Saturday, March 24, 2012

Germany's Goethe Institute in Egypt Censors Articles Critical of Ruling Military Council

Goethe-Institut web journal in Cairo taken offline February amid suspicions that security and not quality was the deciding factor; Ahram Online investigates, looking at similar cases and German-Egyptian relations. Source: Ahram Online

A web journal run by the Goethe-Institut in Cairo was taken down late February. Before taking all the posts offline at least two articles related to Egypt’s military were censored for “security reasons” and all posts related to Egypt had been withheld from publishing.

Funded by Germany's Foreign Office, Goethe is a non-profit German cultural association that operates around the world to promote the study of the German language abroad and cultural exchange.

The web journal, Transit, was established a year ago with the theme “The Changing Arab World” and is published in three languages, English, German and Arabic, with contributing authors from 10 different countries.

Daniel Roters, a contributor to Transit, wrote an open letter to the editorial staff asking why the web journal’s posts were taken offline without the team being notified.

Christoph Sanders, another contributor, also wrote a letter asking for an explanation and addressed it to Dr Günther Hasenkamp, Goethe’s Middle East and North Africa cultural programme director.
Numerous other contributors have written letters to Hasenkamp and director Gabriele Becker, who were responsible for the decision.

The official message on the website stated that “Transit is receiving a new design, a new technical backbone and a new conception.”

Goethe’s director Becker told Ahram Online, “We want to sort the posts in a new way. Nobody finds their way through.”

Roters does not believe this explanation for the removal of the articles, stating in his letter that “it is not necessary at all because technically changes are always possible without hiding any posts.”

“Even if you take it offline, you should tell everybody who had contributed and give them the reasons. It is a very authoritarian way of censorship,” says Julia Tieke, a contributor to Transit, whose piece about a military officer was also not allowed to run.

Mariam Bakry, a digital marketing consultant agrees with Roters and told Ahram Online, “Technically, there’s no reason to delete older blog posts. Blogs become popular when a strong relationship is built between the blogger and the readers, and one doesn’t simply remove the old content. It harms this relationship, harms the blog’s ranking at search engines, and messes with all the link-backs that people used from said blog.”

Security concerns
In late January all contributions from or about Egypt were suspended from Transit. Becker denied that any articles were censored for reasons other than their quality, but emails obtained by Ahram Online show that Goethe refused the publication of at least two articles for security reasons.
The first article by Magdy Samaan entitled 'Who are the True 'Fulul 'of Post-Revolution Egypt?' argues that the military are the true remnants or fulul of the Mubarak regime.  

The article was approved by the editorial team and on 6 February Samaan received an email saying “it is now being read by our director, for final OK.” In an email dated 8 February, Samaan received the following response, “I am sorry to bring bad news, but for security reasons our director has decided not to publish your article just now.”

Another article by Julia Tieke, written in January, was not published. The article, 'Trust me, I'm an Officer' describes an encounter Tieke had with a military officer, who expressed his love for Germans on account of Hitler.

The response given to Tieke by email many weeks later admitted that there were internal issues with regard to the role of the web journal project as part of a foreign institution. “The director does not want the Egyptian employees of the institute to be exposed to any risk, in light of the NGO [non-governmental organisation] arrests in Cairo a few weeks ago.”
Becker admits that Goethe is concerned after German NGO Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung (KAS) was raided as part of the Egyptian regime’s crackdown on NGOs.

“We know that we are also watched,” Becker told Ahram Online. Becker said that she knew because the German Embassy was “signalled” and that it was communicated to her earlier in January.
Becker is concerned not to further aggravate the regime. “We will continue to do our work but not provoke,” she said.

Pressure on Goethe
The issue is not specific to Transit web journal; there were also incidents relating to KAS, Tahrir Lounge and the German University in Cairo (GUC) which suggest that there may be more widespread pressure on German institutions in Egypt.

Early in January, Tweet Nadwa, a debate forum founded and organised by Egyptian blogger and activist Alaa Abdel-Fattah, was set to take place in Tahrir Lounge on 4 January but was cancelled at the last minute. Tahrir Lounge is a space that uses the Goethe premises but is administratively independent.

Two informed sources, speaking on condition of anonymity independently confirmed to Ahram Online that the German ambassador applied pressure on Tahrir Lounge to cancel Tweet Nadwa.  
Mona Shahein, Tahrir Lounge Project Manager, denied this to Ahram Online saying, “On that day we had a technical problem.”

KAS may have been targeted in the NGO raids because of their work in relation to security forces. It brought Herbert Ziehm to Egypt to advise activists and other civil society actors about dismantling Egyptian State Security.

Ziehm, who works for the federal commission that oversees old documents belonging to Stasi, East Germany’s now-dismantled secret police, travelled to Cairo twice: once after the storming of Egyptian State Security buildings in March 2011 and then in June.

Meanwhile, two students at the GUC were expelled, three banned from classes, and an assistant professor's constract terminated for their political activities. The confrontation with university management came after a demonstration to commemorate GUC student Karim Kouzam who was killed at the 1 February Port Said football tragedy, in which more than 70 people were killed.
Thousands of German University in Cairo (GUC) students demonstrated Wednesday against a decision to permanently expel the two students and ban three others from classes for their political activities. 

Hundreds of students – including a number from the Modern Sciences and Arts (MSA) University, the British University in Egypt (BUE), the American University in Cairo (AUC) and the Saint Fatima School – are currently staging a sit-in at the GUC campus to register their opposition to the move. 

Oliver Schlumberger, Middle East and Comparative Politics Professor at the University of Tübingen, suggested that these visits may have been enough to upset State Security and with the help of Mubarak-era international cooperation minister Fayza Abul-Naga they may have tried to enact revenge. If this is indeed the case, that this revenge may have extended to other German civil society institutions.

The other explanation for the removal of articles is that the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) is using its power to crackdown on civil society. The articles removed for security reasons both spoke about military officers.

“In one month I had three Nadwas cancelled each at different venues,” Alaa Abdel-Fattah told Ahram Online. “So, personally, I am convinced SCAF is behind the cancellations.”

German Interests in Egypt
“We don’t necessarily need to see huge dollar values moving back and forth between German companies and businesses controlled by the Egyptian military in order to believe that the interests of these German companies can dictate Berlin’s foreign policy,” says Shana Marshall, a PhD Candidate in International Relations and Comparative Politics at the University of Maryland. Marshall’s focus is the political economy of the Middle East and she has written recently about Egypt's military-industrial complex.

In 2010, bilateral trade between Egypt and Germany reached 3.9 billion euros making Germany Egypt’s third largest trading partner. There is also expansive collaboration between the two countries in the field of water management and renewable energy.

Germany and Egypt have a history of trade and dealings, some of which have sparked controversy such as the bribes received by General Abdel Hamid Wasfi, former director of a firm affiliated to the Arab Industrialisation Organisation (AIO) two years ago. In 2008, the contract to supply license plates to Egypt was controversially awarded to the German company Utsch without competitive bidding.

Many of Egypt's largest projects are handled by German companies.

"The German Company Fraport AG operates Egypt’s largest airport (Cairo Airport), which is also the hub for EgyptAir, where executive and upper-level management positions have been increasingly reserved for retiring military officials as a sort of unofficial pension programme, ” explains Marshall.

Ferrometalco, a German-owned subsidiary, has been awarded the order for complete erection works of the steel making plant of Abu Zaabal Steel Mill. SAFE ID Solutions was selected by the Egyptian government to supply the machine readable passport solution adopted by Egypt in 2007. Technology from German company Siemens is used to produce smart cards for a joint venture between the Egyptian military and Kuwait’s Kharafi Group called Maxalto.

“The current system of executive compensation in place in Europe, the US and elsewhere has produced business leaders focused almost solely on quarterly earnings reports and very short-term profits,” Marshall said. “If German companies like Siemens, Ferrometalco, Bassell, and Diamler-Benz can portray their short-term corporate interests as synonymous with the interests of German society as a whole, then they’re likely to get political support for the foreign policies that benefit them.”
The question remains whether these economic interests are important enough for German institutions to violate democratic principles.

A protest against taking Transit web journal offline is planned outside Goethe on Wednesday under the name #OccupyGICairo. Ebitihal Shedid, Transit’s editor-in-chief, has submitted her resignation.

According to Becker, Transit will be up again by April.

German press follow ups on the story:

Sunday, March 18, 2012

RIP Pope Shenouda III

Pope Shenouda III of Alexandria died on 17 March 2012. One thing is for sure, this is a sad day for Copts in Egypt and all around the world. Pope Shenouda was a popular figure even outside the Coptic circles for numerous reasons not least of which his witty sense of humor. On top of that, he was a great poet and a well-educated man.

I was prompted to write in response to the onslaught of attacks against the Pope. Numerous 'activists' commenting either on Twitter or on Facebook have been slandering the Pope based on his political stances. The main problem with comments condemning the Pope other than being insensitive, which they are, is that they reflect a great deal of ignorance. It is disappointing to see some people narrow minded enough to react to Pope Shenouda III only from a political perspective. It reflects a very shallow outlook on what his passing means.

It would be a mistake to think that Coptic criticisms of Pope Shenouda III meant resentment or dislike. Pope Shenouda was not a controversial figure among Copts, he was a revered and respected leader that garnered much love. In his role as the head of the church, there was great satisfaction and little desire to change him. The criticisms regarding some of his actions meant to bring his attention in order to correct his course rather than a complete rejection of his person and his ideas.

There are several surprising facets about attacks on the Pope on the day of his death. The complete disregard for what death means to Egyptians particularly for a revered figure in the Coptic community is one. The attackers have not taken emotions or grief into account and have only examined Pope Shenouda from a very narrow perspective. The entirety of his human life was examined from the perspective of the revolution.

In justifying their attacks, some have pointed out that other sinister figures like Tantawi and Mubarak have mass followings who will be upset. To bundle up Pope Shenouda with those names seems like a very inaccurate assessment void of analysis and full of emotion. He certainly collaborated with them and did not oppose them, but one overlooks that his role was not meant to be political and should never have been. Instead of criticizing his decision to play an active role in politics, activists are criticizing the political views themselves.

Unlike Mubarak and Tantawi, Pope Shenouda was never charged with running the country. Unlike Mubarak and Tantawi, the Pope did not have blood on his hands, did not order the killing of people, and did not directly block justice. His role was that of a spiritual leader and one must not ignore that main role and focus on a role he forced himself into needlessly. His main duties were to his Church and not to the entire country. He may have done well in one role and not so well in another. In his role as a church leader, Shenouda was loved and insightful. His interpretations and his ideas were full of moderation and preached love.

Pope Shenouda's political views left much to be desired and criticism was due but we should not leap from one extreme to another. One incidental aspect of a person is not enough to exalt or vilify a person, just like ignorant or shallow comments about the topic of the Coptic Pope Shenouda III will not exalt or vilify those who said them.

Update: I felt I must include this moving piece by Joe Fahim as an example of appreciating Pope Shenouda as a kind and gracious person.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

The Hope of Being Understood

I'm not as thick skinned as I appear. I mock displays of sensitivity but not sensitivity itself. I hurt inside all the time and the rest of what I do is about hiding it. I think about what I must do to be perceived as normal.

Melancholic Javier Bardem
I hide everything because I never gained much by revealing anything. People tell you that talking about it can be beneficial but that hasn't been the case for me. It's beneficial for them so that they can counteract your sentiments that may be directed against them, not to empathize and understand. I've always been hurt when I reveal myself.

My hidden thoughts and pain simmering within me serve me well. Out in the open they're criticized and rebuked which causes me more pain. At least when they're inside there's hope that they would be understood if I just spoke up to the right person at the right time.

So I hide those feelings to seem strong. I'm not. I'm just resilient. I bend so as not to break and try to regain form. I'm insistent on my position but not unhinged. I insist on making people's lives better by keeping my irrational sensitivity aside.

I've tried to keep things inside in the past, but I wasn't always good at carrying out that decision. My feelings oozed out at times and burst at others. The results weren't pleasant. I got the worst of both worlds. I wasn't understood and I lost the hope of being understood. I've told myself to keep it all in no matter what and now I'm better at it. I'm better at putting on a show. It's always taken time to heal. I become the face that I pretend to be.

Displays of weakness are only appealing in a movie as the sad music plays in the background. It also helps when you're a charismatic actor who's loved even before you embody a role. When you see George Clooney or Brad Pitt crying, you don't feel sorry for them, you empathize because you know they are cool and will rebound. Because you value them, you also consider what they're feeling more seriously and less critically.

In real life it's pathetic. There's no close up, no camera zoom. Your weakness is an inconvenience in the real plot. In reality your face and each line that reflects your emotion isn't magnified. The light doesn't hit your face in a way that reflects your mood. There's no music to fill the silence surrounding your sobs and whimpers, in reality all you have are the people around trying to fill that empty silence with meaningless talk.