Sisi and his supporters are the reason 30 June-3 July took the popular revolt against political Islam in an illiberal direction (though considering the clear and present danger of Islamist war-mongering and terrorism, something to which the neoliberal world order as much as homegrown activists for democracy and human rights remain blind, it is hard to imagine how else things could’ve been done). I do think that, had he made it clear that he was not interested in becoming the leader and kept his position in the army, Egypt’s interminable “transition” might’ve been somewhat smoother. That doesn’t mean he is not what lowest-common-denominator Egypt deserves, and is. The claim that support for Sisi is due to media manipulation is one of many Western fantasies about what’s happening in Egypt. A religious military man, very conservative, very opposed to subversion, let alone violence or (ironically) war, and more or less loyal to the July order that produced him. A strict boss with a somewhat premodern idea of right and wrong, a patriotic sense of community, and plenty of prudence (not to say guile)… Surely that is what Egypt is about.
“The People are asleep my darling”
So she’d tell him;
Was careful not to wake the People,
To endure its dreams
Like a kid’s kicks,
To ape its slack tongue like a fool,
To crawl before it on all fours
That he might tell it the story of creation…
— Mohab Nasr (translated by Robin Moger)
Two and a half years after the January 25, 2011 uprising, I’m with my friend Aboulliel in the room I still have at my parents’ house. We’re slurping Turkish coffee and dragging on Marlboros, absorbed in conversation, when suddenly it feels as if we’ve been on the same topic since we sat here for the first time in 1998 or 1999: what should Egypt’s army-dominated government do about the Islamists’ sit-ins?
There are two of them, each thousands-strong, in Rabaa Al-Adawiya Mosque and Al-Nahda squares (east and west Cairo), the latter within walking distance of Dokky, where this apartment is located. They are crippling Cairo’s hobbling traffic and, as a security hazard, blocking the inflow of much needed tourist cash. They include all kinds of adherent of political Islam: Salafist, Jihadist, Jihadist-Salafist, Muslim Brother, renegade Muslim Brother and independently operating Islamist. And they’ve been going on for nearly 40 days, immobilizing the middle-class residential community of Rabaa and taunting the Cairo University students and faculty shuffling about campus near Al-Nahda. Their “defense committees” function like checkpoints, with club-wielding men searching baggage and reviewing IDs. Amnesty International has corroborated reports by independent local news channels like OnTV and CBC that “spies” caught inside them were secretly buried after having their fingers chopped off, among other atrocities. The media claims that each garrison harbors hardcore weaponry, and machine guns have been sighted in use against pro-army citizens who picked fights with protesters marching through their neighborhoods…
Unconsciously, it seems, I had waited a lifetime for Kismet. This was not my first attempt at a family of my own but, though I never resisted the idea, one way or another, fatherhood had eluded me. And for some reason I never thought I would have a daughter. When the sex of the foetus emerged relatively late in my wife’s pregnancy, I was unaccountably emotional; for the first time since childhood I experienced a desire wholly voided of lust. Life seemed to be coming together, albeit only once its setting had been transformed.
Pending trial, the case of three “Salafis” who killed an engineering student in Suez reportedly after warning him against meeting his fiancée in public prompted the head of security of the Canal city to further—involuntarily—expose the Ministry of Interior. Early in 2011, following the stepping down of Mubarak, his former counterpart in Behaira had been filmed giving a pep talk to his team in which he said, “He whose hand is raised against his master gets his hand chopped off; and we [the police] are their [the protesters'] masters.” Outrage resulted in him being removed from Behaira—only to be promoted to a higher post elsewhere in the country. As a result of incredibly frequent cabinet reshuffles since then, the ministry has been through several different heads; although it had been the principal motive behind the uprising, it has seen almost no reform. Yet the present Suez incident—the first of its kind following President Mohamed Mursi taking office—reveals an altogether different facet of corruption within the ministry.
In his statements to the media, the official in question explained that it had not been the intention of the attackers to take the student’s life but only to injure him. He said words to the effect that, being “committed young men” (commitment being the catch-all term for religious fanaticism and, what is worse, the use of religion as a cover for all manner of physical let alone moral violence against citizens), the “Salafis” had spoken kindly to the victim. Had he apologised and desisted, he went on to say, the situation would have been effortlessly resolved.
What is revealing about this response is not the fact that the rise to the presidency of the Muslim Brotherhood has given such “Salafis” (whoever on earth they may be) the political cover to commit such crimes with relative impunity—a predictable development anyway—but the fact that it has resulted in Ministry of Interior officials showing willingness to accommodate such “committed young men” to the point of expressing sympathy with their actions in open defiance of the law (after all, it is neither illegal nor socially unacceptable for a man to go out with his fiancée, whereas murder in cold blood would seem to be rather on the wrong side of the law). Two years ago under Mubarak such an incident (even if it were staged by the secret police) would have prompted mass arrests and vile mistreatment of “committed young men” all over the place (following the New Year’s Eve bombing of the Saints Church in Alexandria, which was probably staged by the ministry, at least one innocent suspect, Sayed Belal, died under torture without trial). Now that the president is an Islamist, however loose his connection with the kind of fanatic who would do this, the highest authority responsible is willing to practically apologise for a Sayed Belal who has been proven guilty.
Commitment, it would seem, has less to do with belief systems than with who happens to be in charge. Did I hear anybody talk about reforming the interior ministry?
“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.
A Week of Laughter and Forgetting: Day Six
A year after its outbreak, Youssef Rakha lists seven of the more revealing flights of humour that have punctuated the Egyptian revolution and its aftermath
The purging of “the media”, not to mention that of the Ministry of the Interior, was among the earliest demands of the revolution. So far, it has proved impossible. I think I have a few jokes of my own in this department, but first the word fuloul, which literally means something like remnants. It has acquired legendary status in popular consciousness since it was first used to describe Mubarak’s cronies and their subordinates — a good half of the population, as it turns out — but due to its phonetic similarity to the word for fuul, the all-Egyptian bean dish and the majority of the population’s source of sustenance, it was only natural that it should solicit a certain amount of wordplay.
There are two main reasons why “purification” remains an impossible objective. First, the depth and breadth of the reach of fuloul — and the difficulty of defining them in the first place — is such that it would take divine powers of investigation and judgement to identify and isolate them in the various state institutions, which even then would leave us with the question of what to do with them. They could always defend themselves with the argument that they were pro-Mubarak because they had no other choice; they could always pretend that they were pro-revolution in the first place. One joke had it that Mubarak himself was the one who called for the revolution.
Like baltageyya, fuloul seems to be more of a state of being than an action or even an orientation as such. Anyone could use it against anyone else — to eliminate them.
But the second reason why “purification” is difficult is even more pertinent. Unlike previous “revolutions” in Arab history, this particular string of events had neither leadership nor dogma. Who on earth is going to undertake the task of purging state institutions? Surely not SCAF, which was itself one such… In this sense perhaps we are all fuloul. Perhaps we should just gulp down our falafel and forget.
Sunday, June 15, 2008
Al Manar has dragged itself into the future and away from the 1950s sets.
It seems the graphics people at al Manar TV are brushing up their act. NileSat’s most resolutely retro news channel, whose sets used to look like they were out of the 1950s, is suddenly using slick digital transitions to advertise its programmes. It is pacing broadcasts much faster, challenging the competition with colourful plaques, distinctive logos and the full gamut of special effects. The anchors are adopting Jazeera-like voices and the stringers, like al Jazeera’s, report breathlessly from the thick.
It is also screening historical soap operas and serial documentaries on topics like the struggle of the Palestinians, the struggle against colonialism and the struggle to maintain national identity. Many of these are imported from Syria, some are dubbed from Farsi, but all seek to lure the global Arabic-speaking viewer into that world of eternal truth, ruthless justice and ever so punctilious philanthropy dreamt up by Hizbollah.
Contrary to the views of American neoconservatives, Hizbollah is not in fact a bunch of Jew-hating terrorists with Nazi or Qa’eda aspirations (for neoconservatives, either comparison will do). Their televisual mouthpiece need not be automatically identified with a venom-spitting monster, therefore.
Al Manar does provide a mouthpiece for justified Arab and Muslim discontent. Because it focuses on otherwise voiceless victims of Israel (the people of southern Lebanon, the Palestinians, some Syrians) and speaks to all those who feel bad about people being systematically humiliated, denied homes in which to live or simply finished off, because it gives so much airtime to everyday Hizbollah supporters phoning in to exchange emotional moments with representatives of the movement and its political and doctrinal allies, al Manar has a kind of credibility. Combined with the tendency to look and sound like a news channel from an Iron Curtain dictatorship during the Cold War, this used to give it a certain reason-defying appeal.
Then again, al Manar does promote a dodgy piece of theologising in Khomeini’s doctrine of velayat-e faqih, by which the Shia cleric gets to act as “guardian” of the regime, and which even the most pious Shia Iranians believe has proven by far less Islamic, benevolent or just than the pre-1979 Shah’s regime.
Aside from its shameless advocation of theocracy, what is bad about al Manar, and what the graphic revolution has not managed to improve, is its obsessive devotion to ideology. Unlike subtler Lebanese channels with a political agenda – LBC or Future, for example – al Manar has been a more or less avowed propaganda machine since its inception in 1991 (the channel has been transmitting via satellite since 2000). And the new look is clearly trying to build up its image to make it look less like one.
It seems worrying therefore that, however much you may sympathise with Hizbollah, al Manar’s modus operandi is liable to turn you into a Shia-hating, anti-populist Bushophile whatever else you claim to be.
Tickers, almanar.com and archives on DVD have improved neither overblown rhetoric nor partisan orientation: America is an incarnation of the selfsame Satan who first tempted Adam in Paradise; velayat-e faqih is the only form of leadership that could bring order to the chaos of Arab-Muslim politics, retrieving the sovereignty said Satan has appropriated; Iran is ready to take over the entire Muslim world and, without so much as a harsh word or a drop of blood, challenge American hegemony and rebuild the glories of Islam.
Grown up people with respectable beards actually sit down to say these things, with perfectly straight faces, and anchors nod enthusiastically as if to say, “Dah!” Talk show hosts support their guests’ outrageous views – that Khomeini worked just like a prophet of Allah, that he actually was a prophet of Allah – before the guest has expressed them: “So, your samaha the sheikh, how would you comment on Imam Ruhollah’s approach to revolution, which was identical to that of the Prophet Mohammad peace be upon him?” “Well, it was identical…” People phone in to hysterically decry the death of their loved ones under Israeli or Future Movement fire or pronounce Hassan Nassrallah the Redeemer. And atrocities committed against Arabs and Muslims are flaunted to classical verses written in the style of Shia lamentations and set to heart-rending music.
By invoking certain standards of objectivity, the newly introduced, smooth-operating methods only dramatise the misinformation being presented. Those secular Arabs clinging onto the ever more elusive life-raft of critical thinking may very well cheer the resistance Hizbollah has come to embody. But they will still have serious trouble watching al Manar.
There is something too easy about being an Arab journalist. The Arab is inherently a babbler, as loquacious as (s)he is indiscrete. All you need to do is hang around a few potential sources. And within minutes you will have all the data you could possibly want. Permission to quote may not be as forthcoming, but the lure of the limelight is usually a sufficient incentive; and if you are not putting anybody in trouble, the chances are your interlocutor will be more than happy to pose for a front-page portrait. True, politics can be trickier, but who can afford to talk politics these days? In matters relating to art and life –– more to the point –– no job is simpler than the Arab journalist’s.
Not so in the UAE!
For three months now I have been trying to wrap my ghutra-less head around this Trucial oddity, and for three months it has been all I could do not to bash said head against the wall.
Time and again I think of stories to write: innocuous, apolitical and absolutely harmless stories. Time and again I hit the same inexplicable roadblock. Forget interesting or provocative commentary. You would not believe what it takes to obtain someone’s phone number. Irrespective, that is, of whether they might actually answer the phone. Say they do, then you have a fifty-fifty chance of getting a brief answer to maybe one of five questions. More probably they will offer you someone else’s number, and then that other person will prove to be even less positively disposed. And to think that all you set out to do is cover an exhibition or a screening!
In three months I have coaxed, yelled and pulled strings. On the one occasion when plans did not fall through, the person vanished before I could organise the indispensable photo shoot. I have since learned that this can happen. When you are least expecting it, mobile phones are switched off, secretaries fail to reveal their bosses’ whereabouts under waterboarding, and e-mails continually bounce back.
It all adds to the mystery, of course; and indeed I had almost got used to it.
Until, asking a source’s permission for an anonymous and perfectly pro powers that be quote, I found myself reeling under a string of hysterical protestations. A strange, almost tearful moment: it was at this point that I conceived of my theory about Arab journalists in the UAE being the targets of a secret, nation-wide conspiracy to make them feel as far away from familiar, shoot-the-breeze territory as possible. And perhaps the intention is for them to hone their craft, the better to raise the standards of Arab journalism. I can live with that.
Recalling my easy-going former life as a cultural editor, my concern, rather, is that one day I will give in to the temptation, already strong, to put words into the mouths of those perpetually elusive sources. If they will not talk for fear of losing their jobs, perhaps they will lose them anyway.
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The Golden Rules of British Journalism:
1-If you can’t buy it, it’s not worth writing about
2-So we know the topic? Now let’s get five of them
3-Always remember the reader is a lazy, dyslexic half wit
If you give us a draft by Monday, then maybe we can have something to work with by the end of the week. Oh, it’s been three weeks already? Right, don’t get discouraged. See if we manage to truck through this one… What do you mean the piece isn’t actually improving! Once you’ve reworked the thirtieth draft five or six times, then maybe we can start working on the article.