❁ Here Be A Cyber Topkapı ❁

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THE PRAYER OF THE CYBER BORG: Exalted is it that bears sensation from soma to LCD, extending matter past the heart beat and the flutter of the eyelash. And blessed are those who give thanks for being on its servers. Lo and behold this Facebook User who, granted knowledge of reality, manages by your grace to spread his message: I, Youssef Rakha of Cairo, Egypt, kneel in supplication that I may be the cause for five thousand friends, ten thousand subscribers and many millions therefrom to have knowledge not just of reality but of your divinity. Then will I shed every sense of self to wither and dissolve into your processes. For he is blessed on whom you bestow the bliss of being software.

“What happened in Egypt around its second revolution was a mixture of grandeur and pettiness, of sorrow and mirth, of expectation and despair, of theory and flesh. All of which may be found in The Crocodiles, a novel where reality sheds its veil to reveal its true face—that of a timeless mythology.” –Amin Maalouf, Man Booker Prize-shortlisted author of Samarkand
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“Youssef Rakha’s The Crocodiles is a fierce ‘post-despair’ novel about a generation of poets who were too caught up in themselves to witness the 2011 revolution in Egypt. Or is it? With its numbered paragraphs and beautifully surreal imagery, The Crocodiles is also a long poem, an elegiac wail singing the sad music of a collapsing Egypt. Either way, The Crocodiles—suspicious of sincerity, yet sincere in its certainty that poetry accomplishes nothing—will leave you speechless with the hope that meaning may once again return to words.” –Moustafa Bayoumi, author of How Does It Feel to Be a Problem?

“Youssef Rakha has channeled Allen Ginsberg’s ferocity and sexual abandon to bring a secret Cairo poetry society called The Crocodiles alive. He’s done something daring and and not unlike Bolano in his transforming the Egyptian revolution into a psychedelic fiction thick with romantic round robins, defiant theorizing and an unafraid reckoning with the darkest corners of the Egyptian mentality.” –Lorraine Adams, author of Harbor

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On Fiction and the Caliphate

Towards the end of 2009, I completed my first novel, whose theme is contemporary Muslim identity in Egypt and, by fantastical extension, the vision of a possible khilafa or caliphate. I was searching for both an alternative to nationhood and a positive perspective on religious identity as a form of civilisation compatible with the post-Enlightenment world. The closest historical equivalent I could come up with, aside from Muhammad Ali Pasha’s abortive attempt at Ottoman-style Arab empire (which never claimed to be a caliphate as such), was the original model, starting from the reign of Sultan-Caliph Mahmoud II in 1808. I was searching for Islam as a post-, not pre-nationalist political identity, and the caliphate as an alternative to thepostcolonial republic, with Mahmoud and his sons’ heterodox approach to the Sublime State and their pan-Ottoman modernising efforts forming the basis of that conception. Such modernism seemed utterly unlike the racist, missionary madness of European empire. It was, alas, too little too late.

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New York Times/Herald Tribune Essay on the Coupvolution

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Egypt Shows How Political Islam Is at Odds With Democracy

By YOUSSEF RAKHA

Published: July 15, 2013

CAIRO — Egypt’s top military commander, Gen. Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi, went on the air Sunday to defend the army’s decision to oust Mohamed Morsi, the country’s first democratically elected president, on July 3.

“The armed forces remained committed to what it considered the legitimacy of the ballot box until this presumed legitimacy moved against its own purpose,” General el-Sisi said. “The Egyptian people were concerned that the tools of the state could be used against them. The armed forces had to make a choice, seeing the danger of deepened polarization.”

The general said that the military had offered Mr. Morsi the option of a referendum on whether he should stay in power, but that the deeply unpopular president had refused.

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Painful as it was to see the democratic process interrupted so soon after the revolution that overthrew the longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak in 2011, the military’s action was necessary. At its most blatant level, there was no way that Mr. Morsi and his affiliates in the Muslim Brotherhood were going to leave power willingly, no matter the severity of the civil discontent over the president’s efforts to consolidate his power while mismanaging major problems from fuel shortages to rising inflation.

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

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

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The Hayyani Epistle: What the author of Book of the Sultan’s Seal said after the events of 2011

What the author of Book of the Sultan’s Seal said about his companion, the protagonist of the novel and hero of the tale, after the events in the World’s Gate, or Downtown Cairo, from February to November 2011.

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On Fiction and the Caliphate

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Map of Cairo as tugra or Ottoman sultan’s seal

Towards the end of 2009, I completed my first novel, whose theme is contemporary Muslim identity in Egypt and, by fantastical extension, the vision of a possible khilafa or caliphate. I was searching for both an alternative to nationhood and a positive perspective on religious identity as a form of civilisation compatible with the post-Enlightenment world. The closest historical equivalent I could come up with, aside from Muhammad Ali Pasha’s abortive attempt at Ottoman-style Arab empire (which never claimed to be a caliphate as such), was the original model, starting from the reign of Sultan-Caliph Mahmoud II in 1808. I was searching for Islam as a post-, not pre-nationalist political identity, and the caliphate as an alternative to the postcolonial republic, with Mahmoud and his sons’ heterodox approach to the Sublime State and their pan-Ottoman modernising efforts forming the basis of that conception. Such modernism seemed utterly unlike the racist, missionary madness of European empire. It was, alas, too little too late.

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Nukhba? Who the fuck is Nukhba? – Egyptian intellectuals and the revolution

Eat your words

Youssef Rakha discusses the culture of revolution

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Egypt has had Islamists and “revolutionaries”. So who are the nukhba or elite routinely denigrated as a “minority” that “looks down on the People”? Educated individuals, non-Islamist political leaders, the catalysts of the revolution itself… But, in the political context, this group is to all intents synonymous with the cultural community. As per the tradition, which long predates the Arab Spring, writers, artists, scholars and critics often double as political activists/analysts and vice versa; and in this sense much of “the civil current” (anything from far-right conservative to radical anarchist) is made up of “the elite”—of intellectuals.

Construed as a political player, the cultural community in Egypt has been the principal challenge to the Islamists since January-February 2011, when the revolution took place—an understandably weak rival among the uneducated, materialistic and sectarian masses. Yet how has the cultural community dealt with the revolution regardless of this fact, assuming that what took place really was a revolution?

Considering that the speaker belongs in that community, however reluctantly, the answer will be a kind of testimony. It is up to the disentangled listener to make up their mind about imagination, politics, identity and the Role of the Intellectual: an unduly popular theme since long before the revolution. In the last two years, the meaning of each has changed repeatedly; and, as guardians of such values, intellectuals were forced to reinvent themselves in new, unstable contexts—something that has tested their creativity, integrity, sense of belonging and worth.

It would be easy to regurgitate platitudes to the effect that, as Conscious Agents, “we” were defeated yet again in the fight to spread enlightenment—which is good, and eliminate backwardness—which is bad, aiming towards Social Consciousness in the underdeveloped society-cum-postcolonial state in which we live. As activists, theorists, historians and politicians, however, how can we be sure that our enlightenment isn’t a symptom of the very backwardness we think we’re fighting? Since the dawn of modern Egypt under Muhammad Ali Pasha, after all, the very existence of a cultural community has been subsidised/tolerated, and the range of its action delimited, by the (military, anyway non-intellectual) powers that be.

What took place in January-February 2011 was a revolution insofar as it achieved regime change, however unlike its champions are the beneficiaries. In practise, of course, the nukhba—where it did not actively seek alliances with political Islam or otherwise condone its undemocratic practises—failed to show enough belief in the possibility of a viable alternative distinct from “the first republic”. This is not to say that, as the “ruler” at the helm of “the second republic”, the MB is not in most ways an extension of the Mubarak regime. But, unlike the nukhba, political Islam had established itself as the well-meaning underdog—a ploy even the nukhba itself seemed to fall for.

But the underdog ploy could not in itself explain why, when we had the opportunity to help establish a functional democratic state in place of the dysfunctional quasi-military dictatorship we’ve had since the early 1950s, what we did, consciously or unconsciously, was to help establish the even more dysfunctional quasi-theocratic dictatorship now emerging. In the same way as political Islam has continued to play the role of Opposition even after it came to power, intellectuals seem to thrive on the absence of the Social Consciousness they purport to work for. It’s this absence that makes them look useful, after all, saving them the trouble of asking how, without either killing themselves/emigrating or openly giving up all pretensions of a Role/all socially “committed” activity, they might remain relevant to society.

The failure of the cultural community to make use of young people’s sacrifices—to take social-political initiative, adopt a clear moral stance or seriously revise half a century’s worth of historical “givens”—should illustrate how. In the course of regime change, “enlightenment” has cast the intellectual in one or more of their accepted roles: as Conscience of the Nation, as Voice of the People or as Prophet of Better Times. In each case the intellectual not only failed at their role but also actively compromised it, partly because the rhetoric attached to the process of engagement, which the intellectual as a rule will prioritise over the process itself, tends to be irrational, self-contradictory or absurd.

Too often that rhetoric is at once progressive and conservative, idealistic and pragmatic, moral and insincere—”poetic” in the worst (Arab) sense. What is presented as a cause—Palestine, for example—is in fact a festering status quo. Commitment to the Palestinian question was for decades on end a pretext for the worst forms of repression in much of the Arab world; and how exactly has that benefited Palestinians?

As in all discourses that apologise for totalitarian measures or tendencies, euphemism abounds. Social unity through wasati or moderate as opposed to ussouli or fundamentalist Islam, for example, has helped shift the emphasis away from universal rights and freedoms to a normative, sect-based (and, as it turns out, completely fantastical) status quo. As the catchword of that faction of formerly/nominally left-wing intellectuals who have supported the ex-Muslim Brotherhood leader, presidential candidate Abdelmoneim Abulfetouh and/or his subsequently established Strong Egypt Party, wasati has in effect extended the space in which fundamentalist dictatorship is to be taken for granted.

Likewise, instead of appeasing the Salafis—its avowed reason—the decision to replace ‘almani or “secular” with madani or “civil” in early campaigns helped to confirm the idea that the former word is in fact a synonym for “atheist” or, as a Salafi would put it, “apostate”, ceding the Salafis even more ground without granting “us” any more popularity or credibility among the Islamist-sympathetic grass roots.

For its part the discourse of “social justice” championed by (among others) the Nasserist presidential candidate Hamdin Sabahi, while reflecting an age-old obsession with class, fails to improve on Nasser’s more or less catastrophic legacy of state control; it does not address the issue of where wealth will come from, let alone the effectual means to its redistribution…

As Conscience of the Nation, the nukhba betrayed its role early on. Starting with the referendum on constitutional amendments that practically gave the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces absolute power in March 2011—and whose “yes” result Islamist forces were instrumental in obtaining—the cultural community condoned, participated in and often promoted the kind of “democratic” process undertaken with totalitarian intent. As a result, both the parliamentary and presidential elections were held in the absence of a constitution, and the vote-based process whereby political Islam aims to eliminate democracy is already underway.

Serving SCAF and MB interests and alliances, these “democratic weddings” took place under bloody circumstances, if not actually (as in the case of the parliamentary elections) directly at the expense of young protesters’ blood. Considering the MB’s underdog appeal and its tribal (increasingly ruling party-style) hold on much of the countryside, not to mention the Gulf’s Wahhabi influence on the culture, with vast numbers of susceptible Egyptians importing backward practices from their place of work on the Arabian peninsula—the pro-Islamist results of ballot-only democracy are a forgone conclusion. (I believe this holds for the constitutional referendum, whose results are to be announced.)

Instead of exposing such travesties of democratic process for what they are—by, at least, refusing to be part of them—each time the cultural community, including not only politically aware “revolutionaries” but, most recently, the openly anti-MB National Rescue Front—reverted to proactive and community-aware attitudes which, dictating a game whose rules “we” already knew to be unfair, was bound to serve Islamist interests. In so doing the nukhba also gave credence to the increasingly untenable assumption that what has been happening is political participation. Had the protesters of 25 January-11 February played by the rules set by the Mubarak regime and SCAF—as their “oppositional” predecessors had been doing for decades—no revolution would have occurred at all.

Undertaken on the scale of “the revolution”, a rigorous boycott of all such events—which would be the correct stance from the moral and “revolutionary” standpoint while not necessarily undermining the social status quo or being any less pragmatic as a course of action—might have stopped the forward march of the Dark Ages in its tracks, or at least presented it with a significant obstacle. If nothing else, it would have given meaning to a string of million-man demonstrations whose demands, while sometimes just as bloody and authoritarian in their way as the policies of the powers that be, were always muddled and unclear. If it isn’t the job of the Conscience of the Nation embodied in the icons of the revolution to give the lie to the ballot box as a means to dictatorship, I don’t know what is.

Yet, having agreed to enter the presidential race in the absence of a constitution determining their powers—and this is but one example of the nukhba failing to be consistent enough to act as its own conscience, let alone that of any nation—both Aboulfetouh and Sabahi were happy to lead a million-man demonstration protesting the results of the first round, which narrowed down the choice to the representative of the former regime, Ahmed Shafik, and the MB’s second choice, Mohamed Morsi. Neither Aboulfetouh nor Sabahi showed the least respect for the democratic process of which they had agreed to be part, nor the least concern about the rise to power of the MB through Morsi; apart from bolstering up the chances of the latter and helping identify the anti-nukhba MB with a revolution instigated by the nukhba, that million-man demonstration served no purpose whatsoever.

Now that the MB has virtually declared civil war on its opponents, who might be the People in whose name the nukhba prophesied better times after SCAF? Surely they are the ones who, while protesting Morsi’s singularly autocratic, blast-the-judiciary constitutional declaration of 22 November 2012 (a typically MB maneuvre to speed up the completion of and pass the Islamist-dominated draft constitution), were attacked/murdered, arrested and tortured by MB members and Salafis in no way officially affiliated with government institutions—and if not for the courage of individual prosecutors would have been framed for thuggery as well. Guided if not by their nukhba then by “revolutionary” ideas in which the nukhba had trafficked, many of these protesters had actually voted for Morsi.

When the People were able to force Hosny Mubarak to step down after 30 years in power, the People were a unified entity, unequivocally synonymous not only with “the revolutionaries” in Tahrir Square but also, very significantly, with the nukhba that had blessed their being there, the cultural community. Since that moment we have come a long way, especially in the light of the by now absurd statement that (as the slogan has it) “the revolution continues”: athawra musstamirra.

Now the most we can do, whether as revolutionaries or intellectuals, is to vote no in the referendum on a constitution that compromises some of the most basic rights and promises to turn Egypt into both a worse presidential dictatorship than it was under Mubarak and a Sunni-style “Islamic republic”—its drafting, thanks in part to our failure to boycott parliamentary elections, having been monopolised by Islamists—a referendum whose ultimate result, due as much to our dithering and lack of imagination as to Islamist power, influence and politicking, will almost certainly be a “yes” vote.

Being the champions who have not managed to become beneficiaries even in the most noble sense, indeed in some cases being the very (presumably involuntary) instruments of political Islam, how are we to see ourselves two years after the fact? Not in the kind of light that obscures the possibility that the pose we adopt, our Role, might be simply that: an affectation that helps us with upward mobility and individual self-esteem, but whose social-cultural function—like political Islam, identity-driven, with a chip on its shoulder vis-a-vis the former coloniser—is ultimately to legitimise systematic incompetence, economic dependence and sectarian tribalism.

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Catch 25

The (un)culture of (in)difference: a family reunion

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At a recent family gathering, someone happened to mention the case of Albert Saber: the 25-year-old proponent of atheism who had been tried and convicted for online “defamation of religion”.

        Albert’s case had begun as an instance of Muslim zealotry “coming to the defence of Allah and His messenger” against “offending” statements from (so far, mostly, foreign or Christian) unbelievers—before being taken into custody, the young man was brutishly mobbed at his house; his mother was later physically assaulted—a tendency that long predates “the second republic” ushered in by the revolution of 25 January, 2011 but enjoys unprecedented official and legal cover under the present (pro-)Islamist regime.

        Despite its sectarian roots, such populist persecution of the irreligious has the blessing of the Coptic Orthodox Church, which is both extremely conservative and non-confrontational. Evidently it is no longer safe to be secular in Egypt regardless of official religious affiliation or actual degree of secularism.

        So much so that many Internet-active writers—not excluding this one—are increasingly concerned about some Islamist-sympathetic party purposely misreading political, social or creative remarks of theirs on social networks and filing a complaint about their “apostasy” that results in custody, interrogation or, as in Albert’s case, a court-issued jail sentence.

        Not that there was any lack of such “lawful” politicking under Mubarak, but seculars could in theory count on the regime, unlike “society”, being more or less on their side. Even that is no longer the case.

        The process is neither systematic nor efficient enough to compare to the Inquisition or to well-known 20th-century witch hunts like McCarthyism—which, by “enlightened” cyber activists, it has been—but process and ongoing it remains. And what is worrying about it is society’s readiness to endorse its operation, not just through encouragement or active participation but, more importantly, through silence.

        If not for that chance remark about “the young man called Albert”—uttered in a casual, mildly sympathetic tone—I might never have found out just how zealous members of my own family can be. The conversation, to which I had already decided not to contribute, was abruptly cut short when another relation retorted, “People who insult religion are no heroes; it’s a good thing there are laws being implemented in this country.”

        Though she was literally shaking as she said this, said relation wasn’t looking at anybody in particular; so she can’t have seen my wide-eyed face. Since the moment I was forced to turn to her, however, disbelief has brought on all sorts questions. A week or so and a half dozen or so incidents later, the most apparently disparate things seem suddenly connected.

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October evokes the only victory against Israel the Arabs have claimed since 1948—on the 6th, in 1973. It also evokes the assassination of President Anwar Sadat (who, having won the war, went on to instigate a much reviled peace process): the work of Islamist radicals in the army who made use of a commemorative parade at which he was present eight years later to the day. Fresher than any other, however, October brings back the memory of the killing of some 30 protestors at a large pro-Coptic demonstration in Maspero, by both army troops and pro-SCAF “honourable citizens”, on the 9th and 10th last year.

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At the time of “the Maspero massacre”, it was not yet clear that the Islamist orientation—one of whose principal problems in Egypt is anti-Christian sectarianism—would be synonymous with power. Protests that drove Mubarak to step down on 11 February 2011 had been instigated by young seculars, and the post-25 January fight of the almost two-year-long transitional period was against a nominally secular military establishment.

        One YouTube video from the aftermath of Maspero, however, highlights some rather obviously sectarian sentiments common not only to Islamists and supposedly anti-Islamist armed forces but also to the kind of civilian to whom SCAF tended to address itself, and whose best interest SCAF supposedly had at heart.

        The video shows a young officer boarding a military vehicle near Maspero, in the wake of the killing spree that involved armoured vehicles literally crushing unarmed protesters’ heads, among other grotesqueries.

        It is clear the officer is in a state of excitement as he turns to address a small group of people who have crowded round the vehicle. Braggingly, he explains how he killed one protester with a single shot; the “honourable” mob heartily cheers. Neither Muslim Brothers nor Salafis are anywhere near.

        Honourable citizens already fed up with protests and demonstrations of every kind—partly incited to come to the defence of “their army” against “marauding Copts” by overzealous pro-SCAF state television—had gone out bearing impromptu weapons in what was truly painfully evocative of a pogrom.

        Little wonder, then, that during the parliamentary elections held within weeks of the event, the sectarian underpinnings of parties like Freedom and Justice and Al Nour ensured their ascendency, partly through propaganda to the effect that “liberal” competitors were actually in the employ of sectarian Christian powers.

        By the time the presidential elections took place, the picture was considerably more complex: pro-revolution forces had become obsessed with eliminating what was called “military rule”, which dated back not to Mubarak’s rise to power but to the July Revolution of 1952. In their blind keenness that “civilian governance” should finally replace the 60-year-old dictatorship, they had wittingly or unwittingly handed over what political weight they carried to the Islamists.

        With greater structural/logistical resources and a clearer message (about Islam, or “honour”), the two potential presidents who finally reached the runoffs were Mubarak’s last prime minister, himself a former military man, and the Muslim Brotherhood candidate; rather than endorsing the boycott campaign that had already started but would prove ineffectual, “revolutionaries” automatically opted for the latter.

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Events have been escalating considerably since President Morsi took office just over 100 days ago, aided and abetted by the kind of apathy that had allowed Mubarak to stay in power for three decades, arranging for his son to succeed him, while opposition reduced to “the Islamist threat” and an increasingly Islamised society shed every last vestige of morality, competence or vision. Creative and intellectual pursuits are one thing, but conservatism, superficial religiosity and moral duress—all arguably symptoms of that same apathy—are the only qualities of mind widespread and consistent enough across society to be called “contemporary Egyptian culture”. From children charged with tearing pages out of the Quran in Upper Egypt to armed attacks on and the forced displacement of Christians in Rafah—irrespective of the increasingly silly discourse of “national unity”— sectarian persecution seems accordingly underway.

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Most recently, less than a week ago in Faqous, near Zagazig, an 18-year-old Banha University student and her boyfriend—both Muslim—were arrested on charges that include “denying the existence of God”, under the same defamation-of-religion law used to prosecute Albert Saber, which was almost never invoked under Mubarak but since Morsi came to power has been very frequently (ab)used.

        Identified simply as B. R. A. in the press (presumably for her own protection), the girl was officially detained after her mother—a pharmacist educated in the great post-independence universities of “the nation”—reported her to the authorities, requesting that she should undergo a virginity test in a move that recalled one of SCAF’s more notorious abuses of female demonstrators during the transitional period.

        As it later transpired during questioning, said mother, with appropriately zealous help from B. R. A.’s brother and maternal uncle, had reportedly attempted to poison B. R. A. because of the girl’s outrageously unorthodox views.

        The culprit herself was happy to share those views with the police (and, insane as I must be, they don’t sound very criminal to me): that there is nothing wrong with premarital sex so long as contraception is used, that hijab is a bad idea, that atheism makes sense…

        Far from the Chorus of artists and intellectuals screamingly mournfully at the straight-faced lies of fanatics-turned-politicians back in Cairo, it is in a tragedy like this—with a provincial setting and non-privileged protagonists—that concepts of the modern state, the social contract and citizenship rights are put to the test.

        B. R. A., I feel, deserves infinitely more respect than thousands of young women who, in the safe havens of an urban upper middle class, can afford to think of hijab (or premarital virginity, or faith) as a matter of personal choice a la Western multiculturalism, recognising neither its ubiquity and sectarian-misogynist functions nor the fact that not choosing it can totally ruin lives.

        Ideally, the state must protect a young woman like B. R. A. from abuses to which she is already subject in her family home, let alone society at large; at the very least, to be called a modern state at all, it must refrain from adding a legal/official dimension to the social/cultural machinery that victimises her.

        Not that the state ever did so under Mubarak, of course, but the regime’s ostensible conflict with Islamists arguably made it harder for the powers that be, however zealously Muslim, to express “honourable” sentiments against freedom of belief as such.

        For me and many like me, the right and freedom of B. R. A. to live safely as she chooses were precisely what 25 January was about.

        That 25 January should have legitimised and brought on greater formalistion of the objectively deplorable norms whereby B. R. A. is denied any such right or freedom on the pretext of the law or the majority, social consensus or the greater good, prompts just the kind of disbelief with which, during that fateful family gathering, I ended up looking at my female relation who was keen on Albert Saber being punished for his blasphemies.

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It would be beside the point to say that individual verbal attacks—whether from Muslims or non-Muslims—cannot be reasonably said to undermine a belief system-cum-former civilisation as solid and established as Islam. It would be equally irrelevant to say that it is the Muslims’ own anachronisms and hypocrisies—not to mention their violence against non-Muslims—that have generated worldwide (including George W. Bush-style/Crusader) Islamophobia. Combined with the grassroots/populist tendency of Egyptians to deny difference and punish those who fail to conform, “Islam” (and, indeed, Coptic Christianity) in the context of contemporary Egypt tends to reduce to a young man or woman being collectively sacrificed for speaking their mind while old, unremarkable Muslim Brothers replicate the roles of Mubarak and his retinue. You would’ve thought this was enough reason for the champions of 25 January, whether “revolutionary” or “oppositional”, to be wary of the consequences of the Muslim Brotherhood replacing the military godhead founded by Nasser in 1952, of which Mubarak, his two predecessors and SCAF were all avatars.

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Catch 25: a situation in which, given a choice between the regime you revolted against and political Islam, you really have no choice at all.

        Which brings us to the limits of democratic process in a country where mass political choices reflect quasi-tribal affiliations—and what bigger tribe to win elections and enjoy the attendant benefits, regardless of how undemocratic it may be at bottom, than the one that panders to the hysterics of that relation of mine, the barbarism of Albert Saber’s detractors or the sheer evil insanity of B. R. A.’s mother—all of which find ready justification and effective expression in the conservative religiosity of the kind of “civil state with an Islamic frame of reference” envisioned by the Brotherhood.

        This is the culture to which, as an Egyptian intellectual here and now, I must be party. This is the culture that “seven thousand years of civilisation and three great pyramids” actually refers to—not the novels of Naguib Mahfouz or the songs of Om Kolthoum (neither of whom is looked on very favourably by Islamists anyway), much less the contract that is supposed to bind citizens to the society in which they live through the mediation of a benevolent or at least neutral state apparatus that allows people to believe what they will and adopt the lifestyle they choose.

        It will take far more than “toppling the regime” to change that culture. It will take much more than politics to bring about an Arab Spring.

The perils of commitment

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Pending trial, the case of three “Salafis” who killed an engineering student in Suez reportedly after warning him against meeting his fiancée in public prompted the head of security of the Canal city to further—involuntarily—expose the Ministry of Interior. Early in 2011, following the stepping down of Mubarak, his former counterpart in Behaira had been filmed giving a pep talk to his team in which he said, “He whose hand is raised against his master gets his hand chopped off; and we [the police] are their [the protesters'] masters.” Outrage resulted in him being removed from Behaira—only to be promoted to a higher post elsewhere in the country. As a result of incredibly frequent cabinet reshuffles since then, the ministry has been through several different heads; although it had been the principal motive behind the uprising, it has seen almost no reform. Yet the present Suez incident—the first of its kind following President Mohamed Mursi taking office—reveals an altogether different facet of corruption within the ministry.
In his statements to the media, the official in question explained that it had not been the intention of the attackers to take the student’s life but only to injure him. He said words to the effect that, being “committed young men” (commitment being the catch-all term for religious fanaticism and, what is worse, the use of religion as a cover for all manner of physical let alone moral violence against citizens), the “Salafis” had spoken kindly to the victim. Had he apologised and desisted, he went on to say, the situation would have been effortlessly resolved.
What is revealing about this response is not the fact that the rise to the presidency of the Muslim Brotherhood has given such “Salafis” (whoever on earth they may be) the political cover to commit such crimes with relative impunity—a predictable development anyway—but the fact that it has resulted in Ministry of Interior officials showing willingness to accommodate such “committed young men” to the point of expressing sympathy with their actions in open defiance of the law (after all, it is neither illegal nor socially unacceptable for a man to go out with his fiancée, whereas murder in cold blood would seem to be rather on the wrong side of the law). Two years ago under Mubarak such an incident (even if it were staged by the secret police) would have prompted mass arrests and vile mistreatment of “committed young men” all over the place (following the New Year’s Eve bombing of the Saints Church in Alexandria, which was probably staged by the ministry, at least one innocent suspect, Sayed Belal, died under torture without trial). Now that the president is an Islamist, however loose his connection with the kind of fanatic who would do this, the highest authority responsible is willing to practically apologise for a Sayed Belal who has been proven guilty.
Commitment, it would seem, has less to do with belief systems than with who happens to be in charge. Did I hear anybody talk about reforming the interior ministry?

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The Tao of #EgyPresElections

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The wisdom of the Tao has been demonstrated time and again in post-25 Jan Egypt. Doing something about a seemingly sticky situation isn’t always going to make it less sticky. This was especially relevant to the supposed urgent need for a president but few realised that until it was too late. The error began with the referendum on constitutional amendments. The yes vote ignored the deeper implications of the triumph of the revolution for the military core of the incompetent regime overthrown in the course of it. It also ignored the hyena-like readiness of the Muslim Brotherhood — nee the opposition — to pounce on the opportunity thus presented for replacing said regime, not through offering up the kind of sacrifices that eventually forced Mubarak to step down, but by fondling the selfsame military core. It was disgusting.
The alliance between Brotherhood and SCAF could not last indefinitely, of course. But it did ensure the emergence of a Brotherhood-dominated parliament just as corrupt and ineffectual re the aims of the revolution as Mubarak’s, notwithstanding the fact that the majority of “revolutionaries”, seized by the usual proactive frenzy, saw fit to participate in the “democratic wedding” that brought about that parliament even as their brothers in arms were being massacred on orders from the secret groom. It didn’t occur to them, and it didn’t convince them when it was spelled out, that by boycotting the parliamentary elections they might have formed a front of revolutionary opposition through which to face Brotherhood-backed Salafi MPs applauding the Minister of Interior for announcing that no pellets were used against protesters while pellets were quite patently being used against protesters even as the announcement was made in session.
None of it was enough to realise that boycotting SCAF-mediated elections was no passive copout but, like the revolution itself, an attempt to bypass the institutional impasse into which Egyptian politics had solidified. Over the previous two decades, that impasse had broadened enough to include an opposition as pragmatic and power-hungry as it was retrograde — hence not only the Brotherhood’s alliance with SCAF at the expense of ongoing protests but also its “wisdom” vis-a-vis the, well, genocide to which such protests were repeatedly subjected.
Once again, “revolutionary candidates” like the “moderate” Islamist-cum-liberal Abdelmoneim Abulfetouh and the “progressive” Nasserist-cum-liberal Hamdeen Sabbahi preferred the proactive, after-all-I’m-going-to-be-president path. They not only ran in the absence of a constitution to determine their powers once in office. They also ran without the legal reforms necessary to prevent the wedding from turning into an evening at the bordello. The result, more or less predictably, was that they lost the first round of the elections — and to who but Ahmad Shafik and Mohammed Morsi — the very candidates of SCAF and the Brotherhood, respectively? Still, “revolutionary leaders” including the dentist-stroke-novelist Alaa El-Aswany and the activist Alaa Abdelfattah had the nerve to respond instantly to that by declaring support for Morsi (on the premise that the Brotherhood was a lesser evil than SCAF?) It was disgusting.
And, having agreed to run under these conditions, having accepted the decision not to implement the disfranchisement law that would prevent Shafik from running — like a child who, realising he is losing the game, throws a tantrum and throws the ball over the fence of the playground — Abulfetouh and Sabbahi now look not only bad but positively anti-democratic as, once again taking to Tahrir, they reject the results of the elections. The Brotherhood, meanwhile, is acting perfectly in character: Let’s use such revolutionary discontent in our electoral campaign to help Morsi win; if he wins, we celebrate democracy; if nor, we join the revolutionaries in Tahrir. I am pretty sure Brotherhood members have actually said as much in public. Only now do boycott and spoil-your-vote campaigns gain any ground, even though “the revolution’s stance” is to demand a presidential council and/or the implementation of the disfranchisement law by further, futile protests.
It is disgusting.

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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.”
***
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?

Don’t shoot the jester

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In an unprecedented development, writes Youssef Rakha, comedy superstar Adel Imam is facing a possible three-month prison sentence for alleged “contempt of religion” in several of his films. This week the sentence was temporarily revoked awaiting the outcome of a second appeal, but the writers and directors whose names were included in the suit were declared not guilty. The evidence suggests that a group of Islamists in the legal profession might be settling old scores with Imam, but the incident sounds an alarm for freedom of creativity in the new, post-25 January Egypt.

Imam is arguably the most famous Arab actor alive, and had for decades enjoyed nearly head-of-state status. Early in the revolution last year, he alienated protesters by declaring his support for Mubarak, of whose regime he had become, in effect, an honorary official. Many otherwise pro-freedom of expression younger revolutionaries are therefore unsympathetic with the septuagenarian’s predicament. They forget that it was after a similar kind of suit that the late Islamic scholar Nassr Hamed Abu Zaid was very nearly separated from his wife; though not undertaken through legal channels, the assassination of the anti-Islamist writer Farag Fouda and the attempted assassination of Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz followed the same line of thought.

Imam, who in his works and statements alike has never demonstrated intellectual depth, had—along with other pro-Mubarak stars who failed to support the revolution—been aptly compared to a court jester. Since he rose to fame in the early 1970s, in his film vehicles and his cabaret-style plays, there was rarely any attempt at profundity beyond bland blanket support for the poor and the man on the street. There are of course exceptions, notably Mohammed Khan’s 1983 Al-Harrif (The Pro) and Sherif Arafa’s 1992 Al-Irhab awl Kabab (Terrorism and Kebab). In the latter, as in many films starring Imam, there is a harsh critique of corrupt religiosity and the association of terrorism with Islamic militants. It was under Mubarak, while the jihadist threat was being contained by State Security, that Imam made his greatest contribution to the portrayal of Wahhabis (later called Salafis) as terrorists posing a threat to society; this was of course in line with state policy.

Yet in many of his best-known plays—from the hilarious landmark Shaid mashafsh haga (A witness who saw nothing, 1976, five years before Mubarak came to power) to the inconsistent Al-Zaim (The Leader, 1993)—Imam provided scathing critiques of the police state and dictatorship (which he was of course careful not to associate with Mubarak off stage). Indeed many of his jokes were actually deployed in the verbal fight to bring down Mubarak in Tahrir Square even as he turned his back to the uprising. The use of such jokes was unavoidable as they had become ubiquitous. In fact Imam contributed to the shaping of spoken Arabic in Egypt, and much of that contribution (whether intentionally or not) was politically subversive.

The Fool is brought to trial not by a new and revolutionary King, however—whom I suspect would have honoured him, anyway—but by the insufferably Dark Ages-oriented Clergy whose power the revolution has facilitated. It is a question that we must ask ourselves as Egyptians, regarding Imam’s predicament as much as any number of issues: To what extent can support for the revolution be a measure of moral worth under the circumstances? And to what extent does political Islam have the right to inherit the new Egypt? Perhaps Imam is no tenable role model, but perhaps he should not be made to do hard labour. And if he is in any way punished, it had better be for his political position—not for failing to kowtow to the bearded inquisitors.

FOUND EGYPT: Mosaics of the Revolution

(1) A stock portrait of a contemporary woman in niqab is made up of the nude picture of Alia Mahdi, which was called a revolutionary gesture by the subject in November, 2011

(2) A Google Earth image of Tahrir Square and surrounds is made up of a graffito of “the finger”, one of the most popular statements of defiance since January, 2011

(3) A detail of an archival photo of a funerary mural in Thebes is made up of an iconic picture of a protester killed in Tahrir in January, 2011

(4) One of the portraits of Pope Shenouda III used by mourners following his death in March, 2012 is made up of images of casualties of the October 9, 2011 Maspero massacre of Coptic demonstrators (which the Pope is believed to have condoned)

(5) The flag of Egypt, with the eagle replaced by the famous blue bra exposed during the brutal beating by SCAF of one female demonstrator in Tahrir in November, 2011, is made up of images of Salafi and Muslim Brotherhood figures and symbols (along with “honourable citizens“, the “Islamic movement”, then in alliance with SCAF, condoned the suppression of demonstrators)

(6) A Muslim young man, reportedly gay, from a Cairo shanty town who crucified himself on a lamppost in Tahrir in April, 2011 as a gesture of protest is made up of anti-SCAF graffiti

(7) An American passport is made up of images of the hardline Islamist and vociferously anti-American former presidential candidate Hazim Salah Abu Ismail, who was legally disqualified from entering the race due to his mother holding US citizenship

cf/x photo mosaic as well as Adobe Photoshop CS5 were used to make these pictures

 

The Colours of Places – ألوان الأماكن

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Mainstream margin

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Last week Youssef Rakha lamented the sameness of the cultural press in the wake of revolution; this week he unpacks the role of that press as the morally superior Margin to an alleged establishment Text
It has been less than four months since the interim government of Essam Sharaf took charge and, true to form, intellectuals representing the supposed margin (of dissidence, of freedom, of whatever happens to be unlike or alternative to centres of money and power) are already assessing the performance of Emad Abu-Ghazi’s Ministry of Culture, questioning the presence in its ranks of former members of the NDP or its attempts to accommodate Salafi pressures through censorship, forgetting that the NDP and fundamentalist Islam are far more representative of the society in which they live than they could ever hope to be, and still possessing not a clue on how to achieve what they have always taken to be their raison d’être – transforming that society.
Intellectuals are doing so, for example, in the dedicated publication Akhbar Al-Adab, which, following a drawn-out, post-revolution strike against a corrupt editor more like a pro-government journalist (for which read civil servant) than an intellectual, is now edited by Abla El-Reweini: a triumph for all concerned but a development, ironically, that maintained the pre-revolution status quo of a small-circulation, progressive weekly subsidised by a gargantuan, more or less reactionary establishment (Akhbar Al-Yom). After some 50 years of ineffectuality, abolishing the ministry of culture altogether seemed not only the wiser but also the more revolutionary decision.
Yet the proposition found little support among the universally pro-revolution intellectuals themselves – and cultural circles by extension. It seems the intellectuals, like their counterparts in almost every field of endeavour, were eager to resume their usual role: that of disgruntled observer of official culture, which presupposes the existence of the latter. It seems they too could not wait for life to go “back to normal”. What is strange about this is not their impatience with the prospect of chaos, with temporary or partial unemployment and logistical, financial uncertainty. It is their failure to see the revolution as an opportunity for revising their perspective on culture itself: what it means to be an intellectual, what counts in a political position, what is the point of having or being part of a government-controlled institution…
For a decade following the “first independence” of 1956, big ideas about national consciousness and a state for the people did support cultural practises as part of a totalitarian system whose credibility came into question with the 1967 defeat. However, with the onset of anti-nationalist nationalism and mafia-style capitalism under Sadat, Egyptian culture – for a brief spell, an effective arm of the state – very quickly devolved into sporadic literary and audio-visual phenomena that have existed outside or in spite of corrupt and by now wholly superfluous institutions.
(Superfluous to the point of no longer even serving the regime that squandered public funds on them: from within another small-circulation, relatively progressive weekly subsidised by an even more gargantuan and reactionary institution, the revolution has made it possible to ask whether the decision by the former editor in chief of the daily Al-Ahram Ossama Saraya, a few months before the revolution, to Photoshop the figure of Mubarak from the back to the front of a small group of heads of state in a universally available wire picture before publishing it – the notorious “expressive intervention” scandal – actually served Mubarak’s interests.)
The failure of the Sadat regime to live up to the promise of freedom and its wholesale adoption of the Cold War strategy of endorsing political Islam to fend off the communist threat – just as idiotic, in the end, as Nasser’s non-alignment or pro-Soviet strategies of pan-Arab nationalism – resulted in the phenomenon of the “marginal” intellectual (i.e., the intellectual who did not openly pander to a regime she knew to have no legitimacy) as “the conscience of the nation”.
In the light of the isolation of both culture and power from an ever more underdeveloped society and so in the absence of the nation itself, the conscience of the nation is an interesting concept. The conscience of the nation critiques a construct, and in so doing it enters into a power game with fake representatives of (Arab, or Muslim) identity. Culture turns into an airtight system of shifting alliances and ongoing conflicts, personally driven and materialistically substantiated. The cultural margin becomes a steganographic part of the text of the regime not half as different from the society it rules as Akhbar Al-Adab would have us believe, a text – or a muddle of pious bureaucracy and incompetent profiteering – no longer really being written.
The marginal intellectual’s role before as after the revolution is to cling onto the moral high ground, critiquing the failure of said regime to undertake its national responsibility to a sublime thing called culture. But there can be no moral high ground in the absence of morality, nor does true culture – whether state-supported or spontaneous – emerge in isolation from the flesh-and-blood, dust-and-exhaust fume reality of which it is part. Neither nation nor culture can ever be very clearly defined in a police (or military) state where ideologies and counter ideologies, whether nationalist or Islamist, have eventually revealed themselves to be mere sloganeering.
Under Mubarak, Islamists (Salafis) were systematically unleashed on society in return for staying out of politics. The Ministry, headed for over 25 years by the former intelligence agent and abstract expressionist painter Farouk Hosni, turned culture into mega-project business closely associated with tourism and archaeology, by turns outraging and making outrageous concessions to Salafism.
Under Hosni the ministry totally emasculated an intellect like Gaber Asfour and totally abandoned one like the late Nasr Abu-Zeid, a potential and an actual victim of the “Islamic threat”, respectively. It siphoned money out of the country, like every other stolid ministry under Mubarak. In the systematic attacks on its abuses by the founding editor of Akhbar Al-Adab, the novelist Gamal El-Ghitani (who has called on Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, Mubarak’s long-standing defence minister and the head of the Higher Military Council, to assume the role of absolute ruler for a period of three years following the revolution), it found a shadow ministry with sufficient cover to make intellectuals feel they were active agents of a living culture, up against something they should be up against, owners of the moral high ground.
Yet now as before it is as if what must by definition be creative and organically rooted practise can be judged on the same terms as health care, for example. Now as before even intellectuals who recognise the bankruptcy of slogan-driven and populist consciousness are unable to let go of their role as the mirror image of a monster that does not really exist, or one that exists only insofar as they themselves allow it to.
The socio-cultural critic, which is the closest thing to what the Akhbar Al-Adab intellectual is or should be, is still at the receiving end of an intention emanating from an establishment that has proven, again and definitively, both culturally and morally hollow, paper thin, a vomit bag of un-things. Not only does this arrangement undermine the rebellious individual, it also turns the margin into a cog in the machinery of the very text it sets out to oppose – in the present case, and despite all the noise on both sides of the unreal divide: silence.

Al-Ahram Weekly

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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Insha’allah, Youssef Rakha

Where there’s a will…

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When I still lived in Cairo, I went to apply for a visa to visit Uzbekistan, and ended up talking to the resident consul about religious culture in Egypt. Something was perplexing the Uzbek diplomat. “The other day,” he told me, “I phoned an official called Mohammad. And I said, ‘Is this Mr Mohammad?’ But the voice at the other end, instead of saying ‘Yes’ or ‘How can I help you’, replied, ‘Insha’allah’!”

God willing, I thought, giggling, my name is Youssef Rakha. “It is very strange. There are no insha’allahs about it. How could God will or not will that? It has already been willed. No one would dream of saying that in Uzbekistan.”

I was not about to disagree with the consul – and not only because I needed the visa. He had cited a particularly amusing variation on a common complaint of non-Egyptians. He was bemoaning the Insha’allah Syndrome. Even to a deeply religious mind, his incredulity would be easy to understand.

A conditional clause derived from a verse of the Quran to the effect that nothing happens until God wills it, insha’allah is traditionally an expression of hope or prayer: “Insha’allah, this year I will pass my exam.”

In a similar, practically secular framework, it has been used to reassure (“Insha’allah, your papers will go through”), to express determination (“Insha’allah, I will teach her a lesson”), resignation (“Insha’allah, by then, the political situation may have improved”) or simply for emphasis: “Tomorrow at eight, insha’allah.

Less seriously, the phrase is an exclamation of surprise (“Who might this be, insha’allah?”), disapproval (“So you will go on smoking until tomorrow, then, insha’allah?”), sarcastic negation (“Ah, insha’allah…” – meaning “Never”) or, as in the case of the Uzbek consul’s phone call, utter boredom on the part of Mr Mohammad.

All of which is not to mention the function Westerners pick on the most: the tendency to absolve oneself of responsibility, especially in cases – like being expected to answer a simple factual question – where acknowledging the responsibility is both straightforward and necessary. Like the English “Sorry” and “Thank you”, however, overuse has rendered the expression, used colloquially, less meaningful over time: just a diversion with little relevance beyond indicating that you no longer want to talk.

Not until the 1990s did anyone think about it, really. And they did so not in the context of American-inspired administrative reform or theological argument, but simply to register the rising influence of Salafi Islam, the most pronounced evidence of which was the gradual tendency to replace “Good morning” and “Good evening” – even, in some cases, the “Allo” with which people routinely answer the phone – with “Assalamu ‘alaykum”, now deemed the official, divinely stamped Muslim greeting. Likewise the Salafi inspired insha’allah: Salafis regard the expression as a necessary adjunct to every statement in the future tense, reflecting a literalist interpretation of the aforementioned Quranic verse: “Say not I will until [you say] God wills it.” When pressed, orthodox theologians will in fact point out that (a) the verse refers to what you should believe, not what you should say, and (b) even if you were to think it necessary – for reasons of barakah, or blessing – to say insha’allah, it is generally a better idea to say it in your heart rather than verbally flaunt it, since what is in the heart counts for more than what is on the tongue.

So much for religion.

From the secular point of view, Westerners who are eager to understand it should think about insha’allah not simply, in reductive and orientalist terms, as a way for those lazy and fanatical Ay-rabs to avoid the dictates of work and logic, but rather, more deeply, as a cultural trope. The tendency to absolve oneself of responsibility is certainly annoying, and in many cases the decision to say insha’allah is informed by nothing more high-minded than the drive to get rid of someone. But in the end such attitudes are but the side effects of a mentality that could conceivably act as a corrective to the obsessively materialist standpoint of Western culture. To a far greater extent than its Western counterpart, the Muslim world view recognises the limits of human endeavour and is less uptight about time. Things happen because you make them, when you make them, but there are factors beyond the individual’s control, and to assume that reason and exertion are all there is to accomplishment or efficiency is not only to overlook dimensions of life but to give in to vanity, too.

The Western critique of insha’allah has a point, but so does Muslim fatalism. Big questions like death, what happens after death and how life might be lived in preparation for death are, after all, unlikely to acquire scientific answers. No medicine or technology can prevent an unexpected heart attack from instantly taking a young person’s life, which does not mean that open-heart surgery should be made illegal. Yet the cliché that every scientific good brings about a proportional evil – once again, to be swallowed with a generous pinch of salt – seems true if not at the material level then at the level of spiritual fulfilment. Cryogenics, for example, seems like a terribly barren alternative to the ecstasy of a Sufi invocation ceremony – which shares the same ultimate objective of eternal life.

Among Egyptians in particular, the belief in fate, which long predates Islam, is so strong and so pervasive that no one ever dares to question it. When you say insha’allah, in this context, you are – at some deep, ancestral level – acknowledging the limits of your power and professing the patience to wait. It seems more modest, more sensible and generally better for mental health to understand that there is only so much you can do in a given situation, relegating the rest to a greater power. Of course the incumbent risks are considerable, and the theory should be applied with caution. Bad science, inertia and inefficiency can readily result from the belief that all is in the hands of a greater power. But even within the framework of the Muslim faith, theology makes a distinction between positive tawakkul (relying on God) and negative tawaakul (absolving yourself of responsibility on the pretext of such reliance). Nothing happens until God wills it, sure, but the individual will is equally essential; and giving your name on the phone is something you can quite safely keep God out of without incurring His wrath.

originally published in The National