SCAF’s puppet show

Al-Masry al-Youm, whose English edition was recently pulled off newsstands for running expert Robert Springborg’s column apparently suggesting that SCAF members might pull a coup-within-a-coup and dump Tantawy [UPDATE: you can now read the editors' candid and serious editorial laying out the whole story here; the post-self-censorship version of Springborg's column is here], yesterday tried in vain to keep a straight face while describing the Cabinet that Kamal Ganzoury finially swore in:

Major General Ahmed Anis, former head of the Morale Affairs Department of the armed forces was sworn in as the new minister of information. News reports criticized the choice, saying it was another move by the SCAF to maintain control of the media.

In announcing the new cabinet, government officials referred to it as a “national salvation government,” a term originally used to describe the transitional civilian government proposed by pro-democracy activists and political figures seeking to bring an end to military rule. The idea of a civilian transitional government was put forward during the violent clashes in and around Tahrir Square in late November, and would most likely have been headed by Mohamed ElBaradei and included former Muslim Brotherhood figure Abdel Moneim Abouel Fotouh. Had it been formed, the national salvation government would have taken on the executive powers currently held by the military council.
However, the military rejected the proposal, instead accepting the resignation of Prime Minister Essam Sharaf, and the replacing him with Ganzouri. In forming his new cabinet, Ganzouri has adopted the term “national salvation government,” while ElBaradei and many pro-democracy figure continue to demand the end of military rule.

And best of all:

After being sworn in, the new cabinet was instructed by Tantawi to push for democracy in order to achieve a free society, according to official government sources.

Some clever Youtuber is already on the case:

It’s like a kind of torture/ to have to watch this show.

Voting in Zamalek

People in the women’s line at a school in Zamalek had been waiting up to five hours, since 7:30 am, when I arrived.  They seemed happy about the process; the weather was beautiful; things were relatively well organized; some clever people had even brought folding chairs and/or sandwiches. It was unclear how the would-be voters stretched for six blocks along July 26 street, then around the corner and another several blocks on the parallel street, would all get in before the 7pm closing time.  But when I passed by later the line had shortened a lot, and anyway the polls are open tomorrow as well.

The polling place itself was secured by the same type of army guys I’d seen at Maspero last week (olive uniforms, helmets, etc), but all the security and organization I saw outside was taken care of by the young men (and I saw one woman) of the Popular Committees, the (mostly) unarmed neighborhood watch groups spontaneously organized when police were withdrawn from the streets in late January.  They wore no uniforms – in some cases not even a laminated nametag – but people respected them and followed their instructions.  As in: “I’m sorry, ma’am, this line is only for those who are over 60 or pregnant. You’ll have to go down that way, around the corner, second left.”  And the person would immediately go.

Amid the underlying uncertainty over what exactly this Parliament will do, one feels odd playing a role in this scene, running around with a Nikon and taking the sort of photographs that play into the usual narrative, so familiar to newspaper readers and so often leading to disappointment. Not only Iraq (try Googling “purple finger elections”), but even the best cases (like South Africa: who can forget the images of people lining up to vote in the first post-apartheid election in 1996?).  Yet there they are by the hundreds and thousands, lined up and smiling, calling friends and relatives to discuss whom to vote for. The elderly woman emerging from the polling station with her face aglow.  Who can resist?  [Note: having trouble with slow Internet right now, but will try to upload photos in a few hours.  I didnt get the glowing face by the way; didn't dare interrupt. But Al-Masry Al-Youm and tons of other photogs were on the scene.]

Bottom line is that at least today there’s a free choice, even if its ultimate impact will soon be canceled by gridlock, bickering, continuing dictatorship and dispossession.  At least none of the candidates on the election posters is wearing sunglasses.  A year ago, instead of all those faces of folks who have decided to run for Parliament (some of them quite ordinary people), the banners and posters would have some variation of “Yes, Mubarak!”  Not a lot to be excited about, but people are doing their best.

Election day

Going out now just to look around a bit.  An employee at the Dutch Institute Library in Zamalek says her family in the Hussein neighborhood (their voting place is the Wikalat El Ghoury, where the whirling dervishes perform) are reporting a lot of crowding at the polls, especially in the women’s line. She finds this a very good sign but jokes (it’s 10am here): “The men are still sleeping!”  There is a 500-pound fine (nearly $100 dollars, or 80% of the monthly salary of a low-level state bureaucrat) for not voting, so the turnout may be higher than the political situation would otherwise warrant.  It seems that people considering a boycott have decided against it – a smart move, I believe.  It is impossible to tell right now how high or low the stakes might be.

You can read pieces in the Times etc and live coverage in a few places (notably at The Arabist and Al-Masry Al-Youm.  Meanwhile, here are a few misc photos of the election campaign posters.  Note that each candidate and party has a “symbol” on the ballot, presumably for less-literate voters (though with hundreds of individual candidates plus party lists to choose from (and some are listed as “farmers” or “workers” to fill those quotas) even the more literate could use some help. Some of the symbols are funny. Heliopolis candidate (polisci professor and well-publicized partner of a film star) Amr Hamzawy has an engagement ring. Others I’ve seen: screwdriver; fishing rod; suitcase (seems like a bad message to send, no?), CD, sports car, hoe, oversized apple. A blonde candidate with a charming sunflower got her Zamalek posters defaced by someone who scribbled “filuul” (old regime remnant) all over them.  So it goes.  Of the posters we’ve seen, only Gamila Ismail’s lack the little symbol; presumably she is not courting illiterate voters.

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What went wrong?

Last February, SCAF held all the cards. The military was the only state institution to survive the “revolution” with its credibility intact, even enhanced. The people and the army were one hand. SCAF’s actual powers, freed from the pretense of a civilian government to answer to, grew and multiplied.

What the hell happened? The fight that the police and then the military picked with a handful of wounded Jan-Feb protesters asking for compensation last Saturday Nov 19th, on the eve of overhyped but important-for-show elections, showed an oddly weak and defensive SCAF. The scenes of the past week — flying rocks and heroic motorbike ambulances in front of the American University gate, clouds of poison gas all over downtown (and blowing into Garden City and as far as Mohandiseen), the army and the police acting as “one hand” against a diverse and incredibly brave group of protesters — all these things were eminently avoidable.  Everything about the Revolution’s second wave (link=Ahdaf Soueif’s eyewitness account) showed how much credibility SCAF had lost; every wave of gas lost it some more.

Was the military (SCAF) unable to control/restrain the police (Ministry of Interior)?  Or did it order the brutality? Either way, the response looks reptilian: not calculated violence but the last stand of a cornered lizard. Even the people going about their lives elsewhere in the city who say they don’t want an immediate end to military rule (“This time I am not with the square”) can find nothing good to say about SCAF, except that they really can’t imagine an alternative, they want “stability,” or they want elections to go forward on schedule. When pushed on what kind of stability they’ve actually seen in the past nine months of SCAF rule or what how much power (the word on everyone’s lips is صلاحيات) the elected parliament would actually have, nearly everyone I’ve talked to immediately folds.

Yet despite the sarcasm of commentators on yesterday’s pro-SCAF counter-demo in the neighborhood of Abassiya  (my friend Mohamed Shoair, hilariously, on Facebook: “Breaking News: Abassiyya Leaders Relocate Their Million-Man Demonstration to a Friend’s Apartment”) these were citizens, not rent-a-crowds.  Such remnants of support just underline how many Egyptian people wanted to trust and believe SCAF after Feb 11.  Had the generals played their cards right over the spring and summer, they could have negotiated everything they wanted: a peaceful wealthy retirement, immunity from prosecution, probably continuing behind-the-scenes control over the economy (at least through the ends of their own lifetimes), and of course the people’s lasting gratitude as the saviors of the Egyptian Revolution.  Instead there was a series of weird policy leaps (into bed with the Brotherhood, then briefly out, then apparently in again with the run-up to the elections that only the Brotherhood has persisted in supporting) and various high-handed edicts and “constitutional” or “meta-constitutional” declarations. And then Maspero. And then the poison gas. Okay, SCAF has 30-plus members and God knows how many advisors and I’m sure they’re not unanimous (why haven’t we seen any resignations??) but… no matter what their internal dynamics, the net idiocy is impossible to comprehend.

Yesterday, as we were headed out for a nearly-all-Egyptian dinner party to celebrate Thanksgiving (!), Al-Jazeera Mubasher was showing an estimated 1.5 million people in Tahrir, shouting الشعب يريد إسقاط المشير – the people/ want/ the downfall of the field marshal.  A few mins earlier it was showing prime-minister-appoint Kamal Ganzouri’s press conference, declaring that he would have “full powers” (under SCAF) to form his government (on which he offered no details) and pursue his policies (ditto).  Images of Tahrir alternated and interwove with the ongoing full-scale massacre in Syria: no longer so distinct.

On Friday my son’s swimming instructor at the Shooting Club showed me (from inside the pool) his scars from flying rocks and a rubber bullet; the lifeguards all left immediately after work to head to Tahrir; so, for that matter, did some of the professors hosting my lectures and some of the dinner guests at Thanksgiving.

This morning’s newspapers took various spins on the two demonstrations yesterday (photos soon). Al-Masry Al-Youm claimed the nation was “torn.” Al-Gumhuriyya showed scenes of both demos framed to look as though they were of similar size, under the misleading headline “One prayer, one nation.”  Brotherhood’s new daily Hurriyya Wa 3adala (Freedom and Justice, same as their political party) led with the rather disingenuous headline “48 Hours Until the Start of Transfer of Power to the People” (because Elections Are the Answer) and declared on Page 1 that the health ministry had found the first two Tahrir casualties to have died from “homemade firearms” (i.e., thugs killing each other, not the army or police).

And now? Even refreshing Twitter and all the newspaper sites every second (my husband and kids would like Mommy back – sorry dears!), it’s impossible to keep up with the news. Protesters in Tahrir have declared an alternative government headed by El Baradei and two other respected presidential candidates. The Salafi Nour party apparently refuses to accept this government. Other revolutionary parties do too. But most groups (including a splinter group of young Muslim Brothers, very promising) also seem to be refusing to accept Ganzouri.  Will these groups boycott elections (this would be unwise and is unlikely)? Or, more interestingly, try to get them postponed?  Or (one rumor I’ve heard) personally man the polling stations to assure voters’ safety?  This morning the activists sat in outside the Cabinet building to prevent Ganzouri from taking his seat; Central Security Forces ran over one protester with a military vehicle; he died of a broken pelvis.  Another martyr’s mother led a march and sang a highly resonant song about (check out the layers of self-reference) a martyred protester who tells his own mother not to be upset, because he gave his life for Egypt…

The protesters pick up their rocks, the mothers embrace their roles.  The martyrology comes around full circle and eats its own tail. The art to commemorate the revolution feeds smoothly into feeding its next wave.  How many waves will it take, people?

More on the tear gas

Alex Tylecote kindly shared this surreal bit of research on the Cairo Scholars (CS) listserv.

There has been a lot of discussion about the use of tear gas against the protesters and on its legality according to international treaties and further, the signing of a petition against its use.
I looked carefully at the Paris Convention and at previous conventions. The 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC) banned CR gas for use in military operations, but the use of the gas in internal matters is not prohibited.

On the issue of CS gas, the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention (which Egypt was not actually a signatory to) prohibited the use of the gas for use during military operations, but again not for domestic use, and thus whether Egypt was a signatory to the treaty is irrelevant in this case.

I hope this clears up a few issues for everybody.

So apparently it is not prohibited for use on unarmed civilians, though it is illegal for use on enemies in combat?! That will make for an interesting war crimes trial if it ever happens.

As you can imagine this sparked much discussion on the listserv, with various human rights conventions being cited etc.  It seems a matter of simple logic though.  Plus, the stuff is being used in inhuman amounts. You can get a mouthful of it – enough to make your eyes and throat burn – just driving slowly on the 6 Oct bridge behind the Egyptian Museum, like a kilometer from Mohamed Mahmoud Street.  (Unbelievable to see people going about their daily business under the flyover: filling microbuses with passengers! Selling vegetables!!)  People in Garden City (where I haven’t been) have reported gas reaching their apartments. Here in Dokki, miles from everything, there is a weird heavy haze that could be normal pollution… or not… at this distance it is hard to separate sensation from apprehension.

For details on the gas and more you can read Amnesty International’s report on the SCAF and Ministry of Interior abuses.  The Arabist’s summary of the gas issue, which says basically what I said but with more details and personal experience, is here.

How did Gamila Ismail get my phone number?

Just got a text message from Gamila Ismail, parliamentary candidate from the downtown district and ex-wife of Ghad Party founder Ayman Nour. “We made a revolution, and we deserve happiness,” the text says: the same charming slogan that appears on her glamorous election posters all over Wast al-Balad.  Here’s one from Abdin Square:

Her son Nour recently said she  had frozen her campaign to protest the detention of Alaa Abdel Fattah, but apparently it’s still going.  How did she get my number? Why does she think SMSing Vodaphone users in other neighborhoods (we’re in Dokki) is an efficient way to target voters in Downtown? Amazing lady, anyway (it’s a profile of three women; scroll down past the inevitable Nawal Saadawi).
Overall it’s been a quiet few days of Eid here. Nothing much happening except a lot less traffic than usual, and a lot more electioneering – in two days I’ve received three separate pamphlets from the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (one of them is interesting – will try to get time to translate), and that’s aside from the little flags for kids, subsidized meat distribution, etc., undertaken in religious venues.  Other candidates have been showing up at prayers to electioneer; Al-Masry Al-Youm called it the “Eid of Elections.”
Have trouble keeping the 3000 parliamentary candidates straight? Bikyamasr has a helpful summary of the different major parties and their platforms.  Must be hell to maintain, as they keep realigning themselves in various coalitions, alliances, groupings, etc.

One relatively trivial example: Does the FJP really still oppose beach tourism, in contrast to Essam El-Erian’s implicit support for it in this rare 1988 audio recording (after the khutba – go to about 46 mins in), from a meeting with constituents in Bulaq when he was just a junior parliamentarian?  (“We need to develop our tourist sector. Even Tunisia has more tourists per year than Egypt, and they don’t have antiquities!”)

Vigil at al-Fann Midan (Nov 5)

The Fann Midan on the eve of the Eid, and the first one since the Maspero events, had a political cast (short video overview here). The early crowd was young and motivated (though many families etc. drifted in later for the screening of Youssef Chahine’s film The Return of the Prodigal Son – which was also lovely to see).
Early in the evening, a vigil for activist Mina Danial and others slain at Maspero; a lot of people were wearing “No to Military Trials for Civilians” and “No to Emergency Law” stickers. (Today I saw one of these pasted on the back of the Talaat Harb statue in his square downtown; looked good there.)

Mina’s name spelled out in candles.





This group’s first song was about Mina Danial and others like him, martyrs of the post-18-Days violence. They explicitly compared the 25-year-old Danial to Che Guevara, whom (as Thanassis Cambanis has pointed out) he resembled.
A later song – sorry for the poor quality recording, but you should be able to find more from the evening (including the performance by Iskandarella) on YouTube – insisted on national unity, with quotes about and from the Gospels and Quran, and this utterly persuasive chorus: “We all are one, and our Lord is one, and Love is one.”

The situation is urgent, the sentiment noble. But I think by calling for “unity” – be it wihda or tawhid – these pro-rule-of-law activists are embracing a slippery meme. Not just because they leave out all non-monotheists, all non-believers of any kind. There problem is that other political factions – whether sporting beards or bayonets – will always outdo them at the unity game. There has been too much of the “one hand” business already. My instinct – and probably the instinct of some of these activists as well? – would be to get liberty and equality first, then work on fraternity. Unfortunately it won’t happen that way. In today’s Egypt, would any kind of call to diversity – as an antidote to potential nascent fascism – even fly?

Does dividing and ruling Egypt need an outside conspiracy?

Descending into Cairo International Airport at 4am you enter the diaphanous layer of orange smog over the city: disgusting, weirdly exciting. Then coming out of the metro tunnel (still not having slept in like 3 days) you pass the sidewalk newsstand and are greeted by this somewhat offputting picture:

Welcome home.
The bleeding xenophobic nastiness is the cover of this month’s October magazine, announcing the cover story on “The Maspero Fitna [sectarian strife] and the Plot to Divide Egypt.” I bought for the issue to see what it was all about, then had trouble figuring out where in the house to place it so it wouldn’t catch me by surprise and gross me out to see the Nile flowing out of Uncle Sam’s shirt cuff; this isn’t something you want on your coffee table.  The whole issue seems to be about justifying and glorifying Egypt’s armed forces in the wake of the Maspero massacre: not only the cover story, on which more in a minute, but also some smaller pieces. One columnist lamented that 6 October was simply treated as a convenient day off, whereas it should be held sacred as the commemoration of “the greatest Arab military victory in modern times” (pretty sad).  Another columnist suggested that in the atmosphere of insecurity and uncertainty now gripping Egypt, it is necessary for the people and the army to “renew their faith in one another” (!) and become closer than ever.

Now to the cover story. I noticed ten years ago – and it is still largely true though maybe a bit less so – that in Cairo there is always one meme per day making the rounds, the same phrase repeated by everyone from the doorman to the college president; then the next day the whole country gets a secret memo with the new meme of the day. After Maspero it was “foreign hands” inciting sectarian violence because they “don’t want the country to be stable.”

So riding around in various taxis ten days ago, I had heard fragments of this “foreign hands” theory. One man believed it was chiefly Israel planting provocateurs among the Christian demonstrators in order to destroy the country and take it over, because “I know Copts – some of my best friends are Copts – and Copts are basically cowards – they wouldn’t want violence.”  Another man thought the Maspero massacre was done by Salafis paid by Gulf powers like Saudi Arabia, “to reduce the country to chaos to show their own people that a revolution doesn’t lead to anything good.” (That’s actually a pretty good one.)  Whatever the particular agent, I wondered where people got the idea of blaming someone else for what clearly seemed to be a state-perpetrated massacre of civilians and an episode of sectarian street violence incited by the state-run media (see Bassam Youssef’s scalpel-sharp Jon Stewart-style piece on the incitement).

Now, reading the magazine, I discovered where they got it: from the state-run media!  October is a state-run magazine that costs less than 40 cents.  Even if you don’t buy it, you see the headline on the sidewalk.

The cover story is by retired general Hossam Sowilam, whose complex theory proposes a variety of conspirators.  Of course Israel and the United States, but also Iran, Qatar (it hosts al-Jazeera), and perhaps some Palestinian groups, among others, who knows.  Why would these diverse enemies want to create a chaos-paralyzed or divided Egypt? Each has its reason, but the basic idea is to take it over, or destabilize/disempower it in order to “pursue the Broader Middle East Strategy outlined by George W. Bush.”  Colonial grand strategy is unproblematically applied to the contemporary United States, disregarding the very great price (in money and credibility) that the U.S. has paid precisely not to split up Egypt but to maintain stability and the appearance of unity in its government.  Egypt’s armed forces are the only positive character in the piece.  My favorite part is where he invokes the Crusades to ask who liberated Jerusalem and answers himself (anachronism, what anachronism?): the Egyptian Army!  Led of course by Saladin, or Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi. You can read the whole incoherent rambling theory (in Arabic), or look at Thanassis Cambanis’ recent Atlantic post on his interview with the same guy.

Sense-making is not the point here; the buckshot approach allows a reader or viewer to choose one strand of the theory; the whole need not cohere.  Sense-making was also not the point of SCAF’s fuck-you press conference one week ago, in which the generals deployed the abusive-spouse defense (“I didn’t hit her, and anyway she started it”) not so much to clear the cloud of fear Maspero created as to exploit it. As if to say, hey, we hold the monopoly on legitimate and illegitimate force, so we don’t actually need to make sense.  We are in power; we can kill demonstrators on Sunday and brazenly lie about it on Wednesday.  For a lot of people outside the Twittersphere, this strategy actually worked; many ordinary people sided with the army and against the demonstrators.  (“What were the Copts raising so much trouble about, anyway? We have never had a problem with them here. We’ve always treated them very nicely.”)

I almost thought that press conference was the end of it, the door slamming shut for good, but fortunately the reaction to Maspero continues. On TV right now,  journalists Mona Shazly and Ibrahim Eissa are grilling two SCAF generals, not only about Maspero but about basic questions of Egypt’s government, in a special three-hour (so far) talk show co-hosted by two independent TV stations.  The generals are patronizing and again make no sense, oscillating between hectoring and damage control (“They did not respect the proper rules and procedures of demonstrations. The soldiers were scared, they wanted to avoid becoming casualties like their comrades. Any country’s military in our position would have reacted the way we did”); the journalists are being polite (Mona, the same TV host who interviewed Wael Ghonim in the midst of the revolution last Feb, has this affect as though it made her really, really sad to tell SCAF to their faces they are doing a terrible job running the country). But at least the conversation (or missed opportunity for conversation, since they are pretty much talking past each other) is happening publicly.  They are even taking questions from the public via Facebook and Twitter etc.

There have been some good ones from the journalists: does SCAF really plan to hand over power? Does it want Egypt’s cabinet to be weak and dependent? Doesn’t SCAF realize that it is a political power now with a political role, so it needs to think like a politician and not just react like an army? Aren’t they wrong to pretend “all’s for the best in the best of all possible worlds” (ليس بالامكان ابدع مما كان) in Egypt’s security apparatus?  Who knows if this interview will really lead anyone to recommit to the revolution project.  But in a state where the military apparatus has appropriated the voice of God (in a few different ways) in the past 60 years and especially the past 9 months, at least people are still making the gestures of trying to see past the generals’ cynical theodicy.

“And all the barriers broke down”

How totally lame is it that even Sean Penn made it to yesterday’s protest in Tahrir, and I didn’t? What was I doing, exactly? Staying home while my toddler took a nap? Nursing an intense (and intensely undeserved) sense of bitterness about this whole “revolution” thing?

On Thursday morning I visited my son’s primary school. The Irish-born teacher put on a somewhat surreal little impromptu concert for me; the kids sang along to a YouTube recording of post-revolution triumph songs and then a few Muzak Christmas carols (she saw no tension here).  Part of her civilizing mission, I guess: teach her little charges to stand up straight, sing out loud, snap their fingers and sway to the beat, etc. “It gives them confidence,” she declared, happy to have me as a captive audience. It was sweet to hear this motley crew – the teacher announced their countries as they took solos: kids from Indonesia, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Palestine, and one newly arrived from Poland, plus my son –  sing  “Bladi, Bladi” (which means “My country, my country,” contrary to how it might sound to Russian speakers!), a song dedicated to the fallen heroes of the revolution.  But it was downright moving, as in almost made me cry (granted I had pulled an all-nighter to meet an article deadline, on which more later, so was probably feeling more emotional than usual), to hear them sing a song released shortly after Mubarak fell, its lyrics based on posters carried by triumphant demonstrators in Tahrir: “I went down [to protest] and said I’m not going back. And all the barriers broke down.”

Because the thing is, this may be a cheap shot, but they are going back, and the barriers are coming back fast.  Many Egyptians are starting to feel – as in this clever sign that Walter Armbrust photographed yesterday and posted to Facebook – that the revolution is being strangled in its crib.

A salutary rejoinder to the gloom was Steve Negus’ recent piece arguing that the revolution has made subtle but crucial gains that have (in his cautious phrase) “so far survived the counter-revolution.” It isn’t all or nothing.  And much has changed.  Maybe some barriers have broken down inside Egyptians themselves, maybe the political landscape has opened up a bit (though not at the top), and slowly, slowly, there can be an improvement of the political situation?

If the government hasn’t changed, at least the surface of the society (all I get to see, unfortunately) has gotten more interesting. Tomorrow we meet our “fuSHa (literary Arabic) conversation” teacher to talk about the possibility of “coexistence”  تعايش between people of different beliefs and cultures in Egypt, taking as an example the Costa Salafis سلفيو كوستا  and an astute (but decidedly non-fuSHa) film they produced, “Where is my Ear?” So, at least we get to spend our morning basking in the basic civility of Egyptian society. These guys are hilarious!