Tag Archives: Protest

Orwell’s Nationalism in Egypt

The 25th June 2014 marks the 111th anniversary of George Orwell’s birth, and it seemed as appropriate a time as any to add my own little contribution to the already near-bursting oeuvre of work connecting Orwell to contemporary news.  In my case, Egyptian news.

As the Egyptian state and its institutions continue to bludgeon any dissent or opposition out of the public sphere, one of Orwell’s earlier essays proves helpful in understanding how it has come to this: why the current government is so desperate to enforce patriotic sentiment; how they can get away with obvious lies and brutality; and why even peaceful disobedience and dissent is no longer allowed.

In his essay ‘Notes on Nationalism’, Orwell starts by appropriating and altering the definition of ‘nationalism’ beyond that of everyday parlance, beyond the parochial allegiance to ‘the nation’. Orwell hypothesised there was an associative emotional phenomenon that could be applied to a swathe of constructs outside (and indeed, inside) any nation.

Orwell writes, “It can attach itself to a church or a class,” and importantly adds, “or it may work in a merely negative sense, against something or other and without the need for any positive object of loyalty.”

In his simplest definition, ‘nationalism’ is an emotional phenomenon that creates a blinding allegiance to something (positive nationalism), or perhaps against something (negative nationalism).  As a societal construct, attaching oneself to others of similar ideology and agency arises naturally and is almost impossible to avoid – even hermits and misanthropes can and will identify with one another – but Orwell takes it one step further.

The inherent problem, he says, is that nationalism also acts as a perfect incubator of the irrational zealot.  Victories and losses are almost irrelevant to belief and allegiance, as the fanatical nationalist (and for Orwell, they are the rule, not the exception) will not only stand firm, but will actually grow in their stubborn righteousness as a result.

As Orwell puts it, “[The nationalist] persuades himself that [his side] is the strongest [side], and is able to stick to his belief even when the facts are overwhelmingly against him.”

They can become either the ‘martyr’ (after a loss) or the ‘noble victor’ (after success) – either way their reservoir of righteousness grows.  In this schizophrenic atmosphere Orwell posits that even the most intelligent person is suddenly willing to “suppress their sensibilities and sacrifice their intellectual honesty for the cause of propaganda”.

In Egypt, this style of ‘nationalism’ can be a helpful lens through which to view recent events.

Suddenly, Egypt is seen as the battleground of vying political nationalist actors:  The Muslim Brotherhood, Youth Movements, Military Trial Activists, Anti Sexual Harassment movements, Business magnates, the Army, the judiciary, and so on.  People may ally themselves to many different groups, and though few of the nationalist groups have anything to do with the nation directly, they all demand one thing: power.  Were any one group to hold a majority mandate, the other groups would immediately feel threatened, and be seen as a threat.

In the immediate aftermath of the coup of Mohamed Morsi in July 2013, the interim government-backed military approached the problem of the Brotherhood and public relations with a modus operandi akin to the US Straussian neo-conservatives of the 1970s: Scare everyone with a deadly enemy (USSR/Muslim Brotherhood); overplay the enemy threat through propaganda; and promulgate the myth of the benevolent state, thus encouraging an unquestioning patriotism.  But instead of fighting the selfish and immoral individualism of liberalism, as the neo-cons did, the new Egyptian state is fighting a proliferation of political nationalism that threatens allegiance, stability and the power hierarchy.

After all, any nationalist group ipso facto is a threat, irrespective of whether it poses a direct challenge to the incumbent power, because, as stated earlier, every nationalist demands power: power to do business free of restrictions; power to operate with impunity; power to hold a government accountable; power to change a law.  In 2011, power in Egypt was momentarily, and spontaneously, redistributed in an 18-day revolt, much to the chagrin of the deep state.  In the aftermath of the 2013 coup, a President more amenable to the old pillars of power is taking charge, and any further redistribution of power will once again be at the discretion of the old institutions.

Facing the swathe of serious political nationalist groups, the nation state and its institutions are trying its hardest to redirect the varying nationalists back to one overarching allegiance: loyalty to the State above all; overt patriotism over the more exclusive and fractured swathe of nationalist groups.

In the most blatant effort to date, the Egyptian Presidential office recently released a new decree regarding two major symbols of the State: the national anthem and the flag.

In it, the decree repeals two previous laws and demands a more devout reverence to these two symbols.  It stated the Egyptian flag cannot be lower than that of any other state institution flag (such as an army or a state flag), and is not to be on display if damaged, altered, worn or faded.  Egyptians must stand for the national anthem “out of respect” and military personnel must salute.  One line states, “Pre-university education authorities should strive to disseminate the norms and values enshrined in the words of the national anthem.”

To stress the seriousness of this new decree, anyone who insults the flag (by breaking the above rules) or doesn’t stand for the national anthem “shall be punished by imprisonment for a period not exceeding one year and a fine not exceeding thirty thousand pounds ($4200)”.

“We are somewhat telling people “the state is back”.” Was the blunt response of Ehab Ghobashy, the presidential spokesman, when asked what the objective was in creating this new law.  “You could describe Egypt during the last three years as messy… because the state institutions were not able to perform their duties and the state pride was not given its due respect.”

The timing of the decree is key.  The immediate aftermath of the coup last year inspired what seemed to be an unquestioning patriotic atmosphere, akin to Orwell’s positive nationalism, in a huge and loud majority of Egyptians.  This loyalty remained even after the slaughter of over 1,000 people in less than a week in mid-August 2013.  Many cheered the dispersal of Rabaa square where some 638 people were killed and almost 4,000 injured, almost exclusively civilians of an opposing nationalist allegiance: the Muslim Brotherhood.  Even those not overtly pro-Army were willing to perform mental gymnastics in order to avoid calling Rabaa what it was: a massacre committed by their side.

With the Muslim Brotherhood almost completely crushed in just six months, a new enemy was needed by the state to once again unite the masses in fear – mistaking Orwell’s negative nationalism with patriotism.  The list of potential threats quickly increased and the new enemy suddenly became anyone openly dissenting.  An abhorrent protest law was passed and suddenly, the secular activists and youth movements (many of which supported the overthrow of Morsi) ran into trouble.  According to the Interior Ministry, some 16,000 people have been imprisoned since the fall of Morsi in July 2013.  One independent statistics database puts the number closer to 41,000, the overwhelming majority political prisoners.

Furthermore, journalists opposing or questioning the state line have been targeted, harassed, killed and jailed.  Two days ago, after 6 months of the most farcical trial proceedings to grace a courtroom, 3 Al Jazeera journalists were sentenced to a cumulative 24 years in prison for doing nothing more than basic reporting.

Despite all this, it appeared that the reverence (in the form of enthusiasm) towards the state was waning as time passed and conditions continued to stagnate for the average Egyptian, and the old institutions were clearly alarmed by this sudden reality.

Turnouts in the recent presidential elections were low, far lower than anyone expected.  After the scheduled two days voting, one poll put the turnout at a laughably low 7.5%, although others placed it closer to the 20% mark.  The Presidential Elections Commission quickly took the extraordinary step of extending the voting to another day in a desperate effort to increase their “mandate”.  After the additional days voting they claimed overall turnout finished at just under 50%.  This sudden and dubious increase prompted the opposition candidate to call the proclaimed turnout percentage “an insult to Egyptians’ intelligence” and yet it was still far short of what the incoming President had hoped for.

The most obvious answer to this sudden indifference was that the overt patriotism of last year was simply ebbing away with time.  Therefore, the logic goes, a more patriotic sentiment needs to be drilled into the Egyptian psyche.  After all, the upcoming period of austerity, of “hard work and self-sacrifice”, could easily stir an angry and resentful crowd unless subconsciously cowed with an undying nationalism towards the state.

Yet through the lens of Orwell’s nationalism, it could just as easily be the case that the apparent patriotic fervour in the immediate post-Morsi period was not an allegiance to the state, but rather a negative nationalism against the Muslim Brotherhood.  If this were the case, then the patriotic reserve the state is relying on has been massively overrated from the start, and the turnout in the elections may be an indicator of such a reality.

In attempting to ameliorate their position and increase unquestioning loyalty, the state is now trying to force ‘reverence’ by law.  An obvious mistake in strategy: it’s difficult to make someone love you if you caveat your desire to be loved with threats of imprisonment and fines.  However, by overplaying the existential threats of terrorism, dominating the press and closing down a major avenue of dissent (through protests and marches), the state is well on its way to a new era of stultifying submission.

This strategy is made especially clear when you realise it is very possible to break all these new laws and still not find yourself in any trouble, so long as you break them the right way.  Scrawl “Sisi for President” on the flag, have an impromptu march along the bridge in support of the army, write outright lies against foreign journalists in you newspaper and you will get on just fine.  Just so long as you belong to a nationalist group that somehow benefits the incumbent powers, you can get away with murder.  Or even a massacre.

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Protest and Public Space – Egypt’s Streets

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A less theory-heavy version of this appeared in Vice on December 17th

For close to three years Egyptians employed protest and the occupation of public space to devastating effect.  Almost every Friday, some group, somewhere, would be demonstrating.

In Spring 2011, Hosni Mubarak was overthrown when hundreds of thousands poured into the streets demanding change.  In Spring 2012, the indolent SCAF (Supreme Council of the Armed Forces) Military government sped up their transition of power after immense pressure from the streets.  In Summer 2013, Egypt’s first democratically elected President, Mohamed Morsi, was forced out of office and into a cell when huge numbers gave the Army reason enough to remove him from power.

Now, the military-backed interim government has passed an anti-demonstration law that Amnesty said would “pave the way to bloodshed” and Human Rights Watch said was “in violation of international standards”.

Article 7 of the Protest Law especially stands out due to its vague and wide reaching parameters regarding “violations of general security, public order or production…” which, as subjective terms, leaves room for punitive arrests, a jail term of up to 5 years and fines of up to $14,500 USD.

For the current government, which is only in power as a result of demonstrations, to pass an anti-demonstration law is an irony that is not lost on many.

According to Professor Charles Tripp author of, “The Power and the People: Paths of Resistance in the Middle East”, the occupation of a public space is, in and of itself, an act of resistance against the state and can be an incredible tool in challenging power.  Unlike the clearer, often opulent, physical manifestations of government, public spaces aren’t usually under constant guard or omnipresent supervision.  The openness of the squares, roundabouts, parks, streets, etc. often make these sites the ineluctable frontiers of confrontation.

As the name suggests, public space invites citizens into it’s areas, but by virtue of being conceived, planned and built by the state, it can also be seen as an extension of the state: what Tripp refers to as the “built environment of the state”.

By taking to public spaces and occupying them, the demonstrators change the areas’ function.  No longer are they squares, roads, or parks (as labelled by the state), rather settings for dissent.  The occupiers have already challenged the power of the state simply by refusing to use these spaces as designated by the Government.

The dissent is aired openly so that others, including the officials (but more importantly other members of the public), can see and hear what is happening.  Word spreads.  In economic vernacular, what was once ‘individual knowledge’ is now ‘mutual knowledge’.  Where before you may not be sure as to what your fellow countryman and woman thought about the Government, now you and everyone knows, and everyone knows that you know.

The sociologist Max Weber writes of the existential imperative for states in “Politics as a Vocation” stating, “If the State is to exist, the dominated must obey the authority claimed by the powers that be”.  So when crowds disrupt public space, it immediately gives lie to the image that governments the world over, but specifically in autocratic states, attempt to portray: The image of an ordered, obedient, content society that is reverential to power and state public institutions.

Within Egypt, public protest had long been against the state and its institutions.  However, an intriguing change was experienced after the massive June 30th demonstrations that led to Morsi’s removal on July 3rd.

Nathan J Brown, Professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, elaborates, “What is unusual…is the way that key state actors–not only General al-Sisi and the military high command but also the previously disgraced security apparatus–have been able to position themselves on the winning side since June 30.  Indeed, whatever happened on June 30…it has been clear since July 3 that the military and security apparatus are no longer following the crowd, they are leading it.”

In the aftermath of removing a president who had alienated a large proportion of Egyptians, the state and specifically the de facto leader, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, were able to use their high approval ratings and appropriate public protest and demonstration for their own sake.

No longer was public protest, ipso facto, against the state, it was now a tool being wielded by the state.  This was nowhere made clearer than on July 26th when General al-Sisi called for a “mandate to deal with terrorism”.  The call was answered by the hundreds of thousands who flocked to the streets nationwide in support.  Previous governments had attempted similar calls of support, but the numbers al-Sisi garnered were unprecedented in this regard.

Any major demonstrations of dissent that followed were dominated by the Pro Muslim Brotherhood ‘Anti-Coup Alliance’, who had been effectively demonized as “terrorists”.  They were easily, and brutally, put down without any risk of sparking a national backlash.  Any group opposed to both the Army and the Brotherhood was outnumbered and drowned out by a dichotomised discourse that didn’t provide space for a ‘third choice’ – neither brotherhood nor army.

After approximately 1000 pro-Morsi protesters were killed on August 14-16th by Security forces, a state of emergency and curfew was put in place.  Unlike previous attempts at imposing a curfew, which were largely ignored, the following three months of curfew was largely adhered to.  One of the noisiest areas, Downtown Cairo, became a ghost town in the evenings, all the shops shut with only the headlights of the odd car seen breaking curfew.

As part of enforcing the curfew, Army APCs and tanks were placed strategically around the city, Tahrir Square especially well guarded.  Little in the way of opposition or uproar was voiced in response to the increased security presence, as it was interpreted as a necessary presence.  This could be seen as symbolic of the government’s successful reclamation of public space.

Not long after the military-backed interim government’s popular approval peaked (during the nationalistic October 6th War celebration) a draft of the new protest law was approved by the cabinet and placed under the review of interim President Adly Mansour.

When details of the law were exposed, it was met by a deluge of outrage and disapproval across the societal spectrum: salafists; April 6th Youth Movement; political figures; rights groups; youth revolutionary block; and even the Tamarod group – one of the Army’s main grassroots cheerleaders.  It seemed the army had overplayed their hand and overestimated their carte blanche support.

“Other people were looking after their own interests [before], but after this law, it’s affecting their interests too and violating everyone’s rights.  It’s amazing because what Sisi did has actually united the people.”  Says Deena Mahmoud, a spokesperson for the Anti-Coup Alliance.  “[Sisi] has decided to determine the will of the people, even the ones who are with him, to close their mouths and to decide alone, so even Tamarod aren’t really allowed to speak.  People both with him and against him are not allowed to speak now.”

Despite the overwhelming criticism, the interim President went on to pass the law.  The details of the final draft its and heavy-handed application proved worrying enough to prompt the EU High Representative and the UN Secretary-General into voicing their concerns at the law and the events that immediately followed its implementation.

On November 26th, the day the anti-demonstration law went into effect, a protest was planned outside the Shura Council in Downtown Cairo.  Those participating were peaceful and relatively small in number, some 150 people; amassed in opposition to a long contentious aspect of the judiciary – namely the trying of civilians within military courts.

Within 30 minutes, riot police appeared on the opposite side of the street.  A policeman on a loudspeaker gave the protesters 5 minutes to disperse.  As soon as the time was up, they opened with water cannons before charging, beating and arresting any protesters who couldn’t get away fast enough.

Ironically, while arresting several dozen of the protesters, the police accidentally broke a stipulation of the new law they were so fervent in upholding.  Video footage emerged of men and women being harassed by plain-clothes policemen despite Article 11 of the law clearly stating [emphasis mine] “Security forces in official uniform should disperse protests, meetings or marches…”

Some 27 people sat in jail as a direct result, including high profile activists like Ahmed Abdurahman, Alaa Abd El-Fattah, Ahmed Douma and Ahmed Maher.  With regards to those last three, official warrants of arrest were issued for them after the demonstration.  Their charges included: incitement to violence, rallying and “thuggery”, resisting authorities and violating the new protest law.

23 of those 27 have now been released on bail, but the other four remain in detention: Alaa and Abdurahman for the events by the Shura Council, Douma and Maher for events outside Abdeen.  Now the prosecutor general has referred Alaa and 24 other activists to the criminal court for breaking the protest law.

On hearing of his warrant, Alaa Abd El-Fattah (having already been detained under Mubarak, Tantawi and Morsi) released a statement saying “my ever imminent arrest is now a running joke in Egypt”.  Nevertheless, he indicated his intention to turn himself in on Saturday at noon but was not given the chance.

That Thursday, Alaa’s home was invaded by security services.  He and his wife were beaten, their laptops taken and Alaa arrested.  Having already made his intentions of turning himself in very clear, the actions of the security services appear somewhat punitive.

As the ire of the activist community and ‘Third Square’ (supporters of neither the Brotherhood nor the Military) groups increases against the incumbent powers, so do incidences of articles smearing them as sexual deviants, or inhuman (as demonstrated by an article titled “Human Rights? What Human?”)

Nevertheless, as more cases of injustice crop up, more people who affiliate with neither the Muslim Brotherhood nor the Army are making their voices heard.  In Alexandria 7 female minors were sent to juvenile detention while another 14 women were handed 11-year sentences (longer than many policemen convicting of killing civilians receive).  All for making a human chain and holding balloons sympathetic to Mohamed Morsi.  In the aftermath of disgust shown towards the verdict, the detainees had their sentences reduced to one suspended year.

After the first draft of the protest law, increasingly variegated factions of Egyptians are voicing concerns towards matters of injustice, corruption and reform.  They hint at a future where the theatre of the street and public spaces are once again a weapon wielded against the state and for reform, rather than for the state and the status quo.

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Hundreds of Thousands Protest Morsi Decree

First published in the New Internationalist

A copt speaks from the stage

On Thursday 22nd November 2012, Egypt’s President Morsi issued new constitutional declarations; then all hell broke loose.

The stock market plunged a staggering 9.57 percentage points by Sunday.  The fighting between the CSF (Central Security Forces) and protesters intensified.  Judges around Egypt have gone on strike.  22 Egyptian Rights Organisations unequivocally rejected the declarations in a joint statement.  18 political parties and groups called on Morsi to rescind the declarations. Yet more members of the constituent assembly resigned.  3 protesters have died.  Today, demonstrations swept through the governorates as hundreds of thousands of Egyptians made it clear that they were not indifferent to the matter.

Morsi’s declarations resulted in: the removal of the despised prosecutor general; the retrial of anyone convicted, from the revolution to his appointment as president, with regards to protester deaths; the immunity of the Shura council (upper house of parliament) from dissolution; the immunity of the constituent assembly from dissolution; the authority for the President to take any measures he sees fit in order to “preserve and safeguard the revolution”; and the immunity of any decree made by the President from any body, judicial or otherwise.

From a man that already held executive and absolute legislative authority, this attack on the judiciary has raised eyebrows and a fair few tempers too.  “The balance and separation of powers in Egypt has been utterly demolished” say 22 Egyptian Rights Organisations in a joint statement released Saturday.  They assert that Morsi has contravened the goal of the revolution – democratisation – and that the arrogation of these unparalleled powers portends a “bleak future for Egyptian rights and liberties”.

Morsi defended his decision by saying he would give the powers back once a constitution and people’s assembly (lower house of parliament) was in place.  In a statement he reiterated “the temporary nature of those measures, which are not intended to concentrate power, but to avoid…attempts to undermine democratically elected bodies and preserve the impartiality of the judiciary”.  Many were less than convinced.  Mohamed ElBaradei, Nobel Peace Prize recipient and head of the Constitution Party, cautioned that Morsi had appointed himself “Egypt’s new pharaoh”.

18 political opposition parties and groups joined together to form a “National Front” tasked with opposing the declarations.  Among their members is ElBaradei, and ex-presidential candidates Hamdeen Sabahi and Amr Moussa.  On Monday, they called on Morsi to annul the declaration and refuse to have any dialogue with him until he has done so.  The opposition parties called for a massive demonstration to be held in Tahrir Square today and the people have duly delivered with the square as full as it has ever been.

Tents were set up in the middle of Tahrir Square as soon as Morsi’s declarations were made with people promising a sit-in protest until the decision was overturned.  One of the first to arrive was 79 year-old Khaled Hamza a play writer and outspoken communist – Hamza spent 5 years in prison during Nasser and Sadat’s premiership due to his activism.  “Mohamed Morsi-Mubarak is a dictator now, but he has even more power than a dictator” said Hamza, his insistence on referring to Morsi as ‘Morsi-Mubarak’ emphasised this view.

Beside banners saying “Egypt for all Egyptians” (perhaps an allusion to the Islamist-heavy make up of the controversial Constituent Assembly) and while the crowd chanted “One Hand” Hamza explained the aura of unity he felt, “Today we are united in our anger at Morsi-Mubarak, nobody would care if I told them I am a communist now”.

By evening the Square was completely packed, chants of the initial revolution were now being directed at their incumbent president, “Down with the regime”.  But there were newer ones too “Morsi is Mubarak”, “Morsi is the new Pharaoh”.

Fighting with the CSF has been constant in central Cairo since the 1-year anniversary of the Mohamed Mahmoud St clashes 8 days ago.  267 people have been detained in connection with the anniversary clashes and 3 have died during protests this last week.  Another large concrete wall has been erected – a not unusual sight in downtown Cairo – blocking off Kasr El Aini St. off Tahrir Square to stop the fighting; instead it has just moved to Simon Boulevard.

It’s very clear that Morsi has to deal with this soon, before it gets out of hand.  The masses are angry and the people are united.  They realise that even if Morsi is honestly trying to speed Egypt into a new era of freedom and democracy, using dictatorial powers seems a slightly perverse way to get there.

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