No apologies

Egypt at the moment feels like a series of battles and struggles, separated by geography but all ultimately linked together, hurtling towards some unknown destiny.  People are dying, politicians are floundering. This post is about one fight: the one against sexual assault.

The fight to free people’s bodies from sexual violence is a global one. Everywhere women and men have been and are raped, assaulted, and threatened with violent sexual language and gestures. The motivations seem to be myriad: individuals, armies, and political groups do this to try to intimidate and control people, or simply to make themselves feel more powerful. The fight over the bodies of women in Egypt is the one I know the most intimately, and the one that I struggle the most to understand. Egypt’s darkness when it comes to rampant, daily sexual harassment has been discussed in western and local media.

Since last November, protests in and around Tahrir have been marred by large numbers of mob sexual assaults, which have in some cases involved the use of knives and other weapons against women and people trying to help them escape the assault.  Groups such as Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment (Opantish, which, to be forthcoming, I am personally involved with), Tahrir Bodyguard, and others have been working to combat these assaults and to campaign against sexual violence on a broader scale. The attacks have been focused on Tahrir but we have reports of them occurring in other parts of the city and the country.The despicable statements by the Shura Council earlier this year about these violent attacks, which were largely characterized by victim-blaming, are evidence of the utter lack of responsibility or even acknowledgement by the state and political groups of this issue.

I do not know whether the assaults are premeditated or spontaneous. Even if groups of men plan to go out and attack women in this way, there is no doubt that the imbedded social perceptions surrounding harassment contribute to the growth of the mob.

June 28th saw a big rally in Tahrir demanding Morsy’s departure from power. I received calls after midnight with verified reports of cases of mob assault in and around Tahrir. The next day, Opantish and other groups were on the ground, and, perhaps due to the deterrent effect of their presence, there were no cases that we knew of. But I couldn’t help but notice, as I moved around downtown, that the language used by people in their verbal harassment was more violent than usual, and I wondered if this was a social side effect of the physical attacks of the previous night. (It is of course immensely depressing to analyze harassment in this relativistic way, as if the starting point is regular daily harassment with less unpleasant or threatening language rather than no harassment at all).

Yesterday, June 30th, some friends and I joined a march from Saray el Kobba to the presidential palace calling for Morsy’s departure and also rejecting military rule. The atmosphere was largely festive, with singing, chanting, banners and flags. After we joined other marches congregating at the palace we stood around drinking iced coffee in the shade, disoriented by the safe, upbeat atmosphere after days of anxiety and with the knowledge that things would surely be violent elsewhere in the country. I left to go to Tahrir and work with Opantish, which was operating that evening.

Like many, I was stunned by how Tahrir and the surrounding streets were carpeted by people protesting, mostly chanting against Morsy. I had not seen so many people out around Tahrir before, not in the 18 days that unseated Mubarak in 2011 or at any other time. Military helicopters frequently circled the square, at one point bizarrely dropping Egyptian flags onto the crowd in a blatant gesture of political partiality.

The atmosphere felt more threatening to me immediately after getting out of the taxi near Tahrir, at which point it was still daylight. I don’t understand what kind of subliminal group psychology contributes to this, but it seems like there is some consensus that Tahrir and downtown are areas where it is particularly ok to harass women. I don’t know if geographic locations develop  certain reputations, and therefore bring this behavior out in people.

I started my shift with Opantish at around 7 30 last night. We did not wrap up until after 3 in the morning. We received 46 reports of cases of mob sexual assault in and around Tahrir. We were able to intervene in around half, in coordination with other groups such as Tahrir Bodyguard. Some attacks involved the use of blades, sticks and other weapons. One case had to go to hospital and undergo surgery. Several others needed medical attention. Some volunteers were wounded. The square became undeniably unsafe for women.

This was the highest number of reported attacks that Opantish and other groups have ever received and verified. I shudder to think of how many women were attacked in cases we did not hear of.

The assaults are being distorted and used by political groups for their own selfish ends. The Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters post footage of the attacks online and use images at rallies as evidence that the anti-Morsy protesters are all criminals and thugs.  Opposition forces are silent on the issue, or deny that assaults are happening altogether. Time and time again we have seen political opposition groups call for rallies in Tahrir and then do nothing to secure the space from systematic sexual violence. Opantish and other groups are attacked in social media by people who are convinced that we are fabricating the reports, or want us to keep them quiet so as not to create panic and scare people from going out into the square. As if acknowledging and trying to end the violence is what will discourage women’s participation, rather than the violence itself. Others say that this is not the time for this fight, for “women’s issues.” As if the use of life-threatening violence against human beings simply because they are women is something we can ignore until…what? Until we get another government to lead our patriarchal state institutions? Until the military steps in?

I am immensely encouraged by the men and women who time and time again have dropped everything to combat these sexual assaults, risking their psychological and physical safety and being creative, resourceful, and intuitive. I have to hope that there are enough people who see the process of social change as multi-faceted, more complex and more difficult than demanding the departure of a president or a government.

I do not know what political future Egypt will create for itself. Continued violence between the Muslim Brotherhood and those who oppose it, military intervention, a coup, who knows. I am only certain that  the fight against sexual violence and misogyny must be in the heart of the larger struggle for freedom. It cannot be tabled for later, it cannot be hushed up and ignored. We certainly will not allow it.

Waiting to rebel

On returning to Cairo I felt myself, while struggling with the physical difficulties of the city, brimming with positivity for it. There are a lot of interesting people doing interesting things in what is now an undeniably tremendous space for collective projects, campaigns, and interventions. After decades of living with the state’s failure to address fundamental problems with such negligence and corruption that the layers of crises grew dense and sticky, people are coming together and working on a plethora of issues including the environment, sexual harassment, and food security. Independent young people are doing their jobs and the supposed job of the state, with creativity and heart.

Egypt charms us with this sense of possibility, a charm made all the more compelling when we remember the stagnation of the years before the uprising, a time which seemed at once frustrated and apathetic. And then, with a few clicks through social media links, the atmosphere darkens abruptly. Like thousands of others, I watched the footage of Shia men being beaten to death by a mob of horrifyingly normal-looking people earlier this week. I ill-advisedly watched this just a few minutes after seeing Mosireen’s video about sexual torture in Egypt, and felt myself enveloped in grief. People talk about becoming desensitised to violence after frequent exposure to it. I am yet to experience this.

In this dualistic atmosphere, I haven’t really known what to think of the Tamarod campaign for protests demanding Morsy’s departure on June 30th. Being generally supportive of demonstrations against violent and corrupt power, I was initially impressed by Tamarod’s ability to mobilize. The campaign seemed to capture people’s exasperation and anger at the regime and their desire for change. But the vagueness of Tamarod’s “post-Morsy” plans combined with their pro-army statements and the opportunists circling around the campaign is disconcerting.

I worry about the short- and long-term ugliness that could result from the Islamists’ sense of self-righteousness and existential threat, which will be inflamed by the attack on their long-awaited chance at  political leadership. I had been hoping we could let them permanently destroy themselves through the incompetence and short-sightedness of their rule. Sarah Carr lays out the dilemma pretty well here, and I find myself feeling conflicted in much the same way. But the movement on the streets has already started, and so I have to feel hope that the opposition’s numbers will be huge, and that the good guys will win with as little loss of life and eyes and spirit as possible. And then we can get back to the rebellious work of creating positive change in this place where everything suddenly seems so possible.

Egypt to Palestine

I am visiting Palestine for the first time. Coming here is something I’ve wanted to do since reading about the conflict and having Palestinian friends snapped me into some form of political consciousness as a teenager.

I’ve only been here a couple of weeks and had thought that I wouldn’t dare to write about something so politically and personally meaningful as the occupation after such a short time. What I didn’t know was that every aspect of life, every significant conversation, work of art, transaction or observation that is lived and felt is somehow tied to occupation. From the fruit you buy to the roads you drive on to where you can meet people.  I’d read this, people had told me, but I hadn’t fully absorbed it until I was able to be here.

Palestinians I meet express surprise that I am Egyptian. Very few Egyptians come here – they are not able to since there is no way to enter the West Bank without crossing the Israeli border, and Arabs are generally not allowed into Israel (by the Israeli government and their own).  Arabs are a noticeably absent demographic at large touristic and religious sites. The only reason I was able to cross the border is because I was accidentally born in the US, and became the only member of my family to acquire that blue passport. I played the role of a blithe, gum-chewing American tourist at the border to help balance my Arab features, and name.

Many people here say that they, or someone they know, have tried to travel to Egypt in the past year or two and were unable to enter. So Egyptians can’t come to Palestine, and Palestinians can’t go to Egypt.

Almost everyone I talk to asks about the situation in Egypt with genuine concern: كيف الأوضاع فى مصر؟    Is the country lost now that the Ikhwan are in power? Is there hope for the struggle against them? Are the Ikhwan able to go out and force their ways on people’s lifestyles?

On one of our first few nights here, a man in a bar asked if we thought that Palestine would be at the heart of the second, real, Arab revolution. This triggered more questions: Do Egyptians think about Palestine, do they connect the occupation of this land with their own struggle against cultural, political, and economic oppression? Isn’t our freedom inherently connected, as people in this region which is dealt with by governments and international brokers as a string of military investments, oil contracts, and power balances?

outside a bar in Ramallah

outside a bar in Ramallah: “we are hungry for freedom”

I’ve spoken to Palestinians who are still dedicated to liberation and whose activism, sometimes at the cost of their health, careers, and passports, cannot be dismissed. But there is a sense of resignation here; people say that nothing is happening, that nobody wants to fight. A shopkeeper in Ramallah (apparently the most depoliticized city in the West Bank) asked me how people in Egypt have the energy to go out and fight all the time, to protest, to deal with instability?

This all makes me aware of the advantages we have in our struggle, in Egypt. We have our mobility. Our security forces are often at odds with the ruling government. We have a population that is large, and that is still angry. Perhaps it’s also simply an issue of timing – the fight in Egypt is young, it is not one we have inherited from our parents or our grandparents. We can still dictate the narratives.  We have a plethora of frontlines, of causes, and while the problems might all share the same roots there is perhaps more traction to be gained from fighting a single cause in Egypt than here, where all roads lead to the dead-end of occupation. Of course this is not to say that there is no value for that kind of activism in Palestine, just that it might be easier in Egypt for issue-based action to have a broader impact or overlap with other initiatives.

So my friend and I speak positively of Egypt here, when we are asked. We tell people that the fight is ongoing, that the Ikhwan won’t last, that things can change and that people have a sense of this. We tell them that the Ikhwan cannot control Egypt the way Hamas tries to control Gaza; we are simply too many.  I thank people when they inevitably tell me they love Egypt. I tell them that we love Palestine, that I feel lucky to be here. And I think that rather than Palestine being at the center of the next widespread Arab struggle, as the man in the bar said, perhaps it is now Egypt’s turn.