Saturday, May 16, 2020

Hani Shukrallah - A Very Remarkable Creature

When I first heard news of Hani Shukrallah’s passing, it didn’t quite sink in. He was in and out of hospital, and in many ways I had been dreading it and trying to deal with it internally. Every time he got out of the hospital it was a sigh of relief. Maybe I had been long preparing myself for his passing so that the blow would not be so heavy. It worked. I was almost smiling in his funeral, and perhaps it’s merely because I could not help but think of Hani smiling and laughing looking down on his own funeral. With all the loved ones around and some of the hypocrites that may have come to pay tribute, I could not wipe his smile off my brain. But perhaps I was also smiling because I felt immense love emanating from some very beautiful people I saw in the ceremony of his departure. In a sense you had to be beautiful in some way to love Hani that much.


Photo by Miguel Ángel Sánchez 


Hani may not have been aware of how many people like me were silently going through their emotional rollercoaster as they heard about him, whether he had survived another visit to the hospital or finally with his departure. I was not close to Hani on a personal level and never present in his everyday life. I wish we had been closer, but we did have our deep personal moments which I capitalized on. I translated them into a special kind of closeness albeit one sided on my part. I had always felt an unshakeable closeness in spirit since we first met. It was probably just the usual for Hani, him being himself, and leaving a deep immutable imprint even with the briefest encounters with those he met.

To me his normal was special enough. I’ll take that. I feel blessed to have encountered his usual.




Hani Shukrallah was a beautiful man who mentored many and was able to live a full life. When I met Hani first in 2010, I was interviewing for a job at Ahram Online to write about film for a final sign off. I will forever be grateful to Ati Metwally for offering me the opportunity to be a part of that experience. He sat me down, looked at my blog, started reading a simple review I had written and then immediately hired me. He said I wrote well. Ever since, I've been learning more and more about what it means to think critically and what his journalism was about.

Hani stood out at a time and in a land of fallen heroes. I had gotten accustomed to those ‘big’ people letting us down. Yet there I saw a young revolutionary in an older man’s body but with the knowledge and wisdom of the years. I often wondered how he maintained that wonderful combination of seeing things as they are and yet being youthfully hopeful, resilient and persistent in pursuing his values.

I was at Ahram Online when mass protests started on January 25, 2011.  We returned to our editorial meeting after the government’s five day internet shutdown ended.  Hani Shukrallah was smiling, laughing, and quickly said, “I assume we’re all for what’s happening in Tahrir right now.” He said he understood why many decided to join the protests, but it was his opinion we had the opportunity, the role and the platform to do even more good as journalists by reporting and giving the events a much needed voice.

The words stuck with me and covering protests became part of what I did in the events that followed. It didn’t matter if I was going to protest, observe, report, blog or tweet. I witnessed protests and wrote about them. I was given space by Ahram Online to work on numerous critical pieces. Hani would later be sidelined under the Muslim Brotherhood and his newly established publication, Bel Ahmar,  censored by the regime among hundreds of censored websites.



I don’t want to make Hani out and as an infallible figure who made no mistakes. I’m sure he made many and I didn’t agree with every position he had, but he remained a passionate thinker, reader and listener, willing to change his mind or reconsider his positions and even admit mistakes. Hani wasn’t primarily a journalist, he was an activist who happened to be a journalist particularly brilliant at his job. He was a gifted writer but behind those words were vivid thoughts and moving ideas. He excelled at both the thinking and the writing.

I’m sure Hani doesn’t need my humble testimony to his brilliance, but the point is that I admired who he was and aspired to be like him. In the newsroom he was daring, he said things as they were. One day as I was stopping by the office I heard Hani shout from inside his room, “Why are you quoting this guy!! He’s nothing but a security informant!” or “Amnagy”. The combination of excellent journalism and the courage to spell things out as they are was something I had not witnessed much. Most journalists I knew were afraid to have an opinion even when things were that clear.

He made sure that professional journalism backed what was said, even if it ran against an acceptable narrative. He was a field builder and an author of narratives. I will admit that it is delusional of me to think that Hani Shukrallah reflected some of what I saw in myself, so let me just say that he reflected what I hoped I could be. Still, I was not delusional enough to think I can be as funny or as charming as he was. I still believe though, that in terms of thinking, writing and integrity, it is worth aspiring towards what he had become.

When Hani wrote, I read. When he spoke I listened. I was lucky enough to have shared some of my pieces with him before he passed away. There was one which he insisted should be translated and published in Bel-Ahmar. I’m grateful for that. A while later I persistently asked him to meet. I finally passed by his place and we had a deep long conversation over coffee. We spoke of our past and our future and his prophetic article J'Accuse which he wrote the first day of 2011 in poetic and prophetic anger that spoke about things that have passed and things to come.

I'm grateful to have spent time with him. I feel blessed to have been able to tell him how much I admire him and how much I've learned from him and how much I wanted to be like him, despite how awkward it sounded to be saying all this to him in his living room unprovoked.

Hani was revolutionary in every sense of the word. He revolutionized English journalism and he adopted daring stances. He was a revolutionary long before he found his revolution.

There are endless things to say about Hani Shukrallah, and these words hardly do him justice. I can talk about more things that happened in Ahram Online, or wonderful ideas that have helped shape mine, but it’s very difficult finding words. In fact the words I write now are ones I’ve wanted to write for over a year since I heard of his death but could not string them together. When I heard of his passing, I could not help but think of these lines from ‘The Razor’s Edge’ by Somerset Maugham which had deeply moved me:

“[He] is not famous… It may be that when his life at last comes to an end he will leave no more trace of his sojourn on earth than a stone thrown into a river leaves on the surface of the water. But it may be that the way of life that he has chosen for himself and the peculiar strength and sweetness of his character may have an ever-growing influence over his fellow men so that, long after his death perhaps, it may be realized that there lived in this age a very remarkable creature.”

In my mind, these words represented Hani, and I say this despite knowing full well that he is a giant in the field of journalism in Egypt, known well and respected, but I think that Hani’s real power is how deeply and intimately he has affected and touched those who have encountered him personally or observed “the way of life that he has chosen for himself.”

This text is long overdue, perhaps subdued for so long by the intense feelings of love and loss I’ve harbored over the years.

Goodbye beautiful man. We shall miss you immensely. I love you lots.




A note about the video. The audio recording is from The Razor’s Edge, a film based on the movie. The words stuck with me, I wanted to be that man, but I really think something about it suits Hani. I collected the images from the internet without really knowing the sources, I apologize for that, but one of them used with very special lighting was taken by Miguel Ángel Sánchez in 2015 during a project that he and Nuria Tesón were making at the time. The interview with him is still not released, but the image captures a true hero at the time of darkness, a man holding on to his revolutionary spirit at a time where many others particularly from his generation had forfeited it. This video is how Hani feels like to me, my personal tribute to him.

Monday, April 27, 2020

The Missing O Key




I write at night. Often in bed. Long before I was using a computer to write, I would read in bed and pick up my notebook and let all my thoughts flow. Back then I was just discovering the world. The world to me is not travels and people, but the inner world of thoughts and feelings, emotions and power dynamics. The world that I was discovering wasn't something they teach you in school. It was everything that was unspoken, not fully addressed. I sat most nights rediscovering what others had also rediscovered as they began thinking about the world on their own. Everything was novel. Discovering lies was novel. Investigating subcultures was novel. 

I still write at night and in bed, but now on a computer. The same passion to share what I have discovered that's new about the world diminishing. I learned it the hard way, but I found out that it doesn't matter what I discover no matter how new or profound. Sharing it won't make much of a difference. Besides it isn't something that people don't know. On the contrary, a great many people who know certain things are actively working to drown them so that they lose prominence. 

All of that doesn't matter, the whole point was that I write at night often and I take my computer to bed in order to do that. 

I lack the motivatin to shut everything f and speak t my cmputer as I often spoke to the blank piece of paper in the past. As if that's nt enugh, I'm facing a new prblem. My laptp's keybard has brken dwn. Nt all f it, just ne key. It's the O key. I have to pound it hard as I type so that it wrks. Often it just doesn't and I have t delete and then write it. It breaks the flow f my thughts. So nw I try pounding and sometimes it types and other times it doesn't. Nw this paragraph is missing a lot f Os that I wasn't able t pound hard enugh. The words look weird but I wn't correct all f them. 

It's increasingly difficult to write without that key. My usual writing all comes flowing, gushing from my mind, with my hands trying to keep up with the translation of my thoughts to words. For work I have an external USB keyboard but that doesn't work in bed. The missing O breaks the flow. I'm not as fast translating my thoughts to words. I have to go back to words I write and correct them, and then I can't remember exactly what I wanted to say next. 

But long before losing that key it was difficult to write. I think the same way, I just don't share it. I guess it's only now that I realize that long before I lost the O key on the computer, I may have lost an O key in life that has made writing difficult for me. Somewhere along the line I lost something that made me have less hope in the meaning of sharing what I write. 

I ordered a replacement keyboard that will arrive in around a week or two. If only my other missing key can be replaced. I'm tempted to say I lost that key in Egypt during the revolution, but that's not true. During the revolution, a two year lifetime, I had the passion to write and discover. I lost the key later, in Egypt and all over the world. I lost the key when I saw that striving for the truth was worth little in the face of manipulation, fear and self interest. 

The masks of western rhetoric fell ungracefully as western government, much like the petty corrupt officials I saw in Egypt, raced to kiss military brass ass in Egypt in exchange for lucrative business deals. Whether it was Germany for their Siemens and submarines, the UK, France, the Netherlands, Italy, Greece, Spain, or the US for various other reasons, it was all the same. They were cheap and regarded their own values as cheap or perhaps just up for sale. 

The diplomats, once revered in popular culture now appear to me as nothing more than mercenaries in suits. They are the front for the business henchmen behind who profit at the expense of other people's lives, not just in Egypt, but around the world. 

Power is the same everywhere. I recognize it too easily now. That's my missing key. If only I didn't recognize the nature of power, I would still be hopeful and discovering the world, but more than that, sharing in the hopes that people seeing reality would help change it. 

There's no vendor that sells the key to my writing and sharing. I think I'll just have to pick up the pieces and try and put it back together again. 

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Surviving Corona



It's late at night and there's news of coronavirus all over the world. It's the starting sequence of a sci-fi movie, these are just the few seconds. What will come next is probably going to be uglier, because those who control where the world is heading are ugly. There will be no humbling experience except for the humble. This is what we've toiled for all those years. So that on this rainy day, the rich and the powerful can protect themselves and get even richer and more powerful. They control the little tax payments you make to their private interest. Now that it's time for you to collect what you're owed, you'll be thrown under the bus. This tax money was for their rainy day not yours. Money and resources will go to those who already have money and resources. You will continue to pay for their well being with your blood and sweat.

At a time when the world needs true leadership, those at the helm are anti-Science corporate bigots for the most part and those next in line are ancient relics whose only hope is to take us back 10 years ago when things were horrible but not disastrous. There is no collective hope to come out stronger as a society, but perhaps individual salvation is possible. We can recognize how fragile this world is, how meaningless businesses are in absence of life and health. We can recognize that race is a construct not respected by disease. We can recognize that we live in the disease of racism and xenophobia even though it's not biological. 

Perhaps all these things are possible, but I lost hope in human's ability to learn from what they see. The reality is that emotions are stronger than rationale, and as sad as it is to realize it, if you keep pounding a message for decades, it becomes the truth, even if debunked by simple logic. Most of what we know is 'on authority', yet it surprises me how much people fight for something that's not their own, for a view that was force fed to them. 

What happens next in our world. A worthy question. We realize we don't need to travel that much, we don't need to have that many conferences even though they are fun. We don't need to go out every day, even though that's fun. We recognize that we share a lot more than we thought. We share transport, we share the roads and we share supermarkets. Yes, that place where there is no escape from disease. The person at the cash register touches all your items, and touches your money. Anything there will be transferred.

I have thought of a way to get through this time, but I think I need a bit of science to formulate a plan. If only covid19 doesn't mutate or doesn't visit you twice, I would have had a perfect plan. For now there is nothing left to do but wait and hope, and now everything is a game of chance. Life is a game of chance. More so for the elderly than the young. 

There's a moment when I realized we can all be potential killers. If we pass this to the vulnerable we can kill. I think that's true of many things. Our decisions, our votes. It was always so remote, but now it's closer. Your carelessness can cost lives. It won't be easy living with that, being the victim and the perpetrator, all at the same time.   

But isn't that how we always are? We're gentrifiers, we're privileged. Even the privileged are victims of their own privilege and their blindness which they're born with. It's not their fault. To be born with privilege is to be born blind to injustices that should really not happen. Privilege is an exceptional normal state. It ought to be normal not to face injustice based on your skin color, it ought to be normal not to face discrimination based on your gender. It isn't though. It's only normal for the privileged. 

The privileged are born blind with the duty to see. Some don't fulfill their duty, and end up moderates in an extreme world, guilty of perpetrating the status quo. Others are worse, they seek to entrench their privilege and utilize the status quo, altering it to dig us deeper into that abyss of injustice. 

Nothing can even the odds at this point. The powerful don't need to normalize lying for everyone, they just need it for a big minority that are able to suppress the majority. They need the blind, they need the privileged, they need those who cannot see how entrenched we are in an extreme status quo. They need not be supporters, they need only be moderates, they need only be ineffective, obsessed with law and order at the expense of justice. 

The movie's opening seconds are apocalyptic. It's just a disease with a mortality rate of 2% some say. Certainly true, but there is a kindness in the nature of covid19 that we are yet to appreciate. It's a warning sign nevertheless. It targets, very clearly, the vulnerable. In some ways it is asking us to protect the vulnerable. But we will fail even this simple test. We have not had adequate training protecting the vulnerable. We have a neoliberal world order that exploits them.

Is it reasonable to think that all of a sudden a new found care for the vulnerable will be born? It will not happen. The vulnerable are expendable. That's disaster capitalism, that's what it has practiced for years, but without the same attention as the virus, because the killers had to be out of the news. Condemn the greed, but not the greedy, condemn the system, but not the actual people responsible for it. That's the way of the world.

There is a small difference now though. The capitalists don't get to choose who they kill. The virus chooses and that's why they must rush to protect themselves, even at the cost of protecting the needy. Make no mistake, protecting the needy is a huge price for the rich and powerful to pay. Ordinarily they would not pay it. But in order to protect themselves, perhaps they must pay that ultimate price. Why not appear compassionate too while they're at it. They will find ways of profiteering from the disease anyway and the from the constraints that will be placed on the masses working for them.

We're going to work to pay this debt in the future. How dare we be helped by the powerful. It doesn't matter, our taxes will mostly go to them. They will be bailed out when they fail to steal from us properly. They will be bailed out when they 'erroneously 'declare war because they 'learn' and 'grow', and their followers find that commendable. 

This is a crisis that offers an opportunity for us to grow and see the world for what it is. Just like I was exposed to the nature of power when I saw the streets of Egypt full of men with guns who wanted to enforce their rule and infiltrated all media to repeat their same old lies. I see the media around me full of these lies, they're a bit more clever, still not logical, but who cares. What really matters is that people don't care for logic and rational. They have their establishment 'intellectuals' feeding their egos, and filling their brains with status quo excuses. 

Whether it's 1984 or a brave new world, it doesn't matter. It all looks the same after a while of observation. The brave new world is far superior of course. It's more fulfilling, it provides the illusion of freedom. But a moderate in 1984 and a moderate in a brave new world are the same. Nothing but fuel to feed the machines of control. 

After the first few seconds of this movie, I don't know what happens. Maybe there will be heroes and villains that shape the world, but in these type of movies it doesn't matter. What really matters are the individuals that survive these events. What do they take with them from the old world is up to them.

To be honest, there's little to take from the old world except resistance to it. Maybe we can resist the inhumanity and injustices as we move forward. Maybe we can still fight against control and oppressive structures. That's still going to be worth something as we transition. I know that this is what I will try to take with me.

Friday, January 03, 2020

More of..

So much time spent in this world. So many experiences. Less time to explore now and more time to decide what I need more of. The irony is that I can't get what I want more of just yet. To get more of what I want, I have to do more of what I need to do.

But I know things I need more of in my life. They're clear but they're easier said than done.

I need to read more, I need to write more. I need to make more music. I need to spend less time on those what will not expand my ideas. I need more nature. I need to be at peace with myself. I need to work on myself. I need to dedicate more time to sports. I need to care less about changing the world. I need to focus more on who I want to be.

I failed last year to have a post each month. The last two months saw no writing. I've lots a lot of my anger and passion. I'm hoping to rebuild those.

New years are not reset buttons, they're just arbitrary points in time that we can use to count.

More of who I truly am this year. 

Friday, November 01, 2019

Twitter's Censorhsip



This month I was busy documenting Twitter's censorship of Arab voices. With the help of other researchers we documented a mass suspension aimed at activists who spoke about Egypt. During the course of our investigation in order to verify our findings, we stumbled upon another pattern of Twitter falsely flagging responses to tweets as hateful conduct.

This forced Twitter to apologize for the mass suspensions but not for their misapplication of the hateful conduct policy.

I wrote an article in Arabic and in English to document this and it was covered by Buzzfeed. I also dumped the images I collected in a Facebook album.


Monday, October 14, 2019

Dear Lydia

This is one of the worst periods of Egypt's history. The next generation will ask us, how could you allow this. I wrote this letter addressing Lydia, one of my fascist friend's daughters some time back, envisioning what I would tell the next generation. My simple answer is that we tried.




Dear Lydia,

It is with great sorrow that I write this letter to you knowing full well that you may not trust or comprehend it, or even believe me. You may have grown up believing a narrative that runs contrary to the truth, in which case, this letter shall not have an effect on you, and you will feel bitter and angry at this letter and at me for writing it. But there's a strong chance, that unlike your parents, you will have come to understand the true history of what happened in the time before, a time of events, both I and your parents have witnessed up close and each of us took their route.

This letter will only make sense if you've ever come across the truth of the history that took place starting from 2011 and the repulsive turn into oppression in 2013 where injustice prevailed and massacres took place. It is only with the realizing of the ugliness of this history and trying to reconcile it with what people did that would give meaning to this letter.

Your mother was one of the staunchest supporters of the Sisi regime, because your uncle was a policeman, she was a vehemently opposed to anyone who pointed to police corruption. She supported the police as they killed thousands of people, and even though many have presented her with evidence that they were unjustified, she shrugged them off. She continued her support for police brutality in the face of logic and evidence of a declining sense of justice and a declining economy. She was happy to label anyone who opposed the crimes of these irresponsible tyrants as traitors, while the real treason was committed by those she supported.

Your father and I were closer, he was also more moderate, yet he showed great weakness, never engaged in trying to call out the criminals even though he may have seen their crimes. He was looking out for your future as any father would, but the cost was the future of many other generations and the history you have inherited. So many have been killed with the blessing of apologists and your parents were those apologists.

In answer to your questions as to whether our generation was aware of these atrocities that you learn about in school, the answer is yes, there was plenty of information. It is just that many did not want to believe or want to be confronted with the sad reality that their country was run by criminals, that their children's future was going to be determined by criminals. They would rather believe that those trying to rectify the situation were spies, rather than people who loved their country and valued its future enough to oppose the oppressors.

Torture was widespread, and to get a sense of how people reacted, they didn't care, as long as their own people were not affected, yet as we've come to learn it was only a matter of time before someone close to someone got hurt in some way or another. The country descended into lawlessness on account of police brutality, yet your parents and people like them were steadfast in blaming the victims of this brutality rather than the perpetrators.

There was a strong narrative that the country was fighting terrorism, but as we've come to see, the policies put in place by the oppressive regime did nothing but create more extremists who were fighting because of a growing extremist ideology or to attain some sort of justice against a regime that offered no civil way of attaining it.

I want you to believe me when I tell you I have tried hard to speak to your parents and convince them to take a different moral route, but they shunned me and chose to continue in their ways. I asked them to stand by their integrity for your sake, so that you will not view them as weak or immoral for allowing such atrocities, but to no avail. They were determined.

I do not know if there was anything more I could have done, I want you to believe that I have tried my best that you and many like you not inherit the country and the history that you did, not to inherit the parents that you did. We had many opportunities, if only people had learned to look beyond their selfish needs, we would have all been better off.

History cannot be changed now, you have seen what has happened, and the only thing I urge you to do dear Lydia is not to follow the same path taken by your parents, of apathy and justification for tyrants. Remember that all this is transient, all that remains is how much of your integrity you have maintained.

Lovingly,

W.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Fuck Their Palaces



This is about the spaces they take from us to give themselves.

Here I am with spaces all around me. In a city in Europe whose rich history covers its streets with darkness and brightness. I’m here in this space, with everyone enjoying the music and their freedom. But back home, there are few such spaces. They are building palaces at our expense. The cost of their space is ours. They have set out to take our spaces to make them their own. The cost of their freedom to steal is the freedom from our own, the very youth that would ever build our future.

Thousands in jail, the spaces they should be inhabiting stolen from them, and for what? For luxury palaces, gardens and special interests. For spaces that may end up abandoned but guarded. Empty spaces, as empty as their dreams for a future.
The present I’m experiencing in those foreign spaces abroad is what we deserve back home. It’s what those thrown in prison deserve.

We live in a transmogrified past and the only way to reach the present is to travel. I never thought time travel was possible, but it is. You just have to leave the borders of this time warp, where its inhabitants are stuck in slavery. It’s not easy to leave. The wardens are not just our jailers but those very same foreign countries who arm the oppressors with weapons and technology to keep us locked in. The condescending view of us in their embassies as they forget about the riches they’ve stolen. That sense of entitlement for a better life even though its price is paid by our enslavement.

My friends are in jail so that some General’s wife can have her customized palaces. These palaces are not just built with the money they steal from us, but with our lives. Their fortress is not just the walls they put up, but the network of greedy interests that produce humans that stand in the way of justice to maintain the corruption that keeps them thriving.

We never asked for this, we would have been happy to dance. But what choice were we given? To dance away while trampling the rights and lives of others underfoot. To dance while trampling their dignity and ours. It’s not much of a choice. Both are a form of death. One of them closer to the literal sense of the word, our lives being destroyed if we speak, the other a literary death, the death of our conscience and humanity.

Fuck their palaces. We will dance when we can to counter their greed. We will speak when we can to counter our death.

Friday, August 30, 2019

Chocolate Cake Streets




The streets reflect everything. They are the ripple effects of closed door meetings with decisions and actions that affect our lives. Our motivations are not as individualistic as we often think. Our motivations are set by the context we live in. Both the social and political manifest themselves in us.

You're unique and special, just like everybody else. I would have liked to think my thoughts and my journey was special. After all I climbed out of the abyss of mainstream thinking, read history, questioned my reality and experienced so many things that many others may never experience in their lifetime. But that doesn't make me unique in character, there are at least about 400 other people out there that have my same characteristics. Critical, argumentative, expressive, angry, pensive and host of other qualities I don't know if I possess or not. The point is that I'm a result of what I've been given to deal with, but special in that it's me.

Our lives are like recipes, each person has their own, but many people share the recipe. What really differs is that the quality of ingredients and their compatibility differ. So let's say I'm Cocoa, I would be put in the mix with butter, sugar, flour and milk. I would react with these ingredients, be subjected to heat, cold, chemicals and other elements till I finally look like a chocolate cake. I may taste slightly different, I may think that I've gone through a lot, but I'm still a chocolate cake like many others out there. 

Perhaps my contribution is the quality of Cocoa that I am. The result is still not guaranteed, for what kind of butter, milk and flour came into contact with me? I'm not telling myself it's not worth it to try and be a better chocolate cake, but it would be simplistic to believe that I'm the only one.

I walk through the streets and look at templates of people. Certain people come with bundled characteristics that make them similar to one another. The class joker, the swindler, the kind fool, the evil prick. They all follow patterns, but they sometimes come in various flavors. 

I walk down the streets and I see cheese cake, carrot cake, red velvet, vanilla icing cake and I try and recognize their patterns. It's impossible to figure things out about people with just a glance. But what's worrying to me is that people are being shaped. I look at changes in policy and society  and they're quickly manifested in the faces of people I watch go by. Their recipe changes and sure enough, they react to the new ingredients put their way and transform or even transmogrify. 

There's not much I can do about it, the only thing I can hope for is be aware of where I stand and perhaps try and become a better ingredient.


Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Moving




I woke up slowly, not rushing into any of the morning tasks that I have to do. I thought of doing a bit of work, perhaps to have an easier week later on. I put up my first poster in the new house since I moved, it's of pulp fiction. I know it’s a bit of a cliche, but it makes the place mine in some way. My friend got me plants, they change the space as they sit on the window sill. 

It’s odd how small things make a place more soulful like the fridge magnet I bought from a city I visited only for work. It's the little things that reflect who I am that make a difference in a space. I don't want to own many things here because I'll move, but at the same time I want the place to feel like it’s mine, like it reflects me.It's a tough trade off that I haven’t quite figured out yet

Days like these make me wonder what living somewhere means. We give our life meaning through the random things we encounter around  us. The movies that are out, the music that we can choose from, the restaurants that are there and people that happen to be in our neighborhood. It's like these things are forced upon us and we have to somehow create meaning by arranging them into categories. This friend is closer than that. That street is better than this.  

My own thoughts are inconclusive so far as to what to make of the new things around that I've been given to organize. But maybe I've decided that no matter what the confusion, I'll continue to share.

Sunday, June 09, 2019

The Funeral




I went to a funeral at church tonight. I met some of the old faces I abandoned several years back when I parted ways with the Orthodox church which adopted a very clear counter-revolutionary stance. They wedged themselves deeper into that moral abyss when Pope Tawadros was appointed only to unquestioningly support the re-establishment of military rule after the takeover in 2013. I left them all behind. The further I drifted the more content I became. Meanwhile, I still had connections with the actual community on social media. They read what I wrote. I responded to what they wrote. Quite expectedly, we got into huge arguments that resulted in accusations, unfriending and blocking. 

The main moral confrontation was about their support of a dictator as his regime crushed my friends and comrades. The dictator was applauded alongside Jesus who they claimed to celebrate, while those who actually adopted the values Jesus preached about were crucified. ‘Crucify them,’ they said, and with the same breath they celebrated freedom for the corrupt and murderous, like Hesham Talaat Mostafa, Habib El Adly  and numerous others like them.

I had never understood that part of the story in the gospels, that juvenile part just before the crucifixion when Jesus was presented to the masses that welcomed him a year earlier and asked whether he should be pardoned, the people responded 'Crucify him'. Never understood how people could turn against someone who had done nothing but speak truth to power in favor of better morals. Now I've seen it happen and that part of the story seems like the most realistic and authentic part. How simplistic real life can be as well.

This is the church that I got to know, that likened Sisi to Jesus and linked him to the words of prophets about a savior. This is the church that mocked those who used religion to manipulate people’s politics when the Islamists did it, and yet its leader went out and supported the regime despite every atrocity committed in violation of human decency. Its people have sided with false gods and abandoned the morality preached. It’s not that they preached against anything good, it’s that they demoted their beliefs to lip service and mindless acts of worship.

It was the funeral of an old lady whose family I knew. It wasn’t the saddest of funerals because it seems that the old woman had lived a full life till she was very old. I never knew her, just her daughter and her son in law who was also a priest that was close to my heart and I knew her granddaughters and loved them dearly. They were all lovely people who hadn’t quite followed the party line, nor excused atrocities. As soon as I entered and I saw Father Ibrahim, I was filled with love. Some of these people were a community I loved, but I was so angry at the bigger picture, at the rest of everything that I was unable to visit that church much, not even ceremonially. Despite the funeral not being very sad, I was full of sadness. I sat and looked at the faces and wondered what I was so sad about. I realized that I was mourning the death of that church for me and what it meant.
How far had the Coptic church drifted from its promises of holding on to the moral teachings of Jesus. The church had offered resilience in the face of persecution historically. Who knew that you did not need to kill them for them to die. All you had to do is co-opt their leadership and the rest would slowly decay. They would live by their fears instead of their values, they would follow the crowd instead of their conscience.

I mourned the death of the church for what it represented because I loved some of the people. It reminded me that people who have immoral stances can still be lovely warm people who love those close to them and who take care of their community. It reminded me that we can tell ourselves lies in order to think of ourselves as good people. I wasn’t filled with anger when I was there, I was filled with sadness for this lost potential. Even a cynic like me has hope and believes that something better is possible.

It doesn’t matter now how many apologies I get from those who have attacked me, it also doesn’t matter if people haven’t changed their minds and continue to support a brutal murdering dictator. Something has been lost and I have to remember that so many people I know are in jail because many of those lovely fearful people made it possible. There are many beautiful things about Jesus’ teachings that have been distorted by the Coptic community and its church leadership. But as the anger subsides for a while, I’m full of sadness and I’m also filled with love for some of the people who have stood their ground and others who haven’t stood their ground but are paradoxically kind loving people who want to do right by their community.

Anger is much easier, it removes a lot of the problems, because beneath the question of morality, there’s a more complex question of humanity.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

The Starts




It’s often difficult to start. Sometimes it’s easy, but other times it’s difficult. A start can come without expectations or it can be coupled with hope for a certain finish. Experience can make it easy, but it can also make it difficult. I think I’m at the worst place with starts. It’s difficult to start, it comes with expectations and my experience hinders me rather than saves me. My mind envisions all the paths to the hoped end, but they keep getting blocked. I’ve been down this road, I’ve been down that road. That’s what my mind does to my writing. The writing is blocked by cynicism and by fear. What is there to fear about writing? That’s a fair question. It differs from one person to another. I’ve heard about this fear from others but could never relate. Now I think I relate to the sentiment although I’m not certain that it is the same that others have. I fear my words will lead me down a tired path. The quest for something new is hindered by my experience. It’s not just experience. It’s exhaustion.

I would have loved to have been exhausted by writing itself. I would then just quit and find something else to do with my time. But really, I’m just exhausted with life. The futility of it all. The same old results. I had wished this tired old path led me to something fruitful, but it has not. It has lead me to a dead end and I need to figure things out before I am able to write again.

So I start again, in the hopes of evading some futility. Maybe I’m just accepting it. What did it all matter in the end? The lesson that I’ve learnt is that evil prevails. Good is just something that prevails in literature or motion pictures. I use the non-nuanced terms of good and evil because I’m too tired to make a sophisticated argument. The end result is that evil prevails. This isn’t a Paulo Cohelo thing nor its inversion. I know the world is more complex, but trauma is both simple and very complex. My intellect is able to understand and regurgitate that jargon that analyzes these sentiments, but my own emotions have been stripped down to a primal state, a state of feeling something that does not tolerate the sophistications of reality.

The whole point of expressing all this is purely therapeutic. Can I really express my state of mind? It’s all jumbled up, but this really does express it. It’s still not adequate, it is lacking. Is it abstract? Perhaps a little, but that’s how my mind works. If anything, it’s too simplified for what I’m thinking. I wonder how it sounds like to others. Is it clear or does it sound pretentious? I only ask because my thoughts have always been met with ‘But how do you really feel, concretely?’.. and this is how I’ve always thought of my feelings. Feelings are thoughts. These are my thoughts. These are my feelings.

I realize I have avoided starting anything, but then again, I’m almost finished.

It’s hard to make others understand, when you’ve questioned the accepted norms. This isn’t just some progressive crap though. I’ve questioned the conservative and the ‘progressive’. I’ve always thought something along the lines of ‘Progressives have a dogma that only conservatives have a dogma.’
I’ve used different building blocks for the structure of my thinking. It’s not that different. I too am trapped by my own context and my positionality. Still, starting from scratch is exhausting. Perhaps that’s why I’m unable to start.

Over the years I’ve come round full circle to where I was, writing about the inner thoughts. Yet the outside for me has changed so much. I’ve come to see the world through a lens tainted with blood and power. These are what shape my world. But I have never just been a simple observer. I’ve engaged. These two are countered by the power of people’s integrity. I’ve seen it up close. I shall never forget.

Saturday, March 30, 2019

Egypt’s Arrested Battlegrounds


US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Egypt on January 9, 2019 to outline President Donald Trump’s “America First” vision of an assertive US role in the Middle East for his audience at the American University in Cairo, adding that “America is a force for good in the Middle East. Period.” Pompeo’s speech made no reference to advancing human rights or democracy, nor to alleviating widespread poverty or reining in brutal police states—all issues at the heart of the Arab uprisings in 2011, and which appear even more out of reach in Egypt today than they did eight years ago. His speech indicated the US would effectively endorse crackdowns on the freedoms of citizens in the Arab world, such as that taking place in Egypt today, in order to pursue its animosity towards Iran and whatever else it perceives as in its best interests.
While mass arrests and arbitrary detentions are nothing new to Egypt, the escalation and widening pattern of arrests over the past year indicate that the authoritarian mindset of the Egyptian regime has significantly changed since President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the former head of military intelligence, took power in a military coup in 2013. Since then, Egypt has arrested or charged at least sixty thousand people, forcibly disappeared hundreds and tried thousands of civilians in military courts. Supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood have been killed, detained and targeted under the banner of fighting terrorism. Many dissidents have been accused of belonging to the outlawed group to justify their arrest.
The overall pace of arrests and detentions has only escalated in 2018 as part of a mass arrest campaign undertaken by Egyptian police and security forces of human rights workers, lawyers, journalists and political activists along with a growing number of former regime insiders and even supportive public figures. The government has also introduced restrictive anti-NGO legislation and bolstered its draconian anti-terror laws, among other measures, to silence speech and dissent of any kind. Torture and mistreatment are rampant in Egypt’s prisons and security facilities.
The Egyptian government’s escalating arrest campaign, however, is less about simply detaining the opposition than it is about eradicating any openings that may lead to dissent.
Egypt under the former dictator Hosni Mubarak, like many modern dictatorships, enjoyed a vibrant ecosystem of brutal security bodies, a ruling party, a controlled opposition and a media that masqueraded as free. Islamists were controlled through a mixture of covert deals and brute force. At times they were allowed space and at other times they faced intense security crackdowns. The judiciary was kept under control for the most part, but there were pockets of independence afforded to judges if they chose to use them, particularly in areas like the administrative court and the court of cassation. Any opposition was targeted through an arsenal of weaponry that ranged from soft threats, business related pressures and even forced disappearances.
But now, the older form of authoritarian governance is disappearing. While the overall security apparatus is essentially the same as it was under Mubarak in terms of its tools and tactics, there is a marked strategic shift from Mubarak’s Egypt to Sisi’s Egypt in how these tactics are employed and by whom.
Under President Sisi, the regime’s approach is far less permissive of any dissent even within ranks that are loyal to the state and antagonistic to any form of revolutionary resistance. The government is no longer tolerant of even the simplest gestures of a faux democracy that were present under Mubarak, no matter how symbolic and meaningless they appear to be. There is no longer a ruling party, no tolerance for the role of opposition formerly played by regime supporters and not even the pretense of a free press. Accompanying this strategic shift in the targets of repression, there has been a major shift in the power balance among security agencies such as state security (now renamed Egyptian Homeland Security), general intelligence and military intelligence. Under Mubarak, state security controlled Egypt’s domestic space in terms of strategy and execution. Following the uprising in 2011, the balance between them shifted: The military stepped in to exert more influence over domestic affairs through its military intelligence branch, peaking with the overthrow of Mohamed Morsi in 2013.
The regime, moreover, no longer cites terror and security concerns as a pretense for arrests. Opponents are targeted without a meaningful reason and without the flimsy paperwork that in the past justified these arrests. The most recent trend is to accuse the arrested of spreading false information and joining a banned group. This accusation ensures detainees are referred to state security prosecution, which allows for even less judicial oversight.
There is no other time in Egypt’s modern history when the widespread government assault on rights has been more severe. The state’s attempt to dominate the social and political field indicates a significant change in the current regime’s view of authoritarian governance in the aftermath of the popular uprising that broke out on January 25, 2011. Eight years later, despite the regime’s tight control of the street and state institutions, Sisi’s public pronouncements about the 2011 uprising often warn of a determination to prevent its reoccurrence: “What happened seven or eight years ago, will not happen again in Egypt. What didn’t work then, will not work now. No…it looks like you don’t know me well.”

This unprecedented state of repression would not have been possible without Sisi’s internal consolidation of power within Egypt’s state institutions since 2013, winning the support and complicity of the United States and the European Union (EU) along with the financial backing of Egypt’s Gulf allies such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the increasingly permissive international and regional environment for autocrats and authoritarians, firmly embraced by President Trump, outlined in Pompeo’s Cairo speech.

Arresting Spaces of Dissent

There are a number of factors fueling speculation about why the escalating repression is happening now, particularly as most of the arrests are made with no clear charges, no evidence and in response to no threatening or illegal actions taken by most of those arrested.
Egypt currently faces growing economic hardships, which is often cited as a factor fueling the state’s desire to keep the street tightly under control. The so-called ‘economic reforms’ and mass printing of money by the central bank have led to spiraling inflation and a lower standard of living for Egyptians on the whole. In addition, private businesses have suffered as military related businesses have used the military’s hegemony over politics to grab a larger market share in various industries. The military’s growing clout may explain why in every move that impoverishes the average Egyptian’s lifestyle, the government operates in a military-like fashion that views citizens as the enemy who must be coerced into accepting new policies.
There is also speculation that the government is preparing to alter the constitution to extend Sisi’s rule or that the government may be preparing the ground for a controversial embrace of the Trump administration’s much discussed ‘”deal of the century” between Israel and the Palestinians, which may include a major Egyptian role in Gaza.
Yet while these factors are certainly present, there is also a deeper factor at play. Sisi’s Egypt views the downfall of Mubarak as a cautionary tale for what might happen when too much space is allowed for opposition, even if it is controlled opposition. Hence a managed ruling party, a largely subservient judiciary and a media operating on a tight leash are seen as too permissive to ensure regime survival: politics itself is the enemy. The regime’s notion is that only a unified and singular political voice can and will take Egypt forward. What’s more, the regime’s crackdown goes beyond repressing overt or clandestine opposition: It has become a fight against existing and potential spaces where dissent might be possible in the future.
This broader transformation of Egyptian authoritarianism under Sisi is illustrated not only by the scale of the crackdown, but also by the broader pattern of arrests and repressive policies that have taken place since 2013, and have taken a harsh turn in the past year.
Upon assuming power in 2013, Sisi introduced legislation that blocked possible roads to dissent in order to cement his rule. Early examples include anti-protest law followed by the long fight to get rid of Hesham Genena, Egypt’s former chief auditor, which started with legislation to give the president the right to remove him. He was subsequently arrested and sentenced to five years in prison.
Despite all the legislative power consolidated by Sisi to control dissent, arrests remain the central tactic for purging opposition voices, even from within ranks loyal to the state, and the scope of arrests has expanded far beyond traditional targets.
While many of the arrested figures who make the news are well known political activists or opposition figures like Wael AbbasAbdel Moneim Abul Fotouh and Shady El Ghazaly Harb, the regime is also arresting lesser known individuals who have carved out social or political space in Egypt. For example Mohamed Radwan, known as Mohamed Oxygen for his Youtube channel Oxygen Egypt, was arrested in April 2018. His video blog consisted of interviews conducted on the street with ordinary people. The satirical blogger Shady Abuzeid, famous for a controversial video where he films himself distributing condoms to policemen in Tahrir on the revolution’s anniversary in 2016, was arrested even though he had been silent on politics since the video. Many many young people associated with the exiled singer Ramy Essam and the production of his song ‘Balaha’ (a mocking nickname for Sisi which means date) have all been arrested by state security forces.
Moreover, a number of former regime supporters and insiders have increasingly been targeted for arrest as well. For example, Ahmed Shafiq was placed under house arrest in the Marriott Hotel temporarily after being deported by the UAE for having announced his 2018 candidacy for president there, where he was quickly coerced into withdrawing from the presidential race. The regime imposed an even harsher measure against former Egyptian military chief of staff Gen. Sami Anan who was was arrested, and remains in custody of the military prosecution, simply for declaring his intent to run for the presidency. A former ambassador and former military officer, Massoum Marzouk, was also arrested on August 31, 2018 for criticizing al-Sisi and calling for protests to take place.
Other actors within the regime such as Mahmoud Hegazy, the former army chief of staff, Osama Askar, Commander of the Unified Command in the Sinai, and Sedky Sobhy, former minister of defense, have been the subject of repressive measures when their views were not completely aligned with command. Instead of being merely sidelined, as happened in the past, this new development is a sign that suppression extends beyond opposition and is now internal to the regime.
One controversial personality under arrest is Hazem Abdel Azim, who had been a strong supporter of Sisi and part of his presidential campaign at one point. Initially a supporter of the revolution, Abdel Azim took a sharp turn against it when Sisi came to power. Sometime after Sisi was sworn in as president, he took yet another U-turn and apologized for his support of Sisi. More controversially, he exposed how parliamentary elections were were orchestrated behind the scenes and became a vehement critic of the Sisi regime. He also published a recorded phone call with someone allegedly from security services threatening him on his personal Facebook page.
Yet Abdel Azim is not the most surprising arrest. TV presenter Khairy Ramadan, a regime hardliner was also arrested. He was released on bail fairly quickly, but the move was a strong message that even within the regime’s ranks all messaging must be aligned and not go off script. Even Mubarak’s sons, Alaa and Gamal were arrested this September. A journalist close to the regime accused Gamal Mubarak of trying to regain power and close ties with the Muslim Brotherhood, which became the pretense for his arrest.
The regime’s fight is no longer about simply suppressing dissenting voices but rather a targeted attack on all spaces and battlefields that may be used to voice dissent, whether political, social or physical. Because football stadiums had been one of the places of free, often subversive, expression, football fans have been banned from attending matches. The government has also targeted bookstores and media outlets as well as shut down libraries that were started by the opposition figure and human rights activist Gamal Eid.
The elimination of all and even potentially oppositional voices and spaces so that only one can be amplified is a clear indication that there can be no semblance of opposition. Even when it was time for elections, whose results were a foregone conclusion, Sisi eliminated all competition. Had it not been for US Vice President Mike Pence’s condition that the presidential election in 2018 must have a contender Sisi would have run alone. When competition was presented, Sisi dispatched one of his supporters to run against him, a man who rallied for Sisi even during his own presidential bid.

International Complicity

None of these increasingly bold and repressive moves would have been possible without the support granted Egypt from the US, the EU and the Gulf states. President Trump’s praise for dictators and disdain for human rights and democracy, along with rising authoritarian parties in a number of European countries, has enabled the Egyptian regime to violate human rights law with impunity. In addition, both Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been committed supporters of Egypt’s government and policies through their massive economic support packages and by lobbying western governments to recognize and embrace Egypt’s government without criticizing its human rights violations.
While it may be a permissive period for aspiring authoritarians, it is also the case that many Western countries have significant business and security interests in Egypt that not only reinforce their silence on its human rights violations but also cause them to offer open support for the regime.
The French president, Emmanuel Macron, for example, has been criticized for refusing to speak about Egypt’s human rights record particularly as Egypt has been the largest recipient of arms from France between 2013 and 2017. France has also been supplying surveillance equipment and other hardware used to target activists. Great Britain’s ambassador to Egypt John Casson has come under fire for his reluctance to talk about Egyptian human rights abuses even though the Great Britain is a major supporter of Egypt’s security services as well. Many other interests bind it to Egypt, including the IMF loan which will pay arrears to international oil companies, including British Petroleum.
Germany also has close business and security ties with Egypt and in return Prime Minister Merkel has downplayed the human rights abuses taking place in Egypt. Germany has established a security agreement with Egypt which has deepened despite the Egyptian government’s poor track record on human rights. Trade between Egypt and Germany remains lucrative, including the sale of a German-made attack submarine and an eight billion euro deal for the German company Siemens to build power stations, which Egypt granted directly without competition with other companies.
Greece and Cyprus have also been supportive of Egypt’s current government, and their representatives have blocked several attempts by the EU to take action against Egypt for its human rights abuses. The reason appears to be the lucrative agreement around the exploration and transportation of natural gas from Cyprus’ gas fields to Egypt for re-export to Europe.
Spain and Italy have also largely remained silent about Egyptian government actions, and it is also the case that they are set to be paid over two billion dollars by Egypt over a natural gas dispute through their joint venture Union Fenosa Gas. Despite the murder of the Italian researcher Guilio Regeni in which the Egyptian government has been implicated, Italy has been trying to find a way to return to business as usual rather than seek justice for its murdered student. Just two and a half years after Regeni’s murder, Eni, an Italian energy company has been granted an offshore exploration license in the Mediterranean Sea by Egyptian authorities.

A Repressive Formula

While the Egyptian government’s widening campaign of arbitrary arrests and extended detentions have been mounting, the chances of fighting this repression has been diminishing. The Egyptian regime now aims to eliminate all existing or potential political or social battlegrounds rather than build state capacity to fight in these battlegrounds and win—employing mass death sentences that are sometimes carried out and enforced disappearances that are not questioned. The recent measures taken by the regime have not only eliminated real or potential opposition figures but have also eradicated any space where it was once possible to conduct a battle for rights. In an autocratic state, there are often sites of contestation: the press, courts, elections and other sites. Battles erupt in these spaces. What the current regime is doing now is eliminating the ability for citizens to contest its rule through any of these traditional institution-based processes.
It seems that Egypt has mastered a mode of operation that eliminates battlegrounds instead of engaging with them. Internal consolidation of power is a meticulous process that involves making sure that both opposition and regime supporters fall in line, whatever the cost. At the same time the regime appears to be succeeding in fending off external pressure from the international community that could hinder the process of internal regime consolidation.
But Egypt’s repressive crackdown on political space has not come without a political cost. In order to secure international support, Egypt has strained its economy with debts, and inflation has hit an all-time high. Economic hardship for most Egyptians has negatively affected Sisi’s popularity, though dissatisfaction is being contained through a brutal security apparatus. At the same time, the mass arrests of its opponents, real or imagined, is creating more enemies for the regime. Once manically popular, Sisi is now cursed at even though people are painfully aware of the price of speaking out.
Egypt has succeeded in reestablishing authoritarianism in a manner that is far more brutal—and far-reaching—than Mubarak. It has managed to control the street while undermining its own judiciary and institutions. The military’s hegemony over the economy is turning into full-fledged domination. Once contested, albeit controlled, battlegrounds are decimated. The diminishing role of state institutions and structures has led to more centralized regime control over all aspects of governing, eliminating a governing process.
At the same time, people are governed through fear and are unwilling to risk the brutality that may accompany calling for their rights. This formula gives the appearance of relative stability. But with a deteriorating economy that affects the livelihood of the majority of Egyptians, will this be sustainable in the absence of state structures and institutions that have traditionally acted as a pressure release? Time will tell whether this attempt at a totalizing form of political control is a modern-day authoritarian’s winning formula, or a house made of cards that will readily crumble when a new crisis or event sparks mass outrage.

How to cite this article:

Wael Eskandar "Egypt’s Arrested Battlegrounds," Middle East Report Online, February 07, 2019.