Shimaa ElSabbagh in art

I have been absolutely gutted since Shimaa ELSabbagh (also spelled as Shaimaa el-Sabbagh) was killed by security forces two weeks ago as she headed to Tahrir Square to lay flowers on the eve of the fourth anniversary of the 2011 Egyptian revolution. While I never personally knew Shimaa, we shared numerous common friends who have been in tears and heartache since that tragic afternoon. Many will ask why focus on Shimaa when other protesters also die. That is true, Sondos died the same day in Alexandria but she got little attention. Since 2011, countless lives have been lost and we don’t hear much about them. But what makes Shimaa’s death much more sharper is that her final moments in life were filmed. As a human, you can only react to the theatrics that will naturally shock you and scar it into your memory for life. It doesn’t mean we think less of other deaths. It is why we are moved by the imagery, followed by the posthumous story, of past icons such as Khaled Said, Omar Salah and Mina Danial. Shimaa’s demise will not be in vain, and she will hopefully be a signpost to illuminate the other lesser known activists killed by the state.

I believe memorialisation is important to sustain the story of Shimaa and all that she stood for. She was a writer, poet and activist, and Egypt has lost an irreplaceable asset. An innocent woman killed while carrying flowers. Like I have said before, Pablo Neruda’s words are the most appropriate here: “You can crush the flowers, but you cannot delay the spring.”

These are some of the painted, hand-drawn and digital images of Shimaa that have been floating around social media. RIP.






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Why does the Egyptian state hate its citizens so much? What Peter Greste’s freedom says

As you all know by now, Peter Greste has been
released and this is great news for Peter, his family, everyone that was campaigning for his release, and for overall justice. Greste was a tragic case of being caught up in a geopolitical entanglement between Egypt and Qatar. Greste’s case was helped not only by a thawing of tensions between Egypt and Qatar, but Sisi released Greste in order to legitimise his regime on the international platform and brandish “progressive” credentials to Western governments. Moreover, this could be a sign that the judiciary is being tamed and consolidated under the wings of the new regime. Yet politicised judicial decisions are not going to disappear anytime soon.

Now that Greste has left Egypt, the focus should be on his journalist colleagues still in prison, Egyptian-Canadian Mohamed Fahmy (who could be released soon) and Mohamed Baher. Egyptian activists and human rights workers are delighted with the news of Greste’s release, but rightly point out that there are tens of thousands of political prisoners still languishing in jail and who don’t have the luxury of a Western passport to get them out. A week ago, activist and poet Shimaa Elsabbagh was killed by security forces while she was heading to Tahrir with colleagues to lay flowers on the eve of the fourth anniversary of the 2011 revolution – sparking international outrage. The release of Greste and the murder of Shimaa has raised the spectre in activist and civil society circles of what value even exists in Egyptian citizenship rights? After all, an Australian journalist is freed, and a Canadian journalist will probably renounce his Egyptian citizenship to also be freed. Which begs the question, why does the Egyptian state hate Egyptian citizens so much? What started in 2011 is far from over, and the struggle for bread, freedom, dignity and social justice in Egypt continues on a very long road.

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Egypt’s Long Walk to Despotism

Published in the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy

There is a menacing wind sweeping through Egypt engulfing bureaucrats, journalists, judges, celebrities, and the average “patriotic citizen” in its path, remolding them into carriers of despotic ideas. This system is not a clear-cut case of top-down power relations in which an established power asserts itself over its supporters and against its opponents, real and imagined. Rather, in this system, the citizen is brought center-stage in the political arena. Egypt is currently witnessing an age-old political phenomenon of citizens’ “voluntary servitude” to a repressive order – specifically, despotism. Through their collective complicity, citizens hand a carte blanche to the state for violence, nepotism, and corruption.

The dishevelled Mickey Mouse costume, worn by a regime supporter. The sign reads “Sisi does not need to take an oath because the people trust him." Tahrir Square, Cairo, 8 June 2014 (the day of Sisi’s coronation). Photo by Amro Ali‬‬

The dishevelled Mickey Mouse costume, worn by a regime supporter. The sign reads “Sisi does not need to take an oath because the people trust him.” Tahrir Square, Cairo, 8 June 2014 (the day of Sisi’s coronation). Photo by Amro Ali‬‬

While despotic regimes rely on violence for control, this violence is rarely targeted toward the average citizen. Rather, one of the paradoxes of despotism is that it relies on citizens’ “passions” and psychological isolation, making them anxious to gain the meager favors of the regime.1 Mutual suspicion forms the cornerstone of despotism and prevents the “communication necessary for any organized political opposition.”2

In Egypt, the citizen plays a role in reinforcing the repressive status quo – from a middle-aged woman reporting innocent journalists to the police to a sycophantic lawyer suing an actor who deviated from the state line. The fertile ground of suspicion enables the creation of legislation on a community police that would allow citizens the power to arrest each other and is also manifest in the many citizen’s names and photos posted on Facebook, who are tarnished with labels like “terrorist” and “foreign agent.” An old Egyptian proverb says, “Oh Pharaoh, who turned you into a tyrant?” “No one stopped me,” he replied.

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How the Egyptian regime strengthens the student opposition it is trying to eliminate

Published in Al-Fanar on Arab Higher EducationAlexUni

Click here for the Arabic translation

In the midst of the protest violence and security crackdowns that gripped Egyptian universities this fall, Hazem Hosny, a political science professor at Cairo University, spoke about what could turn out to be an ominous sign for the regime: “I believe that at present a new opposition is being formed, even if it has perhaps not yet fully crystallized…This opposition stands mostly outside the traditional parties, and is made up of educated and avant-garde young people who understand what is happening around them.”

His view correlates with the political and social indicators that are pointing in the direction of an inevitable amassing blowback. As the regime clamps down on the universities that seem to be the last visible site of opposition to the regime, it is not in fact, destroying student politics, but dispersing them.

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Interview on ABC Radio on Egypt’s latest situation

“Description: ABC radio Interview with Amro Ali on the latest situation on Egypt, discussing protests, human rights, state violence, and Peter Greste’s case, and if this spells the end of the revolution or if it is just a temporary derailment.”

Link to audio file:


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Message to Mahienour El-Massry


Today, marks 100 days of activist Mahienour El-Massry’s imprisonment. Recently, Mahienour’s sister, Miral El-Massry, asked me to assist in collecting messages to send to Mahienour in order to lift her spirits up. So this blog post form was made with the aim for you to send your message of support to Mahienour. She has plenty of time to read these messages in her jail cell, and she would be more than happy to receive them. Your message will be printed, along with others, and passed onto Mahieniour through Miral. Please write in Arabic only (English letters will only be given to her after her release). I advise that you write in a separate text file/word document then paste it into the message box in case something happens and it’s lost when you click submit. Defamatory and not so kind messages will be removed. All messages need to be sent by Tuesday 16 September. Thank you.

UPDATE 19/9/14: The submit form feature has now been disabled, thank you to everyone who sent messages to Mahienour via my blog form post. They were absolutely beautiful and uplifting. Some were just mind-shuddering. I hope Mahie (Mahienour) someday allows them to be published, as they were that good and reaffirmed the noble qualities of people and their determination for a better future. The messages have now been given to her sister Miral. The English messages will be translated into Arabic so they can quickly be vetted by the prison authorities and passed onto Mahie, which would otherwise take months for it to be vetted in any other language but Arabic. Thank you again.


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ABC News 24 Interview on Peter Greste

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Run, Mahienour, Run (Why Mahienour El-Massry matters)

Published for Mada Masr
Republished in Jadaliyya 

The distant shouts of a female voice rang louder and louder in my ear: “A complete revolution or nothing at all!” I turned around and caught my first glimpse of a young woman of average height, who was outsized by her vocal powers. I was taken aback, impressed, and snapped an image there and then of Mahienour el-Massry — or Mahie, as she is known amongst her circles.


That day was Friday 27 May 2011, in a protest march through Alexandria’s Port Said Street on the Second Friday of Rage. The January 25 Revolution had opened up a world of endless possibilities, and people took to the streets to demand them. Many protests, vigils and revolutionary exhibitions later, I would gradually become more acquainted with a remarkable human being that I have come to consider a friend, inspiration and the conscience of Alexandria.

In a city where you can count the key activists on your fingers, Mahienour (an activist and a lawyer) had immense influence on revolutionary Alexandria. As human rights lawyer Marianne Sedhom remarks, “Mahienour’s loud voice in a small city allowed her to have a greater impact, shape the debate, and inspire many.”

Mahienour, along with seven other activists, is currently serving a two-year sentence for defying the Protest Law, which they were protesting on the day of the retrial of the Khaled Saeed case. Saeed, as you may well know, was killed by the police on June 6, 2010. Public anger against his death by torture initiated the rapid countdown to the 2011 uprising.

Ironically, it was this month four years ago, during the first Khaled Saeed protest, when Mahienour pulled off one of the most daring feats of bravery seen yet. Central security forces at the Cleopatra Hamamat tram station (the site of the protest) were gradually fencing in Mahienour, along with twenty protestors. She was increasingly worried about the safety of protestors arriving from the Corniche and Port Said Street, who were bound to get trapped and arrested.

In a “Run Lola Run” moment, Mahienour took the initiative and ran shouting a slogan in reference to Saeed’s death, and protestors who had arrived late, were lost, or trapped by the security forces, just joined her, running after her through the street, as she called on residents and workers in the area to join in. Many did. As friend Kholoud Said Amer recalls, “We just ran behind her and chanted what she was chanting, and in two minutes, after we were 20, we ended up being a force of 300. The biggest protest until then.”

The security forces were knocked off guard and, rather than arrests, all they could do was prevent the protesters from entering Medhat Seif al-Yazal Khalifa Street — where Saeed had died earlier that month. Mahienour, who was brutalized two years earlier (July 2008) at a police station (as a result of her support for the April 6 Youth Movement’s activities) was clearly on track, and back with a vengeance. She would play a key role in the succession of protest events leading up to the January 25, 2011 Revolution, and beyond.

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The Program is Over, but the Show has Just Begun

A co-authored piece with Nesreen Salem in TIMEP

Some 2,000 years ago, under Roman occupation, Egyptians were banned from practicing law, and this was not simply due to imperial discrimination. The Romans excluded them because Egyptians made too many jokes and sarcastic quips while in court, thus undermining the significance and procedures of the trials. Egyptian humor is, and has always been, a thorn in the side of every dynasty, invader, and regime through the ages.

Now the government has taken the dramatic, although unsurprising, step of banning Bassem Youssef’s show Al-Bernamag. While disappointing to say the least, focusing only on the banning of this particular show causes one to miss the bigger picture. Youssef’s work is the product of Egypt’s hyperactive and humor-driven society. The regime may have grounded the F-16 of humor, but it still must deal with the decentralized, guerilla-style humor that permeates society, circulating through round-the-clock, web-based jokes, memes and video parodies. This was made evident by the recent election-cum-Sisi-coronation—the jokes were in abundance even while Sisi was not yet president. In fact, the regime may have inadvertently shot itself in the foot, as one can quite easily forget how humor operated in the pre-al-Bernamag days.

Bassem Youssef’s rise occasioned a sort of centralization of humor across the entertainment landscape, with many of the post-2011 uprising jesters being eclipsed by, or choosing to concede ground to, Youssef. Many were not opposed to this arrangement because Youssef helped to spotlight Egypt’s fault lines and therefore provided a limitless repository for much of Egypt’s humor.

Had the regime accepted this arrangement, it would have taken on the lesser of two headaches, considering that Youssef was less harsh towards the regime than he was towards Morsi. Youssef’s removal will inevitably raise the profile of the piranhas of humor present in social media. While they were always there, they were arguably less noticed in the shadow of al-Bernamag.

Youssef leaves an important legacy of framing serious discussions within a satirical framework. When a military representative announced that the armed forces had found a cure for Hepatitis C and AIDS, Youssef (a physician by training) made it his mission to hold the military accountable for their claims, creating an online counter to mark the day that the cure had been promised to patients (which has been kept alive on social media). When the Egyptian government announced that they would use coal to mitigate the country’s fuel shortage, he dedicated a show to exposing the dangers that lurked behind that decision. Before going on air, a visibly angry Youssef said, “They’ve taken everything, and now they want to take the air we breathe.”

Youssef empowered the underdog, helping his audience to deal with their turbulent political reality and giving them hope for change, all based on the underlying notion that we could, as one person put it, “laugh all folly out of existence.”

The possibility of satire stealing the show from traditional politics is not a new consideration. When Jacques Chirac won the French Presidency in 1995, French media debated whether the satirical puppet show Les Guignols de l’Info, (which showed him favorably in contrast to Socialist candidate Lionel Jospin) had influenced the outcome of the elections. Youssef’s show stopped airing during the critical period around the election, citing the desire to avoid any such accusation. Moreover, the announcement came one day after news leaked that the Interior Ministry was seeking bids for a system to monitor and censor Egyptians’ use of social media outlets, foreshadowing the fate that many suspected was in store for Youssef’s show. While al-Bernameg has ceased, satire is practically writing itself in this mad climate. How could it not be so, when storks and Muppets are targeted as secret agents?

To lose a talent like Bassem Youssef is a tragedy. But the comedy has yet to stop. Satire will survive with or without al-Bernameg, and it will outlive every government. As eleventh-century Andalusian scholar Abu al-Salt put it, the Egyptian character is dominated by a humor mixed with sarcasm and cynicism to a level more pronounced than any group he had ever encountered.1 Thus, the current regime is fighting a cultural DNA that has passed on this effective and timeless weapon. Al-Bernameg was the latest incarnation in a long, evolutionary process of satire-generation—latest, but not last.

Even when Youssef announced his decision to permanently stop producing his show, he did not miss the opportunity to quip about the circumstances that forced him to do so—“I want to give you, but I can’t.” This self-imposed censorship—a sort of creativity-suicide—should raise questions about our perception of the role of satire as well as our understanding of politics: where there is politics, there will always be satire; one cannot exist without the other. Cancelling the show will only put an end to the show; it will not affect the other satirical powers that be, of which Egypt has an abundance in various forms. However, many in Egypt have come to view satire as they view the opposition: an uncomfortable siren amidst nationalistic euphoria. They now exhibit a preference for silence that largely did not exist when Muhammad Morsi was in power (except among supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood). Pinning al-Bernameg as a tool of the opposition has warped the public’s understanding of what satire is, but it has also exposed the government’s fascistic tendency to silence all hints of opposition.

Youssef, a product of the revolution, was devoured by the counter-revolution. However, just as it was not Youssef that brought down Mubarak, it will be the harsh realities of Egyptian life that threaten the new regime—humor will only grease the wheels of opposition.

In any case, Youssef leaves a dangerous legacy with which all successive regimes will have to deal—al-Bernameg opened up a media space that will not go away so easily. Youssef showed what is possible in a better Egypt, the gulf between accuracy and intentional misrepresentation, and the necessity of critical thinking. The fact that the show recorded an Egyptian viewership of 8.3 million—one-tenth of the total population—and had many more viewers across the region is a testament to the existence of an enormous constituency that is eager for something to fill this cultural space.

Youssef noted that “maybe the disappearance of al-Bernameg will force [people] to think about new, more creative means of [opposition].” The problem for the regime is that Pandora’s box was opened in early 2011, and “creative means” is all that Egyptians have to work with now in an environment of rising authoritarianism. The punchline is yet to come.

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(Lecture) Alexandria in the Egyptian State: What happened after cosmopolitanism?


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