REFUGEE: A man leaves, embarks on a journey, endures inhumane difficulties in search of a humane haven. There is a war going on where he comes from; it’s not safe even to walk to the vegetable souk. Abducted by one armed group, an ambulance driver he knows is forced to make a fake confession on video for the benefit of satellite news channels, then sold to another armed group—and so on. Continue reading
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.
We married in November 2011. That was a little under a year after Hosni Mubarak stepped down from the Egyptian presidency and, handing over power to the military, signalled the fulfilment of that other kind of desire: the revolution. Frustration with the aftermath had already set in. Nevertheless, my wife and I still had faith in the power of protest. More precisely, we still wanted to believe that the ‘Arab Spring’ expressed a collective will to freedom beyond the by-now vapid thrill of demonstrations as such. We didn’t realise quite how fanatical people could be about that thrill, until demonstrations and their gory suppression became routine.
It likewise became routine for formerly pro-Mubarak, now pro-army, ‘honourable citizens’ to help round up and murder protesters, even as they, the honourable citizens, pretended to celebrate ‘a revolution that inspired the whole world’. And regardless of affiliation with political Islam, if the victims were Christians or ‘seculars’, all the better. (After the rise of political Islam, it was only natural that ‘honourable Islamists’ should show up, men who, having clean-shavenly stood back from the protests, now grew their beards and staged counter-demonstrations in support of the Muslim Brotherhood, campaigning for rural and working-class conservatism.)
We knew such behaviour was to be expected: the ‘honourable’ human being is hardly a minority in Egypt. What upset us was the vacuous heroism with which our comrades in arms continued to face it, mistaking populism for democracy and sectarianism for freedom. While younger, less privileged protesters paid with their lives, the star activists were being idiot politicians and pompous pedagogues — just as dogmatic, irresponsible and reactionary at heart as the generations of intellectuals and politicos whom we blamed for Egypt being the hopeless backwater that it is, a place where living in the full sense is about as easy as spontaneous flight. Whether they had wanted to resist the ‘remnants of the former regime’ or to massage their middle-class conscience, the activists allowed rurally rooted political Islam to take over an essentially urban and secular uprising. Remove their alliance with the Islamists against the military and members of the Facebook Generation turned out to have no vision for the future beyond patriotic chaos.
It took my wife and me a while to admit this, in part because we were newcomers to the cause. Under Mubarak, we had long given up on any oppositional or proactive effort. For one thing, it was pointless: not only the regime but practically the whole of society was committed to imperious incompetence and a pre-modern morality. But oppositional attitudes also felt like a bourgeois affectation — a kind of fashionable piety, as yet distinct from the Wahhabism of the grass roots.
Can it be said that one died for the greater good when the greater good itself is so riddled with contradiction?
And then, on 25 January 2011, we saw what looked like evidence to the contrary: thousands upon thousands of young, unaffiliated people proclaiming that they were alive, against the odds. When Tahrir Square became the centre of the uprising, we remembered that it was also the core of the Khedival Cairo of 1863, the Paris-inspired metropolis-to-be that was the state’s first stab at modernity. We became reborn activists, and for a brief moment, Tahrir Square promised us an implausibly desirable contemporary city: a place where we could be safe from honourable citizens and military abuses alike, granted the freedom of belief as well as the right to demonstrate. We dreamed of that city, and having witnessed people dying for it — so goes our fairy tale — it was difficult to let go of the dream. By 24 November 2012, however, when our Kismet arrived, tiny, wet and wide-eyed in her eagerness to engage, Tahrir Square had broken its promise.
I say ‘fairy tale’ because I’m no longer sure what people really died for. Can it be said that one died for the greater good when the greater good itself is so riddled with contradiction? For example: President Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, won the election after he was arbitrarily stamped with the seal of the revolution in the run-off vote; such was the desperation to make sure that his Mubarak-affiliated rival wouldn’t win. Yet many of those who so stamped him have been tortured and killed protesting against Muslim Brotherhood policies, by the police waging a two-year-old vendetta against their arch-enemies, ‘the revolutionaries’, or else by Islamists guarding their turf. How far can one sympathise with such martyrs?
I say ‘fairy tale’ also because I want to string the events I have witnessed into a bedtime story for Kismet: a way to explain how her mother and I participated in things being the way they are, to apologise creatively. I want my story to be compelling and edifying, so it can’t be that same one about the fight between good and evil — in which, because good is too rhetorical to be true, its triumph is indefinitely postponed. At some level, our life together will always be shadowed by the fact that Baba and Mama, though never as mulishly unseeing as other activists of their generation, did contribute to the ousting of Mubarak. It will always be true that Kismet came into the world just as this historical achievement was revealing itself as no more than a turn for the worse, mere authority changing hands, making more room for sloganeering and violence, and for society to sink still lower. The winning cards in the ensuing power game were marked from the start: not the ones with the pledge to grant civil rights but those with the imperative to deny them. Misogyny, tribalism and brute force are far more popular in Egypt than equality, institutionalism and reason. The Cairo of our dream, like that of Ismail Pasha, the 19th-century Khedive of Egypt, is gone; we cannot even return to the semi-medieval mega-village we had always known. And Kismet will grow up in a third squaloropolis, even further removed from our fantasy. Were we fools, then?
In the time it takes you to form in your Mama’s tummy, ya habibti, we learn exactly how foolish we have been. After the protest, every sign points downward. The conservative Wahhabi pieties imported from the Gulf, which have been spreading unofficially for two decades, are now lionised in government, in the constitution and in the media — indeed, this is the principal outcome of the revolution. Cairo is no longer safe: the so-called security breakdown gives way to muggings, road blocks and attacks on property. Through civil clashes, torture takes place on the street and in the mosque — and those who perpetrate it still have the nerve to complain about police brutality. Pseudo-militias (the ‘Ultras’ groups of football supporters, for example) have emerged, and sexual harassment edges into gang rape. Judicial abuses take on a sinister edge.
None of which helps with ‘the wheel of production’ or tourism. Even my own position as an employee of a state-affiliated press conglomerate is no longer secure. Where the 15-mile drive to work used to take an hour at the most, now it takes up to four. And my fellow drivers are so randomly aggressive, Kismet, that you start to wonder whether they have mistaken going about their business for civil war. Three years ago I would have told you there was no way the traffic could be worse. Now it clearly is; who knows what I will have to tell you three years from now? But, whether it is a more extreme variant of what we have or something else, as yet unthinkable, I trust that you’ll still assimilate and in your way comprehend it. Perhaps you will decide to leave the country after all: I would gladly let you.
Just as easily as you could be suffocated, crushed or starved, I could be imprisoned, declared an apostate, divested of income
My point is, when we first saw you, Kismet, our renewed conviction in the futility of politics was almost as perfect as you were. At one point in the hospital I remember pointing to your head and yelling that no one would be allowed to mess with ‘this’. I was thinking that I wouldn’t let anything prevent you from being fully alive, neither ‘Islam’ nor that other religion so enmeshed with Islam in post-Arab Spring Cairo, the dogma of the demonstration. I remember your Mama wincing. She was still in pain from giving birth to you. Was she simply asking me not to yell, or had I reminded her of the hideousness that would surround you? But let me stop speaking for Mama.
Not having you was out of the question, selfish as that inevitably is, but having you elsewhere would have made you a second-generation immigrant, and I know that few destinies are worse than that. Now it is true that the unsprayed trees outside our apartment building bring no end of mosquitoes into the house, but it is also true that the birds sing in the early morning. On nights when you sleep in bed between us, all but hidden in your sleeping bag, you look like a third pillow at a right angle to the other two. Often I will have woken very early or stayed up very late, and with first light I will lie on my side listening to the birds and watching you. Your head wobbling like a grapefruit at the edge of your sleeping contraption reminds me of my own fragile position. Just as easily as you could be suffocated, crushed or starved, I could be imprisoned, declared an apostate, divested of income — eliminated with a stroke. We are equally helpless, you and I. Yet at the same time, we are each ensconced in our respective spot, not really intimidated, oblivious of the horror. As I watch you I know it won’t be long before, woken by hunger, you cry out for your mother’s breast, but by then I will be on my daily journey through the city that I pictured so many times while I was waiting for you.
Unlike the conventional image of the city — any city — Cairo has no shape, cartographic or otherwise: it is more like an infinitely spreading stain than any drawing. That’s why in certain, optimistic moods I used to say you could make of it what you will. It’s probably still true that, once you know the secret routes to what you want, you can find every kind of provider in Cairo: from Syriac-speaking exorcists to pedlars of designer drugs. However, I suspect it is by subtler and more common things that you’ll learn to identify your city: the sickly sweet acidity of strong tea with the pebble-and-dust leaves piled at the bottom of a thin glass. The texture and smell of mud cakes on the asphalt after the rare shower. The uselessly ingratiating smile of a hustler at a traffic light. And bridges, bridges everywhere …
By the time you become aware of such things, you’ll also be used to the smog generating photo-art in the sky and the amplified braying that accompanies outdoor worship, the acrobatics of cyclists, pedestrians and microbus passengers sharing the asphalt with wayward motor vehicles, while accidental art installations — commercial displays, folk performances, storage facilities, toilets and rubbish dumps — occupy every last inch of pavement and, more and more, the main roads, too. You’ll even be used to the sudden shift in traffic due to otherwise obscure ‘demonstrations’, and the fear of being caught in the crossfire of pellets and Molotovs.
While we are here in relative calm the three of us can look on and laugh
In my first novel, I had imagined your city as a tugra, the calligraphic seal of the Ottoman sultan. This made it feel more like Istanbul, which seems so much more humane than Cairo when you visit. After January 25, I toyed with the idea of superimposing Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man onto a map of Tahrir Square in order to personify the whole city as the body and mind of a protester — id, ego and superego. Silly me. Later, when there was an army-and-honourable-citizen pogrom of Christian demonstrators within walking distance from my workplace, I pictured Cairo as an ornate Coptic cross, whose body was made up of the Nile, the October Bridge, the Autostrad, and the Ring Road.
I thought of this Gnostic symbol, the cross that looks like an ankh or a human figure, as a barred window, taking up the length and breadth of the sky, keeping watch over us residents below. It was the traditions and the taboos, the anachronisms, superstitions and conventions, but also the poverty that, however much activists glorify it in the course of singing the praises of ‘the people’, remains the pretext for all manner of atrocities. Lack of education is one thing, Kismet, but as you will find out, refusing to acknowledge empirical methods and factual information — about who killed whom and when, for example — is ignorance of a different order.
So, tugra, Vitruvian Man and Coptic cross: all these were emblems of a place empty of you. Now that you are with us I am going to have to think of a happier town. While we are here in relative calm, enjoying what we have, registering the encroaching madness but never intimidated by it, the three of us can look on and laugh, knowing that there will be enough affection and beauty to keep us joyfully together no matter what. For it is this as much as Cairo, beautiful, beautiful girl, that is our kismet.
On the 30th anniversary of the Sabra and Chatila massacre, it is worth rereading Jean Genet’s song to the beauty of revolutionaries
“Martyrs’ Square”, Beirut, 2005. photo: Youssef Rakha
For me, the word “Palestinians,” whether in a headline, in the body of an article, on a handout, immediately calls to mind fedayeen in a specific spot—Jordan—and at an easily determined date: October, November, December 1970, January, February, March, April 1971. It was then and there that I discovered the Palestinian Revolution…
When I went to Sabra and Chatila in April 2005, I had already read Jean Genet’s “Four Hours in Chatila”—and loved it. It is a rambling meditation on death and revolution, written within a day of the killing of the entire Palestinian and Shia population of the two refugee camps within greater Beirut—ostensibly in retaliation for the killing of the pro-Israeli Kataeb leader Bachir Gemayel after he was elected president. Kataeb militiamen did the work for the Israeli army on 16-18 September 1982.
“Goyim kill goyim,” Prime Minister Menachem Begin told the Knesset, “and they come to hang the Jews.”
In the end neither Jews nor Maronites were hanged. With the PLO already in Tunis, what transpired was the termination of the Palestinian (Arab) Revolution so conceived—the apex of the counterrevolution led by Israel’s allies, and the end of the glorious legend of the fedayeen.
For reasons that had more to do with where I was in my life than sympathy with the Palestinian cause, when I went to Sabra and Chatila, I broke down in tears. It happened at the end of my walk through the site, at once so inside and outside Beirut that, spending time there, you feel as if you’ve travelled in time. It happened when I got to the tiny cemetery where the remains of some victims of the massacre are buried. There was no obvious context for crying in public, and it must’ve looked ridiculous.
But I was in Beirut for the first time to witness the Cedar Revolution: the young, apolitical uprising against the hegemony of the Syrian regime and its sectarian practices in Lebanon, directed at the army and mukhabarat whose personnel had enjoyed arbitrary power over the Lebanese for as long as anyone could remember. After Iraq’s disastrous liberation from Saddam, this was the first ever evidence of an Arab Spring—and, thinking about being “a virtual Palestinian”, as I had been called in Beirut, my tears anticipated another moment almost six years later, here in Cairo.
A photograph doesn’t show the flies nor the thick white smell of death. Neither does it show how you must jump over bodies as you walk along from one corpse to the next. If you look closely at a corpse, an odd phenomenon occurs: the absence of life in this body corresponds to the total absence of the body, or rather to its continuous backing away. You feel that even by coming closer you can never touch it. That happens when you look at it carefully. But should you make a move in its direction, get down next to it, move an arm or a finger, suddenly it is very much there and almost friendly. Love and death. These two words are quickly associated when one of them is written down. I had to go to Chatila to understand the obscenity of love and the obscenity of death. In both cases the body has nothing more to hide: positions, contortions, gestures, signs, even silences belong to one world and to the other…
In the middle, near them, all these tortured victims, my mind can’t get rid of this “invisible vision”: what was the torturer like? Who was he? I see him and I don’t see him. He’s as large as life and the only shape he will ever have is the one formed by the stances, positions, and grotesque gestures of the dead fermenting in the sun under clouds of flies. If the American Marines, the French paratroopers, and the Italian bersagliere who made up an intervention force in Lebanon left so quickly (the Italians, who arrived by ship two days late, fled in Hercules airplanes!) one day or thirty-six hours before their official departure date, as if they were running away, and on the day before Bashir Gemayel’s assassination, are the Palestinians really wrong in wondering if Americans, French and Italians had not been warned to clear out pronto so as not to appear mixed up in the bombing of the Kataeb headquarters?
I’m pretty sure that circle of sparse vegetation where people are buried is in Sabra, not Chatila. But Sabra and Chatila are so interwoven in my memory it really hardly matters.
The walls and the unpaved ground were white, and white was the dust staining what asphalt there was. As I sobbed uncontrollably before the unmarked graves, what my tears anticipated—unbeknown to me, of course—was the night of 25 January 2011. That evening on my way home from the offices of Al Ahram, having laughed at the concept of revolution-as-Facebook-event, I decided to walk through Tahrir to see if the demonstrations planned for Police Day were any different from endless—useless—protests I had seen since the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Then, arriving there, I realised something was happening. The sight and especially the sound of unbelievable numbers of young Egyptians willingly offering up their bodies—not for abstract notions like “resistance” or Islam, not against any greater or lesser devil, but for the right to live like human beings in their own country—made me weep. “It is not Islamist,” I wrote feverishly in my Facebook status later that night. “It is not limited in numbers. And I saw it with my own eyes in Maidan Al-Tahrir.”
After Cedar, it had taken five and a half years for Jasmine to break out in Tunis, driving what would sometimes be called the Lotus Revolution here. Events were not to start for real until 28 January—two days after, hearing the national anthem in a meaningful context for the first time in my life, I sang tunelessly along, tearfully ecstatic. But already, through phone and other communications after midnight, I realised the killing had started. “I want to go out,” I remember telling a Canada-based friend over Facebook chat in the small hours, “but I’m scared.”
At that same moment a younger, renegade-Muslim-Brother friend was running through the streets of Shubra, tattered, soiled and in tears, pursued by armoured vehicles whose siren almost two years later still gives him the shivers. Another, even younger Catholic friend had fielded a load of Central Security pellets at close range; some barely missed his eyes, and he couldn’t get up unassisted; after receiving first aid in the nearest government hospital, he was sneaked through a backdoor to avoid arrest by State Security. During the day, a young woman friend had fainted from an overdose of tear gas and barely escaped being run over. Hundreds were in custody without charge; a good few were beaten up or detained for hours in police cars; some had been haplessly killed, too…
But, on the morning of 26 January, it was as if nothing had happened. The front page of the daily Al Ahram (already notorious for the “expressive” wire picture in which Mubarak was Photoshopped from the back to the front of a group of heads of state) did no so much as mention unprecedented numbers of demonstrators protesting police brutality and corruption in Tahrir. A minor demonstration in Lebanon of all places was highlighted instead. Downtown, I noticed, people went about their business.
What pained me was not “the beautiful young” dead or injured “for nothing”; “nothing” was a condition of their beauty, after all, and perhaps there weren’t enough casualties yet (though in this context what do numbers mean?) What pained me was that a turn of events that promised to yield a voluntary communal purge of society, a sort of post-religion repentance, seemed to come to nothing the next day. It hadn’t, of course; but later when it did come to something that thing very quickly became political, which meant that power would pass into the hands of religion mongers leaving society intact, with all the evil inside it.
By the time Mubarak stepped down on 11 February—not that this is technically true—there was hardly a young or a secular person in Tahrir. There was to be much more death from then on.
The statement that there is a beauty peculiar to revolutionaries raises many problems. Everyone knows, everyone suspects, that young children or adolescents living in old and harsh surroundings have a beauty of face, body, movement and gaze similar to that of the fedayeen. Perhaps this may be explained in the following way: breaking with the ancient ways, a new freedom pushes through the dead skin, and fathers and grandfathers will have a hard time extinguishing the gleam in the eyes, the throbbing in the temples, the joy of blood flowing through the veins. In the spring of 1971, in the Palestinian bases, that beauty subtly pervaded a forest made alive by the freedom of the fedayeen. In the camps a different, more muted beauty prevailed because of the presence of women and children. The camps received a sort of light from the combat bases, and as for the women, it would take a long and complex discussion to explain their radiance. Even more than the men, more than the fedayeen in combat, the Palestinian women seemed strong enough to sustain the resistance and accept the changes that came along with a revolution. They had already disobeyed the customs: they looked the men straight in the eye, they refused to wear a veil, their hair was visible, sometimes completely uncovered, their voices steady. The briefest and most prosaic of their tasks was but a small step in the self-assured journey towards a new, and therefore unknown, order, but which gave them a hint of a cleansing liberation for themselves, and a glowing pride for the men…
Here in the ruins of Chatila there is nothing left. A few silent old women hastily hiding behind a door where a white cloth is nailed. As for the very young fedayeen, I will meet some in Damascus. You can select a particular community other than that of your birth, whereas you are born into a people; this selection is based on an irrational affinity, which is not to say that justice has no role, but this justice and the entire defense of this community take place because of an emotional – perhaps intuitive, sensual – attraction; I am French, but I defend the Palestinians wholeheartedly and automatically. They are in the right because I love them. But would I love them if injustice had not turned them into a wandering people?
Genet just didn’t know about political Islam, did he? He didn’t appreciate the effects on collective consciousness of nearly a century of social-cultural-sexual—forget political—repression, of systematic misinformation, humiliation and discouragement of initiative, of words denoting things other than what they say even in life-and-death circumstances, actions failing to yield consensual meaning, courage going unnoticed and festering “tradition” prioritised over such birthrights as sense, sensibility and sensation.
It was all through Friday 28 January, from noon to midnight, that I drew my own connections between youth, death and the—revolutionary—identity of the tortured. However partially or peripherally, I had that identity too; and I was no longer scared. Without the leisure of Genet’s macabre stroll, without the mythical underpinnings of the Arab Revolution or the feeling that I was a Frenchman among Palestinians with no more reason to be there than the fact that I “loved” them, I perceived how the human body responds to being run over by a speeding vehicle, the colour of what comes out of the head when it is gashed open against a solid surface, the smell of sweat on a dead young body mobbed by loud mourners and the sound of fear. There was water-hosing, live ammunition, slaughter and many things besides.
People trembling before the murder of others on the side of the road, adolescents taking metal fences apart to use as weaponry, valiant, bare-chested battles with tear gas canisters and the increasingly expert hurling of stones and Molotov cocktails: it was a bonanza of desperation, a grafting onto the scene of “revolution” of all the violence and madness prompted by living for decades under inhuman conditions; fear and loathing in the Maidan.
That day there was plenty of opportunity for political identification with Palestinians—Qasr Al-Aini Street looked and felt like the site of an Intifada against a repressive power less competent or self-respecting and so even more brutishly undiscriminating than the Israeli army—but it wasn’t the sight of stone-throwing children facing armed men in uniform that evoked Palestine.
It wasn’t being Arab, or to the left of a counterrevolutionary, pro-Israeli status quo. As would later be confirmed on finding out about Hamas’s atrocious response to Arab Spring demonstrations in Gaza, it was my social (human or cultural) connection with Palestinians that Friday 28 January made me aware of in a new way. And that was practically beyond tears.
As the Lebanese already knew, the position of the secular Arab as a Palestinian—state- or citizenship-less, disinherited, disgraced, betrayed and blamed for being who they are—is even more pronounced under resistance-mongering regimes like the Assads’ than elsewhere. All Arabs have their little Israels to torture them through their respective Kataeb in full view of the international community; even the Islamist banner—“Death to the infidels,” in which the latter word replaces the conventional Arab nationalist “traitors”—does not prevent that.
Many died in Chatila, and my friendship, my affection for their rotting corpses was also immense, because I had known them. Blackened, swollen, decayed by the sun and by death, they were still fedayeen. They were still fedayeen. Around two o’clock in the afternoon on Sunday three soldiers from the Lebanese army drove me, at gunpoint, to a jeep where an officer was dozing. I asked him: “Do you speak French?” — “English.” The voice was dry, maybe because I had awakened it with a start. He looked at my passport, and said to me, in French: “Have you just been there?” He pointed to Chatila. “Yes.” — “And did you see?” — “Yes.” — “Are you going to write about it?” — “Yes.” He gave me back my passport. He signaled me to leave. The three rifles were lowered. I had spent four hours in Chatila. About forty bodies remained in my memory. All of them, and I mean all, had been tortured, probably against a backdrop of drunkenness, song, laughter, the smell of gunpowder and already of decaying flesh. I was probably alone, I mean the only European (with a few old Palestinian women still clinging to a torn white cloth; with a few young unarmed fedayeen), but if these five or six human beings had not been there and I had discovered this butchered city, black and swollen Palestinians lying there, I would have gone crazy. Or did I? That city lying in smithereens which I saw or thought I saw, which I walked through, felt, and whose death stench I wore, had all that taken place?
I know Sabra and Chatila was about racism, imperialism and the ugly side of humanity. I know it had to do with the accepted construction of the Palestinian cause and (confirmed by it) the perennial suspicion that minority (as in non-Muslim) Arab communities are potential traitors to the greater nation even when that nation pretends to be other than the Umma (a pretence now backfiring throughout the region in the worst possible ways). What I have learned from the Arab Spring is that Sabra and Chatila may also have been about something else, something like a mirror image of what Genet saw in the fedayeen. Like the sectarian aftermath of the Arab Spring, like the failure of the so called international community to reign in all the little Israels whose existence Nazism’s progeny justifies, like the failure of Arab societies to make use of the sacrifices of the young and the beautiful, Sabra and Chatila was about Arab self-hatred. It was about the ugliness peculiar to revolutionaries and counterrevolutionaries in times of grand narratives that, in the absence of societies to support them, are bound to end badly. In the most oblique way imaginable, Sabra and Chatila is about the ugliness of the fedayeen.
Genet’s text (in italics) quoted as is in Daniel R. Dupecher and Martha Perrigaud’s translation
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?
The Torture Career of Egypt’s New Vice President: Omar Suleiman and the Rendition to Torture Program
by Stephen Soldz / January 31st, 2011
In response to the mass protests of recent days, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has appointed his first Vice President in his over 30 years rule, intelligence chief Omar Suleiman. When Suleiman was first announced, Al-jazeera commentators were describing him as a “distinguished” and “respected ” man. It turns out, however, that he is distinguished for, among other things, his central role in Egyptian torture and in the US rendition-to-torture program. Further, he is “respected” by US officials for his cooperation with their torture plans, among other initiatives.
Katherine Hawkins, an expert on the US’s rendition-to-torture program, in an email, has sent some critical texts where Suleiman pops up. Thus, Jane Mayer, in The Dark Side, pointed to Suleiman’s role in the rendition program:
Each rendition was authorized at the very top levels of both governments….The long-serving chief of the Egyptian central intelligence agency, Omar Suleiman, negotiated directly with top Agency officials. [Former U.S. Ambassador to Egypt] Walker described the Egyptian counterpart, Suleiman, as “very bright, very realistic,” adding that he was cognizant that there was a downside to “some of the negative things that the Egyptians engaged in, of torture and so on. But he was not squeamish, by the way” (pp. 113).
Stephen Grey, in Ghost Plane, his investigative work on the rendition program also points to Suleiman as central in the rendition program:
To negotiate these assurances [that the Egyptians wouldn't "torture" the prisoner delivered for torture] the CIA dealt principally in Egypt through Omar Suleiman, the chief of the Egyptian general intelligence service (EGIS) since 1993. It was he who arranged the meetings with the Egyptian interior ministry…. Suleiman, who understood English well, was an urbane and sophisticated man. Others told me that for years Suleiman was America’s chief interlocutor with the Egyptian regime — the main channel to President Hosni Mubarak himself, even on matters far removed from intelligence and security.
Suleiman’s role in the rendition program was also highlighted in a Wikileaks cable:
the context of the close and sustained cooperation between the USG and GOE on counterterrorism, Post believes that the written GOE assurances regarding the return of three Egyptians detained at Guantanamo (reftel) represent the firm commitment of the GOE to adhere to the requested principles. These assurances were passed directly from Egyptian General Intelligence Service (EGIS) Chief Soliman through liaison channels — the most effective communication path on this issue. General Soliman’s word is the GOE’s guarantee, and the GOE’s track record of cooperation on CT issues lends further support to this assessment. End summary.
Suleiman wasn’t just the go-to bureaucrat for when the Americans wanted to arrange a little torture. This “urbane and sophisticated man” apparently enjoyed a little rough stuff himself.
Shortly after 9/11, Australian citizen, Mamdouh Habib, was captured by Pakistani security forces and, under US pressure, tortured by Pakistanis. He was then rendered (with an Australian diplomats watching) by CIA operatives to Egypt, a not uncommon practice. In Egypt, Habib merited Suleiman’s personal attention. As related by Richard Neville, based on Habib’s memoir:
Habib was interrogated by the country’s Intelligence Director, General Omar Suleiman…. Suleiman took a personal interest in anyone suspected of links with Al Qaeda. As Habib had visited Afghanistan shortly before 9/11, he was under suspicion. Habib was repeatedly zapped with high-voltage electricity, immersed in water up to his nostrils, beaten, his fingers were broken and he was hung from metal hooks.
That treatment wasn’t enough for Suleiman, so:
To loosen Habib’s tongue, Suleiman ordered a guard to murder a gruesomely shackled Turkistan prisoner in front of Habib – and he did, with a vicious karate kick.
After Suleiman’s men extracted Habib’s confession, he was transferred back to US custody, where he eventually was imprisoned at Guantanamo. His “confession” was then used as evidence in his Guantanamo trial.
The Washington Post’s intelligence correspondent, Jeff Stein, reported some additional details regarding Suleiman and his important role in the old Egypt the demonstrators are trying to leave behind:
“Suleiman is seen by some analysts as a possible successor to the president,” the Voice of American said Friday. “He earned international respect for his role as a mediator in Middle East affairs and for curbing Islamic extremism.”
An editorialist at Pakistan’s “International News” predicted Thursday that “Suleiman will probably scupper his boss’s plans [to install his son], even if the aspiring intelligence guru himself is as young as 75.”
Suleiman graduated from Egypt’s prestigious Military Academy but also received training in the Soviet Union. Under his guidance, Egyptian intelligence has worked hand-in-glove with the CIA’s counterterrorism programs, most notably in the 2003 rendition from Italy of an al-Qaeda suspect known as Abu Omar.
In 2009, Foreign Policy magazine ranked Suleiman as the Middle East’s most powerful intelligence chief, ahead of Mossad chief Meir Dagan.
In an observation that may turn out to be ironic, the magazine wrote, “More than from any other single factor, Suleiman’s influence stems from his unswerving loyalty to Mubarak.”
If Suleiman succeeds Mubarak and retains power, we will likely be treated to plaudits for his distinguished credentials from government officials and US pundits. We should remember that what they really mean is his ability to brutalize and torture. As Stephen Grey puts it:
But in secret, men like Omar Suleiman, the country’s most powerful spy and secret politician, did our work, the sort of work that Western countries have no appetite to do ourselves.
If Suleiman receives praise in the US, it will be because our leaders know that he’s the sort of leader who can be counted on to do what it takes to restore order and ensure that Egypt remains friendly to US interests.
There are some signs, however, that the Obama administration may not accept Suleiman’s appointment. Today they criticized the rearrangement of the chairs in Egypt’s government. If so, that will be a welcome sign that the Obama administration may have some limits beyond which it is hesitant to go in aligning with our most brutal “friends.”
We sure hope that the Egyptian demonstrators reject the farce of Suleiman’s appointment and push on to a complete change of regime. Otherwise the Egyptian torture chamber will undoubtedly return, as a new regime reestablishes “stability” and serves US interests.
Stephen Soldz is a psychoanalyst, psychologist, public health researcher, and faculty member at the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis. He maintains the Psychoanalysts for Peace and Justice web page and the Psyche, Science, and Society blog. He is a founder of the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology, one of the organizations leading the struggle to change American Psychological Association policy on participation in abusive interrogations. He is President of Psychologists for Social Responsibility and a consultant to Physicians for Human Rights. Read other articles by Stephen.
On revolution and intellectual life: Youssef Rakha again
There is a scene recounted by a young writer, Talal Faisal, in his as yet uncompleted novel about the late playwright and poet Naguib Surour: Barefoot and in tatters, holding a twig, Surour is spotted on the street by the journalist-critic Ragaa El-Naqqash, who takes him along in his taxi, offering him money for food. In the ensuing conversation, the vernacular poet and cartoonist Salah Jahine, perhaps the most successful intellectual of his generation, comes up. This is in the wake of the 1967 War; and Jahine, who was an unflinching mouthpiece of Nasser’s regime, is depressed about the humiliating defeat of the Arab armies. With mock concern, Surour asks Naqqash after Jahine, embarrassing yet another fellow left-wing intellectual who, unlike him, has managed to survive the worst of the totalitarian state with his shoes on. Talal Faisal captures the wry bitterness of Surour’s tone exactly.
Due to his immense populist talent and his eventual suicide, Jahine is seldom remembered as an instrument of totalitarianism; much as Nasser is regarded as a hero of the people despite his tyranny and the disastrous effects of his rule, so is Jahine sought out as the people’s voice – ultimately defeated. The power of the scene recounted by Talal Faisal, apparently based on a real-life incident, is that suddenly it presents Jahine not as a patriot and an innocent victim of the triumph of imperialism-Zionism (which triumph was later institutionalised by the next president-for-life, the “peace hero” Anwar Sadat), but as the agent of a rotten dictatorship. In this Jahine is rather like Sadat himself, whose reversal of Nasser’s foreign policy reduced neither the autocracy nor the corruption and short-sightedness of the military order he had taken part in establishing by coup d’etat in July 1952. By contrast Surour, an alcoholic diagnosed with schizophrenia and the author of a landmark series of obscene verses, was the self-dramatised outcast of the Arab nationalist patriarchate (whose only surviving archbishop, it should be remembered, is Colonel Gaddafi). If there is a true patriot and victim of imperialism-Zionism, it is Surour.
I have had occasion, following Egypt’s post-25 January return to an “emergency” status quo – also, and always, by way of the Israeli Embassy – to reread some of Surour’s more controversial work; and despite his obsession with Zionist conspiracy and the metaphorical as well as literal threat of being sodomised, I have been astonished by his madman’s prophetic power – a clarity of vision completely absent from Jahine’s technically far superior verses, many of which must be seen in the context of willful self-delusion if not downright lying – and the way in which, unlike most Marxists and leftists since, Surour could categorically reject July without subscribing to either liberal capitalism or political Islam. Long before Mubarak appeared on the scene, he spoke of such socioeconomic staples of the Mubarak regime as the brain drain, oil money, sexual tourism, male prostitutes, illegal immigration, policing and torture. Long before the collapse of the Soviet Union exposed the futility of the concept of the Leader, the absolute demigod, he could see that the problem was in that concept, not in ideological differences, pointing out that an autocrat could liquidate an Islamist like Sayyid Qutb and a communist like Shohdi Attiya El-Shafie, a close friend of his own, in the same breath. Far more than any of the penny-a-head rhetoric-mongers, some of whom sadly were of Jahine’s aesthetic calibre, Surour’s life reflected an awareness of the responsibility of the engaged intellectual, whose role in public life remained paramount in public consciousness; he was truly and honestly involved in politics, not in political discourse, and as the aforementioned scene demonstrates, he paid the price.
Despite the clarity of his vision and his strange ability to see into the future, Surour is of course of little relevance to the present moment. Yet his position as victim, the very price he paid, is indicative of the ambiguous position of the intellectual vis-a-vis political power. It is as if, in order to play any public role at all, an intellectual must in some sense be ready, the way Jahine was ready, to tell lies (the fact that he may have been telling them to himself as much as his audience is irrelevant). And it has been fascinating – perhaps what initially drove me to reread Surour at this point in time – to watch the range and complexity of the lies intellectuals have been telling in the wake of 25 January regarding the full gamut of the issues at stake from the nature of what happened to the intentions of the powers that be, up to and including which parties are relevant, which more powerful, which real.
I will not get into the lies themselves here. Suffice to say that they are similar in orientation and structure to the kind of untruths that informed public and cultural discourse in the early Seventies, when Surour produced his verses. It is business that involves abstractions and fallacies, opportunism veiled as pragmatism, lack of rigour (or conscience) and – inevitably, whatever else besides – a certain amount of self-delusion. But perhaps its most catastrophic side, now that populism is as dead as the all-powerful demigod, is its capacity for channelling insurgent energy away from the space in which it could yield political results on the ground and into larger issues that turn out to be merely rhetorical.
Perhaps art for art’s sake is a better idea, after all.