The Atlantic: Requiem for a Suicide Bomber

Reflections on the meaninglessness of terrorism in post-Arab Spring Egypt: Feb 18 2014, 11:31 AM ET

In early October, a suicide bomber affiliated with Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis drove his car through several checkpoints in the southern Sinai city of El-Tor, pulled up at Egyptian security headquarters, and detonated his explosives, killing three policemen. A month later, the Sinai-based jihadi group identified the attacker as Mohammed Hamdan al-Sawarka, in a haunting video that also included images of crackdowns by Egyptian security forces and footage of Egypt’s Anwar Sadat and Israel’s Menachem Begin making peace alongside Jimmy Carter. “I only decided to do the mission for the victory of the religion of God and to revenge our brothers, the mujahideen, against the infidels and tyrants,” al-Sawarka declared. Three months later, and three years after the fall of Hosni Mubarak, the swell of militancy that has afflicted Egypt since the overthrow of Mohammed Morsi is only getting worse. What follows is a letter from Egyptian writer Youssef Rakha to the young assailant behind the fatal attack in El-Tor.

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In the Name of the Father

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My father did not live to see 9/11. I don’t know what he would have thought of the so called war on terror, let alone the equally so called Arab Spring. Though not particularly old, he was frail and muddled by the time he died—flattened out by decades of depression, isolation and inactivity.
I think of him now because the trajectory of his views seems relevant to 25 Jan. From a Marxist intellectual in the fifties and sixties—a member of a group that could transcend its class function to effect change, he became a liberal democrat in the eighties and nineties—an individual who had a common-sense opinion on current affairs regardless of his beliefs. In retrospect I think the reason for this change of heart had to do with a certain kind of honesty or transparency: at some point he must have realized that to be proactive was to be caught in a lie (the lie of independent nation building, of the dictatorship of the fellahin, of Islamic renaissance…), a lie for which not even an unhappy life was worth risking.
In a sense, while the outbreak of protests on 25 Jan and the collective determination that they should have tangible results amounted to that rare thing—a moment of truth in modern Arab history—events since 11 Feb 2011 have borne evidence of just how much of a lie Arab politics had been since colonial times, and how peripheral the truth must remain to society even after the revolution “triumphed”.
Where history is concerned, truth evidently cannot stand up to the lie. The truth of a predominantly young population with no need for identity-related hangups, who want money, sex, and space in which to express themselves and be productive, for example: such truth will not be articulated politically in the foreseeable future; and likewise the lie of an oppositional Islam with a vision for development or concern for the people: its being exposed, even repeatedly, will not stop society from behaving as if it were true.
A year ago on Tuesday the result of the referendum on constitutional amendments proposed by SCAF and embraced by the Muslim Brotherhood—an unequivocal yes—effectively bracketed the “revolution” in time. It shifted the emphasis away from rights gained through protests (including the right to protest) to a reshuffling of the power structure via an indefinite “transition” whose purpose has been to restore and/or sustain a status quo that had—more often than not, by invoking an overriding sense of identity—systematically denied people those same rights.
The vote, however disastrous it is now judged to be, established the population’s willingness to cement the two bulwarks of corrupt—incompetent—conservatism: fascist-flavored religious authority and arbitrary military power; the very culturally articulated nepotism, rarefied inferiority complex, and xenophobia that had reduced the project of an independent nation guarding Arab-Muslim identity under Nasser to a client state riddled by poverty and Wahhabism under Mubarak. With the regime’s logistical powers deployed in Brotherhood-held voting blocs, “democracy” could quickly abort what opportunity for change had been generated, fueled by blood. And it became easy from then on to involve well-meaning political players in endless lost battles of the vote, even as their comrades were being killed at protests and defamed on “pro-25 Jan” TV.
In the wake of 25 Jan, a conscious or unconscious alliance between devout and patriotic sentiments, whether honest or hypocritical, thus became the truest expression of the lie. It not only exiled the truth, it also forced sincere champions of change to adopt more or less peremptory discourses divorced from the reality of “the people” while, consciously or unconsciously, elements of dissidence that had worked to dissipate and obstruct the effort to gain basic rights on the ground were reintroduced:
Once again “politics” is not about the right to live but about the Palestinian cause, the struggle against “American-Israeli empire”, the notion of collective as opposed to individual dignity. In this sense the “revolutionaries” have ended up echoing generations of “the opposition” whose isolation rendered them so ineffective they could be safely ignored and/or co-opted by the regime, themselves eventually becoming part of the lie.

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Graffiti showing the pro-yes sign for the 19 March referendum—”say yes for faster stability”—and asking, “Is it stable yet?”
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I think of my father now because his change of heart regarding the role of the intellectual in Arab history reflects my own regarding the Arab Spring: from far-fetched faith in improving the world to a form of well-meaning resignation or despair, the stance of an interested but stationary observer.
Thanks in part to the pace of life in the electronic age, the story of four decades of Egyptian politics—from the fifties to the nineties—was reenacted almost in its entirety in the space of a single year, from March 2011 to March 2012: after mass protests generate hope for a freer society, “patriotism” is instantly co-opted by a military junta that proves more repressive than the “fallen regime”; quasi-socialist sloganeering eventually gives way to ruthless capitalism in the garb of “Islamic” quasi-democracy; and the need for development is subordinated to the perpetuation of (religion- and military-based) power…
I wonder if my father’s experience left him as cold as mine has left me; I wonder if, by the end of his life, he felt as existentially disconnected, politically denuded, and socially paralyzed. Somehow, he maintained his compassion: his stoic insistence on dressing like a worker and only using public transport, for example, coupled by a strange delight in engaging working-class people in a debate among peers.
In this and other ways his complete rejection of the role of the patriarch belied his middle-class provincial origins and his aspiring-politician career path as a law graduate of the fifties. Evidently he could be anything but a patriarch—which is particularly interesting because so much of the psychosocial underpinnings of 25 Jan and its aftermath have reflected that very concept.
Perhaps the lie depends on fathers maintaining the semblance of an order: whatever else has been said in his favor, the most effective defense of Mubarak—which, having stood in the way of a pretend trial, will help to absolve SCAF of the very likely crime that he will be acquitted—was the notion that Mubarak has been a father to Egyptians. What this means in practice is of course very different from what it should mean: a true father, the chief of a tribe or the don of a mafia—the endless, intricate web of mafias that is Egypt—will supposedly care for his children, making their enemies offers they cannot refuse…
But, like so much else in the lie—religious commitment, professional efficiency, national pride—the substance of a given discourse had been so thoroughly subverted that only its surface appearance now mattered: that there should be someone in the haloed place of the father, not that there should be a father as such.
And perhaps that is why I am mistaken about Egyptians, most of whom—unlike me—will have had patriarchal fathers variously implicated in the lie. Perhaps the predominantly young population does have a need for psychosocial hangups connected with their Muslim identity, after all. That hunger for money and sex, which Muslim religiosity in practice by no means forbids: perhaps it is not bound up with any desire for self expression or any obligation to contribute quantitatively or qualitatively to human civilization; those things, after all, require some degree of acknowledgement of the truth; why else is it that individuals who have a common-sense opinion on current affairs regardless of their beliefs—in contrast to venerable sheikhs holding ridiculous keys to paradise, or even Marxist intellectuals playing in the extra time—are so impossibly few?
Watching the news these days, I am often overwhelmed by the sense that my father is communicating with me, reminding me that I should have attempted to a deeper understanding of his change of heart. The lie, he tells me, is much bigger than Mubarak, perhaps even bigger than SCAF and the Muslim Brotherhood combined.

***

Seven years before:

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Satre, my father and me (2005)

When my father’s body gave in at the age of 67, there was no cause of death as such. His health was undoubtedly poorly, he was addicted to a range of pharmaceuticals — but none of the vital organs had stopped functioning. Strangely, my mother and I saw it coming: there were tears on the day, long before we could have known it was happening. And when it did happen, the relief of no longer having to care for a prostrate depressive seemed to justify it. In the next few months there was oblivion. I had felt alienated from his dead body, I saw it wrapped in white cloth, in public, and I thought I was over the fact.

Then, suddenly, a sharp, steely grief was boring into me. Within weeks it had disoriented me so profoundly I could no longer recognise myself. Principally it expressed itself through fear, a fear so primal it rendered the greatest fears of my life ridiculous; and the worst part of it was that it had no object. It didn’t belong in space or time. Only a solitary subject existed, to suffer it. And that subject wasn’t a self I could relate to. For the first time I felt I was getting Jean-Paul Sartre’s point about the self being separate from consciousness. I had read enough to be familiar with the concept, but I hadn’t managed to bring it onto any experiential plane. Then, out of nowhere, everything was making sense: the notion of freedom as an unbearable burden of responsibility, the conflict between imagination and situation in life, and the way in which this could be made to fit in a radical ideological framework.

Much like Baba’s death, it turned out, consciousness had no cause; it was just there, inescapable, a force of nature with its own rules. Where your self is something you might want to define, consciousness is nothing at all. Rather it’s a grief, a fear, capable of transforming you at will, negating you. But besides the self-consciousness dilemma, there was the look Baba gave me a few hours before he died: I was on my way out, I chose not to be with him though I could intuit he would die; and there was something humiliating about this. For the rest of my life I would have to accept being a person who preferred going out to sitting by his father’s deathbed. It was a brief, vacant look — you could argue it meant nothing — but it taught how hell really could be someone else’s eyes.

It would take me years to be able to remember my father without experiencing the abysmal horror of those days, but it seemed natural that I should seek out his own thoughts about Sartre eventually. And not only because it was his death that made existentialism real: however marginal and uncommitted, he remained a member of the generation of so-called intellectuals who engaged with both Marxism and French existentialism. People like Ibrahim Fathi and Yehya El-Taher Abdalla were once his friends, but he only expressed admiration for Saad Zaghloul and Mustafa El-Nahhas (both Pashas); he referred not to 1952 but 1919 as the glorious moment at which Egyptians made a free historical choice. It seemed that, through some warped ideological devolution, he had become a latter-day Wafdi — a “liberal wanker” of the homegrown variety, someone who saw the way out in a small, elitist coterie who believed in fairness, charity and empirical common sense. In 1989 he obsessed about the collapse of the Soviet Union, but never in a plaintive way; more than once he called Gorbachev courageous and commended the principles of perestroika.

I have not been able to locate Abdel-Rahman Badawi’s translation of Being and Nothingness, though I seem to recall him labouring over it. Maybe I’ve invented this memory: in my lifetime he seldom read anything involved, beyond the law books of his profession and some early 20th-century history. Occasionally he would pick up an old favourite like Nikos Kzanzakis’s Freedom and Death and spend months reading and rereading it.

In contrast to his revolutionary adolescence — he himself never recounted it to me — by the time I was old enough to discuss things, he could only adopt a reactionary stance. Very occasionally, he spoke about communist activity in the 1950s. Once, in extremely simple terms, he described how Nasser had managed to either crush or co-opt all those who could have championed “the cause”. It would be easy to link his disillusion to the failure of the July Revolution (for many members of the generation in question, the 1967 War was the moment it all came down), except that he never supported it in the first place. He was always vitriolic about Nasser, emphasising the failures of what he saw as a coup d’etat, and lamenting the way in which the regime turned Egypt into a police state, a mega-community of informers, a madhouse of personal ambition and political suicide. For him Nasser was personally accountable for eliminating all hope for democracy or progress, let alone social transformation. Which hope, in the 1920s, he firmly believed there had been grounds for husbanding. In his all but unique opinion, I think, the Sadat regime, which leftists decry as counterrevolutionary, was but a logical result of the reign of Nasser.

Of the Marxism some things did persist. And I don’t mean the lingo he sometimes sarcastically reiterated or the vast knowledge he must have had, judging by his library, most of which consists of cheap “popular edition” paperbacks. Marxism manifested most prominently in his daily life: as someone who never drove, he refused to acknowledge the advantages of the taxi over the public bus, even when he started coming home with bumps and bruises from attempts to get on and off insanely chaotic, overcrowded vehicles. He was always class-conscious — something that paradoxically emerged in his rejection of the social implications of class: he would treat working-class people as equals; he never managed to cut his subordinates’ salaries or otherwise exercise administrative authority at work; and, in spite of despising his own background — ” petty bourgeoisie”, he always stressed — he tended to share his money with hard-up relations and friends. I think he would have enjoyed being single and poor — a rare virtue indeed for an Arab Marxist. He owned very few things of his own and seldom bought clothes. Perhaps sympathy with the Wafd party was his way of reconciling his personality with the fact that, after much resistance, he had conceded the role of middle-class husband and father, he owned electric appliances and sent his son to expensive educational institutions; he let his wife accumulate savings.

But at the level of the intellect none of this counted. What remained of Marxism in the way of mental activity had, rather, to do with the existentialist principles I came to discover the hard way. I say principles, not practises. For in the end my father’s attachment to Sartre’s notions of freedom and consciousness remained, tragically, a matter of wavering conviction and occasional verbal commentary, not one of personal expression.

His admiration for free love as it manifested in Sartre’s relationship with Simone de Beauvoir, for example, would never go beyond just that, an admiration — something he could only express in conversation, as it were on the margins of life, and towards which, insofar as it belonged to him at all, he could only feel frustration. The same sense of ambivalence permeated his feelings about religion, and even, perhaps, Marx as prophet. To fend off the no doubt stifling awareness of being petty bourgeois, he would place himself in the category of muthaqqafeen (intelligentsia), a group apart who were agents of the transformation towards communist society. He would pronounce the word in a wavering tone, with a mixture of gravity and comic self-awareness; it was as if he realised that, though it meant a lot to him, in the grander scheme of things it meant nothing. And so, too, with his response to my mother’s religiosity, which at the surface level he neither rejected nor endorsed. He was capable of humouring her and others about religion and God — hypocritically, I felt — but at times it seemed he was just as capable of embracing these concepts. His belief in chance as the overriding rule of being in the world, his sense of reality as a place shaped wholly by the radical consciousness of those who chose to change it: all of this turns out, the more I think about it, to be the frail gesture of an isolated and powerless intellect.

Contrary to his political discourse, which centred, with the exception of polemics directed at Nasser, on the evolution of modern Egypt and the beauty of 1919, he made frequent references to Sartre’s contribution. He quoted him, recounted episodes of his novels and plays, remembered his famous visit to Egypt in 1967. With the dispassionate objectivity of an emotionally involved observer, he stated Sartre’s position on Israel. Memorably, he would sometimes mention the way in which a Sartre character fatally injured at war asks the nurse, minutes before he dies, to touch him. Only at the moment of death, Sartre wrote, could imagination (consciousness, being-for-itself) be free of the constraints of situation (self, being-in-itself). And, somewhat in the same vein, at the hospital where they failed to identify a terminal illness (when he was released, none of the doctors thought he would die), Baba developed a desire for the blonde nurse who attended to his needs.

I’ve had to remove my mother’s mattress to dig out the well-kept paperbacks he left behind; the flat was too small to accommodate all the books he owned, and in the wake of his death especially, my mother justifiably resorted to hiding them. Some half of the total number have the word “Sartre”, in Arabic letters, on the cover: The Virtuous Whore, Marxism and Revolution, No Exit, The Flies, What is Literature, The New Colonialism, Critique of Dialectical Mind… Lying in a large cardboard box at the other end of the house, in English, are my own Nausea and The Wall. As I walk from one room to the other, I can’t help noting a kind of inter-generational continuity. But at the same time — it suddenly occurs to me — my interest in French existentialism has nothing to do with his; it is a mere coincidence, a historical accident, that we happen to have this particular thing in common. At a deeper level, I’d like to think, what we do have in common is a tormented consciousness of being in the world, subject to dying suddenly, without a cause.

I might have chosen to stay by his deathbed that fateful evening in 2000. And yet, I reassure myself, he would still have died alone.

Tawfik Okasha and the Amazingly Appalling Atrociousness of the Fellahin

Through the hyperlinks in the text, this piece can turn into an interactive book about life and literature in Egypt

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Since 25 Jan we have had, in addition to the Islamist and official media, Al Fara’een: a satellite political-commentary channel of such irrational and duplicitous orientation I believe it is worse for the health of the average Egyptian than cholesterol. (By the average Egyptian, I mean the relatively sane, minimally rational follower of the news — including those who, out of fear or despair, might actually be opposed to the revolution.)

Initially, few understood what Al Fara’een was about, other than the fact that it was the mouthpiece of unreservedly counterrevolutionary sentiment, purporting to represent the so called Silent Majority: perhaps the greatest lie of all, that silent majority, since while a majority might possibly be against change, silence would make its position irrelevant. Al Fara’een does share many of the views of the Honourable Citizen as SCAF must imagine him, expressing — first and foremost — concern over the Stability of the State, the catchword of the Mubarak regime and all that it stands for: besides culturally articulated incompetence and corruption, in other words, not only stupidity and ignorance but also an astounding capacity to defecate from the mouth. In this sense Al Fara’een is the patron channel of a particularly spurious and/or deluded version of the social as well as the political status quo; in such modes of discourse, where anything we don’t know is suspect though we hardly know anything, and where anyone in any way different from the speaker however otherwise similar deserves instant elimination, whether a statement is spurious or deluded matters little.

Fara’een is the less literate term for the plural of “pharaoh”; and the channel’s owner and principal anchor, former National Democratic Party MP Tawfik Okasha, is the “nationalist” grand Pharaoh of the political landscape Al Fara’een portrays.

Though founded prior to the stepping down of Mubarak, the channel’s sole purpose, as it turns out, is to promote the Okasha for the presidency: a not only implausible but also very insolent ambition, even by pre-25 Jan standards. Patently obvious to anyone with an ounce of anything brain-like, the Okasha is unqualified as president of a reactionary news channel. The Okasha was also one of Mubarak’s least sophisticated and most fawning defenders — which, since 11 Feb, has not prevented it from literally, passionately cursing the father of Mubarak’s mother on air (I say “it” because there are serious questions about whether the Okasha is fully human, or at all). Otherwise it is best known for bending over double to kiss the hand of former information minister Safwat El-Sharif — not only a pillar of the Mubarak regime but also, for decades on end, perhaps the one most notorious for corruption. In the context of the very provincial conventions by which the Okasha itself purports to abide, kissing the hand of another man is of course a sign of extreme submission — unequivocal loss of dignity; aside from a loyal son showing deference to some venerable patriarch, it is something only a grovelling beggar might conceivably do.

Most of Al Fara’een’s air time, aside from Fox News-like patriotism and first-anti-25 Jan-then-pro-SCAF propaganda, consists of the Okasha addressing its nonexistent constituency in the informal and (to use its own word) “mastaba” manner of a well-to-do fellah dictating opinions to a loving, presumably equally non-human gathering of villagers (there is evidence that such creatures do exist, but let’s hope they are no majority). Unlike its oily, accent-less pre-25 Jan image — the one in which it is known to have said, to the word, “I hold President Mubarak sacred” — the Okasha’s present, mastaba-bound demeanour is so utterly like that of a wicked old peasant woman, one with neither the upbringing nor the intelligence to maintain even a veneer of respectability, that it tends to induce laughter more than any other response. But aside from the Okasha being a comic diversion — people laugh at faeces, after all, precisely because it is nauseating — the Okasha poses distressing questions about dignity, reality and the fellahin.

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I first heard of Al Fara’een from a taxi driver with a Limbi-like speech impediment (El Limbi being comedian Mohammad Saad’s alterego, a slum-residing criminal retard). He was explaining to me how it had been proven that Wael Ghoneim, the earliest hero of the revolution, was an American agent bent on destroying the country. Not only was Ghoneim Palestinian-Lebanese and Iranian (i.e. Islamist), he was also Communist, Zionist and Masonic; the so called revolution he and his fellow agents had started was nothing but a global conspiracy to spread chaos, bring over the Americans (as in Iraq), split up the country… “Where did you find out about this?” I asked. “But where else,” he coughed, with a worryingly self-assured grin. “Al Fara’een Channel!”

After this chance encounter I saw Tawfik Okasha on screen for the first time: clip after clip of infuriating and absurd things it had said on Al Fara’een would turn up on Facebook or Twitter; for the longest time, knowing what to expect, I would avoid listening to anything longer than a few minutes — and it always made me physically uncomfortable — an illness. But for some reason the other night I decided to seek the Okasha out, enduring some three hours of it talking on YouTube. I may have developed an immunity, but it was a very edifying exercise.

To some extent, among dishonest quasi-politicians, the Okasha’s “fellahi” attitudes had all been seen under Mubarak: political participation reducing to kissing the right hands the better to be allowed to accumulate assets; political discourse reducing to the occasional, gusty expression of xenophobia, sectarianism or conspiracy theory inconsistent with actual policy-making, the better to play on Honourable Citizen sentiments… But, aside from the fact that they were a byproduct of the complete absence of any but the weakest semblance of political life, such attitudes were considerably more polished; more often than not, they were alloyed with something, anything vaguely recognisable as human. You could dismiss them as part of the institutionalised practice of seeking out private interests at the expense of morality and public welfare, or you could accept them as diehard residues of Nasserist discourse (perhaps even present-day aspects of Islamist discourse). Never and nowhere has dishonest fellahi identity politics taken so clear and concentrated a form as it does in “presidential hopeful” Tawfik Okasha.

I will mention only three of the Okasha’s maneuvers by way of example: based on his Yemeni ancestry, the way in which it took issue with Bilal Fadl, a pro-25 Jan political commentator of impeccable integrity, for being non-Egyptian; its tendency to respond to criticism by a woman with statements to the effect that that woman is a slut; and the fact that it challenged Mohammad ElBaradei — who is a constant reminder to the Okasha of its own dire inadequacy — to tell it how ducks are fed in the Nile Delta before he could qualify as a plausible presidential candidate.

It is always interesting to try and work out the truth in the lie, what motivates an Okasha to tell or be it; and perhaps this is the reason I succumbed to my three hours of exposure to this Okasha. Sadly, while even Mubarak could occasionally muster the appearance of a head of state, for example — the truth of his de facto place in the world, an aspect however ugly of his humanity — the Okasha’s only truth is inferiority. The Okasha does not even have the wherewithal to work its insecurities into anything resembling an ideology (Islamist, Arab nationalist, grassroots essentialist, even straightforward fascist…) Its inconsistency is such it ends up saying nothing beyond, “I am a cowardly, snivelling opportunist of the lowest order, but you will support me because, being a fellah, I am who you are; and we, you and I, are such cowardly, snivelling opportunists we cannot abide change unless we can, in the meanest, least truthful way imaginable, benefit from it — if someone else says we are appalling and atrocious, they are obviously not enough of a cowardly, snivelling opportunist to be a fellah and they must be eliminated. Long live the fellahin!”

It is this, I realise now, that makes the Okasha and its version of fellahi politics so amazing; and it is this that Al Fara’een is about: one looks for a sign of humanity, any indication of the capacity for rationality, pride or fellow feeling. But one finds only it.

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