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.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Thoughts on the Sinai Operation

On Friday, October 24, 2014 an army checkpoint was attacked killing over 30 military personnel. I cannot claim to know the details of everything that is going on in Sinai, but the little I do know leads me to believe that there is bad policy in place. I truly hope this is a wake-up call to understand that there's something wrong about how things are being handled and many are paying the price of these mistakes, but I do not expect this will happen.

We must acknowledge the simple fact that most things are cause and effect, the failures we are witnessing are a result of numerous failures. An army that promises kofta cures in the modern age will not be able to provide a proper political or security solution when faced with a real threat.

There will be many angles regarding the war on terror, and the extremists in Sinai, but for a fuller picture, the problem with Sinai has always been that it was treated as an occupied land. There is no development and there is very high securitization. The government's policy has always been to keep its inhabitants under a tight leash with minimal development. More recently the military regime has been generally using more brutal security practices to address political problems, Sinai is no exception and all the more problematic due to extremist growing presence there.

The radical methods adopted by the army to 'fight terror' has only created more context for extremists to grow. Innocent people have been 'collateral' and it's only speculation here, but that probably has radicalized residents into cooperating with the more extremist factions. This means that the army's political grip on an armed region inhabited by oppressed locals has been diminishing.

Recent efforts on a wide scale crack down on 'terrorism' in the area seems to have backfired, with extremists fighting back. There is a failure in policy, and we're reaping its fruits now although there have been a great many critics of the security only policy adopted by the Egyptian regime in Sinai.

Those at the borders are martyrs of duty, but more importantly victims of their own leaderships. I won't shift the blame to the army leaders, the blame always lies on those who kill. But the truth is that the same thing can be said when the army targets innocent people.

Any activity needs broad consent, whether it's politics or terrorism. Consent is the least active of the roles which make you part of any action, as time goes by that consent can change into support and even help. The trouble with angering individuals who would otherwise be neutral is that you put them on a path of consent for actions done by your enemy. This applies both ways really. When terrorism affects those you identify with, you start turning against it and side with those who fight it, but the real danger now, particularly in Sinai, is that consent is not on the regime's side after they've mistreated Sinai and its residents. That's the real danger.

Needless to say, I don't think that targeting innocents works as a strategy, on any side of the fence.

There is real sadness about innocent soldiers who are in many ways targets of the regime as much as they were targets of their killers, but to pretend that we must support a regime that a great many of us predicted would bring about such failures and more is disingenuous, because it is exactly these sort of tragedies that we wanted to avoid. Please don't tell me now is not the time to talk about our animosity with the state because of their failed policies, because now *is* the time for which there was such animosity in the first place. We are not enemies of the state but rather of failed state policies that bring about such catastrophic failures.

We're approaching a '67 sort of defeat. The regime was cracking down on the student movement and all sorts of opposition and convinced people that they were the enemies of the state who would bring the country down, but even with them arrested, Egypt suffered a huge defeat. The problem is in the mentality that brings about disaster and blames the wrong people for their own failures.

The reaction of the state to this is even more important. Sadly, they will continue to crack down on opposition of all sorts, they will react like a lunatic state cracking down on all forms of dissent or criticism. What happens next will likely be even more ugly and brutal.

In the coming days the regime is going to sell you this story: This is a time of crisis, protesting policies that lead to this crisis is wrong. To be a true nationalist you need to support the government in its failed policies and post condemnation of the perpetrators if you like but you cannot condemn the policies that lead to this tragedy. If you do, then you're enabling terrorists. You must cheer on the failed leadership that lead us to where we are now, that is true patriotism.

Your role as a Sisi supporter is to mourn all the soldiers, share posts about them and not question how we ended up here or whether the regime could have done things differently as well as attack those who try to ask those questions and perhaps even curse them and call them traitors, spies and all sorts of derogatory terms.

If Sisi really wanted a united front against the extremist insurgency he would stop targeting peaceful activists and bring criminals to justice.

To me terrorism has always been the act of targeting innocent civilians. I'm not sure what to call it when guerrilla forces strictly target military personnel in uniform. Perhaps with all the polarization around, it may be necessary for me to point out that I'm against violence, but acknowledge that in some cases it needs to be used (as we all are in a modern society). However, I have witnessed the army being unnecessarily violent with innocent civilians and we've all seen them kill some. In that sense the army is more of a terrorist than the groups targeting the army. But with that said, extremist targeting which aims to bring about a more oppressive, more polarizing regime is not something that I accept.

To view this as objectively as possible, the acts at a first glance seem to be of extremists who view the Egyptian army as an occupying force and that would explain why they targeted the military and not citizens. It appears that in large, the people living in Sinai also view the military and the Egyptian state as an occupying force rather than an organizing force. We've heard horror stories about how the army deals with Sinai and that gives us a picture of how people might be feeling.

I think  we're talking about a war between armed forces that have no popular support in Sinai and extremists who are finding some consent to their 'resistance' within the populace continuously abused by the army.

We've mocked the words 'War on Terror' because of the word terror, but I don't think it's appropriate to mock the word 'war'. And for the record, I don't want any side to win particularly. If the extremists win it will be a disaster and will mean dark days ahead, and if the army wins completely, that would mean Sinai residents would be practically made prisoners on their own land, more so than they are already.

The only certain thing is that the existence of this war itself means dark days ahead.

*Note: I got a comment that asks to make a distinction between North Sinai and South Sinai, I would like to point out that all of this commentary applies to everything happening in North Sinai. South Sinai is a completely different story. It would be a mistake to put *all* residents of Sinai in one basket without making a distinction.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Extremists for Justice

“The question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be?” writes Martin Luther King, Jr. in his Letter from a Brimingham Jail.

It is no secret that extremity has taken over Egypt in many ways beyond the classical modes of terror attacks and fanatic religiosity. This sort of extremity permeates every aspect of society.

Media has become extreme in its fear mongering, it has become extreme in its role to obfuscate the truth rather than expose it. Nearly all channels and news outlets are predominantly state mouthpieces. There is extremity in oppression and the crackdown on dissent, extremity in hushing voices. There is extremity in police brutality and impunity, and extremity in the injustices carried out by the state and in particular the judiciary.

In Egypt lawyers no longer have a meaningful role. In recent conversations with lawyers I’ve known over the years, many who have been practicing for a long time cannot find their place in the judiciary system in Egypt or lack thereof. They bear testimony to law broken daily, systematically and blatantly by the police and judiciary charged to uphold it. The entire state along with its institutions have been radicalized to a farcical degree closer to fiction.

Radicalization is taking place in every pocket of Egyptian society. One needs only turn to Sinai for increasing militancy born out of years of discrimination and continued oppression. One may look to Ansar Beit Al Maqdes, who claimed responsibility for a large number of bombings and attacks on the state’s security apparatus, for a glimpse of utter radicalization and polarization. We can also see that the state's security apparatus has been driven to extremity and radicalization, acting more like the mafia than a civilian security enforcement apparatus.

Yet even with the current context there is radicalization towards holding on to revolutionary ideals.

“Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?” writes Martin Luther King, Jr.

In the midst of all this, some hold on to a dream battered by oppressive measures and smear campaigns. They are a few but hold strongly to moral convictions despite lack of resources. Just as we’ve seen signs of an extreme shift from decent human values, we’ve seen signs to indicate radicalization in the other direction. Despite the unfortunate weak position the January 25 revolution has been driven to, there are signs that its ideals will not easily fade away. Every day there are sacrifices by rights defenders to defend the rights of those they politically oppose, there are activists who bravely pay the price for their radicalized beliefs in love and justice.

In a world that forces us into extremism we have a choice as to what kind of extremists we will be. It is easy to drift to the extremes that empower you, such as extreme self interest, or extreme support of one oppressive power or another, but despite all that, there are some who have proven it is possible to choose something else.

The hope in Egypt was always for those two to prevail, love and justice. That hope was born with a great many in a generation reputed before 2011 to have been impotent. Such hope seems to have greatly diminished but not completely extinguished. True rights defenders stand for these at a time of radicalization towards the opposite, but as they do, the oppressors and other extremists have plans for them to perish.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Human Rights Watch on Rabaa: words aren’t loud enough

Originally published in OpenDemocracy.net

Somewhere between justifying the murder of a black man by police, the bombing of children playing on a beach, or the killing of over a thousand people in one day, the world has lost its moral compass.
Some citizens condemn the brutal violations inflicted upon ordinary lives, based on ethnicity or political affiliation, but the people’s alleged representatives, their governments, have applauded themselves or other brutal governments, offering empty justifications for other citizens to repeat.
The few governments that have objected have done so without taking steps to redress these injustices. Though they have the power to take stronger actions, which speak far louder than words, they choose words, and words that are not nearly loud enough.
Human Rights Watch released a report entitled ‘All According to Plan,’ on the events that took place in Egypt in July and August of 2013, and the Egyptian response has been that of a totalitarian state. High-ranking HRW officials were detained for twelve hours before being denied entry into Egypt in order to launch their report.
The state rejected the report, hurling accusations of bias and disregard for the law at HRW. Criticism was directed at HRW by the Ministry of Interior, the government’s State Information Services (SIS), the National Council for Human Rights (NCHR) and a mass media dominated by pro-regime figures.
The report itself was highly detailed and contained numerous references to back up the findings it presented. It made references to the Egyptian government’s own statements and crosschecked the statements with evidence it had found and collected.
It concluded that on August 14, security forces had opened fire indiscriminately on crowds of protesters in Rabaa square, on more than one occasion. The report does not deny that arms were used by a small number of protesters, but emphasises that the limited use of arms did not warrant the disproportionate lethal force used by the security forces. At least 817 but possibly more than a thousand protesters were killed, as well as eight police officers.
The police did not give fair warning, and did not provide safe exits until towards the very end of the dispersal. Snipers were used from atop buildings and from helicopters. Many of the wounded were denied medical attention and there was very little mercy shown to the protesters. HRW reported that it was not able to establish who fired first, but that the extensive testimonies gathered established that the dispersal happened in the early hours of the morning a little after six, and that live fire began shortly after the start of the dispersal.
The report also details the Nahda sit-in dispersal on the same day, which left 87 dead; the massacres that occurred on July 8 outside the Republican Guard building, where 61 were killed; and on July 27 near the Manassa memorial, where 95 were killed.
In Egypt, the report was overshadowed by the same brand of Egyptian absurdity, lies and baseless accusations aimed to discredit the report and deny any serious reading. The response from the government was largely erratic and unable to deal with the report’s findings. The government’s reaction reflected more of an attempted cover up, rather than a desire to address the violations it had committed.
The MOI’s excuse for denying HRW entry to Egypt is that it has operated and carried out its investigation illegally since it is not authorised to operate in Egypt. However, obtaining a permit is dependent on security approval that is rarely ever granted. The response to the content of the report that implicated the ministry was vague, dismissive and evasive.
The NCHR, whose findings and methodology were explicitly criticised in the report, had a similar response. Political figure and NCHR secretary general George Ishak accused HRW of bias, but failed to address any of the accusations of shortcomings specifically concerning the NCHR fact-finding committee. Nasser Amin, a member of NCHR, accused HRW of inaccuracy in their report but failed to point out examples of such inaccuracy.
Egypt’s State Information Services issued a statement accusing HRW of bias, and of failing to mention other contextual facts regarding the dispersal, many of which the report actually did mention. The accusations even made an implicit link between the operations of HRW and terrorism. The government concluded that “the dispersal of the sit-ins was conducted in accordance with the relevant international legal standards”.
Furthermore, in an attempt to further smear the report, Al Watan newspaper printed a feature entitled ‘Fifteen flaws in the infamous organisation’s report,’ full of misinformation regarding the HRW report. For example, the article claimed that the report failed to document that some of the protesters in the sit-ins were armed, something which it does explicitly.
The government’s position, being complicit in this gross violation of human rights and human decency, is understandable. What may come as a shock to some is that condemnation of the killing of 1000 protesters in one day is a controversial issue among Egyptians. Those who are staunchly against the Muslim Brotherhood have made excuses for the regime, which according to the HRW report, exercised “the indiscriminate and deliberate use of lethal force resulting in one of the world’s largest killings of demonstrators in a single day in recent history.”
But why should this be shocking, when a more heinous crime, such as killing children playing football on a beach, is being justified by parts of the world that claim to be civilised and democratic.
For Egyptians, this is not the first time they have turned a blind eye to killings performed by the state’s security apparatus. Events such as the trampling of Coptic protesters outside the Maspero state television building were largely ignored and sometimes even cheered on, despite footage showing army APCs trampling over unarmed protesters.
Even as far back as 2005, police violently dispersed a sit-in staged by an estimated 2000 Sudanese refugees opposite Mostafa Mahmoud mosque, killingat least 23 people including women, children and a nine-month old baby girl. Egyptians did not move. It did not really matter to most.
Numerous governments around the world have let their security services drive the agenda and act with impunity. From a militarised police in Ferguson, to a ruthless child-killing army in Israel, to a brutal security sector in Egypt, these bodies enjoy vast powers and the backing of their governments to get away with murder and racism. Accountability is lacking.
The Rabaa protests started on June 28 in support of Mohamed Morsi, and in a deeply polarised context it can be easy to forget that human rights violations – where innocent people lose their lives – remain politically agnostic and unjustifiable. There is a difference between supporting what the Rabaa sit-in stood for, and condemning its brutal dispersal.
For many, the idea of equal rights for all does not register. When words that speak of equality do not reflect the real values adopted by people, then all we will experience are words. When the value of a human life is not a factor in the equation, all sorts of atrocities are possible. When the value of a human varies depending on ethnicity or beliefs, then all sorts of murder can be justified.
One of the doctors who refused to leave when security forces asked her to abandon the three patients she was treating during the dispersal, describes her horrific experience:
One officer said, “I am ordering you to leave.” I said, “I can’t leave with injured here; take them out [of here] yourselves!” He didn’t respond; instead, he took out his pistol and killed the three injured men in front of me, shooting them in the heart. I was hoping he would kill me. I wanted to die. The pain was too much. I was shocked. I felt they were not human beings. I grabbed him and swore. He hit me. I am not sure why he didn’t kill me.
Those who died may have peace, but those who are living have to deal with the aftermath.

Monday, August 11, 2014

In Answer to Pope Tawadros, Now Is the TimeTto Talk About Human Rights

Last week Pope Tawadros issued the latest in a long list of fiery statements, when, in a visit to Norway, he remarked: “We can pray in a nation without a church but we can’t pray in a church without a nation.

The statement is an attempt at nationalism to support Egypt. Yet the notion of Christianity was never founded on nations, but on people having the same faith and the same values. On a philosophical level, the church is not the building itself but the congregation, but given Egypt’s history of state endorsed sectarian attacks on churches, the statement tends to undermine the historical struggle of Copts trying to build houses of worship and the attacks on such places.

This is not the first instance of nationalism for the pope. Earlier he had endorsed the constitutional referendum, going so far as to say ‘Yes brings blessings’. Later he also described President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi as a hero of the revolution.

Perhaps the biggest blunder by Pope Tawadros was when he claimed that people had a mistaken understanding of human rights, asking: “When the country is subjected to violence, terrorism and crime, how can we talk about human rights at a time like this?”

The question was clearly rhetorical. It angered some because it implicitly denounced human rights. But anger aside, the real problem is in trying to answer that question as though it was not rhetorical.

What is terrorism? Is it not fear that harm will befall you for no good reason? Harm is when something damaging befalls you or when to bodily harm by another human being, your right to be able to defend yourself against accusations brought against you, your right not to be humiliated and insulted through words or actions, through racism, through sectarianism. Terrorism is when innocent people are targeted, harmed and forced to pay a price they should not have to pay.

If there is a war on “terror” as they say, how can that war be waged using the same exact tools that make up terror? How can you fight the violation of rights through other violations of rights? These violations are supposedly what the fight is against. This fight should not just change the perpetrator. There can be no moral victory when the efforts to combat terrorism legitimise acts of terrorism. There can be no moral victory when those who are more powerful have the right to perform these acts. True terrorism is related to the acts themselves and not to who performs it. By fighting terror with terror, terrorism wins, and those claiming to fight it end up contributing to it.

Are mass death sentences not terror, particularly when a judge finds out by chance through reading the papers that he sentenced a child to death? Is torturing people not terror? And even if we put human rights aside, do Christian values allow for torture and execution, even in a country facing violence?

Human rights help safeguard basic rights, and the state is always accountable whenever these basic rights are violated. I’m not certain what Pope Tawadros meant by a mistaken understanding of human rights. How different does he think human rights values are compared to basic Christian values? The pope is not just a political figure commenting on values; he is a spiritual figure, positioned to represent and safeguard a set of values on behalf of an entire faith. The pope is supposed to be the ‘salt of the earth’, but the commentary of late is tasteless, if not bitter.

In much the same vein, many following the pope have adopted shaky moral stances in favour of nationalism. In a television interview, Anba Bola said that the murder of protesters outside Maspero at the hands of the military in October 2011 must be put behind us. In another incident a priest, Boules Ewaida, flattered Sisi’s good looks.

The shift in church rhetoric from the spiritual to the political and the complete alignment with the regime is worrying and may eventually weaken the church. The pope’s attack on human rights undermines many Coptic struggles such as the right to practice freely, the right to express themselves, equality, citizenship and the right to a fair trial. The fight for such rights has been integral to the Coptic plight in a sectarian state whose abuses have been well documented.

So in answer to Pope Tawadros’ rhetorical question: Human rights are extensions to Christian values and the Christian philosophy of helping the poor and the oppressed. We cannot turn a blind eye to injustices when the state performs them. So, yes, now is the time to talk about human rights, human values and even Christian values because they are the only real weapons in the fight against injustice, the fight for our humanity, our fight for our values and our fight against terror. Now more than ever is the time to talk about rights and values, because now, more than ever, is the time they are most needed.

This article was published in Daily News Egypt on June 29, 2014 

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

The Myth of Subsidy Cuts

Many have commented that the latest economic move to slash subsidies is a good thing. I can’t say I’m surprised because for over three years, the rhetoric was repeated incessantly by numerous economists and the IMF, that Egypt must cut subsidies for economic reform. The idea that cutting fuel subsidies is a good thing to start economic reform has become so ingrained that often times people do not stop and think why.

Subsidies are not good because the country ends up paying lots of money to help the rich as it tries to help the poor. They represent a form of unnecessary help given to the rich as well as the poor, which means the money is unable to distinguish between who it helps. 

Subsidizing some commodities for everyone irrespective of their level of earnings means that the state is wasting its resources helping those who do not need help. Subsidies need to be lifted so that unnecessary help given inadvertently given to the rich can be focused on assisting the poor even more. This can mean directing all the subsidy money granted to those who don’t need to subsidize the poor more directly through wage increases, fairer taxation and better public services. Taxing based on income helps for more equality.  Wage increases can be set up to benefit the poor. Public services should be designed to help the poorer classes.

When you lift subsidies without redirecting resources to more focused help to those who need it, you create more problems than you solve. Subsidy cuts needed to be accompanied by an alternative social security net and that is not happening. They needed to be accompanied by a fair justice system, so that those abusing the system can be brought to justice and help can be delivered to those who need it most and that is not happening. They need to be accompanied by new taxation schemes and salary adjustments that actually benefit the poor. 

Lifting subsidies in the manner that has been done in Egypt has burdened the poor because all prices have increased rapidly due to increase of transportation costs. This means that even basic commodities like bread and vegetables become more expensive. The cuts also introduced an increase in electricity bills. The poor have to conjure up some way to pay double the prices with their same wages. The poor have to think of ways to deal with the government’s decision without steps taken by the government to increase their wages, or help them cope with such increases.

Perhaps the most worrying aspect of lifting these subsidies is that there are no signs that this is a subsidy reform to help benefit the poor. There are many worrying indications that the money which the government saves will be channeled differently. Indication of the pattern of expenditure is that the army increased its budget over three billion pounds for 2013/2014. More so, energy intensive industries are still subsidized even though the subsidies have been lifted from the poor and at the same time these industries sell their products at international prices.

A distinction between 'subsidy cuts' and 'subsidy reforms' must be made, what happened in Egypt is the former. 

Contrary to popular belief, subsidies in Egypt do actually help the poor simply because these subsidies keep the price of basic commodities down and there are no alternative social nets, and no efficient means by which the government helps the poor. 

We have to be careful while looking at the economic situation. It cannot be devoid of the political context and the overarching economic policies. Steps in the right direction need to be in the right direction and not just seem to be. For example arresting thugs and locking them up for their crimes is a good thing, but when innocents are arrested in their place and they claim they're criminals, then it's not, it only seems so. 

The myth that Egypt 'has no choice but to lift fuel subsidies' is incomplete because it ignores that lifting subsidies is part of economic reform and it causes more problems if there is no economic reform. Too many have just repeated blindly that lifting fuel subsidies is a necessary reform and the entire meaning of the economic reform has been lost because of such blind repetition.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

The Zebra Crossing

Driving to work this morning I saw a zebra crossing and a conscript passing over it attempting to avoid cars which paid no heed to the lines drawn on the street. I wondered what it would take to get people to respect these lines and stop for pedestrians here in Egypt. We'd need policies and policing that enforces these policies. We would need to change our road culture and we would need to respect the human pedestrian.

But as I was thinking of all this, I realized that nations embrace the policies that reflect them most. Most policies are reflections of people's values. In certain places there is value to the individual, in others there's value to properties and in others there's value to nature. Governments enforce values they think are most important for their people. That's not to say governments are good essentially but they need to reflect their people's desires and values in order to survive, otherwise they become alien to people and are forced out.

Needless to say, as I contemplated over Egypt's values, I realized that I had been right all along to have felt alien to people. The short bursts of values and principles in 2011 seem to be the minority now. In my mind there's no sense to be pro military or pro Islamist, it's all the same mindset. Intolerance for the other and a narrow conspiratorial view on matters drives those parties. This madness and orthodox thinking is what I see before me irrespective of the side taken. 

As I think about the zebra crossing, I think about the different other values that people don't seem to mind, such as ruling with an iron fist, such as group punishment, such as police impunity, such as false respect for a judiciary which delivers injustice. Our values are truly being upheld by the government. They have only reflected what most people feel deep down.

We have a long way to go before people can respect a zebra crossing. They first need to respect and value human life.