Letter from Cairo: Who is afraid of Alaa Abdel Fattah?


One photograph I saw more than 10 years ago made me learn what I have since then considered an essential fact of life, one that I now appreciate more than ever. The photograph was of an Israeli soldier hiding inside the hatch of his tank, ostensibly to dodge the stone hurled at him by a 15-year-old Palestinian boy. Had this spectacle been staged for the sake of delivering this message, it wouldn’t have done that so perfectly. The courage you display in attacking your opponents does not necessarily mean they are weaker than you are and the fear your opponents display in defending themselves against you does not necessarily mean you are stronger than they are. This little shot can easily answer all the questions that have been raised since the release of activist and blogger Alaa Abdel Fattah starting from the analytical “What makes anyone afraid of Alaa Abdel Fattah?” through the reflective “Who is afraid of Alaa Abdel Fattah?” to the naïve “Is anyone afraid of Alaa Abdel Fattah?”

Both the arrest and the release of Alaa Abdel Fattah were acts of fear and assuming otherwise would, I believe, mean underestimating his impact and overestimating the intelligence of his captors/releasers.

Alaa Abdel Fattah was arrested at a time when someone as well-known and as politically active as he is was badly needed to provide the proper distraction from the abominable crime of crushing unarmed protestors beneath the wheels of armored vehicles and when the Higher Council for the Armed forces needed to figure out what could be done to embellish that ugly face it was too quick to expose. Those two main objectives addressed two different types of people, for while the first targeted revolutionaries who were sure to raise hell the moment they hear the news, the second was to sooth average Egyptians who might see the army justified in its violent repression of a group of angry protestors who were out to undermine the state. In both cases, a revolutionary, and a prominent one for that matter, was the answer owning to his political and national value for the first group and the way he would come to represent all revolutionary youths for the second group. It quite worked!
Revolutionaries and activists in Egypt were joined by international groups and Western media to condemn the relapse of a revolution that erupted to topple a dictatorship into a different form of autocracy that again strips citizens of their basic rights. The fact that he was summoned by military prosecution and was to face a military trial endowed this mobilization of Egyptians outraged at the detention of their fellow freedom fighter with a national character as the Free Alaa campaign went hand in hand with the No to Military Trials protests. The charges leveled against Alaa —stealing a military weapon, attacking army officers on duty, damaging military property, and inciting violence against the military council — managed to fool Egyptians following the clashes from home and tuning in to state TV into seeing revolutionaries as saboteurs and believing that the army was in a state of legitimate self-defense. Between this and that, efforts that should have been invested in condemning army brutality and demanding a fast transition of power to a civilian government were channeled towards totally different issues.

Alaa Abdel Fattah was released at a time when the devil tried to force a halo around a pair of fiery horns and was counting in that on the gullible millions who believed mutation is an overnight process. The fast deterioration of the relationship between the army and the people manifested in two spats of bloody clashes that left dozens killed, hundreds injured, and hundreds of thousands appalled as well as worldwide resentment at the audacity of blaming the victims stripped the military council of the last, if any, shreds of credibility as far as siding with the revolution and protecting the revolutionaries are concerned and rendered any mention of the army’s code of honor no less hollow than Mubarak’s talk of reform. Provocative statements army generals made about the incidents only served to put the final repulsive strokes on an already abhorrent image and suffice it to recall the remark made by one of them about the protestors being a bunch of thugs who deserve to perish in Hitler’s gas chambers. Then came the video in which one of the two prosecution witnesses in Alaa’s case accused him and the revolutionaries of a series of crimes that made you think he was talking about some drug cartel in the jungles of Colombia and that made it very obvious what kind of a poorly-performed charade the whole thing was. Some serious PR was obviously needed here. A frantic search for a momentary sedative must have immediately started and must have concluded with a no better solution than setting free the man who was now turning a bigger portion of the population against them as his detention started to sound more and more unjustified even for those who initially believed he was the source of all evil.

Yet, going from one extreme to another is neither wise nor convincing, plus it burns the bridge you can still use if you want cross to the other side once more. Accordingly, Alaa was released but not acquitted. There will still be a trial and only God knows what the verdict would be like. It will most probably depend on how troublesome he will be in the coming stage and how far his freedom/captivity can influence public opinion.

I remember a friend of mine once told me how when her older son did anything wrong and saw some punishment coming his way he would hit his younger brother who would in turn start crying and have the mother running to pacify him while totally forgetting about both the original offence for which the older should have been punished and the subsequent one which was his way of escaping this punishment. However, at times he was stupid enough to overdo it so that it became very hard for the mother to overlook his behavior and very hard for him to escape punishment. Then, he would do his best to be good to his little brother and to show his mother how unfair she was to think of him that way. Yet this was never an eternal truce for the mother still knows what he is capable of and this is what he wants: to remain a latent threat, a time bomb that can go off whenever necessary. This in no way means that he is strong. He is just able to turn his fear of punishment into a well-devised defense strategy that has the flexibility of shifting from extreme aggression to kind-hearted amicability and vice versa depending on the situation.

Like any tyranny that feels insecure about the disconcerting presence of democracy advocates who are immune to the deadliest of threats and resistant to all sorts of power-seeking alliances, the military council is indeed afraid of Alaa Abdel Fattah and is struggling to come up with a formula to approach the likes of him in a way that neither loosens their iron grip nor betrays their fear at opponents that are technically much weaker.

Alaa Abdel Fattah and all revolutionaries, activists, and politicians who toe the same line can realistically-speaking be squashed beneath the tracks of army tanks in a few minutes, but the totally unarmed remain unflinching while their fully geared adversary cowers behind its bastions. There might not be a scientific explanation, but in similar cases a moral one is more than enough although not always commonsensical for all. Those who are able to comprehend this complicated form of power relations would easily understand what it means to have faith in a cause endow you with a strength that not a million arsenals can give you an ounce of.

Look up the photograph that taught me this lesson and you will see where I am coming from!

Letter from Cairo: Stripping, stripped, and the devil in the details!


A couple of months ago, an Egyptian young woman decided to strip and decided to have a picture taken of her totally nude except for a pair of black stockings and a pair of red shoes and decided to post this picture on the blog that bears her real name and decided to put up with with whatever consequences such an “outrageous” action might bring.

A couple of days ago, an unidentified Egyptian female protester was stripped of whatever clothes covered her upper body except for a blue bra, was dragged by the arms through Tahrir Square, was beaten by iron clubs, and was kicked in her bare torso.

In a country struggling with the radical repercussions of a life-changing revolution, swamped with political squabbles, crippled by a failing economy, and cornered between the tyranny of the military and the will of the people, it is hard to expect that a naked picture — also at the time when a zillion nude women and all the world’s x-rated content are just a click away — would be noticed and if it was it would not be stopped at for more than a few minutes and if it was it would definitely not become the talk of the town and if it did there was no way the future of the nation and the dignity of the revolution and the sanctity of religion would be all contingent upon the moment the stripping girl decided to take off her clothes. But in Egypt, everything is possible!

In a country where the basic freedoms for which a revolution erupted are being flagrantly violated, where citizens who are exercising their right to peaceful protest are being mercilessly beaten up and killed in cold blood, where women are still the object of systematic bullying and incessant physical and psychological abuse, and where gender equality seems as far-fetched as establishing a true democracy in Egypt, it would sound quite surrealist to overlook the humiliation the stripped girl had been through and focus instead on wearing an outfit which is easy to strip or going to a place in which it is likely to be stripped. But in Egypt, everything is possible!

Apart from the millions of comments her blog received after her nude picture was posted and which only serve to show how a few inches of bare flesh can turn many people’s lives around in our part of the world, the reactions the stripping girl’s move triggered were of epic proportions so that a few days into the commotion almost the entire population knew beyond doubt that she was part of a cosmic plan to bring down social values, compromise the Islamic faith, undermine Egypt’s national security, and abort the January 25 Revolution. The first two were quite expected, for after all she decided to take off all her clothes in a country where hair is the new genitalia so she would have been really delusional had she thought more than 15 out of the 80 million would support her. The last two are as striking as the evidence that supports them. After the fierce campaign launched against the girl, a group of Israeli women decided to have a nude photo of themselves taken and posted all over the media in solidarity with their Egyptian “sister.” That was it! In no time, she was crowned a sneaky Zionist and a threat to Egyptian sovereignty. At the same time, she was reported to belong to a famous youth movement known for its role in the revolution. Falling into this trap, the movement was quick to announce that it would never accept members who engage in such “indecent” actions and was quicker to accuse her of tarnishing the image of the revolution and slandering the revolutionaries. That was also it! In no time, she was crowned the architect of the counter-revolution.

Apart from the indignation of a few thousand Egyptian women who organized a massive rally to slam the army’s brutality and the condemnation statements by dozens of activists and politicians who called for putting military leaders on trial, the reactions of the majority of Egyptians to the stripped girl’s abuse were shockingly apathetic and even disparaging. Why would any respectable girl put herself in a situation where she is harassed or beaten up? This is what happens to women who leave their homes and do men’s work. How could she be wearing something that can easily be taken off and with nothing underneath? This means she did not care if her body was exposed. And how come she’s not wearing layers in this weather? She must have staged the whole thing then. Is she really veiled or face-veiled? Most probably not. She and those behind her must have spread this rumor to gain sympathy from a predominately-religious society. That was it! In no time, she was robbed of the few rights a victim status entitles and became her own stripper, abuser, and beater.

None of the conspiracy theories hinted at the reason the stripping girl herself stated for doing so and which was made clear in the statement she wrote under the picture about the objectification of women, obsession with sex in male-oriented societies, and equating art with apostasy. But how can we expect otherwise? Will a girl who takes off her clothes be capable of telling the truth? Of course not! Therefore, it goes without saying that her own explanation is nothing but a cover up for her devilish intentions. It also goes without saying that with the clothes she shed, her rights as a human being are automatically annulled so it is not a problem if she is beaten up in Tahrir Square where she makes an appearance in one of the protests following the posting of the picture and it is perfectly alright if she receives death threats.

None of the ruthless judgments took into consideration the real reason for the stripped girl’s presence at the crime scene. The fact that she was in a place where Egyptians were defending the right to protest and protecting the gains of their revolution and that she risked her safety and her life for such a noble cause is totally overlooked and so is the fact that, as a human being, she was humiliated, beaten, and deprived of her citizenship by the institution in charge of making sure none of this happens. It also seemed insignificant for everyone who declared war against her that had she been less lucky, she might have joined the martyrs to which all of us owe the gift of freedom. Or is martyrdom a men-only designation? Add to this the way the testimony of another female revolutionary, and which I vehemently object to in principle, that her friend the stripped girl was, in fact wearing a jumper under the outer loose garment and which was also taken off.

I am confused here! Are the bodies of Egyptian women that precious or that cheap? Does parting with one’s clothes imply a flagrant violation of all morals known to humanity on a personal blog and an en passant occurrence in a public square and all media outlets?

I have no idea what the girl in the blue bra thinks of the girl in the red shoes or vice versa and I am not sure if they realize the similarity between the two of them, but that is not important to know at the moment. What is certain is that both were involved in an act of stripping, one in the active voice and the other in the passive, and that both expose a nauseating hypocrisy in a patriarchal society that obsesses with how much control it can exercise over women’s bodies and with having the exclusive right to undress and cover it as it pleases, a society in which a woman has no power to take clothes off her own body or to complain if those clothes were taken off by a second party against her will.

Maybe I shouldn’t be confused after all. It is much simpler than all those analyses I am tiring myself with. It is not about the value of a woman’s body whether in terms of her freedom to do whatever she wants with it or her right to protect it against invasion. It is about women being the timeless offenders and the source of all vice whether they are the subject or the object. And why am I surprised?

Isn’t this the same logic that blames raped women for seducing their rapists by their sheer existence on the face of earth?

Letter from Cairo: Salafize this!


Mention the word “communism” and take a quick look at the variety of reactions it triggers and try to see if any of them is in any way positive. Bear in mind that I am not talking about the United States, the birthplace of the Red Scare and the hotbed of all they-are-out-to-destroy-us theories; nor am I talking about any of the Eastern Bloc countries that were repressed, impoverished, and turned into vassal states because of Communism. I am talking about Egypt, a country whose only link with communism was a strategic alliance with the Soviet Union in the 1960s and which wasn’t manifested in a lot more than scholarships to Moscow universities and a medal of honor Khrushchev awarded to Nasser, besides a couple of political parties that never really got the chance to make the difference they aspired to.

In Egypt, communism means a variety of things, almost none of which are related to the ideology itself and hardly any of which is based on a reading of any of the texts in the canon. Strangely enough, communism is one of the terms that usually elicit a negative reaction among all sorts of Egyptians, even if for different reasons. Communism is what deprives you of all sorts of private property, nationalizes whatever business you might have, and forces you to live in a permanent state of austerity, when you get basic foodstuffs in rations and dream of imported chocolate for the rest of your life. Communism is an iron-grip regime that suppresses basic freedoms, kills dissenters, starves the bourgeoisie, and makes brainwashing propaganda its national priority.

Worst of all, communism is the eradication of religion and the “opium” blasphemy. These impressions and other similar ones that focus on the economic, political, and religious drawbacks of communism have one thing in common: they all focus on communism as practiced and not communism as preached. True, some of the setbacks of communist regimes can trace their origins to the Manifesto or Das Capital, the expropriation of privately-owned property being the most typical example, yet a closer look at the circumstances in which those regimes failed reveals the main culprit to be a set of violations that are common to any autocracy regardless of which ideology it ascribes to rather than a little booklet that is utterly overlooked the moment the dictator’s power becomes at stake. See how striking the similarities are between Stalin’s Soviet Union and Pinochet’s Chile and you will see where I am coming from.

In the midst of Gulag horror stories, gasoline coupons, and state atheism, nobody is willing to pay attention to the main principles upon which communism was originally based, so nothing is said about social justice, labor rights, or a classless society, and while everyone is obsessed with Mao Zedong and Nicolae Ceausescu, hardly anyone thinks of Che Guevara or Leon Trotsky. Can you actually blame them? Would you be able to overlook decades of atrocities for one freedom fighter or a couple of reasonable books?

Apply this to all the “-ism”s in the world and you will save yourself the hassle of criticizing the theory because you hate the application or feeling forced to like the application because you revere the theory. I don’t see why Salafism should be an exception!

If you contemplate how much fuss is made these days over a school of thought that dates back to the 9th century B.C., it would be quite easy to realize what Salafism means for Egyptians, and it would be much easier for its ardent advocates to give us all a break and to stop dragging the entire population into futile arguments that turn each critic into an enemy of Islam. “Do you know what Salafism means? It is the return to the ethics of the prophet and his companions? Do you really reject that?” That is how you are placed in a situation where any attack on Salafism or Salafis would be instantaneously translated into an attack on the religion and its prophet and all the first Muslims referred to as the “Salaf.” With all due respect to all that and to the fact that everyone is entitled to believe in whatever he or she chooses, that is not the point here at all, and dwelling on terminology regardless of facts on the ground is both a waste of time and a sign of insanity.

Let us take a quick look at what Salafism and clerics calling themselves Salafi currently represent for Egyptians who might have not heard any of those terms before the revolution and the majority of whom have no idea who, for example, Ibn Hanbal is and will not be bothered to learn about that at the moment. The ancient Egyptian civilization is “rotten” and all its monuments are idols that should either be destroyed or at least covered with a “thick layer of wax.” Rehearsals were already under way in Alexandria with the “indecent” statue of the Greek god Zeus and the four mermaids wrapped in fabric and ropes during a conference held by one of the Salafi parties. A sign placed on the cover read: “Egyptian women are dedicated to their husbands and the nation.” This last bit remains a mystery, but I believe the party wanted to make sure we all know the bare-breasted muses are not Egyptian! Christians are “heathen,” literature and cinema are “trash,” tourism is the “industry of decadence” … and the list goes on forever.

Women should wear the veil and it is the mission of the head of state to force them to do so, and a woman who does not comply should leave Islam and declare herself atheist. There was no mention of her options after doing so, but we all guessed it would be either being stoned to death or burning at the stake–which is a Christian practice.

Women are not to eat bananas, cucumbers, or any “penis-like” fruits and vegetables because this is bound to turn them on and the only exception is if the offending foods are cut into little pieces that destroy their original shape. No mention so far of other non-edible objects like broomsticks or rolling pins, but one assumes a list of all things forbidden to such lustful creatures will come out shortly. Women are not to wear high heels because the sound they produce announces their advent and therefore turns on all the men in the vicinity. They are, however, allowed to use this licentious type of footwear at home and specifically for their husbands. Women were born to cook and change diapers and this leaves no time for work. This message was delivered live when a group of Salafis attacked a women’s protest and yelled, “Go back to the kitchen.” Men and women should not be allowed to mingle in public and should be separated in workplaces … and the list is too shocking to contemplate!

Going through all statements made by men who cite Salafism as their main reference is almost impossible, but let me finish with one little incident. A few days ago a Salafi cleric gave a lecture to thousands of students at Cairo University, the place I have always taken pride in belonging to. “I am so happy to finally be at the place that was originally established to undermine the laws of God.” That is how he started and that is how he described the most respectable national educational institution in Egypt. I have no idea what he meant by saying that and I am not interested in investigating his claims.

I am similarly not willing to focus now on exploring the principles of Salafism and how different they really are from what we are hearing now. I don’t think East Germans thought of reading Marx before pulling down the Berlin Wall and flocking to their Western twin and I don’t think I or any other Egyptian who cares for seeing this country come to life again is going to dedicate any time or effort to study the discrepancy between theory and practice as far as Salafism in Egypt in concerned. Maybe after we are out of this deadlock we can sit back and talk over coffee about the pros and cons of Salafism and to what extent those who espoused it did it justice, as I am sure the Poles have been doing throughout the past few years. Right now, we don’t have this luxury, and until we do the essence of Salafism will have to be sidelined and only the way things are Salafized will get the full attention of every true Egyptian.