by helping to foster, develop and retain diverse talent in BP.

Among these is a “BP Pride group for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) employees.” Creating such a group in Egypt would earn you nine years in prison, by my estimates (three for practicing “debauchery,” three for inciting others to “debauchery,” and three for publicizing an invitation to “debauchery”). Will BP complain?

Lord Browne, one critic says, nearly destroyed BP with “the conflict between how he actually managed the company and the public principles he claimed were the essence of BP’s corporate character.” The corporation can’t afford another conflict when Sisi starts arresting its staff. If BP cares about human rights and its LGBT employees, it should speak out at Sharm.

I don't need to use my finger: BP's Bob Dudley offers his own forensic services

I don’t need to use my finger: BP’s Bob Dudley offers Egypt his own forensic services

Both these core supporters of Sisi’s summit are British-based firms. Six weeks from now they’ll be center stage in Sharm el-Sheikh. They don’t need to flatter power to get their profits, which are secure; they do need to show whether their principles are just glossy print and verbiage. Get started.

Pumping is permissible. Humping isn't: Banner for the Economic Development Conference

Pumping is permissible. Humping isn’t: Banner for the Economic Development Conference

Why the crackdown in Egypt isn’t over, and what to do about it

Covering their faces, shackled defendants are dragged into court, January 12: Photo by Reuters

Covering their faces, shackled defendants in the bathhouse case are dragged into court, January 12: Photo by Reuters

It’s like watching a whole ramshackle building totter when a single brick is pulled out. That’s how it felt, a week after the government’s case against the 26 victims of Mona Iraqi’s bathhouse raid collapsed. Practically every day since, the Egyptian media has carried some new, damaging revelation about how the criminal-injustice system works.

1) The press headlined the allegation, first reported in BuzzFeed last week, that at least one of the 26 men was raped in detention, with the encouragement of the Azbekeya police station guards. Mohammed Zaki, one of the defense lawyers, said the cops offered the men – hauled from the bathhouse naked except for underwear or towels – “as a gift to the prisoners,” with one officer pushing the victim into a cell and telling inmates, “Today’s your lucky day. Enjoy.” The man was “stripped of his towel, pushed to the floor, and raped, while police ignored his cries for help.”

2) The independent daily Al Masry Al Youm posted a filmed interview with one of the 26 victims: “The police treated us like animals,” he said.

 Interview with “Ahmed,” a victim of the bathhouse raid

The newspaper summarized his story:

Ahmed, a young man in his thirties, comes to Cairo from his city in the Delta once or twice every week for a day trip of a few hours, to buy clothes on Clot Bey Street and return to the workshop in his city. On December 7, in his last visit to Cairo, Ahmed thought of going to one of the public bathhouses in the only district he knows. “The door of the place was open for anyone who wanted to cleanse himself,” says Ahmed. …

“Suddenly, the police raided the bathhouse and ordered us not to move. Some policeman started removing the towels we were putting on, while the TV host filmed those there,” Ahmed added. “When the owner of the bathhouse said she couldn’t film and asked who she was, she said she was from the government.” …

[At the Azbekeya station], a police assistant named Khaled put handcuffs on Ahmed and chained him to the iron gate of the jail and kept hitting him with a baton, and then shoved it in his behind. … Ahmed says the suspects were treated badly at the prosecution, but much worse in detention. “Despite the humiliation, no one [at the prosecution] ordered us to pretend we were dogs and bark, or lie on our stomachs while police officers passed by. It was like that every day in the jail.”

3) Al Masry Al Youm also interviewed neighbors of the bathhouse who condemned the raid as an “attempt to tarnish the area’s reputation.” One shop owner said, “Those are very good people. We and our ancestors had our shops next to that bathhouse and we have never seen anything wrong from them.”

4) Finally: Mona Iraqi herself may lose her show. A source inside the Al Kahera Wal Nas (Cairo and the People) TV channel said she faces cancellation, because she’s put her employers in “an awkward position.” It’s not just the ethical monstrosity she committed. It’s that the defendants’ lawyers are threatening libel suits against the channel for 10 million LE ($1.4 million US) each.

"She said she works for the government": Mona Iraqi during her bathhouse broadcasts

“She said she was from the government”: Mona Iraqi during her bathhouse broadcasts

In this one case, the regime and its lackeys are red-faced and in full retreat. That doesn’t mean, however, that the crackdown against LGBT people in Egypt is over. Remember:

  • Well over 100 people convicted for the “habitual practice of debauchery” since October 2013 still sit in prison.
  • Egypt’s prosecutor general has appealed the acquittal in this case, with a first hearing scheduled for January 26. The move shows a government still bent on putting LGBT people in prison. New arrests can start at any time.
  • What happens to Egyptians accused of being gay, or transgender, or lesbian is part of the overall human rights situation; and that is appalling. As the Revolution’s fourth anniversary impends, the counterrevolution is in charge. The government menaces human rights activists with possible life sentences. More than 25,000 alleged Muslim Brotherhood supporters languish in concentration camps without trial. My friend Yara Sallam and 23 others are serving two years behind bars for a peaceful protest march. Security forces persecute everyone from alleged “atheists” to street merchants. Until real rule of law restrains police power in Egypt, anybody different will be under threat.

Domestic and international pressure helped bring justice in the bathhouse case, but the work must continue — not just for LGBT Egyptians, but for all victims of human rights abuse. There are two important pressure points in coming months.

FIRST: The US gives over $1.5 billion in aid to Egypt annually. Nearly all is military assistance: economic aid makes up only around 15% of that total, and has been shrinking for more than a decade. No one in Egypt wants the remaining economic aid slashed – there’s no reason the rulers’ malfeasance should rob the poor of their last scraps and crumbs. But the military aid keeps the military dictatorship going. Cut it.

From "Egypt: Background and U.S. Relations," by Jeremy M. Sharp for the Congressional Research Service, June 5, 2014, at https://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/mideast/RL33003.pdf

From “Egypt: Background and U.S. Relations,” by Jeremy M. Sharp for the Congressional Research Service, June 5, 2014, at https://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/mideast/RL33003.pdf. IMET = International Military Education and Training Program.

Since 2012, Senator Patrick Leahy has kept up the good fight to condition military aid on Egypt’s progress toward democracy. When the US Congress passed an appropriations bill last month, it included a long list of conditions: “holding free and fair elections, allowing peaceful assembly, due process for detainees.” But the law also “includes a waiver allowing Secretary of State John Kerry to ignore the preconditions for national security reasons.”

Leahy: Liberty for thee, as well as me

Leahy: Liberty for thee, as well as me

Will Kerry invoke the waiver, and keep the aid spigot on? The State Department is likely to start the internal debate next month. Powerful constituencies support Egypt. Foreign Military Financing (FMF) money must, by US law, be spent on US-made armaments. Egypt’s aid bonanza thus funnels back to the US defense industry, which slavers to keep the money flowing. Yet even if the US lacks political will to end its gifts to the generals completely, it could still show displeasure. It could stop offering Egypt two forms of undeserved special treatment: early disbursement and cash-flow financing.

“Early disbursement” of military aid is a privilege the US State Department gives only to Israel and Egypt. “At the beginning of the year, U.S. funding is deposited in an account at the New York Federal Reserve, and Cairo is allowed to use the interest accrued on these deposits to purchase additional equipment.” The interest gives it tens of millions extra to spend.

“Cash flow financing” is also a special privilege Egypt shares with Israel. It allows Cairo to purchase weapons even beyond its yearly aid allotment, using the promise of the money the US is due to give it in future years. Essentially, Egypt can buy on credit – and the US government is liable for any payments it fails to make. (Clearly, a special favor to the American weapons industry as well.) This accounting trick radically ramps up the Egyptian military’s purchasing power. In most years, Egypt contracts to buy over $2 billion in American arms. That’s about 50% more than what its actual American-aid budget should allow. Cash flow financing makes the difference.

The crackdown on LGBT Egyptians is only one human rights issue that should weigh against full military aid to a deeply dictatorial regime. But it should be weighed. Kerry should cut the gun-filled gift baskets — or, at the minimum, end the accounting legerdemain that augments Egypt’s largesse. And if he refuses, Leahy and Congress should make plenty of noise. The time to start pressing the State Department is now.

From Barack with love: American-bought F-16 jet over the pyramids. Photo from US Department of Defense, Defense Audiovisual Agency.

From Barack with love: American-bought F-16 jet over the pyramids. Photo from US Department of Defense, Defense Audiovisual Agency.

SECOND: On March 13-15, the regime will host an “Egypt Economic Development Conference” in the posh resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. President Sisi himself will launch the gathering. The meeting is central to Sisi’s strategy to resuscitate the  economy. The idea is to get a group of powerful private investors together, and woo or cajol them to sink their money into Egypt. An array of infrastructure projects will be on offer; infrastructure is the core of Sisi’s revitalization plans. After all, the regime’s rich supporters – mostly the same well-connected crony capitalists who propped up Mubarak’s sclerotic rule – cluster in industries like cement, construction, and communications. “Economic growth” by and large means fattening their portfolios with pointless projects, not feeding the poor.

Sisi’s government has been promoting this summit for months. The figures keep flowing from the Ministry of Investment: 120 countries and 3,500 companies invited, 42 big investment projects up for grabs. Yet they’ve postponed the conference repeatedly, reflecting a lack of international enthusiasm over Egypt’s limp prospects. So they’ve hired not just global banking maven Lazard to rope in participants, but also the International Man of Mystery, Tony Blair.

President Sisi discusses Gaza, Israel, and business with Tony Blair on July 12, 2014, two days afterhyyyy

President Sisi discusses Gaza, Israel, and business with Tony Blair, representative of the Quartet, on July 12, 2014. Just days earlier, news of Blair’s sinecure to “advise Sisi on economic reform” was leaked to the UK press. Photo by Reuters.

All that suggests the significance Sisi’s government hangs on the summit. The conference website is here; some speakers already are signed up — the chairs of GE and BP, and the head of the WPP Group, Britain’s mammoth advertising and media agency. I’ll be posting more about the meeting soon. All the participants should face one question back home: How will they use their leverage to improve Egypt’s dismal human rights record? And they might also be asked: How do they think their gay or lesbian or transgender employees in Egypt will fare? The time to pose these questions is now.

FINALLY: You want to know why all this is important? Don’t listen to me; listen to some of those whose lives the continuing crackdown wrecked.

I’ve interviewed two people arrested in two separate cases, when police raided private apartments in the spring of 2014. They were convicted, but appeals courts overturned their sentences – mainly because the original judges handed down verdicts even before sending the victims to the Forensic Medical Authority for anal tests.

A Beirut protester at a demonstration against forensic anal examinations in Lebanon, 2012: "End the tests of shame"

A Beirut protester at a demonstration against forensic anal examinations in Lebanon, 2012: “Together against the tests of shame”

The anal tests are usually inflicted on all prisoners accused of homosexual conduct. They’re bogus, and an invasive form of torture – but at least they provide the spurious semblance of evidence. Yet in these cases the lower court judge didn’t need “proof”; one look at the defendants, who were mostly transgender, and he found them guilty. When they filed appeals, though, they endured the tests; and doctors declared them “unused.” (I think I know why. To find the victims “used” so long after the fact, the medics would need either to claim the exams can detect homosexual sex months later – which makes the test look even more absurd; or to admit sex takes place in Egyptian prisons, where the men had been kept since arrest.) Unlike most of the crackdown’s victims, they can tell their stories.

These are accounts of torture and sexual abuse; of judges who sentence people based on their looks alone; of transgender convicts trucked from prison to prison because the keepers wouldn’t take their “pervert” bodies. You’ll find Ahmed Hashad — who was also the arresting officer in the bathhouse case — watching while his victims are tortured. I’ve changed all names and left out identifying details.

1) “You don’t need a warrant for this type of people”

Nadia is a transgender woman in her early twenties. She’s had silicone implants in her breasts, and hopes someday to leave Egypt to have full gender reassignment surgery. She and three friends – two other trans-identified women and a cisgender man – moved into a new Cairo apartment. That very day, police raided it. They believe they weren’t targeted specifically: “The cops seemed to be doing a general search of apartments on that street. But as soon as they saw us they knew they had hit gold.”

It happened at noon. All four of us were in the apartment, two of us asleep, two of us awake. There was a knock on the door and when we opened it, four police broke into the apartment, with three informers. [By “informers,” she meant plainclothes as opposed to uniformed police.]

The head policeman asked: “Do you have girls, weed, weapons in the apartment?” We said no. He said, “I am going to search this place.” He found girls’ dresses and one wig. We asked why he didn’t have a warrant, and he said, “None of your business. Shut the fuck up, bitches.” An informer said to the officer: “See how they look, they are all khawalat” [faggots]. The officer said: “You don’t need a warrant for this type of people.”

Egypt's finest: Central Security forces march along Mohamed Mahmoud Street in central cairo, under graffiti reading "Glory to the Unknown," November 19, 2014. Photo by Amr Abdallah Dalsh for Reuters

Egypt’s finest: Central Security forces march along Mohamed Mahmoud Street in central cairo, under graffiti reading “Glory to the Unknown,” November 19, 2014. Photo by Amr Abdallah Dalsh for Reuters

They took us to the police station … They started hitting us in the face and kicking our legs, and touching us all over. The informers kept trying to pull my hair out. “Are these prostitutes?” the officer in charge said, and the other police said, “No, they are khawalat.”  He said, “In more than 24 years I have never seen khawalat so effeminate. Take off your clothes. “

They took the phone of Laila [one of the roommates] and showed us photos of trans people on it. “Do you know these?” they demanded. I said all the pics were of people outside Egypt. They asked, “Do you get fucked? Are there many people like you?” …

Another officer, when he was told we were khawalat, starting beating us violently. Laila infuriated them by not saying anything, so they hit her especially. A “nice” clerk came and said, “They are sick people and you shouldn’t hit them.” Then he started taking a video of us.

They started to write up a report. We denied being khawalat. I said, “Is every person who has long hair a khawal? You can’t judge us by labels. If we are khawalat, you would have caught us in the act.” But they said, “It’s already in the report that you were caught in the act.” I claimed that we were sexually frigid and we could not have sex. But the officers and the informers all said, “If you look like this, you are doing that.”

They put us in a small cell away from the regular detention area. The officers began sexually abusing us, grabbing our breasts. One of the informers said, “If you don’t sleep with me, I’ll put you in detention with the other prisoners.” …

Learning the ropes, and chains: Students at Egypt's police academy. Photo from AlRaiPress.com.

Learning the ropes, and chains: Students at Egypt’s police academy. Photo from AlRaiPress.com.

The next day we went to the niyaba [prosecutor]. We got four days’ detention, and went back to the police station, and then they took us back to the niyaba again. At the niyaba a lawyer told us the police claimed they had been watching us for a week. But we had just taken the contract for the apartment the day we were arrested! The wakil niyaba [deputy prosecutor] told us, “Call the Perverts’ Human Rights Association and they will get you out.” And there was a journalist taking pictures of us at the niyaba. One of the informers took the woman and took the phone and downloaded things from it, and told her to get the fuck out: he said the wakil niyaba prohibited taking photographs. But the guard there didn’t care, he said, “Fuck you and your wakil niyaba.”

Defendant in another "debauchery" case from 2014. Photo published in elhadasnews.com. I blurred the features, not the newspaper.

Defendant in another “debauchery” case from 2014. Photo published in Elhadasnews.com. I blurred the features; the newspaper didn’t.

Just six days after we were arrested, they took us before a judge. A journalist took our pictures again at the court. The judge called us names and didn’t even look at us. Three of us got three years in prison, and the one whose name was on the rental contract got eight.

On the second day after that we were sent to prison.

In the van to the prison, the officers kept telling us we would be beaten and raped. … At the prison entrance, the guards shouted, “Where the hell do these come from? They can’t be in this place. You can’t put such cases in this institution!”

The father of one of the victims “was an officer in the police. And the prison guy became more polite when he learned this. We asked to be put away from the other people in prison, and he said he would. He was the prison commandant.”

The guards went past all the cells saying, “Now you have women in the prison.” But we were put in an isolation cell for highly dangerous people.

Then because there was an appeal being made for us, we were taken to the Estinaf [appeals] prison … We were all four put together in one cell there, though one guard went to the straight-looking guy among us and said, “You are not a khawal, what are you doing here?”

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No pinkwashing these walls: Wadi Natroun prison in the Delta, from ElSaba7.com

After a few months they sent us to another prison. It rejected us. When we entered, guards beat us and told us to take off our clothes. “Open up your ass! What’s in there?” They got us naked and made the whole prison watch us. … The guard took off my T-shirt and looked at my breasts and said, “What is this? I am responsible for this prison!” He said to the commandant, “They sent us monkeys!”

There, we were separated, one to a cell. “Because they are sick,” the commandant explained, “And I don’t know how to treat them, I can’t have them in this prison.” He tried to transfer us to Tora Hospital [at the main military prison complex outside Cairo]. …

There was a lot of sexual harassment. People taking off our clothes. There was only soft sex, though. No one penetrated us. In prison, they had cameras everywhere – but no one cared.

They were sent back to the appeals prison.

A doctor in the prison kept asking us, “Are you a pervert? Do you sleep with men?” We said no. “Do you have erections?” No. He wrote a false report and said we asked for sex reassignment surgery. He told us, “If we give you the surgery we can put you in a women’s prison.” I said, “Are you crazy? I will not do this in prison!”

We were sent to the Forensic Medical Authority. They had forgotten to do this at the first trial because they were in such a hurry to convict us! The trial judge should have asked for the Forensic Medical Authority result, but he didn’t want to because there was press there, and he wanted to give the sentence quickly.

We went three times to the Forensic Medical Authority in Ramsis [the Cairo neighborhood near the main train station]. But each time, the police didn’t bring an order from the niyaba to do the test, so they wouldn’t do it. So the appeals judge kept postponing the decision – for one month, then another month, then for three months. Basically, he and the niyaba and the police wanted to keep us in prison, not let us out. It was 40 days after the niyaba asked for it that they finally did it. Even the doctor was astonished. …

And the anal test happened five months after our arrest. The doctor said: “You are fucking each other,” even before the test started. We said no, and told him the whole thing. Then: ”Take off your clothes: kneel over the chair and hug it.” He pushed our butt cheeks aside and looked. The report found us all unused.

Am I the first one here? Diagram of (non-forensic) anal examination, from http://www.arab-hams.com/home.php?page=3&lang=ar&id=2465

Am I the first one here? Diagram of (non-forensic) anal examination, from http://www.arab-hams.com/home.php?page=3&lang=ar&id=2465

The Forensic Medical Authority also did a report on our breasts, because the niyaba wanted it! They didn’t know I had silicone boobs; they asked me if I had taken an XY [chromosome] test. I lied, I said “Yes, these breasts are normal.“ They didn’t know the difference.

Whenever we went back to the niyaba, the wakil niyaba kept interrogating us about many different subjects. He tried to accuse us of having sex in the prison, and when we denied it, he told us, “That’s what they are saying about you. I don’t care about your case, I just care about you having sex in the prison.”

He demanded, “Why are you being rejected by every prison? Do you have vaginas? And he told us a story that really upset him: “One month ago, we caught some khawalat from Italy, she-males [in English] on a boat in the Nile. And public opinion approved of that, but Italy interfered, and they got them out.”

Finally, the appeals court acquitted them, after more than six months in prison. They’ve moved to a different city, but they still fear that police may find them and jail them on some new pretext. “I want to get out of this country,” Nadia told me. “I can’t go through that hell ever again.”

Victims of the bathhouse raid, in a screenshot from Mona Iraqi's television show: From Al Masry Al Youm

Victims of the bathhouse raid, in a screenshot from Mona Iraqi’s television show: From Al Masry Al Youm

2) “Look at the faggots in the cage”

Mazen is also in his early twenties. He is a top, and straight-acting. A couple of years ago, he says, “I met some guys from downtown, and one thing led to another, and I admitted to myself that I am gay. Some of these friends told me I should do it in business.” He became a part-time sex worker, and he teamed up with some “she-males and ladyboys” (words he uses in English). “In their case, they simply couldn’t find any other kind of work.”

“We were in our apartment. I lived there with Manar and Hala” –who identify as transgender, though Mazen mostly uses male pronouns for them. Two male friends were visiting that evening, one more “effeminate” than the other, Mazen says. “One of them was not in business, the other one does business from time to time.”

There’s a website for she-males specifically; and Hala had her picture on there with her mobile number. So this man called Hala on her phone and asked for a meeting. But she didn’t accept; she was afraid he was an officer. She was sticking to regular customers because of the arrests—she was afraid the new person would be an informer or an officer or something.

Then after she refused, he called Manar, my lover. Manar showed Hala the number, and talked her into trusting him. And so he came over. And it turned out that man actually was an undercover officer.

When I came in, the man was already in the apartment. I went upstairs to the balcony and sat there watching if anyone else was coming – any police – while the man sat inside with the others. He said he some alcohol in the car and he went downstairs to get it. But we watched and noticed he was calling someone while the car was still running, and he stayed talking about then minutes. Then he came back up, but he said he was going to the bathroom, while holding his mobile phone, and there he talked over the phone some more.

I was on the balcony, checking the area, and the two guys came up and asked, “Is there anything going on?” And then suddenly, two cars came in fast and stopped directly in front of the building.

We knew immediately it was police. Manar went to the bedroom and changed out of women’s clothes. Hala was just frozen. I went to the door to run … The policemen were on the stairs – two officers and a bunch of plainclothes. … Hala went down the stairs and tried to get past them. I went up the stairs. There was a window in the staircase and from it I shimmied down the pipes to the street.

But the officers caught them all.

Policemen kick and beat a suspect. Photo from the blog Tortureinegypt.net/

Policemen kick and beat a suspect. Photo from the blog TortureInEgypt.net

It was a big operation. Ahmed Hashad, the intelligence director of the Adab [Morals] police, was there, and he was telling the neighbors, “Don’t worry, we are just arresting the she-males of Egypt.” They had two private cars, plus a car like a box for the transport, and a microbus. … Hala was the only one of us wearing women’s clothes, baby doll clothes [Egyptians often use the English expression “baby doll” for skimpy women’s outfits] ….

One of the policemen beat me, and took all my money and two mobiles. There were four laptops in the apartment, two new and two older. The two new ones and my mobiles, the officers took them and shared them out for their own. In the police report they only mentioned the older laptops. In the bag that the officer had used to bring the alcohol, they put some of the baby doll clothes, as evidence.

They took us to the Mugamma el-Tahrir [the huge government building in central Cairo], to the department of Adab. There, three officers beat us, while Ahmed Hashad watched them … They were hitting us on the back of the head, and beating me and kicking me on my legs, and they stomped on my foot and injured it.

The massive Mugamma adminstration building in Midan Tahrir: Photo from Wikipedia

The massive Mugamma adminstration building in Midan Tahrir: Photo from Wikipedia

They tried to recruit Hala to help them: Was there any meeting place for she-males? They said if she told them they’d let her out. She said she didn’t know. Manar was wearing men’s clothes; they told him to take them off, and he refused, so they started to light cigarettes and burn his body with them. They got a baby doll dress and made him wear it.

They wrote a report but none of us was talking while they did it – the police wrote the report themselves. They took a photo of all five of us, and they made us sit in a part of the office where there’s no roof, and it was freezing – the weather was cold. They called us names, shouting “khawal” and asking, “What is wrong with you?” …

At 9 or 9:30 AM, they took us out of the Mugamma to go to the niyaba. The square was crowded and while we were walking, an officer hit Hala and she screamed. And everyone was pointing and looking at us and gossiping.

When we entered the office of the wakil niyaba, he started shouting, “You are the khawalat! Why are you doing this?” and so on, with foul language. He wasn’t questioning us, just cursing. ….

Another wakil niyaba interrogated me and the other guy. He started calling the other guy a khawal. The guy denied it, trying to defend himself. But the wakil kept insisting, “Yes, you are a khawal, because you look like one.” And he checked his mobile for messages that could convict him, and checked the pictures on my laptop. ….

The scandal site Youm7 published a photo of Hala in women’s clothes, showing her face clearly. Police or prosecutors had leaked it to the paper. Meanwhile, the prosecutor charged them with “debauchery.” Though they were engaged in sex work, that was legally irrelevant: the provision punishes men who have sex with men regardless of whether money was exchanged.

They brought men’s clothes for Hala and Manar and then they took us to the police station in [our neighborhood], which had jurisdiction over the apartment. … At the police station they put me and the other guy in cells with other prisoners. His had maybe 85 prisoners, and mine only 75. But Hala and Manar and the other one of us were put in a cage “for observation,” next to the visitors’ entrance. And they put them there partly because if they were in a cell with other prisoners, they would be raped or tortured. But also, the cage was directly by the front door: so whenever someone was entering or going out, the police would point and say, “Look at the khawalat in the cage.” They were zoo animals on display.

A defendant in another "debauchery" case from 2014: Photo from alamatonline.net

A defendant in another “debauchery” case from 2014: Photo from Alamatonline.net

The parents of the guy in the crowded cell paid bribes to get him moved to another cell, for people convicted of stealing public money. It was for 23 people only and was stylish [in English]. My mother pulled some connections and got me moved there too. We told the prisoners we were there because of hash dealing and a fight, so no one bothered us. …

We saw a judge four days after the arrest. We had six lawyers and they were good lawyers but they hadn’t even been shown the court papers. After a week’s delay the court met again … The police reports were all lies. They said that four of us were having sex in pairs when the police came in, two in each room, and I was the one who opened the door. They said we were caught in the act. They didn’t mention the undercover officer at all. The lawyer argued this was ridiculous: “Even if they were having sex, they would have gotten scared and stopped when the police knocked on the door.” The judge took a break for a bit to read the statements. Then he returned and said the verdict. Manar got 12 years; Hala and the more effeminate of the guys got I think 7 years; I got 4 years.

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Eight men convicted in the “gay wedding” video trial leave the courtroom cage, November 1, 2014.

In the reasons for the verdict, the judge mentioned some stuff from the Qur’an about men who resemble women. The lawyers and our parents were shocked; no one expected this. They took us to the waiting room. Manar wasn’t able to move or speak, Hala was crying … For 15 minutes I was thanking God that no more than this had happened; then I turned hysterical. I started screaming and shouting, I don’t even remember …

We went back to the police station. The officers were saying, “You deserve it.”

The appeals process started. They hadn’t given us the forensic medical examination before the first trial … So this time we were sent to the Forensic Medical Authority.

They were found “unused.”

After that, the only evidence left was three guys wearing feminine clothes, and the pictures they got from the Internet or from our mobiles. The lawyer blamed them on photoshop – he said, “You can manufacture whatever you want.” By the time of the hearing, my beard was fully grown. The judge asked the wakil niyaba, “How can you present a girl’s picture and claim it is this guy?”

At the final hearing, the judge “wrote on the case that we were innocent. And he closed the case file and threw it at us, and told us, ‘You are innocent, you khawalat.’”

We spent seven months in prison, total. We were so happy when we walked out. But Manar and Hala are in terrible shape still. They can’t work in any normal job because of the way they look. And they can’t work in business because they are so afraid.

Courtroom chaos after the verdict in the bathhouse case is announced, January 12: Photo from yaablady.com.

Courtroom chaos when the verdict in the bathhouse case is announced, January 12, 2015: Photo from Yaablady.com.

ISIS in Iraq: Real atrocities and easy fantasies

FIghters under the ISIS flag parade in Tel Abyad, Syria, near the Turkish border, Jan. 2, 2014.: photo by Reuters/Yaser Al-Khodor Read more: http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2014/01/al-qaeda-terror-spread-iraq-lebanon.html##ixzz34oYO5Rg3

Fighters under the ISIS flag parade in Tel Abyad, Syria, near the Turkish border, Jan. 2, 2014: photo by Reuters/Yaser Al-Khodor

ISIS – the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant — says it likes simple things. When I was in Iraq in 2009, a gay man told me how Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, the militia from which it grew, had murdered his partner five years before in Baghdad’s al-Dora quarter.

It was at a time when there was a general cleansing of people they thought were immoral. Barbers who pluck out hairs with a string could be targeted because that was haram. They murdered ice-sellers because there was no ice in the time of the Prophet.

My boyfriend was hanging out on a street corner with a bunch of friends, and they saw a group of bearded men pull up in a car. They asked for him by name. He tried to run but they surrounded and cornered him. They tried to get information from him, asking for names of gay friends. People came up and saw there was a disturbance—so they just shot him and drove away.

There were no guns in the time of the Prophet, or getaway cars either. The fierce essentialism of the militiamen’s standards cannot alter all aspects of the present, or roll back the complexities of the world. Perhaps they don’t try too comprehensively in the end; they’re content with the paradoxes, slaughtering ice-sellers while paying car dealers. Consistency only impedes the freedom to kill. It’s the clash of values itself that empowers them. Their angry absolute beliefs are like a bar of heated iron, plunged into history as into a pail of water. Steam billows up and clouds the air, and in that blinding, enabling confusion the killers can work.

A lot of people in Iraq want to kill, and therefore multiple parties tend to find confusion congenial. A Twitter account “associated with” ISIS over the weekend posted pictures “apparently showing their fighters killing many Shia soldiers..”

201461624556763734_20The account, which was closed down before its exact provenance could be determined, claimed the victims were captured Shi’ites from the Iraq army. “Hundreds have been liquidated,” it said; a figure of 1700 was cited. According to the New York Times,

The photographs showed what appeared to be seven massacre sites, although several of them may have been different views of the same sites. In any one of the pictures, no more than about 60 victims could be seen and sometimes as few as 20 at each of the sites, although it was not clear if the photographs showed the entire graves. The militants’ captions seemed tailor-made to ignite anger and fear among Shiites. …

The Iraqi army itself appears unsure how to respond, initially casting doubt on the reports, then “confirm[ing] the photos’ authenticity” but dropping a zero from the number claimed dead. It’s more a question of strategy than of truth: if you say the murders happened, you might discourage your troops from surrendering (which they’ve been doing en masse) but encourage them to desert (ditto). So an atrocity story virtually admitted by the killers, one you’d think would be a propaganda present to a tottering regime, remains underexploited. Even death goes to waste.

But if the Iraq regime survives on confusion, it’s nothing like the confusion that comes from outside. Western policy on Iraq has been all about killing or letting-be-killed, and therefore promotes a comprehensive, cloudy unclarity in which killing can just occur, agency reassignable, responsibility ambiguous, story in the passive voice. Stuff happens. Decades of dishonesty and blowing smoke; that was the point of the yellowcake, the weapons of mass destruction, the “untidiness,” the whitewashing of the crimes of people like Maliki.

Bush looks under the White House furniture for missing WMDs: from an official Presidential humor video, 2004. No word on where those 100,000 Iraq bodies were buried, either.

Bush looks under the White House furniture for missing WMDs: from an official Presidential humor video, 2004. No word on where those 100,000 Iraqi bodies were buried, either.

It wasn’t just an opportunistic sacrifice of truth; truth was the target, as much as Saddam Hussein. The years of war appear in retrospect as a gigantic experiment to create a model country where nothing could be known and anything said, no certainties had but speculation. The oleaginous Tony Blair reappeared yesterday, a wholly indigenous cross between Mr. Chadband and Dr. Phibes. He denies everything. Nothing that happened happened, and it wasn’t his fault:

We have to liberate ourselves from the notion that ‘we’ have caused this. We haven’t. We can argue as to whether our policies at points have helped or not: and whether action or inaction is the best policy. But the fundamental cause of the crisis lies within the region not outside it.

You can omit the fact that by urging us to “liberate ourselves,” Blair seems to be calling for an auto-invasion. No: Western leaders never propped up Saddam Hussein in the years when his mass murders were at their height, never switched sides afterward and invaded, never left him to slaughter his opponents in the invasion’s wake, never starved the whole Iraqi people into delirium in hopes they would overthrow him, though those victims never installed him in the first place; they never invaded yet again, never unleashed a civil war. Those are non-facts, “a bizarre reading of the cauldron that is the Middle East today” (the mixed metaphor – who “reads” a “cauldron”? – itself suggests Blair’s fixed unwillingness to describe reality, or perhaps a will to replace reality with interpreting the magic brew, like the witches in Macbeth). “We have to put aside the differences of the past and act now to save the future”: thus Blair.

It’s in this context of the right wing’s constantly metastasizing lies that a small thing caught my attention this weekend. Tarek Fatah tweeted it, then Ben Weinthal.

tarek fatah bs TWOBoth these guys have impeccable neoconservative credentials. Fatah, a Canadian journalist for the right-wing Toronto Sun, is one of those quondam Muslims that Islamophobes love. He blames Islam for everything: “The worldwide cancer of terrorism by some Muslims is inspired by the teachings of Islam. To deny this fact is intellectual dishonesty.” He regularly emits the required warnings about takeover by creeping shari’a:

fatah sharia copy–and cheerfully imitates the foreign policy stylings of the rabid Dinesh d’Souza:

Fatah obama copyWeinthal is also a self-styled journalist, principally working through the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a think-tank Glenn Greenwald called “a Who’s Who of every unhinged neocon extremist in the country.” One job of the Foundation’s paid fellows is to drum up support in various constituencies for a war against Iran, and Weinthal somehow acquired the gay portfolio. Pursuing this, back in 2011 he published a vociferous piece in Gay City News accusing Iran of “anti-gay genocide.” I responded that the usual definition of accomplished genocide requires that people be dead, and there was no documentation of executions for consensual homosexual conduct in Iran since at least 2000. Weinthal has never forgiven me for this. As bête noire and “Iran apologist” I still haunt his Twitter feed, his occasional dispatches for the Jerusalem Post, and no doubt the recesses of his dreams.

“Don’t miss the niqabi!” Sure. The photo seemed off to me. It wasn’t hard to find out where it came from: certainly it shouldn’t have been complicated for two experienced pseudojournalists like these. The picture itself, as you can see, has a watermark, which says “Al Ghad”: the name of a newspaper in Jordan (Tomorrow).

BqB2G4mCMAAh9meThe photo isn’t from Iraq at all. Here‘s the original article from Al Ghad (with plenty of other pictures too). It’s from a mock anti-terrorism exercise conducted at the big SOFEX (Special Operations Forces Exhibition and Conference) confab held from May 5-8 this year in Amman, Jordan. That’s a chance for all sorts of doubtful mercenary, paramilitary, and private-security gurus and arms salesmen to hawk their wares to jittery governments. A rescue of “hostages” was staged by “counterterrorist” forces after a costumed “jihadist” group kidnapped them, and this is one image. The show stirred up a controversy in Jordan, implying as it did that “terrorism” was a conservative Muslim speciality. The Islamic Action Front, Jordan’s main religious political party, condemned the exercise, as did Salafists and many Facebookers — for spreading exactly the stereotypes that Fatah and Weinthal also deal in.

The sequel: "Counterterrorist special forces" capture "jihadists" at the SOFEX show in Amman

The sequel: “Counterterrorist special forces” capture “jihadists” at the SOFEX show in Amman

That’s not the point, though. The point is that doing a reverse Google search before circulating an image is good (journalistic) practice — especially in a tendentious situation, with people being killed. Interesting, too, is how the photo got redubbed. Tarek Fatah obtained it from the Twitter account of Raja Arsalan Shah, a Lahore-based journalist:

image recapitulated copyShah in turn got it from a Twitter account called “Proud Syrian”:

proud syrian copy 2All we know about “Proud Syrian,” who tweets pretty exclusively in English, is this:

proud syrian id copy“Proud Syrian” obviously found the photo somewhere and seized the chance to enlist it against ISIS. At least he, or she, included a disclaimer (attributing the ISIS link to social media); in its later peregrinations, Weinthal and Fatah shucked off any such caution. Strange that Weinthal, who campaigns aggressively for US intervention to overthrow Assad, is recirculating deceitful propaganda from an anonymous pro-Assad account.

When I pointed to the original source of the picture, Ben Weinthal became enraged: not at “Proud Syrian,” or himself, but at me. In fact, his answer, retweeted by Tarek Fatah, was downright churlish.

Shut up, Ben explained

Shut up, Ben explained

Is that even an answer? Perhaps it’s to be expected that people who give unquestioning credit to pro-Assad propagandists should also place faith in the nasty personal vendettas of the litigious Peter Tatchell. They’re equally reliable. Undisgraced, undiscredited, and undismissed, I still have to admire Ben’s talent for alliteration if not for accuracy. I feel I ought to imitate it somehow. Yet it’s hardly fruitful to waste belletristic tricks on such unrepentant people, disinclined to honesty and incapable of honor: dyspeptic, disingenuous and destructive propagandists for prejudice.

Neither Weinthal nor Fatah ever clarified the truth about the picture. This makes it harder and harder to call them journalists.

So the picture spread (as you can see, it got 700+ retweets from Fatah’s account alone), and it’s still cropping up here and there on Twitter. It’s picked up by Australian xenophobes:

tare12k 3 copyBy fans of the Dutch racist politician Geert Wilders (as well as, in this case, of head Indian Islamophobe Narendra Modi):

"Not sure about Islam? Or was Mr. Wilders right after all?"

“Not sure about Islam? Or was Mr. Wilders right after all?”

And by anti-feminists anxious to prove that Western feminism has got things wrong, or that Elliot Rodger was in some weird way right:

tarek 4 copy 2ISIS is a violent organization with a long trail of victims. It takes little trouble to find documented atrocities it has committed; so you have to wonder why so many people leapt on this picture, this fake back story. Weinthal’s and Fatah’s propaganda needs are clear. Even now, though, it’s conspicuous that while both cling to this tale, neither’s Twitter feed contains anything about ISIS’s own claims to have executed hundreds of soldiers. The probable atrocity has been driven out by the fake one.

I have two explanations. One’s in the picture itself; the jeans-clad women, with blond or dyed hair … I haven’t been to Mosul, but I’ve been elsewhere in northern Iraq, and I recall very few women who looked like that. The whole point of the Jordan exercise from which the picture came was to make the fake hostages look like us, a different us, not like ordinary Jordanians or Arabs: like Western or Westernized victims, just the people Special Forces are meant to rescue. Shi’ite soldiers shot by jihadists rouse a mixed response in the American or the neoconservative breast: on the one hand, we oppose any generic Muslim terrorists automatically, a non-sectarian instinct to battle and bomb; on the other hand, shooting Shi’ites is, from a geopolitical perspective, perhaps a Good Thing. It’s not just the anonymity of the violence in the ISIS pictures that inhibits identification. It’s a complicated if not necessarily informed political response. But with the fake photo, there’s no confusion of loyalties. These are our kind of slaves.

White slavery: Jaroslav Čermák, Abduction of a Herzegovenian Woman, 1861

White slavery: Jaroslav Čermák, Abduction of a Herzegovenian Woman, 1861

And that sympathy can’t be separated from their gender. There’s partly the tradition of women as the territory on which clashes of civilization are fought: a history stretching from colonial conquests down to Bush’s war in Afghanistan. There’s the titillating promise of actually watching women taken as “slaves”: part of a growing body of political pornography that sexualizes Muslim men as masters in a seven-veils version of Deep Throat, or Debbie Does Damascus. (Think the fantasy of “sexual jihad,” the myth that Islamists lure or force women into servicing fighters in Syria or Iraq — an Orientalist wet-dream sold by the sensationalist media in the United States, but one that’s been plagiarized in Egypt and elsewhere.) And there’s the excitement of watching women turn against women, which to guys threatened by feminism and all that women’s solidarity stuff is both ideologically satisfying and erotically thrilling. “Dont miss the niqabi with gun guarding the captives!” tweeted Fatah. It’s like lesbian mud-wrestling, but with automatic weapons.

Political pornography — and that’s what this is — reduces our thinking, our ability to respond, in many subtle and unsubtle ways. But one is this: it acclimates us to accepting that only visible abuses are real. The only violations that count are what our eyes can consume; our hungry seeing is the sole criterion for believing.

ISIS knows this too. When they took over Nineveh, also in northern Iraq, they released a document with sixteen rules for residents. These imposed hudud punishments (amputation for stealing), and banned alcohol and drugs. They also told women that “stability is at home and they should not go outside unless necessary. They should be covered, in full Islamic dress.” (This is a paraphrase, by the Washington Post.) 

Certainly, this reflects their version of religious precepts; but in a larger sense it’s a sweeping and familiar mandate on women to remain indoors and invisible, in a realm where abuse and agency will be equally unseen. No melodrama here, just the usual relegation to the usual rooms. Weinthal, Fatah, and the rest of the voyeurs on Twitter, obsessed with images of women herded off as “slaves,” won’t notice this violation, exactly because it places women beyond and beneath notice. Violence inflicts the worst wounds when it takes the form of denying visibility. To consign people to pure privacy is the severest privation. As long as our emotions and our politics are driven by pictures, in an orgy of exposure, trying to make sense of the thousand-word Babel they echo or imply, this will be the unattended message: the word we won’t hear.

 

Syria, Cameron’s crackup, and the virtual world of humanitarian war

A man carries a wounded child away from an anti-Assad demonstration after regime forces opened fire, Syria, 2011

A man carries a wounded child away from an anti-Assad demonstration after regime forces opened fire, Syria, 2011

The night air is full of hypotheticals these weeks, and reality feels like a far-off country.

David Cameron lost tonight. It was sweat-inducing drama, the kind that makes you focus so closely on the grimaces and rumors that you forget about the war. By 13 votes, his motion to give a loose preliminary OK to Syrian intervention went down. (He’d tried to scale it back as a vague non-binding slightly amnesiac go-ahead to his government, like a Dad saying “Sure, someday” to a preteen daughter who wants to marry Justin Bieber.) Most of the UK papers seem to focus on Cameron’s humiliation, and Labour leader Ed Miliband’s triumph, as though a lot of other people’s lives aren’t at stake in this one way or the other. Everybody agrees there is another, spectral loser: Tony Blair.

All over but the shouting: Cameron in the House of Commons, August 29

All over but the shouting: Cameron in the House of Commons, August 29

Not just Blair’s righteous policy of bringing freedom to the benighted, of shaking the world like a kid’s kaleidoscope and reshuffling the pieces. But Blair himself. Two days ago he stepped directly into the debates, with a piece in the Times that stirred up memories of mendacious arrogance in the worst way.

People wince at the thought of intervention. But contemplate the future consequence of inaction and shudder: Syria mired in carnage between the brutality of Assad and various affiliates of al-Qaeda, a breeding ground of extremism infinitely more dangerous than Afghanistan in the 1990s; Egypt in chaos, with the West, however unfairly, looking as if it is giving succour to those who would turn it into a Sunni version of Iran. Iran still — despite its new president — a theocratic dictatorship, with a nuclear bomb. Our allies dismayed. Our enemies emboldened. Ourselves in confusion. This is a nightmare scenario but it is not far-fetched.

And then he goes maundering about Egypt, seemingly his pet obsession these days, claiming that not bombing Syria would help the Muslim Brotherhood and hurt the military government in Cairo, which is striving to bring stability to the country despite “actions or overreactions” like killing a thousand people in a fit of pique. (Blair, immune to facts as ever, seems unaware that Egypt’s diehard secularists and the junta they helped to power generally look with favor on Assad; the generals overthrew Morsi in part because he opposed the dictator.) But Blair’s intrusion triggered all the wrong recollections in the public. Maybe if he’d shut up, Christian soldiers would be marching off to war.

Here’s a question, though. Why did Blair need to imagine this horrific post-non-intervention future to prop his argument? Isn’t the slaughter that’s already happened enough? More than 100,000 have died in the conflict, according to Syrian activists and the UN. Why can’t Blair rest his case on this vast carnage, instead of dreamy geopolitical speculations and “nightmare scenarios” about how things could get even worse? Isn’t the nightmare now?

Tony Blair as Prime Minister (L) and after (R): Forgive them, Father, for they know not who can replace me

Tony Blair as Prime Minister (L) and after (R): Forgive them, Father, for they know not who can replace me

The reason, I suspect, is that Blair knows, and we know, and he knows that we know, that the “humanitarian” intervention he imagines will not do much to help. The dead are past aiding — even Blair, with his propensity to impersonate Jesus, probably gets that — but what is the chance that the mechanized violence of Western powers can forestall more violence in Syria? Will more killing save more lives — killing in the self-protecting way the West does it? Iraq haunts Blair, haunts every word he says, not as a sin (he’s Godlike enough to absolve himself) but as a miscalculation. Humanitarian intervention there only accelerated murder. Better not to look at the past, and better not to promise the deaths will end. Instead, focus on the infinite horrors you can pack into an imaginary what-if. The hypothetical can always be worse than anything real.

It’s very striking how little the discussion in Britain dealt with what’s actually happening in Syria beyond the chemical attacks. It’s as if the proposed intervention had nothing at all to do with the civil war. “It is not about taking sides in the Syrian conflict,” Cameron told Parliament, oddly enough since only one side was slated for bombing.

It is not about regime change or even working more closely with the Opposition. It is about the large-scale use of chemical weapons and our response to a war crime – nothing else.

What an odd war he wanted, one with a motive but not a goalIt’s a bit hard, moreover, to square this with Nick Clegg’s assertion that “The sole aim is the relief of humanitarian suffering.”  (What the hell is “humanitarian suffering”? The adjective seems to have taken refuge with the wrong noun: surely he meant “humanitarian aim” or “humanitarian relief.” But out of such Freudian slips does truth step, naked.) How would Clegg relieve suffering? Would all the suffering stop if the chemical weapons were disabled? No; there have been plenty of other deaths. Something bigger, some kind of “taking sides” or even “regime change” would be required.

In fact, Clegg and Cameron offer the lowest-common-denominator version of “humanitarianism,” in which it means no more than a mix of punishment and personal catharsis. We have to “respond to a war crime.” This won’t stop further war crimes, but we’ll have done our part. It’s barely a step down from that to “We want to bomb something, and Syria is there. In this light, “humanitarian suffering” really does refer, perhaps, to the suffering of the humanitarian himself, who feels impotent and guilty, who wants to do good and can’t imagine how, who has migraines from knowing that none of his actions will accomplish the ends he posits, and who would like a large explosion to relieve him. Bombing Damascus is a bit stronger than Alka-Seltzer, but it’ll do.

Demonstrator's sign outside the Houses of Parliament, August 29: AFP

Demonstrator’s sign outside the Houses of Parliament, August 29: AFP

The argument for humanitarian intervention inhabits a strange half-reality, not quite resembling anything else in the languages of democratic politics. It’s almost never a discussion about “What will happen if we do this?” It’s a fever dream about “What will happen if we don’t?”

Back two years ago when the Libyan bombings were bruited, the editors of n+1 asked: “Has there ever been a truly successful, truly humanitarian humanitarian intervention?”

 Not of the Vietnamese in Cambodia, who deposed the Khmer Rouge for their own reasons (the Khmer kept crossing the border, and also murdered their entire Vietnamese population), and then replaced them with Hun Sen, who has been ruling Cambodia with an iron fist for more than thirty years. Not the Indian intervention in Bangladesh, under whose cover the Indian government arrested all student protesters in India. And not NATO in Kosovo, which, while it stopped Milosevic and ensured the safety of Kosovo, could not make it a viable state … and also led to the ethnic cleansing of the Serb population. Too bad for the Serbs, to be sure; but the creation of a safe space for the expulsion of a civilian population cannot be what anyone had in mind when they launched the planes. That there has never been a successful humanitarian intervention does not mean that there cannot be one in the future. But the evidence is piling up.

All these misfortunes still have ample defenders in retrospect, though, and the justification always takes the same form: What if we hadn’t done it? Things would be worse. It is no coincidence that some of the best-known advocates of humanitarian war, like the power-worshpping Niall Ferguson, are historians fascinated by alternative histories. Ferguson has written whole books that rewrite the past; he defends the what-if approach to understanding because it refutes Marxism and other attempts to trace laws that make history make sense. Life is random. Something completely unpredictable could always happen, or have happened.

What are the implications of chaos for historians? … The counterfactual scenarios [that historians] need to construct are not mere fantasy: they are simulations based on calculations about the relative probability of plausible outcomes in a chaotic world. … Perhaps the best answer to the question, “Why ask counterfactual questions?” is simply: What if we don’t? Virtual history is a necessary antidote to determinism.

Slumming among the angry Arabs, Niall Ferguson rescues a brown person and shares killer-app lessons from the Western worldview

He surely hopes to sound oracular like Lawrence of Arabia, the imperial hero intoning “Nothing is written.” Instead, he ends up a bit like Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park, rambling on about chaos theory: Fuckups are inevitable, the dinosaurs will always get loose, leave while you’re still alive. His scenarios are more like movie pitches than histories. But the method’s utility in excusing policymakers’ catastrophes (like those of his idol Kissinger) is obvious. Who knows how much worse things would have been, without our fucked-up attempt at fixing them? If the US hadn’t invaded Cambodia and unleashed the Khmer Rouge, something else would have gone wrong. 

Everything settles into indeterminacy this way. There is no proving a hypothetical. You can always invent a rate of forced flight from a Kosovo where the NATO invasion never happened that’s satisfyingly much greater than the one we know. You can always find a way to say that Iraqi mortality for 2003-2013 would have been as great or greater if Saddam had stayed in power — because he would have nuked his own people, or diverted the Euphrates, or weaponized the Middle East Coronavirus. This spares you the unpleasantness of looking at what actually took place, analyzing the melancholy figures, seeing what caused the painfully factual deaths or displacement. So much more agreeable to understand the unreal than reality!

Stuck in a jungle somewhere between lectures, Niall Ferguson (Jeff Goldblum) discusses chaos theory with crusty adventurer Henry Kissinger (Sam Neill) and Ayaan Hirsi Ali (the ever-radiant and enlightened Laura Dern)

But an argument that’s merely flimsy when used to analyze history turns deadly when used to decide what to do here and now. The incessant drumbeat of “What will happen if we don’t?” drowns out the two more important questions: “What will happen if we do?” and “What is happening now?” Only the latter, because they deal with facts and with the consequences of a specific course of action, have even the possibility of instructive answers. The advocates of “humanitarian intervention” seem to turn every debate into a panic. It’s not just that the incited desperation overpowers the ability to judge. It’s that moving debate into a never-never land reached by the road-not-taken degrades all political discourse. The dreamwork starts to construct our daytime lives.

I can’t bring myself to stand in blanket opposition to any humanitarian intervention at all, in Syria or elsewhere. What I feel sure of, is that the arguments used to hawk the war in Britain are destructive and dangerous. They swivel our attention away from the reality of death in Damascus and Homs. Instead they insult the dead by imagining “nightmare scenarios,” ones somehow worse (at least for us, if not them) than what is occurring now, ones that suggest the ongoing disaster is not yet disastrous enough for minds acclimated to atrocity. They do this to conceal the poverty of their plan, which isn’t a plan at all and would help almost no one. They convince us that a dystopian future is the only alternative, because they are incompetent or unwilling to do anything about the present.

The Commons was right to vote these proposals and their shabby logic down. I would like to think there is a little interval of time for the rest of us to learn about life and death in Syria, and debate in concrete terms what can be done to support the Revolution. But the US is already heaving itself to action, greaved and ready, for the aimless killing — “nothing else,” “the sole aim” — the UK refused. I don’t need a theory to know chaos when I see it. I don’t need an alternative history to know there have to be alternatives.

Dead bodies, allegedly of rebel fighters, around the town of Qusair after its recapture by regime forces: images from Syrian state TV, June 2013

Dead bodies, allegedly of rebel fighters, around the town of Qusair after its recapture by regime forces: images from Syrian state TV, June 2013

Cruise control: Gay pirates in the Caribbean, the economics of it all, and Tony Blair

Two men in a boat: A tale of a fateful trip

An Atlantis Cruises ship packed with 2,000 partying gay men pulled into port in the Caribbean nation of Dominica Wednesday morning.  Later it left, minus two of them. They were in the jail at Roseau, waiting to be arraigned on Thursday morning.

Apparently a taxi driver glimpsed something untoward.  He later said, “I did not know that it was a gay boat, but when I reach [the dock] I realized it was. We were struggling to get some business but when I gazed to the ship I saw two men engaged in sexual activities on the balcony of the ship. It raised our anger here.” Police Chief Cyril Carrette told the local press,

“We got a report that there was an unlawful act going on aboard the cruise ship which was in port. Police were dispatched and the persons were taken to the police headquarters where charges have been laid against them. The act of buggery was committed and there are witnesses saw this thing happening live.”

Carette: I cover the waterfront

Dominica, like the rest of Britain’s onetime Caribbean colonies, inherited English legislation against “buggery.”  As revised in 1998, its law punishes the crime (defined as “sexual intercourse per anum by a male person with a male person or by a male person with a female person”) with up to 10 years in prison.  Carrette says police reduced the charge to indecent exposure because the process of proving buggery “is a much longer one so we want justice to be swift to have these people leave our shore.”

Now, this little scandal (not so little, of course, for the two guys, who have legal fees, a ruined vacation, and eventual airfare home to deal with) has actually been a long time brewing.  Dominica News Online (DNO) reported way back in early January that the queers were coming:

 A gay website is offering to one of its lucky clients what is described as a  “lavish and exciting vacation “ to the Caribbean, with Dominica as one of the destinations. According to the site massageM4M.com, the world’s largest gay male massage directory, the  “All-Gay Caribbean Cruise”will include $1,000 airfare credit on American Airlines and will include destinations such as Grenada, Barbados, Dominica and St. Barths.

Cub reporter needs a tender hand

A journalist’s life is hard, and despite the benefits of a balmy tropical climate on the one hand, and the disincentives of a repressive law on the other, you get kinks in the neck from all that Googling that demand relief. Hence in winter the budding Jimmy Olsen‘s fancy turns to gay massage; and this whole mess is the result. Let the cruise lines pay for journalists in their destination countries to receive wholesome heterosexual backrubs weekly, tipping covered, and perhaps such brouhahas can be averted in the future.

There was plenty of indignation to spare when the boat came in; while “busloads of only male passengers have been seen taking brief tours around the capital,” a “reinforced police presence” protected the dock. “The ship evoked mixed reaction from observers who noted that ‘only men’ were disembarking  … One hair braider told DNO that she was ‘mentally disturbed, first time I am seeing that in my life.’” (I assume she meant the sex, not the homosociality.) But not everybody was outraged.

Another taxi driver who also witnessed the act said he was not in any way disturbed; in fact he seized the opportunity to solicit tours while others were engrossed in it. “The people it disturbed were the ones who stood looking at it. People stood there looking at it, if you don’t want to see it then don’t look.”

He said he will not support calls for the government to prevent them from coming to the island as there are “many gay people right here in Dominica why should I have a problem with a gay boat?”

“All I want is to make my money I don’t worry with those people. We know they are gay and we know that they are doing it, we know those things are happening in Dominica so I don’t see how this should be a problem.”

That’s progressive capitalism in action.

More seriously: the roots of this mess reach back even further. Periodic uproars over gay cruises have become a minor feature of Caribbean politics, and an impeding factor in domestic activists’ struggles to scrap the colonial buggery provisions — impeding as far as they reinforce the notion that the homosexuals, rather than the laws, come from outside.

The cruise crises date at least as far back as 1998, when Cayman Islands authorities refused permission for a ship carrying 900 gay men to dock. The Tourism Minister said that “Careful research and prior experience has led us to conclude that we cannot count on this group to uphold the standards of appropriate behaviour expected of visitors to the Cayman Islands, so we regrettably cannot offer our hospitality.” The Caymans, of course, are an actual British colony (or British Overseas Territory); fourteen such political droppings of the white man’s burden still dot the seas, a state of affairs, when one remembers Britain’s history of exploitation, as odorous as turds left by Colonel Blimp. The islands have only severely limited self-government, and this show of morality was also in some measure a defiant exercise of pseudo-sovereignty. Since most of those on board the spurned vessel were Americans, the U.S.’s richest gay rights group, the Human Rights Campaign, got in the act. They called on the High Post-Colonizer, Tony Blair, to intervene.

Blair was notoriously metrosexual, until awed a few years later into imitating the strutting, sweating, crotch-padded masculinity of George W. Bush. Thinking him a sensitive and kindred spirit, and unprepared for his future evolution into a missile-sporting Marlboro Man, UK gays had balloted for him in large numbers. Now Blair’s newly-elected government was stung to anger: how dare a mere dependency offend a domestic constituency so vital to his votes! He demanded the territories get rid of their British sodomy laws. Eventually he made this a condition of restoring British citizenship to their populations (Margaret Thatcher had stripped the colonies of those rights as an anti-immigration measure in 1981).

(L) Blair as they thought he was; (R) Blair as he wanted to be

I can’t think of anything more idiotic he could have done under the circumstances. His high-handed posing proved as catastrophic in the Caribbean as David Cameron‘s similar threat last year to tie aid to LGBT rights was across Africa. It set in stone the regressive terms for talking about gay people across the region that have persisted in politics till today.  Nobody from then on would think of the sodomy laws as colonial impositions; instead, it was their possible repeal that would reek of submission to the colonizer.  The Caymans’ Community Affairs Minister said the islands had a “mandate from god” to keep the legislation. The rage extended beyond the actual colonies to countries jealous of their independence. In the Bahamas, a few months later, protesters greeted a gay cruise with jeers and threats, furious that their government had permitted it to land. And Blair’s actions also cemented the idea that homosexuality was a contagious vice of visitors, an incursion of corruption.  “This foreign issue has sensitized us to the urgent need to attack the problem,” one protester in the Bahamas said. “The foreign homosexual problem can only add to ours.” Sex had become both a mark of nationality and a register of sovereignty.

The way it used to be

You know: there’s something rotten in Britain. The United Kingdom in the last twenty years has become abode and asylum for a particular brand of lunatic activism, both among its citizen-activists and, more ominously, its politicians. Nowhere else is personal messianism applauded so much or given such rampant rein, with such utter indifference to its disastrous consequences on those it claims to speak for and save. In the LGBT sphere, eidolons like Peter Tatchell or Gay Middle East hold court over small cliques of uncritically devoted fans; but in the larger world of Little Britain as a whole you have the Nick Cohens and the Johann Haris and countless more, all persuaded that in a world warped by barbarous clitoris-slicing Africans, menaced by mad Arabs bent on a caliphate in Clapham, it’s the duty of white British men to save civilization and, heroically pathetic as the Little Match Girl, keep the faint flame of humane values alive. Teju Cole has written brilliantly about the White Savior Industrial Complex, which he treats as headquartered in the moralist, manifestly destined precincts of God’s City on the Hill, the Great Republic: “I deeply respect American sentimentality,” he says, “the way one respects a wounded hippo. You must keep an eye on it, for you know it is deadly.” But in America hippohood is an explicit and historic part of the national ideology, out there for critique. In Britain these days it’s simply taken for granted as a basic term of morality and action, insidious and silent. In America, you could argue with credibility that G.W. Bush’s sense of Christian mission was evil in itself. In the UK, even many lefties treated Tony Blair’s messianic tendencies as a mitigating factor, a virtue inhibiting or excusing some other, numinous vice. In the US the hippos are open targets.  In the UK, the hippos are us.

what Tony Blair doesn't understand

Yes, I blame Blair. Dean Acheson said famously, back in the American Century, that “Great Britain had lost an empire, and failed to find a role.”  After years of prime ministers floundering to fill the gap, Tony figured out the way. The UK would corner the market on moral leadership. It would rescue a world it couldn’t rule. America would provide the guns, Colonel Blimp the Bibles. At the previous century’s turn, Hillaire Belloc had caught the essence of colonialism in a devastating couplet:

Whatever happens, we have got
The Maxim Gun, and they have not.

Substitute “morality” for the Maxim Gun, and you pretty much have Blair’s version of a postcolonial world. And it still scans.

The division of labor was imperfect — there are plenty of Bibles in the US, and in Iraq, the UK ended up providing considerable ammunition too. But, much more avidly and articulately than Bush, Blair limned an utterly insincere picture of the Baghdad war as a rational, humanist crusade, Erasmus against the Saracens.

As with every other endeavor he crowned with his peculiar brand of charming unsuccess, Blair’s vision was unctuously persuasive even as, by every practical measure, it failed. His renewal of national purpose has seeped into the collective consciousness despite all the misery it brought in train. It informs — or infects — the activism of amateurs as much as it doomed the targets Blair bombed. Britannia used to rule the waves; now it saves the ruled. Whether they like it or not.

But I digress.

As years passed, the lines hardened on both sides in the cruise ship conflicts. Foreigners seemed more and more convinced the real problem with Caribbean sodomy laws was that they affected foreigners, not just nationals. Anybody could wind up in the primitive clink, for God’s sake!

“We’ve continued to put pressure on these islands because we’ve received reports of gay travelers feeling harassed in certain places,” said Augustin Merlo, executive director of the International Gay & Lesbian Travel Association in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

And, of course, the notion grew that the islands were wilfully rejecting tourist money — which in turn could provide an additional threat to pressure them. After all, Third World countries come cheap. “We’re professionals with money to spend,” a passenger on the ship barred from the Caymans said. “If they don’t want our money, Jamaica and Belize are just itching for it.” (Were they? Really?)

Yesterday Queerty.com carried a blip about the Dominica arrests, and if you look at the comments field, you see these coupled sentiments of entitlement on full display (along with, I hasten to add, more nuanced reactions). One angry American writes:

The morons in Dominica can’t even feed themselves or control violence on their cesspool island, and they’re worrying about a boy liking another boy or a girl liking another girl? LOL. You’d think they’d spend their scant resources on something more productive. Homosexuals around the world need to start taking WHATEVER actions are necessary to secure their human rights. …  And shame on Celebrity Cruises and Atlantis for giving support to such a disgusting, backward society like Dominica or letting Dominican authorities on board the ship. And by the way, if those gay Americans are sent to jail, the judge, jailers, and politicians (and their families) that send them there … should be attacked and people all over the world should attack Dominica citizens in their countries. Start with embassy personnel.

Open war!  Well, you know, Ronald Reagan invaded Grenada for less. You have to be struck, though, by how such a racist rant exactly parallels the reasons for not tolerating homosexuals heard throughout the Caribbean. They fit together like Yin and Yang, hand and glove, penis and — whatever you prefer. The argument about “scant resources,” other priorities, for instance? Here’s a letter from one reasonable homophobe to a Jamaican newspaper:

When one considers the deep and entrenched problems of poverty, dispossession, joblessness, the abominable atrocities against children, the plight of the elderly, among other day-to-day abuses, the revocation of Jamaica’s Buggery Law could by no means be considered to be high on the list of priorities.

And the bit about physically attacking those disgusting furriners who cause us so much trouble? Here’s an editorial from Belize:

And you know why the homosexuals feel that victory is within their wicked grasp if they fight hard enough? It is because of powerful people like the British Prime Minister, David Cameron. That man is sick. He deserves to be flogged.

It’s not just that the two sides deserve one another. The two discourses are one another. They made each other, in each other’s image. The neocolonial insistence and the anti-colonial resistance keep reproducing each other reflexively, plagiarizing one another’s fears and mirroring one another’s language, as if in a fantasy by Fanon or a farce by Genet. It’s a perfect deadlock, North and South caught and copulating in a wrestler’s hold; and without a way to break out of it, to split up the wrangling incest of these opposed but mutually reinforcing views, nothing new will be said, and nothing will change. As  usual, moreover, it’s the actual LGBT people in the Caribbean who are caught in the infinitesimal space in the middle, stifled in the process, like a kitten in the marriage bed.

I certainly haven’t got a way out. One thing that has to happen, though, is to think through not just the myths and fears but the material realities of what gay tourism means in the Caribbean. And that, as always, means looking at the economics.

Gaycation: Sunsets and sodomy

The gay tourism industry is always touting how much money it has. The latest figure I saw, from “leading global LGBT marketing specialist Out Now Consulting,” is that the “global market potential of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender market is set to reach almost USD$165 billion in total spending on leisure travel in 2012.” (That’s three iterations of market in a sentence: they’re obsessed.) I don’t know whether “potential” means the queers can spend this much — for instance, by going without food —  or they will. Still, it’s a lot of moolah, and you’re supposed to imagine it flouring down like manna on those sunny little islands full of poor people who don’t eat food either.  How nice!

Naturally, it’s not that way. And the cruise segment of the travel industry is particularly egregious in not showering wealth on the touristees.  In fact, compared to other forms of tourism, cruises — gay or straight — bring very little benefit to the shores where they land. Most obviously, the travellers sleep on ship; so local hotels are cut out of the deal. Beyond that, though, cruise lines have increasingly worked to focus the tourists’ spending on board, rather than diffusing it outward. Stays in any one port are short. The beautiful locales shrivel to so much background. One academic paper observes,

Although the cruise industry initially touted exotic ports of call as a principal thrust of its tourism experience, increasingly marketing campaigns focus on the on-board amenities … “with the cruise ship itself providing the holiday experience rather than any destinations to be visited” (Ubersax, 1996). This shift from floating hotels to floating resorts increases the incentives for the industry to maximize the time (and money) cruisers spend on board and minimize their time in port. As such, cruise ship companies are in direct competition with local communities for the expenditures of cruise tourists.

Chances to tour off-ship in ports of call are tightly limited; usually the cruise lines contract with specific businesses onshore, and get back up to 40% of the take in return. So there’s not much random spending on the locals. The same study estimates that in Costa Rica, “cruise tourists spend just under $100 each during their stay.” Ross Klein, author of the insightful Cruise Ship Squeeze: The New Pirates of the Seven Seas, found that spending by cruise passengers in port communities halved from 1994 to 2002.

Aboard this tiny ship: The telltale liner in Dominica

Most gay cruise companies don’t own their own ships; they charter from other companies. (The Atlantis Cruises trip to Dominica was actually on a Celebrity Cruises liner, creating some confusion in the country about who was in charge.) This is cheaper in the long run but creates a short-term need to recoup the rent, so they’re even more likely to squeeze customers into reducing the amount they spend onshore.

Governments try to get back some money for their countries from cruise ships’ berthing, principally by charging port fees — usually a sum assessed per passenger. Partly it’s supposed to compensate for lost hotel revenues, partly for the expenses of docking. It’s a minimal amount, but cruise lines resist it bitterly. According to Klein,  “Carnival Cruise Lines began a boycott of Grenada in November 1999 over a $1.50 per passenger charge [think about that: $1.50] the island is required to collect under a World Bank-sponsored loan for a region-wide garbage reception capability. .. Ironically, Carnival pays the fee in other ports. Grenada apparently is a reminder to others thinking of raising port charges.”

You can grasp, then, why states tend to see cruise ships as probably the least profitable, least desirable kind of tourism imaginable. And gay cruise ships … well, there you go.

Cruise ships embody, of course, a huge accumulation of privilege. When they pull into port, towering in white solitude over the neighborhoods, they look powerful as crenellated  castles. Theres lots of money in those heights. It may not seem so much to an American wallet; checking the Atlantis website, I found a weeklong cruise — 3000 gay men over Halloween — priced from $600 to $2300 ($200 in port fees  not included). The average income in Dominica, though, is $6700 a year. The cruise runs from 10% to 40% of an annual local salary. And, as we’ve shown, almost none of that goes into the country’s economy. The openings for resentment are clear.

What, though, are travelers buying for that money?  Freedom — including the freedom from normal law. Cruises thrive implicitly on the romance of extraterritoriality, the thrill of being beyond anybody’s domain. International waters seem a legendary place where, as the song says, anything goes. (To press the point, in Cole Porter’s musical, the song is sung on … a cruise ship.)  The anything-goes-ness extends, as it happens, to throwing people overboard.  There is a remarkably high incidence of people disappearing from cruise ships; the Guardian has counted 171 vanishings in the last decade. Sometimes it’s just an accident –a passenger went overboard from an Atlantis ship just last month.  Sometimes there are suspicions of foul play. In either case, unencumbered with legal obligations, the ship sails on.

It’s remarkable how cruises bring the expectation of immunity. In a listserve discussion of the Dominica case last night, someone expressed surprise that a ship in port is subject at all to local law. (Think of the commentator above raging at Atlantis Cruises for “letting Dominican authorities on board the ship.”)  In fact, when ships enter territorial waters — usually stretching 12 nautical miles from shore — national law clamps down. You wouldn’t guess that from the brochures, though.

Cruising indoors vs. cruising Atlantis: Which would you choose?

This libertarian idyll is especially appealing to gays, I think. Atlantis Cruises makes a point of shilling it on its website: “The Only Rule is There Are No Rules…. [I]n general we adhere to a simple philosophy: No one should tell you what to do on your vacation.” Post-Dominica, that looks like a recipe for a hefty lawsuit. Here, though, is where my sympathy for the two arrested guys kicks in. The dream of being both safely obscured from unfriendly judgement, and exposed to the airy world, is a very visceral gay one.  Dennis Altman wrote in the early Eighties that gay men tended to gather in dark bars with windows blacked from outside view, in order to watch porn videos that showed men having sex in forests and fields. The fantasy of openness needed the fact of seclusion. Gay cruises furnish both. The dynamics of the closet that feed this paradox are transnational enough that I bet most Caribbean gays too would pay for the same safe-but-sunny setup, if they could afford the fees. Who can blame the two men for believing what the cruise line told them?

There’s some dispute now online about whether the ship broadcast a warning that, entering Dominica’s waters, a buggery law was now in force. Some say they did.  A commenter on Queerty, though, claims that when his ship “stopped in St Lucia last year, I did not hear any warning about the fact that being gay in St Lucia was illegal from anyone at Atlantis or the cruise operator.” If the loudspeakers did say something, I suspect it was like the lists of side-effects that US prescription-drug commercials are required to include: a voiceover says sotto voce that the medicine may make your eyeballs explode, while images show kids cavorting with ponies in a flowery field. You’ve paid the cruise line for the illusion of uninterrupted freedom. Why should they spoil that by shouting out the fine print?

As of this morning, a Dominica court slapped the two men with fines of $888 US apiece, then set them free.

“Free”: the multiple meanings of that are, ultimately, the key message. The magistrate called them “rogues and vagabonds”; it’s a weighted phrase, also from ancient British law. It means masterless men, vagrants, people whose freedom has got out of hand and displaced and unhoused them. (It’s sometimes used for actors.)  While enjoying their freedom, that’s how they looked in Dominican eyes. The guys had already paid for a week’s sunlit liberty; it turned out to be a little more expensive. And it ran up against a different definition of freedom, national and political — one that, literally, made them pay.

Caught in the middle, between these clashing versions of freedom that nonetheless feed on and harden one another, are the LGBT people of Dominica and the rest of the ex-British Caribbean. They’re not yet free, while the buggery laws persist. And neither Blairesque interventions, nor the cruise-ship onslaught, nor all the international controversy over this casual arrest do anything to make them so.