Tractatus Politico-Religiosus

The Second Tractatus: From 25 January to 30 June in four sentences: on Egypt’s two revolutions

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1 Newton’s third law of motion: When one body exerts a force on a second body, the second body simultaneously exerts a force equal in magnitude and opposite in direction to that of the first body.
2 For nearly three years the triumph of the 25 January uprising involved the Egyptian constituency in a series of conflicts, protests and counterprotests in which the action repeatedly pitted the army as the sole remaining representative of the state against political Islam.
2.1 In the period 25 January-11 February 2011, protesters (including Islamists) were credited with bringing down Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, who had been in power for nearly 30 years. They had no leadership or ideology, and their slogan — “bread, freedom, social justice and human dignity” — could conceivably be grafted onto a communist or fascist system just as well as on the liberal democracy they were demanding.

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Fuloulophobia: What I talk about when I talk about 30 June

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Nearly a week ago, some little known Kuwaiti newspaper reported that President Mohamed Morsi had negotiated, it wasn’t clear with whom, “a safe exit deal” for himself and 50 leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) — in anticipation of 30 June.

It was obvious misinformation but it was tempting to believe, partly because it suggested the very implausible prospect of the MB leaving power peacefully, lending credence to the idea that 30 June will be “the end of the MB” anyhow.

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The Parable of the Riots and the Intellectual: On the Ministry of Culture Protest

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First there was a riot, a kind of street fight with the police. Killings led to a sit-in that led to power changing hands. No one took issue with the hangman’s noose swinging symbolically at the maidan, though the riots were supposed to be silmiyyah. The killers never hanged in the end, and no one took issue with that. Only the rioters vowed to take revenge unless the courts hanged someone, but when the courts said not guilty it was all they could do to start a new fight. And in every new fight more rioters were killed. It became something of a national fetish to riot, and riots sprang up everywhere in the country, sometimes for no reason at all, often because no one was hanged.

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City of Kismet

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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.

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A testimony from the siege

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The Gaza Spring

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Interview by Youssef Rakha

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Twittotalitarian

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At about five am this morning (2 May), I woke up to news of people being murdered in and around the site of the Abbassiya (Ministry of Defence) sit-in (#MOF on Twitter, ongoing since late Friday, 27 April). I began following the news online, relying on tweeps who were either already in Abbassiya or on their way there. For the first time since the start of the sit-in, I also paid attention to what the star activists (Alaa Abdel Fattah and Nawara Negm, in this case) had to say about developments—in the vague hope of finding out why, beyond their continued and, to my mind, increasingly irresponsible enthusiasm for “peaceful protests” regardless of the purpose or tenability of the event in question, such cyber-driven “revolutionaries” had sided with the fanatical Salafi supporters of former presidential candidate Hazem Salah Abu Ismail.
Following a prolonged sit-in in Tahrir to protest Abu Ismail being disqualified from entering the race for the presidency because his late mother held a US passport, supporters of the lawyer-cum-TV proselytiser, demanding the dissolution of the Higher Committee for Presidential Elections and the instant handover of power to civilians by SCAF, had decided to escalate by moving the sit-in to the ministry headquarters in Abbassiya. (Remarkably, Abu Ismail himself at no point either called on his supporters to stop protesting on his behalf or bothered to join them in person; the Sheikh, as many of them called him in fervent tones, complained of a sprained ankle that kept preventing him from being among his warriors of Islam. Only after people started dying at the hands of thugs widely thought to be deployed by SCAF did Abu Ismail declare that he had nothing to do with the protest in the first place.) Since Friday, however, Salafis had been joined by all manner of protesters including politicised football Ultras rallying around the slogan “Down with military rule”.
The sit in had been subject to periodic attacks by thugs aiming to disband it, but nothing as systematic or as garish as what had been unfolding when I started looking at my Twitter timeline this morning; whether due to a decision by those commanding the thugs to end the sit-in once and for all or because the protesters had managed to irk the local residents sufficiently for the latter to join in the fight against them, the conflict was reaching new and disturbing heights; Negm said she could smell blood everywhere around her on reaching Abbassiya around eight am.
With the majority of tweets discussing an earlier (probably true) report by Abdel Fattah that protesters chasing thugs through the backstreets of a residential area far removed from the sit-in itself had fired live ammunition of their own—it was later reported that, by accidentally killing an unaffiliated young man, either protesters or thugs posing as protesters had incited the whole neighbourhood to declare war on the sit-in—there was not much scope for working out what the self-declared leaders of Egypt’s popular revolution were thinking. Here, translated from Arabic as literally as possible, is the tweet that threw me into a silent rage, however (it was by Abdel Fattah’s sister Mona Seif, addressing fellow Twitter-activists): “Whoever truly wants to help will either join the march that’s gathering in half an hour at Al-Fath Mosque or go to Demerdash [Hospital] and donate blood to the injured. Otherwise no one has the time for you, seriously.”
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To explain my rage—first to myself—and to try and answer my initial questions about why the “Sons of Abu Ismail” protest was perceived as an episode of “the ongoing revolution” and how the star activists can fail to see that what “the immediate handover of power to civilians” means at the present moment is the immediate transformation of Egypt into an Islamist dictatorship not likely to be any less murderous to dissidents than SCAF (and let me state, again, in no uncertain terms, that I do not condone SCAF remaining in power any more than I ever condoned SCAF taking control of the country in the first place), I want to say a few things about that tweet.
The first thing I want to say is purely factual. Neither did the 9.30 am march to which the tweet referred make it to the sit-in—thugs and/or military forces blocked the way—nor were there any injured protesters at Demerdash Hospital at that time (the latter was soon confirmed by Negm from there). It was subsequent, purely “peaceful” marches—for which read “mired in the crimes of actual and potential wielders of political power, and ones that included deep-in-the-political-process players like the Islamist presidential candidate Abdel Moneim Abul Fetouh—that prompted executive power on the ground to take control, eventually, patchily cutting short the fighting. (Abbassiya has since turned into a hub of purely Islamist “peaceful” demonstrations.) Such, of course, are the pitfalls not only of hearsay but also of Twitter-based (and apparently also politically suicidal) revolutionary command strategy. Following Seif’s instructions could not actually have resulted in anyone “helping” anyone or anything at all, whether truly or in any other way. Perhaps her tone actively discouraged a good few people from WANTING to help.
I am also forced to ask—a little more philosophically, if I may in these “revolutionary” (for which read chaotically populist) times—what it is precisely that activists thought they were doing when they headed over to the sit-in last night or this morning, launching their usual bombardments of haphazard, confusing instructions and cryptically brief comments in the usual arrogant and peremptory tone. In what capacity? For nearly 18 months it has been demonstrated time and again that, helpless against thugs, local residents and/or organised security forces both visible and in plain clothes, unarmed protesters end up being killed for nothing even when demonstrations have a clear-cut purpose or cause (the Port Said massacre prompting Ultras and other protesters to rise up against the Ministry of Interior, for example). I am forced to ask whether this self-righteous zeal for protests is actually as moral as it seems considering that it results in innocent people dying. Who do the activists actually represent apart from themselves and their fans? Morally speaking—and there is nothing but a supposedly idealistic moral stance that justifies their attitude—aren’t the activists to blame for the deaths incurred in this endless travesty of regime change?
The third thing I want to say is that, as it seems to me as much from Twitter as from first-hand experience and basic understanding of such mental conditions as temporary collective psychosis and obsessive compulsive disorder, for these people “activism”—which as often as not reduces to calling for and/or attending ultimately murderously suppressed protests—is more of a way of life than a political statement. The constant sense of urgency eliminating any rational questions about what’s going on and how we might best relate to it combines with celebrity status and the often downright stupidity of a black-and-white perspective on events to maintain this lifestyle and generate a “revolutionary” reality not only different from—indeed opposed to—the reality of the people but different even from the substance of the revolution itself. I seem to recall Negm tweeting something to the effect of, “Let’s make sure the Muslims Brotherhood takes the reigns of power as soon as possible so we can protest against them while we’re ready”! Does one ask oneself, when one tweets something like that, about what will happen when it is the Muslim Brotherhood who are responsible for the loss of life and there is still no efficient alternative to the Muslim Brotherhood? Does it occur to one that maybe one is simply ENJOYING protests and the rhetoric that goes with them—the bloodier, the more epic—more than making any statement about or contribution to history?

The counter paradise


… and from the factories go the heavenly proletarians

awkwardly under their arms they carry their wings like violins

Zbigniew Herbert, “Report from Paradise”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Babelmed

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فتنة الغضب

تبدأ المسألة بتجنيد الشعب لصالح أغراض النظام، ويتضح أن هناك استعداداً لذلك من جانب قطاع عريض من المعدمين والمجرمين والعاملين في الحكومة سواء رسمياً أو “من تحت لتحت”. لكي تَخرج “مليونيات” على الجانب الآخر من الحائط اللامرئي الذي قام بين “الميدان” وما سواه، يصبح هناك بلطجية يسمونهم “مؤيدي مبارك” إلى أن يعترفوا، وبعد إخفاق المصلحة في مواجهة الإرادة، بأنهم بلطجية وأنهم مسلحون. ليس فقط نتيجة إخفاق المصلحة أمام الإرادة، وبدليل أنهم لا يعترفون بتعاون البلطجية مع أجهزة الأمن ولا يسعون لتمييزهم عن المتظاهرين واللجان الشعبية (المفترض أنها محايدة) حتى بعد أن يُعلن عن سقوط مبارك. بالتدريج يصبح هناك شيء اسمه بلطجية، ويصبح هذا الشيء سبباً ليس فقط في أن يرتعب الناس عامة من “الانفلات الأمني” فينادوا بعودة الشرطة ويحملّوا المتظاهرين مسئولية حدوثه ولكن أيضاً في البطش بالمحتجين ما إن تقل أعدادهم بما يكفي لفعل ذلك في خفاء نسبي. وحتى المثقفون والمسيسون و”شباب الغضب” أنفسهم، لكي لا يغامروا بتحالفهم المفترض مع المجلس العسكري الذي تولى عن نظام مبارك مسئولية حفظ الأمن والاستقرار – لكي لا يعترفوا بأن المجلس العسكري ليس سوى نظام مبارك – يمتنعون عن التظاهر في غير الأوقات المتفق عليها ويتبرأون من خارقي حظر التجوال (علماً بأنه لولا خرق الحظر في الفترة من 28 يناير إلى 11 فبراير، لما “نجحت” الثورة أساساً). يصبح الاحتجاج السلمي مع الوقت بلطجة يعاقب عليها القانون. تتحول الثورة وبعد “نجاحها” إلى فتنة

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آباء من الفضاء الخارجي

ثلاثة جُمَع ولا يبدو أن مبارك قد أدرك ما يحدث من حوله، لا هو ولا العاملون معه ولا قطاع آخذ في التضاؤل من المصريين الذين يفضّلون وهم اﻷمان على فرصة أن يكون لهم ولبلدهم معنى أو يحصلوا أخيراً على حقوق اكتسبوها بانقطاع أحبالهم السُرية. إما هذا أو أن التبجح والتنطّع قد جاوز حد العماء. والخسة  طبعاً، الخسة التي تُحوّل النَفَس، بين شهقة وزفرة، إلى كذبة سافرة. مجرد كذبة مكرورة مفترض من الناس أن يبتلعوها حتى بعد أن ذاقوا طعم الحقيقة وسجدوا على اﻷسفلت. أنا أعدك بذلك. منذ 1967 ونحن لا نصدق اﻷكاذيب بقدر ما نبتلعها خوفاً وبحثاً عن المصلحة المباشرة. في كل جهاز إداري وفي كل المجالات مبارك صغير يفعل ما يفعله مبارك، تحكمه الاعتبارات العائلية واعتبارات تحالف النصابين أكثر ألف مرة من الرغبة في التنمية أو الإنتاج. ومن قبل حتى أن يولد مَن أطلق شرارة اﻷحداث الجارية، كانت الرؤى القومية/ اليسارية قد ذهبت وبقيت، بلا مبرر، الدولة البوليسية. ذهب  الزعيم (على كل ما في فكرة الزعامة من قيد) وبقي الديكتاتور. الحرامي. مجرد صنم أجوف، صدقني. وليس من يمنعه من التصرف وكأنه سلطان يورّث عزبته لابنه بينما تقبّل الوزيرة يدَ امرأته أمام الكاميرات. لكن الدم الذي يجري في عروق مبارك ليس أزرق. ونحن نعلم. لا يمكن أن يظل الناس يصلون لإله عجوة إلى اﻷبد، خاصة وأن نعيمه لم يعد مواتياً. ومنذ سنين وسنين وقد تحولت اﻷشغال والمآرب إلى تمثيليات نبحث ﻷنفسنا بين طياتها عن مساحة مسروقة يمكن أن نكون فيها بشراً: الكتب التي لا يقرأها أحد ﻷن أكثر من نصفنا أمي؛ العمل الذي لا يأتي على أكثرنا بالربح الكافي للعيش ويتلخص إجمالاً في تملق الرؤساء؛ العشق الذي يخصَّص قسم كامل من أحد أقبح أجهزة اﻷمن في العالم لمنعنا من ممارسته؛ الفنون ومباهج الحياة التي يضيّق عليها مشروع سلفي اتضح منذ 25 يناير أنه (وبخلاف مشروع الإخوان المسلمين ) متواطئ بالكامل مع السلطة ويساهم في تحجيم الجماهير لتسهيل استبدادها بالقرار. ولا قرار. التعليم والصحة والزراعة والمواصلات وحتى السياحة، فضلاً عن تجاوزاتالشرطة: كل شيء فاسد وغبي ومزيف. خلاف ضخ اﻷموال العامة في الحسابات الخاصة وتنفيذ ما تأمر به أمريكا حرفياً بلا اعتبار لا للهوية العربية ولا للضمير الإنساني، بالذمة، ماذا فعل نظام مبارك في الثلاثين سنة الماضية؟ ثم لحظة من فضلك. بأي حق يخاطبني اﻵن شخص أثبت لي بالقنابل المسيلة للدموع والذخيرة الحية والتضليل الإعلامي والمسيرات المدبرة والبلطجية المسلحين بل وبالجمال والحمير أنه ليس سوى رئيس عصابة؟ ثم بأي حق يكلمني بوصفه أباً أو حتى جداً مخرّفاً؟ بأي منطق يظنني سأصدق أن الشهداء أوجعوا قلبه أو أنه لن يقبل إملاءات من الخارج؟ ولا يفتأ نائبه الجديد، مهندس عملية السلامالعربي/ﻹسرائيلي  اﻷول – رافعاً المجرور وناصباً المرفوع – يحدثنا بكل هدوء عن اﻷجندات“! إلى مبارك وعمر سليمان وأحمد شفيق وأنس الفقي وسائر المخلوقات الفضائية: بحق  ما يجعلنا نتنفس ويخرج الصوت من حلوقنا، لن يعود أحد إلى بيته حتى تصبح لنا بيوت؛ لن نعود إلى الحياة حتى نشعر أننا أحياء. وأنتم  لستم آباءنا، يا قحابْ

صباح 11 فبراير قبل التنحي

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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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