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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Open Letter to Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei

[Mohamed ElBaradei at the World Economic Forum in Davis, Switzerland on 25 January 2007. Image from Wikipedia.]
Mohamed ElBaradei at the World Economic Forum in Davis, Switzerland on 25 January 2007. Image from Wikipedia.

First posted on 19 June 2012


Dear Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei:

Happy 70th and thank you! Truly, thank you: for refusing to be part of this travesty of presidential elections, for rejecting any form of putsch or “revolutionary justice”, for insisting on a sound constitution and political pluralism, for understanding democracy at a time when those fighting military dictatorship have completely missed the point. I’m sure you feel sufficiently vindicated and at peace to enjoy your birthday; and you must realize by now how many Egyptians respect you…

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

This is a repost of my “Maspero massacre” piece on the occasion of yesterday’s events, with a series of seven door pictures made with my iPhone 5 and a video with footage of the September 2011 events and the Coptic Church version of the Lamentations of Jeremiah

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With my late father, Elsaid Elsayed Rakha—lawyer, disillusioned communist, and incredible anti-patriarch, 1981


What have you learned about the writing process in the last five years?
I’ve learned too many technical things to list here, and they’re all the more difficult to list because it happened mostly in Arabic. But I also learned to pool different kinds of writing – journalism, literary nonfiction, poetry, historical research, erotica, and humor – to bring together my first novel, the Book of the Sultan’s Seal (forthcoming in English translation with Interlink). The result is a kind of pastiche, but maybe all novel-writing is pastiche. It’s not so much mixing and matching styles of writing as juxtaposing ways of looking at the world through mimicking the corresponding languages in which that world reveals itself, through people – the challenge being to maintain a unified and presumably compelling whole.
Since the novel was published it’s been called both an achievement and a pointless experiment: I’ve learned to accept that too. Not criticism per se – was it Ingmar Bergman who said that all criticism is poison? – because you can’t take in poison, but the fact that part of the value of a serious book is that some readers won’t like it. It’s always more interesting to ask what someone likes or dislikes about your work than whether or not they value it as such. Sometimes what is wrong with your book is simply that another writer feels superior (or inferior) to you, or that a person you’ve known doesn’t want to be a character, or to be that character. So your purpose in asking is never to change course to suit a wider variety of tastes. It’s to check your intentions against people’s expectations, taking their positions and underlying assumptions into account. I don’t tend to invent characters, I tend to reinvent and change real people; it’s not always possible to cut all relations with people I’ve written about, and I’m sure as hell not going to mess up my work just so that they stay happy with me!
More importantly, perhaps, in the last five years I’ve learned not to pay too much attention to Cairo literary-intellectual circles, which are limited and limiting spaces. While making up a sizable part of the very tiny proportion of Egyptians actually interested in literature, these circles are so incestuous and inward-looking and small-minded they can make writing, let alone being a writer, seem like a hateful exercise – a bad habit, almost. Now even if it is that, writing – even Arabic writing, even writing for oneself, without ambition – should never feel quite so despicable…

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Three Short Pieces from last October © Youssef Rakha


“We never used to have sectarian tension”
Posted on October 20, 2011        
That being, of course, a lie. And lies, however well meaning, just may be the crux of the problem.
Had a truly secular state ever emerged in Egypt, perhaps it would have made sense to blame Copts for their sectarianism. As it is, surely Coptic sectarianism is part of the struggle for an effective concept of citizenship? As I wondered whether the Maspero protest of 9 Oct might be the “third revolution” promised but not forthcoming since March, I tweeted, “They are shooting at the Copts.” I remember this because coworkers who immediately saw the tweet – they presumably do not follow the same people – berated me lightheartedly for spreading unconfirmed (mis)information. What their notebooks and iPhones as well as security personnel in the building were telling them was that it was a mob of Copts who were wreaking chaos and, inexplicably armed, firing at the Central Security and Military Police personnel who were attempting to control them. Lying through their teeth, pro-Supreme Council of the Armed Forces news personnel from this building and elsewhere reported Armed Forces casualties.
As a Muslim-born Cairo-dweller, I feel this is an occasion to say how I grew up in an atmosphere of sectarianism partly justified by its being – understandably, since they were the minority – even more intense among Christians. It was normal to be told by a quasi-religious acquaintance about a third party, for example, “True, he’s Christian – but he’s actually a good man!” Unlike the average Copt, who will just be careful who they are speaking to, saying little if anything on the topic to an interlocutor they deem unsympathetic, an educated urban Muslim will reflexively, categorically deny the existence of a sectarian problem in Egypt, citing religious, patriotic or pragmatic arguments to say that, in effect, the position of the Copts in Egyptian society could not possibly be better than it already is.
With the rise of Islamism since the Nineties this has taken on variously sinister motifs: identifying salib (Arabic for “cross”) with salibi (Crusader), for example, an adherent of fanatical dogma may suggest that, simply by virtue of who they are, Egyptian Christians are in fact the enemy. In this way the historically pro-Muslim Conquest Copts – and Copt simply means “Egyptian”, as opposed to the equally Christian Greek rulers of the land – are turned into allies of “the Jews and the Americans” (as in those responsible for the existence of Israel and their Roman-like, Muslim-hating patrons). But even among “moderate” Muslims, arguments for “national unity” – a concept which, though an essential part of its rhetoric, the regime established by coup d’etat in July 1952 has systematically rendered meaningless by excluding and discriminating against Copts, encouraging both Coptic deference and Muslim complacency – fail to take into account centuries of inequality including occasional persecution.

Of homogeneity and bakshish
Posted on October 15, 2011        
Long before a “revolution” could have been anticipated, people – especially urban Arabs – noticed something about Cairo. In a roundabout way, the title of a book of poems by the Lebanese globe-trotter Suzanne Alaywan, All Roads Lead to Salah Salem (a reference to one major road linking northern and southern ends of the megalopolis) accurately expresses that sentiment: Of all the world’s cities, Cairo seems to have the capacity to absorb people into its folds, to make them – in appearance and attitude if not in thinking or values – like other people already established inside it; it has the capacity, brutishly but somehow peaceably, to iron out difference.
The poet was not at cross purpose with the fact. I tend to think she, like others within and without, saw it as inevitable but positive, a possible answer to otherwise intractable inter-issue dilemmas which liberalism, with its emphasis on individual rights, could only solve with the help of economic and institutional hardware not available to the Arab or the third world. The more or less forced homogeneity of course has its roots in a culture of compromise and hypocrisy, in people’s willingness to lie about how they feel in order to benefit from other people, whose difference – in looks, tongue, dress code, income level – offers further justification for practically robbing them.
Yet, as the aftermath of events has demonstrated, there is more to that proverbial Rome of the mind than simple untruth. Decades of corruption were also decades of voluntary repression, in which excessive panhandling just might have been a sublimation of mugging, and pay-for-your-difference an ameliorated form of the marauding mob. The difference-eliminating software is after all as evident in Arab nationalism as it is in political Islam, and perhaps even Mubarak’s client government sought to accommodate the interests of global liberalism only insofar as the world order, up to and including Saudi Arabia (which as far as I am concerned is a greater threat to Egypt than Israel) could provide that government with the required alms.
That is over now, despite the military and its supporters, backed by said world order, doing all they can – hitting below as well as above the belt, even idiotically risking sectarian war in the process – to reinstate the beggar-mentality status quo. Egyptians should be thankful for the “revolution” not because it proved successful or achieved its goal, but because it will make elimination of difference by begging increasingly impossible. People can no longer pretend to be safe from their compatriots, the myth of “national unity” is no longer viable, not all those who are different can pay.
Whether they like it or not, the Other will assert themselves at last, bringing forth even through catastrophe all the many beautiful Egypts that have been squeaking for dear life.

Side effects of Revolution
Posted on October 6, 2011        
I have developed an addiction since February:
Laptop in lap, voluntarily bedridden, I watch old episodes of al Ittijah al Mu’akiss (or, as translated by the relevant talk show’s self-possessed impresario, my fellow Hull University alumnus Faisal Al Qassim: Opposite Direction).
Dozens of them from before the Arab Spring are freely available on YouTube – the Nakba, Hezbollah, torture, hijab, George W, Iraq, Iran, Sudan – many as relevant to Tahrir Square as anything. Sidling into bed of an evening, high on Revolution, I would select a topic that suited my mood, listen with mounting suspense to Faisal’s retro rhetorical intro, and lick my lips over the promised discursive violence, not to say deranged bawling. That, at least, is how it started.
All very civilised and edifying. Each head-butting match has a compelling topic, a thought-out script and, seemingly, the right pair of contestants ready to express two sides of an issue. Ah, objectivity! Yet as with so much else on Al Jazeera, something somehow remains askew.
I do not mean the channel’s populist bias, the systematic and directionless manner in which it incites viewers (often to embrace political Islam), nor the unspeakable hypocrisy it sustains by doing so while it remains an organ of the Qatar government.
I do not mean Faisal’s brand of impartiality, which is to argue each case with vehemence irrespective of whether he might actually be spreading misinformation, never taking into account the implications of a given argument for the larger picture. It is okay, for example, to present Saddam Hussein as the wronged hero of Arab glory and call him the Martyr, so long as you are pointing up dependency, corruption and sectarianism in the current Iraqi regime; you only get to describe Saddam as he was if you happen to be bestowing blessings upon Iraq’s US Army-controlled experiment with democracy…
Yet what I mean is something, slightly, else: the obscene polarisation, the rhetorical opportunism, the insolent lies; the ultimate vapidity of a good 40 out of each 45 minutes, which forms the substance of my addiction. If al Ittijah al Mu’akiss is what it means to be politically engaged, I must say that political engagement is not a good thing. Just below the surface, it is very uncivilised and profoundly delusional. And it is a condition of which I have not been cured since I went out to chant slogans and endure tear gas.
It wrings my heart to think that, in six months, Tahrir Square has turned into something not all that different from al Ittijah al Mu’akiss.

Jadaliyya: Three Versions of Copt


Not quite a day later, a secular Muslim employee at one of Egypt’s largest media institutions begins to unpack the events of 9 October at his office, not far from the site of blood in downtown Cairo


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

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

Realizing that this was the first major event in quite some time, I must confess to excitement. Perhaps a terminally deflated revolution was picking up speed after all? I must also confess to the hope that the demonstration was not, or at least not solely, pro-Coptic.

I had distanced myself from Maspero – the Tahrir Square of “the Copts” – because demonstrating for specifically sectarian rights seemed beside the point. Such rights would presumably be granted anyway, once freedom was institutionally enshrined. This was motivated less by sectarian affiliation than anti-sectarianism. However, I was to discover soon enough that there was plenty of room for confusing the two.


I should explain at this point that as a Muslim-born Cairo-dweller, I grew up in an atmosphere of sectarianism partly justified by its allegedly being more intense among Christians. It was normal to be told by a quasi-religious acquaintance about a third party, for example, “True, he’s Christian – but he’s actually a good man!”

Unlike the average Copt, who will just be careful about who they are speaking to—saying little if anything on the topic to an interlocutor they deem unsympathetic, an educated urban Muslim will reflexively, categorically deny the existence of a sectarian problem in Egypt, citing religious, patriotic, or pragmatic arguments to say that—in effect—the position of the Copts in Egyptian society could not possibly be better than it already is.

Since the rise of Islamism in the 1990s, in place of denial, anti-Coptic sectarianism has taken on variously sinister motifs: identifying salib (Arabic for “cross”) with salibi (Crusader), for example, an adherent of fanatical dogma might suggest that by virtue of who they are, Egyptian Christians are in fact the enemy. In this way, the historically pro-Muslim Conquest Copts – and Copt simply means “Egyptian”, as opposed to the equally Christian but Greek rulers of the land – are turned into allies of “the Jews and the Americans” (as in those responsible for the existence of Israel and their Roman-like, Muslim-hating patrons).


But even among “moderate” Muslims, arguments for “national unity” fail to take into account centuries of inequality including occasional persecution. And national unity is a concept which, though an essential part of the regime and accompanying rhetoric established by coup d’etat in July 1952, has systematically been rendered meaningless by excluding Copts from positions of power and employing the majority’s bias to discriminate against them in public affairs, encouraging both Coptic deference (often through Church-dictated conservatism) and Muslim complacency.

Had a truly secular state ever emerged in Egypt, perhaps it would have made sense to blame Copts for their sectarianism. As it is, surely Coptic sectarianism can only be seen as part of the struggle for an effective concept of citizenship?

Still, here as with protests involving a specific portion of the population—and some trade-specific strikes had seemed ultimately distracting –I felt it was rather more important to come up with a political formulation of an alternative to military dictatorship under pressure from political Islam. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has, after all, been ruling the country dictatorially since Mubarak stepped down on 11 February, while various factors conspire to make Islamism—in many ways the political current least relevant to the protests that got rid of Mubarak—the most visible and powerful on the political landscape.


A week later, I could remember every minute of that hour or so at the office. Already, while I wondered whether this might be the “third revolution” promised but not forthcoming since April, pandemonium was striking downstairs, with word of the demonstrators attempting to storm the building in anger over the false news that had come out of it since the march set off. Already, TV anchors working out of the Union, absurd as that seems, were calling on the Egyptian people to defend their national army against protesters.

I tweeted, “They are shooting Copts.”

I remember this because coworkers who immediately saw the tweet berated me lightheartedly for spreading unconfirmed (mis)information. What their notebooks and iPhones, as well as security personnel in the building, were telling them was that it was a mob of Copts who were wreaking chaos and, inexplicably armed, firing at the Central Security and Military Police personnel who were attempting to control them.

No one was in fact armed in any way. To cries of silmiyyah, Obama’s pet word for the Arab Spring, meaning “peaceful”, the Muslim mob had responded, violently: Islamiyyah. But such is the insidious nature of Egyptian sectarianism and the fear of chaos instilled in the people by the former regime, then the military, that no one stopped to ask questions.

Lying through their teeth, pro-SCAF news personnel from this building and elsewhere reported seven, then nineteen Armed Forces casualties. It would later be revealed that only one soldier actually died, as opposed to nearly thirty confirmed deaths among the protesters, many of them with grotesquely battered skulls).


But what was really happening as I sat here watching my Twitter timeline? A pro-Coptic march had set out to Maspero from the nearby neighborhood of Shubra, then?

Then the march was subjected to stone and Molotov cocktail attacks from mobs of Muslims, where practically all-Muslim Central Security and, especially, Military Police troops—aided not only by misinformed “honorable citizens” (as the military has taken to putting it) but apparently also by baltagiyya or the hired thugs deployed by the authorities against protesters since January—proceeded to massacre “the Copts” by every means available, not excluding live ammunition and at least one armored vehicle purposefully crushing heads. The carnage, widely recorded in downtown hospitals, was horrendous.

And why were Copts protesting in such numbers? Because, during a TV appearance, the governor of Aswan (a Muslim and a retired military general, by default) commended the burning of a church under his jurisdiction on the pretext that it was not officially registered as a place of worship (hundreds of functional churches across Egypt are not registered because of official—Muslim—reluctance to give Christians the right to practice their faith).

A fact-finding committee had recommended the immediate dismissal of said governor on Tuesday 6 October, indicating in its report that failure to act would result in large-scale unrest. It is now 21 October and the governor retains his post.


So … It has been nearly three weeks since Sunday 9 October and I am astonished. Not so much by the war crimes of the army or the actions of the mob that so readily “came to its aid”; I am astonished, rather, by the responses of educated Muslims, including allegedly secular intellectuals.

Condemnation of the massacre has not been nearly as vociferous or as unanimous as you would expect. With very few exceptions (notably the human rights activist Hossam Bahgat), the discourse has centered not on the Council’s sectarianism as an unchanged wing of the Mubarak (and by extension the July 1952) regime, but on the Council itself –the the regime—as a conventional object of dissent in conveniently dire straits. Evidenced by the indubitable fact that the instigators of protests on 25 January were neither traditional dissidents (left-wing or Islamist) nor politically organized except on the Internet, such dissent (exemplified most clearly by the Muslim Brothers) seems in retrospect to be not only opportunistic and rhetorical but also futile by default.

Once again the discourse of the mainstream Left regarding human rights abuses is practically identical with the discourse of the powers that be; once again, the proposed transcendence of religious affiliation rings hollow in the absence of a viable concept of citizenship for which enough people are prepared to die. Even the Copts, it strikes me as if for the first time, are only prepared to die for Jesus. And so does the patriotic identification with nationalist, Marxist and pan-Arab constructions that have long since proven untenable. Why if not for the resounding failure of the postcolonial nation state would a creed that had remained more or less depoliticized for centuries re-emerge as the only, quasi-fascist framework for opposition, ideology and “struggle”?


In the wake of 11 February, “Islamic thinkers” along with the Muslim Brothers and other agents of political Islam had quickly allied themselves with the Council. While the latter remained silent, Muslim intellectuals railed against “sedition” and dictatorship, but people spoke as if sectarian hatred had nothing to do with it. In subsequent televised discussions, out of three popular left-wing commentators—Ibrahim Eissa, Alaa El Aswany and Bilal Fadl—only the last paid any attention at all to the sectarian dimension of events.

Fadl is evidently a true believer, just not of the nut-case persuasion; yet, in a Muslim Brothers-style move that has quickly become the standard “grassroots” reaction to “sympathy with the Nazarenes,” the point he made clearly about what happened being hurtful to Muslim conscience was appropriated and subverted into a question about his own religious correctness, seamlessly substituting the relevant discursive space for another, infinitely more trite one: from “what was done to Coptic protesters because they are not Muslim” to “is Bilal Fadl a true Muslim based on what he said.” Thus paving the way, however subtly, for a justification of sectarian violence.

Aswany, for his part, took it upon himself to preempt possible attempts—led by the Coptic-American activist Magdi Khalil, admittedly, a rabidly sectarian partisan—to bring the relevant parties from the Council to international justice, while Eissa made his usual neither-here-nor-there critique of the performance of “the rulers.’”


Two weeks on, past months of thinking about the Arab world, particularly the tribulations of Iraq since the 1990s, it strikes me more clearly than ever before that, while the politics and economics of the world’s powerful (and at least originally Christian) loci are ultimately inhumane, they are heterogeneous enough to provide institutional frameworks for something approximating justice. Such frameworks have simply never existed in the Arab-Muslim world.

This has nothing to do with the substance of each creed. It just must be admitted that, where the predominant (post-Christian) civilization is racist, murderous and hypocritical, so too are the quasi-civilizations that purport to do battle with it, including the post-Ottoman Arab state. Six or seven decades on, the anti-imperialist struggle has resolved itself into the nauseating mirror image of imperialism, prompting the people in some cases to call on the former imperial powers themselves for help against criminal “leaders.”

The Maspero Massacre, as it has come to be called by the more rational among us—and, especially, the heinous aftermath of the Maspero Massacre, which has yet to be described—demonstrates that even revolutionary Egypt’s sense of self lacks not only an effective concept of citizenship but also any collective capacity for non-sectarian conscience.

Holier than thou wherefore, O Anti-Imperialist Hero?

Judging by what happened and what was said about it, when people speak of “loving Egypt” they mean something that is only Muslim or at least more Muslim than either Christian or secular. In much the same way as the British Empire ruled over subjects it deemed not fully human, Egyptian patriotism involves an individual and national self-definition that places non-Muslims in subjugation with impunity; and once again reflecting colonialism, the most disturbing part is how people are capable of perpetuating such thinking without even realizing, let alone admitting they are doing anything wrong.


Many were offended by a subsequent tweet of mine: “Ashamed of being a Muslim.” I even lost some Facebook friends following a status in which I replaced “Islam” with ‘almaniyyah (secularism) in the well known slogan, “Islam is the answer.” Others, I am sure, have labeled me an apostate or a traitor or an agent of the Zionist-American Conspiracy. All of which, in a manner of speaking, of course, I am. I would have been eager to latch onto something I could be proud of whatever it was called. But there is no longer much room, in the human rights context, for differentiating between “misguided Muslims” and “Islam”. And there is no longer a halfwit crusader from Texas to fuel the false sense of victimhood that underlies all political Islam.

The fact to note is that Saudi Arabia remains America’s closest ally in the region after Israel, and that whatever else Magdi Khalil will do to “soil Egypt’s reputation” (to use the retarded “nationalist” expression), Washington approves of SCAF; even after our homegrown crusaders were massacred en masse, in much the same way as it maintained a client government headed by Mubarak, Washington blesses the military dictatorship to which his regime gave way.

Looking, behaving and speaking in exactly the same way – to the point, indeed, of using Quranic expressions among themselves in daily life—Egyptian Christians are just as dispensable to present-day Rome as their Muslim counterparts. Perhaps it makes sense to vehemently condemn the international community after all, but the nationalists and Islamists who do so unthinkingly forget that it was in the defense of Muslims against Christians in Bosnia and Herzegovina that the international community rose up.

If the Arab Spring is not the occasion for nationalists and Islamists to practice self-questioning regarding their own racism, murderousness and hypocrisy – if it is not the occasion to unequivocally denounce not only Muammar Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein but also Omar Bashir and supporters of the Assad regime, not to mention the cold-blooded murder of their own compatriots on the streets, perhaps the Zionist-American Conspiracy is the answer, after all.



Messages from Tahrir: Signs from Egypt’s Revolution, ed. Karima Khalil, Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2011
Tomorrow is the Third Revolution. No way of putting it could be more ridiculous, but there is hope yet. As this book shows, the inventiveness of Egyptians and their ability to play with the truth are such that nothing much can be predicted with any accuracy. Another 28 Jan could be in the making as I write this — almost too late for the print press, always too early to say. What that would actually bring about judging by what we have seen so far is of course anyone’s guess. But contrary to the prevailing discourse, the situation is far from resolved; “external forces” against whose intervention we are still being warned, whether capitalist and American-led or Dark Ages-oriented and cowardly or both, are all too happy with thug-, police- and Islamist-supported military control. The middle-class shamelessness which perhaps rightly perceives “stability” — Mubarak’s catchword to be in its interest, is more comfortable with dictatorship, which eliminates moral responsibility, than the gamut of rights and duties entailed by citizenship. Yet accusations of being foreign agents levelled at young men and women willing to give their lives for that gamut, often by people whose very existence depends on foreign forces, are predicated not on such relatively simple truths but on the identity politics-bolstered lie that there exist powers with the magical ability to brainwash millions of unaffiliated Arabs, forcing them to demand what they might not actually want. It is a lie that sits well with both Arab nationalist and theocratic fascism.
Still, anticipating renewed large-scale protests (as planned) on 9/9, thinking of the limits of popular will in effecting change in the absence of either unified political leadership or willingness to engage in conflict, it is something else that the signs and images showcased so glitzily here bring to mind — a sort of poststructural space for the intersection between Image and Tweet on the one hand, and the tweet-image and mass protest on the other — the way in which that space, however attractive in itself, can be divorced from local, consensual, day-to-day reality. Much has been made of both the importance and the impotence of the “white revolutions” of 1989 since the fall of the Soviet Union, the way in which they handed over weak and institutionally dysfunctional societies to the demons of global capital, giving way to ethnic and religious (civil) wars. The truth may be that they simply, savagely uncovered political reality, telling people who they are, letting them think about who they want to be. But neither Tweet nor Image were available to “the Eastern Bloc” in the way they have been available to the Arab Spring. And it is the effect of their availability on said truth that makes it interesting to peruse this coffee-table insurrection. A Levantine-looking young man, his head wrapped in a pretty scarf, has a sign attached to the front of his street-chic sweatshirt. “Egyptian and Proud,” it says in Arabic and English. As the frontispiece of what remains, willy nilly, a global capital-oriented celebration of events not yet followed through, the image is far too cool for comfort.
Of course, to judge the book by its cover would be silly; and Messages from Tahrir does afford a fairly comprehensive — and very realistic panorama of the 18 days that, life- and reality-changing as they were — beautiful, courageous, admirable, enlightening, have as yet changed neither life nor reality, contrary to what the book says, AND COULD NOT POSSIBLY HAVE. It is well to talk about a wonderful transformation, but it must be understood by now that most of us will not live to see its fruit — and glossy picture books will not make it ripen any faster. The slogans featured here are of course nonetheless compelling, by turns moving, ingenious, humbling, comic; combined with their manner of presentation — “No Talking Until He Leaves” taped to the mouth, “Out” on a red card raised by a man dressed like a football referee, “We Will Not Be Made Dunces [literally: Party Hats] Of” inscribed on a party hat on the head — they demonstrate resourcefulness and determination. They affirm values of freedom, peace, non-sectarianism, but they tend to converge on the fairly restrictive prospect of an aging puppet dictator stepping down, postponing questions about what he actually stands for and, understandably enough under the circumstances, ignoring the much more complicated but also much more relevant question of how like him Egyptianness has become — nothing really to be proud of.
Even the most meaningful among the actual bite-size messages are simplified and/or generalised statements of intent designed by and for the informal media, and like the protests on the whole, narcissistically gazing at themselves from the moment they come into being, driven less by a self-sustaining vision than by responses to the crimes of the powers that be, and inevitably commodified in the process. That is all of course fine. The question is to what extent such messages have actually helped to generate responsible revolutionary consciousness that could take this further — peacefully or not. After initially refusing to support the patently legitimate demands of the protesters, then dithering for the longest time, then endorsing the absolute authority of the military establishment, Obama’s congratulatory use of the word silmiyyah or “peaceful” in a public address did not prevent the US from exporting tear (and reportedly nerve) gas to Egypt as early as two months after Mubarak stepped down. Until tomorrow morning at least, the message from Tahrir is the sight of black-clad Central Security lining the edge of the principal, circular traffic island and massive riot and military police deployments all around. Tomorrow is the Third Revolution, and another 28 Jan could be in the making as I write this, but I do not personally believe more people should die until there are convincing signs that the Arab Spring is about transforming local, consensual, day-to-day reality, not about symbolic gestures followed by the equally reprehensible lie of self congratulation.
Reviewed by Youssef Rakha

Anticipating 8 July


And its discontents
Anticipating 8 July, Youssef Rakha discusses revolution
Tomorrow is “the second revolution”. I am no longer enthusiastic about the term. Not that I have the least ambivalence towards what is happening, what has and has not yet happened: if meaningful change is to occur, if justice is to be done, there is no escaping more and more sustained protest; I shudder to think there is no escaping more violence too, though in the light of Central Security (the Egyptian riot police) striking back, violence seems inevitable. An effective as opposed to puppet interim government and an end to both police and military abuses are the very least starting point for the promised new Egypt; naturally, as it now seems, neither has been forthcoming. Despite the appearance of relative stability, sooner or later something must explode; I say this analytically, not emotionally: whatever the powers that be are thinking, however much the quasi-official media continue to churn out misinformation, the current situation is not tenable. As far as we support the 25 Jan-11 Feb protests, perhaps we should be grateful that stability remains a brittle veneer. In some ways, of course – for 30 years prior to 2011 – stability was a veneer anyway. Yet protests have been repeatedly decried as a threat to stability and as such identified with disturbance of the peace (in much the same way as protesters have been identified with baltagiyya or thugs and subjected to military trials). There is a sense in which the discourse of revolution has been co-opted by some and marginalised by others, in which the uprooting of corrupt dictatorship has reduced to hollow patriotism, “bringing down the regime” to “loving Egypt”. In just over four months, dependency on the army has facilitated both a rise in reactionary (as in positively counterrevolutionary) Islamism and (coupled by a string of minimal, essentially cosmetic interventions) business as usual for all the elements constituting the former social-political order, media, security and Muslim Brothers not excluded. My gripe with “revolution” is that, all things considered, it seems to have struck an unprogressive chord with the silent majority; and the Historic Achievement of the Egyptian People – so far little more than a symbolic gesture – has reduced to a term. Even in daily discourse, the events of those 18 days have become synonymous with a period of time, the martyrs to a social group: people say “at the revolution” as if they are saying “last Ramadan” or “during the holiday”; and references to “the families of the martyrs”, stripped of any ethical prerogative, are juxtaposed with references to other social strata with a direct interest in the political future.
Tomorrow is “the second revolution”. One assumes the majority of the intellectual community will, at some point in the day, make their way to Tahrir Square and, with characteristic timidity, join in the chanting of slogans probably created by the “ultras”, as the organised, often uniformed football supporters-cum-male cheer leaders who have made up the bulk of Tahrir Square protesters in the last two months are now called. They will dissolve in the multitude, if multitude there is. They will be theorising about developments as developments occur. A very potent question is whether they will be there as protesters or in the presupposed capacity of “the conscience of the nation”. In just over four months, it has been fascinating to watch the intellectuals take part and, especially, comment on events while at the same time seeing how they might pragmatically benefit from the incumbent developments – assuming positions in the ministry of culture, for example, or allying themselves with people who have. It is not so much that they are on the wrong side of the moral divide. The important thing is to realise how, in much the same way as the ideological grand narratives, hero worship and tutelage that characterised the emergence of postcolonial national states in the Arab world have come to an impasse, so too have the discourses of an intellectual “margin” which, positing itself as the enlightened, progressive and selfless counterweight to an ineffectual, vacuous and often criminal mainstream, when the time came for it to make sacrifices, to turn itself into a self-respecting page, ended up producing little more than bystanders’ remarks. Should revolution pick up where it left off, now, what would be the intellectuals’ role in it? And other than prematurely exaggerating the significance of what happened through rhetoric and/or making sagely, often idiotic or patently counterrevolutionary statements about where to go from here, what was the intellectuals’ contribution to “the first” revolution? If enough people show up tomorrow, if the situation sufficiently escalates, one assumes there will be, around intellectuals and ultras alike, huge numbers of Central Security armed with freshly imported tear gas and a vengefulness for protesters, plainclothes operatives directing anti-riot operations as well as baltagiyya to aid and justify them, perhaps also snipers stationed on rooftops or elsewhere, perhaps arrests. A small core of committed activists – peaceful to the last – will be calling for an indefinite sit-in and, if the situation develops, eventually sealing off the square. If all this happens, if there are enough people to make it happen, “the revolution” will have happened again; in rhetorical tones, the intellectuals will express joy and concern, they will espouse ideological grand narratives and tutelage, but it is clear by now that they will not have answers to the only relevant, nearly intractable question of how to actually implement the demands of the revolution.
Tomorrow is “the second revolution”. The demands of the first revolution, which were more or less willingly left for the army to respond to and have therefore not been met, will be made more forcefully, once again. It is as if the revolutionaries are suddenly discovering that the army had been part of the regime all along, and shared more or less the same interests. The stepping down of Mubarak is, as if for the first time since 11 Feb , seen for what it actually was: a significant enough concession to the social-political transformation posited by some eight million taking to the streets to remonstrate with the political status quo, more than 800 of whom were killed and nearly 2,700 seriously injured, but one that could not in itself lead to democracy. In the absence of guiding principles, planning or leadership, there remains one very significant question about an essentially liberal and middle-class revolution that started out as a protest against police abuses and ended up bringing down the president: for what, precisely, would such a revolution have an army that was technically under the authority of said president try him and the pillars of his regime? Crimes that would seem to be side-effects rather than substantial ailments of Mubarak’s dictatorship – financial corruption, lack of respect for the right to live, let alone the right to true and free political representation – continue to conceal the much greater crime of a once purposefully ideological political order rooted in the coup d’etat of July 1952 but now with absolutely no moral substance to it. I am not arguing with the culpability of Mubarak and his many cronies, a number of whom, including the former minister of information Anas El-Fiqi, were acquitted of some charges on Tuesday, generating greater outrage in the buildup to 8 July. I am personally against capital punishment, but I am not arguing with the right of the martyrs’ families to see the killers of their loved ones from Mubarak down receiving the harshest possible punishment. What I am arguing against is the idea that the extent and/or nature of the crimes committed by the Mubarak regime could be legally demarcated at all. Too many people were (are?) directly or indirectly involved with the former order, too much legal evidence has been destroyed since Feb, too many private interests would be done too many disservices should justice truly prevail. If 25 Jan is to remain both a white and a decentralised, non-ideological revolution, how can we expect adequate retribution? Perhaps the only true slogan of the revolution is Down with July, but neither intellectuals nor ultras nor even allegedly politicised Islamists have had the vision or the courage to chant it. Down with July, anyway.
Tomorrow is “the second revolution”: another step on the way to “the second independence”, which it has been persuasively argued is what the Arab Spring – an anti-police state, anti-theocratic and by extension anti-military dictatorship movement, if nothing else – is truly all about. But independence implies economic and military self-dependence, which thanks to the trajectory of July is far more than Egypt can say for itself. To have a revolution in any meaningful sense is to admit that this is where six decades of military dictatorship has brought us, all things considered: mobs burning up police stations while the government or agents of the government briskly go about the business of killing the people, and notwithstanding more or less retarded versions of Islamic theocracy, not the faintest horizon of an alternative way forward. To have a revolution is to say that, rather than a Zionist conspiracy or an extension of imperialism per se, what we have had for six decades is shades of rhetoric, and that insofar as we survive at all, we survive thanks to a global order that subsidises our existence in return for some human, mostly natural resources including our geographic location. Without aid, without tourism, indeed without peace with Israel – considering our standards of education and our performance in fields like agriculture, technology or trade – were on earth would we be now? It is not clear to what extent the first revolution has been successful in revealing just what a horrendous mess the military-led nationalist state founded by Nasser has ended up becoming. Perhaps the second revolution will bring home the even more significant and naturally more devastating fact that it was not Mubarak’s policy of conciliation with an unjust unipolar global order that was wrong with Mubarak, it was not Mubarak’s failure to “support the cause”, whatever that might me, that brought Mubarak down. It was Mubarak’s incompetence. And there is absolutely no hope in any revolution contributing to any better future until we are prepared to admit exactly how much we share that.

Youssef Rakha at Hay festival 2011: My hero of free speech

the telegraph

Youssef Rakha takes refuge in the limpid prose of the greatest Islamic scholar of the 20th century

My freedom-of-speech hero was never particularly gung-ho. Unlike the majority of Arab intellectuals since colonial times, he did not champion revolutionary attitudes, whether nationalist or Islamist, from the comfort of an utilitarian armchair. His hermeneutics of the Quran is perhaps the first original interpretation of Islam since the 12th century. It incurred a fatwa on his life and a court ruling that he should be separated from his wife against his will and hers! I think he is the greatest Islamic scholar of the 20th century, but for exposing all that is un-Islamic about contemporary Islam, showing unreserved aversion to the excrement of the holy cows, as it were – and for doing so with impeccably Muslim credentials – he was not only dismissed but also branded a non-Muslim. Somehow he managed to avoid becoming another Milan Kundera or another Salman Rusdie.

On losing his job at Cairo University, Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd (1943-2010) did accept the offer of a job in the Netherlands, but he never sought refuge outside his country of birth. He did not play victim or celebrity even after he was straitjacketed in both roles. With the humility of a true hero, he went on doing what he was doing. I am grateful for his scholarship, which added to my sense of identity as a secular Muslim. I am grateful because he showed me what is theologically wrong with the kind of religious discourse that I hate. But he is my hero because his books taught me, an unbeliever, that the creed into which I was born does not require the kind of stupidity I have always found so repulsive. Less than a year after his death I remain as agnostic as ever, but I know now that the sort of people who targeted Abu Zayd – fellow scholars backed by lawyers committed to political Islam – are, in the glorious scholarly traditions of the faith, closer to the idolater than the zealot.

Abu Zayd died suddenly of an obscure virus six months before revolution broke out on the streets of Cairo. Since Mubarak stepped down on 11 February, the fundamentalist rigidity that gave Abu Zayd so much trouble has been more visible in the media. With Hassan Nasrallah supporting the Assad regime in Syria and the Muslim Brothers boycotting demonstrations against military abuses in the new Egypt, however, the opportunism and the lies of political Islam are also clearer than ever. When they have infuriated or terrified me, I have taken refuge in Abu Zayd’s limpid prose. It is heavy stuff, not bed-time reading. But it is so lucid and convincing it allows me, with so much unrest at the doorstep, to relax in bed knowing not only where I stand but also that it makes sense to stand there as a Muslim, however agnostic, however disappointed in contemporary Islam.

Youssef Rakha is an Egyptian journalist and author. His latest novel is ‘Book of the Sultan’s Seal: Strange Incidents from History in the City of Mars’

Hay festival

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The counter paradise

… and from the factories go the heavenly proletarians

awkwardly under their arms they carry their wings like violins

Zbigniew Herbert, “Report from Paradise”

It took blood for paradise to happen. It happened very fitfully and incompletely, paradise. It lasted no longer than three weeks within a cordoned off area around the busiest traffic circle in all of Cairo, including the circle itself. It happened sponateously and uncertainly, like a dream or a transparent sheet of glass. It was very brittle, I mean. But it happened. By the end of 28 January, while millions of people were recovering from tear gas, I was convinced that God had appeared in Cairo. He was to leave again within the space of a month.


It has been six weeks since I returned from France. By coincidence, my month-long stay there was to start after the “end” of the Egyptian revolution on 11 February. I left on 8 March, still charged. I returned on 9 April to a Cairo just as complacent as the Cairo I had known before the revolution “started” on 25 January. I still believe very strongly in what happened during those three weeks (25 Jan-11 Feb); I would have liked it to keep happening or happen to the end. Now that it is over, my intellect tells me it is wrong to think of something so clearly bracketed in time and so limited in social impact as a revolution. That is why “start” and “end” are placed in quotation marks. Something has to be.

One question that had dogged me since 2005 at least, notwithstanding what nominally democratic practises were being introduced under pressure from the West, was how far the corruption and incompetence of the regime had permeated society.

This spring I ended up missing what many take to be the defining moment in the aftermath of the revolution (and I to be its defeat): the referendum on constitutional amendments proposed by the Higher Military Council, in charge since Mubarak stepped down, and supported by the forces of political Islam as well as conservatives everywhere. Those who had participated in the revolution and those who saw it as a chance for true change were against the constitutional amendments. By speeding up parliamentary elections and still granting the president too much power, the amended constitution would work towards maintaining the duoploy on politicts of non-ideological, business-crazed dictatorship on the one hand and Islamic fundamentalism on the other; hence the ironic alliance between Islamists, National Democratic Party (NDP) politicans and a Council at best eager to eliminate uncertainty, at worst working systematically to re-establish the political status quo as fast as possible – a Council whose role as a surrogate for the regime many refused to see.

The referendum was held on 19 March; I remember weeping quietly in my room overlooking the Chateau de la Napoule on the Azure Coast after finding out that the overwhelming majority had voted yes.


In the period after Mubarak stepped down (11 Feb-19 Mar), there was much talk of the counterrevolution. That discourse is less pervasive now, but for a while it defined the way the revolution saw itself and its hard-won triumph (over 800 dead and nearly 6,500 injured,): the long-term fight against clandestine efforts to undermine the achievements of the protesters or reverse the results of the protests.

No doubt this had been going on since the outbreak of the revolution; no doubt it had instantly identifiable agents in the security apparatus, the upper echelons of the business sector, the government and the NDP. The army, led by the Council and (until he handed over authority to it) the President of the Republic, was said to stand apart: a dispassionate observer and keeper of the peace, and eventually also, with a little self-delusion on the part of the protesters, a wielder of power on behalf of the revolution.

However, while counterrevolution as described did happen, there was a different, far deeper and more widespread reactionary current underway – part of which, mad as this sounds, emanated from within the revolution itself: Islamist and (to a lesser extent) socialist-nationalist-Nasserist ideological strains, while automatically pandering to the status quo of which they had been a repressed or a marginal part, upheld exactly the totalitarian, sectarian and patriarchal values that the protests, instigated by young liberals keen on human rights and democratic process, seemed to be rising up agaist in the first place.

After the disappearance of the police on 28 January, when the protesters took over Tahrir Square, apart from the bumbling brutality of an ancient, decadent and phenomanlly smug regime taken by surprise, little could unify the revolution beyond the common objective that the president should step down – something that was further complicated by the absence of   leadership – and once the president did step down, handing over his powers to the army, the vast majority of the protesters were willing to let the army take charge. What more or less cosmetic change happened after 11 February, happened through the Council responding to daytime Friday demonstrations that have never since turned into a round-the-clock strike like the one constituting “the revolution”.


For the longest time I had not even asked myself what it was that the revolution wanted: bringing down the regime, as in the main slogan, seemed self-explanatory; and I wilfully forgot much of what I had thought (and written) prior to 25 January: that the regime’s most horrendous crime was the way it had managed to graft itself onto society, turn society not only into its arena but, more disastrously, its mirror image, with all the patriarchally rooted structures of nepotism, greed, ignorance, identity bias, policing, disorganisation and impunity replicated again and again from the top down.

The reason I forgot to ask myself what the revolution was about, and the reason it seemed like paradise, was the fact that these structures ceased to function. They were in suspension, and the greater cause made it seem as if they (like the president, like his deputy, like the new prime minister he appointed) could really disappear overnight.

On my return from France the most painful disillusionment had to do with this fact: what the regime stood for, what the revolution was against – notwithstanding either the increasingly imaginary counterrevolution of revolutionary discourse or the increasingly in-your-face counterrevolution of the Higher Military Council, the Islamists (who had played an indispensable role in the revolution itself), and the many and various patriarchally inclined quarters of the Egyptian constituency as a whole – it was all still there, on the streets and at work, in government offices, in the way people drove, in what people said about what was going on. Bribery, stupidity, conspiracy theory were as active as they had ever been – and with sectarian clashes at the time of writing, it is not clear that they are going anywhere. Paradise had broken – glass everywhere!


In a strange sort of way, the counterrevolution now seems to me to have been contained in the revolution itself. The more I think about this the more mind-boggling it gets, but maybe what it means is simply that, rather than an outside force toppling the regime and all that it stood for, what actually happened was an implosion within that regime, a necessary climax of dysfunction allowing society to adjust – or readjust. There will be time for that. I am not optimistic. I am simply grateful that I lived to see paradise.


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The secular state

Youssef Rakha plays the devil’s advocate

When news began to seep through cyberspace of a church burning in Imbaba, the workshop had already been planned. It was to be held at the Kotobkhan Bookshop in Maadi and presided over by May El-Telmissany, the Ottowa-based writer and academic who has been the topic’s greatest champion since Mubarak stepped down.
A two-day affair involving activists (to be) from various walks of life and a range of localities across Egypt, Telmissany’s Civil State Workshop would discuss ways to promote just that: the civil – v. Islamic – state as a constitutional touchstone and a governance model for Egypt. It strikes me in retrospect that ad-dawlah al-madaniyyah, the Arabic term used here as elsewhere to describe that philosopher’s stone of Arab politics, could just as easily be pitted against the military state, which is what we have had, de facto, so far.
The civil state has been one of the principal causes adopted by the predominantly secular intellectual community, whose interest in spreading the word about its importance may have more to do with where they personally stand than with any holistic vision for the future of the country – not that the country will be better off with any form of theocracy, of course, but that is not the point.
The workshop was intended as a brainstorming and procedural exercise on how to spread awareness of the civil state and why it is important to avoid mixing religion into politics while building the new, post-25 January Egypt. Depending on your response to a church besieged by Salafis following news of the Christian wife of a Muslim being held by her family in the vicinity, the workshop was either a lost cause or all the more urgent. But it was to ground my assessment of a debate raging in intellectual circles since 11 February that I decided to take part in day one.
Two facts, while not entirely overlooked, loomed over the proceedings, inevitably skewing the perspective somewhat:
First, Egypt had not been an Islamic state prior to the revolution; and whether or not it is seen as such, it was against the civil state of the Mubarak regime, which systematically excluded and brutally repressed agents of political Islam, that the revolution broke out in the first place. Islamists (Salafis as well as Muslim Brothers) may have been late comers to the protests but they did take part in the revolution; they did not or were not allowed to hijack it to their own ends, but due to the involvement of many of them in parliamentary elections in the past – a process that involved violence and clashes with the security apparatus and NDP militias – they were better equipped than the liberals who instigated the revolution to deal with threats to its survival. Many feel they were indispensable to its success.
Secondly – and this is a worldwide phenomenon – the failure of the national state in much of the Muslim world following the dissolution of European empires has driven many Muslims to believe in the reinstatement of the caliphate (or the imamate, or both) as the only means to safeguarding dignity, prosperity and a culturally specific way of life. That much of this energy was quickly channeled into young, theologically suspect and ludicrously reductive versions of the creed originating in Saudi Arabia – that much of it was, with myopic instrumentality, employed by the US and its allies against the communist bloc in the Cold War, only to backfire with horrendous force, eventually resulting in worldwide Islamophobia and the stamp of global terrorism – is really besides the point.
It is in the secular framework of the need for liberal democracy and opposition to the police state that the revolution broke out, but what it pitted itself against – much of which, incidentally, has survived it more or less intact – was equally, nominally secular. Paradoxically, through the 20th century secular formulations of national identity (which all across the Arab world with the possible exception of Tunisia under Bourguiba have preserved respect for the religious establishment and applied shari’ah in the legal arena of personal affairs, making a civil marriage practically impossible and restricting the personal freedoms of unmarried heterosexuals) have resulted in as much repression and as much conservatism as anything sectarian – not to mention political inadequacy, a complete collapse of basic services, and economic dependency on the west. Following the death of Sadat in 1981, what is more, the situation in Egypt was further complicated by the complete lack of an ideological basis for state control. Whereas Syria, for example, had a corrupt dictatorship, Egypt had dictatorial corruption. And in the incumbent absence of opportunities for education and interaction, it was only natural that Islamists should find a firmer support basis among “the people”, whoever the people might turn out to be.
This is one of many questions not even posed by the intellectual community:
How might a new secular state, which is what ad-dawlah al-madaniyyah is ultimately a euphemism for, respond to the aspirations of ordinary people to a better life? More to the point, why should a non-politicised (semi) illiterate person with no particular interest in politics and no understanding of knowledge beyond the alleged dictates of the divine believe in ad-dawlah al-madaniyyah? At one level that ordinary person is ignorant and irresponsible, but at another – perhaps more important – level, they are not as gullible as all that. They have seen one dawlah madaniyyah; if change must occur, why not try out something else?
This question, and the two points that have raised it, remain unanswered.
At the Kotobkhan, Telmissany proceeded with the task of formulating a set of questions-points with which to market the civil state, assuming the activist would have an ordinary person – perhaps influenced by Islamist discourse – for an interlocutor. I was there until the end of the first question, “What is the civil state?”
Each of five principal key words – citizenship, equality, democracy, the law, and religious freedom – were discussed, but in each case – not surprisingly – the discussion would devolve into a discussion of religious precepts: in the face of the divine, few can argue anything at all. Of course, much of the work centred on how to effect the necessary rift between religion and politics in the minds of ordinary people – voters in the parliamentary elections planned for September – but, while the experience of those present reflected a high degree of misinformation and misunderstanding that could benefit from such voluntary work, it remained unclear how promoting choice, freedom and other principles of the Enlightenment could stand up to the emotionally charged and systematic mobilisation of a group like the Muslim Brothers. Even from a secular standpoint – an agnostic or atheistic one at that – it is possible to show why the civil state would not be the best answer to the five questions to which the aforementioned key words give rise. The Mubarak regime shows just how.
Telmissany’s efforts are ultimately commendable and the activists involved in promoting the secular state all realise that it will take years and institutions to see results, but I feel it is equally important to realise that sectarianism in the context of Egyptian politics stands for a lot more than what it says. In a cultural-normalisation debate prior to the revolution, I had attempted to make the point that normalisation with Saudi Arabia (which remains, after all, the closest ally of the War on Terror and the purveyors of democracy in the region) is actually rather more dangerous to the future of Egypt than normalisation with Israel.
A good portion of the debate, for example, has focused on the second term of the old Egyptian constitution, which states that Islam is the official religion of the country. This has meant little in practise other than an opportunity for the state to play the sectarian card when it suited it. Rather than instating a cultural vision to counterbalance fundamentalism, what the Mubarak regime did with religious extremists bred by Sadat to stave off the socialist threat was to cut a deal with them: they would have free reign as far as social affairs were concerned, so long as they kept out of politics. For the longest time prior to 25 January, the result was an Islamic state ruled by seculars (or American agents and thieves) – no way out.
It is perfectly possible to imagine a state free of religious extremism with the second term of the constitution intact.
What remains lacking in the intellectuals’ discourse, notwithstanding the justice of their demands and their compatibility with religious faith, is a true vision. It is all very well to defend the rights of the Christian minority or enlist Copts in the fight for a civil state, but this does not come near the issue of Copts themselves being in the vast majority of cases just as sectarian as Muslims – their support for secularism being simply a response to the fact that they are a minority.
A vision for Egypt is, irrespective of activism, the work of intellectuals – of artists and writers and thinkers sufficiently immersed in society to work with as much of “the ordinary” constituency as possible and to work from within a legacy and a heritage hijacked by political Islam. A vision for Egypt should also involve an outspoken statement of secular and atheistic principles notwithstanding the “inherently conservative” nature of Egyptian society. Pressure groups should emerge, to counter the pressure of the Salafis.
Throughout the 20th century, the principal failure of the Arab intellectual has been his exclusive concern with the political, with a relation with power, coupled by divorce from society at large. And insofar as it is an attempt at re-establishing contact with the people in the absence of political agenda, the Civil State campaign is precisely what is desired. But it will take more than being proactive to be convincing. And the people have a right to be exposed directly and openly to what the intellectuals actually believe.

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Five cases of exorcism

Facing each others’ shadows but not actually facing each other, seculars and Islamists were at daggers drawn, writes Youssef Rakha. Then came the Revolution



Once upon a time there was an ancient house and it was haunted by two families of ghosts, let us call them the Fundies and the Drunks; by the time this happens, all the inhabitants of the house are long dead; the house is in perpetual darkness. Each ghost family thinks it is alive and being haunted by the other family; each dreams of moving out to a warmer house. Scared of the dead, they are the dead; and they are kept apart by the lie that they are alive. The Drunks died much earlier; it is their attachment to physical and perishable things that makes them think they are alive, but they show fewer signs of vitality. The Fundies, a seamless block of the more recently deceased, draw their delusional breath from things supposedly eternal. They are aggressive and noisy, the Fundies; sometimes they even seem convincingly human, for ghosts. For the longest time the house stands immovable. Everyone is dead, but there remains in both families something perhaps truly eternal even as it remains physical and perishable and, for the longest time, completely hidden from view. That thing is shared by every member of every family; no one knows yet, but it can turn each back into a living human being. Perhaps no one has been quite so dead after all; perhaps death itself is reversible. One day the house begins to rock, softly, barely perceptibly at first. A shaft of sunlight penetrates to the centre and for the first time in their memory the Drunks, suddenly energetic in the light, feel the warmth on their skin. They cherish the blood pumping in their newly taut veins and, while their pupils dilate, realise that they have been dead. At this moment it dawns on them that, if they were dead, it cannot be that they were haunted by the Fundies, that the Fundies too may be alive by now, and that everyone has an equal claim to the house. While the house leaves the ground, the Fundies join the Drunks and, resuscitated likewise, they are unexpectedly peaceful and calm. Eventually the two families grow so friendly and secure in company that, by the time the house flies, no one is sacred of anyone.



The original meaning of exorcism is “binding by oath”; in this sense the former Egyptian regime was worse than a demon. No oath could bind it, and people were too aware of this to be affected by the intimidation and manipulation to which they were subjected. During the last few days before Mubarak’s stepping down, the Tahrir protesters were creative enough to stage a zar, the most popular form of exorcism in grassroots culture, to drive the stubborn, by then clearly blood-stained president from the country. In reality a zar is an African-rooted, indoor and female-only rite, in which a particular drum beat and collective circular movement, gaining in velocity as time passes, force a demon out of the body of a possessed woman, who will normally pass out at the end; but in the popular imagination the procedure is synonymous with irrational desperation, and for the protesters it was a theatrical expression of just that: Mubarak had proved so impervious to the demands of the unequivocal majority, so blind to reality, so steeped in fabricated consent, it took him longer than anyone to give in to the inevitable. By the time the zar took place, the mafia of the so called authorities had already tried everything (I think the events of 25 Jan-11 Feb establish beyond any doubt that the authorities were just that: a mafia; and it is well to remember that elements of that mafia continue to operate freely – to what end, no one knows for sure). Police, thugs, snipers on the one hand and, on the other, rumours, fear- and xenophobia-mongering as well as systematic misinformation: nothing could put an end to the revolution. Yet, like a mulish djinn of apostate ancestry (the worst kind), Mubarak continued to use the term “I will” to Thursday 10 Feb. But whether or not the zar had any part in it, that will of his was duly exorcised.



The Revolution goes beyond what just may be a sustainable rapprochement between secular and Islamist components of the unarmed constituency. It goes beyond the tendency to draw on spiritual references like the zar for moral sustenance under attack – and the indefinite and gruelling wait for Mubarak to see the light which sparked it. By Friday 28 Jan the government already had blood on its hands; and the security forces, after committing atrocious crimes against protesters and then abandoning their posts – who emptied the prisons? who attacked the police stations? who if not the police is ultimately responsible? – were no longer visible. One strong response to government cronies objecting to Mubarak stepping down on the grounds that it was not in “our culture” to humiliate elders and leaders was to point out that, in that same culture of ours, the spilling of blood does not go unpunished. (To this day neither Mubarak nor those under and around him have been forgiven; they are unlikely to ever be until they are brought to justice.) References to the martyrs – another grassroots religious concept – quickly became central to the protests – and the lineage of the Revolution as a whole; its patience stretched, the mafia in charge of Egypt – is it still in charge of Egypt? – had been exposed. By the second Friday of the Revolution, following the horrendous Battle of the Camel featuring NDP militias and the coldblooded murder of protesters by as yet unidentified (but very probably State Security) operatives on Wednesday 2 Feb, non-Islamist Muslims among the protesters were reclaiming a legacy that had for the longest time been appropriated by political Islam but that should in all fairness be shared by all Muslims, including secular Muslims as well as fundamentalists: the legacy of jihad, which means not blowing yourself up to bring down America but simply fighting the good fight where and when you are able to. We all undertook jihad during the Revolution, many Muslim Brothers and some Salafis were with us not in their capacity as Islamists but as Egyptians fighting the good fight. We all practised jihad in Tahrir, but none of us were jihadis.



Already underway is the debate about the second term of the constitution, which states that legislation should be derived from the Shari’a, that Islam is the official religion of Egypt and Arabic its official language. (Apart from personal-affairs laws which restrict private lives and have arguably contributed to sexual violence and frustration, legislation is not actually derived from Shari’a and, barring the emergence of a theocracy, is not likely to be. In the light of this and the fact that Arabic is the first language of nearly every Egyptian, I am not sure what the second term actually means.) The seculars – writers, artists, intellectuals, activists and a few enlightened men of religion – are calling for its removal in the course of ongoing or later amendments; they see the Revolution as an opportunity to build a truly non-sectarian state, cutting off political from spiritual affairs once and for all and respecting the rights of a citizen like myself to profess no religion at all while remaining fully Egyptian. Many (including, paradoxically, the Coptic clergy) feel that Islam and the language of the Quran are an essential facet of national identity and that their inclusion in the country’s  document of self-definition is a necessary shield against loss of direction, cultural (and other) invasion, and moral erosion of every kind. As late as the 1990s Islamists were actively killing seculars and seculars condoning a government they knew to be corrupt and illegitimate from the liberal-democratic standpoint simply because it actively terrorised (thereby also strengthening) Islamists. It is a credit to the Egyptian people that, while this debate goes on, while both sides feel strongly about it, no clashes have occurred at any level. The majority seems rightly aware that the priority is to establish a representative, participatory political system; and many are willing to put off resolving this particular point of contention for now. I think it is fair to say that if the majority of Egyptians want an Islamic state (whatever that means), an Islamic state is what the majority of Egyptians should get; but it is also important to remember that the second term has been used to control the religious establishment and manipulate both Islamists and seculars far more often than to uphold religious, let alone national identity. The second term should not become yet another evil spirit to be cast out, at least not yet. The second term is an opportunity for democratic interaction, for binding by oath the infinitely more evil spirit of Islamist-secular hatred and suspicion, whose only beneficiary since the 1970s has been an abusive regime despoiling the country in perpetuity.



I do not remember which of the many arrivals at Tahrir this was. We waited a very long time on Qasr Al-Nil Bridge. Arms raised, identity cards in hand, we were searched and given a loud hero’s welcome. It did not even register then, but those who checked our identities, those who apologised as they felt our pockets while others, clapping, chanted essawra bte-k-bar, “the Revolution is growing”, came in all shapes and sizes. Some had what were evidently religious beards, different kinds denoting different affiliations (Azharite, Muslim Brotherhood, Salafi). Others had pony tails or fros, or neat, military-like crew cuts. The most “westernised” worked hand in hand with the most “fundamentalist” and you did not even notice. That time a little old man who as I later found out had a communist background told us a story; he had been camping out in Tahrir for a week and last night he had had a dream. The Prophet Muhammad appeared to him, he said, in the company of unidentified Companions. There were injured protesters in the vicinity, one of whom was in his death throes, and the Prophet – bathed in light – placed his hand on the dying young man’s forehead and smiled. As is almost always the case in a dream of this kind, regarded by Muslims as the closest thing in this lifetime to an actual encounter with their Messenger, the dreamer could not see the Prophet’s face, but he watched, awe-struck, as the young man’s health visibly improved and heard the Prophet’s voice advising him and other protesters not to give up. “Victory is near,” the Prophet said, before the little old communist woke up with a smile of hope and gratitude imprinted on his face: the same smile he presented us with while we shuffled towards the statue of Omar Makram, near the Qasr Al-Nil entry point. “You look like progressive young men and I can tell you I never used to pray,” he said. “I never thought the Prophet would ever visit me in my sleep. Maybe I was not even a believer,” he muttered, eventually raising his voice with such conviction it was all I could do not to break down in tears: “Rest assured, however. We will win this battle. The Prophet Muhammad told me so.”

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You are miracle workers, Youssef. You will ring forever throughout history; Egypt, of course, was there at the beginning of human civilisation, and it and its people continue to be so. Momentous and magnificent, what you’ve done.” – the British writer Niall Griffiths in a private e-mail, 15 Feb, 2011

Having travelled east from Tunis, the principal slogan of the revolution in Egypt remained, unusually for Cairo demonstrations, in correct standard Arabic (and despite the co-option of the term since 11 Feb by every other guard-puppy of the former regime, every shameless beneficiary, and every lying bastard, I still feel utterly entitled to call my revolution by its true name). Hard to say in retrospect whether the incredible evocative, multi-layered power of the four words was already latent within them or was lent them by events and blood, but incredible evocative, multi-layered power they indubitably have:


Ash-sha’b, a word so completely misappropriated by the military in the 1950s and so often abused since then that, until 25 Jan, it could only be uttered ironically, is finally reclaimed, not in the discourse of the revolutionaries but, meaningfully, in their discursive acts. Overnight, a sha’b really does appear on the streets, ready to sacrifice work, home and comfort, even life, to make a point; it is real, it has flesh and blood, it is even capable of being killed (something the guardians of the status quo, predictably enough, demonstrated in a variety of ways). And it exists in sufficient numbers to suspend and overshadow everything else: terror, apathy, expediency, the machinery of repression. At last the word can be used to mean something real, something that can be confirmed instantly by sight.

Yureed: to want, to wish, to will; to have a will. An army conscript ends up as a police officer’s domestic servant; a physician in training is the Doctor’s errand boy; a journalist reports not from the scene of the event but from the office of the government official responsible; the student’s target is neither epistemological initiative nor professional aptitude but the certificate as a token of entitlement (to class, position, rank, kudos); and certificates too, PhDs in particular, can be bought, obtained by pulling strings: it is not simply a matter of corruption; life is hollow, unreal, drained out. As far as it exists at all, deprived of the right to gather, decide for itself, fight back, to say or to be, the people, which in recent memory has only exited as an abstraction, has absolutely no will.

Once again, miraculously, this changes overnight; and thanks to the machinery of violence and untruth, a nidham that has nothing to count on but fear and ignorance, the change very quickly becomes permanent. Before anyone has had time to think, ash-sha’b yureed is the central reference – amazingly, objectives are agreed on without discussion or premeditation, without leadership as it were, and they are shared by every protester regardless of background or orientation – although many, outside the arena of slogans, insist that the instigators and the agents of the revolution are in the end not so much sha’b as shabab (the young, who make up some 60 percent of the population anyway). I would personally take issue with the accuracy of calling this the revolution of the young, but no matter.

In the past, even when it existed enough to protest – as a trade union, a wannabe party or a brutishly repressed organisation of political Islam - ash-sha’b had focused on needing change or imposing it by force, not willing it. Now, overnight, it can actually will.

And what it wills, unequivocally is isqaat an-nidham:

the bringing down (not the changing or reforming) of the regime, the order, the manner of arrangement of things. There is space within that for willing other, grander and more complicated or conventionally organised things: things Arab, things Islamic, things quasi-Marxist, things civic above all… But the point of the revolution is the freedom in which to will those things and the right, eventually, to institutionalise them, the freedom to expose mechanisms whereby, until its outbreak, they could not be collectively willed: plurality and multiplicity within the scope of what everyone can agree on in their capacity as citizens of a modern, independent, self-respecting state.

As yet I can think of three gargantuan obstacles in the way of these freedoms, to which the revolution has been a revelatory, all but divine response: sicknesses that still glare hideously out of the dead body of an-nidham. Interestingly the one thing they have in common is the way they draw on existing and apparently ancient values which may not be undesirable in themselves but have not been holding up in the electronic age.


The postcolonial legacy is similar to that of the Eastern Bloc (centralism, bureaucracy, thought control and Leader worship) – and like the “socialist consumerism” of Party hacks in eastern Europe, since 1970 in Egypt, the police state has lived happily with capitalist excess (since 1981, what is more, and I am not alone in thinking this, the Leader has had neither vision nor charisma).

What this means in practise is that people have to use the technically illegal implements of capitalism (interest and profit) while at the same time pretending to abide by a once meaningful grand notion (if not Free Education then some other benefit of the Virtuous State); hence the informal economy on the one hand (private tuition, to follow through the example) and, on the other, bribery, extortion, wasta, nepotism and the ability of businessmen to monopolise essential products.

Salaries at the state’s invariably overstaffed institutions are kept unrealistically low to provide for the accumulating fortunes of the top five percent of employees in most cases, and perhaps also to keep people busy making ends meet. The last long-standing chairman of the board of Al Ahram, for example, took a cut of advertising revenues for himself while the institution was plunging into debt, not to mention maintaining a private retinue with vehicles and bodyguards at the expense of Al Ahram. That chairman of the board was to Egypt’s strongest “national” press conglomerate precisely what Mubarak was to Egypt: an incompetent promoter of incompetence able to make unthinkable amounts of money in return for being meaninglessly glorified. Controlling the incomes of everyone as if they came out of his own pocket, locked to his position of power with impunity even after he has fallen completely out of touch, for decades on end he rendered his constituency little or no service.

Where interests clash, the law can be invoked arbitrarily by a powerful enough player at any time, interrupting existing modes of interchange but only to a specific, usually personal end. In itself, this generates a self-sustained system of policing where everyone is always by definition wrong and subject to punishment but where everyone is watching everyone else as well, not so much to catch them doing wrong as to catch them doing right: refusing a bribe, performing the task for which they are paid, standing by each other against injustice, telling the truth, daring to challenge state-stamped authority. All such technically legal acts, moving counter to the age-old preference for hierarchy, homogeneity and dependency, actually disrupt the totalitarian order; they delay tasks, they make trouble for individuals; they can ruin lives.

For 15 days among the protesters in Tahrir Square, while order was spontaneously kept from each according to his ability to each according to his need – while security was collectively maintained through ID checks and meticulous searches at entry points – while public services included effective rubbish collection and crime prevention, even the banning of obscenities from slogans and chants – while necessities were transported and distributed, resources divided, space claimed, down to the installing of outdoor bathrooms and the setting up of camps for sleeping in the rain – all that is civic and public and state-operated about life was smoothly undertaken with infinitely more efficiency and conscience than anybody had ever known anywhere in Egypt.

Kafka, as it turns out, is not the price that we have to pay for stability; Kafka is what the problem has been all along.

For Egyptians, I believe, this should be evidence that the sha’b can always get on perfectly without its nidham. There need not be hollow pyramids, doublespeak or universal sameness for Egyptians – Islamists, Copts, seculars, liberals, leftists, even the angry rabble – to be able to live productively and peacefully together; and it is that ability, nothing else, that constitutes the greater good.


Last night there were fireworks in Tahrir. To see fireworks in Tahrir – and no one has ever seen fireworks in Tahir before – it took 18 days of uninterrupted protesting all over the country, the defeat and sudden disappearance of all security forces and the army taking over the streets on the third day, the deliberate disturbance of the peace and the spreading of rumours about protesters and journalists covering their protests – to maximum reactionary and xenophobic effect, the eventual entry on the scene of ruling-party militias and secret-service snipers attempting to disband protesters, some 350 dead and thousands injured, the very reluctant, silent stepping down of a very old president who has been implausibly in power for 30 years and whose family and private army of sycophants controlled and systematically robbed the economy, the eventual dissolution of the so called parliament and, oh yes, oh yes, a certain amount of constitutional emptiness in the meantime (constitutional emptiness is what the last-minute vice president and other government cronies kept invoking as an excuse to stop the president from stepping down, as if their nidham had ever respected any constitution).

The fireworks were not part of a ceremony as such, but celebrations in Tahrir since 11 Feb have been the closest thing to a true people’s ceremony in Egypt; the reason it occurs to no one to describe the celebrations as a ceremony is that the very notion (as in former communist states) has been hijacked by the state – and the state being what it was, ceremony was totally emptied of meaning. Even outdoor concerts routinely, unnecessarily involved vast numbers of Central Security (and they were not above harassing women in the dark). I would say this about a lot of things in Egypt besides the regime as such: religious experience, intellectual engagement, media discourse; all have been shells thoroughly voided of substance, and they acted to turn a predominantly young country into a little old witch of a lady: conservative, malicious, paralytic – a liar.

Some day soon, I hope, people taking to the streets spontaneously to celebrate (a thousands- or hundreds of thousands-strong, heterogeneous group of people exercising the right to use their own public space without being subjected to tear gas bought with their own money) will be the norm in Egypt.

As yet people are only just discovering rights previously, mercilessly denied them – the right to be addressed politely by members of the police, for one relatively widespread example – rights they have been repeatedly told would undermine personal and public safety and national stability when in fact all they really undermined was illegitimate power. Such discourse, like the president, is very old; it belongs with an age during which, unjustifiable as it remains, state control could be justified by lack of information, populist will, a nationalist (anti-imperialist, or proto-Soviet) scheme.

Until a few days ago, agents of the former regime still had the nerve to call such extremely hard-won political participation sedition, lamenting the alleged necessity of bloodshed to prevent it, and to warn of foreign agendas directing events, when everybody knows that no Egyptian government has made it its business to incite sedition or implement agendas as much as Mubarak’s: evidence has surfaced that the former Ministry of Interior was behind the recent bombing of the Saints Church in Alexandria, for one thing; in 2006, in the name of the war on terrorism targetting Hamas, Tzipi Livni announced Israeli war crimes to be committed the next day against the people of Gaza from the presidential headquarters in Cairo; and while Gaza was being bombed, the government refused to open the frontier to injured civilians.


Of course, one condition for silence before sheer age - and age is venerated for its own sake in Egyptian culture – is the separation and isolation of discursive spaces. A poet, for example, can be a reactionary agent of the regime in one space (some official post at some division of the Ministry of Culture) and a prophet of radicalism in another (the almost never-read text). As a socio-economic being, that poet’s existence is circumscribed, sufficiently policed to make it either a mouthpiece of the status quo (opening up space for upward mobility) or a container of silence; it is rendered an organic part of an-nidham. Elsewhere the poet is left to her own devices, but confined to the space in which she has nothing in common with fellow citizens – the private, unconventional, oppositional, atheistic space in which poets have been locked up – she can only reach out to another poet. She too is afraid for her personal safety and what stability she might benefit from as a lone progressive lamb among the grassroots wolves.

In Tahrir, spaces were opened up and, for the first time in our lifetimes, we could see that once the regime left us alone we had a lot more in common than we had ever thought possible; there is a necessary and beautiful space where we can all be together – and it is nowhere near as narrow or negative as the space in which we reject the nidham, although the latter proved to be the only gateway to it. Slogans also referred to freedom, peace and unity. During the protests, in the open air, there was painting and music and theatre as well as prayers (Muslim and Christian); there were creative and hilarious responses to the oppressor outside and the apathetic onlooker at the doorstep. There was a flowering of graffiti; giant drawings seemed to crawl on the asphalt. Many of the smaller signs were literary gemstones, and video footage was quickly converted into songs. Photos were made into artworks of immediate relevance…

Kites in the colours of the flag were constantly flown high in the sky; and the military helicopters, which the protesters did not always trust, seemed to circle them.


Psycho-socio-historians will have a bonanza in Oedipal readings of the 25 Jan Revolution: a work of art that should generate endless departures in the world of the mind. Egypt being the mother (and it was so called in one slogan drawing on traditional patriotic discourse), the absolute ruler – called an idol, a serial killer, a thief as well as a dog – was the hated father. Among the working classes in particular, patriarchy in the form of feeling sorry for “our president” continues to register. (It is easy enough to point out that, with his family fortune estimated at US$70 billion and so much innocent blood on his hands, our president can go to hell. Even if the patriarch were desirable, surely it would have to be a righteous patriarch who cared for his sons? And with references to filial duty consistently invoked in the context of the dirty fight to keep the regime alive – Goliath posing as David’s wronged begetter – I for one can only see respect for this patriarch as a form of eternal self-hatred, a denial of the true messiah, the vomit of treason.) But – and this remains the more relevant point, by far – 25 Jan was, as well as the defeat of the police, an occasion for patriarchy to vapourise.

Just like hierarchy, just like the false homogeneity imposed by the segregation of discursive spaces, patriarchy eliminating the life impulse completely broke down in Tahrir. Sexual harassment, a chronic illness that has dogged public space for as long as anyone remembers, was instantly and completely cured in Tahrir. Female participation, a supposed objective of both government and Islamists somehow never sufficiently realised, was patent and profound. Counsel was imparted irrespective of age but no viewpoint was imposed; and the stifling, father-headed structures of oppositional bodies of the past – modelled as they were on structures of power – spontaneously broke down. A revolution without leaders: the more precise description is to call it a revolution without fathers; even the fathers inside it were creative agents of freedom, the freedom of children, and their designation as fathers did not blind them to the ugliness that besets age when it is disfigured and corrupted.

The authority of the collective will eliminates fear. While the protests went on in Tahrir, patriarchy lived on in the myopic terror of “the popular committees” who, failing to realise that attacks on homes were orchestrated by the regime with the purpose of aborting the revolution, carried their kitchen knives and broom sticks outside and just stood there. For hours on end they moped, obtuse, at the entrances of streets and buildings; they formed checkpoints to search cars, mimicking the notorious checkpoints of the police. They were concerned about their private property first and foremost, and they often blamed the revolution for the threats to which they were subject. They acted tough, but it would take only a gun shot for them to piss themselves freely.

Patriarchy lived on in the attitude of parents who objected to their children participating in the protests, often out of fear for their safety, but just as often out of complacency and paralysis. Other parents brought their infants to Tahrir, painting their foreheads with the word Irhal – “Go away”. The parents of the martyrs gave speeches, urging the protesters to hold their ground.

One elderly gentleman – the father of three – sat next to me on the pavement at the Front, as we had taken to calling Abdulmoneim Riyad Square where the attacks of Black Wednesday were concentrated. That was on the next day, towards sunset, and it was very quiet on the Front. A young woman wearing a cardboard and tin helmet started chanting, “Down with Mubarak.” People were too tired to join in, but the elderly gentlemen kept staring at her, a smile of awe starting to form on his face.

Suddenly he turned to me and pointed in the direction from which the girl’s voice was coming. “You know,” he said. “When I see the likes of her I feel that I’ve wasted my life.” With a mixture of sorrow and delight he started laughing softly. “If she can do that at this age,” he muttered, “what does that say about people like me? When I see the likes of her,” he enunciated loudly, “I feel like a piece of crap.”

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Banipal piece

An enlargeable satellite image of the lower Ni...
Image via WikipediaThe automotive monologues

The bus is more than half empty when I get on…

An old woman in black scuttles down the aisle to my right; before I’ve had a chance to see her face, two glossy pamphlets are in my lap. They are manuals of prescribed supplications, precisely classified by subject, object, even time of day. I’ve seen them too often to maintain an anthropological interest. Looking out the window to my left, I slip the pocket-size compendia into the pouch on the back of the seat in front of me, where someone better disposed could pick them up. I manage to extract some change from my shirt pocket just in time for the dark-robed ghost scuttling back to pick up on her way; the briefest glimpse reveals unusually personable features.

Already we are moving… But if so few passengers are headed for the North Sinai resort town of Arish, why was it so hard to obtain a ticket last night?

Not until we’ve reached Almaza Station, the last stop before the Ismailia highway, do the holidaymakers arrive in droves. (Beyond Ismailia itself, you have only to cross a bridge over the Suez Canal to be on your way to Gaza). With permission from the driver, this is my chance for a last-minute cigarette. All my possessions are neatly bundled in a small vinyl “manbag”, so it’s easy enough to take everything along on my smog-infused stroll round the vehicle. I leave only my book, open face down where I was seated: a very common indication that the seat in question is occupied.

Outside, the upper half of the driver has disappeared into the baggage dungeon that makes up the underbelly of the vehicle, where cases are no doubt being cast into the East Delta Company’s shadowy geometry of departure. Passing his contorted rump, I must dodge more bag-bearers in the heat. Finally, back on board, I’ve shoved my way to where the prayer-dispensing woman first materialised. An extended family fills up the aisle like revolving stalactites.

Among them are three stunning female teenagers; only one wears a headscarf: having closed and cast aside the book, she is plonked happily in my stead. I protest weakly, addressing myself to the nearest grown-up man. Immediately he obliges, but, as if in a punitive gesture, he selects the largest of his male children to position firmly by my side.

YOU CAN generally judge your distance from greater Syria by the taste and texture of Turkish coffee: the more satisfying the beverage, the closer you are. We have barely passed Qantara East, the first major stop on what would be the shortest ground route to Palestine — and, thanks to its identity with Qantara West, a vital link between Sinai and the Nile Delta province of Sharqiya — but the coffee is already superior to what you would get at the offices of this newspaper.

The “rest-house” here is more modest than its Alexandrine counterparts, which makes such quality all the more remarkable. Watching the sun dip lower and lower on the horizon, I make phone calls from the edge of the highway, some distance away from the din of the buses and their patrons. Then, determined to chat up the waiter, I walk back to the cafeteria, make my order and sit down.

Back on the bus the prayer pamphlets have already disappeared. Was it the pretty girl in hijab ? The impending darkness renders watching the video a kind of tunnel vision. Now that the dialogue is English, the volume has thankfully been turned down.

But the second film is Speed, the action flick about a bus with a bomb on it. When I start watching, the driver has been shot in the arm; to avoid an explosion, the woman who takes his place must charge ahead at more than 60 miles an hour irrespective of traffic. Under the circumstances, one vehicle will inevitably be confused with the other as we charge ahead in the dark. It is dizzying.

I’VE BARELY broken into a run on the asphalt when the truck swerves violently, braking a few steps away from me. In a typically North Sinai automotive idiosyncrasy, one half of the highway just outside Arish is set aside for pleasure cycles and promenading; the other, where I’m rushing towards the white Mercedes taxi after what feels like a long wait, is consequently a two-way road.

“I was going to die trying to get in next to you.”

“You might as well admit it: you’re in too much of a hurry.”

I am. The brevity of my stay is weighing on me and a plan spontaneously forms in my head — so I gush it out to the red-faced Bilei tribesman at the wheel:

“I have a booking with the Coral Beach but I’m told that’s too far from town. Can you take me somewhere closer? Will there be rooms available, though? Listen. I want to go to Rafah in the morning, come back in a few hours. Can you do it? How much would it cost?”

Arishi Arabic is a surprisingly organic mixture of Bedouin and Delta dialects very much like the Palestinian colloquial spoken in the Gaza Strip. Whether this is a result of the same tribal roots stretching across the border or of more recent, politically vexed exchange, it makes a pleasant counterpoint to the Hollywood English of the film. They say a Bedouin lives up to his word. By the time I have settled in my mosquito-infested “chalet room” at the “Ubarwai” (as everyone here refers to the former Oberoi, the venue’s present name being Arish Resort), I feel my plan is truly under way.

Ten minutes later another truck is swerving, but this time I’m out of its collision course. The silent, perfectly metropolitan taxi driver will charge me LE4 instead of the LE3 quoted by the Bilei but I don’t mind. He is silent. As I edge out of the Mercedes, winding an improvised path through a crowd that could have been anywhere urban and poor in Egypt, my concern is rather to find someone to talk to.

It hasn’t occurred to me yet, but in the 36 hours I am away from Cairo, it is drivers who will be my salvation. For half an hour at the café I can’t bring myself to approach anyone without feeling too intrusive. I just observe: young backgammon players with interesting hair-dos; middle-aged civil servants drawing on their shisha as they affectionately exchange news; old sheikhs meditating…

My close-cropped hair can’t be helping, I know. Then again, this is hardly a question of my appearance alone. There has to be a convincing excuse for making conversation — a context both fleeting and intimate as well as, crucially, informal. I finish my Coke and find an Internet café. Phenomenally tired by now, I just stand there, roughly adjacent to the high street, waiting to catch a ride back.

A cigarette is all it takes to engage this driver. He is young, slight and pissed off: had he bought cigarettes in his present state of mind, he says, he would have smoked three packs by now. “When I feel suffocated, I just switch on the Qur’an” — the same Saudi recitations are booming all through the five- minute journey — “and drive along.” He only ever smokes this brand, he says, smiling.

What is bothering him?

“The way things are, no one has the luxury to think of politics or the political situation and so begin to do something about them; no one is in any position to do anything but feed himself and his family. Someone says, ‘Come along to a demonstration,’ and all you can think of is the time you’d be wasting there when you’d rather be doing some lucrative work. So there is no activism, though God knows we need it. There is only this breathless running around, and where does it lead to?”

A TRUE PILGRIMAGE is best preceded by a fast. That way the senses are heightened, the body purified; the soul becomes more receptive to the presence of the (political) sacred.

I forgo breakfast too often to claim that this is my intention when, as per my agreement with the Bilei, I set out for Rafah the next morning. I could hardly have thought of it as a pilgrimage, either. But the fact that my driver, Akhdar — a “relation” of the one I contracted — is quick to say, “I am Palestinian”, and the sight of prickly pear-flanked sand dotted with olive groves… the smell of sea air, entirely distinct from that of the western Mediterranean, which I’m used to, and the vague sense of danger as the checkpoints become more frequent — all imbues the experience with a sense of transcendence, a feeling of crossing over into a space both rightful and forbidden, suddenly too close to ignore.

Akhdar is young and serene, subdued. “I’ve got a passport and everything,” he explains with remarkable calm. “But for years now they won’t let me in. I’ve been many times, of course, to see my family. People want to come in here to see their family; sometimes they’re working in other countries and, stopping over in Gaza, they have to come here to travel back to their work places. More often they just need to go to hospital… No, no, I was born here. My mother is [a Bilei?] from Sharqiya. When you have residence you can go anywhere you like, just like an Egyptian citizen, but in other ways it’s not the same.”

He is about to marry, he tells me, but his wife won’t be a Palestinian. Marrying an Egyptian — a girl from Sharqiya, in his case — can raise your chance of obtaining nationality, according to recently introduced laws; that way you can leave the country if you want to, you can claim social and health care; you can feel, as he puts it, “in one piece”. Turning slightly to identify the local headquarters of the country’s most notoriously influential plain-clothes police force, the State Security, Akhdar switches his 1970s Egyptian pop back on. No one cares any more for the Palestinians, he says.

A string of stories about sneaking family members from the other side in through Rafah’s automotive waterways — once, he reports, he was surrounded by no less than 12 machine guns, their muzzles all over his vehicle — is interrupted by a low-rank policeman gesturing for us to stop.

“What is that you’ve got in there?”

His head half inside the window on Akhdar’s side, the policeman nods accusingly towards me, apparently confident that I can’t understand what he says.

” Essalamu alaykom,” I intervene in perfect Arabic, watching the sheepish smile that forms on his lips gradually dissolve into an expression of welcome while I explain who I am and what I’m there for. He nods knowingly to “the opening of the maabar “; I can see him waving in the side-view mirror.

“When people have hair like that, they tend to be Jews,” for which read “Israelis”. Akhdar smiles apologetically while he removes his seat belt again, now that we’re clear of checkpoints; he accepts yet another cigarette, looking ahead. Had he known what I was after, he says, he would have taken me to his paternal uncle, back in Arish; the old man knows a lot of border-passage stories. As it is, speeding, we will wend our way to the maabar first, seeking what relations we can find later in Rafah.

“So what did you do?” I am sounding increasingly disjointed as I take in the surrounding sights. “When you were stopped by those armed policemen, what did you do?”

By now the landscape is more or less identical with film images of the Gaza Strip stored away in the global memory; that strange, green gateway — not a frontier, not a tollbooth — comes within sight. I expected car-studded crowds raising an energetic cacophony. As we approach, slowing, except for a handful of policeman lounging in the shade, the place is in derelict stillness.

“Nothing,” Akhdar is saying, still perfectly calm. “They got us out and searched every nook and cranny of the car. In the end I just left him standing there on the sand — what else? I headed back.”

SINCE the outbreak of war in Lebanon — Israelis levelling Beirut in response to Hizbullah taking two hostages in the south — I have been tormented by the dilemma of how to support the resistance while opposing political Islam, an ideology I take issue with regardless of creed. Still, while people are resisting the insane excesses of empire, can you really reject their driving force?

Akhdar will take a shortcut before slowing down a narrow lane outside his cousin’s house, explaining that this is one of the roads he has used for people smuggling. The maabar is behind us as we turn. Gesturing derisively in its direction, he will point out, again, that it would be pointless listening to the advice we got there… On seeing my press credentials, one uniformed low-rank policeman had started to explain what it means to work at the maabar, day in, day out, when another, plain-clothes one interrupted the conversation, insisting that, before I can speak to anyone, I must have State Security permission.

“You’re a driver, right?” The uniformed officer said to Akhdar, through a window in the gate itself, feigning a helpful tone for my benefit. “You know where it is.”

If I want information I must go to State Security.

In the shade of a tree on the other side of the road, another uniformed officer was dozing off when the plainclothes policeman who had intercepted me went up to him; he raised his head from the table, he put it back down. His plainclothes companion — himself State Security, I suspect — didn’t bother to remove his leg from the seat on which it was placed when he shook my hand. “Nothing at all happened here,” he said, his tone verging on the intimidating. “Nothing worth reporting on, anyway. Do you see any activity around you?” He looked behind him. “A real pleasure meeting you, though…”

Breathing Palestinian air, now, the Islamic resistance dilemma no longer seems to bother me. We have stopped momentarily by an olive field, and it’s hard to believe that the poles in the distance are actually in Palestine. (“I saw Palestine,” I will keep telling friends on coming back to Cairo. “Yes, the country.”) But as we take our seats on the floor at Akhdar’s cousin’s — an older taxi-driver whose large one-storey house might as well be in a refugee camp — it dawns on me with unprecedented intensity that here are the people on the ground, that their lifestyle and beliefs are in no way undermined by Islamism, and that no one, not a single force except for the militants of political Islam are fighting on their side.

Over 500 families are supported by taxi trips from the maabar to Arish, my gracious host explains — his language is even more like Palestinian than anything I’ve heard so far — making at least 2,000 people dependent on the maabar being open, the only time when “there is work”. The Egyptian authorities have nothing to do with it, he insists. “It is the Jews, the Jews,” he says, over and over, “may God bring down their houses.” (There would be no point opening the maabar while the border is closed, and the border, however indirectly, is controlled by the Israeli authorities). The other day when it was open, he tells Akhdar, sipping the fresh mango-and- guava juice he has offered us, the work flowed “like honey”.

Before we leave — just in time for the camel races, back on the outskirts of Arish — he has made two separate points that bring the resolution of the dilemma to a safe harbour in my head:

“People are too concerned with having enough to eat to think about politics, whether or not they would support Hamas if they did;” and “Egyptians get along with Palestinians in Rafah, of course they do, because they are all Muslims; why should Muslim neighbours have problems with each other?”

After so many years of liberalism and enlightenment, I am born again.

The cousin ends up coming along part of the way to ask at the mechanic’s whether a particular spare part is available; there would be no point bringing the relative who needs it all the way from Arish if it wasn’t. (Many such commodities come straight from Israel; and trading in things like clothes and electronics originating there forms a significant part of North Sinai’s informal economy). At one point we take a sharp turn and he taps my shoulder from the back seat:

“See that building there?” I’m wincing in the sun. “That’s Palestine.”

THAT morning when I woke up, there were so many Arabian head-covers in the Ubarwai lounge I couldn’t help suspecting a Gulfie take-over. Only on speaking to one of their wearers — he turned out to be a camel breeder from Aqaba — did I discover what this was about: the Mahrajan Al-Hijjin, one of several three-day “camel festivals” held annually across the country, which draws together tribal Arabs from all over the Middle East and North Africa — all of whom wear the Peninsula’s trademark uqaal. (Several sources pointed out that the colour of the headscarf is a matter of personal taste, nothing to do with tribal affiliations: the blue, Tuareg-like varieties are increasingly popular among the young).

Finding out there would be races this afternoon, I’ve been looking forward to attending them all day — a relaxing denouement to the strain of Rafah — grateful that an unexpected gift should crop up just before I go. Arab nationalism aside, camels are among my favourite animals; and what better way to unwind than standing on the dunes watching them accelerate majestically in the sand, with beautifully decked out child jockeys bouncing in rhythm on their backs — or so I think.

They too will have had no breakfast, according to my Aqaba interlocutor, having spent the last two weeks eating and drinking half of their usual diet in preparation — something that intensifies my empathy now that hunger is wringing my stomach. By the time Akhdar puts on a Bedouin tape — also from Jordan — the horrors of “security” have been cast away.

At the rink we must wait; some say for an hour, some for two. One foj — that is how a single group of competing camels is referred to — is finished; the next hasn’t started yet. Akhdar and I consider the possibilities, setting off for the Ubarwai only to retrace our steps five minutes later: the cars are converging on the area, he says; the foj must be about to start.

Back on the sand we bump into Rabi, the brother of the driver who took me to the Ubarwai in the first place; without changing significantly, Akhdar’s speech appears to emphasise Bedouin over Palestinian inflections when he speaks to him. Rabi is in one of the sedans in which he deals, as he informs me, bringing them back and forth from Cairo. He invites me to sit in the back; later, when the action starts, thanks to his brother’s hospitality, I move next to him in the front.

My right arm will go on stinging for many days from exposure to sand bursts while sticking the camera out the window. The way you watch the race is to speed after the camels alongside the rink, mostly in Toyota pickups bearing up to 20 people in the back, taking pictures where you can — camera mobile phones are incredibly plentiful — and egging along your stud.

Afterwards, in the open space adjacent to where the single, circular lap starts and finishes, the onlookers perform car stunts, competing in daring and aptitude.

That the sedan, also a Toyota, was not meant for sand stunts doesn’t stop Rabi from joining in the show, at which point I’ve been in the car for more than three hours and am desperate to get out. For a long, long time before the foj started, he was crawling around making phone calls and looking for friends, never stopping for more than a few minutes at a time. For a traffic-suffocated city dweller it seemed counterintuitive to call this fun; but for everyone else it was a perfectly natural pastime.

No chance of a contemplative time on the dunes, then. Instead, this adrenaline-pumped ride round and round, with only a few moments to stretch my legs every so often. All the while the slow sundown is doing creative things with the sky — and not a single stationary camel to spend time with so far.

When Rabi disappears in the ring of vehicles waiting for their turn at a stunt, leaving the three of us near the rink to watch, I notice the lone figure of an evidently defeated competitor tethered unpleasantly to the wood. He is performing strange movements with his neck, looking like an ostrich and a bloodhound in turn, apparently unsettled by the presence of so many motor vehicles in the same place. He won’t give me a chance to touch him, though he poses for a few pictures willingly enough, from a distance. At least I step over and exchange a few words.

RABI is Arab to the bone; that means he badmouths other Arabs, making fun of the dha sound with which South Sinai tribes replace the more city-like da of the north (something I remember his red-faced brother doing too). It also means he will do anything for a guest — anything but listen carefully enough to realise that that guest would really like to go now, please. Instead he points out people firing guns into the air, carried away by the all- male, sand-and- uqaal excitement.

On a day like this, no guest or policeman will prevent him from driving on and on in circles, racing ahead like a madman to make sure “those water buffalo” don’t get ahead of him alongside the rink, and identifying tribes by facial features — a process that involves the most outrageous statements: “They will sell everything to buy a car for the mahrajan, come over in it, then sell it off once the mahrajan is over”; “The black ones are Arabs too, but they are black; they’re the worst killers, the black ones”; “Those guys you see over there, each of them has three to seven life sentences to his name, but they go on as before and there’s nothing the police can do to stop them; the police are scared of them”…

When he bumps into a group of resident policemen, indeed, he treats their practise of extortion as a given — a way, for him, to assert generosity or withhold favour. For a similarly long time he complains of not having any cannabis on him; the same goes for water. A need, though pressing, is never pressing enough; it just persists. And the concept of solitude doesn’t exist in any meaningful sense. Always people are coming and going, sometimes summoned by mobile phone, insulted when they fail to answer. Like a true stoner, Rabi has the shortest concentration span.

“The nicest thing is to get high and go round like we’re doing now,” he tells me at one point. And at another: “Do you get high?”

I know I have answered this question before now, so I insist, firmly but gently, that I must go; and following another 15 minutes of pleading on the part of both his brother and Akhdar he finally drives us back to where the taxi is parked.

“You’ve seen enough of this anyway,” he says as I edge out. The real fun is up on the mountain. Over there, there is neither police nor outsiders; people are completely wild…”

FIVE minutes later Rabi phones to say that he is going to Cairo tonight and would I like to go along with him, now that it is too late for a bus. We exchange phone numbers and he promises to phone in an hour. “An hour?” I ask incredulously. He is still at the rink.

“An hour.”

Several hours later — I am at another “rest-house” beyond Ismailia, almost at the end of my journey, and the coffee tastes like excrement — Rabi still hasn’t phoned.

“Why in such a hurry?” I remember him saying.

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