Tag Archives: news

Who to Blame? Understanding the Massacre at Port Said

When last I posted, I was cautiously optimistic about the anniversary of the January 25 revolution. As the days passed with only minor scuffles, I breathed an internal sigh of relief. The worst was over, and we were on track for a peaceful post-revolutionary year.  That relief, however, was premature. The bloodbath that I expected didn’t fail to take place, it was simply postponed.

On Wednesday evening a football match in Port Said ended in horrific violence, with 73 people dead and over a thousand people injured. Egypt’s population is grieving,  shocked, and outraged, and  they’ve  taken to the streets. Predictably, a number of these peaceful marches have been met with birdshot and tear gas from security forces. In the 48 hours since the massacre took place, at least seven people have died in Cairo and Suez.  I expect the protests—and the counterfighting that goes with the protests—to continue for several more days.

What actually happened in Port Said? It’s difficult to say. So many different versions of the story have circulated since the massacre took place that it’s nearly impossible to know the truth.

The verifiable facts of the situation are these: at the end of the match, between the local underdog al-Masry team that won against the powerful al-Ahly team from Cairo, people rushed the field from the al-Masry side. The doors between the stands and the field were open, which they should not have been. The security presence was lower than normal.  Police in riot gear failed to intervene. The lights were extinguished. The doors to exit the stadium were locked.

And fifteen minutes later, seventy-three people were either stabbed, suffocated, or trampled to death.

What actually happened? Who can we blame? Which of the many conflicting narratives can we possibly believe?

In the first version of the story, the massacre was just a football match gone wrong. Small fights are common at nearly every game. One of my Egyptian friends told me that random fistfights and projectiles were “part of the experience” of going to a match.  This game, for whatever reason, had insufficient and/or inexperienced security that made all the wrong decisions when faced with a commonplace sports riot. Tensions are running high in Egypt right now, and things got out of hand. It could have happened anywhere, in any country, without enough security to keep the fans contained. Shame that it had to happen here.  But why was the security so lax? Why haven’t other matches since last January had similar levels of violence? And why was the attack instigated by fans of the winning team?

In the second version of the story, the massacre was a premeditated event. Someone—the most popular candidate is SCAF and/or the remnants of the old Mubarak regime—brought in thugs from the outside, armed with knives, and positioned them near the open gates to the pitch so that they’d be poised and ready to do their worst as soon as the game was complete, regardless of who won. The absence of security was deliberate, as was the inaction of whatever forces were present. Doors were closed to prevent people from escaping. The lights were turned out so that no video cameras would be able capture the truth.

Motivations in this theory vary. The al-Ahly fans known as the Ultras have been prominent in Egypt’s ongoing protests. By attacking them, SCAF could get rid of some of its strongest and most vocal opponents. A number of Cairo revolutionaries see the attack as the beginning of a revenge plot against participants in the revolution. Others see the attack as part of a pattern of violent crime that has arisen since January 24, when the government revoked the “state of emergency” under which Egypt has been ruled for the last 30 years. In the last week, there have been multiple bank robberies—a type of large-scale crime nearly unheard-of in Egypt up until now. Many believe that the upswing in violent crime is being orchestrated so that SCAF can justify re-instating emergency law, and ultimately justify maintaining its own power rather than transferring power to a civilian government. But if SCAF wants to demonstrate how necessary it is for maintaining stability, why carry out such a breach in its role of protection?

And today, the state-run Nile News TV channel declared that the football massacre was orchestrated by US and German spies as retaliation for the raids on NGOs. Invisible foreign hands were at work to try to undermine the integrity of the nascent government and push their own political agenda. But would foreign spies really give a damn about a football match? And aren’t the people of Egypt capable of rioting on their own?

It’s hard to know what to believe out of all these conflicting information streams. Each one is plausible, to a certain extent, and each one is problematic. Like all situations with multiple narratives, the truth lies somewhere in between the different lines. We may never discover what the truth really is. But one common theme is that everyone wants to point the finger at someone else, to distance themselves from this horrible event. Whose fault was it? Blame the football fans, blame hired thugs, blame the police, blame SCAF, blame foreign spies, blame someone. Anyone. Because no one wants to accept responsibility for such a heinous event. No one wants to accept that they might have had a role, however small.

Everywhere, everyone makes the same refrain: “It was other people, bad people, not us.”

Not us.

I do not believe in such things as “good people” and “bad people.” I believe only in the existence of people, full stop. People, who are capable of both good and bad actions. People, and the choices they make, based on the situations that they find themselves in.

Whatever happened on Wednesday, it was the result of human agency. People. Making choices.

I do not pretend to know who instigated the attacks, whether or not they were premeditated, who made the myriad decisions that ended in disaster. All I know is that these decisions were made by people, individually and collectively. And the repercussions of those decisions will scar Egypt for a very, very long time.

 

 

January 25th Revolution, One Year Later

On this day, one year ago, Egyptians took to the streets to protest the regime of then-President Hosni Mubarak. Following the example of Tunisia, protesters gathered to demand “bread and freedom,” and later escalated their demands to “the People want to bring down the Regime. ” The independent paper Al Masry Al Youm reported that it could be “the start of something big.

And so it was.

Two and a half weeks later, Mubarak stepped down. People rejoiced–they had brought down  the Regime.

A year later, though, it’s clear that the Regime is still here–like a hydra, its head was removed only to sprout a dozen more in the form of the generals of SCAF. Mohamed El Baradei, Nobel Peace Prize winner and presidential hopeful, publicly withdrew his candidacy because “the old regime has not fallen yet.”

It’s been an interesting year. A year of hope and disappointment, of protests and violent military crackdowns reported as “clashes.” Of increasing confusion as to what the revolution has accomplished, and whether or not is has continued  or concluded or simply fallen into stagnation. A year whose official timeline is incomplete and filled with blood.

Today, people are gathering all over the city to remember this last year of revolution, to commemorate all those who died, all those who were detained, blinded, tortured, and sexually assaulted. All roads today now lead to Tahrir, and some reports from Twitter say that the square is already so filled with people that the marchers coming in from all over the city might not even make it into the  square itself.

Today’s marches and demonstrations, inshallah, will be peaceful. Indeed, I’m fairly sure that they will be, for as long as the daylight lasts.  But the worst military crackdowns have always happened after dark, and so I’m waiting to see what happens after sunset, and what happens over the course of the next three days.

Inshallah…

For real-time updates, I’ll be following the Egypt Live Blog on Al-Jazeera. I recommend that you do the same.

 

 

 

Catching up on Egyptian News–Protests and Elections

I have begun and discarded half a dozen entries since my last post.  It’s hard to know what to blog about when the situation is changing by  the hour, and after a certain point things become too complicated to explain them in real time. At first, I followed the violence in Tahrir so closely that it became my full-time job. Then I hit a saturation point, in which I literally could not look at one more news article or twitter update without feeling that I might go mad. Ignorance was starting to seem like bliss.

I spent almost two days trying to ignore the news as much as possible, meaning that I only checked my news feeds and twitter 2 or 3 times a day, instead of hovering over them constantly.  It was  American Thanksgiving, and I decided that the holiday meant taking a break from the real world.  The real world, however, was impossible to shut out.  Even though I wasn’t physically present in the square, Tahrir was the only thing that really existed.

I tuned in to find news of a police officer called the “eye-hunter” deliberately blinding protesters and  American-made tear gas (plus  nerve gas of unknown provenance) being used against protesters in the square. Even the news itself became suspect. One of my favorite news websites, Al Masry Al Youm (to which I refer  positively in my post about Egyptian news sources) was taken offline for 48 hours.  When the site returned, it was full of state propaganda: “who will protect the people if not SCAF?”  So much for freedom of the press.

If I’d had any desire to go to the protests myself,  it would have been quickly quelled. Not just by the tear/nerve gas, but by the fact that as a foreigner and a woman I could have easily been turned into a pawn or a victim–and possibly both. Three American students were arrested near the square on bogus charges of throwing Molotov cocktails. At the same time, government representatives talked about “infiltrators” and “outside agents” stirring up trouble in Tahrir–as though the government’s own excesses weren’t enough to make people take to the streets on their own. The last thing I wanted was to be held up as one of those “outside agents.” Especially when there were female journalists being arrested and  sexually assaulted.
An Egyptian friend of mine took part in the protests, and I gave her some money to buy extra gas masks to distribute. It was the only concrete way besides twittering that I felt I was able to contribute to the cause.

And now.

Things are quieter. The first phase of elections is complete.

I went to stay with a friend in Alexandria during the elections, and we were prepared to hunker down under self-imposed house arrest in case of riots. But everything was calm. The day dawned rainy, and I took it as a good sign. Men and women lined up peacefully in separate lines and waited their turn to vote. They even managed to agree to disagree sometimes.  There were questions, among those who had been in Tahrir, whether the election as overseen by SCAF was legitimate; whether voting was or was not the next manifestation of the people exercising power as they’d done in Tahrir. A 62% voter turn out rate so far indicates that more people than not decided voting was a good idea.

Since the days of voting, we’ve returned to a semblance of calm. Which is not to say that there haven’t been protests. Just that they’ve been smaller, and the police and army haven’t seen fit to attack. Yesterday, protesters wearing eye patches marched to express solidarity with protesters who lost their eyes in the last week.  Today, more protesters marched with coffins to symbolically represent those who died. The marches right now are about mourning and acknowledging the sacrifices that people have made to free their country from military rule. Inshallah those sacrifices will not have been in vain.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

News Sources for Egypt

Tahrir has been going from bad to worse lately, but there’s a limit to how much news reporting and commentary I can do at once. It’s exhausting just to follow current events in Egypt right now, let alone write on them.

So.

In the interest of giving other people the option to see what’s going on in Egypt in real time, here are the main websites that I’ve been using to get my news and information.

First, traditional news sources like the BBC (my favorite news source in general circumstances) and CNN (popular in the US). Articles here tend to be well-written and well-researched, but often late to the party in terms of real-time updates.

Second, Egyptian news sources. Al-Masry Al-Youm and Al Jazeera both update pretty frequently, and being the local news sources they tend to get the stories faster than other networks. In particular the Al Jazeera Egypt Live Blog has been my main source of information for the past few days, because it’s updated in real time.

My main source of information, however, is not a news site at all. It’s twitter.  There are a number of interesting hashtags to follow–mostly I follow #tahrir, as well as some Cairo-based tweeters. @cairowire, @protestwatch, @tahrir_news all post frequently (@tahrir_news posts mostly in Arabic, so google translate is a handy device).

Obviously, not everything on twitter is accurate–but then, not everything on the traditional news source websites is accurate either. On Saturday, Al-Masry Al-Youm reported that Tahrir square had been cleared after “light clashes.” This was a few hours before the shit started to hit the fan. (I would include a link to the article in question, but it’s been taken down).

As my housemate Lorna points out in her blog on this weekend’s events, pretty much every news source is biased in some way, whether towards the police or towards the protesters (though support for the police has been dwindling the more the violence continues).  Consequently, I’ve been a news junkie for the past several days, concurrently following all of the above sources and often several others, trying to get as complete a picture as I can from all sides. Following so many information streams so constantly is exhausting, though, and it’s not something I can keep up indefinitely. So in the interest of spreading access to information more widely, I’m writing this post on sources that others can use if they so wish.

In the meantime, it’s 3am. Tomorrow promises to be just as interesting as today if not more so. Meaning it’s time to get some sleep before another tension-filled day.

 

False Identities, Allies, and Legitimacy

This week, two prominent lesbian internet figures were revealed to be American men.  Amina Arraf, the supposed Syrian blogger, was revealed to be Tom MacMaster, a 40-year-old heterosexual American man studying in Edinburgh. A day later, the editor of  the American lesbian news site Lez Get Real, was revealed to be a 58-year-old man named Bill Graber using his wife’s name as a pseudonym.

Wow.

There have been other similar cases of people writing under assumed identities to talk about certain issues. Fake memoirs are nothing new, and it shouldn’t surprise us that in the age of the internet, fake memoirs have turned into fake blogs. Motivations vary, I’m sure. At least in the case of the two blogs in question, both authors swear that they had the best intentions at heart, that they wanted to draw attention to an issue that they felt was really important, and felt that they wouldn’t be taken seriously if they didn’t write from within the community.

MacMaster says that “While the narrative voice may have been fictional, the facts on thıs blog are true and not mısleading as to the situation on the ground…I do not believe that I have harmed anyone — I feel that I have created an important voice for issues that I feel strongly about.”

Similarly, Graber says that “I didn’t start this with my name because… I thought people wouldn’t take it seriously, me being a straight man.”

In a great satirical article, one white male blogger responds by pointing out that “If you really have something unique and important to report on, your white male-ness will not get in the way of your being heard. In most cases, it will be an advantage, as bylines and television appearances testify every day.”

Seriously, people. Let’s get real. When you write as someone else, and pass it off as your own life experience, that’s a form of fraud, and it actually damages the cause that you’re writing about for several  reasons.

The first reason is that when a supposed figurehead of a particular group is outed as not being a member of that group, it calls into question the legitimacy and authenticity of everyone else who is writing from within that group. If Blogger  A is False, then why shouldn’t Bloggers B, C, D, and E also be False? Those remaining bloggers then have to work twice as hard to prove that they are who they say they are, and readers are left wondering if, since one public identity was fabricated, some or all of the information written by that person was also untrue.  And while both MacMaster and Graber seemed to think that they were nobly “giving voice to the voiceless,” they were not.  It is both dangerous and presumptive to think that people belonging to geographically or culturally distant minority groups are voiceless. They do have voices. Odds are they’re speaking. Are you listening and paying attention?

The real LGBTQ activists in the Middle East are now in danger as a result of the hoax being revealed. Several of them took risks to identify themselves in an effort to save their supposed lost compatriot. Daniel Nassar, a Syrian gay activist, says that “I used to use my real name as a handle and a picture of my face as an avatar. Now, I’ve been forced back into the closet online. Amina’s arrest may have been made up, but now the threat feels all too real.”

Another Syrian gay activist, Sami Hamwi, fears that this high-publicity hoax could cause Syrian authorities to crack down on gay activists. “I think they will not wait until the blogger is famous or well-read to seek them out,” he said. “[And] arrests in Syria means actual disappearing.… No one can hear or know about the arrested people, sometimes for decades.”

Both of the aforementioned activists use pseudonyms, but they are otherwise who they say they are. They don’t use their real names, because they don’t want to be arrested or killed. Salma, a writer for the Queer Arab magazine Bekshoos, was in touch with “Amina” prior to the hoax being revealed. She says that “I understood what anonymity meant to her and I know what it means to us. I expected a fake picture and even a fake name; I did not expect a fake personality all together.” She continues:

“Sadly Mr. MacMaster with his hoax delegitimized the voice of so many Arab, specifically Syrian, bloggers. He spoke on our behalf without having the right or legitimacy of doing so, while delegitimizing our voice in the process. So I would like to thank you for stepping on our feet, experimenting with our lives, opening the eyes of an oppressive system to our existence, and most of all thank you for lying to us and tricking us into believing you.”

 

Delegitimizing people who are actually on the ground is a very big problem. But there is also another reason why assumed identities are damaging. Both MacMaster and Graber said that they cared deeply about the issues they were blogging about, and wanted to be taken seriously. They felt that in order to be taken seriously, they had to try to write from the inside of those issues. Functionally, they were saying that it’s not actually alright to be vocal about an issue unless it actually affects you directly as a marginalized person. That being indirectly affected by your observations of marginalization from the outside is not valid. That being an ally is unacceptable, and doesn’t count.

In other words, even though they claimed to be trying to publicize issues of lesbianism, in the US and in Syria, both through their actions indicate that no one should actually be interested in lesbians and/or Syria unless they were actually lesbian and/or Syrian. Taken to its logical conclusion, this same train of thought tells us that no one who is male should care about women or vice versa, that no one who belongs to any one racial or ethnic group should worry about what’s happening to members of another ethnic or racial group, and no one in any given country should give a damn about any other country.

That’s dangerous. That’s a problem.

Historically, gaining allies in the dominant group has been a very important step for minority groups to gain their rights. Part of the success of the women’s movement came from men telling other men, “hey, I’ve heard what the women are saying about the limited opportunities they face, and they’re right. We should try to help them.” Part of the success of the Civil Rights movement came from white people in America saying, “hey, racial discrimination is real, and it’s wrong. Let’s see what we can do to help.” Part of the success of the current gay rights movement in the US comes from straight people saying, “wow, it doesn’t make sense for gay people not to have the same rights that we do. We should try to change that.”

Allies have a role. Their role is to create more allies. Their role is to increase the number of people who care about a particular issue towards a critical mass, so that social change can actually take place. So if you care about gay rights and you’re not gay, that’s great. If you care about racial equality and you’re white, that’s awesome. If you care about any issue that directly affects someone from a different demographic, but doesn’t directly affect you, congratulations. You recognize that injustice exists, and that it affects people, and you want to change it. That’s good. But don’t try to create the change by pretending to be something or someone that you’re not. Be honest about who you are, and why the issue is important for you. Talk to the people who are directly affected, and help their voices reach a wider audience. Claim your status as an ally, and recognize that it is an important one, and that it is legitimate. Because when you deny that you’re an ally and try to speak for someone else, it doesn’t just delegitimize the people you’re impersonating. It delegitimizes you.

 

 

 

Reflections on Bin Laden’s death

The news of Osama Bin Laden’s death has spread around the world like wildfire. Many Americans seem overjoyed at this news, and impromptu celebrations have broken out in New York and DC. An outpouring of yay-America-down-with-the-evil-terrorists sentiment prevailed.

I understand that many people feel that the death of Bin Laden at the hands of US operatives constitutes justice and retribution for the 9-11 terrorist attacks. Very few people have said as much, but there seems to be a sense that since the bad guy is dead the world can return to normal and all is right with the world, just like in a Disney movie. I can’t be so sure. First of all, it strikes me as simplistic to think of one person as a personification of evil. In my experience, the world is rarely so black and white. Furthermore, the idea of celebrating anyone’s death with jubilation is morally repugnant to me. Even a political enemy. Even a terrorist. His death may have been politically necessary, but that does not change the fact that he is still a human being. His death is not a cause for celebration, nor does it make America great.

The US has invested a lot of time, effort, blood, and money in Iraq and Afghanistan over the course of the past decade. The death of a terrorist figurehead will not change that investment, nor will it be the cue for America’s forces to pick up and go home. The US has reasons to stay in the Middle East, and fighting terrorism is only one of them. The death of Bin Laden is unlikely to put any kind of stop to terrorist action in the world. If anything, news of US citizens celebrating Osama’s death is likely to fuel anti-American sentiment in regions that already have no reason to love the USA but are afraid to get on its bad side. Not to mention the fact that every child who grows up in a refugee camp because US bombs destroyed his home has the motivation to become a terrorist. The US has created a lot of orphans like this–we have effectively planted dragon’s teeth. From what I have learned this year on the psychology of conflict,we’re going to be facing war for a long, long time.

Subdued response to news in Middle East (CNN)

Pakistani News in English (link courtesy of a Pakistani friend of mine)

Al Jazeera English (the best source for non-US-centric news on the Middle East)