Journalism | صحافة

The Barbarians Within Our Minds

Reading the senior journalist Hisham Melhem’s recent obituary of Arab civilization, one is compelled to ask when it was ever alive. Al-Ahram Weekly, 25 September
(c) Youssef Rakha

The Nowhere, Cairo 2014. By Youssef Rakha

“No one paradigm or one theory can explain” the jihadi barbarians, not at, but within the Arabs’ gates. So says Hisham Melhem, an older writer, in Politico magazine this week, summing up the failure of modern “Arab civilization” with admirable level-headedness. His point would be too obvious if it wasn’t so uniformly lost on neoliberal analysts and apologists for religious identity: the Islamic State did not fall from the sky. It grew out of the “rotting, empty hulk” of societies routed no less by the “stagnant, repressive and patriarchal” authoritarianism of military regimes than the politicized religiosity seeking to replace them. Like its ideological archenemy, namely political Islam, Arab nationalism too expresses “atavistic impulses and a regressive outlook on life that is grounded in a mostly mythologized past”.

But who’s to say these two ideologies do not accurately reflect all that the Arab masses hold dear, i.e., what world community leaders would call “the Arab peoples’ legitimate aspirations”? As a younger observer, I cannot help seeing that, since the end of Ottoman times, only a negative sense of collective identity has mobilized a given Arab people at a given point in history. Embodied in revolutionary leaders like Nasser or resistance movements like Hezbollah, such rallying cries rarely pointed to a positive or constructive cause that did not turn out to be part of a propaganda campaign (Hamas’s August “victory” over Israel is a case in point). What Melhem does not say is that, in as much as it exists at all, post-Ottoman Arabic-speaking civilization has only ever operated against others, if not the occupier then non-Muslim or non-Sunni citizens of its own states, if not “Zionists and imperial Crusaders” then infidels at large.

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When Suicide Is Permissible

As the IDF begins its withdrawal from the scene of the crime, Hamas is poised to harvest the political yield


An Israeli reservist prays July 18 near the Gaza border by Sderot, Israel. Source: CNN

On Friday 1 August, the blog of the Jerusalem-based news site The Times of Israel published and then quickly removed a post entitled “When Genocide Is Permissible”.

A barely literate homily in the Israel’s-right-to-defend-itself genre by a New York accountant named Yochanan Gordon, it casually suggested that, if the cost of “peace and quiet” is the wholesale elimination of Palestinians who disturb it, then perhaps it is a cost that should be shouldered. It was exactly like saying, “But if you were in unbearable anguish and torturing Yochanan Gordon to death was the only way to recover your peace of mind, what would you do?”

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Jassmi, Take Three


When a UAE-based Palestinian friend sends me a link to the Emirati singer Hussein Al-Jassmi’s hit Boshret khair (or “Good Tidings”), I wonder what she finds remarkable about the video. After Tesslam el ayadi (or “Saved be the hands”), Boshret khair — written by the mainstream lyricist Ayman Bahgat Qamar and composed by the notoriously anti-“revolution”, conspiracy-theorising musician Amr Mustafa — is the second and by far the more tasteful anthem of 30 June-3 July 2013. Its aim is to encourage a high turnout in the presidential elections, to bolster up the legitimacy of the current democratic process.

Quoting the lyrics, “Don’t begrudge [Egypt] your vote,” my friend turns out to be taken with the irony of Egyptians being urged onto the ballots by a citizen in a country where no voting is allowed whatsoever. She seems to find dark humour in the fact.

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One Flew Over the Mulla’s Ballot

@Sultans_Seal wallows in his lack of democratic mettle

Time and again, since 30 June last year, I’ve come up against the commitment to democracy that I’m supposed to have betrayed by appearing to endorse the army’s intervention in the outcome of Egypt’s second revolution.

Time and again I’ve had to explain what on earth makes Egyptians think that Washington and Tel Aviv are secretly in league with the Muslim Brotherhood to decimate the Arab world along sectarian lines and bring death and destruction upon innocent Egyptians as much as Syrians and Libyans in the name of human rights—presumably to the benefit of that impeccably democratic and profoundly civilized neighbor state where racist, genocidal, militarized sectarianism does not present the world community with a human-rights problem.

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Egyptian History X



Al-Ahram Weekly: Mohamed Mahmoud Street, Youssef Rakha and Egypt’s new culture of violence

As of 28 January, 2011, the protests in and around Tahrir Square were never quite as peaceful as people would in later months reflexively claim they were. But no one thought that what had started on 25 January as a call for rights and freedoms, and on 11 February forced Hosny Mubarak (Egypt’s president for 31 years) to step down, would turn into a kind of hopeless vendetta against the police and, later, albeit to a mitigated extent, also against the army—to a point where people could no longer credibly make that claim.

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خمس ملاحظات على عودة باسم يوسف

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أهم ما يقوم به باسم يوسف هو أنه يبروز قابلية المصريين على السخرية من أنفسهم بلا وعي – وهي صفة لا أظن مجتمعاً آخر يتمتع بها بالشكل نفسه: ذلك التطرف الـBaroque في التعبير عن الآراء السياسية بالذات – الأمر الذي اتضح بشكل غير مسبوق في الإعلام منذ ٢٥ يناير. فكثيراً ما يبدو الأمر، سواء بمساعدة المونتاج الذي يقوم به معدو “البرنامج” أو بدونه، كما لو أن المنحاز لطرف ما إنما يعمل في الحقيقة ضد ذلك الطرف بمنطق المفارقة الساخرة… وهل هناك “إساءة” للسيسي أو تقليل من قدره ومن قدر القوات المسلحة بل والأمة المصرية متمثلة في شخصه أكثر من الاحتفاء الإعلامي بتحول “القائد التاريخي” إلى شيكولاتة تباع بالكيلو؟ وهل هناك “إيحاء جنسي” وذكورية ساقطة أوضح من وصفه المتكرر بكلمة “دكر” من جانب رجال ونساء على حد سواء؟ باسم يوسف أكثر الوقت لا يسخر إلا من مسخرة حاصلة، ولا يتيح له أن يسخر بهذه الطريقة من شخص أو جهة كالتيار الإسلامي مثلاً إلا أنّ سخرية تلك الجهة اللاواعية من نفسها لا تقدّم بوصفها كذلك ولكن، من شدة جهل وتفاهة ولا أخلاقية مقدميها، بوصفها تمجيداً و“تلزيقاً” أو مبالغة مرضية في الانحياز للذات.

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Tractatus Politico-Religiosus

The Second Tractatus: From 25 January to 30 June in four sentences: on Egypt’s two revolutions

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1 Newton’s third law of motion: When one body exerts a force on a second body, the second body simultaneously exerts a force equal in magnitude and opposite in direction to that of the first body.
2 For nearly three years the triumph of the 25 January uprising involved the Egyptian constituency in a series of conflicts, protests and counterprotests in which the action repeatedly pitted the army as the sole remaining representative of the state against political Islam.
2.1 In the period 25 January-11 February 2011, protesters (including Islamists) were credited with bringing down Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, who had been in power for nearly 30 years. They had no leadership or ideology, and their slogan — “bread, freedom, social justice and human dignity” — could conceivably be grafted onto a communist or fascist system just as well as on the liberal democracy they were demanding.

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The Terrors of Democracy


For the Western media and Western policy makers, it seems the story of what’s been happening in Egypt is a simple one. Having deposed and taken into custody a democratically elected president on July 3, the army went ahead and forcibly disbanded two large sit-ins staged in protest of the coup, killing over 500 civilians on August 14, then hunting down the remaining leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood and allied groups, whence both president and protesters hail.

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New York Times/Herald Tribune Essay on the Coupvolution



Egypt Shows How Political Islam Is at Odds With Democracy


Published: July 15, 2013

CAIRO — Egypt’s top military commander, Gen. Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi, went on the air Sunday to defend the army’s decision to oust Mohamed Morsi, the country’s first democratically elected president, on July 3.

“The armed forces remained committed to what it considered the legitimacy of the ballot box until this presumed legitimacy moved against its own purpose,” General el-Sisi said. “The Egyptian people were concerned that the tools of the state could be used against them. The armed forces had to make a choice, seeing the danger of deepened polarization.”

The general said that the military had offered Mr. Morsi the option of a referendum on whether he should stay in power, but that the deeply unpopular president had refused.

Painful as it was to see the democratic process interrupted so soon after the revolution that overthrew the longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak in 2011, the military’s action was necessary. At its most blatant level, there was no way that Mr. Morsi and his affiliates in the Muslim Brotherhood were going to leave power willingly, no matter the severity of the civil discontent over the president’s efforts to consolidate his power while mismanaging major problems from fuel shortages to rising inflation.

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Death makes angels of us all: Fragments

Jim Morrison died on 3 July, as young as most of the casualties of the Egyptian revolution of 2011-13 (let’s assume it’s been one string of events for simplicity’s sake). Play a few Doors songs to honour him while you think of bloodied corpses and try as you might not to, at some point you will begin to picture the killers. And going through who they have been — police, military, thugs, honourable citizens, Islamists — you will soon end up blaming everyone and everything. Not without reason. While comforting at first, the discourse of martyrdom (and it has already been sullied in many ways and on various occasions) does not detract from the absolutely unforgivable horror of unnecessary loss of life. And while death of protest may not be exactly murder, it is.

The reason I’ve been thinking of Jim Morrison is that death of protest has been happening again recently, this time at the hands of Islamist militias or quasi-militias: totalitarian theocrats defending democratic legitimacy against Egypt’s second coupvolution in three years. Such Kafkaesque insanity is perfectly normal in Egypt. But second indeed: considering the army’s role in 25 January, there is no sane reason to set 30 June apart from that initial, equally military-facilitated uprising. Death’s made angels of some more young (and old) people — notably in the Cairo neighbourhood of Al Manyal and the Alexandria neighbourhood of Sidi Bishr – but this time it’s made murderous demons of a new and thus far “revolutionary” sect.

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Pathetic Braveheart

25 January, 30 June — and, very personally, Youssef Rakha

I had almost reprimanded myself for anticipating civil conflict in the wake of major protests against the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) President Mohamed Morsi remaining in office.

After what apparently was the largest demonstration in the history of humankind on Sunday (30 June, 2013), the army’s statement in support of “the people’s demands” this afternoon prompted wild festivity on the streets. But at the time of writing (the evening of Monday, 1 July), “clashes” — some of which had begun yesterday evening — are raging, on and off, in Alexandria, Mahalla, Suez, Assyout and Qena as well as the Cairo suburb of 6 October and the Muqattam Hills, where the Guidance Office of the MB is located in Cairo.

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What I talk about when I talk about 30 June

Nearly a week ago, some little known Kuwaiti newspaper reported that President Mohamed Morsi had negotiated, it wasn’t clear with whom, “a safe exit deal” for himself and 50 leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) — in anticipation of 30 June.

It was obvious misinformation but it was tempting to believe, partly because it suggested the very implausible prospect of the MB leaving power peacefully, lending credence to the idea that 30 June will be “the end of the MB” anyhow.

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سيرة صاحب أبي مع الفرانكوفوني الليبي

أول كلامي: أوحّد الله…

عشية تحرير العاصمة الليبية، استمعتُ إلى أربعة شعراء يقرأون قصائد نثر كان بعضها بديعاً. ومع ذلك، ومع أن الشعراء معروفون في الدوائر الأدبية، لم يكن للأمسية التي نظمّتْها إحدى دور النشر في القاهرة جمهور سواي وآخر من معارفنا. طال الحديث عن غياب القارئ وجدوى الكتابة – قال أكثر من طرف إن الشعر فن “نخبوي” وإننا لا يجب أن نحاسب أنفسنا بمقاييس شعبوية لا تتناسب وتطلعاتنا – ثم اصطحبتُ أحد المشاركين وزوجته إلى “الزمالك” لاحتساء القهوة حيث يُمنع، في رمضان، بيع الكحول. عزينا أنفسنا بالاضطراب الحاصل في إيقاع اليوم جراء الإمساك وفساد الحياة الثقافية، وأخذنا نعقد مقارنات بينها وبين الحياة السياسية كنقطتي تقاطع بين الشخصي والعام على طريق تعريف الذات

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Three Versions of Copt: Sept 2011/Doors: April 2013


Yesterday evening, while I sat at this desk dreaming up cultural content for the pages I am in charge of, Twitter began turning up news of protesters being fired at and pelted with stones – but not run over by armored vehicles, not beaten repeatedly after they were dead, nor thrown into the Nile as bloodied corpses. Not yet. The location was outside the Radio and Television Union Building, along a stretch of the Nile known as Maspero.

This fact (of protesters being fired upon) along with some of the slogans suggested that the march under attack was Coptic. I in fact knew that most of those tweeting from the location of the shootings were Muslim, but every Coptic protest since 11 February had included Muslims. Ironically, no Arabic term has been coined that might translate CNN’s far more civil “pro-Coptic,” which is also the more accurate by far.

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مصطفى إسماعيل وأوبرا النص: دقيقتان من سورة يوسف

فَقَالُوا إِنَّا سَمِعْنَا قُرْآنًا عَجَبًا

سورة الجن،١

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نصائح المرحلة + ملاحظتان

عليك أن تتعلم، ولو كان صعباً، أن تنظر إليهم كما تشاهد فيلماً وثائقياً عن قبيلة رعاة أو مزارعين من أجناس فاتتها المدنية، تتراوح شطارة أفرادها في التسوّل من سكان المدن والقائمين على آبار النفط المجاورة. لن يمر وقت حتى يغضبوا عليك إذا ما واظبت على تذكيرهم بحقيقة الدوكو الذي يدهنون به الهواء. وإما لأنك لا تستحق معركة أو لأنك تجيد شتمهم، سيتجاهلونك. حتى مارقوهم ممن أتقنوا استعمال اللغة الجديدة في الإيحاء بمعارف لا صلة لهم بها، لن يجدوك – حسب تلك اللغة – عدمياً بما فيه الكفاية، رغم أن الجانب العدمي منك، بالمعنى الحقيقي للعدمية، هو أكثر ما ينفرّهم أو يخيفهم. حاول أن لا تتقيأ حين يظهر مهرجوهم على الشاشة، أو يدلي مشاهيرهم بتصريحات، أو يعلن طياروهم عن كسر حاجز جديد للصوت. أنت وحدك. تذكر دائماً أن التلاقي كالتلقي صدفة نادرة، وأن التوجيب الذي يمارسونه فيما بينهم سيستثنيك ما لم تكن صاحب واجب، أنه ليس سوى مودة شخصية من قبيل “أنا وأخي على ابن عمي” إلخ، وأنه – كالجنيه المصري – لا يمكن صرفه خارج حدود العشيرة. فعلى عكس أجيال سابقة ممن تاهوا بين الأفخاذ ولم تعد لهم فائدة، أنت لا تريد أن تكون ذلك الشيخ الجليل الذي يفتش عنه الأصلاء من حافظي عهد ماض أجمل. جائز طبعاً أن تسعى إلى تحقيق طموحك، لكن ما تريده من ذلك هو عملة يمكن صرفها في كل مكان.

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Nukhba? Who the fuck is Nukhba?

Egyptian intellectuals and the revolution



Egypt has had Islamists and “revolutionaries”. So who are the nukhba or elite routinely denigrated as a “minority” that “looks down on the People”? Educated individuals, non-Islamist political leaders, the catalysts of the revolution itself… But, in the political context, this group is to all intents synonymous with the cultural community. As per the tradition, which long predates the Arab Spring, writers, artists, scholars and critics often double as political activists/analysts and vice versa; and in this sense much of “the civil current” (anything from far-right conservative to radical anarchist) is made up of “the elite”—of intellectuals.

Construed as a political player, the cultural community in Egypt has been the principal challenge to the Islamists since January-February 2011, when the revolution took place—an understandably weak rival among the uneducated, materialistic and sectarian masses. Yet how has the cultural community dealt with the revolution regardless of this fact, assuming that what took place really was a revolution?

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لنسم الأشياء بأسمائها

هنا القاهرة؟ نعم. وهنا شخص بلغ به الضجر حد الشماتة.

اليوم سأسمي الأشياء بأسمائها. قد لا يعترف “التيار المدني” الذي أنتمي إليه للوهلة الأولى بأن هذا ما نحن بصدده، وقد لا تصيغه “الثورة” التي شاركتُ فيها بالألفاظ ذاتها. لكن، ومنذ استتب أمر الإخوان المسلمين في السلطة بمعاونة “ثوار” مازالوا عمياناً عن كل ما سوى المناهضة المستبدة لـ”فلول” نظام يبقى أفضل بأي مقياس من الديكتاتورية الإسلاموية، باتت الحوارات/الشجارات في فضاء الجدل السياسي داخل هذين المعسكرين تتمحور حول سؤالين:

هل من “توافق وطني” محتمل في السياق الراهن؟

وهل قامت “ثورة يناير” من أجل معادل سني لولاية الفقيه (وهو ما يكرس له الدستور الطائفي المزمع تمريره رغم كل شيء ورغم أنف “التخين”)؟

هنا “مصر الثورة”؛ ولأن الإجابة عن السؤالين هي بالضرورة لا، هذا ما أجدني أتحدث فيه مغالباً فجيعتي بعد عامين على بدء التحول.

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Lost in affirmation

Artists, Islamists and Politicians

Against “the threat of Islamisation”, culture is said to be Egypt’s last line of defence. But what on earth do we mean when we talk about Egyptian culture?
The night before the ridiculously so called 24 August revolution—the first, abortive attempt to “overthrow the Muslim Brotherhood”—Intellectuals gathered in Talaat Harb Square to express discontent with the new political status quo. Much of what they had to say centred on the draft constitution making no provisions for freedom of expression, but the resulting discourse was, as ever, an amorphous combo of statements: “We cannot stand idly by while our national symbols of thought and creativity are subject to attack,” for example. Here as elsewhere in the so called civil sphere, resistance to political Islam has readily reduced to generalised statements of individual positions rallying to the abstract title of Intellectual, which in Arabic is more literally translated as “cultured person”. Cultured people—actors, for example, are eager to protect culture—the films and television serials in which they appear; and in so being they have the support of artists, writers, “minorities” and “thinkers”.
Never mind the fact that most Egyptian actors have never read a book in their lives, whether or not they admit to such “lack of culture”; it is their social standing as visible producers of something falling under that name that places them in a position to defend an equally, historically compromised value system: enlightenment, secularism, citizenship; imagination, inventiveness, choice…

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Download ebook on Egyptian revolution

… It just must be admitted that, where the predominant (post-Christian) civilization is racist, murderous and hypocritical, so too are the quasi-civilizations that purport to do battle with it, including the post-Ottoman Arab state…