Monday, July 23, 2012

Nasser: Tyrant by Popular Demand

In memory of a coup that gave unjust individuals dominion over an entire nation.

Those not well versed in the real history of our nation may view Gamal Abdel Nasser as a charming and sincere leader who had a few flaws but was nevertheless trying his best to make Egypt a better nation, trying to endow it with pride and dignity. In a nutshell, Nasser's great achievements can be summarized as the nationalization of the Suez Canal, the building of the high dam and the spreading of notions of social equality and Pan-Arabism. His short comings were allowing his buddies to take over the country, nationalization, expulsion of foreigners, huge military failures, a culture of fear, a police state, torture and dictatorship. This is the sugar coated version provided by his apologists. However, the most prevalent view of Nasser is founded upon propaganda rather than facts. The real history seems to be filled with details contrary to popular myth.

One of the most sordid decisions by Nasser was placing Naguib under house arrest for the greater part of his life. Naguib was rumored to have been a passive figure-head that took charge first till Nasser was known. It is common myth that he was chosen for his rank and had no real part in the military coup of 23rd July of 1952. This was something Nasser wanted to propagate so that the isolation of Naguib could be less painstaking to the people's conscience. But it was in fact Naguib who warned the other officers that the coup should take place earlier than their planned date of 5th of August for fear of arrests.

Naguib did not believe that Egypt should continue under military rule without parliamentary life and wanted Egypt to return to civil rule and to become a democracy. Testimonies about Naguib prove him to be a decent man and perhaps that’s why he was to endure a horrible fate. Not even the biggest advocates of Nasser can justify why he treated Naguib horribly, not in a manner that doesn't make Nasser seem evil anyway.

Nasser Apologists
There are numerous explanations that justify the reign of evil under this charismatic leader's rule, they're just logically deficient. One explanation is that Egypt needed this sort of rule at the time. Egypt had always had a political life with some form of democracy. Nasser was responsible for stealthily depriving Egyptians of that for a long time to come. At the hands of Nasser, those who called for democracy met an unfortunate fate. It was not just Naguib but also Nasser's fellow 'free officer' and friend Khaled Mohi El Din who was exiled. There were many others who were eliminated one way or another for challenging the dictatorial rule of the revolutionary council controlled by Nasser.

An implausible explanation which excused Nasser from the atrocious regime we inherited is that he wasn't running the country at all, or wasn't aware of how it was run or that those around him tricked him. But even if it were true, that would make Nasser incompetent yet still accountable. Nasser, however, was a born tactician according to Khaled Mohi El Din, and was aware of everything that went on around him. Nasser personally spied on and listened in on those around him, those he feared, those he was envious of and those he mistrusted. It's true that later on he claimed that the country was ruled by a criminal gang, but he created that gang, and he was at its root and its leader. Nasser knew what he was doing but simply didn't care.

Nasser's Dream
In all likelihood Nasser's dreams were not related to acquiring wealth; he left theft to his gang. His dream was to be in the forefront, shining, glamorous and in the lead. This was evident from the start, from before there was a coup.

According to Naguib, in 1948, Nasser was reported to have been hiding away in his bunker during an important battle in Iraq al-Manshiyya, (a Palestinian town that used to be located 32km northeast of Gaza City). Later when pictures were being taken, he moved forward amidst commanding officers who outranked him displaying from early on his desire for attention. He moved back with his fellow officers when Naguib rebuked him.

Nasser was also accused of staging his own assassination attempt in order to shine. The event took place in Alexandria in Mansheya when a member of Ikhwan (Muslim Brotherhood) appeared to have tried to shoot him but failed. This may have been staged since he came out unhurt even though he was shot at close range.

This event had a two fold effect, it vilified the Ikhwan and gave Nasser an excuse to eliminate them (even though he had been one of them) and put him under the spot light. It is only after he began to shine that he managed to carry out his plans of forcing out Naguib.

So what's wrong with ambition and desire to lead? Nothing, except that we have to ask ourselves two questions: What means can one use to get there? And what do you do when you get there? Nasser failed on both counts.

According to Khaled Mohi El Din, Nasser paid 4000 L.E to orchestrate protests against democracy. Even before gaining power on January the 8th, 1952, Nasser along with three other officers were involved in an assassination attempt on General Hussein Serry Amer (an officer loyal to the king). After the failed attempt Nasser suffered psychologically.

According to Psychiatrist Mostafa Hussein, "Narcissistic individuals are highly ambitious, have a sense of entitlement (they think they are special) and grandiose. This makes them desire higher positions. They are arrogant and envious of other people and have very low tolerance for criticism. They also have limited empathy."

Does this not fit Nasser perfectly? He got to power through deceit attempting to satisfy his and other officers' greed at whatever cost without empathy for the masses he ruled or those who opposed him.

People have thought Nasser to be a socialist on account of his political leanings and orations. But such a position was only taken when US support became impossible and Egypt had to turn to the Russians.

In his book Memories of a Revolution, Khaled Mohi El Din tells us of an incident showing us a classist Nasser:

As we walked down the stairs after leaving Ahmad Fuad's apartment, Gamal Abd al Nasser, who was still under the spell of that mysterious and well versed person asked, "Who is that Comrade Badr?" … "I mean what did he do before he became secretary general?"

I simply said, "A mechanic."
"Mechanic!" exclaimed Nasser. "This means that you could become a member of this party and receive your orders from a mechanic!"
The idea of the mechanic stuck in Nasser's mind, and he would often bring it up. Sometimes he would be contemptuous of it and sometimes he would denounce it, even after the revolution. At a meeting at the Revolutionary Command Council he once pointed at me and said, "His leader is a mechanic!"

Nasser's humble beginnings did not enable him to serve the people, on the contrary, it instilled envy within him. Jamal Hammad, one of the Free Officers and author of the revolution's first proclamation, tells us that in an argument with university professors about the democracy, Nasser is quoted to have said, "I don't care about the people I care about the military."

The Fate of the Free
Nasser's Free Officers Movement wasn’t entirely his either; many of the officers were based on a pre-existing group formed by the Muslim brotherhood. The Free Officers were filtered out after gaining power, unfortunately for us it was the wrong filter. Officers who were paramount to the success of the revolution like Mohamed Naguib, Khaled Mohi El Din, Abdel Latif El Baghdady and Yousef Sideeq were displeased by dictatorship and cruelty, and in effect each was sidelined in one way or another. Only the wicked and power-hungry stayed on temporarily till they were eliminated by Nasser. Despite no causalities in the coup, bloodshed was inevitable; they paneled a few death sentences, tortured a few innocents, and fabricated a few charges.

In exchange for glory and power, Nasser gave his friends authority to plunder, torture and control. They amassed great wealth and destroyed many people along the way in the name of nationalization. A prominent example of corrupt power was his close friend and fellow 'free officer' Abdel Hakim Amer who was promoted from Major to General in 1953, skipping four ranks, and made commander and chief of the entire military.

Naguib, Nasser and the Free Officers

Premeditated Defeat
If all this isn't enough to prove that a tyrannical sordid Nasser did exist, perhaps the intricacies of the '67 defeat could offer some insight. Our loss in '67 was almost premeditated by Nasser. He was informed of the attack date of June 5th after having done everything possible to provoke Israeli aggression. Moreover, he asked the military commanders to sustain Israel's first strike; our planes were arranged for Israelis to destroy. We did not even fire defense missiles at the planes that attacked us either because Nasser ordered his troops to stand down or because Amer was in the air at the time.

Speculations as to why we suffered this defeat have circulated. The most noteworthy of which interprets this premeditated defeat as a means for Nasser to gain control exerted by Amer over the army and the country. Nasser's compatriots had become too strong for him to handle and he sacrificed numerous lives to reassert control. Irrespective of how close to reality these speculations are, the fact is that Egypt's army was crushed in what is known as the six day war and much of the blame for needless deaths lie with Nasser.

Big Brother
Egypt in the 1950s started the journey of becoming an Orwellian 1984 with Big Brother watching. This big brother like the one in the novel did not want money, just power. In fact this big brother left little behind in terms of wealth, but managed to leave a fake legacy; a falsification of truth for generations to consume and a country in utter chaos.

Nationalization was a bully's way of giving legitimacy to stealing; the people never gained from it. Equality and respect were corrupted. According to witnesses of the age, the actions taken by Nasser ensured a general deterioration in people's mannerisms. Confidence in the spoken word broke down completely. A clear example of this is when people spoke to stock brokers over the phone asking them to buy shares, the following day, people would find the companies nationalized and would not pay the broker. (Another example was when Nasser nullified bank notes of 50 and 100 LE in one day).  Hence grew mistrust in this and all other fields.

Equality and respect became confused, through Nasser, respect was given only to those who had the power to hurt, and people started to disrespect one another and called it equality.  Today, all that remains is the mutated Animal Farm commandment, "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others."

Nasser remains loved despite all his ugly deeds and unstable psyche of control and power. Those who love him are moved by his charisma and the notion of what he could have become. Today I talk about Nasser's history disapprovingly, but I have the luxury of never having seen him, never having felt what he meant to people at the time nor heard his moving voice. I have the luxury of burrowing through books and memoirs after the facts have surfaced.

The falsified history they teach us makes him a very appealing man. Even some of those he imprisoned and tortured cannot but love him. His charm was undoubtedly exceptional and I have never been able to debate it or doubt it. I cannot blame those who love Nasser, he gave hope, was a leader and managed to control the country and those around him. Those who are fans of complete control should not but love him. I suppose he knew what Egyptians really wanted and managed to give it to them: a tyrant by popular demand.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Retelling Abbasiya- The Most Brutal Military Crackdown Since the Cabinet Attacks

This story was supposed to be published a week or so after the Abbaseya events. Presidential elections that ensued drowned interest in this story and many of the details are lost in disparate news pieces. However, those arrested in the Abbasiya events are still in prison facing military trials, their stories locked up with them. This is an attempt to tell their story. The injustices they continue to face is reason enough to keep telling it. It also does not appear that their situation will change anytime soon, with President Mohamed Morsi echoing the military's rhetoric of labeling them 'thugs' and their release causing chaos. The committee formed does not indicate we're any closer to justice.

Protester during Abbasiya events on Friday
Photo by Mosa'ab El Shami 

What started out as a march of predominantly Salafi protesters at the end of April, ended in the random arrest and torture of numerous Egyptians of all ages protesting military rule

The violent events that took place in Abbasiya district in Cairo were largely misreported in Egyptian media and were subject to controversy. This is an attempt to reconstruct the story prompted by the numerous details that were missed and the overshadowing events of presidential elections.

On the night of Friday, 27 April, a group of Salafi protesters, predominantly Hazem Salah Abu-Ismail supporters started marching to the Ministry of Defence (MOD). They were protesting the disqualification of Abu-Ismail as a presidential candidate. They were also protesting Article 28 of the March 2011 Constitutional Declaration which gives immunity to decisions made by the Supreme Presidential Electoral Commission (SPEC). The resulting sit-in was joined the next day by members of several pro-revolution groups.

The leadup
On the night of Saturday, 28 April, the sit-in was attacked by assailants in civilian clothes using Molotov cocktails and cement bricks. Gunfire was also reported by witnesses. Around 138 protesters were injured and at least one was killed. In response, the number of protesters grew to around 2000, in order to protect the sit-in. Clashes ended Sunday morning. By Monday 30 April, six suspects were to face military trials.

Another major attack ensued on Wednesday, 2 May. The attack was yet again conducted by plain-clothed assailants in civilian clothes and armed with a diverse array of weaponry including shotguns, automatic weapons and tear gas. Residents of Abbasiya district marched to the area's police station to call on the authorities to intervene and end the clashes but authorities refused to respond. At least 11 died and dozens were injured, according to the Ministry of Interior, with numbers reported higher among eyewitnesses.

Friday brutality
On Friday, 4 May, thousands marched on Abbasiya to protest military rule and the continued use of force through hired thugs and plain clothed police personnel. Earlier warnings by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) not to protest near Ministry of Defence were ignored. Protesters were attacked, this time by the military aided by assailants in civilian clothes in the most brutal attack by the military on civilians since the cabinet events in December.

According to Tom Dale, reporting for Egypt Independent, the army initially snatched three demonstrators, and that is when the clashes broke out. Egypt's military police started firing water cannons on protesters at 3:30pm Friday, after which the army started chasing protesters away and the brutality began.

Ahmed Abdel Monem, a project manager in a large systems integrator firm, describes some of the brutality: “There were people in civilian clothes armed with weapons who asked us to put our hands over our heads and then proceeded hitting us all, including elderly men and women.”

Witnesses indicate that the army’s attack was planned and implemented with the intent and brutality of a war battle. The protesters were chased from in front of the MOD along Al Khalifa Al Ma’moun street all the way back till they split up. Some fled towards Salah Salem Street, others to Lotfy El Sayed Street in the direction of Ramsis and the Demerdash metro station and others through the Abbasiya neighbourhood.

Map showing how protesters dispersed after military charge
Raphael Thelen, a German reporter, recalls his experience. “This was the scariest day of my life,” said Thelen. “There were 10 minutes where I didn’t know if I would make it out of there alive or not.”

Those who ran from the charge of the soldiers on Al Khalifa Al Ma’moun street and headed to the Abbasiya neighbourhood thinking it would be safer despite warnings by other protesters. This was not the case.

Thelen explains: “Protesters were dispersed by military police in the street leading up to the MOD with tear gas and I heard gunshots being fired. We went to the road that leads to Ramsis Street but there were army tanks that blocked us. We were caught in the middle. We tried to escape to the Abbasiya neighbourhood but the people there were ready for us holding up knives and guns and some of those ahead of us were pelted with empty glass bottles from the first storey.”

Thelen managed to escape the violence inside the Abbasiya neighbourhood when some women in the area gave him and his company shelter. He was later led  by a one of the residents of the neighbourhood through alleyways and stopped a taxi. As they escaped the scene through on Lotfi El Sayed, Thelen saw the protesters who chose trying to escape by going to the metro station.

“As we pulled away in the Taxi, we saw the military police on the overhead pass that pelting the protesters with rocks,” said Thelen.

Helena Hägglund, a Swedish reporter, was one of those forced to the metro platform. “The APCs came against the normal flow of traffic, from the direction of downtown moving toward MOD. We were far from where the fighting started, on the street next to the metro. They fired at protesters and forced them down a narrow staircase leading up to the metro. Someone pressed my head down to the stairs as they were firing, and the guy behind me got shot by rubber bullet. As we were pushed in that small pathway, my hand was stuck behind my back as crowds were crushing one another, one man rubbed his penis up my hand and because my hand was stuck I couldn’t pull it away. Even in such situations, these things happen."

When we got into the station the rocks came flying. The military were pelting us with rocks from the outside. After a while the military pelted the platform from the other side too. People got angry cause trains didn't stop; screaming. Then someone told us to run because there was a train stopping. I later learned that it was a man who stopped that train. We got on and escaped,” says Hägglund.

Simon Hanna, a journalist working for Reuters and Ahram Online, confirms that the military police chased protesters to the metro station of Demerdash, pelting the platform and the train with rocks. He was on board one of the trains that was pelted with rocks by military personnel.

Demerdash Metro station attacked by military police
Some 296 protesters were injured and a total of 326 protesters and bystanders were arrested, including 15 women, lawyers and journalists. No deaths were officially reported, but eyewitnesses testimony casts doubt on the official statement..

Farah Heshmat, 32, was at the scene with residents of Abbasiya and saw what appeared to be someone being murdered.

Farah says: “I saw some young people coming from the Demerdash overpass. One of them was wearing army pants and boots but with a t-shirt on top. They were dragging a man who was bald and were hitting him aggressively. When they were five meters from me one of them struck the man with a senga (a machete) to the front of his neck, and another from the back. There was so much blood and he dropped motionless. People celebrated, and then said the army and the people are one hand. I was so horrified but had to smile and pretend to celebrate so that they didn’t suspect I wasn't one of them. I still see this man when I close my eyes. All I saw of him was his bloody beard.”

Farah is engaged to Mahmoud Amin, who was amongst the first to be injured in the January 25 Revolution in 2011 losing one of his eyes. He was among those arrested in the Abbasiya events and has not been released, despite being in need of medical attention.

According to Alaa Farouk, a lawyer with the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), “We do not have a complete list of those arrested. The military police did not disclose the full list, despite being asked to do so by rights lawyers. The injured were taken from military hospitals to military prosecution directly without informing lawyers.”

The partial list disclosed to lawyers indicated random arrests including seven who had mental disabilities, and one with an amputated leg. Also many Ain Shams University students were arrested who had legitimate reason for being in the vicinity of the clashes.

Testimony collected by activists indicates that women were abused verbally and physically, humiliated and threatened. One of the women arrested was a minor and was released the same day. The rest of the women were released the next day.

Continued mistreatment
The next day, 5 May, 11 people protesting the military arrests at Abbasiya were arrested outside the military court. Those arrested were charged with approaching military areas and various other charges.

Ahmed Sabry, 30, is an engineer who was arrested in front of the military court. He recently set up a company making highly ranked mobile applications and is a former employee of Microsoft and IBM. Furthermore, he was part of a team of programmers that created Egypt’s first 3D game.

“I arrived there late and we heard that three or four had been arrested earlier,” Sabry explains. “A formation of military police started chasing after us even though we were on the main street not the side street that has the entrance. I was beaten by the soldiers and at one point there were almost five of them hitting me on the head with their sticks. All my injuries are to my head, but my hands were hurt as well because I was protecting my head. I was taken inside and all soldiers were hitting me along the way.”

“After the official investigation, there was a non-official one. This was really aggressive, at the very end he took a photo of me and said I should learn his face because I will see him again.”

Sabry - who has been released but whose case has not been dismissed - describes some of the many horrors faced by the prisoners. “When we went to prison, they cut everyone’s hair. Everyone had head injuries. Some 45 people were kept in a three by nine metre cell. Some people slept and some people had no space to even sit. We experienced physical and verbal abuse. They didn’t even care for the wounded.”

Farah, distraught over the abuse faced by her fiancé in military prison, called this reporter back to make sure her fiancé’s story gets out. “They hit him on his good eye intentionally. He wasn’t released even though he had brain surgery earlier and was scheduled to perform more crucial surgeries,” she said.

A Human Rights Watch report condemned the military’s involvement in the mistreatment of protesters through beatings and torture. The Human Rights Watch report stated, “The brutal beating of both men and women protesters shows that military officers have no sense of limits on what they can do.”

Sabry confirms the mistreatment and describes further how the military police would use plastic to tie prisoners’ hands and then use a lighter to melt the plastic when they wanted to set them free causing deep burns in the process.

Sabry thinks it may have been personal due to false information being spread about the protesters. “Inside there were a lot of insults, hitting on the back of the neck and verbal abuse and all soldiers were prejudiced against us. They were being told that Israel was about to attack and that we were infiltrators causing instability. They also told us they hadn’t slept for 48 hours because of us. It makes it personal,” says Sabry.

Being locked in prisons randomly, prisoners were unable to vote. Farah says: “Mahmoud Amin was hurt not being able to cast his vote. He sacrificed his eye and his life and he was deprived of this right. There is insistence on keeping him locked in. The people who arrested him were people in civilian clothes. His health is deteriorating. He is unable to walk long distances. Why are they doing this? Maybe for the next president to free the prisoners, will we always be political victims. He has 17 shrapnels in his skull.”

Ahmed Shafiq, a presidential candidate at the time, remarked in a televised interview that the Abbasiya events were a small preview of how the military would deal with anyone opposing his presidency if he is democratically elected.

Those arrested continue to face military trials and activists showing solidarity are subject to military prosecution. Under President Morsi, Mohamed Gahrib was sentenced to three years by the Suez military for expressing solidarity with the Abbasiya detainees. Others have also been sentenced to six months.