Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Sharif Abdel Kouddous interviews prominent dissident Alaa Abd El-Fattah about the terrible state Egypt is in, 31 March 2014.

Alaa Abd El-Fattah being interviewed by Abdel Kouddous

Introduction. 31 March 2014. Today the Egyptian-American Nation writer and journalist based in his home town of Cairo, Sharif Abdel Kouddous, interviewed the prominent Egyptian blogger and political activist Alaa Abd El-Fattah. The interview was broadcast on Democracy Now, which provides a transcript. Alaa Abd al-Fattah, from a family with a number of dissidents and activists, is known for his blog  site maintained with his wife Manal, Manalaa.net, mostly in Arabic but with occasional rare but sometimes important entries in English. (For a prominent English language Egyptian political blog see The Arabist.) The interview provides a report on the state of affairs in Egypt three years after the 25 January 2011 revolution from the viewpoint of one of its leaders who was recently released from prison. It was conducted in English, in which both are fluent, though both are also Arabic speakers. Alaa's son Khalid was born when he was in jail in 2011, on a previous occasion, after the resignation of Mubarak. At times he refers to his son and what his son has to look forward to. There is an earlier Democracy Now interview with him after release at that time, in December 2011.

The interview: arrest and imprisonment of a dissident. Alaa Abd El-Fattah, who has had determination and hope in the past, expresses a real sense of defeat, a feeling that the revolution is not happening, and that his imprisonment, which had a purpose on previous occasions, this time has no meaning. First of all Alaa tells Sharif about his (latest) arrest, how his files were gone through and seized and he was beaten for protesting because the police had an arrest warrant and no search warrant. Before he was blindfolded he saw there were dozens of "heavily armed policemen" holding the entire neighborhood at gunpoint. He was taken from room to room, outside in between to confuse him, and left for 12 hours with a dirty rag over his eyes that left him with an eye infection.

Alaa notes that the boundaries between the police and judiciary are broken. Judges come to prisons for trials and sentencing. "So the whole justice system now is explicitly, you know, not even in a secret way, but explicitly and overtly controlled by the police." But with persistence his lawyers were brought in. He was accused of protesting without a permit but also of armed robbery. The cell was relatively decent and clean and he was allowed visitors and to see his lawyers, but he was kept in solitary confinement for the first month.

Solitary: "You go crazy." What was that like? Sharif asks. "You go crazy. You sleep a lot. So, you know, it certainly feels like clinical depression, which it might also be, clinical depression. But you try to fill the time, so reading, writing." He had one hour out of the cell a day. He explained about talking to Al Jazeera correspondent Peter Greste, who had been in Egypt very briefly before being arrested, so needed a lot of "explaining" of the situation; but they talked about literature and their times in Africa too.

Later, Alaa says his being arrested and imprisoned again is quite likely. There are special terrorism courts, though there's a pretense that they are not special, with special circuits. Alaas says his is "a big case," though it "has no purpose except...serving the regime." He already has a suspended sentence that "was based on a very colorful case that was started by the military prior to Morsi’s election and then was dropped." The suspended sentence is of one year, so if he is charged with "even the smallest misdemeanor," he can go back to jail for that year and whatever is added to it.

"A war on a whole generation." He must fight this, but "these are not real courtrooms, this is not true justice, so you have to exert political pressures via protesting, via exposing the irregularities in the process and so on." Alaa knows that while his previous arrests just used his temporary detention to punish him, to keep him quiet for a while, without actual sentencing, this time it's different. Activists from Alexandria and student groups have been sentenced, for one year to five, for two years. Longer, "crazy" sentences on students, 11 years, 14 years, 17 years, have been issued. "They are on a sentencing frenzy," and "I mean," Alaa says, "this is not just about me. And it’s almost as if it’s a war on a whole generation."

There has been "a massive counter-revolutionary wave that has compromised a lot of individuals and parties and political groups, deeply compromised them." More disconcertingly, Alaa reports that even back in the protests against Morsi, the military was manipulating them, and calling out throngs of people "who were saying yes to the military, yes to the police." So last year he participated in protests in which his group could not be heard. He and his friends tried to tell the Muslim Brotherhood people that they were "walking a path that’s going to just lead to the military taking over." The Brotherhood saw him and his dissidents as the threat, and did not recognize that the military was the greater threat. The military coup was being planned, and Morsi's personal prosecutor was pursuing only a few cases against dissidents like him.

Sharif then addresses Alaa about the tradition of dissent in his family -- his sisters, his cousin, and his parents, all activists --and Alaa speaks of conflicts inherited from previous generations, from between the Wars, all of which "is completely crazy..... It’s like most of this country has been born after the end of the Cold War, and none of this makes any sense to any of us. But you have these people talking about Nasserism and neo-Nasserism, and you have these people talking about reversing the mistake of dissolving the Ottoman Empire."

When Alaa speaks of successive generations in his family and those of other dissidents inheriting prison cells, it almost seems as if the cream of the Egyptian intellectual crop are like poor African Americans in the United States. There, as here, few of those in prison represent a "danger to society" in any sense. Only in Egypt, the country is not functioning. Hospitals are "empty shells." Universities are not providing education but are hotbeds of protest and hence regarded as "a problem that we need to control," and Al Azhar University, perhaps the oldest university in the world, which has more Islamic students, have been massively killed in protests and "are regarded as a security threat," surrounded by "an apartheid wall," with armed guards around waiting to move in. Finally, Egypt "has become a completely dysfunctional state with coercion and oppression as its one and only tool."

That's not all. Due to the collapse of housing, people are finding their own "informal" solutions, and police are moving in to destroy them -- exactly like the Israelis with Palestinian houses. In quelling insurrections around the country's borders, " it’s almost as if they’re copying from the Israelis." Alaa has reached the point where he feels it is necessary to "dismantle the state" and rebuild it from scratch, an idea that, of course, terrifies people. The young are alienated and failed to show up for the last referendum, showing this. Healthcare and education are in collapse. For staples the country is dependent on imports, therefore on hard currency, on borrowing from the Saudis and the Emirates, but this cannot last.

And when all this collapses, it will be "scary." When Mubarak collapsed, it was "beautiful." The fear engendered by the coming collapse, Alaa suggests, will be an increase of the polarization that occurred with the fear engendered by Morsi's collapse, and the instability that threatened. While the immediate post-revolution period in 2011 was safe, without police or military control, now, with heavy military control, there is no safety: people are scared and paranoid, and there is chaos.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: You’ve said the word "defeat" a couple of times. Do you think the revolution is over?

No, Alaa replies, you can't know that, or observe the revolution while you are in it. But he observes that there are strikes going on by workers who supported the overthrow of Morsi and the takeover of El-Sisi. The youth may have to survive by their wits, but they will not disappear, and may continue to protest. But at the present time it is hard to espouse a "narrative" of unity of forces and of hope. Hence, the occurrence of the word "defeat." But he hopes that is temporary.

And so must we all.

(Alaa Abd El-Fattah and his wife Manal's blogsite Manalaa.net has been offline since October 2013, when Alaa published his discussion of what a new Egyptian constitution should be. A snapshot of the site can be surfed via CloudFlare Always Online™ technology with the promise that "as soon as the site comes back, you will automatically be served the live version.")

Egypt's deepening crisis: Sharif Abdel Kouddous writes about the eight months since the removal of Mohamed Morsi


 Sharif Abdel Kouddous - Profession: reporter. The award-winning Egyptian-American Democracy Now reporter and Nation Magazine writer Sharif Abdel Kouddous, who grew up in Cairo in a prominent family and went to college in the US, returned to his home town as the January 2011 Youth Revolution began and has remained there providing articulate and well-informed reports for Democracy Now and articles for the Nation. In early days when the Internet was cut by the government, through his colleague Jeremy Scahill and an American cell phone Kouddous sent an on-the-spot Twitter feed at a key moment that quickly got him 18,000 followers. Kouddous has had an almost unique position as an Egyptian fully conversant with the complex political landscape of Egypt today and able to describe it in clear and lucid English. Rather than presenting a facade of neutrality, he has lived the Revolution, from excitement and hope to despair. Due to his having dual citizenship, working for a foreign publication and writing in English, and perhaps also his prominent family, Kouddous has so far not been harassed or jailed as other Egyptian journalists have. Though he has never lost his objectivity, his passion informs his reporting. Below is a summary of his writing for The Nation  over the last eight months since the Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood's elected president, was removed from office, as the country has slid into repression, polarization, chaos, and military rule and the beautiful dreams of Tahrir Square have seemed to vanish into the desert air. 

Some background on the Revolution and its aftermath. The Egyptian Youth Revolution of 25 January 2011, which Kouddous has reported on from Cairo since its inception, often direct from Tahrir Square for Democracy Now,  brought the country a tremendous spirit of democracy and hope. But when Egyptian presidential elections were held in June 2012, almost by a fluke the relatively minor Muslim Brotherhood candidate Muhammad Morsi won. It was a bad choice. Morsi began to act in a more dictatorial and heedless manner than Mubarak himself, usurping judicial authority and placing unelected MB representatives in positions of authority all over the country. In protest against Morsi's incompetence and authoritarianism Egypt took to the streets again, more massively than ever. This time it was to bring down a democratically elected national leader, clearly not a good idea. The better alternative would have been to push for early presidential elections, which now isolated liberal dissident Amr Hamzawy wishes had occurred. But following mass opposition protests starting 30 June 2013, on 3 July 2013, Morsi was forced out of office. But the means was not democratic. He was removed in a military takeover headed by Defense Minister General Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, acting on the pretense of maintaining order. 

A massive counter revolution and "war on terror.. The removal of Morsi became an excuse for the SCAF (Supreme Council of the Armed Forces), which had been in charge after Mubarak's resignation, to take full charge of the country, now headed by El-Sisi. Over the past eight months the military has staged a massive counter revolution marked by killings and imprisonment, notably of journalists, including foreign ones. This new-old military regime (because it was always there) justifies its acts as a now widely supported "war on terror." "Terror" it defines mainly as the Muslim Brotherhood, but also progressive elements. 

Abdel Kouddous's post-Morsi Nation coverage: betrayal of the revolution. (Links are to separate Nation articles.) Abdel Kouddous has been writing a flurry of articles in The Nation over the past eight months describing how the crisis in Egypt has deepened since Morsi's ouster. (Each link below is to another of his Nation articles.) He has described how popular opposition to Morsi was exploited by the military. Opinions differed on whether it was a military coup; in retrospect evidently it was, one aided by popular will. But who would have predicted the brutal war on the Muslim Brotherhood the military would carry out? Pro-Morsi demonstrators were massacred last summer, leading to increasing chaos, violence, and polarization in the country. The Muslim Brotherhood refused to cooperate with the military, and the split and alienation of the strongest party paved the way for growing authoritarianism. Not everybody wanted this, of course, but Egypt, always friendly to the military (which has exercised control for sixty years), welcomed their control and promise of order. The Muslim Brotherhood's rise and fall had been rapid. In retrospect it was a mistake to go for the presidency. At any rate, the violent clashes last summer ruled out rapprochement between the Brotherhood and the military. Abdel Kouddous cited the revolutionary saying, "Despair is betrayal," but by late summer 2013, uttered the grim declaration that, with no end to the chaos and bloodshed in sight, "Today, it is very hard not to feel like a traitor."

Scapegoats; divided loyalties. Later last year Kouddous' focus shifted to other groups besides the Muslim Brotherhood. There were over 300,000 Syrians in Egypt who fled from the civil war, and the military regime began to scapegoat Syrian refugees as well as Palestinians. Multiple opposition groups, some opposing pluralism yet lumped together as "liberals," have grown oddly silent, Kouddous wrote. Mohamed ElBaradei, who spoke up, was demonized and resigned his post and fled to Vienna. But in this article, "What Happened to Egypt’s Liberals After the Coup?," Abdel Kouddous also lays out some of the greater complexities of what he calls "Egypt’s convoluted political landscape" as it has developed lately. In December, Abdel Kouddous wrote about how as repression deepened in Egypt, "dozens of journalists, non-Islamist activists and students have been detained and beaten." Jailing of Al Jazeera journalists who were not Egyptian brought more foreign recognition of the regime's repression. The military have focused on Al Jazeera because it is regarded as having championed the Muslim Brotherhood. And now the attention has shifted to activists and bloggers like Alaa Abd El-Fattah. He and others hope to maintain focus on the main aims of the Youth Revolution of 25 January, "bread, freedom and social justice."

A downward spiral toward repression and fascism. In January 2014 Kouddous wrote a grim summary of "Egypt in Year Three" since the Youth Revolution of 25 January 2011, describing the country as "awash in conformist state worship, fueled by the shrill narrative of a war on terror". The old pre-revolution fears and insecurities about public debate and discussions with strangers have returned. An Egyptian brand of McCarthyism now reigns. The Muslim Brotherhood has been declared "a terrorist organization," though its members still rish their lives and freedom to demonstrate in protest. University campuses have become chiefly sites for protest. Jails are bursting with prisoners. A new constitution replacing the Muslim Brotherhood one has been pushed through. El-Sisi is now worshiped as if (my words) any Pharaoh will do. 

"The country," Kouddous wrote, "is headed toward an order even more regressive than the one people rose up against three years ago." Blogger All Abd El-Fattah, sent to jail under every regime, a warrant out on him under Morsi, was sent to jail by the El-Sisi government with unusually little protest this time in the mood of jingoism and repression. The now isolated dissident Amr Hamzawy, a politician who was elected after the revolution and a professor of public policy at the American University in Cairo, now sees clear signs of a governmental and country-wide "fascist buildup" in Egypt, , Kouddous reported in a 12 Feb. 2014 Nation article. 

And that's where Sharif Abdel Kouddous's Nation coverage leaves us today. Next we'll report on his interview with the dissident blogger Alaa Abd El-Fattah, who has recently been re-released from jail after several months.