Alexandria’s church bombing and the deepening of melancholia

An extended piece of my former blog post for Mada Masr on the ways in which pain, anger and grief are being internalized vis-à-vis the state and the city after the tragic church bombing in Alexandria.

Image by Sara Younes

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It was not supposed to be like this. The week leading up to the annual Sham el-Nassim holiday is usually filled with joy and elation as we welcome the spring. And it certainly was not supposed to be like this for Christians on their holy Palm Sunday. Twenty-eight victims lost to the bombing at St. George Coptic Orthodox Church in Tanta, and 17 lost to the bombing at St. Mark Coptic Orthodox Church in Alexandria.

Dark clouds had spread on Sunday morning, and I had remarked to a friend that this was quite unusually gloomy for April weather in Alexandria. It turned out to be fitting for the events that were to come in a few hours. Alexandria, historically, seems to understand itself as a city when it is confronted with tragedy.

In the wake of the bombing, the downtown streets were on lockdown and traffic appeared frozen in time. This was not the average traffic standstill, as rarely was a car horn sounded. It was as if everyone had sensed, or was in the process of being informed through their mobile phones, what had just happened. Now, the trademark noise-sutured impatience of traffic dissipated as drivers perhaps realized that arriving late to your destination may not be the worst that can happen in your day. The scene along the Mansheya corniche could have been ripped out of a Hollywood blockbuster in which immobilized commuters had transfixed their gaze at some impending meteorite about to strike their city. A bombing in Tanta, a bombing in Alexandria, a reported (but later dismissed) second bombing in Alexandria. Where next?

The subtext was the reemergence of the eve of 2011, when a devastating terrorist explosion targeted the Two Saints Church in the eastern district of Sidi Bishr, leaving 25 dead and over 200 injured. This was supposed to be the last tragedy of its kind, giving birth to a new civic spirit to counter the infamy and set the tone for the 2011 revolution a few weeks later. In a stage by stage process, it went roughly something like this: shock; melancholia; outrage; refusal of the status quo (which was illustrated, for example, through the adoption of the cross and crescent logo as a social media avatar or draped over one’s balcony); joining up with the growing street vigils; publicly denouncing the Mubarak regime as many mourners shouted at the funeral of the victims, “We want to fire the president and interior minister!;” as well as, significantly, the re-appropriation of the idea of Alexandria from the state by the public.

A new civic-driven discourse placed the city at the heart of political problems. This can be understood when, following the brutal security crackdown after the Sidi Bishr tragedy, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Sobhy Saleh cried, “It’s like we’ve been occupied by a foreign power. Alexandria has become an occupied country.” Or at times the tone was subtler, as AUC’s linguistic professor Reem Bassiouney pointed out in her recent work of an Alexandrian journalist who broke linguistic conventions and used the Alexandrian dialect in her reports, to imply “a shared identity that surpasses religious differences.” Therefore, a robust civic identity based on the popular trope agda nas (Bravest people) that the reporter is “authentic, tough, and, first and, foremost, a typical ‘Alexandrian’.” In other words, if the Egyptian identity could no longer furnish inter-religious cohesion and agency, the Alexandrian identity would have to step in.

But the mood was different this time. People’s reactions and emotions seem to be trapped in the intermission between shock and melancholia. In the days leading to the Palm Sunday tragedy, the biggest complaint dominating Alexandria’s conversations was the military’s economic project in Sidi Gaber, which has severely disrupted traffic flow. (This project has been perceived as negative enough to even sway pro-military supporters I know from their traditional positions.)

Yet there was an exposed fracture that could not be easily hidden. To the average resident, the military appears focused on its exclusive economic ventures, often to the detriment of the economy and the public good, while the police have developed a rapid method of cracking down on political protests and imprisoning countless activists, or in the case of bread-driven protests, swiftly negotiating them away. All the while, 17 dead bodies were strewn at the gates of a church of historical magnitude. These are questions the authorities will need to deal with — when they promise security in return for the citizen’s forfeiting of progressive governance, but are now unable to deliver that security.

However, the high talk on regimes, Sisi, the Islamic State, terrorism and geo-strategy, can be lost on the day-to-day life of an individual who struggles to survive and make meaning of forces beyond his or her control. The day following the bombing, life attempted to go on as normal but with a broken spirit and tinge of despair under the, still, grey skies. The men at the coffeehouse in front of my place smoked shisha without conversation, at times looking down to the ground; customers calmly bought their ful and falafel breakfast without the usual jostling; the fruit sellers did not yell to market their produce, and the signature smiles across the bakers’ faces were all but gone. No visible public argument or fight broke out on the streets in a very long time. There was a shared language of mourning that consisted of frequent silences, occasionally punctured by the innocence of cheerful children running around. Yet, melancholia deepened its claws to stunt the growth of any budding civic flower.

Even in these dark times you need to seek out a spirited hope and consolation. In the context of this discussion, it’s never far. I’m blessed to live between a Coptic Orthodox Church and a Catholic Church, both stand strong and resilient, and as a powerful reminder that this is, and will always be, one of the things that is beautiful about Alexandria and Egypt. The sound of church bells is a message to the forces of fanaticism and sectarianism (and even to the smug individual who deems Christians as second-class citizens) that churches, as well as the Christian life and evocative prayer chants within its heart, will not be silenced.

As a Muslim, these churches are my churches, they complete my identity, colorize my worldview, and deepen any understanding of my faith. Any harm that comes to them, its worshippers, and those who protect them, is a savage assault on my very being.

I wish I had clear answers to give. I don’t, and I hate to admit a sense of helplessness in all of this. I can only, along with others, ask questions, and keep asking questions, in the hope that the sinister matrix that oppresses and exterminates human lives in different manifestations — in Alexandra, in Egypt, in the Middle East and elsewhere — is eventually and somehow unravelled.

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Mubarak Died Long Ago

Many are disappointed in seeing Mubarak walk free,
but perhaps we can look at it from another perspective – Mubarak’s perspective?

Since 11 February 2011, Mubarak has had to live with the fact that he has been condemned by history, being toppled in such a humiliating way and vomited out by the body politic. The court decision is not his redemption and never will be unless he is reinstated as president.

In June 1974, White House reporter Lawrence M. O’Rourke speculated that US president Nixon would have wished to be assassinated on his state visit to Egypt’s Alexandria rather than go through the inevitable and ignoble resignation as a result of Watergate. Nixon did not want that moment of shame and degradation to come. Martyrdom suddenly looked more appealing (it worked well for Kennedy). But that moment did come. And Nixon died a painful metaphorical death that he never recovered from until his actual death 20 years later.

Whether in a democracy or dictatorship, the forced surrender of power is an excruciating pain that a leader can be put through – more than facing prison time or even the death penalty. For every one of them is obsessed with the historical legacy they will leave. A perceived noble legacy cannot happen if they feel they have been short-circuited by a different form of power arrangements. When the facade came crashing down bringing the leader down in the process. The point is the leader lived to see, and bludgeoned by, a politically quintessential and unerasable humiliation. 

The days between the moment they are forced to step down and the moment they breathe their last – are the most harrowing days they will live through, as every single day they will murmur and mumble at how they have been wronged. Their toppling from power should never have happened – they are haunted by it in their living days, tormented by it in their sleep.

It does not take much imagination to realize that Mubarak, being the narcissistic monster he is, hates his political successors more than he hates the revolutionaries who overthrew him. Because the (faceless to him) revolutionaries have receded into the background, while al-Sisi and the military generals have come into the limelight – the very limelight that was exclusively reserved for Mubarak. Every newspaper’s front page and news broadcast will agonizingly remind Mubarak of his stupidity and utter failure to hold onto the power he loved most.

His current existence is his ultimate prison, if not death, sentence.

And yet, irrespective of Mubarak’s status or pain, our work that began in 2011 still continues. Often limping with much difficulty in these repressive times, but it continues.

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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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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.

Continue reading “Egypt’s Long Walk to Despotism”

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The insecurity of a security state: What can Hannah Arendt tell us about Egypt?

My larticle on understanding the Egyptian political situation through the works of Hannah Arendt. Published in Politics in Spires

Hannah Arendt
In Egypt, it is clear that constructive results are not going to materialise anytime soon. Increasing state violence, arrests and intimidation have no clear logic beyond an attempt by the security apparatus to regain power and tighten control over the economy. It is an outworn order that risks collapsing.


The insecurity of security

While the regime does have a serious security issue on its hands, namely the Sinai-based terrorism that has now spread to Cairo, the regime is increasingly blurring the lines between terrorism and anyone who opposes the official line. Labelling the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation, outlawing anti-regime protests, cracking down on NGOs and the clampdown against anti-regime activists and journalists are indications that the security state is disintegrating. The regime is carrying out violent measures against Islamists and youth – two major groups that cannot afford to be alienated – signalling the regime’s struggles to control a significant segment of the population via peaceful means.

According to Hesham Sellam, a fellow at Stanford University’s Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law, “These are the actions of a security apparatus that has lost the capability, coherence, and discipline to contain its challengers through targeted repression, and institutional and legal engineering.” Sallam argues that state increasingly can only justify its existence at the end of the barrel or through the desperate propagation of incoherent, xenophobic and militant nationalism. If this continues, he explains further, the Egyptian state will inevitably fail to establish any semblance of control, which successive governments have tried to impose since the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak.

In the meantime, there is no sign that the regime can deliver the security or stability that is required to attract tourists and investors. Billions in Gulf aid money will not resolve Egypt’s structural tensions. Reducing a bloated bureaucracy, addressing the subsidies burden and solving rampant unemployment remain in the queue. Meanwhile, with half of Egypt’s population under the age of 25, there is a startling lack of opportunity for an emerging generation.

Egypt – politically, economically, and socially – cannot be saved through violent attack on dissenters, there is an urgent need for a broad political consensus to tackle longstanding crises.

Applying Arendt

Hannah Arendt’s understanding of violence can provide fundamental insights into the regime’s behaviour. In her 1972 work Crises of the Republic: Lying in Politics; Civil Disobedience; On Violence; Thoughts on Politics and Revolution, Arendt points out that the rise of state violence is frequently connected to a decrease in substantive power as regimes mistakenly believe they can retain real control through violent measures (CR 184). Real and sustainable power arises when a concert of people get together in a space to exchange views. Thus, power arises through free choice. Violence sits outside the realm of legitimate politics. It is an expression of desperation. It renders speech, discussions and persuasion impossible, making support from the public harder to come by.

Although she argues against violence, Arendt made qualified exceptions. She makes a point in her 1963 book On Revolution that violence may be required in initiating a new beginning such as a revolution in order to secure freedom. Yet this contrasts with the negative role of violence – its suppression of freedom. Contrary to the popular view of a peaceful uprising, the 2011 Egyptian revolution saw violent conduct from many protestors. Police stations were burned to the ground and symbols of the state were attacked. These actions, among many, helped to alter the political dynamics in favour of the street, and as Conor Cruise O’Brien once stated, “Violence is sometimes needed for the voice of moderation to be heard.”

Still, violence, state or otherwise, should not be glorified. State violence makes holding order difficult in the long term. As the bloody crackdown launched by the Egyptian security forces demonstrates, violence makes the situation unpredictable and perilous; it also does not guarantee the intended outcome. Arendt has much to say about this too. She remarks, “The danger of violence, even if it moves consciously within a non-extremist framework of short-term goals, will always be that the means overwhelm the end (OR 177).” The problem is that Egypt has long moved beyond such a framework. The spread of pain and suffering is too widespread to manage or control.

Arendt stresses that violence cannot create power, it can only destroy power (CR 155), meaning that it only takes away the conditions in which power can exist, merely forcing a group to disperse. Yet it does not create power which relies on the number of individuals supporting a certain group. In light of this, violence does not require numbers; it requires implements, the tools of violence that multiplies human strength. Therefore power is “not confronted by men but by men’s artefacts” (CR 106). As such, violence is the poorest foundation for a new government.

Arendt uses the example of a disruption in a university class. If one student successfully disrupts the class by yelling or using violence, while all other students choose to carry on peacefully, this breakdown in the academic process would not be due to the disruptive student’s greater power, but rather due to the entire group of students’ choice not to exercise its power to overpower the student (CR 141). In the context of the Egyptian regime, security sector violence subdues the majority to cause it not to exercise its power.

A search for salvation   

To survive, a regime needs a genuine powerbase of believers (CR 149). This powerbase, at the moment, appears to be a large swathe of the Egyptian public cheering on the crackdowns and arrests, and adulating Field Marshal Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi as their messiah. Sisi does not want to become a dictator as much as the people want to make him one. Yet this base rests largely on a quickly hatched informal pact in which the instability-weary public surrenders democratic governance in exchange for security and economic progress. Neither is likely to eventuate, further entrenching the use of violence and consequently exacerbating the instability of the regime.

Arendt warns that violence, like any mode of action, can change the world, but alas, the most probable change is to a more violent world (OR 177). Yet as she notes in The Human Condition(1958), the unpredictability of political action and violence can be countered through promises and forgiveness to help stabilise action and provide healing. Making and keeping promises helps to give signals to the public about the future, ensuring steadfastness. Forgiveness tempers the irreversibility of violence by forgiving past mistakes (HC 241). An alternative to forgiveness is punishment, which involves reparations to rectify the original transgression and bring it to a close. This should not be confused with vengeance that reacts by perpetrating a mirror image of the original wrong.

Distressingly, the Egyptian story of the past three years has been anything but promise, forgiveness and punishment. Instead, it has been one of promises to elites, forgiveness for old regime figures, and punishment for those who criticise the established state chorus.

As elites seek to exhaust every polarising measure before arriving at the obvious station of compromise, Egypt’s road to progressive and inclusive politics is going to be stained red with calamity. In the absence of a visionary leadership, violence will likely continue unabated and further enflame the serious empathy drought in the public discourse.

The spectre of unpredictability, an important Arendtian theme, is another added challenge for the state. The 2011 Revolution brought a new beginning which opened up spaces in which individuals could share with one another their identity and engage in speech and action in which freedom and plurality materialised. It was a Pandora’s Box that unleashed a wave of political change that cannot tolerate the resurrection of Mubarak-style authoritarianism for the very reason that its foundational social contract is no longer feasible. In a paradoxical way, Egypt is a new Egypt even if it still looks like old Egypt.

It may be the case that Egypt’s move towards democracy will eventually happen because they will be left with no other choice as the tools of violence become blunted, but this will not be because the establishment will simply have a change of heart.

“To substitute violence for power can bring victory,” Arendt states, “but the price is very high; for it is not only paid by the vanquished but it is also paid by the victor” (CR 152).

The question now remains how high a price is Egypt’s regime willing to pay, and also how long the classroom will remain apathetic. A state is predictable, a revolution is not.

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The Buck Dies Here: Why Egypt’s Interior Ministry Refuses to be Tamed

Article originally published in The Atlantic Council’s ‘Egypt Source’ (4 April 2013)

Ambushes, kidnappings, torture and murder have come to characterize Egypt’s security sector’s engagement with the Egyptian public in both pre- and post-revolution Egypt. This has left many asking: How did the interior ministry survive its pre-Mubarak incarnation given that one of the revolution’s key demands was police reform?

The issue is more complex than simply looking at how former autocracies were able to reform their police forces during their transition to democracy. The problem arguably starts with how Egypt’s elite – the military, the Muslim Brotherhood, and former regime loyalists – relate to the 18 day uprising.

Nabil Abdel-Fattah in his book “Elite and Revolution: State, Political Islam, Nationalism and Liberalism” argues that the elite are still unable to comprehend the gravity of the 2011 events. This view sheds light on why they are unable to generate a national post-revolutionary project, post-democratic movement or an overhaul of the security establishment, simply because a number of them conceive of the 2011 events as a “mere democratic protest movement.”

As Abdel-Fattah notes “The majority have not absorbed the nature of the event and the end of the legitimacy of 23 July 1952 with its generations, ideas and legacy…The conflict is still at its peak , and reveals two speeds running together in Egypt: one attached to the legitimacy of 1952 and another that claims a still unclear revolutionary legitimacy.” In other words Egypt is experiencing an ideational and generational war that has pitted two appeals to historical legitimacy against one another.

Continue reading “The Buck Dies Here: Why Egypt’s Interior Ministry Refuses to be Tamed”

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The Maddening Betrayal of Potato-Seller, Omar Salah

Omar Salah: In life and death
Omar Salah: In life and death

Published in openDemocracy
Republished in Ahram Online

An Egyptian army conscript walks up to 12 year old Omar Salah Omran, a sweet potato seller – outside the front gates of Cairo’s US Embassy close to Tahrir Square – and requests two potatoes from the young street vendor. Omar answers, “I’ll do so after I go to the bathroom”. The allegedly untrained soldier retorts with a mix of cockiness and jest that he will shoot Omar if he doesn’t comply immediately. On Omar’s reply, “you can’t shoot me” – the conscript, on the alleged presumption that his weapon was not loaded, aimed two bullets piercing through Omar’s heart. He died instantly. (Based on Omar’s father’s television interview with host Mahmoud Saad)

The entire incident was over in ten seconds. The fallout continues.

Many Egyptians were humbled and awoken to another Egypt with the release of a gripping video of Omar speaking to a Life Makers charity member in which he says “I am tired of this job”: he says he wants to learn to read and write. There is an inherently troubling dimension in Omar’s demise that goes beyond the “accidental” nature of it. It is the callous disregard by the state that instigated and attempted to cover up the crime, and a society that no longer gives a second look to the plight of child labour.
Continue reading “The Maddening Betrayal of Potato-Seller, Omar Salah”

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Silent Commanders-in-Chief: From Khaled Saeed to Malala Yousafzai

Article published in openDemocracyEgypt Monocle and Saudi Gazette

While reading the horrific case of Malala Yousafzai, the 14 year-old Pakistani girl who was shot in the face by the Talban for championing girls’ education, I came across a photo of a young supporter of Malala that triggered memories back to June 2010 of a similar image that has forever been engraved in my mind – an Egyptian youth protesting the tragic death of Khaled Saeed, the 28-year old Alexandrian who was beaten to death by policemen and would trigger the rapid countdown to the 2011 Egyptian revolution (See my detailed June piece Saeeds of Revolution: De-mythologizing Khaled Saeed).

The images provide a poignant and surreal expression of a protestor, in a repressive atmosphere, raising their hand held up high clenching a simple black and white A4 printout of their respective poster-child. It strikes deep at the heart of Arab regimes or fanatical organisations that have little appetite for dissent or any mere standing out from the crowd.
Continue reading “Silent Commanders-in-Chief: From Khaled Saeed to Malala Yousafzai”

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Power, Rebirth, and Scandal: A Decade of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina


Deposed President Hosni Mubarak, Bibliotheca Alexandrina Director Ismail Serageldin, widow of the late President Anwar al-Sadat, Jehan, and former first lady Suzanne Mubarak; oversee the Library.

Click here to read my feature piece in JadaliyyaPower, Rebirth, and Scandal: A Decade of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina
(also republished in Ahram Online)

The piece examines the foundational politics and abuse of power behind the resurrected Library of Alexandria. “The library rests at the heart of international power plays seeking to carve out a stake in the ‘sacred drama’ of the Alexandria myth, Egypt’s political repositioning with the West, the Mubaraks’ unabashed narcissism, coupled with the self-styled “culture wars” of Alexandria’s elites. The foundational drama that midwifed the Bibliotheca would give way to a decade of corruption, abuse of power, while also positively shaping the socio-cultural landscape of the coastal city, even making it a vital player in the post-Mubarak environment.”

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