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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SCAF and Mobile Phone Credit

A Week of Laughter and Forgetting: Day Five

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

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After Mubarak stepped down, much of the hilarity centred on the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces’ messages to the people, whether via SMS or on SCAF’s official Facebook Page. The ultra-formal, outdated lingo employed by SCAF was appropriated to express not only suspicion about the military’s intentions but also — with funnier results — the “official” standpoint of “the people” being addressed. One particularly remarkable phase started when, no longer able to conceal military violence against peaceful demonstrators, SCAF — addressing the “revolutionaries” — began to talk about their “credit with you” by way of apology, invoking the metaphor of mobile phone charge cards. Slogans circulated to the effect that SCAF have no more credit, that they must top up, that the line was disconnected…

Historical hyperbole about the bravery and honour of the Egyptian military was to undergo sarcastic reformulations in the next few months, with the increasingly untenable myth that the army protected the revolution painfully exposed: people’s heads were crushed by armoured vehicles, women were undressed as soldiers stepped on them, conspiracy theories of the regime under Mubarak were rehashed — and the catch-all term baltagi (pl. and fem. baltageyya) was used as almost metaphysical justification for the violent repression of protesters. At this point the most unlikely people started declaring themselves baltageyya. One famous picture shows a delectable little girl smiling and raising a sign that says “I am a baltageyya.”

The tendency to attach to oneself the term by which SCAF was discrediting protesters spread, reaching a climax with the enigmatic and eminently laughable Third Party — the ever unknown someone who was supposed to account for the killing and maiming of protesters every time they clashed with Military Police — with hundreds of variations on the statement “I am the Third Party” or “Obama is the Third Party” etc. When the Justice and Freedom Party — the political arm of the Muslimhood — began to deploy similar discourses in defence of SCAF, the Masonic Third Party suddenly became the Bandeeta Mask, a mis-transliteration of the title of the film Vendetta, featuring a mask that had been adopted by some protesters.

Things were going downhill indeed.

Tahrir and its discontents

Responding to recent Facebook “notes” by the poet Mohab Nasr — an Alexandrian schoolteacher turned Kuwait-based journalist and, since 25 January, perhaps the most honest critic of the Egyptian human being — Youssef Rakha unpacks the concept of the People

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Back in January, my friend Mohab (b. 1962) was more sceptical than I was about what was then called, without the least hesitation, Revolution. Today, in his own profoundly dusky way, Mohab is more enthusiastic about social-political transformation than I am. He is less shocked by the de facto alliance of the military and political Islam, the marginalization if not the liquidation of true revolutionaries across the country, the way in which the martyrs are betrayed not only by politicians but also by the Silent Majority — hizb al kanabah, or “the Couch Party”, as he and many others have designated the greater number of Egyptians. If people want the Islamists or condone their rise to power, he seems to say, let people have the Islamists. And let everyone, including Intellectuals like you and me, face up to the reality of our collective existence (which is an attribute of the human condition, after all). Let us accept responsibility for being part of this society, confront our historical failure to make a difference, our irrelevance, instead of taking cover in inevitably opportunistic abstractions like Individuality, Culture or Opposition, all the while having a Corrupt Regime to complain about while we do so. Since January, Mohab has come back to Egypt only once, in spring. At no point did he participate in the protests or witness the carnage perpetrated by the police (and later also the army), which partly explains the difference in timing. Now firmly secular, Mohab was once — briefly — a member of the Muslim Brotherhood in Alexandria: another reason for variation in perspective. Yet there is a sense in which what he has to say about the events of 2011 tallies with my experience of them. Like me he is less interested in the political move than the mind that makes it, and — even more so — the Majority’s response. A lot of what he attributes specifically to Egyptians applies to people anywhere in our times, I feel; yet his remarks about the reasons behind the outcome of the Tahrir protests are so insightful and heartfelt, and his disgust with al muthaqqafin or the intelligentsia so justified, he makes timely sense.


The longest article Mohab has written on the subject, “Society of Hooligans, Hooligan State”, attempts to demarcate the political space in which Egyptians can function, describing a global order, as he puts it, that only lets you “say them and us” so long as saying it remains a variation on the brand-name, multinational theme, or an exotic label therein. You are allowed to set yourself apart, in other words, only in the most vapid (hence harmless) way, “in a metaphorical way, as a sort of cheap compensation for being on a lower rung of the ladder”. Not to condone the foul crimes of a Saddam, a Muammar or a Bashar, the better you understand this the more successful you are, whether you are a government or an oppositional organisation. The Muslim Brothers, Mohab states with astounding accuracy, are in precisely the position of the pragmatic underdog: their identity-mongering has not for a moment prevented them from being “wholly integrated into the greater compound” of world capitalism; the implication, more or less stated later in the article, is that the only possible meaning Islam could have in present-day politics is no meaning at all: “Identity as an idea about the past is a pit… Those who claim that identity [Islam] is the answer cite as their pretext societies that have made achievements on the basis of identity [the West]; they conveniently forget that those societies used identity as mere propaganda, throwing it away once it conflicted with capitalist interests.” In an addendum prompted by one intellectual’s infuriatingly complacent comment on this “note”, Mohab condemns the poeticised (as opposed to poetic) sensibility, which has not only divested the Egyptian intellectual of all moral (as opposed to merely aesthetic) commitment but also confined them to an exclusively discursive and “personal” space, promoting opportunism at the individual level while blocking the way to any possible greater good, let alone an effective social or even political role. In this, he implies, the Islamists — aside from their fundamental moral and historical contradictions — have surpassed the intelligentsia: they formed a sustained group that could reach out to the Majority, because they remained in touch with reality and attuned their discourse to it.

But it is about said Majority that Mohab makes the most interesting points. The currency of religion as the only facet of moral or intellectual activity, for example, is seen as an extension of the evasive, cowardly and criminally selfish values adopted by the middle-class nuclear family whose civil servant patriarch “has brought up his son to bow down, a bow that remains with him for life, marking souls that live in anticipation of a slap,” he writes in “The Corrupt Couch Party”. “That is why their religiosity is but a deep fear [divested of any sense of] a whole Spirit that unifies existence… Those are people who watched the rise of the Nasserist bourgeois without bothering to change their pyjamas, and when they at last replaced them, they put on a galabeya instead. They accepted sycophancy to the boss as respect, silence in the face of injustice as a ‘nature’ they deserved… They were educated because education, not knowledge, could be their means to the job… They understood knowing as having authority, not enjoying discovery; as lionisation, not creativity.” It is only natural, Mohab contends, that the progeny of such people will be at best indifferent to the prospect of social transformation, especially one that involves risk — and, for the most part, they were. In “Can the Revolution Be Against the People?”, the most recent of the “notes” he has written, Mohab points out that the millions who rallied around a hard core of true revolutionaries were not as revolutionary as they; they were merely, manically happy with “the moment of kicking the father out of the house”. That moment, at which otherwise Couch vegetables (or some of them) were possessed by an energy beyond their nature, is no indication of a genuine support base for transformation that works. Much as they seemed to be there, much as it hurts to admit it, the People were not in Tahrir. They were there, as it were, incidentally. The People were in Tahrir as anti-protest thugs and informers and witnesses as well as being there as protesters; they were not always or often or at all in Tahrir. Much like intellectuals who experience reality as aesthetic discourse, the People lived the revolution as momentary release.

THREE REASONS I WILL NOT VOTE

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1-The Martyrs. It seems utterly insensible to start holding this “national wedding” – as Egypt’s first “free” parliamentary elections have been called – within hours of the death of over 40 demonstrators at the hands of both police and military, the latter also being the overseers (with unequivocal American cover) of a democratic process neither compatible with nor possible without such crimes against humanity (crimes now divested, even, of the excuse of terrorism). I am no longer very sympathetic with the younger activist movers and the shakers of the revolution, but the fact that the overwhelming majority of the dead and the injured since January are unaffiliated with either parties or ideologies makes the posturing of even well meaning candidates a betrayal not only of revolution but of the most basic patriotic and human fellow feeling.

2-SCAF. It has been over 59 years since a military coup, on the pretext of expelling the British and adopting progressive ideologies, not only put an end to what vestiges of democratic process and civil rights were there under the monarchy but also (and always on grandiose pretexts) negatively impacted actual and potential urban planning, education, agriculture, industry and social-cultural development. The People of Egypt are as responsible for this as the in-power-until-dead-presidential Regime, but it is precisely out of complacency about illegitimate military power that, over six decades, things had got as bad as they were when people took to the streets on 25 January. Until the incompetent generals hand over power to competent civilians, whatever the means to making them do so and whatever Washington’s position, no elections can be effective.

3-The Candidates. The irony of the so called revolution, its greatest triumph and its worst tragedy, is that it has no political direction. Obstructed by SCAF as much as the Islamists – the very religion-mongers and reluctant (if not counter) revolutionaries whose oppositional relation to the regime and insatiable appetite for power has placed them in the best possible position for winning the elections today, Egypt’s hitherto more or less apolitical revolutionaries – my only possible representatives – have not had the time or wherewithal to set up parties, let alone form support bases among politically retarded constituencies who had been more or less against the revolution anyway. I will not be party to the very process whereby people died for freedom – only to pave the road for agents of unfreedom to be in positions of power.

Jadaliyya: Three Versions of Copt

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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

-I-

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.

-II-

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.

-III-

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.

http://www.jadaliyya.com/

Anticipating 8 July

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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.

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

 

THE PARABLE OF THE OTHERS

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.

 

ZAR: BINDING BY OATH

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.

 

JIHAD SANS JIAHDIS

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.

 

THE SECOND TERM

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.

 

DIVINITY AT LARGE

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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25, 28

Youssef Rakha gives testimony of the first two days

I am asked to write about the recent events in Egypt, and my account will be personal whatever else it is. I saw people die, I saw their killers, I saw commentators – some of them close acquaintances or colleagues – lie about it through their teeth. Inevitably, it will be a tiny portion of what I believe will be the main epic of the Egyptian people for decades to come.

As a journalist I have worked for the most powerful pro-government press establishment in Egypt for nearly 12 years. The position has provided a level of social protection against abuses constantly witnessed on the streets; it has acted as a financial and political buffer, replacing citizenship in a society where citizenship grants few if any rights.By restricting my contribution to cultural and intellectual topics and working in English, at the same time, I have managed to avoid direct involvement in the wholesale distortion, misinformation and sheer incompetence that has made up so much of what went for balance and objectivity on the pages of publications printed by this institution, especially since a new team of chief editors were summarily appointed by the Shura Council in the summer of 2005.

Like many Egyptians, until I saw thousands upon thousands of demonstrators gathered in Maidan at-Tahrir on 25 January – saw that they were neither Islamists nor negligible – and totally identified with them – I was largely sceptical about Egypt having much capacity for true dissent. It is something of a media cliche by now to point out that the opposition was already half oppressed, half co-opted, powerless against the airtight alliance of cannibalistic capitalism and corrupt governance. Even the “banned” Muslim Brothers, of whom I am no supporter, were criminally ousted from parliament during the last elections and had since considered taking to the streets in protest.

Then again, no one suspected that the People’s Assembly was ever a representative body anyway (the same is true of the Press Syndicate, membership of which requires an official position at a government-approved institution by law, and provides little beyond installment plans for the purchase of cars and apartments or reduced-price vacations). Among writers – and in the last six years I have been as much a writer in Arabic as a journalist in English – there remained a sense of relief that (since the people failed repeatedly to show revolutionary oomph) the government, if it did nothing else, could at least keep “the Islamist threat” at bay. As much as western regimes, the traditional intelligentsia was for the longest time duped by fear of theocracy; and to this day protesters and their supporters are emphatically rejecting Khamenei’s blessings.

NDP thugs were known to exist long before they attempted to disband protesters on donkey- and camel-back last Wednesday (2 Feb) – the night on which allegedly sincere and peaceful supporters of Mubarak managed somehow to bombard protesters with tear gas (as well as stones and Molotov cocktails), while snipers stationed on the roofs of the highest buildings waited for the cover of darkness to commit murder  in cold blood – but few outside the Muslim Brotherhood felt they had enough of a stake in the electoral process to object to the thugs’ presence. People knew they had the protection of the police, and no one dreamed they could ever be deployed against peaceful protesters on such a scale – partly because no one dreamed there would ever be peaceful protesters on such a scale. Since 25 January other threats have been held up to Tahrir as well: the threat of chaos, the criminal threat, the constitutional-emptiness threat, the foreign-agenda threat. BS! I have not lost touch with the protests since 25 January and I am grateful that I have lived to witness them.

Egypt’s security apparatus is among the largest and best funded institutions of terror in the world today. It has practised torture, extortion and murder systematically for as long as anyone remembers; and I am grateful that I have lived to see it defeated, humiliated and exposed – and to have contributed, however little, to that glory.

***

Tuesday, 25 Jan. Maidan, the Egyptian word for “square” or “circle” – as opposed to the Syrian-Lebanese word saha, for example – originally means arena or battle front; and during the last week of January many of those to whom Maidan at-Tahrir becomes a home or a second home, partly inspired by the lyrics to a well-known song from the 1970s by the oppositional composer-singer Sheikh Imam Eissa, will start referring to the principal hub of modern Cairo simply as the Maidan: “The brave man is brave, the coward is cowardly/Come on, brave man, let us go into the arena.” In the space of a fortnight the spot at which thousands of younger Egyptians have gathered, contrary to all expectations, will have turned irrevocably into a place of memory, a historical site. Passing the square or hearing about it, people start to wonder whether “this is real”; they are already joining in. Faces and voices are incredulous, but it is true: for once at a political event the number of demonstrators is actually greater than the number of Central Security troops restricting their movement and ready to subdue them by force; for once a political event is taking place in the open, in a central space, lasting all day and well into the night. Of course, by Saturday 29 Jan, Tahrir will have turned into a maidan in every sense possible.

Central Security is a branch of the military placed at the disposal of the Ministry of Interior for purposes roughly equivalent to those of the riot police. Best known for their unthinking violence, they tend to be army conscripts from working-class provincial backgrounds (less legally, army conscripts in the form of  guards are also routinely employed in the service of police officer’s families, buying groceries for the madam and using the state-owned police vans popularly known as el box to transport the children to school); directed by loyal commanders, Central Security do what they are told; and along with legal complications regarding the right to peaceful protest, emergency law (which in practise allows any member of the police to arrest and indefinitely detain any member of the public), and possible intervention from the notorious (plainclothes, highly skilled and practically autonomous) State Security, they have been a sufficient disincentive up to this point. Yet none of it stops people, thousands and tens of thousands, from flocking to Tahrir now – all of it in response to a seemingly stray Internet call for solidarity and anger?

The initial demonstration was announced on the popular Facebook Page called “We Are All Khalid Said” (a reference to one young man who died in the process of being brutalised by a low-rank policeman on the streets of Alexandria, without charge, on 6 June 2010). It was started by a young man “of good family”, to translate the classist Egyptian expression ibn nass, well-off and internationally connected, a product of the global economy and the kind of sheltered upbringing that produces conscientious and well-meaning geeks. Born in 1980, Wael Ghoneim is Google’s Middle East  marketing manager. (On Sunday he will be kidnapped by State Security and held, blindfolded, in secret confinement until the next Monday, when he made a powerful appearance on Egyptian satellite television.) For months the Page worked loosely in liaison with four online movements – April 6, Youth for Justice and Freedom, Hshd and the Popular Front for Freedom – as well as the El Baradei Campaign, the Muslim Brothers (who will keep an admirably low profile despite playing a very significant role in the survival of the Tahrir community) and the Democratic Front Party.

The demonstration was planned, with truly poetic irony, to coincide with Police Day, a national holiday commemorating a major act of heroism by Egyptian police troops besieged by British forces in Ismailia on the eve of the coup d’etat-turned-revolution of 1952. I am among the majority who think 25 January will come to nothing, but by evening I too have trouble holding back tears. There are clear signs of life in the long dead body of my true constituency – political participation by sheer force of right – and it is not driven by any (inevitably suspect) political programme. It is sincere, it is civilised, it is tidy, it is – and this too has mattered to me throughout – cool.

That evening I leave Tahrir around 11.30 pm. People are singing, bearing signs, lying in circles on the asphalt. They are predominantly young and secular. Even Central Security guards, with smiles on their faces, are humming the most popular slogan, adopted from the revolution in Tunisia: ash-sha’b yureed isqaat an-nidham (the people want to bring down the regime). A group of protesters surround one young man in what appears to be a standoff; they prevail on him to remove stones from his pockets. “Whoever throws a stone belongs with them,” I hear one of them say, referring to the security forces stationed at one entryway near by, “not us.”

Outside Tahrir the traffic proceeds normally; there is a sense of danger and excitement, the area surrounding the square is sealed off, but traffic proceeds more or less normally. I have barely arrived home when I find out that, desperate to disband protesters intent on spending the night in Tahrir, Central Security has attacked the demonstrators with tear gas, rubber and live pellets, canes and armoured trucks. A friend of mine ends up with 63 pellets lodged in his body; at least five friends of mine – two of them award-winning writers – are mercilessly beaten; in the next two days there will be numerous, more or less brief arrests, notably outside the Supreme Court near the Press and Lawyers syndicates. By 1 am the Maidan is more or less empty, and despite continuing demonstrations in the area and news of extremely violent confrontations in Suez – led by Alexandria and Cairo, the entire country is rising up – things appear to have quietened somewhat for the next two days. They are not over.

***

Tuesday 1 Feb, when a million people under protection of the army establish the virtually independent City of Tahrir – a fully functional and demographically varied community whose population at the time of writing has not dropped below 30,000 for a minute since Saturday 29 Jan – is still a long way off. At the time of writing pro-Mubarak demonstrations, announced repeatedly since then, have fizzled out to nothing after it transpired that they were invariably penetrated by criminal elements and police, directed not by popular will but by official and business interests. In times of need a decades-old dictatorship relies on the poverty, dependency and ignorance it has spent so much on cultivating – but lies can only go so far once the barrier of fear is broken. Already on Tuesday people who have been to the Maidan believe they are inhaling cleaner air, to the point where some of them are wondering whether it is because the numbers of vehicles in the area have significantly dropped.

***

Friday, 28 Jan. Of the many different fumes potent enough to induce a significant state change that I have experienced in my own body, I now have an additional one to give me flashbacks: tear gas. For someone who has never tried it, where a sufficient amount is inhaled, the effect is fiercely disorienting. Stinging sensations all over the face are accompanied by a temporary inability to breathe, and eyes – already clouding over – seem to reflect the death throes of the victim. Soda on the eyes and onion or vinegar soaked fabric on the nose: from that day I can count at least 30 young men crying out, standing or lying prone on their backs, wondering whether they were about to die. Solidarity among the demonstrators was instant and absolute; among the most touching remarks I heard exchanged in the entryways of residential buildings was, “Don’t panic, just don’t panic. It only lasts five minutes.”

It was on Friday 28 January, with both internet connections and mobile phone lines completely cut off all across the country, that I set out to the site of the oldest mosque in Egypt in Misr Al-Qadima, Jami’ ‘Amr, where one of many demonstrations planned for this, Angry Friday (I would personally call it Liberation Friday, but that is not the point), was to set off after the weekly group prayers. There were four of us on the Metro, all writers. Before we arrived at Mar Girgis, the two women put on headscarves and separated from my friend and me. At the entrance we asked a young man where the women’s section was. “I don’t know,” he said, with a strange look in his eyes. “This is my first time here.”

That look, the desperate determination it expressed, the all but suicidal readiness to effect change it communicated silently across classes, cultural backgrounds, even political orientations, will no doubt remain among the most defining experiences of my life.

For close on half an hour we endured a Friday sermon in which we were prevailed on to avoid sedition and, where our just demands were not met on earth, wait for the reward in the hereafter. The ameen that follows each request at the end was all but inaudible when the imam mentioned the name of Mubarak. It was not clear whether calls for protest would be met in sufficient numbers here of all places, particularly in the absence of the ability to confirm them. I am secular, not a practising Muslim, but I performed my prayers devoutly and did all I could to reach out to God. No sooner had the prayers ended than the cheering sound of hundreds chanting in unison emerged from the deepest point in the mosque, with people elsewhere rushing to join the fast forming block of people that would exit the premises as one: Islamists, human rights activists, conscientious geeks. By the time we reached the main street we had lost our female companions, and Central Security were already firing peremptory tear gas. My friend and I ended up in isolation from intellectuals and activists; until we departed Misr Al-Qadima, we were among everyday working-class people for the most part, chanting the slogans adopted all across Egypt, avoiding Central Security violence and occasionally attempting to stay violent responses to it, sharing carbonated beverages with which we splashed our eyes to reduce the effect of the tear gas, sharing water, scarves, what food there was, and cigarettes, as well as helping the injured off the ground calling on the demonstrators not to scatter.

In Misr Al-Qadima I saw uneducated 15-year-old girls brave enough to face Central Security head on, shouting “Down with Mubarak”; I saw a mechanic nudge his friend: “Are you from South Africa, man? Why aren’t you joining in!” I saw elderly women patting the backs of demonstrators and muttering, “God grant you victory.” Then my friend and I, having stopped at a cafe where Al Jazeera was broadcasting reassuring news from all over the city, set out towards downtown. It was 2 pm.

The idea was to walk, through Ain Al-Seerah and Majra Al-‘Uyoun, to Qasr Al-‘Aini Street and whence to Tahrir, where we realised the main battle had already started and where State Security were deploying fire hoses in addition to everything else. Little did we know that the very simple business of traversing this thoroughfare on foot would take up the rest of the day and night. I will cite only two moments from that period of the day: the arrival at the Majra Al-‘Uyoun end of Qasr Al-‘Aini – where we converged with thousands arriving from Maadi – and the point at which, sitting next to me on the steps of one residential building, his face soaked, one little boy who could not have been older than five or six from the near-by neighbourhood of Sayed Zainab said, “I want to go home.” Replaced by others, people would take refuge in the side streets and the buildings, but they always came back out.

Hours and hours. Slogans, attempts to win over Central Security, squabbles with the neighbours. The sight of thousands of unarmed young men taking over the streets together, their heads raised, chanting to the balconies as they passed Enzell, enzell (“Come down, come down!”) and of people throwing apples and bottles of mineral water to them, of other young men taking of their pyjamas and rushing inside to join them: I will die proud of having been part of that sight.

By evening, while still firing pellets and tear gas, Central Security will have fled; some of them returned individually to hunt down stone-throwing protesters on the streets of Garden City one by one, their guns loaded with live ammunition. Violence had broken out after a white car with diplomatic plates ran down some 12 people while it drove past at 120 km per hour, reportedly killing four. Thankfully, before I took refuge in a friend’s house in Garden City, I managed to phone my mother to tell her I was alive and well; I did not tell her that people were being shot point blank while President Mubarak gave his first, vastly disappointing speech, speaking of “the safety and the security of Egypt’s youth”, the very people who were being killed in order for him to stay in power.

Later, not so much later, we will find out about the inexplicable and absolute disappearance of the police; most of us will take it as a sign of our victory in a battle we joined without arms. Friends were hosed down while praying on Qasr Al-Nil Bridge, beaten to death, run down by armoured cars. But in the end the Maidan had been completely occupied by the people – for the first time since 1952 there is a truly public space in Cairo, a space with a voice and a will. Equally importantly, the police were humiliatingly defeated. I believe I will always remember the cowardice and brutality of State Security, the hysteria and determination of my fellow Egyptians.

As a writer, as a journalist, Friday 28 January has given me back my public voice. It has confirmed to me the existence of a homeland and a people of which I am part. All I ask of the security apparatus at this point is that, if they are going to bomb us with tear-gas, they should at least use tear-gas that is not older than the expiry date inscribed on the cannisters.

 

Wednesday, 10 February, 2011

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Bidoun Review of Sons of Gebelawi

Abnaa al Gebelawi (Children of Gebelawi), By Ibrahim Farghali, Cairo: Al Ain, 2009

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In Ibrahim Farghali’s Abnaa al Gebelawi, all of the texts of the great Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz suddenly vanish from the face of the earth. This happens without explanation, reason, or ostensible cause: wherever they might be found – not only in libraries and bookshops but also on bookshelves and bedside bedside tables – novels by Mahfouz in their original Arabic are simply nowhere to be found. The authorities’ attempt to remedy the situation in the face of worldwide and (notably, if somewhat incredibly) popular uproar are juxtaposed with sightings of Mahfouz’s characters in a variety of locales, seldom having anything to do with the settings in which they actually appear in Mahfouz’s books.

With six – now seven – books to his name, Farghali (b. 1967) is among the most prolific novelists of his generation. In his devotion to the genre and his formal conservatism, he is perhaps the worthiest heir to Mahfouz (1911-2006), the Nobel prize winner most known for his mid-century tales of Cairo. Unlike Mahfouz, however, Farghali is firmly steeped in a magical realist tradition. Running through much of his prose are echoes of Jose Saramago’s nightmarish humour or shades of Italo Calvino’s fascination with the fantastical nature of fiction. He is taken by twins, telepathy and teleporting, and his firmly middle-class characters – otherwise utterly ordinary – have been known to reappear after they have died.

In Abnaa al Gebelawi – Farghali’s latest and greatest work – we face the prospect of a world without literature. The myriad voices in the book — for the young narrator cum author assumes many guises throughout these pages — express concern as to the fraught future of Arabic literature, about the erosion of the liberal and humane values that Mahfouz and his work represent, and (reflecting perhaps the essential fear of all true writers) about oblivion at large.

The events of the book are staged around a relatively uncomplex love affair involving the narrator and the eccentric daughter of a well-to-do family— occasion for Farghali to probe the psychology of class and sex in contemporary Egyptian society. Further in, however, the story breaks up and morphs into countless alternative and subordinate plot-lines, until it becomes clear (although it is never stated) that the whole of Abnaa al Gebelawi is but the barely coherent waste of a single pluralistic mind – the mind of a young writer concerned with the literary wasteland around him. The allegorical dimension remains predominant, and in this way recalls Awlad Haretnah (Children of Our Alley, 1959), the title of whose earlier English translation Farghali translates back verbatim for his own.

As it happens, Awlad Haretnah was the only book by Mahfouz to suffer censure from the religious establishment. In it the history of a popular residential quarter in Cairo stands in for the sum total of humanity’s spiritual experience. That quarter’s oldest, strongest and most benevolent resident – for many generations hidden away in his mansion – is called Gebelawi. Gebelawi has envoys or representatives, descendants or grandchildren, whose struggles to spread peace and justice make up episodes of the saga. Each is a retelling of the life of one of the prophets of Islam, starting with Adam and ending with the False Messiah. Moses, Jesus, and Mohammad all feature, but at the end a rumour spreads that Gebelawi himself has died. In Arab literary circles it is frequently claimed that if not for Awlad Haretnah, Mahfouz would not have received the Nobel Prize. But it proved too much for orthodox, let alone radical Muslims, for whom Mahfouz would become the enemy soon enough.

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a letter from Mahfouz to Mohammad al Badawi

Radical Islam had claimed many lives since the 1980s when in 1994 Mahfouz barely survived being knifed to death outside his house in Cairo. The irony was that, of all the helpless octogenarians his bearded young assailants could have targeted for apostasy, he was probably the least secular. A typical Cairene of the pre-bin ​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​Laden era, the man had led an all but exemplary (for which read profoundly unadventurous) life. He did not seek revolution, he did not take great risks. He had no utopian or transcendental illusions. And perhaps it was thanks to this and this alone that he was able to invent and reinvent the novel, the youngest genre in the language, defining it for generations of writers down to Farghali.

Applying every novelistic model at his disposal, Mahfouz produced a phenomenal number of readable books: social chronicles, political critiques, philosophical manuals. None was too difficult or experimental to render it inaccessible to even the most common reader. None sought to undermine whatever pillar of the status quo it came in contact with. Notwithstanding the elaborately veiled, painstakingly respectful Ages-of-Man narrative in Awlad Haretnah – a Muslim treatise on the meaning of life if ever there was one – in Mahfouz’s books, the family, the creed, the government are never attacked for what they are or what they stand for, but only for their most striking deviations, omissions or excesses.

For a magic realist like Farghali, Mahfouz may not be the most obvious point of departure; the Nobel laureate is, after all, best known for devotion to the real even in his least realistic works, and one would have trouble imagining him so much as hinting at the paranormal or the fantastical. Yet in Abnaa al Gebelawi, the grand opera to Farghali’s various arias, Mahfouz is an embodiment of something not so different from the sense of sight. His books stand in for almost everything Farghali values: Literature, Thought, Freedom, Knowledge, even Love. The premise could not have been more powerful.

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