Geopolitics

A Straight Black Line From East German Stasi To Egypt Of Today

Protesting last May against the jailing of Egyptian journalists.
Protesting last May against the jailing of Egyptian journalists.
Khaled Mansour

-Essay-

CAIRO â€" I better understood the tendency of the Egyptian state and security agencies to protect themselves after a few hours at the Stasi Museum in Berlin.

It was there in the grim, soviet-style offices of the Stasi â€" the former East German Ministry for State Security â€" that I remembered another office in which I was humiliated 25 years ago.

The managing editor of the state-owned news agency was sitting in a clichéd three-piece grey suit and a dark red tie behind a huge clean desk. He grew visibly annoyed as he looked at me. Instead of the customary, “Sit down, please,” he said, coldly, “Is this the way you behave in your father’s presence?”

I was surprised and wondered what he meant. Seeing my confusion, the editor bellowed, “Take your hands out of your pockets! And go get yourself a decent hair cut that is suitable for our respectable organization.” I moved from shock to incredulity and resisted laughing or exploding in his face. What stood between us was not just his unchecked authority over a young trainee reporter who could be sacked at will, but perhaps more importantly, an unbridgeable gap in world view.

What is left of this incident almost 25 years later is the question of why (or, better, how) simple gestures of difference (most men wore their hair short in Egypt then) constitute such an offense to such a man. He looked visibly angry. Why did he, and many men like him in positions of power, feel perplexed and undermined by others â€" usually younger women and men â€" who handle their bodies in a different way or write in an uncommon fashion. What makes this an insult, or even a personal assault or threat to state security, leading to harsh reactions and institutionalized restrictions on freedom of expression?

Putting one’s hands in one’s pockets in front of a superior could demonstrate a level of relaxation and lack of fear that is unacceptable in a hierarchical society, while wearing one’s hair long might be seen by some as an emasculating act. This might account for my former editor’s remarks, but why the level of visible anger?

The Stasi had a special department to work on behavior, sports, arts and culture. According to historians, East German security officials believed their country was always under threat from external enemies, and that such enemies used tools like “critical opinions, unconventional lifestyles, and oppositional conduct” against the state. It was the job of Stasi officials to find these elements and render them harmless. A law school study guide written by one Stasi officer, dubbed “Securing youth policies,” summed up the threat: “Raucous behavior, modern haircuts and clothing … trashy literature … heavy metal rock bands … independently producing hostile and negative views, for example in the form of political sketches, songs, slogans and chants.”

For those following Egypt over the past 20 years, and the period after January 25, 2011 in particular, similar “threats” are pursued here and their perpetrators sanctioned by the police and prosecutors. The Stasi and Egyptian security agencies seemed to fear the same season: Spring. For the Stasi it was the 1968 Spring of Prague that they feared could spread to the German Democratic Republic. For them, this meant the “enemy was lurking everywhere,” and placed a heavy burden on resources. After all, it’s difficult to watch all of these young people who might be cutting their hair short, or dying it pink, or singing heavy rock, or using profane language. From about 2,700 “society watchers” in the late 1950s, the number approached 100,000 by 1989 when the state collapsed.

Old Stasi headquarters, East Berlin â€" Photo: Brendan Rankin

In the five years following the upheavals of 2011, Egypt has legally harassed, arrested, or sentenced to harsh prison terms, numerous writers, bloggers, social media personalities, journalists, members of religious and sexual minorities, and many others who have expressed a different view to the dominant (but fast eroding, if not collapsing) social, political, religious and patriarchal frameworks and interests of the state. This repressive attitude, defended by the police, media, judiciary and religious institutions, is becoming increasingly harsh and violent, at the same time that the nation’s moral and value systems are changing.

The state bureaucracy, particularly security agencies and other institutions like state-owned media, Al-Azhar and the Coptic church, all deploy a variety of tools to control public space, as well as what is said, worn and exhibited, with a view to defending a conservative and patriarchal code of conduct, which is being challenged by an increasing number of people in Egypt today, particularly younger generations.

Several recent cases evidence the state’s futile attempts to control freedom of expression in Egypt: Novelist Ahmed Naji was sentenced in early 2016 to two years in prison for “undermining public morality,” after he published a chapter of his novel in a weekly literary magazine.

Amr Nohan, who was serving compulsory military service, was sentenced in late 2015 to three years in jail by a military court for superimposing Mickey Mouse ears on the image of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Nohan was charged with attempting to overthrow the government.

Four Christian teenagers received prison sentences in February 2016 for producing a 32-second video mocking ISIS, the terror group known as the Islamic State, showing members praying and taking one of the group hostage and cutting his throat. They later fled the country and are seeking asylum in Europe.

Egyptian law contains no articles requiring young men to trim their hair to a particular length, or a specific way academics should talk about Islam, or stipulations about prohibited body language, yet Egypt’s Penal Code provides judges with a number of ambiguous articles that can be interpreted to incriminate and punish “violators” for undermining “public morality,” tarnishing the nation’s reputation, or defaming monotheistic religions.

The teenagers, for example, were convicted under Article 98(f) of the Egyptian Penal Code, which forbids “ridiculing, or insulting heavenly religions or inciting sectarian strife.” The law does not specify what constitutes an “insult,” or amounts to “inciting,” leaving it almost fully to the judge’s discretion and, hence, the influence of dominant societal constructs and ideas. This has resulted in a situation in which the Egyptian state is battling ISIS with global support, but its judiciary also jails people who mock the ISIS.

But it isn’t just draconian laws and cultural norms that are responsible for this crackdown. Other disciplinarians â€" editors, police officers, judges, right wing demagogue television anchors who call for “liquidating” Islamists without trial â€" seek constant affirmation through banishing and punishing the “other,” whose mere presence constitutes a direct challenge or threat.

This logic appears to adopt the following reasoning: We will fight ISIS, but we will also defend a conservative version of Islam, which cannot be criticized in public, especially if this criticism comes from a member of a minority group.

The strict observance of a public code of conduct, speech, dress, and so on, helps people justify the erosion of this code in private encounters. This fluid separation of the public and the private isn’t just hypocritical, but permits an element of control amid the perceived “loss” of religion, patriarchal control and national pride. And so, the“id” â€" the Freudian concept that groups all primitive and instinctive parts of the personality, such as sex drive â€" can be let loose in private, while a mercurial superego, rooted in an imagined political and cultural past, can reign supreme in public.

Over decades of cultural and political stagnation in Egypt, the national psyche has been torn between claims of grandeur, usually rooted in a distant past, by the nationalist state and/or Islamist movements, and a reality of accumulating failure on the other. Old norms and traditions, especially those related to politics, religion and sexuality, have become extremely contentious.

Fethi Benslama, a renowned French Tunisian psychoanalyst, argues that many Arab Muslim communities have embraced a collective belief in an unblemished origin to which they can return if they observe Islam correctly, as a way of coping with the violent disruption by colonial powers, and later, at the hands of collaborating elites. Dislocated, these Muslim Arab selves, Benslama claims, have become desperate and willing to submit to any form of comfort, bent on blaming others, preferably minorities or foreigners, for their predicament.

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Green

Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.


"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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