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Robin Yassin-Kassab

Archive for the ‘Egypt’ Category

Bloodbath

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photo by AP

When the pro-Mubarak protestors appeared on the streets yesterday they were a comical sight. The small crowd near the Egyptian TV building (so obviously a propaganda set-up) were surrounded and outnumbered by police. It was as if they were trying to remind Egyptians what a traditional demonstration should look like. It was a vision from a previous age, but not quite authentic because the police didn’t break any heads.

Last night Mubarak announced he would step down at the next election. In his last months in power he would arrange an orderly transition of power. This is the ‘managed’ change that Tony Blair, Obama and Netanyahu want. In other words, the survival of the regime, under the torturer and sadist Omar Suleiman if not under Mubarak, co-existing with an impotent parliament which would emerge from slightly-less-rigged elections.

The enormous crowds in Maydan Tahreer, Alexandria, Suez, Mahalla al-Kubra and elsewhere met Mubarak’s speech with howls of derision. But by this morning it seems that the regime has succeeeded in splitting the democracy movement. The hardcore are entirely aware of the threat to the revolution, and will not retreat. Those who are less politically conscious, however, feel that they’ve won a victory and should now go home, lest chaos ensues.

This has been Mubarak’s argument: without me, chaos. It’s certainly true that Egypt needs a resolution soon. The already precarious economy has been on hold for over a week and basic food supplies are running low. Until this morning it seemed regime strategy was to exhaust the revolution.

But now the regime is speeding things up, by engineering chaos. Interior ministy goons masquerading as ‘pro-Mubarak protestors’ have poured into Maydan Tahreer, many on horse and camel back, armed with whips, machetes and sticks. Gunfire has been heard. The army is doing absolutely nothing to protect the people. Earlier today an army spokesman on state TV told the revolutionaries to go home. Old men, women and children are amongst the crowd in Maydan Tahreer. This is going to be very bloody indeed.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

February 2, 2011 at 2:32 pm

Posted in Egypt

IRNA

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I was interviewed on the revolutionary events by Iran’s Islamic Republic News Agency. Here’s the result in English, and in Farsi.

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

February 1, 2011 at 3:57 pm

Posted in Arabism, Egypt

January 25th

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The day the revolution started. In the second film Waseem Wagdi, an Egyptian protesting outside the embassy in London, says it all, beautifully.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

January 31, 2011 at 1:39 am

Posted in Egypt

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Sovereignty

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Photo by Amr Abdallah Dalsh/ Reuters

My past experience talking to Egyptians, in Egypt and around the world, is that 95% of them hate Husni Mubarak and the humiliation he’s brought upon their once great country. When I ask of their hopes for change, they answer with the bitter resignation common to all Arabs: “Nothing will change. His son will come after him. People are more interested in football, or their next meal.” Arabs from other countries also despair of escaping their state of stagnation. Some like to repeat the Arabic phrase al-‘arab jarab, or ‘the Arabs are scabies.’

But that was then. That was until the Tunisian revolution, which has now reached the centre of the Arab world. Egypt’s Friday of Rage was a beautiful revolutionary moment, when individuals, having witnessed the strength of their protesting compatriots over the previous days, suddenly realised they were not alone. After Friday prayers, a nation claimed sovereignty over its streets – young people, the unemployed, professionals, workers, students, families. The people who didn’t demonstrate provided food, drinks and tear gas remedies to those who did (which means that womens’ participation has been much greater than TV pictures show). On at least one occasion, Christians guarded a Muslim mass prayer under assault by police.

And in Suez, Luxor, Alexandria and Cairo they defeated the police. They torched police stations and police vehicles, as well as the headquarters of the ruling (and absurdly named) National Democratic Party. (The Israeli embassy, meanwhile, has helicoptered its entire staff out of Cairo. One slogan being chanted: ya mubarak ya ameel/ ba’at biladak l-isra’il, or ‘Mubarak you Foreign Agent, You Sold your Country to Israel.’ Tonight the only Israeli flag flying in the Arab world is in Amman.)

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

January 29, 2011 at 11:37 pm

A Crucial Moment

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Whose day will it be?

Today is crucial, and could go very badly. The Egyptian gangster regime and its backers have clearly decided to use maximum force to end the popular challenge. At 12.34 this morning, Egypt’s entire internet service was closed down – the largest shutdown in history. Mobile phone services have also been suspended, and al-Jazeera has been taken off the Egyptian air. An al-Jazeera journalist has been beaten up by regime thugs. There are reports that French and British journalists have also been beaten or detained. A CNN crew have had their cameras smashed. Obviously, news is harder to come by today.

Last night senior members of the Muslim Brotherhood were arrested (see Jonathan Wright’s reflection on the Brotherhood role). Now it seems Muhammad al-Baradei has been arrested after leading a protest in Giza. Protests have erupted in Cairo, in Sinai’s al-Arish, in Minya and Assiut in upper Egypt, in Ismailiya, in Alexandria. Roads leading to Suez, where regime forces have lost control, have been closed.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

January 28, 2011 at 1:22 pm

Posted in Egypt

Scenes from the Egyptian Intifada

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Al-Masry al-Yowm says of Egypt’s stock market crash today, “The crash, which brought year-to-date losses to almost 21 percent, hit at the core of some of the regime’s main accomplishments. The president has built his legacy continuing and expanding the open market policies launched by his predecessor, Anwar Sadat, in the 1970s.” Meanwhile ex-UN nuclear inspector Muhammad al-Baradei is returning to Egypt to (perhaps presumpteously) lead the protests. And the Muslim Brotherhood has finally expressed support for the demonstrations. “We are not pushing this movement, but we are moving with it. We don’t wish to lead it but we want to be part of it,” said Mohammed Mursi, a senior Brotherhood leader.

In this highly recommended interview, Egyptian journalist Hossam el-Hamalawy contextualises Egypt’s intifada  against earlier mass protests on behalf of Palestine and Iraq. “The regional is local here,” he says. Here Asa’ad Abu Khalil provides a list of slogans heard in recent days. And here are three short films which capture some of the unfolding drama. In the first, journalists demanding police release their colleague Yahya Qlash turn to chanting Fall, Fall, Mubarak, and al-intifada mustamura (The Intifada Continues), and Go, Go, We Don’t Want You, and finally hurriya (Freedom). In the second, a crowd facing off the police chants (if I hear correctly) – One, Two, The Egyptian People Are Alive. The third shows chilling scenes as the police cleared Maydan Tahreer on the first night.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

January 27, 2011 at 3:44 pm

Posted in Egypt

Mish Ayazeenu

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photo by Adam Makary

Egypt’s anti-regime protests are unprecedented in size, frequency and ferocity. In Shubra, Dokki, Mohandaseen and Bulaq, Cairenes chanted ash-sha’ab yureed isqaat an-nizam, or The People Want the Fall of the Regime, and braved tear gas and baton-wielding thugs in the central Tahrir Square. Alexandria, Tanta, Suez, and the labour stronghold of Mahalla al-Kubra have also demonstrated. A government building has been burnt in Suez. Posters of Mubarak have been ripped down and burnt in several locations. Mish ayazeenu, the people shout: We Don’t Want Him.

When January 25th’s Day of Anger started, police at first allowed protesters to move freely in the streets. This was unusual, and suggests fear on the authorities’ part, as does the abrupt shift back to traditional methods as night fell. At the time of writing, at least a thousand people have been arrested, several killed, and hundreds beaten. (Here’s an audio recording of Guardian journalist Jack Shenker’s experience being trucked into the desert with other protesters.) Uniformed police are backed up by plainclothes goons, many armed with iron bars. (One hopes that someone is collecting photographs of these people in order to identify and shame them.)

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

January 27, 2011 at 12:15 am

Posted in Egypt

A Different Kind of Dominoes

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AFP Photo

I ended my last post like this:

Perhaps in six months’ time non-Arab commentators will decide that the Tunisian revolution was a mere anomaly in an eternally stagnant Arab world. But they’ll be wrong. The revolution will exert a long-term pervasiveness throughout Arab culture, as the Iranian revolution did before it. It will change the air the Arabs breathe and the dreams the Arabs dream.

Well, it seems I was wrong on the timescale. I should have said six minutes. Today several commentators are indeed arguing that the Tunisian revolution is anomalous. Robert Fisk is pessimistic, contending that the Tunisian people are no match for the combined forces of the Tunisian elite and Western imperialism. Perhaps events will prove him right.  Steve Walt fears that those expecting immediate regime change from the Ocean to the Gulf will be rapidly disappointed.

His point is a good one. In the frontline states with Israel, foreign policy issues increase in importance because they have the potential to immediately translate into security issues. The Syrian regime, for instance, may be unpopular for its corruption, bureaucracy, and stifling of dissent, but its foreign policy is broadly in line with Syrian opinion – and in Syria this matters a great deal. The Western clients are more vulnerable to protest, not least because they’re more linked into the ‘globalised’ economy and are thus more vulnerable to dramatic fluctuations in the price of essential goods. Yet even in Jordan legitimate fears of an Israeli intervention (perhaps an attempt to fulfill the Jordan-is-Palestine fantasy) could damp down effervescence. The public in many countries seems too split by sect, ethnicity or tribe to coordinate unified protest. And of course the regimes will now be battening down for fear of Tunisian contagion.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

January 18, 2011 at 12:45 am

Changing the Air

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Zein al-Abdine Ben Ali is in Abha, Saudi Arabia. France wouldn’t have him. (Despots, note the speed with which a sponsor drops a client who has outlived his usefulness.) Arab activists are calling for protests outside Saudi embassies.

In Tunisia, the extent of the people’s sacrifice over the last month is becoming clearer. Reports describe Ben Ali’s police terrorising rural areas with punitive rapes and random murders.

And the terror continues. Since Ben Ali’s fall, Tunis and other cities have been plagued by violence. Some of it, such as attacks on Ben Ali family businesses, can be classed as revolutionary. Some more of it is the natural result of taking the lid off after so long; a mix of exuberance, criminality, and what Gazmend Kapplani calls an ‘orphan complex’:

Tyrants are merciless beasts, precisely because they leave behind distorted societies worn down by oppression and above all suffering from an orphan complex. Those who give themselves over to indiscriminate looting and destruction the minute the statues come down are like orphaned children robbing the corpse of a false and terrifying father.

But the most terrifying violence appears to be organised by Ben Ali’s militiamen. Tunisians report battles between army forces on the one hand and ‘police’ and other highly-trained, well-armed gangs on the other. Some of these gangs have been driving through residential areas shooting randomly at people and buildings.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

January 17, 2011 at 2:24 am

This is What Victory Looks Like

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photo by Hassene Dridi for AP

Written on the night of January 14th 2011

The dictator, thief and Western client Zein al-Abdine Ben Ali, beloved until a few hours ago in Paris and Washington, has been driven from Tunisia. His reign was ended not by a military or palace coup but by an extraordinarily broad-based popular movement which has brought together trades unions and professional associations, students and schoolchildren, the unemployed and farmers, leftists, liberals and intelligent Islamists, men and women. One of the people’s most prominent slogans will resonate throughout the Arab world and beyond: la khowf ba’ad al-yowm, or No Fear From Now On.

It is to be hoped that Tunisia will now develop a participatory system based on respect for citizens’ rights, that it will reclaim and develop its economy, implement social justice, and move out of the Western-Israeli embrace. The revolution, however, is beset by dangers. Although the head of the snake has been sacrificed, the conglomerate of interests behind the Ben Ali regime is largely still in place, and will be working furiously to restrict and roll back popular participation. For this reason it is of crucial importance that Tunisians are tonight raising the slogan ‘al-intifada mustamura,’ or ‘the intifada continues.’

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

January 15, 2011 at 4:09 am

Horror and Hope

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Egyptian police break a Copt's leg. Photo by Nasser Nouri

It currently seems there is a real danger of the Middle East losing its millenia-old diversity. Iraq’s post-invasion civil war separated the country’s Shia and Sunni communities, driving millions into exile. Pro-Western Arab regimes continue to spew vicious anti-Shia propaganda, which is heard by important sections of society. Now Wahhabi-nihilists have declared open season on Iraq’s ancient Christian community. Palestine was cleansed of its natives in 1947/48 and transformed into a Jewish ethno-state. Zionism and a new Muslim chauvinism have reduced the Christian proportion of the West Bank from 15% in 1950 to 2% today. And the New Year brought news of an appalling attack on Egyptian Copts, an increasingly oppressed and alienated community.

Informed observers will know that there is nothing essential or ‘ages-old’ about the emerging sectarian chaos. Sectarianism had receded almost to irrelevance amongst the generations of Arabs that believed they were on their way to true independence. Foreign partitions and occupations did a large part to crush that dream. Totalitarianism and economic and educational failures (often the policies of foreign-backed regimes) did the rest. In Egypt’s case, the Mubarak regime has dealt with its Islamist challenge in two ways: politically, it has rigged elections ever more blatantly and persecuted its visible opponents; socially, it has given way to the most retrograde desires of Islamism (forbidding the construction of churches, banning books) and done its best to whip up petty chauvinism over the most ridiculous of pretexes (for instance the mutual football hooliganism of Egyptian and Algerian fans).

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

January 2, 2011 at 5:36 pm

Myth-Making

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We often project our current political concerns backwards in time in order to justify ourselves. I say ‘we’ because everyone does it. Nazi Germany invented a mythical blonde Aryan people who had always been kept down by lesser breeds. The Hindu nationalists in India imagine that Hinduism has always been a centralised doctrine rather than a conglomerate of texts and local traditions, and describe Muslim, Buddhist, Christian, Sikh, Jain and animist influences on Indian history as foreign intrusions. Black nationalists in the Americas depict ancient Africa as a continent not of hunter-gatherers and subsistence farmers but as a wonderland of kings and queens, gold and silk, science and monumental architecture. To our current cost, Zionists and the neo-cons have been able to reactivate old Orientalist myths in the West, myths in which the entirety of Arab and Islamic history has involved the slaughter and oppression of Christians, Jews, Hindus, women, gays, intellectuals .. and so on.

Such retrospective mythmaking frequently goes to the most absurd extremes in young nations conscious of their weakness or of a need for redefinition (America may be one of these). Probably for that reason it is particularly evident in the Middle East.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

February 11, 2010 at 8:19 pm

Posted in Arabism, Egypt, History, Iran, Iraq, Islam, Turkey, Zionism

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Sectarian Rabble-Rousing

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Al-Ahram Weekly, the English language twin of the Arabic daily, is an Egyptian state organ. The Weekly has a broader range of opinion than the tame daily, and does often contain interesting articles. The great Palestinian thinker Azmi Bishara, for instance, can be found in the Weekly. Unfortunately, however, Egyptian regime nonsense concerning the Persian-Shia ‘threat’ is also fed into the mix. This article by Galal Nassar is a sad example. Below is my response to his piece:

Dear Mr Nassar

I am not a Shia Muslim. If I were, I would not be a supporter of the velayat-e-faqih system. I agree with you entirely that the velayat-e-faqih concept is a perversion of traditional Shia ideas. I also agree that velayat-e-faqih leads to authoritarian government, to the detriment of Iranian society.

If it is authoritarianism that bothers you, however, I wonder why you single out Iran, which is at least a semi-democracy. The dictatorship in Egypt seems a much better target, especially after the mass arrests of recent weeks. Another good target is the barbaric dictatorship in Saudi Arabia. As a Sunni Muslim, I am outraged by the Wahhabi perversion of Islam that holds sway in that country.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

February 4, 2009 at 11:19 am

A Tour of Upper Egypt

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KarnakFor a long time I’ve been fascinated by the first Mesopotamian civilisations, the Sumerians (whose art, I think, has never been surpassed), Akkadians and Babylonians, but I didn’t have much of an interest in pharaonic Egypt before my recent visit. I’d seen the Pyramids five years ago, and they hadn’t done much for me – perhaps because Cairo has grown around them, or perhaps because I’d seen too many pictures.

But Luxor’s Temple of Karnak astounded me. Unlike the vast, inhuman pyramids, it gives you a sense of the scale and complexity of the people who worked and worshipped here three and a half to four thousand years ago. On the walls, ceilings, statues and obelisks there is plenty of realist depiction as well as the static, formulaic art I expected. In many of the buildings the roof, or at least the lower storey’s roof, is still on. Karnak is far older – and because of the truly ancient religion, it feels far older – than the equally intact Greek stuff I’ve seen in Turkey and Syria.

The architecture of Karnak’s Hypostyle hall must be among the most impressive in the world, and the impression of wandering through its forest of columns is entirely unphotographable. It feels fertile, like an organised swamp, and there are stars painted on the ceiling’s stone beams.

For the first time I saw a continuity between ancient Egyptian and Islamic architecture, the same focus on line, space and light.The arranged columns reminded me, for instance, of the Great Mosque in Fes, with its contradictory evocation of crowdedness and endless expanse. Like the great mosque complexes, Egyptian temple compounds functioned as schools, meeting halls, hospitals and libraries as well as places of worship. Karnak has a sacred lake, and its priests performed ritual ablutions before worship, as Muslims do.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

April 14, 2008 at 9:03 am

Posted in Egypt, Travel

Tagged with ,

Egyptian Novels

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Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz

Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz

In the contemporary Arab world, Bilad ash-Sham, or the Levant, surely comes first for poetry. Whether you’re looking for Muhammad Maghout’s bitter satire, anti-romanticism, and defence of the poor and the peasants, or for Mahmoud Darwish’s lyrical nationalism — whether you appreciate the modernist obscurity of Adonis or the powerful simplicity of Nizar Qabbani; you will turn to Syria and Palestine for your verse fix. The Arabs certainly do. For poetry in the Middle East isn’t the elite preoccupation it has become in the West. Taxi drivers and market men will quote you snippets of Qabbani’s love poetry or angry anti-occupation verse according to their temperament and the twist of the conversation. Even the illiterate may know some Qabbani from hearing it quoted in the café or crooned by the Iraqi singer Kazem as-Saher, with orchestral accompaniment. When Arab rappers want to express hardcore identity, they proclaim: “I’m an Arab like Mahmoud Darwish!” (the ‘Dam’ crew from Palestine.) That’s how uncissy Arab poetry is.

But for the Arabic novel, a genre which is only a century old (although there are much earlier precursors), the action is centred in Egypt, unsurprisingly – Egypt with its huge population and its indefinable, unmeasurable metropolis.

The most famous of Egyptian novelists is Naguib Mahfouz. Amongst the Arabs his books are bestsellers in garish covers, and many have been made into classic films. His international reputation was sealed when he became the first Arab to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988. Reflecting changes in 20th century Arab reality, his style developed from heroic through realist to magical realist or romantic symbolist.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

February 14, 2008 at 9:45 am