Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The Mysterious Case of Falsely Imprisoned Ahmed Abdel Rahman

In a different country, it would be a policeman fending off against the assault on women by a hound of rabid civilians dragging them violently in the street in plain view, but this is Egypt. It was a passer-by, an ordinary young citizen from Aswan, who saw women being dragged and beaten by men in plain clothes and was moved to intervene to protect the women.

Ahmed Abdel Rahman was arrested when it turned out that the thugs he had been protecting the women against were plain clothed policemen, and for his chivalry he was sentenced to five years in prison. His sentence matches that handed to one of Egypt’s most prominent prisoners of conscience, Alaa Abdel Fattah, sentenced in the same case.

The Shura Protest, as it came to be known, was a protest planned before the Protest Law was issued on 24 November 2013, but took place just after, on 26 November. It protested articles in the constitution at the time of its writing which allowed for the military trials for civilians, thus denying citizens a fair trial. Most of the Shura protest prisoners had their prison sentences pre-empted after serving over a year, through a presidential pardon in September 2015. The chivalrous Ahmed Abdel Rahman was not among those pardoned.

It is unlikely that the names pardoned were picked at random; it is almost certain that those imprisoned in political cases were all on the same list, including names like Alaa Abdel Fattah, Ahmed Douma, Mahienour El-Massry, Ahmed Maher and Mohamed Adel. Somebody at the top studied the list and scratched off the names that should not be pardoned. As frustrating as it is that some names were scratched off the pardon list, it’s still understandable that they were viewed as political adversaries to the regime.

But what doesn’t make sense is to scratch off Ahmed Abdel Rahman’s name from those who would be pardoned. Why would he remain while others have been freed? This young man was not even part of the political protest. The explanation that it is incompetence is one we’ve grown accustomed to, but seeing a name and scratching it off seems far more deliberate. How was Ahmed Abdel Rahman described to the pardoning authorities? Was he described as a name caught up in the events, who had nothing to do with the political opposition? Were names picked based on those whose release resulted in a political win? Or was he perhaps described as a passer-by, who had nothing to do with the cause that was protested? That he did not think much about the dangers of entrenching military trials for civilians in the constitution, but felt compelled out of sheer humanity to stand up against an injustice he witnessed?

One of the first protests I witnessed was the famous Khaled Said protest in Lazoghli. “The regime’s biggest threat is the average protester; someone who is not well connected, not overly political and not influential,” explained a human rights defender who had monitored similar protests as we watched protesters beaten and dragged away. He explained that the regime will let go of political activists, but their fear is when an average citizen turns into a protester.

Perhaps that’s how Ahmed Abdel Rahman was reported, as a citizen capable of becoming politicised, daring to stand up to plain clothed thugs. Maybe he was too reminiscent of Sambo, another citizen who helped organise protests against the police back in November 2011 and was referred to a military tribunal. Protesters are anything but average at times when the regime has made it clear that the risks include being shot, assaulted, tortured and imprisoned. Likewise, Ahmed Abdel Rahman is no average citizen; he is someone who has moved in defence of the defenceless, against a group that does not even uphold their own laws. For that, he was crucified with the rest, and while many were released, he remains.

That innocent people remain locked inside the regime’s prisons is not surprising, having been attested by President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi himself in a publicised speech. Even now, Shawkan, a photojournalist, remains in prison without trial exceeding the maximum time allowed for pre-trial detentions as stipulated by the Egyptian law. Likewise, Mahmoud Hussein, who was arrested while still a minor, remains in pre-trial detention for over 600 days for wearing a ‘no to torture’ t-shirt.

Yet, it remains a mystery as to why these injustices are not rectified, particularly with advertised attempts to pre-empt some of the injustices with something like the presidential pardon. It is as though an inverse sort of morality is being established, where the exception is to release the innocent. Even as a hundred were released, it seems the regime is adamant on replacing them by continued attempts to arrest, imprison and kidnap activists. In a different country,

Ahmed Abdel Rahman would have been the first released after his arrest, he would have been the first acquitted in a trial, the first pardoned irrespective of the political misgivings Al-Sisi has with politicised youth. But this is not a different country, this is Egypt.

First published in DNE on 6 October 2015. Translated to Arabic in Sasa Post.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

To Those Who Will Not Read These Words

I've often stared at a blank page recently, just as blankly as the uniform whiteness looked back at me, as I thought how to smear it with something meaningful. My words sometimes flow, but most times I’m filled with the thought of what little they will do. Even now, the futility of addressing those that refuse to be addressed persists in the back of my head as I try to write.
It is unfortunate that I have to think often of those who do not want to read my words, but it is they, with their complacency and blind support for injustices, who have allowed my friends to be targeted, assaulted and locked in cages without having done wrong. It has come to my attention that it’s not just the oppressor who is to blame, but it’s the multitude who have chosen not address injustices and cheer them on that protects him.
I have time and time again engaged with those I would rather not address, in the hope of lobbying for my imprisoned and tortured friends. I have taken numerous routes but they have all failed. I can sense that some, including those who know me well, want me locked up with the others. The more bearable of them have responded that we have no choice but to allow these atrocities, because “you and your friends have failed”.
How did I and a group of other people suddenly all become an entity? When did my friends and I become responsible for ridding this country of its injustices, I wonder? Was it the minute we saw it? Was it the minute we voiced it? Was it the minute we experienced it? I cannot place that moment in time when I was lumped up with others who share my values as guardians of the country to fix a brutal police force without any guns, or a crony military without any command, or an unjust judiciary without any power. I cannot place that moment when we had to rid bureaucracy of its deep corruption, or put the corrupt businessmen in check.
I cannot place the moment when, all of a sudden, seeing things for what they are put me in a certain camp and demanded more of me than it did of others cheering on brutality. I’ve always thought of myself as an individual, but seeing things in a manner different to those who seek the status quo has earned me a place of blame.
I do not want to count how many of the people I know personally are targeted, assaulted, put in prison. Many I’ve known well, some our paths crossed often, even more close friends to my friends. I do not want to count because it will be sad and seemingly finite for what seems like infinite injustice. Many are not as well known to others as Alaa Abel Fattah, Yara Sallam, Sanaa Seif and Mahienour El-Massry, but they are no less valuable. Among those imprisoned are some of the finest and bravest people I’ve come to know across the world, and I’ve done my fair share of travelling.
It is not a coincidence that the finest are in jail or targeted. They are there because of that. Many are not just a case of an unfortunate loss of people with integrity who have been sentenced for other reasons. They are in there because of their positions and their integrity.
From those who will not listen to my words and reasoning, I have been asked why I even bother about what silly things greedy men with power do. On the one hand, I care because there are many people I know behind bars, suffering the extreme heat of the summer and the harsh winter cold, next to other, things I don’t even want to begin to imagine. On the other hand, I see myself in others who may have shared this same fate and I care because I would not wish such a tragedy upon myself, and if it happens, I would wish at the very least that others remember me and speak on my behalf.
I still care and speak because they are even more voiceless than I am. My words mean nothing to those who wish to imprison an entire generation, and their supporters, but perhaps they will mean something to the unjustly targeted in some bizarre cosmic manner that I do not comprehend. I write some words, knowing how unwilling the people I want to address are to listen.
Many friends who have seen me vocal have approached me worriedly. “Take it down a notch,” they said. “We’re worried about you”.
Whether they support the regime or not, they understand the brutality of the regime and how vicious they can be if they target someone. They may kidnap, jail, falsify charges, they may assault, perform a legal or criminal activity depending on how much they are angered or view my expression as risk. They have done all the aforementioned before, and there are few reasons why they won’t do this again, because in most cases, they can get away with it.
To be silent at a time when others I’ve known have paid much more than just fear of harm seems cowardly. My usual silence is out of despair or inability to express something meaningful, but it should not be fear of harm, particularly with no direct imminent threats.
Even now, I say nothing of value, just an expression of where I’m at, with nothing new to offer those I would have loved to address. But what if I had to say something to which they would listen? What would it be?
I would say: Your values and beliefs are worth something, they can crown the oppressor and hurt the innocent. Your fears, your thirst for survival, they’re not excuses to support the crucifixion of those who hold ideas and values contrary to yours, or to look away nonchalantly telling yourselves there’s nothing you can do. The choice between morals and survival is a false choice, and we can still survive salvaging some of our humanity.
I would tell them the law by which thousands have been arrested is not applied uniformly or justly, and we’ve seen the enforcers of the law break it and escape its unjust punishment. I would tell them, there are those detained without charge, targeted brutally without cause and there are those who have committed heinous crimes yet are permitted to walk free.
Yet those I want to talk to don’t have ears for my words, don’t visit the sites I do, don’t believe the things I do, don’t feel the things these words are meant to make them see.
First published in Daily News Egypt, 31 Aug,2015

Saturday, July 18, 2015

The Absence of Light

Life is too much sometimes. We choose our lies, whatever they are, what we want to live.. that the world can be a fair place, that truth and justice prevail, that prayers without the tough deeds we need to be doing can make things better. We choose whatever lies get us through the day, at whatever price. The price is usually others, those who fight on our behalf, those who get punished on our behalf, those who get sucked into the world of evil greedy men. These wonderful shoes I bought, at the expense of some of the downtrodden in an Asian country, but it doesn't matter, they're not people I know, I choose my lies. That great bargain on my shirt, with people toiling away so that many like me get a great bargain. This security I feel in my rich quarters, why was the land expensive? I choose my lie, refusing to see that this money is for security forces to violently fend off others who attempt to infringe on my right to my lies.

We choose our lies, but sometimes the truth chooses us. We come face to face with reality that everyone wants to deny. Face to face with a reality of the world that is far more intrusive, far less comforting than our lies. The truth catches up with some of us.

Coming face to face with the truth makes you feel you want to spread it to the blind as though it were light. It makes you feel you want to proselytize and convert, because you know what you know and you've seen what you've seen. You try and find a pathway other than your own experience such as emperical and logical evidence, but to no avail. We often forget that it's not the absence of light that doesn't make the blind see, it's absence of vision, no matter the light.

You cannot make the blind see by asking them to look harder, and sometimes that's how it feels as I try and share what I know. It's written off despite my unfortunate privilege to witness something about the truth of the world.

I think I've given up on change a long time ago, but I've kept sharing because I wanted to prove to myself that I can still retain that truth that visited me, that I can still retain my integrity.  But what I'm seeing is so disheartening that makes me even stop wanting to share. I keep on doing it not to change things but to prove to myself that their lies cannot defeat my truth.

Maybe I should keep that fight to myself, not everyone has to know, it influences too few people. Yet, it's difficult, it feels as though it's a duty. I'm stuck between that feeling and the futility of my words, written off as a point of view that can be easily discarded in favor of another. It's difficult for me to see oppression as a point of view, but at the same time, it's difficult to speak of what I know and see those around preach flawed, selfish values that help them sustain their lies.

I know it doesn't matter what I say, and perhaps soon I will see the value of silence.

Friday, June 05, 2015

Artifactual Conversations - Damning comments made then deleted by an antiquities official

The conversation is self explanatory, but important to note that Yasmin El Shazly is assistance to the Minister of Antiquities and Loai Omran is an architect with a masters degree in Islamic Art & Architecture and a media personality.

The conversation starts out with Loai mocking the image of transportation of a sarcophagus found in King Akhnaton's tomb KV55 dating back to 1336 B.C. At first Yasmin is angered by his mockery and accuses him of not knowing what he's talking about, but when he responds, she starts to back down until she finally confesses he was right about the points he made and writes a very damning confession about how the state is not providing adequate support for handling our antiquities.

Later on the Ministry of Antiquities issue another explanation to address Loai's concerns but it is laden with inconsistencies and lies. Again Loai calls Yasmin out on these inconsistencies, to which she responds by deleting her comments but not before he managed to screen shot them.

Below is his message about the conversation:

تسجل وتوثق المناقشة التالية –في بعض سطورها- تعليقات الدكتورة ياسمين الشاذلي (معاون وزير الآثار لشؤون المتاحف، كما قدمت نفسها) بخصوص لقطة فوتوغرافية – تم تداولها على مواقع التواصل- تصور عملية نقل تابوت إخناتون (1336 ق.م.) لإجراء أشعة مقطعية له بالمتحف المصري، وذلك لغرض البحث العلمي. 

تحتوي المناقشة على إعترافات الدكتورة –بعد جدال فارغ- بأنه لا يوجد إمكانيات لدى وزارة الآثار لتوفير أدنى معايير السلامة لرعاية وحفظ الآثار المصرية، والتي تعد أهم وأقيم وأغلى موارد هذا البلد. وفي تناقض صارخ أعربت عن إستياءها من سخرية بعض المعلقين -وأنا منهم- لأنها تؤثر على "الروح المعنوية" للعاملين أكثر مما أعربت عن إستياءها من أدائهم فهم -في وجهة نظرها-  معذورون، مجتهدون قدر إستطاعتهم لأن الدولة لا توفر لهم الميزانية والإمكانات الكافية لأداء واجبهم في حفظ ورعاية ميراث هذا الوطن المهمل، وكأن حماية آثار مصر-والتي تعد مهداً للتراث البشري- من التلف والفقدان ليس أكثر من وظيفة حكومية علينا أن نتحمل "بعض" إخفاقاتها "مؤقتاً" إلى أن يحين الوقت، و"تروق وتحلى"، بعد العمل على الإصلاح "إن شاء الله" والذي يتطلب وقتاً "طويلاً" )على حد قولها(، ولم تقدم "الدكتورة" خطة ولا مدة متوقعة لإتمام هذا "الإصلاح" ولا أجابت عن سؤالي: "إلى متى وما الكم المتوقع فقدانه من هذا التراث.. إلى أن يشرق علينا "فجر الضمير"؟ 

بعد صدور بيان "إسم النبي حارسهم" خبراء الترميم بالمتحف المصري لم تهتم الدكتورة بعرضه علينا في سياق تلك المناقشة مع أنها وعدت بذلك، وبالرغم من تقدريها لإهتمامي بالشأن- كما ذكرت! وعندما علمتُ بصدور البيان المذكور، أدرجته لأناقشها فيه، فإذا بها "تعمل نفسها من بنها" وتستعين في الرد على أسئلتي بما إدعت أنها ردود "خبير الترميم بالمتحف المصري" والتي جاءت ببساطة وكأنها ملحق آخر لشرح نظرية جهاز " الكفتة" الشهير!

نصحني صديقي وائل إسكندر -صاحب هذه المدونة- والذي تابع الحوار منذ بداياته بأن أحتفظ بتلك المناقشة بالسكرين الشوت (screen shot) ، لأنه كان يتوقع من مسار الحديث، أن الدكتورة ستمحوه لاحقاً لتغطية نفسها ومن على شاكلتها من المساءلة عن تلك الإعترافات.. وقد صدق! فبعد أن واجهتها بالدليل القاطع بكذب ما ورد بالتقرير من تضليل للرأي العام، محت الدكتورة تعليقاتها بالكامل.

بإختصار أرى أفراد هذا النظام،  وكأنهم يسعون بإستمرار لطمس هويتنا بثلاثي الفساد والإهمال وعدم الكفاءة.. إنهم يدمرون تاريخنا إما عن عمد أو جهل أو إنتهازية والنهاية واحدة ولا فارق يذكر في النتائج على أي حال.

هذه الرسالة ليست فقط للمصريين، ولكن لكل المؤمنين بقيمة المعرفة والتي أصبحت في بلادنا المنكوبة كالحرية، لا تعد أكثر من مجرد "رفاهيات". إليكم ما أرادوا محوه لكي لا تعلموا، إليكم الحوار كاملا لمن يهمه الأمر، إن تبقى بيننا منهم أحداً.

لينك المناقشة على الفيسبوك كما هو الآن https://www.facebook.com/loai.omran.7/posts/10155623042080203?comment_id=10155660832990203&notif_t=share_comment

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

A Note on Justice and Its Ministers

What happened with the justice minister is that he expressed in words out right what has been policy for decades. He expressed that only certain people will be allowed privileged positions. This does not apply only to the judiciary but to the police and perhaps even higher ranks in the army.

Perhaps nepotism is one thing and expressing it outright is another. The backlash against the justice minister’s discriminatory remarks that contradict Article 53 of the 2014 constitution seems exaggerated. It’s not that they weren’t classist and deserved that much of an outburst, it’s that people sounded too shocked about it, knowing full well this is standard government policy. That’s how state institutions empower themselves, it happens in universities, with doctors, with judges, with police and with army. The head of the army is related to the president who was the former defense minister and head of military intelligence.

In an interview the head of the judges club Ahmed El Zind also made the statement along the lines of ‘We (the judges) are the masters and the others are the slaves’.

This attitude is prevalent and there have been other leaks that show the head of a security directorate making the same claims, that they’re the masters of the country.

Intelligence agencies don’t have anything other than Sunni Muslims. You don’t find Christian General Intelligence officers, or Bedouins or god forbid Shiite or Baha’i.* The entire system is built not just on class, because many of those who rose to power had humble origins, but on a collection of adhoc discriminatory criteria.

There is a current security wave, and the evident signs are politicized verdicts and state security threats to activists. It is highly doubtful that the Minister of Justice had to go solely based on the public outcry against his statements, although there’s no denying they may have contributed, but it depends on his successor. In the midst of the raging battle between security agencies, the next minister of justice will be highly politicized serving a security agenda. It is almost inevitable he will be just as bigoted as his predecessor, but this time he might just keep his mouth shut about these unadvertised discriminatory policies.

Nevertheless it is good to imagine there's a precedence for an official being removed for making bigoted statements.

*Correction: There are high ranking women, bedouins and Christians in General Intelligence I've been told from someone I trust.

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Dig That Hole

Egyptians have worked very hard to be inconsequential, to take themselves out of the political equation, to hand power over to corrupt institutions and individuals in such a manner that disempowers them. They were provided a shovel to start digging a hole to shun themselves out of political life. That hole is more like a grave.

Never have I seen people dig their own political graves so quickly and passionately, pausing only to attack those trying to stop them. When they’re done digging the hole, the dirt to bury them starts flowing both from their peers and those who they’ve entrusted with politics. They help make sure as many people who object are in the hole next to them, cheering for our undertakers, and rejoicing in the dirt shoveled by their oppressors on their heads as if it were rain.

"Burry us some more," they shout, as if their distance from all the decisions about their lives was a blessing. “Shoot those who don’t want to join our hole,” they scream in a mob like mentality that condemns anyone who dares to look outside and point to the ills of what’s around.

They still see the corruption from the spaces that haven't covered their eyes so much, but they're happy where they are. They convince themselves that they can’t see and that those shoveling the dirt gleefully know what’s best. They convince others that they don’t know what they’re talking about.

The dirt fills the hole and they’re knee deep in it, they slow down, but don’t stop. There’s less cheering and they’re deep enough inside the hole for the oppressors to slow down. Those who want to move and stop the theft they see before their eyes cannot move from all the dirt that surrounds them. They feel paralyzed, that they're of no consequence, but it was they that did that to themselves.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Fear Makes Everything Possible

It is a time in Egypt when it is not welcome to write something serious that addresses serious issues. Everything borders on the ridiculous. Rhetoric has shifted to a medieval or primal state where basic values are being revisited. Is it OK to discard human rights because of the violence of non-state actors? Is it OK for the police to kill innocent civilians in the supposed act of protecting these same people from terrorism? Is it OK that we have a country without fair trials? Most of the time, in the state media, the answer is yes.
There is little public discussion permissible. The majority has made its voice heard: The mass of Egyptians trusts whatever the government does politically, but will continue to ask for economic reform. It’s a little strange that things such as murder, torture and fair trials have become something “political” that only concern the elite. As if it’s forgivable, in the eyes of the masses, that such actions occur in the name of the greater good. What greater good is there other than giving the poor their rights and holding those in power accountable, rather than targeting the innocent?
The argument is that terrorism forces us to take exceptional measures. In reality it’s fear.
The amazing thing about fear is that it makes everything possible. All of a sudden it’s possible to cure AIDS and hepatitis C without scientific research. It’s possible to grow as a nation and be respected without the government respecting democracy or its citizens. It’s possible to condemn some inhumane acts of terror, such as the slaughter of 21 Copts by ISIS in Libya, but not the murder of a thousand people in Rabaa.

It is unreasonable to ask those who are afraid to overcome their fear. How would they do that, in an Egypt that is ready to punish the weak for demanding their rights, a nation where there is no protection from rabid security forces driven by revenge? How can people overcome fear when the international community has opted to pursue interests at the expense of rights they had once agreed should be universal?
Today’s Egypt is a land of possibilities, mostly horrific. There are no means of petitioning the government. There is no elected body to attempt, even symbolically, to temper the dictatorial powers of the president and the army. I would go so far as to say there are no ministries, since state security officers can override the decisions of any minister or government official in the name of national security.
The result is the Egypt we see today, one that is trying to enforce the view that it is a democratic country with violence and intimidation, as well as lots of money invested in propaganda and Western public relations firms. We see an Egypt unwilling to represent the interests of its people, but willing to safeguard personal interests, whether in the form of military economic empire or civilian crony oligarchy. Both of these sets of interests are happy to engage in an unadvertised cold war over the country’s resources.
In 2011 many Egyptians defied tyranny out of courage. Today many are defying human decency out of fear. Fear is here to stay because there are no saviors in this world. There are oppressors painted as saviors and heroes painted as villains. The saddest part of this dark, ugly picture is that it was made possible by the blessing of the people, who were willing to justify the theft of rights. In a way fear kills dreams, but in another way, it makes other improbable things possible.

First published in MERIP on April 28, 2015

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

On Copts, Libya and Nationalism

One of the most astounding phenomena following the brutal slaying of 21 Copts, who had been kidnapped since December 2014, is the hyper-nationalistic reactions within Egyptian society. These reactions of immediate unquestioning support to military response in Libya extend to numerous revolutionary hardliners who are greatly opposed to Al-Sisi’s rule, yet found in this atrociousness a chance to unite against a common enemy, temporarily putting aside fundamental differences with the regime. Considering the outrage, it is difficult to believe that three years ago, the Egyptian military ran over more Copts in Egypt than “Islamic State” killed in Libya, and no one was brought to account.
I have not seen the video of the brutal executions, it is haunting as it is to know it’s out there. The screen-shots splattered across social media are traumatic enough. The manner in which this news was released in Egypt was through airing the horrendous video on satellite television shows known to be largely steered by the government’s security apparatus. Some of the victims’ family members found out through this insensitive broadcast. The air-strike that ensued, took place without warning or evacuating Egyptians in Libya, which caused more to be kidnapped by ”Islamic State”.
I would have thought it unnecessary to fervidly condemn these atrocious killings, since there can be no doubt as to their extreme brutality, but perhaps with the frenzy surrounding the war on terror it may be required.
There is a prevalent point of view that perceives this as an opportunity to align against a common enemy. No one can seriously undermine the threat of extremism, irrespective of which powers and countries fund it, since more and more it appears to be tapping into an existing resource of fanatic thought running through a great many Middle Eastern societies, posing a threat to the region, and indeed the world.
Yet the sentiment that now is not the time to differ over what policy is used to counter this terror, as has been repeated incessantly by numerous Egyptian personalities and the media, is deeply flawed. It is the policy with which we deal with this sort of extremism that will determine the outcome of this battle.
What’s more, the regime’s response is viewed as an improvement to how Copts are perceived by the regime. Yet how can this be regarded as advancement of Coptic rights, knowing that Egypt continues to have discriminatory laws and regulations against Copts? Some more meaningful gestures towards the Coptic community would be: to issue the unified law on building houses of worship, to activate laws that punish discrimination, to remove the religion field from the identity card, allow for freedom to change religion, nullify the “defamation of religion” law, release prisoners of conscience tried under the defamation of religion law, hold participants of sectarian events accountable, allow more Christians to hold government positions, or at least allow Christians to serve in the country’s General Intelligence.
None of these changes have taken place, and perhaps none are likely to happen. The regime has only engaged in short-term gestures, rather than meaningful policy change.
It is worth noting that Egypt has long been offering support in Libya, and reportedly conducted airstrikes in August 2014.
The deadly attack on Egyptians is not the first in Libya, but perhaps the biggest and most covered due to the brutality of the video released. In February 2014, seven Egyptians were kidnapped and executed by shots to their heads and their bodies dumped. Also in December 2014, an Egyptian doctor, his wife and his child were killed.
Both the government and church have been largely silent about such incidents, and vocal against media, human rights, activists, and other “threats”.
What strikes me as particularly odd is that Egypt would claim the strikes in Libya as retaliation and some sort of method of payback, because some of its citizens were killed. In fact, the only real response took place after images of the Copts in orange death roll jumpsuits had been published by “Islamic State”. We are asked to believe that Egypt’s swift response is an angry reaction to the killing of the hostages, considering they had been kidnapped for nearly 45 days with very little attention highlighted by the government. But is it because the citizens mean something to the Egyptian regime?
How can we expect a regime that has killed its own flower-holding citizens to care about those killed outside its borders? How can we reconcile the fact that the Egyptian police set a trap for nearly 20 football fans by firing teargas into the crowd, together with mourning over the kidnapped Copts in Libya? If Egyptian lives are so precious, why doesn’t Egypt prosecute its security apparatus targeting its citizens and hold it to account?
It is unlikely that there was something the Egyptian government could have done to save those hostages, much like others who have been executed, because of difficulty of negotiating with extremists. But the reality is that we don’t really know. There has been very little information, and the little that we know indicates scant efforts. There is a great opaqueness about what the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the presidency and General Intelligence did from the time extremists announced they had kidnapped 21 Egyptians. What we saw is a regime obsessed with how foreign media portrays it, instead of what happens to its citizens.
We have no means of accountability, had there been a dereliction of duties on the part of the Egyptian government. It is increasingly difficult to understand the motivations of the regime, particularly with all the blind support it continues to be granted for its policies, many of which are murky, poor and counterproductive.
First published on 21 February, 2015

Friday, February 27, 2015

The Significance of Shaimaa's Death

I’ve thought a lot about why the death of Shaimaa Al-Sabbagh has been more painful than many of the unjustified recent deaths we’ve encountered recently. It could be because she’s close to my circles, or because she looked pretty or because of the innocence of attempting to place a wreath of flowers in memory of the fallen martyrs or because the photos captured moments before she passed away were truly heart wrenching.
It may be all of that, but alongside, the more pressing reason is because her passing resembles the murder of Khaled Said, all over again. If we can capture the revolution as a single demand, it was so that we never have another Khaled Said. It doesn’t mean that people are never killed again, but that the regime does not get away with murder and does not use its institutions to cover up their crimes.
But there have been so many Khaled Said’s over the years, and we haven’t been able to stop them. The revolution has failed, utterly and categorically in fulfilling its epitomised demand. What’s worse is that, on the eve of January 25, the counter revolution delivers the strongest message possible, that it has triumphed and will kill any Khaled Said in whatever shape or form he is re-incarnated, that it will continue to get away with it and that it will continue to target us.
The defeat is doubly painful as people cheer on criminals in uniform making up excuses for them. In their defence of the uniform, people have resorted to all sorts of explanations catered by propaganda that helps sedate the conscience. State sponsored explanations range from, let’s wait and see to find out what happened to the more extreme support of her death because she chose the wrong time to protest without a permit.
In between, an endless middle ground of diverting attention, accusing the Muslim Brotherhood or her friends of killing her and casting doubt on the testimonies of those who saw it happen. Now isn’t the time to discredit the police because they protect you, they say. They say it as the police itself shoots at and eventually kills an unarmed woman.
This is business as usual for the police and authorities, along with the usual forensic, judiciary and media cover ups for what has happened in clear daylight. We are asked to shut up about the whole matter because the judiciary is charged with investigations, but when has the public prosecutor ever arrived at real conclusion or true condemnation for regime crimes?
If anything, prosecution and the judiciary in Egypt have systematically attempted to disprove what we’ve seen with our own eyes. Witnesses are pressured, videos disappear, the Ministry of Interior logs disappear, and there is every attempt at hiding what we have all seen. Yet they dare call it justice.
If I were reading this about a different country, I would have written it off as a hyperbole, a gross generalisation, the ramblings of an angry citizen with poor analytical skills. But the true tragedy is that time and time again, events have proven these words to be true, unexaggerated and perhaps even understatements which don’t reflect current reality strongly enough.
Strangely enough this incident not only resembles the Khaled Said crime but combines that of the woman in Tahrir in December 2011 who was part-stripped by the military during the Cabinet Clashes. Like the unknown battered woman, Shaimaa was smeared by questioning her motives of being out on the streets. Doubts as to the actual perpetrators were raised and lies about who killed her were unjustifiably spread.

It was this event of targeting a woman so shamelessly in December 2011 that mobilised a nationwide campaign by the name of Kazeboon that dared to call out the regime on its lies. Likewise women who identify with Shaimaa have decided to defy fear and stand this Thursday in the same spot she fell despite the risks of being unjustly targeted like Shaimaa. The fate of this protest is unknown at the time of writing.
There is a constant attempt to shift the debate to everything other than the murderer of Shaimaa.  Not only did security forces shoot Shaimaa until she dropped to the ground, they continued shooting at the gathering that was already dispersing even after she was hit, refused to get her medical attention and arrested those trying to help her. This determination on treating our lives as cheap and the audacity of covering up this crime is a blow to Egyptians willing to confront the truth of their perceived worth.
The real monstrosity surrounding Shaimaa’s death is the unwillingness of society as a whole to bring its perpetrators to justice. The people seem to have been desensitised to injustices. They only see legitimate grievances when affecting state institutions or perpetrated by opposition to the state.
The revolution’s promises seem now like a mirage rather than an oasis. Those who dared to stand up to oppressive forces in pursuit of their dreams have done so with very little on their side and continually pay a heavy price. They have been targeted, crushed, drained and killed just like Shaimaa, with few to mourn, and even those few are smeared.
Those who dreamt of change have constantly tried to use truth as their primary weapon. The truth is that Shaimaa Al-Sabbagh was killed and left to die by the Egyptian police. She was shot at close range possibly because she refused to run and be intimidated as security forces charged the gathering. But even when truth is on your side, sometimes it’s just not enough.

First published in DNE on January 28, 2015

Friday, January 23, 2015

The Clanging Cymbal, a Church With a Loveless Creed

First published in DNE on 11 January 2015
“People talk about human rights, but what about God’s rights?” said Pope Tawadros in his sermon on the eve of Coptic Christmas on 6 January. These words, and most others in the same sermon rang hollow, as I recalled the opening lines of chapter thirteen in the book of Corinthians: “If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.”
Aside from the pope’s continued bashing of human rights, what are God’s rights in a faith that preaches love? Is it not love for God and others? The pope and the church have shown very little of that, except to the regime.
It is no longer possible to write off statements by Pope Tawadros as simply uninformed remarks that ought to be corrected. It is clear that every statement released to the public aims to appease authorities rather than offer spiritual guidance.
In his most recent interview with Sky News, the Pope claimed that the Muslim Brotherhood led Christian youth into confrontations with the army and then fled the scene. This was in reference to the Maspero massacre on October 9, 2011 where the military attacked and ran over unarmed Coptic protesters, and state media incited sectarian violence.
This is certainly his most problematic statement, but perhaps a crowning of his previous work cozying up to the government. This statement is problematic for several reasons; the most important of which is that it extends beyond an opinion you may agree or disagree with. It is a statement that asserts a historic fact. A fact that happens to be fictional.
Earlier in an interview with the Spanish Paper El Mundo, the Pope even said that he did not know the perpetrators of Maspero, because he was not Pope at the time. It is worth noting that the manner in which the Maspero protesters were murdered by the Egyptian military has been documented on their tombstone and that the Muslim Brotherhood’s position at the time had been in support of the military.
So why would Pope Tawadros offer this false narrative? An easy answer is that he was misled by his sources, which leaves us with a misinformed Pope unable to determine the truth of history.
The more likely scenario is that the Pope understands full well what he has said and that his distortions of the truth were deliberate, in which case we may only speculate as to why.
Political rather than spiritual gains are to be made. By falsifying what had happened at Maspero, Pope Tawadros undermines Christian activists and antagonises the revolutionaries, particularly those who participated in the march or had witnessed its atrociousness. He made it appear as if they did not stand for anything, and died for nothing. By doing so, he will have appeased a larger base with a price of clear animosity towards the revolution. The wager is that this entire wave of revolutionary rhetoric and fervour will be obliterated completely, and its remnants will dry out. The plan is seemingly to garner enough support from the regime to make legislative changes that deepen the Church’s control over its own matters and its constituency.
Yet even with cold, calculating practicalities, this wager may fail.  It is precisely because it is cold and calculating and devoid of any spirituality, departing from Christian teachings, that it may fail. But aside from that, it may fail because it is a significant political gamble.
In fairness, the Church is caught between a whirlwind of forces. It must balance its positions against Islamists, revolutionaries, military interests, old NDP businessmen, along with their state security connections. Both Islamists and revolutionaries offer the Church nothing practical, and animosity towards both in favor of the regime is a small price to pay. The revolutionaries’ moral high ground may become a problem later on if their rhetoric survives the current crackdown, but for now they seem incapable of making a dent. Other forces have something to offer Christians imminently, but must fight for the Coptic vote in upcoming parliamentary elections.
The battle for control between different security apparatuses rages on. Thus the regime is no longer a cohesive block you can appease.  Parliamentary majority will be determined by the victor in this internal battle, and since the Pope is playing politics, he must choose which side to support, and have the Coptic community back him up.
Because of such complications, politics within the Church are closer to a gamble at the moment. So far all the calculations and compromises have given the church nothing in return; a surprise visit by Al-Sisi to the Coptic cathedral on Christmas Eve, but nothing tangible that fundamentally addresses the state of Copts.
Christians continue to be forcefully evicted, and imprisoned in defamation of religion cases. Churches still require the president’s consent to build or reconstruct. Damaged churches, which the military promised to rebuild, have not been rebuilt. Copts in Libya are being kidnapped and slaughtered with no serious concern or reaction by Church or state.
Rather than speak inclusively to spread love and tolerance, the Pope went on to support the constitutional referendum, discredit human rights, attack atheism, call for segregation of boys and girls, and jump on the state’s bandwagon of witch-hunts.
The Church turned to a new loveless creed that mimics the state’s in praise of rulers rather than the Almighty. Numerous priests have been reciting it. Anba Bola declared Al-Sisi as the Christ he saw when he visited the church on Christmas Eve. Father Makary Younan has also claimed that Al-Sisi was a saviour, prophesied in the book of Isiah. Much earlier, a priest called Boules Ewaida declared his passionate love for Al-Sisi and excused the women for being in love with him. Besides bordering on the delusional, these statements can be regarded by many Copts as blasphemous.
As an effect of political calculations, the Church has wandered its farthest from Christian teachings. Appeasing the regime in every way may cost the Church leverage over politicians, and if it is done at the expense of Christian beliefs, it may cost the Pope control over the Church’s constituency. The Pope will need to stand for something other than the state, because by standing with injustice, he betrays his post and his Church’s denomination. It would be far better for the Pope to stand up for Christian principles than to continue these political manoeuvres.
It is unfair to single out the Pope, because a majority of the Coptic community stands in line with his positions. It is also important to recognise that this is a community that has much to fear, having been discriminated against for so long. It is a community trying to survive, even at the expense of justice. Yet in a way, this survival has cost the community its soul.
How can we give credence to a Church that has lost its spirit? There is nothing spiritual in excusing injustices and propagating false narratives. In the same chapter of Corinthians the closing lines read: “These three remain; hope, faith and love but the greatest of these is love.”
In Pope Tawadros’ Church, this love cannot be found, replaced by self-interest and survival. The words of the church become a clanging cymbal. These are not motivations to blame, yet they have caused the Church to drift from church teachings and Christian faith. This faith preached the value of love above all others, even faith, so much so that it boldly claimed that God is love. I look before me at a community devoid of love, worshiping a brass calf, and full of fear. And if love, praise and glory is what you give God, why does the Church give to Caesar what is God’s?

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Blessed With Immorality

The Egyptian people are among the most blessed in the world in that they have no moral dilemmas, they have been reduced to animal like instincts where they only care for their interests no matter what the cost. However as with the evolution of thinking so is there an evolution of moral bankruptcy. Not only have Egyptians excused their actions from any moral questioning, they have supported the immoral actions of others, going so far as to create elaborate excuses.

The average Egyptian in support of the current and past regimes will find that he has foregone most of his morals. Nothing that happens poses a moral dilemma. You would think that the invasion of privacy of an individual would have causes a stir, but not really, Egyptians do not mind that their police force is recording private citizen calls. What about airing them to the public? Still no problem or ethical dilemma. If we are to move towards the right to fairness through a trial, still no moral issues as the judiciary is tampered with by a greedy junta that aims to secure its interests at the cost of justice and the whole country. Even when the leaks came out to prove that a General’s son was protected after having killed 37 people, people took no real issue.

So how about something as serious as rape performed by security personnel? This land prides itself with the notion of sexual morality. Still no problem, we can pretend it doesn’t happen or that it’s okay if a few of them do that because they end up protecting you. 

How about freedom, the right not to be incarcerated having done nothing wrong, you’d think it would cause a moral debate among Egyptians, yet very easily people come out in defense of throwing innocents in jail, rather than just being silent and sad about it.

Well let’s go to the most basic human value, of a right to live. Nothing still. The fact that some people in uniform can kill whoever they choose for no good reason doesn’t upset the majority of Egyptians, those who are upset can always pretend it doesn’t happen. 

Currently it’s not a caricature to portray a majority of Egyptians as having no values of freedom, privacy, right to live, right to be safe from bodily harm, right to a fair trial, right to being human. 

Although there are many who are an exception to this rule, as a nation we’ve failed every moral test there is. This is not just a case of see no evil, this is looking intently at evil and cheering it on. The innocent are put on trial, and the crowds are cheering ‘crucify them’. The absolute lack of collective morality is far worse than any oppressive dictator because you find yourself as someone who has a gift of sight in a land of complete and utter blindness.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Egypt Between Mediocrity and Suspension Of Disbelief

Very little has changed with regards to Egypt’s trajectory of descent into a social and political abyss ever since its security forces dispersed the Islamist sit-ins using great force and even much greater impunity. The slope of decline into a more oppressive police state has indeed been very slippery and while there’s room for more damage, what has already transpired will take years and years to fix.
This bleak picture is what any distanced observer may have painted after having followed some of the major events that unfolded over the past one and a half years since the military takeover in July 2013. Yet equally important to point out, is that many Egyptian nationals overcome with emotions, fail to see the picture for what it is.
Continued oppressive measures will not bring about real social stability. Yet many wait in hope of some sort of miracle that fixes economic grievances, reforms the police force, and roots out corruption.
Unfortunately those in charge of running the country may be suffering from what is known as the Dunning-Kruger effect, where those who are incompetent are incapable of recognising they are incompetent. What’s more, they don’t recognise competence in others.
Objectively speaking, Egypt is no closer to the promised democracy sought since 2011. The police are unable to efficiently stop crime or even disperse a sit in without killing hundreds of unarmed protesters. The military has promised a laughable cure to AIDS and failed in containing violence in Sinai. Terrorism and acts targeting security personnel are at an all-time high. Even cover-ups aimed to manipulate the judiciary with the help of the Ministry of Interior were not properly safeguarded when conversations of leading SCAF army general were exposed.
Yet, despite all that, many Egyptians are unmoved by such failures and incompetence. One explanation is that they themselves do not recognise their own incompetence or the competence in others, but another is that they are suspending their disbelief.
The idea of being deeply immersed inside what you know is fiction, aware of the reality that contradicts the presented narrative but ignoring such conflicts is known as the suspension of disbelief. This happens when reading a novel knowing full well that it is fiction or that there are things that don’t add up. You keep yourself in a state close to that of hypnosis, ignoring the faults and flaws of the plot and the contradictions with reality in order to complete the novel at hand.
Such seems to be the case with Egyptians experiencing their own stories, but following a faulty, improbable state narrative that offers fictional hope which many desperate, frightened and frustrated Egyptians want to hold on to.
The Mubarak verdict was no real surprise as it was in the making for some time, ever since Mubarak was forced into the cage to appease the public. There was no way that a regime trying itself would ever find itself guilty and that is why Mubarak needed to walk.
Reactions celebrating his release came as further entrenchment into a fairy tale that justice could be served through a politicised judiciary. The most recentalleged leaks show that corruption and politicisation seems widespread when a small sample of what happens behind doors shows an army general asked by the public prosecutor to issue a decree with an old date declaring a military facility as an MOI prison.
Yet despite heavy army presence on the day of the sentencing thousands turned up outside a cordoned off Tahrir Square to protest the ruling chanting against all forms of oppressive rule whether that of Mubarak, Morsi’s or Sisi.
The response was brutal as is now customary. The protests were dispersed and two people were killed for objecting to a judiciary sentence they feel was manipulated or politicised. The regime could not risk the public exposed to too much reality so as sustain their narrative. That is why critical media voices have been silenced in one way or another.
Stable countries have established credible justice systems that offer its citizens a shot at fairness without forcing them to take matters into their own hands. This was not done out of the goodness of their hearts but as a necessity for continued governance. The continued absence of justice will eventually lead to collapse as courts become even more glaringly tools of oppression, and as failed security policies affect all sectors of society, yet those looking on will continue to look the other way.
Despite the constant failings, a great many are not yet ready to acknowledge the shortcomings of current leadership to help avoid the damage. The signs are clear to those with an open mind but no amount of signs or books about history or the present can tell you about the current reality if you choose not to see it.
Some argue that the revolutionary dream was just as much of a delusion as ignoring the failed trajectory we’re on today. But there’s a difference between the revolutionary dream and delusions. The revolutionary dream was a result of an acknowledgement of current realities and aimed for something greater by fixing these problems. Present delusions may be as imaginary as dreams but are harmful because they completely ignore the current reality. The current regime is not only forgiven for grave failures but encouraged. In effect, the state of Egypt will probably worsen in the absence of a proper wake up call. Sadly, the suspension of disbelief may continue until the final curtains, but by then the damage to the nation may be more than anyone can bear.
First published in DNE on 11 December, 2014.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

We're Losing the War on Terror

First published in DNE on 11 November, 2014.
Last week numerous country representatives congratulated Egypt on its progress in improving human rights over the years in the latest Universal Periodic Review held by the United Nations. It was disheartening to hear such comments at a time of the most sizable regression in human rights in Egypt’s modern history. It was quite understandable, however, that much of the warmth expressed was due to politics in the region and the recognition that Egypt was fighting terrorism, but as several speakers pointed out, fighting terror was no excuse for violating human rights. Furthermore, much to our dismay and that of countries standing in solidarity with Egypt, we’re losing the “war on terror”.
The media often reports the death of ‘terrorists’ unquestioningly; denying us the courtesy of challenging government narratives, choosing a language that simplistically assumes the guilt of those targeted without trial. When it comes to the war on terror, few media outlets question the official government line and, just like many people, cheer it on. What is constantly overlooked in the news, however, is the birth of ‘terrorism’.
Somewhere along the way, the meaning of the word ‘terror’ is quite forgotten. The term is not well defined but its most significant feature is the widespread fear of harm befalling an individual or group without reasonable justification. In simpler terms, it is the targeting of innocent civilians who have every reason or right to be where they are while being targeted.
Indiscriminate targeting of individuals is terror even if done in a uniform. When such acts are performed by the state, whose mandate is to bring about justice, it creates an environment conducive to breeding extremists, and they in turn become ready to indiscriminately target anyone for revenge. Torture and inhumane treatment can easily dehumanise individuals and devalue their own lives, and with that comes the danger of terrorism.
There is a real threat of extremism in the region as people are being radicalised. Every day injustice is not deterred, or is inflicted by the state, the context becomes more conducive to radicalised reactions. When injustice befalls someone, they must choose what to do. They can chose to do nothing, escape, or fight. Many with little going for them, poor education and no hope of a better standard of life find solace in radicalised interpretations of religion and notions of revenge.
The regime has cut off most alleyways of peaceful resistance and left no space for those who oppose them to object peacefully. Instead of positively reinforcing the value of expression through art or peaceful protest, the regime has responded violently to its opposition using arbitrary detentions, torture, killings, and censorship. In effect, rulers have taught those who oppose them the value of violence which its security apparatus practices on a daily basis.
It is as though we are unable to convince those we are fighting that their ideas on violence are incorrect. There are no serious attempts from the government to counter their simple and non-appealing ideas, and instead the government entrenches such ideas deeper by using extremist approved oppressive tools such as moral judgment, silencing opposition, violence and injustice.
People from around the world are flocking to fight alongside the ‘Islamic State’, but we’d be mistaken to think they’ve rejected the values propagated by some governments; on the contrary, they’re embracing them, but simply cheering on a different side.
What’s worse is that we’re losing the war on terror because we are becoming like terrorists ourselves. We are accepting that innocent bystanders are arrested, tortured and sometimes killed and we accept that they may be collateral damage in the “war on terror”. The easiest explanation for deaths caused by the regime is that they deserve to die, and the simplest way to justify locking up individuals is that ‘they wouldn’t have deprived them of their freedom for such a long time undeservedly’.
Yet day after day we are seeing people proven innocent in a court of law despite the politicised judiciary and extended detention. We are accepting that damage, we are accepting what the extremists are accepting; that innocents are harmed along the way for the greater goal. We are accepting the crackdown on creativity and expression in the name of the fight against those who would censor us.
Television shows, live concerts and various artworks are being censored, creating an environment that is antagonistic to culture and artistic expression. It is this sort of environment that extremists wish to create, except that it is now being created by those who claim are fighting them.
To gauge its success in fighting terror, consider the Egypt that is trying to fight terrorism. It is an Egypt that cracks down on peaceful protesters using the pretence of the Protest Law. An Egypt that delivers ultimatums to civil society, smearing notions of human rights in its tightly controlled media. An Egypt that militarises its streets and universities, thereby teaching students violence instead of promoting critical thinking. An Egypt that imprisons journalists and human rights defenders without evidence.  An Egypt that places people randomly arrested under extended pre-trial detention. An Egypt that censors opposition, grants its security apparatus impunity, and does all that in the name of the fight against terror.

The opposite of terror was never terror, it was always an end to terror, but as long as we accept injustices as part of our war on terror then the true enemy is never defeated, it only goes stronger.