Wednesday, September 18, 2013

What Rabaa has Come to Symbolize

‘The Rabaa symbol has come to symbolize peaceful resistance,’ someone once wrote me. These words could not have been further from the truth.

I’ve come to think what Rabaa has come to symbolized for me. It symbolizes Muslim Brotherhood supporters, it symbolizes everything I’m not. They are supporters whose voices were heard throughout the past two and a half years. Their voices, however, were not calling for democracy, justice or freedom but to condemn our stance against the military, support military trials, support injustices when carried out by the military or the Muslim Brotherhood.

It’s not that Rabaa wasn’t yet another brutal atrocity green lighted by the army and executed by the police. It’s the reaction of the supporters of the sit-in who once again chose to distort the truth. The trouble with Rabaa supporters is that they’re either lying to us or propagating lies they believe to be true.

The MB narrative is simple enough. Everyone conspired against Morsi from day one, and in the end the army moved to remove him. This narrative is straight forward enough for the simple minded but observing one of Morsi’s many authoritative actions is enough to dispel it. If Morsi did not control the police why did they target his opponents? If Morsi favoured justice, why did his own Minister of Justice lie to protect the police? If Morsi was a democrat, how did he manage to alienate the many voices that supported him before he became president?

It’s impossible to highlight all the lies in the Rabaa narrative. But maybe some examples relating to the events might help. Never mind mounting evidence of torture in the camps, there is the assumption there were no armed elements within the protest. Firearms were used in Rabaa and Nahda. To use a similar phrase to their dethroned leader, use of firearms and peaceful don’t mix.

There are many more omissions that make the narrative deceitful and dishonest. The Rabaa sit-in even started from before the ‘coup’ while Morsi was in power. It was started through orders from the Muslim Brotherhood leaders with no specific purpose except perhaps to counteract the mobilization for June 30.
The rallies were always pro Morsi, even from before he was deposed. It is a hard sell to say that it turned into pro democracy rallies, particularly with evidence to point that the change in rhetoric was prompted.
The rallies have always been sectarian, at times claiming there were Christians who joined their ranks, but simultaneously calling out ‘Islameya, Islameya’. The signs all turned from Arabic to English to cater to a western audience that was angered by Morsi’s ouster, yet the violent and sectarian messages in Arabic were lost in translation. There are far too many examples of facts that discredit the entire MB narrative, but in the end, it’s not the individual lies but the attitude of malicious distortion that the Rabaa icon has come to symbolize.
There is no attempt to vilify those supporting Rabaa or those who were present or those who died. Many were unarmed and did not deserve to die. Many were indeed kind people, who are likable in person. There is no reason why they should be villains to stand for something I’m against.
There is also no attempt to lump them into one homogeneous group. There are those who knew why they were there, some who didn’t. There were some who were there despite the hardships of the sit-in and those who were there because these hardships were better than their life back in their homes. There were some who knew there were weapons in the sit-in and many others who did not. There were some who knew the risks and some who did not.
Overall, people were there for different reasons and hence those that died, died for different reasons, not just the MB. Some died out of necessity of being there, some died for the MB, some died thinking they were protecting legitimacy and others died thinking they were protecting Islam. In the end, they were sacrificed by MB leadership and they were sacrificed by the army. In the end, the reasons they have died are not those I believe in, there’s no honour in dying that way because the reasons do not reflect my values.
They are people who have chosen loyalty to individuals or groups, with a pretence of values but no real commitment to them. That is the true symbol of Rabaa, loyalty to a group irrespective of the group’s moral actions. The Rabaa supporters were among those vocal enough to applaud for Morsi while threatening to use military trials. They were vocal enough to support the army part stripping a woman in Tahrir. They were vocal enough to support a constitution that cemented military trials against civilians. They were vocal enough to support a limiting protest law.
All the chants they’re chanting now, we’ve chanted before. All their stances against the military, we’ve taken before. But here’s the worse part, all the responses they’re hearing today objecting to their stances, they’ve said before. As we were chanting for bread, freedom and social justice they chanted, ‘Field Marshal [Tantawi], you’re the prince’ (Ya moshir, enta el amir) They have been the main actors providing political cover to injustice and oppression.
They were vocal when they were the oppressors but in favour of the oppressor not the oppressed. The only reason they are speaking up now is because the harm is befalling them. They were in a position to serve justice and yet they only see injustice when it is directed at them. That is what the Rabaa icon symbolizes, a myopic vision that will only speak against injustice when applied to them. The Rabaa icon symbolizes that it’s okay to target my enemies but not me.
So when I think about calling Rabaa a symbol of peaceful resistance, I’m perplexed. There was nothing peaceful about throwing your opponents off the roof, there was nothing peaceful about incitement to burn churches across governorates. It’s not called resistance if you welcome brutality when it happens to others and resist it when it happens to you.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The Different Flavors of Protests in Egypt

A father took his son to the zoo. On the way the young boy saw a giraffe, he asked his father if he could come closer. The father took the son closer and even had the zoo keeper give his son a carrot to feed the giraffe. The son was pleased. As they crossed the tiger’s cage the boy asked his father if he could do the same, but the father said no. The boy looked disappointed and asked his father why he could do that with the giraffes but not the tiger. The father responded kindly to his son and said, it may look like it’s the same, but there’s a difference. You need to look closely and you need to understand. 

Photo: Hossam el-Hamalawy
Context is everything. To understand where we are at the moment, we need to understand why people took to the street. It is also vital that we understand the differences between January 25, 2011, June 30, 2013 and protests in support of ousted president Mohamed Morsi. 

January 25 was motivated primarily in response to police brutality. Alongside the objection to brutal police practices, however, there was a desire for real change.  Chants for bread and freedom were an integral part of the protests, and the triumph of these demands would have served only the people. January 25 was unparalleled because people were fighting every state institution, including the police. They had no assurances for their safety and they were aware of the high risks of arrest, beatings and even death. 

In contrast June 30 was less risky. Big protests, as we've learned, are safer, and the police gave assurances they would not attack protesters. That said, the possibility of violence from the Morsi camp remained a risk. Morsi’s supporters are known to have attacked protesters and civilians, long before his removal on July 3. Beyond the support of the security forces, there is a fundamental difference between January 25 and June 30.  The June 30 protests were boisterous and calls were directed against Morsi and the Brotherhood. Chants for bread, freedom or human dignity were not prevalent in these protests. June 30 was effectively about rejecting what they perceived as a foreign element in Egypt’s body, irrespective of what would come next. 

While June 30 protests saw unprecedented numbers, this turnout was a direct result of January 25. January 25 activists paved the way, solidifying the idea that street protests could bring about change. These activists never left the streets and seldom stopped opposing the regime in whatever form it took, whether under the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) or the Muslim Brotherhood. 

The idea that June 30 is independent of January 25 is a myth propagated by many who did not support the January 25 uprising. In their efforts to abolish January 25 they have labeled June 30 a new revolution, rather than another wave of the revolution that started two and a half years ago. The support of state elements, including the army and police, was aimed to hijack a movement sparked by activists. 

The massive turn out to “protest against terrorism” on July 26 may have been in response to calls by General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, but the numbers could be more an indication of disdain for the Muslim Brotherhood rather than support for Sisi. If nothing else, it was certainly in support of Morsi’s removal. Sisi simply symbolizes a chance to save them from the threat of the Brotherhood. While the media has helped magnify these fears, there is, however, a real threat places like Alexandria,Bein El SarayatManial, Assiut, Sinai, Minya, and governorates across Egypt that have been attacked by Morsi supporters

As for Muslim Brotherhood protests, it is important to note that they are facing a state known for its brutality, but unlike January 25, there is a clear leadership asking a great many of them to take to the streets. The narrow demands call for a return to the old order: the reinstatement of the constitution, and the return of Morsi and the Shura council. Their chants were quickly transformed, as Islamist rhetoric was replaced with anti-SCAF, pro-legitimacy and even pro-democracy rhetoric. This development was, however, prompted from above, and is a fabricated imitation of anti-government protests over the past two years, during which the Brotherhood was noticeably absent. During watershed moments– the massacring of eighty in Port Said, the targeting of activists including Mohamed al-GuindyKristy and Jika, of journalists like Al Husseiny Abu Deif – the Brotherhood was busy creating political cover for SCAF or Ministry of Interior crimes.  

The Brotherhood now calls for the return of an autocrat, one who thanked the police and army for their service, all of which is in direct contradiction with their newly adopted pro-democracy rhetoric. The sincerity of Brotherhood protests is also questioned because of a clear support for autocratic measures set up during the one year of Brotherhood rule.  The Brotherhood advocated for a restrictive protest law, which they are now breaking, and also pushed for restrictions on media.

The final issue that must be addressed when looking at protests in Egypt is the question of violence. Pro-Morsi protests cannot all be described as peaceful. Some protesters randomly attacked neighborhoods in Cairo and Alexandria and twice attempted to storm Tahrir using firearms where another sit-in was being staged. When pro-Morsi sit-ins were forcefully dispersed, over fifty churches, andChristian homes and businesses attacked in retaliation. 

While violence has been witnessed in pre-July 3 protests, the violence primarily targeted state actors. Protesters were careful not to affect private property or the interests of ordinary citizens. The anti-military movement Kazeboon staged screenings in public squares of human rights violations perpetrated under SCAF and the Muslim Brotherhood, but were careful not to steal electricity, or damage private property. When met with strong resistance, protesters did not attempt to confront residents of an area. They did not ransack mosques or churches. When the Institute of Egypt caught fire during clashes between protesters and security forces in December 2011, protesters formed a human chain around the building after the fire was extinguished.  

Violence and polarization on the street has escalated to an extent which has hampered meaningful protests in support of ideas rather than entities. It is not possible to protest against state crimes without being associated with the Brotherhood, and it is no longer possible to protest against the Brotherhood now that they’re out of power without being associated with the army. The space created by the January 25 uprising is being reclaimed again by repressive forces that are fighting for power, rather than an enforcement of values. With Brotherhood protests dying down, and police empowered through anti-Brotherhood sentiments, we can expect the streets to remain relatively quiet for some time to come, until the perceived Brotherhood threat is averted. There will come a time when the unreformed state and the unfulfilled demands of bread, freedom and social justice will drive people to protest. For those who refuse supporting the false binaries of army or Brotherhood, now is a time to adopt ideas rather than entities or people for the next time protests kick off. But by that time, how much consensus is built over these ideas and how much of stronghold the security apparatus would have garnered will determine the nature of these protests.

Sunday, September 08, 2013

The Answer is Guindy

This article was first published on July 23, 2013 on Atlantic Council's Egypt Source blog.

Funeral of the two martyrs Mohammed El-Guindy and Amr Saad.

The most interesting aspect of the mundane debate over whether what happened between June 30 and July 3 was a coup or a revolution is the debate itself. Irrespective of the definitions of these words, the debate acknowledges two simple facts. Revolution is good, coup is bad. This is perhaps the one point all parties involved in the debate can agree upon, namely the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters, the military and the people against the Brotherhood. 

The army wants to avoid the term coup for international considerations and to reinforce its own legitimacy, while anti-Morsi protesters want to avoid it because it denies agency. The Brotherhood, on the other hand, uses it because it implies theft. 

Brotherhood apologists adhere to a list of talking points they believe demonstrate what happened in Egypt is the theft of power: Morsi is a democratically elected president, and therefore removing him was unconstitutional and illegitimate; a democratic government was overthrown; Mubarak-era figures, the media, Egypt’s Christians, Shi’ite Muslims, the United States, Iran, all bear responsibility for Morsi’s removal.  

While it is easy to pick apart each of these points, it adds little value to an endless debate. I do, however, have one answer to any doubts or questions, one answer that is worth sharing. That answer is Guindy

Mohamed al-Guindy was kidnapped by the police after appearing on a news channel denouncing the Ministry of Interior for its excessive use of force against anti-government protesters. He was taken to a Central Security Forces (CSF) camp and tortured to death by the police, in the alleged presence of Muslim Brotherhood members inside the camp, who helped torture other detainees.

Guindy was tortured, turning up later at a hospital where he spent a week on life support before succumbing to his injuries. According to the medics, he died of a brain haemorrhage. His ribs were broken, there were signs of electrocution on his body, and even his tongue was bruised from torture. 

The story doesn’t end here. Ahmed Mekky, then-minister of justice and a Brotherhood loyalist announced that the autopsy report showed his death was the result of a hit-and-run accident. His statements were made before an official report was issued. Later, Mekky confessed he only did so because the minister of interior told him to. The state attempted to cover up Guindy’s murder, his case resembling that of Khaled Said, whose death at the hands of Egyptian security forces is said to have ignited the Egyptian revolution.

Guindy’s death is not, however, an isolated incident. Jika, Kristy, Al Husseiny Abou-Deif, Amr Saad, Mohamed al Shafie, Omar the sweet potato seller and many more, were killed during Morsi’s rule.  Any hopes for security sector reform were forgotten, as the Brotherhood-led government cracked down on opposition, using police brutality to serve their agenda instead of delivering justice. Guindy is but one name, one face we know of, but Morsi’s state produced many Guindys.

The Brotherhood government tried to takeover relics of the Mubarak regime, and make these failed institutions their own. It seems odd that the Brotherhood were trying to resuscitate a system, which was not only responsible for their own repression, but had failed miserably enough to elicit a revolution. Morsi came to power with the promise of building democratic state institutions, which he failed to do.  Egypt never matured into a democracy with formal channels to prevent the power-grab of a dictator. 

Meanwhile the West is stuck in their moulds of democracy and ballot boxes, as they seem to have forgotten how they got there. They forget that a framework ensuring rights and democratic institutions must be in place before relying on the ballot box. A coup can bring about disastrous results; just as a revolution can bring religious fascism to power, as was the case in Iran; just as the ballot box can bring a Liberian warlord like Charles Taylor to power. The only questions that matter are: What state is Egypt in? How close is it to genuine democracy? And how do we bring it closer?

Democracy ensures that minorities are not oppressed. A democratic state does not witness verbal incitement against Shia’a citizens, in the presence of a president who does nothing to stop it. A democratic state does not witness this incitement escalate into the lynching of four people a few days later, and no one is brought to account. 

I agree with Morsi’s supporters that he should not have been removed on July 3. He should have been removed much earlier. He should have been removed with the first unpunished torture or death that was never properly investigated: Jika, Guindy, Kristy or any of the dozens that have been killed and the scores tortured.  He should have been removed with his first attempt at taking over state institutions instead of fixing them. He should have been removed with his first attempt at subverting democracy.

To all the questions about coup or revolution, do labels really matter? It’s an irrelevant question, because a revolution is more of a mind-set than a single isolated event. It’s like asking whether a car is metal or plastic. There’s only one revolution, and within it are changes of government, people, alliances, but most of all a change in power dynamics and the way of life. 

I don’t know what the right questions are. I don’t know how democracy should be built or how state institutions can be fixed. I don’t know what we really need or how to put the right people in the right place. I only know that the right answer is Guindy. I know that the only tears worth shedding are over those killed brutally for no reason, not Morsi or his proclaimed legitimacy. As long as citizens are targeted and killed and their killers continue to rule, we should exert every effort to bring about justice or remove them. Perhaps this revolution will truly succeed when we have no more Guindys to answer questions with.

Sunday, September 01, 2013

The Revenge of the Police State

Originally published in Jadaliyya on 17 Aug 2013

[14 August 2013, security officer firing tear gas on protesters as they attempt to escape the attacks by the security apparatus. Image originally posted to Flicker by tarek1991]
[14 August 2013, security officer firing tear gas on protesters as they attempt to escape the attacks by the security apparatus. Image originally posted to Flicker by tarek1991]
While the ongoing violence in Egypt has contributed to a state of confusion and polarization, one thing is certain: The biggest threat facing Egypt remains the return of the police state. More specifically, the threat concerns, not only the reconstitution of a police state, which never really left since Hosni Mubarak’s ouster, but also the return of the implicit, if not overt, acceptance of the repressive practices of the coercive apparatus. In this respect, the current face-off between the state and the Muslim Brotherhood holds very damaging potential. Widespread anti- Muslim Brotherhood sentiment is currently providing the state with legitimacy to use of force against the Brotherhood, and, in the future, a potential cover for using similar tactics against other dissidents as well.
There is a problem with the way security forces have violently dispersed the pro-Mohamed Morsi sit-ins, even with claims that both Nahda and Rabea sit-ins were armed. Regardless of whether or not one agrees with the Muslim Brotherhood or with the objectives of the sit-ins, the murdering of over five hundred people goes against any sense of human decency and morality. The armed protesters’ reported use of unarmed individuals as human shields is equally despicable and reprehensible. Beyond the serious moral considerations at hand, other problems persist.
The forced dispersal of Rabaa and Nahda marks a triumph of security solutions over political ones—a trend that characterized much of the Mubarak era. Security solutions rarely solve a problem without the support of a political course of action, which seems to be missing in our current context. There is no question that the Muslim Brotherhood leaders have a long history of poor negotiating behavior, showing extreme stubbornness, and failing to uphold their end of the bargain on many occasions, in power and in opposition. But this is exactly why dealing with them demands a politically savvy approach, instead of reliance on security solutions, which will only reinforce the Brotherhood’s rigidity, not to mention the heavy human costs associated with such measures.
Instead, the military and its sponsored government chose a confrontational, security path. This path will only further empower the coercive apparatus without guaranteeing any results, in terms of political stability and social peace. As extremist groups are pushed into hiding, the security leaders will find excuses to employ intrusive surveillance measures, interrogate, torture, and abuse, all with zero transparency and accountability. Supporters of the crackdown among those who oppose the Brotherhood will gladly accept. Reinforcing this trend is the fact that the crackdown has apparently empowered radicalized elements among the supporters of the deposed president.
Some may say that the increasing influence of the security sector will only be limited to “counter-terrorism” and extremist Islamist groups that espouse violence. There are clear signs that this would not be the case. For example, immediately prior to the crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood sit-ins, retired generals took control of governerships in an overwhelming majority of provinces. For many, this was a clear signal that the state has opted to “securitize” governance, and political files.
Additionally, those who believe that security sector will not overstep its boundaries clearly overlook the long history of the Egyptian state’s meddling in political and private affairs in the name of counter-terrorism and national security. Given that rich history, we could safely conclude that today domestic intelligence agencies are quickly gaining a blank check to meddle in our affairs for the sake of national security. Soon Egyptians will be asked to support their government in whatever decisions it takes on the grounds that the government is at the frontlines of the fight against “violent Islamists.” Political dissidents of all orientations will be vulnerable to the accusation of being soft on “terrorism” or supportive of “radical Islamists.” Will anyone care in the confusing state of insecurity?
Egypt, in other words, is on a dangerous path. There are many reasons to believe that police forces will employ their brutal practices at Mubarak era rates. The policing establishment itself has not changed in any way, never reformed, and never held to account for its past crimes. Minister of Interior Mohamed Ibrahim has even signaled that such a return is imminent, pledging, “Security will be restored to this nation as if it was before January 25, and more."
Tacit supporters of the security state will respond that there was no other way, that there was no room for negotiating with the Brotherhood, and that the forcible dispersal of the sit-ins was necessary.
Such a response, however, overlooks the major limitations of the security solution to the underlying problem, namely that calling on the police—unreformed and lacking the proper training—to resolve the standoff between the Brotherhood and the government is like asking a butcher to do a heart surgeon’s job. Additionally, one could counter and ask: Was it necessary for the police to target unarmed civilians carrying cameras? Was it necessary for security forces to shoot at unarmed crowds? Was it necessary for the police to leave unprotected all the churches that suffered attacks in the aftermath of the sit-ins’ dispersal?
But setting aside analyses of what the police could have done differently, it remains that the recent violence has only deepened people’s reliance on the security state and will exempt politicians from devising solutions to political differences. With the increase in social conflict, particularly along sectarian lines, security services will once again regain their traditional role as an arbiter of these conflicts, as well as their license to employ abusive, repressive tactics. This sustained sense of insecurity will only steer Egypt away from real justice. With the empowerment of the security sector, there will be no reason or motivation to push for revolutionary demands for real reforms inside the policing establishment. It is also likely that the escalation in violence and the pro-security rhetoric that the state has been touting will make it difficult for political dissidents, who are equally opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood and the military, to employ street action.
In some ways, the MB’s confrontational approach, wittingly or not, is handing back the coercive apparatus its license to kill and repress with impunity, but so are all those who are cheering on the security forces’ crackdown against the Brotherhood. Many such voices have criticized Mohamed ElBaradie for resigning his post as vice president in the wake of the recent violence. But in reality there is no role for a politician in a state that is poised to pick a security solution in dealing with every pressing challenge.
As we confront the question of whether or not Egypt will witness the “return” of the police of the Mubarak era, a number of critical questions arise, such as: Is there any revolutionary fervor left to resist this route? Or have revolutionary commitments been drained through all the blood and the failed attempts at establishing a democratic political order?
Whether or not a new wave of revolutionary mobilization will emerge to push back against the growing power of the security state is an open question. But it is clear that the persistence of the confrontation between the state and the Muslim Brotherhood will only deepen the securitization of politics by reinforcing demands for security solutions. What it will take to reverse the return of the police state, which revolutionary activists have worked hard to resist, is uncertain. One could argue that the brutal injustices that the police are bent on committing will always make resistance structurally inevitable. But that suggests that reviving resistance will come at a high price, one that Khalid Said, Jika, Mohamed al-Guindy, and many others have paid.