A testimony from the siege

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The Gaza Spring

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At the time I had Islamist tendencies. I was still a schoolboy when the inqilab happened in 2007. (Thus spoke Amin, which is not his name: 22, author, activist, affiliate of Fateh, lifetime resident of Palestinian Rafah. We spoke on the roof of a mid-range hotel in Gaza City late last week. By inqilab, the accepted term—literally: “overthrow”—Amin was referring to the post-democratic, forcible overtake of power in the Gaza Strip by Hamas. Now I notice that, every time he said “they” in the abstract, “Hamas”, especially its security apparatus in Gaza, was what he meant.) At first they blew up all the security agencies; it’s unclear why, the buildings were empty. But they did. And they arrested everyone who said ‘I am Fateh’: all the militias, of course, but also civil servants, citizens, students…

        We thought it was an overthrow of the Palestinian Authority but it was really an overthrow against Fateh; and it was driven by power hunger… I happened to have relations in Fateh so I could see how they dealt with people. They would give you something called “the acquittal”: ‘Hand over your weapons and you can go, but don’t engage in any activity of any kind whatsoever.’ Sometimes they kept you under house arrest. That was the earliest period. Later President Mahmoud Abbas issued a decision that everyone should stay at home: all the Authority employees. He never called it that but it was a form of civil disobedience—a general strike. Everyone did stay at home, more or less. And so we discovered that they already had a full team of professionals in every field imaginable: security, health, education, everything; it was predictable that they should have security forces since they were a force of the resistance but they turned out to be ready to replace the Authority in every aspect of life.

        The next day people just accepted the situation, with unexpected equanimity. We were thinking there would be explosions or attacks, that life would be disrupted as a result of the sudden substitution—nothing happened. Maybe that was the result of people’s discontent with the Authority, because the Authority was somewhat corrupt even though we had lived well under it and you can tell it wasn’t very repressive by the fact that Hamas, its greatest opposition, was allowed to grow, and grow.

In time I slipped out of the crucible of the Islamists. I had no political interests per se but I decided to question what I had believed about Palestine, and I watched from outside. Eventually I became an organised member of Fateh through friends from university. They told me what was Fateh, who were Fateh. I was convinced; maybe because I’d seen the injustice against Fateh, I liked it. But then I also began to understand what was Oslo which at the mosque, within the crucible, they had taught us was wrong, the way they taught us that Fateh were all Zionized: traitors and apostates.

        I began to understand the meaning of peace, the different forms the struggle could take, things we used to consider haram (or prohibited by God) without thinking. It may be true that many members of Fateh really did collaborate with the Zionist occupation but the way the security-coordination terms of the Oslo agreement were misrepresented and the way you were supposed to dismiss all of Fateh as godless traitors—that was hugely exaggerated and manipulative, a lie. My first ever political activity was to join a gathering commemorating Arafat on the anniversary of his death. On campus. And I was beaten up: Islamist students from a number of universities attacked and cut it short.

        That day I ran away and got on a bus. They stopped it and searched the passengers for the black-and-white kufiya, which they associate with Fateh even though it’s a symbol of Palestine; but I wrapped my kufiya around my torso, underneath my shirt, and I got away. Before that I was neutral—I am not with you, guys, but I’m not against you. Now I am against you. Because something is seriously wrong. We commemorated Abu Ammar (i.e., Arafat) again, and we commemorated Abu Jihad (i.e., Arafat’s comrade in arms, the fidayeen leader and cofounder of Fateh Khalil Al Wazir, who was assassinated in Tunis in 1988); and every time we were subjected to verbal abuse as well as physical attack, and then arrests and summons as well. For a while I even stopped going to university because I was under pressure from my family who didn’t want me involved in any political activity, realising what could happen. So I started reading and finding out about things—what is Hamas, why Hamas, what is Fateh, whatever—and gradually developing an opinion and orientation of my own.

        As I fell on the wrong side of them, in the end, the main question was, Eish fih (or, “What’s wrong?”) We wanted to know where they thought they were taking things, what the purpose of the division was (between the Fateh-dominated Authority and Hamas): what is your issue with peace if you are not waging any resistance? Why do you even have a problem with Fateh if you’re adopting the exact same policy? Eish fih

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First we staged a protest against the closing down of Sharik, which is an NGO for young people and creativity and such; it was closed down on the pretext that prostitution went on in there, and that the activists and artists and civil society developers who worked there were in the employ of Israel. The second time I was arrested was on 29 January 2011, the day after the outbreak of the Egyptian revolution (i.e., Angry Friday, as opposed to the 25 January demonstrations that led to it) when we staged a march in solidarity. I was abused. Not beaten up, just insulted, questioned, told, “You are supporting people who are American agents. And what do we have to do with it anyway?” I was held for four hours.

        The way it happened was they would send you a summons and you would turn up the next day. You were a prisoner of course but you were treated with relative respect. There were no beatings though the questions were extremely personal and probing… They would shoot us with their cameras, and during the questioning they would review the images and if you were sitting next to a girl you would be asked who that girl was and why she was dressed provocatively and, whatever your response, called all sorts of names. Even when you went to Egypt for a holiday—everyone in Gaza spends part of the summer in Egypt—you could be filmed there and questioned about what you were doing on your return. But no matter how hard you try to cooperate with them they never believe what you tell them. That’s what I discovered the first time I was under clear-cut political arrest, on 27 February, 2011, when I was held for two days.

        Already at this point something called the Dignity Revolution has attempted a Fateh overthrow of Hamas. It was a disastrous failure and the suppression was truly stupid, heavy-handed and humiliating; I was among those arrested but I had been interrogated before and they quickly realised I had nothing to do with it… I was arrested again on 11 March and they wanted to keep me till 15 March to prevent me from joining the protests planned for that date, because they believed I could be an influential party. In the end they released me and told me to come back on 14 March before anything happened; I did not, I went to the demonstrations, which on purpose we staged a day earlier than planned.

        Anyway, people who were arrested on those occasions formed the core of the group who staged the 15 March protests last year (i.e., Gaza’s mini-revolution and principal contribution to the Arab Spring, which went almost entirely unreported here as elsewhere); the demonstrations were staged simultaneously in coordination with protests in the West Bank. Our purpose was to end the division; we didn’t care who was to blame, we wanted national unity. It’s clear to me now that a party who stops me from pursuing this aim is a party that’s against national unity, maybe even a party who has a vested interest in Gaza’s isolation considering that goods are smuggled in from Israel despite the siege.

We went out on 14 March. We gave a press conference and announced we would start a sit-in then and there; we wanted to stage a carbon copy of the Egyptian revolution. We had the support of all the political factions including some Hamas figures—Ghazi Hamad and Ahmad Youssef, for example—though at this point we were all in the 18-25 age bracket; no one was older than 25. So we stayed the night of 14 March; we had said that no flags would be raised apart from the Palestinian flag.

        On 15 March the biggest march we had ever seen arrived in buses and they raised flags that were the Palestinian flag on one side, the Hamas flag on the other. When we argued with them they said the shahadah on the Hamas flag could not be dropped, it was the statement of our faith—”There is no God but God, Muhammad is the Messenger of God”—the usual religious discourse, that is.

        In the West Bank it was a slightly different story: after very slight encroachments on the protest, President Abbas ordered the distribution of shawerma sandwiches and drinks to the protesters—I’m sure he was trying to contain the situation but it made him look good.

        So on the spot we invented the slogan: ‘Al katiba ya shabab, khalli ej jundi lal ahzab: “To Katiba, young men. Leave the [Unknown] Soldier to the [political] parties.” Katiba is a spot near the university campuses, which are very close together, while the Unknown Soldier you could say is Gaza’s answer to Tahrir Square. What we didn’t have time to think about was that Katiba was a very bad choice from a security standpoint: it’s very easy to be surrounded and controlled there. Anyway, we headed over to Katiba where we put up posters and slogans to make it clear that we had withdrawn from the protest that was misappropriated by the government. They sent people who told us we had to leave by five pm; we said we were not leaving. People went off to bring over tents and supervisions and transported the stuff we had installed in Unknown Soldier the previous day. All was set for spending the night.

        At seven pm I was standing with a young man with a beard who was raising the Palestinian flag and I was handing him a glass of tea. I was saying, “You want some tea?” and he was saying “Yes”—and the next thing you know is this surge of bearded civilians with sticks. I won’t even pretended they were just ordinary people because we knew some of them and they were Hamas. (Those are virtually identical to the pro-Mubarak and pro-SCAF “honourable citizens” who attacked demonstrators in Cairo.) Anyway, the first person to hit me, across the chest, was the young man I was handing the tea. Afterwards we found out there were many such infiltrators.

        It was like an charge of the Mongols, the most brutish attack you can imagine: beating, insults, abuse of women, even some of our mothers who were there. Some of my friends were so badly hurt they could not move. An activist friend of mine and I escaped and spent the night at a friend’s in Gaza City, and apart from brief appearances on campus we never went home; we stayed hidden for a week because, as we heard, they had distributed our pictures to security so that we could be arrested at checkpoints.

        The next day there was a demonstration on campus and it was brutishly suppressed. On 17-19 March we tried again but the numbers had dwindled and many were arrested. Until 30 March, Land Day, when we were arrested on the charge of raising the Palestinian flag to spread sedition.

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This is my experience with political suppression. Intellectual suppression is another story. In the briefest possible way: whoever is not with them is against them; and this is hardly unusual for Islamists. I am not the only the example. A female blogger was arrested because of what she wrote on her blog—nothing to do with politics. The first time I was arrested because I had written about my arrest in the Egyptian revolution solidarity protest. Another time, also because of something I had written, on the charge of “spreading secularism and falsifying (not simply misquoting) the Quran”.

        After the second arrest we were released to find we had turned into atheists on the street. I even had trouble with my own family. It was a systematic defamation of character. What happened was—I stopped writing poems and articles; and when I started writing again I did it in a different way, not just to protect myself but to protect my family. Later, after a long bout of depression—for weeks I didn’t even step out of the house, I would ask my brother to buy me cigarettes—I decided I wanted to leave Gaza altogether. That was perhaps the strongest effect all this had on my life.

        It happened after a visit to Cairo, I was arrested a while after my return on the charge of collaborating with foreign intelligence and being an agent and things like that. This created problems with my friends and even with myself… I stopped undertaking any activity: neither political nor civil nor literary nor intellectual. Once again on my brother returning from Egypt while I was still there, they wanted to arrest him because of me. I couldn’t sort out residency in Egypt and I had to cut short my stay and come back to deal with it.

        On all these occasions I was insulted, maybe even pushed around a little, but there was no beating as such. It was nothing compared to people we heard about: someone detained for 180 days; someone forced to stay standing for 40 days; someone suspended from their hands or feeds for extended periods. But the last time I was arrested was after talk of unrest because of the lack of electricity—you know electricity is only available for a few hours a day in Gaza, but if you object you are spreading rumours and perpetrating sedition. There was talk of another attempted overthrow and I had nothing to do with that either but I was arrested again. And this was my worst experience of humiliation and beating. It was only one day, but I went home passed out.

        But it was being accused of working for foreign powers that affected me the most. Family relations intervened and negotiated on my behalf until my release was finally secured, but I fell into a long depression. You try to serve your homeland and this is what happens to you? I won’t deny it, it was then that I started thinking, and I continue to wonder about it now: “The homeland is the thing raises you up, that is why you hold it sacred. It is not the thing that humiliates you.”

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Interview by Youssef Rakha

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Suleiman’s credentials

The Torture Career of Egypt’s New Vice President: Omar Suleiman and the Rendition to Torture Program
by Stephen Soldz / January 31st, 2011

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In response to the mass protests of recent days, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has appointed his first Vice President in his over 30 years rule, intelligence chief Omar Suleiman. When Suleiman was first announced, Al-jazeera commentators were describing him as a “distinguished” and “respected ” man. It turns out, however, that he is distinguished for, among other things, his central role in Egyptian torture and in the US rendition-to-torture program. Further, he is “respected” by US officials for his cooperation with their torture plans, among other initiatives.
Katherine Hawkins, an expert on the US’s rendition-to-torture program, in an email, has sent some critical texts where Suleiman pops up. Thus, Jane Mayer, in The Dark Side, pointed to Suleiman’s role in the rendition program:
Each rendition was authorized at the very top levels of both governments….The long-serving chief of the Egyptian central intelligence agency, Omar Suleiman, negotiated directly with top Agency officials. [Former U.S. Ambassador to Egypt] Walker described the Egyptian counterpart, Suleiman, as “very bright, very realistic,” adding that he was cognizant that there was a downside to “some of the negative things that the Egyptians engaged in, of torture and so on. But he was not squeamish, by the way” (pp. 113).
Stephen Grey, in Ghost Plane, his investigative work on the rendition program also points to Suleiman as central in the rendition program:
To negotiate these assurances [that the Egyptians wouldn't "torture" the prisoner delivered for torture] the CIA dealt principally in Egypt through Omar Suleiman, the chief of the Egyptian general intelligence service (EGIS) since 1993. It was he who arranged the meetings with the Egyptian interior ministry…. Suleiman, who understood English well, was an urbane and sophisticated man. Others told me that for years Suleiman was America’s chief interlocutor with the Egyptian regime — the main channel to President Hosni Mubarak himself, even on matters far removed from intelligence and security.
Suleiman’s role in the rendition program was also highlighted in a Wikileaks cable:
the context of the close and sustained cooperation between the USG and GOE on counterterrorism, Post believes that the written GOE assurances regarding the return of three Egyptians detained at Guantanamo (reftel) represent the firm commitment of the GOE to adhere to the requested principles. These assurances were passed directly from Egyptian General Intelligence Service (EGIS) Chief Soliman through liaison channels — the most effective communication path on this issue. General Soliman’s word is the GOE’s guarantee, and the GOE’s track record of cooperation on CT issues lends further support to this assessment. End summary.
Suleiman wasn’t just the go-to bureaucrat for when the Americans wanted to arrange a little torture. This “urbane and sophisticated man” apparently enjoyed a little rough stuff himself.
Shortly after 9/11, Australian citizen, Mamdouh Habib, was captured by Pakistani security forces and, under US pressure, tortured by Pakistanis. He was then rendered (with an Australian diplomats watching) by CIA operatives to Egypt, a not uncommon practice. In Egypt, Habib merited Suleiman’s personal attention. As related by Richard Neville, based on Habib’s memoir:
Habib was interrogated by the country’s Intelligence Director, General Omar Suleiman…. Suleiman took a personal interest in anyone suspected of links with Al Qaeda. As Habib had visited Afghanistan shortly before 9/11, he was under suspicion. Habib was repeatedly zapped with high-voltage electricity, immersed in water up to his nostrils, beaten, his fingers were broken and he was hung from metal hooks.
That treatment wasn’t enough for Suleiman, so:
To loosen Habib’s tongue, Suleiman ordered a guard to murder a gruesomely shackled Turkistan prisoner in front of Habib – and he did, with a vicious karate kick.
After Suleiman’s men extracted Habib’s confession, he was transferred back to US custody, where he eventually was imprisoned at Guantanamo. His “confession” was then used as evidence in his Guantanamo trial.
The Washington Post’s intelligence correspondent, Jeff Stein, reported some additional details regarding Suleiman and his important role in the old Egypt the demonstrators are trying to leave behind:
“Suleiman is seen by some analysts as a possible successor to the president,” the Voice of American said Friday. “He earned international respect for his role as a mediator in Middle East affairs and for curbing Islamic extremism.”
An editorialist at Pakistan’s “International News” predicted Thursday that “Suleiman will probably scupper his boss’s plans [to install his son], even if the aspiring intelligence guru himself is as young as 75.”
Suleiman graduated from Egypt’s prestigious Military Academy but also received training in the Soviet Union. Under his guidance, Egyptian intelligence has worked hand-in-glove with the CIA’s counterterrorism programs, most notably in the 2003 rendition from Italy of an al-Qaeda suspect known as Abu Omar.
In 2009, Foreign Policy magazine ranked Suleiman as the Middle East’s most powerful intelligence chief, ahead of Mossad chief Meir Dagan.
In an observation that may turn out to be ironic, the magazine wrote, “More than from any other single factor, Suleiman’s influence stems from his unswerving loyalty to Mubarak.”
If Suleiman succeeds Mubarak and retains power, we will likely be treated to plaudits for his distinguished credentials from government officials and US pundits. We should remember that what they really mean is his ability to brutalize and torture. As Stephen Grey puts it:
But in secret, men like Omar Suleiman, the country’s most powerful spy and secret politician, did our work, the sort of work that Western countries have no appetite to do ourselves.
If Suleiman receives praise in the US, it will be because our leaders know that he’s the sort of leader who can be counted on to do what it takes to restore order and ensure that Egypt remains friendly to US interests.
There are some signs, however, that the Obama administration may not accept Suleiman’s appointment. Today they criticized the rearrangement of the chairs in Egypt’s government. If so, that will be a welcome sign that the Obama administration may have some limits beyond which it is hesitant to go in aligning with our most brutal “friends.”
We sure hope that the Egyptian demonstrators reject the farce of Suleiman’s appointment and push on to a complete change of regime. Otherwise the Egyptian torture chamber will undoubtedly return, as a new regime reestablishes “stability” and serves US interests.

Stephen Soldz is a psychoanalyst, psychologist, public health researcher, and faculty member at the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis. He maintains the Psychoanalysts for Peace and Justice web page and the Psyche, Science, and Society blog. He is a founder of the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology, one of the organizations leading the struggle to change American Psychological Association policy on participation in abusive interrogations. He is President of Psychologists for Social Responsibility and a consultant to Physicians for Human Rights. Read other articles by Stephen.

Omar Soliman and the Brother Muslimhood

A Week of Laughter and Forgetting: Day Two

A year after its outbreak, Youssef Rakha lists seven of the more revealing flights of humour that have punctuated the Egyptian revolution and its aftermath

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Omar Soliman, the former head of intelligence who during the 18 days in which Tahrir Square was “occupied” became the principal spokesman for Mubarak and eventually announced Mubarak’s stepping down, had enjoyed the reputation of being a learned and respectable figure — largely, as it turned out, because being an intelligence agent he had never made a public appearance. His brief televised speeches, in which he regurgitated all kinds of nonsense on behalf of the regime, proving himself illiterate in Arabic, were especially enjoyed for their staging: Soliman at the centre behind a small podium, and a very serious-looking man standing at attention to one side of him in back. For a while the Man Standing Behind Omar Soliman became the subject of a whole genre of informal revolutionary comedy.

For example: “Breaking news. Speaking on condition of anonymity, state officials say that the man standing behind Omar Soliman is now sitting down.”

And in English: “mubarak, verb: 1. tr. to stick, adhere or remain attached to a particular position rather than moving when necessary; ‘How on earth will I get this filth off now it has mubaraked on the wall!’ 2. intro. to be or become glutinous, sticky, unpleasantly or repulsively viscous; ‘Why on earth didn’t you put it in the freezer, see now it has mubaraked!’ cf to do a soliman, phrasal verb (from the Hebrew): 1. to appear to be endowed with the wisdom of ages; 2. to take orders from the CIA; 3. to divide things (babies, people, political movements) down the middle. E.g. ‘I thought they were completely mubaraked to one another, but then she did a soliman on him, and now he has to pay her LE3,000 a month alimony!’”

Soliman in person provided material for laughter when in an English-language television interview undertaken at a time when the Muslim Brotherhood had absolutely no part to play in events, he referred to the protests being secretly organised by the “Brother Muslimhood”. What could be that organisation? Speculations about the identity of the Muslimhood and the Man Behind Omar Soliman fuelled many quips after Mubarak stepped down as well: one still very popular Facebook Page is entitled, “The Man Standing Behind Omar Soliman for President”.