Morsi supporters clash with security forces in Cairo
Morsi supporters clash with security forces in Cairo
Florence Aubenas

CAIRO — The show had just started. It was one of those debates that the new private Egyptian channels love to produce: Viewers can call in to denounce a terrorist, live on air.

In front of his television, Yasser was listening to the host describe an “individual who seriously affects the image of the country.” The host repeated his name, again and again, so the audience wouldn’t forget. At that moment, on his couch, Yasser suddenly realized that this “terrorist” for whom the hunt was now on was him: a 40-year-old father of two who works at a conference center used by the Freedom and Justice Party, the Muslim Brotherhood’s political organization in Egypt.

His wife told him right away, “You have to leave.”

But he refused, saying he “hasn't done anything wrong.”

Last year, Yasser and his wife gave up a comfortable situation in Dubai to return to Cairo, filled with enthusiasm after then-President Mohamed Morsi’s election and the arrival of an Islamist government. Over the summer, the Egyptian Army violently removed the elected leaders, and these last few weeks, the repression has become more judicial than military, as it was at the outset. At least 1,700 people have been arrested and placed in 15 police precincts and four prisons of the capital, according to an investigation carried out by an association of lawyers.

On his couch, Yasser can hardly believe that the police will come to arrest him. “Why me? The police only target high-ranking members.” And his wife: “Your colleagues have already left, haven’t they?” Former prominent ministers or more obscure Muslim Brotherhood members have been forced by the hundreds into hiding.

In Cairo, life seems almost normal after a summer of riots and mourning. Security checkpoints have been eased, and hotels have been openly organizing “special curfew” nights. The atmosphere, however, remains electric. The Egyptian capital is still on high alert. News flashes appear hourly on mobile phones.

We learn that Morsi, the deposed president, will be tried for “incitement to murder,” though the date of the trial is unclear. The first pro-Morsi demonstrators’ trial just took place before a military court in Suez, and the sentences are breathtaking — 10 to 15 years’ imprisonment, and a life sentence for one.

“There’s clearly a particular hostility toward Islamists,” says Amr Hassan, a lawyer. He is 29 and looks nothing like what someone might imagine an Islamist sympathizer would.

In 2011, Hassan founded a legal collective for defending demonstrators arrested on Tahrir Square in the struggle against then-President Hosni Mubarak’s regime. This time, the ones calling him are families of those who were among the truckloads of Morsi supporters raided by the police during last summer’s sit-ins.

Hassan says that, on a legal level at least, the fight is at least as hard as in 2011. “Many are being sued for weapon possession or for murder, which was not the case for Tahrir Square,” he explains. “Do you know what the most surprising part is? The official reports accuse them of having not only fired shots against the police, but also ‘inadvertently’ against their own troops.”

Abdallah Fattif, vice president of the Egyptian Judges’ Club, defends the charges. “All the procedures are legal. There have maybe been excesses concerning the intensity of the use of force, but you have to understand, we had no choice.”

The club’s headquarters has been located in the same elegant building for decades. It is the only official federation for judicial authorities in Egypt. “The new authorities first planned on banning the Freedom and Justice Party, maybe even the Muslim Brotherhood,” Fattif says. “It finally preferred the criminal prosecutions to the political ones. We have now entered a context of war on terrorism.”

Some 150 judges — out of 50,000 — signed a manifesto supporting Morsi when he was in power. Since his destitution, their cases have been taken away from them, and investigations will decide about their professional suspension. At least a dozen of them are also on the run.

Sending a message

It was around 5 a.m. a few days earlier, when Yasser and his wife heard the police cars driving up the street, escorted by young informants from the area pointing out their house. The whole neighborhood had gotten out of their beds and assembled to see men in dark face masks banging on Yasser’s door, as if they were issuing a general warning: “This is what can happen to you.”

Yasser had stayed. He had no backup plan, and no one to call.

In the streets of Cairo, after each Friday prayer, the Morsi supporters try reassembling their numbers to demonstrate. Between 10,000 and 40,000 people — depending on the weeks — march in a capital, otherwise on lockdown. Still, it's nothing compared with last summer’s explosion of violence.

In this security-driven context, the tone has also changed. Foreign journalists are now welcomed into the country. Women shake hands without anybody making comments. People smile at them and look them straight in the eye, even if their arms are uncovered.

It is here, in the middle of this visible crowd, that Bachir risks going out. He introduces himself with a small, almost teasing smile. He is a pharmacy technician, a longstanding activist in Islamist politics and, since July, coordinator of the Youth Against Coup Movement. Convinced he is being followed, he has not returned to his house for a number of days.

“While the Muslim Brotherhood has spent the larger part of their history in secrecy, no strategy whatsoever had been prepared in the case of any problem,” Bachir says. “It shows the Brotherhood’s incompetence and the disaster that they created by taking power. What a mistake!”

Around him, he recognizes at least “200 people, some of them living in secret like I am.” That day, in the heat and swarm of the demonstration, meetings are arranged under cover. News travels fast. The spokesmen of the new Youth Against Coup Movement have also been rounded up. Since the arrests of Morsi’s assistants, the ministerial staff, chosen during the Brotherhood’s time in power, is currently fleeing en masse. “We no longer have a leader,” another member says. “We are poorly organized. Luckily, we still have Facebook.”

Violent choices

A military helicopter flies over the demonstration. The crowd breaks into applause, as if it were the last recognition of their strength, the proof that their history is not yet finished.

“The army has done good by wanting to do bad,” Bachir says. “A whole generation of Brotherhood members is about to retire, enabling young ones to take over.” That sly little smile is back: “Never mind the exorbitant price. I don’t think it is a problem if we have to pay it.”

A few members of the former government — such as the minister of youth — know that an arrest warrant hangs over them. Some find out by accident, while others are completely denied any due process. By now, most of them have vanished.

“In fact, nobody understands anything about the situation. This confusion maintains the state of panic,” another lawyer, also in charge of cases, explains. “Apart from the arrests at the top, such as the head of the government or the Brotherhood’s Supreme Leader, the new authorities are giving the impression that they are striking randomly anyone they can get their hands on, at the top or at the bottom, with a preference maybe for those who are closest to the media.”

The lawyer says he is deeply committed to the Islamist movement. Like all his fellow members, he refuses to consider that those on the run could turn to violence, “except of course those who are isolated.” And with so many hiding around town? He seems more and more distressed, not being able to answer. He starts asking himself questions: “What if the army had set up this operation to force us to take up arms and really turn us into terrorists?”

He gets up and comes back with a stack of paper. “Take them!” He speaks as if he had just been convicted, as if he were leaving his most precious belongings before the fatal moment. His lips tremble a bit under his trimmed moustache. The only sound left to be heard is Cairo’s deafening traffic against the office windows. “I’m expecting them too: They will come to arrest me.”

In the Cairo streets, portraits of Army General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the nation's new military strongman, are posted on every shop. Yasser eventually fled, at the last moment. He is sitting in a café near the Nile. His eyes glance in every direction without being able to settle on anything. “Everything will get back to normal, won’t it? Do you think we will get the government back?” His phone rings. It’s his mother. He immediately starts lying. “I’m staying with friends. I’m safe. Pray for us.”

Then a message appears on mobile phones all over the city: a car bomb has just exploded outside the Ministry of the Interior.

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January 22-23

  • Navalny saga & Putin’s intentions
  • COVID’s toll on teenage girls
  • A 50-year-old book fee finally gets paid
  • … and much more!

🎲 BUT FIRST, A NEWS QUIZ!

What do you remember from the news this week?

1. Which two words did U.S. President Joe Biden use about possible scenarios in the Russia-Ukraine standoff that upset authorities in Kyiv?

2. What started to mysteriously appear on signs, statues and monuments across Adelaide, Australia?

3. What cult movie did U.S. rocker Meat Loaf, who died Friday at age 74, star in?

4. What news story have we summed up here in emoji form? 🇬🇧 👱 💬 💼 ❌ 🥳 🦠

[Answers at the bottom of this newsletter]

⬇️  STARTER

Toxic geopolitics: More than ever, we need more women world leaders

The world is watching the Russian-Ukrainian border. Russian President Vladimir Putin threatening an invasion finds an ally in Iran’s Ebrahim Raisi, united against their common enemy: the United States. Back in Washington, U.S. President Joe Biden — marking his first year in power with painfully low approval rates (higher only than Donald Trump’s) — sends his Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, to Kyiv to reassure President Volodymyr Zelensky who worries that France’s Emmanuel Macron might undermine Ukraine. And we haven’t even mentioned Xi Jinping!

It’s an endless theater of world leaders beating their respective chests — and they have exactly one thing in common: they’re all men. It’s by now a decades-old question, but worth asking again: What would happen if women, and not men, were running the world? Would there be less conflict, more prosperity? More humanity?

In 2018, the World Economic Forum released a study that showed that “only 4% of signatories to peace agreements between 1992 and 2011 were women, and only 9% of the negotiators.” The report shows that in several conflict zones in the world in recent decades, citing Liberia, Northern Ireland and Colombia, women have been instrumental in achieving peace.

In Colombia, where 20% of peace negotiators for the 2016 peace treaty were women, Ingrid Betancourt, herself a victim of the 50-year conflict, has announced her candidacy for the May presidential elections. Differently from previous bids, where she focused on fighting environmental abuses and corruption, Betancourt now is putting gender issues at the center of her political agenda. Bogota daily El Espectador questions whether the former hostage will be able to ride this important political wave, with feminist movements flexing their muscle around the region demanding more rights.

In Italy, next week’s elections for the head of state are monopolized by infamously misogynous former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who is hoping to be elected for the seven-year, honorary function. There is no official candidacy, but Berlusconi’s name and that of current Prime Minister Mario Draghi are the two getting the most attention. Italian feminist writer and intellectual Dacia Maraini writes in La Stampa that, yes, the very fact of electing a female president will be progress for the country — and by the way, there are plenty of women qualifed for the job.

There was also a woman politician making the news this week for actually getting elected: Maltese conservative politician Roberta Metsola, became the new European Parliament President after the death of Italy’s David Sassoli. And yet the election of the first female president of the EU’s legislature since Nicole Fontaine in 2001 has been widely criticized by female politicians — primarily for Metsola’s stance against abortion rights. "I think it is a terrible sign for women's rights everywhere in Europe," French left-wing member of the European Parliament Manon Aubry told Deutsche Welle.

The women who have risen to power in history (Margaret Thatcher, anyone?) don’t necessarily make the case that gender is the silver bullet to fix politics. Still, after watching all the toxic masculinity on the world stage this past week, we can rightfully demand fewer men.

Irene Caselli

🎭  5 CULTURE THINGS TO KNOW

• Record-breaking online concert of Mahler’s “Symphony of a Thousand”: More than 100 musicians from around the world will take part today in a performance of Mahler’s epic 8th symphony consisting of 1,200 elements, including a double chorus, children’s choir, a full orchestra and an organ. The event is a culmination of a year of work; all artists recorded their parts in isolation besides the children’s choir. Tickets can be purchased here.

Yearly Japanese festival will set a mountain on fire: Today, the grassy hillside of Mount Wakakusayama in Japan will go up in flames as fireworks go off in the background as part of celebrations for Wakakusa Yamayak. The origin of the festival isn’t totally clear, but might relate to border conflicts between the great temples in the region or to ward off wild boars.

• New insights into antiquities taken by the Nazis: Scholars are looking into how German forces during World War II looted artifacts such as on the Greek island of Crete. Nazi officials pillaged these valuables for their own personal gain, but many were also destroyed, which is why researchers around the world are hoping to gain greater insight into this often overlooked aspect of German occupation.

Exhibition of Beirut’s restored artwork: The Beirut Museum of Art has inaugurated the exhibition “Lift” featuring 17 paintings by Lebanese artists that had been damaged by the port explosion in 2020, and have since been restored as a result of a UNESCO initiative.

The world’s first vegan violin tunes up: Berries, pears and spring water are just some of the natural ingredients relied on for the construction of the instrument by English violin-maker Padraig O'Dubhlaoidh. Traditionally, animal parts like horsehair, hooves, horns and bones are used, especially to glue pieces together. The £8,000 instrument is sure to be music to some animal lover’s ears.

🇷🇺  NAVALNY SAGA & PUTIN’S INTENTIONS


One year ago anti-corruption lawyer and politician Alexei Navalny was detained in Russia, marking the effective end of domestic opposition to Russian president Vladimir Putin. In the time since, more than half of the former coordinators of Navalny's headquarters fled Russia. Even Navalny's name is forbidden: Putin never says his name, calling him "this citizen."

At the same time, Navalny’s imprisonment and the de facto end of the opposition have changed Russia. The fear of persecution, the lack of alternatives and the total censorship and propaganda have caused Putin's ratings consistently downward.

An aging leader with no successors, no enemies and dwindling popular support is finding it increasingly difficult to explain why he must continue to rule forever. In such a situation, there’s nothing quite like an external threat to fuel the raison d’être of the authoritarian regime. In Putin’s eyes, the perfect threat right now is NATO expansion, and the perfect enemy is its neighbor Ukraine and its attempts to join the military alliance. Whether Russia's president is ready to engage in a real war is the great unknown, but its aggressive and uncompromising foreign policy — like his disposing of Alexei Navalny — is the latest legitimization of his increasingly absolutist rule now into its third decade.

Read the full story: What The Alexei Navalny Saga Tells Us About Putin’s Intentions On Ukraine

🇨🇴  FROM HOSTAGE TO POTENTIAL HEAD OF STATE


Íngrid Betancourt spent more than six years as a prisoner of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) terror group in Colombia, an experience that is sure to play a role in her recently announced presidential campaign. Betancourt, who is 60, is running as part of the Verde Oxígeno and is the only woman in the Centro Esperanza Coalition (CCE), a centrist alliance.

Betancourt could be a boost for the coalition and embody its goals of transforming, overcoming polarization and, as its name indicates, giving hope to Colombia. In particular, the centrist candidate who in the past has been largely focused on anti-corruption and environmental protection, has said she will make women’s rights a cornerstone of her campaign.

Read the full story: Ingrid Betancourt, A Hostage Heroine Reinvented As Feminist For President

♀️ 😔  YOUNG WOMEN FACE THE BRUNT OF THE COVID-19 MENTAL HEALTH CRISIS


A growing number of studies around the world show that COVID-19 and lockdown restrictions have prompted a disproportionate increase in mental health illness among teen girls. These include rising suicide rates among adolescent females in the United States, Germany and Spain and a higher prevalence of anxiety and eating disorders in Israel. But why are women being disproportionately impacted?

There’s a range of reasons. In India, for example, young women had increased difficulty accessing education resources when schools went online and shared a disproportionate burden of household tasks as opposed to their male peers. Around the world, social media also played a significant role; without access to in-person socialization and hobbies, young people spent more time online, often comparing themselves to others, impacting feelings of self-worth. The situation is particularly dire given the challenges of accessing mental health support resources during the pandemic.

Read the full story: Why The COVID-19 Mental Health Crisis Is Hitting Teenage Girls The Hardest

💡  BRIGHT IDEA


Norwegian mobility company Podbike has announced that Frikar, its four-wheeled enclosed electric bike, will soon hit bike lanes on home turf. The futuristic-looking vehicle does require the user to pedal, which powers a generator and drive-by-wire system that keep the Frikar running — with a speed limited to 25 km/h.

#️⃣ TRENDING

“Mãe De Bolsonaro” is the top query on Twitter in Brazil, after news that Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s mother Olinda Bonturi Bolsonaro had died at age 94.

😄📚 SMILE OF THE WEEK

Photo of the new President of the European Parliament Roberta Metsola

New President of the European Parliament Roberta Metsola

Philipp Von Ditfurth/ZUMA


London’s legendary bookshop Waterstones Gower Street tweeted a photo of a letter from an anonymous user confessing to having forgotten to pay for their books some 48 years ago. Owing approximately £100 ($136), adjusted for inflation, they had sent through £120 ($163) to make up for their tardiness. Touched by the kind gesture, the bookshop reciprocated by donating the money to the largest children’s reading charity in the United Kingdom.

👉   OTHERWISE ...

Dottoré! is a weekly column on Worldcrunch.com by Mariateresa Fichele, a psychiatrist and writer based in Naples, Italy. Read more about the series here.

Bucket of tears

I’ve been thinking and thinking about a patient of mine since yesterday. His name is Giovanni.

Psychiatrists, you might not know, are quite often asked the same unanswerable question: "Why does one become insane?”

When I was younger, I searched and searched for an answer, losing myself in scientific explanations about synapses, neurons and neurotransmitters.

By the end of my studies, I’d realized that the only thing that was clear was that I’d been clutching at straws to justify my work and give it a semblance of scientific dignity. In the years since, I’ve forced myself, in defiance of the authority of my position, to reply with a laconic but honest: "Sorry, but I don't know."

So when Giovanni asked me that same question, he was not happy at all with my answer. “Dottoré, how’s it possible that you don't understand why I became crazy?”

When he tried to ask me again one day, I tried a different response:

"Giová, do you cry?"

"No. Why?"

"Imagine that the tears that you don't shed, that you force yourself not to shed, because that's what you've been taught to do, all end up inside your heart. The heart is an organ that pumps blood, which brings nourishment and oxygen to the whole body. But over time those diverted tears accumulate to the point that the heart begins to pump them instead of your blood. Slowly your body becomes sick, but the part that suffers the most is your brain. Because tears don't contain oxygen and nourishment, just sadness."

I expected a reaction to this fanciful explanation, but instead Giovanni kept quiet and eventually left.

The next time I saw him, he said: "Dottoré, I've thought about it. I know you told me about the tears to make me feel better, but maybe you’re right. Because sometimes I feel that I have a lake, more than a heart. But it takes a very powerful pump to pump out all that water, and my heart alone cannot do it. And now that you've explained to me how I became crazy, can you also tell me if I'll ever get better?"

"Do you want another story or do you want the truth?”

"This time, I’d rather have the truth!”

"The answer is always the same then. I'm sorry, Giová, but I don't know this either. But I can tell you one thing for sure. I'll help you slowly, slowly with just a bucket. Because the truth is, not even I have that pump."

⏩  LOOKING AHEAD

• Italy's parliament will convene Monday to begin the process of voting for a new president to succeed Sergio Mattarella for a seven-year term.

• Qualification games for the 2022 FIFA World Cup will be held from Jan. 27 to Feb. 2 for South, North and Central America as well as Asia. Argentina’s national team will not be able to rely on superstar Lionel Messi, still recovering from COVID-19.

• Next Thursday will mark 100 years since Nellie Bly died. The American journalist is known for her record-breaking 72-day trip around the world in 1889, inspired by Jules Vernes’ book Around the World in Eighty Days


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