Long & never ending, just like the transitional period itself

1-0, mothafuckers.

On the way to Baharmos on Wednesday, lost in Giza’s rural fringe, I saw a group of three men attacking a single man, one of them armed with a plank of wood. They were crossing the road as they did this, all the while pounding their victim insistently. Nearby, a group of men sat on chair outside shops observed with their arms crossed.

It was an inauspicious start to the day. In a polling station in Baharmos – home town of Hazem Abo Ismail, the Salafi sheikh who had his presidential dreams crushed because his mother had American nationality – we found a group of Abdel-Meneim Aboul-Fotouh campaigners in matching fluorescent orange safety vests gathered around a laptop.

We asked them how things were going, and they immediately launched into an impassioned complaint about the Muslim Brotherhood, who they said were influencing female voters by telling them that a vote for Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi would take them to heaven.

A man on a motorbike who overheard the latter part of the conversation interjected, calling them liars, and the inevitable back and forth ensued until we buggered off inside the polling station.

A woman who had just finished voting told me she chose Morsi, “because he is a man of the book and will serve us”.

At the men’s section of this polling station I asked a queue of voters who would get their tick, and it was non-stop Morsi and Aboul-Fotouh, Aboul-Fotouh and Morsi with the occasional Ahmed Shafiq thrown in for variety. This was repeated at almost every polling station I went to in these rural parts other than one in Manashey, El-Qanater.

Voters in this polling station were extraordinary, and not only because I stumbled across the lyricist for Shaaban Abdel-Rehim, the multiple-watch wearing singer famous internationally for “I hate Israel” (the lyricist, a cheerful man in a red baseball hat voted for Shafiq because Shaaban is voting Moussa. “That way we have all bases covered,” he chuckled).

Almost every candidate got a vote in that polling station. A group of four friends were voting for Aboul-Fotouh, Sabahy, Shafiq and Khaled Ali. Elsewhere in the queue there were Moussa and Morsi fans. I found no explanation for the variety of political views in this ordinary countryside town.

Leaving behind the fields we went to Imbaba, the urban conurbation on the edge of Cairo that has spilt into Giza’s countryside.

There we found a group of women in a queue who half-smilingly refused to disclose who they were voting for with a sort of flirtatious resentment. “These are our secrets,” one of them said as she bustled away a child.

I found a lone Mohamed Selim El-Awa supporter in that queue, who said that he was supporting him because he is a good person. There was also a Shafiq man, voting for him because he “has promised to restore security and can do it”.

Security and God were recurring themes in the queues – and they found their expression in the final result. In Sudan Street on the edge of Imbaba a man told me he voted Moussa because “Egypt is a nest around which 5 or 6 eagles are circling” and it needs an “experienced, strong, leader”.

It was halfway through the day that I realised that most of Egypt – or at least my acquaintances and political commentators who had pontificated on his chances –  had been fooled by Ahmed Shafiq. He had been dismissed as a buffoon, and the reception he had been given during public appearances (shoes launched at his head, mobbed and forced to seek refuge in a mosque in Qena) had been interpreted as representing voters as a whole.

On the evening of the second day I attended a count in a polling station in Dokki, the same polling station I voted in. This polling station, a classroom in the El-Medina School, was presided over by a well-groomed, tall judge with an Errol Flynn moustache and a handgun strapped to his waist. He kept a tight ship, barking out instructions at his staff in a sonorous voice while keeping things light with the occasional joke.

He insisted that the count be carried out in complete silence from start to finish, and it was. Anyone who knows Egypt will realise what an achievement this is. The count was attended by campaign representatives (Morsi, Sabahy, Aboul-Fotouh and Moussa) and NGO monitors from a local group and the Arab League. A couple of army soldiers and police observed at the classroom door.

The judge chose an unorthodox method for the count, if the counting I saw subsequently on TV is anything to go by. The votes were firstly unfolded and laid flat on top of each other in piles. Then they were arranged into bundles of around 100 and tied together with some black string. This took about half an hour (there were nearly 3,000 votes). Then he sat down at the teacher’s table and grasped the first bundle of votes in his hands. He announced that everyone should shut up because he wouldn’t repeat himself. He cut the first string. Ready? Go.

He read out candidate numbers. Everyone had drawn up a chart with the candidates’ names and we put marks next to their names every time a number was called. Sabahy was 10. Shafiq 9. Moussa 4. Aboul-Fotouh 5. Khaled Ali 12. Morsi 13.

The judge went at breakneck speed, and the silence with which it was conducted leant it the solemnity of a religious ritual. We paused after every bundle, a couple of times for a cigarette break and once for the Aboul-Fotouh representative, who fussily requested that she be allowed to move closer to the civil servant noting down the official count.

A rhythm was soon established, variations on 4, 9, 5, 10. There was the occasional Khaled Ali, El-Awa and two Abol-Ezz El-Hariris. It soon became clear that Moussa, Sabahy and Shafiq were leading. I saw that on one vote a voter had written “yes” instead of a tick next to Shafiq’s name, referendum style.

Attending the vote was one of the most wonderful moments of the election, better even than voting.

To witness it was deceptively empowering, and I left with the feeling that this was democracy made tangible through the corporality of these votes carefully indexed by the strict judge. In the Mubarak days counting took place in central polling stations, giving much scope for funny business and fights as the ballot boxes made their precarious journey to them. I left the polling station abuzz – even though my guy Hamdeen did come second to Moussa.

Everything came crashing down the next day when the disaster of the Shafiq numbers became clear. The bumbling, uncouth, irate idiot had come second to Morsi. Sabahy was third. I spent Friday alternating between soaring hope and searing desperation as results trickled in and for the first time in 16 months experienced that special brand of fear that the National Democratic Party inspires, the sense of some imminent evil.

Events in Egypt appear absurd, often tragically absurd. How is it that a mediocre septuagenarian, a former prime minister appointed by Mubarak and removed by Tahrir Square protests, who was publicly roasted during a television appearance in 2011, is now in the runoffs?

In between the hand wringing and cheek slapping a host of theories have been put forward the most popular of which is that it was a vote against political Islam. But why didn’t they vote for Moussa, whose ran on the same stability, security and secularism ticket? Another is that Shafiq is the army’s candidate, with all the advantages attendant on this. There have been allegations of fraud, but none that I have come across have been substantiated.

The idea that people voted for Shafiq of their own volition is distinctively unsettling, both cognitively and emotionally – but only if you believe in January 25 2011 and are willing (or able to) to ride out the ups and downs that have come in its wake because you have a conviction that something better is on the horizon. For everyone else, Shafiq has marketed himself as a safe harbour in a storm, the man who will restore law and order within 24 hours of being elected.

I felt this most acutely on the second day of the elections in Fayoum. In one petrol station the queue for fuel (there has been a fuel shortage for some months now) was longer than any of the polling stations queues of voters I saw.

In a hotel on Fayoum’s beautiful, still lake, in the broiling early afternoon heat, we stopped for sustenance and sat by the lake to have a cup of tea. A man in a rowboat appeared, the sad-looking little vessel fitted out with a canopy of old sheets to keep out the sun.

He invited us to go on a ride around the lake, we could take our tea with us. It was a tempting offer, to briefly escape it all on that serene water. The hotel waiter came out and said that we weren’t allowed to take our tea on the rowboat, resolutely ignoring the rowboat man’s protests that he would return everything intact.

There being zero other customers, the rowboat man, Farag, stuck around and shot the shit with us. He was a gentle man somewhere in his 30s who said he wasn’t sure he would go and vote, but if he did he would vote for Shafiq. He rejected the idea of voting for an Islamist candidate because he had heard that they would “attack tourism”, and tourism is already on its knees, he said – nobody comes to the lake anymore.

Crime had increased in the area since the revolution. He mentioned no positive change in his life since February 2011.

In the old days he voted for “the camel” (the NDP symbol). We suggested that he should vote, giving him the spiel about making a difference and his voice being heard and all that bullshit. We advocated voting for anyone except Moussa or Shafiq because they were connected to the old regime.

Farag sat there, being rocked up and down gently on his decrepit boat, politely listening to us. Without meaning to present him as representing anyone other than himself, the election results show that Farag’s priorities are shared by at least 5 million other voters. He wants food on the table, security and enough money to pay both rent to the boat’s owner and the fee demanded by fire services officials for their services.

He didn’t during our 15-minute conversation mention freedom or living in dignity or democracy or human rights or military rule. His only mention of the old regime was to say that some of its members used to build illegally on the shores of the lake before the revolution.

Now all these things might matter to Farag but they don’t seem to be his priority. Shafiq, who has continually bored us with his security rhetoric, addresses his priorities in a way that other candidates fail to do.

It’s not that Aboul-Fotouh and company told voters that they must put up with their homes being looted and their womenfolk raped in the streets while we turn Egypt into Switzerland, rather that the emphasis was different.

Another, crucial, factor is Shafiq’s connection to the old regime. There is a critical mass of Egyptian voters who regard this as an asset, rather than a fault. For them, Shafiq is the strongman who understands Egypt and Egyptians and knows how to keep them in check – unlike the refined diplomat Amr Moussa and the Tahrir Square and Muslim Brotherhood upstarts.

A couple of people on my Facebook have talked about Shafiq’s “experience” as qualifying him for the job. Shafiq was Minister of Civil Aviation for 10 years and is constantly crowing about the Cairo Airport terminal built on his watch. Read this for more about that marvel. As Kamal El-Ganzoury and Essam Sharaf have demonstrated, previous government experience is no indicator of capability. By “experience” these people might mean that Shafiq is a wide boy who knows how the system works in Egypt and will get his hands dirty to keep it ticking over.

Keeping the system intact is obviously what the network of individuals who benefited from the Mubarak regime want. More importantly Shafiq has tapped into the fears of the millions of people who didn’t necessarily benefit under the Mubarak regime but whose situation hasn’t improved after the revolution, either.

To dismiss Shafiq supporters outright as felool (regime remnants, a disparaging term used to describe anyone connected with the old regime) is a fundamental mistake. It alienates them. I don’t think Farag is felool.

The real problem is that The Former Regime is spoken of like it is an inanimate object, some lurking monster growling in the corner when in fact – and this isn’t breaking news – the regime is the people themselves.

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I was on the metro the other day when there was a kerfuffle; shouts and screams. This was in the women only carriage, so it was a high-pitched mass shriek that cut through the usual human and mechanical cacophony.

A loose circle had formed, concealing something at its centre. Suddenly a furious-looking sweaty youth appeared in the middle, his clothes worn and filthy, his body humped over crutches, his face on the border between fury and tears. He raised one hand and attempted to strike a girl in front of him. The crowd went ooooh. The girl pushed him back, so he raised one of his crutches and bashed her with it, rather unsuccessfully. Each time his crutch went up, the spectators said laaaa2 or oooh or aihhh until it came down, and it was as if he was conducting a choir. Eventually the object of his anger was persuaded by her friend to retreat. As she did so she screeched, “ezzay yemed 2eedo 3alaya ya Shayma!” [How dare he put his hand on me, Shayma!]

When the train pulled into Demerdash Station the women begin banging on the windows and doors and signaling to bemused commuters to apprehend the young man, who was now moving through the horrified passengers Moses and Red Sea style. He calmly got off the train, went along the platform and got in the next carriage. The doors closed on the tragedy and he and the singing ladies were gone.

I had witnessed a happier Metro scene a few months earlier and it stuck with me. I was again in a crowded carriage when a middle-aged man appeared and began talking to no one in particular. I thought he was nuts, because he didn’t immediately to be selling anything (vendors are legion on the metro). He was talking in a strange mix of Arabic and English (“in this bag there is a surprise” and “this is a great commodity”) and picking out individual commuters to address his spiel to. It was completely baffling.

My friend suddenly leaned over and said to me, “3assaleya” [a type of sweet made out of honey].

“Oskot ba2a!” [Be quiet!], the man hissed out of the side of his mouth, barely breaking rhythm, as my friend smirked.

He recommenced the strange sales spiel and then he produced some 3assaleya. It turned out that 3assaleya promotion was his job, and that he had been at it on the metro for years.

There is all kinds of industry on the Metro. In the Sadat station the chaos of the informal settlement above ground in Tahrir Square has seeped down into its tunnels. There is a row of sellers offering commuters white wind up toy cats, tissues (5 packs for LE 10, a good deal) mobile phone paraphernalia and men’s clothing, arranged on blankets or heaped in suitcases. The tissue sellers build tissue walls around themselves and sit in the middle waiting for customers. The wind up cats go round in circles, like the commuters.

Inside the carriages all kinds of shit is sold, from ladies’ tights to hairbands to booklets containing illustrated stories of the prophets’ doings. The other day two men got on the train I was in and one produced a courgette that he held aloft before proceeding to gut, using a coring device. He was a natural born seller, and I bought one with the intention of one day overcoming the skin-tingling disgust I feel during the gynecological stage of vegetable stuffing.

So there is this little thriving underground market in parts of the Metro, operating in Egypt’s famous post-revolution security vacuum, perhaps the only consistent feature of Egypt’s transition. It is unorganised and chaotic and the vendors are usually the poorest of the poor. Despite all the negative aspects, I like that they have reclaimed public space and are using it to good purpose.

I’m going on about this because I want to remember these little scenes, Cairo’s extraordinary ordinariness, when I look back and reflect at these mental two years in Egypt (and wonder how it all went so wrong).

Since February 2011, Egypt has been hurtling down a motorway at night with the headlights off, in fog. It has frequently been an unpleasant, nausea-inducing, journey but we had some good laughs on the way, even during the tragedies, and that is largely thanks to firstly, the fact that SCAF and politicians are clueless, bumbling wankers and, secondly, Egyptians like to have a laugh.

Sometimes things have been really surreal, like when I was In Abbaseyya during the recent clashes and as gunshots echoed around us and a stampede of fleeing protesters charged down a residential street behind us a man on a motorbike said to no one in particular, “the best thing about the Egyptian people is that they like to run”.

Now, of course, everything is elections, and surrealism has reached danger levels. Last month I stood outside a law court as hundreds of jubilant men released fireworks and hugged each other in celebration of the news that the Interior Ministry had no record that Salafi sheikh Hamdeen Hazem Abo Ismail’s mother had American nationality, and he could therefore run in the elections.

Except that she did, and so then he was out. And then there is that dimwit Ahmed Shafiq, who we could ignore if he didn’t actually have a fan base of individuals who think that he will take them back to the good old days when you could walk down an Egyptian street without fear of crime because somebody, somewhere was having the shit kicked out of them in a police station.

Last week I went to a Muslim Brotherhood rally for Mohamed Morsi, the man chosen to replace Khayrat El-Shater when he was eliminated from the presidential race. It was full of families on a day out buying Morsi badges and Morsi caps and Morsi flags.

The noise and crowd were intolerable so my friend Adam and I buggered off early, but before we did, we recorded a video of Adam doing his 7ag Fakhry persona, in which he imitates a middle-aged man who mostly has no clue what is going on but attends political rallies in the hope of getting LE 50 or free food. So far el 7ag Fakhry has been to rallies for Morsi, Mohamed Selim El-Awa and Abdel-Moneim Aboul-Fotooh. El-Awa actually did have a free open buffet but alas he still doesn’t have a hope in hell. El 7ag Fakhry is voting for Amr Moussa because his men hand out cash most regularly.

Anyway at this rally we finished recording the video and were set upon by a gentleman brandishing a mobile phone who accused Adam of “imitating the Muslim Brotherhood” and threatened to put his image online, presumably so that unsuspecting members of the public do not entrust him with their votes, or their souls. After establishing that the man was not taking the piss, Adam told him to do as he pleased and an altercation developed until it was interrupted by a man in white trousers and deck shoes who repeatedly kissed Adam on his forehead and led him away.

The man in the white trousers turned out to be an MB organiser, disguised as a liberal. He apologised profusely for what had happened, and there then followed half an hour of apologies and discussion. I was accosted by a woman called Madame Marwa, who was also very nice and emitted a series of apologies.

She gave me a little flag bearing Morsi’s image, and wanted to write on it “with best wishes from Madame Marwa” but neither of us had a pen. She made me promise to remember her; Madame Marwa, who wishes you all the best in the world.

The funnest election experience so far however has been at the hands (ahem) of Nasserist Hamdeen Sabahy. Hamdeen has an open top double decker bus that he has converted into a Hamdeenmobile. He invited journalists on it on Sunday.

First there was endless hanging around in his headquarters (mostly painted green, apparently his favourite colour) as his campaign staff ran up and down stairs. There was a sign hanging on the stairs reading, “going up is absolutely, categorically prohibited” and I hoped this wasn’t somehow a statement about his election chances.

We eventually got on the bus and it was lovely to feel Cairo’s clean air rushing through my hair as the not at all too hot sun pounded down on my cranium. The campaign kids immediately started playing this song, which I liked at first but had reservations about three hours later:

I asked a young man why he was voting Hamdeen and he said because he is honest, and decent and has always made sacrifices to defend people’s rights. He thinks that labour lawyer and presidential candidate Khaled Ali is too young and inexperienced for the job but is otherwise a good geezer.

Loads of people I’ve spoken to have echoed this idea that Hamdeen is decent and honest and politically clean. The man himself eventually appeared an hour into the trip and was followed up to the top deck by a pack of about 7 thousand photographers who immediately raised some physics questions about the bus’ stability.

Hamdeen was his usual, smooth self, all smiles and winks and waves. In addition to being impressed by his activism (although not his partiality to certain Arab dictators), I have a teeny weeny little crush on Hamdeen, who is arguably the most charming presidential candidate. At least his trouser waistband is at a normal height, Doctor Abdel-Meneim Aboul-Fotouh.

I ended up (god knows how but it might have involved me requesting this) having my photo taken with Hamdeen but this mutated into me becoming the future first lady:

This photo is by Robert Stothard and I hope he doesn't mind me using it.

Out of a concern that this picture may be used by remnants of the former regime against Hamdeen (he keeps company with female foreign spies) let it be known that that hand which may or not be my hand was on Hamdeen’s arm because I was being crushed against the bus’s stair rails and Hamdeen was leaning in dangerously close in the crush of the crowd which wasn’t altogether unpleasant.

I will likely vote for Hamdeen, but this is largely a vote against (felool, Morsi) rather than a positive vote for anything. Democracy is crap and unsatisfying and the army will likely bollocks something up again, but every time I see an election poster, or a debate, or people arguing over which candidate is least crap I feel genuine excitement at the possibility that at last, now, there is the possibility of something different. Maybe even something better.*

* Although it looks like Moussa or Morsi will win.


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It never fucking ends 3

Thomas Friedman’s theories on the Middle East have never been relevant. He’s been a guest columnist before for Inanities and we’re lucky enough to have another contribution from him today, an expansion on this.

Shuttling between luxury hotels in the woken up Arab world I have been struck by how few new moustaches have emerged from the really huge ginormous frying pan fire here. By new moustaches, I don’t just mean facial hair that sits idly on top lips forgotten about, I mean MOUSTACHES like mine – hair that bears witness to me telling the Arab people the truth over and over and over and over and over again in the hope that eventually they will take notice and move their backwards societies forward.

Discussing this problem with my Arab fixers, I am always quick to note in a way that tells them “hey, this guy is not patronising us” that my own country – not to mention Europe – has a similar problem. There is a global Thomas Friedman moustache vacuum. But in the Arab world today it is particularly problematic, because Arabs always fuck everything up worse than white people, especially when they don’t listen to my Thomas Friedman moustache and me. Every one of these countries that was fast asleep but is now awake in case you haven’t noticed my sleep theme needs to make the transition from empty top lip to Thomas Friedman moustache without getting stuck in beard.

Why has the Arab awakening produced so few moustaches? It’s partly because important and complicated stuff is still happening in Egypt and Yemen the nuances of which would ruin my tinpot theory so I won’t get into it here. They are technical explanations, but I find they ruin an opinion piece. There are deeper factors at work based largely on my own ignorance and prejudice. Let’s take a look at them at length.

One is the big hole that was made while these societies were sleeping. A big, deep hole formed under the yoke of dictatorship. I once saw it while reporting from my hotel room in Cairo in 1987. As I looked at it, and looked at Arabs scuttling around it going to smoke their shishas and beat their multiple wives, I thought, who will tell these people how much time has been wasted on the reading and writing of my columns? Who will tell these cretins that for the last 30 years I have peddled a theory that oppression and dictatorships are alright as long as people – ALL people – can buy iPads and everyone has a Thomas Friedman moustache?

Now that dictators are being swept away, Islamist parties are trying to fill the void. Who will tell the people that while Islam is a great and glorious faith as long as it is not practiced by Muslims it is not “the answer” for Arab development today?

The answer is that my Thomas Friedman moustache and I will tell them that duvets are the answer. Iran and Saudi Arabia are both very hot countries and people sleep in Air Conditioning which requires a duvet. They are used to using duvets. Egypt and Tunisia have very little duvets, they use threadbare blankets. They will need to acquire duvets from Ikea, and this needs money. Will the rising fundamentalist maniacs be prepared to cut back on rockets to bomb Israel in order to purchase these duvets?

Who will tell the people that, yes blankets are a form of duvets but their most corrupt mutation, but the correct answer now is not to go back to fleece lined pyjamas. The answer is a system of properly managed duvets.

Who will tell Arabs that they have as much talent as young people anywhere? The answer is me. They weren’t wondering about this but I – a middle-aged swindler whose only talent is massacring the English language in unthought-of of ways – will tell them anyway, because I was put on this earth to plague Arabs.

And then there is the Sunni-Shiite divide in Syria, Bahrain and Iraq, or the Palestinian-Bedouin divide in Jordan, or the Muslim-Coptic Christian divide in Egypt. I won’t mention the Palestinian-Israeli divide here because that would involve censuring the region’s only democracy. In any case Israel has a lot on its plate at the moment: Palestinian terrorists keep throwing themselves in prison without charge and peacefully refusing to eat. The very existence of Israel is under threat.

Without a Thomas Friedman moustache there is too little trust in the room (a room I have conjured up from nowhere because my columns require at least four awful analogies) to do big, hard things together, and everything that these Arab societies need to today is big and hard like my moustache in a snowstorm and can only be done together. Who will tell these fucking people that Arab societies have no time anymore to be consumed by these sectarian divisions because there are New York Times columns to be read?

The new-generation leaders in Morocco, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates DO have the legitimacy to pull people together even though if I bothered to inquire I would find that this in fact, complete shite. A recent report found that more young Arabs want to live in the United Arab Emirates than any other state because it has quilts and its leaders have a penchant for moustaches like mine.

Moustaches matter. Who will tell the people? The answer is me and my Thomas Friedman moustache, again and a fucking gain.

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حالة هيجان

Some obscenity

On Saturday morning someone on Twitter tweeted that the Salafis were having a seminar on website censorship at the Cairo Conference Centre and so with nothing better to do I went along.

It turned out to be a panel discussion held as part of the Cairo Telecom and IT Trade Fair, a room full of suits and computer screens and, as is inevitable, a booth advertising a new Emaar holiday home horror, this time “Porto South Beach” near Hurghada.

The seminar featured four panelists from the usual backgrounds plus a member of the Salafi Nour Party called Mohamed Emara. The seminar asked the silly question whether we need to censor porn on the Internet. (An MP recently demanded such a law be passed).

Even before the seminar started in earnest the moderator, a vigorous man called Hossam Saleh (who did a very good job) made clear to Emara that he had been invited “so we can listen to him and not attack him” but it soon became clear that Emara, who is a professor at Al-Azhar University, was out of his depth.

Emara is a timid sort of man whose face is almost permanetly emblazoned with that benevolent smile beloved of the spiritually enlightened. During his gentle roastings at the hands of the imposing Saleh (who towered above the panelists parked in their chairs) Emara stared up at him mournfully, the perma smile doing little to conceal his discomfort. While listening to the other panelists discuss the prohibitive technical aspects of net censorship he busily scribbled down the information as if hearing it for the first time.

Emara himself came out with some extraordinary statements, shyly delivered. He started with the usual, “we [Salafis/the Nour Party] are with progress as long as it doesn’t contradict our moral values”, and then expressed the desire that seminar organisers had invited a psychiatrist to proceedings, because, “a study in the 1990s revealed that most people in prison ended up there because of the websites and photos they viewed online” by which I assume he meant the theory that viewing bedroom combat immediately leads one to go out and attack members of the public with one’s penis.

The rest of the panel consisted of mostly bilingual liberal types lobbying against net censorship, because it is technically infeasible, expensive (a government representative said it would cost something like LE 70 million to block porn) and ultimately Egypt’s highly sexed testosterone-fuelled youth will find a work around. In an apparent attempt to prove that Emara is not akthar menhom Islaman*, all the panelists made forthright noises about there being a consensus that we all condemn porn, and I wanted to stand up and say ahem not quite.

I suspect that the predominantly young male audience and their sticky keyboards would have agreed. All except one audience member, a killjoy student in favour of porn censorship because viewing online filth makes young people enter a “7alat haygaan” (a “state of randyness”), my favourite phrase of the day. Saleh responded by mockingly suggesting that people scared of dying on the roads shouldn’t drive cars.

Saleh bamboozled the unsuspecting Emara with another analogy. He asked him whether he is in favour of banning CNN. Looking flustered, Emara said no because, “this is just an American version of a news channel”. Saleh then pounced, hitting him with the bombshell that there exists technology that calculates the percentage of skin shown in an image and uses this calculation to censor websites accordingly. This, Saleh revealed would mean that CNN’s sports section would be censored during the upcoming Olympics when it posted images of e.g. females divers. Emara looked uncomfortable, but then the discussion moved on before he could respond.

He did suggest however that Egyptians would find a solution to the cost and technical impossibility of net censorship, pointing to the example of the Endowments Minister who six years ago proposed a unified azan (call to prayer) and everyone guffawed but it was done (except that actually it hasn’t been implemented).

“Egyptian minds are superior to all others…If we want to do something we will,” Emara declared, providing no evidence for this. Bafflingly, he then gave the example of the failed attempt to ban alcohol during Prohibition in apparent support of his own argument that banning works.

Emara spent the whole seminar attempting to make the impossible case that Internet freedom is compatible with the paternalism advocated by his party. He talked about “protection of our Eastern identity” and “a suitable environment for our youth, children and for ourselves”. He pointed to China as an example of a country where “young people have work opportunities and the sort of websites and content we’re talking about just isn’t an issue” by which he seemed to mean that people are too exhausted from slaving away without breaks making Apple products to have a wank. At one point he declared that he had brought his iPad with him, and that he has other “computer equipment at home”, as evidence of his tech savvyness.

I didn’t understand why Emara had been selected to represent Nour at this conference, although he seems like a well-meaning man. They surely have stronger candidates for net-related issues and the discussion would have been better.

Emara wasn’t without supporters in the audience, nonetheless.

One man who described himself as head of IT in something or other made reference to “sexual contents” while explaining something about “backend users”.

“I’m sorry I used the word sexual,” the IT head said and was interrupted by Saleh who pointed out that sexual is not a rude word.

“My father taught me that sex is not a rude word but the word sexual is,” the IT head countered as everyone in the room by this point just wished that people procreated via postal orders.

One man told the seminar that he worked as a teacher in Saudi Arabia where he was prevented from accessing the devil’s work online via net censorship. “el wa7ed etmana3 men el shar” (“one was kept away from evil”) he said. The same could not alas be said of his Internet experience in Egypt, he explained, where he would be sitting innocently perusing all things kosher when “suddenly” a “window would open in front of me and I’d find myself on a porn website”.

“Mesh 3alayna yabba,” [Yeah, right] a friend sniggered.

*Not a better Muslim than them. This is a reference to People’s Assembly guvnor Saad El-Katatny that I can’t be bothered to explain. Ask your local Egyptian.

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Inanities has acquired a copy of the map found during the raid legal search of foreign NGO offices in Egypt last December, proving conclusively that America wants to divide Egypt into four countries.


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Who killed Marilyn??? The Egyptian Parliament will tell us

“Come near my gaff again and I’ll fuck you up, you cunt”

A man with the wonderful name of Qadry Hasheesh came round to our house this week to take measurements for iron gates my family are installing.

My aunt who lives upstairs has wanted to install a gate for a while, initially because my other aunt who lives downstairs runs a soup kitchen for street cats on our building’s communal stairs and they everyday disregard the don’t shit where you eat advice.

Security is now another concern – a concern that pre-dates the revolution but became more pressing after it – hence Mr Hasheesh’s visit.

I gave him a down payment and he put the money in his jacket pocket.

Close your zip, my aunt suddenly ordered, and both Mr Hasheesh and I looked down at his trousers.

Our eyes met on the way up, and for that brief moment the room was suddenly filled with penises and bums and underpants until I could stand it no more and blurted out, she didn’t mean that zip.

In order to extricate the conversation from this crisis situation I constructed an air bridge out of shoptalk, and asked Mr Hasheesh what business is like at the moment. He said that orders were up after having dropped slightly after last year’s huge spike beginning January 28th 2011.

My cousin came home with a huge tank-like vehicle a few months into 2011 saying that she feels more secure in it with her children than a smaller car.  Our neighbours are currently replacing the glass panels of their building’s lobby with an iron grille. There seems to be a general perception that the country is crawling with bandits intent on rape and pillage.

If reliable crime statistics exist in Egypt I don’t know where to find them other than in Habib El-Adly’s head, so I can’t say whether the perception that crime has increased dramatically is indeed just a perception. There have been several armed robberies recently as well as kidnappings for ransom in Cairo and brief kidnappings by Bedouins in Sinai.

An American woman kidnapped for two hours last week told the media that her captors were “very hospitable” or something of the sort and I got the impression that I experienced worse treatment at the hands of a Bedouin while negotiating the price of a quad bike in Dahab.

I would be stunned if it transpired that crime hasn’t increased since the revolution, and I don’t just mean because the army and its short fuse has been in charge since the revolution.

Crime was a victim of Mubarak’s clumsy neoliberal policies just like everything else in the country, and where Ahmed Ez had a monopoly on steel, the Interior Ministry had the franchise on naughtiness, co-opting local tough guys as informants and allowing the wealthy lawless to buy their way out of trouble.

I have droned on elsewhere on this blog about the size and extent of the Interior Ministry network, its army of informants and the mafia-like structure of its operations. Without knowing very much about these operations, it’s clear that the neighbourhood thugs who previously either worked for the Interior Ministry or had some kind of arrangement with it woke up to a very different situation on January 29th 2011.

I’m shocked that there wasn’t a massive wave of crime right away. Ordinary crime policing seems beyond the rozzers; after years of regarding suspects as piñatas who contain confessions instead of sweets, they simply don’t know how to investigate crime. Which isn’t to say that they don’t slip into the old habits, but rather than they can’t resort to brutality as often with the same impunity (unless they’re in riot police uniform). So why shouldn’t established and prospective criminals have a go since there’s no one to stop them.

The astonishing thing is the reaction to this great tsunami of crime, dominated by one word: conspiracy. Rather than say:

Shit. A gentleman with a knife has just stopped me on the ring road and relieved me of my car in broad daylight – why aren’t the police doing their job?

Ordinary Citizen has a tendency to say:

Shit. A gentleman with a knife has just stopped me on the ring road and relieved me of my car in broad daylight – why have the vicious tentacles of the former regime acting in concert with foreign powers intent on Egypt’s destruction chosen me?

Nowhere was this more evident than during a session of the People’s Assembly on Tuesday. MPs had supposedly gathered to discuss the recent Interior Ministry clashes and listen to the sour-faced Interior Minister who went in to do a bit of lying.

Things started out with the usual bluster from MPs demanding they be given the floor in order to complain about not being given the floor. Then there was a brief upturn when a man read out the results of a fact-finding committee. The committee concluded that – gasp – the police have actually shot at protesters with birdshot and live fire, and demanded that confidence be withdrawn from the Interior Minister.

It was the turn of the Interior Minister and his loose jowls after that. There is something extremely unpleasant about this man, he strikes me as a man with mild psychopathic tendencies, the type of man who carries a baseball bat in his trunk for arguments over parking spaces. He is also a crap liar and subjected MPs and the viewing public to a description of how his men only protected their “house” (the Interior Ministry) with teargas and not a single bullet was shot.

After he finished this rubbish there was a collective click as MPs turned their cognitive faculties off. They they began churning out a stream of tawdry, second-rate, paranoiac shite about Egypt’s threatened existence that would have embarrassed Bashar el-Assad’s scriptwriter.

Here they had the minister in THEIR fucking “house”, brazenly lying and contradicting the findings OF THEIR OWN FACT-FINDING COMMITTEE. Here was their chance to skewer him.

Essam El-Erian, a member of the Freedom and Justice Party who enjoyed several free stays in a state facility as a Muslim Brother during the Mubarak years took to the floor. Here is a man who knows the dark heart of the Interior Ministry!

After mumbling about the violence for a bit El-Erian asked the Interior Minister whether there are “hidden hands” “working behind” the Minister’s back, thereby taking the discussion on an early foray into the land of wilful nonsense.

But as we know the FJP are courtesans who don’t like to rock the boat. Ziad El-Elemy spoke, too. Here’s an independent-minded young man of strong character and morals! He’ll give it to the MOI bastard!

El-Elemy started out splendidly by basically calling the Interior Minister a liar. But then a bombshell! (the Interior Minister denied any use of bombshells subsequently): Amr El-Qady, a member of the Creativity Front (an artists’ cell that responds to police violence with modern dance) had “received a call from SCAF general El-Assar while El-Qady was trying to negotiate a ceasefire during clashes” (through mime).

The fact that El-Assar had telephoned El-Qady from the Interior Ministry Building, El-Elemy said, proves that “El-Assar was directing the massacre that took place”. The young MP provided absolutely no evidence to support this allegation and one wondered whether he wasn’t actually just name-dropping about a general calling his pal. Also if a crime ever takes place and you are near it, don’t ever ring up any of Ziad El-Elemy’s friends.

And so it went. In case you don’t know the PA is approximately three minutes from the scene of the MOI clashes and the entire area has been reduced to a war zone blocked in sideways by separation walls and from above by a cloud of teargas. You can’t walk for stumbling over evidence of the police using excessive force, just as in the case of the Port Said Stadium tragedy the fact that the police did nothing was blindingly fucking obvious.

Our MPs however, in keeping with the experimental school of analysis used to interpret current events and the lust for conspiracies instead chose to ignore all this and wonder if the Interior Ministry has been infiltrated by the Incredible Hulk.

Still, the rest of the session was OK. An MP started bellowing out the call to prayer. God is on our team, where can it go wrong.

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Football meets politics again, but differently

Some thinking out loud about the Port Said tragedy:

I watched endless re-runs of the final moments of the Ahly–Masry game in Port Said in a restaurant, on a muted television. Silent images of a man triumphantly carried on someone’s shoulders and hurriedly put down as hordes of men fill the pitch and pursue the Ahly players, shown again and again. The celebrations turned so quickly, so seamlessly, into violence and tragedy.

Hundreds of youths gathered outside Ahly’s Cairo base the next day, chanting against Port Said, against Ahly director Hassan Hamdy, against the Interior Ministry, against the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF).

At one point screams interrupted the chants. A young woman banged her head on the roof of a car while next to her an older woman collapsed on the ground. They had just heard that their relative, 16-year-old Islam Ahmed, was amongst the stadium’s dead.

Read the rest here.

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Don’t know how to make this blog go dark without buggering it up, but down with the evil Internet breakers.

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So here we are, a year later, waiting for January 25th again. At the end of 2010 the country felt like it was at the end stages of some lingering, incurable disease, like it was stagnating. It had been a year of breathtaking police brutality, casual election violations and mass murder, at the Qedesayn Church. Even ordinary everyday life was infected with a sort of resigned hopelessness interrupted by spectacular acts of National Democratic Party mismanagement, failure and injustice.

A year later and the ordinary everyday hasn’t changed greatly. People are still poor, young men and their dreams still drown in the Mediterranean, life goes on. For a brief moment early in 2011 there was the delicious prospect of possibilities and new starts. Teams of volunteers joyfully repainted curbs and polished statues, as if wiping off this surface dirt would ever be enough.

People talked about the revolution as if it is a living, breathing, tangible thing, a thing in need of a protection or a thing that will protect them. But they also said, we are the revolution, or, when hearing about a positive political development, the sacking of some entrenched regime figure in a government institution somewhere, the revolution is everywhere, as if it’s a contagion.

Schisms between the Pro- and the Counter-revolution were identified, classified: regime remnants and the Sofa Party, content to condemn revolutionaries from their living room. On the other side the revolutionaries and their martyrs.

An unforgiving dichotomy emerged. Street children caught up in street battles became either revolutionaries or thugs. Acts of violence against state institutions is resistance or vandalism. Tahrir Square protests protect the revolution and stall the economy. Protests in Abbaseyya Square are held by lunatics and honourable citizens. An entire vocabulary was formed, revolutionary metadata that confounds more often than it elucidates and – like a man who complains about the heat of the beach while one metre away another basks in the sun – tells you more about the speaker than what is actually happening.

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has been fond of exploiting this, in its clumsy way. It has marketed itself as the supreme protector, uber alles, of the revolution while investing in the basest forms of demagoguery against proponents of this same revolution, apparently in the belief that in doing so, it covers all its bases. A crude, risible technique, but strengthened by the authority of the Egyptian Army, the last bastion against the vagaries of a chaotic, leaderless Egypt.

And now the January 25 anniversary is a squabble over nomenclature, and ownership. Will it be a protest, carnival or memorial? And elsewhere life goes on, the million invisible battles, unchanged and real but invisible.  Fitting, perhaps all this, when all that promise of January has been diluted to a parliament on a leash, and the phantasm of a revolution.

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Army country

In Mostafa Mahmoud Square on Tuesday, a roaring man went up to another man and started slapping him across the face.

There was that moment of hesitation as the accosted man processed what was going on. He looked at the woman he was standing with, looked back at his assailant, looked at his assailant’s palm as it struck him again. Then he started slapping his assailant back, and there followed the sort of grappling men who don’t know how to fight engage in, that unedifying spectacle of clothes-pulling and misaimed kicks.

The man who had started the fight was a youth, perhaps in his very early 20s, wearing jeans and a dark hooded top (The international menace of the hoodie!)

He strode up to the couple with a singular sense of purpose and raised his hand to slap the man as if he was about to shake the hand of a long lost friend. As he did this he bellowed, “emshy men hena yebn el metnaka! El balad deih balad 3askar!” [Get out of here, mothafucker, this is the army’s country].

An older man in a baseball cap carrying two empty bottles interceded, at which point it became apparent that the young man was not an impassioned solo lunatic, but part of a gang of lunatics, out to defend the Egyptian army.

Earlier that afternoon a group on Facebook called “I’m sorry, President” had announced that a group of activists planned to “incite against the army” in Mostafa Mahmoud Square and encouraged the residents of Meet 3o2ba (a working class area nearby) to do the necessary.

And this is what hooded man and his companions seemed to be doing. For the next 15 minutes or so hooded man strode up and down in Mostafa Mahmoud Square (which is to the I’m Sorry, President crowd what Tahrir Square is to the pro-revolutionaries), his erratic movements silhouetted in the mist of the feeble light cutting through the evening’s gloom.

A handful of anti-SCAF (Supreme Council of the Armed Forces) protesters gathered. An old woman started shouting at them, kept going on about the April 6 Youth Group. Men in suits – seemingly bystanders but who knows – politely encouraged the youths to move away from the Square to avoid problems.

And suddenly hooded man reappeared having disappeared for a while, possibly to masturbate quickly over a tank, who knows. This time he really meant business. He immediately jumped on the hood of a car and started giving a speech, the usual shit about people trying to cause problems between the army and the police and he will fuck anyone up who does this and April 6 are all dirty bastards. The speech in all its blue glory was delivered to the soundtrack of the call to prayer emitted from the mosque behind him, as a bystander pointed out, somewhat timidly. Hooded man continued.

Dr Moftases stood underneath and watched him and then gave him a slow clap, saying bravo bravo. Hooded man returned the slow clap and snorted the loudest, longest snort from his nose I have ever heard, you could practically see the catarrh roiling up inside him like lava.

Then a man appeared carrying cables with exposed wires, shouting, “who wants some electricity???” while another built like a bull took his top off and put a wrestler’s ski mask on, completely obscuring his face, and the man in the baseball cap banged his bottles together with a strange exuberance and the older woman screeched SETTA ABREEL SETTA ABREEL [April 6, April 6]. It was at this point that I realised how very delicate most of the protesters were, by which I mean that alas not many of them looked like they had a history of taking on wrestlers in ski masks or men offering to electrocute them.

This was borne out in the moments that followed this. Hooded man got on a different car to exclaim – in English – that he was “ready to fight” anyone. Then he and his motley crew started charging, pushing and shoving anyone who refused to move, ski mask man clenching his fists and going grrrrr, thus showing no originality whatsoever.

The protesters were slowly driven back by the gang. I noticed that bystanders joined their ranks and declaimed against April 6. Moftases was hit on the head lightly with a bottle, Noov had her hair pulled, another protester was set on by four of them but luckily escaped with a few bruises.

Despite the menace of it all, there was something a bit pathetic about this troupe and the spectacle they put on. They were unpleasant bastards, but didn’t cause any physical harm despite having ample opportunity to do so. Moftases said he saw the man in the ski mask attempt three times to use a bottle of Pepper Spray while restraining a protester, pausing in between each attempt to shake the bottle, and failing. He says the blow he got on the head with the bottle wasn’t hard enough to cause pain.

Looking back there was something of the slapstick about it all, although it didn’t feel like it at the time. There was a sort of timidity about them (apart from hooded man), as if despite their big talk actually nah, they’re a bunch of pissants and aren’t really kings of any yard and they know it. The anti-SCAF march went ahead, though not quite from Mostafa Mahmoud Square itself.

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