The Pain of Visual Beauty: On Spring and Dorothy Iannone’s Art

By Sarah Eltantawi


Sometimes pain lays me flat.  Sometimes ambition (hope?) drags me up.  

jungle iannone

Untitled (1970)

For much of my life – especially a part of it that was lived largely in my head — my relationship to the visual, and therefore visual art, was distant and cloudy. This has begun to change of late, prompted in some part by, exactly a year ago, a special person saying to me: “you should really look around you more” because I would retreat into myself for long periods of time during long walks through lush forest and mountain.  I did slowly wake up and began to notice the green against green against green against brown and yellow and blue for miles at a time, getting more pristine at higher altitudes. And I’ll say nothing here of the sounds…

It wasn’t that I undervalued the visual, it was that I was not quite sure what to do with beauty.  I sometimes found beauty frustrating, overwhelming. Beauty places one under its spell. It was difficult to know how to surrender that control safely; but these days I make ginger attempts to come to terms with what I see.

For example, yesterday I very slowly walked along the canal I live near in Berlin as I do most days. Spring has sprung and my beloved landscape which across months has gone from freezing white and barren, to lush, muddy and cold, has now transformed  into one heart-stopping scene of aliveness after the next, like the half-reality of a firework’s last tendrils: a thorn bush with schools of gnats flying around it forming a cream mist against the sunlight; a green bush reflecting yellow in the still water with red flowers popping in and through it. Birds land, chirp, fly away, and land again.  Everything stretches and sings.

And the lady bugs. A brilliant red and black lady bug was playing on a leaf. A thought of possession arose: they are good luck, say all the sages, how does one harness that? Do you trap it? Do you take its picture? Do you speak to it? Do you send it a blessing? Do you attempt to somehow commune with it? How much effort do you put into this? Is it natural? To add to the madness a meta side of me was of course aware that to ask this barrage of questions was  precisely the wrong approach.

I then saw two more lady bugs, one pushing the other as if it was helping it along.  I thought, rather unromantically, of a UHaul.  It was a mesmerizing and fascinating scene. I zoomed out a bit and realized that there were dozens, hundreds, wait – tens of thousands and possibly even millions of lady bugs along the path – I had hit a lady bug universe! What do `you do with a lady bug universe of such immense beauty and complexity and color! I had to look at that strange feeling of violence that arises, the one that makes you want to pinch and bite the cheek of an adorable child, or the way kids smash snails when they don’t know better and haven’t been refined yet out of that point where passion and violence collide. I could only send them some feeble notes of respect, tame my own instinct to possess, vow for the hundredth time to take more pictures, and walk away.

So it was in this mode of slowly awakening to the visual that I set off recently with my beautiful friend Maritta to the Berlinishe Galerie for Modern Art to take in an incredible exhibition of the work of American artist (and Berlin transplant) Dorothy Iannone.

See the fantastic trailer for the exhibition here:

I can count on less than one hand the number of times I have been so moved as an individual — and as a woman — by an installation of visual art. I found Iannone’s work stunning; I  was  transfixed by her huge canvases of men and women as they are in their beautiful rawness but also at the same time as gods and goddesses.  Her colors and shapes.  It must be said that much if not almost all of the content was sexually explicit [to the point that it was censored in the late 60’s (!)] but it was never distasteful. It’s a sexuality that is alive and beguiling without ever being gratuitous.

As happens at a gallery with friends, especially when captivated, Maritta and I found ourselves separated for a couple of hours to take a journey through the art individually. When we met at the end I beamed and my heart filled with excitement when I heard that she had had the same experience of having been so moved and de-centered. But the strange thing was a de-centering that was born of validation.  Iannone’s work makes you brave.  It is OK, she makes it seem, to love so brightly, to paint it, to display it, and to invite others into it to contemplate something slightly more beautiful than a universal.

Dorothy-Iannone 1

Let the Light from my Lighthouse Shine on You (1981)

Iannone’s work is immediate and pure, and above all — alive — it runs over with tapestries of color and unapologetic tantric poses and moods. I was won over by these shrines to a specific voyage of love that was ecstatic, joyful and agonizing. The work is also playful, even with themes like sexual degradation, where the gentiles of one of the lovers might appear on the body of another with a hand written caption whose scrawl is almost child-like, “I begin to feel free.”


Human Liberation (1972)

I loved her portrayal of men — a rare one, I think: men are beautiful, even worshiped. Especially, for Iannone, one man, Dieter Roth – who was her lover and muse from 1967 – 1974, and about whom, through whom and inspired by whom she composed most of the worked displayed at the BG, among them a series of narrative panels called, An Icelandic Saga (1978) that was gorgeous and one of my favorite pieces:

Icelandic Saga 1

Icelandic saga 2

There is so much more I could say about the art. The tarot card set composed in the midst of the affair with messages like, “grief”, “suspension”, “breadth” and “solitude”,


Ta(rot) Pack (1968)

or the complementary and uncomplementary cards which included messages like:

“I’m sorry if I ever made you cry.”
“I love you because even when you imagine yourself less intelligent than I, you do not lose your erection.”
“In all the world I like your work the best.”

comp uncomp

But I’ll end this reflection on the visual by noting one … let me not quite judge it…. fact I learned after the show, when I began to research to learn more about Iannone and Roth, who is also a painter (he died in 1998.)

Much that has been written about Iannone emphasizes her relationship with Roth, which on one hand is fair enough, since a sizable portion of her work is inspired by their affair in particular and ecstatic love and union (in her later work with herself/the internalized divine instead of a male form) in general. But I could not find descriptions of Dieter Roth ‘s life and work that mentions Dorothy Iannone. Why isn’t it considered important to note, as is noted about so many women who serve as muses to men, that he was a muse to a talented painter?

I do not mean to presume Dorothy Iannone is bothered by this, as I have no idea if she is. But it does raise the question of whether the artistic expression of women’s love of men is considered in the end interminably subjective, her realm of experience,  and thus not a fact worth mentioning about the male lover in his obituary is it so often is in reverse.  Is the experience of ecstatic union  Iannone captures so beautifully  in the end a fantasy to live on in an individual heart or, if we are lucky, in a work of art? Does any transcendent quality of this experience of a woman’s love for a man depend on validation by male artists and critics; does it depend on being folded into narratives describing “higher” “universal” artistic purpose?

As it is uncomfortable in some way to stand still before exquisite world opened up by a bush of flowers in the heart of spring, understanding what should be done with memories of love that do not seem to serve a “purpose” is similarly painful and mysterious.  Indeed, such memories may not even exist at all absent their retelling or, in Iannone’s case — their painting, drawing, etching and carpentry — at which point, it seems, since these representation of carnal divine union originate with a woman, and thus, it can be stated, are less likely to be immediately folded into the protective cocoon of “important conceptual art”, her vulnerability is left there, literally naked, for us to wonder with that faintly violent and passionate discomfort what to do with.

For more follow at @SEltantawi

Lessons from the Egyptian Revolution Three Years On

By Sarah Eltantawi

[This was first published in the Fair Observer]

Two sayings often come to my mind when I think about the Egyptian revolution these days. The first is attributed to Prophet Mohammed: “khayr al-amur al-wasat” (the best path is the middle one). The second is attributed to James Baldwin, replacing “love” with “revolution” (although I think there are many similarities): “Love does not begin and end the way we think it does. Love is a battle, love is a war, love is a growing up.”

I am one of those who think the situation in Egypt is the result of a constellation of complex factors that simply cannot be reduced to a “coup” or a popular revolt. What occurred was a popular revolt that led to a coup, which was implicitly called for by much of the Egyptian population.

As such, I find myself repulsed by extreme interpretations of the situation in Egypt in either direction. It is certainly true that Egypt today bears all of the signs of a brutal counterrevolution: journalists have been jailed (although 60 political prisoners have recently been released); dissent is silenced, sometimes brutally; and a climate of xenophobia fills the airwaves.

Many have been rounded up and jailed on suspicion of being a member of the now outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. Many who supported the demonstrations of June 30 do not wish to affiliate themselves with the events that have transpired after July 3.

Others feel pain over these events, but are in a state of confusion about what the alternative would have been. Still, others believe it is more or less justified.

Relatedly, protests in many of Egypt’s universities by Muslim Brotherhood supporters have crossed the line into brutality, including reports of damaging property, burning buildings, ripping the clothing off of a female professor, and assaulting elderly male ones.

There are frequent terrorist attacks across Egypt that often target security installations, such as during the December 24 attack in Mansoura and around the recent January 25 commemoration.

Even though responsibility for these attacks was claimed by a group called Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, it is difficult to believe the Muslim Brotherhood had no involvement. After all, the attacks were stepped up following Mohammed Morsi’s ouster and these Islamist groups are ideologically aligned — even if loosely.

The Brotherhood’s allies have taken their fight off Egypt’s shores by launching an international campaign against the Egyptian government in American and European universities and airwaves, many of which shockingly parrot Muslim Brotherhood talking points without offering a counterview in a nation that strongly supports the military intervention against Morsi.


Another fact, which is difficult for Western observers to grasp but is not at all difficult for many Egyptians to intuitively understand, is the following: Egyptians currently have terrible options and so they support what they consider to be the lesser of two bad options.

Many, including myself, have written extensively about why so many Egyptians found the Muslim Brotherhood’s year in power so intolerable that they didn’t want them to finish their term.

In brief, Egyptians felt that under the fig leaf of a democratic election, the Muslim Brotherhood took gross advantage of its slim mandate in a revolutionary context to put forward policies that had the potential to seriously damage Egypt.

In other words, under the cover of a “revolution” and “democracy” — a democracy in which the Muslim Brotherhood eked out a win by 1.3% of the vote against a contender from the old regime that had just been thrown out in a revolution one year prior — the Egyptian population was being slowly subjected to what they call takhwiin, or the “Brotherhoodization” of the state.

With this Brotherhoodization came a number of appointments to sensitive, high-skilled positions based on loyalty over merit, and a theocratic agenda of some kind that was uncomfortably unclear to many.

Most seriously was the perception of shifting Egyptian alliances toward extra-judicial jihadist groups and their shared pan-Islamist agenda.

The idea is that Egypt is much too big, both population wise and in the imagination of the region and the world, to have been hijacked in this manner. This is why – and perhaps this clears up at least some confusion – many Egyptians chose and continue to support the army and Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who they view as having saved the country from disaster.

The Media and the Impact of Syria

The media in Egypt is clearly aiding this support for Sisi, which often turns to hysteria and dangerous xenophobia against Islamists and even revolutionaries — or anyone who departs from the military’s authoritarian line.

The media is feeding on fears of Egypt being on the brink, having come close to collapsing into a different understanding of a regional order that favors the pan-Islamist over the nationalist. For many Egyptians, this idea is anathema.

In addition, one can look at deeply troubled nearby Syria to see what happens when the state collapses and the army suffers major defections — a vacuum created where jihadists, bearing ideologies and agendas that have little to do with the desires of the native population, flood in to destroy the country by imposing their rule, based on a radical interpretation of Islam.

Is it any wonder that Egyptians went into near cardiac arrest after Morsi’s “rally for Syria,” in which he all but called for Egyptians to travel over the borders and wage jihad? Or standing at a state function with clerics who openly engaged in taqfir (declaring a Muslim a kafir, unbeliever) against Shi’as and propagated distrust against Christians?

No one, especially considering Mubarak’s presidency, could have imagined such sentiments coming from the president of Egypt. A dangerous line had been crossed.

The military transition certainly has left its own trail of blood. This includes the massacres at Rab’a al-Adawiyya, where Morsi supporters were cleared from their sit-ins after 47 days in one of the bloodiest moments in Egypt’s recent history.

Seeing the Facts as They are Embedded on the Ground

Three years on, I have learned that I no longer believe in critique for the sake of critique. This is an admittedly unusual statement for an academic to make. However, I am convinced that critique and mere opinion offering — without a serious consideration of facts as they are embedded on the ground in the specific country and not strictly based on high theory, including democratic theory — is the easiest form of intellectual labor there is.

Unfortunately, it is woefully insufficient. In an era of revolutionary change in Egypt whose course no one predicted, there is no reason to assume that comparing a reading of events in the county — often from afar — to democratic theory, produced in the West for another context entirely in previous centuries, would provide the best insight.

Egyptian affairs must be understood in the context of Egyptian particularities, which include an ethnographic study of its peoples’ attitudes and then having the humility to take those attitudes seriously.

Some have made critique for the sake of critique into a career. In the West, we have reams of analysis on Egypt that refer to Egyptian culture and sentiment only in the vaguest terms, choosing only to concentrate on an analysis of state institutions from a Western perspective, both practical and theoretical.

A final reason one might sour on critique for the sake of critique is empirical. Many of the very same people who shouted “irhal, irhal” (step down) to Morsi from his first day in office, seemed to run quickly to the sidelines after June 30 and July 3 were said and done, as if they had nothing to do with any of it.

“But we never wanted the army,” they say. In political terms, this is a meaningless statement, as it is a basic fact that the army brokers political transitions in Egypt. It is little wonder that Egyptians who want to live a normal life no longer have a lot of regard for professional revolutionaries, who will not accept the consequences of their actions.

Not Just a Coup

Rather than reading events in Egypt as a simple coup, we should begin to grasp the much deeper and wider implications of what occurred.

The most important point is that political Islam has been dealt a major blow in Egypt; after all, what happens in Egypt reverberates across the Arab world. The effects of this blow are only beginning to show and, if leveraged correctly, can amount to a major milestone in the crucial cultural aspect of the revolution that started in 2011.

The second point is that the people largely chose a military coup and will now have to live with the consequences of an iron fist rather than an indiscernible theocratic one. This is an ongoing revolution and, we, like the French, have time.

The most important orders of business are freeing political prisoners and jailed journalists, and overhauling the Egyptian economy. I would venture to say that most Egyptians find this much more important than a “democratic transition” — which they have recently tried and found unsatisfying, to say the least.

It is also very important, though much more difficult, to figure out how to broker some kind of political deal with the Islamists. However, at present, this is impossible with their frequent terror attacks and the military regime’s incessant propaganda and dragnet arrests.

The army will overplay its hand. This is inevitable, as a military regime does not have the required skills to truly bring Egypt the reforms it needs.

It would be wise of Field Marshal Sisi to conclude that, for this reason, it would be best for him and Egypt if he did not run for president. Having said that, there is, however, a serious question of who would be the best person to run Egypt instead.

It is near impossible to predict what will happen. But having a strong national institution in charge of the country — even if this power is a mirage — is what (most) Egyptians need psychologically to reassure them that their country will not collapse into the chaos that citizens see all around them.

Female Genius

For your pedagogical or personal pleasure — a list of female geniuses.

This list was generated by facebook friends in response to the question – “who do you consider a female genius?”

The idea was to foreground the gendered use of the term “genius” on the assumption that the term is ordinarily not socially constructed to include women.

A very interesting list came about nonetheless, and we would like to share.

Please feel free to add you additions in the comments!

And without further ado…




Mary Anderson

CoCo Chanel

Amelia Earhart

Edith Flanigen

Helen Free

Erna Schneider Hoover

Stephanie Louise Kwolek

Mary Walton

Oprah Winfrey



Alice Coltrane

Ella Fitzgerald

Umm Kaltoum

Nina Simone

Mary Lou Williams


Mystics/Mystical Poets/Religious Figures

Rabia al Adiwiyya

Fatima Qurrat-al-Ayn

Mother Theresa



Hannah Arendt

Judith Butler

Simone De Beauvoir

Silvia Federicci


Grace Humiston

Julia Kristeva

Margaret Mead

Maria Montessori

Ayn Rand

Gayatri Spivak

Mary Wollstonecraft

Political Figures/Advocates/Radicals


Elizabeth I

Indira Ghandi

Emma Goldmann

Hellen Keller

Khadija bint Khuwailed

Aun Sang Su Kyi

Rosa Luxemburg

Golda Mier

Elenor Roosevelt



Patricia Billings

Rachel Fuller Brown

Marie Curie

Gertrude Belle Elion

Rosalind Franklin

Elizabeth Lee Hazen

Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin

Grace Hopper

Ada Lovelace

Barbara McClintock

Emmy Noether

Ann Tsukamoto

Rosalyn Sussman Yalow


Visual Artists (painting, film)

Louise Bourgeois

Claire Denis

Eva Hesse

Frida Khalo

Writers (Poetry and Prose)

Maya Angelou

Willa Cather

Emily Dickensen

Assia Djebar

Nawal El Sa’daawi

Forugh Farrokhzad

bell hooks

Ursula K LeGuin

Toni Morrison



Gertrude Stein

Wisława Szymborska

Alice Walker

Virgina Woolf

May Ziade





The Last Straw — Cri de cœur from “That Older Generation”

By Yasmin Amin

Old man and woman, flower, referrendum

Khalas! I have reached my limit, and the last straw is the reaction to the referendum. Maybe it is because I fall in that age group of those over 50 who are being criticized to death for voting yes.  Or maybe it is because  I am one of those held responsible for everything that has gone wrong with the revolution.  Or maybe it is because I see things differently because there are at least 30 years of life-experience between myself and all those enthusiastic liberal young hip/cool journalists, analysts, professional revolutionaries, and “experts” on Egyptian politics. Or maybe it is because I am being realistic rather than idealistic or revolutionary, or because of what a friend so aptly and perfectly summarised as:

“It’s so easy to take the moral high ground, fire the witty and biting sarcasm, rubbish the referendum, condemn the army, the government, and the ever so stupid credulous masses, oh and the crass media. It’s so depressing how out of touch you are Mr&Mrs MHG.“

Because I have had enough, I criticize today the deconstruction of everything, the overly critical stance, the use of all the right keywords like “fascists”, “bigot”, “militant” “fanatic”, “military dictator.” The problem with all that criticism — even when warranted — is that it are not accompanied by  any solutions, ways out or steps forward.   If they took an obvious stance they’d have to be held accountable later.

 Muslim Brotherhood

The referendum was not about sticking two fingers up at the Brotherhood or expressing varying levels of confidence/adoration in/of the army or a declaration of unconditional support and undying love for Sisi as this article, for example, by journalist Sarah Carr stated.

This article also stated that the Muslim Brotherhood should have been left longer to prove their spectacular inability.  This is wrong and not a real position, since their authoritarian tendencies and incompetence were exposed  quickly and the Egyptian people moved against them when they had the chance on June 30, 2013.  This is historical fact, and it’s not really saying anything to argue for a theoretical possibility that has never existed.

Furthermore, the Muslim Brotherhood likely would not have been voted out in the next elections, because most likely there would not have been a next election. Hamas, a Brotherhood offshoot, has been controlling Gaza since 2006, when they were voted in. Accordingly, legitimacy is not only given by the ballot boxes, because since 2006, ballot boxes in Gaza have not been seen again. Anyone speaking against Hamas openly in Gaza faces their wrath.  Nathan Brown describes here how opposition parties are restricted from performing public activities.

I do not buy into conspiracy theories in general.  But I do buy that a secret global organisation would only have its own best interest at heart and the Muslim Brotherhood have declared often enough that their aim is to rule the entire Muslim world. They already rule in Turkey, Sudan, Gaza, are about to rule in Tunis (if it was not for the fierce opposition) and they have strongholds in Somalia, Jordan, Syria, Iraq, Kuwait, Yemen, Morocco, Algeria and even in mainly Shia Bahrain.

Double Standards

There are way too many dead today in Egypt and not only through police brutality or army heavy-handed crack downs. Human rights defenders have rightly criticized the Rab3a massacre, but have remained silent about those slaughtered in cold blood in Sinai coming home from their conscription/service. They have remained silent too when Muslim Brotherhood students set fire to university buildings with guards in them, or threw an Amn Markazi soldier off a roof, or hit and disrobed a female professor, and the list goes on. It seems that human rights in Egypt should be renamed Ikhwan rights, or maybe anyone who is not Muslim Brotherhood is not human enough?

The double standards annoy me. I am against spilling blood, any blood for that matter, but going back to Rab3a and Nahda, after a 47 day sit in and repeated antagonism by the Brotherhood from daily marches blocking off streets and holding an entire neighborhood hostage to praying on the 6 October bridge just to paralyse traffic and that too in Ramadan, they surely did not expect to be sent home with flowers and balloons. Their leaders could have made different choices, but the victim mentality and rhetoric used for decades underground seemed attractive and luring to score more points, if only internationally. What do they care about the poor from the villages hired to inflate the numbers? When push came to shove none of the actual leaders were found in either Rab3a or Nahda. They left early enough, maybe in ambulances or under niqabs, both of which they used before, leaving some armed elements to shoot at the police to ensure retaliation.  We knew for weeks there would be a violent dispersal — why didn’t they leave?

What is the Referendum About?

The referendum was for stability.  It was a condemnation of previous mediocre performances, including of the so-called elite, intellectuals and liberals, who failed everyone in every way. They failed to organise, unite, think of Egypt first and not of own agendas or ambitions. The former National Salvation Front needed to be saved, most of all from its own members’ egos, inefficiency and political opportunism.

This referendum was not a mandate to re-establish a police state, because at the height of its power Jan 25th 2011, this police state could not stop the masses. Nor did the referendum  sign over power to the military unconditionally. Nobody has forgotten the forced virginity tests, which are linked to Sisi, nor the civilians tried in military courts, nor the massacre at MASPERO, nor all those still languishing in jail joined by many others since, nor the blue bra and all what it stood for. But the military is not all SCAF and not all bad and not every general is a villain.

Maybe lots of people over 50 romanticize Nasser, another military man — only a Major  though –and like Schleifer reminds us of the welfare state he created, however flawed. People from my generation also remember the Nasser era’s flaws all too vividly — the shortages, the dawn visits, the atmosphere of distrust as well as the fiasco that is the High Dam ruining Egypt’s agriculture.

I personally hope for a civilian leader that has Egypt’s best interest at heart. Looking around, I do not find such person. Those who ran for the presidency last round got us into this mess, because we had to choose between bad and worse, insult and injury, political opportunists and incompetence. Maybe we have Mubarak to thank for that, but I am waiting for the day where Egyptians can make a real choice from among good options and not settle for the best of bad options between military or Islamists.

 Why did Egyptians Vote as they Did?

The current nationalistic hysteria and flag waving is not only caused by media manipulations, dissemination of panic or the famous George Bush concept of “us vs. them” or copying the USA’s “war on terror”. It was born, very frankly, out of fear of losing our Egyptian identity, a unique one that survived centuries and gained in the process and strengthened with each addition. Egypt has always assimilated invaders and made them adopt a certain Egyptian-ness. Alexander became Pharaoh and worshipped Egyptian Gods, the Muslims adopted Sham al Nessim celebrations as well as the 40 days of mourning originally from mummification.  The list can go on and on. Egyptians assimilate and eventually even welcome anyone who does not try to force anything on them.   Sadly it was the Brotherhood and their Salafi, Jihadi bedfellows who exasperated Egyptians by shoving their rotten ideas and practices down our throats.

The alleged low turnout of the referendum was actually higher than that of the Islamist constitution referendum, even if it was boycotted by the so-called revolutionary youth, activists and mostly Brotherhood or their sympathizers. Those who voted ‘NO’ have all my respect because they are the assurance that constitutional flaws will be fixed in the future. There were 3% courageous enough to vote NO and not just whine or criticize. Criticism leveled at the constitution centered around the rights granted to the military , such as military court trials for civilians.  Of course this provision was present in the Islamists’ 2012 constitution, along with the insistence that the minister of defense be a member of the military and the military budget essentially be under their control.  We can all complain about these provisions, but we cannot claim they are new or evidence of a new descent into military fascism.

Finally, for more of a sense of how difficult it was to come to a compromise on the constitution, this interview (in German) with a member of the 50 committee is enlightening.

Hoda ElSadda reveals the circumstances under which the committee worked: the internal heterogeneity, the street fights around them and deadlines necessitating a makeover of the 2012 document rather than starting from scratch. Despite all the difficulty the new document is vastly improved in terms of rights for the people and duties for the government. At the end of the day it is not really about what is written in the constitution, but about who will implement it and how and the laws passed to regulate its various articles.


The government of Prime Minister Beblawi might not be a perfect one, but nobody seems to remember how difficult it was to get anyone to accept a place in it in the first place or be accepted by the ever contrary Hizb al Nour, courted to fill the Islamist slot, or to remain and not run away at the first hurdle or continuously threaten to resign. The government is facing so many problems from daily riots, labour strikes, sabotage, deliberate destruction to diminished incomes on tourism and other fronts. Yes, infusions of cash from certain Gulf monarchies has helped, but Egypt cannot live on hand-outs forever and nobody is willing to hand out endlessly.

So please, stop this loud overly critical screaming and sit down, calm down and think. Do not just criticize and deconstruct, because that is easy. Come up with ideas and how to implement them. Give the older generation the benefit of the doubt, because we are not just outmoded, outdated fearful people seeking security. Try to understand that we too have a vision and we have our reasons. Omar Suleiman said in an interview that Egypt is not ready for democracy. While I disagree with that, I believe we have a long way to go. It will not happen overnight or in 18 days like those of Tahrir. The first step towards democracy is to listen to one another, accommodate different views  and work together. Otherwise we will all lose!

At the moment, the situation is absurdly out of control and ready to explode again, More and more people are disillusioned or angry. But we cannot rebel ALL the time against everything. Ideally the binary situation of either the monstrous demonized Muslim Brotherhood or the equally monstrous military dictatorship should be broken up by introducing a third option, a secular and/or liberal moderate entity able to work with both with no personal ambitions or agendas.

Yasmin Amin is currently a PhD candidate at Exeter University, researching “Humour in Prophetic Traditions.” Yasmin has more than 20 years of experience in the corporate world, working in various capacities in the educational, financial and state technology investment board sectors in Egypt. Married with 2 grown up sons, she currently lives between Cairo and London.

The Egyptian Military, Regional Chaos, and the Three Year Anniversary of the Revolution

By Sarah Eltantawi 


Today, for reasons that many people find exceedingly obvious, the Egyptian military is being subjected to sustained attack by terrorist groups.  Many Egyptian activists and analysts of Egypt, highly critical of military rule in theory and now in practice, point to the massacres at Raba’ this past August and say that an increase in terrorism is a natural reaction of revenge.  However, when the city of Mansoura was bombed on December 24, these same people were quick to say the Muslim Brotherhood had nothing to do with it.

So which is it?  I have been unsettled by people who have denied that the Muslim Brotherhood could have had anything whatsoever to do with the Mansoura bombing, which was a major act of murder on Egyptian soil. Though Ansar al-Maqdis claimed responsibility for the bombing, Islamist groups are using “the coup” as a pretext to destabilize Egypt, and, unless we except what I think is the artifice of an absolute analytic firewall between Islamist groups, the more obvious interpretation is that such groups are political and ideological allies.   Thus it is unclear precisely what role the MB plays privately to encourage terrorism on its “behalf”, or what, if anything, the organization is trying to do to stop it.

“But what about the military!” you are asking, for surely, if we look at Raba’, they are murderers too, as well as vicious jailers of activists and journalists.  I can’t argue with you there, but I can point out a few things that make me very concerned about sustained attacks on military rule **at this particular moment in Egyptian history** without putting forth any viable alternative.

The critique comes from several sectors within the Egypt commentariat.  Much “anti-coup” rhetoric is implicitly premised on a desire to weaken the Egyptian military.  Islamists or sympathizers (who are suddenly the World’s Best Democrats) regularly underplay or deny the fact that that the military are currently dying in the scores to defend Sinai.  Amazingly and tellingly, in some cases (recalling recent discussions I’ve seen on social media), I’ve seen some “anti-coup” folks deny that Sinai is strategically important at all to Egypt, with one “anti-coup” Egyptian opining that Sinai was a “piece of shit” that “no one would want to live in” and one American academic suggesting that Sinai should be “given to Hamas” in a fit of leftist anti-imperialist virtue  (I’d love to see anyone casually suggest the south of France should be given to Italy with a straight face.)

However,  minorities within the anti-coup camp also include outraged leftists, human rights advocates, and revolutionaries, who rightly observe that a counterrevolution has been waged and that hopes of reforming the security state (never done by Morsi) are looking more and more dismal.  Where I feel uncomfortable with their relentless critique is that when I look at the current state of Syria and Iraq, I despair of Egypt’s prospects if it were to lose it’s last major legitimate national institution.  The country would collapse and be rife for Islamist invasion while the revolutionaries would be forced to take up arms (Syria) and/or it would split up into factions controlled by outside powers and patrons to a greater extent than it is today (Iraq and Syria.)

At this point another question needs to be seriously asked and answered:  if not military rule (today, January 12, 2014), then what instead?  If not this constitution, then what instead?

I am not trying to employ scare tactics.  I oppose the brutality and excesses of the Egyptian army.  I oppose military trials for civilians.  I oppose their graft, corruption, and domination of the Egyptian economy.  I oppose their cheap propaganda.  I oppose the massacre at Raba’a (and I also think the MB could have made several different choices in and around that event.)   In fact it is my position, which I think is strongly backed by historical evidence, that the military establishment and the Islamist opposition have grown into a two headed monster that need each other to thrive and survive. June 30 was about Egyptians making a choice between the two, and they made one choice over another. July 3 was about both sides going totally zero sum and screwing everything up as they seem programmed to do.

However, I can not deny certain facts.  Islamist groups are highly organized and are willing to come to each other’s aid in a time of need (again, witness Morsi’s ‘rally for Syria’, which I think was the moment where we really saw how those alliances could shake up in Egypt. Also witness Hamas in Sinai, and the reaction of Hamas supporters to Morsi’s downfall). Given the power of these non-state actors, who certainly have guns as well as powerful patrons, I think we can start to see what fuels Egyptians’ “paranoia” on this topic. While the SWEEP OF FASCISM explanation is tittalating and in some percentage true, this smear masks important decisions taken by people who understand that there come times in life where you have to make a choice.

Now that the third anniversary of the revolution is upon us, you will read many comments that argue:  “this could all have been avoided if those millions of people had just made a different decision on June 30.” But this is absurd in multiple ways. First, they simply didn’t! Second, how do these analysts know? I mean, really know?  Third, in what sense that is not absolutely technical (namely 1.3% at the ballot box against the old regime), were the Muslim Brotherhood “democrats” who were prepared to act democratically and inclusively as opposed to enact a slow policy of total usurpation of Egypt and its institutions?  What would people be saying then, if that project had continued?  I’ll venture a guess, since the loudest voices on the left criticizing the army today tend to be the same voices that never gave Morsi a chance for five minutes:  they would be apoplectic.

Other questions we are left with today in January of 2014, are:  how do we reign in the miltary’s ruling authoritarianism?  This is an especially relevant question given that one such figure seems all but set to win the presidency.   Next, is there a professional class willing to take power in Egypt who prioritize serving the country over their own interests?  Are the revolutionary youth willing and able to assume the responsibilities of state power?  As we hear a lot about the failure of democracy in the next few days (disingenuous) and the military’s authoritarianism and brutality (true, but not the whole story),  what I hope we hear more of is serious thinking about how to move forward and an identification of who is willing to take on the truly thankless task of making sure Egypt does not descend into chaos.


Black Day in Mansoura: December 24, 2013


Outside police headquarters in Mansoura, Egypt.

Outside police headquarters in Mansoura, Egypt.

By Sarah Eltantawi

One hour after midnight on December 24, 2013, a car bomb was detonated in front of the police headquarters in Mansoura, north of Cairo, killing 13 and injuring up to 130.  The government has blamed the Muslim Brotherhood for the attacks, and the Muslim Brotherhood has denied the claims in a press conference they called in which they spoke only English, and no Arabic.  When a BBC reporter asked why this was the case, the reply came in English.

I have up to one hundred family members who live in and around the Mansoura governate.  They are book publishers, business men, and several of the women are doctors, including a veterinarian.  In fact, it was there that I had my first and only lesson in cow anatomy.  They live their lives in a city that has become noticeably more crowded and polluted throughout my years of visiting, but delight in raising and educating their children, in their extremely close family ties, and in their especially good cuisine.  Recently I heard from my father that they got together to distribute blankets to those in need after the recent, crazy snow storm.  They mostly support the military regime’s transition from Muslim Brotherhood rule, though there are some who support the Muslim Brotherhood.  No one supports the wanton bombing of their city’s institutions.

Let us review what has happened in Egypt since June of 2012.  In that month of that year, the Egyptian people elected Muhammad Morsi to the presidency by 1.5% of the vote.  The context was revolutionary, which means the first elected executive government in Egypt was tasked with one thing, and one thing only:  honoring the revolution.  Morsi’s opponent was Ahmed Shafiq, a former minister in Mubarak’s regime.  The non-Islamist vote, the vast majority in Egypt, was split in the primary elections, yielding an outcome where voters could only vote for the Brotherhood or vote for the old regime.  The latter vote spelled the end of the revolution.  Many people, therefore, including many revolutionaries, voted for Morsi, which, according to the logic of the moment, was a vote for the revolution.

What is the revolution?  The revolution is a movement started by Egypt’s youth who want a more just and open society, and economic growth and prosperity.  The Muslim Brotherhood, the most organized political body in Egypt, came to Tahrir square late, having sat it out in the beginning to put their finger to the political wind to best assess how they could come out on top of these new developments in Egypt.  At the time, I thought this was dishonorable though understandable from a real politik perspective, and indeed there were plenty of others who were acting dishonorably, including Shaikh Ali Guma’a, who issued a fatwa saying revolutionaries should stay home for Friday prayers, after which the mounting protests against Mubarak tended to build. After all, I reasoned, what really matters is what the Brotherhood would do if they came to power and were entrusted with the revolution.

I supported Morsi’s regime through the constitutional referendum in which he placed himself above judicial review to ram through a constitution.  Again, it was all very distasteful, but they were democratically elected, after all, and they had to contend with the deep state.  Then, the events at Itahadiyya.  Then, the clear sense that the Muslim Brotherhood were stacking Egypt’s institutions with their unqualified members, thumbing their nose at all other political interests in the country, making common cause with neighboring Islamist groups, looking the other way or tacitly supporting violence and terrorism in Sinai, fomenting sectarianism against Christians and Shi’i, erasing the legacy of women’s empowerment from Egypt’s textbooks, refusing to protect female protesters, looking the other way or tacitly supporting lowering the marriage age of girls to nine years old in the temporary shura council (parliament), using sectarian rhetoric in the rapprochement with Iran which never got anywhere, refusing to reform the security state, refusing to reform the police, capitulating to military demands in the constitution, and pursuing the same ethos of vulture capitalism (with new protagonists and beneficiaries) supplemented with begging and borrowing as an economic policy.  There were no innovative ideas what so ever, and this became impossible to deny I would say by March of 2013.  That is at least when I had to admit it.

In June 30 of 2013, millions of Egyptians, by any standard and by every count, came out into the streets to demand early elections and/or an end to Muslim Brotherhood rule.  True to form, the Muslim Brotherhood went completely zero sum, refusing all compromise, and declared war.  It should be noted that even Ennahda in Tunisia, in spite of all the criticism they too deserve, expressed a willingness to step down in the face of popular demand.  Not the Muslim Brotherhood.  They do not care what Egyptians think of them, Egyptians are merely fodder for their rule.

General Abdelfattah al-Sisi orchestrated a popularly-backed coup.  Top Brotherhood leaders were arrested, and many others along with thousands of Morsi supporters began camping out in Raba’a and at Cairo University.  Many people in Egypt, myself included at the time, warned them that they had very little popular support and would be gunned down.  We waited with sick feelings in our stomachs for days and then weeks, but they did not move and only escalated the protests and threats of violence, blocking universities, streets, bridges, and thoroughfares, and keeping up the messainic rhetoric to keep up the morale of their base, the overwhelming majority of whom are innocent people.  On August 14 they were gunned down by the security services, who are, and have never wavered from being:  violent, vile, thuggish, poorly trained, and adept at dehumanization. Egypt had seen its worst civilian onslaught in modern history, and a darkness fell that has not lifted.

Sisi and his appointed civilian transitional regime then began to further miscalculate.  First, their invitation by the Egyptian people was only ever for a transition.  This is a population that revolted against the military regime in 2011, now almost three years ago.  It is not long ago, and enough blood has been spilled that no one is going to forget that they are in the middle of a revolution and that they can not let the lives of its martyrs go to waste.

To entrench themselves, the military regime benefits from two simultaneous phenomena which feed on one another:  the Egyptian population becoming weary, tired, and thus desiring of stability, and terrorism.

Making Egyptians weary and tired is an easy one:  just continue the military regime’s playbook of cronyism and misrule that began with Nasser, leaving most Egyptians poor and in the main concerned with putting food on the table.  But terrorism — this will need a name, an ideology, and a logic:  hence, Sisi declared a “war on terror.”

I have always been against this “war on terror.”  Criminal acts can be dealt with with through criminal investigations, but to introduce this nasty Bushian paradigm into Egyptian affairs is to do nothing but to introduce the logic of permanent danger and emergency.  That is the environment in which the military regime thrives.  Sisi and company need terrorism to survive.

But they are not the only ones.  The Muslim Brotherhood and their Islamist allies, who not only fail to understand, but after years of inculcation into an enclosed cult, do not care what Egyptians think of them, are only intent on their messianic version of survival.

For this inherently selfish end, they reach into the playbook of their many allies around the region, their offspring, really, which is destabilization and terrorism.  Without it, they have to join the ranks of regular Egyptians who do not live their lives governed by a religious fascist ideology but rather traffic in more quotidian every day concerns that make up the multiple experiences and life worlds that make up Egyptian society, a diversity the Brotherhood finds very distasteful.

Today, someone on the Islamist spectrum introduced violent jihadism into the heart of one of Egypt’s metropoles.  Anyone who justifies this is not only a traitor, but a fool.   The jihadist’s cause is not “democracy,” their cause is their own survival as a messianic group.  The military is also complicit — they enacted the logic of a war on terror knowing exactly what would result.  They both need each other, and Egyptians pay the price for their endless macabre dance.

We can not buy into either of these logics, and Egypt must be taken over by people who will serve Egypt.  We desperately need fresh blood and fresh thinking, and under no circumstances can we give up.

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