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I returned yesterday from a brief sojourn in Tunis, where I attended a one-day workshop on small arms and ate inordinate amounts of food.

The last time I was in Tunis was in 2005, when I went with a fact-finding mission and spoke to brave people defying Ben Ali and his vast network of cops whose job was to silence dissent against him. On one day we went to an activist’s house and she cooked us a Brik while two policemen who had followed us there sat outside. It was delicious.

Much has changed politically of course but the capital remains unchanged, shiny and white and gorgeous. I stayed in an area called Gammarth, which is an upscale district of sprawling villas plonked on rolling hills overlooking bays of impossibly beautiful serene blue water. A taxi driver showed us a villa formerly owned by one of the Ben Ali clan somewhere between Gammarth and La Marsa, another chi-chi area full of expensive real estate and attractive foliage.

Much of our stay was spent shuttling between Gammarth and downtown Tunis, about a 20 minute ride by car along a well-maintained motorway-type road bordered by commercial parks and residential areas of mostly nicely designed white villas. French cars zipped alongside us maintaining good lane discipline and stopping at red lights. Signs accurately indicated to motorists which way to go. Upon rolling down the window gusts of clean air forced themselves into our grateful lungs.

Downtown Tunis continued the theme of being everything Cairo is not with its well laid out streets and cleanliness and friendly people. The people really are wonderful, although that might be part in due to the mystique of the Egyptian accent in the Arab world. Not my accent, obviously (which is mystifying in a different way) but that of El Sheikh Adam. I have heard tales of legend about the effect produced by an Egyptian opening his mouth and emitting sound at Arabic speakers of non-Egyptian provenance and these tales were proved true, not all the time, but on multiple occasions in Tunis, apart from one kid who looked blankly at El Sheikh Adam when he asked a question and then appealed to a woman standing nearby for translation.

(In any case several people were helpful above and beyond the call of duty, including a newspaper seller who went out of his way to walk us through the scary deserted lanes of the market area to safely deliver us to a restaurant).

For someone whose ears are attuned to Egyptian Arabic, the Tunisian dialect is absolutely bonkers and wonderful and sounds like syllables having a fight to leave the speaker’s mouth first, with French trying to break things up.  Speech is delivered fast, and often loudly, with a unique lilt, and sometimes when I heard two Tunisian citizens in full flow and couldn’t grasp the meaning of what they were saying I had no way of determining whether they were pissed off or neutral or joking because of the similarity in tone to outsider ears. To listen to it is sometimes like being assaulted by the letter qaf and the letter sheen, but in a nice way, and I think that if there was a trade fair of world languages the Tunisian stall should just  “Sfax” سفكس the most Tunisian sound in the world apart from shkoun. (Egypt could have “mga3las” as its trade fair exhibit).

When not listening to taxi drivers we wandered around the old market area with its wonderful doors and so on. At one mosque a self-appointed doorman demanded to know whether I am Muslim or not (based on my exotic English appearance), addressing his questions to Adam rather than get his hands dirty with the heathen. Adam informed him that I am Egyptian and understand Arabic, to which Busy Body replied that that is irrelevant because Christians can speak Arabic. I then (irony of ironies) produced my ID card whose religious field was useful for the first and last time in its history but this was not enough for Defender of the Faith who made me complete the shahada. Muslim credentials established, upon entering the mosque we realised that it was the same mosque we had just exited, unbothered by anyone, and which we had entered by a different entrance. How we lolled!

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Like Egypt, Tunisia is going through a never-ending transition. While we were there a new PM was appointed who nobody seemed very enthusiastic about (and who many people had never heard of). There was a conference by the Nahda Party in the hotel we stayed in entitled something involving “etarat” which in Egypt means wheels. Adam had a good laugh about this in the bloke’s toilets with a conference delegate who chuckled and slapped him on the back and laughed about “el akh el masry” and his zany humour but refused to divulge more information about what these mysterious etarat are. There is interesting graffiti everywhere on the streets, and a demo was called for on the day we left (to coincide with Bouaziz’s death rather than in protest at our departure) but otherwise, and again like Egypt, life proceeded normally.

The highlight of this trip was undoubtedly the food part from the booby-trapped salads (I don’t eat animal products) which often house concealed tuna and luncheon meat. I ate the most delicious thing ever, a fricassee, which is fried bread filled with delicious things, purchased from a hole in the wall, and in Sidi Bou Said I was presented with a mint tea containing pine nuts, which I drank while seeing rainbows and stars, and which lasted until I got the Egyptair flight home and survived on an anaemic salad and bread roll that had clearly given up on life some centuries ago, their having forgotten to book me a special meal. And by special I mean the same as above but with some added slop roughly resembling vegetable matter.

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A note on the imminent dispersal of the Pro-Morsy sit-ins

Every time I go to the Rab3a sit-in I think that it would be an almost impossible task to clear the people crammed into it; surely not even the Interior Ministry and armed forces would want to take on that task, not because they are concerned about loss of life but because of the logistical difficulty, and the political fallout internationally (the July 26 protests demonstrated that the anti-terrorism crowd seem to care about what the international community thinks).

So I did some cursory reading (Wikipedia, what else) on how Tiananmen Square was cleared of the pro-democracy protesters on June 4 1989 and so far there have been close parallels between the events that led up to that clearing, and events in Egypt.

June 1: the state Politburo issued a report to its members in which protesters were described as “terrorists and counterrevolutionaries”. A state security report said talked about American influence on the protest movement, and said that American forces had intervened in the student movement with the objective of overthrowing the Community Party.

June 2: newspapers began publishing articles calling for protesters to leave the square. State-run newspapers also reported that day that troops were positioned in ten key areas in Beijing.

June 3: the politburo decided that the dispersal of protesters would begin at 9 p.m. and must end by 6 a.m.

State-run television warned residents to stay indoors (but they didn’t because unlike here, the residents were with the student protesters).

At 10 p.m. an army division used live ammo against protesters outside the square as their advance proceeded. APCS were used to ram through barricades.

The first APCs reached the Square at 12.15 a.m.

At 1.30 a.m. army soldiers arrived at the north and south ends of the Square and sealed if off from reinforcements of students and residents, killing more protesters

At 4 a.m. the Square’s lights were turned off and government loudspeakers announced that, “Clearance of the Square begins now. We agree with students’ request to clear the Square.”

Light went back on at 4.30 a.m. Soldiers advanced and stopped 10 metres from students. Soldiers took aim with machines guns while in the prone position. Behind them soldiers stood with assault rifles and behind that row were tanks and APCs.

Students began withdrawing.

Just after 6 a.m. tanks pursued students attempting to vacate the Square. One drove through the crowd, killing 11.

Later in the evening thousands of civilians tried to re-enter the square. Many were parents of protesters. Troops opened fire. Dozens of civilians were shot in the back.

Conservative estimates put the death toll at 300 civilians.

—-

Today, the Interior Minister gave a press conference in which he said that police, the army and the public prosecution office were coordinating on the best time to clear the square. He said that the Interior Ministry is waiting for a decision from the Public Prosecution Office on complaints filed against the Nahda and Rab3a sit-ins from residents of the areas in which these sit-ins are being held. The Ministry appears to be seeking to give the dispersal legitimacy via a court decision that the sit-ins are a public nuisance.

I find it odd that it is doing this, since the Minister also (correctly) said that there have been incidents of torture and even killings in the sit-ins. Surely these crimes are more serious than disturbance caused to residents, and more than enough on their own to justify that the Ministry acts. For this reason I think this waiting for Public Prosecution Office decisions is probably bollocks. Either a smoke screen of some kind or another installment in this public mandate nonsense made popular by the army.

It seems more and more likely that security bodies will act in the next few days. Yesterday night’s violence on Nasr Road demonstrates that they are incapable of acting with restraint or with any kind of sensible plan. That they are taking on a massive civilian sit-in spells disaster. But just for the record, I would like to suggest that there are ways to minimise the deaths and injuries so that we do not replicate what happened in Tiananmen Square.

1. If the pro-Morsys fail to see that they are backing a losing horse and refuse to withdraw (just like Tahrir Square protesters refused to withdraw from many of their sit-ins) then they should at least ensure that children and people who are physically unable to escape/cope with the attack leave the area.

2. Hospitals surrounding the area must be on red alert. Extra blood supplies must be collected in advance. Field hospitals should be established nearby the two sit-ins.

3. The security forces will probably attack at night, when there are fewer cameras but more protesters. This automatically ensures more blood. The Nahda protest is virtually empty during the day and in my opinion could be controlled with much less force than is required at night. Rab3a is almost always full and there is no good time to attempt to disperse it.

4. Independent journalists have seen weapons in the Nahda sit-in. It seems unlikely that one sit-in has weapons but the other doesn’t. BBC journalists saw a very basic weapon used on the pro Morsy side yesterday but the pro Morsy death toll (estimates range between 50 – 100) compared to the zero reported deaths on the police side demonstrates that the pro Morsys either did not have weapons last night or were unwilling to use them against the police (it’s a shame they didn’t show such restraint with the civilian residents of Giza, Alexandria and Manial).

5. When dealing with armed opponents the police of course has the right to use force to defend itself. If the police cared about international standards, it would use only enough force required for self-defence or to control the situation. Yesterday night they started with teargas and quickly escalated to bullets when trying to stop some Pro Morsys blocking the October Bridge. The death toll indicates that regardless of how the clashes started, the police did not use reasonable force.

6. Security bodies must anticipate and plan for the thousands of frightened, angry protesters who will be forced out of Rab3a, possibly in the dark of night, surrounded by residents who for three weeks have been slowly fuming about their presence. This is in addition to the general public at large, who since June 30 have been told that these protesters are terrorists. How will they protect these protesters from reprisals?

7. The Armed Forces must not use its vehicles as weapons. If there is a risk that its soldiers will “panic” and in the face of resistance run protesters over with APCs as happened at Maspero then it is under a duty not to take these vehicles anywhere near areas of civilian conflict until its soldiers man up and/or are trained properly in the art of dealing with large, angry crowds.

8. The police must not employ civilians to attack other civilians. Yesterday a video shows young men in civilian clothing throwing stones and hanging around uniformed officers as they shot at Pro Morsys. Often the worst brutality happens when one side of civilians apprehends another civilian from the other side (the torture in Nahda demonstrates this). Must it also be stated that using civilians as police is illegal and immoral?

9. Detainees must not be brutalised. Arrests should in any case be kept in a minimum and reserved for only the most serious acts (using firearms, physical assault etc).

10. Journalists and NGOs should be coming up with a plan to document the dispersal, seeking out vantage points where they can see but are safe. The security forces and other civilians should leave them alone to do their job.

I hope that anyone who protested yesterday against terrorism is able to differentiate between acts of terrorism, and violence used in response to an attack by security bodies. I hope also they realise that Egypt’s security bodies have never demonstrated any ability to deal with civilian protesters in a way that protects life and minimises casualties, and that in “mandating” security bodies to deal with the “terrorists” they sanctioned arbitrary and excessive use of force.

The fallout from arbitrary and excessive use of force against a group like the Muslim Brotherhood will not be confined to them. But yesterday’s protesters are not responsible for the violence that is about to take place because the idea of them giving a mandate to the army or security bodies is of course ridiculous nonsense. Egypt’s security bodies act with complete disregard for what citizens want and they care no more about the wishes of the people who took to the streets yesterday in support of the army than they do about those in Rab3a and Nahda.

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On Sheep and Infidels

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Here is something I wrote about the current mess.

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Before I begin, let me state some facts so that when people begin the ad hominem attacks they can try to rein them in within the following boundaries:

I voted for Mohamed Morsi in the second round of the presidential elections (to keep out Ahmed Shafiq).

I am one of the administrators of a blog called “MB in English” that features English translations of awful statements of a sectarian, conspiratorial, or bonkers nature that the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) intends for domestic consumption only.

I am against army intervention in politics.

I state all this because Egyptian politics and society in general are split along identity lines in a way that they have never been in the last three years. This problem is so chronic that the merits or flaws of an argument are almost entirely determined by who is making the argument in a haze of fury and suspicion.

For the past week I have been trundling between the pro- and anti-Morsi protests. It is like travelling between two planets. The pro-camp has significantly more men than women (although there are women and children there) and it lacks the social diversity of the anti-camp. I have never seen one unveiled woman who is not a journalist there. I have never met a Christian or encountered any other journalist who has met one there. It is important to note that pro-Morsi protesters and pro-Morsi media have often claimed that there are Christians attending their sit-in. At the same time, they also allege that the church was behind the feloul-US-Zionist plot to oust Morsi.

The point is that that the pro-Morsi crowd is largely homogenous. Their opponents use this homogeneity as evidence that the MB, is at best, an organization that has failed to market itself to non-supporters and at worst a closed group unconcerned with non-members.

Full article here.

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Zeinhom

Zeinhom Morgue sums up everything that is wrong with the Egyptian state. It is a small box of a building down an alleyway covered both with the rich stench of excrement coming from the Brooke Animal Hospital next door and the graffiti of the aggrieved; the forensic authority is the last step on the production line of state oppression. It shits out its mutilated victims to their relatives, congregated in the morgue’s yard, the ground of which is covered in sand and abandoned furniture and scraps of wood.

Relatives are not being allowed inside. Some are lined up in a narrow corridor with their empty coffins, waiting. One coffin has a pillow. After a long stretch without the door opening and a body coming out, a frustrated young man begins kicking at the iron door furiously, demanding to be let in. The door remains closed and no one stirs inside. An older man storms out, pushing people out of the way and grabs a piece of wood with the intention of doing something with it, pauses, reconsiders. He grabs wildly at the electricity cables hanging carelessly over the morgue’s walls like cobwebs until he is urged to move away.

Still no movement from inside, so men hoist each other up to look through a space above the door. One man delivers an uninterrupted stream of the bluest obscenities imaginable at the doctors inside, who he accuses of refusing to work. People shift around uncomfortably as the words bounce off the walls and reverberate. Still nothing. A man walks in and shouts that people must check the forensic reports before they leave; the morgue is saying people were shot in the stomach when they were shot in the back.

There is a middle-aged man holding a plastic bag on the side, observing. He starts telling his story, a dead daughter, medical negligence and years of fighting with the forensic authority for some kind of redress. He asks for the address of a human rights group, asks for it to be written carefully because he can’t read or write and needs to show it to people for directions. He says thank you, pulls out a little book with details of the case and a picture of his daughter, 5 years old, and says, could anyone abandon this beautiful girl.

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More Morsy

On my way home today an hour before sunset there was an ethereal light. It leaked through trees and between buildings and stopped, suspended. Below it the roads were almost entirely empty except for the permanent queue at the petrol station, kept orderly now by a line of police barricades. At its head was a large group of men on motorbikes and carrying jerkins, holding forth in loud voices about an unknown subject.

Further down the almost empty road was a man walking purposefully with a small child. The man was shouting something unintelligible while holding a picture of Morsy with a big red X through his face and “leave” written above his head. He weaved through parked cars and held the poster up forcefully at shop windows.

In the supermarket three employees were huddled together discussing Morsy’s speech, “he spoke for three hours and didn’t say a single thing I wanted to hear” one said. Outside two middle-aged women in Tamarod t-shirts were hailing a cab.

Even as the violence rages in the Delta there is an unbearable tension in Cairo even though we all know what is coming. These 36 hours or so before the June 30 will be like waiting for a spring to snap. If protesters – or the army – wait that long, that is.

At a party yesterday an activist said that he wouldn’t be taken part in June 30 because it isn’t “his fight” but rather between the Muslim Brotherhood and a group of people a large proportion of which seem to be clamouring for army intervention to remove the MB. (There are of course groups who are anti-MB, anti-army and anti-old regime taking part).

I can’t understand why the MB doesn’t retreat, both politically and on the ground. Five of its members have been killed so far, according to reports. If the leadership doesn’t care enough about its members’ lives surely it realises that prolonged, violent clashes on a mass scale will prompt army intervention, and that this army intervention is part of the Tamarod plan for Morsy’s removal. If they withdraw they leave their opposition to either protest peacefully or attack MB property without the clashes, and without loss of life.

Of course if Morsy had any decency he would have made a significant concession by now. As I described at excruciating length in my last post, I have problems with a fairly elected leader being ousted by the army (even where this is on the back of protests and even where the leader is a jumped-up little buffoon from a sinister gang tearing the country apart with its obdurateness) because it means the end of Egypt’s brief experiment in democracy.

The army is already swooping as the protests grow and all we hear from the MB is the steady sound of a grave being dug. There are several possible outcomes to this mess. Even if Morsy is not sacrificed there is likely to be a major army-imposed cleaning out at lower levels. Whatever the result the MB will undergo a military-led emasculation of some sorts and the bill will be written in civilian blood. Everyone loses.

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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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