My Latest Piece for the Huffington Post

Here is the Link — “The Arab Spring in History: Taking the Long View

This article is based off an interview I took with Dr. Eugene Rogan for a smaller piece I wrote in AUC’s Cairo Review. Dr. Rogan is a lecturer at Oxford University who just wrote a book on the Modern History of the Arab Middle East entitled The Arabs: A History. I attended his talk for the Arabic-language launch of the book at the Cairo Opera House and was quite impressed with his view on the Arab Spring and its place in the Middle East. Rather than view 2011 as a sudden democratic outpouring from a barren intellectual field, he sees this last year as the long-awaited resurgence of a rich history of liberal reformism. Please take a read if you’re interested.

Hope you enjoy.

Amusing Public Safety Email from the University

Advice to keep you safe and secure:

……

8.      If you are occasionally trapped in the crowd you are reminded to:

·        Not panic, keep calm.

·        Make yourself aware of your surroundings and mentally notice alternate exits.

·       If you find yourself in the middle of a moving crowd, do not fight against the pressure, and try to take advantage of any space that may open up to move sideways to the crowd movement where the flow is weaker.

·     If you fall and cannot get up, try to keep moving by crawling in the same direction. If it’s not possible, cover your head with your arms and curl up into the fetal position.

·    The worst scenario is to be pushed by the crowd against an immovable object, try to stay away from walls, fences or barricades, as the crowd pressure can build up rapidly.

Massacre at a Soccer Match: What the hell happened?

As many of you will have heard by now, nearly 74 people were killed during a riot at a soccer match in the Egyptian city of Port Said this Wednesday. Now, that massacre has sparked renewed clashes between protesters and police in Tahrir Square and across the country. Reminiscent of the unusually violent street clashes, which took place after mass demonstrations in November, this latest confrontation has already drawn blood with some 5 people dead, and nearly 1,400 injured.

To an outside observer, this outbreak of anti-government protest in response to a soccer match appears misguided, while the death of so many at a simple sporting event seems barbaric in the extreme. I have seen and heard many comments to this effect over the past two days, brandishing the killings at Port Said as a bloody example of the instability of post-Mubarak Egypt, as well as of the inherent violence of the Arab peoples. If, in fact, this tragedy were the result of soccer hooliganism, such views would be justified. This, however, is unlikely to be the case. The events at Port Said were almost certainly the work of government infiltrators, paid or coerced to incite violence.

There is no hard evidence to back this up and the Western media has shied away from justifying what are technically only suspicions but, here in Egypt, the involvement of the military government in this atrocity is now commonly accepted as fact. To quote from a conversation I had with a taxi driver today, “this is not soccer, it’s politics.”

Of course, soccer hooliganism is no new phenomenon here. Known as ‘Ultras”, diehard fans of the various club teams that play in the Egyptian league are famous for their raucous chants, violence at matches, and occasional attempts to set stadiums on fire. In 2009, when Egypt lost their chance at a World Cup bid to Algeria, fans attacked the Algerian embassy with rocks and molotov cocktails. While, when Egypt won the first match of that qualifying round just two days before, the city erupted in celebrations outmatched only by Mubarak’s ouster this last February. I was studying here when that happened and, to give you an idea of what I mean by “erupted”, the second the winning goal was scored I turned around to see what looked like a glass table tossed out the window of an eight-story building in what I can only imagine was a fit of ecstasy at the thought of making the World Cup.

In short, Egyptians are partial to their soccer and this was a match where tensions were to be expected due to the long-standing rivalry between Port Said’s team, Al Masry, and the popular Cairo team, Al Ahly. That said, the staggering number of people killed in Port Said should provide the first indicator of foul play. This is the most deadly soccer riot in 16 years, surpassed only by the incident in Guatemala City where 78 people were trampled in a stampede out of the stadium. However, this was no stampede. Some were trampled and killed by suffocation but most were felled by knife wounds and head trauma, a sign of pitched hand-to-hand combat. Violence on such a scale is absolutely unheard of at these events.

Still, some conflict is usually to be expected at these games, and that raises the second puzzling question. Where were the police? The Ultras and the security forces have a long history of confrontation and this has led police to impose strict security measures at matches, checking fans for weapons and maintaining strict separation between rival groups. These measures were, by all accounts, absent from this match. Fans were not searched thoroughly for weapons and, though riot police were present, they did little to interfere once the violence started.

Other details thicken the plot. Usually, the gates between the stands and the pitch are locked. In this case, those gates were open, while the exits behind the Al Ahly fans were locked. This left Al Ahly fan’s no avenue of escape when the Al Masry supporters attacked. To complicate matters, the lights of the stadium were reported to have been mysteriously shut off just as that attack occurred. And after, when ambulances approached the stadium, they were blocked from entering by a organized roadblock manned by “thugs”. Throughout all this, there was no effort by military or police forces to enter and end the fighting. Add to these factors that Al Masry (whose fans supposedly led the attack on Al Ahly supporters) actually won the game in a 3-1 upset, and we can see a strong case for conspiracy. Indeed, for most people the question is not “if” but “how”.

If, then, this was the result of military interference, many people have asked me why SCAF (short for Supreme Council of the Armed Forces) would want to create such chaos and intentionally provoke a popular reaction. The answer is simple. SCAF reckons that a sense of chaos and instability in the country will drive Egyptians back to the safety and security of authoritarian rule. Explicitly, “stability” has always been their line but they and the Interior Ministry (home of Egypt’s black-clad riot police) have frequently utilized an army of ex-convicts and paid thugs to promote just the opposite. A slew of armed robberies and kidnappings over the last month — extremely uncommon in Egypt — were the most recent sign of such meddling. Now they have been eclipsed an event far more tragic.

Ultimately, the goal of this “transitional” government is to retain the military’s privileged position in society, as well as to salvage as much power as it can in the process. To this end they have shown themselves willing to use all the brutal tools of suppression at their disposal, from the unlawful military detention and trial of activists and “thugs” to the murder and injury of peaceful protesters. As I write this, one of my best Egyptian friends sits recovering from a face-full of birdshot and will likely lose his eye. He is only one of many so maligned.

In the face of such actions it is easy to denounce the savagery of the military leadership but it is, perhaps, more effective to note the sheer blind stupidity of their rule. Over the past year, they have sought to create a sense of chaos in Egyptian society with themselves as the only source of security. Instead, they have managed only the slow transformation from a trusted and popular institution into the most prominent symbol of repression and violence, prolonging Egypt’s crisis in the process. The vision of a future Egypt without the guiding hand of the military is murky and uncertain, but the devil we don’t know is starting to look far more appetizing than the devil we do. The false stability of military government is a dead end. Port Said is only the most recent proof of that.

– I wrote this post in response to questions I’ve received and to inform those back home with a perspective that I don’t believe has been sufficiently reported in Western news media. This was not just soccer violence, nor was it business-as-usual in post-Mubarak Egypt. The issue of SCAF’s use of agents provocateurs in Port Said and over the past year is complex and uncertain territory. By no means have I done it justice. If anyone has any questions or comments please post a reply. Thanks for reading.

Tahrir One Year On

Some mixture of travel, work, and laziness has made this my first post in a long while but Egypt is never short of inspiration and her first steps into a second year of Revolution seem as good a time as any to get back on the horse.

Hundreds of thousands rushed to Tahrir yesterday to celebrate the first anniversary of the Revolution and to call on SCAF’s military government to accelerate the transition to civilian rule. It was an impressive sight. Many speculated that this crowd was even larger than the one which filled Tahrir Square on February 11 to celebrate Mubarak’s fall and I wouldn’t doubt it. Approaching the square through the cramped underground walkways of Sadat Metro station, Cairo’s winter chill was replaced by the humid residue of a thousand passengers shuffling towards sunlight and the unending roar of the crowds above. As always, I was passed through a multi-stage checkpoint where bearded youths from the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party frisked me for weapons and checked my passport. Their job is to make sure the celebration is not infiltrated by government-run thugs or hijacked by overly enthusiastic activists.

Climbing out and into the light, the noise of the crowd hits you with a physical force. Tahrir is a riot of color, waving flags and flowing masses. Low wooden stages rise up from the crowds, covered in party banners and groaning under giant sound systems. They blare the messages, speeches and chants of Egypt’s newly diverse political parties across a sea of people, each fighting to make themselves heard against a wall of background noise. The crush of people is oppressive. Often so tight that your only choice is to clutch arms to your sides and let yourself be carried along the currents of the crowd, slowly passing from one shouted slogan or chant to another in a battle between rival speaker systems for the crowd’s attention.

This was overwhelmingly an atmosphere of celebration. Street vendors, sometimes in heavy revolutionary makeup, served candied apples, popcorn, cotton candy, steaming cups of couscous, and anything else you could think of to passersby. Every streetlamp in sight was topped by young men, holding Egyptian flags outstretched to catch the wind against the setting sun. Colorful individuals with painted faces, or covered in cardboard posters poking fun at the ruling generals, wandered through the crowds, stopping to have their pictures taken. With January 25 declared a national holiday, military and central security forces were nowhere in sight and celebrations continued without that sense of imminent danger, which has often hung over such gatherings in the past.

People spoke freely and easily. Politics were debated and the future opined, all were eager to make my acquaintance, ask my opinion of of Egypt and the Revolution, question me intently about the Occupy Wall Street movement in the States. Once I found myself trapped in the current of the crowd, carried face to face with a young member of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party. He asked me for my thoughts on Tahrir and the elections before gleefully informing me that America would be next on the Revolutionary list. “Occupy Wall Street has exposed Obama’s corrupt and evil regime in Washington. Soon you will have Democracy too!”  I suppose we’ll have to wait and see on that one…

Small events marred the day but, all in all, it was the type of protest that inspires hope for this country’s future. We have seen it’s kind before in this past year, however we have also seen its aftermath. Carnival-like demonstrations replaced with tear gas and running street battles. The question that hangs over this anniversary is whether we will see a return to that violence after the official holiday ends in two days. Whether demonstrators will remain in the square to face off with police and military forces. Whether SCAF will take steps to accelerate a peaceful transition, or continue to backslide and delay. These are questions that no one can really answer. As Karl Marx once observed, “when the train of history hits a curve, the intellectuals fall off.” Egypt’s train has hit one hell of a curve, and I don’t know that anyone has truly made it back on board. We can only wait and see what the next weeks, months, and years will bring. Still, this is an historic day. May it be followed by more to come.

See some choice pictures from the event above. More to come soon.

Good Interview with billionaire businessman/politician, Naguib Sawiris, on Islamists in Government

Well it looks like we’re stuck in it. Islamist parties take 60% of the votes in this first electoral round, 40% for the Muslim Brotherhood’s FJP, and 20% for the ultra-conservative al-Nour party. Liberal parties scrape in with about 15%. There are still two more rounds of voting to go but it seems certain that Islamists will have a comfortable majority in parliament and, consequently, in the committee tasked with drafting a new constitution.

Here’s an interesting CBC interview taken last week with billionaire businessman and founder of the liberal ‘Free Egyptians Party’, Naguib Sawiris, on the ramifications of Islamist control over Egypt’s new parliament: