Tahrir Square

DSC_0025I was on holidays in Egypt in 2012 and my reading of Tahrir: The Last 18 Days of Mubarak got me thinking about Tahrir Square.  At the time Mohamed Morsi was in power and Egypt, despite Morsi’s obvious faults, seemed to be heading for a brighter more democratic future.  Pictures of the deposed dictator Hosni Mubarak were noticeable by their absence.  People were happy to talk about football, less so about politics.  One afternoon we walked through the embassy district where bored looking teenage soldiers stood guard.  One young soldier casually spun an old revolver around on his finger like a cowboy.  Amusing as it was it didn’t exactly instil confidence in the professionalism of the Egyptian army.  We walked down to Tahrir Square to look at the political graffiti in the area which was the heart of the protests against Mubarak’s rule.  We left Cairo and took a train to Alexandria. DSC_0023Whilst in Alexandria the Innocence of Muslims film controversy erupted.  In Egypt opinions were further inflamed by the fact that the film maker was an Egyptian Coptic Christian.  We caught glimpses of the violent demonstrations that broke out across the Muslim world, including Cairo.  We  saw pictures of angry crowds gather outside the US embassy we had walked past a few day’s earlier.  Not that we noticed any difference in our reception from average Egyptians.  The Arab world is incredibly polite and friendly.  Even where a language barrier existed people would make their friendliness known to you with smiles.  Even then there were very few tourists, once you walked away from the Pyramids or the Egyptian Museum the tourists were swallowed by their tour buses and we were dissolved into the noise and chaos of Cairo.  Since the coup that overthrew Morsi over 2,500 protesters have been killed by security services.  Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s government have effectively made protesting a blood sport where protesters are gunned down with impunity by anonymous gunmen.  The heady days of revolutionary protest embodied by Tahrir Square are now a distant memory.

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SCAF is the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces who took power from Mubarak.

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I had never seen this flag before although it is now associated with ISIS. Those who ousted Mubarak were an uneasy alliance of every shade of opinion from the secular to the extreme fundamentalist.

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Certain judges were believed to work hand in glove with the Mubarak regime.

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The Mogamma Building which can hold 18,000 Egyptian civil servants. Apparently many areas are overstaffed to such an extent that some have no desks and just show up to collect their pay.

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The burnt out NDP building, home to Mubarak’s party, next to the Egyptian Museum.

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Baby-saving soldier in the Egyptian National Military Museum.

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Tahrir, the Last 18 Days of Mubarak – Review

Tahrir

Abdel Latif El-Menawy عبد اللطيف المناوي China.png

Gilgamesh Publishing (2012), 300 pages

Hodges Figgis, €2.50

Egyptian Politics China.png

Tahrir, The Last 18 Days of Mubarak: An Insider’s Account of the Uprising in Egypt is written by the former head of Egypt’s state television service.  El-Menawy’s role gave him access to the highest levels of Mubarak’s regime so he can describe its collapse from a unique perspective.  Tahrir drips with so much unintentional irony that by the time you finish reading it there will be a puddle of it on the floor.  Laughably, on numerous occasions,  El-Menawy compares Egyptian state television to the BBC.  Most Egyptians saw Egyptian state television as the regime’s mouthpiece and not a source of impartial news.  El-Menawy sees no conflict between his claims to impartiality and the fact that he was answerable to the Orwellian Ministry of Information (which was based in the same building as the television station).

El-Menwawy proudly boasts of numerous occasions when he offered advice to Mubarak’s regime.  He is torn between a desire to be seen as an impartial newsman and a politically influential advisor to the government. Following the arrest of anti-Mubarak protesters El-Menawy urged the Minister of Information (Anas Al-Feky) that Mubarak should be seen to release the protesters to bolster the dictator’s position (p.95).  The author doesn’t suggest that protestors should be released as they shouldn’t have been arrested in the first place but merely that their release can be used as a political move.  Time and again El-Menawy struggles against his pride in being seen to influence the regime and his desire to be seen as impartial.  His advice on possible elections is not that they should be free and fair but that they should be rigged in a believable way, “…”You’ve been using fraudulent elections for the past 30 years to gain the NDP [Mubarak’s National Democratic Party] a majority.  Now is the time to change.  Even if you must have false elections, at least have seats for 150 or so opposition MPs, to save face.”” (p.105)  When El-Menawy tells his reporters who are reporting the protests to report them objectively he is met with disbelief, not exactly the reaction you would expect from reporters who were used to reporting the truth.

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Cairo Sunset – © thedublinreader

Tahrir’s strongest point is when El-Menawy is describing the growing rift between the armed forces and the NDP.  The Egyptian armed forces were the not so hidden hand behind Egypt’s presidents and governments since Nasser’s Free Officers Revolution in 1952.  It is clear that the army is not willing to be tied to a doomed regime and nor is the army willing to open fire on protesters.  Mubarak’s narcissism made him believe that he was powerful enough to bend the army to his desires.  The Mubarak family’s attempt to set up the succession of the disliked Gamal Mubabrak was an added source of tension (for some reason supposedly socialist republics seem to like the idea of hereditary succession; the al-Assad clan in Syria, the planned succession of Uday and Qusay Hussein in Iraq, and the third generation rule of Kim Jong-un in North Korea).  Mubarak tried to hold onto power by replacing his government whilst remaining in office.  When Field Marshal Tantawi refused Mubarak’s order to take a position in the new government.  It  was clear that the relationship between Mubabrak and the Armed Forces had deteriorated beyond repair.

El-Menawy is a consummate politician of the fence-sitting type.  He believes he can remain friends with everybody by telling them what they want to hear.  It is difficult to discern the author’s true beliefs apart from a wish to avoid Egypt falling into total chaos.  El-Menawy’s problem with Mubarak is not that he was a dictator who enriched himself, his family, and his cronies, at the expense of the Egyptian people, while suppressing dissent and freedom of expression.  The author’s issue with Mubarak is purely tactical; he doesn’t oppose the NDP in principle but their mishandling of the crisis.  The NDP isn’t viewed as inherently corrupt (which it was) but Mubarak is seen as a liability for failing to adapt to the changed Arab Spring landscape.

Much has happened since the fall of Mubarak.  The Muslim Brotherhood’s victory in democratic elections heralded the possibility of real change in Egypt.   Unfortunately Mohamed Morsi’s government failed to reach out all Egyptians (as was seen by their introduction of a new constitution) and their poor performance gave the armed forces the excuse they needed to snuff out the flame of democracy.  Since Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s rise to power free protest has effectively been outlawed with over 2,500 protesters shot dead by security forces.  Sham trials have also seen the jailing of protesters (including Irish teenager Ibrahim Halawa who is in jail awaiting trial).  However the question now posed is whether the rule of dictators such as el-Sisi is preferable to rule by the likes of ISIS.  This is the wrong question to ask.  The real question is whether decades of dictatorships in the Arab world (often backed with weapons sent by Western powers) have created the climate for groups like ISIS to flourish.  A zero tolerance approach to dictatorships (arms embargoes and trade sanctions) might show that extremism of all kinds (and dictatorships are simply a more controlled form of violent extremism) will not be tolerated.

8/10

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The Heretics – Review

Heretics

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Picador (2013), 464 pages

Chapters Bookstore, €8

The Heretics: Adventures with the Enemies of Science is a through the looking glass view of the world.  Storr’s subjects range from sympathetic characters suffering from mental illness (Morgellons sufferers), the deluded (Creationists), and the reprehensible (David Irving and his cabal of Holocaust deniers as well as AIDS deniers).  Storr’s approach is similar to that of Jon Ronson or Louis Theroux but Storr is more focussed on challenging the beliefs of others in the manner of Ben Goldacre.

From the outset Storr challenges his own belief systems.  Most people believe that their opinions are largely correct yet recognise that they are fallable.  Here we hit a faultline between the rational and the irrational, “I know that I am not right about everything, and yet I am simultaneously convinced that I am.” (p.10)  For many of “the heretics” in Storr’s book there is no room for doubt.  The yogi Swami Ramdev charges large amounts of money and extols the value of his yogic practices as a replacement for conventional medicine.  Obviously this is potentially very dangerous to someone suffering from cancer or AIDS.  But Ramdev is unrepentant about the dangers of “Western medicine” and there is no room for doubt in his belief system.  Ramdev is one of a number of cases where his propagation of irrational, and potentially dangerous, beliefs make him large amounts of money.

David Irving is a reprehensible man.  He is a Holocaust denier whose polished appearance gives a gloss of respectability to anti-Semites around the world.  Irving, while travelling on a tour of World War II sites with a group of acolytes, shows the arrogance, bitterness, and anger not uncommon among extremists of all kinds.  Storr successfully shows Irving’s ability to delude himself by exaggerating any evidence that supports his theories and dismiss any evidence that contradicts his beliefs.

Sufferers from the mysterious Morgellons syndrome are a far more sympathetic group.  Morgellons sufferers feel their skin itching, scratch the itch (often until they bleed) and find fibres or other particles they believe to be coming out of their skin (although laboratory analysis usually shows the fibres to be made of normal materials such as cotton).  The causes are mysterious but are almost certainly psychological in nature.  One interviewee discovered that his Morgellons symptoms stopped when he stopped scratching, which seems to suggest the cause of the itching is external.  Morgellons sufferers are at war with the mainstream scientific community who see the condition as psychological in nature.  Morgellons sufferers may be deluded but their delusion elicits sympathy unlike the derision reserved for the likes of David Irving.

The Heretics take on superstar skeptic James Randi is also enlightening as Storr presents a not altogether pleasant side to the cantankerous rationalist.  Ironically, Storr shows Randi’s own life to be partly created from the fictions that he deplores in others.  Storr isn’t against either the scientific rationalists or the ascientific irrationalists.  Indeed, at the extreme fringes, both the rational and the irrational have a belief in their own infallibility. The Heretics greatest asset is Storr’s ability to criticise both the binary reductionism of rational sceptics and the dangers of irrational panaceas whilst showing the flawed humanity that lies behind both worldviews as we struggle to find meaning in a complex world.

8/10