Petrol stations, panic stations

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This man’s thumb does not reflect my own opinion.

One of my biggest regrets is that I didn’t keep a diary of events during the revolution, and by that I don’t just mean the major happenings but rather stuff that was going on in my house that turned into a hotel (thanks to its functioning internet and proximity to Tahrir Square rather than my magnetic personality) and my thoughts and feelings (vomit) about everything. It would be nice to remember, but when I started this blog I wrote anonymously and chose the name Amnesiac, and for good reason.

I’m inevitably thinking about what little remains in my head of those days now because apparently on June 30 Egypt will implode (again) when protesters take to the streets in order to demand that Morsy fuck off. There is the same charged atmosphere as there was in 2011 with those who are able rushing to ATMs to withdraw large wads of cash before rushing to supermarkets to buy everything it has left on its shelves before abandoning ship and rushing to the airport to join other panicked people fighting to get onto planes. Embassies have issued the usual warnings to their citizens to avoid large gatherings, expats are shipping out, and if Egyptian social media was a human being it would be your mother, ringing you five times an hour begging you not to leave your house because she has heard that there are men with exploding beards roaming the streets and she is sick with worry.

That panic has taken a physical form on the streets. Egypt has had periodic bouts of fuel shortages in recent years but this is the worst I have witnessed in Cairo (it’s been terrible in other parts of Egypt for yonks but nobody cares, those areas don’t exist, politically, most of the time). Every petrol station you pass has a static queue of vehicles filled with stony-faced drivers who sometimes wait all day to fill up. This has worsened the pre-existing congestion in unimaginable ways, so next to the stony-faced drivers are irascible taxi drivers and other motorists literally fighting their way through the gunk of cars in a haze of heat and pollution and despair.

And then of course there are the Shia lynchings. A friend pointed out that this is 2013’s version of the El-Qedeseen Church bombings that preceded the revolution and prompted (then) rare running street battles with the riot police and a whole lot of useful tension that was funneled into January 25. These horrible murders are different though, firstly, because Egypt’s Shia population is tiny and, secondly, while people were generally horrified by the brutal nature of the killings, Shias remain somewhat of an unknown/suspicious entity to the majority of the population so there isn’t that emotional attachment that arguably exists with Copts.

What they have done is reinforce suspicions that conservative Islamist groups are sinister, heartless, nutjobs on some maniacal mission to turn everyone into versions of themselves (there are allegations that Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi sheikhs incited the mob that killed the four Shia men).

All this has come at a most unfortunate time for Morsy and friends as they attempt to fend off mounting criticism that they are shit. It is also unfortunate that earlier this month Morsy presided over a Syria rally in Cairo Stadium where a sheikh shrieked into a microphone that Shias are “angaas” (impure, sullied) and Morsy sat impassively like he was waiting for a bus. It is also unhelpful that if one delves into the Muslim Brotherhood archives one is assaulted with reams of sectarian nonsense about Shias (and Copts, and also passing references to the “cow worshippers”), and that the muted condemnation of the Shia killings was delivered through gritted teeth and, in the case of @ikhwanweb, issued over 24 hours later.

But this is understandable I suppose, because they are ever so busy deflecting criticism by condemning future outrageous acts of violence and disorder. Have a look at their English page and you will find post after post denouncing the irresponsible opposition intent on burning Egypt. In fact, the MB’s response to political crisis comes in four guises:

1. Suggest that various formations of secularists, communists, nasserists or felool are carrying out an attack on Islam (as pointed out by Basil El-Dabh).

2. Organise a rally attended by mostly male supporters and hope that the Salafis are on board to make up numbers.

3. Announce sudden press conferences at 9.30 p.m. that are scheduled to begin at 10 p.m. and which begin at midnight and in which nothing of import is said.

4. Wheel Morsy out for a speech in which he rails against parties listed in point. 1  above while making a total of zero concessions.

So incompetent is the Muslim Brotherhood’s response that it seems to be interpreted in some sectors as, “they’re up to something” rather than “they are a bunch of showers who have not got a fucking clue how to extricate themselves out of this sinking tub of shite and so are winging it through a series of opaque and kneejerk reactions confusing even to themselves”. All this contributes to the panic.

As I have quoteth previously on this blog, the MB are a glorified soup kitchen with excellent logistical skills. Alas, they have shown themselves to be remarkably uninventive in the autocratic rule department and have largely borrowed from Mubarak (violent thugs at protests, smear campaigns against detractors, invoking draconian legislation to shut critics up, drawing up draconian legislation to shut NGOs up, dismissing everything as a Zionist plot against Egypt or Islam).

So they have had a year to prove themselves worthy of leading this country and largely failed to win confidence. I have yet to meet anyone who defends the way they are running the country, but there are non-MB citizens who are perturbed by calls for his removal on the grounds that he was democratically elected in fair elections.

I have problems with the Tamarod campaign that called for the protests. I don’t like the messy way in which signatures have been collected and announced – it needlessly opened the door to attacks on their credibility. I hate the self-important tone of the Facebook page’s admin, their micromanagement of every detail of the protest and their fascist injunctions about what we can and cannot do (they even want to control what people chant), they swoon in a worrying way about the army and above all else, the non-existence of/failure to articulate clearly a plan for what happens after June 30, whether or not Morsy exits stage left, is unfathomable.

Ideologically, I am extremely torn about the protests’ demands. I would like nothing better than for Morsy and his arrogant, obstinate Brothers to be booted out of Egyptian political life (and I voted for Morsy in order to keep out Shafiq) but have three issues:

1. It would hit the Muslim Brotherhood harder if they were ejected from Egyptian public life via elections. They would not be able to cry foul, and this would hit at their precious legitimacy in a way that the protests don’t. I have long been of the opinion that the Muslim Brotherhood should be left to their own devices as long as the economy can stand it, so that they continue to fuck up, destroy their support base, and we can be rid of them forever. This is a problematic and unpopular position, I know and it assumes firstly, they hold elections and secondly, they don’t forge results.

2. I keep imagining that it was ElBaradei or Hamdeen or someone non-MB and palatable to those taking to the streets on Sunday was elected. I imagine, what if Mr Palatable did something to garner the ire of his (Islamist) opposition on a par with Morsy’s constitutional amendment, something along the lines of removing all reference to Sharia in the constitution (PEDANTS: I AM JUST IMAGINING FOR THE PURPOSES OF THIS EXERCISE AND AM NOT SUGGESTING THEY WOULD).

Say that this inspired mass protests similar to those at the presidential palace in December 2012 and that Mr Palatable’s supporters used violence against the raging Islamist mobs. Now imagine that the political impasse dragged on and on until the exasperated Islamist opposition, together with ordinary Egyptians fed up at the economic situation and turmoil (I am assuming that no president could have fixed much in a year) took to the streets demanding Palatable go.

What would my position be? I would most likely stand against the Islamist mob and one of the arguments I would invoke is that Palatable was democratically elected and you, raving Islamist mob, represent nobody but yourselves.

3. If a miracle happened and Morsy did step down as a result of these protests it sets an awkward precedent. Particularly if the army is involved.

So I am in a quandary. I despise the Muslim Brotherhood and hate what they have done to the country. I like democracy, such as it is, and think that respecting clean election results is a useful and pretty essential rule in a functioning society, but then the Muslim Brotherhood themselves seem to have no respect for the rule of law. The reappearance of the Egyptian army in politics would be disastrous, and prompt a jingoistic army lovefest that my embattled nerves could not withstand. It would be ammunition for the Omar Suleiman “Egyptians are not ready for democracy” crowd, and that would be heartbreaking.

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Planet Sawiris

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Bad picture of a good sunset.

Last year I went on a holiday to Gouna, a magical make-believe gated city on the Red Sea. I wrote something about it that for one reason and another forgot to post on my blog. I’ve just returned from a week in Gouna and dug out what I wrote last year and thought that I might as well bung it online.

2012

I finally escaped Cairo, sweating in its summer fury, for Gouna, a couple of months ago. We conveyed ourselves there by Go Bus, securing the last seats to Hurghada, that coast-destroying aberration just up the Red Sea coast from Gouna.

Go Buses leave from Cairo’s central Abdel-Meneim Reyad Square, which houses both a microbus hub and numerous exits and entrances to the October Bridge and downtown Cairo.  It is a sludge of vehicles driven by people furious that other drivers exist. Go Buses pick people up outside the office. There is no formally demarcated stopping area other than a cigarette-smoking man sitting on a chair barking orders into a loudspeaker at throngs of families and their suitcases.

Our bus left at 3.10 a.m. and we raced through Cairo’s empty streets to Nasr City where more passengers embarked and a hurried young man thrust a complimentary meal at us in a cardboard box.

Once on the road the film started. It was Sarkhet Namla, (“the scream of an ant”) a mediocre film about class injustice and poverty whose central trope (the poor have no voice in this country, we are all ants) is repeated several thousand times to numbing effect.

We watched a different kind of film somewhere in the middle of nowhere. It was daytime by this time, we had watched the sun float out of the sea somewhere in Sokhna. At a police checkpoint a young policeman in plain clothes got on board and languidly surveyed the passengers. He then selected some of the male passengers and demanded to see their IDs before ordering four men off the bus. They were all in their mid-twenties and from their dress, clearly working class. They were taken into an office next to the bus and the grumbling passengers still on the bus watched as the men’s suitcases were searched. Some of us got out to stretch legs or smoke cigarettes.

We asked two policemen on what basis the men had been targeted.

“They are suspects,” one of them replied, without specifying suspected of what. The policemen/conscripts themselves were as usual, poorer, than the men their superiors had stopped, dressed in rumpled, dirty khaki uniforms, their shoelaces undone or torn, their authority as tattered as their clothes.

I remembered hearing once that Egyptian men of a certain profile are refused entry to Sinai unless they can prove that they are employed in one of the resorts. Maybe the same policy applies to all tourist areas. One of the suspect men laughingly told us that he has been working in Hurghada for eight years and this is the first time he has been challenged.

Half an hour later all the men were back on the bus and we were off again.

Since this was the bus to Hurghada we were deposited at the entrance to Gouna. It consists of a security gate and a gently trickling water feature. A passing microbus took us to our hotel.

The interior of this microbus was entirely covered in expressions of devotion to Jesus and Christian Orthodox saints, it was like a mobile church. A small television screen played a tarneema sha3beyya, the first I have ever heard. I enjoyed it. The lyrics flashed across the screen next to images of nature and small children, while the driver, who was from Qena in Upper Egypt talked to us in the waterfall that is the Sa3eedy accent with its tumbling Gs for Qs and Js for Gs.

As is typical, we arrived on one of the hottest days so far of this summer. It was like the sun had taken umbrage at something we said about its mother.

Patrons of Moods, in Gouna’s marina, bathe in water coloured by swirling patterns of boat oil, which everyone ignores. The sea is placid, disturbed only by the passing of enormous yachts and tumbling children pursued by nannies.

Gouna’s marina area is a film set of perfectly constructed buildings in tasteful colours gazed at by the enormous yachts. It is all very calm and very clean. The “downtown” area five minutes away is slightly shabbier, if it possible to use that word in connection with Gouna, and seems to be where the town’s less well-off residents live judging by the ordinariness of some of the boxy apartment blocks there. Visitors are ferried about by tuktuks for LE 5 per trip. They hurtle along the well-signed, well-maintained roads at breakneck speed.

Gouna has its own security force, a library, a hospital. You cannot hear the call to prayer, either because the azaan is quiet or the mosque is at a far remove. It is all very pleasant and – like the majority of tourist and holiday resorts here – as far away from Egypt as you can imagine. Visitors are hit over the head with reminders of where they are by the usual pharonic trinkets and a place called the Nubian Village, but otherwise there is something distinctly and disconcertedly un-Egyptian, almost alien about Gouna, like a 7ft wrestler in a knitting class.

On our first evening, in an area of the town between the Marina and Downtown, we saw the silhouettes of a crowd of people, standing perfectly still. They turned out to be almost life-sized cardboard cutouts of “ordinary” Egyptians: a plump woman in a veil, a disgruntled looking man carrying a plastic bag. It was a strange, soulless display, lost figures scattered around some scrubland, but then Gouna  – for all its wonderful qualities – seems intent on reducing Egypt to a two-dimensional spectre of itself and neatly packing it away in the basement.

At a Vietnamese restaurant called Saigon we went to, twice, because it is so good we had a chinwag with one of the waiters who told us that he is known as Bonny because his real name is “too difficult” for the Vietnamese owner and staff.

“What’s your real name?” I asked.

“Abanob”, he said.

We protested that this is not a difficult name, but he said that it is two syllables too much for his Vietnamese colleagues who he says are all extremely economically named with one-syllable appellations. Another waiter announced that everyone, even his parents, call him Maradonna because he was born on the same day as a momentous act by that diminutive Argentinian. His real name was again something distinctly Christian.

I wanted to enquire about the large number of Christians employed in Gouna but it seemed an indelicate question and was in any case based largely on my own unscientific observations. I didn’t do a survey of religions, but the majority of employees I encountered either bore obvious signs of being Christian (crosses, tattoos) or responded to unambiguously Christian names. I wondered how the recruitment process works, whether Christians radiate towards Gouna, baby of the Christian Sawiris dynasty, whether it puts off any potential Muslim employees.

2013

The bus journey was just as unpleasant as last year, and began with another passenger fighting with the harried staff about his seat, which kept falling off.

The film lineup this time was a comedy that made light of domestic violence followed by an Ahmed El-Saqqa flick about women and babies. We stopped at the same checkpoint for nearly an hour and poor young men got on the bus and singled out other poor young men for random body searches and ID checks.

Gouna is still majestically aloof and doesn’t give a toss about what is happening in the rest of Egypt. Life proceeds gently, at the slow rhythm of the waves lapping the shore where the beautiful people continue to frolic. The most dramatic thing I experienced there was a drink holder falling off my bike and a series of cryptic conversations with the woman in the Information Centre who is nice but clearly unused to being asked for information about Gouna.

The town is not entirely impervious to the outside world though: numbers are clearly down and business is suffering.

A boat driver who took us on a tour of the lagoons so we could snoop about (at a safe distance) the millionaires’ villas said that tourism has taken a nosedive ahead of June 30. He maintained that he and other workers in Gouna are prepared to put up with a couple of months suffering if it means that the Muslim Brotherhood are driven out once and for all.

An aunt who has lived in Gouna for three years issued spirited imprecations against the package tour “rubbish” from Europe that is now being admitted to the place. An observation to which I will add nothing other than I hope she wasn’t referring to half-Europeans resident in Cairo.

I encourage everyone, Egyptians, Eurotrash and non-Eurotrash alike to do their bit for the Egyptian economy and visit Gouna. I believe those in Europe can currently get mad good deals. Do it. And if you do go, go to the Zia Amelia restaurant and die and go to heaven as you feast on the most delicately prepared empty carbohydrates you will ever consume.

And nobody has paid me to write any of this, more’s the pity.

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Screw you sideways, Vice magazine

People are sharing this* on Facebook without tearing the shit out of it. This is unacceptable.

Before we begin, let’s get two points out of the way.

1. Just like practically everywhere else in the world, there does exist a jet set crowd in Egypt who like to use their wealth to hold ostentatious parties in exclusive resorts, and some of them own yachts. Also, some of them are obnoxious.

2. Vice magazine has a successful formula of paying mediocre journalists to do or write controversial things in order to conceal the fact that it doesn’t seem able to attract good writers. There have been a few exceptions to this (its video about Shisha in Greece for example) but mostly it continues to churn this shit out because it pays the bills.

Now to Ian Moore and his offering.

Moore is a foreigner passing through Egypt who clearly knows zero to nothing about the country. This isn’t necessarily a problem; millions of tourists come to Egypt every year and cast aspersions about its culture and people based on the specialist knowledge they acquire while spending two weeks windsurfing in Dahab. Then they fuck off. The difference with Moore is that someone paid him to do a What I Did on My Holidays and then inflicted this on the world by publishing it online.

Sometimes this form of journalism works and a greenhorn dumped in the middle of something new is able to reflect on the trite quotidian with fresh eyes, produce nuances that are lost in their familiarity to more experienced writers.

Alas this was not the case here because such finesse is beyond the abilities of Moore and his shock and awe approach to writing.

Moore apparently thinks that in attending a rich people party in Gouna he went deep undercover and saw a side of Egypt nobody else in the world is aware exists.

In effect, Moore thinks he is being super punk and edgy and left field by attending Egypt’s not very interesting version of a Ibiza beach party. Still it is all wondrous and new to Moore, who did some research on the plane via the in-flight newspaper and shits out the statistic that 70% of Egyptians are in favour of Sharia and then moves on. The other 30% all live in Gouna and have cocaine-fuelled group sex on the aforementioned yachts, Ian dear.

There are the usual careless inaccuracies, including my bête noire, “Arabic” food. Then there is his exchange with a security guard who refers to himself as “the middle east’s 50 Cent” and who Moore confusingly refers to as a “huge north African man” as if all the other Egyptians there are from Australia.

Usefully, north African 50 Cent reels out some scary brown man religious soundbites in which he rails against the scantily dressed writhing female bodies surrounding him before allegedly pulling out a video of himself having sex with his girlfriend, which as we know is the holy grail of Vice journalism.

This little snippet sums up the binary on which Moore’s whole piece is predicated; Egyptians are either Sharia-loving crazies/full time revolutionaries or debauched, spoilt sybarites. Note both that the identities in the first half of this binary are those provided by the international media and that while all these categories do in fact exist in Egypt, the delineation between them isn’t in the black and white terms Moore presents. And this is why his little head explodes when he finds himself amongst partygoers who speak English and also describe themselves as Muslim, and it is why he feels compelled to declare that, “religion didn’t really play much of a role in this part of the country”. Because Egypt is the only country in the world whose beach parties don’t come with prayer rooms.

Let’s not get into the fact that Christians exist in Egypt and Gouna. That would send Moore over the edge.

Leaving aside for one moment Moore’s simplistic, trite “analysis” there is also the problem that he apparently makes shit up.

He alleges that the event promoter, Sherry, describes Arabic as a “retard language”, something she denies in the strongest terms here.

And then there is a comment on the article by Mohsen AbdelMohsen (in the comments section). He has rightfully taken umbrage at Vice’s unauthorised use of his photo with his sister and fiancée, particularly since it is captioned “two is better than one”. AbdelMohsen also adds that they don’t drink and don’t own a yacht. Moore is obsessed with yachts.

The most telling part of this article is this:

“I tipsily stumbled around among the pumped-up bros in pastel polo shirts and girls wearing outfits that would make my girlfriend’s Muslim family break down in sobs of despair”.

Moore knows a Muslim. Some of his best friends are Muslims. For Vice being in a relationship with a Muslim apparently renders one a PhD holder on Muslamic affairs.

My message to Ian Moore is this: if you must use your pocket money to buy a budget ticket to a brown people country and earn the money back by writing inane and probably falsified shite about it, do it with some flair, 7abeeby. My cat shits out turds of more eloquence than your juvenile, poorly expressed crap.

Zebby el magazy 3alayk ya ahbal. Ask the Middle East’s 50 Cent what it means.

Update: article was removed. Here is a cached version: http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache%3Azu7wMYC_6c4J%3Awww.vice.com%2Fen_uk%2Fread%2Fsheik-it-like-a-polaroid-picture+&cd=1&hl=en&ct=clnk&client=firefox-a

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Youm7 and its gardens of sex

Look at this unpleasant little thing by that gossiping hairdresser that calls itself a newspaper, Youm7.

Some lascivious shithead with a zoom lens – and I bet something else zooming – surreptitiously filmed a couple stealing a kiss in a public garden. The piece is entitled “Cairo’s parks turn into bedrooms” and the caption frames it as an expression of outrage at the absence of busybody security guards and honour-preserving lighting in parks, an absence that allows young people to dare to commit such acts.

The filthiest aspect of this horrible thing is that the voyeur who filmed this (or who published it) and his icky paymasters are claiming moral oneupmanship while participating in the very act they purport to condemn, holding their noses with one hand and grabbing their crotch with the other. But then this is the peculiar strangeness of Egyptian society, whose strict rules of conformity demands that sexual pleasure be a group activity (see: mob sexual harassment attacks, the video in this post) or not exist at all. And, after all, sex sells. The only difference between this shit and tabloids abroad are that sex has to be seen to be put in a cage and poked with a stick, the circus curiosity that everyone wants to look at from a safe distance, their fine upstanding selves comfortably removed from it.

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A statement from the Fortress of Evil

The Al-Masry Al-Youm Corporation is “downsizing” Egypt Independent where downsizing means shafting, and this evening it used Egypt Independent’s mailing list to send out a statement. Unfortunately unfamiliarity with this kind of thing meant that they left some things out. Here is the full version:

To our Respectful and Loyal Readers and Other Unnecessarily Capital Lettered entities who we Enjoy Patronising and of Whom we Ensured only 0.2% of subscribers Actually Received their Subscriptions due to Complete Uselessness

In a world where a vast amount of crap is put out by Al-Masry Al-Youm Arabic, where we rush horrified to our digital devices to open any other available newspaper to find out the actual, true, news, Al-Masry Al-Youm Corp. has decided to shut down it’s one good thing which was called Egypt Independent but which in this statement will be called The Egypt Independent because of our natural aversion to accuracy.

Shifting from the traditional print version, and maintaining the online news source, should have been a really fucking easy decision but as usual we fucked it up with our arrogance and incompetence. The apparent and the inevitable dominance of our uselessness has compelled us to muck this up good and proper while not giving a even a medium-sized shit about our readers’ online experience.

The slow and painful process of having anything to do with the Al-Masry Al-Youm Corporation is costly, hectic, and no longer practical or timely and that is why [the] Egypt Independent’s real journalists are buggering off to better pastures. In a world that now and right this moment, gets a Tweet or a Facebook status with a piece of news a few seconds right after it actually occurs! WONDER DEAR READERS AT THE INCREDIBLE PACE OF NEWS IN THE MODERN WORLD. MAYBE YOU GOT OVER THIS A DECADE AGO, WE HAVEN’T!!!!!!!! AND SO HERE COMES ANOTHER ANALOGY. Did you see the comic that says “In case of fire, escape before you tweet”!? This is today’s world and we’ve got to develop at the same pace, and other clichés.

With the rise of the internet (it’s our newsletter. We can choose to dispense with a capital letter where it is actually needed if we want to. Fuck u) population, the promising increase of the internet penetration (we like penetration and have been doing it intensively to the Egypt Independent staff for several months now) in Egypt, and the increasing number of international readers; the prevalence of online news has changed our reality of reception and perception of knowledge but made absolutely no difference to our ability to write something in clear and understandable English. The café late caused a direct set-back in the readership of print newspaper vis-a-vis the online news and has driven us to reshape our thinking, in this respect, therefore, viz, namely, in this regard, photoshop.

In fact, the false hopes that the print version of “The Egypt Independent” will create the desired impact on the Egyptian society, were nothing but a huge waste of financial resources labor and time; a burden that has continued to weigh us down. We in fact were the mothafuckers who demanded that “The Egypt Independent” produce this print copy. EI journalists weren’t sitting around scratching their arses and came up with the idea. Also, the only news that makes an impact on society in our opinion involves crap fed to us by state security about Hamas and Palestianians taking over Egypt. Until we have unfortunately, witnessed a substantial drop-to-loss in the revenues. Drop-to-loss is a business term meaning we mismanaged the hell out of shit and then want to shaft people who have no say in these financial decisions. It was time for us to look at the horizons with a new vision; a vision that suits the “way of the world” where the world is inhabited solely by bastards and dullards who screw people over and fits in the global landscape of khawazee2 provision

We have managed to build a credible reputation thanks to the Egypt Independent staff because we would not know what a credible reputation was if it bit us on the arse, and our currently established and convenient online presence as opposed to an inconvenient online presence whatever the hell that is, has brought about a considerable number of loyal readers who we will cling onto with our sharp little vampire nails, to whom we are committed to maintain a strong bond with and provide excellence to in the form of a shitty news translation service of Al Masry Al Youm content that revolves largely around Hamas, the wonders of the Egyptian army and the contents of Abdel-Meneim Saeed’s head.

 Al Masry Al Youm Mental Institution for the Criminally Insane, Gurden City.

 

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Not everything is marvellous but this made my stony heart happy

Last week I got a ride with Cairo’s coldest taxi driver, an ancient man who drove his car like nobody else exists and dealt with the consequent verbal assaults with a maddening composure: while the driver next to him flailed about at his steering wheel in rage, Buddha looked straight ahead, issuing gummy maledictions about Egypt, Egyptians and Egypt again.

Near my house, we were forced to stop while a motorist had the temerity to take more than 0.1 seconds to park his car. This prompted the now expected diatribe on the quality of the Egyptian character, the mangled words tumbling out of his denture-less mouth like rubbish being emptied out of a tipper truck. The difference this time was that to his left a bouncing small girl’s head appeared next to his window, effervescent with happiness. She was jumping up and down with delight at the promise of a lollipop, which her father was unwrapping for her. The taxi driver ignored this, too.

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Get with the programme

On Sunday I went out with a colleague to get reactions to the Bassem Youssef investigation. In a taxi on the way to Imbaba we asked the driver his opinion and in a serendipitous convergence, the taxi driver declared that he had worked with B. Youssef last week. It was a moment that would have made Thomas Friedman self-combust: a taxi driver who is also a primary source.

As was obvious from his appearance, this juggernaut of a man – who was called Maged – had been employed as a bodyguard during the recording of the previous week’s show downtown, “one of 150 bodyguards”, he claimed.

His bald head reflected the street lights and his immense bulk spilled out of the driving seat. In a baritone so deep it made Barry White sound like a Jimmy Summerville he described the world of bodyguards, young men and their biceps plucked out of sweat and sawdust gyms and paid LE 200 a day to look hard. This figure comes out of a long chain of deception: a senior bodyguard (“kebeer el bodyguardaat”) is asked to recruit say 200 bodyguards and is offered LE 3,000. He then asks someone else to do this for LE 2,000. This person in turn takes a cut for himself and so on and so on until Maged and his brothers come out of a night with a few notes and maybe a rumble.

If they’re working somewhere classy and aren’t required to fight then some of them forgo the payment in return for a meal and drinks.

Maged said that he had been asked to work the following Wednesday, but wouldn’t for two reasons. One, the money is shit. Two, many of the vendors selling clothes and all varieties of crap on the street near where B. Youssef films his show are from Shubra – tough kids just like Maged, except God made them skinny – and Maged objects to fighting his own.

In Imbaba there was a wedding and next to it a fight. Men and women in suits and dresses sat in cars while next to them a youth did continuous, manic wheelies on a 120cc motorbike followed by another youth on a BMX who did nothing except ride in a sedate fashion while next to them a topless youth appeared dabbing at an injury to his face and strutted in the manner of a man looking for action.

We asked people in Imbaba what they thought of the B.Youssef investigation and the answers were predictable. Here are some of them:

“During the revolution we kept within the bounds of good manners. The problem is the language Bassem uses.”

“You can criticise if you want but don’t say that religion says this or doesn’t say that…we all know what religion says.”

“He says what we’re all thinking.”

“Morsi deserves this language”.

“The problem is that he makes us look bad internationally. Imagine if your father was humiliated. The way that he makes fun of Morsi takes away from the Egyptian people”.

“Opinions should be expressed in a way acceptable to God. I shouldn’t knock people or use bad language.”

“I used to watch Bassem Youssef during the revolution and I used to love him.  But I don’t like the opposition’s style now. I’m not with Morsi but I don’t like the opposition.”

“He is constantly attacking Islamists. Before he used to attack everyone but now he is constantly attacking Islamists”.

Note that all of these people watch B.Youssef’s show regularly and enjoy it, even one man who agreed that the satirist should be taken to task for crossing the line. This apparent contradiction is important and symptomatic of a greater moral schism in Egyptian society that isn’t so much private licentiousness/public prudishness as is the case everywhere in the world as it is about safety in numbers and a dull conformism. The result is this (and it is not safe for work):

For those of you with weak hearts or in polite society the video opens to the scene of a gentlemen manhandling on the floor a lady in not very much green lycra. This spirited wrestling mercifully stops when the man’s microphone cord gets caught up in the lady’s foot. Alas there is worse to come and various acts of sexual simulation take place, one of which involves a chair.

The nadir is at 5.30 when green lycra lady drags a middle-aged man in a galabeya out of the audience and proceeds to molest him before he gets a taste for things and spends most of the time attempting to nuzzle her chests. She responds by pulling up his galabeya to reveal his “calcyon” or Dolce & Gabbana underwear before everything goes south again and she sits on him while he lies prostate on the floor.

While the show itself is unremarkable what is bonkers is the location and the audience. This is a wedding in a tent erected in a residential street in a modest neighbourhood. A brief glimpse of the bride reveals that she is veiled. The sex show audience/wedding guests are ordinary civilians; men, woman and children. The men stand around and clap while the women spectate like they were at a conference on agricultural engineering and the kids scamper across the stage. The only point at which anyone acknowledges that something crazy is happening is when galabeya man’s friends are whipped up into a frenzy of excitement while he is preyed on.

El Sheikh Adam, who considers himself an authority on fellaheen by virtue of being one (where fellah means coming from a rural area north of Cairo rather than being familiar with rice cultivation) had a look at the video and after he had picked himself off the floor his expert eye said that the people in the video look like his peoples.

What is certain is that this is a group of people who all know each other, perhaps an extended family/families or a small village, and they have given each other permission to suspend normal service for one evening only. It is similar to when a veiled woman takes off her higab on her wedding day and puts it back on again the next day.

Another parallel is traffic in Egypt where there are virtually no rules other than the law that drivers are allowed to swear at each other in the bluest language they can think of for any reason whatsoever, with the result that Cairo’s cacophony hums with a baseline of kosomaks and ebn el maras. Even cars themselves can swear via a tattoo of ebn metnaka beat out on the car horn.

Contrast this with the narrow limits of acceptable language in “polite” society, Victorian in its prudishness and propriety. While riding in women’s carriages on the metro I see strangers tap each other on the shoulder and alert them to a tiny strand of hair that has come loose from their hegab. El Sheikh Adam tells me that in his village there is zero sexual harassment because it is taboo for a man to talk to a woman he is unrelated to, but some of these same young men come to Cairo and turn into disgusting, lascivious Don Juans on Qasr el-Nil Bridge, lost in a crowd that at some point in recent history deemed sexual harassment in certain geographical locations acceptable. It’s the old story of Egypt and its boxes.

There is a point to all this and you will be glad to read that I am getting to it now. The cases against B. Youssef filed by private actors absolutely NOT affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood accusing him of insulting religion and insulting the president are unambiguously political and about silencing him, but if the Imbaba sample and other anecdotal stories I have heard are anything to go by, there is a sense that Youssef has crossed a line of respectability that has nothing to do with politics, and the idiots behind these charges are banking on that.

That for me is the most interesting part of this case and not the dreary, Mubarakist attempts at censorship. Maybe it will force Egyptian society to challenge these staid ideas of “respectability” and the inconsistencies in the strange moral code that doesn’t so much govern as strangle its behavior. Maybe it will be the first step towards its accepting that foul language deployed intelligently does not detract from a person’s moral standing and that sex continues to exist even in the presence of one’s mother or sister because we are all adults and that, as Max Rodenbeck wisely quoteth, “the words art and should don’t mix”.

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Newsletter no. 1 from the Prosperity and Love Association

Newsletter no. 1 from The Prosperity and Love Association.

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Mountain Brotherhood

Regardless of the chaos, there are some certainties in Egypt and that is at least once a month an armed personnel carrier will bear down on a group of protesting Egyptian citizens, like some squalid, mechanical bull run. On Sunday night I happened to be one of them.

I had gone to the Muslim Brotherhood headquarters in Moqattam to have a look at the protesters demonstrating against the attack, by Muslim Brotherhood members, on protesters the previous day in the same place. One female journalist was slapped on the face so hard by one of these heroes that she was knocked to the ground.

Moqattam is on a mountain overlooking Cairo, and the MB headquarters is itself at the top of a small hill, and the multistorey villa housing it is taller than its immediate neighbours, like the organisation itself, attempting to be lofty and isolated and above it all and failing. There was a small group of protesters outside its gates when I arrived milling about and demanding the removal of the supreme guide and the regime and such like. Every so often they would all point to the top of the building and demand that the “sheep” they had spotted peering out of one of the villa’s mirrored windows withdraw inside.

A man with prayer marks on both his forehead and the bridge of his nose gently encouraged a woman not to graffiti the headquarters wall and was reprimanded by another man with hearing aids and a giant voice who warned him not to “lay a finger on her”. The first man responded by saying that he had asked her to stop because he “wouldn’t be able to stand seeing another girl or a man or anyone beaten up”. The back and forth continued and ended with both men accusing each other of being Ikhwan.

Further up the road was the usual garrison of Central Security Forces. A middle-aged police officer in full uniform including decorative ribbons and a slightly younger balding man in plainclothes watched the protest dispassionately and we went to talk to them. The police officer’s sunglasses were so opaque and so black that we could see ourselves clearly in them, and his moustache moved up and down underneath them like a ship moving under a night sky on a rocky sea.

The Interior Ministry was there, the officer announced, to “protect lives and property, in that order” and as usual it sounded like a threat. “Look after yourselves,” he said when we took our leave.

Round the back of the headquarters is a huge open area that has been commandeered on one side by even more CSF vans and troops, trying to make the time pass by shooting the shit and horsing around and doing marching drills. Meanwhile, a stream of men entered the headquarters, the majority of them between 18 and 30 with the lightly bearded, sensible trousered look so beloved of this group. Senior or perhaps just richer members alighted from expensive cars dressed in suits and open-necked shirts with no ties.

Two MBers we spoke to were extremely friendly in the programmed, on message way typical of the group. Lots of smiling (think: El-Beltagy) with very occasional and fleeting references to religion – a relevant Quranic verse, say. Much sympathetic inclining of head and jocularities (think: El Erian) and agreeing but actually disagreeing (think: all of them). They are like human automated telephone menus where every number you hit gives you one very polite response and that it that you are wrong.

Sudden CSF activity indicated that things had heated up at the front of the headquarters. The number of protesters had increased, as had the number of TV crews. Two APCs had assumed position some 20 metres away. Demonstrators began removing circular green MB logos affixed to the headquarters’ wall which is when the police officer’s “lives and property” mantra kicked in and they went to the rescue of the property by playing with protesters’ lives.

It was only a mini charge because this was a short street and the driver showed incredible restraint by not killing anyone or even squashing them non-fatally. We asked a copper why the Interior Ministry has this insistence on going Ayrton Senna on protesters and with a straight face apparently because he took us for complete fucking simpletons he replied that the vehicle was moving down a descending slope and thus this kind of speed was inevitable.

The Interior Ministry still uses a pre-revolution tactic of using avuncular, senior citizen officers to shoo away troublesome female/elderly citizens refusing to leave a protest area. A group of about five women were altercating with such an officer who was showering them with affendams and 7adriteks in an attempt to get them to move off. In the end he resorted to announcing that they were about to deal with the protesters down the road “with a new tactic” – i.e. teargas – and the women moved away while one of them roared that the Interior Ministry are “whores who will sleep with anybody”.

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Amir, Abdallah & Port Said

Television channels showed scenes from January 28 2011 alongside yesterday’s events and – were it not for how iconic images from the first Day of Anger are – the two would have been almost indistinguishable.

Downtown Cairo is filled with the revolution’s phantoms and with every new battle a memory builds on a memory, layered, like the posters and graffiti that have accumulated on these streets’ walls, each new layer obscuring the old.

Yesterday evening it was the familiar trinity of rocks, teargas and birdshot played out at the end of the Qasr El-Nil Bridge where, on January 28 2011, protesters prayed under water canon. Yesterday Central Security Forces attempted to run protesters over with the armed personnel carriers – another January 28 flashback.Protesters responded by commandeering two APCs and setting them on fire.

On the outskirts of Port Said on Sunday, Indian free zone workers strolled through the empty streets. Further in on one of Port Said’s main streets, small groups of men gathered near the site of the clashes watched by the blank expressions of shop shutters, firmly pulled down.

A Port Said resident who had agreed to take us around, let’s call him Amir, and his friend, who we shall call Abdallah, met us. Reasons for the name change will become clear later. Both were young men in the 20s, Amir a cocky, well-intentioned know it all and Abdallah an overgrown child in a tight tracksuit.

Amir immediately made it clear that it would be very hard to go anywhere in Port Said because we were too foreign, and by which he meant not only my kind of foreign but foreign as in coming from Cairo. Abdallah advised my colleague Lina and me to cover our heads while underlining that this wouldn’t really camouflage the foreignness but it was a start. In fact I think it increased the foreignness by making both of us look preposterous.

After 10 minutes of negotiations during which Amir said that it would be absolutely impossible to meet the relatives of men sentenced to death for crimes committed during the Port Said stadium massacre and pontificated on Port Said affairs, it was agreed that we would meet a local journalist in a shisha café. He was a jolly man, able to maintain the jolliness even as he fielded phone calls updating him about the latest fatalities.

We went to a ministry of health administrative building. As we waited for the doctor we wanted to interview, Amir informed us that all the doctors of Port Said know him because of his work with people injured in the revolution. The doctor walked in and Amir introduced himself, disproving the veracity of this statement.

The doctor, a small round man, dispassionately reeled out figures concerning the dead and injured in a rushed, nasal monotone like an ATM belching out a mini bank statement. He nervously fingered his mobile phone as he told us that most protesters had been shot in the head, neck and torso, that 5 had died that day, and that one man was on his way in an ambulance and was unlikely to make it. We asked him whether we could visit the injured in hospital. For our own benefit it would be better not to, the doctor said, because tensions are high.

Amir couldn’t help himself. “I told them that, doctor.”

We left, and walked back through the deserted streets to the car (Amir and Abdallah had made us park 10 minutes away from the health building “because it was safer”.

It had become apparent very early on that Amir was of a nervous disposition when we went round one corner and encountered an army checkpoint and Amir blurted out, “Oh, shit!” in English and made the driver change his route).

Back at the café we spoke to a member of the Green Eagles (supporters of the Port Saidi Al-Masry Football Club) as well as a former Al-Masry player.

It became clear from them and from other residents we spoke to that they feel alienated from the rest of Egypt. This is a city with something of a frontier mentality both for reasons historical (it fought a war of resistance against tripartite aggression in the 1950s) and geographical (it is a port city, vulnerable to incursion from the Canal), and its demonization in the media and by the Al-Ahly Club following the stadium massacre has made the city turn in on itself.

Lina reached the mother of one of the men sentenced to death; she and others were at a nearby protest. Again we bundled into the car, Abdallah and Amir sharing the front seat, and again Amir made the driver park nowhere near our destination. As soon as we parked a group of young men advised our harried driver to remove his number plates before doing it themselves. There was some mysterious way the car could be identified as being from Cairo, they insisted.

The protest was a straggly group of men, some of who immediately surrounded us when we approached the convicted men’s mothers, angry and suspicious. It was at this point that Abdallah proved useful by standing in their way and talking them down. Amir later informed us that “he had unfolded his knife in his pocket, ready, just in case”.

We spoke to the relatives of the convicted men and uselessly bleated out platitudes as they described one of the very worst things you can imagine happening to your child. It was again clear that they felt betrayed and targeted by all of Egypt and that their sons were the victims of some collective punishment being imposed on Port Said.

Amir and Abdallah insisted on accompanying us out of the city, Abdallah trailing us on his moped, Amir on his own in the now spacious front seat. There was a strange moment in this already strange day when Abdallah got out of the car to get his moped and even before his form had disappeared into the darkness, Amir began complaining about Abdallah’s father who he said, is a senior Interior Ministry police officer and who blames Amir’s “braveness” for Abdallah’s being sucked into revolutionary acts.

“His father is a DISGUSTING man,” Amir blurted out suddenly.

On the way out of the city there was another moment of Amir tension when he and Abdallah disagreed about which way to go at an army checkpoint. Abdallah on his moped shouted through the window that the army checkpoint was open and that we could pass through it. Amir, panicked, told Abdallah to shut up and that we would be going his route. Abdallah cheerfully insisted that, no, we could go through the army checkpoint.

“I HAVE A WEAPON ON ME! I HAVE A BLOODY WEAPON ON ME, ABDALLAH!” Amir bellowed into the driver’s ear at Abdallah, ensuring that not only soldiers manning the army checkpoint heard, but all of Port Said.

On the way back to Cairo, our driver, from Ismailia confirmed the general rule in Egypt that the closer two governorates are, the more intensely its residents hate each other. I had had a similar experience in Qena with a driver who spent 30 kilometres expanding on the many reasons why Qena’s residents were glad to see the back of Luxor when it seceded. Citizens of Assiut have similarly minus zero feelings about the good people of Minya.

Morsi announced a curfew on Monday in the Suez Canal cities. On Sunday Port Said was virtually empty. On Monday, when a 30-day curfew was announced, its streets were full, as were those of Suez and Ismailia. There were jokes on Twitter about Egyptians observing the curfew by going out to have a look at the curfew. It broke the tension, to some extent, after weeks of awful news.

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