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Robin Yassin-Kassab

Archive for the ‘Egypt’ Category

The City Always Wins

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City Cover ExtraAn edited version of this review appeared first at the Guardian.

“The City Always Wins”, the astounding debut novel by British-Egyptian film-maker Omar Robert Hamilton, opens after the seeming triumph of the Egyptian revolution’s early stage has passed, though it is remembered, cinematically, as “an explosion of light, sound and epic consequence with no room for ego or doubt.”

Now the revolutionaries are flailing in various tides of counter-revolution. The new Muslim Brotherhood government forces through a constitution which ignores key revolutionary demands. Brotherhood ‘security’ and a revived police force torture and murder at will. The army kills too, and prepares to seize total control. To emphasise these reversals, parts one, two and three of the novel – though the story moves forward chronologically – are titled respectively Tomorrow, Today and Yesterday.

Crowds are evoked through disputatious voices. A large and striking cast of characters struggles in night-time streets, chokes in traffic or on tear gas, argues in bars, and waits in hospitals and morgues. They are brought together through the figure of Khalil. Palestinian-Egyptian, and American born, Khalil’s problematised nationality, and people’s responses to it, is one way in which the novel questions the nature of community. Khalil’s partner Mariam is a medical worker seeking a life worthy enough to “conquer death with memory”, and a feminist in the way she lives and loves, though she never mentions the word.

Khalil co-founds Chaos, a magazine, website and podcast (in the real world, Hamilton co-founded a media collective called Mosireen). The office “becomes a cerebral cortex at the centre of the information war.” Significantly, the novel begins at the massacre of (mainly Christian) protestors outside Maspero, the state media HQ. Later, Khalil will have reason to repeat: “I wish we had taken Maspero.”

The revolutionaries set up illegal radio transmissions, write manifestos, crowd-source, make public art. Increasingly they also tend the wounded, comfort the bereaved, and find lawyers for the detained. Some of the people here are real, like the imprisoned activist Alaa Abd el-Fattah, Hamilton’s cousin, to whom he dedicates the book.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

August 4, 2017 at 7:59 am

Posted in book review, Egypt

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From Deep State to Islamic State

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deep1An edited version of this piece was published at Newsweek Middle East edition.

In 2011, according to the ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller Arab Youth Survey, “living in a democracy” was the most important desire for 92% of respondents. A mere four years later, however, 39% of Arab youths believed democracy would never work in the Arab world, and perceived ISIS, not dictatorship, as their most pressing problem.

Powerful states seem to share the perception, bombing ISIS as a short-term gestural response to terrorism, re-embracing ‘security states’ in the name of realism – concentrating on symptoms rather than causes.

How did the bright revolutionary discourse of 2011 turn so fast to a fearful whisper? Jean-Pierre Filiu’s “From Deep State to Islamic State” – a passionate, sometimes polemical, and very timely book – examines “the repressive dynamics designed to crush any hope of democratic change, through the association of any revolutionary experience with the worst collective nightmare.”

For historical analogy, Filiu evokes the Mamluks, Egypt’s pre-Ottoman ruling caste. Descended from slaves, these warriors lived in their own fortified enclaves, and considered the lands and people under their control as personal property. Filiu sees a modern parallel in the neo-colonial elites – militarised elements of the lower and rural classes – who hijacked independence in Algeria, Egypt, and Syria (and, in different ways, in Libya, Iraq, Tunisia and Yemen).

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

December 23, 2015 at 3:33 pm

Posted in Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Syria

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All Things Considered (Again)

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Again I was on All Things Considered, a BBC Radio Wales programme, talking with Nadim Nassar, Bishop Angelos, and Harry Hagopian about Muslims, Islamists, Christians, Syria and Egypt. Follow the link to listen (it may only be available for a few days).

http://downloads.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/wales/atc/atc_20140112-0930a.mp3

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

January 12, 2014 at 11:16 pm

Tahrir Square

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Cairo December 2013: "Extermination is a Duty. The Zionist Muslim Brothers are the Jews of Egypt"

Cairo December 2013: “Extermination is a Duty. The Zionist Muslim Brothers are the Jews of Egypt”

Terribly out of date (but it’s a snapshot of a moment so it doesn’t really matter), my 2011 essay on Egypt for Critical Muslim is now online. From today’s perspective March and April 2011 look like a golden age. Who would have predicted the wave of fascism currently overwashing the Sisi junta’s state?

Cairo felt different. Tahreer Square, of course, carried a new set of meanings. The traffic, the pollution, the Stalinist gloom of the Mugamma building – these had shrunk, and revolutionary grafitti, redignified national flags, and the endlessly various Egyptian people now dominated the eye. It didn’t feel the same either to walk over the Qasr el-Nil bridge, not after the glorious battle of January 28th. (I kept trying to work out where the police van was burnt.) And the streets were in fact cleaner, even that, in central Cairo at least. In ritual overcompensation for the years of filth, people had been observed during the revolution’s 18 days scrubbing the pavements with toothbrushes. A man in a café called Ali Jabr explained it to me: “The Egyptians used to hate their country just as they used to hate themselves. Anywhere you went in the world, the people thought the Egyptians were rubbish. And the Egyptians agreed. After the revolution we know we aren’t rubbish, so we pick our rubbish up from the streets.”

You know that something rare and powerful is occurring, something all-encompassing, not limited to a political or intellectual elite, when even a mobile nuts-and-seeds stall has ‘Social Justice’ stenciled on its side.

I visited in late March and early April. My plane to Cairo was a quarter full at best. The airport was almost empty.

The immigration guard peered long at me and asked if I was originally Iranian, prompting me to wonder if anything had changed at all. There were no pictures of Mubarak on the walls. That was a change.

Then the driver who took me into town. He addressed the revolution immediately. “Tell me congratulations!” he grinned. I did so. “We’ve finished with him!” he exulted. “We’re free!” Pictures of some of freedom’s martyrs swung from the rear-view mirror.

I asked who he wanted for president now.

“Whoever proposes the best programme. The personality isn’t important. The ideas are important, the policies. I’ll judge on that.”

Most of Egypt considered itself a potential winner, but the losers were visible too. There was the burnt-out frame of the National Democratic Party headquarters for a start, hulking over the river like a man shamed in the stocks. And the police, who I was told “are sulking.” Certainly fewer patrolled than when I had last been here, and those who did certainly seemed less sure in their swagger, as if they’d recognized themselves at last – poorly trained, underemployed, unloved.

The news on the cab radio as we drove from the airport: the Ministry of the Interior was burning, the fire blamed on police officers protesting outside for a pay rise and the prosecution of their corrupt commanders. But their undeclared demand was for respect. I saw a poster pasted anonymously to Nileside walls pleading for trust to be restored in the police “on the basis of mutual love, not insult… for there are many noble men in the police force.”

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

January 1, 2014 at 11:33 pm

Posted in Critical Muslim, Egypt

Iran Shoots Itself in the Foot

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iransyriahizbThis was written for the excellent Lobelog.

In August 2012 Egyptian President Muhammad Morsi attended a meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) in Tehran. His presence at the conference was something of a diplomatic victory for the Iranian leadership, whose relations with Egypt, the pivotal Arab state, had been at the lowest of ebbs since the 1979 revolution.

Egypt’s President Sadat laid on a state funeral for the exiled Iranian shah. A Tehran street was later named after Khalid Islambouli, one of Sadat’s assassins. Like every Arab country except Syria, Egypt backed Iraq against Iran in the First Gulf War. Later, Hosni Mubarak opposed Iranian influence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Palestine, worked with the US and Saudi Arabia against Iran’s nuclear program, and was one of the Arab dictators (alongside the Abdullahs of Jordan and Saudi Arabia) to warn darkly of a rising “Shi’ite cresent”. Not surprisingly, Iran was so overjoyed by the 2011 revolution in Egypt that it portrayed it as a replay of its own Islamic Revolution.

Iran also rhetorically supported the revolutions in Tunisia and Libya, the uprising in Yemen, and, most fervently, the uprising in Shia-majority Bahrain.

In Syria, however, Iran supported the Assad tyranny against a popular revolution even as Assad escalated repression from gunfire and torture to aerial bombardment and missile strikes. Iran provided Assad with a propaganda smokescreen, injections of money to keep regime militias afloat, arms and ammunition, military training, and tactical advice, particularly on neutralising cyber opponents. Many Syrians believe Iranian officers are also fighting on the ground.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

January 17, 2013 at 7:04 pm

Posted in Egypt, Iran, Syria

The Revolution Takes On Zionism

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A few days ago a well-planned resistance operation killed eight Israelis. Israel has no idea who carried out the operation, except that they were probably Arabs, so it has responded in its usual way – by randomly murdering Arabs. Fifteen have been killed so far in the Gaza ghetto, and six Egyptian soldiers were killed when Zionist forces violated Egypt’s sovereign border. Before the revolution there was no response to this kind of arrogant aggression. This time the Zionist government has been forced to apologise to Egypt. That’s not enough, of course, so the Egyptian people have taken matters into their own hands. In this film, the Zionist flag falls in Cairo. This was last night. The demonstration outside the Zionist embassy continues today. People are firing fireworks at the occupied building.

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

August 21, 2011 at 7:54 pm

Posted in Egypt, Zionism

The Sultan’s Shaikhs and Salafis

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Update: Syria’s tame mufti Hassoun has said there is no truth to the news which I repeat below, that Buti, Hassoun and other clerics met with the minister of Awqaf and decided to cancel taraweeh prayers. I heard the false report from someone in Syria. Obviously a rumour was circulating.

When I lived in Syria in the 1990s people would speak very respectfully about Shaikh Sa’id Ramadan al-Buti, a Damascus-based cleric and a traditionalist. I could never quite understand why. I attended his mosque once after an American bombing run on sanctions-starved Iraq; on that occasion Buti blamed the deaths in Iraq on ‘a lack of love between the Muslims.’ Perhaps some of the congregation imagined this was a veiled criticism of the Arab leaders. People called al-Buti honest and fearless.

I had a conversation with someone who taught archeology at Damascus University. This academic arranged a debate on human origins, the scientific versus the religious view. The debate went very well until Shaikh Buti arrived, with entourage. The cleric encouraged noisy religious chanting until the debate had been entirely disrupted, at which point he declared ‘this is a victory for belief over unbelief’ and had himself carried away on the shoulders of his admirers. A great victory indeed.

Throughout the Syrian uprising, Buti has told Syria’s Muslims to trust the regime that is murdering them. He has repeatedly condemned peaceful demonstrations for dignity and rights. He has accused the protestors who set out from Friday mosques of not knowing how to pray. I accuse Buti of not knowing how to think, or feel, and of having no moral sense. Yesterday, following the most savage massacres yet perpetrated by the regime, Buti released a ‘fatwa’ cancelling the taraweeh prayers which are held every evening during Ramadan. The truth could not be clearer: this ‘honest, fearless’ cleric is even willing to cancel prayers when he is ordered to by the state. He is to religion what Dunya TV and Syria Comment are to objective reporting; what the shabeeha are to domestic security. Many of Syria’s Christian leaders, meanwhile, have taken the most unChristian step of joining in state propaganda against unarmed Syrian citizens even as these citizens – of all sects – are tortured, maimed and humiliated.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

August 1, 2011 at 12:00 pm

Posted in Egypt, Syria

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