One Flew Over the Mulla’s Ballot

logo@Sultans_Seal wallows in his lack of democratic mettle

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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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Fuloulophobia: What I talk about when I talk about 30 June

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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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The Parable of the Riots and the Intellectual: On the Ministry of Culture Protest

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First there was a riot, a kind of street fight with the police. Killings led to a sit-in that led to power changing hands. No one took issue with the hangman’s noose swinging symbolically at the maidan, though the riots were supposed to be silmiyyah. The killers never hanged in the end, and no one took issue with that. Only the rioters vowed to take revenge unless the courts hanged someone, but when the courts said not guilty it was all they could do to start a new fight. And in every new fight more rioters were killed. It became something of a national fetish to riot, and riots sprang up everywhere in the country, sometimes for no reason at all, often because no one was hanged.

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Nukhba? Who the fuck is Nukhba? – Egyptian intellectuals and the revolution

Eat your words

Youssef Rakha discusses the culture of revolution

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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?

Considering that the speaker belongs in that community, however reluctantly, the answer will be a kind of testimony. It is up to the disentangled listener to make up their mind about imagination, politics, identity and the Role of the Intellectual: an unduly popular theme since long before the revolution. In the last two years, the meaning of each has changed repeatedly; and, as guardians of such values, intellectuals were forced to reinvent themselves in new, unstable contexts—something that has tested their creativity, integrity, sense of belonging and worth.

It would be easy to regurgitate platitudes to the effect that, as Conscious Agents, “we” were defeated yet again in the fight to spread enlightenment—which is good, and eliminate backwardness—which is bad, aiming towards Social Consciousness in the underdeveloped society-cum-postcolonial state in which we live. As activists, theorists, historians and politicians, however, how can we be sure that our enlightenment isn’t a symptom of the very backwardness we think we’re fighting? Since the dawn of modern Egypt under Muhammad Ali Pasha, after all, the very existence of a cultural community has been subsidised/tolerated, and the range of its action delimited, by the (military, anyway non-intellectual) powers that be.

What took place in January-February 2011 was a revolution insofar as it achieved regime change, however unlike its champions are the beneficiaries. In practise, of course, the nukhba—where it did not actively seek alliances with political Islam or otherwise condone its undemocratic practises—failed to show enough belief in the possibility of a viable alternative distinct from “the first republic”. This is not to say that, as the “ruler” at the helm of “the second republic”, the MB is not in most ways an extension of the Mubarak regime. But, unlike the nukhba, political Islam had established itself as the well-meaning underdog—a ploy even the nukhba itself seemed to fall for.

But the underdog ploy could not in itself explain why, when we had the opportunity to help establish a functional democratic state in place of the dysfunctional quasi-military dictatorship we’ve had since the early 1950s, what we did, consciously or unconsciously, was to help establish the even more dysfunctional quasi-theocratic dictatorship now emerging. In the same way as political Islam has continued to play the role of Opposition even after it came to power, intellectuals seem to thrive on the absence of the Social Consciousness they purport to work for. It’s this absence that makes them look useful, after all, saving them the trouble of asking how, without either killing themselves/emigrating or openly giving up all pretensions of a Role/all socially “committed” activity, they might remain relevant to society.

The failure of the cultural community to make use of young people’s sacrifices—to take social-political initiative, adopt a clear moral stance or seriously revise half a century’s worth of historical “givens”—should illustrate how. In the course of regime change, “enlightenment” has cast the intellectual in one or more of their accepted roles: as Conscience of the Nation, as Voice of the People or as Prophet of Better Times. In each case the intellectual not only failed at their role but also actively compromised it, partly because the rhetoric attached to the process of engagement, which the intellectual as a rule will prioritise over the process itself, tends to be irrational, self-contradictory or absurd.

Too often that rhetoric is at once progressive and conservative, idealistic and pragmatic, moral and insincere—”poetic” in the worst (Arab) sense. What is presented as a cause—Palestine, for example—is in fact a festering status quo. Commitment to the Palestinian question was for decades on end a pretext for the worst forms of repression in much of the Arab world; and how exactly has that benefited Palestinians?

As in all discourses that apologise for totalitarian measures or tendencies, euphemism abounds. Social unity through wasati or moderate as opposed to ussouli or fundamentalist Islam, for example, has helped shift the emphasis away from universal rights and freedoms to a normative, sect-based (and, as it turns out, completely fantastical) status quo. As the catchword of that faction of formerly/nominally left-wing intellectuals who have supported the ex-Muslim Brotherhood leader, presidential candidate Abdelmoneim Abulfetouh and/or his subsequently established Strong Egypt Party, wasati has in effect extended the space in which fundamentalist dictatorship is to be taken for granted.

Likewise, instead of appeasing the Salafis—its avowed reason—the decision to replace ‘almani or “secular” with madani or “civil” in early campaigns helped to confirm the idea that the former word is in fact a synonym for “atheist” or, as a Salafi would put it, “apostate”, ceding the Salafis even more ground without granting “us” any more popularity or credibility among the Islamist-sympathetic grass roots.

For its part the discourse of “social justice” championed by (among others) the Nasserist presidential candidate Hamdin Sabahi, while reflecting an age-old obsession with class, fails to improve on Nasser’s more or less catastrophic legacy of state control; it does not address the issue of where wealth will come from, let alone the effectual means to its redistribution…

As Conscience of the Nation, the nukhba betrayed its role early on. Starting with the referendum on constitutional amendments that practically gave the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces absolute power in March 2011—and whose “yes” result Islamist forces were instrumental in obtaining—the cultural community condoned, participated in and often promoted the kind of “democratic” process undertaken with totalitarian intent. As a result, both the parliamentary and presidential elections were held in the absence of a constitution, and the vote-based process whereby political Islam aims to eliminate democracy is already underway.

Serving SCAF and MB interests and alliances, these “democratic weddings” took place under bloody circumstances, if not actually (as in the case of the parliamentary elections) directly at the expense of young protesters’ blood. Considering the MB’s underdog appeal and its tribal (increasingly ruling party-style) hold on much of the countryside, not to mention the Gulf’s Wahhabi influence on the culture, with vast numbers of susceptible Egyptians importing backward practices from their place of work on the Arabian peninsula—the pro-Islamist results of ballot-only democracy are a forgone conclusion. (I believe this holds for the constitutional referendum, whose results are to be announced.)

Instead of exposing such travesties of democratic process for what they are—by, at least, refusing to be part of them—each time the cultural community, including not only politically aware “revolutionaries” but, most recently, the openly anti-MB National Rescue Front—reverted to proactive and community-aware attitudes which, dictating a game whose rules “we” already knew to be unfair, was bound to serve Islamist interests. In so doing the nukhba also gave credence to the increasingly untenable assumption that what has been happening is political participation. Had the protesters of 25 January-11 February played by the rules set by the Mubarak regime and SCAF—as their “oppositional” predecessors had been doing for decades—no revolution would have occurred at all.

Undertaken on the scale of “the revolution”, a rigorous boycott of all such events—which would be the correct stance from the moral and “revolutionary” standpoint while not necessarily undermining the social status quo or being any less pragmatic as a course of action—might have stopped the forward march of the Dark Ages in its tracks, or at least presented it with a significant obstacle. If nothing else, it would have given meaning to a string of million-man demonstrations whose demands, while sometimes just as bloody and authoritarian in their way as the policies of the powers that be, were always muddled and unclear. If it isn’t the job of the Conscience of the Nation embodied in the icons of the revolution to give the lie to the ballot box as a means to dictatorship, I don’t know what is.

Yet, having agreed to enter the presidential race in the absence of a constitution determining their powers—and this is but one example of the nukhba failing to be consistent enough to act as its own conscience, let alone that of any nation—both Aboulfetouh and Sabahi were happy to lead a million-man demonstration protesting the results of the first round, which narrowed down the choice to the representative of the former regime, Ahmed Shafik, and the MB’s second choice, Mohamed Morsi. Neither Aboulfetouh nor Sabahi showed the least respect for the democratic process of which they had agreed to be part, nor the least concern about the rise to power of the MB through Morsi; apart from bolstering up the chances of the latter and helping identify the anti-nukhba MB with a revolution instigated by the nukhba, that million-man demonstration served no purpose whatsoever.

Now that the MB has virtually declared civil war on its opponents, who might be the People in whose name the nukhba prophesied better times after SCAF? Surely they are the ones who, while protesting Morsi’s singularly autocratic, blast-the-judiciary constitutional declaration of 22 November 2012 (a typically MB maneuvre to speed up the completion of and pass the Islamist-dominated draft constitution), were attacked/murdered, arrested and tortured by MB members and Salafis in no way officially affiliated with government institutions—and if not for the courage of individual prosecutors would have been framed for thuggery as well. Guided if not by their nukhba then by “revolutionary” ideas in which the nukhba had trafficked, many of these protesters had actually voted for Morsi.

When the People were able to force Hosny Mubarak to step down after 30 years in power, the People were a unified entity, unequivocally synonymous not only with “the revolutionaries” in Tahrir Square but also, very significantly, with the nukhba that had blessed their being there, the cultural community. Since that moment we have come a long way, especially in the light of the by now absurd statement that (as the slogan has it) “the revolution continues”: athawra musstamirra.

Now the most we can do, whether as revolutionaries or intellectuals, is to vote no in the referendum on a constitution that compromises some of the most basic rights and promises to turn Egypt into both a worse presidential dictatorship than it was under Mubarak and a Sunni-style “Islamic republic”—its drafting, thanks in part to our failure to boycott parliamentary elections, having been monopolised by Islamists—a referendum whose ultimate result, due as much to our dithering and lack of imagination as to Islamist power, influence and politicking, will almost certainly be a “yes” vote.

Being the champions who have not managed to become beneficiaries even in the most noble sense, indeed in some cases being the very (presumably involuntary) instruments of political Islam, how are we to see ourselves two years after the fact? Not in the kind of light that obscures the possibility that the pose we adopt, our Role, might be simply that: an affectation that helps us with upward mobility and individual self-esteem, but whose social-cultural function—like political Islam, identity-driven, with a chip on its shoulder vis-a-vis the former coloniser—is ultimately to legitimise systematic incompetence, economic dependence and sectarian tribalism.

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A second excerpt from “The Crocodiles”

The oblivious body by qisasukhra

A second excerpt from Youssef Rakha’s التماسيح (Dar Al Saqi, 2012) [The Crocodiles].

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194. “You know you’re a coward?” she said, for the first time staring into his eyes without confusion or uncertainty. She hadn’t completely finished tying the ponytail when she looked at him and he couldn’t believe it. “I’m the first to tell you?” Not a flicker; just the first signs of a smile upon her lips. “You really are a son of a dog’s religion of a coward.” And before he could give expression to his astonishment he found his arm in motion, as if of its own accord. “A coward,” she was saying, “because you’re not prepared to exchange your position for another, even in your imagination. You’re scared to put yourself in a woman’s place because you’re scared to ask yourself whether, in those circumstances, you would marry. This isn’t a fear like the human sentiment with which to varying degrees we’re all familiar: it carries a moral presumption and a glib satisfaction with your own circumstances. That’s why I’m telling you you’re a son of a dog’s religion of a coward…”

195. And this, as I see it, was precisely Moon’s genius. When she came out with abrupt and sudden declarations of this sort it was with a tremendous energy, an intentness that summoned thoughts of the weak standing up to the strong, the revolutionary to his oppressor, and she would make the man before her feel, in consequence, that her words came forth from a deep place: that she’d thought hard about it and that it pained her. Her subtlety in inferring views, which her inner cogency or indifference would not permit her to air more comprehensively, was what gleamed in her eyes as her lips quivered. Meanwhile the truth was that she said things by way of experiment and cared deeply only about their immediate impact; things that sprang from an absolute lack of cogency. Moon would lie, tentatively, without believing herself, and the things she said were clichés even though our admiration of the speaker might mask the fact. This was the genius Nayf fell for, despite his shrewdness, because it was—as I see it—a genius of cliché, while Paulo and I, with the less brains or the greater weakness, hooked the Joke and the Slogan.

196. She was saying, “That’s why I’m telling you,” when Nayf’s palm settled on her cheek. And when the palm slid down to her neck she went on: “You’re a son of a dog’s religion of a coward. Am I right or what? When you said that it makes no difference…”

197. It wasn’t a slap precisely, though the arm was raised, the palm stretched rigid and the shoulders a straight line through a circle’s centre. It was like the threat of a slap, which Moon would have returned immediately had she not lost her balance beneath the weight of the slapper, now standing over her head. As he turned to face her she tottered and swayed, until she came to rest cross-legged on the couch, her long summer dress hitched up off a brown and slender thigh. At which point she looked him in his eyes again. She herself did not know if something in her gaze was different but it no longer fazed him that she looked.

198. A thigh, brown and slender, but aglow and suffused, and her long thick hair, numberless streaked chestnut strands gathered in a ponytail, and her, looking at him. Did Nayf recall the lion? Did the recollection affect an energy pulsing in his body, that was like desire and was not desire? A rosy thigh and thick hair and breath of basil with a pulsing energy and her hair and a brown and slender thigh.

199. Moon did not flinch as the palm encircled her nape, the thumb settling on the Adam’s apple, and it did not seem that she was immediately aware of Nayf’s other hand tugging the ponytail down as he returned to his seat beside her, chest-out this time; only, with the thumb’s pressure and her head’s canting back, her voice became strangled till she stopped speaking, then a faint whine was heard followed by panting—her lips clamped tight—as though it did not come from her. And though she did not laugh when he hissed in her ear, “This son of a dog’s religion is your mother’s dad,” it came as no surprise to him that she didn’t resist. “Your mother’s dad… daughter of a whore.” He was bringing his face up to hers so that his forehead settled on her nose, as if to crush it. And she was pressing her lips together ever more violently, her breath was drawing closer while her knees parted little by little, further and further.

200. Recalling a gathering of the Crocodiles which took place weeks before that night I can almost hear Nayf, cackling derisively at a scene of a masked man flogging two pale buttocks, all that showed of a woman straitjacketed in steel and black leather, on the Internet. How, then, was his thumb now on the verge of sinking an Adam’s apple into the throat of a girl kneeling on phosphorescent plush? Later, Moon will tell him that the marks left by his hands and teeth, if she had seen or heard of them on any other girl just a day before that night, would have filled her with disgust.

201. “And yet,” she will go on, with that sour grin of hers which scattered the beauty from her face “it seems I like abuse and caveman stuff. With you, baby, I’ve found what I deserve.”

202. In 2001, and up till now perhaps, in our conception of civilization—Nargis and Saba’s conception, Moon’s conception, of civilization—the sweetness of sex was incompatible with physical violence. Especially when the violence came from a man and was directed towards a woman, we viewed it as nothing more than an unnuanced machismo exercising its unreconstructed masculinity; it never occurred to one of us that it might be probing psychological depths quite unrelated to any worldview blowing in from behind the buffalo. Power, possession and absolute loyalty—unlike “self-development”—were things we distanced ourselves from with all our might. A man beating a woman to arouse himself or her would mean he raped her, subjugated her body, something that repelled us to the utmost degree. Yet we needed violence more than anything. Perhaps this need for violence—our need to feel the power of possession and a desire for an absolute loyalty to justify our lives, for the temptation to recreate some person in the world other than ourselves—perhaps this was what set Nayf in motion and set loose in his body an energy that resembled desire, yet was not, or not just.

203. So it was, that when she did not part her lips as they made contact with his mouth, which had suddenly grown wet, he did not hesitate to lick them then bite them harder and harder until he was barely stopping himself from drawing blood. And after her hands came to rest beneath his shoulders on the pretext of pushing him away—she wasn’t pushing him but pulling him in, planting her fingers through the back of the T-shirt and into his ribs—Nayf was astonished at himself for the savagery with which he bit Moon, cheek and neck, after lowering the dress from her shoulders and, pulling off her bra, likewise on her breast.

204. Her breast, in size and shape: a lemon; but the nipple is black and very large, a charcoal knuckle, and when his teeth encircle it at the root as though to nip it off—I mean the nipple—it’s owner will open wide her lips for the first time and her basil scent will blend with something between pepper and smoke and she will not make a sound. As though the whine that came from her before signified a resistance now broken in the face of a more profound and authentic pain; precisely as though the pain was (and leaving aside what we’d repeat among ourselves, Paulo, Nayf and I, that a person who’d lost pleasure or despaired of it must cling to pain as the only way to feel alive… As I write, in this moment, about myself, I believe that what keeps me alive, confronted by reports of parliamentary elections ongoing since November, is the pain of those twitching on the asphalt after inhaling gas, of those struck by bullets in their eyes, of those stampeding from the scourge of billyclubs and electric cables… The pain, that biting light in whose absence no one perceives a thing); as though the pain was, for Moon, the key to a locked door behind which lay her truth, which she would never confess except in jest or without conviction—all her lies were in the mirror—and which, consequently, she could not express with any sound whatever.

205. I see him slapping her seriously this time then, while circling her until he stands behind her as she kneels, twisting her arms behind her with one hand and with the other pulling off her underwear then lowering his clothes to enter her as though ramming a plank of wood into a wall cavity—all this in a single movement, like lightning—and he finds her wet and easy—as I was not to find her, at first—and leans over her back all overlain with gleaming chestnut hair to breathe in the smoke and pepper and search for a trace of basil, which draws further and further away amidst a throbbing pressure, only to return damply with her panting.

206. Then, as Nayf leans over Moon’s back, he will sink his hands into the curve of her flesh and yank her bunched hair, scour it, then insert his whole thumb into her anus to lift her sex towards him and will reach out his hand to mash her nipple between two fingers then fall to smacking her rump again. And with the resolve of a saint tortured by Romans on the shore of the Red Sea, she will keep holding back from crying out—not a sound except her faint pants broken, despite herself, by eruptions of a lowing or braying she struggles to cut off—until the moment that her small brown body quakes, spasm after spasm, having pulled her arms from his grasp and settled on all fours, writhing in what resembles a fit, a freshly-slaughtered panther, biting the green plush as he looms upright then kneels upon the sofa’s edge, his feet still on the living room floor.

207. The oblivious body. Which solicits a violence it did not know it wanted. Which offers up a sacrifice to something other than what constitutes living in Egyptian society. Far from ideas of sin and transgression, but far, too, from holding to any principle, no matter how straightforward and true the principle might be. The body, which I, Gear Knob, knew as boisterous, tyrannical for all its triviality, and in which I got to know The Crocodiles’ full stink, in one go; maybe Nayf intuited from her silence beneath this pain the truth of its moans. And forgot the lion. As he withdrew from Moon and left her bundled on the couch, still erect himself, yet to come—as he hurried to his bedroom to fetch two scarves and a fat candle in the shape of an apple—perhaps he forgot that a flesh and blood lion had been tormenting him for weeks.

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Catch 25

The (un)culture of (in)difference: a family reunion

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At a recent family gathering, someone happened to mention the case of Albert Saber: the 25-year-old proponent of atheism who had been tried and convicted for online “defamation of religion”.

        Albert’s case had begun as an instance of Muslim zealotry “coming to the defence of Allah and His messenger” against “offending” statements from (so far, mostly, foreign or Christian) unbelievers—before being taken into custody, the young man was brutishly mobbed at his house; his mother was later physically assaulted—a tendency that long predates “the second republic” ushered in by the revolution of 25 January, 2011 but enjoys unprecedented official and legal cover under the present (pro-)Islamist regime.

        Despite its sectarian roots, such populist persecution of the irreligious has the blessing of the Coptic Orthodox Church, which is both extremely conservative and non-confrontational. Evidently it is no longer safe to be secular in Egypt regardless of official religious affiliation or actual degree of secularism.

        So much so that many Internet-active writers—not excluding this one—are increasingly concerned about some Islamist-sympathetic party purposely misreading political, social or creative remarks of theirs on social networks and filing a complaint about their “apostasy” that results in custody, interrogation or, as in Albert’s case, a court-issued jail sentence.

        Not that there was any lack of such “lawful” politicking under Mubarak, but seculars could in theory count on the regime, unlike “society”, being more or less on their side. Even that is no longer the case.

        The process is neither systematic nor efficient enough to compare to the Inquisition or to well-known 20th-century witch hunts like McCarthyism—which, by “enlightened” cyber activists, it has been—but process and ongoing it remains. And what is worrying about it is society’s readiness to endorse its operation, not just through encouragement or active participation but, more importantly, through silence.

        If not for that chance remark about “the young man called Albert”—uttered in a casual, mildly sympathetic tone—I might never have found out just how zealous members of my own family can be. The conversation, to which I had already decided not to contribute, was abruptly cut short when another relation retorted, “People who insult religion are no heroes; it’s a good thing there are laws being implemented in this country.”

        Though she was literally shaking as she said this, said relation wasn’t looking at anybody in particular; so she can’t have seen my wide-eyed face. Since the moment I was forced to turn to her, however, disbelief has brought on all sorts questions. A week or so and a half dozen or so incidents later, the most apparently disparate things seem suddenly connected.

***

October evokes the only victory against Israel the Arabs have claimed since 1948—on the 6th, in 1973. It also evokes the assassination of President Anwar Sadat (who, having won the war, went on to instigate a much reviled peace process): the work of Islamist radicals in the army who made use of a commemorative parade at which he was present eight years later to the day. Fresher than any other, however, October brings back the memory of the killing of some 30 protestors at a large pro-Coptic demonstration in Maspero, by both army troops and pro-SCAF “honourable citizens”, on the 9th and 10th last year.

***

At the time of “the Maspero massacre”, it was not yet clear that the Islamist orientation—one of whose principal problems in Egypt is anti-Christian sectarianism—would be synonymous with power. Protests that drove Mubarak to step down on 11 February 2011 had been instigated by young seculars, and the post-25 January fight of the almost two-year-long transitional period was against a nominally secular military establishment.

        One YouTube video from the aftermath of Maspero, however, highlights some rather obviously sectarian sentiments common not only to Islamists and supposedly anti-Islamist armed forces but also to the kind of civilian to whom SCAF tended to address itself, and whose best interest SCAF supposedly had at heart.

        The video shows a young officer boarding a military vehicle near Maspero, in the wake of the killing spree that involved armoured vehicles literally crushing unarmed protesters’ heads, among other grotesqueries.

        It is clear the officer is in a state of excitement as he turns to address a small group of people who have crowded round the vehicle. Braggingly, he explains how he killed one protester with a single shot; the “honourable” mob heartily cheers. Neither Muslim Brothers nor Salafis are anywhere near.

        Honourable citizens already fed up with protests and demonstrations of every kind—partly incited to come to the defence of “their army” against “marauding Copts” by overzealous pro-SCAF state television—had gone out bearing impromptu weapons in what was truly painfully evocative of a pogrom.

        Little wonder, then, that during the parliamentary elections held within weeks of the event, the sectarian underpinnings of parties like Freedom and Justice and Al Nour ensured their ascendency, partly through propaganda to the effect that “liberal” competitors were actually in the employ of sectarian Christian powers.

        By the time the presidential elections took place, the picture was considerably more complex: pro-revolution forces had become obsessed with eliminating what was called “military rule”, which dated back not to Mubarak’s rise to power but to the July Revolution of 1952. In their blind keenness that “civilian governance” should finally replace the 60-year-old dictatorship, they had wittingly or unwittingly handed over what political weight they carried to the Islamists.

        With greater structural/logistical resources and a clearer message (about Islam, or “honour”), the two potential presidents who finally reached the runoffs were Mubarak’s last prime minister, himself a former military man, and the Muslim Brotherhood candidate; rather than endorsing the boycott campaign that had already started but would prove ineffectual, “revolutionaries” automatically opted for the latter.

***

Events have been escalating considerably since President Morsi took office just over 100 days ago, aided and abetted by the kind of apathy that had allowed Mubarak to stay in power for three decades, arranging for his son to succeed him, while opposition reduced to “the Islamist threat” and an increasingly Islamised society shed every last vestige of morality, competence or vision. Creative and intellectual pursuits are one thing, but conservatism, superficial religiosity and moral duress—all arguably symptoms of that same apathy—are the only qualities of mind widespread and consistent enough across society to be called “contemporary Egyptian culture”. From children charged with tearing pages out of the Quran in Upper Egypt to armed attacks on and the forced displacement of Christians in Rafah—irrespective of the increasingly silly discourse of “national unity”— sectarian persecution seems accordingly underway.

***

Most recently, less than a week ago in Faqous, near Zagazig, an 18-year-old Banha University student and her boyfriend—both Muslim—were arrested on charges that include “denying the existence of God”, under the same defamation-of-religion law used to prosecute Albert Saber, which was almost never invoked under Mubarak but since Morsi came to power has been very frequently (ab)used.

        Identified simply as B. R. A. in the press (presumably for her own protection), the girl was officially detained after her mother—a pharmacist educated in the great post-independence universities of “the nation”—reported her to the authorities, requesting that she should undergo a virginity test in a move that recalled one of SCAF’s more notorious abuses of female demonstrators during the transitional period.

        As it later transpired during questioning, said mother, with appropriately zealous help from B. R. A.’s brother and maternal uncle, had reportedly attempted to poison B. R. A. because of the girl’s outrageously unorthodox views.

        The culprit herself was happy to share those views with the police (and, insane as I must be, they don’t sound very criminal to me): that there is nothing wrong with premarital sex so long as contraception is used, that hijab is a bad idea, that atheism makes sense…

        Far from the Chorus of artists and intellectuals screamingly mournfully at the straight-faced lies of fanatics-turned-politicians back in Cairo, it is in a tragedy like this—with a provincial setting and non-privileged protagonists—that concepts of the modern state, the social contract and citizenship rights are put to the test.

        B. R. A., I feel, deserves infinitely more respect than thousands of young women who, in the safe havens of an urban upper middle class, can afford to think of hijab (or premarital virginity, or faith) as a matter of personal choice a la Western multiculturalism, recognising neither its ubiquity and sectarian-misogynist functions nor the fact that not choosing it can totally ruin lives.

        Ideally, the state must protect a young woman like B. R. A. from abuses to which she is already subject in her family home, let alone society at large; at the very least, to be called a modern state at all, it must refrain from adding a legal/official dimension to the social/cultural machinery that victimises her.

        Not that the state ever did so under Mubarak, of course, but the regime’s ostensible conflict with Islamists arguably made it harder for the powers that be, however zealously Muslim, to express “honourable” sentiments against freedom of belief as such.

        For me and many like me, the right and freedom of B. R. A. to live safely as she chooses were precisely what 25 January was about.

        That 25 January should have legitimised and brought on greater formalistion of the objectively deplorable norms whereby B. R. A. is denied any such right or freedom on the pretext of the law or the majority, social consensus or the greater good, prompts just the kind of disbelief with which, during that fateful family gathering, I ended up looking at my female relation who was keen on Albert Saber being punished for his blasphemies.

***

It would be beside the point to say that individual verbal attacks—whether from Muslims or non-Muslims—cannot be reasonably said to undermine a belief system-cum-former civilisation as solid and established as Islam. It would be equally irrelevant to say that it is the Muslims’ own anachronisms and hypocrisies—not to mention their violence against non-Muslims—that have generated worldwide (including George W. Bush-style/Crusader) Islamophobia. Combined with the grassroots/populist tendency of Egyptians to deny difference and punish those who fail to conform, “Islam” (and, indeed, Coptic Christianity) in the context of contemporary Egypt tends to reduce to a young man or woman being collectively sacrificed for speaking their mind while old, unremarkable Muslim Brothers replicate the roles of Mubarak and his retinue. You would’ve thought this was enough reason for the champions of 25 January, whether “revolutionary” or “oppositional”, to be wary of the consequences of the Muslim Brotherhood replacing the military godhead founded by Nasser in 1952, of which Mubarak, his two predecessors and SCAF were all avatars.

***

Catch 25: a situation in which, given a choice between the regime you revolted against and political Islam, you really have no choice at all.

        Which brings us to the limits of democratic process in a country where mass political choices reflect quasi-tribal affiliations—and what bigger tribe to win elections and enjoy the attendant benefits, regardless of how undemocratic it may be at bottom, than the one that panders to the hysterics of that relation of mine, the barbarism of Albert Saber’s detractors or the sheer evil insanity of B. R. A.’s mother—all of which find ready justification and effective expression in the conservative religiosity of the kind of “civil state with an Islamic frame of reference” envisioned by the Brotherhood.

        This is the culture to which, as an Egyptian intellectual here and now, I must be party. This is the culture that “seven thousand years of civilisation and three great pyramids” actually refers to—not the novels of Naguib Mahfouz or the songs of Om Kolthoum (neither of whom is looked on very favourably by Islamists anyway), much less the contract that is supposed to bind citizens to the society in which they live through the mediation of a benevolent or at least neutral state apparatus that allows people to believe what they will and adopt the lifestyle they choose.

        It will take far more than “toppling the regime” to change that culture. It will take much more than politics to bring about an Arab Spring.

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?
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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…
To a pro-Islamist majority of the constituency—and it is irrelevant whether or to what extent that majority confuses political Islam with the Rightful Creed—the Talaat Harb rally would have been anathema. Comparatively tiny in numbers though they remain, Intellectuals promote practices and ideas that Islam in its present-day formulations will tend to reject. So, for example, where an actress who already subscribes to the pre-Islamist censorial strictures of a seemingly forever “conservative society” may talk about a slightly skimpy outfit being necessary for the role, the post-Islamist TV viewer vindicated by the rise to power of the Muslim Brotherhood or the Ikhwan—so much so that, clean-shaven all through the almost two year long transitional period and before, he now has the moustache-less beard prescribed by stricter schools of orthodoxy—will talk about nudity, depravity, iniquity and hellfire.
And it was exactly such discourse, taken to insolent extremes, that prompted a series of more specifically “artistic sphere” (as in actors’ and singers’) protests in the last few weeks. On a programme he presents, a supposedly respectable Salafi “Islamic scholar” named Abdalla Badr attacked the film star Ilham Shahine for her stand against the rise of political Islam on the religious satellite channel Al-Hafidh, on 20 August. He went so far as to say, addressing the actress, “How many men have mounted you?” prompting outrage in many (including Al-Azhar) circles. Events have centred variously on Shahine being subjected to such audiovisual libel (she has since taken Badr to court), on similar incidents with actresses Nabila Ebeid and Hala Fakhir, and on the legal battle being waged on comedy superstar Adel Imam for several months now. The last seminar, in solidarity with Shahine, took place at the Actors’ Syndicate on 4 September.
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So far, so clear: civil society and its Intellectual vanguard, however conservative or uncultured in their own right—however ineffectively, too, all things considered—are facing up to “the Islamist threat”. The civil-Islamist (or, less euphemistically, the secular-Islamist) fight is no longer avoidable; and its media facet remains important even though it plays out more effectively in the long run in academic and literary circles. (Remember such incidents as the court case that forced the late scholar Nasr Hamid Abu-Zeid to leave the country, the attack on Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz’s life, and the several legal “crises” over Ministry of Culture publications, all of which were eventually taken out of circulation. Remember that such incidents—together with the unprecedented spread of hijab and other overtly sectarian phenomena—all happened under Mubarak, at a time when Islamists were not only not in power but also subject to persecution.) Now that the political underdog of yesteryear has far more leverage to attack this year’s underdog-in-the-making, the battle lines would seem to be clearly marked; someone like Shahine looks like a victim of misguided religious extremism.
Yet to a wider pro-25 January (2011) majority—one that definitely includes some of those protesting against “the Ikhwanisation of the state” on the evening of 23 August—by now much “civil” politicising is, rightly or wrongly but perhaps more rightly than wrongly, identified with the pre-25 January political status quo. Whether because liberal and leftist forces are incompetent or because the religiosity of the constituency prevents them from building support bases, as was so painfully evident on 24 August, the only political players willing to oppose political Islam are those “remnants of the fallen regime” who had directly or indirectly benefited from the Mubarak system. (That Islamists too are “remnants”, perhaps the worst kind, is not a widely accepted idea however true.)
With a few notable exceptions, the “artistic sphere” in particular was largely against the revolution whose “legitimacy” the Ikhwan have practically inherited, aided by those “revolutionary” forces who had no support among “the people”. Adel Imam was seen insulting the Tahrir protesters on TV before Mubarak stepped down. Ilham Shahine repeatedly called for the brutal suppression of protests even as protesters were being murdered under SCAF; she openly lamented the age of freedom that the revolution put an end to. But more generally, the Intellectual fails to see the connection between the religiosity and conservatism of society at large and political Islam’s hold on that society. Such deference to the sect embraces not only the Intellectual vanguard (the phenomenon of the female film star who retires after taking hijab, or the Nasserist activist who supports “the resistance”) but also the revolution itself.
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It is this issue—the Intellectual failing to represent a society susceptible to “extremism” and consequently being implicated with corrupt and autocratic (but, until Mursi was elected president, still nominally “civil”) power—that summarises the conundrum of the role of culture in Egypt. The futility of culture as a line of defence against anything at all was further illustrated on 6 August, when “a delegation” of mainstream arts figures including Imam met with Mursi at the presidential palace to discuss recent tensions with Islamists. Typically of any Egyptian official before or after the revolution, Mursi provided the requisite “reassurances”, speaking against the “satellite sheikhs” who insult artists and affirming the role of culture in “the civilisation of nations”. There is no reason on earth to believe that a president whose rise to power has entirely depended on Islamists will actually do anything to support “art” against “extremism”; and it is easy to conclude that what the delegation was doing was to actually offer a pledge of allegiance to the new powers, the better to be under their protection in the same way “artists” were under Mubarak’s.
What the delegation said to Mursi, even as it included complaints about the attacks to which female actresses in particular have been subject, would seem to support this thesis. Imam, for example, pointed up the role of “art” in dealing with “social issues”, not only denying past statements of his own but also no doubt alluding to the totally meaningless dose of moralistic preaching often included in otherwise profoundly immoral mainstream films, plays and TV serials. The actor best known for presenting the most searing attacks on Islamists under Mubarak thus implicitly offers to use what popularity he has left to polish the image of Egypt’s Islamist rulers. So much for the Intellectual…
Culture that negotiates a marginal space with power—like culture that speaks for “the people” as an undifferentiated mass, without genuine representative authority—will not promote enlightenment or choice. It will promote an increasingly repressive status quo. Defending so called freedom of creativity, for example, makes little sense in the acknowledged absence of freedom of belief. The kind of art that builds civilisation, whose audience is admittedly very small in Egypt, requires not a presidential decree but a vision of reality where slogans like “Islam is the answer” can only take up the peripheral role they deserve. But perhaps culture is less about commercial films and patriotism—less about experimental theatre, prose poetry and contemporary art—than about a perspective on reality that gradually, slowly and (in the Egyptian context) inevitably through non-official channels, reaches enough private lives to shape the public.
Perhaps the mistake we make about culture is ignoring its original meaning of a way of life and a system of values, values that—all things considered, at this historical juncture—political Islam must be seen to undermine.

Scribo ergo sum

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On New Year’s Eve, one completes another book (yes, the speaker is an author of books). One knows it will probably be published, possibly even translated to a language more literarily alive than Arabic. Yet, though one has wholly lost faith in the so called intellectual community since the so called revolution, one expects little interest on the part of the general public — in itself a contentious construction, “the general public”, but this is not the point. Even in that better world of intellectual vitality, of profit-making publishers and many-storied bookshops, of faces glued to highbrow paperbacks on the Metro, what one has written will at best remain marginal and exotic, a taste of the Third World, an object of anthropological rather than literary interest (could this explain the fact that otherwise intelligent critics in the Anglo-American world have used terms like “great Egyptian author” to describe the barely literate writer of predictably “best-selling” fictionalised tabloid journalism?)

Such peremptory disappointment has nothing to do with the content of the book completed, alas. Never mind the fact that books which sell are usually more stupid than those which don’t — even in the aforementioned better world. It would actually be satisfying to have a space, any space in which, after writing and publishing something, you faced serious censure of ideas expressed or style of expression, a space in which any attention at all was paid literature for its own sake — not as part of the increasingly complex glorified PR that forms the substance of so much “intellectual” activity in the Arab world. As it is no such space exists even in private, where a given “intellectual” will typically have too much to read and too little time beyond that dedicated to the kind of lucrative sucking-up-cum-backstabbing that goes for journalism and/or academia. In this year of our Lord what you have is a minister of culture highly keen on cowing in to “Islamist pressures” before such pressures have even been exerted, a bunch of die-hard pedagogues-to-be choking on the word “revolution”, and a self-sustained, English language-powered fantasy of “the emerging Arab literary scene” in which talentless women, complacent shit-stirrers and prehistoric ideologues, not to mention bland imitators of the writing of past decades, frenziedly elbow each other out of what little shelf space is available for “Arabic literature in translation” outside the mainstream markets, up to and including all manner of prizes awarded if not through nepotism then arbitrarily.

On New Year’s Eve — by facing up to the Lie that is Arabic literature on the Arab bookshelf — one is reminded, again, of the fact that one completes a book neither for an audience nor for a peer nor even a translator but for that rare specimen: the like-minded literate Arabic-speaker eager to be part of that old epistemological exercise, eminently enjoyable but never easy, of trying to make sense of the world through words. One willingly gives up none of the attendant benefits — publication, translation, PR or even awards — but it is for that rare thing, the Arabic reader, that one endeavours to share what one is proud to have accomplished.

THREE POEMS AND A PHOTO

Obituary

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Anis Mansour and the Intellect of Consent

With the death of Anis Mansour (1925-2011) of pneumonia last Friday, one significant image of the Egyptian intellectual comes crashing down. It may be crass to speak in any but the most admiring terms of a man just deceased: a lively mind initially devoted to philosophy, which he briefly taught at Ain Shams University after graduating from Fouad I (Cairo) University in 1947. But his fascination is such that a critique of his career, on its folding, gives invaluable and timely insight into what his generation would have called, without irony, the cultural life of the nation.

A confirmed geek from his time at the village kuttab (where provincial toddlers started their education, learning the Quran by heart), he extracted praise all through secondary school and university and had no difficulty finding work and (soon enough) an aristocratic, well-heeled wife.

After 1950, when he started a lifetime career with Al Ahram, he became an extremely prolific producer of journalism (sometimes fictionalised, often in the form of travel writing: fat books on subjects as disparate as the Arab-Israeli conflict and UFOs never prevented him from coming up with a daily column for decades on end). Like his initial employers at Akhbar Al-Yom, the Amin brothers, he managed to ingratiate himself with whoever oversaw his work despite coming into his own at a historical juncture when, it would seem, a writer would have had to take sides. A philosopher-turned-newspaperman, he also became a public figure and a literary and intellectual authority, which no doubt he wanted; his weak protestations regarding a career that forced him away from literature should not be taken seriously. But here is the crux:

As a man of letters who grew famous prior to the audiovisual explosion, Anis Mansour was probably the last true household name in literature. But today few beyond the barely literate and the ultra-mainstream have any interest in Anis Mansour.

This is what makes the example of Mansour interesting in the wake of what was, more than a revolution as such, a collective moment of reckoning and a horribly overdue update of the socio-political software driving “national” hardware. It is a paradox that seems perversely typical, somehow: that the only surviving intellectual known outside intellectual circles should have been, for three or four decades, the least relevant to intellectual life. Perhaps thinking about why that is the case can spotlight an aspect or two of Egyptian culture in the time between June 1953 and January 2011: the first life cycle of the so called independent republic.

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To look at Mansour’s CV is, of course, to trace a trajectory of success: a path of upward mobility crowned, past any number of official and semi-official awards, posts and honours, by a close personal friendship with the third president of the republic, Anwar Sadat. Also known as the Believer President because, in line with CIA policy during the Cold War, he endorsed political Islam as a bulwark against socialism, pan-Arab nationalism and opposition to peace with Israel, Sadat was a kind of early homegrown Neocon operating, especially after the October War of 1973, as absolute autocrat. How an avowed existentialist (a la Sartre) and symbol of secular liberalism could be this man’s advisor, confidante and speech writer is unclear.

For nearly two decades until Nasser died in 1970, past the establishment of the one-party police state and the Six Day War, Mansour had never so much as questioned “Nasserism”; under what was evidently a more sympathetic dictatorship which, without reversing the machinery of centralism and repression, virtually institutionalised corruption and greed, what did he contribute to national consciousness for the next ten years, until Sadat was killed by the very monster he created?

“Nothing” may be harsh and unfair, but it is possible to see the contradiction between Mansour’s principles and his practises as an instance of a much more predominant trope in Egyptian culture: the tendency to confuse pragmatism with opportunism, placing writing and thinking – down to moral questions – outside the frontiers of the real. Except for the kind of dogmatic political affiliation Mansour avoided – arguably in itself a sublimation of religiosity – few intellectuals ever got past the position of the parent who, while encouraging their son to practise his literary or artistic hobby, insisted that he should have a “real job” and, failing that, measured his accomplishment in the arts by the money and kudos said hobby could bring him, not by consistency, rigour or beauty. In a centralised police state money and kudos would always depend on consent.

In a way Mansour was the perfect candidate for a “realistic” career in the arts. Though always solid, by aesthetic and intellectual standards, his writing is seldom compelling. It is derivative and diffuse, lightweight, loquacious; all breadth and no depth. Euphemistically described as “encyclopaedic”, his intellect is in fact noncommittal, which is precisely how he could be, in the same breath, a liberal secularist and an agent of Sadat’s quasi-theocracy. As per the dictates of his modest provincial background, he deferred to older writers like Abbas Mahmoud El-Aqqad regardless of the substance of their discourse, never daring to open up a discursive space.

Like any number of writers since the mid-20th century, Anis Mansour wanted – and got – access to “the people”, but having paid the price (becoming part of the establishment), he ended up having little to say to them, far less than the intellectually retarded theocrat (and dissident) Sheikh Kishk, another star of the Sadat era, who had a famous scuffle with Mansour over whether or not Egypt Air should serve alcohol. Mansour could only engage those of them who were literate and open-minded enough to read his column in aimlessly rambling conversation, providing what many see as little more than vaguely learned distraction – part of the production line of a media machine which, though not yet as dysfunctional as it would become under Mubarak, was already expert at manufacturing consent in the absence of ideology.

Mansour’s last column for Al Ahram, written in the context of 25 January, seems to recognise or acknowledge the mirror image of success which makes up so much of his contribution, blessing a task he never took upon himself: “There may come a time when you are incapable of staying injustice, but there must come a time to protest that.”

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Ars Poetica-1

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Let us not mention names: Some time before the transformation that almost happened six months ago in Egypt, a Ministry of Culture poetry journal decided to append a booklet of prose poetry to one of its issues. I am not sure when exactly, but this journal was once prestigious. Or so at least the prose poets who were excited to be included in the selection believed.

They spoke of effort and legitimacy, of belated gratitude, of being recognized by the establishment. They accused each other of stealing “ideas for poems”, to maximize their chance of being featured. They reiterated their usual laments about the general public being too ignorant and underdeveloped to appreciate their talent. It sounded as if they were about to achieve all that they had ever lived for.

Like much about the Ministry of Culture, however, by the time it decided to celebrate prose poetry the prestigious journal in question had long fallen into a state of zombification, barely even pretending to act as the high-brow beacon of poetic vitality it was supposed to be.

It pandered to more or less extinct tastes, forwarded the reactionary agenda of its editor in chief (whose foaming-at-the-mouth tirades against the validity of prose as a medium for poetry had made his name synonymous with Last Verse Dinosaur) and, because it eschewed the most successful poetry being written for the last two decades — i.e., prose poetry — it was hardly ever read.

That did not matter much to the poets being featured: those of them who were unduly enthusiastic about the prospect, I mean. What mattered was — this was the prestigious Ministry of Culture poetry journal…

Unlike lowest-common-denominator, low-brow “political” verse, it is true, prose poetry is only popular with a very small, “specialized” readership. That is because technical archaicness combined with ideological polemics has proved to be the only winning brew with the general public — but not archaicness combined with intellectual pretension!

That latter brew, as events would demonstrate, found repulsively unethical expression in the person of the same journal’s managing editor, a younger species of dinosaur, who with much misleading fanfare commissioned the prose-poetry supplement, only to turn around and cry, once the booklet appeared — and in the very same issue’s editorial — What a load of rubbish! Do you now see that I only published it the better to expose it to your subtly sublime sensibilities.
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