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On Egypt

I used to write a lot about Egypt, and the rest of the Middle East. I used to write regularly about the politics of the region on this blog; at my most productive, I would update it daily. When I moved to Egypt, I expected that this would at least continue as before, if not increase. Yet I found the reverse was true. I wrote less and less, and now have all but stopped completely. The longer I spent in Egypt, the less I found I knew about it, understood about it; the less I found, in fact, that I could express anything about it at all. This is, perhaps, how every thoughtful person feels (or at least should feel) when studying anything, and I don’t necessarily view it as a regression, though it has certainly made me less productive: in writing, even in discussion, my tendency has been to say less and less about Egypt, rather than more and more.

Perhaps this is a starting point (and I do not claim this as an original idea, merely one which has been forcefully brought home to me by my experiences in Egypt) for an ethics of writing which acknowledges uncertainty, even valorises it. Perhaps. We demand experts, and buy into expertise. This is not in itself a bad value system, even if it allows people to build careers on vacuous generalisations; I am certainly not making a case for the anti-intellectual politics seen increasingly (although probably not exclusively, and here I am perhaps making one of those self-same vacuous generalisations) on the American right-wing. Indeed, a lot of what is wrong with writing about the Middle East, if I am not coming perilously close to sounding sure of myself here, is over-simplification: easy, lazy polarisations, Sunni/Shia, Muslim/Christian, Islamist/secular, and so on. It is always refreshing to read or listen to someone who knows a little more, who can tease out the intricacies of these relationships, even just hinting at something beyond the antagonistic binaries which dominate the discourse. And this gets to the heart of it: anyone who knows a little bit more will, paradoxically, face a harder task in explaining Egypt, or Lebanon, or Syria, or wherever else, because they will (or at least should) reject the reductionism which pervades so many ‘explanations’. What is needed is an ethics of writing which does not devalorise knowledge but rather acknowledges its limitations. This is a hard task, and one which I could not live up to; in the face of so much uncertainty, so much complexity, all the tangles and knots of a real country in which I was now, finally, living, I simply gave up; a decision which I view as showing either integrity or laziness, depending on my mood.

There was, however, more to it than that. I also stopped writing about Egypt because of two events: the Maspero massacre in October, and the protests on Mohamed Mahmoud St in November. Both confronted me with an inexpressibility which defied my attempts to say anything about either of them. I was not at Maspero; a number of my friends and colleagues were. In the days that followed I watched videos, looked at pictures, and read testimonies. Several times, I tried to write something about it, and each time I backed off; it seemed so redundant, even arrogant, to write anything at all. Maspero brought a kind of affective inexpressibility. If you had seen the images, then you would know, or rather feel, what I could be (but was not) writing about; even more so, had you actually been there. If you had not seen them, then you would not know, and I did not see how anything I could write could capture that horror in a useful way – in short, I did not see the value in me writing anything at all. All I could talk about with any authority were my own feelings, which have never been particularly interesting things, despite the fact that I am currently consecrating an entire essay to them. I ended up translating Maspero witness statements from Arabic into English for a website documenting the massacre. This felt like something useful. And I realise, now, that I am making a distinction in validity between forms of representation which are mimetic, attempting to reproduce reality – the pictures, the witness statements, my translations of said witness statements – and those which attempt to interpret or comment on reality, i.e. any piece I could have written on Maspero. This is not a value judgement that I regularly make, or one that I am ideologically certain about; looking at it from this critical distance, I am surprised at its superficiality and naivete; so why the instinctive differentiation when confronted with Maspero?

Honestly, I am not sure. This is from an essay by Nathan Bracher on Charlotte Delbo, whose Auschwitz et apres is among the most famous testimonies to come out of the Holocaust:

Certes, il importe de ne point sous-estimer les difficultés qui se posent à tout écrivain qui ose aborder l’Holocauste. D’abord, on se trouve devant le défi qui consiste à faire dire au langage, ce commun dénominateur social, une expérience sans commune mesure et sans précédent. Aussi faut-il, pour rendre compte d’une horreur dépassant l’imagination, trouver les moyens textuels adéquats. Et l’écrivain doit, enfin, éviter que la violence ne se banalise, puisque, en effet, comme le constate Delbo elle-même, une fois écrit, ‘ça devient une histoire’.1

  • Nathan Bracher, Histoire, ironie, et imagination chez Charlotte Delbo, 1994

It is this last point of Bracher’s (or, more properly speaking, Delbo’s) which resonates the most with me: ‘once written, it becomes a story’. What, then, to do, in the face of this défi? Bracher warns against the ‘l’excès inverse qui consiste à souligner les lacunes du langage au point de dénier toute valeur descriptive aux diverse écritures de l’Holocauste’ (‘the inverse excess which consists of emphasising the lacunae of language to the point of denying all descriptive value of the diverse body of Holocaust writing’), and of course I agree with him. Indeed, I am not trying to denigrate the numerous excellent pieces of writing about Maspero, either ‘describing’ or ‘explaining’ it (and the more I think about it, the more it becomes obvious that the distinction between describing and explaining is a false one, and my earlier value judgement between the two becomes even more invalid). Rather, I was faced with a personal ethical tangle, which revolved around the fear that ‘ça devient une histoire’ , and which was compounded by not having been there; some might even argue that it was further compounded by my not being Egyptian, although I personally think that argument holds little water. Once again, I backed off; or rather, I took refuge in translation, that ‘straightforward’, ‘mimetic’ process of saying in one language what has already been said in another; a simplicity to it, a purity – of course problematic, a subject for another time, but at that point it felt like the right thing to do.

There is a story I tell, when people ask me about ‘the revolution’, about protests, about street violence. It’s a funny story; it gets laughs. The story goes like this. During the Mohamed Mahmoud protests of November, I went to give blood at Kasr el-Aini hospital. Everything went smoothly, but I came out of the hospital feeling a little dizzy from the blood loss; it was dark, and I was trying to find a cab, and I stumbled into a tree, the sharp leaf of a palm tree, to be precise, which cut me over the eye. The cut was not deep, but it bled a lot; I got into a cab and as we drove up Kasr el-Aini I began to feel blood running down the left side of my face. I got back to my office and my colleagues were shocked; they immediately assumed I had been attacked by a xenophobic mob. I went to a pharmacy, where I was bandaged up rather excessively, the dressing covering my entire left eye; walking back home through Tahrir Square that evening, I got a lot of attention, some suspicious, some openly congratulating me. The joke is, of course, that I sustained this injury walking into a tree; in the midst of violent clashes between protestors and security forces, my own clumsiness was what got to me; a fraudulent hero, walking through Tahrir with an eyepatch as protestors were having their eyes shot out. (Put that way, the story isn’t so funny, but I guess it’s the way you tell them.)

Mohamed Mahmoud presented a new inexpressibility, which Maspero had not; how to convey being somewhere. I was at Mohamed Mahmoud. I went nowhere near the epicentre of the violence, but I was nevertheless drawn into the events in three different ways: firstly, by virtue of the fact that my apartment was a few blocks from the ‘action’, so to speak, and so just by moving around the city I was necessarily entangled in the back and forth of street battles, safe zones, barricades, and so forth; secondly, out of voyeurism or a desire to ‘bear witness’, however you want to construe it, I went to the square a number of times to ‘have a look’; and thirdly, through the organisation I was working for at the time, I became involved in the supply networks bringing medicines, drinks, and food to the field hospitals set up in Tahrir Square and around. The memories of that period are incredibly vivid, like any time in your life when adrenaline is running high and you are seeing things you have not seen before. When the street lights were turned out in Bab el-Luq, and the only lights were the fires burning on the pavement, by which you could see the tear gas drifting in clouds through the air, and the men with masks and sticks standing on street corners. Waking up in my old apartment on Nubar Street and listening to the tear gas guns going off, and climbing up onto the roof to see the white puffs shining in the morning sunlight. Delivering medicines at three in the morning to the field hospital in the middle of the square, and handing them over to a tall Salafi-looking doctor, who thanked me politely before turning back to the patient convulsing on a blanket next to him.

None of that captures what it was like to be there. And I hope this will not be confused with romanticising the experience, because it was at once less ‘exciting’ and more ‘exciting’ than the previous paragraph’s descriptions manage to convey. Certainly, walking through streets lit by garbage fires while street battles raged around me was ‘exciting’, but not really in a sense that I can hope to describe; I could call the fires eerie, say that the tear gas looked like ectoplasm, like ghostly shapes drifting through the air, talk about how my heart beat faster every time I drew near one of those groups of men, hoping they were revolutionaries rather than baltageya, but that wouldn’t get to it, and that would be so much dubious ‘literarisation’ of the whole affair. Conversely, of course it was less ‘exciting’ than all of that; people were dying, and I wasn’t ever sure I was doing the right thing, and a lot of the time I was just sitting in my apartment following the events on Twitter, and a lot of the time I was just doing my Arabic homework or making dinner or watching TV on the internet. ‘Exciting’ isn’t even the right word; I’m using it as a stand-in for something else, perhaps ‘a high level of sensory intensity’; ‘exciting’ puts it in the paradigm of narrative, of anecdote, of storytelling, which feels inappropriate, even insulting, when all of those people were killed and others suffered so much. Yet anecdote is the easiest way to deal with it. So when people ask me about it, I tell that anecdote, about walking into the tree and cutting my eye, and people thinking I was a revolutionary, and it gets a laugh, and then I leave it there.

Had you told me two years ago that I would be present at events like those on Mohamed Mahmoud, and that afterwards I would not only be unable, but possibly unwilling to write about them, I would have been sceptical. I am still not sure why I do not write about Egypt: whether I cannot, or just don’t want to; whether my concerns are about the inadequacy of language, or about the ethics of anecdote, the banalisation of violence, the ‘ça devient une histoire’. Layers of uncertainty: I don’t know enough about Egypt, I don’t write about Egypt, and I don’t even know why exactly I don’t write about Egypt. If I can draw any satisfaction from this state of affairs, it is that at least I am fulfilling my own ethical conditions for writing: an acknowledgement of the limits of knowledge. But, as Bracher says, ‘on se contraint à garder le silence’ (‘we constrain ourselves to keeping silent’). If no-one tried to convey to others what it is like to be somewhere, to witness something, then the world would quite clearly be a poorer place, and quite probably be a more dangerous one. The role I have to play in this is still something that I am working out.

1Very rough translation: ‘Certainly, it is important not to underestimate the difficulties which face each writer who dares to deal with the Holocaust. Firstly, you find yourself faced with the challenge of saying in language – that social common denominator – an experience without common measure and without precedent. You must also, in order to give an account of a horror exceeding the imagination, find adequate textual methods. And, finally, the writer must avoid the banalisation of violence, since in effect, as Delbo herself states, once written ‘it becomes a story’.

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Translation problems

I don’t know enough about law, or technology, or the Arabic language for this shit. When I was a volunteer translator, I had a folder in my documents marked, semi-jokingly, ‘ABOVE MY PAY GRADE’ for all of the translations which required more than usual amounts of caffeine, spasmodic scrolling through Hans Wehr, and the last resort of the underqualified, plugging the whole thing into Google Translate and then rearranging what comes out into some kind of sense. When I actually started getting paid, I renamed the folder ‘HUMAN RIGHT$ DOLLA’. Slowly, I am becoming a good translator. Slowly.

Translation has taught me words in English: usufructuary, to yaw, Secure Sockets Layer. It has shown me a whole heap of enjoyable, even quaint differences in expression and syntax between Arabic and English. (To take into consideration, in Arabic, becomes ‘to take into the eye of consideration,’ which I like.) In the way that studying advanced French taught me never to end an English sentence with a preposition (for what is merely sloppy in English becomes impossible in French), translating advanced Arabic texts has taught me new ways of thinking about gerunds, passives, apposition, relative pronouns, and so on, which I will not go into here, because it will be dull. (Gerunds, though! They need a special mention. Arabic can sometimes be a mess of gerunds, as though there is no other way to express an idea. It can be neat, an incredibly elegant and concise way to express complicated concepts, or it can be repetitive and stale. After a day spent with Arabic I find myself inserting gerunds into English which should not be there. ‘The mentioning of it is forbidden,’ that kind of thing.)

I still don’t want to be a translator when I grow up, but I am enjoying being one at the moment.

When I translate from English to Arabic, it is of course much, much harder. No amount of dictionaries, grammar books, or Google T can fill the gaping hole where a native command of the language is lacking. I formulate clauses and then Google them in Arabic to see if anyone has written anything similar. I do this, painstakingly, for every sentence I write, casting my net over the Internet, searching for someone whose words chime with my own. My supervisor at work says my English-Arabic translations are ‘strange but serviceable’. Some of them, he says, are better than a native speaker’s efforts. I silently thank all the denizens of the internet who just happened to be writing about probable cause or the frequency spectrum in Arabic, in the same words as me, and who, as before, saved my ass.

I am compiling a glossary so that the next translator who takes over from me at my organisation can save some time finding accurate translations for things like ‘rocket-propelled grenade warhead’ or ‘universal jurisdiction’. It is divided up into sections: medical, legal, security, espionage, prisons, weapons, and so on. Finding a good word for the glossary is very satisfying. I now have three different types of knives, five different guns, and a plethora of small arms including chains and sticks. It is a morbid little list. Each word recalls the case, the particular translation, from whence it came; the word for drug poisoning, for instance, inevitably reminds me of the Essam Atta press release I translated, after Atta died in prison from having bleach pumped into his mouth and anus through rubber hoses. The Ministry of Interior claimed that he had ingested drugs and died of poisoning. My translation work is the last stage in a process where each stage becomes more refined, more removed from the original violence and horror of the thing.

In October, I volunteered for a website which was gathering testimonies from witnesses to the Maspero massacre, and then translating them into English. This translation work presented an initial problem for me in that all the testimonies were in transcribed Egyptian Arabic, so my dictionary was little use and I often had to read them out loud to figure out what they were saying. Rendering colloquial expressions into English was difficult and the results felt awkward. I didn’t know what level of expletives were permitted: I shied away from ‘I’m gonna fuck you up,’ sticking with the slightly milquetoast ‘I’m gonna mess you up’.

I was not at Maspero. I was in a friend’s apartment in downtown, far away enough to be assured of my safety, perched on his balcony reading Twitter. In the days that followed I watched the same videos and saw the same pictures as everybody else: the woman clutching her dead fiance’s hand, the heads smashed in, the horrifying videos which emerged later, the close-up shots of APCs running people down. These images of Maspero stuck with me, like I imagine they did for many other people. It was a horrific event, a horrific time afterwards, and of course I was upset and disturbed by it.

Yet it was translation, in the end, which really got to me. It was only after I began translating testimonies that I began having nightmares about Maspero. I would sit at my desk with all the simple comforts of work around me: a soft light, a cup of tea, maybe a blanket over my knees, and I would begin. Each testimony would begin the same way: we were marching from Shubra, and it was a lovely day. As I typed out my translation, my stomach would begin to tighten, for I knew what was coming, the point at which – not death, but the possibility of death, would start to seep into the text. Somehow, I would find myself on the Corniche, right inside the videos and photos I had seen; among the howling darkness, the blood and teeth and brains, the bodies jerking epileptically under the wheels of APCs. I would reach the end of the translation, look up from my laptop, and steady myself with a hand against my desk; reassuring myself that I was still here, in the light, and still breathing.

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End military trials now

My upcoming article in TCS, with Enhanced Hyperlink Capability! Oh, the slow demise of print media…

This week, Maikel Nabil will have been on hunger strike for more than 80 days. Nabil, a blogger and activist who achieved the uncertain distinction of becoming the first blogger convicted under Egypt’s new military junta, is starving himself in protest at his sentencing by military tribunal. In April, Nabil was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment on charges of insulting the army. Now, he refuses to appear before a court that he and many others consider intrinsically unjust and lacking even the basic elements of a fair trial. In a recent blog post from prison, Nabil wrote: ‘I am a civilian person, I refuse to be tried before a military judicature or any other exceptional judicature, even any judicature lacking independence.’ In October, Nabil was transferred to Abbassiyah mental hospital, allegedly to ‘check his mental capacity’. Thus the Military Council displayed tactics not seen since Nasser’s era – locking up dissidents in mental hospitals on the pretence of concern for their health. Dr. Basma Abdelaziz, a psychiatrist who issued a statement on behalf of the General Medical Secretariat denouncing the treatment of Nabil, is now facing investigation.

In another prison, in another part of Cairo, Alaa Abd el-Fattah has just had his ’emergency’ detention order renewed, keeping him in prison for another fifteen days. Outside, friends, supporters, and family, including his heavily pregnant wife, campaign for his freedom. Abd el-Fattah is one of Egypt’s most prominent activists and this is not his first time behind bars; a recent letter, smuggled out from prison, eloquently describes his ‘return to Mubarak’s jails’, alluding to his previous imprisonment under Hosny Mubarak: ‘The memories come back to me, all the details of imprisonment; the skills of sleeping on the floor, nine men in a six-by-12-foot (two-by-four-metre) cell, the songs of prison, the conversations.’ The lack of fair trials is one of the many continuities between the former dictatorship and the current junta. The military tribunals in particular have become a major focus of campaigning by activists who see little change since the ‘revolution’ of the 25th January. According to the group No Military Trials for Civilians, 12,000 have been subjected to military trials since the junta took over in January, of which over 8,000 have been sentenced, 8 of which to death. So much for ‘the people and the army with one hand’. These are stories of families torn apart, futures ruined, children left without parents, by a body which claims to be the ‘defender of the revolution’.

The military tribunal system lacks justice, transparency, and fairness. Military trials are composed of military officers, not judges – as Maikel Nabil wrote recently, ‘you are an officer, not a judge no matter what names, titles or descriptions you were called.’ There is no right of appeal, except to a military Court of Cassation, but that too is made up of army officers. Defendants in military tribunals have a very short time to prepare their defence, without the chance to examine evidence and prepare witnesses, and their defence lawyer is often appointed for them – sometimes he, too, is an army officer. Military tribunals can reach a decision without consulting expert witnesses or forensic evidence. Leaving aside the systematic problems of the military trials, it must be borne in mind that the army itself stands accused of killing and injuring protesters in several incidents since the uprising, most notoriously the Maspero massacre of the 9th October. The fundamental injustice of this is clear in Abd el-Fattah’s case. Accused of incitement, assault, and vandalism in connection with Maspero, he is being tried by the very institution which all evidence suggests mowed down demonstrators with armed personnel carriers and killed them with live fire.

In campaigning against military trials, rights groups and activists face uncertainty in how far they can push the army. Under Egypt’s new military regime, the red lines are not yet clear, and criticising the junta carries with it a certain amount of risk. Nevertheless, the campaign is gaining momentum and support from within Egypt and internationally. Legal and human rights groups such as the one I work for, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, have been closely monitoring cases, sending lawyers to attend hearings and advocating for an end to such trials. The group No Military Trials for Civilians has been putting constant pressure on the military junta, including organising international solidarity demonstrations in alliance with the Occupy movement. On the 12th November, people in 23 cities worldwide, including London, New York, Budapest, Oakland, and Montreal took part in an international day of solidarity to protest military trials in Egypt and call for an end to international aid to the military junta (the Egyptian regime is the second biggest recipient of US aid, after only Israel).

Military trials – the court-marshalling of civilians – are contrary not just to the spirit of the ongoing Egyptian revolution but also contrary to fundamental human rights, including the right to a fair trial. They are clear evidence, as if more were needed, of the Egyptian military council’s lack of commitment to the rights and dignity of its people. Nabil, Abd El Fattah, and all other prisoners must be freed – but more than that, what is needed is an end to the injustice of the military trials which put them behind bars in the first place.

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Egyptian police, 1817-2011: the re-embodiment of punishment

The following article is heavily indebted to Khaled Fahmy’s 1999 article in Die Welt des Islams, ‘The Police and the People in 19th Century Egypt’. If you have JSTOR access you should look it up, it’s edutaining. 

If you were a dishonest market trader in early 19th-century Egypt, you would have good reason to fear the muhtasib, or market inspector. In 1817 Mehmed Ali was reportedly so fed up with the ‘rabble of Cairo’ that he appointed a new muhtasib, who was not shy of handing down harsh and frequently spectacular punishments. Fahmy tells us that kunafa (a kind of vermicelli-based pastry) merchants found to be cheating on prices were forced to sit on their own kunafa pans while still on fire; a counterfeiter of currency was hung from Bab Zuweila with a coin hanging from his nose; and the muhtasib himself slit the noses of butchers caught selling meat at prices higher than those set by Muhammad Ali’s government.

Drawing heavily on Foucauldian theory, Fahmy goes on to outline the limitations of the body as a locus of punishment. These kind of ‘spectacular’ punishments, in which the ravaged body was made the place of retribution and then held up as a physical deterrent to others, were gradually superseded by a more insidious and subtle concept of justice in which the abstract ideal of the Law was the deterrent, rather than the mangled and mutilated bodies of criminals. After all, the body can only withstand so much pain, and the crowd who observe the punishment can only be so big, and thus the spectacle has its limits. The rulers of Egypt, therefore, ‘targeted…the minds of the populace and not their gazes.’

In 1878 a cook named Khayr accused a woman named Zarifa of stealing 1,195 piasters from him. The way in which the case was dealt with shows the effects of this shift, from a system based on physical punishment to one based on abstract ideas of the Law and the inevitable correlation between crime and punishment (which was, increasingly, imprisonment rather than the kinds of physical punishment seen at the beginning of the century). Drawing on material from the National Archives in Cairo – and, as someone who has only just begun to navigate said institution, I credit his persistence – Fahmy tells the story of what happened to Zarifa. On the basis of witness testimony, the Cairo Police Commissioner found her guilty, and sent the case to the courts. After passing through several courts and losing her appeal, Zarifa was sent to the Iplikhane, a textile factory in Bulaq which was used as a women’s prison.

The case is a good example of how a ‘detailed and stratified system of justice’ had developed in Egypt by the latter half of the 19th century. This was based on a close relationship between a complex and sophisticated legal system incorporating shari’a, European, and Ottoman law, and an equally sophisticated police force which played a key role in preventing crime, investigating cases, and bringing them to court, in what Fahmy describes as an early form of the public prosecutor’s office. The police had a wide array of techniques and forces at their disposal. A large network of spies, informants, and other unofficial agents played a key role in solving crimes. The new science of forensic medicine (every police station had to have several doctors on staff, including a female doctor), and the new institution of criminal records (some going back 15 years) also made a big difference to the process of detecting crimes and bringing them to court.

In 1858 a woman called Mahbuba was beaten to death in a village in Upper Egypt by the sheikh of the local village, Sheikh Sha’rawi. Mahbuba’s mother and brother went to both the local qadi (representing the shari’a tradition) and the local police station (representing siyasa law) to accuse Sha’rawi of murder. They seem to have understood the importance of forensic medicine, for they were adamant that Mahbuba should have an autopsy – going so far as to put her body on a camel and travel to the nearest town so that they could find a doctor. After the local shari’a court dismissed the case, the local siyasa tribunal found Sha’rawi guilty and sentenced him to five years imprisonment in Alexandria.

These changes in the police force also represented a fundamental change in the relationship between state and subject. The creation of an efficient police state necessarily implied a wider diffusion of power and a greater intrusion into people’s lives. Forensic medicine, criminal records, and networks of informants were effective precisely because they were mechanisms of state control over the bodies of its populace; but more significantly the ideas of law and justice represented by the new police force were mechanisms of control over their minds.

Thus the site of control and punishment shifted during the 19th century, and it remains the same today. Whatever the brutalities of the Egyptian police force today, they happen behind closed doors, only revealed by clandestine YouTube footage or snatched camera-phone pictures. The Egyptian security services do not go in for the spectacular, as indeed you would expect from a modern police state. The minds of the populace are still targeted, not their gaze. The serried ranks of anonymous policemen, their inexplicable powers of arrest and referral to military tribunal, the very obscurity and lack of accountability of the Ministry of the Interior; it is a faceless, vicious bureaucracy which ravages the mind as much as Mehmed Ali’s muhtasib ravaged the bodies of his unfortunate victims.

Yet, of course, the body is still the locus of punishment. From a recent EIPR press release: ‘The family of the deceased had said that their son was being beaten and tortured over last Tuesday and Wednesday. Essam had told them over the telephone that an officer named ‘Nour’ had inserted water hoses into his mouth and anus and forced him to drink water mixed with washing powder, on suspicion that he had ingested a narcotic substance.’ Essam Atta died two days later. The subtleties of the Egyptian state’s abstraction of punishment, its removal from the public to the private and from the spectacular to the secretive, does not mean that bodies are not still suffering and dying.

What is needed is a re-claiming of the body by the subject. We can put faces to names, these days; thus Khaled Said, Mina Daniel, Essam Atta, and detainees like Alaa Abd el-Fattah adorn Cairo’s streets. The people, in a small way, claim back the bodies which have been appropriated by the state. Hence also the public funerals in Tahrir Square for Atta and Daniel, in which the people literally reclaimed the bodies for their own. The pictures and footage of victims of Maspero, and of every other victim of state brutality in Egypt, are no doubt ghoulish and shocking, but they serve a vital purpose. For we need to re-embody punishment, to make it absolutely clear that this state apparatus operating behind closed doors is, on the most visceral and immediate level, killing people in horrific ways. Mahbuba’s story, in which her family were determined to get an autopsy so that justice could be served, in reminiscent of the fight to secure autopsies for the victims of Maspero. The same struggle for control is still going on and will go on as long as the state believes it has this inviolable right over its subject’s bodies. In stories of torture and detention, the body is the site of truth. Reclaiming it means reclaiming that truth.

Fahmy’s article traces the expansion of police control and its correlation, the expansion of state control. Yet he also argues for a re-reading of the 19th century state to make room for the agency of the people: ‘The modern state lends itself to manipulation and control at the same time as it seeks to monitor and control its population, and its numerous sites of power where the population were supposed to be counted, registered, monitored and controlled, proved to be the sites where the very diffuse power of the state was contested and challenged.’ The terrain of the body is where this contest will be fought. Reclaiming the physical bodies the state has abstracted, and thus re-embodying punishment, is the first step of that contest.


			

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Hacking Palestine

‘The current Palestinian telecommunications infrastructure is a result of the asymmetrical power relationship between the PA and Israel, as well as the constraints and failures of the Oslo Accords. Much the same way in which sovereignty afforded to the PA over internal political and civilian issues has been a masquerade, so too is sovereignty over telecommunications a facade. Consider for example that Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu (as others before him) stresses that any future Palestinian state will not have control over its electro-magnetic field. If the future vision of Palestine is one without sovereignty over telecommunications, the present condition is one that ascertains such an outcome.

A much less publicised event than this latest cyber attack was the interruption of international landline, mobile phone and internet connection in the Gaza Strip this past August which occurred when an Israeli military bulldozer digging near the Nahal Oz checkpoint severed one of the fibre-optic lines connecting Gaza to the rest of the world. The ability to shutdown telecommunications whether by dictatorial regimes – as we witnessed in Egypt in January 2011 – or occupying regimes, is incumbent on an infrastructure being managed and controlled in particular ways. In other words, the establishment, building, and ownership of a communications infrastructure is in and of itself a deeply political decision…

Finally, what the events of last week also highlight is not ‘hacking’. Hacking in its historical roots refers to the breaking into computers, accessing administrative controls and other similar practices, under the ideological-political umbrella of the liberalist ideals of freedom of speech, the pursuit of technological beauty, of the desire to ‘free’ and keep code ‘open’. The shutdown of the Palestinian network is instead reflective of an act of cyber terrorism – whose intent of undermining the security of a digital network is explicitly malicious and destructive. In the case of Palestine, the mal-intent was not simply the purposeful target of the digital network, but the right to sovereignty as well.’

Read the rest here.

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NGOs refuse to meet with SCAF

EIPR’s latest:

‘We established our credibility with the Egyptian people through years of hard work resisting the dictatorship and addressing practices which violated human rights. Regardless of the military council and government’s position towards us, we will not participate in discussions which, ten months after the fall of Mubarak, begin to look less and less serious. It is out of question to discuss a constituent assembly to draft the constitution with the government and military council. Their prisons are packed with hundreds, if not thousands, of citizens. Their people have paid the price for a society which respects the rights and dignity of humans with the blood of their children. And members of this government and council continue to evade punishment for their crimes, falsehoods, and incitement against the Egyptian people.’

Read the whole thing, translated into English to the highest standards of unpaid professionalism, here. (Ignore the typo above, seriously. I need a better copy editor.)

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Moving Omar Mukhtar back to Benghazi

This one’s for you, dad. (This was written in April or so, I think, which explains why Qadhafi is still alive and I’m still calling Jan25 a revolution. )

In a now-notorious New York Times op-ed of the 1st March, the columnist Thomas Friedman attempted to explain the Egyptian revolution as the result of several factors that included the Beijing Olympics, Google Maps, and the rape trial (now conviction) of former Israeli president Moshe Katsav. While Friedman’s article was a particularly egregious example of wild explanations for this year’s uprisings – and he was duly mocked far and wide on the internet, including one writer who suggested Friedman might like to include his own moustache as a potential revolutionary catalyst – it was symptomatic of a wider issue. This all came as something of a surprise, and we are still casting around for answers. Yet if we look at the history of the region, we can trace patterns of dissent and revolution stretching back past the creation of the modern Middle East.

Many metro stations in Cairo are named after famous Egyptian leaders, and a metro ride is a trip through the past century or more of the country’s history. Saad Zaghloul station, a ten-minute walk from Tahrir Square, is named for the man who came to power through a mass revolution in Egypt almost exactly 100 years ago, which ultimately led to the independence of Egypt from British rule. Looking at the TV images from Egypt of veiled women flashing the V-sign from atop tanks, or of demonstrators waving signs showing both the crescent and the cross, there are striking parallels in imagery between the 25th January revolution and the 1919 revolution.

Unlike Nasser’s coup in 1952 or the earlier coup by Ahmed ‘Urabi in 1881 (both with their own metro stations, of course) the 1919 revolution was a mass popular uprising that involved a broad demographic. A New York Times article from 1919 reports ‘800 natives dead in Egypt’s rising’ and tells us that they attacked British Government property as well as telegraph wires and train lines. Zaghloul became the first prime minister of Egypt, and while the 1919 constitutional experiment failed – the British still held huge influence over Zaghloul and the Egyptian King Farouq – the parallels with today are a vivid reminder of the history of revolution in Egypt. (Mubarak metro station, incidentally, was at one stage in February renamed ’25th January Martyrs’ station by some enterprising young Egyptians armed with large stickers.)

Today’s Arab autocrats are aware of and have an uneasy relationship with their country’s revolutionary pasts. When Muammar Qadhafi became leader of Libya in 1969, he paid a visit to the tomb of Omar Mukhtar, which used to be situated in Benghazi, now the centre of the Libyan uprising. Mukhtar was a Libyan nationalist hero who led an eight year rebellion against the brutal Italian occupation of Libya in the early 20th century until he was captured and executed in 1931. In putting down this rebellion, the Italian air force bombed civilians from the air, the first time this had been done in history, setting a precedent that today Qadhafi is following with with horrific results.

No sooner had Qadhafi visited Mukhtar’s tomb than he had it moved out into the depths of the Libyan desert where it is much harder to get to; yet he continued to exploit Mukhtar’s memory, attending a conference in Italy with his picture pinned to his chest and even bringing Mukhtar’s ageing son along. Mukhtar’s son, Muhammad Omar, has recently made statements in support of the Libyan rebels, who in turn have been observed chanting the slogan ‘We will win or die’, the chant of Mukhtar’s rebels in the 1920s.

This uneasy consciousness of the region’s revolutionary past shows the importance of the history of places like Libya and Egypt when considering today’s uprisings. Syria, for instance, has taken the world particularly by surprise, rising against one of the region’s most repressive regimes; yet less than a century ago a mass rebellion broke out against French rule which drove the French from Damascus. A Time magazine article from 1926 reads: ‘The French are policing and mopping up Syria but at a cost in gold and blood which France can ill afford.’ Souq Hamidiyah is a covered market in the old city of Damascus; if you go there today you can still see the bullet holes in the roof where the French strafed the city with gunfire from the air.

Some have argued that the key difference between today’s uprisings and those of the early 20th century is that the latter were primarily directed against external imperial powers. It is true that the demand heard on Al Jazeera again and again is ‘isqaat an-nidhaam’, the downfall of the regime, and that those regimes are modern-day independent Arab rulers. Yet to claim that they are purely internal affairs is a convenient distortion that ignores the extent of modern-day imperialism in the Middle East.

Today’s imperialism is more insidious; it involves, for instance, $300 million of aid to the Yemeni autocrat Ali Abdullah Salih in 2010 so that he can fight Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula on behalf of the US. It involves Barack Obama’s glaring silence over the Saudi-assisted suppression of protests in Bahrain. It is clear in the arms trade between Britain and Muammar Qadhafi, and in the billions of dollars of aid to former president Hosny Mubarak each year in exchange for, amongst other things, his cooperation in the blockade of Gaza, or former French foreign minister Michele Alliot-Marie’s visit to Tunisia and her offer to help Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali to ‘quell’ the rebellion, or the recent statement by Hilary Clinton in which she described Syria’s Bashar al-Assad as a ‘reformer’.

Any hint of a non-Western power trying to assert regional influence (apart from key allies of the West, such as Saudi Arabia or Israel) is deeply disquieting to today’s imperialists, who have ditched their pith helmets for Predator drones and military aid. When Turkey threatened to cut off relations with Israel following the attack on the Gaza flotilla in May 2010, there was condemnation from the West for what they claimed was Turkey ‘turning east’, ‘creating an Islamist bloc’, or even ‘trying to recreate the Ottoman Empire’. Though Western powers are only currently directly occupying one Middle Eastern country (two, if you count Afghanistan), their influence in the region is far-reaching and deeply entrenched, and any hint of a change to the status quo is enough to send Western diplomats and politicians scrambling for their vaguely-worded statements on the need for ‘restraint’. The West’s support for autocratic Arab regimes means that this year’s uprisings are as anti-imperialist as Omar Mukhtar’s.

The Middle East has become intimately tied to the West through economic reform and restructuring, which itself cannot be discounted as a cause behind this year’s uprisings. Many countries have undergone structural adjustment programmes, following a neo-liberal economic model laid out by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. In places like Egypt and Tunisia, this has led to a widening gap between rich and poor, a concentration of wealth in the hands of a smaller and smaller elite, and a disintegration of mechanisms of support which helped the poorest in hard times. In Egypt, for example, which has been heralded as a success story of structural adjustment, GDP grew 4.6% in 2009 even as most of the world experienced a downturn in growth; yet poverty also increased from 20% to 23.4%. As industry was privatised in the 1990s, a handful of huge companies grew to dominate most sectors in Egypt, while working conditions and living standards deteriorated for the majority of Egyptians.

The global financial crisis worsened the impact of these reforms – Egypt is dependent on exports to Europe, demand for which fell during the downturn, and also depends on remittances from migrant workers in the Gulf, which shrank greatly during the financial crisis. Protests against rising commodity prices and for an increase in wages and workers’ rights have been common over the last decade, and this economic protest has played a role in the most recent unrest. Yet this year has not just been about the price of bread – it also came out of a long tradition of political activism and dissent.

Egypt, for instance, has been frequently portrayed as politically stagnant – the land of the Pharaohs, its ancient history invoked to characterise the dictatorships of today, the country ruled by Hosny Mubarak’s paternal, guiding hand or rod of iron, depending on which way you looked at it. Yet a few instances from the last decade of Egyptian political life give the lie to this. There’s the last time Tahrir Square was occupied, when protesters held it for ten hours in March 2003 in protest at the US invasion of Iraq. Or the thousands of protesters who took to the streets during the 2005 elections, protesting at the fraudulent election process and intimidation of voters. Or the massive uprising in Mahalla el-Kubra, an industrial town outside of Cairo, on April 6th 2008, when police violently suppressed a planned strike and street protest (the April 6th movement, who were prominent in organising the January 25th revolution, were named after the date of the Mahalla rising).

In fact, the (very) modern history of protest in Egypt can be traced back to 2000 at least, when mass protests involving tens of thousands of people broke out in Cairo in solidarity with the Palestinian intifada. (Israel still remains a concern of Tahrir Square; during the revolution, demonstrators chanted ‘Leave, leave, you traitor [Mubarak], you sold your country to Israel’ and ‘Hosny Mubarak, you agent, you sold the gas and only the Nile is left’, referring to a gas deal between Egypt and Israel which has played a major part in the grievances of the Egyptian people.)

There is, in fact, and has been for some time a vibrant public political sphere in Egypt which has seen workers, opposition newspapers, human rights organisations, women, political parties, youth, Sinai bedu, bloggers, Islamists, secularists, Nobel-Prize winning former IAEA chiefs, university students, and even riot police (in a 1986 mutiny) challenge the prevailing political system for a long time and in a multitude of ways. A lot of these challenges have been small on the scale of world politics; some even had the audacity to take place before the advent of Facebook. (There was a strike in Mahalla el-Kubra in 1948, too; by the next day, newspapers were reporting on solidarity strikes in other industrial towns in Egypt. The Egyptian government, when cutting off the internet and mobile networks in January, should have known better.)

Perhaps surprisingly, some of these challenges have even been successful. For example: in 2001, workers at a hospital in Suez held a sit-in, protesting the suspension of their entitlement pay. After the intervention of state security and local officials, the pay was reinstated and the director of the hospital fired. Suez, too, was where workers in 1947 boycotted Dutch ships passing through the canal in solidarity with Indonesia’s struggle against colonialism. These are relatively small incidents in a long catalogue of similar small incidents; but put together, such things make up the society which on the 25th January marched on Tahrir Square. When you look at this this way, the Beijing Olympics suddenly don’t seem as important. If we want to begin to understand the revolutions of today, we could start by looking at the revolutions of the past.

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