Pessimism from an Egyptian Sandmonkey

The Egyptian Sandmonkey

Mahmoud Salem, the self-moniker-ed Sandmonkey, has made a few previous entries into this blog. Several months ago when the revolution appeared to be faltering over the summer, this widely-read Egyptian blogger outlined the reasons for his optimism. Later on, I had the opportunity to hear and wrote about his campaign speech as he ran for parliament in the recent elections (and lost). He has been quiet on the internet since then, but resurfaced with a new post – Underneath– which I will excerpt from below.

‘Underneath’ is Sandmonkey’s effort to put to words his diverse thoughts about the current Egyptian situation. Several weeks ago protestors were fighting the police in Mohamed Mahmoud Street off Tahrir Square; now they are fighting the army in Qasr al-Aini Street a further 90° to the south. The mood is sour, people are dying, and a media battle is underway about who deserves the blame.

Within this context Sandmonkey’s earlier optimism is gone. What remains is his lucid commentary as a revolutionary partisan. The opinions are his, but they summarize what many are thinking. Or perhaps more appropriately, what many are confused about. I rank myself among the confused, and trust he will forgive my additional comments interspersed with his own.

This is not an uplifting post. You have been warned.

On the Context

My helplessness reached its peak when my friend S. came over two nights ago, and she was not alright. Fighting to release the thousands that are getting military tried over the months has been a draining crusade for her, and it only got worse the moment she got involved in trying to ensure that the death reports of those killed in Mohamed Mahmoud do not get forged, which meant she had to be at the Zeinhom morgue the night those bodies would come in, surrounded by wailing families and crying loved ones, seeing dead bodies after dead body come in, and almost getting arrested by the authorities that didn’t want her stopping the cover-up. She told me after wards that she now sees those dead bodies everywhere, and she can’t escape them. But that night, 2 nights ago, she had just come back from Tahrir, where a man, standing inches away from her, ended up getting set on fire due to an exploding Molotov cocktail. She could see the fire engulf him, the smell of burnt flesh and hair, his agonizing screams for help. She was silent. Very calm and silent. She was sitting next to me and I couldn’t reach her, and all I could do is hold her without being able to tell her that things will be alright. Because… how? How will they be alright exactly?

Human rights activists have stated that over 10,000 people have been sentenced under military law since the revolution. The ‘No to Military Trials’ campaign has been helping individual cases and seeking a halt to the entire process. Certainly many of these 10,000 – I do not know how the number is calculated – have committed crimes of different natures. With the police ineffective and the judicial system painfully slow, the military has stated it must use military law to keep security and ensure justice. Activists claim it has been used against demonstrators – who get labeled as thugs – and in any case even a criminal is due a trial before a civilian judge. This particular activist is fighting hard against what she believes to be stark injustice, and seems nearly spent.

On Culture vs. Politics

One of the biggest mistakes of this revolution, and there are plenty to go around, was that we allowed its political aspects to overshadow the cultural and social aspects. We have unleashed a torrent of art, music and creativity, and we don’t celebrate or enjoy it, or even promote it. We have brought the people to a point where they were ready to change. To change who they are and how they act, and we ignored that and instead focused all of our energies in a mismanaged battle over the political direction of this country. We clashed with the military, and we forgot the people, and we let that small window that shows up maybe every 100 years where a nation is willing to change, to evolve, to go to waste.  

It is true Egypt exploded in hope and creativity following the revolution. I don’t know if idealistic artistic utopia can last forever, but it has certainly been sidelined by the political struggle for power. Particularly damaging has been the Islamist vs. liberal rhetoric which has dominated, casting many into a defensive politics of fear and culture war. This is not fertile ground for the arts.

On the Elections

The parliamentary elections are fraudulent. I am not saying this because I lost- I lost fair and square- but because it’s the truth. The fraud happened on the hands of the election workers and the Judges. People in my campaign were offered Ballot boxes, employees and judges in polling stations were instructing people who to vote for and giving unstamped ballots to Christians in polling stations where they are heavily present to invalidate their votes, and the Egyptian bloc has about half a ton of correct ballots- ones that showed people voting for them- found being thrown in the streets in Heliopolis, Ghamra, Shubra, Zaitoun, Alexandria, Suez and many other districts. The amount of reports of fraud and legal injunctions submitted against these elections are enough to bring it all down and have it done all over again. Hell, a simple request for a vote recount would be enough to expose the fraud, since the ballots were thrown in the street. The people, however, are not privy of this, because it all looked very functional and organized to them. This is very important, because it tells you the shape of things to come.

The Egyptian Bloc is the grouping of liberal parties which organized for a civil society, but appeared to be motivated chiefly by opposition to Islamist parties. Sandmonkey ran with the support of this coalition. All sides have engaged in electoral violations to some degree, but what he reports here, if true, demonstrates organized fraud. One member of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party – a member of the Egyptian Bloc coalition – went as far as to state the current violence is meant as a distraction from the electoral violations. Beginning one day after the vote, the world did not look at the elections but the violence which followed, maintaining the belief the elections were sound because they were comparatively free from violence. From my readings this is little reported internationally.

We had one of our campaign workers fall victim to a hit and run “accident”, a campaign operative getting arrested by the military police at a polling station for filming the army promoting the Salafi Nour Party (with a big banner carrying the Noor Party slogan being placed on the side of an army truck) and his film confiscated of course, our campaign headquarters got attacked with Molotov cocktails by thugs sent by a “moderate” Islamist centrist party, the hotel we were staying in got repeatedly attacked by thugs till 3 am, with the army platoon leader protecting the hotel informing me that if I don’t resolve the situation, he will “deal violently” with those outside and inside the hotel, the Leader of the 3rd Egyptian Army calling us looking for me, the Chief of Security for Suez doing the same thing, lawyers and thugs working for a semi-leftist party filed police reports against us claiming we hired them and owed them money when we didn’t, and the other campaign manager finally going to deal with the situation, ends up getting arrested, and the two campaign members that were with him were left outside under the mercy of groups of thugs, and we managed by the grace of God get them all out unharmed and we escape Suez while trucks filled with guys with guns going around Suez looking for us.

Oh, and we also sent in one of our campaign operatives dressed as a Salafi into the Suez central committee for vote counting, where army personnel assured him that they have helped the Noor Party and told him that they hooked them up with two seats, while winking.

Well, this is testimony. Take it or leave it. The Noor Party represents the electoral alliance of Salafis, who campaigned both against the Egyptian Bloc and the Muslim Brotherhood dominated Democratic Alliance. I have heard tales that American democracy was similar a hundred or so years ago. Doesn’t make it right, if true, but it might put a brake on judgmentalism, though not on demands for transparency.

So, why would the military be “helping” the Salafi Noor Party get votes? Well, mainly because they invented them. It was a match made possible by State-Security, who probably alerted the military of how reliable were the Salafis in their previous “cooperation” to scare the living shit out of the population into submission and supporting the regime. … Ensuring that the Salafis have a big chunk of the parliament (one that is neither logical or feasible considering their numbers in Egypt) achieves two goals: 1) Provide a mechanism for the security apparatus to keep the Muslim Brotherhood in check if they ever thought of using religion as a weapon against SCAF (As far as the Salafis are concerned, the MB are secular infidels) and 2) to really frame the choice in our (and the international community’s) heads between a “Islamist country or a military regime”, because, let’s face it, The MB are not scary enough for the general population. But the Salafis? Terrifying *#@!.

Even before the revolution there was suspicion that state security had its hands in the Salafi movement. The rationale was that their theology promoted obedience to the ruler, whereas the Muslim Brotherhood continually advocated for reform, criticizing the president and his policies. Salafis were supposedly built as a counterweight, and allowed freedom to propagate in mosques whereas the Brotherhood was constantly curtailed. As Mubarak maintained a policy of ‘it’s me or the Brotherhood’, the military council has now raised the Salafis to play the same game (it is maintained).

In speaking with Salafis since the revolution they counter this argument, saying their silence was because they did not want to take on a regime that would crush them if they got out of line. They preferred to focus on the moral reform of society along Islamic lines, and let politics be. For what it is worth, those I have spoken with have seemed perfectly nice and normal people. Some of their leaders on the other hand, at least in the media, well …

On the Electorate

There is a disconnect between the revolutionaries and the people, and that disconnect exists in regards of priorities. Our priorities are a civilian government, the end of corruption, the reform of the police, judiciary, state media and the military, while their priorities are living in peace and putting food on the table. And we ignore that, or belittle it, telling them that if they want this they should support what we want, and deriding their economic fears by telling them that things will be rough for the next 3 to 5 years, but afterwards things will get better on the long run. Newsflash, the majority of people can’t afford having it even rougher for 3 to 5 years. Hell, they can’t afford to have it rough for one more month. We tell them to vote for us for a vague guarantee and to not to sell their votes or allow someone to buy their loyalty, while their priorities are making sure there is food on the table for their families tonight. You sell them hope in the future, and someone else gives them money and food to survive the present. Who, do you think, they will side with?

Living in upscale Maadi, I don’t have a pulse on the economic state of Egypt, but conventional wisdom states it is degrading rapidly. Egypt was always suffering from poverty, however, and to my knowledge the state is maintaining its subsidies. At the risk of ‘letting them eat cake’, I wonder about the dire situation of the common family. They are poor, but are they destitute?

Nonetheless his point is interesting. It is well demonstrated Islamist parties joined their campaigning with social charity to sell meat or supplies or gas bottles at discount prices. Would liberal parties not ‘stoop that low’? Do they not know how, being far from the street? Meanwhile, praise God for their charity, but was it a masquerade for their manipulation? Only God knows their hearts.

Here is a fun fact: About 40% of the people head to the polls not knowing who they will vote for, and are simply there because they are afraid of the 500LE fine they must pay for abstaining to vote; about another 50% go to the polls with a piece of paper that has the names & symbols of the people they will vote for, people that they don’t know, or their history or anything about them. They simply asked their friends and they told them that these are “good people to vote for”, and this is true across the board in all classes, upper and lower, uneducated and educated. And you can’t blame them really, because each district has over 100 candidates fighting over 2 seats and only 4 weeks to campaign. If you are the average new voter, there is no time to meet or evaluate or educate yourself about all of them in order to choose objectively between them. I know people that voted for me simply because I was the only candidate they met. I am not kidding.

I don’t know where he got his statistic from, but the fine for not voting is correct, as is his description of the peoples’ virgin political experience. He could have continued with a description of how 1/3 of seats go to individual candidates, and 2/3 go to party lists, both of which must have 50-50 professional vs. worker/farmer representation. By compromise politics or design, these elections must have been among the most confusing ever.

On Liberal Opposition to the Islamists

So many times I have met people who are terrified at the electoral successes of the Islamic parties in the election, and while they acknowledge that there “must be a deal” between the SCAF and the Islamists, they sit back with a knowing smile and tell me: “But you know what? The SCAF are not stupid. They will screw the Muslim Brotherhood over. They are just waiting for the right moment and they will destroy them. You just wait and see!”

I tell them that they are disgusting for thinking this way. That they are like a raped woman who is rooting for her rapist to rape the other woman who got away so that she wouldn’t be the only raped one.

A violent and pejorative metaphor, but he describes liberal thought well. I don’t know they express this with the glee he puts into their mouth, but there is an expectation of this eventuality – unless there is a deal, which if it holds returns to the United States for their still-undetermined support of Islamists, which confuses everyone. Furthermore, the expectation is often one of relief. ‘If we don’t win at least they won’t either.’

And he is right to condemn it.

On the Army

I love it when a fellow revolutionary asks me:  “I don’t understand what’s going on. Why are the Police/Military shooting and killing people and prolonging street conflicts in Mohamed Mahmoud/Qasr al-Aini? What do they want? What’s the big plan?”

Well, to put it simply, the big plan is the same as the immediate plan: they want you dead. It’s not that they want to kill opposition; they want to kill the opposition, literally. This country ain’t big enough for the both of you, and they have everything to lose. And they have guns. And the media. And all the keys of power. And you want to overthrow them. How do you think they will react to that? Give you cookies?

I think his zero-sum analysis of power sharing is apt in the post-revolutionary struggle for power. But it is hard to imagine ‘the point’ is to be killing people. If they wanted people dead they could be much more efficient in their killing. Furthermore, it is not the major activists who are dying for the most part, but the average man in the street (as best I know – apologies to those who know them better). Do they want to kill off the opposition by attrition? Are there infiltrators in the military? This is where things get so confusing again. Unless Sandmonkey has hit the nail on the head.

On Tahrir, and Confusing the Symbol with the Cause

But here is the truth: Tahrir is not a magical land, one which if we occupy we can hold all the magical keys of our kingdom and bring down the evil regime of whomever is in Power. Tahrir is a square. A piece of land. A symbol, but a piece of land nonetheless. And just because it worked before, it doesn’t mean it will work again. We are like an old married couple trying to recapture the magic of their early days by going to the same place they went to on their honeymoon, or dance to the same song they fell in love to, and discovering that it’s not working because there are real problems that need to be resolved. Symbols are nice, but they don’t solve anything.

And this is why I didn’t get involved: I couldn’t understand the Battle for Mohamed Mahmoud, because it’s a battle to hold on to a street of no actual significance or importance, and yet some of the best youth this country had to offer died or lost their eyes or were seriously injured protecting it. The same thing goes for the current battle. What is the purpose? What is the end Goal? A battle for the sake of battle? Just like maintaining a sit-in for the sake of maintaining the sit-in, even though a sit-in is supposed to be a means to an end, not an end in itself? I mean, I would understand if the aim was to occupy Maspiro or something, but they are not even attempting that. They are maintaining a fight in the street, because they got attacked at that street, so the street immediately becomes a symbol and we must fight back and not be driven away even as we get beaten and killed. Because it’s all about the Symbol, and not about the cause or the goal, and people are dying.

Maspero is the center of State TV broadcasting, which critics maintain is whitewashing military abuses during these clashes. The confusion I mentioned above can be partially resolved here, in that the protestors are themselves confused. They are fighting a battle with little point, and the police and army oblige them. Determining the perspective on police and army still leaves ample room for confusion, but this clears up why so many people are sacrificing themselves. It is sad.

Conclusion

There must be a way out, but I can’t seem to find one without more blood getting spilled. There is no panacea here, no exit strategy. Just helplessness, and waiting for whatever it is that will happen next, even though we can rest assured it won’t be good news. I am sorry that I cannot comfort you, but maybe, just maybe, this is not the time to be comforted.

Here is where his pessimism reigns, and where he himself is probably most distraught. Sandmonkey is an ideas person who focuses on solutions. Here, he has none. Perhaps it will come soon, perhaps not. In this, at least, for now, he needs comfort. Comfort offered helps one regroup. Of course, in all this he could be wrong and deluded. Regardless, he and everyone else deserves comfort all the same.

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4 thoughts on “Pessimism from an Egyptian Sandmonkey

  1. There is a point to the confrontations in Tahrir; it’s not just an unhealthy fixation.

    This is not a test of physical force in any straightforward sense. The Army is politically constrained from using real force. Otherwise it would simply sweep the streets and squares with machine gun fire and that would be that. So what is the political constraint?

    There are two aspects to it, both working through domestic and foreign opinion. First, the confrontations hurt the economy, which ultimately hurts the government more than the opposition – at least that’s the calculation, and it’s plausible. Second, the confrontations affect, not only domestic opinion, but political calculations within the opposition. No, all Egypt with not feel revulsion against the military, but many will. At least as important, political movements can use the confrontations to their own ends.

    This is what the Brotherhood has done. The Brotherhood believes that victory even in *fraudulent* elections can be parlayed into real power, but *only* if SCAF is sidelined. It has decided that condemning the military for its brutalities is a crucial opportunity for prevailing over SCAF. The fighting has dictated the point at which the Brotherhood had to make its move, and it eventually decided it had to move in favor of the protestors. In other words, the demonstrations in Tahrir have brought the protesters the most powerful ally they could possibly find, the party without whom victory over SCAF is impossible. That’s not failure; it’s a huge success.

    But none of the political and economic pressure applied by the opposition could take hold unless the confrontations gain maximum attention. That clearly dictates they take place in Tahrir, and that they be dramatic, which means there have to be occasions for heroism. The protestors couldn’t simply run away whenever the army moved on them. Tahrir had to be the focal point of an unavoidable reckoning with SCAF. It’s probably the most rational strategy available, and it has brought results.

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    • Thanks Michael, this is a reasonable interpretation of events from the side of the protestors. But do you have an explanation from the side of the military/police? Especially in what is understood as their escalation of events and use of live ammunition? They could sweep the protestors away without lethal violence if they wished, or, they could have let them stay and protest, given their numbers were so small in the beginning. Or, they could have (perhaps) calmly arrested those blocking the cabinet. If there is rational thought behind their actions, as opposed to loose cannon lower officers getting out of control, how do events benefit the military? There are many theories, but what is your take?

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      • Unlike the protestors, the military and police are pretty opaque – they don’t say much and you can’t trust what they do say. My pure guess: no, there is no rational thought behind their actions, and not only in the rank and file. I suspect the military, used to absolute power and absolute immunity, act largely on impulse, which is why they constantly jump from insulting arrogance to implausible apologies. I’m not sure they could have swept away the protestors, who are very determined, without lethal violence. I think this determination frustrates and angers the military, who then decide to teach these insolent folks a lesson. Sure, at some level there may be real strategies to keep the Brotherhood at bay and retain their immunity – perhaps, as many have said, the Army just wants to be left in peace to rake in aid money and run their enterprises. But I doubt these general strategies have much to do with what happens on the street.

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  2. Pingback: Kalima » der andere grüne Marsch durch die Institutionen: die Moslembrüder und der Militärapparat

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