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Dear Egyptians: Happy January 25th. For What It’s Worth.

January 25, 2015

Dear Egyptians: Happy January 25th. For What It’s Worth.

Egypt’s government has cancelled its planned official commemoration of the January 25th Revolution in 2011. The reason: the seven-day mourning period announced after the death of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia on Friday. The timing of the Saudi monarch’s demise can be seen as an ironic favor for the pro-revolutionary camp, since it thwarts President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s efforts to appropriate the legacy of the revolution to his own ends. In life, of course, King Abdullah was actually a great proponent of the pre-revolutionary status quo, and systematically sought to undermine the Arab Spring movements. He gave a home to Tunisia’s deposed dictator, actively supported Bahrain’s crackdown on its own protest movement, and bankrolled General Sisi’s brutal and reactionary administration from its first day.

The Sisi administration has always had a conflicted relationship to January 25th. Sisi wouldn’t be where is today without the Tahrir Square uprising that overthrew Mubarak four years ago, and he claims much of his legitimacy from the revolution — despite the fact that new Egyptian president has restored quasi-military rule and many aspects of Mubarak-era autocracy. His alleged loyalty to the revolution is a crucial plank in his argument against those who see his accession to power as a coup. While Jan. 25, 2011, is hailed by many around the world as the end of a despot, Sisi’s supporters see June 30, 2013 — the day the general overthrew the government of Mohamed Morsi — as its logical extension.

This week the Egyptian state chose to celebrate the occasion in the way it knows best: A few hours before Jan. 25, the police shot and killed Shaimaa Al-Sabbagh, a socialist political activist who also happens to be the mother of a 5-year-old son. Sabbagh was part of a small march to place flowers on a memorial to the 2011 revolution in Tahrir Square. Security forces brutally dispersed the march even though it had been authorized by the proper authorities. Some have already dubbed Sabbagh “the Rose Martyr.” Her violent death was documented on video, and the images are as heartbreakingas you’d expect them to be. (The photo above shows a plainclothes security officer detaining a demonstrator yesterday at gunpoint.)

The police killed another young woman the day before — 17-year-old Sondos Reda Abu Bakr, shot in the head and neck with birdshot as the police dispersed a pro-Muslim Brotherhood protest in Alexandria. The frail teenager was demanding justice for her aunt, who had been killed two months earlier. Activists quickly took to the web to post photos of Sabbagh and Abu Bakr under the title “Sisi, the Killer of Women.”

Today, limited protests around Cairo and other main cities have also been met with lethal violence. By the early afternoon, the ministry of health hadannounced 18 dead today, most clashes between protesters and uniformed or plain-clothed security forces. The actual toll is likely to be higher; 150 protesters were arrested.

The entire cycle seems absurd — and all too reminiscent of the period before 2011, when small protests, met with extreme violence, were the order of the day. The key difference today, however, is the attitude of the general public. Though once silently supportive, perhaps uttering a silent prayer for the protection of the brave protesters, large segments of the Egyptian population are now either indifferent to the protesters and their fate — or, more frighteningly, loudly approving of their killing. A cursory look at public statements by pro-regime media (some of whom were recently revealed to be receiving direct orders from the government on what to say and write) in the immediate aftermath of Shaimaa Al-Sabbagh’s killing reveals a now-habitual pattern of denying state responsibility, usually by blaming some other culprit (either the Muslim Brotherhood or a fictional “third party”), then giving way to vitriolic celebration of the victims’ deaths, based on crude insinuations of criminal or subversive activity. The fact that this sort of state-sponsored defamation raises no eyebrows, and that no one dares to demand any sort of investigation (which would never happen anyway), is the new reality that we have to confront.

The dilemma facing pro-democracy Egyptians is that they feel a moral imperative to take a stand against state repression, officially sanctioned killing sprees, and a tragicomically unjust legal system. Emboldened by the recent memory of 2011, when mass protests led to change, the first impulse of the activists is to take to the streets, to chant, to make demands. At the same time, however, these killings and the corresponding culture of official impunity make it all too clear that the act of objecting is a potentially suicidal one, punishable by death or egregious prison sentences and police torture. The current limited protests are a manifestation of this cognitive dissonance, in which, for some, adherence to principles overrides the instinct for self-preservation. However one chooses to resolve this conflict, the courage of the protesters cannot be overstated.

The most heart-wrenching part of Shaimaa Al-Sabbagh’s killing may be her last moments, which were recorded on video. As her husband carries her bleeding body through the narrow streets of downtown Cairo, frantically asking for help, for a ride to the hospital, for someone to hail a taxi for him, he is met with shrugs. People sitting at the café he walks past don’t get up to help. No car offers a ride. Finally he sets her down on a chair, helpless and tired, and caresses her hair.

The tragic metaphor is impossible to miss. The apathetic majority stares blankly at the dying embodiment of the ideals held by so many just a few years ago. Bystanders fail to lift a finger in assistance, preferring to watch life seep from her body rather than risk the chance that their tea might get cold.

For the past four years, the Egyptian masses have been so limited by short-term, myopic thinking that they’re willing to do anything — perhaps even to sacrifice their own future — for the sake of that warm cup of tea. Entrusting their destiny to a despot may serve to maintain this illusive “stability” that is constantly being promised, but in the long term, few of them, aside from members of the regime’s inner circle, will emerge victorious. Eventually almost everyone will suffer from systemic injustice, or at the very least from the mismanagement of state affairs by an unaccountable regime.

For all these reasons, this January 25th, despite its heartening associations, is hardly a day to celebrate. As political scientist Timothy Kaldas wrote, “Egypt should be in a state of mourning, but not for a foreign king who beheads his people. It should be in a state of mourning for Shaimaa Al-Sabbagh, and the thousands like her who were murdered during their struggle for freedom.”

Happy January 25th. For what it’s worth.

Originally published on Foreign Policy Magazine: Transitions.


Egypt’s Digital Opposition has reached “Critical mass”

May 6, 2014

When a government attempts to quell dissent on the street, when distributing leafletson the street advocating a perfectly legal political position is met with arrest and jail sentences, when democratic protests are being met with police and mob violence, there is only one place where the political debate will be able to move: back online.

And the state does not like it one bit.

To understand the situation we currently stand in, some background is necessary.

Following the removal of former president Hosni Mubarak in 2011 by the power of protests, Egypt witnessed an explosion in the number of social media users. Twitter, once the privileged domain of techies, activists, and journalists became a primary discussion forum for all. Following activist movements, political parties and government agencies, including the army, started Facebook pages and began publishing their communiqués there before anywhere else. As dissent and protest movement endured on the street throughout 2011 and into 2012, the online realm was an extension of real life debates: there was no dichotomy between what happened online and away-from-keyboard, an important distinction to notice.

After a year and a half of direct military rule, June 2012 brought about the election of a civilian yet sectarian president, Mohamed Morsi. On the first anniversary of his rule, on June 30th 2013, massive protests demanding his resignation and early elections gave the minister of defense, Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, an excuse to stage a coup and remove Morsi on July 3rd. Al-Sisi has been the effective ruler ever since, despite the appointment of a nominal interim president.

Throughout all three post-revolution phases—military, then Islamic, then military rule again—the government has attempted to police or at least monitor cyberspace, with a hostility that seemed to have increased with time. In doing so, it has deployed all arrows in its quiver—police, army, prosecution, courts, media—in a feeble attempt to extend its online reach. In so doing, the state has adopted a multi-pronged tactic that we can analyze and break down.

1. Legal persecution
Prominent bloggers have been attacked and arrested for alleged crimes committed online—though these are but flimsy excuses. Alaa Abdel Fattah, for instance, was arrested in March 2013 on charges of “provoking violence”, with the evidence submitted being tweets from a pseudonymous user mentioning Abdel Fattah. He was acquitted, only to be arrested again in November 2013 on charges of organizing a protest on Twitter. He was arrested for nearly four months before being released on bail in March 2014. Though perhaps the most prominent, he is far from being the only one. To mention but a few of the most recent examples, blogger Ahmed Anwar found himself the target of a lawsuit over a YouTube video mocking the police – the prosecutor general, a man with little understanding of both humor and free speech, charged Anwar with “Insulting the Ministry of Interior”, “Abusing the internet”, and “harassment”. Sentenced to three months in jail, Anwar was able to commute his sentence after paying 10,000 EGP (1,500 USD). On February 15 2014, police arrested the administrator of a Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Facebook page, charging him with “spreading false news, inciting violence against security forces” as well as “spreading personal information of security officers”. During the same week, a Cairo University junior staff was suspended from his work on accusations of “insulting the university teaching staff” on his personal Facebook page.

This does not apply only to political dissent, but religious freedom and freedom of expression as well. Atheist blogger Alber Saber found himself guilty of “contempt of religion” for opinions expressed online, and sentenced to three years in prison in December 2012. Nearly lynched by an angry mob and facing prison, Saber left the country. And just last March, a senior police officer announced the formation of aspecial police taskforce to track down the members of an online atheist discussion group.

The modus operandi is simple: extend the reach of draconian laws (themselves of dubious constitutionality) to the online realm, and utilize politicized courts to crackdown on internet activists.

2. Online surveillance and hacking
The Mubarak government had contracted various international surveillance companies to access private data on activists and online dissenters. Egypt used FinFisher to monitor social media activity and VoIP communications, as well as software supplied by the UK’s Gamma to eavesdrop on Skype calls and by American company Narus to monitor emails, text messages, chats. And this practice did not end with Mubarak. In February 2014, researchers from the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab identified the current Egyptian government (and quite possibly the previous) as a client of a new computer spyware, called “Remote Control System” (RCS). RCS, produced by Milan-based company “Hacking Team”, is sold exclusively to governments as a “the hacking suite for governmental interception” that can capture data on the target’s computer, without it being sent over the internet; monitor encrypted internet communications, record Skype calls, emails, IMs, and passwords typed into a browser; and remotely turn on a device’s webcam and microphone.

3. Online Censorship
On January 28th 2011, a very nervous Mubarak decided to pull the plug on the internet, hoping that this would discourage protests and prevent activists from organizing; as we now know this plan failed miserably, but it also attracted massiveinternational attention to Egypt. Successive governments have since been very weary of outright censorship; but in some instances, their sentiment of panic overtakes good judgment and the government decides to block access to particular websites.

The latest instance of this occurred on March 29th 2014, days after Marshall Al-Sisi announced his intention to run for president; many independent activists, as well as Muslim Brotherhood supporters and other detractors of Al-Sisi took to Twitter, then subsequently to Facebook, with an insulting hashtag in Arabic that read “vote for the pimp”. Statistics on the use of the hashtag were widely shared by its supporters as proof of the generalized dislike of Al-Sisi, which prompted the authorities to block access to Twitter analytics website Keyhole.

Attempts to censor online speech have also, at times, been the work of proxy groups to the security apparatus rather than direct government intervention. Those “electronic committees”, coordinated groups of users, have been regularly deployed to spread pre-written positions (copied down to the last typo, in a beautiful testimony of collective idiocy) on discussion fora and Facebook pages, or to derail conversations by posting inflammatory comments. In several documented instances, for example, supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood would conduct coordinated “reporting” campaigns to flag opposing Facebook pages and have them suspended, on supposed violations of terms of conducts.

In the face of this onslaught on the internet, what is the future of online dissent? Well, it’s still very bright. Egyptians are rapidly taking control of their cyberspace despite the pressures, and have been mounting successful campaigns, ranging from politics towomen’s rights. In the face of censorship, they have proven to be quick to adoptcircumvention tools—and more importantly, sharing the love. And perhaps most importantly, the rapid democratization of internet access and its increased use by people from all walks of life and across age categories as a discussion forum will make it increasingly difficult for any government to threaten internet use. And this is perhaps the most interesting development of social media over the past years: Egypt has reached a critical mass whereby numbers are strength.

Of course the battle is an uphill one, with the imbalance of resources between governments and activists; but neither is it settled. Far from it.

Originally published on Swedish Pen’s “The Dissident Blog”.

Bassem Sabry, Remembered

April 29, 2014

On April 29, analyst, writer, and an essential voice covering Egypt since the 2011 uprising, Bassem Sabry, passed away. He was 31. His death has seen an outpouring of condolences and remembrances on Twitter. A regular contributor to Al Monitor, as well as being published in The Atlantic, Foreign Policy, Al Masry Al Youm, and more, he was a prolific writer, whose work at once gave invaluable insight into the ongoing Egyptian crisis, and was proof of his love for his country. Below is a eulogy written by his friend and colleague, Mohamed El Dahshan. 

Hit the link above. The music will go well with the text, I think.

Here’s is what I have to tell you about Bassem Sabry:

Bassem was a fundamentally, deeply honest man.

This is perhaps not the first epithet used to describe someone in a eulogy; perhaps it will seem to you as a let-down, if you were expecting flowery superlatives and complex adverbs. And I will use those adverbs and superlatives, too, for Bassem was truly all of them. But all those who read him, whether on his blog or in the local and international  press he regularly contributed to, can tell you that he’s an extremely astute writer, a gifted analyst, an indefatigable storyteller, and even through the darkness, optimistic to a fault. He was also an excellent bilingual chronicler of the Egyptian revolution, regularly keeping the world informed. Those who knew him personally – and perhaps those who followed him on twitter for he was consistent online and away-from-keyboard – will add that he was ridiculously kind; he was a hopeless romantic; and an ever-reliable friend. He also had a predilection for self-deprecating humour, and a maintained a running joke about actually being Batman (since, as he rightfully pointed out, him and Batman had never been seen in the same place together).

But few will tell you that he was, too, extremely truthful to himself and others. His fundamentals never changed. He abhorred labels, and as such never advertised his political affiliations. He demanded rights for all a decade ago, as he did yesterday. He stood for the oppressed, never condoned injustice, and never censored himself for an unpopular position. He was always able to reach out, even to those who seemed the most distant.

I’ve known him for 13, 14 years – with a few years of lost contact in between – and I am struggling to remember him an iota different from what he is today. Besides gaining a few kilograms and experimenting with facial hair, he has remained the naturally charming and effortlessly cool guy he always was. Cool not as in trendy – though he was quite the dresser – but cool as in, chill. Or at least that was his façade. He was difficult to faze, and he never let anger get the best of his reasoning, a rare skills in today’s angry, over-caffeinated, over-nicotined Egypt. (And Bassem ran on coffee.) Inside though, he was a boiling mass, and mess, of emotions. He was deeply humanly fallible, and analytically mentally very strong at the same time.

He was also disarmingly sincere. Perhaps never so much as in an article he wrote  and published when he turned 30, which was less than two years ago. He posted an English translation , too, which reads like his manifesto for life. It is what I extracted those blockquotes in the article from. Perhaps the best description I can offer you of him, is that he consistently stood by his own words.

And he was a terrible politician – he was too principled for the job. In his tenure as head of the Political Planning Committee of Al-Dostour party, a glistening position he was always extremely low-key about, he attempted to do his work as best as possible amidst of political machinations and personal politics; as his methodical approach to his job – which involved, well, actual planning and consultations – seemed to be inconsistent with the egos at the top, he chose to bow out from his leadership position.

But he had an incredible facility to move across society and circles. Co-owning a film production company with his siblings (another fact he never advertised), he was equally at ease – and more importantly, equally happy I think – on a film set overseeing a Bollywood-style choreography, as he was brainstorming in a smoky living room with some of the country’s most respected political free-thinkers. More importantly though, he always brought something new to the table. A fresh idea. A different perspective. An astute critique. His added-value was unmistakable, whether you asked him for his thoughts about the upcoming elections , a romantic conundrum, or which car you wanted to buy. (I’ve had all those conversations with him, actually.)

In the few hours since Bassem’s passing, I have spoken to numerous friends on four continents. We all cried on the phone, and hung up. The number of people who loved Bassem – whose name, incidentally, means “Smiling” – is surprising. Well, hardly surprising given the person he is, but the deluge of love and the outpour of grief is unlike anything I’ve seen. Friends of his have driven to his house and are just standing there, in the dark of the night, as I type. The Egyptian social media sphere is, literally and across linguistic boundaries, a collective Bassem memorial, or a giant therapy group. Much has been written about the dynamics of grief and the internet, but it always was from an individual perspective, or a collective experience within groups sharing links. What we’re witnessing is deep sadness, like that you would experience at the death of a cousin of a close school friend, but at the scale of a celebrity passing. Those conversations are the online equivalent of hugging strangers at a loved one’s funeral. And many, many have comforted one another tonight.

Beyond mourning a dear friend who left far too soon, I also grieve losing what could have been. Many will say that Bassem could have had a brilliant political career – perhaps so. But he undoubtedly had so much to give. I am sad for a country that he loved deeply, for a future that needed him, and for all those who will never get the chance to meet him. The loss is personal and collective. And it’s infinitely difficult to process.

I think I’ll do just that. Here’s my random message to you all, and it’s a prayer: may you be as as kind, as smart, and as loved, as Bassem Sabry. There’s nothing better.

Farewell, Batman. The world is a darker place tonight.

Originally published by the Atlantic Council’s Egypt Source.

Does General Sisi Have a Plan for Egypt’s Economy?

April 18, 2014

Does General Sisi Have a Plan for Egypt’s Economy?

The front-runner in Egypt’s presidential election, which will be held on May 28 and 29, has several clear policy preferences. On the domestic security front, his priority is eradicating the Muslim Brotherhood. In foreign policy, he is appeasing all major international actors while cultivating animosity towards Turkey, Qatar, and Gaza. But an important question remains: What is candidate Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s economic policy?

Then-General Sisi was appointed by Mohamed Morsi as minister of defensein August 2012 and deposed the president less than a year later. Since then, he has become the dominant figure in Egyptian politics and has been widely touted to run the country. On March 26, Sisi ended speculation about his presidential intentions when he formally resigned from the armed forces and announced his intention to run for president. (In the photo above, Sisi’s supporters rally in Alexandria after he announced his candidacy.) Sisi has already surrounded himself with a team of experts who will promptly churn out an economic policy document over the coming weeks. In the meantime, however, it is possible to obtain clues to his plans from the man himself — by analyzing his past statements, many of which are off-the-cuff and largely improvised.

Sisi: “Has anyone considered giving a month’s salary to help the poor survive? Has anyone thought about going to the university on foot every day to save money for the country? Don’t be upset with me. I see Egypt and its problems. Countries don’t advance with words. They advance with work and perseverance and selflessness and altruism. Perhaps one or two generations will be necessary for the country to live.”

In July 2013, the government of recently-resigned Prime Minister Hazem el-Beblawi, buoyed by an influx of cash from the Gulf, instituted an expansionary policy, increasing debt and spending with hopes of jumpstarting the local economy. Sisi’s thinking seems to run counter to this, favoring an austerity policy that would involve higher taxation (“giving a month” of salary) and less spending on public services (implied by his description of transportation, already underfunded, as a waste of money that needs to be “saved”). There will be none of the quick improvements people are so eager to see; instead, Sisi warns them that no good will come their way — for a long time.

Sisi: “Egypt’s youth are its hope; they need to give and not expect to take anything now…. Egypt needs a lot from us. Egypt’s youth should not be thinking about when will they be able to get married or when will they ‘live.’ They need to build the country first.”

This statement, which uses the same strange definition of “altruism” as the first, is absurd and insulting. With 60 percent of the population below the age of 30, Egypt’s young people aren’t “its hope” — they are Egypt itself. Those youth also represent 69 percent of the total unemployed. How much further can they be expected, and morally asked, to tighten their belts? And if youth are indeed the majority, then for whom are they expected to sacrifice? They’re being asked to put their lives on hold. Even “living” — i.e. marrying and starting a family — is apparently too luxurious an aspiration. Their selflessness is not intended to create a better tomorrow for the children they shouldn’t hope to have, but rather benefits older generations, who have enjoyed the spoils of the country and hope to continue to do so.

Sisi: “There are over 9 million Egyptians living abroad. They all were educated in Egypt’s schools and universities and lived on Egyptian soil. Did any of them think to give one month’s salary for the poor in Egypt?”

Sisi’s view of Egyptian expatriates as a collective cash cow ignores the spending patterns of Egyptian workers. First, the immense majority of expatriates live abroad out of necessity, motivated by mediocre salaries and unemployment at an official rate of 13.4 percent (though the real rate is certainly much higher). The millions of expatriate Egyptians whose wallets Sisi is eyeing work menial jobs, often in harsh conditions, and sometimes inperil of their lives. More importantly, most of those expatriates, a majority of whom are unaccompanied males, regularly send money home to the tune of$19 billion over the past fiscal year. These remittances are one of the major sources of foreign currency, and give the economy a vital boost.

Nevertheless, the government-controlled Association of Egyptians Abroad was very quick to chime in, applauding the speech and putting forth a suggestion for a three-tiered tax on Egyptians working abroad which itsubmitted to the president for consideration. It is likely that some variant of this bill will pass, despite strong doubts about the overall benefits of the tax. Expatriates were prompt to respond, in televised interventions and in social and traditional media, that aside from their already important contribution to the economy, they wouldn’t be working thousands of miles away from their families if they could have found proper employment opportunities near home. By residing abroad, they pointed out, they are saving the government their salary streams and social service expenses; it would be deeply unfair if they were to pay income taxes on money earned abroad if they were receiving no services from the state, since their local expenses are already subject to various consumption taxes.

Candidate Sisi does not promise any sort of improvement in the living conditions of Egyptians any time soon (for “a generation or two” at least, as he puts it). Is this grim realism, or an unwillingness to conduct difficult reforms?

In all likelihood, it’s the latter. His alignment with the big business interests of the Mubarak era, who have already pledged their support to him, entails the restoration of their private interests in public policy. The clearest example of this is the government’s reluctance to reform industrial subsidies. Cutting these subsidies would have relatively little impact on the average citizen and would go a long way to repairing public finance — yet officials continue to focus attention on the need to reduce personal consumption subsidies. Sisi also shows little interest in taking on urgently needed judicial reform, presumably because most members of the third estate are fully aligned with him. For similar reasons, few Egyptians expect him to attempt restructuring the all-important ministry of interior.

Sisi’s economic plan, which is conspicuous for its inability or unwillingness to offer specific solutions beyond a bleak and threatening outlook, can essentially be summarized as a warning to Egyptians to brace themselves for tough times ahead. It is fascinating that a candidate running for elections in a crisis-ridden country seems prepared to promise little more than darkness at the end of the tunnel.

It appears that the senior career officer has little understanding of the needs and pains of the people. Even more crucially, he seems unaware that civilians do not take marching orders the way military troops do. His tone deafness suggests that he will show little inclination to soften his policies.

The question then becomes: Will Sisi’s popularity allow him to push through harsh economic policies? One might argue that the current atmosphere of fawning over the man potentially gives him the needed political capital to pass difficult reforms. But this assumption discounts two important elements.

First, though Sisi completely dominates public discourse, his popularity is largely overestimated. The Muslim Brotherhood and his other most obvious political opponents will reject his policies from the get-go; likewise, the secular opposition and the apolitical masses will have no incentive to tow the line, especially if short term policies bring no relief.

Second, Sisi’s current popularity will quickly ebb if the Egyptian people, who have just endured three years of extraordinary hardship, do not see an immediate improvement in their quality of life. The expectation of an imminent rise in living standards has been fostered, ironically enough, by Sisi’s own grand speeches of the “Egypt will be as important as the world” type.

Indeed, one can easily imagine that Egypt’s economic challenges will hand Sisi his first hard-learned lesson in civilian politics: In a nation where politics is based on personality cults, people will analyze your every word, sometimes read between the lines, and — who knows — even hold you accountable.

The Army’s Miracle Cure: Today’s Joke, Tomorrow’s Tragedy

March 24, 2014

It was not a cruel joke, and it appears the tragedy endures: on March 23, the Egyptian army’s research unit posted on its Facebook page a link to an online Google spreadsheet, titled “Registration form for Virus C and HIV/AIDS Patient”, for those wishing to book an appointment for treatment. A few hours later, the Facebook link was removed – but the Google form is still there.

To understand why this is a tragedy, a brief retrospective is warranted.

In late February, Egyptian media trumpeted the news that a military research team had succeeded in creating a diagnosis tool for Hepatitis C and HIV/AIDS, that would not require the patient having their blood drawn and had the same accuracy as traditional tests. The machine, named “C-Fast” and which looks like a stapler with a television antenna sticking out of it was dubbed a “mechanical divining rod”, and it identifies an infected patient by pointing at them. It is also remarkably cheap to manufacture, requires no source of energy to function, and is allegedly so sensitive it will start wagging like a happy dog’s tail if an infected patient is in the next room.

It all sounded quite impressive, particularly in a country where Hepatitis C has, according to the World Health Organization, reached an “epidemic spread” with10 to 14 percent of the population infected, amounting to 8 to 10 million people. Though details of how it functions were unclear, it sounded like a real breakthrough.

Very soon thereafter, the public was blown away by another revelation: a second machine, also developed by the military researchers, could cure HIV, Hepatitis C, and according to various cavalier televised statements by members of the “research” team, could also cure any kind of virus, including the H1N5, and, in case one wasn’t sufficiently impressed, could also cure diabetes, skin diseases, and even cancer. And, to quote the official announcement video – it could also detect red termites in palm trees.

The name of this miracle device was “Complete Cure”, or “CC.” Any homonymic resemblance to the Minister of Defense’s name is entirely fortuitous.

The official announcement of this discovery was not made at an international medical conference, but at a press conference dominated by uniformed officers, where one General Doctor Ibrahim Abdel-Ati, in too-new and slightly too-large military fatigues, presented his invention. Abdel-Ati also showed a video of himself telling a bedridden patient, “Your test results are flawless, you used to have AIDS, but now it’s gone,” to which the patient responds “thank God, thank God.”

And then came the part of the speech that has passed into cultural lore in Egypt, spawning endless mockery and countless memes. Abdel Ati said:“I take the AIDS from the patient, then feed it to him as kofta (meatballs) for nourishment. I take the disease, give it to him as nourishment. This is the culmination of scientific achievement.”

As the uniforms in the room clapped, and the presenter gave a clumsy military salute then left the podium, audiences at home blinked in disbelief. They looked at each other to confirm what they had just heard. Many checked the channel they were watching lest it were a prank.

They then took to social media, and “Koftagate” was born.

As the presentation was mercilessly mocked for its form, the content was also being dissected by scientists. The President’s scientific advisor Essam Heggy said it was a “scientific scandal.”  MIT virologist Islam Hussein fulminated for days on Facebook at the absurdity of the claims made by Abdel-Ati and his team, ultimately producing an 80-minutes YouTube video in Arabic to refute the invention in an apparent attempt to avenge the entirety of science and logic, which were being trampled. After discussing the shoddy science behind the ‘invention,’ he pointed at the absence of clinical tests, medical proof, or patents backing the claims. Journalists also conducted similar investigative work and found a 2010 patent submission for the diagnosis tool under different names; Abdel-Ati’s never turned up, and none of the senior army physicians interviewed knew of him or his work.

At the same time, the history of the “General Doctor” was also combed through. He is, it turns out, neither a General nor a Doctor; the rank he was awarded by the Army for his work and the title he seemingly awarded himself, in an attempt to distance himself from some deeply suspicious herbal treatments he’d contrived, out of a rental apartment in the South of Cairo. Lawsuits had been filed against him; and in at least two instances he had been sentenced by a court.

But despite all the mounting evidence, many in the state-owned and state-aligned media, along with their various cheerleaders, are defending the ‘discovery’, heaping all-too-familiar accusations of treason over the skeptics. Abdel Ati  refuses to answer questions about his medical training and background and stating that Army hospitals will start diagnosing and treating people as of the coming June 30 – the first anniversary of the massive protests that paved the way for the military to depose former president Mohamed Morsi.

We are not discussing a moon landing or even a theoretical physics breakthrough, with little or no immediate life repercussions. This purported medical discovery deeply concerns millions of Egyptian families, with 165,000 new cases yearly – 70 percent of which are related to the poor healthcare system. And while many were mocking Abdel-Ati and his AIDS-flavored meatballs, millions of others were hugging in joyful disbelief and falling to their knees in prayer, thankful that the suffering of their loved ones would come to an end. It’s possible that the unsubstantiated and breathless defense some have been mounting was probably born of despair: they believed it, and consequently it must be true. Anything else would simply be too painful.

Come June 30, my fear is that far too many will go to military hospitals, and will be sent home uncured. Or, worse—be told they are virus-free when they are not.

And until that day I shall pray that I am wrong, because the disappointment which will be inflicted upon millions whose hearts will sink as they realize that the suffering of their parents or children is far from over, and that this disease will probably take their lives, is terribly cruel. False hope is a terrible affliction for a doctor to give. Giving false hope to millions should amount to a crime. And that latest posting, which announced the opening of the waitlist for treatment, means that the army is set on pushing through with this charade.

This is more than a political blunder. This is a national tragedy. And if it plays out the way it seems that it will, than this stab to the heart of the most vulnerable, would be unforgivable.

Originally published on the Atlantic Council’s EgyptSource blog.

How Do You Say ‘MOOC’ in Arabic?

March 11, 2014

How Do You Say ‘MOOC’ in Arabic?

“Massive Online Open Courses,” abbreviated “MOOCs,” are being hailed as a potentially revolutionary development in education. Is the Arab World about to miss out? So far, there’s only one such course offered in Arabic — and it’s taught by Israel’s Technion.

Nanotechnology and Nanosensors” is taught by Professor Hossam Haick, who’s had to deal with far more than he originally bargained for when he talked the head of his department into letting him develop the material for a very technical course in English and in Arabic. “We have to be democratic about choices and education. Education shouldn’t be limited to institutions,” Haick told me. “It should be open to all.” As things stand today, the course in English has over 20,000 students signed up, while the version in Arabic boasts over 4,800 students from across the region and beyond.

To pull it off, Haick had to recreate the course material from the Hebrew-language version of the class he teaches at the Technion. The challenge was not just squeezing everything into the online lecture format (which is shorter, more compact, and lacks the key teacher-student interaction), but also translating it all into English and Arabic. I made a point of asking him about the latter: “I’m from the Arab minority in Israel,” he says. “So I have the power of Arabic. I wanted to deliver this course largely to people who don’t speak English.” As he developed the Arabic material, he was cognizant of the variations of Arab dialects and attempted to adapt his speech to all listeners.

The political undertones of an Israeli institution offering the only university-level online open course in Arabic in the world are not lost on him. Haick isn’t a political activist — though he could perhaps be described as a scientific one. We discussed the politics of his class at the outset, almost so we could get it out of the way.

“I want to send a message to everyone in the Arab World and Israel that there are no boundaries when it comes to science,” Haick says. “I’m in a situation of conflict: I’m an Arab living in Israel, and the Arab world is in conflict with Israel. So does that mean that I’m in conflict, too? My message is that we can disseminate science without politics. It’s unfortunately hard for me to go to other countries. I’ve delivered a few lectures and conferences, but their impact is limited in terms of audience. With the power of the Internet we can disseminate knowledge across the world.”

But his effort hasn’t always met with the recognition he’s been hoping for: “Honestly, I’ve been frustrated by the fact that people in the Arab world didn’t appreciate our effort. Some people emailed to tell me that they had withdrawn the registration after realizing I’m from Israel.” Some online reactions, too, have been less than supportive. Haick tells me about a few of his online exchanges. In one of them, a man offers his assistance to Haick, only to follow up his earlier message with this remark: “Not anymore. Turns out you’re Israeli. No to normalization”.

But politics aside: Why aren’t there more Arabic MOOCs out there? In some ways it’s not at all a surprise that a well-funded university, albeit a non-Arab one, should be the first to develop a MOOC in Arabic. The process requires funding and equipment — two resources often sorely lacking in developing countries, a category to which most of the Arab world belongs. Most public universities in the Arab world likely don’t even have the soundproof studios to record such lectures.

The financials can be discouraging for professors in the Arab countries, too. Chronically underpaid public university professors, who often have to work extra jobs in private schools in order to make ends meet, will probably find little value in spending their remaining free time on developing a web-based course. This is less of an issue in the Gulf, where academic salaries are comparatively higher. Even there, though, salary discrimination means that foreign professors are paid less than locals, and foreign Arab professors less than Western ones — hence leading to the same financial disincentive.

Seif Abou Zeid, who founded Tahrir Academy, an education platform for 13-18 year olds (the pre-MOOC age, if you will), believes a technological gap is halting the growth of online Arabic educational content. But that isn’t the only problem, he says: he also stresses the crucial role of research institutions as knowledge creators. “We lack research engines; and furthermore, knowledge creation is not a concept” in these Arab-speaking countries, he says.

In any event, a large new resource will soon be entering the Arabic market. “Edraak,” which translates into “Cognition” or “Understanding,” is a new MOOC platform developed by Jordan’s Queen Rania Foundation for Education and Development in cooperation with edX, the renowned Harvard-MIT online education consortium. Nafez Dakkak, who manages the Edraak project for the Queen Rania Foundation, tells me that while some edX courses will be translated into Arabic, “a big part of what we’ll be doing is producing our own content.” As he explains, the group is already working with several Arab professors across the region and in the diaspora. “Most of the instructors are completely volunteering their time. As for us, we’re covering the cost of MOOC creation: video production, technology platform, TA costs, etc.”

Dr. Islam Hussein, a Research Scientist at MIT, is passionate about MOOCs, which is why he accepted to volunteer his time and effort to develop a bilingual MOOC on edX on the topic of virology. “Language represents a barrier for many people,” Dr. Hussein says. “Communicating the MOOCs content in Arabic will make it more accessible to non-English speakers.” He says, though, that he fully appreciates the inherent difficulty of Arabizing the content: “English has become science’s first language. Translating the scientific content of a one-hour lecture can take days!”

The challenge will be steep. The demand is there, but the means often are not. “We need increased awareness of the available courses,” says Haick, “hence more funding to create courses. Unfortunately awareness is weak in the Arab world.” Perhaps Edraak will contribute to the solution.

But are MOOCs harmful to local institutions in the development world? Will students flock away from their physical professors, towards the famous professor in the computer monitor?

“I understand the argument”, said Haick, “but you want to ensure that MOOCs are high quality. It might be a loss to some universities but a gain for the students, and they’re the ones we ultimately care about. In fact, getting some of the teaching online might take some of the pressure off big universities, which would be able to devote more time to research.”

MIT’s Hussein puts it simply: “MOOCs are the future of education.” The poor quality of schools and universities in many Arab countries demands a solution, he says. “This is a way of coming up with a realistic, workable, and fast solution to fix our crumbling education system.”

Dakkak personally believes the market for online and offline education is different — and as such, they are not competing for students’ attention. “MOOCs in the region will primarily be used in the following two cases: First, they can serve as a supplement to existing university education when it’s inadequate or certain courses aren’t available, and second, they can reach people who aren’t in university for one reason or another, whether it be qualifications, time, or funds.”

The digital education future is already here, Hussein says, and it’s being led by students, not institutions. “You’ll be surprised to know that Egyptians, for example, are avid followers of some of the major MOOCs platforms on social media. This is a clear indication that they are aspiring to a decent education, which they will find in MOOCs offered by some of the best educators from elite universities…. MOOCs speak at the same wavelength of the digital natives, for whom Internet is like the air they breathe, and soon it will become a major source of their education. In Egypt alone, we have more than 30 million Internet users. With the widespread availability of Internet and Arabic MOOCs, online education will grow more popular.” (The photo above shows students crowding around computers in Cairo in 1999, when fewer than 200,000 Egyptians were connected to the Internet.)

Haick believes that the future might look like this: “Most universities in the world — save for the top 50 — will use online courses from top universities, and will focus more on research. MOOCs could give universities the ability to devote more time and quality to produce better research.”

And both Haick and Hussein hope that their efforts will motivate others to follow suit and encourage professors in the Arab world to create courses of their own.

Originally published on Foreign Policy: Transitions.

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

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