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On Egypt’s Streets, It’s the Mob That Rules

February 11, 2014

 

 

On Jan. 25, the third anniversary of ex-dictator Hosni Mubarak’s ouster, violence broke out on Egypt’s streets, led by mobs exacting vigilante justice on anyone who dared to question the government. The clashes came just a few days after a new constitution was approved with 98.1 percent in a less-than-democratic referendum. Activists who distributed flyers criticizing the vote were attacked and beaten. (Some were also arrested.)

The anniversary brought frightening images of what Egypt has become. When Arab Spring revolutionaries — those who not long ago dethroned Mubarak and who remain associated with the Tahrir Square demonstrations — staged a march to commemorate the events of January 2011 and denounce the military’s renewed dominance, they were met with such violence that one activist, whom I personally know to be very brave, sent out a warning: “Grab a Sisi poster and walk casually out of there. Get the fuck out of downtown. It’s extremely dangerous and useless.”

Street vendors were spotted selling posters of Mubarak; one would be hard-pressed to find a more egregious symbol of Egypt’s backsliding. Yet most of those flooding the streets celebrated a new deity: General — pardon me, Field Marshal — Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

In Alexandria, mobs also assaulted virtually anyone who wasn’t actively declaring their love for Sisi. Angry crowds attacked journalists – andanyone with a camerareally. In one video, several women were assaulted so viciously that they sought refuge in a nearby shop. When the police dragged them out, bystanders insulted, hit, and sexually assaulted the vulnerable women. The police, naturally, did nothing but arrest the victims.

These angry masses are a force to be reckoned with — and they are also a malleable tool in the hands of the security forces. Perhaps the most tragicomic moment of protests occurred when, unaware that the camera was rolling, policemen threatened a private television crew, warning that they would “unleash people on you and tell them you work for Al Jazeera.”

Egypt is spiraling into fascism, and its descent is tangible, palpable, and well-documented. But it is this normalization of mob violence that frightens me most. Whenever you find yourself outnumbered by members of the opposing political camp, there’s a good chance you’ll fall victim to potentially deadly violence. This has become a regular fact of life — and that, to me, is much more frightening than the violence itself.

Barely anyone is condemning this citizen violence. The general attitude among most Egyptians ranges from approbation to indifference to victim-blaming, as if someone who dares to hold a camera deserves to be beaten by random strangers.

In a way, though, this isn’t new. Egypt has a history of vicious grassroots policing. Neighborhood residents regularly pummel robbers caught stealing rather than call the police. Hit-and-run accidents are all too common, because drivers know that if they stop, they might be killed by angry residents and passersby. This is sad, but it’s no joke.

There is also nothing new about the cynical, political use of mob violence against political opponents.

Since the first day of the revolution, mobs have attacked political dissidents, often under the watchful eye of security forces. Countless protesters were assaulted during the revolution’s protests by emotionally charged crowds, barely escaping with their lives. I was the subject of such irrational savagery myself. Nearby army officers watched as a mob manning an ad-hoc checkpoint beat me up. When the officers finally detained me, they told me that I was better off that way: if they let me go I’d be killed by the mob. They were probably right. During my overnight detention in the army encampment, I watched members of those mobs come by and deliver the food, water, and medication they had stolen from protesters to the soldiers, whose explicit approval for these actions was more than obvious.

But perhaps the most visible instance of mob violence was the infamous “Day of the Camel,” when pro-Mubarak thugs, some mounted on horses or camels, attacked protesters in Tahrir Square. Most people attributed the violence to “paid thugs” (baltageya in Arabic), making the implicit assumption that someone would only attack peaceful protesters if they were paid to do so. In reality, many in the assaulting crowd were merely enraged people who took the opportunity to throw a punch.

At the same time, officials exhorted citizens to help guard their neighborhoods as the police cowered. These “popular committees” used their implicitly state-sanctioned role to assault anyone they deemed “suspect” — and at times rob or harass innocents.

But it was only in July 2011 that these freelance thugs won their tongue-in-cheek nickname: “Honorable citizens.” The “honorable citizens,” as distinct from the “paid things,” are the obedient attack hounds of the state. These are the people who, on July 23, 2011, at the implicit request of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces spokespeople and pro-government media, ambushed a march that was heading from Tahrir Square to the Ministry of Defense. It was this mob that murdered 23-year-old Mohamed Mohsen.

Since then, the “honorable citizens” — individuals who find sport in beating protesters with the enthusiastic consent of the security forces — have been a staple of every protest. They take out their frustrations — at political instability, at the bad economy, perhaps even at terrible weather — on protesters. Under Mohamed Morsi’s reign, the “honorable citizens” conducting the mass beatings were the Muslim Brotherhood’s rank-and-file members and supporters. Though more systematic and vicious, the civilians operated with the knowledge and guidance of the ruling authorities, terrorizing those who disagreed with their political ideology. Today they have been replaced by the extreme fringe of Sisi supporters.

Sexual violence is another horrible aspect of mob violence. Mass sexual harassment has been a recent staple of public holidays over the past decade; its use as a political tool is more recent and equally savage. Dozens of sexual assaults and rapes have been reported during the largest protests, as early as 2011. The handful of accounts offered by survivors and volunteers vividly documents the viciousness of the mobs.

Mob violence in Egypt is a worsening nightmare, and though it often goes unreported (since snapping photos of a lynch mob can be bad for your health), it poses an urgent danger to today’s peaceful protest movement. For now, Egypt’s new rulers are quite content to use this violence to their advantage. But they’ll soon discover that they’ve created a monster — one that might one day turn against them. In August 2013, in the wake of theRabaa massacre (when the police murdered hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood supporters), the Ministry of Interior briefly realized the risks entailed by relinquishing the state monopoly on violence. The Ministry attempted to declare the “popular committees” illegal and asked them to disband.

But that attempt to renounce the power of the mob was short-lived, and the current government now appears to have returned to using mob violence against its political opponents.

We have reached the point where these mobs have, for lack of a better term, become self-aware. They no longer need the media or the government to incite their rage. Now they’re ready to attack anyone who dares to snap a photo of graffiti, or is unfortunate enough to do so while looking like a foreigner.

Talk of peace and compromise is meaningless amid a climate of constant intimidation by the mob and the authorities. The atmosphere of violence makes a mockery of any hope of reviving the tourism industry that was once so vital to our economy. A backlash is inevitable. This time around, it won’t take 60 years of army rule.

Originally  published in Foreign Policy: Transitions

Internet’s best, Internet’s worse: Livetweeting a death report in Kabul

January 17, 2014

I watched this unfold on Twitter a few minutes ago.

Tweeting a death Kabul

A suicide bombing in a Lebanese restaurant in Kabul killed 14 people. No list of casualties were given. (A little afterwards the news informed us that four UN workers might be in the casualties, but civilians were not in the “breaking news” follow-up reports).

The owner’s daughter, Mona Hamade, studies in Cambridge in the UK – and was naturally terribly worried for her father. After failing to reach anyone by phone, she turned to Twitter and started messaging journalists on site. They were very helpful and starting asking one another – even using the short-lived hashtag #FindKamelHamadeh.

Short-lived, because it wasn’t long until someone replied, informing Ms. Hamade that her father had apparently been killed in the blast.

Watching this unfold on Twitter was a strange testament to everything that’s great and gruesome about the internet. Great because Ms. Hamade was able to seek news at warp speed, and because people she doesn’t know stepped up and offered help.

And gruesome because we could all watch all of this unfold, live and uber-publicly.

And there’s (another) kicker. The journalist who replied that her father had seemingly passed (see last tweet in the compiled screenshot above) did not @ mention her properly (the “I” pronoun got attached to her name). As such she wasn’t pinged for having received a mention.

And since I saw the tweet a minute after it was sent, there’s a good chance I, and possibly hundreds of others, may have read the message addressed to her, telling her about the death of her father, before she did.

I could over-analyse the significance of this event on reporting and news-gathering and dissemination and so on (and I know some will very soon), but I’m just going to post this and literally going outside for air.

Sincere condolences to Mona Hamade and all the families of the victims.

(Screenshot: these are just a few tweets I selected to give a timeline. There were many exchanges of people attempting to locate Mr. Hamadeh.)

The War of Attrition for a Yes Vote

January 15, 2014

 

 

Photo: Mada Masr

In the middle of a relentless state campaign pushing for a ‘Yes’ vote on the new constitution put forward in a national referendum today and tomorrow, it is clear that the state has all but given up any pretenses of a democratic process.

Giant billboards trumpet a clear message: “Yes to the Constitution.” The same message is written on cardboard cutouts hanging on every other street lamp on Cairo’s 6th of October Bridge. Neutral ‘get out the vote’ campaigns have been few and far between and more often than not used barely subliminal messages: “YES to the referendum, NO to darkness.” Egyptians have joked for days that the ballot will likely feature only one option: vote yes.

And campaigns encouraging a ‘no’ vote have found it practically impossible to get their message out. The governor of Wadi-al-Gedid, an army general himself, declared that anyone caught putting up posters encouraging people to vote ‘No’ would be subject to legal punishment, as the posters “would be defacing public buildings.” His comments were echoed by some of his counterparts around the country. Further north, police seized leaflets in the apartment of a Muslim Brotherhood leader that called for rejecting the constitution in the coastal city of Ras-al-Bar. The article in state newspaper Al-Ahram, describes the raid in the same terms it would a drug bust. Most recently, members of the Strong Egypt Party were arrested while distributing posters encouraging a ’No’ vote. A number of them have since been released pending charges, but at least three remain in custody.

Expatriate voting rules were hastily amended days before the voting revoking the option to vote by mail-in ballots, necessitating that citizens vote in person. This prevented many Egyptian expatriates, the bulk of whom live in the Gulf, from weighing in on the vote. Ultimately, the expatriate turnout was around 15 percent, down from 40 percent for the 2012 constitutional vote.

The number of non-governmental organizations approved to observe the referendum was highly restricted, and those who received authorization to approve are likely to issue a stamp of approval – something to the tune of“inconsistencies observed do not undermine the overall integrity of the process,” thus lending much sought-after legitimacy to the process. However, the leading international institutions that often undertake electoral observation missions such as the Carter Center and the European Union opted instead to deploy small teams that will not be observing the actual polling.

The media, both state and private, continues in its post-July 3 tradition of unbridled support for the government position – a new low in the consistent decline of media professionalism of the past few years. Al-Ahram no longer asks how people will vote, but rather asks, Why are you voting yes?” Once-independent media is following a similar line. Al-Masry Al-Youm has not only pushed its own agenda through the newspaper, but has also been using its breaking news mobile messaging system to press readers to cast a ‘yes’ vote.

The entire process has been conducted with a meager attempt at fair public debate:  the government deliberately decided that no substantive debate should take place about the very document people are being asked to approve. The Egyptian government has followed its all too familiar ‘attrition war’ strategy, and there was little room for an intelligent discussion of  the virtues and demerits of theconstitution. Considering the government crackdown on dissenters, few are willing to risk their freedom to educate people on its flaws. And many activists I have spoken to, all loyal to the ideals of the 2011 revolution of a civil state for all Egyptians, are opting to boycott the vote altogether.

While this sentiment finds its roots in a bitter understanding of the political game summarily played by the government, we must acknowledge that far too many in the Egyptian public are unwilling to stop and think critically. And this is perhaps the real irony: the illusionist is barely trying to conceal his trick, but the audience still chooses to gullibly play along.  The blame should be laid at the feet of both.

It may be difficult to understand why the government is going to such great lengths to ensure the constitutional referendum is a complete success, given that there is an infinitesimal possibility the document is rejected. However, the constitutional referendum is not only about the constitution—rather, the rate of voter turnout and degree of support will speak volumes as a plebiscite of the popularity of the government and Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Al-Sisi’s presidential bid looks more and more likely by the day.

Al-Sisi’s comments have positioned the vote on the constitution as a vote of confidence in his leadership, and as such, he needs the result to be an overwhelming endorsement.  Many fear that the government will deliberately obfuscate turnout numbers, and at the same time, highlight positive international observer reports that gloss over the inherent weaknesses in the system and the lack of transparency.

The constitution, flawed and lacking as it may be, will undoubtedly pass, amidst much state-sponsored fanfare. Cynically, one could say that the relevance of the constitutional text will take a backseat to the reality of state capture and collusions of the legislature.

A more hopeful observer will see in the ruling regime’s resounding victory the beginning of its end. Not unlike the Muslim Brotherhood a year and a half prior, a military-led government intent on consolidating and maintaining its power will recklessly ride its wave of success to its own demise.

 

Originally published on EgyptSource.

Is there room for entrepreneurship in today’s Egypt?

January 14, 2014

The authors of the draft constitution that will be presented for approval to Egyptian voters over the next few days have quietly erased a provision of utmost importance to the country’s entrepreneurs: Article 17 of the previous constitution, which held that “the state will nurture craft industries and small enterprises.” The new constitution‘s much watered-down article reads: “The state encourages the private sector to perform its social responsibility in serving the national economy and society” (Article 36).

This is probably the most revealing declaration by the post-Morsi transition government on entrepreneurship and small business development. Six months into their rule, it is only fitting that we ask: Is there room for entrepreneurship in today’s Egypt?

In November, entrepreneurial optimism overtook Cairo during theRiseUp Summit, a local entrepreneurship conference whose list of participants reads like a Who’s Who of the Egyptian business-creation ecosystem. Participants discussed everything from personal success stories to fundraising and advertisement tips for startups.

The Summit was held at the new campus housing investor and visionary Ahmed Alfi’s latest, ambitious project: the Tahrir Alley Technology Park(TATP), which hopes to become a “mini-Silicon Valley” that will attract both established and budding technology ventures. Now housed at the old location of the American University in Cairo, when it was known as the “Greek Campus,” the TATP residents have played up their geek credentials and renamed it “the GrEEK campus” (as seen in the photo above).

Many hope that this collegiate environment, clearly inspired by American tech campuses, will encourage Egyptian knowledge entrepreneurship and ultimately help the stumbling Egyptian economy get back on its feet. And if you had a chance to look at the fresh-faced entrepreneurs demoing their products or listen to the tech community standouts sharing their wisdom and experience, you could be forgiven for thinking that just about anything was possible.

The spirited, hopeful environment in the wake of the Egyptian revolution certainly favored entrepreneurial growth. Research conducted by Hala Hattab, assistant professor of entrepreneurship at the British University in Cairo, as well as the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, noted that Egyptians immediately after the 2011 revolution displayed a striking interest in starting their own companies and breaking from the traditional employment mold: According to these studies, 1.4 million Egyptians qualified as nascent entrepreneurs and 2.2 million had become owners of new firms, a significant rise from the pre-revolutionary period.

But that was nearly three years ago. Now Dr. Hattab has the impression that we might have failed to harness that entrepreneurial zeal.

“While there was a very high public perception of entrepreneurs immediately after the revolution,” Hattab noted, “my impression is that, despite the large activity in terms of competitions and entrepreneurship support initiatives, we aren’t seeing a rise in entrepreneurship.” Part of the blame, she says, lies on the entrepreneurship community’s bias towards technology companies.

“The public has come to perceive entrepreneurs as either people with a stellar educational record or people with massive projects of national impact, such as renewable energies or recycling,” says Hattab. As such, “many people who have ideas for projects are worried they’re not really ‘entrepreneurs,’ since they don’t fit this very restrictive perception, and are discouraged from the start.”

What’s more, entrepreneurs do not operate in a vacuum.

During the RiseUp Summit, for example, it was impossible to deny Egypt’s political reality. Within the conference hall, we maintained the illusion of a trendy normalcy (or of Silicon Valleyhood, if you wish), sipping juice out of test tubes and eating stale pretzels — but just 130 feet down the road, in Tahrir Square, police forces were barricading the roads in anticipation of protests planned by the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. Luckily, there was no violence between the soldiers and protesters that day (the demonstrators simply rerouted their march). But if violence had ensued, we would have been unable to defend our entrepreneurial bubble from the seeping tear gas.

Egypt’s entrepreneurs aren’t only at risk of collateral damage from the general turmoil they’re often subject to much more pointed oppression. In late November, a local Startup Weekend – a marathon business plan development session organized for budding entrepreneurs — was raided by the police. The authorities were likely alerted by the neighborhood’s residents who, having lived for decades under a government that values conformity, saw the gathering of young people as a bad omen. The police stormed the gathering and, despite finding nothing more than groups of young people engaged in discussions on software development and revenue streams, proceeded to hold them at gunpoint for two and a half hours, confiscating their mobile phones and photographing their flipcharts. The participants, huddled in a corner with their whiteboard markers still in hand, were naturally extremely distressed. Noha Mahmoud, a young and brilliant serial entrepreneur, told me weeks later that she was still suffering symptoms of post-traumatic stress, and said she was seriously considering moving back to London or California.

The Startup Weekend event might have been a unique misunderstanding — one which no one apologized for — but it is symptomatic of a regime that finds the spirit of initiative threatening, and considers free thinking a public enemy. This government will not be a partner in developing and strengthening a fertile entrepreneurial environment.

Dr. Hattab, for her part, thinks that it might be judicious to lower our expectations of the government. “It’s just a transitional government after all,” she explains. “They will be around for a few months at most — we should not be expecting much out of them.” In the meantime, Hattab recommends that the entrepreneurship community figure out what it needs from the state. “We need to have a clear agenda to communicate with the government, even a transitional one.”

Egyptian entrepreneurs have endured worse, and will undoubtedly power through despite everything, thanks to ongoing private efforts and initiatives. Though they should have been able to count on the government to pave the road, it’s just become yet another obstacle to circumvent or, as they’ve always done, ignore.

Originally published on Foreign Policy: Transitions.

The Egyptian army collects billions in government contracts

January 3, 2014

Egypt bulldozer

The anti-revolutionary crowd love to look at us with incredulous eyes, and ask “but why would the army want to take over power? They have no interest in being in power! They’re better off being independent!”.

Born in outright lie or terrifying ignorance, this argument, naturally, only holds insofar that there’s no proof of the army making financial gains out of their privileged position in power; the nationalistic  slogans placarded over army-built overpasses across the country attempt to convince us that the army is selflessly putting its (unpaid, untaxed, conscripted) labour to the service of the nation.

And, natually, that we should be grateful and stfu.

But occasionally information trickles out, giving us an idea of what kind of money the army is siphoning out of the state’s budget and our taxes — aside from their operative budget, naturally. A few articles published over the past months give us a nice indication of the corruption surrounding state-army financial dealings.

It appears that interim president Adly Mansour issued a presidential decree allowing the state to directly award government contracts in cases of emergency. Which means, circumventing every rule of government procurement.

Because, hey, why go through the pesky process of bidding to pick the cheapest supplier… when you can pick the one in uniform?

And just like that – it appears that every government contract over the past few months has been an emergency..

So over the course of two months – from late September to late November – the army was awarded 7 billion EGP (1 bn USD) worth of government contracts in infrastructure by the council of Ministers. The breakdown is as follows. As you can see, clearly ‘emergencies’ justifying this direct contract awarding:

4.7 billion EGP for 27 bridges and a tunnel

2.2 billion EGP for the Sinai investment plan over FY 2013-2014

357 million EGP for housing projects in El Alrish – 132 buildings

170 million EGP for housing projects in Ras Sedr – 62 buildings.

The on December 21st that the Ministry of Local Development had earmarked 2 bn EGP for slum development projects which will be awarded (surprise, surprise) to the army, as per an MOU to be signed the following week. Another article a few days later detailed some of the ministry’s spending projects, and aside from the slum development, the Ministry also has projected spending another 2 bn EGP to develop 14 train level crossings (مزلقانات) across the country.

And guess who’s doing those? The Army.

Most mind-boggling is how government officials have been justifying these contracts: Minister of Local Development, General (yes…) Adel Labib stated the contracts were awarded to the army “to ensure they would be accomplished promptly and accurately”. The Council of Ministers, when handing its 7 bn EGP to the army, noted they were selected for “their efficiency and discipline in the rapid implementation of projects, all while ensuring the highest quality standards.”

Now there’s some discrepancy on the amounts reported (I’ve read different amounts for the slum development, from 1.4 bn to 2 bn EGP) but it is clear that the army has gone on collecting billions over the past few months.

Continued army rule will ensure checks and balances are further eroded. And this country is clearly going to hell without them.

من الأخر

December 10, 2013

كنت في لقاء على قناة دي ام تي في في برنامج “من الآخر” – استمتعت بشدة و ضحكت كثيرا مع المقدمين الرائعين.

انا شخصيا كنت لسبب ما عامل زي واحد شارب 12 اسبريسو و انا باتكلم بس مر على خير. و اللطيف اننا تحدثنا عن أحد جوانب عملي المفضلة: التدريس.

 لو عندكم عشر دقائق (أو شاعرين بالملل في المكتب)  يسعدني أن تشاهدوا البرنامج. أنا أول ضيف في الحلقة!

Arab Netizens Pay a Visit to Algeria’s Police State

November 27, 2013

This past week, representatives from some 20 countries in the Arabic-speaking world and beyond got together, once again, to talk about Internet freedom in the region. The meeting was particularly interesting, convening as it did in a country where the government clearly doesn’t know what to make of this whole “freedom” thing.

Welcome to the Algerian version of the Arab Internet Governance Forum (IGF), a three-day annual conference whose second edition was organized from the first to the third of October in Algiers. At the conference, stakeholders from the governmental, private, and non-governmental sectors discussed questions of Internet use and management in the region. While the discussions and meetings were extremely interesting in their own right, it was even more entertaining to observe the way the Algerian state dealt with the conference.

Government representatives did their best to hide the police state mentality that permeates the country. At times, however, they failed, reverting to their standard modus operandi — providing anyone who cared to observe with a fascinating example of what happens when a decades-old police state collides with Internet-era professionals. (In the photo above, the Algerian police partake in a “show of force ceremony” in July.)

Multiple conference organizers from within and outside Algeria told me that government officials did their best to shape the event in the weeks before it began, even going so far as to object to specific discussion topics and veto particular speakers. Most of the time, they got their way.

During the conference, the overbearing security presence made many people uncomfortable. Algerian officials attempted to control discussions by planting people in the audience who were tasked with making comments that followed conspicuously similar arguments. (“A state should monitor its citizens because it protects them the way that parents do their children.”) This feeble strategy quickly became obvious and repetitive.

Participants were often chaperoned, and, in some cases, explicitly forbidden from wandering away from the official conference premises. Those who tried were subjected to a shrill diatribe from an official of the Ministry of Post and Information and Communication Technology. As the conference progressed, the official’s patience wore thin with those pesky conference attendees who thought they could have a free and open discussion. At one point she called on security to remove a young Algerian participant who had asked a perfectly benign yet unscripted question about users protecting their privacy online. The official claimed that the alleged offender was not registered and had forged her entrance badge (which was, naturally, untrue). And when said participant attempted to complain to another official at the Ministry of Post and Information and Communication Technology, he lewdly invited her to his hotel room, harassing her by text message all throughout the night.

Amusingly, the Algerian government was not the only one trying to peddle a pro-surveillance agenda. A Lebanese government official, seemingly emboldened by the host’s security-driven ideological bent, jumped on the bandwagon, declaiming at length about the “security” need for surveillance of personal communications.

Was holding this event in Algeria, a country with such a stifling attitude towards free expression, a good or bad idea? The optimist might argue that such a high-profile event forced Algeria to open up and face, head-on, the likelihood that the Internet, thanks to its speed and decentralized organization, will always be one step ahead of government control. The Algerian government’s nervousness — which they displayed increasingly as the conference proceeded — is proof of this.

Pessimists, however, will argue that the event organizers ceded too much control to a government that was bent on stifling the debate on Internet governance. In a private conversation on the sidelines of the conference in Algiers, one participant who had also attended last year’s regional IGF in Kuwait told me that she felt that the discussions this time around were rehashing all the same arguments. Her feeling is probably justified, especially if one compares the debates in Algeria with the issues tackled by the global Internet Governance Forum, where discussions have touched upon diverse and specialized issues (gender and youth perspectives on internet governance, the role of the internet in disaster management, emerging cyberthreats, and many others). By contrast, the Algeria forum kept circling endlessly around basic and repetitive debates about the issue of government surveillance.

The Arab world still jails people for tweets and caricatures. Governments that are unwilling to tolerate open discussions attempt to bury the truth under institutional debris.

The Arab IGF in Algiers proved that much remains to be done when it comes to Internet policy in the Arab World. But along the way it also demonstrated that digital rights and Internet freedom are unstoppable — however hard the police states might try to prove the opposite.

 

Originally published on Foreign Policy: Transitions

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